The starter pistol sounds. The man takes off running. Five seconds later, the bomb takes off after him. The man is young and strong, for a human, but his legs are short. He’s naked and doesn’t have much hair, even on top of his head. His genitals swing frantically, like a smaller, more terrified version of himself, as he runs from the bomb.
The bomb is visibly less ashamed of his nakedness. He freely displays his many open sores, his exposed rib cage where the flesh was chewed away by the bomb that caught him yesterday, when he was the man. He pursues today’s man without malice, only hunger. Behind his ribs, you can see some of the prize money stuffed between his remaining organs.
This transformation is the most beautiful thing about the race. Even if the bomb explodes before he catches the man, the man will never get back what he believes is his by right. The man craves his lost ability to dominate the world through force and industry, but the forest people have taken this from him. The bomb craves only skin and sinew between his teeth. He is closer to his roots as an animal, a purer kind of human than the man and, as such, he has already won.
The deer packed into the stands cheer on one contestant or the other as they circle the track. The man keeps looking over his shoulder. He refuses to resist the urge. Every time he strains his body to check the bomb’s progress, the distance between them shortens. He keeps forgetting that all he has to do to win is run, and nothing else, for long enough to beat the bomb’s timer.
You will have to understand this, too. To survive the race, you have to learn to think like the prey animal that the new world has made of you. To watch like prey, listen like prey, breathe like prey. To repeat this pattern until you no longer can. To let go of the idea that you will ever stop running.
The man turns to fight. Another common mistake. He throws a punch and misses, his motor control shot by his terror. The bomb tackles him and sinks his teeth in, ripping flesh from the man’s face, from his torso, from his throat. The man’s limbs flail under the bomb’s weight, until they stop. He relaxes. Falls silent. His eyes glaze. He is already ceasing to think about anything more than his desire to feed. He will not even need to sleep or mate anymore, after this. He is being wiped clean; renewed, and, in his renewal, ready at last to be part of a civilized world.
The bomb explodes, a series of muffled pops from the small charges planted along his spine, littering the track with the money sewn into his body cavity. Paper bills shower the man as he lies, uncaring, on the ground. The deer in the audience celebrate, or swear and rip up their tickets. The man is unaffected. The handlers come to collect him, scooping him up by the shoulders with their antlers. They help him into the stable where he will spend the night.
He will be your bomb.
• • • •
You are a criminal. Understand this, above all else. Asking what crime you have committed is almost beside the point. You’re a human in a deer’s world; it would be more apt to ask what crime you haven’t committed. You have taken what is not yours: you have destroyed what you cannot keep. You have murdered, and devoured your kill without respect for the sanctity of the hunt.
But we are not cruel, like you. We believe everyone deserves a second chance; the race is yours. You will be judged by the criteria that your kind always applied to us: survival of the fittest. Just be aware: fitness, for you, no longer looks the way you think it does.
And so you find yourself here, tethered in the stable. As your trainer, it’s my responsibility to prepare you for the race tomorrow. I hope you’ll take what I’ve shown you in the video to heart. You may not believe I want you to win, but I do. I take pride in my reputation, and that’s why I’ve told you everything I’m allowed about what to expect. I’ve also made sure that your needs are taken care of. Here, in the stable, you’ll be fed in accordance with your dietary needs. You’ll be allowed to bathe, to clothe yourself until you are stripped bare for the race tomorrow. You have a safe place to sleep, which, I imagine, is a welcome relief from being out in the world at large, constantly fighting other humans over the scraps of your dead society. Isn’t it nice, knowing that tonight, at least, you are safe?
Do you remember the world before the forest people rose up? I don’t, of course. Even with all the benefits of medical science, deer only live 25, maybe 30 years. But your kind live much longer, even without the aid of all that technology. I’m only 10 myself, but you, if I understand human aging correctly, you must have been an adult before it happened. Maybe you even hunted us. Maybe you had a stuffed head on your wall. If so, I don’t hold it against you. Our relationship is purely that of a trainer and his charge. I think nothing of you outside the context of the race, and neither should you.
I leave you to yourself for the evening, though I can still observe you on the stable cameras. I need to take note of your behavior, to see if you need any more instruction tomorrow morning. Often, captured men are tempted to try to escape, or stay up all night, consumed with anxiety, in some sad attempt to make sense of their situation.
Not you, though. You eat your dinner, clean yourself, and then lie on your bed of straw. Good. You should get as much rest as you can. If you do this well, you’ll wake with your mind fresh, rid of any illusions of meaning. The brain can only handle so much activity at once, and you’ll want to spend it all on moving your legs. For the rest of your life, until you can’t anymore. My expectations are high.
• • • •
The starter pistol sounds. You take off running. Five seconds later, the bomb takes off after you. The bomb who was the young, short-legged man yesterday. You have the advantage in stride, at least. Here’s to finding out if you take it for granted.
You certainly run like someone intimately acquainted with what it means to be a prey species. No looking back, no temptation to confront your pursuer. I really get the sense that you understand: being prey is neither as difficult nor as complicated as your kind tend to think of it. All you do is run.
The bomb, of course, understands what it means to be a predator. He pursues you with complete single-mindedness. He doesn’t try to outsmart you, sensing that he can rely on your fear and your exhaustion to do it for him. The bomb doesn’t think of himself as a bomb. He doesn’t even really think of himself as a hunter. In his mind, there is only his hunger, and you, and a straight line connecting them.
You make one full lap around the track, then another. By the third lap, the air is thick with the dust you’ve both kicked up. Coming around the curve, you see that hurdles have been set across the track while you were on the other side. I wasn’t allowed to warn you about this, and I can see in the momentary slowing of your pace, the swing of your arms, that you’re letting your feelings of betrayal penetrate the purified mental state that we worked so hard on yesterday. The line between you and the bomb shortens.
Just in time, you launch yourself toward the first row of hurdles. Jump, and over. The second row of hurdles. Jump, and over.
As you clear the third hurdle, the bomb collides with the first. His body crashes clean through, wood snapping as splinters fly. This is where most men turn and look, if they made it this far. And here, you finally do.
So few of your kind are willing to let go, when it comes down to survival. You have to hold onto the delusion that you are still in control of the world. As if by divine right. This is why you look. You cannot relinquish your entitlement, even when refusing to do so would kill you—and I’m afraid it will.
You pick up the hurdle in front of you and swing it in a wide arc, smashing it across the bomb’s shoulder and knocking him on his side. It won’t matter. He’ll recover from the fall quicker than you will from delivering the blow. You rush over the remaining hurdles, but he catches you by the ankle as you clear the last one.
You both fall. Your head recoils when it smacks, face-first, into the earth. The bomb’s arm tangles in the hurdle, breaking the bones of his forelimb. But then, he only needs one hand to catch you.
You manage to slip your leg out of his grip, kicking off into a renewed sprint. You even manage to make it a few steps before he tackles you again, with his remaining arm around your waist.
From my seat next to the announcers’ box, with the other trainers, I see your fingers sink into the dirt. Your elbows brace, trying to pull your prone body forward. To draw out the line between predator and prey by just a few more inches, a few more fractions of a second before the end. The bomb’s head strains forward, teeth bared.
The bomb explodes. When you hear the pops, your face plunges into the dirt, believing, I imagine, that the sound means death for you, that the sudden, searing pain in your leg is from a bite, not the explosives. You lie, trembling from the adrenaline dump, as a roar goes up from the stands, the losers and the ones who are still in it, tickets clenched in the clefts of hooves. Bills flutter to the ground around you, onto your back.
The other trainers nod to me. I nod back, swinging my antlers in their own small victory lap. I’m proud of you, in this moment. It was giving in to instinct that saved you, your willingness to rush and scrabble and strive for your life until the very last moment. That is the prey mentality, and you’ve taken it to heart. We can all see that, now.
Moments pass, and you begin to realize that you are still alive. You stagger upright. Hobble a few steps on your burned leg. It’s painful, but you can get around. You take in the sight of the cash littered at your feet.
Nearby, the door back into the stable opens. You can leave the track anytime now, and this is the moment when we will see if you really are a winner, or just another bomb waiting to happen. A canny prey animal would abandon the money, too eager to escape the kill site to give it so much as a second look. A man, on the other hand, would foolishly hold onto the idea that the money is why he is here. He would gather up as much as he could, dreaming of the control it once afforded him over the things he desires, of buying shelter, or weapons, or food, or sex. A man would dare to believe that mere escape is less than the best-case scenario.
At the other end of the track, another door opens. If you are paying attention, you should already be able to intuit what is waiting to be released, just beyond the threshold. The deer in the stands who haven’t lost yet hold their tickets close, waiting to see what you will do. If you will survive in fear, or die in ignorance.