“I need to get off,” Mary says when they land near the Gale estate.
Otto blinks a few times in astonishment, but she continues. “Get out? Dismount? What do you call it with this suit? This thing is amazing, but I need to be back in my own skin. Help me out.”
He laughs. “I dunno what Leo calls it. What you got is new, call it anything ya like.”
Mary triggers the transformation back into car mode. “This thing doesn’t really drive,” she explains. “A, uh, Alice? Shit. Aria. Aria said Leo didn’t have time to plug everything in. So ya gotta push me back into the garage. Shit, I hate it when I need a tow truck.”
Otto dutifully pushes the transformed suit into the driveway. At least the wheels turn. Once inside, Mary’s able to detach herself. She staggers out of the suit-turned-vehicle, dressed in tight black latex, and scowls as Otto whistles. A few minutes are sufficient for her to get changed in the bathroom, and she emerges dressed in what she wore off the plane.
“Had to take some of my piercings out,” she explains, though she doesn’t go into details. “That thing was tight, fuckin’ A.” Then she flashes a fierce grin. “Round two, big guy. Whatcha got?”
“You’re gonna love this,” Otto assures her, with complete confidence.
Carolina Speedworks is a garage in Salisbury, just off I-85. The Providence and Solid Rock Baptist Churches, Faith Temple Ministries, and Rowan County kingdom hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right nearby. Speedworks customers form a sort of religion as well. Signs for the Mustang Cruise in May are already out, and people are preening and flexing in front of their cars.
Otto, incognito, pulls up in civilian-car mode with Mary at the wheel. The girl gets out, heedless of the stares and appreciative (or disrespectful) calls, and heads inside. She finds the person Otto told her to look for, a shop girl named Leslie Meriwether. The two talk, and talk, and keep talking as they walk around the car, and Otto listens to what he can. He can’t join in without breaking character, but he’s privately grateful that he’s not the only person Mary is talking to on this trip. The last thing he wants to do is isolate her, even if he wouldn’t mind monopolizing her.
The topic comes to racing, and it turns out there are plenty of guys on the field who’d like to try out their new tune against a challenger on the track nearby.
Leslie inspects Otto with a practiced eye. “This car seems kinda familiar,” she says at last. “You said you were outta town?” Mary did. “Is this… Your car? Or…?”
“He’s a friend,” Mary says quickly. She realizes what she just said. “It’s a friend’s. A friend of mine.”
Leslie shrugs and smiles. She doesn’t seem to care too much, but there’s protocol to observe when a muscular biker chick in a tattered touring shirt shows up with an expensive-looking supercar.
Some money changes hands, and Mary hops back in the front seat. Only then does it occur to her to ask. “Can I drive you? I mean, shit, uh, there’s two questions there. Does driving you even work? And do I have permission? I shoulda asked earlier, just kinda assumed.”
“You can use my body any way you want, baby,” Otto replies, praying to God he’s suave enough to use a line like that.
Mary kicks him in the gas pedal, and his engine roars.
Mary is familiar with Formula One, and has actually competed (as an amateur) in street racing and motocross. This time attack racing business is new to her, but she’s able to grasp the basics: just go as fast as you can, warm up beforehand, cooldown after. The track has twists and turns and long stretches, enough variety to challenge a racer’s ability rather than just their horsepower. The other racer takes their turn when you’re done. But when it’s your turn, it’s just you, your car, and the track.
Otto’s tires aren’t street legal, much less the rest of him, so he couldn’t enter a formal race. But this isn’t formal. Some guy’s paying $100 to find out if the $10,000 he just put into his ride was worth it. But what’s Mary’s motive? Pride, Otto figures. A desire to prove herself, and a price for failure if she’s not up to it. But he doesn’t ask, and she doesn’t explain.
He only needs to say one thing, he thinks. “I ain’t drivin’ for your ass, even if you’re losing.”
She rubs the steering wheel in response, and smiles gently. “I know you won’t.” Her eyes narrow, and her smile sharpens into a feral grin. “Now shut up for a bit.”
“Kris Singh brought his Pagani Huayra by here once, on his showing off tour,” explains Leslie through the rolled-down driver’s side window. “He made a minute thirteen. I give you a minute forty. Alright, good luck.” She slaps the roof of the car and steps back. Mary checks her seatbelt and rolls Otto up to the starting line. The lights flash from red to yellow to green, and–
The warm-up lap is the worst. She’s driving a new car, on a new track, and nothing goes right. She swears bitterly as she pulls to a stop.
“I’m a single-speed transmission,” Otto tells her gently, while she rubs her eyes. “I know you wanna go for the clutch, I know you’re feeling for the synchro gear. Just handcuff your shifting hand to the wheel and keep that brake foot nailed to the pedal. You’re used to a heavier car too. I’m really light. When I need to open up, I generate downforce with my rockets, but you can’t. So when you corner, steer into it, let me buck a bit. If we drift, I’m fast enough on a straightaway that you can make it up, and I got traction like a motherfucker. Alright, so there’s a dial for drive train impedance under your left knee, turn that up a couple notches.”
He’s not sure how she’ll respond to the advice, but he hopes it’s okay to give it now that she’s not actually driving. He wants it to come off like coaching, same as any member of a pit crew would give, not someone taking over for her, not someone getting in the way of doing what she loves–
He feels her turn the dial, unleashing his powerful electric drive train.
“Fuck you. I’m doing this,” growls Mary. But Otto knows she’s not speaking to him. It’s herself that she’s standing strong against - her own weakness and hesitation.
He thinks about the power setting for a moment. Was that too much? Maybe he should–
Red - yellow - green.
Mary puts the pedal down. And that’s when shit gets very real.
Otto comes to a stop. Mary unstraps herself with shaky hands, pushes the door open, staggers out of the car, and finds herself leaning against it to catch her breath. “Jesus god,” she pants. “Jesus god jesus god jesus god…”
“Fast enough for ya, tough girl?” grins Otto.
“Jesus GOD that was fast,” she gasps, a shark-like grin on her face.
Leslie approaches, a wad of cash in her hands. She hands it over with a smile. “A minute ten. Whatever you got under there, you don’t need my help. But you got these guys interested in buying a little more gear, so as far as I’m concerned, you deserve twice this much.”
The other driver cruises past, and gives Mary a cheerful smile and a thumbs-up. Leslie takes her leave as well. Mary peeks down her own shirt collar for a moment. “I cut myself on your seatbelt. And I’m probably bruised elsewhere. And I’m kinda dizzy too.” The adrenaline is wearing off, and her voice grows weary. “Drive me somewhere, Otto. I don’t care where, let’s just go somewhere.”
The car pulls up well after dark. Leo and Aria are surprised when Mary gets out of Otto and heads right to the carriage house. She seems like she’s been exercising lately, thinks Leo.
“We’re just gettin’ her suitcase,” Otto explains.
Leo hmms. “Everything going okay?”
“Yeah, boss. Everything’s really great.”
Leo’s not sure what else to say, but he turns with a furrowed brow to Aria. The robot girl, seeing Mary come out and reading something on her face or in her body language that Leo can’t catch, just rests a hand on his arm and nods in gentle reassurance. Good enough.
“Back in awhile, boss. Call if ya need anything.”
The road flashes by under Otto’s headlights.
“I don’t wanna leave. But I can’t stay. And even flying, you’re hours away, not minutes.” Mary sighs. “Fuck. Fuck it. Otto, is this gonna work?”
“I want it to,” he says at last. “I’m willing to work at it. If you want me too.”
“Everything’s so fucking amazing. It’s… I’m afraid, Otto. Is this real?”
“Yeah, it’s all real.”
Mary sighs. She sounds tired, and a little sad. “This is gonna be hard. It’s gonna be real fuckin’ rough. But……” She’s silent long enough that Otto begins to fear what she has to say.
“Yeah, fuck it. We’ll find a way. And if we don’t… fuck it, I’m not thinking about that.”
She opens her suitcase and pulls out a tightly-packed roll of shirts, then tosses it over the seat. “I wanna crawl in the back seat.” She tries to put some flirtatious energy into the words, but is too tired to manage it. Instead, all she’s got left is a fuzzy sweetness. “People would freak if I told 'em I spent my time in Halcyon sleeping in a car. I’m supposed to be responsible and careful while I’m out here.”
“I’ll keep to the speed limit,” Otto promises, grinning.
She smiles at him, and crawls across the front seat divide, flopping down in the back and curling up. “Otto… I…” She rests her head against the seat, using the shirt roll as a pillow and rubs her hand affectionately against the seat. Otto can feel the moment when she drifts off to sleep.
The car robot reflects on the long and silent drive to nowhere, with the sleeping girl in the back. I dunno what I got myself into here. But shit, if the boss can pull off a human-robot romance, then…
He checks the back seat again, and smiles to himself.
author: Bill G.