"No, the way she stood, it was more like she'd ridden a rocket bareback to Mars, out-drank Bacchus, out-foxed Loki, punched-out Tyson, stolen diamonds, split atoms, won a race, and somehow manage to turn God's girlfriend gay with just a wink and a smile."
Aran bent his head down for a closer look. The woman's body looked deflated and dry, especially now that the bed was propping her up, her skin obeying gravity while her giving her bones their turn in the spotlight. Behind hair that resembled dust curls, her eyes were indeed moving, blinking -- very much aware, if a bit sedated. He had been struggling out of his foggy hangover with aspirin and coffee, the post-race celebration had been a lengthy affair the night before, packing in noise, substances, and rain -- the latter of which had not yet subsided. All these things thinned Aran's ability to think. He ran his tongue over his teeth, thinking how gritty they felt, and how he hoped it wouldn't activate his gag reflex. Then the woman in the bed looked at him, first with her face, then with her eyes, lids pulling back like the last seconds before a music-box runs out of energy. If Aran had had hiccups, they would have been gone.
"Hi," he said to her in a normal voice.
At first, he expected her to answer, but the doctor that had invited him into the room dissuaded him with a shaking head.
"So, this is really her?"
"One of the first. She did everything right, proved us all right. The D3 accepted her. It carried her, kept her safe. Then, unfortunately for everybody involved, it started to abuse her. That left her with a whole lot of hurt. Looking at her cat-scan, you should see it clearly." The doctor held it in front of Aran, who could see patches in the woman’s brain that almost looked like --
"-- It burned her?" Aran felt a lump in his throat. "Is that what that is? Because that's what it looks like, particularly here. And here. Jesus, it burned her like fondue stuck to a pot."
"You're perceptive. The physical results of emotional rejection, the literal confusion inside the brain, medically, it's wounded the way skin is hurt by chemical burns. The D3 didn't want her anymore. She, however, still needed the connection. The rush, the closeness, the familiarity. And when it was taken away, she didn't understand why. Their team's Angel, who I know personally, and is usually conservative when managing the relationship between the Runner and the D3, initially likened the Runner's reaction to drug addiction. In my opinion though, it's different. It's worse."
"So why's she like this? The woman's a plant. Artichokes are more personable than this. Is her sedation because of the D3?"
"No. Unfortunately, no. This was the result of an intervention from her team's Opticon."
"You said she was on Team Nobis? I've met their Opticon. Vonnegut. The man's an arachnid at heart. He did this?"
The doctor shrugged. "They needed a Runner. She was the best. They needed the old magic, so they forced the issue. An icepick." Aran cocked his brow and pointed to the inner corner of his left eye, asking. "Yup. Old-fashioned. So now, somehow, in her total complacency, the D3 accepts her again. She wasn't much of a racer in that state though, so right before the green flag goes down, they give her a 100 deciliter drip of this."
Aran took a look at the bag of semi-crystallized fluid hanging from I.V. stand. "Quite the meal. It's heavy. This is thick stuff, what is it?"
"It's called Grove," he stated. Aran hoped for elaboration but got none.
"Grove?" Aran repeated, keeping his voice steady when he spoke the word.
"Yeah. They say Vonnegut gets it from The Kingdom. At least that's what Nobis' Dealer said to me."
"Did he say anything else?"
"Could he be. . . encouraged to say anything else?" Aran squinted, trying to see what was really inside the I.V. bag. "Should I have Han ask him about Grove? Persuade him? With sharp words and blunt things? Or blunt words and sharp things? He can do both. He's very encouraging if you catch him in the right mood."
"Aran, I would really like to know what this shit is. And I'd like you to be the guy that finds it out. It turns a dummy athlete into a competitor again. To know how and why, well, that'd be a lot off of my conscience. But listen." He nodded Aran away from the woman in the bed. "When I asked the Dealer about the Grove, it wasn't that he wouldn't tell me anything -- it was the way his eyes shrank away when I pressured him. He knows something, for sure. But there was something funny going on in the back of that guy's brain, and it wasn't because he was intimidated by me that he didn't talk. No, this guy wanted to talk. It was just something bad, he was having fun with his secret."
He pointed to something Aran had stepped in. "What the?"
"When the Dealer was here earlier this morning," the doctor informed him. "He attached the Grove I.V., dumped half a shoe-full of sand on the floor and left. Said he'd been out in the desert earlier in the week."
Aran kicked a clump of the dirt into the corner. "Okay then. So he's dirty and he's ill-mannered. Good to know. I'd have this guy on a short leash if I were Vonnegut."
"If I had to guess, the Dealer knows too much. Maybe by accident though? Vonnegut knows the Dealer knows. And the Dealer knows what Vonnegut likes to do to uncooperative employees. Pumping the Dealer for information is the logical next step for us. Funny situation, isn't it, Mr. Bond?"
"Cute," Aran acknowledged. "But Vonnegut's a dangerous man and an honest man, and those are some wicked complications for somebody in his position to be having. He's old school."
Aran felt his attention drawn back to the woman in the bed. Air bubbles pushed through the crystalline fluid bag, half-empty now. They collected, coalescing at the surface as a heavy shell at the top of it all. Then it snapped loudly. The pop splattered opaque green flecks all across the empty half.
"In all the worst ways," Aran admitted. "Like me. But I think we're finally getting somewhere."
-- | | | --
The best Runners were focused and selfish. Rational, maybe even reasonable people, yes, and kind in conversation and encouragement, but terribly independent to the point of selfishness. It kept them contained and in touch with their 1:1 bond to the D3. Not caring about the safety of other people made them ruthless on the track. It kept them competitive. The D3 gradually changed them though. Their contempt faded. The bond with this secondary life-form would grow stronger. They would begin to depend on it. The team's Angels would study them when the runner started to show the signs. The synchronization rate would grow, as did the coordination and trust, but the speed would inevitably drop. The machine wouldn't go as hard, as if the runner was holding it back. The runner wouldn't be as tired after the races until they were an hour or so removed from the D3, when heavy fatigue would set in. It was initially diagnosed as an addiction. This was proven false when the runners started showing signs of separation anxiety when they were put into detox or deprived time in the D3.
It was Team Montblanc that found the solution. "Quite simply," Aran had declared once at a post-race press conference. "The runners are becoming emotionally compromised later in their careers. Their biorhythms are so in-tuned with the D3 that both organisms begin to value the others' life in a cellular level. Medically, we can't prove it, it's an emotional state, not a physical issue. The runner and the D3, stop being self-focused and start to identify their mutual dependencies over time. It isn't symbiotic. The organisms continue to live if separated. It's mental thing."
"How is it a mental thing?" a press member asked.
"Have you ever been in love?"
The press member sat down, nodded, and the room got weird and quiet.
"It's like when you're lying in bed and it feels empty," Aran suggested.
The Runners stopped being selfish later in life. They stopped being focused. They would usually try to hide it because they knew what it meant. Their brains changed somewhere during their development with the D3, morphing from inward-facing into something more expansive. Value changed. Without realizing, the D3 was more valuable than their own lives. Or maybe that wasn’t it. Being with the D3, just being close to it, being one with this separate but identified entity was more important than racing.
The Runners joked that they had to be celibate to participate in the sport, otherwise the biomech would sense their emotional detachment and get "jealous." Research from the early days of the sport and the initial generation of retirees coming out of the Runner community provides decent evidence to this urban myth though. A Runner's career can vary in length like any sport, but they all have one thing in common: their abilities vanish almost instantly and with very few red flags. Statistically, when they do finally retire, they end up as one of two things in their first year out:
Brain-damaged and dead. Or married. Make all the jokes you want about the latter being interchangeable with the former.
Efforts were made to level the relationship, and music was one of the first things added to the equation when they began digging into the human-to-D3 interface. Athletes had always been listening to music to get themselves in the right mood before sporting events. They played organ music at baseball games decades earlier, true, but that was more to excite the fans. The music in the D3 was entirely for the benefit of the Runner. It boosted the sync-rate between the biomech and the Runner.
"Well, what it does is put the D3 in the right mood," [NAME REDACTED], the Laureate of Team Montblanc explained. "It's a weird thought, metering a machine's mood with music. For some reason though, for probably the same reason that in-utero babies can react and benefit from Mozart, the simple organism portion of the D3 bonds with the music we play. It's just really beautiful sound that all cells, big and small, can agree upon. It strengthens its bond with the Runner, gives them freedom to share rhythm better. When we figured this out, it changed the D3 races from side-show to something huge.
"People really started to identify with the races. They saw it as sport and as theater and as dance and as personal and human. They wanted to know about play-calling mid-race and the Runner's training-diets. They wanted to hear the soundtracks that we compose on the fly. They wanted to download each Runner's personal playlist. What does Eliza Shaw feel when she needs to go fast? What does Stro Gilroy need to hear when he loses himself and lets the beat guide his movements?"
-- | | --
"Aaaaand, we're live! We’re going to go down live trackside with Stro Gilroy --"
"-- Stro, you had trouble during the first half of the race, particularly during laps 42 and 47. How was it that you managed to turn things around? What happened?"
Stro rubbed his chin. "What happened? I got fucking pissed is what happened. I was getting shit information from my Smith and my Jockey. They were fighting with our Angel the whole time about issues with the code. There was shit going on with the D3. I can honestly say I was lucky to finish where I did, and it took a huge effort to come away with as many points as we did."
"There is a silver lining and maybe you haven't heard yet, but your teammate Eliza Shaw truly excelled today. And as you said, you scored big in the points -- how big was it for you to come away with as many overall points as you did, particularly after the trouble you had at Dallas last weekend?"
"Eliza and I just need to work on consistency. We can't be all up and down the leaderboard with each race. We both have the ability to win every time, that I really do believe, but if I go out and win like I did at Dallas but then Eliza has the trouble that she did, and I suppose vice-versa this weekend with her succeeding so admirably, but then I go down in flames, that isn't acceptable. Not for me, not for her, not for our crew or Opticon, that's for damn sure."
Eliza tapped the button to go down on the elevator. She just wanted to get to the dressing room, to get rid of the sloppy hair clinging to her back, darkened with perspiration. The race was done, she'd earned 108 points with the win. Fatigue swung on her eyelids. The way she stood though, pulse still heightened, sweat misting off of her head from the sudden temperature change indoors, you would have thought she'd not simply won a race. No, the way she stood, it was more like she'd ridden a rocket bareback to Mars, out-drank Bacchus, out-foxed Loki, punched-out Tyson, stolen diamonds, split atoms, won a race, and somehow manage to turn God's girlfriend gay with just a wink and a smile.
Looking at her, the way she stood, body half-cocked and just waiting for an elevator, she was invulnerable.
"Hi," she said. They looked at her, two boys, maybe eleven or twelve years old, probably sons of track maintenance guys, brought themselves to wave at her lightly. "How'd you get down here?"
"My dad's key," one of them answered. He held up a single key, no chain, probably lifted from his father's ring.
She smiled. "Yeah. That’s probably what I would've done." She crossed her arms over her chest. "I just got done with the race. I'm Eliza."
"Yeah. We saw you," the other boy said. "How'd you. . . I mean, we saw you. . . you jumped."
"You jumped over a bus like it was just a hurdle!"
"Yeah, it was a pretty crazy day."
"Can I ask you something?"
"Sure," she encouraged. "Ask me anything."
"Umm, how'd you become a Runner? Was it hard? You know, how did you start?"
Eliza relaxed a little bit, and the boys did too. "Honestly? I'm doing it as a favor to a friend," she bent her knees and squatted down so she could be on eye level with them. "He came up to me a few years ago -- I remember this, I was at a party in San Francisco -- and he said, 'Eliza, I have a job. I need somebody focused, passionate, honest, and kind. Somebody that isn't afraid to get her hands dirty. Somebody that isn't afraid to compete. But also somebody that won't compromise, and can't compromise their soul's constitution.' And I just sat there after he said it."
"What'd you say?"
The elevator door dinged. It opened. She kept her eyes on the boys, the bright sky-diver blues not going anywhere. The elevator doors closed. Eliza wiped her mouth, looking a little nervous, then deciding something -- to be truly honest.
"Well, stupidly, I laughed, I told him that I would have to think about it, but you know what was funny? I was lying to him. I didn't have to think about it at all. I'd already made up my mind about what I was going to do. I was just sort of going through the motions, the way that people do, for some reason. I worked my way around the party, talking to a few more people about this or that or whatever, but the entire time, I found myself looking for reasons to refuse his offer. Isn't that weird? I couldn't find any reason, obviously, so I went and I found him later at some donut shop half a block away and I told him I'd do it. I didn't even know what it was. He told me I was going to be a D3 Runner. I told him that I liked the idea but I probably was physically incapable of that kind of thing. He said -- and I remember this very specifically -- 'If you don't like it, Eliza, you can always go back.' And that was it. I went with my gut. That was how I did it."
"Is it hard?" the first boy asked her, watching the elevator door open a second time.
"Yeah," she got in, tugging a knot out of her waved blond hair. "Yeah, but only if you hate it. Fight it, you guys, but don't hate it. Otherwise it'll hate you back."
The bell rang, she stepped in, the doors closed, the elevator dropped. In a few minutes she was in the dressing room, halfway done. It was all she could do, getting partially undressed, the weight of the race finally overcoming her residual adrenaline.
Amusing herself as best she could, Eliza banged her heavy-Kevlar boots against the floor, trying to kick them off. It took a few hard hits before she realized a buckle was still attached. Her earpieces were still in, the outro-track still spinning up and down -- it had been designed by Laureate to calm her down post-race, but she still loved the chord progression too much to shake the last shreds of excitement. Pretty soon, it was a fun game, having that whole dressing room to herself, thumping her heavy boots on the floor with lessening intention of truly removing them.
"I bang-bang my boots on the floor," she sing-songed. "Na-na, na-na / My boots are big and gross / They smell like sinking boats / I'm glad I'm all aloneeeee / 'cause my song has no rhymes --" Eliza looked up to see Stro in the doorway, already changed, and visibly irked by his time talking to the press. She changed her tone. "-- I don't care if I'm not alone," Eliza went on in her broken rhythm. "-- My boots are big and gross / Get up out of my grill / You all up in my grill. Stro."
"Mmm. Grill. Goddamn, I'm hungry. You're up to bat with the press, by the way. Get at 'em, gorgeous girl."
"The press is assholes," she said in deliberately-busted grammar. She slammed her boots and they flew off, skidding across the room to Stro.
"Your boots smell."
"Did you hear my song?" Eliza deadpanned. "It was educational."
"Yeah. I heard your song. It was neat." She tipped over and pressed her face into the bench, grumbling. "It was probably the best song I heard today. Maybe."
"Urgh. I just don't want to talk to the press. They're idiots. They aren't fans. They don't like us. Their's is a vulture culture. They always ask the same questions. And I have to give the same stupid canned-answers." She opened one eye. She knew what she'd see before she even did it. Stro was as predictable as ever but she'd never know just how predictable she was herself. He shut the door, crossed the room, and shook her shoulder the way you would wake up a hungover friend, not gently, but with remarkable affection. "Hmm. This blows."
"I know it does, but we have to do it." Stro kept his hand on her shoulder and she watched him reach for her handset, vibrating on the end of the bench.
"Don't touch my phone," Eliza moaned.
His hand went still, watching it vibrate before going dark. "Didn't want it to buzz of the edge, people really need to get over that stigma. And you really need to stop calling it a phone."
"I'm old school," Eliza responded, her voice sleepy, but satisfied that Stro had listened to her request. "Spend as much time in the UK as I did growing up and some weirdness is bound to stick to you."
"It is a weird place isn't it? Urgh. Okay, I'll go tell them you'll be out in five minutes. Be there in ten, okay? Do me a favor and take some time to chill."
He stayed, continuing to shake her shoulder slowly. She had gotten her suit half-off before directing her attention to her boots, and they both smelled equally bad, like compressed animal sweat sprayed through an aerosol can. The suit was one piece and the arms were knotted around her waist. As bad is it smelled, it was the odor clinging to the layer she wore underneath -- that was the worst, that kind of frozen, unfrozen, and then re-frozen aura that Stro imagined had to be the result of bacteria dying, respawning, and dying again. And even now, years later, you don't get used to the stench.
"Now get dressed."
Eliza sat up. She sniffed herself. "No."
-- | --
"Eliza!" She perked up, straightening the microphone in front of her, looking for the man that had asked the question. She found him. He had taken no notes, and without a handset screen illuminating his face like all the others, he looked downright dim. "You're a little rough on the exterior," he began again, watching her clear the awkward out of her throat. "Why aren't you more humble?"
She rested her face on her knuckle. Why? It felt like one minute passed without a breath. Then it felt more like five, yet try as she might, she was still somehow here, getting talked at by the press corps. Digging down, she found no answer that would make this question go away. No matter what she said, it would be just an answer. What if for once, it was, well, something else?
"Listen," she stated, and she was surprised when they did. The room's noise clapped shut so suddenly that she had to check that she didn't have her earplugs still in. "You guys are just here for soundbites. I get that. People want to know what makes my brain go-round. What makes me human, but the truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that I'm not human. I was raised on the back of a giant turtle in the middle of an ocean on a planet you've never heard of. My heroics will be lauded in hallowed halls over raised glasses of ambrosia come Ragnarok. I was genetically engineered from birth to be perfect in every way. I got dunked head-first into the River Styx by my mom, a demi-goddess herself. It's not my fault that I look this good but it's definitely your fault that you aren't more humbled to be in my presence. I'm a role-model for all the good things in the world, and I'm about to teach a lesson here, so listen up tight, yeah?" She bent closer to her mic for the first time. "My advice to all of you is this: do not tolerate whiny sacks of shit that exist only to leach and grovel. You can't touch me, don't even try. Why am I not more humble? Because then I would be you. Nobody would benefit. Because my existence would be redundant without the golden wall between us. You need me the way a baby needs his ba-ba. Now get out of my sight before I decide to order your sister off of Craigslist."
"You don't have to be rude with your answers," the man answered, half-sarcastic, half passive-aggressive.
"Look, unless you want a sleep-deprived, half-drunk, well-connected, uber-nutritioned white girl to scatter your teeth across the floorboards in front of God and the rest of the birds, you'll walk the fuck away. I will fuck you up. I will fuck you up and I would enjoy it. On an unhealthy level."
Han looked to Aran, who had buried his grumbling face into his palms. "So, that ain't good."
NEXT: [#62 -- The Diffused States (Part 5)] to see what happens. . .
NEXT: [#62 -- The Diffused States (Part 5)] to see what happens. . .
-- Doberman (is getting closer)
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