Short Story – The Race
This week, I started with the idea of writing about a race. I didn’t know what kind of race it was. I just used the concept of racing as the seed.
I’ve been doing some public readings as a part of the Not So Silent Planet series in the Twin Cities and because that is a speculative fiction series, my thoughts have gravitated towards that genre. So the race became one taking place in space.
Several of my recent stories have trended pretty dark. This one actually bucks that trend.
As always, read, comment, share. These stories may be at mostly an exercise for me but it’s still nice to hear what people think – good or bad.
Zach applied a little extra pressure to the accelerator. Day one hundred and seventy-four of the race was almost over and he hadn’t won a leg since Day forty-eight. He wanted this one. Beth’s response was almost immediate. Her voice crackled through the magnetic interference.
“Zach, what are you doing?”
Beth was his controller. It was her job to make sure he didn’t make dumb mistakes. Like the one he was about to make.
“Just a few hundred miles to the checkpoint, Beth! I can make it!”
“Zach,” Beth said calmly, “You can’t make it if you spend too much fuel by going too fast.”
“I’m sick of coming in second.”
“So you’d prefer to come in last because you don’t reach the checkpoint?”
Zach sighed and eased up his speed a little bit.
“There you go. You have a five click lead on Jasmine and her fuel status is as bad as yours. She can’t catch up.”
Beth’s job was to keep her head while Zach was losing his. She did it maddeningly well.
“OK. But I can make up some time if I stretch my lead a little bit.”
“We have over half of this race to go, Zach. You know she has trouble around the Jupiter gravity well.”
“Everyone has trouble around the Jupiter gravity well.”
“Except you. You can surf that turbulence like nobody else in this race. Just take it easy and bide your time. She’s only ahead by six hours. That’s nothing.”
Beth was being generous. In a race where the difference between first and last place was often measured in seconds, six hours was a lot of time. The Jupiter gravity well was the equalizer.
Because of the speeds involved and the way the gravity well created a time distortion, a distance that might only be worth a few seconds on a standard leg was instead worth a few hours. If Zach could keep Jasmine from extending her lead too much, he could get all of it back during the week they would be racing in the well.
“On your left!”
Jasmine’s voice came through on the intra-driver comm. Zach looked out his view port just in time to see her custom Mercedes IV Planet Skipper speed by and cross the finish line a few seconds before him.
“What the hell? Beth! You said she was five clicks back!”
Jasmine’s laughter rang through the cockpit. “Sorry to disappoint, rookie!”
“Why are you always calling me a rookie?” He asked, “I’ve run this race five times!”
“And I’ve run it – and won it – seven. Rookie.”
She wasn’t that bad when she was off the race course, Zach reminded himself. But god was she a pain in the ass on the grid. She could get inside a racer’s head better than anyone he’d ever met.
“Beth – you’ve got to tell me how she did that!”
“I don’t know yet Zach. According to my readouts, she was well behind you and then…”
“Then she wasn’t.”
Zach flew to his assigned docking port at the checkpoint. Second place stall. Again.
Beth was there to meet him. Right next to his ship, Jasmine was docked in the leader’s port. On the platform, she was sharing a glass of champagne with her controller, Natalie.
“Beth! Zach! Come on over! Do you want a drink?”
She was always like this. As soon as she wasn’t behind the controls of a racer, she was everyone’s best friend. He had no idea which Jasmine was the real one. He just knew they both drove him crazy.
“No thanks, Jasmine. I’ve got to get some work done.”
“Too bad. I’m hosting a party later on. You really need to stop working so hard and join us. All the other racers will be there!”
“None of the other racers have a chance of catching you.”
Jasmine laughed. She was just as cheerful when she was ahead as she was when she was behind. When she was behind it was refreshing. Even inspirational. When she was ahead, it was annoying.
“Beth, I want you to have the extra fuel cell added for tomorrow’s leg. And give me three charges of Hodrox Lithite. I’ll bet that’s how Jasmine beat me today.”
“A Lithite boost? That shouldn’t have worked. She was too far behind.”
“Not if she used two.”
“That would mean she’s used her last two. She’s usually not so careless.”
“I know. We need to press that advantage.”
“Are you sure you want the extra cell? You’ll lose speed.”
“If I’d had enough fuel to push the last click today, she couldn’t have caught me.”
“I don’t think you should install three boosts. You know you have a limit of ten over the next seventeen legs.”
“I’ve got to make up some time before the gravity well. Better to have too many than too few.”
He took off his racing coveralls and threw them into the cockpit.
“I’m going to go to Jasmine’s party tonight. It’d look bad if I didn’t.”
Beth knew he wouldn’t go to the party. He’d go to the bar and drink until someone had to carry him to his room. He hated losing.
She didn’t go to the party either. She spent the next several hours making sure the ship was cleaned and tuned, installing the new fuel cell, a single boost (she’d apologize later), and taking care of a few other important adjustments. She left only once, when the bar called her and asked her to carry Zach to his room.
Walking into her room after finishing her work, she unzipped her coveralls and stepped into the shower. Black rivers of grease flowed into the drain until she finally felt clean again. She loved her job but the trans solar five hundred was as hard on her as it was on her driver. And she didn’t spend her nights drinking.
Five hundred legs over two years. One day off a week and two seven-day breaks. That was hard on anyone. Except Jasmine. She seemed to thrive on it.
After thirty relaxing minutes, she stepped out of the shower and reached for a towel, failing to notice a figure in her doorway.
“Well this is awkward,” a familiar voice said quietly.
Beth didn’t try to cover herself or even turn to face her visitor.
Jasmine reached out and ran her hand down Beth’s back.
“You wouldn’t want Zach to walk in her and catch us like this, would you?”
“He’s sleeping off another loss. And he doesn’t have a key to my room.”
“And yet I do. Why is that?”
Beth turned and kissed Jasmine with some urgency. They hadn’t been able to spend time together for nearly a month.
It was tricky. They needed to wait for the remote stops where there wasn’t any press and security was limited. The race was one of the biggest sports events in the quadrant and there was rarely a time when nobody was watching.
No longer concerned with drying herself, Beth hurried to remove Jasmine’s clothes because she time was not their friend.
Later, a bit winded, Jasmine lay with her head on Beth’s breast.
“You nearly got me today, lover.”
Beth smiled “I made you burn your last two boosts, didn’t I?”
Jasmine laughed. It was a joyful laugh that reminded Beth what had kept her from resisting that first night. Jasmine loved life. And she loved racing. Winning was great. But as long as she was racing, she was happy.
“That you did.”
“You would have been better off saving them.”
“Maybe. I know how much time the two of you are likely to pick up in the Jupiter gravity well. I need as much padding as I can get.”
“I’m going to beat you this time.”
“You aren’t the one doing the flying.”
“You know that doesn’t matter. Zach would have lost this race ten times over without my help.”
“It’s true. Zach made a great choice when he fired Tristan and hired you. I’ve never been tested the way you two are testing me this year. And I have to tell you that I’m going to try to win just as hard as I always have. But I hope you beat me.”
Jasmine lifted her head and gently kissed Beth one more time.
“Because if you beat me, none of this has to be a secret any longer. I have to go.”
Beth watched Jasmine dress and slip out the door past the security cameras she had disabled hours earlier.
Before the next leg began, Beth handed Zach a med pill to deal with the monstrous hangover he was enjoying as a result of his ill-advised drinking.
“You have to stop me from doing that next time,” he groaned.”
“You told me that last time.”
“Well why didn’t you stop me this time?”
“Would you have preferred I tune up the ship or stop you from getting drunk?”
“Zach,” Jasmine called brightly from the lead platform, “good to see you! Are you ready for to lose another leg today?”
“Not today, Jasmine. I’m going to beat you today.”
“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens, won’t we?”
Jasmine smiled at Zach. Or at least he thought she was smiling at him. “If you win this race, no one will be happier for you than me!”