Future Tense

Lions and Gazelles

A new sci-fi short story by the author of The Quantum Thief and Summerland.

Illustration: A man runs through a spooky landscape.
Doris Liou

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for July–September 2018: Sport.

Where do you think we are?” the young Middle Eastern woman with the intense eyes asked.

Jyri smiled at her and accepted a smoothie from a tanned aide.

“I think this is a Greek island.” He pointed at the desolate gray cliffs. They loomed above the ruined village where the 50 contestants in the Race were having breakfast. “Look at all the dead vegetation. And the sea is the right color.”

In truth, he had no idea. At SFO, he’d been ushered into a private jet with tinted windows. The last leg of the journey had been in an autocopter’s opaque passenger pod. The Race’s location, like everything else about it, was a closely guarded secret.

But his gesture distracted the woman long enough for Jyri to steal a glance at her impossibly muscled legs. Definitely a myostatin knockout—a gene edit for muscle hypertrophy. Crude, but effective. He would have to watch out for her.

Suddenly, she zeroed in on something over Jyri’s shoulder.

“Excuse me, need to catch up with someone. Nice talking to you.”

Before he could say anything, she elbowed past him, filling a gap in the scrum around Marcus Simak, the CEO of SynCell—the largest cultured meat company in the world. She launched into a well-rehearsed pitch. Jyri swore. He, too, had been stalking Simak, waiting for an opening.

His mouth was dry. This was the most coveted part of the event: access to the world’s most powerful tech CEOs, who could change your destiny with a flick of their fingers. He would only get one more shot before they started literally running away from him. Even worse, he wanted to run, too. Every muscle in his body felt like a loaded spring. The synthetic urge pounded in his temples, mixing with the din of the crowd.

Jyri fought it down, forced himself to take a thick minty sip of his smoothie and scanned the runners in the white mesh suits—ghost-like in the pre-dawn light—for a new target.

It was easy to divide the crowd into three groups: the entrepreneurs, like Jyri, here to show off their tech, hungry-eyed and ill at ease in their biohacked bodies; the hangers-on, company VPs and celebrities, with their Instagram­–filter complexions and fluorescent tattoos; and finally, the Whales like Simak: the god-emperors of A.I., synbio, agrotech, and space.

Jyri spotted Maxine Zheng, Simak’s upstart rival, just 10 feet away. Fresh-faced, petite, and wiry, her vast robotic cloud labs powered the Second Biotech Revolution—including Jyri’s own startup, CarrotStick.

Jyri edged into the group caught in Zheng’s trillion-dollar gravity. Up close, her skin had a glistening dolphin-like sheen. Allegedly, the Whales’ edits included cetacean genes that protected them from cancer and other hoi polloi ailments.

Zheng was talking to a tall young man who was deathly pale but had the build of an Ethiopian runner: long legs and a bellows-like chest.

“That’s neat,” she said. “But I’m honestly more into neurotech, these days.”

That was Jyri’s cue. He pushed forward, the one-liner pitch ready. Hi, I’m Jyri Salo from CarrotStick. We re-engineer your dopamine receptors to hack motivation—

“Jyri!”

A strong hand gripped his shoulder. He turned around and almost swore aloud.

Not here, not now.

Alessandro Botticelli’s white teeth flashed against a dark curly beard. He wore thick rings in stubby fingers, and his tattooed forearms rippled with muscle. His calves could have been carved from red granite. The ruddy hue of his skin was new. Probably an edit increasing red blood cell production for aerobic endurance, but these days you never knew.

“It’s so good to see you, man!” The Italian gripped Jyri’s hand and pulled him into a bear hug. “I can’t believe you made it here, how are you doing, are you still working on that little company of ours? I love it!”

The familiar lilting accent made Jyri’s teeth hurt. He cringed. That little company. Of ours. Had he no shame?

“Doing great,” he said aloud, jaw clenched.

“That’s awesome, man,” Alessandro said. “Congrats. Me, I’ve just been so busy, it started to get too much, you know. So I decide to get in shape, really in shape. Maxine said I should do this, so here I am! It’s going to be sick!”

Jyri could not face the white teeth, the green eyes, and looked away.

“I’m happy for you,” he said.

“Hey, man, thanks! Do you want an intro? She’s right there, and she’d probably be into what you’ve been working on.”

Zheng was behind a wall of muscled bodies again. Jyri took a deep breath to say yes but tasted old anger. He shook his head.

“That’s fine. We chatted already.”

The Italian slapped him on the shoulder, hard.

“Awesome! Hey, we should really catch up! Maybe after this thing?”

“Sure.” Jyri’s stomach was an acid pit. He waved a hand at Alessandro and walked away, stumbling to the edge of the crowd. He took a long draught of his smoothie, but could barely get the viscous mixture down. He forced himself to drink it anyway. It was a dirty secret of ultrarunning that gorging gave you an advantage. Besides, it washed the taste of bile away.

Jyri had met Alessandro at one of the first networking events he had attended after he came over from Finland with little more than an idea. They bonded over their shared running hobby, Alessandro offered help with fundraising, and before Jyri knew it, the Italian was an equal co-founder of CarrotStick.

There was a time when they spent nearly every waking hour together, whiteboarding ideas, filing patents, sweating over pitch decks and grinding through endless investor meetings. It was a true Valley bromance. And then, when they got an offer to join the hottest accelerator in the Bay Area, Alessandro bailed on him, suddenly announcing he wasn’t going to be able to do CarrotStick full-time. A VC firm they had pitched together had circled back to offer Alessandro a job. Apparently they had been impressed by his drive, and he claimed it was a better match for his life’s mission. Whatever that was.

The accelerator turned CarrotStick down—given its “founder commitment issues”—and left Jyri scrambling for funding while burning through his savings and doing around-the-clock lab work. Alessandro wore his unchanging grin through the negotiations over his founder shares. He wore Jyri down, never raising his voice, and finally Jyri gave in to what advisers later told him was a ridiculous equity stake for an inactive founder.

Afterward, Jyri blocked Alessandro on every social media app. Every now and then, a piece of news leaked through his friends’ feeds. Alessandro’s new startup broke all sorts of Series A financing records; his popular science feed won a prize; he married a young VR yoga instructor who frequented both the exercise classes and fantasies of millions of men and women around the world.

Most gallingly, despite Jyri’s efforts at a news blockade, he’d watched Alessandro brag in interviews about how his creativity and hard work had led to an early small success: a company called CarrotStick.

Jyri wouldn’t let Alessandro ruin this, he decided. He’d get to Zheng on his own, no matter what. Fists clenched, he turned back to look at the crowd—and met the eyes of a woman sitting on a sun-bleached bench nearby.

Jyri frowned. She was neither an aide or a runner: She wore a loose, shapeless black dress that left her arms bare. They bore faded tattoos of bats. Her ashen hair stuck out in pigtails. She twirled an e-cigarette between her fingers. A knowing smile flickered on her lips.

Then it clicked. This had to be La Gama, the Doe. She was one of the legendary ultrarunners who had competed against the Tarahumara Indians in the canyons of northern Mexico, before climate change pushed them out and they gave up their millennia-long tradition of running.

Twelve years ago, the Whales had hired her to plan the biennial Races. She took all her experience from running races like Barkley Marathons and Badwater, and created an entirely new kind of contest for superhuman athletes. La Gama decided who ran based on an elaborate application that included biomarkers, genome sequences, and patents for the contestant’s enhancements.

She stood up. Jyri’s heart sank. The networking was over. Now, the only way to stand out from the startup pack and catch the Whales’ attention was by running.

A hush spread across the square. The Whales turned to look at her, and all the other runners followed suit. For a moment, the only sound was the listless chirping of crickets.

“Running,” she said, “used to be how we hunted. We evolved to chase things until they fell down from sheer exhaustion. The legacy is still there, in our upright spine, nuchal ligament, and Achilles tendons.

“All your lives, you have hunted with your brains. I want you to hunt and kill with your legs. Meet your prey.”

She lifted a hand and hooked her fingers. A large pack of robots slunk out of the surrounding chalk-white ruins. Each was the size of a large antelope, had gazelle-like legs, and a black headless body. Hair at the back of Jyri’s neck stood up. They moved too sinuously to be prey.

“Meet Goats 1 to 50,” La Gama said. “They have full batteries. As do you. This Race is a persistence hunt. No stages, no set distances, no water stations, no time limit, no rest: Just run a goat down. The first one to bring back the contents of its belly wins.”

She laid a hand on the smooth rump of the bot next to her, on a small cave painting–like drawing. A shutter irised opened on its side, then snapped shut before Jyri could see what was within.

La Gama slapped her hands. “That’s it. The sun is coming up, and so, like lions and gazelles, you had all better be running.”

The starting line was unmarked. They simply assembled in rows on the narrow road that snaked up toward the hills. The goatbot herd scampered past them and stopped on the crest of the first slope. The rising sun painted the cliffs purple.

They all knew the basic rules. No communications. No support crews. No pacers. Most importantly, no cybernetic enhancements or prosthetics—nothing with silicon or electricity. But anything biological was fair game: They were the Grail knights of the Second Biotech Age. They had backpacks with water and energy gels, and that was it.

Jyri peeked at the row of white-clad bodies. Alessandro’s eyes were closed and his lips were moving. Was that hypocrite praying?

La Gama lifted the e-cig to her lips.

Jyri’s anger mixed with the need to run, almost unbearable now. Every last bit of CarrotStick’s cash and crypto had gone into fine-tuning his body—and more importantly, his brain.

The key ingredient was motivation.

La Gama took a deep pull from the e-cig. Its end glowed electric blue. She blew out one menthol-smelling wisp of smoke. That was the starting pistol shot.

The runners exploded into motion. Jyri’s hungry feet devoured the road through the thin-soled Race shoes.

CarrotStick’s actual mission was to make smart drugs that hacked the brain’s reward circuits, and made you addicted to problem-solving, coding, A.I. algorithm design. It had been much harder than he had expected. The company’s runway was almost gone when one of his investors told Jyri about the Race. He realized they could just copy the dopamine receptor variants of the greatest ultra-athletes of all time—the relentless drive that carried them through a 100-mile race.

That drive was Jyri’s now. CarrotStick had manufactured a synthetic virus that carried the best receptor gene variant into his brain. Every step said yes in his mind. He felt like he could run forever.

The woman with the myostatin knockout legs was suddenly abreast of him, then edged ahead. On their own accord, Jyri’s feet sped up. He gulped deep breaths, held on to the drive’s reins. It was not time to push yet.

He slowed down and let her disappear over the hilltop ahead, just behind the goatbots.

Then Zheng, Simak, and the two other Whale CEOs zipped through the pack. Their legs and pumping arms were a blur. For them, this was a clash of the R&D departments of the vast companies whose avatars they’d become. It was pointless to compete with them. Their muscle cells were synthetic, their tissues fully superhuman.

At last, Jyri was over the first hill. The road turned left. The goatbots followed it, straight at the steep cliffs crested by white clouds. The Whales were tiny dots at their heels. The other runners followed, and the Race was on.

The sun blazed at their backs. The paved road turned into a rocky path. Jyri did not mind the climb. Early on in his training, he had done a lot of hill runs. It was a good way to get the biomechanics right.

He shifted his gait into full barefoot style, stepping down with the foot’s edge, not with the heel, gliding, elf-like. Others in the runner pack found the path tougher, and even without quickening his pace, Jyri started to leave them behind.

The last ruined house on the outskirts of the village was surrounded by skeletons of real goats. The main goatbot herd was nowhere to be seen, but Jyri kept pace with a handful of bots ahead. They veered to the right, onto an even rockier path leading diagonally up the cliffside.

“Let’s go get them, shall we?”

That slap on his shoulder, again. Alessandro. He was right at Jyri’s heels and then ahead, sending up puffs of dust as he went. He’d come out of nowhere. He had pulled the old ultrarunner trick: running on the very edge of the path so you could not see him from ahead.

Jyri’s gut churned at the sight of Alessandro’s broad, receding back. This was too much. But the voice of reason cautioned there was a long, long road ahead. The goatbots had to have at least 20 hours of charge, and the island could have hidden recharging stations. The rough terrain promised microfractures, accumulating pain.

Jyri took a tiny sip of water from his Camelbak, not enough to hydrate, just to trick his brain into keeping thirst at bay. An ultrarun was an ever-expanding tree of decisions. Drink or not. Speed up or not. He reached a compromise. He would open the valves a bit, just to see if he could gain on Alessandro, and slow down if the effort seemed too much.

He increased the beat of his mental metronome to 180 beats per minute. He grazed his shin on a rock—he would be paying for that for many hours. But the pain mixed with the dopamine drumbeat gave him a burst of speed. His head lifted high. He pumped his knees in perfect running form. Suddenly, he was just behind Alessandro, who grunted in surprise.

Jyri could not resist lightly brushing Alessandro’s shoulder as he edged past. Then he raced up the path, following the joyous zigzag dance of the goatbot ahead, toward the cliffs that now belonged only to him.

Fourteen hours into the race, Jyri lost the goatbot in the clouds.

The rapidly falling dusk made the island’s contours soft and dream-like. The ascent had been grueling. The paths were unmarked and strewn with sharp-edged rocks. On the worst stretches, he had to run bent almost double to avoid the spiky branches arcing over the path.

But the dopamine drive kept him on the bot’s trail all the way up to the plateau. It resembled a lunar landscape: large boulders, grey gravel. There were fields of tiny round pebbles that retained the sun’s heat and were like hot coals to run on.

He glimpsed other runners only once: two dots moving along the coastline far below, chasing a goatbot side by side. They might have been Zheng and Simak, and Jyri wondered what they were doing, racing so close together. Unable to give an inch to each other, perhaps. Or was it something else?

Otherwise, it was just him and the bot. By now, he had a feel for the artificial animal’s behavior. It stopped as if to rest whenever he slowed down, probably recharging in the sun. If he rushed it, it scrambled away.

That was the cruelty of La Gama’s scheme. The only way to narrow the gap was to be relentless. The goatbot’s pace was just above his fat-burning maximum heart rate of 140 bpm, and he was halfway through his energy gel packs.

A chilly wind picked up. Clouds started rolling across the plateau, swallowing the dark boulders. This was it, Jyri realized. The thing could not recharge in the mist. If he could get close and stay with it, it would be his.

He sprinted forward and followed the bot into the whiteness. It seemed like a demon now, making wild leaps over rocks that Jyri had to go around. Every now and then it melted into the fog, and Jyri’s thundering heart skipped a beat. The beat of the dopamine drum pushed him forward, faster and faster, roaring inside his head.

And then the goatbot stumbled.

There was a clatter of metal and rocks. Jyri snapped back to knife’s-edge alertness. The pebbles were wet and slippery, and he slowed down. A shape loomed ahead: a boulder. He swung around, and saw the bot barely 50 feet away, struggling to get up, its legs scraping against stone. This was it, he had to push now, just a little—

His leg muscles burst into cold flame. Then they seized up. The cursed rigs, the runner’s rigor mortis.

No. I can do this.

The cold feeling spread into his brain, like the world’s worst ice cream headache. Keep pushing, damn it.

But he could not.

He.

Could.

Not.

A treacherous pebble twisted beneath his foot. He fell forward, pressed his chin to his chest, cradled his head. One elbow banged on a boulder and went numb as he came down with a bone-jarring thump.

Then everything was quiet, except for the taunting clatter of the goatbot’s hooves.

Jyri lay still, curled up on the damp stones. Everything hurt. But it wasn’t the pain that made vomit rise into his throat, it was the absence of something.

The running fire had died.

He didn’t want to get up.

He lay on the bare wet rock and tried to think through the pain, but thoughts fled him like the goatbot in the fog. He fumbled for the Camelbak’s tube with numb hands. It slipped and he let it go.

Lying down meant the end. He would be one of the Race’s failures, the non-finishers. From now on, investors he pitched to would give him one knowing look and pass. CarrotStick would die, and his future with it. He closed his eyes and fought back tears.

Only—it made no sense.

The drive to run was gone. Something was wrong with his dopamine receptors. Had his own immune system started rejecting them? He had undergone a regime to get his body to tolerate the new genes. Still, a sudden runaway immune reaction was not impossible. But he did not have a fever or any other symptoms.

That left one other possibility: a hostile biohack targeting the enhancement directly, maybe a biologic drug that blocked the receptor. And only someone with insight into CarrotStick’s IP could have designed that.

Alessandro. Those slaps on the shoulder. The rings he wore. Alessandro would know enough about CarrotStick’s receptors to leverage A.I. to design a molecule to target them.

The void in his head was filled by a flood of anger, red and warm and good.

He remembered what his first running coach had told him in high school.

The best fuel for finishing a race is hate.

Jyri flopped to his belly, got to his knees, and stayed there for a moment, breathing hard. There was a boulder next to him. He embraced it like a lover, found a handhold, and pulled himself up. He leaned against the rocky surface, pressed his forehead against it. His legs wobbled but held.

He would make it back. He would prove what had happened, destroy Alessandro’s name.

He squirted an energy gel pack into his mouth. The hydrogel-encapsulated carbohydrates released an expanding bubble of warmth in his belly.

He let go of the rock, took one step, then another, fighting the rigs. After three steps, it started to get easier.

After 10 steps, he broke into a jog.

The descent was even worse than the ascent. Most ultrarunners walked uphill and ran downhill, but the trail was so rough Jyri had to slow down to a walk to give the microtears in his muscles a chance to heal.

It was almost dark when he finally emerged from the cloud cover and realized he had made it further than he’d thought.

Only in the wrong direction.

The interior of the island spread before him in the pale moonlight: rolling hills, a dry riverbed, ash-colored dead trees. Jyri had taken a wrong turn on the plateau. The village was behind him. He would have to climb back up and retrace his steps—a 14-hour journey, back when he was still fresh.

The fatigue fell upon him, heavy and thick. He nearly stumbled again. What did he have left? In theory, 40 percent: That’s what science claimed you could still draw upon when you reached all limits of endurance.

It would have to be enough.

He turned to start the long climb back up, and heard a shout from below.

“Salo! Down here!”

Alessandro. He was perhaps 100 meters below Jyri, on rough but level ground. A short distance away from him was a herd of goatbots, at least 20 of them. As Jyri watched, Alessandro dashed toward them. The herd erupted in all directions. Alessandro chased one for a half-minute, but then it swerved away, and the herd simply regrouped behind the Italian. There was no way to tell which one it had been.

If Jyri had retained any strength, he would have laughed aloud. The goatbots were persistence-hunting Alessandro, playing a shell game that would eventually exhaust him.

Maybe I should just sit down and watch. The bastard deserved it.

“Salo, damn it, I need some help here! You can’t catch these motherfuckers alone. They gang up and then there is no way to tell them apart. We need to work together. Come on!”

“If you’d wanted my help, maybe you shouldn’t have screwed with me,” Jyri shouted. His voice was hoarse.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Jyri was now halfway down to the clearing. He imagined punching Alessandro, but was not sure he could actually lift his arm.

“I know you hacked me,” Jyri said. “Back in the village.”

Alessandro stopped and stared at him, eyes wide.

“You too?”

“What do you mean?”

“My metabolism is fucked. I thought it was a malfunction.”

Maybe it was just the moonlight, but Alessandro did look pale.

“Bullshit,” Jyri said. He needed the hate, goddamn it. There were tears in his eyes.

“Think about it, Salo. It was that bitch La Gama. Those smoothies—why do you think they made us drink them? She was the only one who knew enough about our hacks to develop countermeasures against them.”

The hate cooled down to an ember. Jyri stared at Alessandro. His hands started shaking.

Alessandro lowered his voice.

“Look, man. You’re a good guy. I know I left you in a bad spot, back in the day.” His grin was gone. “I don’t need to cheat, damn it. But right now, I need you. So … I’m sorry I screwed you, all right?”

Jyri looked at him. One apology was not enough to erase five years of back-breaking work and anxiety. How stupid did Alessandro think he was?

Then he remembered Zheng and Simak, running in tandem.

“This is the whole point of the Race,” Jyri said. “La Gama gave us a challenge that’s impossible to meet individually, no matter how good your enhancements are. The Whales must be hating it.”

He looked at Alessandro’s leonine face. There had been no malice in the betrayal. Out here, it was easier to see it. Just an animal, running after the prey, as was its nature.

All of a sudden, Jyri felt less heavy.

“That’s why we didn’t make good partners, man,” Alessandro said. “You were way too clever for me.”

Jyri took a deep breath.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s hunt.”

It took Jyri and Alessandro several tries to separate a goatbot from the herd. One of them rushed the herd and chose a target; the other intercepted whenever it tried to join the others. It took bursts of speed Jyri would not have imagined he still possessed. Alessandro’s face was purple, all traces of arrogance wiped away by pain. Between dashes, they shared their remaining energy gels and water.

By 2 in the morning they finally had a goatbot on the run. The herd followed close behind, so they could not let their attention waver.

Forty percent, Jyri kept thinking, as they raced along the dry riverbed. This was what he imagined the land of the dead was like, arid and endless.

Yet, somehow, he found himself enjoying the run. His mind was quiet. How long had it been since he’d run in flow, disappearing into a task at the edge of his ability? The Finnish word for thinking was ajatella. It originally meant harrying one’s prey until the end.

Their lungs worked like bellows. There was no breath for words, but Alessandro was a silent presence at his side, focused on the same goal. With every synchronized step they took, the anger and the anxiety leaked out.

After a while, there was only the satisfaction of joint pursuit: the bot’s indistinct shape ahead, the rattle of rocks beneath their feet.

The coastal cliffs were rimmed with light when the goatbot finally slowed, collapsed in a tangle of limbs, and lay still.

Jyri stared at it, trying not to collapse himself as his heart rate slowed and the blood pressure in his limbs dropped. Alessandro was doubled over, hands on his knees, as he retched.

“You … ” the Italian waved breathlessly. “You … do the honors.”

Jyri half-walked, half-hopped to the machine. Up close, it looked even more like an animal. Its black carapace moved up and down, as if it was breathing. Gingerly, he touched the white stick figure on its flank. A round hole snapped instantly open. He reached inside, and his fingers found two objects: a vial filled with a clear liquid and a pneumatic injection needle.

Alessandro wiped vomit from his beard and looked at him.

“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “It’s the antidote, stupid.”

Jyri weighed the vial and the needle in his hand. Was this some final trick? Did it even make sense that there would be a universal antidote to hacks against all the contestants’ different enhancements? Of course. The smoothies: They were probably probiotics with bacteria producing a variety of customized biologics in the runners’ guts. They would have a universal genetic off-switch, triggered by whatever the vial contained.

One shot, and the drive to run would be his again. And yet there was something pure about the night air, the light in the horizon, the dust on his face. He was here, not in the anxiety-ridden past or uncertain tomorrow. Did he really want the overriding, relentless drumbeat back? He was in pain, but this pain was something he had chosen. It belonged to him.

He shook his head and handed the antidote to Alessandro.

“You do it,” he said. “I’ll find my own way back.”

The Italian looked at him, green eyes unreadable. With a practiced move, he filled the vial and found a vein in his arm. The clear liquid went in with a hiss. Alessandro took a deep breath. His skin flushed, and he stretched expansively.

“I’ll tell them to come get you,” he said. “Find some shelter and stay there. And I’ll do that intro to Zheng, and brag about your mad motivation-hacking tech. I know you were bluffing earlier about talking to her, but you should. I think she’ll be interested.”

Jyri nodded and raised a hand.

He watched Alessandro’s white form recede into the distance until he disappeared behind the withered foliage on the dry riverbank.

He waited until the sun came up. Long shadow-fingers stretched across the valley, and the coastal cliffs glinted golden. A mirage hovered above the dry expanse of the island. It looked like a ghost city, with floating towers and pillars.

Jyri felt empty and light. His Camelbak was dry, and he let his backpack fall to the ground. Gazelle or lion, he thought.

Then he started running.

Read a response essay by Rowan Hooper, an evolutionary biologist and the author of Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
“Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun