There was nothing quite as un-nerving as waking up in the middle of the Montana wilderness with a bull elk standing eight feet away from you.
It was even worse when the animal belted out an adoring love-song. Especially when it sounded like a cross between the screech of a freight-train and a semi needing to get the brakes adjusted.
Five AM in the morning, and the sun was barely peeking over the pale blue ridge of the Montana mountains. A faint hint of frost clung to the pine needles and silvered their tips.
In the edge of the small clearing, two cars sat idle, as if their owners had parked them within the confines of the forest before they'd shouldered their packs and tromped off for a weekend of carefree hiking.
From where it was halfway sheltered by a broad-limbed fir tree, the broad red sweep of a classic Chevrolet Camaro's nose jutted out, painted with contrasting wide white stripes.
Nearby sat another car, front tires askew. A dusty black and grey Pontiac Trans-Am, the sloping wheel wells spattered with fans of dried red mud.
The elk's bellowing was answered by a rather foul string of curse words.
In response, the bull merely flicked his ears and let out another ear-splitting whistle. He threw his head back, antlers flush along his shaggy shoulders. He bawled over and over again, advertising to any cow within earshot the fact that he was ready and able to help her out with anything she might need to ask of him.
In an instant, the Camaro's engine roared to life with a deep throated growl that sounded as if every wolf within a forty mile radius had taken up residence under the car.
The headlights flicked on as the Camaro seemed to rise up on its tires, silver side mirrors flattening back against the windows. A faint hiss-click sounded as windshield wipers stuttered across dry glass, sweeping away the scattered pine needles and accumulated dust.
Stubbornly - or perhaps because his mind was on far better things - the elk planted all four feet and curled his upper lip back, bobbing his head up and down. He seemed ready to take on the wolves with much stomping and snorting and goring in an effort to impress his hoped for girl.
A guttural sound of a transmission popping suddenly from park into first gear was the reply. The red car abruptly lunged from underneath the tree. The trunk dropped, and the hood tipped back on into the air as the independent front suspension tensed under the strain of holding the car in place under the torque. With a roar, the Camaro thundered into the clearing, headlights aligning to make a perfect bull's-eye on the elk's pale, shaggy rump.
"Get out of here, you stupid horny bastard!"
Nearby, the Trans-Am's headlights offered up a bleary blink. Then the left one rose in an expression of mechanical surprise. The grey car settled down over its tires, nose inches from the ground, wheels turned slightly to watch the impending face off between a ton and a half of prime muscle car... and half a ton of prime Montana elk.
The elk jerked his neck back and forth, pawing up a swath of dust. The Camaro reared back, rear tires flattening under the full weight of the vehicle.
"I said, get out of here! Go on! Scram before I turn you into dog meat," the Camaro yelled.
The elk lowered his antlers and rattled them in threat.
"Moron," the car snorted, rattling his framework in return. "You want to play that game?" The vehicle revved its engine. "All right, here's my answer. Five seconds and then I transform and kick your ass. Annoying hoofed mammal in the corner pocket!"
The elk held its ground for exactly four seconds before it turned and kicked off in a mighty leap, flinging itself up in a high bound straight for the underbrush. Obviously it finally saw the folly in facing down the hunk of steel and glass after all, and decided no matter how many girls were nearby, it didn't do any good to be dead for them. Quickly it vanished into the forest.
The beams of light spilling from the Camaro's rounded headlights narrowed in triumph and it turned itself in a tight circle, leaving long sweeps of tire tracks behind it in the dirt. "Goddamn moose," the Cybertronian growled.
"Er... um... I'm pretty sure that was an elk."
In mid-turn the Camaro stopped, then swung its broad nose to face the Trans-Am. "Elk, moose, what the hell is difference? It's large, it stinks, and if it ever wakes me up out of that sort of dream again, it will be dead, just like half of his ugly friends lining the highways out here."
Sliding forward, the dusty black hood of the other sports car dipped low over the tires, as if it was stretching off a long sleep.
"Moose are totally different from elk," the feminine voice offered. It drifted out from under her hood as she too swiped a wiper across her windshield, clearing away the debris." Er, elk are smaller, usually are in herds; moose are larger, mostly solitary - ah, plus moose have palm shaped antlers, where elk antlers are like tree-branches and tines."
A dry snort accompanied the rumbled growl of the Camaro's engine. A faint wisp of steam worked its way out of his hood grooves and rose lazily into the air. Slowly, the passenger door on the red vehicle swung open, then shut with a sharp bang that caused the Trans-Am to open both headlights in surprise again.
"Well, thank you for the wild animal report this morning, Marlina Perkins. Funny, you know, after the last encounter, you'd think your observations of the native wildlife would be brimming full with confidence. Oh wait, I don't know - was that a moose or an elk from your vantage point on top of that tree?"
A slight flattening from the right headlight slitted the Trans Am's vehicular expression into an obvious wince.
"Moose," the long black car mumbled and sunk down until the front axles creaked softly. Mud flakes drifted off the wheel well as she shifted her tires uncomfortably back and forth along the inside fenders, digging the edge of the rubber into the loam until it had created a little ridge of dirt.
"You sure? I don't know how you could really tell from way up in that tree? Hmmm, ah- that's right, you mentioned something about palm shaped antlers. Guess you could see those pretty well. Weren't they aimed for your skidplate?"
The dark car crunched down lower on all four tires as if it wanted to curl up like a disturbed pillbug. Embarrassment tinged every syllable. "Yeah, they were. It was a moose, Ace. I got a really good view of it while I was, er... up there."
"Heh." the Camaro replied, chuckling. Thinking back on that situation brought a smile to his thoughts.
There was humor in a giant transforming robot frantically scrambling her way up a lodgepole pine. Or maybe it was the echoing yelp of surprise; trees were not supposed to hold Cybertronians. That tree had sure bent like a bow under her weight and dangled her teasingly over the raging ungulate as if she was a candy-filled pinata.
The moose had taken full advantage of the opportunity and robotic rump presented to it by rearing on its hind legs and slashing at the air with feet the size of serving platters. Furious that it had been thwarted in its attempt to smash the offending robot into a black and grey manhole cover, it had clubbed the underbrush aside, clearing a spot to seemingly entice the thing above it into gracefully falling down into its range.
When that didn't work, the moose decided suddenly that it would climb the tree come hell or high water, and drag the girl down. It had flung its forelegs around the tree and scrabbled desperately with the hind ones, managing only to get three feet or so off the ground until it slid back down, grunting angrily, flanks heaving.
Ace could only remember laughing so hard it had broken some minor linkage in his side. Even thinking about all the things he'd seen in his time, that sort of thing didn't happen every day.
Well, except on stupid home video shows. Ace still regretted the fact all he'd managed to be carrying with him that day was his camera, and not his vid-recorder.
The Trans-Am was warily observing the direction the elk had fled, as if she too was remembering that encounter.
"Well, now I'm awake," the red car offered with a long, mechanical stretch. Around them, morning light trickled its way through the branches and touched the dry, yellowed grass. "What say we head down into the city for the morning? I don't feel like sitting here and waiting for the birds to use me as target practice, unlike you, nature girl."
A sigh, the Trans-Am started her own engine. A cloud of vapor blew out from the exhaust as it rattled into life; her lifters ticked roughly as sluggish, cold oil lifted from the catch-pan and began to coat them. A nimbus of burning blue smoke rolled slowly from underneath the narrow ground clearance of the car.
"I don't know..." the black vehicle said, obvious hesitation in her voice. "Shouldn't we wait until Deuce gets back?"
Ace's scoff sent pine needles flying through the air.
"Let me think for a second about that," the Camaro snorted. "Oh, wait, my answer is no. Dart, I'm sure as hell not waiting for him because the great grey wonder took off early this morning to try and get a better connection for an upload. Last time, the nearest place he found that decided to mesh with everything turned out to be some damn place in central Oregon."
Dart blinked both headlights. "Seriously? Where in central Oregon, do you remember?"
"Sun River. That's where it finally seemed to kick in."
"Sun River? Really? Wow, I always thought the only thing there was a lot of ski resorts. Maybe all the cell-phone towers they planted there help relay signal or something."
"Now that seems pretty damn stupid. Who names a ski resort Sun River? That's sort of like naming a surfing bay Shark Reef, isn't it? Stupid."
"Oregonians, I guess..."
"Yeah, I - wait, you mean there's actually a term for humans that live in Oregon? They actually call themselves Oregonians?"
"Uh huh. That's the title of one of the newspapers down there too, you know that. The Oregonian."
The Camaro dropped down on both tires in a nod. "It is, go figure. Gotta love those human imaginations. Okay, well, enough about Oregon. Look around. Whoa, it's Montana, and it's morning, and I'm interested in grabbing road and getting out from the middle of nowhere and into civilization, and maybe getting a tank full of decent gas to fill up on.
"If you want to sit around and wait for Deuce to wander back, be my guest. Enjoy the pine needles and the dirt. Play nice with the moose this time." The red Camaro executed a sharp turn and slipped onto the gravel road that led towards the turnout.
A cough escaped the Trans-Am. She popped her clutch, rolling forward to follow him. "Well... er, if you don't mind the company, and well, if you're sure Deuce won't be back until late, sure, I'll go with you. We'll be back before tonight, right?"
"Sure. Takes about forty five minutes to scoot into town from up here. However, I want to grab some stuff while I'm down there, pick up some CD's that someone borrowed and failed to return."
Raising her headlight again, the black car tilted herself to the side, her suspension rocking her back and forth on the rear sway bar. It was obvious she was wondering a few things; perhaps how Ace could know that he was missing some CD's in the first place.
His collection was often strewn all over his floorboards and back seat; Beatles albums entwined with empty beer cans and Styrofoam cups from numerous fast food joints, maps of Montana, and strangely enough, one lone sock with happy orange kitties all over it.
Dart had been with him when Ace had cleaned up the mess a few weeks ago, and she still hadn't forgotten his amazing technique. The mech had thrown open his doors and shaken himself like a dog after a bath, flinging crumpled up wads of burger wrappers and collected junk into the alley. Nonchalantly whistling, he'd transformed to pick up the CD's and important bits to stuff them back into himself, and left the rest for the sanitation department to clean up at a later date.
For someone who kept himself glossy and neat on the outside, he sure didn't seem to care one whit what piled up on the inside. Maybe it was the fact he had tinted windows, and no one could see in? She wasn't sure.
Under their tires, the gravel road crunched and crackled. The stone had been laid a long time ago on the logging roads, and after the seventies had placed a moratorium on logging, the private funding to keep the paths viable had died swiftly. Nowadays, the only things to use these deeply cratered trails were the four wheeled fire patrols and the occasional pair of sweating rangers in their open-air Jeep.
Well, that and a few drunk motorcyclists straddling their Kawasaki dirt bikes, open beer cans wedged between their thighs. They never were good witnesses to giant robots, so hey, no problem.
"Forty minutes?" Dart echoed, trailing after Ace as he kicked up a winding thread of red dust. "Are you sure? I mean, I thought it was more like an hour and fifteen to the city from here?"
The hard-packed road underneath both cars was as solid as concrete. Potholes had set themselves into deep ruts that could probably swallow a Toyota Tercel and have room left over to snack on a Honda. The Trans-Am tried to avoid them, but every once in a while she'd fail and the crunching sound of undercarriage would rasp through the morning.
With obnoxious grace, the Camaro evaded every hole, his tires unerringly tracking over the smoothest spots. "Nah, forty minutes, give or take five for traffic. It's pretty light on a Saturday morning. No one else is either up this early or they're all sleeping off the hangover they sucked down with the hot-wings at Hooters the night before."
Dart quietly compared the speed limits and the distance, thoughtfully flicking one windshield wiper across her windscreen, and came up with the only plausible explanation.
"Um... forty minutes if you disobey every traffic law in existence, right?"
Ace swerved to avoid a deep rut, spinning up a cloud of dust behind his tires. "Nah," he replied and gunned his engine. "Only what someone else considers the important ones."
Dart laughed, leaning lightly against a telephone pole, her hands tucked deep into her open hip carriers as if they were pockets. She shifted her weight, brought the edge of her toe up to casually itch at her calf, looking down at the Camaro idling a few meters away from her.
"It wasn't cheating," she offered. "You said - first one down to the bottom of the road."
"I meant in vehicle mode," Ace replied, and managed somehow to give his grillwork the impression that it was frowning. "You knew what I meant."
"Bottom of the road," the tall lanky robot replied, leaning her spoiler against the rough pole behind her. Her sensors picked up the rich, oily smell of the creosote used to treat the wood; she sniffed lightly at it, optics half-shuttering at the greasy scent. Tilting her chin, she looked up, admired the wires stretched across the morning sky, grey, sharp lines against the blue. Between the cables, spider webs caught the dew and shimmered, revealing every painstaking placement of sticky thread. "You said first one to the bottom of the road, and I'm here first, right?"
The Camaro snorted. The noise was loud enough to be heard over the heavy roll of his engine. "Doesn't count, sorry."
Dart stepped away from the telephone pole. "You know, I'm starting to think you don't want to give me five dollars to run through the car wash. Do you even have five dollars?"
"It would take ten bucks to work through your first layer of tree sap," Ace replied, completely ignoring her other question. Then the Camaro chuckled. He turned his tires sideways, dipping his hood slyly. "So, all right. Since we're off the backroad, and you won't be bottoming out quite so much, how about we try again? Double or nothing, kiddo."
The courier hesitated in mid-stride, and took her hands out of her hip carriers. With a quick press of her palms, she clicked them both shut and looked down at the car, then fidgeted from one foot to the other. Over the lean planes of her shoulders, her spoiler lifted and rattled softly. "Er, you wouldn't even give me the five dollars for beating you here fair and square. I don't think you'll give me ten."
"When have I lied to you?"
"You lie all the time, Ace."
"To Deuce. That's totally different. The great grey bastard deserves it. He practically lives for it. Seriously though, ten if you - and I doubt you can - outrace me down. Vehicle mode. None of this oh, gee, I'll transform and run my skinny data-courier skid-plate out of here," he said firmly, drawing himself up on all four tires.
Ace chuckled, turned slowly and deliberately until he was once again sitting between the lines of the paved road. Years of sun and rain had faded the asphalt to a pale silver, and tiny blades of grass were encroaching on the median. They had yellowed with the frost; one more growing season passed, one winding back road unconquered by nature.
"You put all four tires to the ground," the mech insisted. "We race down. First one past the turn-off down on Front Street wins."
Dart frowned thoughtfully. "Ace, um... a lot of the route's where people are."
"What if a cop pulls us over for speeding?"
"I suppose you could tell him it's an emergency or something, like you're having someone's baby or something."
Dart reared back and sidestepped, her spoiler flicking over her shoulders. "Uh. No. The only time that excuse works is when there's someone in the car actually having said baby, you know?"
"Eh, fake it," Ace replied, shifting his weight over his rear tires. "Do what ever you girls do in those situations."
The courier inclined her head. "Me personally? Um, I'd be begging some random passerby to please, please, dial 911 and get the woman in labor out of my back seat and to a hospital."
"I don't think she'd be in your back seat in the first place, unless it involved a whole hell of a lot of pushing and some forty weight to help her get in there. GM wasn't thinking straight when it designed your interior."
"GM didn't have a choice when they were designing a lot of the eighties vehicles, you know. It was after the Carter administration - and the gas crisis, remember?"
"That was a goddamn engine problem, not an interior design one. Carter's emissions regulations basically took a carving knife to anyone's nuts that happened to be dangling over the three fifty bore mark."
Dart looked down at herself for a moment, then canted her head. "Gosh, gee... um, when it's explained like that, I'm so glad I'm a girl."
"My point exactly. See, makes perfect sense now, doesn't it, your alt-mode being an American sports car of the eighties? Notice what you're missing?"
A little grin tweaked the corners of Dart's lips. Her spoiler lifted up over her shoulders, and the tips peered over her back in a jaunty twitch. "Yes... but it's nothing important."
The Camaro paused, flicked his antenna in a small circle. "Whatever," he told her, as he rocked his weight to his left side; his staggered rear shocks creaked under the heft of his plating. "You going to earn your ten dollars, or should I just go ahead and call it mine, like it was in the first place?"
"Hey, I earned that five dollars, and you're being awfully stingy with it. Geeze, it's not even enough to buy Dan a meal at McDonalds, much less me a quarter tank of gas," she replied. "I don't think for some reason I'm going to get ten out of it, even if I beat you."
"You're definitely not going to get ten out of it, because you'll be owing me that ten when we get to Front Street. There's no way in hell you're beating me on the road in that mode."
Dart picked her way lightly across the ground as she walked towards him. Ace shifted his weight over his rear tires and let his front end drift off the ground a bit as if he was craning his neck upwards to glance at her. His side mirrors flattened as the scruffy femme stood there, obviously debating what to reply. She hesitated, looked down the road. A frown-
"Chicken," he scoffed, cutting her off before she could say anything.
"No, I'm just..."
"Buk buk," Ace clucked, and revved his engine. His wheels caught the edge of the paved road and slid into the gravel. His rear tires spun, tossing tufts of dry grass behind him until he heaved himself back onto firm purchase. Deliberately, he turned his nose back, showing her a perfect view of his tail lights and rear bumper. He tapped his brakes, letting the red panels flash in a vehicular thumb of his nose.
"Hey, just because I don't want to throw myself pell-mell over an occupied road..." she began.
"Buk buk buk buk bukkity," he crowed, revving his engine, drowning her words out.
"Ace!" she complained, raising her voice to be heard over his chicken imitation.
He turned, angling his wheels enough to fix her in a sideways glance, framed in his right headlight.
Dart eyed him back, frowning.
"Buk you," he told her, his tone one of great dignity.
Dart's slow blink was echoed by the laughter that rocked the Camaro from side to side. Even the set of white fuzzy dice hanging from his mirror bounced back and forth, jangling with mirth, and he revved his engine again.
The courier's optics slitted slightly.
Ah-ha! Ace knew he'd gotten a rise out of her, no matter what she seemed to think her gender didn't need.
"Okay," Dart said, dropping her arms to her sides and falling into a runner's crouch, leg kicked restlessly back behind her. She stretched it, pointing her toe, then tucked it back under her and extended out the other one, like a sprinter shaking herself out before the hundred-yard dash.
Then, with a sudden, decisive nod, the courier folded in on herself, the mechanical sounds of transformation echoing across the barren roadway. The front end of the Trans-Am cracked down on the pavement, the underside of her bumper striking the ground. The car lifted its headlights up slightly, let them fall.
"Front Street," she said, popping herself into first gear with a sharp lurch that made her brakes squeal and grind with shrill complaint before they fully disengaged and let her roll forward on the roadway. The black car eased around the red one carefully, fitting herself into the right hand lane, keeping her tires a foot away from the faded white line. Her sloping hood drew even with his squared off one. "Got it. If a cop pulls us over, I'm to tell him we're in a hurry because you're in labor and we need to find a mechanic right away."
Ace merely raised his frame and lowered it, letting his plating rattle out an offhand shrug.
"Nope. If that cop pulls you over, I'll be thirty miles ahead of you. Might want to work on a better excuse as you're eating my dust."
The Trans-Am's lifters rattled, vibrated the last of the pine needles off of her hood.. "Ten dollars." she repeated slowly, as if she was making sure she could cover the stake. "Front Street."
"That's a girl," Ace laughed, rolling a fraction of an inch forward. "Ready?"
In place of a nod, the Pontiac only gunned her engine, and shifted her weight so that the long, low expanse of her hood dipped even closer to the ground. The spoiler across her trunk raised and lowered with a chattering rattle.
Ace edged forward another fraction of an inch, feeling the deep tread of his back tires grip the roadway. Sandwiched between the heavy weight of his hood and the thick metal of his undercarriage, his own engine growled, deep and throaty as he too brought fuel from his systems in a rush. His entire frame sang with the force of restraint, his body straining against the clamping grip of his brake pads.
Behind both cars, vapor rose, drawn back on the early morning breeze as if it were a rope, holding them in place.
Dart's brakes squealed again, this time because her engine was revving so high it was trying to drag itself out of her front end and bound away ,with or without her. Her front tires clutched the road, but her back ones broke loose and spun two revolutions, and the courier had to slam her weight back down over her hind end to keep from fish-tailing right then and there.
Her rear tires flattened out as she forced them back into stillness, and her spoiler lifted, tilted forward, automatically doing what it did when she was in her robot mode - trying to use the wind to keep her balanced and weighted on the roadway.
In this mode, all it did was change the sports car's center of mass towards her front end, making the edge of her bumper hang inches from the roadway.
Which was exactly the sort of moment Ace himself had been waiting eagerly for. Oh, she wasn't going to get a chance to recover, sorry. That ten dollars was going to stay his ten dollars, and he'd add on another ten from her, easy. All that there would be left to do was grab Dan and make a shopping run into the nearest Best Buy to snatch up a copy of the White Album on CD. No car wash for poor Dart, but them was the breaks. Or the brakes, so to speak. Ha ha. Car humor. He loved it.
"Hyah!" he yelled. "Go!"
The Camaro's engine roared, throwing all of his forward motion into his drive train. Wide wheels clutched the road beneath him as he lunged forward. His pointed grille-work bit into the cool morning air and sucked down a bevy of unwary gnats into his fan-blades. Ace's front end ricocheted off the ground under the driving force and power of his engine torque. Blue smoke hazed behind him as the red and white vehicle roared down the road.
Behind him, a squeal snapped across the Montana landscape; the sound of a sports car losing complete control of her rear end and trying to touch hood to bumper, like a dog chasing its tail in whirling circles.
In less than two seconds Ace had slammed his transmission into second gear and was tearing down the road, opening up the distance between them. The pavement dashed past him, the broken yellow center line gluing itself back together, an illusion based solely on velocity. As he shifted into third, the motor contained within him seemed to hang silent for a second, every system poised as if it was holding its breath before it welcomed power. Sunlight gleamed across his finish and stroked up his siding with bright fingers, whisking playfully across the polished chrome of his windshield frame. Ace's engine surged under the slope of his heavy hood, pistons pounding, filling his audio sensors with background noise, mechanical heartbeat of lifter and ring.
Long stalks of grass growing by the side of the road were forced flat by the gust of his passage, A jackrabbit bounded away from the edge, fleeing a car-ton of crushing death. Huddled haughtily on a old power pole, a watchful red-tailed hawk seemed to shake her head and flick her banded wing in a frustrated snap of feathered finger. So much for an easy meal today. Shoot.
Ace's gas pedal pressed flat to his floorboards, and the Camaro hurtled forward.
Abruptly, there was a surge of black that shot up to his flank. The sloped front end nosed past his gas cap and slid up, bumper drawing even with his wheel well.
It surprised him enough that he jerked to the right. That cost him forward movement, and the Trans-Am slid past his glossy side, her engine chattering bitter protest at being so roughly treated. The dark, dusty car had an air of determination gathered around it, her headlights half-open as if she was squinting in the rush of wind. Her side mirrors were pressed tight against her doors as she struggled to close the gap between them.
He was taken aback at first, trying to figure out just how she'd managed to catch up - when he realized that the lighter car had a momentary advantage, in that his engine was having to carry along at least five hundred pounds extra weight. Maybe more - even though his car mode resembled the car perfectly, there were differences under that elegant coat of white and red paint. He was, after all, Cybertronian in one absolute respect; the metals and parts in his makeup had taken on a new mode when he'd been assigned with Deuce to cover the conflict on Earth... but they were still there.
His plating was meant to be able to deal with at least a few good hits from an energy weapon. It had come in handy in more than a few of the war-zones he'd operated in. Then again, so had his front end in this mode - he could whack a psychotic eagle bent on attacking its reflection in his chrome for a loop. Actually, he could knock it into the pavement and get a pretty satisfying thump from his left front tire, but he tried not to mention it to people. They tended to get all whiny about endangered species.
Blah blah blah, oh, gee, poor dead jackass of a bird. Damn thing deserved it. Survival of the fittest, and the fittest in this case had a few tons of metal behind it.
Besides, when he backed over it? Complete accident. How was he to know it had ended up there?
However, the courier had been built for one purpose, and she'd been built here on Earth. What she lacked in heavy, gun-worthy plating, she gained in speed. The Trans-Am drew even with the Camaro, struggling inch by inch, a game racehorse fighting to thrust her nose in front of her opponent. Her intakes roared, sucking in huge amounts of cooling through her undercarriage dam. Engines shrieked in high-pitched protest, groaning and complaining; fan-belts whirring and oscillating under the strain of fighting off the massive amounts of heat coming off the engine blocks at these speeds.
The two cars tugged back and forth at the lead, the black finally wrestling it away and diving inches in front of the red and white one.
Ace wasn't having any of that. With a grunt, he sprang forward to meet the challenge, flinging himself down the straight stretch of road. The Trans-Am buckled down, and the black car dropped her headlights completely, shoved her hood into the rush of air as she pushed past him, her flank sending shadows to ripple against his finish as she poured herself down the left hand lane.
The Camaro grunted again as the longer car swept by him, low to the ground, her tires gripping the pavement as she fought to open up the distance between them. Inch by inch, she moved past him until he could see the flat plane of her spoiler across her trunk.
Huh, well... look at this, the first corner was coming up, swerving around a large outcropping of rock. In designing the roads in Montana, the engineers had come up with a simple solution. If you couldn't blow it up or bulldoze it in fifteen minutes, it meant that the road was quickly built around it. This led to a lot of sudden elbows on straightaways, and this stretch was no exception. The black car hesitated, her engine whining, caught between the shift break of her RPM's as she flicked on her blinker.
It was an automatic gesture of lane change, one that polite drivers everywhere appreciated immensely. The red flash reflected off of Ace's chrome, right into his left headlight. Blink, blink.
The Camaro didn't hesitate - immediately, he tapped his brakes, slowed, and dropped back behind her in understanding. It was a blind corner - you couldn't see who was coming up on the other side, and the chances for a head on collision were perfectly obvious even in the middle of a lonely Montana road. Two signs were on the metal post that was rapidly approaching both of them; the white rectangle of the limit, and a yellow diamond that warned of deer.
Ace personally considered the whole silhouette-on-a-sign thing as a human exercise in stupid. Ninety percent of Montana had deer wandering along the roads, and they usually ended up smashed into little cud-chewing speed bumps. Dan once had gotten into a discussion with Ace about how that if police had to humanely destroy a deer at the scene of an accident, they were donated to local food banks.
Gee, and Dan seem so put out by his offer to do his part to help humanity by flicking on his high beams in the evening and driving really fast on the back roads. Not that it would have made a dent in the whole population; Montana might as well give up and slather the whole highway in yellow paint.
With a quick turn, Dart ducked into the right hand lane in front of Ace. She rolled her weight to her side, prepared to take the corner, her tires flattening to absorb the drift and transition.
Instantly, Ace dove out from behind her and threw himself into the open space next to her flank to blast past her in a blur of red and white.
The courier yelped in surprise, taken completely off guard. The rush of motion had startled her, and her reflexive flinch jerked her hard to the right as he snapped into the corner. Immediately, her tires nosed over the edge of the road, and the dry ruts caught her, spun her out. Brush snapped and popped, grass blades caught around her lug-nuts as if attempting to snatch the sports car back and throw her back on the road where she belonged.
Ace heard the drawn out shriek as Dart slammed on her brakes, saw her doors fly forward as if they were outstretched hands. Amazingly, the black car managed to grind to a halt fast enough to keep from being creased in half on the speed-limit pole. Red dust billowed up behind her and then settled, adding to the layers of grime on her paint.
"Speed limit's thirty-five!" he shouted. "Oh, and never brake going into a corner!"
Laughter rolled out from under his hood as he left Dart behind. On the straightaway, he could completely open up again, and that was exactly what he did. In his dashboard, the speedometer needle was flat, the tip quivering with every vibration that slid through his frame. Fanned out in a colorful array on his back seats, his CD collection rattled against each other - clicking and tapping out a rhythm in time with each spin of his wheels.
Oooh, speaking of which.
Here he was, barreling down a ribbon of asphalt under a crisp blue fall sky and not a note of music to be found. Had to fix that, right away.
Hmm. What all did he have back in the changer, anyway? He sorted through the stacked disks, his stereo offering up every title in block digital letters across his stereo faceplate. Hendrix disk. Jefferson Airplane. One of his favorites to be sure, but not exactly what he had in mind at the moment. Sure, as it had been said, there was a rising sound involved with the rabbits and Alice, but not exactly cruising music. He flicked through Yellow Submarine, a Doobie Brothers album, two Grateful Dead ones before he wasn't quick enough to flick through to the next one, and the first few bars came belting out over his stereo.
Well, hello, Golden Earring. If there was ever a cruising song to enjoy when you were about to earn the easiest ten dollars you'd ever earned in your life ( barring bets against Deuce, of course) it would be the one and only Radar Love.
The heavy thump of the drums rolled out of his speakers, made the taunt sound-cloth over them vibrate with the beat; Ace's tires grabbed the dry Montana roadway and shoved it behind him as he shot over it. Paper thin aspen leaves whipped up from where they had drifted. They shredded into veined lace with the aggressive wind of the Camaro's passage.
Fenceposts blurred, strung together with lines of rusted barbed wire. The backs of grazing range cattle were mottled roan in the dry grass. Ace stretched out over his frame, luxuriating in his speed. Sure, he'd had a few alt-modes in his time - not as many as Deuce, who seemed to glee in shifting himself to the latest modification. There was just something about this mode he could not help but secretly love. The tires perhaps? Yes, that's what made it feel heavy and real; hovering over the ground didn't compare to the dip and rise beneath you in the road.
Inside of his passenger compartment, the singer's rough grumble made his rear-view mirror vibrate. Ace couldn't help it, he had this stupid urge to slide back and forth over the yellow line in time to the beat. Yeah. That was the mark of good driving music - if it made you want to throw yourself over the road and weave, then it was the real thing. The mech took a moment to drift back and forth between the lines; his game became he couldn't touch the yellow with his tires.
He'd slid through the first fifteen when suddenly there was a burst of motion that charged up behind him. If he'd been in mech mode, his browplate might have shot up. Since he was a car at the moment, he didn't, and even managed to casually dodge two more line breaks before he opened up the comm-lines between himself and the Trans-Am.
"Hey, nice to see you, kiddo. Where have you been?" he called with grand cheer over the airwaves. The drum solo thumped in the background.
There was a crackle of static, and he could see the Trans-Am lower her headlights in what was unmistakably the precursor to one of those female sort of snits.
"Where was I?!" she barked back. "Gee, maybe I was back there nearly wrapped around a speed sign!"
Even at the rate he was hurtling over the pavement, Ace chuckled and slipped lazily between the lines once more. "Yeah, gotta watch those things. Bastards leap right out and get you."
"Ace, I had my turn signal on!"
"So do lots of little grandmas who get hit by freight trains, kiddo."
The Trans-Am gunned her engine and swung out into the open lane next to him, struggled up until her nose drew even with his front door hinge. He could hear her motor grinding, every one of her cylindersfiring in rapid, machine gun succession as she fought to overtake him again. She managed to gain half an inch on him, then another, crawling up his front panel as if dragging herself hand over hand up an invisible rope, and he could hear the roar of the air being sucked from underneath her front bumper and into her cooling system in huge gulps.
"Bet you're wishing you had a front grille, huh?" he offered conversationally.
"Nope, I'm good, really. One less thing to wash."
The Camaro glanced over at her filthy hood. "You wash? Huh, I thought black was supposed to go with everything. Turns out I was wrong. It doesn't go with dirt."
The car raised her right headlight and hauled herself up another inch. "Your ten dollars will take care of that."
"Sure, keep deluding yourself."
"What? Gah, Ace, I can barely hear you over that racket."
"Wait, wait. I know that song. It's- oh, huh- wait, don't tell me... I've got it. Radar Love, right?"
"That's not the name of the band, it's the name of the damn song," he replied, and imitated the wrong- answer buzzer on a game show, swerving to avoid a perfectly flat mashed mammal pancake on the road that had most likely been a possum. Or a exceptionally ugly squirrel with mange. "Zot! You lose."
"Who's the band?"
"Oh! Wait... right, Twilight Zone. That was their real hit, wasn't it?"
"Right. When you're off the crack, we'll try talking music again."
"Hey, just because I have better taste doesn't automatically mean I'm on drugs."
"Better taste? What? Damn, wait a second, let me finish laughing here, will you-" he paused. "Thanks, appreciate it."
"Right. I don't think I can take that too seriously from a guy who thinks Jefferson Airplane is divine intervention."
"Now wait a minute. Strong words coming from a girl who always seems to shriek out random riffs of Duran Duran on that piece of crap you call a stereo system."
"Ace, the tape is stuck. Like I have a choice when it does that..."
"Sure you have a choice. You could set fire to your instrument panel. I've heard it is possible to burn the devil out. Would it kill you to think about maybe buying a new fucking stereo? Seriously?"
"My stereo's fine."
"Oh yeah, it's a veritable find on Antique Roadshow, right there."
"It's a classic," Dart said stubbornly, trying to gain another inch on him. He flattened down and held his ground. Between them, the yellow stripe blurred nearly solid with their speed. His speedometer was buried past the last numbers, he had no doubt hers was as well.
"No. No it's not. Classic implies that it has value. The only value that thing has is the damn Duran Duran tape that's stuck in it. Even that's dubious except to guys wearing eyeliner and lip synching the words to Hungry Like the Wolf while rolling around on the ground with a half-clothed woman."
"You know, I thought that was a universal male fantasy."
"What? No. If we're rolling on the ground with a woman, guys do not want to be thinking about Simon LeBon. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. You got that?"
"I do. Totally. Weird, though. I mean, not the rolling around part and not thinking, but I didn't know you knew who Simon LeBon was, Ace."
A snort escaped the red and white car, even over the mechanical bellow of his engine, and he turned his music up higher, as if he could drown out that last comment with the drum-solo. The Trans-Am flattened her headlights at the feedback, and said something he couldn't make out, which was fine with him. He toyed with her for a second, lowering and raising the volume, and watching the black car's spoiler level back sourly, expressing her feelings about the racket. Heh, okay, that was funny, and then just to see what would happen, he dropped the song to background noise.
In answer, he got a belt back of Dart's horrid, over-trebled stereo, howling out that greatest of pop-rock vacant eighties anthems over their comm connection. Men Without Hats, shrieking out their Safety Dance. Ace's delicate sensibilities when it came to good music instantly found themselves stuffed into a bagpipe along with a screaming passel of marmosets.
Even going the speed he was at, his tires ducked and he gave an involuntary flinch that rattled his hood.
"What the hell is that?"
"I think it's One oh seven point five... Eighties rock and roll..."
"The eighties was not rock and roll. It was mostly gag and vomit. That lovely piece of acoustic garbage makes me do both. Change it."
"Wait a second! Why is it okay for you to blare something and I can't listen to music on the road while I drive?"
"Because the music you listen to is crap."
Dart paused as if trying to think how best to argue that point. Then her laughter overpowered the nasal whine of the song.
"It's crap you can dance to, at least."
Ace snorted. "Look, kiddo, find a decent station before I have to run you off of the road."
The Trans-Am sidled over. It was obvious she was considering the threat seriously. Ace heard her radio blessedly slip off of the horrible shriek and up the sideboard of stations.
"Er, how about Country?" she asked.
"I'd rather drink caustic acid. Try again."
"Deuce doesn't like Country that much either, understood."
Grey straightaway swept back behind both vehicles as they churned side by side on it. Engine noise whipped and bounced between their framework,
"Hey, the Rolling Stones... it's funny, you know, I've developed an appreciation of them. I like the song Jumpin' Jack Flash, and-"
"Hold on," he interrupted. "You better not be comparing my musical taste to Deuce's again. Once was enough, otherwise, I'm going to run you off the road out of principle."
Ace spun his own seek function on the stereo. On his dash, little blue lights flickered and rose with the digital numbers. Abruptly, he stopped, and then leaned slightly towards the black car off his flank. "Hey, try KRKX, it's ninety four point one."
The Trans-Am's tuner knob cranked backwards and forwards.
"Um... you want to be the tenth caller so you can win a KISS bowling ball?" she said, puzzled. "Wait, what do you plan on doing with it?"
"No, not the commercial," he replied. "Doesn't surprise me about the bowling ball, though. KISS fans are crazy. They're almost as bad as Trekkies. They'd buy goddamn toilet paper with pictures of the band on it. I mean, market it, call it something like KISS My Ass. Dammit I should have gone into advertising instead of photography. I would have made a small fortune, don't you think?"
"You know, I want to disagree with you," Dart replied. "But, sadly, I can't. They would buy the toilet paper. Wow, she's awfully excited over winning that bowling ball, too."
"She sounds if she's about to hyperventilate and scream. Sheesh, breathe, lady, it's not like it has your name engraved on it or anything. It's just a freaking bowling ball, already."
Although, to smack Gene Simmons' tongue with a ten-pin didn't sound half bad. Heck, using it to throw at Deuce's thick head sometime wouldn't be bad either, heh. Maybe he'd try calling later, they probably had a bunch of them to give away. The announcer was rambling on and on, spouting out that they were on Montana's 'Home of Rock and Roll.' Ace wondered exactly what that meant, since their big winter concert was called 'Frostbite' and that it was held at a Holiday Inn.
That was sort of like calling that cheap-ass eighty-four Pontiac beside him a real sports car.
"Um... I am a sports car."
"You said something about Pontiacs being sports cars, right?"
Faint strains of a drum being tapped four times broke over both radios at the same time, and Ace rolled slightly onto his left tires to take the small corner. Dart used her slight advantage when cornering to gain a bit more on the red mech, her own low-slung center of gravity allowing her to take the curve with a touch more speed. She drew up six inches closer when they barreled back into the straight road, side by side. A speed sign blurred by, offered a reminder that the limit was fifty five, and then gave up and left.
"Yeah, sports cars, and... ahhh, now, this, this is a classic."
"Oh! I do know this song... gosh, oh, you'll laugh, it reminds me of..."
Ace merely turned up the music as loud as it would go before she could ruin the song for him with whatever she was reminded of. If it was who he thought it might be, Deuce ruined enough things all on his own, and didn't need her help one bit.
The road wailed underneath his tires, his engine was strained to the limit, and the early morning sun slid along his plating. Next to the road, the grass bent at their passing. The cars rushed by a length of ramshackle, rusted barbed wire fence. On the other side, a shaggy bay horse let the mouthful of grass fall from his mouth.
Caught up in the blur of rushing speed, the gelding snorted air past his frost-rimmed whiskers, and sprang forward to gallop after the two cars. Maybe he fantasized about shedding muscle and bone for steel and motor. Ace and Dart left him far behind.
"Some people call me the Space Cowboy...yeaaaahhhh... " Ace suddenly rumbled out, as Steve Miller's familiar rusty twang rolled out of his speakers.
Dart raised her right headlight, in obvious surprise at hearing Ace's voice go into something other than a biting dissertation of her musical (and other) tastes.
"Some call me the Gangster of Love..."
The headlight lifted higher, as if drawn by an invisible string; wide open, it gave the Trans-Am the same startled look that the elk had worn earlier. Ace's singing was apparently truly as shocking as having cars challenge large deer to a one on one grudge match. Since her attention was now completely drawn off the road, she hit the pothole Ace had adroitly avoided. There was a heavy crunch as her air dam connected with the asphalt, and in the few seconds it took her to make sure it wasn't broken and regain her grip on the roadway, the Camaro had shot a good two feet ahead.
"Some people talk about me, baby... saying I'm doing you wrong..."
Dart's hood drew even once again with the flash of his chrome rims. The music echoed over their link, her tinny reverb even worse at the higher levels of sound.
"Cause I'm a picker, I'm a grinner, I'm a lover, and I'm a sinner, I play my music in the sun..."
Dart's voice burst out of nowhere to join along with him during the second half of the chorus. The courier was a bit off key, and slightly behind the beat, but she sang with far more clarity than her speakers, sadly enough.
"I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker, I get my lovin' on the run..."
Ace's headlights blinked, and then he yelled at her, managing to even overpower the guitar riff.
"Hold on, wait a minute, do you even know what a toker is, Dart?"
The Trans-Am laughed, the sound muffled under the long sweep of her hood and the rattle of her engine. The slanted nose drew even with his, the two vehicles framed each other for a moment, reflected the changing tastes of humans from one decade to another. Ace's rounded headlights, shadowed in the aggressive position of his grille; a jutting, squared off hood thrusting out over his tires. The arrowhead of his chrome bumper reflecting off the landscape around them. Dart's long slope, her headlights folded down to make one smooth curve; molded fiberglass bumper that blended back into the long body of the car.
Dart rolled down her windows a few inches, then sent them up in the automobile equivalent of a offhanded shrug, her antenna tapping against the sweep of her window frame.
"Hey, I'm not that naive, really. Come on, when I was with the Decepticons, I spent nearly all of my time working down in Oregon, you know. Trust me when I tell you, toking is probably the official State Hobby."
"Guess that's because there's not a hell of a lot else to do in Oregon," he agreed.
"Hey now, going by that theory, Montana would beat it hands down."
"Yeah yeah. Let me tell you, there stretched months so boring I thought about finally giving up and getting myself remade into a daisy-covered Volkswagen bus to follow the rest of the Dead Heads."
"Damn, no. Do you think I'd intentionally go and get rebuilt as an piss-ugly pea-green and white marvel of German engineering? Get a reality check, Dart. Besides, those rabid Garcia followers don't know the meaning of deodorant."
"You ever been to a Grateful Dead concert?"
"Well, no... I - "
"They take, 'bring on the funk' to a whole new level of meaning."
"Seriously? Hey, when did you get to go to one of their concerts..?"
"Guitar solo over, no talking," Ace said, cutting her off abruptly.
The Camaro sidled around the next corner, his tires pressed against the outside rims as that huge, weighty hood forced them to grip the pavement. Next to him, the Trans-Am tapped its brakes as it swung out. The hind end of the car nearly broke loose but her spoiler clamped back and down to hold it as it drifted out in the other lane to sink into the other car's slipstream. Her headlights closed against the rush of wind as if the black vehicle was imitating a Golden Retriever thrusting its muzzle out of the side window of a Volvo , then the two cars barreled back onto the straightaway, engines roaring.
Ace continued to sing. The landscape blurred by in flat reds and golds, the grey-green scraggly pines reflected in the glass of his windows.
Straightaways were what Ace's alt mode loved, the wide bore engine chewed up the flat, dry roads and threw them behind him.
Reflector posts were rigid with plastic awe as he shot past. At the whack of wind that followed in his wake, the poles bowed in genuflection and didn't dare raise themselves until he was nearly twenty yards away.
Inch by inch, the black car lost ground. It was as if Ace peeled a shadow away from his flank. Every rotation of tire gained him distance, and then he managed to eke one more fraction out of his gas pedal flat on the floorboards.
The song ended, and Dart was now five car lengths behind him...