8360 words, novelette
Falling in Love with Martians and Machines
I can’t deny the thrill of the race circuit. I like being at his side as he balances on the edge of cryogenics and fireball. But I can never honestly claim to have fallen in love until the day the Martians arrive.
The internal combustion heart of Chromium Jim’s hot rod glows blue under top gear temperatures but he hasn’t even lit off the torch yet for full speed, coming around the quarter loop. I’m watching him through 10x binocs, just a heat-shimmer against the interstate asphalt from this far out. He’s trailing the pack far enough to stay out of their blast cones as they each ignite afterburner chambers and rocket down the straightaways, fighting for first. They’re just specks but I know what it looks like and sounds like and feels like in the front seats of Jim’s rig. The engine screaming its metal fatigue, chassis losing coherence from the vibration, you can imagine the body becomes transparent, you’re looking right through the edges, the car sliding sideways through a turn, omnidirectional steering like a lake of ice. I know all this because Jim used to take me with him when he was still clawing up through the small town circuits, back when extra weight wasn’t a deciding factor.
Then I finally see the back of his hot rod flare blue-green as he sprints to catch up. I turn away from the race. Need to prep the pit. He used to take me with him but when he leveled up, things that were not previously important suddenly were. I had to look a certain way. I had to do certain things. Fuel-to-weight ratios became the consuming obsession in lieu of date nights and he wouldn’t waste money dragging a pitman around on a cross-country tour. Pennies and pounds were counted. Chromium Jim is a big man and no amount of weight loss is going to convince him to stuff me in the passenger-side well just to witness. He used to take me with him but now he needs me to stand on the line at the start of every race, unhook my bra and pull it out my sleeve holes, drop it to set the boys off.
Hardly even time to watch them leave because I have to cut across the brown medians and get to the pit before Jim does, else he’ll die. The other racers are conserving their fuel after that hard burn ‘cause if they sputter out mid-track their hearts will stall. He’s timed it perfectly, as always—this is how he’s made it up from the dirt of failing cotton farmland to the straight and narrow of smoking asphalt, one overtake at a time. The heat of the pack has rarefied the air around him, thinned the atmosphere he has to fight through when his rocket ignites. Gives him a better acceleration curve. Gives him fuel to spare when he matches their velocity. He’s locked down his blower, gone full internal oxidizer, cutting up the inside of the other eight cars which have their blowers wide open because they’re trying to stretch the last of their LOx.
They’re strung tight together, bumpers overlapping, and all the leader has to do is twitch left to get the whole following herd to run Chromium Jim into a ditch. Jim passes one two three cars and he’s looking for a gap halfway. Should be impossible but he’s still got his burner at max and the psychological flare of it is hard to prep against. The driver of the fourth car flinches to the right as Jim scorches the paint on his driver-side door and a millimeter opens, all that Chromium Jim needs to cut through. His flames play over the faces of the entire back half of the pack and their blowers get a lungful of toxic fume. The engines cough, and every cough is another half second added to his lead.
Then he cuts back across the nose and does the same thing to the field leaders. The whole thing happens in a flash: Jim’s metallic green rocket rig travels the length in the time it takes to say the “holy” part of “holy shit.”
They’re bearing down on us at the pit, Jim way out in front. His flame’s off now ‘cause his tanks are tapped out and he’s relying on what’s left in his veins to get him to me. He spots me in the dark. The extra juice flowing through his head sharpens everything, brightens it, slows it down. They call it “counting angels.” He tries to describe it to me some nights when we lie sleepless side-by-side. Says it’s like seeing the doppler shift of every star all at once. Like being able to hear earthworms. I wouldn’t know.
Then I hear the noise change. Jim’s engine cuts off completely. He’s coasting, out of fuel, a couple hundred yards from the pit. I count the seconds because every one without fuel is one with his heart stopped. His rig hits the wire at the approach and it rips the two empty tanks out the undercarriage. They slam safely into a pothole I’d spent all morning widening with trench tools and filling with sand. Jim aims at the reload ramp. He has to hit it dead on and he’s still flying well over two hundred but this is a piece of cake to him now. How many times have we done this in practice laps and the real thing? The reloader isn’t anything fancy—we welded it ourselves out of a couple metal pipes in an obtuse angle. Drive the car over the short uprights like stepping on a rake and the long bar lifts to slam two fresh tanks up into the empty racks. The front tires pass on either side of the long arm. I barely have time to hold my breath—Jim needs to hit it at just the right speed. Too slow and the tanks’ll punch through the floorboards and up his ass. Too fast and the lever will launch the whole rear of the car clear off the ground, flip him over his own hood.
As it is the tanks go in, autovalves seal shut, the rear tires pop up for a heart-stopping heartbeat, nose grinding pavement. Then the fuel flows again, shocks his heart. The engine roars. The rocket lights, bringing him back down to earth with enough force to bottom out the rig’s frame. Worry about that later. Me and the other crews shelter in sandbag bunkers as the rest of the pack screams through. None of the competition’s brave enough to go in and out as fast as Chromium Jim. A fraction of an angle off, even on the fancy automatic ramps that some of the flashier drivers can afford, and you’ve got mushroom cloud. Soon as they’re past I’m running for the wire to drag Jim’s empties off the track. I’m wearing a monochrome plaid shirt with sleeves burned to ribbons from cradling so many hot discarded body parts like these time and again.
One of the cars does something wrong a quarter mile away. Stomps too hard on the gas before the fresh tanks settle correctly, gets his blood pressure up too high, blows a valve, grenades his heart, something. A flash and a bang, the interior of the car suddenly all fire. His crewmen jump the barriers, rushing in with chemical foam spray. Jim’s got no crew. Jim’s just got me and I have to think what I’d grab first in the event of a fire. Our expired fire extinguisher, effective as pissing on a volcano? Chromium Jim’s pints of blood cooling on a hard pack of motel machine-made ice in the bed of his truck? Or would I just get more fuel to throw on the fire?
Hard to say.
Chromium Jim slides into the last turn and he’s got so much fuel left that he needn’t even bother with brakes. Instead he slews around into a turnover, his rocket exhaust like a perfect triangle, drifting until vectors cancel out and he’s heading in a new direction. The closest thing on this good gray earth to flying in space. I’m running again back across the median to the stripe. Stripping off my checkered shirt and waving it just as Jim blows past. It’s what he needs to see when he crosses the line. Spins his rig 360 and thrusts until he’s killed his velocity, coming to rest right next to his pickup, door-to-door. I throw the shirt on over my shoulders, no time to button it up, and sprint to meet him. This is what he wants, for the other crews to see me like this. The engine cackles while he waits. I wrench open the driver’s door. Chromium Jim is cold as death inside even though the compartment has become a crematorium. It smells like rocket fuel from where capillaries broke in his eyes and cheeks and propellant leaked out. I untangle medical tubing from the truck, hook needles into the crooks of his arms. Flip the switch on a centrifuge. Cryogenic fluid gets drawn out of his veins. Blood gets drawn in.
I killswitch the engine. The screaming finally stops but it’ll be hours before I can hear properly again. The long delicate process of extracting Chromium Jim from the car’s systems. Unhook his tendons from the steering linkage and gearbox. Disconnect his eyes. His skullplate. Remove the breathing tube from the intake. And, of course, change the fluids.
Leave him to thaw while I tidy up. I button myself back up with one hand and run the other down the flank of the car, feeling sharp fresh bullet holes. Some other driver playing dirty. I shovel the ice out of the truck bed and load our tools. Empty the sandbags and stack the burlap. Then I reach across Jim’s body to steer so I can push the car’s front wheels up onto the tow bar hanging off the truck’s rear bumper. Minus all its fuel, the rig rolls easily on its bearings and gimbals.
Chromium Jim’s eyes swivel like those bearings and lock with mine. “Good job,” he whispers, reaching a hand for help out of the driver’s seat. Despite his name he’s as human as I am, weak as flesh right now, leaning hard on my shoulder. “Let’s go get our money.”
I stick a sharpened flathead screwdriver in my back pocket, handle-up for quick grabbin’, and we walk to where the pack is clustered, scowling and arms crossed.
I drive the pickup the next morning while Chromium Jim sleeps with his head up against the passenger window. “North,” he’d said as we skipped this crossroads town. When I ask why he says that the war has gone polar and all the rocket jocks are being redeployed to launch sites at the highest possible latitudes which means missile silos and AFBs along the Manitoba border and in Alaska. But we can’t get to Alaska without stopping first to win more fuel.
I can handle the drive all right by myself. There’s no other traffic except electric long-haul trucks, just smart enough to not hit anything directly in front of them but they’re driving through dead space, wide-open razed farmland. With the pickup’s cruise control and lane assist engaged I can half-close my eyes and keep a single finger on the wheel. The truck won’t feel anything smaller than a deer and there’s nothing for deer to eat ‘round here anymore.
It’s dark when we reach the military town where Jim wants to set up so the neon scribble hieroglyphs of its strip clubs, payday loans, and fast food is a thousand percent more effective. Jim is on his phone, scouting. A series of calls, text messages, and BBS trawling finally snags us rented garage space on a street way off the main drag. There are four other rigs in four other slots in various levels of assemblage but none look fit to take on Chromium Jim’s Big Green Monster. I back the truck into our allotted bay and hop out. The floor supervisor comes over to shake our hands.
“I’m Chromium Jim,” says Chromium Jim.
“Oh, I know,” says the other man, pumping Jim’s hand up and down. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Jim says to me, “C’mere, Babe,” and then says to the floor supervisor, “This is Babe.” The floor supervisor shakes my hand, too, a lot more delicately than Jim’s. He doesn’t say anything but nods politely.
The floor supervisor points out an army cot folded up behind our workbench, says we can use it, shows us the his and hers toilets and shower stalls. I’m inured to the grease stains on everything, the acrid acetylene smell, the din of other crews in an echoing shared space. Everywhere we go it’s all the same. I could unfold the cot right now and curl up asleep in under a minute, numb to the noise and stink.
But instead I hook my arm into Jim’s and drag him from the grease monkeys who’ve gathered around his rig seeking war stories. “I wanna go out,” I say to him.
Recognize the look in his ruptured eyes. Still on the comedown from the last race and hasn’t secured a challenger to excite him for the next one. The look of irritable hunger. He shakes me off. “Not right now.”
“Couple hours to get ready. We’ve been on the road for seven straight days, sleeping under overpasses. I wanna see real city lights. I want to see people.”
Chromium Jim fits a couple fingers in a bullet hole. “These’ll need to be patched. Repaint.”
“Find yourself someone to race, then I’ll work on the damned car. Hit a few bars, scope the competition. Use your fresh bragging rights.” I wave a hand at the dirty vignette over his shoulder. “Unless you’re planning to take these bottom dollars? For what? Pocket change and pink slips? Can’t buy a lot of space suits with that.”
I’ve hit him right in the what he wants, I know that. I can see that. Jim turns away and mutters, “Fine. Two hours.”
It takes that long to wash seven days out of my hair and dry it again, steam my only dress in the shower’s fog, shave all the potentially visible parts based on my optimism, do make up that’ll hold up in harsh artificial light like making myself pretty for film, making love to the camera, dating a machine. I cement thick lacquer fakes to my nail beds because my naturals are so softened soaked in oil that they slide right off the ends of my fingers at night and I wake up to them scattered across my pillows like fish scales, ten spots of blood on the sheets.
I pack a small handbag and loop it around my wrist: antacids, electrolyte pills, aspirin, birth control. I take only enough cash for cab fare. I don’t pay for my own drinks.
Chromium Jim hails a ride to the near end of downtown’s main strip. We leave the truck behind; I’m planning on sinking a pint of tequila myself, and Jim is still in no condition to drive anything. His hands can’t open and his feet are swollen like rising bread. We’re lit by blues and pinks and greens and yellows. “Look at all this!” I squeal as we enter a packed bar. Hot rods rumble up and down the street, blaring music and tuned exhaust, the drivers catcalling girls on the sidewalk. Low-flying aircraft regularly pass overhead on the way to and from the AFB.
It’s a military boomtown, full of the young and fit. Jim pushes through the crowd which parts aside when they see his racer’s stripes and other body mods. Pretty soon Jim has a seat, and a beer on the table in front of him, and at least two prowling woman indicating interest. I drift alone to the end of the bar and accept shots as they come. After an hour, heels killing me, I prop up on the lap of a friendly stranger. He says his name is Reiki Gunpowder. I say, “Ricky?” and he says no and spells it for me. Then follows an earnest story about how Gunpowder isn’t his actual name it’s his squadron call sign, details of which I miss because I’m flagging down the bartender for another Cuervo rocks.
“Get this for me, will ya?” I ask Reiki when it slides to a stop in front of me.
“So that guy you came in with. Your boyfriend?”
“Yeah?” Chromium Jim ‘roided so hard during basic that he went bald but Reiki has beautiful thick black hair that I can fantasize running my hands through.
“He’s a driver?”
“What?” I scream over someone’s party mix.
Reiki sketches the shape of a skullplate with one finger near his temple. “Drive? Race cars?”
Yes, Reiki Gunpowder and Chromium Jim have the same holes in their heads but a military surgical bot made Reiki’s incision. Military drugs extinguished that inflammation. Military growth hormones promoted healing and erased that scar, and a taxpayer-paid milspec flesh replacement gasket holds the cover plate tight under all that hair now. I nod.
“And he’s good?”
I nod again.
“Then why doesn’t he join up and fly sabers with us? Beats drag racing any day.”
“Some kind of injury,” I say. “He washed out.” That’s what he told me, some vague, undefined wound whose scars I look for whenever Chromium Jim undresses in the light, or feel for in the dark those rare times he falls asleep.
I try to spot Jim across the room but he’s lost and anonymous in the crush of strange faces. Never a place where anyone knows your name. “Cheers,” Reiki says.
“I want to go dancing,” I shout in his ear. “You wanna get out of here?”
“Sure, I know a good place. I’ll close out.”
“Lemme tell him I’m leaving.” I hop off and squeeze through to Chromium Jim’s table. He’s seen it all. He looks at me for a long minute then turns to the girl on his left and asks, “You ever hear the story of Sally Dune and Kid Luck?”
Christ, not the Kid Luck story again. The girl shakes her head. “Sally and the Kid were street racers, living in the same town. Constantly circling around each other, building up skills until there was no one left in their small pool to race ‘cept each other. So Sally Dune and Kid Luck go out to the abandoned highway together each with a crowd to cheer them on. And they race. And Kid Luck wins. It’s close, but it’s clear and it’s fair and nobody in either group disputes it. The Kid drives home in Sally’s car, tells her she can mail him the pink slip.
“Kid Luck’s driving his new flashy car around. Everyone knows it, hard to miss. Days go by. He’s checking the mail every evening. Maybe he cruises by Sally Dune’s house real slow at night. She’s not sending him the title. Instead, she’s waiting for an important day, one that the Kid has been looking forward to for years: the day he can sign up for Air Academy. His shot out of there, a chance to use his honed racing reflexes to pilot fighter spacecraft and leave not only this shitty town but also the entire shitty planet. So she waits right up until the night he’s supposed to report in and she calls the police to report a stolen vehicle.
“Of course they pick him up. I mean, they can’t miss him and of course he can’t prove ownership so he’s sitting in a locked cell the next day, missing his recruitment window. Can’t even get in to see a judge. Doesn’t matter if the charges stick or not he’s in there doing dead time while the whole new class of fighter pilots gets swept up in Space Command’s loving embrace, including all the local drag racers he knows including Sally Dune. Locked up while a better world passes him by.
“Well Sally Dune is leaving Earth soon, what’s she need with a car? So she sells her roadster while Kid Luck is still locked up, that way he can’t come after her to try and recover it. Sally takes that cash and hires someone to meet the Kid soon as he gets out and right there on the sidewalk in front of the police station that someone breaks his right arm and right knee. That’s his gear and gas. No way he’s ever following Sally Dune now. The kind of compound breaks that don’t heal right so the Air Academy medics send you home to sit out the pain alone by yourself.”
I got my arms crossed ‘cause I’ve heard it all before and know what he’s getting at. He looks right at me and says, “You all think pilots are hot shit, but they ain’t nothing. Look at your flyboy over there. The amount of petrochem they circulate through him on a regular basis, he’s not getting near half-hard for anything less than Mach 1.”
Leaning close, I spit out: “Fuck off, Jim. Your dick hasn’t worked right since the last land war.”
Close enough for the girl to hear it, too, over the club noise. He’s given me just a good enough exit line to spin on my heel, grab Reiki’s hand, escape. Outside, I’m still spinning as Reiki puts me in his hot rod, maraschino red. “Can we just drive around for a bit?” I say after the first few blocks with the top down. “Could use the air.” Feels good to be up front with a strong engine trembling beneath me, something I haven’t felt all year. Reiki’s rig is flashier than Jim’s Green Monster. Has some expensive options like blood tanks behind the driver’s seat to pump him back to health in case of mid-race emergency.
Reiki Gunpowder parks on an overlook where we can watch the spaceport night launches. Each booster rocket carries an entire squadron of fighters to orbit. I recognize their sharp shapes from the fat technical manuals that Jim carts around. Sabre Lux models, they’re called. Making new stars in the vast empty sky directly above us. “This what you usually do when you’re not up there shooting space commies? Trawl for out-of-towners and neck with them here? Got a whole routine?” The rockets reach apex and second-stage separation. The spearhead spacefighters split apart like the petals of a blooming flower. I could do all that, I think, running my fingers along the rig’s metal frame. I could use this technology, use these skills, for more than just dick-swinging and military violence.
Reiki drapes his arm around my seat back and laughs easily. “Never done any shooting. I run supplies between here and Lunar Control.”
I feel my heartbeat pick up. I feel his fingertips brush the back of my neck. “You’ve been to the moon?”
“Flown convoys around the far side.” He makes finger guns and laser noises. “Pretty safe job. The war’s mostly about blinding satellites in low Earth orbit so nothing much happens once you break past geosynchronous.” More fingertips, definitely un-accidental contact. “How about you? Where have you been?”
I feign looking away. “Around.”
“Where you coming from? You from one of those cultural dustbowl states, drawn to city lights? Nothing much to do but run out and never look back, right? Yeah, I know. I’ve been to those towns.”
“I’m from Florida,” I say. No dust there. Not much land in general. Just high concrete bridges where one can stand by the road in an off-shoulder crop and a skirt that rides high on the thigh and see who slows down to take a look. Hot rodders barely slow, but enough at least to hop in. “What’s the dark side look like?”
“It’s not dark, even when there’s no sun. Got so many launch sites it’s lit up like a lightbulb.” He’s leaning very close to me now. The neon face of the moon on the horizon crawls with surface traffic. Chromium Jim’s got a spot picked out among all those lights which he points out whenever we can see it. Gonna get a berth there, he says. Build a new rig, one suited to vacuum and clean out all the frontline fighters, the real top-notch hot rodders, one race at a time until he rules that moon. Until he can drive up its tallest peak and look way way down at all the shitty places he’s left behind.
Jim’s hands are little good for dexterity work anymore so I’m always helping him draft blueprints for new racing rigs of his own—he says—revolutionary designs. Fuel mixtures that push the safety margins. A chassis large enough to accommodate a fully pressurized space suit. Cost analyses. Never in the bottom line do I see a budget for a second pressure suit.
Reiki Gunpowder aims his mouth at mine like a weapons lock. Like he knows exactly what he’s doing. Never been shooting, my ass. I get out of the kiss the way I usually do, by hanging over the edge of the door and puking up tequila. “Oh no, sorry,” I slur. Turn back without wiping my mouth. “I hope I didn’t ruin your paint.”
To his credit and military discipline he just chuckles and pats me so high on my leg that my crotch feels heat through thin fabric. He turns the car around and drops me at the workshop. My goodbye’s curt but Reiki still manages to sneak in a kiss on the cheek and a quick grope across the chest. I fumble the door, stumble through the garage, tumble to the cot.
And awake late the next morning with still no sign of Chromium Jim. The best way past a hangover is to suck oxygen from a tank while tuning the racing rig so Jim finds me flat on my back under the bulk of the car when he finally returns. No mention of last night. “Find any takers?” I ask. I already know the answer. I saw the way the space jockeys simply turned away from Jim’s presence in the bar.
“Not a single one. Town full of cowards. Think a road race is beneath them now that they’ve broken gravity. Not a single pair of balls among them.”
I think of the scrap of paper with Reiki’s number on it tucked in my purse. “Almost done here. I can go out after and pick up some competition so we can pay for these parts.”
He’s shaking, turning red. “This town is a bust. We need to keep pushing up, skip out tonight for Alaska.”
I imagine the vast distance between here and Anchorage and get scared. He’s got just enough rocket fuel left to leave us stranded. I slam tools into their metal box. “We just got here! Give it even a chance first before you give up.”
He sneers. “I’m wasting my time and money. Nobody’s good enough.”
“Yeah, you’ve made that abundantly clear.” I rip open my purse and dump it out on the cot. Throw Reiki’s crumpled number at his face. “Why don’t you try this if you think you’ve got the balls,” I scream, and storm out on him. I make it seven blocks before I calm enough to recall the number, dial Reiki, and have him pick me up. Nobody will dare be first to accept Jim’s challenge, but they call it a pack for a reason. Convince a leader, and you’ve got a ready-made betting pool.
Reiki gets enough of my silent mood, shooting glances as we rumble through town, to ask, “Boy trouble?”
“All trouble ever is.”
“He forget your anniversary or something?”
What, the anniversary of the day he picked me from the side of the road like a salvageable spare part? “He just has a specific vision of his world plotted out and there’s no room in it for anyone else. Eyes on the prize, straight ahead, no looking left or right. Definitely no looking back.”
“So why stay with him?”
“He’s mobile. If I can’t find what I’m looking for wherever we are maybe he can take me somewhere I can.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Not sure.” I look directly in his eyes and say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” I see the moon is still out. I’m certain that’s not it.
After a few miles Reiki Gunpowder asks, “You want to drive?”
Shake my head. “I’m fine with being a passenger.” So long as it’s in the right direction.
But he says, “Come on, go ahead. I’ll pull over just here. You ever drive anything like this? That fella of yours ever let you drive his?”
That does it. I go cold. “Fine, pull the fuck over.” He gets out, I slide over. Adjust the steering and drum my fingers on the wheel until he settles. The engine shakes with the sound of a jungle cat, like a puma. Soon as his door clicks shut I rack the gear, drop the throttle, and the ball wheels turn into clouds of smoke. The car can feel the angerlust through my grip and it responds like a spooked animal. Reiki Gunpowder is too used to acceleration to be much surprised but he’s also, I can see, used to being in control, doesn’t know how to be a passenger. City corners at an easy 80 using the razor-thin touch I’ve learned from Chromium Jim. Hardly anyone on the street even twitches an eye—enough supersonic objects go tearing through their space at all altitudes every day. If you’re not breaking windows, you aren’t breaking speed laws.
The car spins left, spins right. I put it into a right-hand turn like a mad teacup to thread the concrete posts of a Motel 6 parking lot and to press Reiki Gunpowder’s body right up against my side. Sticky tar smell from softened tires when I pull to a halt and throw it in park. I catch hold of Reiki’s jaw between my fingers and say, “Well. Here we are.”
Reiki Gunpowder gets a room with his military housing vouchers. This is a boomtown and the existing base barracks can’t handle the incoming human tide. Airmen and marines and spacecorps pukes are shoehorned into every boarding house, hotel, and dormitory they can find. I follow Reiki into our room. His fingers are fast and nimble. Everything works perfectly. I can’t help but compare their bodies like I compare their cars: Reiki’s magnetic skullplate for brain current induction; a chest port over his right nipple; the stigmata at wrists and ankles where the racing rig takes you into its bondage.
When it’s over we drowse, and only the ringing of Reiki’s phone snaps us out of each other’s arms. He says hello, then some other things, then passes the phone to me. Chromium Jim’s voice rattles in my ear. “We’ll race. Tonight. Your flyboy says there’s a loop to the west of town where they usually meet. After dark.”
“I—” But Jim’s already hung up. The day is like so many other days and oddly skewed at the same time. Helping a boy prep his rig before a race. But this boy is different. Reiki Gunpowder packs a lot of expensive hardware into the trunk—crash helmet, pressurized goggles, scuba tanks. I can only help him so much. I’ve never had anything like this with Jim.
There’s a whole rainbow of rigs lined up when we arrive, everyone careful not to steal someone else’s style. Reiki Gunpowder drives the only red hot rod. Chromium Jim has gotten the Green Monster here somehow without me, displacing a young warrant officer in emerald who knows well enough to sit this one out. The air smells like lead additives and class resentment. Sodium vapor street lamps pour liquid orange highlights on the chassis, glossy as beetle shells. The moths circling them cast magnified shadows on our faces. “Good luck,” I tell Reiki Gunpowder.
I walk over to Chromium Jim. A pair of wings briefly cross his eyes like a mask. He sees my lips painted cyanotic blue as if I’ve been sucking off tailpipes. As though Reiki’s hands were still choking my throat. He grunts at me. Mechanically, I begin the usual motions. These combat pilots and astronauts swaggering around have gloves and stirrups so they can pull directly on the car’s control cables. I unbolt the Green Monster’s entire steering column so that it won’t go through Jim’s chest. He doesn’t have gloves or stirrups. I help him untie and remove his shoes. We roll up his sleeves and pant cuffs. I untangle the cables, connect them to the steering linkages. Chromium Jim hisses a breath as I press his fish hooks into the inside of his wrists where there’s a loop of forearm tendon and into the deep hollow of each ankle behind his Achilles’. Pull on the straps to take up their slack and pull each of his limbs taut. Steering, gearshift, acceleration, brakes, clutch. All will respond instantly to muscle twitches, tics, and tremors, like cracking the reins.
There are no metal plates in Chromium Jim’s head. No military-grade surgery there, just a crude jigsaw taken out of his bone, a little skull plate I fish open with a slim metal key to reveal his wet squish within, metal mesh overlay, two bare wires trailing out. I splice them to a set of loose ignition wires. His medical cart is nearby. I begin replacing his fluids with racing fuel. Wasn’t that how this all started? When Space Command passed cryogenic rocket fuel through astronauts’ bodies to throw them into deep sleep. The altered state they discovered on the edge of the eternal. While the centrifuges whir I take up the needle-nosed caulk gun and inject compression gel into the gaps in his brain cavity to prevent long-term damage. Chromium Jim doesn’t own a helmet. Nor does he own goggles. The acceleration’ll deform eyeballs, so his dashcam will be his eyes. I straddle his lap, hunch very close to his face, dig around his socket with a crochet needle to hook the slippery wire in there somewhere that feeds to his optic nerve. “Roll ‘em left,” I finally say, exasperated. “And hold still, goddamnit. Stop flinching.”
He catches his voice. “Babe.” I look into a different area of his eyes. “Is he good?”
I kiss his lips. We’re almost done here. His eyes dilate at the sensation of detachment as the rig replaces him and I force the breathing tube past his gag reflex. “He’s better than you’ve ever been.” Then I get off, button him up tight, and retire to the side. His brain sends the initial spark to the starter. Electricity comes flowing back into his brain. This is Chromium Jim at his best, when he expands to fill the skin of his hot rod. His bumper edges the starting line.
The cars run the spectrum from ink black to page white and the girl baring herself between them is one from last night’s bar, looking nervously down the barrels of so many machines. I glance over at Jim’s pit. His other young admirer is there with the spare fuel.
The racers take off so quickly they leave streaks of color in my vision and the taste of heavy water on my tongue and when the afterburners ignite, it’s the light of a dozen blue suns. The flag girl disappears in the clouds. I imagine her flesh bubbling off in gluey fistfuls as the steam exhaust renders her down to her three percent body fat and twig bones but when the smoke clears she’s still there, unharmed if a little shaky, turning small circles until someone pulls her out of the way. Jetwash kicks up biblical pillars of smoke and fire from the dry brush and knocks over hollowed-out gas stations and grain elevators.
How quickly they separate from each other. Those who have dreamt of flying make pilgrimages to the airbases that once rejected them, arriving in the only homebrew vehicles in which they’re rated, seeking to challenge the gatekeepers of their own personal heavens.
But these challengers only end up racing each other (Chromium Jim’s lament: “There’re more of us than there are of them”) out on the dusty roads so it’s easy to tell when a true professional joins the track, as Reiki Gunpowder has. The liquid cherry and solid green hot rods are a length apart, quarter track ahead of the pack. It’s Reiki’s disposable income, formal training, discipline, and physical fitness that puts him in the lead by the end of their first lap. Rocket flare scorching the eyebrows of every bystander who doesn’t duck fast enough behind sandbags. But it’s Chromium Jim’s corner-cutting, habit of traveling light and fast, absolute complete lack of excess baggage that allows him those superior fuel-to-weight ratios he’s so famous for. Reiki Gunpowder pulls sharply into the pit on the next circuit for a top up and Jim blows right by him, another lap and a half still left in his tanks.
The stragglers hit the growing debris fogbank, their intakes sucking down lungfuls of dirt clods and bugs that no air filter is going to prevent from turning insides black. Reiki goes airtight, pulls from his scuba. Jim likewise seals up all his vents but he won’t waste bottled oxygen that’s meant for his thirsty rig on himself. I know what he’ll do. He’ll inflate himself with one last outside breath against the crushing acceleration and then simply hold his breath. Sirens rising from the city limits behind me.
Chromium Jim is riding so hard he comes up on the tail of the pack, right behind a plum purple rig close enough to carbon score the Green Monster’s paint. I don’t know if the poor fool even sees Chromium Jim coming, hidden in the heat wave blind-spot. Jim nudges the purple car as he passes on the inside. A tire locks up. The purple car is suddenly spinning wildly on its other three omnitracks, throwing sparks and jet fuel like a July Fourth pinwheel. Then out of the cloud comes Reiki Gunpowder pouring it on, completely flatfooted to see an out-of-control rig directly in front of him. Candy apple hits plum. So fast Reiki is airborne.
Chromium Jim sees it happen over his shoulder and thinks it’s all over. No one else has the fuel or acceleration curve to make up the lost distance. Jim swerves left for the pit and his fuel rack. I let out a little shriek when I see Reiki take to the sky, just waiting for the wind to catch an edge and send him tumbling like a playing card. I can see the Green Monster relax as Jim eases off the gas, coming into the refuel slot.
Except the red hot rod is too low-slung and wide to flip. It glides, wobbling slightly side-to-side and Reiki shifts his weight, gets the nose of his car pointed down, and hits the throttle. The car flies. Right over Chromium Jim. Solid thunk on the hood as he comes down. Reiki’s rocket flame melts Jim’s glass, totally warps the windshield. The light inside the Green Monster becomes positively prismatic, he can hardly see through the dashcam. Something snaps underneath Reiki Gunpowder’s red racer when his undercarriage hits ground. Clear of the cloud, Chromium Jim opens his intakes for a full fresh breath. Pit crews trying to throw foreign objects into the blower turbines as they pass: nuts and bolts, loose change, wedding bands. Their ill wishes. Fistfights break out along the sidelines among the color-coded teams.
Neck and neck now. Chromium Jim’s flying blind, relying on hyperoxygenated memory to guide him. Reiki Gunpowder’s limping along on a broken ball socket. His front left wheel is dragging a black skid. They pass me at the same time for the last time. Final lap. Reiki Gunpowder’s got a sliver of a lead except as he goes by I look in and see the fire pouring from his mouth and eyes. His firewall has given way somewhere and now all the other barriers break down one after another. Chromium Jim of course can’t glance over to see what trouble his rival is in. He just cracks the reins again.
There’s a soft whumph and a blue glow from under Reiki’s car like a pilot light turning on. His car is still under control though, still making the turns. The man’s transformed into a Roman candle and he keeps pushing Chromium Jim up the curve. Jim is touching door panels when the red car fully blows. The explosion shunts him sideways off track, across the median, heading right toward us the wrong way. I’ve got all my fingers in my mouth to keep from swallowing my tongue. Of the red hot rod there’s nothing left but tinsel. The other cars going left and right, setting their brakes on fire to avoid lost, sightless Chromium Jim who suddenly pops drogue chutes and slams to a stop against a wall of sandbags not a dozen feet from his pickup truck.
The passenger side of the Green Monster where it’s taken the force of the blowout is concave like I’ve never seen anything made of metal go before, stippled with red apple shrapnel. Miracle his fuel too didn’t ignite. But his driver-side door still works and he emerges dragging various wires and cables and umbilicals, the viscera of a dying mechanical creature unspooling along his plodding path to the truck. Chromium Jim has enough fuel left to get to his blood bags on his own. He doesn’t need any of us anymore. Still, his pressure-warped eyes find me. “Babe,” he says. “Come here!” Then again, in a different tone of voice, “Come here.”
My own vision is distorted, walking to him. We’re aimed at false versions of each other. My view awash with tears that dry in the heat from the burning body of my most recent lover.
Chromium Jim, new king of the scene, scrapes the boomtown of all its winnings and moves on. I check his balance sheets. More than enough now to race all the way to Alaska and book steerage to the Sea of Tranquility. There’s nothing left for me among the fighter pilots that flutter like confetti across the spaceport so again I take the wheel of the pickup truck and tow Chromium Jim ever northward and westward. Chasing orbital congruence and launch windows.
Jim is riding the high, knowing he’s unstoppable on the way to a better place. Every day during the drive he pumps some cryo through his arms and sinks into time dilation as his senses slow. At diners where we refuel he’s cock of the walk. Snapping his fingers at waitresses, flirting, loud largesse at bars while I silently inject caffeine for the long night haul.
Look, I say to the kind of anesthetizing muted gray television light found only after a certain hour in a certain class of dining establishment, I can’t deny the thrill of the race circuit. I like being at his side, in his bed, celebrating with him when he balances on the edge of cryogenics and fireball. But I can never claim to have fallen in love until the day the Martians arrive and climb down from their Winnebagos.
They’re all women, a half dozen of them each driving their own RV. Chromium Jim and I and about fifteen more people are on the other side of dusty roadside diner window glass agape like goldfish. Their vehicles are arrayed along the shoulder of the road, pointed in the opposite direction of the pickup. Each vehicle with, suspiciously, ball wheels. The women move, one-by-one, through the diner doors. Wild ones, wearing patched jumpsuits that show where they’re deeply fuzzed in the heat points of their bodies, unwashed, low-gravity elongated. They’re barefoot and they have, every one of them, stood on the soil of another world. I immediately feel a peak of lust usually reserved for methylamphetemine-driven dance-floor romances. Who owns the green race car outside? the frontwoman asks. They’re here to challenge.
Chromium Jim’s eyes may be bad but even he can see the RV bulk out front. “In that?” he scoffs.
“Endurance race,” she says. Then he realizes what he’s up against. These are trans-lunar space explorers. They’ve been under the fuel for magnitudes longer than he ever has.
I see him quiver between the decision. He already has all he needs. No reason to take on new challengers until he gets to the surface of the moon. I see him about to turn his back and dismiss her, to make a joke to save face, so I say, “Wow, Jim, you’re scared to race a civ?” I find the eyes of the one I think is the prettiest, the only one of the six who’s been looking deep at me this whole time. “Well. If I’d known that was all it took to get you off my back. Well. If I’d known that much earlier.”
Used to be he could just let my words glide right over him but the higher your flights, the deeper your dives when someone inevitably pries you out of your metal skin and forces you to face the gravity well you live in. He sinks very close to me in his seat and growls, “Go ready the car.”
He doesn’t follow me out until I’ve got the rig lowered off the tow bar and lined up with the challenger’s RV, everything set up for him. Then he climbs in and sits passively for me to make all the hookups. “Good luck,” I say politely. He doesn’t answer. I shut his door.
The prettiest Martian takes my hand and says, “Better come back inside.” Inside where she warns me, “Stay away from the glass.” Not like I could get near the window anyway with all the rubberneckers pressed up against it. The Green Monster roars. The woman who challenged Chromium Jim stands next to her Winnebago with a brass helmet like an old diving bell tucked under one arm, waving cheerfully, triumphantly, with the other. Then she disappears into her cabin and a minute later ignition sparks spray across its rear nozzles. Crescendos. The locals burst out into cheers. They don’t often get a show like this out beyond the combat zones.
One of the astronauts sticks her arm out the door and signals the race with a flare gun and then I realize why they drive such big rigs: fuel storage. The RV is ninety percent rocket fuel and she doesn’t bother with internal combustion, just lights off the whole damn thing like a Saturn V. The building shakes like it’s what’s about to lift off. Crockery breaking in the kitchen. Coffee overslopping the lips of white ceramic mugs. I steady myself on the pretty lady next to me. The window glass cracks but holds its shape. I’m still holding her hand and she’s still holding mine.
We wait until the earth stops moving before everyone piles out for a better view. My Martian fans away the dust and lights a joint. Offers it. “Nice-looking car,” she says. “Your work?”
The Winnebago burns on a curve faster, longer, and farther than he can catch up. Chromium Jim’s rig screams like the heat-triggered locusts that once swept these plains and forced us all into space in the first place. “Fifty-fifty,” I allow.
She’s looking me over. “You got a name?” I only nod. “Mine’s Sally. Come take a look.” We go to her RV, covered in decals that document her travels. It’s still pointed the wrong way.
“You’re not going to the spaceports?” I ask.
Sally says, “We’re civilian astronauts. We launch out of the old sites farther south where the skies are less dangerous. You should come with us.”
Startled, but immediately ascendant. Hope is a thing with wings and whatnot. “Where?”
“We built a place for you, a place for people who have nothing left for them here. Your hometowns and food crops have been burned out not by war but by the simple blind, dumb, dispassionate greed of people who won’t look beyond tomorrow. But you’re also sick of war. Sick of the boys playing at it. I saw what you did.”
I don’t deny anything.
Sally takes another breath of smoke. Her lips pucker sweetly. She’s painted them purple. I want to paint mine red and crash them into hers like two bodies colliding. “The trip won’t be easy,” she says. “We travel fast and you’ll have to work for your passage but I think your heart can take the cold and pressure.”
I look after them, just two faint stars on the horizon now. Neither deviates from the straight path. Not coming back. The door to Sally’s Winnebago pops open and the wind that blows out of it tastes like cold iron and burned sand. Alien and instantly comforting. “You have any other things you need to grab?”
She’s right behind me. I don’t know whether to lean back against her or step up the plastic ladder through the magic portal to another world. I thought it would take a lifetime of running in circles, Chromium Jim’s way, to reach it. No one ever expects the miracle of their community coming to them. Finding them in the wilderness. A place where everyone will know me. I have nothing weighing me down. All my baggage tucked into the hollow places of Chromium Jim’s rigid body. What’s a fully loaded suitcase weigh these days? Fifty pounds? What does fifty pounds do to the fuel burn rate of a homemade rocket rig?
Chromium Jim laboring against the extra drag and grav. Far off I hear two small pops of either his lungs or his tires giving up. “No,” I say.
Josh Pearce is a fiction writer and poet from the San Francisco Bay Area. He earned a B.A. degree in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing from SFSU and currently works as an editorial assistant at Locus Magazine. He lives in the East Bay with his wife and son. Find him on Twitter: @fictionaljosh or at fictionaljosh.com. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.