In a cosmic rally race winding 12,000 kilometers across Io’s treacherous surface in just 60 hours, all while dodging the competition, fatigue, and violent lava geysers—there’s only one way Cat knows how to win: Just drive.
I raised a fist and strode out into the full glare of the floods.
Crowds roared in my earpiece as I stopped to take it all in, recalling the words of my old mentor. Before he flamed out across Utopia, Joff had told me to savour moments like this one while I still had the chance.
‘Never forget the hard work and sacrifice that put you on that grid, Cat,’ he’d said slowly, his voice like a gearbox full of gravel. ‘You’ve earned that ride, and you’ve earned the adulation. But always remember it might be the last time.’
‘I’ll know when it’s the last time,’ I’d countered, with all the arrogance and certainty of youth.
‘That’s what everyone thinks,’ he’d said, turning from me with a rag in his hand.
It had taken me a while to realise how right he was. About ten years, one pair of legs, and all the lessons I’d ever need in winning and losing. By which point it was far too late to admit it to the gruff old bastard.
The start of a race – any race, anywhere in the system – was a beautiful spectacle. The tiered, pressurised grandstands leaned in above the grid, twenty stories high. The cars waited on their launch positions, huge as houses, bodies perched high on six balloon wheels. Technicians and race scrutineers fussed around them, adjusting parameters and checking for the tiniest rules infraction. A circus of journalists, sponsors, and celebs pressed in close to the pampered machines. Some drivers were already aboard, hunched and tiny in their blister cockpits, set high up and forward on the enormous vehicles. Others were scrambling up the access ladders between the monstrous wheels. On the cars’ bodies, a changing flicker of logos and slogans betrayed the twitchiness of advertisers, responding to the tiniest rumour or hint of nervy body language.
Rufus nagged me through the earpiece.
‘We’ve got a car to be getting to, girl.’
‘And I’m just taking things in. Joff told me—’
He cut across my reminiscence. ‘Piping the commentary through to you now. Try and smile for the feeds.’
‘I am smiling!’
‘Then smile more. Looks like a grimace from here.’
I walked onto the grid, a spotlight tracking me. The crowd roared some more. I did a dance with my new prosthetics. They were fresh-in from Gladius Exomedical, expensive and sleek. Too bad they didn’t fit quite as snugly as my old pair. We had to keep Gladius sweet all the same, since they were paying for about a third of the car.
‘And Cat Catling emerges to take her place in the second car on the grid! Catling, the relentless underdog in the metallic blue Bellatrix Beta, never a victor at the TransIonian, but racking up an impressive set of wins this season, from Venus to Titan. Can she extend her run of good fortune under the baleful face of Jupiter, or will Zimmer retain his crown for the eighth year running? And speaking of Zimmer, he’s in no hurry to take his seat on pole position in the bright red Imperator Six! He looks like a man without a care in the world, happy to chat to all comers!’
‘Oh, balls,’ I murmured.
‘You weren’t on mute,’ Rufus complained.
‘In which case…oh, balls again.’
‘You realise each little outburst like that costs us three percent in sponsorship, don’t you?’
‘It’s Zimmer. Why didn’t you tell me he was grandstanding?’
‘It’s what he does. Which doesn’t mean you have to answer questions, speak to him, or even make eye contact.’
‘This is deliberate. He wants an exchange.’
I heard the weary resignation in his voice. ‘Catlin…’
‘Unmute me. This is for keeps.’
Zimmer had decided to stage his little performance piece right next to the flame-orange Firebird belonging to Shogi. He was addressing a journalist, flanked by two nervous, fidgety members of his PR team.
I could avoid him – but only by taking the long way around to my car.
Not a chance of that.
Zimmer turned to meet me, spreading his arms in a gesture of innocent apology. His voice boomed over the general race channel.
‘Sorry, Catling! I didn’t think I was in the way! I assumed you were already in your car!’ His visor dipped down. ‘New legs, aren’t they? Neon pink flamework, too. Old-school. Brave choice.’
‘Thanks,’ I said acidly. ‘And how’s that new eye of yours working out? Hear it started glitching on you last time out.’
‘Cosmic ray strike: took out a whole array buffer.’ He shrugged effortlessly. ‘I still won.’
I put my hands on my hips and appraised him like a slightly wonky art installation, the kind you glance at before moving on.
‘What is it now, Zimmer? Forty-three percent of you replaced or augmented?’
He smiled behind the semi-mirrored visor. Zimmer’s face was gameshow-host handsome, with a stiff, synthetic sheen to it. ‘I’m within the racing code. This year we’re allowed forty-five percent augmentation.’
‘And next year it’ll be even more, just to keep you legal. Lucky your team has the influence it does, or they might have to start stuffing meat back into you.’
He kept his voice level, his perma-smile unwavering. ‘You’re not as far behind me as you’d like to make out. Those legs, and those new neural mods your team have been keeping very quiet about?’
‘All legal,’ I asserted. ‘The scrutineers have been over me just as thoroughly as the car.’
‘In which case…all’s fair between us, isn’t it? Two drivers, two cars, a racetrack ahead of us. What could be more…sporting?’ He reached out a hand for me to shake. ‘Shall we?’
I bristled, aware that all eyes were on me. A show of ungracious conduct right now could knock whole percentage points off our sponsorship. Rufus wouldn’t like that.
Besides, Joff had always told me to keep it gentlemanly.
I gritted my teeth and shook his hand.
‘May the better driver win.’
The start lights came on in sequence. I pressed down on the throttle, the force-feedback from my new legs just a fraction off, but not so much that it was going to throw my race. Traction power flowed from the car’s nuclear reactor to my wheels. They strained against supercooled ceramic brakes, the entire vehicle rocking like a theme-park pirate ship. Temperature dials needled into the red on my console.
The car was a beast. It hated standing still.
‘Race watchers!’ bellowed the commentator. ‘The course is open! The down-ramp is lowered! The drivers are set, their cars at launch power! Who will cross the finish line first after circumnavigating Io, some sixty hours from now? Zimmer and Catling lead the grid, and all eyes will surely be on their races, but we must still talk about Shogi, looking to go wheel-to-wheel against Mossmann in the Black Shadow. Denied the cup at Callisto after a cooling circuit blowout, the redoubtable Shogi…’
I tuned out the babble and concentrated on my launch. The interval between the fourth and fifth lights always seemed an eternity…and yet there was only room in it for one or two heartbeats.
No lights. And…everything flowed, slow and fast in the same impossible instant. Cars were moving. I saw them all, picked up in mirrors and direct video feeds. A line of huge colourful machines gathering speed like boulders sliding down a mountainside. I studied Zimmer’s wheels, looking for a trace of slip against the greasy surface of the grid. Nothing. The bastard had a perfect launch, clean on the throttle. I resisted the urge to gun it, applying smoothly rising power, letting the car find its own grip.
There was no overtaking down the long start straight, and no one stupid enough to attempt it. Speed mounted: one hundred kilometres per hour, two hundred, three hundred. The grandstands became a silent blur of light and tiny faces. The cars were barrelling down a long enclosed tunnel, metal grid below and floods above, premium advertising banners chasing hard on their tails.
All very sterile, all very corporate and controlled. But things would be getting real and dirty very quickly.
Ahead, coming up fast – the Bellatrix Beta was nudging three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour – was a steep down-ramp. Zimmer hit it first, momentum carrying him over the lip, his car following a shallow parabola until it re-engaged with the sloping road.
I eased off just before the transition, keeping all wheels in contact and maintaining my slow but steady acceleration. I fell behind Zimmer, then caught up again as his car bogged down and struggled with traction.
‘Rookie error, Zim.’
His answer crackled back, his voice juddery with vibration. ‘You’ve made enough to know one.’
‘Oh, the burn!’ I shot back.
Joff would be shaking his head about now, telling me to focus on the race, not mind-games.
Zimmer was first down, but only just. I was at his side, less than a third of a car’s length from the bulbous nose of the Imperator Six. Now those monster wheels really came into their own, biting into the Ionian crust. I put all power down, red-lining the motors. The huge structure of the grandstand and starting grid fell behind, blurred in the plumes of dust and gas rising behind our cars. The opening leg was relatively flat and level: I could go all-out without risking damage to the tyres, wheels, or suspension.
So could Zimmer, though. His car was no faster than mine, but because he was slightly ahead he could choose the racing line. He knew this moon like it was his private racetrack. He could pick and choose his course, gunning for the areas of crust where his instincts promised a tiny but crucial advantage.
The only winning condition was this: end up back at Ruwa Patera, after a complete circumnavigation. Twelve thousand kilometres, give or take. Sixty hours, at the average winning speed. Fifty-seven was the course record, set by Chertoff. No one had got close to that since.
Chertoff wouldn’t be trying. Hard to race in a lead-lined coffin.
The first hour was critical. Cars could get badly out of position, picking a bad strategy, pushing too hard, or just hitting an early streak of bad luck. A lot could be decided in those first couple of hundred kilometres. The next nine or ten hours, once the drivers had settled into things, was more a question of endurance and perseverance. Things got juicy again around the first waypoint, as cars converged from different routes and scrapped for a limited strip of terrain.
I was too much of a veteran to make any silly mistakes in the first leg. I kept an eye on Zimmer, never letting him pull more than half a kilometre ahead of me, but I kept telling myself to drive my own race and not get drawn into wheel-to-wheel action too early on. There’d be time for that later on.
Mossmann was the first to blow out. He hit a big boulder eighty klicks into the race, trying to squeeze through a gap that was too narrow for his car. He flipped and rolled. He was a long way behind me (Mossmann had picked a completely different route to mine, going much further south) but I watched it all on the live feeds. I was glad when his car righted itself and his cockpit pod ejected safely, rockets lifting him away from the surface. The car was a radioactive wreck but Mossmann would live to drive again, provided his team stayed afloat.
Joff had been racing before ejection cockpits became a mandatory feature. I still remembered some of the horror stories. Whether he told me them to make me a safer driver, or just to emphasize how easy we had it now, I couldn’t say.
There’d been a lot of changes, for sure. In Joff’s day drivers had to stay awake by means of willpower, grit, and maybe the odd illegal substance. Now we had consciousness-management neural mods, staving off sleep for up to sixty hours by selectively de-emphasizing certain areas of brain function. We had tweaks for enhanced reaction time, low-light perception, and superior spatial awareness. Mossmann must have skimped on the last one, because I’d never have made the same error. I knew my car’s limits like I knew my own elbows.
None of these tweaks and prosthetics and in-car protection measures exactly made racing on Io safe, though. They just reduced the probability of death to something acceptable to the advertisers and networks.
Every racing location in the system had its own parcel of risks. Io didn’t have the crushing pressure and acidic environment of Venus, nor the alloy-freezing chill of Titan. It lacked the dust-storms of Mars or the cracked, treacherous icescapes of Europa.
What it did have was savage, unpredictable geology. As Io moved around Jupiter, gravity toyed with it like an executive’s stress ball. All that energy being pumped into its core had to go somewhere. It ended up percolating out into a sea of sub-surface lava, keeping it nicely molten and prone to sudden explosive eruptions. Io’s geysers were lethal, random timebombs. Hit one as it went off, and your race was over. You could play safe by keeping clear of the main eruption zones, but not if you wanted a shot at a podium finish. The trick was to plot a course that hopscotched close to the geysers. Close, but not too close. Up to each driver how close they pushed that margin. How much they wanted to win. How far they had come, and how much of their career they had ahead of them.
You could roll the dice. Geyser activity was loosely correlated with Io’s position in its orbit, with the Sun either hidden behind Jupiter or bearing down hard and cruel overhead. Drivers could make a mad dash across a danger zone when the activity was expected to be at its lowest…but nothing on Io ran like clockwork. Plenty had been burned that way. And since no two TransIonians ever started at the same orbital phase, lessons learned from one race were all but useless the next time around.
Which was why winning on Io mattered more than anywhere else in the system. It might not be the race that decided a tournament, but it was the one that forged legends.
At the first waypoint, ten hours and forty minutes in, Zimmer and I were comfortably clear of the competition. He was ahead of me, but not so far that anything was decided. Now cars were bouncing in from north and south, averaging between one hundred and fifty and two hundred kilometers per hour, but looking slow and ponderous, raised up high on those enormous wheels.
We’d started with Jupiter’s dark face sitting above us, blocking the Sun: none more black over a sullen, barely visible landscape. By the time the cars started arriving at the first waypoint, though, Io had moved a quarter of the way around Jupiter. The Sun was no longer in eclipse and Jupiter was demi-lit and on its way to the horizon. The sky had picked up a shimmering, sickly sodium glow. It projected confusing shadows, making everything look unfamiliar, even to drivers who had followed the same course a dozen times.
Other than Mossmann, all the drivers made it through the first waypoint without drama. The toll was beginning to show on Scurlock, in her lime-green Draco, with a motor seizure on one of her axles. She’d been over-gunning it early on, risking cooling failure. I could tell from the plume her car was pushing up, crabbing lopsidedly as it dragged a dead wheel along for the ride. No way she was making the next waypoint, or even close to it. Mittendorfer was the next casualty, five hours into the second stint: he followed Shogi’s line right through a geyser field that was just waiting to be poked and prodded. Shogi made it through, but his car had weakened the crust just enough to spring an eruption right under Mittendorfer. The blast caught his belly, flipped the car, rolled it. The car righted itself, but by then its leading axles were buckled and useless. Mittendorfer punched out, leaving his smouldering wreck behind. A rescue drone caught his cockpit before it fell back to Io, and thirty minutes later he was pontificating from the commentary box, shaken to the core but glad to be alive.
The Sun got higher and higher in the sky through that second stint, as Io positioned itself between Jupiter and the Sun. It would have been a glorious sight from the moon’s Jupiter-facing side…but by then our cars had driven more than a quarter of the way around, edging into the face of Io which was permanently averted.
Twenty-one hours in, the remaining cars converged for the second waypoint. By now there was a big spread in their positions and chances of victory. Zimmer was ahead of me still, the only one I had a direct visual on. The others were too far away, lost behind ridges or hidden completely from view by Io’s nearby horizon. I had to rely on the video feed and race commentary to get a sense of how the larger race was playing out. Not that the others really concerned me. It was between me and Zimmer right now.
The fatigue was just being kept at bay by my mods. The race was only a third done, too. This was the psychological pinch-point for a lot of drivers, as they pressed on into the third stint. They were mentally and physically drained, even with the augmentations. The trick, Joff had told me, was to forget how many hours of driving were still ahead. It was only ever the next hour that counted. The next minute, in fact. The future only existed as far as the next corner, the next breaking zone.
‘It’s one thing to say that, another to believe it!’ I’d protested.
‘You’ll learn it, kid,’ he’d said, with his usual bluff certainty. ‘Or you’ll never lift a trophy.’
I had learned it, too. Like all the mind-games you played against yourself, rather than other drivers, it was pretty damned simple once you got the knack.
Hands on the wheel. Pedal to the floor.
After waypoint three, thirty-two hours in, more than half race-distance, came the big decision.
There was a relatively clean racing line all the way to waypoint four. Not risk-free exactly – nothing on Io was that – but well-trodden, with established pitfalls and manageable hazards. Two thousand eight hundred kilometres of sinuous driving with plenty of pinch-points where cars could end up wheel-to-wheel. Based on previous races, the chances of a crash or major malfunction were about one in twenty across this leg. Chances of death: one in ninety. Not exactly cheering odds in any other walk of life, but nothing on Io.
There was another line. Much less winding, much less hilly. Almost a straight dash, shaving off an easy four hundred kilometres between waypoints three and four. Plenty of room, too. Cars didn’t need to tangle.
It was also through the most active, violent geyser zone anywhere close to the permitted routes. Detonation Boulevard, so-called. Eighty kilometres of Russian Roulette, where that one in ninety risk of mortality ratcheted closer to one in twelve. No one was exactly sure, because so few drivers had ever put it to the test. The risk of a mechanical failure was somewhere around one in three.
Of the current crop of competitors, Zimmer was the only driver who’d built Detonation Boulevard into his race strategy. He’d won two TransIonians that way. But even Zimmer wasn’t cavalier about it. He didn’t always take the short-cut. He’d take a squint at the weather, factoring in some private calculus of risk versus gain. No one was better at reading geyser activity than Zimmer, and no one was better at keeping his cards close to his chest. I’d been trying to fathom his intentions when we had our little set-to on the starting grid, but I couldn’t read him. Nor could I take a guess based on my understanding of the geyser conditions. No matter how I ran the odds, my risk threshold wasn’t going to be the same as his.
It would all come down to a fork in the road after waypoint three. If he kept on the south fork, he was keeping to the established line. Which wasn’t any kind of white flag, either: Zimmer was still easily capable of winning that way. If he veered north, though, I’d have about a kilometre to decide whether or not to follow him. After that, the routes peeled apart through undriveable terrain. There’d be no time for second thoughts.
I watched the bouncing red dot of his car, picked out in flashes from my headlights. The Sun was falling again now, as Io moved back around behind Jupiter.
‘Are we doing this, Zim?’ I asked.
‘Are we doing what?’
‘You know damned well what.’
‘Conditions aren’t favourable, Catling. I thought you’d have done your homework before setting off.’
Rufus crackled in, interrupting our sport. ‘He has his race strategy, we have ours, Cat. Our sponsors want a car back at the end of this, not a smoking wreck.’
‘He has a point,’ Zimmer commented.
‘Balls to that. When have you ever cared about my sponsors?’
I’ll give him credit: he almost had me. As we approached the fork, he looked to be entirely committed to the south deviation. And I relaxed a little, thinking that while I’d still be following him, at least it wasn’t through Detonation Boulevard.
He steered hard, braking so late that his car tilted onto three wheels, with three more up in the air. I thought for a second he was going to roll it, but slow and gracefully the Imperator Six came down again, gunning it north.
‘They don’t call me the last of the late brakers for nothing,’ Zimmer taunted.
‘Bastard,’ I mouthed.
Of course I followed. What else was I going to do?
The car held. My concentration held. The sponsors held.
If there was a weakness to Zimmer’s Imperator Six, it was laying down straight-line speed for sustained intervals. The Six’s cooling system, cut to the bone to minimise weight and power-drain, was fine-tuned to the needs of the motors under normal racing conditions. On the twisty slopes and chicanes of the longer, southerly route, his car wasn’t in danger of red-lining. The Bellatrix Beta wasn’t as sure-footed over that sort of terrain…but I could go flat-out for longer and faster, without cooking my car.
Zimmer knew this. Everyone knew it. But he’d counted on two things: one, that I wouldn’t have the guts to follow him, and two, that even if I did, he could hold his margin until the next waypoint. After that, we were back into the sort of terrain that suited him. He just needed to maintain his lead.
Before long it was looking like his gamble had paid off.
The geyser zone was active…but not the worst it had been. Zimmer was pulling ever more ahead of the remaining cars, such that he was likely to arrive at the next waypoint between three to four hours ahead of Shogi. Olsen was hard on Shogi’s heels, but there was no way either of them could make up time to catch Zimmer – or me, for that matter.
But I wasn’t in this race to come in second.
I knew I could push the Bellatrix Beta harder and longer than Zimmer could push his car. But eating up that ground between us was going to take more than just pedal-to-metal determination. I had to risk red-lining the motors, and I had to hold a straight line even when every sensible instinct told me to steer.
Geysers erupted across the plain, fountaining up into the night. Big ones, small ones, some on their own and some going off in long, treacherous chains, like a sequence of landmines. I watched Zimmer steer away from the worst of them, but trusting his wheels and speed to carry him right over and through the smaller eruptions, or those larger events that were nearly played-out. I took a gamble and followed his line most of the way, gaining slowly but surely as my car found its second wind. He was only six hundred metres ahead of me now, close enough that I could track every twitch and jerk of his car. I imagined him nursing those over-heated motors, praying that they’d last him until we were back into the slower sectors. The Bellatrix Beta didn’t like what I was asking of it now: odds were that the Imperator Six was screaming out its complaints.
Five hundred metres, then four hundred. And Zimmer made an error! A geyser popped up right ahead of him. It wasn’t a large one and he could have sailed right over it…but by now his nerves must have been worn ragged, and he miscalculated. He steered hard, the car skidded sideways, losing forward momentum as its wheels dug in. Zimmer kept it upright, wrestling steering and power until he had the car back under control, but by then he’d committed to a bad line and I hadn’t stopped closing on him.
I sailed past: close enough to raise a fist and hope he’d seen it.
‘Eat my dust, Zim. See you back at Ruwa Patera.’
I red-lined the motors until I’d put another kilometre between us. Then eased off, tactically. Zimmer was regaining speed but he’d struggle to close the distance. All I had to do was keep the Bellatrix Beta in check for a few more hundred kilometres.
Zimmer was behind me. Shogi and Olsen, a long way south and a long way behind. I was winning the TransIonian! I grinned, feeling clouds of fatigue lift off me. Admittedly, there was still a lot of terrain to cross. A lot of hours ahead, and at no point would I be able to relax. But I was off the knife-edge, temporarily.
The feeling was glorious,
It lasted all the way until I realised I couldn’t see Zimmer behind me anymore.
I slowed down, one eye on the terrain ahead, the other on the crackly video feed showing Zimmer’s crash, over and over.
‘You got problems I don’t know about?’ Rufus asked.
‘Nope. Nothing wrong with me or my car. I just need to know what’s going on back there.’
‘Zimmer hit a geyser and flipped. He was pushing too hard. Now pick the safest possible line you can and get back onto something resembling predictable terrain. You can take it as cautiously as you like: Shogi hasn’t a hope of reaching you.’
‘Did Zimmer punch out, Rufus? It all happened so quickly I’m not sure I didn’t miss something.’
Rufus came back tersely. ‘He didn’t eject.’
‘Yes I’m sure. Probably can’t. He looks to be almost belly-up in that crater.’
‘Is he all right?’
Rufus shifted from unconcern to mild irritation. ‘What do we care, Cat? He’s out of the running. Your one serious rival just made a bad mistake! Now press that advantage.’ Then, with growing concern. ‘Oh, wait. No. What are you doing?’
‘What it looks like I’m doing. Turning around.’
‘Zimmer is not your problem!’
‘If he can’t bail, he’s either already dead or cooking alive in that car. I can get to him much quicker than the rescue drones.’
I slowed enough to make a tight hairpin, looping back onto the terrain where I’d already laid down wheel tracks. There was no guarantee that the ground was still safe – just driving over it once could weaken the crust in an eruption zone – but out here it was a marginally better prospect than forging a brand-new route.
‘Cat,’ Rufus said pleadingly. ‘This is all very noble, but we’re haemorrhaging sponsorship.’
‘Are we really?’
‘You’ve dropped twenty-six points since you started turning back! Look at the bodywork!’
With whatever small part of my attention I could bring to the matter, I saw that he was right. The shell of the car was no longer a pockmarked riot of corporate names and symbols. They were flickering out, growing sparser, and the handful of second-tier players buying in to fill the gaps were nowhere big enough to make up for the loss of revenue.
The sponsors liked an underdog. They liked a winner even more.
A Good Samaritan? Not so much.
‘I’m not losing this race,’ I assured him. ‘I’m just taking a little detour on the way to the finishing line.’
Low ridges and geyser plumes kept Zimmer out of sight until I was nearly on him. At two kilometers I saw the glint from his up-ended car, what little of it projected above the crater in which he’d flipped. The crater was outgassing, but it was a slow, continuous bleed of volatiles, not an explosive eruption. The gases curtained around the car, wreathing it in a hazy glow, before smearing into vacuum.
I slowed to fifty, inching across the last kilometer. Whatever trust I’d placed in the terrain before was now completely gone.
‘Zimmer, can you hear me?’
He came in on a wave of static and crackles, as if we were halfway across the solar system from each other.
‘That you, Catlin?’
‘Yes, it’s me. You must have shattered your comms pod when you turned turtle. Why haven’t you ejected?’
‘Not an option: I’d just end up punching right through the crust into molten lava. I’ve got a choice of ways to die out here, Catlin: boiling alive isn’t top of the list…’
‘You’re not going to die. Put on your helmet if you haven’t already done so.’
‘Because one way or another I’m getting you out of that wreck.’
‘This is a mistake,’ he answered. But some of the fight had gone out of him. ‘Don’t risk yourself on my account.’
‘I’m right alongside already. Come this far, I might as well finish the job.’
‘Bet your sponsors love you.’
‘So what? The car looks much nicer this way.’
I rolled to a halt about two hundred metres from his position. The crater was still belching, with outlying gas vents sending up feathery plumes and underscoring the instability of the ground beneath us.
I put on my helmet, depressurised the cockpit, grabbed the emergency rescue pack, and climbed out through the cockpit hatch. I stood for a moment on the car’s back, taking in the blue skin, largely unblemished by logos. The few that remained weren’t even second-tier sponsors: we were bottom-feeding now.
Rufus must have been chewing his nails down to the quick.
‘You still there, Zim?’ I asked, climbing off the back of the car and down the ladder between the forward and middle wheels.
‘Yes, and what I said still stands. They’ll pity you. You’re showing weakness.’
‘Then call me weak.’ The ladder didn’t reach all the way to the ground, but I easily jumped the remaining distance. I landed, buckling my knees to absorb the impact, and ready to clutch back onto the ladder if the ground started cracking beneath me.
‘You got that helmet on?’
‘What of it?’
‘I want you to start your depressurisation cycle. One way or another, we get you back to my car.’
‘There won’t be room in your cockpit.’
‘Then you piggy-back. You can plug into my car’s life-support circuit.’
He sighed. ‘You’re determined to do this.’
After a silence his reply came back: ‘All right. But I’m tangled up in here. You’ll need to undo my restraints, maybe cut through the crash webbing. And I’m not sure how easily I’ll be able to move myself.’
‘We’re on Io,’ I said nonchalantly. ‘I can sling you over my shoulder if I have to.’
I walked carefully across the ground between my car and the crater rim, placing each footfall as if I trod on a carpet of eggshells. Explosive eggshells at that. There was no way I could disarm the part of my brain that insisted I was walking across a paper-thin membrane, stretched across an ocean of flesh-melting fire.
‘Did Rufus approve of this, by any chance?’
‘Never mind Rufus.’
‘That’s a no, then. Well, I don’t blame him. Bet you he said I wouldn’t do the same, if our roles were reversed?’
‘They wouldn’t be, though.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘Because I’m the better driver. You forgot where you were, Zim. Detonation Boulevard.’
‘I didn’t forget.’
‘Oh, so landing upside down was part of the plan?’
I expected a flip, mordant answer, but nothing came. And a prickle at the back of my neck had me thinking: what if it had been the plan, after all?
Zimmer with a death wish?
I’d never thought about that. He had everything to live for, didn’t he?
I topped the low lip of the caldera. Io whispered to me through the sensors in my legs, a forbidding, stampede-like rumble of distant and not-so-distant seismic processes. The solidified sulphur just beneath my soles was cold enough to freeze blood and shatter bone, but I didn’t have to look far to see smudges where the ground was much warmer. I had to hopscotch around those. Beneath them might be pools of sulphur warm enough to bake someone alive, or puddles of bubbling silicate lava a good thousand degrees hotter.
Slow, tepid death, or quick, scalding one? Take your pick.
All that covered these horrors was a brittle topcoat of sulphur, sulphates, and silicates, firm enough to drive over most of the time, but in places no thicker than pie-crust.
I held my nerve, ignored the rumble coming up through my legs, and took my vantage on the ragged, crumbling rim of the caldera. I felt, for a moment, equally heroic and preposterous. The caldera was about seventy metres across: a black-walled basin spattered with the dusky oranges and sickly yellows of more recent outbursts, ghosted by a fine pale dusting of sulphur frost.
With Zimmer’s car upside down in the middle of it.
Upside down, jammed tail-end into the caldera floor, and sticking out of the ground at about thirty degrees to the horizontal.
He’d gone in hard.
‘That won’t polish out,’ I said to myself.
Instead of triggering a massive eruption, the bulk of the car was acting like a cinder plug, blocking most of the outflow. It looked stable…for the moment. If the car had been caught in the middle of a full-on fountaining geyser, there’d have been nothing I could have done for Zimmer.
Equally, there wouldn’t have been much left of Zimmer worth saving.
I clambered down the inside of the caldera. I had to get to the cockpit, now facing down rather than up, but there was no way I was staking my life on that cracked, fractured floor.
‘Zimmer,’ I said, looping the strap of the emergency kit around my elbow. ‘I can see a way to get to you. But it’s going to be a scramble to get you out. Think you can go hand-over-hand, until we’re over safe ground?’
‘Whatever it takes,’ Zimmer answered neutrally.
‘Hold on. I’m leaping aboard. Your car looks pretty firmly wedged-in there, so I hope it’ll take my weight when I land.’
I put all my power into my legs and sprung up at the car. As I soared up and out on a lazy parabola, everything slowed down. That wasn’t just psychology. It was the neural mod, detecting an adrenalin spike and giving me a temporary cognitive speed-boost.
I’d misjudged, I realised. The emergency kit had upset my centre of gravity, causing me to veer to the left.
‘Gah!’ I cried out, straining my fingers. The car came nearer. I was off-course but not completely so. My fingertips brushed a handhold. I grasped it hard, felt it sliding through my grip, my momentum still carrying me too hard and too fast.
I flailed with the other hand, and with a secondary part of my attention watched the emergency kit slide right off my elbow, down my forearm, over my glove, and off into the void.
‘I lost the emergency kit!’
‘Never mind. There’s another one here. Are you secure?’
‘Yes…yes,’ I said, shocked and surprised to see that I was in fact now dangling from the underside of the car. ‘Yes, I’m on. Sort of.’ I started swinging back and forth, until at last I was able to hook my foot into another grab. With a grunt and a stretch I got both hands onto the rails. The car rocked slightly – for all its mass it was balanced precariously – but held. ‘I’m good. I’m climbing up and along.’
‘Take it slowly.’
The speed-boost had worn off. Now I had the groggy after-effects: a dull headache and a sense that my thoughts were running through treacle. It would take a few minutes for my neurochemistry to re-equilibrate.
‘Have you ever thought about retiring, Catlin?’
I monkeyed into position alongside the pod. The windows were steamed-up on the inside, so I couldn’t tell what kind of condition Zimmer was in. ‘Kind of an odd question, from someone hanging upside down in a car wreck.’
‘Not so odd. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately.’
‘We’re drivers, Zim. We keep going until our reflexes burn out or we burn. That’s how it is.’
‘But what if you wanted to retire, but couldn’t?’
‘Depends on the lifestyle you’ve grown accustomed to. I guess. You’ve got more winnings in the bank than me.’ I knocked on the glass. ‘I’m ready to haul you out. Have you depressurised inside there?’
‘Purging the last of my air now. Keep away from the vents.’
I held on. Two jets of air feathered out from the back of the pod, then died away. The fog cleared from the glass as the last traces of moisture boiled off into vacuum.
‘Supposing it’s not about wealth at all.’
‘There’s money or glory,’ I countered. ‘What else matters?’
‘I’m opening the door.’
His hatch flipped open just above my face. I levered myself up until I was able to look into the upside-down pod. Then I risked letting go with one hand so that I could hook an elbow into the open hatchway. I gave a grunt and got one leg braced into the opening, then the other, and finally both hands.
I was perched on the very edge of the pod, with no room to go any further inside, but at least my hands were free now.
I spied Zimmer: strung up like a bat, suspended in the tangled confusion of his harness. He looked broken and doll-like, his limbs pulled into awkward, unnatural angles.
‘You’re a mess.’
‘You don’t know the half of it,’ he answered, turning his inverted face to meet mine.
I jerked back in shock and nearly tumbled out of the pod. ‘You’re in vacuum.’
He had the same helmet on as when he started the race, but the visor part of it was detached, leaving his face open to the airless environment of the pod. The same face I’d seen at the start, gameshow-host handsome, perma-smile, but now looking even more artificial.
‘I haven’t needed it for some while,’ he answered, his lips not moving as he spoke. ‘I don’t breathe in the usual sense. My lungs are a blood-oxygen exchange system, connected directly to the pod’s air supply. Such a modification was…not technically within the current rules. But there’s an amendment in the schedule for next season. That would make me legal again.’
My brain fog had mostly abated, but something still wasn’t making sense.
‘Why are you telling me this? I could take that rules violation straight to the top and get you blown out of the competition.’
‘You wouldn’t get very far. The rules are written to suit me. I bring in too much money.’
It had the ring of truth, but I still shook my head, thoroughly disgusted. ‘I knew you were dirty. I just didn’t know how bad it had got.’
‘Those legs of yours. They were strictly within the rules when you had them installed?’
‘Of course they were.’
‘I’ve seen documentation that says otherwise. The prosthetic augmentation was too powerful, by a few percent. But Gladius Exomedical and your team negotiated a hush-hush technical exemption on the understanding that all would be put right by the next season.’
‘We’re talking a tiny discrepancy.’
‘It’s just a question of degrees, Catlin. We’re on the same path, you and I. I’m just further down it.’
‘I’ll never end up like you.’
‘What if the choice isn’t yours to make?’
I grew impatient. I’d detoured to rescue Zimmer, not to get drawn into a debate about the moral hazards of our profession. ‘Where’s your emergency kit? I’m going to try and cut you out of that webbing.’
‘I’m not going anywhere.’ He paused, searched me with his eyes. ‘You were right about me flipping the car. It wasn’t an accident.’
‘You had the race in the bag.’
‘It’s not about winning. It’s about something bigger.’
‘You’re losing me, Zim.’
‘In the beginning the augmentations were small enough that I felt I could control them. A new limb here, a neural mod here. Just like you.’
I shivered inside my suit. ‘I’m totally in control.’
‘Maybe you are, right now. But there’s a line. On the other side, it’s not you deciding to race. It’s the machinery. It gets into you deeply. Changes psychology, blood chemistry, whatever it takes.’
‘Whatever it takes to do what?’
‘To make more of itself. It’s been driving me, Catlin. It compels me to keep racing. Season after season, year after year. There’s always a little bit less of me and a little more of it. And I can see where that ends. One day I won’t even remember I was me. I’ll just be a walking, talking impersonation of myself.’
‘So get out before that happens.’
‘I tried. But it wouldn’t let me.’ He shook his head wryly. ‘There was only ever one way out. I had to race so hard that I made the one mistake there was no coming back from.’
I nodded slowly. I was ready to accept the fact of his desperation even if I refused to believe the motivation behind it.
‘You never wanted to be rescued.’
‘No,’ he agreed. ‘But if there was a chance to reach you, to warn you before it was too late? I always liked you, Catling.’
I thought of our sniping interactions, the subtle put-downs and calculated mind-games.
He liked me?
‘You made a good job of hiding it.’
‘It was never personal. But this is. It’s a plea from the heart. You’re not too far gone. The machine’s in you, but you’re still the one in the driver’s seat. You can still back out.’
‘How’d you know it’s not too late?’
He laughed mirthlessly. ‘Because you turned back. It was a moment of weakness. Human weakness.’ Something tightened his face. ‘I haven’t been capable of anything like that for a long time.’
‘You’re saying I should quit this life?’
‘While there’s still a chance. Do this one thing for me, and I’ll die knowing I got to you in time. That’ll be good. I need it.’
‘I can’t just…stop. The team. Rufus, the mechanics, the sponsors…’
‘You owe them nothing. You’re just meat to them. If you quit, they’ll find someone else just as willing.’
I thought of how quickly the sponsors had deserted me the moment I showed that first hint of compassion. The first hint that something mattered to me more than winning. The first hint that I wasn’t as cold-hearted and ruthless as they expected of me.
I eased back. ‘Are you really going to die here?’
‘It’ll be all right. I can turn off nearly everything now.’ The car lurched violently and I nearly toppled out. ‘You’d best be on your way. I’ve said my piece, and you’ve listened. I hope maybe you’ll spread the word, too. Speak to the other drivers, the ones who aren’t too far gone. Take out enough pieces, the whole thing crumbles, or at least changes.’
‘You mean…bring it all down? Everything?’
‘Someone needs to stop it. Or make it better. If it isn’t you, you’ve still been kind enough to me right now. I’m glad you were here at the end.’
‘Honestly, Zim, couldn’t we have done this some other way?’
‘Oh, don’t feel too bad about it. We had some good races, didn’t we?’
‘Yeah, we did.’
The car dropped another metre into the caldera. I made to say something more, some zinger of a farewell that would look good when I dictated my biography, but nothing came. We just eyed each other for a second and then I bailed out, scooping hands onto the rails and monkeying down onto safe ground as quickly as I could.
Even as I was climbing back over the caldera rim, the car was going down behind me. Geysers burst through, shrouding the vehicle’s death pains.
‘You crazy brave bastard, Zimmer,’ I said on the open channel, just in case he was still listening in.
A soundless explosion flared behind me. My shadow stretched out across the sulphur flats, then faded.
I returned to my spotless blue car. Climbed in, repressurised, and began to roll away from the scene of the accident. Geysers were rupturing all around, plumes daubing livid sparking colour against the black. There was definitely more activity than when I’d arrived. Zimmer’s demise had triggered something, for sure.
As if Detonation Boulevard needed any encouragement.
‘We’ll rename it,’ I mused aloud. ‘Zimmer’s Alley, or something. Only fitting.’
It was Rufus, coming in on the long-range. ‘Oh, hello,’ I said.
‘We’ll talk about this later,’ he said, his voice quavering on the edge of rage. ‘The damage you’ve done with this pointless little stunt…it’s going to take months to rebuild our profile.’
‘News for you, Rufus,’ I said, filled with a strange calm. ‘I’m done. I’m not even going to finish the TransIonian.’
‘You have a contractual obligation to bring that car home.’
‘I will. I’m just not going to race now. I’ll take my time, enjoy the scenery, stop before the finishing line. What are you so worked about, anyway? It must all be over by now.’
‘You still have the lead.’
‘No,’ I said flatly. ‘Not possible. I was with Zimmer for too long.’
‘Shogi blew a wheel at Purginev Corner. Olsen had the lead for about thirty minutes after that, then flipped at Tholus Pass. Shogi’s sitting tight waiting for recovery, and Olsen managed to bail. No one else is close.’
‘I’m not racing.’
‘You’re heading in the right direction.’
‘That’s just the quickest way out of Detonation Boulevard.’
‘Be that as it may, our sponsors see it differently. They’re starting to come back. We’re up a few percentage points already. They think you want to finish this, and they like the way the narrative played out.’
‘The brave driver risks victory to save a stricken colleague. She can’t help him, but at least she tried. And now she still gets to claim the win! It’s the classic combination of guts, tragedy, and outrageous good fortune!’
‘The moment I turned back, they threw me to the wolves!’
‘But as I said, the way it played out…’
‘I’m not doing this. I’m taking a stand. Not just for Zimmer, but everyone else caught up in this thing. It’s all gone way too far.’
I meant it too, in that moment.
But something caught my eye. A flicker of colour, appearing against the blue of my car. A logo, and not one of the minor players. It stood in glorious isolation for a few seconds, then – like a seed – began to attract further sponsors.
I watched in wonder as they flocked back, a chain of gaudy islands thrusting out of clear blue seas. The islands jostled, some of them growing larger and swallowing up their smaller competitors.
‘They really like you,’ Rufus marvelled.
I put my foot down a bit harder. ‘I can see.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I’m going to…’ I hesitated. ‘I’m going to…I’m going to finish this one race. Not for me. Not for the team. For Zimmer. Only for Zimmer. It was his to win, not mine. And I’ll say as much when I’m standing up there on the podium. I’ll dedicate the victory to him. And then…then I’ll quit, and when I do I’m going to speak up about everything that’s wrong with all this. That’s the end of it for me, until we fix this. And if we don’t, then no more racing.’
Rufus laughed, a laugh as cold and airless as anywhere on Io.
‘We’ll see how you feel when you have your hands on that trophy.’
“Detonation Boulevard” copyright © 2023 by Alastair Reynolds
Art copyright © 2023 by Ben Zweifel