A Space Opera
By Ryk E. Spoor
"Watch the next keyhole, Ariane, that bastard's going to try to force a scrape or worse!"
Ariane Austin heard the concerned voice in her helmet as she pulled round the third turn, spinning Whip Hand and then relaxing the gyros, lining up the nuclear rocket blast through instinct and experience, firing to skirt the marker asteroid and get on a vector to pass through the next course obstacle – the "keyhole" that Carl had mentioned. The power of the rocket pinned her to the acceleration chair with the thrilling force she sometimes felt was drawn from and through her, making her feel a part of the little racing ship.
Just ahead of her, no more than 20 kilometers – or about a second and a half at their current course-relative speed – was "that bastard", Hawke, the legend of the racing circuit. With enhanced vision, she could just make out the dagger-sharp shape of Hawke's ship Lobo, with its stubby wings for racing courses that had atmospheric sections. "Carl, he's not going to try that; he's got a one-point-five lead on me, why would he cut it down low enough to make the keyhole an issue?"
"Because," the voice of her control engineer and crew chief answered, "he knows you're better than he is at the driftmaze part of the course."
Ariane couldn't argue that he might have a point. She'd shaved almost three seconds off the last time through the driftmaze, and the rest of the pack was so far back that they weren't even contenders. If all Hawke had coming out was that one-point-five, there was a good chance she'd pass him in the driftmaze, and with only half the circuit left, Hawke would have damn few chances to make that up.
And Hawke is slowing, dammit. I'm catching him.
Unlimited Space Obstacle Racing rules were pretty relaxed. You couldn't deliberately RAM your opponent… but forcing them off the course, bumping them pretty roughly by "accident" at critical moments, or even hitting something in order to leave debris behind you and in your opponent's way were not against the rules. It was that kind of no-holds-barred competition that made it a very, very popular viewing sport… and one with the highest mortality rate of any sport in the system.
She didn't mind matching scrapes with most people, but Hawke was a different matter. Scrape in a keyhole, that was even worse. The hundred kilometer long hollow obstacles were basically tunnels a hundred meters across and two hundred high -- something very, very narrow when you were in a craft with a 20-meter wingspan moving at several kilometers per second, and even narrower if you had another 20-meter craft with you. Even the fact that the keyholes were mostly made of aerogel and the racing craft of ring-carbon composite didn't make it comfortable; yes, many craft and their pilots had survived collision with the keyhole wall, but many hadn't, often by hitting one of the widely spaced, but much more solid, supports for the keyhole. Even if you survived, of course, you would have lost so much time that you might not even finish the race.
"How's our numbers, Carl?"
"High," he answered instantly. "This being the first time this season you've faced off with Hawke, and being as you're currently the USORA league leader, that was a big draw. Now that it's down to just you and Hawke in a race this tight… flashpings are up 300 percent over last, drawing in at least double the virtual audience. Plus we've got confirmed 217 physical presence attendees for the after-race party. If you don't screw anything up, we'll be ahead of Hawke on the Interest vector and pulling close on contributed E-dollars."
Ariane sucked in her breath. Ahead of Hawke on interest? The taciturn veteran had dominated the sport for almost 10 years, and at first she'd thought he was untouchable. This year, finally, she thought she might even have a chance against him… but she'd never imagined other people cared that much. And the contributed E-dollars were critical for fast refuellings, transfers from one racecourse to another, and of course for paying her crew.
The question was… how to answer Hawke's obvious challenge?
Even before she consciously realized it, her body had answered. The drive roared again, sending her charging to meet Hawke. People don't watch this sport to see someone that's playing it safe.
The other pilot responded, accelerating, but not quite so fast. No calculations – no AISages or even less-intelligent advisors were allowed here. You had to guess the acceleration, judge the distance by eye and instrument, figure out the right moment to speed up or slow down. Hawke, of course, was trying to match up with her just as they entered the keyhole; she wanted to get ahead of him. If she could pass him, she might even have a chance of winning this race.
He's too good. He's judged it perfectly. I'm varying my acceleration, but he's matching me… here it comes!
Two ships flashed into the keyhole at a speed of five kilometers a second, nearly wing to wing. Hawke's Lobo spun, trying to slap her wing and send her spinning, but she matched rotation, then suddenly reversed. If my wing's getting hit, I'm damn well going to be the one doing the hitting!
But Hawke seemed to have read her mind. He reversed at the same moment, killing and reversing spin with the wingtip jets. Only a few more seconds in the keyhole – he's swerving! She kicked in the side and bottom jets, rose up and spun around again, barely evading the darting hummingbird of Lobo, jinking herself to force him to shift course…
Lobo and Whip Hand burst from the keyhole and separated, heading for the driftmaze.
Simon Sandrisson watched from a nearby observation window as the woman shot from the cockpit of her racing ship like a rocket herself, the pilot's suit automatically retracting the helmet and then unfastening as she flew through the weightless docking bay towards her racing crew. Deep blue hair cascaded around her and the two men that arrested her headlong flight with enthusiastic hugs. He could hear Ariane Austin's elated contralto shout, "We DID IT!"
"You did it, you lunatic!" Carl Edlund, her crew chief and controls expert, answered as he guided them towards the entrance to the station interior which was nearest to Simon. "Were you and Hawke trying to get killed in there?"
"Oh, stop it. It's not like you haven't seen worse."
"True," Edlund said as they emerged from the lock, "But usually 'worse' means 'someone got killed', so I would rather compare it to 'sane', which doesn't get seen very often either."
Simon was about to speak when another man whipped right past him and stopped directly between him and the racing crew. The sandy blond hair and emblem on his jacket – a wolf-head between hawk wings – was immediately recognizable. "Austin." Hawke said.
The other pilot flipped forward and grabbed her up in a bearhug. "That was fantastic!"
Simon could see Ariane was startled but gratified. Now he became aware of more and more people making their way into the area. A victory party, Mio said. It's going to be noisy here for a while. Why not come back later?
I suppose I could, he said to his AISage companion. Mio's avatar, currently visible only to him, showed the synthetic intelligence – friend, confidant, research partner, advisor, a part of him since he had the headware installed nearly 20 years ago – as a pretty, diminuitive Asian woman with long dark hair, wearing a white suit styled, as was his own, to echo the appearance of the ancient and venerable scientist's laboratory coat. But what better time to catch Dr. Carl Edlund and his partner in a good mood?
There is that, Mio said with a smile. And while she seems oblivious to risk, Dr. Edlund may not be.
Oh, hardly oblivious. Judging by her actions, I'd say she enjoys risk. He watched the dark-blue haired woman adjust without apparent conscious thought as the station "spun up" to provide about a third of a G for people to stand in. She was tall – just a few centimeters below his one hundred ninety – and aside from her hair showed no obvious biomods; her eyes appeared to be almost the same shade as her hair and her complexion was tanned but clear.
Hawke, as he turned, showed tiger-like facial striping; some of the others coming in sported mods ranging from full-size angelic wings (Kami, those have got to be a pain to live with! he thought) to catlike claws, fur, a couple of scaled individuals, and more. In a way, being without mods makes one stand out these days, he mused.
True enough, Mio agreed. Of the over 200 people physically here, there appear to be no more than 10 with no visible modifications. And that ten does not include you.
Well, yes, my hair IS visible, but it could be natural. Just very unlikely to be so pure white at the age of 32 or to fall just so.
Are you not going to approach Ms. Austin or Dr. Edlund?
There is no great rush; I spent two weeks on a ship just to get here, no reason to get impatient now. I'm sure I can catch up with Dr. Edlund at some point, even if Ms. Austin is the constant focus of attention. You might ping her AISage and let her know I'm here physically to talk to her.
A pause. She doesn't appear to have one.
"What?" Simon was so startled that he realized he'd spoken aloud. It was rare enough to find someone who didn't keep their AISage head-resident (Simon, in fact, could only think of one person he'd ever met who didn't), but someone who didn't have one at all?
Wait. She does have one, according to records… but he's only rarely on the Nets, at least visibly. There, that ovoid box. Mio's directives highlighted in red a slightly larger than hand-sized object something like a high-tech turtle shell clipped to Ariane Austin's belt. That's her AISage's resident housing.
Simon shook his head. What was the point of having an AISage if you didn't even let it do its job? Perhaps he should be speaking with the other pilot, Hawke. But the reasons they'd focused on Austin remained valid; she had so many good connections that it would be a shame to waste them. That's a clumsy housing, too.
Mio was uncharacteristically silent for a moment. Actually, it's about as small as it can be. Simon, her AISage is a T-5.
That explained the casing. A Tayler-5 was the highest permitted AI rating outside of special research and even with modern equipment you weren't fitting a T-5 in ordinary headware. A T-1 was generally considered equal to an ordinary human, and Mio – just about top-of-the-line for a headware AISage – had a Tayler rating of 2.5.
What a racing pilot needed, or wanted, with a T-5 AISage, now that was a mystery. Simon liked mysteries – it was part of what had drawn him into physics, unravelling the mysteries of how and why the universe worked the way it did – and now Ariane Austin wasn't just a daredevil in a totally anachronistic sport, she was a puzzle.
Simon smiled. He was looking forward to meeting her after all!
Of course, this doesn't even hint at the REAL problems Our Heroes will encounter.