Racer X, Part 2: The Race Day

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I strolled down the row of racers, the sponsors and the sponsors’ painters, already hard at work on the costumes. I nodded casual greetings to the other racers. Jenny, a longtime friend and former lover, was already getting her logo painted on her belly--a large AT&T logo, plus several other smaller sponsors’ logos.

“You’re lucky to snag them,” I said. “How much for?”

“Three million plus endorsements and commercials. Who’d you get?”

I told her. She laughed.

“That’s going to look REAL good, all painted on your belly and then inflated to about 25 feet across!” I shrugged.

“It’ll pay the bills. Good luck, Jenny,” as I planted a kiss on her belly and went to get painted and inflated.

Mary Baska had already got the CBS logo painted on her belly and was waiting for the paint to dry, while on others I saw various logos—Dupont, Pepsi, Coke, Lucent, and others. Ludmilla, a Russian émigré, was a little down on her luck and was being painted with a giant Pickachu from Pokemon on her belly. I tried not to grin as she refused to meet anyone’s eye, and did my level best to refrain from calling out, “I choose you, Pikachu!” Officials were already checking engines and motors for regulatory compliance when I saw one of the rookies cover something up with a tarp. As he turned to flirt with a racing girl, I strolled over and took a quick peek at what he covered.

Gas pellets—slightly different model than what I used, but not illegal. Ok, if the design is legal but he wants to cover it up then it’s what’s in them that he wants to hide. I looked closer and took a sniff…Damn. For a moment I considered telling him what a fool he was.

Then I considered narcing him out the officials.

Then I said to hell with it. These are the big leagues; if you don’t know what you’re doing, pal, then you deserve everything you have coming to you. With that, I went on my way as they painted a Dodge logo on his belly and back.

She was there. “Wondered what took you so long.”

“I had business to attend to. Ready when you are,” I told her painters as I clasped my hands behind my back. With that, they proceeded to paint my sponsor’s logo across my belly.

To be specific, Target’s logo. Jenny was right; it was going to look really good when I inflated. As they painted the red and white concentric circles on me, I could see Sandy over to one side chatting with her sponsor (she found one?) and another wiry, whip-thin woman with corded muscles, also dressed in a black rubber suit, also covered with sponsor logos. She seemed determined to not even look in my direction.

Fine by me. I really try not to let personal grudges interfere with a race. Too many other racers do and, well, given the nature of the race, things tend to end tragically.

We lined up in a row, fifty feet apart from each other. Some had riders, some didn’t. All were dressed in the now uniform shiny black rubber bodysuit, covered with painted on logos, all forty of us. I made sure I stayed well away from the newbie—I wanted to be nowhere near him if what I thought was going to happen, happened. We looked up expectantly.

“Racers, inflate!” came over the speakers.

As one, knobs were turned on tanks hooked up to us as the whole line of us started to get bigger…bigger…bigger. Special non-crack paint allowed us to inflate without ruining the logos on us; long-time racers used decals for the long-term sponsors. I relaxed as I felt the now familiar pressure of hydrogen slowly filter throughout my body, removing every single wrinkle on me, letting it swirl inside me, filling me, bloating me, swelling up my belly first, then moving down to my hips, my arms and legs, my hands…I was some thirty feet long with a belly twenty-two feet across, firmly tethered to the ground. Some 50,000 cubic feet of gas was in me.

“Attach motors!” came the command, then “controls, check!” followed fifteen minutes later by “ground lines, stand by!”

I looked around as I took a deep breath and let it out, slowly. Professional training not withstanding, I always feel nervous. Those that had riders were already mounted while the rest of us waited nervously…

“Tethers up!” The command sent us all to a uniform 20 feet in the air.

“Racers, start your motors! Three…two…one…” A starter’s pistol caused all the tethers to drop, and we were free. I immediately clicked two more capsules into my mouth, sending another 20,000 cubic feet of hydrogen into me and reveled in the sound of my motors revving and sending me higher. I gloried in the feel of the gas pressing against every square inch of my body as the internal pressure in me mounted and powered my motors. I was happily ascending to 15,000 feet when a weird whining sound struck my ears.

Rookie boy was in trouble. He was traveling without a rider (which was just as well) and the whining sound was the props of his motors going full tilt. Even at this distance I could see smoke starting to come from his motors.

Idiot boy had filled his capsules with a rare type of gaseous nitroglycerin, a dangerously unstable but powerful fuel. It’s great if you only take one…less great if you take a lot, because then the motors overheat and turn white-hot…damn. His motor klaxons are going off now.

Motor klaxons are a type of shorthand for racers. It doesn’t happen often, but since we are filled with hydrogen, motors do overheat and you can’t always call out to people. Klaxons are a way of saying “Excuse me, I’ve gone from being a potential bomb and turned into a real bomb, so please stay clear of me, I’m about to explode. Thank you.”

Racers were flying everywhere now, trying to get away from dumb-ass and his illegal fuel (and probably cussing him out to themselves). Meanwhile, “Dummy” was trying to turn sideways to the wind in a futile effort to cool the motors. I could see his form, a large black shiny form, what was he thinking, oh, wait, there…yes, I could see sparks coming from his port motor, shortly followed by the starboard one…damn, now sparks were flying everywhere and everyone has got clear of him…yes, there’s the fire on his port motor now, he’s finished now…for a brief moment, I saw him barrel roll in a last-ditch attempt to put out the fire, saw his Jelly Belly logo painted across his front…

And then a white-hot explosion of light and sound, followed by a rather impressive shockwave.

The next day, I went from a distant ninth to a far better third—though not necessarily through my own efforts. Sandy helped me a lot.

The race path took us through a rather convoluted canyon complex where various sensors recorded your passage. Lower altitude made the air pressure problem mush easier, so we all pumped more fuel into us, only to discover that many sensors took us through or past a veritable forest or power lines and mammoth trees. Many of us (myself included) were already at top pressure and top speed, but the chance of getting snagged or accidentally popped (and losing position) made us look and sound like a bunch of black vibrating drums. The fact that spectators might take a shot at us made us all very careful as we watched the ground for miscreant. I guess that’s why we weren’t watching the sky very closely.

I was lucky, I guess, since Sandy was originally gunning for me. I snagged my harness on a low tree limb and spent a futile ten minutes trying to free myself while I cursed the lack of rider that gave me speed, but not a second pair of hands. Looking, I saw that a tree limb had, against all odds, got caught on an engine strap. I used my waldoes (finger controls for those that don’t or never read Heinlein) chose to simply rev at top speed in reverse and free myself, when I saw them.

The human eye is drawn to movement, so when I saw the familiar form of a racer high in the sky where no racer had a right to be, I took notice. It was Sandy—or someone that had Sandy’s logos painted all over her body with a rider to boot, so it had to be her. I wondered briefly what she was doing above the sensor line when I saw her rider fiddle with something like a long stick. I then saw her attach some type of string to it just as I got free and started to rise. I clicked for more fuel and reveled in the feel of the dangerous gas assaulting every square inch of my body, barely denied release by my body and suit as it filled me to near capacity. As I looked up, I swore my eyes played tricks on me as I saw her make an open flame and reach for something. As they dove on the racers in front of us, I saw the rider stand tall in stirrups and…shit. A bow. Somehow, she had improvised a bow and was now reaching for something at her side. With sinking feeling, I saw her put an arrow (how did that get past inspection?) to string as they dived on the racers…and let fly at her chosen target.

Ahead of me were four other racers; Ludmilla, a brother/sister pair named Toni and Tea that often competed with each other, and Will Sotherton, another rookie. The brother/sister pair never saw what hit them. There was only about thirty feet separating the two when the arrow took Toni in the back, instantly a turning him into a massive fireball, a fireball that briefly engulfed his sister—and then there were two fireballs. I quickly clicked for two more capsules, disregarding the potential popping danger in favor of concerning myself with the real danger of explosion, and climbed for altitude.

Sandy’s rider had reloaded and was looking for a target. She picked one and let fly again.

Poor Ludmilla never had a chance in those narrow canyon walls. She had looked and seen, but had chosen to try and run the race course anyway. As she saw Sandy and her rider bearing down on her, she belatedly tried to climb and gain altitude. She banked for a moment when the assassin loosed her shot, straight into her swollen Pikachu belly. I heard her give a long scream as the arrow described a lazy arc into her bloated, explosive body—and another fireball rocked the sky.

Will was already climbing for all he was worth. The she-assassin lined up her shot and let fly.

She missed, but Will had the bad luck to scrape a canyon wall and lose a motor. It came off and there was Will, trailing a fuel hose and hydrogen fuel. The she-assassin loosed another shot as Will corkscrewed into the canyon wall and burst from the impact. I thought he would be ok after he reformed, but her arrow went directly into the spot where he burst, turning the area into a mass of flame…and the canyon walls shook as his essence detonated.

That left me. The capsules had already emptied their massive load into my taut, quivering body, and I applied full blast to the motors right away. Actually, I didn’t know for sure that Sandy was gunning for me, but I was certain that she would not hesitate to shoot at me at all. Ignoring the buzzer that signaled my out-of-bounds state and loss of points, I soared up as fast as I could, ignoring the strain on my body that increased slightly but constantly, second by second. I was behind them and had no intention of being caught by them. Even as I flew higher, though, the sun came out from behind a cloud. As it happened, the sun cast shadows on the ground—mine and theirs. The archer chanced to see it and immediately rolled Sandy around to give chase.

As I flew upwards and onwards, I could hear a loud cackling coming from behind me. I quickly clicked for two more capsules as I tried to ignore the crackling “tum-tum-TUMMMMRRR-TUm” coming from my body. I leveled out as I opted for more speed instead of altitude. I had some time to think: I could maybe outrun them, but have to watch my back forever, OR

I could always try to travel armed with never a chance to let my guard down, up to the point I did drop my guard and I get kidnapped by Sandy…OR

I could stop racing, OR

Try something else. I tried something else. I deliberately throttled back and slowed down, allowing her to catch up…a little. When I thought I saw her pull an arrow, I applied full pressure and climbed. They could let me go or chase me. I was hoping they would chase me.

They did. Turning about, I saw them climbing towards me for all they were worth, even as the gas inside me continued to strain at my suit and body. Ignoring the creaks from my body, I continued the climb as they pursued. I had one chance of coming out of this alive. I continued to climb, the gas pressure continued to push everywhere inside me. I had the problem of not wanting to get so close that she could get me, but not so far away that they stopped the pursuit.

I continued to climb and climb, hoping against hope that they were still on me. I did a slow barrel roll, showing off a 25-foot wide Target logo for her to see and hopefully goad her. Damn. She was closer than I thought. In spite of her rider’s weight, Sandy was making rather good progress. Standing on her back, lithe and lean and clad in tight black latex, stood the assassin, arrow nocked and held, a bit of fire flaring at the tip. I swore I could see her smiling. Even now they were gaining on bloated body, so I flipped back around and poured it on. I impulsively clicked for one more pellet—I needed more fuel and pressure to pull off what I had in mind. I pulled straight up and did nothing but go straight up, keeping my belly pointed at them.

I wondered how it would end. Would it be quick? Would I feel an instant of searing heat? Would I even enjoy it for a split second? Already I was feeling the familiar feathery tickle of every nerve, every pore in my body, starting to slowly give under the incredible pressure as the outside pressure decreased faster and faster. It was coming and coming quickly. And yet, in spite of me speed, Sandy and her rider were climbing fast as well. I swear I saw the rider pat her ass at me and blow me a kiss as she slowly pulled the arrow back, sighting along the length of it, carefully aiming at my logo…

And then it happened. I guess the she-archer was ignorant of racing—and Sandy. I couldn’t see Sandy’s body. But I imagine it was pulsating madly. She was there one moment and then Sandy’s body blew apart in a cloud of white vapor.

The look on the assassin’s face was priceless. Maybe she realized her own doom. For s split second she was surrounded by hydrogen vapor until it came in contact with her flame arrow and ignited.

And for the fifth time today, the sky shook to a thunderous BOOOOOM!

As for me, it was already too late. I passed the point of no return and just lay back, luxuriating in the strain and pressure of every fiber of my being stressed and tested by the fuel, hoping that my placing wouldn’t be too badly affected by all this. I said “to hell with it” and clicked for three more pellets…and let 100,000 cubic feet of gas do its trick.

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