There, quick—the blue sky bleeds. A runner in red tumbles across it, unstoppable, the sun itself shattering against her armor. One leg outstretched, the other flung behind her, vaulting from one moment to the next, and between them suspended in flight for a small forever. You read the number that burns on her armor and you that this is not the end. She is proof that you are not finished yet, a promise chiseled into the diamond of history. She will always be here, always this strand.
You want to say something to her, but she is already gone.
The date is June 18th, 1815. The place is Waterlô. And Sa Segokgo is racing against time.
The treads of her boots scoop up huge tracts of bloody, Belgian soil and thresh it into aerosol. Archaic bullets dart about her like swarming mosquitoes, pinging noisily off her poly-diadmant suit, its staalglas facepiece. An experienced strandrunner, she is not daunted by such minor impacts. Over ridges and craters she leaps, devouring meters with each stride, explosively imprinting the IOvac corporate icon wherever she lands. Her armor does its work, yes, but it is her conditioned body that knows how to exert itself most efficiently. Every movement must barter energy for distance, and profit. There are no pit stops in this sport; to spend recklessly will purchase only a quicker death.
Her brain thinks to itself in the voice of her spotter. ͼ-Sa, on your five, Luboy cautions. Another runner in the strand. Watch out— -ͽ
Sa pings a wordless acknowledgement to her crew, but doesn’t bother looking back. Her lead is enough that this newcomer is irrelevant. You are the Dragonhoof, she tells herself, the Hot Number 99. First place starts behind you.
Ahead of her, the front lines of the French and British armies are crashing together. Wellington on the left hand, Napoleon on the right. Her suit blasts a klaxon that yanks every eye towards her just as the two great waves of bodies meet in the gully between two trampled hills and blast themselves apart. Sa has ten seconds left in this strand; she is going forward, no matter what. Better they see her coming and get out of her way.
What a terror she must seem to them, as she blitzes through the fluctuating seam between the front lines. A flame-streaked giant seven feet tall sprinting as fast as a warhorse at full gallop, shrugging off sabers and ignoring the fusillades of round shot that batter her like a hard rain—what legends would spring from that, what art? History kinks with every soldier she brushes absently from her path.
Sa pings her crew. ǂ Let me hear them, Lub ǂ
Her spotter opens a channel, and the roar of the coliseum an infinite distance away fills her ears. Cheers in Chinese, Korenglish, One-O, NuTswana. Mustafa egging them on, narrating her every step. Yes. This is what she has lived all this time for. Damn near the whole of the Expanded Earth hollering her name and number, ninety-nine, ninety-nine, and with every footprint she punches into the ground kicking up new strands, the debris of her violent trespass on this state of time, leaving her mark.
The light of the finish line shines through all things, through cannon fire and horseflesh all the same, as though the world is no more than a silk screen between it and Sa. She gathers herself and leaps, soaring between flying swords, through misting blood, over awestruck faces. Her fans bray their love directly into her brain. She feels weightless. Powerful.
Her suit premembers her a stream of coordinates in a trivial fraction of a second that is still not quick enough. A cannon ball explodes against her shoulder, skewing her trajectory, and sending her skidding through mud.
Pain. Not even her suit’s reactive padding can prevent that. As she clambers onto her feet Sa finds herself aching in places she didn’t used to ache. Her breath comes back to her too slowly. First knockdown of the race and I’m already winded. Even a year ago she’d be on the move already. She should thank the world for so doggedly reminding her how gray her hair is getting. How soft her bones.
A blur of logos streaks past. Number 29, her suit informs her. The newcomer Tiger Beetle, darling of DiYmension Cinema and Holgert-Platt. Her suit picks up and relays a digital emotion left to flutter in his wake, something like mocking pity.
Her own sponsors would never let her alone if she placed behind that one.
An alarm goes off in the canyon of Sa’s brain, drowning out the rattle of bullets jouncing off her back. The light outside of time winks out. Her time in this strand is up. Her suit splays out an array of available strands across her vision; Luboy has highlighted what she considers the optimal routes, the shortest paths to her goal along the softest terrain.
Sa makes her choice before the second is over, and some ninety-million years slides off her like water off a duck. A shallow swamp stutters into place around her ankles—the horizon erupts into jungled mountains. Rather than gunfire, the air suddenly teems with extinct insects. Some mid-Cretaceous behemoth studies her with a lizard’s stunted curiosity. The muck of Waterlô that clings to her armor bleeds into the waters of prehistoric Germany, disseminating bacteria as alien as any Martian. In a hundred years, this Earth could be stone dead.
The finish line smolders like a distant lighthouse through the wetland mist, by degrees of brightness closer than it had been. The way is clear and flat. A good use of fifteen seconds. Sa kicks the planet way from herself and runs, arms pumping, pulping butterflies with every motion.
“And lastly—but absolutely not leastly—we turn to the Hot Number Ninety-Nine, the Dragonhoof herself, the Legend Lady Samantha Vu Segokgo!”
The crowd loses its mind at just the sound of her name. They spring up in the stands that wind about the stadium like the petals of a rose and stamp their feet. Ninety-nine, Ninety-nine! Red-Hot Ninety-nine! Sa dispenses a smile and a wave to her fans in their red and gold. Her thoughts are in another epoch.
The announcer struts over to her from across the stage, pursued by a glittery shoal of microphones and cameras. Dapper as ever in his obsidian tuxedo and proportioned like a trophy, Mustafa Mundi is a character too big and saturated to tolerate for very long.
He stooped theatrically to kiss the back of her armored hand. “Mma Segokgo,” he says in accent-dead Korenglish. “May I say, what an honor it is to have you here at Zenith Park once again.”
The camera-fog forms a halo around her; there is nowhere she can look where they won’t see her eyes roll. She’s known the man for ages, but every year he has to playact like he’s just so excited to meet her for the first time. “The honor is mine, Mustafa, to be invited back for another run.” The microphones that sugar her wet lips translate her NuTswana into the primary language of every viewer from the solar orchards of Mercury to the island resorts of Europa.
There are eighteen rival strandrunners gathered here upon the apex of the greatest piece of construction in human history, each backed by a contingent of a thousand caterwauling followers. The year’s qualifier races had whittled the solar system’s runners down to the very best, the youngest and the toughest and the pig-meanest. Sa recognizes only a few of them this time around—Number 56, WildBoy from Nippon Moon—a wild man now—and Number 9, Sanjarenje, who’d secured his berth on the thinnest of chances, to be frank. Three less than last year. The rest could all be her children.
The floor beneath their chairs displays what the view of Earth would be from this point in outer space if not for this carbon nanotube Babel they’d managed to sneak past God—a disk overgrown by verdigris lazily revolving, a world lovingly restored to mint condition and closed off to the public. Perched thirty-six kilometers above the planet’s surface, Sa feels disconcertingly deific herself. She enjoys the limelight, but this arena always struck her as overly idolatrous. Some pedestals are too high.
At least three of her competitors are glaring openly at her from across the stage. What a hateful little pantheon they’ve made of us. Not everyone can be Zeus, but they all think they should be.
“Sa Vu Segokgo is a veteran of the 玉衣 Dà Bang Invitational and the FɸRZ Netdomain Treasure Race,” Mustafa crows. “Here upon the Great Nairobi Spacewhip, we are less than an hour from the start of the twenty-third annual Big Elevator Run, which Miss Segokgo here has conquered thirteen times now—haven’t you, Sa?”
“That’s right, Mustafa.”
“And are you anticipating another win?” His teeth are fabbed diamond. They twinkle when he grins.
Sa claps a hand on the helmet balanced on her knee. “Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t,” she replies. Her competition bristles at the unspoken insult.
Mustafa’s expression turns wry. “Confident as ever, Sa. But your performance in the qualifiers wasn’t so hot, was it?”
Sa says nothing to that. Don’t do this to me, Mustafa. It’s nothing they don’t already know.
“You’re not a young woman anymore,” the announcer continues cheerfully. “Two years ago you set the record for the oldest strandrunner still competing and kept on going. Now you know better than I do that this sport can be highly dangerous. Can you really afford to let age slow you down? Tell us, is there any truth to the rumor that you are planning to announce your retirement after today’s run?”
“As much truth as there was before my last run and the run before that,” Sa answers.
Mustafa laughs theatrically. “Well I’m sure your competition is grateful for another chance to knock you off your throne,” he says. “It’s no secret Miss Ndaya over there is after your number.”
Sa steals a glance at the runner seated thirteen down, Number 86, J’ba Fofi, in bruise purple and rusted red. She has been staring at Sa fixedly throughout the chain of interviews.
“If not today, when do you plan to retire?” Mustafa asks.
Sa narrows her eyes at the so-called Running Spider. “When I have what I want,” she replies. Neither would she be stooping to take on a student, which was the other question that he hadn’t asked yet. To relax into life as a coach is to surrender to the youth.
Mustafa beams at that. “We certainly can’t fault that determination of yours, now can we? But tell me, Sa, tell the viewers here and at home: where does it come from? What makes the Number 99 burn so hot for so long?”
Sa pauses, not for the sake of drama but to choose how best to answer.
“When I was out on my very first run,” she says, “I could see myself flying.”
An hour later and two thousand three hundred years before, Sa is sprinting through the blasted avenues of Pompeii moments before it is immortalized.
Rear-facing cameras in her helmet render Mount Vesuvius as a less a volcano than the upturned end of the world itself, darker even than the blackened sky, folding over the city and sloughing off a million tons of choking death. A pyroclastic surge began minutes before Sa landed in this strand. A tide of molten planet and burning smoke is bearing down on her at four hundred miles an hour, warping geography in its wake. In a matter of seconds it will wash through and over the city, mummifying it and its straggling people in tuff for centuries to come.
Sa has run variations of this popular strand a dozen times at least. The eruption hasn’t caught her yet, but never isn’t the same as never. She isn’t as sure it won’t as she was the last time. Sa is attuned to the efficiency of her body, and she finds herself breathing harder than she remembers having to before. Is that ache in her back muscle or bone?
Fuck you, Mustafa. Get your smarmy ass out of my head.
ͼ-Stay focused, Sa,-ͽ Luboy chimes in, as though privy to her thoughts. ͼ-Don’t forget you’ve got a two thousand-degrees Fahrenheit history lesson after you. You don’t have to outrun it, but you do have to outrun the clock-ͽ
Right. Sa winds her fraying thoughts like a thread around her spotter’s voice, focusing them in the one direction that matters—straight ahead. Navigating the city’s streets is a perilous chore, swamped with volcanic ejecta and occluded by ash as they are. She may have come this way before, but the layout of alleys and buildings differs between strands, sometimes subtly, sometimes crazily. But the finish line persists, a lighthouse in a stormy night, not lighting the way exactly, but proving that there always is one.
Sa pings an acknowledgement, one immediately drowned out by a holler from her spotter. ͼ-Three runners in the strand! Book it, Sa—they’re on top of you!-ͽ
Sa has a fraction of a second to react before a runner in white and blue comes careening out of the smoke to her left, on what her suit reports is a collision course. ᴕ-Number 51-ᴕ, her suit unhelpfully informs her. ᴕ-QuickSOULver, from the USA+K -ᴕ. Sa frantically pings a proximity warning to the other suit, only for it to be rebuffed unread. He’s aiming for me, Sa realizes. To directly assault another runner would be a disqualifying offense, but accidental collisions? Those happen all the time. Unavoidable.
Thinking fast, she hits the deck, ordering her suit to switch texture patterns along its dorsal plates, reducing friction to almost nothing so that she slides well under Number 51’s tackle. His momentum buries him deep in the wall opposite. Sa deploys her one-time emergency airbrake system to launch herself clear to the roof of the building ahead of her. From the moment her heels grab its shingles, she is running. Millennia later, the crowd goes wild.
Seven seconds left in this strand. A tremor rolls through the rooftop as the second runner crashes into and through it like a tungsten rod dropped from space. There’s the other one. Her suit picks up snatches of black and yellow carapace bolted to a frame nine feet tall—no corporate logos, no flair. Number 84, Quiet Ordinance. A colossus from the Plummeting Republic of Inner Jupiter, running for no-one but the demand of a haughty regime. They coordinated this—Sa is confident of that. Two runners don’t wind up in the same strand out of potential hundreds trying to take down the same competitor by sheer chance.
The coordinates her suit sends her make no sense, until the house explodes from beneath her.
Sa tumbles. She flails for any traction at all, until the ground catches her ungently. She is not hurt, but for two whole seconds she is immobile. May as well have stopped to take a piss. I should have been quicker, she thinks. I used to be quicker.
Through falling rubble she sees Number 84, dolled up in ash and dust, lope over her, somehow wolf-like despite his immensity. A Pompeiian blindly stumbling across his path is trampled and bounced into a ditch. Bad form. Could have jumped it easy.
Just before the miasma swallows him up, a second figure—smaller, slighter—falls in alongside him, matching his pace. Her suit rattles off a number and call sign, but she would know it by its run alone, as telling as a bloody fingerprint.
ǂ Luboy, we’ve got collusion here ǂ
ͼ-Reporting it now-ͽ, is her spotter’s curt cogit. Sa knows though that it likely won’t come to anything. Knowing cooperation between runners is too hard to prove. And by the time anyone will be talking about it, Sa will already have lost. The only one who’ll put them in their place is her.
But they should never have caught you in the first place, Little Nkuku. Little done grandmother.
With a great force of will Sa slams the door on those whispering diamond teeth. The conspirators are cleaving towards the finish line, but Sa has a black sort of feeling that they aren’t through with her. They’ll come for her and kick her down until she stops getting up. Knowing that, however, puts the whole deck of cards in her hand.
The ground seizes beneath her, but Sa has already put the necessary amount of distance between her and Vesuvius. Her time here is up. As an avalanche of volcanic pus erases every trace of her presence here, Sa assesses the available strands with a vindictive eye.
“I think you should sit this one out, Sa.”
Luboy leans against the doorframe, naked. Golden filaments glitter about her neck and shoulders, as the penates of their house print a one-use silk robe from the top down. Her Swede-yellow hair is still, and clings so tightly to her upturned breasts that Sa is almost jealous. She can smell the soap from her bath still on her. Beautiful, Sa thinks. But nagging as someone’s old mother.
She is reclining on their divan beside the living room window, her feet up on the cushions, still naked herself. She glares at her lover and teammate over the top of her book.
“No. I already said.”
“I know,” Luboy says ruefully. “You are a stubborn bitch. But it’s my job to keep you alive. It’d be wrong not to tell you again.”
She comes over and Sa puts her feet on the ground to let her sit. Passing a hand over the milky surface of their coffee table, Luboy makes an order to the penates inside. Drawing on a placenta of indiscriminate matter under the house, the table excretes two chinaware cups of good Ethiopian coffee from its face. Luboy hands one off to Sa, who even cross is not one to pass up a drink served on a kind gesture.
“Thank you, brùnaidh,” Luboy says.
Sa puts her book down. “You can tell me all you want, but I’m going to run all the same.”
The younger woman slurps her coffee. “Look, Sa. You’ve won the Big Elevator Run thirteen times already.”
“I like even numbers.”
“Mustafa will be there. You hate Mustafa.”
Well, that was true.
“Nothing will suddenly change if you retire. You’ll still be the Dragonhoof. It’s not like you’ll have to give that up. People will stall fall all over themselves to get your autograph. To sleep with you. You’re already immortal.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Sa retorts. She knows her number is hers forever. Whoever wears it after her will never be comfortable in it, knowing who made it legendary. She has already read the history books she’s in.
“Is it a money thing? I mean, I don’t know how, but—”
Sa shakes her head, cutting her off there. As far as that goes, she has more of it than she’ll honestly ever need, in every denomination from patent-sealed Gold© to the Cervical used on cannibal Venus. If she ever runs out, she can start selling trophies. Rows of them line the walls of her bedroom, skin-samples taken from every ass she’d kicked in the course of her forty-year career. Enough to fill up a tomb, like a silly pharaoh would do.
“What do you think is going to happen to me, Lu?”
The other woman shrugs. “Anything bad that ever happened in the last fourteen billion years?”
Sa can laugh at that, despite being ticked off.
A wave breaks against the house, spattering the window with worms and cerebrospinal brine. Outside, a passing mansion is stirring up waves in the helminarchy that blankets much of the surface of Botswana 2. With a triggerthought, Sa bids the house wipe away those clinging gobs of governmental biocomputer. Respectfully, course. The sky is a vinyl record in gold and cobalt, the ridges and granules of the planet’s ring clearly visible in the late morning. Throughout the day it will lift like a pot lid, revealing the beaming face of Aunty Saturn.
“I just don’t see the point anymore,” Luboy continues. “Every time you run it’s more risk for less reward.”
Sa is tempted sorely to just tell Luboy the reason she keeps running when others would have been long retired. But she knows it would only worry her more. Running for a golden cup is understandable. Running for an impossible fantasy on the other hand, is an aging mind going sour. Luboy would look at her with pity and that is something Sa cannot abide.
And how sure are you, an insidious voice adds, that it isn’t a fantasy?
Sa thinks of a black visor. A slurred number.
No, no. None of that now.
“You don’t get want you want if you don’t take risks,” Sa retorts. More softly she adds, “I didn’t get you by not taking risks.”
Luboy smiles at that but looks askance at Sa’s right hand. Sa flexes her prosthetic fingers self-consciously. The osteoplas bones bother her sometimes, when they should be indistinguishable from the real thing. The phantom hurt of a lingering mistake, perhaps. The originals are lost in a strand infinitely far from this one where mankind never left the nursery of Africa. The remains of her gauntlet would be worshipped as relics by the hide-wearers who found them, or so she likes to imagine. They could just as easily stab the first brave soul to set foot off the continent in the heel and kill him.
That had happened the year she broke the age record. Two runs after.
“I’ve got a debt to pay,” Sa adds. “It’s … important to me. So I’ll run until I do. Sorry.”
“Pay a debt to who?”
Someone I haven’t met yet. “Someone who lifted me up a long time ago,” Sa says, with a hard and deliberate period.
Luboy chews on that for a while. She might not like the taste, but she’ll have to swallow it anyway. “Just don’t be afraid pull the cord if you have to,” she eventually says.
“I know you never, but you might. Say you will, so I can get some sleep tonight.”
Pull the cord. More like pull the plug. Pull the cord and your run is over. They yank you back to the homestrand, to sit quietly off to the side—and waste time. Sa does not have time.
Sa swallows the bitter taste off her tongue. “If I need to,” she says.
The naked happiness on her lover’s face makes the extortion sting a little less.
Something brushes her leg. Her pygmy elephant Oliver rubs up against her, looking for a treat. She strokes his curious trunk and pats him on the rear to send him trotting on his way. It is good that time is a hydra, she thinks, and not a dragon that will die with its head lopped off. Jostling the past does not crack the present, but rather explodes it into ineffable manyances of itself. She would live in unbearable terror of changing in any way the priceless life she fought for and won.
And yet, she cannot forget how close it was.
ͼ-Sa, this is a bad fucking idea-ͽ
Sa would die to admit it, but she must agree. This was perhaps a bit much for squashing a spider.
The air boils with radiation. The sky is all storm, great scarified burls of fulgurant cloud lumped into screaming faces. Mushroom clouds bloom all along the horizon where cylinders of pure, fabbed uranium have been dropped from outside the planetoid, blasting starry craters in its shallow atmosphere, to say nothing of its crust. Warships flounder in the firmament beyond, gnawed upon by flung gobbets of surface matter gone cancerous.
Sa takes it all in from the bellied-up keel of some leviathan war vessel bombarded into shapelessness, now a convenient straightaway. She has chosen her weapon a little too well.
ͼ-It’s okay to pull the cord. Everyone does it once-ͽ
Sa remembers this from her past, actually—the black day Pluto went mad. It had begun with a simple logic bomb smuggled into the tutelary software on which the planet operated, and there left to cook like a rat corpse in the wall. It was intended to kill off the demisapient processes that regulated everything from its hydrological cycle to its ecosystems. And while it had triggered a domino-chain of suicides among its pantheon, its programmer had been woefully illiterate in classical mythology. Patterns of atomic behavior that called themselves Neptune or Apollo decided, with horrific suddenness, to die as grandly as they deserved. What followed was a Titanomachy that left the planet dead down to its core, in her time a cold and cracked monument.
Sa would be ten or eleven right now, a mere five billion kilometer jaunt away. At this moment she exists in two places at once. Always an uncomfortable thought to fit in one’s head. She feels zero, subtracted from, negated by the contradictory fact of her younger self. The sensation stops being bowel-churning after the first few times, at least. It helps to believe that this is a strand where she was never born. Sa knows full well that nothing would happen should they meet. But it always felt like it should.
ǂ Shut up. I’m sorry. I need to run ǂ
There is something of a war in the green below. Sa tears across the downed spacecraft, digging in with her thorned heels and throwing herself like a javelin, eager to have nothing to do with it. Leading seams of streaming napalm through the jungle are plutonians mutated by the planet’s insane defense penates into walking ordinance, into fingers clenched angrily around its own throat. With guns grown tumorously from hybridized plastic and flesh they destroy indiscriminately. Themselves, others, everything.
Stray shots bite cauterized divots out of Sa’s path, but none so much as sear her armor. Her heartbeat reads back as higher than she likes, but steady. I am the Dragonhoof. My scales are fire itself, and my feet fall only on clouds.
One, two, three, four seconds of this strand blear past her with no sign of J’ba Fofi or the other two colluders. Sa begins to think she overestimated the heft of their balls.
And then, with no transition, no hoopla of arrival, Quiet Ordinance, that huge and faceless torpedo man, is yards behind her, mid-lunge.
Luboy’s warning is hot on his heels, but Sa hears it coming. She turns her next step into a diagonal leap, hurling her out of 84’s reach and into a careening sprint down the sloping hull of the ship. Come and catch me then, you big, dumb fucker.
Sa cracks the clean surface of the jungle and finds the inside all rotten. The goddess of vegetation has turned hateful towards herself, the self that percolates through the veins of every leaf on the planet. As Sa evades aimless gunfire she blows through boughs that brown and curl in invisible fire. Root systems that have never seen daylight rip themselves from the ground and whisk up dirt that clings and chews. Randomness is swallowing reason down an unhinged jaw; beams of nuclear heat slice through spots of backwards physics and alchemize.
But Sa is less a moving body and more a prolonged cut, a continuous red-rimmed halving of the world, and all obstacles before her are merely designs upon that yielding fabric. Will unburdened by doubt, by hope, by attempt, is identical to reality. True winners don’t try, Sa. Winners choose. You’ll be at the finish line as soon as you decide you want it. So make up your damned mind already and be there.
Number 84 dogs her like a man with no other desire, over terrain that sloshes with suicidal urges. A hail of small impacts fails to slow him. This is fearsome, for wanting to live is the surest way to lose. And Sa has only so many seconds left here.
Five left. Fuck, the man runs like his feet drip asphalt road. He’s one of a new breed. Runners bred big and dumb and efficient, for the game only, with no room left for the love of it. This is what wants to replace her, Sa thinks. This is what has been chasing her down since before the race began.
Sa is sweating ice into her armor. Her muscles strain to hold her limbs together. And even so, Number 84 is gaining on her; a year ago she’d have laughed at such a ridiculous notion, but this is now, and it is happening. Her field of vision is annexed by so many collision warnings, by incoming projectiles as described by flashing numbers. She is starting to think Luboy was right. Bad idea, bad brain.
And then—one number, in a blazing font, punching through all others and shrinking towards nothing even as it races towards her.
Her reflexes are ready where conscious thought is not. Sa does something a strandrunner should never do, and that is stand still.
Stand still, so suddenly that inertia smears her body against the inside of her armor. Stand still, until Number 84 is so close, with so much steam built up in his great big engine body, that he cannot possibly stop or change direction. Then she lets herself go limp.
A bullet of encapsulated sun devours the space she used to occupy.
Sa doesn’t see Quiet Ordinance pull the ripcord, but she hears the compound bellow of the crowd through the coliseum feed when he reappears in basetime, homestrand. Luboy premembers her an image of him tearing off his sweat-sodden helmet and skipping it across the stage, his pallid scalp poking ridiculously out the neck of his suit like a stubby little knuckle.
ͼ-Still an awful idea, and you’re still a big idiot-ͽ
ǂ Acknowledged, Lub ǂ
Two, one. The finish line goes out like a dead bulb. Sa’s path frays into hundreds of strands. Sa runs, her stride churning decades into swirling dust.
Now where are you, J’ba Fofi.
The armoring. This moment, the most sacred of the game, the most liturgized in an era of god-nostalgic atheism. The inevitable escalation of a fundamental procedure, when runners are beloved in billions more hearts made shrines than were ever in history afforded to Olympiad victors.
Sa stands straight upon a pedestal as her pit crew dresses her for battle. Each piece of her armor has been checked and checked and checked again by sleepless engineers for any flaws or hiccups in its software that might appear for no reason. Plating meant to withstand the speed-stresses of time travel can be still faulty in its most obscure and crucial components. Her team builds upon her from the bosom out, bolting her into a cybernetic sternum and spine with more power to start with than her entire body. From there, a layer of artificial muscle, each sarcomere tuned to the specific strength ceiling outlined by the E-ESR Commission. Sa feels the perimeter of her body expand by oozing inches, becoming a kouroi.
Over that, the cherry-red, flame-striped armor of the Dragonhoof itself, every priceless inch of advertising space a bloody battleground between the Expanded Earth’s top sponsors. The crew installs each segment with a quiet but harried reverence born from both the importance of their care and awe of the body, the face, looming over them. These are kids whose parents would have cheered for her, Sa thinks. They grew up watching her commercials. Sleeping on fiery Dragonhoof sheets. The notion settles hard and heavy in her stomach and sticks there.
Luboy is on patrol, inspecting their work with a nunnishly critical eye. Four minutes to start; they need to be quick and correct. Under the job she wears like a mask the younger woman is very worried. Fret rolls over like a musk. A side wing of Sa, closed off for the game but open to viewing, feels wretched.
Would it be such a terrible thing really, to give up her number? What would she be missing out on anymore? The quick, hot days she’d crammed to bursting with drink and drug and men and women were long behind her, their suns all set, and had been well before she’d met Luboy. She’d tired of them just as they’d tired of her hardening body. Luboy is all she needs now. But though her lover had said nothing of it, Sa feels as though she clings to her with too few fingers. She has seen the most unshakable love drive more wives and husbands away from racers than she can remember. It is the terror of having to care for broken things. Gone things.
Sa wonders if it is too late to have children. Probably. Maybe. Probably.
Sa frowns. She does not recognize the signature flourish she experiences as a sour-smelling spark in the cleft of her brain. Who the fuck?
She hears the voice as though lips are pressed lovingly to her ear. ʢ-I know what you’re running for, Dragonhoof-ʡ
Sa scans the trench that surrounds the stage where confetti and rose petals blow like snow. There, a few degrees right of straight ahead—that red and purple carapace peaking over the lip, dipping ever so slightly in a nod.
ǂ It’s bad luck to talk to another runner before the run, J’ba Fofi ǂ
The other woman’s laugh as deep and saw-edged, the damaged sound of a damaged throat. ʢ-You are ridiculous, Bibi. There is no such thing as luck. Fate is clay we work with our feet. When you lose today, you will have no-one but me to blame-ʡ
Sa cogits a derisive snort. ǂ You couldn’t beat my shadow running against the sun ǂ
ʢ-Maybe before, when you ran to defeat, like I do. But that is not you anymore. Like I said, I know what you’re hunting for in all that time out there. You can hear that I am not lying-ʡ
I should just hang up. ǂ I don’t care what you know, little girl ǂ
The Spider ignores her. ʢ-You are different. You are desperate now. Short on time. You keep running because you will only ever climb as high as you have come but once, and you want to prolong that moment beyond its lifespan. You keep winning only so that the people will not mutter about your age. Your wrinkles, and your bones. You fear they will convince you to stop. You fear that because you know they will be right. And once you hang up your number, you will only ever fall and fall-ʡ
ʢ-I am not running to win, Sa Segokgo. I am running to destroy you. I am not going to just run you out of the race—I am going to run you out of the game forever. And even if I fail, I will be there for the next run—I promise—and I will wolf you to the next and the next until my poison brings you down-ʡ
ǂ What do I care? ǂ Sa snaps. Her teeth itch to bite. ǂ I will still be the best ever ǂ
The tiny figurine across the stage slowly shakes her head. ʢ-No. You will only be the best once. And you will always be old. Always be getting older. You will be nothing forever-ʡ
ǂ Why? ǂ Sa demands. Her anger must have seeped through her face, for Luboy is looking up at her concernedly.
ʢ-Why ask? I want to be the best, same as you. You’re my hero, Sa. I have your autograph on a T-shirt. Am I selfish? Of course, but you taught me that self is the gold we all run for. It is why even you will strike the living ghosts from your path with impunity. If you do not race for your glory and yours alone, if you fret for others, you defeat yourself from the first. Isn’t that what you told us children with every dream you stamped out cold? Tell me, Sa, if I am wrong at all-ʡ
Sa terminates the call because the Running Spider is right, about everything.
QuickSOULver tracks her down some hundred and sixty years earlier, on an unassuming sidewalk in Jotunheim, formerly Galatea. They dogfight across a desert’s width of blistering pavement, between feet as long and heavy as houses. Yoked gravity and a culture of macromania made of the moon a gigantopolis. To Sa, the miles-high planes of their weightless architecture twists the world into soaring, acute angles, reduces her and her opponent to tussling beetles. Every step is therefore a gamble that the space she occupies in that moment will not instantly become a hundreds-ton pillar of ankle. Foot traffic is thick on this selected day; the chances are fifty-fifty.
The American is quick, but Sa is old. She knows ways to cajole the odds, to set them against others. She runs until QuickSOULver takes one step too many and is skyhooked into the stratosphere in the shit-gummed tread of a transanthropic giant’s heel.
No more cronies, J’ba Fofi. Come and get me, or choke on your word.
There was a time, way back ago, when death was extinct. Man invented his own quantum-based heaven to save him the proper way and made mortality a discredited concept. But too late did humanity realize that civilization was predicated on a finite lifespan and the urgency it entailed. When death died so did the soul, the urge to strive, to create—to live. Immortal bodies lay for a horrific span of time now shamefully deleted from history as immortal minds idled in purgatory, thinking thoughts as slow as centuries.
It was the consensus of the remaining Hot and Quick that pulled man back to a lesser singularity. It was necessary, they said, to save the species from dissolving into the quiet of eternity. History continued on after a hiccup. Men and women continued to die, as was necessary.
Sa understands that perfectly. But sometimes she wishes she’d had a vote.
Seventy seconds, and less now. Sixty-eight seconds. This is the worst part, the wait. Locked in place upon her launch dais for her own safety. Compressed inside her armor like a spring and burning to be let loose. To a runner, stillness is second to death. Any other race, Sa would use that. But she cannot focus with the Running Spider’s words slithering about her like a mamba, all black and venomously accurate. She cannot be alone with them, not now.
ǂ Luboy, are you there? ǂ
ͼ-I’m always here, Sa. Is something wrong with your suit?-ͽ
ǂ No. I need to say sorry for the other day. When you asked why I still ran. I love you, Lub. I should have been straight with you then ǂ
ͼ-It’s okay, Sa. Get your head in the game-ͽ
ǂ Listen ǂ Sa says with urgency. ǂ This is important. On my very first run I missed a critical jump. Everyone else kept going, and I thought this is it. I’m not cut out to do this. And then … and then I looked up and saw myself flying overhead, and I knew I was wrong ǂ
ͼ-What? You don’t mean—that’s impossible, Sa-ͽ
Sa grinds her teeth. This is why she didn’t want to say.
She cogits a negative. ǂ Just unlikely. The odds of me meeting me in the same strand out of infinite strands—it's beyond counting. But I know it’s not zero ǂ
ͼ-How do you know it was you?-ͽ
Sa reaches for the memory of that moment. It is never far from her hand. She likes to look at it often, lest it begin to fade. No, she can admit she didn’t see her face behind that helmet. But she saw her number, clear and gold on her ruby chest as an evening on Botswana-2.
She says, ǂ It was Number 99 ǂ
ͼ-That doesn’t mean it was you. I’m sorry, I—all it means is that someone else had your number in whatever time they came from. Maybe they came from before you. Maybe they … came from after-ͽ
Her brain isn’t fast enough to stop her tongue from insinuating something she doesn’t mean. Sa doesn’t take it personally. ǂ I know, Lub. I’m an old, silly girl, believing in fantasies. I’m most likely running for nothing now. It doesn’t matter. I just needed you to know why I’m going to run until I fall apart. I wouldn’t have you without me. I owe it to me to bend a strand into a circle. Wish me luck out there ǂ
Three, two, one. The race begins with a lurch, and Sa finds herself in another world. The date is June 18th, 1815. The place is Waterlô. And Sa Segokgo is racing against time.
Sa accelerates and leaps into absolute stillness. For a span of time with negative value she is faster than the white crest of the universe, not competing against light but moving perpendicular to it. Eons bleed sideways across her armor for her sheer anti-speed. She breaches, a salmon in arc, for a non-linear instant free of the causal river that surges on beneath her. When she lands it is in the same spot, in the same Olympian lunge, but in a different ontic state, a universe rewound and re-begun with her as its hot, ripe singularity.
J’ba Fofi is a spear in flight.
Two unstoppable forces stop one another and plow a furrow through the grass three meters long. Light strikes the younger woman’s visor just right, and Sa can see her mouth stretching apart her black face with its pearly scream. Sa is something like proud, at having driven this girl to war.
They scramble under and over each other, slapping and shoving, fighting to be the first back on their feet as irreplaceable seconds pour out of their hands and into others. J’ba Fofi is small but Sa finds that the girl is strong in the way of a compressed spring. Her grudge makes her a demon. With a snarl she shoves Sa to the ground, pushing herself off her shoulder into an awkward sprint. Sa is not much more than two meters behind her, but she is following the path cut by another, as the saying goes.
She hears Mustafa crowing down the pipe of the future.
The ground is flat, green, tractive. There is nothing to come between them but stretching, snapping, rubber distance. Nothing to do but run. Even so, the most fundamental mechanic of the game remains—the need to weigh one’s depleted energy against the natural want to be ahead. When J’ba Fofi flags, winded, Sa surges ahead, only for the younger woman to slingshot past her in return. So expires fifteen seconds, and when the new strands open to them they dive neck and neck onto the same path, reaching consensus without dialogue. The telepathy of rivals.
Raw earth transforms into steel grating, pipework, petrified grime. The year is 2067, the spring of mankind’s first toddling venture out of Earth. At this point in time, great fields of Mars have become factories of progress, mining the vacant planet for the fuel and supplies necessary to catapult humanity further into the big dark. The thin atmosphere above is glutted with smoke. The towers of incomplete and primitive spacecraft loom.
Workers and scientists flee from their track, leaping from the catwalks rather than be bowled over. Sa swims through ghost after the Running Spider, who vaults over humps of red-dusted machinery as though she does have eight legs.
Yes, I am selfish, she thinks. I run with no-one upon my shoulders, towards no-one to save, towards no beneficent purpose. I destroy worlds and ruin lives with every step I take. I want trophies on my wall. I want the love of the woman I found in my chase of decades. No matter why others run, I will throw them down and run over them, for the sake of what I already have.
I owe it to me.
Propelled by supernovas of new strands they blaze through two more snippets of history, which may as well be corridors for all the wonder Sa gives them. The world starts with her and ends at her opponent’s heels.
Then, side by side, they burst through a wall of blinding light that leaves them both galloping blind for shock. As the milk clears away, Sa’s heart seizes about itself for a reason she can’t get a hand around.
2366 now. The sky is shut off from the ground by a plain of heaving, shifting metal. Machines shelled by solar panels march across the scape of the Earth. Sa knows that below each one would dangle thousands of tentacular instruments meant to inject life back into the depleted planet, to suck up toxified air, to glean nuggets of plastic and piss out clean water. The machines are too massive and stupid to stir at the fleas racing across their spines.
And though the terrain is as silvery flat as a mirror, its density, its clang, are familiar to her feet.
Never mind that. J’ba Fofi is near enough now that Sa can reach out and scrape a brand off her shoulder. Something has to give, Sa thinks, wishing daggers thrown by the eyes could cut. One of us will trip and fall. Not me. Not me!
Decreasingly far ahead she spies another group of runners, three of them in a loose chevron. Blue, red, bronze. To find so many in one strand is rare but not unheard of. Her suit reads off their numbers but Sa does not hear them, for with a burst of energy from nowhere J’ba Fofi has pulled ahead. She spares a mocking glance back.
Sa pats herself down for a similar heat to draw on and comes up with nothing. No. Inch by inch, the Running Spider pulls their distance taught. A loud, flat sound fills her helmet. Sa realizes that she has roared in terror. She has lost many runs in the years downhill of her prime, but never for this. Never for running dry like a fucking old woman.
She whips herself like a cart horse, pulling speed out of her sleeve, but not enough, burning energy she doesn’t have to close just a fraction of the distance between her and the Spider. Her clenched teeth scream for stress.
She feels more than she hears the audience hanging on her, relishing her slow fail. Mustafa is rapid-fire narrating every step, building up towards what he thinks is the moment she drops. ǂ Shut it off! ǂ she fairly screams at Luboy. But the silence changes nothing. She isn’t catching up.
Think of how they’ll laugh at you, Sa.
Think of the pity in their eyes.
Think of what you’ll never find.
With no warning sign a gap yawns in the ground ahead, a vastening canyon between this Earth-healing machine and the next. Suddenly that is the finish line, at least for her. If she fails here, if some weak part of her pulls the cord, then that is the strongest part of her, and they are right—she’ll be done.
The other runners, not much further ahead now, make the jump, almost as one. They fly, praying with their feet to find ground again. One lands confidently. Another missteps and plummets into the gulf. The third falls too short and finds themselves clinging by the fingertips to the plate on the other side. Three different strands into which the next three seconds could split.
J’ba Fofi makes the leap, confidently, her form perfect. Just match it, Sa urges herself. Sa has nothing in her but the bare minimum to move forward, so it can only be from a miracle that she draws the fuel to pour into her legs until they burn like rocket engines.
If she can’t jump, she will
The world seems to collapse out from under her. She kicks up one leg behind her, throws one foot ahead, to catch the first crumb of solid ground. The gap has become everything, as wide as it is bottomless.
A rapier of sun breaks against her visor. Among the shards Sa sees the Running Spider complete her arc, grip the ground and go, transitioning to motion with no hesitation. She feels gravity reaching up from the chasm to take her by the ankles.
As Sa begins her fall she looks down, spots the straggler who clings to the edge of the cliff struggling to get a second hand on the ground, looking up at her in turn. Light cuts through the smoke of their faceplate, and Sa sees a child’s smooth face wide open for wonder.
Across her forehead, her shoulders, a golden-scaled number inverted for perspective—sixty-six.
Finally, she thinks.
All debts are paid.
J’ba Fofi is cutting towards her goal with a blade of want. Sa finds that she wishes her well. The girl is vicious, oh sure, but talented beyond a doubt. She will be a champion, Sa thinks. Maybe even better than her.
But only once.
Sa cackles and pulls the cord.
Forty years before and one second after, Sa Segokgo claws and heaves herself onto solid ground. She splurges on three quick, deep breaths and then hurries to get moving again, grayly aware she’s lost this run. Any place will do for now, though.
She knows she isn’t finished yet. She has a promise.
And a debt.