Wednesday, January 8, 2014

fusion heart 5 chapters


No one ever tells you the thing you love most is going to be what kills you.

Make no mistake, racing a nuclear-fusion powered, hovercraft at three hundred and twenty two miles an hour isn’t the safest line of work. Not for someone wanting to die of old age, anyway. Adding a pack of thirty more racers to the high speed mix couldn’t help either. What could possibly be more ludicrous than that? Having that same hovercraft you’re strapped to catch fire.

No one ever tells you the thing you love more than anything is going to be what kills you. No one actually says those words to you, ever. People will tell you about things like “potential dangers” or give obscure statistics. But when you’re chasing a dream, a message like that has to come on its own. And it usually comes when you least expect it. For Fennius Taylor, it didn’t come when the sickly sweet smell from the broken coolant line found his nose. And it didn’t register as wisps of grey smoke began creeping in through the vents. It didn’t even happen when the concrete barrier of a hairpin turn threatened to turn his craft into smoldering wreckage. No, none of these things on their own could reach Fennius. It was only after the warning light marked “FIRE” in the dashboard of his racer began blinking like a strobe that the truth finally hit home. Only after being reminded of the very real scenario of burning alive did all three punch through his concentration and find the last strands of rational thought. Ask any other racer in the league what they’d do if their “sled” caught fire and they’d tell you the same thing the league’s safety official says before every race: “Pull to the outside of the track and activate the counter fire measures”. So why would teenage racing phenom Fennius Taylor be any different? Because he knows a side effect of activating the counter-fire measures is also the immediate shutdown of the fusion core powering his hovercraft. And when you need thousands of pounds of thrust to continue chasing the perfect season, sometimes a little fire can keep you motivated to achieve your goals. If someone had asked Fennius three years ago what he’d do in an emergency like this, he would’ve agreed with the others. But now? With a perfect season on the line? He’s going to pilot that time bomb until either he gets his checkered flag or the whole thing goes up in flames. Why would anyone act this way? This is the madness of the sport. This is what it’s like to chase a dream. This is where the adventure begins.  This is Fusion Heart.

Chapter One

     Daydreaming, Fennius’ thoughts were far away. And while his body was sitting like the rest of the freshmen in the classroom of the El Reno High School, flights of fancy carried his mind elsewhere. Fennius knew that if he left the building this instant and caught the next public transport heading east, it would whisk him away from this never ending parade of monotonous lessons and deliver him to the only place a fifteen year old boy would want to be; The Oklahoma City Super Thunder Speedway. If you were there, you could catch the fastest racers in the area tearing up the ten mile track while jockeying for a place in the coming regional finals. Each of the racers a daredevil, they strapped themselves to angry comets disguised as a hovercrafts. When the green lights blinked to life on the starting pole, and the engines allowed to run free, the sound was unlike anything else on the planet.

He remembered his first visit to the local track down to the detail. His father Alexander Taylor had gotten lucky enough to find someone willing to part with a pair of lower grandstand seats at a discount price and snatched them up. While only eight years old at the time, he could still recall all the sensations of bearing witness to the electronic circus of neon and noise. The smells of the food and exhaust mixing in his nose, the animated billboard counting down the minutes to the arrival of the procession of power soon to come, the sights and smells were divine on their own. But of all the sensations to witness in a place like that, there’s nothing like the sound.  

When the turbines of the “sleds” ignite in unison, everything vibrates from their power. The world outside of the racetrack vanishes. Waves of goose bumps slither up your arms and spine. And when the explosion of decibels hits you in the chest, there’s no use trying to talk. No human sound can stand up to it. Even before he knew what a demon was, little Fennius Taylor imagined angry ethereal beings writhing inside the engines. And when those figures of fire and fury beat their wings against the steel cages, the roar alone was loud enough to knock him back into his seat.     

     But that wasn’t all that happened seven years ago. That fateful night, when the flood lights and billboards lit the track for the main event, the reigning king of professional sled racing, Kerry “The Wall” Kensington, descended upon Oklahoma City for an exhibition. He did not disappoint as he held court over his subjects and fans as only a true champion could. Fennius, sitting atop his fathers’ shoulders in the north stands cheered on a man he hadn’t heard of before that day. On his lips and the lips of the thousands around him was a chant as simple and as it was deafening.  


Kerry Kensington climbed into a junior league rated hovercraft like the rest of the racers. In a demonstration of skill and mastery over the machines, ”The Wall” proceeded to pound the top seeded up-and-comers and reach the finish line a full five seconds faster. After that, Fennius was hooked. He begged his father to meet the man who was known as a master of speed. Amongst a crowd of tens of thousands, young Fennius, with stars in his eyes, and ringing still in his ears, got to shake hands and have his picture taken with a legend. And ever since, that picture of a bespectacled boy with a tired but smiling man still wearing his racing suit, was the first thing he saw when he awoke, and the last thing he saw before he shut his eyes. And when Fennius shut his eyes, he dreamt of being behind the controls of those amazing machines. He imagined the raw speed that would be within his grasp to command. There would always be danger. Every racer who’d ever strapped themselves into a sled cockpit knew the consequences of a mistake at three hundred miles an hour. On top of that, the other racers would be just as hungry. But he knew he’d be ready for them. He’d study all the tracks for hours and cut every corner down to the millimeter. He’d know the strength and capacity of all the parts of his sled so he could bleed the engine for every ounce of thrust. And when the tree of that knowledge bore fruit, he would pluck it from the branches, sink his teeth deep and taste victory. And when the time came that he stood in the in the winner’s circle, fans who’d traveled from all over the world to see him would cheer his name.   

“TAY-LOR!” They would chant. “TAY-LOR! TAY-LOR!” It was beautiful. He wanted it more than anything. But as much as he wanted it, the accolades would have to wait.

“FENNIUS XAVIER TAYLOR!” The booming voice brought Fen out of his dream-state like he’d been doused in freezing water. “Are you paying attention?” He opened his eyes to see not only the instructor of his class but the entire room full of students glaring at him from every angle.

     “Um, what was the question?” He asked with a vacant expression. The students erupted with laughter at his expense for being caught skylarking. Fennius’ cheeks flushed with embarrassment and the weight of humiliation shrank him in his chair.

     “Well, Mr. Taylor.” said the man at the head of the room. “If you’d been paying attention to your physics lesson, you’d be able to tell me what happens in the problem I’ve explained. Let’s try it again, shall we class? As I was studying, Centripetal Force is more directed towards the center of the axis of rotation of an object following an elliptical or circular path. Centrifugal Force is the force that pulls away from the center because of the objects inertia. If you took a rock, tied it to a string, and swung it around, the force from the center of the axis of rotation is centripetal force. The force that causes the rock to pull away from the center, is centrifugal force. And since we all know Mr. Taylor is a huge fan of sled racing, let’s use that as our example. Let’s suppose that Mr. Taylor is a world class sled racer and he’s racing along the course at the local speedway. If Mr. Taylor is buckled into the cockpit of a fast moving hovercraft that sharply takes on a flat turn and he feels as if he is pulled to the side, that too is centrifugal force caused by your… what Mr. Taylor?

     “Inertia.” Fennius said confidently.

     “So you have been paying attention after all.” The instructor said, making the classroom fill with laughter again. “Exactly. Inertia is the correct answer. And the more mass you have, the more inertia. That’s where centrifugal force comes into play.” Fennius raised his hand. “Yes, Mr. Taylor? Did you have something to add?”

     “That’s not entirely correct, sir.”

     “The text on your holo-tablet begs to differ, Mr. Taylor.” The man turned away and pressed a button to make the larger screen at the head of the class change to the next problem.
     “But it’s wrong!” Fennius said. The teacher froze for a moment before turning around. When he did, the man’s face was a mask of agitation. As soon as he saw that expression, Fennius knew he’d made a grave mistake of speaking out.
     “Well then, class. It would appear that our lax pupil of the day has taken a turn for the proactive. And as you know, Mr. Taylor, I do not tolerate outbursts within my classroom. Can you tell me what the consequences are for such an infraction of my rules?” Fennius said nothing but another student raised his hand.

     “Yes, Mr. Treben?” Gary Treben looked at Fennius with a snarky look as he spoke. “Sir, the disciplinary action for outbursts is detention.”

     “But it’s not right!” Fennius said again.

     “A second infraction! That’s two detentions! Your conviction about the flaws in my teaching are turning you into a glutton for punishment. However, in the interest of fairness I’m willing to forego your punishment if you can 
explain why you think the text is inaccurate.” Fennius straightened and stood up.
"Sir, centrifugal" force doesn't exist. It's a made-up term. It’s not really there.”
     “Go on.”
“When the centripetal force suddenly shuts off, the object proceeds in a straight line, in the direction it was going at the instant when the centripetal force stopped. We see the object take off straight away from the former  center, and we say ‘There must be a force pulling it away from there.’ But there isn't any.” Many of the eyes in the
room grew wide. Was the text on their holo-tablets wrong? “And that "force" that you think you feel when the sled turns a corner and you get pressed against the outside, away from the curve?” he continued. “That's just the tendency of your body to want to keep moving in a straight line, and its reaction to the centripetal force that the car-seat and the door are exerting on you in order to make your body move in a curved path.” After such a long expulsion of information, Fennius stopped to take a breath before finishing. “That’s why there is no "centrifugal" force.” The class grew silent as they looked to the instructor for an answer.

“I see, Mr. Taylor. Your answer may or may not be all correct, but I can tell you with a hundred percent certainty, that you will meet with me after class is over.” The anxious faces of his peers turned to grins of malice after the verdict fell unfavorably for their classmate. Fennius took his seat and stared blankly at his school-issued learning tablet. He was sure he’d been correct in researching the problem. The only problem that remained now would be how he was going to break the news to his father that he’d earned not one but two detentions.

An hour later, the three tones sounded to signal the end of the school day. The students rushed to pack up their tablets and belongings before exiting the building. Fennius gathered his things before approaching the teacher’s desk at the head of the room. Standing ahead the intimidatingly large desk, he waited to receive his punishment. The man spoke without looking up from his desk.  

“That was quite a display, Mr. Taylor. “It’s so rare that my pupils voice opposition to the lessons given. Tell me…” The man said. “How exactly do you know the problem was erroneous?”
    “I-I read the syllabus and text for the class while school was out of session.”
    “You’re saying that you’ve read the syllabus for the term in its entirety?”
    “Yes, Sir.”
    “Is that a fact?” The man tapped his tablet to access the syllabus. “Can you tell me what next week’s studies will cover?”
     “Section 4.2 covers Einstein’s theory of relativity.”
     “Correct, and the week after?”
     “Section 4.3 covers the properties of sound waves and how they move.”
     “Name one of the main terms from the text.”
     “The Doppler effect.”
     “Well, Mr. Taylor.” He looked up and pushed his tablet aside. “I see no reason to interrogate you any further. Your answer about centrifugal force was correct. To be honest, if it were up to me, there’s quite a bit of the syllabus I would like to see corrected. But that’s not always how things work. Other boys and girls your age seem to struggle with the topics you seem to handle easily. I estimate it stems from them not taking their studies seriously. Do your parents have a hand in your extended studying?”
     “My dad encourages me to learn as much as I can. He says that acquiring knowledge is a lifelong lesson.”
     “That’s a very wise statement. What does your father do, if I may ask?”
     “He’s the engineer on a deep space freighter. The company he works for takes bulk cargo and delivers it to other systems.”
     “So you have a lot of time alone with your mother to concentrate on classwork?” Fennius’ expression soured and he averted his eyes away from the teacher to look at the corner of the room next to the door.
     “My mother…” Fennius started. “It’s just my dad and I.” 
     “I’ve touched a nerve, forgive me. But let me say that if you continue all of your studies in this manner, then you have a bright future ahead you, Fennius. And since your physics answer was correct, I’ll withdraw your two detentions.”
     “You will?” Fennius’ face brightened.
     “Yes, but I will still be sending along a message to your father, nonetheless.” He pushed himself back from the desk to cross his hands on his lap. “That’s all, Mr. Taylor. You can go.”
     “Yes, Sir.” Fennius turned and left the room. Outside the school, a group of boys were waiting. None of them were what Fennius considered to be friends.
     “What did you get, Fennius, another detention? How many is that, three?” Gary Treben, the class instigator goaded him from the safety of the group around him. Fennius said nothing. He didn’t even make eye contact with them. Gary was a jerk. He got his kicks from belittling others and Fennius wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of a response. “If you keep disrupting classes, you’re going to end up working on a cargo barge like your dad!” Fennius kept walking. There was nothing wrong with working on a freight vessel. Dad said it was honest work and there was no shame in working on a dirty ship. Gary didn’t have to worry about getting good grades, he knew his future was bought and paid for. Gary’s father was a rich and powerful who raked in more than enough credits to spoil his kids. When school resumed after Christmas break, everyone in their grade heard Gary Treben gloat about how his father had gotten him one of the new “career downloads”. While Fennius didn’t know anyone who could’ve afforded such a procedure, he knew there were people who could have subject knowledge downloaded into a surgical brain implant if they had the credits. Not only was Gary going to be an engineer after he graduated high school, but he was going skip college and start his career with forty years’ worth of engineering experience from his award-winning, architect grandfather who’d offered to pass on the information as a gift.

It’s a shame they don’t have a download that keeps you from being a brainstem deficient, ass. Fennius thought. I hope he gets that procedure. I hope he’s halfway into the download and a power surge cooks his brain.

     But Gary Treben wasn’t important. What was more important right now was what his father’s reaction was going to be once the electronic message his instructor sent reached him. The eventual look of disappointment on dad’s face would be more devastating than any punishment the educational system could hand down. The taunting fell away as Fennius tuned the others out and activated his personal electronic tablet. The screen came alive in his hands. The first thing he checked was the arrival time of his father’s ship to the space dock. Alexander Taylor gave his son the passcode to the company datahub so that Fennius would know the location and arrival time of his freighter.

<PASSWORD?> *********

     Dad would reach the space dock in Earth’s orbit in two days. It would take another seven or so to get home and Fennius would be sound asleep by the time he arrived. He couldn’t wait. Dad never returned without a small souvenir from another planet for him. He’d been gone for three weeks to take a shipment to Felia, the home world of the felians. But more important than the gifts, there were always stories about meeting those of the different races. Mostly, dad’s encounters were with the felians, the cat-like humanoids. While the holo-vids and archives told so much about the aliens, his father’s recounting of his interactions with the felians seemed to tell him more about them. He hoped to hear more this time, but he would have to wait. Fennius rode the public transit to the outskirts of town where he and his father lived. Peering out the windows, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and as always, the land was flat in every direction. On clear days, you could see for miles and storm fronts were visible two days in advance on the horizon. Hot and dry, the temperature stayed a constant seventy to eighty degrees three quarters of the year. The hovering transit cars shuddered and juttered as they shifted their weight on the magnetic tracks. It didn’t take long for the train to reach his stop. When he stepped off, the tram sped away, leaving him with the silence of the countryside. As much as he loved the roar of engines, he loved the aura of silence that surrounded his home and the one next to it. These were the only two houses for miles in any direction. Both of the small cottages were owned by the old man living in the one on the left. And when Fennius held his hand up to get the sun out of his eyes, he could see the grizzled and white bearded face of Ol’ Jimmy Abernathy sitting on the front porch of his home. 
     “Howdy, Fennius.” The man waved.
     “Hi, Mr. Abernathy.” He waved back. Ol’ Jimmy rented the second house to Fennius dad for next to nothing in exchange for the occasional odd favor or errand. That, and not many other people wanted to rent a house this far from town. But in the ten years they’d lived next to Ol’ Jimmy, the man rarely asked for help or a favor. Mr. Abernathy mostly kept to himself but had grown to like Fennius. He didn’t know how old Jimmy Abernathy was, but dad once said he was over eighty. His own children had moved away years ago and never visited. Every Christmas, Fennius and his dad invited Jimmy over and the three would eat dinner together. Dad said: “No one should be alone on Christmas”. And sometimes, if dad worked on Christmas Eve, Fennius would prepare food for just the two.
     “How was school?!” He asked as Fennius got closer.
     “About the same. I did well in science.” Fennius drew close and sat on the wood fence a few feet from the old man.
     “Science is good for ya.” Ol’ Jimmy rocked in his chair. “Science is all around, but it takes a lot of complex thinkin’ to understand all the simple stuff that happens around us. I used to be an engineer, years ago. There’s a science to building stuff too.”
     “I guess. Did anything happen today?”
     “Of course not. Perfect day it was.”
     “What did you do all day?”
     “You’re lookin’ at it. Sometimes I like to just sit here and let my mind wander.”
     “Oh yeah?” Fennius let a smile slip. “Where does it go?”  
     “Here and there. Sometimes I think back to when I was your age. I used to download my schoolin’ for the day and then go fishing. You can do both at the same time but I don’t recommend it. Leave it to education to ruin something as fun as catching fish.”
     “But you became an engineer. You must’ve liked learning if you went on to become a schooled builder.”
     “Learning is alright, but it doesn’t improve fishing. Sure school will teach you a trade but real smarts don’t come from those school lessons.”
     “They don’t?” Fennius asked.
     “Hell no! You learn by living and figurin’ things out on your own. You don’t learn from your victories in life, you learn from your failures. I learned more from fishing than that damn university taught me. Your dad is always showing you stuff isn’t he?”
     “Yeah, we spend time doing things when he’s home.”
     “Listen to your dad. He’s a smart one. Do what he says.”
     “Did ya kiss any girls today?”
     “No, not today.” Fennius blushed.
     “You do like kissing girls, don’t ya?” Ol’ Jimmy asked.
     “Umm, yes. Very much. It’s just not happening a lot right now.”
     “Well take it from me, when you get to be my age, you’ll wished you kissed more of them. And I kissed my fair share. Hundreds, I think. I even spent a night once with a beautiful female felian!”
     “You did?” Fennius asked with excitement.
     “At least I think it was a female. There was so much damn fur, and I’d had a few to drink that night. Bloody fantastic that was. Where was I? Oh yes, don’t ever start drinking. When does your father get home?”
“Late, two nights from now.”
     “Good. You want a swig, my boy?”
     “A swig of what?”
     “Booze, of course.”
     “I thought you just said I should never drink.”
     “This is different. You ever had any?”
     “How old are you, fourteen?”
     “Then its time.” Jimmy reached behind his chair and pulled a silver container from a cooler just out of sight. When he turned around with the cylinder in one hand and a cup in the other, Fennius reached his hand out. Just before the cup was given, Ol’ Jimmy stopped. “You wouldn’t tell your dad would you?”
     “No!” Fennius reached closer. 
     “Good.” Jimmy continued by taking the top off of the container and filled the cup half full. “You go brush your teeth after you drink this. And don’t you start drinking on your own.”
     “I won’t.” Fennius promised as he took the cup and sniffed it. The smell almost made him topple backwards on its own. “What is this?”
     “It’s good, is what it is. Now turn it up.”
     “It smells strong.”
     “Well then just pinch your nose with one hand and turn it up with the other. But you have to take it all at once.” Fennius pinched the bridge of his nose and swallowed every drop. His cheeks filled and then forced the burning liquid down. It was so potent. The downing of the drink wasn’t the worst part. When he took his first breath of air, the fumes from the concoction stole every iota of oxygen and forced him to cough up the vapors. The cup was pitched aside as Fennius choked and spit from the awful aftermath.
     “HA-HAAA!” Ol’ Jimmy cackled as he slapped Fennius on the back to get him breathing again. “Good stuff, isn’t it? It’ll degrease an engine and put hair on your chest at the same time.”
     “No…more.” Fennius gagged and spit again as he watched Mr. Abernathy snatch up the cup and fill it to the top.
     “Hell no you can’t have any more! Your father would have a damn fit. Besides, the rest is for me.” The old man’s cup was drained without so much as a twitch and the cylinder was returned to its resting place. “Now get on home. And don’t forget to get a shower before you turn in, you hear?” In between waves of revulsion, Fennius nodded “yes”, picked up his pack and walked towards his house.
     “Don’t start drinking on your own or I’ll whip your little ass.” Ol’ Jimmy called after him. “And don’t tell your dad!” 

Chapter Two

He washed his mouth out twice before making dinner. After that, Fennius cleaned and straightened the house before settling into bed. He finished his studies despite the buzzing feeling in his brain that tried its hardest to keep him from concentrating. Normally, he would put on his simulation goggles that wrapped around his head and practice sled racing in the simulator. But tonight, he wasn’t in the mood. After it was dark, Fennius turned off all the lights and climbed under his covers. Dad said that even though he didn’t like leaving Fennius alone with only the one neighbor to check on him, he said it would teach him self-reliance. The cloudless sky let in enough moonlight for Fennius to see the two pictures on the nightstand facing him. One was the picture with “The Wall”, and the other was one Ol’ Jimmy had taken of Fennius and his dad just before the school year had started. Father would be home soon. The two would spend days together, just talking. Dad would answer all his questions about far off star systems and meeting with the other races. In return, he’d ask about his son’s grades and any other thing his son wanted to talk about, which was always sled racing. He would listen for hours on end as Fennius told him about things like sponsor changings, afterburners, and point standings without so much as saying a word. The glare of the moonlight off the glass over the pictures hurt his eyes. In his mind, Fennius sent a telepathic “goodnight” to his father and took off his glasses, setting them next to the pictures. As soon the lenses came off, the myopic fog of his nearsightedness encompassed everything. The moonlight wasn’t as offensive anymore. With no thoughts to keep him awake, Fennius fell fast asleep.      

     The next morning came and went without incident. Classes were dull as usual. Each second dragged by as Fennius waited for his father’s return. His mind wandered as always, but after the recent embarrassment, he made sure to at least appear that he was paying attention. We wanted time to pass faster. At one point he closed his eyes to will time to magically lose an hour. It didn’t happen as soon as he wanted but eventually the grip of time relented. When class was dismissed, Fennius trudged out of the school. He tried to make conversation with others he’d shared study periods with, but their response was either indifference towards him or a stark refusal to acknowledge his presence altogether. The near empty transport out of town was the same until someone broke the silence.   

     “Hey Fennius, How’s it going?” A voice said just to his right. He didn’t have to look up to know it was Matthew McPherson, the thirteen year old a few grades behind Fennius in school. The two didn’t have a lot in common, but Matthew or “Matty” was a huge fan of sled racing like he was. Fennius had a lot of acquaintances, but there very few he considered true friends.
     “Hey, Matty. How are you?”
“School was a awesome today. One of the android substitute teachers blew a motherboard in the middle of the lesson and caught fire!”
“Really?” he said while still watching the moving panorama outside. “What happened after that?”
“The custodians came and got it and we had a different teacher until the end of the day!”
“That’s nice.”
“Guess what, Fennius? Did you know that Kerry “The Wall” Kensington got his nickname from never having hit a wall in his whole career?”
“That’s not how he got his nickname.” Fennius scowled.
“It isn’t? I thought it was because he’s never hit a wall!” If ever the time came that someone wanted to pay to download the entire history of the champion of all sled racers, Fennius would be ready to make the sale. He’d spent countless hours studying both the sport of hovercraft competition racing and the man behind the most wins of all time.
“Not even close.” Fennius took his eyes off of the window and looked at the boy seated a few seats down. The words poured out of him like scripture. “Kerry Kensington earned the title The Wall in his fifteenth season on the professional circuit. It was during the last lap of the Sorenata Grand Prix of all places. One of his engines overheated and he held off not only the second place points leader from overtaking him on the last lap, but he held off the third and fourth place racers at the same time by weaving back and forth. The announcer calling the race, Cecil Howard, said that Kerry looked ‘like a moving wall.’ He held all three at bay long enough for his engine to reset and finish the race. THAT’S how he got the name The Wall.”
“His fifteenth year?” Matty said with some confusion. “Wasn’t that the same year that he got in trouble for using illegal parts on his sled?” Fennius began to get annoyed. He wasn’t sure if Matty was trying to get a rise out of him because he knew that the topic was dear to him, but he probably just wanted to talk to someone. Nonetheless, Fennius wasn’t about to let anyone cast a shadow on the perfect career of his hero.
“He never got in trouble for anything. People just got jealous of him because he had so much talent that he could mop up the course with anyone even if they had a better sled. There was a hearing by the racing committee, but even after they confiscated his sled, tore it apart and inspected every bolt, they couldn’t find a single thing wrong. Kerry Kensington won because he was the best. He has the records for the most junior, amateur, and professional circuit wins. He’s broken six course speed records. He’s only crashed four times, and he’s won the Sorenata Grand Prix twelve times, and three of those were in a row.” No one else can do all that, that’s why he’s the champion.”
Matty’s face was slack.
“Oh. I guess I was wrong.” Fennius, realizing he’d just unleashed a torrent of information on the boy, was quick to make amends.
“Look, a lot of people have been told those rumors, but none of them are true. You shouldn’t believe everything you’re told.”
“Do you want to be like him when you’re older?” Matty asked.
“Who wouldn’t? I mean, he’s got money, popularity, a place in the sledding hall of fame! And he even owns his own racing team. That’s a free pass to race any track ever made whenever he wants.” Matty’s eyes got huge.
     “I’d want to be just like him.” Fennius continued. “I wouldn’t give the other racers a chance to catch up. The only part of me they’d see is my vapor trail. But that’s so far off.” He reflected. “First you’d have to get on a team. I’ve played the official sled racing circuit flight trainer for years, but I’ve never flown a real sled before.”
“Maybe you’ll get your chance on Saturday.”
     “Saturday?” What are you talking about?”
“On Saturday, the local team that’s sponsored by the Nitro engine cleaner company is holding tryouts for a new racer!”
“They’re holding tryouts? Team Nitro is holding tryouts?”
     “Didn’t you see the announcement? I thought you would’ve been the first person to sign up!” Fennius was beside himself with elation. How could such an opportunity have occurred at the Speedway and not known about it? He snatched the holo-tablet from his pack and looked to see if what Matty said was true. And there it was, a glowing invitation on the Oklahoma City Speedway data hub:


     Due to a recent vacancy in the current roster, this Saturday, from eight a.m. until four p.m. Team Nitro, sponsored by Nitro industrial engine cleaner will host open tryouts for the position of SLED PILOT.
                  Applicant Requirements:
                *Must be present
                *Must be fifteen years of age
                *Minimum 200 hours in the official sled racing circuit flight trainer.
                *Signed medical waiver
Fennius’ eyes devoured the words as he read them. This was too perfect. His chance had come. He was sure he was a better pilot than anyone else around!
 The ad read on:  

A test of hovercraft history and mechanical knowledge will be given to all who apply. Of those with the top three scores, they will be allowed three laps in a hovercraft simulator to achieve the lowest lap time on a course to be determined Saturday morning by the team.   First place finisher with fastest time will be awarded the pilot position. Second place finisher will be awarded three supervised laps around the Oklahoma City Super Thunder Speedway in a hovercraft trainer with a certified pilot coach and two season passes to the Oklahoma City Super Thunder Speedway. Third place finisher will be awarded a month’s supply of Nitro brand industrial engine cleaner and two season passes to the Oklahoma City Super Thunder Speedway.
*All applicants under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult/guardian, or have e-confirmation of adult/guardian consent.

“Fennius? Fennius, are you okay?” He looked up to see Matty staring right at him.
“What did you say?”
“Are you okay?” You’ve been staring at that screen like a statue for five minutes! I thought you were having a fit or something! Fennius blinked twice and was finally able to push words past the shock that bound him.
“Today is Friday.”
“Yeah, so?”
“That means open tryouts are tomorrow!”
     “Right. It’s on Saturday.”
“My dad doesn’t get home until tomorrow night!”
“He doesn’t? Can’t you go anyway?”
     “NO!” Fennius pitched the tablet into his pack with disgust. “I’m not old enough to sign up on my own. I can’t believe this.” He kicked the seat across from him so hard that the entire tram shook. “A local team is finally holding open tryouts and I’m going to miss it!” Just then, the tram reached the next stop. Seeing how upset he’d made him, Matty exited the car without looking back or saying goodbye. A short time later, the tram delivered him home. He stepped off feeling terrible and didn’t even look up from the ground as he hung his head, shoulders laden with defeat for something that hadn’t happened yet. Open tryouts for a racing team rarely occurred. In fact, it had been eight years since Team Hyper in San Antonio Texas held their open tryouts. But that one audition yielded them a pilot that was still on the pro circuit to this day, number 36, Reilly Moore. He wasn’t a big earner, but he was in the big game nonetheless. It wasn’t until Fennius approached the front walk to his home that he raised his head to see Ol’ Jimmy waving his arm and yelling something.
“I said,” Jimmy pointed his thumb towards the house.
“Your dad is home! He sure…” Forgetting about racing and hovercrafts altogether, Fennius sprinted past the fence, up the front walk, and though the door before the rest of the words could register in his ears. Just inside the front door, his father’s travel bag was in its usual spot.
    “Dad?!” He called out. There was no answer, but a shoe still on its owner’s foot was sticking out from behind the wall that blocked the view of the kitchen. When he rounded it, his father sat at the table. He was leaned back in his chair and looked exhausted. “You’re home!” He hugged him. “The computer said you weren’t due back for another day and a half!” Alexander put one arm around Fennius but didn’t raise the other from the table that was holding a drink.
“Hey, kiddo.” Dad said. “Are you staying out of trouble?”
“Of course.” Fennius said as he let go and took a seat across from him.
“You wouldn’t lie to me would you?”
“Because I got a message from your science instructor at school.” All at once, Fennius tried to keep from looking worried while trying to imagine what might’ve been in the message.
“What did it say?” He asked.
“It said that you spoke out of turn in class to the point of being disruptive.” Fennius froze. He was sunk. Dad would never let him leave the house again.
“But it also said that you were pointing out a flaw in the curriculum that could only come from extensive studying.” A half smile peeked out from behind dad’s weary face. “He said I should be proud of your attention to your schoolwork.”
“I’ve been studying a lot.” Fennius relaxed. It wasn’t until the wave of relief came over him that he realized his father had a bottle of something on the table. The smell reminded him of Ol’ Jimmy’s nasty concoction. Dad hardly ever touched a drop of the stuff. He had one drink on new year’s day, but that was still months away. “Dad? What are you drinking?” 
“This? I asked Mr. Abernathy for it. Why? You want a sip?” Fen’s nose wrinkled instantly.
“Eww. It tastes- I mean, it smells terrible.”
     “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” Alexander filled his glass to the top and downing it in one pull. When the glass was down again, it was filled halfway. An unusual vibe filled the room. Alexander’s eyes went to the glass and he sank in his chair.  
     “Dad? Fennius asked. What’s wrong?” A long silence passed before his father spoke.
     “Have a seat and I’ll tell you.” He did as he was told. Alexander sat up straight, finished his drink and pushed both the glass and bottle away from him. “I’m going to tell you something, Fennius. And what I say is to remain between you and me so you can’t go telling this to all your classmates. Okay?”
     “Sure, dad.” Alexander lowered his voice as though someone else in the house might be listening and he leaned towards him.
     “I saw him.” Alex whispered.
     “Saw him? Saw who?” Dad took a deep breath.
     “Cicero Prime.” The whites of Fennius’ eyes doubled in size when he heard the notorious name.
     “The space pirate? You actually saw him?”
     “Not just any space pirate, the king of space pirates.” Fennius’ mind went wild with visions of the tall albino felian, Cicero Prime. Like everyone else, he’d heard the stories and tales spun about the one some said was a phantom and couldn’t be caught. Supposedly, there was an entire task force made from three different races whose sole task was to capture or kill the menace that plagued the intergalactic trade routes. To date, no one had ever come close. For a moment, he thought that his dad was fooling him, but then again, only something as shocking as this would actually make a man who hardly ever touched alcohol have several drinks in the middle of the day.
“What happened? Tell me!”
“Well, I was on the bridge of the Octavius with the captain. He was talking to the captain of our sister vessel, the Saratoga, when the communication line went dead. Being the engineer on board, I checked the system and nothing looked to be wrong. It was when I looked out the main viewport that I saw two strange ships come from behind us. We were contacted by what sounded like a male felain. He said his name was Cicero Prime and that both ships were to prepare to be boarded. He said that he had no interest in harming us as long as we didn’t try to interfere with the heist. But he said that any resistance would result in the slaughter of the entire crew.”
“So what did you do?”
“We didn’t do anything. The cargo for both ships is fully insured in the event that such a thing happens, and the freighters don’t have any armament. The captain had our crew stand by on the bridge while the other ship did the same.”
“And he came aboard your ship?”
“He did. The communication lines were jammed so we couldn’t call for help if we wanted to. We were in deep space so even if we activated the emergency beacon, no one would arrive in time to help us. From the bridge we all watched the security cameras as he came on board with a small army of robots.”
“Robots? Like military androids?”
“No. That’s what was odd. He was using normal JS94 worker robots. He must’ve reprogrammed a slew of them to be his muscle. The robots came through the door first and scanned the room for weapons. When they were done… he appeared.”
“What did he look like?”
“To look on Cicero Prime was both breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. Six and a half feet of flowing white fur, white robes, and a muzzle full of razor sharp canines. He had a big bushy tail that swished when he walked. Pink, piercing eyes. Tall ears jutted from the top of his head. He wore a military grade blaster on his hip but he never touched it. And it was the strangest thing. I’ll never forget this, wherever he walked, you could see the faintest outline of something next to him.”
“Like what?”
     “It was like an aura or something. It looked like someone was with him. Something almost invisible but not quite.”
“Did he say anything?”
“I was getting to that. When he came in, he walked right to the captain and showed him an information tablet. The tablet had a copy of our cargo manifest on it. He asked if the manifest was accurate. The captain confirmed that it was. Once he had the information, Cicero Prime dispatched half of the robots to retrieve what he wanted out of the hold and he remained on the bridge with the other half. You should have seen him. He’s a rouge and a thief, but he walks like royalty. And everywhere he moved, that aura followed. It was so eerie. It was almost as though there were a spirit or power shielding him. I’ve never seen a felian that looked anything like him. He looked like someone had created him by putting the finest attributes of the males from his race together. He looked like a moving painting. Others tried to look away or not make eye contact, but I couldn’t stop staring.”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“Yes. He walked over to where I was standing.”
“Were you scared?”
“Of course I was. Anyone would be. He came over to me and asked me my name. When I told him, he looked over his shoulder at that aura and then back to me. He said something like: “He is a handsome one, for a human.” and turned away. Other than that, he paced back and forth for a few minutes until a communiqué came from his robots that they had what they wanted and were ready to leave. And just as quickly as he’d appeared, he was gone.”
“I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until the door shut behind him, but when I took a breath, it felt like an hour had passed.
     “But why was he there, Dad? What did he take?”
     “That’s the strangest part. He had a manifest that showed everything we were transporting. Of all the valuables and technology on board, he took our shipment of JS94 robots and left. Afterwards, the Saratoga reported that their shipment of mining equipment had been taken. It doesn’t make any sense to me. If I was a pirate and I was robbing our freighters, I would’ve taken other things. It doesn’t make any sense at all, but I’m glad to be home with my skin intact. But it’s because we were hijacked that we came back early. The company took statements from everyone on board and sent us home on a separate transport. I guess the full weight of the situation didn’t hit me until I was home.” Fennius got to his feet and hugged his father.
     “I’m glad you’re safe, dad.” He said.
     “Me too, kiddo.” Alexander ruffled his son’s short blonde hair. Anything new happen in sled racing since I was gone?” Fennius’ face brightened.
     “The Sorenata Grand Prix happened. I didn’t get a chance to see it. No one did because the transmission was scrambled by solar flares.” The smile faded away to disappointment. “They’re not going to transmit the actual race footage until tomorrow afternoon.”
     “That’s tough. I heard that might be the case. And I know how much you were looking forward to it. Hey, would you do me a favor and bring me my jacket next to the front door?” Fennius walked into the living room and picked up the thick coat with the patch on the shoulder reading: OCTAVIUS CLASS IV. When he returned, he handed it to his father and took a seat. Alexander immediately went to work searching the numerable pockets before a small holo-chip was found. Once recovered, he handed it to his son. “I always try to bring you something from my trips out of the solar system. Maybe this will hold you over.” Fennius took the chip and stared at it.
     “What’s on it?”
     “I’ll give you a hint: Since I was out of the solar system, our transmitters and personal recorders on the Octavius weren’t bothered by solar flares.”
“Your personal recorders weren’t affected by solar flares?”    
“Not one bit. The com lines were crystal clear.
     “So, you mean you could’ve recorded the Sorenata 3 Grand Prix without interference?” Alexander let half of a smile peek through his mask of feigned ignorance.
     “And this chip might contain the only advance copy of the footage on the planet?”
     “If you were really lucky, it would also have the pre-race footage showing the highlights from the whole season.”
     “Dad, you’re the best!” Fennius almost knocked his father out of the chair when he hugged him again. “I’m going to go watch it right now!”
     “Plug it into the larger screen in the den and we’ll both watch it.”
     “Do you want to watch it with me?”
     “I could stand to relax with something other than this.” Dad stood up, put the bottle and glass away, and joined Fennius who’d already loaded the chip into their home mainframe and activated the wall screen. The two reclined on the floor and watched the race together. Fennius became a statue as he witnessed the parade of speed zip across the screen. After a climactic and close finish, the two had dinner and finished the evening on the front porch. In a flat place like El Reno, the horizon goes on forever. Alexander and Fennius spent the night watching stars and naming constellations. When Fennius suspected his father was about to turn in, he couldn’t keep the burning question inside anymore.
     “Dad? Will you take me to do something tomorrow?”
     “I’ve got some free time. What did you have in mind?”
     “The local sled racing team, Team Nitro, is holding on exhibition tomorrow.”
     “I didn’t know you liked Team Nitro.”
     “Well, it’s not just them, they’re holding a tryout to see who the best simulation racer in the area is.”
     “That depends. When is the event?”
     “Tomorrow morning, eight a.m. at the speedway.”
“I don’t know. I’d have to get up early. If I took you, do you think you could win?”
     “I know I can. I practice every night.”
     “I bet you do.” Alexander laughed. “I’ll tell you what, since your instructor said you were doing so well, I think you should be rewarded. It’s getting late. Get on to bed and I’ll wake you in time for us to take the transport to the Speedway.”
After climbing in bed, Fennius was almost too excited to go to sleep. But knowing he would have to be rested for the tryout, he took off his glasses, placed them next to the two pictures and fell asleep.

Chapter Three

As the sun rose Saturday morning, Fennius stood in line with a thousand other people. As the people were herded into the infield of the speedway, there were fifty stations set up with simulation equipment. After the crowd was divided into lines for the stations, representatives from the race team checked in the waiting contestants. While waiting in line, curiosity got the best of Alexander.

“Kiddo,” he tapped his son on the shoulder. “The person who does the best in the simulations, what do they win?” Fennius had a tough decision to make. He could tell his father the truth about the first prize of being drafted as a pilot and deal with the possibility of his father cutting the day short. Or he could lie, which he didn’t want to do, and deal with the repercussions afterwards if he did win. In the interest of staying somewhat honest, he made the logical choice; Play stupid.

“I think you win a few laps around the speedway in that sled trainer they have parked over there.” He pointed to the hovercraft on display near the track. “Someone from the racing team pilots the sled while you ride along.” His father scratched his chin.

“Well, I guess that’s a good prize.” Alexander said. “I just wouldn’t want you maneuvering one of those things on your own.” Fennius cringed. What he wanted most in the universe to be able to maneuver “one of those things” on his own.
“I think I’d be good at it, dad. I spend all my spare time in the simulator at home!”
“Yes, well, people don’t die in simulators. When I was younger, everyone wanted to be a sled racer. I had a close friend who made it into the junior circuit for two years.”
“You did?”
“I did. Do you know what happened? He was racing that huge track they have in Arizona and one of his braking flaps malfunctioned. It put him into a wall and killed him instantly. So now you understand why I have my reservations about you sled racing.” Fennius cringed again. “Cheer up, kiddo. If your heart tells you to become a sled pilot, I’ll come to every race and cheer for you. But for now, you need to be patient.” A bearded man with a holo-tablet was scanning people in the line when he finally got to where the Taylors were standing.
“Welcome to the Super Thunder Speedway!” The man said with a big smile. “Are either of you signing up for the event?”
“I am!” Fennius gushed.
“I see.” The man activated his tablet. “And what is your name?”
“Fennius Xavier Taylor!”
“Tell me Fennius, how old are you?”
“Is this man your father or guardian?”
“He’s my dad.”
“Alexander Xavier Taylor.” Father added with a nod.
“I see. Tell me, Fennius how many hours a week, on average, do you spend in the licensed sled racer simulation trainer?”
“Sixteen to twenty.” The man’s eyes widened.
“Really?” He asked, looking to Alexander.
“That’s a low-end estimation.”
“I see. That’s more than most who are here today. You must love sled racing to practice that much. Who’s your favorite sled racer?”
“Kerry Kensington! He’s the best!”
“You’re a big Kensington fan, huh? He’s good. I’ve met him a time or two. He’s a nice guy. I’m still not sure where I stand about the whole illegal parts scandal he was put through.” Fennius’ eyes narrowed.
“I don’t think he did anything wrong.” he fumed. “They tore that sled apart piece by piece afterwards, but they didn’t find anything.”
“Right, but after the race, the sled was on Kensington’s team carrier for a long time before the racing committee got a chance to look at it.”
“It’s not true. He didn’t cheat.”
     “Take it easy, “The Wall” is my hero too! I don’t think he cheated, but the facts are there. Let me ask you something else. Do you know a lot about sleds?”
“Do you know how much the regulation sleds weigh?” Fennius didn’t blink an eye before he answered.
“Regulation racing weight for the R-class is 9,050 pounds, and the X-class for the interstellar circuit is 11,400 pounds.”
“Very good!” The man looked to Alexander with an impressed look. “But do you know what that extra weight is on the X-class sled?”
“The extra weight is divided by the addition of a larger power cell, cooling unit, and larger afterburners.”
“Right again! You’re on your way to being a racer with a mind like that! There’s more to racing than just thrust, Fennius. You have to know the sled inside and out if you’re going to become a major contender. Kerry Kensington himself used to sit for hours on end with his maintenance crew so he would know how his machine worked. You keep that in mind and you’ll be better prepared than ninety five percent of the crowd here.” The man reached into a satchel hanging over one shoulder and handed Fennius a digital mini-tablet with a stylus.” Now, other than the simulation part of the screening, you need to fill out this one hundred question survey. If you can answer all the questions like you did those last two, you’ll probably win.” The man said before wishing them good luck and continuing down the line. Alexander looked at his son with a glare of suspicion.
“They’re sure asking a lot of questions for an event that’s giving away one ride along.”
“Uh-huh.” he replied while burying his nose in the mini-tablet. Fennius couldn’t believe how easy the first eighty questions were. It was simple things like what kind of fuel the sleds used or how many sleds were in a qualifying heat. It was kid’s stuff. The next ten were a little harder. It was the history of the sport. When was the first sled race? Who won the first Sorenata Grand Prix? He had to think about two of them, but plowed through the rest. The last ten questions were strictly for people like him. They wanted to know technical things how much power the shield generator put out at both minimal and optimal output! Insanity! One after another he plowed through the questions until the mini-tablet informed him that the test was over. They waited in line for the line to dwindle until Fennius was next. A young woman with long brown hair at the head of the line introduced herself as Sarah. She told Alexander to wait while she escorted Fennius behind a curtained-off area. Once behind the cover, he found a hovercraft racing seat waiting on a platform. Next to the chair was a table with a simulation trainer wired to a mainframe and viewing monitor.
“Okay Fennius.” Sarah said with a smile as she relieved him of the mini-tablet. “Let’s take a look at your knowledge scores. When she slid her personnel card across the top, the tablet beeped and gave her his percentage. Fennius watched her eyes jump from the screen to him. “Fennius?” She asked. “Did anyone help you with this?”
“No. What’s the matter?”
“Are you sure your dad didn’t help you with any of the questions?”
“Are you kidding? My dad couldn’t get ten of those questions right! Is something wrong with my test?”
“Nothing is wrong, Fennius. Let’s just see how you do in the simulator. Are you ready?”
“Do you know what track am I racing?”
“The Monaco Harbor Speedway. Do you know it?”  
“It’s a great course!”
“It’s a hard course.” She said. “Put on your headset and I’ll hand you the controls.” He did as he was told and placed the device over his eyes. Immediately his field of vision was overtaken by the virtual reality images of an R-class sled sitting on the starting grid of the Monaco racecourse. Sarah gave him the controls and took a seat at the table across from him to watch the monitor that showed her what he was seeing.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready.” Fennius said.
“Okay. Let’s give the system a moment to sync up with the others and then we’ll start. There’s going to be three laps. Here we go.” He could hardly contain his excitement as he wrapped his fingers around the flight stick and throttle. Within seconds, his racer was blasting off the line and speeding through the turns. There were computer-controlled racers around him but they were left behind as Fennius pushed to get ahead. He’d raced this course a thousand times. He knew the angels of the corners and which ones were wide enough for high banked turns.

One lap went by and he was far ahead. One by one, he cut the corners down to the millimeter, shaving hundredths of seconds each time. Before he knew it, he passed the finish line and the simulation was over. When Fennius lifted the headset off his head, he was met not only by Sarah standing over him, but by four new sets of eyes looking at him from behind the monitor.
“How did I do?” He asked. No one answered, but all had intense expressions as they watched the screens.
“Fine.” Sarah said. “These men are from Team Nitro.”
“Oh, Hi.” The tallest of the four approached and offered his hand.
“What’s your name young man?”
“F-Fennius Taylor.”
“Fennius, huh? Fennius, I caught the last lap of your trial, and I have to say you put on quite a demonstration of piloting!” Fennius’ face brightened. 
“I like the Monaco track. If you can cut the corners on the backstretch sharp enough and pull a “slingshot maneuver” on the sixth and eighteenth turns, you can gain a lot of time.”
“Did you figure that out on your own?” The tall man asked.
“I figured the part about the backstretch on my own, but I found out about the sixth and eighteenth turns from the recordings of Kerry Kensington’s junior circuit races. He didn’t do the “slingshot maneuvers” on those corners in the same race because he didn’t have the room to maneuver in the pack. He did them separate in two different races. Since I was able to get ahead of the computer racers early, I took both turns wide. I don’t think the computer knows how to that turn. It’s not an illegal move, but most racers don’t have the chance to pull it off.”
“I see.” The man’s expression changed from a glare of skepticism to contentment. He reached to the table and picked up the mini-tablet before looking it over.
“You did well on your test. Let me ask you a question that’s not on here. What’s the difference between sled racer fuel and normal jet fuel?”
“Normal fuel doesn’t have the metal deactivators. Sled racers need it for thermal stability in the fuel because they burn it so fast.”
“That’s right. How do you know that?”
“Everybody knows that! The official Sled racing league newsletter has a section every month where they point out how a certain part of the hovercraft works. Last month the article was about fuel management.” Another man wearing a red hat took a few steps forward, he too was looking at Fennius with a glare of suspicion.
“Kid, How old are you?”
“Fifteen.” He swallowed. “I turned fifteen in October.” The tall man looked to the others with a smile.     
“Well men, the day is young, but I think we have a strong contender. Thank you, Fennius.” He stood over Fennius and shook his hand. “We have your contact information. We’ll let you know if you’re a finalist.” The men went to talking to one another so Fennius got up left without another word. Alexander was waiting just outside the cutain when he emerged from behind the curtain.
“How did it go?”
     “Good, I think.”
“Just good? I saw a few of the Nitro representatives come over to your station while you were back there.”
“They asked me a bunch of questions and then said I could go.”
“Oh well. Maybe you’ll win that ride-along. Are you hungry?”
“I am hungry.”
“Come on, we’ll get a bite to eat at the concession stand and head home. The ride back to El Reno and the rest of the day was uneventful. Alexander and Fennius spent the afternoon and evening talking about what had happened since father had left. Fennius enjoyed hearing his dad go on about the mammoth engine rooms within the Octavius. But as much as he liked hearing about them, his mind was preoccupied with the outcome of the tryouts. He’d done well with the simulation. But how many questions did he miss on the test? It was all too much to take. When it got late, Fennius said goodnight, got a shower, and curled up in bed with his simulator. He repeatedly tackled the Monaco course like it was an obsession. When a turn or straightaway wasn’t mastered, he started over to get it just right. But even obsession has to give way to fatigue. And sometime before dawn, twenty five race attempts later, Fennius fell asleep with the headset still wrapped around his head. 

Chapter Four

On Sunday, both Taylors in the house were in the routine of sleeping in. Fennius had no intentions of crawling out of bed before the middle of the day, but the sound of someone banging on the front door denied him the extra pillow time. He only heard one series of knocks at the door, but discounted it as Ol’Jimmy wanting something or a favor. It wasn’t until his father called for him to come down that he entertained the notion of being vertical. Even with his glasses on, everything in the house was blurry. His tussled hair and matted clothing weren’t noticed in the hall mirror when he walked past it because his eyes were still half open. Plenty of light was coming through the windows. So much was coming through that Fennius closed his eyes again and made it down the stairs to the living room by touch and familiarity alone.
“Yeah, Dad?” Fennius asked, rubbing one eye.
“Fennius, we have company.” Alexander said. The boy’s eyes shot wide to see a small crowd of people had gathered on the couch, chairs, and area in front of the door. Some faces were familiar, some were not. Wearing only a pair of shorts and an undershirt, he was thankful he hadn’t come down in just his underwear.
“What did I do now?” The tall man he’d met at the track only yesterday stood from where he was seated and approached Fennius.
“What you’ve done, young man, is make a great impression!”
“I did?”
     “The people in this room represent Team Nitro in its entirety. It’s a small race team, but it’s all run by us. Around me are the head mechanic, pit crew and his staff. I’m the manager. There’s only fifteen of us, but we’re a tight outfit. Honestly, we can’t afford many more people. Let me tell you why we’re here, Fennius. After yesterday’s exhibition, we all got together and reviewed the candidates with the best racing simulator times and best scores. Mr. Taylor, your son had the best of both.”
“So he’s won the ride-along and three laps?” Alexander asked.
“The ride-along? No, Mr. Taylor, Fennius has won the first prize!” Fennius knew what was coming next, he’d have to act fast to avoid a conversational disaster.

Time to play stupid and hope for the best. He thought.

“The three laps in the trainer wasn’t first prize?” Fennius said.
     “No! That’s second prize! First prize is an offer to race as the sled pilot for Team Nitro!” Fennius looked to his dad, who judging by his curled lip and crossed arms was already onto what had transpired by Fennius asking to be allowed to go to the speedway. Dad cleared his throat to quiet the room before talking.
     “So, you’re telling me that by my son doing well yesterday, you’re prepared to offer him a place in your racing organization as the chief pilot of your team? That’s an awfully easy test for a person who’s good at simulators.”
“The computer isn’t hard to race against.” Fennius said. The Tall man turned to face him.
     “You weren’t racing computers, Fennius. The simulator was plugged into all the other simulators we had set up. Plus, we brought in some of the newest racers from the junior you to race against. The simulator recorded the time of every person who came to the event and added them to the race as well. So not only did you beat out the professionals we invited, but you were faster than every other person who showed up.”
     “Wow.” Fennius whispered to himself.
     “On top of that, your knowledge of the inner workings of a sled is greater than all of the other applicants. I think you have a gift, and if you’re up to it, I’d like to see if we can give that gift a place in the racing community. What do you say?”
     “Who are you?” Fennius asked. The man blinked twice in surprise before holding his hand out.
     “Of course, where are my manners? My name is Samuel Reynolds. I own Team Nitro.” Fennius took the hand and shook it.
     “Nice to meet you.” When they let go, Samuel looked to Alexander.
     “Back to business. Seeing how young you are Fennius, the permission of your father will come greatly into play. Since you’re not old enough to legally sign a contract, your father would have to give consent to allow you to race. Will that be a problem Mr. Taylor?” Alexander stood behind his son with his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
     “I have no doubt that Fennius would give his all for the team if he were taken on as a team member. But being a parent, I have to worry about his well-being. Not only in the area of safety, but Fennius knows nothing about business. Are you prepared to offer him the same opportunity to profit if he becomes successful as a sled racer?”
     “Of course, Mr. Taylor. As we’ve done in the past, once a candidate is selected, we invite them back to our company for a second round of tests in our development lab. In this lab is a mock-up of the type of racer we use on the raceway. Fennius will spend two days performing tests in a far more realistic simulator. These tests not only allow Fennius to climb into a carbon-copy of a real racer, but will allow Team Nitro to ensure we’ve selected the right person for the job. If he does well, your son will be offered the same standard contract as anyone else. We’ve allotted all next weekend as the time for testing. Would Fennius be free to join us then?” Alexander sighed.
     “What do you think, kiddo? Think you can pass the rest of the tests?”
     “I know I can, Dad.” Fennius said while looking Mr. Reynolds in the eye.
     “You have your answer, Mr. Reynolds. For the time being I have no problem letting Fennius participate in the selection process. He talks about racing night and day. I’d want him to pursue every chance to chase his dream, but again I’m concerned about his safety.” Samuel smiled.
     “I understand. If racing wasn’t dangerous in some aspects, then everyone would do it. Excessive speed is the nature of the sport. Fennius will be in a stationary simulator for the tests, but he’s also won the second place price as well. Which includes three laps around the speedway track in a duel seated sled piloted by my own brother. As with anyone, you’d have to sign a waiver for the ride-along. But I assure you, he’s been fine tuning our sleds for years.”
     “That sounds like quite an offer. For now, the answer is yes, Mr. Reynolds.”
     “Then I’ll send along the necessary forms this week and I’ll see you…” He looked to Fennius. “Bright and early next Saturday morning!” Fennius grinned from ear to ear
     “I can’t wait.”   
     “I bet not. I’ll send the company vehicle to pick you up at seven in the morning on Saturday. Bring enough clothes and effects for two days. See you then, Fennius.”
     “Goodbye, Mr. Reynolds.” And with the wave of his hand, the rest of the team members were herded out the door. Moments later, the team transport roared away leaving the house quiet again.     
       “First place winner gets to become a sled pilot?” Alexander asked rhetorically while rubbing his son’s shoulders from behind. “Why am I not surprised that you found your way into such a contest?”
“Just lucky I guess.” Alexander’s hand’s clamped down on the muscles where the shoulder met the base of the neck. It wasn’t meant to be painful as much as it was meant to get his attention. 
“Son, you can’t bullshit a bullshitter. I knew what was at stake when we went. I want you to take advantage of every opportunity you get, but you’re all I have. If I think things are out of hand, I will snatch you out of the cockpit so fast it’ll make your head spin. Understood?”
“Got it.”
“Am…I…Clear?” The hands squeezed just a little more and Fennius had to concentrate to keep from yelping.
“Trans…parent, Dad.”
“Good. Now get dressed and we’ll have breakfast. Go.” Fennius took off, but couldn’t feel his feet touching the stairs as he ran to get ready. Before he knew it, the weekend was over and Fennius was back in class again. News spread quickly. There was a lot of talk about how one of El Reno High School’s own freshman had been invited to join the local racing team. When it got out who the identity of the lucky student was, Fennius’ popularity increased a hundred-fold. All week long, he was included in the social activities that used to be out of his reach. And the attention of the opposite sex suddenly became more obvious than he was used to. While eating lunch, Fennius normally ate alone. Now he found himself running in a larger crowd. Students hounded him every minute for news about the tryout. By Friday, Fennius was nearly a celebrity. Even Gary Treben had stopped harassing him. But with all the attention came more pressure. Now that everyone was on his side, he’d have to produce results to keep from looking like he’d choked when it was important. What made it better was the fact that dad had been home all week for the two to spend time together. It was a rarity that dad was home so many days in a row. Every night after dinner and homework Fennius strapped on his simulator and raced as many courses as he could manage. For him, the week dragged by as he anticipated what would await him at the Team Nitro compound. But as slow as time seemed to pass, Friday night came and Alexander called Fennius into the den before bed.
“What is it dad?”
“I just wanted to see what’s going through your head. How do you feel about tomorrow?”
“I feel really good. I did some research about the controls in the cockpit that aren’t in the simulator.”
“If they like you, they’re likely to make an offer. Have you thought about this?”
“What will you do about your schooling? If you become a racer, you’ll have to take your lessons on the road. Are you willing to do that?”
“I’d be stupid to not finish school.”
“I want to make sure you don’t find yourself in a position where your decisions blow up on you and you don’t have anywhere to go.”
“That won’t happen, dad. I found out that some of the racers even take college courses during the off season and while they’re on the road. Racing would give me enough credits to afford college.”
“I just wanted to make sure you were thinking about the future. We all like to imagine what it would be like at the top but not everyone makes it there. I love you.”
“I love you too, dad.”
“Give me a hug and then go to bed.” Fennius squeezed his dad and settled in for the night. His bag was already packed for the weekend. Before he turned the light off, Fennius picked up his picture of Kerry Kensington and saw how happy the man looked. He wanted the same thing. He was ready. No one in the history of sled racing was as ready as he was. He put the picture back, turned off the light, and shut his eyes. Little voices in the back of his mind spoke to him as he drifted off.

Cut those corners. Get out front early.

     Dad woke him before dawn and made him a large breakfast. And right at eight, a rep from the company arrived in front of their home to pick Fennius up. He picked up his bag and left the house.
     “Go get ‘em, kiddo. Be safe.”
     “I will. Thanks, dad.” The morning mist was still heavy in the air as the sky turned pink in the east. And as Fennius reached the end of the steps to the road. ‘Ol Jimmy’s voice called out to him from his front porch.
     “You goin’ to that thing today, Fennius?” He called out.
     “I sure am.”  
“Then make sure you keep that throttle open! No racer ever won by keeping their brakes on!”
“I’ll remember that.” Fennius waved without looking back.
 “Damn straight! Give ‘em hell!”
     He opened the door to see Sam Reynolds behind the wheel.
     “Good morning, Mr. Taylor. Are you ready for a long day?”
     “More than ready.” Fennius shut the door and they departed for Oklahoma City. On the way there Sam asked him all kinds of questions about his love for sled racing and he was quick to tell the story of how he was lucky enough to meet Kerry Kensington when he was younger.
     “I can see how that would make anyone a fan. When we arrive at the Nitro center, we’ll set you up with a room and then we’ll get started on the simulation tests. Have you already eaten?”
     “Good. I’m looking forward to this, Fennius. I meant what I said last week about you having a gift. If you half as well as you did during the tryout, the piloting position is yours. How does you dad feel about all of this?”
     “He wants what’s best for me. If I make it on the team, I need to make sure that I continue my schooling.”
     “That’s good thinking. Always think ahead and make secondary plans in case your first one doesn’t work out. You’re ahead of the curve for a boy your age, Fennius.”
     “Thank you.”
     “You’re smarter than our last pilot.”
     “Thomas Demarco? What happened to him? I read the announcement that he was being let go from Team Nitro, but it didn’t say why.”
     “Well that’s kind of a secret. I’d be willing to tell you if you didn’t pass it along.”
     “I won’t tell anyone.”
     “Tommy got a case of the ‘big head’. He thought since he was winning a few races, he wasn’t accountable for his actions or listen to the rest of the team. He got out of control so we paid off the rest of his contact and sent him packing.”
     “You fired him?”
     “I fired him myself. We really didn’t have the extra funds to make such a deal, but he was so out of control we weren’t sure whether he was going to keep showing up for races. You can’t have your entire team hung up on a person who isn’t going to hold up their part of an agreement. You wouldn’t do something like that to us, would you Fennius?”
     “No, Sir.” Sam looked surprised at the use of manners.
     “Sir? We’re going to get along just fine.”
The roar of hovercrafts filled the morning air when they arrived at the speedway. Fennius’ attention was instantly hooked by the sound.
     “Mr. Reynolds?” He asked without taking his eyes off of the sled plowing down the track. “Who’s out there?”
     “The competition, Fennius. They never rest. Come inside, there’s some people I want you to meet.”
      They entered through a door that Sam had to swipe a security card to get through. Then the two travelled a long, hallway with polished floors. Glass trophy cases lined the left side of the hallway, but much to his surprise, they were rather bare for what he pictured a racing team should have on display. Through another door marked “BAY”, Fennius saw the inner workings of a sled team for the first time. Sure he’s seen pictures, but that was nothing like experiencing it firsthand. The entire center of the three story building was monopolized by an open area that held not only sleds in various states of repair, but living areas and lodging. In the center of the well-lit bay was the test trainer with a line of people waiting to receive him.
     “Fennius, allow me to introduce you to Team Nitro.” The first man in line, one of the ones he’d met on tryout day stepped out to shake his hand and introduced himself.
“Ben Reynolds, head mechanic. I’m looking forward to working with you!” After that, was a young woman with long brown hair that looked to be in her twenties or thirties.
“Katie West. Public relations and sponsorship negotiations.”
“Nice to meet you.” Fennius said. Next, was a large man with a stomach that extended almost as far as his reach.
     “Nick Hardy. Crew Chief, Pit boss, and second head mechanic. You think you got the goods to race with the big boys, Fennius? Sam? He’s awful small.”
“Nick, please.” Said Sam. “Fennius has shown us some very promising results.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Reynolds.” Fennius nodded before looking back to the round man with the beard. “I can take whatever he can dish out.” Various whistles and hoots came from the pit crew further down the line.
“HAH! That’s what I want to hear, boy!” A porky hand reached out and slapped Fennius on the side on the arm.    
“He hasn’t been in the building two minutes and already talking a big game! I like it!” Fennius met with the rest of the support staff before they left to get the test equipment ready. He was shown to a bunk in the living area where he left his things and then taken back out to the bay. Mr. Hardy was waiting with a neon orange bundle of clothes.
“What’s all of that?” Fennius asked.
“This, Mr. Taylor.” He unfolded the pile to reveal a flight suit his size. “Is what you’ll be wearing in the test-mod today. Go put it on and we’ll get started.”
“Do I get a helmet?” Fennius asked next.
“You’ll get one, just go put the suit on first.” Fennius eagerly took the suit and excused himself to a changing room. Once he was by himself, he slipped out of his clothes and stepped into the thick, one piece, racing suit. It was different from everything he’d worn before, but that made it all the more exciting. It felt like slipping on a second skin. Once the zippers and fasteners were all in place, Fennius emerged, feeling like a new person. When he reentered the bay, the entire crew was hurrying this way and that around the testing area. Monitoring stations lined the mock-up of the hovercraft cockpit. The cockpit section of a sled racer had been severed from the rest and affixed to a platform standing on hydraulic pistons. Massive power couplings and electrical conduits were plugged into the front and back. When he got close enough, Sam helped Fennius climb into the simulator. Fen’s eyes bulged at seeing the control panels. It was so lifelike. The console looked like an experiment in trying to put as many switches, displays, and buttons into as small of an area as possible. He plopped down into the seat and it fit his body like a glove. When the safety harnesses were in place, Sam pointed out the names and functions of the controls. Fennius knew most but not all of them.
“Do you have any questions?” Sam asked him.
“No. I recognize everything here.
“Really?” Mr. Reynolds pointed to a series of switches. What do these do?”
“Those are for warming your fuel tanks before racing in a cold track like say, the Trans-Siberian Invitational.”
“And those?” He pointed to a pair of toggles.
“Those are for engaging your high pressure thruster stages.
“These buttons are on the on the home simulators?” Sam asked.   
     “No. But I know how they work.”
     “Very good. We’re going to put you through some varying scenarios on different tracks and monitor the results. They’re going to be tough, so do your best. Any questions?”
     “How soon can we start?” Fennius grinned widely, showing all his teeth.
“Right now, hotshot.” Sam handed him a helmet and pressed the button marked “COCKPIT”. The sliding cover moved into place and sealed Fennius inside. The windows in the cockpit had been replaced with monitors that began to display images of the starting grid of the Oklahoma Speedway. It all looked and felt so real. If not for seeing the simulator himself, he would’ve sworn that it was the real thing. “Alright everyone!” Sam yelled. Let’s fire it up!” Computer servers hummed like rocket thrusters.

Everyone stepped away from the platform and a series of tones filled the air. It was already starting to get warm inside cockpit, so Fennius adjusted the atmosphere controls and a stream of cold air began to fill the racing suit. His heart pounded. Sam put on a headset. When he cued the microphone, Fennius could hear his voice inside his helmet.

“We’re going to start you with something easy so you can get acclimated to the machine. It’ll be a few laps around the Super Thunder Speedway. Then the tests will get progressively harder and we’ll throw some problems your way to see how you handle a potential malfunction. Are you ready?” Gloved hands grasped the flight stick and throttle. Feet slipped into the floor pedals.
“Let me at ‘em.” He said. Sam nodded to his brother who activated the program. Fennius took a deep breath and planned his path around the track. In the five seconds between when the program was started and when the race began, Fennius had already crafted the best route through the first half of the course. The laps sped by and Fennius felt right at home in the roaring machine. Although he’d never experienced the sensations before, he was so focused that the pitching and bucking of the machine didn’t register as a distraction. Computer simulated opponents were all around, but few could keep up. Their artificial intelligence programs gave them expert management of their capabilities. But as good as they were, the burning brain of the blonde-haired fifteen year old at the controls of the mock up became a predator devouring them a handful at a time. Outside the simulator, Sam Reynolds stood before the largest monitor pulling information from the mainframe. He watched without a word as their guest burned up one track after another. 
“Look at him go.” Said one voice from behind.
“He’s good.” Said another voice.
“He’s a lot faster than Tommy.” Katie remarked.
“He’s still racing on the smaller tracks. He’s good at cornering, I’ll give him that.” Sam rubbed his shin. “He’s got reaction time, but he’ll need to manage his speed and drifting if he’s going to last on the bigger courses.  
“Ben?” Sam looked to his brother. “Load up the Morocco Grand Prix. I want to see how he does in a larger pack of competitors.” No one moved forward to the keypad. “Ben?” Samuel looked over to see his brother making a pained face and clutching his chest with one hand. “Ben? Are you alright?”
“I-I’m alright. I just…” *hurp* “ate my breakfast too fast.” A huge belch followed that echoed through the bay. “That’s all. Just some trapped gas.” When the anguished look passed, Ben belched again, stepped forward, and loaded the program. An hour passed, two hours. Tired of standing, but not wanting to take their eyes off of the monitors, Team Nitro eventually gathered chairs and bore witness to a speed demon’s awakening. Three hours passed. By lunchtime, words like “prodigy” and “contract” were being used.
Inside the simulator, Fennius and the sled were quickly becoming one. Other than the lap times being displayed on his cockpit display, time meant nothing. He’d just finished edging out a tenacious opponent on the Arizona Bay raceway when the screens went dead and the cockpit lights came on. The cockpit slid away and Samuel Reynolds greeted him with an ecstatic grin.
“Are you ready for lunch?” He asked as Fennius took off his helmet.
“Lunch? But we just started.”  
“It’s been over four hours. Aren’t you hungry?” Fennius stomach growled so loud that it could be heard outside the suit.
“I guess I could eat. I’m really thirsty. Can I test some more after we eat?”
“You like the simulator, huh?”
“I love it. It’s better than the one I have at home. The rocking and shifting makes it even more real.”
“It’s supposed to. Leave your helmet and come get some food.” Fennius peeled himself from the seat and climbed out. When he entered the dining area he was greeted by hoots and chatter from the team. Fennius graciously took a tray from the stack at the makeshift serving line and helped himself to the buffet that had been prepared. Unlike his experiences in school, the members of Team Nitro welcomed him and shifted down to make room for him at the large table in the center of the room.
“That was some hellacious piloting, Fennius.” Said one of the mechanics.
“Is it true that you’ve never raced before?” asked another.
“Yes.” Fennius blushed. I have the headset trainer at home, but that’s it.”
“I think you’d be great for the team.” Ben Reynolds laughed. “Can you imagine what those jokers over in Team Forge would react if we brought the kid out to whoop their asses this season? They wouldn’t know how to act. Ha Ha!” 
If we have a team when racing season arrives.” Katie said without looking up from her plate.
“Don’t say stuff like that.” Ben pointed his fork at her. “We’re going to be fine.”
“What do you mean if you have a team? What’s wrong with Team Nitro?” Fennius asked.
“It’s nothing, Fennius.” Ben gave a dismissive wave.  “It’s just shop talk.”
“We need to be honest with him and tell him the truth if he’s going to be part of the team.” Katie growled back at him. Fennius didn’t like the path the conversation was heading.
“The truth? What’s the truth?” Fennius asked.
“Well, I guess I had better tell you.” Sam frowned. “The team is in some financial trouble.”
“What happened?”
“That scumbag, Tommy is what happened.” Ben muttered.
“Our last pilot was getting to be a problem so we let him go. We expected to replace him and keep going, but what we didn’t expect was for Tommy to sue us for breach of contract.”
“Meaning?” Fennius prodded him. Ben slammed his utensils down so they clanged and bounced off of the table.  
“It means that the miserable son of a bitch sued us for the rest of his contract and a bunch of other crap and has almost bankrupted us. That…” Ben would’ve continued, but his blurting caused him to lose his breath and start a fit of coughing instead.
“Settle down, Ben.” Sam said.
“Is it true?” Fennius asked him.
“I’m afraid so.” He frowned. “It costs a lot of credits to send all of the testing equipment across the universe. We’d originally hoped to pick up a back-up racer from the pro circuit who might be on the verge of being let go from his team. We held the tryouts here because he hoped to find some talent here close to home.”
“So there’s not going to be a team?”
“There’s going to be a team. We’re just in a rut right now. Tommy’s actions lost us most of our sponsors, but the Nitro Engine Company is still paying our bills.” 
“For now.” Ben grunted in between coughs.
“Ben, Stop talking like that! Fennius, tell me the truth. You love racing don’t you?”
“More than anything.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear. After we eat, I want to put you back in the simulator. This time I’m going to tell the computer to throw every nasty condition in the universe at you. If you do what I think you’re capable of, and come out of the tests with good marks, I’ll see to it that you become our new pilot. How does that sound to you?”
“It sounds great to me.”
“Good. Finish your food and we’ll do it.” Samuel raised his voice to address the others. “And I don’t want to hear any more negative talk about sponsors or Tommy. We’ll be fine.”

Fennius cleaned his plate, visited the restroom, and was waiting in the cockpit before Samuel could finish his meal. Soon, the cockpit cover closed again. Fennius pushed his fingers deep into the leather gloves and gripped the flight controls. Once he was racing again, he didn’t let off the throttle. And when the finish line zipped past, his eye lids fluttered with delight. The rush of racing was like oxygen to him and hours passed like minutes. Samuel threw every possible bad scenario a racer might face into the mix and the rookie dealt with blown engines, mid-race collisions, and other malfunctions like they were second nature. He couldn’t believe how natural the sensations of the sleds movements felt around him. And before he knew it, the inner lights of the cockpit came on and the cover slid away a second time. As he leaned into the confined area, Mr. Reynolds couldn’t be more pleased with the results of his young guest.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say someone was trying to play a trick on me.” Fennius pulled his helmet off to reveal that his entire head was soaked in sweat. His usually short, spiked, hair was matted to his head.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I haven’t seen anyone race that hard in a long time.”
“What course are we doing next?” The boy asked with a smile.
“Next? You’ve already tested each track on the planet at least twice.”
“What about the pro circuit tracks? My trainer at home doesn’t have all the ones loaded into your simulator.
“The off world tracks? Maybe some other time. I promised your dad I’d have you go to bed at a reasonable hour. You want to be well rested to sign your first racing contract don’t you?”
“You’re signing me? You mean it?”
“We all do. Twenty minutes ago Team Nitro gathered around the monitor while you were testing and the vote was unanimous to bring you on. I’ll tell you the truth, Fennius. We don’t have a lot of funds on hand. You know that. But Mr. Otomo, our accountant, says we have just enough funds to keep the team afloat for the first part of the season if we don’t have any misfortunes. But I think that if we can get you racing and show everyone what you’re capable of, funds and sponsors will find us. Why, my brother and I were just discussing the hype and attention that’s going to come our way when we announce to the league that the youngest rookie in league history has signed to Team Nitro. Now let the computer catch its breath. I imagine you’ll want a shower before bed.” When Fennius unclasped his restraints, the sticky feeling of sweat under his suit made him agree that his next move should be to clean up. When he emerged from the cocoon of metal and computer chips, the rest of the team applauded his performance. The friendly pats on the back and compliments were very welcome. Suddenly weary, Fennius found his way to the shower room and peeled the dirty suit off. The shower felt great. When he changed into his sleeping clothes afterwards, he couldn’t find his bed fast enough. Without realizing that the others were awaiting his return, Fennius found his bunk in a darkened room and collapsed on it without so much as pulling the sheets back. Samuel found him half an hour later and let him sleep. Returning to the dining area where the team had congregated he passed on the news of Fennius’ state.
“He’s asleep?” The pit chief said aloud enough that his voice echoed off of every wall. “Well, go wake him up. We’re offering him the pilot position on the team aren’t we?”
“Easy Nick. There’s no reason to wake him.”
“Anyone who ever wanted to become a sled racer would be doing cartwheels down those stairs to be offered what we’re about to put on the table.”
“Yes, Nick, but any other racer would be old enough to sign their own contract. In the morning, while Ben takes Fennius around the speedway for his three laps in the trainer, I’ll extend the offer to his father, Alexander. If he agrees, we’ll sign Fennius before noon. How’s that sound?”
“I think Fennius has the goods. What are we going to do if his father won’t let him race?”
“If he says no, we go with the second place winner, Shinji Wantanabe, and we move forward.”
“I like Fennius.” Katie remarked.
“He’s nothing like Tommy.” Ben said.
“I think that’s why I like him.” Katie spoke again.
“Well, we’d better turn in as well.” Samuel pointed both thumbs over his shoulders towards the living quarters.
“If Fennius signs, we’ll need to prepare a press release. I for one can’t wait to tell the league we’re about to unleash the youngest racer in history on the circuit.”
“I hope our sponsors hold out.” Said Mr. Otomo. “The last thing we need right now is another setback.”
“Then think happy thoughts.” Samuel said. “We need good vibes to keep the team afloat.”

Chapter Five

The next morning, Fennius found the orange racing suit cleaned and waiting at the foot of his bunk. Eager to get some real race time in a real sled, he didn’t bother with combing his hair. A minute after his glasses were on his nose, the last teeth of the suits’ zipper were meshing under his chin. The building was quiet. And just as he slipped on his second shoe, a shockwave of sound shot through the air followed by a low roar. The windows rattled and items on flat surfaces danced with the vibrations moving them. The hairs on Fennius’ neck stood on end.

Only one thing in the universe makes a noise like that.

He bounded down the stairs and found Benjamin Reynolds in the real training sled. Every racing team had one. It looked like any other sled racer, but the body was bulkier to hold two people instead of one. The trainer sat in a cockpit above and behind the training seat, so that they could instruct and guide an amateur racer while also seeing the track. The members of Team Nitro and Alexander Taylor gathered around the craft as it hovered in the bay. When Fennius appeared, the team waved him on and pointed to the open cockpit door waiting. He gave a wide grin in his father’s direction before snatching the helmet from Mr. Reynolds and leaping into the sled. Everyone stepped away from the racer and it drifted out the door and into the predawn air. The din of the engines overtook the sounds of morning birds and drowned them out. Ben’s voice came through Fennius’ headset
“I’ll get us out on the course.” Fennius heard in his earpiece. “We’ll start on the grid to give you a taste of the start. We’ll go around a few times and I’ll let you take the controls.”
“Can I have it earlier?” Fennius asked. “I only get three laps.”
“I think the future pilot of Team Nitro should get more than just three laps. We’ve got enough fuel for a few more. We all discussed it last night after you turned in. My brother Sam is talking to your dad as we speak.”
     “HE IS?” Fennius’ mind reeled at the possibility of actually achieving his dream. If dad agreed to the contract, he was going to be on his way to racing with the professionals.

The sled moved through an automatic gate and slipped onto the empty track. Fennius had the flight stick and throttle in his hands but Ben hadn’t turned over control yet. Down the backstretch and around the final turns of the oval course they drifted as the engines warmed up. The sled came to rest on the starting grid and Benjamin put his helmet on. Fennius tugged against his safety restraints and they didn’t give a millimeter.

“We’ll go around a couple times to let you get the feel of the thrust since that’s something the simulator can’t replicate. After that, I’ll cut the throttle back and you can have it. Ready?”
“Ready.” Fennius said over his shoulder.
“Okay. Here we go.” Ben said. On the crossbeam over the track, one of three lights appeared. The race started when the last bulb lit up. Already, the thrusters were growing in strength. The turbo fans started to whine as they came to life. The second light appeared. Tremors shook the hull of the sled as the power reached its apex. Fennius couldn’t take his eyes off of the crossbar. The last light appeared for a split second before it vanished like a tracer overhead. As the Sled’s thrusters yawned wide, a hundred invisible hands pushed him into the seat. His hands felt like they were made of lead as he reached up and took the controls again. Once the initial surge faded, the g-forces gave away. The speedway that he’d always thought of as huge now looked to be almost too small as the sled barreled down the front stretch and headed for the first turn. Without realizing it, he was already guiding the flight stick through the motions.

The sound. The sensations. But above all things, the speed. Fennius wondered if there was anything more divine.

The sled flew down the track and past the first turn where Samuel Reynolds and Alexander Taylor looked on.
“I have to tell you the truth, Mr. Taylor. Your son has a natural skill for piloting a sled. It normally takes ten years behind the controls to gain that level of control.”
“He’s been a fan since he was eight. I brought him here to see the races and he happened to see Kerry Kensington put on a great exhibition. After that, it’s been nothing but sled racing for him.
“I won’t waste your time, Sir. I’ve talked to the entire crew and the vote was unanimous. We want Fennius to sign with Team Nitro as the head pilot. The season starts in two months and we would like your permission for Fennius join us.” Alex shifted his weight as he thought over his response.

“Mr. Reynolds, as I’ve said before, you have to understand that Fennius is all I have. His mother was taken from us when he was very young. He’s everything to me. Fennius has talent. I know that. But what I’m concerned with is his safety and future. And if he’s going to supply you with that talent, then I need something from you. I want your word that you’ll see to it that he finishes his schooling while traveling. That’s not for me, that’s for him. And I want him getting as large of a share in the winnings as an adult would receive. Just because he’s young and naïve doesn’t mean he has to be paid like he’s not pulling the weight of an adult.”

“I agree, Mr. Taylor. Fennius shouldn’t be treated any different. As for the schooling and winning shares I will personally see to the details. And our standard contract has no biases regarding age. If he wins more, he gets paid more. And as other sponsors sign on, he’s entitled to a share of that as well.”

Out on the course, the sled came around for lap two. Now that he was used to the feeling, Fennius felt right at home. When they came out of the second turn, the sled wavered to the left twice instead of making a clean line into the straightaway. Up until that point, the ride had been as smooth as glass
“What was that?” Fennius asked. Ben made a pained sound as a tingly feeling raced up his left arm.
“It’s nothing.” Ben grunted as he increased the throttle. The sled found the sweet spot in the track’s slipstream and sped on.    
“You know, Mr. Taylor.” Samuel continued. I think you son has what it takes to become the best. True, he’s young, but there’s a determination and focus that most boys his age don’t have. When he’s in the cockpit, he’s all business. I know sled racers twice his age who can’t cut a corner like he can. But on top of the piloting ability, he knows a racing hovercraft inside and out. That’s a huge bonus to our pit crew. If a pilot can’t convey a problem to our crew chief, we’re going to lose time. And as fast as this league runs, losing time means losing races. Now I have to admit something rather embarrassing, Mr. Taylor. Because of our last pilot acting up and causing trouble, Team Nitro can’t offer Fennius a signing bonus at this time. But I’ve taken the liberty of adding a clause into his contract that he’ll be justly compensated after the first three races.”

“I see.” Said Alexander. “He’ll be travelling a lot and I’m off world most of the time. That means he’ll be in the care of the racing team members during that duration. I can expect that he’ll be looked after as to steer clear of running with the wrong crowd?”
“Team Nitro is a small team. Each member is hand selected. We don’t have any wild ones in our group. Now Mr. Hardy and his boys in the pit crew like to celebrate with a drink now and then, but I’ve never known them to be out of line. Everyone here is a professional.”

“Then my mind is put to rest. If this is what Fennius wants, then I support him one hundred percent.” Just as Alexander was about to take his hand out of his pocket to shake on the deal, a strange sound cut through the air, distracting him. A twinge of fear shook him as he saw sparks appear on the far side of the course.

Inside the cockpit, warning alarms filled the cockpit with grating noise.

“Ben! You’re too close to the wall! What are you doing?” Fennius yelled through his mic as the sled scraped its starboard fin across the outer wall of turn of turn three. Sparks sprayed up at the window. “Ben! Get away from the wall!” Benjamin Reynolds couldn’t hear the boys’ cries. In the throes of agonizing pain, the man’s chest, heart, and neck felt like a boa constrictor had coiled around them and squeezed. His hands went numb and the sled speed on with its throttle still wide open. Fennius tried to take control of the craft but without Ben transferring control to the front cockpit, he was along for the most dangerous of rides. Ben slipped into unconsciousness, his helmet slumped forward.

Seeing that that sled was a runaway, Fennius tightened his straps and braced himself. The sled continued on, barreling straight for the wall of turn four.
Alexander and Samuel rushed to the high track wall. Time froze for each of them as they witnessed the Team Nitro sled impact with the outer wall on the other end of the speedway. Metal exploded and the right side of the sled vanished. Losing power, the sled dropped to the ground, grinding its way down the track at over a hundred and fifty miles an hour. A lightshow of sparks lit the area around them. And with fire and smoke pouring from the malfunctioning thrusters, the hovercraft was transformed into a blinding spectacle of ruin. Past the grandstand and starting grid the sled skidded until friction began to slow the wreck. The sled came to a screeching halt just before the wall of turn one. Alexander and Samuel ran out onto the course as the rest of Team Nitro came stampeding out of the building. Wild flames began eating the sled from the rear, working its way forward. 

Fennius pounded his fists against the cover of the wreckage as the two men grew closer.
“Fennius?” His dad yelled time and again as he ran over and pulled at the hatch release.
“Benjamin?” Samuel called out for his brother. After tugging at the levers marked “COCKPIT”, the panels sprang open. Alexander pulled his son out and helped him stumble to a safe distance before returning to see about the other pilot. Somewhere in the distance an alarm was sounding. Samuel had the safety restraints off by the time Alexander arrived to help him. Benjamin was unresponsive and it took both men pulling to get him out of the cockpit. They drug the limp man away from the fire. Moments later, fire began to consume Benjamin’s seat and compartment. As Samuel attempted to revive his brother, Alexander found his son coughing and holding his right forearm.
“Fennius? Are you alright? Son, are you hurt?”
“I just…ow. I hurt my wrist on the window.” He winced. “Stop touching it, dad! DAD QUIT! It already hurts!

The next six hours were a blur. Emergency vehicles arrived, there was a ride to the hospital, doctors cut the sleeve off of the orange racing suit, a brace was put on his arm, a doctor gave him pills to ease his aching wrist. After that, the remainder of the images Fennius saw ran together and blurred like a tapestry of moving colors until he fell asleep. The dreams that followed were vivid and alien. They made no sense. Like a parade of random sights and sounds, Fennius drugged mind saw explosions and heard the sounds of children singing. All this and more meshed together until a vortex of nothingness delivered him at last into the arms of peaceful slumber.

When he woke, Fennius was in his room at home. All was quiet. All was calm. There wasn’t a sound in the house. Pre-dawn light filled the room. When he turned over, the pain of his aching wrist quickly cleared his head. When he managed to get his glasses on, he saw his father sitting in a chair next to the bed.
“Dad?” He asked.
“I’m here, Fennius.”
“Dad? What happened? Where’s Ben?” He asked. Alexander sighed. “Son, I’m afraid that Ben Reynolds passed away.”
“What? He’s dead? How?”
“He had a heart attack while you were out on the course. He was dead before the medics could reach the track.”
“Oh my god. What about the sled?”
“There isn’t much left. The whole thing caught fire after we pulled you out. There was nothing to salvage.” Everything was still fuzzy in Fennius’ head.  
“Ben’s really dead?”
“That’s right.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“In a few days.”
“Is my wrist broken?” Fennius said as he looked at his brace.
“Not broken, just severely bruised. When I ran over to the sled, you were beating the cover with that hand. The doctor said it’ll be healed in a month or so.”
“I’ll still be able to race?”
“There might not be a team to race on.”
“What do you mean no team? What’s wrong with Team Nitro?”
“Son, after the accident, Mr. Reynolds mentioned that the Nitro Cleaning Company is considering pulling their sponsorship and severing ties with the racing league. If that happens, there won’t be a Team Nitro, period. In either case, I told Mr. Reynolds that I won’t be signing any contacts for you.”
“But why not? You heard what they said about my piloting.” Alexander hated to give him the news, but his conscience wouldn’t allow anything else.
“Fennius, it’s just too dangerous. That sled wasn’t going full speed and now it’s a pile of scrap. It killed Mr. Reynolds.”
“But he had a heart attack!”
“Right. But what if he’d been going full speed when it happened? What then? Would there be two fresh graves being dug at the cemetery? I love you too much. I can’t allow it. If you want to be a racer when you’re old enough to sign your own contract, you go ahead. But while you’re my responsibility, you are not to step foot one into a racer. Do you understand me?” Fennius scowled and held his tongue. “I said, do you understand me?” A pit appeared in Fennius stomach as he felt his shining new future slipping away. 
“Got it.”
“Good.’ His dad said and relaxed his posture. Now, do you want some real food to eat? You’ve been asleep for over a day. I guess the pain medication they gave you was a bit stronger than they figured.” 
“I’m starving.” Fennius said as he kicked his legs out onto the floor. It took a minute to get his balance. The pain pills made his limbs feel funny. After a small meal of which he ate only half, Fennius wandered into the den and fought to see through the medicine stupor dulling his senses. In the end, his father helped him back to his bed. Fennius was excused from the entire week at school and his father took off from work to keep an eye on him. When Sunday came around, dad asked him how he was doing. When he said his wrist had improved, Alexander informed him that he was returning to work the next day.

“I’ll be here when you go to bed tomorrow night, but I’ll be gone in the morning.”