Monday, May 13, 2019

Something Extra by Patrick Ritter

Patrick Ritter imagines a world in which track racers' mechanical hearts are fine-tuned like F1 vehicles, but it's a future Scott Ryan is determined to resist.

Scott Ryan rose out of a deep stretch. He glanced up at the stadium clock above the track infield. Fifteen minutes until the start of the race.

Scott felt strong and ready. He started jogging along the edge of the infield past the warm-up areas for the other runners. He moved easily, with power and lightness, lifting his knees high with each step.

From the infield, a large red and black banner caught his attention. Scott clenched his jaw as he read it - Flowmax Racing Hearts. Beneath the banner several technicians bent over a young runner sitting in a padded chair. His bright jersey showed off the large Flowmax symbol. The runner was calm, almost bored, his face flushed with confidence. Inside his chest, an artificial heart - the Flowmax T4 - whirled silently.

The hair on Scott's neck bristled. Over the public address system the first of the runners was announced and the crowd roared. Thirteen minutes to go.

As Scott moved past the other runners he saw one of the racing technicians checking a sheet of blue paper: the runner's biochem results from that morning. The technician concentrated.

The precise tuning of a racing heart took a special blend of judgment and precision. He glanced at a climate readout panel, showing current humidity, temperature and wind velocity. In today's heat they would need a higher power output. But it would have to be perfectly programmed to allow enough for the finish.

Then there was the competition to think about. With the statistical workups from previous races, his team had developed an optimal strategy to offset the other racing hearts. All of the other runners, except for one, had developed similar programmed strategies against each other, a game theory battle of codes.

The technician made several entries on a keyboard and then picked up a small transmitter, placing it against the runner's chest. It was centered directly over the man's heart, a custom fit titanium motor powered by graphene polymer batteries woven into his jersey. Across muscle and bone, inductive circuits flowed. Inside the runner's chest a tiny silicon chip stored their electronic instructions for the race, winning instructions they hoped, for the Flowmax Corporation and its latest racing heart.

Scott jogged past other banners fluttering in the wind, announcing companies like Pulscor, Biolite and Pace. Heart mechanics peered at readout panels. Programmers made final adjustments.

Scott knew what they were considering. The key limiting factor was battery usage and how it played into an optimal race profile for today's conditions. But then there was always the unknown. How were the other companies programming the race? Steady ramp up, final e-sprint, or possibly slip-stream battery conserve mode? Some of the vendors even claimed their proprietary game theory software could model and predict all of the competition and assure a victory.

Not all of the competition, Scott thought. At the far end of the infield he stopped and turned around, his face all grit and determination. He looked down the track at the starting blocks, then again at the clock. Ten minutes to the start.

The noise in the stadium dropped suddenly, like the wind before a storm, as the last of the nine runners was announced. "And the only non sponsored contestant in today's event, number nine, from Berkeley, California... Scott Ryan!"

The crowd's applause was obligatory at first, but built into a sustained cheer. Scott Ryan, the last of the pre-tech runners, was clearly the long shot. Without an artificial heart he had little chance of keeping up with the league's corporate runners, equipped with bio engineered miracles of metal and code. But it did add to the spectacle. Scott looked into the first section, where his parents were sitting, and waved. Then he started jogging back along the infield.

Near the Flowmax staging area, a man in a bright red blazer, the president of Flowmax Corporation, paced nervously. Scott eyed him, remembering the conversation he had with him several months before at the recruiting building on campus. Scott had only gone at the urging of his coach. They had been in a small interview room, which was stuffy and quiet.

Scott finally broke the silence. "Look, Mr. Martin, I'm not against progress at all. I think artificial hearts are fantastic for those who really need them, who would die without them."

The Flowmax president leaned forward, placing his hands palm up on the table for effect. The sleeves of his red blazer shifted, revealing the engraved cuffs of the latest, and most expensive, synthetic cotton shirt. A practiced smile flickered across his face. He filled his voice with sincerity.

"Scott, I just think you're throwing away the chance of your life. You're among the best college runners now, maybe the best. When you graduate and turn pro, there's nothing between you and the top." He paused. "Nothing except this fool idea not to get a racing heart. You know as well as I you can't begin to compete in the pros without one. No one's come close."

"So I'm not a runner anymore, just a technology mule, is that it?

Martin continued, undeterred. "Look what fiberglass technology did for pole vaulting, or to skiing. No one put a stop to technology there. Try racing with a bike that isn't nano-carbon. You just can't compete. Technology is embedded into all sports now, and racing hearts are just one more step forward. Anyway, the Sports Federation settled all of this years ago. Artificial hearts are now as much a part of running as the shoes. If you hope to compete in the sport, you've just gotta accept all of its advancements, that's all."

"Advancements?" Scott replied, "You mean high tech gadgets, and risky ones at that."

Martin held out his hand. "Scott, these hearts are virtually flawless, everyone knows that. Since I've been at Flowmax, there hasn't been a single case of failure." He tapped the desk. "You need something extra to win a league race these days and with our new design, sprint response has been upped by over twenty percent. That's about the best in the business, my friend."

Scott shook his head. "So that's it, just strap ourselves to our technology and let it drag us along mindlessly. My God, those aren't athletes out there any more, they're becoming programmed robots. Why not just run the races by computer and save everyone the time? I'm a runner, Mr. Martin, and I want to compete."

"You want to talk competition? We've got em all beat, Scott. I hear Biolite's got a new biovalve it says will deliver faster beat delivery, but it will almost certainly break down. Pulscor is bringing on a real big boy - 95 ccs - which they think will be a winner, but it will drain the power and won't finish strong. Not to mention the weight of the battery wearables. Believe me, I know the competition and Flowmax has it beat. We've got the only continuous flow heart out there. Eliminate the moving parts and what are you left with? Magnetic rotor performance and winning times, that's what. It's going to be unbeatable for at least five years, maybe more. Enough time for you to cash in on it."

Scott stared at him. "I have just one question. When I'm up on the winning platform, just whom do I thank for my great accomplishment? Would that be the corporation, the technicians, or just the heart designer? And do I include the battery manufacturer?"

"Well, there are a lot of talented people who contribute, of course," Martin mumbled. "Scott, you have to think of it as a team effort really."

"That's not the point all," Scott interrupted. "It's the principle. Why is it we have to have artificial hearts in sports at all? We seemed to get along quite well for hundreds of years without them. What ever happened to the pride of individual accomplishment anyway? I'll tell you what happened. It sold out to the entertainment business, and all the techno glamour."

"Now hold it right there," Martin replied. "Sports are about excellence of any kind. And you, above all people, a Ryan. You were raised on excellence. Your father ran, what, the hundred meters? And before him, didn't your grandfather win gold in both the 400 and 1,500 in Rome? They excelled all right. All that stuff about principles is a poor excuse to me. Either you strive for the best or you don't. And the best of running includes its technology."

"The best of running is something my family does know something about," Scott shot back. "And yes, I have a name to live up to. But it's my name, not just another corporate logo."

"Look at it this way, Scott. You are destined to be a runner, right? Maybe even a great runner. Well, my company would simply be upgrading your skillset to make you that winning runner."

Scott shook his head and rose to his feet. "Any winning I do will come from me, not because of a bunch of code. I just can't get one, that's all."

Martin stared blankly as Scott began moving toward the door. He knew the conversation was over, at least for today. Ryan would probably go down a poor loser, he thought, both personally and financially.

Then the practiced corporate smile rushed back. "Yes, of course we understand your position, Scott. You're probably a born winner. You might do just fine in the pros without a racing heart." But Martin's voice wasn't convincing. "Now, if you do reconsider, be sure to get in touch with my people in San Jose right away."

A loud electronic horn jarred Scott back from his thoughts. Five minutes to the starting gun. The announcer blared, "All runners to the starting blocks!" The crowd roared. Corporate cheerleaders trotted out of the infield waving their banners, followed by the other runners.

Scott took a deep breath and moved out of the infield onto the track. From the stands a gravelly voice broke through the rising din. "Go get'em, Scotty!"

Scott recognized it immediately. He looked into the first row and his face lit up. That old dragon, he thought.

Sitting next to his parents, with one arm raised in salute, was his grandfather. Scott knew he had disobeyed the doctors, once again, to travel cross country for the race. Scott nodded to him and trotted toward the starting line.

The other eight runners were bunched near the starting blocks, eying each other closely, looking for any tell as to racing strategy. No one looked at Scott, who stretched up on the balls of his feet, then from side to side, swaying like a sapling.

The loud speakers bellowed, "Two minutes to the start... Two minutes!" The crowd hushed. Scott stepped to the blocks. Three positions away the Flowmax runner also moved forward. The runners went into a crouch on one knee, digging their feet against the blocks. The referee called, "Ready!" and the runners arched upward, making a line of nine backs. Battery jerseys bulged above eight of them. Scott Ryan stared ahead fiercely.

Thirty seconds... ten... and a tense final pause. Then the starting gun exploded and the runners leaped from the blocks, grimacing, coiled jaguars suspended in mid air for an instant in the hot afternoon.

The race was on, four laps and fifteen hundred meters around the oval track. As the runners got up to speed, pre-set programs kicked in for the racing hearts. The runners surged down the long straightaway, arms whipping up and down in a chorus line motion. They flew around the back turn. Into the back straight, the Pulscor and Flowmax runners moved ahead slightly. Scott was close behind. They rounded the front turn and pounded down the straight away, a blur of arms and legs. Within the other runners signals flooded in from skin and muscle sensors. Finely tuned hearts stepped up into the power phase of the race. Scott felt surrounded by an electronic madness, and it fueled him with an extra boost of determination.

By the end of the second lap the Flowmax and Pulscor runners were still in the lead with the rest of the field stretched out behind. Given no chance of keeping up, Scott was still in the middle of the pack. The group flashed down the track, faces flushed, legs pumping. Extra power surged from batteries and hearts raced faster. From the stands came an ancient bellow, "Come on, Scotty!"

In the third lap, the Flowmax runner pulled away alone, leaving all of the other runners in his wake, a racing strategy that looked to be working. Scott inched up into fifth place. His lungs ached and the track pounded up into his legs. He pushed himself down the straight into the last lap, and set himself for the final sprint.

Around the back turn Scott passed one runner, then another, and moved into third. He shortened the gap, pounded into second, and steadily began moving up toward the Flowmax runner. Down the back straight the lead decreased steadily, but just by a step or two. Scott felt a flame brightening inside him.

As Scott moved up, the crowd moved with him. The cheer began slowly at first, hesitant, and then built into a tumultuous roar. Something was shaken alive in the crowd, as if it had been sleeping for many years. Everyone was on their feet, pouring out a deafening roar of approval. Scott rounded the last turn and bore down on the Flowmax runner. The crowd went wild.

Down the straight Scott pulled even. Time slowed. They sprinted, lockstep, for several frozen seconds. Inside the Flowmax runner's chest, microcircuits flowed and the final sprint subroutine kicked in, precisely on cue. It gave him a supercharge push designed to eliminate all competition. But there was no subroutine for a Ryan in his program. Scott pushed into uncharted territory, reaching for something he could feel but couldn't name. Then he pushed beyond that.

It was a dead heat with fifty meters to go, thirty, then ten. The Flowmax runner maintained his constant speed. Scott reached for the last bit of energy he had, and kept reaching. As they crossed the finish line, Scott thrust himself forward with a tremendous effort, and the electronic scoreboard flashed his winning number. The noise of the crowd broke with it, rocking the stadium. Pandemonium broke loose. The scene was live-streamed to the world.

Later that afternoon Scott walked down a cool stadium hallway. The crowd had long since gone. The media had finally left too, loaded with the sports story of the year. Scott was headed for the athlete's exit where his family waited. He moved past the locker room offices. A door suddenly opened. Through it stepped Martin, the Flowmax president. Trailing behind him were three technicians and the heart mechanic, all staring at the floor. The Flowmax runner followed, looking righteously annoyed. Martin looked tired. His features were sunken. When he saw Scott he stopped. His practiced smile started to form but it faded quickly. In its place a look of genuine awe swept across his face.

Martin stared at Scott for a long moment. Then he said softly, "Some runners are born and not made, eh Ryan?"

This time, Scott knew he meant it.

8 comments:

  1. An original premise that’s also a logical extension of today’s sports tech. Scott is a bit of a modern day John Henry. Well-written and thought-provoking.

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  2. Great story of a possible future scenario. I felt like I was watching the race unfold before my eyes.

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  3. The description of the race is first class. The story seems to be a logical development from where we are. Either way, great characters and story.
    Mike McC

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  4. Genetics vs Machine. Long rhetorical debate between Martin and Scott...vivid race very exciting!

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  5. Great underdog story, really pulls you in and makes you root for Scott. Made me feel the way I felt pulling for Rocky vs. Drago in Rocky IV.

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  6. I'll be the skeptic. Would a mechanical heart help the runner without having arteries and veins modified to take the greater pumping rate?

    With all of the emphasis on rejecting doping, would this radical a revision to human physiology be permitted or encouraged?

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    1. Good points. The suspension of disbelief is especially challenging for "hard" science fiction. Permitting such outrageous physical changes is one of the themes of the story. But your point about arteries and veins. That does raise issues. I appreciate your input.

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  7. There are two things I like about this story. First, the writing is clean, it's easy to follow the story arc, and the structure is set up for a bit of suspense. Second, thematically, I like what the writer did thematically here. I'm a runner, one who finishes at the back of the pack. But I'm also a fan of the sport, so I get the point - the mechanical heart being a symbol of all the "extra" ways people try to perfect performance, even if it's as simple as gear choices. Though not specifically stated in the story, the writer reminds me the joy in running is well, simply running.

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