At the end of the first stage in the Murray Cup race through the Ellis system, Ykonde Remisk edged out Hypatia Darring with a boost flare that, while technically legal, was definitely dangerous. Both of these two Human racers finished ahead of their main competition, the veteran Tevarin Zogat Guul and the wily Xi’an Nyanāl Mo‘tak Xu.oa. Darring reacts to Remisk’s maneuver …
Darring jumped out of her racer, sped across the carrier bay floor, found Remisk in the middle of a media gang, and drove her fist toward his cheery face.
He ducked just in time.
One of Remisk’s crew grabbed Darring and held her back as she hurled accusations. “You son of a bitch! You could have killed me!”
Remisk recovered from the attempted assault and played it cool in front of the crowd, adjusting his collar and giving a weak smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Darring. I ran a clean race.”
“You tried to burn me alive!”
Shock and dismay spread among the faces of those gathered.
Out of the corner of her eye, Darring could see an MCR official coming their way with a concerned look on his face, but she didn’t care. She fought her way out of the crewman’s grasp and took another swing. Remisk caught her arm and held it tightly.
“Back off, Darring,” he said, “or I’ll file a complaint.”
“I’ll file one requesting your dismissal, you cheap —”
“Humans, come now, let’s remain civil.”
Mo‘tak pushed his way through the crowd and stood beside Remisk. He waited until the MCR rules official arrived, then continued. “Attend these words — I can assure you that from my perspective, Mr. Remisk violated no MCR rules. In fact, not only was his move brilliant in its simplicity, but it showed a deep dedication to the integrity of the sport. Remisk never once touched his ship to Ms. Darring’s. He showed incredible care in the maneuver. I can attest to that.”
“You can attest to kissing my —”
Guul stepped in and peeled Remisk’s fingers from Darring’s arm. He whispered into her ear. “Come on, let’s go. Not here, not this way.”
Mo‘tak chuckled. “You should listen to him, young one. Guul is a wise soul.”
Guul ignored Mo‘tak and pulled Darring through the crowd. “I said, let’s go.”
She relented, and they made their way out of the carrier bay and into a long narrow corridor that led to a small atrium with chairs and tables that looked out over Ellis III. The planet’s orbit was alive with the race as it continued with the remaining racer groups down list. It was a beautiful display, the rings of the course pulsing their light, and the blur of racecraft rushing through them at marvelous speeds.
Darring looked out at it, and her anger began to subside.
“Take a seat, Hypatia,” Guul said as he pulled one chair away from a table. Darring sat, crossed her arms, and kept looking out at the race.
Guul sat down across from her, taking care as he bent into the Human-style chair. “Now tell me … what was that all about?”
Darring did not respond at first, but she met Guul’s stern gaze with her own. Then she blinked, sighed, and said, “He cheated. He cut me off and blew fire into my face.”
“It is not a violation of the rules, and you know it.”
“Well, it should be.”
“You know,” Guul said, shaking his head and leaning back, “I would not expect a loose cannon like yourself to be such a slave to the rules.”
Darring finally smiled. “A residual from my father’s parenting. ‘Play by the rules, Hypatia’,” she said, imitating a deep manly voice, “ ‘win by the rules, and they can never have cause to take your victories away’.”
“It is a noble statement,” Guul said, “but, in racing, a touch naive. There are rules, and then there are rules. But you pull something like that again, especially with witnesses, and you’re the one that will be expelled, not Remisk.”
Darring sloughed off his warning. “He’s a jackass, and so is Mo‘tak.”
“That is true, but there’s nothing you can do about it right now. They will do what they have to do to win, and you must keep your cool. Besides,” Guul said, his gaze growing more serious, his face cast down toward the racers rushing past, “I want my last race to be against the best. And if you are expelled, then it will be against wanna-bes and has-beens.”
Darring wrinkled her brow with concern. “Why is this your last? You have many years ahead.”
Guul nodded. “Many years perhaps, but not as a racer. Every joint aches, every bone brittle, and my eyes are failing. It is time.”
Darring sat in quiet, not wanting to speak, not wanting to accept that her hero was near the end. And she had just met him. How could he be leaving now, when she had so much to speak to him about, so much to learn? Afterwards, he would likely return home (wherever that may be), and she’d never see him again. Time would be so precious during the race. When would she have another opportunity to talk to him, to learn from him? If this is his last Cup, she thought, then perhaps I should back off a bit, let him have a course or two, let him take the lead when —
“What is that look?”
She turned to him, shrugged innocently. “What look?”
Guul leaned forward. “You’re thinking about throwing the race for me, aren’t you? You’re thinking, ‘Give the old Tevarin one more victory.’ Well, forget such nonsense. My people are warriors, Hypatia, and we have a saying: ‘Honor your enemy, praise him if you must, but never lose a chance to kill him.’ Here, you and I are friends. Out there,” he said, pointing to the race, “we are foe. Promise me, that if we find ourselves neck and neck on the final lap, and you have an opportunity to win, that you will. That you will show me no mercy, no quarter, and then at least I will know that if I lose, I have lost against the best. Promise me.”
His face was so serious, Darring knew that he would not let her leave the room until she promised and did so sincerely.
She nodded. “I promise.”
Guul stood. “Excellent. Now, I owe you a dinner. Hungry?”
They walked together through the corridor, took a turn toward the carrier’s mess. It was a good idea to get a full meal before heading to Ellis IV, and some rack time as well. The next several legs of the race would be tough, and Darring would have to face her crew chief soon and figure out if any serious damage had been done to her engine. It was not a conversation she was looking forward to.
“Have your crew chief speak to mine,” Guul said. “He’s an old M50 pilot and has been around as long as I —”
Guul did not finish his words. They had turned a corner and there stood three Humans wrapped in dark clothing to match the faint light of the corridor. The three did not hesitate.
One pulled a knife and slashed towards Darring’s throat. She leaned back instinctively and felt the wind of the brutal attack across her chin. The blade did not find flesh, however, and she tumbled back against the wall.
The other two were on Guul immediately, but despite the Tevarin’s confession of joint pain, he moved quickly, subduing one in a headlock and guarding off the fists of the other. Darring tried to get to him, but her assailant was not finished. He slashed again with his blade, this time toward her stomach. She knocked his arm back with a move she had learned in Basic, then drove her fist into his kidney.
As the man lurched back, recovering from the blow, Darring recognized his face. He was from Mo‘tak’s entourage, the one who had shielded his boss and nodded to her as the Xi’an had walked away. She gnashed her teeth, scowled, and drove her boot into his crotch, knocking him to his knees. She continued her assault against his face, striking him twice before he managed to turn, kick out his leg, and swipe her feet from beneath her. Darring fell hard, her hip reeling from its concussion against the corridor floor.
He was on her again, but she was ready. She timed her move, brought her knees up quickly and flung him up the corridor. She tried rising to pursue, but the body of another assailant flew over her and hit the wall. She looked toward Guul and found him making mincemeat of the third man’s face. His companions, bloody, beaten and clearly not wishing further punishment, collected themselves quickly and dashed away.
Guul released the third man, pushed him back against the wall. Darring tried moving against him, but despite his mangled face, he got away from her grasp, grabbed his blade and shot away down the corridor in the opposite direction of his accomplices.
Darring went to Guul’s side. He had slipped down the wall and was holding a bloody gash across his stomach. Darring moved his hand away to look at it. “Bastards,” she said, helping him to his feet. “Bloody bastards. Come on, let’s get you to the hospital.”
Guul shook his head and pushed her away. “No. Just get me to my crew. It’s not that bad. I’ve had worse.”
“But we have to tell someone about this. Tell them it’s Remisk and Mo‘tak.”
“How do you know that?”
“One of the men . . . I saw him in Mo‘tak’s gang the other day.”
He nodded. “But you can’t prove it.”
“Come on, Guul,” she said, letting her anger rise again. “Don’t play stupid. You know who ordered this.”
“You may be right, but they are far too smart to leave evidence lying around. And if you’re wrong, then it will reflect badly on you, especially after your unprovoked assault against Remisk. Mo‘tak has too many friends among MCR officials. This will go away as quickly as it was attempted.” He pointed down the corridor, toward the atrium and out to space. “We’ll beat them out there.”
Reluctantly, Darring nodded. She did not like the plan, but let it rest. The most important thing now was to get him to someone, anyone, who could help.
Putting an arm around his waist, she helped him back to his crew.
* * *
“You’re late,” Mo‘tak said, sitting quietly in the dark of the room. Remisk took no time to express his agitation.
“It’s got to stop, Mo‘tak. It’s gone too far.”
“They could have been killed. Both of them. That’s not what I signed up for.”
“What did you sign up for?”
“Sabotage is fine. Damaging an engine, clogging a fuel line, denting a wing, forcing a racer back with an illegal move. These are all fine. Win or lose, succeed or fail, it’s all part of the unspoken game. But trying to kill people is another matter entirely.”
Mo‘tak chuckled. “What would you rather do? Race the final course with only me to contend with, or with Guul and Darring as well? The Tevarin is a beast, and that welp is far better than anyone gives her credit for. If they remain in the race, you’ll go down in history as the man who had a chance, but failed to win the Triple Crown.”
You will fail regardless, Mo‘tak said to himself. Once I’ve dealt with Guul and Darring.
“It’s over, Mo‘tak,” Remisk said, emphasizing his point with a swipe of his arm. “I’m not doing your dirty work anymore.”
Mo‘tak turned on an overhead lamp resting on a table at his side. Beneath the cast light lay a small, gold-colored box, which he carefully opened. A small syringe lay in its center. He picked up the syringe and held it as if he were going to give someone a shot. “Oh, I think you will. You still have things to do for me. And if you don’t, I will share with the MCR rules committee what is contained in this needle.”
“What is it?”
Mo‘tak shrugged. “The very thing that has given you an almost inhuman focus, an ability to anticipate moves three, four turns ahead.”
“That’s a lie! I’ve never taken drugs in my life.”
“I’ve been planning this for a long, long time, Remisk. So let me lay it out for you. A young, successful pilot wants to make a name for himself. He wins the Goss Invitational by a nose and begins to think he really has a shot at winning the Triple Crown. He goes to a small-time dealer and asks, “What can you give me that can’t be detected by scanners?’ The dealer gives him this, which I gave the dealer — a Xi’an concoction called e’tâm. For us it produces a mild meditative state, but when introduced to Human brain chemistry, it creates a state of hyper awareness, an almost extrasensory perception. MCR scanners at their current settings cannot detect it. And you have been taking microdoses for months.”
“You’re a liar!”
Mo‘tak ignored the accusation. “And here’s the catch. There’s enough in here to keep you vital to the end of the race. Take it, and you’ll be fine. If not, somewhere around Ellis IX, as your ship is being pulled by the gravitational forces of that giant gas ball, you will go into withdrawal, fall into a deep sleep and be crushed by the tidal forces of its wild weather.” Mo‘tak held up the syringe for Remisk to see, letting a few drops squirt from the needle tip. “What will it be, my friend? Life or death?”
Remisk stood in the darkness for a long time. Then finally, he rolled up his sleeve, and offered his forearm. “You’re a bastard.”
Mo‘tak punched the needle into a vein. “No, Remisk. I’m not. I’m just a businessman, protecting his investment.”
He pushed the entire dose into Remisk’s arm, then laid the empty syringe in the golden box. Remisk got up and rolled down his sleeve. He turned to leave, but Mo‘tak stopped him.
“Oh,” he said, reaching into a pocket and producing a silver capsule. He pitched it to Remisk. “Get this to our man on Darring’s crew and see he puts it where we have discussed. We want to make sure that upstart has a pleasant ride through the Boneyard.”
Remisk left. Mo‘tak lingered in the dark, chewing the inside of his left cheek, considering the future. He sighed. He should never have relied on Remisk, on a Human, to do the work. They could never be trusted. He’d never had one pleasant experience with them in all his life. Not as a racer, not during his years of mandatory military service, not as a young adult, and certainly not as a child, when Human pirates had scattered his family and killed his mother. There wasn’t one in the bunch worth a damn.
But Remisk . . . could he be trusted to finish the job against Darring? Mo‘tak shrugged. It hardly mattered anyway. Whether he did or did not, Remisk’s time in the race was coming to a close. With the dose I gave him, Mo‘tak thought, getting up and leaving the room, he won’t survive the Boneyard either.
* * *
Hello again, and welcome to another broadcast of GSN’s continuing coverage of the Murray Cup Race. After a rough start that saw Hypatia Darring warned and reprimanded for her unsportsmanlike conduct, things have calmed down. Ms. Darring has kept her cool and has fought her way back to contention with a stunning head-to-head struggle around Ellis V against veteran Zogat Guul. Though these two are reported to be close friends, no love is lost between them as they make their way through these dangerous courses. But now the most contentious portion of the race is upon us. The Sorrow Sea, or as most of the racers call it, the Boneyard, looms large in the cockpit window. Can anyone brave the shattered hulls and sharp asteroids that hazard this course? Let’s find out . . .
Mo‘tak was on her left, Guul on her right, and somewhere behind her, Remisk waited to pounce. It had been like this for a long time, shifting back and forth through broken hulls of previous racers and multi-ton asteroids, some so large that their gravity tugged on her hull as she passed. Her radar displayed the Boneyard in all its glory, and there were many paths to take through the obstacles; some shorter, some longer. This was a timed course, but the lanes sometimes narrowed to force racers to poke and prod one another, thus making it one of the deadliest in the race. The broken hulls of the hollow racecraft around her confirmed its danger.
She shifted left and took one of the shorter paths. Doing so would put her closer to the finish line, but the obstacles here were ridiculous in their distribution. She turned left, barreled tightly through a wide hole of an ancient hull. The racer right behind her broke formation and flew down another path. At her speed, Darring could not tell if it had been Remisk or not, but one less bee in her bonnet was okay by her.
Mo‘tak was still on her left, however. Guul had broken formation as well and had chosen a longer path, but one less constricted with debris. She could see his little red blip on her radar, and several others training in on him from all angles. He was in deep shit, she knew, if any of those other racers worked in silent unison to push him off course. His modified Hornet would have trouble with excessive obstacles, but then that’s why he took the longer route. He was no idiot.
Mo‘tak turned his 350r sharply and shot above her. Images of Remisk’s scorching exhaust flooded her mind, but this time, she ignored her impulse and kept course.
Speed is life.
A Banu racer in their heavily upgraded Avenger slipped in alongside her. There were a few Banu in the race, and Darring could not remember the name of this one, but she remembered the distinct green-and-black striped hull. They tried forcing her into the craterous side of the asteroid ahead of them. Darring took her thumb off the thrust, acting as if she were going to slow and allow the Banu to take position, but at the last moment, she gunned her thrusters, shifted sharply up so that the belly of her M50 skimmed mere inches from the crater floor, kicking up dust from its ejecta blanket, and blowing it back into the cockpit of the Avenger on her tail. The Banu had to turn sharply to the left, giving advantage once again to Darring.
I can play dirty too!
Darring laughed into the ear of her crew chief who was warning her to take it slow and not risk getting her hydrogen scoops clogged. He was worried about her engine, which had been refitted after its overexertion around Green. There was still so much race left, and he was especially concerned with Ellis IX, the gas giant that would place serious pressure on her hull. He didn’t want her engine to go down a second time as well. But she was enjoying herself. She was enjoying the Sorrow Sea, the Boneyard, in all its wondrous danger.
Only Mo‘tak annoyed her now. The rest of her competition had fallen behind or had taken different routes. The route ahead of her was still tricky, but it was hers. She commanded it now, and she leaned back in her restraints and let her engine run.
And now Mo‘tak fell back, and his blip on her radar stopped flashing red in danger. She was free, and the finish line was close.
A warning light suddenly flashed on her cooling monitors. She looked down and saw that her engine’s heat dissipation had fallen sharply. She pressed controls, tapped panels, and now other warning lights were flashing.
Something was wrong with her fuel. It was rising in temperature, too fast, too hot, and the cooling system could not dissipate the excess heat fast enough. It was burning her engine, and her hull shifted and sputtered, pressing her forward against her restraints.
She tapped her comm link. “Something’s wrong here! Engine reaching critical heat.”
“Check your heat release override valve on the —”
She tried doing as her crew chief advised, but before she could move her arm, fire exploded into her cockpit, engulfing her torso and helmet. She panicked, trying to pat the fire out with her gloves, but that did nothing. The flames grew larger and larger, working their way under her jumpsuit, piercing the protective lining at her neck, and burning her face and shoulders.
“Power plant breach imminent!” screamed the safety system in her ear. “Power plant breach imminent!”
Through searing pain, Hypatia Darring reached beneath her cockpit seat, tapped the eject pad, and blew her cockpit enclosure into space. Thrusters beneath her seat erupted, and she tumbled after the cockpit, still strapped into her chair, gasping for air.
Five seconds later, before she lost consciousness, Darring watched her M50 explode into a thousand pieces.