Episode 1: The Chase

Riven flinched and bobbed her head left. A blob of mud had peeled off the sweat-soaked rear end of the vehicle careening ahead of her, splattering her dermashield.

     The bad guy’s muscle machine was an early model, a real clunker by the day’s standards. The biggest tip-off? It was inefficient: it sweated like an out-of-shape athlete.

     The cyclical contractions and relaxations required to propel Muscle Machine Model 901 past a plodding 80 KPH resulted in extreme perspiration, which when mixed with the dust whirligigging around the desert landscape, turned to mud. This after she’d just applied a fresh coat of sunscreen on her brand new, late-model police car.

     A grunt of disgust escaped her as another blob smacked her dermashield. But her grimace quickly gave way to a grin: Riven always thought that the dermashield was the most innovative aspect of her vehicle, and unlike earlier models, completely scratch-proof and crack-proof, and almost rip-resistant. It responded to the barrage of muck by deforming to absorb and then extrude little pustules of debris. Tears were shed to wash the dermashield crystal clean.

     Epithelial and endothelial cells formed a biomatrix of high-tensile-strength collagen fibrils. The entire dermashield was perfectly transparent and environmentally responsive, providing an ideal windscreen that offered not only the necessary protection from the elements but also an Enhanced Focusing Function. This EFF feature came bundled with all the basic muscle machine models, enabling the driver to adjust the focus of the built-in zoom lens. A souped-up infrared motion detector was also available in higher-end models and all police cars.

     Riven’s impish grin widened to reveal what was universally acknowledged by everyone but herself to be her best feature: a pair of dimples punctuating her smile.

     I’m chasing the bad guys just like Imogen Margaret Redmane! Ms. Redmane, or Mags to her friends, was the red-clad heroine of her favorite TIRE series, I. M. Red—a Total Immersion Reality Experience.

     As Riven’s car gained on the bad guy, she could hear the Formula 15 coursing through her muscle vehicle’s arteries at a faster and faster rate, a rhythmic shush-WHOOSH shush-WHOOSH shush-WHOOSH beneath the heavy drone of four ruggedly treaded tires, a feature unique to police cars. The formula delivered much needed oxygen and adenosine triphosphate to all the muscles operating the car.

     The typical NWO citizen’s vehicle was equipped with slimmer, lightweight tires and wheels for greater energy efficiency on the evenly paved roads that were the pride of LocZ. In contrast, police cars were less efficient but were able to rip through uneven terrain with no sweat. They were notorious formula-guzzlers optimized for the chase.

     Riven’s large, brown, almond-shaped eyes narrowed as her vehicle closed in on the bad guy. She blinked thrice, and her dermashield’s EFF function magnified her view of her quarry. She could easily discern the fascicles or bundles of pulsating red muscles fibers encased in milky perimysium sheaths.

     In the earliest models, the sheaths had come in only one color: a translucent white aptly labeled “milk.” But a rainbow array of colors were now standard options. Of course Riven had chosen a “psychedelic yellow” perimysium. Yellow was her favorite color. It reminded her of the wide, bright skies of her home loc, especially at sunset. And sunset at LocZ’s desert zone made her wistful, made her think of home.

     Riven sported a matching yellow control band that ran from her forehead, up around the top of her skull, and down to the base of her neck. The band held a jewel-like disc to her forehead, right up against both the prefrontal and the frontal lobes of her brain. So this was not just an ordinary albeit very pretty fashion accessory.

     The DPC disc was part of the revolutionary Dual-Pons Control mechanism. Resembling a third eye, this disc was Riven’s biometric link to her car. Electromagnetic pulses from Riven’s brain were transmitted to the disc where they were then converted into ultrasound waves which in turn activated nerve dust particles located inside her vehicle’s com center or brain. The nerve dust emitted electrochemical signals (which science nerds know to be “synaptic potentials” and “action potentials”) that propagated throughout the entire machine, impinging on every single muscle fibril. This is what enabled Riven to control her car as easily as she would her own body.

     Custom fitted to Riven’s head, the DPC band also sported an oblong cutout at her occiput, providing an escape for her thick ponytail. Fashionable touches such as these made sales skyrocket in the more urban and cosmopolitan locs.

     Riven rolled up to the stopped vehicle that shook and sweated on the roadside. It was panting like a tuckered-out dog under the hot desert sun.

     She silently commanded, Open, and her dermashield opened, rolling upward like an eyelid. She stood, reaching up with her left hand to haul herself out of the cockpit. At the same time, she reached behind her left shoulder with her right hand to grasp a large boomerang holstered to her back. The motion exposed her navy-blue leatherette belt with a shiny new detective badge.

     Whack! Something slammed into her shoulders and Riven toppled out, sprawling face-down onto the orange desert soil. She neatly rolled and flipped over just in time to see a pitchfork poised inches above her neck.

     A pitchfork? She shook her head in confusion, followed by a gasp of startled recognition and stark disbelief. Monsieur Diablo?

     The archvillain of I. M. Red leered at her, his flared nostrils smoking and his long, barbed tail swishing the dirt into a dust cloud so thick that it blocked the sun. His diabolical laughter cannonballed up and down the otherwise silent, lonely road.

     The chase had ended and the hunter had become the hunted, now caught.

     Riven’s eyes widened as the pitchfork plummeted down.


From Muscle Machines, a dystopian science fiction novel for fans of Neal Shusterman and Jay Kristoff. A new episode published each month.