Riding With Tracks

The woman arched her eyebrow at the young man standing before her, plucking the cigarette out of her mouth to address him better. "Raoul? What kind of name is that?"

The young man in question shuffled a bit with embarrassment at her inquiry. Taller than her by about four inches, with slightly wavy black hair that fell down to his shoulders, he wore a black leather jacket and boots of the same color and material, though the boots were somewhat scuffed and the jacket sported dull patches where grease had come in contact with the leather. He kept his hands stuffed in his pockets to hide the black grease that collected around his fingernails -- a consequence of frequent digging around in car engines -- but he wasn't sure why he was hiding this from her. It wasn't as if mechanics as a hobby was a criminal offense, after all.

"My parents were big Phantom of the Opera buffs," he said in explanation, feeling heat in his cheeks at her remark. Not for the first time he wished his parents would have named him after the other male lead in that play -- Erik was a lot less strange-look-inducing than Raoul. At least they hadn't gone with Christine, he supposed...

"Right," she replied, not really interested, and stubbed the cigarette out on the fencepost she was currently leaning on. "Like I said in the phone call, Mr. Raoul Chain, you buy her as is. Thousand even. Papers are in the glove compartment. Don't like it, fine, take your business elsewhere."

"I understand, ma'am."

"Just call me Peggy, hun," she replied, her gruff demeanor softening a touch when he made no move to haggle. She stepped away from the fence and motioned for him to follow her.

Raoul trailed after her, stepping through a gap in the wooden fence and stamping his way through the thick weeds that clogged the area around the old shed, which appeared to be Peggy's destination. Why, of every ad in the classified section, had he chosen this one to answer? He should have seen from the address that it was clear out in the boonies, and the "some kind of Chevy" this woman was trying to sell would most likely be a rusted old pickup or something similar. He probably wouldn't even be able to drive it off the property and would have to call his buddies down at the garage to help him tow it back home...

"Found it in the shed when we bought this place a couple months ago," Peggy was saying, following a set of old tire tracks in the weeds. "No plates, no ownership papers, VIN scratched off. Thought it was stolen and called the cops, but they couldn't trace it and finally said we could do what we wanted with it. So Frank got it registered and took it for a wash and a tune-up, changed the oil and tires, the full deal. Got no use for it, already got three vehicles, and we can use the cash worse."

"I... uh... don't have cash," he replied. "You take a check or ?"

"What's ?" she asked, but didn't pause for an answer. "Check's fine, so long as it's in state." She finally reached the shed and pulled the doors open.

Raoul blinked once or twice, peering into the musty darkness. Once his eyes adjusted he could see a dusty hulk in the shadows... a low-slung vehicular shape covered in a faded canvas tarp.

"Thousand or no deal," she told him. "Just take it off my hands."

"Can I... uh... just have a look at it?" he asked. "I... uh... don't do sight-unseen deals."

She gave a little laugh at that. "All you had to do was ask, hun." And she grabbed a handful of tarp and hauled it away.

Raoul managed to cover his gasp with a coughing fit, not hard to do thanks to the dust the tarp gave off as it was yanked back. The "some kind of Chevy" was a '66 Corvette Sting Ray convertible! It gleamed a deep sapphire blue, sparkling even in the dim shed. Bright scarlet flames radiated out from a robotic-looking crest of the same color in the center of the hood, and said flames streamed out from the hood to trail over the front fenders. The seats were smooth black leather, obviously reupholstered sometime during the car's lifetime, and the original hubcaps had been replaced with discs of chrome -- thankfully nothing tacky, but still stylish.

"Thousand or no deal," Peggy repeated.

"Uh... who do I make it out to?" he asked a little hesitantly. He couldn't help feeling a rush of guilt at paying only a thousand for such a treasure... but he couldn't afford to pay any more. His paycheck from the landscaping company only went so far...

"Peggy Southern," she replied. "Peggy with a 'Y' and not an 'IE.'"

He wrote out the check as quickly as he could, tearing it out so fast he nearly ripped it in half. Peggy took it, pocketed it without a glance, and fished a set of keys out of her other pocket and tossed them at him. "All yours. Tire marks there lead right to the main road -- left the gate open for you."

"Thanks," he replied, unable to keep a grin off his face. "Um, have a nice day..." That last was said to her back as she turned and picked her way back to the house without a backward glance.

Raoul turned to the Corvette... and blinked slightly. The car wasn't hiding in the shadows of the shed anymore, but standing right in the doorway, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Had the parking brake slipped? But it wasn't moving anymore, and if a faulty parking brake was to blame the vehicle would be rolling down the hill and across the field by now. He'd probably just misjudged how close it was to the doors in the first place.

"Hello, baby," he said with a grin, popping the door open and sliding inside. "You're all mine now."

The vehicle had obviously been cleaned and serviced recently, because it started right up with a throaty purr the moment he cranked the ignition. It handled beautifully, shifting easily and responding to the slightest touch of the steering wheel. As he left the tire-rut path and pulled onto the main road back to town, he finally gave in to temptation -- he pulled over, shoved the ragtop down, and continued the trip back home whooping and cheering the whole way. Okay, so there was still that slight nagging part of him that felt that paying a thousand for such a perfectly in-shape classic vehicle was practically robbery, but as far as he was concerned it was her fault for not doing her research on her "some kind of Chevy" before selling it...

Without warning, the glove compartment fell open, dumping its contents onto the floor. Raoul cursed and pulled over to pick everything up and shove it back in. Registration papers, a few old maps... and a piece of notebook paper covered in weird scribbles. He peered at the symbols a moment, trying to see if they formed anything recognizable, but to his eye they just looked like something a caffeine-buzzed Trekkie scratched out in a hyper moment. The only recognizable thing in the scrawled mess was the following:

AOL User Name: MakingTracks

"Dad, I'm home!" Raoul shouted, taking care to scuff his boots a few times on the doormat before coming in, just in case he had picked up something worse than dirt in that field.

"That was quick," Mr. Chain replied, not looking up. He was currently bent over a grease-stained transmission that was sprawled all over the kitchen table like a dismembered corpse, and both his face and his faded Scorpions concert T-shirt were liberally smeared with various mechanical fluids. "And since you didn't call for a ride home, I'm assuming you bought the car?"

"Bought and paid for!" answered Raoul with a laugh, holding up the keys. "It's gorgeous! '66 Corvette convertible! And I got it for peanuts!"

"That's great!" He straightened and wiped his hands on the hem of his shirt. "How much work do you think she'll need?"

"None whatsoever. Perfect condition. The lady had no idea what it was, or she wouldn't have let it go for that cheap."

"Or maybe she would have," Mr. Chain replied. "From the sound of that ad, she just wanted it off her property, whatever kind of car it was." He checked his watch, frowned, wiped a smear of transmission fluid from the watch's face with his thumb, checked again, and winced. "And I'd love to have a look at it, but I've got to get ready for work -- forgot all about the time! Sorry about leaving a mess."

"No prob," Raoul said dismissively. What with both Chains loving to tinker with anything mechanical, chunks of car engines or electronics being left on the kitchen table were part of everyday life.

"And finish off the rest of the Chinese for dinner before it goes bad," Mr. Chain advised. "I'm not cleaning out the entire fridge again."

"Fine, whatever."

Mr. Chain clapped his son on the shoulder once, leaving a grubby handprint on the leather jacket, and headed off for a shower. Raoul rubbed at the stain with a grimace, then gave up and slipped the jacket off, throwing it over a chair to deal with later. Then he went outside to have another look at his treasure.

Five vehicles greeted him as he strolled out into the driveway, only two in any sort of drivable condition. His father's red Toyota Corolla was parked half-in and half-out of the garage for easy access -- it wouldn't be here for long, seeing as Mr. Chain would be taking it to his night job as a 911 dispatcher. Farther back were two other vehicles, hoods propped open to expose their mechanical guts, tools and parts scattered on the ground around them. One, a DeLorean that his father had somehow acquired from "a friend's cousin," was his father's current pet project as it underwent a slow but steady restoration. The other, a yellow Plymouth Barracuda, was Raoul's, and was the original source of the transmission that was currently taking up residence on the kitchen table -- his dad had more experience with transmissions than he did and so was taking care of that portion for him. A battered green Volkswagon Jetta sulked sadly off to one side, relegated to the status of "parts donor" after breaking down one too many times. And in the garage itself...

Raoul flicked on the garage light, revealing tables littered with tools and automotive magazines... and the Corvette. He gave an appreciative whistle as he circled the vehicle, taking time to examine every inch of it. It was a sleek and stylish vehicle, and yet it didn't seem jarringly out of place here in the dirty, cluttered garage. It was as if the Corvette's presence improved its very surroundings rather than clashing with them. The flame job was a little bright, and that robot face in the center of the hood seemed an odd choice of decoration, but somehow both looked good on this car...

The glove compartment fell open again, and Raoul sighed as he reached inside to close it again. The scribbled-on piece of notebook paper had fallen onto the seat, and he almost stuffed it back in with the rest of the papers before changing his mind and cramming it in his pocket. Maybe the username on it belonged to the original owner of the car... and maybe they had some more info on it. Such as how to fix the latch on the glove compartment...

"Don't spend all night staring at it!" Mr. Chain advised teasingly as he walked out to his Toyota and climbed in.

"I won't!" Raoul assured him, waving as he drove away.

Once his dad's car was out of sight, Raoul went into the house. He threw the leftover Chinese takeout into the microwave and let it warm up for a bit while he sat down at the computer and logged into his AIM account. Would this MakingTracks person be online at the moment...

MakingTracks was indeed online, and after a moment's hesitation Raoul sent them a hesitant IM:

HotRodder85: Hello?

Mere seconds passed before the reply came:

MakingTracks: Hello there. Who is this?

Raoul steeled himself, then began typing.

Hi, sorry to bother you. This probably sounds weird coming from a complete stranger, but did you ever own a blue Corvette?

MakingTracks didn't reply for almost a minute, and Raoul began to worry that he'd just scared the guy...

Ah yes, the blue Stingray convertible with the red flames. You just purchased this vehicle and found my username in the glove compartment, didn't you?

Yeah. Sorry to bother you, I was just curious.

No apologies necessary. I placed it there on purpose, to see if the next person to own the vehicle would contact me. I still have an interest in what happens to that Corvette, you see, even if I'm unable to drive it anymore.

Raoul sensed he was nosing into sensitive territory here, but he asked anyway: How come?

I'm unfortunately confined to my home for the time being. I won't elaborate further, as it will only bore you. But enough about that. Are you pleased with the vehicle?

Heck yeah! She's a beauty! You took real good care of her, that's obvious.

And I can trust you to take as good of care of that vehicle as I did?

Of course. It's a classic. To do otherwise would be sacrilegious, LOL.

Good, very good. Now tell me a little more about yourself, if you don't mind. I highly doubt your name's HotRodder, after all.

Call me Raoul.

Raoul? You don't find many with that name anymore.

Yeah, blame my parents. They loved Phantom of the Opera.

Oh, I love that play! When Christine and Raoul sing "This Is All I Ask Of You," it sends shivers up my spinal array.

He blinked at those last few words, then decided MakingTracks was just Trekkie enough to let sci-fi-ish words slip into his speech from time to time. It would explain the markings on that paper he'd found, not to mention the robot face on the Corvette's hood. You should hear my mom sing Christine's part. It's gorgeous.

Oh, your mother sings?

Yeah, she's part of a theatrical acting troupe. She's on the road right now, playing Fantine in "Les Miserables" in Seattle. She's not home a lot.

My apologies.

Don't be sorry. She's doing what she loves to do, and Dad and I support her. We'd go with her and watch, but we've already seen her do Fantine before. Believe me, I can sing some of these musicals in my sleep.

You like Broadway? What are your favorite plays?

And before he knew it, Raoul was deeply engrossed in a discussion about the merits and weaknesses of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Andrew Lloyd Weber, their favorite numbers in "The Producers" and "Mamma Mia," and how creepy it was seeing John Travolta in drag in "Hairspray." Raoul found himself enjoying the conversation so much that he hardly noticed the hours sliding by.

MakingTracks did, however, and suddenly cut off their "who's the better Christine, Sara Brightman or Emmy Rossum" discussion with an exclamation. My goodness, it's nearly 0200! I didn't mean to keep you up so late, Raoul!

It's okay, I'm not tired Raoul assured him.

I am, however, and I hope you excuse me, but I need to rest now. Perhaps we can continue our discussion tomorrow?

Sure thing!

Very good! Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Raoul, and have a good night.

Sleep well Raoul replied, but MakingTracks had already gone offline for the night.

It occurred to Raoul as he pulled the now-crusty Chinese out of the microwave and tossed outside for the stray cats that he'd completely forgotten to ask his new friend's name... or for any other details about his life. Assuming it was a guy, anyhow -- for all he knew MakingTracks could be a girl. But he supposed there would be plenty of time to ask tomorrow. And he was already starting to think of him as Tracks anyhow, so whatever his real name was probably wasn't too big a deal. Hopefully he didn't mind the nickname.

Over the next few months, Raoul learned frustratingly little about his new friend despite the fact that they now talked for at least an hour every night. But despite that, he truly enjoyed their discussions, which had gone on from Broadway to encompass music, movies, books, other countries, and the current antics of those whom Dad liked to call "celebrity nutcases." Tracks -- who didn't mind the nickname in the least -- had a wide assortment of tastes when it came to music and film, liking everything from Josh Groban to Linkin Park and watching almost every movie that came out. When Raoul asked him how he managed to see so many new releases despite not being able to leave home, Tracks directed him to a website chock-full of movie downloads, which annoyed his dad when he discovered it but thrilled Raoul to no end.

As for the Corvette, Raoul was enjoying it to the fullest. He'd taken to traveling the back roads to work so he could drive at whatever speed he wanted, top down and XM radio (which, oddly enough, had come with the car) blasting passing vehicles as he went. His friends frequently begged him for rides despite having transportation of their own, though Raoul didn't mind doing them the favor. And it might have just been his imagination, but it always seemed the Corvette revved its engine a little louder and went a little faster when someone was in the passenger seat. If he didn't know any better, he'd say the car appreciated the attention and was showing off for guests.

Tracks was very particular about the car despite no longer owning it, and he expected Raoul to be just as particular. When they weren't discussing entertainment or pop culture, he was giving the young man specific instructions on tending to the vehicle, and every night he would ask if Raoul was following said instructions to the letter. Prompt oil changes, and synthetic motor oil only. Weekly washes -- by hand, not just a quick pass through an automatic car wash -- and weekly waxes with name-brand wax, no generic brands. Interiors vacuumed daily or when Raoul's boots were especially dirty. Tires checked daily and reinflated as necessary. And premium gas only, not the cheap stuff. Raoul got the feeling that what Tracks really needed was a pet to spoil and pamper, rather than an inanimate object.

There were other oddities about the Corvette, too -- small, but nonetheless a little unsettling. The XM radio didn't seem to pick up certain stations, such as country or death metal, though nothing was wrong with the radio when his dad had a look at it. The vehicle also had an unnerving habit of developing "the shakes" at odd times, though weirdly enough, Raoul found he could generally "fix" this problem by giving the car a quick wash. Again, though he and Dad poked through every corner of the engine, they found nothing to explain the problem. And the one time he had been in a hurry and tried to take the Corvette through an automatic car wash, its engine had abruptly died. Only when he and the annoyed car wash staff had pushed the vehicle back onto the road would it start back up.

Tracks didn't even seem surprised when Raoul explained these things to him, and had no explanation for them even when Raoul pressed him. His only remark on the subject was that the Corvette had better taste in music than most humans did.

Then there was the fuzzy dice, a gag gift from his girlfriend. He'd hung them on the Corvette's rearview mirror mostly to appease Alexis, but found he liked them and left them there, figuring they'd be a permanent addition to the vehicle.

The next morning when he walked out to take the car to work, he found the dice lying in the driveway, as if someone had taken them out of the Corvette and hurled them forcefully out of the garage. What, had his dad decided they looked too tacky or something? Annoyed, he replaced the dice and drove to work.

But when he returned to his car that afternoon, the dice were once again on the ground. With a grumble he picked them up, brushed them off, and rehung them before driving home.

He hadn't gotten ten paces from the garage before he caught something moving from the corner of his eye... and turned just in time to see the dice come to a landing in the middle of the driveway.

Tracks found this highly amusing when Raoul reported it to him five minutes later.

It's not funny! he insisted. You never said anything about that car being haunted!

Raoul, you're really making a big deal about such a small matter Tracks assured him.

Easy for you to say. You're not the one who feels like they're trapped in a Stephen King novel over here!

Raoul, Raoul, do you really think I would have sold that car if it were possessed by demonic powers? On the contrary, I would have smashed it to pieces. Perhaps one of the stray cats is finding its way into the vehicle.

No way. I put the top up and lock all the doors every night like you asked me to.

For which I'm very grateful. But it seems we must create a new set of rules.

More rules?

No more fuzzy dice. And for the record, no antennae toppers, no bumper stickers, no window decals, no dashboard ornaments. An air freshener is fine, provided it's of a tasteful design.

Don't I get a say in this? It's my car now!

The beauty of the Corvette must be appreciated in its unadulterated form. Decoration merely distracts the viewer. Don't you agree?

True, as far as that went. I guess... but that car's still freaking me out. Did it do all this when you owned it?

Tracks ignored the question. I assure you, you're perfectly safe.

I'll feel safer once that car behaves itself. I can't even take it through the car wash.

We agreed no automatic car washes, Raoul.

I was running late, okay? And what do you care? You don't even drive it anymore! It's mine, I paid for it, I should get a say in it.

I know, I know. I only want to help you take good care of it.

I'm a mechanic, I know how to take good care of cars.

Which explains why you have three broken-down vehicles in your driveway?

Never mind that! How hard can it be to take care of a car, even if it is a '66 Corvette! It's just a stupid machine, it's not like it's alive or even cares what kind of wax I use on it, right?

No reply. Raoul waited for several minutes, then typed: Hello?

The computer generated its own reply. MakingTracks is offline.

Raoul swore and slammed a fist down on the computer desk. What had he done to piss Tracks off anyhow?


Raoul whirled in his seat to see his dad standing behind him, his face pale and damp with sweat. "Dad, you're home way early. You okay?"

"Flubug, they sent me home early." He limped over to the couch and collapsed, groaning. Raoul left the computer and dashed into the bedroom to grab the Sick Kit -- an old laundry basket containing a blanket, a pillow, a bucket in case the sick person in question couldn't make it to the bathroom in time, several packages of crackers and instant chicken broth, a two-liter bottle of Sprite, an old cowbell, and a stack of DVDs. Then he spent several minutes getting his dad comfortable and preparing some of the broth for him in case his stomach settled down enough for him to drink it.

"What would I do without you around, Raoul?" Dad asked, braving a sip of the Sprite.

"Get a dog?" offered Raoul, and the two of them laughed at the old joke.

"You all right, Raoul?" Dad asked. "You seemed upset when I walked in."

"It's nothing," Raoul assured him, setting the DVD player up to play Gone In 60 Seconds.

"C'mon, son, you can talk to me."

Raoul sighed. "It's that guy I've been talking to -- Tracks, the guy who used to own the Corvette. I can't believe how fussy he is about that car."

Dad shrugged. "A lot of people fuss over their vehicles. It's not exactly normal, but it's harmless..."

"But he doesn't even own the car anymore. It's mine, I bought it..."

"But from what you've told me, he only got rid of it because he's homebound. I don't know enough about him to make an assumption, but I'd say he was in an accident or got sick somehow. It could be that he had to sell the car to pay medical bills. Or it might not have been his decision to sell the car at all -- maybe a family member talked him into it, or did it without his permission. And if he was that attached to the car, he still cares what happens to it, even if he's not the owner anymore."

Raoul sighed. "What got him really upset is when I said it was just a stupid machine and it didn't care what kind of wax it got. He just... logged off right then. Like he was offended or something."

Dad considered that a moment. "Some people get so attached to their cars, they give them personalities and names. Sounds like Tracks is one of those people. I'd say give him awhile to cool down, and he'll be talking to you again."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive, son." He chanced another sip of Sprite. "I'd give you a hug right now, but I don't want to give this crud to you..."

Raoul just chuckled and bent down to hug his dad anyway. "Never mind, I'd probably get it anyway. They who share bunks..."

"Share chunks," his dad finished with a laugh of his own. "I've taught you too well, Raoul. Now go to bed -- I'll ding you with this if there's a serious problem." He raised the cowbell.

"Okay. Get some rest yourself, you'll feel better."

"Who's the father here? Get."

"Thanks for walking me to the door," Alexis said, ducking out from under the makeshift umbrella Raoul had created by removing his jacket and holding it over her head.

"No problem," he replied. "Sorry this date was a bust. See you next Saturday?"

"I'm sorry, I can't. It's my parents' anniversary. Maybe the weekend after?"

"Sure, sounds fine."

"You get home," she admonished him, poking his chest with a finger. "Get out of those wet clothes, you're soaked."

"That's the plan," he replied. "Love you, baby, good night." He gave her a peck on the cheek before sprinting back to the car, stretching the jacket over his own head to shield himself as best he could. Not that it mattered much -- his hair was already soaked through.

It had been two days since Tracks had gone offline in a huff, and Raoul had planned on trying to contact him again tonight after his date -- if he was awake and online, that was. But his and Alexis' plans to see Ironman at the drive-in theater had been cancelled when an unexpected downpour had hit town. Raoul was dripping wet, but poor Alexis looked as if she'd just been participating in a wet T-shirt contest, and they'd judged it best to get home, get dry, and try again another time.

Raoul checked his watch as he climbed into the Corvette and shut the door, sealing out the elements. Nine o'clock -- Tracks was usually online by now. Last night he'd gone offline again the moment Raoul had logged on, but maybe he'd be in a more receptive mood tonight. If not... he had his e-mail address, he could send an apology that way, he supposed...

The Corvette's headlights illuminated the slick road before him, slicing through the curtain of rain. He cranked the windshield wipers as high as they would go and kept a light foot on the accelerator. Nights like this were terrible for driving -- already he and Alexis had seen the flashing blue-and-red lights marking the site of a car accident twice tonight. He had no desire to wake up in a hospital room tomorrow morning... and if hanging fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror irked Tracks into a two-day sulk, who knew what a fender bender would do to his temper?

His stomach complained, reminding him that he and Alexis hadn't had a chance to eat before the ill-fated movie. There was some leftover Hamburger Helper at home... but he was craving something hot, so he swung through the drive-thru of the closest McDonald's for a Big Mac and fries. He paid for his meal and continued the drive home, the hot bag of food sitting in his lap. Tracks was adamant about him not eating in the car, and Raoul agreed with that sentiment -- nothing was tackier than fossilized French fries wedged in the seat cushions or mysterious grease smears on the dashboard. Still, dinner smelled heavenly, and he hoped he could make it home before giving into temptation...

The high wail of a siren wormed its way into his thoughts, and he groaned as he checked the rearview mirror. A police cruiser, glossy black from the rain and the flickering of its lights dazzling his eyes momentarily. For Pete's sake, he was going the speed limit, what was the problem? With a resigned sigh he turned the steering wheel to pull over...

...only for it to be wrenched back into the original position.

"Stupid car," he grumbled, and made another haul at the steering wheel, pressing the brake at the same time.

The steering wheel refused to budge... and the brake pedal wouldn't give under his foot.

"Oh, shit," he gasped, and began clawing at the buckle of his seat belt.

The Corvette didn't give him a chance to escape. Both waist and shoulder straps of the seat belt drew tight, pinning him into the seat, and the car lurched forward as if someone had stomped on the accelerator. The cruiser followed, continuing to blare its sirens as it pursued them.

I'm trapped in a runaway car! he thought desperately. No, not runaway -- possessed!

The Corvette barreled through a red light, and blaring horns and screeching brakes indicated the cop had barely avoided an accident in the chase. Raoul gave up trying to unbuckle his seat belt and instead reached for his cell phone. If he could get in touch with the police somehow, maybe they could lay down road spikes or something...

Road spikes wouldn't be necessary, however. For the Corvette hit a patch of road that was covered in water an inch deep just as it was trying to navigate a curve in the road. Raoul screamed as the car hydroplaned, the tires twisting back and forth as it scrambled for purchase on the slick road... then he screamed again as the police cruiser surged forward and struck the convertible in the left rear fender.

When the world finally came to a stop, Raoul dared to open his eyes and pry his fingers out of the seat beneath him. The Corvette's left side window had been completely smashed out, and the right side window and windshield were nearly opaque with cracks. The car had to have rolled at least once -- add that to the collision with the police car, and it was safe to bet that the Corvette was pretty well totaled.

Tracks is going to kill me.

Something warm slipped down the bridge of his nose. He reached up with his right arm to touch it and gasped as pain lanced up the limb. Broken, most likely... and when he put the fingers of his left hand to his forehead they came away dark red. He tried to calm down, breathing deeply, assuring himself that head wounds always bled a lot and looked worse than they really were...

The car jolted again, wrenching his neck painfully. The cruiser had backed up and rammed the Corvette again.

"Hey!" he shouted, gritting his teeth against the pain. "What the hell's going on here?"

As if in response his seat belt came undone, sliding back to release him from his seat. The passenger-side door flew open... and somehow he was forcefully ejected from his seat and onto the muddy ground on the side of the road.

Raoul cried out again as the fall jarred his broken arm, the pain blinding him for a second. With his good arm he pushed himself to a sitting-up position, blinking to clear the rain and blood from his eyes. The damage to the Corvette was worse than he'd imagined -- the entire left side looked almost shredded, as if it had blown apart at the seams...

But as he watched the car pried itself further apart with a horrible metallic grinding sound, splitting, unfolding, rising to tower over him...

"Holy shit!"

The Corvette stood upright now on two powerful legs, legs that terminated in two-toed feet almost like cloven hooves. What had once been the flame-bedecked hood of the vehicle -- now crumpled like an old napkin from the rollover -- now served as a chestplate, and what had once been doors now jutted from its shoulders like undersized wings. The front bumper had separated from the hood entirely and pulled back so it covered its head like a canopy or a hood... a hood that now bore twin projections almost like horns or, more likely, weapon launchers of some sort. Long, powerful arms were braced open like a wrestler's, three clawed fingers and a thumb on each hand flexed and ready to grab. And the face... it was scarlet and almost feline in appearance, with glowing yellow optics that gleamed with an otherworldly intelligence.

A robot. A freakin' robot! Please, tell me I'm dreaming this... tell me I'm hallucinating in the ambulance or something, please...

Another horrible grinding... and the police cruiser unfolded and rose to meet the Corvette. Raoul tried to scream but found he had no voice left to do so. This was a horrible parody of the Corvette, as if he had once been a robot of the same type but had been broken apart and badly put back together. It was a jumble of parts, all sharp edges and wicked claws and a fearsome horned, fanged, insectoid nightmare of a face.

C'mon, Raoul, you're out of it! Wake up, wake up, please wake up...

The police cruiser roared and charged, bringing a fist up to smash into the Corvette's relatively unprotected belly. The Corvette grabbed the cruiser's arm by the wrist and gave a brutal twist, and the shriek of bending metal and the pop of snapping wires reached Raoul's ears through the hiss of rain. The cruiser gave a guttural rasp, almost as if it were in pain, and swiped with his other hand at the Corvette's golden eyes. The Corvette gave a sharp, nearly human cry of pain as claws raked across one eye, shattering it and leaving horrible slashes in the red metal of its face. The police cruiser's jaws twisted into something like a grin, and it jabbed at the convertible's belly with its free hand.

The Corvette, though half-blinded, wasn't about to give in that easily. It grabbed its opponent's other hand, then brought its knee up to ram into the cruiser's belly. The cruiser grunted, jaws open wide as if in shock, and as the Corvette lowered its leg Raoul caught sight of a wickedly curved spike that now jutted from the knee. Face set in a grimly determined expression, the convertible kneed the cruiser again, harder, then let go of its wrists.

The police cruiser dropped to all fours, hissing and whining, oil and a weird glowing fluid pouring out of the gaping holes in its belly, more of the glowing pink liquid trickling from its jaws. Then it seemed to shrink into itself, folding and compacting, until it resumed the form of a police car, albeit one whose engine rattled ominously. Siren flashing, it turned and sped away, leaking a glowing trail that the rain made short work of.

The Corvette waited until its opponent was out of sight. Then it made a face, reached into a gap in its shoulder, and pulled out a crushed, oozing McDonald's bag. Gazing at it distastefully, it tossed the mess away. Finally it turned to face Raoul, its single functioning eye blinking slowly as it studied him.

Raoul tried to scramble to his feet, but slipped in the mud and fell again.

"Don't be afraid," the robot coaxed, gliding a step closer and sinking to one knee like a medieval knight bowing to his king. "I mean you no harm..."

"Go away!" Raoul screamed, stretching his good arm out to find a rock, a branch, a broken bottle, anything he could use as a weapon.

"Raoul, please, I'm not going to hurt you."

Raoul froze. "How do you know my name?"

The Corvette chuckled. "I have been in your company these past three lunar cycles, Raoul. It would be poor form if I didn't know your name by now."

Raoul shuddered, both from the chill of his sodden clothes and the horror he had just experienced. He tried to calm down, tried not to flinch as the robot leaned closer to study him. This was his car... or at least had been until now. If it had wanted to hurt him, it would have done so by now, it had had three months to do whatever it wanted...

"Who... who are you?" he finally managed.

"My name is unpronounceable in any of your languages," the robot replied. "Its rough translation, in your English language, is Tracks."

At the mention of that name, everything fell into place with a loud, jarring click. "Tracks? You mean..."

Tracks raised a hand. "Raoul, we are both damaged and in need of repairs. We are also cold, wet, filthy, and miserable. We have both had a rough night all around, and I think it's best to see to our immediate needs before any questions are answered. Is that acceptable to you?"

Raoul only nodded dumbly.

The overlapping plates that formed Tracks' face curved in a smile... then bunched in a thoughtful scowl as he turned to look over his shoulder. Sirens were sounding again, the high keening of a police car and the more strident beeping of an ambulance. Someone must have seen the accident and called the REAL cops... either that or that police cruiser was coming back and bringing friends...

Tracks turned back to Raoul and scooped him up as gently as possible. "I'll take you directly to the hospital. At the moment you look in worse shape than I."

Raoul didn't protest, just lay in the robot's arms as he loped off into the night, his stride so steady that all Raoul could feel was a gentle rocking as if he were in a boat. He wondered if he should be terrified right now, he wondered if Tracks was going to spirit him away to his hidden spaceship and pack him up as a live specimen...

Then he wondered no more as blessed unconsciousness took over.

"Okay, Raoul, what did we learn last night?"

Raoul grimaced and adjusted the ice pack against his scalp. "Real hospitals aren't anything like the ones on ER or Scrubs."

"Try again," Dad chided, keeping his gaze on the road.

"Don't get fresh or crack wise with the nurses."

"What else?"

"Don't freak out when the doctor says you're gonna need stitches."

"Did you happen to learn something about careful driving as well?"

Raoul sighed. "Look, Dad, I'm sorry, it was a stupid mistake. It won't happen again."

"Good to know. Though seeing as you're carless at the moment, I'm pretty sure it won't happen again for awhile."

Raoul sighed again and leaned back in the passenger seat of Dad's Toyota. What a night. After passing out in Tracks' arms, he had awakened on a gurney with a harried-looking doctor trying to pry his eyelids open to check his pupils, and an attractive-looking nurse cutting off his shirt with a pair of scissors. (Said nurse had proceeded to slap him when he'd told her sorry, but he already had a girlfriend -- he hoped he hadn't gotten her in trouble with the hospital for that.) From what he'd been able to gather, a doctor ducking out for a smoke break had found him lying right outside the ER doors, bloody and muddy and drenched from head to toe. Luckily, when all was said and done he had nothing worse than a broken arm, twelve stitches in his forehead, and a concussion that had left him with a whanging headache.

He'd been tempted to tell the giant-robot story to the doctors, figuring that if they didn't believe him they could just chalk it up to the head injury. But in the end he'd opted to play it safe, and he'd just told them that the last thing he remembered was taking the curve on McConnohie Avenue too fast and losing control, and he had no idea how he'd ended up in front of the hospital. When the police had reported that there were signs of a wreck but no vehicle at the accident site, everyone just assumed someone had carted the totaled Corvette off for parts and left it at that.

Doctor said I must have had a guardian angel looking out for me. Heh. Fifteen-foot steel guardian angel, maybe... or he was, at any rate, dunno where he ran off to...

"Earth to Raoul, come in Raoul."

"Huh? Sorry, just thinking."

"Hope you're thinking about how you're going to get to work from here on out," Mr. Chain told him.

"I... was hoping I could use your car for awhile... I leave after you get home and get home before you leave, after all..."

"Sure thing. Just waiting for you to ask, want you to use your own brain for once... what the hell..."

Raoul looked up... and felt a thrill of something that could have been excitement or terror, he wasn't sure. The Corvette was sitting in the driveway, gleaming in the morning sunlight, without a single scratch, dent, or cracked window. Upon spotting Raoul Tracks flickered one headlight, as if winking, then went still again.

"I thought you said you totaled it!"

"I did!" Raoul protested, throwing open the door and jumping out before his dad could bring the Toyota to a complete stop. He jogged over to the convertible and gave it a thorough examination. No weld marks, no scuffs, nothing to indicate it had ever been damaged or even repaired. Whoever Tracks had gone to for repairs, they'd done an incredible job.

"Raoul," Dad said slowly, "what's going on here?"

Raoul looked up at his dad, then back down at the car. "We can tell him, right? I'd trust him with anything. And he knows machines. Better than I do."

Tracks gave a laugh and opened his doors. "Both of you get in. I have something to show you, and I can explain everything on the journey."

Mr. Chain shook his head as if shooing a fly. "Which one of us whacked his head last night?"

Raoul laughed. "First car I buy and I get one with an attitude, huh?" he chuckled, and hopped into the driver's seat.

An hour and a half later, Tracks finally pulled off the freeway and took a winding road through a hilly stretch of rangeland, not speaking so he could concentrate on the road. That was fine by Raoul -- he was going to need awhile to digest Tracks' story anyhow.

A world populated by transforming robots. A mysterious artifact called the Allspark that could give life to worlds and machines. A brutal firebrand of a leader who wanted the Allspark's power for himself... and a noble hero who would stop at nothing to ensure the Allspark didn't fall into his lunatic hands. A world laid to ruins in the ensuing war... and a race doomed to extinction by the terrible but ultimately necessary destruction of the Allspark. And a transmission that flooded and continued to flood the galaxy, calling the Autobots to a new home...

"I am Optimus Prime. And I send this message to any remaining Autobots seeking refuge among the stars. We are here. We are waiting."

"And so we came," Tracks said at last once they reached a straight stretch of road. "Some alone, some in groups, but a few at a time we have arrived on your world. And will continue to arrive. Cybertron is uninhabitable now, thanks to the war... but hopefully we can live among you on Earth, and live out the remainder of our existence in peace."

"How many of you?" asked Raoul, imagining the planet suddenly overrun by giant robots.

"Not many. The war decimated our numbers. And we are scattered throughout the galaxy -- it may take centuries before the final stragglers locate your planet."

"What about these Decepticons?" asked Dad, sounding remarkably calm now that he'd had the chance to absorb everything. "This Barricade fellow you and my son ran into last night, for example. What if they catch this transmission and come here too?"

"That is entirely possible," Tracks acknowledged. "And all the more reason for us to marshal our forces here -- to protect your people from their possible vengeance."

Raoul tapped the steering wheel thoughtfully with the fingers of his left hand. "How'd you get an AIM account, Tracks? And an e-mail address? How'd you talk to me and learn so much about our planet's pop culture? And why did you talk to me? You could have just stayed a car until you found out where to find this Optimus dude..."

"The World Wide Web, of course," Tracks replied. "I have a high-speed wireless connection in my Central Processing Unit -- my CPU. All Autobots were advised to make use of it to learn your language and mannerisms, but I... made more use of it than most. And I came to love your planet and its culture, its music, its cinema. As for why I contacted you... it gets very lonely sitting in a garage all day. I craved contact of some sort. You provided it."

So Tracks truly had been homebound, as he'd suggested in their first conversation. Just not in the way Raoul had assumed. "I guess that explains your engine mysteriously dying at the car wash. And why you were so picky about the car -- because you WERE the car."

"I take... considerable pride in my appearance," Tracks admitted.

"But what about when you got the shakes? What was that about?"

"Insects," Tracks said with disgust. "Your planet is swarming with them. I can't abide organic guts against my chassis."

Raoul burst out laughing. "It makes so much SENSE now that I think about it." Then he slapped the dashboard in a friendly way, as if he were whacking a friend on the shoulder. "But you know, if you care so much about your looks, maybe you can wash and wax yourself every now and again, okay?"

Tracks chuckled. "It's a deal. Just keep the fuzzy dice far away from me."


For a time they continued on in silence, the humans continuing to mull over what they had recently learned about their new friend, and Tracks focusing on the road. Raoul finally broke the silence.

"How did you end up in somebody's old shed in the first place? Did someone steal you and hide you there?"

"No," Tracks replied. "I came in a party of three to your planet -- Sideswipe and Sunstreaker accompanied me. But we happened to land in a field overrun with organic livestock -- cattle, I believe you call them -- and in the ensuing stampede and confusion we were separated. I narrowly escaped discovery by the owner of said livestock, and I judged it best to find a hiding place. So I waited by the highway, scanned the first suitable vehicle for my size and... personal tastes, and located an abandoned shed where I could wait for a more appropriate time to search for my comrades. But I was discovered by the new owners of the property... and you know the rest."

"You think your friends are okay?" Raoul asked.

"Oh, I have no fear for those two," Tracks chuckled. "They're perfectly capable of taking care of themselves."

"So where are we going again?" Dad asked.

"To meet Optimus Prime and his elites," Tracks replied. "You will like the Prime, I think. And I can't wait to introduce you to Jazz! The two of us go back a long way, and I think you'll like him! There's a mech with a sense of style..."

Tracks finally came to a stop atop a grassy hill... and made a buzzing sound that almost seemed to be a gasp of wonder. "We're not alone."

Four vehicles were parked in the shade of a few trees twenty feet ahead of them -- a yellow Camaro with black racing stripes, a black Topkick pickup truck, a lime-green Hummer H2 rescue vehicle, and an enormous blue Freightliner semi truck streaked with flames. Raoul didn't get out of the car right away, suddenly nervous. Were these Autobots? Decepticons? Vehicles belonging to humans who were up here to picnic or something?

Tracks uttered a sudden string of clicks, whirrs, and electronic sounds, no doubt his native language. The Freightliner replied in kind, and with a click of satisfaction the Corvette's doors opened.

"Raoul, Mr. Chain, this is Optimus Prime. The leader of our people."

As Raoul climbed out of the car, the Freightliner's chassis broke apart and rearranged itself, and a robot far taller than Tracks emerged. Gleaming blue and scarlet and silver in the sunlight, with a strangely simian face and a helm spired like a crown, he gazed down at Raoul and his father with blue eyes that burned with intelligence far beyond anything Raoul could imagine.

Tracks gently nudged Raoul forward with his door. "Go on, introduce yourself," he prompted. "He won't bite."

"Uh... hi," he began, waving. "I'm Raoul. Raoul Chain." He gestured toward his father, who had exited the vehicle and was staring up at Prime with a wondering expression. "This is my dad, Douglas Chain."

Prime sank down to his knees, no doubt trying to put his guests at ease. "A pleasure to meet you, Raoul and Douglas," he rumbled, his voice strong and deep but not unkind. "Tracks speaks most highly of you."

At this point Tracks split apart and assumed his robot form, as if Prime speaking his name was permission for him to transform.

"He does?" gaped Raoul.

Prime nodded. "He contacted us two of your planets' lunar cycles ago and gave us his location and the circumstances of his arrival. He was awaiting the proper time to rendezvous with us."

"Oh. Uh... sorry to hold him up..."

"On the contrary," Prime interrupted, a smile touching his metallic features. "We thank you for sheltering him all this time, and for taking care of him." He turned to the other vehicles, who had all transformed by this time into their robot forms. "My weapons specialist Ironhide."

The black robot who had once been the Topkick revved his cannons eagerly.

"Medical officer Ratchet."

The former Hummer nodded.

"And warrior Bumblebee."

The yellow robot, undoubtedly the Camaro, gave a cheerful little wave.

Tracks' gaze moved from one Autobot to the next as their names were spoken. "Where is Jazz, Prime? I was under the impression that he accompanied you."

Prime lowered his massive head and spoke in a solemn tone. "My apologies, Tracks... but Jazz was terminated in the Battle at Mission City."

Tracks' mouth fell open in a stunned expression. Then he lowered his gaze, pressing a fist over his chestplate to salute his fallen comrade. "How did he die?" he asked quietly.

"Fell in battle," Ironhide growled, his voice rough but sympathetic. "Megatron himself tore him apart. Smelt of a way to go, but if you gotta go, a hero's death's the best."

"I couldn't save him," Ratchet added solemnly. "I tried, but he was too far gone. I'm sorry."

Feeling awkward but still pitying the Autobot, Raoul reached up with his uncasted arm and patted Tracks' leg. "Hey, sorry about your friend. Really."

Tracks looked down with a brave sort of smile. "Don't be, Raoul. He wouldn't have wanted us to grieve for him. He would have wanted us to move on. I'm sure of it."

The chatter of voices caught his attention, and he turned to look at the cluster of trees just beyond Bumblebee. His dad had already gone over there to acquaint himself with the three figures standing there -- three human figures.

"Um..." began Raoul.

"Human allies of the Autobots," Prime assured him. "Much like you."

A young man several years Raoul's junior strolled over, smiling a little self-consciously as he extended a hand. "Hi there. Sam. Sam Witwicky."

"Raoul Chain," he replied, holding out his left hand. "I'll have to shake your left hand, my right's kind of tied up."

Sam laughed and took Raoul's left hand in his. "Welcome to the gang, I guess."

"How'd you get mixed up with these guys, out of curiosity?"

"Bought a car." Sam nodded at Bumblebee. "Turned out to be a giant robot. Who knew?"

Raoul chuckled.

"Oh, and this is Mikaela. Mikaela Banes." Sam nodded at the attractive dark-haired girl who had moved to stand by his side. Raoul had to admit that under other circumstances, he might have asked her out right then and there... but Alexis would kill him if she found out, and besides, it seemed she was already taken.

"And you are..." he prompted, turning to face the third member of their little group, a thirty-ish man in military fatigues.

"Captain William Lennox," he replied, briskly shaking Raoul's hand. "Part of the team who first ran into the NBEs... um, Transformers out in Qatar. Long story."

"And probably one covered up by the government," Raoul added.

"Bingo," Lennox replied. "Which brings up something else..."

"I'm not stupid," Raoul told him. "I know how stuff like this works. And I'm not telling anyone. Who'd believe me anyhow?"

"Same here," Dad added. "You can trust us."

Lennox nodded once, pleased. "Good."

Prime, who had been silent while the humans had been introducing themselves to each other, suddenly cocked his head to one side, and a slow smile crossed his features. "I've just received a transmission," he informed the gathered humans and Autobots. "Two more Autobots are on their way."

"Sideswipe and Sunstreaker?" asked Raoul excitedly.

Prime laughed. "I see Tracks has been telling you about some of his comrades. Yes, they identified themselves as Sideswipe and Sunstreaker. We should be seeing them shortly." He nodded at Raoul and his father. "But for now... we have kept you here long enough. You may return home... though perhaps we might call on you again, if circumstances warrant."

"Can't we stay here just a bit longer?" asked Raoul. "I'd like to meet more of you."

"Same here," Dad added. "Not every day you get to meet a giant sentient transforming robot, after all."

"Very well," Prime said, nodding. "You may remain. Be warned, though, that Sideswipe and Sunstreaker did not give an ETA, so it may be a long time before they arrive."

Raoul walked over to the nearest tree and took a seat, deciding to enjoy the view from the hilltop they waited. He'd just gotten comfortable when a bone-jarring thump startled him, and he turned to see Tracks settling himself right beside him.

"And what would happen to your paint job if you accidentally sat on me?" asked Raoul teasingly.

"Oh, the horror," Tracks retorted, grinning.

There was something else Raoul wanted to say, but the words kept sticking in his throat. He finally forced them out: "Tracks, I'm sorry about the other night. About the 'stupid machine' comment. I hope you can forgive me."

"No, Raoul," Tracks assured him quietly, patting his shoulder with surprising gentleness. "It is I who must apologize for my behavior. Despite trying to familiarize myself with human culture, I still tend to forget that you humans see machinery as lifeless servants. I should have been more understanding of your point of view."

"It's okay, Tracks. Let's just forget about it and start over, okay?"

"That sounds perfectly reasonable."

"Deal, then." Raoul looked Tracks up and down, then let a grin cross his face. "You know... it's a shame to keep such a classy car as yourself under wraps. You think your boss would mind if I entered you into some classic car shows or something?"

"I doubt he'd mind in the least," Tracks replied, beaming. "You really think I would perform well at such an exhibition?"

"You kidding me? You'd win big! Though we'd have to give you a good primping and waxing before each show, I'm sure that'll be torture..."

"Oh, spare me," Tracks laughed. "But why limit it to the car show? Raoul, you must visit that drive-in theater more often, you know... it's one thing to download a movie into your CPU, and quite another to experience it with your own optics and audials. And surely there's an outdoor theater for the performing arts around here... or outdoor concerts and such..."

Raoul laughed as Tracks went on, his optics glowing with delight. It seemed to Raoul that life with a living car was going to be a lot of fun. A little hectic, maybe. More than a little dangerous, maybe. But still fun.


"Hnngh?" He must have dozed off. "Whazzat?" he grumbled, prying his eyes open.

Tracks was crouched before him, a look of such joy on his face it made him seem like a child at Christmas. "Come see this! It's amazing!"

Raoul pulled himself to his feet with a little help from Tracks' outstretched hand. Then he followed Tracks to the lookout, where all five Autobots and their human friends had gathered to watch whatever-it-was.

"What's going on?" he asked Sam, moving to stand beside him.

Sam just pointed.

Raoul glanced down at the road winding toward them, a dark ribbon against the rangeland that surrounded this desolate hill. Dusk was falling rapidly, drenching everything in shadow... but that only further revealed just what had excited Tracks so. For the ribbon of road was packed with vehicles, headlights gleaming as they wound their way closer.

"They're here," Prime rumbled, voice so thick with emotion Raoul could hardly believe it came from a machine. "More Autobots. They have heard the summons."

"This is so amazing," murmured Mikaela, reaching up to touch Bumblebee's hand. The Camaro nodded, not tearing his optics away from the sight.

Raoul couldn't blame any of them for being excited. When Tracks had spoken of Autobots hearing Prime's transmission and making the pilgrimage to Earth, he'd expected them to trickle in a handful at a time, sneaking their way onto the streets. He hadn't expected to see a caravan of them riding triumphantly toward their leader -- sleek sports cars, agile little motorcycles, hulking tractors and construction equipment, blocky SUVs and vans, even a fire engine with all lights ablaze. To any other observer it would simply look like the world's craziest traffic jam...

But to these Autobots, it was a sign of hope. A continuation of their homeworld, their legacy.

Tracks pointed to the very head of the pack, two slick Lamborghini Murcielago Roadsters driving side by side and gleaming brightly even in the dim light -- one golden yellow, the other a beautiful shade of "Arrest Me!" red. "Sideswipe and Sunstreaker, leading the charge. Quite typical of them."

Raoul couldn't stop grinning. "I can't wait to meet them." He thumped Tracks' leg good-naturedly. "I'm happy for you. I really am."

"That means a lot to me, my friend."

Friend. It was an odd word coming from a giant robot. But Raoul liked it.