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Lords of the Horizon, Episode One Written Friday 3rd of July 2015 at 09:55am by Michael Shean

Lords of the Horizon, Episode One: In Which I Explode January 27, 2945 The first time I raced Old Vanderval, two women flashed me when I flew by their villa.  I don’t even remember what...

Lords of the Horizon, Episode One: In Which I Explode

January 27, 2945

The first time I raced Old Vanderval, two women flashed me when I flew by their villa.  I don’t even remember what they looked like, just that they were in a hot tub.  I think they were waiting for me to fly by.  Lots of people were, that day.

My name is Laurel Masada.  I’m a combat racer.  I didn’t start that way, though.  First, I had to explode.

Old Vanderval’s just a short sprint compared to some of the other races in the UEE, but anyone who tells you that it’s easy is a goddamned liar.  I’ve been on a lot of easy courses in the lower series – the Sevrin Run, the Tanaris Loop, Maxillia.  Many of them are just the spacegoing equivalent of surface track racing, one big left turn at a very high speed.  Impressive velocities, yes, but the majority of the art comes from dodging your fellow racers.

Not this one.  The course isn’t some ribbon of alloy or even an open route of tracking buoys; it’s a series of gates floating amid a massive collection of glittering towers and floating villa blocks, like some big negative-space exercise that you navigate while dodging said villas and towers, lacing your ship through mazes of topiary stands at hundreds of kilometers an hour (or, if you’re in space, per second) and doing front rolls through checkpoints to spot a clear path to the next.  All this, while being squeezed in by thousands of kilos of alloy pushed through the atmosphere on pillars of fire, driven by people who may or may not just drive you into the thick layers of defense fields that protect the houses all around you.  After all, this is Green, jewel of the Ellis system; it wouldn’t do to trash property values with an unfortunate ship crash.  The pilot, though…

The first time I ran Old Vanderval it was in a salvaged Mustang Gamma that had already been rebuilt three times for two other racers, now retired from ‘medical misadventure’.  That’s what they call it when you crash so bad they need to rebuild you, in whole or in part, and you can never race again.  This was when the Mustangs were new, of course, and getting parts was still a little dodgy; we rebuilt its central drive from no less than four other wrecks, and when we couldn’t fit the resulting Frankenstein thruster into its socket, we stripped out whatever we could and shaved down the hull to make room for it.  Racing in that thing was like strapping myself to one of those big city-busting torpedoes the military used, only more ready to explode with a sharp tap – and the thruster’s resulting emission cone was so long, so glowing bright green, that we ended up calling it Balefire.  With it, I made my way up through the ranks, took first at the Malnar 3000, all the way to Old Vanderval – which isn’t the top race, but it’s close.

For a while, there, it looked like I would make it to the Cup itself.  Everybody loved me.  The media loved me because I was a young kid from some backwater colony, flying one of the new Mustangs – which were, at least at launch, basically considered oversized plastic Takuetsu kits.  Hell, Consolidated Outland offered to give me a brand new ship for it, brand new engine.  I said no, but they at least gave me team support and any parts that I wanted.  But I stuck with Balefire, flew Old Vanderval, got flashed by beautiful women, and…well.  That hardware couldn’t last forever.

I should have paid attention when they told me that the ship needed system upgrades, but no, I had to play the eccentric – hell, maybe I bought into my own legend before it was even made, I don’t know.  What I do know was halfway through the course, that Frankenstein thruster exploded and Balefire became a ball of its very namesake, a bright green meteor that went down into the backyard of some wealthy land developer.  He still messages me on the Spectrum from time to time.  Wants to know when I’m paying the repair bill.  I tell him I’ll do it when I win the Cup.

You know.  If I ever do.

So that was the end of it.  Biggest disappointment of the series, or so they said.  I couldn’t afford another ship, and there were zero sponsor offers afterward.  Consolidated Outland wouldn’t even return my calls after that, especially when it was made known that they were aware of the ‘conspicuous modifications’ that we had made to my Mustang.  My career was over before it started – at least, that is, in the Hare division, where everything was full-on speed.  There’s a glamour to that which you really can’t get back when you blow up in such a fantastic fashion.  I thought I was pretty much done.  And then one day, after the Cup had been secured that year and everyone had forgotten about me, someone called me in my now empty garage – which I was, by then, using for a home after having spent all my winnings getting back home from Green and had nothing left for apartment rent – and asked me if I would like to get back in the game.  That person was Millicent Liang, Director of Promotions for Applied Armaments Corporation.  AAC, of course, was one of many, many divisions of Aegis Dynamics.

And that, friends, is how I ended up getting bankrolled by a former military contractor – not for the ultra-elegant world of the Hare division, but…Tortoise division.

Let me tell you a few things about Tortoise division.  Tortoise division is everything that Hare division is not: brutal, ugly and – well, it’s fast, but it’s not sexy fast.  Tortoise is racing, but with a twist: everybody has guns.  It is a gunfight at three hundred kilometers a second, a mid-air gladiatorial bout that goes on for hours.  Your shields will buckle, your hull will shred, and you just might get yourself into one of those medical misadventures that I’d mentioned – only unlike Hare division, it won’t be due to a flame-out or some jackass scorching you at the wrong time with an “errant” thruster plume.  If you go down, it is because you got your ship shot out from under you.  In a way, it’s almost refreshing.  You don’t need to be the fastest to win Tortoise races, you just have to complete first – which is why you won’t often see Origin’s finest out there like in Hare division; on more than a few occasions would-be racers have arrived at the track in gunships, and won.

Aegis, through their arm at AAC, wanted to see if they could help further improve their image since the whole thing with Imperator went south.  Given that they weren’t really getting military contracts anymore, they had been working on rebranding themselves and their craft as civilian-friendly options.  So they went down their list of options, and found combat racing.  Then they found me.  A local girl, raised right on Cestulus, where Aegis was a household name – which, given their company was headquartered on planet, was kind of a given.  It didn’t matter if I’d flamed out in the Hare league.  Hell, in the combat division that just made me interesting.  More people would try and pick a fight to try and show me up, see if I’d try to bolt in a fight, and that always meant And after all, even though my ship broke up, that didn’t mean I wasn’t a good pilot.  Good enough to get to Green, anyway.

So of course I took their offer.  What else was I going to do?  Inside of a week, they’d sent me a check, assigned me to a team, and converted my garage from the slapdash affair it had been to something out of a military laboratory – or so it looked, because prefab modules can make anything look amazing.  Of course, I had pointed out to Millicent that I really hadn’t been in combat before, but she didn’t seem to have any worries about that.  After all, she said, I could be trained to fight well enough – but racing, as people say, was in the blood.  Or the nerves.  Or whatever.  The point was that I didn’t need to be a perfect warrior, just a damned good racer who could also do decently in a fight.  I could do that.

Aegis had everything planned out.  Pilot, guns, shielding, and, now, a ship.  Being that I was going to essentially be a living billboard, they wanted me flying one of their latest products released to the public market.  Would it be military?  Perhaps one of the Gladius fighters?  They were fast, and nimble, and…no.  Imagine my surprise when my garage was filled with the white, birdlike bulk of the same ship I had seen running police lights since I was a kid – they wanted me to fly an Avenger.  An Advocacy ship.  A patrol wagon.

What was I supposed to do, pull them over?

I admit, I scoffed when I saw her for the first time.  Bill Turney, my new pit chief, explained it to me this way: “We built these things to fight pirates and hunt terrorists.  You think flashing lights and a stern warning ever kept the peace?”  And you know, he was right; Advocacy doesn’t bother with everyday system security, it deals with the really bad guys – those distortion cannons it carries on its wings aren’t just to take down shields for boarding, they’re to set up a clear shot for that gatling on its nose.  Besides, it’s not like the Advocacy wasn’t already known as a dead-or-alive sort of outfit.  Some reputations don’t fade with the boss getting deposed.

And looking over the new specs, I could see that she was clearly beefy; they had changed the power plant, swapping out the Powerfountain with a fusion reactor from Ace Astro that would have been at home in a modern fighter.  The stock HL 2.4 engine had also been taken out, and replaced with an experimental model that the company was thinking of offering as an upgrade – with sufficient field testing, of course.  That was another interesting dimension to my contract with Aegis was serving as a glorified test bed; they had the right to stick on whatever guns, shields, or drives they wanted to see would work in combat.  After all, the estimated audience for last year’s Murray Cup series was an average of forty-seven billion viewers on the Spectrum alone, to say nothing of post-race recordings.  You can’t get better advertising than that – and with a two percent share in hardware sales related to race victories, I’d be insane to refuse.

That was, if I didn’t explode again.

The next few months were basically spent in a sim pod and on Aegis’s own orbital test facilities.  Day in, day out, the routine was the same – get up every morning in the nice apartment that Aegis paid for, shower, zip myself into casuals, take the B-Line maglev train from Habtower 27 (AKA ‘Lavender Palace’, dear God) to the garage, spend eight hours learning how to blast the crap out of hundreds of ship types on all the great tracks of history, try not to puke from the aftereffects of simulated redout.  Then I’d take a shuttle to the orbital facilities where I’d get to experience redout for real for a few more hours behind the stick running the company test course.  After all, flying wasn’t so much a problem as combat experience; given the sheer number of simulated races I was going through, I was getting a real idea as to just how nasty Aegis expected the whole thing to be.  Mind you, I’d been hearing stories for years, but prepping for the reality of getting shot at for a living was tougher on me than I’d like to admit.  After all, I wasn’t a soldier, I was a speed jockey.  I sure as hell didn’t want to turn out like some of the people in the spacer’s ballads you hear in the bars.

And yet – surprise, surprise! – I wasn’t too bad in the sims.  I mean I wasn’t going to be winning Aegis’s Marksman Of The Year Award or anything, but gimbals do a lot to help balance things out.  I started to learn how to pull high-gee turns while spewing gunfire, both to shred the shields of my fellow racers and to drive them out of my lane.  Missiles were a problem to get used to – or at least countering them, anyway – because I tended to push the ship for extra speed.  Still something that haunts me, it appears, because I get tagged in the sims even now.  Really anxious about that.  The first race is going to be real short if I’m not able to dodge some warheads.

Yes, the first race.  Did I surprise you, gentle reader?

See, I’m not writing this as some kind of memoir of days long past.  My career in the Hare league died just last year, and I’m finishing up my last phase of testing in and out of the pod at the end of the week.  The Aegis rep tells me that the company feels I’m ready, which means that Turney thinks I’m not going to turn the ship into scrap right out of the gate.  Wish I had his confidence, but I don’t have a choice.  I want that cup.  I want the glory.  I want to prove that I’m the racer that I could have been were I not stupid about my hardware choices.

In short, I want to win.

But then again…I’m also putting this out here in case I run into one of those medical misadventures and I don’t come back from it – that’s something that really could happen here in the Tortoise league, especially if I’m unlucky with dodging heatseekers.  I don’t want to be known as just another hopeful.

Anyway.  That’s where we are right now.  The first race is later this week; it’s on Tallman’s World, the Dumper’s Depot Invitational.  It’s a race that’s sponsored by the famous salvage company, which I also suspect gets a hearty chunk of the scrap that’s left over from those who burn out on the course.  That won’t be the case with me, as I’ve got a sponsor, but no way are the independents so lucky.  Looking at the roster for the race, it looks like a full three quarters of the entrants are registering as solo competitors.  That’s a LOT of indie guns in the air.  I wonder how many of them have criminal records?  On second thought, scrap that.  I don’t want to know.

All right, that’s enough for now.  The sim pods beckon, and I want to get another round of practice before the team loads up for the move.  See you all on Tallman’s World.  Let’s hope this little road diary of mine isn’t a short one.

Michael Shean

Contributor

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