Herewith is the fourth, and last, of the deleted chapters of Spheres of Influence. Again, the editors were right to have me delete these, but there's stuff in here that may interest those generally interested in the universe GCA and Spheres take place in.
"Why are we here?" Ariane asked. "Not that I mind, it's like coming home again."
The immense racetrack spiraled and twisted, on the ground and in the sky, something that couldn't have been built hundreds of years before because the materials to make it had not yet been imagined, and around that track moved sleek machines that screamed along at the speeds of an old-fashioned aircraft. It was the fifth place they'd visited so far, but only the second DuQuesne had stayed longer than a few hours.
The roar of engines would have drowned out the reply of anyone other than DuQuesne; his deep bass voice somehow cut through even the stacatto howling of the Unlimited Ground Classic. "Because one of the people I'm looking for is here."
"You're sure?" The first place, a little estate on Mars… had been a bust, the home empty and unlived-in for probably a year and a half, with signs of a struggle. DuQuesne had muttered "Not so slippery after all…",and then fallen silent for hours after that. For a while she'd thought he might give up. Then he'd taken them on another roundabout route to Earth, landing them in the midwest of North America, not all that far from where she'd been raised.
"Pretty damn sure – whoa!"
The scrum of shining, sleek machines had come bulleting around the far turn, whipping along at speeds exceeding four hundred kilometers per hour, jostling for position – and not subtly. Even over the roar of modified turbine engines the rattling bangs of impact could be heard, cars flipped out of position, others using various accessories to shove others aside, try to cripple their tires, evade by leaping over or sliding sideways.
"These people are crazy, you know that?" DuQuesne remarked.
"MY kind of crazy! I did a couple of these myself before I really went for the air and space route!" Ariane felt her face stretched in the grin of a spectator. "And this is one of the best races – oh, that's going to hurt! Thank god for modern safety harnesses and crash foam!"
"Holy jumping –" DuQuesne stared in shock at the fiery explosion where one of the cars had tumbled into a retaining wall. "You're telling me the driver survived that?"
"Oh, almost certainly." She couldn't help but laugh. "Marc, you saw how I fly, don't you understand? These are my people. I know most of these drivers, used to go to watch 'em. Unlimited Ground, Unlimited Air, Unlimited Space – we're all in the same game, really."
The cars were screaming into a vertical loop on the complex course, and Ariane suddenly saw one car bursting into the lead, pure white with a red V on the front. "And that's going to be our winner, you can bet on it!"
"Oh, really?" DuQuesne suddenly nodded. "Let's get down to the track, then."
"It's not going to be easy. Most of these spectators really are here."
"Can't pull some strings?" he asked with a grin that looked… almost mischevious, and she felt her heart lift a little. At least he smiled.
"Maybe I can, at that."
She led the way down to the pit areas, where a barrier rose up in front of them, an AISage in archaic racing garb standing in front of it. "Sorry, Ma'am. No admittance except for the race crews."
"Jeremy," she said, "It's Ariane Austin. My friend and I would like to get down to Victory Lane."
"Terribly sorry, Ariane, but the rules are clear. No physical or projected presences that aren't invited. Keeps the experience valuable, you know."
Ariane grimaced, but she knew how it worked; she had people doing the same thing at her own races. With "Interest" being one of the few true things of value in a Solar System with AIWish nanotech constructors available to anyone, that value had to be protected. She started to turn away.
The corner of her eye caught a familiar movement, something that reminded her of a not-too-distant past. She stared, saw the back of a jacket with a snarling wolf's head between wings. "Hawke!" she shouted.
The other pilot turned and squinted, then came jogging over. "Austin! Long time. Heard a rumor your little trip didn't kill you after all." He looked closer. "Hey, you're physically here?" Hawke turned to the AISage gatekeeper. "I'm inviting her and…" he raised an eyebrow, "… her friend in."
"Well, now, that's all right then." The tall projection gave an exaggerated bow and gestured them inside. "Enjoy."
Hawke led the way down the stairs towards Victory Lane. "So, Hawke," she said, "what brings you here?"
"I was going to ask you that, but you asked first." He gestured to the racers, now barrelling down the straightaway in what seemed to be a suicidally vicious duel to keep or take places in the tight-run race. "Them. Looking to recruit some into Air or Space. With you out, hell, I haven't had any competition. Figure I'll make my pitch to the winner and first three places after, one of 'em might just live up to your standards."
She glanced at DuQuesne with a bit of a smile. "Funny, I'm down here for the same reason." Why the heck didn't I think of him?
He raised an eyebrow over one narrowed blue eye. "You ain't in the circuit this year, and somehow I don't think you're lookin' to come back, not with the rumors and all."
"You're right. I'm recruiting for the same business I'm now in."
DuQuesne looked at her. "Really?"
"Think about it, Marc. Where else are we going to find experienced human pilots?"
"Hm. You've got a good point."
Hawke looked back and forth at them both, then gave a quick grin. "Well, I can't say I'm not curious, what with all the secrecy. Maybe after this we can talk."
She transmitted a private contact code. "Call me on that when you're free."
"Will do." His head turned. "And here they come – last lap!"
The white car they'd noticed before was near the front, contesting with a brilliant purple vehicle and another in wasplike black and yellow. The purple car leapt sideways, but the white literally jumped at the last moment, flipping over and around, landing on the other side of its adversary, leaving the purple and wasp-colored cars next to each other; the black and yellow shimmied and smacked the purple sideways as the white pulled just ahead… and the checkered flag came down.
Ariane heard herself cheering, and saw DuQuesne both grinning and shaking his head, laughing. "You were right, Ariane," he said. "I guess you do follow these races."
The winner screamed past the stand, waving as he accelerated into his victory lap; the gates to the actual Victory Lane opened, though there were barriers in front to prevent any unusually stupid or foolish spectators from getting in the way of the winner when he came in.
A few moments later the white car skidded sideways into Victory Lane and the door popped open even as the car was still vibrating from the halt. The young-looking, dark-haired man yanked off his helmet and waved to the crowd, grinning. For several minutes, there was nothing but the traditional after-race celebration – the time-honored champagne sprayed everywhere, interviewers trying to ask the same questions that, Ariane knew, somehow never really got old for the racers because every race was different, the attendees pressing in and being shoved back.
Finally, though, she managed to get through the crowd enough to catch the winner's eye. He bounded over, a broad grin starting up. "Ariane Austin! I haven't seen you since the celebration after the Alacrity Classic!"
"Been a while!" she hugged the driver, and turned. "Vel, I want you to meet my friend Marc. Marc, this is –"
She heard the sudden dulling of sound that only a portable privacy screen created.
"Velocity Celes," finished DuQuesne with a faint smile. "Yes, I know."
The grin on Vel's face had frozen, faded. For a moment, the two stared at each other.
"How've you been, Vel?" DuQuesne said finally.
"Oh, you're kidding me," Ariane heard herself say.
"Sorry, but no," DuQuesne said.
"I've… been pretty good, Marc," Velocity finally said. "But… you, here?"
"Can you get away soon?"
Velocity nodded, looking around at the rest of the crowd – the nearer of whom wore puzzled and somewhat annoyed expressions. "They'll be… a little disappointed, but for you, yes. Of course. Meet me at my pit area in … half an hour. It's secure."
The glance she got from DuQuesne carried all the hint she needed. He needs to talk to Vel alone. "You guys go. I've got to talk with Hawke anyway."
Hawke gave a mock-glare as she exited the privacy screen. "So you're cutting in on me, when I brought you down myself? See if I cut you any breaks in the next race, Austin!"
She laughed. "And when was the last time you did cut me any breaks?"
"Oh… the time I ran you into the third keyhole at the Circum-Mars Unlimited. You got several breaks then, right?"
"I did. So you're right, you've given me some breaks. I've given you a few too."
"Saturn Ring Daredevil, yeah, I'm not forgetting that one any time soon." He was following her. "I'm guessing you want to talk now, instead of later? And away from the crowd too."
"Way away, Hawke."
She wasn't DuQuesne, but both DuQuesne and Gabrielle had given her tools and tips on how to make sure that the nominal security and privacy guaranteed by the Anonymity War was made as inviolable as possible. I'd forgotten Gabrielle used to work with the CSF and SSC under Maginot during her field surgeon work; she knows a lot more about these ops than I might've thought. With that advice, and native caution, she was able to make one of the nearby lounges secure.
Hawke had sensed the process and his expression was bemused. "What the hell, Ariane? This isn't an SSC meeting!"
She tried to smile, found she couldn't. "It might almost be." She took a breath. "Look, Hawke, we've been competitors, but I think I can trust you, and we need people like you."
"Who's we, and what do you need people like me for?"
She grinned. "We just might need you to help save the world."