by Zac Miller
Nelson no longer felt the sweat pouring down his body, the weight in
his legs or the painful thumping in his chest. The world shrank to the
red sand in front of him, reality reduced to the essence of speed. He
knew the other racers ran close behind, but what drove him was the
promise of escape, of victory. The white finishing line in sight, he
drove his legs harder, nearly flying over the sand.
Bursting through the exhaustion hit him full force and he stopped
pumping, letting his momentum fade in a cloud of red dust. Numbers
popped into his vision, glowing to tell him he'd broken his last
record. Coming to a stop, Nelson went limp, holding his knees as he
regained his breath. The footsteps of other sprinters vanished as the
program ended, leaving him alone in the racetrack, its red sand bright
under the California sun.
Limping over to the grass at the center, he sat down and picked up the bottle of water he'd left there, taking deep gulps. Nothing tastes as good as water after a sprint,
he reflected. He imagined the track on the day of the race, competitors
lined up, their perfect hearts pumping blood through perfect bodies,
perfect feet skimming the sand.
It won't be easy, he thought. For all the distances and
weight classes in athletics, competition had never really been about
fairness. Sure, they could ameliorate the worst imbalances, but in the
end it was about one person being better than everyone else. Nelson
trained his entire life, always driving himself faster, for no reason
other than to know he could, but no matter how fast he ran, he'd always
be catching up.
He got up from the grass with aching slowness, feeling the tension
ease out of his muscles, the sweat still plastering his shirt. Walking
a straight line to the parking lot the driver's side door of a green
Toyota sedan slid open for him. Fed by the sensors, air conditioning
sprang to life, crisp wind pouring from the vents and Nelson sighed in
gratitude as the engine pinged into electric wakefulness. The car soon
cruised down the quiet streets, past sun-browned hills and dry
Nelson turned on the news feed when he got back to his Tustin
apartment, images of talking politicians opening up in his eyes. Making
himself a chicken sandwich in his small kitchen he sat on the couch,
thinking again about the upcoming race.
"Nelson, the only way you can be the best sprinter in the world is
if you do it yourself, with the body Mother Nature gave you. Not
cheating by getting a better heart or lungs in-utero."
His father's words, easily said by a man already established, who
never had to compete against flawless genes. Nelson's parents had done
the legal minimum, engineering out the predispositions to alcoholism
and cancer, diabetes and asthma, but no more than that. Sure, he could
practice more, but the competition practiced too, and they didn't have
to close so much distance. Even the competition's enhancements stayed
slight (still described in official materials as correcting errors
rather than full-on improvements, even though Nelson didn't believe
it), but the point remained that they had more than him.
Forget this, he chided himself. No point in getting negative,
in letting his previous defeats get the better of him. He'd beat the
bastards. He just wished he could believe it.
* * *
"Finally got some training today, real eye-opener."
George's face, chiseled to perfection by photoshop, brightened in the frame of Nelson's vision.
"Do tell," said Nelson, sprawled on his couch, the air in the apartment warm with the hint of summer.
"We picked some people up when their readings started to go awry. I
didn't do a whole lot myself, just helped out and made sure everyone
had what they needed. They said I did good."
"Great to hear! You've been working to that for a long time. So what's it like in an ambulance?"
"As an EMT? Pretty tense, but you sort of compartmentalize all your
worry. Machines do a lot of it now but they still want the human touch.
Jeff--he's the senior EMT--had to help this old lady going into
anaphylactic shock. Gave her epinephrine."
"No way! Come on, I know you live in high-tech California, but it's not like Oklahoma's in the Dark Ages."
"I'll take your word for it, peasant. Seriously though, how did you apply it?"
"Well, everyone's wired these days, and the programmers put in a lot
of backdoor routes, like they always do. We have programs that let us
tell the adrenal gland to kick into overdrive. Much less invasive this
"Cool, never knew that. You need a special tool?"
"Just a program. She was like, 73 years old, so never got the
genetic fixes," he sighed. "By the way, did you start on the term
"A little. Right now I'm worrying about the race; probably not where my priorities should be, but whatever."
"When is the race?"
"Two weeks from today."
"You'll be fine."
"I don't know, man. All my life I've been competing against people
made perfect before they were born. I mean, I know I'm technically in
the same class as them, but I have to wonder."
"Your record says you're in perfect health. Gene fixes don't make
that much of a difference, really. All the health experts say you'll be
in the same league, pretty much. It's not like runners are ever really
"It's still less practice than they have to do. Whatever, I'll do fine. I'd better get some sleep, I'll see you in class."
The screen winked shut, leaving Nelson in alone in his apartment's
cluttered darkness. George was right, but the thought still rankled
him. The difference between him and the competition was miniscule, yet
during a race, as legs chugged and chests heaved, those little
Driven by some obscure impulse, he opened up his medical interface
charts, the friendly blue and white charts and icons spreading across
his vision. Heartbeat optimal, ideal cholesterol levels, not an ounce
of excess fat. All of it the result of his constant training, his
spending every spare moment trying to improve. The sort of work that
the other racers didn't have to worry about--though most of them did
just the same.
He opened up the tab for his endocrine system, feeling perversely
disappointed at its good health. Nelson clicked the little gear at the
screen's upper right corner.
"Alert! Systems Preferences cannot be modified without the consent
of a registered healthcare provider. Would you like to ask your
healthcare provider about modification?"
The notice blinked on the screen for a few moments, Nelson's finger
dithering between "Yes" and "No". Finally he settled on the
affirmative, only to have a new screen pop up in front of him.
"Your medical records show that your endocrine system is functioning
optimally. If you feel this is in error, please contact your healthcare
provider. If this is a medical emergency, an ambulance can be called to
"It's my damn body!" he grumbled as he dismissed the notice.
Frustration welling up inside, he suddenly wanted to go for a sprint,
but knew it was too late. Instead he stretched out on the couch, eyes
up at the darkened ceiling as he waited for sleep to overtake him.
* * *
Nelson didn't pay much attention in class the next day. He, George,
and twenty other students all telecommuted to the lecture from across
the United States and beyond. The professor explained the basics of
program construction. The frustrating part of majoring in program
design was getting through the basic stuff that everyone in his
generation already knew.
His mind drifted again to that tempting little gear in the upper
right hand corner, a tantalizing gate to the endocrine system. His
endocrine system. Sure, he knew why he wasn't allowed in it without
permission. Total access to that or any other bodily system would be an
unmitigated disaster. Nelson imagined folks speeding up their
metabolisms to gorge, or increasing circulation for kicks.
But how was it fair when he had to compete against people made
perfect from birth? Sure, he was close to their level, but he knew all
about the flaws that would always dog his performance. His dad told him
to practice to make up for it, and he did, but so did they. In the end,
Nelson would still be lagging.
He ran at the track later that day, his frustration growing at each
step until he felt as if it'd boil out of his pores. Stopping
mid-sprint he leaned forward on his knees, aware of the hot breath
rasping his throat. Regaining his composure Nelson stumped back to his
car, suddenly disgusted. Sitting down in the driver's seat he waited
before turning on the engine. He remembered what he'd learned as a kid,
going into the code to burnish his online profile, tweaking those of
his friends' as pranks. Entering important systems tended to be
relatively simple, for quick access in case of an emergency. And what
system was more important than that of the body?
* * *
Alone on the track, Nelson glanced at his rivals, images of people
around the state stretching and breathing besides him. He thought about
receiving images of the audience--the program could place them in
illusory bleachers around the track--but decided against it. Nelson
stood in the middle of seven lanes, a genetically tweaked Texan ahead
of him and to the right.
With exaggerated caution he opened up the screen in his eyes, his
jury-rigged program set to go. Nelson paused, feeling a tightness
between his shoulder blades. Taking a deep breath, a drop of sweat ran
down his face. Plenty of people go online before a race, doing last minute check-ups; nothing weird about me doing it.
He activated the program he'd cooked up and his endocrine system
peeled open, hormone bars and charts glowing in place. Raising his
hands, Nelson's right index finger hovered over the epinephrine bar.
Normal levels, bound to build up when he picked up speed, but not
Does anyone watch for this sort of thing? Nelson closed his eyes again. It's my damn body, I'll do what I want. Don't raise it too much, just enough to put you on the same level.
He tapped the dial, raising it by an increment. Eyes shot open,
heart pounding, a hammer of force hitting him so hard he almost started
on the track right then, screams in his mind urging him forward away
from the ancestral memory of predators. Quaking he tried to stay still,
teeth clenched, power erupting all along his muscles and nerves. He
dismissed the screen, holding himself back, trembling for the signal.
When it rang he burst out from the track, a cannonball in flesh. Men
galloped to the side, blurs in Nelson's vision as he sprinted, trained
legs pumping and dust flying, the air a solid wall that he broke past.
Still the competition ran, muscles and lungs operating without flaw.
Artificial bodies like machines, just as hard to beat.
Nelson ran fast, still seeing three ahead of him. Closing the gap to
the end goal he threw the last of himself into the race, embracing the
full strength of the inner force burning him forward. The world slowed
as he picked up even more speed, dust exploding in slow motion beneath
heavy footfalls that landed like meteors, feeling the glacier creep of
cold sweat down his forehead. Three went down to two, Nelson catching
up, straining his utmost, too driven to wish he'd used more.
Hands turned to fists he kept tearing through, ambition and panic
all curdled inside him, amygdala kicked into overdrive. His mouth
gulped hot air, searing the desert of his throat, and he wished he
could laugh. The goal got bigger in his sights, the number two racer
falling back, one more ahead of him.
No, no, no, rip you apart!
Putting all his strength into the last few meters the first-place sprinter centimeters ahead, Nelson shattered all barriers.
He became fire, almost felt the sound of air bursting around him as
he threw every last ounce of himself into the race, the one body just a
bit ahead of him. All the training, all the years of sprinting with his
broken-down, secondhand, obsolete body, served him well.
He became a creature of reaction, a primeval hunter on endless
plains, a million details rushing into his mind all at once, perfectly
sorted without conscious effort.
Longer strides, more strength in each step, the sprinter slid
behind, a century passing for every sliver of space he fell, the goal
just inches away.
One more lunge, one more!
His heart churned, fuel exploding, glands pumping. The last sprinter
disappeared but Nelson no longer noticed, seeing only the goal blinking
in the track.
And then he crashed through, lights in his visions blinking, "First
Place!" popping up in front of his eyes. Screaming he ran through, not
able to stop, running for its own sake, raising his arms in victory.
The feedback of cheers from watchers around the world played in his
ears and he joined with them.
Summoning up the program even as he ran he cut the epinephrine, his
heart slowing, muscles cooling into soreness. Nelson slowed and then
doubled over, taking in deep breaths as he leaned on his knees.
I did it!
"Thanks," Nelson wheezed, receptors in his mouth carrying his simple
reply around the world. He'd sailed some ways past the end goal.
Looking back, he saw the water bottle he'd placed there before the
race. Walking over, every step a euphoric pain, he picked it up and
took a swig, the fluid cooling the flames inside.
"We're pleased to announce UC Irvine's Nelson McNulty as the winner
of the '47 Southern California Intercollegiate 400 Meter Sprint.
Nelson, any words?" asked the announcer.
"Great sprint guys, hell of a race."
All your genetic fixes are no match for the good old human body, matched with good old-fashioned human ingenuity. My ingenuity, he told himself.
Taking another drink, he began the long walk back to his car as the announcer talked and the crowds cheered.
© 2013 Zac Miller
Bio: Zac Miller is a lifelong science fiction fan. His last Aphelion appearance was "Age of Reception" in July 2012.
E-mail: Zac Miller
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