The Minerva Sierra Challenge is a grueling spectacle, the cyborg’s Tour de France. Rich thrill-seekers with corporate sponsorships, extensive support teams, and top-of-the-line exoskeletal and internal augmentations pit themselves against the elements in a day-long race across the Sierra Nevada.
Marmeg Guinto doesn’t have funding, and she doesn’t have support. She cobbled her gear together from parts she found in rich people’s garbage and spent the money her mother wanted her to use for nursing school to enter the race. But the Minerva Challenge is the only chance she has at a better life for herself and her younger brothers, and she’s ready to risk it all.
S.B. Divya’s exciting science fiction debut Runtime is available now from Tor.com Publishing!
The wall behind Marmeg thrummed with the muffled impact of bass beats. A line of girls in heels mixed with boys in lacy shirts, both interspersed with androgynous moots wearing whatever they wanted. Blue light spilled from the club’s doorway onto cuffs and bracelets but mostly on bare skin.
The host was a moot with minimal curves of breast and hip, draped in a sheath of satin gray. Candy-colored red hair in two long curls framed zir face. This host wanted to be seen, and Marmeg had a hard time not looking.
Her own body tended toward her mother’s build—no hiding the mammary glands and rounded buttocks. She mitigated it with the torso shell and a neutral haircut while dreaming of moot surgery.
Marmeg glanced at her cuff. Another twenty minutes until the end of her shift. The line drifted forward and two new people came into view. A nat male with waves of silky brown hair and a translucent suit stood near Marmeg, his gaze fixed on the screen in his hands.
“Unbelievable,” he crowed. “Last round. Canter’s winning!”
His friend was a moot with a rainbow ’hawk and a bored expression.
“Fights? Last century much?” Zir red lips curled. “Races be where’s at.”
Zir friend looked up from his screen. “Minerva starts tomorrow.”
Marmeg’s heart pounded. The Minerva Sierra Challenge would be the first race of her life. She was a long shot with her outdated, refurbished embed gear, but one dark horse usually made it to the top five. She planned to be this year’s surprise element.
“Be following that, sure,” said Rainbow Hair. “Minerva’s winner trumps the BP International.”
“Not always. Two years ago, remember that? Topsy-turvy all over,” the friend countered.
Their voices faded as the host let them in. Marmeg checked her cuff—fifteen more minutes—and shifted her weight. The host shot her a dirty look. Be invisible: that was Marmeg’s role. Here at the club or out in the world, nobody wanted to see the likes of her, but she would be worth noticing soon.
The second-shift bouncers came out on time. Marmeg walked to the bus stop in full gear, drawing surprised glances from the small crowd waiting at the signpost. A faint star forced its light past the competing glow of Los Angeles. Tomorrow night, she would be out in the middle of nothing and nowhere, and then she’d see more than one twinkle. Star light, star bright, first and only star I see in this concrete clusterf— The bus arrived.
She climbed in last and sat on a hard plastic chair. The screen above her displayed a white-haired Congressman next to a blonde talk-show host. Their voices blared through tinny speakers.
“US citizenship is a birthright. Voting is a birthright,” the Congressman said. “But social services—public education, health care, retirement benefits—those need to be earned. Unlicensed families haven’t paid into the system.”
The blonde nodded. “Do you think we should repeal the Postnatal License Act?”
“The problem with postnatal licensing is the barrier to entry: it’s too low. The unlicensed pay a small fee—that doesn’t scale with age—and then they’re like us.”
“Bull,” Marmeg muttered. She’d spent three years saving for her “small fee.”
Her cuff zapped the skin on the inside of her wrist. She flicked it. The screen lit up and displayed a message from Jeffy.
sorry to bug. shit’s going down. help?
So much for getting a few hours of rest before catching the midnight bus to Fresno. Her brother needed rescuing more often than Marmeg cared to tally, especially right after a club shift. She hopped off the bus at the next stop and used Jeffy’s cuff GPS to locate him: Long Beach.
She took the train to the station closest to her brother’s location. From there, she ran in long, loping strides. Leg muscles encased by exoskeletons flexed and relaxed in a stronger, more graceful counterpoint than she could have achieved naturally. As she moved, she downloaded new code into the chips controlling her gear. She had developed the software to bypass the legal limits for her embeds. When it came to Jeffy’s “friends,” legal wasn’t always good enough.
The fight house was a narrow single-story with a sagging wood porch that had been white at some point. Puddles of stale beer and vomit soaked into the weedy lawn. A cheerful roar rose from the backyard.
Marmeg ran along the right side of the house. A ring of people—mostly nats—blocked her view of the action. She crouched and sprang onto the roof, landing on all fours.
Jeffy reeled in the center of the crowd. Blood dripped from his nose and left ear. His black curls were plastered to his head by dripping sweat, one hank covering part of a swollen eye. His left leg had an obvious limp. Cords of muscle rippled under his torn shirt. Chestnut skin peeked through the hole.
Her brother hadn’t done much after leaving the army, but he maintained a soldier’s body. Not that it did him much good in these fights. His lithe opponent, clad in deteriorating exos, kicked him hard in the bad leg. It flew out from under him. He collapsed and lay unmoving.
The crowd cheered. Some of them waved bottles in the air. Others held old-fashioned paper money in their raised fists. Marmeg jumped into the clear center. The crowd roared again, probably expecting her to fight. Instead, she scooped up her unconscious brother, slung him over her shoulder, and leapt over the crowd. A disappointed groan rose from the onlookers. Marmeg barely heard it. She stumbled on her landing, Jeffy’s bulk complicating her balance. She kept to a simple jog on the way to the bus station.
She paid for their bus fare with a swipe of her cuff. The orange-colored account balance glared from the screen. The extra cost to rescue her brother was unexpected, but she had enough money to buy her ticket to Fresno, barely.
“Can walk,” Jeffy slurred when they were a few blocks from home.
Fine, let him arrive on his own two feet. He wouldn’t be fooling anybody. Marmeg’s cuff said it was slightly past ten o’clock, so the boys would be sleeping. That was a small mercy.
They walked in with Jeffy leaning heavily on her shoulder. She hardly felt his weight, but their mother’s gaze landed like a sack of stones.
“Again?” Amihan Guinto looked worn out and disappointed as only a parent could. She grunted and stood up from the concave sofa. “Put him here. I’ll take a look.”
“How was your shift?” Marmeg asked as she helped Jeffy lie down. The metal frame creaked under his bulk.
“Miss Stevens missed the bedpan again so I guess it was a normal day,” Amihan said. She rummaged through a kitchen cabinet. “Take that unnatural junk off, Mary Margaret.”
Marmeg was tempted to refuse, but she needed to do a once-over on her gear anyway. She dropped the parts in a heap. Amihan walked by, carrying the odor of warmed-up chicken adobo and rice with her. Marmeg hadn’t eaten since the afternoon, before her shift at the club. Her stomach rumbled as she helped herself to some leftovers while her mother patched up Jeffy’s wounds.
Amihan hadn’t objected when Marmeg learned to program. She’d expressed cautious optimism when Marmeg began winning contest money, but she had never approved of embeds or moots or any modern trend. Elective surgery goes against God and the Pope. Marmeg had heard the words often enough that they were tattooed on her brain.
Her mother had kicked her out after her first chip implant, but Marmeg could easily match her mother for stubbornness. She’d lived on the streets, spending the nights in homeless shelters when she couldn’t crash with her friend T’shawn. Luck had landed her some workable exoskeleton discards and then the club security job. The money was enough to split rent with her mother, which let Amihan relent while saving face.
Marmeg washed her plate and then sat with her equipment. Her embedded control chips were legit, but the surgery to put them in wasn’t, and her exoskeletal gear was filched from trash bins in rich neighborhoods. The pieces tended to break. She had backup parts to rube a fix during the race, but she’d rather catch a loose bolt or hairline crack now than in the mountains.
“Have you registered for the certificate program yet?” Amihan asked.
“Yes,” Marmeg replied, staying focused on the pieces of gear scattered about. She’d filed the forms, not the payment.
“Did you get a spot in the elder care program?”
She had requested a spot, but she was stalling the registrar at UCLA with promises of tuition. As long as she placed in the top five in tomorrow’s race, she’d have the money to start a four-year embed degree program. Real degrees led to real money, and that’s what she needed to live on her terms, not her mother’s.
“I know you’re disappointed, mahal, but four-year colleges won’t qualify a postnatal for financial aid. Working in the nursing home isn’t that bad.”
“No? Our life is so good?”
“There’s food on the table,” Amihan said sharply. “My children are healthy, except for this idiot.” She nudged Jeffy.
“And all of us born unlicensed.”
“So, we don’t get free education and health care. You can’t have everything handed to you on a gold plate. Let’s be grateful for what God has given us.”
“I am, Ma, but I want more. Six-digit ratings. Big money and benefits jobs. Make some rules, even with no vote. Run the world. Not be run down by it.”
“Are you calling me run-down?”
Marmeg pressed her lips together. She had no safe answer to that question.
“Look at me! Four kids, and my body still looks great. My tits aren’t saggy. My ass is nice. When I’m out after my shift, men buy me drinks.”
“That explains the four kids,” Marmeg muttered.
A slap against the back of her head knocked the multi-tool out of her hand.
“Don’t disrespect your mother. My body only bears children when God wants, and I’ve been married every time.”
“So, He doesn’t give a shit if your kids are unhealthy, uneducated, under—”
This time, the blow landed hard across Marmeg’s cheek, making her face burn and her eyes sting.
“Take that vile metal filth and get out! Go back to your club! Surround yourself with those people who deny God’s gifts. Go! Ugly, ungrateful child.”
Marmeg clamped down on the surge of answering violence. Even without the exoskeletal enhancements, her body was bigger and stronger than her mother’s. Self-defense or not, if she hurt Amihan, she’d be the one feeling lower than a worm.
“Ma?” said a sleepy voice from the hallway. Then, “Marmeg!”
A small body clad in faded cupcake pajamas hurtled into Marmeg. She wrapped her little brother in her arms and glared over his shoulder at their mother. Your yelling woke them up!
“It’s late, Felix. Go back to bed,” Marmeg said.
The six-year-old was wide awake now, and he spotted Jeffy on the sofa.
“Again?” He almost sounded like their mother.
“He’ll be fine,” Marmeg and Amihan said simultaneously.
“Go to sleep, Felix, or you’ll be feeling it on your backside.”
Marmeg kissed the soft brown cheek and then stood, picking her little brother up in a smooth motion. “I’ll tuck you in.”
Lee was fast asleep on the upper bunk as Marmeg laid the baby of the family in the lower.
“Tell me a story?” Felix wheedled.
“Not tonight. It’s late.”
“You say that every time,” he grumbled.
He had a point. Marmeg left anyway, knowing that Felix would draw her further into the argument if she stuck around. She glanced balefully at their mother. That was your fault, she wanted to say, but she kept the peace for the sake of her brothers.
“I’m tired,” Amihan said, some of the shrillness gone from her voice. She walked toward the bedroom. “I’m going to bed too.”
“Fine,” Marmeg said.
She finished tuning up the exos and then pulled a large nylon backpack from the hall closet. She loaded it with spare parts and repair tools. A shabby plastic poncho went in too, in case the slight chance of rain materialized. The bag was old, with multiple patches of duct tape, but it held. She was about to put it on when Jeffy groaned from the sofa.
“Marm,” he said, motioning her over.
She walked back and knelt by the sofa.
“You goin’? Tonight?”
“Yeah. Midnight bus to Fresno. Six o’clock to Oakhurst. Run or hitch from there. You be okay to watch the littles tomorrow?”
“Don’t worry ’bout me. You focus on this race. You got ’nough money?”
As if her brother had any to spare. “Be okay, long as I place.”
“An’ if you don’t?”
“But I will.”
“That’s my girl. You take care. An’ kick some ass, eh?”
Marmeg smiled lopsidedly. “Hooah.”
She tried to find a clean inch on her brother’s face to kiss and settled for the top of his head. He was snoring by the time she reached the front door. A glance at her cuff told her that she couldn’t catch the bus in time on foot.
She sent T’shawn a message: need a ride from home to bus central. you free?
The response came a minute later. be right there.
Ten minutes later, T’shawn pulled up in an old two-seater that he’d inherited from his uncle. The young man himself was tall, skinny, and garbed in his typical outfit of baggy jeans and a loose, long-sleeved shirt. His goggles—a relic from age twelve—were wrapped around his head. They were his first project. He’d fit the lenses from his regular glasses into old blue swim goggles that he’d found in the trash near school. When he showed up to classes wearing them, Marmeg was terrified for his safety, but he was so casual and confident that derision fell off him like paint flakes from his car. He did get beaten up later that day, but, as he’d pointed out to Marmeg when she patched him up, the goggles had saved him from yet another pair of broken glasses.
These days, T’shawn had such high black-market ratings that no one with a working brain would harass him. He still wore the goggles.
Marmeg smiled at him as they clasped arms, each one’s hand to the other’s elbow.
“What got you late?” he said.
The car’s electric motor whined to life, and they pulled away from the curb.
“Jeffy had a 404.”
“Gonna get himself killed one day. Can’t be rescuing him always, Marm. You almost missed the bus.”
“Know it, but he’s my brother. Had my back all these years. Gotta look out.”
T’shawn nodded, then shrugged. “Be growing up, getting yourself out. You win Sierra, he’ll be on his own. Oh, yeah, got some treats for you.”
He took a small case from the car’s center console and handed it to her. Four tiny capsules nestled in gray industrial foam. They gleamed with gold and green.
T’shawn grinned. His teeth reflected white in the lights of opposing traffic, his face a dark shadow. “Payback for your latest code. Done my clients real good; said they did parkour times a hundred. Clean getaway last night.”
“Don’t tell me.”
“Black market pays.”
“Sure, but don’t gotta like it. Want a better way.”
“That’s why you racing tomorrow. Don’t be grumpy, Marm.”
She smiled. Even if she didn’t like his clients, she couldn’t hold a grudge against T’shawn. Legit sales channels demanded certifications she couldn’t afford. Yet. She closed the case and slipped it into her gear bag. The capsules were identical to the ones Marmeg had in her body. Those had also been rewards from T’shawn and his friends in dark places.
They arrived at the bus station ten minutes before midnight. Marmeg grabbed her bag and stepped out into a cloud of diesel fumes. She coughed and thanked her friend for the ride.
“Good luck,” T’shawn said.
“Owe you for this, brud.”
“It’s nada. You go win.”
The car behind them honked. T’shawn rolled his eyes, gave her a salute, and pulled away.
Marmeg walked into the squat concrete bus station. Security guards in bulky exos watched her motions as they did with anyone wearing gear. She found her bus and boarded it. The dozen other passengers were mostly migrant farm workers from Mexico and Southeast Asia. Half of them had already dozed off, and the others were staring at their screens.
Marmeg had a row to herself. Her pack sat next to her, bulky and comforting. She wrapped her arms around it and tried to sleep, to forget the flash of red after she’d paid for the one-way ticket to Oakhurst. Her account was zeroed.
Excerpt from Runtime © S.B. Divya, 2016
This excerpt previously appeared on B&N Readouts