Submitted into Contest #235 in response to: Make a race an important element of your story.... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative Sad

The sterile floor clicked beneath the steel couplings affixed to the soles of Evinflo Calabash’s knee-high boots.  He passed stalls, as he went, and from each he heard the hiss and beep of the systems that assured the veterinary engineer that the horses were functioning normally.  

Beyond the windows, he could hear the crowd beginning to gather in the stands, and could almost picture the white of boater hats, linen suits, and hoop-skirted dresses.  A muscle in his neck twitched, and he slapped at it, approaching his animal as she stamped her one remaining natural hoof against the floor of the hovering trailer.

“She’s itching to run.”  A name and title — Dr. Eloqutia Fennick— glared in hot, red lettering from the holobadge that projected its translucent legitimacy from her broad, peaked lapel of her gilt-edged labcoat.  Her eyes flashed back and forth as she spoke, and though he had never experienced the implant, Evin understood that she was multitasking, both carrying on a conversation and viewing something complicated on her HUD.

“Isn’t she always?”

“Yes she is; Honeyswift is a triumph of coded instinct.”  The words suggested she was proud, but he didn’t hear it in her voice, and she didn’t show it with her face.  “Still, the natural hardware’s degrading.  Bound to corrupt the code at some point.”

The young jockey paused; he had difficulty parsing the doctor’s meaning sometimes.  “Her brain?”

“Indeed,” Doctor Fennick confirmed, her eyes snapping into focus in a way that told Evin she was interacting with the world, rather than a filtered, overlaid version of it.  Seeing him fully for the first time since he entered, she smiled slyly.  “The implant will be far less trouble.  You know most of the maintenance we have to do is on her neurals?  She’ll barely need them once the new one is installed.”

He nodded, feigning interest where he felt none.  “Biological or mineral?”

“Alloy,” she said, casually tossing the word as though the implications meant nothing to her.  “Original.  One I’m hoping to patent.”

Evin raised an eyebrow.  “Any patent invented while in my father’s employ is property of Marduk Stables, isn’t it?”

The doctor shook her head.  “I made sure my contract excluded that particular clause,” she said.

Evin shook his head, but was not terribly surprised.  The bidding war for Dr. Fennick’s contract had been fierce, and he had always wondered what had eventually swayed her to sign with Marduk Stables.  “And the hitch I mentioned?”

“Nothing of consequence,” she said, her eyes far away again.

“I was out on the track for Thursday’s exercise, and—”

“Yes, you said all of this when you brought her in for a tune-up.”

“I know, but—”

“Well, I tuned her up, and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a ‘hitch,’ as you insist on calling it.”

“I know, but—”

“In fact, by every metric she represents the peak of cybernetically enhanced equine performance.  So, I don’t know what you felt.  It wasn’t a problem with her, though.  I can assure you of that much.”

Evinflo felt his face flush red.  “If you’re implying—”

“I’m not implying anything, Young Lord Calabash,” she said, her eyes still infuriatingly distant, as though having a disagreement with the lord’s son, and the jockey that would run Honeybreeze in the Melbourne were too small a matter to merit her full attention.  “I merely relay the data I’ve generated.  Mine came from sensors so finely tuned they could detect a damaged strand of DNA in a nucleus located in a single follicle— and I must admit I’m impressed she still has any, given that today is her eighty-seventh birthday— while your data is the product of a feeling you claim to have had once.  An anomaly you sensed in only a single iteration of many laps of the exercise track.”

For a moment, the youthful lord merely stared, hearing his heart hammering in his ears.  Of course, she won’t admit to finding anything wrong.  Honey’s function is a reflection on her, and a could be a major feather in her cap.  Mustn’t allow our cap to be mussed, must we?

“Oh, one last thing,” the good doctor said, snapping back to the present moment.  “I’m told you’ve been feeding her an apple before each race?”

The boy frowned.  “Yes.  She likes them.”

“I doubt it.  I’ve never tested for it, but her sense of taste has probably atrophied.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask about her teeth.”

“No point, now that she’s on liquids.”  Casually, she picked up a tablet and poked at it with a rigid, implacable finger.

“Right, but—”

“If it's her aesthetics you’re worried about, don’t.  Those teeth are obsolete synths, from an era before nutrition could be regulated intravenously.  We’ll extract the teeth, grow a mesh to stiffen her lips, fuse her jaw.  Give her back some of her beauty.”

Evinflo felt his stomach roll over.

The doctor paused in poking the pad to wave a hand, as though shooting a fly.  “Returning to apples,” she said.  “Don’t give her any more.”

Evin gritted his teeth, trying to bite back a retort.  “I don’t see how it hurts—”

“Her nutrition is precisely calibrated.  A sudden spike to her blood sugar damages that balance.  So, please.  Don’t.”

Begrudgingly, he nodded and turned to leave.  The nutritional systems detect and adjust automatically anyway, so what difference does it make?  He heard the hiss and pop of those very devices disconnecting their tubes from the ports beneath Honey’s flanks.  They— the doctor and multiform systems that kept the mare oiled and running— were preparing her to race.

Exiting, Evinflo Calabash sighed.  He knew he wasn’t supposed to feel anything for the animal, but did anyway.  In the early days, when he’d first begun riding at the age of twelve, he had tried hard to steel himself against the necessities of racing the animal that, after eighty years of fronting his noble family’s stable, was now more than nine-tenths biomechanical.  Still, in the moments he’d stolen time alone with her, he had seen the flicker of consciousness in her eyes, had felt her vitality in the flex of her gait.  Her one remaining natural hoof, too, seemed a part of this equation he could not quite wrap his head around, as though it symbolized something that teased and danced just beyond his understanding.

Trailing after the coaster as it moved down the broad, central corridor of the hovering hoveryacht, Evinflo brooded.  At some point, his fingers found the small, tart apple in his pocket, and he brought it out, regarding its pink and yellow skin from what felt like a very great distance.  

He grimaced as the forward hatch opened, flooding the interior with natural Australian sun, the family’s fanfare playing to a wide audience.  He caught faces in the crowd he recognized, but more that he did not.  Really, it didn’t matter.  The applause was not for him; he was merely ornamentation.  His job?  To crouch atop the heaving mass that technically qualified as a horse as she pounded 3.2 kilometers of earth with three steely hooves and a single, softer one made of the same material as human hair.

For a moment, he considered feeding the apple to Honeybreeze, despite Fennick’s inane objections, but he reconsidered.  What did it matter?  Her dopamine levels were monitored and adjusted, just as everything else was in her body.  For Honey, there was no pain nor boredom nor disappointment; she experienced neither distinct pleasures, or pain.

Without thinking, Evin threw the apple into the crowd; perhaps, even, at the crowd.  Squeals of bright, girlish joy erupted, and the mass congealed around the person who had caught it, their laughter and delight making it clear that they thought this some kind of a token or boon bestowed on them by the jockey.

I’ll hear about that little stunt from Father after she wins, Evin thought.  It occurred to him that he might be expected to toss an apple before every race from now on, and the idea of it somehow seemed impossibly exhausting.

The suspensor ladder approached, guided by two grooms, whose garish costumes flashed in the meager sunlight that filtered down from a cloud cover that threatened rain.  Doctor Fennick glared at him with wide, commanding eyes, and Evin almost did as she wanted.  Then, responding to some internal impulse he could never seem to predict, he did as he had always done, and leapt up onto the coaster with Honey.  Once there, he leapt, again, deftly pulling himself onto her back with little more than a grip on her withers.  Beneath his hands, he felt tough horseflesh underlaid with something hard, obdurate, and implacable.  

His legs knew their business, and without needing to even glance at what he did, he mated the couplings on his boots to the stirrups.  The mechanism triggered, and gently closed over his foot.  

Evinflo wore no audio implants, yet; his cochlea were entirely his own.  At only fourteen, he had a few years of growing to do before joining himself to the augmented reality in which most adults lived.  Still, he almost felt as if he could hear Honey’s voice in his head as the stirrups, which were really a part of her body, gripped his feet as though made to fit him.  Which, he supposed, they were.  Welcome, Evin, she seemed to say.  Shall we go for a run today?

The processes which told Honey what to do took over, and she stepped lightly from the coaster, putting her trueborn hoof down onto Austalian earth.  The crowd went wild.

For his, part, Evin crouched, and held on.  He felt a kind of joining happening, where he and Honey ceased to exist as separate entities and meshed together into a single— or at least symbiotic— harmony of purpose.

The rest of the preparations went by in a blue for the jockey, as they always did.

It wasn’t until the trumpets had blown and they were out of the gate that Evinflo sensed something wrong.

There it is again.  A hitch in her stride.

The internal, intrusive voice of Doctor Fennick tried to punch through his consciousness and insist, but she was merely a phantom of his own anxiety, and he tried to bite back the feeling, to remind himself that he was merely human, barely spliced and completely unenhanced.  His nerve endings weren’t worth much when set against bioengineering.

Then, Honey lurched suddenly as her natural foreleg stopped moving altogether and began to drag, trailing between her three cybernetic legs like a misplaced umbilical.  The jolt threw Evin hard to the left, and he caught himself by the locked stirrups, though he felt something in his right hip pull and erupt in a hot, local kind of agony.

And yet, the mare kept running.

The sudden change in gait threatened to unseat the jockey; granted, he had the security of the stirrups to help him maintain balance, but the alien, staccato rhythm of the gallop had become something he had tremendous trouble matching.  The three mechanical legs blurred beneath her, and the one flapped bonelessly, occasionally striking her one natural hoof against the racetrack where it gouged the green grass.  As unnatural as the horses that ran upon it, the turf regrew in an instant, a detail that somehow stuck in Evin’s panicked mind.

They’ve compensated, he realized, and tried to find the gait.  Yet, it was too disjointed, too asymmetrical, and his hips, trained to join to a horse’s four-legged rhythms, simply wouldn’t do the work.  Evin found himself bouncing up and down on the mare’s titanium spinal column, thrown back and forth with the flex of her three-legged gallop that he was finally doing little more than flopping freely against her as she ran.  

When his spine snapped, Evin heard it echo through him as though his chest were an echo chamber.

He sensed the approaching riders on either side of him as his posture collapsed, but somehow did not notice when they crossed the line.  Ceremonial flashers wielded by excited patrons blinked white light, mimicking the flashbulbs of old, and Evin began to wonder if he would lose consciousness at the precise moment he did.

When he awoke, he was not in any conventional hospital, but back in the stable, beneath the watchful eye of Doctor Fennick.  “There he is,” she said.  “He’s responsive again, my Lord.”

“Awake, is he?”

“Yes.  Did I not just say that?”

The Lord Kieran Calabash, House of Marduk, regarded his son.  “Quite a race you rode, boy.  Not the win, we’d hoped for, but you did come in second.  Good enough, given the circumstances.  We’ll have you back in the saddle in no time.”

For a moment, forgetting himself, Evinflo tried to come up on one elbow, but his muscles were unresponsive.  The doctor must have seen a blip on her pad or in her HUD somewhere.  “You won’t be able to move for just a little while longer; the synthetic PSP I’ve dosed you with— which you’ve proven viable for human trials, might I add— should be out of your system within about four hours.”

“What happened?”  The voice boomed out of a speaker. Seeing it, he felt the cold fingers of a neural link pressing coldly against the skin of his temples.  Despite being incapable of rolling his eyes, he could just see Honey’s head suspended by cables and shimmering with busy, nanites at the periphery of his vision.

“What happened was that you rode a dead horse,” his father barked, cutting his eyes dangerously at the veterinarian, whose eyes were lost in augmented reality.

Evin would have shaken his head, had it been possible, unsure he’d heard right.  “Dead?”

“Apparently for a week or more.”  The broad-shouldered lord gestured at the veterinarian.  “The good doctor here somehow kept her running, in spite of that.”

“I hate that word.  Dead doesn’t mean anything anymore,” said Fennick, dismissively.  “I’d made a map of her synapses the moment you signed my contract.  I printed a synthetic brain and connected the nerves, which were also almost all synth.  Her heart had been replaced with an implant pump, so she didn’t lose oxygen, or any remaining tissue.  Like I said, before the race.  Old hardware just… gave out.”  She glanced down at the boy.  “Looks like the nanites are just about done with you.  You should be good to go.  Might even be better.”

His broken back, the fact that a veterinary engineer rather than a human doctor had operated on him, the realization that he’d shed his first shred of biology and been implanted: none of this hit him as hard as the news that Honey’s brain was no longer her own.  Evin tried to be strong, tried to bite back the revulsion he felt at the revelation.  “Why did you lie?”

This gave the doctor pause.  “Huh,” she said, sounding genuinely befuddled.  “Why did I?”  She turned, and regarded him frankly, with eyes that were present.  “I guess it was the apples,” she said.  “You’re sentimental, emotional.  I didn’t want to have to justify my decision to a superior that is, point of fact, my inferior in almost every significant regard.”

His father laid a hand on his shoulder in what was probably supposed to be a comforting gesture that felt mostly condescending.  “She did her job.”

“Honey was my friend—”

“See?”  The doctor gestured with a pointed, accusatory finger.  “Emotional.  Sentimental.  You know that my predecessor stripped socials from even her old hardware long before you were born?”

Had he known that?  Would it have mattered?

His father smiled, but grimly, and patted his shoulder.  Practically arm in arm, he and the doctor walked in the direction the stable bay’s door.  He heard the distinct, musical note that signealled identity confirmation by the security system, followed by the door’s near silent retraction into the wall.  Passing beyond the threshold, which closed behind him, they left him alone with the machines.

Left with nothing else to do, he watched as the nanites excised the dead limb with the real, keratin hoof.  Efficiently, they manipulated it into a recycling hopper that gobbled the biomass greedily, and with a speed seen nowhere in nature.

And just like that, the very last bit of her nature was gone.  

Still, they would race her as a natural born animal, because, once, she had been.  Nevermind that every part of her was now an engineered, manufactured piece rather than a naturally occurring one.  What was a natural horse anyway?  Hadn’t humans inserted themselves into the evolutionary process and altered the natural course with selective breeding?  Didn’t her natural cells replace themselves when they broke down?  What difference did it make?  Death?  What was death?

Dead doesn’t mean anything anymore.

It didn’t matter; none of it mattered.  There was still a horse called Honeyswift, as long as his definition of a horse was was malleable.  She would still run, do all the things she had always done, possessed of the qualities of a champion.  He tried to believe it.

But there would be no more apples.

Somehow, that meant more than the data, and so Evinflo Calabash, paralyzed on an operating table originally designed for equine patients, wept for his friend.   He wept for the race he’d run mounted on a carcass.  He wept for the end of innocence which had died out there, on the racetrack, alongside his obsolete body and concept of mortality.

January 30, 2024 17:39

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Imogen Bird
21:15 Feb 07, 2024

The apple is such a great anchor in this story. Infinitely sad and a great comment on human nature. Congratulations on an incredibly deep and and meaningful tale.


Aaron Bowen
14:37 Feb 08, 2024

Thank you, Imogen. You're kind with your praise, and I'm grateful to you. It means a lot.


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13:39 Feb 05, 2024

Very interesting concept. As a horse lover, and the owner of a 32 year old mare, I can see the appeal to having your horse live forever. I can also hope that technology does not reach this point within my own lifetime.


Aaron Bowen
14:29 Feb 05, 2024

Thanks for the kind words, Christina! My grandfather trained quarter horses for the latter half of his life, and I learned a little from him and my Dad.


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