A Short Story
“That’s a fine automobile you got there.”
The voice startled John, and nearly caused him to drop his beer. The liquid sloshed around in his old plastic solo cup, and a few droplets splashed on his shirt. He looked up to see a tall, white-haired man with the sort of rotund belly you just didn’t see often anymore, since the ration cuts had taken effect. The man smiled at John and offered him a shop towel to wipe his shirt with.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you like that,” the man offered. “I’m Lenny.” Lenny, of course, did not offer his hand, as the old ritual had been branded heteropatriarchalnormative, or something like that. John had never been very attentive during his anti-oppression reeducation sessions. But the older man nonetheless nodded politely and gestured to the car.
“Oh, I’m John,” he stuttered, “and it’s uh… uh a Precedent 1500. ” He set his beer down and accepted the older man’s towel.
“You’ve kept her real nice,” Lenny replied, gesturing around them. “Better detailed than most here. Doesn’t look stock either.”
John frowned at that. He appreciated that someone noticed his work, but it wouldn’t do to describe his car as better. There would be no trophy or best-in-show for his Precedent 1500, even if it was faster and cleaner than most. Awards were given according to privilege status, and white cismen were about as far down the list as one could get. He never came to the car show for trophies. In fact, he had trouble discerning just why he came at all, anymore.
“No, it’s nothing,” John answered, pointing down the line to a sticker-covered old Precedent 250, still mostly stock. “Now that’s a nice car.” He said politely.
Lenny shook his head softly, but didn’t press the point, for which John was grateful. He sipped his beer, which was no better than the sticker-covered 250, and stood awkwardly next to the older man for a few moments before curiosity got the best of him.
“So where’s your car?” John wondered aloud.
The older man smiled warmly. “She’s in the garage at home,” he answered. “I took the bus today. Same as every day, now.”
“That’s a shame.” John answered, politely ignoring the slip of gender objectification. You weren’t supposed to call things by female gender names, but it still happened sometimes. “You just don’t see many cars here anymore. We were down to 48 last month.”
“Not like you used to,” Lenny agreed. “I was coming here way back when they still had petrol burners. Of course, back then the old mall was actually open. Easy 200 cars back then.”
“No petrol in my car,” John said. “Just a pair of old Tesla motors swapped in, one front and one rear, sync’d and balanced. It’d do 150 easy, if BuTrans didn’t put the limiter on it.” He boasted a little, excited to see someone interested in the car he’d spent years putting together from old junkyard parts.
“Yeah, bummer about that.” Lenny said. The Bureau of Transportation mandated a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour for all person-driven cars and installed software to regulate their speed accordingly. John noted that it had taken away much of his acceleration, too.
Another awkward moment passed, for John didn’t know what else to say. He had never been very social at the show, but came anyway out of some deep need he didn’t entirely understand. Few people bothered to talk to him, as most of the attention was centered on Suzie and xer Precedent 250. Xe was always the star of the show, but today the crowd was interested in xer new pink carbon-fiber hood scoop sticker. That electric cars didn’t need real hood scoops, much less stickers made up to look like them, was lost on everyone. The car itself was painted with spray paint from the local hardware store. How xe got the climate offsets needed to get genuine spray paint, John didn’t know, but the rainbow paint job looked awful, supposing anyone would be honest enough with xer to say so.
He had saved for nearly a decade to buy his Precedent 1500. It had no motor when he found it sitting in the junk yard, so he refitted it with a pair of old salvaged Tesla motors, both front and rear. The paint was original, of course, since he had no climate offsets for new paint, but he had spent long hours cleaning it carefully, restoring the shine as much as he could. There were bad spots, but it was still better than most. The tires, on the other hand, were brand new and had cost a fortune, but they were beautiful and gripped the road perfectly.
The car was the one beautiful thing in his life. His apartment was a junkheap, and his ration allocation was barely livable. He could only just manage enough energy credits to keep the thing running. But it was all worth it to John, it was the one thing that made life interesting for him.
“Race time in 20 minutes,” the announcer’s voice came over the loud speakers. It wasn’t an actual race of course, for safety regulations forbid real racing. Instead, contestants would enter their personal attributes and their car’s specifications into the computer, and it would determine the winner in an interactive display. The winner, of course, was always whoever won in privilege points. John was always last place.
“I remember when Raceway Park was still open,” Lenny mused beside him. “Those were the days.”
John was wide-eyed, suddenly forgetting about the announcer and his preordained computer race. “You actually raced? Like, for real?”
“Yeah. Drag and track both. It’s a rush like you wouldn’t believe.” The older man’s eyes took on a distant look, “the smell of fuel and tire smoke, it was something else. God, it was like flying a jet engine down the strip back then. Nirvana, man. Petrol car heaven.”
The religious terms made John shuffle uncomfortably for a moment, but his awe outweighed his wrongthink. There was excitement in the pit of his stomach. He had never talked to a real racer before. He even forgot to check his age privilege. “How old are you?”
Lenny laughed. “No one’s asked me that in years…”
“I didn’t mean to uh…”
“Don’t worry about it, kid. I’m 76 as of yesterday.”
“You really did it then…” It had been almost 50 years since racing and petrol motors had been outlawed. Climate change regulation had decimated the market for them even before the ban. Most person-driven cars had followed suit, with only a few government-built electric Precedent cars still remaining road-legal. Everything else was self-driving which, besides being hideously expensive, was also profoundly boring to John’s sensibilities. There were no car shows for self-drivers.
“Yeah. I used to have this old Hellcat, full nitrous job, and let me tell you kid… she was a rocket ship. Take you to orbit on a cloud of tiresmoke, take you to the moon and back again, squealing all the way. Lenny tells no lies, kid.”
Something in the old man’s bearing made John believe it. Cheering interrupted his thoughts, as Suzie was lifted up by a crowd of adoring fans, having won the computer race by a lap against xer strongest opponent, an overweight black lesbian from downtown. That, John wrongthinked, was probably a good thing for the crowd. Lifting up Monique would have been considerably more difficult for them.
“Wish I could have raced my car,” John said, “take the limiter off, and it’d go. Those old Tesla motors are much stronger than new Precedent units. They don’t make them like that anymore.”
“I’m a petrol-head at heart, kid. But you know, toward the end we had a few like you. Some overpowered electric hot rods. Fat motors, high amp packs. We never did get to settle that question for good before the bureau shut us down.” Lenny looked out in the distance, as the evening bus settled in at the stop outside the show. “Time to go. You take care of yourself, John.”
A few months passed before John saw the old man again. Every show was the same, with Suzie and Monique vying for privilege dominance, and most of the crowd ignoring him. Sometimes a group would come and laugh at him as he wiped his car down, talking about how unoriginal and plain it was compared to the sticker-covered 250s and 220s stacked down the parking lot.
He would bring his old solo cup, and buy his allocated single ration of warm beer, and spend his time leaning on the hood of his ‘1500 wishing he could have seen the old days, when cars burned streaks of rubber down the cracked asphalt, where engines roared, and helmet-clad racers flicked their visors down and sped off into the sunset.
They were only stories to him, even the movies about them had long since been banned. But the old man had awoken something in him, and each day he longed to see Lenny return.
“What kind of car is that? A 1500 huh? Bet you think that makes you privileged, huh?” A voice asked, snapping him out of his reverie. He turned to see Suzie, xer grin hateful and jealous. The computer could say that a 250 was faster than a 1500 with Tesla parts, but deep down, xe had to know.
“It’s nothing,” John sighed. “Just a beater made of some old junkyard parts.”
“Yeah?” Monique added, setting her beer down on the car’s hood. John tried not to grimace, but evidently failed. “What, you don’t want me touching your car? A stupid white racist like you can’t handle it huh?” She dragged her fake fingernail across the polished surface, digging into the clearcoat, leaving a long scratch on the fender. Mercifully, she declined to sit on it.
“Looks better now,” Suzie laughed. “It just needed a woman’s touch. See you around, loser.”
John controlled his anger, trying as hard as he could to smile and act pleasantly toward the show’s stars. He didn’t enter the race anymore, and parked further away from the other drivers. His only motivation to keep coming was the thought that the old man might come back.
“You look like Mad Max right now, kid.” Lenny said from behind him. John nearly jumped up and spilled his beer again. The old man evidently enjoyed doing that.
“Old movie, total wrongthink.” Lenny said. “But I tell you, in the old days, if someone even looked at your car wrong, you could deck ’em in the face. You don’t touch no one’s car, let me tell you.”
“It’s okay. I didn’t check my racism, it was my fault.”
“You know why I came here, really?” Lenny changed the subject. John shook his head. “I’m not just old, I’ve got cancer. And you know the way it goes, if you don’t have the privilege points…”
“Yeah.” John felt a pang of regret. He genuinely liked the old man. “I know how it goes. How long?”
“Few months. Maybe less.” Lenny said. “It’s okay, kid. My time, you know? I just wanted to come back, see if there were any real gearheads left anymore. Guess there’s one.”
“Oh, I’m not…”
“Shut up, kid. You got the bug. I seen your eyes light up, you would have been there in the old days, and we both know that. Tell you what, next month I’ll bring my car. We can have our own race.”
John’s eyes lit up. “You have your own computer?” Only the wealthy could afford to own their own computers, after the Internet tax doubled in 2052. The car show club had to rent one for a fortune in fees each month.
“Well… yeah. I got one.”
The rest of the show went as expected, only this time there was an upset. Monique had revealed that she had a Mexican great grandfather, and her privilege points had passed up Suzie’s for the first time. It had been a very close race, but Monique’s Precedent 220 passed Suzie’s 250 on the final simulated lap. John ducked into his car before the crowd could enlist his aid in carrying her on their shoulders. When he emerged, the old man was gone.
The next month passed by slowly as John’s anticipation built up. A private race! He had never been able to do one, always having to accept last place in the show’s event. It was unprecedented.
When he arrived at the old parking lot, and took his usual space at the end, Lenny was waiting for him. But there was no car to be seen.
“Where’s your car?” John asked him, puzzled.
“Oh, it’s around back. But before we set the race up, I need to look at your car’s specs.” Lenny told him. He brought out a small computer and an OBD connector. “This will read the specs directly from your car’s ECU.”
John stepped aside and let Lenny do his thing. “All good.” Lenny reported. “Limiter is off for this race.”
“Really? A no-limiter computer race?” Nobody had ever done that at the show. The announcer was already talking up the upcoming challenge between Monique, Suzie, and a newcomer who was an Indigenous American Muslim transsexual. It was expected to be a close race between them all. John didn’t care in the slightest.
“I’ll be right back,” Lenny winked at him and disappeared behind the abandoned mall.
The sound that followed was like nothing John had ever heard in his life. A roar echoed across the parking lot, like a demon crawling up from the depths of the now-forbidden Hell. Beers were spilled, people screamed as they were triggered by the raucous noise. For John, it was like a dream. He instinctively knew what had happened, what he was going to see before it came around the corner.
An ancient Dodge Challenger Hellcat roared to life, its fat tires kicking up a cloud of smoke, squealing and screaming against the unforgiving pavement. The old man bounced it off the rev limiter as the crowd scattered and screamed. John was in a dream, and he found his wrongthink could not be restrained. He opened the door to his car and got in. The windows were down, and he could smell the oil-mixed gasoline in the air, the tang of fuel and smoking tire in his nostrils.
And when his Tesla-powered Precedent flared to life, he felt the driveline spin like nothing he’d ever experienced before. All of the torque from the ancient electric motors was there, at his command. The ECU restrictions were gone, the limiter zapped into nonexistence by Lenny’s handheld computer, and as he pressed the pedal, the car lurched forward like the very rocket ship the old man had described. He pulled up next to the ancient petrol-burner, even as the crowd poked their heads out to try and make sense of it all.
Lenny looked at him, and grinned through the haze, gunning the motor. “On three, kid.”
“On three,” John answered, still wondering when he was going to wake up from the dream.
He heard the Hellcat’s motor rev up, he held the brakes down on his own car, loading the motors. He could hear the groan as car sunk lower to the road than he’d ever felt. There was no noise, like with the ancient petrol-burner, but he felt that power at his command.
“One.” He heard the old man’s voice, barely audible over the roar.
“Two.” He shifted his foot to the edge of the brake pedal, ready to let all four wheels fly at once.
The Hellcat roared, tires spinning as they sought for grip. The old Precedent, with all four wheels loaded with power, shot out ahead. John’s car was past 45 before he could even blink, smoothly accelerating at blinding speed. Some part of John’s brain remembered to flick the windows closed.
The Hellcat was behind, its tires finally gripping the worn pavement, and John could see it catching up in his side mirror. The roar was deafening, the ground shaking. The electric motors whined, spinning faster than they had in decades, strained to the breaking point.
Onward the Hellcat came, breaking even, and inching out ahead, but John didn’t let up, even as he watched the needle move. 130. 140. 150….
It kept going, and the petrol-burner pushed out to a wider lead. Alarms started lighting up on John’s dashboard as the motors began to overheat, but he couldn’t let up, not now. 160… 170… The wind rushed all around now, as they passed the halfway mark in the ancient mall parking lot.
The Tesla-powered Precedent had nothing else left to give as she leveled at out 174. And yet everything was smooth, like flying through the air, and John enjoyed it for a moment, even as the Hellcat pulled ahead to a final lead. The brake lights blinked, and he slowed down rapidly, the air resistance quickly dropping his speed.
But even as they slowed to a less reckless speed, the Hellcat’s brake lights switched off again, and the engine roared. John saw the Hellcat’s window roll down, and Lenny stick his arm out, giving him a hearty thumbs up, before speeding off suddenly from the mall parking lot. He felt a rush of pride well up within him, it had been the best race of his life, and his very own car had hung on strong with a demon-spawned race car dredged up from the fiery depths of petrol Hell.
John slowed down, driving past the assembled cars, to the fascinated stares of the other car clubbers. Police sirens could be heard in the distance, but he paid them no mind. For that glorious moment, he was a racer of old, and even Suzie stared in awe of him. He knew he would pay for it all later, but for now, he didn’t care. He peeled out of the parking lot, outdistancing the slow police cars with ease. The others would tell them who had done it, of course, but he would have time to sort out some kind of story. Even if he lost his car, it would all be worth it.
He never saw the old man again.