CHAPTER I — DIE SCREAMING
ONE | Hid Among the Dead
Tobias Gilroy traded in his name the day he began tending to the lucid mecha at the racetrack by the bay. He wouldn’t earn any notoriety without a more remarkable name and he self-identified as Stro the moment his profile confirmed the update. A runner wrangling adoration from a lively grandstand—and respect from his biomechanical partner, the rekt—required a delusional / confident aura, elitist-level taste musical taste, and genius coding skill. The rekt’s virtual intelligence spewed from the roiling ocean of networked data that’d come before. The rekt also abided no redundancy. Those virtual minds weren’t aware of themselves, but they were aware of SOMETHING. They preferred—they sided—with things never before seen in recorded history. Runners like Stro were succulent athletes of beastly originality. Show any weakness and their machines would reject the runner. The human brains would fry like eggs from stem to cerebellum when attempting synchronization.
Hardly entered into his twenties, Stro was partway between a seductive southern devil and angular northern royalty. That was all it took to cast him as the people’s champion during that American blizzard bearing down on Boston the week before Halloween. And his rekt hadn’t grown tired of him yet, either.
Of the eleven runners that were DNF on the morning run, ten were KIA. The supercell was bouncing off the coastline and the conditions were growing worse.
Stro tromped out of the cold into the team’s streaming booth to discover Ivory seated behind the monitor console. Her usual amber-gold wig still smoldered in the trash can. Her true, hacked-up labrador hair was free to spike and jag. She scrubbed hard with a cloth at the spotted gore caking her hands while watching her morning’s crash replay, disqualifying her from the afternoon run. She had on a brown raincoat, sneakers, tall socks that almost reached her knees, and rolled pants that did the rest.
“How’d you survive that?” Stro asked. “And how’d you get changed so quickly?”
“I’m a performer. I perform. I hid among the dead.” Ivory swigged a thick mixture of amino acids and protein. “Pike’s not beyond repair, but I won’t make the afternoon run.”
She slid a diagnostic wireframe to Stro blinking with damaged parts on her rekt, Pike Violet.
Stro released the vacuum sealed on his sync-suit. It was the color of an approaching shark. He peeled it off his upper torso. He jerked his arms out of the sleeves. He knotted the sleeves around his waist. He steamed with sweat, swimming in lean muscle, pacing, seeking a thought. He switched off the streaming booth’s video and muted the microphone. Shuddering, he slid to the floor and collapsed his face onto Ivory’s lap.
“I saw the f-footage and I—” he stammered. She wrapped around him and suck-sobbed the spit through her teeth. “Fuck. I’m so fucking tired. Just—agh! Don’t die. Alright? I can’t keep parading around this character without you.”
“It’s okay,” she soothed. “Yeah? It’s not gonna happen. Can ya—you gonna be ready for the next run?” Stro nodded. “Okay. Good. Fuckin’ fang it. Get mad. Give your girl something to talk about.”
Stro worked himself back upright. He exhaled and gathered back the emotion he’d let go, packing it in and switching the streaming gear back on. “More dead on the track today than I’ve ever seen,” he said to Ivory. “Keeps getting worse—”
“You know, a guy’s waiting for you in there,” Ivory said as quick as she could. The door to Stro’s ready room was cracked ajar.
“Yeah.” He slipped his eyes to the red light beside the re-activated cameras. “Who?”
“Didn’t recognize him. He’s an undecided Rumspringa, judging by the pearliness in his cheeks. That’d also explain why he doesn’t know how to talk to women. I remain convinced the moment men figure out how to make sons without women, they’ll try to kill us all dead.”
“What good Christian manners did the young man demonstrate?”
“Spouted the same by-the-book bullshit. Stumbled between pickup lines. He might actually be a dealer from a corporate team, here to kill you, now that I consider all the facts.”
The deaf season drummed with battlefield wind against the window.
Stro entered the ready room.
TWO | Hear Red Bells
A teenage boy as thin as Chinese bamboo sat waiting. He put fingers gloved in blue latex through feathery hair. He stood. He creased woolen origami coat lapels. He extended his gloved hand to meet Stro.
“Calvin,” he introduced himself. His voice was a low machine-hum.
Stro didn’t move in reply just yet. He shut the door all the way until it clicked shut tight. Stro shook Calvin’s hand. The latex squeaked. He sat with the desk between them. “Stro,” he replied.
“I met your girl in the other room. Ivory.”
“She’s my teammate.”
“She’s sweet. Has she a family name—last name?”
“I’m not meant to share that information with you. I’m just—” He examined Stro. “I’ve come a long way—from Cleveland. You probably figured that. I found myself drawn to the races, see?”
“Most do. Forgive my manners for a sec.” Stro looked at the wall clock. “The race’s afternoon run is in nine minutes. With half the field dead, I’m second in pole position, and I can’t smartly count the first run’s spent ammo magazines and blame all the DNFs on snowy track conditions. My mind is all red bells right now. You picked a… weird, wild, lethal day of racing to slip into my orbit, so why don’t you start and end with what exactly you want, Calvin? That’s how these things usually go.”
“I want to do what you do.”
“No you don’t.” He shook eyedrops into his eyes and blinked hard. “And you can’t.”
“I just want to be a runner like—!”
“You can want it all you like, that’s free. Go one inch further and you’d best get comfortable with gambling your Christian soul. You’re a member of the church, aren’t you? Cleveland’s still inside the Kingdom’s walls, so far as I saw on my last trip west, yeah?”
“Then I reckoned right that you wouldn’t wager your soul lightly on those divine scales. Runners’ve got magnificent egos to keep from losing their minds while syncing with the rekt’s virtual intelligence network. If it weren’t networked, it’d be like having another brain in your brain. I control the rekt and keep its semi-sentience tame, just below the line that makes it know what it really is. I doubt you could be quite so selfish—or righteous. You’d die smiling, just like the rest.”
“I won’t let a lack of arrogance keep me from this.”
“Really? Because ego keeps my brains from coming out my nose during a sync. That, and half-million lines of bespoke ruby code.”
“Listen, I need this. My mother—my mom, she—left New York during the Schism to go west. My sister was five, I was three. My mom took us but left my father behind, like she’d been waiting for the chance, like an idiot. Like a coward. At eighteen, I walked through the gates for Rumspringa and came back east, back to New York. I learned there that my father—my dad had remarried to some hedonist—an athlete. Nobody could say where she was, but they had a living location for that second wife, here in Boston. Her name was Charlotte Wright. My father was named Daxter.”
“Char—” Stro rippled with chill. “The—Charlotte Wright?”
“I bet you still hear red bells now, don’t you?” Calvin said.
Racing had changed a great deal in the fifteen years. First they had drivers in the race cars, until that was considered too risky, considering the talent investment and coupling mortality rate of supersonic athleticism. Team owners eliminated the human life from the liability bottom line—the drivers. Operators instead puppeteered the drone vehicles remotely. There was zero regard for danger, since no breathing soul was gambled, as the machine’s cloud-based virtual intelligence was not considered living.
This more uncaring competition made way for long-nosed, two-wheeled cycles no wider than a person. This drivetrain style evolved into the modern speed-stance. Crafts lightened. Speeds held steady, flirtatious small-talk with a sonic boom.
Desperate for a win, one team, Athenaeum, defied status quo and jammed a living woman back onto their vehicle. Her brain was hard-wired into the machine-mind. The virtual intelligence remained networked with the others while suffering the woman’s ferocious counter-arguments. Their mental co-mingling and sensory exchange trickled down to the neuron. She was an invasive species let loose upon the networked cloud-minds. The two intelligences, human and virtual, acted as one. She outran sound itself when slowing for chicanes. No time spent on small talk.
She was Charlotte Wright, and she rattled man’s Earth. Her partner was Daxter Wright.
But Charlotte was the rebel angel—a rhythmic spirit assumed gone from America since the Schism chopped it all up, the five Diffused States left facing inward.
That was the first direct diffusion drive ever saddled, the new-age mecha called ‘rekt.’ Only the genuine and true individuals could link with the machines-minds as Charlotte did, and the runners were few. While the races held America’s splintered heart together, they failed to reunite her soul. Stability was all it achieved, for the moment, and that moment endured for fifteen more years.
The Diffused States, and her long memory, endured, fragmented and fractured in pettiness and in fear. Charlotte’s thinking was too unorthodox for mass-appeal. In all her groundbreaking achievement, she could not be trusted, contained, or predictably commodotized by the governing body maintaining the status quo. None with sway dared bear the mantle of responsibility for her.
Despite being one of the [Original Six], the first generation of modern runners who founded D3CRL—the League—Charlotte was left behind. The Malice was the final offence. The League, its runners, and the v.i. network itself knew her bizarre tendencies stood defiant to the stabilizing vision. The Diffused States required order to endure. That order had no need for Charlotte, nor she for it.
Calvin tilted his face up.
“You think your father is Daxter Wright?” Stro asked.
“My father is Daxter Wright. He married Charlotte Wright after he left my mother—”
“But you were a kid. Did your mom—?”
Ivory blasted through the door.
“Corps dealers—headed here!” she spat. “Blue chrome and dressed to kill live on the internet.”
“Shit—they’re scrubbing us,” Stro said. He wormed back into his sync-suit. He re-sealed it with a button press on the wrist with an eye out the window. “They must be why there were so many KIA on the track today. Big leagues meddling with our—fucking hell. Calvin, listen. Men with quarterly quotas to fill are going to try to kill me and everyone around me because some major League teams is probably demanding a storyline reboot. You still want to find your approximately-famous father in all this?”
“Fine. Stick close and keep breathing.”
THREE | Starting Gun
Prep was rushed. Calvin aided Ivory in barricading the booth’s main entrance while Stro collected armfuls of ammunition. Satisfied, he swatted the audio feed with a pistol barrel the size of a mailbox to share his playlist out to his subscribers. The chat erupted with neglected questions and an elevator of emoji.
The slide-pole awaited Stro’s hand out the back exit. He gripped it in a pose for the surrounding cameras, then slid to the starting grid, waving to the cheers with his free hand. Snowy chasms already collected into clawing obstacles, their peaks freezing in rigor mortis to await human competition.
Conducting diligent tweaks to his tar-black rekt, Stro bobbed his head to the neon-wrung music piped into his helmet as he eyed the other remaining runners, holding to their own routines. Karasawa posed for her purple and pink drone camera. The weather scuffed at the drone’s PLEX logo. She scrunched round cheeks and giggled each time a wind gust shook the drone. Her audience remained delighted, sending her audio-stream subscribers spiking and packing her net worth with recurring revenue. The two rat-faced runners from Liquid Motorsports traded insults with the jagged-armored runners from Green Dragon. In the grandstand, the two teams’ rival fanbases fought and killed one another as they usually did, soaking aluminum bleachers with blood and broken teeth.
At the pole position, Horace the Husker and his steaming, shaved skull glared forward. Twice Stro’s size and puffy from human growth hormone doses, he pulled from his vape-pod to blow happy yellow smoke through reptilian lips.
Stro walked the fifteen-foot spine of his rekt from chrome tailpipes to shining snout where the sharp letters spelt out the machine’s name: Kilo Arctic. He tested his boots’ magnetic grip to Kilo’s every surface.
In the control booth, Ivory tuned the audio in Stro’s helmet to heavier, meaner electric guitars while ignoring the gathering blizzard. The starting gun approached.
The countdown hurried on. Stro kick-started the engine and it reported back with a machine-powered typhoon.
Stro packed ammunition into trap-doors fitted behind each wheel well, opening with a kick of his heel from his saddle. They were in Boston, Suffolk county, Blue England. Only non-lethal weapons were usually permitted, but the times had grown strange, and the day was unlike other days.
“Have you discovered who’s selling out the amateurs to Corporate?” Stro asked Ivory over the radio. He searched his fellow competitors as casually as he could stand with an elevated heart-rate.
“Not so far, no.”
“Try to find somebody local. Everything to gain, nothing to lose. I’d wager somebody was offered a shot at League competition if they help Corps kill us all off and re-cast the amateur circuit. That’d simplify the bullshit that passes for narrative structure on the pro side. Gotta keep it soft and simple for the grandmas and droogs watching in the fucking flyover deserts. I’m gonna see who’s eager to live and eager to die down here. I’ll be in touch during the run and try to help narrow your search.”
“I cannot rightly imagine living long enough to do so, but I’ll try—” She glanced back at Calvin. “—We’ll try. Kid, you’ve been conscripted. You’re officially a deputy dealer for the team. Feel free to kill anyone that's angling to kill me. That’s your new normal until you’re dead, you got it?”
In that instant, Calvin noticed men in blue chrome coats frilled with fur parading shoulder to shoulder toward their ramshackle booth.
“Miss—Ivory—” he whispered.
“I’m setting your musical playlist, Stro,” Ivory said into the radio.
“That’ll manage. I trained the algorithm to track my heartbeat. Kilo will find the right audio track in the right moment. He always does with me. More and more, nowadays. Someday, we’ll recommend albums to each other.”
A razorblade noise choked Calvin to attention. Horace the Husker was bellowing his pre-race hype loud enough to reach Stro’s radio.
“Let’s fuckin’ go!” Horace muscled through his twining throat. “Let’s go! Yeah! Yeauhh! Let’s go!”
“Dude’s a screamer,” Ivory muttered, words starting to rush, eyes on the window.
“Screamers usually die smiling,” Stro suggested.
“Rekt, awn!” the announcer said over the loudspeaker in a harsh Worcester accent.
Foot-high gates shot up around each rekt to confirm starting locations.
“On rekt,” Stro and the other runners said in ragged unison. He dropped into his trembling saddle.
The green flag appeared, a final call for SILENCE / obedience amidst the gathering blizzard.
“Racing!” Stro and the others shouted like the chorus to a song.
Somewhere, Ivory turned a volume dial with a smile and a flick from mischief’s tongue. A musical crescendo smothered Stro's misguided senses into T. Rex’s opening chords of ‘20th Century Boy.’
The gates collapsed.
“Awoo!” the song screamed.
The green flag swung.
Tires gripped. Rubber went molten. Guitars crunched. Speed was instant. The track veered into a corner. Stro followed. A runner rammed his rekt from the side.
He heard music. He heard no hurt. It was a mixed reality, mostly make-believe, his mind swirling with the machine’s irrational fearlessness, and in return, the rekt lived like he did—joyous.
-- Aleksander Ruegg
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