EP177: Usurpers

By Derek Zumsteg.
Read by Stephen Eley.

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King spots a knock-off cluster, glowing sunny in the rain, too fit, perfectly proportioned. Tear off some burnished bronze, never-burning skin. Shove it under a microscope, see the designer signature, Chinese characters like tattoos on the necks of college girls.

All ten ranked cross-country runners this season took family trips to China after school let out last year. When they’d returned and established dominance, King took the Asics guy up on his offer to join the experimental training program. Found himself running by himself, following daily instructions from an email address. King knows there’s a machine on the other end, some oracle in some data center chewing on his performance data full time. Responds only to email, immediately, all hours.

Rated R. Contains strong language, strong emotions, and moderate violence.

Comments (75)

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  1. ADerksen says:

    I really enjoyed this story. It reminded my why I like running, and made me want to get out on the track while I listened to it. Listening to King’s staccato delivery brought back memories of my own thought processes as you stretch into the distance, and limited oxygen intake draws your focus into a pinprick.

    Sometimes I do my best thinking out there, where there are just enough distractions to keep my brain flying level.

    I also enjoyed that the author allowed his protagonist to be a bit of an aggressive ass – he was there to compete. He realized that he wasn’t going to beat his enhanced competition in a straight race, and so he did the legwork (both literally and metaphorically) that would be required for him to beat them. He learned the track and his own limitations. Then he did his best to find a playing field where things were more or less even for his competition.

    He says it himself: his opponents have finely tuned racing machines for bodies, but they don’t have finely trained minds. Ridiculous as it sounds, King “wanted it more”, and was willing to ride through a level of pain and injury in order to succeed. From the very beginning, he gets into their heads. Baiting them. Taunting them. Rushing them on and off the track. Had his opponents trained as hard as he did, they might have been prepared… but the bottom line is that he was willing to operate at the top of his natural human performance in order to win, and his opponents were unwilling to go above cruising speed.

    I guess the bottom line is that you should feel free to keep the sports science-fiction coming. I don’t read near enough of this sort of genre-crossover, and I have been glad to hear it here. I do believe that if some of the general public were made more aware of this sort of speculative fiction, that there might be a greater mass-market appeal of science-fiction to a larger audience as a whole.


  2. ExiledinSeattle says:

    I thought it was one of the best Escape Pod stories I’ve heard yet. Was it racist? Maybe yes, maybe no, I think it depends on your perspective. Were the characters realistic? Definitely. Stereotypical or not, people like this do exist, and this is an excellent example of speculation of things to come.

  3. Traveler says:

    The John Henry connection is correct. John Henry wins (and dies, I believe), but it is a pointless victory, since someone will soon design a better steam engine. Pulling for ole John is like yearning for the days when we mashed corn with stones instead “cheating” with food processors.

    Both John Henry and Usurpers hook into one of the central myths of modern humanity: “Nature can beat Technology.”

    It can’t. Technology was specifically designed, by people, to do “better” than Nature. If it doesn’t achieve that goal it gets redesigned.

    Why we love this myth would be too long to go into here.

  4. ExiledinSeattle says:

    Yeah, but what happens when King get’s his scholarship and the school sponsored enhancements? Of course, that’s after he’s taken to the hospital and given his new heart…

  5. Old Man Parker says:

    Yeah, I agree with Grace. Steve is a good reader. Often a great reader. But, having him try to do a tough black guy voice is a bit silly.
    Maybe, an actual black guy reading it would have made the story better for me? Is that a racist thing to think? Don’t know.
    But, a black sounding voice might have been better. Like…. some one like… James Earl Jones perhaps?
    Yes, I think it would have made the story a better listen.
    (Of course, Mr. Jones could read the phone book, and it’d be amazing.)

  6. ExiledinSeattle says:

    If we’re talking voice talent, how ’bout Bunk from the Wire?

  7. Mike G says:

    I came back to look at what others thought about this story, and I agree that a “blacker” narrator would have helped, although Steve has a good voice. Just not quite right for this character.

    Also I think the writer really does have a talent for delivering a dynamic action story. I did listen through to the end even though I was put off by the protagonist’s prejudices. It did make me think about it. It was fresh and original.

    Just wish it had a more positive spin, as in “I triumph through my abilities, instead of my aggression”.

    Oh and Tarzan, Tonto and Frankenstein – you very funny, make me laugh lots.

  8. Prodromus says:

    Wow, I really liked this story. It’s one of my favorite escape pods so far. I found the combination of “near future” events that are already starting to happen and the accurate depiction of competitive running to be very compelling. It really made we want to go do some speed work.

    Maybe it just appeals to the distance runner in me that wants to believe that mental toughness and and a willingness to endure pain trumps doping- but I listened to this story more than once and enjoyed it thoroughly both times.

    I also really enjoyed the author’s first story on escape pod and look forward to more from Mr. Zumsteg.

  9. Fakenger says:

    I loved this story; one of the best ever!

  10. nullspace says:

    I’ve been enjoying Escape Pod for quite some time now, but this is the first story that I’ve felt compelled to comment on.

    Quite simply, I loved it. I felt the author completely nailed the body’s mutiny when coming to your limits, as well as the necessity of willing yourself through that pain in order to push harder. My heart was pumping by the end. I think this will be one of the few episodes that I listen through more than once.

    I’ve sent this on to many of my running friends, and I know that EP will likely get some new listeners out of it.

  11. kotyonok says:

    The language in this is below a PG rating. Why do people think they need foul language to express themselves? In my opinion, this is ignorance at its basest level. I am tired of trying to get to a story around the foul language and I certainly did not enjoy this story at all.

  12. Interesting story, but I kept waiting to find out what King’s victory cost him… and I was disappointed that we never find that out. The story feels incomplete without it.

    I appreciate that the protagonist was emotionally human as well as physically. He may have been a paragon of physical ability, but he was certainly no paragon of virtue.

    I don’t think the story needed a “blacker” narrator, whatever that means. Can you honestly tell the difference between the voices of educated people of any ethnicity who share a common tongue? I know I can’t.

    I don’t really understand the people who get hung up on some swear words. They’re just words. They can’t hurt you.

    I totally agree on the John Henry connection- this is exactly the same story, minus the heart attack at the end. Hence the feeling of incompletion.

    I was also a little disappointed after such a big deal was made of his “impossible” time that we don’t find out what it is, or get some kind of frame of reference for it. I was waiting for the payoff to that, too. And then the story was over.

    I guess what was missing was the twist that would have elevated this beyond a simple narrative into an actual story with meaning. Maybe it turns out that Steve practiced just as hard as King and beats him. Maybe something goes wrong with the modified runners and they all die on the track, rendering his victory hollow. Maybe he literally runs an impossible time that defies the laws of physics. But nothing actually HAPPENED in the story. King sets out to achieve his goal, and straightforwardly achieves it. There’s never any real tension, no real obstacle, no real price he’s willing (or unwilling) to pay… no twist. No point. No oomph.

    I don’t see any more than casual homophobia in King’s taunts… even the athletes he’s taunting don’t seem to be particularly bothered by it. It’s the comments on the size of their equipment and the references to their mothers that gets to them. King himself doesn’t come across to me as homophobic- just using whatever works to rattle his opponents.

    chuckle at the Doc Manhattan reference from Schreiber.

    All in all, a good story, but not a great one. Could be, though, with a little tweaking.

    Keep ‘em coming, Mr. Eley! You da man.

  13. Lungdoc says:

    i loved this story. the terse cadence took a bit getting used to, but it fit the story, the thought process of the main character as he focused of what he was doing. And i agree that race was incidental…i actually missed it if King mentioned he was black. To me it was the struggle to overcome an unnatural advantage that the competition had–poor vs rich and the benefits that can entail. But King studied and worked to bring himself to the best place possible. In addition, you wonder if the competition didn’t train as well since they felt/knew that they had an advantage. Just loved this story

  14. Doctor Jay says:

    I liked the original version much better.
    I think it was called Rocky.
    Or was it The Karate Kid?
    Or was it Hoosiers? Or was it Breaking Away? The Mighty Ducks? Or was it . . . etc. etc. . . .
    Sorry. I really really really loved his toothbrush story, absolutely loved it, but this is a flat cliche cloaked in something only vaguely resembling science fiction.
    It reads like a short story targeted for the readers of Runners Magazine (if there is such a thing.)
    Give me a story about a toothbrush who wants to become a marathon champion. Now THAT would be a story.

  15. SF Fangirl says:

    I agree with Dave (aka Nev the Deranged). I liked it. I listened to it while I was out for a 4 mile run by coincidence because I listen to Escape Pod mostly while working out. I liked it, but I expected the victory to cost more. I honestly expected King to drop dead or at least collapse with a heart attack after winning. There was a reference to pain in his chest near the end of the race.

    I don’t mind not finding out the winning time time though. It takes place at an indeterminate time in the future. We have no reference to what an impossible time would be at that point in the future for a race of that distance. Keeping it vague was fine.

  16. Blaine Boy says:

    Author probably didn’t finish story edit. Sounds like 1960s robot. Or a caveman. Maybe taking notes. Only speak in incomplete sentences. Annoying. Always in third person. Added hyperbole. Interesting fight of natural vs. artificial in humans. Okay…not great. Usurper interesting title choice. Commenting finished. Still basking in comfort of this community.

    Yours faithfully,
    the Blaine Boy

  17. [...] Derek Zumsteg’s “Usurpers” (read by Stephen Eley), an athlete competes against genetically engineered clones. [...]

  18. valjean24601 says:

    without a doubt one of the best ep episodes i have heard

  19. Doctor Jay says:

    I noticed that everyone who loved this story also loves running.
    Note: I HATE running!
    So you can probably guess my reaction to this story.
    As someone once pointed out to me; I’ve never seen a smiling jogger, but if I ever do, maybe I’ll consider trying it.
    Seriously; I know this was the Little Tayler Story, but I didn’t find it particulary original nor engaging. I think fellow runners might find inspiration from it, but to me, the character was two-dimensional and the plot was all but nonexistent.
    Sorry, but this was one of my least favorite escapepod stories.

  20. Azure says:

    Meh. I didn’t like it. The only reason I didn’t stop listening was that I was on the treadmill at the time, and I didn’t want to feel like a quitter.

  21. Just listened to the story (a bit belated, I know) and loved it.
    I mainly comment to comment on some of the previous comments I read. Regarding the homophobia and incest remarks: those were obviously (at least how I see it) targeted towards the genetics of the opponent runners. They were cloned from the same genes, their travels to China were almost certainly for some sort of genetic improvement. He mentions how the parents select this and that trait for their kids. If I understand correctly, King is one of the few “naturals”, running against the clones. This makes his remarks maybe mean, but certainly not racial or homophobic. Anti-clone, perhaps. The incest remark for example comes from the fact that the other guys are basically his brothers (genetically).

  22. Mark U says:

    Just listened to the story. After listening to dozens of prior Escape Pod stories, I’m posting a message to the forum for the first time. This story is excellent, and truely gripped me and held my attention and focus. The usage of short sentences and phrasing suited the character. The excellent description of running, muscle movements and the pain of speed with endurance was spot-on (I’ve run nine Marathons so have some experience.) All in all, excellent work! Thanks, Steve!

  23. valjean24601 says:

    I have as of now listened to the story about five times. This is one of my favorite stories ever. I love the way the King talks, and the phrases he uses. Excellent Story.

  24. Daniel Cotton says:

    I’m a nerd and I love running. I’ve always loved long distance running right from school. The jocks would always beat beat me in the sprint events but long distance running is just as much about determination as it is about ability and I think that’s the message of this story.

  25. Pablo says:

    Hey Steve,

    Wanted to come back and say thanks for this story. I loved it when you first published, I still come back to it pretty regularly.

    Find some of the comments odd – for me the race, attitude, money issues just come off as fleshing out the “reality” of what it is like to be in King’s world. There author doesn’t make claims about what society “should” do about this “problem.” The only real statement seems to be that an absolute focus on success is ultimately better than all the advantage in the world.

    As far as I’ve been able to tell in my own life, King has it right.