Springs Eternal

It’s hot and stuffy inside the cramped, camel-dragged wagon, but Starling doesn’t really mind. She looks through a crack in the wall, at the dust kicked up by the rest of the townsfolk as they trek down the broken highway.

At least I’m resting my feet, she says to herself, even if I do have to look after mum.

She slumps back in her chair, eyeballing the other elders crammed in with them. The wind is

blowing hard, carrying the faint smell of the sea.

She sighs deeply.

“I’m bored,” she tells her mum.

“We’ll be there soon.”

Starling crosses her arms over her chest.

“I’m still bored. Tell me a story to kill some time. Tell me how you and dad met.”

“Okay.”

Home was a half-horse town at the foot of an extinct volcano in the middle of the drought plains. I was born there. I won’t get to die there. None of us will, now that the spring’s dried up.

But thanks to your dad, I got to grow old there.

***

He wasn’t your dad back then. He was just a stranger who showed up late one afternoon at the tail end of summer.

He was bloody, bruised, battered.

One of the guards manning the gates didn’t want to let him in. Another guard pointed out that he was alone, hurt and young. A third guard noted that he obviously didn’t pose a threat.

So they let him in. You know the law: Help when you can.

Hands raised, he entered. Then he took two or three steps before collapsing onto the cracked road that led into town.

Before he passed out, he said one word:

“Raiders.”

***

I was there when he fell. I was there when he spoke.

Back then, I used to love hanging around the gate. Every day, after rushing through my lessons and chores, I’d head straight there rather than spend time with the other youngsters. They bored me. The boys just talked about girls, or fighting, or how they couldn’t wait to be old enough to start hunting. The girls just talked about boys, or what they’d learned that day, or how they couldn’t wait to have kids of their own.

So instead of listening to them rabbit on – or even worse, joining in – I used to badger the guards, asking questions about the old days. Sometimes they indulged me, sometimes they didn’t.

Whenever they didn’t, I’d just look over the sun-scorched plains, trying to imagine what they used to be like, imagining them full of people and houses and machines.

***

When your dad arrived, I was about the same age as you are now – no longer a girl, but not yet a woman.

The guards had brushed me off that day. I guess I’d worn them out, asked too many questions. I couldn’t help it. A fire burned in my belly, giving me too much energy. Apart from exhausting myself physically, the only way to douse it was by satisfying my curiosity.

I was given a name when I was born, but no one ever used it. The nicknames piled up instead, describing what I was rather than who I was.

Fidget.

Whirling dervish.

Roadrunner.

***

I was the first one to help your dad after he fell. I cradled his head, and wiped some blood off his face.

One of the guards took over. Your dad came to, blinking fast. The guard held a wet rag to his mouth. He sucked at it greedily, and then suddenly smiled.

He had a nice smile, if you looked past his cracked lips and bad teeth. I tried not to stare.

“Go get Aunty,” the guard told me.

And so off I ran.

***

Aunty wasn’t in her caravan, or the village green, or the communal kitchen, or the fields where we grew our food.

That left only one other place to look.

I headed up the side of the volcano overlooking the town, my legs pumping. I stopped at the volcano’s rim, catching my breath and resting in the shade of the rickety tower that served as a lookout.

“Oi, Fidget, you alright down there?” someone yelled.

I looked up. My big brother – your uncle – was perched in the crow’s nest atop the tower.

“All good, bro,” I replied. “I’m just looking for Aunty.”

“She’s down below.”

“That’s what I figured. Thanks.”

“No worries.”

“Hey, you got any water? I left mine in town.”

“You bet, heads up.”

He held out a full canteen, and then dropped it. Squinting in the sun, I let it fall rather than try and catch it. It hit the ground with a thunk but didn’t split open.

I took a long drink and then headed over the rim.

***

It was cooler inside the crater. I slowed down a little, trying to keep my feet, not wanting to tumble arse-over-tit. I found Aunty in one of the caves that disappeared into the earth.

It was her favourite cave, the one that let us live our lives.

She was sitting cross-legged next to the spring that burbled up from underground. Her eyes were closed. One hand rested in the water, feeling it flow through her fingers and into the system of channels that fed our fields.

“Hello, Rabbit,” she said, eyes still closed.

Somehow she seemed to know when someone was near, as if she could sense them. It always freaked me out a little.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

I got straight to the point, knowing how she hated it when people ummed and aahed.

“There’s a stranger here. He said something about raiders.”

Aunty’s eyes flicked open, and seemed to bore into me. I tried not to flinch.

“Very well.”

She was suddenly on her feet, a smooth and effortless motion. She strode past me. I did my best to keep up.

***

Back in town, Aunty checked on your dad and had someone tend to his wounds. He spoke in fits and starts, forcing the words out, obviously in pain. Aunty listened carefully and didn’t interrupt him.

This is what I learned:

A mob of raiders were heading our way, fifty or sixty of them.

They were a three-day hike to the north.

They meant business.

They were armed and had some kind of war machine.

Your dad had been their slave, but had somehow escaped.

***

There were more details to his story, but they didn’t really matter. The bones of it were frightening enough.

***

When your dad had finished talking, Aunty let him be and gathered the rest of the elders, leading them to what we laughingly called the town hall. She let me stay. She knew I’d kick up a fuss if they tried to get rid of me.

I hung back, keeping my eyes and ears open.

They talked about fighting and fleeing. As young as I was, and as much as I loved home, I

knew we couldn’t defend ourselves. There were barely thirty of us left, and that included the kids and youngsters – everyone else had fled when the rain stopped falling.

But we couldn’t run either. Where would we go?

***

Eventually, Aunty and the elders settled on a plan – they would send out runners to ask for help fighting off the raiders. We weren’t alone back then. There we people we traded with if we could, or just gave water to if they needed it.

I scoffed at the idea of help. I objected, loudly. I told them they were stupid for relying on the hope that others would help.

Why would they?

Life was hard enough as it was.

***

But to the elders I was just a kid, and they completely ignored me.

***

The rest of that day was a buzz of activity that went through the night. First off, Aunty chose the fittest half-dozen of us to get the word out. She told them where to go and what to do, and then passed each of them a rough haversack crammed with a few days worth of water and food.

Lastly, she gave each of them a relic of the old world that she called a ‘flare gun.’

“Their elders will know what to do,” she told the runners.

None of them spoke, the importance of their task sitting heavily on their shoulders.

I watched silently as they took off into the night. Each one headed in a different direction, some to the mud-folk from the swamps engulfing the drowned city down south, some to the nomadic tinkers who gleaned scraps from the ruins, some to those hold-outs and die-hards who refused to leave their towns, some to the First Country caravans winding their way through the desolation, and some to those recluses and loners hunkered down in the hills.

***

As soon as they had gone, the other elders called us together and set us to work. Half of us turned our minds to defending ourselves if we had to. The rest started preparing to evacuate.

We fortified the gate.

We built barricades out of car carcasses and wrecked furniture.

We set traps and snares.

We emptied out meager armoury and practised-practised-practised.

The best of us with a bow and arrow set up sniper nests in the trees ringing the town.

***

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Neither did your dad. He pitched in, pushing himself as hard as anyone else, doing whatever was asked of him. That surprised me, considering his injuries and the fact that he was a stranger.

At one point we found ourselves working side-by-side. I’m glad for that, and always will be, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

***

I collapsed in the middle of the next day, absolutely exhausted. By the time I awoke, the sun was setting and we were as ready as we could be.

***

I decided to join my big brother while we waited. I asked your dad if he wanted to tag along, but he declined – he always hated heights.

And so I was all alone as I carefully climbed the tower clinging to the rim of the volcano.

Once at the top, I dropped my supply of fresh water, hugged my brother tight and did my best not to look down. You’ve been there. You know how high it is.

He was pleased to see me, but as soon as we’d broken apart he scooped up the town’s sole set of binoculars and resumed his vigil.

We took turns scanning the dark horizon, looking to the north.

All we saw were shadows and gloom.

***

We saw the first sign of the raiders just after dawn – a thick plume of dust to the north, thrown up by their march.

“How long do you reckon it’ll take them to get here?” I asked my brother.

“They’ll probably be here by dark. You’d better tell Aunty.”

“Got it.”

I descended the tower, hurried into town and told Aunty what was what. She gathered us together and filled us in.

After that, all we could do was wait.

That was the worst part.

***

Night fell, after an anxious day. We took our positions. We readied our weapons. And then the brilliant blossom of a flare filled the sky to the south.

Help was on its way, our friends and neighbours were coming, all we had to do was hold off the raiders until they arrived.

I smiled so wide that my cheeks hurt.

Moments later, another flare went off, this time to the west. And then another and another and another, more and more of them, including one from the north, behind the raiders.

And then one of our runners approached the gates.

Before he fell to the ground in exhaustion, he gave Aunty a thumbs-up.

***

Our law doesn’t just apply to us, but to everyone else out there in the wasteland. Well, everyone else that’s still good.

Help when you can.

(Originally published in Stories of Hope, February 2020)

Faster Than a You-Know-What

The runners wait, their feet pressed hard against the blocks. They’re so still that they might as well be carved from rock. They’re fixed and focused. They’re in the zone, as the old-timers say. A few are wearing identical headbands: 51% is emblazoned on them, black letters on a white background, referring to a line they shouldn’t cross if they still want to call themselves human, symbolising a kind-of code that some of them pay lip service to, an unenforced rule that some of them loosely adhere to.

The runners keep waiting. Not a sound comes from the overcrowded stands and bleachers: It’s as if the stadium and everyone in it are frozen in a perfectly silent moment of time. The moment stretches on.

And then the snap-crack of the starter pistol echoes through the sky.

The runners do what they’re supposed to do: They run, they run hard. The crowd cheers and shouts and boos. The runners’ support crews – their families, friends, spouses, trainers, managers, doctors – chew their fingernails or look away or join in with the cheering crowd. The air is backgrounded by the plastic-tick of thousands of cameras snapping thousands of photos, the shrill song of artificial cicadas.

There’s barely enough room between some of the runners to slide a ruler, that’s how bulked-up they are. Some of them are tall and thin – too tall and too thin, almost insectoid. Some look unmodified, their unmarked flesh disguising all manner of implanted enhancements. One of them even has four legs, though that much work surely excludes him from the 51% club.

They run. They run hard. So far, there’s no clear leader.

A moment later, a rumble builds from within the crowd’s collective belly, a heavy moan of excitement and anticipation – the favourite has pulled ahead, as everyone knew he would. He half-turns and keeps on running, he smiles at the crowd and keeps on running, he turns back and keeps on running.

He pulls further ahead. It’s unbelievable, can barely be possible, can’t really be happening. The crowd are now shouting his name, lovers and haters alike, entranced by this marvel of nature and science.

“Man-grove!” they call, splitting his name in two. “Man-grove! Man-grove!”
He turns again, he smiles again, he keeps on running.

Superimposed on his field-of-vision are readouts sent directly to his optic nerve. They bear a flood of information, detailing his proximity to his competitors, the distance he has already run, the distance to completion, the performance of his technological enhancements, the wind speed, fluctuations in the weather, the wear and tear on his muscles, the strain on his organs, his hormone levels, his brain chemistry, the build-up of toxins in his body…

It’s a mess, the amount of information delivered far beyond the human mind’s capacity to consciously understand. Luckily, the quantum processor fused to Mangrove’s brain does the work for him, adjusting his body and accommodating any changes in a manner that’s almost instinctive.

He keeps running. The other runners try to keep up but Mangrove, he’s just a freak – the other runners push themselves harder than they knew they could, but they might as well be walking.

And then, on his optical display, Mangrove receives a warning that requires his actual attention: Oxygen-Conversion Efficiency at 18%, Please Advise.

He starts to slow down. It’s barely noticeable, but it still gives the other runners a chance to catch up. Mangrove focuses on the proximity sensor flashing away on his optical sensor. The other runners are right on him now.

He swears aloud.

He likes to think that in the old days, back before he was born, if he had hit a wall while running he would have chosen to embrace the pain, to push through, to dig deep, to hold on, to snatch a phrase from the grab-bag of sporting clichés. After all, that’s what his heroes did – they had no other choice. But this isn’t the old days, and so he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

A formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him and everything is suddenly too bright, too loud, too intense. His vision reddens, his eyes bulge, his smile becomes a snarl, his heart pumps so hard that he’s worried it might pop.

He looks at the other runners crowding him. He growls low in his throat. He looks ahead to the finish line. He pulls away once again, running faster than he ever thought possible.

And just like that, he knows that he’s won, that it’s only a matter of time.

As he crosses the finish line, he sends another thought-command. This time, his quantum processor spikes his brain with serotonin. Simultaneously, it makes him sweat and sweat and sweat, purging his body of the excess hormones that allowed him to win. He has an image to maintain. He knows the difference between being a good runner and being a superstar. He can’t let the public see the blind beast that really ran the race.

As the crowd continues to cheer his name, he turns in a slow circle and bows low. He tears the headband from his head, the slogan ‘51%’ smudged with sweat, the whole thing a dripping mess.

He balls up the headband and throws it into the crowd, as if it’s a treasure to be cherished.

 

***

 

Before the media throng can pounce, Mangrove’s support crew drag him away and lead him to the medical suite in the stadium’s basement. His wife, his husband, his mum, his brother, his trainer, his manager – they all fuss over him, congratulating him on his win, asking if he’s okay, flattering him to the nth degree. Only his doctor stays silent, standing back and offering a slight frown rather than an outstretched hand or a pat on the back. At the medical suite door, now that the commotion is over, he takes charge.

“Everyone out, you all know the drill.”

The entire support crew congratulate Mangrove a last time. His spouses lean in and kiss him on the cheeks, one after the other. His mum gives him a hug. His brother, his trainer, his manager, they all shake his hand a last time. And then they drift away.

Mangrove, the joker that he is, makes a big show of pretending to follow them.

“Very funny,” his doctor says. “You know, I haven’t seen that one before.”

“Really?” Mangrove asks with almost too much sincerity.

It’s a routine that they perform well. But like all routines, it has to end – they enter the medical suite, Mangrove lies on the nearest bed, his doctor starts to get busy.

“Nice race,” his doctor says. “Although by the look of things, it got a bit hairy near the end.”

“Yeah, but I pulled up fine, like I always do. Faster than a you-know-what, eh doc?”

“That’s the one.”

His doctor connects a fibre-optic cable to the port just beneath Mangrove’s right ear. He attaches clear plastic tubes to ports on Mangrove’s neck and thighs, and alternately drains fluid away and refills the tanks. He waits for the custom-built diagnostic computer to synchronise with Mangrove’s quantum processor.

Mangrove feels the moment as it happens; it’s as if his mind has suddenly been exposed to open air.

His doctor ums and ahs as he looks over the incoming data.

“Everything seems okay, but we’ll need to sit down and talk about your lung capacity – you’ll fry if you keep pushing yourself like you did today.”

“How’s Thursday, same time as always?”

“Sounds good.”

“Cool.”

His doctor begins the disconnection process. Mangrove stares at the ceiling. With his amplified hearing, he can hear through the walls, can hear the crowd still calling his name. Only one thought runs through his head, a wide and deep concept reduced to a single word and repeated again and again:

Winner! Winner! Winner! Winner!

“Go on, kid – lap it up,” his doctor says as he pulls free the last cable and disconnects the last tube.

 

***

Much later that night, after returning to the stadium and bowing to the crowd yet again, after signing autograph books and kissing babies and posing for selfies and cultivating his public image, after the fun and games of the press conference, after the tedious solemnity of the medal presentation, after the party and after the bars and after the clubs, after falling asleep in the arms of his husband and wife, Mangrove wakes suddenly.

He’s crying, even though he hasn’t realised it yet. He was having a nightmare, a nightmare that’s actually a memory. It’s still with him; he’s still remembering a lost little boy scavenging in a junkyard for scrap to swap for food, a lost little boy who was always hungry.

He’s still remembering his childhood.

 

***

 

It’s a brand new day, and for Mangrove that means it’s back to business: He wakes before dawn and goes for a run, nothing too strenuous, just thirty or forty kilometres; he returns home at sunrise, has breakfast and coffee with his husband and wife; he looks over his schedule and talks to his manager; he goes for another run.

It’s the afternoon now, and his driver is taking him to a broadcast station in town so that he can take place in a televised debate that he doesn’t remember agreeing to.

He calls his manager.

“Alright, alright, I went over your head,” his manager says. “But this will be good for you, and even better for your image.”

At that word – image – Mangrove is in.

“No sweat.”

“Good one,” his manager says. “Let me know how it goes.”

It’s a disaster.

The debate is on the ethics of enhancements in sport, and such a dog-whistle topic has drawn out all the usual freaks, professional protestors and culture warriors. A security team has to escort Mangrove to the studio doors, shouldering aside a blockade-forming throng made up of the perpetually outraged and the eager-to-fight, made up of Human First-devotees and robot-rights activists united in an unlikely partnership.

Suddenly, Mangrove gets hit in the face by an overripe orange thrown with great force.

“Fuck you,” Mangrove yells in the presumed direction of the assailant, trying to simultaneously wriggle free of the security hulk holding him back and wipe his face clean.

The urge to challenge the assailant rather than let it go is almost instinctive, a throwback to the vast majority of his life. It had been drilled into him over the years: You’re either tough and take no lip, or you’re a loser or a victim or dead.

“Say it again, I dare you!”

“Freak!” the assailant calls in response. “You belong in a lab, not on a running track.”

The hulk keeps holding him back.

Just like at the stadium yesterday, Mangrove sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

A familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him, and he loves it. He easily shrugs off the hulk. He barges forward, pushing people aside, weighing into the crowd.

“Fuck you all!” he shouts, his words thick, dangerous, slurred.

He throws punches. He takes punches. He’s a warrior, a berserker, a maniac. He finds the man that he decides is the assailant. He starts beating on this man. The crowd start booing Mangrove. They start insulting him: Monster! Neanderthal! Deformity! Mockery! Fake! Crook! Cheat!

At that last one, he snaps.

“I didn’t break no rules!” he screams into the assailant’s face, his grammar breaking under the strain of the hormones coursing through him. “51% for life, no other way, that’s me!”

Now he’s punching the assailant to emphasise every word, even though the assailant didn’t actually say anything.

“Mangrove…”

Thwack.

“ain’t…”

Thwack.

“no…”

Thwack.

“cheat!”

A last thwack, and then Mangrove actually roars. It would be ridiculous if it weren’t so primal. The assailant is still, his face a bloody pulp. The watching crowd are silent.

“That’ll teach you,” Mangrove says, looking with contempt at the wreckage of the assailant.

He turns away. He looks over the gathered crowd. Looking back: Upheld camera-phones and data-pads and palm-dials, all click-click-clicking away. Straightaway, he sends a thought-command – the flood of raging hormones eases as he sweats it out.

Mangrove realises what he’s done. He realises what he’s done to his image. He once again barges forward until he’s free of the crowd. And then he does what he does best: He runs.

***

Mangrove finally makes it home, having covered maybe a hundred kilometres or so. The house is dark, empty, quiet. He pulls out his phone and turns it on. There are too many messages to go through – the thought alone makes him groan aloud.

And then it rings. It’s his manager. Of course it’s his manager.

For a moment, Mangrove is tempted to just throw his phone across the room. But he knows that he’s done a lot of damage, and that he has to ‘fess up.

“Yo,” he says nonchalantly.

“Don’t you ‘yo’ me, kid. My office, now – the sponsors want your blood.”

Mangrove groans a second time.

“And pull your fucking head in.”

At that, his manager hangs up on him.

***

The meeting just finished. Now that it’s over, a thoroughly chastised Mangrove has gone for another run. Thinking back on it as his feet slap a tattoo on the blacktop, he realises that the meeting could have been worse – the earth could have stopped turning, the sun could have fallen into the ocean, the stars could have gone out.

After much toing and froing, after it was made clear that there was no way of avoiding a 1-year suspension, after his sponsors threatened to pull their endorsement, after the facts of a court case were detailed at length, after he realised how much of his dirty laundry the prosecution would air, after it was explained to him that this was the only way of avoiding a lifetime suspension, Mangrove agreed to publicly apologise and generously compensate the assailant and undertake untold hours of community work. He was told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted his once-adoring fans to believe his longwinded self-justification, to accept his excuse that it was an ‘allergic reaction’ rather than the result of his numerous enhancements, to look at him as the victim of a sob-story upbringing who had experienced a medical problem that then caused a brain-snap rather than as a brute who can’t control his temper, then he would have no choice but to grovel and beg.

He runs. He runs hard.

No matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he pushes himself, he can’t run fast enough to escape himself.

***

In the months that follow, Mangrove dedicates himself to rehabilitating his image. He begins by attending twice-weekly meetings with his manager, an advertising consultant, a media masseur and a brand expert. They discuss the problems, brainstorm possible solutions and potential roadblocks, and slowly develop a plan for Mangrove to follow.

The media team eventually hit on the idea of appropriating the night of Mangrove’s brain-snap. They leave the footage alone; nothing can save that. Instead, they test different lines from his accompanying rant on a variety of focus groups, settling on ‘51% For Life.’ This makes them happy, as they see a nice synchronicity in it – Mangrove’s prior links to the pseudo-philosophy the slogan headlines serve as a nice framework for the story they’re trying to tell.

He meets with others who chose to walk the same road he did, albeit for different reasons: Soldiers, rescue workers, cops, fire-fighters, those people who made themselves more than human in order to help those worse-off than the average Jack or Jill. He discovers that they have their own form of 51% For Life, a creed that helps them hold onto their humanity. And he meets those who had no choice but to walk his road, those who lost limbs or organs due to accident or violence or sickness or bad-genes, whose only option was an enhancement or death. In order to gain a full understanding of the movement that he is beginning to speak for, he meets those at the other end of the spectrum: The poor and displaced who have been hurt or maimed, tucked away in charity-hospitals and dilapidated respite centres dreaming of life-altering enhancements that are simply beyond them.

His court-ordered community service comes to an end, and without even really thinking about it, he signs on for at least another six-months. He establishes a fund to aid those poor and displaced people that need enhancements but have to make do with primitive 20th-century healthcare. He organises charity-runs, officiating and adjudicating with good humour, acting as a ringmaster cum party-host cum DJ. He keeps meeting with others like him, happy to just talk to them and spend time with them, although he meets them in private more and more often, being with them not for the sake of publicity but because it’s the right thing to do.

He accepts the necessity of the cameras that follow him everywhere, knows that they play an integral part in his public rehabilitation, in the changes that he is experiencing. But nowadays he sometimes likes to be left alone.

He still runs, he still runs hard. But for the first time in more than a decade, it isn’t something that he does every day.

***

A year has passed, and Mangrove is just about to run his first post-suspension race. He’s wearing a brand new 51% For Life headband; a couple of other runners are wearing them too. They’re all waiting for an official to tell them take their places. The crowd are curiously quiet. They’re not silent, but they’re not cheering or booing either, more talking amongst themselves about what might happen out on the track, about what Mangrove might do, about how badly he might lose it.

They’re also talking about what he’s doing right now – gone is his usual show of cockiness and arrogance, gone is his collection of poses, gone is his almost ritualistic display of hyperactivity and confidence. Instead, he’s still and calm, focussed only on the race.

An official calls them out. They wait, their feet pressed hard against the blocks. The crowd have finally fallen quiet.

The snap-crack of the starter pistol echoes through the sky.

They run, they run as one, a heaving mess of arms and legs. Mangrove is right in the middle of the squeeze, getting a feel for the rhythm of his competitors, keeping pace but not pushing, not yet.

They round a corner: One lap down.

They keep running. Mangrove can’t hear the crowd, can’t hear the rumble of his competitors’ feet raining down on the track, can’t hear the strain of their breathing. Instead, he’s fixed is on his own breathing, on his own body, on his own step. He’s still in the thick of it, getting jostled and bumped occasionally, sometimes shoving back, and he’s loving it.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

It’s time to push. Mangrove gives it everything he’s got and starts to leave his competitors behind. He keeps running. He feels good. He allows himself a smile; it isn’t cock-sure or smarmy, merely an expression of happiness borne from getting lost doing something he loves.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

The crowd begin cheering, only occasionally at first but more and more often the further Mangrove pulls ahead. He half-turns and keeps on running, he smiles at them and keeps on running. Once again, his smile is one of happiness, not pride. He turns back and keeps on running. He pulls further ahead.

This time, it really is unbelievable, can barely be possible, can’t really be happening – he hasn’t raced in over a year, he’s out-of-shape and out-of-practise, he should have been demolished by now.

Just like in the old days, the crowd are shouting his name, lovers and haters alike.

“Man-grove! Man-grove! Man-grove!”

The runners round another corner: Another lap down.

Something starts beeping. Mangrove sends a thought command, checking his systems. Everything shows a green light, except for the proximity sensor. He focuses his conscious attention on it: His two nearest competitors are starting to catch up. He keeps running, willing himself on.

They round another corner: Another lap down.

The two competitors are still gaining ground. Mangrove pushes himself harder, but he can’t shake them – they’re still catching up, they’re still catching up, they’re still catching up, they’re neck-and-neck, and now they’ve overtaken him. Mangrove focuses, gathers his thoughts, tries not to freak out.

This time, he starts to catch up. He allows himself a second smile. The crowd go wild.

They round another corner: One lap to go.

Mangrove isn’t catching up fast enough. He knows that. He knows that he has to get it together. He knows that if something doesn’t give, he’s lost. And so he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, emptying the tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck.

That familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him.

He channels it, tries to control it. He catches up to his competitors and squeezes between them, growling at the elbowing he receives. He looks ahead to the finish line. He keeps running.

The three runners are squeezed together tighter-than-tight; you couldn’t slip a cigarette paper between them. Mangrove keeps pushing himself, an effort almost superhuman. He’s an inch in front. Two inches. Three inches.

There’s the finish line. The crowd start screaming louder.

“Man-grove! Man-grove! Man-grove!”

He soaks it up as if it’s just another form of energy to be converted into muscle power. He gives one last push, running faster than he knew he could. He cruises over the finish line, a good six-inches ahead. The scream of the crowd becomes a roar. Mangrove sends another thought-command; his quantum processor spikes his brain with serotonin and makes him sweat out the excess hormones.

He falls to his back and lies flat on the track, exhausted. He tears off the filthy ‘51%’ headband and tosses it aside. The roar of the crowd is echoing in his ears, the roar of his name the only thing he can hear. All he can think is the same thought as always when he finds himself in this place, a wide and deep concept reduced to a single word:

Winner!

***

It’s funny how quickly people can fall back into old habits – Mangrove is once again in the medical suite in the stadium’s basement, accepting the congratulations of his support crew. As always, only his doctor stays silent, standing back rather than offering an outstretched hand or a pat on the back.

“Everyone out, you all know the drill,” he says as if he’s reading from a script.

The support crew congratulate Mangrove a last time and then start to drift away. Mangrove, a joker through and through, makes a show of pretending to follow them. But his heart isn’t really in it – it’s a half-arsed effort, more perfunctory than high-spirited.

“You okay?” his doctor asks.

Mangrove looks at him, not knowing what to say. He’s torn between joy at beating his competitors after such a long lay-off, and frustration at how hard it was to do so. And he’s agitated because he doesn’t know how to reconcile his pride at winning with his newfound status as an advocate for a cause. And he’s disappointed at the mixed-signals that he knows he’s sending to the people who believe in him.

“I’m alright,” he finally says. “It was a hard race, that’s all.”

“Well, that sure is how it looked.”

“Yeah, doc, but still – faster than a you-know-what, eh?”

“Only just, only just, and the next one will be even harder. It’s nothing that time and training won’t fix, but you unfortunately don’t have the time – the final is only a week away.”

“Yeah, but she’ll be right.”

“If you say so.”

His doctor goes through the routine of checking Mangrove’s systems, draining fluid away and refilling tanks. Mangrove lies there on the bed, silent, waiting. No matter what he does to distract himself, he can’t stop thinking about the words he just heard.

***

It’s the next afternoon, and Mangrove is freaking out. He’s been training all day, but he still can’t hit the target that he’s set himself. His doctor’s words are still haunting him. The final is only six days away. He feels doomed. He feels weak. He feels like he’ll lose everything if he doesn’t do something drastic. He tells himself that he’s contemplating doing these things because people look up to him, because he’s now a role model, a spokesman, an intellectual.

But he can’t lie to himself: He wants to win because winning feels good.

He calls his doctor. He asks about an upgrade. His doctor is completely against it, pointing out that Mangrove is currently sitting at 56% human. He makes it clear that nothing major can be done without some substitution and a lengthy convalescence. Mangrove is adamant, even if it’s just a tweak to his existing systems that will in turn tweak his confidence.

His doctor gives in. He has to – it’s Mangrove’s body to do with as he wishes. He schedules surgery: Tonight at 9 o’clock in his private theatre.

***

The surgery went seamlessly, and Mangrove is now the proud owner of an extra set of hormone tanks and the associated bits-and-bobs necessary for a smooth interface. To top it off, his doctor has dosed him with a serum to speed up the healing process.

Mangrove couldn’t be happier.

He’s still woozy from the anaesthetic, and so his doctor drives him home and draws the curtains and puts him to bed.

***

Mangrove has just woken up. The anaesthetic has worn off. The sun hasn’t risen yet. The final is only five days away.

He decides to go for a run and put his new toy through its paces, even though it’s still dark outside. He drinks some water, goes to the toilet and then gets changed. He puts on a brand new ‘51%’ headband, just for luck. He eats breakfast standing up, treating the food as mere fuel for the coming exercise. He walks out the door, even though his last mouthful of muesli has barely been chewed.

And away he goes.

He warms up by rat-running through the flat and sprawling suburb he calls home. He keeps to the middle of the road, only moving to the footpath when his satellite-linked GPS warns him of the approach of an early-morning car or van or bicycle.

He keeps running. The sun rises. The world begins to wake up.

As the traffic thickens and grows more intense, Mangrove leaves the suburbs behind, making his way to a paved track snaking alongside the nearest creek. He opens up. He runs hard. The world passes in a blur. He doesn’t see the river beside him or the narrow ribbon of bushland surrounding him – all he sees is the track unrolling beneath his feet.

After thirty or forty kilometres, he spies ahead a rundown and abandoned velodrome. It’s an old favourite: Two kilometres a lap, it’s the perfect place for him to practise away from the public eye. He zooms through the rusty gates. He runs a few laps to familiarise himself with the track. He decides that it’s time to test his new toy.

He starts off slow – he sends a thought-command to his quantum processor, which floods his being with adrenalin, testosterone, norepinephrine and instant-acting cortisol, but only from the first set of tanks embedded in the flesh of his neck. He wants to step-up to maximum, so that he can really gauge the difference.

Once again, that familiar formless and wild animal-energy overtakes him. And once again, he channels it and tries to control it.

He’s having a lot of fun.

He runs about fifteen laps before sending a thought-command instructing his quantum processor to empty the second set of tanks. This new dose of hormones hits him like a punch to the face, and for a moment he’s staggered. But he quickly gets it together, finding his feet a bare moment later, every tiny piece of him operating on a hyper-fast frequency.

He’s running like he never has before. He’s absolutely loving it.

It’s as if he’s just wrestled to the ground a new truth, and is determined to hold onto it for as long as he can. It’s as if he’s a little kid who just realised that he can run. It’s as if he’s a teenager on the cusp of realising his potential. It’s as if running is what he was born to do. It’s as if he could run forever.

He’s a machine, his body and his brain and his enhancements working in perfect synchronicity. Nothing else exists – he’s completely forgotten about the fact that people look up to him and take him seriously, completely forgotten that he’s now a role model, that he’s now a heavy-hitter, a spokesman, an advocate, an intellectual, a capital-T thinker.

He picks up more speed. He keeps running. He picks up yet more speed.

He starts to worry that he might not have properly prepared himself, that he and his doctor might have dramatically underestimated the difference the upgrade would make. It’s only a little bit of worry, not enough to throw him off. But it’s there just the same.

He’s still speeding up.

A part of him wants to slow down, but a far larger part wants to see what happens if he doesn’t. He just can’t help himself – he craves the full embrace of the chemical fire coursing through him.

And so he wills himself to go harder, to pick up his pace.

The inevitable happens: He loses his footing and spills, falls, crashes, stacks, and ends up sprawled on the ground.

***

We’re in Mangrove’s least-favourite place: A hospital. He’s only just come around, his accident having rendered him unconscious, the doctors and nurses having taken extra precautions and administered a general anaesthetic before assessing him, such were the apparent severity of his injuries.

He’s been out for more than 24-hours. The final is only three days away. He’s a wreck.

His doctor is waiting.

“G’day, doc,” Mangrove says weakly.

“Ah, you’re awake, good. How you feeling?”

He’s woozy, dazed, out of it.

“Shithouse,” he says.

“Fair enough – you really lost it.”

His doctor looks away.

“What’s the damage?” Mangrove asks, trying to suppress the shake in his voice.

“Mostly cosmetic, thank Christ. It looked worse, at first. And you’ll be sporting some nifty scars for a while, but I guess that’s a small price.”

His doctor sighs.

“What’s wrong?”

There’s sudden panic in Mangrove’s voice, and he’s a lot more awake – every nightmare scenario he’s ever contemplated about never running again, they’re about to come true, he’s sure of it…

His doctor sighs again.

“It’s your foot,” he says. “You managed to break a couple of toes.”

Mangrove looks at his feet. He can’t feel them. He relaxes a little.

“No worries – all I need’s an implant or a bone-replacement, and then a quick dip in the fix-it tank to get me right for the race.”

“You’re kidding, right?” his doctor asks, unable to hide his scorn. “After installing those new tanks, you’re almost maxed out.”

“Almost,” Mangrove says with a smirk.

“Alright, alright – I don’t know exactly how close you are, but there’s probably a bit of wriggle room. The trouble is, there’s no telling how much work you’ll need until we open you up.”

Mangrove doesn’t say anything. He looks serious. His doctor catches on, tries to offer him a different point-of-view.

“It’s just a race,” he says. “Let this one go, treat it as a lesson for the next, and wait for your toes to heal. I don’t want you to fall over the line, not after all the work you’ve done to become this… I don’t know… This new you.”

Mangrove sets his chin. He thinks about everything that he’s learned in the last year, all the people that he’s met, all the friends that he’s made, all the things that he’s seen, all the changes that he’s undergone.

And then he thinks of the crowd, of them calling his name, of them roaring his name, of them screaming it, chanting it, bellowing it.

(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 2, November 2019)

The Angry Man

Jonas Cho was a man much like any other. He worked a somewhat unsatisfying job, a job that allowed him to clothe and feed and house his family and to luxuriate in frivolities once or twice a week. His grand dreams and desires had shrunk to a size appropriate for his age, made nostalgic and somewhat childish by the need to provide the necessities of life, and he only indulged them in his increasingly rare spare time. He wasn’t particularly happy. But he wasn’t particularly unhappy, either. Most of the time, he was just tired – ever since the baby, a good night’s sleep had become something almost unimaginable.

And once again much like any other, he wasn’t a particularly angry man.

Lately, though, he’d found that his temper was growing shorter. He’d found himself getting snappy, tetchy, impatient. The little annoyances and frustrations that are a fundamental fact of life, annoyances and frustrations that should be easily shrugged off or accommodated, had instead been instantly setting him on edge. Something so simple as a stranger bumping into him on the footpath now bothered him far more than it should, as if it was a personal attack rather than an accident. The same thing happened if he was cut-off in traffic or if the person ahead of him at the ATM or the supermarket checkout took too long. He’d find himself cursing aloud at the car in front, or shouting at the person ahead, or just sweating and shaking, his fists clenched and his heart beating too fast.

Of course, every time one of this happened, every time he lost his cool and gave in to his anger, the sensor in his car or the sensors built into almost every public place would start beeping. The flat synthetic voice would follow, coming from his car stereo or from a lamppost or a park bench or a set of traffic lights or the wall of a building or the footpath itself. The words were always the same, only the numbers changed.

“Jonas Cho,” it would say. “One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only fifteen credits remain before you are in excess.”

***

One morning, Jonas awoke feeling slightly anxious. His workplace was officially connecting to the grid that day, something that he had been dreading – work had always been a place where he could vent his frustration or bend the ear of his forgiving colleagues in an attempt to offload. But no longer. The decision had been made by upper management; the workers on the floor thought that it was a ridiculous idea, the kind that could only be dreamed up by someone who had forgotten how it felt to get their hands dirty, and forgotten what it was like to be constantly surrounded by ringing phones and raised voices and the charged air of people risking incredible sums of money.

But these workers were just grunts and their protests were ignored and they were effectively told to either put up with it or take a walk.

Jonas lay in bed for a minute, trying to calm down, trying to slow his racing heart by sheer will power. Sally, his wife, clattered around in the kitchen and the lounge room, taking care of the baby and getting ready for their day. Jonas lay there and listened to her make herself busy, and he felt guilty for being so lazy. These two things combined – his fear of losing his cool at work and his guilt at being a slack househusband – made him groan aloud, and he thought about calling in sick. But then remembered the voice-analysis apps built into the work phones, apps that could differentiate between a voice that was actually sick and a voice that was lying.

And so Jonas finally got up, even though he was still pretty sleepy.

He threw on a dressing gown, shuffled into the hallway, stopped at the toilet and did his thing, shuffled into the bathroom and washed his hands and face, and then shuffled into the kitchen and collapsed into a seat at the breakfast bar. Sally had already made breakfast. Luther, their son, lay asleep in his crib.

“Morning,” Jonas said to Sally.

“Morning, Jay.”

She set a cup of coffee down in front of him, and he took a slow sip.

“Thanks,” he said.

“You’re welcome. You feeling okay?”

He took another slow sip before answering, and started to properly wake up.

“I am now. Thanks.”

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

She smiled at him, and then tousled his hair and passed him his breakfast.

“Right then. I’ll leave you to get ready.”

Sally turned away and started washing the dishes. Jonas finished off his breakfast and his coffee, slid the plate and the cup into the sink, kissed Sally on the cheek, and then bent down and just stared at Luther for a moment.

It was times like these that he felt truly happy. Staring at his son, at the innocence and joy in his smile, at the way his son looked at the world as if it was only beautiful and good and bright; these things made everything else worth it. They made him able to face the day, even if seizing it was beyond him.

Time ticked on, though, and so he stood back up and kissed Sally again and then left the kitchen and had a shower. When he was done, he found that she had laid out his suit and made him lunch.

“Thanks, sweetie,” he said, plucking the brown paper bag off the bench and stuffing it into his briefcase.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to keep thanking me.”

She didn’t look at him as she spoke. She was feeding the baby, or trying to, anyway – Luther was wriggling and squirming and carrying on.

“You just take it easy out there, okay?”

“Okay. Love you…”

“I love you too,” she said, still not looking at him, still struggling with the baby.

***

Jonas’ mood soured before he even got to work.

Just before his train to the city was about to depart, another snap strike shut his line down; running late, he returned to his car and began to drive in, only to get stuck in a traffic jam five minutes later; after a half-hour spent crawling along, he realised that a random inspection was the cause of the jam, and he dutifully passed through the checkpoint and presented his papers to the droids and narrowly avoided having his car declared unroadworthy. And when he pulled into the cavernous maze beneath his workplace, a maze that served as its car-park, he spent a long time circling-circling-circling while trying to find a free spot. His anger grew and grew during the whole trip, and he occasionally cursed aloud. Sometimes these curses were directed at other people and sometimes at himself. They were few and far between at first, but after a while they became steady and repetitive, until he was letting loose long streams of shit-fuck-bastard-arsehole-dickhead, as if one word alone simply wasn’t enough to express his rage.

The beep of the dashboard sensor and the flat synthetic voice rang out so often that they might as well have been some kind of strange chant.

His allotment was almost empty by the time he walked into his workplace, a suite on the fortieth floor of an anonymous grey office building.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said to his coworkers and his boss, who were all gathered in the conference room.

His boss rolled her eyes and tapped on her watch. She didn’t say “hi” and neither did his coworkers. No-one even waved or smiled. Instead, they were all looking into the middle distance or into their laps, and most of them were fidgeting or tapping their feet or drumming their fingers – the room was charged with their pent-up anxiety and barely-suppressed anger, the same anxiety and anger that Jonas felt.

“Sorry,” he said a second time, and then quickly took a seat.

Everyone continued ignoring him.

“Okay, so that’s that,” his boss said. “You all know the drill, you all know how these things work. I don’t expect today to go that smoothly – it’ll take a while for us to get used to working with them, a few stuff ups are inevitable. But I’m sorry to say that the request I put in for some extra credit has been turned down. That means that any infractions will be coming out of your own accounts.”

“Bullshit,” someone said.

A beep split the air, followed by a flat synthetic voice.

“Lucas Shonenberg, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only forty-five credits remain before you are in excess.”

“Well, we know that they work,” Jonas’ boss said. “So let’s get to it.”

People started leaving the conference room. Some exchanged small talk and chitchat, while some just stared straight ahead and tried to keep it together. Jonas trailed in their wake, dragging his feet and wishing he was somewhere else.

“Jonas, a quick word,” his boss said, catching up with him in the corridor.

“Okay.”

He followed her into her office, and she shut the door behind him. Jonas raised his eyebrow and smiled at her.

“Is it hanky-panky time?” he asked.

They had worked together for years, and theirs was an easygoing friendship with only a tiny undercurrent of sexual tension, something that they both enjoyed riffing on when they were somewhere private.

But this time she crossed her arms over her chest and looked him in the eye.

“Cut the shit,” she said, barking the words. “I’m not in the fucking mood.”

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.

“Marjorie Vanderman, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only two credits remain before you are in excess,” the flat synthetic voice said.

“Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t we?”

Marjorie looked at him for a moment, her eyes cold. But he wasn’t intimidated by her authority over him and so he smiled a cheesy smile, and she finally gave in.

“You’re unbelievable,” she said.

“That I am. So, what’s up?”

“Jonas, I have to officially warn you about being late – today makes the eighth time this month.”

Jonas stiffened, and his heart beat a little faster. His second warning this year. His last warning. He felt sick at the thought of potentially losing his job, a pit-of-the-gut sickness.

“Jonas, you okay?” Marjorie asked. “You look a little tense.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m fine, it’s just not what I was expecting.”

“Well, I’ve been told to crack down a bit, especially now that the sensors have been installed. And you just happened to show up late again. So here we are. For what it’s worth, I don’t really want to do this.”

Jonas relaxed a little.

“Well, thanks.”

“You’re welcome. And I’m serious. You’re one of our best, and you always get shit done. So what if you’re a bit tardy every now and then?”

Jonas tried to get some perspective; it was just a warning, after all, and if he could keep his shit together then he wouldn’t attract another one. But the general tension of the day made this a hard thing to do, and so he merely ended up making excuses.

“It’s the baby, Marjorie, that’s all. It’s a bloody madhouse in the mornings…”

Marjorie smiled sympathetically.

“I get it. It’s okay.”

He knew that she didn’t get it; single and childless, she couldn’t hope to understand his position. But still, her sympathy helped.

“Thanks, Marjorie. Really, thanks a lot.”

“Like I said: it’s okay. If it were up to me, I’d just let it be. But it’s not up to me – the boss upstairs is the one calling the shots.”

“Right.”

“So, consider yourself officially warned. They’ll probably keep a close eye on you for the next few days, just to make sure that you’re not slacking off or losing the plot. But other than that, things should be fine.”

Marjorie abruptly picked a pile of papers up off her desk and tidied them.

“And…” Jonas prompted.

“And that’s all, you can go.”

“Oh, right.”

Jonas stood up and turned to walk away.

“One last thing,” Marjorie said.

Jonas turned and looked back at her. This was one of her habits, a habit that had long amused and frustrated him – every time she dismissed someone, just as they were about to leave her presence, she remembered one last piece of information that she had to impart.

“I knew it,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…”

They smiled at each other, and then Marjorie became serious:

“Look, before you go, keep in mind – if you max out your allotment and forget to top-up and then get penalised, that counts as grounds for a warning.”

“You what?” Jonas asked, his voice hard.

“That’s the word from upstairs. ‘Failure to do your part and take responsibility for your anger is grounds for an official warning’ is how they put it. Either way, it means the same thing.”

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor, and then the flat synthetic voice spoke up:

“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. Only three credits remain before you are in excess.”

Jonas rolled his eyes. Marjorie smiled at him.

“It looks like I’m not the only one who’s cutting it fine,” she said.

***

The rest of Jonas’ day was a disaster, a write-off, a wreck and a ruin. To him, the world felt as if it had been dipped in treacle. His paranoia and anxiety and short temper had left him hyper-aware and edgy: every sound was a bellow, every movement an attack, every puff of breath a gust of wind, and everything else seemed to pass by in slow motion. His coworkers found him to be both distant and snappy, and he felt it himself, his mood alternating between spacy and aggressive. When he wasn’t staring at nothing, he was getting all hot and bothered, the ringing phones and raised voices and beeping sensors that surrounded him agitating him and stirring him up.

He quickly maxed out his allotment.

This freaked him out so much that he had a mild panic attack, and he hid away in a toilet stall while he tried to calm down. He tried hard, but he couldn’t get his anxiety under control, and so he ended up popping a pill, a mild sedative donated by a sympathetic coworker.

When he emerged, he found himself in a strange and Zen-like place. It was almost as if his panic attack had burnt out the churning emotions contained within, and the pill was now helping to stop them from returning. His heart no longer raced and he no longer felt as if an inner pressure was slowly increasing, and he found himself unconsciously breathing deeply and slowly. He realised that he felt calm. It didn’t worry him that this was the same kind of calm felt by those who have nothing left to lose, or by those drugged insensate. Instead, he just embraced it.

Five o’clock finally happened, and the changeover alarm sounded.

Jonas stood up and slowly packed his briefcase. With his rough edges smoothed, he couldn’t have rushed if he’d tried, although the pill was starting to wear off a little. He congratulated himself on staying calm, on keeping it together, on managing to get through without another penalty, even if he had needed a little help. He checked his phone. Aside from umpteen messages of love from Sally and a video of Luther dancing, there was nothing. He felt a sense of anticipation; he couldn’t wait to get home. Not just because he couldn’t wait to see his wife and child, but also because he couldn’t wait to settle his account and top-up his allotment. Without constantly worrying about incurring another warning, tomorrow would be a better day, and taking care of it first thing would mean that he could actually relax with his family for once.

He left the office and waited with his coworkers for an elevator.

Some of them made small talk and some of them just stood there. Jonas ignored the small talk and ignored his coworkers. He pulled out his phone and watched a video of a kitten playing with a puppy while he waited.

“About time,” he muttered to himself as the elevator finally stopped at his floor.

The doors yawned opened, and people politely pushed their way out as others politely pushed their way in. Jonas hung at the back and waited some more. He felt his Zen-calm recede a little further as he was jostled and shoved. The pill had really begun to wear off.

He boarded the elevator and tried not to think of cattle or sardines.

It took a long time to reach the ground floor. Jonas hung back and let everyone else leave first. Beyond the elevator doors was a dense throng of people that filled the lobby – the second-shift had started to arrive, and they were heading in as the first-shift were heading out. There was no order to the movement; no queues or lines separated those who were exiting from those entering. Jonas tensed as he looked at the multi-limbed, many-headed beast. He swore under his breath and clenched his fists, almost unconsciously, barely even realising that he was doing so. His heart began to beat harder.

Beep-beep-beep went the sensor.

“Jonas Cho. One credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. Failure to do so before incurring another penalty will result in the notification of the police,” the flat synthetic voice said.

Jonas tensed further and opened his mouth to swear again, and then suddenly thought better of it. It would look pretty stupid if he blew his last chance in exactly the same spot as he blew his second last. He wished that he had another pill, and then took a series of slow and deep breaths.

This seemed to work; neither the sensor nor the flat synthetic voice sounded a second time.

Jonas smiled to himself, and then got to it. He fixed on someone just ahead of him who was also leaving the building, and trailed in their wake – they cleaved a nice path through the crowd and all Jonas had to do was keep up. He whistled while he walked, feeling a little better about everything, and soon found himself at a set of automatic doors leading outside. He waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed an unbroken green; a chime sounded and the doors opened. Jonas stepped outside, and the doors shut behind him with a sudden show of force.

It wasn’t until he’d melted into the crowd filling the footpath that he remembered driving to work and parking in the cavernous maze beneath the building.

***

Jonas groaned aloud, his stress-induced forgetfulness annoying him, his frustration with life in general made plain. He turned on the spot, aiming to head back inside, and walked into someone. This stranger – a beefcake gym bunny, more cinder-block than man – brushed Jonas aside, knocking the briefcase from his hand.

It crashed to the ground. Its latches popped again.

Jonas crouched down as papers and documents fell out only to be snatched away by the wind. He reached for them, trying to wrestle with nature itself, but almost immediately realised the futility of his actions and gave up. He turned and started gathering up the other odds and ends strewn across the footpath – pens, a pair of sunglasses, a diary, a set of keys.

The whole time, he tried to think calm thoughts. He tried to think of that prayer his doctor had taught him, the one about accepting rather than fighting the things we cannot change.

To passers-by, he looked like someone curled up in a foetal ball on the footpath.

Jonas finally got to his feet and started walked. He once more found himself at a set of automatic doors leading into the building. He once again waved his right hand in front of a scanner next to them. The scanner’s artificial eye blinked slowly and then glowed red. The doors stayed shut. Jonas stopped and took a deep breath before trying again. Still, nothing happened. Jonas tried a third time. Nothing.

He knocked hard upon the doors. No response. He knocked again, and again and again.

A violent alarm started wailing and a plasti-steel shutter started descending in front of him, moving so fast that he had to take a quick step back. He looked around nervously as the alarm slowly died away and the shutter slowly retracted, and tried to spot the CCTV-camera that would have let security know that everything was okay.

The doors suddenly opened and a guard in a black uniform strode outside.

“Sir, please step away from the building,” the guard said.

Jonas dropped his briefcase and held his hands up in front of him.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I’m not trying to cause any trouble, I just want to get my car.”

The guard looked Jonas up and down. He took a scanner from a pouch on his belt and smiled.

“Hold out your right hand,” he said.

Jonas did as he’d been told and the guard waved the box over his palm. An electronic trill brightened the air for a second, and the guard consulted the scanner’s screen. His expression sharpened. He scrolled through something, and then smiled at Jonas.

“You’re clean, Mr. Cho, despite being in excess of your allotment. You can relax.”

Jonas dropped his hands and picked up his briefcase.

“Okay then, state your business,” the guard said.

“I’m part of first-shift. I had a rough day, with the sensors being installed and all that, somehow I forgot that I drove in.”

Jonas smiled, both embarrassed and amused by his behaviour. The guard just frowned at him.

“Once you’ve swiped out, you’re not technically allowed back in until your next shift,” he said.

“But can’t you just buzz me through this once? Please – it’s been a horrible day, I just want to get home.”

“Maxed out today, did you?”

“Yep.”

The guard looked away, at the crowd streaming past the building. He frowned, and then shook his head as if making up his mind.

“Look, I’ll be really quick,” Jonas said. “The changeover has to be ending soon, and I don’t want to get caught out.”

The guard didn’t look at him.

“Please…”

The guard finally looked back. He met Jonas’ eye and his frown etched itself deeper into his face. And then he winked.

“No worries, I’m just messing with you.”

He stood to one side and the doors opened.

“But you’d better hurry.”

***

Jonas made it to the elevator without incident. It seemed to take a long time for one to arrive, even though it really only took a minute or so – Jonas was so keyed-up that once again the rest of the world felt like it was moving in slow motion. His heart beat fast and hard. He watched a digital panel on the wall slowly count down, and he crossed his arms over his chest and resisted the urge to tell it to hurry up. By the time it arrived, a crowd of second-shift workers had gathered. Hemmed in, Jonas still somehow managed to keep it together. Once aboard, he had no choice but to ride the elevator all to the way to the top floor with them. He breathed a sigh of relief as it finally began descending; he was cutting it fine, and he hadn’t started looking for his car.

To his surprise, he found it with little effort.

He waved his right hand over the lock. It beeped twice and the door slid open. He threw his briefcase on the passenger seat and clambered in. He buckled up and placed his thumb on the ignition pad. He pressed a button below the pad, selecting ‘manual’ rather than ‘automatic.’ An alarm sounded and a synthetic voice came over the car’s speaker system:

“Jonas Cho, you now have one minute to vacate the building. Failure to comply will result in an automatic disabling of this vehicle.”

Realising just how fine he’d cut in, Jonas backed out in a hurry. He turned too sharply and scraped his car along the concrete barrier. He almost lost it at the cascading clusterfuck that his day had become, but in the end, he resisted the urge to punch the steering wheel, and he swallowed his wordless scream. He headed for the exit and made it outside with bare seconds to spare.

The whole time, he clutched the steering wheel hard, his knuckles white.

He drove on, taking the tunnel out of the city. Traffic was reasonably light, and so he began to calm down a little. After a while, he took his usual exit and ended up on a quiet inner suburban street. He took a right and a left and then another right, working through what he considered his own personal rat-run and ending up on a main thoroughfare.

He cruised along and soon began to whistle tunelessly.

His whistle died away mid-note as he crested a steep hill and was forced to stop at a sudden snarl of peak-hour traffic. He waited, engine idling. In the space of two minutes, he moved forward a single car-space. Without even really thinking about, almost moving automatically, he hit the horn. But nothing happened.

“Jonas Cho, no threat to this vehicle has been detected,” a synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system. “Consequently, one credit has been deducted from your allotment. You are in excess, and are required to top-up your allotment immediately. As this is your second warning, you are required to pull over as soon as possible and wait for the police to arrive.”

Jonas coughed up the wordless scream that he’d swallowed, and he finally punched the steering wheel. He punched it again and again and again. He lay into it, showing the inert piece of plastic no mercy. He let it all out: all his anger and frustration, his pent-up rage and his bitterness and disappointment. He found a physical release for it, a release that hurt no-one. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed finally giving in.

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” he cried.

“Jonas Cho. Seven credits have been deducted from your allotment. You are now…”

The synthetic voice stopped mid-word, because Jonas pulled a pen from his pocket and jammed into the unseeing eye of the dashboard sensor. A smell of burning plastic and a cloud of acrid smoke briefly filled the air.

“Manual drive disengaged,” the synthetic voice said over the car’s speaker system.

The car suddenly began reversing out of the snarl of traffic. Jonas jerked on the wheel but nothing happened. He stamped on the brake but nothing happened. He gave up, and closed his eyes and folded his hands behind his head. His fate was out of his hands, and he just metaphorically stood aside as the car changed lanes and then slowed.

It changed lanes again, and came to a rest on the side of the road. The doors locked themselves with an audible ‘thunk.’

“Please remain calm,” the synthetic voice said over the speaker system. “The police will be with you shortly.”

(Originally published in Red Planet Magazine Vol. 1 Issue 1, October 2019)