Miles of open road and the roar of wind and engine joining together let Tam breath for what felt like the first time in as long as she could remember.
There were plenty of worries and cares. No matter how far she drove, or how fast she pushed her bike, she couldn’t really leave them behind. As long as her vision was focused on what was ahead of her though, the problems of yesterday felt like they grew smaller behind her with each landmark she passed.
“You’ve really got your throttle opened up,” Jim said, speaking over their helmet radios.
Tam glanced behind her and saw Jim lagging a good quarter mile back.
“You said to give it a workout,” Tam said. “And you’ve got to admit, this still isn’t as bad as what Anna would be doing.”
“Yeah, her bike takes a special kind of handling.” From how he said them, the words sounded more like a confession than a boast.
“Sounds like she’s gotten some modifications done?” Tam asked.
“You’ve all got special modifications,” Jim said. “Anna’s are just a bit…more special.”
“How special?” she asked, wondering if Anna’s constant wins in every race they’d ever run might have involved a little bit of underhanded help. As a stage magician Tam could appreciate a good bit of misdirection and technical cheating, but even more appealing was the idea of having Jim make the same modifications to her bike so that she could run an even race with Anna the next time they were riding together.
“You’d have to ask James about that,” Jim said.
Tam gave out a small gasp.
“She’s been cheating with magic?” she asked.
If so that would be worse than if Anna’s bike had purely mundane modifications to it that Tam lacked. Tam knew a bit about gadgetry but she’d never studied motorcycles in detail so she could forgive herself for missing any unusual but mundane tweaks Anna’s was using to juice some extra performance out of her ride. If Anna’s bike was enchanted though, Tam definitely should have been able to notice that.
“I’m not sure it quite qualifies as cheating,” Jim said. “Her bike’s not magicked up or anything like that. I asked James about that the first day I was here and he said it was too dangerous.”
“It is,” Tam said. “Our world’s magic isn’t all that stable. The last thing you want to do is put it on something where random breakdowns might come at a potentially fatal moment.”
“That was what James said. He just used about three times as many words to say it.”
“He likes to cover all the bases,” Tam said, easily able to hear James giving the ‘don’t enchant things you don’t want to have turn to dust’ lecture. “But, anyways, if Anna’s not driving a magic bike, what did James do for her?”
“Got her better wheels,” Jim said. “Literally, just the wheels though. She was going through them so fast I could hardly keep them in stock in the garage, so she went to James and asked if he could find ones that were made of tougher stuff. I don’t know where he gets them from, but he came up with this weird brand of tires that are nearly indestructible from what I can tell.”
“Do they help her drive faster?” Tam asked. Tires were another thing she wasn’t overly familiar with. Given the time she’d put into mastering spell casting, security cracking, and stage magic, Tam didn’t feel like she had much to be embarrassed about there, but some part of her rose to the challenge anyways and tried to make the case for how any form of ignorance was just an excuse for being lazy.
She stuff those feelings into a box, cramming them down with the thought ‘I am on vacation’ but self doubt works 24/7/365 and doesn’t get any paid time off, so the mental box holding her feelings didn’t exactly close entirely.
“I don’t know, if anything I think they make it harder to drive fast,” Jim said. “Which might be part of why they last longer.”
“So, wait, Anna’s an even better driver than she lets on when we’re racing?”
The idea was disturbing enough to make Tam question whether Anna was actually as human as she appeared to be.
“She’s probably even better than that if you never noticed the tires slowing her down,” Jim said.
Tam opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find the words she needed to encompass how simultaneously unbelievable and yet also entirely in character that would be for Anna.
“Looks like I need to practice a bit more then!” she finally settled on saying and opened up her bike’s throttle all the way.
Even cruising well above normal highway speeds, the engine still had plenty of pick up left in it. Just driving fast in a straight line down an empty stretch of highway wasn’t going to do much to hone her riding skill any closer to Anna’s but that wasn’t really her goal.
There was an electric surge that came from riding fast. One with no mystical force behind it, just the raw wondrousness of being alive and fully within a moment.
Reaching for the fastest she could go was exactly the sort of challenge she needed after spending months tied up in either her own head, her sanctum, or alien realms where sanity was an optional accessory at best.
For a long moment, Tam melted into the vibration of the bike and the billowing pressure of the wind.
Then something went clunk.
Clunks are never good. Clunks accompanied by black smoke and a deep grinding noise go beyond ‘not good’ and land somewhere between ‘a terrible mess’ and ‘a complete catastrophe’.
To her credit, while Tam’s riding skill may not have been up to par compared to Anna’s, she was able to get her bike down to reasonable speed before safely pulling off the road.
That was where the good news ended.
Looking at her poor machine, Tam sighed. It didn’t take an expert’s eye to tell her that she wasn’t going to be getting it restarted any time soon. The hole in the engine which was still belching black smoke made that point exceedingly clear.
By the time Jim pulled up, Tam had her cell phone out and was busy trying to see if she could catch even a single bar of service.
“That…should not have happened,” Jim said, bending down to look at the bike up close.
“It picked a great place too,” Tam said. “I’m getting nothing here.”
“I thought you’d gadgeted your phones up so they worked anywhere?” Jim asked without looking away from the engine that he’d begun fiddling with.
“Today was supposed to be a no magic day, so I left all of the special gear behind,” Tam said.
“Cut temptation off at its source? Sounds like a good idea,” Jim said.
“It was Val’s,” Tam said. “She was the one who suggested I make it a real day off and unplug for a change.”
“But you still brought a normal cell phone?” Jim asked.
“Cynthia commented on that too,” Tam said. “I point out that there are no plugs on this cell phone.”
“That seems to stretch the definition of what ‘unplugged’ is supposed to mean doesn’t it?”
“It’s not even a smartphone!” Tam showed him the phone’s tiny screen. “I just figured I could relax more if I knew that if any real emergencies came up they’d still be able to get in touch with me. So as long as this isn’t ringing it meant nothing too bad was happening”
Or whatever it was happened so fast that they didn’t have time to call. Tam’s worries were champions at poking holes in her rationalizations, but age had given her some ability to poke holes right back in them.
“I can see that,” Jim said, nodding in agreement and added, “It’s a good idea for traveling too. Keeping something to be able to make a call in case of breakdown that is.”
“Yeah, except when you breakdown in a dead zone. What is this, the mid-90’s?”
“Nah, if this were the mid-90’s that phone would be cutting edge and it would have a battery life of about 30 seconds.”
“It might as well have for all the good it’s doing.” Tam did not pitch the phone away. It might be underperforming, but taking her anger out on inanimate object, especially ones that might be useful later on, was just not her style.
“Fortunately, you also had the best fallback plan in place,” Jim said. “Hop on and I’ll take you to the next town down the road. Hopefully we can get the parts I’ll need there.”
“We’re just going to leave my bike here?” Tam asked.
“Well you definitely can’t ride it, and we don’t exactly have a trailer to haul it in.”
“But what if someone comes by and takes it?”
“It’s still got a GPS chip in it. Plus it’s not that easy to take a bike that’s in a condition like this one is.”
“Unless you’ve got a trailer, or some empty space in the back of a pickup truck.”
“True, it’s not impossible to steal an abandoned bike, but most people aren’t going to want to bother with the kind of trouble that would bring.”
“And fixing it here is definitely out of the question right?” Tam asked, knowing the answer but needing to hear it so she could move on.
“”Unless you can conjure up the spare parts I need?” Jim said. “I’ve got the tools with me, but I don’t stock a lot of spare engines when I’m out on the road.”
The question sent a jolt of temptation through Tam.
She couldn’t fix the bike with magic directly. To do that she’d need to understand how it functioned on a much deeper level – not just motorcycles in general, or even the details of the model she rode, but the specific elements of the bike in front of her.
Conjuring parts for an expert like Jim to work with though? That was another matter entirely.
Magic was unstable, in general, but it wasn’t likely to shift wildly before they reached the next town. A replacement piece, assuming Jim could describe it well enough, should easily hold together until they reached a shop that sold the spare parts they needed.
Those options weren’t what tempted Tam though.
Transmuting the bike back to a working state might be beyond her, but as challenges went it could be fun. Conjuring replacement parts was definitely doable, and might save her a lot of headaches later. The problem was that both were glaring violations of the ‘no magic’ day she’d set out to have.
There was a simpler option though. The parts they needed were mostly still on the bike. The metal was shredded and there was a hole in the engine where there wasn’t supposed to be one, but with fairly little effort she could correct that.
It wouldn’t be transmuting the bike back into working condition, and none of the parts would be conjured (and therefore only partially real). It would be more similar to using her hands as hammer and forge to sculpt the metal to whatever specification Jim said was needed.
The upside with that approach is that the bike would bear little to no signs of the magic used on it once the reshaping was done. No matter what happened with the world’s magic, the bike would stay as it was because no part of it would be enchanted or supported by an ongoing spell.
If people looked at it, the repair work would probably look like the kind of thing Jim could have cobbled together on short notice with the right tools. It’d be ugly, but functional.
And still the product of magic.
Even if no one else ever knew.
Tam sighed and put the temptation aside.
She had an answer to breaking down on the side of the road. It wasn’t the crisis for her that it might have been for someone else, so she didn’t have to magic up a solution.
She could almost feel Cynthia’s smile of approval.