by Henry Payne
“You’re going to get us killed!” Derek Tracer shouted as the sleek, silver and black starship soared the black canvas of space like a supercharged bullet.
“Race you to heaven then, Tracer!” Dawn Pancamo, the pilot of the ship, replied back. He was sitting in his captain’s chair in a lean posture, as if the three electromagnetically propelled engines of their starship weren’t close to overheating and vaporizing them into star dust. His blond hair hung loosely and he constantly adjusted it to keep it out of his blue eyes. Right now, those eyes may as well be stars themselves as Derek took note of their mad glimmer.
“I’d rather we race to Mars like we intended instead of that. Cool it with the throttle, seriously, we are about to come into orbit.” Derek said as the blue and green expanse of Earth grew larger in their view. Just beyond it, McDonalds was advertising its new “Lunar Burger” on the vid screen of a passing He3 cargo hauler. A dozen other ships drifted by in the busy traffic of Earth’s orbit.
Dawn eased on the engines and started drifted towards the lineup of starships where several independent camera drones and satellites had gathered. “I’d say we made record time, co-pilot. Looks like some of the other racers aren’t even here yet. Maybe they turned coward when they heard I was competing.”
“That or they had the good sense not to risk a sentence on a prison colony for illegal space racing.” Derek chided.
Dawn just laughed. “Me and good sense broke up a long time ago. It wasn’t her, it was me. Great gal though, tell her I said sup’.”
“Well, I need to go to the lavatory before this gets underway. Don’t blow us up while I’m gone.”
“The lavatory? Just call it a bathroom like the rest of the solar system.” Dawn said.
Derek got up from his co-pilot seat and entered the lavatory a few moments later. He turned on the faucet and internal fan then flicked on the hidden interstellar communicator in his sleeve.
“This is Agent Tracer; the suspect is at the race. No sign of the stolen equipment, but—” He was cut off by the voice on the other end.
“That stolen equipment is worth more than your life, Agent. If we have to go back to the UN and NASA empty handed because some spacer trash like Pancamo ran off with their propulsion engines and you didn’t nab him with it we will be in a world of hurt.” His UN Intelligence mission handler told him.
“I understand, sir. He is protective of his ship, despite him hiring me he still hasn’t shown me detailed speccs for his three engines. Though I’m certain he has the stolen equipment. There is no way a civilian can get ahold of a ship as fast as this one.”
“Well, you need to work fast, Agent. Get evidence of the stolen equipment and cuff him. We need space jockeys like him behind bars and not on the space lanes, Mission Control out.” The connection went silent.
Derek let out a breath as he looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His brown hair was a tussled mess and his green eyes were punctuated with dark rings of stress. He couldn’t fail this mission, he couldn’t fail the system. If there was no system there was no order and without order in a space age society there was potential for great catastrophe. He straightened himself up as best he could and exited.
A few steps later he was back beside Dawn who was still lounging. This time he was engaged in a rare activity, he had a book in his hand.
“Where did you get that—no, more importantly why are you reading a book?” Derek asked.
Dawn looked up from his novel with a lopsided grin on his face. “Same place I get most things, fell off a starship.” Translation: I stole it, Derek thought.
“A physical paperback book could net a small fortune to the right buyer. Would have figured you’d sell something like that. What’s it even about?”
“Us.” Dawn said simply.
Derek blinked. “What do you mean it’s about ‘us’?”
Dawn’s smile grew wider. “Free men, renegades, banditos. It’s about friggin’ cowboys, Tracer!”
“I don’t remember cowboys flying around on millions of credits worth of equipment in the vacuum of space. I suppose your no doubt homeschooled education took a couple liberties on that topic?”
Dawn chuckled. “Can it with the jokes, I’m serious. These are guys who are coming out to a place that’s desolate, unexplored, and ripe for opportunity if they have the guts and determination to stick with it. And if they do, they don’t have a laundry list of laws holding them back from living their best lives.” Dawn’s eyes glazed over as he turned out to the viewport, the sun rising over Asia far in the distance.
“Only difference is The West isn’t a frontier everyone is connected to. It’s a uniquely American thing. Like samurai or knights, it’s tied to a culture. But, being a take-no-crap spacer with a hot rod ship and zero rules? That’s not bound to a culture.” He turned to meet Tracer’s gaze.
“That’s uniquely human.”
Derek pondered for a moment. He was certainly in a boundless expanse of opportunity, but he was far from free. He had a duty to uphold and he knew he had to fulfill it. But, there was something so appealing about this notion. That this was their generations “West”. And what was he doing? Conspiring to arrest a man who embodied that very idea he found enviable. He pushed his thoughts away and spoke.
“I guess I see your point. I’m still just curious how you became this new age cowboy in the first place. Lotta civilian engines out there, but yours runs like a dream. When are you going to give me a peek at the speccs?”
Dawn merely smiled. “Tell you what, buddy, if we clear this first milestone at Luna I’ll let you take a deeper peek under the hood.”
Derek smiled. “Agreed.”
“RACER START YOUR ENGINES” The synthetic announcer said over the radio.
“Finally, battle stations, Tracer. It’s about to get good.” Dawn said.
Derek and Dawn moved robotically as they flipped switches, turned dials, and pressed a series of buttons that would prepare the starship for the race.
“READY? THREE, TWO, ONE…GO!”
The starship shot off like an amped up jack rabbit as the myriad other starships were fighting to gain ground. Numbers flashed by the litany of terminal screens before Derek Tracer’s eyes. Engine temperature, conductivity percentages, Lorentz force readings and other data. This ship was a marvel of the modern age and it was leaving the competition in the space dust. However, an obstacle revealed itself to the unsuspecting racers.
“They have mag mines littered all over this route!” Tracer shouted as he read the ships scanners. Mag mines were magnetic devices that could activate and draw in any metal object within its several kilometer radius and activate an EMP wave once in range, effectively rendering the ship dead in the water.
“Well, we got other problems, buddy.” Dawn said as Tracer took note of the blood red, axe shaped starship pressing up on their rear. Tracer recognized it to be the famed “Red Baron” of the illegal space races. A ruthless racer that gave no succor in their vicious ambition to be number one in the circuit. More than a few “accidental” collisions have been attributed to that racer…and right now he was coming in at ramming trajectory!
“Try and juke him!” Tracer shouted.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, hotshot. Tricky thing to manage with all these mag mines around.” As he said so, two starships were ripped from their paths in the race and were pulled into the field of one of the mag mines. There was a blue pulse, and the ships went into a dead drift.
“Then you know what we need to do.” Tracer said.
“This early? I don’t know man.”
“You hired me to be your co-pilot, Dawn. You told me you wanted someone who could keep up, not catch up. Act like a cowboy then and put your heel into this baby!” Derek surprised even himself with the steel and spacer flare he put into his words. Was Pancamo rubbing off on him, he wondered.
Dawn just smiled. “You got it, chief.” He gripped a heavy red lever in the cockpit and jerked it forward as the three engines hummed in unison. The Red Baron was poised to ram the starship into a mag mine when his quarry suddenly bolted with force strong enough to shake the heavens. It was a silver and black blur on the space lanes as recording drones attempted to capture it in motion for the viewers across the solar system. What they had done was a risky move, they sacrificed one of their engines for a monstrous burst of speed that would propel them past the first checkpoint at the Moon. The first engine died down, dead from the sheer outburst of conducted energy. As they started to drift, the checkpoint finish line approached. A circular tube that was electromagnetically charged to jolt them across the expanse of space to the next starting zone.
“Woo! Bet he thought he had a chance for a sec there, eh Trace? Punk should just jet off to the Venus circuit with all the other trust fund pansies looking to impress their college friends. Good call with cutting the first engine, it will lower our speed overall, but we are still half a hundred times faster than the rest of these junkers.” Dawn said patting Tracer on the back.
He tried to remain professional, but he couldn’t help but smile. “I think the Baron will think twice about pulling a stunt like that on us.” He paused for a moment. “I can’t take all the credit thought, it was your maneuvering that got us away from him and away from the mag mines.”
“Aww, you’re making me blush, Trace.” Dawn said teasingly. “I guess you want to see the speccs now, huh?”
“I…” He felt his voice catch in his throat. The mission, Tracer. Stop paling around with Pancamo and find the evidence. He’s an interplanetary criminal, not your friend.
“What? Martian got your tongue? Or did you think your buddy Dawn was just talking hot vapor and wasn’t gonna keep his word?” Dawn said.
“No, it’s just…I guess I can take a look at it another time. Let’s just celebrate right now before the next leg starts.”
Dawns smile grew wider. “I’ll get the drinks.” He unstrapped himself from the pilot’s chair and rushed off to the back off the ship. Tracer’s communicator was pinging. He scurried off to the bathroom once more as he felt a jolt as the ship passed through the checkpoint.
“This is Agent Tracer, go ahead sir.”
“Give us a sitrep on your progress, Agent.”
Tracer hesitated for a beat. “Pancamo trusts me enough to show me the speccs, but I don’t want to rush things yet. If I seem to eager I may make him suspicious. I should be completing the mission soon, but I have to let you know that the Red Baron is here, sir. I think we should make it a priority to take him in as well seeing as his rap sheet includes seven counts of—”
“Agent, please stick to your mission parameters. The Red Baron is irrelevant and we need to focus on recovering that property.” The mission handler said icily.
“I know, sir, but—”
“But nothing, boy! You’ve been dragging your feet ever since you took that assignment. Either you follow your orders or I bust you back down to a desk job down in Baltimore! What’s with all these diversions and excuses? Don’t tell me you’re getting friendly with that piece of trash?”
“No, sir, I’m merely just been going about completing my mission in the best way I saw fit.” Tracer said apologetically.
“Well then the parameters just changed. You get the evidence and nab Pancamo before he makes it to Mars or you’re through, am I clear?”
Tracer fought back a sigh. “Crystal, father.”
The handler hung up without another word.
It was now or never. His father had never been satisfied with how hard he worked for the agency before. Despite the fact that Tracer always kept to the rules and never made a habit of thinking for himself. It was a new frontier like Pancamo said, wild and untamed and people like his father had nothing on their mind except for how to police it. An engine like Pancamo’s would never see the civilian market and if it did it would cost a fortune. Why shouldn’t a regular joe get a chance at exploring the stars, at blazing trails without a care for who’s stuffy regulations got in the way? Being orderly had never got him anywhere, perhaps it was time to make a change.
He returned back to the co-pilots chair where Pancamo had the drinks ready. After swapping stories and bantering, they both received the alert that the second half of the race was about to begin. Mars awaited them.
“READY? THREE, TWO, ONE, GO!”
They had a clear lead over the other racers, but it was not as large as it was previously. The sacrifice of one of the engines gave enough time for several starships to gain on their tail. One of them was the Red Baron. He juked to the left and knocked one starship off course that collided with another, causing both to crash and emergency escape pods to be launched. The red orb of Mars grew larger. In the distance, there was a large crowd of camera drones and floating red lights the denoted the finish line.
“We can do this, Dawn! Let’s go all in, burn the second engine!”
“Ditto, chief!” Dawn moved his hand hit the lever when reading flashed across a terminal informing them that the Red Baron had just burned one of his engines.
“Brace yourself!” Tracer shouted as he gripped the chair tight enough to whiten his knuckles. A hard collision was felt at the back of the ship as they both rocked violently.
“That little twerp has some gall, I think he just crashed one of our engines.” Dawn said as he desperately flicked switches and dials to try and bring it back online. “Get back there and see what you can do, take my access key for the terminal.” He said handing him said key.
Tracer looked at it for a moment before steeling himself and rushing towards the engine room. It was a sparking, gibbering mess as he saw bits of metal had flung free about the room and wires hung loosely about. He plugged in the key and accessed the data on the engine room terminal. The speccs of the ship were laid bare, Pancamo had indeed possession of the stolen engines. But, Derek Tracer didn’t care anymore. He was going to patch things up as best he could and he and his friend were going to win this thing.
“Hurry up back there, these bozos are passing us one by one! We’ll be lucky if we can snag 8th place!” Dawn shouted over the intercom.
“I know, I’m working as fast as I can!” Tracer shouted back. His personal comm was buzzing once more. He answered.
“Agent Tracer, reporting in.”
“Hello, Agent.” An unfamiliar voice said. “I don’t suppose you care much about keeping your job?”
“Who is this?”
“I believe you and I are decently acquainted. My ram and your aft section that is.” The voice said impishly.
“The Red Baron? How do you have this frequency.” Tracer demanded.
“Because I gave it to him.” His father said as he announced his presence on the call. “Did you really think you were the only undercover asset on this mission, son? Did you really think I had that much faith in you? Well, I supposed I did at one point but you’ve proven beyond doubt you aren’t fit for the job. You always went on about wanting to see the stars and what was beyond your desk life. And the one chance I give you ends up being squandered because you get cold feet over a criminal buddy. The Baron has been instructed to take you in.”
Tracer felt a pit form in his stomach and his knees felt weak. “I don’t believe this, you trusted a criminal over your own son? Someone known to sow chaos in his wake for the price of winning? If that’s order then I want no part in it.”
“Order comes at any cost. The stars were meant to be organized, not explored at a child’s whim. Careful deliberation and regulation are needed to keep humanity going. Spacer hooligans are a detriment to such a society. If the Red Baron has to crash a couple spacers in the process in exchange for intel, I say let him.” His father said.
“Then this is goodbye, forever. My life isn’t behind a desk on Earth. It’s out here in the frontier.” He hung up the comm and crushed it underfoot and resumed the repairs.
Dawn felt a bead of sweat trickle down his brow as he saw more and more starships over take him. He was about to call for Tracer when he saw him burst in covered in sweat and engine coolant.
“We only got one shot at this, partner. I jury rigged the engine as best I could, but only way we can gain back lost ground is on a gamble. Are you prepared for that?”
Dawn chuckled. “Sure, Lady Luck and I go way back, Trace.” He moved his hand to the lever.
“Dawn, there’s something else I need to tell you. It’s about me.”
“What? That you’re a UN intel agent sent her to cuff me for those NASA engines I stole way back when?” He said without skipping a beat.
Tracer felt as if he had been punched in the face. “How in the world did you know?”
“Two-way intercoms on the ship my friend, been hearing all your private “lavatory” transmissions.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Dawn grinned. “Because I knew you’d make the right choice, cowboy.”
They shared a moment of understanding that went beyond words as Derek smiled back.
Derek Tracer sat down next to his friend and captain. He placed his hand atop his and together they sacrificed their two remaining engines and became the essence of speed as ships made way to avoid being smashed to the side. The stars became glowing slits in their view as they were pushed against their seats with incredible force. The Red Baron’s ship came into view and attempted to maneuver out of their sights. A vain effort as the tip of the silver and black starship collided with the engines of the ship and sent it into a tailspin so fast no one knew if it would ever stop spinning. They soared faster and faster as Tracer’s heart thundered in his chest like a mad gods storm. When he heard the melodious chime of the finish line being passed, he finally attained what he had been wishing for all his life.
Author Biography: I am a student at the university majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in English. I have a great love of fiction and reading and hope to become an accomplished author.