The Harlequin in his Golden Ghost died two traps beyond the Knife Drawer.
Two chariots out of five had survived the first leg of the race. That was typical. Only amateurs and the placeholders had trouble dodging Sadie Straws by the starting-pin. You could tell someone was not cut out for racing life if he failed to notice Sadie’s clownish grin send forth sparks, her claws swoop down, arcing blue fire. She looked menacing, but she was slow, and you could see her coming, avoid her easily. The traps got deadlier the further on you went.
The first victim this time was an unknown called Torvin Congs. His chariot was underpowered, and had only two harnesses for his birds. As he came off the first arch, the legs of his cart clinging tenuously to the track’s tiny brass tubes (all that kept him from flying off into the clouds) he banked much too hard and had to slow down to compensate. The Web, unfortunately, was a bad place in which to linger.
As Congs righted his cart, the crowd shook their rattles. From a gossamer hammock above the track, a metal spider dropped right onto Congs’ cockpit- cover. It severed his harnesses, and the team of ducks flew away into the ether. From the hindquarters of the spider shot a wicked stinger that punctured the hull of the racecart. You could see Congs’ face, through the green bubble of his cockpit, bulge in surprise as his chariot filled with boiling titanium. The cart fell forty, fifty, seventy stories from the track and shook buildings a mile away when it smacked the pavement. The stands swayed back and forth. The spectators shook their rattles approvingly.
Another newcomer, one Captain Jinx, failed to notice the detours and trompe l’oiel distractions of the Fun House, steering his chariot into a wall of explosives.
The Pirate King was a dark horse favorite among some in the stands, but he failed to negotiate the stresses and subtleties of the Centrifuge, and lost his ducks to the G-forces as the harnesses snapped. His chariot dangled pathetically from the high struts of the track. He would be left there for as long as it took for him to go utterly mad and lose his memory, months if necessary.
That left local champion Trantran against the famously mad, death-insouciant Harlequin. The Harlequin hailed from quite far off, some said Overseas. The rules and the architecture for racing were said to be somewhat different in his country. Perhaps it was a rougher sport where he came from, because he had come to Phlogiston and sailed through some of the toughest courses, taken some of the highest prizes, and made love to (destroying in the process) some of the loveliest of Phlogiston’s women.
His chariot was of gold, hammered so thin you could see through it when it flew between you and the sun. Fan hats called it the Golden Ghost, although the Harlequin called it something nobody could pronounce. The red markings on the side were obscure as well. What gods they demanded favor of, no- one knew, but they were dark gods, or so idle chitchat had it. Strangest of all, the birds that pulled him were not ducks, but were bat-like things with black scales, eyeless. There were rumors that they relied on sonar rather than sight to guide their rig, which explained their extraordinary success in negotiating illusion-centered traps like the Fun House and the Mortatorium.
No-one was betting that Trantran would have much luck against the Harlequin. Some were betting specifically that this would be his last race. In the cheap part of the stands, Charaz and Bendick were amusing themselves with penny-hats, and only half paying attention to the race, until such time as it should get interesting in the last lap. There were crowds milling about near the hatstand, and discarded hats on the ground, and a tangible feeling of chaos about to let itself loose.
“Pretty good, this one,” said Bendick, pulling a hat of a fighting match over his head. “It’s Bosj Oldna in the Scraps a few years back. Good commentary.” He pulled off the hat after a few minutes. “Might save the rest for later.”
“Come on, you don’t want to be dragging that around all day,” said Charaz, punching his friend in the chest playfully. “Look up there, the Pirate’s just lost his ducks. Down to Tran and that foreigner. Let’s go catch it.” They ran up a ladder and over a catwalk to the upperclass views, an area they hadn’t paid to get into. A guard eyed them sourly, but didn’t make a move to eject them.
“Zounds, will you look at that,” said Bendick. “Watch that Harlequin dodge the Rakes! Smooth as whey, believe it!” The Harlequin was rounding a particularly dangerous section of the track, where gates of interlocking spines opened and shut at random. The Harlequin seemed to know instinctually when to speed up and slow down, and the teeth of the Rakes never touched him. Only one racer in nine survived the Rakes, and sometimes no-one did; it was thought that they ought to be done away with, or moved to a later stage of the race.
Trantran, close behind, had been through the Rakes four or five times and had suffered serious damage to his chariot in the past. It was his home turf, however, and this time he made it through easily. The last Rake closed on the banner flapping on his tailfin. It snapped off and continued to flap in the stiff wind.
“Zounds, two on the last reel,” said Bendick. “I put fifty-five on the interlurker. He’s got the whey this time round, I’m sure of it.”
“You haven’t got fifteen to rub together, piker,” said Charaz. “Anyway, if Tran doesn’t tighten up on those curves, this’ll be a no-finisher.”
“They’re swinging this way, look!” said Bendick!
“Shut it, will you, the guard’ll get cranky,” Charaz hissed.
The chariots were coming around a loop of track that passed right in front of the section the two boys had sneaked into. The trap on this bend was known as the Knife Drawer. A pair of hands hovered on each side of the track. At random moments, they would reach out and pull the tubes apart, just for a split second. The unlucky charioteer who hit the gap would leap skyward, straight into a cage of moving blades, whirling round ones and stabbing straight ones.
Trantran had gained the lead this time. As his battered chariot, splashed with gay circus colors, whooshed in front of the stands, the spectators bellowed with approval. They were as xenophobic as the next bunch; they could not get enough of the foreign competition, but they wanted to be the ones to see him die, crushed by their hometown kid.
Trantran evidently had let his attention wander. The hands opened a section of track right in front of him. Before he could slow down, his runners sailed into the gap and left the track.
“Oh,” was all Charaz and Bendick could say, as their champion soared on wings of death. The momentum of Trantran’s chariot carried it straight into the box of blades. There was a terrific shrieking, grinding, howling, showers of sparks, a spray of oil, a flurry of metal shrapnel. Smoking bits of chariot and charioteer flew over the stands, into the clouds, between the rails on the track, glittered as they sank to the pavement, miles below.
Strangely enough, the only part of the racer not ground to slivers was Trantran’s head. It fell more or less intact from the Knife Drawer’s cloaca, through the track-runner, and, owing to the entrails streaming from its neck, caught itself on a girder just below the track surface. Groans from the crowd. The head swung there, upside down, eyes rolling and audibly clicking.
Now it was the Harlequin’s turn. He too ran afoul of a gap in the rails, but only one runner came loose. Rocking slightly, without the fine control he had had a moment before, he sailed through the trap.
“Damned outlander’s done it again,” said a track-walrus to Charaz’s right. “Poor Tran! Poor Phlogiston, done out of a winner!”
Something then transpired that marked the beginning of events that would change Charaz’s life indelibly, forever. As the Harlequin sailed around the bend in front of the stands, Charaz caught a clear view of his face through the bubble of his chariot. The racer seemed to be in a panic. At the perigee of chariot to stands, Charaz could see the Harlequin put his hands together in a tent-shape, shaking them earnestly.
An amateur racer himself, Charaz knew that this gesture was the distress signal. It meant that the rider needed someone to pull the failsafe, debride the rails of their ion-charge, bring the race to a shrieking halt.
It was something racers in training did when they were on a track too advanced for their skill level. It was unheard of at a professional race. It was inconceivable that a multiple champion would send such a signal. These races were to the death. That was a point of pride, and the Harlequin was notoriously the proudest, most death-disdainful racer of them all. What was that signal about?
The Harlequin sailed through two more traps, but Charaz was too stunned to pay attention. As the foreign challenger came around a loop that went right under the Knife-drawer section, he passed within a few feet of Trantran’s dangling head.
No-one afterwards could quite agree on what happened next. Depending on whom you asked, either Trantran’s lifeless head got some spark of life in it again, or some long-hidden gimmick built into it came into its own. The foreign racer was entering the Mortatorium, another illusionary obstacle. The track branched and deviated, and strategically placed mirrors prevented the driver from seeing the correct route. The incorrect route led into screens of fire-threads, arranged to slice chariots into comical shapes as they passed through. The blind bats that led the Harlequin’s chariot paid no attention to the mirrors, and it looked as though he would ice this peril as he had the others.
The dangling head of the dead charioteer, however, began to rock and sway. Some sort of horn — or siren — or speaker — or kazoo (depending on whom you asked, over whey at the Spigots) emerged from his mouth, or ear, or the top of his head. A keening, almost too high to hear, made the stands rock as the audience writhed in dismay. Pain was not something they knew about, but had they known, the sound would have been painful.
The Harlequin’s bats suddenly seemed to lose all sense of direction. They began to fly in random directions, uncoordinated, some up, some down, some east, west or willy-nilly. The chariot rocked violently, pulled hither and yon by its maddened steeds. You could just make out the Harlequin, hauling on the reins vainly, calculating to the end. The Golden Ghost took a sharp wrong left, and shot through a fire screen. Sections of chariot and charioteer, razored into the multiple silhouettes of a ladies’ hat, floated down into a vat of hardening wax, to be put on display in the Hall of Casualties. Golden smoke hung in the air, golden smoke and the smell of acetylene.
Charaz and Bendick joined the swelling, clicking throng as it pushed towards the gates. There wasn’t much to say, except that Phlogiston would need a new champion. Trantran had been exceptional, surviving race after race, when your average racer never survived his first.
As they neared the stadium gate, they could see that a crowd had cleared a circle around something, as though watching a fight. Bendick shoved his way to a view. “Zoun-” he started to say, and caught the word in his voice-box.
Charaz made his way up and peered over his friend’s shoulder. Some of the Harlequin’s remains had escaped the fire threads and had fallen to the pavement. This particular bit of the foreign champion was a metallic coiled sleeve, yards long, in a smoking pile. Leaking from it in a widening pool…
“It’s red,” said someone. “What kind of devil has red flowing in him? And so much — who’d have known?”
The fluid spread over the sidewalk, and the spectators drew away.
“Let’s — I don’t know — let’s be somewhere else,” said Charaz. “Let’s sing, or look at hats, or something.”
“Or let’s just go home.” said his friend.
But home, for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint, was the last place Charaz wanted to be at the moment. His head periscoped slightly, and he strode off clicking along the metal floor of the world.