fiction by michael werneburg
I sweated in the mid-morning heat. It was already over forty degrees and would be until midnight. The fires to the west had dumped plenty of soot into the air, and the day had a gritty orange/brown look. I was carrying as much water as I dared and had a small break-fix kit in a pannier. I'd been expecting madness, but nothing like this. There must have been two hundred entrants, and thousands of screaming spectators. With the support staff and the camera crews and the sponsors' song-and-dance troupes and the drones whizzing overhead it was utter chaos. Worse for me was that my intended short-cut was now blocked by fans, some four or five deep all across the mouth of the alley.
The crowd was starting to roar, knowing the race was about to commence. The MC was still doing his thing, but he was near the end of his routine. He'd already had reps from the major sponsors come and go, and was now repeating the 'rules'. "Remember," he shouted, "the only rule is: get to the finish line with photos of all three markers!"
It was insanity, of course. Insanity that they even held these races. But that's Dusylin for you; if serious money could change hands while desperadoes like me risked life and limb in a bicycle race, it would happen in this tiny state. These races usually had a casualty rate of at least 60%, and a few had ended with only one contestant even reaching the finish line. It was no surprise the sponsors were all local; none of the multinationals dared participate in something that would have them censured in other jurisdictions.
I was counting on that insanity to win. What I had in mind might forever change the race, in fact. But that was getting ahead of myself. All I needed was a top-ten finish and I could pay my bills.
The MC took to the platform. The shock of sudden detonations just overhead made me wince. Fireworks! In broad daylight, and no more than fifty meters above us. I could see the shattered canisters falling from the sky. These Dusy lunatics!
Watching the MC, I was beginning to doubt my plan. It had looked so easy on paper! Staring down the road ahead of us, I wondered if I could even have negotiated the main course under normal circumstances; the incline was in excess of 25 degrees, a route I never took, ever. A street like this was practically impassable for most drivers; what had the race organizers been thinking?
I brought up my heads-up display and consulted the route map yet again. Okay, if my first choice in side roads was unavailable, maybe I could take the third left; just an alley, but I could get back on course in a couple of blocks. Actually, the alley met with the side road I wanted to take after six blocks. This was hardly even a set-back.
"Hey, you point that thing somewhere else!" said a voice, close at hand. I looked through the HUD at one of the contestants right in front of me. An athletic-looking fellow with the number 48 on his holographic tag, ahead of me and to my right, was pointing angrily down with his left hand at something in the hands the fellow ahead of me and to my left. When that fellow looked back at the one who'd spoken, I caught a glimpse of a rugged, scarred face. This one was less an athlete than a brute. And fastened to his wrist with a nylon strap was a stun-stick like the riot police used.
I planted both feet on the ground, and tried to extricate myself from the situation. The race hadn't even started, and the weapons were coming out! It was one thing to know that many of the entrants were armed, but it was quite another when your front wheel was nestled against the thigh of one of those armed entrants.
Number 48 pulled a small plastic-looking bulb out of his suit. He gestured at his opponent, Number 302, and said, "You go ahead and make your move!"
Number 302 brought up his wand, and said, "I'm just interested in self-defense-"
I needed out of this situation, and fast. I tugged on the handlebars, but the edge of the clip on Number 48's pedal was sticking into one of the spaces in the disc of my front wheel. I jerked at the handlebars, and managed to free the wheel. Number 48 turned to me, a stern look on what I could see of his face. Before he could say anything—or I could go anywhere—a voice came on the NCV, saying, "Ten, nine, eight, seven..."
I gasped; the race was starting. Jerking my bike backwards, I pulled out of the little confrontation. Number 48 and Number 302 stepped up on their pedals, their ultra-light bikes standing perfectly erect. Probably had 5-lock braking system, I figured. Kept their bikes at rest or at motion depending—they used the five "small dimensions" to manage inertia. My bike had pneumatic tires and cantilevered brakes. I'd be dog-meat in a head-to-head race with these guys, no matter how much I used my bike on a regular basis. I just had to hope that my plans worked out. A year's rent was riding on me placing in the top five.
The voice counted down to "one", and the mayhem began. Cyclists started jostling and pushing forward, the crowd's pitch rose, and the sponsor's fanfare hit a really ridiculous level.
"And they're off!" shouted a voice on the NCV. I cursed. They were broadcasting coverage to the contestants. They'd said they'd be relaying information on the race to us, and that we couldn't disable our comms ware. They'd never said anything about 'sports coverage'.
The crowd of contestants—and now I realized, there had to be at least 302 of them—surged forward in a ragged jumble that would have disgraced a species with any kind of flocking instinct. I stepped on the pedals, and began to head to the left side of the course.
"This is James Tsemensis here with Dan Fairbanks live at the eighteenth annual open cycle race in Dusylin!" said the commentator. From way over on the right came the sound of gunfire.
"Looks like we've had a Political slip through the screening process," the voice continued, sounding almost jubilant. "He's opened fire, and it seems that a number of contestants are down. No word yet on who's claiming responsibility nor on the severity of the injuries, but we're getting reports that favored contestant Jules Conso may be amongst the injured!"
I was right behind Number 48, moving at no more than ten, maybe fifteen clicks, when a shadow passed overhead. I looked up, and saw a small craft floating down low over the crowd. An armored figure was standing on the platform, holding a weapon and firing into the field of cyclists! A label on the bezel around the rim of the craft read Lubimem security. No doubt hired by one of the entrants's sponsors to defend their man. Such forces couldn't initiate a fight with the cyclists, but they could use just about any force necessary to defend their entrant.
"Yes, here comes Conso's defense team, and they're not taking prisoners."