Chasing the Start (Part 1)
by Evan Marcroft
There, quick—the blue sky bleeds. A runner in red tumbles across it, unstoppable, the sun itself shattering against her armor. One leg outstretched, the other flung behind her, vaulting from one moment to the next, and between them suspended in flight for a small forever. You read the number that burns on her armor and you that this is not the end. She is proof that you are not finished yet, a promise chiseled into the diamond of history. She will always be here, always this strand.
You want to say something to her, but she is already gone.
The date is June 18th, 1815. The place is Waterlô. And Sa Segokgo is racing against time.
The treads of her boots scoop up huge tracts of bloody, Belgian soil and thresh it into aerosol. Archaic bullets dart about her like swarming mosquitoes, pinging noisily off her poly-diadmant suit, its staalglas facepiece. An experienced strandrunner, she is not daunted by such minor impacts. Over ridges and craters she leaps, devouring meters with each stride, explosively imprinting the IOvac corporate icon wherever she lands. Her armor does its work, yes, but it is her conditioned body that knows how to exert itself most efficiently. Every movement must barter energy for distance, and profit. There are no pit stops in this sport; to spend recklessly will purchase only a quicker death.
Her brain thinks to itself in the voice of her spotter. ͼ-Sa, on your five, Luboy cautions. Another runner in the strand. Watch out— -ͽ
Sa pings a wordless acknowledgement to her crew, but doesn’t bother looking back. Her lead is enough that this newcomer is irrelevant. You are the Dragonhoof, she tells herself, the Hot Number 99. First place starts behind you.
Ahead of her, the front lines of the French and British armies are crashing together. Wellington on the left hand, Napoleon on the right. Her suit blasts a klaxon that yanks every eye towards her just as the two great waves of bodies meet in the gully between two trampled hills and blast themselves apart. Sa has ten seconds left in this strand; she is going forward, no matter what. Better they see her coming and get out of her way.
What a terror she must seem to them, as she blitzes through the fluctuating seam between the front lines. A flame-streaked giant seven feet tall sprinting as fast as a warhorse at full gallop, shrugging off sabers and ignoring the fusillades of round shot that batter her like a hard rain—what legends would spring from that, what art? History kinks with every soldier she brushes absently from her path.
Sa pings her crew. ǂ Let me hear them, Lub ǂ
Her spotter opens a channel, and the roar of the coliseum an infinite distance away fills her ears. Cheers in Chinese, Korenglish, One-O, NuTswana. Mustafa egging them on, narrating her every step. Yes. This is what she has lived all this time for. Damn near the whole of the Expanded Earth hollering her name and number, ninety-nine, ninety-nine, and with every footprint she punches into the ground kicking up new strands, the debris of her violent trespass on this state of time, leaving her mark.
The light of the finish line shines through all things, through cannon fire and horseflesh all the same, as though the world is no more than a silk screen between it and Sa. She gathers herself and leaps, soaring between flying swords, through misting blood, over awestruck faces. Her fans bray their love directly into her brain. She feels weightless. Powerful.
Her suit premembers her a stream of coordinates in a trivial fraction of a second that is still not quick enough. A cannon ball explodes against her shoulder, skewing her trajectory, and sending her skidding through mud.
Pain. Not even her suit’s reactive padding can prevent that. As she clambers onto her feet Sa finds herself aching in places she didn’t used to ache. Her breath comes back to her too slowly. First knockdown of the race and I’m already winded. Even a year ago she’d be on the move already. She should thank the world for so doggedly reminding her how gray her hair is getting. How soft her bones.
A blur of logos streaks past. Number 29, her suit informs her. The newcomer Tiger Beetle, darling of DiYmension Cinema and Holgert-Platt. Her suit picks up and relays a digital emotion left to flutter in his wake, something like mocking pity.
Her own sponsors would never let her alone if she placed behind that one.
An alarm goes off in the canyon of Sa’s brain, drowning out the rattle of bullets jouncing off her back. The light outside of time winks out. Her time in this strand is up. Her suit splays out an array of available strands across her vision; Luboy has highlighted what she considers the optimal routes, the shortest paths to her goal along the softest terrain.
Sa makes her choice before the second is over, and some ninety-million years slides off her like water off a duck. A shallow swamp stutters into place around her ankles—the horizon erupts into jungled mountains. Rather than gunfire, the air suddenly teems with extinct insects. Some mid-Cretaceous behemoth studies her with a lizard’s stunted curiosity. The muck of Waterlô that clings to her armor bleeds into the waters of prehistoric Germany, disseminating bacteria as alien as any Martian. In a hundred years, this Earth could be stone dead.
The finish line smolders like a distant lighthouse through the wetland mist, by degrees of brightness closer than it had been. The way is clear and flat. A good use of fifteen seconds. Sa kicks the planet way from herself and runs, arms pumping, pulping butterflies with every motion.
“And lastly—but absolutely not leastly—we turn to the Hot Number Ninety-Nine, the Dragonhoof herself, the Legend Lady Samantha Vu Segokgo!”
The crowd loses its mind at just the sound of her name. They spring up in the stands that wind about the stadium like the petals of a rose and stamp their feet. Ninety-nine, Ninety-nine! Red-Hot Ninety-nine! Sa dispenses a smile and a wave to her fans in their red and gold. Her thoughts are in another epoch.
The announcer struts over to her from across the stage, pursued by a glittery shoal of microphones and cameras. Dapper as ever in his obsidian tuxedo and proportioned like a trophy, Mustafa Mundi is a character too big and saturated to tolerate for very long.
He stooped theatrically to kiss the back of her armored hand. “Mma Segokgo,” he says in accent-dead Korenglish. “May I say, what an honor it is to have you here at Zenith Park once again.”
The camera-fog forms a halo around her; there is nowhere she can look where they won’t see her eyes roll. She’s known the man for ages, but every year he has to playact like he’s just so excited to meet her for the first time. “The honor is mine, Mustafa, to be invited back for another run.” The microphones that sugar her wet lips translate her NuTswana into the primary language of every viewer from the solar orchards of Mercury to the island resorts of Europa.
There are eighteen rival strandrunners gathered here upon the apex of the greatest piece of construction in human history, each backed by a contingent of a thousand caterwauling followers. The year’s qualifier races had whittled the solar system’s runners down to the very best, the youngest and the toughest and the pig-meanest. Sa recognizes only a few of them this time around—Number 56, WildBoy from Nippon Moon—a wild man now—and Number 9, Sanjarenje, who’d secured his berth on the thinnest of chances, to be frank. Three less than last year. The rest could all be her children.
The floor beneath their chairs displays what the view of Earth would be from this point in outer space if not for this carbon nanotube Babel they’d managed to sneak past God—a disk overgrown by verdigris lazily revolving, a world lovingly restored to mint condition and closed off to the public. Perched thirty-six kilometers above the planet’s surface, Sa feels disconcertingly deific herself. She enjoys the limelight, but this arena always struck her as overly idolatrous. Some pedestals are too high.
At least three of her competitors are glaring openly at her from across the stage. What a hateful little pantheon they’ve made of us. Not everyone can be Zeus, but they all think they should be.
“Sa Vu Segokgo is a veteran of the 玉衣 Dà Bang Invitational and the FɸRZ Netdomain Treasure Race,” Mustafa crows. “Here upon the Great Nairobi Spacewhip, we are less than an hour from the start of the twenty-third annual Big Elevator Run, which Miss Segokgo here has conquered thirteen times now—haven’t you, Sa?”
“That’s right, Mustafa.”
“And are you anticipating another win?” His teeth are fabbed diamond. They twinkle when he grins.
Sa claps a hand on the helmet balanced on her knee. “Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” she replies. Her competition bristles at the unspoken insult.
Mustafa’s expression turns wry. “Confident as ever, Sa. But your performance in the qualifiers wasn’t so hot, was it?”
Sa says nothing to that. Don’t do this to me, Mustafa. It’s nothing they don’t already know.
“You’re not a young woman anymore,” the announcer continues cheerfully. “Two years ago you set the record for the oldest strandrunner still competing and kept on going. Now you know better than I do that this sport can be highly dangerous. Can you really afford to let age slow you down? Tell us, is there any truth to the rumor that you are planning to announce your retirement after today’s run?”
“As much truth as there was before my last run and the run before that,” Sa answers.
Mustafa laughs theatrically. “Well I’m sure your competition is grateful for another chance to knock you off your throne,” he says. “It’s no secret Miss Ndaya over there is after your number.”
Sa steals a glance at the runner seated thirteen down, Number 86, J’ba Fofi, in bruise purple and rusted red. She has been staring at Sa fixedly throughout the chain of interviews.
“If not today, when do you plan to retire?” Mustafa asks.
Sa narrows her eyes at the so-called Running Spider. “When I have what I want,” she replies. Neither would she be stooping to take on a student, which was the other question that he hadn’t asked yet. To relax into life as a coach is to surrender to the youth.
Mustafa beams at that. “We certainly can’t fault that determination of yours, now can we? But tell me, Sa, tell the viewers here and at home: where does it come from? What makes the Number 99 burn so hot for so long?”
Sa pauses, not for the sake of drama but to choose how best to answer.
“When I was out on my very first run,” she says, “I could see myself flying.”
An hour later and two thousand three hundred years before, Sa is sprinting through the blasted avenues of Pompeii moments before it is immortalized.
Rear-facing cameras in her helmet render Mount Vesuvius as a less a volcano than the upturned end of the world itself, darker even than the blackened sky, folding over the city and sloughing off a million tons of choking death. A pyroclastic surge began minutes before Sa landed in this strand. A tide of molten planet and burning smoke is bearing down on her at four hundred miles an hour, warping geography in its wake. In a matter of seconds it will wash through and over the city, mummifying it and its straggling people in tuff for centuries to come.
Sa has run variations of this popular strand a dozen times at least. The eruption hasn’t caught her yet, but never isn’t the same as never. She isn’t as sure it won’t as she was the last time. Sa is attuned to the efficiency of her body, and she finds herself breathing harder than she remembers having to before. Is that ache in her back muscle or bone?
Fuck you, Mustafa. Get your smarmy ass out of my head.
ͼ-Stay focused, Sa,-ͽ Luboy chimes in, as though privy to her thoughts. ͼ-Don’t forget you’ve got a two thousand-degrees Fahrenheit history lesson after you. You don’t have to outrun it, but you do have to outrun the clock-ͽ
Right. Sa winds her fraying thoughts like a thread around her spotter’s voice, focusing them in the one direction that matters—straight ahead. Navigating the city’s streets is a perilous chore, swamped with volcanic ejecta and occluded by ash as they are. She may have come this way before, but the layout of alleys and buildings differs between strands, sometimes subtly, sometimes crazily. But the finish line persists, a lighthouse in a stormy night, not lighting the way exactly, but proving that there always is one.
Sa pings an acknowledgement, one immediately drowned out by a holler from her spotter. ͼ-Three runners in the strand! Book it, Sa—they’re on top of you!-ͽ
Sa has a fraction of a second to react before a runner in white and blue comes careening out of the smoke to her left, on what her suit reports is a collision course. ᴕ-Number 51-ᴕ, her suit unhelpfully informs her. ᴕ-QuickSOULver, from the USA+K -ᴕ. Sa frantically pings a proximity warning to the other suit, only for it to be rebuffed unread. He’s aiming for me, Sa realizes. To directly assault another runner would be a disqualifying offense, but accidental collisions? Those happen all the time. Unavoidable.
Thinking fast, she hits the deck, ordering her suit to switch texture patterns along its dorsal plates, reducing friction to almost nothing so that she slides well under Number 51’s tackle. His momentum buries him deep in the wall opposite. Sa deploys her one-time emergency airbrake system to launch herself clear to the roof of the building ahead of her. From the moment her heels grab its shingles, she is running. Millennia later, the crowd goes wild.
Seven seconds left in this strand. A tremor rolls through the rooftop as the second runner crashes into and through it like a tungsten rod dropped from space. There’s the other one. Her suit picks up snatches of black and yellow carapace bolted to a frame nine feet tall—no corporate logos, no flair. Number 84, Quiet Ordinance. A colossus from the Plummeting Republic of Inner Jupiter, running for no-one but the demand of a haughty regime. They coordinated this—Sa is confident of that. Two runners don’t wind up in the same strand out of potential hundreds trying to take down the same competitor by sheer chance.
The coordinates her suit sends her make no sense, until the house explodes from beneath her.
Sa tumbles. She flails for any traction at all, until the ground catches her ungently. She is not hurt, but for two whole seconds she is immobile. May as well have stopped to take a piss. I should have been quicker, she thinks. I used to be quicker.
Through falling rubble she sees Number 84, dolled up in ash and dust, lope over her, somehow wolf-like despite his immensity. A Pompeiian blindly stumbling across his path is trampled and bounced into a ditch. Bad form. Could have jumped it easy.
Just before the miasma swallows him up, a second figure—smaller, slighter—falls in alongside him, matching his pace. Her suit rattles off a number and call sign, but she would know it by its run alone, as telling as a bloody fingerprint.
ǂ Luboy, we’ve got collusion here ǂ
ͼ-Reporting it now-ͽ, is her spotter’s curt cogit. Sa knows though that it likely won’t come to anything. Knowing cooperation between runners is too hard to prove. And by the time anyone will be talking about it, Sa will already have lost. The only one who’ll put them in their place is her.
But they should never have caught you in the first place, Little Nkuku. Little done grandmother.
With a great force of will Sa slams the door on those whispering diamond teeth. The conspirators are cleaving towards the finish line, but Sa has a black sort of feeling that they aren’t through with her. They’ll come for her and kick her down until she stops getting up. Knowing that, however, puts the whole deck of cards in her hand.
The ground seizes beneath her, but Sa has already put the necessary amount of distance between her and Vesuvius. Her time here is up. As an avalanche of volcanic pus erases every trace of her presence here, Sa assesses the available strands with a vindictive eye.
“I think you should sit this one out, Sa.”
Luboy leans against the doorframe, naked. Golden filaments glitter about her neck and shoulders, as the penates of their house print a one-use silk robe from the top down. Her Swede-yellow hair is still, and clings so tightly to her upturned breasts that Sa is almost jealous. She can smell the soap from her bath still on her. Beautiful, Sa thinks. But nagging as someone’s old mother.
She is reclining on their divan beside the living room window, her feet up on the cushions, still naked herself. She glares at her lover and teammate over the top of her book.
“No. I already said.”
“I know,” Luboy says ruefully. “You are a stubborn bitch. But it’s my job to keep you alive. It’d be wrong not to tell you again.”
She comes over and Sa puts her feet on the ground to let her sit. Passing a hand over the milky surface of their coffee table, Luboy makes an order to the penates inside. Drawing on a placenta of indiscriminate matter under the house, the table excretes two chinaware cups of good Ethiopian coffee from its face. Luboy hands one off to Sa, who even cross is not one to pass up a drink served on a kind gesture.
“Thank you, brùnaidh,” Luboy says.
Sa puts her book down. “You can tell me all you want, but I’m going to run all the same.”
The younger woman slurps her coffee. “Look, Sa. You’ve won the Big Elevator Run thirteen times already.”
“I like even numbers.”
“Mustafa will be there. You hate Mustafa.”
Well, that was true.
“Nothing will suddenly change if you retire. You’ll still be the Dragonhoof. It’s not like you’ll have to give that up. People will still fall all over themselves to get your autograph. To sleep with you. You’re already immortal.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Sa retorts. She knows her number is hers forever. Whoever wears it after her will never be comfortable in it, knowing who made it legendary. She has already read the history books she’s in.
“Is it a money thing? I mean, I don’t know how, but—”
Sa shakes her head, cutting her off there. As far as that goes, she has more of it than she’ll honestly ever need, in every denomination from patent-sealed Gold© to the Cervical used on cannibal Venus. If she ever runs out, she can start selling trophies. Rows of them line the walls of her bedroom, skin-samples taken from every ass she’d kicked in the course of her forty-year career. Enough to fill up a tomb, like a silly pharaoh would do.
“What do you think is going to happen to me, Lu?”
The other woman shrugs. “Anything bad that ever happened in the last fourteen billion years?”
Sa can laugh at that, despite being ticked off.
A wave breaks against the house, spattering the window with worms and cerebrospinal brine. Outside, a passing mansion is stirring up waves in the helminarchy that blankets much of the surface of Botswana 2. With a triggerthought, Sa bids the house wipe away those clinging gobs of governmental biocomputer. Respectfully, course. The sky is a vinyl record in gold and cobalt, the ridges and granules of the planet’s ring clearly visible in the late morning. Throughout the day it will lift like a pot lid, revealing the beaming face of Aunty Saturn.
“I just don’t see the point anymore,” Luboy continues. “Every time you run it’s more risk for less reward.”
Sa is tempted sorely to just tell Luboy the reason she keeps running when others would have been long retired. But she knows it would only worry her more. Running for a golden cup is understandable. Running for an impossible fantasy on the other hand, is an aging mind going sour. Luboy would look at her with pity and that is something Sa cannot abide.
And how sure are you, an insidious voice adds, that it isn’t a fantasy?
Sa thinks of a black visor. A slurred number.
No, no. None of that now.
“You don’t get want you want if you don’t take risks,” Sa retorts. More softly she adds, “I didn’t get you by not taking risks.”
Luboy smiles at that but looks askance at Sa’s right hand. Sa flexes her prosthetic fingers self-consciously. The osteoplas bones bother her sometimes, when they should be indistinguishable from the real thing. The phantom hurt of a lingering mistake, perhaps. The originals are lost in a strand infinitely far from this one where mankind never left the nursery of Africa. The remains of her gauntlet would be worshipped as relics by the hide-wearers who found them, or so she likes to imagine. They could just as easily stab the first brave soul to set foot off the continent in the heel and kill him.
That had happened the year she broke the age record. Two runs after.
“I’ve got a debt to pay,” Sa adds. “It’s… important to me. So I’ll run until I do. Sorry.”
“Pay a debt to who?”
Someone I haven’t met yet. “Someone who lifted me up a long time ago,” Sa says, with a hard and deliberate period.
Luboy chews on that for a while. She might not like the taste, but she’ll have to swallow it anyway. “Just don’t be afraid pull the cord if you have to,” she eventually says.
“I know you never, but you might. Say you will, so I can get some sleep tonight.”
Pull the cord. More like pull the plug. Pull the cord and your run is over. They yank you back to the homestrand, to sit quietly off to the side—and waste time. Sa does not have time.
Sa swallows the bitter taste off her tongue. “If I need to,” she says.
The naked happiness on her lover’s face makes the extortion sting a little less.
Something brushes her leg. Her pygmy elephant Oliver rubs up against her, looking for a treat. She strokes his curious trunk and pats him on the rear to send him trotting on his way. It is good that time is a hydra, she thinks, and not a dragon that will die with its head lopped off. Jostling the past does not crack the present, but rather explodes it into ineffable manyances of itself. She would live in unbearable terror of changing in any way the priceless life she fought for and won.
And yet, she cannot forget how close it was.
by Tina Connolly
I really like the gloriously wild worldbuilding in this—all the strands of different time, and the strandrunners, parkour-ing their way through striking, colorful images as they race. Since this is just the first half, I don’t want to give you any spoilers this week, so I’ll just mention a couple of the many images that struck me: “some ninety-million years [sliding] off her like water off a duck”, “arms [pulping] butterflies with every motion.” Or the way that the nanites in the house can just make things—the “table excretes two chinaware cups of good Ethiopian coffee from its face.” (That would be convenient.) It all creates a marvelously evocative world, and if you return next week you can hear the final half of the story.
Promotional things that you might like to know about! The glorious Escape Pod Anthology goes on sale October 20th! If it’s not yet October 20th as you are listening to this, well then you can also preorder it now at escapepod.org/year15/.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Mario Andretti who said, “If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Evan Marcroft is a half-blind yeti-person with a sideways foot and an allergy to the sun. When he was a child he dreamed of writing important works of Earth-shaking beauty and settled for writing fantasy and science fiction instead. You can find his other works at Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Metaphorosis.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award, and a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated short fiction for the Escape Artists podcasts, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.