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Chapter 03

Ellie huffed on the visor of her helmet and gave it one last vigorous rub with her sleeve. After a final critical examination, she was satisfied.

She pulled it on, tucked blonde hair behind her ears, and heard the magnetic latches click into place. She squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed to stave off the discomfort caused by the change in air pressure. It never worked. Her ears still popped, but Ellie was ever the optimist.

She wiggled into her seat and tapped a button on the reconditioned control panel to open the channel to Malachi, but he was already speaking.

“… Easy on the bend.”

“Huh? Say again?” Ellie’s muscle memory took over and ran through the pre-flight sequence on autopilot. Fingers flicked switches and pressed buttons while her mind concentrated on what Malachi was saying.

“I said, you can go for it on the straight but take it easy on the bend. Your ship can’t handle those tight turns.”

Ellie’s little racer hummed around her as the flight systems sprang to life. Pre-igniters rumbled behind her, firing up the engine core. The vibrations made her seat shudder.

“It has before.”

“When?”

“Last week. Anything else I should know?”

“You should be able to beat him off the line but his engine is going to give him a greater top speed. And we didn’t have a race last week.”

“Maybe we did?”

We did not, Ellie. You know you shouldn’t race without me.”

“Oh Malachi, you sound just like your dad when you worry.”

Ellie felt a change in the vibrations rumbling through her seat, and the pitch of the engine whine increased. The pre-ignition sequence was over.

She entered the next command without looking. Full power was moments away.

Malachi said nothing. Ellie knew he would be trying to work out if she had just insulted him. In her opinion he needed to relax more. He over-analysed everything. It was a quality which made him a wonderful engineer and valuable race technician, but it made for lousy conversation if she ever compared him to his father.

The computer chirped once to tell Ellie the ship was ready to launch. It was her favourite sound.

Through the cockpit she watched today’s opponent, Santini, running through his own launch sequence. He glanced back at her. She waved and gave him a friendly thumbs-up. Santini ignored her, pulled on his own helmet, and launched.

“Rude,” Ellie muttered to herself. She took the controls, released her ship from the deck, rose above it and followed him through the bay doors of the Juggernaut and out into space.

There were other ships already outside. Eager observers waited just beyond the bay doors, ready to chase the two ships around the course and get the best possible view of the action.

Eight hundred metres away four ships hovered over the surface of the city in a square. They hovered perpendicular to the Juggernaut‘s hull and marked the start and finish line of the race.

For the people who had become known as the dispossessed: the refugees, the criminals and the homeless, the Juggernaut was at worst a prison, and at best a bitter reminder that somewhere out there, somewhere else among the Commonwealth planets, was a world they had once called home. Ellie was too young to remember a life before the Juggernaut, and since being orphaned during a raid six years ago, she had no chance at another home.

Almost everyone dreamed of escape but few people ever left. Even if they were fortunate enough to have a ship capable of jumping to another system they were unlikely to be able to afford the transit fees.

Most of the city operated on a barter system. Honest work that paid in hard currency was rare and was almost certainly not going to be lucrative enough to fund a new life elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

If someone had the money and a ship it had probably been obtained through illicit channels. That meant a bounty, and that meant they were going to be picked up within hours of arriving in one of the neighbouring, and law-abiding, systems.

Bounty hunters rarely followed their leads back to the Juggernaut. The Celato system was lawless and crawling with pirates, so only the highest value marks were chased into the city. Anything less wasn’t good business.

And if they were that rare citizen with honest credit and the means to travel then something else was keeping them here. Something so terrible that it made life on the Juggernaut, far from the civilised worlds of the Commonwealth, their best option.

But none of these applied to Ellie. She had committed no crime, she simply had no desire to leave. The city was home.

It was also her playground.

If you dared to enter and could salvage, repair or build something space worthy, you could race.

Like anything dangerous, the youth had quickly made it their own. The teenagers of the disparate Juggernaut communities had organised themselves well enough to hold races whenever and wherever they liked.

With almost a million people on board there was always someone, somewhere, ready to race. The ever-changing surface of the Juggernaut made for an unpredictable course and the lack of any effective authority within the city or the star system meant that there was no one to stop them. Racing was almost a rite of passage in some communities but one truth of life aboard the Juggernaut was universal: there was nowhere else to go.

No matter how fast you went, you couldn’t escape the city.