When we left our intrepid crew, Ariane had just been harrassed before the big race...
Skylark lunged forward at ten g's, the most that Ariane wanted to risk for the initial run. With her racing and (relatively) new combat mods, she could take at least twice that, but she wanted to make sure she was really on before pushing both her envelope and that of Skylark.
In a way, it was almost comforting that Sethrik had also named his ship – a sense of commonality existed there. The fact that the ship was named Dellak after one of the six original Minds, however, was not comforting, and she felt almost sorry for Sethrik. She had nothing against AIs – she still missed Mentor, her own AISage – but the Minds were a different matter.
The Skyfall loomed before her, and seeing it for the first time in reality sent a chill of awe down her spine. A vast grey-brown cloud was trailing through the Arena's endless sky, a cloud composed of dust and pebbles and billions of chunks of shattered rock ranging up to several hundred meters across, the remnants perhaps of some pseudo-world that had formed, and been destroyed, somewhere in the inter-Sphere space.
But where that cloud crossed the almost knife-thin border – less than a kilometer across – where weightlessness became fully 0.96g – it became a roaring waterfall of destruction, a sheeting fall of screaming stones plummeting through a gravity field almost 40,000 kilometers high. Given the relative motions of cloud and Sphere, the edges of the Skyfall were not completely precise; some stones shot far forward, perhaps even moving fast enough to reach and impact on the habitable upper surface, and others formed a scattered spume like spray at the edges of the mighty atmospheric cataract, carrying the brown tinge of the gas and dust with them and glowing in the light of the artificial sun, or "Luminaire", that was passing almost directly overhead.
Sethrik had chosen to accelerate somewhat faster, and for the moment she let him take the lead. He was more familiar with the environment, and – dirty tricks or no – he would take a course that he felt was reasonably safe. The Blessed pilot gave the Skyfall a wide berth, leveling into a flight that would stick with the flat plane of the general course outline.
The light of the Luminaire flickered some as her course took it behind the Skyfall, but there was still plenty of light. One good thing about the rather limited speed was that they wouldn't get all that far from the contest Sphere or its Luminaire, which was good; according to many accounts, there were parts of inter-Sphere space that were blacker than night and more dangerous than easily described; some of the rumors she'd heard sounded almost like ancient mariner's tales of monsters, haunted ships, and accursed seas.
Looming up through the mists she could see the vague dark outlines of the asteroids, massive chunks of rock drifting slowly in a contained ballet. She tried not to think about how much power was implied in this racecourse, in something so obviously assembled by the Arena specifically for this contest. The thought terrified her more than the Arena itself, mainly because this was something she could grasp.
Skylark's radar returns showed a line of at least 20 asteroids, between 2 and 10 kilometers across, some less than a hundred meters apart, moving in a complex ballet. The Dellak adjusted course, dipping down slightly, then coming back on line; she realized Sethrik was trying to align himself for the straightest shot possible through the grouping. She thought he was slightly off, though the irregular nature of the damn things made it hard to tell; there were hundred-meter spiky mountains jutting from some of them, and they were not just drifting, but rotating like very lazy grinding wheels.
Time to start racing. Both of them had long since backed off on acceleration – since it wasn't possible to maintain such acceleration in atmosphere for long anyway, even if you had the power to do it; you'd burn up, no matter what you were made of (well, Ariane thought, unless the Arena gave us ships made of that CQC stuff). Now Ariane pushed that envelope, watching the energy and heating sensors, cutting a line just inside of Sethrik's. Slowly, she pulled up on the Blessed vessel.
Suddenly a jagged monolith loomed into view, black-edged stone so close that she thought she could see crystal formations in the rock. "Holy shit, Ariane, watch it!" Carl's voice sounded in her ears. "Cut it too close and we'll have to send someone out there to bring you back in a butterfly net!"
Her heart was hammering from the close call, but it was exhilarating at the same time. She was past Sethrik now, and she had the line. She'd clear the entire line of… thirty, looked like, asteroids, in a full three seconds less time than Sethrik, who seemed to have been slightly taken aback by her daredevil passing move. "Don't you worry about me, Carl, you just have my pitstop ready when I come around the back turn of the second run-through. Unless Sethrik wants to just concede now?"
Carl chortled. A moment later, he said "Sethrik says to enjoy the view ahead, because soon the only thing you'll see ahead of you is him."
"Tell him and his crew to stop dreaming, because that's happening ONLY in their dreams." She felt it now. The Molothos Shadeweaver had creeped her out, and she had plenty of questions, but she felt it. She and Skylark were one single unit, and unless Sethrik was the same way with his ship, they didn't even have a chance.
At Mach 3.5 they blasted out of the asteroid field, Sethrik behind her by a full ten kilometers (or, at their current speed, about 8.5 seconds, more or less). But up ahead, both sight and radar were fading, as the massive barrier cloud, apparently including metallic and water particles that foiled long-range detection, roiled before them. Skylark and Dellak sped to its edge, both pushing high-speed competition until the limits of sensors required a sudden deceleration by airbrakes and reversers.
Green-blue flickered around her, the world was awash in mist of seafoam and glacier ice. Shit! Ice is real! She suddenly realized as both radar and visuals recognized something ahead that didn't shift like cloud, kicked in jets and airfoils in a shuddering turn that mashed her to the control couch, clearing the spinning block of ice, or maybe crystal, by meters, fighting to get back on course. Inertials told her the right general direction, but now she realized how tricky this part of the course was. You couldn't rely on long-range radar or imaging, and if you got off course in here you could exit VERY badly out of line, maybe end up on the wrong side of the far-post gravity well and have to circle back to pass it the right way around. "Carl, can you give me a transmission vector? Make sure I'm staying on course? I can't see crap in this, it's like swimming in a stagnant pond."
"Trying… you're about six degrees off in the azimuth. Come down six point three." Carl said. "Sethrik's on the nose. Think he anticipated it, his pit crew's probably got him locked on a beacon."
"He's ahead of me now, isn't he?"
"By the time I get you back on line and coach you down, about ten klicks."
Damn; he's gained twenty on me in one stupid move. "Okay, well, we can't let me screw up like that again. You keep backing my vector for me, right?"
"Got your back. No worries."
She'd slowed to less than 500 kilometers per hour, and even then visual range was terrible. She couldn't even see Sethrik at all. A flurry of rocks streamed by, and then, just visible to her left, a huge, sluggisly wavering, semi-spherical something, seeming gelatinous and alien; then her eyes and mind adjusted, and she realized she was looking at a massive floating lake, an aquatic environment in a weightless space. Tiny movement near the lake showed that something must live there.
Brown-blue clouds suddenly lightened, and Skylark cleared the cloudbank, her rear camera showing a trail of smoky gray following her. Ahead she could see Dellak, and shoved the throttle forward. Sethrik wasn't taking chances, though, and as they both flew the same craft, they reached their limits at the same speed. The Blessed retained his lead.
Ariane swung her ship completely around as they approached the red-marked gravity turn point and accelerated back towards the starting point, letting the gravity field suddenly whip her sideways and, with her properly-timed acceleration, send her shooting back the way she'd come, on a slightly different course. Sethrik had done the same thing, but she noticed (with some satisfaction) not quite as smoothly, so she'd made up a couple of kilometers.
But he was still very good, and she had to grudgingly admit it in the next couple of hours. He maintained his lead as they passed through the cloud again and the second field of contained asteroids. The zikkis came at them in clouds, somehow managing to match even these flyers in short, ragged bursts, adhering to the craft like armored five-tentacled squid and trying to pull them towards some presumably lethal destination. Turning and accelerating the ship sharply could dislodge them, shake them off, but it diverted you and slowed you down. Sethrik seemed to be able to anticipate their moves slightly, and mostly evaded them, while Ariane and Skylark had several incidents which drastically slowed them down. By the time they'd fought clear, Sethrik was more than 50 kilometers ahead.
"I think he may be better than I am."
Carl didn't immediately answer, which was a bad sign. Then, "I hate to admit it… but you might be right. Every time you start to catch up with him, he's managing to keep the lead."
"The only reason I'm this close is that you're a little better than his support crew." Ariane said. Sethrik's pit person had somehow slightly misaligned with Sethrik's speed and course, forcing the Blessed pilot to realign and costing him quite a few seconds, while Carl had practically flown the refuelling structure up TO Ariane. She could see Sethrik, at least, but he was still over 10 kilometers ahead and she just couldn't shrink that lead. They had passed around the far gravity turn for the last time, and were weaving through the rather tangled last set of asteroids.
As she emerged from that gantlet, she could see that she had slightly cut the distance. Okay, he's not better than me at that, but he's more than good enough that I'm not going to catch him unless he screws up or I figure out an angle.
They were coming up on the zikki swarm again, and a small inspiration hit her. If my inner ear and Skylark can take it, anyway. She set her jaw. I sure hope these creatures are as tough as Orphan says, because I'm going to feel really bad about this maneuver otherwise.
As the swarm sighted her and jetted crazily at her from all directions, she slammed the throttle to full and, at the same time, inverted airfoils on opposite sides of Skylark.
The double-arrowhead racing ship leaped forward and began spinning like a drillhead along its main axis, whirling multiple times a second. It literally bored through the swarm, batting aside zikki like fish caught in a paddlewheel. Inside Ariane felt the world spinning crazily, the ship shuddering with impact after impact as it drove through the swarm by sheer power and centripetal acceleration, a straight-line brute-force approach completely different from – and considerably more dangerous than – Sethrik's ballet of evasion.
As the impacts subsided and the hard-driven Skylark began to accelerate beyond limits, she groggily took the controls and leveled the airfoils, throttling back. Carl came on the air, laughing hysterically. "My GOD that's the funniest thing I've ever seen! Holy Jesus, though, are you all right, Ariane? That must've been ROUGH!"
"It was," she said muzzily, still trying to clear her head and keep her high-nutrition, low-bulk lunch down. "Skylark held up pretty well, though. Where's…"
"Sethrik and Dellak?" Carl sighed. "You did great, you shaved about five klicks off his lead."
She cursed. "Which means he's still five ahead of me. And there's nothing really between us and the finish line."
"Just the Skyfall, and both of you've gone around that enough times so that I don't think there's much you can do there."
He's going to win. That son of a bitch is going to win, and we're going to have to pay him.
Far ahead, she could see the trailing cloud of the Skyfall. It wouldn't be long before they passed that, and then…
And suddenly she sat up, so suddenly that the delicate controls of Skylark caused her to wobble. "Carl, send me the course description again. The exact text!"
"Um… sure. Here. "The first obstacle is the Skyfall. After passing the Skyfall, the second obstacle is a series of asteroids aligned in a cylinder; they move within this cylinder, of described radius 30 kilometers, and the contestants must remain within a concentric 20 kilometer cylinder; they may not avoid this obstacle merely by flying outside the asteroid region. The third –"
Her gut had settled, and her grin was back. Win or die, that's the way.
She began to throttle back slightly. But I'd rather win than die, so let's be a little tiny bit careful.
Ahead, Sethrik and Dellak began the efficient turn, the minimum-deviation shift necessary to skirt the edge of the Skyfall.
Skylark did not.
"Um, Ariane… what the hell…"
"Quote: 'after passing the Skyfall'. That's it, Carl. After passing. Unlike all the others, there's no demand that you go around it. It's just assumed that you go around it.
"I'm going through."
"You're NUTS!" Carl shouted, appalled. "Look at that, will you? It's a ten kilometer thick wall of falling rocks!"
"Not as close together as they look. And what the hell, it's worth a try!"
"No it's NOT!"
But it was far too late for Carl's argument to make any difference. Skylark was already destined for its encounter with the Skyfall, and the only question was whether it would come out the other side or not. Ariane slowed still more; the amount Sethrik had to divert to go around, she didn't need tremendous speed to still beat him.
She just needed to survive.
The grey-brown wall towered before her, blotting out everything else, and then began to resolve into specks, then dots, then hurtling boulders, asteroids, pebbles, falling freely in the gravity well that now seized her.
She made no effort to compensate for the gravity; here free-fall was more her friend than enemy, aligning her with the vertical vector of the rocks as they fell. But there were so many of them!
A black shadow from the side, pull up! Another ahead, dive – no, loop back, another behind it! A triad, huge black-toothed stones coming together, thread the needle, through it, oh SHIT!
Skylark reeled as something smashed the tail of the little craft, sent it spinning. Ariane clung desperately to the controls, flying on instinct, surety of her bearing gone; for all she knew, she was now flying laterally down the center of the Skyfall, a thousand kilometers of plummeting death , and she couldn't spare even the fraction of her attention needed to check Carl's beacon. She had to hope she'd guessed right. Something else banged the hull as she careened around another miniature asteroid, and Skylark wobbled, feeling slightly less responsive, barely turning in time around the next set of falling stones…
But it was lighter ahead, lighter, gravel rattling on the cockpit, and they were clear – CLEAR! She laughed, spinning the ship once for sheer joy at having survived, and – out of the corner of her eye – saw the zikki which must have been stuck in the Skyfall and hitched a ride out on Skylark go twirling away. She heard a confused gabble of voices in her ears, but that didn't matter, ahead was the station, the launch and landing area, and Sethrik was behind her, driving his ship for all it was worth, but it was too late!
She was approaching waaaaay too hot, still over Mach – maybe the Arena could use its Sufficiently Advanced to stop her without injury, but she couldn't bet that it would – after all, dying in the landing might not qualify as winning! She went to full braking flaps, hit the main thrust reversers, added the nose thrusters. Oh boy, that landing bay's coming up awfully fast… and she was starting to slew, something thrown off by that little impact previously. Ariane fought desperately with the controls, cutting the thrust dangerously as she dragged Skylark back into line with the bay…
With a screech of misaligned metal, Skylark grounded in the Arena landing tunnel, was caught by restraining nets, rolled half over, and stopped, three scant meters from the rear wall.
"Winner of this Challenge: Ariane Austin for the faction of Humanity," announced the calm voice of the Arena.
Insanity is a state of mind; sanity is a mindless state.