This year’s darling is Ykonde Remisk, a Human who surprised everyone by winning both the Goss Invitational and the Cassini 500. He comes into the MCR with a real chance to be the first racer to win the Triple Crown in twelve years. Then there is Nyanāl Mo’tak Xu.oa, the finest Xi’an racer in the history of the sport. If he prevails, he will be the first to ever win three MCRs in a row.
Zogat Guul, the old Tevarin warhorse, can’t be counted out, either. This legend has won the MCR more than anyone else in its history, but fate and bad luck have prevented him from winning a major event in over five years. His second place finish at the Cassini 500, however, has brought his name back to prominence. Can he win it once more before he fades away?
And finally, newcomer Hypatia Darring has turned heads by taking the pole position away from Remisk. She has never won a major racing event in her short career, but her consistent top ten showings for the last two years indicate that her pole position is no fluke. Can this youngster handle the enormous pressure placed upon her? Only time will tell . . .
Let’s throw it back to GSN reporter Mike Crenshaw, who is making his way through the reception as we speak. Who do you have for us now, Mike?
Hypatia Darring didn’t even notice the reporter’s question as she stared across the busy reception floor. The Tevarin looked lean and elegant amid a gaggle of reporters who crowded around him. Part of her felt like joining the crowd. I should feel the need to whip his ass, to blow past him on the final stage, to force his ship into an asteroid. That would be the feelings of a great racer, a great competitor, one focused and ready to win. But no. Try as she might, she could not feel that way toward this legend who stood only a few meters away. Much to her sorrow, she hadn’t had a chance to speak with him when their paths could have crossed at Cassini. Now, she had to find the time. She fought the urge to walk across the room, push past the media hounds, invite him to dinner, and ask him to sign the worn, faded, dog-eared poster of him in his youth — standing proudly next to his silver M50 — still hanging on her hab wall.
She shook her head and blinked. “I’m sorry. Say again?”
Mike Crenshaw cleared his throat. “Do you think Admiral Darring is proud of his daughter?” Darring clenched her teeth and forced a smile. “Of course he is. Why wouldn’t he be?”
“He has stated publicly, more than once, that he believes you are wasting your talents as a racer. That you should drop all this ‘nonsense’ — his word — and pursue a more fitting career in the UEE Navy.”
“My father has never been one to restrain his opinions,” she said, taking tentative steps toward Guul. “But if you really want to know the answer to that question, you should ask him yourself.”
Another reporter fought her way in. “Alice Frannif, Terra Gazette . . . taking the pole position from Ykonde Remisk was a marvelous achievement. How did you do it?”
Her smile was genuine. “Luck.”
“Oh, come now, Hypatia,” Crenshaw said, regaining the floor. “Achieving a time one point five seconds off the record is hardly luck. How’d you do it?”
She chuckled. “Patience, dedication, focus and an acute attention to detail. That, plus the fastest damned M50 on the circuit. All things I’m sure my father would appreciate.”
The reporters laughed and hastily transcribed notes. Darring made a few more steps toward Guul.
“Ms. Darring,” another reporter interceded, “how do you intend on maintaining your ‘luck,’ as you put it, through the entire race? Ten stages, all timed, many with narrow, dangerous channels, especially through the asteroid belts. You’ll be racing neck-and-neck with some of the finest racers in history. Being a relative newcomer, how do you intend on handling the pressure, maintaining your good start, and ultimately winning the cup?”
“She’s a natural!”
All turned, including Darring, and found Mo’tak Xu.oa, the Xi’an, dressed in a bright purple jumpsuit, standing among a pool of sycophants who followed him to every event. Some of them were ex-GSN reporters, now under full employment by the Xu.oa house, captured by his fame, notoriety and wealth.
Darring controlled her scowl as the stout Xi’an stopped a few feet from her. “She’s a natural,” Mo‘tak repeated, to make sure the reporters could record his reply. He was shorter than Darring by a centimeter or two — which was still unusually tall for his race — but his cool, amber eyes scanned her face carefully His powerful jaw muscles pulled back in a tight approximation of a smile. “She’ll win it by being the best racer on the circuit.”
“Do you really believe that?” Crenshaw asked. “She’s the best?”
Mo‘tak nodded slowly, diplomatically, his eyes affixed on Darring. “I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t.” He blinked. “How are you, my dear? Rested from your trials at Cassini?”
“Rested enough,” she replied, beneath her breath. The reporters leaned in to hear. “But you should know all about that.”
Mo‘tak waved her off as if she were his lesser. “The dangers of the trade, my dear. I did what I had to do to gain advantage.”
Darring nodded. “But you didn’t win, did you? Cutting me off in a move that, technically, was illegal, only gave you third place.”
“Still, a better finish than you.” Mo‘tak chuckled. His devotees did the same. “The Cassini is not all that important to me, my dear. The MCR is the crown jewel. You’ll understand that in time . . . if you last long enough.”
“Can we get a picture of the two of you side-by-side?” a reporter piped up. The rest confirmed that desire with exaggerated nodding.
Mo‘tak turned to the crowd, preening for all to see. “Of course you may have a picture,” he said, offering his hand to Darring in goodwill. “I’m honored to be a part of this great tradition. The MCR is dear to my heart, and with such brilliant competition, like Hypatia Darring here, this year’s race will be one to remember.”
Hypatia took his hand cautiously. She wrapped her fingers around his broad palm. Forcing herself to relax, she turned toward the reporters to let them take their pictures and ask their questions.
But then Mo‘tak began to squeeze, and squeeze, and squeeze until she felt the small delicate bones in her hand giving beneath the pressure. She squeezed back against it, but that didn’t provide much relief as Mo‘tak continued to grip. Don’t cringe, she said to herself. Don’t cry. Don’t give him the satisfaction. But the pain spread up her arm, into her shoulder, through her neck. God, he’s trying to break my hand. He’s . . .
He released, and the pain subsided. She sighed and wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead with her other hand.
Crenshaw was about to ask another question, but then someone spotted Ykonde Remisk, and they all scurried in his direction.
At her side, Mo‘tak chuckled. “We are only as important to them as our last quote.” The Xi’an turned to her again.
This time he didn’t offer his hand. He winked. “.athl’ē’kol to you, my zealous competitor. Safe travel. I’ll see you down the line.”
Mo‘tak disappeared into the doting arms of his fans. As he walked away, Darring caught the eye of a lean, surly-looking fellow who maintained a watchful position behind his employer. He nodded at her. She ignored him and imagined driving a knife into Mo‘tak’s back.
“Don’t let him get to you.”
The voice was soft and amiable. Darring turned to greet it.
There he stood, towering over her. In his shadow, she felt truly small, both in stature and in status. Zogat Guul radiated a kindness and a quiet experience that steadied her rage. She offered her sore hand humbly. He took it without complaint.
“Don’t let that pompous twit get under your skin. He’s infamous for his mind games.” With a quick grin, he snapped into formal posture, as if he were greeting an officer, thrusting his chest out though it was wrapped comfortably in a black-and-gold half-coat. “My name is Zogat —”
“I know who you are,” Darring interrupted, embarrassed immediately by her rudeness. “It’s an honor to meet you. It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a kid.”
“And I have been following your career with great interest.” He took her by the arm and began to lead her toward a table filled with three large punch bowls and an assortment of seafood appetizers. They walked slowly. “You are rising steadily on the circuit. Your name is on the lips of many. Your fifth place showing at Cassini was quite impressive, especially for someone so young.”
“Thank you. It would have been even more impressive had I won, if Mo‘tak hadn’t forced me back.”
“You let him get too close,” he said, with no malice or indictment in his tone. “You had the inside lane, but you slowed down to spar with him.”
“He pissed me off!”
Guul stopped, “Such behavior may be tolerated in the smaller, roundabout races like Cassini. But not here. Here, such raw emotion will get you expelled or killed. True, there are stages along the way where the racing will be tight, where you will have to maneuver for position. But speed matters the most here . . . speed and time. Remember, Hypatia Darring, the one most important fact about the Murray Cup: Speed is life.” He tilted his head to side. “Speed is life . . . or death, if you are going in the wrong direction.”
She laughed at that, letting the seriousness of his words trickle away. “We will speak no more of these things now,” he said, resuming their course toward the food table. “We will have further opportunities to talk later, when the lamprey are not so thick and hungry.” He ignored the wave of a reporter nearby. “Every word we speak here is interpreted and reinterpreted until, in the end, they will make us lovers in the eyes of the public.”
Darring forced a wry smile. “Sorry . . . you’re not my type.”
Guul let out a hearty laugh. He shook his head. “Story of my life.” He quickened his pace toward the food. “Now come, and treat me to a glass of the greatest gift Humans have bestowed upon the galaxy.”
“What’s that?” Darring asked.
Guul smacked his lips. “Lemonade.”
* * *
Mo‘tak crushed the thin shell of the jumbo shrimp in his mouth. He did not bother shucking it as a feeble Human might do. Blast this Human food anyway! What he wouldn’t give to be back at the family complex, gorging to contentment on huge handfuls of fermented needlefish. Their gallbladders had a bile that was as sweet — no, sweeter — than anything a Human might concoct. Nothing on the table before him was actually enjoyable in his superior opinion, but he tolerated it as best he could, smiling humbly as he picked at this dish or that for the benefit of the media. Mo‘tak nodded at a Human reporter as she walked by.
Humans had their uses.
And so did the one that stood now in the center of the media frenzy. Why weren’t the reporters surrounding him, asking him questions, begging him to divulge his secrets for winning the race, just as they had asked Darring? These damned Humans and their inferiority complex! So unwilling to recognize Xi’an superiority. But Mo‘tak was the best racer that had ever climbed into a cockpit, and his perfectly modified 350r, with its purple hull and reinforced golden-striped wings would do what no other racer had ever done: win the MCR three consecutive times. Neither Remisk, nor Guul, nor Darring could claim such a feat. So, why weren’t the GSNnya•osen’p.u surrounding him?
But perhaps that was best, he reconsidered, popping another shrimp in his mouth and sipping on a warm, frothless beer. Let Ykonde Remisk have his moment in the spotlight. Let the media have their favorites. For when they fall, when they fail to live up to the hype, Mo‘tak’s victory will seem that much sweeter. Yes, let them bask . . . then let them fall. And I will see that they fall hard.
“Is everything in place?” he whispered to an underling at his side.
“Yes, sir. Your maintenance crews are dispersed through the Ellis system per your specifications and per the MCR guidelines.”
Mo‘tak scratched his neck in frustration. “That’s not what I meant.”
The underling gulped and wiggled his head. “Yes, that matter we spoke of has been taken care of as well. But I would recommend against it, sir. The risk is too great, and besides, Mo‘tak does not need to rely on such things. He is the best racer on the circuit.”
“I do not pay you to give me such advice or praise. I pay you to do what you’re told. Now go, and make sure everything is ready as I have instructed.” He put his beer down. “And I will go and remind the ‘favorite’ of his obligation to me.”
The underling nodded and ran off to do his duty. Mo‘tak sighed deeply, put on his happy face, and walked confidently toward the madness surrounding Ykonde Remisk.
* * *
She loved her Origin M50 Turbo more than life. Banged up, scratched, red and white paint slopped on to cover a hull that needed an integrity sweep, but there had been no time for any of that after Cassini. Nor had she won enough credits yet for such repairs, not with having to pay for transport ships and her pit crew. But what of it? The power plant was sound, the thrusters new and top notch. In a pinch, she doubted that any racer, anywhere, could match it. Certainly, none of the other twenty-four challengers behind her — including Guul — could beat her in a straightaway. But the MCR had few straightaways. Hull integrity mattered.
As her crew chief rattled off the final systems check in her ear, Darring pulled up the map for the first stage. It appeared with a bright blink to display row after row of rings winding their way through low orbit above Ellis III. Darring studied the rings carefully, reminding herself which ones were large, which were small, where the cameras and timer buoys were located. All racers were required to stay within the “invisible” lane running through the rings; if a racer strayed outside, he or she would lose time. This first stage was both timed and awarded extra credits to first, second and third place. Having the pole position, then, gave her an advantage. But for how long? Darring leaned over in her seat and studied the course carefully.
It was not unlike one stretch of the Goss Invitational, so she had ample experience with this kind of run. Her M50 was built for strenuous zigs and zags through tight spots. But how well would she fare later on, when the courses got more deadly, more strenuous?
From Ellis III, the racers quantumed to Ellis IV where the so-called Seahorse Shuffle took place. Then on to Ellis V and the “Noble Endeavour.” After that, it was through the first of two asteroid belts, a course called The Sorrow Sea, where hulls of previous racers floated as obstacles. Then around the gas giant, Walleye, where ships could be easily ripped apart by one foolish move. A longer stage followed, across the outer asteroid belt (formerly Ellis XI) and finally to Ellis XII. Then the race turned back toward the heart of the system to finished at Ellis VIII. She had run this race before, but never as a true contender, and thus she had taken her time, flown each stage slow and steady, like a marathon runner, to learn all the ins and outs. This time, though, the pressure was on. She held the pole position, the top spot. Everything was different now.
The MCR starter’s voice crackled over the comm link. “Racers, prepare for launch.”
Darring closed the map, affirmed the standard agreement to MCR rules and regulations in unison with the other racers, strapped herself in, and gave a small prayer. She was not religious by any stretch, but figured it wouldn’t hurt. The prayer calmed her nerves as the bay doors of the starting carrier opened to space.
She could see Ellis III through the door. It was beautiful, green, its orbit peppered with corvettes and pleasure craft of the well-to-do who had come out to view the race firsthand. There would be plenty of spectators along the way, a lot of media, and Darring had to just put them all out of her mind. She focused on Zogat Guul’s words — Speed is life — and looked back through one of her cockpit panels to try to get a glimpse of the Tevarin’s upgraded Hornet. But he was too far back. All she could see was Ykonde Remisk’s M50, with its garish gold and blue trim. She noticed that he was too close to her; by rule, there was a specified distance that racers had to maintain prior to launch: the privilege of the pole position.
She gnashed her teeth and cursed beneath her breath. Someone was already violating rules.
“Hypatia Darring . . . you may launch.”
She didn’t even wait for the spokesman to finish. Darring burst out the carrier bay door at top legal speed.
Through a narrow channel flanked by media and spectators, Darring flew the ceremonial lap. The rest of the racers followed behind, releasing one after another, but maintaining their specified positions within the line. Ahead of her, the pace craft sparkled with a flashing red light. Nervous energy spotted her brow with sweat. Her crew chief gave his final comments and instructions. She signed him off and focused on the course ahead of her.
In her ear, the MCR starter counted down — ten, nine, eight . . . Darring thrust to the left, trying to keep directly behind the pace craft. Ykonde Remisk was right on her six, the nose of his racer dangerously close. Back off! Darring mouthed silently, wanting to flip on her comm link and tune to his frequency. It wasn’t strictly against MCR rules to speak to other racers, but officials discouraged it, fearing that frequent conversation during the race could produce distractions that would lead to crashes and injuries. Besides, there was enough chatter going on between racers and their crews. Still, Darring wanted to open a channel and scream into Remisk’s ear, Get off my back!
Five . . . four . . . three . . .
Now, all the racers tightened as the pacer made the last turn to set them up toward the first rings. Darring gunned it a little herself, closing in on the pacer. She put herself now just a little to the right of it, to keep Remisk from rushing past her at the last minute. Darring’s heart raced, her hands shook on her joystick. She tried concentrating on the small object that grew and grew in her viewport: The first ring, its rotating lights swirling around its virtual frame, signaling the beginning . . .
Two . . . one . . .
The red lights on the pacer flashed green, and it fell to the left quickly, breaking formation.
Darring pressed herself into her seat, gunned her thrusters, and blew through the first ring.
* * *
The flashing lights of the rings caused her eyes to ache.
They flew by her quickly and she was concentrating on them too much, too worried about her time, her position in the line. She had fallen to third place by count of the last timing ring. It had been her fault, too, worrying so much about conserving fuel, letting some pilot with a overclocked Avenger take the inside lane. Her crew chief yelled at her for it; she ignored him. The little shit was right, of course, but he was an old academy friend of her father’s, and she was in no mood to listen to him yell at her. Besides, she could overtake an Avenger at any time.
The real focus of her recovery had to be Ykonde Remisk.
The smarmy son of a bitch had forced her against the left wall of the tunnel they were speeding through. Her wing had actually broken the virtual plane, and the voice of the MCR caller came over her comm . . . “Ten seconds added to your time.” Damn! Remisk’s press was not strictly against the rules since his ship had not touched hers, but it was certainly dirty pool and against the spirit of the competition. She had no way out of the pick-and-roll either; it was as if he and the Avenger pilot were in cahoots. That wouldn’t surprise her in the least.
She refocused and thrust her M50 forward, dipping beneath the Avenger and slipping past it on the low. It tried muscling her back, pointing its right wing down to mask her view, but Darring anticipated the move, shifted in kind, and kept her position and composure. Meanwhile, the Avenger pilot had lost his focus on the lane ahead of him, and failed to notice the ring closing fast and to the left. Darring hit her thrusters hard and shifted left, at the last minute moving out of the Avenger’s path. Darring took the turn and ring perfectly; the Avenger saw it too late, tried to adjust, and clipped the ring with its left wing. It broke the invisible plane of the tunnel and then overcompensated into a spin through the void.
She hoped that somewhere behind her, Guul was cheering. She could almost hear his resonant voice singing her praises. She liked the thought, but the most pressing concern now was right in front of her.
Remisk had been pushing his craft at full speed the entire course. How was that possible? she wondered. Sure, he had customized his M50 like all the rest, removing everything extraneous for extra fuel and cooling equipment, but he must be running on fumes by now after boosting like that. There was no other explanation. He would have to burn out soon, and the sooner the better.
She ignored the three other racers pressing hard at her six. She took the next ring and the next, letting the strong inertia pull and propel her craft forward. That was the best way to avoid overheating, she had learned racing around Saturn. Release thrust on the turns, and let your craft drift at top speed into the vector. Then you had enough thrust to pick up the few seconds you might have lost on drift. This racing gig was a game of milliseconds, and each one counted.
She moved up behind Remisk, taking advantage of the last straightaway before the final turns through the ultimate three rings. There was not much time left, and she had to make her move now.
She tried shifting up and over his craft. He moved to block her. She shifted down; he moved again, in perfect unison, their ships equal size. She shifted left, right, and each time Remisk moved to counter. How is he doing this?
He was a great racer. There was no doubt of that. He was strong, athletic and cool-headed. Remisk had not gotten where he was on the circuit without being smart and precise. But his moves, his instincts were almost supernatural, as if his senses were enhanced. But that was impossible.
Every racer went through a rigorous medical exam to ensure that no drugs had been introduced before the race, and further testing would be conducted along the way to ensure none had been taken after the first stage. Remisk was just that good.
Then I have to be better.
She pushed her engine to its limit, exceeding safe levels, much to the ire of her crew chief. He implored her to back off, take second or third place, don’t risk blowing your ship so soon for so little reward. Little reward, my ass!
She had taken the pole position, and she was going to let everyone know that it was not some fluke, that Hypatia Darring was here to stay. She wouldn’t give her fath– the media — grist for their mill.
She barrel rolled, letting the rotation of her M50 spiral her forward like a screw. Remisk, fearing that he would be clipped himself, shifted ever so slightly to his left, and Darring pounced. She pulled alongside him, letting her craft settle. She punched her thrusters again, feeling them wail their discontent through her arms and hands. Her stick was shaking, her heat warnings blaring. She could feel it all through her body, and there was, in all the galaxy, no feeling like it. It was something her father had forgotten. He was a good fighter pilot himself, or at least he was in his youth. But he had spent too much of his life in slow giants like destroyers, cruisers and battleships. He had forgotten what it was like to feel flesh tingle as strong g-forces threatened to rip your skin from its bones. Guul understood it. Remisk most certainly did. And even that sorry son of a bitch Mo‘tak understood the ecstatic feeling of sheer speed.
She pulled ahead. She took the next ring flawlessly, shifting against inertia and rolling through the next ring, which appeared immediately after the last. The final ring loomed large in the distance. Her crew chief, his attitude suddenly changed, barked “Go! Go!” into her ear. She smiled. She’d made the right decision. She most definitely deserved to be here racing among the greats.
Remisk pulled up above her, obviously giving her first place. She kept her course forward and strong, letting her warning systems holler. She giggled like a child, accepting praise from her chief. The flashing lights of the last ring did not make her weak or sick this time. She welcomed them happily.
Then a shadow came up over her, darkening her cockpit. It was Remisk, his M50 finding new life and overtaking her ship. In her joy, Darring had not realized that her thumb had lightened its pressure on her throttle, and she had slowed just slightly. Slowed enough for Remisk to swing his craft up and over her hull and plant itself, with its main thrusters, right in front of her cockpit. Darring tried keeping her speed and course, but Remisk kicked his boost and threw a gout of yellow fire across her cockpit windows.
Darring rolled left. It was a serious mistake. She tried regaining her position, pressed her thumb deeply into the throttle, but it was too late. Ykonde Remisk passed through the final ring in first place. The Avenger and one other racer took second and third, while Darring, her ship rolling uncontrollably through the last ring, barely finished fourth.