Johnny Cochran dropped his magcycle down the far side of the massive tube, the gripping the handlebars has as it bobbed and dipped. The main launching tube of the mass driver threw off erratic magnetic fields as it warmed up and prepared for its next launch which made using maglev vehicles nearby difficult at best and downright dangerous at worst. Every couple of years some idiot thrillseeker misjudged the fields or his vehicle’s ability to compensate for them, or worse didn’t shy away from the tube before it launched and the sudden magnetic spike threw his ride like it was a toy. Regardless of what happened it ended with a dead magrider in the streets of Kalteisen and a brief period of tighter security around the mass driver that made it harder for all the other magriders to make good time.
Of course, the ones who didn’t meet that fate were the smart ones, and Johnny prided himself on being one of the smartest. There wasn’t a thing they could do with spaceport security that he couldn’t deal with. And like all the smartest magriders in Kalteisen, he knew the fastest way across the city was to run along, above or below the section of the Cochran Mass Driver that cut through the northern half of the spaceport. It was dangerous, sure, but it also cut almost twenty seconds off the time it took you to make the east/west run from Gaffer’s Rock to Canal Street. No one raced seriously without hopping the CMD Superhighway.
Besides, the mass driver was a Cochran and they stuck by their own.
But today it did seem to be playing favorites. He was having a hard time keeping the maglev output on his cycle optimized, not an easy task in any situation and made doubly hard by the facts that one, he was running alongside a gigantic electromagnet and two, the area surrounding the mass driver wasn’t intended as an access route. Keeping an eye on the shifting magnetic fields was hard enough without having to dodge support struts, antenna broadcasting keep-away warnings to autonav programs – helpfully disabled on his own magcycle – or the random junk that seemed to accumulate in any out of the way place in a major city on any planet.
Yet even though Johnny struggled he could see his cousin Pat a few hundred feet ahead bobbing along at top speed, threading his way through obstacles along the path of least resistance so fast you’d think he’d never even heard of wind resistance. Sure, he was two years older and he was in the military but that didn’t exactly lend itself to getting lots of practice magcycling. The Space Forces did make extensive use of magnetic drives but Patrick was in the Biocomputing Corps.
A little voice in the back of his mind pointed out that the ability to think twenty eight times as fast as the normal human might have something to do with Pat’s performance but Johnny did his best to ignore it. He’d always been the better driver ever since he was old enough to be trusted with a cycle of his own. No way he was loosing just because Pat had some new hardware in his skull.
The Mass Driver fired every twenty minutes, barring maintenance or technical problems. Trying to keep a magnetically driven vehicle on course while the Mass Driver was engaged was suicide, it was big enough to throw fifty kiloton containers from ground to orbit after all. That was quite a feat, even with the nothing but relatively low Martian gravity and thin atmosphere to deal with, and it required a huge amount of power to make it work. Piggybacking on all that electricity as it primed the launcher was part of what gave magcycles the speed that made it an effective short cut.
Unified Field Theory said that the closer two magnets were, the stronger their attracting or repelling power. And on top of the mass driver was not the closest point to its magnetic drivers. If you drew a square through the circular tube so that each corner touched the circle of the tube, the magnets would be at each corner of the tube. There was enough junk sticking out of or scattered around the mass driver that you couldn’t get close any of those lines of magnets, though.
Not until the last two miles of it, that is.
Johnny spotted the support strut he had been looking for coming up fast and dropped his magcycle off the top of the mass driver’s length, the autonav system running in his helmet heads up display – but not connected to his bike! – protesting as he momentarily strayed away from the strongest magnetic fields in the area. Then he fired the emergency compressed air thrusters to spin it almost exactly a hundred degrees and latched almost directly onto the magnetic line that ran through the mass driver at about eight o’clock.
Now he was hanging onto the side of his cycle for dear life and struggling to keep it in a more or less straight line as it hummed along, his head closer to the ground than his feet, knees clinging to the bike, front electromagnet pulling him forward towards opposite charges in front of him, rear electromagnet pushing him away from like charges behind, the autonav once again happily pointing him towards the strongest magnetic sources.
And that was all he had to do for the next fifteen seconds. There was nothing along this stretch of the mass driver – no support struts, maintenance buildings, diagnostic antennas, spaceport walls or random debris high enough to clip his head. In fact, there was just enough time to glance out at the spaceport itself and catch the sight of a Combined Orbital/Deep Space military drop ship coming down on one of the farther bounce pads like some kind of flying whale, graceful despite its bulk. He wondered if it had come for Pat. He was shipping back out in a day or two.
The walls of the city were coming up on them again. The mass driver was one of the oldest structures still standing on Mars, when it had been built there hadn’t been a city, just a spaceport and a preliminary settlement twenty miles away. Now the three were almost one and the same.
Since the Cochran Mass Driver was both a valuable resource and something of a historical landmark, not to mention still privately owned, the city had been forced build around it. Getting through the the city walls, which held in the atmosphere suitable for human habitation, was the single most dangerous part of running the mass driver. Sure, there was the danger of loosing your helmet or suit integrity in the thin Martian atmosphere, or worse when diving through the vents that filtered pollution our from the city’s atmosphere and forced it into the world at large.
But the biggest danger was still the physical barriers humanity had to maintain between their living area and the more hostile world outside.
The wall of the city rushed up at them quickly. Pat was still at least twenty feet ahead, effortlessly bobbing his bike back and forth to take best advantage of the fluctuating magnetic fields around the mass driver. Johnny had gained some distance by taking the straight shot along the side of the tube but not nearly enough. The next hurdle would be going through the vents.
No one had ever come up with a scheme that would let Mars retain a breathable atmosphere so settlements on the planet were still enclosed. But buildups of toxic gasses from industrial processes that couldn’t be reprocessed into anything useful weren’t allowed to stay inside the biospheres and were instead vented out into the atmosphere. When Kalteisen had built around the mass driver the architects had apparently figured why not kill two birds with one stone and positioned vents in a ring around the mass driver tube. The Cochran Trustees hadn’t been happy about it but eminent domain left them with little in the way of legal recourse.
Magcycle racers loved them because not only did they represent a sizable shortcut by letting you through the city walls but they could kill you in three separate and exciting ways. Getting through them safely brought a corresponding level of admiration from other racers.
The first hurdle was catching them when they were open, since leaving them open all the time defeated the purpose of enclosing the city. Johnny could see over Pat’s shoulder well enough to tell that, for better or for worse, they were closed at the moment. They opened every few minutes, for about a minute at a time, but waiting for the vanes of the vent to snap open had changed the outcome of more than one race across the city.
Come in to fast and you slammed into the wall and an exciting new life as a cripple, best case. Come in to slow and gutsier racers would beat you through.
Pat suddenly slowed down, the front of his bike kicking up slightly to increase its wind resistance and it’s magnetic fields suddenly reversing polarity on the autonav readout. It was the maglev equivalent of kicking on the brakes and it was also a good time to pass. Sure, the shutters on the vents were closed but that didn’t mean you couldn’t speed up. It just meant it was risky.
But Patrick was a savvy magracer too, he kept his bike bobbing back and forth, its magnetic polarity fluctuating rapidly and always in opposition to Johnny’s so that the two magcycles repelled each other whenever they got close. Even when Johnny tried doing a complete loop around the launch tube to shake him off Pat managed to cut him off and push him back, nearly shoving him clear of the mass driver entirely and sentencing him to a fast meeting with the ground of the Martian desert.
They were less than a mile out when the vents to the city snapped open and started spewing out clouds of dark vapor into the world outside. Both racers kicked their magnetic drives into high gear and shot towards them, jockeying for position forgotten.
Those clouds were danger number two. The whole point of opening those vents was to pump all that toxic air out but the clouds only really cleared up as the vanes were closing again. By then it was too late to sneak through the vents. But the vents were barely tall enough to let a magcycle and its rider through if the rider crouched low. Since the smog clouded a driver’s ability to see it was easy to clip one of the vanes on the vent and spin out, pancaking onto the wall, the mass driver or the ground and giving the local EMT teams a new story to tell at the bar that night.
But, as he had with just about every other problem on that run so far, Pat plunged through the clouds without hesitation. It was hard to hear through the thin atmosphere but it didn’t sound like he’d wiped out, not that Johnny really had any time to change anything if he had. A split second later he kicked his magcycle up just a fraction, flying up at an angle through the vents in what experience and other magcyclers had taught him was the safest way to clear the hazard. For values of safety, of course.
Almost as soon as his brain processed the fact that he’d once again timed things perfectly and wasn’t going to paste himself all over Kalteisen’s outskirts he had to deal with third and final complication of reentering the city as he had. Gravity was rapidly cranking back up to normal.
After all, human bodies don’t function right in low gravity and Unified Field Theory, correctly applied, made keeping one G of gravity a simple matter of producing enough power. Not all local governments could afford to keep Earth standard gravity within their confines but Kalteisen could and did as a matter of public health. So as soon as Johnny was back inside the walls of the city he started falling, and fast.
Which was good, since for the racer speed equals opportunity. Patrick had been out on deployment for nearly a year and before that he’d been in training. He didn’t know the neighborhood as well as he once did.
The old Chinese restaurant on the corner of Laughlin’s Way and Straight Street had added in a new and outrageously powerful “back-up” generator two months ago. It ran all the time and gave new life to the rumors that they were connected to the Triad somehow. And gave it an outrageously powerful magnetic field bounce off of, cutting a loop off the route they’d used last time they raced. And it was nearly half a block away from the old route.
Johnny bounced his magcyle just enough to point it in the right direction then, instead of grabbing onto the local maglev relay that would pull him into the official “lanes” of traffic that crisscrossed the city he matched polarity with it and shot skyward in a long parabolic arc that took him towards the restaurant.
Too late he noticed Pat’s magnetic field on his autonav, not running down Ender’s Way like he should be but instead hovering just over the Chinese place! As Johnny dropped towards him Pat’s bike suddenly bounced up and matched polarities with his, sending Johnny hurtling off course. He caught a relay over Laughlin nearly a block out and wound up making Canal Street long after Pat, not only loosing the race but posting a time of 7:23, a personal worst.
Johnny broke the seals on his helmet and threw it to the ground in a flurry of cursing that fought to be heard over Pat’s laughing. Finally Johnny got a grip on his temper and said, “How did you do that?”
Pat threw one arm around Johnny’s shoulders and thumped him in the chest with the other, the impact mostly lost in the padded, airtight suits they wore for racing. “Simply strategy, Johnny my boy! Know the terrain and you’ll win the battle.”
“Not that! Well, okay, that too.” Johnny fumed for a moment. He probably should have guessed that Patrick would think to scout out the ground before the race, they’d only been promising to do this for the last two months, since the family learned his cousin would be getting leave. “But how did you bump me like that? You jumped straight up then pushed straight down again. I’ve never seen anybody that good at straight mag repulsion flying by the seat of the pants, it takes a nav program or something.”
Tapping one finger against his temple Pat said, “What am I again?”
Johnny groaned. “A biocomputer.”
“Exactly. Overclocking at 28X is good for more than just fast reaction times. And there’s other perks, too.” Pat gave his bike an affectionate kick. “While I can’t do a direct gel interface with this thing I did rig some modifications in the controls to suit me better.”
“You what?” Johnny stared, openmouthed. “That’s cheating!”
“You upgraded your magcoils while I was gone,” Pat said. “It’s the same thing. I just tweaked out my bike in a different direction. Face it, Johnny Boy – you lost.” He turned Johnny back towards his bike and gave him a little push, then hopped back on his own magcycle. “Now as I recall, this means you owe me some Chinese!”
Johnny snorted and snatched his helmet up off the ground. “I’ll get you for this next time.”
“Dream on!” Pat snapped his helmet into place and then made his way back towards the restaurant they’d just passed over at a much more leisurely pace.
Eight Months Later
“Are you Mr. John Cochran?”
Johnny set aside the old balancing gyro he’d just pulled of his bike and looked over the top of the seat. An unfamiliar man wearing a ComODS dress uniform and a grim expression stood there. The drab gray almost let him vanish into the concrete walls of the garage and made the glimmering silver oak leaf that denoted his rank stand out all the more.
“I’m seventeen and I don’t have my citizenship papers yet,” Johnny said, dragging himself to his feet as a feeling of dread started to build in the pit of his stomach. “No one calls me mister anything.”
“Sorry. My mistake.” He took a few steps into the garage, his flat topped, black brimmed hat held in front of him like a shield. “Actually, your mother asked me to come out here and talk to you.”
“Is this about Pat? Because I can’t think of any other reason for a ComODS major to come out here and talk to us.” Johnny folded his arms over his chest and glared. “We’re not the important Cochrans, you know.”
“Yes, actually.” A ghost of a smile cracked the man’s stern face. “There are thousands of Cochrans just descended from Zachariah Cochran. Only a couple hundred are involved directly in running the mass driver. Everyone in the family is different. I served with several Martian Cochrans over the years. They all gave the same speech and it was true every time.”
Johnny cocked his head to one side, surprise warring with his other emotions briefly. “Yeah? Well. So why are you here?”
He glanced down at his hat briefly, then up to look Johnny in the eye. “I regret to inform you that your cousin, Captain Patrick Cohen has been declared missing in action.”
“Missing in action?” Johnny felt some of the tension relax. “Then you’re looking for him?”
The major didn’t break eye contact. “Son, he’s been declared MIA because we no longer intend to actively look for him.”
“Why not?” Johnny demanded, coming around the bike and stopping almost toe to toe with the uniformed man.
“Captain Cohen was on a deep space deployment when his vessel went missing. I’m afraid details beyond that are classified.” The major, who’s uniform had the name Williams over the left pocket, put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Son, deep space is huge. We could look for your cousin for decades and never turn him up.”
“Listen for a minute, son.” Major Williams turned and walked around the garage, looking at the tools, parts and programming equipment that made up a magcycler’s workshop. “Your mother tells me you two were close. Not just his closest living family but real buddies.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Our dads worked space traffic control, they were buddies. Died when the Braggadocio wrecked in Katleisen Synchorbit. Pat’s mom… didn’t live long after that. So he lived with us.”
Williams nodded. “I remember that fiasco. Mr. Cochran, I know you’re probably never give up on finding your cousin. Honestly, we never will either. That’s part of what makes MIA cases so difficult. You never know when to give up hope. Every commander who takes a vessel through deep space keeps his ear out for signals from missing ships. But right now you need to focus on the family you’ve got left. If Captain Cohen is still alive out there he’s tough enough to make it until we can rescue him.”
“Yeah?” It took a lot of effort but Johnny managed to keep his voice from trembling. “And what guarantee is there that you’ll really keep looking?”
Major Williams ignored the question, instead poking at a half rebuilt maglev coil on the workbench. “You a racer or just a tinkerer?”
“A racer,” Johnny said suspiciously.
He drew himself up defensively. “I’ve run the CMD Superhighway in under three minutes. Crossed the city in 7:09.”
Major Williams raised his eyebrows. “Better than good, then. So, here’s something to think about. No one has more time to sift through deep space background noise for traces of lost ships than fighter pilots flying battle space patrol on boring escort missions. A lot of the same skills you’ve gotten pulling stupid stunts on that bike will be useful as a pilot. If you absolutely have to look for your cousin, that’s the best way to do it. Just talk to your mother before you sign up. She’s already had enough holes punched in her heart for a couple of lifetimes.”
“There’s always been Cochrans in the military,” Johnny said before his brain caught up to his mouth. When it did a split second later he added, “But I’ll talk to her. If I were to sign up, wouldn’t I need a recommendation or something? Pilots are officers and that means the Academy, right?”
“Did you really make it from Gaffer to Straight in under 7:15?”
Johnny patted his magcycle. “Want to see me do it again?”
The major snorted. “You’re right under a major synchorbital space station and a military shipyards and the security there likes to watch races on the slow nights. If you’ve done it less than six months ago odds are there’s still footage of you doing it floating around. That’s really all the recommendation you need for the fighter program.”
He shrugged. “That and decent scores in math, science, physical ability and the rest. You plan to take a shot at finding your brother?”
“Yeah. Can you think of a better reason for taking a job that could get you killed?”
“This from a magcycle racer.” Williams laughed. “Well, greater love has no man than this, I suppose. Best of luck, son. Best of luck.”