Adventure Drama Speculative

The poor in Farthing keep getting poorer. The less you have the more they take. That’s Farthing. Take Lucana and me. We live in Widow’s Mite, on the border of Fayetteville, in a boxable unit, in a stack of similar boxable units, in a dirty forgotten quarter, on a nondescript block, that forms a section of an unpaved tract, beneath a jagged palisade, where the city planners neglected to account for stormwater drainage so that it floods with every single storm, where Jackboots come and go where they please, and freely take our belongings or step on our necks without an ounce of shame or pity.

It is a bat-infested crag where the street food merchants with their rotting wares attract all manner of bugs, which in turn attract hordes of bats, that live in caves up on the palisade, and where our life of wage slavery is bordered by a murky twilight where drones and winged rodents forage—and never run out of crawling things ripe for the plucking.

All the streetlights are burned out or shattered. Abandoned factory buildings with broken windows and boarded-up doors weep despondently, their marred faces obscured by shadows. When even industry abandons a ghetto, how desolate is the desolation?

At night in Widow’s Mite, you can’t tell the whir of the patrolling drones apart from the beating of the bats’ wings. The government Jackboots are indistinguishable from their Freeboot imposters. The Park Coats Emporium sells the same rags to anyone with money—credentials notwithstanding. In Widow’s Mite, authority and corruption make the same sounds, wear the same clothes, patrol the same beats, and prey equally on our rattle-boned and moth-eaten lot. What is universal is that whatever comes your way is looking to take the little that you have.

A group of these spit-and-polished martinets broke into our unit last night, under the pretense that they were searching for a fugitive. Three knocks. “Government business,” they announced. We had learned to answer promptly. They were coming in regardless. “Did you see an untagged refugee?” the grizzly-looking one demanded. We stood away from the door, kept our heads down, and protested that we’d seen nothing, but they shoved past us anyway, all three of them, rummaging through our possessions for anything of value. Not that they needed an excuse.

They found the bug-out bag with the stenciled words “B-L-U-E-P-R-I-N-T” on the red-colored water-proof covering, even though we had placed it high above the inverter for our disconnected solar panels—a vestige from before the fog rendered these contraptions useless.

They threw the Blueprint and all of our rations into their duffle bags. They didn’t understand the Blueprint’s true value—or what it meant to Lucana and me. The problem was that the Homeownership Equality Act prohibited us from buying a second title until we’d paid off the first, making the Blueprint irreplaceable. We would have to pay double to buy it back on the black market and it wasn’t worth much to anyone else. The Jackboots knew that, and they also knew that the bug-out bag was not worth nearly as much as our claim.

Finding nothing else worth their time, they moved on, dropping the pretense of official business, shoving Lucana off her feet, and landing her in our rattan hamper, as they made for the door. “Call us when you have the money to make a deal,” the grizzly-looking one said. “Or maybe I’ll take a little trip—enjoy the sites in—Los Manos—what a joke.” He tossed a burner phone at the laundry hamper and slammed the door as he left.

Lucana’s eyes reddened. She was so famished and exhausted, that she couldn’t even form tears. She just lay there like a crumpled, soiled rag, used up and soaked in dirt.

“Drobek,” she said. “Now we will never get out of Farthing.”

I rushed over to her and told her to hush, wrapped her in a quilt comforter, and brought her to her room. She shook and trembled in my arms. I noticed the tautness of her shoulder muscles and her back. Slight as she was, she was getting strong. She thrust her cold hands out of the opening of the wrapped quilt, revealing a prodding stick. A mischievous smirk shone through her trembling.

“Luc, what did you do?” I asked.

“In case they come back, I’ll be ready,” she managed to verbalize, still jackhammering in shock. I had never known Lucana to steal or threaten violence.

I had promised Lucana I would not go back to The Armory, that I wouldn’t race in The Relays for extra money, but I was left with no choice.

We had broken our backs to earn the credits for the Blueprint, and now it was gone. Lucana had been working in a drone manufacturing plant over in Fayetteville, debugging malfunctioning heavy industrial robots. It was gut-wrenching work. Dangerous. Mentally and physically taxing. It had taken her a calendar month to earn 100 credits. On paydays, when there were a few extra credits for a hot meal, Lucana would come home and bend her elbow impersonating the robot arms, making funny robot noises, and chasing me around the house with her mock electronic claw.

I had been working even harder to earn my share. For weeks I had slaved over a fleet of Picaroon-model drones. Row after row of drones were lined up in the airfield hangar like a battalion of impotent soldiers. Without proper repair, the sleek black raptors were more photo props than proper pieces of weaponry.

One night I’d come home with a measly 10 credits for my efforts. Lucana and I huddled over some hot noodles. We dipped our chopsticks in the salty broth and dined like kings. Quietly. Both thinking how the 18 credits we’d accumulated were reduced to 15 credits from the meal. But we both needed it. We were on edge for another Jackboot raid.

“When are we getting out of Farthing,” Lucan asked.

I dropped my chopsticks and said, “If I just run, Luc—if I just have a few good runs—you know, this could all be behind us.”

“You can’t run forever,” Lucana said.

“Not forever, Luc—just a few lucky breaks—that’s all it would take.”

Lucana frowned and said, “You said that last time you got hurt. Then you were out of work. It’s the same cycle, over and over. You get ahead. Win a few races. Then you’re out. One step forward. Two steps back.”

“I know Luc, but it’s the only way—why won’t you just let me race?”

“I’ve always envied the racers,” she said, chewing on the end of her chopstick. “The way they push right to the limit.”

Lucana came over and sat next to me and gave me a side hug, resting her head on my shoulder.

“Tell me about your Double Jeopardy win again,” she said, with a smile.

“I was fresh off a win,” I said. “The announcer gave the signal—Double Jeopardy—and I knew it was my chance. The usual suspects were there, Tony and Buck…” and I regaled her with the whole story. Lap by lap. Even though she knew it all by heart.

And then Lucana read from the pamphlet, “La Isla de Los Manos, known as Monkey Island, is a paradise along the Amazon River. It is an oasis of vegetation and freedom. 618 acres. You will arrive by speedboat in a land untouched by time…”

As she read about the area where we had our acre plot, we slurped down our noodles and dreamed of a new life.

The irony was that either one of us could turn some wires, transistors, rotors, and screws into a flying mechanical marvel in no time flat, but neither one of us knew how to build a lean-to, how to start a fire, or how to forage for fruit, nuts, and berries. Native species? Which were deadly and which were edible? Forget it. We were lost.

The Blueprint was part instruction manual, part survival kit—it had everything you needed to escape the Farthing grind. Sat phones. Flares. Waterproof matches. Spark-Lite. Packages of kindling. A packet of lighter fluid. Iodine pills. LifeStraw water filter. Fishing line. Flashlights. Bivy sack. Headlamps. Compass. Mosquito nets. Loperamide. Metronizadole. Mebendazole tabs. Moleskin. Antibiotics. Morphine. Cyanide.          

I guess I should explain. Why would anyone want to leave the City—leave the wardenship of life in Farthing? Well, the future wasn’t like we’d imagined it. We ran out of chocolate. Can you believe it? A nasty little byproduct of climate change. It was an absolute crime if you ask me. A world without chocolate. Sure, sure. We had a hundred artificial flavorings that mimicked chocolate. But it’s nothing compared with the real thing. Trust me.

If that wasn’t bad enough, everything in Farthing was constantly breaking down. Robotics was supposed to free us from work, but every mechanized arm, every artificial joint, and every connecting screw was corroding in real-time and in need of constant repair. Every server, every computer terminal, every electronic leash, and every drone was like another mouth that needed to be fed. You can only lay so much concrete before the world is a parking lot. But you’d never patch all the holes.

Rather than ushering in an era of ease and prosperity, all our technological advances had done was become another source of toil and despair. The rich kept getting richer. And the poor kept getting poorer. Mathematical servitude. Debt slavery. A caste system that was so obvious that interest rates were substituted for chains, but no one dared call them what they were—shackles—Bilboes—slave restraints—the brands of ownership.

The day after the raid I was down at the hangar with the drones when the grizzled Jackboot paid me a visit. “Hey, fleet foot,” he said. “If you want the money to buy back your claim, go by The Relays tonight. I have it on good authority they are playing Double Jeopardy.”

For us, the escape to the rainforest was our dream for a better life, our only hope. The rainforest was Shangri-La. It was all we spoke about.

And that dream was in jeopardy.

If I couldn’t get another Blueprint.

The Relays were my only hope.


Straightening off the curve of the first turn to the long straightaway, I surge for the leader. I am behind him, and he can’t see me coming. Which is how I like it.

About thirty yards behind me, a bearded Scandinavian man named Buck is neck and neck with a lithe Sagragosian named Vic. Neither of them is a threat. I look over my shoulder and Buck cuts off Vic on the turn to the straightaway, causing him to step out of bounds. Automatic elimination.

“Vic Sideborne—Eliminated” the announcer blared, and a balloon holograph floated up announcing this to the crowd. Directly on cue, the spectators burst out in applause.

I could tell the leader had gone out too fast, but I didn’t know if he’d go with me when I passed him. Should I pass on the left or the right? Come alongside or rush by? Break his heart with a blistering gap or let him chase me, breaking the chord a bit at a time? I opt to blow by him and open up like my life depends on it.

The leader is a Sicilian named Tony. A greasy, olive-skinned sprinter with two pogo sticks for legs. He bounds along like a deer. His black wavy hair bounces up and down with his loping strides. I watch him like a hawk, timing my move.

The way The Relays work is that after each lap, whoever is in the lead gets a further head start by whatever gap he has opened up over each of the other competitors. All of the other competitors, each in their respective lane, are frozen by a tractor beam as soon as they cross the line, and penalized, held there, falling further behind, by the exact duration of the gap they’ve allowed the leader to gain on them. The strategy is to consider each lap like its own race and surge like hell to avoid getting ‘pitted.’ Getting pitted by any margin on Lap 1 is the beginning of the end.

In nearly every race someone blows out a hamstring, tears a calf, or worse. If the leader can pull away, the leader gets further ahead, and the also-rans get further behind, making it harder and harder to overcome the leader’s advantage. A real “Red Queen” scenario. You want to try to run from the lead. After each lap, one competitor is eliminated, until only one runner is left. 250 credits for the victor. No consolation prize. It is all or nothing in Farthing.

I am nearly on Tony’s heels. I hear the sound of the crowd. Feel the sponginess of the track. The rebound of my racing flats. The slipstream from Tony. The humidity of the Armory. The static of competition in the air. Then I am frozen in space. The announcer says, “Five-seconds in the pit for Drobek Tamerlane.”

The Relays are brutal. You have to keep going faster, just to stay in the same place. Seven competitors. Seven lanes. Seven laps. Unless someone drops. And with Vic dropping, it is down to six laps.

I make my move, and by the middle of lap 2, I am fifteen seconds ahead. I’ve always been fast. I’ve always been hard to catch. But racing two days in a row is hell on the bottoms of the feet. A few weeks back, Lucana and I were night running and she took a run at me. She is getting fast. She’s almost as fast as Tony now. I made her do drills. Striders. Bleacher climbs.

I feel it instantly. Snap. Like I’ve been shot in my calf. I try to put weight on the leg, but it is no good. My calf seizes up as the healthy muscle constricts, hard as concrete, encasing the strands of frayed wire in a cast, making the leg stiff as a board.

I limp and hobble off the course, crossing the boundary. The elimination signal booms with a sound effect like a cannon and a visual holographic balloon floats up in the stadium to a cascade of roars. “Drobek Tamerlane-Eliminated!”

I sit in the dugout watching the other racers panting and writhing in pain, their faces distorted in grotesque shapes. Lucky bastards.

“Tough night,” Lucana says.

“Luc, what the hell are you doing here?” I ask.

I notice that Luc is wearing her tracksuit in solidarity with my race. I breathe out deeply and try to exhale the feeling of defeat. It stings even worse knowing she was here rooting me on. “Luc, you shouldn’t be here,” I say.

“Do you want to die? You are not the only one that can come down to see the games, you know.”

“You’re only sixteen. You are too young to be in a place like this.”

“Really. You are going to start in with that right now?”

“It’s safer back at home.”

“Is it? Is it really? What, so I can wait for some Jackboot to break in and ransack the place again? Maybe catch rabies from a stray bat following a gnat into our apartment?”

She is in one of those moods. I massage my spasming calf. It is warm. Purpling. And I can feel the dull ache deep in the muscle tissue that can only be a tear.

“I think I’m out for a month. I have no idea how we are going to get enough money together to get back the Blueprint. Sorry Luc.”

The announcer comes on and says, “Winner-Tony Veloci!” The balloons come up. The crowd roars. And the announcer is back on saying, “Please come down to the rostrum if you want to sign up for the next relay. We will be taking a fifteen-minute intermission. Keep your bracelets in view. Drones will be coming around for refreshments.”

A small medical drone appears and administers a shot in my leg which contains prednisone, cortisone, and analgesic. The shot numbs the pain, but I still can’t run.

The announcer comes back over the PA. “Announcement. Announcement. Competitors, it is your lucky day. Today is ‘Double Jeopardy!’ For one race only, the grand prize is 500 credits. Come down to the rostrum to sign up. Don’t miss your chance folks. Today is the day, Farthingonians. Get your piece of Farthing Gold. Come on down.” Three contestants head down. Others scan their bracelets with passing drones.

Six of the seven spots are filled in minutes.

Luca is bent over at her hips, stretching her hamstrings.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“It’s now or never, old man,” Lucana says. And she is gone.

I hobble after her, but it is no use. I can’t go out on the track, or the Jackboots will escort me out.

Lucana is there on the starting blocks. Bent down and ready to strike. She had been strong on our night runs. The crowd cheers for the newcomer. She looks strong. She looks like a grown woman.

The thing about Farthing is that there is limitless scarcity. A bottomless deficit. Yet out of that fathomless well rises an unpredictable resiliency.

Every penny in the fountain is just a worthless brass farthing. But add up all those scratch-and-dent dreams and all of those long shots, and they form mountains reaching for the moon.

The gun goes off. I say a prayer. And leave Farthing behind.

Watching Lucana pull away from Tony, I think of the thing that is needing in all of us, which burns like high-octane fuel. Lucana pulls ahead of Tony and shoots me a knowing glance. She is already free. The race is hers.

February 01, 2024 10:12

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HC Edwards
01:55 Feb 04, 2024

I like this one. Reminds me of King’s Running Man but more realistic. And I like how you intentionally don’t finish it so that the reader has to surmise if they ever make it there…


Jonathan Page
13:43 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks HC!


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Ty Warmbrodt
18:41 Feb 03, 2024

Johnathan, you once again set the bar. You consistently put out great stories. I don't know how you do it. I really enjoyed this. Good luck. I hope you get another win.


Jonathan Page
13:43 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks Ty!


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01:58 Feb 03, 2024

I totally believe Lucana wins as well. She has to. Your building of the world of Farthing, a world they want to get out of, paints a great but grave picture. Humans are very clever at inventing but they never anticipate contingencies or the damage to the planet. You portrayed it well.


Jonathan Page
13:44 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks Kaitlyn!


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Alexis Araneta
14:21 Feb 02, 2024

As usual, fantastic world building here ! Great job !


Jonathan Page
13:44 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks Stella!


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Christy Morgan
02:39 Feb 02, 2024

A world with no chocolate? Heresy!! Another entertaining and well-fashioned story, Jonathan! The ending was somewhat predictable, but it just felt right all the same. I do like the last passage: The gun goes off. I say a prayer. And leave Farthing behind. I'll look forward to reading your next one!


Jonathan Page
13:44 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks Christy!


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Trudy Jas
21:46 Feb 01, 2024

Bread and games, games and bread. the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Will things ever change? A sad state of affairs when the Amazon (with bone crushing pythons - see Bendickson) is Eutopia. :-} Another winner.


Jonathan Page
13:44 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks Trudy!


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Mary Bendickson
20:02 Feb 01, 2024

Serious racing to get far from Farthing.


Jonathan Page
13:44 Feb 08, 2024

Thanks Mary!


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