Power Suit Racing: Part One

brown sander
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

“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.”

“And promises?”

“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.

“Boro. Why?”

“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.

“…and GO!”

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.

***

I mentioned on Monday about how motivations are used to drive the character, and how the resultant actions need to come with consequences that either reaffirm their initial desires or else undermine them. In this section of the story we see how Taki is driven by anger and loss, which have led him to taking more reckless actions.

But in doing so, Taki is merely making choices that will bring his external life into harmony with his inner turmoil. There at the end it was suggested that these races upset the carefully laid plans of the competitor, requiring them to figure things out on the run. This is exactly what has happened to him in life as well.

And so while there is a harmony between emotions and actions, they are towards an experience that is reckless and chaotic. In our next section of this story we’ll explore see that Taki might be doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. He’ll begin to shift in his motivations, trying to find a better cause to run for.

Before that, though, I want to acknowledge a tricky situation I’ve put myself in with this story. All of the story thus far has been building up to this race, and it is obvious that this sport is going to be central to the rest of the plot. This creates an unspoken promise to the reader that this race is going to be something worth reading about. The reader expects me to craft something exciting, and if I don’t they will naturally feel disappointed. This is a tough place to be in, but it happens in our stories all the time. Come back next week where we discuss this situation in greater detail, and until then have an excellent weekend.

Massive Forces

tornado on body of water during golden hour
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.com

Characters are everything in a story. They represent our different ideals and beliefs, they give us an emotional anchor, and they serve as the bridge to immerse us into the world of the story. If a story was devoid of any characters then it really would not qualify as a narrative, it could more accurately be called a bland list of events.

Obviously the most common form of a character is that of a human character, or else an object or animal that has been anthropomorphized to behave like a human. The key qualities of this sort of character are as follows:

  1. They are a distinct entity
  2. They have a personality
  3. They have individual desires
  4. They have the ability to choose

When a character possesses each of these attributes then readers will consider it a person, and assume that it is similar to them. If any of these qualities are missing then it is no longer considered a person, instead it might be seen as an object, or a machine, or an illusion, or a piece of set dressing. Even if the subject in question is depicted as a human, if it never shows any personality or individuality then it will be considered a non-essential “extra.”

This phenomena of fiction is called out in a very meta way during an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, one entitled The Measure of a Man. Here we see the android member of the crew, Data, facing a trial to determine whether he has any “human” rights or not. There are several philosophical arguments presented as to what it means to be alive, but the fact is the audience themselves are already settled on the matter long before the case even begins.

This is because the audience has already seen that Data acts autonomously, driven by his own desires, and in possession of his own distinct personality. Even if Data weren’t humanoid in appearance, the audience would have already accepted him as a person, far more so than the show’s countless “human” extras who are introduced and killed off without ever uttering a single word.

But while every person in a story is a character, not every character is necessarily a person. Specifically I wish to examine the characters that have desire, and even personality, but which never manifest as distinct or embodied beings. These are characters that are never seen, but are felt everywhere throughout a story’s pages.

Often these sorts of characters take the form of some great force in the world, such as nature, karma, or God. Examples of these characters would include the operating-behind-the-scenes aliens in Midnight Special and Escape to Witch Mountain. It is the Force in Star Wars. It is the plague in Oedipus.

One of my favorite examples, though, is from a little-known Iranian film called the Color of Paradise. Here a man is trying to achieve status and comfort in the world, all while shirking his duties to his blind son. No matter how hard he works to improve his station everything falls apart, seemingly as though some intelligent being is actively resisting him. That being is never seen and never named, but the viewer understands it to be the natural karma for the unkindness he has shown to his son. He will never be able to succeed until he has first made things right in the home.

Thus we see that the karma in this story wants something. It has opinions, and it has the ability to interact as an equal with all other characters. It serves the necessary role of bringing balance to a world of unbalanced men.

During my current series of stories it was my intention to incorporate some of these hidden characters in each of my tales. Let’s take a look at how I did so.

The first short piece I posted was the intro to the novel I am currently working on, which is entitled With the Beast. In this intro the reader arrives at an isolated island, here to witness a tragic memory, a memory of deep personal regret. Associated with this memory is a family of four characters, each of which represent different virtues and ideals. By this we understand that this memory is allegorical, a memory that personifies concepts and feelings.

But as each of these concepts are now embodied as persons it is now the readers themselves that become the unseen force. The exact details of what it is they regret are shrouded by the nature of the allegory and instead become reduced to a vague force of will. One way this is represented is by the very island that the story takes place on. Our four adventurers have come to try and develop a promising future, wresting from the land riches and accomplishment. In that way this island is a character that resists and concedes to their efforts, and what exactly it is meant to symbolize is left open to interpretation by the reader.

After With the Beast I posted a story called The Heart of Something Wild. This story features a man who has just inherited rule over his tribe in Africa. He knows that certain members of that tribe will try to challenge his right to rule, and for the sake of preserving peace he intends to let them depose him.

Though he tries to do just that, the main character finds that some force subverts all of his actions and ultimately restores rule back to him. That force, as the title of the story suggests, is the Wild. The story is meant to suggest that above politics and man-made laws there are also measures and balances more eternal. When necessary, those more eternal forces will intervene in our lives to bring about what is right. My greatest fear with this story would be that readers saw the end as a deus ex machina moment where everything just coincidentally seems to turn right for the hero. It wasn’t a coincidence, it was the conscious influence of an immortal nature.

Finally, just this last Thursday I posted the second section of Glimmer. In this segment I introduced the threat to our main character and her mission. This opposition did not take the form of a living, breathing character, though, but rather of an infinite void. This void possess neither emotions nor desires, it simply expands in such a way that undoes all life and existence. This makes it fundamentally an enemy of all living beings, although this short story suggests we bring the void upon ourselves when we hide from bravery and mute our yearnings to live as heroes.

This is therefore a force both grand and universal, but also personal and intimate. It did not make sense to me for any conscious being to have this sort of range, it would have been impossible to keep track of all its infinite perspectives. Also I feel it makes the essence more terrifying if it merely flows onward as an unyielding force of nature, immune to any appeals of pathos.

 

It’s easy when designing a story to forget about these larger-than-life characters, but successfully incorporating them can add a fascinating dynamic to the whole. The presence of these characters speaks to a common intuition that there are things out there bigger than us. It suggests that for man to chart his course successfully through life, he needs to take into account forces both seen and unseen.

Obviously there are plenty of stories that these sorts of characters might not be a good fit for, but if you’ve been looking for an extra layer of depth in your work this might be just what you needed. Come back on Thursday when we’ll see the continued manifestations of our infinite and impersonal void in part three of Glimmer.