I'm on the highway to hell On the highway to hell Highway to hell I'm on the highway to hell And I'm going down All the way ACDC - Highway to Hell ♫ Neo Turf Masters - Title ♫ "The stage is set on the opening race of the Grade One Aleph Frame Running Championship in the daunting Pendragon Pinnacle, brought to you in vibravision by One-Stop: For All Your Needs!" A boisterous, animated, and tackily dressed man gesticulated in the comment booth - headset very nearly slipping off if his mohawk wasn't keeping it in place. "I'm Nicholas Castor-" Beside him was a woman with vibrant pink, feathered hair, wearing a loose and sponsor-laden racing suit with the zip all the way down to the crotch for the audience. She used to be down in the lanes to be an attention getter, now she directed that attention with the force of her contralto voice. "-And I'm Katrina Belevue - the leadup to the PA270 season was heated, with a nasty crash between Nepiu's Number Seventeen and Delta City's Number Ninety in the time trials, which caused a helluva a crash-" Footage interspersed showed Seventeen and Ninety colliding two wide at a hairpin and spilling out of the barrier with Fifty-Five and Fifty-Six of the Harmony team being caught up and dinged. "-and tempers flared as Candor arrived on the scene, with a three-way brawl between The Man, Jam Man (Nepiu) and Hank Steaknife (Deltas), with Patli Vadras of Harmony joining in and trying at both of them!" The footage was highly unflattering as the red-blooded man, the bright-red muscle man in a mechanical thong, and the Balance coalition racing royalty clashed before the paramedics and officials peeled them apart. "I am Julian. We are your commentary team for this interval." Deadpan and monotonal, the Adagio sourcian sat upright and still in the booth, mouth unmoving but eyes aflutter at the statistics and visuals in their eye, wired directly into the sport. "Forty four (44) frames are making their way to the starting squares. Three (3) new craft are on the field after only two (2) qualification races, which is a statistical anomaly to watch for." "That's right, Julian." Castor, as the feed zoomed in on the starting blocks the shapes of humanoid mecha slowly taking positions as their pit crews looked on from the pavilions along the pit-lane. "Aleph Grade One is no stranger to seeing new competitors and self-funded lone wolves with their own Frames clawing up from Grade 2, but we have a new team from beyond the red on the field this year, good enough to go straight to Grade 1." "I've never seen Frames like it, Castor," Belevue fenced with a pen at the viewscreen to indicate the new arrivals scattered throughout - their grouping just over the midway-point of the pack suggested they knew their stuff when it came to racing and it was only the unfamiliarity of the track to conquer next, "but it looks like wherever they came from, they have a league of their own." "This shows that Frame Running is the optimal humanoid vehicle sporting activity." Julian's attempt at levity was even funnier for its deadpan and wording, with chuckles rising from Castor and Belevue. "Do we have an identification for these new arrivals?" "Well Julian, we only just met 'em but the pit boss says they are 'Low-Rath'?" Nick Castor had seen chelti, sourcia strains, tinians, belza, crudes, and all sorts of odd shapes and configurations race an equal myriad of frames - all in place now as the pit crews begun squaring off with officials to signal ready. Everyone the presenter had seen bore patterns in how their tech developed, who reached them first to hook them into the sport, who funded them and their research. Basically, who was behind the runners? Castor had seen dozens of manufacturers enter the fray for the meta-game of Frame Running above the pilots - for the glory of being able to state in confidence that 'my machine works', wagering big sums of clout and transactional power in these spaces for future business decisions. High-flying staff from the aerospace and mechanics divisions of Victor Marshall, One-Stop, Cloverpaw, Hekate and dozens of other big companies from the Aleph sphere sat in exclusive, cushy boxes that got the best views on the Grade 1 courses, sipping expensive fruity wines and snacking on such delights as beef sashimi, vinegared with a touch of balsamic and a smidge of green onion. There was an empty table in the box, however. No birds flocked here. The 'Low-Rath' seemed to bring their own game, their own knowledge - their laps in the qualifiers showed they were no plucky backyard outfit or emerging society - who were these people? A mystery for Castor and the administrators the Aleph Championship and their captive audience to ponder, for sure. The Lorath down in the pits worked without heed, bringing their own fuel supplies and parts, turning down sponsorship offers from some of the interested locals, and refusing to talk to anyone except other Runners freely, and the promoters only when necessary. When this team of three pilots, a pit crew, and a managerial face introduced themselves to the Aleph Championship, they said they were there for one thing and one thing only: Frame running. Not the glory. Nor the prizes. Only the pure pursuit of the race. "I've never heard of them, and they're all business." Said Belevue, "I'm expecting something exciting." She begun looking down the opening lineup, "taking pole position is Number 10, Blake Tanner of Rotherford in Ultraloader, with Hrul heavyweight Number 33, Tycho McCoy in the Vengeful Overseer at runner up position. And you can see them staring daggers at each other already." "McCoy wants payback for for the crash at the sixth turn of the York Trioval Blake caused during the qualifiers." Castor was reviewing footage of that crash. The Quick-Save devices fired off in time to prevent either pilot from getting mulched in the crash, but in the middle of the foam balls bouncing down the hills the were two very angry pilots. "It seems everyone has a reason to race against each other today." Julian piped in, stating the obvious. "Isn't that thrilling?" "Nevermind the thrills' inaction," Nicholas with the clever word play as he took the microphone with both hands. Signals in his ear said that everyone was in position. The rows of lights above the starting line had gone dark. "because the stage is set..." Nicholas' voice echoed as the first row of amber bulbs lit up - audience getting up out of their seat to lean closer. Then the second row, the frames' propulsions now spinning up into full. Then the third row, the executives watching from far above via viewscreens - the sheer anticipation grew to a nuclear level for all parties. The fourth row of lights turned amber, and the pit crews were anxiously monitoring every metric those machines were spittin'. Then the lamps all went dark. "...and the green flag-" With a flash of green and the sound of a chorus of horns rung out through the arena in time with the lights, there came the pops as the first kilometres of the Aleph Frame Running Championship sprinted into action. "-DROPS!" A couple of days earlier... Behind a glass-topped wooden desk with scores of drawers, an executive for the Aleph Frame Running Championship and a secretary keeping notes were backgrounding this strange new team that'd caught the imaginations not just of the audience who were game to watch the time trials, but the governing body itself. Their surroundings and furnishings aside were clean, minimal and lit flatly save for the patterned rug, and the window behind the desk looking out to the empty Pinnacle track. The nameplate beside the monitor read 'Joanna Aethelwine, MO'. "I don't believe we've met..." The executive pointed out - she was a dark-suited woman with raven hair, leaning gently on her desk, hands overlapped in front of her. "And that makes me anxious. Anxious that there is yet more to Frame Running than our ten years of knowledge and innovation Albion and Acala have built alone..." She said, looking to the wall on her left, photographs of photo finishes, various commendations and trophies, photographs of legendary runners celebrating championship wins. "Anxious that there are still more ways to run a frame that we're not privy to." Joanna let that hang in the air for a moment before her gaze returned to see how the person opposite reacted, A Lorath woman. She was Occhestian, the most human-looking of the Lorath castes with the least dimorphism. Imprinted in plying the pursuit of technology and knowledge for common weal of the Lorath people, and imbued with psionic power to see their imaginations become reality. And, like all Lorath, walking with the love and compassion of The Goddess in their heart. The Lorath before Joanna was sitting upright, one leg resting over her knee as owl-like eyes looked deep into the human's face. "Anxiety?" She repeated, rolling the word on her tongue and putting her foot down to lean forward. Her accent made the secretary's head turn - they knew how to speak the local language, but from where? Nobody locally had been able to cross-reference what they were, or where they came from - or how they made contact with humans to learn. "Goodness, are we that much of a threat to your sport because of some time trials, Ms. Aethelwine?" She grinned a little. Ms. Aethelwine's face broke into a nervous smile, a misread. "Its not the anxiety of a being faced with an external threat, like an army marching up to our door and threatening to tear us down and rebuild us in their own image - nay," Something about that got under the Lorath representative's skin, but there was not a flinch from them "the sport here has survived hundreds of interesting individuals and teams joining the ranks and leaving at their leisure." Or when the Runner ran their last - though that never came up in polite talk. "Its the positive anticipation anxiety of boundless potential I see." The Lorath woman looked aside at the wall of vainglory, suppressing a scowl - they obviously didn't like being commodified by vested interests. The birds did their research and knew the 'meta-game' of Frame Running in Aleph. By contrast, the state sponsored Frame Running back in the bosom of Lor with the blessings and support of the aerospace manufacturers, and what sponsorships did manifest were purely mechanical and upon true merit - not commercial interests connected by shorthairs and sweaty handshakes. "What desires are your promotion projecting onto my team, in the wake of our slipstream, Ms. Aethelwine?" She said after a moment's thought, Aethelwine tilted her head. "I don't feel as though treating this transactionally will get this meeting far - we are here for the merit of the sport first, and transactions later." Joanna seemed taken aback by the rebuke, few had such conviction - she was expecting someone scrappy and misinformed, but with their command of frames and a working knowledge of the sport's market forces, she felt on the back foot. Its as though they have a league of their own... Joanna considered, a sweat running down the side of her head as the lorath woman sitting opposite steepled her fingers together and looked out the window behind Joanna, at the racetrack in casual disinterest. How come I wasn't told such a thing existed until now? "If I may-" The Secretary spoke up, looking up from his notepad - a bald man wearing a visor patterned in parallel strips of light, as augment-signs drew lines from the neck down to the fingertips beneath his dark suit. The lorath woman raised an eyebrow at them - what would they have to say? "I get it, you want to race for the sake of it, and there's nothing wrong with that pure pursuit. You have the choice of interacting with the business side of Frame Running as much, or as little as you like." "Indeed." The Lorath woman smiled, the secretary holding their breath. "And we have decided not to interface with those aspects of an otherwise pure sport." It was an odd turn of phrase to both Athelwine and their secretary, but what was this talk about 'purity'? The Lorath woman's knowlege had set them all on edge, so a less prying question needed to be asked: "All we want to know who you are, Ms...?" "Tantio. Esme Tantio. Representative for Jasmei Frame Running Team in this new sector of space, sponsored by the Lazarus Consortium, the Occhestian Aerospace Collective, and the Motherland of the Lorath Matriarchy." "Here? A new sector?" The secretary asked aside, sheepishly as they took notes including 'motherland'. As far as the secretary recalled Aleph and Acala were the extent of his known world, beyond that was nothing but wild stars and dead systems ruined by the Tyrants. "New to them." Joanna, sotto voce. "Anyhow, we'll do our best to accommodate your needs. If you're happy to transport your own materiel instead of relying on us we'll see if we can get customs to give you less of a headache in future." "That would be appreciated, yes." Though transactionality wasn't a facet of Lorath culture, it didn't preclude them from making and taking deals where pragmatic. "Otherwise, rest assured that we do not wish to transform your sport, Ms. Aethelwine." Tantio said confidently, fencing with her index finger. "We want to show you how it is done."