Never Have I Ever

1

#Nayax? You around here?#

#Preten, right? Yeah. I’m down at the arts arcade, doing a bit of worldbuilding. Like I do, y’know.#

#Ah right. I was thinking of gathering everyone around.#

#What’s this about?#

Preten decided he would find Nayax first; talking through walls didn’t appeal to him. He found the arcade, a long, soundproofed avenue filled with people playing various games, from those pondering over old, traditional board games to those locked away unseen in fully immersive VR. The room itself was a blur of lighting, all manner of colours and brightnesses, which was not a problem to those who were sat around one particular table, looking at one particular board or screen, and getting drinks or food from one particular assembler nearby; but to Preten, struggling through the patchwork of tables and threads of people, it was akin to some chemical hallucination he hadn’t called for. What jolted him out of it, and refocused his mind, was spotting, on the left of the wide corridor, a huge, square table where a large group had gathered to play Quantum. A further glance confirmed his first suspicions: there really were Shango immigrants here. Having cleared the mental fuzz, he chucked aside the small spike of surprise about the Shango and searched onwards, and it wasn’t long before he found Nayax, playing some game he was unfamiliar with, involving a plethora of symbols scattered across an already huge screen; even then, Nayax had to pull his hand across the screen’s entire length or height to get to the playing area’s extremities.

#Found you.#

#Knew you would. So. What’s it about?#

#Well it’s – well, for one, did you know there were Shango around here?#

#What, on the Damocles? Of course. Not many, but there’s bound to be some.#

#And the other thing is, you know how Ferg is seven now?#

#Yeeeees.#

#He’s old enough to drive.#

Nayax nodded, and made a series of moves, placing down symbols which prompted cascades of reactions; Preten could only judge from colours and the broad swathe of the unexplained setup that some of it was good, some of it bad.

#So what we could do#, Preten continued, #is all go for a drive. Or maybe, I don’t know, some sort of competitive drive. Something like, say, a race.#

More symbols cascaded over the screen, its panning shot revealing huge numbers of them being taken away, and Nayax tensed up.

#A race, you say? An interesting proposal. I could be on for that, except, I don’t know, it’s all a little Shango-esque, isn’t it? You’ll have to throw something into the works.#

#Will do. Will most certainly do so.#

#So when’s this on?#

#Let’s say we all start tomorrow. I’m off to find everyone else now.#

#OK then. See you then [image=plus, orange].#

As he said this, Nayax threw his hands up, bemoaning the screen, where his symbols were promptly swept away in a tsunami of victorious AI. Preten merely smiled wanly and left, once again fumbling through the kaleidoscopic confusion of the arcade.

2

Preten had got up early and teleported himself as quickly as possible to the Damocles Peak circuit. In particular, he had wound up at the circuit’s front end, where the long bend into the main straight banked heavily as it climbed higher; some half a kilometre high, it reached the vertical around halfway up, and then banked even further – any car pushing even further would wind up first upside down, then sideways in the other direction, and then upright again, only on a ledge that was bound to run out sooner or later and was some hundred metres up. Staying in the race after leaving that edge, Preten thought, would take a perfect landing.

From the main straight, there was a flick left which led almost immediately into a chicane; even in elite class races, that usually wrong-footed people. A series of S-bends followed, a couple of straights and hairpins came along, and then a quarter of straights that were broken up by a trio of chicanes. The monster of a banked curved then completed the lap. Mixing in enough elevation changes to make the circuit take up space on seven decks added another challenging dimension, too.

At that time in the morning – 25.00.00 – there was no-one here, but then, why would there be? There were no races officially on that day, which made it all the more useful for the meeting he’d planned. He took the next few hours to look around the place, unveil garages of cars, look up various designs in the directories, and finalise exactly what kind of race it would be. He that twist Nayax had asked for, and he had programmed that into Race Control. It was just those little issues – same cars? Same parts, even? And how long would it go on for – a certain number of laps, or for a certain number of 01.00.00s?

He just about solved these issues when the rest of the group appeared, each emerging individually from the booth that was just inside and roughly at the apex of the banked curve.

#Nayax?#

Being not only several hundred metres away, but perhaps a hundred metres up, he was out of range. He turned to the teleport pad, crossed the room to it and transferred himself across to the one outside.

#And with that, you prove why we don’t need a race#, Dezin said.

#Ah, c’mon. You’re just scared of that, aren’t you?# Nayax replied, nodding towards the curve.

#Fuck off…#

#OK, the point is, why are we here?#, asked Ferg.

#Damn right#, Preten began, #Nayak, you wanted a twist. I give you two, here. The first is that we won’t have fuel and tyres assembled and teleported onto the cars in the race. We’ll have to stop for those things and let a robot crew add them, like in the old days. Which means we’ll have to plan for it.#

#Weird enough.#

#Ah, but there’s more. The second twist is, second.#

#Second?#

#The winner is the person who finishes second.#

#Now we’re talking.#

3

They took turns qualifying, and Ferg volunteered to go first. His driving matched his enthusiasm, and he attacked the first corner, sliding and twitching on the way out. He’ll lose time all the way down that straight, Preten thought. Still, he most likely made it back through perfect execution on the S-bends, before conservatively bumping over the kerbs in the chicanes. Despite that, he hurtled flat-out into the final, banked turn, and unsurprisingly, the car began to climb rapidly.

#You think he’ll reach the ledge?# Dezin asked.

#Maybe.#

But he didn’t; the car kept climbing, but Ferg lost his nerve and lifted, and as he did so, gravity claimed its tithe, dragging the car sideways across the track. Preten winced as a small avalanche of rubber marbles cascaded down the track. The car, meanwhile, swayed across the finish line, with a time of 00.16.53.01.

#Not bad#, Nayax admitted.

Dezin and Lan went next, both posting times in the 16.52 region, both, curiously enough, struggling through the last chicane before the banked curve.

Sedrain1 went fourth, and stormed through most of the lap, winding up easily ahead as he charged down the third back straight.

#He’s on for a 16.50, I think#, Nayax remarked.

He threw himself into the banked curve, climbing it almost exactly like Ferg had, but Sedrain was a little older and a little bolder, and kept climbing. He was beyond the vertical at the mid-point, and still kept climbing, tipping upside down and then finally onto the ledge. Preten watched as the car twitched an effort towards moving back, but Sedrain had run out of time, and the inevitable happened; a hundred metre drop. The driver would survive, but the car, despite being built like a tank, would almost certainly suffer.

The car had enough momentum to fly off the ledge, meaning that the landing would not be upside-down, but the car leaned forwards, sure enough, it slammed nose-first into the ground, the front end almost completely ruined. The wreckage limped across the line, but the 16.93 time was proof positive that Sedrain had paid for such recklessness. He was provisionally fourth, which turned to fifth as Nayax posted his time in the high 16.52s.

This left Preten, who had to get a 16.52.41 to reach pole position. Less than that would produce the all-important second place, and, he thought, anything from fourth upwards would be fine. Charging across the start line, he carried too much speed into the first corner and immediately ran wide, but then grabbed time back with well-executed turns in the S-bends and chicanes. As he reached the banked curve, he felt some trepidation, and so he took it somewhat conservatively; the car never climbed more than to a forty-five degree tilt. As he crossed the line, the time flashed up on the windscreen – 16.52.94; fourth, and a little disappointing, but he could take it. After all, one place gained off the start line would put him entirely in contention.

4

They agreed to start as soon as the huge assemblers in the pits could repair the cars, which was in turn as soon as the cars could be wheeled into said pieces of technology.

#Seriously, these cars are reversible, with ultra-high strength chassis and suspension; flipping them upside down at [350kph] has no consequences, and yet#, Nayax said, struggling not to laugh, #and yet, we manage to total one, shred the tyres to nothing on another, and jar the suspension out of alignment on another.#

#Ah, I tell you now, Nayax, we’re just too extreme for these machines.#

Preten felt he had further evidence for this when the race started. He got away well, blasting past Nayax and pulling to the inside as he aimed to shoot past Dizen and Lan, who were in turn caught up in their own race. As he dared to glance out of his window, he saw Dizen cut across Lan, and the pair collided; pressing on, he could see in his rear view camera that Ferg and the ever-unlucky Sedrain had managed to pile up into the mess, leaving just him and Nayax out in front. Yet it wasn’t that simple – it wasn’t allowed to be, and as he saw Nayax’s car receding in that image, he was caught in a dilemma – he couldn’t afford to build up a lead that would be impossible to reduce, but at the same time, if he slowed down, Nayax would too, and the other four would recover and reel them in.

He could only press onwards, and he did, trying to sneak some time loss through clumsy kerb-work and awkward exits. If Nayax didn’t close in, he at least fell back at a reduced rate, and as he lamely tackled the final corner’s banking, he could tell that the chasing pack were already starting to close in. It would only take another lap or two, out of an agreed fifty, and the race would be on.

Another perfunctory lap led to another cowardly approach through the curve, and then, with another tilt of no more than twenty degrees, he finally saw them emerge as he crossed the start line – like oncoming bombers in an old planetary war, they swooped down for what each driver hoped would be the best line down the main straight. And leading the other four, in a desperate weaving motion to cover at least two challenges, was Nayax, whose driving only grew more panicked as he spotted the casual-but-accelerating car in front of him.

Preten looked at the corner ahead, and knew it was one that was easy to get wrong; this suited him fine. Of course, wanting only one place loss, he had to get it exactly wrong; more troubling. He would run wide; that was all he had to do. Simple enough.

Concentrate…

Twenty-nine laps in, he was back in the lead. Not ideal, but then, the pit stops had added a whole new element of strategy. Four of the drivers had pitted, putting themselves firmly away from that unfortunate first place; Dizen, it transpired, had somehow damaged his car moderately at the start, and so despite not pitting was nonetheless fifth. That was one man out of it, for sure, and he was holding up Ferg, who was also dropping out of contention. Right on the bubble, though, were the other three, and the on-board AI attested to the closeness of competition, calculating his net position as flickering through first to fourth.

He approached the banked corner for that twenty-ninth time, and decided he would rather be ahead than behind. He pushed on, heading close to the vertical, before coming down again as the track flattened out, then swung left and – well, that steering felt a little more numb, and the tyres were going. Two more laps, he pledged. Including this one. Unless I wind up on the ledge.

5

He had wound up in second after the stop, despite Nayax’s best efforts, and so the end result had been a twelve-lap jam, in which the field slowed more and more as each leader yielded in turn to the others, until finally, with seven laps to go, Ferg and Dizen had also caught up, making the race entirely open. With such pressure from the back, the pack sped up again, the lead chopping and changing, with the field as much as six abreast on the final corner.

Preten could only struggle as hard as he could as the constantly changing dynamic of the race bounced him to the lead, to second, to third, to second, to fourth, to second, to third, and all sense of strategy fell into an abyss. The final lap came into sight; he crossed the start line in third, blasting past Dizen have lost time on the banking. He had decided he was not going to compromise there; if he could gain a place – and he seized one at the first corner, at which point Ferg yielded him the lead – then he could lose it back at the last corner. He slowed down, to keep them in sight, and began to figure out how conservative he needed to be.

The final corner came; he decided on forty-five degrees, and sure enough, he spotted two cars that couldn’t help but climb higher, shooting up beyond the vertical. As he came round that final corner, the various cameras informing him about his opponents confirmed what he had been suspecting; one of them had taken the lead, and another had wound up on the ledge.

Sure enough, that car came crashing down. Preten checked; he was still ahead of the others, and Ferg was desperately slowing to avoid first place. As he did so, Sedrain’s car slammed down in front of Preten, and he could do nothing but plow into it, shovelling it forwards, and Ferg in turn could do nothing but hand him victory.

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