Parador | Chapter 16
Ellie zipped as close to the first waypoint as she dared and turned right as soon as the navigation system confirmed a successful validation. Her skimmer ploughed into the forest. Low branches and shrubbery whipped past Ellie’s skimmer at frightening speeds, forcing her to slow, but hopefully forcing the others to slow too.
She was now travelling barely a hundred kilometres an hour but it felt like five times that. Malachi was right, again.
The ground below her was a blur, as was the thick, leafy canopy overhead. The trees here were large, old, with plenty of space between them, but at these speeds Ellie still had to stay alert. She tried not to think about what would happen if the trees suddenly closed in.
Ahead, sunlight flashed on silver and red.
I can’t have caught them so soon. They must have slowed to get through the trees. This is just another crash zone to me.
Ellie twisted and banked around a dead tree and looked again. Off to her right, she saw the others flying in a line, like they were on a road.
But this is a forest. Where did they find a path?
Ellie fixed her eyes on the skimmers, dodged another tree, and saw it. A dark, silver line beneath them.
They found a stream. I need to get over there. These trees are getting in my way.
She gently guided her craft left around an uprooted giant then yanked the stick hard to the right, crashing through the dead branches of the fallen tree, and sending matchstick fragments rocketing into the woods.
Ellie reached the stream and turned on to it, following the others. As her skimmer moved from earth to water the flight cushion softened, and her ride became smoother and spongier.
Ellie accelerated along the clear path.
Red loomed in front of her, and she was close enough now for the spray kicked up by the skimmers to settle on her canopy. Self-cleaning systems reacted in seconds and cleared her view.
Farther ahead she could see that Blake was in the lead. His friend, Kian, second. White was in third place, close behind Kian, and Red was last, dead ahead.
They flew low over the water, between muddy banks. The lift generated by their craft blasted water spray in all directions. The thrust of their engines diffused the droplets and illuminated them in a shower of colour.
It was the first rainbow Ellie had ever seen.
Blake and Kian banked sharply to the right to follow a bend in the stream. Farther ahead, through the trees, Ellie saw the silver ribbon snaking back on itself. She flew close to the left bank, on the outside of the approaching bend.
Ellie could almost see hanging in the air before her the racing line Red should take. Red’s best option was to swing wide around the bend and then pull in tight. But would he take it? She had to assume he would. That would bring him dangerously close to her ship, forcing her to slow to avoid a collision. But he would also swing up and around as he banked into the first curve to make the second curve easier. He would go higher to make the turn safer for himself while putting more pressure on her to slow down.
Ellie weaved left and right, looking for a way past Red. Ahead, Red did the same, seeking his chance to pass White, who was working equally hard to deny Red his opportunity.
Blake was too far ahead to worry about.
One thing at a time.
Neither Red or White appeared to notice her, but even so, there was no way to pass without heading back into the trees, and a sensible racer would have to slow down for that.
Ellie knew that if she was quick enough she could take Red on the inside of the first or second curve. That was two chances to sneak by him. It was risky, but it was the careful, sensible choice.
But there was another choice. It was less obvious and more dangerous. It certainly wasn’t careful or sensible. But in her experience careful always lost and Malachi never accused her of being sensible.
Red banked into the first curve. Ellie ignored it, and took the direct route.
Her skimmer kicked against the watery path and she pulled up enough to mount the bank and plunge back into the trees. When she had left the stream the anti-grav suddenly pushed hard against the unyielding ground. The jolt caught Ellie by surprise and threw the craft to one side. She yanked on the controls, narrowly missed a tree, overcompensated, missed another, and levelled out.
Then she was through. The skimmer dropped to the water again, the anti-gravity motors complaining about the rapid changes in terrain.
Red flashed across her path, still following his racing line around the horseshoe bend. Ellie powered forward, skipping like a stone over the water, jolting around the cockpit.
Red was halfway through his second turn as Ellie fought for control as she bounced toward the bank. This bank was steeper. Tree roots clawed out of the mud, hoping to snare her. She pulled up.
Against all her instincts she braked, steadied, tried again.
So, Ellie did what came naturally. She accelerated, and she hit the boost.
The anti-gravity supercharged and released in a sudden pulse. Impellers depressed the water’s surface as if an invisible ball, the size of Ellie’s skimmer, had been dropped into the stream. The skimmer launched itself over the bank and high up through the treetops. Branches snapped like matchsticks. Leaves fluttered to the ground.
For a moment, the horizon was leafy green beneath a sky of blue, then gravity claimed Ellie once more and her skimmer fell from the apex of its curve.
But she was now clear of the trees.
Ellie adjusted power flows and moved around the controls on instinct more than training. Her skimmer flattened out, ready to land on the water one more time.
Then Red completed his turn. Still slavishly following the course of the stream, and still concentrating on the skimmer before him, he had missed the skimmer above him.
Ellie landed on Red with a crash and a shower of white sparks. Ellie bounced forward. Red dipped into the stream under Ellie’s impact, but he fought back, pulled up and gave chase.
Ellie gunned her engine. Water and mud churned beneath her. Engines flung the wet muck into the air and blasted it back on to Red.
Red’s oversized air intakes swallowed it whole. His engine died and the skimmer ploughed into the soft mud of the bank.
Red angrily threw his hands in the air and beat his fists against the muddy canopy. He was out of the race.
Overhead, camera drones watched through a break in the canopy over the stream.
‘Yes!’ Jayce fist-pumped and held up a palm for Malachi to high-five. ‘Mal?’
Malachi looked worried.
‘Wasn’t that great?!’
‘So why aren’t you happy?’
Malachi turned around the datapad to show Jayce why. ‘The next waypoint just came in.’
‘Oh,’ said Jayce, and lowered his hand.
‘Oh,’ agreed Malachi.
The trees thinned, and then were gone.
Ellie’s skimmer plunged three metres as the ground beneath her vanished. The land had slipped here, creating a natural and abrupt end to the forest.
Her AG unit, unprepared for the sharp change in the ground level, was unable to compensate, and so her skimmer dropped like a stone. Her stomach leapt up as she fell, the strange sensation a perfect blend of excitement and fear.
Three skimmers were still ahead, but they hadn’t been able to increase their lead.
The stream below them was beginning to widen, and the terrain was changing. Instead of leaves and mud and branches, rocky outcrops were poking up through the ground, and the land ahead had fractured into a dozen shallow canyons.
Ellie’s cockpit beeped. They had passed the second waypoint, and she was now in fourth place.
With the tight confines of the forest behind her, and open ground before her once again, Ellie accelerated hard, relishing the contest.
‘Three to go,’ she whispered.