It was the third day, and the runner had set a distance record and had not been seen, much less shot, by the Chase Team. Drones broadcast across the Corporate nets, thousands of people watched his every move, tracked his biometrics, and placed bets on all possible aspects of his success or failure.
At their regular table in the Techno-Warrior, Jake Connon and his four best friends sat surrounded by multiple wall screens showing the chase, but paid more attention to their scrolling personal info feeds, pop-up-table holographic displays and beer. Jake could have been a poster-boy for a geek vid. Six-foot tall, unruly wash-water brown hair, embarrassingly gangly, with deep brown eyes, and a quick smile, his genetic structure had obviously been successfully altered for brains rather than brawn. He kept those around him on their toes with his spearing comments and a self-depreciating, wicked sense of humor.
Jake looked around at the overflowing tables full of beer and food baskets. Checked out the dance floor, wished he could be out there, maybe even one of those brave one who ignored current regulations and danced a bit too close to each other. He could feel the pounding beat of the dance music, he briefly wished they’d take it on their ear feeds instead of over the public feeds but that idea wouldn’t have gone over well with the Corporation. Putting music over the public feeds sold more beer so that’s where it was played.
The smell of beer and sweat had grown stronger over this segment of the Chase program but Jake had gotten used to it and didn’t notice it anymore. He glanced at one of the large screens that covered the walls; it showed the view from the Captain’s eye feed with no runner in sight yet. He quickly checked the other screens showing feeds from the other members of the team. All they showed was the Captain following a pathway through the two-foot tall, dark green, hay fields of early summer carved by the runner ahead of them.
A message icon flickered. A quick eye flick-glance and blink accepted the spoken message to his ear feed.
“Oh crap. The word is Jacobs is springing an advanced server code test on us first thing Monday morning,” messaged Jake into his subvocal voice feed to the rest of his friends on this private channel. “Smithy says he found a draft in his garbage files.”
“Garbage picker,” sent Kevin.
“Well, somebody has to clean up,” replied Devon. “It’s the only way he’ll pass anyway. Stupid fokker.”
Jake shook his head. “Jacobs probably planted it there for him to find. But we won’t have trouble with it anyway so relax.” He looked at Devon, who’d changed his hair color again, and knew this new color – bleached blonde – wasn’t going to make him any more successful with the women. Devon saw him looking, raised a questioning eyebrow and Jake only shrugged.
He’s a stupid fokker for such a smart guy thought Jake.
Jake channeled the runner’s biometric data into his eye feed. The runner’s blood-glucose graph had turned and headed sharply downwards. Jake decided the program would end in the next half hour when total exhaustion set in.
“Half hour to end. He loses. Fokked. One beer,” Jake said.
“I’ll take that, half hour plus, one beer matched,” said John.
“Ho, check the odds on him making it all the way,” said James. Some of the wall screens showed betting odds; they were ignored as the boys could call them to their personal eye feeds with a few subvocal commands.
The big wall screens morphed into overhead drone views and they focussed down to show a former, but well-known, candidate for the Olympic games. Drenched and covered in mud from the incessant rain, his clothes ripped and body bloodied from the ever-present thorn bushes and black flies, the screen showed him pumping across the rolling hills.
“Speed graph is steady though,” said Kevin more intent on getting the other two to argue than bet himself.
“Well, take the bet then, I can drink more than one beer,” replied Jake smiling, raising his hands and waving Kevin forward with his fingers. “C’mon.”
“Done. Hope your credits are good today,” said Kevein without hesitation. He’d started drinking an hour before the others and didn’t need the encouragement.
Jake also knew he hadn’t checked the biometrics.
“I’ll give you he’s still running well but the biometrics never lie,” said Jake.
Half the screens around the room showed the view from the personal eye feed of the runner. The rolling hills of waving grasses, rippling away from the runner as he passed were in high contrast to the techno-color pulsating walls of the bar.
“Can you hear what he’s saying?” asked Kevin.
“Yeah, he’s repeating something over and over. It’s “one more step, one more step,” said James.
“Did you hear somebody say something?” asked Kevin. “I didn’t think this one could talk anymore, I thought he had his head stuck so far up his console he’d forgotten how to speak.”
“Nice. I submitted my senior thesis yesterday though,” said James. “Kevin – how’s yours coming along? You get that last module to track and play nicely yet? And what’s the date? Mine’s in two weeks early. Want to put a beer on it? You’ll need an extension?”
What the others didn’t know yet was I beat him by two days Jake thought. Should I tell them? Nah, let him enjoy his moment. They’ll figure it out sooner or later. Jake finished the last half of his beer without stopping, plunked the glass down on the table top, “I’m thirsty and you boys are keeping me topped up tonight.”
“Glucose level says he isn’t reaching the safe zone so do you think he’ll win the vote?” said Devon. “Look at his run, he’s getting a bit wobbly, slowing down. The Chase Team should be on him any minute now”
“Speak of the Captain and his Team, catch this action,” said Jake flicking his finger to the screen his beer glass was sitting on in front of him and sending it to the other table top screens. “What you’re now seeing gentlemen is the beginning of my beer parade tonight. Of course, you’ll recognize the Captain’s feed and that’s the runner he’s seeing moving across that flower-filled meadow. And yes, my friends what you’re now hearing,” Jake moved his left hand slightly, twisted it to alter the content and volume, “is the sound of the runner sucking air.” Jake paused to enjoy the look on his friends faces. “Oh wait, look how close the Captain is now,” said Jake. The sarcasm was not lost on his friends who replied with textual comments to his eye feed. “That guy is done like a doughnut,” said Jake.
“Look at the betting odds for his biometric levels when he takes the first shot,” said James.
“I don’t want any of that. This sucker is going to crash when he gets hit,” said Kevin.
Jake pulled up the runner’s personal history and press releases, saw the Secretary standing beside him in one picture, arms draped around each other’s shoulders. He thought about this for a second. The Secretary is running an old friend. If he’s angry enough to run him, he’ll take him out but do it slowly he decided.
“A beer says the runner takes three shots or more before he stays down.” said Jake.
Powered by beer, the conversation flowed smoothly.
“He’s slowing,” said Jake.
“Shit, it’s only been a few minutes since we made the bet. He won’t last,” said John.
“Here it comes. Number one,” said Jake.
The central big-screen view switched to the Captain’s view feeds through the gunsights and watched his heads-up brain chip display the weapons systems as he settled in for a shot. A drone settled in behind him to frame the Captain and the runner.
The bar went dead quiet as the music stopped. Glazed looks appeared on most faces in the bar as everybody focussed on their personal eye feeds and Chase vids. The large screens on the walls were ignored.
Without the background beat that penetrated through his ear feeds, Jake suddenly realized the broadcast sound was almost silent as well. Frogs had stopped croaking. No birds flew overhead. The only sound was the incessant hum of mosquitoes and black flies.
The boys heard the sizzling, frying sound of the laser bolt as it hit the runner’s side leaving an inch-wide burn across his pale skin. Involuntarily, they all grimaced.
“That’s gotta hurt,” said Devon.
“Poor bastard just got his makers-call,” said Kevin.
The runner spun, barely kept his footing but didn’t fall. The wound wasn’t deep, and the heat cauterized it so there was little bleeding. But the pain and smell of burning skin staggered him. He stumbled, nearly tripping, for a dozen steps.
“He’ll keep going, he’s good,” said Devon.
“Look at his face. The man is a machine again. He knows he’s done, and he’s going to go all in,” said Jake.
“Sucker just hit his starting pace. Look at those legs pumping,” said Kevin.
Jake added the runner’s biometrics to his left eye feed. “Biometrics rising, adrenalin off the charts but peaking,” said Jake.
“Bet he gets less than a quarter mile,” said John. There were no takers.
“Check the forward drone view,” said Kevin.
The boys all switched to see the runner’s face changing from pain and panic to a fixed mask, almost devoid of expression. His years of training paid off as he again appeared to regain his focus. Between the pain and the adrenalin rush, the runner hit his starting pace.
Jake turned to the rear wall of the bar. The entire wall now showed the overhead drone just behind the Captain. It was in bigger and better detail than his small eye feed. She shut down the eye feed.
As the runner sped up, the Captain and his Team used power assists to narrow the gap between them. But when the Team got within fifty yards, they kept pace with the runner allowing him the dignity of continuing this record run and possibly a final sprint.
Jake watched the runner’s biometrics scroll across the bottom of the large screen.
“His panic is settling, adrenalin levels crashing. I don’t think he can go much longer at this pace,” said Jake.
The main screen shifted again to the Captain’s eye feed and gun sights. Everyone in the bar, including the boys, shut off their smaller eye feeds to focus on the screens covering the walls.
“Leg shot coming up for sure,” said Kevin. “This is a tough sucker though, all that training and running paid off for him. He’ll win the vote for sure. No way he’ll lose even if he didn’t get all the way to the safe zone.”
The screens showed the thigh burn and the spinning collapse as the runner had his focus completely shattered by the searing pain. He hit hard and rolled
The Captain and his team stopped running.
Everybody in the bar heard the Captain say, “Hold gentlemen, let’s see if he stays down.” Three more drones added their vid-feeds to the network.
Jake never took his eyes off the main screen. “Wow,” he said softly to himself as the runner didn’t disappoint the Captain or the viewers as he pushed himself slowly to his feet. Jake watched him stagger the first few steps and found himself starting to cheer for the guy.
Jake kept his eye feeds shut down, increased his ear feed volume a notch and watched the runner’s muscle memory return as he quickened out of his stagger. Even the non-athletic Jake saw the run wasn’t really running, it was more like a brave stagger.
“Adrenalin levels are going back up. This is one tough fokker,” said Jake.
“Look at the viewer comment levels, highest I’ve seen this year on any chase,” said Kevin
“Whoa, check the vid stream. Burning right by, the wee ones are mixing vids like crazy.”
“To hell with that, look at that fokker run with a hole in his leg.”
The main screens showed a mix of satellite overhead shots, multiple drone views, the runner’s and Captain’s eye feeds and all focussed on the small group of running men. There were no scenery shots now the end game was in sight.
The voice in Jake’s feed was new.
“Ragged breathing. Blood pressure dropping slightly. Heart rate maxed out. Adrenalin supply almost exhausted and lactic acid rate at maximum,” said Sergeant Price. The Sergeant’s voice was clear and broadcast to the largest audience in chase history.
Jake, indeed the entire city, knew this was the final scene, the end game. Jake glanced around the bar. Nobody danced. Nobody talked. The music in the bar had been silenced. Every eye was either closed to focus on internal eye feeds or firmly stuck on the main wall screens.
Every ear feed in the bar delivered the same series of messages.
“How far has he got in him?” asked the Captain.
“A hundred yards max,” Sergeant Price said.
“A knock-down, shoulder-shot then.”
The bar filled with cheers and jeers as the burst punched a hole right through the runner’s shoulder. He spun and crashed to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. He was down. His biometrics showed he wasn’t getting back up.
“I’ll accept those beers any time now,” said Jake in a group message to his friend’s feeds.
The entire bar went silent again as the main view changed to the runner’s feed. Everyone in the city became the victim for this last moment.
They saw a body mirrored in the Captain’s eye shield and in the reflection saw the blood seeping from his shoulder, his legs twisted and splayed sideways from the rest of his body, a bloody hole though his thigh. The eyes in the reflection were dull and tired, so very tired, and the face was twisted in pain. The bright blue sky framed the black of the Captain’s helmet and shoulders.
It was the end of the show while the vote was counted and the Captain waited for the results.
All viewers subvocalized a vote and didn’t take their eyes off the Captain’s face. Each one guessed what the response would be and most expected the runner to be spared.
They saw the gun at the Captain’s side, saw it hanging loosely and read the hesitation in the stance. Most thought they saw the Captain’s disappointment as the vote went to the runner.
“Beer says he goes free,” said Devon.
“You’re on, ” said Jake. “Secretary won’t let him win.”
“Another beer says you’re wrong,” said John.
Jake nodded. “Done.”
The boys never took their eyes off the screen, never took a breath, waiting for the results.
They heard the Captain say, “No, you’re fokked!”
Jake heard everyone in the bar take a sharp breath.
The view snapped to the Captain’s eye feed.
They watched as a small neat circle burned between the runner’s eyes, his eyes widened at the shock and then their light brightened, faded and disappeared. Blood erupted to fill the eye sockets and create a river to his ears as the view dissolved to a grey screen.
The room erupted with cheers.
“Shit. That just cost me my beer money for the rest of the week.”
Jake sat looking at the screen. The look on this runner’s eyes, the last few seconds of the Chase, played itself over and over in his mind. Over and over he watched the light fade, disappear to nothingness and darken. A thought played at the corner of his awareness but it never got a chance to emerge as Kevin punched him on the shoulder.
Jake heard the music start again. Knew is had been turned up at least two sound levels. He reduced the input to his auditory feeds to bring the noise to levels he could tolerate.
Jake hated to admit it but the Flee or Kill program was one of his guilty pleasures. He knew it was all scripted by the Secretary but like the rest of the city, he didn’t much care. He decided if he ever had to run, he’d pick the option to carry weapons. At least that way he might have a chance to fight back when they caught him. A small smile played around at the edges of his mouth. That poor bastard must have thought he’d beat the Team to the safe zone and he was close to winning, so close, he thought.
“You falling asleep over there?” Kevin asked.
Jake smiled, shook his head “Not sleeping, dreaming of all the beer you guys are going to buy me tonight. Bring ’em on boys, bring ’em on.” He sent a picture of himself smiling broadly to their eye feeds and smiled as they groaned and shook their heads to clear the image.
Program ended, runner forgotten, the music resumed. The dance floor filled up, bass speaker vibrations filled the dancer’s chests, and eye feeds scrolled.
More importantly, glasses of cold beer stacked up in front of Jake.
Jake kept scanning the crowd, looking for the girl of his dreams. Her brother, about the size of a gorilla, chaperoned her several nights a week ensuring horny young men like Jake could only watch and dream and never get close enough to ask for a dance, never mind speak or touch her. They weren’t here tonight so Jake turned his attention to his friends.
“Thank you gentlemen, you’re very kind to pay up so promptly,” he said. He lifted the first glass of several in mock toast. John raised his middle finger in salute. The others laughed, turned in their chairs to watch the dance floor and the couples working to the beat.
Jake leaned back in his chair, smiled at John who still watched him. Nodded. John nodded in return and turned to the dance floor as well.
Jake took a sip of beer, thought about the Secretary, and wondered