Escape Pod 318: The Prize Beyond Gold

The Prize Beyond Gold

By Ian Creasey

Three days before the race, when Delroy had finished warming down from a training run, his coach summoned him for a talk. Delroy could tell it was something big. Michito’s job — assisted by his Enhanced empathy — was to become exquisitely sensitive to his athlete’s mood, so as to help get the best out of him. The attunement sometimes became mutual, and Delroy now discerned a rare eagerness in Michito’s almost-natural face.

“The weather forecast for race day has reached certainty,” said Michito. “Temperature: perfect. Humidity: perfect. Wind speed: just below the permissible maximum. Wind direction –”

“Perfect?” said Delroy.

“Behind you all the way.” Michito grinned in delight. “It’s the final star in the constellation. You’re in great shape, the weather will be ideal, we’re two thousand metres above sea level” — Michito made a sweeping gesture, encompassing the many other factors affecting performance — “and it all adds up to one thing.”

“I’m going to win?” Delroy didn’t understand Michito’s glee: the weather would be the same for all the runners.

“Yes, but never mind that. Forget winning — you have a chance at the record!”

Michito paused to let it sink in. Records were something that athletes and coaches normally never discussed, because they’d stood so long that they were effectively unbeatable. The record for the men’s 100 metres had remained at 8.341 seconds for the past seventy years.

A pulse of exhilaration surged through Delroy. His posture stiffened, as if already preparing for the starting gun. “Really? The world record?”

“Yes, the one and only. The prize beyond gold.”

Michito’s excitement spilled out, infecting Delroy, whose own excitement blazed in return and stoked a feedback loop. They were practically getting high on it. Indeed, this giddy rush was as close to getting high as Delroy had ever experienced. In his entire life he’d never once taken any kind of drug. The rules were strict on that, as on so many other things.

Abruptly, Michito reverted to his habitual seriousness. “A chance, I said. A real chance. But only if everything’s as smooth as an angel’s feather. We need absolute perfection. There can be no deviations, no distractions.”

This was standard rhetoric for any important race. Yet Michito’s demeanour indicated something beyond the usual rigorous regime.

“I think it would be best if you stayed here at the training ground,” Michito went on, “instead of going back to the villa tonight. This is a more controlled environment, with much less risk –”

“What could possibly happen to me?”

“I want to keep you away from other people, and it’s easier to do that here. You’ll be in purdah, seeing no-one except your coaching team. I know it’ll be frustrating, but it’s only three days.”

Delroy grimaced, though he didn’t argue. Michito knew what was best. Aside from the usual health and attractiveness tweaks, Michito’s main Enhancement was an uncanny empathy that let him predict Delroy’s responses, and thus determine the optimum conditions for success. If he felt purdah was necessary, then it must be necessary. It was only another line in the script Delroy had been following all his life.

The script had two phases, as familiar as his two legs. Sometimes, when he rehearsed stride patterns out on the track, the script echoed in his head with every step: left, right; left, right — race, train; race, train….

Michito said, “This is bigger than any medal. The Olympics are like a moon that’s always in the sky, waxing every four years; but the record is a comet that blazes just once across the heavens, before disappearing forever. This could be the only time in your career when all the right circumstances combine: the chance might never come again.

“Yet if we can predict this opportunity, then so can other people. Now that the weather’s finalised, everyone knows you have a shot at the record. Journalists will be swarming like hornets. It’s the biggest sports story of the decade — and it goes beyond sports….”

Michito’s voice trailed off, but Delroy knew what he implied. Athletics records could only be set by standard, unenhanced humans — the so-called Ancestral Model. Since in most respects the Standards had long been surpassed by their Enhanced progeny, any new achievement by a Standard human was a major event, embraced by the Natural Life movement as evidence that the old model wasn’t entirely obsolete.

“And there’s one more thing we need to watch out for,” Michito said, pausing to emphasise his next word. “Sabotage. Not everyone will want you to break that record. We can’t take the risk of anyone getting to you. I’ve already arranged extra security here.”

Sabotage? It sounded unlikely. Was that a real danger, or just a phantom invoked to persuade Delroy to accept the purdah?

That was the problem with having a coach solely focused on making you perform. You never knew whether anything he said was true, or simply the lie with the maximum calculated motivational value.

Still, the truth didn’t matter. Only the record mattered.

The next day, Delroy had his head shaved. It was a routine pre-race procedure. His hair only generated the tiniest fraction of air-resistance drag, but every fraction counted.

It felt like being in prison. No, worse than that. In prison, you were locked up, but you didn’t have every hour of your day micro-managed. You could make small choices: eat cabbage or cauliflower; go to the exercise yard or the library. Delroy had no such freedom. The exercises were prescribed, specifying exactly how long to spend on every gym machine and
track sprint. His diet was calculated down to each individual calorie.

He needed to be in impeccable condition to have any hope of surpassing the record. Over the centuries that athletics records had been measured, the times had got lower and lower. The lower the records became, the harder they were to beat, and the less often it happened. The intervals between new records stretched from years to decades to centuries. And the times themselves decreased on an asymptotic curve.

If he’d been allowed to talk to journalists, Delroy would have enjoyed using the word “asymptotic”, just to violate people’s expectations. People always thought Standards were dumb, because they didn’t have augmented intelligence; and people always thought athletes were dumb, because… well, Delroy didn’t know why athletes were stereotypically stupid, but for some reason no-one ever expected them to use a polysyllabic word like “asymptote”.

As to what it meant, Delroy couldn’t cite a mathematical definition, but he knew its practical effect. The record kept decreasing by smaller amounts, over longer periods, approaching the limit of human attainment: the absolute fastest that anyone could ever run — unaided, of course, by genetic engineering, post-natal resculpting, performance-enhancing substances, or
any of the very long list of other techniques that had been banned to
maintain the purity of the record books.

If Delroy set a new mark, it might almost be the asymptote itself — or within a thousandth of a second, the precision of the official records. The previous record had stood for seventy years, so Delroy’s record should last even longer, a fame persisting his entire lifetime… unless he had his body resculpted into one of the post-natal Enhancements that included longevity extensions.

Fame for life, perhaps for eternity.

Contemplating this vision helped reconcile Delroy to the indignities of the training regime. Every aspect, no matter how arduous or annoying, contributed to shaving 0.008 seconds from his personal best: the improvement required to beat the record.

Everything was calculated, down to the last molecule of piss in his bladder. He mustn’t carry excess fluid on the day.

After saying goodbye to his hair, Delroy walked into the training-suite annex that housed Dop, his virtual copy. One wall of the room housed a screen projecting an image of Dop, now equally hairless. Since Dop was an atomic-scale emulation, and the screen was smoother than mirrorglass, the onscreen image was even more accurate than looking into a mirror. It showed
Delroy at full height, 2.003 metres, and it displayed him naked. The effects of wearing different clothes could be simulated, but the optimum costume and footwear had been refined long ago, so there was usually little point in adding them. His body appeared in its full splendour, with taut muscles under black skin. Delroy knew that his skin colour would once have made him subject to prejudice. Nowadays, differences between the Standards were negligible compared to the gulf dividing them from the various Enhanced clades. All colours of Standard suffered equal prejudice from those who derided the defects of the ancestral human form. Still, as the Natural Life movement said, if the Enhanced were really so superior, why were there so many different varieties? They couldn’t all be equally wonderful.

Sometimes, in the moments when he wanted something that he couldn’t have, Delroy might say to the emulator, “I’d love an ice-cream sundae with fudge topping.” Then the wallscreen would split into two panels, showing alternate versions of Dop: one who followed the recommended regime, and one who lapsed into indulgence. These simulations were projected forward to race day, and compared. Without fail, the virtuous Dop would be in better shape — perhaps only by an infinitesimal fraction, but it all counted.

This didn’t stop Delroy enquiring. After all, you didn’t know unless you asked. He dreamed that one day he might say, “How about growing my hair into an enormous afro?” and the emulator would reply, “We hadn’t thought of that, yet we’ve run the calculations and it turns out that having a giant afro really will help you break the record!”

But after several negative responses, sometimes Delroy would simply stare at the screen and wonder how it felt to be a simulated person inside a computer. As an atom-by-atom emulation, in principle Dop could think and dream equally well as Delroy himself.

In practice, that didn’t happen, but only because the law forbade creating a sentient emulation and keeping it prisoner to calculate projections of diets and exercises. Dop’s higher brain functions had been suppressed: he didn’t think at all.

Delroy found this disturbing. His whole training regime was based on Dop’s simulations. That was how it had worked for years: it had won him gold at the last Olympics, and now it would — God willing — give him the world record. Yet the fact that Dop didn’t think, that his mental capacities were erased, showed how little the intellect mattered.

Delroy was just a machine following a script, one that needed no thought whatsoever to obey. He only had to train, eat, drink, and run. No brain required.

Maybe athletes really were stupid.

He hated to think that he lived like a programmed automaton. It had almost destroyed his love for racing. In his youth, he’d wanted nothing more than to run, run, run. After he started winning races, he’d trained under a succession of coaches with ever more elaborate and restrictive regimes. As Delroy grew faster, and approached his own personal asymptote, further improvements grew more difficult and required more precise instruction, until finally he became the slave of a brainless emulation.

He’d gone along with it because it worked. You can’t argue with results. Yet after Olympic gold and — possibly — a world record, what on earth could come next?

“What next?” he asked Dop, on the big screen.

But the simulations always stopped at the end of the race.

On the day before the big race, Delroy rehearsed his sprints and starts while loudspeakers blared a carefully tailored simulation of cheering spectators, enabling Delroy to accustom himself to the exact pitch of the crowd’s roar. Everything proceeded with metronomic precision. It made Delroy feel like a clockwork toy, being wound tighter and tighter….

Michito sensed Delroy’s tension, but — unusually — didn’t defuse it. Perhaps the tension was necessary: its explosive release would help propel Delroy faster than ever before. After the training session, Michito and his aides hurried back inside to calibrate Delroy’s performance against the projections from Dop, and calculate any final tweaks to the diet and sleep regime for the few remaining hours.

Delroy stayed outside to linger in the warm afternoon air and enjoy the view. This would be the last time he saw it. Tomorrow he’d be far too focused on the race to even notice the environment, and afterward he’d go home to Los Angeles — returning as either a record-breaker, or merely an Olympic champion still.

Around him lay the magnificent mountains overlooking Mexico City. A thin layer of cloud took the edge off the sun’s glare; specks outlined against the clouds might be birds, or might be Enhanced humans soaring across the sky. Wings were one of the most popular enhancements, despite the radical degree of surgery necessary for a post-natal conversion.

As he looked, one of the specks grew bigger. A figure descended, gliding toward the running track. Delroy frowned. Michito’s security team would deal with the intruder, so there was no sense in Delroy getting involved. He walked toward the changing rooms, his muscles tense as he anticipated a confrontation somewhere behind him. He almost broke into a jog, but restrained himself. His exercises had been parameterised to the last stride and drop of sweat; if he ran fifty metres back to the huts, he might infinitesimally overtax himself.

On his bare scalp he felt a draught of air from the beating of wings. The figure was following him. Unless Delroy sprinted, a flyer could easily outpace him anywhere, so he stopped and sat down on one of the lane-marker blocks, waiting for the intruder to land.

The interloper settled neatly onto the asphalt in front of him, and folded her wings. She wore a red woollen tunic; her feet were bare, with brown-skinned human toes rather than the birdlike claws that some of the aerial clades found convenient. Delroy had seen winged humans before, but it always shocked him how small they were. She resembled a six-year-old
child with hydrocephaly: the body had to be small, so that wings could support it; but the brain couldn’t shrink without losing capacities, so the disproportionate head sat on top of the slender body like a pumpkin on top of a carrot.

Delroy glanced to his right, then his left, wondering what had happened to the promised security patrol. Not that the flyer looked like a threat: she was tiny and appeared to be carrying no weapon. Still, she’d violated the pre-race purdah that Michito deemed essential.

“Your guardians have been detained for a little while,” the woman said, in a high-pitched, childlike voice. “Not very long. I only need a few minutes of your time.”

“And I only need to prepare without interference,” Delroy said forcefully. “If you wanted to talk to me, why didn’t you wait until after the race?”

“Because I wanted to be the first. After you break the record, you’ll be deluged with offers. It would be difficult for me to reach you, and if I did, I’d just be one voice among many. You’d have no reason to listen to me. But now, I can ask you to give me a chance. If I promise to leave after — say — ten minutes, will you hear me out?”

“I’m not sure I should,” said Delroy. “Michito told me to avoid all contact. I haven’t even spoken to my family.” An image from an old film arose vividly in his mind: sailors blocking up their ears against the siren voices of doom. There was no-one here to tie him to the mast. Where had everyone gone?

“Michito is very protective, I know. He’s been detained with the others. But he needn’t worry. I have no intention of doing anything that’ll harm your chances. I want you to break that record, and I’m sure you will.”

“All right, all right,” said Delroy, not quite reassured, but grateful that she hadn’t already shot a bullet into his knee, which she could easily have done if she wished him ill. Her audacity deserved acknowledgement. A rebellious part of him welcomed the deviation from the script, the unplanned encounter that might lead anywhere.

“Thanks,” she said. “I do appreciate the opportunity. First, let me introduce myself. I’m Yarah Rodriguez” — she paused briefly — “and I see you don’t recognise the name, though I was once in a situation very similar to yours. Forty-five years ago, I was part of the team that broke the world record for the women’s 400-metre relay. I believe the record still stands.” She smiled nostalgically. “We achieved moderate recognition, though not nearly as much as you’ll receive. For whatever reason, the men’s 100 metres is the iconic track event.”

Delroy began to speak, but his visitor overrode him. “I’m not here to complain about some historic quirk that says one distance is more significant, or solo races are more newsworthy than the relay. It doesn’t matter why your event is the most prestigious — it just is. That’s why your decision is so important.”

“My decision?”

“About what you’ll do afterward. Perhaps you’ll still keep running” — her tone dismissed this as unlikely — “which would be one decision. But if you retire, then what next? The world will be watching you, waiting to see what you choose.”

“And I take it you wish to make me an offer.” Delroy sighed, disappointed at such crass mundanity. “Look, my agent handles all my endorsements. I’m not interested in talking about anything commercial. That’s why I have an agent, to deal with all that crap.”

“I’m not asking you to advertise gold jewellery,” Yarah said waspishly. Delroy stifled a giggle; it felt incongruous to be chided by someone the size of a little girl.

She pointed at Delroy’s body, which even when seated still towered over her. “This is a lot more fundamental. Are you going to keep the body you were born with?”

“Ah… I see your angle.” Delroy paused. It wasn’t a subject he’d considered deeply, because it had never seemed urgent. “I guess I’ll keep it for a while. I mean, what’s the rush? There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t done in this body, before I start to think about upgrading it.”

Drugs, for instance. There were thousands of recreational chemicals, and he’d never sampled any of them. The restrictions were a legacy of the old prohibition laws from the early days of athletics, along with a precautionary paranoia that any exotic substance might be performance-enhancing in some obscure way.

Not that he wanted to turn himself into a quivering blob of orgasmium. What lured him wasn’t so much the desire for any specific drug, but the prospect of choice: the luxury of having myriad options to explore.

“You’d consider changing your body in future?” asked Yarah.

“Sure, I’d consider it,” said Delroy. “Maybe I’ll remodel, maybe I won’t. But I’m not one of those Natural Life freaks who says that no-one should ever be Enhanced.”

Yarah smiled. “They’ll be disappointed to hear that. After tomorrow, you’ll be a hero to them. You know what they’ll say: if you can run faster than anyone who ever lived, that proves there’s still plenty of potential left in the Ancestral Model. There’s no need for intelligence enhancements — there might yet be a Standard who’ll surpass Newton and Einstein.”

“Yeah….” Delroy didn’t like the intelligence enhancements. Their possessors all seemed to be smug, supercilious snobs. “I guess I can live with being a figurehead for a while. Like I said, I’m in no rush to change.”

“Neither was I. But the longer you live in your old body, the harder it becomes to adapt to a new one.” Yarah’s gaze dropped. “It makes a difference, it really does. I wish I hadn’t left it so long.”

“And so I presume you’d advise me to change straight away,” Delroy said, his own voice becoming waspish as he realised what the woman wanted. “You said this wasn’t about endorsements. But it is, isn’t it? You want me to become Enhanced. And by doing so, I’d endorse the whole concept of enhancement. I’d look like I was rejecting the Ancestral Model. It’d be a kick in the teeth for the Natural Life movement, if their figurehead went straight from breaking a record to taking a new body.”

“You said you weren’t one of the Natural –”

Ignoring her protests, Delroy went on, “I don’t agree with everything they say, but that doesn’t mean I want to publicly slap them in the face. I’m not getting caught up in some political squabble between the Standards and the Enhanced –”

He broke off, gripped by a dark suspicion. Michito was Enhanced. The security team would all have various enhancements. Rather than being overpowered, had they deliberately let this woman arrive, in the hope that she would persuade him to their cause?

Rage overtook him. Those damned Enhanced — they were all in league together; they thought they were so superior….

The anger dissipated as Delroy struggled to control himself. His years of regimented living meant that he saw his coach’s hand in everything. Yet rationally, he knew it was preposterous to accuse Michito. Why would Michito set up the purdah, then have it interrupted by a stranger? It didn’t make sense. After the success of their long athlete-coach relationship, Delroy would trust Michito himself far more than any stranger.

And Michito’s mental enhancements were completely different to Yarah’s physical ones. The Natural Life movement talked of the Enhanced as a collective mass, scheming together with sinister intent. Yet in reality the Enhanced were a vast array of divergent body-types and mind-types, with little reason to co-operate.

“This isn’t about the Standards against the Enhanced,” said Yarah. “If it were, we’d want to prevent you breaking the record. But it isn’t, it really isn’t.”

“Then what is it about?” demanded Delroy. As soon as he spoke, he regretted the harshness in his voice.

“It’s just that if you do decide you want a new body, you’ll have to choose which particular set of enhancements –”

“Oh, I see,” Delroy said, in a calmer, more cynical tone. “And naturally, you have a recommendation –”

“Yes. On behalf of my clade, I’m authorised to make you an offer. If you join us, we’ll pay for the resculpting procedures, and assign you a mentor, and show you all the joys of flying….”

“Getting wings is expensive, isn’t it?” It wasn’t only the cost of the wings themselves; the rest of the body had to be adapted and pared down. Delroy stared at the pixie-like woman, who was surely less than a quarter of his own weight.

“Yes, but having a mentor is the most important thing. Flying isn’t easy; people have no instinct for it.”

“And am I correct in assuming…?”

“I could be your mentor, if you wish,” Yarah said, again looking down at the asphalt rather than meeting Delroy’s gaze. “Obviously I was chosen to approach you because my background is similar to yours. I know what it’s like, because I went through it myself. It’s hard. Don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t. It’s especially hard for athletes, because we’re so attuned to our bodies. When we run or jump or hurdle, we’re accustomed to precise control and high achievement…. Then you wake up in a different body, and you find you’ve lost that harmony, that mastery. It’s like being crippled –”

“You’re really selling it to me,” Delroy commented with a smile, yet admiring Yarah’s honesty.

“– and you struggle for a long, long time. But eventually it clicks, and then you’re in a whole new realm. Flying is so perfect, so magical….” Yarah’s expression had a fervent joy. “We have races, you know. London to Paris is the classic, but there’s lots of others. And racing in the air is much more challenging than on land. Let’s face it, running requires only a limited amount of thought. Flying is far more subtle: there are more things to weigh up — winds and thermals and weather-fronts — and more choices to make. Once you’ve raced across the sky, you’ll be hooked.”

It sounded seductive. As a sales pitch, it was intended to be seductive. But Delroy knew the drawbacks that Yarah hadn’t mentioned. He knew them very well, because they were precisely the factors that made Standard athletics such a popular spectacle, the Olympics such a major event, and breaking a world record so difficult and prestigious.

Restrictions — all the constraints that Delroy found so irritating — were what made the whole thing work. A race was only meaningful between fairly matched competitors. Thus the rules of all Standard sports forbade the use of body resculpting, exotic substances, and the like.

Once you allowed enhancement, an equal contest became impossible. The enhancement process itself was constantly being refined; the latest generations of flyers were far more graceful in the air than the earliest crude efforts. And no two individuals were the same, particularly when remodelling wasn’t a once-only makeover, but a lifelong process of continual tinkering. The various Enhanced clades were social communities as much as physical templates, based on broad distinctions among a vast spectrum of constantly shifting body-types.

Delroy had seen pictures of the last London to Paris winner. She was a tiny scrap of a thing, unrecognisable as human: just a sliver of brain in an airborne arrow. The human form wasn’t meant to fly, and consequently the further you optimised for flight, the further you moved from the Ancestral Model. Yarah, as disconcertingly small and grotesque as she looked, had — so far — taken only a few steps down a long, long road….

Sure, you could define broad categories of shape and size, just as Standard boxers were divided into weight classes. But with such a huge range of variation to classify, either a few categories all contained significant divergence, or a large number of categories had only a tiny population in each.

Neither outcome was satisfactory. Consequently, Enhanced sports lacked a mass audience. All famous sportsmen — not just athletes, but the stars of football, tennis, golf and so on — were Standards.

Delroy didn’t bother saying any of this to Yarah. There was no point in reiterating what they both understood. Instead he said, “It’s a generous offer. And you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to come here and make it. Why? What’s in it for you?”

“We need your prestige,” said Yarah. “When you break the record tomorrow, you’ll be famous. If you subsequently choose Enhancement, you’ll join a clade, and they’ll become famous too. You talked about endorsements — I don’t like the word, but that’s effectively what it is. If you join our clade, then you’re endorsing us.

“You know how the Enhanced are divided: lots of body-types, lots of turnover. It’s unsustainable. This is an experimental phase — every permutation of body and mind is out there somewhere. But it can’t last. People will find that some variations are better than others, and they’ll want to live in communities of the like-minded and like-bodied. Over time, the top few clades will expand their population… and a lot of unpopular clades will find their members drifting away to join the successful ones. We want to be among the winners, not the losers.” Behind Yarah’s composed expression and polished words, Delroy thought he glimpsed a hint of urgency, perhaps even anxiety.

“And so we have a recruitment plan,” Yarah continued, “based on persuading the right kind of people to join us: leaders, achievers, role models. You’re one of them.”

“You mean I will be, if I break the record tomorrow,” said Delroy.

Yarah smiled. “Don’t worry about that. I was a record-breaker myself, remember. I can see when the conditions are right, when everything is coming together. It’ll happen, for sure.”

“I appreciate your confidence,” Delroy said, trying not to sound sardonic. He assumed that predicting success was Yarah’s polite way of signalling that her clade only wanted him if he broke the record. Failure wouldn’t make a good figurehead.

Did he want to graft wings onto his back and soar through the air? It sounded pleasant enough, although many other things might be just as desirable. If he succeeded tomorrow, he’d receive plenty of offers. The prospect intoxicated him. It was flattering to be courted, but even more delicious to contemplate an endless vista of choice.

Yet the accomplishment of winning a race — and setting a record — depended upon the extensive rules defining a true contest, and the arduous training that achieved results. Without such structure, would he merely waver between a thousand kinds of empty hedonism and trivial goals? In a search for meaningful accomplishment, would he end up seeking a Michito-like flight coach to teach him aerial racing, and find himself reverting to a rigidly scripted life?

That would be one choice. Surely there were others.

Delroy stood up, sending a signal of his own: that the conversation was over. “I’ll consider your proposal later. I’m sure you understand that right now I’m focused on the race.”

“Yes, of course,” said Yarah. “I hope you do decide to join us. And here’s a quick sample lesson: take-off is a lot harder than landing. You need to work up some speed.” She looked at the starting blocks in front of the lane markers. “Guess I’ll use these, for old times’ sake.”

She knelt and assumed the ‘set’ position, her tiny feet looking incongruous in the Standard-size blocks. Delroy raised his hand, miming a gun. He shouted, “Bang!”

Yarah burst out of the blocks and started running down the straight. Her wings unfolded. They began to beat in a slow rhythm, one flap to every four strides.

As she crossed the finishing line, Yarah left the ground and ascended into the sky.

On the morning of the race, Delroy realised that he had never previously known what freedom meant. He’d resented his tightly controlled training sessions, his rigorously specified diet, his calibration against a brain-dead electronic emulation. But he’d never appreciated just how much leeway he had on a minute-by-minute basis. Now, even that tiny degree of freedom vanished. The schedule became all-encompassing, turning him into a giant marionette without the slightest volition.

Dop had become a hologram, following him around. It was the most efficient way to convey instructions even more meticulously detailed than last year’s drill before the Olympic final. Delroy scrutinised Dop’s image and copied every single action: every bite of food, every warm-up exercise, every little arrangement and adjustment.

Michito, normally so sensitive to his athlete’s mood, seemed not to notice Delroy’s discontent. Perhaps the coach was simply too busy trying to control the real world with the atomic level of precision achieved in the simulator. More likely, he expected Delroy’s reaction and allowed for it. Only the record mattered, not whether the athlete enjoyed the pre-race preparation.

With his bodily movements enslaved to the script, Delroy’s only freedom lay inside his head, where rebellion brewed. As he walked into the stadium and heard the familiar expectant buzz from the crowd, he found himself wondering whether to hold back, to refrain from the uttermost paroxysms of effort required to beat the record.

It would be a splendid gesture to deliberately throw away everything he’d striven toward during his career. It would assert his freedom, his individuality, and show that he couldn’t be reduced to a mindless marionette.

Delroy lined up with the other runners, and shook their hands without looking into anyone’s eyes. He wasn’t racing against his peers; he was racing against the mark set seventy years ago. As predicted, the weather was perfect: wind, temperature, humidity. All conditions were propitious. Delroy crossed himself, and said a short prayer.

On command, everyone ‘set’ themselves in the starting blocks. The race official pointed his starting pistol at the sky. As always — it formed a key part of his preparatory routine — Delroy remembered the words of a long-dead sprinter: “You start on the B of the bang.” The phrase acted like a mantra, priming him to react to the very first decibel of the gun’s noise.

But should he make the effort, or should he hold back?

Delroy yearned to escape the strictures that had bound him for so long. And he would have the maximum scope, the widest variety of tempting choices, if he became a world-record holder.

That was the end of his conscious thoughts. As soon as the starting pistol fired, he became the automated puppet for the last time, obeying the final few words of the script as he raced toward the freedom of the finishing line.

About the Author

Ian Creasey

Ian Creasey lives in Yorkshire, England. He began writing when rock & roll stardom failed to return his calls. So far he has sold seventy-odd short stories to various magazines and anthologies. His debut collection, Maps of the Edge, was published in 2011; a second collection, Escape Routes from Earth, came out in 2015. His interests include hiking and gardening — anything to get him outdoors and away from the computer screen.

Find more by Ian Creasey


About the Narrator

Josh Roseman

Josh Roseman has been published in Asimov’s and on Escape Pod, among other places, and his reviews appear regularly at (he’s on the forums as Listener). His most recent fiction sale was “Secret Santa”, which appeared on The Dunesteef last December, and he is currently seeking a publisher for his new superhero novel. He’s in the midst of a Buffy re-watch on his blog, Listener.

Find more by Josh Roseman