“I promise you I’ll give you everything you’ve ever wanted. We’ll live in a beautiful home just like this one with and we’ll never have to scrounge for anything. We’ll never wonder where the next meal is coming from. No one will push us around anymore… Whatever you’ve dreamed, you’ll have it.”
“Taki, please stop, you’re making this harder than it needs to be.” Rhuni shook her head sadly, clearly uncomfortable with the young man’s shameless blubbering. “Just accept that this is for the best. For both of us.”
“What about all the dreams we made?” Taki persisted, hot tears shining in his eyes. “All the promises we made to each other?”
“They were dreams and promises,” Rhuni shrugged. She looked towards Taki, but he noticed that she seemed to be looking through him, rather than at him. “Dreams are nice for awhile, but eventually you have to wake up to reality.”
“Are empty words.”
Taki was visibly wounded by that. “You–you never meant any of it?”
“It was nice to play pretend, Taki, but now I’ve grown up. I suggest you do the same. If you can’t do that, then at least get off of the lawn before Molo finds you here and has you beaten.”
Still refusing to look at him properly she turned her back and walked away as coldly as she could manage. Walked away through the balcony doors and into the rich interior of Warden Molo’s harem.
It wasn’t actually a harem, that was just the name Taki and Rhuni had come up with for it. It was the wealthy man’s estate, and it was said that no one entered it except by selling their soul to the cold man. No one was admitted but by crawling to his boots and trading their dignity for the comforts that lay within.
Calling it a harem had almost been a joke, but it was disturbingly more literal now that Rhuni had accepted a marriage proposal from Molo. She would become his wife that very night. To her credit, she didn’t try to pretend that it was for love, clearly she was just too tired of trying to scratch out a miserable existence in the underbelly of Romudar City. Evidently the contentment of being Taki’s girl had not been equal to the promise of air-feathered pillow chambers and self-mobilized living pods.
It was a full five minutes before Taki realized he was still standing dumbfounded on the same spot where she had left him, his mouth hanging agape. He turned around and walked away, but his heart was still rooted to the spot. He could almost hear it tearing from his body as he left, leaving the organ to thump uselessly on that perfectly manicured lawn.
One moment and everything he had believed about life was gone. He had known Rhuni since before he could remember and they had grown up on the streets together. They had spent their days pulling off schemes, and their nights dreaming of days when the schemes would no longer be necessary. Always those dreams had been of the two of them together, just the two of them above all else.
Now that Rhuni had changed her mind, Taki did not know what was left for his life. She had been a very real part of him, and who he was now without that part he did not know.
Though he barely ever had enough money to ever get by, somehow he had still managed to scrimp and save, parceling away a few digital tokens here and there. Over the years he managed to amass the beginnings of a small fortune. His idea had always been to buy a ticket offworld for him and Rhuni, go somewhere else where they could start a new life together. He hadn’t known where exactly. Anywhere other than here.
He pulled his digicard out of his pocket, flicking through the displays until he reached the currency storage. 1100 tokens. Useless to him now. Still worth the same sum as ever, but with no purpose for its existing. Just like him.
Taki had not been paying attention as he was walking, and his legs had been moving him somewhere of their own design. As he started paying attention to his surroundings again he realized he was in a region of the city that he hadn’t frequented in years.
“…with a prize purse of…what’s that ticker at?… 847 tokens!”
Taki turned and saw the sportscaster calling out the summons for a Power Suit Race. Suit racing was a favorite past-time of the rich and poor alike, a venue that promised a man that he could become whatever he wanted, regardless of money or status…given he could survive the very high mortality rate inherent in the sport. Taki had tried chasing those dreams once before, stopping only when Rhuni had pleaded with him to not be so careless with his life.
“You’ve still got ten minutes before the registration closes,” a female voice was hawking to the crowds from Taki’s side. He turned to see a young, pretty woman wearing the brown jumpsuit of a mechanic’s assistant. “Our suits are guaranteed to survive a force of up to 14 torques!” she continued. She saw Taki’s eyes on her and flashed him a wink and a smile.
Taki took a deep breath and suppressed the urge to think this through. He had spent a whole life carefully planning and preparing, and all for naught. Now the idea of plummeting recklessly thousands of feet into a world of speed and danger sounded like just the ticket.
“Give me one,” he heard himself say as he simultaneously slapped his digicard on the young woman’s countertop. She glanced down at the counter’s overlay to read the amount.
“1100?… That’s not even a fourth of the cost. You know how this works then?”
He nodded, already well familiar with the standard suit-loaner terms. “The suit still belongs to you. Any winnings I make go first to covering repairs, the rest gets split between paying off the rest of the suit and me keeping the rest. Twenty-five percent to me, as I recall.”
“Twenty. We’ve had to raise rates after a bad rash of first time jumpers pasting themselves across the tarmac.” She rolled her eyes in disgust, evidently less concerned with the lives of those jumpers than with the loss of their suits. Then she furrowed her brow and squinted at him. “You’re not a first-timer, are you?”
He shook his head. “I’ve raced. Under the name Dakker, you can look up the record.”
She nodded, handing him his digicard back. “Talk to the man in the back,” she jerked a thumb behind her towards a greasy mechanic pod. “You’ll need to suit up in a hurry if you’re going to make this next race.”
Taki rounded the counter and ducked through the low door into the small building. It was covered in all manner of scrap parts and cannibalized equipment. A short, stocky man was working at a table with his back to Taki, vigorously forcing one piece through the length of another.
“I’m here for a suit,” Taki declared.
“Excellent,” the worker grunted, extending a grimy hand backwards for Taki’s digicard. Taki handed it to him and the mechanic placed it into a terminal that hanging from his neck by a length of steel cord. “I’m just finishing with the suit now.”
He took the two pieces he had been shoving together and pressed them into a vise, switching it on to apply enough pressure for a cold weld. Now that Taki could see it he recognized it as a neck-piece that had been cobbled from two completely different suits into one.
“Just finishing with it?!” Taki exclaimed. “This doesn’t exactly look safety and regulation certified, you know!”
“Ehhh–nope,” the man said slowly, turning to fix Taki with a sheepish shrug. He stroked the stubble on his fat chin thoughtfully then shrugged again. “I’ll take 780 off the final price for that lack of reassurance. Alright?”
Taki shot a look over his shoulder. The pretty assistant was grinning back at him, followed by another reassuring wink. Taki wrinkled his nose, but turned back and nodded.
“If you can actually have it ready in time, then I’ll take it.”
The mechanic was twisting a headpiece onto the neck of the suit and smiled to see that it actually fit. “It’s all ready now. Come on over.” He held up the suit, revealing a mishmash of steel and titanium. Almost every piece bore an entirely different design and color, remnants of the suits that they had originated from. One arm was sleek and the other was scuffed. One pectoral was angular, the other was lumpy, as though someone had tried to straighten it out with a hammer. The clear face-shield was already cracked.
Taki took a slow, bracing breath, then stepped up to the suit, turned his back to it, and spread his arms out in a T. The short mechanic flipped a switch on the suit and the front panels swung outwards, allowing Taki to step back into its confines. The panels slid back closed, some with a little encouragement from the man.
“Hey, what’s your name?” Taki said to the mechanic.
“It’s always nice to know who built your coffin.”
Boro looked genuinely hurt.
“You think it’s easy working with parts like I have?” He shook his head and tutted. “One of those pretty salesboys pushing the latest models wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to do if a single screw came loose while suiting up. But me, I know what I make. So long as you don’t run like an idiot this suit will do you up fine.”
“Now don’t feel bad, Bor,” the assistant said from the doorway. “The boy already made up his mind to run for us, didn’t he? He just wants to make a big show of it.”
More than the accusation Taki felt stung by the “boy” label, but a good retort didn’t immediately present itself to him so he let the comment slide.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have a race to attend,” he said to the two partners. As he stepped forward the suit’s servos gave an ominous whine, then began moving more freely as he strode onto the road. The crowds were already lining up against a nearby railing on either side of the deep plunge down into the raceway. Taki scanned the mass of people for the registrar, and found the man making his way back to the administration booth already.
“One more!” Taki called out, sprinting over to the official and waving his arms.
The registrar shook his head in frustration, but stopped to wave his wand over the series of scratches on the suit’s left shoulder that defined its serial number. They were obviously fabrications that Boro had etched himself, but the registrar didn’t seem too concerned about that. This was a slum race: Alley Tier. No one was going to be running a legitimate suit.
Taki thanked the man and ducked over to the other challengers who were already in their positions at the very lip of that steep drop. The announcer shot him a dirty look for arriving late, but also care enough to bar him from competing. Instead the man proceeded in extolling the finer points of this track to the crowd.
“…a total elevation change of negative four thousand feet from drop to finish, with a final climb of seventy-five. Twenty-three vertical platforms arranged for particularly tricky lateral runs, eleven gravity wells, and thrusters hidden around every bend! All to provide you the finest in entertainment pleasure, financed graciously by the following sponsors…”
Taki leaned forward to take the track in for himself. He knew that in the higher leagues these things were usually designed with care and around particular themes. But here, as with all alleyway runs, the course was just a random array of different platforms and walls scattered haphazardly all around. One of the key characteristics of Power Suit Racing was that the layout was never the same from one race to the next. Racers were expected to be able to adapt and find their own way. And so these moments at the edge of the jump were essential for mapping out your route to the finish. But those plans were always quickly discarded anyway. No matter how well you planned, something would always go wrong, and from there you just had to think on your feet.
I wish Rhuni was here.
It was a strange thought, one that caught Taki off guard. It didn’t really make sense either, she had always hated these races with a passion.
That’s the point.
Taki cursed himself for getting distracted and flung himself over the edge a moment later than his competitors. He felt that old, familiar rush as he entered freefall. He felt the jolts of excitement as the air buffeted his plunging form, nothing between him and pure speed.
How he had missed this.
Taki felt a slight sense of reassurance as his suit hummed to life, filling its reserves with all of the kinetic energy he was generating. The unique function of Power Suits was their inertia-displacement-network, an interior mesh that could take his momentum and either absorb it or redirect it in another direction. The result was that Taki’s own body felt only a small fraction of the actual inertia, allowing him to survive impossibly high drops and make hair-pin turns at tremendous speeds.
All that was assuming that this crazy mishmash suit even worked, of course, and Taki was about to test that point. The ground was looming up to him at an incredible rate, and he spun his head to choose a target to bounce to. There was a vertical wall hanging from steel cables nearby, one that was low enough to reach with a small thrust.
Taki rolled in the air, changing from his freefall pose to a crouch, readying himself for impact. His feet hit the ground with a tremendous crack as he kicked off from it, angling in the direction of that vertical wall. The pavement beneath him buckled under the force of his departure and he spun up into the air, flung out with all the converted momentum of his freefall. Although to him it didn’t feel so much like a powerful fling, safe inside his suit it merely felt like a slight tug in that general direction.
Taki turned his head on a swivel, looking out for the other racers. Four others had chosen to peel off in a different direction, and the other three were following him to this vertical wall. That could get a little tight, but that’s what you got when you went for the most obvious route. In the end it didn’t matter which path you took to reach the destination, only that you got there first.
Taki rolled in the air, turning so that his feet would be planted against the wall. He extended his arms to signal the suit to divide his momentums. As his feet touched the walls’ surface he began running with most of his inertia propelling him forward, bounding down the length of wall at high speed. A small reserve of his momentum was consumed pushing him towards the wall, though, enabling him to defy gravity as he ran sideways along its surface.
It was a good start to the race, but Taki started looking for his next push. No matter how much energy you gained from that initial drop, it was never enough to carry you all the way to the finish. During the race one had to always be on the lookout for fresh sources of inertia.
Taki spotted another wall, this one horizontal, and it was painted in the bright yellow color that designated it as a “boost.” It was across and slightly up from him, far enough that it would strain all his remaining momentum to reach it. If he missed, he would clatter back down to the ground, bereft of any inertia, and would be unable to finish the race.
Timing was everything. Taki positioned himself, then pushed down hard with his last step and shifted his suit’s momentum towards the boost. His suit flung him in the desired direction, but it gave an ominous whine at the upwards strain. The noise distracted him so that he didn’t notice the green-suited competitor nearing him from behind.
A sickening thud sounded as the other racer collided into him with brutal force. Such moves were legal in the game, though they were still dangerous. Each suit could only tolerate so much of an impact before they would break apart and the racer would be exposed to all of the tremendous forces slamming into their body.
This other racer wasn’t specifically trying to break Taki’s suit, though, more so just shove him out of the way so that he would miss the boost. Instinctively Taki threw his hand out and gripped the ankle of his opponent, letting that racer’s suit continue to pull him in the correct direction. The two of them tumbled sideways onto the boost, and it propelled them forward with a blast, spinning them wildly through the open air.
Taki released his competitor and spun away, trying to get his bearings well enough to plan his landing. There was a tower just ahead of him, a hollow shaft that rose high into the air. He pointed his feet towards it, and on impact he kicked outwards and upwards, propelling himself higher up the inside of that shaft. He came near to another wall and kicked outwards and upwards from that one as well, returning to the first wall at a still higher point. He repeated this over and over, zig-zagging his way up the structure, hoping his momentum would last all the way to the top.
Once he cleared that top he would have a broad view, a big drop, and a lot of fresh inertia to work with. Hopefully that would be enough to make up for the considerable amount of time he was expending in here.
Taki closed the distance to the top of the shaft. His suit was straining to meet his repeated calls for more energy, but with a little extra tug from his arms he managed to clear the lip at the top.
For a brief moment Taki was suspended in midair, high enough that he could scan the entire rest of the raceway. He only had a split-second, but for him that would be enough.
First he picked out the finish line: a raised platform some hundred meters still distant.
Then he counted off every racer he could see still moving through the pitch. Two…three…four. The others must have crashed or run out of inertia. One of those four was hanging low and slow, likely not in the running for much longer. The other was up high on another tower, and the last, one in purple, was probably on track to reach the finish soonest. It was always hard to tell for sure in such a non-linear race.
Taki processed all of this, and then felt the rush as he began to plummet down towards the earth. His last act was to pick out his next series of moves. He would have to move quickly to catch the leader, that meant being bold and trusting that the rickety, old suit would be able to keep up.
As the air shrieked past his form he angled a tiny portion of his inertia to propel him slightly forwards. Thus he fell at a slant, gaining speed from the drop but also steering to be on approach to a distant boost laid out on the ground.
The bare ground rushed up to meet him, and with only three feet before impact Taki flung his inertia forward, reserving a tiny portion to push him upwards from the surface. The result was that he zipped forward like an arrow, barely skimming above the ground and avoiding all of its slowing friction.
He rocketed forward and hit the boost with some inertia still to spare. He pocketed that and watched the meter rise on his HUD as he flung forward with still greater speed. An upwards-sloping wall rushed outwards to fill his vision and he was running up its vertical stretch without a second thought. He summited that, then found himself looking down to the finishing platform just ahead. It was a single drop away.
His moment of elation wavered as he saw the purple streak of that other racer making for the prize. That racer was coming at it from a more grounded approach, sliding down a narrow beam that ended with a small jump to the platform. The racer was going to make it to the end before Taki.
“14 torques, right?” he thought back to that pretty assistant’s claims.He twisted for his approach and punched his inertia forward. He lurched both forwards and downwards, maintaining a straight shot for the victory. As he fell through the air his suit filled up with kinetic energy, which he immediately called upon to propel him still faster. And with that faster falling came still more energy, and still he strained it for greater speed.
His eyes flicked to the display on his HUD that estimated upcoming impact forces. 11 torques. 12. 13.
He streaked past a purple blur. At least he wasn’t going to lose, then, it was just a matter of being able to live to tell anyone about it now.
He gave one last push to correct his angle of approach and then prayed that there would be something left in the reserves to dispel some of the blow he was about to take.
The black-and-white checkered paint flew beneath him. Taki spun in the air to set himself up for a roll.
The hard, gray pavement grew near enough to make out its every dent and crack.
Taki touched the ground. A small plume of smoke erupted around him as the meager reserve of energy remaining in his suit dispelled as much of the forces as possible. Then, with nothing left to power the inertia-displacement-network, Taki truly felt the ground.
It was like a sledgehammer being swung into his knees, sending shockwaves up and down his legs and dissolving all his bones. He couldn’t have remained standing if he wanted. He fell to his side and flung sideways across the ground in a cyclone whirl. He hit the ground the crunch, metal pieces breaking off his suit and zipping through the air like shrapnel. The ground battered his ribs and punched the air out of his lungs. Then he ricocheted up into the air, only to slam back down again, this time taking the sledgehammer on his back.
The entire world was a rotating blur, and Taki didn’t even see what it was that slammed into his legs and threw him into a spin. Now he both rotated and spun, but he also noticed that he was starting to slow down. He punched down with his entire forearm, grinding the limb into the ground. The acrid smell of burning metal filled his nostrils and his arm felt like it was being sanded to the bone, but he held it down firmly and at last felt himself slowing to a stop.
The patch of world he could see outside the helmet became stationary, but his insides were still churning like a storm within. Every square inch of him was aching, but at least that meant he was still alive! He started to laugh, but stopped when that brought sharp pains from his bruised ribs.
He was facing up towards the sun and he just lay there, not wanting to move again for as long as he lived. Suddenly a face slid into view, looking down at him from above. It was that girl, the one that worked for Boro.
“That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said flatly.
“Yeah,” he winced. “Were you impressed?”
She scoffed and walked away.
“Hey, what’s your name?” he called after her, tenderly pushing himself up on his elbow. He winced, but slowly made his way back to his feet.
The girl was still walking away, pressing against the tide of other spectators that were rushing forward to greet the racers. They had all just arrived on the floating platform that hovered over the raceway and gave them a view of the action down below. The master of ceremonies swaggered forward and clapped Taki heavily on the back, a gesture Taki’s sore body did not appreciate.
“What a strategy!” the man bellowed. “I admit you had me scared there, but it seems you pulled through alright–”
“Yeah, yeah,” Taki said distractedly. He held out his digicard impatiently. “My winnings?” The man tutted at Taki’s bad manners, but swiped the card through a panel mounted to his arm and handed it back.
Taki elbowed his way through the small crowd and found Boro’s assistant moving away from the throng. She still had her back to him, but she was walking slowly. As if she wanted him to come talk to her more.
“Hey, hold up,” he called, hobbling his way over to her side. She didn’t try to get away from him, but she didn’t look at him either. “So wait, you’re mad at me?” He asked. “I won, didn’t I? And that’s good for you, isn’t it?”
“What do I care if Boro gets richer?” she said shortly.
“Well…what do you care about then?”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“What? Were you worried about me?” His voice was hopeful.
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Well I don’t see why else you’d be upset.”
“Maybe I just don’t like to see a waste of good machinery.”
“Oh come on, it was my first race in years. I’m still getting back the feel of things.”
“And just what is it that brought you back here for your ‘first race in years?'” she asked pointedly, finally targeting him with her accusing glare.
He felt exposed and awkwardly fluttered his eyes downwards. “It was just–time for a change, I guess.”
“Uh-huh.” She folded her arms, unconvinced.
“I guess I was angry.” He surprised himself at the admission.
Her eyes narrowed, but some of the hostility seemed to dissipate. She leaned forward. Close, very close. Taki swallowed nervously.
“Well I don’t like boys who are angry,” she breathed so softly it was barely audible.
He blinked back at her, but she turned and stomped her way back to the spectator’s platform. He didn’t try to talk to her again, he shuffled onto a different side of the platform and silently wondered at the confusion that was churning inside of him.
Why was he worrying what some girl thought of him? Hadn’t coming here been about not caring what girls thought anymore? Well… and apparently also about being angry. Why had he said that? And now that girl seemed angry, too. Why did that bother him? Why did it excite him?…
What was her name?
Taki was pulled out of his reverie when the floating platform returned to the starting point of the raceway and all of the passengers disembarked. He looked forward, his former resolve crystallizing again in his heart, redoubling even. He strode purposefully over to Boro who was smiling broadly from the doorway of his shack.
“That was quite the stunt you pulled, sonny. Couldn’t have managed something like that with one of the pretty models, I promise you that.”
“Your suit did good,” Taki affirmed. “I imagine it’s going to take a while to repair it now?”
“Well yes…and there’s not going to be much of the winnings left after we detract the cost for that. But I like the way you run, so I’ll let you keep a full thirty percent of the remainder!”
“Keep it,” Taki said. “Use it for the down payment on my second suit.”
“Yes, I’m running in the next race available. Meanwhile you fix the first and I’ll swap back and forth between the two, paying off both as I go.”
“That’s…not standard practice,” Boro said in bewilderment, still trying to wrap his head around the notion.
“No it’s not, but I intend to run a streak that isn’t standard either. Now you said you liked the way I run and I’m giving you the opportunity to double your earnings. Do we have a deal or not?”
Out of the corner of his eye Taki saw the pretty assistant approaching the two of them. He pretended not to notice, instead giving Boro all of his attention. The squat man was squinting, sizing Taki up.
“Alright, deal,” Boro finally concluded, holding out his hand.
Taki shook it, then turned to sign up for the next race.
“Tala,” the girl’s voice rang out from behind him. “My name is Tala.”
He turned and smiled to her. She had a curious expression on her face, not one of approval, nor one of disappointment. Just curious. It was like she was sizing him up as well, wondering what he was capable of.
“Thank you, Tala,” he said politely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” And with that he resumed his walk back to the grandstands. He, too, wondered what he was made of. Well, soon they all would have their answer.
“Add me to the next race,” Taki called out to the registrar, who was seated once more at a small desk and taking applications.
The man looked Taki over, noting the shredded suit barely still hanging onto his battered body.
“That race is in less than half an hour,” the man sniffed, ” and you don’t appear to be…ready.”
“I have my other suit being prepped right now,” Taki waved. “I’ll be ready to run.”
The registrar gave Taki another look-over, this time tabulating all of his scrapes and bruises. He shrugged. Taki got the impression the man didn’t like him very much, but had no doubt been instructed to maintain a very low bar to entry.
“Well then come back here when your other suit is ready to be scanned in. And in the meanwhile get yourself over to the medical tent.”
“Thank you, will do.” Taki strode back to Boro’s shack and deposited the shambles of his current suit, then went to the tent the registrar had referenced. There were no medics inside, this was only an Alley Tier raceway after all, but there were all the basic bandages and disinfectants, and any racer had free access to them. Taki started working on a particularly nasty gouge on his shoulder when he heard a step behind him at the tent’s entrance.
“Hello, Tala,” he nodded as he turned to face her.
“Are you looking forward to a grudge match?” she asked, eliciting a bewildered expression from him.
“What do you mean?”
“That runner who tried to throw you last race, you remember him? You grabbed him and hit the boost together.”
“Well he spun out hard after the boost and he’s been tailing you ever since you got off the spectator’s platform. Right after you signed up for the next race he did as well.”
“Could be a coincidence.”
“Sure,” she scoffed. “It could be.”
“I guess I’d better watch out for him.”
“I guess you’d better.”
There was a heavy pause, an awkwardness from Taki wanting to continue the conversation but not knowing quite how.
“Well, I better go help Boro if you want to get your suit in time for the next race. Good luck not dying out there spark plug!” Then she dashed away before he could say another word.
Spark plug? Was that supposed to be a good thing or not? It didn’t sound particularly flattering. Taki shook his head and tried to focus back on his work. All the adrenaline from the race was fading, and he was only now starting to realize how sore and tender he really felt. It was going to be a hard second race…especially if one of the runners had it in for him.
Well, that was how it was sometimes. One couldn’t wait for fair weather when all of life was a storm.
By the time Taki had himself patched up Boro was putting the final touches on the new suit. It was just as haphazard as the last, but Taki wasn’t so concerned about that anymore. Taki got into the outfit and clunked his way over to the starting drop for the next race. There were seven other racers there, one of which was in the same green suit as the racer Tala had warned him of. That racer’s mask was tinted, so that Taki could not see his expressions. In any case Taki thought it a good idea to position himself as far from that racer as possible, then he looked down at the track beneath them.
As always, the track had been changed between races. Each of the various components that made up the raceway were either on moving arms or else fitted with small thrusters, allowing for an architect to craft a new experience each time.
The change to the track for this race wasn’t particularly interesting. Really it just looked like some giant had shaken the whole track, jumbling the pieces around in a random fashion.
Perhaps the one thing that was interesting was the placement of the race’s end. That platform had been moved to the middle of the track and highly elevated. This would be a more vertical race, then, one where the racers would circle around the final platform, trying to build up enough inertia to vault all the way to the top.
The key to those sorts of races was to find a cycle of boosts, dives, towers, and gravity wells, all linked together and looped through over and over while storing away an ever-increasing reserve of inertia. Then, when one’s banks were full the racer could do an almighty thrust up to the finish.
Taki had been so caught up with the raceway he had completely missed the countdown. As with the first race he vaulted over the edge a moment later than all of the other racers. Or rather, later than all of the other racers but one. Out of the corner of his eye he happened to notice that the green racer had held back, waiting for him to jump first.
Taki spun around as he fell through the air, turning face-up just in time to see the green racer plummeting down to him. It was too late to get out of the way, and so he braced for the impact.
Taki’s suit had already built up enough of a reserve to take the hit without him feeling any of the collision, that wasn’t a concern. What was a concern was that now the other racer had wrapped his arms around Taki’s, locking the two of them together. With the two of them pinned this way the other racer began burning through his own inertia, propelling them downwards like a rocket. The two of them hurtled past all the other racers, screeching towards the pavement below.
This wasn’t a strategy for winning. It was purely a revenge move, one that was entirely illegal and lethal. Taki gritted his teeth and tried to wriggle out of the other man’s grasp, but the lock was too tight and there was no breaking it.
Taki’s eyes fluttered from side-to-side, trying to find some way to escape. His roving eyes happened to light upon the corner of his HUD where his conserved inertia levels were indicated. He had a massive excess there, not too surprising given all of their extra speed.
Taki craned his head backwards, measuring the distance to the ground: 20 meters.
He glanced at the other corner of his HUD which gave the estimated impact force: 34 torques and counting.
Looked back to the ground: 10 meters.
Taki gave a sharp pulse from his own thrusters, not upwards but in a spin. The two of them rolled, now placing Taki on top. The other man thrashed in shock, finally letting go of Taki’s arms.
Right before impact Taki placed his feet on the man’s chest and kicked off, angling his suit to propel him upwards. There was a massive crack and he burst into the air, climbing through space just as quickly as he had been falling through it.
Taki didn’t know if the other man’s suit would have enough energy reserves to displace the force of both Taki’s thrust and the ground beneath. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t. It was on that racer’s own head.
Instead Taki was intent on his target: the end platform. All his incredible excess of energy streamed out as billowing pockets of compressed air, vaulting him high into the sky, lifting him to the level of the winning platform. He passed above it, then angled himself down again, firing with his thrusters for a nice, soft landing on the pavement.
And just like that, he had won again.
Taki dropped to his knees and sighed out long and low. He had managed to survive, but his hands were clammy and his body was shaking. He thought he might be sick.
Power Suit Racing tended to attract some of the most desperate and degenerate of society. Frustrating as it was, revenge-mongers were just a part of the sport. Taki didn’t have long to stay alone in his shock. Already the spectator platform was descending to him, and everyone on-board seemed quite animated. The speed of his run must have broken a number of records.
Taki stood to meet them, feeling his resolve return and deepen. This was just a race, one of many. It was over and now it was time to move on to the next. No stopping, no waiting.
Less than an hour later Taki was in the next race, running sideways along a beam, reaching his arm out for a pole. He gripped it and swung himself around to another platform, planting his feet and sprinting towards the finish platform. He had burned too much of his inertia and couldn’t propel himself quickly enough. Another racer in gold won that race and Taki took second. Not as big of a payout, but he would still receive something.
“So you said you came here because you were mad,” Tala said to him as he used a spanner to refit the gloves of his suit. “Tell me about that.”
“Why do you care?”
Tala shrugged. “I like to know what drives a man, I suppose. So, did you kill someone?”
Taki had his feet planted in a wide stance, trying to keep his balance as he slid down an angled platform, coming down the home stretch to the final. Another racer suddenly careened at him from the left, trying to take him out. Taki barely got his hand up and fired a blast just in time to send that competitor spinning away.
Taki’s decline leveled out, came to an end, and he shot out through open space. He threw his hands out and caught the lip of the final platform, but in his moment of distraction had failed to jump high enough to mount it. He gave a blast from the boots of suit, causing his whole body to swing up and around like a pendulum, flipping him onto its surface. He had made it, but during his slight delay another racer had just barely beat him to the win. Second place again.
“Not any sort of crime?” Tala asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Hmm, okay then.” She looked disappointed. “So what are you running from, then? A girl?”
Taki rolled his eyes. “Why couldn’t it be that I’m running towards something?”
“You said you were angry. People don’t run towards things when they’re angry, only when they’re passionate. Anyway, definitely sounds like a girl.”
Taki landed in the center of the gravity well. Here a racer would be suspended in midair, lifting and falling with the pulsing energy. The trick was to figure out the cadence of that pulsation and press against it during an expansion-interval. That resulted the in the runner being catapulted out at terrific speeds. Taki tried to calm his panting breath, looking for that stillness which would allow him to sense the subtle shifts of the pulses.
He paused, waited through a few seconds to be sure he had it right, then thrust! Right as he burst forward another racer slammed him from the side, spinning him to the ground and out of the race.
“They keep targeting me directly!” Taki fumed to Boro.
“You’ve been doing well,” Boro shrugged. “They figure you’re their toughest competition.”
“Well I’m not very flattered.”
Boro sighed. “Listen kid, most of the runners in these races are losers. Now every so often a loser happens to have a little talent and they win a few races, but that streak lasts only four, maybe five races. Because really they’re still a loser, and they don’t know how to make the transition to being a winner. Then the other losers will pull them back down every time. It’s the how it works in this world.”
“But if you do make the transition to be a winner?”
“Then they can’t ever stop you.”
“How do you do it?”
Boro put down his tools and leaned close to Taki, looking him right in the eyes. “You did it once already. In that second race when the guy tried to squash you on the dive. You took his attack and you used it.”
“Really I was just trying to survive.”
“Well from now on winning is surviving. Look, they’re gonna to be coming after you like that. Every. Single. Race. You gotta run with their attacks now, not against them.”
Taki nodded to show he understood. “It sounds hard.”
Boro returned to his work. “Only a winner ever manages it.”
Taki saw the other racer out of the corner of his eye, but he was too late to avoid the hit. The two collided and the other racer threw him into a nearby boost. This boost was not a useful one, though, it was angled upwards, pointing uselessly out to the skies. Sometimes boosts were setup this way, providing red herrings for racers that weren’t paying attention.
Taki hurtled up in the air and spun around, taking in his new, less than ideal surroundings. In this race the final platform was quite low, 50 meters directly beneath him now. The problem was that the fall between him and it was entirely littered by various obstacles. There were a couple platforms running at odd angles, another boost going in the wrong direction, a giant, horizontal fan spinning dangerously…
Taki gritted his teeth, there was nothing but to go for it. He thrust himself downwards, adding his stored inertia to the natural pull of gravity. As he plummeted he gave a sharp twist and wound around the first of the platforms in his way. Now the next platform was coming up quick and he needed to go sideways, so he threw a thrust to the side, scraping across the last few feet of the platform as he rounded its edge.
He burst right, then left, not daring to slow his dive one bit. He needed to keep up as much momentum as possible for the end. The last obstacle was a wide tarmac shell that stretched over the entire top of the finish platform. It was intended to force runners into taking a sideways route to the end.
Taki streaked down to that shell and slammed his feet down against it, simultaneously throwing a downwards thrust and letting his suit’s impact resistors kick in. Under the triple blow the rock burst apart and he fell through the hole and onto the finish below. Finally a first place.
“See I like guys who have a passion for something,” Tala explained.
“I’m really not sure why you keep telling me about what you like and don’t like in guys. I mean I haven’t ever even asked you to dinner.”
“And yeah, about that,” she said accusingly. “What’s your problem there?”
“Oh…uh, well if I did ask would you say ‘yes’ to me?”
She scoffed. “No way. I only like guys who have a passion.”
Three weeks past by in a blur. Every night Taki went to bed sore and exhausted, each morning he raced the next day away. He was surprised at how much frustration he had to burn, but finally he seemed to be getting through it. He had already topped the Alley races and now he was being barraged by sponsors from the higher leagues, each asking him if he was ready to make the transition to the big time. He had made enough winnings to pay off both of his suits, and had even commissioned Boro to make him a third one with higher-grade parts. It would be perfect for an advance to the Street Tier.
But now that he was standing on the precipice of the future Taki felt himself hesitating. The whole point of these races had been to just plunge ahead without a plan, now he was being asked to decide what came next. That sounded a lot like having a plan again.
It was with his muddled around thoughts of the future that he walked off of the observer platform towards Boro’s shack, fresh off yet another win. As he neared the small structure he was pulled out of his reverie by a sense that something was off. Both Boro and Tala were standing outside with arms folded, watching him with apprehensive expressions.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Someone came down to talk to you, boy,” Boro said.
“What? Another sponsor?”
“No,” Tala said softly.
Taki frowned, but clearly the two weren’t going to be forthcoming about this. He sighed and walked through the door. There was a richly dressed woman he didn’t think he knew standing with her back to him. As she heard the door open she turned around to face him.
It was Rhuni.
“Hello there, Taki,” Rhuni said. She spoke brightly, sweetly. Certainly far more than she had at their last conversation.
“Hello,” Taki said numbed.
She smiled and looked downwards. “I suppose… I must be the last person you wanted to see.”
“That’s not–well, I wasn’t expecting to see you, I suppose.”
“Hmm, no. I can’t imagine you would after how horribly I treated you. I wanted to apologize about that, by the way, first and foremost.”
He nodded. “And after that?”
“Oh Taki, don’t be so formal with me! It’s terrible. Can’t we talk to each other how we used to?”
“I don’t know that Warden Molo would appreciate that.”
She winced. “You’re bitter. That’s alright. You have every right to be. Like I said, I treated your horribly.” She took out a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “I was wrong Taki, and I’m not afraid to admit it. I was stupid and–and… oh Taki, I’m so sorry!” The tears suddenly burst out and she flung herself forward onto him, sobbing into his shoulder.
Taki patted at her hair awkwardly. It seemed the sort of thing to do, but it felt so strange to him now. Once it would have seemed so natural.
“Please don’t be so cold to me,” Rhuni continued. “All I’ve known these past weeks has been coldness. I knew Molo didn’t really love me, but he’s been so mean, so sneering and condescending. You don’t know how it’s been.”
“No, I don’t suppose that I do… What did you come here for Rhuni? Really?”
She looked up to him, eyes shining beneath tears. “Take me away from here, Taki. Can’t we go back to the dreams we had? Just you and I?”
Taki bit his lip, conflicted. He felt sympathy, he had to. But that didn’t mean he wanted the same things he once had.
“How would that even work, Rhuni? Molo is a powerful man, he knows everything that goes on in the city.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “We would have to keep a secret, wait a while until we could leave this planet. Just as we always dreamed we would!”
“So…wait and hope on those dreams? Just like before. Except waiting and hoping apart now, instead of together.”
“It wouldn’t be so long. I’ve heard about your success here in the races…in fact, that’s why I came today.” Rhuni pulled away from him and opened her shoulder-bag, rummaging for a moment and then pulling out a reference card like she was revealing a great treasure. “I’ve spoken with one of the sponsors in those leagues. He’s willing to represent you. From what I understand he’s one of the best, and he’s willing to see you get more than a fair cut of the winnings.”
“In return for you convincing me to run his colors…”
“Well…yes. See now we’re working together for our future,” she smiled brightly. “Just as it should be.”
Taki sighed. “I have dozens of these cards already Rhuni. Anyway, I thought you always hated these races.”
“I hate how they endanger you! And yes, I still do. But you’ve decided to do them, and from what I hear you’re quite good at it. Ready to move on to where real money gets made.”
“And to where things are all the more dangerous.”
“Well if you’re afraid of it then don’t do it,” she pouted. She blinked quickly and shook her head, then pushed that prior softness back into her face. “I’m sorry, Taki. No, of course I’d prefer you didn’t do this at all. I just thought you were already planning to, and thought I could help then. But–really, don’t do it–unless you want to.”
She bit her lip and Taki found he didn’t find that so cute anymore. She did it whenever she was afraid that she wouldn’t get her way. Had she always been like this?
“Actually I wasn’t planning to run in the higher leagues, Rhuni,” Taki finally said, folding his arms and leaning back. “They’ve been trying to bring me over for a while now but something just hasn’t sat right with me about it. I couldn’t place what it was until now. The problem is it would mean playing their game. The game of people like Molo, Zantar, Sovereign Prow… Those higher races are just propaganda for them. They finance the leagues, they set their runners against one another, they build lavish stadiums to show off, their sick money just flows through the whole sport like its lifeblood.”
He shook his head in disgust and then continued. “And all of it built on the backs of people like us. You know what the mortality rates are like for the engineers making those arenas. But what can they do? They say it’s illegal for us to grow our own food, but then they inflate its price until we’re too desperate to not take their contracts. No Rhuni, these illegal alley tracks are the only place a runner can compete with a clean conscience.”
“It’s wrong, but it’ll be happening whether you run there or not. Let them play their game, we’ll be the ones laughing when we leave this world with their money.”
“I can’t do it Rhuni.”
Rhuni nodded slowly, but her pursed mouth gave away her incredulity. When she spoke it was with barely-suppressed rage. “So then…you’re going to throw away all of our dreams, just for the principle of the matter?!”
“Far better than when you threw our dreams away for a lack of them.”
It was the first intentionally hurtful thing he had ever said to her. It was also the most honest. Rhuni’s lip trembled somewhere between anger and pain, and without a word she forced her way past him and out the door.
As the door closed behind her, he found himself alone at last. Taki put his hands over his eyes and exhaled slowly. Had he really just done that? It surprised him…but he didn’t regret it. A few more silent moments passed, and then he heard the muffled voice of the Master of Ceremonies, calling for the racers in the next race to approach the starting line. Well, it was time to move forwards again.
Taki exited Boro’s shack and glanced to either side. The mechanic wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but Tala was still waiting for him.
“Whew,” she whistled impressively, “that girl looked real mad when she stormed out of here!”
“I’m not in the mood to discuss it, Tala,” Taki sighed as he began stumping towards the raceway. She hurried to keep pace with him.
“Well good, because I didn’t really want to talk about her either. But just tell me this, how do you feel?”
“What? I’m fine. Actually… now that I think about it I guess I feel pretty good!”
“Atta boy!” she slugged his armored shoulder, then winced and shook her hand. “So what’s next?”
“I’m not sure Tala. I do know that I won’t be moving on to the higher leagues, though. It just wouldn’t feel right to run for the men I’ve spent my whole life hating. And it doesn’t make sense to keep running around in these lower circuits either, pretty soon no one will compete against me anymore…I guess it’s time for something new.”
They had reached the starting point of the race. Taki took his stance and started looking over the track in front of him. Before he could really take it in though he felt a hand tapping his shoulder. He turned and Tala was still there. She was supposed to be back with the other spectators, but instead she was gesturing at his faceplate.
“What?” Taki said, pressing the button to retract the glass shield. “Is it coming loose.”
Instead of answering Tala gripped the metal plates on his shoulders and pulled him near. “I told you earlier, I don’t like boys who are angry and running away. I like a boy who’s chasing for something.” And with that she kissed him hard.
Taki was momentarily aware of the other racers glancing over awkwardly, and as if from a mile away he heard the Master of Ceremonies shouting out “Go!” Then, just as forcefully as she had pulled him near, Tala gave him a shove and pushed him off the precipice and into open space.
He fell backwards, staring up at her shrinking form. He grinned, flicked his faceplate back closed, and turned around to greet the ground. He reached the bottom with a full reservoir of stored energy. He looked off to a low boundary wall, angled his arm, and thrust himself towards it with all he had. The ground buckled at his departure, and in one smooth arc he closed the distant to the barrier and sailed clean over it.
The crowd behind him gasped in shock. Some of them even cried.
He had not only fallen out-of-bounds and forfeited the race. It so happened that that particular boundary was also the edge of their entire city, indeed of their entire world. Everyone knew it, yet somehow he had willfully, even enthusiastically, bounded over its matrix and dropped into “the chasm.” Now he would plummet for over fifteen thousand feet. He would hit terminal velocity and his suit would easily dispel the force on impact, but having once cast himself off of their space-scraper he would be forever lost to a strange and unseen realm: the ground-level.
Indeed, no one from their megastructures knew what lay down, down, down where he was going. Its murky depths hadn’t been explored for at least seven generations. Some said it had long since been entirely reclaimed by the wild, others said it was home to a brutish civilization straight out of the stone age. Still others said it was the only free place left on the planet, and that the beginnings of a rebellion took refuge there.
“Oh my,” Boro breathed out in awe from his perch among the other spectators. A strange glint of excitement twinkled in his eye, contrasting the horror that gripped everyone else. “Did you see that Tala?”
He turned, but the girl was not by him anymore.
“Tala?” he called, then noticed that the door to his workshop was open. He cocked his head in confusion, but before he could go over to investigate a silver streak came charging out of it.
Clothed head-to-foot in Taki’s spare suit, Tala was bounding towards the raceway.
“What are you doing?” Boro roared, but she dashed past him and swan-dove over the race’s launching point. Like a bullet she streaked down to the ground, her face etched with deepest resolve. She landed on the ground in the same crater Taki had left, and she similarly bounded from it, arcing high and wide over the same edge that he had vanished from.
The crowd exclaimed in shock again, the last sound she would ever hear from them. Their echoes fading behind, she turned her head downwards and dove again. Deeper, deeper, deeper. Chasing after him into the unknown.