The Space Race

He cussed and swore and pounded the flange wrench on the bulkhead, but it still didn’t make the thermobulator pump work.

“Lud’s blood. How the hell can I win a race with this kind of equipment???” he demanded, of no one in particular.

“You built this flying titanium garbage scow. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself!” she answered, her words bouncing off girders and bulkheads, faintly echoing in the engine compartment.

“Treat this precision machine with more respect!” he bellowed in return, cussing anew as he skinned his knuckles trying to remove a recalcitrant bolt.

“Only you can cuss out this floating testament to low budgets and stubborn pride?” She ducked as a flange wrench bounced her way. She never expected it to hit her, but his intention was clear, and the clatter it made ricocheting off of various bulkheads and braces caused her to duck reflexively.

“If I had half the budget of those big teams, I could fly their pants off. They’d never be able to keep up with me with halfway decent equipment,” he bemoaned. With the race in just twelve days, he was hard pressed to get the Silver Lady running, much less race-ready.

“Maybe you could fill in for a sick or fired pilot and win enough money to get decent propulsion equipment.  And I’ll get a chance to actually fly on this thing when it’s working, instead of mostly-kinda-sorta-the G-Drive is working right now.” She retorted.

“The Silver Lady is my ship, and by the seven moons of Hetradides, I’ll fly her in this race if it kills me,”’ he answered, not sure if she was listening or not.

“Which it might, unless you get some new parts for the G-Drive before it blows us and the ship to another dimension.” What her statement lacked in eloquence in made up for in truth.

He didn’t answer. He grabbed another wrench and tackled the recalcitrant bolt, in an effort to rebuild a thermobulator pump that had already been rebuilt countless times. He cussed and swore to himself, skinned a few more knuckles and finally got the bolt loose.

“You’d think, as many times as I’ve had this cursed thing apart, it would be easier. If only I had a laser-guided variable-torquing automatic ratchet. Now that would be the ticket!” He was talking to himself. “If I had one, I could take this blasted pump apart in no time!”

His name was Darwinius Arbuckle, Danny A. for short. No one had known his real name for close to 30 years. The last person to call him Darwinius was his 1st grade teacher, and he quickly made sure that never happened again, hacking into the school computer and changing Darwinius to Daniel. A most resourceful lad, our Danny A, even at a young age.

He’d been flying spacers for a few years, and wanted nothing else. When he was 16, he helped local freight pilots load cargo, and in return, they let him ride in the jump seat. When the ship was on auto-pilot, they let him sit in the captain’s chair and he started memorizing all the controls, “just in case.”

When he turned 20 he got his captain’s ticket. By the time he was 24, he had his own freighter, not much to look at, but he kept her going by sweat and determination. A few modifications later, he was making times no one else could meet. One thing led to another, and he started privateering his own speedster at small outpost races. He won a few—nothing to make the jump to the big time, but enough to get noticed.

It helped the freight business, he reasoned. The truth was he loved racing. Any size, any distance, any craft. The thrill, the challenge, the pressure. As his freight business grew, so did his budget for racing. Eventually he sold the freight business and threw his hand in the big leagues as a private team. His natural exuberance caught the media’s attention, and he was a favorite interview.

But he never landed the corporate backing necessary to be a mainstream player. The spaceship manufacturers looked for someone who’d toe the company line. They wanted a good marketing image for commercials and in PR campaigns. A swashbuckling devil-may-care attitude didn’t match well with good, reliable, family cruisers or luxury liners. Danny A would have fit right in as a pirate, but as a corporate pitchman, hell would have to freeze over first.

A run of bad luck—a blown G-drive, a ruptured hull from hitting a meteorite, getting bumped into a moon, all knocked him down in the standings and prize money.

He’d nearly spent the fortune he made from selling his freight business, and there was little left. His hopes were riding on The Great Race. Not to win, just to finish high enough to get a little cash cushion. But that turbo pump for the G-drive was giving him fits again, and if he couldn’t fix it, no G-drive meant no race.

The Great Race wasn’t just a race. It was a three day spectacle, running through two asteroid belts, a triple planet group with multiple moons, long runs through space without going to warp drive, all with half the galaxy watching and wagering on the outcome.

That was pressure. Which Danny grooved on and never admitted to anyone. This time, it wasn’t looking good. But Danny never admits defeat, so he kept tackling the stubborn thermobulator pump—technically a turbo-sub-molecular-thermal-metamorphose-incubator pump, or thermobulator pump in the lexicon of the entire fleet—working through lunch, dinner, and bedtime.

The thermobulator pump was the key component in the Gravity Drive, breaking down matter at a sub-atomic level, capturing the heat generated from the disassembly of atoms, then re-combining atoms using the heat, all occurring in a near-vacuum condition. Between the de-combining and re-combining, there was a transient state where the laws of gravity reversed, so instead of matter attracting matter, matter repelled matter. If done just right, there was enough “negative gravity” generated that a spaceship would repel other gravitational bodies around.

The engineering was quite intricate with precision control systems to regulate the near-vacuum very precisely, inject the right amount of atoms into the 1st stage chamber to get disassembled, then route the atomic particles through a plenum to the 2nd stage chamber where they re-combined, with the anti-gravity miracle occurring in the plenum. The radiant heat had to be measured, captured and re-introduced, all the while being held to very tight tolerances.

A brilliant piece of engineering, the G-drive. Advances over the decades concentrated on the control systems. As luck and engineering would sometimes have it, early G-drives were among the most powerful. It was one of those rare occurrences where brilliant inspiration created the near-perfect engine, and years of fiddling and research only tweaked the original. The original chamber and plenum designs were found to closely match the perfect size and shape for optimal “combustion.” The scientists never came up with a technical word that the technicians would accept, so combustion it stayed.

Danny A was no engineer by trade, never had any formal training as a technician, but he was smart enough to figure things out, and he figured out how to fix thermobulator pumps. He figured out that the ancient Canada class freighters had one of the best G-drives in the galaxy and could be bought for a song. Then he figured out that if he cut open the engine bay of the Silver Lady and modified a few bulkheads, he could shoehorn an old Canada class G-drive into her.

The result was one of the fastest ships in the fleet. She had a few dents and dings, the viewports were scratched, the hull had lost its shiny sheen, but she could fly rings around the field. When she ran.

Lest you think the Canada class G-drives aren’t bulletproof, au contraire. They were some of the best ever built. They were big, not as efficient as newer designs, but the Canadas were legend.

They were sold and scavenged and hard to find. Finding one in working condition was a minor miracle. The downside was that it had run for three times its normal life, and a few parts needed to be replaced. Like the thermobulator pump.

Danny A didn’t have the funds for a rebuilt thermobulator pump, much less a new one. He’d rebuilt it twice before himself, scrounging parts from back alley vendors, wheedling and cajoling and sometimes begging for a reasonable price. He’d S-rayed the pump (S-ray is like an old X-ray, except it’s a 3D computer image and you can rotate the view around in three dimensions, zoom in and out, quite a useful tool) and found that two of the existing molecular bearings had minute stress cracks and a third was suspect. He scrounged the parts he needed: three serviceable molecular bearings, personally inspected and verified.

All he had to do was get the damn pump apart, disassemble the main shaft, remove the molecular bearings and replace them, then reassemble the main shaft and put the whole kit and caboodle back together again.

Simple.

A freight yard usually took a week. Danny couldn’t afford the freight yard, so he did it himself. He had Cira, but her specialties were flight control systems and the main computers. She wouldn’t touch a G-drive, and she was wise enough not to get in Danny’s way when he was in fine form. Like now.

With all the cussing and swearing Danny was doing, you’d think a couple of elephants were having babies in the engine bay. Minutes flashed by like seconds, hours passed like minutes, and the days flew by.

Meals were eaten with greasy fingers when Cira put a plate in front of him—if he noticed it was there. Sleep was taken where he worked, when his eyes started playing tricks on him and one shaft became two, by the simple expedient of laying down on what passed for a floor and passing out, coming to in a daze scant hours later, accompanied by cussing and swearing at being such a weakling that he needed to sleep.

Now don’t get the idea that Danny was a tough old cuss. Far from it. Danny was one of the nicest pilots I’ve ever known, but like most spacers worth their salt, he figured he could do everything better himself. Which in this case was true, for Danny was also one of the most gifted people I’ve ever known. That, coupled with a Scottish penchant for being extremely tight with a ducat while being extremely loose with a fortune, and you get a good idea about Darwinius Arbuckle, esquire.

Days went by. Nights too, although it was hard to tell when you’re ensconced in an engine bay with no windows and 24-hour lighting. The stubborn thermobulator pump was going back together. A few more hours, Danny thought to himself, and he could fire up the pump and test it.

Danny’s concentration was so intense that he didn’t hear the banging on the hull. He didn’t hear Cira yelling over the comm system. He didn’t hear Cira pound on the bulkhead door. He almost jumped through the hull when she touched him on shoulder.

“Wha!!!! Why don’t you knock before you scare me half to death!” he raved at her.

“I called on the comm system for half an hour. I pounded on the bulkhead door for five minutes. You never twitched a muscle,” Cira shot back. “Now I tap you on the back and you rip my head off. Get a grip!”

“Sorry.” Danny was immediately contrite. “This damn pump has got me tied up in knots. If we only had money for the Regal 5000 thermobulator—“

“I know, I know. The Regal 5000 thermobulator pump with sub-molecular bearings, ion field controllers, Radical control processors, 5000 terabyte control cache and Xtreme Xtra control software. What would you do for entertainment with all that extra time?” Cira smiled sweetly.

“What I could do to the Silver Lady then!” he mused, getting drawn into one of his two favorite subjects, the other diving on sunken treasure ships. “I could update the flight controls to cut lag time down to…”

“Cool your jets, flyboy. You know your budget couldn’t handle all that,” Cira reminded him. Danny was immediately crestfallen, brought back to the stark reality of the matter at hand, the near-impossibility of getting the Silver Lady ready for the Great Race on a shoestring budget.

“There’s a guy at the door who wants to talk to you,” she added, matter-of-factly.

“Who is it?” he asked, curious that someone would want to see him. “I don’t owe anyone any money, and every vendor in town knows I don’t have enough money to buy what they’re selling, even if I need it.”

“He told me his name, but I never heard of him before. He acted shocked that I didn’t know who he was. Looks like a salesman, too much nervous energy, pretty thin. Doesn’t even have a briefcase with him.” She answered, giving him the necessary info.

“I could use a quick break. The hard part’s done, just got to put it back together. Day or two, including testing, and we’re set. Then if nothing else goes wrong…” he didn’t have to finish the thought.

Danny climbed out of the engine bay, looking remarkably lithe for someone who just spent several days straight wrestling with the disassembly and assembly of a thermobulator pump. He passed through a few bulkhead doors, climbed a few ladders, and came to the entry port.

Sure enough, a high-energy young man was standing in the hold, unable to contain his excitement at being himself.

“Danny Arbunkle? Am I glad to meet you. You’re a hard guy to find—“ he started.

“It’s Arbuckle. Who are you?” Danny asked, nonchalant.

“Dutch Madison. You’ve heard of me? No? Really. I can’t believe it. Anyway, I represent The Wolf. We’d like to make you an—“

“I don’t know any wolf. Look, Mr. Madison, I’m kinda busy. The race is only four days away and I’ve got a lot of work—“

“No, no, I represent The Wolf. TWLF, Wagner-Leffler Broadcasting Company, THE WOLF.” Dutch Madison started out very sure of himself, but when Danny didn’t recognize any of what he was saying, doubt crept in. “You’ve never heard of us?”

“Can’t say as I have. Did you take a wrong turn in the dockyards trying to find your way out?” Danny was bored with Dutch Madison and considered tossing him off of the ship. Then he noticed that Dutch was wearing a cheap pair of gravity boots with magnetic soles that automatically released when you were walking but clamped tight when you were getting bounced about. Weren’t microprocessors wonderful?

“No, no, Mr. Arbunkle. Sorry, Arbuckle. I’m here because The Wolf wants to sponsor you in the Great Race.” Dutch Madison practically stopped breathing at that exact moment, so great was his excitement and expectation at the monumental offer he was offering.

Danny’s interest actually picked up a notch. “Yes?” he asked, taking a new look at Dutch Madison. This look didn’t impress him any more than the first, so his new-found interest quickly settled back into boredom.

“Yes, we want to SPONSOR you in the Great Race!” Dutch Madison was beaming at this magnificent offer, surely unrivaled in the history of the universe.

“Why would I want you to sponsor me in the Great Race?” Danny asked, nonplussed.

“Why? Why? How can you ask WHY?” Dutch stammered, unable to believe his ears. “You should be jumping out of you shoes at this opportunity. Fame! Fortune! ADVERTISING!”

“Pretty simple, really. Three letters, one syllable. Force some air out of the lungs, start with a ‘wa’ sound and out she rolls. The next thing you know, you’ve said ‘WHY.’” A blade of Kansas wheat stuck in Danny’s mouth would complete the picture.

“Just think about it! You’ll become famous. Wine, women, song! Yes, that’s it! We’ll make a hit song about you! You’ll be the envy of every rocket jockey in the galaxy! I can see it now! The video, the song, playing on radio and TV and PocketVision!” Dutch was in full form, gesticulating wildly about, punctuating his words with rapt expressions and gyrating movements that would make Elvis envious.

Danny was not moved in the least. He came to the conclusion that he should throw Dutch Madison over the side and made a move in that direction.

Dutch noticed the look in Danny’s eye and backed up a few steps. “NO! WAIT!” he yelled, to no avail. Danny grabbed Dutch by the scruff of the neck and started to move him towards the lock. Dutch reached his limit and pulled out all restraint. “I’VE GOT A CHECK!”

“How much?” Danny asked, planting his feet to give Dutch a good fling.

“T-t-t-t-w-o—“ Dutch started. The look in Danny’s eye didn’t flinch. “T-t-t-t-r-e-e-e-e-e million—“ Dutch couldn’t bear to finish that sentence. After all, big promoters are loath to part with their cash. Little promoters are loath to part with cash for the simple reason they seldom have such. Good practice for becoming a big promoter.

“Three million?” Danny sneered softly. “That doesn’t even cover my fuel bill.”

Dutch sensed he finally had Danny listening and moved in for the kill. A bit premature, but advertising men don’t notice these things and he continued the chase. “That’s just the deposit!” Dutch announced triumphantly. “We can cover all your expenses, provide your fuel, give you lots of exposure across the galaxy, get you some big time morning show appearances, you name it!”

Three words were like an alarm clock going off in Danny’s ear: “You name it!” He rolled that around on the tip of his tongue. He bounced it around inside his skull. He floated it up in the air and made it do somersaults, and looked at it backwards and sideways.

“I name it?” Danny asked sternly.

“Well, within reason. I mean I can’t promise everythi—“ at which point Danny cut him short.

“You said I get to name it.” Danny put Dutch back down on the deck, still holding Dutch’s gaze firmly in his own. When Dutch stammered something that sounded suspiciously like an agreement, Danny asked another question. “What’s in it for you?”

“EVERYONE will know I just booked the infamous Danny Arbunkle. My career will skyro—“

Danny cut him off again. “It’s Arbuckle.”

“Right. Arbuckle. I’ll never mispronounce it again. Like I was saying, my career will skyrocket! I’ll be more famous than Wilbur Campbell!” The old legend of Earth TV still set the standard for broadcasting. “Everyone in the industry will know that I signed Danny Arbuckle to WOLF Broadcasting and made him a STAR!”

“Look, Madison, I could care less about being a star, much less a STAR. All I want to do is get a good ship under my feet and race across the cosmos. You help me do that, and I’ll consider your pitch.”

Dutch, despite his faults, knew when a trophy fish swallowed the hook, and Danny was nibbling hard.

“We’ll emblazon The WOLF across your ship, call her a she-wolf and we’ll—“

“OH NO WE WON’T,” Danny shot back with conviction. “The Silver Lady she’s named, and the Silver Lady she remains. No wolves on her outer skin. No—“

“Oh, Danny!” Cira called out sweetly, “Might I have a word with you?” Cira was the picture of innocence, beckoning for a private audience.

“I’m kinda busy right now, this guy here is talking money. Might even consider it. Can’t it wait a few minutes?” Danny asked, modestly annoyed.

“Well, it’s a critical question,” Cira responded. You could almost see the halo over her head.

“Oh, all right.” And Danny walked over to Cira, who pulled him quickly around the corner and out of earshot of Dutch Madison.

“New control systems. If these guys cough up cash RIGHT NOW we can put new control systems in and reduce lag time 500%. Can you imagine going through the asteroid belts with that kind of response? We could blow those guys away. Sure, we could use a new thermobulator pump, but we don’t have time to install it. But we could get NEW CONTROL SYSTEMS! She’ll fly like a bird!” Cira was excited, and her excitement was catching.

Danny ducked his head around the corner, satisfied to find Dutch was still where he left him. “Now that’s a thought. But no She-Wolf names. This is my ship and by the seven moons of Pleties, no schmancy logos.”

“They’re hungry, Danny,” Cira came back. “They’re a new network. They can’t get any coverage of this race, all the big boys have huge sponsorships with the major networks. They NEED you. Self-made billionaire, blows his fortune racing, now out for fame and fortune in The Great Race. It’s a natural for them. They need a story. You’re it.”

“I don’t want to be a story. I just want to—“ Cira cut him off.

“I know, you want a good ship under your feet to race across the cosmos.” Cira was on a roll. “The public will eat it up. We can get sponsorship and endorsement money. We can build the Silver Lady into a rocket and show those hotshots how to really race. We can do this, Danny! And Selena would find you very attractive…”

Danny didn’t dismiss this last point. He smiled impishly, thinking about his attempts at Selena and her gentle rebukes of his affections. “Now there’s a thought. I wouldn’t mind thumbing my nose at Deakens and Wurbil, either.” (Ed. Note: two competitors with first class equipment and an attitude to match.)

“That’s my Danny. Now go give this broadcasting guy hell.” Cira smiled conspiratorially.

Danny strode back around the corner. “All right, Dutch, let’s tend to the details. Here’s what I want—“

“GREAT! Let me make a call!” Dutch pulled out a phone and said briefly, “YES!” and hung up.

Before Danny could breathe, a pounding could be heard on the hull and a multitude of lawyers and secretaries tried to pour in. The Silver Lady wasn’t that big, and after three pushed their way in, it became obvious that the whole gang wouldn’t fit. With much yelling and pushing and shouting, one lawyer, one secretary and Dutch remained, carrying two large cases between them.

They wormed their way through the bulkheads and girders to what passed for a dining room. Dutch, the lawyer and the secretary pulled out a couple of holographic computers, a printer and some other electronic device.

The negotiations started. Dutch and the lawyer figured that they’d have their way with Danny, but what they didn’t realize was that Danny didn’t become rich by being stupid in business. Having negotiated hundreds of contracts and a whiz at legal jargon, plus a legal module in the ships computer, put him on an even playing field with the legal sharks.

The long and short of the negotiations gave Danny the money he wanted and the network the cameras and audio they wanted, with Danny able to kill the input any time he chose, as long as he gave them enough interviews.

Thanks to computers and satellites, they executed contracts and had them verified by an independent legal witness firm that specialized in off-planet contracts, and they were in business.

Thanks to the magic of computers and network TV clout, once contracts were signed money transferred almost immediately into Danny’s account.  With the financials completed, it was time for an interview.

“This is Dutch Madison with THE WOLF Broadcasting with a hot story that has just broken. Daniel Arbuckle, the billionaire business developer who sold his business to go space racing, then lost most of his fortune and is nearly bankrupt…” Danny almost lost his composure on that one, but held his tongue artfully… “has agreed to a special interview with WOLF Broadcasting. I’m with him now in his ship, the Silver Lady. We’re going to talk about his chances in the upcoming Great Race, what he’s been doing lately, how he lost his fortune in space racing, AND, we’re proud to announce that Daniel Arbuckle will be providing us with EXCLUSIVE in-ship coverage of THE GREAT RACE! We’ll be right back after these messages!” Off camera, Dutch was practically jumping out of his skin, he was so excited.

“Watch it, Dutch,” Danny intoned, while the camera was off. “Go too far overboard and I may say something that will embarrass the hell out of you.”

“No problem, Danny, I’m just building excitement in our viewers.” Dutch, like most broadcasters, figured he was three steps ahead of any interviewee. But Danny Arbuckle was not your average interviewee.

The cameraman called out. “We’re coming back live in five. Four. Three. Two. One.” Like cameramen the galaxy over, he pointed at Dutch when he got to zero.

Dutch went into hyper mode. “Welcome back, folks. I’m here with Danny Arbuckle and his wife, Cira—“

“I’m not his wife,” Cira said sweetly. Danny smiled conspiratorially.

“I’m sorry, folks. This is live television. There is no script, no rehearsal. Mr. Arbuckle called us in for this very special interview, one of the galaxy’s most renowned individuals, and we haven’t had time to do proper research. What you’re going to hear in this interview is completely unrehearsed, something, well, I don’t even know what we’re going to cover. Cira, now that we’ve opened this Pandora’s box, would you care to elaborate?” Dutch’s smile was one of his trademark, “I’ve got you now” smiles.

“I’ve known Danny for most of his life. But he likes those cute girls who go ‘Ooh’ and ‘Ahh’ whenever he says something witty, and wear skimpy clothing to showcase their voluptuous breast implants.”

Dutch was rolling his eyes and mouthing, “this is hot stuff!” to no one in particular, imagining the ratings jump from the controversy his newfound STAR was going to make.

“Well, I don’t know about all that,” Danny said. “Cira’s been my first mate—“

“First OFFICER,” Cira corrected, firmly.

“First OFFICER for longer than I can remember. She’s a whiz on control systems and I’d be lost without her.”

“What’s your relationship with Cira?” Dutch went in for the kill. “Past lovers? Friends? Business partners?”

“Oh, she’s my sister. Been my sister for as long as I can remember.”

Dutch’s jaw dropped. Then clamped shut. Then opened again. “Now there’s a piece of information no one knew before.”

“No one ever asked.” Danny answered easily.

“What else don’t we know about you?” Dutch asked, completely off-balance.

“Dutch, it’s like the old adage in the courtroom: don’t ask a question if you don’t know what the answer is.” Danny was a natural on camera, looking relaxed and composed and coming across somewhere between Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. “There’s a lot that people don’t know about me, or about you. Could fill volumes. But I thought we were here to talk about a race?”

On that subject, Danny was in his prime. He explained to Dutch in very simple terms the G-drive, and the cameraman went into the engine bay with Danny and got it on camera. They went through the ship and Danny explained various things.

He showed them the navigation station and the cockpit, and he strapped himself in and played his hands over the controls. The camera ate it up and the broadcasting company ate it up, because viewers were calling friends and those friends were calling their friends and ratings were rising.

The interview was going on two hours. In all that time, there wasn’t anything that any competitor could use, but it was an inside look at space racing that the viewing public never had before. Dutch was in seventh heaven. He didn’t care about appearing like a complete idiot a few times, because ratings were king and ratings were taking off like a rocket, if you’ll pardon the pun.

The interview was winding down, and Dutch had dropped most of his pretenses and asked, as one would ask a friend, “Danny, why build a fortune and spend it all on space racing? What’s so special about it?”

“It’s like this, Dutch. I built a company and worked my ass off. I had problems and travails. I lived like a king, but like a king, I was trapped by the world I was living in. I built a company from scratch, but I had more fun building the company than running the company. I figured I’d sell it to people who like running companies and go tackle something I enjoyed. I love racing, and I have this urge to be a giant killer. So I went racing.”

“But it hasn’t gone as well as I hoped, that’s for sure. It’s a tough business, even tougher than building my company from scratch. I haven’t had the success I expected, but after all of that, there’s nothing like dodging asteroids or pulling a good gravity drop and slinging around a planet with the hull plates glowing from atmospheric friction, hurtling to the next target faster than you can breathe.” Danny was smiling now.

“I could go back and build a company any time. But racing, man, that’s living! If I do decently in this race, I’ll pull enough of a purse to update my G-drive and really give the big boys a run for their money. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even win a race or two along the way.

“When all is said and done, I’ve seen sectors of the galaxy I never knew existed. Have you ever seen the Six Stars of Seneca? Now there’s a sight. Or the dust clouds of Orandis, glowing in shades of purple, gold and pink that would make Michaelangelo sigh with envy. Then there’s the tunnels of Andronus. A planet the size of Jupiter, hollow as swiss cheese. In that race you fly through the tunnels faster than the speed of sound, yet it looks like slow motion when you’re in the groove.”

Danny paused, gazing off into some far away place.

“Tell me how that compares to sitting at a desk running a freight company. Sure, someday I’ll give up space racing, but as long as I’ve got a chance, I’ll be at the starting line. Winning is great stuff, but the racing itself, that’s the jazz.”

Dutch didn’t move for what seemed like minutes. “Danny. I don’t know what to say.” For the first time since he came on board, Dutch was telling the complete truth.

The cameraman turned to Dutch, and at that moment Dutch realized he had star-grade material. All he had to do was end off with style and the ratings would blossom.

“Folks, I’m speechless. I’ve just had a glimpse of the universe, seen through Danny Arbuckle’s eyes. You’ve seen it too. I hope you’ve enjoyed watching our program today, and be sure to tune in for upcoming live coverage aboard Danny’s ship, The Silver Lady, during The Great Race. We’ll have continuous coverage, and live interviews with Danny at opportune moments. Thanks again for tuning in. This is Dutch Madison for The WOLF.”

Dutch sat down on the nearest resemblance to a chair. “Danny, that was first class gold. Our ratings are going to go out through the roof! Keep this up during the race and WOLF is going to become a real player in the broadcast business.”

“Thanks, Dutch. Now off you go—we’ve got a LOT of work to do to get ready for the race.” Dutch and the cameraman left the ship, Dutch already planning his acceptance speech for next year’s NOVA awards.

“Cira, let’s make this ship into a real screamer. With the new control system we’ve getting, we’re going to be a real pain to some of the big boys.”

“What about security?” Cira asked. “Now that we’re on TV, we’re going to attract a lot of attention.”

“Good point. I’ve still got connections, and after this interview, we’ll be famous enough that we’ll get cooperation.” Danny pulled up a few numbers from the computer. “While you’re at it, how much stock in WOLF would you like to buy? Part of the negotiations was the option to buy stock at the market price of 3 hours ago. But we only have six hours to exercise that option, so scrape together every ducat you can and shoot the works!” Danny grinned like he’d found gold at the end of a rainbow. Which he had…

They slept in shifts, never enough, but they had a job to get done. Danny’s swearing was replaced by whistling and humming as he finished repairing the G-drive and installing the new control systems. The ship was barely ready as they were towed to the starting quadrant for qualification, a run around the moon and back. WOLF interviewed Danny and Cira just before qualification, with five minutes of air time right before their turn to qualify.

People tuned in eagerly to hear them say, “We think we’ll be competitive during qualification. We’re hoping to place well, although there’s some stiff competition in the lightweight class.” They promptly went out and tanked, as the control systems were too responsive and they dipped and hopped into and out of the atmosphere while rounding the moon.

Afterwards, billions of disappointed viewers heard Danny say, “We’ve got great potential, but unfortunately our control systems are over-controlling, making the controls too sensitive. The slightest twitch on the controls and we’re veering and yawing like the town drunk. We’ll HAVE to get that fixed before the start of the race.”

Billions of disappointed viewers got their first live shots of a spaceship being flown in a qualifying race, with great facial expressions by Danny and acrobatic maneuvers by Cira as she monitored the control systems and increased and decreased pressures and fuel flows and updated the navigation.

Danny came across as a realistic hero, someone everyone could relate to. Interest in WOLF broadcasts doubled, then tripled. Dutch Madison milked every ounce of publicity for himself and the station.

The Great Race has over 300 ships in four classes: Lightweight, Cruiser, Modified and Unlimited. Betting was huge, with fortunes made and lost on the outcome. People bet on everything: winners, losers, crashes, who would fail to start. The most famous bet was the “Quatro,” picking the winner of each class, with the result paying millions. The Silver Lady ran in Lightweight, and when running well, was a contender.

There were two days between qualifying and the race start, time which Danny and Cira put to good use. Even with the two days, they weren’t completely ready.

The start was done in reverse order of qualifying, with the slowest of each class first. It made the first day extremely exciting, as a lot of passing occupied the first stretch. The race consisted of a straight run for 8-12 hours, depending on speed; a mad run through a dense asteroid field, with plenty of potential for crashing; another “straight” followed by navigating through a triple planet cluster with 22 moons; another straight run to the 2nd asteroid field, then finally a long drag race to the finish line. Three days of the hardest racing in the galaxy.

By virtue of their slow qualifying run, The Silver Lady started 15th out of 76 Lightweights. Spaced in one minute intervals, The Silver Lady was quickly passed by faster ships starting behind them.

“That’s it, Cira,” Danny calmly stated, “That’s got the Z-axis controller dialed in. Let’s work on the Y-axis.”

“Danny, we’re getting passed left, right and center,” Cira shot back, her attention constantly distracted by readouts showing their rapid loss of position.

“We’re on track,” Danny calmly explained. “I did some calculations and we’re right on profile. If these new controllers give us half of what I expect, we’ll blow their socks off in the first Asteroid belt and run rings around them in the second. Not to mention what we’ll do to them in the Ardenus Triplet.”

The Triplet consisted of three planets in near orbit to each other, with 5, 8 and 9 moons respectively. Racers had to do one—and only one—gravity pull around each moon. Smaller ships liked to weave around the moons in closer proximity to each other, while the larger ships preferred longer distances to take advantage of their speed. With no set course, the “buzzing mosquitos” look of 300 ships on different courses through the Triplet made for exciting viewing.

Cira responded, “I’d like to just open up our G-drive and show them what we’ve got. All these other yahoos are laughing behind their hulls at us.”

“Relax, Cira,” Danny laughed. “What they don’t know will definitely hurt them. I’ve calculated the maximum speed for this stage while still adjusting the controllers, and we’re there. It might seem slow, but we’ll be nearly twice the speed of most of the fleet when things start going our way. Just wait until the last straight, when we open up the G-Drive. Assuming the pump doesn’t fail.”

Listening to the dialogue discussing axis controllers, g-pulls and free falls made boring footage for the average viewer but fantastic coverage for the enthusiast. For the first time they were watching what was going on INSIDE a true racer.

WOLF started a fan club for Cira, and the men were signing up in droves. One of the interviews included a phone call from a man who proposed on the air, to which Cira laughed. “My brother always tells me, ‘you can take the first offer you get, but don’t take it first,’” which became an instant T-shirt best-seller.

Three-fourths of the way through the long straight, Danny brought The Silver Lady in for fuel. And of course, the requisite interview with the insatiable Dutch Madison.

“We’re doing all right, Dutch,” Danny intoned. “We got passed by a bunch of ships, but more importantly, our controls are nearly perfectly dialed in.”

“Why are you dialing in your controls after the race starts, instead of before? Shouldn’t everything be ready?” Dutch asked in his best newsman’s voice.

“Absolutely. But we’re a small budget team and I had to repair part of the G-drive, which was not easy, leaving us only a little bit of time to configure the new control systems for this race.”

“What about your competitors? Are they in the same boat?” Dutch asked.

“Not if they’re smart. Their drive systems aren’t as finicky as ours. We’re running an older drive system which is very powerful, but also requires more finesse than the new units. Our drive will give us great speed, especially after we clear the first two asteroid belts. Once our final calibration is complete, I expect that we’ll hold our own in our class.” Danny’s voice oozed confidence, the confidence of a gambler.

“Your strategy has been to work on the ship for the first part of the race?” Not-so-hidden daggers of anger shot across the void. Despite their quasi-partnership, Dutch still went for the jugular.

“A strategy of necessity, Dutch-me-boy. We just received our new control systems three days before the race. We always had straight line speed, but our handling left a lot to be desired. We had to install, test, and re-test every control input, every sensor, every system, in every conceivable configuration. With our new control systems operational, we should outperform every ship in our class, and give the Unlimiteds a run for their money.” Danny answered, very matter-of-factly.

“So instead of going flat-out through the first section, you’ve been laying back while testing,” Dutch demanded, incredulous. Every viewer in the galaxy could hear the unspoken words, “…the controls bought with OUR money.”

“That’s absolutely correct, Dutch,” Danny answered. “We had to sacrifice our first day of straight-line speed for having not only one of the fastest, but one of the best handling ships in our class. If we didn’t have this broadcast, no one would know what we’ve been up to, what our capabilities are. Now the entire fleet is going to know.”

Dutch shot back quickly, thinking Danny was slamming him and the network. “Yes, but if it wasn’t—“

Before he could finish the sentence, Danny smoothly continued. “That’s right. If it wasn’t for an easy first day, we never would have gotten everything installed and tested. As it stands now, we’re ready to rock and roll!” Danny’s exuberance bubbled through the ether, displaying itself on millions and millions of viewscreens.

WOLF’s marketing department immediately identified the increase in customer enthusiasm and just as quickly, got the message to Dutch, who, like any good journalist who knows his ratings are going out the roof, quickly changed his tune to one of complete agreement. “That’s great to hear, Danny! What do you have next for us?”

“Good thing you asked, Dutch, because next we’ve got the asteroid belt and things are going to get mighty busy for us. Your viewers are going to get one hell of a show for the next twelve hours. Watch the standings—I’m predicting that we go from practically dead last to the top half of the field in the asteroids. Then the Ardenus Triplet, but I’m getting ahead of myself.”

Danny was strapping himself into his pilot’s seat and Cira was settling into the navigation console next to him.

Dutch started to ask another piercing question, but Danny cut him off.

“Gotta go, Dutch. The Lady’s filled with fuel and we’re ready to blast off.” With his soon-to-be-very-famous half-smile, Danny hit the kill switch and left Dutch Madison talking to himself and half the galaxy.

“Sweet, Danny boy. Half the galaxy’s going to be cheering you after that interchange,” Cira called out as they blasted off. She was wrong—nearly everyone in the galaxy was cheering for him. Dutch was one of those reporters that everyone loves to hate.

The asteroid belt loomed. Cira’s hands flew over the keyboard as she computed and re-computed trajectories, until her course was nearly two hours faster than the computer’s first recommended route.

They flight deck was quiet, except for the hissing of the drive and the low rumbling found in all space travel. Danny had “forgotten” to turn the kill switch back on, and Dutch’s attempts to converse were thwarted.

The asteroid belt grew larger in the viewscreens. Danny turned on the audio feed, to Dutch’s booming voice.

“… mere minutes away from the asteroid field. Our WOLF exclusive coverage of the Great Race is about to take on a whole new dimension. We’re providing you with split-screen coverage so that you can watch the action LIVE while positions are plotted with our exclusive 3D mapping system. AND we’ll have live position updates at all times on the bottom of your screen.—“

“Howdy, Dutch!” Danny’s sweetness and light cascaded out of speakers across the cosmos. “We’re about to enter the asteroid belt. It’s going to get very busy very soon, and we’re going to have our hands full. Before it’s too late, I thought I’d say hello.”

“That’s very nice of you, Danny,” replied Dutch, making sure he conveyed just the right amount of annoyance.

“Thanks, Dutch,” Viewers howled in delight. Not only was Danny a racer, but he was giving it to Dutch the way Dutch normally gave it to his targets. “So your viewers understand, we’re going to have our hands full. We’ll be splitting g-pulls and falls, twists and turns that will make DisneyWorld turn green with envy. I won’t be able to do much explaining, folks, so you’ll just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.”

“Hold on to your hat, Dutch, we’re about to start the best roller-coaster ride in the galaxy!” Cira called out with enthusiasm.

“Gotta go, Dutch, we’re getting busy here,” Danny dismissed, watching viewscreens while his hands flew over the wide array of buttons, knobs and switches.

The live camera feed showed Danny strapped into his seat, looking like a gymnast as his hands played across the controls, while his feet tap-danced across pedals like an organ-meister. A camera, bolted firmly to a deck, won’t show motion as the ship lurches and careens about, because it’s moving with the ship. But the pictures that camera is taking of the human body will. With the torso firmly belted in place, legs, arms and heads will careen wildly about unless strapped down. Danny and Cira had those body parts, and the view looked like a ride on a mad bull.

Side to side, up and down, hard g-pulls sucking their head into their chests, then left-right combinations that made the hairiest roller-coaster look tame in comparison.

The hull plates and bulkheads of The Silver Lady told their tale. Grinding and clanking and clashing, stress groans and clinks, hard sounds, never soft, as the tremendous stresses compressed and stretched the hull and innards of that machine.

She took it all in stride. Danny, like every good pilot, talked to his ship as if she were alive. Don’t ever tell a pilot his ship is just a hunk of metal—you’re liable to get his knuckles in your teeth. Yes, Danny talked to his ship. He caressed her, he swooned her, he swore at her with a vengeance.

“That’s my girl, there’s a good one. Don’t go hitting any stray rocks on me, now. There, there, to the left my sweet, yes, good, got it. Ah, damn it! Right! Hard! NOW! NOW! OWWWWW!” as a chunk of meteorite could be heard clanging against the hull right above the cockpit, ringing it like a tuning fork.

“Report!” barked Danny to Cira.

“Hull intact, no pressure loss. Sensors indicate no penetration, no rupture.” Cira snapped back, fingers flying over keyboards checking sensor readings.

“That’s my girl, keep it up. Here we go again!” and the Lady yanked and banked and spun and turned, first sucking Danny and Cira into their seats, then straining them against their harness as the next pull came from above them.

This went on for hour after hour, left and right and up and down. Gravity pulls and gravity drops, twisting and turning, doing a spacer’s dance among the asteroids.

Cira called out, “Moved up 17 positions overall. Maintaining our present rate should gain us another 15 places by the time we get through.”

Danny looked at her and gave her a wicked grin.

“Oh no, Danny, don’t tell me—“ Cira objected, certain of the outcome already.

“Let’s get some speed out of this baby,” Danny called affectionately, “raise the drive another 3 notches. Let’s give those viewers something worth staring at!”

Danny could be heard yelling “Yee-haw!” over Cira’s “Oh S***!” as Cira’s hands danced over the system controls while displaying her trucker’s vocabulary. The viewers ate it up. Ratings soared. Dutch Madison was thrilled and tried telling Danny the good news. Danny hit the kill switch and the audio input featuring Dutch Madison’s annoying voice went silent.

Our duo danced and weaved and bobbed and ducked through the asteroid belt, while the censors gave up trying to bleep out their colorful metaphors and expletive descriptives. Danny’s favorite maneuver was hitting the kill switch when Dutch was talking to him. Whenever he hit the kill switch, ol’ Dutch would turn red and the viewing audience would go wild. Cartoons of a red-faced Dutch adorned editorial pages and were passed around GalaxyNet at the speed of light itself.

“Now we’re cooking. Keep that guy out of my hair and out of my ears, and we might just get something accomplished in this race!”

Viewers ate THAT up in spades. Ratings soared higher. Dutch Madison was irate at getting cut off, but quickly changed his tune watching the all-important ratings. Quite a chameleon was our Dutch, for no better barometer existed of how the station’s ratings were doing than the colors and expressions on his face. At that moment, Dutch had a smile the size of Jupiter.

Danny danced on the controls, calling out course corrections to Cira, then Cira calling back recommended routes around the asteroids. No bucking bronco enthralled an audience more. Fan e-mail poured in to The WOLF, unbeknownst to Danny and Cira.

Never before was Danny able to cut so close to asteroids without hitting them. He took full advantage, playing like a kid in Macy’s at Christmas time, dancing all over the controls, yelping and hollering and in general enjoying events tremendously.

Fan clubs started popping up all over the galaxy for Cira. Corny songs sprang up on music stations, like, “Let me Cira-nade you,” and “Moonlight Cira-nata.” The WOLF played it up, while Cira did what she did best—concentrated on flying.

Danny and Cira knew none of this. Dutch tried to tell them, but they figured it was just the usual PR that was nothing more than hollow words. On they flew, intent on charging through the competition.

For the morning viewers WOLF engineers devised a special display in the corner of the screen to portray a rolling ship, and coupled with the contortions that Danny or Cira were going through, the sensation of motion was broadcast.

“Up 3,” Danny would shout, or “Left-right, combo twist, then spin 45 and goose it.” Commentators translated what these commands meant, and showed the gyrations of the ship through computer simulation. Cira would call out, “Split the pair on the left. Down 2, then hard right. G-pull on target Gamma, sling-shot Hector with a flip and roll.”

Their commands sounded like a cadence, rapid-fire and intense, but to them it was business as usual. They maneuvered the last tricky sequence through the asteroids, and Danny said, “Whew! That’s it, then. Put her on auto-pilot and let’s eat some grub. We’ll draw straws to figure out who catnaps first.”

Sleeping viewers missed the extremely late night completion of the asteroids. The great editing rooms of WOLF sliced and diced footage of the asteroid run into snippets of excitement for viewers around the cosmos. Short trailers to excite people into watching the news. 45 second teasers, hinting of more to come. Morning videos traversed the cosmos, excerpts from the best maneuvers highlighted the lunchtime SportsBlog. Video highlights closed off with Danny’s now-famous “Let’s eat some grub” comment, a moment of stillness following 90-second blitzes of rapid-fire gyrations. Clothing started selling like hotcakes with the “Let’s Eat Some Grub” logo in red fire emblazoned on them.

With the asteroid run complete, Danny and Cira took a break in their dining room. What it lacked in size it made up for in blandness. Unbeknownst to them, a miniature video camera was hidden away.

“This new control system is first-rate,” Cira effused. “Great response time, wonderful precision. We’re able to make maneuvers we could only dream about before. We’re going to make great time through the Triplet and through the 2nd asteroid field.”

“I haven’t had this much fun since my early days of racing,” Danny smiled. “We had to poke and prod our way around these belts before. Now we can hammer the acceleration and brake like we’re throwing out anchors.”

“And the computing speed! I can give the computer six different courses to analyze and it’ll spit back times and fuel consumption in nothing flat. With a little practice, I’ll be able to pre-program parameters for selection and have it choose a best course.”

“What about the Triplet? How much of that can we automate?” Danny asked.

“A lot more if we did it ahead of time. But I should be able to start setting it up, and then monitor how it works. If we had this system a few weeks ago, we could practically automate the entire easy sections of the Triplet, with recommended courses for the hard parts. Give me a couple of months and we could run this whole race on autopilot.”

“Then what would you need me for?” Danny asked, a big grin on his face.

“Someone’s got to look good on TV,” Cira shot back, smiling, her eyes twinkling in the camera lens.

“TV. Who would’ve figured we’d be broadcast to the whole galaxy?” Danny pondered briefly. He was focused on the race, how much prize money he could collect and what he could do with it.

“Have you heard? According to my netmail, I’ve had 16 marriage proposals. I wonder what they look like?” Cira daydreamed.

“They’re probably either bald and fat or rich and useless. What’s the plan for the next stage?” Back to business for our Danny.

“We’ve got a fuel stop in the next hour. The quicker we stop, the more we accelerate after to a higher speed and make more progress. While you’re fueling, I should be able to get some calculations done and programmed, then after fueling we should be able to autopilot for a bit. We’ve got a few hours until the Triplet when we can swap catnaps. Then we’re into the Triplet until midnight and it’ll be no sleep for both of us.

“After the Triplet, roughly twelve hours of straight running during the night, when we can each sleep, and we’ll be fresh and ready for the last Asteroid belt. Twelve hours of asteroids and it’s midnight again, and we’re ready for the last segment, an 18 hours drag race to the finish line. We can actually do this.” Cira was dead serious in her last statement.

Danny smiled back, “Sounds like a plan. We’ve got a chance to win our class. Maybe even knock off some of the big boys while we’re at it. Let’s get some fuel.” Danny got up and ambled back to the cockpit, slid into his seat and his fingers started flying over the controls. In short order the Silver Lady came in for fuel and Dutch Madison.

“Danny, you’re now shown in 127th place overall, and 30th in Lightweight. What do you think your chances of winning are?” Dutch beamed for the audience, supreme confidence oozing out of every pore. After all, it was Dutch Madison who was responsible for the great success of Darwinius Arbuckle.

“Winning will take care of itself, Dutch,” Danny drawled in reply. “We’re having the time of our lives here. This new control system is working well, the G-drive is doing its part, and The Lady, well, she’s coming through in fine style.” Trying not to sound too confident, he continued, “There’s some good competition ahead of us, tough to beat. We’re doing better than I thought we could, though. This new control system is working out really well.”

“What about your arch-rival, Rex Crocker?” Dutch asked.

A dark cloud passed quickly across Danny’s face. Rex Crocker was the guy who bumped him into a moon on purpose, according to Danny’s calculations.

“Rex Crocker? He’s driving an Unlimited. Not even thinking about them.” A slip in words gave Danny’s true feelings away. A pilot will NEVER refer to flying a spacer as “Driving.” Driving was reserved for taxis on crowded planets, garbage scows and tramp freighters.

“You mean to tell me that you won’t take any delight in beating Rex Crocker? Some say he wrecked you on purpose.” Dutch could smell when he hit a nerve, like a shark sniffing blood.

Danny did his level best to look calm, but the steam was rising and his ears started turning a light shade of pink. “Sure I’d like to beat Rex Crocker. And Davey Wilson. And Trevor Trayne. I’d love to be on the podium in front of all of them. Every racer would. Maybe some day I’ll be racing in that league, but for now, I’m here for the thrill of the ride and looking forward to a top-10 or maybe a top-5 in Lightweights.”

“The word on the street is that you’d bump Rex Crocker into the Black Nebula if he crossed your bow. What do you have to say about that?” Dutch needled.

“Black Nebula. Now there’s a thought.” Danny was recovering fast, and decided to throw a zinger back at Dutch Madison. “Have you ever done footage of the Black Nebula? If you do, let me know. I’ll be sure to point you in the right direction. Maybe even give you a little push, while I’m at it.” Danny’s infamous half-smile played across his face.

The audience ate it up, and Black Nebula t-shirt sales took off like hotcakes.

“Now Danny, we’re all friends here. Just wondered if there was any extra incentive for this race.” Dutch was all nice and smiles. Just look out for the knife in your back.

“Well, as your viewers know, two weeks ago I was a broke racer, trying to repair an over-used G-drive and couldn’t get a free beer on the dark side of Hades. Now I’m a serious racer with a chance of making a decent standing. Why should I be worried about Unlimiteds?”

At that moment, Cira chimed in. “We’re done fueling, Danny. We gotta get moving. Sorry Dutch, but we have a race to run.”

Dutch took his cue in style, and closed off with an address to the viewing audience. “There you have it, race fans. Danny Arbuckle, gentleman and gentleman racer with no axe to grind, he says, against Rex—“

Danny hit the kill switch once again. Enough was enough. After briefly considering hardwiring it so he’d never hear Dutch’s voice again, he realized that the media exposure would help obtain sponsorships he desperately needed.

They blasted off into the black void of space, accelerating flat-out towards the Ardenus Triplet. With the turbo-pump whistling quietly and the low drone of the ship accompanying them, they fixed their sights on the next stage.

The Ardenus Triplet. Three planets. Twenty-two moons. Calculation after calculation. Compute acceleration, deceleration, distances, how much gravity the ship could take, how much gravity the pilots could take. Shaving minutes, seconds, tenths of seconds off of each g-pull and gravity drop.

There were those who trusted entirely on computer calculations to give the best course. There were those who threw the calculations away and went on gut instinct. The gut instinct of some pilots would result in them skipping off of atmospheres or melting the hull from too much friction. The gut instinct of other pilots resulted in crashed ships and shattered dreams.

A few, a very few, could outguess the computer. They used the computer to look at probabilities and possibilities, then added their own flair and touch. You see, atmospheres and gravity are not constant. Some places an atmosphere is thicker and some places it’s thinner. Oceans and mountains affect the gravitation field differently. Few racers considered such things. A select few had the sixth sense for them, and knew how to use them to advantage.

You don’t need to guess what kind of pilot Danny A. was.

The Silver Lady, containing our hero and heroine, rocketed towards 25 orbiting bodies with calculated recklessness. Cira’s hands flew over her console, entering data, refining data, considering options. She called out figures and settings to Danny, who shot back with suggestions and deviations. There had to be a faster route they could take advantage of, pushing the risk factor to the ragged edge.

There was. A longshot at first run-through, discarded as not fast enough, until they re-calculated using a new control response…

A faster route! A risk, but they had an advantage no one else had—one Canada class G-drive in a lightweight ship and state-of-the art controls combined in a way that no one had done before.

A gleam came into Danny’s eye, and that half-smile played across his face.

“He’s CRAZY!” one captain remarked, watching the broadcast. “Big cajones, I’ll say that for him,” remarked another. “If he doesn’t drive that hunk of tin into the 12th moon, he’s got a shot,” commented a third. These comments were aired, and the wagers on crashing tripled.

“Get ready for the first pull,” Danny said, approaching the first moon.

“Systems ready. Target 1 lined up. All systems go,” Cira replied.

“Prepare to engage. Arm manual over-ride to my console.” Danny was strapped in and in the zone.

“Manual over-ride directed to your console. Prepared to engage.” Cira replied.

Danny’s eyes started to twinkle and the half-smile returned, mesmerizing nearly every teen-age girl in the galaxy.

Cira called out, “Target 1 approaching. Program engagement in 20 seconds.”

Danny answered. “Go engagement.”

Cira counted, “…three, two, one, engaged.”

The Silver Lady gave a wisp of a shudder, a few lights blinked on consoles, and the G-drive started to hum at a slightly different pitch as the anti-gravity bounced against the upcoming moon, slowing the ship down right on trajectory.

“Rotate ship 120,” Cira called. Pilots liked to do g-pulls with their heads towards the planet so the centrifugal force pushed them into their seats instead of pulling their heads off.

Aligned, the ship started maximum deceleration, slamming Danny & Cira forward into their harnesses. Danny’s hand quivered over the manual over-ride switch, shaking from the effort required to fight 3Gs of deceleration. Then they were in the “pull,” deceleration dropped, the G-drive refocused away from the moon as they were bending around the orb while their speed threatened to fling them out into space. The result was 2 Gs, 3 Gs, 4 Gs, 5 Gs into their seats, as Danny fought to keep his hand poised for manual over-ride.

They whipped around the moon, bouncing and buffeting in the thin reaches of the moon’s stratosphere. The ship strained and groaned at the forces pulling against her. Cira yelled, “Acceleration in 10. On track.”

No longer poised above his console, Danny’s hand was pinned into the pad placed there for that reason. “Roger 10. Looks good.” He tried to smile, but 5Gs of cheeks and grin were being pulled down to his shoelaces and the effect was slightly macabre. Viewers were mesmerized.

Cira counted down. “..two, one. Accel,” she announced as their facial features began returning to normal. Before they made it all they way, the force of acceleration pulled their features back. Racing was hard on a fellow’s complexion, even harder on a woman’s.

You couldn’t tell they were accelerating if you listened to the G-drive. It whispered away, no apparent change in tone as it de-combined and re-combined matter at a speed approaching light.

Danny and Cira were cemented squarely into the backs of their seats as The Silver Lady rocketed away from target 1 towards target 2. Velocity shot upwards and the acceleration eased off.

“WOO-HOO!” shouted Danny. “That was some kinda g-pull! I have NEVER done a pull like that before. This baby can fly!” Danny’s exuberance was contagious.

“Twenty four more to go!” yelped Cira, laughing with enthusiasm. “We’re going to pass a lot of ships on this stage!”

Two moons passed by in similar fashion, then three. Viewers were able to track the progress of our dynamic duo on screen, with race position mapped and displayed with sector times. The Silver Lady was setting records for every segment and was moving up the charts. Announcers were thrilled. No story plays better in sports than the underdog going after the big boys—and winning.

More moons flashed by, each one accompanied by facial features of Danny and Cira projected across the galaxy, live and in color. Highlight reels were made, skipping the between-moon sections, showing only the deceleration, the g-pulls and the acceleration. 3D animation of their ship in relationship to each moon was quickly programmed, and viewers could watch the live camera feed from the cockpit in one corner of their screen with the animation and statistics in another, and practically feel like they were in the cockpit with them.

Sports bars set up multi-screen displays with entire walls devoted to each feed. One wall was the cockpit shot. Another wall, the realistic animation of the ship as it twisted and turned. Still another showed the position of the relevant ships in the race, along with running statistics of their sector times, acceleration, velocity, position and more.

Through it all, Dutch Madison was in his element. Extolling the virtues of Danny Arbuckle and Cira, the monumental progress they were making in the race. If it had to do with profit, The WOLF was all over it. Dutch and the network were climbing the ratings like a monkey chasing a coconut, an apt description in the minds of many viewers.

Coming out of a g-pull after the 15th moon, hard into acceleration, the G-drive went abruptly silent. Acceleration ceased, releasing our intrepid pair from the death grip of 4Gs pressing them hard into the backs of their seats. Shocked and surprised, Danny cocked his head to one side, mentally probing the engine bay searching for what could have gone wrong. In seconds, the G-drive kicked backed in as if it never stopped and they were slammed unceremoniously into the backs of their seats.

“Tell me,” barked Danny.

“Data streams normal. Engine sensors read everything normal. For 2.7 seconds, everything flat-lined then returned to normal. No gradient shut-down or start-up. It stopped suddenly and restarted just as suddenly.” Cira was rapidly and systematically checking every monitoring system, testing each sensor as well as reviewing the data. “Diagnostics proceeding. Two minutes.”

“Roger.” Despite the acceleration pulling his features into a twisted grin, the concern on his face was obvious to every viewer in the galaxy.

Dutch Madison was all over the story, like a wolf chasing a wounded chicken. “Danny, what happened? Did you have a system malfunction? How does this affect your position in the race?”

“No data yet. Cira’s checking it out. We’ll know in a few minutes.” Danny’s perfunctory response was not because he detested Dutch, which he did, but because his mind was on more important matters, like what really happened to his beloved G-drive?

“First diagnostic done,” sounded Cira. “Doesn’t show a failure. It only monitors readings and doesn’t show the 2.7 seconds of no readings.”

“Roger,” replied Danny.

Cira’s brows furrowed as she reviewed her monitors.

“Second and third diagnostics contradict. One says no failure, the other says complete shut-down. Doesn’t make sense.” Cira’s fingers were drumming on the console, illustrating the intensity of her concentration. It was as if her fingers were running in place to stay ready to fly over the keyboards when the next set of data was needed.

“Second level diagnostics running. Results coming up now.” Cira stared intently at the screen. If she was playing poker, she’d lose. The range of emotions that displayed across her face showed surprise, puzzlement, rejection of data, surprise again, consternation, then complete bafflement.

“This does not make sense,” her bafflement conveying easily to Danny. “I need to check the sensors manually. I could use a hand.”

Danny checked over his readouts. “Can we both we off the bridge at this stage?”

“No problem. We’re on course, on profile. We’re at 2G accel, changing that to 1.3.” Both of their faces relaxed as the acceleration lessened. “We have barely enough time to run local diagnostics, and be back on the bridge before our next target.”

“Right.” Not wasting words, Danny unbuckled and got up out of the chair. Thinking on the fly, he looked into the camera and said, “Get’s exciting sometimes, doesn’t it?” and flashed his famous grin and skeedaddled down the corridor and ladders into the engine bay behind Cira.

Women swooned and commercials spewed out across the galaxy, tying in their products to the new-found marketing star of Darwinius Arbuckle, esquire.

When they got into the engine bay, Cira turned on a rather noisy contraption. Danny raised his eyes in question, and Cira said into his ear. “I don’t trust anyone. They may have microphones in here!”

Danny nodded. “You’re not planning on running manual diagnostics. What did you find?”

“The data doesn’t make sense. In some cases, the data indicates a complete shut-down and complete resumption. Normally in a re-start there is a ramp-up in flows and power, but in this case it goes from 100% to 0 to 100% in literally no time at all.” Cira was laying the facts out in logical sequence. “Even in a flame-out, there is a gradient loss of power, even if that gradient is sudden. But in this case…”

Cira paused for a breath. “In this case it literally is instantaneous. An instantaneous stop, then 2.7 seconds later an instantaneous restart. I would say it’s impossible, except I saw it happen.”

“There’s more, isn’t there?” asked Danny.

“Yes. Some of the diagnostics show the 2.7 seconds of no data. For some systems, the 2.7 seconds didn’t happen. As I said, in a complete shutdown, the sensors still have readings. If you shut down a jet engine, you still have residual gases present, residual pressures, and so forth. If you flew that jet through a vacuum, you wouldn’t suck out every last particle instantaneously. Even with no combustion at that moment, there would be residual sensor readings.

“Every sensor pertaining to the matter/anti-matter combustion in our G-drive registered a reading of ZERO. Fuel delivery systems registered lower flows, but anything to do with the matter/anti-matter system registered ZERO. It’s impossible. But it happened.” Cira’s tone indicated she was trying to sell the idea to herself.

“It’s as if Time itself disappeared in the G-drive for 2.7 seconds. I know that sounds illogical, but that’s the best explanation. We’re de-combining matter, and in the chamber when that is occurring some scientists argue that the laws of matter and energy get suspended. But no one has ever postulated the absence of time. It’s as if the G-drive went into another dimension, 2.7 seconds passed in our dimension, and then the G-drive came back again.” Her logic exhausted, Cira stopped and looked at Danny, waiting for a response.

Danny looked at Cira, opened his mouth to speak, couldn’t figure out what to say, and shut it. Twice more he went through this ritual, only to find a convenient bulkhead and sit down.

“Layman’s terms?” he asked.

“Don’t have any yet. I’m still learning what happened, much less why. It’s almost as if some exterior factor entered in, because it certainly isn’t something internal and it’s something we’ve never encountered before.”

“Sabotage?” asked Danny.

“If it is, it’s a technology no one has heard of before. I can’t imagine anyone sabotaging us before we got the sponsorship, and afterwards the self-diagnostics on the control system and sensors came up empty.” Cira almost had a thought, which Danny picked up on.

“Could the new control systems be a cause of this?” Danny asked the question.

“That’s the one thing that was changed for this race. But the new control system doesn’t control the internals of the G-drive. It gives commands to the G-drive controller and the controller takes over from there. Even if it did, I don’t know of any way to go from full power to zero readings instantaneously, pause for 2.7 seconds, then back to full power without batting an eye. Matter and energy just don’t work that way. I keep thinking there has to be a logical explanation but I can’t figure out what it is,” Cira finished.

“Okay,” Danny decided. “We proceed as normal. Except we enter a margin of safety in case this reoccurs in the middle of a gravity drop. I don’t want to end up as a fireworks display from slamming into an atmosphere too hard. Get a monitoring program up and running ASAP to monitor what’s going on. I’ll take over navigation while you write a program. Not a word. When we’re back in the cockpit, we found a sensor controller malfunction that we changed.”

“Roger. I’ll add a communications scanning program to find out if any other ships have any interesting communications that might relate. I don’t expect anything, but you never know.” Cira had a look of determination in her eye. The possibility of sabotage fired up her resolve.

The race continued. More moons, more gravity drops and pulls, accels and decels, all the while with an eye on the G-drive, looking for any anomalies that might surface.

The Silver Lady ran like a dream. Not a flicker of difficulty arose, not a hint of trouble. Control systems and G-drive performed flawlessly. Diagnostics continued to monitor and continued to show normal operations.

Another fuel stop came after the Triplet was successfully completed. Another interview with Dutch Madison. Another rise in ratings, another bonus for Dutch. Their position in the race had increased again, even with the safety margin. They were now up to 15th in class and 45th overall.

Questions concerning their momentary loss of acceleration were explained away with a loose connection on a probe in the heart of the G-drive, and the tremendous loads that the entire ship went through doing all of the G-pulls and G-drops in rapid succession.

Marriage proposals for both Danny & Cira flooded in, a few from famous celebrities and personalities. All were laughed off with, “Let’s see if they’re interested after a bad race. That’ll take care of 99.9% of them!”

The Silver Lady leapt away from the fuel station towards the staging point for the next stage—a straight run for 8 hours. 6 hours of acceleration, 2 hours of deceleration, then into the last asteroid field.

“All righty, Cira, let’s kick in the afterburners and show these boys something to be afraid of!”

“Aye, aye, Captain! Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Cira laughed, hands dancing over the console as she called up the navigation calculations for the next stage. “Program loaded; executing NOW.” She pushed a button and nothing appeared to happen. No sudden lurch of acceleration, no pinning against the seats.

Navigating an asteroid field, or even dodging the Ardenus Triplet, planetary bodies are in close proximity, which allows the G-drive to repel specific gravity fields. Once in the open expanse of space with no planetary bodies close, the G-drive must “reach” further away to find a gravity field to repel against. Compare pushing a pole out from a small boat, and when you find something hard, you can push against it. While you’re pushing the pole out, nothing happens. Then you find something and brace against it and start pushing. The acceleration starts slowly then starts to build. Now imagine you have a pole of unlimited length, with no limit to how fast you can push the pole.

The G-drive increased its rate of matter/no-matter/matter conversions. The instruments displayed the data showing the rapid rise in anti-gravity being created. The G-drive reached out its anti-gravity, searching for all of the planetary bodies it could find behind it.

The Silver Lady increased speed. Thirty minutes went by, then an hour. The acceleration increased, faster and faster they went. After two hours, the strain started to show on their faces. After three hours, the Gs were becoming a strain. Four, five hours, and the weight pressing against them was becoming extremely uncomfortable. Conversation dropped away, as they focused on holding on. Cira squeaked out, “One hour till decel.”

Danny grunted in reply, his eyes closed from the strain.

Suddenly, they were in free-fall. Distinctly different from decel, when their weight is thrown forward against their harness, then their chairs swivel around so the backs face the direction of deceleration. No, they were in free-fall, suddenly and completely, and the look of shock and surprise on their face was complete.

“WHAT THE …!!” yelled Cira. “It’s happened again! G-drive’s shut down completely. No data stream!” Her hands once again danced over the console, commanding programs to divulge their carefully stored data streams. “Same phenomena. Running diagnostics.”

Danny was silent. There was nothing to be said, and Cira knew what to do.

“Diagnostics mirror earlier anomaly. Same state as before.” Cira was perplexed, and it came across in her voice.

Danny remembered a crucial datum: They were on the air. “I re-connected that wiring harness myself. I KNOW it’s OK.” Bets sprang up across the galaxy, wagering whether or not it was the harness.

“Level 3 diagnostics starting. Levels 1 and 2 provide nothing helpful.” Cira was peering intently at her monitor. “What do we have he—“

At that moment, the G-drive came back on, slamming them into their seats.

Grunting from the sudden strain, Danny uttered, “Find something?”

Cira looked at him with a look that could cut tempered steel, only it wasn’t directed at Danny. “Who sold us those sensors?” she demanded.

“I can’t remember. I pick up spares here and there when I get the chance. Can’t be a common thread there…” Danny mused.

“Who makes them? How long ago were they manufactured?” she insisted, her ire strong enough for even the feeble minded to sense.

“I never checked dates of manufacture,” he replied.

“We’d better check, and we’d better check now. I want to run diagnostics directly on the sensors and see what I find. The spares. Where do you keep those?” Cira dug around in her desk, pulling out a palm-sized diagnostic tool .

“It’s hard to describe. I’ll have to show you,” Danny answered back, keeping his poker face intact.

Because of the increased gravity, they crawled their way out of the cockpit, through the ship, down the ladders and into the engine bay. Out of sight and sound of video cameras and microphones, Cira started showing her excitement.

“What did you find?” asked Danny.

“That’s an odd way to put it,” Cira started. “More like what I didn’t find, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Cira, now level with me. WHAT DID YOU FIND?” Cat naps and heavy gravity weren’t increasing Danny’s sense of humor.

“Something that’s not there.” Matter-of-fact, Cira was. She held up her hand as Danny started to speak. “Hear me out. It’s literally something that’s NOT THERE.”

Before Danny could complain, Cira continued. “The G-drive puts out negative energy. When gravity reaches out and engulfs us, we repel it. We don’t repel it with gravity, as that would only pull us in faster. We repel it with anti-gravity, a term which the engineers hate, or negative gravity, which the physicists hate. But it’s the same thing.”

Danny felt that Cira was on to something. “You’ve spotted something.”

“Yes.” Cira took a breath. “I kept looking at the data and looking at the data, and I kept getting this ‘no data’ answer. I turned it around in my head to look at it backwards, frontwards, sideways. I kept saying to myself, ‘there’s nothing there.’ Then I realized that was the answer. Nothing there is the answer.” She looked very satisfied, expecting Danny to congratulate her remarkable prowess at solving the deepest mystery in the universe.

Danny looked at her, waiting for her to continue. When she kept smiling knowingly at him, he finally asked, “What are you talking about?”

Cira’s face broke into a grin. “When I tell you, you’re going to kick yourself for not figuring it out sooner.” She giggled in excitement. “Nothing there. What is the only thing in this universe that you know of that makes nothing out of something, and then makes something out of nothing?”

“A G-drive,” Danny answered, still not catching on.

“Exactly. When we turn our G-drive on, we point it in a general direction and it fans out and finds whatever gravities are pulling against us and reverses them. Like a magnet that’s pushing against the same polarity. When we go asteroid dodging with this new control system, we can target the gravitational fields of planetary bodies in close proximity.” Cira’s smile widened. “Imagine if we could focus the G-drive into a beam, instead of a fan.”

“All number of possibilities. Depends on the actual mechanics behind it, which we don’t completely understand, especially at the molecular level. We just know it works and the general principles it works on,” Danny answered, running the technology through in his mind. “But what does a beam have to do with—“ and the light started coming on in his eyes.

“You got it, big brother. That beam has anti- or negative all over it, and when that beam passes through our G-drive, our G-drive all of a sudden has a double NOTHING in it, because someone else’s G-drive has sucked the reaction out of ours, for lack of a better term.” Cira folded her arms, case closed.

“Whose—“ Danny started to ask.

“Rex.” Cira answered, knowing Danny’s question.

“SUNUVABITCH!” Danny yelled, punching the nearest bulkhead in defiance, only to lose the engagement. “SUNUVABITCH!” he yelled again, his hand hurting nearly as much as his pride.

“As soon as I twigged on the reason, I ran a diagnostic on ship positions and planetary bodies, and Rex was perfectly positioned with us in his line of fire, so to speak.” Cira was dead certain. “Then I ran back the previous positions, and three ships are possibilities. One of them was Rex’s. Too much coincidence. He’s flaming us out.” Cira became decidedly heated.

Danny’s reply cannot be printed on these pages, for fear the pages would burn to cinders. It took all his will power not to attempt punching holes through another bulkhead with his fists, that and a terrifically sore hand.

“Let’s document and file a protest. The council’s got to accept the facts,” Cira offered.

A deadly gleam came into Danny’s eye. “I have an idea. We’re on galactic television. Why not use it? Is there any way we can reverse the beam or field?”

“I don’t think so. Because we’re directing our anti-grav to the rear of the ship, we can’t instantly flip it around and aim it forward without it being a decel. He can do it to us because we’re in his line of acceleration. But tracking the G-drive beams from another ship, hmmm. How can we sense something happening that doesn’t exist?. Radar wouldn’t do it, infra-red photog wouldn’t do it. Wait, I think I have an idea,” Cira was thinking rapidly.

Danny forgot about his sore hand, until he tried to grab onto a bulkhead to start his climb back up to the cockpit. “Yeoww!” he howled. “Let’s do it. Follow my lead, chip in during our telecast as you see fit. Want it to be natural, not staged.”

They crawled back to the cockpit and strapped themselves in. The appointed hour of deceleration arrived, the computer automatically redirected the G-drive, their chairs swiveled to the new gravity direction, and they settled in for two hours of decel.

They caught an hour-plus of shut-eye, waking in time to review and approve the computer programs that would navigate them through the last asteroid field. Armed with the knowledge of what was causing their shut-down problems, their confidence returned and they removed the safety margin they programmed in.

Audiences were thrilled at the daring exploits of our intrepid racers as they pulled maneuver after maneuver in the asteroid field, dodging faster than a belly dancer’s waist. They dipped, they dropped, they jigged, they jagged.

Cira kept careful watch on the position of Rex’s ship, making certain never to be in his “tail.” The strategy required a more circuitous route than they preferred, which raised a few eyebrows on competitors and analysts who wondered why they didn’t take a more direct route.

They made up the time with speed. Danny never enjoyed a race more, because he was getting every molecule of speed out of The Silver Lady, doing maneuvers he had previously only dreamed about.

Dutch Madison was in his prime, regaling viewers with running commentary from the “first live footage broadcast from the command center of a real race ship.” Listening to him you would think that The Wolf owned the ship, hiring Danny to pilot it and Cira to navigate, but for all that he managed to heap praise on the two.

Souvenir sales were rocketing, pun absolutely intended. Shirts, hats, videos, kids’ underwear, sneakers, lunchboxes, action figures, you name it, it sold. A marketing frenzy took hold, all based on the excitement generated by their adventure.

More gravity pulls and drops, spins and rotations, zigs and zags had race commentators marveling at what they were doing. “I’ve never seen maneuvers like Danny’s doing in my life,” commented Razo Thertis, four-time series champion and considered to be the best of all time. “The Canada-class drive is giving him a lot of power, but nobody’s ever combined a high-tech control system with that drive before. I’m sure others are going to copy that in the future. They’re doing maneuvers I only dreamed about. They are literally flying the rivets off of that ship.”

When told of Razo’s praise, Danny’s only comment was, “Thank him for the kind words, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t finish. Ask me about it tomorrow.”

Dutch tried to squeeze in an interview, only to be told, “Sorry, Dutch. Kinda busy right now. I’ll give you a good interview after we clear the asteroids and we’re accelerating down the home stretch.” He hit the kill switch to cut the incoming feed.

Cira and Danny worked together as a well-oiled team. Barking commands back and forth, Cira directing the G-drive and Danny steering by manipulating side and rotational thrusters. Cira’s hands were flying over the console, evoking images of a concert pianist. Danny’s movements were interspersed with a sporadic cuss word as his sore hand complained about being pushed too hard.

“How’d they do that?” quizzed Razo, as The Silver Lady literally jumped sideways to dodge an asteroid fragment cutting across her path.

Danny’s comment to the same maneuver was, “Yes,” with great satisfaction, while Cira’s only comment was, “Wow.”

Viewers were enthralled at the speeds they were doing, flying by, over and around asteroids. They would fly seemingly into a complete wall of rocks, only to zig and zag through the obstructions. Sports shows had great compilations of footage, which were run over and over, and viewers clamored for more. Internet sites were deluged with requests, causing massive overloads and fast scrambling to bring more servers on-line to handle the demand.

The media frenzy was reaching a crescendo. Network rescheduling was bringing the final hours of the race live, in response to the massive interest.

Their position in class improved remarkably, even with the added distance to avoid Rex Crocker’s ship. By the end of the asteroids they were 5th in class and 20th overall.

“Danny, you’re making fantastic progress!” gushed Dutch, anxious to get an interview a few hours before their live telecast was to begin.

Danny smiled his famous smile. “The ship’s running great, Dutch. The new control systems are working perfectly and with the power we’ve got, we’re really looking forward to this next section.”

“What’s your prediction for how you’ll do in this last segment?” Dutch asked, giving Danny the perfect lead for what he wanted to say.

“If we can stay away from trouble, we’ve got a realistic shot at winning our class and finishing in the top ten,” Danny answered.

“What’s the trouble you have to stay away from?” Dutch asked, as trouble was the name of his game. Can’t have news without controversy, he always said to his bosses.

“We had a couple of problems in previous stages, where our G-drive completely shut down for a handful of seconds,” Danny answered, starting to present his case in the media, an important ingredient to win a complaint with the racing federation.

“After running complete diagnostics, Cira’s come up with a theory,” Danny continued. “After reviewing her data, I think she’s on to something.”

“What’s that?” inquired Dutch, not realizing he was being manipulated by Darwinius Arbuckle, esquire.

“It looks like we’re getting in the way of someone’s G-drive. Cira has theorized that when a G-drive locks onto something to propel away from, there’s a negative energy beam created, and when we crossed someone’s beam, our G-drive stalled. When we completely passed through, it started back up again,” Danny made his case.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing, Danny! What is this negative beam you’re talking about? Are you sure you’re not coming up with some wild story to cover a mechanical failure? Didn’t you say that you had some bad sensors?” Dutch went for the jugular, even though he was interviewing someone whose side he was supposed to be on.

Danny was prepared for that. “We checked and re-checked the sensors, Dutch. Not a thing wrong. In fact, they were working perfectly, only we didn’t realize it. When Cira assumed they were working properly and re-looked at all the data, she got an idea of what was going on. Further tests confirmed it.”

“I’m speechless, Danny. I thought I was going to interview you about your chances for this next segment, and you drop this bomb on me. I don’t know what to say.” Dutch looked very un-Dutch-like at the moment, looking almost, well, human.

“We can upload our data streams for your experts to take a look at. Let them twoodle it around and run it through their computers. Let the engineers and physicists argue the pros and cons and give your viewers—and me—the technical dope.” Danny rested his case.

“That’s quite a story, Danny,” Dutch was recovering, because his most prized statistic, ratings, was spiking upwards again after Danny’s pronunciation. “Two questions: 1) why are you the only one to suffer this shut-down, and 2) what do you think your chances are for the rest of the race?”

“To answer the easy question first, I think our chances are very good. But we still have to run the race,” Danny answered diplomatically. “Regarding your first question, I don’t know that we’re the only ship. There may be factors with our Canada-class drives that make them uniquely susceptible. And there may be other factors we don’t yet know about”

“Danny, has it occurred to you that this might come across as sour grapes for a mechanical failure?” Dutch drove straight for the heart once again.

“That is a possibility. On the other hand, it could be a ploy on my part to boost ratings for your station.” Danny gave his devil-may-care grin, totally diffusing both ideas.

Dutch rambled on until Danny signed off, citing the ever-increasing G’s pulling on them from the constant acceleration.

Danny and Cira were prepared for the drag race to the finish. Their computer systems were set, including monitoring for the G-drive stalling again. Automatic positioning programs were running to monitor the position of every ship ahead of them, particularly the ship of Rex Crocker.

They climbed up the leader board, taking over second in class, then first. Unlike previous straight segments, decel didn’t start until after the finish line, with ships flashing by at maximum speed at the end of the race. They gained on the unlimited ships, slowly approaching the two lead packs.

After two hours, with systems running clean and true, Cira called out, “Hull monitors showing anomalies. Possible stalling condition.”

Danny grunted in reply.

The Silver Lady continued on, uninterrupted.

“Hull monitor anomalies reducing. No further data or explanation.” Cira called out.

Danny grunted again in reply. They had both learned, a long time ago, to keep conversation to a minimum during accel. The amount of effort required to speak took a lot of precious energy.

Three hours of accel, no change. The Silver Lady was running perfectly.

Four hours. The G loads were putting a strain on the crew, as acceleration continued to increase.

Five hours. The Silver Lady continued to run clean and true.

Five hours and seventeen minutes into the run, Cira called out quietly, with much effort, “Hull anomalies. Hold tight.”

Five minutes later, Cira continued. “Hull anomalies normal.”

The suspense thickened as the clock ticked by.

Five hours and thirty two minutes into the run, Cira called out, “Hull anomalies. Small.”

Two minutes later, she called again. “Anomalies increasing. Hold tight.”

A scant thirty seconds after that, she called out again. “Anomalies spiking. Hang—“ before she could complete the sentence, they were slammed into their harnesses as the G-drive cut out.

“Computing vectors!” Cira called out, forgetting they were being broadcast throughout the civilized world, and parts of the uncivilized as well.

“Vector analysis complete. Three possibles. 98% probability Rex Crocker. Less than 40% probability the other two.” Cira yelled, excitement and anger intermingled.

“Transmit data stream to Dutch. Let their techs review and analyze the data,” Danny fired back, starting to hum an indecipherable tune. He was fighting mad, our Danny, but that anger was morphing into a competitor’s fighting spirit now that the enemy was identified.

“How can we shake the lock of the anti-gravity on our G-drive?” Danny asked. “No reason to sit here like a dead rabbit.” In a flash, “dead rabbit” became the new slang. T-shirts sales soared, with “Don’t Sit There Like a Dead Rabbit,” “You’re Dead Now, Rabbit,” “If You Sit There, You’re Dead, Rabbit,” leading the way.

“Without the G-drive we can’t accel or decel,” Cira answered. “Wait—“ she started to reply.

“Use the thrusters!” they both shouted in unison.

Danny’s hands grabbed the thruster joystick as he yelled, “Coordinate forward and reverse thrusters to fire in tandem, instead of firing to turn the ship!”

Cira’s hands danced over the engineering console. “Front and rear main thrusters now in tandem. Can’t give you secondary thrusters—we never programmed the controls to do that.”

“Primaries are fine!” fired back Danny, his hand already deflecting the joystick to maximum, his body yanked sideways as the thrusters pushed the ship sideways.

No change in the G-drive. Danny called out, “Negative response from the G-drive. Ideas?”

“Hull sensors are changing. Some up, some down. No idea what it means. Try firing the rear secondaries and kick the back end around,” Cira called back.

Danny’s left hand punched a couple of buttons, with a telltale jerk of his body as the rear secondaries fired.

“Hull sensors reducing. Looks like that’s work—“ Cira started to say, as the G-drive slammed back in and they went back to full acceleration.

“Suggest using thrusters at random,” Cira slowly said.

“Reason?” Danny mumbled loudly.

“Like dodging enemy fire. Change position, harder to hit a moving target.” Cira managed.

“Copy that,” Danny answered, keeping his right hand on the thruster joystick. He wanted to say more, but conversation was difficult.

Dutch Madison’s voice boomed over the intercom. “Danny! Cira! This is incredible! You’re practically leading the race and you’ve got evidence of interference from another competitor that’s never been known before! The analysts are reviewing your data stream and concurring with your ideas. Any comments?”

“What’s our position?” Danny forced.

“Your position? You mean you don’t know?” Dutch was incredulous.

Danny didn’t answer, figuring it should be obvious.

After a pregnant pause, the kiss of death for any newscaster—forgive me, I use the term too loosely in Dutch’s case—any on-air personality, Dutch continued. “You’re first in class and out-accelerating everything in the fleet. Or were before you went into hibernation.” Just like that, “hibernation” became the buzz word for recalcitrant engines and employees taking too many breaks.

Danny’s face broke into a grimace. He was aiming for a smile, but the acceleration made it a little skewed. “First in class. How ‘bout that?!” he asked no one in particular.

“You did it, Danny!” Cira called out softly, her voice cracking with the strain.

“Almost,” Danny corrected. “Fat lady ain’t singin’ yet. Three hours to go. Gotta keep it together.”

Cira smiled in response, her eyes sweeping her monitors, checking gauges and sensor readings.

Dutch jumped in before another pregnant pause reared its ugly head. “Absolutely fabulous, Danny! Absolutely fabulous! The calls are pouring in with congratulations. Plus we’ve got race control inquiring about the hibernation data. Seems THEY’VE been getting swamped with calls about Rex Crocker!”

“That’s nice, Dutch,” Danny drawled.

“Any comments for our viewers, Danny?” Dutch asked, trying to draw the moment out.

“Too damn hard to talk with heavy accel. Talk after the race.” Danny hit the mute button, cutting out Dutch’s annoying effervescence.

The Silver Lady completed the race without incident, as The Wolf compiled, edited and broadcast race highlights throughout the galaxy. The running commentary marked their progress in passing Unlimited ships and included extrapolations on the possibility of winning outright,. Every time they passed an Unlimited, the broadcaster cut in with a “special announcement.”

The last two hours of the race were telecast live. The highlight reels were resplendent with their runs through the asteroids and moons, the episodes of hibernation, with one corner of the screen live, showing them suffering through accel.

With 30 minutes to go, Danny permitted himself to think about winning. Cira saw the smile and softly said, “We did it, Danny!”

Danny’s smile was infectious. He scanned his monitors and patted the console affectionately. “That’s my girl,” he whispered.

The broadcast caught it, enhanced it and re-broadcast it around the galaxy. It became another best-selling T-shirt.

15 minutes from the finish line, Cira set up a huge digital clock on their monitors with the countdown.

When they crossed the finish line, they tried to cheer, but the g-forces made it too hard. The cut the g-drive and went into free-fall, unstrapped, and yelled like kids as they swam around the cockpit, doing aerial somersaults and spins.

Dutch tried to cut in, but they outdid Dutch in volume and enthusiasm for nearly an hour.

Their celebration complete, they turned the G-drive back on to decel gradually and turned to race central for the festivities.

Twelve hours later they were docked, and opened the hatch to a huge throng of spectators who broke through the barricades and swarmed around the ship. Danny and Cira looked at each other in surprise at the welcome.

The inimitable Dutch Madison was not to be outdone. He floated in on a hover pad, with cameraman and microphone ready. “Danny! Cira! You’re heroes!” came bellowing out of loudspeakers conveniently set up for the crowd to hear. Not that Dutch had anything to do with the crowd breaking through the barricades, mind you.

Danny and Cira smiled in shock. They couldn’t believe the reception they were experiencing. They kept looking around at the throng of people, amazed at the boisterous cheers aimed in their direction.

Dutch landed and stepped off the hover pad onto the landing platform, the cameraman positioning himself for the best possible angles of Dutch with the crowd in the background.

“Danny, you have done the impossible! You went from nearly last in class to first, and not only that, you’ve finished an amazing 5th overall, the highest finish for a Lightweight in the history of The Race!” Dutch was magnanimous, knowing that all eyes in the galaxy were trained on his every word. “Any words for our audience?” he added, trying to prompt the star-struck pilot into saying anything.

“Fifth? We finished FIFTH overall? Wow? I knew we were doing well, but that last stint was really hard. With the long period of acceleration we just did everything we could to hold on,” Danny mumbled, still awed.

“You didn’t KNOW you were first in class crossing the finish line?” Dutch was using every trick in the book to keep Danny’s hero image going, including hinting that Danny was too modest to take credit for himself.

“We knew we were first, and damned happy about it. We didn’t know we finished 5th overall. Heck, we were just having a great time. Except for when the G-drive cut out.” Danny answered.

“Speaking of G-drives cutting out, have you heard that Rex Crocker is being investigated by the race stewards based on the data our technicians analyzed?” Dutch figured he could get a rise out of Danny on that one, and he was right.

“Rex Crocker!” Danny answered, “Can’t say I’m not happy he’s getting investigated. That SOB knocked me out of a race, and I haven’t forgiven him for it yet.”

“Don’t forget that it was MY data analysis that unearthed this new phenomenon,” Cira chipped in. “I gave you all the data you needed to—“

“True, true,” Dutch hastily cut in. “A fine analysis it was, proven out by the thorough research performed by our technical experts.”

“Oh, hogwash,” Cira replied. The entire crowd cheered, but somehow her comment was never broadcast over the network. Imagine that.

“Hey, Dutch!” Danny called out, “Can you believe this crowd? I can’t believe all these people are here to cheer for us!”

Danny pointed towards the crowd, and stood next to Dutch. Cira saw the devil in Danny’s eye and smiled broadly. Dutch looked out over the crowd of cheering people, soaking in the admiration directed at the lanky pilot standing next to him as if it was his own.

“It is a wonderful thing, Danny, a wonderful thing. Just look at all these people cheering your victory. You’re a hero, Danny boy, a hero! Imagine the marketing possibilities—“

Before Dutch could finish, Danny picked him up and threw him into the crowd.

The crowd promptly caught Dutch, spun him onto his back, and passed him over head to the entrance gate, where they kept passing him until he fell to the ground.

The crowd cheered even more.

“I’ve wanted to do that for a long time,” Danny said satisfactorily. Which WAS broadcast around the galaxy, and became another best selling T-shirt..

“What do we do next?” asked Cira.

“Geez, I haven’t thought that far ahead,” Danny answered.

“Well, there is a race in two months that goes through the Nebulon system…”

 

©2007 Curt Larson

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