"It was a stunning alchemy of human talent and organizational drama -- in short, it was just really damn-good television."
Read: [The Diffused States (Part 1)] and [(Part 2)] to stay caught up. . .
The public devoured it. It was real and it was human and it was intricate and it was dangerous and it had innumerable personalities involved at so many levels. People have always loved watching esoteric talents clash with neuroses, particularly when there's a good soundtrack and there's the possibility of injuries and explosions (D3's serving both the thermally- and emotionally-charged varieties). There wasn't a person in the Diffused that didn't watch every Sunday, or gobble up the pre-race hype broadcasts during the week.
It was unprecedented. Oh, there was no precedent, baby! Speed and danger joined with physicality and engineering brilliance unheard of in human history. People had to design the machines, people had to design the software, people had to manage the machines' hardware-halves (and different people had to monitor the Runners' relationships with the machines' organic-halves). Rivalries developed. Each team bubbled with its own style -- people wanted to know what made them different. All of the doors were open to the viewers that wanted to enjoy the prep-work before competition. It was a stunning alchemy of human talent and organizational drama -- in short, it was just really damn-good television. It was a marriage that had no business being this successful, particularly when it required trust between all those eccentric individuals operating in tandem. If they didn't, the brave soul that had been strapped into the D3 was going to wreck at 800 km/h doing a 5-G turn.
"They don't do a ton of D3 racing in Texas," admitted Shaw in an interview on a quiet Sunday after the most recent race was finished. A three-quarters moon had snuck up early on a bright blue twilight sky over Dallas when she sat down to talk. The woman was young, younger than you would expect for her candor and rivalries with long-tenured racers. None of that grinning swagger we'd seen in post-race press conferences was in her voice now though -- the fire in her, infamously capable of burning off all of the oxygen in a room if she wanted, was toned down to smaller, twisting blue flame. She sat cross-legged wearing jeans, well-fitting training shoes with toe-slots, and a hotel robe.
I noticed her grab at the carpet with her toes. She leaned back when she talked and leaned forward when she listened, breezing about the conversation like a tropical plant.
"Been to Texas & The Sooners before?"
"Twice," Shaw answered me. "Once to Old Oklahoma City. Once to San Antonio. I wanted to go closer to the border but we weren’t allowed. Have you been to the border?"
"I have. It's scary."
"They're scared of the southern border here. Well, I guess not scared of it. They just don't like it. There isn't much to see there, I guess."
"They seem to like you here though. The fans."
"Except they can't pronounce Montblanc," Shaw laughed. "I mean, they love us, you can see it in the their faces, but they keep mispronouncing it. It's endearing though. Having fans in different parts of the Diffused is half the reason we do this. Even if they don't get that, even if the fans themselves don't get why I love to race, that's fine. We're different but competitive. That's what makes these countries great. It's just so great to see these people at the races. They're so kind and so humble, and the racers just love what they do and feel so lucky that we've been given the ability to do it. I love it. I fucking love it."
"A lot of the fans in other countries, and let's not mince words, basically those other than the folks in Blue England and the Sierras, have no clue how the D3's even work. At least, that's the accepted rumor, the 'canonized' rumor, so to speak. And yet they just love to watch. Does that bother you? It's a sport that necessitates so much science, so much chemistry, so much artistry. It requires deep physical and emotional balance that no sport in history has demanded."
Shaw nodded. "That’s very true, and you phrased the question perfectly, so thank you for that. Well, I feel that the sport is simultaneously about emotional vulnerability while being confident and present and able to overcome insecurities. Simple, basic human traits. You can't trick the D3 into trusting you, into believing you, because it's very much a part of your own heart and your own mind when you're in sync with it. You need to be able to trust yourself on a level some people have difficulty communicating –- I know that I still do sometimes."
"That goes unnoticed by the crowds on occasion, that relationship, and is that hard for you?"
"No, of course not." She leaned back in her chair but keeps talking while looking dead ahead, skydiver-blue eyes still telling the truth. "It's clear that they see something good when they watch the races, and that's what's really important to me. That's vital to me, to my life as both a racer and as a person. Understanding the physics of life -- like a molecular composition that draws the defining-line between a live body and a dead one -- that's not important because we don't see it and it sure as shit doesn't effect whether or not we like to watch a race."
"Can you explain it then?" I was curious to see if Shaw's perception of D3's scientific portion matched her philosophical panache for the subject. Overachiever. "In layman's terms? How do the D3's really work? How do you work with them. Maybe people are afraid to ask and afraid to sound silly. Learning the intricacies of a new sport, the lingo, the slang, can be hard."
Shaw nodded again and agreed. "Sure, absolutely. So, it begins with us scouting the course. The term for it is called 'slipping' because we trace lines in the track as we drive them in normal vehicles -- trucks, cars, whatever. This can take an hour if it's a circuit course where we're running laps, or it can take an entire day if it's a point-to-point race. And the entire team comes to slip the course. We all talk the entire time, checking corners, blind jumps, hairpins, places to tuck, all of it. The Runners for our team -- for Montblanc, that's Stro and I -- we have to talk to our team's Smith, the engineer, and our Angel, who does psyche, and those conversations are usually mediated by the Jockey, who is our code writer.
"Anyway, Stro and I, we have tons of fun with those talks, trying to keep the peace amongst everybody. It's always exciting crafting a plan of attack on the course. It helps that we're friends, all of us, and we trust each other unquestionably. You have to. It requires so much, you can't survive if you don't believe the advice from your not just people you trust, from experts in software engineering and mechanical engineering and genetic engineering.
"There's important ritualistic dieting that goes along with it too. To increase memory-association with the track's layout, our team's Angel will have the Runners eat something very specific during the slip."
"Because we usually slip the course in the afternoon and then don't eat anything until right before the start the next morning. When we finally do eat the day of the race, we eat what we did during the slip the day before, and the taste creates the memory-association. It's always distinct; bitter, or spicy, or sweet -- all closely planned. Think of when you were a kid. You have a memories that smell like holly and woodsmoke, or like maple and apple peels, and even today, things can be reactivated in your brain and you get giddy when you experience those sensations. Why? Because of thoughts of Christmas, of family, of safety, of excitement. That's what we've done with our pre-race meals, developed the right emotional association. We factor in weather and race-time temperature, it's weirdly precise. And it helps. And also, for whatever reason, not eating prior to syncing with the D3 reduces confusion in the biomech. As somebody that's done it on an empty stomach and on a full stomach, the difference is night and day.
"So after that, after the slip and after we've gone over the hardware versus software debate, we Runners begin our fast, and the rest of the guys will go off and do their genius work to tailor the D3 so it will be optimized for the track. Then I usually talk to Laureate, who gets a feeling on how I’m feeling in here--" she tapped her fist to her heart "--and we build out a playlist."
"Right, they pipe in the music to help you keep rhythm during the race. I downloaded your soundtrack from last year five minutes after they released it. It was a fantastic mix."
"Awesome! I'm pumped that you liked it. Those were just the tracks we could get licensing for, and we're getting better at getting the release-rights as it's becoming more popular and profitable. Axel Rose is still a dick about us using 'Paradise City,' I can't believe he's even still alive," she leaned back casually into her chair, reminiscing. "Track 15 on the mix was this song 'Walk With You,' by an 1990's band called Dispatch. I remember I had just taken the lead in a race, it was a night race, actually, and the song came on and I never looked back. I just zoned-in and started running faster and faster laps. Nobody was going to catch me that night. What sucks is that we didn't even release a lot of our original music, which is seventy-five percent of what we use -- Laureate is hesitant to release it, despite the pent-up demand."
"The Laureate?" I encouraged after Shaw stopped talking. I led her back into the conversation. "That's what you call the musician. Why are they called Laureates?"
"Oh. It's just slang, like Blue England. Like anything. There used to be artists in residence or poet laureates before the Schism. These are the teams' musician laureates. Or 'Rocker Laureate,' as Aran put it. Rockstar in residence. Each person on the team is our go-to for a piece of the puzzle that makes this sport so great. The Smith designs, forges the D3's mechanics. The Angel handles, guards the vitals for the D3's biological portion. The Jockey writes the software, the code itself, and acts as the go-between the D3's living and non-living halves. But it's the Laureate that helps me talk to the D3. It's the base, poetic language and rhythm found in the music that begins the conversation.
"The music is imperative to my ability to communicate with the D3. It brings me up to its level and it brings it down to my level in terms of cognitive speed. It's a machine with biological underpinnings, and in a lot of ways, we humans are biological entities with brains built like computers. So to get us in sync and to put us in a better state for shared consciousness, we use music. Like I said before, some of it is licensed music from old bands, but lots of it, Laureate writes based on what she sees in the course, composing what she sees, anticipating how we might be feeling at that moment. Some of it is from her extensive back-catalog that she and I fill out constantly. And the rest she noodles out on the fly during the race. You should see her play a 12-string. She is a samurai with that thing.
"To start, she usually goes with some of those pizzicato strings that raise your short hairs on end, you know the feeling, that horror-movie stuff -- then she moves right into some really driving drum bass-lines. Heavy metal. Guitars that sound like cars. And it's all her. It's fantastic.
"If a Runner needs a kick in the ass, she'll rattle off a pounding, complex beat at just the right moment. I know there have been times when I've gotten too emotionally entangled with a particular racer rattling my nerves during a race, making me lose focus, and Laureate will calm me down with some slower strings -- some kind of ballad, maybe. If I'm brawling with another Runner, she'll know that I need heavy percussion and chunky electric guitar. She takes cues from me, from what we've talked about, and occasionally from Aran, who is our Opticon."
"Aran Stephens, you mentioned him again. Your team's owner." She nodded. "What does he do? During the race?"
"He runs the whole show. He's on the horn the entire time, planning plays for Stro and I, filling us in on what the other teams are doing, reminding us to move from Roid into Tuck and back."
"Explain Tuck and Roid."
"Sure. So, aside from the fact that I almost always fuck it up and say 'tuck and roll' because I'm a space cadet and I have a terrible verbal filter, it basically describes how you're positioning yourself on the D3. I begin each race inside the D3 in what's called a Roid-stance. It's where I'm standing up, fully enclosed in the D3 mechanical exoskeleton, which could be anywhere between 10 to 15 feet tall. Ours are bigger, right at the maximum height of 15 feet.
"That's the humanoid Roid-stance -- short for 'android.' What can I say? The sport was invented by geeks. But when the D3 is upright like that, it's agile, augmenting normal human movement. It's simple to operate, it's as easy as walking once you develop a report with the D3. I can run in a dead sprint in that thing, without assistance from jets or vents, at about 340 km/h, thereabouts. With jets accelerating everything and the rollers lowered, it can top out at almost 500 km/h. We have laser-sharp stabilizing edges made of a diamond-laced alloy installed on different parts of the frame so we Runners can carve through turns like a train riding rails, even at high speeds. These edges can also vibrate at ultra-high frequencies that you can hear, but can't really see with the naked eye, and what this means is that we can use them to carve sharp turns through asphalt, rock, metal -- nearly anything. When you're doing it right, you wonder if you're even doing anything at all.
"The friction is lessened, and it's almost like gliding when it's all going and the jets are active. What the jets do is emphasize the already-enhanced movements that the D3 gives me. They're mounted all over the Roid, so if I want to lean into a turn, the jets'll work in conjunction with the series of gyroscopic overlays built into the exoskeleton's middle tier to keep me balanced when I'm carving a turn. I can almost lay out entirely--" she went rigid as a plank, laying across her armchair in perfect form, extending a pointed leg at a right angle straight up "--And still be in full control at high speed. It's also very hard to knock a D3 over because of all these counterbalance measures. That's why we incorporate so much controlled spinning and rolling when we’re throwing around our momentum in tight areas."
"So as long as you don't fight the inertia too much--"
"--Right, we can make it work for us. A good Runner should be like hot water flowing over ice. Fight the gravity, but don't hate it. Otherwise, it'll hate you back. I studied a lot of ballet, interpretive dance, short track speed-skating, parkour, yoga, downhill skiing, and tai chi to see how they deal with channeling and carrying momentum."
"So it accelerates your normal human movement and reflex."
"So you're saying you're fast?"
"I'm saying I could catch an errant electron with chopsticks."
The boast strikes me hard in the chest. "Okay." But I can see it in her eyes, still soft and blue -- at the very least she thinks she's telling the truth. "Okay, but the D3 also has Tuck-stance."
"Yes, Tuck-stance, of course. The D3 is a versatile machine that we can calibrate to emphasize speed when we need it. Basically, it rearranges itself from something two-legged and agile to something more horizontal and straight-ahead. It becomes more of a charging rhino or one-seater car than gorilla or, uh, robot, I guess. More vehicle than 'advanced prosthetic,' let's say. The Runner partially emerges from the D3 and basically begins to ride it in this stance. And ride really is the opportune word: you're on top of the thing. It used to be a more dangerous maneuver because it leaves the Runner exposed, but we ironed out the kinks. The Smith on our team is an amazing technical engineer. When the jets are actively re-arranged and the wheels come down and the whole thing becomes built for straight-ahead speed and aerodynamics, that's when the velocity kicks in. When you want to go straight and you need to go fast, you go into your tuck and you hold on."
"It's like a long-nosed motorcycle. Powered by jets. Balanced by the same gyro-system as the D3 in Roid-stance--"
"--And balanced by me too. You have to be strong to wrangle productivity out of Tuck-stance. It hurts to stay in the tuck, it's physically taxing, gravity and the terrain slamming you around. A lot of people can't take corners at all in that stance. I mean, you've got to squeeze the shit out of the saddle with your legs if you want to stay on the thing. If you're strong though, and you can keep calm, and you know what you're doing, you can almost have the D3 completely sideways on the track and still maintain speed. You can scrub a ton of speed doing that too, it's just a matter of communicating to the D3 what you need out of it, putting the thrust and the balance in the right place. That's why you need the trust and the courage. And the stupidity. But knowing the D3 is there with you, looking out for you the way you're looking out for him. . . that's what makes it different from just strapping somebody to a missile and pointing it at the finish line.
"It takes finesse. Strength is important, but it's not just that. It's not something anybody can do and it's not something you can even really learn to do overnight. You have to be both physically smart and emotionally grounded to wrangle the D3 into sharing with you; into trusting you. And that's when you really start to go fast and enjoy feeling the danger, particularly in Tuck-stance."
"Interesting. And last but not least, there's another famous man on your team. Victor Han. He was head of the Drug Admin for a while. He works pro bono. He's the general manager, the Dealer for your team. How deeply involved is he with the team?"
"He protects us from entanglements. We focus on racing. He negotiates our contracts, does marketing, he lets us focus on what we do. He's also legal counsel. He's our Dealer. Self-explanatory."
"You said at the beginning of the interview that you start the race by slipping the course. What happens before that though? Where does the D3 itself come from?"
"From science. They come from science." She laughed, aware of her limited response. "I'm not involved with much of the actual construction. Ask Smith. Or better yet, ask Aran. He's always investigating how this shit really works."
NEXT: [#30 -- The Diffused States (Part 4)] to see what happens. . .
-- Doberman (is getting worried)
on Twitter | @GhostLittle_WTF