Chasing the Start (Part 2)
by Evan Marcroft
ͼ-Sa, this is a bad fucking idea-ͽ
Sa would die to admit it, but she must agree. This was perhaps a bit much for squashing a spider.
The air boils with radiation. The sky is all storm, great scarified burls of fulgurant cloud lumped into screaming faces. Mushroom clouds bloom all along the horizon where cylinders of pure, fabbed uranium have been dropped from outside the planetoid, blasting starry craters in its shallow atmosphere, to say nothing of its crust. Warships flounder in the firmament beyond, gnawed upon by flung gobbets of surface matter gone cancerous.
Sa takes it all in from the bellied-up keel of some leviathan war vessel bombarded into shapelessness, now a convenient straightaway. She has chosen her weapon a little too well.
ͼ-It’s okay to pull the cord. Everyone does it once-ͽ
Sa remembers this from her past, actually—the black day Pluto went mad. It had begun with a simple logic bomb smuggled into the tutelary software on which the planet operated, and there left to cook like a rat corpse in the wall. It was intended to kill off the demisapient processes that regulated everything from its hydrological cycle to its ecosystems. And while it had triggered a domino-chain of suicides among its pantheon, its programmer had been woefully illiterate in classical mythology. Patterns of atomic behavior that called themselves Neptune or Apollo decided, with horrific suddenness, to die as grandly as they deserved. What followed was a Titanomachy that left the planet dead down to its core, in her time a cold and cracked monument.
Sa would be ten or eleven right now, a mere five billion kilometer jaunt away. At this moment she exists in two places at once. Always an uncomfortable thought to fit in one’s head. She feels zero, subtracted from, negated by the contradictory fact of her younger self. The sensation stops being bowel-churning after the first few times, at least. It helps to believe that this is a strand where she was never born. Sa knows full well that nothing would happen should they meet. But it always felt like it should.
ǂ Shut up. I’m sorry. I need to run ǂ
There is something of a war in the green below. Sa tears across the downed spacecraft, digging in with her thorned heels and throwing herself like a javelin, eager to have nothing to do with it. Leading seams of streaming napalm through the jungle are plutonians mutated by the planet’s insane defense penates into walking ordinance, into fingers clenched angrily around its own throat. With guns grown tumorously from hybridized plastic and flesh they destroy indiscriminately. Themselves, others, everything.
Stray shots bite cauterized divots out of Sa’s path, but none so much as sear her armor. Her heartbeat reads back as higher than she likes, but steady. I am the Dragonhoof. My scales are fire itself, and my feet fall only on clouds.
One, two, three, four seconds of this strand blear past her with no sign of J’ba Fofi or the other two colluders. Sa begins to think she overestimated the heft of their balls.
And then, with no transition, no hoopla of arrival, Quiet Ordinance, that huge and faceless torpedo man, is yards behind her, mid-lunge.
Luboy’s warning is hot on his heels, but Sa hears it coming. She turns her next step into a diagonal leap, hurling her out of 84’s reach and into a careening sprint down the sloping hull of the ship. Come and catch me then, you big, dumb fucker.
Sa cracks the clean surface of the jungle and finds the inside all rotten. The goddess of vegetation has turned hateful towards herself, the self that percolates through the veins of every leaf on the planet. As Sa evades aimless gunfire she blows through boughs that brown and curl in invisible fire. Root systems that have never seen daylight rip themselves from the ground and whisk up dirt that clings and chews. Randomness is swallowing reason down an unhinged jaw; beams of nuclear heat slice through spots of backwards physics and alchemize.
But Sa is less a moving body and more a prolonged cut, a continuous red-rimmed halving of the world, and all obstacles before her are merely designs upon that yielding fabric. Will unburdened by doubt, by hope, by attempt, is identical to reality. True winners don’t try, Sa. Winners choose. You’ll be at the finish line as soon as you decide you want it. So make up your damned mind already and be there.
Number 84 dogs her like a man with no other desire, over terrain that sloshes with suicidal urges. A hail of small impacts fails to slow him. This is fearsome, for wanting to live is the surest way to lose. And Sa has only so many seconds left here.
Five left. Fuck, the man runs like his feet drip asphalt road. He’s one of a new breed. Runners bred big and dumb and efficient, for the game only, with no room left for the love of it. This is what wants to replace her, Sa thinks. This is what has been chasing her down since before the race began.
Sa is sweating ice into her armor. Her muscles strain to hold her limbs together. And even so, Number 84 is gaining on her; a year ago she’d have laughed at such a ridiculous notion, but this is now, and it is happening. Her field of vision is annexed by so many collision warnings, by incoming projectiles as described by flashing numbers. She is starting to think Luboy was right. Bad idea, bad brain.
And then—one number, in a blazing font, punching through all others and shrinking towards nothing even as it races towards her.
Her reflexes are ready where conscious thought is not. Sa does something a strandrunner should never do, and that is stand still.
Stand still, so suddenly that inertia smears her body against the inside of her armor. Stand still, until Number 84 is so close, with so much steam built up in his great big engine body, that he cannot possibly stop or change direction. Then she lets herself go limp.
A bullet of encapsulated sun devours the space she used to occupy.
Sa doesn’t see Quiet Ordinance pull the ripcord, but she hears the compound bellow of the crowd through the coliseum feed when he reappears in basetime, homestrand. Luboy premembers her an image of him tearing off his sweat-sodden helmet and skipping it across the stage, his pallid scalp poking ridiculously out the neck of his suit like a stubby little knuckle.
ͼ-Still an awful idea, and you’re still a big idiot-ͽ
ǂ Acknowledged, Lub ǂ
Two, one. The finish line goes out like a dead bulb. Sa’s path frays into hundreds of strands. Sa runs, her stride churning decades into swirling dust.
Now where are you, J’ba Fofi.
The armoring. This moment, the most sacred of the game, the most liturgized in an era of god-nostalgic atheism. The inevitable escalation of a fundamental procedure, when runners are beloved in billions more hearts made shrines than were ever in history afforded to Olympiad victors.
Sa stands straight upon a pedestal as her pit crew dresses her for battle. Each piece of her armor has been checked and checked and checked again by sleepless engineers for any flaws or hiccups in its software that might appear for no reason. Plating meant to withstand the speed-stresses of time travel can be still faulty in its most obscure and crucial components. Her team builds upon her from the bosom out, bolting her into a cybernetic sternum and spine with more power to start with than her entire body. From there, a layer of artificial muscle, each sarcomere tuned to the specific strength ceiling outlined by the E-ESR Commission. Sa feels the perimeter of her body expand by oozing inches, becoming a kouroi.
Over that, the cherry-red, flame-striped armor of the Dragonhoof itself, every priceless inch of advertising space a bloody battleground between the Expanded Earth’s top sponsors. The crew installs each segment with a quiet but harried reverence born from both the importance of their care and awe of the body, the face, looming over them. These are kids whose parents would have cheered for her, Sa thinks. They grew up watching her commercials. Sleeping on fiery Dragonhoof sheets. The notion settles hard and heavy in her stomach and sticks there.
Luboy is on patrol, inspecting their work with a nunnishly critical eye. Four minutes to start; they need to be quick and correct. Under the job she wears like a mask the younger woman is very worried. Fret rolls over like a musk. A side wing of Sa, closed off for the game but open to viewing, feels wretched.
Would it be such a terrible thing really, to give up her number? What would she be missing out on anymore? The quick, hot days she’d crammed to bursting with drink and drug and men and women were long behind her, their suns all set, and had been well before she’d met Luboy. She’d tired of them just as they’d tired of her hardening body. Luboy is all she needs now. But though her lover had said nothing of it, Sa feels as though she clings to her with too few fingers. She has seen the most unshakable love drive more wives and husbands away from racers than she can remember. It is the terror of having to care for broken things. Gone things.
Sa wonders if it is too late to have children. Probably. Maybe. Probably.
Sa frowns. She does not recognize the signature flourish she experiences as a sour-smelling spark in the cleft of her brain. Who the fuck?
She hears the voice as though lips are pressed lovingly to her ear. ʢ-I know what you’re running for, Dragonhoof-ʡ
Sa scans the trench that surrounds the stage where confetti and rose petals blow like snow. There, a few degrees right of straight ahead—that red and purple carapace peaking over the lip, dipping ever so slightly in a nod.
ǂ It’s bad luck to talk to another runner before the run, J’ba Fofi ǂ
The other woman’s laugh as deep and saw-edged, the damaged sound of a damaged throat. ʢ-You are ridiculous, Bibi. There is no such thing as luck. Fate is clay we work with our feet. When you lose today, you will have no-one but me to blame-ʡ
Sa cogits a derisive snort. ǂ You couldn’t beat my shadow running against the sun ǂ
ʢ-Maybe before, when you ran to defeat, like I do. But that is not you anymore. Like I said, I know what you’re hunting for in all that time out there. You can hear that I am not lying-ʡ
I should just hang up. ǂ I don’t care what you know, little girl ǂ
The Spider ignores her. ʢ-You are different. You are desperate now. Short on time. You keep running because you will only ever climb as high as you have come but once, and you want to prolong that moment beyond its lifespan. You keep winning only so that the people will not mutter about your age. Your wrinkles, and your bones. You fear they will convince you to stop. You fear that because you know they will be right. And once you hang up your number, you will only ever fall and fall-ʡ
ʢ-I am not running to win, Sa Segokgo. I am running to destroy you. I am not going to just run you out of the race—I am going to run you out of the game forever. And even if I fail, I will be there for the next run—I promise—and I will wolf you to the next and the next until my poison brings you down-ʡ
ǂ What do I care? ǂ Sa snaps. Her teeth itch to bite. ǂ I will still be the best ever ǂ
The tiny figurine across the stage slowly shakes her head. ʢ-No. You will only be the best once. And you will always be old. Always be getting older. You will be nothing forever-ʡ
ǂ Why? ǂ Sa demands. Her anger must have seeped through her face, for Luboy is looking up at her concernedly.
ʢ-Why ask? I want to be the best, same as you. You’re my hero, Sa. I have your autograph on a T-shirt. Am I selfish? Of course, but you taught me that self is the gold we all run for. It is why even you will strike the living ghosts from your path with impunity. If you do not race for your glory and yours alone, if you fret for others, you defeat yourself from the first. Isn’t that what you told us children with every dream you stamped out cold? Tell me, Sa, if I am wrong at all-ʡ
Sa terminates the call because the Running Spider is right, about everything.
QuickSOULver tracks her down some hundred and sixty years earlier, on an unassuming sidewalk in Jotunheim, formerly Galatea. They dogfight across a desert’s width of blistering pavement, between feet as long and heavy as houses. Yoked gravity and a culture of macromania made of the moon a gigantopolis. To Sa, the miles-high planes of their weightless architecture twists the world into soaring, acute angles, reduces her and her opponent to tussling beetles. Every step is therefore a gamble that the space she occupies in that moment will not instantly become a hundreds-ton pillar of ankle. Foot traffic is thick on this selected day; the chances are fifty-fifty.
The American is quick, but Sa is old. She knows ways to cajole the odds, to set them against others. She runs until QuickSOULver takes one step too many and is skyhooked into the stratosphere in the shit-gummed tread of a transanthropic giant’s heel.
No more cronies, J’ba Fofi. Come and get me, or choke on your word.
There was a time, way back ago, when death was extinct. Man invented his own quantum-based heaven to save him the proper way and made mortality a discredited concept. But too late did humanity realize that civilization was predicated on a finite lifespan and the urgency it entailed. When death died so did the soul, the urge to strive, to create—to live. Immortal bodies lay for a horrific span of time now shamefully deleted from history as immortal minds idled in purgatory, thinking thoughts as slow as centuries.
It was the consensus of the remaining Hot and Quick that pulled man back to a lesser singularity. It was necessary, they said, to save the species from dissolving into the quiet of eternity. History continued on after a hiccup. Men and women continued to die, as was necessary.
Sa understands that perfectly. But sometimes she wishes she’d had a vote.
Seventy seconds, and less now. Sixty-eight seconds. This is the worst part, the wait. Locked in place upon her launch dais for her own safety. Compressed inside her armor like a spring and burning to be let loose. To a runner, stillness is second to death. Any other race, Sa would use that. But she cannot focus with the Running Spider’s words slithering about her like a mamba, all black and venomously accurate. She cannot be alone with them, not now.
ǂ Luboy, are you there? ǂ
ͼ-I’m always here, Sa. Is something wrong with your suit?-ͽ
ǂ No. I need to say sorry for the other day. When you asked why I still ran. I love you, Lub. I should have been straight with you then ǂ
ͼ-It’s okay, Sa. Get your head in the game-ͽ
ǂ Listen ǂ Sa says with urgency. ǂ This is important. On my very first run I missed a critical jump. Everyone else kept going, and I thought this is it. I’m not cut out to do this. And then … and then I looked up and saw myself flying overhead, and I knew I was wrong ǂ
ͼ-What? You don’t mean—that’s impossible, Sa-ͽ
Sa grinds her teeth. This is why she didn’t want to say.
She cogits a negative. ǂ Just unlikely. The odds of me meeting me in the same strand out of infinite strands—it’s beyond counting. But I know it’s not zero ǂ
ͼ-How do you know it was you?-ͽ
Sa reaches for the memory of that moment. It is never far from her hand. She likes to look at it often, lest it begin to fade. No, she can admit she didn’t see her face behind that helmet. But she saw her number, clear and gold on her ruby chest as an evening on Botswana-2.
She says, ǂ It was Number 99 ǂ
ͼ-That doesn’t mean it was you. I’m sorry, I—all it means is that someone else had your number in whatever time they came from. Maybe they came from before you. Maybe they … came from after-ͽ
Her brain isn’t fast enough to stop her tongue from insinuating something she doesn’t mean. Sa doesn’t take it personally. ǂ I know, Lub. I’m an old, silly girl, believing in fantasies. I’m most likely running for nothing now. It doesn’t matter. I just needed you to know why I’m going to run until I fall apart. I wouldn’t have you without me. I owe it to me to bend a strand into a circle. Wish me luck out there ǂ
Three, two, one. The race begins with a lurch, and Sa finds herself in another world. The date is June 18th, 1815. The place is Waterlô. And Sa Segokgo is racing against time.
Sa accelerates and leaps into absolute stillness. For a span of time with negative value she is faster than the white crest of the universe, not competing against light but moving perpendicular to it. Eons bleed sideways across her armor for her sheer anti-speed. She breaches, a salmon in arc, for a non-linear instant free of the causal river that surges on beneath her. When she lands it is in the same spot, in the same Olympian lunge, but in a different ontic state, a universe rewound and re-begun with her as its hot, ripe singularity.
J’ba Fofi is a spear in flight.
Two unstoppable forces stop one another and plow a furrow through the grass three meters long. Light strikes the younger woman’s visor just right, and Sa can see her mouth stretching apart her black face with its pearly scream. Sa is something like proud, at having driven this girl to war.
They scramble under and over each other, slapping and shoving, fighting to be the first back on their feet as irreplaceable seconds pour out of their hands and into others. J’ba Fofi is small but Sa finds that the girl is strong in the way of a compressed spring. Her grudge makes her a demon. With a snarl she shoves Sa to the ground, pushing herself off her shoulder into an awkward sprint. Sa is not much more than two meters behind her, but she is following the path cut by another, as the saying goes.
She hears Mustafa crowing down the pipe of the future.
The ground is flat, green, tractive. There is nothing to come between them but stretching, snapping, rubber distance. Nothing to do but run. Even so, the most fundamental mechanic of the game remains—the need to weigh one’s depleted energy against the natural want to be ahead. When J’ba Fofi flags, winded, Sa surges ahead, only for the younger woman to slingshot past her in return. So expires fifteen seconds, and when the new strands open to them they dive neck and neck onto the same path, reaching consensus without dialogue. The telepathy of rivals.
Raw earth transforms into steel grating, pipework, petrified grime. The year is 2067, the spring of mankind’s first toddling venture out of Earth. At this point in time, great fields of Mars have become factories of progress, mining the vacant planet for the fuel and supplies necessary to catapult humanity further into the big dark. The thin atmosphere above is glutted with smoke. The towers of incomplete and primitive spacecraft loom.
Workers and scientists flee from their track, leaping from the catwalks rather than be bowled over. Sa swims through ghost after the Running Spider, who vaults over humps of red-dusted machinery as though she does have eight legs.
Yes, I am selfish, she thinks. I run with no-one upon my shoulders, towards no-one to save, towards no beneficent purpose. I destroy worlds and ruin lives with every step I take. I want trophies on my wall. I want the love of the woman I found in my chase of decades. No matter why others run, I will throw them down and run over them, for the sake of what I already have.
I owe it to me.
Propelled by supernovas of new strands they blaze through two more snippets of history, which may as well be corridors for all the wonder Sa gives them. The world starts with her and ends at her opponent’s heels.
Then, side by side, they burst through a wall of blinding light that leaves them both galloping blind for shock. As the milk clears away, Sa’s heart seizes about itself for a reason she can’t get a hand around.
2366 now. The sky is shut off from the ground by a plain of heaving, shifting metal. Machines shelled by solar panels march across the scape of the Earth. Sa knows that below each one would dangle thousands of tentacular instruments meant to inject life back into the depleted planet, to suck up toxified air, to glean nuggets of plastic and piss out clean water. The machines are too massive and stupid to stir at the fleas racing across their spines.
And though the terrain is as silvery flat as a mirror, its density, its clang, are familiar to her feet.
Never mind that. J’ba Fofi is near enough now that Sa can reach out and scrape a brand off her shoulder. Something has to give, Sa thinks, wishing daggers thrown by the eyes could cut. One of us will trip and fall. Not me. Not me!
Decreasingly far ahead she spies another group of runners, three of them in a loose chevron. Blue, red, bronze. To find so many in one strand is rare but not unheard of. Her suit reads off their numbers but Sa does not hear them, for with a burst of energy from nowhere J’ba Fofi has pulled ahead. She spares a mocking glance back.
Sa pats herself down for a similar heat to draw on and comes up with nothing. No. Inch by inch, the Running Spider pulls their distance taught. A loud, flat sound fills her helmet. Sa realizes that she has roared in terror. She has lost many runs in the years downhill of her prime, but never for this. Never for running dry like a fucking old woman.
She whips herself like a cart horse, pulling speed out of her sleeve, but not enough, burning energy she doesn’t have to close just a fraction of the distance between her and the Spider. Her clenched teeth scream for stress.
She feels more than she hears the audience hanging on her, relishing her slow fail. Mustafa is rapid-fire narrating every step, building up towards what he thinks is the moment she drops. ǂ Shut it off! ǂ she fairly screams at Luboy. But the silence changes nothing. She isn’t catching up.
Think of how they’ll laugh at you, Sa.
Think of the pity in their eyes.
Think of what you’ll never find.
With no warning sign a gap yawns in the ground ahead, a vastening canyon between this Earth-healing machine and the next. Suddenly that is the finish line, at least for her. If she fails here, if some weak part of her pulls the cord, then that is the strongest part of her, and they are right—she’ll be done.
The other runners, not much further ahead now, make the jump, almost as one. They fly, praying with their feet to find ground again. One lands confidently. Another missteps and plummets into the gulf. The third falls too short and finds themselves clinging by the fingertips to the plate on the other side. Three different strands into which the next three seconds could split.
J’ba Fofi makes the leap, confidently, her form perfect. Just match it, Sa urges herself. Sa has nothing in her but the bare minimum to move forward, so it can only be from a miracle that she draws the fuel to pour into her legs until they burn like rocket engines.
If she can’t jump, she will
The world seems to collapse out from under her. She kicks up one leg behind her, throws one foot ahead, to catch the first crumb of solid ground. The gap has become everything, as wide as it is bottomless.
A rapier of sun breaks against her visor. Among the shards Sa sees the Running Spider complete her arc, grip the ground and go, transitioning to motion with no hesitation. She feels gravity reaching up from the chasm to take her by the ankles.
As Sa begins her fall she looks down, spots the straggler who clings to the edge of the cliff struggling to get a second hand on the ground, looking up at her in turn. Light cuts through the smoke of their faceplate, and Sa sees a child’s smooth face wide open for wonder.
Across her forehead, her shoulders, a golden-scaled number inverted for perspective—sixty-six.
Finally, she thinks.
All debts are paid.
J’ba Fofi is cutting towards her goal with a blade of want. Sa finds that she wishes her well. The girl is vicious, oh sure, but talented beyond a doubt. She will be a champion, Sa thinks. Maybe even better than her.
But only once.
Sa cackles and pulls the cord.
Forty years before and one second after, Sa Segokgo claws and heaves herself onto solid ground. She splurges on three quick, deep breaths and then hurries to get moving again, grayly aware she’s lost this run. Any place will do for now, though.
She knows she isn’t finished yet. She has a promise.
And a debt.
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.