The hoots and hollers of the crowd thinned, and behind blasting plate was muted entirely. No one around — who could smell — minded the pungent aroma of viscous synthetic oils, still hot from another successful run. A spindly fellow clothed in ratty denims waved minimally toward a diagnostic station, and her lithe, milled body settled in with a muffled clank.
“Yer turnin’ y’self inta scrap, Skitch.”
There was a little whirr as her faceplate lifted, hinged at her temples, to reveal her long faced and disinterested expression. Scratch hooked a tube into her torso and jammed his thumb into a panel, and the pedestal it clung to creaked. She inclined her eyes toward him, and they shimmered — or they used to — but now they latched on like they weren’t sure where else to go.
“Ah don’t like seein’ ya like this,” he intoned. “Winnin’ is fine — but parts are scarce. This ain’ murder-ball.”
Her gruff attitude was familiar, and she was comfortable with it, but he didn’t even flinch. He told her, “Yer empty. Season’s over. Now what’ll yeh do?”
She averted her eyes, then angled them toward the narrow causeway and world outside the dome. Didn’t need no practice, didn’t need no upgrades, didn’t need nothin’. Not family, not friends, just shut me off, she thought. Why’d I do it? What for? Credits? Fame? Let me sleep th’ nex span out ’til season cranks up again.
The idea was appealing, but…
Nah. “Gonna get me a drink.”
He tapped a few buttons on the glowing control board and nodded. Frizzles of white and grey hair poked out from under his Jumba-Wit branded hat. He scratched his beard and nodded again. Then he said, “Then what?”
“Gonna sleep awhile. See what then. I’ll tells ya when I knows it.”
“That’s ma Skitcher. You wind down an’ finds me at the usual address,” he replied with a minuscule grin. There was no further conversation while he completed her maintenance, though there was some grumbling in the courtyard about her performance.
“Not even half a tick t’let a fella switch grids. Ah been tellin’ ya, she got no sportsclout, no class neither.”
Maybe it was the sunglasses, or maybe they didn’t care she could hear them. Fah, she thought, they wanted her to hear. Scrub her name from the roster they would, if they could.
“Yeh? Ah think words is meanin’less. As you, meanin’ less, ya no credit scrout,” interjected another voice. This one was recognizable, but gave her no pleasure. “Gots damn ah gots no taim t’ waste on ya. Git outta th’ way!”
The shorter fella gave the taller a shove, and she waited for the weapons to come out. Instead, the smaller one hooked his leg under the other’s stabilizing leg and with a deft sweep, tossed him to the ground. Short stuff looked around at the curious crowd, but no one seemed interested in the kerfuffle.
“She’s got no place’n the circuit!” proclaimed the fella sprawled on his back. “Fresh mill, tuned ‘flexes! Where’s th’ respect?”
“You oughta be chewin’ on them words. What you got a problem with a lady on the grid?”
“Yea! Why’s she not flyin’ an’ protectin’ th’ domes from the scraddercladdin’ blight?!”
“Clap a plate on your hole, twerb. Yer just bothered cause ya lost a heap bettin’ on the ‘sure thing’.”
That drew some chuckles from onlookers. While Grandiose the Loiterer picked up the scraps of his pride, the defender of Skitcher’s honour searched the scene for her long, lean frame. Nothin’ doin’. She must have been out of earshot for a tick or so. Even so, he knew her favourite watering hole, so he made his way there.
He knew the story all right. Shame of it was no amount of drinkin’ was going to scare off the memory of her noble past as one of the Winged Glory. It was six steps down into the depths of Routine Error, and just two to see her trying her best, anyway. He guessed it was going to be hard to convince her what he had to say was good news.
He took up the stool beside her, though she stood motionless, head bowed under a well kept black and red hoodie. What was the use of that? She never showed emotion she didn’t want to. He ordered something wet that would bite the tongue. When the bartender plunked the glass in front of him, he said, “Must be nice t’have someone t’clean yer threads.”
A swig of oily looking fluid assured him it bit hard enough. Somewhere inside the shelter of fabric her voice replied, “You beggin’ creds again, idiom?”
“Feh, it’s Gridom. Bah, can’t help a flak-blasted name, but its what I do business by.”
“Ah-huh. So’s what you got wit’ me?”
The second bite would be the fiercest, so he bade it wait. “Client says wants t’race ya ‘round Sketchline. Exhibition match. For th — ”
“Don’t care fo’ twenty kilocreds, huh? Don’t care whoist you racin’? Whose even askin’?”
“I got release t’ say terms is your choosin’, an’ winnin’s except as what the challenger can offer.”
Silence. Rather, the usual clamber of glasses, occasion of shuffling feet and whirring micromotors. The din of the bar suited her, she thought at first, but not since Gridiom came into it. A tick caused her left leg to twitch, and that was when he knew he had her interest. She murmured, “Now you’ll tell me why.”
“Ya run clean on th’ circuit for a whole season. High profile wit’ eyes on ya all over. Dunno why. Some pomoter gots curious, ah guess.”
At the northern end of Sketchline there was a newly constructed road for tourism and private cruisers. Camera drones and publicity deadweights made a nuisance of themselves, but Herald Beyond — a cornball name if ever she’d heard one — took it all in stride. He also insisted that they not interfere with her stride.
He was tall and skinny, ultra-light frame sleek and totally lubricant free, resembling a four winged sparay of myth and legend. They were small birds, and few were faster for their size. Or so he chirped. He wasn’t much to look at … but technology was often deceptive, particularly when you were unwary of it.
“Skitcher! Or Skitch? Which do you prefer?” Aqualine nose, perfect cheekbones. Piercing eyes. He was too pretty. A designer celebrity? Skitch rolled her eyes and sighed. Probably. Sketchline needed a spokesman.
“Skitch, then.” He smiled. It was asinine, and he slung his arm around her shoulder and turned them toward the crowd of drones and idiot media. No, they were just doing their jobs. Anyway… he was still talking. He pulled her closer and intoned, “Clusterflak, this crew, but we’ll be done with ’em in a flash. A flash! Oh, you don’t like that. Do you laugh? Ever?”
He wouldn’t shut up, but there was nothing for it. He’d agreed to her demands of 100kc and a generous donation to charitable medical funds. There was nothing special about his body, she was certain of it. At some point during his tirade they boarded a hovering platform that was to transport them to the starting line. Along the way they were shown the improvised route.
Naturally it would put Sketchline’s most tourist of traps front and center, from its yester-century cafes to every knick-knack shop to tease the kids and invigorate their parents. It even made a brief stop in at the centerpoint of Sketchline nightlife, a dance club frequenting the most expensive of fetishes. Polite conversation dare not allude to it, and the segway from it brought their attention to the centerpiece of the performance: The crystal dome and the crescent pathway that it traversed.
“We’ve a lot of ground to cover, Sketch — ”
“You approve, then!”
She glared with casual ferocity. It was her favourite expression. The cameras flashed and something nagged her about their reaction, but she was too distracted by preparations for the race to dedicate any thought to it. He relented, and within a few ticks they took their places at the starting line. While he was preening for the drones, something she had seen began to fall into place with his painfully false attitude.
“You were in th’ 63rd Division,” she said. He looked her way over his left shoulder as she mounted the launch-mount racking, and then he shooed away the pair of journalists courting him. He just nodded, but his smile was gone. She continued, “Weren’t it all hands lost? Or I heard wrong.”
“Nah, you heard right.” She knew he hadn’t finished the thought, but was looking for a dramatic effect. The kid was all about dramatics. Kid. Must’ve been twenty going on miserly. Sure enough, he spoke up. He sounded angry. “You Noble Glory wingers let a few slip through your defences, and when they did… you don’t… no, you have to remember! You frontlined the rogue drones! Tell me you remember!”
“Ah… I guess ah do.” Eight years ago. It was a blitz. Of the forty Noblese, half of the unit survived, and of them most were too wrecked to fly. The attack destroyed the unit. It was desolation for her and everyone she cared about.
“Good. I want you to remember. Gonna crush you in this race, split-wing chickie!” He raised his closed fist to signify that they were ready for the countdown.
“Why? Ah… ah lost mah wings that day!”
The spite in his face cared not, nor did it desire to understand. Where was his heart? The first chime rang out across the corridor. Flakkit! No time to… what does he want? She half crouched into starting position, and tried to let the doubts rattling around in her head free. It would be humiliation to lose against him, a random racer from the rich end of the continent.
When the fourth chime rang, it was followed by a blaring klaxon that alerted the audience. He was out a split second before her, and immediately put some significant distance between them. Try as she might she could not close the widening gap, but it wasn’t because he was moving more quickly. Clarity + Concentration = Confluence, she was taught as a young prosthesis user.
Death cries and wailing moans of the mortally wounded drifted through her consciousness, and the effort to push them side cost her nanoseconds of valuable time. It was cruel to drop so much guilt on her just before the race, but she realized it was what he wanted, beyond what he had declared. Herald of what, guilt and shame?
He wanted vindication. Did he feel the pain of their loss? Was he somehow responsible? Would it change his underhanded, selfish purpose if she knew? Would it bring them back to say she was culpable? No! It was that thought that brought clarity to her mind. She could see the refractions from his shiny, skinny legs skating effortlessly across the tarmac, and with just over half the total course complete, she could not judge how quickly she could close the distance between them.
For the span of nearly four buildings he looked no more than a toy, but as she counted an eighth, he began to look half the racer she was. The thought seemed ironic, but she appreciated its humour. She wasn’t straining her limits this time; from their launch at the starting gate she understood one vital aspect: He was inexperienced. The sparks at his heels betrayed sloppy movements that told her he was not fully in control of his body.
Arrogance was not going to win this race, even if he was technically her superior. A hint of flourish and some surface gliding could do it: He was not clever enough to prohibit the methods of street racing. Skitcher was wise to stay on course, but used the advantage of urban light fixtures and other roadside elements to achieve an unorthodox edge in performance.
Less than a tick and many vehicle lengths later he heard the scrape and clunk of her landing. He chanced a glance over his shoulder to see her bear down on him to his marked dismay. He scowled and chirped heatedly, but there was no comprehending words over their cumulative noise. She wanted to make a point, so she rode in close and said — just at his shoulder, “You’ll be needin’ more practice.”
She ducked, having anticipated the awkward backhanded swing, then pulled out ahead comfortably. He railed and tried to skate faster. The brusque harshness of his movements worked against him, however, and he lost more ground as she gained it. Not far in the distance the buildings fell away and opened to the unimpeded view of the Crescent Tourway and Starline Guardrail.
Shadows cast by the buildings gave way to the beginning of the most stunning sunset Skitcher had ever seen. As they mounted the curve of the tourway, Herald cried out at the dawning realization that he could not match her skill and performance. He did not retire, but she no longer cared how much effort he exuded. Even though her relaxed movements put her well ahead of him, she could see but one thing:
Clouds that seemed saccharine pronounced themselves majestic and full of promise. They basked in the brilliant but fading light of the sun, unafraid of the coming dark. Maroon tones crept in behind them, and by the time they had cloaked the horizon entirely, Skitcher was declared the victor, with Herald trailing well behind. As she stood in the winner’s circle, but a small square in the hoverpad’s launching platform, an odd looking fellow approached her.
His head was that of a lizard with conical eyes that darted about. An offworlder, clad in expensive materials. He clasped Skitcher’s hand and bowed gracefully, somehow. He hissed, “Most honourably fought, Miss…”
“Iridian. M’name’s Delta Iridian. Uhn, thanks for th’ parade’n all, but weren’t there a better provin’ ground?”
Did he smile? His tone did, though, when he said, “Provincial celebrations of financial investiture do not spare souls. Yet you rose above it all. I have a request, if you would hear me out.”
She glanced about as though there was anyone else worth listening to. He chuckled.
“A point fairly made. I ask you now, Delta Iridian, if you will race for me. I have an attractive contract for such an accomplished — ”
“Tch. You’ll not want to say that. I’ve not accomplished nothin’.”
He released her hand and bowed his head again. “I see. Then you will not consider it?”
“I din’t say that. C’mon… Mister…”
“Spectre. Lucien Spectre.”
She looped his arm in her own and propelled them forward. “Lucien, then. Ya thirsty? Ah do mah best thinkin’ over a stein of grease. So… where ya hail from, head like that…?”