The shining planet of Mars hung like a crimson god in space as the tiny ship darted in like a needle in the dark...at long last, the race was almost over. Colored in splendid red and blue, the one man vessel screamed through space as its hull was pushed to the limits of endurance, placing the engines under stress that the designers wouldn't have dreamed of in their worst nightmares.
Lisa Drake adjusted the controls of her ship with the care of a master artisan, as she allowed herself a moment of glory to savor. Her scanner remained relentlessly fixed on the only other object in the entire solar system that she cared about, the steady blip that remained four thousand kilometers behind, but ever aching to close that gap.
"You can wipe that smug grin off your face, Lisa," came from the voice which still managed to hold all the bravado of a matador bowing to his adoring fans, despite being transmitted over a tiny speaker, "you haven't won this one yet."
"What makes you think I'm smiling, Jacques?" came the coy remark, as her grin widened at the sound of his voice. She glanced back at the scanner, and ran an almost fond hand across the blip on the screen that represented the source of the taunt.
"I've known you far too long, ma chère," he replied back, a light chuckle adorning his light accent.
"Yet you still haven't learned that you can't beat me," she laughed while taking another reading of the bright red planet that had totally filled the view out her window. "Territorial claim of Quad M761 is as good as in the bag for NORAMCO."
"My employers back at EUROFED wouldn't like that, ma chère," he said with renewed determination, "so I'm afraid that the claim will have to go to me."
"Give it up, Jacques," Lisa warned off her competitor. "You know the Free Trade Commission's rules of territory. Whom ever puts their signal rod in the Quad first gets all territorial rights, and I'm a good four thousand kilos ahead of you."
"It's not over until it's over, mademoiselle," Jacques chuckled with renewed conviction. "I have one or two tricks left."
Lisa eyed the scanner for a moment, silently judging his threat. She had been at this long enough to know that one should never underestimate a competitor. But then her smile returned as she realized that even the master pilot Jacques Fortuné would be hard pressed to catch up to her now. She was set to go into her mandatory orbit around Mars before going on in to the sight, while he was still some way off.
"Sorry love," she said with a hint of disappointment, realizing that the thrill of the race had already surrendered to what she now realized was a forgone conclusion, "there's just no way you can catch me. That deposit of Qinlarium is as good as in the hands of NORAMCO."
"Would you care to wager on that, ma chère?"
A playful glint sparked in her sea green eyes. "The usual bet, I assume?"
"But of course," he responded with his usual roguish flair. "A night in the glorious city of Paris, versus your dismal New York."
She raised an eyebrow in amusement. "You didn't seem to mind it last time."
"Did you beat me last time?" he asked with apparent confusion, "you must have remembered it wrong."
A warning beep from her navigational computer warned her that playtime was over, and she had to start earning the claim reward that she had already spent in her mind. Releasing the automatic controls, she firmly grasped the flight stick, and began to flatten her craft into a tight orbit of the red giant, keeping as close to the planet as her heat shields allowed.
"Were going to have to finish this planetside, Jacques," she told him while concentrating on her navigational readings that were flashing across her computer screens. "I'll be waiting for you down there."
"I was just going to say the same thing, ma chère." Then the communications went dead, as her ship arced around the horizon of the planet, disappearing into the night side.
Lisa watched as she lost his blip on the scanner, as the planet started to get between them. She concentrated on the tight orbit, realizing that this was his one chance to catch up to her, since a wide, sloppy orbit would cost valuable time. She locked in the atmospheric window into her controls as she began to see nighttime fade to brightness in brilliant spears of light as she pulled back around to the day side of the planet. With her stabilizing orbit completed, she aimed her sleek craft for the window that would allow her to safely penetrate the planet's stratosphere to get down to the surface.
The NORAMCO space ship buffeted a few times as the needle thin craft sliced through the thin atmosphere, its heat shields glowing a sunfire red as the pristine planet vainly attempted to refuse the uninvited intrusion. The stratosphere gave way to milder air as a flare kilometers off to her right drew her attention away from the computer readouts.
"Holy..." was all that escaped her full lips as the realization of what her competitor was attempting sank home. "That suicidal idiot!" she whispered as she checked her readings to be sure of what she was seeing. "No one lands without a stabilizing orbit, Jacques!" she yelled into her communication speaker, as she watched the trail of flames that surrounded his small craft. "You're going to fry."
But no answer came as his craft began to spin furiously, training a thick purple cloud of smoke. She bit down hard on her bottom lip as she internally winced, waiting for the explosion that was sure to follow. But as suddenly as it had flared up, the craft abruptly cooled down, as the EUROFED ship pulled into a level descent, kilometers ahead of her.
"You were saying, ma chère?" finally came the response that had her grinning in relief, despite the tactical advantage that she had just lost.
"You could have been killed, Jacques," she barked at him. "It's a miracle that your ship didn't burn up."
"Ah," he chuckled, "but miracles are what makes me a good pilot. Now if you will excuse me, ma chère, I have a race to win, and a quad to claim."
Lisa's soft eyes narrowed in determination as she judged the lead his craft had on hers. They were still over a hundred kilometers from the quad that had been staked out as the only deposit of Qinlarium detected on Mars, and she wasn't beaten yet. She knew that both of their crafts were roughly of the same speed capabilities, so simply trying to catch him would be practically useless, unless a miracle happened.
"It's time to make a miracle or two happen for me as well," she whispered to herself, as she scanned all the computer navigational data, looking for the loophole she needed. Then she spotted it. The quad lay at the end of a narrow canyon that was too thin for a ship to pass through. She could see that Jacques' ship was already heading over it, which would cost him time. She gauged the length of the canyon, and gritted her teeth as she pulled hard on the flight stick, causing the flat craft to bank onto its side, entering the canyon with less than a meter to spare on either side.
"Lisa," Jacques called out over the communication line, "have you lost your senses? You'll never hold that vertical dive through the canyon at top speed." His voice softened as the slightest tremble edged through the speaker. "Please, ma chère, pull out before you slam into the canyon wall."
However, she ignored his pleas as her concentration was riveted to the high walls that were to either side of her hurtling craft. Beads of perspiration dewed on her brow as a cramp formed in her hand. She held on to the flight stick dearly, as her muscles formed into rigid marble, holding the ship firmly on its path, despite the fantastic wind currents that threatened to slam the craft into either wall.
The crimson sunlight struck her face as she cleared the canyon and righted her ship, a breath of exhilaration escaping her lips.
"Don't ever do that again," Jacques demanded, his voice still shaken.
"Can't take a taste of your own medicine?" she scoffed with forced pretense, despite her own decision to take his advice to heart.
"That's not fair."
"Sorry, love," she said while finally letting out the breath she had been holding. "But this race looks like it's over. Her lips cured into a huge grin as her craft cleared the rise that surrounded the quad, and she fired the breaking thrusters. With a roar of heat and a flurry of scarlet dust, her ship settled onto a corner of the two kilometer wide patch of land deemed Quad M761. Grateful for the chance to stretch, she quickly sealed up her space suit and grabbed the signal rod that would send the communication of legal claim back to the trade commission on Earth, letting them mark off this quad as belonging to NORAMCO. Stepping into the airlock and sealing up the ship, she opened the outer door, taking her first look at the surface of Mars.
The sky was filled with scarlet dust from her harsh landing, blotting out the distant sun, and everything else. Hearing the roar of Jacques' ship coming in, she quickly jumped out into the dust with the claiming rod, and prepared to end the race.
As suddenly as the dust had appeared, it vanished away, cleared by the firm Martian winds. With a soft cry of victory, Lisa plunged the rod into the pliant ground, and prepared to activate the signal...and stopped. There before her was another ship. It was roughly the same size as hers, but was of a design that she had never seen before. She almost forgot Jacques' ship landing behind hers, as her attention settled on the glowing rods that were placed in front of the foreign ship, clearly territorial markers.
Then the ship's door opened, as three people emerged from the strange vessel. However, people was clearly not the right term, Lisa realized, as she watched them exit their ship. Although upright, and also in environmental suits, they were unnaturally tall and thin, almost like stick figures, and as they approached, she could see gray triangular faces through their oval helmets, as large golden, multifaceted eyes stared at her.
She barely registered Jacques' presence next her, as she stared in disbelief at the first aliens ever viewed by human eyes. But she felt his hand on her shoulder, and she turned to him, searching for some hint of control in his eyes.
The lead alien stepped forward and motioned to the glowing rods around its ship.
"We have claim here," he said in a voice that sounded like it was coming out of a vocal enhancer.
"You speak English?" Lisa asked, the reality of her situation finally sinking in.
Jacques glanced at her with confusion. "He was speaking in French, ma chère."
"Actually you are hearing what you want to hear," the alien stated in his metallic voice. "We adjusted our translators to all your languages."
"How thoughtful," Jacques grumbled as he deactivated his claiming rod and tucked it in his belt.
It was this simple movement that caused the ramifications of the alien's presence to sink home to Lisa, as her face turned into a sour frown.
"But our claim...the Qinlarium for NORAMCO," she stated to the alien, her voice still a bit shaky.
"We saw your ships heading here," the alien admitted, "and realized that we had to beat you to this location to stake our claim, since you Earthlings are so territorial."
"You raced us to this quad?" Lisa asked in disbelief.
"I'm afraid so," the alien admitted, as his multi-faceted eyes focused on both Jacques and her simultaneously. "What you call Qinlarium will not belong to either the North American Corporation, or the European Federation. It is ours by your own laws of fair trade."
"But it's a vital new fuel source," Lisa protested, hoping to salvage her claim. "This is only the second place that we've managed to find it."
"I'm sorry," the alien replied softly, "but it is vital to us as well."
"In what way?" asked Jacques.
"We eat it."
Both earth pilots stared dumbfounded at the alien. "You eat it?" they asked together.
The alien nodded, seemingly happy to share this information. "We'd share the Qinlarium, but there is only so much for our people."
Upon reading the total looks of dejection on the faces of the Earthlings, the alien took a deep breath. "However, we still wish to get to know your people, have our two cultures mix."
Lisa and Jacques stared at the alien in silence for a moment, then at each other.
"I had big plans for that money," she groaned quietly
"As did I," Jacques agreed sadly.
"Maybe some other time," Lisa told the alien as all interest went out of everything other than a speedy return to Earth, to pick up another territorial assignment.
"Likewise, mes amis," Jacques added.
Then both turned back towards their ships and entered them silently, the bounce lost from their stride despite the lower Martian gravity. The lead alien turned back to his companions and shrugged, then walked back into his own ship.
Neither pilot said a word as they started up their ships, and lifted off, pulling away from the crimson world. It wasn't until an hour later, as both ships leisurely headed back towards Earth, that Lisa received a communication from the EUROFED ship.
"I will miss having the opportunity to entertain you in Paris, Lisa," he admitted sadly. "But perhaps we will race again soon."
Lisa let out a sigh as she activated her end of the communicator. "All that way," she grumbled, "and some bug eyed aliens beat us to it."
"A most unfortunate event," Jacques agreed. "But hardly our fault."
"Do you think the trade commission will believe us when we explain why we never sent in a claiming signal for Quad M761?"
"I do not know, ma chère," he answered quietly. "But what a spectacle they would have caused back home."
"That's for sure," Lisa grunted almost absently, then laughed. "Can you imagine all the commotion and press..."
"...and endorsements," Jacques added thoughtfully.
"...and contracts," she added as well, her lips suddenly getting dry.
Both were silent for almost a minute, each of their thoughts a whirling hurricane of possibilities.
"The contract rights to them would be enormous," Lisa finally broke the silence, as she licked her lips in anticipation.
"Worth millions," Jacques agreed.
"I can't wait for our night in New York," she said with a grin.
"You mean our evening in Paris, ma chère."
Both gunned their engines as the two ships spun back towards Mars, accelerating them to top speeds... the race continued.
Originally from New York City, Samuel Stember has lived in Europe and Israel, but spent most of his life growing up in the suburbs of Princeton, NJ. His father, Charles H. Stember, was a professor of Sociology at Rutgers University, and a published author of several Sociology text. His mother, Sue, was a professional singer and later a portrait photographer, which she still does today. With two creative influences, it wasn't hard to see the directions he'd take.
Encouraged at an early age, he began writing as a hobby, but now pursues writing as a serious career. Spending nights writing, his days are spent as a computer systems engineer. He has had several short stories published in genre magazines, and currently has two completed novels which he is trying to find representation for. Aside from writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (and the occasional Horror), he role plays it out in a game that he created back when he was fifteen and still plays today, called Galaxy.
During freetime (what was that?) he enjoys spending time with his family. Samuel Stember presently resides in Hamilton, NJ with his wife, Eileen, stepdaughter, Elizabeth, and cats, Tails and Galahad.