By Lauren C. Teffeau
Illustration by Linda Saboe
Machine oil and carnauba wax scent the air as I go through my crosscheck. Drone cameras buzz and flash overhead. My hover bike — all gleaming chrome and hard-molded plastic — sits on blocks in the open-air stall as it charges. Beyond, the crowded arena rumbles, rippling into cheers as the other riders emerge from the locker room to check their gear one last time before the race.
A qualifying round, one of those free-for-alls where all you care about is crossing the finish line before anyone else. By any means possible.
I clench my fingers as another wave of cheers crashes around me. Sweat beads across my upper lip. No help for it. Time to queue up a vid-chain.
Closing my eyes, I use my neural implant to start the program. My heartbeat slows as the first clip slides past in the periphery of my vision. Lucio knows what settles my nerves — mostly scenery pans: lush forests, windswept fields, mountains majesty.
The knot in my stomach has almost loosened completely when someone slaps my shoulder. Gritting my teeth, I blink back the images. I find Ari giving me a lop-sided grin and nearly groan. “What do you want? It’s almost post time.” I brush past him and grab my riding gloves and helmet from the bench along the low wall separating my stall from his.
His grin deepens. “Oh, come on, Jack.” He waggles his bushy eyebrows. “Can’t you get excited for a race just once in your life?”
My stomach lurches in protest, and I momentarily refocus on the rolling countryside scrolling along the edges of my vision. Deep breaths. “You know how it is,” I say through my teeth.
Ari laughs and slaps my back again. “What? That the legendary Jack Deseronto nearly wets himself before each race?”
“Knock it off.”
“All right. All right. I’m just a bit amped.”
I snort. Ari’s always amped.
His gaze sharpens on me. “Sorry, man. I didn’t realize you’re already boosting. I forgot Lucio builds in a longer lead up for you.”
I attempt a shrug. “Helps me race on my own terms, you know?” I had a nasty spill a few months after going pro and never got over the gut-clenching terror of that moment.
Ari shakes his head. “All I know is you’re the only guy on the hover cross circuit who lets the carnage on the track get to him.”
“Can still beat you any day.”
He laughs and gives me a knowing look. “I’ll leave you to it then.”
“No, it’s okay.” And it is. There’s too much history between us for it not to be. We joined the tour four years ago, and we’re still here, now racing for the same sponsor. Though neither one of us have medalled recently. Tonight will be different though. I can feel it. Or maybe it’s just the chain.
I rub my face. “So what did you want?”
He glances at the other stalls, then leans in. “Got a new vid-chain for today. Marek approved it a few hours ago.”
“Really? Didn’t think Lucio liked rush jobs.”
“Doesn’t matter if Marek’s the one asking.” He winks. “Got a good feeling about this one. Keigo won’t have a chance—”
Screams drown out my response as Keigo Atori enters the arena, waving to the cameras. Cocky, after taking gold the last few tournaments. Keigo scans the other stalls, stopping when he finds me and Ari. He gives me a deferential nod, and I return it despite Ari’s elbow digging into my side.
Keigo turns his attention to his bike, and Ari sighs. “High-and-mighty bastard. He won’t last, you’ll see.”
“Cool it. You’re not doing my stomach any favors.”
Ari holds up his hands and backs away. “All right, grandpa.” He hops the wall separating his stall from mine.
I give him a sharp nod. “Good luck.”
Another grin. “I like you, Jack, but I like you better when I’m higher up on the podium.”
I just shake my head and put on my gloves. Then the helmet. The crowd noise is dampened, and with a blink I turn up the music that accompanies the chain. Thrash metal like always. The only stuff loud and unpleasant enough to drown everything else out.
Moments later, the lights flash overhead. Time to line up.
I kick my bike into gear. With a slight hum, it repulses from the blocks and hovers in the air. I have to fight the giddy breathless feeling I always get and just focus on the bike beneath me. The crowd roars as hover bikes and riders exit the stalls. Ari gives me a quick backwards wave as I maneuver my bike behind his and follow the procession up to the starting gate.
The referee stands before us, droning on about all the regulations we must comply with. No physical contact. No drifting outside course boundaries. No real-time mapping or course optimization applications running on our implants.
Sub-dermal devices aren’t prohibited in competition since practically everyone has them these days, but we’re limited in how they’re used — no messing with neurotransmitter levels for example. I guess it was only a matter of time before we figured out other ways to use the implants to enhance our performance.
At the gate, the sequences my implant chains together move beyond just scenery dressing. Transitions are more abrupt, the content more intense… subconsciously preparing me for the race.
As images flick past, with the lights from the course strobing around me, power throbs in my blood, commanding me to move… to blast my bike forward. To make something happen. The boost into chronostasis. I’m almost there.
That magical moment where everything slows down. Where I have all the time in the world to make split-second decisions. Only then will I be able to focus on the course with all its tight turns and jumps, mentally determine the sections where I can open the throttle or short a curve. Figure out how much lift my hover bike will get off the moguls, which ones I can safely sail over and still maintain my speed.
It’s pretty obvious when the boosts don’t work, but when they do…. As long as you don’t seize up, can still speak when it’s all over, that’s a win. And I need one today.
I’m barely able to keep the boost at bay. Ari too, jittering on his bike beside me as the clock counts down. Time stops midway between ‘1’ and ‘Go’, and a dam breaks before my eyes. My bike twitches forward, and the world lights up around me.
We get out in front, take the first turn. Tanks rumbling, waves crashing, fireworks exploding… the images flash before my eyes and spur me on. The boost takes over, accompanied by a never-ending soundtrack of thumping bass, cymbals, and synthetic violins. My head aches with it.
The home stretch beckons beyond the moguls. Ari shudders into view as we slingshot around a curve. It’ll be just like old times, us battling it out for the finish line. We’ll—
No. The angle’s all wrong as his hover bike pushes off the last rise. Ari flubs the jump, and his bike careens into me.
That’s when the screen goes dark. Fin.
A year ago, Ari followed me back to my apartment after a race where I missed the podium by a few tenths of a second. I wasn’t really in the mood to talk, but Ari was his incorrigible self — all fired up and unwilling to take no for an answer.
“You know the first time the Lumière brothers showed their moving pictures to people, members of the audience panicked and tried to escape? They thought it was real, man. They literally thought a train was going to barrel into that theater and smash them flat.”
I shook my head. “That’s stupid.”
“No, man, you don’t get it. They believed what they were seeing. They believed it, and it terrified them. That’s the power of moving pictures. That’s the power we gotta harness if we’re gonna go anywhere.”
He was right. The Asian kids on the tour had better reflexes, better acrobatics…. Hell, they were fearless. There’d been a probe into seeing if countries like Japan, China, and Korea brainwashed them into these shredding monsters. Me, Ari, and a couple of guys from the old guard were trotted out, told to testify on what outcomes were possible in the sport. Didn’t matter though. The probe’s findings were inconclusive. That, or enough money exchanged hands it didn’t matter anymore. All we knew was that we were getting our asses handed to us in every race.
Ari paced across my apartment’s living room, his fingers raking his curls. “If they’re not gonna kick these little shits off the tour, then we gotta figure out a way to stay on top.”
I let out a sigh. “To race on my own terms. That’s all I ever wanted.” We earned our experience logging hours on the hover cross course, not in a chair hooked up to a mind-scrambling computer.
“The committee might look the other way, but we can’t afford to. Maybe we can use their techniques to our advantage.”
“What are you talking about?”
He pulled a well-worn book out of his back pocket and snapped the cover with the nail of his index finger. “I’ve been doing some thinking. This French dude Virilio says moving pictures have a velocity all their own. What if we found a way to use that in competition?”
“No chems, Jack, and no cheating. I promise. This’ll be completely legal.” He paused and gave me a wink. “Well, if only because it’s so cutting edge.”
Ari was genius. He did the research, came across old propaganda films, studied up on the techniques of Eisenstein, Goebbels, and all the scientists that came after, researching visual stimuli’s effect on the brain. Learned about cinematic illusions from watching the oeuvres of Méliès through Gondry. Read enough film theory to seduce every MFA coed in the country.
By superimposing film sequences over our field of vision via the implants — not enough to hinder our sight — we could distract the active parts of our minds with the chains and let instinct and muscle memory do the rest during races. No more over-thinking the jumps and turns. No more letting nerves get in the way. We’d find the zone faster than ever before and be able to stay in it as we rode the boost until the very end.
That’s when Marek became our sponsor and hooked us up with his montage technician, Lucio, who stopped creating hallucinogenic and mood-altering chains for a discerning clientele and started splicing solely for us.
When we started vid-boosting in competition, we were unstoppable. Me and Ari, one and two. Silver and gold every damn time. Then Keigo Atori started interrupting the flow. So we had to keep pushing the vid-chains further and further to stay on top of the field.
Until the links broke, taking Ari with them.
When the curtain rises, I nearly lose it, right there in the hospital. I have three bruised ribs and a gash running down low over my forehead like a goddamn pirate. But Ari… Ari is gone. Spinal cord severed on impact, gone in a fiery blaze of his hover trail.
My implant’s filled with messages and newsfeeds that have captured the race in razor-sharp detail. When the shock wears off, when I can finally watch the race playback without vomiting, I wonder what the last image he saw was, whether it was beautiful enough to justify—
The doctors finally discharge me once they’re sure I’m not showing any more symptoms from my concussion. As I’m being wheeled through the corridors, I queue up a chain. With my digital blinders to the rest of the world firmly in place, the tension in my body leaks out like a deflated balloon.
Marek’s car is waiting for me in front of the hospital. Along with a glimmering wall of paparazzi. One of the drone cam’s stuck in the revolving doors, flashing every time it hits the glass.
But I’m riding the boost, my body disconnected from my mind as I lever myself out of the wheelchair, take the handful of steps to the passenger door held open by one of Marek’s goons. I am untouchable today. It’s the only way I can manage.
“Jackie boy, tell us how you’re feeling.”
“Mr. Deseronto! When are you cleared to ride again?”
“What’s going to be your game plan for your comeback?”
In the womb-dark of Marek’s car, I almost don’t see the man himself until he clears his throat. “Deseronto. How are you doing?”
My voice rasps out, “You already know the answer to that.”
He inclines his head deferentially. “Careless of me, of course. Ari will be missed.” He watches me, his lips pressed into a thin line. “Where can we take you? The gym, the track… your apartment?”
“Yeah, my place.”
Marek snaps his fingers, and the car flows into traffic.
I sink back into the seat. “Thanks.” My mind eddies as the roaring of a waterfall fills my ears and leaves frothy swirls in the periphery of my vision. A strange sense of peace steals through my veins.
“We should stage your next public appearance carefully after…” Marek’s discordant voice claws me back to reality.
I shake my head. “I don’t…”
“Ari would have wanted…”
“No. I need t—”
“Time,” Marek says smoothly. “Of course. But you have to understand my position, Mr. Deseronto. If you aren’t racing, you need to be earning your keep somehow. Lucio’ll get you set up at the film archives so you can supply us with fresh footage.”
I consider saying no, but really what else is there for someone like me? I’d probably stay holed up in my apartment, waiting until the media found a new story, another tragedy to distract the insatiable masses. It doesn’t take long these days.
“I’ll do it.” Although both of us already knew that.
“Excellent. Once you get over this episode, we can discuss your return to racing and—”
The limo stops at a light. I throw open the door and lurch out of the car, into the welcoming arms of the vid-chain.
A week after my release from the hospital, a constipated-looking old man leads me to the elevator upon my arrival at the archives. “The basement’s where we keep all the original prints, leaving the upper floors for viewing and exhibit spaces,” he tells me as the doors open. “Jenny will get you started.”
A fresh-faced girl my age or a year, maybe two, older leaves her desk and holds out her hand. “Jack Deseronto? When I saw your application, I could hardly believe it.”
That makes me wince. I don’t know what strings Marek had to pull or what papers had to be forged to get me a position here. But the vid-chains need links. I know he has operatives installed at other places to curate sequences from movies, documentaries, b-roll from local news outlets, even commercials. And now he has me.
I shrug. “Are you saying I can’t have other interests?”
Her brown eyes widen behind her rectangular-rimmed glasses. “No, no, not at all.” Her hand falls to her side. “I meant no offense. I was just surprised is all. You came highly recommended.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Yes, well…” Jenny turns on a megawatt smile. She’d be attractive if she didn’t hide herself in basements, wearing shapeless black clothes. “Let me show you where you’ll be working.” Past aisles and aisles of DVDs, film cans, and reels of magnetic tape, we come to a back wall with six booths along it. “Number three, that’s you.”
I stick my head inside. A projector, tape deck, monitors, mixing station, and a computer console. Enough gear Lucio’d piss himself. A small grunt of approval escapes me, and Jenny beams.
“I look forward to working with you.” Another smile, and she turns to go.
“Wait. One more thing.”
“I don’t want to be disturbed, or have my working here cause anyone trouble. If the paparazzi—”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Deseronto. You’ll have all the peace and quiet you can stand after… The basement’s a restricted area. Only employees can get down here.”
I relax slightly, and she takes that as invitation to linger. She licks her lips. “I’d love the chance to talk to you about your application essay.”
“Oh, right.” Just one more thing I owe to Ari.
“Your explication of the shot sequences in Eisenstein’s Strike were really quite….” She inhales sharply. “I mean, everyone always talks about Battleship Potemkin, but you can see the foundational work for his theories of montage in that earlier film.”
Eisenstein defined montage as the psychological effect that results from the collision of two or more shots. That’s what Ari was after with the chains. A sustained emotional effect — fearlessness, euphoria, grim determination, sometimes all of it at once — to heighten our perception during races as our brains try to resolve conflicting visual information. And when it works, nothing else in this world can compare.
Jenny ducks her head when I don’t respond. “Listen to me go on. I’ll let you get settled in.”
Ari would be laughing his ass off right about now. I’m sure of it.
When I emerge from the maglev station, my body shuts down as strangers swarm around me. Some point and stare, others shove past, stopping for no one. My busted mug’s been everywhere in the weeks since the accident. Vid-boosting helps me forget that, but it can only do so much.
Sweat slicks my forehead. My implant’s a pulsing weight on the back of my neck, but I resist the urge to queue up a chain. Instead, I shove my hands in my pockets and find the storage drive. Right. The whole reason I came here in the first place. I glance around and get my bearings. Lucio’s is just a few blocks north. I dislodge myself from where I’ve become mired in pedestrians, and start walking, shedding people as I enter the industrial district.
I duck inside the salvage shop. The door chimes upset the disconnecteds like a flock of birds as they tear their gazes away from the display cases filled with models of used implants.
Lucio looks up from behind the counter where he’s dismantling an old touch screen for parts. The dilated pupils behind the optizoom specs suggest he’s vid-boosted recently. He hasn’t though — that’s what makes Lucio so amazing. He can make the vid-chains but he’s not beholden to them.
Lucio sets down the dissected screen and slams his hand on the counter. The disconnecteds, mostly poor street kids, flinch back. “You going to buy anything this time?” The kid in the middle shakes his head. “Then get out. We’re closed for the rest of the day.”
“But we can come back tomorrow, right?”
Lucio tries and fails to look tough. “We’ll see.”
The kids nudge each other. He’s too much a softie, teasing them with 3D vids he puts together himself if he’s not too busy splicing. Most of them will never be connected, but he tries to help them forget that.
After Lucio locks the door and rolls down the blinds, he turns around and sees me watching. “You better have something for me today. Marek’s getting antsy.”
Lucio snorts and leads me past metal aisles full of dusty components.
“I’m still new at this, you know,” I call after him.
“All the more reason for you to do well,” he says without turning around.
The back room is crammed full of screens, with a small computer terminal on a cart wedged into the corner. Lucio flops down into the desk chair while I take the only other seat — a rickety wooden stool. I hand over the storage drive.
I try to avoid looking at the screens. With all the random images scrolling past, I feel like ants are crawling around in my brain. I just need to get through the meeting, then—
“Your job at the archive holding up?” Lucio asks as he loads up the sequences.
“So far so good.” Curated some great sequences for Marek’s organization. Jenny caught me vid-boosting once, but I convinced her I was just having a vivid dream after falling asleep logging footage. She’s made sure to knock on the door to my booth since then. Which I guess is a good thing, but it’s not like she caught me jerking off.
Lucio plays the first sequence and pulls up the associated metadata on another monitor. He grunts. “The contextual parameters look okay but I’ll have to check them all to be sure.”
“Of course.” Context’s the hardest thing to get right. You can spot an amateur vid hack straight off based on how well they manage contextual transitions between sequences.
That’s not to say montage vids don’t have their place. Lucio made good money creating increasingly incomprehensible shot combos to get his clients high. But it’s risky since it’s essentially voluntary brainwashing. I heard about a guy mind-hacked on montage. Not pretty.
I sigh and rub my face as Lucio brings up the next sequence: A general giving a speech to his troops before battle. The sound’s muted but my mouth moves along with the actor’s words. Lucio pulls up another sequence, then another. I close my eyes, but I can feel the images pressing in. Demanding to be looked at.
“Jack…. Hey, you there?”
“Huh?” My eyes snap open. “Yeah. I must have drifted….”
He tut-tuts to himself. “My friend, you need to take care of yourself. Vid-chains aren’t everything.”
“No, but they make things… manageable.”
He doesn’t disagree. “You racing in the charity exhibition this weekend?”
I shake my head. I’m not officially retired, not yet. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to trot myself out, no matter how many kids with incurable diseases it benefits. Ari’s been gone for just over a month. Don’t they know that?
Lucio arches a brow but says nothing as he pulls up a different sequence.
I lean forward. “A new one?”
He nods. “This one’s special.” His hands skate over the keyboard, and the music starts.
The accompanying soundtrack can make or break a vid-chain. It provides subconscious signals for how your brain interprets the visual stimuli and walks you back to reality when the boost is over. Lucio is a great editor, but his musical ear is what sets him apart.
“Hear that?” he asks.
I concentrate on the music. The swells sound tinny, and it’s not Lucio’s speakers. “It’s lacking… I don’t know… richness.”
Lucio beams. “I stripped out the stereo layers. When you boost, it will add a bit of artificiality to the experience so you don’t lose yourself completely.”
Usually fidelity is the goal for vid-boosters. It’s why people like me go straight to the source for the sequences. Authenticity, provenance…. These things matter so that somewhere in the back of your mind as you ride out the boost, you know the light particles that comprise the moving images are minimal degrees of separation from the original — that you are almost there too, experiencing everything firsthand.
Even the music has to be pitch perfect. Lucio often performs the different instruments himself, layering them on top of each other with his mixer. But to deliberately add a layer of artificiality? A self-consciousness to the act of vid-boosting?
“I don’t know.”
“Try it.” I shake my head, but Lucio grabs my wrist. “I insist, Jack. If it doesn’t work, no big deal. But if you’re better able to control the boosts…”
I pull away from him. “All right. All right. But I’m not paying for it.”
“Of course not. This one’s on the house.”
When I step out of Lucio’s shop, Marek’s car is waiting for me, along with a pair of drone cams. I wonder if Lucio told him I was here, then dismiss the thought. Lucio’s always dealt straight with me. He was just as torn up over Ari as I was, in his way.
The chauffeur stands at attention like this is merely a social call, not a summons. I could decline, but I’d be dodging the cams all the way back to my place. “Good to see you again, Mr. Deseronto,” the chauffer says as I slide into the backseat. But we both know there’s nothing good about it, so I stay quiet.
The car pulls into traffic, smoothly negotiating the crush of vehicles. The buildings thin out, and then smog rolls back a bit as we take the twisty roads into the hills.
I wipe my palms on my pantsleg. The car ride means only one thing — Marek wants me to race again.
The archive job’s not so bad. Thanks to Ari, I know enough jargon to get by, and there are enough hot girls like Jenny hiding behind glasses and shapeless black clothes to keep things interesting. The ones too afraid to be in the vids they’re cataloguing.
It’s not a forever thing — I know I’m expected to go back to racing once I get over this “episode.” I won’t. But Marek doesn’t know that yet.
The car pulls up to his mansion in one of those walled rich-people neighborhoods in the hills. Sentries with dogs patrol the yard, and security guards are stationed at each entrance.
Big tough Vaughn at the front door gives me a curt nod as I’m admitted inside.
Marek’s waiting for me in the study. “Ah, Deseronto, good to see you.”
“And you, sir.”
“Lucio says you’ve been bringing in some great sequences.”
I shrug. “It’s just beginner’s luck.”
“Nonsense. You’ve always excelled… when you’ve put your mind to it.” His fingers drum against the desk. “I wanted to see how you’re doing. Trials for nationals are in a few months, and the charity circuit’s already started up.”
“I don’t know if I’m—”
“As your sponsor, I’m concerned you aren’t applying yourself.”
“I’m not. And I’m not interested. Ari—”
“Ah, yes. Ari.” His voice hangs in the air. I wonder if he’s practiced that. “An unfortunate accident, of course. But life moves on. You must too. Surely, you see that.”
He waits with that impenetrable gaze, and I find myself nodding just so his eyes will slide away.
“Good. The Oceanside Exhibition is on Saturday. Prepare yourself.” He looks down at his desk. A dismissal.
“It’s too soon.”
He crosses his arms and rests them on his desk, pretending to look thoughtful. “I think we’re rarely the best judge of our own limitations. Everyone needs a push now and then, a boost if you will, to reach their potential. Isn’t that why you and Ari came to me in the first place?”
At work the next day, Jenny knocks on the door to my booth. “Jack, you gotta see this.”
She pulls me over to her terminal and hits playback. “Un chien andalou,” she whispers as it starts up. “A collaboration between Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.” I think Ari may have mentioned it once but I never—
“I know, right?” She hits rewind, and we’re transfixed as an eyeball gets cut by a razor, compelling even the second time through. “It’s not real, but damn,” she says, admiration saturating her voice.
As the rest of the vid plays, more incomprehensible images flash by — pianos, ants, freaky-ass people. It reminds me of montage hacks I’ve seen, but I’m not seizing. Not yet.
“Hey, you okay?” Jenny gives me a nudge with her shoulder.
“Huh?” I blink as the credits roll. “Yeah, I’m…”
“You sure? You’re breathing kinda funny.”
She’s right. My heart’s knocking into my lungs, sputtering for air like I’ve just burst to the surface after being underwater too long. I take a deep pull and slowly breathe out. “I’m okay. But that was crazy.”
In the hands of one of Marek’s professional editors, sequences culled from this film would be dangerous.
The corners of her eyes crinkle when she smiles. “Thought you’d like it. You seem to be drawn to the golden age of cinema.”
That’s true enough. The older stuff tends to have longer shots and pans. Better for chaining compared to the quick blink-and-you-miss-it transitions the digital era is known for. Doesn’t mean digital sequences can’t be used. It’s just more labor intensive to collect them and then chain them effectively.
Jenny pushes her hair behind her ear. “Hey, are you going to be in that tournament this weekend?”
“The Oceanside Exhibition?” I shake my head. “No. I’m not racing.”
“Oh. I thought I read somewhere you’re participating.”
Marek. That bastard. I told him no, and he still thinks he can go over my head.
I use my implant to scan the roster for the exhibition and, sure enough, I’m on it. A dozen posts come up, filled with speculation about what my appearance means. Hell no.
I turn my attention back to Jenny. “Well, I’m not.”
Her eyes drift to the scar on my forehead. Shit. Not her too. I get enough looks from the people on the street: There goes Jack Deseronto, the washed-up hover cross star. Will he regain glory or limp into exile? I really don’t care either way so long as it’s on my terms.
“I get it,” she says, smiling again.
No, she really doesn’t. “I gotta go.”
I don’t wait for her answer. I skip out of the archives for the day and make my way to the maglevs. I flop down in a seat in the front-most car. Green and blue scenery ticks past like 16mm footage as the train picks up speed. My hands bunch into fists every time the train stops to admit more passengers. It’s only while we’re moving that I can think.
When I get to Lucio’s, he waves me off. “Not today, my friend. You don’t look too good.”
“I don’t feel too good.” My hands twitch at my side. If I turn my head too quickly, it’s like a chain of individual stills stitched together instead of a continuous pan. “Everything’s breaking down. I’ve taken the maglev out to the end of the line and back but it’s not working. I need—”
“No, you really don’t. Trust me. I’ve been there.”
I blink and try to follow Lucio’s face. One minute he’s behind the counter. The next his hand clasps my shoulder, and I jump.
“Vid-boosting’s like looking into the sun. Too much, and you’ll go blind.” He tuts. “How did that new chain work out?” he asks, all businesslike once more.
My nose wrinkles. “I had trouble getting over the soundtrack. Kept interfering with the boost.”
I wave my hands at my head, a helpless gesture. They feel disconnected from my body. “But it’s not doing anything.”
Lucio sucks in his cheeks. “I can’t give you another chain. Not if you’re not racing. Marek’s orders.”
“But the boost… I need it. You know why.”
A wave of pain passes over his face. He was Ari’s friend too. “If you’ve exhausted all your old chains…” He steps closer and peers into my eyes. “And clearly you have, there’s nothing I can do.”
See, the mind can be tricked, but not for long — too many reruns, and the effect crashes. Game over. You can tweak the context, pushing the boundaries of flow, but even that will break down eventually.
“Marek said no more freebies. And that means you, my friend.”
A wave of blood-red darkness swamps my vision. “You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me and Ari,” I say. It comes out more like a snarl. “You were just a montage hack working piecemeal.” Custom jobs for cinéastes and movie freaks who loved the nostalgia or getting their brains scrambled — maybe both — along with more twisted fucks who could only get it up if there was enough visual stimuli to keep them going.
“Jack, I’m sorry. The chains, what you’re doing isn’t healthy. You need—”
I step toward him, and he flinches back. “What I need is a new one.” Tremors rip through my hands, and sweat dampens my palms.
“Ari wouldn’t want this for you.”
I shudder, buffeted by an invisible breeze. “Don’t talk to me about him.” My arm snaps out and connects with a display case. Glass shards dance everywhere. They tinkle onto the linoleum until the only sound is my ragged breathing.
My eyes squeeze shut. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“It’s all right, Jack.” Lucio sighs, sounding more tired than I’ve ever heard him. “Keep trying the last chain I gave you, tinny sound and all. Because if that doesn’t work, I won’t be able to help you.”
Saturday morning I’m torn out of bed by someone trying to break down the door to my apartment. I really don’t need this, not with the headache threatening to implode my temples. But the knocking doesn’t stop.
I shuffle to the door, ready to destroy whoever it is, but it’s Marek and he’s brought Vaughn.
Marek smiles grimly. “I see you slept in.”
Vaughn shoulders past me and starts rooting around in my closet for my racing gear.
I turn back to Marek. “I already told you I’m not doing it.”
“Don’t be stupid. You do what I tell you.”
Vaughn escorts me to the car. My head still hurts, and Marek keeps going on about respect and honor. He gives me a hard look. “The house always wins.” I can’t tell if he’s actually delivering his lines like some hard-boiled goon or if I’m so far gone I can’t distinguish between the boosts and reality anymore.
I decide it doesn’t matter when the car pulls up to the track bordering the ocean. Sweat drips down my spine. Bleachers already full are clustered at the bottom of the course.
“Let’s not do this the hard way, Mr. Deseronto. Get out of the car like a good boy,” Marek says.
I spy Keigo Atori’s fan bus in the parking lot. Digital projections of his face and a bunch of Japanese characters cavort along the vehicle’s exterior. I clench my hands in my lap. “Why can’t you just leave me out of it?”
“Because that wouldn’t be very sporting.”
“I don’t understand.”
Marek chuckles — like stones clacking together in his chest. “Then let me explain, Mr. Deseronto.” He waits until my eyes focus on him, then slides a black leather-bound book across the upholstery. “Do you know what this is?”
I shake my head and immediately regret it at the answering throb in my temples.
“This is the ledger where I keep track of the hover cross circuit. You and Ari made me a lot of money. At first. But then…” He holds up his hands. “Well, I had to diversify a bit.”
A sickening suspicion pushes past my brain fog. “Keigo? You gave him chains too?”
At Marek’s nod, my eyes slam shut.
“What do you want me to say? You boys had been doing so well I couldn’t make money betting on you anymore. Keigo kept things interesting, kept the odds ever changing.”
“Did Ari know?”
Marek pauses, his reptilian gaze unreadable. “I wanted you both focused on racing.”
The chauffeur opens the door, and I’m hit with the tang of the ocean. Fans’ voices drown out the constant roil of the waves. It’s funny. I’ve lived here for the last two years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been this close to the sea.
“You don’t want to miss post time, Mr. Deseronto,” Marek says.
“Am I supposed to win or lose?”
“I just need you to race.” He gives me that look again. “You need this, too.”
I snort but I get out of the car. “Fine. But I’m not doing any interviews afterwards.”
Marek just inclines his head, and the chauffer closes the door, shuttering my view of the old man.
At the gate, my implant isolates me from the noise of the crowd. I start up the chain with the crap sound Lucio gave me. I mop my face one last time and try not to look at the white caps colliding with the cliff face that hugs the course.
My breathing slows to match the tempo of the music. Then it increases in intensity so slowly I almost don’t notice it. The images change too. Cuts are quicker, more violent, moving. And I need to move with them.
The boost is coming. Along with the countdown. But if I concentrate, I can hear the crowd when Keigo’s name and mine are announced, the spatter of water as the waves hit rock below us. Lucio was right. I haven’t lost myself. Not completely.
I’m ready when the buzzer sounds. Kicking off, into the air, my body screaming with remembrance as the next vid sequence shudders to life. A lion taking down an antelope. Horses dragging a thundering stagecoach past my eyes. Gunfire cracking through my ears as cowboys and indians chase my bike through the first curve.
Someone’s drafting off me. Keigo.
Cameras flash in the periphery of the track as we ricochet past. I lean into my bike, silently coaxing more speed out of it. I have the holeshot as the course straightens into the first set of jumps. I am an eagle soaring with a trout clutched between my talons. I am a missile detonating shockwaves through the earth. A surfer shredding waves…
The waves press in on me, licking the track below my bike. I can’t…
“I made you; I can destroy you.” Marek.
Ari smiles as we ready our bikes.
“Don’t look into the sun, my friend.”
My stomach is somewhere up near my ears as I lead the pack into the steep downhill, right before the—
“Prepare yourself,” Marek says. “Prepare—
It’s too fast. The music, too loud. The vid-chain… it’s… am I being hacked?
The bike shudders under my hands as I launch over the moguls. It shoots up into the air as it repulses the first jump. Then slows as gravity takes hold and we fly toward the next one. At least two guys are battling it out behind me.
Static and bizarre images blast past my eyes. It’s too much.
Did Keigo do this? No. Lucio knew. He knew and—
“If this doesn’t work, I won’t be able to help you.”
Fuck. I take the next curve too hard, nearly skid into the bastard coming up behind me before I straighten out. Keigo’s in front now. I tighten my grip on the handlebars.
I am a speeding train. I am the woman tied to the tracks. I am the person who escapes the exploding building just in time. I—
I’m supposed to lose. Lose it just like Ari did. Offsetting the odds in Marek’s betting book.
Cymbals crash as I take the next jump. Keigo’s in range. I can take him. I can—
All that’s left are the serpentine twists and turns to the finish line. And I’m gaining but…
“I own you.”
No. I’m Jack Deseronto, and I race on my own terms.
I follow the thread of Lucio’s music. I fight through the noise, the scrambled images, until it’s just me and the course. I take the turns one at a time. I forgot there’s beauty in just being one with my bike.
I cut under Keigo for the inside line and come out on top in the last curve.
Voices are screaming, cameras flash, the finish line’s up ahead, up ahead, and after that, the sea.
The sea and simmering oblivion.
I’m not slowing down. All that momentum I built up in the descent, all that velocity, is what launches me over the crowd, over the wall of rock, until there’s nothing left for the hover bike to push against.
It falls away from me. And I’m… oh god.
I remember Ari colliding with the racetrack headfirst with a gut-punching crunch. The crowd screams but the boost is still going. I am the cop taking down a crook. I am the jockey clinging to the back of my horse as we clear the finish line. I—
I won, and there’s nothing Marek can do about it. Not anymore.
Wind slaps against my face. Lights spiral past my eyes.
I’ve always wondered…
And it’s beautiful.