Twenty three racing drones sit on the starting line, navigation lights twinkling high up on the peak of One Canada Square, the tallest building in The Wharf.
The start of the track is a long drop down the side of the building through a twisting run of virtual hoops looping through the smashed out windows like a digital water slide into the underground shopping complex below.
It’s been known for many drone pilots to loose their dinner before they even reach the first checkpoint the speed of the fall is so intense, and missing one of the hoops means instant disqualification from the match. Not all twenty three drones will still be in the race by the time they reach the ground.
No one really knows who organises the drone races here, but the rumours would have you believe a few of the bankers who had a passion for drone racing decided to stay in the country after the mass exodus of the finance sector and dropped the entirety of their wealth into protecting the area from re-development.
Of course, like most places in the city left alone for long enough, a hamlet grew around the bases of the tall towers as the drones raced above them and the future of the area was sealed.
None of that matters to Kristian, he’s in it for the money. One thousand pounds into the pot to enter means 15K to the winner once the unknown organisers and The Wharf hamlet take their cut to keep the track running.
Kristian has the best damn drone up there, the little black aerodynamic chassis with it’s pulsing green streams of light pooling around the two smooth humps at the back with his custom tuned turbo jets nestled inside ready to give the four propellers sticking out from each corner an essential boost.
It had been through months of tuning in the pay-per-hour wind tunnel and a dozen chassis until the perfect aerodynamic casting was printed to match the thrust generated by the turbo jets.
The ‘ready-signal’ is sent and he connects to the full immersion control systems used to fly the drone. He’s now staring down the pyramid of the top of One Canada Squares where the launch ramp is ready to propel his drone off into the air at the top of the building.
He starts the final self-check system, it would be terrible to lose the raise and his drone if he wrecked out at high speed. The amount of time and money he’s driven into it would still be worth while as printing a new chassis would be quite cheap but the individual parts and the custom trained AI systems would be a tragic loss.
It comes back green, he’s ready to go.
He brings the rotors up to idle speed and sets the flight systems online, the drone’s bright headlights cutting into the night sky and the AI mapping the surrounding terrain, air currents and weather patterns with invisible lasers, radar and the direct feed from the ‘net.
The little turbo jets come up to a stead whine, power restrained for the time being, like a racing horse in the gate straining to go.
The countdown begins, and three seconds later twenty three shoot down the ramp straight off the side of the building, dropping together in free fall.
After a few seconds the propellers catch the air and the little turbo jets kick in, accelerating the drone down the building towards the first hovering blue hoop, as all twenty three scramble over each other to try and grab the lead.
The speed is dizzying as the drones tumble and fight their way down through the side of the building catching hoop after hoop in a complex route pre-planned by the event organisers.
The first ten floors flash by in a heartbeat, at floor forty the next hoop is the frame of a window, smashed in the centre with a hole big enough for five drones to enter at a time.
One of the other competitors misses and smashes into the glass at the top of the window, narrowly missing Kristian’s drone and bouncing off of the side of the window frame before falling helplessly towards the ground, two of it’s propellers smashed to pieces, the other two unable to rectify the spin it entered as it rocketed off of the building’s edge.
Glass rains down from the window and another drone chokes on the tiny lethal shards as it passes through the window, loosing power and skidding along the office floor inside.
Two drones down, twenty one left within seconds of the race starting.
The drones skim the floor as they fly through the abandoned office twisting and turning down dark corridors, through open plan offices, around pillars and finally out another smashed window on the other side and back into the open air.
Two drones got into a scrap in one of the offices and one of them is now left behind in a dozen pieces at the base of a pillar, the other now leading the pack.
The track continues it’s looping descent for a few more floors then back inside the building, a 90 degree flip to one side to squeeze through the broken elevator doors and down another ten floors where the lift is lodged, its brakes fused, to never move again.
Through the hatch at the top of the lift, sharp turn in the small rectangular carriage and a full flip through the doors out into another corridor.
This one long, flood lights jerry rigged to the walls illuminating a tangled mess of wires, concrete, old office equipment and furniture. Either the race organisers came up here and dumped the lot or it was left as the occupants of the building left for pastures new. The transport costs were probably higher than the furniture was worth, so it was left behind.
However it got here, Kristian was going to need to navigate through it to continue the race.
He eases back on the turbo jets and sets the AI to mapping mode, an invisible LIDAR laser reaching out to the obstructions ahead searching for the best path through the immediately visible part of the maze.
The other drones pull up one by one next to the seven currently mapping the maze and begin their own attempts to find a route through, twenty drones hovering in mid-air, processors silently screaming through sensor data as they push and probe the items ahead of them.
The hours of optimisations pay off and Kristian is the first drone to start attempting the journey through the obstructions.
He gingerly edges forward and drops down to the floor, skimming underneath a desk and flipping 90 degrees to a vertical climb up the other side. Back on himself then barrel roll over onto the top of a large slab of concrete and down a long run dodging cables and junk littered throughout the tiny space he is navigating through.
Sudden jump to the side to avoid a burnt out photocopier and slam downwards between two wooden doors laying on their side.
Not sure how wooden doors got into here, maybe it was the track organisers who brought this junk up here anyway.
The other drones are attempting other paths behind him, he can hear their propellers whining and loud knocks as the less skilled clip corners and edges taking turns too sharp for them.
The doors are on an angle so the drone needs to be flipped on it’s side to fit through again, but then a twist and a short burst of the turbo jets gets him some lift to jump over a pile of chairs stacked under the mountain of junk.
According to the AI he’s about half way through the mess, good thing as he’s starting to get claustrophobic.
The AI highlights a hollow in the floor, it’s going to be a tight squeeze to fit into the tiny space beneath the false floor but if he can make it he should be able to skip the last half of the maze.
He slams the drone downwards and manages to fit it neatly through the hole in the floor and then hits the turbo jets to scream through the narrow maintenance space dodging supports as he goes the other drones flanking him on either side.
He just needs to find a big enough hole on the other side to jump up into the corridor and he’s home free to the other side of the building.
He finds it and he’s back up into the corridor, the giant obstruction behind him.
He screams down the corridor and back out into the night, a few drones in front of him, most behind, streaming from the window single file like bats flocking from a cave.
He counts the drones around him, only fourteen emerged from the building, that means five are now nothing more than junk to avoid the next time a race passes through the maze.
He’s sixth in the pack, not a bad position so early in the race, but there is a lot more to go ahead of him.
Then it’s a clear 20 story drop, turbo jets accelerating him to the point of dizziness as the grey walls of the building scream past him. He’s slowly catching the drone in-front of him, hopefully there is enough time on the drop for the engines to do their job.
The farmland below is getting bigger and bigger, little shacks made out of the scrap metal so abundantly available here, growing to full size as he screams towards them.
Just one floor up from the ground the track suddenly levels out.
The drones pull up, startling one of the many wandering cows, then suddenly dart down through a tight drop in the corner of the field, an old stairwell taking them into the shopping centre below.
This was the tricky part. Enclosed space, high speed racing and valuable crops vertically stacked on every surface. Fortunately they were segmented away from the main corridor which the drones would be racing down but if you ruined a crop, you could bet your ass you would be paying the farmers back for it.
To make things worse, the farmers were experts in controlling the environment of the crops and each compartment, which used to be various shops of one kind of another, had different crops with different conditions. One moment you were flying past plastic sheeting with soft blue light behind them then your mixed up in a heat current trying to adjust your eyes to the harsh purple heat-lamps of the next.
Add to that the tangle of irrigation piping thrown up through the corridor pumping water down from the fish farms above and this bit of the track becomes a nightmare.
Although flashing through the multi-coloured corridor was one hell of a trip.
The turbo jets kick up to a loud whine as the drone levels out in front of the largest compartment, a potato farm spread over three stories covering seventy three thousand square feet. It looks like a jungle, layers of long root systems dangling from rows of steal shelves, bathed in full spectrum LED lighting.
Of course this place was just the ‘test’ farm – used to keep experimental crops away from the real stacks in the tower blocks above.
Kristian kicks the drone’s engines and it’s away, accelerating hard down the long corridor, multi-coloured grow lamps optimised for various crops flashing by in a rainbow of colour.
Kristian pulls out ahead of the group, streaking through the five places ahead of him slowly but steadily. By the time he inverts for the flip upwards at the end of the run he’s in second place, only one more drone to catch and the money is his.
They scream upwards towards the sunlight then barrel roll onto the old DLR tracks and out of the building.
He can see the little navigation lights on his drone in front of him, and a quick check in his rear-view camera shows the headlights of the drone behind him.
Long stretch of elevated train track then off the broken end and down to the fish farms below.
Another tricky section of track, the drones are not equipped to be water proof, the extra layer of plastic and rubber would add too much unnecessary weight on a clear day and precision electronics are left exposed to the outside air.
The track has them weave through the maze of docks, originally used as an important hub for international sea trade before autonomous container ships and robotic ports in Thurrock, Felixstowe and Southampton completely dominated the freight scene in South England.
Now they are the most important fisheries in the London Hamlets producing tonnes of fish, shellfish, crabs, lobsters and oysters for the region.
Not the corporate campuses of course, they have their own food production facilities, but the fish here provide a stable supply of seafood all the way to the Outer London rim.
The drones kick up a large plume of spray from the thundering propellers keeping them precariously above the waters surface, which can prove deadly to any drone which wanders too close behind another.
The lead drone kicks to one side, sending a brief tide of water back towards Kristian’s drone. He dodges to the side and narrowly avoids the water, so deadly to the precision electronics pushing him along.
It was a close call, but the time has cost him and the drone behind has snatched his second place position.
He watches helplessly as the red fiery dart streaks ahead of him, his turbo jets unable to get back up to speed in time to save his spot. He kicks the drone faster and retains third position.
One of the farm’s own plumes of water, kicked up by little watermills designed to keep the water moving and prevent it from becoming stagnant, nearly covers his drone from the other side and Kristian fights to bring the drone back under his control.
He drops dangerously close to the waters surface, a huge tide ripping behind him.
Angling the turbo jets down he gives them a solid surface to thrust against and he streaks across the water like a bullet, the drone twisting forward and kicking a large spray of water behind him.
Moisture sensors send ripples of alerts into his senses, he knows the drone can take a little spray but all it will take is the wrong component being splashed and it’s game over.
They are half way across Millwall Inner Dock now. There is only the Outer Dock left for him to claim the lead.
He watches the red speck in front of him, kicking up its own spray of water and just ahead of it is the lead drone.
It isn’t too far ahead of it. He can do it.
There is one trick left up his sleeve, technically not 100% race legal but it’s all or nothing. The transponder on his drone is on the top of the chassis, that means he can get lower than his compitition.
He pushes the drone down further, getting dangerously close to the blue virtual rings marking the course and the deadly water below, if he goes too deep he will go out of the rings and get disqualified, or worse sink the drone.
He pushes further down, each millimetre bringing him closer to wrecking out but also bringing his turbojets closer to a surface to push against.
He tilts the nose of the drone down further, twisting the jets in the opposite direction and a small tide appears behind him, the water arcing up and around his drone to create a small tunnel for him to push through.
He can see the finish line in the distance, bright lights guiding him in to the land just on the other side of the dock.
There isn’t much time, but the distance to 2nd place is shrinking every second.
He screams past the red dart, reclaiming his place and drenching it in a tsunami of water flying out from either side of his chassis.
He is too focussed now on the lead drone to watch as the red dart slams down into the surface of the water, propellers and chassis flying in all directions as it breaks apart and sinks to a water grave below. At the speeds they are going the impact would make the water as hard as concrete.
One more drone left to go, he slams the controls as hard as he can, pushing more and more power to the turbojets and propellers, skimming just above the waters surface.
He’s going to make it, he has to make it.
He’s just pulling alongside the lead drone as they both streak towards the end of the dock, a cluster of spectator drones hovering at the end piping video of the final moments of the race to excited onlookers.
The concrete ramp of the shore is racing towards them both, if he doesn't climb away from the water now he will smash it to pieces on the solid ramp, but that won’t matter as the race will be won by then.
Seconds away from the end both drones are side by side and both kicking up an impressive amount of spray behind them. Kristian’s drone is dropped lower and curling the impressive tunnel of water around itself.
So close now, he checks his side camera, neck and neck. He flips back to the front camera and the finish line whips past his vision.
The drone slams through the finish line and doesn’t make the ramp up to the resting point above, the gradient of the slope too high for the drone which was sitting so low in the water for the speed it was going.
Fragments of carbon, plastic and glass, chassis, propellers, turbojets and cameras, all tumble up the ramp ungracefully, still propelled by the momentum the drone had before. The other drone was higher, it makes the ramp easily and comes to a final stop on the little stage beyond it.
One by one the other drones come up the ramp and settle slowly to the ground.
Kristian sits bolt upright in his chair, scrambling for a monitor. He switches it to the spectator channel and watches as the drones all settle into position.
An excited commentator is speculating on the final result, as the GPS and video analysis teams try to see which drone was ahead when they crossed the finish line.
The results come in, the commentator excitedly announces…..
Kristian punches the air and lets out a whoop of joy.