by Jane Lebak
Companion to Battle of the Planets episode 27, "Race Against Disaster"
Even from three cars away, Lucy looks just like I remember her--just like her sister. I saw Cassie the day before yesterday, and now I'm looking at Lucy and I can't help seeing her sister instead. In the driver's seat of the orange car, she's fiddling with something on her lap--most likely a gun. I thread through idling cars, waves of exhaust and the frantic members of other teams, time to make my half of our team. Lucy. It's been a year and a half, and now we'll race again.
I met Lucy briefly at the track a few weeks after Cassie and I initiated the hydrogen engine project one January--I was the tail end of fifteen; Cassie was twenty-three. We must have been nuts, but the project worked because we didn't know at the start how we ought to be cautious, Cassie and John and I forming a team before I even understood what a team could be, me learning about people as I learned about cars. Cassie's dad Peter Stuart owns the short track in Flushing, the only track in New York City, and Cassie's team would be the first I drove for--no professional sponsors a sixteen year old, of course, but locals might take a chance. By September, I'd asked for a mechanic's position to pay the ungodly insurance on Sweetheart, and one day Cassie's dad told me to go drive for him. He hasn't regretted it, although a lot of other drivers have.
All September, Lucy hung around me while I rebuilt my first car--it took an unbelievable amount of time to get Sweetheart's engine to turn over, let alone make her driveable, but what did I expect from a Nissan as old as myself? I still love the car--wouldn't trade Sweetheart for anything, and I'd even keep her over the G-2--but part of the excitement is the plugging-the-dike mentality. I tell everyone I carry an entire engine disassembled in the trunk.
Until almost October, Lucy watched and gave suggestions, and she talked to me as I lay on my back getting greasy and cursing every part of Sweetheart by name. Like Cassie, she seemed to spend all her spare moments at the track and could trade insults or suggestions with any of the older guys who also lived there. Racing is more a religion than Christianity. A lot of people go to churches on the weekends and then go home, but you can't go home when your soul is measured in horsepower. Leaving is usually a clean break, and entering is a headfirst dive. Anyway, Lucy was my age--six months younger--so she and I talked as if that made us somehow more normal than only socializing with adults and our cars. Not that I didn't enjoy talking to Cassie. I wouldn't even imply that. Cassie and John had gotten closer to me than Mark or Princess. Lucy and I had the same background, though, and we watched the same shows, listened to the same music, and took the same subjects at the same time. In school, her grades didn't quite equal mine, meaning she did miserably, but she was smart--she could disassemble an engine and reconstruct it, she modified the cylinder heads Cassie got from GM so they gave about 50 horsepower more than the originals, and she never omitted any of the routine before a race. I felt safest when Lucy double-checked the car and my racing suit and when it was Lucy who reached into the car to flip the switch and get me started.
At the driver's side window, I lean close and smile at her. God, she looks so much like Cassie--her face has lost all the girl-roundness it had a few years ago, and her eyes look bigger now, more perfectly almond-shaped. She's got a bouncy haircut that frames her face and enhances the angle of her chin. She's got a sudden terrified look, and she stashes her gun behind her. "Jason?"
Well of course it's me, silly. You called me. You didn't expect anyone else, did you?
Two weeks ago, while I was trying to pick courses for my first semester at NYU, I answered the phone and heard Cassie's voice a little deeper and a lot more nervous as she asked for Jason. I hesitated before replying, "You got me, Lucy. Where the hell are you?"
"I've got to talk to you," she said.
"I'm going to record this." I had difficulty getting the answering machine started, but soon all the proper lights went on. "What's going on? Where are you?"
"I'm at a phone booth in Austin," she said. "I'm in trouble and I need to talk to you about Spectra."
My heart had begun to race, but I had let her speak, and she'd laid out the whole situation as if she'd rehearsed it, maybe even read it off a paper: she had joined Galactor but now wanted to leave. "What they're doing is wrong," she'd said with an abrupt earnestness--a break in her efficient recital that made me tremble. "But it's hard to get away from them. I need help."
"I can send money," I said. "I can get you a plane ticket to come home."
"No." Apparently Galactor had arranged for her to enter the Race Across Africa. "I want someone to come be my driving partner. Then you can take me into custody or arrest me or whatever you do to Spectrans. I'm not asking for special treatment--I just want you to protect me. And in exchange, I know some of their plans. I know what they wanted me to do, and it's horrible."
"What do they want to do?" I said. Princess had come into the TV room, and I waved her over, writing on a slip of paper, "Go get the Chief." She ran.
"I can't tell you over the phone."
"Can you give me a way to reach you?"
"No." She sounded small. "Jason--how's my family?"
"Worried like hell." A bit of a lie--it would have been true a year and a half ago. "They'll be glad to know you're alive, at least."
"Don't be that way, Jason. I had to--"
"You had to just run off and not tell anyone? And join Galactor, of all groups?"
The Chief had arrived, seen the answering machine recording. "I'm sorry," I said. "Go through it again. What do you want?"
Speaker phone, record capability, and in a moment the Chief would probably start tracing the call. "I want ISO protecting me during the Race Across Africa," she said. "In exchange, I'll tell you everything I've learned about Spectra."
"Specifically?" the Chief whispered.
"What types of things did you learn?" I chuckled. "We don't need to know about the company picnic or that Zoltar wears boxers."
"Key assassinations," she said. "Devil Stars. I can't say more. Please, Jason. Have ISO send their best driver, someone who can protect me."
And she hung up.
It was good I'd recorded the conversation--I didn't have to rely on memory. On the other hand, that meant I got left out of the higher-level meetings. I wanted to race with Lucy if it meant getting her home. Cassie had kept her voice steady when I called. "I wouldn't stick out my neck for her--she's made her choices."
"She's your sister," I said. "And I'll do all I can."
The arguments went this way: Lucy didn't know I was the G-2, but she might suspect--the helmets don't hide enough of our faces to make us totally unrecognizable. On the other hand, sending someone else might lose our chance--she might have called me because she trusted me. The Chief didn't like that she'd mentioned Devil Stars--it had been a Devil Star that made me an orphan, and it had been Devil Stars that tried to kill him last month on the monorail.
Lucy hasn't gotten out of her seat. "What's the gun for?" I ask.
Her eyes have a sudden firmness. "Never can tell--we're driving the most primitive parts of Africa. Lots of ferocious animals."
I feel a sudden queasiness and try to smile it off. "We're driving a race, not going on a safari."
Maybe I didn't hide the look as well as I wanted. Lucy chuckles. "Well, maybe I'll need it to protect myself from you."
"That's a laugh," I say. "Based on past history, I should be the one bringing a gun. Come on, put that thing away." She looks aside demurely, but the gun stays in place. "We have to decide who's going to drive the first stretch."
"I will," she says. "Now that was settled easily, wasn't it? We've got to start off friends if we're going to be squeezed in here together on this long haul."
"Such good friends that you think you need a gun to protect yourself." I walk around the front of the car, and with my voice low enough to blend into the engine's whine, I say, "Are we friends?"
As I settle myself into the car, she says, "I thought we were friends all along. I've missed you."
"It's my car you missed." The response is automatic. Lucy smiles with sudden relief. I have missed her. All the old games are returning.
Cassie got married at the end of April--I had known her a little over a year, but after all we'd done together I'd earned a spot in the bridal party. They'd fitted me for a tux for some reason and told me to march in and out in the procession and have my picture taken. Cassie's sister Mary Ann served as the maid of honor; Lucy was one of four bridesmaids. I'd hoped to walk the aisle with her, but height considerations paired me with a girl I didn't know and quickly forgot. Lucy made faces at me all through the rehearsal and got me yelled at by the minister when I started laughing. Afterward, the guys went off to John's bachelor party.
I don't think I'll ever have a chance to get married, but if I do, I want a bachelor party like John's. We went to Rockaway Beach where a friend of his kept a yacht, and we went out onto the Atlantic. And got toasted--far enough from shore that no one called the cops, we played the music loud, told obscene stories, and drank. The highlight of the evening came at about two in the morning when the best man declared himself the world's strongest swimmer and said he'd swim to England. He promptly dove out of the boat and started swimming in an Easterly direction. One of the other groomsmen and I lowered a smaller boat and paddled about a mile after him--still swimming bravely--before we hauled him up.
The next day, into the tux. I took Tiny and Princess to the wedding because Cassie had no limit on the number of guests; Mark had a flying lesson that day, and I don't think the Chief cared. Keyop thought weddings were boring. I did the march-in-march-out-photos routine. Cassie made a gorgeous bride. She had a plain dress that didn't have a train or a million glittering things stuck all over, and she didn't have a huge lacy thing over her hair, just some flowers. She looked about as happy as any human being ever got.
The party afterward was a smash--well, I was smashed. Since they had an outdoor reception at the track, the caterers didn't care who they served, meaning Tiny and I didn't get carded once. Princess left right after the ceremony, so no one remained to dampen the fun but Sanders, and his opinion was "You've got to learn to handle alcohol sometime." He didn't drink; Tiny, Lucy and I did. Lucy pointed out the groomsman who'd been partnered with her and announced he couldn't count to twenty while wearing his shoes. "Or twenty-one with his fly zipped," I added, and she laughed so hard she started crying. At one point, after too many margaritas, Lucy flung herself into my arms and tried to get her hands under my shirt--the cummerbund had her a little confused, and that gave me time to set her up on her feet again. It really looked like she'd stumbled more than anything else. "I want you," she whispered, and I shrugged. "You're drunk--remember, it's my car you want." She laughed and said, "You're right," but that didn't stop her from walking away. Tiny came up and hit me on the back. "You're an idiot! You could have had her!" I shoved him aside and lost myself in the crowd and the music, and another bridesmaid talked to me for long enough that Tiny stopped hanging around me.
I don't remember much else, except that since the wedding was a Sunday, the Chief had warned us to be home at "a reasonable hour." Sanders returned us by ten. Tiny and I had sung with the radio the whole ride into Manhattan, alternately hitting the right notes and laughing like lunatics, and Tiny opted for one more round in the elevator. I remember saying to him, "I think I sing better when I've been drinking" and getting the reply, "No, you sing better when I've been drinking." I, at least, managed to achieve a state of instant sobriety on meeting the Chief in the hall.
Lucy drives like a maniac! Last time I saw her drive, she acted milder behind the wheel, but she's obviously practiced. She's got reflexes like I've never seen--but then again, I don't normally see the driver from the inside of the car. I'm not sure I'd be able to beat her still.
I take a look around the car--I don't like driving other people's vehicles if I haven't prowled under the hood for a bit, and this car I've never even used for practice, but judging from the smoothness of the ride it should be easy enough. We have reinforced glass all over the car--the other cars kicked up a lot of dirt and rocks, and despite the protective grilles and tape, I saw someone's headlight get smashed in the startup. We're running clear now.
The Race Across Africa is a two and a half day race, a 5,000 mile endurance test as much of the driver as of the car. There's little by way of rules, especially compared to NASCAR. Anything with four wheels and an engine. Any type of engine, any modifications you like except for fixtures that might damage other cars--the G-2 has that gatling gun or I'd have been tempted to use it. This baby is a modified Corvette that feels as if it's got an F-15 engine under the hood. It's got an optional 4WD we're not using, and in typical Lucy-fashion, the girl installed a tape deck--"What did you expect?" she asked me when I stared at it earlier. "I sang to you over the headset, didn't I?" You don't bring much in the way of luxury on an endurance rally--we wouldn't exactly be able to use a change of clothes, and anything more than a duffel bag throws off the weight to power ratios. I'd whipped out three tapes, though, and Lucy had cracked a smile like the ones from two years ago. "I remember you," I said. "I'd have gotten out of the car and called you an imposter if you hadn't pulled a stunt like that."
This race is free-form. You buy lots of maps and note the checkpoints. Get there however you wish. Pit stops as your team arranges. ISO handled all that for us. I've got a radio for talking with our crew, but I haven't used it yet. Lucy took a look at the maps briefly but leaves me to navigate, at least until we switch.
Lucy swerves to scare a herd of zebras and some giraffes. Looking over her shoulder, she grins.
"Keep your eyes on the road," I say.
"Backseat driver." She puzzles. "Can you hear--?"
I try, but no. Her eyes change. The giraffes blur, transform in a way all too familiar to me. Lucy fails to notice I'm more disgusted than surprised--she yells at me to "take over," scrambles over my lap, and pulls out her gun. I floor the car, and it responds.
Its transformation complete, the first giraffe opens fire. I'm too busy dodging fire to pay attention to Lucy--she's loading that elephant gun, or a gun that looks about as big, and she hits a button to lower the rear window. I keep dodging blasts. The animal robots are big and clunky, typical Spectra issue. Spectrans like to copy form to a fault--they believe everything in nature is an advantage, even a turtle's ponderousness or a giraffe's unbalance. Evolution wouldn't permit weakness, they say, and we can't improve upon it. Well, we can. Lucy has--one shot and she blows apart the first giraffe; a second takes out the next.
"You're a dead shot!" I say.
"Tend to your driving." She loads the gun and levels it at the next target.
I shiver as I hammer the accelerator--Spectra did this to her. Turned an ordinary 16 year old deadly, made a normal kid a killer. She blows apart two others.
I look out the window, but no sign of the Phoenix. If Lucy hadn't brought that gun, I'd be dead and her besides, or else I'd have transmuted and blown the game. Thanks, guys.
All the robotic giraffes are down, although one keeps twitching as it tries to run without a neck or shoulders. I stop the car and turn in the seat. As I watch, the flesh seems to melt off the giraffes, and the robotic joints fall apart from one another, disconnecting before they're consumed in a froth. After a minute, there's nothing left of the giraffes but some blackened circles in the Savannah grass. Beside me, Lucy has a look of such horror that I grab her hand--she can't pull her eyes off the giraffes she shot at but aren't there any longer. I have a chance--I can bring her home now, now that she realizes what she's facing.
I fix Lucy with an expression I reserve for special occasions. "This is crazy. Spectra's never going to let us survive this."
Abruptly, the terror retreats behind one of Cassie's looks, the expression Cassie gave me when I raced to the back of the church and told her it wasn't too late to make the right choice and marry me. Lucy's chuckle is light. "We have a good shot at winning this."
"Speaking of good shots," I say with a nod at the gun. "I can't quite figure you out."
She points the muzzle of the gun at my head--the world is a whistle in my ears as I stare into the barrel. "You're not used to girls who can defend themselves?"
Blinking slowly, I try to look calm and say the only thing that comes to mind. "Not with a gun."
Then she's lowered the weapon, and my head is still happily united to my spinal column, and I feel I know a little more about Spectra's gun safety training. I wouldn't aim even an unloaded gun without intent to kill.
I sit without moving until a shadow in the trees attracts my attention. Lucy's already seen it. "Nail him," I say, but she's got the gun aimed and fired before I'm done speaking.
Wait a minute--that's a damned big gun. She should be through the windshield with the recoil.
I say slowly, "Is that why you brought the gun? Were you expecting something like this?"
Lucy shrugs, settles herself in the passenger seat as though she's certain there's nothing else waiting for us. "Hey. Look--I'm your co-pilot. We've got to trust one another if we're going to win a race together."
Trust that goes only one way. Trust in someone I know works for an organization at war with my world. Trust in someone who might as well have committed treason and whose intentions I'm not entirely sure I know. But I look at her face and I see Cassie, and Cassie I would trust with my life.
Looking in the mirror, I see the others I trust with my life--mistakenly, probably, considering their timely approach. Lucy opens the top of the car and aims. I grab her arm, but she's already fired on the Phoenix. Tiny manages to avoid the shot and the next two. I don't stop her right away--they deserve a few near misses after lying down on the job.
She looks at me. "That wasn't an enemy plane?"
"I thought you'd be familiar with them, working for Spectra and all."
She sits beside me again. "So they are an enemy--it just depends on your point of view."
I can still feel the Phoenix nearby, the way I can tell someone's in the TV room when I step off the elevator or the way I know another driver's about to try cutting me off. I start the Corvette again, and the race continues.
Being briefed before taking off for Africa, I found it upsetting how many people had consulted each other about my life without consulting me: everyone the Chief had spoken to had his own opinion, naturally, and the advice he'd gotten had been of a varied enough nature that he got to decide for himself anyhow. I've wondered if he doesn't do that because he wants to make his own decisions, and the best way to justify that is to garner feedback from everyone even remotely connected to the question, including the guys in the meteorology department and the secretary in public relations, the only person in the whole ISO who actually gets paid to read the paper while drinking coffee.
At any rate, we'd gathered in the Chief's office, and he explained to me how I'd be racing with Lucy after all. Tiny had stared openly at me. "Lucy? Isn't she the girl you--" And then he stopped whatever he'd been about to say. It had me wondering for a minute what I had done to her, and I know the Chief had several thoughts in rapid succession that ended the sentence. My family, ladies and gentlemen. The rest of the team wonders why I don't share every detail of my life.
I don't know where I got my reputation--reputations, I suppose. I picked brown and indigo as my colors because I like darker colors. They aren't a sociopsychosymbological expression of anger at the world or self-hatred--dark blue happens to be my favorite color. Sweetheart is dark blue also. When Mark jumps into a bunch of Spectrans and they fall back, it's the reputation of the things he's done that penetrates their bravery and reduces them to idiots incapable of firing a weapon at a still target. When I do the same, they get scared because I look more frightening. It has to be that--I don't think I've done the spectacular things Mark has. But the Chief should know me better, and my teammates should know me better--and yet I have a reputation as a troublemaker, a loner, a cut-up, a violent maniac, and a rebel. They assume I've had a string of girlfriends and fathered any number of unacknowledged children on unwary females. They'd never believe the truth, so I don't tell them.
Not that my own behavior helps my case much. I learned to be careful about what I do when I drive the Chief anywhere only after I was blissfully singing along with Queen on the radio, and quite cheerfully sang out "I'm a sex machine ready to reload." His sour expression didn't lift when I chuckled and politely suggested that was only metaphorically speaking, of course. A few weeks after, a friend from Cleveland mailed me a t-shirt covered with a brightly colored car and a lot of Japanese writing. How was I supposed to know what it said? How was I supposed to know the Chief could read Japanese? Even after I took the shirt off and threw it in the incinerator at his insistence, he wouldn't tell me what it meant.
Sometimes it's handy to have a reputation; this time it wasn't. I got the impression that the Chief reconsidered having me race with Lucy, but after a second's hesitation he continued. I knew better than to counter whatever Tiny had been about to say--if he'd finished the sentence, it probably would have been "Wasn't she the girl you dared to drink five margaritas at her sister's wedding?" or "Wasn't she the girl you knew who ran away from home?" At that point, if Tiny had finished the sentence, the Chief would have assumed he was covering something, and if I'd finished it he'd know I was. My family.
At any rate, he had continued the briefing: the Phoenix would drop me off and I'd go as a racer, no more. Not even an ISO agent, certainly not the Condor. I was not to tell Lucy about the team--he stressed that several times, as though not only would I somehow find a way to work myself into a state of severe passion while driving 100 miles per hour, but would also find myself compelled by ecstasy to tell her about G-Force. I watched him darkly, sarcastically serious about "I'll do my best to maintain secrecy" and resolved to give Tiny a good accidental whack in the head the next time we sparred.
"The team will maintain watch from the Phoenix," he told me, "so don't worry about attacks from Spectra. Mark and Princess will be on the ground any time you may be out of the car--at the start of the race, at the check points, and at the finish. Beyond that, your safety is your own concern."
As if it weren't anyhow. "If you can get the information from her during the race, all the better." He added, "I'd like you to leave your wristband with me."
I said, "No. Lucy saw the wristband before she left home, and she thought then it was a watch. If I need to contact the Phoenix--"
"They'll be overhead."
I fumed. Mark said, "I think he can keep it. Even if Lucy notices it, she won't know what it means."
The Chief let it go. Dismissed, we set off for Africa.
The whole first night, it rains. No matter how far south we drive, Lucy and I have the wipers on and the car in four wheel drive. The stars get swallowed first by the jungle, then by the clouds, and I find myself wishing for a moon, a streetlamp, anything other than our own highbeams. On clear nights, I love to drive, but the rain and the mud have swallowed the clarity and direction that hang around until sunrise. It got this way at about six, and the weather hasn't broken yet. I have a tape in the radio. Every so often, Lucy gives a mock weather report: "Conditions in north central Africa: CSS." Her abbreviation, coined two years ago: it means "Can't see shit," and she's right. The wipers aren't helping as much as I'd have imagined.
"What happened back there?" I say. "With those giraffe robots?"
The girl beside me shivers, and I reach for the heater, but she stops me. "They tried to kill us."
"In addition to that." I'm an extremely perceptive person--I pride myself on it. "What did you shoot them with to make them melt apart?"
"Regular bullets." Her head drops. "I know a bit about Spectra by now. Their robots are fitted with capsules that contain an acid. On its own, the acid can't do much more than give you a rash and maybe a blister if you touch it too long, but if it releases, it interacts with one of the chemicals necessary for the cybernetics, and the resulting acid is so hot and so powerful that it'll dissolve both the flesh and the metal components. A two-part poison. The reaction spreads only as far as the cybernetics, so the grass got blackened but it didn't dissolve. When I shot them, the capsules released."
My eyes widen. "Impressive."
"They know what they're doing. I studied a bit about their mechs--that's one of the things I can tell you." She chuckles in the dark. "But I don't like talking about such dismal stuff." After a moment, Lucy opens her bag and reaches in. "Rejoice--these are what will make us win!"
I look to the side. "Sandwiches?"
She has sandwiches, but I brought those too; under the sandwiches she has cans of soda. Of all things, Jolt. All the sugar, twice the caffeine. She's also brought Mountain Dew. "You're a crazy, mixed up girl," I tell her.
"You ain't seen nothing." She dumps out the rest of her pack, and I gag: M&M's, Smarties, Nestle Crunch, Circus Peanuts, Gobstoppers, Raisinettes, Symphony bars, and other things I can't name.
"Halloween isn't another two months," I say. I've begun laughing. She's laughing too as she stuffs the loot back in her bag.
"You should have seen the guy in the store!" She's lying back in the seat, head thrown back and eyes closed. "He thought I was totally nuts--and then I told him he had to go check in aisle three because they were out of Sweet'n'low." I'm grinning--her laugh has the same timbre as her sister's, a lower pitch than her normal speaking voice. "And when I put the bag through the scanners at the airport--"
"I'm sure." The rain has made it fairly difficult to see anything, but the odometer knows where we've gone, and as long as I've stayed on the right course, I know how much further we need to roll before the next turn-off. "But why--?"
"Because we've never driven such a long race before, either of us. We can outlast them because we're young, so we'll just have to cram in junk food and caffeine until we get to the end."
I want to tell her I'm more civilized than that, but I'm not, so I don't. The year before Lucy left, I drove to Michigan one weekend using exactly the same logic: of course I can subsist on coffee and Snickers bars; four hours' sleep is more than enough. Then I didn't trade off driving, though, and by now I'm getting a little tired. Lucy climbs over my lap to get to the driver's side, and I slide to the passenger side. It doesn't take long to fall asleep.
Ten days after Cassandra Kennedy Stuart became a Martindale, she gave me a call--completely in tears. Lucy ran away from home, we don' t know where, none of her friends know where. I'm frightened. Can't you do anything?
That "you" was the plural--she knew the Chief had lots of connections in the New York Police Department, and she assumed he could have them intensify their search. She assumed, I suppose, they'd started a search in the first place. When I approached the Chief, he actually offered to talk to Cassie and John in person, in his office, the next day, and when they arrived, he constructed a psychological profile of Lucy. He went into details I'd never have imagined. The Chief knows so many things, it's hard to tell what kind of answer you'll get if you ask even a relatively simple question--ask whether you can have the last slice of pie in the fridge and you'll hear about how you might want to take into consideration your heightened white blood cell count from the cold you had last week and what that might do to your spinal column. This time, he had a complicated question and two very concerned individuals needing an answer. Cassie's father hadn't come to this meeting, but I knew he'd be beside himself as well. I didn't want to go to the track and face him on Saturday; I didn't want to suit up for a race and be prepped by someone other than Lucy.
The Chief asked an array of questions and got a good profile of Lucy: basically a loner, although she had a few close friends. A cut-up, a troublemaker. She liked losing herself in a group, being there without calling attention to herself, and she seemed to have no idea the rest of the group noticed her wild streak. A high IQ (probably higher than mine, I guessed, although none of the five of us has ever been told his score) but poor performance in school. Ambitions for the future? I laughed and said she wanted to marry someone who'd win the Daytona 500, and the Chief fixed a puzzled look at me. Cassie said, "He's right--she wants to be part of the pit crew on a team that takes the Daytona."
"Why doesn't she want to win it herself?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said.
Cassie said, "I never asked."
"Was there anything," he asked, "immediately before her leaving that might have precipitated it?"
I silenced and held my breath.
"Just the wedding," Cassie said. "Just our getting married."
"That probably wasn't a factor," the Chief said. "Anything else?"
And I didn't answer.
He sent Cassie and John from the room while the computer chewed on what he'd input, and I took them down the hall to our library and the TV room, showed them where to find the kitchen and the bathroom, and returned to the Chief's office. I found Mark looking over his shoulder at the screen, and the Chief showed it to me: two graphs one atop the other, pretty close matches.
"The red line is Lucy's stats," the Chief said, "as closely as we can approximate. The green line is the standard measurements we get off known Galactor officers."
I went cold. "Lucy--?"
"It's not certain," Mark said, "because the Chief couldn't actually study her."
"Shit." I sat on the corner of the desk. "But Chief--"
"She fits the profile," he said. "That's all I'm willing to say for now. Not everyone who fits the profile joins Spectra."
I folded my arms and stared at the floor. "You mean like me?"
"You and Lucy aren't totally alike," Mark said. "And you said Cassie's a lot like her, and Cassie's not joining Spectra."
"Cassie's different," I said. "Small ways. Shit--how am I going to tell her?"
"I'll handle it," the Chief said. "Just bring her and John."
I did, trying not to say anything, but Cassie's eyes changed the instant she saw me. "Be honest with me," she said. "What's going on? Did you figure out where she went?"
"The Chief has a few more questions," I said. "Then he'll be sure."
In the office, Cassie held onto John, and I moved to stand by the door. The Chief had innocuous sounding questions until he asked if Lucy belonged to any clubs at school. Cassie thought a moment and then said there was one--we had a branch of it in our school, too. "Future Stars of America." Don Wade had been president of his chapter. The Chief had called it "Young Galactors" more than once, and I could see him looking serious as he thought through the ramifications.
And I shivered, because of Lucy. Lucy had left. Joined Galactor. Allied with Spectra. Sided against me. And she didn't know it.
The Chief explained what he thought had happened--Lucy had gotten recruited. He showed Cassie and John the two graphs, explained the history of the FSA, and suggested several methods of pursuing Lucy. He suggested contacting FSA itself, for all the good it would do, and he said he'd be spreading word through our intelligence network that anyone who found her should file a report and give her location. "She probably left of her own accord," the Chief said. "I don't think we're dealing with an abduction. More than that--what she wants with them and what they want with her--I just can't say."
In the hallway, Cassie broke down and cried, and John held her until the elevators came. When they'd left, I stalked to my room, slammed the door, and drowned in the radio. Numb with the memory, I lay on my bed and remembered three days ago kissing a Galactor.
Lucy got the car stuck. Mark tells me caffeine can't replace judgment, and maybe he's got a point after all because despite knowing about the rain all night, somehow this girl managed to bog down the car in the mud. She roused me and told me to go out and push, and this is how I come to: leaning on the rear of the car, shoving as hard as I can, while she spins the tires in useless frenzy. The sun has just risen, and I can already feel the heat working through the back of my t-shirt while mud splatters up the front.
"This is never going to get it!" I say.
She sticks her head out the window. "Are you using all your muscle?"
I fold my arms and glare. "Okay--you try, supergirl."
We take another minute to think. I open the hatchback and pull out her box of ammo. Great--if we keep it, we'll have live ammo rolling around the inside of the car. After a moment's thought, I toss the cartridges into the bushes. With a pocket knife, I cut the cardboard into two strips, then get down beside the car, laying the cardboard in the trenches Lucy created by spinning the tires. Lucy's seen this trick before: get something solid under the tires. She's cut down some branches and leaves and is laying them before the front tires. Neither of us is going to look too clean afterward, but we'll be mobile. "Where's that enemy plane?" Lucy says. "Don't they have a car-port in the front? They could lift us out."
"Do you know how to summon them?" I had thought of that already, but first off it wouldn't have been sportsmanlike, and secondly I didn't feel like calling them. "With this much mud, vertical's bound to be easier than horizontal."
Lucy smiles wickedly. "Not near as much fun."
I ignore her, leaning against the rear of the car, arms folded. Lucy gets into the car again and starts the engine.
Movement in the brush.
"Lucy!" I plant one foot on the rear bumper, jump, and flip into the passenger seat. Packing the wheels worked--Lucy is rolling before the rhino gets close, and when it actually hits, she's going fast enough that it knocks us the rest of the way out of the mud. If we hadn't gotten rolling, we'd have stayed stuck in the mud, and all that horizontal force would have gotten absorbed by the side panels--we'd have folded like an accordion. Lucy's driving like a madwoman, barely pausing in each gear to get to the next one.
"I told you we'd need my gun." Her eyes look like blue ice. "Now what?"
"Outrun it." I watch the horned head in the rear window. "Remember that commercial? 'Rhinos can't corner.'"
Lucy corners, and the rhino does have a hard time following, so she corners again. We're zigzagging across the plain now, and I'm hoping the terra firma is firmer than before--another mudhole and more than the car will be sunk.
We hit a plateau, and Lucy guns the car again. Rhinos shouldn't be able to run a hundred miles per hour, so I suppose the Spectrans relented on their hard line and attempted to improve upon nature. They improved on size, too--the mech's easily as big as the Corvette, probably bigger. Lucy's got the situation in hand, though. The thing may follow us all the way to the checkered flag, but I doubt it'll overtake us for a while.
"Shit!" Lucy sends the Corvette squealing along the treeline, and the rhino misses its corner again. I look up at the roar of jet engines--my teammates finally show up to earn their obscene salaries. I can tell Tiny's piloting despite the early hour--it's too smooth for Princess or Mark. The Phoenix dives low, kicking up a sandstorm, and scoops up the rhino on one of its wing pods. Then they've carried it away, and I watch as they dump it into a nearby lake and circle to fire a few missiles. Sloppy--I could have taken it with one.
Lucy's shivering and sweating. Her eyes are wide, and I see how her hands tremble on the wheel. "That strange plane is watching us. Is it a friend or an enemy?"
"Friends are as friends do," I say.
"Can it," she says. "I know they aren't friends because they're being paid."
I put my hand on hers over the stick shift. She's cold. "You all right? You need me to take over?"
She shakes her head. "I'll be all right. Is that really G-Force?"
"It's the Phoenix," I say. "It's their plane."
"You've met them?" She has a distant look in her eyes. "Are they terrible to Galactors? Will I wish I'd stayed with Spectra?"
"I can't say." I want to meet her eyes, but I can't. "They just saved our lives."
"But--" She shudders. "I've heard so many stories, people they met in combat. They're ruthless. But one of them's a driver, and I thought--"
"They're not expendable," I say. "If you turned out to be an assassin, better I died than one of them."
Lucy looks grim. "Did you think I could kill you?"
"I thought about it," I say, "but I figured it was worth the risk. Besides, it's good to drive as your partner."
She's quiet a long time after that.
Three days after Cassie's wedding, I awoke knowing I'd dreamed about my mother. I couldn't remember any of the details of the dream, couldn't remember seeing her face or hearing her voice, but I knew she'd been there. I don't know if dead people really do appear in dreams, but if some of those dreams are real, this was one. My mother probably tucked me in at night as a little kid, and she might have returned to do it once more even though I don't need it any longer.
All that day, my mind drifted to that dream--I didn't remember all that much about my parents. Not anything at all other than their deaths. I hammered at that lost fragment of unconsciousness until I remembered a detail--my mother had been yelling at my father one night, and I remember hearing from the door. As a teenager, I pieced together what I probably didn't understand as a kid: Mom was saying something about it being dishonest to think about one person when you're with another, and Dad was saying it was fine and normal. I remember getting scared--at five years old, I knew I didn't have the ability not to think about people who weren't with me. In fact, a lot of the people I did think about were people not there at the moment. You didn't have to think about people who were with you because you could see them and talk to them. Mom sounded extremely upset, though, and Dad kept insisting she didn't have to be. He walked out of the house. I ran downstairs and found Mom throwing out some magazines--shoving them really hard into the trash can with one hand and drying her eyes with the other--and I hugged her. "Te penso sempre," I said to her. "Non dirme che é male."
I always think about you. Don't tell me it's wrong.
At sixteen, you pick up on the nuances you miss at five because most five year olds are stupid. Sometimes I'm glad I don't remember a thing before the Chief brought me to the States, if only because I can't imagine living down the way I thought the world worked when I was a kid.
Was my mother right? Well, dead mothers are always right. The only person who's ever told me her mother was wrong was Cassie. Even Princess alternates between believing her crack-addicted, child-beating, no-show mother was a bit misunderstood and believing she was a saint: ironed all her clothes, served three meals a day containing elements properly balanced according to the USDA's food pyramid. Cassie tells me her mother ran off with one of the pit crew managers, abducting her brother in the process, and she says it darkly every time: the woman's insane, but she made her choices. She wants nothing more to do with the woman, nothing to do with her brother. Lucy never mentioned her, but based on what Cassie has said, I think Lucy is the most like her--acts the most like her. You can't dispute the behavior.
After Lucy ran away from home, we managed to track down her mother, but the woman hadn't heard from her at all. She didn't express any concern for her daughter. We thought it best not to mention Cassie's marriage and hear a response along the lines of "How pleasant for her."
We've made our way to a ridge we figure everyone will have to travel at some point. Tire tracks lead ours, but not terribly many. The midway checkpoint will come in a few miles. Lucy frowns at the tracks we follow. "I'm going to have to barrel down to make up for lost time." She grins. "Maybe some music will inspire us?"
She puts in a tape of, I swear to this, Roxette. She's dancing in the driver's seat, and I'm gagging in the passenger's. "They're not that bad." Her giggle sounds so much like Cassie's that I'm surprised when it's her voice that adds, "I drive better to a backbeat."
I know one of the songs on the tape because the radio stations overplayed it last summer. It seemed like every channel had its own remix of the song. I remember the parody Mark and I improvised during a traffic jam on the L.I.E., and I serenade Lucy. She glares, and when I launch into the second verse, she hits me in the arm. She's pretty strong, and I rub my shoulder thoughtfully. I stop singing.
Her eyes have a mischievous anger. "You shouldn't make fun of the song."
"Why?" I'm trying to laugh and not recoil in pain--she hit me a lot harder than I expected, perhaps harder than she expected. "If any song ever deserved it half as richly--"
Lucy says, "You can't sing worth shit."
Now I'm totally silent. Even if it's true, and I know it is, she shouldn't have said it. Cassie might have said the same thing, but she'd have followed up with a warbling imitation of me that would have left me clutching the stitch in my side from laughing so hard, or she'd have made an announcement that Pavorotti had now left the building, or she'd have smiled and taken away the sting. Lucy's tense behind the wheel.
Of course we sang earlier in the trip. Our duet on "Baby Driver"--Lucy singing the melody and me singing something else--left us both breathless with laughter. My "car tape" has all sorts of automotive-sounding songs on it: "Born to Run" and "Running on Empty" and "I'm in Love with My Car" and "I Can't Drive 55" and a bunch of others. Lucy winked at me when she sang about wrapping her legs around my velvet rims and strapping her hands across my engines, and I rolled my eyes. "Lucy, it's my car you love," I told her, and she giggled, saying, "You figured me out."
I look at the odometer and double-check the map. My voice is low and level as I say, "We should be coming to the check-in spot soon."
Lucy sounds subdued. "Even with all our problems, I think we're still toward the front."
It's dark outside--night falls fast here, although I can't say why. The Chief could tell me, explain the optical illusion. Africa's beautiful, at least what I've seen from the inside of the Corvette at over a hundred miles per hour. Probably the team will return at some point and have another pass-through, another glancing blow at a land and a culture that will never immerse us, never become familiar or welcome. I'll have memories of seeing my first wild elephant, feeding the world's largest mosquito, hearing the cries of offended wildlife as we tear through their niches and leave behind only the chemicals from our exhaust. The memories won't mean so much--out of context, I'll forget the almost-Cassie in the seat beside me, the hour she fell asleep and cuddled against my arm so her hair spread over my shoulder, the way she made wisecracks about every eye-catching bit of terrain we passed and enticed me to do the same. When we get back to New York, the ISO will interrogate her, her sister will bitch her out in one of the sound-proof visiting booths, and I won't see her again. She'll be too dangerous, too untrustworthy. The Chief will send her as far from me as he can justify and tell her it's for my good, that she has to expect to make sacrifices after what she's done.
What have you done, Lucy? After all that you've joined the opposition, what have you done that's so wrong? I wish you'd tell me, and I wish you'll keep it secret forever because I'm not sure how I could react to seeing Cassie's face and hearing Cassie's voice divulging personal atrocities.
After two years, I'm convinced of only one crime, and it wasn't your fault.
Lucy looks at me and says, "You know, Jason, I want to win this one."
I've gone cold. How do you always know when I'm thinking about your sister?
"I want to win it with you," she says. "I want it like you wouldn't believe."
"Maybe I would," I say.
"I'm sorry about before," she says.
She turns off the radio. I turn it back on. "You can listen to your Roxette, your pop, your technodance whatever," I say. "You're driving now."
She's quiet, then says lowly, "Checkpoint ahead."
"Good." I've popped the doors and jumped before she's at a complete stop. Around us, the jungle is black with the night and unnaturally silent.
The Chief used to get on my case about my attachment to my car. This is the truth: he pulled me into his office one day and suggested he felt a certain concern that I had limited my social life to my automobile. He said I treated it as if it were a person and that I devoted more time to the car than to my family or my schoolwork, or to the best of his knowledge, my other friends. I listened politely and explained my point of view, that I didn't think spending time under my car was wasting time, that I felt I socialized enough, and that I enjoyed what I did. He added again that he felt concerned I was treating my car as an extension of myself. And then, as I was leaving, I swear the man said to me, "Oh, and Jason, I noticed your right rear tire is low on air."
My right rear tire. I looked over my shoulder for it.
I told Lucy about my conversation with the Chief--in April, about three weeks before Cassie's wedding. She understood, although being from a family in which cars are the main topic of conversation, the livelihood and the binding force, she had thought it more a joke when someone asked her how many horsepower she had and could reply, "A quarter horsepower. My car, on the other hand..." She'd had teachers treat her oddly for her obsession, and the guys at her school thought her a bit of a tomboy even if they did like getting her to let them drive on the track in the off hours. Cassie's training had extended into the business aspect of running the track and running a racing team as much as it had into the mechanical aspects, and by the time I met her she'd gotten a fairly balanced education. Sanders had taught me the theory behind cars, but it was Cassie who showed me how all the little pieces fit together, showed me racing, showed me the way to build a car or fix a car, showed me how to diagnose a problem, even taught me how to put a car in first gear. Only when Cassie went away for a summer and left Lucy to take her place did the younger sister actually master the mechanics, buckle down and apply herself to the less fun but no less necessary aspects of managing a racing team.
A while before Cassie's wedding, after Cassie had made official her engagement to John and sent out invitations, gotten a real ring and done all those bride-things, she asked if I would go with her and John to see a movie. I shrugged. She said Lucy would be going, and I said I wouldn't. She looked confused and asked me why I kept brushing off her sister.
"Because," I said, "it would be too much like racing for second place."
A moment's hesitation from Cassie, and then her eyes softened. "Jason, that's the sweetest thing you ever said."
I went back to work.
At the checkpoint, I toss the clerk a package of M&M's and then hand him my timecard. He punches the card and takes the packet. Not that you can bribe these guys--the clocks are automatic. It's something Cassie told me: they like to be reminded that you know they can end your career fairly easily, and I know they never get any glory or respect, so they might as well have chocolate.
Outside, Lucy's sitting on the roof of the car, but she slips back into the driver's seat as I run around the front. She's got the engine running still. I toss the timecard to her and buckle in, and as we pull out, I see the flash of a white wing. Two faces. Mark and Princess must have cleared the woods for me; I don't have time to smile at them.
Lucy's voice is low. "Those people back there--your racing fans?"
"Yeah." I'm almost laughing. "They follow me everywhere."
With her hands tight on the wheel, Lucy takes a deep breath. She tries to speak levelly. "The girl was very pretty. I've got a hunch she's a lot more than just a fan?"
My sister, Lucy--that does qualify as more than just a fan.
"You know..." Lucy swallows tightly and tries to speak again. "I've been one of your fans for a long time." When I don't say anything, she adds a little more lightly, "That's why it's such a thrill for me to be driving with you finally."
I say, "You're a racing freak--you get thrilled over souped-up engines. It's my car you go for, Lucy."
Lucy says, "It's not your car."
The Saturday after Cassie's wedding, one of the track guys sent me into the supply closet to get a water pump, only I had no idea where they were stored. Lucy volunteered to show me. The supply closet wasn't exactly a closet--there were engine parts on shelves, chests of drawers, tool boxes, cases of oil, and so on. It was easily the size of my trailer. I walked in and pulled the chain for the overhead bulb, then started hunting. I heard Lucy lock the door, and when I turned, she yanked me forward and kissed me. She had one hand behind my neck and the other on my back, under my shirt. Her body pressed against me--all of her was right there the way I'd imagined. For a moment I let go, kissed her wildly, thrust her against the door, closed my eyes and wrapped my arms around her waist, but then I pushed myself away and backed across the room to the opposite shelves.
She stared at me, and I stared at her. We both breathed in gasps. My hands trembled. She stepped forward, but I shook my head, half closed my eyes and turned aside. Touching her, I'd seen another face, wanted another voice. Looking at her, I saw a girl whose only crime was getting to know me three months too late.
Lucy looked confused--my reaction was fairly obvious, and she didn't know why I had stopped, why I had backed away. The unsoftened glare of the overhanging bulb cast enough of her face in shadow that I had to wonder if there were tears in her eyes. When she stepped closer, though, I saw there weren't, that if anything the blue had become harder and more determined. She said in a whisper, "I thought you wouldn't mind. I thought it would be all right now."
I avoided her eyes by looking at the floor.
Lucy unlocked the door and left me alone to find the part, which gave me time to look calmer before I went back to work. I didn't know she would leave home two days later.
We switch drivers at some point in the night. I'm glad for the chocolate and the cola and all that--my nerves are wired. The darkenss is enough that I can't see Lucy unless I turn my head and stare.
Lucy says, "Lie to me."
Lie to you? I squint.
"Please." Her voice is soft. "I want you to lie to me."
I hate it when women do this. They have something they're worried about or need to know or want to hear from you, but they don't want to ask straight out for whatever reason--it doesn't mean as much to get flowers if you had to ask for them, one girl told me last year after I didn't get them for her. That means most of the time, girls like that set themselves up for failure because how the hell can I know, or any guy, what exactly the girl needs me to say or give or ask? Princess does it sometimes to Mark and the Chief, and it drives me crazy. I'd strangle her if she ever did it to me, but she doesn't. Cassie never did anything like that, either.
So it's a guessing game. Lie to her. I say, "I'm not enjoying racing with you."
"Go on," she says.
That wasn't the magic phrase, apparently. I think a little. We have hours left to drive, and I don't want to occupy all of them attempting telepathy. "I'm glad you left home, and I wish you hadn't returned."
Apparently that wasn't the right lie to tell either. "What do you want to hear?" I say.
"I just wanted you to lie to me, that's all."
Of course. My eyes tighten as I drive. She wants to hear it said, even if it isn't true. I don't know why. I wouldn't want that, but then again, I wouldn't have joined Galactor.
I say slowly, "There wasn't any chance at all that I could have fallen in love with you."
She's regarding me with an expression I can't read in the darkness. She may be able to see mine because of the lights on the dashboard. "Really?"
"Are you going to lie to me, now?" Why not play her game?
"All right." She huffs, a chopped-off nervous chuckle. "I hate driving as your partner. I didn't ever miss you at all. I'm not jealous of my sister."
I shiver. "What?"
"Because Cassie doesn't have everything."
"What doesn't Cassie have?" I say. She doesn't answer at first, and I think a moment. I say, "My heart is broken."
She sits up--I can hear her shifting in the seat. "What?"
"I loved her," I say. "I haven't fallen in love since."
"Are you kidding?" I glance to the side, and I can see her eyes have widened. "But-- I'm confused now. We're still lying to each other?"
"I am," I say. "Did you really think I had?"
"Yes," she says. "No. I don't know what's going on." After a moment, Lucy says, "Have you dated people since?"
"I haven't dated four girls, and I'm not still seeing two of them." The chuckle is unbidden. "One of them didn't used to date Mark."
"You're not a sick bastard."
"Honestly, Lucy, they do know about each other. One of them's seeing two other guys herself." The smile is gentle. "One of them's prettier than you, the other isn't."
I drive. The jungle yielded to hills and plains and tall grass a while ago. Our route is fairly straightforward and will last for a while. Lucy has the map and must know I don't need to concentrate as much now as I will later when we reach the canyons.
Lucy fiddles with the latch on her seat belt. "This doesn't make any sense to me."
"If something doesn't start out honest," I say, "can it get honest?"
"That shouldn't matter!"
"You're eminently fair." Her voice is sharp. "And sensitive. I wish you lots of good things and a long, happy life."
There's a barb in her voice that tugs at my chest. I remember a girl in a supply closet. If I had given in, would you have stayed?
Sunrise. I never realized how much we depend on sunlight until almost three years ago when the shortening days of November felt like the closing lid of a coffin. I've paid attention since then to how much time I spend in the light--I notice the interplay of light and darkness, feel each one distinctly and recognize their uses. I like feeling the sun on my skin. I don't know if that's stupid or sentimental or trite, but I think I feel better about myself when I'm immersed in sunlight. I'm the first driver every spring to roll down the windows and drape an arm on the door frame, the first kid in school to attempt wearing t-shirts. My birdstyle is the darkest one, so it soaks up sunlight fastest, warms to my body and surrounds me as if it's another soul.
Lucy's asleep as the sun starts to rise. She fell asleep while I waited for her to say something else, only she didn't. I lean forward against the wheel and let some of the light fall across my cheeks. I'm tired. I have no idea how good my judgment is any longer. When I get on the Phoenix tonight, I'm going to lock myself in one of the back rooms and sleep straight through to New York. Or I can ride in the bubble, birdstyle wings spread on the top of the plane, sunlight pouring through the glass and heating the still air while the ship screams through the atmosphere. I can take off the helmet and let the sun streak my hair. I can stay up there so long I worry the others, and when they lower the hatch to see if I'm all right, I can be asleep.
I'm still driving. It's morning, and we've gotten so much closer to the end of the race. We've passed other cars along the way, and while I'm not certain we're out in front, I know we're up there. Definitely in the top five, maybe higher than that.
Lucy slept jammed against the door, her jacket thrown over her red tank top, her knees tucked against her chest. I don't know if I could sleep that way, but she's awakened by now and seems in good condition. I noticed her as she stirred and reached for a sandwich and some of the soda, but I didn't say anything. She's looking at me uncertainly. As we pass an arid skeleton on a dusty hilltop, she follows it with her eyes. "I shouldn't have told you how I feel."
"Why not?" I'm calm. I've had time to think. I love to drive at night with a clear sky and an open road, when the universe becomes four walls I can touch and the future is expressed entirely in twenty-five feet of headlight.
"Because." She opens the window and gets a blast of dry air, so she shuts it again. "Because I shouldn't have."
I squint at her. She's looking me in the eyes. "Me?" I say.
"There are bugs in the car," she says. "I pulled out as many as I could find, but I know these folks too well."
"I figured as much," I say. "A car-bomb also?"
She's a little nervous, but she shakes her head. "No. I'm supposed to survive this --was supposed to survive. They may not let me now. I--"
"Go on," I say. "You were hoping the ISO would be stupid enough to send the G-2 driver, and you could nail him."
"And you had no intention of leaving Galactor?" I'm hesitant.
"I want to leave," she says. "I want you to take me away and protect me. I was telling you the truth on the phone, even if it was what they wanted me to say. I want to see my father again. I want to see my sisters."
I chuckle. "Do you want to see your nephew?"
Lucy sits upright. "Cassie had a baby?"
"Six months pregnant."
Her eyes have brightened. "Really? You're telling me the truth?"
I sigh with mock injury.
"When can I see her?"
"When you get home--she didn't feel up to making the trip out here or she'd have been on the plane with me."
"Woah." Lucy smiles as she finishes off her can of Jolt and tosses it in the back. "I just hope I live long enough to see the kid."
"The ISO will protect you," I say.
"I don't think they can protect me from myself." Her eyes are dull suddenly. "I'm a ticking bomb, Jason."
"So you've made mistakes." I smile at her. "We've all made mistakes."
"Not like I have."
Not like I have, either. If I had responded that day, would you have left home?
I notice in the rear-view mirror a flock of vultures heading towards us; not circling--they're heading toward us in an arrow formation. "Crud." I try to pick up the pace, but they've begun firing on us. The Corvette gets knocked around a bit on the loose sand, but when I've got the car steady again, I can hear the cavalry coming to the rescue: the Phoenix is knocking out the vultures, and I use the time to head for one of the canyons ahead. One of the vultures crashes to the ground beside the car, and Lucy stares at it for a moment, pale as the two-part poison releases and begins consuming the feathers, the thrashing wings and gleaming metal. "Help me, damn it!" I shout at her, as we reach the canyons. Lucy spreads the map on her knees and she calls directions. I take one turn after the next, hoping she's a good map-reader. After three turns, we pick up the hyenas.
Robotic hyenas--I respect Spectra's commitment to nature, but I'd have installed a car bomb and sacrificed one assassin/traitor in exchange for the ISO agent. I try to outdistance them, but these cybernetically enhanced critters are outrunning the Corvette. They're jumping onto the car and clinging to the roof. Even the Phoenix can't help me here--in the canyons, we're sheltered from the vultures, but we're also sheltered from my teammates. I take a sharp turn, and Lucy sits upright. "This road ends up ahead!"
"Shit." I gun the engine, though, because I see what she doesn't--a washed-out bridge. I may be able to take the car over the jump. I'd definitely be able to do it in the G-2, and I'd even have attempted it in Sweetheart. This car I'm not so sure I know, but I have no choice. We make the jump. The pursuers stay behind, either waiting at the edge or losing their grip on the car and plunging into the gorge. We land, the car scraping and protesting but otherwise in good condition, meaning it runs. We didn't leave our transmission on the ground, and the suspension even seems to have withstood the jump.
Lucy's jumping in her seat. "That was beautiful driving, partner!"
"It's not over yet." I've seen the maps for this part, and as we leave the canyons, I see two cars ahead of us. All we need to do is pass them, and we'll win.
Some rally drivers won't talk while they're racing--you can have some of the most boring times of your life partnered with one of those zombies. Lucy, on the other hand, hasn't run out of stories yet. I've been fighting for every inch with the two cars before us, trading positions every so often, and Lucy says, "Remember my sister's wedding?"
I say, "Your sister got married?" and get slapped in the arm as I laugh.
"I was just remembering how Tiny was so into that bones thing."
I burst out laughing. At Cassie's wedding, Tiny and Lucy and I had started to discuss philosophy--the type of philosophy you get real good at when your blood alcohol hits twice the legal limit. "I said something sage about cracking your knuckles, right?"
"That's right." Lucy turns and makes a face at one of the other drivers, then brings her gaze back into the car. "You were the idiot who thought cracking your knuckles--"
"--Causes arthritis. My grandmother had it herself, I think, so she must have known."
"You're out of your mind. There've been scientific studies proving no such thing."
"So you said at the time," I say. "As I recall, your words were 'only idiots think that.'"
"And your brother was so blasted that he said, 'No wonder Jason believes it!' and then you hit him and knocked him into the table."
I'm laughing by now. "At least I wasn't the lush who said I could crack every joint in my body and proceeded to demonstrate."
Lucy's got tears in her eyes. "And you looked on disdainfully, saying 'I want no part of rendering you a crippled 85 year old,' but Tiny started listing body parts."
"And you did requests." I'm shaking with laughter; it's gotten hard to concentrate on the race, so I try to focus again, but all I can think about now was this memory I'd totally forgotten. "And Tiny came up with one he thought you couldn't crack--the joints in the neck." Lucy's about to do it right there in the car, and I notice in time. "Please--I think I'll run us off the road if you do it here."
She tucks her knees up on the seat and rolls her eyes. "Spoilsport. It wasn't all that hard--just grab your chin with your arm over the top of your head and yank to the side."
I shake my head. "I thought every bone in your neck had popped and that if I looked behind you I'd find a small pile of vertebrae."
Lucy collapses in her seat as if she's a marionette with its strings dropped. "I thought I'd broken my own neck."
My eyes are narrow. "You never found out what happened afterward." Lucy sits up and waits for me to finish the story.
I didn't remember the incident the next day, or the next, but three weeks later, Tiny still did. The tail end of the school year. The teachers started using up their sick days for the contagious disease of wanting to go out and enjoy the spring sunshine--Lucy knows all about this and laughs. So many public school teachers catch the sickness every May that there aren't enough subs to cover, so we get to sit in the library. The last week of class becomes a long study hall for those of us with less scrupulous teachers who've gotten tired of being screwed by the system and want to screw it in turn.
One day, by sixth period, I had already endured two study halls and so had Tiny. The overworked librarian was snappish and frazzled, and she'd already sent five kids down to the principal's office for misbehaving. Tiny and I sat together and tried to catch up on readings we'd skipped earlier in the year, but the stuff's drier than dust, and both of us had surrendered: we played hangman, and the girl across the table had cut apart two pieces of notebook paper to make an Othello board and lots of Othello pieces. It was my junior year, Tiny's sophomore. During sixth period, Mark's class got shafted also, but he took a table across the library from us, about thirty seats away--he knows us too well.
Tiny's classmates relayed to him the horrible truth: he'd be staying for seventh period as well. I knew my seventh period had ducked out, but I didn't mind that much. The Othello girl was cute and had started passing notes with me. Tiny grinned, and I stared back.
In a wearied, monotonous voice, the librarian announced shortly before the bell would ring which classes should remain, and when she reached Tiny's, he shouted, "No! Not another period of study hall!"
Everyone looked at him as he screamed, "I just can't take it any more!" and reached over his head, grabbed himself by the chin, and yanked hard enough to pop the joints.
An audible crack. Tiny collapsed face-down on the desk, and with my loudest gasp, I leaped to my feet. "My God! He broke his own neck!"
Across the library, Mark had jumped as well. "Tiny! Tiny! Man, don't do this to yourself! You have so much to live for!"
If Mark kept going, it got lost in the general chaos--I was laughing so hard I fell back to my seat. Even Tiny was roused from death to start laughing. The bell rang, and the librarian tried to shout instructions over the sliding chairs and rustling papers, and I kept laughing.
Ten minutes later, in the vice principal's office, it still seemed funny. When the Chief arrived in another fifteen, it diminished. He looked grimly at the three of us, who did our best to look properly abashed and penitent. The dour, bland expression only intensified the more the vice principal explained the situation, and finally he said, "I'll be sure to deal properly with them." He took us out to the car, still austere, and after he'd locked us in, went around to the driver's side. Tiny and I tried to keep still and quiet. Mark whispered, "You guys always get me in trouble."
The Chief got into his seat, slid his key into the ignition, and then began laughing so hard he couldn't start the car. The three of us stared. The man laughed so much he cried, and that's the truth. Tiny cracked up too, and that set off me and Mark. When he did start the car, all the Chief said was, "I can't say I'd have done the same to get out of study hall."
My first impulse had been to call Lucy, but she'd run away a week earlier. I got home and called Cassie instead, leaving a message on her machine. When she heard the story, her first impulse was also to tell Lucy. But I've told her now, and she's laughing into her hands with her blond hair glistening in the sunlight.
We win! Lucy's got the hugest smile, and she's bouncing around. The officials have to verify the time cards and such, so there's time until it's certain, but we're busy. The ISO crew who's supposed to be sharing in our victory glory gets one look at our car and tells us to "wash it the hell off" ourselves. It's covered in mud and sand and, as they say, "elephant turds," and we track down a hose and a soft brush. I'm scrubbing while Lucy's hosing, only somehow she misses and hoses me, and somehow I lose my grip on the bucket and give her an impromptu bath. I guess your hands are more prone to slip when they've been wet. We change out of our muddy, sweaty, soaking clothes into more presentable attire.
We sit on top of our clean car in clean clothes for the photos, and I notice Mark and Princess in the crowd. I assume Tiny and Keyop have us under surveillance from above. I relax. We won--the smile is unbidden and unrestrainable. Lucy slides closer to me and puts her arm around my waist as we wave at the crowd. She's trembling. We're presented with the trophy, and she lets go of me to take it, braces it on her lap and then grabs the envelope. That easily, we're richer. I forgot to ask Lucy how much we supposedly get for winning, but I assume it'll help take care of textbooks and car insurance.
Afterward, the car gets stashed in the garage, and I offer to treat Lucy to dinner. We have no idea what's a decent place, so we ask for a secluded table in the restaurant on the second floor of the hotel where the race officials set up rooms for all the drivers. We won't stay, but I figure we deserve at least the meal before Lucy gets escorted to New York by an armed guard.
She looks preoccupied, not the careless girl I sat beside at Cassie's wedding. Then, fifteen months ago, she sat with me and Sanders and Tiny, and with laughter in her eyes she asked if it was possible to know who you loved when you're sixteen. Tiny and I both said yes, Sanders said no. "Cassie and John dated on and off since she was sixteen," Lucy told us.
"But she didn't marry him then," Sanders said. "It depends on the person--I married at twenty six and it was too early, but some people make it work."
"It's not as if you have a choice," Lucy said. "You just fall in love, that's it."
"You can discourage the tendency," Sanders said. "It is a choice. Sometimes you feel like you're in love even when you know it's the wrong person, and then it's your duty to resist it."
I said, "And sometimes people just don't admit it because the person's already taken or because the person's off limits, like a sister."
Tiny sighed. "At least you've had girlfriends."
"You've got time," Sanders told him. "Sixteen's too young for marriage."
"I'll be seventeen in two weeks," I said. "Then I'll know it all."
Lucy's seventeen now. She's six months younger than I am. And I'm eighteen. Cassie's twenty five.
Lucy looks at me with worried eyes. I break the silence by telling her I have every intention of racing with her again.
"There's something I need to tell you," she says.
I gesture idly with one hand. "That you were assigned to kill me? I guessed that. But I think you quit that during the race, right?"
Lucy shudders. "Right at the beginning." Her eyes drop. "Zoltar bet I'd get the G-2, but when he heard your name, he realized you must be Chief Anderson's kid, and he told me to kill you anyhow. He wanted me to go through several attacks with you so you felt closer to me, then get out of you the location of Center Neptune and the IDs of G-Force. After the second night, I was to kill you regardless. I tried, but--I mean, I'm not human any longer, I'm not real, I'm not the girl you remember, but I couldn't--"
"It's all right," I say. "The ISO can protect you. It won't be easy, but they can."
"But you knew?" Lucy's eyes widen. "And you didn't leave?"
I nod. "You can forget about Spectra now."
She's shaking. "No--there's something else--"
And she gasps.
I'm beside her in an instant, although no one else is paying attention to the secluded corner.
"Are you choking?" I say. "What's wrong?"
Her skin's hot to the touch--she's burning. My hands hurt as I hold her arms. She grabs at a glass and it shatters in her fingers, but she's not bleeding, and she's still gasping. "I tried to say," and she coughs, pauses, whispers, "I'm a robot."
"No," I say. "Lucy, it's you--Spectra's doing this to your mind."
Her skin is too hot to hold. It's melting off her, loose on what I feel now are metal joints. She gets up from the table and runs from the restaurant. I follow, but she's so fast--in birdstyle I'd be able to catch her, but not as me. She jumps into--through--the outer wall and lands on the sidewalk with a smash, a shattering sound. I stick my head out, then jump to the ground.
Lucy's twisting on the ground, and I grab her into my arms. The flesh has dissolved by now, leaving exposed circuitry and the bone it's been fused to. I can't tell what of her is alive, if she can hear or see or feel. "Lucy," I say, "you are real. You're the girl I remember."
All the connective tissue holding the cyborg parts to one another has dissolved, eaten by the two part poison encapsulated in her circuitry, kept for release in an instant. Spectra--if they couldn't have her, we couldn't either. Remote control. Distant destructive electric impulses and a gloved finger on a button. You can improve upon nature. You can insure no one betrays you.
The acid takes a longer time to eat through the metal. My arms and hands have turned pink with the burn of the milder acid, but without any cybernetics it can't become the fully realized corrosive substance. I'll have to wash it off, but right now I stand over a pile of waste metal. Lucy. Lucy.
A cyborg. She didn't even know what to call herself.
How am I going to tell Cassie?
Mark and Princess probably had me under surveillance even as Spectra had Lucy. I'm sure they saw, and I know if I stand here they'll come talk to me, try to say something inane about how she "overcame her evil programming" or whatever, as if cyborgs were never human, and it'll make me sick. So I go. I walk. There's a garage and a Corvette I need to see.
No car bomb, and it didn't self-destruct when she did. Lucy's bag and mine remain in the back. I'm careful about opening hers--I find the remains of chocolate wrappers and some undrunk soda. And on the bottom, beneath the cardboard vinyl liner, is a packet of papers beginning with "Spectra installations on Earth" in a handwriting eerily like Cassie's. It goes into my bag. I leave the chocolate and the soda. I drive the Corvette west into the desert. A Galactor car, it's probably bugged inside and out with tracking devices and minicams and recorders. I can't trust it again. It was Lucy's. At the edge of one of the canyons, I set it in neutral and give it a push.
"Are you using all your muscle?" "You try, supergirl."
The car rocks a bit, then picks up momentum, and it rolls over the edge. I take my bag and turn my back to the sunlight. When I get closer to the city, I'll radio the Phoenix and arrange a pickup, but for now it's enough to walk across Africa.