(reading time: 52 minutes)
A metal-wrapped bubble of oxygen drifted through space like the last deep breath of a time capsule before being buried in the dark. The letters N.A.C. were printed on the bubble’s side as if there was someone to look at them. Within the bubble’s skin, members of a human crew went about their daily business.
The captain of the bubble checked the computer projections to make sure they were on course and then took a plastic vial of coffee that his assistant handed him. The assistant, rolling her eyes at the ease of a captain’s job when a bubble just travels in a straight line for its entire journey, stepped outside the bridge to restock her tray with more snacks and beverages for the other crew members.
Next she would take a vacuum-sealed, Grade A, Auroch-clone steak to the North American Coalition’s official representative, who always took his steak well done and while seated in his heated massage chair. The person who really could’ve used that chair was the ship’s plumbing and heating assistant, who was closing in on sixty years old and shouldn’t have been crawling between a very hot metal plate and a very cold one just to check for ice and rust… but that’s just what you have to do when the inexperienced stock administrator, who was currently walking from the cafeteria to the gym to sweat off the dry brick of chocolate he had for dessert, forgets to order enough RC mouse cameras for the maintenance staff.
While all these people walked, ate, thought, grumbled, and slept, someone else prepared. Between all these shifting human trails, a bubble within the bubble locked out all noise except for his breathing.
Berrad Ugitaf inhaled deeply and slowly. He wasn’t trying to relax; it was just protocol. It was also protocol that he not have any upsetting or excessively emotional thoughts during his oxygenation. That was why the cramped interior of the coffin-like hyperbaric chamber was playing video of pine trees and frozen lakes, like a landscape painting you might find in your grandmother’s attic. One of his fingers popped, making him realize his hands were flexing in and out of fist shapes.
Stop it, he thought to himself. Gotta relax. I’ll be running soon. Quixote is just another few hundred million kilometers away.
Berrad had a long history of busting through strips of tape during his many marathon victories. All he could picture now though was his body colliding with red tape and bouncing back. All the protocol for the job was brutal. First there were the press conferences and Q&A sessions where he just sat and looked statuesque while the N.A.C. rep rattled off his stats and talked about Berrad’s exemplary record of patriotism. Then there was all the biometrics, ten people in white coats sticking sensors all over him and telling him to cough, jump, or stand on one leg.
By comparison the oxygenation wasn’t so bad. Berrad felt a stab in his left arm and looked over to see a plastic tube draining his blood away. A second tube pumped a blood substitute made from coconut water and cloned cells back in. This was his fourth and final session in the chamber, meaning all four of his speed bags would be filled and ready to go at the end of it. Soon he would be looking at real trees and whizzing by them at 300 kilometers an hour instead of lying prone under them like a featherless hatchling fallen from the nest.
The new world of Quixote would stretch out before him as a lush green blur… and he would claim it for the N.A.C. for the opportunity.
“I’m going to walk you through the pills again Berrad,” the elderly doctor said with the voice of a drenched cat too exhausted to shake itself dry.
“Don’t worry, I remember what they are.”
“It’s doesn’t matter. I’m legally required to go through it again before we send you out for your little jog. Oh… and I have to record it this time.” The doctor wheeled a tray in front of him with six little plastic cups, each with a different pill inside. Then she whipped out a small blue cylinder and pushed the button on top of it. An oblong recording screen shaped like a comic strip word balloon unfurled. Berrad could see his own face in the screen as it recorded. He reached for the first pill but the doctor slapped his hand away.
“Ouch!” he complained insincerely.
“What? It’s not like you need your hands to run anyway.”
“What am I going to plant the flags with?”
“The flags can handle that just fine. Now sit back and listen. You can take each pill after I finish the description and you give me your consent. Ready?” Berrad sighed and stared blankly. “Okay here we go. I, Doctor Senna Fellbliss, registered physician with the N.A.C.M.S., am about to administer the six pact-approved human biochemical modifiers for an exploratory mission. The explorer present is Berrad Ugitaf.”
“Don’t you find it funny that in all the recordings I’m an explorer but when no one is taping I’m just a jogger?”
“Not really. The satellites and the rovers do the real exploring, but everyone wants a human name attached to these places. Now be quiet, I don’t have a lot of battery on this thing. Where was I? Right. The first drug is a hydro-chart, time-release, water absorbing, foaming agent. Once swallowed the bubbles inside will absorb the water in your stomach and then rupture, one at a time, supplying you with fresh water for the duration of your excursion to the undiscovered planet.”
“What flavor is it?” Berrad joked, hand held in the air like a schoolboy.
“Shut up. Side effects include excessive urination, which may dislodge your catheter. Do you accept this possibility and any equipment issues that may result?”
“Yes I accept all consequences of wetting myself at super speed.”
“You may now take the pill.” Berrad swallowed the sparkly blue capsule and took a swig of water. He would have to drink several liters after the pills to fill all of the bubbles. He recalled the first time he took a hydro-chart; they made his stomach move like a bag of cold clams and he could feel it each time one popped, a little water balloon designed to keep him perfectly hydrated.
“The second pill is an isotope tracking solution that will distribute itself through your body for the duration of your excursion. It will allow the ship to track you from long range in case you’re separated from your mechanical GPS. Do you consent to this method of tracking?”
“Yes I consent.”
“Take the second pill”
“You’re the boss.” Berrad swallowed the little red porcelain-looking pyramid.
“The third pill is a multivitamin.”
“Woah… nobody said anything about multivitamins. Radioactive stuff I can handle, but vitamins?” The doctor did not look amused. “Alright I guess I consent.” Berrad swallowed the tiny green ball and took another swig of water.
“The fourth pill will induce a chemical reaction in your pores that will create a mild sunblock during perspiration…”
Finally it was time. Berrad was locked in position near the rear of their bubble’s shuttle, which had been deployed to the surface of Quixote. His stabilized backpack housed most of his supplies, his liquid rations, and the four external speed bags that stuck out like royal jewels on an assembly line. The cool metal of his limb braces just kissed the sides of both his arms and legs. The helmet was itchy, but he could ditch it as soon as he landed and say it fell off. Nobody would interrupt his run to make him go back for it.
The N.A.C. representative was there. A portly man, with digital screens in his spectacle lenses that were always cluttered with news feeds and E-mails, he rarely did anything other than talk at Berrad, always squealing out legal terminology and political double speak like the air from a pinched balloon.
“Remember, the Enlightened Republic of Indochina beat us here. They’ve already claimed three territories that hug the coast along the northern edge of the continent,” the rep said.
“What’s the name of the continent?” He was only talking to try and hurry time along. His legs quivered with anticipation.
“It’s called Panza… or rather it will be called that once we officially discover over fifty percent of it. Your priority targets are here.” The rep held out a plastic map with little red circles. “This geyser field indicated geothermal energy so that’s priority alpha. After that you can head wherever looks easier: this wetland or that canyon.”
“Wait, you want me to capture fifty percent of this thing when the E.R.I’s already claimed that much? Their guy will beat me to it.” It was difficult to express his confusion since the launcher he was loaded in prevented his head from moving side to side.
“We think you’ll be alright. It looks like they’re claiming strips each time. They’re going for their own country, not world domination. They know they can’t beat an N.A.C. jogger. Hell…” The rep clicked the side of his spectacles, turning off all the data. Then he looked Berrad in the eye and smiled like he had just laundered a vast fortune and some bloody clothes too. “Those Asians have such tiny legs. It’s like they run on pairs of toddler chopsticks.” He switched his glasses back on. “At any rate, if the E.R.I. tries to cross any of your lines we’ll send you shooting down to the coast before they can cut off a piece of our pie. You might have to burn a bag or two, but you’ll easily secure something five times the size of Texas.”
“Whatever,” Berrad spat.
“Well someone’s crabby.”
“I just need you to open the doors.”
“We’re not there yet smart guy. If we launched you right now you’d hit the ocean. We don’t need you to claim Atlantis for us.
“How long until we’re there?” The rep clicked his glasses to check their E.T.A.
“Thirty seconds. Think you can wait that long?”
The representative patted him on the shoulder and stepped back, clear of the launcher. Berrad felt the shuttle curve gently. Any moment now the doors would open and the launcher would shoot him out horizontally. When he started to arc down he would plant his feet on the very edge of Panza for the first time. The gentle sound of the sand under his feet, the shfut…would be his starter’s pistol. Only this time he would be racing someone thousands of kilometers away, who had a head start.
The thrusters quieted to the sounds of hovering. The shuttle bay doors opened, letting the light of a new world bathe the explorer. When his eyes adjusted the coastline appeared. Bright blue water lapped gently against the beach. Quixote had no moons, so its tides were little more than ripples that sank into the sand instead of retreating. The beach was free of debris. At this point in the terraforming there were bound to be lots of dead trees on some of the beaches, but they always launched him from the clearest patch they could find. A good explorer needs a runway to build up speed.
“Preparing to launch,” a voice said over the intercom. “Launch will commence in ten seconds.” Berrad rolled his eyes. Everyone was clear. They should launch immediately. Time was territory.
“10, 9, 8-”
“Zero!” Berrad yelled at the intercom.
“7, 6, 5-”
“4, 3, 2-”
“How about zero?”
Berrad was thrust forward at incredible speed. He kept his arms folded tight across his chest to prevent the sheer force from breaking them backward. His feet locked together in a point, shaping him like a golf tee. His cheeks flapped in the air like the jowls of a dog with its head out a car window. He continued to rocket forward, centimeters above the calm surface of the sea, for several seconds before he lost altitude. The sand was still a ways away. Perhaps the conditions were finally right to try it.
Berrad dropped one foot lower than the other and stepped on the sea. As long as he didn’t stick his foot all the way in it wouldn’t cost him any momentum. So Berrad did like the miracle workers of old, and ran across the water’s surface. His alternating feet left a trail of splashes like a skipping stone being chased by its sibling. There was only a second to enjoy the sensation before he was on the sand.
The explorer moved under his own power now, legs pumping like a race horse. As the last of the launcher’s force faded, Berrad’s full weight settled onto his shoulders. His arms began to pump as well. Rhythm kicked in. He was a high velocity metronome; every motion was countered perfectly by the rest of his body. The small radio pierced into his ear relayed instructions from the representative.
“Put down your first flag so we can make sure they activate correctly. One dud could ruin this whole thing.” Berrad reached behind him and pulled a metal rod from the bundle on his belt. A luminescent blue fabric was wrapped around the tip like colored cellophane on a deli toothpick. A quick downward thrust planted the rod upright in the sand, which was already growing coarser as he put distance between himself and the beach. The explorer was already a kilometer away when the flag actually unfurled and began transmitting its signal to the N.A.C. bubble.
“Everything looks good Berrad. Keep up the pace… for god and country,” the rep’s voice crackled.
Not for god. Berrad thought. Or for country. For me. For this. For this fresh air that’s not tainted with the nervous sweat of billions of people.
He did in fact owe this chance to take giant leaps for mankind to the bickering heads of state. It was less than a century ago that you could claim a planet just by seeing it through a telescope. All you had to do was name it and it was yours. Obviously this became a problem when two nations that swore they saw it first arrived with their colonists at the same time. A few wars were started here and there over who got to keep which marbles gliding through the void.
The only solution was to travel backwards, to do things the old way. Whoever stepped foot there first could claim what they’d traveled across. To everyone, excepting the explorers and their fans, this was strictly business. Those sent had to be outfitted with everything imaginable that could increase their speed without actually building a vehicle around them. So here was Berrad, six pills, four limb braces, and four speed bags away from a normal human runner but still retaining the explorer’s spirit in the eyes of the people.
In reality he was about as far from Lewis and Clark as he could get. The landscape moved by so fast that it was difficult to marvel at the blurs that were most likely marvels of nature.
Once Berrad cleared the beach the blurs turned a rich green. Terraforming probes sent by neutral government pacts had arrived years before the humans and filled the landscape as quickly as they could. Genetic tampering meant they could grow redwoods hundreds of feet high in two years.
These forests and meadows were already populated with full grown deer, rabbits, frogs, bears, wolves, sparrows, a thousand other things, and as insisted upon by the N.A.C., eagles thanks to metabolic catalysts built into the embryos that arrived in the probes. Their lives would be short but rich, like a colony of bacteria across the surface of a skinned apple. Salmon were spawning their brains out to fill the rivers and seas. Bees were busy making more honey than they knew what to do with. And for a few precious years, until the humans came and accidentally spread them, there would be no mosquitoes.
“Berrad. Berrad! I said put down another marker!” The radio barked.
Is it that time already? I’m flying like time. He planted his second flag just past a massive rock slab that he’d cleared in three strides. There was no being sure at such speeds, but that last step might have cracked the mighty stone.
“How much… have I logged?” Berrad asked between carefully timed inhales.
“440 kilometers in seventy-two minutes,” the rep said giddily. “That’s got to be some kind of record.”
“Where’s the… E.R.I. guy?”
“Hang on, let me check… Yeah he’s just adding honeycombed patches on top of his first ones. He’s about parallel to you. Wait a second… You would not believe the brass balls on this guy.”
“What do… you mean?”
“He’s making a beeline for you. I think they’re trying to sever the connections between our flags. If he gets to your trail and then back to one of his own lines before you’ve enclosed a shape he’ll undo your whole run.”
“I don’t care… what he does. Just give me a direction… and let me get back to it.”
“Let me think for a second. I’m going to angle you southwest, just stick to the compass commands.”
“Right,” Berrad huffed, “correcting course.” He turned ever so slightly to match the hologram arrow projecting from his wristwatch. This is odd. Normally the E.R.I isn’t this bold. They get in under the gun, catch a few small countries, and then head out again.
Lost in politics for a moment, Berrad almost ran headlong into a wild horse that was merrily chewing the lush meadow grass. He cursed and took a flying leap, only clearing the beast by a few centimters. It whinnied in surprise and galloped off to join its herd. If they had been unlucky enough to collide, Berrad would have sent the two halves of the horse spiraling into the air and then fallen over himself with one of the ribs of the wild animal sticking out of his chest like a spear.
“Berrad there’s a hill coming up you need to turn to-”
“I can make the jump,” he scoffed in return. It would be nice if they’d just let him do his job in silence.
“No you don’t understand! It’s full of-” Berrad jumped over the lip of the hill. He was not greeted by more open meadow, but by all 300 of that lone horse’s family members. This time there was no opportunity to swear. The air filled with frantic animal cries and the stamping of hooves like a rain of dirt clods.
With no room between the quaking haunches of the horses, Berrad had to take several steps across their backs before finding a nook to slip into. He was battered on all sides, taking confusing blows to the head and arms. His speed was still frightfully high, so even with the herd slowing him down he could not avoid being pressed against the back end of the horse in front of him. The smell was distracting to say the least.
A hoof struck him in the stomach. The pain was immediate, but overshadowed by the loss of breath. He ran bent over until the pain started to subside. If he stopped running he would be trampled. If he tripped he would be trampled. The rep shrieked in his ear but Berrad couldn’t comprehend any of it. All of a sudden his legs felt too short and every hoof was a hammer flying through the air. His first inhale since the blow to the gut came as a tight gasp, like a boxer punching the bottom of his lungs with horsehide gloves. His left foot twisted on some uneven ground. Berrad turned the stride into an awkward jump to avoid falling.
Without his normal rhythm he would be doomed. These animals weren’t going to go their separate ways; they were glued together like the cells of a throbbing muscle. There was only one way to settle his mind. The rep might even kill him with some kind of satellite laser if he burned a speed bag this early, but it had to be done. Being short one would be much better than tripping and becoming a welcome mat.
He looked down for a moment to press a button on his left arm brace. One of the glass pods on his back started draining. Rich, electrifying, oxygenated blood, generated by several hours in the hyperbaric chamber, flooded his blood stream. The effect was instantaneous. It was a shame Berrad was too busy surviving to fully enjoy it. His vision lit up as if fading daylight had rewound to noon. His muscles felt just as tense, but their mood shifted. The sensation was now warm instead of burning. Each breath was a nourishing cloud of vaporized ambrosia. The rhythm was back and his muscles were freshly oiled with oxygen. Paths seemed to open up before him. There was a space between that black horse and that tan one. Then there was a way to move up between them. Then there was a small one he could skirt around.
It became more like a maze than anything else. The wild, scared, equine eyes were just notches in the walls. Berrad leapt over a horse sideways. Then another. He threw in unnecessary flourishes and spins simply because he didn’t know when he would get another chance to do such a thing.
Before he knew it he was clear. The rumbling raging amoeba of horses shifted away from him, back toward the plains while he entered a new forest with towering conifers and swollen pine cones littering the ground like surplus eggs rolling out of overflowing nests. The rep was still yelling, but with the speed bag’s effects coursing through his veins, heart, brain, eyes, and muscles his ears seemed curiously catatonic.
Berrad cast a flag into the ground and spared a backward glance to watch it light up. It wasn’t the right time for him to use one in terms of progress, but it was the right thing to do at that moment. The flag signaled the end of the experience. It was a symbol for the cool-down after being caught in a rush of raw life. Running through these untamed wildernesses was like giving man a taste of god’s powers. Like licking dripping honey off an omnipotent eggbeater before it went back to baking things you’d never comprehend.
It’s a shame that flag will end up as a line. Dividing people. Dividing rights, crimes, and the pursuit of happiness along borders I draw. I’m capturing countries… but the lines themselves… they’re the real prize.
The bottom pads of his foot braces clicked a little more slowly than usual. The Rep had informed him that the E.R.I jogger was matching his speed and angle. He was trying to catch up rather than subvert one of his incomplete borders. Why? Did the underdog desire a full-on race with the champion? Berrad’s curiosity had gotten the better of him. He built some slack into his pace so the other jogger could catch up faster. There would be a 200 kilometer an hour conversation when he finally caught up.
Did this other explorer do it for the same reason? Or was he just some brainwashed and genetically gifted piece of propaganda for the people back home? Berrad knew a few joggers like that. They were hamsters in wheels. A couple of them even watched movies or read books in data glasses like the rep’s while their bodies mechanically got the job done. It was hard to imagine not wanting to be present for this.
The silence of the forest surrounded him like a glass tunnel through an aquarium tank. His speed separated him from the world, but granted perfect perspective. He took a sip of liquid ration from the straw embedded in his collar. As if his body knew that lunch was supposed to come with a beverage, one of the water balloons in his stomach burst and cooled his insides.
Every few minutes now he glanced over his shoulder. The other jogger could catch up any time. Berrad weaved in and out of trees unnecessarily to further slow himself. He placed another flag and spun around to watch it light up and disappear in the distance. Shortly after, he deployed the minuscule retractable rear view mirror on his helmet so he could just run backwards instead of continuously looking over his shoulder.
A crimson dot appeared in the distance, as if he was going to cross paths with little red riding hood in the middle of this enchanting forest. The dot grew closer, becoming too streamlined and aggressive to resemble anything from fairy tales. It leapt over high bushes like hurdles, never grazing a single leaf.
Berrad spun back to forward and waited for the runner to pull up alongside. The new explorer’s suit was less aerodynamic than his own, with decorative shoulder pads and a red flag trailing behind his shoulders like an advertisement tail on an old biplane. No doubt that suit was just a show to convince citizens that their explorer was an intimidating warrior who could not fail in their conquest. The man’s face was full of stubble from days with no hygiene. Of all the things they built into the suits, at least they were smart enough to draw the line at a razor blade.
He was significantly smaller than Berrad and his legs pumped in quicker strides. His speed bags were smaller as well, but there were more of them. Each one was loaded into a slot on a large dial on his back, looking like a stabbing victim had inserted blood-covered fingers into the slots on their old rotary phone when desperately calling for help. Three of his eight pods were already spent, which comforted Berrad a little. He’s already half out of juice.
“Hello,” the bearded jogger said between breaths. His English was good, only a hint of an accent made even less obvious thanks to the huff and puff behind every word.
“Come here often?” Berrad called back with a smile. The other jogger did not reciprocate. “So what’s… the deal? Not happy enough with the north?”
“I’ve been told… it’s time to prove our super… iority,” the E.R.I. runner said.
“I’m Berrad Ugitaf. What’s your name?” The red runner looked taken aback.
“As if you care,” he spat back with a voice like burnt coffee.
“Sure I care. Why… wouldn’t I?”
“I was running on Wiglaf… one of your joggers… yanked my flag.” He pointed backward to the flying piece of fabric. “I spent eight weeks in… hospital with six broken bones. He was rewarded with… whole island.”
“That’s not my… style,” Berrad assured him. The two took a short break to navigate a pile of rocks. Eager to show off, the red runner jumped clear over Berrad’s head and then immediately pulled back so their pumping legs were only half a meter apart.
“Let me show you… my style,” the man representing Indochina warned. He clapped his hands together and the sound resonated like thunder. The lines on his suit lit up with bright red dots. The head and neck of a mechanical dragon emerged from his backpack and devoured one of the speed bags.
He certainly does have style. The red runner’s speed immediately picked up. Sparks flew from rocks every time the blades of his boots sprung off them. The man took only a second to look over his shoulder and shout.
“The name’s Myro Dust!”
“Keep it up Myro. If you burn your pods like that… you’ll never beat me,” Berrad whispered as he watched the red runner pull further and further ahead. I don’t need a tin dragon. My dragon’s right here. Berrad slapped his chest.
Once again the key would be rhythm. Happy to have such a concrete goal, Berrad threw himself back into it. His breathing amped up a notch. His strides became a few centimeters longer. The motion of his legs became flawless and uniform, as if there was an invisible pair of bike pedals guiding them. The stones and trees gave way to a series of grassy hills, but the quick changes in elevation did nothing to slow him down. The real test was to catch up to Myro without burning a bag.
“Don’t worry, I can do it,” Berrad yelled at a group of crows that flew out of his way cawing vigorously.
It took about thirty-five minutes but Berrad closed the gap. As he pulled up alongside the explorer off the edge of a river, he could see the lag on the man’s face that comes with a speed bag wearing off. His cheeks looked drawn and his eyes sunken as he panted like a dog. His perspiration was thick and grayish thanks to the same sunblock additive Berrad’s country also required him to use. Small plastic fronds emerged from his opponent’s collar and wiped away the sweat around his eyes.
It looked like he had either taken a spill or pushed through a solid wall of vegetation, as tiny leaves were caught in most of his suit’s ridges and seams. Meanwhile, Berrad looked like a glistening and energetic kid, hyper from the first slushy ice pop of the summer.
“Does everyone in Indochina waste… their resources like that?” Berrad asked, again smiling. This time Myro did grin back.
“The trick is to make your resources… renewable. You Americans always… learn that late.” Myro again clapped his hands together like thunder, three times instead of one. Berrad waited for the dragon to appear and wondered how Myro could be so stupid. Burning another pod when they were nowhere near the coast was like emptying your canteen into the desert’s blistering sand.
Pretty soon he’d be capable of nothing but strolling through uncharted wilderness. Not something to be recommended when the young habitats are still full of wolves, cougars, and bears that have no fear of human beings. Berrad had heard plenty of horror stories about the aggression of seeded predators with quick metabolisms. There was one rumor of a runner stopping to drink at an untouched mountain stream when an eight foot alligator gar lashed out and dragged him by the face to a watery grave.
“I think your dragon’s broken! He’s not moving.”
“Our enlightened republic has many friends in nature,” Myro boasted, “like the crane.” The red runner pointed up into the sky and Berrad angled his head to see. At first there was nothing, but then a whitish shape rocketed over his head and flew behind Dust.
Berrad rubbed his eyes in disbelief. It was some kind of unmanned drone styled after a crane. Its wings were long and reflective. Its thin legs were hooked together and safely pushed backward to streamline its shape. The long neck snaked back and forth, examining Myro’s few remaining speed bags. The robotic bird sang a quick song full of tweets and coos.
Completely distracted, Berrad tripped on a gopher hole and had to perform a few well-timed front flips to land back on his feet. Myro and his crane had pulled ahead, so he took a deep breath like a huge swig of cold water and pushed himself forward. His rhythm destroyed, curiosity now fueled Berrad’s legs.
The crane’s beak opened wide. Then wider. Then so wide that its head looked more like a pickax than a bird. A fresh crimson speed bag emerged from its throat. The crane placed it delicately in one of Myro’s empty slots and then filled the rest of his pack.
“That’s… that’s cheating!”
“Read your rulebook American! No supplies can be… dropped. Nothing on my feathered friend… has ever touched the soil of Quixote! So long!” Myro clapped his hands once more and the dragon reappeared. It gobbled up a bag and sent it down into the runner’s veins. The crane retreated into the sky, singing victoriously. Myro’s speed exploded, and within two minutes he was out of sight.
“That’s cheating!” Berrad yelled after the man who could not hear him and wouldn’t listen even if he could. “That’s cheating!” he complained to an opossum that he rushed by. The startled creature feigned death in response. “I know! I was shocked too.” For once, Berrad actually initiated radio contact with the N.A.C. bubble.
“I’ll tell you what it is,” the representative shouted through Berrad’s earpiece. “It’s a loophole the size of this continent… and it looks like there’s nothing we can do about it. As long as no other human within the atmosphere helps him and any drones never touch the ground, he’s free and clear. It leaves you in Dust’s dust.”
“The hell it does.”
“What are you going to do about it smart guy? Thanks to your shenanigans you’ve only got three pods to his however-many-birds full. For all you know he’s got a flock of those things ready for midair refuels.”
“It doesn’t matter… get on the satellite feeds. Find me something dangerous between here… and the coast.”
“What do you mean dangerous?”
“Find me a damn natural disaster rep!” Berrad shouted, using up breath that should have been pumping into his legs. The shout echoed in the hills he still dashed through. “Anything that’ll take some skill to run through. You’ve got weather… data. Seismic data. There are more research drones crawling around here… than there are freakin’ squirrels! Give me something I can drive him into… then it’ll be a… test of skill rather than bags.”
“What, you want to kill this guy?”
“No. If he’s a real… explorer, he won’t quit or go around. He’ll take… the challenge.”
“Okay so you’re telling me you want to get yourself killed and he might just have to go along for the ride?”
“I wouldn’t expect someone living… in a bubble and eating freezer food to understand.”
“You’re drinking lunch out of a plastic bag!” the rep countered.
“Now might be a good time to tell you I cheat on… the rations.” To prove his point Berrad jumped, snagged a peach which had been genetically altered to be ripe all year and was free of pests yet to be introduced to this paradise, took a huge sloppy bite, and landed. He smacked his lips together so the rep could hear.
“The sugar’s going to kill your endurance,” he grumbled. “Fine. If you want to risk it, it’s your hide. I tried to tell them we should put blinders on you guys but nobody listens. There’s some geothermal data and some satellite footage. It looks like we’ve got a patch of geysers about 430 kilometers from you. There’ll be dangerous gasses, loose ground, and fountains of boiling water. Good enough for you?”
“That’s perfect,” Berrad said, ripping into the rest of his peach.
All that was left of the N.A.C. explorer at the end of the hills was a planted flag and a peach pit, sucked dry. Berrad burned through his remaining pods like a madman. He just needed them to catch up to Myro long enough before the geysers to drive him into them.
Life drained out of the land. Either the terraforming process had missed that patch or the ground was largely toxic and infertile. The soil turned into dry gray clay riddled with cracks. The only plants were piles of twigs with parasitic twigs wrapped around them: death strangling death. There was a moment of relief in Berrad’s mounting tension when he spotted a bird high in the sky. So this place isn’t completely lifeless. Then the sun’s light glinted off the bird’s side and Berrad realized he was looking at the endangered but still too common Indochinese cheater’s crane.
The sight only spurred him on. The last drops of his final pod drained into his bloodstream. He had to catch up. The clay under his feet tore from the impacts. Broken discs of it flew behind him and shattered on the ground. If there wasn’t a sign of his competitor soon they would pass by the side of the geysers unharmed.
There’s got to be a way. The crane glinted overhead. Berrad realized it probably had a camera somewhere on it. He was being watched so Myro would know if he even got close. Jogger and spectator whizzed past a red flag, beeping and flashing in the dry ground. Only one way… old fashioned.
Berrad did what he could to control his breathing. Every puff of air had to be the exact volume of the last. The only way to catch him would be to convince his body that it truly was a machine. His lungs would have to be bellows. His arms and legs would have to be hydraulic. His blood would have to be coolant no matter how hot it felt. Berrad imagined himself as a pocket watch with legs built on to it. Every tick was a step. Every tock was a step. Inhale. Exhale.
The technique kicked in after about three kilometers. The landscape blurred even more, but that was alright because he’d seen enough of the noxious death of this place already. His lungs stopped complaining and felt almost callused. The bottoms of his feet were numb and flattened, like the slipper pads of a camel.
Berrad was fully tuned into his version of enlightenment. With that came a tide of oxygen nothing like the injection of a speed bag. It was more like his body was slowly getting amnesia as it was forced to act against its will. His legs forgot they were tired. His tongue forgot how to wiggle and sat still like driftwood. Every flaw both physical and emotional was stripped away by the friction of air against skin. What was left was a cycle of oxygen with only the faintest clue of a destination. Air flew in and out of this temporarily inhuman loop with stunning rhythm. The only sound was the clattering of clay fragments. Berrad was not present enough to hear it.
“Impossible,” Myro muttered to himself as he watched Berrad draw near. He didn’t even need the crane’s video feed anymore, as all it took was a backward glance to see that engine of muscle catching up.
He was not going to lose half the continent with an unlimited supply of speed pods; the shame he would face would be too great, like watching a newly constructed house crumble with the touch of a palm leaf. He could still be a symbol for his countrymen, even if he had to lose some of the flair that might eventually be painted back into his portrait.
Dust tugged on a strap near his shoulder. Both crimson shoulder pads dropped off and broke into a thousand pieces when they hit the ground at 300 kilometers an hour. He never liked all the ornaments anyway. Myro reached back and jammed his thumb into a slot. The banner flag detached and drifted away.
He looked back in hopes it might blind Ugitaf and force him to crash. The flag did hit, but instead of incapacitating him it merely bent around his waist, giving him the appearance of a marathoner who had burst through the finish line and decided to never stop running.
Myro wagered that Berrad didn’t even remember. It was quite a while ago, seven years in fact. Dust had placed sixth in the One United Earth biannual triathlon… or the ‘1, 2, 3’ as it was called. Berrad had placed third, so of course he didn’t remember the guy in sixth. The months of training had included everything from ice baths to hours jogging in a wind tunnel to simulate harsh weather.
He’d eaten a diet so balanced that his average breakfast could’ve tightrope walked across the grand canyon. A smart pedometer had constantly berated him; it ordered him to slow down, speed up, and step more softly or heavily. All of it fell away in the last kilometer when five other athletes passed his exhausted body. And Berrad had passed him with a smile.
That exact smile was gaining on him again. Those big white teeth coming up behind him like the mouth of a ravenous weasel ready to tear out his throat. Myro triggered another speed pod and waited for the waterfall of energy to wash over him. It hit like a sour note. Maybe he was colliding with the wall. Even with the pods, no human could continue at that level indefinitely. The smile grew behind him. Berrad was somehow moving as if on tracks.
“No, no, no…” Myro said with every exhale, which failed to slow his opponent.
This time there was no conversation. They did not exchange unpleasantries. They simply ran, neck and neck, through the dead expanse before them. Their matched pace combined with the monotonous gray of the landscape to create a sense of futility that hung over both of them. Nobody seemed to be going anywhere. Berrad was the first to change things by inching dangerously close to Myro.
“What are you doing?” The red jogger cried out when their arm braces touched. He wobbled dangerously and then angled left to put some space between them. Berrad was right there again, bumping his shoulder against the other explorer. “You’re going to crash us both,” Myro yelled in exasperation. The crane swooped in and tried to reload his pods, but Berrad was causing so much chaos that it couldn’t get a clear chance. Every time it tried to load a new one Myro had to change position slightly, forcing the crane to drop the pod like a ruby abandoned by a caravan full of treasure.
“We’re going sightseeing,” Berrad said.
“What are you… talking about?” His voice was starting to sound hoarse. The dry air pulled moisture out of his throat and popped the water balloons in his stomach prematurely. The air filled with a soggy sick smell like a vomit-covered drunk had collapsed into a pile of wet hay. Berrad gulped the smell as well, which conjured instead an image of undead chickens laying ghastly green eggs.
“Where are you taking us? I thought this wasn’t your style?” Myro questioned. Berrad just shoved him to the side with vicious shoulder bumps.
“You want to bend the rules. You want to pretend it’s not… cheating just because you won’t get kicked out? You want to… ruin the buzz for me? Fine. I can play that game. If I start losing… I don’t get to do this anymore. That’s not happening. Let’s see how much good your bags do you… in an obstacle course.”
Dust looked quite confused for a moment, then lifted his wrist and pressed a few buttons on his arm brace. A topographic hologram jumped up from his forearm. It displayed the joggers as two polarized colorful lines racing toward an uneven area filled with towers of water. The hologram filled up with little spinning alarms and hazard signs.
“You’re crazy Ugitaf! You’ll kill us both!” Myro’s angry scared spittle caught in his short beard.
“I won’t kill anybody. You can go around or turn back… Nothing’s stopping you. This is your choice!” Myro looked onward to their destination. He could see the tips of geysers in the distance.
“We’ll choke. There’s poisonous vapor in those… things. You can’t run without air you moron!”
“I know you’ve got one of these too… it’s standard equipment, so don’t play dumb. Either we’re racing or I’m going for a healthy jog alone. Which is it?” With that, Berrad clicked a button on his own arm brace, which inflated a transparent sack beneath the tip of his rations straw. It overtook his nose and mouth, pumping an oxygen-rich breathing mix into his airways. Designed to prevent toxic inhalation, the mask had a mild rejuvenating effect, but nowhere near the power of a speed bag.
Myro looked again at the geysers. He stripped off the badges of honor pinned to the front of his explorer’s suit and let them fall away. Next he hopped into the air and tore the cheaply made but fancily painted metal wings off his boots. Fine then. There was an explorer at Myro’s core after all. Behind the fear there was a spinning top of activity that never ceased. He needed to move. Everything else got in the way.
The backpack was the last thing to go. When Myro unhooked it, the serpentine metal dragon separated itself from the pack and wrapped around Myro once like a sash. It bit its own tail to stay in place. Its hermit crab shell broke up on the clay, leaving behind a great bloodstain of shattered pods, like the death of Myro’s inhibitions. He activated his gas mask.
“That’s the spirit,” Berrad shouted, fogging his own mask. He too decided to streamlining, first by ripping the patch of the N.A.C. flag off his arm. Then he ditched his thermal hood and felt the gust from his speed hit his hair for the first time.
The first geyser took them by surprise, literally forcing the two apart as it fired between them. The water scalded Berrad’s arm, but his runner’s high was so intense he barely felt it.
Myro managed to avoid any of the water as it fell back down by ducking under it at the last moment. He smirked. Maybe Berrad wasn’t crazy after all. He’d forgotten how good it felt to not have the pressures of his people slowing him down like a ball and chain. This was never supposed to be his responsibility or his duty. It was supposed to be his passion, a passion he felt now as his whiskers tingled and beads of sweat sought to escape from between the layers of his skin and his suit.
“Not bad,” Berrad said. “Try this on for size.” He spun to dodge a geyser and ascended to a row of narrow boulders. He leapt from point to point, bypassing the world records for unaided human long jump every time. Some of the tips broke under his feet, fell to the ground, and were immediately shot back into the air by boiling water. The stones rained near Myro and either thunked quietly into dry clay or splashed in the growing caustic mud puddles.
Both men took note that the further they infiltrated the mess of fissures and vapor, the thicker the mud became; it started bubbling as well, releasing its toxic contents into the air. They splashed through it like children playing in the rain, but if not for their boots their feet would’ve burned in the heated muck.
Myro looked up to watch a rainbow shine through the top of a geyser, but caught eye of something else that made him curse under his breath. The robotic crane was still flying overhead and desperately searching for a clear path down to its runner. The drone attempted several dives but was forced back into the air. On its fifth try the fastest geyser yet knocked it out of the sky. It spiraled down and crashed, sinking into the mud before Berrad.
“Guess he couldn’t handle it!”
“You’re paying for that!” Myro shouted gleefully.
“You’re an American explorer… you must be rolling in it!”
“You’d think. I’m not an athlete in… the public’s eyes. State employee… lousy benefits. I live… in a small apartment.” That wasn’t quite true. He lived out here. He lived on Quixote, and Cyrano, and a dozen other worlds.
“Ha!” Myro declared. “We pay our heroes! I’ve got… three houses.”
“And now one less pet!” Berrad quipped, running backwards to face his rival. Myro laughed along with him, but his expression quickly contorted. His hands reached out to grab someone who was too far away.
Berrad barely turned in time to see the wall of mud come over the ridge. Both of them had failed to notice the drop in elevation; they’d run straight into a depression that quickly narrowed into a ditch with high slippery walls. All of the mud poured in and built up behind them like a hunting dog drooling chaotically as it chased rabbits.
Berrad tried to jump out of the crevice but the wall was too high now. His boots sank in to the sides and turned his attempted wall run into a sloppy front flip he barely landed. It cost him the top layer of skin on his hands, which quickly blistered once it touched the mud beneath.
“You’ve driven us into a lahar!” Myro screamed over the rush of angry frothing mud. The crevice was so thin now that Berrad had to pull back and run behind Myro. He could feel globs of the hot death splashing on his heels. They needed to run faster, but the ground grew less and less solid. Every step ate the entire length of their boot-blades, which slowed them to an agonizing snail’s pace of 110 kilometers an hour.
“We’ve got to get out of this… crack!” Berrad shouted, unsure if the words even reached Myro. He watched as the red runner jettisoned what supplies he had left to increase his speed. The last few flags of the Enlightened Republic of Indochina lit up as the mud swallowed them.
Good thinking. Berrad too detached the bundle of compact flags from his belt and tossed them back into the mud. The N.A.C. flags flashed bright blue and were quickly scattered like fireflies caught in the wind.
A geyser fired before them, blocking their way forward. Myro faltered for a moment, and then pushed forward toward the treacherous jet of water. He’s got a plan, Berrad hoped. He watched the other jogger carefully for any sign of intent. If there was a plan it should’ve started two seconds ago. Three. Four.
“Damn it, what are we doing!?” Myro’s hands flew into the air and stayed there. He slowed just enough for Berrad to have time to realize what was going on. He hopped as high as he could, a feat severely impeded by the suction of the mud. His legs sailed up and over in an arc. Once Berrad was suspended upside down over Myro they locked hands. Myro then kicked off and arced to the side.
The hurtling two man wheel rose high and to the left with just enough velocity to clear the edge of the crevice. When they tried to separate their braces tangled. Dust was accidentally swung in a huge arc that sent him flying once the braces unhooked. Berrad managed to stay on his feet and, amazingly, stay running.
He dodged another geyser that exploded with such force that his ears rang. He cupped his hands over the sides of his head and tried to find Myro in the waves of mud behind them. He could barely make out the red figure getting to his feet. You could say Myro managed to stay ahead of the lahar, but the two forms were so united it was more like the red runner surfed for his survival.
About that time Berrad’s hearing recovered enough for him to catch the garbled voice coming from his radio.
“Left you idiot… Go left! You’re at the edge of it!” Berrad tore his eyes away from Myro and checked his left. The edge of a forest, obscured by the walls of the crevice until now, broke up the flow of the mud. Huge piles of logs and sticks caught on the tree trunks, which were building up into haphazard dams.
Berrad veered toward the trees and shut out the rest of the world while he sought dry ground. The sound of branches snapping replaced the sloshing of mud. He crossed a thin log with careful hopping steps and then lunged to dodge several splintered wooden pikes. In a few more quick moves he was relatively free of the lahar. With so much momentum and fear driving him forward, Berrad did not slow. He followed the course of the flow and searched for signs of Myro.
“Move away Berrad!” The rep urged ecstatically. “You’re clear. Get on a path to the coast. Let the E.R.I. worry about him.”
“Not a chance. I’m getting him out of there.”
“What?” The rep’s voice was cold and loud, as if his pudgy body had turned metal and hollow. “If you don’t turn toward the sea right this second, you’re fired. You’ll never be an explorer again, do you hear me?”
Berrad slowed. Even though he still moved at seventy kilometers an hour it felt like a dead stop. Shame crept over him when he considered forsaking Myro’s life for the selfish pursuit of passion. Never do this again. Never run on new worlds… Can I?
He looked to his left and saw the tranquility of the forest. This could be the last time that the peace of a new world welcomed him in. He looked to his right and saw the destruction of the mud. He watched Myro struggle to stay ahead of its surging tide. I can’t. He won’t get to see any more new worlds either.
Mind made up, Berrad pushed forward and accelerated to full speed. With very little mud sucking him down, he was able to pull ahead of the neck-and-neck race that was Myro vs. mire. The debris separating them grew thicker by the moment, with huge uprooted trees blocking his vision. To counter this he leapt up onto the wall of wood and ran along it cautiously.
Every few meters he had to switch to a new log to avoid falling. Even if he crashed on the safe side of the wall the impact would probably turn him into a pincushion of sharp sticks. Some of the logs sounded dangerously hollow; they thonked with every step. Huge folds of bark slipped away like shed skin. There was a slight chance he was safer in the mud.
He snapped a thick branch off one tree as he crossed it and waved it in the air to draw Myro’s attention. They were so far apart now it was difficult to tell if Dust could see him at all. Luckily the tiny crimson figure arced in the right direction.
The wall of debris was now so high that it was certain Myro could not ascend it unaided, so Berrad made sure the branch he’d picked up was thick enough to handle the task by seeing if he could bend it. Its shape remained steadfast, a gloriously sure thing that was quickly becoming scarce in this world of raging geysers and man-eating mud.
It’s actually quite beautiful. A slight delirium from all the risk-taking convinced him the stick was perhaps the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Its sandy color and uniform brown spots made it look more suited to being a table leg than holding up a blue jay nest. It was smooth too… Yes, it certainly was the most perfect thing on Quixote. Better than the hyper and ill-tempered predators. Better than the fresh rushing air. Better than beeping flags that just shout ‘I was here first’ at anything that passes by.
Myro was close now. The mud behind him still had not slowed. In fact, its edge looked more violent than ever, as if it were so heated and confused that it could tear itself apart and become a hideous brown storm cloud any second. Berrad got to the lowest point on the wall he could. Past this section of trees all the wood had been splintered into terribly sharp pieces. He held out the stick to Myro and indicated he should grab it. Berrad’s eyes darted between the red runner and the path ahead of him in a nervous rhythm.
Dust reached out, but could not connect. The motion of his arm threw off the balance in his run and nearly tossed him to the ground. He regained his balance and tried again, with similar results.
“Hurry! Grab it!”
“I can’t reach! Wait!!” He reached down and unhooked the dragon sash from around his chest and whipped the creature to the side. It responded as hoped and bit down on the stick. “Pull!”
Berrad yanked as hard as he could, spinning his body away from the lahar and its wall of debris. Both men whirled through the air and hit the quixotic dirt. Stick and dragon, still biting like a dead snake that would never let go, rolled away.
The lahar’s surge finally calmed and the geysers died down. Both explorers spent several minutes unconscious, missing the end of the disaster they had hoped to see minutes before.
A passing fox sniffed at Berrad possessively like he was a room service tray. Its snout climbed up into his sleeve. The smell of his perspiration, thick and salty with a diluted touch of deodorant, dissuaded the beast from exploring any higher. It stepped up onto his chest and investigated his face instead. Some parts of it smelled like food… and that was good enough. The fox bit Berrad’s nose.
“Augh!” He snorted and rose into a sitting position. The fox leapt away and ran off into the undergrowth. Not quite food yet after all. “Where?” He scanned for his fellow explorer. A runny brown tide lapped at his heels, but it was no longer hot. Quixote’s’s sun was finally descending, ending its twenty-six hour day.
There was a pile of red and black about thirty feet away. That couldn’t be Myro though, because Myro was alive and that pile wasn’t moving. It had to be a grouping of unusual flowers or some victim of a wolf pack. It was not Myro because he had saved Myro. And if I didn’t? He rose unsteadily to his feet and hobbled over to the pile, calling out Myro’s name as he went.
“Get up buddy,” he said as he knelt and turned the figure over. There was a smear of blood across the red runner’s neck. Berrad couldn’tt find its origin. It’s blood washing off. That’s all it is. It’s not his blood. It’s just blood that’s washing off. The blood shed between peoples and countries. That’s just the bad blood between Indochina and the Americas washing out because it never belonged there anyway. We just fixed it. This world’s one of fraternity, not rivalry. It’s washing off…
Berrad slammed his fist against Myro’s sternum. The red runner’s eyes popped open and he hacked violently. Squishy sacks of water, looking themselves like tiny planets ready to be explored, popped out of Myro’s mouth and rolled away. He coughed.
“You’re alright,” Berrad sighed.
“No I’m not. Having those things in your throat is brutal.”
“Hey at least they don’t fly out of your nose when you laugh.” He laughed himself, but his ribs tickled and ached with the effort. Quixote’s air burned in his lungs.
“What’s… what’s that?” Berrad looked over. One of the last waves of mud was flowing in from under the wall of uprooted trees. Two objects suspended in the flow came towards the runners. One was an Indochinese flag, held upright by its internal mechanisms and still flashing red. The other was an American flag, also flashing.
Myro and Berrad got to their feet and limped along, following the two flags as they floated by. When Quixote’s soil had all but absorbed the mud the flags held their positions. Their lights flashed… and then changed color. Both now emitted a solid green light.
“Okay, I’ve never seen it do that before,” Berrad said. “It probably just means I’m fired. Like a pink slip or something.”
Myro lifted his arm and pressed a few buttons. The waterlogged machine didn’t respond at first but after a few good flicks a wavering hologram appeared. It showed a red line sliding past a blue one and turning green. Then it zoomed out and showed a massive section of the continent turn green, as if a wave of vibrant plant life had suddenly erupted in a desert.
“That’s interesting,” Dust said, scratching his mud-caked goatee.
“When we tossed our flags in the mud… they activated. They were acting like they were on solid ground when the mud was still pulling them around.”
“So the borders were fluid, but the computers thought they were concrete. One of your flags slid past mine when they were both already registered as border points…” Myro hit a few more buttons and scrolled through a massive block of computer code. Each line turned green faster than he could scroll through it. “It seems…because of this… the system has decided to combine the borders instead of nullifying one of them.”
“You mean it thinks we made a complete border… for half the continent?”
“Yes because both of us started on the coast and then crossed paths without nullifying each other… we just… created a country.”
“And who does it belong to?”
“Apparently,” Myro dropped the hologram, “both of us. This territory is registered both with the E.R.I. and the N.A.C. It’s an accidental joint effort.”
“Yeah!” Berrad shouted and laughed so loudly he scared the still inquisitive fox even further away. “The reps are going to love this! Hah! They’ll have to pretend they did it on purpose. Could you imagine the flack if they broke up a nation created by cooperating explorers?”
“Yeah…” Myro grinned. “I guess that makes us neighbors.”
“Welcome to our new home!” Berrad declared, embracing his brother. They took deep breaths of shared air. Maybe he was fired, but there was plenty of Panza to go around. Plenty to explore between the lines.