Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Last Super-Speed Raceway

by Sergio “ente per ente” Palumbo
Edited by Michele Dutcher

A Mare Inebrium story
Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield




Came the night, dressed in its overwhelming starry clothes. The young woman stopped outside a dark alley, then thought to herself for a moment, turning her blue eyes in silence to the sky that ruled over the busy City of Lights. The two small moons of this planet, neither of which were satellites made by Nature, were easily visible: the larger one – as she had been told – was used for shipping, generally by freighters that were unable to enter the atmospheric layers below due to their large size, while the second was mainly a military base. Despite all of her thoughts, and considerations, it was time to go, she knew this without a doubt. So she continued to her night’s destination moving past the corner and walking the main road under the full light of the streetlamps, trying to hide from the bustling crowds of different alien visitors and citizens who were all around her. Every step she took was a retracing of days gone by. Those times were better left behind her, and for good reason.

Waiting at the main spaceport was the starship with her stateroom that would leave the next morning. Soon, she would be on it, lazy in the comfort of her seat, with footage of her face being displayed on most of the media of this world, surely, before she boarded it. This had to be expected. After all, she was Zylah  Enkwo and her name, and her features, were well known in space, at least in her very valuable field. But for tonight, she had free time to drink, as she badly wanted to do, and think of other things forgetting about her deep-seated worries and her scars, which included scars of the mind as well.

Call it a cowardly attempt to escape her troubles and leave the rest of them behind on that world called Bethdish. Well, whatever you labeled her behavior, she really didn’t find it of any importance, undoubtedly. A few short months ago, after all, she had been someone very different, and had believed in varied values. But things weren’t like that any longer, she wasn’t the person she had once been, surely.

Her feet moved ahead so quickly – and her walk was so certain and so fluid - that there was no time to stop, and so she almost didn’t see the entrance of the Mare Inebrium Space Bar – that was obvious to other customers, old and new, being located on the ground floor of a 100-story building. In a matter of one second, she stepped inside, prepared to fill her emptiness with all the alcohol she could ingurgitate in the following hour and half she planned on staying there. If she just could find the strength, of course - the strength she needed to put all the rest aside for now, in the deepest recesses of her thoughts.

The smell of exotic spiced food (alien and varied), and many beverages, reached her nose as she entered. That was the right place for her to stay and have a relaxing time, or at least try to unwind for now. Such a very beautiful bar, a pleasing environment in its own way. It had appeared to be inviting since the first moment she saw it. Well, maybe she would stay there for longer than an hour and a half, differently from what she had first planned, who knew.

Zylah just needed a drink, at present. The first of many others to be subsequently indulged in of course.

*****

Blanche, the waitress at the Mare Inebrium Space Bar, had just been called to a table where two Nte-nta with their typical fishlike features - a truly unpleasant appearance - were sipping on bottles of the famous smoky drinks from ‘Orange Steamy Planet’. Those customers seemed to be incapable of correctly using the device to put in their orders online, so she had come to be of help, and the problem had been dealt with very soon. So, she had quickly moved away from there, as the Mare Inebrium itself was full of people that night – which was normally the case - and she had too many things to do in a hurry.

As she walked on and tidied her curly black hair, her eyes spotted some short-haired, slow beige aliens who were quietly looking at each other, without gesturing or speaking at all. It was obvious they had already had too many drinks as they were almost on the brink of unconsciousness. Then came a Ktlastelnv, from planet Clwqfv. He was half monkey and half crocodile, at least that was how his facial traits looked. He wore an alien headdress – which had live, growing plants on it - that made him look like a pirate from a time gone by. He happened to be a very strange creature, especially as his long fingers appeared to be similar to a Zombie’s putrid protuberances. His species was said to prefer Xanthic colors and lighter shades for their clothes, shoes, vehicles, and their make-up and so on. They smiled with a sidelong glance and their teeth, to Blanche at least, had always been way too large, and not reassuring at all. However, to others who were better-accustomed to those creatures, they might merely have been seen as strange alien guys with a big nose and even bigger hats, who knows?

An almost unending group of Oklw customers with their small face similar to that of giant tortoises passed by, dressed in their vivid shredded clothing that looked like anything else, as Blanche turned to the left. ‘Business as usual’, the woman thought, because the crowd that filled the rooms of their Space Bar was unlike any other that had been here the days before and, at the same time, it had gotten all the varied traits of any alien groups of customers that changed every night here. This might give anyone who first came to this place the strangest impressions, but she had worked here for a long time, and she knew how to behave without showing off too much surprise, as it might have been offensive to some species.

A minute later, she overheard a toast that had been proposed and took place soon thereafter at a table nearby: it seemed that those blueish aliens with thin heads were making merry because of something, perhaps a personal achievement. And she also overheard some words coming out from the mouth of the shortest one in the group who said: “I’m going to be a marine exo-biologist in a month. Thanks for your congratulations, indeed! I will soon be studying the behavior of inferior alien species like the Nte-nta!” As Blanche thought about that, she immediately looked at the two Nte-nta customers she recently assisted, and imagined that - given the distance from here and the site where they sat - they had not overheard what had been said about them. If they had heard the toast, the remark might have been what commonly gave start to a typical bar fight, and the Mare Inebrium was not a venue for such things. If she remembered correctly, it was because of a stupid comment like this during a night of drinking, that many years ago a real and very bloody space war has started between the Aylk Empire and the Free Planets of New Akhet. 

Then, when she considered it was really getting late, it happened! Unbelievable, but true, indeed.

Even from afar, Blanche immediately identified that young woman who was drinking near a painted backdrop with images of alien peaks on it. Her eyes were as clear and bold as expected, given that it had always been a strong feature of that famous person. She was sporting her characteristic haircut, just as if her blonde curls had been perfectly drawn around the shape of her face, and her typical pointed nose left no way for Blanche make any mistake of course. She was undoubtedly that renowned racer, the female winner of many competitions on several planets, Zylah  Enkwo!

The only thing that differed from all the images seen on Holo-TV and the photos available on every media about her, on this occasion, was that the young woman had her mouth set in a partly downturned line, and her eyes seemed to have more wrinkles than usual around them, which gave her a dismayed look.

All the fans of that sport she participated in knew of that great winner of those spectacular Super-Speed Raceways that were held on different alien worlds aboard strange vehicles called Mad-Propelled Birdshots (better known as MaPBs). These machines were a mix between a jet ski and a motorboat from times gone by: they actually looked like modified aquatic civilian speeders – similar to ancient personal water craft - but with modern engine power jets called Pulsators that sucked in water and then pushed it out behind the craft, propelling the vehicle forward at speeds up to 350 mph. About 14-ft-long and undoubtedly waterproof, with only one pilot, like that woman, each of those watercrafts was sculpted out of super-fiberglass fitted to a high-steel frame according to the fancy of the companies that made and sold them, which changed every year for marketing reasons, of course. Built within the typical regulations, with an open cockpit, their pilot had to wear a suit to be protected from the water and the strong wind – which made it all even more difficult and strange. Lately, they had started being made using modern 3D printers that came from the military – exactly those that built also modern super-flying-tanks, at least according to hearsay. Parts of the body of any racer were filled with incredibly lightweight materials to help the pilots float if it came to an unexpected stop ‘due to some of its unpredictable malfunctions’ that might leave the owner alone in the ocean.

Blanche knew that in the early 90’s on Old Earth, a tremendous spotlight had been shone on the ancient jet-ski competitions, as that ancient sport got nationwide coverage and event sponsorship from mega-corporations selling beers and liquors. That sport of old had quickly evolved and broadcast some of the most remarkable riders in the history who were competing head-to-head at that time. You could still see the winner’s faces on ancient magazines now kept only in museums and the likes to be preserved from dangerous contact with the air. But now, of course, things were very different and the present Super-Speed Raceways of the ongoing InterStar competitions had turned into something more complicated.

Differently from those times gone by, when riders wore helmets and life vests, nowadays the environments where the competitors had to be in was alien, and it changed with each planet visited. So, as the raceways were set on different worlds, the first thing you had to have on at all times was a mix between a spacesuit and a wetsuit. This was because, even if you raced on planets on which there were atmospheric layers and oxygen, the environment varied from the conditions present on Old Earth and on a terraformed world, although there was always water. So, in case of an accident, you had to stay afloat before help came, but you also had to be equipped with the respiratory device with the proper breathing gas and your self-contained suit – usually the more colorful the better - in order to remain alive and protect your body, like in outer space. However, it wasn’t exactly the same spacesuit used by an astronaut, given the fact it was slenderer, sleeker and lighter, actually. It went without saying that a reinforced and approved space helmet attached to the suit itself was required if you wanted to participate in any race that was sanctioned during the year.

Blanche almost couldn’t believe she would meet one day, coming face-to-face with, the famous Zylah there, where she worked! But here she was, there could be no mistake about it… And the waitress had always been a fan of that cruel though very beautiful sport. After all, Blanche herself was from a heavy gravity planet called Hardcase, so she was accustomed to tough environments and difficult situations. The woman also remembered she had just watched the last race that woman had just competed in, on the planet Ixazaluch, its surface being made of water with deep oceans mainly, some time ago.

It was widely known that, when reaching the water, the driver only had to pull a knob to engage the jet thrusters, and press a button. The MaPB vehicle did the rest, using its suspension system! Once on the water, those machines could glide with ease. These vehicles were a means of transport meant for such racers that didn’t touch the surface of the water but had to go across the whole of the alien seas indicated as the course of the raceway without ever stopping; thus, circling the entire planet until they arrived. So, the competitions were not only long but required all of the pilot’s strength. There was even more to it than that: the drivers knew of the place where they had to compete only a few hours before being let off the mothership, along with the latest race information, so they were not informed of the unusual characteristics of the water expanses there. And water composition – though it was usually reputed that water is water everywhere - differed greatly from planet to planet. For instance, the water of the seas of Old Earth was slightly different from that which had been found on varied asteroids in space as there might be higher ratios of deuterium measured.

The drivers had to learn how to not only compete on unfamiliar alien water, but also how to support themselves in case of an accident on an alien environment because of mechanical issues. Such skills couldn’t be taught, they had to be experienced of course.

Water, water everywhere, on alien worlds! Blanche had a laugh in her mind as she reminded herself of a phrase an Earthling had said once, that went more or less like this: ‘I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.’ Well, she didn’t remember where the 1800s quote was from, but she agreed with him.

One of the main and really more appealing points in all those competitions was the sense of the unknown and exploration before being dropped. It was like being sent to race while riding in a missile that was able to go from 0 to 100 mph in only one second – obviously battling for a new win, because points earned counted toward the coveted InterStar Championship! With a Maximum Altitude Range of Sea Level plus 4 feet to be followed, without being prepared to face the environment of the area across the whole planet – always staying away from land – and the billows, vehicles like those proved to be the ultimate speed machines on water. They didn’t travel through the waves themselves as they skimmed the surface, so that most of their hull, or body, rode above it.

Every race that made the competitors try to win the InterStar Title was very important, and was viewed on hundreds of worlds! The Super-Speed-Raceways were dangerous and it was common to have casualties at times. On the other hand, the waitress knew that the famous female champion who was a customer at their Space Bar at the moment was a former racer, actually, as she had retired, after her last race. It had been a very difficult competition held on planet Ixazaluch, named after a legendary water deity of ancient Central American traditions, on Old Earth, or so the media had told the viewers some time ago.

This made Blanche wonder why Zylah Enkwo was here. Of course, reputation and renown usually came to famous venues and noteworthy lounge bars like The Mare Inebrium, and this place on Bethdish wasn’t a common one, surely! Then she remembered that she had read somewhere there had been an InterStar Conference for the best racers of that sport, and it had been held that morning in town. So it was normal that some of them would come to this famous Space Bar in the evening, or to have dinner that night. How deeply she would have liked to attend it, and see all of those people who were famous everywhere before her eyes, but the tickets had been sold out months ago. Even if she had asked Max - the short bartender that seemed to know almost everyone around - for a favor to find a ticket on her behalf, she would have had trouble paying for it. Blanche had had many personal health troubles over the past month, even if she felt much better now, it would not have been money well-spent as she would never have been able to get off work during the day.

Anyway, the woman wanted to talk to that person, and to find out much more about her. So, dressed in her usual long skirt, she tidied her short, curly black hair, and headed for the table where the young woman sat, putting a big smile on her face. After all, hadn’t someone written long ago – as she remembered to have read – ‘A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more than a high degree of curiosity’?

How curious she really was now!

*****


At the time Zylah  Enkwo was still a competing racer, she had always stood out from the rest of the crowd on the water with her pink helmet and the characteristic slender ochre-colored suit. When asked about the feeling she usually got during a race she had frequently said in a very characteristic and keyed-up way of hers “It’s something new every single time! You are dropped below to the starting line, look to your left or right and there’s like 100 other people on either side of you. It’s the madness I need to go on!”

Her outstanding riding capabilities, and her beautiful features, usually turned heads and could be considered as ‘wild action on alien water,’ making every move of hers look almost effortless. Her father, who had been a skilled engineer of emergency space-pods, had been building jet skis for years for personal hobbyists. Zylah’s undeniable skills had gained her attention since her first race, as she had started riding the waves at the age of 16, having just discovered racing two years before. It was love at first sight. Sponsorship had come soon, though she suffered a serious neck injury from a pro freestyle competition; anyway, it was nothing serious that the modern science couldn’t solve in a matter of weeks. With smaller races happening everywhere, on many worlds, it was fairly easy for any fan to find some small local competitions if you wanted to watch them. But, of course, given how big space was and how many planets happened to be out there, there were not many people who wanted to attend only local competitions…after all, did viewers prefer to see a movie about old sailing vessels across unknown seas or small boats moving across a small pond they already knew of? On the other hand, being a professional racer and winning an InterStar Title was something completely different, and more important, as everyone was well aware of. After her initial competitions, she had soon gotten a better grasp of what was expected for each race. Achieving her first InterStar Title at the age of 19, it was just the beginning of many victories to come for her, of course. Zylah had later earned a life-sponsorship deal from Space Action Beverages, who developed her slogan, “The Fastest Woman of the Water”. Anyway, regardless of her usually very aggressive riding style, she was just an easy-going person under common circumstances.

That day, the day of her last recorded competition held on planet Ixazaluch, the sky was overcast with strong gusts of wind since the moment they had been dropped to the surface below, and had activated their engine power jets - called Pulsators - on the raceway.

Then, the real race was in motion. As the Mad-Propelled Birdshots vehicles kept revving, the running speed became noteworthy almost immediately. How deeply she would have desired to feel the air on her face as her MaPB roared on at full speed with the watery scenery being left behind on both sides of hers across the huge expanse she had to get through! But that atmosphere wasn’t meant for humans, as it was alien in composition, being made just of nitrogen (about 60%) and oxygen (approximately 18% by volume), which greatly differed from that of Old Earth and the atmospheric conditions humans like her were accustomed to. Other than that, such a strong wind plummeting her face – if she didn’t wear her helmet - at the maximum speed of 350 mph would be very painful and make it difficult to drive for any pilot of course. Though she couldn’t ever feel that air on her body, she was allowed to hear the swaying sound of the sea thanks to the earpieces and the apparatus of her suit: the apparently unending crashing of the waves in the near distance that ruled over that ocean which was supposed to be more than 20 miles deep, rising and falling as they reached the coast. Who knew for how many million years the tallest rocks of that alien place had faced the storms and high winds, in an unending way, with no sailing vessels having crew nor passengers. Until recently, there had not even been any cargo holds full of fruits or food that had ever come and gone across that expanse, as this world was reported to have never had intelligent lifeforms, at least nothing like humans or the other species Earthlings had come to know in space during the last few centuries. So, there had never been shipwrecks, or dead inhabitants who had bloodily disappeared into the deeps of those oceans, in the ancient times until nowadays. Seen from that point of view, this made the planet itself look less sad, and less cruel than the seas of Old Earth had ever been. Of course, not much was known about the alien sea-life of these oceans, that certainly filled the underwater across the whole length of these expanses that looked almost unending.

But she and her fellow racers were here to compete on this day, and do their best, so they tried not to be worried about other things that moved under the surface. They tried not to think about alien life that mostly pertained to scientists, environmentalist groups and to exo-biologists of other species who, probably, had come to this planet from time to time to study this place, perhaps even from the Solar System all of Mankind was from.

Gravity on Ixazaluch was about 1.4 times that of that of Old Earth, meaning that it wasn’t a hardship, except for those pilots who came from, and had been raised on, Mars, the Moon or the Anunna satellites. Those were a group of moons of the very large planet Uj, which had been named that way after some fabled local Sumerian gods of old, where the easier gravitational conditions had let them become accustomed to a lighter weight, obviously. Even if Zylah and the other pilots could have asked for a better weather, the race hadn’t been difficult so far, and had exceeded all expectations, two hours after the start. Many riders from multiple planets and federations battled it out to see who would be declared winner this year and get the promised prize money. The race itself had only one category, and required all of the attention, and experience, any rider had gotten so far.

As the surface of the water kept unceasingly flowing below them, and everything seemed to go on pretty well, at a certain point something was suddenly spotted not far from where she was now, and her vehicle was approaching fast. The detailed depiction of it, made clearer and enlarged, appeared on the left area of her helmet visor and didn’t seem to be conclusive anyway. What was it?

Among the billows, a huge head came out of the water, and a large structure followed, briefly jumping on the surface. Its alien skin looked like a sequence of overlapping membranous plates that covered it, and allowed the viewer to see the inside as it was almost transparent, unbelievably. Despite that large build, its body, long and gray, widened even more as it became more visible in the open and seemed to be made of softer tissues on both sides that might not be bony parts, at least according to the report of the infrared-camera of her suit. So, the creature was light – not much different from reinforced cardboard - even if it was clearly enormous. Huge light-blue gills located on top of the creature were probably to take oxygen from the air once they got to the surface. The sea animal in her path didn’t seem to have teeth, and so, maybe it wasn’t a dangerous predator they should be afraid of during the race, differently from sharks or creatures similar to them that lived in other oceans on several planets that she and the other drivers had seen previously. As for its upper part, it looked like a whale of some sort, from Old Earth, but with an unbelievably thin, large body that didn’t have much density and probably wasn’t thicker than a bag meant to haul dirt in. This must have been one of several creatures meant to live in the water that were born in that place.

But it didn’t end just there.

“Hold up a moment,” the uncertain Zylah said in a confused breath. “There’s probably not just one…maybe two or more of those creatures are close by”. The new detailed depiction of the new marine beings nearby that was visible on her visor supported her conclusion. Her apprehension soon began to grow. Nothing good could come from this. The instruments inside her helmet gave the impression that these creatures kept moving side to side, propelling themselves using a series of fast S-shaped movements through the water like a thin fish of Old Earth or the giant reptile-copepod creatures of planet Dliwt. Well, it made everything more unusual given their noteworthy size, as each of them had a length of about 200 feet overall.

Soon thereafter, the other three animals – looking like the first one, though a bit more slender - came to the same area. They also quickly jumped out of the expanse drawing strange movements in the air. Then, the group of strange sea monsters, or whatever they happened to be, emitted a sort of music which was noisier than a modern air-pod taking off!

Nothing like that had ever been seen by human eyes in the seas of Earth, and it couldn’t be different because these alien fishes had evolved to adapt to life in the environment on that planet only, and they probably could never have survived for long anywhere else. Seen from below, it was plausible that their body blended in with the colors in the deeps, matching the lower layers of that ocean.

What a wonder of Nature, actually! But there was not much time to stare at such creatures, and think of how unbelievable and unusual they were, as the race was ongoing, and she had to stay focused. They had not come here today to experience alien whale-watching trips or the likes, as such sea-life was probably attracted by the ripples their Pulsators caused in the water, or the noise their machines made. They weren’t tourists, they weren’t sitting on a deck with visitors on some watercraft off the coast. There wasn’t time to interact with wildlife even if such animals appeared and jumped up into the air to play alongside their vehicles.

As soon as the woman set her mind fully back on the best route to be followed and changed something in her realignment that immediately she deemed necessary, the monster that had first appeared was underwater again, and only the others remained near the surface, partly visible.

But that didn’t last long. In only 30 seconds or less, that same large creature got through the surface of the water, and what surprised Zylah was that it appeared right before her! How could it have ever done this? How was such a large creature capable of moving underwater so quickly and change the place where it had been? The woman almost didn’t believe it was there.

Whatever the creature had done to achieve it, certainly the predictions of its movements as highlighted by the navigational computer on her visor proved to be wrong which didn’t allow her to change course on time, which left her speechless.

The new place where the alien animal had suddenly appeared when it was visible again was, simply too near, preventing her from doing anything else than continue the route selected. Even if she had stopped her MaPB vehicle immediately, or had tried to turn to the left or to the right, nothing could get out of her way at that high speed. And certainly, she had no other means at her disposal to protect herself and that sea-beast from what followed.

Vehicles like hers weren’t endowed with an energy shield which could be activated in case of a dangerous situation. To wrap the pilot in a force field would be, simply, against the rules of that sport! And MaPBs were simply that - no additional device was allowed onboard.

And so the impact at full-speed occurred.

It was, actually, like going through soft, thin tissue made up of reinforced paper-like material, or maybe a parachute-like structure that let her vehicle easily pass through it, though with a noisy thump and a subsequent trembling which almost forced her to lose her grip on the instruments. After that she bounced around and jounced… a lot. But she went on, in the deafening craziness, and the remains of the pierced-through skin, and the build of the long marine animal were behind her, like a pierced weather balloon from a time long gone.

It was probably, the very powerful super-fiberglass fitted to the high-steel frame of her vehicle that allowed the racer to survive, and her suit and helmet did their job with no damage being suffered, as the display of her visor indicated. However, the same thing might not be said about the dead alien sea creature.

Another noise, much stronger than the music-like call previously emitted from the group of alien water beings was bellowed out, and it didn’t sound like music now, as it was deeper, sadder and almost unbelievable.

Then the driver felt those new sensations. The start of a very dark day for her. And it commenced. 

But it was much more than grief. She almost couldn’t see anything. It was definite: something was very wrong with her.

 
*****

Inside the Mare Inebrium a tall and dark-haired man spotted Zylah, came close to her and approached the table where she sat. Great was the surprise on Blanche’s face as she recognized who he was in reality, his Indonesian traits from Old Earth were unmistakable. He was a very handsome man of about 26: Sunan Liwangi, one of the most famous racers at Super-Speed Raceways, maybe second only to that woman herself.

As the waitress saw that also Sunan Liwangi had come to their Space Bar that night, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes! Two celebrities like that at the same time and at the same table. Though she knew about the Conference that day, and that the famous male racer would be attending, she would never have thought about having such an incredible chance!

And this might be a very rare opportunity to see him in person as he, too, had retired from racing recently. Strange to say, he had stopped being a part of InterStar Competitions after his last race, which happened to be the same on planet Ixazaluch that also Zylah was in. When would a chance like this ever happen again? Being her a real fan, this was a one-of-a-kind opportunity undoubtedly!

The female former racer gestured to the other as she saw him. “Sunan! You too are here tonight…Have a seat and drink something with me…It will be nice to have some company on my last night on Bethdish.”

“Why not? I came to the Mare Inebrium because I was sure I would find you here,” the man replied in a broad smile.

“May I be of any help, kind customers?” It was Blanche’s voice that indicated her presence at the table. “We have some special courses that, maybe, some very famous celebrities like the two of you might appreciate. You know, it doesn’t happen every night that two great racers of Super-Speed Raceways like you honor us with your presence!”

“Very kind of you, I like this venue. I’ve heard many good things about it, and so I wanted to have a look for myself,” Sunan replied.

“Former racers, we’re both former racers now…” the dark-eyed Zylah added.

“Yes, I know…unfortunately you have left the raceways…but I know almost everything about you two! I’m a big fan of InterStar Competitions,” a very talkative Blanche told them. “So, let me start with a short introduction about our device to make orders…then I can tell you something more about the special courses we can prepare for you!”

The explanation didn’t take long, after all the system for ordering was very easy, and the waitress had simply taken this opportunity to approach the racers. Anyway, the two didn’t seem interested at placing any special food orders; in fact, what they wanted to have in great quantity was just more alcohol.

After a few more questions, made only to quench her curiosity, Blanche couldn’t think of any other excuses to stay any longer at that table. Actually, there were many other duties she had to take care of that night, and sadly it was getting late. But before she moved away, she added one more point: "This is a perfect opportunity to take a holo-photo of you two famous former racers, for our collection here at the bar, please! Your past career will make you the most envied pilots of all!”

The customers nodded, perhaps thinking that this was the only way to get the talkative waitress to go away, so they could turn their attention to their personal business. After the holo-shot was taken, Blanche regretfully moved away. Tall, blonde-haired and slender, Zylah was without a doubt someone to watch during the any InterStar competition. Blanche had never understood why that famous racer had retired as, previously, she had never showed any intention of walking away from the sport, and the replies the waitress had gotten from the two hadn’t made it obvious. In a way, she would have liked more time to share with them, and not just a few short minutes. Of course, those races were really dangerous, though you could win a fortune. It had to be admitted that your life was never safe as you were driving across alien water expanses at full speed, being seated on a very small vehicle like that. But she also knew that it was not the trophy that really mattered. The Challenge was the real motivation, it ignited passion and allowed for retrospection. It was all about improvement in a way. No effort was better earned than when placing oneself in danger, it was certain.

If some people weren’t able to find the needed drama in their real life they recreated it through sports, as the old saying went. So, why did that woman quit in the end? Maybe winning wasn’t the point, and that racer had had enough of it all. She really doubted that the famous Zylah had had enough of racing, anyway, as she was still young, and surely able-bodied. So, what was it all about? Not that Blanche could even ever say for sure, of course. The media had only talked about speculations, and had long been talking about the possibilities, so nothing was certain. Her chance encounter with the racers in the Mare Inebrium that night, had not given the waitress an answer to all the doubts that regarded that woman, and the unexpected end of her competitions. There was still much to be discovered, undoubtedly. Some reputed her to be suffering because of the accusations of animal activists - those groups who tried to defend alien lifeforms wherever they happened to be seen in space - had made against her after that accident.

There were also accusations against other racers that, like her, on that day during the competition on Ixazaluch, had run through those sea creatures that had unexpectedly risen out of the water. But it was nonsense to think the racers were responsible. Those alien beings had got through the surface of the sea, unseen until that moment, and were really too large, and too fast, to be missed. There was simply no way of saving them by changing course - given the speed they had reached during the race. So, how could be the pilots be held accountable for plowing through them, causing their death, in the interest of the InterStar Title and their win? Of course, the same managers that had chosen that alien raceway might have been blamed for not having given the racers enough info beforehand. But this might also be said for all the other races like that one which had taken place before on many planets where it was known that lifeforms lived, and might be killed by chance.  Who knew if someone would find the truth out one day? It was hard to say.

So Blanche made her way to the counter and didn’t think about it the rest of the night.

 

*****

 

As soon as Blanche moved away, things became more serious between the two former racers who were sitting there.

“So, you didn’t say very much at the Conference today,” the man told Zylah.

The woman briefly averted her deep eyes, then she said, “Of course I didn’t. But I saw that also you didn’t speak very much about the full reason why you retired after our last race.”

The man nodded and added, “You are exactly right. So, you simply told the media that you quit because of the stress of the competitions. But I think that many people didn’t believe your words, maybe not even our waitress. What was she called? Blanche?”

Zylah replied in a low tone, “I don’t care what people think or what they want me to say. I have my reasons of course!”

“The same here,” a sad Sunan acknowledged.

“So, what do you think about what happened? Were such creatures, those sea animals we stumbled into which caused the impact, endowed with telepathic abilities? Is that something they made use of in order to protect themselves against the predators of the deeps of that world? Or to fight their prey?” The former racer asked these questions of her male colleague.

“I don’t know…it’s difficult to say. And certainly the scars they left on our mind, the nightmares we keep having that prevent us from moving and acting freely, is what has stopped us from competing again. It’s possible that it was a secret weapon, something those creatures turned to when they had to distance themselves from anything who might be in their way…like our vehicles that day. But a friend of mine, whom I spoke with, said that studies about telepathy in several intelligent alien species couldn’t give me an answer. After what I went through, the same as you experienced, I researched the subject and I even paid a lot of academicians to give me results in the end. But as of today, researchers like one man I know who studies aliens with brains comparable to that of humans - and of those aliens that are far more intelligent than Earthlings are - don’t know much about alien animals with psychic power, or if they really exist. This is especially true as those water creatures had never been widely studied before. There’s not much work about psychic abilities of animals, and the texts written so far are controversial, of course.”

“That is what I have discovered, too,” the man said.

“Ixazaluch is simply a planet mainly made of very deep oceans, that can go down for more than 65,000 feet below the surface, so this is a matter for Ethologists or other scientists coming from other worlds who usually watch the behavior of animals in their usual habitat. But there had not been a lot of researchers there before our last race, because the site was beyond the main space routes, which is why it was selected by InterStar Competition as it had to appear like a new thing, a varied setting for Super-Speed Raceways different from others. Well, this is why not much is known about that place even today,” the other replied, with a sad look.

“Some researchers I hired had to keep their studies a secret”, the woman added. “Just imagine that such creatures are not very powerful and even not very thick and strong, though they are huge, given the fact they make use of other means to protect their bodies from the predators of that planet. There must be many such creatures in the deeps of those seas that protect themselves by turning to those psychic abilities. It could be similar to those trees on some worlds like Earth that prefer strange poisons or other deadly substances to be let out of their leaves, or from the terrain next to their trunk at certain times, to deal with, or send away the creatures – be they birds or other animals - that might damage them. It might be so. That alien sea-life probably had devised a way, or had evolved following a peculiar path, in order to be protected by that unexpected means instead of becoming thicker, bloodier or even more predatory than the creatures of the deeps they have to escape, who knows…it’s possible. That’s the conclusions I was given by some researchers. And not that this can be of any help to us. Really, nothing can change the facts about what happened or remove those scars we have in our minds and that are so painful. There’s no way, and no science that will release us from such worries. At least, that’s true for now.”

“Which puts an end to our career as racers of course,” Sunan replied in a dejected voice.   

“I see what you mean…and you might be right…but we don’t know for sure. And it will not be of any help if a treatment is found a decade from now, as by that time I will be too old to be involved in racing again. A sport I loved so much indeed,” the woman nodded. And her features darkened visibly.

“As I said, what happened to us on Ixazaluch put an end to our career as racers. The strange anxiety disorder caused by such animal’s telepathic abilities, that we have been affected since that moment, prevents us from competing again. We are overwhelmed by a feeling of uneasiness and worry any time we get near a sea. So that’s that, it’s over,” the man spoke and then fell silent.

“I think you’re right obviously. We can’t change it.”

“By the way, turning back to our last discussion, who won more first-place titles, you or me, overall, during those years? I mean, including summer tests and the qualifications. We have been competing to become the best racer at InterStar Title for so long, and I think we were almost in a tie before that day.”

“Actually I’ve always imagined that you were more the contemplative type, preferring the racing to the winning. Who cares about that now? Maybe only the ones who keep the data of the winners of the past who were involved in such Super-Speed Raceways… I really don’t know, anyway. The fact is that we can’t be racers anymore, and we both know why,” an angered Zylah said while making a face.

“This is exactly why I’m interested to know, as there will be no more competitions between us. We’ll never race against each other, we’ll never compete again, across an alien ocean somewhere,” the other sneered. But it was a forced sneer.

“How silly you are,” the woman made fun of him, and rolled her eyes. “Think about the next rare drink to be ordered, instead, because alcohol is the only thing that will appease our regret tonight. Alcohol is what might keep our headaches in check, and the pain that comes with the bad dreams caused by that damn day.”

“On this, you’re certainly right. We’ll sleep well tonight, forgetting about the raging headaches we will have tomorrow after so many glasses ingested.”

“I’d say, ‘Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.’ I read that somewhere, one day,” she added in a low tone. “And I say that, merely to cut short your previous discussion about which one of us earned more wins during our career.”

“Well said, my dear! We can both drink to that!”

The pair of racers inside the tavern both nodded and took another bottle of liquor off the table’s surface. To be put later next to the many emptied before, in a way…



THE END


2022 Sergio Palumbo

Bio: ‘Sergio is an Italian public servant who graduated from Law School working in the public real estate branch. He is also a co-Editor, together with Mrs. Michele DUTCHER, of the new Steampunk Anthology “Steam-powered Dream Engines”, published in march 2018 by Rogue Planet Press, an Imprint of British Horrified Press, and of the new Fantasy/Sci-Fi Anthology “Fantastical Savannahs and Jungles”, published in march 2019 by the same Publisher. The subsequent book edited by him, together with Mrs. Michele DUTCHER, is the new Sci-Fi Anthology “Xenobiology – Stranger Creatures”, published in september 2020 by Rogue Planet Press, an Imprint of British Horrified Press. In 2021 he edited, along with Mrs. Michele DUTCHER and Mr. Curtis MAGNES as co-editor, the new Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy Anthology titled “Bleakest Towers”, published by Rogue Planet Press. In 2022 he edited, along with Mr. Curtis MAGNES as co-editor, the new Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy Anthology titled “Of Poets, Spies and the Unearthliness - Otherworldly tales in the times of Shakespeare and Marlowe”, published by Rogue Planet Press. The first Historical/Horror screenplay written by him, titled “Tophet- An Ancient Evil”, completed in 2018, won an Honorable Mention Award at The 2018 International Horror Hotel Award - script Competition held in Richfield, Ohio

“Michele Dutcher, aka Bottomdweller, lives in a carriage house in Old Louisville Kentucky with her border collie – Daisy Dukes. She has a BS degree in Elementary Education from Indiana University with minors in theology & sociology and has been writing Science Fiction stories for about a decade. She edits all the first drafts of Sergio’s short stories.”

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.