Temporal_contingency_cover_final

Joseph R. Lallo was born in Bayonne, NJ. For most of his life, writing was an interest that he used to fill those spare moments when he should have been studying or doing other more productive activities. This continued all the way through college, graduate school where he earned a masters of computer engineering, and nearly a decade as an IT specialist. On January 28th 2010, after several dozen failed attempts to have his stories traditionally published, his friends convinced him to self-publish. A year later he had earned $19, so he decided to make the first book in his series free. The following month he made $1900 and was well on his way to a career in self-publishing.

Primarily known for his Book of Deacon fantasy series, as of March 26th 2015 Joseph R. Lallo will have completed more than a dozen books in four different settings. These include the six books in the Deacon setting, four science fiction novels in the Big Sigma series, a superhero satire called The Other Eight, and a pair of steampunk novels called the Free-Wrench series.

Temporal Contingency by Joseph R. Lallo

Temporal Contingency is the fourth book in the Big Sigma Series.

Trevor "Lex" Alexander's life has been less than blessed. In the past year he's had to battle corrupt corporations, deranged techno-terrorists, and a robotic scourge. Now he's received the opportunity to finally return to the racing career that had been cut short by some poor decisions. One could excuse him for not wanting to be embroiled in another insane adventure when he is so close to returning to his life's calling. Sometimes the call of duty will not be denied.

Karter Dee, a certified lunatic responsible for many of Lex's recent woes, has discovered a threat on an unprecedented scale. He and Ma, his AI caretaker, know their plan to solve the problem will take a special mixture of competence, improvisation, and disregard for personal safety. Reluctance aside, Lex is the only man for the job. Even with the skilled pilot on the team, the scope of the problem has grown so massive that it may be unsolvable in its current state. Some would consider the situation hopeless, but any good engineer knows if you can't find a solution, you have to change the problem.

To give human society a chance at a future, Lex, Karter, and Ma, will have to venture into the past.

CURATOR'S NOTE

This is my own contribution to the bundle, the fourth installment of the Big Sigma series. Back when I wrote Bypass Gemini, I wasn't even certain it would be a series. Readers got a kick out of the characters of Lex, Karter, and Ma, so the stories continued to flow. What's special about this one is the fact that the whole series exists because a friend of mine suggested I write some sci-fi. I didn't know at the time, but he was hoping it would be a time travel story. It took a few years, but Temporal Contingency finally scratched that itch for him. I hope you find it similarly enjoyable. – Joseph R. Lallo

 

REVIEWS

  • "… How can you top time travel?! It's always a hard subject for Sci Fi writers and you can never escape paradoxes, it takes a v good author to make the paradoxes workable… [Mr. Lallo] manages to wrangle the time travel angle with multiple versions of the characters in another great story to 'save the universe'! …"

    – Amazon Review
  • "A well told edge of your seat tale with surprising elements of humor."

    – Buck Norton, Goodreads
  • "… I've read all of his other books, and all I have to say is that everything that he learned crafting those other books has paid off with this far superior series. His characters are more rounded, the story lines are way richer and the antagonists are more than walls that his heroes need to climb over. … This author did up his game this time around and produced some really fine work. And his take on the temporal story line is among of the best that I have ever read."

    – John Frosted, iBooks
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

Prologue

There was nothing quite as satisfying as the roar of a hoversled. Sure, even the most underpowered ships had more potent reactors, but the vacuum of space always muted the bulk of their sound. Only what worked its way through the structure of the ship itself ever made it to the ears of the pilot. But a hoversled? Every rattle and hiss was yours to enjoy.

Trevor Alexander, "Lex" to all but a select few, basked in the throaty rumble of the thrusters. To him the complex overlapping rhythms had all the nuance and elegance of a symphony orchestra, and had the bonus of propelling him across the landscape at 1200 kph in the straightaways. A desert landscape, wavy and distorted with rising heat, stretched out around him in all directions. It was beautiful in a raw, austere kind of way, sandy-yellow and brick-red stone arranged into a lifeless moonscape of irregular spires and sprawling mesas. Flickering red laser lines stretched between roughly placed markers, tracing out a naturally clear section of the planet's surface. If he focused, he could feel the repulsors ride across the cracked earth. It was a mild shudder layered atop the general vibration that came with oversize engines forcing a ship through an atmosphere that at this speed may as well have been thick as mud. Pumping lubrication and overheated electronics filled the cockpit with a stinging, acrid smell that almost overpowered the prevailing aroma. Lex himself.

Heat management was a tricky thing on any high-speed vehicle. The amount of power belching from even the high-efficiency state-of-the-art propulsion systems mounted on this sled was difficult enough to vent completely in a temperate atmosphere. On Operlo, a planet with a "habitable zone" that seldom dropped below 65 degrees Celsius, it was that much harder to dissipate the excess heat. All of this translated to a cockpit that was practically a sauna even with the air-conditioning blasting. Dressed as he was in flame-retardant, impact-reactive safety gear, Lex was stewing. But he wouldn't have it any other way. The smell of sweat, the hum of the reactor, the shimmy of the frame, the streak of the landscape: they were all part of the experience, four of the five senses pushed to their absolute limit. And as for the fifth?

"Listen, I think next time we're going to go spearmint on the gum, Preethy," Lex said. "I'm just not feeling this wintergreen."

"I shall make a note of it, Lex, but please try to remember you are testing the Revision 3 hoversled, not the concession stand," remarked the businesslike voice of Preethy Misra across the communicator built into his helmet.

"Hey, I'm a full-service sort of guy. You hire me, you get it all."

"How is the equipment performing?" she asked.

He glanced at the instrument panel. Every section of the cockpit that wasn't populated with controls was covered with digital and mechanical gauges measuring every conceivable metric of the sled's condition. Presently they were color coordinated quite well, each deep into the red side of the spectrum.

"Meters look good," he said, yanking the control stick to the left to coax the vehicle around a turn.

Inertia, even subdued as it was by the inhibition system designed to keep the acceleration from squirting his brain out his ears, shoved him to the side of his seat. Three structure sensors started blaring warnings in response.

"As a general rule we try to keep them in the green, not the red," Preethy said.

"If you're going to spy on the readings across the com system, then why even ask my opinion? I'm your test driver, and I say she's a beaut. Holding up brilliantly."

"And what do you think of the track the surveyors picked out? A worthy third course for our circuit?"

His hoversled rode up a slight incline and lofted, hurdling through the air for several hundred meters before slamming down again.

"What was that?" Preethy asked.

"A minor grading issue. Let me ask, are your track maintenance guys going to clear this off and level it out?"

"There are safety regulations to adhere to. I understand track features such as that will be mitigated somewhat."

"Yeah, that's what I thought. In that case, this is going to make for sort of a tame run," he said. "I'm feeling it. But I'm not feeling it, you know?"

"I'm afraid you'll need to articulate yourself a bit better than that if I'm going to take your recommendations to the engineers."

"Well…" He glanced aside, looking out the right window of his cramped cockpit.

Stretching out beside the roughed-out track was a huge field of natural stone structures, columns of hard stone scoured out of the softer stretches of the landscape by constant winds. The field was dense with them, in some instances leaving barely enough room between for two hoversleds to pass side by side. He grinned.

"I'm thinking something like this," Lex said.

He fired the retrothrusters to drop his speed to something more maneuverable, then tugged at the controls. The sled struggled to keep its grip on the stone and gravel of the field, skidding wide before settling into a new course. Lex blasted through the laser perimeter of the potential course and off into the cluttered field beyond.

"Lex, please stay on the intended track until we've completed the testing."

"We did three laps. Let's just take a little detour for a bit," he said.

"Need I remind you, antics like this have inspired the resignation of no fewer than three insurance adjusters?"

"Thinning the herd, Preethy. If they can't take a little navigational improvisation out of your racers, they don't have a place in the business."

The sled sliced across the landscape and deep into a cluster of stone spires. They swept past in twos and threes, each one bringing a heart-stopping whomp as he charged by with inadvisably little clearance.

He heard Preethy clear her throat over the communicator, then address someone on her side. "Gina, would you please send me the link to the appropriate land surveys for areas surrounding track three? … Thank you."

Lex eased the hoversled into a lazy turn into a denser patch of columns, effortlessly plotting a course between them and thrilling as his proximity warning switched from a periodic blip to an almost constant tone.

"Lex, please bring the sled to a stop immediately," Preethy said. Her tone was still as calm and collected as it had ever been, but vibrating beneath it was a very real tension.

"Why, what's up?"

"Fifteen hundred meters ahead of you starts ore-field 145, one of our larger zinc mines."

"Okay, first off, fifteen hundred meters were gone before you finished talking. Second, what do I care about mines? Those are underground, right?"

"This particular mine has been running since before Mr. Patel's landscape conservation efforts. Mining has been temporarily discontinued there due to geographic instability. Automated boring machines were working quite near the surface."

"How cl—oh jeez!"

He pulled hard at the yoke and tapped a side thruster, narrowly avoiding a yawning opening in the ground ahead.

"What was that?"

"Little pothole. Nothing to worry ab—"

His assurance was cut short by the crackling grind of collapsing stone as the ground beneath him began to give way. He cut off power to the main thrusters and maxed out the repulsors, effectively wrapping the whole sled in the electromagnetic equivalent of a bumper. After a short drop, he slammed down onto a bored-out cylindrical tube.

The natural inclination at this point would have been to stop, but Lex knew when land started to collapse it didn't usually stop right away. He wasn't interested in having several metric tons of landscape land on top of him, so he juiced the thrusters and darted along the tunnel.

"Preethy?" he said shakily.

"Are you hurt, Lex?" she asked.

"No, but I've got a minor criticism of your sled design."

"Perhaps now is not the time for that."

"It's pretty heavy on my mind," he said, his hands dancing across the controls.

"What is it?"

"No headlights."

Ahead, the tunnel was utterly black. He routed some power to the retrothrusters without cutting any from the main ones. It wasn't a very wise decision, since it put terrible strain on the hoversled's frame, but at this point very few decisions Lex had made were motivated by wisdom. The glow from the straining reverse thrusters just barely illuminated the way ahead. What he saw was a fairly enormous tunnel, easily eighty meters in diameter and a perfect circle in cross section. It continued straight at least as far as the eye could see, which at the moment wasn't very far at all. Cracks and fractures all along the ceiling convinced him that continuing forward was the best option, as further collapse seemed imminent.

"Any chance you could—"

"I'm loading the tunnel network layout into your race computer now," Preethy said.

"Much obliged."

A progress bar popped up on one of the instrument screens, rocketing from 0 to 50 percent rather quickly, but then slowing drastically.

"Looks like we've got a little bit of a connectivity problem."

"Our… intended to… transmission through…" Preethy said, her voice eventually entirely swallowed by digital distortion.

Lex glanced at his altitude meter—an odd but surprisingly useful inclusion on a hoversled—and noticed that he was creeping steadily deeper into the negatives. One by one the sensors that depended on satellite data went black or errored out. The map download ground to a stop at 86 percent.

"Right, okay. That's probably enough," he said, tapping the screen. "Satellite connection lost, switching to full."

The navigation system, not exactly the most robust system on the market considering it was designed to report where on a known track the vehicles were, struggled to cope with the task of working out where in the mine system it was. After a few moments, the screen flashed: Recalibration needed. Please decrease speed to zero.

Lex glanced about again. The integrity of this stretch of the tunnel seemed much more secure than what he'd left behind.

"I think I can manage that," he said, dialing back the thrust and bringing the sled to a halt.

The screen thanked him and began to tick through its diagnostic, but without the thrusters to light the way, Lex was left with only the various very angry indicator lights to illuminate his surroundings. No longer pushed to its limit, the vehicle released the pops and pings typical of a device easing down from the sort of mistreatment he'd been administering. Behind it though, he started to pick up a distant sound that didn't sit well. A second or two later, just as the screen switched to the word finalizing, he began to feel the sound. The whole tunnel was rumbling and shuddering. Pebbles and stones started to clatter against the windscreen.

"Time to go," he said, punching the throttle.

His navigation screen now helpfully displayed the cave network, with tiles missing where the data was incomplete. A route to the finish line was plotted, along with a warning: Low-fidelity mode. Position is within a one-hundred-meter radius.

"Oh, great. That's plus or minus the entire tunnel," he muttered. "Can't say I've got a rosy opinion of the nav system, Preethy."

A few seconds of moderate speed seemed to have put the collapse far behind him, but the odd crack or fault running along what little of the tunnel he could see convinced him that the danger associated with too much speed paled in comparison to the dangers associated with too little. Fortunately the boring machines that had processed this hunk of planet clearly couldn't turn on a dime, and cylinders were pretty much the ultimate banked turns, so his journey through the mine was remarkably hoversled friendly. Not only that, but the lack of pounding sun meant the cooling system on the thrusters and in the cockpit could actually dump some heat.

Just about the time he began to genuinely enjoy this novel means of sled racing, he squinted at the nav screen to see what looked like a spiderweb approaching. Several tunnels had crisscrossed this same volume of land, resulting in a long sequence of very sharp angles where they intersected. It was the sort of place where a one-hundred-meter misapproximation of position could send him straight into a wall, and it probably didn't do much good for the structural integrity of the tunnels either.

"Okay. No big deal. Intuition, Lex. We want to go in an… up-ish direction."

A nagging voice in his head suggested he could probably drop the speed to a crawl and inch his way around the turns, particularly since at this point a throbbing engine was more likely to cause a new collapse than help escape one. Overruling the voice of common sense was the much louder and more instant voice of exhilaration, which made the very well-reasoned argument, We're going to do this as fast as possible because it is awesome and we are awesome. It was a voice Lex had allowed to guide an unnervingly large number of his major decisions.

Steering by the glow of his thrusters and the seat of his pants, Lex made six sharp turns in rapid succession. By the time he glanced back at his navigation screen, it was flashing the word rerouting.

"What's to reroute about? I can see daylight up ahead," he said, squinting at the point of light approaching. He cleared his throat and spoke to the computer. "Navigation, advance view in direction of travel."

The system began to track along the path ahead, coming to a narrow line a short distance farther along.

"Stop, zoom."

At his command, the scale adjusted, revealing the label Ventilation. The diameter of that particular tunnel was labeled on the map.

"Okay. Two meters. That's not so bad. The width of this sucker is," he glanced at the clearance chart, "one point eight six meters. Plenty of room."

He dialed the speed down just a hair, mostly by boosting the retrothrusters to give him a bit more light, and scrutinized the tunnel walls for any sign of change. It came rather suddenly, in the form of the surprise that the ventilation shaft was covered with a grating and aligned with the ceiling of the tunnel, not the floor. He yanked the controls and twisted, inverting the sled. It briefly lost contact with the walls of the tunnel. When the repulsors finally restored the induced attractive force that had replaced pesky, unreliable things like tires, he was lined up with the vent, but not quite straight.

The momentum was more than enough to punch straight through the metal grating blocking the vent, but his back end clipped the edge of the shaft, and the dislodged grate caught under one of the forward thrusters. This converted his roughly forward motion to a spark-spewing spiral. Every sensor and gauge either lit up menacingly or failed completely. Grinding metal and whining thrusters produced a deafening din. Dislodged hunks of stone from his graceless entrance to the vent struck his windshield, and the unpleasant aroma of a plasma leak quickly asserted itself.

He wrestled with the steering and got his spiral under control just in time to run out of vent and launch from the stone tube like a cork from a champagne bottle. He landed cockpit down, digging furrows through the bleached stone of the landscape before a few more flicks of the controls got him upright.

Preethy's voice came back to clarity. "Lex! Lex, please respond."

He took a deep breath and spat his gum onto the windshield. "I am A-okay. The Rev 3 is a little dinged up."

"That is not our concern. Please power down. A response team is heading in your direction."

"Sounds good. And Preethy?"

"Yes, Lex?"

"Do yourself a favor and review the video footage from the sled. Tell me folks wouldn't cross the galaxy to see racing like that."

#

Preethy and Lex sat in an open-air hover cart. It was driverless, consisting of little more than a pair of bench seats facing each other and a rigid awning over them. It looked more like a moving gazebo than a vehicle. Two medics were giving Lex a checkup, but aside from a gash on his cheek from when his head had hit one of the safety harness buckles during the vent shaft escape, he was unhurt.

He brushed his fingers through his brown hair, which he'd cropped to nearly a crew cut to cope with the heat of the racetrack. The long hours on the track had left him a bit sore, but one of the positive parts of his return to racing had been his return to a regular conditioning routine. Stamina was a major factor in any mid-to-moderate-length race, so he'd started upping his exercise regimen, and it had made him a good deal leaner and better toned than he'd been in the three years since he was forced out of racing the first time.

"I do wish you would stop damaging the prototype hoversleds, Lex," Preethy said simply.

Ms. Misra was almost picture perfect in the role of a young female executive. She was stoic to the point of almost being cold in her demeanor. Her complexion and features were distinctively Indian: rich brown skin and straight black hair. She dressed impeccably, but it was here that her executive aesthetic faltered slightly. Quite fit, Preethy enjoyed a set of curves that she seemed aware made concentration difficult for those with an eye for such things. As such she always wore clothing that hugged them just a little tighter, and showed off just a little more of them, than one might find acceptable in the average employee handbook. The outfits didn't look tawdry or cheap by any stretch, but they seemed to have been painstakingly designed to test the limits of professionalism without crossing the boundary. At the moment, that outfit was a tan and black business dress, dark glasses, and dark lipstick. She clutched a datapad to her side, something Lex had rarely seen her without.

"I think it held up pretty well, all things considered," Lex said. "The collision protocols didn't even engage."

"Yes. I'll have a word with the engineers. I rather think that is sign of poor calibration, considering the blood on your cheek."

"There, see? I'm not crazy, I'm thorough. Better we find out this stuff now than when we've got forty of those babies on the track."

"On that we can agree."

"So, listen, about those tunnels."

"I'd warned you not to leave the track."

"No, no, hear me out. I really think those have potential as a racing venue. I mean, you know, lay them out right, map them right. Boost the accuracy on the IMU, but you'd probably have something nobody else has."

"… Interesting. I'll discuss logistics with our infrastructure teams. Perhaps some of the exhausted veins can find new life in that role. Naturally, the insurance team will have something to say about it."

"Bah, they've got something to say about everything." He cracked the seal on a bottle of water and took a sip. "So, you talk to your uncle lately?"

"Mr. Patel called me this morning. He continues to express excitement at the speed at which his racing league is coming together."

"Well, when he put you in charge, I've got to imagine he was expecting top-tier results."

"Your consultation has been invaluable. You're sure you can't stay longer? Two or three more weeks as fruitful as these and we'll be ready to start exhibition races on our first track within two months."

"Hey, I've been here for three weeks straight already. Counting the shorter stints it's been like a month and a half total. If I keep this up, Mitch is going to forget my address."

"You can always have her visit you here. Two whole floors have been completed in the new hotel. The Operlo Racing Intersystem Circuit would be happy to host a journalist of Ms. Modane's caliber."

"Is that what you're calling the league now?"

"Marketing says it tests better than prior suggestions. ORIC is a pronounceable acronym."

"Ah. Trust me, you don't want Mitch coming here. It's sort of a fork in the microwave situation when you mix her with organized-crime types."

"Surely you've informed her that ORIC is an entirely legitimate enterprise."

"Oh yeah. I've informed her. But getting her to believe it is another thing entirely. Nick Patel's name is all over this thing, and in her head, he's nothing more than a racketeering thu… well, you know."

"I'm sure Uncle has been called worse things than a racketeering thug, but I'm hopeful that ORIC will illustrate his commitment to not only legal and wholesome entertainment enterprises, but to bolstering and building Operlo as a tourist destination."

He raised the water bottle. "Here's to hoping."

"If you will be leaving us, we'll need to finalize your payroll," she said. She raised the pad and swiped the screen for a few moments, then presented it to Lex. "Please look over the figures. If everything is in order, approve with a thumbprint."

Lex raised his eyebrows and whistled. "If you're trying to convince me to stick around, this is the way to do it."

"That's what we pay all of our consultants. Are you having financial problems?"

"I've got some debts. I haven't been able to get the delivery or chauffeur gigs back. VectorCorp hasn't been quite so overtly trying to destroy me, but the freelancing gig has gotten very dicey." He touched his thumb to the screen. "This is pretty much keeping me fed until I actually start racing."

"All the more reason to remain on-site to hasten the completion of the league prep and continue to earn your fee."

"I really appreciate it, but again, I'll have to pass. Besides, I don't think Squee is much of a fan of the heat."

The edge of Preethy's lips curved into the hint of a grin. "Well, we can't have an unhappy puppy, can we? By the time we bring you back for the first races, I'll see to it the indoor dog run is finished. When will you be leaving?"

"I guess this afternoon."

"So you have a few hours. Perhaps after you get cleaned up, you'll join me for lunch. We've just finished the bistro in the lobby level, and the chef has arranged a tasting menu."

He shrugged. "Sure, sounds like a plan."

#

Lex waved good-bye to Preethy as he stepped out of the cart that had dropped him at the recently christened Solar Port near the hotel. It was a series of enclosed and cooled docking ports aligned in a complex grid. Each was topped with a retractable solar array as a roof and existed for no other reason than to ensure the personal ships of high-class hotel patrons weren't hot enough to fry breakfast on if they decided to leave during the day. It was only a short walk to the door of the facility, but Lex opened a silvery umbrella of sorts to shade himself during the trip. Say what you will about the potential unmanliness of parasols, one learns to embrace them when coping with the sun of a desert planet.

Even with the portable shade, he was sweating heavily when he reached the door. The adorable black-and-white ball of fluff known as Squee wasn't making things any better either. His pet passed for a dog, but she was actually a genetic experiment with a custom genome combining fox and skunk traits. The not-quite-right shape of the head and the enormous fluffy tail should have been a giveaway, but the general public could be excused for not leaping to the conclusion that the four-legged critter being walked in the park was a science experiment. The official species name was funk, and every one he'd met so far had a peculiar tendency that didn't seem to stem from either the fox or skunk half of the equation. The little cutie positively loved to perch on the shoulders of anyone nearby. This was doubly so when they were wandering about in the open during Operlo's punishing daylight hours. Probably it was just to spare the critter from scalding her feet on the hot ground, but Lex couldn't shake the feeling that it was actually an act of protest. Having the furry devil about his shoulders instantly made it feel twenty degrees hotter.

When he reached the door, some manner of automatic identification system activated it, which was a blessing because outdoor touchscreens were a recipe for blisters. He stepped into the relative dim of a small entryway with doors on each side. The outer door shut, a glorious blast of climate-controlled air rushed into the entryway, and the inner door slid open.

"Man I love that," he said, lingering in the entryway and maneuvering until he and Squee could each feel the breeze ruffle their hair.

"I don't have all day," muttered a voice.

The guest spoke in a gruff, impatient tone that startled Lex primarily because the only thing that was supposed to be in the bay was his trusty ship, the SOB. Lex slapped the lighting controls, activating high-efficiency floodlights in each corner. They illuminated the sleek black masterpiece of his pride and joy, a ship every bit worthy of his frenetic level of skill behind the controls. Leaning on the far wall, arms crossed and assorted snack wrappers scattered at his feet, stood an odd-looking fellow. Irregular stubble peppered his chin and cheeks, though it refused to grow on a patch of skin on one side of his face. Similar irregularities plagued most of his visible flesh, with bits and pieces looking much newer and much less natural than others. The features gave him a subtly unsettling appearance. Nothing was overtly wrong about him, but lots of things weren't quite right. The most bizarre feature was a single chrome iris in his right eye. He heaved his slightly stocky body off the wall and wiped his fingers on his dark blue jumpsuit. The remnants of some sort of dark red meat stick dangled from between his lips like a cigar.

He was Karteroketraskin Dee, known as Karter by most who dealt with him, and known to be a sociopath and malcontent on the best of days by all who dealt with him. The impatient look on his face suggested this was not the best of days.

Squee hopped from Lex's shoulders and trotted over to Karter, leaping to his shoulders to say hello. The act didn't seem to faze him in the slightest. He simply scratched under her chin and pocketed the remainder of his snack.

"Karter!" Lex said. "What the hell are you doing here? And how did you get in here? This is a private docking bay!"

"Yeah, believe it or not, hotel security isn't impenetrable."

"Since when do you willingly leave Big Sigma?"

"It was under duress. Anyway, I've got a job for you."

"What sort of job?"

"The sort that would motivate me to leave my personal planet rather than risk talking specifics over a com channel, let alone in a hotel parking lot. Now let's go. You've got a job to do."

"No. Absolutely not."

"I didn't ask you if you wanted a job, Lex. I said you've got a job to do. As in, you will be doing a job for me. Ma's been calling you about it."

"Yeah, I know. We chat all the time. But I told her then, and I'll tell you now: I'm not going to be doing any more testing for you."

Karter crossed his arms. "We've got a contract."

"Preethy had her lawyers look at it, and they say I've already fulfilled the minimum requirements three tests ago, so I just have to agree not to do product testing for anyone else until the contract is up."

"What do you call what you were doing in the hoversled this morning?"

"Consultation. And it's not a product, because it won't be for sale," he said confidently.

Karter grumbled. "Loopholes and semantics. I hate lawyers."

"Turns out they're not so bad when they're on your side… and someone else is paying their bills."

"Fine, whatever. Let's get moving. This one might have a time limit, so I want to get on it."

Karter glanced to the SOB. As if reacting to the gesture, the cockpit popped open. Squee excitedly hopped from Karter's shoulders to the fuselage and trotted inside, looking out expectantly.

"Were you not listening? I'm not doing jobs for you anymore. I'm serious, I can't risk that stuff. In less than a year I'll be back in the seat of a hoversled, racing professionally again. This is a second chance I was never supposed to get, and I'm sure as hell not going to spit in the eye of fate by risking my life doing something idiotic for you."

"I've got satellite footage of you taking a hoversled subterranean on a whim."

"I said nothing idiotic for you. I reserve the right to indulge my own idiocy from time to time," Lex said. "Especially in the pursuit of the sport."

"Uh-huh. This is one of those world-saving gigs. Ma said that would matter to you."

A flicker of conflict came across Lex's face. "What sort of…?" He shook himself. "No. Damn it, I've done enough. How many times does one man have to put his neck on the line and do something that no sane person should even consider possible? Call it selfish if you want, but I've got a chance to live the life I was supposed to live before I made the mistake of borrowing money from the wrong sort of people…"

Karter rolled his eyes and adjusted his left wrist. It produced a series of mechanical clicks and dings.

"… The stars had to align for this to happen. A whole new league had to form just because I've been permanently barred from the existing ones for race fixing. If there's karma or whatever, then this is my reward for saving planets the first few times. I mean hell, probably the only reason Preethy and Nick are even doing this is because Operlo is one of the planets I've saved! Find another hero. Go bother Silo again. I—what are you—?"

His unwanted guest thrust his left arm out, and a small panel of slightly too-pale skin popped up from the back of his hand. It produced a hiss and blur. A moment later Lex reeled backward, three sharp pains in his neck.

He felt for the source of the pain and found three small plastic barbs, each the size of a toothpick, stuck into the flesh. He tugged them out to find each tipped with a needle.

"Did you…?" Lex gasped, rubbing the point of impact. "Did you just shoot me with tranquilizer darts?"

"Only one of them was a tranq dart. The other ones were an anti-inflammatory and a seizure inhibitor."

"For what?"

"To prevent permanent damage from punctuation. Because you're coming with me."

"I don't—"

"Period," Karter said.

He stepped forward and grabbed Lex by the collar, yanking him forward while at the same time thrusting his head down. Lex's skull met Karter's, with roughly the same effect as if the racer had run headlong into a girder. The world went black, his last moments of fading consciousness registering the distant sensation of being dragged across the ground.