Lani shivered slightly as she fumbled in the dark for the light switch of the Acceledrome's basement storage room. A damp frigidness hung in the air and goosebumps quickly formed on her skin. There was a dim red glow around the panel, yet her probing hands still groped until finally about a third of the room's lights sputtered and buzzed on. Irritated, she flipped the other two switches back and forth a few times before giving up. Things at headquarters had been so hectic lately, she'd not had time in months to make a list of things in the Acceledrome that were in need of maintenance. It seemed that every time she had a moment to spare, the alarm signaling the opening of a new realm would blare, or someone would come back from a race in need of medical attention. As a result, many of the non-essential rooms in the Acceledrome had been allowed to fall into disrepair.
The storage room was low ceilinged and windowless, but crowded with a vast assortment of boxes, empty oil drums, spare parts, tools and tires- many of which had been prototypes of new designs on which she and Dr. Tezla had long abandoned. She frowned, rubbing her bare arms as a draft wafted past her. It was always such a mess down here, especially now that the racers had moved in and begun using it as their own personal junkyard. No one ever bothered to put anything back where they'd found it, choosing instead to toss whatever they had no use for in a pile. Taking care not to catch the hems of her too-long overalls that were bunched around her ankles on protruding debris, Lani began picking her way across the room, casting a furtive glance behind her to the closed door. The building had been exceedingly well-constructed and not even the booming base of Shirako's music could be heard, merely two floors above. There was a deathly quiet.
Gingerly stepping over an overturned toolbox, its contents a tangled mess, she arrived at the far corner of the room where ten or so oil drums, most half-filled with Monkey's first few failed attempts at Nitrox 3 ½ , had been stowed. Straining, she managed to shift the first row of drums over just enough for her to squeeze by them to the one in the very back. With another glance toward the door, she pulled a crowbar from her utility belt and began forcing the drum open. With a grunt of effort, Lani loosened the lid and yanked it off the drum.
She screamed. Inside the drum lay a mangled heap of twisted black metal. Kadeem's tortured face stared wide-eyed up at her, scarred and afraid.
"Lani… did you know? Did you know about the time limit in the realms?" he whispered, his voice halting. "Lani help me… please… it hurts…"
Lani couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. "I…" she said, her voice quivering, but nothing more came out.
"Lani please…" Kadeem begged feebly. Lani stared, transfixed with horror as tears of blood began trickling down his face. "I can't stand it any longer… please… please kill me… just kill me."
At that, her legs suddenly gave way and Lani fell to her knees, covering her pale face with her shaking hands.
Lani snapped her eyes open with a start, her vision swimming in the inky blackness of her room in the Accelecube. Her heart was still pounding and her mind racing, so it was a few moments before she was able to come to her senses. She struggled to slow her breathing. A cold layer of sweat clung to her skin and she shivered, trying to rub the goosebumps off her shoulders, while the image of Kadeem's pleading face hung in her mind like terrible painting.
"Dr. Tezla, we can't send the drivers in without telling them about the time limit!" Lani insisted, wringing her hands in agitation. "It's too dangerous. We have no idea what will happen to drivers who don't escape the realms before they close."
Dr. Tezla barely even glanced up from his computer monitors. Their cold glow cast a blue-white glare on his glasses, obscuring his eyes. Lani could see her own flushed face reflected in their surface. The control room of the Acceladrome was filled with the low hums and buzzes of various computers running diagnostics and the soft yellow glow of the small wheel of power hologram, its details blurry and ill-defined. Tezla frowned, irritated, as he tapped at his keyboard. The hologram shivered and came into focus, the individual ruins on its rings now discernable. He got up from his desk and walked toward the hologram, bending slightly to examine its features, and making no attempt to acknowledge Lani.
"If only there was some way to tell which realm was going to open next," he murmured, more to himself than to her. "Then the drivers could prepare the necessary skills…"
Lani's temper rose in her chest and she shifted so that she was standing inside the hologram. The image instantly distorted and Dr. Tezla was at last forced to stand fully and look her in the face.
"It's not right, Dr. Tezla," she continued. "These drivers, Kadeem, Banjee, Alec, Dan- they'll understand what's at stake here. I know they'd still volunteer to go into the realms, even if we told them about the time limit. By not doing so, we're putting them in a danger that we don't even understand ourselves. I mean, we didn't even know that the drones could access the races until you went in the Earthquake Realm. And look what happened to you!" She gestured to his full-body metal brace, the only thing making it possible for him to stand.
Dr. Tezla sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose where his glasses had left two oval impressions. "I understand your concern, Lani," he began, trying to sound as reasonable as he could. "However, we simply can't risk shaking their commitment to stopping the drones from gaining the Acceleron's knowledge and ability to manipulate the bridge between dimensions, even a little bit. Without drivers who are fully focused on winning each realm, drivers who leave nothing on the table each time they go through that portal, we won't stand a chance against them."
Lani's hands clenched into fists, nails pressing sharply into her palms. How could he stand there, held up by a cage with his spine irreparably damaged, and tell her to send the drivers, her friends, in with no warning.
"They deserve to know, Peter! Their lives are at stake and they have the right to know about it!" she almost shouted, green eyes glaring up at him.
Dr. Tezla's eyebrows raised in surprise. She'd never called him by his first name before. He opened his mouth slightly, seeming to hesitate, and for a second, Lani thought he might reconsider. But a soft, familiar voice broke the silence from behind her.
"Many more lives will be put into danger if the drivers are allowed room for doubt and cowardice," said Gig, floating into the room and facing her. Lani wasn't sure how long he'd been floating in the doorway- she liked Gig but it bothered her how he always seemed to be able to sneak up on her- usually just in time to side with whatever Dr. Tezla had been saying. "Such a decision, while regrettable, is necessary to ensure our best chances in the realms. When you have calmed yourself, you will understand that, Lani."
Lani snorted with frustration, but she had long ago learned that matters of morality and ethics were beyond Gig; it bewildered her that he struggled with the idea of inherent, individual human value, but she knew that trying to explain such concepts to him were useless. She turned back to Dr. Tezla. His face had grown a small frown, and he regarded her carefully over his glasses.
"Dr. Tezla," she said a little too slowly, fighting to keep her voice even. "You've been working with robots and machines for so long, that I think you're forgetting that these are people. Real people we're sending in. They're not your automated cars, or your driving robots that can be rebuilt if lost to the realms. They're humans!" her voice got louder, and she forced herself to regain control. "You have to see that, don't you? You have to see that they're worth more than that."
Dr. Tezla sighed again and readjusted his glasses over his eyes so that she couldn't see them anymore. "Yes Lani," he answered her, firm and coolly. "They are humans- humans who make mistakes, humans who can be distracted or frightened, humans who can fail. It's not ideal, but we must be prepared to sacrifice the safety of the few to secure the safety of the many."
Lani's mouth tightened. "Then sacrifice yourself, not my friends," she said, barely above a whisper. She spun on her heel toward the door, her long ponytail buffeting Gig's head, and stalked out of the control room.
"I am not sure we convinced her, Dr. Tezla," said Gig as he glided to the doorway and watched her go.
"I know we didn't," Dr. Tezla responded. He returned to his desk and the brace lowered him to his chair. "But she will be silent for now."
Lani pulled on her oil-stained boots and laced them up. She found an old Wave Rippers jacket that she'd left in the closet of her room after the World Race, and slipped it on over her nightshirt. She'd lain in bed wide awake for what must have been an hour before giving up on getting back to sleep. Checking her phone, she saw that it was almost 3:00, and grimaced. It was going to be a demanding day. She gingerly opened her door and peered out into the dimly lit hallway. All of the rooms to her left and right were dark. She slipped out and, as quietly as she could, made her way down the hall toward the lofty garage, stopping at the meagerly supplied kitchen for a cup of watery coffee. She figured that she may as well look at some of the old World Race cars and pick out a new one to turn into a makeshift ambulance, seeing as her beloved '55 Nomad had been destroyed the night before. As she approached the double doors of the garage, she noticed a glimmer of light coming from the room beyond. Someone was already there. Frowning slightly, she placed her ear near the minuscule crack between the doors. She heard subdued murmurs, the voices of a few drivers, but she couldn't make out what was being said. That was odd- usually the drivers were yelling over each other, or at least yelling over the steady pounding of music, revving of engines, and constant clanging of tools. What on earth could they be meeting about so late at night, and in such hushed tones?
Lani straightened up and opened the door, trying to make enough noise to alert the drivers to her presence, not wanting to appear as though she'd been listening at the entry. Inside were the drivers, some of them anyway. Tork and Taro were leaning against Hollowback with their arms crossed while Markie, the junction between his shoulder and robotic arm pink and inflamed, clenched and unclenched his new appendage, nodding stormily. Nolo and Kurt faced them. Nolo was deftly twirling a wrench in his fingers, but Lani couldn't make out his expression before they noticed her. Kurt, who had been in the middle of his sentence, stopped abruptly. The drivers all straightened slightly, as though they didn't want to look like they had been discussing something important.
"Lani!" said Nolo, a little more warmly than was believable. He walked over to meet her, smiling crookedly. His smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "Little early for you to be up, eh?"
Behind him, the other drivers were exchanging dark and meaningful looks with each other. They began tidying up (something she had never seen anyone but Karma and Taro do). Tork rubbed at an invisible speck of grime on Hollowback's hood.
"Yeah well I figured I'd better get an ambulance in order ASAP, just in case," replied Lani, lamely. "What are you guys doing still up?"
"Oh uh," Nolo said, clearly searching for something to say.
"We were just discussing where Vert might have ended up after being made an Acceleracer," Taro supplied. Lani could tell he was withholding something.
"Oh? Did you think of anything?" she replied, keeping her voice light.
"Nah, nothin' really yet," said Nolo. "We're gonna have to talk to Tezla about it tomorrow."
"Right..." said Lani. A silence fell.
After a few agonizing seconds, Tork threw his dirty rag into a nearby bucket and stretched his back. "Well," he said through a yawn. "I'm going to bed. We'll hold a meeting about this with everyone sometime tomorrow." Markie, Kurt and Taro quickly agreed with him and followed him toward the door.
"Right..." said Lani again. She walked over to the far right corner of the room, where the twenty-five or so unused World Race vehicles lay parked and dusty. "I'll, uh, I'll get started on the ambulance."
"I'll help you," said Nolo, brightly. "I'm a night guy anyway."
"Sure, thank you," said Lani, giving him a small smile. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Tork shooting Nolo a questioning look from the doorway. Nolo gave quick, curt nod, as though hoping Lani wouldn't see. Her smile tightened.
"Okay, well, g'night you two," said Tork, and left them alone in the garage.
"So..." Lani said, surveying the selection of cars. "We're going to need something fairly roomy in the back so that we can fit a stretcher in. My Nomad wasn't the best fit for the job anyway. Maybe if we renovate that Deora II and take out the surfboards-"
"Ah c'mon, Lani," Nolo interrupted. He threw an arm over her shoulder. "You really gotta find an ambulance at three in the morning? Tezla hasn't even got the hologram up and running yet. How we gonna injure ourselves?" He looked at her. "C'mon, why you really up so early?"
Lani shrugged at him. "Just couldn't sleep- might as well do something productive."
Nolo grinned cheekily at her. "Can't sleep, huh? Need any help with that?" He winked.
Lani snorted, but didn't quite laugh. "No thanks," she said. "Got things to do."
Nolo raised an eyebrow. "You okay, Lani?" he said more soberly. "I mean it. Is something wrong?"
Lani turned back to the cars, shifting just enough so that Nolo's arm slid off her shoulders. A cold knot had formed in the pit of her stomach. "No," she lied. "It's nothing. I'm fine."
"More Acceleron dimensions!" exclaimed Kadeem, shaking his head in amazement. "I cannot believe it!"
Lani and Kadeem were sitting in a bustling coffee shop. It had not taken her long to track Kadeem down in the city, trying to organize a relief effort for his people across the ocean. After exchanging greetings and quickly catching up with each other, Lani had launched into her story. The noise of the room masked their conversation from prying ears.
"Yeah," replied Lani quietly, looking at the cup of coffee in her hands. "They're... pretty crazy."
"No kidding," said Kadeem, still shaking his head. He grew somber, and his voice became resigned. "Well we must not let the Drones win this time either. Give me a day to contact my people back home and get my things together, and I'll come help."
Lani's mouth tightened. "Are you sure, Kadeem? I mean, your people need your help too..."
"Then they will have to wait," he said quietly. "Because this is bigger than any of us."
They stood up.
"Okay..." Lani said. "I guess I'll meet you back here tomorrow and we'll drive to the Acceledrome together."
Something in the tone of her voice caught Kadeem's attention, and he regarded her with intelligent brown eyes. "Lani, is something bothering you?"
Lani stared past his shoulder to where a young mother was blowing on a little girl's hot chocolate. The girl was wriggling with excitement, her black curly hair bouncing. A cold knot had formed in the pit of her stomach. "No," she lied. "It's nothing. I'm fine."