There were two things Howie Tex loved: long drives and the race track. He would drive his antique Porsche across the whole of the flats to race, joked the Mechaniks, and then he’d bet himself from here ’til tomorrow. Then they’d put their heads down and get back to work, because if the racers were princes, then Howie Tex was a sultan.
Time was, Flesh dogs were bred especially for the circuit, and the idle rich would come down to watch, bet, and drink. Back in the early 2030s, the tide changed as the ’bot craze overtook the elites. Racing was already the next big thing, and how better to jump the trend than with the most expensive, cutting-edge tech? No conflicts over doping, no animal rights activists, none of the mess of the kennels – and all the sleek, shiny chrome of a new age.
Howie loved his ’bots, and he loved the money they brought in. He knew the dogs his Mechaniks designed were the fastest and no one could hack their programming. He rested on his laurels in his sparkling, oval mansion, basking in the indisputable facts of wealth and an elite reputation. There would be challengers, sure. Howie would mow them down – and love it.
• • •
“Who are those two anyway?” asks the first woman, reclining on plush gold cushions. “I don’t remember seeing them on the guest list.”
“Well, I don’t like her,” pronounces the second, adjusting the intricate ruffles of her skirt. “That outfit is so shiny you can’t look at it.”
“Honey, that dress is an Avenir. You were singing its praises just last week.”
“It’s hideous,” she maintains with a sniff. “Don’t you think so, Jemma?”
The third woman ignores the question, stretching luxuriously and rising from her chaise lounge. “Well, I’m going to talk to them. I want to know where they’re from. They must have connections to be invited here.”
She saunters to the bar, maneuvering around men and women decked out in sparkles, neon, and stripes. En route, she catches her boyfriend by the arm, and he snags a stray glass before trailing behind her to where the duo in question sit – a well-muscled man in a spiked jacket and a woman with hair like white gold.
“Hi,” she says, sliding behind the hovering glass countertop. “I’m Jemma. I think your dress is stunning.”
“Oh, how lovely you are!” the other woman coos from where she lounges across the counter. “I’m Jaylee, and this is Brock.” The man in the spiky jacket nods to Jemma, running a hand over his slicked-back hair. “Heya.”
“Is this your man?” inquires Jaylee.
“Oh, this is my Seven. He’s been dying to meet you two.”
“Call me Sev,” Seven amends with a sideways glance at his girlfriend. “All the racers do.”
“Oh, you race?” asks Brock with polite interest.
“Yeah,” Sev leans forward, his barrel chest giving an almost aggressive impression. “My dog came in right behind Howie’s last year. I’ve got a crack programmer.”
“Funny,” muses Brock. “That’s just what brought me and Jaylee to these parts. We wanted to drop by anyway and visit Jaylee’s uncle, but when we heard there were some thrilling matches in the summer … well, Jaylee said she couldn’t miss it.”
“Isn’t that Howie Tex something?” Jaylee says suddenly, sitting up. “There was a special on the tele-cast. I heard,” here she lowers her voice a bit, and her audience leans forward unconsciously, “that Tex’s dogs are undefeated, but what I think about him-”
Brock interrupts, murmuring something under his breath with a smirk.
“Oh my god, Brock, no.” Jaylee laughs. “Flesh animals are rank. Don’t you ever put those two in the same sentence.” Her voice rises and dips with the aggressive lilt that is so trendy among certain women – the uppermost of the elite. Brock leans in to speak low in her ear, and she squeals, pushing him away. “Ew, don’t! You’re so mean!” Still laughing, she extends a delicately tattooed arm to a harassed looking barkeep, draping herself over Sev to do so. “Tell him, Des. Tell him what you said earlier … about the race.”
“Erm,” says the barkeep, caught out. “Well, I was just saying, to my colleague, that is ….”
“Spit it out,” says Sev sharply. “Whatcha say to her?”
“No, I was telling-” he gulps. “I said that Tex is past his prime. He’s practically stopped racing. Must be thinking it himself.”
“There!” says Jaylee triumphantly. “Isn’t that just what I’ve been saying, Brock? Rumor is, our Howie Tex is getting old. We could totally take him.”
Jemma titters, then looks alarmed as Sev chokes on his expensive synth vodka, sputtering, “You can’t be serious!” Jaylee smiles back serenely. All across the counter, party guests are sitting up and listening.
“It’s true,” rumbles Brock. “I heard that in the last race, his ’bot got jammered up – and good.”
“Well, yeah,” says Jemma, on the edge of hostile. “That is true. I was there. Maybe Tex is losing his touch. But you two?”
“Where do you think you’ll find a programmer,” demands a man in a pink vest from across the counter, “or the Mechanik parts, for that matter?”
“We know some people,” says Brock. “I don’t see why we can’t give it a shot.”
Delighted, Jaylee throws her arms around his neck.
• • •
The circuit is a remnant from a bygone time, when the hills were not yet baked brown and a great salt lake stretched between them. Now, the atmosphere is hotter, the lake gone, and every few weeks a hell of a party goes down on the salt flats left in its place.
This particular summer day, the gamblers and racers are gearing up for an explosive match. A rumor is going around that Howie Tex is retiring, and three dogs have been readied to take him on one last time. Among them is a sleek blue ’bot that no one has seen before, and there is more than the usual tension in the whispers and dirty looks shooting from one team to another. As is the custom, everyone is dressed according to the color of their team’s dog. For once, Tex’s cherry red is not the dominant shade.
Jemma is dressed entirely in green, from her tiny sequined gown to her glossy nails. The emerald sheen on her lips is all the brighter against her dark skin. She smirks at Brock over Sev’s shoulder, blowing him a kiss. “For luck,” she explains. “So your blue ’bot’s tech doesn’t fizz out before the race even starts.”
“I hope not,” agrees Brock. “I put a lot of work into that programming, and Jay is the best Mechanik I know.”
“Oh, stop, B. You’ll make me blush.”
“You’re the Mechanik?” Jemma squeaks, appalled.
Sev squints at Jaylee. “Who did you say your uncle was again?”
At that moment, the last starting horn rings out. All conversation is forgotten as a woman dressed in nothing but feathers saunters out in front of the starting line. All eyes are on her as she sets the streamlined lure down, where it hovers just above the ground. The dogs toss their heads and shake out limbs, stretching with faint whirs of machinery. As one, they take their positions at the starting line. A cool breeze is kicking up, stirring dresses and tailcoats. When the pistol is raised, the collective intake of breath is almost audible.
At the firing of the blank, the lure takes off with a blinding flash of silver. The dogs explode into motion, tearing past the crowd. Almost immediately a roar goes up as the yellow ’bot smashes into the ground and stays there, sparking and twitching. Red is already in the lead, but Blue and Green are right on its tail. Sunlight flares off their metallic skin as they round the first corner.
As is the nature of high-speed racing, what happens next is so fast that most of the onlookers don’t catch it. Minutely, Green veers, clipping Blue on the shoulder in a clearly illegal move. Blue staggers, but Green has overshot and stumbles as it tries to speed up. Then Blue does what it has been programmed to do when confronted with an obstacle, something no racing ’bot has done before: it leaps. Then it’s gaining, creeping up on Red, and the crowd is roaring as it puts on an extra burst of speed with only meters to spare. With the brilliant flash of a high-speed camera, the two dogs shoot across the finish line, nose to nose.
A hush falls. Moments pass. Then the cry of the referee: “Blue wins!”
Cheers and outraged shouts explode into deafening chaos. Brock leaps in the air, pumping his fist, and Jaylee grabs his arm and drags him through the crowd.
• • •
Across the sea of people, Howie Tex is looking decidedly shell-shocked, deaf to the pleas for his attention from Dacrius, the bet-taker. “I don’t believe it,” he mutters.
“She wouldn’t … she couldn’t. She and her programmer, they must have hacked me!”
“Mr. Tex, just listen a minute! I looked over the dogs, and I talked to the racers, and they said that Blue belongs to a couple named Jaylee and Brock, but that they’ve disappeared-”
Howie’s face has been slowly purpling as Dacrius speaks, and now it reaches a startling eggplant.
“Jaylee? She’s calling herself Jaylee!? Why that arrogant, ungrateful … ” his rant dissolves into expletives, and he rounds on Dacrius. “You!” he snarls, “You must have known she would try to hack me!”
“But that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Dacrius says. “They won fair and square! No hacks, all legal tech. But the funds … the funds are gone. All the winnings, all the bets placed, they’ve been diverted, God knows where.”
Howie gives a remarkable impression of a startled fish.
Dacrius gestures helplessly, trying and failing to think of something conciliatory. “What is there to say,” he says finally, dropping heavily onto Howie’s plush couch. “Your niece has always been smarter than you give her credit for.”
• • •
Out in the desert, far away from the elites, two cousins relax on the hood of an antique Porsche, marveling at the stars. “I wish we hadn’t skipped town quite so fast,” says the woman, her natural accent settled back into place, “if only to see their faces when they realize that all that shine is just so much tinfoil.”
The other snorts, amused. “Not to Uncle Howie it isn’t.” They grin and elbow each other almost childishly. If there’s one thing that puts a thrill in their lives, it’s the satisfaction of a plan, a plan like any genius machine – flashy, well-oiled, and masterfully played.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the June 2016 Teen Ink Fiction Contest.