The Rocketship from Mars
Story by Dartz
The Rocketship from Mars.
Editor: Barry Hunter
Words: Tim Stockton
Photography: Chippy Thompson
The noise is immense. All I can think about is the noise.
The roar of the wind and the pressure of it pulling against my body making me feel like I’ve stuck myself behind a 747 at full throttle. The ripping buzz of the engine beneath my chest tearing through the cool morning air. It feels like I’m riding a thousand chainsaws at once, stuck at full throttle, cutting their way across the dried bed of lake Gairdner.
Between heartbeats, I glance down at the speedometer. 500kph and still accelerating like a scalded cat with a rocket shoved up its arsehole.
I don’t have time to think about it. Shift light demands my attention. A prod of a button cuts the ignition for a microsecond, while servos in the gearbox hook up 9th gear of an effective 12. With a gunshot backfire the revs drop and the bike keeps accelerating. A sphincter-puckering shimmy runs through the frame for the briefest of instants before the 2 wheel drive system pulls the bike straight.
I’m aiming for 620kph.
I’m aiming for the World Record.
How the hell did I get here?
It started with a simple phone call to the editor. I was at my desk putting the finishing touches on last month’s group test while quietly longing for the good old days of motorcycle journalism when a road-test consisted of a three column story written about a stoned journey through the outback, copious drinking, a note on how great it is to be mates, how stupid cagers are and how big a little Hitler the cops are being, finished by a quick note saying “Oh yea, the bike is good too’, when Barry just ambles up out of his office and leans over my desk.
“Tim,” he says to me, “I just got an phone call from some woman who says she’s about make a go of the land speed record on Lake Gairdner.”
“Yup. She says she’s come down from Fenspace especially for it,”
Yeah, another one. They never do seem to understand that the FIM won’t ratify records where handwavium has been used. The record still stands at 605kph, set back in 2010 by an American with the brilliant name of Rocky Robinson.
He smirks, “Oh no. She assures me that this machine is one-hundred percent all-natural normal laws of physics.”
Sure Boss, I’ll take it. Sounded like every other Fen attempt really, but they always failed because the scrutineers found something handwaved. Still it was a week or so out of the office, and travel pay. Get Chippy along to take a few photographs, add a few hundred words of an article liberally laced with juicy technical bits, go home for tea. Hard part was getting there.
The magazine’s offices are in Sydney. Lake Gardner isn’t. Still, it gives me time to research. Whoever they are, they asked Barry to keep their name a secret, but I can make assumptions. A Fenspacer with regular Australian connections, versed in technology enough to pull something like this... It’s obvious who’s behind it. I pull up what info I can and read it on the drive down. I don’t want to seem like a moron.
Lake Gairdner itself is a dried up lake-bed, a salt flat not too different from the legendary Bonneville in the USA. It’s also home to the Dry Lakes Racing Association. They meet there regularly and hold their own racing competitions on the lake-bed. A quick call to them confirms that the attempt is being made within the week, and that the team have been testing most mornings. A bloke called Jacob tells me they’ve been running for a week, building speed slowly up from 400kph. Now I start getting a little more excited.
I begin to think I might be covering a genuine World Record attempt and not one of those Fen hoaxes attempting to play hide-that-wave.
One last thing he tells me, is that I’ll never believe what I see when I get there. “It’s insane.”
Yeah sure mate, I tell him... I’m looking at a picture of her right now. Turns out I wasn’t. You know what they say about assume?
I pull into the Big 4 Caravan park in Port Augusta, renting something small for myself and Chippy to get some sleep before tomorrow’s drive down to Iron Knob and Mt. Ive’s station. I call a number I’ve been given, and get a woman’s voice.
It’s somewhat husky...youthful, but still strangely cheerful. Not what I’d expected at all.
She tells me to get there as early as possible. They make their runs in the morning and evening.
I press for more information, but she’s remarkably tight-lipped. I can almost hear her winking at me over the phone line when she tells me I’ll have to come and see for myself. It’s frustrating as hell and I’m in a good mind to just go home and leave them to it.
But I’m just too damn curious.
At the very least, most of these Fen attempts do look interesting. But I begin to wonder why they’re being so tight-lipped about it. I have the feeling that I won’t get the answer until I turn up at the lake bed. I have the feeling that is the answer.
On the journey down, Chippy’s a lot more pessimistic.
“Another bloody hoax mate,” he says. “How many of these have their been? How many arseholes coming along trying to play hide-the wave in their engines, drawing tonnes of publicity and making a big hoopla in the papers for weeks, only to be found out as frauds scamming money from sponsors.” He scoffs. “Any moron can handwave a car or bike to go a thousand kilometres and hour.”
He’s right. It’s an old game at this stage. By the time anyone usually figures out the truth the chancers behind it have already gone to orbit. But he only convinces me more that this isn’t just a hoax. Things start to make a little more sense. If they did come in, making noise and drawing attention like all the others, the natural assumption would be that they were just like all the others.
I tell him, maybe they’re keeping it quiet because it’s legit then.
He calls me an idiot.
At Mt Ive’s I ring the number again. I get the same woman’s voice. She still won’t give me her name. She tells us to drive down to the Saltbush camp, and look for a green Ford F-250 truck, Chicago registration BDR-259.
Americans? Her accent wasn’t American. It was weird but it definitely wasn’t American.
I also catch the tail end of an argument over a camping permit, and something about contamination. She apologises and cuts the call off, leaving me and Chippy just a little perplexed.
Chippy takes a few photographs of the camp as we pull in in the van. We’ve brung our own bikes to get a few runs in while we have the chance, in case this is just a waste of our time. I think it isn’t.
We ask for directions from a passerby. He points us towards the other end of the camp, with a knowing smile and the reassurance that whatever’s there, is going to “blow our brains out,”
Chippy’s doubtful, but snaps his picture anyway.
We find the truck parked up beside a large white tent. My first inkling that this wasn’t who I was expecting it to be was the dusky-skinned woman sunning herself on a lawn-chair just in front of the truck. Her arm and leg shone bright and metallic in the sun.
We stop the van opposite her and she raises her dark sunglasses as I lower the window.
Is this the record attempt?
“Yeah!” she answers, jumping to her feet. “I’m Ford Sierra. Jet’s in the tent with the bike.”
“Tim Stockton” I introduce myself. “And Chippy Thompson, the photographer.”
“Oy,” Chippy waves.
“Jet!” she calls out. “The reporters are here!”
Jet, is a self-described flying cyborg, and claims to be the result of an accident a couple of years earlier. Jet, is big. What I first thought to be an unusual white and blue suit of protective riding gear turns out to be Jet’s body. Solid ceramic armour.
“She’s technically naked,” Ford smirks.
“They both looked down,” Jet barks a laugh, before assuring us with a friendly smile that it’s alright.
We get to talking for a while. Team Stingray as they call themselves is made up of two people, Ford Sierra and the Jet Jaguar. Ford Sierra is originally American from Chicago. She’s a salvage expert and mechanic by trade, with a sideline in bounty hunting that she gleefully tells us about. Jet, Jet is the strangest thing I’ve seen and I’ve been to Kandor for a holiday. Self-described as a spaceflight capable combat cyborg, Jet’s usual day job is training others like her in martial arts. Both live together as partners on Mars, at Marsbase Sara.
Getting more information on either of them is an exercise in pulling teeth.We share a beer in the shade of the van. Otherwise, it’s a relaxed and easygoing conversation. It turns out Jet’s a former motorcyclist, but Ford is a different matter.
“It just never appealed to me,” she says. “I always preferred four wheels,”
Then why make a go at the land speed record?
She looks at Jet for a moment. “Because nobody else was doing it.”
It’s obvious that’s not the whole reason.
“And we needed a hobby,” Jet adds.
Next, we come to the main event. I’m expecting something weird when I’m led to the tent. I’m half expecting something just that little bit ridiculous. Chippy lets me know in his own way that I’m not alone.
What we’re introduced to, is exactly what we didn’t expect.
It’s not the usual 2 wheeled sausage-creature streamliner; at first glance it actually looks like an actual motorcycle. Stretched a little, with a weird looking engine, but I can pick out the exhausts, the two big snails of the turbochargers, radiators and intercooler. The rider still goes where you’d expect the rider to go.
It’s still a monster, as long, or if not longer than the van. Two bazooka silencers straddle the rear wheel, fed by exhaust pipes thicker than my arm, blued with heat. Red-painted fairing parts are stored underneath a foldaway desk and a laptop which looks like it was built by Tonka. Beside them, a pair of baffled catalysers obviously intended to fit in the silencers, a burned out engine rotor and, of all things, a South Australia registration plate.
“It doesn’t fit in the truck,” Jet explained when asked. “It was the easiest way to get it down here from the spaceport. It was originally a car engine anyway, so getting it to meet emission regulations wasn’t hard. Drop the boost, lean it out a little, run unleaded, pipe the turbo wastegates into the silencers there and fit the baffles. It just about passed the single vehicle assessment.”
How does it ride on the road?
“Easy enough. It cruised happily at the speed limit. I just had to keep the rev’s down, and take it easy through the corners or it would scrape the bellypan.”
I’d say so. Something that long, would probably corner like a supertanker. The front wheel stretches far in front of the fairing, fed by thick metal lines which form part of the two-wheel drive system. It’s hydraulic. If the real wheel starts to spin, it transmits power to the front, stabilising the machine. Oil coolers are mounted to the front suspension arms, while the rear swinging arm acts as the oil tank from the engine. Cooling fins are machined into it. Everything is being done to get rid of as much heat as possible.
Getting closer, and it’s possible to see just how exquisite the craftsmanship is. The whole front swinging arm, the frame and rear swingarm, have been machined from billet metal then welded together. The welds are neat and mechanically precise. Even the controls are machined from metal. It gives off a sense of something that’s both astonishingly fast, very dangerous, and built to out-last the cockroaches.
Jet’s wearing a smirk.
“That’s the Highway Star.”
It’s a replica of a motorcycle featured in an episode of an animé named Bubblegum Crisis, Jet tells us. An animé she based her own armour on.
Seeing it in the metal, naked, it looks like something capable of 600kph. It looks nothing like the usual streamliners. It’s brutal and vicious, front heavy. It looks like it batters the air out of it’s way and tells drag to fuck off rather than slicing easily through it all with the minimum of fuss. It has a certain elegant brutality to it, like a precision machined double-headed battleaxe.
“How much does it weigh?” Chippy asks. He’s gobsmacked by it.
“About half a ton,” Ford answers. “And we’ve tuned it to about 600 kilowatts, with a push button boost up to 750.”
Chippys response isn’t printable. We’re in the presence of something truly special. The engine is built out of two Mazda rotary engines, taken from an Rx-7, mounted to a common output shaft, and then boosted by two big fat turbochargers driving through a centre-mounted intercooler. Jet’s babbling fannishly about how the original is supposed to be an all ceramic 1500cc twin-turbo.
I’m quietly informed that they believe it might be possible to increase the output above the magic thousand kilowatts with little trouble and possibly get as high as 1200. They run with the bare minimum of boost to keep the engine temperatures down.
“Piston Engines blow up and seize,” Ford explains, “Rotaries don’t seize so much. The housing always expands more than the rotor so if it starts to cook it’ll just blow its seals and loose power. It won’t seize solid and send you flying at 600kph.”
Somehow, looking at Jet, I doubt getting shot off at 600kph would harm her. She claims to be able to fly faster.
Instrumentation is stolen from a Zig fighter. Hand controls are like gun grips, with a pull-brake and a trigger throttle driven by a single finger on the right hand, and a heavy clutch on the left. The Gearbox uses a lockup-clutch like a drag bike, with 6 speeds and a range selector on the output, giving effectively 12 speeds.
“It was cheaper than getting a custom 8-speed,” Jet says. “And it’s all handled by a microcontroller anyway. Just push a button to go up or down a gear.”
I wonder why they don’t just use normal controls, but it all makes sense when I see Jet doesn’t have proper wrists or even ankles. That’s got to be frustrating. Chippy’s busy filling up the memory stick on his camera, while I just stand awestruck drinking in the little details. Plastic fixtures that seem to have grown organically, holding things in place. Oil coolers are mounted under the riders seat,vented out on either side.
How long did it take to build?
“3 months, give or take,” Ford says, as if it was nothing
Chippy calls bullshit. That’s gotta be waved.
Jet appears almost ashamed. “We thought it would take a year but I just.... it just sort of came together” It seems to bother her.
The Star might not be waved, but she clearly is. How’d you manage that? I ask her.
She forces a smile “A man’s got to have his secrets.”
I get the feeling that that sentence is going to remain one of them.
They fire up the bike. It’s loud. It’s indescribably loud. It’s like being stuck in a tent with the hornet’s nest from hell. I can’t hear it. I can’t hear a thing. But I can feel it thumping inside my chest. The air is filled with the sweet smell of burning leaded petrol. Jet and Ford are carrying on a conversation as if we were standing in a quiet park, unperturbed by the noise.
After a few seconds, it starts to hurt my ears.
Then Jet starts to rev it, blipping the throttle with her metal fingers. For all the world, it sounds like an entire pantheon of Gods farting all at once, ripping and tearing and rasping and ringing in my ears. Close the throttle and the anti-lag kicks in, backfiring like a cannon going off, booming in the 'silencers'. We finally managed to get them to shut it down with a combination of desperate screams, flailing arms, and covering our ears in a futile attempt to keep ourselves from being deafened.
“Yeah, we got an anti-social mecha warning for that,” Ford brags. not in the least bit ashamed. “First pure hardtech one in Sara’s history,”
I felt like I’d shared a tent with a whole bloody war.
We had a few hours before the evening run, find some shade in the camp. We got to talking again. I start to think that maybe this could really be legit. I hope it’s legit. 750 kilowatts isn’t an insane figure for a 4-rotor engine. I’d heard of similar engines fitted to cars putting out more, without boosting.
There was nothing at all fantastic about it. It wasn’t like all the fen spectaculars running on lunatic principals, or stupid things like vortex intakes or magnetic fuel lines. There were some odd materials in it, a few things based on that Whole Fenspace Catalogue, but nothing from beyond the realm of science and common sense.
They showed me the import papers to prove it. Signed and sealed by the Transrationality Science Assessment Bureau, cleared for entry into the United States.
But I had to ask the question. If this was a full hard machine, why not the US? Why not Bonneville?
Ford tried to answer. “Well y’see, I have...”
Jet cut across her. “My biomod. The US would just throw a wobbly.”
The pair share an uneasy glance but I get the feeling it’s far more complex that that. Weird tales are par for the course among Fen, so I decide to let it drop. Focus on the important things, focus on the bike.
Jet explained where the idea came from.
“We’d been looking for something different to do,” she says, “Something that nobody upstairs was doing. We were both done with our day’s work when we decide to watch a film. I pulled down The Worlds Fastest Indian from a nearby totally legitimate download service,” she smirks, “That’s where we got the idea.” She turns to Ford.
“We knew about all the cheating, so we planned to run at Bonneville first rather than here. Who better to confirm that it’s wave free than the wave-paranoid TSAB?” She looks at her partner. “We were able to get a wave-clean certificate from them for the bike, but getting a visa for Jet would’ve been impossible.”
Jet laughs. “While to get in here, I just had to apply for a visa at New Adelaide, registered to a name and address at Sara. I did that during a break in training.”
Ford continues. “When we had to come to Australia, we decided to play it quiet rather than raising a shitstorm like all the others. We’re only interested in the record, most of the sponsor stickers are just friends who helped out, or where we bought parts from.”
I recognise a few of the names. Some are earthbound, some aren’t.
They set about prepping the bike for the evening run. It’s going to be a full practice run, running with the setup they plan to use for the actual attempt. With the fairing finally fitted, the Highway Star looks like what is is.... A Manga refugee made real.
It’s low and long, like a sled with the rider on top. The nose of the bike is only a centimetres above the faired in front wheel, with a shallow windscreen reaching back over the tank. A pair of sidepods mount the radiators, emblazoned on one a string of Japanese characters meaning ‘Devil and Angel’s Kiss’ and on the other ‘Highway Star’. They use radiators rather than the usual ice bath, reasoning that the lost weight outweighs the effect of the added drag.
I ask if I can sit on it, and they’re both happy for me to do so. Be our guest.
You lie right on top of it, head tucked in under the screen, legs stretched out behind to a pair of footpegs that don’t feel like they’ll support properly. It wouldn’t take much for my foot to slip off, I have to hook it with the heel of my boot. Controls are within a finger’s reach on both handles...barely... but take quite a bit of effort to operate. Everything thunks into place like it’s hewn from solid stone. I can see the radiators exhaust right onto the handlebars, and wonder if it wouldn’t begin bake my hands after a few minutes. Two levers open ducts in the side to redirect the hot air away from the rider, but at the expense of even more drag.
The saddle is a pain, all my weight pressing down on places I doubt Jet herself has. I try to take some of my weight on the oversized fuel-tank/airbox , but it’s impossible to find anywhere comfortable. I rock it on it’s suspension a little, and it feels every single one of it’s 500 kilos. It feels like I’m straddling a tanker. I can't even paddle it forward it's so heavy. The throttle trigger is stiff, and hurts my finger, the brake handle doesn’t feel like it’s connected to more than a switch for more than half it’s travel before it finally stiffens.
Electromagnetic brakes and hydraulics. They’re probably going to feel a bit wooden, I comment.
They look at me like I’ve got two heads on my shoulder and I start laughing when I finally realise that I’ve been going through my mental review checkbox the same as if I was sitting on the latest offering from Japan. This is no UJM.
Why not a streamliner?
“The Highway Star wasn’t a streamliner,” Jet explained, as if it should be the obvious answer. “Besides, we make up for the extra drag with much more power, and much better traction and stability to use that power
Will it work?
“It should,” she says. .”The current holder was still accelerating hard over the kilometre. We accelerate faster and reach our top speed before entering the kilometre. We’re half the weight, with twice the driven wheels.”
The standing record set by Ack Attack is 605. That run was made with an exit speed of 634. That means that, over the course of about 6 seconds, Ack Attack must have gained about 60kph and was still going hard.
It does seem possible.
Jet lifts the tail up back onto it’s axle stand, making it look effortless. I hear the ground give way under her feet through the flooring mats. Everything below the knee is solid metal, leading to a high-heeled food, all wrapped up tight with duct tape. “To keep the salt out,”
The Star’s fuelled up with Avgas, and we both find ear protection while Jet settles herself into the saddle. It’s clear the Star has been built to fit her, she locks easily into place. Chippy comments quietly that despite the armour, or perhaps because of it, Jet really does have a nice ass.
At the other end of the tent, Ford laughs, Jet turns around and smirks, quoting Bender from Futurama.
Ford congratulates her. “Nice one Jet, just like I told you how,”
Pumps start to whine, building pressure for a few seconds. The starter motor chatters for a few seconds before the engine bangs to life, filling the tent with chest-thumping sound. Turbines spool up with a gaseous whistle.
Chippy takes a few more snaps before we retreat into the peaceful heat of the late afternoon air. Most of the other runners have already finished for the day and are rumbling back to their overnight camps.
Everyone is looking at the Team Stingray tent as the Highway Star crawls forward out of it. The engine stutters and chatters a little as Jet controls it on the clutch, creeping forward. Ford’s walking behind her, carrying the laptop
The noise reverberates off of every stone and tree and seems to fill me up. It assaults from all sides. A few of the other racers do their best to get under cover or just cover their ears.
Duct flaps are opened on both side pods, venting hot hair. Jet tweaks the throttle, the bike pushing forward a few meters, bouncing over bumps in the track leading down to the salt. It huffs and grumbles, while Chippy fetches his ‘Busa from the van. He wants to get some pictures of the Highway Star out on the lake at full chat.
Nobody would ever call a Hayabusa a pretty motorcycle, what with a front headlight that reminds one of a botched sex-change, but it looks like someone melted it with a hairdryer for a good reason. Drag.
The faster you try to go, the harder the air tries to push you back. It’s a complicated formula, related to frontal area, a drag coefficient, air pressure and temperature and possibly the phase of the moon but effectively, if you double your speed, the drag force quadruples.
The ‘busa has a very slippery body, incising through the air. It lets it get just shy 320kph, with ‘only’ around 120kW. Assuming that the Highway Star has a similar drag coefficient, a quick scratch calculation says 750kW should put it right in the butter-zone for a record attempt.
The Star is a little wider, but also much longer and not as tall.
I meet up with Jacob, a greying old grandfather of the salt who’s been coming here longer than I’ve been breathing, who tells me a little more about the salt riding.
“Any idiot can make a bike go fast on hard concrete,” he says. “But salt offers it’s own unique challenges. It’s rough, it’s loose... you just can’t put the power down that you can on a hard surface, you just start fishtailing and running out of control. Once you start getting squirrelly, it’s just a moment before bang!” he claps his hands. “Game over mate”
“Most teams use less power, and instead try to reduce their drag as much as possible, to do more with less y’see. It’s not about power, it’s about controlling that power, it’s about having power you can actually control.”
He goes on.
“At first when they contacted us about running on the lake, we told ‘em where they could stick their run,” he laughs. “Thought they were just another set of con artists at first. It wasn’t until we got the design spec’ of the bike, along with a reference willing to say that this was on the level that we decided to at least let ‘em try. They were earnest about making the attempt.”
“They’re running as a special-construction partial streamliner. There’s a bit of confusion about classing the wankel engine properly mind, there’re rules for Wankel cars but not bikes.”
I ask him if he thinks they can do it?
His eyes narrow, and I get the same feeling I do when I ask a mechanic for an estimate on the repairs. “Yeah I reckon if they get everything to hook up it’s possible.” he says, stroking his chin to give himself an air of authority “That 2-wheel drive is a big thing in their favour, gives ‘em more grip on the salt and more stability.”
He thinks for a little bit.
“They’re a bit lighter than most streamliners and they’ve got a more power, and the potential to put down even more than they do. They’ve also got more drag, and at big speeds it’s the drag that really starts hurting. I think they can do it, but I’d say it’s fifty-fifty whether they actually do. The others aren’t so sure, a few of us think it’s just not capable of going that fast.”
“But it’s a genuine attempt, and that’s worth a lot. It’s why we’re happy to help them. I figure they just built the thing just for the sake of going fast rather than going for a specific class. It’s got 2 wheels driven by an engine, and if it goes faster than the current absolute record, we’ll put it to the FIM.”
Chippy runs out onto the salt first, while Ford and Jet make their final preparations in the pit area at the start of the track. He’s not even trying to launch his Hayabusa hard, and it still spins up its rear tyre spitting salt. The level of grip out there lies somewhere between very little and none at all.
The Star rumbles up, ready to make it’s first full-power run. It sits for a few moments while Jet places her helmet over her head. I notice she’s wearing some form of eyeblack on her cheeks the second before she locks down an opaque faceplate. A cable runs up from the instruments towards her ear.
They wait for a few moments, Ford and Jet sharing a few final words. The bike’s engine is getting hotter and hotter as it idles. There’re a few final countdowns. Jet closes the radiator duct bypasses. The bike crunches into gear, creeping forward to the line.
Peoples words are lost in the noise. A steward signals Jet to be ready. Head down, under the screen. A few last checks. She nods to the steward and he drops his hand. The Star roars off onto the lake, anti-lag backfiring as Jet tweaks the throttle to keep the thing stable. Black smoke blows from the exhausts as it runs rich. The smell of petrol lingers in the air.
We can still hear it long after it’s gone out of sight, howling and moaning in the distance. A thin cloud of salt dust hangs in the air, drifting on the breeze.
The bikes been gone more than a minute and we can still hear gunshot gearchanges ringing across the salt like a distant battle. It’s already well over 8 kilometres away and still accelerating. At top speed, it’ll be covering a kilometre every 6 seconds. It’s an unimaginable speed.
Ford is rooted to the ground behind the timing desk, staring at the timekeeper’s laptop... and her own beside it.
Just over twenty seconds later, the timekeeper announces that the Highway Star has entered the measured kilometre. There is silence except for the murmurs and coughs of distant engines. The Highway Star is little more than a distant hum, almost beyond hearing.
One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi. Six M...
“It’s left the kilometre,” The timekeeper announces exactly on schedule. “Exit speed, 603.67kph. Average over the flying kilometre, 602.12”
He reads it out with all the passion of the Sunday football scores on the news. It’s just short of the record. Even though it’s just a test run, something about that feels like a letdown. It’s still the fastest that’s ever been measured on DLRA clocks.
“Boo Yah!” Ford punches the air. “And we can still go to a thousand just by tweaking the boost controllers and the timing.”
She stops, quirks her head while we’re all discussing the result among ourselves. Ripples of excitement are rolling through the spectators.
“Jet’s on her way back,” she says.
“How’d you know?” the timekeeper asks.
“I can hear the engine,” she taps on her ear with her metal hand.
No wonder the pair didn’t mind the sound of that engine, they must have some strange cyborg shielding or something. I’m jealous. A few minutes later I pick up the sound for myself, Jet coming into view shortly afterwards, alongside Chippy on his Hayabusa.
It’s an easy cruise back, giving brakes and engine time to cool off. Night is starting to come in and both machines have their headlights on.
The plan is for the Highway Star to be refuelled, then ridden out once more to the other end track for the return run. They have an hour to make the return.
It’s only Ford and Jet to do the work, but there isn’t a lot to be done. Refuel, check telemetry, check fluids, blow the radiators through with some compressed air to clear out the dust. Jet takes a drink of Kool-Aid mixed in with a little ‘wavium.
There’s a hubbub around the camp as the numbers start to get out. I can hear a few veterans start revising their estimates higher and higher. Chippy’s giddy to the point that he looks like he’s going to burst out of his leathers.
“You should’ve seen it! It actually ran. It sounded like... it sounded like the devils own swarm of hornets. God it looks good running,”
Nice to see you’ve changed your mind.
“Nah.... there’s got to be a catch. Three months, it’s got to be handwaved. It’s a damn cool job, but that fast, to go that fast, nobody could do it. And that noise has got to be one of them quirks.”
It might be.
I head back to the pit area. The sun’s low over the mountains casting long shadows. It’s beautiful in a way only the outback can ever manage to be. The evening air has gotten cold enough to make my skin tingle. The usual traffic is streaking overhead. I can see Jet looking up at them, kicking her heels in the dirt.
“Yeah, sucks doesn’t it?” Ford comments to her, laptop cradled in her arm. She’s trying to show the screen to Jet. “It never got the signal.”
The water injection system failed. Dumping a mist of cold water into the turbocharger outlet drops the charge temperature, the same as an intercooler. Cooler air is more dense, giving a boost in power.
Lifting the saddle shows the five litre water tank, still full. The ice was still sloshing around inside. Jet gingerly reconnects a single cable to a small black box wired into a big silver pump.
“Always the little things,”.
There’s an air of frustration to the following conversation, Jet confirming readouts on the telemetry. Even after over a week of testing there’re still glitches being ironed out. Nothing major by the sound of it. They have one more set of runs planned tomorrow morning, followed by the big record grab in the evening.
Just a few glitches to iron out on the morning run, and it looks like it’ll be all systems go in the evening. This time tomorrow, I’ll be ringing up up the office to inform them of a brand new record holder. And I’ll be told I have to write a big long profile on Jet, Ford, and a technical feature of the Star rather than a couple of hundred words of a note for the news pages.
Joy. More work.
Jet holds her hand up, cutting off the conversation. “Phone call,” she says. “It’s the fella from the FIM,”
A hush falls over the crowd, while I wonder where her phone is. I can only hear her side of the conversation, but I can see her demeanour darken in a flash.
“Are you for bloody real?!”
Everyone looks at her.
“We’ve got yer poxy documentation. It’s all hardtech.”
Have they finally lost the game of ‘hide-the-wave’?
“What... It’s not a suit, it’s a part of me.”
Ford’s starting to look worried.
“It’s my body. I can’t take it off. I can’t ‘do without it.’”
She palms her face, “Look, there’s no regulation against biomodded riders, I checked.”
“But....what?.... that’s a load of bollocks.”
The call ends, and she spends a few long moments staring down at the tank. I can hear metal creak as she grabs the grips.
“What happened?” Ford asks her.
“Poxy Dursleys,” Jet spits, “They’ve killed us. Whatever we run, it won’t count.” I swear to God she was about to cry. Someone’s laughing. Another hoax finally found out. I’m actually disappointed, but not really surprised.
“It’s not the bike, it’s me,” Jet says. “The no handwavium rule applies to the rider as well.”
Jet swears, it sounds like “Chig-sho”, and kicks a plastic container filled with water. It explodes like a bomb, showering everyone with a mist of water and shards of flimsy plastic shrapnel.
“Steady on,” someone warns.
I feel bad for her. It feels more like a screw-job than some cheat being discovered. It probably is.
The frustration is palpable. Jet looks like she wants to rip someone apart. Jet looks like she can rip someone apart.
“Well screw ‘em” Ford drawls in a thick American accent. “We’ll run tomorrow anyway just to flip ‘em the bird. We’ll know we did it.”
Jet relaxes. She takes a deep breath. “Sure,”
I can hear them putting the Highway Star away for the night over in the tent. The whole of Australia can hear that thing. I start to thinking about how I’m going to write this story up as I make my way back.
“So I heard they got DQ’d,” Chippy greets me.
News travels fast. Yeah. The bike’s fine, but it’s because the rider’s a biomod or something from what I overheard. The no handwavium rule applies to the whole outfit, not just the bike.
“Poor buggers,” he says, cringing. “But better it happened now rather than after they made their run.”
I does feel like a bit of a screw job, I tell him.
“Was always gonna happen,” he shrugs, offering me a beer.
I crack it. Yeah, you’re probably right.
“I mean, even if they’re a hundred percent on the level, it could still have been contaminated by accident while they were building it. That stuff’s like garlic. It gets everwhere. ”
A whoosh-crack overhead draws our attention. Some idiot’s trying to start a bushfire with fireworks. The plucky Fen team shot down by a heartless ruling seems pretty darn compelling in my mind, especially since they were only told about it the night before what seemed like an almost guaranteed record.
Like all Fen things, it sounds like a cheesy T.V. show.
And a good article. I’ll have to speak to Jet and Ford, get a little more information on who they are, build a full profile in the article. That thought is interrupted by someone outside tapping on out tent.
Ford Sierra stuck her head in. Just the person I wanted to see, I smile. I need to talk with you and Jet.
“Jet’s gone in to Sydney,” she tells me, “She won’t be back for a couple of hours,”
Oh. Flying cyborg. Crazy Fen shit.
“I’ll cut to the chase,” she continues, “The bike is in the clear. It’s just the rider. Since I don’t know how to ride, and my arm and leg are wave-based.”
“We think it’ll be okay if one of you ride it. The record will stand if one of you set it.” She looked at both of us, “Any you two boys interested in a ride?”
Chippy sniggered into his own sleeping bag. “I’d rather not smear myself across the salt at 600 kilometres and hour thank you very much. Your girlfriend might have armour but I’ve only got my soft meaty arse.”
“No problemo,” she shrugs. “Timmy,” she called me in her yankee accent, “You interested in signing the book of history?”
I think she might be the brains of the outfit. When you put it like that, how could a bloke refuse?
“Great, drop by the tent when you wake up in the morning,” she winks at me. “You have to get a few practice runs in, to get you used to the bike.”
I don’t realise what I’ve let myself in for until long after she’s gone. The tin’s almost empty, and Chippy’s been oddly silent for an oddly long amount of time. I look at him, and imagine myself screaming across the salt, while the bike cartwheels in flames behind me.
“Going, going, Gonzo!” he laughs, clapping his hands together in the universal gesture for a fatal crash.
I’m bloody terrified.
Writers are a funny sort. We love stories of all kinds, except the kinds we’re in.
Eventually I get to sleep, but I’m woken late at night by the same whoosh and thunderclap. Idiots setting off fireworks. They’ll be banned.
It’s still dark out.
I don’t get back to sleep.
I’m laying there staring at the liner of the tent. Chippy’s snoring This time tomorrow I’m either going to be mincemeat or I’m going to be a record holder. In the distance outside, somebody’s working on something.
I don’t want to die. Not so far out I can’t even call my family. I don’t have a space-phone in my brain. I don’t have armour. I don’t have all that funky bio stuff. I’m disturbed by someone outside the tent.
“Awake, sleepy head?”
Ford’s way too cheerful for dark O’clock in the morning.
“Our first practice run’s in two hours. Try and get yourself to our tent so we can get you ready,”
I agree. It’s too late to back out. Chippy’d make sure I never heard the end of it. Ford disappears once more, and I get myself dressed for what might be my last day on Earth.
The first few rays of sunlight lit a distant orange fire on the horizon. The Moon had set, while the Death Star was rising, a brilliant spark spat from the solar flames. God this place is beautiful in the mornings. A dry salty breeze blew in from the lake. A generator was chattering somewhere in the campsite. Everyone else was asleep, except for one single tent bustling with activity.
What have I let myself in for?
Jet’s out back, running through something that reminds me of Tai-chi. Whatever it is, it has a certain brutal elegance about it. She kicks of little whirls of dust, fighting against the air. I’m determined to drink every detail of today in.
It might be my last, and I don’t want to miss a thing.
I step inside and Ford greets me with a smile. The first thing I notice is that there’s a new saddle mounted to the bike. A new pair of footpegs have been welded on.
“It’s ready for you... just about,” Ford says, brushing oil from her brow.
The next hour is a blur of instructions, warnings, suggestions and Turtle Wax jokes. Instruments look like they were stolen from the Starship Enterprise. The tachometer is nothing more than a bar chart, above two other bar charts, a whole christmas tree of idiot-lights and an analogue boost gauge. The speedometer might once have been an altimeter in an aircraft.
Primary controls are simple. On the right grip, a trigger throttle and a hand-pulled brake which activates front and rear brakes at the same time. On the left grip, the clutch, push-button gearshift and the boost controller and water-injection controls.
“That’s all you need to worry about.” Jet tells me, “Just pull the trigger and shift up when this red light comes on.”
“If it starts to wobble or spin the back wheel, don’t back off, that’ll just make it worse. Keep the shoe in, and it’ll pull itself straight again, that’s what the two-wheel drive is for,”
“You don’t really need to know what any of the warning lights mean. You won’t have time to think about them on a run, all you need to know is if one of these lights comes on red, abort it and bring the bike to a stop. There’s a lot of information there, but it’s designed to only show up what you need to know if there’s a developing problem. It’ll bring important things to your attention itself.”
I prefer proper gauges.
“You just don’t have the mindspace to handle them, not at 600kph. I don’t.” She told me. “It’ll filter all the information down to what you need to know so you can concentrate on just riding the bike and keeping it straight. It’ll keep you from getting a helmet fire.”
I’m not so sure.
“And myself and Ford’ll be on the radio, watching the telemetry. I’ll be flying right with you about thirty meters above.”
When starting, don’t just nail the throttle, ease it gently short-shifting up to about 200, then build the power and the rev’s up to maximum. Hit the boost somewhere between 450 and 500, hold on tight... keep it straight for another few seconds. Ease gently back on the gas and let drag take over, don’t hit the brakes until it’s below 500. Build pressure slowly, get it down to about a hundred, and coast along in the highest gear the engine can take. If it starts sliding about when braking, just gas it to pull it straight. Bring it around in a slow arc and ride back to the pits at cruising speed to let everything cool off in the breeze. Don’t stop unless it’s an absolute emergency, or the brakes will get so hot they’ll seize up.
It all makes sense sitting in a tent having it explained, but when it comes to actually doing it in practice, roaring across the desert at 600kph. Yeah... I don’t think I’ll remember shit except for ‘Brake!!’ and ‘Crickey, St. Peter, what’s he doing here?’
I think I’m getting a huge bonus from the editor for this.
“Don’t worry,” Jet says, “We designed it so that an idiot could ride it,”
“Yeah, we designed it around you Jet,” Ford laughs.
Everything’s forgotten as soon as that engine bangs into life beneath me. For something so brutal, it’s deceptively smooth. Squeeze the throttle and it responds like a Playstation game. No sense of anything moving, no mechanical connection, just a potentiometer and a signal to the computer telling it how much noise I want.
Heat starts to soak up through my body. After a few minutes it feels like I’m laying on top of an oven. Jet signals me to ride forward, to ease it out of the tent.
Start again. Stall again. Start again, stall again.
“Give it a little rev’s” Ford suggests. “It’s pretty heavy.”
Eventually it’s moving. There’s no feel in the clutch. There’s no feel in any of the controls. It feels like a game. It’s got so much mass that once it’s going, it’s just going to keep rolling. Sheer mass flattens bumps in the dirt track leading down to the salt.
The sun is up, and the camp’s waking up. If they were still asleep, a quick pull on the trigger woke them up.
“You can still step out,” Jet reassures me. There’s something earnest and assuring in her eyes. She smells of car wax and steel. She runs a few last checks on the hardware, running a cable from that plastic covering over her ear to the binnacle. “Good to go,” she says, disconnecting herself.
There’s something unnerving about how she does it, a reminder that for all the softness in her face, she really is something other than human. I’m staring out at the salt, thinking that I’m no Donald Campbell, or Richard Noble. I’m no space cyborg thing like Jet.
What if I crash it?
I don’t have armour. I don’t have biomod mutations. All I have is a thin layer of kangaroo skin, an old Shoei, my arse and a quiet prayer to the Gods of speed. Out on the course, it would take minutes for the medical car to reach me, and hours to be evacuated to the nearest hospital. She reassures me she’s got an OGJ medkit with her.
What’ll it do to me?
“Something better than being dead,”
Anything more specific?
“Nothing dangerous. It’s Senshi stuff. Anyone one can use it and get a safe result ”
She can’t say for sure. All I’m thinking about are those photographs from that damned shock site. I’m not even an arachnophobe and spider-man still scares me. That’s one Pet Sematary I don’t want to be buried in. Sometimes dead is better.
I try remember Duke. Duke’s always saying anything’s better than being dead - he should know.
I can smell the sweet petrol smell wafting up through the tank vents. I can smell the hot engine oil and metal, thick and heavy. I can smell the salt blowing in off the lake, dry and parching. The track’s marked out in front of me with the bike’s heads-up-display. Just keep it between the two green lines. Little electric trees mark out ever hundred meters.
There’s no clock, no timer. Just me, the bike and the salt.
“In your own time Timmy,” Ford says.
It starts slow, rumbling forward at just over tickover, crunching over the salt. Short-shift into second. It slams home hard. Everything feels surprisingly normal. It feels like a motorcycle. Third gear, then Fourth. I don’t even feel like I’m pushing it much over tickover. It’s docile. It feels like a boxer winding up for a big punch.
Fifth gear. 160kph feels more like 60.
“Alright Tim,” Jets voice tickles in my ear. “Nail it. Don’t downshift, just nail the throttle.”
Twin turbochargers inhale deep whistling breaths and planet earth starts to spin backwards in a cacophony of noise and light and sound and a speedometer whipping through numbers faster than I can keep up while I’m screaming to the Gods and all who’ll listen in terrified joy. I can’t hold on! I can’t hold on! Oh my God this is fast. My God it’s fast. A screaming, ripping, tearing speed. An angry, vicious, violent change in velocity. I’m clinging on to both grips, fingers tingling and burning. Machineguns stutter behind me, popping and banging, lights flicker on the dashboard. Why am I starting to slow down? Gearshift!
A cannon bangs and I know what the shell feels like after it’s been fired.
I can’t breath. I can’t breath. I can’t let go. I can’t stop screaming. I can’t see anything but a wall of white, a ceiling of blue and two wavering green lines streaking into the distance with little electronic trees counting out every hundred meters every second. Keep it straight, keep it straight! Gearshift!
A drag bike pull is over in 7 seconds. This thing just keeps going. Machinegun gearshifts keep the engine spinning harder and harder. It’s infinite acceleration. The instruments are a blur. Suspension is rattling and the whole machine feels like it’s floating over the salt surface, like it’s trying to take off. I’m riding a rocketship. I’m riding a missile.
“I’m right above you,” Jet’s voice intrudes. “Keep it lit,”
I glance back over my shoulder and see her hanging in the sky, engines burning. Back to the run. Veering right. Pull it left, pull it left. I lean hard into it, putting all my strength into straightening the bike out. Come back, come back!. My hands are burning. I’m laid across a grill. I’m being cooked. I’m being boiled in my jacket.
“Steady, steady,” Jet says. “Looking good,”
Everything seems to slow down. I’ve got time to look at the speedometer. Three needles. One at Zero, one at Four, one at Six. 460kph and still accelerating. The needles are still sweeping clockwise. I’m not thinking faster, the bikes accelerating slower. The wind is pushing back hard, a brick wall made of thin air. I can feel myself breathing again.
It doesn’t feel fast anymore.
No marker, no reference, just a sheet of white split by the occasional dark flash of a course marker and the silly flickering electric trees.
I can feel raw naked heat slipping up my arms, like I’m holding them in front of a blowtorch. It prickles and bites. It sears and cooks. I can smell hot plastic.
My hands are burning. It’s too hot!
“Ease off,” Jet commands. “Open the radiator flaps and let it coast down.”
I release the trigger. Things suddenly accelerate once more as I’m pinned to the fuel tank. The speedometer needle is whirling backwards as the engine gutters and moans in protest. I managed to reach down and open both flaps, a cool blast of air suddenly feeling impossible hot.
Downshift, Bang!. Downshift, Bang!. Downshift, Bang!.
The speedometer’s below 200 and the world seems to have gone dead still. My mind’s still going a kilometer every six seconds. Jet shoots passed with a whoosh, banking overhead, while my hands are shaking on the grips. I can feel them throbbing inside the gloves. I’ve burned my hands. How did I burn my hands?
The Star’s in fourth gear, idling along at 100. I drag my hands in the breeze trying to cool them off. It hurts to grip, it hurts to squeeze, it hurts to release. It just hurts.
“Ease it back. Turn it around. Bring it back to the pits.”
It’s a long circle back. A long cruise towards what’s become a very distant pit. Dust still hangs in the air. I can’t stop shaking. I can’t stop shaking
I’ve burned my hands.I’ve burned my bloody hands. It’s still biting across my knuckles.
Ford’s waiting with a bucket of water. I plunge my hands in, gloves and all. It feels almost like a relief. The gloves had gotten so hot, the plastic knuckleguards had started to melt. My hands are red, tender across the knuckles and anywhere else there was armour. There’s some burn cream put on them and it’s like liquid ice.
It was Jet’s mistake, she admits. “I forgot about the radiator exhaust. My hands are metal.” She’s apologetic. I tell her not to worry about it. I’ve had worse.
Chippy takes a few snaps, and we’re all about ready to agree that carrying on would be just plain a bad idea. I ask Jet when we could make the second run.
“When I find two beer cans and some snips,” she answers me with a grin.
As scared as I was, this was my chance. This was my only chance I’d ever have to do anything like this. As much as my gut instinct screamed ‘don’t’, I just had to do it. I’d never forgive myself for not grabbing at it. The other half’ll never forgive me for doing it without consulting her first. Hi Honey... I just broke a world speed record today. That’s going to go down well.
A half hour later, most of the tank and saddle of the Star have been draped with silver insulation stolen from someones cooler box, held on with duct tape. The cut up remains of two tinnies have been bolted to the grips, forming a kind of crude heat shield to keep the worst of the hot air away from my hands.
With a bit of luck, I wasn’t going to get dry roasted.
Second run. Jet offers me the chance to back out. I say no. Ford asks me if I’m sure I want to keep going. I say no. But I’m going to go anyway.
Having done it once, it’s not so daunting. Having done it once, it isn’t any way slower or less violent. It’s a riot of noise, acceleration and heat. It’s brutal. It’s painful. I’m cooked. I’m sweating. I’m shaking. I’m aching all over. My ears are ringing, and I’m laughing like a madman.
480kph. ‘Only’ 480kph.
“What’s it like?” Chippy asks me.
“I know it’s bloody fast mate. But what’s it like?”
Like what that North Korean ujunaut must’ve felt when they lit the blue touch paper and retired.
Run three. They’re filling the water tank with iced water. First run with the water injection. The Star explodes away from the line in a cacophony of sound and flame. Jet skims along behind. Everything begins to slow down again as the Star’s deep lungs finally begin to run out of puff.
“Switch the boost over to maximum, then push the little blue button,”
The machined lever snicks into place. The blue button clicks down. The Star lunges forward on it’s second wind, bucking and shaking and skidding, back wheel scrabbling for grip. Grit the teeth, keep the throttle in, trust the machine to straighten itself out. I feel it pulling hard. I feel it pushing from behind.
All I can see are the two green lines and the trees. Just keep the little arrow pointing straight between the two green lines. Don’t hit the trees.
“That’s it. Pull it back.”
Only a few seconds. It feels like a blink of an eye. I glance at the speedometer. It reads 560 and still climbing.
I don’t stop shaking from the adrenaline until an hour later. I’ve drunk litres. I’ve had a proper breakfast. I’m still shaking. On the lake the DLRA’s own runners are going for their own personal records. My hands are still red. My hands are still coolly numb with liquid ice. I want to cry, I want to scream, I want to whoop for joy.
“You want to get working on the story,” Chippy says to me from behind his camera lens. The shutter clicks a few times.
Why you photographing me?
“Because you’re the record breaker mate,”
Still got to write. I don’t get paid to ride bikes fast, I get paid ride bikes fast, take little notes on what it’s like to ride those bikes fast on a notepad and then put together a few hundred words based on that beer stained pad coupled with a number of purple adjectives so readers on their toilets at home can feel like they’re blasting across a salt lake when they’re blasting at the bowl..
That line goes into the pad.
It’s getting passed midday and the sun is splitting the rocks. It may technically be winter, but it’s also a dry lake in the middle of South Australia, it isn’t going to be anything but scalding hot outside. A hot breeze is blowing out over the lake, whipping up puffs of red dust between tufts of grass.
I hurry between the shade offered by the few tents, awnings and camper vans. I’m telling myself I want to gather some opinions from the usual racers, but I’m really just making work to keep myself from thinking too hard. I gather opinions on team Stingray and their chances. That bike’ll definitely go like hell, they all seem to agree on that. It definitely does. Whether it’ll beat the record splits the crowd halfway down the middle. If it’s going to fail, it’s going to fail because it just doesn’t have the proper aerodynamics. In the battle between horsepower and drag, drag always wins.
I ask, if a record does get set, do they think it’ll stand.
A single mechanic working on some turbocharged Harley gives his opinion.
“Buckleys chance,” he says. “It’s probably waved, probably without them even realising it. At worst they’ll be derided as cheats. At best, they’ll be bitterly disappointed. Even if it isn’t waved, the FIM’ll find some somehow,”
That about sums it up. Most people think it’s a genuine attempt. Most would like it to succeed. A few are less pleasant, asking how something like it could be put together in only three months. That is a good question. I’m politely advised not to get involved, unless I want to be a complete laughing stock when it all comes out. Don’t make yourself or your reputation a victim of their scam.
I head back to the Stingray tent to get an answer. The Star’s fairing has been pulled off, and most of the guts of the bike have been torn open. Cables hang loose, and the last few dregs of engine oil are collecting in a pan under the swingarm.
Ford is busy at the workbench with a set of 12 spark plugs.
“A few minutes at idle on the way back from a run is good for cooling the turbochargers, but the lead in the gasoline can foul the plugs if it’s left too long. The engine cools down, and combustion isn’t hot enough to burn it off.”
They use 100LL instead of proper race fuel. It’s more tolerant of heat and the conditions in a high-boost turbocharged engine. A StelOil sticker is displayed on the tail.
“It’s good to check them while I have the chance,” she says, squashing a yawn. “And we run rich to keep the temperatures down, so we get carbon fouling too.”
We’re making small talk while I nose around the bike. I’m not sure what I’m looking for exactly. Something ‘weird’. Definition of weird to be decided when I found something fitting it.
Everything looked reassuringly complicated and mechanical. I could pick out takeoffs for the boost gauges, piping for the hedgehog of fuel injectors. Pressure regulators. Anodised oil line connectors. A fuel injector had obviously been replaced. The engine oil was just ordinary oil. There was scorching around an exhaust port.
“Playing find the ‘wave?” Ford asked me with a wink.
I gave her an apologetic smile. Don’t take it the wrong way, But it’s still hard to believe you guys did all this work in three months,
“Me too,” she agrees, “We thought it’d take us a year at first. But Jet woke up one morning, got at it, and three days later we had the basic design. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “All we had to do was refine it,”
Wow. How’d she do that?
“You’d have to ask her.”
And the engine?
“That was me, with some help. It took two solid months to get it reliable.”
That’s still quick.
She grinned at me. “Never underestimate the power of a fan with proper motivation”
“Out flying around.”
She’s not helping?
“Last time I had help from Jet, I had to drill out two sheared bolts, rethread two sparkplug holes and straighten my torque wrench. On the other hand, she sure beats an impact wrench sometimes.”
Ford has a much more sparky demeanour than Jet. She’s energetic, enthusiastic, she’s healthy. She’s far more animated than her partner. She always seems to be moving, even when standing still, while at the same time projecting this aura of relaxed and effortless cool.
How did you two end up together?
She stops for a second. Her cheer fades. “Back in 2012, I was working salvaging wrecks in the main belt. One of the wrecks I tried to salvage fired back,” she says. “Wrecked my car and left me stranded to die.” She takes a breath. “Just before the air finally ran out, after I’d made my peace with the universe, I see Jet knocking on the window like an Angel coming to take me away,”
Her expression softens.
“Jet got me out of there alive using her built in life-support.”
And so it was love at first sight?
“Oh no,” she assures me. “We had a beer together and went our separate ways; both of us were pretty busy at the time. We met again by chance a couple of weeks later when I was getting my arm repaired. We were friends at first, taking the chance to meet up when we could and share stories. We both agreed to go to SerenityCon together...”
I wince involuntarily.
“Yeah.” she half-laughs at it. “We figured out that we were more than ‘just friends’ right before Jet left for a flight display in orbit. She ended up right in the thick of the first salvo.”
While you were on the surface?
“Yeah, I loaded up my truck with as many people as I could, dodged missiles to Gnarlycurl then back around for another run all the time wondering what had happened to her... I knew she was up there. By dumb luck on my Third run I ran into Jet on Gnarlycurl. She nearly broke my back.” she laughs. “We spend most of the after-con conference trying to get each other cleaned and polished up, glad that both of us made it out alive.” Her expression darkens. “A few of our friends didn’t.”
“Thanks,” she gives me a grateful smile “We’ve been partners ever since.”
She gets back to work and I get to thinking. I’m reminded of the time I was deployed with the army. Every day I thought about my wife. I didn’t think about her loving arms, I thought about what’d happen to her if the worst happens. What happens if I don’t come back? What happens when she gets that knock on the door.
I’m looking at Ford gapping the sparkplugs, and I can’t help but feel the same way. What happens if I crash it? What happens when my wife opens the door to the two cops, with their caps in hand?
It’s just that one mental image I can’t get rid of. It’s not just me who crashes.
I leave her to it. I still have to meet Jet. I have to find out how she designed a motorcycle from scratch in three days. I catch up to her in the pit area, clearing some paperwork. Her armour’s coated in red sandstone dust, and there’s a camera mounted to her helmet held under her arm.
I decide to cut to the chase. How did you design a motorcycle in three days?
She smiles at me, “I just did.”
Look, this is my reputation on the line here. I need my reputation to do my job. Nobody’ll take anything I write seriously again if you make me look like a fool.
She takes a breath and looks away. She’s avoiding the question I think. She doesn’t like the answer. I wonder if I’ve managed to ‘find the wave’ on this project. She opens her mouth, then closes it again, stopping to think a little more. I see her mentally switch gears. She was going to say something else, but changed her mind.
“I’m a true cyborg really ” She smirks at me, “A terminator turned inside out. Metal on the outside, meat on the inside. That includes my brain, I have computer systems in there.”
She taps on the plastic cover over her ears. I stare at them despite myself.
“ It doesn’t let me think at computer speeds, it’s too dangerous to use it like that, what it does is it lets me abstract a lot of my actions. So I could connect with a computer running a CAD system, and rather than go through the whole rigmarole, just output what I wanted onto the screen. It saved a lot of time lost to crap user interfaces. And I’m cybernetic, so I could do without sleep quite happily.”
I’m dubious. There’s something she’s not telling me. Anything else?
She looks away, over at an old Honda blowing oilsmoke and I can tell she’s thinking about it. “It felt like I’d done it before, like I was doing something I knew I’d done all over again.”
And how would that happen?
“I have no idea,” she said, her voice going soft.
I think she does. I’m certain she does. She has an idea at least and she’s not telling me
“Trust me, the bikes’ all hardtech. There’s no wave at all in it. I told you we have the TSAB certs to prove it,”
Righto. I nod. I can tell I’m not going to get much more out of her. It’s a disappointment, but it makes sense. At first glance, Jet looks like an ordinary human being in some sort of armour, not what I expected from a Fen cyborg. It’s only when you look closer that you realise that those aren’t covers over her ears, those are her ears. Plastic domes, with a USB socket and what looks like a small shielded microphone grille.
It’s a shock to see her part her hair and reveal a jump drive plugged into a USB socket in her ear.
I can’t imagine what that’s like for her.
She’s much stiffer than Ford, a lot more careful and deliberate about how she moves. She stands rock-steady, and never comes close to touching someone. She’s cheery and good-natured, with a soft smile and earnest eyes, but she never quite seems relaxed like Ford. There’s a tension in her body that I can’t read. For someone with a lot of strength, she takes a lot of effort to do simple things.
I catch her staring at the sky more than once.
She lights up when we start talking about bikes, complaining that she can’t shift gear properly or brake, or not snap parts off. “Biking was nice, but since I learned to fly properly, I can’t imagine going that slow, or being so restricted again,”
That’s the one common thread between Jet and Ford. They both value their freedom.
Ford is a pioneer, one of the first into Fenspace and one of the first onto Mars. She claims to have been on Marsbase Sara before it was even called Marsbase Sara. She wants nothing more then to have her life, without being interfered with. She tells me she came up to Fenspace to get away from a Government that seemed insistent on interfering with her lifestyle.
“I didn’t want to go to prison, and you know what the justice system is like down there. Indian mother, Bridgeport father, I can just see an old wasp of a judge deciding he’d be doing a great favour to society by sending a ten-year message to the youth of America about the twin evils of the ‘wave and living in a shitty part of Chicago at the expense of my liberty.”
Jet loves to fly. Jet loves to be able to go where she wants, when she wants. Jet is the person who knows she can fly from Earth to Mars on nothing more than a whim. I find out that her carefulness is part of her training, her martial arts skills to keep her from harming others with her raw strength. She says she used to be a spark too, but decided to dedicate herself to her Panzer Kunst instead.
“It’s not what I want to do with my life.” she says. “Building the Star was fun. Riding it is fun. Indulging the spark is a nice hobby to have, but nothing more. Anything more than that is just me trying to be someone I’m not anymore. The Panzer Kunst it...” she stops, and looks right at me wearing a self-effacing smile ”I’m shite at this sort of stuff.” It takes her a while to think about it. “....it just feels right” she finishes.
I finish collating my notes on the pair, and think I’ve got a decent enough profile on them. I’ll admit to being a little jealous of Jet when she shot up into the air and circled around before heading south to Adelaide. All for something as trivial as a bottle of champagne.
It’s the sort of freedom everyone dreams of having, just to be able to go wherever you want, whenever with no worries about paying for flights, or car tax. It’s alluring. It’s impossible for a married man who has more responsibilities than some footloose fan with no ties. We all dream of just jacking it all in and going but the truth is, none of us ever do.
We’re all afraid. We’re all tied down by the weight of years. I want to be a space hero too. But I want my kids to go to school. I want my wife to be comfortable. I want my home to be safe and secure. It’s a comfortable rut from which the modern Australian man uses a number of little escapes to prove to himself that he’s not really stuck in a rut. Like a 1300cc Hayabusa taken for a weekend blast along the exact same roads every weekend, barely sneaking above the speed limit. In reality all he’s doing is coming up to the lip, popping his head over and taking just a quick peek and then popping back into his burrow like a scared wombat satisfied that he’s had his dose of danger for the week.
I’m scared of riding the Highway Star. I’m terrified of crashing it. I’m shitting myself at the thought of having the explain a biomod to she-who-must-be-obeyed. And I worry about what they’ll do without me if I don’t make it back.
But I’m still going to do it.
Just to prove to myself that for one brief moment I could haul myself right up out of that rut and stand on the surface of the real world and take a big deep breath. And get torn to shreds by the wife when she finds out.
I finish the first draft of an article completely different to this one. It focuses on the bike. It focuses on Jet and Ford. It’s got a lot more dry technical details to it. All it’s missing is a conclusion. Hopefully I’ll get to write that later. It’s a great article. Perfect for the modern mag. Fat free and family friendly.
Chippy’s done his usual sterling work on the photography. Once the run’s done, I’ll finish of the draft, work on the layout on my netbook on the journey back, have a wonderful rough draft ready for Harry’s desk by the time we’re back. Or whenever we find an open wireless.
With the article written as much as humanly possible, I get into my leathers and make my way over to the Stingray tent. I’m dying to take a piss. That’s all I can think about. I want to focus on the ride. I want to do all the mental stuff you’re supposed to do before a race, get my focus, get my brain clear of all the crap.
And all I can think about is how bad I need to go find the nearest bog.
Ford’s putting the final touches on the Star, going over the frame with some odd glowing tool.
“Sonic screwdriver,” she tells me. “Great for undoing fasteners. Even better for checking for cracks.”
She’s still so relaxed. When do we go?
“When Jet gets back.”
Someone launches another rocket. Crack-whoosh.
“Now,” Ford says, without even looking up.
I wonder how she could possibly know, right up until Jet walks into the tent. That explains the fireworks. She takes a bottle of expensive looking champagne out of a pouch strapped to her leg. It’s frozen solid after being carried through the atmosphere at 15,000 meters. Frost is still steaming off her armour, and I’m fighting the urge to touch her and see how cold she is.
My fingers get stuck to the champagne bottle instead.
It’s left somewhere to slowly warm up, while the fairing panels are finally fitted. Jet’s getting animated with the excitement, darting around plugging and unplugging herself and the laptop into various sockets around the bike. Ford worked more steadfastly. I found another tube of liquid ice for my hands, and got around to lining my gloves with it.
“Are we ready?” Jet asked, stepping back.
“Yup. Time to rock and roll.”
I stare grimly at the red rocket machine.
The first run is effectively a full-up practice run. Ride the Star out at full throttle, get it turned around, get it back to the pits to refuel and checked out, get it out to the other end of the track, then make a return run within the hour.
The second run is a full attempt. Get everything right. Reach for the record. Try to hook it all up.
The third run, is in case the second doesn’t take the record. A little more practice, a little more experience, a little more guts to go to wide open throttle six seconds earlier might just make the difference when it comes down to end.
That engine bangs to life again and Chippy’s taking photographs as we roll out to the lake. It’s a strange procession. The entire camp’s turned out to watch. Whether they think we’ll score a record or not, they still want to watch. Even if it’s only the morbid desire to see my hide smeared across the rough surface of a salt lake.
A few minutes later, I’m staring out over the white pan. The sun is beginning to sink low, the sky darkening. A hot breeze is blowing off the lake while a pair of fans force air through the radiators to keep the engine from overheating. All systems check out green. The fans are pulled free. I close the ducts and heat starts to soak up through. The paint on the beer-can heatshields has already scorched and blistered. I’m sweating, and my hands are beginning to tingle already.
A few squeezes on the trigger shoots backfires out the wastegates. The engine rips and snorts and pops and bangs. I edge the bike up to the start line. It’s rip-raring to go, straining, trying to launch forward as I tweak at the clutch just trying to creep.
Rockets just want to launch.
The stewards are busy making a few last final checks to the timing equipment, while Jet’s voice tickles over the intercom.
“Good luck,” she says.
The steward’s busy trading epithets with someone on the other end of a walky-talkie. The bike’s sitting still and beginning to cook. I’m beginning to boil. Hurry up you bastard. Even the insulation isn’t helping.
Satisfied that he’s yelled the voice at the other end of the radio into submission, he gives me the ready signal. I squeeze off one more shot with the throttle, spitting flames and kicking up whirls of dust.
He starts the three count and I start, easing on the throttle, taking up the slack.
Two... Clutch to bite. Hold it on the brake. The whole machine pitches forward, ready to go. I can feel it panting. The speedometers fixed at zero. Rev counter bar is about one-third full. The noise from the engine is positively evil. It’s snarling to be let free.
Hold my breath. It takes forever. Just sitting there. I swear I can feel each individual chamber firing.
My heart is going a hundred. I’m sweating. I’m rigid with tension. My fingers are going white I’m gripping on so tight they’re starting to go numb. My mouth’s dry as the lake and I’m staring ahead out into the white abyss. A pair of green lines on them HUD mark the track. A pair of little green trees mark the first hundred meters. I can smell the petrol. I can smell the hot engine oil and metal, tainted by the salty breeze.
I don’t launch it forward. Launching it’ll just dig a hole in the salt. I release the brakes and let it pick up, short shifting quickly into second, then up into third and fourth. The bike rumbled forward, kept going by its own momentum. It stutters on the anti-stall telling me it’s time to grab the throttle hard. It snorts, get your thumb out of your arse and get a move on!
I fight the urge to downshift rather than lug the engine. Downshift and it’ll spin up on the salt and rip the tyres to shreds.
I squeeze the throttle. The big turbo’s inhale. A few moments later all hell breaks loose once more. It’s no less violent. It’s no less an assault on my mind. It’s a vibrating, screaming, whistling blur of noise. The gearbox whines. The turbo’s screech and stab at the ears. It’s hot. It’s burning. It’s kicking and sliding and bouncing over tracks left in the salt. It jerks and slews left, tramlining on some rut. I’m hanging on for dear life. I’m panicking, I’m yelling, I’m praying the whole thing just wont start to slide. If it slides, it’s cartwheeling. If it’s cartwheeling, I’m flying. If I’m flying I’m dying. Whoosh, splat, game over.
I don’t have time to think of any of this. I just scream “Shit!” and grab at the controls, throwing my full weight in to pull this monster back straight. “Keep the throttle in!” Jet chides. The back wheel breaks loose. The front digs in and drags the whole outfit straight. It kicks and squirms and slides and digs in and fucks off.
And then Jet’s telling me to back off and bring it back to camp, “The usual way,” As if this is all routine.
I don’t even remember looking at the speedometer. I don’t remember the ride back. I’m just shaking. I’m just sitting there in something of a fugue watching the bike being prepped for the return run. Did I even hit the water injection? They’re refilling the tank so I must have.
All I can remember are those few heartbeats. Jet’s painfully blasé about it, remarking that I held it well “for an ordinary human,”. I learn that the whole upset had lasted less than half a second. I can still talk myself through each and every little detail.
I remember the last time I felt like this. I remind myself that this is no duty. I won’t go to prison for saying no. This isn’t something worth risking my life for. I’d be wise to heed the lesson taught by Richard Hammond. Quit while you’re ahead. Quit while you’re alive. Quit while I’m not listening to idiotic jokes for the rest of my life from a smug git with pubic hair on the top of his head.
And if I don’t, I’ll be mocked down the pub, and forever feel like a total sheep for giving up my chance to do something awesome, the sort of thing we all wish we had the chance at if only it’d just drop into our laps.
Now it had.
Fall off a bike. First thing you do is get back on again. Have a moment... just keep going. A moment at 500kph. But just a moment.
I ride the bike back out to the opposite end of the track, cruising across the desert. Just before the timed section of the track, there’re two deep gouges in the salt, black with rubber, waltzing around each other away off the track. That was what I’d hit. Someone elses accident, a Holden blew a tyre and spun out.
I take a mental note of what side of the track it’s on, then stop. Jet lands and turns the bike, picking up the tail and just pivoting it around the front wheel.
The return run if a blast of noise and dust. It feels better. I feels slower somehow. I think I’m getting used to the speed. 300kph runway runs on the latest thing from Japan are going to feel slow after this.
“Never underestimate the human animal’s ability to adapt,” Ford says while she refills the water injection tank. Jet adds fuel and runs a few quick diagnostics. The steward comes back with a figure of 580kph. 25kph short. My exit speed was nearer 600. The Highway Star was still accelerating hard.
“If you’d gone to full throttle six seconds earlier, you would’ve had the record,” Jet tells me. She means to reassure. Don’t count your chickens Jet.
“Telemetry doesn’t lie. “ She responds with a wink. “You can do it.” She puts her big metal hand on my shoulder, and grips like a vice. “How are you feeling?”
My shoulder hurts.
“Sorry,” she cringes. Her hand springs back.
No worries. And I’m scared shitless. There’s a brick in my leathers but I still want to go. It’s the same feeling really. Raring to go. Top of the roller coaster, standing on the ramp of a C-130 ready to jump. It’s that same sick twist-your-guts anticipation, twinged with fear and flavoured by a building wave of adrenaline.
Jet prods the starter button. The motor chatters over. And nothing. Nothing but the whine of water, oil and fuel pumps. Red lights flicker on the instruments and Jet suddenly looks very concerned. Ford glances over it.
“Try it again,” she suggests.
Jet stabs the button, holding it down. It pops once or twice before banging to life. Jet and Ford share a glance, then both shrug. Just a glitch. Everything sounds good. Everything looks good on telemetry.
I trundle up to the line. The steward gives me a thumbs up. Rocket ready for launch. Minus ten and counting. All I have to do is hit the throttle a few seconds earlier. Give it a bit more power off the line, let it rev a little more freely. Six seconds is an extra kilometre.
The steward signals to go and I throttle it. I’m hurrying it up through the gears, giving it more throttle, letting it rev a little more. The tyres chirp and scrabble for grip, the bike shimmying a little in protest. It feels faster. It feels ragged, slipping and skipping over the salt.
Jet lets me know it’s time to go. Full throttle!
Keep right, keep right. All I can think about is keeping right and not getting caught in that rut. Someone sledgehammers the bottom of the bike. The whole machine launches up at least ten centimetres into air. Shit! It’s taking off. Hang on. Hang on! It crashes down, bouncing on its suspension.
I’m still wondering what I hit when Jet tells me to pull up and bring it back. Must be the damaged salt.
My mind’s still going a kilometre every six seconds while they work to ready the Star for the next run. A few of the local mechanics are helping. Oil, water, fuel, tyre pressures, anything that could’’ve gone wrong. I’m refuelling with a can of some random energy drink. It tastes of raw saccharine, and unidentified industrially synthesised ‘ersatz fruit’ flavour. It’s got enough caffeine in it to keep a man awake for a week. I grab a second one just in case.
They all know what the time and speed are. They won’t tell me, but I can guess. The mood is high. People are pregnant with expectation. The sweet smell of avgas fills the air, and I’m ushered back towards the bike.
It has to be a one hour turnaround. I’m being guided back to the machine within ten minutes.
Jet offers me the chance to back out. I don’t. Ford slaps me on the back. Let’s kick this pig.
The starter motor chatters. And.... nothing. Jet tries again. The engine coughs once, twice.... then clicks and stops.
“Fuck,” she spits.
“Third time’s the charm,” Ford drawls. She’s hiding her concern. But whatever it is, there’s no time to fix it.
It comes to life with a stutter, puffing black smoke and carbon. Tweaking the throttle clears it’s throat and it settles into its usual lumpy idle. It cruises steadily back to the opposite end of the track. I’d swear the throttle feels a little fluffy, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Jet tells me to drop a gear or two and let the engine rev harder.
Get it stopped at the other end, keep the engine running. Jet pulls the bike around. I’m staring right back at the camp. Another few minutes and I’ll be a record holder. Or smeared across the surface.
The run back passes uneventfully. How insane that blasting across a salt lake on a turbo-supercharged missile of a motorcycle could be called uneventful. It’s the same roar. The same screaming engine. The same sucking whistle. The same wall of white and darkening blue.
I don’t think to look at the speedometer. I don’t think to look anywhere but straight ahead and hold on. Jet still has to tell me to throttle back and start to brake, before shooting off ahead of me.
My mind catches up just about the same time I rasp back into the pits. There’s a crowd already clustered around the timekeeper and I start feeling sick. Ford guides me to a halt and I kill the engine. It takes the pair of us to haul it up onto it’s axle stands.
I’m still nervous. I can’t speak. I’m totally tongue tied. I’m shaking.
How fast did I go?
I’m staggering on drunk legs to find out what the result is. I’m punch drunk from the speed. From the force. From the adrenaline of going so bloody fast. I want to throw up. I really want to throw up. I swallow that can of energy drink all over again.
I’m the centre of attention, the star of the show. They’re all watching me and not the space-cyborg and her American partner. It’s a weird feeling. The sun is my own personal spotlight, my shadow stretching out in front of me.
The stewards expression refuses to change as the results print out. He inspects the screen.
“Outbound run, Exit speed, 601.2kph. Average speed, 598.2.”
There’s a sigh. It feels like we’re down at halftime. Everyone’s running quick calculations in their mind. A quick guess says I need to get at least 610 to take the record.
“Return run,” he continues, “Exit speed, 603.8. Average speed, 602.4. Overall average over both runs, 600.3. ”
It’s a punch to the gut. Literally. I’m physically gutted.
“That’s a DLRA record alright,” he says, “And it’s just over 5kph short of the world,”
I’m pissed. I’m frustrated to be that close. If it’d been further away I might’ve felt better. My whole body burns to get back out, make another run. The sky’s starting to burn again as the sun begins to set.
Five Bloody Kilometres.
“It’s the aerodynamics,” that old Harley owner opines. “Drag always wins over power mate.”
He makes it sound hopeless. It feels hopeless. The last five kph are the hardest. The drag is killing them. It’s killing us I mean. I can’t be objective about this. I want to win this too. They bet on raw power, acceleration and grip, rather than aerodynamics, and they lost.
I find myself compelled to head back to the Stingray tent. A third run was planned, but now with starting troubles, that might’ve been canned.
Ford’s face is a picture of consternation. She’s the mechanic. She’s the judge, jury and execution for the whole thing. She’s about to give her verdict.
“Sensor’s fucked,” she opines.
“Chig-shó,” Jet snarls. I think she likes that word, wherever it comes from.
“Yup. There’s no way we can get at it with a hot engine,”
“And it’ll be too dark again it cools down,”
So that’s it then?
They both notice me.
“No, it’ll still run normally,” Ford assures me. “It’s just getting it started’s a bitch.”
And it’ll start fine if they let the engine cool down. By that time it’ll be pitch black out. There’s no running tomorrow. Their depot of fuel at Ceduna is empty and they’ve got to leave tomorrow. Jet has to get back on duty. Duty? I wonder about it, but don’t ask. There’re more important things to worry about.
“Last run?” Ford suggests.
“Up to Tim,” Jet shrugs. She gives me this soft smile, staring at me with a pair of earnest blue eyes. It’d be a shame to disappoint her, and I think she knows it. She puppydog’d me.
It’s always that one last time climbing the tree before your mother calls you in that you fall out. The one last run before calling it a day that the tyre blows and sends you cartwheeling through the dirt.
Sure, what the hell.
There was only 5kph in it.
Jet’s expression hardened, “Sun’s going down. Let’s be about it.”
The first thing they do, they tell me, is to adjust the boost controllers a little ‘to improve traction’. Systems are checked. fluids topped up. Ford swears loudly as she singes her hand on hot metal. There’s a momentary smell of bacon. She sucks her fingers while Jet throws her a concerned glance.
“Yeah. Fucker gets hot.”
My hands are still tingling. That’s like saying a penguins pecker is a little cold. I find some liquid ice for my hands, and follow it with another two cans of concentrated caffeine and ginseng. Any more and this’ll start becoming a mood altering experience.
It takes three tries again to get the Star to start. It struggles to get going, stuttering and labouring and blowing raw petrol vapour.
A tweak of the throttle and the engine backfires, settling into its usual lumpy brap-brap idle. Creeping out of the tent feels like second nature, teasing at the throttle and feathering the clutch. Stall it, and it might not start again.
The twilight air is thick and cold. Hearing the engine, a crowd gathers at the pits. Jet’s disappeared. The headlight’s on casting a lake of blue light on the salt, the instruments backlight a hot orange.
“The stars are right,” Ford remarks, looking at the sky. The sun’s a fire burning behind black mountains.
Jet lands beside me, carrying a small vial of something red. Just some eye black, she assures me.
“Close your eyes,” she instructs. I look at her dubiously. “Don’t worry, it’s a simple Panzer Kunst exercise,”
“Close your eyes,” she says again. “There is only darkness. Close your body. There is only darkness where the world is. There is no desert, no lake. There is no motorcycle, no engine buzzing and vibrating. There is no helmet. No armour on your body. There is nothing but darkness.”
“Close your chest. Take one deep breath and hold it. Feel it flow in as darkness. There are no smells. No air No breeze. Close your ears. There is no engine, no fan, no cheering of the crowd. No sound at all but my voice. Nothing but what’s inside you. There is only you, your body and what’s inside it.
“You feel everything inside your body. You can feel your legs, arms and hands.” I feel the liquid ice tingling. “You can feel them begin to dissolve away into the void. There is nothing there. You feel your stomach, your gut. You feel them begin to fade away into the black. You feel your heart pumping in your chest. You feel it begin to fade, dimming like the light inside your chest has been turned down, lower and lower before finally turning black. You feel the last of your body dissolve. There is nothing left. There is no world. There is no body.”
“There is only you. Your raw naked mind. All your thoughts and feelings. Everything you have done and will do. There is only your consciousness within this vast empty void. There is no sound, no breeze of moving air, no smell, no taste, no touch. There is nothing but you, drifting in nowhere. This is your awareness, separate from the shell of your body, and my voice in the dark.”
“Slowly, picture yourself expanding, moving out into the darkness. You feel your heartbeat coming back, you feel yourself begin to flow through, to understand it. You feel each and every little thing about it. Each little movement of that pump within your chest. You feel yourself flow through your gut, including these feelings inside yourself. Move into your arms and legs. Feel their weight, the tension in your body. The strength in your limbs. Feel them merge with yourself and become a part of you.”
“You can feel your fingers, your toes. You feel the armour on your body weighing you down. You feel the weight disappear as you add it to your awareness. It becomes you, as much a part of you as the thoughts inside your mind. You feel the mass of your helmet begin to merge with your head. It’s not comfortable. It’s not uncomfortable. It’s you.”
“You feel the machinery, it’s mass and weight. You picture it in your mind in every little details. You feel yourself moving over through it. Flowing over it. It responds to you. It is as much you as your body. It is your body. Your feel it’s p ower. It’s your power. It’s strength. The coolness of the steel and the heat of the engine. You feel its rhythms, as much a part of you as your heartbeat. You can feel it’s power buzz and crackle through you, running like liquid.”
The engine revs.
“You feel the world You hear the crowd, feel the air caressing the bare surface of your armour, brushing against the bike, against the bare skin of your cheeks. You can smell the whole world around you. Fuel, salt. You can smell the steel of your heart and courage.”
Something brushed against my cheeks, cold and metallic. It smelled like blood. Cold, hard, moist. It smelled like machinery.
“This is you, this is all of you. This is your body. This is the vessel for your self. Now, as you slowly begin to exhale, begin to open your eyes and allow the universe to meet your new body”
I felt strange. It’s hard to explain. I just felt strange. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn’t. I just felt strange, a little tense. The engine was timing out it’s own rhythms beneath me, it’s heat soaking up through my body. It all felt...right. Little flickers in my shoulder. A slight dip in the engine’s idle before it picks up again. Pumps are whining. Air sucks through the intakes as I breath.
Jet was smiling at me. I gave her an unconvinced grin. It felt like a load of bullshit, but she believed it. Maybe it’s the sort of thing you have to believe in to make it work.
I really don’t know.
The steward warns us that we’re loosing the light. It’s time to go. Bypass flaps are closed, fans removed. Engine temperatures begin to rise. Crawl towards the line. Salt is crunching under my tyres.
I’m breathing hard. The bike is panting and chomping at the bit to go.
The steward waves, and I’m off. Usual pattern. Let it rev a little more, settle into fourth, then pin the throttle. I’m expecting the kick when it comes. It builds boost, roaring and snarling,
The rear tyre rips and scrabbles for grip, slewing hard to the right, then back to the left before the front tyre digs in and pulls everything straight.
It still scares the shit out of me but I keep it lit, charging forward until the shift light flickers. Bang into gear. It’s still scrabbling for grip, engine screaming and howling and straining to go faster than friction will let it. Chips of salt patter against the frame and I wonder what the hell Jet was smoking when she told me she’d adjusted it so it wouldn’t skid.
Sixth gear bangs into place and it finally grips. I finally breath. The bike bullets forward. It’s fast. It’s faster than I can think. I’m just registering that it’s in sixth when I have to hit seventh, and then a crackle into eighth.
Hit the water injection, and everything goes into warp speed.
The speedo’s just a blur of whirling light. Heads up display tells me I’m dead straight and centred. Remember the track damage. Pull right. Pull right. I hit it hand, kicking the bike up into the air. The engine screams free, before crashing back down. The tyre keeps spinning, chewing its way through the salt.
What the bloody hell is up with this thing?
I’m cursing. I’m praying. I’m screaming. I’m shaking. I’m burning. I’m shitting myself. I’m wondering what the fuck is going on. I’m hanging on for dear fucking life. I’m wondering what my wife will think.
The shift light flickers and I go for another gear.
I glance down, looking for anything weird. The engine stutters ever so slightly. I slip forward, almost like I’ve touched the brakes. It’s a let-up in the violence, a breather between punches. I’ve stopped accelerating. Speedo needles point at two, three and six in the order I read them. The number 12 is beside the word ‘Gear’. Rev bar is full red.
That’s as fast as I’ll go.
Holy fuck. Holy fucking Christ. The lake has turned twilight blue, with a pool of white glaring in my eyes. The eye black glows red on my cheeks. The timing van is a light in the distance. I can see my face reflected in the windscreen. I can see the clocks reflected in that.
623kph. Or 632. Steady.
The bike is vibrating and rattling and juddering. The wind is roaring a grabbing at my shoulders. It’s pulling on the top of my head.
Right at its limit, it’s strangely peaceful. Here we are and isn’t it great?
“That’s the run,” Jet says. “Pull it up.”
Sweet lightning. That’s got to be the record.
The air is cool and sweet on the run back around. Engine is running like a clock. Jet’s keeping pace with her engines burning a bright blue. I’m fizzing inside ready to burst. Ford’s waiting in the pit and I roll effortlessly to a stop and kill the engine.
There’s no time to apologise really, or worry about it. Just get to work. The radiators are being chilled by fans. I can feel the heat radiating off it, while I neck a bottle of fresh water. Got to keep hydrated.
The light’s fading. Now or never. Back in the saddle. Fuel, oil and water pumps on. Prod the starter. It chatters, but doesn’t fire. Try again. Fail again. Try again. Fail again. Jet holds it down. It just spins. Chatta-chatta-chatta-chatta. It starts to stink of petrol.
You got to be kidding me!
“Shit,” Jet says, before looking at Ford.
“No more or it’ll just get worse,” she warns.
How do we fix it?
“We don’t” Ford answers. “Not inside an hour. We have to wait for everything to cool down. ”
I’m physically gutted. I might’ve felt better if we hadn’t be able to get it going again after the attempt. But we were this close. We’d already made one run at record pace, we just have to go again. The be denied because of one dicky sensor is sickening. It’s infuriating. It’s proof that all the God’s and their mothers are nothing but total bastards.
The course steward appears.
“I’m sorry but, if you don’t get it going within the next ten minutes, I’m calling an end to it.” he tells us. “For safety reasons. It’ll be too dark for everyone.” Before anyone can snap back at him, “I’ve already let this run for longer than I should have.”
He leaves quickly, and the three of us are standing there in silence. Jet eventually speaks up.
“Fuck it, we’ll bump start the thing.”
Ford thinks for a few seconds. “With the gearing we have, we’ll have to tow it up to speed,”
Within 5 minutes, we’re tying it to the back of her truck. The stars are beginning to come out. The last few dregs of sunlight are about to vanish. The sky is turning a deep ultramarine. The moon is bright, but not enough to start casting shadows. I can still see the mountains and the track markers.
Fentraffic is starting to come out of hiding. Something big burns down through the atmosphere above, a burning contrail slashing across the sky.
I sit on the bike, and the big diesel Ford clatters to life. Jet’s standing in the bed and gives me the signal to be ready. Red brake lights go dark and truck begins to crawl forward taking up the slack in the rope.
It stretches taught for a moment, and the Star is jerked forward. First gear, clutch in. Ignition’s on, fuel, oil and water pumps are all whining to themselves. Speed builds slowly until the needls read a steady 100kph.
Dump the clutch, throttle open, and the engine shudders to life. Clutch in, throttle shut, breath a sigh of relief that I didn’t stick it into the back of the Ford. Get stopped. Keep the engine running at all costs. Untie the ropes and get the bike down to the opposite start line.
Jet warns me not to race it up, but I don’t feel how hard I’m pushing it until I look down and see I’m doing 240. This thing redefines speed.
We get to the line, and a marshal is waiting with a walky-talkie. He’s clearly pissed that we’ve kept him out here for so long. He’s the one who holds our final run in his hands.
“Yeah...” he says. “Yeah” he looks at us. “They just arrive.” A break while the voice at the other end speaks to him. “I’ll tell them.”
To get so far, and be killed because of the light.
“You got a minute” he informs us. “Light’s just about there. Good to go.”
I give him the thumbs up. Countdown. Signal. Go like Hell.
This is where we came in.
10th gear slams into place. Needles are going north of 500 and still rising. Little green trees on the HUD flicker past, marking out the course in the twilight gloom. The salt has turned a dimming sky blue. The sky is transitioning to purple far ahead, the last haze of sunlight behind me. 11th gear., still going. Glare from the headlight is so bright it leaves ghosts on my vision.
12th and top and all is well. The Star cruises up to it’s top speed. Needles sit resolutely at two, three, six.
The noise is still immense. A roar of wind that somehow manages to suck the breath of my lungs and punch me in the chest. The wail of the engines blowing through open wastegates behind, ripping up the lake.
“Right. That’s it.” Jet ends the fun. “Good run.”
I nearly forget to stop. I nearly get off the bike at 100kph. The ride back to the pits is the longest of my life. My mouth is try, my heart is machinegunning in my chest. I’m still surfing the adrenaline wave. I’m shaking so much I think I’m about to crash and wipe-out.
The party’s already started by the time I get back.
Outbound run: exit speed: 623.6. Average: 622.1
Inbound run’: exit speed; 623.7. Average: 622.3
Overall average over two runs, 622.15
“Well, if the FIM ratify it,” the steward says. “That’ll be a world record,”
There’s champagne, still chilled after Jet’s flight. There’s beer. There’s a euphoria rolling around the pits and the camp as the outback night finally closes in hard. There’s thumping music. Chippy’s snapping shots of the celebrations, will snapping gulps from a plastic glass of beer.
The inconel exhausts on the Highway Star are still glowing red as it’s wheeled away. It ting-tings away to itself, having earned its probable retirement.
I finally crash, and stumble my way to my sleeping bag before I just keel over on the salt.
I dream of speed.
I don’t feel like I’ve set a World Record.
My first thought is to finish the article. We say our goodbyes to Jet and Ford who’re rigging the Star for transport, and get on the road. There’re promises to meet again, we probably will if there’s ever any award. It was fun.
I finish the article on the way home in the van. It’s a nice, fine objective article. Good motorcycle journalism. This is what happened, this is how they did it, this is who, and this is what was awesome. This is what a wankel engine is, and you know you’re still a schoolchild if that makes you snigger.
Barry says as much back at the office. It’s a good article. “But it’s strange to be objective about something like that.”
“No, no,” he shook his head. “Rewrite it to be more subjective.There won’t be time to edit it at all properly, but we should still make the next issues printing.”
I smile a wry smile
“One last thing,” he says to me before I can leave. “What’s the bike like?”
Oh yea, the bike’s good too.