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This cover was drawn by the author. This episode is PART ONE of THREE.

Rays of neon light sliced through the night, and thundered past the ray shield. Cheers rocked the stands, but even a choir of 150,000 spectators couldn’t drown out the roar of the B-880 engines. The two final cars soared across the track—so wicked fast they shone as trails of green and blue light—and raced into the distance.

The vehicles reminded me of starfighters—so sleek, and smooth, and radiantly swift. The city of Keizarad came alive in the night with clubs, and music, and on the very best days, Hyper-Lane racing.

The ray shield in front of the stands rippled with blue energy as flakes of debris made contact. People in the crowd ducked instinctively, though the shield protected them. The car in 30th place didn’t just leave a burning neon green flicker in its wake—smoke coiled behind.

“Calat Dohon has taken damage!” Blared over the announcements. The crowd cheered wildly.

Porbiyo, whose feet were currently up on the seat in front of him, and whose gloved hands were shoveling popcorn beneath his mask, pointed to the now distant car of driver Calat Dohon, “I believed in him! I thought he’d end P20 or higher. Goes to show—,” he ran his hands along his half dozen multicolored coats, of which green was the topmost color, “—don’t rely on fashion to make your wagers.”

“You bet on the race?” I eyed him. How did he get enough currency on this planet for that?

“With these fools, never!” He folded his arms. “Look at these overzealous, overexcitable, fanatical—.” The announcer announced that Calat Dohon had somehow managed, despite the damage, to overtake the drivers in P29 and P28, leaving him in P28. Porbiyo stood so quickly that his popcorn flew into the air and he screamed, “LET”S GO CALAT, I PUT MONEY ON YOU.” He punched his chest like a great ape and the crowd followed suit.

Soon our side of the stadium all cheered in unison for the 28th place driver. Porbiyo nodded to me during the chants, “They listen to me, Opaline. . . the fanatics love me!”

I picked popcorn out of my fur and sighed. There was a certain chaos to Porb’s entire existence that challenged me to capture in words.

I casually informed Porbiyo they did not love him, but instead enjoyed ironically cheering for a damaged driver in almost-last, to which he snorted and teleported more popcorn into his hands from someone else’s bag across the stadium.

With ten laps to go, my limited knowledge of Hyper-Lane racing informed me there was no chance at anything more impressive than not-quite-last for Calat Dohon. He’d already been lapped by the leader, P2, and P3, and was on his way to being lapped by P4.

Porb slumped back into his seat, “Perhaps I bet on the wrong person.”

The pack of mid-tier drivers soared by. Two dozen or so blinked in a second. A pan of neon light, and a quaking in the seats.

“How did you get currency?” I whispered.

Porb shrugged, “Same way I get food,” he opened his hand, more popcorn teleported in. He crunched the kernels with intentional irritability.

“Dohon could take a B-880 into the streets and lose against a toddler on their scooter. I could have told you that,” said the woman two rows down from us. The stout, amphibious-looking blue woman blinked her big froggy eyes and adjusted her hat.

Porb mumbled something irreparably rude, and I ran my tail behind his chair to smack him from the opposite end. He squealed like a piglet. And yes, literally like a piglet.

I lost myself in laughter, and the woman two rows down croaked a couple of reluctant chuckles. Several other spectators who sat around us—all of the amphibious frog-folk—also laughed.

“Where did that come from?” I said, wiping my humor-tear filled eyes. But Porbiyo had moved ten seats away. He pouted like a piglet, though this time metaphorically. “Hey! You’re going to move away now?” I spoke to him like a child. “It’s not my fault you squeal like a pig.”

“I should just—.” He proceeded to curse an irregular number of times, an anger brought on less by my stupid flicking of the tail and more by the approaching Calat Dohon.

The green car rounded the far turn and blasted towards our section of the stadium. The quiet woman two rows down, however, began to croak loudly with the gaining P4 car.

Duty bound, Dohon shifted out of the way to allow the P4 car to advance.

“And Dudud Bolot will lap the indolent Dohon!” The announcer screeched just as the bright red lights of the P4 vehicle lapped P28, drowning the green wake in a burning red shimmer. The action overtook the stands, who repurposed Porbiyo’s semi-ironic chant to an adamantly ironic cheer.

Porb reveled in his creation. I felt quite ashamed, and was happy he moved ten seats away as to not be seen with him. The massive monitor hanging above the speedway showed Porb standing on his seat with his lime-green coat, and the announcers said, “Whatever this creature is, he seems to have started a chant in favor—oh, absolutely not in favor—of Calat Dohon! The crowd has turned on the Team Verdegras driver and I must say, I am loving their brutality!”

The announcers then chanted with our side of the stadium, making the entire speedway erupt in celebration with Porbiyo’s unintentionally offensive fest.

When the cheers died low and the roaring of the cars past, I noticed tears in the big round eyes of the woman two rows down. She muttered, “That is my boy.”

I jumped down a seat and said, “I am so sorry, my friend isn’t the kindest so anything he says about Mr. Dohon is purely out of his own inability to keep things to himself.”

“Oh, no, Dohon is atrocious,” she said, wiping her joyous tears, “Dudud is my boy! P4, racing for Team Rojarad. If he keeps this up he may secure a spot for the rest of the Grand Prix this weekend. Depends on his performance tomorrow.”

Hyper-Lane races were three day events, over which a race was conducted every night. Cumulative point totals at the end of the third day decided the winner. The two categories were both Teams and Drivers, with each team having up to two drivers on the grid at any given time. The higher the placement, the more points, and only placements P15 and above earned points.

“He’s doing very well,” I said to the frog-woman. On the monitor, Dudud Botot was gaining on P3—his teammate on Team Rojarad. The two crimson cars grew closer and closer with Dudud’s confident speed.

Mother Botot moved her hands expressively, “Last race, several weeks ago, he was given warning. If he isn’t earning points this weekend then he will not renew his contract for the next season, and may be replaced two days from now with a reserve driver.” She shook her head and smacked her giant frog lips in discontent, “Could you imagine? Fighting two races and having the third day ripped out? The pressure on that boy, ugh!”

As the next several laps went on, Mother Botot told me all about her son, “He has raced all his life,” came up several times, along with, “he is short for a dumpun (their race), like your height! And skinny too, just like you, fur-man. Not stout like his mama and papa, no, he has to fit in that cockpit! All skinny and frail like you.” And she told me about his dreams of racing for Team Rojarad for as long as possible.

“This is expensive, no? How did you manage his interest when he was young?” I asked her.

“We have little,” she said. “His talent on smaller tracks led to sponsorships. He has been blessed with talent and ability. And gives all his winnings to his family. His sister now lives here, in the city, studying at University. And his Father has repaired his old candy shop. He is a boy who fights for what he wants. This weekend will prove that to Manager Babash Plup.”

When the race ended, Dudud finished in P4 and his teammate in P3, winning an exceptional number of points.

“Pressure only pushes my baby!” said Mother Botot, just leaking pride. And she asked me to come down to the paddock to meet her son, which I found genuinely surprising, but accepted as a curious honor. I had seen vehicles before, but never watched such advanced motorsport.

Porb tagged along, excited to meet the man whose night he ruined in Calat Dohon. We moved through the crowds into the heavily secured Teams Paddock, where each of the Team trailers parked full of equipment, and engineers, and cars. And as I followed the shockingly quick Mother Botot through crowds of dumpen and other amphibious-looking races, Porb become lost somewhere in the background on the prowl for Team Verdegras.

We came to the garage, a lengthy awning under which the thirty cars and their teams either celebrated their successes or cowered under the angry voices of managers. And when we came upon Team Rojarad, Mother Botot asked the grinning manager, “Where has Dudud gone?”

He congratulated her on her son’s victory, and informed her he retired to his trailer early. The manager—a dumpen with axolotl-like whiskers waxed to a mustache form—was named Babash Plup, and whispered to Mother Botot, “Your boy keeps another performance like that tomorrow, and you can bet that contract will get renewed.”

Mother Botot practically skipped to her son’s trailer. She knocked, and went inside without me. I heard an argument, and creaked open the door. A male voice cried, “I cannot! How can I fix this!”

I crept up the stairs into the trailer, and found Dudud on the floor, writhing in pain, with Mother Botot standing above him. She threw water upon his skin and covered him in slimy blankets.

“What. . . what’s wrong?” I said, feeling quite terrible at seeing the boy so obviously unwell.

“Dryrot!” He called. Several team members stood around him—seemingly his personal assistant and perhaps a medic. “Dryrot. . .,” he said through tears.

After half an hour of helping Mother Botot get her son well and hydrated, smoothing over his chipping skin, she sat me down and prepared a meal for both myself and her son. The medic and team assistant left. The family explained dryrot to me as such:

“The B-880 travels too fast, and will wick the moisture straight from our skins. Our race suits can protect us, but today I must not have sealed it properly.” He set his head on the table. He could barely lift his arms, as he was chaffed in every crevice.

“Tomorrow is done, then?” His mother said.

He nodded, “I could crash the car like this. I won’t take that risk. . . I am a danger to others in this state.” He said through emotional breaths, “It seems all is at an end at Team Rojarad. I will tell Babash.”

“How long does it take to heal?” I said.

“Several days, depending.”

“And the third race is the evening two days from now?”

He nodded.

I looked him up and down. My height. My build. Those race suits were so thick. . .the visors so dark. . . nobody would see my fur. Nobody would know.

“What if,” I said, “you did race tomorrow?”

“They wouldn’t let me, strange fur-man. It would not work. It is done.”

“No,” I picked up his flaky suit sprawled across the floor and held it against my body, “what if you raced tomorrow. . . nobody has to know you were this bad. Only your medic and assistant know. . . so, I’ll dress as you, and show up to race tomorrow, and won’t speak—we’ll say you blew your voice out. I’ll race for you, and try and get some points.”

They stared a long while.

They laughed a lot longer.

“Could you race two days from now if you rest tomorrow?” I said, serious as could be. My voice cut through the laughter.

He hesitantly nodded, “I would fight through it.”

I smiled, “You need points tomorrow, right?”

He nodded.

“Top 15 places, then. I could manage that, with practice.”

“But how could you possibly—?”

“I’ll figure it out, trust me.”

After a long pause, the boy said, “Wait, who are you, anyway?”

END, to be continued. . .


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