Space Race 1:
Only The Good Die Young
by Black Daemon
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks to be a fine day for our race today. What do you think, Jim?"
"Oh, I agree, Allyson. These pioneers have great conditions for staking their claims. This should be an exciting event."
"That it should. Our top runner is once again Brett Corning, racing for CompCorp again. They have acquired a lot of prime galaxy territory because of her."
"This is true, and I dont see that changing today, although everyone competing will come away with something." The commentator paused as a new entry flashed across his screen. "Whoa ho, ladies and gentlemen! It seems we have a newcomer to this race, and wow! Would you look at that ship? Amazing technology! My goodness, Allyson, this is suddenly shaping up to be quite a race."
"Yes, Jim, it really is! Do we have any ID on the newcomer? Or their sponsor?"
"No, but its time for a word from our sponsors, CompCorp."
Time to race start: -45:58
Dana Simons leaned forward and peered at the displays on the main console of her cruiser, the SIO David. She blew dark red bangs out of her bright green eyes and squinted unnecessarily at the readouts as she checked her placement in the queue of runners. It must have been the twelfth time shed verified her ships readiness, but better safe than sorry, her father always said. Well, it might be safe, but it was also the best way to occupy her nerves.
She had drawn even better than shed hoped in the placement lottery. She had prayed for the second tier, but here she was in the first, lined up with four other runners in their various cruisers. There were three other tiers behind the first, and Dana unconsciously checked the listing again to see where Brett Corning was. Everyone did that. Corning was the best runner in the history of the quad.
Every four years on the standard Earth calendar, the International Space Exploration Association sponsored a competition for any new territories available for various planetary operations. This quad, as the four year interval was named, there were sixteen different options, and an even twenty competitors, including several ships from Comprehensive Acquisitions Corporation, or CompCorp as it was commonly called.
A planetary option was won by staking a claim to it, and the competitor with the first time signature for landing on a planet (or the first stabilized orbit signature if the territory was gaseous, which was rare for the competition) claimed it for the company the pilot represented. Companies were then free to legally develop their claim to their stockholders content, typically for terra-forming and colonization or commerce and mining. This quad there were also several resort companies represented, quite a few colonization efforts, and a few of the larger mining operations.
Dana was racing on behalf of her fathers company, Simons Intersystems Ore, a smaller mining outfit that specialized in a half dozen of the minerals available in the farther reaches of space, but not on Earth. Originally, she was supposed to check the progress of the race from the International Space Station as opposed to running as a participant, but much to her fathers dismay, circumstances had shifted in Danas favor. She had dreamt of racing in a quad as an adolescent, and now
She took a deep breath, and tried to let it ease some calm into her body, but she knew it was hopeless. She was too amped up, much too nervous to do anything but check and recheck her systems. Dana had prepared for years for this moment, and she was sure shed do well once the run started, but this waiting was starting to fry her brain.
Maybe Ill get lucky and Corning will gun for one of those resort sites on the grid. Although there were other mining contingents in the competition, shed studied their pilots well enough to know she could handle them, if she stayed on top of her systems. Corning, though, was almost too good, and she didnt want to have to test her skills against CompCorps best pilot in her very first run.
Brett Corning cursed her placement in the queue. It wasnt really that bad, but she needed something to do to pass the time until the race started, and bitching about her lot seemed like a good idea for the moment.
A brief signal beeped from her console. She glanced over in mild surprise no communication was allowed between competitors before the run started, but several of the more experienced runners had hacked into the base frequency for some illicit comm. Brett opened her channel.
"Harrison," she answered with her ships designation.
"Hey, Corning?" a bass voice buzzed in her ears. She could hear the smile though she could only picture the face. "Im gonna dust you this quad."
Brett scoffed, but grinned as she replied. "You wish, Dalt. Youll be flushing your system of my dust for weeks."
He laughed. "Bullshit. Youll be too busy keeping your hair out of the way to give me any trouble." Brett was the only pilot in the CompCorp corral, male or female, with hair long enough to comb. The other spacers gave her a hard time for having hair longer than regulation and tradition long dark waves that hung halfway down her back but the powers that be had decided that their best pilot was allowed a minor transgression. With her flight record, it was one of the few things anyone could pick on Brett about.
"Youre just jealous, baldy. If you grew yours in, all the grey would show."
The easy banter was years old and very familiar. Edwin Dalton was one of CompCorps elite pilots though he aint better than me, Brett thought wryly and this was the third time theyd raced in the same quad, though they were racing for different options and wouldnt be directly competing. The first time theyd raced, Dalton had lost by a margin only the computers could measure. By the time the next quad rolled around, they were both racing for the same company.
The two pilots exchanged more jibes and empty threats before quickly signing off. The penalty for pre-race communication was docked time against a pilots final signature. It wasnt strictly enforced, but even those pilots who played a little outside the rules didnt want to push their luck by playing too long.
The countdown to the start of the race blinked on Bretts console, and she made sure all of her preliminary programs were loaded. Multiple screens before her displayed her plotted navigational course, her ships status, the proximity and makeup of nearby ships, and two screens dedicated to her target one displaying visuals, the other statistics vital to her run. Normally, her target would fall into one of two categories: planets with the potential for terra-forming and colonization, or planets already prime for vacation resorts.
She was racing for something different this run. CompCorp was branching out, and it looked like she was going to burn some of those miners out there today. There were three different plots that were perfect for what CompCorp had in mind, and she was going for the toughest one on the list T-138. Its designation of "T" classified it as a planet similar to Earth in a number of ways, though the air wasnt breathable. The ore on that planet was nearly priceless, and one compound was necessary for a new quasi-steel that could be used for building framework Earthside.
The run to T-138 was longer than average, almost eighteen days one way in travel time at best secure speed, but Brett had participated in races longer than that two quads ago. She wasnt worried about her stamina, and she certainly wasnt worried about her ships performance.
The console of her star-cruiser Harrison glowed in the low light. Everything displayed green across the boards, except for one counter in red, which counted down to the start of the competition. She called for a verbal check from her three droids, and each responded in the expected affirmative. Brett shrugged and eased her shoulders in the confines of her chairs restrictive bands, but they were already loose enough for her to breathe and move comfortably. There were few extras on board Harrison, but the top-of-the-line pilots chair was one of them.
Brett owned the Harrison outright, though few people knew it. She really didnt have anything to spend her money on, except her cat, Greaser, and he didnt need much more than rations and a scratchpost. Her proud parents wouldnt take her money unless she tricked them into it so shed saved up her stash until she could afford the best cruiser money could buy.
Then she designed and built one better.
The Harrison had debuted at the last quad, and won by a large enough margin that shed been given quite the bonus by CompCorp. A bonus that still sat in her accounts, waiting for her to decide how to spend it.
And in the back of her mind, a small whisper tickled her from dark undiscovered territory: she was thinking about well, maybe just considering the possibility of - retirement.
This was her Bretts fifth quad, and she knew quite a few of the other runners very well. Some were good friends; others had pledged lifelong hatred if shed beaten them badly enough. Shed had some close runs, and some where she won by a sinfully large margin, but the truth was, it was getting a little easy.
The red counter marked forty-five minutes to the start of the race. Enough thinking. Brett focused on the work in front of her. Twenty minutes to raise her engines to prime speed. Ten minutes to verify that all was clean and green. Ten minutes for any last minutes modifications. And five minutes to sweat before all hell broke loose.
Bretts brow furrowed. Time to let the games begin.
Day 1, 06:23:44
"CAC Harrison to SIO David," Brett spoke into her comm. "You want to watch yourself? Thats the second time youve cut your vector across my heading." This little hotshot was starting to get on her nerves.
It was six hours into the race, and Brett was fighting for the lead against some pilot in her first quad. She hadnt checked the bio yet, but the general ship summary for the SIO David showed that whoever was over there had never raced in a quad before.
The two ships had already left the other racers far behind, and soon it was obvious that their only competition would be each other. The David had moved ahead once before, but the Harrison had quickly retaken the lead.
"SIO David to CAC Harrison," a light melodious voice with a touch of a drawl flowed into Bretts ear. "I gave you plenty of warning. Youre just not used to someone being in front of you."
Why you smart-assed little - "David, whos piloting over there?"
There was a pause before Brett heard a response. "Youve got instruments, Corning. Check the bios. Im a little busy. David out."
Brett stared into space incredulously for a moment before making several rapid adjustments to her flight plan. Now she knew she was going to have to beat this runner back into sound-speed. No one had mouthed off like that to her since since -
Well, it had been awhile.
Ten minutes later, she leaned back with a less than friendly smile. She looked at the long strings of data she had just keyed into her terminal, and was satisfied their manifestation would give her a distinct advantage over that smart-mouthed little challenger out there.
Brett flipped another switch and loud music blared throughout the control chamber. She loosened her flight suit and her smile changed to a wry grin.
There were other ways to pass the time.
Dana was busy. Corning had made a couple of modifications that would shave precious minutes off her run, and Dana had to think quickly to compensate. She couldnt believe her luck. What the hell was CompCorp doing racing for a mining planet? What had she ever done to deserve Corning as competition? And how the hell was she going to stay ahead of her? Shed just gotten her new computations entered into her system and had her droids verify them when her comm beeped again.
"Harrison to David," her competitors low voice practically vibrated in Danas ears. "Checked the bio. What are you, twelve years old?"
Dana rolled her eyes. She knew the photo in her bio was a little dated, but she didnt look that young.
"Harrison, I know youve got at least three advanced degrees. You tellin me you cant read simple English?"
"It says youre legal, but you dont look old enough to vote, or drink for that matter."
"Well, Im old enough to fly," Dana clipped. There was still an age requirement for a Space Pilots License, which had grated on Danas pride to no end. Shed been ready, in her opinion, to take the test years before the twenty-three year limit, but the board wouldnt admit her. Shed passed the test two months after her twenty-third birthday, and now four years later, she was one of the youngest pilots in this quad.
"Can you see over your console?" Bretts rich laughter practically burned.
"Corning, dont you have something better to do? If this is your way of shaking up the competition, I am sadly disappointed."
"Dont you worry, pipsqueak," Bretts laughter was gone. "Ive got plenty of tricks you havent seen yet. Try not to cry when you run home to daddy. Harrison out."
Danas already firm resolve managed to add a layer of concrete. Like hell Im running anywhere but first landfall, you arrogant cowboy.
Day 4, 22:52:14
"So how did a nice little pipsqueak like you end up in a bar brawl like this?"
Dana smiled despite herself at Bretts cocky tone, and was glad the woman behind that voice couldnt see her face. She was sure Cornings ego would only grow ever the larger if she knew Dana found her the least bit amusing.
"This pipsqueak has a little experience, thank you very much."
"Yeah, yeah. I can read all of that in the bio, sweetheart. But Im asking you why you do it."
Dana didnt answer right away. She busied herself for a few minutes checking her readouts again and verifying that she was on course for the planet she wanted. While she was at it, she checked Harrisons position. According to her estimate, it was only a few minutes ahead of her own.
At some point in the last four days, theyd declared a truce of sorts. They were pretty much neck and neck for the race to the planet, and both had a sense of fairness that kept them from pulling anything shady this far out. No one wanted to watch someone die out here. So, after some mild banter back and forth, and a couple of barbed comments both ways, theyd finally opted to just play nice. It was a long ride to T-138, and a little company didnt hurt.
"You know how it is. Its what I do."
"Ha, ha, Pips. This is what I do. What you do is solve brain-teasers. You seem more like a bookworm. What are you doing playing stick-jockey?"
Dana stared off at the stars through her viewer. Looks like shes read the whole bio. She was mildly surprised, but then dismissed the thought that maybe Corning found her worth checking into. Theres not a lot else to do out here. She took a moment to compose her answer.
"I was always a tech-head trying to solve the puzzles that factor out to the tenth decimal point, I guess." She took a long wistful breath.
"Dad was fine with me pulling gees on paper, but he wasnt too thrilled when I went for my SPL. He finally relented when I told him I was going to do it come hell or high water, no matter what he said. I think he thought that Id get it, but Id never see space. He was wrong, of course. " She chuckled. "I wasnt supposed to run this quad, but our ace pilots wife is due with twins, and he said hed be Earthside even if it cost him his job. I dont think it will. But Dad had to admit that I was the only qualified pilot who could do it. SIO really needs this plot and " She stopped to clear her throat, afraid shed revealed too much. "So, anyway, I guess its a dream come true for me. Its my first quad, and Im neck and neck with the best pilot in the sector. I think thats a good showing. " She smirked. "Especially if I kick your ass."
Dana heard a sharp laugh through her comm. "Ha!" Brett yelled. "Youre nowhere near kicking my ass, kid. Not even close."
Well, thats not what my readouts say, Dana thought, but she was smart enough to keep it to herself.
Day 11, 17:48:01
Both ships maintained a steady course for what was essentially the farthest planet in the grid. Most of the runners in the quad had aimed for closer quarry, but the payoff on this planet would be high to whomever won her.
The race had started over a week ago, but there was still more than a week of travel time before they reached the planet. Dana had grabbed a quick cat-nap a few hours ago, but she didnt really feel tired, despite long days in one position. She was running hard on adrenaline.
"Hey, junior, you up?" Cornings voice came over the comm and into Danas ear.
She smiled almost against her will. "Yeah, cowboy, Im up. You still here?" she baited. "Dont you want to head over to the resort grids?"
"Nah, nah," Brett answered. "You see one vacation planet, youve seen em all." She paused. "I thought Id see what all the kids are racing for these days."
"Very funny, old timer." Dana checked her position against that of the Harrison. Eight minutes in the lead. "So, how did a wise-ass like you end up in a respectable business like this?"
"Respectable? Howd you get that idea? You been watching the PR nets and believing what you see?"
Dana just shook her head. "Answer the question! Jesus!"
"Alright, alright!" Brett laughed, then sobered up. "Ive been doing this since I got out of flight school. I got my SPL, ran for the UNSA for awhile, then headed over the private sector when that got too boring."
"Boring? How on Earth could you find the UNSA boring? They get first peek at everything!"
"Yeah, but theres no competition to get the heart thumping, nothing to get a girl wet."
Dana didnt know how to respond to that one, so she just waited for the CompCorp pilot to keep talking. She had a feeling that Corning liked the sound of her own voice. She wasnt exactly wrong in the assumption.
"So I passed the entrance trials back in 47, and Ive been with the company ever since."
Dana sprung a wry grin. "Bored yet?"
Brett was caught off guard. "No! Im not bored!"
Danas eyebrows jumped up at that one. Well, shes a little defensive. Guess I hit a nerve.
Day 19, 01:10:44
"Crap!" Dana exclaimed. "I cant pull out of this. That storm is killing my atmospheric stats, and I cant get a read on my star position. Hell, I cant read a damned thing!" She was yelling into the comm, and starting to lose control of herself.
"Easy, Simons, easy," Brett said in a near drone, trying to convey more calm than she felt. "Its childs play, so you know you can handle it." If she couldnt convince Dana to calm down, the kid was going to die out here. And though they might be competitors in a fierce race, no one wanted to see that happen. "You must have configged one of the droids for this, come on! Try one of the Canbian stabilizations."
"Okay, okay, youre right." Dana took a deep breath that turned into a gulp of air and a near cough. "Standby." She switched her comm to the internal relay. "Beta! Initialize R-S204!" She nearly yelled the stabilization routine into her comm. Shed run through this situation in the simulations dozens of times, but she never really thought shed be doing it so save her own skin. Her stomach grew nauseous, and she focused her blurring vision on her displays.
Both pilots had seen the particle storm coming, but had underestimated its possible effect. Each cruiser was heading for a dayside landing on the same continent, but Brett had chosen a different route than Dana, so her cruiser had been only nominally affected by the storm.
Dana had ended up traveling straight through it. At first, she had a good handle on it, but some freak magnetized particles had thrown some of her ships external sensors off, and she had begun a slow spin that rapidly increased its speed. If she didnt get a handle on it soon, she wouldnt be able to correct it.
Kilometers away, Brett watched her own readouts, while that little competitive demon voice in the back of her head screamed. Idiot! This is your chance to move ahead! Shes a smart kid, and she can take care of herself. You need to take care of your own business, gearhead!
She kicked that voice into the airlock. There was something about that kid, that woman, that made her want to completely disregard her usual impulse to kick ass and take names. And that was bad for business, she knew. She sighed heartily. Oh, well.
Brett checked her own readouts on the David. The after-effects of the particle storm were going to push Dana into the atmosphere sooner than planned and at a trajectory that would burn the cruiser to carbon. She stared at the status indicator, willing it to change from red to green. Cmon, kid, cmon. Brett didnt really want to admit it, but she liked the kid, and unbeknownst to her, her heart was racing faster that the timers in front of her.
The David was still over twelve thousand kilometers from the atmospheric point of no return, but was closing in fast, and both pilots knew it. Brett watched her screens powerlessly as the posh cruiser spun nearly out of control, moving faster than her eyes would be able to see at this distance. Cmon!
And then, just inside six hundred kilometers from the barrier, the cruiser slowed its near ceaseless spinning, and quickly changed its heading to pull it away from the planet.
"Well, it looks like you got lucky, cowboy," Danas voice piped almost dejectedly into Bretts ear. "Im going to have to renegotiate my entry."
Yeah, but youre still breathing, Brett thought. "Lucky, hell. I could still kick your ass, I just got caught in some problems of my own. Whats with these weird ionic waves out here?" Hope she buys it, Brett prayed.
Ionic waves? Since when? Dana didnt see any such indication on her panels. What the hell was going on? She was beginning to wonder if she was having shipwide sensor failure, but none of the backup systems were kicking in, so she must be okay. But if that was true, how come Corning was seeing stuff that she wasnt?
"Strange, Im not picking up anything that looks like that."
"Yeah, well, I am," the older pilot said decisively, effectively ending that part of the discussion. "Hows your cruiser holding up?"
"Fine, unless Im having some sensor problems I dont know about. Im good. That storm about did me in. Im too young to die out here, Ill tell you that."
Brett forced a chuckle, surprised that her heart rate was still high from the near catastrophe in T-138s outer atmosphere. "Only the good die young, Simons. You didnt have anything to worry about."
Dana laughed back.
Day 20, 07:22:28
"How far away are you, cowboy?"
Dana could hear heavy breathing through her comm.
"Well, judging by my GPS and your potentially incorrect positioning "
"Like hell!" Dana retorted.
"Heh." She could hear Corning chuckling. "Excitable, ain't ya? Like I was saying, your potentially incorrect positioning, Im about ten kilometers from you, south by southwest. I should hit your position in about forty minutes." A couple of deep breaths. "Watch your back."
"Incorrect, my ass," Dana said under her breath.
"I heard that."
Danas atmospheric entry had resulted in some incorrect readings from her systems and some mild equipment failure. Much to her surprise, her cocky competitor had volunteered to come help her hack it out, and was making the two hour trek from the Harrison landing site to Danas position. Dana spent that time taking geological readings for the engineers Earthside, and couldnt help but smile at the results. This planet would set up SIO for years to come. Assuming she could duke it out with that arrogant ace sneaking up on her six.
Theyd hit landfall at about the same time, so she wasnt sure how this was going to play out, but she was damned sure going to put up a fight.
She stood up straight for a moment, and took a deep breath of her suits recycled air. The planets weather system varied from continent to continent and hemisphere to hemisphere, but here, on the near oval shaped continent along the equator, it was a windy, partly cloudy day, and one of the systems two suns was near setting. The other was due to set in another four or five hours.
It was warm, but not too much so, and the wind was brisk, though it wouldnt knock her over. The gravity was a little heavier than Earths. This was a near perfect location for taking samples and checking her information against the specs shed received on Earth.
And if she was right, shed landed first, and this whole rock was all hers.
Brett just knew she was going to go blind.
She had spent the better part of the last hour checking the near white terrain ahead of her for potholes and she was sure she was getting eyestrain. The fast-moving Hard Terrain Vehicle she rode had four wheels and was configured with autopilot, but she didnt trust it. Shed had it on manual since shed left her cruisers landing site.
The thermal sensor blinked at her, signifying a heat source directly ahead of her, and she smiled. Guess the kid knows what shes doing.
As she moved closer, she found herself wondering yet again what Dana Simons looked like all grown up. She didnt have long to wait. The bright orange suit ahead of her had been crouched down, but now rose and turned to face her.
"Youre late, cowboy," she heard in her ears, before she could make out a face. "You better mind your manners on my planet."
"Your planet!" She exclaimed incredulously. "Hey, I was here first!"
"Here first, my ass!" Neither of them had mentioned a specific landing signature yet, but it was going to be close. As Brett stepped off of her HTV and stood up to every inch of her augmented six foot three inch height, the diminutive captain of the David moved closer as fast as the heavier gravity would allow. Brett found herself wanting to move back a step, but forced herself to stand still while Dana vented at her.
"This is my rock, and youd better get used to the idea!" She moved to stand face to face with Brett, even if she was a head shorter. "I made it here first, Ive already got samples, Ive staked my claim and theres nothing that you can do about it!"
Brett was stunned, but not by the tirade. She looked down, and now, despite the setting suns glare, she could see through Danas faceplate. Bright green eyes with dilated pupils flashed at her, set above a slight nose and full pale lips. Crimson bangs fell between those eyes, and even white teeth were bared at her in challenge. Damn. Shes beautiful when shes pissed.
She took a breath, and waited for her mind to catch up. "Well, I guess well just have to check time signatures, wont we?"
Dana just huffed, and didnt have a thing to say.
Brett smiled haughtily. "Its the only way to be sure, pipsqueak."
Dana growled in frustration.
"Hows the rations on the David?" The two pilots were working diligently on the external sensor grid on the starboard wing of Danas cruiser. Dana was crouched on the wing itself, and Brett stood on her HTV, as they both worked to restore the systems functions.
"Oh, you think youre staying?"
Brett scoffed, and rolled her eyes. "Look, I took it easy on you out there, and now I dont even get dinner out of the deal? Jesus, what kind of a tight-ass are you?"
Dana stopped what she was doing, and raised her head to face her cocky nemesis with her mouth hanging open. "Easy on me -?" She put a fist against one hip. "Youve got some nerve, Corning. You didnt pull any punches and you know it. I won this rock fair and square."
Brett flashed her a million dollar smile. "Probably not, but since I came all this way out of the goodness of my heart just to make sure you didnt lose a leg or anything, how about dinner?"
Dana stared at her for a few minutes, but that smile wasnt fading. And after half a minute, Brett had the gall to wink at her.
Less than an hour later, they sat in the cramped quarters of Danas cruiser.
"Nice gear," Brett commented. "UNSA hardware, Crawford displays." She reached out to one console. "And some tweakin I bet you did all by your lonesome "
"Hey, dont touch!" Dana jumped up out of her seat, and pushed Bretts hand away from the hardware. "Leave it all be."
"Okay! Okay," Brett said with a smirk. She reached behind her to pull her rations out of the dispenser. She removed the utensil that came with the rations, peeled apart the cover, and began munching on the instantly hot food she couldnt quite identify. "So." She talked while she ate, and Dana tried not to let her annoyance show. "Whats your landing sig?"
Dana stared at her for a long moment. Well, this discussion was bound to happen sooner or later. It was time to start the brawl that was sure to follow her announcement.
"Nineteen oh two four nine one one," she said as she looked down at her own rations, and waited for the joyful exclamation she was sure would follow.
"Hmm," was all she got as a response. Dana looked up with surprise.
"Well, what?" Brett took another bite of her food.
Dana practically leapt from her seat in frustration. "Well?! Whats your sig?"
Brett sat down in the seat recently vacated by Gamma drone. "Wow, Pips, you really are excitable, arent you?"
"Will you stop calling me that?" Dana was about ready to just swing at that smug exterior. "And whats your damned sig?"
Brett didnt answer right away. She took another bite from her rations before she looked up and said quietly, "Nineteen oh two five oh one four."
Dana took a deep breath and tried really hard not to scream. "So I did get here first."
"Looks like it."
Day 21, 02:51:12
"For all the celanium on this rock, why would I want to share my readings with you?"
They had traveled back to the Harrison in search of a replacement conductor for the David. Dana had duplicates in stock on her ship, but the outer seal on that one compartment had melted in the heat, and the standard conductor wouldnt fit in the newly confined space.
Brett had offered her one of her ships backup conductors, which were similar and exchangeable, but physically smaller. Lucky for me, Dana thought sarcastically. Dana had been looking forward to getting away from the other pilot. The woman was starting to make her well, nervous. She didnt think that Brett was dangerous, but now she felt almost uncomfortable whenever the woman was close to her, though she couldnt figure out why.
Brett leaned back in her chair, without looking up at Dana. "Christ, Simons! Its no big deal. You already won, and Im not gonna cheat you. Im just curious what Ill be missing out on." She paused. "Besides, theres a storm moving in, and you wont have anything better to do until it blows over."
"What?" Dana exclaimed. Surely she wouldnt be stuck with this swelled head for longer than necessary.
"You think Im lying? Check the stats yourself," Brett started to snack on a fiber stick from the ration dispenser in the wall.
Dana reached over to do exactly that, but Brett was right. There was a huge storm headed their way, and while it wouldnt do any damage to their systems or the samples, there was no way that Dana could get back to the Davids landing site over three hundred kilometers away. And they certainly wouldnt be taking off anytime soon.
Great, Dana thought. Stuck on a rock at the end of the grid with the most pompous pilot the universe has known since
"You play chess?" Brett interrupted her thoughts.
Dana stared at her for a moment. Well, I dont want to share my stats. It would pass the time, and I could happily kick her ass for hours.
"No," Dana lied. "But I learn fast."
"Great!" Brett exclaimed. "Did you bring your wallet?"
Five hours later, Dana had won seven out of twelve games, two of them in less than a dozen moves. Bretts frustration was a palpable entity in the small command quarters of the Harrison. Dana tried hard not to smirk, but occasionally found that she had to wipe the smile of victory off her face, since it crept across her visage from time to time without her knowledge.
Theyd spoken very few words since the marathon challenge had begun. Brett had done little more than grunt for the last two hours.
Dana cleared her throat. "You dont lose much, do you?"
"Never," Brett quickly answered, without looking up from the board.
"Well, Ive got two hundred bucks coming to me that says differently, dont I?" Dana smiled sweetly. Not to mention a planet. Theyd aggressively set a $200 bet per game after Danas first win proved that shed lied about her skill.
"Yeah, well you aint keeping it."
They were so engrossed in their secondary competition that they hadnt checked the weather readouts in over an hour. Dana was starting to feel a little guilty. This was an expensive run, and she was wasting time playing chess with
With a beautiful woman who was more challenging than the race she was running. Dana was startled to realize that the uncomfortable feeling she felt was more like an incipient attraction than true revulsion. Brett was abrasive but somehow charming, overly confident in her skills but it was true that she did have quite a bit to be proud of. And there was a field of energy around the woman that made Dana feel a little too restricted in her flight suit.
Jesus, Simons, what is your problem? Take a deep breath, check the readings, and get back to your ship. You can get laid Earthside in a couple of weeks with someone a little less frustrating, dont you think?
It was true. Dana could find someone that didnt irritate her so much, but she could admit, even if only to herself, that she found this woman attractive.
As that thought echoed in her head, Brett looked up at her. Whatever Brett saw on Danas face changed her own expression from irritation to confusion, and then a softening crossed Bretts features, that grew into a warm smile Dana hadnt seen before. She found herself smiling back, until she realized what she was doing and deliberately wiped it from her face. Bretts smile, however, morphed into a flirtatious grin and a wink.
Crap. Now she knows. Im never gonna get out of here if she thinks I want her. "You pick up on all the new runners, Corning?" Dana looked back down at the console display of their game.
"You play the cute stiff with all the pilots, Simons?" So thats the way the light bends, huh?
Danas hand froze in its path to the console board, and looked up at Brett with an unreadable stare. "Stiff I am not. But itll take more than your swelled ego to find out, Brett."
Dana glanced over at the planetary readings, and couldnt deny that now she could make her way back to the David. "Lets call it even." She killed the subroutine that was running the game, and started to rise from her cramped position in the Harrisons close cabin.
Brett stared with a grin for a moment, until the grin faded and she found herself cocking her head to one side, wondering exactly what had just happened. Then she realized Simons had called her by her first name.
Brett felt out of her element, and didnt understand how that could be, but her instincts pushed her to take a chance, and she hadnt denied them yet. She reached out gently with one hand, and lay it on Danas arm.
Wary green eyes raised to hers. She swallowed, uncharacteristically nervous, and found her lips moving without any thought first. "Im more than a swelled ego. And I do not pick up on runners."
Dana didnt have any response to that. She looked into clear blue eyes as they faded to near grey, and her mouth went dry.
Brett felt as if she was physically moving too slowly, but couldnt make herself move faster. Her hand still lay on Danas arm, and she watched the wariness on Danas face change into a look that was almost vulnerable. She leaned forward, keeping her eyes on the green ones blazing at hers until the last possible minute, before closing them as her lips brushed against Danas. They were warm, and moved against hers in just the right way.
She pulled back after a few moments, wanting to see Danas reaction. The younger pilot looked blankly back at her before a smile reached her eyes, and then Dana leaned forward to kiss her back. Neither interrupted their kisses with words, and for a few moments, they both forgot where they were and why they were there. Finally, Dana reached up to trace gentle fingers across a small scar on Bretts jaw, and Brett raised a hand to stroke the backs of the fingers against her face.
Their kisses resumed and deepened, accompanied by simple touches, and each woman marveled for a few moments in simple human contact. But soon, Dana found herself drawn to the call of her work, and pulled away with an almost guilty shrug.
"I should make my way back," she said apologetically.
"Yeah," Brett replied. "Ive got to program takeoff."
Neither of them moved.
Dana cleared her throat. "Perhaps this is a conversation we could continue later." She wasnt disappointed, or even wary anymore Brett had been far too gentle for that - but she was certainly caught off guard.
A corner of Bretts mouth raised in a near-smile that Dana found endearing. "Sounds good."
Dana leaned forward to kiss Brett one last time, and stood up. She helped Brett restore the droid to its original position before refitting her helmet and the rest of her suit.
Once shed verified all her seals, she turned and walked to the airlock. "Its still my planet, cowboy," she said with her back to Brett.
Brett rolled her eyes and called after the younger pilot. "Did I say it wasnt?"
Day 28, 21:02:43
"So, how come youre working for the old man?"
Bretts voice warmed her ears as they moved along a steady course back to the inner system.
"Pays the bills," Dana clipped.
Dana sighed. "Mostly because I get to call my own shots. I could probably be a small fish in a big pond like CompCorp, but I get the freedom at SIO to work in several departments at once, Ive got a small but talented staff." She shrugged, even though she knew Brett couldnt see her. "Its not a bad gig."
"Hows he feel about you racing?"
Dana almost brushed off the pilots question, but over the course of the last few days, their conversations had grown more significant. Maybe it was because they only had each other to talk to. Maybe their talks had grown deeper because theyd been in space for a month. Who knew? But Dana found herself actually communicating with the woman shed found almost unbearable at the beginning of the race.
"Im not really sure." Danas words formed without prior thought. "When I was younger, I had a little trouble, uh, following through on things. Obviously," she said with embarrassment, "Ive gotten over that. But I think he still sees me as the fifteen-year old who wanted to be an Olympic gymnast but didnt want to go to class."
"So youre saying youre flexible?"
"Christ, Corning! Be serious!"
"Alright, alright!" Brett relented. "Just trying to lighten up the tension."
Dana sighed again. "Im not bitter about the way he sees me. I just get tired of proving my point."
"Well, it is possible that the race results will make the point for you," Brett added quietly.
Dana let that sink in before responding. "I think youre right."
Dana had been trying to accept her win since theyd left T-138s orbit, but she was still amazed. Shed beat Brett Corning, the best racer in the history of the quad. And Dana had come out ahead in her very first race. Strangely, it was a difficult concept to grasp. Shed always argued that she could do anything she set her mind to, but now that shed actually won the race, she was more than stunned.
Even stranger was this interesting friendship shed formed with her toughest competitor.
Brett found herself in light spirits considering shed just lost her first race. Ever.
She was wondering why it wasnt bothering her more. Shed had days on end to think about it. She should have been angry, frustrated, disappointed at least. But mostly, she just felt relaxed, resigned.
Oh, she was sure shed get hell when she got to Earth. Everyone would think shed lost her edge, and shed never be able to tell them the truth: that at the time, shed been more concerned that a green pilot shed barely met didnt die alone in space. And the run had been a close one, so she was satisfied with herself. Well, almost all of her was satisfied. There was still that one demon voice in the back of her mind that told her shed lost her sanity completely. She ignored it, because she didnt regret what shed done.
She thought it was ironic that the one race that challenged her more than anything had in years was the first one shed lost.
Her comm beeped, and she flipped the switch without looking. "Harrison. Whos calling please?" She smirked, since there was no question whose voice shed hear.
"So, have you always been cocky, or did racing just bring it out in you?"
The light drawl in her ear brought a smile to Bretts face. "Cocky from day one, junior."
"Figures. How do you keep all that ego in such a small ship?"
"Hey! My ship is not small!"
Dana chuckled. "Size queen."
Brett blew out a gust of air explosively. "Did you comm just to hassle me?"
"Nah, just missed the sound of your voice, cowboy."
Danas quiet admission took Brett so by surprise, she didnt retort with one of her common witty responses.
"Whats the matter, Brett? Cat got your tongue?"
Brett snapped out of her daze. "Not yet," she said suggestively.
"Jesus, why do I bother?"
"Because Im irresistible."
"To-may-toe, to-mah-toe "
"Have you always been this way? Really?"
Brett took a breath, and for some reason, opted to answer honestly. "No," she sighed. "No, I havent."
Dana didnt respond, and Brett felt compelled to continue. "I was a pretty quiet kid." She heard Dana chuckle, and she laughed with her. "Yeah, I know. Its pretty hard to believe, but I was. I was the middle kid of three, and mostly kept to myself."
Brett rested her head on her chair back, and loosened the bands across her chest. "My folks were in their late fifties when I was in my teens, and I watched them just give up on their dreams, and quit reaching for things that theyd said all their lives that they wanted. It broke my heart, and it pissed me off."
Her frustration bled through to her hands, and she started performing small tasks on the console while she spoke. "I kinda blew the scale all the way to the other extreme for awhile. Came out of my shell. Discovered girls." She laughed. "Undergrad was so much of a blur, its amazing I made it to graduate level." She stared out her viewport in the general direction of the David. "I got busy with flying then, so the wild side settled down, but I decided early on that I wasnt going to settle for anything but number one."
She didnt add that her streak had just ended. They hadnt talked about that much, though they seemed to have covered almost everything else. There was a lot of time to pass from T-138 and Earth, and they spent hours of it per measured day talking back and forth. Brett was surprised to discover that shed told Dana more about her life than shed told any other living soul. She wondered what that meant. They had even talked about what was happening between them, and while they hadnt made any plans or promises, Brett had a feeling that shed come away from this race with a lasting friendship .
"Well, if it makes you feel any better," Dana finally spoke, "I cant exactly picture you as a wallflower."
Brett just smiled.
Day 34, 16:38:47
Theyd been traveling back to the competitions starting point for almost two weeks, and Brett had just awakened from a long nap. She was about grab some rations and a poor facsimile of coffee when her external comm relay beeped. She switched her pickup over to external as she continued her caffeine search.
"Whats speeding, Pips?"
A sigh. "Youre really not going to stop calling me that, are you?"
"Nah," Brett smiled. "I kinda like it."
She could hear Danas annoyance over the ether. It made her grin. "Look, Corning, Im not going to make things interesting for you if you keep treating me like a kid."
The grin deepened. "How interesting?" she asked in low tones.
"Quit thinking with your clit, you arrogant stick-jockey. Thats not what Im talking about."
The grin faded as she realized Dana wasnt going to bite. Her curiosity was now piqued. "Im listening."
"How about we start small? Lets say we agree to get together Earthside and chat," Dana ventured.
"Are you gonna make it worth my while?" she asked in the most suggestive tone she could muster, which was a strong tone indeed.
She heard Danas sharp intake of breath. "Jesus, youve got the biggest head of anyone Ive every met, you know that?"
"Yeah, and you still want me. Come on, sweeten the deal!"
"Fine. Ill let you buy me dinner."
"Oh, youll let me buy you dinner? What kind of deal is that?"
Brett could almost see the smile from Davids pilot. "Well, its a damned sweeter deal than youll get anywhere else," Dana said.
Brett couldnt argue that point at all.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, it looks to be a testy day for our race today. What do you think, Jim?"
"Oh, I agree, Allyson. These pioneers have challenging conditions for staking their claims. Weve got ionic showers on the closest part of the grid, and some strange gravitational fluxes on two planets on the far end. This should be an exciting event."
"That it should. Our top runner is once again Brett Corning, but this quad she is racing for SIO, Simons Intersystems Ore, and running in tandem with last quads best runner, Dana Simons, from the same company. They will probably give CompCorp a run for their money this quad."
"This is true, although everyone competing will come away with something." The commentator paused as a new entry flashed across his screen. "Whoa ho, ladies and gentlemen! It seems we have a newcomer to this race, and wow! Would you look at that ship? Amazing tech lines on that cruiser! My goodness, Allyson, this is suddenly shaping up to be quite a race."
"Yes, Jim, it really is! Do we have any ID on the newcomer? Or their sponsor?"
"CompCorp has a new runner this quad, Aaron Guerra, who had the best admittance trial for this competition since Brett Corning in 52. But now, its time for a word from our sponsors, Simons Intersystems Ore!"