After half an hour of practice laps under Coral’s patient instruction, Ellie returned to Jayce’s skimmer. Malachi was still hard at work and Jayce was playing assistant by passing Malachi the tools and parts he asked for.
It was a task Ellie had performed for Malachi many times, so she recognised the look of confusion on Jayce’s face every time Malachi asked for something. Ellie thought it was adorable.
She climbed into the skimmer and nestled into the seat while she watched Malachi pause in his work and stared at the engine. She knew what he was thinking right about now. He was mentally deconstructing the machine before him. She knew Malachi’s mind was already running through a dozen options, and anticipating how each change he contemplated would affect every aspect of vehicles handling.
Ellie loved watching Malachi work. She didn’t have his skills or his deep understanding of machinery and technology, but she admired it nonetheless. All he ever seemed to need was a toolbox and an instruction manual and he was good to go. All he needed was paperwork and time. With those two things, he had enough to gain a thorough understanding of the issue at hand and how to fix it. Malachi might lack the intuitive problem-solving skills of a genius but he could focus on a problem relentlessly until he cracked it.
She supposed his time on the Juggernaut had provided him with the opportunity to thrive. An opportunity he might not have had elsewhere. On the Juggernaut, failure to repair something could quite literally be the difference between life and death. Perhaps if he had grown up in a world of unlimited, clean air and water he would never have learned how to maintain the systems that provided them.
Perhaps in a world of disposable technology he would never have been exposed to the breadth of designs and equipment with which he was now familiar.
Everyone knew a story of the savant who seemed to acquire knowledge without effort, but Malachi was nothing like them. His gift was as valuable as it was mundane: hard work.
And hard work was now bearing fruit. Malachi was making encouraging noises about the parts he had removed from Jayce’s cruiser, and the more anxious Jayce became the more relaxed Malachi seemed.
Ellie wondered if she should get out and offering Jayce some reassurance. Maybe just a hand on his arm. Or his shoulder. It’s not like Tila was around to disapprove, although she didn’t think that would make a difference. Tila would be disapproving no matter where she was. It saved time.
It’s not like I need her permission, thought Ellie looking around, but I’ll be quick, just in case. She hopped out of the cockpit and was approaching Malachi and Jayce when she heard a familiar voice, in a familiar tone. Tila and her disapproval had returned.
How did she know? ‘But I didn’t… wait, stop what? Where have you been?’
‘Around, listening. I met Blake. He’s dangerous. He’s going to try and stop you.’
‘Well of course he is. That’s how a race works.’
‘Be serious! I don’t mean he’s going to try and stop you winning, I think he wants to stop you finishing. He talked about wiping you out.’
‘Wiping me out? What does that mean?’
‘It means making you crash,’ said Jayce.
‘Thank you, Jayce,’ said Tila through gritted teeth. ‘Look, Ellie, everyone thinks we’re in over our heads. This is dangerous and they think you – all of us – are too naive to know what we’re doing.’
‘Do we know what we’re doing?’ said Malachi from inside the engine.
Ellie smiled at that comment. It was a question she had asked herself too, but she was here for Tila, right or wrong, and if winning this race helped her friend meet with this person Conway, she was going to win.
‘I know we need to win this race,’ said Ellie.
‘But Blake knows the course. He’ll be ready for you,’ said Tila.
‘No one knows the course today, it’s a waypoint race,’ said Jayce, trying to be helpful.
‘What’s a waypoint race?’ said Tila.
‘Everyone’s flying blind today. Ellie will get her waypoints by GPS after the race begins.’
‘See?’ said Ellie. ‘No one has an advantage on this course.’
‘He still knows the course better than you! He’s still dangerous,’ Tila added.
‘They’re not going to be shooting at her, Tila,’ said Jayce.
Tila fixed Jayce with a look. She was liking him less and less.
‘They better not.’
‘Besides, everyone knows that ballistic ammunition is traceable.’
‘I didn’t,’ said Tila. ‘And that’s no comfort.’
‘Relax, it was a joke. No one’s going to shoot her, but they’re going out there to win any way they can. They don’t like to lose.’
‘Then this should be fun,’ said Ellie, as she picked up her helmet and determined to enjoy herself despite Tila. ‘Neither do I.’
As Malachi banged the final part back into place the loud clang made Jayce jump. It was bad enough that his cruiser had been all but disassembled to make his skimmer work, but was Malachi now was going to break this too?
‘Hey! What are you doing under there?’ Jayce
‘Nothing. Just trying to increase the flight ceiling.’
‘Did you fix it?’ said Ellie.
‘Did you break it?’ said Jayce, with doubt in his voice.
‘It should be at least nine metres now.’
‘Great!’ exclaimed Ellie.
Jayce looked puzzled. ‘How did you do that so fast?’
‘Umm, let’s just put it down to experience,’ Malachi said, evading the question.
Jayce opened his mouth to enquire further but was interrupted by Ellie. ‘They’re starting,’ she said, as she pulled on her helmet.
‘Ellie…’ said Tila, but had nothing more to add. As much as she didn’t want her friend to race, she need her too more, and the need to keep Ellie safe and the need to learn the truth of the colony mission was twisting her up inside.
‘Tila, I need to do this or this whole trip is a waste of time, right? I know you think I’m in the way but I’m doing this for you. I’ll always be here when you need my help, so deal with it.’
As much as it galled Tila to admit Ellie was right, she knew her words were true.
‘Just be careful, please,’ she urged Ellie.
‘Do you really think she can win?’ Jayce asked Malachi as Ellie pressed one foot to a pedal and started the engine.
‘I hope so, but I’ll be happy enough if she doesn’t hurt herself,’ said Malachi. Then he added loudly for Ellie’s benefit, ‘Like I tell her every time!’
‘Oh please,’ said Ellie. ‘Now, watch me work.’