Alma couldn't help but let out a whoop of laughter as she skimmed the tops of the vineyards. She could feel the wind streamline over her head and across her back and momentarily, she was weightless as the ground beneath her became a river of red. This is what she loved. The feel of the wind against her cyclo. The hum of the core. The smear of the land around her.
It was as close as anyone could get to flying, easier than falling in love and better than jumping into the river Seco on a hot day. From riding her first junkyard cyclo as a teen and upgrading it over the years to owning a hydro core cyclo with kinetic shifters, she'd come a long way. She'd begun racing Mika Vargas when they were sixteen in the southern vineyards on the clunky Harvesters they used during their shifts in the vineyards. Mika had been the one to land her that first gig in Tassajara as a tag-team in a partner race. They'd spent all their money on fueling their cyclos with quint that they'd had nothing left for the paint job they'd envisioned. So, they'd done what any broke pair of sixteen-year-olds would have done. They marched down to the river with pails full of mud, mixed it with casein power and borax and made a paint from the red clay dirt that made Valparaiso so infamous.
They'd won their first hundred Alnotes that day.
From then on, industrial, entrepreneurial Mika arranged it all, the races, the events; she made the friends and the connections. Alma was just there for the racing.
It had been great while it lasted. Until Mika left for DeVallarie City leaving behind Alma, her little brother and her family. Alma had continued racing without Mika but it wasn't the same. Racing had become just another way to earn money and save up for a different life. It was just a quick fix to the otherwise stagnant life Alma led in the valley.
The mountains in the distance grew as Avalos and Alma flew down the service road. The digital racetrack would curve around the corner at the end of the two-mile road to follow the base of the mountains along the Halliwell aqueduct where they would follow it for a few more miles, then they'd cut across the eastern fields, over the hill, and back to the start. A total of six miles.
The challenge would be to keep the inner track on the turns and make sure she didn't use up her higher gear modes.
Avalos hadn't paid too much attention to her yet. They were both focused on reaching the end of the road as fast as they could. The first to the turn would be the first to secure the inner track. The inner track had the speed and lift to pick up any lost seconds.
Her dashboard read a total of 10.42 seconds had elapsed since they'd left the start line and she'd crossed over 0.8 kilometers.
Almost a record-breaker there.
Avalos was close enough behind to reach out and touch her. As he shifted into a higher mode, his cyclo sped forward and he saluted her as he passed. She couldn't see his face but she was sure he was laughing.
Alma gritted her teeth. She had a total of four core modes she could use to increase the kinetic energy of the quint in the core. She'd have to use them wisely if she wanted to win.
Her comms flickered on. "Keep up if you can, Diabla del Polvo!" Avalos's voice crackled in her ear. Alma jumped and cursed. Her cyclo swerved briefly to the right cutting close to the edge of the digital racetrack and she received a warning in the corner of her screen to stay within the borders.
How the hell had he gotten access to her comms?
"Block unknown caller DC-245" Alma said into the interface. The assistant blocked Avalos's signal. Annoyed, Alma used her first mode for the last half of the two-mile road. She wanted to go into the first turn with a little speed, and use to it to slingshot past Avalos.
The road and racetrack curved and Alma followed it, leaning her cyclo at a near ten-degree angle from the ground. Her knee was inches from the road and she could feel rocks bouncing off her suit.
Not too close. Not too close. She repeated in her head.
She straightened her cyclo out and noted with pleasure that Avalos was about five yards away from her. She smirked and used her first mode to gain more distance between them. Her cyclo sped forward down the new road.
To her right, the Halliwell aqueduct cut across the valley, it's surface dancing like diamonds in the late afternoon sun. As a girl, before Mika had moved to Valparaiso, she used to play in the concrete aqueduct with the Duke's daughter, Aram Halliwell, when the river had dried up for the summer. Now, school children played in it, walking along the edges and pushing each other in just as she and Aram had done when they were little.
She felt something hot on her shoulders. Alma glanced up and saw the bottom of Avalos's cyclo. Hot, quintessence fumes from his core burned in a ring of cool blue. She swerved right to get out of the way and Avalos came down right beside her.
"Didn't think you'd really be rid of me that easily, did you?" His voice boomed over her comms again. Alma swore as she jumped at the sound of it.
"Block unknown caller—"
"Try again, sweetheart" Avalos laughed.
"Get off my comms, jackass," Alma threatened and she pressed the mute button. Since her first couple of solo races she'd learned to keep her comms off or she'd get a slew of sexist comments and threats from her opponent. How he'd been able to hack into her assistant was a mystery. A mystery she didn't care too much about now that she was focused on that hundred thousand Alnotes.
Her interface dinged several more times. Avalos was still requesting to talk to her but she continued to ignore him.
The second turn was coming up. The racetrack veered slightly right, led away from the mountains and cut across a field and then disappeared up over the edge of a small hill. They had about 3.58 more miles until the finish line which wound back around to where they'd begun. Alma fought for the inner track but she couldn't pass ahead of Avalos. If she rose higher, he rose higher. If she sped up, he matched her.
Eventually, she slid behind him and pulled into a tight turn. It wasn't ideal but she'd have to try a different tactic for the last and final turn.
Alma used her third mode to catch up to Avalos as the two of them flew over the vineyards and up over the hill.
As they came down the hill, the Halliwell Estate came into view to the east against the striated mountains now beginning to reflect the liquid ember sunlight from the setting sun. The estate was sprawled out along the valley floor like an octopus. It was an old manor with crumbling clay tiles and cracked adobe walls but it was by no means out of repair. In fact, quite the opposite. The estate, like the valley of Valparaiso, belonged to the Duke of Valparaiso, Callum Halliwell. He had moved into the estate after the invasion, having been granted the land by the Emperor of Albion. The Duke had restored both the old villa and the town of Valparaiso from the ground up. While locals had taken to calling it, La Casa del Oro, the Golden Estate, Alma had known it by a different name.
The Halliwell Estate was her home and had been so for the past twenty-two years.
Her grandmother Yaya and Alma's mother had first come to work for the Duke during the occupation. The Duke took them in, gave them food, shelter and employment.
If Yaya knew I was racing this close to the villa…
Alma pushed the thoughts away not wanting the guilt that had bubbled in the pit of her stomach. Besides, the Duke wasn't home. He and his daughter lived primarily in his city residence in DeVallarie.
Not like they would care I was doing this…
Alma's helmet beeped again. Avalos was a little way behind her but he was still requesting to speak to her. Words scrolled along the bottom of the screen but as she was about to enable Voice Over, her helmet screen flashed a warning.
To the east, coming in from the interstate, two Albion Sector Patrols had been spotted in white Astradrifters.
Alma's face blanched.
The sector patrols, WASPS as they were so lovingly named, had been proscribed in Valparaiso by the Duke.
Clearly, they hadn't gotten the memo.
You could take on a couple of WASPS. The thought floated to the forefront of her mind and Alma immediately waved it away. She'd been foolish to think she could even try. Those were military grade Astraldrifters they rode. Capable of 400 mph high-speed accelerations and able to reach sub-sonic levels once they reached the stratosphere. They packed more than just net-destabilizers and nano-blasters. Beneath their clinical white aerodynamic frame, Astraldrifters did one thing and did one thing very well: warfare.
They hadn't seen Alma and Avalos yet but if they continued along their route off the glassway they would.
The last turn in the race came. Alma had taken the inner track and as soon as she straightened out, she shifted into her last and fastest mode. This was it.
Beneath her legs, she could feel her cyclo heating up. The particles of quint turning from liquid into a gas. The tips of her fingertips tingled and she clamped her thighs down as she felt her body lift off seat.
Both Avalos and Alma jockeyed for place as the distance on their interface quickly dwindled down quickly. This was the final mile stretch. They had entered the same abandoned dirt road they'd began on. Every time Avalos pushed his cyclo against hers, her interface was chime in warning against her.
I'd fucking stay on the track if this pendejo stopped blocking me.
1000 meters left. 900 meters. 800 meters…
Alma pressed her body flat against her cyclo. Avalos was still behind by a fraction of a second. A hundred thousand Alnotes. She chanted in her head like a heartbeat.
400 meters…300 meters…200 meters.
At the last moment, Alma threw her weight forward against her cyclo and the two of them passed by the finish line, their cyclos barreling down the road.
The winners name flashed against the screen but the two cyclo racers didn't have time to pause.
Coming straight down the road before them were the two WASPS, their lights and alarms blaring.
"Halt subjects!" They announced. "You are under arrest for the illegal racing of cyclomobiles under the decree of the Albion Empire by Statute 236 in the outer duchy of Valparaiso! Cease immediately or we will use deadly force!"
Avalos peeled right suddenly. One of the WASPS followed him off across the vineyard. The other appeared to be slowing down but as Alma continued forward she could see a thin, wavering field of blue. A net-destabilizer.
"Fucking hell!" She yelled out as she pulled hard on her handles, forcing her cyclo to make an abrupt right.
What the fuck are you doing, Colocho. She felt sick as she raced over the fields. She looked around for Avalos and the other WASP but could couldn't see anything.
You can't outrun ADs.
"Your cyclo is running low on fuel," Her assistant notified her. "Would you like me to direct you to the nearest filling station?"
Alma flicked her assistant off. The WASP behind her was quickly gaining on her. He'd overtake her in seconds. Alma slammed on her breaks and the WASP shot past her. Alma turned westward towards the river Seco.
The right thing to do would be to stop and surrender. Running would only get her into deeper waters. There was already jail-time on the table and a trial and the Duke of Valparaiso would get involved. And Yaya as well as the whole town would discover what the "Dukes illegitimate child" did in her free time.
"You're an idiot, Colocho," She told herself and then she plunged into the wide crevasse on her right.
The sun was beginning to fall behind the mountains casting the valley in a golden misty hue. Below her, the river Seco ran in the shadows. The water had dried up in springtime so all that was left was a rocky path that led out of Valparaiso and into Tassajara, the next duchy over. On either side, huge rock pillars arched over the dried-up river bed in a beautiful striation of oranges and reds. Signals usually died way out here and stabilizers shorted out. If Alma was going to outrun a WASP, it would have to be here weaving between the rock pillars. Maybe she could still evade them if her own cyclo didn't die on her.
Out of nowhere the same white WASP that had been tailing her reappeared in her rear-view mirror, siren wailing and ricocheting off the canyon walls.
Where Avalos and the other WASP had gone, Alma didn't know. What she did know was that that bastard has probably set her up and then left her high and dry. If she got her hands on that puto…
Ahead, the canyon split into a maze of stone arches and rock formations. This was her chance to lose them. She'd grown up training in this course and she knew every weave and turn…and every hiding place. But, the WASP on her tail wasn't gaining speed like she'd expected.
It was slowing down.
With horror, she realized why. Directly in front of her, the second WASP waited for her, its net destabilizer field extended the width of the canyon and she was too low in it to make it up and over in time.
"Fuck," Alma had time to whisper. She watched in horror as the net stabilizer rushed up on her. She did the only thing she could think of in that moment: she threw her hands up in front of her face and braced herself for the impact…
…but it didn't come.
Instead, her whole body felt cold like she'd jumped into the river after snowfall. Pins and needles danced on her fingertips and spread down the length of her body down to her toes. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck prick up one by one.
What just happened?
Somehow, someway she'd just barreled through a net stabilizer like it was a mirage, like it hadn't even been there at all.
How was that possible?
But, Alma didn't have time think about it as the first stone pillar rushed up on her. Adrenaline took over her muscles and she yanked on her handles to avoid it, but in confusion she'd overcompensated.
Immediately, Alma lost control of her cyclo. She veered up over the lip of the canyon and into the field of grapevines.
Leafy bunches of plump wine grapes exploded against her windshield and the last thing she could think of before her cyclo hurtled into the ground was the name of the victor that has scrolled across her screen at the end of the cyclo-race: Roman Avalos, the Blur from DeVallarie City.