Daniel C. Smith
Caden Sharpe had spent half of his sixteen years in the zero gravity of deep space, but when he was awoken in the middle of the night by his little brother he always wound up hitting his head on the top of his bunk as he sprang to consciousness. It was never a pleasant way to wake up, especially with a full duty shift tomorrow.
“What’s on your mind, Brannon?”
“We’re racing in the Regatta.”
Caden thought that he must be dreaming, but then he realized, no, his little brother was actually stupid enough to wake him up in the middle of the night for some non-sense such as this.
“The Regatta’s on Callisto, Bran… and the race has already started— they run the last leg in two days….”
“I know all that….”
“So you must know that we don’t have a racing skiff… which might explain why we’re not there racing already, and that mom and dad would never let us and even if they did we don’t have the money to cover the entry fee, assuming they allowed a late entry. Ya know all that, right?”
“I know all that.”
“Well then congratulations Brannon, this is officially the stupidest thing you ever woke me up for.”
“I just wanted you to be ready tomorrow when it all….”
“Brannon, your face. Shut it. Now.”
Caden went back to sleep while Brannon laid there in silence. He knew things his older brother didn’t of course, but knowing that by this time tomorrow they would be on Callisto and officially entered in the Regatta didn’t make it any easier. Racing was dangerous enough, but the Regatta always drew the most unscrupulous characters. The two of them would be very much in jeopardy. He understood where his parents would be coming from as they would raise their many objections. And he knew that in the end, they would let him and his brother go to Callisto and race.
Everything depended on it.
Mining the asteroid belt was a hard life, and Paul Sharpe spent much of his time wondering if he had made the right decision moving his family out to the rocks almost ten years ago. Reviewing the financial situation of the mining compact he and his family were a part of, he couldn’t help but feel a little helpless. A decade ago eight families had bound themselves together in a desperate attempt to secure a better future for their families’ off-world; there had been little to no hope of doing so on Earth. Their group had leased this particular stretch of rocks from the Inner Planetary Confederation under the STEAD Act, but recently they had fallen dangerously behind on their payments to the IPC leaving them heavily indebted to several Martian companies. They knew that the IPC had rigged the game against them (their quotas were almost impossible to reach) but the idea of such a quick and total defeat seemed overwhelming. And now the task of telling the rest of the people that he had lead out here fell on his shoulders. Looking at the clock he realized that there was no point in going to bed.
Sharpe grew perturbed when he noticed his sons sitting in the back of the meeting room instead of working. Brannon held his face expressionless, and Caden’s dumbfounded look seemed only to say, as usual, that it really wasn’t his fault.
Caden’s supposed to be the oldest… He cut off the thought; his own son’s might as well hear it with the rest of the crew. Still, he had the uneasy feeling that Brannon was up to something.
And when he saw the school teacher, Mrs. Bishop, walk into the room he knew that whatever Brannon was up to, he wasn’t in it alone. He had never been fond of the boy’s teacher, believing that everything she pounded into their heads was useless. Out here in the belt life wasn’t about poetry or democratic principles. It was about survival. He watched her as she took a seat without even making eye-contact with Brannon, her favorite student. Something was definitely up and the hair on the back of his neck was starting to rise when he heard his name called. It was time to let everyone know that they had failed. That he had failed.
Whatever Brannon and that woman are up to will just have to wait…
He didn’t have to cut off the thought this time, that woman did it for him when she stood up and said, “There’s something everyone needs to know.”
Sharpe fumed, but curiosity gnawed at him, “I yield the floor to… Mrs. Bishop.”
She continued, “What Mr. Sharpe was about to say is that we’ve failed, we’re broke.”
The crowd murmured as one, but no one argued the point.
“My brother-in-law has found a way for us to make our quarterly payment, and the next. Not that I approve…”
Sharpe had heard enough already, “Then I’m sure none of us would approve either, ma’am. As to the business at hand…”
She cut him off, “The business at hand is to find a way for all of us not to wind up as refugees on Mars… don’t you want to keep your families together? Are all of you ready to give up so easily?”
The words “Martian refugees’ hung in the air and Sharpe saw that he was losing the crowd; best to get out in front of this.
“Just what does your brother-in-law have in mind, ma’am?
“He’s entered the Regatta…”
Sharpe was speechless. The Regatta. The solar systems biggest (and riskiest) sporting-slash-gambling event, wind-surfing on the icy plains of Callisto, in recklessly fragile little skiffs fitted with sails and driven by the moon’s vicious ammonia-methane winds at speeds of almost two hundred kilometers an hour.
“Well then, I suppose that’s the last we’ll see of him,” Sharpe said.
That drew a lot of laughs but she stood resolute. “If he doesn’t win that race, it’s the last we’ll all see of each other. If not tomorrow then the day after, the walls are closing in here folks, and as tough as this life is, I like all the alternatives even less.”
Sharpe demanded, “And what do my boys have to do with any of this?”
“Walt’s been injured, and his partner’s disappeared. Right now he’s in fifth place, but there’s no crew. The rules allow substitutions after the third leg of the race…”
In forty-seven years Paul Sharpe had never used his hands in anger on anyone, but he was afraid that was about to change.
“You’re asking me to sacrifice my two boys in some mad attempt…”
“I’m not suggesting we sacrifice anyone, especially Brannon… I just know that he… and Caden can do this.”
Sharpe shouted, “You’re out of your mind! There’s no way in space I’m letting my boys kill themselves…”
“I know it’s dangerous…” she began.
Brannon interrupted, “We can do this, dad, there’s only one leg of the race left and we’re starting out in fifth place. With the winnings, we can keep the compact going— everybody can keep their families together. There hasn’t been a fatality in the Regatta for two years…”
Mr. Sharpe couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and when he looked out over the crowd, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Everybody wanted him to give the boys his blessing, to send them on their way to Callisto— Emerald City of all places— to gamble with their entire future. Everyone’s future. And their very lives. He could sense the excitement of possibility stirring the crowd.
And if they did manage to win… what kind of lesson would that be? Not just for his sons and all of the younger kids, but for the rest of them?
That’s life on the frontier…
He saw the determination in Brannon’s eyes, and although he knew that Caden would never admit it, his eyes burned with determination as well. Sharpe sat down, tears welling up in his eyes, trying to tell himself that it was the fault of the IPC, setting an interest rate on the loans that could never be repaid. It was their fault that they were all in this situation.
Then he told himself, No, no one but myself to blame… I brought us out here…
He felt Caden whispering in his ear, “Dad, we gotta go, it’s a long flight and we have to register… we’ll be back, I promise.”
Then the crowd swept the boys away, pats on the back all around, like conquering heroes returning from… except… except…
After the room had emptied out, he said to no one in particular, “My wife’s going to kill me.”
Usually a trip to one of Jupiter’s moons would be cause for celebration, but the atmosphere aboard the shuttle felt more appropriate to a funeral journey. After three hours, Brannon asked, “Don’t you have anything to say to me, Caden?”
“No, not really.”
“Long way to Callisto…”
“You really want to talk, Brannon? Okay, you made our father look like a fool in front of almost everyone, do you even realize that?”
“I don’t see how…”
“Of course you don’t. The man runs a mining operation but apparently he doesn’t even know what’s going on with his own sons. Do you ever think about how he feels?”
“Caden… we’re going to save our family business, a lot of families businesses. We’re going to be…”
“Heroes. No Brannon, we’ll be dead. You know how dangerous ice-racing is… not to mention neither of us has ever handled a skiff before…”
“The simulator Brannon? The simulator? That’s a game, Brannon— what in space were you thinking?”
“I was of thinking of the future…”
“You were thinking of yourself, like always. You want me to keep talking? Okay, suppose we live through all of this, when we get back I’m going to look for a spot with a crew… Early even offered me a spot on his crew.”
“Early?” Brannon couldn’t believe it. “The guy who jettisoned someone out the airlock for snoring too loud?”
“The guy was already dead Brannon…”
“That’s not how I heard it.” Then, “You were looking for another partner even before this morning? Before you knew about the race?”
Caden didn’t answer. The only sound was the pulse of the thrusters pushing them through space.
Brannon decided not to push it, hoping that Caden would come around. Still, his older brother had been looking for another partner, even before this latest mis-adventure. He set the autopilot and settled in. They would have only a few hours to prepare once they reached Callisto.
We’ll be in danger the minute we reach orbit, he thought, Caden’ll come around. He has to.
Callisto. Emerald City. There were more dangerous places in the solar system, but as of yet humanity hadn’t reached them. Caden reminded himself that this place was no place for a couple of kids, and despite the fact that they were experienced miners, they were still just kids. Walter Bishop was supposed to meet them at space dock, but of course he hadn’t shown up, and it cost them ten credits to learn that he had been arrested, with a seven hundred credit bail.
“Caden, you’ll have to front Mr. Bishop’s bail.”
“And how am I going to do that?”
“You’ve got over seventeen hundred credits in your personal account… you’re quite the saver…”
“How do you know that?” Caden demanded.
“Doesn’t matter. I already lent everything I had to Mr. Bishop for the entry fee for the Regatta…”
“Of course you did. I can’t believe you’re considered the smart one.”
Brannon stopped and faced his older brother, shocking Caden with the seriousness in his eyes.
Brannon whispered, “This is for all the marbles, Caden. The compact is broke, past broke, we have to win this thing. Whether you want to or not, get it?”
Even though his little brother was oh-so-wrong, he was also oh-so-right. This really was for all the marbles. They had no choice but to win. And no chance.
“I get it Brannon, I get it.”
“Then let’s go bail the old man out and get to our skiff. All right?”
“All right, then. Lead the way, little brother.”
Caden felt elated when they learned that legally it took an adult to bail someone out of jail, and he could keep his seven hundred credits. But his feelings changed when he saw Brannon emerge from the visitation room. He couldn’t ever remember seeing his little brother look… defeated.
Brannon said, “It’s over.”
“Mr. Bishop’s partner ran off with the kitty… with the money he was supposed to bet but didn’t… left him high and dry and turned him in for smuggling contraband. They’re tearing his ship apart right now, he wouldn’t tell me if he’s actually smuggling.”
Caden stammered, “I don’t blame him if he was. If it wasn’t for the IPC and their taxing everything that moves in space, none of us would be in this mess. Not Mr. Bishop, not the compact, not us.” Then he asked, “Are we entered or not?”
“Yeah Caden, we’ve got a skiff. But even if we won, there’s no money to bet with, and no one to bet it for us. The purse alone for winning isn’t enough— that’s why I needed old man Bishop, I knew he was a gambler… I knew I could get him to buy into this…”
“You got him? I thought…”
“You thought what I wanted you to think. At first I just wanted to back Walt, you know, with the money. I’m quite a saver myself, besides, I knew how mom and dad would feel, I knew this was over the line. But now we have no choice, we have to finish the last leg. Caden, how in space do we fix this?”
“This is a first, you asking me how to get out of a mess. Well, like you said, I’m quite a saver. Seventeen hundred credits, remember?”
“How can we place a bet? We’re kids, remember?”
“We’ll use mom’s account access, place a bet through New Vegas on Mars, then we’ll…”
“Mom’ll never go for that.”
“Well, we’ll tell her after the fact. After we win and come home alive, who knows, maybe we won’t even get grounded.”
Brannon smiled, confidence surging through him.
“Okay, big brother, lead the way.”
Troy MacDonald. Sarah Lennox. When Caden saw those names as the odds-on favorites scrolling across every free-screen on the plaza his heart sank. Winning was out of the question. MacDonald and Lennox were professional athletes and gamblers, most of the time gambling with their very lives. Those two competed for every title the solar systems various and most adventurous landscapes offered, and Heaven help anyone who got in their way.
Why do I let Brannon get me into these things?
It occurred to him that he didn’t even know what Brannon had named their skiff— then he saw it scrolling across the screen: The Minotaur— ninety-five-to-one to win, forty-to-one to show, and thirty-to-one to place. Brannon tapped his shoulder, “Back here, Caden, there’s a public access terminal in that bar. You can place our bet, maybe send a wave to mom and dad.”
“To say goodbye?” Caden barked. “Sorry. Let’s take care of business first, then we’ll send a note to the folks.”
Brannon decided to wait outside the bar while his brother bet his life savings against impossible odds; he also left it to Caden to compose a wave to their parents. He pretended that he couldn’t think of anything to say. Inside, Caden was about to learn the true meaning of the word ‘lucky’.
Seven lonely skiffs lined the plains edge; out of over a hundred that had started the race five days ago. Caden tried not to think about what had happened to the other teams and their skiffs, anything from sliding off of the icy patches, gliding into a minor crater, or crashing into a larger crater. The list goes on, lots of possibilities, all bad for the ones already knocked out of the race.
The old man didn’t do half bad, Caden thought, leaving us in a pretty good position… fifth place out of seven… not bad at all.
“We can do this Bran, and quit feeling sorry for yourself— you need to get your edge back.”
Brannon nodded. This wasn’t the simulator; there wouldn’t be any do-overs.
They put on their enviro-suits and prepared to take their place outside in the starting blocks.
Somewhat similar to a catamaran, a rather rickety old sailing craft on Earth’s lakes and seas, an ice-racing skiff consisted of two large ‘pontoons’ on either side of the craft, heavily weighted with deep plunging rudders to help keep the skiff’s anchored in the light gravity, held together by a somewhat flimsy two-seat cockpit rigged between them, the seats separated by a thirty foot mast adorned with a mylar sail to catch the winds.
Brannon started to climb into the pilot seat when Caden stopped him.
“You play second fiddle this time, Brannon. My seventeen hundred credits, remember?”
Brannon yielded without a fight, which surprised Caden but he didn’t have time to worry about it.
“Brannon, it’s important you trust me on this— I’ve got a plan— stick with me and I’ll get us home in one piece, with a piece of the pie, okay?”
“Sure Caden, whatever you say.” Brannon tried to pretend to be hurt, but secretly he felt relieved. As he felt the Minotaur being pushed into its place in the line-up, he realized there was no turning back.
“Okay little brother— get ready for the ride of your life!”
“Aye, aye. Captain.”
The last leg of the race stretched over four hundred kilometers with several obstacles along the way some natural, some not, as could be expected. Naturally the last leg was always the most dangerous.
“Okay Brannon, heads up, this is how it’s going to go. After we get the signal, number six, the Calypso, is going to cut us off and team up with the Avenger in fourth… they’re going to try and move on MacDonald and Lennox. That means we need to concentrate on out maneuvering the Ryko in third. Hopefully we can get an edge in the confusion— the Ryko’s team doesn’t have any idea what’s about to happen.”
“And how do you know?”
Caden smiled. “When I went to send a wave to mom and dad in the bar, I overheard the two teams talking. They didn’t pay me any attention… I guess I look like a kid or something.”
“But what if…”
“Never happen. The Regatta, four years ago. Maybe you don’t remember, but the last guys that tried what they’re about to… well, they haven’t raced since.”
“So we’re jockeying for third?”
“That’s the pilot’s decision, Brannon.”
Brannon was uncomfortable with the plan but he kept any further objections to himself. Fate had let him off the hook. The winds started picking up outside, the skiff buckled against the restraining clamps.
“They’re gonna let us go,” Brannon said, “in five four three two…”
It wasn’t anything like the simulator. Despite the skiff’s excessive ballast-weight the winds threatened to lift them off of the ice. Brannon started tacking into the wind when Caden hollered, “Hold back, Brannon, hold back!”
Everyone started picking up speed as the small flotilla of racing crafts made their way onto the ice-plain. And then things started happening fast, but they were happening just as Caden had said they would. Before too long the sixth and fourth place skiff’s made their move with the Calypso nearly clipping the Minotaur as she moved out in front. The Minotaur now held sixth place, but the Calypso and the Avenger were getting perilously close to MacDonald and Lennox’s skiffs. Caden held his breath; a lot depended on those two maniacs up ahead taking out some of the competition.
Almost immediately he was proven right; the Ryko was indeed caught off guard when the Avenger and Calypso began making their (hopefully) foolish move. The team was distracted enough that when they hit a slushy spot the skiff toppled.
The Ryko had fallen out of the race.
Six teams left… and the boys had moved back into fifth.
But that’s where they stayed. At the halfway point, the Minotaur still hadn’t made up any ground, but at least the Avenger and Calypso had moved within spitting distance of the two lead teams. Without warning the Avenger found itself sandwiched between MacDonald and Lennox. Their two lead skiffs had made contact with the Avenger’s pontoons when Lennox braked her craft as MacDonald sped up and banked hard to the right. That sent the Avenger spinning, right into the Calypso. It spelled the end of both skiffs, and it was almost the end of the Minotaur as pieces of wreckage tumbled their way, a sizable chunk actually smashing into their front hull before it bounced off, ripping the Minotaur’s sail. The action had left the boys shaken and their skiff bruised, but they could still limp across the finish line in third place. Except that more wreckage was on the way. Caden banked hard left, barley missing the mast from the Avenger as it careened across their path. He knew that their skiff couldn’t withstand another collision and technically they did have to cross the finish line in order to collect on any winnings.
But cross the finish line they would.
“Third place, Caden.”
“Yep.” Caden smiled, deciding to keep the reason he felt so happy to himself for just a little while longer. He had really enjoyed watching Brannon sweat.
Once back at Emerald City the boys hung back as the winning teams all made their grand entrance; they were only too happy (and probably wise) to avoid the limelight.
“Don’t worry Brannon, I knew we couldn’t win, not with a couple of nut-cases like MacDonald and Lennox ahead of us. I knew they’d be battling it out for first, and we didn’t want to get in their way.”
“And we certainly didn’t…”
“Still Brannon, seventeen hundred credits, at thirty-to-one odds, well, we’re still heroes little brother. We’ve saved the Compact, for a while, anyway. But you… we gotta find a different way of doing things… there’s a reason mom and dad feel the way they do about gambling.”
“You bet on us to show, you didn’t think we could win?”
Caden tried not to laugh, “As I said Brannon, I knew we couldn’t beat MacDonald or Lennox, but we did win, sometimes third place is a real victory. All we have to do is be smart enough to recognize that. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
They knew that no one liked seeing a couple of kids win, even if it was only for lowly third place, and both of the boys thought that they would be lucky to make it out of Emerald City without serious harm. Plenty of spacers were giving them the eye, almost daring one of them to step out of line. Needless to say they decided to skip the ceremonies and they certainly weren’t taking their time as they made their way through the plaza towards the space dock. They didn’t allow themselves to relax until after they heard the shuttle’s airlock sealing behind them.
“Whew,” Caden said, “I never thought we’d make it out of there alive.”
“Only a little,” Caden replied.
Liftoff proved routine and much to their relief no one seemed to follow their flight path as they broke orbit. After a while Brannon finally broke the silence.
“What about Early? Still looking to join his crew?” he asked.
“I didn’t actually go looking for Early… he came looking for me. For us, actually,” Caden said.
“Yeah, Brannon, he’s got two spots on his crew, and we can both make a lot more money than with our little trawler, and you know we can handle the extra work, the extra responsibility. After this, the race and all, I figure dad’ll let us. And Early wanted us, even before we were heroes.”
The idea of being a crewman on a real ship appealed to Brannon a great deal— he had grown bored with trawling the smaller rocks— time for a bigger piece of the action.
“Well Caden… I’m not real sure… but if my big brother thinks it’s a good idea… then I guess I’m on board. I don’t snore, do I?”
Laughing, the two young men settled in for the journey back to the asteroid belt, back home. Perhaps this time it wouldn’t seem like such a long flight.
Daniel C. Smith has published dozens of stories, articles, reviews and poems in the genres of science fiction and horror. His speculative poetry has received an honorable mention the year’s Best of Fantasy and Horror and has also been included in several anthologies, including Changes, Wondrous Web Worlds, and Dwarf Stars. His first two short story collections, Nano-Bytes and 3 of a Perfekt Pear, are available in print and electronic form from Nomadic Delirium Press (www.nomadicdeliriumpress.com).