CAPTAIN SWIFT: "INTO THE ABYSS" CONTINUES
Race to the finish aboard the Orion's Arm!
The last five ships in the 2249 New Bengal Stakes came around the limb of the planet Prospero. It was the final minutes of the twenty-fourth hour of the race. After an entire terrestrial day of circling the planet, one ship was about to claim the biggest prize on the interstellar racing circuit.
The vessels were sleek and sharp of design, reflecting their function as sporting craft. Being built for space, they didn’t need to be so. Their design reflected the psychology of the builders more than the requirements of spacefaring. They were like thrown darts and the heads of spears and arrows against the starry black backdrop of space or the green and vibrant face of Prospero. The planet, dedicated to gaming, competition, and recreation, welcomed the New Bengal Stakes every year. Much of the Solar Republic and the Fellowship of Worlds watched, either from the planet itself or from orbital stations, or from the interstellar communications networks. Two of the vessels in the final five were expected to be there. It would have come as a surprise, and in some quarters a disappointment, if they were not.
The Republic Spaceship Orion’s Arm held the lead. It was a sleek arrowhead of a vessel with a golden hull on which the flag of the Republic was painted. The Republic flag, the symbol of humankind, was a graphic representation of Earth’s Solar System and the orbits of the planets from Mercury to Earth. The Sun and the orbits of Mercury and Venus were a disk and two arcs in yellow. The orbital arc of Earth, and the dot representing the home planet of the human race, were in bright green. Its master and Captain wore a representation of the flag on his racing jumpsuit as he did on every outfit in his wardrobe. Captain Aidan Swift could trace his family lineage all the way back to Liam Swift in the days of the Impact on Earth, and from Liam all the way back to Ireland from which he came.
Aidan, for this last hour of the race, had taken the helm, strapped into the pilot’s seat on the bridge. He was dark-haired and, by the standards of Liam’s time, as startlingly handsome as Liam himself. His white leather-membrane jumpsuit fit over a lean, well-muscled and trained, perfected body. The helm, projected from a fixture in the deck in front of his feet, was a sculptured shape of lasers and ultrasound force fields that could be generated and withdrawn on command. Aidan commanded the helm with a confident, determined smile and the ease of the champion that he was many times over.
Strapped into the seats to Aidan’s left and right were the two members of his racing crew, the three of them having taken shifts to pilot the ship for this most grueling of races. Shinobi Oda, a human of Asian descent, was as handsome as Aidan, the people of the Solar Republic being as individualistic as they were uniformly beautiful in both sexes. On the opposite side of Aidan from Shinobi sat Rudaar of the planet Renorr, a tall, formidably muscled, brown-furred bipedal wolf, a member of the species with whom Aidan and his brothers had grown up. Rudaar had piloted the Orion’s Arm for the preceding three hours of the race before Aidan took over for the final laps. None of the crew showed the fatigue of having circled Prospero non-stop for the last day. It was no time to be tired. Victory for someone was near. The crew of the Orion’s Arm was set on the victory being theirs.
“Ready to win this one, mates?” said Aidan to his comrades.
“It’s all yours, Aidan,” said Shinobi.
Rudaar answered not in words but in a decisive growl. Aidan smiled harder. “How are we running, Ship?” he called out into the air.
The AI of the Orion’s Arm answered in its female and distinctively Irish-accented voice, “All systems optimal, accounting for present conditions. Stress and fatigue at acceptable levels.”
“Excellent, Ship,” Aidan smiled, hands positioned on the force field in front of him, eyes trained on the forward viewport from which he could see the arc of Prospero and the space and stars beyond. The finishing field would be coming into view any minute. “If Lon Astarte thinks he’s taking this one, he’ll soon know better.”
The RSS Triangulum was a blue-hulled dart of a racing ship. Strapped in the pilot’s seat on its bridge, in a blue jumpsuit with a small chest patch in rainbow colors, Lon Astarte, like all the Captains of the last five ships in the race, was personally at the helm for the finish. Lon was a tall, blond, strapping figure, his muscles almost seeming not content to stay inside his suit. He wore a smile like the one on Aidan’s dark features. He was as facile at his own helm as that of his rival aboard the Orion’s Arm. Lon considered himself every bit a match for Aidan Swift, and had proven it many times in this race and others.
Lon’s crew mates occupied the seats on either side of him as Aidan’s team sat on the golden ship. One was Caucasian, the other Latino. They were as fixed as their Captain on the view through the port up front. The men of the Triangulum all looked ready to win—and to celebrate their triumph on the planet below.
“Swift thinks he’s got this,” Lon grinned, pressing the force field of his helm. “We’ll show him better.”
The two mates said nothing, only smiled their own smiles at Lon’s side, which their Captain could sense. They were a close-knit trio, these three, who had shared many a win and come away from their losses as cocky as if they’d won. Lon had chosen his mates to be a determined and driven unit.
“Status, Ship?” Lon called out.
The sultry male voice of the Triangulum’s AI answered, “Ready for you to win, Sir.”
“Perfect, Ship,” said Lon. “Steady on.”
Aboard the Orion’s Arm, Aidan licked his lips and asked, “Ship, can I get ten percent more power to the engines?”
“Diverting auxiliary power,” said the Orion’s Arm.
Teeth clenched, Aidan ordered, “Punch it!”
The rear engine port of the Orion’s Arm flashed and Aidan’s ship entered an extra burst of speed, pulling out ahead of the Triangulum.
The AI of the Triangulum reported to its Captain, “Detecting a ten percent increase of engine power to the Orion’s Arm.”
Lon’s smile remained constant, but his brow knit into a frown. His voice was pure aggression. “Oh, Swift. You think you’ve got this? You think you’ve got me? You can eat my ions. Ship, increase power fifteen percent. Pursue and overtake.”
The Triangulum acknowledged, “Increasing power fifteen percent.”
With an aft-section flash of its own, the Triangulum shot forward to narrow the gap. The three craft around it and the Orion’s Arm adjusted their own velocities accordingly.
The voice of the Orion’s Arm reported, “The Triangulum has increased power on a vector to overtake us, Captain.”
“Aft display,” Aidan ordered.
“Displaying aft,” said the ship.
Above the helm, a holographic display showed the Triangulum right behind them, not losing a kilometer. Another vessel, the Phaethon, was visible behind the Triangulum.
Aidan shook his head at the display. “Bloody Lon Astarte. Come on then, keep after me, you bugger…” The way he tensed up in his straps, he would have hunched forward onto the helm if he could. “Ship, discontinue aft display.”
The picture from behind the ship disappeared from over the helm, giving Aidan a clear look out the front viewport again. The Orion’s Arm gave a status update. “Triangulum now closing distance and coming to starboard.”
Eyes glaring, Aidan glanced out the starboard viewport and saw the shiny blue prow of the rival ship sliding into view. He imagined Lon Astarte sitting at the helm of the other ship, gazing out his port at the Orion’s Arm with a mocking smile on his insufferable blond face. He frowned ferociously at the Triangulum, taking up more of his view at starboard, and made a face as if to tell Lon what he hoped his crew would do to him once this was over—and Aidan landed on Prospero to accept the prize for winning this year’s New Bengal Stakes.
Snapping his attention forward again, contemptuous of his rival, Aidan snapped, “Ship! Remaining distance to end of the lap!”
“Now entering final quarter of the lap, Captain,” said the Orion’s Arm.
Pressing his fingers tighter against the helm, Aidan muttered, “We’re taking this one. This is ours. You’re not getting this one, Astarte.”
The Orion’s Arm and the Triangulum raced on until the blue ship was no longer at Aidan’s starboard but pulling a full length ahead and appearing in the forward viewport.
“Ship!” Aidan barked again. “Increase power 20 percent! Get us the hell back ahead!”
“Increasing power 20 percent,” the Irish female voice calmly said.
The Orion’s Arm gave out another burst of speed and swung forth in an arc, putting the Triangulum back at its starboard and charging ahead, beginning to create another distance between itself and the opposing craft.
Aboard the Triangulum, Lon’s smile began to fade into a look like that of a man out for blood. “Keep it up, Swift,” he murmured combatively. “Make it look good. I want to snatch it right out of your hands.” Then, aloud, he commanded, “Ship, continue matching the Orion’s Arm’s velocity and add five percent.”
“Matching velocity,” the male voice of Lon’s ship said smoothly.
The five ships came around the limb of Prospero and now each one put on another burst of speed to veer out of orbit towards open space. Once again the Triangulum pulled into the lead.
Outside the orbit of the planet, a large golden wall of coherent photons sparkled into view. This, then, was the finishing field, the target of the final lap of the race, projected from a satellite over Prospero’s north pole. The first ship to pass through the finishing field would be the winner and champion of the New Bengal race.
Pressing his fingers hard into the helm as if he could indent the force fields of which it was made, Aidan lit up all the telltales on the structure and called fiercely, “All right, Ship! Give me all auxiliary and reserve power and punch it hard!”
“Engaging full power,” said the Orion’s Arm, as calm as its master was intense.
The aft ports of all five ships flared brightly, firing the vessels at the sparkling wall of photons in the distance. Now the Orion’s Arm took the lead. Aidan, his neck straining forward while the straps held the rest of him, tightened his focus more and more.
The Triangulum accelerated. Lon, at his own helm, muttered something about Aidan and another race at Omega Geminus, past but never forgotten. He pressed at his own helm, pouring on more speed without bothering to command his ship to do it for him.
In the viewports of all five ships, the finishing field loomed and glowed larger. It occupied a space large enough for all five of them to pass through, but only one would go through first. The Orion’s Arm and the Triangulum held on to the lead. Each of them surged forward in turn, each one exerting all available power to stay ahead of the other. One moment Aidan’s ship was out front, the next it was Lon’s craft. The three remaining vessels accelerated to keep up with them. And the distance between the lead ships and the finishing field grew ever smaller, ever tighter.
Everything was about to be decided in these final minutes and these last kilometers of the last lap. The azure prow of the Triangulum aimed itself at the finishing field, the Orion’s Arm half a ship’s length behind it. On Prospero and aboard its satellites, spectators and holders of wagers held their breaths.
His brow creased, his teeth clenched hard, his lips and voice snarling, Aidan cried loudly, “Feck it all, Ship, give me emergency power! Slam it!”
Aidan Swift’s ship knew what to do when its master ordered it to burn emergency power in a race. It disengaged emergency protocols, sent a signal to pit satellites to stand by for status messages, and channeled power from everything but life support, helm operation, and bridge lighting into one final blast of speed. The engines ports erupted with a mighty burst of light and the ship jabbed itself forward through space, past the Triangulum, before the other craft could respond and do the same. Lon Astarte’s supreme confidence was about to cost him.
The prow of the Orion’s Arm made contact with the wall of photons with the Triangulum just one ship’s length behind it. Instantly, the finishing field turned to a rippling, outpouring blossom of spinning, glinting light points, spreading out in every direction. In the mind’s ears of everyone aboard the five ships that careened through the sparkling storm, the voice of people all over the planet and on its satellites welled up in roars of excitement and cries of dismay. The five ships charged on towards open space, beyond and through the fading remnants of the sundered finishing field. The Triangulum passed through second, followed by the Phaethon and the other two craft.
“Stop engines!” Aidan called to the ship. At once, the Orion’s Arm began to decelerate and transmit its status to the pit satellites. The ship would be able to return to the orbit of Prospero unaided, but would require a full refueling and recharging upon arrival. The first available pit satellite was to stand by. At the same time, the bridge of the Orion’s Arm came alive with the triumphant yells and whoops of Aidan and Shinobi and the howls of Rudaar. The straps retracted into the seats and the three of them leapt up, throwing their arms into the air and around each other, exulting their victory.
Aidan’s shouts were almost as loud as the Renorran’s triumphant howls. “Yes! Yes! We did it! We got it!”
Beyond the last sparkling where the finishing field had been, the Orion’s Arm, Triagulum, Phaethon, and the remaining vessels glided to a full stop.
The three pilots of the winning ship were sharing claps on the shoulders and mutual hugs, filling the space of the bridge with victorious laughter and congratulations, when the voice of the AI cut in. “Captain…? Captain…?”
“Yes, Ship?” said Aidan, flashing his biggest smile.
“Inbound link from Captain Astarte on the Triangulum,” said the ship.
Aidan’s grin dissolved into a calmer look of pure and utter satisfaction. “Put him through, Ship.”
A communications hologram appeared over the helm. From his own bridge came the image of Lon Astarte, gracious but smirking.
“Congratulations, Swift,” Lon conceded. “You got it…this time. Next race, I’ll have you. And at next year’s New Bengal, you’ll be congratulating me.”
Aidan faced the hologram, crossing his arms. “You can always hope so, Lon.”
“Give my regards to my sister, then,” said Lon, looking less congratulatory.
A bit of Aidan’s grin returned. “I’ll give her plenty of regard, Lon.” To the ship, he called, “Link out.”
The hologram disappeared, unceremoniously banishing Lon Astarte from the bridge of Aidan Swift’s ship.
The Captain turned back to his mates, and again there were smiles all around, Rudaar’s fangs glinting in the bridge lights.
“All right, then,” said Aidan. “We’ve got a celebration waiting.”
The five ships started their engines again, their competition finished. They veered around in space and headed back for the emerald-colored globe that had presided over their race.
And from the entrance port to the bridge of the Orion’s Arm, a woman’s voice called, “Aidan, how many times are you going to watch that thing?”
Blinking, startled, Aidan snapped to attention, alone in the pilot’s seat, no crew accompanying him. He was dressed not in his racing membranes but in his usual, more casual attire; a short-sleeve muscle top in a Republic flag pattern, tight gymnast-type trousers, and boots. He peered behind him to the bridge entrance, where Saige Astarte was standing with that mystified but patient look that she so often gave him. In front of him, in the space where the helm was generated during piloting, the playback of the last New Bengal Stakes race came to its end and the display faded and disappeared.