By Jack Windeyer
Jorge and Rosina walked the outer corridor of the base, keeping close to the windows overlooking an asteroid field. Rosina’s bushy eyebrows and long nose were familiar and comforting to Jorge. Hard to believe that four months ago she had been a stranger. And now? Now, he loved her. Though he’d never said it, he loved her as though they’d been together for a decade, which was long enough to be bothered by her foibles.
Just last week, when the laundromat machine ate three of his coins, Rosina had pleaded with him not to “bother” the attendant.
“Better to keep the peace,” she had said.
Jorge knew her reaction was infinitely better than his last girlfriend Emi’s would have been–kicking the machine before kicking the attendant’s door before probably kicking the attendant. But that didn’t stop a persistent question from niggling at him: If Rosina continued to avoid eye contact with friends and stand in corners at parties, how would that reflect on him? Would he be seen as meek by association?
So when they strolled past the Gambit training center, he stopped, gently grabbed Rosina’s shoulders and pointed her at the door. “Why don’t you give it a try?”
She scoffed. “Too dangerous. I’ll leave that one to the daredevils.”
Dangerous? The real Gambit courses in the asteroid fields were certainly dangerous, but the training room? Two tall teenagers strode by and pushed through the door confidently. Jorge felt a pang of embarrassment at her reaction and hoped no one had heard. Now he was sure: She had to try it. At least once.
“C’mon, darling. The sign says ‘safer than a space walk.’”
“The safety of a space walk depends on the reliability of your equipment,” she said, her voice sliding into the Safety-Coordinator-Rosina monotone. “A spacewalk in a faulty suit is one of the most dangerous things you can possibly do on a starbase. Last year a field-tech–”
Jorge couldn’t listen to another anxiety-fueled danger monologue, so he clasped both her hands in his and said, “Please, Rosina, do it for me?”
She glanced back at the Gambit sign. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell slack for a microsecond, then she composed herself. “Of course, Jorge,” she smiled too wide so her gums showed; her frequently-occuring smile of anxiety. “Anything for you.”
Inside the training center, the ceiling dropped about a foot, and several blue lights provided the only illumination. A man sat behind the check-in desk. He’d taken advantage of his premature baldness to tattoo a shark on his entire forehead. Rows and rows of teeth filled the entire space above the man’s eyebrows, and two black-marble implants perched way up on the crest of his head as the shark’s eyes. The nearest ocean was 2.5 AU away, but sharks still held a fascination for certain types of starbase residents.
Sharkhead looked Rosina up and down. “You’re a short one.”
“Will that be a problem?” Rosina asked. “Safety wise, I mean.”
“Nothing safer than gambit training. Worst case scenario, you’re looking at a broken arm. Nobody’s died…least not on this base,” he said, pushing a waiver pad toward her.
Rosina gave Jorge a do-I-have-to look. He smiled down at her, leaving her no choice but to press her thumb to the pad.
“You’ll be in room number three. Only one person is allowed at a time.” Sharkhead looked at Jorge, then at Rosina. “This is not an affordable alternative to a zero-g hotel room. You got me, chica?”
Rosina crossed her arms, pressed them to her midriff, and said, “I would never,” emphasizing the final word.
“Okay, then. Have a blast,” Sharkhead said flatly.
“Wait, I’ve never done this before,” Rosina said. “Don’t I get some kind of training?”
Sharkhead rolled both sets of eyes. “Alright, I’ll give you the 12-years-old-and-under speech.” He walked to a door with a number 3 on it. “Go through the door into the inter-chamber, where you’ll find your spacecraft,” he made air quotes around the word. “When the light on the second door turns green, you’ll be in zero-g, then you’re all set to launch into the training room. That initial push off is the only momentum you’ll get, so make sure to give a good shove. I don’t want to come fish you out. You’ll see three asteroids in a line. Use the left and the right tractor-field levers on your spacecraft to pull or push against the asteroids to chart your course to the end of the room and back. That’s it.” He turned around and walked away.
Jorge saw that Rosina’s jaw was set hard.
“I’m proud of you,” he said.
In response, she hung her head a bit but didn’t budge, so Jorge placed his palm against her lower back and gave a little push. She walked into the inter-chamber then strapped herself to the “spacecraft:” a seat with two tractor-beam housings attached to either side. Before the chamber went zero-g, she half stood, half sat in the bucket seat, looking like she was doing her best impression of a chicken, or a crone.
The light on the second door turned green and opened. From behind, Jorge could see three large, padded orbs floating ahead of her. Rosina heaved in a breath then launched herself into the room directly at the first orb.
For a moment, she flailed her arms until she remembered to grasp the levers. Just as she was about to smash headlong into the orb, she pushed the right lever forward, engaging the repulsor so that the orb passed on her right. Then, as she was halfway past it, she pulled the lever back to tractor the orb for a moment, before centering the lever and speeding off toward the second, larger “asteroid.”
Jorge lost sight of her, but after twenty seconds, she came back into view, grinning ear to ear, leaning into her final turn and sliding safely back into the inter-chamber, before turning and launching herself back into the room.
Jorge stumbled, led forward by Rosina’s cold, slender hand. She had blindfolded him in the apartment and led him down three levels and across four corridors. She might have waited on the blindfold until the end, but she was at peak levels of excitement, so Jorge played along.
She placed a shaky hand on his chest and said, “Okay, we’re here–I can’t wait for you to see it,” she said, her voice a squeal. “Alright, alright, look!” She tugged the blindfold down.
Jorge stared at a waist-high orb that looked as if it had once been clear, but the outside had been scuffed and scratched so many times that whatever lay within was a complicated heap of fuzzy shadows.
“What…is it?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly,” she said.
He looked back blankly.
“Oh, fine, I’ll give you a hint.” She pulled him around to another side of the orb that had blue lettering: Jorge 2.
Jorge tilted his head. “Now listen. I know your Mom and I didn’t exactly get along at dinner last week, but I don’t think buying me a weird casket is an appropriate reaction.”
She huffed and opened a panel on the side. Inside there was a chair and some gadgetry. “This is my first ever Gambit racer!”
“You’re going to take this thing outside? Can you even fit?”
She huffed. “Yes! It is a tight squeeze. All I could afford was the youth size, but it meets all the requirements for the race today.”
“Racing? In this thing? Today?” Jorge’s voice grew higher with each question.
“I’ve entered into the Gambit time trials. There won’t be anyone else on the course when I go, so it’s a safe way to get out there and give it a shot.”
Rosina ran a hand along the outside of her ship and smiled. “I have to tell you something.” She kept rubbing the orb.
“Spill it,” Jorge said.
“I didn’t actually take on any extra training duties these last few months. I’ve been at the Gambit training room…flying…every evening. And all night I dream about the real thing. And it’s all thanks to you and that first push. That’s why I named the ship after you!”
“I didn’t expect it to lead to this,” Jorge said, pointing at the child-sized gambit racer.
“Will you come watch today? Please! I’ll be on the short course near the inner ring. It’s no big deal, you’ll see.”
It turned out to be a big deal: Everyone else in the time trials had ships three times the size of Rosina’s that boasted dents in their sheet metal exteriors. Jorge sat in the spectator bleachers, watching the course reset between gambits. He’d never spent time in this area before, where the entire ring base spun around a void at its center, leaving a wide open space to corral small asteroids and weave between them in ramshackle ships. A fleet of drones formed a rough perimeter around the course, creating a barrier so no asteroid could escape. Every so often, one of the asteroids floated toward the drone-wall, and one of them gently pushed the rock back in bounds. Way off in the distance, Jorge could see an asteroid painted yellow. Rosina would have to make it through the entire maze of moving rocks, round that yellow marker and float back.
On the flight deck, Rosina stood chatting with other Gambiteers. Then her name came on the loudspeaker, and she jogged over to her death trap. Who would have thought that Rosina would ever consider launching herself at an asteroid field in a bubble that looked like it could fit through a standard doorway? And how in the hell was it that he was the only one who was anxious about it? Letting her do this was verging on irresponsible. He stood just as a voice from behind him said, “You got a buddy down there?”
Jorge turned to see a man sitting in the bleacher behind his own. Even hunched over, leaning on his knees, the man was taller than Jorge. Military tattoos covered the bloke’s bare arms, and he wore a shirt that read Real Men Gambit.
“My girlfriend,” Jorge said, pointing at Rosina.
“You kidding me?” the man asked, laughing. “That little woman is badass enough to Gambit, and she’s with you?”
A flush of anger rose to Jorge’s face, but he noticed that the man was smiling–ribbing him.
Jorge sat down. “She’s a brave one,” he said proudly. “On both counts.”
He watched Rosina roll her flimsy orb into the launch zone. Then she squeezed in through the hatch. It took her three tries to get the door to close behind her, but she finally managed it. Three seconds later, the spring-loaded hammer-launcher swung forward and shot her into the course.
Jorge clenched his teeth at the sight of the little ship speeding straight at the first cluster of rocks, but Rosina luged past them without trouble. Several times, Jorge lost sight of her and held his breath until the ship reappeared. In one smooth arc, she rounded the final asteroid and shot back toward the beginning.
On her return, she lined up to shoot the gap between two asteroids drifting in synchrony. But she must not have seen more rocks converging on a collision course just beyond the gap. Jorge stood reflexively and shouted, “Watch out!”
She squeezed between the first two asteroids just as another two collided a few yards in front of her, sending a spray of shrapnel into her path. She blasted through it, but not without first striking a larger rock that cracked her ship and sent it spinning awkwardly away. Three drones converged on the wayward ship and guided it back to the landing area.
Even with the drone assist, her ship landed hard. Jorge heard air hissing out of the crack in her ship before he’d reached the entryway to the flight deck. As the doors opened, two paramedics shoved him out of the way and sprinted to Rosina.
His heart felt like it was trying to push oil through his veins, building a pressure in his chest that didn’t subside until four hours later when Rosina was allowed out of the infirmary and they made it back to the apartment.
She lay on the couch, her eyes somehow both exhausted and scared. Her arm jutted out from her body, held aloft by a padded sling. Rosina looked at him. “I’m retired. That’s enough gambit racing for me.”
Jorge felt relief. “Maybe that’s for the best.”
“Who was I to think I could handle something like that? I can’t even manage to walk around the apartment without constantly bumping into the furniture.”
Before his eyes, Jorge’s badass girlfriend, the Gambiteer, began to slide back toward the meek Safety Coordinator he’d been dating before. The memory of the envy in the large man’s eyes earlier slid through Jorge’s mind, displacing his fear.
He sat down next to her. “Whatever you decide to do, I’ll support you. But just know that I’ve seen a tremendous change in you these last few months. You’re confident. Unstoppable.” He stroked her back. “It’s sexy. I’d hate to see that go away.”
Rosina smiled until her gums showed, then she said, “Maybe. I’ll sleep on it.”
“It’s only a thousand credit entry fee,” Rosina said. “And the prize is one-hundred times that.”
“If you win,” Jorge said.
“I’ve been training for four years, won the cup for the last two, and you still don’t think I have a shot in a real race?” Rosina asked, frowning.
“Of course I do,” Jorge crossed his arms. “But this isn’t a lone-circuit. It’s a race. It’s totally different from anything you’ve done before. It’s too dangerous.”
“If safety’s your hang up, don’t worry,” she said. “There hasn’t been a death all season. Not a single one. Besides,” she said, pointing at the apartment window, “at any moment, a micrometeor could puncture that window and lance me from temple to temple.”
“No. Too dangerous.” Why couldn’t she just keep running the time trials? Not too dangerous; still badass. It was the perfect middle-ground.
“I have to do this, Jorge. These last few years I’ve dug deep inside myself and instead of the quiet, shy librarian I expected to find there I found a gambit racer.” She held a hand to her chest. “That’s who I really am, at the core.”
She clasped both his hands in hers. “I’ll regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t try.”
The idea of her launching out of the base and maneuvering between real asteroids all while fending off other competitors…it was too much.
“I said no,” Jorge said, pulling his hands from her grip.
A look passed over Rosina’s face–one that Jorge had never seen. It was as final as a closing hangar-bay door.
“Jorge 3 is up to it. And I’m up to it.”
Jorge broke eye contact first.
Rosina placed a hand on his knee. “I got you a little present to commemorate my first race.”
“You got something for me? On your race day?” Jorge felt some of his frustration melt away. “You’re like no one I’ve ever known.”
She beamed and ran to a set of drawers, returning with a folded piece of cloth. Jorge unfolded what turned out to be a t-shirt with Jorge 1 written on the front in bold lettering.
“Will you wear it to the race today?” she asked, squeezing his knees.
He did wear it, despite it making him feel like a cheerleader. Sitting in the stands, he appraised the group of Gambit ships in the hangar below. He had to admit that Jorge 3 looked far sturdier than Jorge 2. It was a metallic sphere with a dozen tractor-repulsors dotting its surface. She’d painted it bright green, to match her hair, and across the back she’d painted “Jorge 3” in crimson letters. The ship had cost a tenth of the five she was racing against, but it looked competitive. Rosina, it turned out, had a talent not only for Gambit-racing but also for ship-building.
She stood, milling around in a small group of Gambiteers. A tone sounded and Rosina blew a kiss toward where Jorge sat in the observation deck. Then she high fived a much younger man in a sun-print racing suit before walking over to Jorge 3 and climbing in.
After all of the racers had closed their hatches, the hanger doors opened, revealing a densely packed asteroid field.
A ten-second countdown began. Jorge pulled up a video feed from Rosina’s point of view on his tablet just in time to watch her launch toward the course, tractoring and repulsing off of the other racers’s ships to jockey for the best angle toward the first course-marked asteroid.
Two ships vying for first position tractored each other at the same time and collided hard. Rosina managed to thread between them just as they spun away from each other. The crowd around Jorge cheered. A large viewing screen showed a ship angle itself toward Jorge 3, and Jorge 1 felt his stomach turn to vacuum. He packed quickly without looking at the screen and power-walked straight back to the apartment.
A dozen men and women in formal wear stood in line waiting for a table at the nicest restaurant on base. As always, Jorge’s cheeks flushed when Rosina pulled him past the waiting couples and walked straight to the doorman who smiled and waved them in. Their table, her table, was waiting empty by the largest window in the place. Rosina claimed her usual seat from which she could see Jorge 4 moored in the docking bay.
Fans came and went every few minutes, hoping to get a picture with the record-holder, the legendary racer. Besides their picture, they got as much talk about Gambit-racing as they could stand–Rosina being ever-eager to talk shop. The drinks came without having to order them. Jorge had three before Rosina had touched her first, busy as she was with anyone and everyone who tapped her shoulder.
Alcohol-fueled heartburn roiled within Jorge’s chest. Worse lately. But sobriety would be worse still.
When Rosina had a free moment, she turned to Jorge and raised her glass. “To retirement,” she said.
A knot in Jorge’s gut unwound at the word. Was this for real? Was she finished racing?
“That’s a strange thing to say. I’m retired,” she said, glass still raised.
Before she could drink her own toast, a young man with slicked hair at the next table over said, “Did I hear that right? The great Rosina Bennington is retiring? Can’t be.”
“And why not,” Rosina said, grinning. “I’ve won every race this side of the belt. Finished the Redline Derry in under two hours. I’ve done it all, kid.”
The kid raised an eyebrow. “I hear Florence Wen is on the next long hauler coming this way. She’s unbeaten in her neck of the belt. Are you telling me that you’re going to shrink from defending the honor of our space?”
After that, Rosina was silent all through dinner and spent most of the time staring out the window.
Before dessert arrived, she murmured, “The northern port repulsor array could use some tweaking.”
“What?” Jorge asked.
She continued to stare at the ship. “And the chart plotter is outdated. So is the shock system. Maybe it’s time to start over. Build a new one from scratch.”
Jorge’s soul shrank smaller than his body. His vision tunneled.
“No!” Jorge shouted loud enough that the nearest tables all fell silent. “You have nothing to prove. You’re retired. Don’t do this. Please. For me?”
“For you?” she asked. “But I’m doing this for you.” Her words were right. Perfect inflection. Utterly convincing—if not for the fact that she was looking over Jorge’s shoulder at Jorge 4 while she said them.
About the author: In the ultimate act of combined denial and delusion, Jack Windeyer writes about writing more often than he writes actual writing. To be part of the problem, please visit marginchronicles.com.
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