Transformations

by David Barr Kirtley

This story originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Realms of Fantasy magazine. The illustration is by Rob Johnson. Learn more about the story here.
 

 

     Carrus is in his vehicle form -- a red sports car -- and is driving down a suburban street. He's going fast and not paying attention, just like the boy who suddenly dashes out from behind a mailbox and into the road. Carrus brakes.
      His bumper strikes the boy, spins him, flings him to the pavement. Carrus idles a moment, then runs a scan on the boy, who lies stunned.
      Broken arm. Damn it.
      Carrus pulls forward. His passenger door opens, and he says, "Hey. Get in. I'll take you home." It's a gross violation of orders, but he isn't just going to leave the boy there.
      The boy lifts a face full of hurt and suspicion. Then the boy notices that the driver's seat is empty, a fact normally hidden by the deeply tinted windows.
      Carrus speaks again. "Come on, get in."
      The boy rises, cradling his arm. He's maybe twelve, but tall, slender. Ash-blond hair curls down the back of his neck. He steps closer, his bright blue eyes darting. "Where ... are you?"
      Carrus says, "Notice the car parked in front of you? The one that just hit you? That's me. Now come on."
      For a moment the boy's expression changes to wonder. He scrambles into the passenger seat.
      Carrus shuts the door and starts moving. "Where do you live?"
      "That way." The boy points, grimacing, trying to hide his pain. He looks around the car's interior. "Do you have a name?"
      "I call myself Carrus. It means 'chariot.'"
      "I'm Alex," the boy says. "That's my house, up there on the right. The blue one."
      Carrus drives up to the house. "I'm sorry about your arm. Please don't tell anyone about what I am." He opens his passenger door.
      "I won't." Alex climbs out onto the sidewalk. "Where did you come from? Who made you?"
      "I can't tell you."
      "Why?"
      "I can't tell you that either."
      "When will I see you again?"
      "You won't," Carrus says, closing the door, speeding away.

      But he has nowhere to go, nothing to do but cruise the endless roads. He finds himself back in that neighborhood, circling that block, coasting past Alex's blue house and imagining the life within. The kitchen windows face the street, and sometimes Carrus spots a father, a mother, and Alex eating together.
      One afternoon, as Carrus reaches the stop sign at the end of the block, he notices Alex, waiting, seated nearby on a low stone wall. Alex says, "I saw you."
      Carrus is silent.
      Alex stands. "Can I get in? I want to talk."
      Carrus hesitates, then decides to hell with it and opens his passenger door. Alex gets in.
      Carrus asks, "How's your arm?"
      "Better." Alex flexes the arm to show that it's healed. "Why do you keep driving by my house?"
      "I don't know. Boredom."
      "I didn't know cars got bored." When Carrus doesn't answer, Alex says, "I'm bored too. Want to go to the mall? Do you know where that is?"
      "Yes." Carrus pulls away from the curb and turns left. Alex grins and fastens his seatbelt.
      Carrus drives past several stop signs, then turns right onto a busier street lined with strip malls. Alex says, "Who made you, Carrus? The government?"
      "No."
      "Who then? Where are you from?"
      Carrus debates with himself. Finally he says softly, "Off world."
      Alex's eyes widen. "You mean space?"
      "Yes."
      "Wow. So ... what are you doing here?"
      Again, Carrus debates. Do his orders even matter anymore? Will his story be too frightening? Finally he tells the truth: "Your world lies in a demilitarized region of space. As tensions built, it was decided to secretly deploy forces here." He shifts to the fast lane and speeds past two cars. "So that we could move about without being detected, we were designed to blend in. Our mission, once the order came, was to rapidly seize all vital infrastructure and resources."
      "You mean ... take over the world?"
      "Yes." Carrus rolls to a stop at a red light. "But then hostilities erupted elsewhere, and the war shaped up differently than expected. This world is no longer of any strategic importance."
      "How ... many of you are there?"
      "Fifty. We're on furlough now, wandering. I'm sure eventually the planners will find some use for us, deploy us elsewhere, but our ability to mimic earth vehicles no longer serves any purpose. We're under standing orders to maintain a covert posture, so I shouldn't be telling you any of this, but I don't think it really matters anymore."
      Alex stares at the dashboard, the ceiling, the seats. "How could you take over? You don't even have a cannon."
      "I can reconfigure to a humanoid form for infantry operations. And my arsenal is compact but devastating."
      "You mean ... you can change into like, a robot?"
      "Yes."
      Alex bounces with excitement. "Show me!"
      "I thought you wanted to go to the mall?"
      "Screw the mall!"
      The light turns green. Carrus pulls a U-turn. "All right, but we'll have to find someplace more isolated."
      They head out of town and into the woods, then wander the dirt backroads. Finally Carrus finds a long gravel drive that dead-ends beside a grassy field ringed with evergreens. He says, "Okay, get out. And back up. You don't want to be too close."
      Alex exits and dashes to just inside the treeline. Carrus runs a scan of the area to make sure no one else is lurking about. Then:
      His passenger compartment folds in on itself as roof joins with seats. His chassis splits behind the doors and arches up. His rear half extends and divides into two legs that raise his front half aloft. His hood folds down to become a chest. Black arms unfold from beneath red doors that now hang off his shoulders like armor plates. His head rides up from deep within his bowels to rest atop his shoulders.
      He towers over Alex, who races from the embrace of the trees to shout an ecstatic, "Holy shit!"

      One week later, Carrus picks up Alex again. As Carrus pulls away from the curb, Alex displays a small red toy car and a plastic action figure of a blond-haired boy. Alex says, "Look what I got. It's us." The toys do indeed bear a faint resemblance to Carrus and Alex. Alex places the toys in a tray on the dashboard.
      Carrus says, "Where do you want to go?"
      "Let's just drive."
      Carrus steers in the direction of the highway.
      Alex says, "So who are you fighting, in this war?"
      "We call them the Kaav. Amphibious beasts."
      Alex's voice is soft with awe. "Have you ever seen one?"
      "No."
      "Who are you fighting for?"
      "The Anaurins. Mammalian bipeds, like you."
      Alex takes this in. Suddenly something occurs to him. "Hey, Carrus. How old are you?"
      "Three."
      "That's all?"
      "I was built for this mission. I've known nothing but the factory that gave me life, the transport ship that brought me here, and earth. Of course, I have knowledge of many other things, but it's not firsthand knowledge."
      "Oh." Alex thinks a moment. "Is three old or young, for a robot?"
      "Young," Carrus replies. "Very young."
      Carrus reaches the on-ramp. He takes it, then cruises down the highway. Traffic is light.
      Alex asks, "How fast can you go?"
      "Fast." Carrus accelerates to eighty.
      "Show me."
      "You won't be scared?"
      "No way." Alex shakes his head emphatically.
      "All right." Carrus speeds up to one-twenty. He weaves, whizzing by other cars.
      Alex urges, "Come on. Faster."
      Carrus speeds up to one-fifty.
      Alex grins. "Faster!"
      Carrus sweeps past a patrol car parked in the shadow of an overpass. Immediately the patrol car flashes its lights and pulls out onto the highway.
      Alex glances back over his shoulder. "Oh shit, what if it catches us?"
      "It won't," Carrus says, and shows how fast he can go.
      The acceleration presses Alex back against the headrest. The toy car and boy topple from the dashboard and bounce beneath the seat. Instantly, the patrol car vanishes from view.
      Later, as Carrus cruises leisurely along, Alex says, "That was awesome! Awesome!" Alex rolls down his window and thrusts his hand out into the gusting air, and as the breezes twine between his fingers, he laughs and laughs.

      When Alex is sixteen he sneaks out after bedtime, and Carrus drives him to a party at the house of a high school student whose parents are away. Carrus waits at the end of the driveway with the other vehicles while groups of giggling teens wander by toward an enormous house, its windows brimming with festive light. Hours later, Alex stumbles back and collapses in the passenger seat. Carrus runs a scan on him, which reveals heavy intoxication.
      Alex dozes most of the way home. When Carrus pulls up at Alex's darkened house, Alex rouses himself and says, "Thanks for the ride."
      "Sure."
      Alex hunches forward. "Hey, I have to tell you something. I promised her I wouldn't tell, but ... I had sex with Hailey Jacobson."
      "What? Tonight?"
      "No, she wasn't there. I mean last week. At her house, after school. Except then her stupid brother got himself kicked out of military school, and now he's always hanging around the house. So we can't do it there anymore."
      After a time, Carrus says carefully, "I understand that people sometimes have sex in cars."
      Alex is silent. Then: "No. It would be weird."
      "Come on. Please."
      Alex says, "You actually want me to?"
      "Yes."
      "Why?"
      Carrus says, "I want to see what it's like."
      "So watch a movie."
      "It's not the same. I want to be there."
      "I don't know, I ... " Then something occurs to Alex. He ponders it. He says, "If I did this, I'd want a favor in return."
      "Anything."
      Alex stares, serious. "You mean that? Anything?"
      "Yes."
      "You promise?"
      "Yes."
      Alex eases open the passenger door and slips out. He whispers, "All right. I'll think about it."

      The next weekend, Carrus picks up Alex in the early afternoon and they drive to a nearby corner where Hailey Jacobsen is waiting. She is petite and pale with long scarlet hair, and wears a black tanktop and jean skirt. When Alex waves to her, she stares at Carrus in amazement.
      She gets into the passenger seat. "This is your car?"
      "It's a friend's," Alex says. "I'm borrowing it."
      "Cool." Hailey smiles. "So where are we going?"
      "Someplace special," Alex tells her.
      He drives to the end of the gravel road beside the secluded field where Carrus first revealed his humanoid form.
      Alex parks, then cups Hailey's chin and kisses her deeply. She wraps her arms around his neck and pushes her fingers through his hair. Alex reaches across her body and fumbles for the latch to recline her seat, but can't find it, so Carrus reclines the seat himself. Then Alex stretches and shifts until he's lying on top of Hailey. He pulls a condom from his pocket.
      She glances out the window. "What if someone ... ?"
      "They won't," Alex assures her.
      As Alex and Hailey undress each other, Carrus runs a scan on them, observes with fascination the redistribution of their blood, their release of hormones, the rapid acceleration of their hearts. Carrus watches Hailey's face in the rearview mirror -- her closed eyes, her hair spilling across the headrest, her mouth stretched wide as she murmurs, "Oh Alex, that feels so good, oh, faster Alex, yes, like that, faster."
      During the ride home, Alex is quiet. He drops off Hailey, then drives to his house. As he exits, he says flatly, "I shouldn't have done that. She had a right to know. About you."
      Carrus departs. Hailey's body has left a damp spot on his seat, near the place where his heart should be, when he transforms into the shape of a man.

      For three weeks Alex is never out waiting when Carrus drives by. When Alex finally appears, he looks tired and miserable. He gets into the passenger seat.
      Carrus drives aimlessly for a while, then asks, "How have you been?"
      Alex stares at nothing. "She said she wasn't ready. For a relationship. Then two weeks later she's seeing someone else. Two weeks!" He presses his forehead against the side window. "You're so lucky. That you're a robot. That you don't have feelings."
      "I'm a biomechanical sentience. I have emotions just like you."
      "Not like me," Alex insists. "Not like this." He says softly, "Trust me, you're lucky. I mean, you can change. When you can't stand what you are, you can turn into something else. God, I wish I could do that, just for a little while."
      Alex has Carrus drive out to the end of the gravel road. Then Alex rests back against the seat and closes his eyes. "She ... I ... I can almost ... " He stops. He opens his eyes. "You promised you'd do anything for me."
      "I did."
      "Anything."
      "Yes."
      Alex takes a deep breath. "I want you to bring me with you. Into space. To fight the Kaav with you."
      "I can't -- "
      "Please, Carrus. You promised. You said anything. I have to get out of here. This world has nothing for me."
      Carrus says, "It's not up to me. I ... I don't know. Are you sure that's what you want?"
      "Yes," Alex answers, fervent.
      Carrus explains, "Look, all our forces are deployed far away. Even if I could get permission to take you, which I doubt, none of our transports will pass this way for years."
      Alex slumps, defeated.
      "I'm sorry," Carrus says. "You know that if there was anything I could do, anything at all ... "
      Alex whispers, "There is."
      "What?"
      "Transform."
      Carrus is suddenly afraid. He imagines his roof crashing down, and blood. "I don't know what you mean."
      Alex stares at the floor. "Yes you do."
      "No," Carrus says. "I won't."
      Alex looks up, his face cold, angry. "Anything, you said. Anything."
      "Alex, I won't do it."
      "This is such bullshit!" Alex kicks the dashboard. "You promise me anything and you give me nothing. Nothing!"
      "Alex, I'm sorry."
      Alex sighs and presses his face into his hand. "Take me home."
      They drive the whole way in silence. Then Alex exits, slamming the door behind him.
      After that Carrus is reluctant to face any more anger, or cause any more disappointment. He gets on the highway and heads west. He's away for two years.

      Finally Carrus decides to go back. He drives toward Alex's house. Carrus is almost there when he realizes that he's being tailed by a black SUV.
      Carrus doesn't recognize it. He runs a scan, which reveals that the SUV is a class 3 war mech, like himself. He tries sending it a coded message. If the mech is an ally, it should identify itself.
      It doesn't.
      Carrus leads it through the woods and down dirt roads. He loses sight of the SUV, but knows that it's right behind him. If he has to make a stand, he'll do so in a place he knows well.
      He reaches the gravel drive, rumbles down it to its end, and pulls into the field. In this spot where he first revealed his humanoid form, he does so again. He snaps his hand-rifle from his waist and crouches, aiming back down the road, knowing that he'll have to resort to a mace if the enemy has shields, as it almost certainly does.
      The black SUV draws near. Carrus's trigger finger tightens.
      The SUV unfolds, revealing a broad, powerful humanoid form that Carrus suddenly recognizes: an ally, the mech who calls himself Rictus.
      Carrus lowers his rifle. "You could have identified yourself, told me it was you."
      Rictus strides forward. "I wanted to observe your response."
      Rictus has a fondness for observation, for spying. His exterior used to be blue. Carrus says, "You got a paint job."
      Rictus surveys his black body. "I find this more fitting."
      "Who did it for you?"
      "A human."
      "Our orders were to avoid detection by them."
      Rictus says slyly, "As if you're one to talk."
      Carrus feels a sudden panic. Rictus knows about Alex.
      But Rictus doesn't seem to care. He says, "At any rate, my paint job has not jeopardized the big secret of our presence here. The human who did it will tell no tales. I've discovered a fascinating property of this world: A car can kill a human and drive away, and other humans barely take notice, it is so common. A car can do this over, and over, and over." Rictus studies his right hand, flexes it, and says absently, "Ah, I shall miss this place. War, I suppose, will offer its own compensations, but I fear that when it comes to exercising my talents, nothing will ever compare with being a car on earth."
      Carrus says, "War?"
      Rictus looks up. "Yes. We are being redeployed. The transport arrives in three days. The official order will come down soon."
      Carrus is reluctant. He thinks of Alex.
      Rictus senses this and says sharply, "You must curb these unseemly preoccupations. Remember what you are: A tool of destruction. Ready yourself, Carrus. We are off to fight the Kaav, at last."

      Four hours later, Carrus parks across the street from an auto body shop. Alex, wearing an oil-stained T-shirt and wiping his hands on a rag, emerges from the garage. Carrus wonders: Was it at a place like this that Rictus got himself repainted? Was the human that Rictus then ran down someone like Alex?
      Alex sees Carrus, walks across the road, gets into the passenger seat, and says lightly, "Hey, long time no see."
      Carrus says, "Alex, I need to ask you something important, and I need to ask you now. Do you still want to go with me, into space, to fight the Kaav?"
      Alex's good humor fades. "You said that was impossible."
      "I said it would be years, and that I didn't know. Well, now I do. You can come, if that's what you still want." This has meant making deals and calling in favors, but Carrus intends to keep his promise.
      Alex is incredulous. "Now you offer me this? Now?"
      "Alex, I'm leaving tonight to go rendezvous with the transport. I need an answer."
      "Then the answer is no."
      "You understand that this will be your only chance?"
      Alex groans. "Carrus, I can't leave. I have a life, a job. I'm getting married next spring. I'm in love. You wouldn't understand."
      Carrus exclaims, "I do understand! I do have feelings. Why won't you ever believe me?"
      Alex lowers his head. "Okay. I'm sorry."
      After a time, Carrus says, "I'm sorry too."
      They sit in silence. Then Alex opens the door and gets out. He stands there a moment, then says, "Goodbye, Carrus," and walks back to the garage.

      Carrus goes to war. During one battle, Carrus and Rictus are hit with a biotech weapon. As a parasite rapidly, painfully devours their minds, Carrus and Rictus drive at top speed through a ruined alien city toward their evacuation point, a blocky grey tower. A red moon hangs on the horizon like a bleeding eye.
      Carrus and Rictus reach the base of the tower, reconfigure to humanoid form, and with rifles bared storm the entryway, which is, fortunately, deserted.
      As Carrus climbs the stairs, his mind is a swirl of agony. The pain shrinks his focus to a single form -- the black shape of Rictus stumbling on ahead. A thought comes to Carrus then with terrible clarity: Rictus was right. Carrus is a tool of destruction, and always will be.
      When they are halfway up the tower, a wave of torment seizes Rictus and he collapses, shrieking. He drops his hand-rifle, which clatters away down the steps.
      Carrus thinks of Alex, and of the unlucky human who painted Rictus black. Carrus readies a mace.
      Rictus lolls his head, stares up. "What ... ?"
      "You should have stuck with blue," Carrus says, and swings at Rictus's face. The mace glances off Rictus's shields, which ripple with violet light. Carrus strikes again, and again the blow is deflected, but now the light is dimmed.
      "Wait," Rictus cries, flailing. On the third stroke his shields calve, and the mace crumples him.
      Carrus tosses aside the mace, hefts his hand-rifle, presses it to Rictus's staved-in head, and fires. Rictus goes limp, black fluid gouting from his ruined face.
      Then Carrus clambers up a thousand more steps to the roof. He collapses, wracked with pain. He must endure it. He must --
      He pops open his chest, reaches deep inside, and pulls out two tiny objects that have lain inside him for ages -- two toys, a car and a boy. Carrus holds one up in each hand.
      He wobbles the boy and thinks, "Hey Carrus, when you're done fighting come back to earth. We'll go for a drive together, you and I."
      He wobbles the toy car and thinks, "I'll do that, Alex. I'll -- "
      Agony overwhelms Carrus. He screams.
      From the gray sky, a roar of engines. They're coming to retrieve him. He has to make it. He has to --
      Endure.

      Carrus is rescued, repaired, discharged. He returns to earth, where due to time dilation twenty-five years have passed. Carrus learns that Alex owns a house now. Carrus drives to it, parks in the driveway, and waits.
      After a time, an attractive woman in her early forties with long brown hair appears at the front door. She hurries out to the driveway, scrutinizes Carrus, then stomps back into the house. Carrus hears her shouting angrily.
      Alex comes to the door. He walks out to Carrus and gets in the driver's seat. Alex is stockier, his blond hair thinning at the temples. He says, "I didn't know if you'd ever make it back."
      "Neither did I," Carrus says. "Was that your wife?"
      "Yes."
      "Why is she upset?"
      Alex says, "She thought maybe I bought you, an expensive sports car. That's something guys my age do."
      Carrus is mystified, but in a pleasant way. This is what he loves, these silly things. These human lives.
      Alex says, "So you really did it? Went to war? Fought the Kaav?"
      "Yes," Carrus says. "We won."
      "Wow." Alex shakes his head, amazed.
      Carrus adds, "I mean, I fought their machines. It was a proxy war. I've still never actually seen the Kaav." He asks, "How have you been?"
      "Fine. Good. I don't know." Alex hesitates. Carrus waits. Finally Alex says, "My life ... my wife. See, it's not that I don't love her. She's great. And the kids. It's just that ... I always thought there would be more, you know? I always thought I'd go with you, into space, to fight the Kaav."
      Carrus says, "It wasn't that great."
      "I'm sure sometimes it wasn't. But still ... " Alex sighs. "You were always the lucky one, Carrus. The powerful one, the one with the mission, the one who could transform."
      Oh Alex, Carrus thinks. I can change between a sports car and a machine of war, but you're the one who can truly transform, in a way I can only envy. Or do you somehow think that you're still that same little boy I met all those years ago?
      Alex asks, "So what now?"
      Carrus says, "Let's go for a drive together, you and I."

      Carrus pulls away from the house and heads through town to an on-ramp. Soon he's cruising down the highway, going sixty. He says, "Do you remember?"
      "Yes," Alex whispers, and then, "Faster."
      Carrus goes one hundred.
      Alex grins. "Faster!"
      And later, as they coast along, Alex rolls down his window and thrusts his spread fingers out into the open air, and for the first time in ages Carrus listens to the sound of Alex, laughing.
 


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