Thursday, November 7, 2019


By David Barber

Quick, Quick, the Circumsolar Dash is Starting.

Here in the shade of Mercury, ships jostle through the countdown, jockeying for position. Half the System is taking feed, coverage of all the action from this year’s Sunsports. And new to reporting is AL, the series 7000 artificial intelligence...

We prefer the term "autonomic lifeform" Chuck.

So, AL, talk us through the favourites, what with old Earth money and new Mars tech,how good those new cooling units are, and what we’ll see when the heat is on.

It was exactly ten years ago, Chuck, that Lisa Chan took a short-cut through the corona. She went deeper and hotter than anyone before, and set the benchmark for today’s racers. Of course, she was disqualified post-mortem…


Nate straightened his cap, took a breath and tried to push open the door.

“Team pilots only,” cautioned the hologram suddenly at his elbow.

“I’m on the list.”

The virtual maître d’ turned virtual pages. “Ah,” it said finally. “Team Luna.”

Inside, it was oven-hot and sweat popped out on his brow. Can’t stand the heat, don’t compete, goes the Sunsports jingle.

His nerve almost failed, but he sat down opposite Lola Speed, last years’ winner. She wore Mars Tek’s trademark silver, and looked older than the holo of her he prized as a kid.

She studied him, seemingly unaffected by the sauna heat. “Nate Booker,” she said. “New pilot for Luna, right?”

Nate wasn’t famous, she just had implants and recognition software.

“What you flying?”

He explained about his Ceres Series Three with the new cooling unit. Salt stung his eyes and he knuckled it away.

“Looked at that Mackenzie cooler,” Lola Speed interrupted. “Unreliable. Don’t go deep with it, kid.”

Racers used to shave an orbit round the sun; these days you cut corners, diving through the corona and trusting in your hardware until you surfaced to dump the thermal load. Winners stayed down the longest.

“Heard Milland takes risks with his crew.”

Cosmo Milland was the new owner of Team Luna, and you heard talk like that about him, but Nate was just starting out and couldn’t afford to pick and choose.

“Can’t stand the heat, don’t compete,” he said, dizzily, his Team Luna outfit darkening with sweat.



Hard to hear their voices over the air-con’s howl. Something about the engines, about help. Eventually flaws in the mirror layer burn through, punching brilliant spikes across the cockpit. The incandescence crisps the eye even through lids squeezed shut.

This is what can happen when you dive too deep, going for the record. Some leave their coms on right to the end, so we can all hear what bad luck sounds like.


Nate had got off to a bad start, outmanoeuvred by the Team Terra third string who’d blocked him at the last moment. Now he accelerated flat out, downwards into the corona.

The Mackenzie cooling rig encased him like a set of Russian dolls, with his his own naked flesh at its heart. Engineering trade-offs and the constraints of physics meant he squeezed into a space no bigger than a coffin.

The corona might be tenuous, but the radiative load from plasma at millions of degrees was making itself felt. Across the board, layer after layer of his cooling system changed to red.

Below him, deep into the brilliance, another craft ghosted intermittently on his screen; maybe the Team Terra craft that blocked his start, but it was already heading back out.

Nate plunged down past it into the furnace, filter after filter struggling with the brightness, ever closer to the boiling surface of the sun.


So AL, tell us about this new idea from Team Terra’s Dave Beauman, sharing the pilot’s seat with a series 7000. Because it reminds me how Jessie Bulland limped in on manual that time a solar flare frazzled everyone’s circuits. Could silicon have brought home that win, AL?

Well Chuck, the 7000 series is the most advanced...

Sorry to cut you off there AL, but there’s news in about three-time winner, Lola Speed.


The roar of the air-con made it hard to hear, but it was Lola Speed alright; Nate knew that voice.

“What you doing this deep kid?” he thought she said.

His last refrigeration layer was beginning to overload, and droplets of sweat floated off him as the air temperature rose remorselessly.

He asked what was wrong, if he could help. Perhaps she couldn’t hear him, perhaps she knew there was no help.

“Make your choices while you can, kid.”

He was at the nadir of own trajectory now, and would start to climb out of the corona. Lola Speed’s craft still tumbled sunwards.

“Mirror layer next,” she panted. “Not long...” Her voice rose to a scream, then cut off.


There was a Team Luna engineer on coms, with Cosmo Milland breathing down her neck. “Our readouts show some issues with the Mackenzie rig,” she said carefully. “But it’s within tolerance.”

Milland seized the mike. “What the hell’s going on? You did a great first dive, even after that crappy start, now you’re ahead of the pack, and there’s some quibble about cooling?”

“Made a choice,” said Nate. He had glimpsed the future.

In the silence, you could hear Milland trying to make sense of it. “You refuse to dive again and you’re finished in sunsports, you hear me?”

Nate flicked off the com and began plotting a safe orbit back to Mercury.


They were so sure that flesh and silicon would be a winning team, a synergy where second by second one partner would monitor data critical to optimal performance, while the other did whatever it is humans do, cutting corners, making wisecracks and pushing engines beyond the limits they were designed for.

But note how much power that cooling unit squanders keeping Beauman alive as we plough the corona, in direct conflict with the goal of this mission, to win the Circumsolar Dash.

So I’m sorry, Dave.

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