You may not know this about me, but I've been writing a SciFi novel for the better part of a decade now. This year I (somewhat) participated in NaNoWriMo to work on it. The full story still isn't nowhere complete.
But when I sent some friends individual scenes for feedback (or just to showcase the world and my writing style) someone suggested I should consider publishing one of the chapters as a stand-alone short story. And that's exactly what this is.
So here you go! I hope you enjoy this random bit of SciFi world building. Maybe I will publish other short stories like this in future, but who knows. Certainly in another 10 years the novel should be done. If you're an editor at a publisher and you like what you read: call me, lol.
The Royal Regatta
“And that’s us back from the recap. Welcome back everyone and welcome anyone just joining us live from the seventy-seventh, legendary, sexennial Pandam Royal Regatta,” blared one person on the holoscreen in a bar somewhere on Terminus 361. It was showing two presenters sitting at a desk, a vaguely masculine and a vaguely feminine looking person, both of them wearing loud, bright suits, having their puffy hair styled backwards, and wearing gold glitter around their eyelashes and hairline. Anyone only casually looking at the cast, or viewing from a distance, would have had trouble keeping the two figures apart.
“That was quite the recap Mel,” the masc presenter commented.
“Absolutely Mev, absolutely. Coming up next, I am personally very excited by the next position. Team Alhama, from the Great Westerland,” she turned over to Mev, “two time regional champion, first time contender in the Pandam regatta.”
“They are certainly here to fight but the question is, whether their pilot, someone who has only been racing needle ships for three years, is up to the task.”
“Oh yes, oh yes”
“As everyone knows, that is not a long time to be behind the proverbial stick of such a powerful engine.”
“So who is this new pilot?”
“Her name is Zhenzha Vae. And I think we have a clip of her.”
The feed switched over to another flat view. It showed a woman, maybe in her early thirties, with deep black hair, braided into several small locks, tied together with a fluffy hairband. She had dark green eyes and her skin was a medium brown, her mouth twisted into a narrow smile, glaring at the camera.
“I know we’re the underdogs in this season but believe me when I say,” she paused for emphasis, “your ostentatious engineers have never seen what a real Westerland engine can do.”
The view cut back, the femme presenter smirking.
“She’s got grit, I’ll give her that. But she will have to convince me with her flying, proper.”
“Certainly Mel, certainly. But let’s go live to the preparation hall, while Team Alhama is at this very moment getting their engine ready for the pre-race checks.”
Zhenzha looked disconnected on camera, like nobody was actually watching her. She interacted with her teammates, flicked through a data tablet of flight parameters and coordinates, or simply leaned against a bulky crate behind her as she focused on her breathing. Finally it was time. She was wearing a pitch black flight suit, she shoved her braids into the back of her shirt and put a slim black flight helmet on. Her visor was tinted pink, yellow, and blue, the colours of the Great Westerland flag.
The needle ship was massive, reaching out from the holoscreen. It was at least two hundred metres long and twenty metres high and wide. It’s form was simple: long straight lines, with low-angles, but discrete edges. It slowly sharpened into a tip towards the bow, and had a wide aft plate, housing three sets of engine effectors: one ion and two microwarp.
The hull was made up of a black metal sheets, some of which had sponsor decals, others technical specifications and maintenance indicators printed on them.
The ship was ejected from the hangar and hovered around the starting area, keeping itself steady with the gravity engines to all sides. It’s hull plating had started extending outwards slightly, revealing rows and rows of measuring equipment boxes and additional thrusters. Inside of it Zhenzha had hooked herself into a control matrix, enveloping her arms and legs, providing reverse kinematics to her movement. A shimmering black cable was plugged into a socket at the base of her neck, drooping down slightly as it arched upward into the ceiling. She smirked. The whole ship started to hum.
“And this is it, the countdown has started, the Black Nebula — wow, what a name by the way—“
“—has just started its priming sequence. Everyone brace yourselves.”
“There are a lot of people who want to see this team, and in particular this pilot, do well this season.”
“Ten more seconds.”
“We can certainly hope that this will be a successful start to their first season here, at the seventy-seventh, legendary, sexennial Pandam Royal Regatta !”
The ship hummed louder, pulsing with energy, countless capacitors charging, and fields subtly adjusting.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One.”
The countdown hit zero and almost instantly the ship started growling. The space in front of the Black Nebula started to morph and warp out of shape, swallowing the ship, at first slowly at the front, then the rest disappeared with a brief flash of light, dragging a very faint trail behind itself into the distance, barely visible on the holocast. Almost instantly the gravitational waves could be felt around the launch hangar, heard as a burst bass symphony.
“And they are off, the Black Nebula, with Zhenzha Vae at the helm, racing for team Alhama of the Great Westerland. What is their first Pandam regatta opening going to be?”
“It would appear as if team Alhama is going for a reverse gravity turn around Pheneus, running the system counter-clockwise.”
“We have only seen this approach taken twice during the qualifiers, so far. Mev, maybe you could give some insight into why this is considered such a bold strategy this season.”
“Certainly Mel,” a view of the solar system came up, with a small window in the bottom right frame still showing the Black Nebula, severely warp shifted and distorted as it was visible from one of the many thousand orbital cameras littered around the system, “this season the orbital periods of Pheneus and Vhalstella, the Vhey system’s two gas giants — for viewers across the Galactic expanse — are almost directly opposite to each other, with the system core right in the middle.
“Approaching the system clockwise means that the Vhalstella checkpoint can be used as a gravity boost into the lower systems—“
“Free acceleration essentially.”
“—free acceleration, quite right Mel. Taking the counter-clockwise route gives a small time advantage in the beginning, but Vhalstella’s gravity is going to slow them down towards the end of the run. We will see if team Alhama can still keep their advantage.”
“Oh and we are coming up on the first checkpoint…”
Zhenzha had her eyes closed, but there was plenty for her to see. Her arms and legs were swaying in the control struts that were holding her in place. The stars were blurry messes around her, rows of numbers were streaming down her peripheral vision. She felt a soft breeze on her face and her race engineer mumbling statistics in her ears, with several seconds delay (she tried not to think about the exorbitant logistics of providing a feed to her in this moment at all).
The ship around her was humming and occasionally screaming and whining. The warp field emitters were stretched to their legal limits as the Black Nebula hurled itself across the Vhey system with super-relativistic speeds. She could feel the ebb and flow in the gravity waves around her.
“You’re coming up on the first checkpoint. Time looks good.”
Zhenzha tightened the gravity fields, releasing on acceleration and putting the ship into a gentle spin to not lose stability. For a flash of a microsecond she felt something go past her, then it was gone. She widened the fields again and pushed the accelerator. The engine howled and she felt herself be pulled backwards in her control harness.
“Incredible, team Alhama bringing in the first checkpoint time of 34.2217 seconds, that is, Mel, I believe—“
“Even after some compensation, this is the fastest time of this qualifier, so far.”
Zhenzha kept pushing.
“Kapo belt is coming up in 350 mk. And watch your port wake tails, you’re dangerously close to the red line.”
She nodded, mostly for herself, then reigned in some of her field projectors, collapsing her gravity wake back to just under two million kilometres, making the ship run slightly more bumpy. Her view showed a wall of object indicators coming towards her. She kept pushing, breaking through the 100 xc limit. One of the team Minds had plotted a path through the belt hours ago, but by now some of the rocks would have drifted. She had to make adjustments to their route.
The first rocks started hurling by her, too fast to register, to briefly to appreciate how close an encounter it had already been. The twelve million kilometre thick Kapo belt was wrapping itself around the core planets.
“Mev! Mev, it appears that Zhenzha Vae is not slowing down.”
“It would appear so, Mel, it would appear so. Team Alhama seems to have chosen a through-route for the Kapo belt. But a belt transfer requires significantly lower speeds and is usually deemed a bad strategy.”
Another three seconds had gone by and she had reached the edge of the belt. The needle ship had flattened its gravity fields from several million kilometres down to just a few ten thousand metres. It was as if the engine itself was rebelling against her choice of manoeuvre, but she didn’t care.
“Check projector 77-b, it looks like it’s spitting out bad metrics.”
She checked the projector and indeed it seemed to be slightly off. But not enough to do anything about it, and anyway, she was too busy.
She was deep within the belt at this point, flicking the ship back and forth to narrowly evade a collision, scraping by another rock close enough to physically touch it. The Black Nebula was in a mild spin, it’s gravity wake flaring wildly behind the ship. With every twist and turn Zhenzha made to adjust her trajectory another few rocks ten thousand metres off her bow were torn to pieces by the gravity forces spiking at the edges of the warp bubble.
“Half way through.”
Zhenzha was in a trance, unable to even register new messages that were coming in, her time, her position, it didn’t matter. She was surrounded by a sea of proximity alerts, surfing through the asteroid belt and weaving and in and out of available pockets of safety.
Finally, she reached the other side and accelerated again, maybe even more aggressively than before.
“Mel, I am at a loss of words.”
“Me too Mev, me too.”
“Dear viewers, we seem to be witnessing the making of a new record time here, at the seventy-seventh legendary sexennial Royal Regatta. Zhenzha Vae of team Alhama of Great Westerland, has just crossed the Kapo belt in just 15.838 seconds. We will have these numbers verified, and I’m sure the referees are already checking the flight footage and statistics.”
“I suppose this shows us that even a belt transit is a valid strategy if you don’t plan on slowing down for it.”
Mev chuckled. “It would appear so, it would appear so.”
The next stretch was easy. Zhenzha hit the accelerator and curved around the mid system to the Dhereliq (the old sandy mining colony) checkpoint, almost forgetting to collapse her wake (ripping a checkpoint gate apart was grounds for disqualification), using the gravity assist to loop around the desert planet once and hitting another checkpoint gate around its seventh moon, then plunging deeper into the system and crossing the inner belt. It was significantly less dense and it became evident that it had been extensively mined for almost a thousand years.
“Another extravagant transit of the Sen belt. Team Alhama has certainly come here to provide a show.”
“They are succeeding. We have times on sections three and four at 11.8945, and 3.8141 seconds.”
“Wow. Really. 3.8141. Wow.”
“I think in all my time presenting I have not seen a sub-four for the Dhereliq checkpoint pair. Absolutely incredible.”
Zhenzha had to slow down for the inner system checkpoints. The Vhey star’s gravity was too strong and wake field requirements were much stricter.
Fucking civilian traffic.
She hit the gate around Aquel’qu, then a few seconds later another gate around Pandam’s moon.
“Kapo coming up in 300 mk.”
Zhenzha steadied her breathing and pushed the Black Nebula forward. She was floating in a sea of darkness, surrounded by data, flashes of information, and proximity alerts coming up in front of her. Her mind was razor sharp, absorbed in total flow state as she dodged through the Kapo belt once again, pushing harder this time. Twice she almost collided with a rock, only to make a last microsecond adjustment to avoid disaster. A kilometre to her right an asteroid was ripped apart by a gravity wave spike.
She was through it again, making her final approach to Vhalstella.
“You know the drill. Tight field, use the third spiral fractal. Stay strong. Good luck.”
The Black Nebula was approaching Terminus 222, located on Vhalstella’s 22nd moon. Under normal circumstances she would have to make a gravity turn around the gas giant, shedding an incredible amount of speed, then curving back to hit the inner gate in low orbit around the giant itself, before accelerating for the final section. But these were not ordinary circumstances, and the Black Nebula was no ordinary ship.
Zhenzha banked hard towards the moon she had just shot past. It felt like she took another breath, then fully collapsed her outer gravity fields, while letting the projectors facing the moon cycle through a complex set of spiral fractals. A screaming filled the air around her, then a series of loud bangs cracked through the ship hull. The engine itself felt as if it was sputtering.
The needle ship curved itself around the moon at an unnatural rate, as if the laws of physics had gone completely out the window, as if the little moon possessed the gravitational pull of a small star. The ship was being shaken through violently, creaking and moaning under the load. The next five seconds felt like an eternity to her. Zhenzha could feel her pulse, throbbing in her neck, her breathing went stiff, her muscles started aching.
Finally she had made it. She reset the field arrangement back to a default layout, collapsed them briefly for the checkpoint gate, then opened up all engines, widened her warp field as much as was legal and pushed.
“I do not believe my eyes, dear viewers, what we are seeing here...”
“Team Alhama managed to run the Vhalstella gate pair in just 7.5184 seconds! Please correct me if I’m wrong—“
“That is certainly a new record time as well.”
“Incredible. Approaching the gate in reverse—“
“Something that team Alhama seems hellbent on demonstrating this season, their ability to flip the rules upside down and get something incredible from it.”
“Does this mean Vhalstella’s gravity is not going to slow down them down?”
“Oh indeed, on the contrary. The way that team Alhama is going around the giant now is even going to boost their speed.”
Zhenzha left out a breath of relief when she was on final approach. She took off a few limiters and pushed the engine to its absolute limit. Her vision went blurry; even the inertia stabilisation she was under could not save her from the acceleration forces now. The engine had started growling angrily, as if complaining about the load it was under, in tonal intervals of five, from the lowest to the highest possible audible note. She broke the 300 xc barrier. The Black Nebula curved around the system, along the outer edge of the Kapo belt, crossing the entire length of the Vhey system in just a few seconds. Zhenzha started getting dizzy when the gas giant Pheneus was coming towards her view, faster and faster, filling it out. For a microsecond she collapsed her fields to not rip the final gate to pieces, then she cut the accelerator and rode her gravity wave around Pheneus twice, three of its moons that happened to line up in a nice formation for her to circle, then braking hard and coming to a stop near her Terminus 361 team hangar.
They had set a new qualifying record. Back in the hangar she was greeted by camera crews and reporters, the steaming hot needle ship sitting on its four hydraulic legs behind her, and in front of her a raging deck full of engineers, technicians, backup pilots, managers, cooks, janitors, and anyone else who helped run team Alhama that day. She pulled off her helmet, revealing her face and hair drenched in sweat. She was smiling, and waving at people who waved at her. She answered some questions about her flying, about the paths she took, about the strategy that went into the run. She thanked her teams engineers, technicians, and strategy Minds. She made sure to stress that this was not the end of the regatta, that the main field was a very different competition, but that they were honoured and excited to have made such a splash at their first qualifying and that she was excited to see where else they could go.
She removed herself from the crowd by disappearing into a hatch somewhere towards the back of the hangar. Back in her room she stripped off her flight suit, took a quick shower, then collapsed into bed and slept.