Face Value

By Michael Young All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 10: A Race Against Time

After thirty minutes, I glimpsed the sign, and like perfectly trained fighter pilots holding formation, we slowed our bikes together and swept though the exit. Majestic mountains rose out of the earth in the horizon, and in very little time I began to make out a collection of other bikes in the distance, parked beside the entrance.

Fred and I closed in on the pack, cut off our engines, and disembarked. Curiously, I glanced around the crowd.

I wonder who I can still remember…

To my delight, several of the other riders popped of their helmets, and I recognized them some of my high school friends. A tall, strong man with short, brown hair, rushed over and slapped me a high five.

“Hey, Face!” he exclaimed, “You ready to lose today? I just tuned up this bad boy, and the only thing it’s gonna smoke now is the competition.”

He gestured over to his impressive looking red and white Kawasaki, its new paint job glistening in the morning sun.

I suppressed my jealousy, and replied with a slap on the back, “Go ahead, and try Matt. Just don’t let the Surgeon General catch you.”

He smiled back and moved on to greet the next person. I did the same, glancing around in hopes of finding some old friend with which to strike up a conversation. I located a few, and milled about in the next few minutes exchanging small talk.

All the while, Andrus kept himself entertained by buzzing around the biker’s heads and grazing their ears with his fuzzy paws, which caused most of them to swat around their heads as if shooing off a fly. I rolled my eyes at Andrus’s antics and decided not feed him more attention than he was already getting.

Finally, I ended up back with Fred who was making last minute preparations. As I approached, he glanced up, his eyes narrowed, “Hey Frank,” he began hesitantly, “word is there’s this new guy over there, a real strong silent type. Nobody knows where he’s from. Looks like a real piece of work.”

He shot out his index finger to left. Uneasily, I swiveled around to see what Fred was pointing at. I almost wished that I hadn’t.

The sight that met my eyes caused my stomach to churn uncomfortably. An enormous stranger dressed entirely in black leathers, paced nonchalantly by his equally enormous black and gold motorcycle a short way from where I stood. Black slanted shades obscured his eyes, and his dark helmet disguised the rest of his head. His whole ensemble reminded me uncannily of some of the sci-fi villains that I had seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000 late at night.

I half expected him to be toting a menacing firearm, but could not see any. His presence turned my adrenaline-enhanced excitement, to bitter apprehension.

A thought crept into my mind as stealthily as a spider creeping up through a crack in the floorboards.

I’ve seen this man before, but it wasn’t here the last time I did this. I don’t think he is supposed to be here.

I whirled back around and grabbed Fred by the shoulders, “Fred,” I began breathlessly, “Are you sure no one has seen him before?”

Fred’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and his eyes opened just a little wider, “No. Nobody knows who he is. Probably one of those wandering biker gang freaks looking for a good ride. He’s certainly not from around here. His bike doesn’t even have any markings.”

Feeling slightly embarrassed at my second outburst of the morning, I released my grip on Fred and stepped back a few paces, racking my brain for possible connections.

“Is something wrong, Frank?” asked Fred, watching me pace, “you don’t quite seem yourself today. It’s like somebody’s dumped a scoopful of sand in your jeans this morning. Don’t worry about that guy. He’ll probably run with us this time, ride off into the sunset, and never be seen around here again.”

I nodded, only half convinced, and headed over to my own bike to collect my thoughts. Frantically, I scanned about for Andrus, but could not locate him. I called out to him in my mind.

Andrus, come here, Something strange going on.

Thankfully, Andrus didn’t waste time in his response, Really? Just let me finish letting the air of this guy’s tires, and I’ll be right there.

I snorted and closed my eyes. Andrus! We don’t have time for that now! Are you trying to get more people killed? There is this creepy-looking guy over there, and I don’t think he is supposed to be here. He looks familiar in a bad way.

At that moment, Andrus reappeared, “Alright, I can finish the deed later. Where is this guy?”

As unobtrusively as possible, I gestured with my head in the direction of the mysterious man. Andrus’s head followed and he took a good couple of seconds before commenting, “Does look kind odd,” he sighed, “but I’m not sure. Are you sure your memory is not just failing you? Could you just have missed him the first time?”

I answered his question with a resolute shake of my head, “No way,” I mumbled. “That guy was not, here before.”

Without a word, Andrus launched off in the direction of the strange man. My head cocked and swirled as I traced Andrus’s zigzagging path around the man and his bike. Then, just as quickly as he had gone, Andrus bolted back toward me like an angry hornet. His face contorted in uneasiness.

“Wow,” he whispered anxiously, “I don’t like the looks of him either, but I can’t seem to pin down what makes me feel that way. I think I’ll keep an eye on him if you don’t mind.”

I nodded vigorously. This was one of the best ideas I had heard all day, “Not just one, if you can help it.”

At least if Andrus could keep track of him, I could focus more on the race to come without being distracted. At this point, a booming voice interrupted our conversation, “All right boys, let’s get this thing started!”

Suddenly, a searing pain shot through my arm, and I clasped a hand over it. Panicking, I sloughed off my jacket and examined the spot. It was the section of my arm that with the phoenix tattoo that had mysteriously appeared on my arm. It felt as though it might be melting the skin around it.

I observed it for a few seconds and it didn’t appear that it was doing any damage to my skin. Not wanting to cause a scene, I replaced my coat and bit my lip against the pain.

In a moment, a dozen heads swiveled about to the source of the voice, which I recognized, as the race organizer Casey. “Okay, listen up. Today’s races will be held in single elimination style. Only the top dogs of each race will continue onto the next round. No exceptions. We’ll run the first two rounds, stop for lunch and then run the last two rounds. The winner takes home both the cup and certificate for thirty big ones at Ciaponi’s, courtesy of Matt.”

“Thanks guys for the warm reception,” Matt called above the racket, “But don’t get your hopes up just yet. I’ve got every intention at taking that dough back.”

The crowd rippled with light laughter as everyone saddled their bikes, and lined up in preparation in front of the starting mark. I slid on my helmet, and followed suit, lining my bike up next to my brother. Almost in unison, a chorus of rumbling engines coughed into life, shattering the morning silence.

I took several deep breaths to calm my nerves and glanced once over at my brother, and then back to the mysterious rider. Both glances gave me the shivers. Pinhead-sized beads of sweat trickled down the back of my neck and I could feel the moisture evaporating from my mouth.

To reassure myself, I glanced over at my brother, who flashed me a thumbs-up sign as he brought his own bike to bay. I returned the gesture and forced myself to focus on the trail in front of me.

However, before I could stew much longer, a red-haired man stepped to the end of the line, his flare gun pointed to the sky. I recognized this as the signal to get in ready position.

“On my mark!” the boy yelled, “On your mark…get set…GO!”

The red plume from the flare gun rocketed into the morning air, standing out against the sky. Every bike shot forward as if expelled from a rifle. In turn, I slammed the accelerator to full and sped off in pursuit of the pack.

My old tactics returning, I weaved in and out of the riders, handling the rugged terrain as if sailing across the cool waters in a motorboat. Opponents had learned to fear my aggressive style, and some simply swerved out of my way to let me through, rather than struggle in what could turn out to be a death match. About five minutes into the race, my nerves settled and I began to relax.

Wanting to keep Fred in sight, just in case, I glanced about in locate his position. I hadn’t passed him up yet, so I knew that he still must have been a bit ahead of me. He had recently done some tune up work on his bike, and the extra ‘umph’ that this had afforded him was already paying off.

My heart raced and I gunned the accelerator in an attempt to bring my brother in sight. To my relief, he came into view only a few seconds later, a few hundred feet in front of me. The good news was that he seemed to be doing well. The bad news was that he had picked up a tailgater: the black rider.

Andrus! Where are you?

My concentration lapsed, and my bike smashed hard into a ridge in the road, sending me airborne for a few anxious seconds. I braced for impact, as my tires once again hit the dust.

My shocks ate up most of the impact, and as I landed, I received the answer to my desperate plea, Face! I’m cruising along like a banshee next to this guy. He hasn’t tried anything yet, but he hasn’t let your brother alone either.

Andrus! I know this guy is up to no good.

Andrus’s voice went silent and I pushed my bike for all it was worth, trying to coax just a bit more thunder from it.

Up ahead, the road forked and I saw my chance to catch up with the two. I hung back waiting for them to decide, before gunning my engine in the opposite direction. Fred took the lower fork, a longer, but considerably easier trail. This left me with the shorter, but more complicated course. With any luck, I could flip some fancy maneuvers and cut them off where the two paths merged farther down the course.

Rapidly, I raced up the steep slope, cutting corners close in attempt to shave seconds off my time. I focused on the road ahead, Andrus, has anything changed?

His response came quickly, No, they have been almost parallel for the last twenty minutes. Apparently Fred only thinks he’s dealing with a tough customer. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Yeah, I wouldn’t bet even a week’s allowance on that.

However, as I rounded the next turn, the situation immediately changed from bad to dire. As I rounded the turn, I caught sight of Fred and his pursuer on the trail below, still locked in a dead heat.

Panic swelled up in my chest when I realized that they would be upon the same jump where Fred was supposed to met his end.

It was then I pulled the craziest stunt off my entire motorcycling career. I saw a dip in the trail, and reacted before I had a chance to talk myself out of it. I yanked the handlebars and sent my bike rocketing off the edge in an insane attempt to cut them off.

For the first few seconds, I felt like Superman. For the remainder of the trip down the rocky slope, I felt like a sad attempt at the next Evel Kinevel. My bike thundered down the steep labyrinth of jagged rocks out of control, picking up speed as I descended.

Frantically, I jerked the handlebars left and right in an insane attempt to steer. I managed to shortchange my inevitable crash until I came within a stone’s throw of my targets. My bike’s front tire slammed into a jagged stone, which launched me from my bike like some insane roller coaster gone wrong. My bike flipped multiple somersaults before careening into a large boulder and blossoming into flame. I tried to scream as I soared into the air, but the impact robbed me of breath.

Colors blurred inside my head, as I mentally prepared myself for the brutal impact. I only had time for one more thought to cross my mind.

This is interesting. If I die in the past, that will cause a bit more than a ripple in time! What will happen to Annie? To Christine? I’m sorry everyone, I tried…

An overwhelming wave of sadness pounded over me, as I pondered my grim failure for what I thought would be my final moments. I clamped my eyes shut, not bearing to witness my own demise.

However, just before my body could bash against the rocks below, an invisible force snatched me from air and hoisted me aloft, as easily as a strong wind might toss origami in the air. I shot up for a few seconds, before leveling off and again hurtling towards the rocks below. My eyes widened.

Terrified, I flailed my arms about. and to my pleasant surprise, I heard a voice.

I am trying to help you, but I’m liable to drop you if you keep wiggling about! Just hold still…and maybe we can catch up with tall, dark, and ugly in time.

My flailing arms quickly transformed into arms clasped in gratitude, Andrus! How on earth…

He cut me off before I could conjure up the appropriate babble,

Save your breath. I can explain later if you really want me to. Just be grateful that you aren’t a professional wrestler or something because I probably couldn’t have pulled this off.

It was then that I realized that I could feel two small furry paws clutching my back. I wanted to shout in relief and elation, but instead followed Andrus’s advice and remained silent. I glimpsed our targets in the distance, which now looked like little more than ants in a maze. Seeing that we weren’t closing in fast enough, I almost protested, but Andrus was one track ahead of my train of thought.

Hang on.

My mind had barely registered the words, when immediately my ride accelerated from leisurely flight to an intense thrill ride. My insides lurched about within me and I had to try hard to suppress the urge to heave my breakfast into the air.

The two tiny riders ahead of me zoomed in rapidly as if I had just placed my eyes in front of a powerful telescope, until we flew in close enough to smell their exhaust. My mind whirled at the thought that the entire trip had taken only a few seconds.

The two riders still rode side by side neither one conceding an inch, looking like a bandit and a sheriff both fleeing from the scene of a bank robbery.

Andrus! What’s the plan now? Won’t they freak out when the see me soaring through the air on invisible wings? They’d at least hit me up for cheating somehow.

Andrus let out a faint chuckle, Don’t worry, as long as I am holding you, they can’t see you either. You are small enough that I can extend my invisibility onto you. We just need to make this trip together now, that’s all.

Satisfied, I nodded and lowered my head to face the oncoming trail. Once again, the rocky terrain whizzed by me, and I closed my eyes, imagining myself still saddled atop my bike.

The illusion didn’t last long. Andrus suddenly jerked me awake with a sharp twist upward to avoid slamming me into some high boulders.

Face! You have to keep your eyes open!

After almost the entire race, the man in black broke from his position next to Fred and slammed to the side with massive force, knocking Fred’s bike almost out of control. Fred careened precariously from one side to another and was almost thrown from his ride. Over the noise of the bikes, I could hear him yelling at the maniac in front of him, but could not make out the words.

My body tensed for action, as I thought we might have to halt another attempt when the black suited man came back for more, but to our mutual surprise, the man did not attempt a second pass. Instead, he jammed a button on the side of his handlebars and a loud buzzing sound, like jet engines, filled the air.

The mysterious rider threw off his jacket and shot me a venomous backward glance time. As his coat flew away, leaving his arms bare, my breath caught in my chest as I recognized the phoenix that climbed the man’s arm. Before I had to the time to react he and his bike disappeared in a flash of brilliant light.

My hands flew over my face. Andrus, what’s going on? Where did he go? I think I know who he is!

Andrus responded by releasing his grip on me, causing me to smash into the ground. I didn’t have to time to brace myself for impact, and I rolled several times before coming to a stop. I yelled at Andrus, zooming out of sight, What the heck was that? Didn’t you hear me? I think I know who he is!

His reply came swiftly, Yes, I heard you, and yes, I saw his markings too. I guess is should have told you to tuck and roll, but I’ve got a hunch that needs to be acted on immediately.

I leapt to my feet and dashed after my brother and Andrus. Realizing that my pursuit was futile, I dropped to my knees. Questions surged through my mind, and my stomach tightened. I raised my eyes and Andrus’s actions became clear. The incredible events unfolded before my eyes as if in slow motion.

Fred’s bike shot off the ramp and hung in the air. At the same time, a tiny white blur shot towards Fred’s bike. The bike erupted in a massive explosion pinning me to the earth.

This time, I was unable to stifle a scream. My voice rang across the canyon, my agony echoing through every crack. “Not again!”

Feeling sick, I scanned the early morning sky in a vain hope that my eyes had been fooling me, that I might have been scammed by some elaborate hallucination, but the only thing that met my eyes was deep, crystal, empty, blue.

Wracked with anguish, I wrung my hands, and dropped to my knees.

I whirled around, only to run into Andrus fluttering above the ground only inches from my nose, arms folded across his chest and looking pleased with himself. He hung in the air in silence, before gesturing impatiently to his load, which he had dropped at my feet.

I wiped the tears from my clouded eyes with the back of my sleeve, and gazed down at what Andrus had dropped in front of me. At first I could only make out a shapeless mass, but the details returned as I continued to blink to clear my eyesight. Suddenly, my brain made the connection and my eyes grew round. The object Andrus had dropped at my feet was none other than my younger brother, unconscious, but breathing.

“I believe,” Andrus muttered quietly, “I’ve found someone you were looking for.”

My heart swelled with joy, and if I could have embraced Andrus without crushing him, I probably would have. I leapt to my feet, and punched the air with a war whoop. “Andrus, what does all of this mean? Could something like this have happened the first time that I lived this day? What if…”

Andrus lighted on my shoulder and placed one paw on my head, “Shh,” he said, “I don’t know the answers. What happened today was very strange. I can tell you this: if I hadn’t snatched your brother when I did, he would have followed that madman to wherever he was headed. The flash of light you saw was a portal of some type, an illegal one. This is the first time, I’ve ever chanced to see one personally.”

Could Fred’s death not be my fault?

I had seen the explosion, and had seen him fall. My brother had been dead, and now I would give him a second chance at the life he never had.

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