The portal ride had been fortunately brief, giving me a couple of moments to gather my breath and calm down. I had just closed my eyes and rested. That was really a lot of process, the speed, the violence, the sound of metal on metal when the cars made contact, it was too real, way too real.
When the gentle movement stopped, I knew that it was over. For that moment at least. The car was spat out stationary on some kind of platform. It was dark outside the car, but I could feel vibrations all around. The door opens and the Assistant pokes his head inside the car. “Good job 4L1C3-sorry, Alice. Lets get you walking” I reach for his hand and he helps me onto the sill.
Once I’m sat there he turns around and fetches these boot-like metal legs, he crouches down and slides one onto the receptacles below my knees. Once both were on he helped gently pull me to my feet, where I noticed an immediate change in balance. I definitely had to position myself carefully. The legs seemed to have a bit of a heel to them too, but I couldn't feel my feet in them, which sounded obvious but isn’t really. They still felt strangely alien, I was certainly more at home in the car than out and about on these.
“Right, good job. I have to go, enjoy the attention because the podium event is happening soon. See you after” he opens a door to leave but I had a question to ask him.
“What is it Alice?” he asks. Half out the door.
“How did you get here?”
“I was sent for. I guess as your Assistant now I’m at pretty much your beck and call. “I really got to go now though” he leaves me alone in the darkness. I tried the door but as I moved towards it the platform I was on started to slowly descend, the door handle stretching out beyond my reach. Then light started seeping in from the ground all around me, slowly revealing a giant room full of people, much like the race spectators they seem to be kept separate for the most part.
“Ladies, Gentlemen and et-cetera! Thank you for coming!” A lot of the crowd claps, I notice that they had positioned a lot of the Xeraphim people in front of me. There were all sorts of different shapes and sizes, but a lot of their appearance was uniform, silver-chrome. A lot of them had the same sort of glowing eyes as Alexander. To both sides of me I see the other contestants, most of which were standing or sitting next to the wrecks of their vehicles.
A veiled figure stands in front of us, facing away from me, they raise a metal stick to their face and begins talking: “Today’s race was tense and exciting, with plenty of crashes and takeouts, leaving only four of our contestants to finish the race” He raises an arm and snaps his fingers, causing a lot of the spotlights to snap to darkness, leaving only me and three others still lit up like museum pieces.
“In fourth place, we have Mallory, of the Harpyr” The platform to my left starts lifting up, startling the bike riding humanoid that was watching the crowd, a few feathers scatter down towards me.
“What was that!” they yell, leaning on their machine for balance. Their wings were quite streamlined it seemed, and would have been tucked neatly into the leather looking garment they wore. Except that The announcer person ignored them.
“In third, Cendric of the Hares” Milton’s platform changes to a bronze colour and rises taller than Mallory’s. “In second, and trust me this is a surprise to us all” There was a bit of nervousness to the announcer’s voice about this. “Its Sebastian of the Brine Administration” the platform to my immediate right turns silver and rises above my head height, leaving just me..wait...does that mean?...
“And our winner, for the first time ever. 4L1C3 of the Xeraphim!” The floor beneath me turns gold and slowly rises up above the other three. The crowd goes deathly silent, for the most part. The only people clapping were the small contingent of other Xeraphim. This made me nervous, I gave them a small awkward wave. I’m not good at being the centre of attention. “Its going to be a couple of days until the next race and I’m sure some of us will need to do some hefty repairs. Lets send them on their way to the garage with a cheer!” The Announcer raises his microphone stick to the crowd but once again is met with only a small clamouring of noise, mainly whispers and small amounts of clapping.
The platforms begin to sink away as the colours fade to a dull white glow. The moment the crowds disappeared I sank to my knees and had a small weep.
“James-ugh sorry no-Alice?” I hear a familiar-ish voice call out.
“Milton? That you?” I look up and the small furry figure I’d seen clambering into the buggy.
“Yeah its me, you look so different” I wipe away a tear and try a smile.
“You too mate, how’s your hearing with those ears?”
“Fantastic, I’m not used to being so fuzzy though. It was only a bit of chin fluff before I swear” he says in his normal jovial way, before his tone turns more serious. “I don’t know about you but these races are too dangerous. What happens if we die?”
“I don’t know, they sprung a fucking dragon on us before” I say, wincing at the recent memory. “It wiped out most of them. I don’t want to crash like that, I don’t want to hurt people” The emotions come back again, years of repressing them before, and having to hold myself in front of that mechanoid monster Alexander. It hasn't done me much good.
“I know, nor do I” he murmurs. “Its all fun and games when its...a video game, but this feels too real to be a game. The characters do, but everything else, the feedback, the physics, the sights, smells, and the sound. Its way too real”
“So you’ve come to that conclusion as well?” A new voice rings out. “Which of us are you two?” The Harpy which I suspect to be Hitomi appears in the light, she was...tall. Very tall. The bikes she rides must be huge.
“Milton here” He raises his hand like it was a teacher addressing him, the dork.
“J-James here” I glance away, scared of the Harpy’s reactions.
“Oh, thats..you James?”
“Y-yes, but I’ve...gotten used to Alice now. Its probably best we call each other by our assigned names, out of safety or something”
“Right, I’m Hitomi-now Mallory I guess. Where's Benji?” She asks us, I shake my head.
“We don’t know, I think he was the other one that finished with us” I pushed myself to my feet, where I stand a head’s height below Hitomi, but both of us were taller than Milton. Before we could continue our conversation the platforms reached the Garage level of wherever we were. This room was also rather large and had lots of robots zipping and zooming about. One by one a giant arm plucks each vehicle up off of their platforms and slides them into a shelf on an upper layout, where I could see people from each participating race or faction scurrying about with tools.
We quickly moved off of the platforms before we got our heads taken off by the arm, and started looking around. There was a hanging set of screens in the centre of the ceiling with a timer running on it that read: 47:57:04 and was counting down.
“I guess we have two days until the next race?” Milton/Cendric asks out loud, echoing my thoughts.
“Thank fuck” I mutter. “I was going to die of stress if we had to do it one after another”.
“Ditto that, I almost died when they unleashed the dragon on us. Good thing I had these wings” Hitomi/Mallory chuckles, or at least I think she does. It was more of a chirping sound She stretched out her formidable wingspan, which was made up of dark feathers which tinged blue in the light. “Anyway what's it like-ummmm-Alice? Being a girl and all now, compared to the boy you are in reality?” I wince inwardly.
“Its...different, to be honest I’m more concerned about the bits of me which isn’t… actually me. You know?” I shrug, not wanting to talk about that sort of thing right now. Her belly rumbles loudly.
“Right, I see. Lets go find something to eat eh?” She looks around for some sort of kitchen. Most of the other contestants had wandered off in a particular direction so we followed suit, and partway down the room we spotted an opening. Through it there was a giant buffet which slowly rotated in various foods, most of it looked very alien and exotic. To the point where I’m not sure anyone of us really wanted to eat any of it. The chatter and the laughter ended the moment I entered the room though. And a particularly ugly looking Pig faced man stood up and puffed up his chest at me in a standoffish manner.
“What are you doing here...winner?”