This cover was drawn by the author.
This episode is PART THREE of THREE.
Thunder rolled through the skyscrapers, rattling the steel bones of Keizarad city, and, as if in conversation, thirty roaring engines screamed through the streets. Well, twenty nine roaring engines. I was very, very far behind.
“Opaline you are twenty seconds behind P29,” Dudud said across the monitor. Rain poured across the speedway, turning the black asphalt into a slick, shining sheet of neon terror. Each time I pressed the brake, it felt as if the car would screech out of control and smash into the shield walls.
“Opaline you are losing seconds faster than P1 is gaining them.”
“Trying my best,” I tried to sound pleasant. I did not succeed.
I was three kilometers into Lap 1. We had only just started.
“You need to press the gas!” Dudud yelled. “Move the damn car! This is a race and you’re driving at thirty kilometers per hour.”
“It’s raining,” I said.
“Everyone can see that.”
I flew around to a straightaway and pressed hard on the gas. The water beneath the wheels screamed and steam flew in my wake. Rainwater clouded my visor. I couldn’t see anything except the lights on the edges of the track. I followed those. As long as the big blue shield walls were on either side of me, I was headed in the right direction and wouldn’t crash into a wall.
With swift acceleration I controlled the Force and kept gravity’s pull at bay. No pressure, no pain, no lightheadedness. Sorcery allowed me complete concentration.
“Losing seconds,” Dudud said. “But solid acceleration. Keep that up.” Heard him curse beneath his breath.
There was no way I could do this for him. And I should not have even offered, or gotten his hopes up. Guilt grabbed hold but I wouldn’t let it weigh me down. The best thing I could do was finish this race.
I made a wide turn, and felt the car shriek in hydroplaning glory. No damage—no crash. Thank whatever gods took up residence on that world.
Dudud was silent for a time.
I remained steady on the wheel and did everything in my power to finish a half dozen laps at a decent pace. I was lapped by both P1 and P2. We were six laps into a fifty lap race.
“I can’t see P29 in front of me,” I said.
“That’s because they’re six kilometers ahead of you,” Dudud said.
Rain battered against my visor. I couldn’t take a hand off the wheel. Force was not the only power my sorcery could dive into. The Essences of matter came in handy that day in Keizarad, too. I let loose on the Force for a moment, and found myself controlling myself under the car’s pressure a lot better than the day before. I’d let loose on the sorcery for moments here and there when I needed to rest my Aura. Mostly because I couldn’t see anything with the water on my visor.
Best solution was simple.
I Channeled the Essence of the rainwater and made the surface of the visor cloaked in a solid sheen of water. Rather than droplets forming and speckling my vision, this way the water condensed entirely and absorbed rain in a solid, transparent veil which drained across the side of the helmet.
It worked quite well. With eyesight clear again, I felt more confident to push the car a little harder.
I was lapped by several more cars. Quite a few, actually.
With the lights, and the engines, and the beautiful Keizarad City Speedway booming with fans, I expected a thrilling, fast, wickedly exciting day. I assumed I could, at the very least, fight my way through the competition and emerge as someone who could beat at least the worst driver in the field.
I was utterly naive. This was not a fight at all. This was sport—skilled sport. In war, one needs only to remain convicted, and with the proper ability they will be victorious. I could always fight my way, or talk my way, or even rest my way out of trouble. But sport required specific skill, not conviction from the uninitiated. A horde of farmers can defend their town from a dragon if they so desire. They will lose lives, but they could win the day. But a novice B-880 driver could never win a race. They will want excitement, and find themselves unfit for it.
My mind wandered all race on this distinction. I pondered the relationship between true challenge and sport—war and games. The dance of skill and belief moved to a tempest of a tune, always changing, always shifting, always leaving you guessing for what came next.
I crossed the finish line dead last. I had been lapped by every competitor on the grid, and multiple times by the top five places.
My times were atrocious, my performance embarrassing, and my effort futile. If I were Dudud, it would have been a failure of a day. But for myself, I learned a great deal. And if I were ever to come across another piece of engineering anything like a B-880 again, now I had the ability—and the humbled confidence—to learn from a master and give it a proper go.
I didn’t crash the car. I did cross the finish line.
After the race, the rain let up. That is the nature of fate, for you. And I jumped from the cockpit as quick as could be. The pit-crew eyed me, the reporters jumped me, and Babash—team principal at Rojarad Racing—hunted me like a fox to a mouse.
I wouldn’t lose him when I got to the trailer. No way I could. He was too close, too ireful, too hungry for answers.
I ran down the side hallway. I limped all the way, and stumbled a few times. Not due to any injuries. Due to an idea.
The enormous frog gurgled. His swirly amphibious mustache jiggled as he screamed and groaned in bouts of anger and confusion.
“Dudud, what was that? You little creature! You pathetic, wrinkle-skinned, spotted-bellied, smelly-vented tadpole you. Oh, I’ll feed you to the Narfasi. They’ll be furious. After all the credit they gave to you, all the sponsorships, all the damn media deals!”
I grabbed the handle on Dudud’s door, pulled, jumped in, and shut the door fast. I locked it and sprinted inside. Dudud sat against the monitor, body naked and covered in balm to protect his Dryrot skin. His head banged against the monitor.
He eyed me, “He’s outside. . . it’s over.”
Babash knocked against the door, fully intentioned to break it down.
I ripped off the racing suit and through it on the floor beside Dudud. Dudud eyed me, and I tried to speak but couldn’t because of the massive mustached frog whose voice burst into the trailer. He ripped the door handle off, lumbered up the stairs, and—barely able to fit in the trailer—stood with large, cross arms.
When he saw Dudud naked, cloaked in jelly balm, weeping, his face fell. He looked at me, naked, cloaked in fur, dry eyed, his eyebrow went up.
He said, “Dryrot. . .”
“He still raced today,” I said, acting like some kind of doctor, “despite his critical condition, Dudud defied my orders and raced today out of a responsibility to the sponsors and partners. He refused to let you, Team Principal, down.”
“You. . .” Babash’s face conveyed the words he couldn’t quite get out. Surprise, shock, confusion, understanding. He continued, “You raced like this? Your skin peeling off. . . and you raced?”
“I know I shouldn’t have,” he said, “but I thought if I put jelly balm inside my suit I could be alright. I couldn’t let you down. I wouldn’t. And yet today I did. The worst performance in all of Hyper-Lane history.”
“The team physician was supposed to check on you prior to the race. We have policies against Dryrot racing,” Babash said. “How did this happen? How did you evade them?”
He shrugged, “Avoidance.”
“You could have burned up and died out there. Dehydration, heat shock, live-flaying, boiling-blisters. You could have died, kid.” Babash set his head in his hands. “What am I supposed to tell the sponsors, eh? What happens if they find out you lost because we made an error and let you race with Dryrot?”
“Don’t tell them anything,” Dudud said. “Nothing.”
“I have too—.”
“No,” Dudud closed his eyes, rose from his seat, and shook his head. “Tell them nothing. You stuck your neck out for me. You have taken the chance on me. I know my spot is up for grabs tomorrow if I don’t do well. Give me this last shot.”
“Tell no one anything. And tomorrow, I race, like this—Dryrot and balm—and I will be P5 at the minimum. I don’t care about the boils, or the dehydration, or the risks. I will get in that car and I will get points on the board. And at the end of the day, I’ll rip this racing suit off, and I will show everyone that I got a P5 finish in critical condition.” He smiled wearily to Babash. “And when I do that, my talent will be true, and everyone will know you chose the right driver. We’ll start our legacy.”
Babash backed through the trailer, and quietly said, “I was never here. Legally speaking, I was never here.” He eyed me, “Who are you, anyhow?”
“Black market doctor,” Dudud filled in for me.
Babash grunted, “Definitely, legally, I was never here.” He left the room.
The next day, in the pouring rain, Porb and I sat beneath the neon awning admiring the track. And from the start of the race—beginning in P30—Dudud passed car, after car, after car, and after several hours of racing, Dudud’s brilliant red B-880, so generously mishandled my myself, slid across the finish line ahead of twenty seven other cars. He was P3 in the end. His first professional podium.
And I came to think about how I am always sure in war, and conversation, because I have so often been thrust into battles and negotiations. I’ve adventured far and wide and faced many foes. It is my nature, and my skillset, to be sure of myself.
Racing in the rain? Not my skill.
But Dudud was young, and even young, he knew himself well enough to know that promising Babash a P5 and up finish was sure. He was dauntless, and doubtless—a dangerous combination. For he had the skill to implement his conviction, the same way I had the ability to let belief guide my victories.
“Rainfall at Keizarad Speedway,” popped up on the monitor that morning, and Dudud simply nodded, saying, “Good. The others will be fearful.”
What drive that is.
I was invited to the after party, and tasted a particularly potent kind of amphibious alcohol, which they do not drink but instead pour across their lips and absorb through the skin. At some point, Porbiyo was so intoxicated that he called me, “M—Man,” before quickly realizing his mistake, and rectifying it with a “Ratman.”
The circuit left Keizarad City, and Poribyo and I tagged along to two more cities. When it was revealed to the media that Dudud raced with Dryrot, he became a worldwide sensation—for a day or two, at least.
I hope he had a long, wonderful career. Anyone who can take on rain in Keizarad City, with flaying skin, without a shade of fear deserves the world.