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Fire to the Finish

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Malcolm repressed a sigh as he wondered how much more of this he had to endure. Despite his boredom he hadn't managed to think of a way to get revenge on Trip, whose fault it was Malcolm was here in the first place. He didn't know how the conversation had come about, but Trip had told the captain Malcolm would love to learn more about water polo. The next thing Malcolm knew he'd been ordered down to the planet and told to have fun. When Malcolm had confronted Trip, in a whispered conversation before getting in the shuttle pod, Trip claimed he'd watched his quota of water polo with the captain this year and now it was Malcolm's turn.

It wasn't as if Malcolm disliked spending time with the captain - far from it. It was just that Malcolm would like to be able to have a say in the activity. Preferably one where it was easier to tell the athletes from each other. He didn't even mind about the level of violence involved. To make it worse, this wasn't even proper water polo. It was alien water polo in the alien's equivalent of the Olympics on an alien world. It hadn't stopped the captain getting into it, though.

Archer groaned, along with half the rest of the crowd, as one of the athletes missed the goal. "It was wide open." He gestured towards the goal in question, getting half up off his seat.

Struggling to take an interest, Malcolm asked, "Are they supposed to be drowning each other?"

"Take a closer look." There was a small smile on Archer's face as he sat back down.

They were too far back to see clearly, but Malcolm peered at the big screen above the pool. "They have gills," he realised. "Isn't that cheating?"

Archer shrugged. "Seems to work for them."

He did pay a little more attention after that and the discovery of the fighting that went on under water in order to get a good spot made it a little more interesting. But not enough to make the hour spent in what looked - and felt - like a greenhouse, seem less interminable.

Archer might have stayed and watched the next game, but Malcolm suggested a cool drink and Archer allowed himself to be led outside into the fresh air. Which probably wasn't surprising since the captain looked as hot as Malcolm felt. At least Archer was willing to buy the drinks. Which were cold, bubbly, green and tasted oddly like strawberry. Malcolm sipped at his, feeling less sweaty already.

While he drank he looked around to find a sport he'd liked, but Archer got there first.

"I wonder what that is."

When Malcolm turned to look he saw Archer was pointing up at a pair of huge screens, which were showing small crafts dodging asteroids and firing at targets with bullseyes painted on them. "Looks interesting." Malcolm tried to hide his surprise at Archer finding something they both liked. Although when he thought about it, he remembered the captain was a considerate man and probably hadn't missed Malcolm's boredom in the water polo arena.

Archer smiled. "Let's take a closer look."

They joined the back of the audience, who were crowded around the screens, shouting encouragement at their favourites and occasionally jostling for space. Below them, on a platform, were odds chalked up on boards and money changing hands with the bookies standing beside the boards.

There was a collective intake of breath as the pilot on the right turned too sharply and came at the target at too acute an angle. When Malcolm glanced over he could tell from the expression on Archer's face that he had noticed the same thing.

When the shot missed, as expected, Malcolm shook his head. "If he'd just fired a second sooner, he'd have hit it."

Archer shrugged. "Or the pilot had slowed down."

Malcolm inclined his head in agreement and returned his attention to the screens. The team on the right were still fumbling to hit the target when the one on the left crossed the finish line. Both screens went blank and doors opened in the the big white cuboids behind them. Simulators, Malcolm realised, and not the real thing. Which made sense, since they hadn't seen an asteroid field like it on the way here.

The displays on both screens changed to show the door of each simulator, along with a graphic to represent the winner and loser. Between the screens, a platform rose, to show a short man, even for this species, with more than the usual amount of hair, and a microphone in his hand.

"The finest merging of pilot and gunner," the announcer proclaimed, as both teams stood in the doorways of their simulators. He gestured to the winning team and waited for the rapturous applause to die down. "But unfortunately only good enough for fifth on our overall leader board." Now one screen showed the winners, the other their overall position. "The unbeatable melding of minds from Feni and Geni stay in front. Can anyone beat them?"

There was a commotion from the people in front of Malcolm and Archer. Two men seemed to be trying to push the two tall women they were with to the front. "Can anyone play?" Archer asked the couple beside him, a child on each of their shoulders.

"Oh, yes," the woman replied, nodding. "Fire to the Finish is open to any pair of pilots and gunners."

Malcolm and Archer's eyes met. "Let's see what the course is like," Archer said.

Malcolm nodded and returned his attention to the front, where two more pairs had volunteered to compete Neither of them were the men or women immediately in front of Malcolm and Archer.

This time, Malcolm didn't look away during the race. He memorised the positions of the targets, thinking about when he'd fire if he was the gunner. He hadn't seen the instruments and didn't know how true the aim was, but he could get enough of an idea to give them an edge when their turn came.

He only glanced over at Archer when the winners reached the finish line, and he saw the concentration on Archer's face for a second before he also relaxed.

It turned out that being at the back wasn't a barrier to entry: when more volunteers were asked for the crowds parted and they reached the simulators easily. Having given their team name as Enterprise they settled in to their positions, with Archer on Malcolm's left.

The panels in front of them had no buttons: it was all done by touches on the correct part of the screen. A light touch, Malcolm found, when he brushed his fingers over it and it lit up. The weapons weren't active yet, but it gave him a chance to familiarise himself with the controls. Or at least take a guess at which did what.

There wasn't much time to think before a countdown appeared on screen and the race was on. Archer seemed to have figured out his controls quickly, but then Malcolm remembered the captain talking about the many different vessels he'd piloted. Or sat in the cockpit of at any rate.

There was silence in the simulator while they both concentrated on learning the controls. Malcolm's were not that complicated and he quickly determined which was the targeting scanner as they approached their first target and a circular symbol lit up at the bottom of his screen.

"A little more to starboard." Malcolm had barely finished asking for the course adjustment than Archer had made it.

As soon as the target was in his sights, Malcolm fired. "Go," he cried, worrying more about their time than whether or not he'd hit it.

Archer did, but Malcolm noticed he'd headed off at a vector that allowed him to circle back without losing too much time. Malcolm couldn't disagree it was sensible, but the captain's caution turned out to be unnecessary: the number one target at the top of Malcolm's screen lit up, showing a hit.

Due to their initial unfamiliarity with the controls they were behind the competition. It was only after they'd hit the third target - clean in the centre - that they were bearing down on them. Much as Malcolm wanted to beat them, he also wanted to come top of the scoreboard; to show this planet just how good the Enterprise crew were. But in here there was no way to know their time. All they could do was to fly the course as fast as possible and hit every target first time.

Archer clearly felt the same way, because he accelerated. Determined not to fail him, Malcolm held his breath as he timed his shot. They hadn't needed to speak - Archer had somehow known he didn't need to decrease his speed.

"Next one's a little tricky," Archer said, as they approached the asteroid field they'd seen when they first came across this race. Having seen it twice Malcolm remembered the seemingly-random movement of the asteroids and subsequent unpredictable placement of the targets. "Do you need me to slow down?"

Malcolm considered for a moment whether he was over-confident. Yet he didn't want to be too cautious either. He looked up from his screen to meet Archer's eyes. He could almost feel, rather than see, Archer's trust in him. He shook his head. "Any speed you can fly at, I can shoot at."

Archer nodded, not questioning Malcolm's judgement.

They overtook the other ship just before they reached the asteroid field, but the dancing asteroids slowed their progress. Archer ducked and dived and, just as Malcolm was lining up his shot, flipped upside down. Malcolm mentally readjusted, but had to wipe his sweaty palms on his trousers once the target lit up.

There was just one more target to go. This was the hardest of them all, since it was on an asteroid and there was no way to know where it was. It hadn't been in the same place for the two races they'd seen.

"If the other team are over there, why don't we start over here?" Malcolm pointed to the area at the far side of the asteroid field, where the asteroids were big, but the spaces between them were bigger.

"My thinking exactly."

They hadn't gone far before they came across the target, on the far side of a large asteroid. They'd got lucky, Malcolm would be the first to admit. He didn't mind - a little luck went a long way. He had to be patient, though, for they were nearly passed it when they discovered it and he had to wait until Archer had circled back round - a slow process in the ever-changing space.

Archer muttered under his breath as they came back upon it, faster than Malcolm would have liked, but not so fast he would miss. He kept their heading steady until Malcolm had hit the target, and then it was almost too late. If the captain hadn't pulled up and over it at the last minute they'd have crashed into it, putting them out of the race.

Malcolm leaned back in his seat, smiling, as he watched Archer race to the finish line, the other team not far behind. Archer still managed to glance over at Malcolm. "I knew we could do it," he said. "I had faith in you."

"That's more than I did," Malcolm mumbled, as they crossed the finish line. He had been very good in every simulation he'd been in, but very good was not quite the same as perfect. Archer must have heard because he gave Malcolm a quizzical look and Malcolm felt he ought to explain. "I didn't want to let you down."

Archer smiled and put a hand on Malcolm's shoulder.

When the simulator door opened the cheers of the crowd sounded suddenly loud after the quiet space. However, it wasn't just Malcolm's imagination - they had got louder. Even the announcer, with his microphone, could barely be heard.

Malcolm and Archer exited down the ramp to see their scores on the screens.

"Second." Malcolm couldn't keep the disappointment from his voice.

"We'll do better next time." Archer smiled and held out his hand. "But I wouldn't have been able to do it without you at my side."

One day, Malcolm thought, he'd learn to be this optimistic. For now, he just smiled and shook Archer's hand.