For my mates and me and everyone near our age a shuttle race is a lot more important than the Twysog’s discoveries. Daffyd and two others, Marchant of Caerwyn and Aurin of Ellis, have challenged one another to a daylong race. My companions and I whisper that someone else added a challenge. He is a scion of House Tarren and a real enemy. Not a make-believe enemy like Marchant and Aurin, who are really Daffyd’s friends. Race day comes one full month after Spring Stormtime. I wake when Nana shakes me. “Garreth, Garreth, wake up. Today is race day.” I pull on a jumpsuit and rush through breakfast. I will watch the start of the race from the battlements and then sit with Father in the War Room.
The sun is breaking the horizon when Father and I reach the battlements. Through a crenel I see four shuttles on the greensward. Four pilots walk from the gate to their shuttles. I see Daffyd, in his orange, black, and gold flight suit, and wave. He wears his helmet and doesn’t see me. One of my companion-guards holds a radio tuned to the link between shuttle control and the pilots. I hear each pilot signal readiness. On command, they lift from the ground and dart southward. I barely have time to blink before they are out of sight.
Father leads me to the War Room and tells me to sit beside him. The main screen shows the four shuttles and a map of the Equatorial Continent. Father gestures, and a controller zooms in. “Follow at that resolution where possible,” Father orders.
“How are we seeing them?” I ask.
“Our radar will cover them for the first leg. As they go around the continent, we will switch to other houses’ radar – Merrick, Caerwyn, Dolffin, and Hynafol. The shuttles will be out of radar range when they cross the top of the continent. We do not have allies there, and the volcanoes block most radar. Marredudd will pick them up when they approach the northeastern corner of the continent, and our radar on Sehwa will paint them before they cross the equator. Satellites will watch them when they are out of radar range.”
Father allows me to operate his console. Thinking about what he said, I switch displays and watch the shuttles speed to the west. They are still very close to one another. I tell this to Father.
“They will likely stay close until the final turn around our eastern islands and the run back to Fortress,” Father says. “They will separate on the turns, depending on who cuts the turn closest.”
The race will last most of the day. By midmorning, I decide I am bored. Then, the shuttles reach the islands of House Dolffin. The display now shows a map of their course – a zigzag among the islands with mandatory turn points. I watch Daffyd gain the lead in a tight turn. I cheer, until Marchant gains at the next turn. Aurin and Cynwrig are close to one another and a little behind the others. A red number flares beside Daffyd’s shuttle – a minus one. “What does that mean?”
“Daffyd cut a turn too short. The referees penalized him one second. Nothing to worry about,” Father says. I watched as numbers, red and green, flicker beside the shuttle icons. Father is right; the lead changes minute by minute until they break from Dolffin’s islands and speed toward the Free Islands where another zigzag awaits them.
“Will they be in danger from the pirates?” I ask.
Father chuckles before he answers. “No, we are very careful not to allow the pirates surface-to-air missiles.”
When they pass the Free Islands, Daffyd is ahead by six seconds; Cynwrig and Aurin are next, tied at zero seconds; Marchant is behind at minus four seconds. “Only ten seconds separate them. It’s still anyone’s race,” a controller says.
Father pretends not to notice coins change hands among the controllers.
Now, I am really bored. They have left the coverage of Hynafol’s radar and fly eastward. The only image comes from a satellite. The numbers disappear with the loss of radar, and I can’t tell who is ahead.
“They’re in the Rock Island pass,” Telor announces. “We’ll lose contact until they come out.” His voice goes to every televisor in Fortress, and is relayed to Fortresses Caerwyn, Ellis, and Tarren. “They’ll slow, and will lose time. They will spend perhaps a tenth-hour in the pass.”
A shuttle pops out of the pass. Without radar, it’s impossible to know--
“Where are the others?” A controller gasps. A moment later, a second shuttle appears. It’s about fifteen seconds behind the first. A third appears about 50 seconds behind the second. The fourth appears, more than 500 seconds behind the leader.
“Something happened in the pass,” Father says. “Get me radar. Hack Hywel, Cythrual if you have to. I want to know more.”
In moments, a controller replies. “Radar is up, sir. We have transponder codes from all four shuttles.”
The images on the main screen bear out Father’s concern. Daffyd leads, Marchant is next, then Aurin. Cynwrig of Tarren is far behind.
“What happened to make such a change?” Telor asks. It is a rhetorical question, one only the pilots will be able to answer.
I am no longer excited to watch the race from the War Room, so I wait on the battlements for the shuttles to return. The western sky is like a purple-gray but still bright when three shuttles cross the finish line – the walls of Fortress Bleddyn. Daffyd, in the lead, makes a victory roll – dangerous, since he loses anti-gravity support when he rolls. It’s the same with floaters. Telor explained that to me and made me promise never to try. Aurin is second. I expected that, and for Marchant to be third. No one sees Cynwrig’s shuttle. We do not learn until later that Cynwrig radioed his intention to fly directly home. Good. He was no fun at supper yesterday. Sour looking. I’m glad he won’t be at the barchedig, tomorrow night.
An hour later, I am waiting in Father’s den when the three pilots report to him. I rush to Daffyd, and stop just short of hugging him. He sees my reluctance, and grabs me tightly for a moment. But there’s something wrong. “What is it?” I whisper. “You don’t act like you won—”
“I didn’t win,” Daffyd says. “And you must never tell anyone.” He takes me with him when he and the others bow to Father, who invites then to the informal seating area near the huge bay windows. Telor pours glasses of dŵr y bywyd – and a thimble-full for me. Father raises his glass. “To Aurin, the victory, to Marchant, a contest well fought, to Daffyd the defeat of Cynwrig.”
The others raise their glasses. I do, too, but I’m confused. Daffyd tells me what the others already know. “Aurin and I flew one another’s shuttles. It was part of the challenge between us – to fly the race in an unfamiliar shuttle. There are people who would think this to be cheating, dishonorable, but the challenge was between Marchant, Aurin, and me, and we three agreed to this.”
Father asks, “What happened in the pass?”
“Cynwrig thought I was Aurin and tried to ram my shuttle and push me into the rocks,” Daffyd says. “I rolled and pointed my portside AG pod at his starboard pod. That tumbled his shuttle. He lost altitude and ended up in the sea mist. I tumbled, too, since my pods were asymmetric, but I planned for that and recovered. I caught Cynwrig unaware. He lost a lot of time.”
Aurin and Marchant’s families flew in for the race and the barchedig held the day after. No one misses Cynwrig or his family. With two additional Gens and the three pilots, the head table has no room for surrogates. Marchant’s oldest brother, the heir of Caerwyn, attends with my Sister-plus-fifteen, now his wife. It is her first visit since she married. Telor requires me to sit with Brother-minus-six, Macca, who is the youngest. I bring toys, ’cause I know he will not be still for three hours. Alaw, Sister-minus-three, is proud to be on her own, but I see her glancing often at her surrogate, seated below. Banners in the racers’ colors – Aurin’s brown, white, and gold; orange, black, and gold for Daffyd; and Marchant’s red and purple decorate the Great Hall.
Father salutes the three pilots and compliments them all on a hard-fought race. He says nothing about winners and losers. Gens Caerwyn and Tylluan say much the same thing. The three pilots respond with salutes to their host and Gens. Caerwyn’s heir adds a salute to his father-in-law, my father. Macca chooses that moment to decide peas should be flat, and pounds his plate with his fist. I manage to stop him and promise to help him smash peas if he will just be quiet for a while. Father rescues me, noting that Macca in the old language means hammer. “I suppose his behavior is not unexpected.”
This is the first time I have heard Father make a joke.