Rubric woke early, cleaned up and began to leave for the dining room before the others had even begun to stir. As an afterthought, he doubled back and gave the doorframe a hefty kick.
Rather than stick around and see how many had been roused, he consolidated to the dining hall where he found Tash waiting for him with three of the newly arrived older girls.
He sat down and made his order. "Sleep well Sis? Who are your lovely new friends?" He inquired innocently. Behind him, a contingent of male teens filtered through the front entrance.
Lydia Grinned at Rubric. "I don't believe we're met. I'm Lydia." "Rubric. Tash as you may have gathered is my sister." "Twin" Tash interjected from over a bowl of cereal.
"In that case you'd better be careful with her, she fell out of bed." Lydia looked down at Tash who flushed with embarrassment.
"Her cussing woke us up. Nice little girls shouldn't talk that way." Alexi teased.
"Well at least I made sure you weren't late to breakfast." Rapidly Tash segued away from the subject of her clumsiness; "Hey, speaking of late, does anyone know what time the race is?"
Tia looked up from her plate. "Check your wrist, it has a countdown. Anyone going to guess who'll win?"
"four and a half hours, well I don't know how many contenders there are going to be; I never watched the student racing channel."
"I think they run heats. They have every school do a race with all new teams participating. Rank them and then have all students from every school with the same rank compete to find the best. At the end of the season you have a single race, with the best racers from each class competing. And then the second best and so on. Because there are so many schools, unless your school has more than five or six top rate racers, if you are the best in your class, you are almost guaranteed a return ticket. Winning any level of final race above six gets you priority. Winning any final race allows you to appeal for a retry."
Alexis explanation continued as the dining hall finned up and rubric received his order.
About halfway through the meal, Rubric felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Didn't you take the hint. You're in the Wrong place."
"No one seems to be protesting, so it can't be that serious."
the hand gripped his shoulder firmly.
"Haven't you realized physical force is useless." It was more statement than question.
"Another new friend. Rubric appears to be un-happy with your grip. You might want to stop."
Arly had arrived.
Rubric now turned to see the same sandy haired boy that he'd had the run in with last night.
The boy protested "He should be over at the navigators table. The Male navigators table. 'snot right."
"I really would like to think that we are both free and civilized enough to chose where we sit and whom we have breakfast with."
The assailant backed a hasty retreat. Rubric leaned back to see what he'd do next and was unsurprised when he saw the boy try to sit down at the female navigators table, before being firmly but politely rejected. He smiled, leaned forward and realized Arly was looking at him. "Thank you for removing him. He was being most persistent."
Tash looked at her brother sternly "Have you been getting into trouble? You'd better not be Rubric, unless there's enough to share."
"Alas no. Apparently, they feel it would be better if I did not sit here."
"Any reason why?"
"Perhaps I disrupt their inner Chi. Though far more likely, I suspect that they are envious of me. With a few more years and about thirty meters distance to observe from; I believe I would be envious of me.
After all, I'm sitting with not only my lovely twin, but a bevy of beautiful and unmistakably female portal-runner's. What more can an eight year old ask for?"
Tash smiled wryly "If you keep that up, you can go back to whenst you came. I must say, you are surprisingly chipper this morning."
"It's something in the air I'm sure. Or perhaps the company I keep." His grin was as usual, disarmingly honest.
The conversation spiraled on from there, both Tash and Rubric leaving early to inspect the nobucaneers'ere.
When they got to the hanger however, the empty expanse had been removed. Now the ceiling was much lower. Obviously the extra floors had been inserted. Before they could use the elevator, Tash saw a notice, hovering at head height… For taller people anyway.
Backing up a bit they both read it.
"BAY's have not yet been assigned. All Cars are in the loading dock for race #1 Drivers, navigators and all other team members please proceed there immediately.
Race will begin at eleven forty five."
Below there was a Door-code. Tash and rubric moved over to the Doors set into the wall, and after a quick search for a stepladder, managed to key in the destination. The Door went green immediately and they both stepped through in short order.
They'd arrived in the 'ready room'. There is only one racing Ready Room. Both the Professional administration, School and various other independent racing bodies used it. It was a gigantic cylinder, the center was hollow and it's width was more than a kilometer, it's depth, ten.
When entering the destination code, the Door had asked them to identify themselves; Which they had with their jumpsuit ID's.
Which was why now staring out into the vast expanse of empty space, they did so next to their car.
Once they'd admired the view and the long drop, they inspected the bay. It was a large hexagon, part of the lattice which lined the walls of the entire cylinder.
The unmarred and smooth surface was a steely grey, but without texture.
In the rear of the bay there were racks of basic tools, a terminal and what looks like a projector. Archaic.
In front there was a hexagonal framework.
Both Tash and Rubric examined that closely. It appeared to be a stripped down gate, but there was only the configurable components. You could set it to a receiving station, but it wouldn't actually do anything.
Quail showed up ten minutes before the race as they sat ready in their car.
"You are students, so you won't be racing any other races than set ones. As such this will be your bay. I have one piece of advice. Attempt to win at any and all cost. This race will be much simpler than the entry test. However you'll now have to deal with having active competition."
Tash and Rubric exchanged glances. "We'll …Be Fine. We hope." Came the simultaneous reply.
"Launch in a few minute's, I have to run. This race is a falling start, so I can't stick around, but don't let it daunt you!"
Tash suddenly frowned as her pulse quickened "Did you say a running start?" she asked, but quail had already disappeared through the door.
"Rubric. Seal up you cockpit. I have a feeling that something is going on."
Even as Tash spoke, a colossal projection appeared in the empty space.
"Race Start In three hundred and sixty Seconds! Lower gate is ready. Five second intervals will be measured between the release of pilots." The Announcement spoke as well, in a detached female voice which filled the cavernous space.
"Bay's Extending. Please board your vehicles and evacuate any other person's from the bay interior."
Behind both Tash and Rubric, a motor began to grind as their hexagon left the wall. Inside the bay, the nobucaneer's'ere locked in place in the still air. With slow grace, they tilted within the grip of the armature, until they were facing directly down at the gate below. "Tash."
"I forgot the race plan."
"You did too! I'm doing it now."
Tash let out a sincere danm.
"Shush you. 'snot that bad."
"In comparison to what?"
"In comparison to the fact I have no trace of a clue about what a falling start will do to my calculations."
There was an uncomfortable pause.
"Now would be a good time to tell me that you're joking."
"It would be an even worse time to lie. It won't be that bad. Quail would have told us if he thought we needed to be informed, if only to enlarge his bonus."
Inside the cockpit's the announcers voice spoke
"Number thirteen. Release in three seconds."
"Already?" Tash protested, gripping her controls tightly.
"Release. Thank you for your patronage of Hex 1553" The unseen announcer continued as they hurtled downwards. Tash was tempted to fire up her thrusters, but even with a known exit she didn't want to be going so fast that she ploughed into the back of someone or worse something and end her race early.
"Keep your hex clean. Put all waste down the destruction hatch and place all tools back in their correct-"
The voice was cut off as the Nobuccaneer's'ere slipped through the rippling surface of the Gate.
"Thank god. That voice was getting annoying." Rubric commented.
They were floating. Or at least that's what the sensor's told them. Tash was not trusting of them though, since they also told her that the outer skin temperature was both 100 above and eighty degrees below zero.
"…. I wish I knew what we were meant to do." Tash commented.
"… Where were we supposed to end up?"
"Uh, not sure. At the last second, it changed from Serenity stream to some-thing else... PB I think."
" You're creeping me out with all those silences"
"Tash. Talk to me."
"PB. Pandoras Box you dolt. And considering the circumstances I would say you irritated the wrong person. Check that. Wrong Rich Person."
"I guess they were stupider than I thought. Well. I guess I don't need to learn his name now."
"… Awww screw it." "What?" "I have an idea." "What?" "Open Your cockpit." "WHAT!"
" I'll do it too. The race organizers will have a bungie on us or something to prevent them losing the rich kids who can't drive. That and it probably isn't even vacuum out there. Seriously. The map is blank. The sensors are off. We aren't moving. Is there anything else we can do?"
"Why doesn't anyone believe that you're more reckless than I am?" Rubric un-dogged his hatch anyway.
" Three two miss a few- !"
The Nobuccaneer's'ere appeared in the middle of the hanger. It's hatches slowly opened and Tash and Rubric sat up. They surveyed the crowd of adults.
"Well quail" one of them said "I never expected your students to go from bright to stupidly suicidal in one day."
Tash let her body slump over the side of the car in exasperation. " Ninety nine a hundred. Do you think I'm Stupid!"
"Pardon?" The critic seemed surprised that Tash was even talking back.
"… My Deity. If I had one I'd be praying to him now. The cockpit cannot be opened unless the external environment is an oxygen nitrogen atmosphere of breathable proportions with a safe pressure and gravity. Thus, we wouldn't be killed. You'd chicken out first and recall us back here with whatever safety mechanisms keep your participants safe from death and you safe from lawsuit.
Now please. Put us on the real course."
"That was the REAL course. You were supposed to last it out as long as you could without panicking or using all your fuel."
"Well It seems to me that considering we escaped using only 0.0043% of our primary power source, we're good. Air isn't a problem with power for a Cee-oh-two splitter."
The spokesperson opened his mouth as if to speak, before soundlessly closing it to stare at Tash.
"Technically" He simmered drawing out the sound from the word, as if unwilling to let go of the admission.
He paused for effect "You are correct." His words were clipped and his face dour.
Everyone else in the hangar seemed to edge away from him.
Smile. He smiled, perfectly white teeth illuminating picture perfect features which could have been from any matter surgeons sample book. Rubric recognized him. The Lord high executioner of the racing school, or at least the next worst thing: The Grademaster. A former track star, now responsible for all promotions among teachers and students: In addition to Demotions.
Fuuuuuuu- Rubric mentally screamed. Tash's temper had just irritated the third worst person currently on the planet.
The grin grew wider exposing more blindingly brilliant enamel. "Your time was a record for safe exodus. In fact. I would say that you are unfairly matched against these other students, who are merely here to learn against peer's of their own ability."
Tash felt a sinking feeling In the pit of her stomach for the first time since the auction.
"Pray tell, what exactly do you have in mind?"
"Why. To move you to somewhere where you might race among equals. Complete the first stage of your degree fairly!"
Quail, resisting the urge to cower from the cloud of impending Doom that threatened to swallow his students, moved forward. "We don't have degree's or certificates here mister Fore."
Grademaster Fore smacked his forehead dramatically.
"We Do Now. Quail." The teacher very nearly acted like his namesake.
Fore touched his Jumpsuit control's. "Silence."
A minute ticked by.
"Done. We now have Degrees. And Doctorates. And Post-grad work. Why didn't we think of this before? Offering specialist courses not only means we can support more students, but it means that racers will need to get a second degree to be certified to race in a different event! And we can have Fee's the second time round. We might even be able to apply this reterospectively and have all current racing teams come here for recertification! Once I check this with the legal department, All Credit Goes to You Quail!" Fore slung his arm around Quails shoulders. "I'll make sure that everyone knows that Quail, of the First InterGalactic Racing University, Subsidry of the Gateracer Official Rules and organization Body, was the one to bring the light of learning to the universe!"
Tash and Rubric Exchanged glances. "Sorry, Rubric. Didn't Know."
"And IF any Protest, you can convince them like you convinced me!" He removed his arm from Quail, who almost fell over. Turning, he gazed at Tash and Rubric. "As for you. It would seem best to…"
He paused before banging the side of his head a few times with his palm. "Look there's too much interference for the whole mind to mind speak in the hanger, just use voice!"
"Fine, Fine sir." A parchment dry whisper spoke through his suit speaker. It was loud in the silence.
"We've examined the proposal and I'd like to compliment you on your genius sir! Why it will at least triple our capital in the years to come. One slight hiccup however."
"What." His bright malevolence showed a crack.
The old voice continued undaunted. "We require three things. First and second are the authorization gene-key's of all eighteen members of the rule board and the duel authorization both your superiors.
The third is time. All Retrospective changes have a lock, six months minimum of trial with a full eighteen week committee performance assessment and report to be completed prior to widespread implementation."
"No way to cut that time?"
"Nup, Has to be completely legal or no graduates will follow it without trying to sue us first."
Irritated by this unexpected thwarting of a perfectly good plot.
"... I will call you back on that."
"As for you." He spoke now to Tash and Rubric "You will be racing in the senior league to earn your tenure here. Unfortunately, you missed this morning's race, so that put's you at the bottom of the entire ladder."
"… You really don't like us do you Fore. However, since our act's lead to a technical success, you can't reprimand us in front of the cameras. A pity. I bet you like picking on-" Rubric pulled Tash out of her seat and sat bolt upright. "What she wanted to ask was, Is when did the senior race start?"
"Almost ten minutes ago now." Fore examined his nails calmly.
"Tash. Stop goofing around and get in. Mister fore, may we enter into the race now? You did just say we're in the senior group. You are obligated to allow us to participate should we be willing and able, are you not?"
Fore took his time about answering. "Oh I don't see why not. Would someone kindly get the Gate?"
Quail sprinted over and locked the hanger gate destination. "Gate set. Go Tash!"
Without any more encouragement Tash floored it. The cockpits had barely closed when they slipped through the rippling veil of fire covering the surface of the gate.
" Scanning. Got the next gate!" They'd emerged in the middle of a desert, atop a pillar of blood red rock
"I've set marker's, follow them while I have a look at the course map." Rubric added as Tash oriented
Tash wasted no time. Already travelling forwards, she turned till the line on her forward screen was exactly in front. She flew, eating up the distance.
Rubric flinched, knocking his head on the top of his cockpit. "Tash. Rock formation, fifteen hundred ahead. Those burns look like a fragmentation explosion to you?"
"Yeah. Yes they do. Mean anything?"
"Desert. Red rock. Exploded car. Or at least if that's a real signal I'm getting from the pieces... Hang on…"
Tash's eye's flickered left and right. "So much for the easy course. What's got you spooked?"
"The signal. It's moving underneath the sand."
Tash paused for a second. Time seemed to slow as she reached for the hover tray controls and reset the altitude to eighty meters above ground level. She flicked on the belly cam, heard her brother say "It's moving up!" and saw the giant steel worms rotary teeth nearly scrape the bottom of her ride.
"It would seem this planet was mined once. I expect that the machine their locks on to the most pure and dense concentrations of certain minerals and attempts to ingest them for storage." She tried to say it casually, when in reality she'd be shaking in her boots if they weren't skin-tight.
"Oh." Rubric said, hyperventilating. "Is that all? Gate ahoy."
"Right. On stable ground." The words were barely out of her mouth when the proximity alarm sounded.
Rubric switched cameras "Hoo boy. Looks like solid snake down there has a birdie friend. Specifically a cargo hauler. Which will run us down in Fourty five-" They hit the gate and flashed through "-seconds."
Rubric snapped a lock-on over the next gate. Tash drove carefully. They'd emerged in an abandoned metropolis. More likely a pre-built abandoned metropolis. There is an important distinction.
Tash drove along a raised freeway, clogged with road only hover cars. Mag suspension would have kept them aloft from the surface of the road. They sat abandoned. There were more scorches, many of the buildings were blackened with what looked like unfocused plasma burn marks. None were above the level of the light poles which hung almost arch like, above the road surface.
Though neither of them knew it, the senior races are where new course lengths are tested.
Tash switched to the other side of the road as a pair of trucks blocked the opposite lane.
Immediately, the lamps around them illuminated their car with red spotlights.
"Please Do Not Violate Traffic Regulations." An automated female announced on loudspeakers outside the car in an annoying, sing-song voice. "Five seconds to turn around or return to correct lane before corrective measures are taken. Four." Tash pulled up onto the ordinary deactivated cars which clogged their correct lane. "Please, do not vertically overtake, for your own safety. Return to the road surface or you will be subject to corrective measures. You have Three. Two."
Tash jiggled the altitude controls, unwilling and unable to slow down. "One. Zero. Your First offence has been recorded!" It happened as Tash pushed the car on the upstroke of her Zig-Zag.
A shutter opened on the road beneath the final car of the stack. As Tash passed over it, the plasma cannon fired, propelling the dead hulk upwards with incredible force.
The Hoverjet moved up just as quickly though and they were past the danger before either had realized the nature of the threat. They escaped unscathed. The poor car that had taken the hit though, sailed up through the air while the annoying announcer talked. Instead of the car crashing to the roadway, it bounced about half a meter above the road lights which now suspended the wreck with a simple Hex shield. The Annoying announcer stopped talking and the car began to be blasted from what looked like the surface of the road. They rounded a corner and sped along a suspended backstreet.
"Tash. Don't raise the car. Whatever you do. Once out of the roadway, the lights keep you out while little miss sing song takes pot shots at you. I expect someone must have left the roadway at the start, had a couple of teams who followed him, imitate him and then end up getting pasted by the defenses."
"I have to conform to roadrules too. Dammit, I became a racing driver Because I didn't need a license."
"Calm down Tash. Gate… Ahead and above. Man I knew we should have taken a left."
"Hang on." Bringing the car to a halt, Tash zoomed in on the Roadway above. "It's got the same sorta lights. We aren't equipped to punch through a hex barrier. Might not need to but I don't trust the organizers or the traffic bot."
"Roadmap! Just tried to see if we were picking up anything. It was on Wi-fI! I told you that compatability patch would come in handy!"
"Fine. You were right. Now what."
"Tash. Take a look at this."
Rubric sent the map to Tash.
"Overlay map with satellite view. I just need to make sure that I'm not seeing thing's wrong."
Tash shook her head smiling. She loved her brother.
"You're right. It's Impossible."
They were still in the city, but with a minute and a half more time gone.
"Again." Said Tash, blinking away a bead of sweat.
"There is no connection on any other roadway to the road where the Gate is positioned. No tunnel. No route no elevator. It emerges from one building and then winds around to end in mid-air. To reach it, you must leave the streets and be shot down by bossy bot."
Tash grinned wolfishly. "We know better, don't we Dear Brother."
Rubric smiled as he locked in his guess for the time left to the next gate. He was almost on-top of the game again.
Tash rounded a corner perfectly. No speed limits at least. A small mercy. "We know. That if it end's in a structure-"
"-Within the structure there should be an opening in the Hexes."
"And so, here I Go!" Tash yelled joyfully as she pulled off the road, up a flight of steps and right through a pair of glass doors. The building was a hollow frame without any furnishing's or in fact, internal partitions. Which made it too easy to just float up to the top, swing round and enter the end of the section of road which jutted out into the interior of the building. Tash punched the accelerator and they sped through the gate.
"I hope you realize that as you are currently acting director and principal, that I am obligated to advise you when I believe that you pursue an unwise course of action. Currently the first combined senior race is suffering from a fifty percent attrition rate. No casualties, but we only have, well… thirty five, four teams out of seventy remaining."
"Your point?" "Isn't it a bit… Difficult for them?"
There was a warm chuckle. "Of course. Far too difficult. But it will keep getting harder. These people are gifted. So long as one or two make it through the race, then the others will see that it's not impossible. They will work harder than they would ever have done otherwise and reap the benefits. I'm not a monster you know."
"Then why are you cowering?"
"Those late entries. They were uh."
"How long did they last?"
"That's just it, they're still going."
"Contacts! Tash, Twelve, three and five O clock!"
The nobuccaneer's'ere swerved around a cloud of icy blue mist. The engines flared as it hurtled downwards between the cloud's of vapor.
Behind it the cloud of mist they'd swerved around, darkened, then exploded outwards in a soundless burst. From the wisps a long shining shape slid.
They'd been in the methane clouds three minutes. The snakes which once mined them as a resource, now set to home in on solid objects. This was a problem for the very solid Tash and Rubric.
The gate was close, but shrouded in volatile gas. Tash and rubric could not afford to blow themselves up by touching one of the billowing clouds. The snakes had no such problems.
"Come ON! Another dead end?"
"They're closing Tash. I have an idea. Just don't stop."
"Okay. Then what?"
"When we're exactly in line with the gate, cut the engines."
"I trust you Rubric." "Ditto. Do it."
Three cloud's of the ice blue mist blossomed outwards as the massive mining machines homed in on the tiny racer. "Cut!"
The fire propelling the car along died. It's momentum did not. In vacuum it remained moving at the same speed and in the same direction that it's engines last fired in.
"We just have to hope that our engine cones don't ignite anything, because they're still warm enough to weld with. And there are pockets of oxygen within the cloud's, we hit one of them. We are "
"Anything else." Tash blinked a few more beads of sweat from her eyes.
"Yeah." Rubric commented, sounding shaky. "We have five or so kilometers to the gate. We're going at around five hundred meters a second. Activate the engines if I scream."
"No problems there. I really wish I knew if methane is ignited by plasma."
Tash watched as the gate got nearer and nearer. Still too danm far…
The machine was almost on the tiny craft. Arly shook her head and pressed the ice-pack to her head a little tighter. She'd hit it when a thermo-tropic vine caught her wingtip and caused her craft to plough into the dirt. Annoying, but now not uncommon it seemed. The infirmary was filling up.
"We hadn't studied for Any of those courses!" Dev sat next to Arly, Nursing a broken arm.
"It's like they want us to fail." Dev continued.
"Shush and watch."
On screen there was a pause. The Metal snake swooped down. "They're dead."
Quite suddenly, there was a bloom of fire. It expanded outwards, engulfing the snake and banking out the camera.
"See. That's what I mean. Totally not fair."
Arly raised an eyebrow.
The camera switched. Flames roared and billowed out of a gate set into the wall of a colossal cavern.
The Blue and black shape of the Nobuccanere's'ere sliced through the billowing flames. Two bright flames lanced out either side of the stream of incandescent plasma.
Arly breathed out. "Well. If you will name your craft the lord of fail, then you aren't exactly setting the standard high."
"For the last time that wasn't… Ugh never mind. You know, almost everyone's going to be rebuilding their entire Rac's. At this pace we'll need to purchase permanent licenses for all our components."
He straightened up, watching the screen on the wall absently. "So what's up? you usually don't watch other people race."
"Dez. I know you're from another school and all, but don't you find it more than a little strange that we have two people who only arrived here yesterday , racing against us."
"Seriously. That's who you're watching? Some rookie?" "Yes." "Who Arrived here yesterday." "Yes" "And is beating both of us." "Can you assume all your questions will result in yes."
On screen the blue and black ship tumbled and fired it's thrusters while pointing backwards; And not a moment too soon as a mountain sized stalactite dropped from the ceiling and shattered where they would have been. Flying upwards in a sharp curve, the ship flew upside down over the crumbling mass of rocky debris.
"Assuming the pilots female and cute, could you introduce me?"
Arly began to laugh hysterically.
"Talk to me rubric. That last one was a mite close." Tash tried to filter the strain from her voice.
It was harder than it sounds. "We're on course. Slow down by twenty K's a minute. That should put us through the gate exactly on the button. We'll be in the gemworld. Safe and shiny."
"Gotcha. Going. How much farther." "Probability of encountering endgate will increase to eighty percent if we get another two times correct. This will be the second one I've got right, just hold the ship steady.
The tiny light of their thrusters shone brightly in the pitch black of the caverns interior. Somewhere below, water ran in a torrent. "How in the blazes does this cave hold together; Stalactites that big are at least a billion or so years in the making."
"Don't worry about that right now. Gate ahead. Suspended. Adjust our speed as you see the need."
Rubric made the final calculations, sped up by two thirds of a meter per second and smiled.
They passed through the gate. Another tunnel and Tash jinked wildly to avoid a razor edged spine of ruby that bisected the passage cleanly.
"Within point one of a second, we rock!" He couldn't resist the opportunity to pun.
"Markers please Rubric." Tash's tone was tolerant but strained, the passage she was falling through was intersected by razor edged crystal. "Okay Okay. Course set. Drive on. I've never seen anyone get attacked here. Just a bit too pretty to mess up."
Tash nodded to herself. Rubric was right. It was another cave, but this one sparkled. Every surface, every stalactite, everything was molded from colourful crystal. It sparkled.
"Magnificent." She swerved round a spire of flawless clear diamond. It was as thick as a house and jutted out from the floor and through the ceiling far above.
"There's the gate." Part of Tash's screen was magnified by Rubric. The rippling fire of the octagonal gate spread sparkling reflections across it's amethyst encrusted surface.
"Shi'virn!" Rubric swore. "There's a Hex shield over the gate. We need to go underground to get to it."
"Atarakala. Why doesn't it ever go smooth?"
Red light. Klaxons. Rubric glanced through the aft camera "Proximity alarm. It's another racing craft."
The other craft's six nozzle thruster flared as the sleek red jet headed for an opening in the cavern's crystal floor.
Davikic Novlyn savored the roar of his engines as he dived for the opening. So Obvious, outlined in black onyx and Yellow topaz, stripes. Artificial, and therefore an entrance to the gate's own hole.
The jet plummeted as he searched for a side tunnel. There was none. "What ees this. The hole was artificial. Yellow black stripes… A warning!" He killed the thrusters, sending the craft into a tumble. The moment his nose-cone pointed at the entrance, he fired up his engines. Or at least tried.
"What. Not responsive? Piece of Matter-produced crap!" He banged the dashboard angrily. His headlights turned on, reflecting off the crystalline surfaces to illuminate the entire tunnel.
"Oh. No." The craft exploded.
He landed on the fail futon. A mattress right below the escape portal.
"Danm eet All! I think that maybe other craft had right idea. Not go into danger marked tunnel."
"I told you we shouldn't go into the danger marked tunnel. Johnny freakinouter, I'm glad you listened."
"I'm piloting. You navigate. Now what are we doing?"
"I'm scanning to see if there is any way into the maze below the floor here. Hmmmm. Right below us, the lattice surface is pretty thin. Jettison the dead weight and see if it breaks something."
The deadweight were the spent solid fuel rockets they'd used to ignite the methane a-while back.
Tash typed the command manually; They hadn't really integrated the rockets.
"Here goes. I'm dropping the rockets."
The two spent solid fuels dropped. They both smacked into the unblemished blue tourmaline and shattered it. Sparkling dust flew up from the break.
Tash was about to swoop down when rubric frowned and yelled "Halt!" into his Mic.
"Why is there dust. This is crystal. What we dropped was metal. Why is there so much dust?"
"You are right. I say this because ordinary impact byproducts, don't home in on us."
"Nanites I'd say. I would have picked them up otherwise, but the sensitivity on the scanner is stuck on the default setting."
Tash Swooped around the cloud and spun round at half a kilometer away from it. "It's now registering as solid, the cloud I mean. I think that we let them out."
"No kidding. Now what?"
"Don't ask me. Johnny Freakinouter. All I can tell is that we have Two options Tash.
We either assume that we're meant to enter the tunnels. I don't think we are, but we might be."
"Or?" Tash was nervous. Did they really have all the safety equipment they were meant to?
"Or we move through the Hex shield. I think that it's not really there." Rubric's words were careful, but the content filled his sister with elation.
"Yes! Rubric, You're right. Why didn't we see it before."
"What. And if I'm not wrong, I think that you should move away from the walls."
"Of course!" Tash jammed on the accelerator. "Hex shields are made to consume hardly any energy when idle. It's why they only appear when something is about to pierce their perimeter. That shield has been up with no one even close. Plus, the hexes tend to come in layers. This one's an unbroken lattice. I don't think it's really an impact shield."
"Karl. Would you be a pal and change the protocol of the hex impact barrier in G-world to factory default. Just for the next minute."
"Then no one will be able to finish that section of the course until we update again, ten minutes tops."
"Do something else then. Make a secondary barrier, change the tangibility rating. Something!"
"By your command."
The Barrier in front of them rippled. Tash pulled up and around. Not fast enough.
"We lost our left wing!" "Freakinouter. That ain't right. That's Unfair! And now the nanobot cloud is heading right for us!... Ah-ha."
"What. Ohhhh." "Far side of the shield, now!"
Tash pulled around in a tight curve. The shield suddenly increased in radius. Sparks skidded from their underbelly as they scraped against the Hex's.
"Just like the inter system civil war!"
"Karl. What are they talking about."
"Uhm… Oh. It must have been more than two hundred and seventy years ago. The Corpediracy troops used a cloud of aerosols to overload the kinetic impact shields of… Oh, oh dear." His voice was quiet in the silence, punctuated only by the sound of someone behind him becoming very, very angry indeed.
The Silicon spider cloud hit the outer radius of the Hex Barrier. The radar for the selective barrier picked up a myriad of moving contacts and began to throw up layers of glowing hexagonal lattice-works.
Nanobots fried as they touched the barriers. But for every one that turned to vapor there were a thousand more. They kept moving forward. More and more barriers flashed into being until-
There was a small explosion. The illusory hex dome dissipated. Tash flew through the gate, avoiding the cloud of silicone spiders that threatened to engulf the ship.
They burst out into sunshine; A grassy meadow and golden sunset.
Rubric breathed a sigh of relief as he read the location details "Really? We can relax. This bit is a memorial park. They won't have changed it."
In the dining hall, the battered seniors and most of the juniors watched the race.
There were fifteen team's left. Two from their school and none from both New Kellog and Droll. Evenly distributed for the most part everywhere else.
"I'm telling you it's them." Emilie said to Sakura pointing at the blue and black craft on screen.
"I'm telling you it's not. How would they end up in a senior race, with no lessons, no experience and a ride they built at home." Sakura shrugged.
Arly walked in. She'd finished healing half an hour ago, but the site of the fracture would hurt for a day at least. Sakura spotted her and waved her over.
"Arly. Bad luck about the race." Arly smiled they'd both copped out, but it was nice of her to pretend it was luck. "Could you settle an argument, that damaged blue black gloss job; Who built it? Was it the guy's who came here two days ago?"
"Yes. Yes it was. I was there when Tash got out of it. They were still in their pajamas, can you believe that?" "No. Colour?" "Pink and blue. Felt"
Sakura and Emilie laughed at the mental picture. "But it's them. From what I heard from Quail, they really annoyed Fore after they fooled the staffers into pulling them out of the box early. So Fore tells them that they need to have more of a challenge and bumps them up to the senior league, still on probation. But when he says they forfeited the first race, they ask, learn it's still running and rush off to enter ten minutes late."
"Well they've been going for about as long as we did. If you take ten minutes that is."
"Covered more ground though. Ouch." The last word came as the screen split to show both the speeding bullet of the Twins ship and their projected next stop.
"Well, they've managed to deal with everything so far. Has anyone gotten through the warzone yet?"
"The pack, twelve minutes in. Fifteen cars were in tight formation." Emilie smiled grimly.
Tia slid onto the seat next to Emilie
"Three made it through." She finished.
Lydia sat down on the other side.
"Only just get back you two?"
Arly asked, a trifle concerned. Both looked weary.
"We had plenty of juice left, but only two tanks of oxygen. No converter to re-use it. Did it to save weight."
"We tried to find an exit. Expended our powercell's. Forgot they were linked to the converter. Anoxia followed."
"Cheer up both of you. Tash is still running."
"Serious? Wait. Where are they."
"Sunset bay. Always between sunset and twilight there. Lovely beaches. Nice picnic spot."
"They got promoted as punishment for annoying the grademaster." Reha cheerfully summed up minutes of drama and angst filled conversation in one sentence.
"Look" Arly said "They're going to hit the gate."
Tash watched as the rolling field's of green grass disappeared beyond the veil of white fire.
Their ship slipped through.
"What the…. Skygate?" The prow of their ship sliced through the cloud-cover as they took a nose-dive the moment gravity took hold of them.
It was pretty black, undoubtedly night time.
Tash moved to set the hovertray's altomiter for a gentle descent.
"Multi-spectrum view, I've got a clear shot through the cloud cover…. Johnny Freakinouter." Rubrics mouth went dry. "Evasive maneuvers. Now! Drop thirty meters."
Tash obeyed, dropping and then beginning to spiral forward. "We may need to drop further."
Tracers cut through the cloud cover. Flack Exploded above where they'd dropped.
"Projectile, anti-aircraft fire. Archaic but we'll still get cut up bad by a hit!"
"Freakinouter. Are they trying to wreck us. Is that Entertaining?" "Calm down Tash. Just dodge them. If they are real examples of that kind of weaponry, they aren't good at erratic moving targets."
Tash dived. The gate was at the center of the defenses. She'd zig zag, draw closer and then break the pattern for a surprise run.
"We've got about forty more minutes of juice if we run full burn. That's plenty. So go nuts."
Tash served and spiraled avoiding the fiery lines.
"This would be so much easier if other people were here. Then maybe not every battery would fire at the same target. Us!" Two of the incandescent streams stopped.
"Realoading. I'm taking us in Now!"
"Go for it sis." Tash swung upwards, around and down, chased by a quartet of anti aircraft fire.
The bullets chased the ship across the sky, always too slow to perforate it. Then the closes gun finished reloading. It fired just as they hit the gate. One impact.
Tash shot through, wobbled and then stabilized. "High Grav world. Hover-tray is eating through power."
She'd already hit the thrusters, still talking "But we should have enough, there's only going to be like what. Two more sections? We can do that."
Even as she spoke the last few words, the fuse burnt down on the flak round lodged in their side.
The explosion shook the entire frame.
"Damage. We took a hit." "No, duh. Result." "Hover tray damaged. But functioning. Strained. We have to get moving before we burn it out and crash."
"Gate." Tash watched as the course appeared on her view-screen. She fired the thrusters and headed out across the barren landscape.
There were six people still mobile. Most of the attention though, was on the screen showing the damaged nobucaneer's'ere.
" Anyone think they'll make it."
"Nah. They're finished. There's no way. It was a good effort and they were lucky. But there's no way they are going to finish missing a wing and with a damaged hover-hover tray."
"If they get off the high grav world fast enough they still have a running chance."
"I guess. I don't think they have any hazard's on that stretch of the course."
Crack-Boom. The explosion sounded like a lightning bolt. It knocked over a towering pillar of rock, deftly avoided by the ship with Tash at the controls. She ducked under the falling rock and continued towards the Gate.
"Seriously this is supposed to be a race. What's with all the explosions." Reha said, grimacing as another shockwave echoed through the hall speakers.
"They must be testing Hazards. It's nuts. Practically everyone who's now out, either forfeited or been pulled out and their craft blown to smithereens." Alexi frowned.
"Something bothering you 'lex?" Tia asked, concerned.
"Tash and Rubric just got here, Right?" "Yeah." "But, we haven't gotten any new safety features. Don't you need something extra to recall just the people when the craft is destroyed?"
"Uh. You may be right. In which case I hope they don't crash."
Out of the high gravity world, they now sped along a narrow track. They were on the home stretch, with the gate in sight, when.
"Wow. Nothing happened. Could this actually have been a normal section of track?"
"Gate in three, two, one." Rubric counted down.
They hit and flashed through. "Hey. Home stretch. Howsabout that."
"Maybe, the worst is over?"
The road quite suddenly appeared to take on an 'interrupted' appearance.
Tash decelerated rapidly. "Where to?" she asked looking at the cliff. The road ran down it without stopping, going back up the other side fifty meters away. It was as though it had been draped over the landscape by someone who'd never heard of bridges.
"Lookit. Other side, two hundred meters forward, there is a bend. That's our gate. The finish line."
"So. How are we meant to get across? We can barely manage one kilometer lift, mabe one and a half or two on an intact drive. Not some bottomless pit."
"To be honest with you Tash, I don't know. I don't have any of the course maps. Hence why I've waited till we got into each section to locate the exit point."
"Well. Bugger. Leap of faith?"
The conversation was interrupted as another car shot out of the gate behind them at nearly full speed, braked and ploughed straight into the side of their own ship.
"Johnny Freakinouter what the hell!" Tash yelled as they were propelled forward over the cliff by the force of the impact.
But instead of falling Down they went sideway's. The cart righted itself, but now it was on a vertical rather than horizontal track.
"Nice trick. Don't think about it too much or your head will explode. Now after them!" Rubric spurred Tash to chase after the people who'd rammed them, and evidently expecting the change in gravity, kept on driving.
The track twisted as they drove further and further away from the surface. In front was the light of the fleeing opponent's thrust nozzles. It began to bob and sway, occasionally winking out as the leading car turned, it's body shielding the light from its thrusters.
"Look's like the track is going to get a little twisty." Tash commented, flicking on the headlamps to illuminate the track in front of her.
Ahead the track left the wall of the crevice, lilting sideways in a corkscrew that would cause any normal car to fall fatally down through the darkness to whatever lay below at the bottom of the rent.
On a track where the local gravity was always down, it merely made both Tash and Rubric want to kill the architect.
The corkscrew straightened out into short section of straight track, which both driver and navigator were content to drive on, at least until it began to curve upwards in an impossible loop.
"Why didn't we just fly over the gap?"
"Because we're both idiot's. And they probably would have thought that was cheating, and disqualified us."
"Which would be a shame, since our ride is busted. Fifteen percent fuel left, by the way."
"I know Rubric. We'll make it, just stop distracting me, unless you want to enjoy a firsthand view of whatever's down there. "
Rubric did shut up. There wasn't much track left and although the local gravity of the suspended track was unnerving, it wasn't a car wrecker unless you fell off.
Tash finally reached the curve on the opposite wall and began to drive straight up.
"Tash. The other car. It's stopped, somewhere up ahead."
"Why? That's the finish line. Shouldn't it have entered the Gate and returned home?"
"Hey, all I'm saying is that Instrument's say that someone's waiting, just past the edge." Rubric frowned.
They really were very close to the edge.
"Tash. I think they might have Rammed us accidentally-on-purpose. They're just sitting there, for no reason."Rubric was more than a little concerned at the lack of activity.
People almost never ran out of fuel and if you broke down, it usually meant your entire vehicle had been beaten to a pulp.
"Brother, your being paranoid. We've barely been here less than three day's. We haven't even met anyone from the other schools, let-alone pissed anyone off enough to want to Ram-"
The car stopped. "I turned it off Tash. We're fifty meter's from the edge, they haven't moved."
"Turn the power back on. Now. There's only, like, 150 meter's to go. I promise I'll be careful."
Rubric returned control to Tash "Even if they have run out of juice, they'll block the track, don't approach too fast or you'll hit them."
Tash wasted no time, flooring the accelerator, ignoring her brother's protests. With one hand she reached down for the venires' that set the altitude for the hover-tray.
Ahead the light was, for rubric at least, unsurprisingly blocked out as the other craft stuck it's nose out over the edge of the cliff they were driving up.
Tash flicked up the altitude on the hover-tray, causing their ship to begin to rise on it's damaged tray. Ahead the car blocked the track, but Tash kept rising, until when the track bent, running from the vertical surface of the cliff to the horizontal one of the ground above. As they passed the bend, it became evident they weren't going to collide with their opponent. To Tash, their lightning turn was almost done in slow motion. She reset their hover altitude to two meter's above ground level, adding the acceleration of their swing round the cliff to their now considerable acceleration. Ahead the Victory Gate shone golden. Tash winced as their ship bounced on the track surface showering the vehicle behind them with sparks. The craft behind them had not yet given up, ramming into the rear of the nobucaneer's'ere and bending it's thrusters' out of shape. Tash immediately cut the power to the engines at the moment of the impact. Bent nozzles would distribute the thrust unevenly and sent them careening off course. Instead, balanced on the nose of the craft behind her and smirked as they pushed her through the veil of the final gate and onto the receiving bay floor. The bay staff hit the slo-field, cutting the speed of the sliding vehicle almost immediately.
The people who'd so rudely rammed them, had come out of the second receiving gate, quarter-way across the room.
There were four rooms, each with four gate's. For ease in taunting or conversely offering congratulation's, you emerge near the people you've just beaten or been beaten by.
Both Tash and Rubric could only laugh as the other craft came through the bay next to them immediately after they ground to a halt.
Tash popped the seals on her cockpit and waved in the direction of the over-sized jet black Jet.
"High five sis?" "Hell's yeah."
Their hands snapped together, very nearly at the same time the abused and overburdened hover-tray, the generator unable to cope with it's vastly increased need for power; Failed.
Gravity remembered their address and they went down like the metaphorical ton of bricks.
Both twins were thrown out of their seats by the impact.
All Tash could do was groan, because Rubric had landed on top of her.
"Oops, sorry. " " I yam fine, but this situation ees not so good. The car is stuffed."
Both looked at the once noble no'buccaneer's'ere as she lay smoldering on the metallic tiling.