The fall of the F9000

All good things
2170 was the year it finally happened.

130 years of organised, then commercialised Anti-Gravity racing came to a crashing halt, bringing with it the well-being of the global economy and an end to what had become of Pierre Belmondo’s idealistic vision.

That vision, the essence of which was the pioneering human spirit, had become a quagmire of corruption, deceit, greed, and bribery not long after the formation of the F9000 league in 2156.

As each season after its inception unfolded, the true nature of the sport had been swallowed whole by the greater, more pressing commercial needs. The need for one megacorp to best another, the need for countries to out-bid each other in order to host a race, and the need for the Datacast companies to extract every last dollar-pound of profit from each event. By 2165, Belmondo’s "hymn to the soaring human spirit" had truly been drowned out by the corporate jingles.

"The first time they made us hold position for a lap while they broadcast a message from the sponsor – that was the end of it." Natasha Belmondo would lament in the aftermath, "That was the day it finally lost its soul – the day my great, great grandfathers? dream died."

Despite all this, Anti-Gravity racing was seemingly as popular as ever ? viewing figures compared favourably with those of other globally appreciated sporting events, and the turnover of cash-money between the many hundreds of companies and subsidiaries involved equalled the gross national product of some well developed countries.

On the surface, Anti-Gravity racing F9000 style was the perfect marriage of competition and spectacle – a pyrotechnic soap opera played out in excess of 500 miles per hour. As each season unravelled before the masses, teams and pilots would rise to the fore as the schedule wore on, with seemingly implausible turns of events allowing any of the pilots to snatch victory in any given race. It required some suspense of disbelief to take it all at face value, certainly, but playing the public had become an art form over the last couple of centuries, and it was a game that Datacast companies, such as the league controlling Overtel Corporation, had become very adept at.

And while the masses sat transfixed by the spectacular races and the ghoulish delight of each horrific crash, it didn?t seem to matter that they were being spoon-fed subliminal advertising and product placement along with all the usual commercials. As for all those pilots who were killed or injured over the course of a season? Nobody really got hurt, right? It was only TV after all – water cooler conversation fodder, nothing more.

Out of control
The Overtel Corporation, largest sole stakeholders in the league, owners of the rights to almost every race, and one-time parent of the defunct Qirex team, pulled most of the strings behind the scenes. They controlled everything – the races, the teams, the pilots, some said even the results. To all intents and purposes, Overtel was the F9000, and nothing happened without someone up high at Overtel giving the nod.

Up until Overtel had gained control of the league, the Belmondo Foundation, an organisation set up by Pierre Belmondo in the early 2100’s, had long been the arbiter of the Anti-Gravity Race Commission. Belmondo’s intent was for the foundation to continue his work to preserve the integrity of the sport of anti-gravity racing and, above all, to keep it from the clutches of the media corporations.

From the day in 2132, when Overtel executives took a controlling interest in the league, the foundation became little more than a toothless observer to the sport it had sought to protect.

And, as the years went by, Overtel would drive a wedge between the F9000 and the Belmondo Foundation; their spin-doctors claiming that the latter was "stuck in the past" when they voiced their disenchantment with each preposterous rule tweak ushered in by the publicity seeking media corp.

As the distance between the league and the Belmondo Foundation grew, the organisation could only look on in muted frustration, while the teams and pilots played along like puppets on a stage, whether they wanted to or not, such were the financial incentives at stake. It was true to say that in those final years the race meetings were more about business opportunities, product placement, and sponsorship tie-ins than they were about the competition. The public might still have their favourites on the racetrack, but for the megacorps that ran the teams it was all about maximising the revenue.

Once proud teams like FEISAR and Piranha were now all but performers in the F9000 circus, serving only to provide a thin veil of history for a sport that had long since forgotten its roots. The names were the same, but the megacorps and sponsors behind each event were suckling on the teat of the league ? the races were now simply a distraction to the real task at hand. Making money, and lots of it.

True fans of anti-gravity racing had long suspected it was all a farce – they yearned for the kind of racing they knew of from the early days. Groups such as AG Fans for Change, and the more radical Anti-Gravity Purity Coalition lobbied extensively for a reduction in the amount of weapons and a return to the more traditional courses. Even in a sport as unpredictable as Anti-Gravity racing, for them it was all too coincidental that each season unfolded like a thriller movie, with results perfectly balanced for the maximum audience figures in those late season races.

Frustration led to numerous fan organisations lashing out against the league, and it wouldn’t be too long after a seemingly absurd result on track that the fan groups would be suggesting events were nothing more than a carefully choreographed façade.

These accusations were, of course, scoffed at, not only by the Anti-Gravity Race Commission, but by the media corporations so embroiled in the proceedings. The corporations whose survival depended on the health of the league, such as Overtel, could deliver a wave of propaganda in a far greater volume than the independent fan groups and magazines could muster.

The only way for the more extreme fan groups to make their voices heard was by way of carefully timed publicity stunts. For instance, a well-executed hack to deface a number of corporate web sites, those of sponsors and AG teams alike were often the target, would cause a frenzy of media interest for at least a few hours before the denials and cover stories could still the waters again. Alternatively, someone brave or stupid enough to gain access to a track while the cameras of the world?s media watched would display a banner or message for a few brief moments before they either met a grisly demise at the hands of an AG ship, or security took them out.

By the late 2160’s these events became more and more regular, up until that day in late October 2170 when a team of hackers belonging to the Anti-Gravity Purity Coalition blew the whole thing wide open.

The point of no return
Some would speculate afterwards that had these radical fans known the effect their whistle blowing would have on not only anti-gravity racing, but also the global economy, then they might just have kept the truth to themselves. But in a rush of adrenaline and defiance, they quickly made public the information they?d uncovered in gaining access to the central systems of the Anti-Gravity Race Commission.

The league had faced setbacks before, of course, such as the 2164 Temtesh Bay disaster, where a whole section of the track became entombed after weapon fire caused the collapse of the mines it ran through. No fewer than six pilots died in that first lap incident, and three more would never race again. The pilots, like the various teams that came and went over the years, were replaceable. With the help of some clever media control by Overtel, the league had always managed to ride out storms of this nature. All that was about to change.

As the world watched the grid form for the penultimate race of another enthralling season, the news began to break. Initially it was the guerrilla Datacast networks that carried the bombshell, but soon the heavyweights got word of the most earth-shattering story to surface in decades.

The Anti-Gravity Purity Coalition hackers had lifted terabytes of confidential material from the databanks of the Anti-Gravity Race Commission headquarters before the breach had been discovered. Among those files were the details of years of corruption, deception, illegal practices, and even murder, as the league, megacorps, and some governments of the world had led the paying public a merry dance under the guise of sport and competition.

For years to come people would remember where they were when they learned the truth. Crowds stopped in their tracks and gazed in awe at the revelations unfolding upon the giant screens in shopping malls, city centres and airports around the world. Initially people assumed that it was a hoax, expecting denials to follow in quick succession. But the material just kept on coming.

Zack Vilma, a popular pilot with the Piranha team would later recount his memories of that afternoon:

"Even in the blur of racing, a pilot would always watch for the screens at the side of the track. Sometimes it could alert you to a competitor making a move behind you, other times you could learn of a retirement or elimination. When I came past the main grandstand on lap two, the huge screens were not showing the race, but instead a newscaster. I remember thinking there must have been an incident of some nature, but then these screens appeared to be showing footage of business meetings. On the next lap around I eased off slightly to read the ticker at the foot of the screen. That was when I knew. I knew it was all out in the open. I cut the power and pulled over to the side of the track where some other pilots had already stopped. Feeling the cold shivers of fear and uncertainty run down my spine, I killed the engines of my ship. Now there was no point in continuing the charade. Little did I know that it would be the last time I ever raced one of those machines."

Natasha Belmondo had been one of the first pilots to stop:

"I knew that day would come at some point. The instant I spotted the news on the screens I opened the channel to my team and asked ’Is this what I think it is?’ When they replied in the affirmative I felt a wave of emotion rush over me. I eased off the power, opened the air brakes, coasted to a stop and began to cry. They were not tears of joy or sadness, but tears of relief. Relief that it was finally over."

For those in the grandstands and around the world who had watched the news unfold in disbelief, the sight of each of the ships in that race sitting idle on the grid confirmed the dreadful truth. This was not some elaborate misinformation stunt concocted by a radical fan group. This was the searing revelation that they, the public, had been the victims of a much larger scam than they could ever have imagined.

"As I sat in my ship on the grid, those moments of eerie silence seemed to last for an age," Belmondo added, "then the crowds began booing and jeering. At the same time the trouble started to break out – like the opening of some giant floodgate of anger, and our world went from one of peace to one of anarchy."

It rocked the public to the core to learn that every race win, every one-two finish, every elimination or disqualification on the track could find its origins either in some act of micro-management by the league, or in a financial transaction somewhere back along the line. Records showed deals had been struck as much as months before a given race, or maybe even during an event itself. In fact, the league had already drawn up the results for the race two weeks hence – meaning the outcome of the championship was already a foregone conclusion.

It turned out that the wheelers and dealers who operated for the league were like a microcosm of the stock exchange come race day, with a coded message relayed over a secure channel promoting a pilot from a distant fifth to a spot on the podium. A further call and exchange of offshore bank details and that same pilot could be eliminated in spectacular fashion. A few favourable weapon pad activation?s by race control was all it took to swing the result of an event in the F9000 racing league, and until that day in October 2170, the public had never known whose finger had originally pulled the trigger.

It was the very details of these inner workings of the league that were now laid bare for the entire world to see. Now there was no going back. The F9000 and the Anti-Gravity Racing Commission would be suspended pending investigation. Heads rolled, literally, with board members of Overtel taking the easy way out within minutes of the first story breaking.

In the hours that came after, the state of Anti-Gravity Racing would plunge into chaos. Federal marshals eager to prevent the destruction of evidence stormed the Overtel headquarters in New York City, seizing assets and arresting the members of the board who hadn?t departed in one way or another.

At the same time a media firestorm was developing in the crossfire between companies exposed by the scandal. As accusation was followed by counter accusation, the teams and their controlling megacorp sponsors desperately scrambled for the high ground. For most it was too little too late – angry mobs would besiege corporate HQ?s around the world into the nights and days that followed, requiring local military forces to move in and enforce martial law in several major cities.

The financial shock waves and resultant fall-out also had a vast and immediate impact on the world markets and global economy. Companies involved with the league either dissolved overnight or joined others in the stampede to break all ties with anti-gravity racing. Empires crumbled, and the knock-on effect would lead to a global recession that took years to stabilise, and many more to recover from.

Once the money and the league had gone, anti-gravity racing as a commercial sport was finished. Those machines and the tracks they ran on cost billions to fund annually. With the world in the clutches of a depression that would result in widespread starvation and poverty, Pierre Belmondo and Chuck Hoffman?s vision would lay dormant for many years.