Behind the Ball
by David M. Rauche
25 January 3301
Enoch Port, Agartha


When my editor asked me to seek out and interview the organizer of the Buckyball Run, I didn't expect to have to risk my life to do it. But standing at the base of the loading ramp of the freighter Shotgun Shine, docked at Enoch Port, I thought that's where my life was going to end.

They called him "Con-Ho," a name from some ancient Earth dialect of a large predatory species from the jungle regions of the human homeworld, and he looked every bit the part. He was large, powerfully built, with a pistol holstered on his right hip and a large machete dangling from the left. While others on the dockside had no trouble boarding the Lakon Type-7, I was halted by this mountain of a man, clad in a black leather jacket with the front zipped open and tattoos across his chest that must have taken years to apply. He wanted to know exactly why I thought I should be allowed aboard.

"I'm with GalNet News," I explained. "I'm looking for the finish line to the Buckyball Run." The name of the illicit race always elicited snickers from my colleagues in the bullpen at the office, but the look in Con-Ho's eye told me this was no laughing matter.

"No Buk-ee-ball here," Con-Ho said in pigeon. "You in wrong dock." As I faced this man towering over me, two more of his friends of equal stature and disreputable disposition moved behind me. But another man, a pilot still in his helmeted flightsuit, bounded confidently past up the loading ramp into the ship without so much as a hello. He waved, and Con-Ho nodded but never took his eyes off of me.

I had a choice. Face death, or go back to my managing editor with no story. It's amazing how similar the two seemed at that moment. With resolve I didn't possess in the least, I stared the mountain of a man in the eye. It was time to drop names. "I'm here to see Mirana Ortilano."

Con-Ho squinted, then turned his head aside and mumbled something I couldn't quite hear into a transceiver I couldn't see. The expression on his face, which looked to be made of pounded clay, softened and he stepped aside. "Cargo Bay Two."

"Thank you," I said out of reflex. The big brute grunted an acknowledgement and let me pass. My legs shaking, I climbed the ramp into the belly of the Shotgun Shine.

The Lakon Type-7 is a common enough sight in the space lanes. The medium sized offering of Lakon's commercially available cargo transports, the T7 has a crew of one with a fairly sophisticated suite of hardware and software to assist in loading up to 232 tonnes of cargo within its frame, spread between five bays. It's not what you'd call a pretty ship, consisting of basically a box with engines, but it gets the job done. The Shotgun Shine had obviously been in service for some time, with mismatched hull panels, scored from years of exposure, next to clean, shiny sections that looked as though they'd come from the factory yesterday. Walking up the ramp itself, there was no sway or a single squeak. If you had to describe the Shine in a single word, it would be 'solid.'

The crew ramp ended in a dimly lit T-intersection. Like the exterior of the ship, it was worn, but clean. Numerals in white block type were painted on the wall. 1 and 2 to port, 3 and 4 to starboard, up a flight of metal stairs to the second deck. An unoccupied stool sat in the middle, set out for another guard station or perhaps traffic control. I was supposed to go left, but a booming voice echoing from upstairs to the right made me pause.

"Check one. Check. Check. Check... Check one, two, three, four."


I glanced down the ramp. Con-Ho and his friends stood at the base, smoking cigarettes now, talking to one another. I quietly climbed the stairs to the right right and walked toward the sound, poking my head around the corner when I reached the top. I saw what could only be described as a dance club typical of any planetside entertainment district which occupied the entire bay. A woman in gray coveralls stood atop the DJ's pillar in one of the forward corner as she adjusted the equipment, calling out to her partner who roamed the compartment utilizing a digital sound pressure gauge to gauge the acoustics. A small stage ran across the forward edge of the bay with a fully stocked bar on the right where a man in an honest-to-goodness tuxedo was inventorying the rows of bottles stored on shelves that glowed with blue light. Twenty bar-level tables without chairs lined the walls surrounding a shiny translucent floor that undoubtedly lit up when the party was in full swing, with lasers, projectors and lights dangling from the ceiling just waiting for a trickle of power to allow them to shine. Oddly for a transport vessel, there was not a single cargo canister to be seen.

Feeling that I might be pushing my luck, I walked quickly back down the stairs and headed left toward to Bay Two where Con-Ho had originally directed me. Instead of a sound check this time, there was music. A bluesy, tranquil tune echoed from within, and instead of a dance floor, the lower cargo deck was filled with long wooden tables and benches. The starboard wall was dominated by a giant bar with a polished black marble counter top running its length. Carved woodwork draped down from the bay's ceiling, hiding suspended racks containing glasses and overhead storage for extra stock. Thirty taps lined the back wall, with colorful handles denoting the beverage each supplied, with about half modified with hand-written signs. Comfortable looking over-stuffed leather stools lined the front, and the bay's dim lights, through age or intentionally altered with filters cast the entire compartment in a warm glow.

Surprisingly, this cargo bay actually contained cargo canisters, twelve of them, stacked three high against the port wall opposite the bar. Each one had its end-cap removed and stood open to the bay, each with a low table and sofas forming intimate conversational spaces within. Metal walkways with stairs provided easy access to the cans on the second and third level. Clearly these canisters were never meant to be offloaded.

It was what every planetside spacer bar wanted to be, but this was the real thing: an old tramp freighter converted into a full-time bar and club, a mobile party barge capable of sustaining two hundred revelers wherever it was needed most. Most commonly, the Shotgun Shine marked the official finish line of the Buckyball Run, a race that never finishes in the same place twice. One has to imagine what goes through a stationmaster's head when this particular ship pulls into port.

Overhead, on the forward wall, holographic displays projected arrival screens like you'd see in any spaceport terminal in orange and yellow. But the ships listed were no ordinary flights. Instead of gate number, the board was ordered by position. Instead of scheduled arrivals, the time column measured only a ship's travel time. And In the top corner of each screen was a spherical ball-and-stick geometric shape, the chemical model of the Carbon-60 molecule. It's formal name was Buckminsterfullerene - more commonly known as a "Buckyball."

The same pilot who passed me on the ramp now stood next to an empty table, his helmet off and a fresh mug of beer in his hand as he too looked over the screens. As we watched, a new time appeared at the top of the list, knocking all the other names down a slot. The pilot slammed his mug down on the table. "Reload, you son of a-!" His final words were muffled as he slammed his helmet over his head and charged out the door.

"Over here." A woman waved to me from behind the bar a moment later and I walked toward her. The shelves behind her were adorned with bottles and memorabilia from throughout the galaxy. Pictures, some digital, others physical, plastered the wall above the taps. Out of the handful of patrons scattered about the bay, no one paid attention as I approached the bartender at her station.

Commander Mirana Ortilano watched me with suspicion as I approached, leaning with her hands on top of the bar as if bracing for impact. She was about my height, maybe 175cm, but very thin and wiry. Long gray hair draped from beneath a flat-brimmed cowboy hat, framing an oval face with a sharp nose and dark eyes with deep wrinkles at the corners. Her well-manicured hands were tan and wrinkled against the smooth black marble. She wore a simple white cotton T-shirt and black trousers, giving her the look of a one hundred year old teenager. Ortilano was the closest thing the Buckyball Run had to a spokesperson, though she denied having anything to do with the race except providing a venue for its after party.

"Mister Rouche?" Ortilano asked, the 'R' in my name rolling from her tongue. She had quite a seductive accent.

"Commander Ortilano," I said with a nod and extended my hand. "Pleased to finally meet you in person."

Ortilano looked at my hand and finally gave it a single pump before placing hers back on the countertop. "You are a very persistent man."

"You have to be in my line of work."

"Hmm. Before you ask, I won't say say anything about our pilots or the race itself. If they want to talk to you, that's up to them. But the only questions I will answer are about me. Is that understood?"

Everything in her posture and tone of voice told me that the interview would be over very quickly if I said the wrong thing. "Look, I'm not here to expose anything or get anyone in trouble. I'm just here learn about the race. And if I may," I pointed up to the screens full of the names of pilots and ships. "It's not like a lot of information isn't freely available if you know where to look."

Ortilano looked over at the display and her expression softened. "Fair enough. What do you want to know?"

I sat on the bar stool in front of her. If she was in the mood to talk, I was in the mood to ask. If I was to truly learn anything about the Buckyball Run, I had to go right to the source. That was the reason I was there. "What I really would like to do is talk to Bucky."

Ortilano stared at me, her arms crossed in front of her. "What did I just tell you?"

"I know. But if he's here... there's story here that needs to be told. I understand that he's probably a little leery about being tracked down by the authorities, or having them bring down the whole race. But the word is out. The race was the top story on the Galactic desk just a few days ago. People are starting to ask questions. Bucky should really get ahead of this while he can."

Ortilano wore a thoughtful expression, then sighed. "Wait here," she said, and disappeared through a hatch behind the bar. I looked around in surprise. Had I just scored an interview with the creator of the Buckyball Run himself? Or was Ortilano just providing a distraction as my intended interviewee slipped out the back?

Any search on the net about the Buckyball Run or chatter from the pilots who fly in it invariably includes references about its elusive organizer. The name was obviously an alias, or perhaps a pilot's call sign. Regardless, Bucky has never been recorded over comms, or even seen outside of the Shotgun Shine. He only appears in person to MC the after party. Everything is handled through his intermediaries, a prudent precaution given the interest law enforcement has in the race which bears his name. To system security forces and insurance companies, he's a menace. But amongst the pilots participating in the race, Bucky is god. His word is law. He decides the conditions of the competition, issues rulings, imparts decisions and has the sole power to decide a winner. He is judge, jury and executioner, and the "Buckyballers" as they are called all treat him with the utmost respect and awe.

Even top pilots, a notoriously egotistical and competitive group, defer reverently to Bucky. Any race you run in thirty minutes, Bucky can do in twenty. He can last an hour on five minutes of life support. Bucky can get Thargoid hardware direct from the manufacturer AND get it for you wholesale. Bucky can drink anyone under the table, and he never, ever gets a hangover. To top it all off, he makes a mean martini. Reading all this about him, it's easy to think he's more of a myth than a man, but many myths have a kernel of truth at their core. It was my mission to find it.

"Mister Rouche?" Commander Ortilano said from my right. "This is Bucky. Bucky, this is David Rouche."

While waiting for their return, my focus had been drawn to the pictures and knicknacks that adorned the shelves behind the wall. I hopped from my barstool and turned to face them with my hand out. "Sir, it's a pleasure-"

My introduction was cut short when a long, furry snout pressed into my chest. I took a step back to find myself staring into a face that was most decidedly not human. A creature almost as tall as me looked back with large, dark eyes. A pair of elongated ears sprouted from the top of its skull. Its pear-shaped body rested on two powerful looking legs and a thick tail, like a living tripod. Coarse gray fur covered its back, turning white on its belly and forearms which ended in long, black claws. It flared its nostrils and huffed at me.

I froze, unsure of what would happen if I ran. Ortilano loosely held a bright red leash which was connected to a similarly colored harness connected around the beast's thin shoulders and chest. The animal, however, did not pull on its restraints, or show any sign of hostility. Its handler watched close for my reaction. I stood my ground. "Is it friendly?"

"Depends on the person." Ortilano looked between me and the human-sized rodent as it continued to sniff around my jacket. "He thinks you have food."

I actually found her phrasing comforting. I have food, instead of I am food. The animal's sense of smell was on target, though. I reached into my jacket pocket and produced a half-eaten candy bar, left over from my flight to Enoch.

"Oh no," Ortilano reached around the animal and pushed my hand back into its pocket. She leaned over the bar and felt around for a moment. When she stood she held a fist-sized green apple in her hand. "Give him this instead."

So it's a "he," I thought as I took the fruit. That was good to know, especially with the affection Ortilano was showing toward him. The giant rodent's eyes widened at the sight of the apple and he held out his hands like a child waiting to receive a gift - a child with sharp claws on his little fingers. I held it out and the creature gingerly took it from me, then pulled the apple in front of his mouth and began to munch on it with wide, flat teeth. It was actually kind of cute. But as much as I wanted to put some space between myself and the animal, I didn't want to exhibit cowardice. First impressions are important, and I could tell Ortilano was sizing me up. I summoned up some false courage. "Can I pet him?"

Ortilano shrugged. "You can try."

I reached out and patted the animal between his ears. His fur was very clean and soft. Whatever he was, he was obviously well cared for here. He gnawed happily on the apple, his ears perking up each time I stroked its head.

"Huh." For the first time, Ortilano actually smiled. She rubbed the back of the animal's neck. "He likes you."

I was thankful for the animal's approval. Ortilano's disposition had reversed one-hundred-eighty degrees. But I couldn't help but feel that I was being made the butt of an elaborate joke. "This is Bucky?"

"The one and only. You're lucky. He's not usually awake this time of day."

"I see," I said, not feeling lucky at all. "Commander Ortilano, I appreciate a good laugh, but at the risk of sounding rude, I'd really like to talk to someone in charge of the race. Anyone, if I could."

"You're looking at him."

I scowled. Ortilano's delivery almost made me believe it. But unless Bucky was the member of some rare telepathic species, the chance of him being able to think beyond the apple he was chewing on didn't seem likely. "This is the... mind behind the Buckyball Run."

"That's right."

"Look," I said. By now, Bucky had finished his apple and was licking the fur clean around his hands. "Somebody obviously sets up these races. Someone has to register the contestants. Someone has to put up the prize money. Call me skeptical, but I don't think it's him."

"There's no prize money," Ortilano said.

"What?"

"There's no prize for winning. There's no money, no reward. There's not even a trophy."

It took me a moment to grasp what Ortilano was saying. "How can you have a race if there's nothing to win?"

"Oh, there are winners. Just not in the way you're thinking."

It was my turn to stare at the Ortilano.

She reached out and stroked the fur under Bucky's chin. The animal closed its eyes and rested on its haunches. "The Buckyball Run isn't a race, Mr. Rouche. It's a dare. That's not to say pilots don't compete, they do. Some of them put professional racers to shame, flying ships that weren't ever meant to push the limit and doing just that. But even for them, it's not just about coming in first."

"What's it about then?"

"Taking the dare. There are two types of people in the galaxy. There are those, who when faced with a challenge, look at all the angles, research all the pitfalls, and make an intelligent, responsible decisions based on risk versus reward before doing anything. Most of the time, they end up playing it safe, and walking away. And then there are those who say..."

I grinned. "Hold my beer, watch this?"

"No," Ortilano shook her head. "That's not it either. Well, for some of them, yes, that's it exactly. But for the rest, its about it's about breaking out of the endless cycle of load, deliver, unload. Mine, refine, and haul. Patrolling nav beacons and extraction sites looking for trouble, or waiting for trouble to find you. It's doing something just for the thrill of it. Proving to yourself that you can."

"You make it sound like some kind of therapy."

"It can be. That's why I used to do it."

"You were a Buckyballer?"

"Years ago. I ran the race eleven times. Won three," Ortilano reached out and caressed the bar's smooth surface. "Once, flying this very ship. One thing for sure, my skills as a pilot were never sharp as they were until I started making runs. Maybe that's the real prize. Becoming a better pilot. For us haulers, time is money. I learned to cut my turnaround time in half."

She sighed heavily. "But that doesn't answer your question. If you're looking any one person in charge, you won't find one. He doesn't exist. The reason being there's no organizer, no eccentric billionaire handing out lavish rewards, none of that. There are just volunteers, normal people, who get together to make things happen. And these people probably aren't looking to be made famous, for reasons that should be obvious. So if you're looking to put a face on the Buckyball Run," she scratched Bucky between his ears, "this is as good as it gets."

I gave a half smile. For now, it seemed, the trail had gone cold. "You think he'd give me an interview?"

"Don't be silly," Ortilano said, now scratching Bucky's chin. "Kangaroos can't talk."

If nothing else, I finally learned what species Bucky was. Later research back at the office would reveal kangaroos were native fauna of the human homeworld. How Bucky got this far away from Earth was probably a great story in itself. "But I understand he can make a mean martini."

Ortilano winked as she continued to pet her furry charge. "One of the best you'll ever have."

I laughed. "Well, I have to say. I've been stonewalled many times trying to get an interview, but it's rarely this entertaining."

"That's what we strive for on this ship."

It was another long shot, but I never imagined that by asking I would get to meet Bucky, so what did I have to lose by asking? "I don't suppose it would be possible for me to attend the after party? Once the race ends?"

Ortilano shook her head. "I'm afraid that's invitation only. Speaking of which, I'm afraid I'm going to have to get back to work. We've got a big day ahead of us."

And like that, the interview was over. As congenial as Ortilano had been, I could tell she was not one to let her guests dictate the rules. If I overstayed my welcome, Con-Ho and his friends would undoubtedly be along shortly to help me find the door. Besides, if I left Ortilano with a positive impression, there was always a chance for a follow-up interview. "I'll let you get back to it. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Commander. It's been a pleasure." I extended my hand.

Ortilano looked surprised at my sudden acquiescence, but smiled and shook my hand. "Thank you, Mr. Rouche. Good luck on your story."

I gave the kangaroo a pat on the head between his ears. "Nice to meet you, too, Bucky." I walked across the bay-turned-bar toward the exit, but stopped after a few steps. Once again, I had nothing to lose by asking. "Excuse me, Commander? Could I ask a favor?"

Still standing next to Bucky, Ortilano eyed me suspiciously at my sudden turn.

"Do you think I could get one of those bumper stickers?"

"Of course," Ortilano said. "You just have to run the race."

My face fell. Having not even flown a flight simulator, that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon. But Ortilano, still holding Bucky's leash, once again leaned over to reach behind the bar. When she stood this time, she had a thick stack of paper in her hands. She tossed it to me, and I caught it. It was a plastic-wrapped bundle of the bumper stickers handed out at every race.

"Take them," Ortilano said and rolled her eyes. "Give them out to your friends. Or wallpaper your home or, or something. Just get them out of here."

I hefted the heavy stack in my hands. I thanked her, said farewell again, and then made for the exit, the pack of bumper stickers in hand. As I stepped on the the rear ramp to the deck at Enoch Port, Con-Ho and his companions still stood post on the deck. As I drew near, they made no attempt to block me.

Con-Ho pointed with his cigarette. "Got yourself a souvenir, huh," he asked with perfect enunciation.

I held up the pack in my hand. "Yeah, I just asked for one, and she gave me a whole box."

The three guards laughed, and Con-Ho shook his head. "Man, we're loaded with those things. Every time he orders like twenty thousand, and we end up giving away a couple hundred."

"Yeah," I said, examining the pack. "So, who's 'he?'"

Con-Ho shrugged and took a puff from his cigarette. "Bucky."

"Right," I said with a grin.

"Have a safe flight, Mr. Rauche," Con-Ho said with a nod.

I looked up at the battered gray hull of the Shotgun Shine, bound to leave for points unknown within the next two days. "You too," I said, and departed the hangar to head back to my hotel room to get to work on my story. I hadn't died at the base of the ramp after all. Maybe my editor would be as understanding.