Agent Nasani felt the impact on her chest. The freefall suit could withstand a beating, but the human catapult formed by Team Artemis smashed Nasani so hard her weightless body was sent back to the periphery.
The crowds standing on the arena’s inner surface went into a frenzy. The Proxima supporters counted down the beats as Nasani gasped for air, waiting for Coach Sklep to fly closer. Sliding up her faceplate she yelled, “I can’t get to the centre.”
Sklep clasped her by the biceps. “Suspect’s tissue sample came back positive.” The dread in his eyes confirmed her worst fears.
Genetically engineered to wipe out a society, the bio-weaponised retrovirus attacked the neural system, incapacitating healthy humans within days, rendering them brain-dead within weeks. Stubbornly airborne, mutatious and deployed during the Great Solar War, Nasani knew of this virus’s capacity for devastation from studying the glorious Proxima Capital Archive. Judging by her senior agent’s dismay, this banned pathogen seemed to have caught the PSS off-guard. “We believe the entire Artemia team’s been infected.”
“Then stop the tournament,” yelled Nasani.
Nasani and Sklep look down towards the core, just in time to witness the first proxathlete make it into the valve.
“Impossible now,” Sklep said as he shoved Nasani back into the spherical arena. “Do everything you can to stop them.”
Nasani plunged back into the sporting void, reassessing her game plan. Social infiltration now redundant, her assignment as an information extractor had changed to that usually assigned to the Assassination Corp. Nasani hailed her Proxima team members who immediately flew to her vicinity. They were followed by members of Team VEMA, her counterpart leading the way.
“What’s happening?” asked Charleston, a spy from VEMA.
“No time to explain,” she yelled. “I need to get through to the next stage.”
Players from both teams agreed; few knew what the stakes were, most wanting to win the prestigious Proxathlon.
“Offensive catapult formation,” cried her teammate.
“No,” yelled Charleston. “With both teams colluding, we’ll be disqualified.”
With time bleeding away, Nasani glared at the spy, “I don’t give a roid’s ass if we get disqualified. Get me through that valve.”
Charleston winked back at her, “Ladder formation. Perfectly legal. Get there faster.”
The Proxima and VEMA teams dispersed, using the clasp and swing manoeuvre, and each other’s centre of gravity, to haul towards the arena’s centre. Once passing the halfway zone, the red freefall suits representing the VEMA, joined up to form a human rope. Team Proxima, with their green suits, formed a spearhead, using it to barrage through a defensive phalanx put up by Team Jupiter.
As the scattered bodies grabbed each other to form clusters, Nasani began climbing the human rope, pulling herself from body to body, irrespective of colour, each leap increasing her velocity. Once she felt her momentum reach a potent speed she let go and dove towards the valve. As soon as she made contact, Nasani positioned her body into the chamber. The valve, positioned in place by two structural tubes running along the arena’s polar axis, hissed with escaping air. Nasani braced as a jet of air flushed her into the northern tube. She knew she was able to breathe, but she held her breath the entire twenty-second trip. Suddenly, she panicked, realising she forgot to activate her suit’s pressurisation, but when deep space greeted her, no alarm systems threatened her.
Automatic, she remembered.
Nasani looked up at the purple planet. Her brain alerted her that she was in fact upside down. No matter how expert in antigravity sports, ground, however far, always felt like down. Even the Xenopis Sports Arena, orbiting gracefully around Proxima, couldn’t compete with the sheer eminence of a planet.
A circular platform surrounded her, graced with rocketbikes, each sporting the colours of all the competing nations. Fifteen states were represented at the Three Hundredth Olympiad. Thirteen from the far-flung Solar Realm. One from the Alpha Centauri Protectorate. And to celebrated the trinarium the games were given to Proxima to host. The political machinations behind these Proximalympics kept them all employed, but Nasani believed that these same forces also threatened her home world.
Stage two, she thought.
As officials assisted her to her rocketbike, she noted the five that had already launched, three of which were Artemidean.
The Astropolis of Artemis, a breakaway state from the Asteroid Federation, was a known hotspot for all dissidents, outlaws, and unaligned corporations; its economy depended on it. When the government of the Venus-Earth-Mars Alliance presented intelligence to the Proxima Secret Service, that the Hades Syndicate were planning to destabilise relationships between the Solar Realms and the ex-colony, a mutual partnership formed. Neither side trusted one another, but the Hades Syndicate had proven deadly to both nations.
The use of mass extinction weapons had also elevated the threat to a higher level.
Nasani launched her rocketbike, holding on to the controller, not wanting to fall off the glorified torpedo. Used by miners, these were ideal for manoeuvring around asteroids. It took great skill to fly trans-asteroid, hence its development into a sport. She’d practised this extensively, though she doubted she could complete a circuit in good time. Her competitors, most likely born and bred on the Solar Belt, would arrive at the last stage before she could get within killing range.
At the first waypoint, one Artemidean circled back and made an attempt to tackle Nasani, who was too busy calculating a trajectory that would accelerate her past the prox-moon, Tuomi. The Artemidean nearly intercepted her, coming within metres. Instead, he fell back losing momentum and time. The PSS would eventually pick him up.
“Stuff the Proxathlon.”
It occurred to her, given that winning a palladium star wasn’t for the taking, that she could simply bypass the waypoints.
Proxima is thought to have been slingshot to its current orbit by its rival, a Neptunian-sized planet christened Voutes. All of Proxima’s four small moons were considered hitchhikers during the planet’s long migration from the system’s outskirts. Proxathletes must encounter these small moons, using their weak gravity to execute a tight flyby, before they can move on to stage three.
Nasani corrected her trajectory to fly below the prox-moon, Shapley. The record was under a prox-hour so she hoped to cut the leader off within ten minutes.
“You missed your waypoint,” said a voice via her commset.
“It makes no sense, what you’re doing?” she said, tracking the remaining Hadian terrorists.
“To you, yes,” replied Dixon. “I expect as much.”
Nasani wondered why the Artemideans were keeping to the route. Then she noted two blips changing course. Until that moment, the syndicalist’s were maintaining their subterfuge, but now the duo headed lower, toward the purple glow of the atmosphere, passing the orbital city of Amanta.
Nasani eased the rocketbike downward, hitting point zero eight megameters per prox-hour.
She arrived at the last waypoint, a low orbit station, docking at one of the jump platforms. The two rocketbikes were already being collected by the proxathlon crews.
“It’s not an easy thing to lose your home,” said Dixon. She spotted the white diving exo-suit standing near the edge opposite the circular platform. Proxima filled the void beneath, with her crimson clouds swirling across the horizon and lavender mountain ranges scaring the terminator line. Nasani understood what Dixon meant. Even if the Proxima Capital Archive was inherently biased, she knew well that the history of Proxima’s early colonisation was steeped in treachery. The Pluto Nova Consortium that first reached and explored the Proxima Centauri system was illegally upstaged by refugees fleeing the devastating aftermath of the Great Solar War. The PNC fought them for a century but they could not compete with refugees who were backed by the old-world states. Defeated, the PNC degenerated into a quasi-terrorist outfit. They controlled a vast segment of trans-Neptune trade but have never let go of their right to claim Proxima Centauri.
“You will be murdering thirty million people. Do you value some long lost exploration covenant over so many lives?
“Stopping me won’t change a thing.” Dixon dove off the platform and plunged into the mauve haze. Nasani floated into the airless capsule and raided the space diving exo-suits.
Something moved above her.
She knew how to react. Nasani grabbed the Xinuflux helmet and swung it, pressing her whole body against the bulkhead to exert as much force as she could. The head-gear struck the assailant on the faceplate. Instead of shattering, the glass recoiled, pounding against the assailant’s face. The blood splatter obscured the proxathlete’s vision, allowing Nasani to disable the respiratory system. She didn’t need to finish off the Hades operative, a quick death was assured. Nasani instead focussed on getting the diving exo-suit on.
She then scavenged the capsule for an energy pack, a 500UI, and rigged it by short-circuiting its contact terminals. Carrying the homemade time bomb, Nasani hopped back outside to the rocketbike waiting to be collected by the robox-arm. She deactivated the lock and launched it, unmanned, out into the void, only to pause a moment before she too stepped over the edge.
Space-diving was jovially considered one of the safest sporting activities known to man unless one contemplated space-diving a gas giant. The sport proved most popular with many Proxii, having become a national sport during the past two hundred and eighty years since independence.
Problem being, she’d never space jumped before.
Small propulsion jets sent Nasani towards her home world. She used minute air-friction to fly to the unmanned rocketbike, coaxing it down with her. Within minutes, Nasani and the rocketbike were picking up speed as gravity began its deceivingly gentle tug.
Her eyes focussed on the mauve vista in front of her, a colour palette due to the red dwarf star burning behind her. Tidally locked, Proxima always had one hemisphere facing the sun. She could spot the massive canyons and deep crevasses dominating the planet’s near-side, a geological feature due to tectonics driving the crust towards the far-side, a forever dark and frozen region interspersed with titanic volcanoes.
Nasani saw the shiny reflections of human habitation and contemplated that, if Proxima hadn’t such an active surface, life on it would have been impossible, the PNC mission would have failed and the Great Solar War would have proved a colossal disaster for humankind.
A small white dot, Dixon, tumbled into the stratosphere. Nasani used the rocketbike to speed up and get within spitting distance of him. She felt the energy pack heating up and knew it would explode soon. Once she reached a distance of a kilometre, Dixon turned to intercept her. Instead of slowing, like she intended, Nasani sped up even faster, figuring that the rocketbike could double as a weapon.
She aimed for his centre mass.
There was nothing Dixon could do to avoid being slammed. The collision may have killed him, but Nasani knew the diving exo-suit would preserve the Phero Virus. She pulled his body to the free-falling rocketbike and strapped it to the fuselage. Then she shoved the energy pack into the exo-suit and pushed herself away.
Her own exo-suit began vibrating, indicating that the sound barrier had been broken.
Alarms blared in her helmet.
Time to think about parachutes, she thought and deployed them.
The rocketbike exploded nearby, creating a meteoric plume of smoke.
Within a few seconds, the drogue parachute ended her free-fall. Nasani guided her descent towards the Sea of Cassiopeia, a geographical feature most elementary students could identify.
She made splashdown at the centre court of the Proximalympic Watersports Venue, her exo-suit floating to the surface swiftly after. Multiple tournaments were underway. Thousands of spectators crowded the flotillas and terraces. A squad of officials rode the waves towards her. When they got within earshot they yelled at her, “You’re disqualified.”
Nasani smiled and looked up at the dark crimson, almost black sky. The sight of the pink sun, its two sister stars and four small moons comforted her.