Recovering from her disappointing start in the Cup series, Darring has worked her way back to the front of the pack. She is on her way to victory in the Sorrow Sea — the Boneyard — when her ship explosively overheats . . .
Darring awoke in a quiet, sanitized room of white walls and beeping monitors. She lay in a medbay tub containing a pale, viscous gel. There were monitoring nodes on her neck and chest. She lifted her arm out of the fluid and tried sitting up. A strong hand kept her from doing so.
“Not yet,” the voice said. “Not until the doctor says it’s okay.”
She laid her head back against the tub wall and blinked repeatedly until the figure above her came into focus. “Zogat,” she said, her voice cracking, her throat dry and pasty. “Where — where —”
“Carrier infirmary,” he said, “in orbit above Ellis VIII.”
She tried sitting up again and felt a deep pain in her shoulder as she moved her arms. She reached across her chest and felt a layer of burnt skin, soft and supple due to the fluid, but still present. Terrifying memories flooded back. “My ship?”
Guul nodded. “Unsalvageable. It’s now a part of the Sorrow Sea.”
Darring massaged her sore shoulder. “What happened?”
“They do not know for certain. But your ship went through a rapid temperature increase that ignited the power plant. It’s a wonder it didn’t explode while you were still strapped in.”
“Do they know what caused it?”
“They couldn’t recover enough of the fuselage and its monitoring equipment to know the exact cause. But . . .” He paused, letting the word linger there in the space between them. “Remisk has confessed.”
“He’s confessed to it. Went mad, in fact, attacked a reporter, nearly ripped off her face. He says he put some kind of capsule into your tank; or rather, hired someone on your crew to do it, which, by the way, has been scrubbed. He even confessed to sending those thugs against us.”
She nodded, feeling a moment of relief. “Then Mo‘tak is finished as well.”
Guul cast his eyes down. He shook his head. “No, Hypatia. Mo‘tak has confessed nothing, nor has Remisk implicated anyone else. He’s gone catatonic, can’t speak, can’t move. He’s on something, but it can’t be detected. They fear he’ll die before he’s interrogated. He’s out, but Mo‘tak is still in and has condemned Remisk publicly in the most powerful words. The race has been suspended for a few days so that all remaining crews can conduct a mandatory check of their ships. Then it will resume.” He shook his head. “There are three things certain in the galaxy, as you Humans might say: Death, taxes and the MCR. The race will go on.”
Darring closed her eyes and laid her head back once again. She fought tears. “Yes, but it’s over for me.”
A pause, then, “Not yet.”
She tried asking how, but on cue, the room door opened and in walked Mo‘tak, straight and proud, wearing a fresh jumpsuit of gold and purple. Three reporters followed in his wake, one with a camera. He pulled his mouth back and said in a sincere voice, “Ah, I am so glad to see you awake. You had us all worried.”
I bet. She wanted to say those very words, but the strong pressure that Guul placed on her arm with his hand recommended otherwise. She forced her anger down and tried to smile. “It seems as if the Fates are on my side.”
Mo‘tak nodded. “Indeed. And it would also seem that Lady Luck has granted you favor as well. With my gift, you can now return to the race.”
Mo‘tak seemed surprised, “Your friend hasn’t told you?”
“I was just about to,” Guul said.
“Well, then let me say it proudly for all to hear.” Mo‘tak adjusted his position among the reporters, giving them time to ready.
The Xi’an cleared his throat. “I and the Xu.oa family corporation want to again strenuously condemn Ykonde Remisk’s actions. His cowardly assaults are inconsistent with what I and the MCR are all about. The integrity of the race must be maintained. Thus, as a gesture of good will and healthy competition, I have donated my personal M50 so that Hypatia Darring can return to the race.”
It took a moment for the announcement to register in her mind. To help drive the point home, a vid screen activated to reveal a clean, gold-and-purple trimmed M50. It was brilliant, beautiful. Darring loved it, but worried about Mo‘tak’s motivation.
“No way,” she barked, pulling herself up in the tub. “I’m not putting one toe into that —”
Guul applied pressure to her arm once again. “What Ms. Darring is saying is that she would be honored to accept your gift and looks forward to further competition in the days ahead.”
“Hey,” she said, pulling her arm away. “Don’t answer for me. I’m not a child, dammit!”
“Well, let’s leave Ms. Darring and Mr. Guul alone,” Mo‘tak said. “Clearly, they have much to discuss.” He leaned over Darring’s tub and stared into her eyes, his mouth inches from her face. “I’m so glad to see you well. Please do accept my offer. It would be a shame to lose one with so much talent.”
They scurried out, but left the image of the M50 on the vid screen. When the door closed, she rounded on Guul. “You don’t answer for me.”
Guul shook his head. “If you refuse this offer from Mo‘tak, he will have won thrice: by getting rid of Remisk, by getting rid of you, and by further damaging your reputation. Racing is as much about your public image as it is about skill. You already have a bad reputation. Don’t damage it further by being ungracious.”
“But it’s his ship!” she said, pointing to the vid screen. “He’s done something to it, I’m sure.”
Guul shook his head. “No, he’s not that stupid. There’s too much light on the competition now, too much that’s transpired. He can’t afford to offer this gift and then sabotage it. He’s done all he can do. It’s a matter of who’s the best now. There’s plenty of racing left, Hypatia. Go out there and prove to everyone, prove to Mo‘tak, that you will not be stopped, that you are the best.”
Despite the logic in his words, Darring wanted to refuse Mo‘tak’s gift. On the other hand, to beat Mo‘tak with his own ship would be so lovely. But it wasn’t just a matter of getting up and strapping into the cockpit. Every M50 had its own quirks, its own personality. There were always balancing issues, thrust issues, drift issues that needed to be identified and learned. The cockpit displays would need to be configured to her own preferences, which would take time to sort out. And it could take weeks for her to get comfortable on the stick and throttle. She had maybe 48 hours to make it all work. Her burns were healing in this goo around her, but her flesh was tight and still stung beneath her movements. Mo‘tak was setting her up to fail. He didn’t need to sabotage the ship, she realized. Her current condition was enough to slow her down.
And now Guul was taking advantage of their new friendship. He had no right to interrupt her and speak for her publicly. Guul may admire me, she thought as she pulled herself up and sat on the edge of the tub. Now, he needs to respect me.
“Okay, Zogat,” she said, looking around for a towel. “You win. I’ll accept his offer. I’ll show him I’m the best, but more importantly . . . I’ll show you.”
* * *
Hello again, and welcome to another GSN Spectrum broadcast of the Murray Cup Race. After the tragedy rising from the Sorrow Sea, Darring’s near death experience, and Remisk’s shocking confession, the competition has gotten back on track and has settled into a sweet groove. From the midway checkpoint and out all the way to Ellis XII, the top racers have pushed their craft to the limit. Hypatia Darring has come back with a vengeance, accepting Mo‘tak’s M50 and taking two of the last three stages through the asteroid belt and back to the final checkpoint at Ellis VIII. The competition around Ellis IX, in particular, proved raucous, as Darring slowed to allow Mo‘tak to gain the lead while dogging Guul’s Hornet, forcing him to flirt with the Eye’s crushing tidal forces. No love was lost between those two during the following press conference. But now the Tevarin veteran has surprised everyone once again by taking the final obstacle course in the outer asteroid belt, showing a refinement that proves he will go down in history as one of the finest pilots ever to race The Cup. Now, the competition enters its final leg with only 65 racers remaining, and the top three positions held by Mo‘tak, Darring and Guul. Can these three power-houses hold out, or will someone else fly past and beat them all?
The final leg awaits. Let’s kick it back to Mike Crenshaw who’s in the thick of it. What’s the mood on the carrier, Mike?
* * *
That’s what Darring was. Just a raw nerve, always ready to spark if given a chance. Guul had hoped to share with her a little of his experience, teach her some wisdom, in a sport just as rough on the spirit as it was on the body and mind. And perhaps she had learned a little.
She was racing better, maneuvering better, taking to heart his philosophy . . . speed is life. But looking across the carrier bay floor at her as she ran a cloth across the belly of her borrowed M50, Zogat Guul could not tell if Darring’s improvement was motivated by skill or anger. Did it really matter? In the end, if she blew across the finish line in first place, it would all boil down to victory. And that was the ultimate goal of everyone in the race. Go home a winner . . . or just go home.
“Hypatia Darring has it out for you, doesn’t she?”
Crenshaw’s face was all perky as if he had just said something infinitely clever and devious.
Guul did not take the bait. “She is a tough competitor. Like a Tevarin, she shows her enemy no mercy.”
“But she held back around The Eye just to force you to lose. That’s the move of someone bearing a grudge. What did you do?”
What indeed. Perhaps he had come on too strong. Was it when he interrupted her and spoke for her publicly at the hospital? She would not say when he asked; instead, she would change the subject or walk away. But direct action, direct speech was his way. Surely she realized he was right. She had to compete. She had to accept Mo‘tak’s offer and finish the race. Not just for herself, but for the honor of her family. Surely she did not blame him for pointing that out.
“Scurry away, bug.”
Mo‘tak appeared, alone this time, and flicked his fingers at Crenshaw as if he were swatting a fly. “The Tevarin warrior will not condescend to answer such a silly question. Shoo! Go bother someone else.”
Crenshaw pulled a rueful face but retreated nonetheless.
When he was gone, Mo‘tak closed on Guul and offered his hand. “Good luck,” he said.
“You want to break my hand like you tried to break Hypatia’s?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, my friend. I merely want to wish you a safe final course. This is your last, isn’t it?”
Guul nodded. “Perhaps.”
“And you are braced to win it all and be remembered as the greatest racer in the history of the sport. For that, I wish you good luck.”
Guul took the handshake reluctantly. Mo‘tak’s fingers were firm but not vise-like. He moved until he was beside the Tevarin. Mo‘tak placed his free hand on Guul’s back.
“Look at it all one last time, Zogat. All of it. The bay, the racers, the media, the hustle and bustle of the crews. You will miss it. But I think you will miss that young lady right there most of all.”
Before Guul had a chance to speak, Mo‘tak pushed his hand hard against the Tevarin’s neck.
Guul felt a slight pinch and jerked away. A warm flush spread across his skin. “What did you do?”
Mo‘tak maintained his composure and kept looking forward as if they were having a pleasant conversation. “To win against racers as skilled as yourself and Darring will be quite the honor,” he said, as the media crowded around once more. “Good luck out there, old friend.”
Guul rubbed his neck. The Xi’an had done something to him, but Mo’tak had again done his scheming in such a way that left very little evidence. Perhaps if Guul called the MCR authorities over now, they could find something, but more likely his accusations would prove to be unfounded. He looked out at everyone suiting up, strapping in, readying for the final course. He could choose not to race. If Mo’tak had drugged him as he suspected, then it would be quite dangerous to climb into his cockpit. But he quickly shoved the thought aside. He couldn’t get out now, not when the end was so close. It wasn’t in him. He had to take his own advice. He had to finish the race.
He looked across the bay floor, toward Darring. She was putting on her helmet, getting ready to climb into her cockpit. He tried catching her attention with a wave. She did not see him, or she was ignoring him. Whatever the reason, he was grateful that he had had an opportunity in the twilight of his career to race against such a warrior, such a competitor as she.
Speed is life, he thought as he put on his helmet with shaking hands. But as always, speed also might mean death.
* * *
Guul was just ahead of her, Mo‘tak at her six. She was perfectly placed to take advantage of the Tevarin’s erratic behavior. He had been speeding up, slowing down, speeding up, as if unsure what to do. Or perhaps he was playing with her, working to sap her resolve, force her to slow down and deal with his uncharacteristic movements, thus giving the lead away to Mo‘tak. But that was silly. Guul did not want the ruthless Xi’an to win any more than she did. So, what was his game?
They raced in high orbit above Ellis VIII. The final stretch was a long, loping crazy-eight of rings that flashed brilliant reds and greens and whites, keeping a tempo with the natural flow of the racers as they shot past one another near the intersect. It was a dangerous place, for racers coming out of those rings could slam into one another and ricochet into space. Even if your ship survived, the time it would take to recover from such a collision would be race-ending.
Two orbital grandstands just outside the course held spectators and prominent dignitaries that had come out to see and share in the glory of the winner. The MCR allowed the energy and excitement of the crowds to be broadcast into the cockpits of each racer as GSN announcers gave the minute-by-minute account of the final laps. Some racers thrived on the energy of the crowds. Some reveled in the noise. Darring muted it all, preferring instead to concentrate on the racers around her.
She maneuvered her M50 to the right of Guul, taking advantage of the loop. He swung his Hornet out a touch too far, and she slipped right in beside him. His wing grazed the invisible walls of the ring course, letting the tip of it cut through the barrier like a shark’s fin cresting a wave. He’d lose time for that, but he didn’t seem to care, keeping his craft pressed against the loop to ride it all the way around. He’s getting old, she thought, letting a smile slip across her lips. Can’t handle the rigors of such a sharp turn anymore. Then she thought better of gloating. She wanted to beat him, to make him see her as a racer, an equal, not as a puppy dog to counsel. But she didn’t want him to leave the race. There was still plenty of track left, plenty of twists and turns, and Mo‘tak was right on them.
The Xi’an thrust his 350r down to run right below her belly, preventing an interloper behind him in a souped-up Avenger from making a move. Darring banked to the right and felt the tug of strong G’s despite being held tightly in the chair. Her skin had healed well and there was a little pain in her shoulders, but such a move reminded her of the frailty of flesh and her own mortality. Bank too strongly, and you could pass out.
“You’re not winning this one, Mo‘tak,” she said into her comm. Only her crew chief could hear it, but he shared her sentiment. He gave her directions which she accepted and moved her craft to the left as they cleared the loop and headed for the final intersect.
Guul came up to her side again, but he was still moving oddly, letting his wings wobble on the rebalance. She shook her head and focused on Mo‘tak, who had gunned his engine, showing significant burn out of his exhaust nozzles. He wouldn’t dare cross her cockpit now, not with the MCR looking on so intently. In fact, Mo‘tak had acted reasonably well since his vanity display at the hospital. He’d let his racing skills speak for themselves. So perhaps he wasn’t such a rotten son-of-a bitch after all. But she wouldn’t be keeping his gift after the race.
Red blips danced on her radar, showing hazards as she crossed the intersect.
She drifted up in the lane, taking the traditional approach for a right-side cross. Mo‘tak followed, but Guul struggled to drift up, taking too long, letting his craft fall behind once more. She fought the urge to link into his comm. Mo‘tak tried to force her down. She gripped her stick and moved with him, not letting him gain advantage. The blips on the screen grew brighter. She keyed her focus, thrust her M50 forward and sailed into the intersect.
Lagging ships flew past her at the right angle, trying desperately to keep up with the pack. One nearly clipped her wing. She banked left just in time. She tried finding Guul and Mo‘tak in the flurry of crimson blips on her screen. It was impossible. She banked left, right, left again, swirling through screaming racers.
Darring flew out of the intersect, righted her ship once more, and prepared for the final run. She checked her radar. The madness there settled to show those that had gotten through and were in pursuit. Damn! Mo‘tak settled again beside her, and Guul was not far behind, though struggling still. Why can’t I shake these bastards?
Finally, Guul made the move she was expecting. The Tevarin thrust his Hornet forward, clipping between her and Mo‘tak at such velocity that he was nothing but a blur. Her heart raced alongside him. She gunned her engine, falling just behind him, watching as the blips on her radar were replaced by the long green pulsing line of the final straightaway. She could hardly contain her excitement. She, Hypatia Darring, in second place on the final lap around Ellis VIII. The perfect position to make a final move and win it all. And there was Zogat Guul, the master, egging her on, forcing her to put away her silly feud and chase him, chase him for glory, for fame, for personal fulfillment. A laugh of pure joy escape her lips.
Speed is life.
They hit the final stretch together. One full lap around rocky Ellis VIII. Full bore speed. There was nothing like it in the galaxy. She could not contain her excitement. She screamed into her comm. Mo‘tak tried to muscle his way into her space. She refused him. He tried again. She pushed her M50 even faster, keeping pace with Guul, letting the green lights of the radar draw her forward.
Guul slowed, fell alongside her, slowed again, letting her take the lead. Bullshit, she thought, frustration growing as she punched a panel and said to him, “What the hell are you doing?”
She was greeted with coughing, spitting and moans. Something was terribly wrong. “I’m glad to speak to you once more, Hypatia.”
“Do you remember what you told me? What you made me promise? If I were in a position to win, I’d win. And now here you are, about to win, and you’re falling back. Explain.”
Guul coughed. It sounded thick, bloody. “It isn’t important that I win, Hypatia. I’ve won enough in my life. It’s time for others to shine. It’s time for you to shine. Now, go beat him. And remember what I told you.”
He cut their link. Darring shouted, but he was gone. Guul fell back, and back, until she could not see him anymore.
Mo‘tak pounced and took the lead. Shit! She gunned it, moved down in the lane, set her craft just below Mo‘tak’s. The sleek, long body of his 350r shadowing her smaller M50. There was no doubt his craft had the endurance; in a rough and tumble, he’d prevail. She had to get out from his shadow, his influence. The only way to do that . . .
She tried pushing her plant, thumbed the throttle hard, but it did not register. She tried again. Her dashboard controls blinked, once, twice, then resettled with different settings, measurements, displays. What the —
“How’s my ship?”
Darring’s heart sank. “Mo‘tak!”
“It is indeed,” he said, his voice fuzzy over the comm, “and now that I have your undivided attention, I will reclaim what is mine.”
Nothing she did registered. She tapped panels, flicked switches, tried raising an MCR official over the comm. Everything was null, but her ship responded quickly to Mo‘tak’s remote commands. He banked to the left; she did the same. He banked right, she followed. The Xi’an finally settled his 350r beside her, waved smugly at her through his cockpit window, commanded her ship to move slightly ahead, then said, “I’ll let you take the lead for a little while, my dear, then I’ll dramatically pull forward at the last minute, flying on to victory, while you spiral out of control, hitting the royal grandstand and killing dozens. You’ll be remembered as the Butcher of Ellis.”
She pushed and prodded at the stick, banged at the dashboard. She even struck the eject controls. Nothing. “I’ll kill you first, you sorry son of a bitch.”
“And how will you do that, my dear? You have no control over anything . . . and your Tevarin is gone.”
As if on cue, a bright streak soared past them both, a flush of red and gold nozzle fire. It was burning, its power plant pushed beyond integrity. Darring squinted to see who it was. She recognized the blue Tevarin lettering on the hull.
His Hornet barreled ahead, all flame and fury. Darring could hear Mo‘tak curse beneath his breath. She tried again to take control of her stick. Nothing. She tried calling out to Guul, but all she could hear was Mo‘tak’s agitated mumblings as he commanded her ship to move up and ahead of him. Darring watched intently as Guul flipped his burning craft around, shifted it to align perfectly with her own, and headed straight for her.
Her comm crackled with another voice. “Move!” it said, ragged, faint. “Dive! Dive!”
“I can’t!” she screamed back, but there was no response. Only Mo‘tak’s maddening cackle could be heard. “Say to him whatever you wish. He cannot hear you.”
Guul banked left. Darring’s ship moved to shadow the Hornet. He banked right; she banked in kind. Guul’s weakening voice continued pleading for her to get out of the way. Tears streamed down her face; her voice broke from exertion. Mo‘tak laughed and laughed.
Her ship spun like a cork-screw on its long axis. She closed her eyes, waited for impact, whispering softly to Guul, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . .”
Then she remembered.
Beneath the dashboard of every M50 lay a panel, and inside it, a power cut-off valve independent of the main electrical and command systems. Could Mo‘tak have forgotten it? He might have, so foolishly overconfident in his scheming and backstabbing, and spending too much time in his 350r to remember all the systems of his secondary ship. But it might be: A mistake . . . finally.
Through the dizzying haze of her spinning, she reached beneath the dash, found the panel with shaking fingers, ripped it open, and pulled the valve.
“You lose, Mo‘tak!”
The power plant died, and with that sudden lack of propulsion her ship spun to port. Zogat Guul slipped right past her, hitting Mo‘tak’s ship square in the front, exploding on impact, and sending their shattered, burning hulls into the void.
The cockpit came alive, her stick again responsive. She pulled her ship out of spin, reignited the plant, and blew across the finish line ahead of all others.
Her pit crew went wild, matching her own screaming, but for different reasons. They were joyous, elated, happy that their racer — the youngest Human to ever win the MCR — had just done so, and in a blaze of glory. They were happy, and they deserved to be.
She was not. Oh, she was happy to have won, to have taken the Cup, to have proven to her father that her choice in career was not foolish. She laid her head back into her chair and cried. Cried joyous tears for Guul. She understood fully now his words, echoing loudly in her mind. Speed is life, and there was no life without speed. She understood that now.
The Cup was just one race in a thousand that lay ahead of her, and there would be no true happiness until she had raced them all and chased down that beast that lay in front of her, that lay in front of all racers. In his fiery death, Zogat Guul had finally caught the beast. Now, it was her turn to chase it, and she would do so for him, for Guul . . . forever.
Beyond the finish line, beyond the grandstands, beyond the accolades and cheering fans, Hypatia Darring gunned her power plant and kept racing.