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The Endurance Racer

by Ronald Crittenden 2 months ago in Sci Fi · updated 2 months ago
Runner-Up in New Worlds ChallengeRunner-Up in New Worlds Challenge
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The Quesenberry Project, Chapter 1

“Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Isn't that right, Cas?”

“Good thing these boats all have radios then, Ryan, ‘cause before they reach the finish line, somebody’s probably gonna be screaming….”

Listening to the pre-race commentary from InnerSports Sunday, Clay Hudson snorted and shook his head. Dirtsiders sure do talk a lot of shit about space.

Not that they were wrong. When space came for you – and it always did, given enough time – it did it by taking things away, one by one. Your connection to the people who could save you. The breath in your lungs. Your body heat, your nerve. The unguarded bits of your soul.

The racing shell bobbed up and down slightly beneath him as he flipped off the media feed and eased past the buoy to begin his pre-lap. A few thousand meters away, Espejo Station, the official start and finish line, sat atop the massive space elevator that rose like the finger of God from the outskirts of Guayaquil. The station was garishly lit by the usual array of berthing and hazard lights, as well as bright banners for the annual Endurance Grand Prix shell race of the South American Confederation (Confederación de Naciones Soberanas Americanas).

A crowd of race fans looked on from the facility’s large armored windows. Most aficionados would watch from home, where they could follow the whole event more easily from the video feeds along the course; but there were always some people who had the money and the itch to be where the action was.

As Hudson’s shell, Bull Dancer, began to move forward he could see the next vessel emerge from the ejection chute and cross behind him to take its place at the line.

As in nearly all shell races by mid-century, the first stage of the race was simply a warm-up lap that allowed competitors to come up to speed gradually, while familiarizing themselves with the course obstacles: mostly navigation beacons and holographic markers the racers would have to negotiate like chicanes on a terrestrial course.

In the early, unregulated days of the sport, racers simply took off all together from a “standing” start in orbit, and jockeyed around pre-existing physical objects like derelict satellites and other space junk that hadn’t yet fallen from orbit. The resulting carnage was predictable, and ugly.

Even now, shell racing was the most dangerous sport in the human cosmos, especially “speed circuit” Sponsors’ Cup racing, where competitors still took off together and raced at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour, sometimes mere meters away from one another. Bobby Elias had been a Gao Cup champion.

Hudson was shit at speed circuit, and he knew it. He didn’t have Elias’s fast-twitch reactions. She had been mercurial, and ferociously instinctive, and he loved that about her just as he loved everything else. But he was methodical, cool-blooded. It wasn’t that he had no heat within him; but his fire was held much deeper, and banked for other things. When he won a race, he did so on the edge of hard calculation, and that marked him out for endurance racing.

Not that I win all that much, he thought, with a wry grimace.

As Bull Dancer surged forward, building acceleration smoothly, Hudson glanced around the worn cockpit. He’d bought the shell secondhand from a defunct race team, whose number one boat had gotten splashed, along with its driver, all over some course on the Mars circuit. Even in the darkness it was easy to see the seat foam peeking through fraying patches of ballistic cellulon, and naked metal on the overhead where the safety bolster had pulled away. On the dash display, an angry yellow icon complained of a malfunctioning fuel gate; fortunately it was stuck in the open position, so as long as he had plenty of plasma, he was good to go.

His grimace twisted into a smile. At least Elias and I have that in common: slagged-out hardware. If I had a new shell I might start winning races again. But you need sponsors for new hardware, and you gotta win to get sponsors. So where does that leave me?

Of course, Elias had won the fucking Gao Cup with her low-rent shell. Before the Academy made her choose between the Navy and racing.

The Confederación Grand Prix was a rim shot — a route that ran the circumference of the planet — so the warm-up lap would take Hudson an hour and a half at caution speed, more or less. After hitting the start line again at the end of the first circuit, he would accelerate and run the route nine more times, racing against the clock rather than directly against the other pilots, though inevitably he would pass (and be passed) along the way. That’s when the physics got interesting.

Unlike speed circuit races, which were held in interplanetary space, and were contests of raw velocity and gut-twisting maneuver, an orbital endurance race was a chess match. Go too fast, and you could end up in a higher orbit and fall behind, or miss the gate leading into an obstacle and get disqualified. Decelerate too hard negotiating an obstacle, and you could fall into a lower orbit — or even drop out entirely. You could cheat those parameters a little with your vertical thrust, and everybody did. But Dame Physics was not mocked: dance too close to that line, get a little too aggressive on the pitch control, and you’d find yourself and your unshielded boat flipping endo out of orbit and burning in the atmosphere before the rescue tug even cranked up. It happened all the time.

Hudson knew where the line was, and he never flaunted it. His weapon was precision: meticulous wayfinding, crisp timing, perfect understanding of his envelope. And above all, patience. His navigation was so airtight that once, after a race, the organizers had demanded to tear down his rig looking for an autopilot. When they huffed away after, embarrassed, he’d had to reassemble the whole damned thing himself.

He checked the race timer. It was coming up on twelve minutes before the first obstacle — a spindle (holobuoy) turning 70 degrees into a long, shallow sweeper, terminating in a tight chicane. He would have to be alert when he got there, maybe even take a quick voice note and set it for auto playback when he returned to that point once the race started. But until then there was nothing to do but wait and think.

He rested his hand atop the control stick, tapping his ring lightly against the knob. It was the only ornament he wore — unlike most shell racers, who loved jewelry, piercings, and body art. A necklace could strangle you in a hard acceleration, Hudson knew, and an armband could sever a limb in a crash. As for body art, his skin was so dark that conventional tattoos wouldn’t show up that well. He’d thought about getting one of the new LACI treatments — Light Activated Cosmetic Imagery, usually called brighttoos — but it seemed like he’d never had the time or the money since he got out of prison. And a brighttoo wasn’t the kind of thing you’d ever get when you were inside, where being inconspicuous was the best protection.

•••

At the time Hudson went to court martial, alone, for the William and Mary incident, his prison destination seemed likely to be the aging Consolidated Navy Brig in Chesapeake — a vile enough place, certainly, even after the Military Prison Reform Act. By the time he lost his appeal, though, the North American Federation had moved the entirety of its naval corrections unit to the raw new lunar facility at Moongate.

If the Chesapeake brig was purgatory, Moongate was nothing short of hell. Claustrophobic, oppressive, the facility itself could easily kill you. During Hudson’s first half year, an average of two prisoners a month died of asphyxiation from faulty airlocks, or from carbon monoxide infiltration, or “metal poisoning” — i.e., getting lethally penetrated by a length of rebar pulled from the crumbling concrete wall of a shoddily-built cell. No one knew just how many of the casualties came at the hands of the guards — known to inmates as “moonbeams”, or just “beams” (born evil-ass motherfuckers) — and how many were down to enforcers from one of the three prisoner crews. Aside from a perfunctory welcome beating his first week, Hudson managed to escape “beam-ups” from the guards, by keeping to his cell and avoiding anything that smelled like agitation.

Unfortunately, it was harder to stay out of the way of the outfits. Neutrality was not tolerated, as he found when he was beaten twice on the same day, by enforcers from different gangs. The second, from the Bolos, was bad enough that he woke up in the brig infirmary with a concussion and a broken collarbone, along with a few missing teeth. Once he got back out to the population, he reluctantly joined the Bolos as a runner; they were the hardest hitters, and Hudson was clear-eyed about playing percentages. He didn’t know that the choice would have repercussions beyond the walls of Moongate.

As a loyal, if perfunctory, foot soldier for the Bolos, he managed to survive without any more serious injuries. Still, if he had had to serve out his entire sentence, Hudson knew he would never have lasted. As the time stretched out, he began to see fellow inmates increasingly dying deaths of despair: hanging themselves, opening their arteries, hopelessly attacking guards with rebar clubs, or even bare fists. When he was providentially released after 18 months — more than four years short of his full sentence — he felt like a man slowly emerging from a sepulchre.

Artemis Dawson had called him that very first day back home in Indianapolis, hiding out in the basement of his mother’s place while he figured out how to return to the world. Even now he could still remember how all Dawson’s sentences had ended with a rising inflection, every statement sounding like a question. How unlike her to be tentative that way, he thought, like she was testing her bones after a bad fall. He had tried to affect an easy manner, but he could hear her hanging back on the edge, expecting him to lash at her suddenly. She tried again a week later, but by that time he was into the worst of it, realizing in a way that prison could never have shown him, that any life he had built before was a ruin, and he had nothing left to rebuild with. The call barely lasted a minute before her wounded expression faded from the console. They hadn’t talked since.

Elias hadn’t reached out at all, never did. It was weeks before Hudson even heard about the big change, and when he did, it came from the same jackass that messaged him with an invitation to the Academy graduation. As if he was eager to go back. Did you hear about Elias? She’s a he now. Blew me the fuck away, chelo. Came back from winter break with new tackle.

Hudson had tried a thousand times since to envision Bobby, with her elfin features and bird-like restlessness, as a man. It was no use. He kept trying to decide if the situation was funny; if he dared to laugh at himself, it might be better, he might feel like less of an uncomprehending idiot. But he couldn’t tell.

More quickly than he expected, the dashboard squawked, rousing him from his reverie to warn of the first spindle’s approach. With practiced ease, he rolled the vessel to port and entered the turn past the buoy, grunting as centrifugal force tried to push the blood from his brain into his feet. As he cleared the turn and came upright again, he could see the first hundred kilometers or more of sweeper, limned by a border of green lights, curving away to his right. He rolled slightly to starboard to meet it, settling deeply into his seat, and relinquished memory for the sweet, present tug of speed.

•••

Eleven hours and change later, Bull Dancer was approaching the last obstacle: a mixed level, two stage chicane a thousand kilometers short of Espejo Station, which rookies and race fans referred to with awe as the Devil’s Mousetrap. Veteran racers just called it The Knuckle; and it had a justified reputation for punishing shell racers — especially in the late laps, when exhausted competitors grappled with one another in their last lunge toward the finish line.

Hudson felt the fatigue in every muscle. Coming out of the last few obstacles, he could feel the pod getting loose on him, his re-acquisitions losing their precision and crispness. He frowned. Nobody’s gonna think I’m hiding an autopilot in the boat today.

He probably wouldn’t make it onto the podium today, either. The race feed showed the first and second place shells already in the barn, their course times better than the few remaining racers could match with anything slower than a time machine. Camille Brodeur, running the perennial favorite Puissance7 boat, was first qualifier, first onto the course, and first into the paddock. She had passed Hudson more than an hour before, squeezing past him on the mid-course obstacle called the Jigsaw, when he was still in lap 8. The rules said you weren’t supposed to overtake on an obstacle, but nobody ever enforced it. She would probably give him shit about it after, if she noticed him at all.

A half hour after that, Brian Greene had passed him in Stringshot.

Hudson’s last chance for third place was to pass Angel Sarkis’s independent sled, Arcàngel; but he’d been a minute behind her when he started lap 1, and Bull Dancer was still a minute in her wake. She was already into the Knuckle, contesting it with a rookie driver out of Iceland, and once she was out there’d be nothing but straightaway to the finish. He shook his head. No way I’m gonna catch her now —

“—day mayday mayday!” The emergency channel blared. “This is Arcàngel. I’ve just collided with — I don’t know, I don’t know what happened! I’ve fallen off the Knuckle and …” The transmission stopped briefly, as Hudson began chopping his speed to negotiate the obstacle. Some of the lights, coming up rapidly, seemed clouded over or distorted.

As he would find out later, the rookie boat, Hugrakkur, had collided with Arcàngel when she attempted to overtake him on the wrinkle, the level change between chicanes. The Icelander had come apart and exploded, hurling a cloud of dust and debris throughout the Knuckle. Sarkis’s pod was still in one piece, but she was forced off the course and was in deep shit.

Her voice resumed on the channel: “… in a trike-over and my cluster’s not working, and I’ve got fire in the cabin!”

She sounded scared, with plenty of reason to be. In a trike-over, her shell was falling end over end, diagonally between the roll and pitch axes — and her control thrusters, damaged in the collision, weren’t responding. But the biggest problem by far was the fire. Unsuppressed, it would kill her in moments.

Urgent voices instantly crowded the channel, from other racers and officials listening from Espejo Station.

“Use your suppression gear!”

“It’s not working!” Sarkis cried, panicked. By international rules, every racing shell must carry fire suppression equipment. But almost nobody ever checked to make sure it was operating correctly until it was too late.

“Vent your cockpit!”

“Squawk emergency so they can find you —”

“Arcàngel, please report your current vector and contact Espejo Station on Guard channel,” commanded an official from the rescue shack, who had obviously never handled a race emergency. And probably couldn’t find his own ass with both hands and a sat link, thought Hudson.

None of the advice cut through the stricken racer’s panic. As her reports changed to pleas for rescue, a static hiss that might be fire began to muffle her transmissions. Still negotiating the twists of the Knuckle, Hudson flicked off the voice channel to concentrate on navigating the demanding chicane.

She’s dead already. She just doesn’t get it yet. Or probably she did.

An abrupt chunk announced an impact with a tiny shard of debris left over from the Icelandic boat, Hugrakkur. Before Hudson could even react, the missile had penetrated Bull Dancer’s cockpit fore and aft, barely missing his left shoulder and leaving a couple of fingertip-sized holes in the bulkheads. Adrenaline dumped into Hudson’s system with a rush as soon as he realized what had happened. Atmosphere leaked from the cabin with a loud hiss as the vessel’s life support system attempted to keep up, threatening to drain the small supply of emergency oxygen.

First things first. He ignored the outrushing air for a few moments while he carved through the final two bends of the chicane. His fatigue erased by the hard adrenaline hit, Hudson rolled out crisply from the Knuckle and dived into the straightaway, laying on speed toward the finish.

Only then did he turn his attention to the danger, rummaging quickly through his emergency gear to locate a can of alloy putty. Hudson pulled off wads of the stuff with his bare hands and pressed them into the holes, restoring the little ship’s pressure envelope. He wiped his fingers on his coveralls, knowing that the residue of the toxic paste was still enough to blister his hands and eat away fingerprints.

He smirked. Maybe that was a good thing.

Slightly under two minutes later, Bull Dancer crossed the finish line to claim third place and a spot on the podium for her pilot. By that time, Angel Sarkis was already dead.

•••

Hudson sat naked on a bench in the station’s locker room, drowsy after the long, hot shower. He had the space to himself. Bull Dancer was the last shell left in the paddock, all the other racers having long gone away to celebrate their victories or lick their wounds.

The locker room was a holdover from when Espejo was under construction, and it was a spartan affair, with exposed metal beams and harsh illumination from the caged light fixtures hanging at intervals overhead. Gouts of steam hung in the air, resisting the feeble ventilation, and droplets meandered down the black metal stanchions of the locker cages.

Hudson began to reach for his clothes, then paused, his eyes lingering on the third place trophy at his feet. It stood about a meter tall, polished titanium with enamel accents, and a holograph of Bull Dancer at the head. A touch on the base activated the holograph’s animation sequence, which displayed moments from the race as captured by course cameras and telemetry. He wondered idly how it stacked up against Elias’s Gao Cup trophy.

Pathetic how I’m always comparing myself to her.

The last time he had seen her was when the three of them had left the Academy to take their separate routes to William and Mary on the fateful night. Each of them was taken into custody separately on returning, and kept sequestered so they couldn’t coordinate their testimonies. Then Elias had walked, along with Dawson. He’d never had a word from her since.

And he never would. That Bobby doesn’t exist anymore.

“Nice race today.”

Startled, Hudson turned to see a man regarding him from the end of the row of lockers. Another man stood behind him, facing a different direction, clearly scanning for threats.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You didn’t.” Conditioned by his stretch at Moongate, Hudson was alive to potential threat. But he kept his expression neutral.

“Good. You seem like a guy who doesn’t scare easily.” The man smiled. “Anyway, I was impressed with your race — nice, tight vectors, patience, and you kept your cool on that last shot through the Knuckle.” He walked closer and pointed at the trophy. “You deserve every bit of that. With a better shell, you’d be top of the podium.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that.” Hudson had enough sense not to piss off a man with a bodyguard. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

The visitor smiled more broadly and looked away, like a man in on a joke. “I guess you didn’t.” He looked back and leaned forward, extending a hand. “I’m Garry Goran.”

Hudson paused imperceptibly before shaking his hand.

At the time that Peter Goran, chief executive of the Spenser Group, was ambushed away from Kelvin Station and shot down by agents of the North American Federation, he had one child: Garrison Goran, just finishing a successful graduate business career at the Pereira School in Brasília. None of the authorities had been able to lay a finger on the younger Goran while he was at school; he had a clean sheet — hadn’t even been implicated in anything — and he avoided trouble the way a hemophiliac avoids a blade. The authorities pulled him in for questioning a couple times, mostly trying to shake him down for a bribe, but he always skated. After a brief period of upheaval following the old man’s death, the son had assumed his place at the head of the family business, and was soon leading it to new heights. It was widely known that the younger Goran was working to generate an ever larger percentage of the syndicate’s revenues from lawful businesses. But that didn’t mean he had shuttered any of the old ones.

Hearing the name, Hudson recognized him immediately from the news — tall, mid thirties, a little on the slim side. He was dressed with casual elegance in blacks and greys, with a long jacket of bootleg authentic leather. Under ink-black hair, his eyes were gray and friendly, with crinkles that deepened when he smiled.

Video-star handsome, he looked like the most relaxed man in the galaxy — despite the fact that now, as the undeniable head of the Spenser Group, he could easily be apprehended by any of a dozen different earth governments on charges of narcotics trafficking, racketeering, contract murder (though the evidence there was a bit sketchier), and enough other crimes for a thousand years of incarceration.

“Right,” said Clay. “Thought I recognized you.”

“I’m sure you’re a busy guy,” Goran said without irony, “so I’ll just come right to the point. I’d like to sponsor you in a new boat.”

He waited for more, but there was none. “Just like that?”

“It’s not that sudden, really. I’ve been watching you from afar for a while, and I’m ready to make it happen. I can have one of my guys contact you, do the whole contract thing, you know. But all you need to do right now is say yes. If you want it.”

After a long moment without a response, Goran continued. “You want to know more. Sure, I get it.” He sat down on the bench beside Hudson, and engaged him directly with those vivid eyes. His cologne scented the still air with the fragrance of cedarwood and whiskey. “I’ve got a number of businesses to promote, and I’m looking for good people to help me with that. We’ve got lots of money to spend on this, and you’ll have a boat every bit as good as Camille Brodeur’s, with decals from Spenser Group companies all over it. Absolutely legit companies.” He spread his arms wide. “I mean, come on, why would you not want to do this?”

“Why me?”

“I like the way you race. More than that, you come recommended. I’ve got some friends in the Bolo family who tell me you’re a reliable guy, steady, the kind of man who might fit in well in our… whatever. Our corporate culture.”

Now it was coming a little clearer. Clay remembered that some of the higher-ups in the Bolos crew on Moongate bragged about having contacts in Peter Goran’s outfit. He’d thought it was bullshit at the time.

“What would I have to do?”

“Well, win, of course.” His grin was mischievous. “I mean, it’s not like we’re gonna shoot you or anything if you lose. But hopefully you’ll do well enough that we get some good brand exposure. In between major events, you do other driving work for the company.”

“Driving work.”

“Yeah. Look, we have a number of legitimate companies, as I said, but our biggest business far and away is still drugs and narcotronics. And unfortunately that stuff doesn’t transport itself. I need someone to move all those drugs from our warehouse at Kelvin Station out to various distribution hubs over earth and Mars and the outers, as well as meeting up with the big passenger convoys traveling up and down the arm… what?”

Despite himself, Hudson was grinning in disbelief.

“What, are you shocked that I’m just saying all that illegal stuff out loud, instead of using stupid code words, like ‘merchandise’ or ‘product’?” Goran laughed, making finger quotes in the air. “Or that I’m not trying to lure you into our criminal enterprise, and then trap you when you’re in too deep?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“Clay, I heard a lot of stuff in business school, of which basically two things stuck. One,” he held up a forefinger, “the shortest path to success is to give people what they want. Two —” a second finger — “being honest with yourself about what you want is the surest way to get it. To get what I want, I give customers the chance to have the things they desire most, whether or not some government somewhere decides it’s illegal.”

“And what’s that?” Clay asked. “What you want, I mean.”

“Ahh –” he scratched his jaw and looked away for a moment, considering. “Something that’s easy for me to understand, but hard to explain in a few words. I guess you could say I want to be the freest man alive.”

Clay chewed on that.

“At the moment,” Goran continued, “what I want is for you to come work for me. ‘Driver’ might not sound glamorous, but it’s an important job. I don’t make money unless I can move stuff to market. My drivers keep getting run down by bounty hunters, or they’re crappy navigators and they get lost and die, or they skim from me because they’re too dumb to realize they’ll get caught. Right now I’m only getting about two fifths of the revenue I should be making from my narco business.

“I know you won’t get lost, and you’re smart enough not to cheat me. With your skills, along with the most high-performance delivery truck money can buy, you won’t get caught. You’ll make me rich.” He smirked. “Okay, richer. From time to time you’ll also be my personal driver, and instead of hauling drugs around, you’ll be keeping me safe.

“So, there’s me being candid about what it involves. In order to get you, I’m offering what I assume you want — a race sponsorship and a realistic shot at being the champ. There’s other stuff, too, that I haven’t mentioned: profit sharing, a nice suite at the Pleasure Dome….” He shrugged. “Y’know, dental, that kind of thing.”

Hudson looked down with a sober expression, and his eyes fell on the trophy once again.

At that moment the bodyguard put a finger to his ear, then turned and spoke over his shoulder. “Things are cooking, boss.”

Goran nodded, still looking at Clay. “I need to go.” Now that he had made his pitch, he seemed a little deflated. “Think about it for a couple days, and I’ll have somebody reach out —”

When Hudson looked up again, a smile was tugging at his lips. “I’ll do it.”

It was Goran’s turn to look surprised. “Good,” he said after a beat. “All right, then. Someone will contact you soon about the next step. Glad to have you aboard.” There was real sincerity in his voice. He reached once again and shook hands, then turned swiftly and collected the bodyguard. Clay heard the outer hatch close and pressurize, then realized that he had been naked throughout the entire interview.

It was true that he wanted a better racing boat, and he wanted to win. It was also undoubtedly true that he would prefer a suite in the Pleasure Dome to his rundown apartment in Indianapolis. Not to mention a steady income. Dental, he mused.

But none of that was the reason he had agreed to the job. He knew it would be dangerous and — worse — that his chances of going back to jail for a long time were high. But for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, somebody had cut through the bullshit.

It felt like being born.

Sci Fi

About the author

Ronald Crittenden

Me: American SciFi writer, life support drone for rose gardens, tea addict, screaming hypochondriac.

Also me: woodworker, art historian, frequent traveler. Lousy French speaker who inexplicably resides in France.

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  • Kat Thorne30 days ago

    Great story!

  • Jori T. Sheppard2 months ago

    Great story, you area a skilled writer. Had fun reading this story

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