It was a record-breaker. There were three hundred and sixty-seven scout class ships registered for the Grand Gliese Acceleration, a two-hour tour of the six innermost planets of Gliese 667c, the smallest sun of the triple star system and just over two hundred AUs from its nearest sister star.
Sheena liked the system for her highest-profile races – especially the short hop, midway through the racing calendar – because none of the planets that the racers would be asked to fly by were stable, or for that matter, far from the star. In the case of the Grand Gliese Acceleration, the inner planets were no more than twenty-five million miles out, squeezing six planetary orbits into a space just one quarter of the distance between Old Earth and its Sun.
Orbits ranged from just a whisker over seven standard days to ninety-one. Not only were these lumps of rock close together, they were moving extremely quickly.
The one concession to pilots attempting to navigate the system was the supersize rocky planets, which were reasonably easy to observe and track.
Sheena would have loved to have found a system with tiny little balls of dirt with this kind of kinetic complexity, but a balance had to be struck, taking into account ease of access for tourists, political stability and the ability to attract big-name sponsors.
For now, until something more interesting turned up on her automatic news aggregators, Gliese 667c would do. Sheena was comfortable raking in registration fees and sponsorship payments.
Her race would be broadcast across most of inhabited space; she expected more than three billion viewers to be watching when the micronova was detonated to start the competition in thirty-four hours’ time.
The pilots would be asked to successfully coordinate-cache between eighteen locations, starting inside the habitable zone and working their way in towards the red dwarf that was 667c.
The other advantage of the system for races was the presence of several mining expeditions and companies, who were more than happy to provide space for visitors during the race, the extra income paying for small luxuries like fresh hydroponic fruit and grain. Otherwise, Gliese was a dim runt of a star, the poor relation of its binary sisters and never a likely spot for colonists.
Sheena allowed betting in any of the three hard currencies, and had grafted ceaselessly over the years to ensure that gambling syndicates and even more official market counterparties would do business with her. She managed the odds, at least the odds on the races, while letting others create derivative markets from the safety of their armchairs. It had been cracking business – skimming off currency exchanges before and after the race, paying out to lucky punters after deducting administration costs.
Yet if you’d asked any of her small team whether she was content, they would have looked away, eyes sliding right off you, unwilling to answer.
‘When will you let up?’ her wife would ask her at least two or three times a year, nearly always after a big race when the days without sleep took their toll and she wished she were dead, even as she made plans for another magazine interview. Joan – or Dolly, as Sheena called her – wasn’t so much a racing widow as she was the queen of the social circuit, in touch with every driver and racing team and all their lovers and partners. She wondered, when she found the time to think about it, whether Dolly had a hand in brokering more of the pilot transfers than she admitted, but as long as she was happy Sheena didn’t particularly care. Her hands on the drivers’ careers meant calm teams, and calm teams meant good cooperation.
The race started off okay. Three hundred and seventy-six pilots spread out across the three-kilometre volume designated as the starting line by Sheena’s race marshals. A marshal’s job consisted mainly of making sure pilots didn’t block one another at the start and in trying to minimise early collisions. The field would inevitably stretch out over the course of the race, but because none of the teams were given privileged starting positions, there was always a certain amount of jockeying to be reined in, even if only with stern looks.
There were teams from all over inhabited space, including official entries from the European Federal Union, the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Pacific Trade Alliance – who, with government subsidised research and development budgets, tended to dominate the racing results. After these three, the most consistently high-ranking teams were from the non-affiliated companies, Yet Another Corporation, Kurupi Comes When You’re Asleep and Iron Core Speed. These teams made a living out of the short races, and ran entire support groups just to make it happen. Maybe a dozen teams made their money from researching race tech: more efficient engines, lower-mass superstructures and faster navigation computers. It was a secretive business, and they all took security extremely seriously.
Everything was fine at the first Volume Benchmark, VB1. The pack was about half an AU long, Estelle Teixeira of Kurupi Visits currently in the lead, in a race-specified scout ship called the You Blinked.
Bringing up the rear, in a scout ship called Six Fingers – built more than thirty years ago before the second ascension had begun – was Stefan Inigo Montoya. He had made a fortune in the first ascension, plotting out new routes for jump gates in the Universal Caliphate, and retired just as the second ascension started properly. He’d bummed around the galaxy for a few years before getting bored, buying himself an old racing ship and joining the astro crowd. He always raced. Never well, thought Sheena, but he always raced.
Anyone could race. Sheena loved that. In the short hops, nearly a third of entrants would be people who had suddenly felt an urge to compete, gone out and gotten themselves a cheap scout and registered. They weren’t in the same leagues as the dedicated racing teams, but that didn’t matter to them; they ran their own leagues and rolls of honour, and an entire class of sponsor actually preferred them to the big guys who already had budgets of billions to spend on R&D.
By the time Estelle, who had held the lead unbroken since VB1, reached VB14, the field was spread out over a whole AU. She passed through without incident, but her passage activated a graviton mine left over from a three-way engagement the month before the race. The mine didn’t detonate until the next pilot triggered it, broadcasting a silent wave of distortion as it created a tiny singularity that collapsed into nothingness nanoseconds after its creation. The gravitational ripple drew ships in from tens of kilometres around before blowing them back out in all directions.
Ships arriving after the initial detonation found their navigation computers struggling with the splintered mirror of space their sensors detected. By then, the marshals were on the scene trying to minimise the damage, but there was no way the race could complete. Estelle was detained for questioning, just as a precaution, but it was pretty obvious she wasn’t behind it. Casualties were minimal, but several ships were destroyed as the singularities in their Alcubierre drives were overwhelmed by the gravitational disturbance.
Sheena spent a good deal of the next few hours and days dealing with the fallout. She needed to reassure pilots that, from then on, they would always survey the course for discarded and forgotten munitions; to calm nervous sponsors so that they focussed not on the carnage but on the viewing figures the excitement had created; and, last but not least, to debrief her own team.
What really annoyed her was the refusal of the Great Powers to take any responsibility for their borders. They hardly emerged from behind them and almost never enforced their own laws along their lengths.
That said, registrations for the next race were up more than thirty percent, and the pressure was for more danger, not less. Sheena wasn’t about to change what worked, but she knew a good thing when she saw it. So the Tough Bugger Obstacle Course was born, a short hop race with a difference – environmental phenomena designed to test a pilot’s ability to manage in the most difficult of circumstances.
They ran it with the strapline, “Not deadly, but not safe neither”.