Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 28
Stories
The Curse of Sally Tincakes
by Brad Torgersen
Blank Faces
by M.K. Hutchins
The Snake King Sells Out
by Rahul Kanakia
Calling the Train
by Jeff Stehman
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

The Curse of Sally Tincakes
    by Brad Torgersen

The Curse of Sally Tincakes
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

She was brunette, with dark eyes, 100 meters high, and stacked like a pin-up model. The red thermal paint of her bikini had begun to flake after decades spent broiling in the lunar sunlight, but her smile never wavered. Both arms stretched above her head into the black sky. The empty first-stage of an ancient Tokawa moon booster rocket sat balanced across her palms. The cylinder of the booster was parallel to the roughly-graded regolith at the statue's base, where the statue's silvered platform heels sent anchor spikes deep into the lunar basalt below the surface. Across the cylinder the words CAZETTI RACEWAY were emblazoned in massive, royal blue lettering.

Jane Jeffords grinned at the sight.

It had taken years of effort to make it to the top.

Though her eager mood was not shared by her driver.

"What's wrong?" Jane asked Bill. The old man was frowning as he slowly navigated their suborbital moon car over the lumpy, gray infield - patiently waiting for traffic control to clear them for landing. A cloud of other cars, all belonging to competitors, had begun to swarm in the airless space above the track.

"You racing here is a bad idea," Bill said. "Sally Tincakes is watching."

"Who?"

"The giant broad down there. Sally Tincakes. That's what we used to call her, two generations ago; when I was still a racer."

Bill's liver-spotted hands smoothly worked the car's controls as he talked. Age had taken his hair and his looks, but not his surety with machines. The car moved with precision.

Jane shook her head, bemused.

"How in the heck did you come up with that ridiculous name?"

"The real Sally - Mrs. Frank Cazetti - was the darling of the racing circuit when I was your age. Her billionaire husband made a show of her everywhere he went. Liked to rub it in other guys' faces - how hot she was."

"To the point of making a huge effigy?" Jane said, eyebrow raised.

"That was strictly for publicity," Bill said.

"Why not just put up an LCD billboard?"

"Any idiot can stare at a screen. Sally down there was an experiment in throwback marketing. Something special. From a time when there just weren't that many women on the moon."

Jane felt her stomach shift as the car suddenly dropped, the lunar gravity tugging them gently towards the ground. The race track itself was a wide, shallow, concave half-pipe. It formed an irregular pattern of long straightaways, occasionally punctuated by a series of wicked-looking twists -- like an outsized Earth bobsled course. On steroids.

Jane imagined herself hurtling along the route. Goose bumps momentarily formed. This was it. This was the big time. Cazetti was the toughest track on the lunar racing circuit. If a lady wanted to make a name for herself, this was the place to do it. The most publicity -- and the sweetest purse, too.

The mere thought of it was like rocket fuel in Jane's veins.

She'd come a long way from her delinquent years as a foster kid, bouncing from settlement to settlement in the asteroids. She could still hear her last foster mother screaming at her, as Jane's few belongings were thrown out the door of the crummy family module on Ceres: no wonder your real parents never came back for you, you'll never amount to anything, do you hear me? Nothing!

If old Bill noticed her momentary reverie, he didn't show it. His eyes were fixed on the instruments -- fingers making subtle attitude adjustments, and their car falling toward its assigned parking spot. Jane could make out the domed bleachers that ran along the inside of the track, and the various pit assemblies which lay just inside the bleachers.

One of these pit assemblies had an empty stall that beckoned with flashing yellow lights.

Bill guided them in by instinct more than sight -- Jane barely felt it when the landing struts finally touched down.

Even though he was ancient, Jane had to admit, Bill still had the right touch. She just hoped that, as crew boss, he'd be the man to help her take the Armstrong Cup. She'd spent a lot of money bringing him out of retirement -- at the grudging suggestion of her old crew boss Mike Lomba, who'd quit the circuit and gone back to Earth.

"Let's hurry," Jane said. "I'm ready to give the new Falcon a whirl."

Bill reluctantly took off his headset and pressed the button for the revolving dome lid, which began sliding up from one side of the parking stall.

"You think that'll make a difference?" he said.

"I spent almost as much money on that bike as I did on you. It better be money well spent."

Bill stared at her, and a shuddering in the car's frame told them the stall was being pressurized.

"First rule I always tell my drivers, it ain't the crate, it's the ass sitting in the crate that matters most."

"You come up with that one yourself?"

"Nope. Richthofen."

"Who?"

"Baron von," Bill said.

Jane just shrugged her shoulders.

"Lord, Jay-Jay, don't you read history?"

"Unless it helps me win, it's a waste of my time."

Bill sighed, never taking his eyes off her.

"Mike told me you were the most single-minded, ferociously competitive driver he ever worked with. That you don't back down and you don't take no for an answer."

"Mike was right," Jane said firmly.

"Would it matter to you if I told you the real reason Mike quit?"

"He said his mother was ill and he had to go home."

"Mike's mother's been dead for ten years."

Now it was Jane who stared.

"Mike didn't have the heart to see you come here and get killed."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Jane said, voice raised.

Bill didn't answer right away. He simply sighed again.

"You really don't read your history, do you?"

"Like I said --"

"I heard what you said," Bill snapped, cutting her off. "Everything you've done up to this point -- every track you've ever won on -- was practice. Cazetti is the real deal. Time for you to finish your edumacation."

Jane was doing 200 kilometers per hour. A breezy trial pace. The Falcon hummed reassuringly through the fabric on the insides of her knees -- her legs gripping the machine tightly. The repulsors on the machine's underside kept a comfortable distance between the machine's lower hull, and the hurtling surface of the track.

Speed was freedom. Jane had been going full-throttle her entire life. In more ways than one.

None of her foster homes had liked her for that reason, nor she them.

A bad fit. That's what the social workers had called her. Couldn't hold her mouth, nor her temper, and the harder some of those families had cracked down, the more energy Jane had put into defying their rules. Until, at last, she'd been put out on her rear. And thank goodness for that.

If she'd once harbored dreams of Mom and Dad -- the real Mom and Dad -- returning from deep space to rescue her, Jane had learned that there would be no rescuing in this universe, except the kind she made for herself.

The Falcon was proving to be a delight.

Sally Tincakes approached on Jane's left -- a looming comedy from the days when men alone had ruled the moon.

"How's it feel for yah?" Bill's voice said in Jane's helmet.

"Liquid," Jane said, smiling.

"Happy so far?"

"So far," she said.

Sally came up fast, and then was gone to Jane's rear. She glanced once over her shoulder, watching the old racing icon begin to shrink in the distance. She snickered quietly.

"What's so funny?" asked Bill.

"You really think that stupid thing's killed five people?"

"All I know is when Frank's wife caught wind of the fact that Frank had been sleeping around with one of the few female drivers then on the circuit, there was hell to pay. Big press conference. Sally threw her ring in Frank's face and said the offending driver would never win a series on Frank's track as long as Sally had something to say about it. Then she divorced him and went to Mars."

"And that's it?" Jane said.

"No," said Bill's voice, crackling. The way he'd said it told Jane the other shoe was about to drop.

"Two weeks after the divorce, Frank's girlfriend had a bad spin-out on this track and augured in at 400 KPH. No chance of survival. Not at those speeds. Three years later, the woman's sister came up in the ranks and she raced here too. Explosive engine failure at 375. They were picking up the pieces for days."

"Bad luck," Jane said, hunching down on her machine as she took it through a series of challenging turns, the gee pulling ferociously at her while she dug her toes into the boot clips and hung on to the control bars with clawed hands. A driver didn't sit in the Falcon so much as on top of it.

"Bad luck my ass," Bill said. "Six years after that, another woman came up in the standings, and she died here too. Collision with two other bikes. Ten years after that, same thing. A dozen years later, and the very next woman --"

"I know about her," Jane said, pulling out onto a significant straightaway. The throttle on the Falcon glided, pushing Jane up for an extended speed run just prior to the next set of tight turns. "Ellen McTaggert was a legend on the junior tracks. Youngest woman to ever win the Imbrium and Crisium Cups in the same year. She'd have taken the big one if she hadn't been killed."

"Did you know that she died here?"

"No," Jane admitted.

"They don't like to advertise this stuff because it's bad for the track and it's bad for the senior circuit overall. But I'm telling you, Jay-Jay, this track is death on women drivers. And old Sally's got something to do with it."

"I thought you said the original Sally went to Mars?"

"Went, and never arrived. To this day nobody knows what happened to her, or the clipper ship she was on."

Jane felt a sudden chill run down her spine. Her parents had vanished in a similar fashion. It was supposed to have been a short trip. Asteroid to asteroid. Their ferry had simply disappeared. A rare but not unheard of event in deep space. Hazard of the business, she'd once heard a veteran astronaut quip.

Which didn't make Jane feel any better. Even now.

"So Sally disappears," Jane said into her suit's helmet-mic. "What's left in it for Frank?"

"He kept the statue up because it was too much of a crowd-pleaser. Frank and the other track co-owners didn't dare take it down. Then, after the third female death on this course, none of us on the circuit thought it was a coincidence or simple bad luck. Not any more."

"Nonsense," Jane said. But she still felt a chill.

Time to burn it off.

She approached a new set of turns with eagerness, slewing the Falcon with a hip-shake, then tapping her reaction control thrusters to fix her angle. Instead of spinning like a paddle on an air hockey table, Jane's bike stayed nose-down as it went up the banked length of the turn. She was dead-on for the next turn, slewed again, then came out of it and hammered the accelerator with her thumb.

"You ever wonder why we've never had a woman win the Armstrong?" Bill asked as Jane rocketed past an empty set of bleachers.

"They weren't good enough," Jane said.

"Like hell. They were all smart enough to decline an invitation."

"If this is your idea of a pep talk, you're doing a horrible job. Why did you even agree to be my crew boss if you think this is such a lousy idea?"

"Because when Mike told me what your goal was, to win the Armstrong Cup at all costs, I knew I had to try and keep another talented young woman from making the same mistake as Ellen."

"What's it to you?" Jane said. "Fewer women on the top course in the circuit means less competition for the cash and prestige. And it's not like men don't die here as well."

"They do, but not at 100% failure rate. And Ellen wasn't just another racer. Ellen was special."

"A girlfriend?" Jane said, her voice raising just enough to serve as a verbal poke at the curmudgeonly crew boss.

"Worse," Bill said. "She was my daughter."

The raceway ready room was empty, save for the one racer and the one crew boss.

Jane's undersuit was darkly damp at the arm pits and around her neck. She stared into empty air as old Bill stood near her. Occasionally another racer wandered past, taking note of the fact that Jane was a woman, then averting his eyes when it became clear that the old man and the lady weren't exactly up for company.

"You should have told me," Jane said sternly.

"I just did," Bill replied.

"If you're going to be my crew boss, I need you with your head in the game, not whispering in my ear all the time about how I need to quit. I'm sorry about what happened to Ellen. I really am. But if I'd known it was your own flesh and blood that died here --"

"Almost nobody knows she was my child, because she chose to keep her mother's name. Adara and I weren't the most copacetic couple God ever saw fit to put together. Ellen was probably the best thing we ever did. She lived with her mother until she was 18, then when she left Earth, she came up here to spend time with me. One look at the racing scene, and she was hooked."

"And you didn't warn her about the curse?"

"She knew the truth. About all of it. But she was so good. A natural. It was impossible not to encourage her. Then, when she started sweeping the juniors, I got my hopes up. That maybe, just maybe, she'd be the one to do it. To pull it off."

The pain and sorrow in Bill's heart brimmed at the edges of his eyelids. Jane looked up at him, not blinking, trying to decide if she should take his advice, or send him packing.

"It wasn't your fault," Jane finally said.

"Like hell it wasn't," Bill replied. "Mike can tell you, I tried pulling crew boss stints with different drivers, but my heart was never in it. Not after what happened to my girl. It would have been better if she'd stayed on Earth and gone into chemistry like her mother wanted. But no, she had to come play Mario Moon-Rock Andretti with her daddy. Adara never forgave me."

Bill turned away, wetness on his cheeks.

Jane had to admit, if this was all Mike Lomba's way of trying to convince her to avoid tackling the Armstrong Cup, it was a heck of a good try. Her resolve to come to Cazetti -- to take the big purse, and hold the big trophy over her head -- was slowly softening. A few more days with Bill talking and acting like this, and he might actually start to sway her.

Then she remembered how hard she'd worked. To come from nothing, and get all this way.

Seventeen years old, kicked out of the house; nowhere to go but up.

Other girls might have hung out the proverbial shingle. It would have been easy. Life in the colonies wasn't like life on Earth -- choked by so many laws and rules, a person couldn't turn around without getting fined. No. Life in space was free -- or about as free as could be managed, within the limits of necessity.

There were still far more men knocking around the solar system than women, but a girl with a body and a business mind could make quite a bit of money if she liked. Jane hadn't ever been interested in putting on heels and going to work. At least, not that kind of work.

Having stowed away on a freighter bound for Earth's Moon, she got a job as a custodial chump at one of the junior-circuit tracks. Cleaning up tables and chairs in the track's miniscule food court. It hadn't paid much, but it had provided the first real independence Jane had ever had. And at night, stuffed into the boxy confines of her rent-by-the-day migrant housing dorm room, she'd dreamed up her plan.

When she wasn't working she hung around the racers' lounge. Nobody at that level was particularly famous, nor wealthy. They weren't much older than Jane. Which made it both easier -- and harder -- to fit in. All of them hoping desperately for a chance to level up: to graduate to the seniors.

Most never made it. Turnover was common. Guys either quit, or moved on.

Eventually Jane convinced one of them to show her the ropes, which led in turn to her being signed as a backup driver.

Her ability -- once unleashed -- spoke for itself.

Now, ten years later, Jane ran her own outfit. A one-woman show. Just as she'd always wanted, ever since the first time she'd stood in that crappy little food court on the junior circuit, a wet table rag forgotten in one hand -- her eyes watching rapt through the single-pane, curved window as the racers flew around the track, the movement of men and speeding machinery blending to form a thing of unique and intoxicating beauty.

If Mom and Dad could see her now -- wherever they were, if anywhere at all -- she hoped they were pleased. Jane was on the brink.

Just a few more races to go . . .

Jane stood up, flicking a towel around the back of her neck.

"Enough," she said. "Mike swears you're the best at what you do, and Mike is the kind of guy I trust to know what he's talking about. But I don't want to hear any more of this crap about curses and death and how I need to quit. Okay? If you can't do that, then I'd better hire myself a new man. Because I'm racing on this track, and I am winning that trophy. Got it?"

When the first race of the series came around, Bill was in the pit with the tech team, suited up and thoughtfully jawing on a wad of gum. There were over five hundred teams putting drivers on the track for the first round, and at twenty drivers per heat, it would be days before the initial cull was complete and Jane could get on with the business of moving up the pyramid.

Not that she took the first heat for granted.

She'd seen other drivers get cocky like that, and wash out. Or worse. If illogical fear was an enemy at one end of the spectrum, foolhardiness was the enemy at the other.

Jane pulled her Falcon out of the pit and lightly maneuvered it into formation with the other drivers circling the track -- grid position being determined by comparative standing in the last cup race any of the drivers had competed in. Her breath was even, controlled, and her limbs wiry and strong, but with flexibility to spare. Some drivers got tight on the bike and tried to force the machine to do their will. Jane was a pure flow theorist: best results achieved by blending body to the bike in as natural a symbiosis as possible. Which wasn't always easy at some of the speeds Jane had been known to attain when she was trying to make the checkered beacon.

After trials, Jane could see why Cazetti was the home of the Armstrong Cup. It really was the toughest track she'd yet competed on. Where Bill looked and saw a cursed pattern, Jane looked and saw bald statistics. Of all the modern tracks, even with advanced equipment, the crash and death rate at Cazetti was much higher than anywhere else. That the women drivers of the past had died on the track -- or avoided it out of fear -- just made Jane that much more determined to be the one who broke through.

Beating the odds was second nature to her.

Green lights at the starting line gave the drivers clearance to throttle up and begin competing -- the lone, yellow pace bike slowly coasting down to its own pit, leaving the drivers free to engage.

Jane dug her toes in and went for the throat, almost immediately.

One didn't beat better talent or instincts by being subtle.

Jane knew she wasn't the most gifted driver in the heat, but by God she was going to show those guys who had the most balls.

The Falcon soared down the first straightaway like a comet, a thin mist of reaction exhaust from the main engines forming contrails in the lunar vacuum. If Jane's guess was correct, and it usually was, she'd be fueling up exactly once more than the other drivers. The time she'd lose on an extra stop in the pit would be more than made up for by being aggressive early.

She was on the tails of the grid leaders when they came to the first turn complex, and started banking up the wall of the track.

Ferocious acceleration into the turn and ferocious braking in the middle of the turn left her temporarily in the thick of the leaders as they flirted within dangerous proximity, their bikes sometimes centimeters from catastrophic contact.

Heads and eyes flicked this way and that, some of the others showing their whites as Jane touched thruster studs and then shook her rump to the side, spinning the Falcon a full 720 as she banked precariously close to the upper lip of the track, past one opponent, then came down across the vertical track wall and edged out a second man, finally coming out face-front into the first prolonged straightaway, upon which she gunned the mains once more.

"Fancy," said Bill's gruff voice in her ears.

"Hey," she said, grinning behind the visor of her helmet. "I thought you'd fallen asleep on me. How am I looking?"

"Reckless," Bill said. Paused. Then muttered, "But brilliantly so."

"You ain't seen nothing yet. Second turn complex is coming up. I'll be out in front of this bunch by the third set of turns. You watch."

And she was right.

By the fourth set of turns -- and almost one complete loop around the convoluted track -- Jane had gotten a nice lead on the other drivers as they headed into the longest, straightest portion of the course. She set the throttles up to as close to max as she dared, knowing that too much acceleration would leave her unable to compensate when she came back around on the first bunch of turns.

Jane savored the feeling.

It wasn't better than sex. That was a different kind of thrill altogether. But it was probably the next best thing.

After the second go-round, Jane's lead on the pack was considerable, and she began pacing herself: one eye to the dwindling fuel gauge and one ear wide open for news from the pit.

So far, Bill hadn't said much beyond the formalities of his job. Little naggings about consumption rate and vehicle stress, as relayed to the pit's tied-in computers. The pit readout told Bill far more than Jane's display: information which would have been too distracting for her to manage. That was Bill's role. Jane's was to jockey for position and build leads. Bill would make sure her machine ran smoothly.

After five laps, it was time to tank up.

Seeing nobody behind her, Jane slowed and slid into her pit, the space-suited crew rushing out with the fuel hose and jamming it into the side of the Falcon, which hummed lightly as it floated above the ground. Jane saw Bill through the control window and she tapped her right index and middle finger to the rim of her visor in acknowledgement. Bill just watched her, his arms crossed over his chest and his face expressionless.

The crew slapped her thigh and gave Jane the thumbs-up, and she applied throttle again just as the pack burst past the mouth of the pit.

Shortly, Jane was back in the melee, making her way once more up through the grid by guile, skill, and a lot of chutzpah.

Round and round she went, the faces of the domed-over crowds flashing past again and again and again as the laps flew by.

Jane was almost beginning to think she'd mastered the Cazetti track.

When the Falcon began to vibrate in a most alarming fashion.

"Bill?" Jane said, hands gone light on the control bars as she felt the machine rattle through the seat of her tight-bottomed vacuum suit.

"Hold on, we're checking," said the old man.

Seconds, seconds . . .

"Bill, I need status," Jane barked.

"We've got a lubricant pressure spike in Number Two."

"Is it red-lined?"

"Not yet, but it's gone up five percent just in the time we've been talking."

"Can we bleed it off?"

"I already activated the auto-bleed. Look behind you and tell me if you see anything."

Jane craned to check behind her on either side of the bike, and saw nothing.

"Nope," she said. "What's happening?"

"Pressure is up another fifteen," Bill said. "I'm bringing you in."

"It's too soon," Jane said. "I don't need to fuel up for another three laps!"

"I don't care," Bill said. "Bring it in. Now."

Jane considered. This was why she'd needed Mike to tell her who she'd do best with. The crew boss wasn't called a crew boss for no reason. In addition to running the pit, in some ways he also ran the driver -- if the driver and the boss had that kind of relationship. And Mike had known Jane would need someone older -- who could put his foot down in situations where Jane would want to push things too far.

"Did you hear me?" Bill demanded.

"Roger that," Jane said, finally exhaling. She'd have to fight like hell to get back into it on the next pass, assuming the pit crew could identify the problem and fix it fast. If they couldn't fix it . . .

No. Jane wasn't going to default, not in this the first run of the series.

She flipped the throttle for Number Two all the way down until it clicked, and the vibration coming up through the saddle, ceased.

"Two has been powered down," Bill said, an edge to his voice. "Can you make it back to the pit, or should I signal for a tow?"

"I'm not coming in," Jane said. "I can finish this thing on one main engine."

"If you burn the engine out, maybe."

"Bill, I'm not letting myself get taken out of this heat. Not by a stupid pressure problem. Shunt the lubrication system over to Number One and run it at 150 percent. I can at least try and stay up with the leaders. Make it to the next heat."

There was a fuzzy silence.

"Don't ever do this again," Bill said, his voice hot.

"It's the reason why everyone buys bikes with two engines now, Bill. Are you with me or not?"

More fuzzy silence.

"Fine. You've got your shunt. We'll see what happens."

What happened was that Jane finished in fourth place.

Not a tremendously encouraging start to the series, but it at least got her to the next heat, to be held one day later. Since the mechanical issue wasn't of the spectacular, crowd-pleasing, spinning-out-of-control destruct-o-matic variety, Bill and Jane kept the problem to themselves.

Though by the time of the next heat, even the best techs on the pit crew couldn't find the source of the difficulty. Even when running the bike at full-power static.

Race time for the second heat was therefore met with a decidedly tense atmosphere in the pit.

"It's a brand new unit," Jane argued, her helmet hanging in one hand while two pit crew checked the life systems umbilicals of her suit. They prodded at her back while she and Bill glared at one another, his sunken cheeks flexing with quiet contempt.

"It's not the bike," he said adamantly. "It's her."

His arm pointed to the ceiling, where the transparent glass gave the pit crew a decent view of the starry sky, as well as Sally Tincakes in the far distance, her CAZETTI RACEWAY sign raised proudly over the field.

The youngsters on the pit crew looked at Bill nervously.

"You go out there again," the old man said, "and there's no telling what might happen this time. First heat was a warning. She doesn't give warnings, usually. We file a technical disqualifier with the track office, and you get excused without having to take a hit in overall standings."

"And no chance at the Armstrong Cup until next year," Jane said. "No thanks. I'm here to do this thing, now. Not later."

Bill's jaw ground bitterly, then he looked away. Silence, for almost a full minute.

"Time hack's in 20 minutes," he finally said. "Get on the bike and get out of here."

Second heat, and the mysterious pressure problem did not return. The Falcon performed to perfection, earning Jane a first-place finish amidst a much tougher group than she'd been up against for the first heat. She got some nice press in the leader board blogs, and an interview with the track rats who split the news feed back to Earth -- for those on the mother planet who were sports-junky enough to care about the exotic stuff going on in the rest of the solar system.

If anyone else noted or cared about the female record of zero finishes and 100 percent fatalities, they didn't say so. Which was just fine with Jane.

But it didn't stop Bill from chastising her again as she prepped for the third of the five total heats.

"It's time to put the baby to bed," Jane said. "We had our one weird problem for the series, and we're going smooth now."

The old man was agitated to the point of fidgeting, his tablet and stylus appearing like foreign objects in his hands as he nervously shuffled them back and forth, one hand to the other.

"Every time you go back out on that track, you're just daring her to notice you. It might not happen now, it might not happen tomorrow, but before this series is over . . ."

"Enough," Jane said, sharply. "Quit, and let someone else run the crew. Or shut up and bring me home for the win."

"You really think you're good enough?" Bill said. "I was full of beans in my day, and even I couldn't make it past the third heat."

"Maybe that's your problem," Jane said, letting the techs check her vacuum suit's fittings. "Because you haven't climbed this particular mountain to the top, you're afraid it can't be done?"

Bill's face flushed brightly.

"I'm a lot of things, lady, but I ain't a jealous man."

"Prove it. Put the curse in the trash where it belongs, and make some good things happen."

Bill didn't look convinced as she went out the airlock for the third heat, but he did look relieved when she came back two hours later, a second-place finish notched.

The fourth heat meant press both before and after the run. The competition was down to 80 drivers now, and after the day was done, there would be only 20 remaining for the final, championship heat -- and the crowning of the Armstrong Cup winner. As the only female in the bunch, Jane got more than her share of attention, including several in-depth interviews during which the inevitable history of the track -- the five female deaths, the dearth of female competitors overall -- came to the surface.

Jane blew it off. Bravado was a prerequisite for all drivers. But by the time she was suiting up for the heat, she had to admit even she'd been rattled. They'd showed her some of the old footage of the accidents from the past -- news people generally having no clue whatsoever about what's appropriate to show a person right before they're about to do something hazardous.

Jane laughed her way through it, but was quiet during the race prep.

"Not so funny when you see what's possible, is it?"

Jane glared at Bill.

"I noticed they didn't even censor the footage of your daughter's death," she said.

"Those bastards don't care about me now, if they ever did in the first place. It's ratings. Crash movies are part of what make the sport fun for the crowds. Money. All that bull."

Jane nodded, and went back to checking her wrists and ankles for complete air seals.

"It's not too late --" Bill began.

But Jane cut him off.

"Oh yes it is. I'm not going to go down as the woman driver who chickened out. Everyone's paying attention to me now."

Bill took a step back, his face gone suddenly white.

The stylus and tablet hit the floor, albeit gently in the lunar gravity.

"What?" Jane said.

"That's exactly what Ellen said to me, before . . . "

Jane literally bellowed, her helmet clenched in one fist.

When she stopped, everyone was blinking and looking strangely at her.

"No more!" she said. "I can't take one more word!"

She looked to one of the young techs. "Is my Falcon ready?"

"Yes ma'am," he said, gulping.

"Then let's go!"

The fourth heat was by far the most competitive. All of the inexperienced and tentative drivers had been pruned away, leaving the calculating, the experienced, the determined, and the creatively diabolical to challenge each other for the coveted final 20 spots on the championship grid.

Facing these odds, Jane scrapped through all but the final two laps -- just a couple of minor brushes with opponents' vehicles, and the certain knowledge that she'd be wringing a gallon of water out of her undersuit when all was said and done.

Second to last lap, and Jane was in a familiar spot with the leaders at the front of the pack. Having gamed her way into the elite group -- same strategies and tactics as always -- she'd almost considered her advancement to the final heat to be a foregone conclusion, when one of the other drivers from the middle of the pack made a particularly dangerous -- and gutsy -- move. Trying to copy Jane's technique as they entered a turn, the man began spinning out of control, first pinballing off one bike, then another, then a third, until suddenly the track was alive with wildly spinning bikes, their riders trying desperately to regain control -- overcorrecting -- and then either smashing down into the safety barriers nearest the domed-over crowds, or pinwheeling up and off the track altogether, arcing out across the sun-blasted regolith, legs and feet come loose, flailing.

Jane experienced a moment of surreal calm, where all sensation ceased and she could see clearly all the other riders around her, as if in extreme slow motion. Then her Falcon was being smashed down into the safety barriers, the metal grinding on the lunar rock for just an instant.

The controls were frozen as Jane tried to steer up off the wall. She was pinned by her neighbor, who'd nosed into her T-bone style, and was having no success reversing course. They looked at each other for a split second, raw panic passing between them, and then the bikes were flipping, and Jane was thrown high into the air.

Again, a moment of surreal calm.

The track, passing swiftly underneath.

The crowd, faces upturned and mouths open wide with astonishment.

Many drivers and bikes spinning, rolling, whirling. One or two skating ahead of the scrum, their drivers raising their fists and pumping them.

Somewhere, Bill's voice was screaming.

Jane started to come down. In the moon's gravity, it wasn't as fast as it might have been on Earth, but with the velocity imparted to her by her bike, there was more than enough kinetic energy to kill her when she hit. Jane caught a glimpse -- just a tiny glimpse -- of Sally Tincakes: the rocket booster over the statue's head, the exaggerated bustline, the glamour model smile, and then Jane was smashing down into the regolith beyond the track.

All was white. Jane sat in the ready room. No pit crew. Not even the noise of the crowd reverberating through the walls. Her helmet was clutched in one hand, her elbows on her knees. It was time to go. She felt it in her bones. The race was on. And yet, not. Standing up, she started towards the door to the pit -- and stopped short as someone else walked in from the door on the opposite side.

The visitor wasn't in coveralls. Instead, she wore a vintage evening gown styled like those worn by glamour models at the tail end of the previous century: slit high on one thigh, strapless, low-cut, and strategically boned so as to create a gravity-defying silhouette with plenty of cleavage. The dress's satin fabric was embedded with fiber optics that swirled and rippled in various tints and hues of bright blue light.

"Sally," Jane said softly.

The ex-Mrs. Cazetti smiled, but didn't say anything. She walked skillfully on a set of platform heels across the ready room to the opposite wall, turned, and leaned against it.

Recent memory swirled: the Falcon had been pinned, then flipped, followed by a long, frantic parabola over the track towards the surface of the Moon just beyond . . .

Jane felt herself begin to tremble as she stared at the silent apparition whose likeness had towered over Cazetti Raceway since before Jane had been born.

Death -- the possibility of it -- had always haunted Jane as long as she'd driven the lunar tracks. Yet at the same time, somehow, it never bothered her. She'd been too busy winning. Victory upon victory, each purse growing a little larger. Each season, her horizons broadened a little bit more.

But now . . .

"Why?" Jane said at Sally, slamming her helmet to the white floor. "I was going to do it. I was going to take the Armstrong Cup. I was going to win."

Sally seemed untroubled by the outburst. Her artfully shadowed eyes glanced past Jane's shoulder, in the direction of the pit door.

Jane glared at her nemesis, fuming, then slowly turned her head as a second figure entered the ready room.

Like Jane, the second visitor was clad in a racer's suit. Its colorful vacuum-tight fabric hugged the racer's athletically feminine body, in spite of frumpy insulation and hoses.

The other racer looked whisperingly familiar, but in a way Jane couldn't quite put her finger on.

The racer's free hand jerked a thumb towards the pit door behind her.

Time to go.

"I know, I know," Jane said, but couldn't move. Her eyes remained locked on the racer's face. So similar to someone Jane knew. Yet, different too.

"Ellen," Jane finally breathed. The racer had Bill's nose, and his prominent cheek bones. She was younger than Jane, and had a bit of cockiness in the way she stood, her eyes staring sympathetically down at Jane's confused and angry face.

Ellen jerked her thumb over her shoulder a second time.

Jane looked to the pit door, which remained open. Then back at Ellen, who had begun to stare at Sally across the ready room. A coldly invisible beam of acknowledgement seemed to pass between the two -- opposed ghosts conjured for Jane's benefit, or peril. It was crazy, but it also made perfect sense too. Somehow, it all made perfect sense. Like a waking dream.

Jane felt questions tickling at the back of her tongue, but her mouth made no sound. She simply watched the two spectral women. They stared forcefully at one another for several long, agonizing seconds. Then Ellen walked purposefully to where Jane stood, bent to the floor, and retrieved Jane's helmet.

Ellen passed the helmet respectfully into Jane's hands, then jerked her thumb over her shoulder a third time. No words. But the message was clear.

Sally Tincakes stepped away from the wall, but stopped short as Ellen walked past Jane and stood in Sally's path. With her fists balled on her hips, Ellen didn't look over her shoulder as Jane felt a sudden urgency to move.

Quickly, strength flowed back into Jane's legs.

It took a few broad strides to make it through pit door.

She was already putting her helmet on.

Jane woke up trying to gasp, and couldn't.

She'd been in and out of the hospital a few times during her racing years, replete with scuffs and broken bones from spills on the junior tracks.

But nothing could have prepared her to be seeing the inside of the coffin-like full-metabolic support unit that housed her now. A small window showed her the ceiling, while warm fluid gurgled around her ears. Several tubes felt like they fed into her mouth and down her throat -- they were horribly uncomfortable.

Jane lifted a hand weakly and scratched at the window with her fingertips.

Quickly, several faces appeared in succession, each of them examining hers.

Then, a hissing noise, and all the fluid began to drain away from around Jane's prone body. The coffin came open, and several surgically-suited medical people were extracting the tubes from her esophagus. She coughed and sputtered, hacking violently, which caused tremendous pain in her ribs, until she was shaking like a leaf and breathing in huge gulps of air.

Too disoriented to wave the medical people away, she let them towel her off and sit her up -- which also hurt. But at least she was in one piece, or so things seemed. When she tried to talk, she croaked like a frog -- her vocal cords soggy. Someone who had the officious demeanor of a physician began poking and prodding, shining his light into her eyes and asking her questions to which she answered by holding up either one finger, or two.

Once they got her into a proper medical gown, they tucked her between the sheets of a rolling gurney which spirited her away from the critical care ward with its rows of identical, human-sized immersion capsules.

Jane went through several brightly-lit hallways, her hand weakly raised to shield her eyes from the harsh glare. Then she was deposited in a softly-lit intensive care room. She felt them plug her into the monitoring and life support station that sat like a pillar in the room's center. A pepper-haired male nurse spoke comforting words, then disappeared. Leaving Jane in a fuzzy stupor that could have lasted minutes, hours, or days.

Clarity was achingly gradual. Staff came, and staff went. Always, they murmured encouragingly to her as they checked her connections to the monitor, and adjusted the intravenous tubes that snaked away from the tops of both wrists. Jane's mouth became dry, and they let her drink water. When her stomach grumbled, they gave her soup. When her bowels complained, they ushered her delicately to the lavatory and back, her tubes and wires trailing behind her.

Finally, the floor physician disconnected her from the ICU tower, and she was again whisked by gurney through a series of brightly-lit hallways, until she was left in a simpler, less mechanized room.

She weakly depressed the stud on the gurney that would call the nurse, and was surprised when a familiar face poked through her sliding glass door.

Bill wouldn't look her in the eyes when he hesitantly entered her patient room.

"I'm glad you came to see me," she said, her voice soft and breathy.

"I've been in and out of this hospital at least a dozen times since they brought you in," Bill replied, hand wrapped tightly around the cup of coffee he'd brought. "I almost couldn't take seeing you comatose in the critical ward. You looked as good as dead. The medics said your heart and lungs had stopped. That the machines were doing all the work, at least for awhile."

Jane nodded, and let her head fall back on her pillow while she closed her eyes, remembering the final instant before she hit ground.

When she opened her eyes again, Bill was still there. Seated in the recliner at the gurney's side. Watching attentively.

"It's a miracle that you landed where you did," Bill said. "All that regolith they dug up and piled on the edges of the track, it's like slushy snow. And meters deep. You soft landed. Or at least you landed and didn't turn to insta-jelly. The other drivers, they weren't so lucky."

"I bet the footage of the wreck was all over the news," Jane said.

"Biggest and most spectacular racing disaster in years," Bill said, then snorted. "They replayed it for a week, even on Earth. As the only survivor, your name got the headlines. If you check your e-mail you'll probably find several gazillion messages. You've suddenly become the best-known racer on the senior circuit. I've had at least a dozen companies contact me, wanting to know if they can hire you to be their spokeswoman -- assuming you didn't come out of the hospital a vegetable."

Now it was Jane's turn to snort. Then she coughed, and lay still for a few quiet minutes.

"I suppose I should feel lucky," Jane said.

"Damn right you should," Bill replied. "You'll have time for survivor's guilt later. Trust me. I've been through a wreck or two in my day. Though nothing close to what you went through."

Jane simply nodded. Bill slowly sipped at his coffee. Not saying another word.

"I still need you, old man."

He looked up.

"For what?"

"Sponsors and crash insurance should cover the medical bills, and they may even buy me a new bike."

"The race is over," Bill said firmly.

"For now, yes. But I'll be back. Next season. Cazetti hasn't seen the last of Jane Jeffords."

Bill almost dropped his coffee into his lap.

"The damned track takes you out, and you want to go back?"

"Of course," Jane said, smiling. "Sally Tincakes already killed me. Once. She can't rightly get me twice, can she? That's double jeopardy. I swear to you, next year, this woman is hoisting the Armstrong Cup over her head."

Jane jabbed a thumb at her chest in emphasis.

Bill looked like he was about to argue, then sighed -- a long, tired sound.

"How can you be so sure it won't happen again?"

"I'm pretty sure."

"How are you sure, though?"

Jane swallowed hesitantly, considering whether or not to tell Bill everything she remembered from after the crash.

"Let's just say I think it's what Ellen wants."

"Ellen? My daughter? What's she got to do with this?"

"Nothing. And everything. Maybe old Sally Tincakes has cursed Cazetti Raceway. But I think it's time to put paid to the legend. For Ellen. For every racer who died."

Jane reached out a hand and laid it on Bill's age-freckled arm. He flinched at her touch, but he didn't move away. His old eyes had gone watery and several tears trailed down his age-weathered cheeks.

"Ellen . . . " Bill whispered.

"Yes," Jane said.

The room was quiet for several minutes. Then Bill stood up and used a towel from the patient room's dispenser to wipe his face.

"I doubt you'll have enough for a new Falcon," he said.

"Maybe I can buy a used Firebee," Jane replied. "Something that will get me back on the track. Until I get my winnings up enough to buy something more sophisticated. Or maybe you were right, maybe it's not the crate, but the woman sitting in it that counts."

Bill looked at her with his eyes large and worried, still not quite accepting her determination. But then he closed them and shook his head slowly, the smallest of smiles creeping onto his thin lips. He put down his towel and began chuckling. It was an odd sound, gravelly and low. But it was the first time Jane remembered the old guy laughing since she'd first met him.

"Jay-Jay," he said between laughs, "did I ever tell you my daughter would have liked you?"

"No," Jane said. When Bill didn't elaborate further, Jane clasped her hands in her lap and looked at him with raised eyebrows. "So what's your answer, old man? Are you with me?"

They studied one another for a moment -- racer to racer. Then Bill crossed the

tiled floor and stuck his palm out.

"I'm with you," Bill said.

Jane grasped his hand in hers -- and realized it was the first time they'd ever shaken. A good feeling. Strong. Solid.

"We've got six months to get ready for next season," he said.

"Plenty of time," Jane said. "Plenty of time."


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