Breathing New Air - Part One

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The rules say you must explore new planets on foot, so Berrad sprints across alien worlds to claim the land! He doesn't do it for the glory, he does it for the thrill of the run. (Image uploaded by Joggeli)

A metal-wrapped bubble of oxygen drifted through space like the last deep breath of a time capsule before being buried in the dark.  The letters ‘N.A.C.’ were printed on the bubble’s side as if there was someone to look at them.  Within the bubble’s skin, members of a human crew went about their daily business.

The captain of the bubble checked the computer projections to make sure they were on course and then took a plastic vial of coffee that his female assistant handed him.  The assistant, rolling her eyes at the ease of a captain’s job when a bubble just travels in a straight line for its entire journey, stepped outside the cabin to restock her tray with more snacks and beverages for the other crewmembers.  Next she would take a vacuum-sealed, Grade A, Auroch-clone steak to the North American Coalition’s official representative, who always took his steak well done and while seated in his heated massage chair.  The person who really could’ve used that chair was the ship’s plumbing and heating assistant, who was closing in on sixty years old and really shouldn’t have been crawling between a very hot metal plate and a very cold one just to check for ice and rust… but that’s just what you have to do when the inexperienced stock administrator, who was currently walking from the cafeteria to the gym to sweat off the dry brick of chocolate he had for dessert, forgets to order enough RC mouse cameras for the maintenance staff.

While all these people walked, ate, thought, grumbled, and slept, someone else prepared.  Between all these shifting human trails, a bubble within the bubble locked out all noise except for his breathing.

Berrad Ugitaf breathed deeply and slowly.  He wasn’t trying to relax, it was just protocol.  It was also protocol that he not have any upsetting or excessively emotional thoughts during his Oxygenation.  That was why the cramped interior of the coffin-like hyperbaric chamber was painted with pine trees and frozen lakes, like a landscape you might find in your grandmother’s attic.  One of his fingers popped, making him realize his hands were flexing in and out of fist shapes. 

Stop it, he thought to himself.  Gotta relax.  I’ll be running soon.  Iguan is just another few hundred million miles away. 

Berrad had a long history of busting through strips of tape during his many marathon victories.  All he could picture now though was his body colliding with red tape and bouncing back.  All the protocol for this job was brutal.  First there were all the press conferences and Q&A sessions where he just sat and looked statuesque while the N.A.C. rep rattled off his stats and talked about Berrad’s exemplary record of patriotism.  Then there was all the biometrics, ten people in white coats sticking sensors all over him and telling him to cough, jump, or stand on one leg.

By comparison the oxygenation wasn’t so bad.  Berrad felt a stab in his left arm and looked over to see a plastic tube draining his blood away.  A second tube pumped a blood substitute made from coconut water and cloned cells back in.  This was his fourth and final session in the chamber, meaning all four of his speed pods would be filled and ready to go at the end of it.  Soon he would be looking at real trees and whizzing by them at two hundred miles an hour instead of sitting prone before them like a featherless hatchling fallen from the nest.  The new world of Iguan would stretch out before him as a lush green blur… and he would claim it for the N.A.C. for that opportunity.

“I’m going to walk you through the pills again Berrad,” the elderly doctor said in a voice like a tired drenched cat’s.

“Don’t worry, I remember what they are,” Berrad responded.

“It’s doesn’t matter.  I’m legally required to go through it again before we send you out for your little jog.  Oh… and I have to record it this time.”  The doctor wheeled a tray in front of him with six little plastic cups, each with a different pill inside.  Then she whipped out a small blue cylinder and pushed the button on top of it.  An oblong recording screen shaped like a comic strip word balloon unfurled. 

Berrad could see his own face in the screen as it recorded.  He reached for the first pill but the doctor slapped his hand away.

“Ouch!” He complained insincerely.

“What? It’s not like you need your hands to run anyway.”

“What am I going to plant the flags with?”  Berrad asked sarcastically.

“I think the flags can handle that just fine.  Now sit back and listen.  You can take each pill after I finish the description and you give me your consent.  Ready?”  Berrad sighed and stared blankly.  “Okay here we go.  I, Doctor Senna Fellbliss, registered physician with the N.A.C.M.S., am about to administer the six pact-approved human biochemical modifiers for a colony mission.  The explorer present is Berrad Ugitaf.”

“Don’t you find it funny that in all the recordings I’m an ‘explorer’ but when no one is taping I’m just a ‘jogger’? Berrad asked pointedly.

“Not really.  The satellites and the rovers do the real exploring but everyone wants a human name attached to these places.  Now be quiet, I don’t have a lot of battery on this thing.  Okay, where was I?  Right.  The first drug is a hydro-chart, time-release, water absorbing, foaming agent.  Once swallowed the bubbles inside will absorb the water in your stomach and then rupture, one at a time, supplying you with fresh water for the duration of your excursion to the undiscovered planet.”

“What flavor is it?” Berrad joked, hand held in the air like a schoolboy.

“Shut up.  Side effects include excessive urination, which may dislodge your catheter.  Do you accept this possibility and any equipment issues that may result?”

“Yes I accept all consequences of wetting myself at super speed.”

“You may now take the pill.”

Berrad swallowed the sparkly blue capsule and took a swig of water.  He would have to drink several liters after the pills to fill all of the bubbles.  He remembered the first time he took a hydro-chart; they made his stomach feel like a bag of cold clams and he could feel it each time one popped, a little water balloon designed to keep him perfectly hydrated.

“The second pill is an isotope tracking solution that will distribute itself through your body for the duration of your excursion.  It will allow the ship to track you from long range in case you’re separated from your mechanical GPS.  Do you consent to this method of tracking?”

“Yes I consent.”

“Take the second pill”

“You’re the boss.” Berrad swallowed the little red porcelain-looking pyramid.

“The third pill,” Dr. Fellbliss continued, “is a multivitamin.”

“Woah… nobody said anything about multivitamins.  Radioactive stuff I can handle but vitamins?”  The doctor did not look amused.  “Alright I guess I consent.”  Berrad swallowed the tiny green ball and took another swig of water.

“The fourth pill will induce a chemical reaction in your pores that will create a mild sunblock during perspiration…”

Chapter Two

Finally it was time.  Berrad was locked in position near the rear of their bubble’s shuttle, which had been deployed to the surface of Iguan.  His backpack housed most of his supplies, his liquid rations, and the four external speed pods that stuck out like royal jewels on an assembly line.  The cool metal of his limb braces just kissed the sides of both his arms and legs.  The helmet was itchy but he could ditch it as soon as he landed and say it fell off.  Nobody would interrupt his run to make him go back for it. 

The N.A.C. representative was there.  A portly man, with digital screens in his spectacle lenses that were always cluttered with news feeds and E-mails, he rarely did anything other than talk at Berrad.  It’s as if the man was a swollen bag of legal terminology and political double speak that squealed out like the air from a pinched balloon.

“Alright remember, the Enlightened Republic of Indochina beat us here.  They’ve already claimed three territories that hug the coast along the northern edge of the continent,” the rep said.

“What’s the name of the continent?” Berrad asked.  He was only talking to try and hurry time along.  His legs quivered with anticipation.

“It’s called Subanth… or rather it will be called that once we officially discover over fifty percent of it.  Your priority targets are here.”  The rep held out a plastic map with little red circles.  “This geyser field indicated geothermal energy so that’s priority Alpha.  After that you can head wherever looks easier: this wetland or that canyon.”

“Wait,” Berrad interrupted, “you want me to capture fifty percent of this thing when the E.R.I’s already claimed that much?  Their guy will beat me to it.”  It was difficult to express his confusion since the launcher he was loaded in prevented his head from moving side to side.

“We think you’ll be alright,” the rep said.  “It looks like they’re claiming strips each time.  They’re going for their own country, not world domination.  They know they can’t beat an N.A.C. jogger.  Hell…” The rep clicked the side of his spectacles, turning off all the data.  Then he looked Berrad in the eye and smiled like he had just laundered a vast fortune and some bloody clothes too.  “Those Asians have such tiny legs.  It’s like they run on pairs of toddler chopsticks.”  He switched his glasses back on.  “At any rate, if the E.R.I. tries to cross any of your lines we’ll send you shooting down to the coast before they can cut off a piece of our pie.  You might have to burn a pod or two but you’ll easily secure something five times the size of Texas.”

“Whatever,” Berrad spat.

“Well someone’s crabby,” the rep said with a scowl.

“I just need you to open the doors.”

“We’re not there yet smart guy.  If we launched you right now you’d hit the ocean.  We don’t need you to claim Atlantis for us.

“How long until we’re there?”  The rep clicked his glasses to check their E.T.A.

“Thirty seconds.  Think you can wait that long?”

“No.”

The representative patted him on the shoulder and stepped back, clear of the launcher.  Berrad felt the shuttle curve gently.  Any moment now those doors would open and the launcher would shoot him out horizontally.  When he started to arc down he would plant his feet on the very edge of Subanth for the first time.  The first gentle sound of the sand under his feet… shfut …would be his starter’s pistol.  Only this time he would be racing someone thousands of miles away, who had a head start. 

The thrusters quieted to the sounds of hovering.  The shuttle bay doors opened, letting the light of a new world bathe the explorer.  When his eyes adjusted the coastline appeared.  Bright blue water lapped gently on the beach.  Iguan had no moons, so its tides were little more than ripples that sank into the sand instead of retreating.  The beach was free of debris.  At this point in the terraforming there were bound to be lots of dead trees on some of the beaches, but they always launched him from the clearest patch they could find.  A good explorer needs a runway to build up speed.

“Preparing to launch,” a voice said over the intercom.  “Launch will commence in ten seconds.”  Berrad rolled his eyes.  Everyone was clear.  They should jut launch him now.  Time was territory.

“10, 9, 8…”

“Zero!” Berrad yelled at the intercom.

“7, 6, 5…”

“Zero!”

“4, 3, 2…”

“How about zero?”

“1, 0.”

“Finally.”

Berrad was thrust forward at incredible speed.  He kept his arms folded tight across his chest to prevent the sheer force from breaking them backward.  His feet locked together in a point, shaping him like a golf tee.  His cheeks flapped in the air like the jowls of a dog with its head out a car window.  He continued to rocket forward, inches above the calm surface of the sea, for several seconds before he began to lose altitude.  The sand was still a ways away.  Perhaps the conditions were finally right to try it…

Berrad dropped one foot lower than the other and ‘stepped’ on the water’s surface.  As long as he didn’t stick his foot all the way in, it wouldn’t cost him any momentum.  So Berrad did like the miracle workers of old, and ran across the water’s surface.  His alternating feet left a trail of splashes like a skipping stone being chased by its sibling.  There was only a second to enjoy the sensation before he was on the sand.

Shfut.

The explorer moved under his own power now, legs pumping like a race horse.  As the last of the launcher’s force faded, Berrad’s full weight settled onto his shoulders.  His arms began to pump as well.  Rhythm kicked in.  He was a high velocity metronome: every motion was countered perfectly by the rest of his body. The small radio pierced into his ear relayed instructions from the representative.

“Put down your first flag so we can make sure they activate correctly.  One dud could ruin this whole thing.”  Berrad reached behind him and pulled a metal rod from the bundle on his belt.  A luminescent blue fabric was wrapped around the tip like colored cellophane on a deli toothpick.  A quick downward thrust planted the rod upright in the sand, which was already growing coarser as he put distance between himself and the beach.  The explorer was already a mile away when the flag actually unfurled and began transmitting its signal to the N.A.C. bubble.

“Everything looks good Berrad.  Keep up the pace… for god and country,” the rep’s voice crackled.

Not for god. Berrad thought.  Or for country.  For me.  For this rush.  For this fresh air that’s not tainted with the nervous sweat of billions of people.

He did in fact owe this chance to take giant leaps for mankind to the bickering heads of state.  It was less than a century ago that you could claim a planet just by seeing it through a telescope.  All you had to do was name it and it was yours.  Obviously this became a problem when two nations that swore they ‘saw it first’ arrived with their colonists at the same time.  A few wars were started here and there over who got to keep which marbles floating through the void.

The only solution was to travel backwards, to do things the old way.  Whoever stepped foot there first could claim what they’d travelled across.  To everyone except the explorers, this was strictly business.  So these explorers had to be outfitted with everything imaginable that could increase their speed without actually building a vehicle around them.  So here was Berrad, six pills, four limb braces, and four speed pods away from a normal human runner but still retaining ‘the explorer’s spirit’ in the eyes of the people.

In reality he was about as far from Lewis and Clark as he could get.  The landscape moved by so fast that it was difficult to process anything before it became a brown blur.

Once Berrad cleared the beach, the blur turned a rich green.  Terraforming probes sent by neutral government pacts had arrived years before the humans and filled the landscape as quickly as they could.  Genetic tampering meant they could grow redwoods hundreds of feet high in two years.  These forests and meadows were already populated with full grown deer, rabbits, frogs, bears, wolves, sparrows, and eagles thanks to metabolic catalysts built into the embryos that came with the probes.  Their lives would be short but rich, like a colony of bacteria across the surface of a skinned apple.  Salmon were spawning their brains out to fill the rivers and seas.  Bees were busy making more honey than they knew what to do with.  And for a few precious years, until the humans came and accidentally spread them, there would be no mosquitoes.

“Berrad.  Berrad!  I said put down another marker!” The radio barked.

Is it that time already? Berrad thought.  I’m flying like time.  He planted his second flag just past a massive rock slab that he’d cleared in three strides.  There was no being sure at these speeds, but that last step might have cracked the mighty stone.

“How much… have I logged?” Berrad asked between carefully timed inhales.

“300 miles in seventy-two minutes,” the rep said giddily.  “That’s got to be some kind of record.”

“Where’s the… E.R.I. guy?” Berrad asked.

“Hang on, let me check… Yeah he’s just adding honeycombed patches on top of his first ones.  He’s about parallel to you.  Wait a second…  You would not believe the brass balls on this guy.”

“What do… you mean?”

“He’s making a beeline for you.  I think they’re trying to sever the connections between our flags.  If he gets to your trail and then back to one of his own lines he’ll undo your whole run.”

“I don’t care… what he does.  Just give me a direction… and let me get back to it.”

“Alright let me think for a second.  I’m going to angle you southwest, just stick to the compass commands.”

“Right,” Berrad huffed, “Correcting course.”  He turned ever so slightly to match the holographic arrow projecting from his wristwatch.  This is odd, he thought.  Normally the E.R.I isn’t this bold.  They get in under the gun, catch a few small countries, and then head out again.

Lost in politics for a moment, Berrad almost ran headlong into a wild horse that was merrily chewing the lush meadow grass.  He cursed in his head and took a flying leap, only clearing the beast by a few inches.  It whinnied in surprise and galloped off to join its herd.  If they had been unlucky enough to collide, Berrad would have sent the two halves of the horse spiraling into the air and then fallen over himself with one of the ribs of the wild animal sticking out of his chest like a spear.

“Berrad there’s a hill coming up you need to turn to…” the radio started in again.

“I can make the jump,” he scoffed in return.  It would be nice if they’d just let him do his job in silence.

“No you don’t understand!  It’s full of…”  Berrad jumped over the lip of the hill.  He was not greeted by more open meadow, but by all three hundred of that lone horse’s family members.  This time there was no opportunity to swear.  The air filled with frantic animal cries and the stamping of hooves like a rain of dirt clods.  With no room between the quaking haunches of the horses, Berrad had to take several steps across their backs before finding a nook to slip into.  He was battered on all sides, taking confusing blows to the head and arms.  His speed was still frightfully high, so even with the herd slowing him down Berrad could not avoid being pressed against the back end of the horse in front of him.  The smell was… distracting to say the least.

A hoof struck him in the stomach.  The pain was immediate but overshadowed by the loss of breath.  He ran bent over until the pain started to subside.  If he stopped running he would be trampled.  If he tripped he would be trampled.  The rep shrieked in his ear but Berrad couldn’t comprehend any of it.  All of a sudden his legs felt too short and every hoof was a hammer flying through the air.  His first inhale since the blow to the gut came as a tight gasp, like a boxer punching the bottom of his lungs with horsehide gloves.  His left foot twisted on some uneven ground.  Berrad turned the stride into an awkward jump to avoid falling.

Without his normal rhythm he would be doomed.  These animals weren’t going to go their separate ways: they were glued together like the cells of a throbbing muscle.  There was only one way to settle his mind.  The rep might even kill him with some kind of satellite laser if he burned a speed pod this early, but it had to be done.  Being short one would be much better than tripping and becoming a welcome mat.

He looked down for a quick moment to press a button on his left arm brace.  One of the glass pods on his back started draining.  Rich, electrifying, oxygenated blood, generated by several hours in the hyperbaric chamber, flooded his blood stream.  The effect was instantaneous.  It’s a shame Berrad was too busy surviving to fully enjoy it.  His vision lit up as if fading daylight had rewound to noon.  His muscles felt just as tense but their mood shifted.  The sensation was now warm instead of burning.  Each breath was a nourishing cloud of vaporized ambrosia.  The rhythm was back and his muscles were freshly oiled with oxygen.  Paths seemed to open up before him.  There was a space between that black horse and the tan one.  Then there was a way to move up between them.  Then there was a small one he could skirt around.

It became more like a maze than anything else.  The wild scared equine eyes were just notches in the walls.  Berrad leapt over a horse sideways.  Then another.  He threw in unnecessary flourishes and spins because… well when was he going to get another chance to do this?

Before he knew it he was clear.  The rumbling, raging amoeba of horses shifted away from him, back towards the plains while he entered a new forest with towering conifers and swollen pine cones littering the ground like surplus eggs rolling out of overflowing nests.  The rep was still yelling, but with the speed pod’s effects coursing through his veins, heart, brain, eyes, and muscles, his ears seemed curiously catatonic.

Berrad cast a flag into the ground and spared a backward glance to watch it light up.  It wasn’t the right time for him to use one, in terms of mileage, but it was the right thing to do at that moment.  The flag signaled the end of the experience.  It was a symbol for the cool down after being caught in a rush of raw life.  Running through these untamed wildernesses was like giving man a taste of god’s powers.  Like licking dripping honey off an omnipotent eggbeater before it went back to baking things you’d never comprehend.

It’s a shame that flag will end up as a line.  Dividing people.  Dividing rights, crimes, and the pursuit of happiness along borders I draw.  I’m capturing countries… but the lines themselves… they’re the real prize.

The bottom pads of his foot braces clicked a little more slowly than usual.  The Rep had informed him that the E.R.I jogger was matching his speed and angle.  He was trying to catch up rather than subvert one of his incomplete borders.  Why?  Did the underdog desire a full-on race with the champion?  Berrad’s curiosity had gotten the better of him.  He built some slack into his pace so the other jogger could catch up faster.  There would be a 140 mile an hour conversation when he finally caught up.  Did this other explorer do it for the same reason?  Or was he just some brainwashed and genetically gifted piece of propaganda for the people back home?  Berrad knew a few joggers like that.  They were hamsters in wheels.  A couple of them even watched movies or read books in data glasses like the rep’s while their bodies mechanically got the job done.  It was hard to imagine not wanting to be present for this.

The silence of the forest surrounded him like a glass tunnel through an aquarium tank.  His speed separated him from the world but gave him a perfect perspective.  He took a sip of liquid ration from the plastic straw embedded in his collar.  As if his body knew that lunch was supposed to come with a beverage, one of the water balloons in his stomach burst and cooled his insides. 

Every few minutes now he glanced over his shoulder.  The other jogger would catch up any time now.  Berrad weaved in and out of trees unnecessarily to further slow himself.  He placed another flag and spun around to watch it light up and disappear in the distance.  Shortly after, he deployed the miniscule retractable rear view mirror on his helmet so he could just run backwards instead of continuously glancing over his shoulder. 

A crimson dot appeared in the distance, as if he was going to cross paths with little red riding hood in the middle of this enchanting forest.  The dot grew closer, becoming too streamlined and aggressive to resemble anything from fairy tales.  It leapt over high bushes like hurdles, never grazing a single leaf.

Berrad spun back to forward and waited for the runner to pull up alongside.  The new explorer’s suit was less streamlined than his, with decorative shoulder pads and a red flag trailing behind his shoulders like an advertisement tail on an old biplane.  No doubt that suit was just a show to convince citizens that their explorer was an intimidating warrior who could not fail in their conquest.  The man’s face was full of stubble from days with no hygiene.  Of all the things they built into these suits, at least they were smart enough to draw the line at a razorblade.

He was significantly smaller than Berrad and his legs pumped in quicker less fluid strides.  His speed pods were smaller than Berrad’s but there were more of them.  Each one was loaded into a slot on a large gray dial on his back, looking like a stabbing victim had inserted blood-covered fingers into the slots on their old rotary phone when desperately calling for help.  Three of his eight pods were already spent, which comforted Berrad a little.  He’s already half out of juice, he thought.

“Hello,” the bearded jogger said between breaths.  His English was good, only a hint of an accent made even less obvious thanks to the huff and puff behind every word.

“Come here often?”  Berrad called back with a smile.  The other jogger did not reciprocate.  “So what’s… the deal?  Not happy enough with the north?”

“I’ve been told… it’s time to prove our super… iority,” the E.R.I. runner said.

“I’m Berrad Ugitaf.  What’s your name?” Berrad asked.  The red runner looked taken aback.

“As if you care,” he spat back with a voice like burnt coffee.

“Sure I care.  Why… wouldn’t I?”

“I was running on Woe-beth… one of your joggers… yanked my flag,” the red runner said and pointed backward to the flying piece of fabric.  “I spent eight weeks in… hospital with six broken bones.  He was rewarded with… whole island.”

“That’s not my… style,” Berrad said.  The two of them took a short break to navigate a pile of rocks.  Eager to show off, the red runner jumped clear over Berrad’s head and then immediately pulled back so their pumping legs were only a foot apart.

“Let me show you… my style,” the red runner said.  He clapped his hands together and the sound resonated like thunder.  The lines on his suit lit up with bright red dots.  The head and neck of a small mechanical dragon emerged from his backpack and devoured one of the speed pods. 

He certainly does have style, Berrad thought.  The red runner’s speed immediately picked up.  Sparks flew from the rocks every time his feet hit the ground.  The man took only a second to look over his shoulder and shout.

“The name’s Myro Dust!”

“Keep it up Myro.  If you burn your pods like that… you’ll never beat me,” Berrad whispered to himself as he watched the red runner pull further and further ahead.  I don’t need a mechanical dragon, he thought.  My dragon’s right here.  Berrad slapped his chest.

Once again, the key would be rhythm.  Happy to have such a concrete goal, Berrad threw himself back into it.  His breathing amped up a notch.  His strides became a few inches longer.  The motion of his legs became flawless and uniform, as if there was an invisible pair of bike pedals guiding them.  The stones and trees gave way to a series of grassy hills, but the quick changes in elevation did nothing to slow him down.  The real test was to catch up to Myro without burning a pod.

“Don’t worry, I can do it,” Berrad yelled at a group of crows that flew out of his way cawing vigorously.

Chapter Three

It took about thirty-five minutes but Berrad caught up with the red runner.  As he pulled up alongside the explorer off the edge of a river, he could see the ‘lag’ on the man’s face that comes with a speed pod wearing off.  His cheeks looked drawn and his eyes sunken.  His perspiration was thick and grayish thanks to the same sunblock additive his country also required him to use.  He panted like a dog.  Small plastic fronds emerged from his collar and wiped away the sweat around his eyes.  It looked like he had either taken a bit of a spill or pushed through a solid wall of vegetation, because small leaves were caught in most of his suit’s ridges and seams.  Meanwhile, Berrad looked like a glistening and energetic kid, hyper from the first slushy colorful ice pop of the summer.

“Does everyone in Indochina waste… their resources like that?” Berrad asked, again smiling.  This time Myro did grin back.

“The trick is to make your resources… renewable,” he said.  Myro again clapped his hands together like thunder, three times instead of one.  Berrad waited for the dragon to appear and wondered how Myro could be so stupid.  Burning another pod when they were nowhere near the coast was like emptying your canteen into the desert’s blistering sand.  Pretty soon he’d be capable of nothing but strolling through uncharted wilderness.  Not something to be recommended when the young habitats are still full of wolves, cougars, and bears that have no fear of human beings.  Berrad had heard plenty of horror stories about the aggression of seeded predators with quick metabolisms.  There was one rumor of a runner stopping to drink at an untouched mountain stream when an eight foot alligator gar lashed out and dragged him by the face to a watery grave.

“I think your dragon’s broken!” Berrad said.  “He’s not moving.”

“Our enlightened republic has many friends in nature,” Myro boasted, “like the crane.”  The red runner pointed up into the sky and Berrad angled his head to see.  At first there was nothing, but then a whitish shape rocketed over his head and flew behind Dust.  Berrad rubbed his eyes in disbelief.  It was some kind of unmanned drone styled after a crane.  Its wings were long, white, and reflective.  Its thin legs were hooked together and safely pushed backward to streamline its shape.  The long neck snaked back and forth, examining Myro’s few remaining speed pods.  The robotic bird sang a quick song full of tweets and coos.

Completely distracted, Berrad tripped on a gopher hole and had to perform a few well-timed front flips to land back on his feet.  Myro and his crane had pulled ahead, so he took a deep breath like a huge swig of cold water and pushed himself forward.  His rhythm destroyed, curiosity now fueled Berrad’s legs.

The crane’s beak opened wide.  Then wider.  Then so wide that its head looked more like a pickaxe than a bird.  A fresh crimson speed pod emerged from its throat.  The crane placed it delicately in one of Myro’s empty slots and then filled the rest of his pack.

“That’s… that’s cheating!” Berrad said, stunned.

“Read your rulebook American!  No supplies can be… dropped.  Nothing on my feathered friend… has ever touched the soil of Iguan!  So long!”  Myro clapped his hands once more and the dragon reappeared.  It gobbled up a speed pod and sent it down into the red runner’s veins.  The crane retreated into the sky, singing victoriously.  Myro’s speed exploded, and within two minutes he was out of sight.

“That’s cheating!” Berrad yelled after the man who could not hear him and wouldn’t listen even if he could.  ‘That’s cheating!” he complained to an opossum that he rushed by.  The startled creature feigned death in response.  “I know!  I was shocked too,” he yelled back at it.  For once, Berrad actually initiated radio contact with the N.A.C. bubble.

“I’ll tell you what it is,” the representative shouted through Berrad’s earpiece.  “It’s a loophole the size of this continent… and it looks like there’s nothing we can do about it.  As long as no other human within the atmosphere helps him and any drones never touch the ground, he’s free and clear.  It leaves you in Dust’s dust.”

‘The Hell it does,” Berrad said.

“What are you going to do about it smart guy?  Thanks to your shenanigans you’ve only got three pods to his however-many-birds full.  For all you know he’s got a flock of those things.”

“It doesn’t matter… get on the satellite feeds.  Find me something dangerous between here… and the coast.”

“What do you mean dangerous?”

“Find me a damn natural disaster rep!”  Berrad shouted, using up breath that should have been pumping into his legs.  The shout echoed in the hills he still dashed through.  “Anything,” he continued, “that’ll take some skill to run through.  You’ve got weather… data.  Seismic data.  There are more research drones crawling around here… than there are freakin’ squirrels!  Give me something I can drive him into… then it’ll be a… test of skill rather than pods.”

“What, you want to kill this guy?”

“No.  If he’s a real… explorer, he won’t quit or go around.  He’ll take… the challenge.”

“Okay so you’re telling me you want to get yourself killed and he might just have to go along for the ride?”

“I wouldn’t expect someone living… in a bubble and eating freezer food to understand.”

“You’re drinking lunch out of a plastic bag!” the rep countered.

“Now might be a good time to tell you I cheat on… the rations.”  To prove his point Berrad jumped, snagged a peach which had been genetically altered to be ripe all year and was free of pests yet to be introduced to this paradise, took a huge sloppy bite, and landed.  He smacked his lips together so the rep could hear.

“The sugar’s going to kill your endurance,” the rep grumbled.  “Fine.  If you want to risk it, it’s your hide.  I tried to tell them we should put blinders on you guys but nobody listens.  There’s some geothermal data and some satellite footage.  It looks like we’ve got a patch of geysers about 430 miles from you.  There’ll be dangerous gasses, loose ground, and fountains of boiling water.  Good enough for you?”

“That’s perfect,” Berrad said and ripped into the rest of his peach.


Submitted: January 25, 2015

© Copyright 2022 Blaine Arcade. All rights reserved.

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