Turtle Car in the Mountains

by Daniel Ausema

Illustrated by Mary Pat Mann

Illustration By Mary Pat Mann

You never enjoyed flying. Landing at this altitude isn’t much fun, either. You feel the lack of oxygen, the dry air, nothing like the salt-heavy air back home. The plane comes down, runs along the runway to the terminal, grunting as the driver pulls it to a stop. The windows fog where the plane’s breath curls back onto its body.

You step onto the stairway and steady yourself, placing your left hand on the outside of the plane. Its flesh quivers. A piece of metal poking from the skin gashes your palm. You wipe a streak of blood onto your shirt.

Years ago you knew people who worked on these animal machines. Back before robots took over the menial jobs. They told stories about the oil and silage the machines devoured. Desperately, like a junkie needing a fix. Cleaning the creatures and maintaining their thousand joints and gears and vessels seemed the worst possible job to you.

How long has it been since you saw those friends? Well, not friends maybe. It’s been years, more than you want to admit. A former life, when the world was different. They’re probably junkies themselves now, or transformed into machines like the ones they worked on.

At the rental office, you find a turtle car waiting, the windshield and windows carved into the thick shell. It would be safe, but isn’t what you requested. Not for the heights you want to scale. You need a lizard car or a goat.

When you ask the robots for help, they sneer at your fleshy hands. You shove them in your pockets, thinking you won’t miss them when they’re gone.

“Sorry. Nothing we can do about it. The turtle is what we got.”

Robots don’t lie. Or so they claim and the justice system believes. You take the turtle.

It swings its tail as you approach, turns a headlight eye toward your ungrafted body. The hard shell, though, carries no hint of life when you pull the door open and step inside. You settle onto the plastic seat and turn the ignition. No matter how you shift, the plastic isn’t comfortable. You hold the steering wheel with the fingertips of your left hand so the wound doesn’t throb. Your right hand rests on the gear selector. Both it and the steering wheel are covered with something resembling leather but patterned like a turtle’s shell. If you start to nod off, you’ll tighten your grip. The pain will jolt you awake.

The turtle plods onto the roadway, gears and heart working clumsily together. You guide it toward the mountains.

You try to concentrate on the peaks ahead and the machines waiting for you. Careful needles. High-end plastics. Endless skiing in the majestic mountains. Instead your mind comes back to the blood and oil flowing around you, the other fluids that make these animal machines function.

Will strange fluids mingle with your blood to keep you running?

The turtle picks up speed and the foothills whiz by. You’re traveling along a river toward the first pass. Otters carry human and robot passengers downriver through rapids. The blue and yellow helmets of the rafters are a striking splash of color against the drab grays and browns of nature. One- and two-person bears carry hikers over bridges and up steep walls opposite the road. You’re impressed with their daring, backpacking in rugged mountains so far from cities. Maybe the bears are designed to protect them from the dangers of the wild. You think you catch sight of a silver spy-bird flitting among the scenic summer cottages.

These are the sights you’ll see from now on, except colder and whiter. You loved snow back before you had to drive in it. That’s what they’ll give you back, the childlike joy of snow. Cold, though. Not your favorite, but the exertion of skiing should keep it at bay. Don’t worry, you tell yourself. It’ll all work out perfectly.

The turtle makes a strange noise and pulls over. One of its tires must be flat. You groan and step from the car. You circle the vehicle. The tires look fine. The shell looks OK. The tail moves rhythmically in sync with the idling engine. You aren’t sure what could be wrong.

You hear the noise again, and the turtle isn’t making it. It’s something inside the turtle. You step toward the trunk. You travel light — the medics have all the possessions you’ll ever need — so you hadn’t placed any bags in there. Did you open the trunk when you picked the car up? You’re pretty sure you didn’t.

The sound comes again, and you reach slowly to open the hatch. The shell sticks. You curl your fingers around the edge where carapace meets plastic. The trunk comes open, and you see an animal.

A real animal. Not modified. You didn’t know they still existed outside zoos. They all went extinct years ago, generations ago, you thought. What exactly is it? It looks sort of like a tiny otter, so small no person could ever ride it down the mountain rapids. Maybe even … sort of like a mountain goat that hasn’t been grafted onto a car. Furry like that, anyway, with a long furry tail. Do goats have tails?

The animal — the goat-otter, you decide to call it — comes to the side of the trunk nearest you, but not to escape. It seems to want something from you. The turtle is restless, unsure why you’re still stopped. With a shrug you pick the goat-otter up, close the trunk, and return to the inside of the car.

Its fur brushes against your palm, makes it sting again. Why must everything demand your blood? Everything’s a vampire these days. Perhaps replacing your blood with other fluids won’t be such a bad thing.

The goat-otter makes a noise like an engine as you set it on the passenger seat. You look it over, but there’s no sign of anything metallic on its underbody. Just fur.

The animal climbs around the seats while you take off. You try to focus on the road, but there’s something compelling about its unmodified wildness. You sneak glances at the animal whenever the road is straight and clear.

The air gets thinner. Soon you’ll be used to breathing it. Do constructs need to breathe? The turtle seems to, and the plane did, too. You look at your hands and imagine poles growing from them. You look at your feet and picture the skis they will become. You imagine the weight on your back as you carry a skier down the slopes. Snow will fly into your permanently goggled eyes. If the skier steers you wrong, branches will swipe across your face. You might tumble over rocky cliffs to crash in a tangle of broken limbs.

But not your limbs. You’ll be built for it, able to withstand the cold and glare and rough life of the slopes, your bones reinforced, your muscles made strong. Better protection than a turtle’s shell. You’ll have all the skiing you could ever want for the rest of your artificially-extended life.

The goat-otter jumps into your lap and settles down. You wonder what to do with it. Maybe they can make it part of you, a living scarf fused around your neck. The two of you will ski together, carrying your passenger but ignoring him. Or her. Or it. You’ll have all the company you need in each other. More than you ever had before. Your right hand strokes the animal’s back, as if you’ve always had a pet and know what to do.

The turtle takes you higher. It struggles to climb, its heavy body weighing it down. Its breathing is ragged. You look at the mountain goats whipping past with their laughing passengers. Very soon you’ll be at the top, ready to begin your new life, ready to carry those rich laughers down the fresh snow. The rich can afford to ski; the poor become skis. Focus on that, your ideal future. Don’t think about the turtle or the sheer drop beside the road or the strange and wild animal on your lap.

Without warning, the goat-otter reaches up and scratches you across the face, drawing blood. You jerk back. The turtle skids, heads for the guardrail. You see an endless fall, sharp rocks your body isn’t built to withstand. Not yet. You wrestle the turtle back. It’s heavy and hard to steer. The drop looms closer. But the car turns and slows, and you coast along the shoulder. A pull-off ahead lets you stop and catch your breath. The turtle pants its fear.

When your heart slows, you look for the goat-otter. It’s sitting calmly on the back seat washing itself, making an engine sound too wild to be mechanical. How can it sit like that, uncaring? You want to reach out and strangle it. Scratch its face. Carry it in a clenched fist to the scientists and have them transform it painfully, get rid of its wildness and make it useful. Like all the other animals. Like you.

Instead you open the passenger door, reach back, and gently toss the animal onto the side of the road.

It looks around, turning wild eyes to yours, then bounds onto the rocks and climbs agilely down toward the distant river. You watch it disappear.

There are plants on the other side of the road, opposite the dizzying drop. The summer cottages are out of sight behind tall, woody plants that must struggle to survive up here. They remind you of timber farms, but the plants here aren’t in straight rows, their trunks aren’t needle-straight. You decide to take a quick break from the turtle and stretch your legs.

Among the plants, your thoughts go back to the impossible goat-otter bounding toward freedom. Part of you wants to follow, but you’d never be able to climb down those rocks. All you can manage is to wander through this woods, and even that is a struggle at this altitude.

You think of the ski slopes, of the machines waiting for you up ahead. Ready to change you. Do you want to be changed? You aren’t sure you’re ready to go through that, to allow those changes to your unmodified body. You no longer know if the years of skiing will be everything you promised yourself.

You touch your palm and the scratch on your face, but the pain doesn’t convince you you’ll be better off as a construct.

You take a final glance behind you and plunge deeper into the tall plants, away from the road and the turtle car and the men and robots at the top of the mountain planning to transform you into a skier-carrier.

You know you probably won’t survive the night. Not even close. Lack of oxygen or sharp rocks will finish you before the cold does. You’ll probably regret your decision before the end, freezing and broken at the bottom of some cliff. Already your two scratches burn with the cold. But that doesn’t matter. For just an instant you want to be that goat-otter, meaninglessly and mindlessly and motorlessly free.

Bio: Originally from the Great Lakes, Daniel Ausema has a background in adventure education and journalism. He now lives beside the Rocky Mountains and is a stay-at-home dad, writing furiously during naptime and Sesame Street. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at Jupiter World PressThe Sword Review, and Noneuclidean Café.

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