CWIN Vol. 1, No. 7
Auto-Combat Fiction
Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo by Garth Nix

Published by Warlock Fighting Fantasy Magazine
Reprinted by Painted Target and the Seattle Washington Autoduel Team, September 03, 1998
Updated September 08, 2000 and April 30, 2017

This story was printed in a Fighting Fantasy magazine called Warlock by Games Workshop (in collaboration with Puffin) and was supposedly a view of things to come in the (then) forthcoming Freeway Fighter gamebook.

Not all the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are based in the traditional world of orcs, dragons and wizards. Steve Jackson's Starship Traveller journeys to alien planets and peoples beyond a black hole, while Ian Livingstone's Freeway Fighter (to be published in the next few months) will be entering the dangerous life of a post-holocaust future. Here, to give you taste of things to come, is a story set in a similar scenario from Australian writer, Garth Nix.

Francis Greenaway
September 03, 1998

As the clock struck five, I got up from my chair, flicking the switch which lowered the desk into its armoured nightsafe. All around, similar desks were in various stages of descent. I glanced at the clock again -- five oh two, giving three minutes to get to the locker room.

I marched quickly across, judging it well as the security door slid shut quietly behind me. Going to my locker, I noticed that Phil, my neighbour and workmate, was already prepared for the outside world. He pirouetted for my inspection, as I got out my helmet, flak jacket, thigh and arm guards and slipped on my steel-shod combat boots.

"Dressed to kill, aren't I?" said Phil, quick-drawing his Browning 9mm from his handy-dandy holster.

"Literally," I replied, "Where did you get the holster?"

"Collected fifteen coupons from the Soyawheat breakfast food box."

My mumbled reply of scorn was interrupted by the scream of a siren, and an amber flashing light over the exit door. "Better hurry, Sam. I believe that is the five minute warning."

I hurried, reaching into the locker for my webbing gear and ammo pouches. Overhead, the light went red, and the siren rose several decibels to the category of ear-blowing annoyance.

"OK, I get the hint," I shouted, grabbing an M-18 assault rifle and my favourite S & W .65 rocket pistol as I simultaneously dived through the rapidly closing door on to Phil's armoured feet.

"Hi," he said brightly, helping me up as I took a mental inventory of my bones.

Finding them all there, I rearranged my equipment, holstered my pistol and cocked the M-18. Next to me, Phil had likewise resorted to his main armament, a 10-gauge, pump-action riot gun. He pumped a round up, just as the outer doors began their timed opening sequence. My firm, needless to say, is fairly heavy on security, so we weren't too worried about finding the car-park overrun with gun-toting skinheads, car bandits or any other members of the lunatic majority. Even so, when those outer doors open, you find yourself playing with the velcro fastenings of the old flak jacket and twitching at heavily oiled safety catches. I heard Phil breath a sigh of relief as the familiar sights of the car-park came into view. No flames and dark shadows -- just the steady light of the security arcs.

"Want an escort home?" Phil said, as we ran down the steps towards our cars.

"Only if it's out of your way," I replied. "I live at A55."

"What a coincidence," Phil broke in, "I live at A56. We must be neighbours."

"Well, golly gee whiz!" I exclaimed in my falsetto schoolgirl's tone, as we reached our cars, parked as usual side by side. I've got a nearly new Jaguar-Ford Hunterkiller 7 and Phil has just bought a McKinley Nuclear Destroyer, the new jet-powered death machine that gives me nightmares. I mean, if Phil's got one, then someone else could have one too, just waiting to blow away a poor unsuspecting Sam in his old runabout.

Anyway, enough of that. Before slipping into the ejector seat, I quickly ran a check with my Trandy booby-trap detector. I also had a look, because Trandy don't really have a good reputation. Satisfied that no deviant had strapped a nasty device on somewhere, I keyed in the door-opening sequence and thumbed the fingerprint analyser. A slight moment of panic then ensued as nothing happened, but after a perceptible pause a slight click announced that the door was unlocked. Carefully avoiding the dummy handle, I used a pocket electromagnet to open the door, thus avoiding a 15,000 volt thief welcomer.

Minutes later, I was all strapped in, had checked my personal weapons into their clips and was running through the car's armament.  I couldn't afford one of the new lasers, but the 76mm autocannon in the retractable turret was okay. Both grenade launchers checked out green, as did the two side-mounted rocket tubes. One-shot launchers but a 120mm HEAT round will do most non-government cars. All the secondary stuff was all right, but I hardly ever used it. Machine guns and tear gas are all very well for clearing pedestrians, but you hardly ever see a real pedestrian any more -- just dummy tourists and kids for target practise.

Since the armament was complete, I activated my computer and Electronic Counter-Measures package. As per normal, the screen lit up like a Christmas tree with red lights, and a message came across the audio in that sepulchral tone EMI like, "ECM countered by superior system." Seconds later, Phil's leering face appeared on the screen.

"My ECM seems to be superior, Sam. Stay under my umbrella?"

"All right," I replied, as I always do. Also, like always, I left my ECM on -- just in case. I knew that Phil knew it was still on, but hell, it always makes me feel more secure, like a blanket or favourite teddy bear.

The ECM done, I went over to the information mode. It took a couple of seconds to come on-line but as expected there wasn't much around anyway. A couple of stationary cars, a food convoy and a lot of hulks and rubble.

Just for fun, I pressed the target selection and acquisition button, and the computer informed me that the rear vehicles of the food convoy were in range of the 76mm. It also told me that I was in range of  the food convoy guards, and that they had me targeted. Hastily, I reverted to information mode, retracting the turret as well, just in case they got the wrong idea.

"You ready, Sam?" my speakers said, as Phil subverted my internal sound system with his superior electronics.

"Couple of minutes," I replied, using the inter-car radio, even though Phil's spy mikes would pick up the conversation anyway. At the same time, I pressed the ignition button under the seat. The gas turbines roared into life and the final row of green lights went on. I tuned down the turbines with my elbow switch, sealed the car waited until the tell-tale hiss of the air renewal system came through.
It worked, so I punched out the code for the BBC telefax road service report. It was fairly short today, only about thirty pages or so of accidents, minefields, ambush sites and the rest. Only one BBC helicopter had been lost in my area, so it was really pretty quiet.

Typing in my route, I was rewarded with two possible ambushes and a definite AA blockade. So that way was definitely out. Nobody tangles with the AA, not since they wiped out the RAC a couple of years ago. I was a member, but in a blockade they stop everybody, either peacefully or by high explosive. I was trying to figure out another route from the computer's maps, when the screen did a sort of flip, coming back with a course Indicated in red, courtesy of Phil's computer. I knew that McKinley's computer was infallible (after all, I had seen the advert), but I checked out the route anyway, ignoring the revving sounds coming from Phil's direction. There was one ambush site, but not a good one, and a minor gang had claimed about a twelfth of the route. Nothing at all really, at least nothing that would take on two well-equipped vehicles plastered with the insignia of Lloyd-Barclay Global Bank.

Lifting the throat mike to a more comfortable position, I reported to Phil, "All systems go, mon Capitaine," simultaneously throwing power to the wheels and rocketing for the entrance gate. Phil, a millisecond later, shot out of the car-park and rapidly caught up, competing for first place at the exit.

Gauging the moment exactly, with a little help from the computer, I threw the turbines into reverse, slamming on the four-wheel power-discs at the same time. Had it been a normal car, the rubber would have shredded off the tyres as the car careered uncontrollably the exit checkpoint. It wasn't a normal car, and whatever they make tyres out of these days doesn't shred. The car slid gently up to the gate, just in front of Phil. The gatekeeper gave me his "boys will be boys" look, dimly perceived through inches of armourglass, and the gate opened on to the streets of death. That's what the video reporters call them anyway -- generally, people just call it the road or the lane, or whatever.

Anyway, I pulled out on to it, and let Phil go first. His car has much mine detection equipment and can take bigger blasts. Besides, I'm a coward. We maintained a speed of about 140 kilometres per hour for about 30 klicks, then the road began to get a little crowded with burnt out hulks, bits of concrete and general rubble. We were also nearing the ambush site identified by the computer, so I extended the turret and went Into the target acquisition mode. Phil had slowed down to about 60, so he was probably on autodrive, watching the radar. I went over to autodrive too, but there was nothing on my radar or the other detector gear. I hadn't buttoned up fully yet, so I was looking out the windscreen when a whole lot of apertures began to open on Phil's car. At the same time, a blip appeared on the radar screen. As it appeared, the view disappeared, steel shutters  up, blocking the windscreen.

However, as I had a full 360 degree view on my outside observation video screen, I wasn't worried. I didn't need to see on autodrive, so I  looked back to the combat display. The blip got to about a kilometre away, and Phil still hadn't blown  it up, so I locked the 76mm on to it and waited for the target evaluation.

It got to about 800 metres, when the combat display printed up, "One combat vehicle, black, gang insignia unknown, mostly light weapons."

It had only got up to gang when I pressed the kill button, and activated the maximum evasion circuit. At least that's what I thought I did, when a massive explosion shook the car, the flash leaking through the supposedly flash resistant shutters. For a second I thought I'd pressed the self-destroy by mistake, when Phil's voice came through my earphones.

"I used a new rocket," he said proudly.

"A rocket," I mumbled stupidly, "I thought it was an H-bomb."

"Naw," echoed in my ears, "Only a big rocket."

"How big?" I asked suspiciously.

"Oh about the equivalent of a tonne of TNT," came the nonchalant reply.

"Equivalent?" I asked, even more suspiciously.

"Yup, equivalent, Sam. It was a nuke -- a clean one. I just bought it from the armourers. They're AA approved, and . . . "

I shut him off, ignoring the dialogue continuing via my sound system in the cabin. A nuke. Hell, if Sarietta hears about this, I'll have to buy one at least, and I only just finished paying off her Saab Commuter Killer!

A nasty thought crept into my mind as we accelerated back up to about 120 kph -- a nice slow cruise. So Phil had a clean nuke -- who else had one? "Hey, Phil," I croaked, "Can just anyone buy a nuke?"
A chuckle trickled back over the airwaves, closely followed by Phil's voice, now in quadrasound; "No way, Hose -- I mean Sam. You have to have about thirty-six clearances from the AA down -- even the Church of England."

The Church of England!  I was impressed. Practically nobody gets clearance from them unless they're related to a Bishop or something. Come to think of it, Phil probably was related to a Bishop. My train of thought (such as it was) continued along this path, and I was trying to remember whether I had made the compulsory three-month visit to Church (and/or donation) when a red light came on in a recessed, forgotten portion of the dash.

I looked at it out of the corner of my eye, hoping it would go away. It didn't so I looked at it with both eyes. Luckily the car was still on autodrive so nothing came of my eye movements. "Red light in recess A1-CX45 indicates . . . indicates . . . " the dealer's voice droned. I ran that through the possibilities several times before abandoning it as being rather pointless. Taking up another tack, I tapped in an interrogation on the computer. A small whirring noise indicated that EMI had deemed recess A1-CX45 worth a voice answer as well. Whenever I hear that voice, I find myself arming the ejection seat. This time was no exception.

"Recess A1 -CX45 houses Alarm Signal Light A1 -RASD. This ASL will only be activated by the effect of a weapon or weapons of unknown type upon the vehicle. The weapon in use is not a projectile, radiant, bacteriological, chemical or light-based attack within the knowledge of your EMI 'Insane Stout' computer system. The attack is upon item 36Q7 Windscreen Shield Panel Two. EMI would like to remind you that the warranty is void where . . ."

I turned the voice off, and tried not to panic. A beep indicated that Phil was talking to me, normally for a change. In my panic, I hadn't heard, so he'd turned up the volume.

"Hey, Sam, you've got a bird on your windscreen."

A bird? My God, I thought, what's that? A BIRD -- Blast Intensified Radioactive Device? A Bad Infra-Red Destroyer?

"I think it's a cuckoo."

A Big Irradiated . . . cuckoo? A real bird!  I hadn't really panicked, I told myself as I lifted the blast shield. Sure enough, a small lump of feathers was plastered on the bonnet, unable to move due to the slipstream having wedged it into a tear gas duct.

I toyed with the idea of turning the gas on, but the RSPCA might be watching. Besides, I could get into The Times with this cuckoo. After all, it was early cuckoo season, and The Times always publishes a little story about the guy who gets the first cuckoo plastered across his bonnet, or sucked up a jet intake. That would enhance my promotion prospects no end, getting first cuckoo in The Times. I quickly typed out a message to The Times, citing Phil as my witness, and zipping it through to Fleet Street. Sarietta will be pleased, I thought, I might even get back into her good books -- I told her yesterday that her name was invented by a hybrid Graeco Arab with a hangover.

The Times moved fairly quickly, and I was talking to a journalist in about eight minutes. Yes, it was the first cuckoo of spring, and would be reported. "Was the cuckoo alive?" the reporter wanted to know. A reasonable question, I thought, glancing over the dash for any signs of life. "It looks a bit dead," I answered hesitantly. After all, when doesn't an amorphous blob of feathers look a bit dead?

"Are you sure?" the reporter continued, 'After all, it could have some bearing on the story."

"Well, I don't know. When I get home, I'll call you with the details."

"Actually, we'll be sending someone out to get a short interview fairly soon. M . . . " the voice trailed off as the reporter turned aside to other business, his omni-directional mike not being as omni as hoped, obviously.

I turned off the phone system and shifted back to manual, accelerating up to 180 kph as we reached a relatively clear expressway. Phil hadn't said a word for a while, so I was wondering what he was up to.
When Phil is silent, Phil is thinking. When Phil thinks, strange things happen.

Suddenly in front of me, Phil's afterburners cut in (nearly roasting the cuckoo) and he took off fast, like a jet-propelled car, which it was. Sighing, I leant back into my seat and pulled the boost handle. I only just managed to get both hands back on the wheel when the car shook and burst forward in hot pursuit.

"Hot Pursuit!" I muttered to myself, aping this AA inspector in a corny video series. Looking back to the dash, I noticed that it was hot pursuit -- the turbines were overheating. Ahead, Phil was continuing his merry way at 280 kph, so I cut in the emergency cooling circuit and lowered the cabin's extra firewall. Glancing at the radar, I noticed Phil's reason for haste: two vehicles were parked outside our flats, in our car-park! Quickly looking at the household alarm, I was relieved to see that they hadn't breached the flat's defences. However, I couldn't raise Sarietta on the radiophone, which meant the enemy had pretty sophisticated jamming gear.

This, in turn, meant a rival company or a top gang was trying a hostage grab or retaliation for some lost deal. This, in its turn, meant Sam pressing the Company Police button.

At least, in theory, that is. Have you ever tried unlocking a button whilst traveling at 280 kph down a rotten expressway with a slightly bent key? Well I hadn't, and the lack of experience showed. I finally solved it by going on autodrive, unlocking the button and going back to manual before the computer ran me into something EMI hadn't included in its memory.

I pressed the button with my left knee, knowing that even the Company police jetcopters wouldn't reach the apartment before the enemy had blown up Phil and me, dragged us out, poured gasohol on us and got electric saws . . .

What was I thinking about! That sort of thing hadn't happened since, well, about last month, now that I thought about it. To get my mind off the subject, I blew away a passing dog with a nicely projected grenade.

Just after that, Phil came into the enemies' range, and vice versa. I lowered all my blast shields and prepared for combat. About three seconds later, I came into range. However, both of the enemy seemed to be concentrating on Phil. I watched the tactical display as six rockets sped towards his car. All were intercepted by the shrapnel clouds of the anti-rocket missiles. Close behind this, some sort of missile had been launched. It got through the anti-missile missiles by launching its own anti-anti missile missiles but got blown away by Phil's super-rapid Gatling gun about 80 metres from the car.

I couldn't get a clear shot with my rockets, so I was giving Phil covering fire with the 76mm. I was glad he was in front, as the enemy opened up with rapid-fire guns of 85mm or larger -- big enough to punch through my front armour if they got near the windscreen. They were interspersing this attack with rockets and missiles, when Phil scored a direct hit on the larger vehicle with a Romulus laser-guided missile.

The explosion tipped the other car on its side, and the tac display went crazy as it tried to show all the crew running away in every direction, and all the ammunition going off from the burning first car. I opened up with grenades and machine guns on the crew, but most of them got into cover. Meanwhile, the car on its side was still firing, presumably on automatic. I laid down a grenade barrage around it, to prevent anyone getting back in, and Phil moved in for the kill.

I had moved round to the side, and was trying to lob 76mm shells into enemy personnel, but they had got into some really nice cover Consequently, I was watching my target displays and didn't see what happened to Phil, until I heard him shout disbelievingly, "I'm hit, she's going!"

I quickly ran the car into cover and got the hydraulic hooks digging into the concrete. Anything that could blow up a McKinley was bad news, so I kept one eye on the target screen as I flicked to an outside camera. It took a couple of seconds to locate Phil's car, especially with all the smoke and the remaining gunfire. As I watched, I saw the roof slide open and, a split second later, a capsule fired into the air. I panned up after it, and was relieved to see it blow open into a mass of anti-radar chaff, and the ejection glider with Phil hanging underneath. Phil was heading for the roof of the apartment block, so he was out of the blast.

I wasn't so sure I would be. I was pretty certain that Phil had been got by a chance shot from the upturned car, so I was safe there. But those McKinleys have a micropile in them, and Phil's probably had a ton of unused munitions. True, I was hooked in behind a slab of concrete the size of four elephants, but you never know.

At least I'd never know . . . but the computer might. Hastily, I typed in the situation and waited for good old EMI to figure it out. I shouldn't have asked. I began to think it was a stupid question when the familiar sounds of the voice warming up penetrated the cockpit. Then, in the "death is near/undertaker's voice" the computer pronounced. "Estimated probability of survival within given parameters approaching zero." I wondered whether the computer would have liked to eject as I pulled back the lever and pressed the red button.

I was still wondering when the Company rescue team dug me out of the rubble six hours later. The car had been destroyed when the concrete block toppled on it. I had ejected about eight seconds earlier, and the rush of air had carried me, the glider, and a fair heap of junk into the city organic waste dump seven miles away, hotly pursued by the Company's jetcopter and The Times, who had come to do the cuckoo story.

It's not too bad in hospital actually. The Times ran four lines on the cuckoo, but it was The People's Sun Bring the True News of The Globe that really covered it, under the headline, "Cuckoo Driver vs. Insane Bandit Murderers," with full-colour glosses that Sarietta took from the roof. There's a really good one of my glider being caught by the explosion, and Sarietta wants to make it into a poster and sell it. At least the interview payments will keep me out of the clutches of the National Euthanasia service, and I can have my two fingers replaced with real ones instead of plastic.

I'll even be back at work on Monday -- Phil's bought a new car and said he'd give me a lift. Apparently it's a Mercedes Hyperassassin with solid fuel rocket boosters and a 15 megawatt laser with . . .