Author: David Barber

An old spacer complaint is that home is never where you left it.

Spacers end up in bars like this. Relationships don’t survive years out in the dark, but that doesn’t matter here, one loner recognised another.

Perry listened to them arguing about racing. They dismissed the sport because it was playing at something that had been their lives.

“The Worlds’ Cup,” grumbled someone at the bar. “Ion drives and gravity slingshots. It’s just trundling round the planets.”

“At least there’s some skill in light sails,” declared another. The Inner System Classic had just finished.

But they kept their real gripes for fusion torch racing. The Voyager Trophy was coming up again, all the way out to Voyager 2 and back. Billed as the toughest race.

Perry kept quiet, but the spacer with the prosthetic eye remembered something.

Hadn’t Perry been involved with the Trophy a couple of years back? Conversations faltered and heads turned.

She’d signed up the Ada Swann as a safety ship. Already far out in the Kuiper, she was well positioned for Voyager, and if the race went to plan, all she had to do was sit and monitor the comms traffic.

Racers were going slowest as they rounded Voyager, before plummeting sunwards again. That gave the Ada Swann, built for endurance rather than speed, a chance to intercept.

But the lead ships had turned and gone when there came a distress call from the Estrada Silva, a singleship competitor with a runaway burn.

Over the years, every spacer in that bar had heard radio voices calling for help. Sometimes a rescue was possible. Sometimes you could only listen.

As Perry understood it, António Esteves Ferreira had been out of his seat when some fault ramped up the torch, dropping him the length of his cabin and breaking bones, a high-g burn that emptied his fuel tank.

Perry had nightmares after that, full of alarms and red lights, trying to climb back to her own seat with limbs too heavy to lift.

“Don’t see the point of safety ships,” the spacer accused Perry, his lens gleaming.

Others spoke up. In their time perhaps they’d plucked someone from the dark, or a ship had matched orbits to help them. The alternative was doing nothing. Surely some chance was better than none?

But the singleship had flashed past the Ada Swann, and around the bar they thought that was the melancholy end of it. They started arguing about what they would have done. The dark did not forgive. Still, they railed against it.

Perry waited to tell the last part.

A badly injured pilot, on painkillers. Just hang on, she told him, though they both knew help wasn’t coming.

Then she saw an actinic spark in her telescope. Ferreira had lit his torch again, burning the last dregs of fuel, not to slow down, but accelerating onwards.

Perry looked round at these spacers who had made the unforgiving dark their home. Didn’t they feel something had been lost? Once people chased down game or fled from predators. These days it was just running in circles against the clock. You only played at things when they didn’t matter.

“Civilisation caught up,” someone shrugged. ” I remember when Vesta Port was just some tunnels. Now people have jobs.”

There was a resentful air. “Go tell cruise ship captains.”

But Perry had heard the faint voice from the Estrada Silva. At least he would beat Voyager to the stars, Ferreira had whispered. None of those racers would catch him now.

“A challenge for you. First to the worlds of Centauri.”