Katie leaned on the handles of her crutches, letting out something between a loving sigh and a strangled gasp of pure terror. Her father had set the date for this a year ago, following her highly successful season in the simulator.
All she had ever wanted was to take part in the Legacy Vehicle Championship, the vaunted LVC that was followed by millions across forty colonies in this little corner of the galaxy. Her obsession for racing these old machines had begun when she was just three, sat on her father’s knee behind the wheel of the mighty, primitive 1968 Ford Mustang that he had won in a poker game the year before. Whilst most girls’ bedroom walls were adorned with posters of actors or pop stars, hers had been adorned with pictures of Mustangs, Cobras and Ferraris, four wheeled, natural gas guzzling dinosaurs from the days when people on Earth thought that they were alone in the universe. Even almost a century later, the lines and curves of these machines looked gorgeous, holding their own against the electric fueled, high tech modern equivalent.
Her father had kept hold of that ancient machine, keeping it in shape and looking good. Unfortunately, the modern era of space colonialism was no place for a petrol guzzling V8, and so her father had been forced to install a few modern systems to it. The engine had been retrofitted to run on water instead of petroleum (though Katie was glad that it had kept that throaty roar) and the tyres were made of a modern, synthetic and economically sound rubber replacement called Nytrium. Katie Fuller had, for all of sixteen years, been aching to get behind the wheel of her father’s Mustang and take it to the track, to earn the vaunted S Class License needed to enter the LVC and, maybe, become an overnight sensation.
Except life hadn’t been so kind to her. Fate had dealt a bad hand to this wannabe racer from the start, gifting her with a birth defect that affected her mobility considerably. She spent most of her time using a wheelchair (covered in sponsorship stickers for famous motor companies, of course), her legs only able to support her by use of crutches for a short while at a time. She had survived school, just about, keeping out of the way of the more vicious kids and netting herself some respectable grades in her exit exams. But Katie had never been interested in maths or law or psychology, her mind had always been laser focused on one thing: racing old cars.
Where her teachers and peers had railed against her, told her that the dream was untenable for most “able bodied” people, her father had never let her give up. At great cost to himself he had customised the controls of the Mustang, installing hand controls on the steering column and, for her seventeenth birthday, signing her up for an intensive virtual reality/simulator course on the neighbouring colony of Totolino. Her father had been a racer himself once, not in the hallowed ranks of the LVC but in more local, lesser leagues. He was good at it too, he finished mid to front of the field in most races and even won himself a few silver medals racing the Mustang. But he never won, was never rewarded with an invite to the LVC.
He had spent a large chunk of his winnings and pawned off most of his medals to pay for his only daughter’s simulation training which, provided she performed well and finished in the top ten, would offer her one chance to enter the LVC’s junior league, to get a foot in the door.
Katie had really enjoyed the deeply immersive simulator championship, virtual reality and haptic feedback had made it seem incredibly real and, much to her delight, she had not only kept up with the pack but, thanks to her hands on experience driving the real deal, and the fact that the championship organiser had agreed to install hand controls similar to the setup her father had constructed, she pipped them to the post a good few times.
Standing at the door to the blue muscle car now, on the pit lane of the circuit, an inch for inch replica of a famous track back on earth called Laguna Seca, things now felt a whole lot more real. Fighting to catch her breath, she placed a hand on the vehicles’ sun warmed steel flank.
“You ready?” asked her father, joining her from the pit garage. Whilst she was short and scrawny, her dad was a tall, strongly built man, starting to grey at the temples and in his short beard. He looked concerned, thought Katie. He probably could see that she was a little pensive about what was about to happen.
“Sure dad, just… having a moment,” Katie replied, flashing him a not entirely genuine smile.
“Hey, it’s not too late if you’re getting cold feet, kid. I need you to be one hundred percent positive before we go any further with this,” said her father gently, resting an oil stained hand on the shoulder of Katie’s blue race suit. She could see the concern in his eyes, the worry that his precious daughter wasn’t ready to hang it all out on the line on this technical and tricky circuit.
Katie smiled a resolute response, “I’m not turning back dad, no way, I’m ready,”
Without another word, a warm smile on his face, the Mustang’s owner fished it’s old fashioned key out of his boiler suit’s pocket and held it out to her.
The simulator had been an unusual experience at first. The physical element to it, an adjustable car chassis with realistic controls and haptic feedback, looked nothing like the Mustang, instead it resembled some kind of gigantic bathtub with seats, a steering column and other such car furniture. Once the headset was placed over her eyes and ears, however, the illusion was complete. The sterile white of the false car was transformed into the pristine innards of a car much like her father’s, the empty space around into a projection of the real Laguna Seca raceway, circa 1977 with projected spectators sporting moustaches and big aviator shades.
Katie took part in over thirty races during the simulator sessions, in which she took on dozens of other virtual racers. The top ten by the end would be gifted a chance to race for real, the first prize being an invitation to the LVC.
Watching her father head back to the pit wall, her crutches over his shoulder, Katie placed the Mustang’s key into the ignition port. She had not only made the top ten back then, but had done so categorically, leaving the other racers and their virtual classic muscle cars in the dust. Before her was the final test, an actual race against all of them. They were an alright bunch, mostly rich kids who were funded by their family’s vast fortunes. Only Katie and one another, a rough looking boy called Shaun, had faced any real difficulty getting there. Whilst Katie’s father had sold off his winnings to fund her, Shaun’s parents had sold all but their home, hoping that the winnings from his potential dream racing career would see their fortunes turned around.
The two of them had become friends pretty quickly, any cruel mockery toward Katie from the other entrants was quickly put down when Shaun came to her defense, flattening one boy called Phillip’s nose with a rather stellar punch to the face. When she asked him why he’d done it, he’d simply shrugged and said “I’ve no time for arseholes,”
That had been six months ago, before most of the other entrants were weeded out in the virtual tournament. Shaun and Phillip had both come through, along with seven other privileged young racers. They were all currently in the same spot as her, she could see them all walking out to their own vehicles, ramming helmets onto their heads and placing fireproof gloves onto shaking hands. She followed their example, gearing up with fierce concentration. She had worn the same crash helmet for years, a black one with a crazy pixel pattern that her mother had bought for her twelfth birthday. The cushioning had long since been worn in, it was perfect for her, though her usually wavy red hair would need a good styling afterward, especially if she made it to any press conferences.
As she was pulling on her gloves, she was passed by Shaun, behind the wheel of the big, black Pontiac Firebird that his family had clubbed together for. It, of course, had the golden beast that the car got its name from painted on the bonnet. His brothers had painted it onto the car for him, as the only one they could afford was lacking the famous design. The others had laughed behind his back about it, although never to his face after what happened to their friend. Shaun waved as he passed, heading for the grid. Katie returned the wave and, as his car disappeared up the long pit lane, checked over the hand controls one last time before starting the engine. The sound of the big block V8 instantly filled the air with its familiar roar, echoing from the barriers ike the roar of a long extinct predator. With a last wave to her father, who was trying (and failing) to hide his usual fears, she put the Mustang into gear, released the parking brake and began to make her way toward the 3rd slot on the grid.
Arriving at the grid and the parade lap had gone by in a blur, as they had every time in the simulation, Katie’s mind seemingly throwing the experiences aside so that it could concentrate on this moment: the lights that, any second, would change to green, signalling the start of the race. Adrenaline pumped through her body, the usual ache in her legs defeated by its potency. Her mouth was dry, her green eyes unable to tear themselves away, even for a second. Ahead of her were two of the rich kids, Leah in her Chevrolet Camaro and old broken nose himself, Phillip, his red Dodge Super Bee waxed to an almost impossible shine by his small army of mechanics and hangers-on. Shaun was behind her, in 4th place. The other six racers stretched behind them, just as much of a threat as those in front. The noise was deafening, even through her helmet, as ten V8s growled in unison.
The lights finally changed to green.
Wasting no time, Katie thumbed the car into first gear and released the brake, the heavy Mustang lurching into life as the whole grid suddenly started the race. Pinned into her seat, she moved through the gears, keeping up with Leah’s Camaro whilst simultaneously keeping her friend at bay from behind. The first corner loomed, the cars still close enough together to cause some serious mayhem should anyone lose concentration. Leah, for whatever reason, starting braking a fraction too early, allowing Katie to close up to her and, as they all squeezed through the apex of the corner, this allowed her to come out alongside the Camaro. Her opponent tried to regain a lead before the next corner, but ultimately failed, Katie managing to gain second with little effort.
Even worse for Leah, her offensive driving had forced her to take her eye off Shaun, who was now all over the back of the Camaro. Mentally wishing him luck, Katie went after Phillip for the lead, willing her car to close the gap. She didn’t just want to win that place in the Legacy Vehicle Championship, oh no, she wanted to make it personal, make this affluent, arrogant snob pay for the deeply personal thigs he had said about her, both in person and to the press. Maybe she could never do anything to him in person, that much was no doubt true, but on the race track? She would destroy him.
The next few laps went by steadily enough, the Mustang slowly began to close the distance to the red Super Bee and, locked in their tussle, Leah and Shaun fell behind, forcing the rest of the pack to do so too. Katie found herself hoping and praying for Shaun to finish second. Whilst only the winner got to enter the LVC, second and third were granted not only a substantial cash prize but also some serious sponsorship deals that would help a financially strapped racer like him to come back again next year, not to mention make up the money that his parents had spent to get him this far.
Katie was so lost in thought that she almost missed a badly damaged Corvette that was limping to the side of the circuit, leaving bits of bodywork all over the asphalt. Cursing savagely, she wrenched the wheel, causing the back end of the car to slide and forcing her to take the next corner in a rather dramatic drift. The tyres didn’t enjoy it, but the crowd certainly did, she could hear the air horns from inside the car. Though shaken by the near miss, she managed to rescue the car from its drift quite smoothly and, as she moved toward the next corner, the famous Corkscrew hairpin, she realised that the Super Bee had also tangled with the stricken Chevy, for it now just ahead of her and sporting an ugly scratch down one side. He had no doubt shoved the other car off the track, thought Katie bitterly.
By the time the two cars were out of the Corkscrew, the crowd were on their feet. Katie and Phillip were dangerously close and the last couple of laps were now shaping up to contain some serious sparring for the lead.
The Super Bee, Katie suspected, had taken some damage earlier, as it was unable to open up a gap anymore, instead Phillip was forced to defend aggressively, dangerously blocking the racing line in his desperation. Anybody else would have been disqualified, but everybody present knew that his father was a wealthy man, and that money had the power to make race marshals look the other way. As both cars sprinted over the finish line to begin the final lap, only inches between them, Katie knew two things. Firstly, she had to defeat him, her pride demanded satisfaction and no amount of caution would overcome that feeling.
Secondly, if she wanted to win without disqualification, she had to take a gamble and try to overtake the Super Bee cleanly, weathering whatever underhanded attack would come her way when she did. Several times a chance presented itself on that lap, several times a narrow gap opened and several times a steadily more enraged Katie could see that any attempt to pass would end up with her spinning into the gravel trap or worse. By the tie they approached the finish line for the final straight, she was cursing all race marshals for not stepping in to stop the Super Bee’s erratic driving style and Phillip’s parents for raising him to be such a little bastard.
It had to be this final straight, then. Barriers on either side, no gravel traps. If he forced her to lose control, it would get messy. Injury, potentially death were both possible. But at that moment, she really didn’t care. For the Corvette driver, for the hurtful things he’d said to her, the things he’s whispered behind Shaun’s back, she had to try.
When the moment came, she tried to make her move sudden, to catch her arch enemy unprepared. She lurched the Mustang to the right and instantly hit the throttle, being very careful to not touch the Super Bee in case any corrupt marshals accused her of cheating. She couldn’t help but glance into the cabin of the red car as she passed, being rewarded with a lovely view of Phillip glaring right back at her. She had almost made it, metres from the finish line, when he finally made his move, pushing his passenger side front wheel into her cars’ rear in the old police takedown maneuver known universally as the California Stop. Even though she had expected such a brazen assault, the move still took her by surprise and her attempt to keep the back end in place was too little, too late. Her entire world became a kaleidoscope as the car went into an uncontrollable spin at 120mph and everything seemed to slow down to nothing as some great force rammed the back of the car, creating further spins until, finally, it all ended.
She woke up shortly afterwards, still strapped into the car, her head resting on the wheel. Her whole body was aching fiercely, easily on a par with the worst days of fighting the pain that manifested as part of her daily struggle against her own body. She could taste metal in her mouth, or was it perhaps blood?
Slowly, fighting against the pain, she unstrapped the helmet and pulled it from over her head, dropping it onto the passenger seat. A quick check of her face confirmed what the taste was, the fingertips of her gloves came back bloody. Fighting off the feeling that she was going to faint, she blearlily looked around her. The crowds in the grandstands were all staring at her, in more or less complete silence. What was going on, she wondered? Was this some kind of a dream? Was that Shaun from the Sim Tournament running toward her in a race suit, followed by green uniformed paramedics?
She could only sit in dazed confusion as the medics checked her over, smiling faintly in an attempt to calm down a very agitated Shaun who, between pacing back and forth on the hot track, tried to comfort her. And there was her father, managing somehow to look even more worried, saying the same thing over and over again, something about her making it.
As the medical team stretchered her away,the crowd burst into raucous applause.
Katie sat back into the familiar cushioning of her chair, still covered in its many sponsor stickers, idly playing with the gauze wound around her forehead. The last week had been a strange one, the constant pain from her injuries overshadowed by a feeling of pure disbelief as to what had happened as a result of that gamble of an overtake on the final straight of Laguna Seca raceway, or at least a perfect replica of it.
“You should have seen his face when they made the ruling, it was like something from a movie, the stupid arsehole!” cackled Shaun, for maybe the hundredth time since she had been discharged from the hospital. They were milling around in her father’s workshop, where the stricken Mustang was slowly being rebuilt. When the Super Bee had hit the rear wheel, the resulting spin had stuffed the Mustang, rear end first, into a barrier, catapulting it forward by quite some stretch before it came to stop. Katie had suffered a concussion, whiplash injuries and a broken rib, as well as a sprained wrist in the crash.
But, for all of that, Phillip had suffered worse. His earlier incident with the Corvette had damaged the front axle and, when he made his move on Katie, it had given out altogether, causing him to lose the wheel and crash himself, scraping down the side of the barriers until he came to stop just inches from the finish line. The Mustang, in the meantime, had cleared it and, despite not being in control of the car at that point, the victory had been granted to her. Shaun, much to her later joy, had finished second, meaning that he could try again next year and hopefully join her in the league of the LVC. Phillip, however, had been reckless enough to perform his illegal and dangerous move in front of thousands of spectators, not to mention all of the television cameras watching for the winning car to cross the line. No amount of his parents’ money would see him coming back for another try no, his dream had been thrown away in one spiteful, foolish move..
The driver of the Corvette, one of the well-off kids called Charlotte, had ended up hanging around with Katie and Shaun after the race, coming with him to visit her in the hospital. Her parents were happy to pay her entry fee again next year, once they had funded the repair of the Corvette. She and Shaun seemed to get on really well too, there were even rumours of a date going around. Katie was happy for them both, the only partner she needed was the wounded race car that her father was currently underneath, working in companionable silence.
Sat there then, with her father and her new friends, it finally hit her.
She had achieved her dream, she was going to be the best damn race driver the galaxy had ever seen.