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Two-Legged Race

Derrick Boden's fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Compelling Science Fiction. He is a writer, a software developer, a traveler, and an adventurer. He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he's lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by three cats. Find him at derrickboden.com.
It's pandemonium as we dig into the starting blocks, a hundred three-legged abominations. Our calves tug painfully, grafted to those of our counterparts. The track--a nightmare of gravel trenches and barbed turf--stretches to the arena's terminal edge. The crowd seethes in anticipation of the solar system's largest coming-of-age spectacle. Ready to christen a new generation of Alphas rife with the competitive urges needed to ratchet our species one rung closer to evolutionary perfection.
I'm ashamed to be here.
Father's gaze bores into me from the sideline. He needs this victory. I'm the sole heir to his plastics empire, and this is my last shot at fulfilling his legacy. Twice before I've crouched here, and twice the feverish crowd and the airborne microcatalysts have failed to stimulate the competitive drive that's spliced into my genome. I can't stave off these juvenile weaknesses.
The sympathy. The compassion.
Father's colleagues are right: I'm an anomaly. A sympath. Devoid of solitary ambition, a societal leech destined for Father's swift severance.
Unless.
At my side, a girl three years younger: my counterpart. My enemy. Her right leg, grafted to my left. We're not strangers: last year we competed for the same chair in the Academy of Sciences. My competitive impulse--faint but present--summons uncomfortable thoughts: she's small, weak. Perhaps a sympath herself.
She'll slow me down.
Past her, the other contenders glower. They're bred to compete at everything--like the rest of society, though amplified tenfold thanks to our families' corporate status and the genetic strains it affords us. We are humanity, perfected. We will stop at nothing to succeed.
Unless.
The gun cracks. We lurch forward, thrash elbows, fight the pull of our counterparts. Blood spatters the stands. The crowd roars.
It's a brutal two-pronged battle: each competitor must overcome every other pair, plus their opposing counterpart. Only a single contender can win--analog to our corporate ideology. But we cannot simply dispatch our counterpart without finding ourselves anchored by their weight, doomed to lose. Instead, we must overcome their weakness. To think--centuries prior, the prototype served as a party game meant to instill weakness upon its participants. Trust, compromise, compassion.
How we survived the twentieth century is a mystery.
We hit the first trench. Awkward lopes devolve into flails as feet lose purchase on the jagged rocks. My counterpart stumbles; blood tattoos my ankles. Gertrude McCormick--Father's assistant and covert apprentice--presses into the lead. Father watches with unbridled admiration. A cold realization grips me: if I fail, Gertrude will usurp my heirdom. She's his insurance.
And she's winning.
But she's pushing too hard. Her counterpart--a cumbersome boy with a sluggish gait--trips at the third trench. Barbs rake his flesh. The crowd's cheers drown his screams.
Then, amidst the chaos--something unexpected. My counterpart's movements have somehow synchronized with my own--a coincidence of our struggle, but one that lends a sudden burst of speed. Her palm presses against my back; my hand rides her shoulder. We move as a single, lithe entity. The rush is exhilarating.
We're at the front. The finish line looms.
But at the last trench, she falters--skids across gravel, nearly drags me down. A gash glistens on her brow. I reach out--
And freeze.
My adversaries hurtle forward with no regard for one another. Yet here I am, at the brink, breath hot with panic. She's frail, weak. I can't win by helping her. I must use her inferior size to my advantage. I must drag her through the finish line.
But why does my gut squirm? Why do my muscles ache to heave her up, reclaim that unified gait--or worse, bear her weight on my shoulder? What flawed genetics are these, that I should feel shame for doing the right thing--for focusing on the win?
The crowd erupts. Behind us, a figure emerges from the pack, running at full tilt.
It's Gertrude. Alone.
She's sawn her skin-graft with a barb, and now races unhindered toward the finish line. Her counterpart lies howling in the ditch. Blood gushes from Gertrude's leg--only her competitive genes have kept her conscious. The crowd howls in a euphoric frenzy. Father's lips twist into a grin.
Gertrude McCormick has what it takes to succeed.
But so do I.
I drag my undersized counterpart across the jagged rocks. Gertrude is gaining, but even now the color fades from her cheeks. She's lost too much blood. She stumbles, flags. The finish line is just meters away. Victory is in my grasp.
Inadvertently, I glance down.
My resolve falters.
My counterpart lies broken. Blood worms from her nose; her leg, bent backward. Yet she stares at me with neither contempt nor fear, but with knowing. She's a sympath. She expected this.
This is what it means to become an Alpha.
I collapse to a knee, retch. I'm a monster. I was wrong to compete. Now I'm condemned to a lifetime of scaling the corporate ladder, staring down at the remains of my adversaries. Winning.
My body convulses as sympath tendencies wrestle with gene-spliced urges. The struggle is brief, merciless. The reek of the microcatalysts and the raucous goading of the crowd and Father's derisive sneer galvanize my will to win, at long last. I wrench my gaze from the girl, lunge.
A groan escapes her lips as we cross the finish line.
Then, silence.
The sympath in me says help her--but it's barely a whisper. I'm an Alpha now. I've put away childish things. Father tries to catch my eye, but his esteem no longer concerns me. I will someday best him as well. I thrust my fists outward, daring anyone to challenge my genes.
The crowd roars with terrible elation.
Only after the din settles, does my gaze flick downward.
In the girl's eyes: pity. For a chilling moment, I remember her hand on my back. Our bodies strong, symbiotic, united.
Then it's gone. I stand alone, victorious. Heir to humanity.
An Alpha, forevermore.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 7th, 2018


I based this story (very loosely) on a personal experience from my early childhood, and wrote the first iteration during an Odyssey workshop hosted by Scott Andrews. Like the story's narrator, I both won the race, and lost.

- Derrick Boden

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