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Thomas parked his car a few blocks away from the address Naomi had given him. The neighborhood had a bad name and character to it, and he did not want his replacement car to become the target of mindless vandalism. But turning the corner to a street he had been told to avoid his first reaction was one of surprise; the streets were pristine, like the stones were laid there yesterday and bright signs welcomed passers-by into the local establishments. Sure, the area certainly did not cater to one’s best side - not with the large moving adverts promising cheap alcohol, drugs and women – but the front was meticulously kept. Only when he noticed a group of naked women writhing in a heap in the air above the entrance of a whorehouse he remembered that the glasses he was wearing didn’t stop at simply passing the view of his surroundings through its lenses but actively added and removed things from it according to its programming. He took of his glasses and seeing the actuality was like getting spit in the face : the pavement was cracked and littered, dead cars lining the side of the road. Decrepit buildings were covered in graffiti, and many had broken windows. Neon signs had gone dark, store names painted into the brick and mortar faded long ago making it impossible to tell the establishments from one another. Only a few feet away there was homeless man sitting down on the street, wrapped in a blanket, his back resting against a building. Thomas lifted the glasses back up, a foot away from his face. Looking through the glasses like this was like looking through a keyhole into a fantasy world; a world where the blemishes were washed away. Even the tramp was edited out like the litter encompassing him, replaced with a virtual icon so people would not just trip over him. Thomas now remembered hearing in the news of decomposed corpses found in the middle of busy streets where people had passed them blindly for weeks before. He huffed throatily and placed the glasses in his pocket.

“Out of sight, out of mind,” he thought as he passed the neglected buildings. People visited them daily, even procured extra money by running them, but renovation was becoming a forgotten art as it was both cheaper and more effective to just amp up the filters. The same also applied to apartment buildings; everyone got to live in their own personal fantasyland while the drab walls around them slowly rot.

His path took him through some back streets where he had to watch his step to avoid ruining his shoes with trash spilling from overfilled dumpsters, but he reached his target which appeared to be a run-down multistory parking garage. In the yard a group of people was congregating around flashy modified cars. Even from a distance it was obvious there was a disagreement between two men of the group. At first he planned to circumvent the gang but recognizing Jason as the other belligerent he headed straight for the pair.

“That’s not fair! You can’t just make demands like that out of nowhere!” Jason yelled to the hoodlum, a young Hispanic man polychromatic with his crimson dyed hair and extensively inked skin.

“Debts must be paid,” the man said casually. “And you’re out of credit.”

A female member of the ring noticed Thomas approaching and gestured towards him with her cigarette. The rest turned to face him.

“What’s going on here?” Thomas asked, stopping a few paces away so he could keep an eye on everyone at once.

Jason seemed more alarmed by his appearance than whatever conflict he had found himself in. He only managed to blurt out, “Thomas?”

The tattooed man he assumed was the leader of the gang seemed unconcerned.

“Your boy here plans to default on his debt.” He spat. “We don’t take kindly to that.”

“I’ll pay you back, just not today.”

Thomas interjected before the argument could repeat itself: “And this payment you claim you’re due would not happen to be that Maserati over there?”

Jason slumped visibly. Thomas had recognized the sports car as one of the shop’s.

“So what if it is? I want something showy for the night’s race and I’ll be on retirement if wait for this kid to pay back from his weekly allowance. I’m not looking for some long-term compound interest bullshit. I’m not running a charity either.”

Thomas did not know the man, but he knew the type. He had met enough of them in his time as a race driver.

“You’re a bookie.”

“What if I am?”

“Here is how we are going to settle this: I am going to compete in the rally tonight. You will place your money on me. I am going to win, and when I do, you will make a fortune since I doubt many will believe in the chances of an old man like me. If I don’t win, you’ll get the car and I’ll reimburse your losses.”

The surrounding members of the bookmaker’s entourage became more animated, smirking and eyeing him in amusement and incredulity. They exchanged glances with the bookie, nodding encouragingly. For his part, the dealer let the moment stretch while appearing to consider his options.

“Fine,” he said, the corner of his mouth twitching into a sneer he didn’t bother to suppress completely. “But I don’t want any damage on the prize car, so you’ll be driving one of these.” He indicated the stock cars around.

Thomas put out his arm and they shook hands in agreement.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” the bookie said smugly.

 

A row of flashy Toyotas, Mitsubishis, Mazdas and the like stood waiting eagerly at the starting line, engines revving. Thomas helmed a black and white Ford Mustang, with Jason as his co-driver.

“So, this is what you do at your free time,” Thomas stated.

“Sometimes.” Jason had been tight-lipped the entire time.

“And the debt?”

“I had some winning bets at first, figured I’d race myself. Thought I could not lose with the cars I borrowed from the shop. Bet too much and lost. Now Mick – the guy you met back there – hasn’t let me race or bet since so he could force whatever payment he wanted out of me.”

Thomas nodded. For a while they sat in silence.

“You know this is exactly the type of thing Naomi wants you to stay away from,” Thomas continued. “Why do it anyway?”

The boy shrugged. “I don’t know. To get my heart pumping I guess.”

“Aren’t there video games for that?”

“It just isn’t the same.” He thought quietly for a moment. “Out here there’s real danger. When I speed to a curve I have to strain my muscles just to stay up. How sore I was after my first race! It felt like I had thrown my body against world itself and emerged victorious. After that I could not go back to just playing games. To me, that’s how life is supposed to feel like. Entering a virtual world is exchanging experience to the appearance of one.”

Thomas glanced at the boy via the rearview mirror. His speech had sounded remarkably similar to what he himself had said on multiple different occasions years ago.

Maybe Naomi wasn’t all wrong about him looking up to me.”

A crowd had gathered around the starting line. It was a far cry from the audiences his races had gathered in his heyday, but he was still surprised by the large amount of people clustering around them.

“The turnout always this high? This time of day?”

“Just about. It’s mostly the same guys, day after day.”

“Don’t these people have anyplace else to be? It’s still office hours.”

“Universal basic income, remember?”

“The sums I saw bet were much too high to be covered with just the Income Cheques.”

Jason smiled sardonically. “Yes, but they don’t let that stop them.”

Thomas surveyed the spectators. Some very clearly members of one gang or another, with ripped clothes, tattoos and piercings. But large portion of the crowd was formed by the undifferentiated mass of the mediocre. Those who usually spent their time indoors had shown up in force, pale and nervous in their badly fitting, nondescript clothes.

“I could think of a few better uses for that money,” he said.

“It’s strange, really. All of us are taught about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, how the Income takes care of one’s basic needs so one would have more time for the more advanced necessities. Yet look at how people spend that money and time – booze, drugs, virtual worlds. I’ve heard it said they try their best to forget their lives. Even gambling on races, with all your money riding on a single bet, can make you forget everything else.”

The people around started to adjust their smartglasses, a few at first but soon they all were going through the same motions. Jason pushed a button on a dash cam and a green light lit on it.

“What are they doing?” Thomas asked.

“Tuning in. The rally is about to begin.”

Thomas put his further questions on hold as Mick the Bookie stepped in front of the crowd, arm draped over a girl in revealing clothes.

“Ladies and gentleman and others!” he spoke, his voice sounding from their car radio as well as every headset in the vicinity. “A warm welcome to tonight’s race. And looking at the path we’ve plotted, what a race it will be. With our live feeds directly from the cars you will once again sit right alongside the daring speedsters as they risk their lives for our collective amusement. Who will go up in flames?” He paused for a moment for emphasis, scanning the crowd. “Let’s find out!”

He walked to the side, leaving the girl standing before the competitors. She unzipped her miniskirt - bright green in color - and lifted it over her head with one arm as the onlookers cheered her on.

“He was being hyperbolic, right?” Thomas asked.

“You just keep your eyes on the road and let me worry about the route. Concentrate on getting us to the finish line.”

Thomas tightened his grasp on the steering wheel and steeled his mind. It was becoming clear that he had not known what he was getting into but could not let that distract him now.

She brought the flag down with a flourish and he floored the gas pedal. The howls of their engines drowned the yells of the crowd as they shot forward, Thomas securing his spot amongst the leading group.

“Right! Right! Right!” Jason yelled as they cleared the parking area. Thomas pulled the handbrake sharply while twisting the wheel, sending the car drifting to the instructed direction, not losing any of their breakneck speed in the turn. Flicking his eyes from one mirror to the next revealed the other top drivers were not far behind.

Jason pointed ahead. “Up that ramp and take an immediate left. And watch out!”

He recognized the road ahead. “You mean right! That is a one-way street.” A Mitsubishi had managed to catch up alongside him in the curve so they rocketed up the ramp side-by-side.

“No, you have to go left!” the boy screamed, reaching for the wheel.

In that fraction of a second, as the surroundings blurred by in the high-octane rush, flanked and shouldered by delinquents with a death wish, he had to choose. His first instinct was that Jason must have been mistaken and they were supposed to go right. And if Jason were right, the logical decision would have been to abandon the insane race and find some other way to handle their debt. The end of the lane was quickly approaching and in that time he didn’t even have the time to think in words and sentences, much less to confirm things with his co-driver. Like it always was in a contest like that, he had to trust his instinct to find the path to victory. He had to make a call.

He spun his car wildly to the left, the torque throwing Jason back to his side of the car.

The headlights of the oncoming traffic were like the final flash a man facing a firing squad saw.

The unforeseen turn had not been optimal, and two competitors passed them, coming withing a hair’s breadth of their car. He followed right at their heel. Switching lanes rapidly he managed to avoid one head-on collision after the another, steering with white-knuckled precision as the slightest mistake would result in their fiery demise. If he had paid attention to the people sitting in the Ampere cars he passed he could have noticed some staring with their eyes wide, while others were too engrossed with their devices to even notice that death passed them mere inches away.

The Mazda leading the rally jerked to the right, trying to squeeze between a truck and the steel bar separating the lanes of the highway. The Ampere truck made room and begun an emergency brake, but too late for the Mazda which scraped the bar, spun out of control and was thrown side-first in the air, crashing on its roof and spinning over as they rushed past. As one, all the Ampere cars on the road slowed down and stopped on the shoulder in an orderly line so their road cleared like someone had rolled out the red carpet.

Jason pointed at a break in the dividing bar. “Through there to the other side of the highway and take the first ramp down, going the wrong way.”

Only the cars on the other side of the bar had stopped so he still had to pay attention to the traffic as he passed the lanes perpendicularly. Headlights flashed ahead and he swerved to the left, grinding the side of the Ford against the concrete railing with a shower of sparks and a screech he could feel in his teeth.

Their route next took them on a serpentine path around blocks, Thomas drifting around the corners with a practiced ease. Their competition lagged behind so he avoided unnecessary risks.

“What kind of a race is this? Are they trying to get us killed?” he snarled.

“It’s the people watching us via the cameras,” Jason explained. “They want to feel like their lives are in danger so the route is designed to accommodate that.”

“Are they out of their minds?”

“Makes them feel alive, I guess. At least for a moment.”

Thomas shook his head. “Unbelievable.”

Jason smirked bitterly. “This whole thing is organized for people with a death wish. That’s why it’s called The Death Dr-“

His explanation was cut short by the blare of police sirens, a group of patrol cars charging down a side street to apprehend them. Their red and blue lights illuminated the interior of the car with a demanding intensity.

“The final stretch!” the boy exclaimed. “Now we just have to evade the police before getting to the finish line.”

“This is in the script?”

“Yeah, that’s why we’ve been going in circles, to give them time to catch up. Straight ahead now.”

“Then the script better include a getaway.”

“This is the path I always take, it has never fail-“

Words died on his lips as they turned the corner to a line of police cruisers forming a cordon, with spiked mats in front. Thomas spun the wheel wildly while wrenching the emergency brake, turning the car around and coming to a stop just before the mats. He immediately slammed the accelerator to the floor, Jason jerking around haplessly in his seat. The patrol cars hounding them closed in. When they turned to a sudden stop, trying to block his path he again spun his car, his taillights missing them by mere inches. The car’s overworked tires screeched and smoked as he again accelerated from a stop.

Two bulky armored vehicles split from roadblock. They were heavy driverless drone cars, designed for hazardous tasks such as ramming fugitives off road, windowless hunks of reinforced chrome and steel pitilessly dedicated to hammer their given targets until they no longer detected movement. They picked up speed, heading for them like raging bulls.

With moves that made fighter pilot g-force tests seem like the Teacups ride for toddlers he circumvented the cruisers and headed back the way they came. The bludgeons thundered in hot pursuit. Jason was nauseous and it took him a few seconds to orient himself after the high-g whirligig.

“You had better have a second route planned,” Thomas yelled over the sirens and the sounds of a car taxed to its limit.

“Yes, but you won’t like it!”

“When has that ever stopped you?”

“There!” he pointed towards a subway entrance. “Down the stairs.”

Grimacing, Thomas punched the car horn, hoping to warn away anyone who might be standing in their way. They dove down the entrance and rattled down the stairs, thankfully not hitting anyone. They emerged on the station, people skittering out of their path. In the rear-view mirror one of their pursuers crashed at the bottom of the stairs, embedding its hood into the wall while its companion handled the turn more fluently. The crash, which would have killed anyone inside the vehicle, did not even cause their steel bloodhound to pause as it was already pulling itself out of the wrecked tile when he lost line of sight.

“In the tunnel,” Jason briefed.

“This might end really badly for us and everyone involved.”

“I take this line all the time, we have a few minutes,” Jason assured.

They plunged down from the platform, the car letting out a grating howl as they landed hard on the rail.

The darkness of the tunnel swallowed them. The chase vehicle stopped at the platform. Without a moment lost they turned the way they came, driven by their own logic, as certain in their withdrawal as in their tireless pursuit.

“They calculated the potential bystander casualties too large a loss in comparison with letting us go,” Jason explained before Thomas had the chance to ask.

They drove on in the tunnels that seemed to stretch on forever outside the range of their headlights, every tense moment waiting for the train to appear, a light leading to eternal darkness.

Jason’s guess had been the right one for a change and they emerged outside without incident. Thomas took a service path leading away from the track, and after crashing through a gate in rusted chain-link fence they were back on the streets, not too far away from the finish line.

Thomas gave his all on that final stretch, and when he finally crossed the line where they started his hard braking sent one of the hubcaps spinning into the crowd, which erupted in cheers around them.

Stepping out of the car he was greeted by Mick the Bookie.

“I have never seen such phenomenal racing in my life!” he exalted for the whole crowd to hear, spreading his arms wide above-head. “Just who the hell are you, my man?”

“The victors of this race, I’m assuming, “Thomas stated coolly.

“You are abso-lutely right,” the bookie accentuated. “The intervention of the police proved too much for most, and they either abandoned the competition or were arrested.” He didn’t seem at all concerned.

“We’ll be taking the car, as we agreed.”

“Of course. Boy, you must be glad I didn’t let you race in it.

He glanced at the Ford, its tires still smoking slightly, banged up and scraped. Someone had collected the hubcap as a memento.

“That is not coming out of my payroll,” he stated. The bookie laughed with his head craned back as he slapped Thomas’ back.

Thomas and Jason walked to their prize car. When he grabbed the handle to open the driver’s door, a spectator of the event approached him.

“When will you be racing next?” the potbellied man asked, looking at him imploringly through his smartglasses. “It has been long since I last felt so excited, so alive.”

Thomas gave him an even stare until the man started fidgeting.

“Don’t hold your breath,” he answered and shut the door between them.

 

Naomi met them at the door to her apartment went they went in. She must have been waiting.

“So, what have you two been up to?” she asked.

“Nothing special,” Jason answered quickly. He told her he was going to grab something to eat and disappeared to his room after rummaging around in the kitchen.

That left just the two of them.

“I really was glad to learn you were warming up to the smartglasses,” she said. “Not using them is choosing to only see the ugliness of life.”

“It is choosing to live in the real world,” he answered, echoing an argument they had had many times in the past.

“You could even find a job if you wanted,” she pressed on. “If employers can’t find any information of you online it’s like you don’t exist.”

“I’ll send them my resume.”

“And when is the last time that has worked? If their algorithms have nothing to work on, they won’t even glance at it.”

“And every bit of information I give them can just as easily be used for backstabbing, for pulling the rug from under me, for screwing over me and anyone connected to me. You know this as well as I do.”

The conversation was opening and old wound, one that had never healed and which still agonized him. And like an ulcer brings with it the burning taste of gall in one’s throat, so did his wound discharge the smell of hospital disinfectant, of the fresh paint in the unused room with the crib and the mobile hanging from the ceiling.

She lowered her eyes and crossed her arms, as if hugging herself. “This real world of yours doesn’t sound like such a happy place.”

“I’d rather live like this than like this.” He strode to a closed door and tore it open. Inside, her sister, Jason’s mother lay on a bed with stained sheets. She was pale and her flesh poured over the mattress. She had withdrawn to the virtual space years ago, and eventually her atrophied legs could no longer support her increasing weight. A virtual reality headset had covered her eyes for years, a box of adult diapers situated within an arm’s length. Oblivious of him standing at the door, she kept blabbering with people only she could see.

He closed the door in disgust. “That is what happens when you decide to ignore the real world in favor of a ‘better’ one.”

“She is happy. Isn’t that enough?”

“As long as she doesn’t have to face reality.”

“And who decides what reality is? You? She, like many others, considers her virtual avatar as her real self. If that is what she wants then we have to respect that!”

Thomas held his tongue. He didn’t want another repetition of the same argument, another battle in a war where every battle was the same and no one ever gained any ground and both sides were too stubborn for an armistice.

“I was glad to be of help with Jason. I’d better go now.” He turned to leave.

“You’re a good man, Thomas. I miss you. I just hate to see you waste your life in a bitter fight against windmills.”

Standing at the hallway, he considered his reply for a moment. Then he simply walked out.

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