Both ships accelerated hard. As soon as they passed the start line they dived low to skim the Juggernaut’s surface as close as they dared.
The winner of this race would be the first one to complete a loop under the city. Speed and nerves were needed to win. The closer they flew to the surface the shorter their route would be, but the risk was greater. It was a dangerous combination. A perfect test of speed and skill.
At least it’s not a core run, Malachi thought. That takes a special kind of crazy.
Core runs were theoretical races that took ships through the heart of the city, from one end to the other. They were rumoured to be possible but no one Malachi knew had ever even attempted one, let alone completed one. The Juggernaut was a haphazard construction of a thousand different ships, so it made sense there would be voids and openings all over the surface. Maybe somewhere there was a hidden entrance to the maze of tunnels within, but as far as Malachi could tell they were just convenient holes in which to plug the next derelict hulk.
Many would-be adventurers had explored as far as they dared but their stories all ended the same way. Sooner or later – usually sooner – they found a wall of metal barring their way, or the openings were just too small to allow their ships to pass.
Some obstacles were far more deadly. Venting gas, radiation leaks and the risk of structural collapse were just some of the dangers waiting in the dark.
Malachi had also noticed how the stories he heard always became more exciting with each retelling.
If a route through the city was found it would be an incredible race – perfect for a thrill-seeker like Ellie Young, but far too risky for Malachi Chambers.
You lose one hundred per cent of the races you don’t survive, he told her. Of all the advice she ignored, at least she listened to that. Ellie might be dangerous when she was in her little ship, he thought, but she wasn’t stupid.
The ships were quickly out of sight of the Mandalay’s bridge so the spectators switched their attention to the video feeds on screens and personal data pads.
Ellie was already in the lead, although nudging ahead of her opponent by only a half-length.
Both ships were already dangerously close to the surface. They crept lower still. With only two metres to spare they skimmed the top of one of the communications hubs which littered the surface of the city. More radio towers, satellite dishes and countless other protrusions threatened to reach up and snatch the ships from their course as they streaked overhead.
They reached the first edge of the city and dived over. Santini turned faster and made up the ground he had lost on the straight. Ellie growled her annoyance into Malachi’s ear as he looked on, helpless.
The crowd cheered again, lapping up the drama. It seemed to Malachi that the crowd had split their affection right down the middle.
Wagers were placed, deals were struck, and Malachi dug the fingernails of his right hand into his palm while the other hand gripped the data pad even more tightly.
Ellie zipped around the lower edge of the city and she and Santini twisted a half-turn to reorient themselves as she swooped around the city rim.
Now the city was above them, and the emptiness of space below.
Santini pulled further ahead. Although she had the greater acceleration his tighter, smaller turn had given him the edge he needed. And he had the greater top speed so the straight run to the far edge of the under-city meant Ellie’s chances of catching him were small.
But Santini wasn’t leaving this race to chance. His ship suddenly swung through Ellie’s line. Ellie saw it in time, pulled away to avoid a collision and was forced to dive for the safety of open space.
Malachi tapped the comms link, toggling the option to leave it open. “What was that?! You okay?”
“Yes,” said Ellie through clenched teeth. What Santini had done wasn’t cheating because there were no rules.
Her opponent wasted no time in capitalizing on Ellie’s misfortune. While she powered up through the curve to get back on her racing line back Santini had increased the distance between them and was now fast approaching the next turn.
“How are you—” Malachi began.
“I got it,” said Ellie.
“But what are you—”
Ellie cut Malachi off through clenched teeth. “I got it!”
Malachi flicked through every camera view available on his data pad. His mind formulated and discarded a dozen options for Ellie but there was nothing he could do.
Now comfortably in the lead, Santini was arcing through a safe, gentle curve around the underside of the Juggernaut. He knew there were no safe shorter routes.
What he didn’t know was how flexible Ellie’s definition of ‘safe’ was when victory was on the line. Malachi had a sickening feeling that he knew what Ellie was about to do.
Edging the rim of the city was a crash zone. Usually old spaceships were layered on to the city, or used to fill gaps. At crash zones ships had simply been rammed bow-first into the city, leaving sterns, their hulls and engines sticking out from the surface. Cross bracing among the hulls provided additional strength and reduced the risk of collapse.
Flying through the crash zone on a level surface would be like a fly trying to thread its way between a dozen webs. Flying through a crash zone on a turn meant the pilot would be unable to see what was coming until it was too late. It would dramatically reduce the distance around the edge of the city, but it was the insane choice.
Naturally it was what Ellie was going to do.
“Ellie, no!” warned Malachi.
“You’re distracting me.”
“Good! So stop!”
Santini began the long, safe route over the zone in a smooth curve designed to take him safely around the dangerous turn and ease him to the upper surface of the city and the home straight.
Ellie looked up at the gun metal grey towers overhead, spun her ship one hundred eighty degrees so they were below, and dived in.
A murmur rippled through the crowd surrounding Malachi.
Oh no, thought Malachi. Not again.
Ellie inched her ship closer to the unyielding wall of the city and urged it on with whispered pleading. “Come on, come on, come on, come on.”
Santini had already reached the top of his climb and was levelling out for the final dash to the finish line.
The crash zone sprawled across the surface of the hull before her, filling her horizon with giant pillars of steel.
The crowd was chanting now, a chorus growing in volume. “Closer. Closer. Closer. Closer.”
Malachi was afraid to watch and afraid to look away. He always hated this part.
Ellie dived into the crash zone. She twisted and turned her ship as it raced between the obstacles which towered over her. The race course was gone. Now everything was the next half-second, then the next, then the next. She flew on instinct and reflexes alone. She risked a glance up. Santini flew above the zone, high and safe.
But she was making up ground.
Ellie jinked and dodged her ship through the rest of the zone. The centrifugal force generated by the turn threatened to tear Ellie from her seat. Her body strained against the buckles that held her tight.
And then she was clear.
Ellie gritted her teeth against the forces trying to throw her from her ship and shoved her flight stick forward. Her little craft plunged down once more to meet the city. The surface fell away beneath her and she crested the horizon to enter the final straight.
Santini had the luxury of time on his side. He had completed his careful arc and was levelling out before completing his final approach.
Ellie was still climbing.
“I can’t turn fast enough,” Ellie cried as she wrestled her ship out of its climb and back into a dive. “He’s getting away. I need more power!”
Malachi’s mind raced. Technically she needed more thrust. But the only other thrusters on the ship were the landing thrusters in the underbelly and nose and they were on the wrong side of the ship. Useless.
Schematics and diagrams flashed through his mind’s eye, examining the options, considering the variables. Santini was faster. Ellie had closed the gap but her vector was all wrong, and she couldn’t change it fast enough.
Then he blinked.
“Invert!” he shouted. The people around him jumped.
“Invert your ship! Use your landing thrusters!”
Ellie gave no reply but Malachi was still watching the screens. He saw her ship roll over in a quick half-turn. Landing thrusters designed for a careful, controlled landing ignited at full power. The nose of the ship kicked hard against the stars and aimed for the finish line.
Malachi checked the flight telemetry on his data pad. The displays showed the race, but in his hand was every other bit of data he needed, including the projected vectors of the two ships.
Santini, of course, was heading straight for the finish line. He had an easy run, free and clear. Ellie was coming in fast but not fast enough. It was going to be close, and she wasn’t going to win. A draw was the best she could hope for now.
“Ellie, you’ve pulled it back. Just keep going and you have a draw.”
“A draw?” She sounded disgusted at the very idea. “I might as well lose!”
“Ellie, this guy is good. A draw is a good result.”
“I don’t want to draw.”
“But you can’t win.”
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
The vector on his data pad shifted again.
“Ellie, you overdid it on the landing thrusters.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“You’re coming in too steep. You’re going to miss the line.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Ellie, you’re going to hit him!”
“I’m going to win.”
Ellie held her line.
Safety mechanisms disagreed. Collision warnings sounded throughout her cockpit. Red lights rippled across control panels. She knew her opponent heard it too, and he would have to make a choice: continue to the finish and risk crashing or turn aside, avoid a crash but miss the line.
With seconds to go the alarms began to crescendo.
Ellie held her line.
Her engines screamed with effort as she closed the distance to her target.
Santini held steady, willing to risk the crash, daring her to pull up.
The space between the ships vanished.
Two hundred metres.
One hundred metres.
Ellie held her line.
Ellie’s klaxon blared its urgent message. Warning lights danced in front of her, desperate for attention, but she held her nerve.
She stayed the line.
Santini was dead ahead now. Before them both was the finish. The collision was imminent. Everything around and within Ellie told her to pull up or slow down, but she didn’t like to lose.
Ellie held her line.
Santini broke. His ship dived and turned wide of the line. Ellie blasted through it.
“Yes!” said Malachi, punching the air.
The crowd around him cheered and whooped, thrilled by the outrageous spectacle they had just seen.
“I don’t think you will be able to do that again next time, Ellie.”
“Next time I won’t have to. I need a faster ship, Mal.”
Malachi could hear her grinning despite the complaint. “I’ll see what I can do the next time I get some parts.”
“Great! Also, I need to make tighter turns so maybe you can reduce the weight or something? And a better flight suit. The seat feels too hard when I’m accelerating, and—”
Malachi cut her off. “How about the collision warning? Anything wrong with that?”
“No. That seems to be okay.”
Malachi rolled his eyes. “Anything else?”
“The air smells funny in here. Can you fix that?”
“You treat me like I’m your personal slave technician.”
“No, I treat you like a big brother.”
He laughed. She was right. He did look at her like a little sister.
Ellie had really been adopted by the entire community of New Haven. There were few people in the city who could resist Ellie’s natural optimism. If they were given the choice almost everyone would choose Ellie over the other orphan girl in their midst. Tila was capable and resourceful, but Ellie could light up a room by walking through the door.
To Ellie, family was something far greater than the two people who brought you into the world. They were what made you feel part of it. They were the people who made it a world worth living in and belonging to, even here on the Juggernaut.
Even though Malachi had known her for years Ellie still seemed young. He had to remind himself that even though she easily fell into the role the helpless little sister Ellie was older and wiser than she sometimes appeared.
Malachi thought again of the race he had just witnessed.