Night gathers and the sun falls. In this little window, before the light finally fades, the world catches fire, shadows play and the air begins to cool. The temperature drops rapidly here. During the day the air is warped and distorted by the radiant heat and water boils before your very eyes. The onset of nightfall sees the world shed its heat the way an eager lover sheds their clothes. This window affords the opportunity to work. It is only now, in this sliver thin window of sunset before the air itself begins to ice, that a crew can realistically get anything done.
They file out of the hangers in groups of ten, sometimes as bunches, sometimes as thin snakes, walking and milling about the giant, lumbering sleds that hold their pride and joy; jet-propelled skiffs cradled in the arms of titanium-steel chains and the blue embrace of point-fixing induction coils. These are the racers and this, is The Grid.
The Grid could be anywhere. The bustle of industrious hands, the white-noise hubbub created by the shouting of workers, there’s a ubiquitous character to them. Every planet, every moon, every city, every race. It’s always the same. But it’s only here that it’s all quite so urgent. There is only so much work you can do on a racer when it’s penned up in the climate controlled womb of the team garage, some work can only be performed on the track, just before launch, just before the race starts.
The manoeuvring of the sleds into the right grid slot is a carefully choreographed dance, one team jinking left, one team pirouetting through 135 degrees as the teams stream in opposite directions, all the movements carefully dictated by a small cadre of flag waving stewards dressed in matte black jump suits. With places found further team mechanics scamper out of the garages, pushing boarding steps and ladders before them, their castors catching on the grid’s metal surface and throwing up tiny showers of blue sparks. The flavour of the air begins to change, from the hot, dry, dustiness of the day, to a chill, metallic tang as engine tests and spot-welders start to ionise the air, adding the subtle spice of ozone to the steaming breath of engine exhaust.
As the bustle reaches its height one figure stands out more than any other, she is sat almost motionless, perched on the top step of a boarding ladder, carefully nursing a cigarette. The fabric of her drab blue flight suit stirred slightly in the back wash of intercoolers and vents that stir the cooling air, snatching away both the coiling smoke of her cigarette and her own breath. This small spot of the grid is an island of calm, the eye of the storm. While other teams rush and panic, this single skiff remains unattended, squatting motionless over its grid square, lifeless, almost dead, but exuding a gentle warmth that makes it steam in the twilight. This particular skiff is a monster. Most of the other racers are streamlined works of art, fragile looking things with lines aerodynamically perfect down to the nearest micron; they are clean and precise; slotted together from custom-specification, carbon-nanofibre panels; garlanded with diaphanous airbrakes of gossamer thin plastic-chutes; dressed in garish paintwork and elaborate advertising decals. Number 21 is the exact antithesis of them all. It is a hulking, brooding monument of military grade steel and kiln-fired ceramics, decorated only with carbon scoring and the occasional opalescent flash of heat blasted metal. It is a savage at a tea-party, a barbarian in a ballroom. Together number 21 and her pilot make a matching set. Although she may have at one point been pretty, those days were likely long past. A face bisected by scars and mottled with flash burns and hair shorn back to a coarse stubble were not likely to set any hearts aflame.
“Well look what we have here!” came a nearby voice shouting down the grid “It’s little Miss Also-ran.”
The smoking woman looked down the grid to the source of the voice, the yellow engine covers of the other skiffs glaring back like the eyes of a hundred hungry hawks. The shout had come from a man at the head of a gaggle of other, newer pilots; all proud, puffed-up and clean; young and untested; green; grid-meat. She gave them only the briefest of glances, then turned away to the lonely solace of an unfinished cigarette.
“Looks like the august mademoiselle Laurette Noda is too good for us, we are below her mighty station.” The leader shouted back at her. His gaggle of pilots laughed. They surrounded her in a crude semi-circle, penning her in against her skiff. Noda remained impassive, letting out a slight sigh, a sigh that if the group had been paying attention would have adequately indicated that she really just did not give a shit about them.
“You should just give up Laurette. This is a young man’s game, there’s no place for a disfigured hag like you. You’ve been at this, what? Fifteen years and you’ve never taken the championship crown, why bother? Give up. Go home. Me and my boys will ruin you!” His gaggle laughed in assent.
“And you are?” Noda asked, scratching at her cheek.
“Reave Wellborn” his face creased up in anger.
“Never heard of you” Noda replied.
“I’m the new driver for Richmond Heavy Motors. I’m on pole! Are you so stupid that you don’t even pay attention to the qualifying results?” Reave shouted, thrusting his flight helmet in Noda’s direction with futile anger.
“Let’s get a couple of things straight here Reave” Noda rose from her perch, cigarette in hand. “Only my friends get to call me Laurette and you are a jumped up little ass-hat.” Reave’s face looked like it had just been slapped. “I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re on pole. Do you know why?” before Reave could reply Noda ploughed on “It’s because 30% of all racers on pole are a smoldering wreck by the third corner.”
“Pah…” Reave began
“As for why I never won the championship” Noda interrupted “Think about who’s taken that honour in the last decade and a half, the type of pilots I’ve been up against: Saint-Saëns, Kalkbrenner, Mad-Sullivan, The Kuriyaki Sisters. Pilots worthy of respect, pilots you only chased after if you wanted your engines to catch fire or you had a particularly pressing desire to end up as a corpse. And yet here you are. A man who’s never raced more than a qualifying lap strutting about like you own the place.” She hopped down to the bottom of the boarding ladder and looked Reave square in eyes. “Now tell me. How many of those greats are still alive? How many of them can still walk or eat without taking their food through a straw? How many of them made it to retirement? Now tell me how many of their contemporaries are still in one piece and still racing? Yeah, that’s right. Just me.” Noda smiled cruelly. “You know nothing little boy. Come race time I. Eat. You. Alive.” She reached down and stubbed out her cigarette on the unmarred glass of Reave’s flight-helmet. Climbing back up the boarding ladder Noda stepped half-way into the cockpit, then turned back to gaze down at Reave and his entourage of newbies.
“None of you have any idea what you’re about to experience. By sun-up, half of you will be dead. None of you know the track like I do, you’re just a bunch of kids in pretty, little suits wanting to play at racing. I’m a goddamn vet, and this race? This race is fucking mine!”