She hit the switch break hard, shifting the splash kart to the right and around the large sandstone rock in the middle of the course. That was a new one, an obstacle the owners must’ve placed after last year’s zero fatality race. Almost caught Eponi by surprise. And, going by the fiery cloud in her rear-view camera, someone else didn’t make it. Two racers ahead of her, their splash karts cutting over the water as each played the wind and waves for advantage, their microjets keeping them just above the surf.
No chance for Eponi to catch up.
Not if she played by the rules, anyway.
A floating barge, covered with the audience, loomed ahead. A dome over the top played video feeds of the race from aerial drones, which kept the sides of the barge clear for actual viewing. Most would be cheering, drinking, partying – the race an afterthought.
The course, lined by glowing buoys on either side, split around the barge. At least, the visible part did. Eponi killed her microjets, and her kart dove into the water. The glass cockpit kept her dry as she plunged beneath the surface. Eponi shunted the energy to her rear fan to counter the water’s resistance, sped up and shot along the undercurrent beneath the floating barge. Before she cleared it, Eponi triggered the microjets back on again. Rocketed to the surface and shot up into the air just on the other side. The two racers ahead of her now kissing her wake.
Eponi couldn’t hear the cheers, but if the audience knew good racing from bad, they’d be hollering. As for the other two karts, they’d run out of course to race. The blaze-orange buoys that marked the finish were right —
The vision blurred. Then her helmet’s video faded and revealed the transparent windshield of the drop shuttle. On the other side, the static wall of the Nautilus. No race. No cheers.
“Going back a lot lately?” Rovo said. The little guy climbed to the cockpit next her. A two-seater. Aurora would normally take front with Eponi here, but in an unknown sector? You needed somebody who could talk no matter who picked up.
“Better days,” Eponi replied.
“Really? You didn’t know me then.” Rovo’s voice was deeper than you’d think for a man his size. Scratchy. Maybe he’d spent too much time in smoke-filled rooms, maybe that was where he’d learned to talk all those tongues.
“Believe me, life was just fine before you came in it,” Eponi said, wondering for a second at Rovo’s cockiness, then deciding that anyone who could get into Sever Squad had to have guts.
And Rovo had it right. No time for memories. Not with the rest of the squad on board. Or almost – Eponi saw Sai stumble into the bay. Man was always late. Like her, obsessing over other things. Unlike her, Sai kept his memories in his room, rather than where he needed to be. Amateur.
The second Sai’s foot hit the ramp, Eponi pressed the button to retract it. Made Sai scamper up the steps. Might teach him a lesson. At least it made her laugh.
“You could have hurt him.” Rovo actually sounded worried when he said that, like he cared.
“He gets hurt getting on the shuttle, that’s his own fault,” Eponi replied. “I’m the one that gets blamed if we lift off late.” Time for a topic switch, because Eponi wasn’t interested in getting disciplined by a rookie. “You know anything about where were going?”
The deflect worked – Rovo’s eyes went all out of focus. That look he had when he was trying to remember something.
“The same as you.” He said finally. “Nothing.”
“Dynas,” Aurora said as she entered the cockpit. She stood behind the two of them, putting her gloved hands on the backs of the chairs. “A wet, mossy place. A lot of natural resources. Interesting wildlife. We’re doing a search and rescue, then extract.”
“Only we don’t have an extraction,” Eponi said.
The briefing had said almost nothing, but it had said that.
“We’ll just have to play it smart,” Aurora said. “Not burn out our drop shuttle for once.”
“That never works, and you know it.”
There’s a reason why drop shuttles had the name. Designed to get a squad down, giving covering fire, and act as a base of support until you’d done what you need to do. Most times they couldn’t get back up. Most times they weren’t meant to.
“Sounds like you’re doubting us,” Aurora said. “Don’t have room for doubt on the squad.”
“I don’t have any doubt,” Eponi said. “I’m just being real, commander.”
“In that case, stop being real and start getting us out of here.” Aurora turned and walked back to where the harness awaited her.
Eponi radioed the bridge. Received the clear and activated, with a press on the center console, the departure sequence. Behind them, big metal doors slid open. At the same time, in front of her, the door leading out of the docking bay and back into the Nautilus closed. Then a secondary barrier slammed down over it. No chance of vacuum. Little chance of rescue if the drop shuttle blew up during departure.
As the doors opened to dark space, Eponi looked at the shuttle’s cameras and saw the Nautilus’ rocky exterior. The remnants of the asteroid. While the frame of the ship sat inside the rock, most little bulky exterior was left there. Provided good armor. Even some first-look camouflage. Distant starlight augmented by the Nautilus’ own blazing white illumination painted grayscale shadows over everything, like some old-fashioned films of the original Moon.
The drop shuttles engines started with the soft hum. The battery draining to spool up the microwave thrusters. They’d superheat a tank of fuel – limited, yet another reason why drop shuttles weren’t meant to survive, and thrust the ship forward. Beneath the shuttle, on its underside, four microjets started up. Bigger than those on the karts, and capable of bouncing the shuttle up an inch.
Eponi slipped a black and green glove onto her left hand and felt the tingle as tiny nodes in the fabric signaled a connection with the computer in her wrist. She raised the hand, careful to keep her fingers bent, until she reached eye level. Speakeasy kept quiet. Smart man.
When Eponi straightened her fingers, laying her hand flat in the air, the glove flashed red and stayed that color. Ready to fly. Eponi moved her hand to the right, keeping it level, and the shuttle started a slow turn. She held her hand steady until the shuttle faced outer space, a complete 180 degree twist. Then, with her right hand, she pushed forward on the throttle, kicking the shuttle out.
She’d marveled when DefenseCorp first gave Eponi a look at the technology. Virtual pilot. No need to grab the flight stick, no need to panic if a wire snapped or the stick stuck, or if Eponi was thrown away and suddenly unable to grab it. Now, so long as Eponi wore the glove, it would interlace with the tablet, and let her hand control the ship alone.
If she wanted to, Eponi could leave the cockpit. Could go all the way outside and still fly the shuttle. If she had this glove on, the ship would be like putty in her hands.
Out of the Nautilus, into the black void of space. Black except for a green dot, one that was steadily getting larger. They still had all the momentum of the Nautilus going at full speed. Though now that they were moving perpendicular, the cruiser quickly shrank in size. Even a massive thing like that disappeared fast when they were moving at thousands of kilometers an hour.
“Dynas,” Rovo said. “Never heard of this planet.”
“If you haven’t heard of it, then we’re all in the dark,” Eponi replied. Not necessarily true, but if a world wasn’t on the racing circuit, Eponi didn’t need to know existed. Not till now anyway.
In front of her, at knee level, the center console changed. A map of the region of Dynas where they were supposed to go. Suggestions of possible landing zones showed up in yellow. Not more than a few kilometers away from each other, which meant a defined objective. At least the area was tight. She hated being given a continent to choose from.
“A secret VIP?” Eponi said. “Who do you think this guy is? Some rich investor? A politician?”
“If I don’t know a planet, it’s because it’s a backwater. It’s because nobody cares about it,” Rovo said. “Which means if we’re going there, on this short notice, someone’s really screwed up. And, for DefenseCorp to care, really rich.”