It was one of their rare lazy afternoons just hanging around the garage. The tablet propped against one wall was five minutes into streaming a third episode of Top Gear when Skidmark, who had wandered over to the smartphone in obedience to the irresistible draw of an unfinished puzzle game, looked up at a short chime.
"Hey, this e-mail's addressed to Turbo."
Turbo went over at once. "All right, mail!"
"What's it say?" asked Burn, without taking her gaze from the screen.
"It says, ‘Turbo, somebody sent you an e-card. Click here to view your personal e-card.' Well, okay."
The browser opened and displayed a red "LOADING" bar, quickly followed by an animated scene. A little blue-and-orange pixel-art snail was moving choppily around a heart-shaped track, accompanied by what sounded like a music box playing the main hook from that memetic autotune video.
"Aw, it's a Valentine! That's cute. I mean, I'm pretty sure this website isn't actually licensed to use my image, but it's cute." The animation came to a close and text appeared. "'You Make My Heart Race'. Ha! Oh, and there's a personal message."
The others' attention had already drifted back to their show; Turbo's fan mail wasn't exactly riveting to anybody but him.
He read on: "'Dear Turbo, Congratulations on your win in the Mango Nectar Cup. I guess you really are the fastest. Yours,'—Hardcase?!"
That had everyone's attention. In a moment they were crowded behind Turbo, eyestalks shoving and stretching over one another to get a look at the phone's display.
"You mean to tell me," said Burn, "that you're getting fan mail from that sore-loser tiger beetle who tried to kill you? Twice?"
Chet, last as always, squeezed past White Shadow to get next to her. "But why would he be sending you an e-card?"
Skidmark rolled his eyes. "Maybe because he thinks it's 2002?"
Smoove Move said, "The issue here is not why he decided to go retro—"
"Guys, wait, there's more!" Scrolling the text box with his right eyestalk, Turbo read with his left: "'P.S., I'm definitely not sending you this as part of a devious and elaborate plot to gain your trust in my quest for revenge.' Exclamation point. Oh, and uh, revenge is in all caps. Then it says, 'P.P.S., Wait, how do I erase that last part.'" That was it; it didn't scroll any further. "Huh. I wonder what that's all about."
"Call me paranoid," said Whiplash, "but this seems like it might be part of a devious and elaborate plot to gain your trust in his quest for revenge."
"Whatever. Delete!" Turbo matched the action to the word and abandoned the phone.
Skidmark quickly edged in to combine two 32 tiles, but the others stuck close to Turbo.
"So what's the plan?" asked White Shadow.
Turbo was glued to the screen again. "What plan?"
"Oh, for—" Whiplash swiveled in front of him and shut off the video.
"Hey, I was watching that!"
"And what you should be doing is coming up with a plan to defend yourself against your arch-nemesis."
"Tch. Arch-nemesis? C'mon, he's just some bug who's trying to bug me. And uh, no offense, but last time we had a ‘plan' to deal with Hardcase, it didn't exactly make me safer."
"Well, it would have if—"
"That's not the point!" Chet put in. "Turbo, your very life could be being threatened here. Aren't you worried?"
"Guys, I appreciate your concern, but it's not a big deal. It was just some dumb e-mail—" Four mouths opened to object, and Turbo cut them off. "Okay, okay! How about this? You said Hardcase is trying to get revenge by gaining my trust, right?"
"Yes, which is exactly why—"
"So I just won't trust him." Turbo ducked easily past the bigger Whiplash, and started the video again. "Problem solved! Let's watch TV."
The next day, Turbo had successfully shaken off his friends and was returning from another scouting mission to the mall parking lot when a shadow blocked out the sun. He looked up to see a tall, insectoid silhouette standing on a fencepost.
"Turbo," said the silhouette.
"Hardcase," Turbo replied coolly.
Hardcase alighted from the fencepost and seemed to materialize at Turbo's side in a buzz of wings. "So, did you, uh, get my card?"
"Yes, and I don't know what you're trying to pull, but I'm not gonna fall for it. I'm not having anything to do with you." Turbo put on a burst of speed to leave the figure behind.
Hardcase kept up. "That's too bad," he said over the rushing wind, "because I thought maybe we could have a friendly race together. You know, for fun."
Almost without thinking, Turbo put on the brakes. It was tempting. Nothing against the other members of the FAST team, but it wasn't often he got to race against the fastest creature for their size on this planet.
Hardcase stopped too—with far less screeching—and stood facing him with a smile. "You want to?"
Turbo shook his eyes and turned around to go. "You know I'm too smart to fall for a trick like that."
"Well, if you're so smart," said Hardcase nonchalantly, "then it won't do you any harm to race with me."
"Huh." Turbo did a slow about-face. "I guess you're right, I could totally beat you if I already know to avoid your tricks..." Then he advanced on Hardcase, the suspicion flashing back into his eyes. "Unless that is the trick! You're just trying to trick me into thinking you're gonna trick me, and then you're gonna trick me by not tricking me!"
Hardcase cracked a smile and took a step forward to match Turbo's advance. "But if I was gonna trick you by not tricking you, you still wouldn't be falling for the trick if you already realized that said non-trick was, in itself, a super-trick."
"Hey, I didn't say it was that good."
"No, 'super' like 'above'."
"Oh, okay. But—uh—anyway—" (and he returned to stretching his eyes up towards Hardcase in aggressive stubbornness) "—you'd already know that I know about your super-trick, and you'd use my knowing about it to pull some kind of... super-supertrick!"
"But, again, as long as you know about the super-supertrick—"
"But you'd already know that I was gonna know about it—"
"But you'd know that I knew you'd know—"
Their eyes were nearly touching now. "But you'd know that I'd know that you knew I'd know—"
"But you'd know that I knew you'd know I'd know you knew I'd... you'd..." Hardcase trailed off. "Is that too many?"
"Uh, let's see, we had me, then..." Turbo broke off in frustration. "Who cares, let's race!"
When Turbo returned to the garage it was already dark. He made sure to cut his engines, so to speak, and slowly crept inside.
The lights came on to reveal Whiplash lying in wait. "Garden snail!"
"Gah! Don't you ever sleep?"
"Just where have you been, young man?" said Chet.
Turbo blinked to adjust his eyes to the light, and discerned the whole gang around the room. "Don't any of you ever sleep?"
Burn popped her gum. "Not when somebody's acting mysterious. Spill it! What goes on?"
"Nothing," said Turbo, hoping his speech would be smoother than his entrance. "I just lost track of time, that's all. You know how I get when I'm racing—"
He stopped, but Whiplash had heard it. "Racing who?"
"Racing whom?" Skidmark put in.
"Just, uh... Hardcase."
Cries of "What?!" rose from all around him.
"Guys, guys, calm down, it's cool!"
"It's not cool," Smoove Move countered immediately.
As usual, Chet's tone struck a precarious balance between worry and exasperation. "I thought you said you were gonna be on your guard against Hardcase."
"I am on my guard! That's what I'm saying, I'm not gonna get sucked in. I'm on to Hardcase's tricks. And anyway," he added, "he didn't play any tricks today. It was like he really—I mean, he almost had me convinced that he really just wanted to race with me."
"Wake up, garden snail!" Whiplash punctuated the command with a none-too-gentle slap to the head. "Didn't you learn anything from the Hayaku incident?"
"Yes," Turbo shot back. "I learned how to drift, it was awesome. Although I don't actually recommend trying that technique with the original formulation of the hot sauce, because man does th—"
"I meant about not trusting your opponent!"
"Oh! Oh, that lesson."
Six pairs of eye stalks gave him six looks.
"I mean of course I know not to trust my opponent. I'm not gonna start trusting Hardcase. Although he's not actually my opponent—"
The looks darkened.
"And I don't trust him!" said Turbo, pulling himself back on topic. Man, he really had to remember to stop talking sooner. "Hardcase isn't my opponent, and I don't trust him. I've got everything under control, okay? No beetle's gonna fool me."
"Turbo," said Chet, "just, please, be careful."
"I'm always careful." And with that classic line, Turbo ended the conversation.
Or tried to.
"What? No. No, I'm always careful. You routinely race at over two hundred miles an hour against fiery hunks of metal literally thousands of times your size!"
Turbo rolled his eyes and continued towards bed. "Okay, fine, so maybe I'm not always careful—"
"Good night, Chet!" he called behind him.
"I win—again—" Turbo panted, catching his breath on the narrow ledge as the rush-hour traffic inched along the streets below like so many tiny snails.
"No way—I won—that time—" Hardcase had given up for the moment on both wings and legs, and lay back against the window.
Turbo was grinning. "Get real, I was a floor ahead of you!"
"You must have come up here upside down!"
"Oh, maybe he can tell us!" Turbo climbed up onto the window and tapped at it with an eyestalk. "Hey! Hey, you in there!"
Inside, a black beetle in black-tie attire looked disdainfully out at them.
"Yeah, you!" Turbo called. "Which one of us got up here first?"
The beetle raised an eyebrow.
"Me and my friend," Turbo repeated, louder and slower. "We were having a race. Who won?"
"I'm sure I don't know," said the beetle. "If you would kindly take your cilia off our window—"
Turbo and Hardcase had already stopped listening. "Then it's a tie?"
"Huh. Although I'm still not sure it counts if you can fly..."
Hardcase smirked. "You're just jealous."
Turbo laughed. "I guess this means we still have to settle best eight out of fifteen. Maybe if we make this one a long distance..."
"Hey, hang on a minute." Hardcase rose with a buzz to a standing position, and tapped on the window with a forelimb. "Hey buddy! What kind of place is this, anyway?"
"It is the kitchen floor of Pierre's Penthouse Café, which is why I must ask that you—"
"Table for two, please."
"What?" The beetle waiter crossed and spread his limbs in a broad no way gesture. "I must ask that you leave at once! Our clientele is very exclusive—you must make a reservation weeks, no, months in advance—"
"Aw, that's too bad," Turbo put in. "I was hoping maybe you'd have an extra table for... Turbo the racing snail?" He gave the waiter his most charming look, or at least the most charming look he could manage through a window he was adhering to.
Fortunately, the power of name-dropping must have been enough. "Of course, right away, monsieur, you will find an way in over to your left—"
"All right! I guess that does come in handy sometimes. What?" Turbo asked, catching Hardcase's smirk.
"Why, Turbo!" Hardcase said in mock surprise. "That was almost devious!"
Turbo giggled at that as if it had been a compliment. "C'mon, let's find that entrance."
As of right now, Turbo and Hardcase seemed to be tied in their unofficial runoff for being the fastest creatures, for their size, on this planet. And yet as far as team events, they seemed to be in the running for slowest to finish dinner.
"Wow, this is good," said Turbo, picking at the last crumb of what had only been a crumb of cake in the first place. "But taking me out to dinner isn't going to make me fall into your elaborate plot."
Hardcase idly stirred his thimble of cocoa. "Oh, I think it is. That is, if I was executing an elaborate plot, which I'm not. I think you would have walked right into it."
"Maybe my plot is to let you think that I've walked into your plot.
"Or maybe you're trying to make me think that you're trying to make me think that..."
"Your romantic banter," a voice interrupted, "is needlessly complicated!"
Turbo looked up in surprise. "Whiplash? Guys? What are you doing here, I told you I've got this!"
Chet said, "We came to save you! Hardcase is gonna throw you off the roof or something!"
"What? No I'm not!"
"You shut up," said White Shadow. "Turbo, you're getting played."
"That's right," said Burn, "and if Shadow knows that you know it's obvious!"
Whiplash picked it up again. "But since you insist on walking around with your eyes in your shell, we got proof."
"What do you mean, proof?" said Hardcase, suddenly wary.
"It seems Turbo didn't finish deleting that Valentine's card. Which was lucky for us, because Skid here traced it back to the website, and from there he was able to hack into your PDA."
"I feel personally affronted," added Skidmark, with real passion, "that anybody is still using one of those things! But anyway, here's what we found. Smoove?"
Smoove Move unfolded his speakers and played back a lo-fi recording that was still unmistakably Hardcase's voice: "Note to self: come up with elaborate and devious plot to get revenge on Turbo. Step one, gain his trust. Yeah, that's good. Then I'll... hmm." The recording ended there.
"I can explain," said Hardcase.
"Really?" asked Burn.
"... No, not really, that's pretty cut-and-dry. Of course it was an elaborate and devious plot! Congratulations, you got me. Sheesh."
Turbo's eyes had gone wide, his innocent expression wholly free of the confidence and irony of a few minutes ago.
"Hey!" said Hardcase, catching his eyes. "Don't look at me like that. You already won, your friends saved you, you escaped my revenge!"
But Turbo just blinked at him. "How could you? I thought..."
"Cut it out! This isn't fair. You said you knew all along that I was trying to trick you! You don't need to act so surprised." He looked deliberately away. "I'm out of here."
But as he stood, Chet spoke up. "Wait. I have one more question. About this elaborate and devious plot.... what was step two?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Well, in your voice memo, you said step one was gain Turbo's trust. Evidently"—with a glance at the miserable Turbo—"you did that. What's step two?"
"What? I already told you, step two is REVENGE!" He pronounced it in all caps too, apparently.
"That's not a very well-thought-out plan."
The others were catching on to Chet's train of thought. "Wouldn't revenge be step three?" asked White Shadow.
"Yeah," said Smoove Move. "And revenge isn't really a course of action so much as a general theme."
"You know what I think?" said Chet. "I think there never was a step two. I think you never thought out the rest of your revenge plan, because really, you just wanted an excuse to spend time with Turbo!"
"I—uh—" Hardcase was backing away before their knowing looks, sidling behind his chair. "There's a step two! There is a step two!"
"What is it?"
"It's... it's... well I can't tell you because it's not gonna work now that you've ruined step one!" And with a sudden buzzing, he was gone.
Burn revved up to go after him, but Whiplash stopped her with a look. He pointed over to where Turbo was sitting alone, resting his eyes on the table.
"Hey," said Chet, touching them with one of his own eyes.
"Cheer up," said Whiplash. "I don't think that guy's gonna bother us again for a long time."
"Yeah." Turbo straightened a little, looked out the window at the fading daylight on the horizon and the glaring headlights far below. "Good."
White Shadow was the first to break the quiet moment. "Are you gonna eat the rest of that cake?"
"No, go ahead."
"Not so fast," said Burn, "I want some cake!"
"Hold it, me too!"
Whiplash looked at them, looked at Turbo, and then grinned. "That's a good idea. Waiter! Bring out six more of whatever this is—and our friend here needs a big bowl of ice cream."
"Messieurs," the waiter stammered, "this is most irregular—" But he wrote it down.
Turbo looked up with a weak smile. "I don't need ice cream."
"It's the traditional food for having your heart broken by your arch-nemesis." Whiplash thought about that for a second. "Or anybody else, I guess. And you know what else is good for a broken heart?"
"Having cake with your friends—on the heartbreaker's credit card. Hey, can somebody bring us a wine list?"