“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Not even in the slightest.”
The bunny was staring, slack-jawed, at a message currently occupying the larger holotable of the Farsight’s bridge – a private communique from the corporation behind the Saccio Open, a race they’d (technically) won a little over a year ago.
They still had the trophy, mounted over the doorway in the little ship’s mess.
“Mx. Kellen,” It read, shimmering slightly in the holographic light. “Your performance at Saccio as a newcomer was excellent – and, on the behalf of the Core Circuit, we have been authorized to grant you access as a first-time contender in the premier race of our decennial circuit, the Kincade Blitz!”
“…Snub fighter race, according to what I can pull. Six competitors, six thousand kilometer track through the Kincade belt.”
“…Isn’t that stupidly dangerous?”
Cai sighed, rubbing their temples. It’d been a slow year for business, and they… well, it’d been a long time since they’d last been behind the controls of a fighter of any kind. Why not?
“Send a reply, Rembrandt.”
“A no, I presume?”
“A yes,” The bunny grinned, already locking in the course.
“We’re going to Kincade!”
Kincade was a relatively rural system corewards and anti-spinwards of Sol – sporting a single colony world, Kincade, which the system was named after. Covered in sprawling farmlands and shallow, salty seas, it was the perfect place to meet up with Jac and go over the fighter they’d be piloting in the Blitz.
“So this is it?” Cai wondered aloud, running a paw along the hull of the tiny craft. Roughly V-shaped, with a protruding cockpit and microthrusters lining the rear of the V – along with a small, disabled plasma emitter. “Guess I expected something…”
“Well, it’s not. The Blitz has a specific length maximum to prevent thrust ratios from being unfair.”
“Makes sense,” Cai conceded, hitting the release to clamber inside and look around. The canopy raised as it split down the middle, receding into the sides.
“Got a name?” The rabbit questioned, settling into the chair. It felt nice to be behind the controls of something smaller than the Farsight, already sinking into the muscle memory startup sequences they’d drilled when still a member of the Navy.
Jac shook his head. “I’ve been too busy sorting parts for the skimmer, you’re lucky I managed to get this here in time.”
Cai shook the throttle sticks a little, satisfied with how easily they moved, firm but responsive.
“…Sure,” Jac shrugged, setting the little drones to work inscribing the name and SRN on the side.
“Here’s to victory,” Cai whispered to themself, patting the ship’s controls with a paw. “Let’s show those hot shots what a real fighter jockey can do, huh?”
The next day came quickly – and, soon enough, Cai was tugging on the high-g oxygen gear they were required to wear for the race, clambering into the fighter’s tiny cockpit as they were loaded aboard the civilian carrier the Kincade Blitz used as a launching point. They’d spent the evening beforehand piloting a simulated version of the course, following the rough infinity-symbol shaped course along the navigation buoy marked route over and over, relearning how the pilot in such high-gravity situations.
Now, as Cai gripped the throttles, the voice of Jac crackled in their ear.
“Okay, preliminary checks seem… good? I can’t really provide support out there, race rules.”
“I can handle it,” The bunny grinned, flashing a mock-salute as the race preshow began to draw to a close. “I did this for a living!”
Jac rolled his eyes, stepping away as the hangar was cleared – and then the lights went out.
Depressurization klaxons began to sound as the launch bay drained, the massive door to the front of the room grinding open to reveal the tumbling ballet of interstellar rock that was the Kincade Belt – and the first nav beacon ahead, glowing a bright green in the AR-augmented screens of the Lady Luck.
“Racers!” A voice called over the radio, giddy with excitement. “Spool up those engines, we’re ready in ten!”
Cai, fingers darting over the controls, brought the fighter online.
The others did the same, torch thrusters glowing bright orange in the dark of the bay.
Cai shared a glance with the fighter to their right, receiving a thumbs-up from the pilot of the Ebony Starlight.
They returned the gesture.
Steeling themself, they gripped the throttles tighter.
The lights over the hangar door changed to two yellow lights.
One green light.
Two green lights, and the fighters roared out of the hangar into open black, anti-collision software preventing them from getting too close as the first beacon was crossed, Cai falling into fourth place as they were forced to dodge the first rock. Nine beacons to go!
The racers were like water on leaves, skipping across the surface of the asteroids as they rolled and tumbled, dodging the smaller rocks and each other. Cai’s own piloting experience held some merit, eventually sliding the rabbit back into second place – but the fighter in front, Blue Eagle, was a league of its own.
They’d almost passed it on the fifth beacon, and actually managed to tie it on the seventh – but, as the eighth loomed ahead in the central hole of a large, donut-shaped asteroid – it was looking as if they’d end up coming in second if they even managed to hold that.
That simply wasn’t acceptable.
“Rembrandt,” Cai grunted, g-forces pressing the rabbit into their seat as they threw the fighter into a close arc around the bumpy surface of an asteroid, rolling it to avoid fragments of rock as a smaller one slammed into it. “Got any ideas?!”
Technically the AI wasn’t supposed to be aboard – but technically, he inhabited Cai’s implant, not the fighter. Not against the rules, just like the Ebony Starlight’s nonstandard thrusters were technically allowed.
“Overpressure wouldn’t help you, here – it works for straight-ahead thrust, not maneuvering thrust. A moment.”
Cai gritted their teeth, speeding through the eighth beacon on a rocket ride; Blue Eagle was still just ahead, following the route he’d clearly planned ahead of time.
“Uploading new route to your nav. Might be the edge we need.”
Cai blinked at the screen. “Between these rocks?!”
“You asked for a quicker route, I provided. Safety wasn’t part of it.”
The rabbit sighed, throwing the fighter into a steep dive to follow the route the AI had created. “If I die, I’ll kill you.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Instead of the relatively clear route the race usually was supposed to take, the rabbit had taken a path through a thicker patch of asteroids, hoping to use some of the larger ones for gravity assists – and, as they dove between a massive pair of rocks in the middle of forming a new planetoid, they had to admit it wasn’t a bad idea.
It was a terrible idea!
“Rembrandt!” Cai shouted, a large piece of rock sending spiderweb cracks along the canopy. “How much further?!”
“Not far!” The AI protested, directing the rabbit’s attention ahead as they dove through a subterranean cave, only Cai’s quick reflexes and AI-enhanced perception getting them through in one piece – and, as they broke through a fragile rock wall to emerge just above the ninth beacon, flying an AR finish line flag, Cai was ecstatic – until they spotted the Blue Falcon, tearing towards them.
Cai snarled, throwing the fighter into as steep and rapid a dive as they could, pushing the g-force inhibitor to the very limit – crossing the line at exactly the same time the other craft did, to raucous applause and celebration!
Cai, for the moment, slumped back in their chair – they’d done it!
They’d finished the race, winning be damned! That was tough!
“That…” Cai breathed, panting, “was awesome.”
The announcer’s voice crackled through the ship’s radio, just as Cai boosted their oxygen supply ever so slightly. “Folks, in my decades of hosting this race I’ve never seen a finish like that – we have a tie!”
Cai sat straight up.