Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Sprint Hack

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 parklands.

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."

"Epinephrine?"

"Adrenaline, basically."

"Via injection?"

"No way! Come on, I know you live in high-tech California, but it's not like Oklahoma's in the Dark Ages."

Nelson laughed.

"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 way."

"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 paper?"

"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 equal."

"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."

"So long."

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 increments mattered.

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 your location."

"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 enough.

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!

"Awesome!"

"Great job!"

"Yeah!"

"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.

THE END


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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