Star Trek Universal - The Racer by J. Grey and R. Cane, copyright held by A.P. Atkinson
|The untold tales from around the Federation|
He balled his fists and ran the tips of his fingers over the palms of his hand and it told him exactly what he already knew. They were wet, clammy and hot, just like his forehead. His back was cold and damp, the fabric of his shirt clung to him uncomfortably making him shift around in the chair looking even more suspicious and knowing that made him even more nervous than before. The truth was, he was nervous already enough, in fact he'd never been this scared Even as he'd stood by and watched while everything he'd feared most had come to pass right in front of him he'd still not been this afraid. That had all happened with a strangely meek kind of acceptance after the initial horror had worn off. He'd experienced a kind of disbelief, a disconnection like it wasn't really happening, after all, how could it? How could this happen to him, how could such a grim reality penetrate into such a benign life?
But this was happening. It was happening right now and it was happening all around him. He'd walked knowingly into their presence, like a fly taunting a Ducturion insect-flower, a monstrous, glowing funnel of pink death for anything unlucky or unwary enough to fly near it. He'd seen a holographic video of one in school, many years ago but the image had stayed with him and now he felt like he was there, living the life of a hapless insect, attracted to the irresistible allure of the flower's potent pheromones. He was the one unlucky and unwary enough to fly near it, the trap, the irresistible draw he had no choice but to follow.
Cory Baker glanced as nonchalantly as he could to his left, running his fingers casually through his mop of uneven blond hair and he let out a relaxed sigh. His acting would earn him no awards if they had caught sight of him but as he pretended unconvincingly to be looking at nothing in particular he saw the two of them down the hall.
The hall was grey and beige, decorated with just enough flair to make it appear starkly featureless or at least remote from any Human aesthetic. The designers seemed to be toying with the people who would have to wait here for hour after excruciating hour, taunting them with the banality of it all. There was nothing to see, featureless bland walls stretched along being nothing but functional and a sterile smell hung in the air, not fresh but not stale either, like some kind of cleaning agent that had a scent like someone nearby had just begun chewing some gum and the scent just lingered on the air like a ghost. The building itself was large and old and had been used for many things before the life it now lead. He stared for just a moment too long and caught himself with a silent rebuke in the hope that his gaze had gone unnoticed. Down the hall the two of them chatted with light humour and he sighed softly to himself that they hadn't appeared to notice him this time. They would. It was now only a question of time before the inevitability caught up and then his journey would come to an end, his future, his past, all of it would come crashing down around him and it all would finally mean nothing.
He gritted his teeth and sucked in a lungful of air through them and mentally stole himself with a forced optimism he really didn't experience emotionally. He would make this. He would get this done and get out before they found him. They might not know his face, they might not begin looking until he was scanned and then it was a matter of time and whether or not he had enough of it to get away. He had to try. He was here to try.
"Cory Baker." The woman called from behind the desk. At first the name didn't register and then dimly he became aware that the name was his own and his body involuntarily began to rise from the seat. He raised his arm to the height of his shoulder meekly and smiled a haphazard sort of nervous grin while he waved stupidly. She ushered him over impatiently. His feet clattered on the ceramic floor and his footsteps echoed around the chamber, every sound sending a fresh pang of nerves up and down his spine. As he walked over he cast a glance down the hall. They were still chatting, they still hadn't noticed him. "I'm Cory Baker." He offered weakly as he reached the desk, it was high enough to come level with his chest and he reached out and leant on it casually, glancing back over his shoulder once more as fresh sweat prickled uncomfortably on his brow.
"How can we help you today, Mr. Baker?" She said mechanically, the drone of someone with no interest in what they were doing. "I need a visa." He shrugged, equally mechanically. "A UFP wide-travel visa."
"I see." She began pressing buttons on her console and purposefully didn't make eye contact or show any signs of intending to. "Am I in the right place?" He asked after too long a silence passed between them.
"Yes." She nodded and blinked with some exaggeration. "You've never left your system before?" She asked with a wry smile. He noticed the colour of her skin, lighter than his by a wide margin and her eyes were a strange shade of green. He wasn't sure what it meant in the wider scheme of things but it probably meant she wasn't Human, as he was but out here in the colonised region she might easily belong more than he did.
"I haven't." He admitted solemnly.
"It's strange how many people in the United Federation of Planets never do." She began conversationally with a sarcastic hint of condescension that she seemed to hope he'd pick up on. "Did you know that 95% of the galactic population live and die in their home country, not just home planet but the country they were born on and never live anywhere else?"
He shook his head and flashed her a raised eyebrow gesture that lived somewhere between not knowing and not knowing because he didn't care but she continued talking anyway. "We have Star Fleet ships buzzing around everywhere, the Merchant Fleet and private traders and that's just the space dwellers." She told him as he grew increasingly defensive. "Then there's the people that work away from home or just travel for fun. That still leaves 95% of people at home watching holovids and finding something to do in their own local neighbourhood. It's sad really."
"Well I'm leaving now." He smiled thinly and shot a subtle glance to his rear, feeling like somehow her story was aimed squarely at him. "How long does this take?"
"Longer than on Earth but it's still just a formality." She told him wearily as if the job bored her and always had. "I just need a few details and that's all."
"Really?" He grinned enthusiastically. "And then it's done?"
"Yeah." She nodded, turning at last from the monitor to face him. "And then you can come back tomorrow and collect your visa."
"Tomorrow?" He seemed to visibly collapse in front of her at the news. "I need it today. I'm leaving."
"Most people come back the next day." She told him without sounding as if she cared one way or another. "Some people wait but those people tend to wait rather a long time."
"I'll wait!" He said confidently. Her expression betrayed nothing and the seconds ticked past while his initial confidence began to evaporate inside him. "How long is a long time?" He grumbled weakly.
"My guess..," she began thoughtfully, "around 5 hours, maybe more." He closed his eyes and sighed wearily. "I'll wait!" He said again but this time with far less confidence.
She shrugged her reply and carried on typing something unknown into her console. He glanced around. They weren't chatting anymore. Now one of them was reviewing data on a Padd and the other was looking around in the opposite direction. While it was a relief they weren't facing him he knew it meant they were looking for him and the dread tied a fresh knot in his stomach.
"What's your reason for travelling?" She asked, her piercing voice shaking his troubling thoughts and bringing him back to the sterile, bland visa-office full of dejected travellers. "I want to travel." He smiled weakly. "I guess I don't want to be one of your 95%."
"Good for you." She said without a shred of sincerity. "Did you ever think about joining Star Fleet?"
"No." He looked back to the two Star Fleet officers who were chatting again but this time it was more serious. This time it was work. "No, I never did." He said earnestly. "I really don't think they'd have me."
Waiting was hard for Cory. He had little in the way of patience in any case, far less when time and the odds were so stacked against him. Every second that past was like a dagger pressed into the nerves in his spine. He was booked on a transport that was due to leave the next morning and worse, Star Fleet security were here in the visa office, hunting him, closing their net around him while he waited for the mindless beurocracy to run its ploddingly slow course. He took out his Padd and flicked through it mindlessly. He had sat for half an hour already taking in every detail of the waiting-room which had few details to examine in any case. Four other people were sitting on the soft, ergonomic and yet strangely uncomfortable chairs waiting for their turn to be disappointed by the draconian system, others walked in and out regularly. Irman 4 was an Earth colony, fully integrated into the United Federation of Planets and was subject to their rules and regulations but out here the regulations were subject to some slight interpretation. The systems were slower on the fringe of Federation space than they were in the heart. It wasn't just that the requirements of security were higher, it was just that this wasn't Earth. Earth had higher standards of conduct and efficiency. He had read through the databases that applying for a travel visa at the heart of the Federation was a matter of several minutes and could even be done electronically, it was a friendly thing, a simple check to ensure a measure of security and to maintain accurate records. Here it was not.
He glanced around again, the two Star Fleet officers had vanished. He found the thought strangely chilling. While he could see them he knew he was basically safe. He could run, he could hide if he saw them turn against him. Now they could be anywhere doing anything, watching on monitors, checking his records or opening weapons cabinets and arming themselves against him. With a weary sigh he returned his attention to the Padd and flicked open the diary entries. A wistful smile flicked over his lips for an instant as he remembered the chain of events that lead him here and it vanished suddenly as the events played out in his memory. It had all started so innocently 3 weeks before...
Cory Baker glowered angrily at the display monitor set into the far wall as the red lights flashed and the siren wailed softly through his room. He groaned as though it was the monitor's own fault that it was time to get up even though he had set the morning alarm himself. He dragged himself wearily out of bed and perched himself on the edge, running his fingers through his untidy mop of blonde hair which more or less always looked like the same as when he first left the bed, even after the most stringent maintenance.
"Morning." His mum grumbled at him as he stepped into the kitchen where his brother was already working his way through a mountainous breakfast as if it were nothing at all. "What are you doing today?"
"I just got up, Mum." He grunted weakly, flopping down in his usual chair at the table. "Leave the kid alone!" Paul Baker told her with a cheery smile while he continued shovelling food into his busy mouth. "He's a good kid really." He shot him a friendly grin and a knowing wink. "Mostly..."
"He's a lazy little..." She stopped herself from carrying on and he grimaced at the prospect of yet another verbal assault before breakfast. "Mum!" Paul said firmly as his brother hung his head apathetically. "He just hasn't found his thing yet." He began supportively. "He's going to do just fine when he figures out what he wants."
She wiped a mop of brown hair from her face as she breathed upwards on it, blowing her fine, wispy hair from in front of her eyes. She brought a tray over from the replicator and gave her youngest son an acidic glance. "You promised you'd take the rubbish down to the reclaimer yesterday." She scolded him as he looked away solemnly. "It's at the end of the garden." She reminded him sarcastically. "All you had to do is drop three bags of waste into it and walk back to the house. That was all you had to do."
"I'm sorry." He muttered. "I guess I forgot."
"You forgot..." She served him a plate of pancakes and stood back; her hands crossed over her chest and fixed him with an admonishing gaze. "Since you dropped out of college all you do is mope around the house."
"I'll get a job." He shrugged apathetically.
"I don't want you to get a job!" She snapped at him with sudden anger. "I want you to figure out what it is you want to do with your life and get on with doing it."
"Your mum worries." Paul added, helping himself to the top couple of pancakes on his brother's plate and stuffing them in his mouth. "She just wants what's best."
"I know." He frowned and folded his arms. "I just don't know what I want to do yet."
"Well you had better figure it out." She unfolded her arms and stepped away, her rant over and the subject seeming to be quickly forgotten until another time.
"Why don't you come with me today?" Paul shrugged. "I'm going down the yard, I have work to do."
"Sure." Cory shrugged back. "Why not?"
The race begins
Paul stepped into the personal transport and his brother sat in the passenger seat beside him. It was a simple vessel, bordering on crude. It was a battery operated anti-gravity craft designed to operate purely in the atmosphere of a Class-M planet. Operation was laughably simple, the driver put in directions and the computer did the rest. The instruments didn't even relay any information; they were just a simple interface and a monitor that displayed your progress. It was a vehicle a child could literally operate quite safely, even if they'd been drinking heavily.
"I've got three now." Paul offered to break the sulky silence that had descended during breakfast and had been known to last for weeks. Cory shrugged apathetically which was something he did a lot in conversations with his family. "Three shuttles." Paul said loudly with a sense of pride in his dubious achievements. "Two are impulse-powered and one is capable of warp 3." Cory remained silent but he had questions and his facade of total disinterest was beginning to crack. "Warp 3!"
"How do you get shuttles?" Cory frowned thoughtfully. "You don't qualify for them, how do you manage to get them?"
"That's a secret." Paul laughed to himself. "My new one needs some work, you know?" Cory turned to stare out of the window. He knew where this was leading and was torn between resenting his brother for asking and actually wanting to get involved in his work, such as it was. "Like what?" He finally grunted with a shrug, trying to sound like he didn't care and not doing a terribly good job of it.
"I know you dropped out of engineering college but I still think you're qualified enough to work on a shuttle." His brother told him with a grin. "It needs a bit of attention, that's all. A bit of routine maintenance, a diagnostic scan, maybe some circuits need scanning and some power conduits need checking for integrity. Nothing I don't honestly think you can handle."
Cory let the comment hang for a moment. "You want me to work for you?"
"No." Paul turned to him for effect. "I want you to work with me. Just part-time at first but later we'll see how it goes."
"You've only got three shuttles." Cory scoffed at the suggestion. "You don't need a full-time engineer."
"Actually I do..." Paul told him with a wry grin. "One of them is more demanding than my wife and twice as difficult to maintain." He looked off into the distance through the small windows and frowned thoughtfully. "...except it is quite good looking."
Paul's yard was a small patch of land with a hangar big enough for half a dozen small auxiliary craft to fit in comfortably and still have space to work on them. It was fenced off and had adequate security, tighter security in fact than was warranted on this planet to protect a few old shuttles.
The suns were high in the sky on this particular morning and the heat bore down on them ferociously. Both shielded their eyes with their hands as they stepped out of the transport after it made a textbook landing on an invisible cushion of anti-gravity before coming to rest permanently on its duralium belly with no discernable contact that either could feel.
The door clattered open, the rollers shook to life and the door slowly chewed itself away revealing the interior of the hangar after silently scanning Paul for authenticity. "You've never seen my shuttles." Paul added with a smile.
"I've never been interested." Cory smiled back. "Chartered Shuttle trips for tourists aren't really my thing to be honest."
"I guess it's a bit boring for you?" Paul asked him sarcastically.
"A bit!" Cory admitted with a nod. "It's not that I'm looking for a life of danger or anything but maybe something a bit more interesting than flying around with off-worlders snapping holo-images of the mountain ranges and drinking the local brandy which tastes awful, by the way."
"You know that's just what I tell Mum I do." Paul grinned. "It's not the only thing that goes on here, you know?" Cory raised an eyebrow and gazed at him incredulously. He had an expression of not quite believing what he was being told but was interested anyway. "My shuttles!" Paul gestured with an even broader grin as his hand motioned towards the three small vessels.
Much as he would have hated to admit it, Cory was impressed. There was a larger transport shuttle refinished in a pearlescent white colour and a smaller Federation type machine, small and sleek which had obviously been worked on extensively, the configuration was odd and unfamiliar. Thirdly an alien vessel languished at the opposite side of the hangar bay, an ugly sand-coloured thing with protrusions and equipment bolted unevenly to the exterior of the hull which flared dramatically at the front.
"Nice." Cory smiled earnestly, his attention more focused on the sleek Federation vehicle. "I see you like that one." Paul nodded as he led them inside. "That's my favourite too."
"Is it fast?" Cory asked as they got nearer the small ship.
"Yeah!" Paul said with a grin. "In fact it's very fast. So fast in fact that it's how I ended up with the other two." Cory frowned, not quite managing to follow what the logic of what was being said.
"I race!" Paul explained. "I race shuttles. Sometimes I win and I won those two other ships by beating them fair and square." Cory turned to him slightly startled, his mouth agape. "Mostly fair..." Paul added thoughtfully.
His brother was so boring, so staid and reliable, he ate too much, he was married to a nice girl and had a son, he had never been in trouble, he had done well in school. How could he race shuttles and more to the point, how could he be good at it?
"I've had three others too." Paul shrugged apathetically. He grinned to his dumbstuck younger brother. "I guess sometimes I lose as well..."
After a mug of coffee that had a vaguely metallic taste from a neglected replicator with burn marks around the service hatch, Cory managed to martial his thoughts somewhat. The small shuttle demanded his attention, even more so now he knew that she was more than just a pretty ship, it was a racer with a history and a story behind it.
"I got into it about 4 years ago." Paul explained, sipping at his drink, not seeming to notice the poor taste. "It's not strictly legal."
"I bet..." Cory managed with a frown. "Sometimes it's fine, small local races are completely approved but the interesting ones are done in secret." Paul explained. "There's prizes too, parts and tools we need to upgrade our ships. There's a league table as well, you have to earn points to go up to the next league to qualify for the bigger races."
"It sounds interesting. More interesting that charter flights." Cory said with approval, his respect for his older brother growing by the second as he delved deeper into the murky world of illegal high-speed stupidity. "I'm in the third league." Paul told him. "I've almost got enough points for the second and I have three years to get to league one."
"Why three years?" Cory sipped at the terrible coffee and winced.
"There's a race out past Dorania every five years. It's the big one and it's on in 4 more years." Paul lowered his voice respectfully. "It takes a year to prep a vessel and train for it so I have three years to qualify. I can do it; I'm actually ahead of where I need to be."
"Awesome..." Cory smiled enthusiastically. "In that?" He pointed to the sleek racer.
"No..." Paul shook his head. "I'll need something bigger, more powerful." Cory gestured to the larger Federation shuttle. Paul shook his head. "I've got to find something else, that thing is long past her prime and no use for racing. I have something in mind... We'll see how things pan out in the next few races."
"Ok." Cory nodded; he really didn't know what questions to ask. "Maybe I'll win something." Paul smiled. "I won that last week." He pointed to the small alien craft. "Great manoeuvrability but no power. Not enough to beat me anyhow..."
"You won that?" He enthused.
"Let's take a ride..."
The little Federation ship was frighteningly powerful. The speed it managed was incredible and it accelerated like it was late for a date with a pair of Rigellian twins. It was out of the reach of orbit in seconds and still seemed to be pulling faster and faster. "Wow..." Cory managed with a stupid grin on his face as his brother deftly worked the modified controls. "I know." He nodded calmly. "She's something, isn't she?"
"She is something." Cory agreed.
"Look, I'm not promising anything but you're a junior engineer. I could use your help. What I do isn't always 100% legal; I need a guy with me I can trust."
"You're offering me a job?" Cory asked enthusiastically, his mind already made up.
"Only at first!" Paul told him. "It will get Mum off your back and get you of the damn house." He paused, partially for effect. "I've been thinking about this for a while. Later on, if things work out I want you on the team."
"Really?" Cory asked hopefully. "Sure!" Paul agreed. "I really need a hand. I'm doing well and it's getting to be more than I can handle. I can even get you trained to fly." Cory smiled a haphazard kind of over-enthusiastic grimace. "Even if you stay on the engineering side you'd need to make test flights. What do you think?"
Cory never answered. He never needed to.
Cardassian shuttle firing phasers
The next morning things were different. Cory was up and eating breakfast before his brother. He ate quickly, like a man with a purpose and his mother noticed. As Paul came down from the upstairs flat she nudged him in the ribs and gestured over to his brother with her head. "What did you do to him yesterday? Replace him with an android?"
"Offered him a job..." Paul told her smugly. "Just helping me out with some mechanic work for now but I think I caught his imagination."
"So it's not an android? You're sure?" She almost seemed disappointed. "Well whatever you did it worked." She smiled appreciatively and wandered off to get a start on her chores which she insisted on doing herself despite the fact that they were quite superfluous in a modern home in Federation space.
"You're up early." Paul slapped his brother playfully on the back and sat down to join him. Cory smiled back and carried on eating something that tasted vaguely like scrambled eggs on toast but had the consistency of porridge which was actually closer to what he'd ordered. "So you're still up for working with me?" He lowered his voice as if they were sharing a dangerous secret. Cory nodded and reflexively glanced around to see if anyone was within earshot. "I have a proposition..." Paul added mysteriously as he began glancing around himself. He leaned forward and lowered his voice still further. Cory leaned in too, not really knowing why. "I have a race." He told him flatly, his voice barely a whisper. "Tomorrow night. The ship needs fully prepping to be ready." Cory nodded enthusiastically. "You want to come with me? You want to watch?" Cory grinned widely. "We've got work to do then!" He said finally, slumping back in his chair and scooping up a mountain of food.
Cory smiled as he saw the sleek Federation shuttle. He knew he was going to smile involuntarily every time he saw it. It was beautiful, slender, delicate, powerful and angry. It was a ship he wanted since he first sat in it, never had he felt power like it, the raw thrill of unleashing full impulse power in a machine capable of delivering that much energy to engines that could handle it was totally addictive and he was a willing victim of that addiction. His eyes froze on her; he absorbed every curve, every line of her beautifully crafted hull.
"Not that..." Paul slapped him on the shoulder. He pointed and Cory followed his hand. His finger pointed to the dirty alien ship and his excellent mood deflated somewhat. "We're racing for ownership tomorrow." Paul explained. "I'm not risking the pride of my collection. We'll race that."
Cory glowered accusingly at the alien vessel as if he blamed it for denying him access to the Class 2 shuttle. "What is it?"
"Cardassian." Paul shrugged as he led the way to the generously proportioned shuttle. "At least it started that way. There's all sorts in there now, it's like every other racing shuttle. Unique."
"Cardassian?" Cory repeated, a little awkwardly. "Is it armed?"
"Of course it's armed." Paul stopped in his tracks to face his brother. "Some of the events have a phaser section. We have to hit targets on our way through."
"Phasers?" Cory repeated nervously. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. "You have phasers? What would happen if you got caught with them?"
"I'd be in trouble!" Paul admitted coldly. "But I'd be in just as much trouble for the over-heated impulse drive, the upgraded reactors, the illegal high-speed processors and the shield generators. Does this bother you?"
"Yeah!" Cory snapped angrily as if such a question was ridiculous.
"Well it should." Paul shrugged. "These races are illegal and there's a reason for that." Cory rubbed his chin, a thoughtfully nervous gesture. Paul continued. "The power output from the generators is far above what these ships were designed for, they're effectively bombs held together with structural integrity fields and good luck. The engines are usually taken from bigger ships; they have no place bolted onto the tiny hulls of a shuttlecraft. Weapons are sometimes the least of our problems." Paul's unusually solemn tone caught the right emotional resonance in his brother who replied with a silent gaze. "This is dangerous, Cory. This is dangerous and that's why it's fun." He paused for added effect. "Now that Cardassian ship has plenty of power but is not delivering it to the engines. I think the safety equipment is blocking the flow. I need 30% more power fed directly into the impulse drive and I need it by tonight. Are you in or out?"
Cory stared back in silence, doubts churning in his mind, doubt that he should be involved, doubts that he should let his brother be involved. Part of him wanted to run screaming to the authorities and tell them everything, still another part imagined his mum telling him off over breakfast. "I'm in..."
The crowds were huge along the starting line. It was a disused warehouse somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Shuttles of all different kinds were lined up ready to be abused or swallowed in a flaming explosion of misfortune as unwary and unqualified pilots pressed their ill-conceived designs too far. Cory examined them briefly as he stood next to the Cardassian monstrosity. It was a shambles, the circuitry was barely held together, the engine core was from a much larger Klingon ship and the nacelles were a set of warp coils taken from a Federation scout converted to an impulse unit and stuffed inside two heavy Klingon disruptor barrels. In short, nothing should work. Cory had run diagnostic scans all day and fixed as many glaringly obvious faults as he could find but the simple fact is he had really no idea about how the shuttle managed to stay functioning except knowing that, in fact, it really shouldn't. He had done more than his brother had asked, 34% more power was now being fed into the nacelles and the impulse engines were capable of delivering a brutal degree of energy. Whether Paul or even the computer could handle the upgrades was a totally different question altogether.
The other shuttles parked around the massive dockyard were not much better. There was a Klingon shuttle which had its rear loading ramp open. Where there should have been rows of seats were now banks of coils and equipment, most of it totally unfamiliar to him. There was a huge and very clean Romulan shuttle which looked fast. Paul seemed to have noticed that one too.
"This is my brother!" Cory heard the voice and reacted to it slowly, the words taking time to penetrate his meandering thoughts. He looked round to the see the rotund form of his elder brother introducing him to a very tall, very slender humanoid with strangely larger than usual hands and eyebrows with the thickest, densest hair he had ever seen on top of a forehead, which was shaped ideally for keeping the rain off his lips. The stranger seemed disinterested but held out one of his disproportionate hands in a gesture of greeting in any case. "And how does this shuttle look?" The stranger asked, noticing over the worn exterior.
"She's good, Sir." Cory shook the hand, it felt cold to the touch and he withdrew as quickly as he could.
"This is Trakir Trakic." Paul gestured to the alien. "He's pretty famous around here."
"I designed the Type 9 shuttle." He said as if it were nothing. "It was a logical progression of my work. Work progresses logically." Cory looked at his brother and raised an eyebrow. "Trakir is helping me to refit the Class 2 shuttle." Paul explained. "His upgrades should make her powerful enough to get me to the Doranian endurance race."
"And this?" Trakir ran his massive bony hand over the exterior plating of the Cardassian shuttle. "How will she fare today?"
"She'll do ok." Cory answered unevenly. "She's got too much power, much more than she can use. Paul will have to be careful."
"I'm always careful..." Paul grinned.
The final challenge
Cory held a portable viewer which gave him an artificial perspective of the field and his attention flitted between that, a giant holographic projection of the track above the yard and the racers as the ships began powering up. Several were rocking visibly on their anti-gravity drives, their fields so over-sensitive that holding a stable position seemed impossible. Expectation hung thickly in the air as the seconds ticked down to the start. Cory noticed his own breathing was laboured, his hands wet with sweat, his throat was dry and his chest was fluttering. He could only imagine the way his brother must be feeling inside the Cardassian shuttle as the computer scanned through the final diagnostics and he waited for the green light that sent the 24 different shuttles out to risk their lives for the small possibility of beating the others to the finish.
"I have a feeling your brother is going to win this!" Trakir Trakic said with an alien note that sounded like total disinterest but which could just as possibly have been a wry expression of foreknowledge or hysterical excitement. "Paul's good!" Cory managed nervously and immediately thought his own remark slightly ridiculous since he'd never actually seen him race before.
"Yes!" Trakir agreed with a certain solemnity. "I have invested in his talent. I believe he has what it takes to win this event." His words trailed off as the lights began to flash. "It is beginning."
As the green light showed over the yard it released the full fury of 24 hopeful racers with more ambition than instinct for survival. Impulse engines flared brightly and nacelles were awash with light as they forced full power into them, ready or not. The ships blasted away kicking up smoke and sand and roaring loudly. A small red vessel choked on the power and the lights flickered out leaving it trailing behind the others, the first victim of the pilot's over-exuberance. As the roar of the engines settled the little ship spluttered and the port nacelle fell off and clattered loudly to the ground, the hull then rolling over and ending up lying helplessly on her side.
"And they're off!" The announcement came loudly over the address system and the crowds began to cheer in excited unison.
Cory watched his portable screen, his eyes fixed and his own excitement steadily building along with his trepidation. He watched as the Cardassian shuttle made it to the front of the pack, running nose to nose with the leaders, a small Klingon shuttle-pod, the Romulan ship, a Federation shuttle and two other things he couldn't even begin to identify. Nobody had the lead, the ships swapped position regularly but this group seemed to dominate the front of the pack.
"First are the targeting trials." Trakir Trakic told him as if he were already bored. "They have to hit two of the target markers as they pass through. Most ships have to slow down for this so it's a good way to break up the field."
"If they don't hit two?" Cory asked.
"Then they're disqualified." He shrugged. "There are around 300 targets out there in random positions, as soon as they knock down two they can accelerate away so the faster they get in to pick out the easy shots, the less time they lose." Cory began to realise how much more complicated all this was that has had first imagined. It wasn't just a case of running faster than the others; there were subtleties, even tactics.
Paul and the Romulan seemed to enter the field at roughly the same time. The viewer gave nothing away. Cory glared at it and then it suddenly reported weapons fire. He swung his attention to the big main screen for an exterior view and the crowd began cheering and the targets erupted into flame as the lead ships tore through, hitting them as they went. "Excellent." Trakir nodded solemnly to himself.
Cory breathed heavily, Paul had cleared the first stage easily but the Romulan now had the lead. "What's next?" He gasped.
"Obstacles." The alien replied. "They have to pass through the trailing edge of an asteroid field."
Cory turned to look at him, alarm clearly visible on his face. "Isn't that highly dangerous?" Trakir turned deliberately to look at him, his expression not changing from abject disinterest. "Yes."
By the time Paul had reached the first of the solid rock obstacles five other ships had left the race after missing the targets and two more where now so far behind as to be effectively removed from concern. The crowd erupted into cheers of encouragement as the Klingon shuttle joined Paul and the Romulan as they crossed the threshold of the asteroids.
"The Klingons have the advantage." Trakir noted dryly. "Their ship is smaller and probably more manoeuvrable. Klingons will generally squander that advantage by piloting too aggressively. Paul will probably take the lead here; he has greatest skill in this section." Cory was relieved to hear it but the large viewer was showing the three lead ships snaking between lumps of floating rocks larger than the hangars the ships were stored in. Cory was more nervous than ever and didn't answer the large alien; his attention was firmly occupied elsewhere.
Paul indeed took the lead; he came in close to a really huge asteroid and blasted past it at full impulse into three others which seemed to close around him like a noose. The big viewer seemed to show his imminent death and the crowd went grimly silent and then he blasted through at the last moment to a resounding cheer of approval. The Romulan kept with him but the Klingon, as predicted hung back, they were flying too close to the big rocks, almost challenging them for dominance instead of plotting a faster, easier course.
"I don't like this!" Cory whispered to himself. He cast an acrid glare at the big alien. "Next is the final challenge and the one Paul is poorest at." Cory held his angry stare. "It is to orbit three times around the smallest sun of this system using only manual control."
"It doesn't sound too hard!" Cory almost allowed himself to relax slightly.
"It is a test of accurate manoeuvring. Too far from the sun and you lose time, too close and you die." "Paul takes it too far, right?" "Generally." Trakir agreed. "Generally."
The Romulan shuttle had the lead but only by a few lengths of the ship. The Klingon was now several seconds behind and unless one of them made a mistake they were no longer any threat to the leaders. The two blasted towards the sun until the glowing ball of energy became so bright it blanked out the main viewer. Cory switched to the computerised display. "Once they have made three complete orbits they will warp to the finish line." Trakir said simply. "Their warp speed is irrelevant at this distance, it only matters who exits the orbit first."
Cory thought quickly. It made sense, at warp 1 it would take only seconds to cross the border, even at impulse speeds the contestants wouldn't lose much time, only the seconds lost in the orbital challenge would make a noticeable difference. He was sweating, as nervous as if he himself were locked in the little metal tube with the controls of that ship before him and still he could only watch as his brother continued to risk his life for the thrill of the crowd.
Both vessels suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the sun from their first half orbit, the Romulan still had the lead but the Cardassian shuttle was flying on top, maybe a metre behind, possibly even less. The crowd went wild as they came into view and Cory breathed an audible sigh of relief that his brother was still there, all sensors being inoperative on the other side of the giant star. Both ships seemed locked together, manoeuvring as one as they banked into the second circuit of the star. They vanished from the viewer and the crowd quietened down somewhat as the Klingon shuttlepod came into view followed by a tiny Federation ship.
Cory waited with baited breath. Sensors were useless now as the two ships went to the opposite side of the star, the screen hung uselessly at his side as he waited for the main view to show the ships. He could hear his heartbeat as the blood pumped through his ears, the tension in his chest was making it hard to breathe the pressure felt like it was crushing him under the weight of it all.
Suddenly they ships burst into view, this time the Romulan craft had stolen a slight lead, it was now ahead by the length of two shuttles but the Cardassian ship was challenging hard from behind. The crowd let out a unanimous roar of approval as they came past the optical receiver. The Klingon ship followed a few seconds behind to a muted cheer and crowded a small Federation ship deliberately. The little craft banked off to avoid a collision and began to descend into the glowering furnace of the sun. The crowd let out a gasp as the Federation ship floundered in the gravitational maw of the star. For a moment it seemed to stabilise, the optical system zoomed in to capture the action and the crowd was suddenly moved to silent awe. Then in a flash the ship was gone. Simple, clean and without ceremony the little grey craft was simply swallowed by the broiling energy to a gasp of horror from the crowd. Cory hung his pad to the side, mirroring the shock of the crowd but unlike them he had a personal investment, he wasn't simply a spectator, here for the thrill, the silent hope of seeing a disaster, some action that would penetrate their sterile, safe little Federation lives. He could only resent them all for giving the racers this motivation, this drive to risk their lives to entertain them with this ultimate gamble.
"And now we shall see who will be victorious." Trakir said as though the death of the pilot was of no more consequence than a bug crushed under his boot as he walked. True to his prediction the Cardassian ship flashed past the curve of the star and vanished in a blur of warp motion, followed closely by the Romulan ship which was, by now seconds behind and with no hope of taking the lead. "Paul has won!" Trakir said, his voice only now containing some hint of approval.
As part of the pit-crew Cory was among the first on the scene as Paul's Cardassian shuttle came in for a slightly uneven landing. It ground to a halt and with the glowing tips of the nacelles finally went dark to a riotous applause from the adoring crowd. Cory loathed the sound of their baying, their goading people towards ever more foolhardy acts to earn their approval. Eventually the systems equalised and the hatch opened, typical Cardassian design, it had little convenience for the pilot and eventually Paul dragged his generous proportions from the hull. Cory felt elated, full of excitement and relief. He ran forward, hearing himself yelling as the adrenaline took over his body. He hugged his older brother and slapped him on the back while Trakir slowly ambled over to join them.
"I can't believe it!" Cory gasped. "You won! It was amazing, terrifying but amazing."
"You'll get used to it!" Paul told him, laughing out of control from his own elation, still full of adrenaline and excitement himself. "I thought you'd lost it when the Romulan had you on the second orbit!"
"No chance." Paul said with a knowing glance towards Trakir. "I had a few tricks left up my sleeve."
The next day the brothers went out for breakfast. There was a diner near the hangar yard and Paul ate there too often, often after eating too much at home. The food was good, tasty and home-cooked, no replicators were involved. Cory noticed the difference with every mouthful, savouring the rich flavour and the subtleties the computer-generated version just couldn't capture.
"So?" Paul smiled.
"I didn't sleep a wink last night!" Cory admitted with a smile. "That race was scary but... wow..."
"Wow!" Paul nodded in agreement. "It was awesome." Cory continued. "I want to race myself after seeing that. I didn't at first but now..." Paul shook his head proudly at his siblings enthusiasm.
"How did you win?" Cory shovelled in some more toast "I really thought the Romulan had you!"
"Yeah..." Paul chewed his lip thoughtfull and took a swig of the local coffee. "I've been offered a ship."
"You won a ship?" Cory enhused. Paul shook his head and smiled sadly. "No... Not this time." He took a heavy breath and his eyes looked down. "I was racing ownership against an old friend last night. He was the one who died in the sun. He was a good guy and he owed me money."
"Oh..." Cory stopped eating and the realisation of the risks suddenly came back to him, the brutal finality of making the slightest mistake.
"But I've been offered a ship." Paul explained, fixing his brother with a furtive look, his voice lowering again as a secret was about to be shared. Cory nodded. "This ship is just what we need to enter the Doranian endurace race and it's ours for a fraction of what it's worth." Cory raised an eyebrow curiously. "It's Trakir, he found it for us, he's brokering a deal." Paul explained. "Trakir is an engineer. He builds specialist equipment and sometimes..." Paul paused for a moment, "sometimes it's not entirely legal and it needs testing."
"Testing?" Cory took a bite of toast. "Like what?"
"He's offered to let us test a drive system with him." Paul shrugged and sat back heavily. "It's new, I don't really understand everything about. He's willing to let us use a full-scale version in the next Doranian Rally and he's going to let us install a test version in my Class 2 shuttle and try it in the next race."
"What if it's not safe?" Cory had reservations.
"Well I fired a test version last night..." Paul waited for Cory to realise what he meant.
"The Romulans?" Cory hung his head. "That's how you beat them out of the last orbit? You cheated?"
"I fired the prototype for one eighth of a second on the dark side of the sun so the sensors around the track couldn't detect me." Paul told him, not too proudly. "It worked and it gave me the advantage. It's not considered cheating, anything goes in these races."
Cory stared at his brother disaprovingly, some of the pride in his achievments falling away. "What is is, how does it work?"
"Trakir calls it hyper-impulse." Paul shrugged. "It pushes Impulse up to warp 1.5 but still lets you manouver, even in orbit. The Cardassian shuttle couldn't handle more than a tiny burst but my Class 2 can take the strain for longer."
"What does Trakir get out of it?" Cory frowned.
"Proof that his design works." Paul told him. "He doesn't have the money to build it himself so this is a golden opportunity for us. He needs a proper test in the next race and if it goes well he'll fully support us as a racing team in the Doranian endurance rally by fitting a fully functional hyper-impulse engine. After that everyone will want his new drive. He'll be rich and so will we."
"I don't know about this..." Cory shook his head. "I just don't know if we can trust him..."
Class 2 shuttle in orbit
Whether he knew or not, the duty of fitting the equipment to the Class 2 shuttle fell on the shoulders of Cory Butler. The schedule gave him a week to fit the new drive machinery but it took far less. The modifications were mostly to the main computer and upgrade to the impulse coils. The rest of the time was spent in endless simulations and diagnostics.
The night before the race found Cory at work making last-minute adjustments to the drive. "I think it's ready..." Paul told him with a sarcastic smirk as he took the passenger seat as Cory ran yet another battery of tests from the pilot's position, a seat he had slowly began to covert for himself. Cory shrugged his reply and carried on testing. "Trakir has given me two tickets to go and collect our new ship. It wasn't cheap but she's all ours! I put it in joint names." Paul began, goading his younger brother with an offer he knew he wouldn't refuse. "I could do with a week away from my wife, a little break away on a cruise ship might be fun." Cory glanced over briefly and then turned his attention back to his work.
"Maybe you'd like to come?" Paul suggested. "I'm sure you'd like to see our new ship, after all it's going to be your engineering project for the next few years." Cory sighed and leant back in the chair. "Maybe." He conceeded. "You certainly don't know what you're looking at."
"That's the spirit!" Paul slapped him on the back. "It's going to be awesome. A brand new ship and a powerful one too. Warp capable, full power-phasers, Class G internal processor. This isn't just an upgraded shuttle, this is going to be a full endurance racer, the fastest machine ever seen on the circuit."
"It does sound cool." Cory admitted coyly, a smile beginning to break out from behind his veneer of indifference.
"So..." Paul began. "Are you going to be my mechanic or my co-pilot?" Cory turned expectantly, his eyes suddenly as wide as saucers. "Co-pilot?" He stammered.
"Sure, brother." Paul nodded slowly in approval. "Some of the race legs are over 30 hours long, you have to fly in shifts. The phaser targetting range can last for 5 hours at full impulse. Other times you need a navigator, an engineer or just a second pair of good eyes. A race like this needs a crew, not just a pilot and a guy on the ground."
"I could do that..." Cory said excitedly. "I know you could!" Paul smiled broadly. "We'll be a hell of a team."
"I don't know about this ship..." Cory gestured to the instruments. "This hyper-impulse seems pretty dangerous to me. It's seems to be oscilating the impulse coils three times with completely different frequencies but the energy is ramped up far beyond what they were designed to handle. It's not safe, Paul."
"Look at me!" Paul rubbed his ample belly which was by now, far larger than "standard issue". "Racing is far beyond what I was designed to handle! We'll be ok, you just have to relax."
"Ok..." Cory grinned. "It's your funeral!"
The crowds gathered for the race. This time the event was staged from a nearby moon, a terraformed satelite in orbit around a gas giant in the same system. It was a mining coloney now and at weekends it was deserted and the areas was available to hire. This time there were three holographic projectors each showing a different region, a different view of the entire track.
Paul seemed calm, as ever. His tiny Class 2 shuttle was already powered up, the engines were spitting bright blue light from the radiators and a dull red throbbing light from the impulse vents. Paul ran his hands lovingly over her sleek white hull with a smile on his face he never got from anything else, not even his family.
Trakir watched with interest while Cory ran last minute diagnostics on a handheld terminal. "The system is installed correctly?" He ventured loudly enough for anyone listening to have no trouble hearing.
Paul gave him a muted glare. "Everything's fine." Paul told him cooly. "We have enough energy for a sustained run of 6 seconds."
"But you won't use it!" Cory said fiercely. "That would overload the coil."
"And it would invite detection." Trakir turned very deliberately to face the young man. Cory felt uncomfortable under the gaze of his listless dull eyes. "I'll be careful." Paul told them both, each having very different reservations.
An alarm sounded around the mine and the crowd began to quieten. The pilots began making their final checks and headed towards their ships.
"This is it!" Paul told his brother with a grin. "This race pushes me up a whole league." Cory smiled back. "Just competing earns me points, if I finish in the top 5 I've gone up, getting to the Doranian rally is just a formality then."
"And we have a ship!" Cory nooded his head in agreement. "Right?"
"Yeah... we have a ship!" He agreed. "And we have a team!"
"Be careful..." Cory told him sternly. Paul slapped him hard on the upper arm and gave him a playful wink. A second siren sounded and it was time for the pilots to enter their vessels and the crews to retreat from the staging area.
"The Hyper-impulse is a huge racing advantage." Trakir began conversationally. "The ability to steer at warp speeds will revolutionise space-travel." Cory nodded in agreement but his own concerns barely reached beyond racing, beyond getting to that ship, building an endurance racer and running the rally beside his brother. "With my help, you will win the rally."
Cory wondered for a moment if the grim aliens was telepathic or if his own ambitions were simply so transparent. "We'd win anyway." He ventured bravely. The big alien was moved to perform an unfamiliar facial gesture that approached something akin to a smile, possibly of amusement.
"Paul is the best pilot out there." Cory began with unrealistic and somewhat misplaced pride. "We're going to be the best team on the circuit." "And my engineering will make your ship unmatched, with a degree of sophistication never before encountered on the racing scene. We will truly be an unstoppable force."
The small ships powered up ready for the lights, the red one blinked over their heads and every pilot initiated full power and slammed on the iniertial dampers ready to make a hasty start and then it happened.
The Class 2 ship erupted in a flash of released plasma, a gigantic plume of white-hot gas followed by an explosion, a blast powerful enough to send the other shuttles scuttling over the track, pushing them along like twigs on a swollen river.
Cory stood with his mouth agape as the flaming ball of twisted metal lay smouldering on the track, the rest of the shuttles moving away in fear as if the devestation were somehow infectious. Trakir simply turned to look at him with a look that approached minor irritation.
"Mr. Baker..." She called out, stirring Cory from his thoughts, the memeries of what he'd done to his brother, of the ramifications of his mistakes, the consequences of whatever he'd missed when he had installed the equipment. He looked up, she gestured him over with an impatient wave. Cory glanced first to the end of the hall, there were no Star Fleet officers and for that he was grateful. He heard every footstep echo through the great hall as he walked quickly to the raised counter, trying to step gently but to no avail. All she had to do was issue a number and that was it, he would have a free visa to escape the wretched system, to get away from his home, his ruined life, his history and the family that would blame him as soon as they found out what he'd done.
Trakir had explained it to him in vivid detail after the emergency crews had cleaned up the carnage and silence had finally fallen. It was his fault, he had installed the new equipment. The Hyper-impulse upgrade package had been scrubbed clean before delivery, only Cory's prints, his DNA were on it. There could be no doubt who was responsible and Star Fleet would soon come looking with an accusing finger.
"Your visa is ready, Mr. Baker." She told him. He could scarecely conceal his relief. The Federation investigation hadn't found him yet, he was free, he was going to make it out before their iron grip closed around him. "Where are you heading?" She asked conversationally without suspicion or hidden agenda.
"Away from here." He told her firmly. "A long way away from here."
"A traveller, huh?" She smirked a little condescendingly.
"Yeah!" He nodded. "I'm a traveller. I have a beautiful, brand new ship on the other side of the galaxy. She's mine, I'm going to collect her."
"Interesting." She handed Cory his Padd and retuned her attention anywhere but on him. He took it eagerly and turned to make his way away out of the visa office as quickly as he possibly could.
Lieutenant May pointed to the image on the viewer. "That's him." He said to his colleague in Star Fleet security. "Cory Baker."
"Is he of interest?" Commander Barrow rubbed his chin thoughtfull as he quickly scanned through the highlights of the file. "No..." Lieutenant May admitted. "His brother was. Paul Baker was an idiot racer, he blew himself up last week.. Usual story, I'm afraid."
"I see." The Commander nodded. "Poor kid, I hope he's smarter than his brother was."
"Not according to his school record." He grinned. "Anyway, this Paul blew up on the starting line, a plasma explosion, super-heated the engines and ignited by an over-charged coil."
"Not that again!" Commander Barrow sighed. "Hyper-impulse?"
His colleague nodded in agreement. "No sign of Trakir Trakic again, or whatever he's calling himself now." The Lieutenant explained dejectedly. "There never is."
"How do they fall for this?" The Commander sighed. "I mean, Hyper Impulse? It doesn't even sound plausible. Who in their right mind would give him latinum for this rubbish?"
"People do." Lieutenant May said simply. "Somehow he makes them believe it's real. He coaxes a few milliseconds of warp speed from their impulse drives, which is easy once you've over-ridden the safety controls and they think it must be true, he must have a magical new technology that's going to change the galaxy. The rest they just want to believe."
"Do you think this Cory Baker knows where Trakir Trakic is?" The Commander asked rhetorically as he sat down heavily in a big black chair. The shaking head of his colleague simply confirmed what he already knew. "The other six people didn't and they were the ones who dealt directly with him."
"We need to catch him in the act before his stupid tricks kill more people." The Commander said sternly.
"Shall we arrest the brother?" He asked unenthusiastically. The Commander quickly checked his schedule, the young man was heading a for a vessel that was due to leave in only 4 hours, it seemed redundant to hold him back.
"What for?" The Commander shrugged. "Having an idiot for a brother? You'd better arrest me too then. Let the poor kid go, he's had enough to deal with."
|Last modified: 09 Nov 2020