The Night Before
The Knight After
On Your Marks
Enter Rabbit Dog Stage Left
Complex and Weird
The Spoon is Not There
But They Don't Fall Down
There is No Sanctuary
Tomorrow is the annual “City Frenzy” event. I did it every year since aging into it, and won three times, including my first try. But I’ve left that life behind. I mean, I still run, but not like that. Even though I’m still a minor, it’s time to move on to more adult endeavors. Sure, I’m technically young enough to qualify, but I feel an obligation to hand the reigns over to others. And nobody deserves the title more than my little brother. He’s been training every day for a year. His birthday landed one day after the end of registration, which meant that he was unable to compete. But now he’s ready, and he won’t let anything stand in his way. Except for maybe the flu.
“No, please!” little Alim cries. “Isn’t there something we can do?”
“Like what?” I ask. “Maybe a magical medicine that cures you in minutes?”
“Don’t mock your brother,” my mother orders. “Alim, our agreement was that if you were not better by this morning, you wouldn’t complain. I’m afraid there is nothing more we can do. You simply will not be able to race tomorrow.”
“This isn’t fair!” Alim tries to yell, but his voice is too hoarse to be all that loud. “This is just like what happened last year. Somebody upstairs doesn’t want me to be a runner!”
“Perhaps,” I suggest, “they know you’re not ready for it. Maybe you need one more year of training so you can kick their asses for the next five years.”
“Language, Serkan,” mom scolds calmly.
“I’m just tryna help,” I claim, and it’s true. Alim is so much smarter than me, but he’s also probably faster. If he were given a real chance to compete, he would not only win, but he would also break the record. I wish there was something I could do. I wish there really was a drug out there that could relieve his symptoms, if only for a few hours.
My fans, if you would like to call them that, were disappointed to learn that I would not be running this year, because it would be my last chance. City Frenzy is unlike any race on the planet. But a few dozen of the elites between ages 12 and 17 are allowed in. Depending on the number of contestants, you only share your starting point with a couple of other kids, and your ending point with an entirely different set of kids. Your route will cover roughly a marathon distance, but is also unrestricted. If you find a way to cut through an alleyway, or even a building, then more power to you. Hell, there aren’t even any rules that say you can’t take an elevator to a roof and start leaping across high-rises. Of course, that’s not recommended, but it’s what I’m famous for. The key is to make studying the map part of your training so that you know the city better than anyone. Having a little experience with gymnastics and parkour doesn’t hurt either.
“You have to do it,” Alim states in no uncertain terms.
“I can’t, little bro. You know that.”
“I didn’t register.”
“Everyone knows the council lets winners compete every year for life,” mom corrects me. “They’re just not allowed to win if they’ve aged out. You’re basically automatically registered.”
“We’ve not paid the fee.”
“We can pay today, or even tomorrow.” She is just not letting this go.
“Why do you want me to do this so badly?”
“I understand that you stepped down for your brother, Serkan. And that was very noble of you, but now that we know he won’t be able to race, you should go in his stead. Represent the family name.”
“I’ve not been training.”
“That’s nonsense.” She shakes her head. “We all know you run with the Tracer gang in the gray district.”
“Mom,” I start to say. She’s not meant to know about that. Gangs are composed only of adults, but the Tracers are known to make exceptions for Frenzy winners. They did just that for me.
She waves the argument away. “It’s okay. We knew we wouldn’t be able to stop you. We’re just happy you didn’t join the Taggers, or the Beasts.” What a relief.
Okay, well to be honest, I did want to race again. I pretend like I’ve moved beyond that sort of thing, but I really do love it. When I was a child, before the City Frenzy fund had enough money to broadcast online using wearable action cameras and drones, I would find a starting point and run around as a spectator. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the racers, but I would always find someone else before too long. The race is my thing, and I want nothing more than to feel that glory once more. I suppose my career as an adult tracer can wait. I don’t want to seem too excited about it, though, so I try to play it cool. “Fine. If you insist. I’ll call the council.”
“I’m sure they will be overjoyed,” mom says, only half-jokingly.
She was right. I call up the council and discover that they have no problem letting me in as a late registrant. Within minutes of tweeting that I was coming out of retirement, #SerkansRun was trending locally. I lean back in my chair, allowing myself to rest on my laurels for a moment before getting down to business. I have been tracing, but I’ve not been training. They’ve done a lot of construction in the last year, so that’s my biggest problem.
Just as I’m opening the map on my computer, Alim bursts in the room. “Why aren’t you getting ready?”
“For what?” I ask, eyes glued to the screen.
“I just got an alert from the council,” he explains. “They’re holding an emergency meeting to discuss the weather. I assumed you got it too, but I guess not since you just registered.”
Without so much as looking at him, I flip to my weather gadget and expand tomorrow’s data. “It’s gonna rain, yeah.” I shrug. “We’ve run in the rain before.”
“Not like this,” Alim says. “They think it’s going to be worse than first predicted.”
I ignore him and switch back over to my map.
“You have to be there in half an hour!”
“All right!” I whine.
“Are you gonna let me down, son?”
“Shut up,” I reply with a laugh. But I don’t want to leave. I’m behind everybody else. I’ll lose if I don’t catch myself up.
“Ya know, they have these things called tablets, and also driverless cars. You can study on the way. HQ is clear on the other side of the city, so you should put on pants and leave now.”
“Okay, I’ll leave.”
“But I’m not wearing pants.”
I tell my car where I want to go and continue to study the map on my tablet. Before I know it, I’m at the City Frenzy headquarters, and I feel like I’ve learned nothing. Oh man, this is going to be tough, what am I gonna do? I step out of the car, still staring at my tablet, furiously swiping and pinching around, trying to get a better feel for the streets. Something hits me and knocks me to the ground.
“Oh my God, that’s ironic,” a voice I’m familiar with says. “Two tracers running into each other.”
“Keilix!” We help each other back up. She must have been studying too, because her own tablet is on the ground next to mine.
“Hello, Serkan. Are you here to support your brother?”
“Uh, no. You didn’t hear? He’s sick, so I’m racing for him.”
She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t look pleased.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that. You have a better chance of winning against me than you would have against him.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“You haven’t seen him.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.” Keilix is seventeen years old as well, so this will be her last Frenzy. There’s a lot of pressure on seventeen-year-olds to win, but of course that’s a logistically impractical expectation.
The sun disappears through a sudden appearance of dark gray clouds. Keilix and I look up to the sky. We’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s unnatural for the weather to change so drastically. In fact—I didn’t really study meteorology—but it may be impossible for clouds to form that quickly.
“I guess we better get inside.”
“Yes,” I agree.
When we step into the building, we’re met with looks. Everyone else is already there, and the doors are frustratingly loud. Things are awkward for a moment before Keilix lifts her arms up and pretends to pound on a window. “Elaine!” she cries.
A few people laugh, especially the council members, but most of the youngins don’t get the reference. Somehow, I do, and to add my own personal touch, I curtsy. Now everyone laughs and moves on.
Council Leader Andrews continues the meeting as the two of us are finding our seats in the front row. “As I was saying, the council and I would like to thank you all for coming on such short notice. The meteorology department of my organization has discovered something unusual in recent weather patterns.” Nearly all members of the council have jobs apart from the City Frenzy. Throughout most of the year, that’s what they do. They’re only called to action when necessary, but they have pretty busy careers. Actually, you can’t really get on the council if you’re not already a respected member of society. There’s a firefighter, a superintendent, a few CEOs, and other people in power. Andrews, in particular, runs a scientific research lab, so he has access to data that could potentially affect the race. It would seem that this very thing has happened. He continues, “you have all probably noticed how strangely cold it’s been lately...for July, that is. The situation is a little bit more nuanced and technical than that, but I assure you that my team is working on it.”
“What’s gonna happen with the race?” a kid I don’t know asks.
Council Leader Andrews scans the crowd, but I can’t tell why. It kind of looks like he’s doing a headcount, but not of everybody. He prepares himself for his answer. “The race will go on, but not as planned.”
The same kid calls up again, “what does that mean?”
Andrews is really struggling with responding. He’s always had a level of fear of the kids. It does make sense, though. You can’t register in this race unless you’ve proven yourself physically capable of it. You have to undergo rigorous testing; a physical examination, gymnastics, dancing, parkour, certain track events, and a few other things. Every kid in this room could kick Andrews’ ass several times over, and he knows it. So he’s frozen.
Mr. Rutherford, the resident lawyer, stands up. Unlike the others who were chosen by their clout alone, Councilman Rutherford was selected specifically for his educational background and experience. With a race as dangerous as this, especially one involving minors, you have to protect your own ass legally. “I got this, Duke,” I can hear him whisper to the Council Leader. He takes a deep breath while Andrews is sitting down. “Yes, we are going ahead with the race, but only for contestants sixteen years of age and up.”
The crowd understandably freaks out. The race has been going on for the better part of a decade, and never have they done anything like this before. We’ve had bad weather, and other complications, but the rule has always been twelve to seventeen.
Rutherford tries to maintain control over the room. “Now, I know you’re all upset. I bet even the older kids don’t think it’s fair, but I’m afraid there is nothing we can do about it. The weather has made things entirely too dangerous.”
“Bullshit!” that one kid cries out. He does look like he could be fifteen years old.
“One more word, Thompson,” Rutherford growls, “and you’ll be banned from competing next year.”
“We’re probably gonna move to Mars this winter!” That’s bullshit, nobody’s going to Mars. It’s clear that his friends don’t believe him either, so he has to move on and defend himself. Most of the crowd, however, does not let up.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Rutherford continues. “People have been spitting on lawyers since the dawn of time. Let me have it, that’s what I’m here for.”
As one of the older kids, and because I’m sort of a legend around here, I’ve been placed in a de facto leadership position. Newbies have come up to me to ask for my autograph. I always refuse, instead encouraging to work hard so people start asking them for autographs. That seems to inspire them. Man, I really sound like a pompous douchebag when I talk about myself, don’t I? Keilix would tell me to ignore the haters, and that that’s the price of fame. I consider using that fame to my advantage, hoping to help calm the others with some words of wisdom. As I lean forward, Rutherford catches my eye and subtly shakes his head.
Keilix simultaneously places her hand on my stomach like a mother protecting her child when the car in front of her has stopped too quickly. “This is not your moment,” is all she says.
Andrews looks like he’s gathered his composure, and is ready to get back into the fight. He stands up and gently motions for Rutherford to leave the stage. “It’s okay, I can handle this now. You should talk to the qualifiers.”
“Those sixteen years of age and older, follow me!” Rutherford commands, heading for a door to another room. Without looking back, he yells, “Thompson!”
Too Young Thompson, as he shall from now on be referred to as, sulks and slowly sits back down. Bested once more by Lincoln Rutherford, Esquire. But he will have his revenge.
I’m in a room with sixteen other people, sitting on a little ottoman against the brick wall. Nearly all of us have done this before. Headquarters is like a second home to us. Off-season, we come here to train, and meet up for unrelated events together. This room in particular is a lounge designed for those sixteen years and older anyway, so we all have our special little spots. Keilix lies down across the bar at Braxton’s feet. That guy does parkour even when he’s not doing parkour. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him sit down. He’s always been my biggest competition. Jiminy (not his real name) plops down on two bean bags, one of which Alexi kicks out from under him. He has anger problems, and we all just kind of let him vent when he needs to. He’s never hurt anyone.
The Twins sit cross-legged on the interactive mapping screen on the floor, and close their eyes to meditate. The screen is twelve feet diagonal, like a computer that was converted from inches to feet. Everyone uses it to study with the only program loaded onto the system, but The Twins use it the most. They never run, and never win. City Frenzy is a spiritual experience for them, and they take the time to enjoy every moment of it. You would think their race would be boring to watch, but they draw in their own following of loyal virtual tourists that make the organization, and the city, a lot of money. They’re proof that you get out of the program what you want, and you don’t have to do it like everybody else. Oh, and they’re not actually twins, they’re just inseparable.
Rutherford pulls up a chair. “I just wanted take some time to talk with you about what just happened; to gauge how you all feel about our decision.”
“Is it a legal thing?” Braxton asks while balancing on one leg.
“It most certainly is. We’re not doing this as punishment, or with any ill intentions. We just can’t allow children to run under these circumstances. You wouldn’t believe how many legal hurdles we have to jump through just to keep the program running. But every year you kids run comes with new complaints. Every tumble down the stairs—every time someone jumps over an alley...Serkan—is more fuel for our detractors. They’ll take any reason they can find to shut us down. I had to fight just to keep this year from being turned into shit. Allowing the older kids in was the only compromise we could come to. Frankly, I’m surprised we even got that. We only had a day of negotiations.”
Alexi has been pacing around the whole time, steam coming out of his ears. “Did you do everything you could?” he asks in a deep voice that those who didn’t know him would perceive as threatening.
“Thank you,” Alexi replies with the same voice.
“Ever the moderate, Senator Channing proposed we match you sixteen with younger ‘buddy trios’ and make you run together so you could protect them.”
“I shudder to think,” Keilix says.
“I did shudder when he said that,” Rutherford reveals.
“Well...?” I ask. “What now?”
Gabriella and Celestine stand up from the ancient dancing video game platform that’s largely treated as theirs. “Now,” Celestine says dramatically, “we dance.”
As always on the day before...we party.
I was never much of a dancer in my youth, but I got more into it when I realized how beneficial it could be for my running form. They said that I should either do that or swimming as supplement, or even both. But absolutely not. I mean, I can swim. I wouldn’t drown if someone threw me in a pool, but I don’t like water. It’s...well, it’s too wet. I deal with it okay, and I even sometimes run in the rain on purpose in order to overcome my weaknesses, but I like it dry. And I like dancing. I know, could I be any more gay? Sometimes on the race, when I’m waiting for a traffic light to change—and yes, there are times when it’s too dangerous to cross, and illegal either way—I’ll dance for the cameras. I like to put on a show to generate viewers and revenue. It’s kind of my job, though it would be nice to get paid for it. The crazier the dance, the better, so I generally do the Wobbly Walk, the Donkey Roll, or The Creep.
At parties, however, I do disco dances, even though I’ve literally never heard a DJ or playlist master put on the right track. Whatever, I’ma do me. After a bit of hustle, I take a break and grab some water at the bar. Keilix has her elbows on the counter, watching Feingold and Tick Tock spar with some kind of martial art. I’ve never been much into fighting either. Unlike swimming, it’s not that I don’t like it, I just don’t quite see the value in it for my purposes. Feingold and Tick Tock seem to enjoy it, though. “Come here often?” Keilix asks as a joke.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be weird.”
“I don’t think we’ll notice.” She takes a sip of her chocolate milk. Studies have determined that excessive amounts of milk don’t really help build stronger bones, which would be useful to Frenzy runners. Still, a dairy manufacturing company is one of our largest sponsors, for reasons of the myth, so we get free milk.
“Well, I know we won’t individually see fewer people on the battlegrounds, but the city’ll feel different. Fewer people will be watching, little children probably won’t be allowed to chase after us. All I’m saying is that it’ll be a very different kind of race this year.”
“Brave new world,” she replies melodramatically.
“You know what I mean.”
She affectionately taps her head on my shoulder. “Listen, I’m about to leave so I can study before a nap. I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad you’re here. I know I was giving you a hard time about registering late, but it wouldn’t be the same without you. We’re a team.”
“Thanks Keilix. And hey, next year your parents won’t be able to stop you from joining the Tracers, so we can keep running together.”
She exales a breathy laugh. “I’m going to college, Serkan. Probably out of the country.” She turns her hips to face me so I know to pay attention. “I’m not going to be in a gang. I’m gonna get an education, and I’m gonna move on from this.”
“You’re going to stop running?” That would be surprising.
“I’ll run in the mornings before class, and then before work, like any health-conscious individual, but this will be my last race.”
I massage my stubble. “But your feet keep the planet spinning.”
“You’ll just have to run twice as fast.” She wraps her arms around my neck and gives me a kiss on the cheek, and a wink. “Well, more like three times.”
I take one of her hands and plant a chivalrous kiss. “Keep in touch, just the same.”
“I will. One more thing before I leave. Braxton is about to ask you to run The Gauntlet.”
I turn back to watch the crowd and say, “shit” under my breath.
“You haven’t been to HQ lately, otherwise he would have asked you weeks ago, and you’d be safe today.”
I gesture towards Braxton with my hand as I’m talking about him, “he’s gonna beat me. The Gauntlet is the one thing I can’t do.”
“Well, he wants you to prove it.”
Braxton is the kind of guy who isn’t satisfied with being the best. He needs evidence of that, and he needs everyone to know it. He would rather lose then never know for sure. Fortunately for him, there’s almost no way he’s losing. The Gauntlet was installed two years ago, but I’ve always avoided running it in front of others. It’s a fantastically tough maze of obstacles that I just can’t wrap my brain around. Two-foot steps, three consecutive four-foot gaps, a winding rock wall, and a rope to a catwalk are some of the easier obstacles. It was constructed in a completely new gymnasium built as an extension to the original headquarters building. For now, it’s used exclusively for training purposes, but the council has plans to make it a performance venue so that smaller parkour events can be held throughout the year. They’re just trying to work out the legal issues now since no one really knows what that’s gonna do for the economy. It will certainly help, at least in the short run, but the local government is worried it will cause a loss of interest in city landmarks. Tourism was the main reason the race was founded, so if that was ruined, City Frenzy might lose all support.
Seeing me talk about him from across the room, Braxton literally runs over. “Are we doing this or not?”
I take a drink from my water. “Or not.”
“Get the hell in that room, bitch!”
“Your taunts aren’t gonna work on me, Braxton. I’m an adult.”
“Then what the hell are you doing here?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I know you need to get your ass in that gym and show me what you’re workin’ with.”
I laugh. “Oh, if that’s what you’re interested in, then I would be happy to oblige. But I would rather do it in a bed.”
“Please, you know what I mean! Bitch!”
“Call me bitch one more time and see if you get what you want.”
“Please, sir, Mister Serkan, sir,” he says more politely.
I pause for dramatic effect. “I don’t want you boasting and flipping around when you inevitably beat me.”
He slaps his hands together out of pure joy. “My man!”
“I’m serious, Braxton. You have to learn to be a gracious winner.”
“Yeah, man, I got you,” he says, but he’s distracted by his own excitement about the whole thing. “Yo, Tick Tock! Start that clock! Serkie and me are ‘bout to drop a rock!” Dropping a rock is a tracer idiom for running a course you’ve never done before. It refers to landing on a boulder you didn’t know was unstable, and it falls out from under you. Of course, we’ve both run the Gauntlet before; we’ve just never run it together. Braxton mainly wanted to show his rapping skills while he was at it, because he’s that kind of guy.
As Braxton moves off to gather a posse, Keilix throws out her empty milk carton. “Like I said, I gotta go. Make sure Agent Nanny Cam films live on her channel so I can watch in the car.” Agent Nanny Cam is a nineteen year old former racer who only ran the Frenzy once. She became so much more interested in the broadcast aspect that she quit so she could operate one of the drones. She moved up the ranks rather quickly and is now in charge of the whole broadcast department, managing all camera equipment, and directing the live presentation.
“Will do, love,” I promise her.
Braxton yells to me from the doorway as he’s filing everybody through. “What did I say about that ass?”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
By the time I make my way into the gym, everybody’s already sitting in the bleachers. Even the kids who are now too young for the Frenzy are in there. Agent Nanny Cam is nearby. “What’s going on?” I ask her.
“I knew you were going to agree to Braxton’s challenge,” she explains. “So I told all my subscribers that I would be going live soon. Some people came back to watch in person. Kind of makes me feel bad, really, like I couldn’t give them a good show online.”
“What have I gotten myself into?”
“Come on, dude, you’ll be fine. This is child’s play. I know you’ve never been happy with your results, but you run it better than you think. Your standards for yourself are just too high.”
“How would you know how I run it?”
“There are cameras all over the place. I’ve been able to see every time you’ve tried it.”
“And you never put it on your website?”
“Of course not.” She looked mildly insulted.
Braxton runs up again. “Let’s go, we’re burnin’ daylight!” Not only is he always running, but he’s always yelling too. In the end, he’s a pretty annoying person, and I should try to distance myself from him. I head for the starting point, but he stops me. “We’re starting at the back.”
“Are you crazy?” It might not seem weird to start a race from the other end, but some of the obstacles are designed to go one way. It’s possible to reverse them, but it makes it difficult. Not to mention the fact that the intended direction gives certain muscles in your body a break at certain times. Going backwards will force you to go hard at all times.
“I told you that we were droppin’ a rock. What, you thought I didn’t know what that meant; that I just wanted it to rhyme?”
“I’m not doing this.”
“That’s your choice.” He motions to the crowd as he turns his back. “I would be more worried about disappointing them if I were you.”
Agent Nanny Cam sidles up to me with her master controller. “We’re not live yet, I still have time to cancel the show.”
No, this is important, because a show is exactly what it is. I don’t have to win, I just have to try, and I have to make it interesting. “Let ‘em fly, Cambria.”
Minidrones shoot out of their nest and start flying around the room, each one looking for a good angle. She activates her shoutcaster microphone. “And we’re hot! Welcome to the First Annual Gauntlet Death Match. Our contestants today are Serkan Demir and Braxton Cosworthy...” I stop being able to hear her as I’m walking towards the finish line, and she’s pacing in the opposite direction.
The crowd cheers as Braxton puts his index fingers over his temples and slides his feet on the floor one by one, mimicking an angry bull with horns. Then they wait, because I’m supposed to do something too, so I harken back to earlier in the day, and present them with a few nice curtsies. They cheer even louder for me than for him.
“You win this round, Serkie.”
“Please stop calling me that.”
He ignores me and takes his action camera from Agent Nanny Cam’s cargo drone. I take mine as he’s fitting it around his chest. “I’m ready.”
“Same,” I say.
The buzzer goes off and we’re gone.
The Night Before
I immediately regret not taking time to put on my uniform. It’s made of a special material that partially protects from hard falls and crashes, and also beads water. We both reach the balance beam at the same time. Unlike in the Frenzy, you can’t just find the fastest way through the course. When you’re doing the Gauntlet, you have to do everything, and only one person can be on the beam at a time. Theoretically one could get on behind the other, but it bends and wobbles enough with only one person. Braxton shoves his shoulder against mine and lets me fall into the Pit of Lava. No, there isn’t any actual lava, but it is filled with a slimy goop of some kind that’s colored a reddish orange. It’s like a golf course sand trap; extremely difficult to get back out of. It does dissolve quickly in water, and there is a showerhead nearby for this reason. Normally that would be perfectly fine, because it’s near the end of the course, but since we’re going the wrong way, I have no choice but to run the whole thing wet. Have I told you how much I hate water?
I take off my shirt and shoes, because at this point, that’s the only way to continue. I can hear the cheering again, along with several cat calls. Nudity never bothers me, but I try to be careful about making others uncomfortable. I throw my clothes behind me as I’m getting back in the race. Here’s one thing Braxton probably didn’t know. There’s a sweet spot on the beam where, if you hit it just right, it’ll bend just enough so that it can propel you forwards and land you safely on the other side. This works going the right way, and I take a chance that it does backwards, and am rewarded for it. There is an uproar in enthusiasm as I stick the landing and quickly move on.
The next obstacle is a halfpipe with a very specific route between posts. You can run through it incorrectly, but then an alarm is going to ring out nonstop until you go back and correct yourself. Again, apparently everything is fine going backwards. The trick is staying balanced on a curve without holding onto the posts, unless that is, you like being mildly tased. I’ve finally caught up to Braxton after getting through the halfpipe. He’s having trouble getting up to the catwalk. You’re supposed to climb up a rope, and then jump down a series of platforms, finally ending up back at the bottom by dropping into a pit of foam. He’s still trying to figure out how to shimmy up the wall, which is not part of the course. “Betcha wish you weren’t so muscular now, huh?”
Braxton is strong but heavy, which can be an asset, but something like this requires agility and nimble dance moves. With this I have the advantage. I hop back and forth between two load bearing columns against the wall and make it to the first platform with relative ease. From there I jump to the next platform and pull myself up. The Dark Knight ain’t got nothin’ on me, risen or not. I race down the catwalk and slide down the rope. It burns my hands, but I can’t think about that now. I’ve just realized that I actually have a chance of winning, and I can’t let that go to waste.
Behind me I hear a scream. Braxton finally managed to get up to the first platform, but he’s stuck on the second. He’s just hanging there by his hands, unable to lift his own weight high enough to reach safety. The crowd is shocked but unmoving. The bystander effect is preventing anyone from running out to rescue him. Where are the adults? Each one thinks that someone else will do it. He’s my opponent, which makes him my responsibility. I have to get back over to him, but it would take too long to climb back up to the catwalk, and they built a canyon under it that’s far too wide to jump over. There’s only one way, and it’s insane. This could kill me, seriously. While holding onto the rope, I run in his general direction, but not quite towards him. It’s just long enough to reach the edge of the floor. I start running on the wall itself, following the swing radius of the rope. Is this going to work, or am I going to die? The radius pulls me away from the wall and I have to start hopping across posts, poles, bars, and other obstacles intended for completely different purposes. But I’m able to keep going. There’s always something close enough to hold my growing momentum.
Finally I’ve reached critical mass and have to throw myself forwards through the swing so that it will direct me to the other side of the canyon. My heart races, not only to keep oxygen to my brain, but because remember that part where I could die? The room is completely silent as I continue through my side swing. I don’t make it to the second platform, which was my target. Hell, I would have even taken the lower platform. No, my body smashes into the wall and I fall to the floor. The shock of what I had just done presumably causes Braxton to lose his grip. Now normally he might die from a fall this high, but I’m there to break it for him, and we both somehow survive.
“Are you okay?” he asks as we’re struggling to get to our feet.
“I’m not dead at least,” I answer.
He can’t put any weight on his right leg, and I’m in some pain myself. “Betcha wish I weren’t so muscular now, huh?” He asks rhetorically.
I laugh, but the pain is growing by the moment
Finally the audience runs down to tend to us. Andrews and Rutherford push their way through the horde of racers and take over the situation. “Let’s get them to medical,” Andrews says.
I don’t spend long in the medical bay before my mother comes to pick me up. She spends the whole ride back home scolding me for what I did, saying that Braxton’s problem was the result of his own choices, and that I shouldn’t have risked my life for him. “I mean, you could have run around the canyon to get to him.”
“That would have taken too long. You wouldn’t understand, you haven’t seen the Gauntlet.”
“Oh, I understand. I saw the whole thing on Miss Linton’s video feeds.”
“You were watching me?”
“What, you thought your mother wasn’t hip enough to watch that sort of thing? I was one of Agent Nanny Cam’s first subscribers, even before you were a Frenzy runner.”
“I just...I’m sorry, I was just trying to help.”
“I know, and God knows nobody else was doing anything. But you know how much we hate when you leap across buildings. You do it for your city, and we can appreciate that sort of dedication. Running the Gauntlet in reverse came out of nothing but pride, from the both of you.”
“Okay, well we’ll probably talk more about your behavior next week, but for the rest of the day, you need to study and rest.”
“I still need to do a dry run.”
“The Gauntlet will just have to be your dry run.”
“Mom!” I complain. “That’s not the same thing!”
“You should have thought about that before.”
“You were the who wanted me to register for this race. I wasn’t even gonna do it!”
“Oh, don’t put that on me. I know you better than you know yourself, and you wanted it more than anything. You just needed someone to push you so you didn’t have to take responsibility for your own guilty pleasures.”
“That’s not it at all.” No, that was pretty much spot on.
“I’m not having this conversation.” They were back home. “Go to your room, study the map, and go to sleep.”
“What about dinner?”
“No dinner, I’m starving you.”
I stomp down the hallway.
“And no going to the bathroom either!”
I slam the door.
“And stop breathing!”
I forego the studying and go to bed extremely early instead. The only time I’ll be able to get to the city is if I sneak out at night when my family’s asleep. Alim catches me slipping out the back door, but he lets me go because he gets it. I grab my bicycle from the porch because it’s quieter than opening the garage, and I need the warm-up anyway. It’s mighty cold outside, and clouds are once again threatening rain. As late as it is, there’s still a not insignificant amount of traffic. I would normally weave in and out of it as part of practice, but more and more cars are adapting to it in a way that makes things even more dangerous. You can’t teach a driverless car that I know what I’m doing.
I reach downtown and lock my bike up on the corner. I look at it this way, if I had a school test tomorrow, and I hadn’t been studying, then I would need to take some risks in order to compensate. They say that cramming isn’t all that helpful, but when it’s all you have, it’s what you accept. So I take out a special pair of electronic training goggles. One of Andrews’ competitors built the prototypes this year, and wanted the Frenzy kids to test them out, but the council would have none of it. Still, a few of us managed to steal them, so we could try them out.
They were supposed to be for training purposes only, because these kinds of modifications are against the bylaws, but the adults don’t think they should be used at all. The screen is a special kind of augmented reality called controlled reality. Instead of enhancing your vision, it hinders it. This is supposed to teach you to move around the world without seeing where you’re going too well. It’s been programmed to delete potential hazards, replacing them with what the program thinks it looks like behind it. If you don’t use your instincts, and your other senses, you could just run into it. If you think this all sounds dangerous, then you would be entirely correct, and probably now understand why it was banned by the council. There’s bravery, and then there’s stupidity.
In the darkness, it’s even worse. I can make out the outlines of the buildings and other objects around me, but I’m having trouble pinpointing their location. Either it’s designed to flicker like that to keep me guessing, or it just has rendering bugs. I take a deep breath and start my dry run, or rather I start a wet run. As I knew it would, it’s raining. No, it’s pouring, and I just know that this will not end well. I start by springing myself off of a first floor window sill and reaching out for a fire escape ladder. The second to the bottom rung appears to be in my hand, but then the goggles flicker and show me that I’m about a centimeter short. I have to think quickly, so I open my fist again and try to take hold of the bottom rung; also known as my last chance. I make it, barely. But that rain, though. I swing forward once, then backwards, then forwards again. With this, I lose my grip and fall down for the third time today, this time to my back. That’s all I remember.
The Knight After
I can hear movement in the room with me, but it’s dark and there are lot of crusties in my eyes. I calmly but with likely a lot of fear in my voice ask, “where am I?”
“You’re in my apartment,” a voice answers.
“Not the hospital,” I half-state, half-ask.
“Not in the hospital, no.”
“Why am I not in a hospital?”
“Well, because...” he trails off.
“How old are you?”
“Old enough to know how to call the cops.”
“I’m not here to hurt you. You were already hurt. I dragged you out of the rain and tended to your wounds.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“Everyone thinks doctors are the only ones who treat patients. Well, ya know what? Doctors barely do anything. Nurses are the ones who do the real work. Doctors breeze in, ask a few questions, scribble on your chart, and then go play golf.”
“So...you’re a nurse?”
He sighs. “No, I was a scout. I know how to treat a basic head injury. I didn’t think you wanted to go to a hospital because that’s not what we usually do.”
“Never mind that.”
“Creep factor is heading towards eleven.”
“I told you that I’m not going to hurt you.”
“That’s often what people say before they hurt you.”
“Have a lot of experience?”
“Could you please turn on the light?” I ask. “Your shadow is freaking me out.”
“Micro, turn the lights on,” he orders his home system. Oh my God, he’s hot. He must be at least five years older than me, but it’s like this love at first sight thing. He has smooth skin and cool brown eyes. His hair goes down to his shoulders, and it’s this interesting grayish tone that I can’t tell if it’s natural or fake. He’s medium build, muscular but not disgustingly ripped. If I had to describe the perfect man, I would probably just give you this guy’s name, if I knew it. He smiles kindly at me. “Hello again.”
“You say that a lot.”
“Do I? You must remember me from another life.”
What an odd thing to say. “What time is it?”
“Almost six. If there’s a silver lining in this,” he says and all I can think about is his hair. “...it’s that you actually managed to get some sleep. It was foolish of you to be outside that late, in the rain, with those stupid fucking goggles on.”
“Whoa,” I reply. “Don’t hate on the goggles, this wasn’t there fault.” He looks at me like I’m trippin’. “Okay, maybe it was.”
He nods like a teacher with a student who finally “gets it”. Then he stands up and starts walking toward the kitchen. “You better eat some carbs so you don’t fall again during the actual race today.”
Now I’m freaked out again, but...but those eyes, doe. “How do you know I’m in a race?”
“You’re famous,” he says. “Turn on all screens.” The entire bedroom area of the studio apartment turns into an immersive video experience. I had been wondering why the walls were completely bare. They’re not walls at all, just giant screens. We’re currently looking at two beautiful sceneries: a beach at sunrise, and a time lapse recording of autumn leaves falling from a forest of trees. A weather card and other widgets float around, along with a muted news feed about the Frenzy.
“Could you turn that up?”
“Unmute,” he commands.
The news anchor is in the middle of her story, “...witnesses say that Mr. Demir was able to return home shortly after the incident, and it has not been reported that he will not be able to run. Mr. Kaveda on the other hand, suffered too serious of damage to compete. He was unable to speak with us, but his family laments the unfortunate turn of events since this will be Mr. Kaveda’s last chance to win the Frenzy before aging out near the end of November. This comes on the heels of shocking news that dozens of other racers were automatically disqualified from this year’s event due to the recent strange weather in the area. Speaking of which, Maggie Nimbus, what do you have to say about this weather?”
“Mute,” my sexy nurse commands before the weather woman can go into her spiel about why she has no clue what the hell is going on.
“Braxton can’t run,” I say, mostly to myself.
“You were lucky. I saw the Gauntlet run.”
“So you’re a fan?”
“Of the race? Yes,” he answers, presumably fearful that I might be referring to a possible fanboy crush he has on me. “I hate running, but I admire the athleticism, so I live vicariously through you. I’m 24, so it’s only recently occurred to me that there might be a...creep factor to that.” He takes a sip from his tea.
I put my tail between my legs. “I’m sorry about that. I appreciate you taking care of me. I don’t have a medical alert chip in my arm, so I probably would have died out there alone. How could I ever thank you...?” I trail off, indicating that he should give me his name.
“I’m—” he stops himself like a stripper forgetting that she’s not supposed to give out her real information. “Everybody just calls me Ace.”
“I’m not everybody. I’m famous.”
“Still...you can call me Ace.”
“Very well, Ace.” This flirting is either going really well or I’m barking up the wrong tree and he’s just a pleasant social creature.
“Come on. My world famous quiche is almost done. You’ll regret it if you miss your opportunity to try it.”
I get out of the bed to find that I’m wearing nothing but a pair of briefs. That’s all I ever wear because they’re better to run in, but these are not mine. They’re not even my brand. “Uh...” is all I can say.
“Oh, sorry about that. Yeah, the creep factor is a thousand now. But you were wearing all wet clothes. I couldn’t let you keep those on.”
I don’t know what to say to him next. I feel fortunate that he treated me medically; but it’s also weird that he had to remove my clothes without permission; but I suppose if anyone’s going to take my clothes off, I would want it to be someone who looks like this guy; but I wouldn’t have wanted him to see me like that when I haven’t had time to, uh...get ready? “Thanksssss.” Stop saying the letter s, idiot! Jesus!
“I have some extra clothes in my dresser.”
As he’s putting the final touches on his supposedly amazing quiche, I open his drawers, looking for something that works. The top drawer has briefs, just like the ones he gave me, but the drawer after that is full of boxers. Most people choose one or the other, so unless he’s weirder than I thought, there’s someone else. “Do you have a roommate?”
He drops the fork he was using to test the taste of his dish. “What?”
I look down at the bed I had been sleeping in. “This is a pretty big bed for just one guy.”
“I...” he trails off again. He does that a lot too. It’s like he thinks he’s talking to someone he already knows well, and then has to remember that I’m a stranger, and adjust his words accordingly. “He’s gone.”
“I’m sorry. Bad breakup?”
“It was necessary,” Ace explains. “He’s about to go live abroad for four years.”
“You couldn’t follow him?”
He takes another fork out of the dishwasher. “Not where he’s going.”
“He’ll come back,” he says. “The most important people in your life will always come back, sometimes at unexpected times, but they’ll be there for you when you really need them.”
“That’s beautiful.” My phone goes off. “Crap, my mom’s calling.” I let it continue to ring, because if I tap the ignore button, she’ll know something’s up. When it’s done, I grab it. “Call Keilix,” I command it, and wait for the call to go through. “Keilix, you up?—Well, that’s good. Listen, you need to back me up if my mom asks whether I stayed with you last night.—I was doing a dry run and couldn’t get back in the rain, so I slept at a bus stop.—I know it’s dangerous, but I’m fine, would you just do this for me?—Okay, I didn’t mean to doubt you, but I’m just gonna tell her that we were studying.—Love you too.”
“You’re a really good liar,” Ace points out.
“No,” I counter. “I’m just a teenager.”
Mom accepts the lie without too many questions, especially because of Alim. Now he’s a good liar, and can always think on his feet. He’s always covered for me, even without me preparing him for it, which I never do. I love that guy so much, I need to say that to him out loud sometime. I find some clothes that fit me perfectly. Ace says that they’re his boyfriend’s that he just hasn’t gotten rid of yet. If his ex is my size, maybe he has a type, and maybe I’m his type, and maybe I should stop fawning over a guy who’s seven years older than me.
Still, the two of us have a nice breakfast. He was right, his quiche is amazing. It’s possibly the best meal I’ve ever had, and I’m not just saying that because I have the hots for him, or because my mother’s cooking isn’t the best. Don’t worry, she doesn’t particularly like cooking, and doesn’t think it’s great either. I don’t cook at all, so it would be nice to be with a man who could take care of that for me. Damn, there I go again. I gotta get this outta my head. The race. The Frenzy. That’s what’s important. That’s happening today. I have to get back to headquarters, check in with the council, and get my ride to my starting point.
Ace acts like he’s known me for years. He starts clearing the table and says, “welp, you better get going. I hear it’s bad if you finish a race in last place.”
“That’s a myth,” I say jokingly.
“I’m afraid I can’t give you a ride, but I’ll summon one and charge it to my account since your mother has access to your transactions.”
“That would be lovely, I’ll find a way to pay you back with cash.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he insists. “Just win that race for me, okay? I’ll be watching your feeds on the main screen.”
“I can do that,” I say with confidence. It’s gonna be tough, though. I’m not really ready for this year. I would give anything for a chance to go back and try these last few days over again, as long as it didn’t mean never meeting Ace.
On Your Marks
They made a series of movies years ago based on a trilogy of books. They’re about a post-apocalyptic future where wage disparity had grown so far out of proportion that the rich live in a city, and supposedly never need to work, while the poor live in filthy and dangerous districts. As I guess a sort of punishment for war, these rich people force the children of the poor to compete in a deadly contest every year. The Frenzy is nothing like that, but there’s a certain allure surrounding the competition reminiscent of that story. Certain members of the council have proposed changes to the Frenzy to make it more of an event. They wants kids to run out in front of an audience the day, or even days, before the actual race. They want us to introduce ourselves, and show off in small exhibitions. That would be more like those movies, and I would be okay with it. The only reason we don’t do it now is because we don’t really have anyone available to coordinate such a thing, but no one is adamantly against it.
For now, all we do is wave to the camera during rapid introductions before entering our vehicles that have been preprogrammed to drive us to our respective starting marks. The windows are at a zero percent tint level so we can’t see where we’re going. That usually doesn’t matter. Unless you end up in an expansive neighborhood, there will probably be a landmark or two that you recognize, even if you don’t make a point of studying.
Before you enter your car, you’ll be searched for all illegal enhancements. You’re allowed to wear agility bands of limited grade, take only certain kinds of performance enhancing pharmaceuticals, and wear precisely no navigational equipment. I usually only take one reflex booster and wear special shoes that give me extra bounce, but today I have nothing. My routine was thrown completely off when I almost died and ended up sleeping at someone else’s place. I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that I’ve already won this; the competition this year is not as, well...competitive as it used to be; and I was always going for this underprepared.
I’m usually in the car with at least three other people, but this time I’m riding solo. Others are sharing points, though. My phone was taken away from me, so I can’t communicate with someone I love to calm me down. Instead, I ask the car to play me some heavy metal. I never listen to this kind of music, but it’s fine in small doses, and it does a pretty good job of pumping me up. Even through it, I sit on the edge of my seat, then I try to sprawl out, and then I kind of stand up, but nothing is comfortable. I’m so nervous. I always am, but never like this. It should be easier since I’m not hyperfocused on winning, but maybe I’m just feeling a lot of pressure to represent my family. The council considered adding video feeds to the ride, so people can watch us get ready, but most felt it would ruin the moment. This is our time, our final period of privacy before literally our every move is witnessed, recorded, and dissected. Agent Nanny Cam has procured an impressive fleet of cameras that will broadcast to the world, and the future, my progress. It can be too much for some competitors. A few, mostly younger people, have buckled under the pressure of being broadcast. They end up quitting just before, or just after, the race begins.
I can hear the crowd cheer for me before I even open the door. We’re required to meet at Headquarters no less than two hours before start time. This allows time for the council to release the starting and ending locations to the local population while racers are sequestered. They want people to come and watch us get going, again encouraging exercise and economic participation. But they don’t know who they’re gonna find when the secret Frenzy car arrives at that location. So these people aren’t here for me specifically, they’ll be happy with anyone. They go wild when I step out. I’ve largely been avoiding the news cycle since I announced coming out of retirement. I didn’t do this on purpose, there just wasn’t time. What I do know, however, is that my volunteering to go back in when my brother couldn’t do it has been a not insignificant story. This is just another thing that’ll remind you of that book and movie series. It all started when the main character sacrificed herself so that her sister wouldn’t have to compete.
I shut the door with grace and adjust my suit like a celebrity getting out of a limousine at some world premiere. The crowd cheers, especially excited that they lucked out and got me instead of anyone else. It’s kind of an unwritten rule that you don’t ask for a racer’s autograph before the race, but there are always a few fanboys and girls who didn’t get memo. They scream and squeal, eagerly reaching out with notepads, and their own arms. I humor a few of them, but then move on so I can shake a few hands and kiss some babies. Just kidding, we don’t kiss babies. I’m not some kind of world leader. One hand takes hold and doesn’t let go. He’s strong, but I can’t quite tell who it is yet. Then my eyes land on the culprit.
“Pull me in,” he says to me. The police have a barricade to prevent anyone from getting through. It’s not like the Berlin Wall; if you wanted to get through, it wouldn’t be hard, but they would quickly force you back. I have an army of cops, bouncers, and security guards protecting me who are only leased out for this once a year.
I sigh. “I need to talk with him,” I say to a bouncer who I happen to have met before.
“Are you sure?” she asks me.
“He’s fine,” I answer. “He was DQ’d, but I know him. We just need to talk.”
“I’ll be right here,” she says as she’s cracking open the barrier to let Too Young Thompson, and Too Young Thompson only, squeeze through. He was the most vocally upset about being disqualified just for being too young for the weather.
“Come on,” I say, looking across the parking lot where I can see a rather small clock tower. There’s still plenty of time. The crowd boos as we walk towards the weird little pond garden sort of thing that’s right in front of my actual starting marker. “What are you doing here, Thompson?” I ask, hands on hips.
“I wanna run.”
“I get that, man,” I say, shaking my head. “You’ve been disqualified, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve seen a few other DQ’s in my day, all for different reasons. It’s true it’s never happened on this scale before, but absolutely no DQ decision has been overturned. Not once.
“This is public property, I can run if I want, and they can’t stop me,” Thompson claims.
I look around. “Yeah, this is a community college, so you’re fine here.” I look at the single paper map I was given by a council member I don’t know all that well who was assigned here. It tells me where I start, where I end, and a mapped out, marathon-length suggested route. It’s the same one Google Maps gives you if you tell it you’re walking, and you’re not a crazy person who plans on crawling through sewers. I won’t actually have to go the full marathon, because I’ll be cutting through neighborhoods which have all agreed to let me do this. Actually, the legality of that has always been questioned, it’s one step below going against the third amendment, but we’ve not had any serious law suits about it, with serious being the keyword here. “But I’ll be hopping people’s fences. If they find out a non-racer ran through their yards, and they will, they may not be so happy.”
“Fuck if I care.”
I look around, worried that someone heard that, then I pull him a little farther away from everybody. The crowd looks like they’re speculating about our conversation. The sportscasters probably are too. At this point, only a few cameras are shooting the action, but it’s basically background footage that they run during early commentary, and they keep their distance. “The council does. The city does.”
“Again, that’s not my problem. They should have known this would happen.”
“What? That a little baby would refuse to do what he’s told?”
“Screw you!” he volleys.
“This is exactly why they disqualified you. Generally speaking, kids under sixteen aren’t mature enough to handle a certain level of complication. The weather would be too hard on you, and you’re proving your immaturity by being here right now.”
“I’m gonna run,” he says without leaving room for questions.
“I can’t stop you.” I point to the table where drones are keeping charged in their cradles, and awaiting Agent Nanny Cam’s command to go off and watch. “But I promise you that they will find a way.”
“I’ll jump that bridge when I get to it.”
“They may ban you for life.”
He narrows his eyes. “Then I’ll burn the bridge.”
I’m right in that I can’t stop him, so I have no choice but to let it go. “Your funeral. Maybe literally.”
He turns his neck side to side and hops around a few times to get ready. Now it is almost time. A security guard comes up and fits me with my action cams. One goes on the chest, while the other goes on one of the legs and points downward. They call it the “foot cam” and it’s designed to pull viewers into the action. Uh...there’s a fetishist thing going on there, so there’s a special organizations of unrelated mothers trying to get them to get rid of that one, but they evidently struck out again this year.
Seven drones hover around us. One of them belongs to Agent Nanny Cam, and is just one of many in her fleet. More of those will show up intermittently. The other is a police drone armed with non-lethals. The city requires this drone to be with each racer at all times to protect us from the crazies. That’s just another reason why Too Young Thompson shouldn’t be here. He wasn’t assigned one of those, and I don’t know if he plans on sticking with me or not. The remaining drones belong to each of the major local news stations. They’re allowed at the starting points, and the finish lines, but aren’t permitted to follow the race itself. That honor is reserved for Agent Nanny Cam so City Frenzy can make a profit selling subscriptions and ad-supported feeds.
The news drones hold up little plastic levers they use to simulate raising one’s hand in a crowd. Reporters are allowed in the field, but drones and other technological developments have caused the profession to suffer on the whole. It’s much cheaper to just send one of these things out. I point to one of them. “Mr. Demir,” a voice begins. “Who’s your friend, and is he racing?”
I pause for dramatic effect while I’m shoring up my shoes. Then I look that drone right in it’s tiny little robot eye. “No comment.”
“Get there,” the security guard says.
Too Young Thompson follows me to the flag.
There’s that nightclub air horn that sounds three times in rapid succession. You know what I’m talking about? People often mimic it with their own voices when they think they’re DJs? Well, that goes off, and so do we.
Enter Rabbit Dog Stage Left
I and Thompson, as he shall from now on be referred to as, start running straight for the finish line. It would have been safer and more simplistic to go around the weird pond garden thing, but this is about giving people a show. We have to make it look interesting, which is how we were trained, and every racer agrees to not just get there as fast as possible. We spring from rocks and kick through thick thickets. Burrs desperately try to grapple onto my suit, but it isn’t havin’ none of that. It was designed specifically to prevent that sort of thing. Ah, the future. Is there anything like it?
We cross one main street, and then another. Most people got the memo that this is where the race is happening, so we don’t have to cross at the intersections, but there are still a few drivers there. I stop in the middle of the road to let one pass, but Thompson slides right over the top. He lands on the other side and keeps going as if nothing had happened. He may survive this yet. As I’m running to catch up with him, I realize that we’ve never had any footraces in this event. It just doesn’t happen; everybody’s coming from a different place, everybody’s going to a different place. Keilix once made the suggestion that we pair up so that we could compete with each other directly, but she only said that to me and a few others. Now I’m starting to think how much better it could be if we actually implemented that change.
We run through one neighborhood before coming across a creek. We both jump right into it and keep going like the badasses we are. We say nothing to each other, though. There’s no animosity, and we definitely aren’t friends. We’re just focused and in the zone. Agent Nanny Cam sent a second drone to keep track of Thompson. She is at least okay with him competing, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the council is. I fully expect to run into one of the leaders before we get too far.
Not long after the creek is the highway. Here’s where things get complicated. The reason they map out a path that doesn’t take you straight is because it’s unsafe to go any other way. Lincoln Rutherford’s job as the lawyer is framing the race objectives to make it clear that they don’t condone going off the trail while making it clear that they have no way of stopping it. Fortunately for us, there’s a significant amount of traffic at this juncture that people are not moving fast. They’re doing a bit of construction on both sides so, even with driverless cars, there just aren’t enough lanes to go around. People get out of their cars to cheer. This makes it even safer for us, because even when traffic picks back up, everyone’s stuck. I wave to the fans as I’m running by, but Thompson can’t think about that. He still has to prove himself worthy. I’m mostly worried about what that means for the other children who were disqualified, but weren’t allowed back in simply by not taking no for an answer.
We go through a few more neighborhoods. They’re a little harder to get through because they’ve built tall fences, but we don’t run into any problems with the residents. A few are out watching us, excited for the chance for their fifteen minutes of fame to be broadcast, but most people are either busy, or holed up inside. We end up at a wall to the highway, the other side of which we want to be. Between the backyards of these houses and the wall is an extremely dense forest. There’s no way to know how long the fence goes. Our only chance is going over it. We give each other this look and then simultaneously start scrambling up trees, switching between them as needed. Better-trained Thompson reaches the top faster and disappears.
Unlike the first highway, this one is both busy and unrelenting. It would not be safe to try and cross. This was all a stupid idea. We should have gone forwards to look for an overpass or underpass. Thompson is pacing back and forth on the shoulder, looking for an opening, but I spot a better idea. I consider calling over to him, but choose not to, because this is his mess. I run the wrong direction along the wall. It’s about as thin as a balance beam, which I practice on a lot. This is nothing to me. I hop the gap and start climbing along the metal structure they use for overhead highway signs. I then climb down to run along the median so I can make it to the matching sign structure for the northbound traffic. I get a chance to look back and find that Thompson has made the right call, and is hot on my trail. I should have made sure he did that, though. He could have gotten himself killed, and I would have been responsible for it.
“Wait for me!” he cries out.
“I’m in a race!” I call back, still trying to figure out how to get over this other wall without a bunch of trees.
“I have spring shoes!” he volleys. Okay, that’s a good reason to wait.
I take the time to catch my breath while he’s making his way over the bars and down to me. “Boost me up, and I’ll help you up from the top. No way those spring shoes get you that far.”
Part of our training is to work in teams, even though this is an individual sport. We learn moves and other special tricks together. This one is called The Lonely Diver. It’s an ironic name, because it can’t be done with only one person. With no coordination, he gets down on his hands and knees, leaning his head forward like he’s deep in prayer while I take my position a few yards away.
“Ready?” I ask.
“Pull!” he yells as loud as he can, which is protocol for these kinds of partner moves.
I start running towards him as fast as I can then let one foot land on his back. At just the right moment, he pushes himself away from the ground as hard as he can, letting me fly up to the top of the wall. As a sort of redemption moment from last night when I fell from the fire escape, I manage a tight grip on the top of the wall. I use all my upper-body strength to pull myself up to safety. I can just picture a number of random people at home, watching our feeds and simultaneously shoving their fists in the air with excitement at our success.
The next move is called Social Ladder. I hang the bottom of my legs over the other side, facing Thompson while upside down.
“Ready?” he asks.
“Pull!” I yell back.
He runs for me and uses his spring shoes to jump as high as he can. I catch his armpits with my own so that we’re interlocked. There’s no good position to end up in this, and of course, it always depends on how high up you are, but it’s what you gotta do. He proceeds to use me as a human ladder so that he can make it all the way up to the top. We jump down and land on the ground together, breathing heavily after the harrowing miniature adventure. We give each other another look before breaking the sound barrier and getting back into the race. We run for over three miles just through neighborhoods, and nothing else interesting happens. But then we run into Keilix. Literally.
We don’t fall down this time, but something does fall out of her arms. It’s some weird kind of animal that I don’t recognize at all. I mean, it’s not just a breed of dog I don’t personally know. It looks like something out of a movie about wizards running around looking for mythological creatures with nothing but a suitcase. Okay, so its ears are what stick out the most...upwards, actually. They’re curved like soft tacos, and she’s moving them around out of sync, searching for the best way to listen to her environment. She’s otherwise unmoving, though. And yes, something tells me that it’s a lady; perhaps just the fact that its eyelashes are particularly long, like when Bugs Bunny dresses up as a woman to trick his enemies. The hindlegs are more like a rabbit’s, but the front legs more like a beagle’s. Her muzzle is smushed into her face and you would expect from a rabbit, but then she also has big droopy beagle lips.I seem to remember that rabbits have their eyes on the side, while a beagle’s are more straight forward. Well, this thing’s eyes split the difference between those two poles. Yes, the only right name for this strange creature was Rabbit Dog. It was a rabbit dog.
“What the hell is that thing?” Thompson cries.
Keilix reaches back down and picks up the animal. “It’s a rabbit dog, I guess. Christ, I don’t know.”
“What are you doing with it?” I ask earnestly.
“I just have this need. I have to protect it. I found it hop-running down the street. It wasn’t scared, but it wanted to get away from something behind it. I’ve been running with it ever since.”
“Well, I suppose you’re giving the fans a good show.”
She shakes her head. “I’m not. I’ve not been broadcasting. Look at the drones.”
Both Thompson and I look up at all four drones and see that she’s right. They’re hovering obediently, but the blinking red light from the cameras are off.
“She’s giving off some kind of charge...or something that prevents video from recording.”
“Fascinating,” I say in my best Zachary Quinto impression while petting the rabbit dog.
Thompson is not being subtle about how impatient he is. “Are we gonna stand here all day, or are we gonna race?”
“Go on. We’ve already established that no one can stop you.”
“What is here doing here?” Keilix asks, trying to sound upset, but still enthralled by our new pet.
“Long story,” I answer.
“Hello?” Thompson says indignantly. “I’m still here. I don’t know where the finish line is.”
“Were you just go steal your paper map at some point,” Thompson explains.
I hastily pull the map out of my back pocket, letting it tear before handing it to him. “Here. Go nuts.”
Thompson snatches it from my hand and runs off in our original direction without yet looking at it.
“I have to get back in the race too,” Keilix says. “I’ll be disqualified if I can’t broadcast, but I can’t let this thing go. She needs my help.”
“I’ll take care of her,” I claim.
“Are you sure? I still don’t know what it’s running from.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say, taking the little animal in my arms. “I’ll just keep running. It’s what I do.”
“You’ll be disqualified instead.”
I start jogging away. “Who cares?” It’s true that I don’t care anymore. I can feel the weird effect the rabbit dog is having on my empathy, but I can’t stop it, because it’s making me not want to. It’s also making me worry deeply that someone is indeed after us, so I start running hard again.
Complex and Weird
It’s really hard to explain what’s happening when you’re carrying a rabbit dog. If you have a child, then imagine that your child is in danger; and if you don’t have a child, then imagine you do have a child, and that that child is in danger; and if you don’t like children, then imagine that the love of your life is in danger; and if you’re antisocial, then imagine that your most prized possession is in danger; and if you don’t care about anything because you’re a sociopath, then imagine that your own self is in danger—everybody else is. Now imagine that the overprotectiveness you feel for the subject is turned up to eleven. Only then can you possibly understand the psychology behind needing to protect Rabbit Dog, who I have decided to name Crispin. If you play card games then you get why I chose that name. Crispin not only makes you feel like you have to take care of him, but he also makes you feel safe. Even though it’s clear that we’re in danger, and that someone is chasing after us, I know that we can handle it, because we’re together.
I don’t know why, but I also have an instinct to continue on the path towards my finish line. The amusement park offers no further safety than any other location, but I don’t know where else to go, and my plans towards it are really the only thing I can think about other than Crispin. I guess that’s a side effect of his power. He only lets you focus on a single objective, and since I was already going this way, my compulsion defaulted back to it. I run out of the commercial area and run through more neighborhoods. Nall at 67th, Lamar at 63rd, Mission at 59th, Shawnee Mission Parkway. Then I realize a possible benefit of me having to head this way. At 47th and Rainbow Boulevard, there’s a police station attached to the city hall of whatever city I’m in right now. It’s hard to tell in the suburbs. You can drive on the highway for ten or fifteen minutes and pass six or seven towns without even knowing it.
The police, yes, they can help. They won’t know what this thing is, or where it came from, but they’ll know what to do. I walk in through the front doors and approach the reception window. You would think they would want to keep someone there at all times, but no one is waiting to help. “Hello?” I call out. I tilt my lizard brain to listen for a response, but nothing comes. “I was hoping to find some help here. My situation is a little weird.” I need to be careful about the words I say in a place like this. You can’t say ‘bomb’ on an airplane. No one is answering me, and there doesn’t seem to be an intercom, or even a little bell. The waiting area is pretty small, and it doesn’t look like I’m allowed to go anywhere else, but still I try the doors. Nothing. They’re both locked and require some sort of identification sensor. Crispin makes this adorable sharp squeaking sound. A surge of electricity passes between us and flows back and forth. It’s invigorating, and not at all painful. I place my hand over the ID sensor and hear the door unlock. “That might come in handy, my little friend.”
We peek into the hallway like gophers, tentative and cautious. I slowly walk forwards, looking for any sign of life, but find absolutely no one. This place is completely dead, and it’s the most eerie feeling ever. My only saving grace is the comfort Crispin affords me through his fur. As soon as I use Crispin’s electrokinesis to unlock the door to the stairs, I start to hear an alarm, and what sounds like the crashing waves of an ocean. I close the door and the sounds stop instantly. I reopen and hear them again. I close and they disappear. There’s no reason for these walls to be soundproof, so what the hell is going on? What the actual hell is going on in this place at all? I decide to not go upstairs, because whatever is waiting for me up there is more dangerous than anything that might be chasing us.
As soon as I turn around, the scene changes. I mean, it’s like we were standing at the brink of movie sets for two entirely different films. Behind me is still the wall, but ahead of me is a desert. I’m not talking about the dirty deserts of southwest United States. This is is an ultra-sandy African, Middle Eastern dune desert. I can feel the heat on my skin, and sharp pangs as wind forces individual sand particles to hit me in the face. Scared but curious, I step forward. Just before my shoe can touch the sand, the scene resets and sends me to the exterior of the police station I was just in. We just teleported twice, and Crispin doesn’t seem bothered by it. For the first time ever, he makes a point of looking up at me, and he’s just giving me this look like this is a normal thing. For me, I’m amazed and inspired by having seen time being altered for the first time, but for him, it’s Tuesday.
Still, I know that going back into the empty police station is an entirely bad idea. There is no help there, and we have to move on. We don’t get far, though. Just on the other side of the street are highrise apartments. I remember when these were first being built around 2016. They were advertised as luxury apartments, but I guess through a series of economic events and political shifting, they were converted into more affordable housing. The sun kept going up and down, and this is Tagger gang territory now. Crispin informs me though his feelings that we can find temporary shelter there, so I use my new superpower and step in.
We find ourselves in a lobby area. To my left are a set of those boxes where people used to leave pieces of dead trees to communicate with each other, I guess because email servers were down? A beautiful mural has been painted on the back wall depicting what must be the recent weather problems. The Taggers work fast. It’s only then that I realize that the weather has been fine today. I suppose the council’s whole problem with the weather is that they’re unable to predict what it’s going to do, so it was just safest from their perspective to disqualify the young ones. It’s ironic that this might be some of the best weather we’ve ever had for a Frenzy. I forget my thoughts as a group of people step into view from different places, as if they had rehearsed their dramatic entrance.
Their current leader, who goes by the name of Freeley, approaches me. “What are you two doing here?”
I look behind me, wondering if Keilix or even Thompson followed me here, but I’m alone. Is he casually referring to Crispin as if he weren’t a magical beast no one’s ever seen before? “I seek Sanctuary.”
Everyone laughs, but stops the instant Freeley gestures that it’s over. “What are you doing with him?”
“I’m protecting him.”
“Where did you find him?”
“My friend found him. We’re in Frenzy. We ran into each other in Old Overland Park and she handed him off to me so she could continue on with the race.”
Freeley seems mildly surprised by this. “She was able to give him up.” Then he finished, “but you’re not, are you?”
“You have an unbreakable bond with him, don’t you? You couldn’t let go of him if you tried.”
“How did you know?”
It’s happened before. He looks to the stairs behind him. “Krakken?”
The dude who was apparently Krakken walks down and comes forward. He regards Crispin with a sense of familiarity, affection, but no drive to protect him.
“Krakken, tell the man what happened.”
Krakken starts into his story, “I found Raggy huddled behind a trashcan two autumns ago while I was painting my Tagger audition downtown.”
“His name is Raggy?” I ask.
“That’s what I named him. I think everyone calls him something different.”
“What is he?”
“I don’t know,” Krakken answers. “I only had this need to carry him to a rabbit warren I somehow knew was in a forest outside the metro. The rabbits seemed neutral about him being there, but he seemed happy. I set him down and left, never to see him again.”
“Are we safe here?” I ask.
“Not really,” Freeley says.
“Well...do you know what’s going on with the police station? It was weird.”
“Weird how?” Freeley presses.
“It’s just...well, no one was there,” I decide to say, not wanting to make myself sound like a crazy person, talking about time travel or whatever.
“There’s something happening on the other side of the metro,” Freeley explains. “It has something to do with your little race. The police must have called in reinforcements from this station.”
“What exactly is happening? Do you guys have a Frenzy feed?”
“Yeah, but it’s weird. The cameras are going haywire, I guess. Social media is blowing up with complaints from people who actually paid to watch that garbage.”
“We should probably stay away from that, then.” I say.
“That’s what I would recommend,” Krakken agrees.
“Unfortunately, the only people who might be able to help you are the Beasts, but their territory is on the other side of the commotion.”
“Oh, that’s right! Why did I not think of them? The Beasts! Of course they would help us. Do you think you could safely drive us down there?”
“None of my people is going anywhere near that race. I’m sorry,” Freeley apologizes genuinely, but firmly. “Your best bet is probably with the Tracers. I can call Slipstream for you.”
“Would you? Do you know her?”
“Yeah, we’re cool,” Freeley says. Then she turns away to make an intergang call.
“Hey, what’s going on with the weather?” A particularly young Tagger has his head against the glass, and is looking upwards.
“What are you talking about?” I ask in return. “The weather’s fine.”
“Exactly,” he replies. “It’s been total shit all day.” He starts walking towards us, almost threateningly. “In fact...it only got better once you arrived.”
I ever so slightly step backwards. “Uh...isn’t that a good thing.”
“It’s a weird thing,” the guy counters.
“Hold on,” Freeley says into the phone. “Hey, what’s up?”
“This animal has something to do with the weather,” a woman says.
“Krakken, is that possible?” Freeley asks.
“I ain’t never heard of it. Didn’t happen to me.”
Freeley goes back to her phone. “Slip, I’m gonna call ya back.”
The one who first noticed the weather is drawing nearer, and I’m walking backwards in concert with him. “Look, I don’t what no trouble.”
“We have to study that thing.” Others are starting to look more interested in investigating.
“Oh, we shouldn’t do that,” Krakken disagrees. Crispin’s effect on him will probably never completely wear off, but it isn’t nearly as strong as I wish it were.
Yet another Tagger comes out of nowhere and steals Crispin from my grasp. He’s wearing these long black gloves of unknown material. The rest of his clothes look custom made as well, as if they served some kind of purpose. He’s also wearing a funny-looking hat. “Back off,” he orders the crowd.
“Noobo, what the hell are you doing?”
“Stop calling me that!” glove-guy yells. “I don’t wanna be initiated in your stupid gang.”
“Who are you?” Freeley asks with a greater amount of authority than before.
“I just want the animal,” Noobo, or whatever his real name was, answers.
“You infiltrated my gang?” Freeley asks. “You heard about Krakken’s adventure, and signed up. Who do you work for?”
“That’s none of your business.” And then Noobo darts out the door. I see him retrieving a comms device from his pocket.
“Will you help?” I ask the rest of the gang, but mostly Freeley.
“I’m not putting my people in danger.”
“Boss?” Krakken asks.
Freeley nods. “As you wish.”
“Try to keep up,” I say to Krakken. I put on my game face and spin into my bull stance. Then I start running once more.
The Spoon is Not There
All gangs in the metro have their own territories, but they’re a little more complex than simple geography. First of all, it’s important to realize that when I’m talking about gangs, I’m not referring to the violent or criminal elements that plagued earlier times. To be sure, those kind of gangs still exist, but advances in police surveillance—and more importantly, changes to legislation—have tampered those down considerably. The gangs of now are more like clubs; groups of like-minded individuals who reject mainstream conformity. They don’t belong to national organizations, they don’t have websites, and initiation can still be somewhat dangerous.
The Taggers, for instance, are dedicated to taking part in illegal artwork. Part of the newer legislation has been used to redirect police work to more serious crimes. Drug manufacturing and dealing are prosecuted so much more severely than drug usage, but still not as much as rape. Addicts are treated less as criminals, and more as patients. The key term there is patience. Likewise, as long as the Taggers don’t draw violence, nudity, or other unseemingly pieces, they’re generally left alone. There is also a sort of treaty designed to allow members of the Tagger gang to come back and clean up their paint jobs once they feel that their message has been effectively delivered.
The Tracers are also not known for being the most upstanding citizens. As but a probationary member, I’m only allowed to run with them in certain designated locations. Full members can run anywhere. Or rather, they do run anywhere, including places that require they be trespassing. Some of the best places to run are abandoned buildings and construction sites. If you’re caught, you’re in trouble, but they have to actually catch you. Just like in baseball, they can’t just see you, or even capture your crime on a recording. Cops have to catch up to you and take you into custody within a certain period of witnessing your crime, which is something most aren’t willing to do, because what’s the point?
The Beasts are an entirely different story. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding them, much of it fueled by its multiple semi-interrelated factions. The most innocuous of these are hippy-dippy tree hugging vegetarians. The most dangerous, however, are self-righteous vegan eco-terrorists. What began as a single gang gradually cleaved into these factions due to inconsistencies in their ideologies. No one wanted to give up the name, though, so like Christians, the rest of us just sort of lump them into one group, and we don’t really care how they feel about that.
There are other gangs; the Ballers, the Hardcore Gamers, the Codas, the Singularities, the Gunbenders, and several more. But the Taggers, Tracers, and Beasts are the main three that rule the proverbial playground. Like I said, they all have territories, but it’s not like they’re not allowed to cross at all. They form treaties and other agreements with each other. Taggers are allowed to cross borders to make statements, but only in the inner city, and only under certain circumstances. These either have to be cleared with that territory’s leader ahead of time, or during an initiation. Newbies are required to prove themselves worthy by an endeavor known as “flagging”. Flagging entails painting either over preexisting work, within another gang’s territory without permission, or at high-risk areas like police stations or museums. Freeley managed to become gang leader by painting the entire front edifice of a mayor’s home in Mission Hills. This had to happen much later, however, because she was caught and served real time in prison for it.
This is important information because the Tagger apartment building headquarters is located at a confluence of three counties. The Beasts generally run Johnson, the Tracers handle Jackson, and the Taggers have Wyandotte. If you looked at a map of territories, they wouldn’t follow county lines so perfectly, and there would even be some overlap, but there is a general order to it. By running even a few blocks, Krakken enters Tracer territory without permission. It’s true that he’s not doing it with the intention of tagging, but still, it’s common courtesy to let ‘em know. Unfortunately this is simply not possible. The infiltrator has taken Crispin towards downtown, so that’s where we have to go. Luckily Krakken has me, so I should be able to halt any disagreements. I might even be able to recruit some help. Freeley had the impression that Crispin’s kidnapper worked for a company of some kind, and if there’s one thing all gangs can agree on, it’s screw the man.
I can’t think of any other name for him, so we’re just gonna keep calling him Noobo, the one who stole Crispin from my arms. We’ve nearly caught up to him. Krakken is doing surprisingly well. Noobo’s weird outfit is within centimeters of my fingers when he makes a lateral move to his right that I did not expect. I can’t stop and zag fast enough to get back on track before he’s turned on his vehicle and taken off. Now he’s not operating a car, motorcycle, or anything that normal people drive. No, this is a hoverplat. It’s a niche product that never really caught on because it looks like a balcony that can’t go more than a foot off the ground. They were also never very popular because the consumed energy to speed ratio is far too great. But this one is different. It’s still not as fast as a car, but faster than a golf cart. And this means that it’s faster than a human.
He’s getting farther and farther away, and there’s no way we could ever overtake him. Not like this. He’s chosen his vehicle, and we can use that against him. I have one trick up my sleeve that he would not expect. “Do you have a phone?”
“Of course,” Krakken says. “Don’t you?”
“Give it to me,” I order. “Frenzy racers aren’t allowed to carry tech.”
“Oh, right.” He takes out his phone and hands it to me. I dial one of the few numbers I have memorized, which connects me to one of the few gang members outside of the Tracers that I know. J-Cuken isn’t the leader of the Grammer gang, but he’s pretty high up there. And he owes me a favor. “J,” I say into the phone. “I need you to turn the device I’m calling you on into a master.” He gives me a little crap, but I tell him that it’s time sensitive and he immediately complies. “I’m also going to need a proximity ICC eavesdrop for the car I access with this.” He gives me that as well.
“What are we doing?” Krakken asks as we’re walking towards the car I’ve chosen.
“We’re takin’ this car,” I answer.
“I wouldn’t think a Tagger would be afraid of a little GTA.”
“I’m not, it’s just...”
“Get in or not.” I wave the phone in front of the door and it opens for us. “Vehicle, head North by Northeast. Search for any hoverplat in the area traveling more than thirty miles per hour.”
“You can do that?” Krakken asks as the car automatically drives off.
“All driverless cars on the road are connected to each other. They communicate traffic conditions, route changes, and upcoming hazards. Humans can’t usually read or write this information, but an eavesdropping protocol makes it possible.” It’s the modern-day equivalent of stepping into a New York taxi and instructing the driver to follow that cab.
“Wow,” is all that Krakken can say.
“We’re gonna catch up to this guy,” I say to him, “but I don’t know what happens after that.”
He shakes his head. “Taggers aren’t known for our caution.”
I nod. “I hear ya.”
“Requested hoverplat found,” the artificial intelligent system in the car we’ve just stolen says through the aether.
I’m about to order the car to catch all the way up to it and knock it off the road or something, but Krakken cuts me off. “Follow at a distance of two car lengths.”
“What exactly are we waiting for?”
“For an opening. Unless you want to barrel through this like a typical tracer. I can’t ensure Raggy’s safety if we try that. Can you?”
“Point taken,” I respond. We wait patiently, hoping Noobo never realizes that we’re right behind him. After a few minutes, I start looking around. This is weird. “Vehicle, what is the hoverplat’s destination?”
“I do not have that information.”
“Predict its destination based on pattern of travel.”
“Present course could lead to a number of destinations. Areas of interest include Linwood Strip Mall, Union Cemetery, Crown Center, University of Missouri Kansas—”
I interrupt the voice, “end list.”
“Do you know where he’s going?”
“He’s on my route.”
“You mean...?” Krakken started to ask.
“He’s heading towards my finish line. Where exactly he’s going, I can’t know, but it’s quite odd.”
“Indeed,” Krakken agrees.
I make a steeple with my hands and rest my mouth on it. I don’t know where he’s going, but I know where he is. Whoever he works for has no good plans for Crispin. They could show up at any moment, and it is then that I lose my advantage. I have to act now. “Do you know how to drive?”
“Please stop questioning me. You agreed to come along, so just answer me.”
“I don’t drive. I ride the bus or walk. But I can technically drive. Though, I don’t know why I ever would.”
“You would if I need the instincts of a human instead of the precision of a car’s artificial intelligence. I need you to do bad things with this vehicle. Could you manage that?”
He lifts his chin to get a look at the controls. “You’re lucky this even has manual option.”
“I take that as a yes.” I do a few stretches then place my hand on the door handle. “I trust that you understand what I’m going for here?”
“I understand, and I’ll do everything in my power to get you there, but I cannot recommend this course of action, Captain.”
I pull the door open and brace myself on the roof as Krakken takes over the controls and speeds up. So far, Noobo has still not noticed us, so that’s something. It does little to alleviate the stress of holding onto the top of a car as it speeds down the road, though. “Closer!” I yell through the windshield, fully aware that Noobo might be able to hear me. He does and tries to kick the hoverplat into high gear, but that’s not a thing. He was always going at maximum speed. Krakken gets me about as close as he’s able to without endangering Crispin’s life. Like an action movie star I may be destined to become, I jump off the hood of the car and head for the hoverplat. I land right behind Noobo and steal Crispin back from his arms.
“This is our property!” he yells to me, but only because we can’t really hear each other very well at these speeds.
“He’s not property, he’s a life.”
Noobo takes a gun out of his pocket and points it at my head, careful to keep it away from Crispin. He needs the rabbit dog alive.
Crispin transfers some power to me and I instinctively shoot a bolt of lightning out of my hand.
The electricity just surges all around Noobo’s body, affecting him only by giving me a huge smile. “Why do you think I’m wearing all this?”
That must be some kind of grounding material, or a Faraday Cage, or whatever it is that allows electricity to pass over him safely. What can I do with that?
Someone sneaks up from the side of me and takes Crispin for himself. He uses the same power of electricity to disrupt the operation of the hoverplat itself. He then takes me by the shoulders and casually steps us backwards off the machine. We land safely on the ground, magically ignoring the properties of momentum. We then watch as the hoverplat explodes. In the attempt to avoid a collision, Krakken swerves and ends up smashing into a giant Catholic church.
The masked man keeps holding onto me, and won’t let me try to help. He’s an infamous member of the Tracer gang who literally never speaks. “K-Boy.”
But They Don't Fall Down
K-Boy is this mysteriously perplexing enigma that no one can explain. Seriously, as Slipstream tells it, he just showed up one day and started running with them. He didn’t say a word then, and still hasn’t. They only let him stay because he’s the absolute best. I mean the things he can do are physically illegal. No human can accomplish such amazing feats. Slipstream contacted the Singularities to see if he was one of their transhumanists, but like, from the future. They said no, and he even cut himself on the arm, presumably to prove that he bleeds and heals just like everybody else. All these are just stories to me, though. I’ve only ever personally seen him at a distance while I was eating his dust. What I really wanna know is how they know what his name is if he’s never said it.
One thing is for sure, he’s incredibly strong, just as I would expect. I try to break free from his grip, but there’s nothing I can do. In fact, he holds me tighter to his body and zips away. Next thing I know, I’m standing in the middle of a parking lot, but not just any parking lot. This is right around my final destination at the amusement park. I can see rides in the midground of my vision. I also look back and realize that I witnessed all the space in between the church and here. So we didn’t teleport, we ran. We ran fast. “Whoa. How the hell did you do that?”
“That is not your concern at this time,” Lincoln Rutherford, Esquire says, revealing himself to have been standing there the whole time. He starts walking towards the two of them then nods to K-Boy. “Good job. Best get to your next checkpoint.”
K-Boy carefully hands Crispin back to me then speeds off in the blink of an eye. This is not my first experience with time manipulation, but now I know that I wasn’t dreaming before in the police station. This is real. This is my life now. Some people can mess with time, and I don’t know what they’re going to do with me now that they know that I know.
“What’s going on?” I ask, trying to not sound like I’m accusing him of anything, but failing.
“I work very hard to remain a neutral party. You’ve no idea how difficult it is for me to act like a normal person...to be a lawyer, of all things.”
“What are you if not that? A time traveler?”
I don’t travel through time, but I can see it.”
“So can everyone else.”
He smiles. “Yes, you’re right about that, aren’t you?” He paces, but just a little. “I see every possible outcome of every possible choice, and I see the entirety of the past, and I see every alternate reality that once was.”
“Fascinating,” I say, feeling like it’s time for him to get to the point. Even though it really is interesting, I don’t actually understand what he’s talking about.
“But I can’t see you. You are a variable that exists...let’s say, outside of my jurisdiction.” He nods at his own accomplishment of finding the right analogy.
“Is this because I stepped into the police station?”
“When was this?”
“No, whatever you mean by that, it was before that. You’ve always clouded my vision. I like being around you because it makes my life interesting for a change.”
“How did this happen to you?”
“It didn’t happen to me. It happened to an alternate version of me, and that has had repercussions across all timelines.”
“I see. That doesn’t explain what I have to do with anything, or what I’m doing here.”
“I told you, because—”
I cut him off, “yes, I’m special. You can’t see my future. Something, something, something, chosen one, something, something, dark side.”
He twitches at this. “What made you decide to use that term?”
“What? Dark side? I dunno, ‘cuz bad guys?”
“No. Chosen one. Did you hear that somewhere?”
I shrug. “It’s a common trope in fiction. They’re all just Jesus, though.”
He paces again, but adds some jitters. “No, that’s not right. There are choosing ones, but no chosen ones. Unless...”
“Unless what? I mean, who’s choosing what?”
He starts backing away, like he’s afraid of me. “Umm...”
“Rutherford, what just happened? All I said was chosen one.”
This makes him twitch again. “You’re something different. You’re new. I have to consult the timestream. I can’t be here right now.”
Black sports utility clichés screech into the parking lot from the other side and start driving towards us menacingly.
“I brought you here so that you could technically finish the race, but you should go. I’m sorry, I have to go too, I can’t help you.” He crawls into his car and drives off.
“Wait! What am I supposed to do now!”
He doesn’t answer, of course, so I just stand there and watch as he passes the SUVs who don’t give him the time of day. I could try to run, but we’re in flat Missouri. There’s nowhere to hide, and they would eventually catch up to us. I look down at Crispin who’s been as quiet as ever. But then he does that adorable squeak again, giving me the signal. “You’re right. We have no choice but to fight.” As the vehicles draw closer, I summon the electrokinetic power from Crispin and send a lightning bolt towards the lead car. It overloads the battery and sends it exploding out of the hood. The others swerve around it and keep coming. I can see an unassuming sedan coming at me from another direction, but I ignore it and send another bolt towards the major threat, which shoots right through the windshield and presumably fries the humans on the other side. Still more SUVs race towards us, and they’re almost here. I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. “I’ve one more trick,” I say, then I face my palm towards the ground. Energy passes out of Crispin, through me, and then into the air around us. An electromagnetic pulse halts all electronic equipment in the area, sending all vehicles in the lot into a frenzy as the drivers attempt to regain control.
After the dust has settled, men in dark suits and sunglasses step out of the SUVs and point their firearms at me. They don’t want to shoot, though, because they obviously want Crispin alive. I’m actually starting to get the feeling that they want him back. He didn’t come out of nothing. Somebody made him, and he must have escaped some off-the-books facility they built underneath a lake, or on the side of a steep cliff. The men carefully walk towards me. None of them is wearing the kind of suit that Noobo was, though, so I think I can take them. As luck would have it, I don’t have to. Ace suddenly runs up to me from the side and starts firing his own weapon at them. They fire back, but miss, of course.
The leader guy screams, “hold your fire! Hold your fire!”
They all stop but duck behind their cars because Ace doesn’t stop, until he has to. His gun only holds so many bullets.
The leader guy runs up and engages in fisticuffs with Ace, who holds his ground beautifully. Redshirts run up as well. A couple try to help their leader, despite Ace’s ability to hold them all off at once. The rest strategically attempt to steal Crispin from me. I zap a few of them, but minimally, because we don’t have much charge left. I swing both my legs and one of my arms at them, landing a few good hits, but in the end, I’m overtaken. I fall to my ass and try to shield Crispin from their grimy little hands.
Ace pulls their attention away just in time, though, having successfully put down the others. Before too long, they’re all on the ground, nursing their wounds, or just plain unconscious. He reaches his hand down to me. The sun produces a brilliant halo over his head. If that’s not apropos symbolism then I don’t know what is. Maybe he’s the real chosen one. I sure as shit can’t imagine it’s me.
“Where did you come from?” I ask.
“I can’t explain that since we have to, ya know, GTFO.”
“Why does everyone I know have something to do with it?”
“With it, IT! What’s happening right now. This whole thing. The rabbit dog, the SUVs, Lincoln Rutherford, you! You all know something I don’t, and I want answers!”
“I can give you answers, but just not right now, okay? It’s time to go. That was our ride you destroyed.” He gestures to his sedan.
I let out a sigh of impatience. “Fine. I can run, can you?”
Then we jog away.
There is No Sanctuary
I’m leading the small pack, but Ace is directing me where to go. He says that we need to get to the other side of the river, and at some point, find a vehicle. Our final destination is too far away to run. Rather, it’s too far away for him to run. I would be just fine, but I have to recognize other people’s limitations. And time is of the essence. We first head for the loopway and run alongside it for a while, letting it take us across the Missouri. Less than an hour in, we make a stop at the huge railroad junction. In this part of the metro, you can always find a classic car just waiting for be stolen. These things don’t have GPS, and they certainly don’t have driverless features. The obvious benefit to this is that they can’t as easily be traced. First off, it’ll be awhile before anyone reports it missing, but the police are also not going to be spending a ton of resources looking for something like that. It’s too much work, and ain’t nobody got time for that.
I spot a little red Japanese truck built all the way back in 2002. “It’s missing the passenger seat,” Ace says.
“You’re not sitting there. Look at all that exposed metal and rust. No, we’re finding something else.”
“Who says you’ll be the one driving?”
“That creature is your responsibility. Besides, you’ve been out of the loop today. I know what’s going on, and how to get to the FBI building from here. And I have more experience as a driver.”
“Those are all good points. We’re still using the truck. I like it.” I take a peek at the bed. It doesn’t look too bad; a little dirty, maybe. “We can sit back here.”
He sighs. “I suppose it will have to do. I do already know how to hotwire it, and we better trust the devil we know.”
While he’s working his magic, I’m feeding Crispin some grass I picked from nearby. He’s eating it up, and man does he love it. I can literally feel energy surge through his fur as he begins to digest it. His body was somehow engineered to convert food energy to electricity. “What are you?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer.
We hear the engine rev and then Ace closes the door behind him before speeding off on the gravel. Twice in one day I’ve ridden in the open air in a vehicle piloted by a human. That’s got to be a record. That reminds me of Krakken. “We have to go find out if Krakken is okay!” I cut through the wind with my yell, into the little window in the back of the cab.
“We go to the FBI first!” he yells back.
“No, I brought him into this! He’s my responsibility!”
“And you are my responsibility!”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Then the truck starts to make that clinking sound and starts to slow down dramatically. Ace musters enough strength to pull over to the side of the highway. I can see him massaging his eyes. “I didn’t even look at the gas gauge,” he says. “Rookie mistake, Horace.”
I hop out the back. “It’s okay. We’ll find something else. There’s a junkyard within spitting distance of us.”
“You really do know this city, don’t you?” He asks rhetorically while stepping out.
“It’s my job.”
This time we just start walking, wanting to gather and conserve some energy. I’ve never been to the junkyard, but maybe someone will have a candy bar, or something, that we can pay them for. I know of no restaurants or stores in the area.
We walk the short distance to the junkyard, hoping to find something just this side of good enough to get us to where we’re going. It can crap out on us after that, but we do need to get to the FBI building. They’re the only ones who will know what to do with Crispin, and the people chasing us. As I’m wondering again who they are, as if I summoned them with my mind, they just appear again out of nowhere. I can’t tell whether they’re the same ones as before in the parking lot, but they’re still intent on retrieving their rabbit dog. How do they keep finding us? If he has some kind of tracking chip, or radiation signature, then they would have been able to find him long ago when he was with Krakken. Why now and how? I shake it off, realizing it doesn’t matter. We just have to run.
Our journey takes us into the maze of cars piled on each other. It seems to me like it would be better if you stripped the cars to their smallest components, cataloged them, and just sold them like that. Why take up all this room if most of these cars can’t run on their own? And how are they staying in business at all? No one needs this crap anyway. It’s 2026, get with the program. I shake that off too, because we’re in the middle of playing a deadly game of hide and seek. We’re not just trying to avoid capture, though. We’re methodically heading towards the outer edge of the premises. We don’t have time to find a car that works, so our only chance is to head in the general direction of the FBI building.
We finally manage to sneak past all the cars, but then we’re out in the open, so we have to keep moving. I’m not running as fast as I can, but I also don’t have to slow down too much. Ace can hold his own, and it makes me even more attracted to him. We run down into, and back out of, this part of the blue river that’s dried up. I’m not sure why they did that, but it does make it easier to cross. Not a mile later, we’re starting to head for a cemetery. I’ve seen a number of movies with standoffs in junkyards, and still more set in cemeteries. Have I fallen into an action film? Is this really happening? Is this real life? Yes, it is, and going through the cemetery is the best way to get where we’re going, as the crow flies. Until we break free from our pursuers, we don’t have time to find a more efficient means of travel. I mean, I love running, but this is ridiculous.
As I’m sprinting across the lawn, I look back to see how close they are. This was a bad idea. I don’t notice an open grave in front of me. Despite my prowess as a professional racer, I don’t have time make a course correction, or stop. Crispin flies out of my hands, and it appears that he’s going to land safely on the other side. I decidedly don’t, however. I crash face first into the grave, and for a few minutes, I can’t move. I try to convince my body that we’re in more danger if we stay put, but it doesn’t listen. “Move your big toe,” I say, invoking the spirit of Uma Thurman. I can’t see my toe through my shoe, but I do think it moves. The rest of my leg moves as well, because I’m not paralyzed, or anything. I regain the rest of my strength and crawl out of there, expecting to be surrounded by men in suits. There’s no one there, and I mean no one. Ace was a little behind me, so he should have stopped to help. Why didn’t he? Where did my rabbit dog go? Where did they all go? What the hell is going on?
I look up and around, first noticing that it’s much darker than it was when I first fell in. I lost consciousness? Oh, no. They took both Crispin, and Ace. Why did they leave me? That’s not cool. Sure, it sounds bad that would want to be captured, but at least we would all three be together. I still have no idea who these people are, so I have no chance of rescuing my friends. I’m completely lost, which is something I’ve never experienced before. “Hello?” I call out to the abyss.
“Hello?” A man slowly walks up to me holding a lantern, even though it’s not quite dark enough for that yet. “Good morning,” he says.
“It’s morning? What the hell time is it?”
The man looks at his watch. “Oh, pardon me, I get confused. It’s 7:13 at night. Sundown exactly.”
“I’ve been down for hours.”
He looks to the open grave. “Did you come from there?”
“Yeah, I fell in. Sorry if I messed up your work.”
“I’m sorry,” he almost laughs. “I have this weird brain thing. What’s the date?”
“It’s July 16, 2026.”
He looks back at his watch. “I’m afraid that’s wrong.”
“What? Is it already tomorrow? I could not have been there for more than a day. Someone would have found me.”
“Uh, no...it’s not the seventeenth either.”
“Something tells me that you’re not talking about two days.
“I’m sorry, Mister...”
“Demir. Serkan Demir.”
He doesn’t continue.
“Tell me the date. I can take it.”
“It’s September 24, 2022.”
I stop to think about it for a moment, but all that goes through my head are the words he just said. It reminds me of when I was a child. Analog clocks I could read just fine; it was digital clocks that gave me trouble. Something about going around in a circle made sense to me, but you give me numbers that are meant to represent a time of day, and its relation to surrounding events, and I have to concentrate on it. September 24, 2022 just runs through my head on repeat until I can fully recognize exactly what that means. “I went into the past.”
“Is there any way back?”
He shakes his head in disappointment. “I can take salmon and choosers, but I can’t take humans. How you managed to slip through with the open grave is something for which I have no explanation.”
“A man named Lincoln Rutherford referred to me as a chosen one, or at least he thought that might be what I was.”
“I cannot speak to that,” he says. “I’m just The Gravedigger.”
“Could you direct me to someone who can help?”
“Well, I could try to—” He’s cut off by the simple fact that something causes him to disappear before my eyes, but it doesn’t look like he did it on purpose. My only guess is that someone doesn’t want him to help me.
I get the feeling that I’m supposed to be here, but why? Is it to change my own past, to help Crispin escape the villain’s secret lair, to invent 3D printed human organs? I desperately want to go home, but I know that’s not possible. Right now, a 12-year-old version of me is running around the house, still learning about his own sexuality. No, I can’t interfere with myself. No one I know can help me, except for one person. He seemed to know more than he was letting on. I head for Ace’s apartment.
I catch a bus to Ace’s apartment since I have no identity, and public transportation still allows for such a thing. I still have to do some walking, which is honestly getting to be a pain. I’ve been through a lot over the last two days, and I really just want to go to bed. Assuming Ace is some kind of time traveler, and already knows what’s going on, he’ll probably let me crash at his place again. If he’s not, then I’m about to make an ass out of myself. I go up to his unit and knock on the door.
A woman answers. “Can I help you?”
“Um, does Ace live here?” I ask before adding, “or Horace, that is?” I remember him calling himself that once.
“No, I’m sorry. I’ve never heard that name.”
“I must have the wrong address. Sorry about that.”
“Not a problem,” she answers. “Hey, are you one of those Frenzy runners?”
“I am,” I say. “I’m training.”
“Well, good luck next year.”
“Thanks,” I say before she closes the door.
Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t live here yet. A lot can happen in four years. Hell, he might have moved in a month before we first met in the future. Now I truly have no one. I could seek out Lincoln Rutherford, the one person I know for sure understands time travel, but I’m hesitant to do that. He was clearly freaked out to see me before, and I’m not so sure I can trust him. Still, he might be my only option. That will have to wait, though. It’s getting late, and I still have to find somewhere to sleep.
I wander the streets for nearly an hour, trying to find the best place to curl up in a corner and wait out the night. Homeless shelters are regularly closed and replaced. I do not recall where to find one back in 2022. I notice a coffee shop up ahead, and decide that that’s where I want to be. I’ll find some warmth for a few minutes before they kick me out, and someone may even let me borrow the internet so I can find a shelter. I walk in and see serendipity sitting by the fireplace. Maybe The Gravedigger, or even Rutherford, is looking out for me. How else would you explain this? Of all the coffee shops, in all the world, I walk into his. Ace is reading what looks like a very deep and thought-provoking book, and sipping from his tea. I was going to ask him for answers, but seeing him like this makes me realize that he has no clue what’s going on. Whatever he learns about this world, he’s not learned it yet. For now, he’s just a normal guy. A hot normal guy with some kind of pastry that looks better than any food I’ve ever seen.
“You can have it,” Ace suddenly says without looking up from his book.
I look behind me like an idiot. “Are you talking to me?”
“There are several other people here, so I must be talkin’ to you.”
He laughs and closes his book. “It’s before your time. I can practically smell your hunger. If you need something to eat, that’s available. I didn’t realize it had raisins, so I’m not gonna eat it.”
I don’t like raisins either, but I’m starving. Worried he might change his mind, I quickly grab it and swallow it up. Only afterwards do I feel embarrassed and ashamed. “I’m sorry.”
“Your fine.” He reaches back and takes some paper money out of his pocket. “This place doesn’t give you shit when you pay with dolla dolla bills. That’s why I come here.”
“I...I can’t take your money.” I continue to stammer, “in—in fact, I sh...should be going.” I stand up. I really want to stay with him, but this isn’t right. We’re not supposed to meet for another four years. The longer we’re together here, the more likely it is he’ll remember me when he meets me before the Frenzy. That will just be confusing for him, so I have to cut this short and let it go. It’s time to face the fact that I’m alone in this time. No one can help me, and nor should they try. Even though I don’t consider this my fault, it’s my mess, and I can’t expect anyone to help clean it up.
“Wait,” he stops me. “What’s your name?” he asks, just so that he can get to what he wants to say.
“Serkan,” I reply instinctively. No, I should have used an alias. I’ve made it even worse; must be Tuesday.
“Serkan,” he starts off, “I don’t like to sugarcoat things. I don’t know where you come from, or what’s going on. But I can see that you need food, and you need money. I have those things. I’m actually pretty well-off. I’m not here to judge or question whether you deserve to be in this situation, but what I can do is help. Maybe it was even fate. Of all the coffee shops, in all the world, you walk into mine.”
That’s a direct quote from a thought I just had. “Can you read my mind?”
He laughs. “Can I dowhatnow?”
I don’t want to press it. “Never mind.” I take the wad of cash from his hand. “I very much appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it.”
I go up to the counter and wait in line, but as I’m doing so, I find myself frequently look back at Ace. He’s watching me as well. He’s four years younger than last I saw him, which means that he’s only a few years older than me at this point. That’s no big deal...no big deal at all. I probably don’t look like a silly little child to him, and the way his eyes focus on me makes me feel like he recognizes this as well. I try to look up at the chalkboard to determine what I should eat. It has to be filling, cheap, and as healthy as possible. As a coffee shop, it doesn’t have too many options—
Before I know it—and I’m not talking about time travel; just a form of autopilot—I’m in Ace’s apartment. We don’t even get out of the entryway before we start making out and tearing each other’s clothes off. I’m kissing him more passionately than I ever have anyone before. I’m kissing him like an adult. He undoes my Frenzy suit and tugs it off my shoulders. Now I’m standing here topless, like a surfer who hasn’t yet put his wetsuit all the way on. He starts kissing down my chest, drawing closer to the finish line. I laugh in my own head at the metaphor.
He comes back up and looks me in the eyes. “My name is Ace, by the way. Horace.”
“I know,” I say, in the heat of the moment, then I go back to kissing him on the neck.
“I mean...that’s a great name.”
“Oh,” he tries to say through the desire.
“I’ve never brought anyone home before,” he says when we wake up in the morning.
“I ain’t never been broughten.”
He chuckles. “You must be hungry. You never did get that crumpet, or whatever, last night.”
“I got something better. But yes, I could go for some quiche, or something.”
He tilts his head. I’ve messed up again. I’m not supposed to know about that. “Funny. I’m kind of known for make an amazing quiche.” He stands up and starts some morning stretches.
“Then I guess I came to the right place.” Despite my time travel taboos, I’m doing pretty well. I’m smoother than I usually am. It must be the sex. I’ve had it before, but not like that; not with a guy like Horace... “What’s your last name?”
“Reaver. Horace Reaver.”
I nod. “Serkan Demir.”
“I feel like such a slut not telling you that before hopping into bed.”
“Then I suppose we’re both sluts.” I sit up on my knees and kiss him again. “I’m all right with that.”
I can feel his lips smile while still attached to mine. “What makes my quiche so good is that it takes an hour to make. I better get started.”
I fall back and rest my head on both my wrists. “I can’t wait that long,” I say in a cutesy voice.
“I’ll make some toast too, and I think I still have a couple hard-boiled eggs in the fridge.”
A few minutes later, I walk over to the kitchen area wearing pants and a shirt I stole from his wardrobe. I sit at the counter and eat my appetizers while watching him do his thing. “I’m not homeless,” I blurt out.
“Okay,” is all he says, not wanting to overstep.
“I just...I can’t go back home.”
He peers at me. “Do they not accept you as you are.”
“Oh, no. It’s nothing like. I was a gay baby. I never needed to come out to my family. I can’t really explain why I have to stay away from there, though. I just have some things I need to work out on my own.”
“I understand that. I mean, I don’t understand what you’re going through, but you and I are okay.”
This guy had sex with someone he thought was homeless. He brought him home to his house with fancy television monitors and a bunch of clothes, and then he slept with him. He may not make the wisest decisions, but he’s someone I can trust, and I already knew that. I can’t do this on my own. If Horace Reaver won’t help me through being marooned in the timestream, then no one in the world will. I have this urge to explain myself, so that he doesn’t think my parents kicked me out, or something. I need him to know who I am; why I’m here. “I’m a time traveler.”
“I was in 2026, and then I fell in a grave, of all places. When I crawled out, I found myself in 2022. I don’t know why or how it happened, but I can’t get back. It looks like I’m gonna have to go the long way ‘round.”
He stops cooking and studies me. “Are you telling the truth?”
“I know it sounds crazy...” I start to say.
He puts down the spatula and goes over to grab his phone.
“I understand if you have to call the authorities, or a mental hospital, or whatever. You should know, however, that last night was real. That meant something to me. I’ve never met anyone like y—”
“Ulinthra?” he asks into the phone, cutting me off. “How fast can you get to Kansas City? I think we’ve just found the proof we were looking for.”
“What is a Ulinthra?” I ask after Ace has finished with his conversation, knowing full well that it’s a person.
“She’s a friend of mine. Probably about your age. We had felt drawn towards each other our entire lives before finally finding each other a year ago.”
“Are you time travelers as well?”
“Not exactly,” Ace explained. “We just get these...feelings. Have you ever heard of déjà vu?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, it’s like that, but turned up to eleven. Everything we do feels familiar, and as if we had just experienced it yesterday. I always know who’s going to win a sports competition, which is where I earned most of my money. Whenever I meet someone new, it’s like I already know them. My life isn’t perfect, but it’s rather predictable. Once Ulinthra and I realized that we were the same, we started questioning where our abilities came from.”
“Now you have some answers for us. How many times have you done it before?”
“Never. I mean, just the once. I’m not a time traveler, per se. I mean, I know that they exist, but I just fell into it. I’m a stowaway. An accident.”
He says nothing.
“I have no answers,” I add.
“No, you must know something,” he complained. “You must. We need to pool our resources and figure this out. Like...do you have the same thing where you can bet on sports?”
“Not at all.”
“Well, what did you do for a living?”
“Right, of course. What do you do for fun?”
“I’m a runner. I do the City Frenzy.”
“Oh. That explains the outfit you were wearing. So, when you said you couldn’t go home...it was because you’re already there.”
“Yes, I can’t run into myself. Who knows what would happen?”
“Maybe it would destroy the universe.”
“I doubt that, but it could ruin my timeline, cause some kind of paradox.”
“You sure you don’t know anything about what we are? You seem to know a lot about time travel in general.”
“Well...” I trail off.
“What? Tell me, please.”
“I do know a guy who may have some answers. Last time I saw him, he ran away from me, though. If we go see him, you’ll have to be prepared for that.”
“I think I can handle it.”
“I guess we can go tomorrow when your friend gets here.”
“Oh no, she’ll be here in an hour. She was just in Topeka.”
Once Ulinthra arrives, we exchange pleasantries and get her up to speed. After a meal, we head out for Lincoln Rutherford’s office. I didn’t know Rutherford very well back in 2022, but he’ll know my name. He accepts a walk-in appointment, and is surprised to see all three of us come through the door. “This is an interesting development. Mister Demir, you’re much older.”
“I’m from 2026,” I say.
“That would explain it.”
“Do you know who we are?” Ulinthra asks.
“I do, yes.”
“What are we?” she continues. “What are you?”
“I’m the Systemizer. I see time in the same way you see a movie; from a third-person perspective.”
“Like God?” Ace asks.
“And them?” I ask. “What are they like?”
He tilts his head to look at them at a different angle. “They’re weird.”
“The hell does that mean?” Ulinthra is not amused.
“In another timeline, you had certain abilities. Now it seems like you still have them, but you’re...limited.”
“You still experience each day twice, but you can’t remember the first time.”
“If we can’t remember,” Ace began, “then how could it have happened?”
“You remember subconsciously, don’t you? Life always feels familiar.”
“Oh yeah,” Ace agrees. “That’s true.”
“How do we fix it?” Ulinthra asks.
“Oh, I wouldn’t recommend that. You have your memories intact in other timelines, and you never stop killing people.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Ace protests. “We would never kill anyone!” He looks over at Ulinthra who seems to have no interest in arguing either way. “I definitely wouldn’t,” he adds.
“I dunno what to tell ya,” Lincoln goes on. “You got to be such a problem that the other time travelers got together, built a prison, and put you in it.”
This scares Ace, probably more than anything ever has before. “Is that going to happen again?”
“It would seem that’s up to you. There are those who hold the actions of alternate versions of people against them, but most don’t.”
“Could you talk to them?” I jump back in. “We need to know what’s coming to us, and I would like to go back home. To my time.”
Lincoln takes a nonchalant drink from his water. “That’s not my job. I’m not one of them.” He looks to me directly. “I’m more like you. An outsider. I try to stay out of things.”
“What about...?” I stop myself before I mention K-Boy. That hasn’t happened to him yet, and even though Lincoln seems to have some unusual grasp of past and future, he can’t see things when I’m involved. Again, I have to worry about protecting the spacetime continuum. I don’t know what would happen if I changed the future, or if I already have, but my instinct is to exercise caution.
“Are you going to help us at all?” Ulinthra was angry. I could see her becoming a killer. I barely know her, but she does not seem stable.
“I can’t imagine,” Lincoln begins, “there’s anything I can do, or want to do, or am going to do.” He makes eye contact with Ace and subtly flickers his vision to Ulinthra’s purse, which she is clutching tightly.
Ace sighs and takes her purse away without any protest from her. He opens it up and removes a large knife in its sheath. “What the hell is this for?”
“Oh God,” Ace responds. “The Gunbenders would hate you. Were you planning on using this?”
Lincoln answers instead, but towards Ulinthra. “Yes, I remember the other version of today as well. To avoid any further...dissatisfaction, I’m going to do you a favor and put you in touch with an associate of mine.” He takes out two games of Jenga, and begins to lay out the blocks while he’s still talking. “Now because time travel is a thing, in order to communicate with one another, we can’t just make a phone call. So we use our own version of that. Not everyone has a...” he says with air quotes, “phone number”. He starts stacking the pieces in groups of three to resemble little doorways. “But the most important ones do.”
“I’m sorry,” Ulinthra spits. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Helping you. Now, as I was saying, the most important time travelers can be contacted using special methods. If you want The Constructor, knock on any door with a special code. You want The Chauffeur, write a note on a piece of paper and burn it. Now The Archivist. He’s a weird one. He’ll get your message through this complicated combination of opening and closing drawers of a filing—” He stopped himself once he noticed the three of us were just staring at him with no idea who he was talking about, or frame of reference for them. “Anyway, The Delegator lives at Stonehenge. So you have to do this.” He sits back in his chair a little and admires his own work. He has constructed a replica of Stonehenge using the Jenga blocks.
“What’s supposed to happen now?” Ulinthra asks, still soured about the whole thing. She does not seem like a nice person.
Lincoln smiles. “This.” He places the last ‘stone’ on his desk some ways away from the rest of the replica. He then utters the magic words, “That’s what you think!”
The scene around us changes. The office walls and furniture bubble, pop, and dissipate away to reveal grass, sky, and stone. In a matter of seconds, we have found ourselves in the middle of the actual Stonehenge. Tourists wearing outdated clothing are walking all around us, but have taken no notice, except for one man watching us from a few meters away. Ulinthra, Ace, and I walk towards him. I look back to see Lincoln waving goodbye before fading away.
“Are you...” Ace tries to ask, feeling silly.
“The Delegator?” The man finishes it for him. “Yes. I was not planning on contacting you. What are you doing here?”
Ulinthra is examining one of the tourists. “Can they not see us?”
“No,” the Delegator says. “But you can have an effect on them, which is where ghosts come from. Stay away from the humans, please.” As Ulinthra reaches out to touch one of the tourists, the Delegator reaches his own hand up and takes ahold of her, apparently through some kind of telekinesis. He swings over and throws her through one of the little doorways where she disappears by what I can only describe as a portal. “I’m sorry about your friend, but she should not be here.”
I look to Ace who doesn’t seem all that upset. “You did what you had to. If you’re the Delegator, then does that mean you’re going to delegate purpose to us?”
“I do that for others...but not for you.”
“Good,” I say. “Can you take me home then?”
“I don’t know who you are, or what you are, but what I do know is that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, and when you’re supposed to be there.”
Now I’m getting angry. “Why is it that everyone we talk to about this stuff is completely unhelpful? Why can’t you help me? Why do I have to stay here? And should I give a damn about what anyone else wants of me?”
The Delegator does not seem offended. “Every single salmon before you has asked those questions. None of them has received an answer, and neither will you. This is your life now. I also recommend you be prepared to hear that excuse more than once.”
“So we’re just supposed to go back home and try to figure this out on our own? With no guidance?”
“How is that different than what anyone else in the world does day-to-day?”
That isn’t a bad answer, but it still isn’t helpful, which I guess is the point. “This day has been incredibly unproductive.”
“What did you expect? Fanfare?”
“No, but it’s just—”
“I don’t have time for this,” the Delegator says quickly. “I have to get back to work. I really don’t like being interrupted. People don’t call me, I invite them here.”
“We’re sorry, but—”
He cuts Ace off as well. “No more questions.” He waves his hand dismissively. “Please walk through that gateway there.”
“As you wish,” Ace says, narrowing his eyes in a sort of small rage. We comply with his wishes and try to walk through the gateway. The Delegator cries out as we’re doing so, “no! Not that one!” But it’s too late. We’re already through and onto the other side. The gateway has transported us back to what’s clearly Kansas City, so I’m not sure why he’s so upset.
Ace and I turn around to see a scared little girl holding a 1960s camera. That’s not good.
“Uh, hi,” Ace says awkwardly, trying to sound upbeat. “Are you lost?”
“I was at Stonehenge,” the girl replies. “Are we in London now?”
“I was afraid of that,” I say.
“Well,” Ace begins. “No, we’re not in England.”
I go behind her and wave my arms around, trying to find the portal again. My assumption is that it’s gone, but it could also just be invisible. That sometimes happens, right?
“What are you trying to do?” Ace asks me.
“I’m trying to find a way to send her back.”
He sighs. “We can take a plane back to Stonehenge. It’ll be weird, and we’ll have to be clever to prevent her parents from freaking out on us, but we’ll get her back.
What? I think to myself. “Look at her camera,” I say to him. “And her clothes.” She doesn’t belong here.”
“Oh,” is all he says. Now he gets it. “Little...what’s your name?”
“Paige.” She starts tearing up, but it doesn’t look like she’s going to cry. She probably thinks we’ve kidnapped her. “Turner.”
Ace does his best to sound comforting and distant at the same time. “Paige, what’s the date?”
“1971,” Paige completes her answer.
I pull him aside and speak softly so that she can’t hear, but I keep my eye on her. I’m worried that she’ll get the idea to be brave and try to run away from her captors. “What are we gonna do?”
“We have to go back and talk with your lawyer friend,” Ace suggests.
“What do you think he’s going to do about it?”
“Send her back home.”
“He can’t personally do that sort of thing, and I get the feeling that the Jenga trick isn’t going to work twice. That delegator guy was none too happy to see us too. Besides, you call Rutherford my friend, but I obviously didn’t know him. We can’t trust him.”
“So, what? We just keep her? Like a pet.”
“No, not—I mean...I don’t know. Maybe we can take her to child services, or whatever it’s called.”
“And tell them what? She’ll be going on about President Nixon, and Vietnam War hippie, and...pet rocks! They’ll put her in special needs classes, and try to fix her for believing it’s the 70s. She’ll never be safe, and she’ll never be happy.”
“Then apparently we’re the only ones who can handle this.”
“You mean raise her?”
“Do we have a choice?”
“Yeah, we went over other choices, and they have their problems, but this seems...wrong. She’s supposed to be decades older than us.”
“We went through the wrong gateway. We did this to her, so we have to help.”
Paige is looking between us with this face like she’s holding her breath. The tears have dried up, and suddenly, she snaps a photo of us.
“I don’t know that there’s any way to develop those here.”
“Because we’re in the future?” she asks, about half sure that she’s right.
“She figured it out,” Ace whispers, impressed.
“Maybe there’s hope for us yet.” I bend down and get to her level. “This is...” I start to tell her the year, but realize that I don’t know what that is. It’s not the 22nd century, and it’s not the 18th, but that doesn’t mean I know exactly when we are. We do know we went through the wrong gateway, so we have to figure out exactly what made it wrong, besides the fact that we brought with us another stowaway. “Ace, what year is this?”
“Why, it’s...” he stops himself as well, clearly realizing what I already have. He moves away from us and asks a random stranger the dumbest question they’ve probably ever heard. I see him close his eyes, trying to accept what’s happened. He returns to us. “October 15.”
“Yeah...?” I know it hasn’t just been a couple weeks.
One year. Not that bad, all things considered. It’s easier for me to accept than him because I’ve been through this before. In fact, I’m one step closer to getting back home, so it’s better for me. But it’s not better for Paige. “It’s October 15, 2023. You just traveled through time.”
“Like the Connecticut Yankee.”
I smile at the reference. “Yes, like that, except that you went forwards.”
“Is there any way to go back?” Paige asks. She doesn’t quite look like that’s what she would want.
“We could try, but we only know one other traveler, and he probably wouldn’t help us.”
“If it’s been fifty years, then my parents are probably dead.”
“It’s possible. It depends on how young they were. We could look for them.”
“No,” she says quickly. “If they don’t know I’m here, then I’m safe. I’m finally free of them.”
I stand up and look to Ace. We don’t know what to say. Theoretically, we would try to get more information out of a child who says something like this, but she’s right. She’s free of them, and however they were hurting her before, they can’t do it anymore. If she ends up wanting to tell us, she can do so at any time. Maybe it wasn’t the wrong gateway afterall. Maybe we were always supposed to bring her along with us. “You know, there’s an easy way to decide what we should do about our situation.”
“What might that be?” Ace asks, unconvinced.
“You tell us. You’ve already been through this day, right? I know you don’t remember, but what do you think? Subconsciously?”
“Well, it’s not that easy...” He trails off and stares into space.
“What? What do you see?”
“Nothing. This doesn’t feel familiar at all. I don’t know that I’ve ever been on this particular street, and I don’t recognize Paige.”
“What does that mean? That this is the first time around? That you’ll go back and do it over?”
“No, that doesn’t feel right either. Now that I think about it, yesterday wasn’t familiar either. I had no way of predicting the future.”
“Really? Has that ever happened before?”
Paige looks at us like we’re crazy. Even though she knows that she jumped to the future, she still doesn’t understand who we are, or what we’re talking about.
“No, never in my life. It all started the day you...”
I can guess what he’s about to say, “the day I arrived. You lost your ability when I showed up.” I start pacing a little bit, trying to work it out in my head, but ultimately thinking out loud. “Three years from now, Rutherford shows up and tells me I’m different. He says that he can’t use his own ability around me. Then I go back in time and meet you, only for you to experience the same thing.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m like him. I’m one of you. I just...I’m just different.”
“You take away people’s power?”
“Exactly, or so it would seem. It hasn’t always seemed to work, though. I met a speedster in the future, and he didn’t seem at all affected by me.”
“Maybe you have to concentrate on doing it. Or maybe you have to concentrate on not doing it.”
We stand in silence for a long time before Paige breaks the ice. “I’m hungry.”
“We can get something to eat,” Ace replies. “I have some cash on me, which we’ll need, because I’ve been missing for a year and retrieving my identity might prove to be complicated.”
“So, what are we going to do?” I ask. “After finding food, that is.”
“I have no idea. I’ve never been so lost in my life. Ya know, I guess I do have that secret offshore bank account. They probably won’t ask questions about any missing persons case, but it will take some time to get my money back stateside.”
“That could come in handy.”
We start walking forwards with no real plan for where we might want to go. Paige snaps photos of the scenery, Ace actually looks like he might be a bit relieved to have shed his old life, and me? I think I’m gonna be okay. Jinx.