To Mile 40

(This is part 4 of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet that he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a hundred-mile-race. The ultra-marathoner will soon learn that without a million dollars to lose, the billionaire will demand his legs.)

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2019

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Kevin turned off his alarm-clock. It was ten in the morning. He slumped out of bed and started a pot of coffee.

As the coffee dribbled, Kevin checked his Facebook, his Instagram, and his Twitter. He smiled; he’d doubled his followers since Jonas’ book came out. What was the title? Live to Run? Kevin would never bother reading it, but apparently he came across quite well. He’d have to thank Whitney for the publicity.

Kevin checked his texts and almost dropped his phone. “Jonas! You idiot!” He dialed a number and put the phone to his ear. “Whitney! Your ex is making an ass of himself again! Call your Uncle Hermes, I’ll pick you up.”


BEEP. Mile 31: 8:04 / 4:10:22.

The maps said there was a river running down this side of the mountain, and technically, there was, but I hesitated to fill my three-liter water-backpack. The water flowed crystal clear from a rusty industrial pipe. It never occurred to me that this river might be man-made, and chlorinated, or worse.

Anyway, I filled up my three-liter backpack and tossed in a water-purification tablet. The backpack sloshed every step. After half an hour bouncing on my back, the water might be drinkable. I crossed my fingers; I couldn’t run seventy more miles without water.

On a typical ultra-marathon there’d be regular stations where runners could load up on supplies, or seek medical attention, or even quit the race. Some ultras over hundreds of miles were just lots of loops around small courses, so runners passed one aid-station over and over. A runner might even have a partner, a ‘pacer,’ who could carry things like a squire for a knight.

I was Whitney’s first squire.

BEEP. Mile 32: 7:32 / 4:17:54.

She’d signed up for a fifty-miler by the beach. We’d planned it for months. I’d be at each aid-station every ten kilometers. After thirty miles I’d be allowed to run beside her and pace her for the rest of the race.

Her Uncle Hermes taught me the rigmarole of race-staffing. He was an old hand at ultras. “Here, Jonas, hydro those guys.” At a marathon I might hold out a paper cup of water for the racers every mile. At the ultra I filled up a guy’s water-backpack while he puked into a bush. His stomach-capacity impressed me; he was skinny like a skeleton, but hurled up whole pints. Hermes pat him on the back and offered him some pretzels. “Whitney should be here soon,” Hermes told me. I wondered if she’d be as gaunt as most of the people who’d already passed.

“Hoy!” Whitney waved as she came around a cape. She was exhausted but jubilant. She tossed me her water-backpack. “Fill ‘er up and put ‘er on!”

Hermes untied Whitney’s shoes while I filled her water-backpack. I turned the backpack upside-down so the air-bubble floated to the top, where I could suck it out the hose. That’d keep the backpack from sloshing every step. “You’re the seventh woman overall,” I said, “and fourth in your age-group.”

“Am I on pace?”

“Perfectly.” I donned Whitney’s water-backpack to carry it for her while Hermes finished retying her shoes. If Whitney had crouched to tie them herself, she risked cramping and collapsing. “Let’s go.”

BEEP. Mile 33: 7:27 / 4:25:21.

It was fun to work pit-stops for Whitney, and I treasured running beside her when she was already fatigued. After she’d run thirty miles I could actually keep up with her, and I felt useful pacing her to the finish-line in ten hours. She ran the last mile in eight minutes, then kicked off her shoes. Her toenails were black and bleeding. We collapsed together near the ocean and let waves lap at our legs.

Then she asked, “when are you doing one?”

So I was obligated to let Whitney pace me on a 50-miler. And let me tell you, she looked different after I’d run thirty miles.

She was like peanut-butter: on a long run, I couldn’t get enough. When Whitney ran beside me, my body demanded her. She was salt and sugar and oil.

That’s why I signed up for a 100-miler. I was eager to speedball my girlfriend when my body was battered and bruised. “Are you sure?” she’d asked. “My Uncle Hermes ran few hundos back in the day. He says it’s a whole new world of pain.”

“Running is all about suffering,” I’d said. “The one who suffers best is the one who wins.” And boy, did I suffer. I ran from sunrise, to sunset, to sunrise, and Whitney was an irresistible siren luring me on when I wobbled.

BEEP. Mile 34: 7:44 / 4:33:05.

That hundred-miler was at a national park in the Midwest. About twenty-two hours in, I saw a bird I didn’t recognize. “Whitney?”

“Need water?” She offered me the hose from her water-backpack.

“No, the bird.” I pointed at the sky, near the sun. “Look. A big red bird.”

“There’s no bird, Jonas.” Whitney shook her head. “You’re hallucinating. Hermes warned you this would happen eventually.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t believe it. The bird looked real as anything I’d ever seen. “It’s right there, though. You must see it, it’s huge. It’s got a wing-span like a semi-truck.”

“Does that really sound real to you?”

“I guess not.” The bird dissolved into clouds. “Maybe I should quit now and take the DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ Hallucinating doesn’t seem healthy.”

Whitney puffed as we jogged uphill. “You can stop at the next aid-station if you want, but you’re just a few hours from the finish. Hallucinations can’t hurt you, Jonas.”

“I… I don’t know.” I wondered which rocks and trees were real or not. “I don’t know.”

“Look. Jonas. Look at me.” Whitney pulled off her sports-bra. “These are real. These are right in front of you.” I drooled. “Keep running.” I could only obey.

BEEP. Mile 35: 7:21 / 4:40:26.


Kevin rolled down the driver’s-side window. “Hey! You! Open up the gate.”

A security-guard sitting in a booth crossed his arms. He wore a leather jacket and sunglasses. “No one gets onto the Bronson Estate without permission.”

“Call Alphonse. He’s gotta be expecting us.”

“Lemme see your ID.” Kevin gave the guard his driver’s license. “All of you.” Whitney gave the guard her license, too.

“I don’t have an ID, man,” said Whitney’s uncle Hermes. “I try to stay off the grid.”

“Then look at the cameras, sir.” Hermes noticed a security camera on each side of the wrought-iron gate into the Bronson Estate. The security guard returned their IDs. “I’ll tell Mister Bronson you came, and you can schedule an appointment. Mister Bronson doesn’t want to be disturbed today. He’s on important business.”

“So are we,” said Whitney. She sucked the air-bubble out of a water-backpack. “Could you please contact Alphonse? I think he’ll want to let us in.”

“No dice.”


BEEP. Mile 36: 7:51 / 4:48:17.

I sucked water from the hose of my three-liter backpack, then spat it out. It tasted bitter. The water Alphonse pumped up the mountain was chemically treated to look pretty. No wonder there was barely any wildlife in the Bronson Estate besides rodents, lizards, bugs, and birds. Fish weren’t welcome. A deer stranded here would die of thirst.

And so would I. I hadn’t had a drop of water in six miles. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t keep this up. I didn’t stand a chance.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my backpack. “Hello?”

“Jonas, you idiot!”

“Hi, Kevin. I guess you got my text. I’m racing the horse as we speak.”

“Jonas, I’m here too.” It was Whitney. “We’re outside the Bronson Estate.”

“Oh… I’m sorry you came all this way for me.” I wiped tears off my cheek and licked them off my palm to conserve water. “I need supplies, guys.”

“We’ve got all you need, Jonas,” said Uncle Hermes. “We’re gonna get you through this. But there’s something you’ve gotta do.”

“Okay. What?”

BEEP. Mile 37: 7:43 / 4:56:00.

“I just heard your GPS-watch beep,” said Whitney. “Are you using the running app I introduced to you? Do you have a premium membership?”

“No. I’m still bumming off your premium membership.”

“Perfect. I’m logging in on my own watch,” said Whitney. “Alright, I’m monitoring your run live. We can track your GPS-location and meet. I see you’ve got an eight-minute-mile average so far. Not bad. You might actually do this.”

“Jonas, they’re not letting us onto the estate without permission,” said Hermes, “but they won’t call Alphonse to ask if we can come in. Can you make him open the gate?”

“Uh…” I looked at the horizon. “I don’t know. He must be miles and miles ahead.”

“Catch that horse, Jonas,” said Whitney. “We can’t help until then.”

Kevin hung up. I tucked the phone back into my backpack.

BEEP. Mile 38: 7:21 / 5:03:21.

Whitney’s voice rejuvenated me. I felt her assessing my form from afar.

This was possible. I had a chance. I just had to catch the horse.

My blister was bigger than a half-dollar. Each step, I stomped my right foot until the blister popped and soaked my sock with warm fluid. It hurt—it burned like a salted wound—but now it wouldn’t mar my stride.

Whitney, Kevin, and Hermes. What a nice reunion. I’d texted only Kevin about racing the horse because I didn’t think Whitney cared for me anymore, but I suppose texting anyone about my dumb decision was just a cry for help. “Help, I’m going bankrupt staring at a horse’s ass!”

But what an ass.

And there it was.

Champ and Alphonse were stopped by the side of the trail halfway down the mountain. No wonder I hadn’t seen them from above—I’d assumed they were twenty miles passed, not waiting for me just ahead.

“Jonas! Good to see you.”

“Alphonse,” I panted, “What are you doing here?”

“You’ve got the advantage now!” Alphonse cheekily displayed a band-aid wrapped around his middle finger. “I endured an injury a few miles ago, when Champ brought me too close to a tree branch. I hoped to hold out until mile forty, but I fear I must throw in the towel here.”

BEEP. Mile 39: 7:32 / 5:10:53.

I slowed to linger beside him. “You mean… you give up?”

“No, no—My best jockey is tapping in! She’s arriving here by helicopter. She’ll ride Champ in my stead. Thirsty, Jonas? Catch!”

He tossed me a plastic bottle of water. I walked a few steps to drink two-thirds of it. “You can’t switch out. This race is between you and me.”

“Actually, if you read the contract you signed, you’re racing the horse, not me. The jockey is irrelevant.”

I locked eyes with Champ. The horse flared its nostrils. Alphonse’s spurs had bloodied Champ’s ribs. “My crew needs your permission to enter the estate, Alphonse. Can you let them in?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Alphonse, “but we have something to discuss. It’s come to my attention that you lack funds for our wager. If you lose, you can’t afford to pay up.”

“Really? Gosh.” I feigned surprise and jogged away. “I’m sure your people can talk this over with my people, once you let them in.”

Alphonse jogged after me. His spurs clattered every step. “I’d rather talk to you directly. I want to propose a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Let’s call it…” Alphonse laughed. “Charity! If Champ wins, you’ll make a donation within your price-range and we’ll call it even.”

I tried running faster to leave him behind, but while I followed the trail around back-to-back switchbacks, Alphonse cut corners to keep up. “A donation? To who? How much?”

“Nothing you can’t afford, and for a noble cause. You might know that the Bronsons have significant holdings with wings of the medical industry.”

“Horse medicine, or human?”

“Both! If you lose, I’d just ask you to provide a sample for the labs. I’m sure they could learn from your impressive physique.”

“What do you want? Like, a spit sample? Blood?”

“No, no, Jonas.” Alphonse covered his mouth to hide giggles. “Jonas, I want your legs.”

“…Huh?”

“Your legs, Jonas. I value your legs at one million dollars, and accept them as your ante. If you lose, in lieu of one million dollars, I will take ownership of your legs.”

“Like… cut them off?”

“For medical purposes! And remember, only if you lose.”

“I can’t accept that. No one could.”

“Jonas, Jonas. If you win this race, you expect me to pay up, right? It’s only fair you keep your end of the bargain and put something at stake. You must restore the bet to make up for your deception. I can’t forgive you otherwise.”

“No deal.”

“You should really consider my generous offer. Remember, you’ve run almost 40 miles on my private property; at my standard rate of $10,000 a mile, you already owe me about half a million! You’ll ante both legs, or we stop the race here and now and I’ll settle for just one of your legs, or both legs below the knee.”

I was about to say I’d shove a leg, or both legs below the knee, right where the sun didn’t shine, but then I heard distant whirring helicopter blades. I was ahead of the horse, and would be at least until the new jockey arrived. For the first time in this whole race, I had the advantage. I couldn’t physically bring myself to turn down the wager. “Okay,” I whimpered. “I’ll take the bet.”

“You mean it?” Alphonse laughed and clapped. “I’ll call the front gate and let your crew into the estate. Oh, what fun!” He finally stopped following me. I left him and Champ behind.

BEEP. Mile 40: 9:13 / 5:20:06.

I plucked the red flag at the fork and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was rocky and narrow, and I hoped a horse would have trouble with it.


2012

“And the winner is…”

Father Bronson’s coughing drowned out the announcements. He sounded like he’d hack up his last lung. Alphonse pointed to the stadium’s sparse spectators. “Look at all those winners, Dad!” Men in expensive suits cheered or tore up bad bets.

“Where did—” Father Bronson coughed again. He gripped the wheels of his wheelchair to hork up phlegm. “Where did you find these people?”

“They’re colleagues, and colleagues of colleagues,” said Alphonse. “None of them is worth less than a billion bucks, and they relish the thrill of putting millions on the line. I truly have the people’s support!”

The gates at the finish-line slammed shut before the last horse. Their jockey howled and shook the reins until a dart shot him in the neck. The jockey fell from the saddle, unconscious.

Six men in leather jackets led the horse into a big metal box, and tossed the jockey in afterward.

“Son, what’s happening?” Alphonse shushed his father.

The six men turned a heavy iron crank. Horse-glue poured from a spout into a bucket. The spectators cheered.

A woman in a white lab-coat and rubber gloves led two men carrying a white cooler to the big metal box. She opened a drawer on the box, where her two men retrieved another cooler full of eerie lumps. “Organs!” said Alphonse. “Even a losing jockey’s organs are economically valuable. Think of how many lives we can save with transplants, and how much we can charge!” While her two men loaded the box’s drawer with the empty cooler for the next race, the woman with the lab-coat withdrew a syringe from a panel on the box. She brought the syringe to Alphonse. “Look, dad!”

“What is that?” asked Father Bronson. “Hey, don’t!”

Alphonse relented and didn’t yet inject his father with the syringe. “Once we’ve extracted every organ with medical value, there’s chaff leftover. Our labs have perfected a technique to turn that chaff into a nutrient-paste. It’s a cure-all! Don’t you want to walk again, Dad? You could even ride a horse!”

Father Bronson blanched, then rolled the wheels of his wheelchair to turn away. “Son, I don’t think you’ve understood the finer points of my advice. My enemies in the media may disagree, but even have standards, and what you’re describing is beneath me.”

Alphonse struggled for words. “Oh. I get it. This is the jockey that came last. I can’t inject you with a loser. Your blood is too royal for that.”

Father Bronson opened his mouth, but decided against the rebuke he had in mind. “I’m leaving, son. Contact me when you’ve made something of yourself.”

As his father wheeled away, Alphonse shook. He took a minty metal toothpick from the breast pocket of his gaudy military jacket and suckled it. “You, Doctor,” he said to the woman in the lab-coat, “bring me the jockey who won that race.”

“In a syringe, you mean?”

“No, just send them over.”

The doctor walked to the finish-line and addressed the winning jockey. The winning jockey didn’t get off her horse; she rode it to Alphonse’s track-side seats. “Howdy, boss.”

“Congratulations.” Alphonse tossed her the syringe. She cringed, but caught it carefully. “That’s a month of medical care in a hypodermic needle. Good for what ails you.”

The jockey smiled. “I appreciate it, sir, but you already pay all my medical expenses.”

Alphonse cocked his head. “Huh?”

“When I was a kid, I came second-to-last in a charity race, and since then you’ve funded my healthcare. Thanks to you, I’ve got the best wheelchair on the market.” She pat her horse.

“Oh.” Alphonse shrugged. “Well, with that injection, you won’t even need a wheelchair for a while. You’ll be able to walk. I’ve seen lab-rats with terminal illnesses get a new lease on life.”

The jockey inspected her new syringe. “If I come first again, will you give me another?”

Alphonse laughed. “Let’s make a deal.”

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To Mile 30

(This is part three of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a 100-mile-race. Our runner Jonas is far behind the horse, but just crested a mountain—only to see another mountain he’ll have to summit soon.)

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2019

BEEP. Mile 21: 6:51 / 2:45:35.

Running downhill is easy. Running downhill well is hard. Anyone can jump off a cliff. Only mountain-goats survive.

In high-school, each week of Fall, all the local cross-country teams competed on some rough trails. I was proud of my personal record: I could run three hard miles in just under 16 minutes. I could even keep up with the best varsity runner, Kevin, for the first two miles.

But in the last mile, he’d leave me behind, because the last mile was downhill, and Kevin knew how to handle downhill. Lord, Kevin could sprint. He always finished at least two minutes ahead of me. After each meet I was exhausted, but standing. Kevin usually collapsed and puked. That’s how the coach knew Kevin had done his best and I’d slacked.

On this hundred-mile run, I’d puke eventually. It was just a matter of time.

BEEP. Mile 22: 6:21 / 2:51:56.

Kevin had taught me how to run downhill, but Whitney taught me again.

“What are you thinking?” she’d asked me on a twenty-mile run. We were training for our first marathon. We’d promised to run that marathon together, and beat four hours. “Slow down!”

“It’s downhill,” I’d said. “Downhill is easy, so we should sprint every step.”

“No, no,” Whitney’d said. She easily matched my pace. “Did Kevin teach you that? You can sprint downhill at a three-mile cross-country meet, but you’ve gotta be more careful on a marathon. Didn’t you once break your leg skiing? You’ve gotta take care of your body! Think about your knees!”

Runners often thought about their knees. Knees are important. Knees tell us a lot.

BEEP. Mile 23: 6:13 / 2:58:09.

My knees could tell the downhill slope I’d enjoyed was starting to level out. I looked at the mountain a few miles ahead; Alphonse and Champ had probably climbed most of it, if they hadn’t already started descending the other side.

Even though the scenery was idyllic—the valley between mountains was lightly forested, and birds chirped in the trees—I knew I had to keep my mind off my dismal situation. I focused.

Whitney. We wanted to run a marathon together.

Well, she wanted to run a marathon. I was initially on-board, but after that twenty-mile training-run, I shuddered at the thought of more. “No, no,” I’d panted, “I don’t think I could take another step.”

“You hit the wall,” she’d said. “Hitting the wall means you’ve trained hard. Each time you hit the wall, you push it back—if we keep this up, we’ll push the wall beyond marathon-length and finish just fine.”

“You know a lot about this,” I’d wheezed.

“I want to write a book about running,” she’d said. “Maybe it’ll star us, and this marathon.”

BEEP. Mile 24: 7:02 / 3:05:11.

Kevin wanted to join. He asked me on the high-school track: “How long is that marathon you signed up for?”

“Marathons are officially 26.2 miles,” I’d said. “I think it’s historical. Whitney could tell you.”

“I could run 26 miles,” he’d said.

“26.2. Whitney says every step counts. She also says the last six miles are harder than the first twenty.”

“How fast are you gonna run?” asked Kevin.

“Whitney wants to finish in four hours. That’s about nine minutes per mile.”

“I can run better than nine-minute miles,” said Kevin.

And boy, did he. Kevin signed up for our marathon and crossed the starting line alongside Whitney and me, and 20,000 other people. Like Champ, Alphonse’s horse, Kevin initially begged to run faster than Whitney would allow. “Wow, they give out water every mile?” Kevin took a paper cup from a volunteer. He drank mid-run, while Whitney and I walked a few paces to swallow efficiently.

BEEP. Mile 25: 6:58 / 3:12:09.

“They’d better,” said Whitney, starting to run again.  “Even the fastest marathon-runners take at least two hours, and exerting yourself like that, you’ve gotta drink.”

“I wouldn’t mind being thirsty for four hours,” said Kevin, “and if I’m not weighed down by water, I bet I can finish faster than that!”

“Go ahead,” said Whitney. I recognized the dismissive roll of her eyes. “Do what you want.”

So Kevin ran ahead.

We caught up with him at mile 16. He didn’t look happy; his features were gaunt and sweat had dried in salty streams down his arms. “Hey guys—” He almost asked us to wait, but he didn’t. “Take off without me,” he said. “I’ll be right behind.”

BEEP. Mile 26: 7:11 / 3:19:20.

Back in the Bronson Estate, the trail began to grow steeper. While I sipped water from my three-liter backpack, I ‘beeped’ in my head: 26.2, 3 hours 22 minutes. It didn’t quite qualify me for the Boston marathon, but after the Boston marathon, you get to stop. I still had almost three more marathons to go today—and they’d all be slower than 3:22.

Whitney and I didn’t finish our first marathon in four hours. We took an extra 45 minutes. We started walking at mile 22; that was our ‘wall.’ We barely managed a photogenic jog for the cameras at the finish-line.

To his credit, Kevin finished, too. It took him five and a half hours. He confided in me that he’d never, ever run a marathon again, or any distance over ten miles. He’d hit the wall, and it hit him back.

The wall. What a quaint idea.

You could push the wall beyond marathon-distance. But a hundred miles, no.

BEEP. Mile 27: 7:43 / 3:27:03.

When Whitney and I trained for longer distances, we learned not to call it ‘the wall.’ It’s not an insurmountable obstacle; it’s a temporary circumstance to make peace with, like a surfer diving under harsh waves. Ultra-runners call it ‘bonking,’ because it’s like a sledgehammer smashing your skull.

Instead of training to push back the wall, you train to run through the bonk. All the bonks. Over a hundred miles, I’d bonk at least a few times. The first one would come soon.

The trail became steep and demanded every atom of my effort.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop. I aimed to slurp one down every hour or so. I’d finished off the flavors I liked; no more chocolate or peanut-butter. This one was orange-creamsicle.

I washed it down with a sip from my three-liter water-backpack. There wasn’t much left.

Maps of the Bronson Estate showed a river at the top of this mountain. I could refill my backpack there, if the water was palatable. If it wasn’t, I carried some purification tablets.

Racing the horse was the most well-researched stupid-ass decision I’d ever made.

BEEP. Mile 28: 9:39 / 3:36:42.

The scrapes on my hand and knee still trickled blood, but they didn’t hurt anymore. I actually almost forgot about them. But the blister on my foot had grown to the size of a quarter, and I felt it every step. Eventually I’d have to stop and lance it with something from the little first-aid kit I kept in my backpack.

I sniffed. I smelled horse poop. A pile of round, brown droppings waited in the trail ahead. It looked fresh. Alphonse and Champ must have passed less than an hour ago.

This was possible. I could do it. I almost smiled.

Then I got bonked.

BEEP. Mile 29: 10:44 / 3:47:26.

“Oh, old friend,” I said to myself. “Here we go again.” Pain wandered up and down my legs, but worse was the cold wash of pessimism and self-loathing. I started walking. It’s not shameful to walk uphill. Soon I’d hit the top of the mountain. Then I could recover.

While I walked, I opened my backpack. I carried a plastic baggie of peanut-butter and two bananas. I peeled a banana and used it to scoop peanut-butter into my mouth.

Running does weird things to your taste buds. When I’m not running, I don’t care for peanut-butter. After twenty miles or so, I can hardly think of anything else. Whitney likes vegetable-smoothies after running seven hours, not a step before.

When I finished the banana and half the peanut-butter, I sealed the baggie and put it back in my backpack. I tossed the banana peel off the trail; I never liked litterers, but banana skins decompose, and anyway, this was Alphonse’s estate, and I hated that son-of-a-bitch. I wouldn’t mind if he slipped on my banana peel. I wouldn’t mind if he choked on it.

BEEP. Mile 30: 14:52 / 4:02:18.

Alphonse had plucked the flag at 30 miles and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was broader and smoother, all the better for Champ to sprint.

As the slope leveled out, I started running again. I sipped the last of my three-liter water-backpack to swish peanut-butter from between my teeth. The bonk would be back, but so far so good.

On the horizon, there was another mountain—a third, looming incline still veiled by the distance. In maps of the Bronson Estate, every trail eventually went up that mountain, but somehow I was less daunted by that final foe. With any luck, Whitney was right, and Champ would be more fatigued than me by then. I’d be king of the mountain.

How did Alphonse know I didn’t have the funds to pay up if he won? Could he see my empty bank-account? I could only hope to finish first, or, if not, hope that Alphonse Bronson was a reasonable man. I swallowed.


2011

Alphonse Bronson gripped his father’s shoulders. “Dad, are you watching?”

“I’m watching an empty stadium.” Father Bronson pulled the wheels of his wheelchair like he wanted to roll away, but Alphonse kept him there. “Fill the stands with spectators before you bother showing me.”

“But father, look!” Alphonse pointed to the starting line, where ten horses stamped the ground behind their gates. “I know you’ll be proud! I’ve invented a new, efficient kind of racing!”

“Racing is already efficient,” said Father Bronson. “The winner wins. The loser loses. The difference is efficiency. The most efficient finishes first.”

“…And the least efficient loses!” Alphonse waved his hand and the gates opened. Jockeys bounced on the horses’ backs. “And what do we do to the losers?”

“Glue, son,” said Father Bronson. “The most efficient use of an inefficient horse is glue.”

“Right!” said Alphonse. “So look!” He pointed to the end of the track, where nine gates waited open. “Ten horses, nine gates. Think of musical chairs.”

The gates swung shut behind the first nine horses. The tenth horse whinnied and threatened to throw their jockey from the saddle. “Son—”

“Watch,” said Alphonse. The tenth jockey dismounted to help some men in leather jackets lead the tenth horse into a big metal box in the center of the track. The jockey shut the box’s iron door while the men climbed onto the box to lay hands on an iron crank. When they turned the crank, white goo oozed out of the box’s spout into a bucket. “Glue! The last horse is processed into paste with corporate efficiency, as God intended!”

“Hmm.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “Hmm.”

Alphonse stopped grinning. “What’s the matter, Dad?”

“Horses are one thing. Humans are harder. However many horses you have, you need humans on your side.” Father Bronson cast his gaze over the empty stadium. “If you can’t get the people’s support, you’d might as well be paste yourself.”

Alphonse misunderstood. His father was dismayed with the empty stands, befitting such a grotesque scene, but Alphonse kept watching the tenth jockey. “I’ll impress you, Dad. I’m sure I will. I’ve got a tournament planned.”

“A tournament?”

“Yes! A whole tournament, where the last in each race will be turned into their…” Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Their useful components.”

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To Mile 20

(This is part two of an ongoing story about an ultra-marathon-runner in a 100-mile race against a horse. The runner might win a million bucks, but doesn’t yet know he stands to lose his legs.)


2019

BEEP. Mile 11: 9:45 / 1:13:14.

Alphonse immediately galloped far ahead. Champ didn’t seem to notice the steepening trail. Already the horse and rider were a dot navigating the switchbacks above me.

After that 4:22 mile, I was in no condition to catch up. I walked a quarter-mile to catch my breath. As if to help me slow down, the incline gradually made each footstep harder than the last, forcing me to trudge.

When this was over, what would I tell my ghostwriter? “That horse, Champ, he’s a beaut. I mostly saw its rear-end, but what a rear-end!”

Why’d I ever think I could beat the horse?

Oh, right. My ghostwriter.

Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 12: 10:15 / 1:23:29.

I met Whitney through my cross-country-running team in high-school. Well, she wasn’t actually on the team, but that’s how we met.

I’d grown up cross-country-skiing in Wisconsin. When my family moved to Colorado, I figured the closest sport would be cross-country-running, but it wasn’t my jam. I could ski for hours and hours over miles and miles of countryside. The running team sprinted across city streets like they couldn’t wait to stop. Every morning during training, they’d say, “six miles!” and finish fast as possible, then collapse.

They left me in the dust every time, but I didn’t mind. Kevin, the quickest varsity runner, didn’t mind lazing in the back of the pack with me until the coach found him slacking and chewed him out. No matter how much Kevin lingered to keep me company, he was always first to finish every run.

Once, when I was left behind during off-season training in the Summer, I met Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 13: 9:44 / 1:33:13.

We both stopped at the same crosswalk signal. She was obviously in the middle of a run; she wore a headband soaked with sweat. I asked if she was on the girl’s cross-country team, because I’d seen her in the hallways at high-school. What was her response? I tried to remember, it was priceless.

“Nope,” she’d said. “I’m a real runner.”

Wow. That ego sparked my interest. “The guys on the team are way better runners than I am. They’re a mile ahead, and probably always will be.”

“Nah,” she’d said. The crosswalk signal changed and we ran across the street together. “After enough distance, the tortoise beats the hare. If you guys were running a marathon, their jackrabbit start would tire them out and you’d pass them up. Over a hundred miles, a human could beat a racehorse.”

God, Whitney, I hope you were right.

BEEP. Mile 14: 9:13 / 1:42:26.

Before the train of thought turned pessimistic, I decided to change my mind. The mental struggle was half the battle. I’m sure every runner has a dumb game they play to pass the time. Mine was talking to Thog.

“Crosswalk signals,” I said aloud. “How would I explain crosswalk signals to a caveman? Well, first I’d explain cars. They’re like fast animals you can climb inside and control.”

The air wasn’t quite cold enough anymore to see my own breath.

“Cars are useful, because they can travel very far very quickly. But if a car hits someone, it would hurt. Imagine a mammoth trampling you—you know about mammoths, right, Thog, mister caveman? So we have crosswalk signals. They’re clever little boxes which put up a hand when it’s not safe because cars are coming.”

I held up a hand for Thog to see as an example—just in time to catch myself, because my foot slipped on a rock and I fell.

BEEP. Mile 15: 9:23 / 1:51:49.

My grunt of pain sounded like Thog: “Ugh!” My left knee and right hand were bleeding. I scrambled to my feet and kept running. From another pocket of my three-liter water-backpack, I withdrew some alcohol wipes and cleaned my injuries as I went. The sanitizer stung.

I could cry later.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. This one was flavored like peanut-butter, a close competitor to chocolate. I washed it down with a sip from the hose of my three-liter water-backpack, which was almost half-empty. I’d be left thirsty by mile thirty.

My bleeding hand wasn’t a huge issue. It hurt, but lots of things hurt, and in a hundred-mile run, eventually everything would hurt.

My bleeding knee was more concerning. The impact threatened to reignite an old skiing injury.

I also felt a blister growing on my right foot ever since my 4:22 mile. It was about the size of a dime.

But so far so good. This pain was surface level.

Eventually hell would seep into my bones.

BEEP. Mile 16: 9:41 / 2:01:30.

I plugged my left nostril and fired a snot-rocket from the right. It landed in a neatly trimmed rosebush.

I had to hand it to Alphonse, the Bronson Estate was a sight to behold. With territory overlapping Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, the Bronsons owned a million acres of precisely cultivated wilderness. Alphonse brought business-partners here to ride horses and talk about whatever multi-billionaires talked about. It was the perfect place to luxuriate in richness. The view from the top of the mountain would be glorious.

Once I got there.

I couldn’t even see Alphonse and Champ anymore. They’d passed over the peak. Alphonse had probably made mile 20 and tossed the next flag to choose left or right at the fork. I knew he’d chose whichever trail was helpful for horses and harder for humans.

BEEP. Mile 17: 9:37 / 2:11:07.

The pain in my knee reminded me to watch my step along the trail. I didn’t want to slip again or stumble on a gopher hole.

I narrowly avoided another kind of obstacle: a stinkbug. Stepping on stinkbugs wasn’t the worst, but I’d rather not.

A lizard skittered across the path. A chipmunk or squirrel chattered near a tree.

A cool, low-flying cloud brushed by me on the switchbacks. In the last eight miles, I’d climbed at least 2,000 feet. I turned my head to see the trails stretching behind and below me. The morning sun cast long shadows of hills and trees.

I smiled. This connection to my surroundings was why I enjoyed endurance sports to begin with.

BEEP. Mile 18: 10:13 / 2:21:20.

Then I recalled the severity of my circumstances.

What would Alphonse do if he beat me to the finish line? His lawyers could claim my every possession and it wouldn’t come close to a million bucks.

I hadn’t lied when I said my bestselling book made me a millionaire, but money doesn’t last long when you have a habit of drinking, or gambling, and especially both at once. But that was behind me, and about 81 more miles were ahead. I had to win. I literally couldn’t afford to lose.

Of course, if I won, Alphonse could cut me a check and not even notice a million bucks missing from his bank account. He could blow his nose with a million bucks. He could wipe his butt with it.

BEEP. Mile 19: 9:52 / 2:31:12.

Finally the incline shallowed out and my pace naturally quickened. Within minutes I passed the peak and the landscape opened below me.

I almost cried.

Another mountain stood a few miles away, just as tall and twice as steep. At mile twenty, the trial forked; Alphonse had already tossed the flag toward the right, the quickest path to Mount Doom. I would only have a few easy miles to recover before climbing again.

I refrained from swearing and just ran. On the downhill slope, my strides were long and easy. If I really barreled, maybe I had a chance of passing the horse down the line.

BEEP. Mile 20: 7:32 / 2:38:44.

As I passed the flag, I noticed a note taped to a trashcan. I took the note and walked briskly with it.

“Hello, Jonas,” wrote Alphonse. “I hope you’re enjoying the view. Unfortunately, my accountant has bad news—he says he’s investigated your expenses and calculates that you might not have the funds to pay me back if you lose.

“Don’t worry, Jonas. If it comes to that, I’m sure we can work out an alternative arrangement. If you catch up, we can discuss this in person!”


2009

“And the winner is…”

Alphonse Bronson politely clapped for a cadre of school-children crossing the finish line. He knew he had to clap no matter how bored he really was when the cameras were on him and displayed him on the stadium’s jumbo-tron.

“Isn’t this fun?” A teacher bumped elbows with Alphonse. Alphonse dusted off his sleeve. “What a great experience for these kids, and for such a good cause! Thank you again for your generous donation to our organization.”

Alphonse smiled and nodded. His marketers said donating to charity would help his family’s public-image problems, but he’d have donated elsewhere if he knew this charity would make him waste an afternoon watching kids with medical problems run around a track. “Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.”

As the next group of kids lined up for the next race, the jumbo-tron displayed a celebrity in a tuxedo. The celebrity threw up peace-signs while an announcement played over the loudspeakers. Alphonse couldn’t hear, but the crowds of spectators cheered.

“What’s happened?” Alphonse asked the school-teacher beside him.

“He’s just made a donation,” she said. “From the cheers, it must have been a big one.”

Good, thought Alphonse. The cameras were off him. He took out a metal toothpick and sucked it. The minty flavoring was an appetite suppressant that kept him slim.

The teacher conferred with a woman beside her. “Really? Oh. Oh, dear. That’s… macabre.”

“What?” asked Alphonse.

“The donation,” the teacher relayed. “People normally donate to the charity itself, but that man in the tuxedo wants to fund medical care for the winner of the next race.”

Alphonse dropped the toothpick when he gaped. “Is that… legal?”

“I guess. And we are a charity—we couldn’t just turn down such a generous offer.” The teacher crossed her arms and shook her head. “Oh, look—that boy has a crutch, and that girl’s in a wheelchair. Those poor kids. It seems cruel to dangle that prize at the finish line.”

Alphonse swallowed. Here he was, bored out of his mind, and he hadn’t even thought to gamble. This changed everything. Suddenly the children looked like racehorses. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “The disabled kids were put in the race just for publicity. Neither could possibly win. They’re battling for second-to-last.”

“Well, maybe one of them will win. You never know. It’d be a good underdog story. And surely this will inspire more donations.”

“No, no.” Alphonse took out his wallet—crocodile skin—and withdrew a blank check. He waved it for the cameras. “We shan’t rely on fate. I’ll even the playing-field.”

“Oh! Mr. Bronson!” As Alphonse appeared on the jumbo-tron, the school-teacher kissed him on the cheek. “You’re so selfless!”

“I’ll pay every medical-bill for every kid on the track—for life—except,” he said, smiling wide, “last place. That’ll make this a race worth remembering.”

The school-teacher blinked. Alphonse pressed the blank check into her hands. The crowds cheered, at first, but the teacher’s draining expression on the jumbo-tron made them hush. “That’s… awful. We can’t do that…”

“Could you really turn down such a generous offer?” asked Alphonse. “The little girl’s got the advantage of a wheelchair, but the boy with the crutch is a few years older, taller, and leaner. Maybe he’s a high-school student, and she’s a middle-schooler? It’s really a toss-up.”

“You—you’re a monster!” She slapped his face. The crowds oohed.

“You’ll keep those kids from excellent medical care, just because you think I’m a monster?” Alphonse felt his cheek as he bent over the railing to admire the racers. “Monster-money is legal tender.”

The teacher gasped, then walked away sobbing.

The stadium was otherwise silent as the loudspeakers explained the grim donation. The girl in the wheelchair and the boy with a crutch shared a worried glance.

Alphonse almost drooled when the starting gun went off. All but two kids crossed the finish-line within a minute. Then the crowd watched the last two kids race neck-and-neck, and heard their panting, and the squeak of her wheelchair, and the plod of his crutch.

Next 10 Miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

Homer VS the Machine, Part Two

(This is part ten of a fantasy serial starting here. Homer the minotaur managed to beat a dwarven machine at table-war, but then lost to the machine the next round. It’s Homer’s first loss, ever, and he didn’t take it well. A maze has sprung up around him.)


1

When the ground stopped shaking, half the dwarven throne-room was rubble scattered over a labyrinth. Then the Mountain Swallower’s laughter rumbled the arena. “I suppose my opponent forfeits?”

“We allow breaks between matches,” replied a gnome. “The minotaur has 15 minutes.”

“Hmmm.” The Mountain Swallower sat back on their throne. “The sun sets on our world reclaimed.”

The audience scrambled for safety as the new branches burst from the labyrinth.

“Fear not, gnome.” The Mountain Swallower pat a gnome’s head; this gnome had one arm and no jaw. “Gnomes will have a place in our dwarven future. As fellow creatures of the earth, only gnomes are fit to serve us.”

The crowd hushed. The Mountain Swallower looked up.

2

Aria Twine wore a new military blazer and a blue ring on her left hand.

“Where were you?” asked Jennifer.

“With my tailors, of course.”

“Homer could have used your support,” said Harvey.

“He won a round without me, didn’t he? If I support him too much, I’ll hold him back.” Aria examined the labyrinth. The walls seemed to breathe. “Looks like I arrived just in time.” A shifting entrance opened like a mouth.

“Your highness, please retreat,” said a gnome. “Entering a labyrinth is a dangerous—”

“If I don’t make it out, choose another Queen.” She tossed her crown onto her throne. “I’m not fit for it.”

She stepped into the labyrinth, and the entrance closed to swallow her.


Aria expected total darkness, but a silvery light came from… her hand? The sapphires on her new ring were glowing. With her left arm outstretched, the walls of the labyrinth showed their brickwork.

She had no plan of attack. She walked with her gloved right hand on the right wall. Voices from the audience outside the labyrinth faded away as she turned corners and found dead ends. Aria swore the only sound was slow breathing—her own, or Homer’s.

She tripped on a loose cobblestone. She knew the walls moved because she’d seen them shifting from outside, but didn’t believe it until she tripped on the same loose cobblestone again.

Maybe the maze’s exit had moved as well. Maybe there was no exit.

“Calm down, Aria,” she said to herself.

Now listening for sliding walls, Aria noticed the floors sloped at odd angles or became staircases up and down. Ladders led into dark chasms. She wondered if the floor moved underneath her.

She felt humid heat pouring around a corner. “Homer?” She followed his breath down a staircase and up a ladder. “Homer!”

As soon as Homer heard her, he turned away. A wall slid to divide them.

Aria dove for the gap, but knew she’d be crushed if she tried to slip by. Instead she tossed a scroll through the closing slit.

Seconds passed. Aria still heard Homer’s breath through the wall. “It took me months to finish that,” she said, hopefully loud enough for him to hear. “Do you remember when Anthrapas separated us for national security? I spent a lot of time on it then. I guess I missed you.”

The wall slid back open.

4

Homer held the maze he’d drawn for Aria ages ago. Aria had solved it.

“I took advantage of you,” she said, “but you’ve done more for me than you could ever know. And not just me—everyone depends on you.” Homer followed Aria’s escape-line with his one eye. “I should have been there for you—but you handled the first round against the machine, and you showed you don’t need me. But now I’m here for you anyway.”

Homer shook his head. “Alreddy over. Lozt.”

Aria wasn’t sure if he meant he was lost in the maze, or he’d lost to the dwarven machine. Either way: “It’s not over till it’s over.” Homer shook his head again. His horns marked the walls. “Every maze has an exit. Every problem can be solved.”

Homer opened his mouth to speak but knew he couldn’t produce the sounds he wanted. He grabbed Aria’s shoulder so gruffly she recoiled, but then tapped his fingers on her shoulder in gnomish. Aria’s gnomish was rusty, but she’d brushed up since becoming queen. “I can’t win. In the second round, the machine knew everything.”

“But not in the first round?” asked Aria. “Why not?”

“In the first round I made a trap in the real world,” tapped Homer, “but that won’t work twice. The dwarven machine is simulating our reality, and the parallel reality of table-war.”

“Then… the walls moved.” Aria held Homer’s hand in both of hers. “But you’ve escaped a labyrinth with moving walls once before, haven’t you?”

Homer ground his teeth. “Maybe the machine can hear us now. Maybe it can hear our thoughts.”

“Then give it something to really think about.” She hugged him.

Homer nodded.

The walls groaned. The ceiling split. As quickly as it had come the labyrinth was gone, like a passing thunderstorm.

5

Homer threw his eye-patch and goggles at the Mountain Swallower. “Negst round.”

The Mountain Swallower smiled. “Gnomes, how long will it take to prepare a new table? More than three minutes?”

“Of course,” said the nearest gnome, crawling over the rubble.

“Then the contest is over,” said the Mountain Swallower. “You had 15 minutes, minotaur. It’s been twelve.”

Homer matched hands with a gnome. “He has far more time,” translated the gnome. “The contest was interrupted by natural disaster, and its conclusion can be postponed for days.”

Aria smirked as she took her throne opposite the Mountain Swallower, who was agape. “A natural disaster? You destroyed the table yourself, minotaur!”

“And it was a natural disaster,” said Aria. “Anthrapas agreed Homer could represent the wild wastes. As an animal from the wastes who isn’t owned by any army, his labyrinth is legally a natural disaster, just like a blizzard brewing around my ice-dragon if it escaped into the wild.”

The Mountain Swallower slumped in their throne.

“Prepare the table,” said Homer, through his gnome. “I’m ready.”

While the gnomes rebuilt the table and floor and seating, an elf tapped Homer’s knee; it was one of Stephanie’s shortlings. The shortling gave Homer some brass cards and figurines. “These are from Victoria and me, on behalf of the queen.”

6

The sphinx, harpy, and centaur brought their own brasses and figurines. They were all beautifully painted. “I hope you find some use in us,” said the sphinx.

“I’m sure you can use this, too,” said Harvey, with another brass and figurine.

A gnome in jewelry gave Homer yet more to hold. “From Emperor Shobai, and Ebi Anago.”

Homer couldn’t tap messages to gnomes with his hands full, so as respectfully as he could, he set the gifts on the ground and touched the gnome’s shoulder. “I don’t need these,” he tapped.

“You don’t need to use them if they’d be in the way,” said the gnome, “but if you could put these pieces on the table it would mean a great deal culturally speaking, or so I’m told. Feelings of unity, and such.”

“But they might be killed in battle,” tapped Homer.

“That would be even better,” said the gnome.


The table was reconstructed sooner than anyone anticipated, but the dwarven war-machine was always ready. The Mountain Swallower sneered. “Faster, minotaur!”

“Hey!” Across the throne room, Aria Twine lounged across her throne. She pointed her gloved hand at the Mountain Swallower. “That’s my favorite commander you’re addressing.”

“If he’s truly a wild beast, he’s not you’re commander to own, is he?”

“I don’t own him. I’m just his biggest fan.” Aria admired her ring. “Tell you what: let’s make a bet.”

The audience turned to the Mountain Swallower, who already sat beside Homer’s goggles and eye-patch. “When my machine wins, I control the planet. What more could you wager?”

“If your machine won, how quickly could you execute me? I’d still have at least a second left to live, hm?” When Aria raised her ring, it cast blue light across the throne-room. “Time enough to destroy this in front of you.”

“Childish.” The Mountain Swallower chortled. “Dwarfs eat gems, but I’m not so desperate as to grovel for one.”

“But dwarfs aren’t the only ones to eat gems.” Aria gestured for a gnome to come close. “Open wide.”

“Don’t!” The Mountain Swallower’s shout shocked even itself. Aria popped her ring into the gnome’s mouth.

“Nod yes or no,” she said. “Gnomes eat gems, right? Creatures of the earth, and such?”

The gnome nodded.

“But gnomes don’t enjoy it, do they? Gnomes don’t enjoy anything.”

The gnome shook his head.

“So you’re tasting that priceless ring, and you’re not even enjoying it?”

The gnome nodded.

“If Homer loses, swallow, got it?”

The Mountain Swallower grumbled. “Your stalling is embarrassing everyone. What wager were you envisioning?”

“Now you’re talking.” Aria plucked her ring from the gnome’s mouth. “If your machine wins even one point this round, I’ll give you the ring myself. If it wins no points at all, I’ll need…” She reclined across her throne. “Your brain.”

“I accept.”

Murmurs swarmed the crowd. Seafolk bubbled in their tanks.

“My life is a paltry ante for a sure bet. Begin the match. Choose the location for battle, minotaur!”

Homer gave a gnome a brass card. Gnomes pounced upon the table and finished the map in a minute. It was featureless and flat.

Homer put all the figurines he’d received onto the table: a centaur, a harpy, a sphinx, a griffon, a giant crab, and three imps. As if that weren’t enough, he added Scales the ice-dragon and, to the murmurs of the crowd, his own likeness.

7

A gnome tugged Homer’s vest. “Are you sure, sir? If your game-piece dies, you won’t ever play official table-war again. The dwarven machine will win by concession.” Homer nodded.

The machine clicked.

A drawer opened containing six brass cards and six metal beads. Gnomes somberly carried the beads to the table. “Truly these are the end times,” said the front-most gnome.

When Aria squinted at the beads, the Mountain Swallower chortled. “The great demons, in their dormant state. Did you think I would bet my brain if I did not intend to win?”

Homer frowned. “Hou?”

The Mountain Swallower explained: “Gnomes, with flawless and rigorous logic, are the only ones who can control the great demons of old. But our machine, with its own gnome-brains, has the same potential. Even the gnomes recognize this, as they obviously permit the machine to use the great demons on the table,” said the Mountain Swallower. “Usher in the day of the dwarf.”

The gnomes around the table turned to Homer. “The loser of the last round may begin.”

Homer pointed to his figurine. His figurine pointed toward the dormant demons. Homer’s army advanced.

The dormant demons, barely big as beads, suddenly swelled. Homer couldn’t imagine the intricate mechanisms in the demons’ figurines so they could expand in size a hundred times.

8

Homer’s sphinx expanded, also, and bounded across the table. She swatted the two-headed demon and sent it sailing. In the audience, the actual sphinx mewled proudly.

Then the other five demons leapt upon her game-piece. They kept expanding in size until they weighed her down. When they were big enough, they swallowed her whole.

Homer’s other figurines shivered with fear—the gnomes were meticulous in portraying the battle’s gruesome detail.

Homer pointed to Scales. His figurine boarded the dragon and led the charge.

The demons kept getting bigger, and bigger, but their forms were swirling, amorphous, and invulnerable. They smashed the imps underfoot. They crushed the centaur with big, clumsy hands. Scales reared back and unleashed a blizzard upon the monsters, but they didn’t even slow down.

One of the demons pulled a great, black sword from their own chest and used it to cut the crab in half. The other demons retrieved their own weapons from inside themselves and rolled toward Homer’s army brandishing them.

Homer pointed toward the ceiling and tapped fingers with a gnome. The gnome showed how Homer’s remaining army scattered; Scales, the harpy, and the griffon flew in different directions.

“Not soon enough, minotaur.” The Mountain Swallower giggled when a demon cracked his great, black whip and snapped the griffon out of the air. Another demon threw their spear and pierced the harpy through the heart.

Scales kept flying upward, with Homer’s figurine clinging to its neck.

11

“Too easy,” said the Mountain Swallower. The largest demon threw their ax into the sky. It cut Scales and Homer into two. “The game ends.”

The audience was silent. At the same moment, everyone in the throne-room realized why the silence felt so suffocating: the dwarven machine no longer clicked and clacked with calculations. It was utterly quiet.

Homer folded his arms awaiting the verdict.

“Indeed, the game ends.” Six gnomes took the table. “It ends with a tie. The contest is now over. Dwarfs remain bound to the treaty limiting bloodshed to table-war.”

The Mountain Swallower stood. “What do you mean? What happened? The opposing commander is dead!”

“Both commanders are dead,” said the gnomes. They showed Homer’s bisected figurine. “Zero points, all around.”

“My machine is not dead,” said the Mountain Swallower. “It wasn’t even on the table!”

“Correct.” The gnomes rebuilt the table to show how the thrown ax spun through the air, landing elsewhere. “Your machine is over here.” They built a model of the throne room, which the ax split open.

12

Homer put his hand to a gnome’s. “We’re more nearby your throne-room than you thought?” translated the gnome. The Mountain Swallower swallowed. “Homer says the first round, he forced your machine start simulating the real world in addition to the parallel world of official table-war. Because your machine has accidentally killed its own game-piece while killing Homer’s, your machine now believes it is dead.”

Now the suffocating silence even seemed to stop the audience’s hearts, until Aria laughed. “Homer, you really had me going!”

Homer released his translator gnome to recross his arms, and puffed out both nostrils. “My piece,” he said aloud, “for your machine.”

The Mountain Swallower swallowed again, and gestured for six dwarfs to open the machine and inspect the contents. The machine was totally inert.

“I see. Then…”

The Mountain Swallower stood.

“A deal is a deal. Your highness, Aria Twine, I present—”

The lord of the dwarfs opened up its own head.

“My brain.”

It pulled its brain out and held it aloft. It looked just like a gnome’s.

13

Final chapter
Commentary

 

Notes to the future (plus a video about Black Mirror)

This chapter is a little short; I just started graduate school, and on top of that I’m having fun experimenting with video-editing, so I’m beginning to move on from this project.

But I’ve had a lot of fun with The Minotaur’s Board-Game, and I don’t think I’ll be done even after I post the last chapter two Fridays from now. I like the world I’ve made, but I think my exploration of it leaves something to be desired. Maybe a year later I’ll revisit this project and spruce it up a bit.

That’s the good thing about having a website instead of publishing a book. I can always change stuff. It’s a living document. It’s only public because I enjoy sharing my stories with anyone who wants to read them.

So let’s leave some notes for myself in the future. What needs to be spruced up in The Minotaur’s Board-Game?

The beginning needs expansion. I’m in such a rush to introduce core concepts, and just get on with the story, that Homer wins his first table-war the day after meeting Aria. I can convey my world to the reader in a clearer, more compelling, but still compact way. What if Aria put Homer to work on her farm, and they bonded a little over board-games?  Aria could explain table-war to Homer and the reader. Then Homer’s first victory is more plausible, and the bond between Homer and Aria presented in this chapter is more convincing.

Also, I think Homer should get along more with the sphinx. Minotaurs haunt labyrinths; sphinxs propose riddles; they gotta buddy up. In the current draft Homer beats the sphinx at table-war and that’s that. Maybe Homer should run into the desert to console the sphinx on her loss.

I like Homer the minotaur proposing to Aria the human in marriage. The reader has watched Homer’s whole existence on the surface, so obviously he doesn’t know much about marriage. He can’t know that humans don’t marry beasts. But this book has a theme of accepting beasts; is Aria just closed-minded? Their platonic relationship is probably more fitting.

I started this project focusing on the snowflake method, in which a story is built up in phases. It only makes sense to return later to fill in the gaps, and it bodes well that I’m eager to do so. If I have fun writing it, maybe someone will like reading it.

But that’ll have to wait. After The Minotaur’s Board-Game, I’ll be focusing on graduate school and occasional YouTube videos. I’m having a lot of fun making videos about my favorite shows like Kaiji the Ultimate Survivor. It’s a new kind of content I’d like to practice on; I figure people are more willing to watch a ten-minute YouTube video than read ten-thousand words on my website.

Speaking of, here’s my latest video on Thinskter! Karl Pilkington describes Black Mirror episodes. Maybe next time I’ll discuss a dataset I’m studying about witch trials?

Final Chapter
Table of Contents

 

The Circular Pangolin

(I wrote this in 2017 and it won second place at UCSB’s 2018 Most Excellent Prose competition! I was inspired by an anthropology class where we learned about pangolins, small armored mammals often compared to armadillos. In Mary Douglass’ classic anthropology book Purity and Danger the pangolin stars in Lele rituals despite being “always spoken of as the most incredible monster of all” for its peculiar physiology. Douglass’ examination of religion’s paradoxical fascinations made me imagine my own weird fantasy pangolin cult.)

Circular Pangolin

In the desert you’re always leaking. When you’re out of sweat, and you’ve pissed your last drop, your sanity seeps into the sand. Clouds drift into the drought just to die. Only curled-up critters can handle the caustic heat. Them, the cacti, and the cultists.

Townsfolk call me Doc because that’s what I am. I used to have a nurse named Fernando, but Fernando lost his mind, so I lost Fernando. I spend most of my days reminding townsfolk to hydrate, but sometimes I get to stitch someone together, or cut them open, and they’d better hope I care to sew them back up when I’m done.

Night’s the only time you can take a decent walk, so one full moon I staggered out with a bottle of tequila. I liked to circle the farms drinking until the dunes looked like waves and I could pretend I was lost at sea. That night, before I could enjoy myself, a cultist confronted me on my porch.

The junior cultists came to town on moonless nights to beg for food. They wore black, hooded robes and slippers made of old rubber tires, and sunglasses, and scarves. That’s how I knew this particular cultist meant business: he (she?) wore the full rubberized regale. His black rubber bodysuit had footies an inch thick. I couldn’t see eyes through his dark glass goggles. He unzipped his fetishy face-mask to talk. “Doc, we need help.” Having spoken, he zipped his mouth shut.

“I’ve got plans tonight.” I shook the tequila. He just motioned for me to follow. “C’mon, cactus-herder! Can’t you even tell me what’s wrong?”

He unzipped again. “God is leaking.” And, zipped.

Well, what can you say to that? I brought my first-aid kit and followed him over the dunes.

We walked hours over the sand. Dunes looked like arctic tundra in the moonlight. Ordinarily I’d never venture so far from town, but the cultist seemed to know the way. “How do you navigate out here?” The question wasn’t worth unzipping; the cultist just pointed at the sky. His rubber gloves were so thick his fingers could barely bend. “You can see the stars through those thick goggles?”

He nodded.

“Doesn’t that suit get uncomfortable?”

He nodded, vigorously.

“So what’s it for?”

He unzipped, and I never thought I’d hear something so sane from that black mask: “In the desert you’re always leaking.” And, zipped.

When we crested the next dune a sandy caldera opened before us. Junior cultists scrambled from cactus to cactus like bats sucking nectar from flowers. They cut limbs from cacti to replant and propagate the species. They wrapped wax paper around red blossoms to preserve pollen. They sliced fruits and pulled down their scarves to lick the liquid which dripped. Not one member of the strange congregation revealed an inch of skin under their tunics and rubber.

I heard my guide unzip as he led me through the throngs. “Avoid eye contact with the students. Life-essence leaks at every opportunity.” And, zipped.

“Is that all you folks drink? Cactus-juice?”

Unzip. “The cactus is like all organisms: it transmutes foreign substances into its own flesh. But the cactus doesn’t lose what it drinks. We drink the cactus to become like the cactus. We don’t lose what we drink.” And, zipped.

We walked past scattered huts made of animal skins draped over long bones. I thought twinkles in the huts were stars, but realized they were glints off voyeuristic sunglasses and goggles. The huts’ inhabitants looked away when I noticed.

“What do you eat? Cactus?”

Unzip. “We grind cactus into a paste. This paste sustains us without causing us to urinate or defecate.” And, zipped.

“How do you fuck with these suits on?”

Unzip. “To do so would be unthinkable.” And, zipped.

“Now that’s no way to live.”

Deep in the caldera the sand was pebbly and coarse. Past the last of the huts more rubber-suited figures like my guide stood across the pathless path. My guide unzipped. “I am not holy enough to go further. You must approach the caldera’s center alone.” And, zipped.

Another rubber guide unzipped. “Stomp and shout when you reach the center. A holy man lives there whose renunciation leaves him almost totally senseless, who therefore has not lost a drop of essence in a decade. His sacred potential is so great, a cut in his robes would beam like the moon. He will lead you to God.” And, zipped.

“Okay, okay. I get the picture.” The sand below was rocky and steep. I put my first-aid kit in my lap and descended the slope on my ass. “What’s the name of this holy man?”

Unzip. “To utter it would tarnish its purity.” And, zipped.

I climbed down into the caldera longer than I thought was possible. The depth dimmed the moon and the stars. The sand turned into stones turned into rocks until the ground was paved with boulders. I finally came to a place where the boulders sloped upward in all directions, so I reckoned it was the center. I stomped and shouted at the dark.

Movement rumbled from the dark: a silhouette I thought had been a boulder stood up and lumbered toward me on a gait restrained by thick black rubber. The holy man looked like an inflated cartoon character with outlines eight inches thick on all sides. His rubber gloves allowed only the barest use of his fingers. His rubber helmet was spherical with a mere pinprick for breathing and no other orifices.

“Listen,” I started, then, realizing he probably couldn’t hear me, amended myself: “If you can, I mean, listen. I’ve been more than cooperative.” The holy man managed to move his arms to twist his helmet so the pinprick for breathing was aligned with his left ear. I spoke quickly so he wouldn’t suffocate. “Just show me what I’m here to do.”

He swiveled his helmet back to breathe. Slowly as dunes roll over the desert, slowly as stars roll over the sky, he shifted weight from one foot to the other to walk. I followed, wondering if I could roll him to his destination faster than he would waddle. He led me to a gap between boulders in the ground. The gap was just large enough for someone to spelunk. I prayed it would not be necessary.

The holy man tugged my collar. “What? No clothes allowed underground?” He nodded, somehow, and I unbuttoned my jeans. “Am I here just because you don’t fit down the crevasse with your dumb rubber suit?” He shook his head. “Well, why am I here, then?”

The holy man drew letters in the air with a bulky glove. He spelled, “because you’re the best, Doc.”

I paused on my descent into the ditch. “Fernando?” I covered my mouth. “Sorry. I’m not supposed to say your name, am I?”

The holy man pat my head, and he pushed me downward.

Deep in the crevasse the age of the air weighed on my shoulders. I lowered myself ledge by ledge while holding my first-aid kit with my teeth. The ditch was so dark I had no clue how deep it ran. More than once I cut my soles on black cacti. I realized I didn’t know whether I was approaching God’s wound, or climbing inside it. Either way, the innermost lacerations would need to be sutured first.

After a duration whose length I couldn’t guess I felt nothing below me but cacti. I bouldered left and right but still felt sharp spines below. I whimpered, having no strength left to climb from the crevasse. I cursed myself for following cactus-herders.

When my strength gave out I fell. My back cracked cactus fronds and three-inch spines stuck me like a porcupine.

I landed in an empty cavern. I hardly remember falling, or how long I fell, and only recall waking nude and bloody. The walls of the cavern were dimly lit by shelves of glowing fungi.

I crawled to my first-aid kit. I started by injecting painkillers, though it felt counterproductive to puncture myself more. Then I set to work plucking each spine with tweezers. When I plucked my left arm bare it was polka-dotted with pox-like perforations. Before plucking my right arm, I examined my surroundings. The cave rocks were bigger than the boulders in the caldera above; they were sheets of stone slotted together like plates of armor.

Behind the glowing fungi, the walls were subtly transparent. I shuddered when I looked deeper: human figures were frozen in stone like bugs preserved in plastic. Some stood at military attention. Some sat with crossed legs. Some were balled in the fetal position. I turned away to pluck spines from my flesh.

When I was finally spineless I packed my first-aid kit and walked around aimlessly. Maybe God would transport me to the surface if I patched him up, but I didn’t find anything Almighty, just more rocks and fungi. I wandered to the walls for guidance. “I don’t suppose you frozen folks know where to find God, do you?”

“They already have.” The voice boomed from everywhere. I felt stones beneath me rumble and writhe. “I did not hear you come in. Welcome, Doctor.”

“What kind of God can’t feel someone crawling on them?”

“I feel everyone crawling on me,” said the earth. Rocky plates unfolded like flower petals with only more petals underneath. Sliding sheets of stone threatened to crush me, but I found a safe spot to stand: the center was stationary like the eye of a hurricane. The surrounding rocks bunched up like a bundt cake. When it finally finished moving, it looked like a circular pangolin wrapped around me.

“So.” I brushed stones with my fingertips. “Where does it hurt?”

Stone sheets rustled. Plates parted like elevator doors. More plates behind them parted vertically. More plates behind them parted diagonally and pure white light leaked through a slanted slot. “Prepare, Doctor. This will not be a sight for which your vision is accustomed.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“I cannot.”

I donned sterile gloves and ran a finger along the shining slot. The circular pangolin’s inner light showed me the shadows of bones in my finger. “I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”

“The holy man said you were the best available for sewing someone up.”

“It helps if I know what cut them open.”

The circular pangolin’s plates contracted. “I harvest mana from ether. The astral planes resist me with a hazardous…” It searched for a word. “Exoskeleton.”

“You cut yourself cactus-herding?”

“Metaphysically speaking.”

“Lemme take a look.”

The innermost plates parted and the brightness increased ten-thousand-fold. I couldn’t tell the difference between opening and closing my eyes, so I closed them and covered them with both hands. This hardly dimmed the light, and I felt utterly transparent. I wondered if my thickest bones still cast shadows or if the light penetrated even my pelvis and femurs when I walked into the rocky armor. I heard the stone sheets close behind me like air-locks. I felt labored breathing from all directions. The floor was warm and wet. I blindly felt for walls.

“So, why am I naked?”

“My inner light would disintegrate your clothing. The holy man will guard your garments.”

My hands brushed a warm wall. “Is this you?”

“It is.”

“Am I close to the wound?”

“You’ve been walking inside it.”

I considered the contents of my first-aid kit. “I didn’t bring enough anti-bac.”

“It is not necessary.”

“We can’t leave foreign objects when I sew you up. It’ll getcha whatever the metaphysical equivalent of an infection is.” In the blinding light I had to assess the wound by touch. I could barely brush both sides of the laceration with my arms outstretched. I couldn’t reach the top of the wound even jumping with my hands above me. I walked hugging the left wall to gauge the laceration depth: the left wall ended twenty paces from the deepest portion of the wound. I’d found the pangolin’s real flesh: even under plates of stone armor, its skin was a foot thick and covered in hard, sharp scales the size of my palm.

“Doctor, what is your professional opinion?”

“I need to perform debridement.” I tugged a loose scale until it popped off. “The astral plane burned your tissues. I have to remove the char.”

I used the scale to cut dead flesh from the walls and floor. The circular pangolin contracted mysterious musculature to bring the roof within reach, too. I was blind in the impossible light, but I knew which flesh to flay because the dead flesh was dry. Each time I brought a new armload of dead flesh from the wound, my old pile of dead flesh was gone. I suspected the pangolin ate them. I estimate the debridement took eight hours in total.

“Now I’m going to sew you up,” I said. “I’ll start by suturing the deepest parts of the wound.” I carefully opened my first-aid kit so each instrument remained in position. I felt where I expected needle and thread. I blindly, painstakingly threaded the needle. When I tried to pierce the pangolin’s internal flesh, the needle snapped. “Damn!”

“What?”

“You’re tough.”

“But you removed flesh with my scale!”

“I can’t sew with a scale.” I felt the wet floor for my first-aid kit and searched for another needle. I pricked myself on a cactus spine. “Ow!” It must have slipped into my kit in the fungus room. “I might be able to work with this.” I tied thread to the spine. Just as I suspected, the spine pierced the pangolin’s innards easily. The pangolin rocked and rolled; I struggled for balance mid-suture. “Stay still!”

“It hurts!” The circular pangolin squirmed as I sewed a zig-zag at the back of the gash. I retreated and tugged the thread taut.

“Just twenty more times, big fella.”

The pangolin groaned, but subsequent sutures were swifter. Soon enough I poked the cactus spine through the full foot of thick skin and pulled the whole wound shut. My roll of bandages was barely enough for a courtesy-wrap. “I’m afraid that’s all I can do.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

I felt my way back to the stone-plated outer walls. “Can you open up your armor and let me leave?”

“But Doctor, you haven’t claimed your reward.”

I turned to the circular pangolin. Its light was brightest along the sutured wound, so its edges were shaded and I saw its silhouette. It stretched like a serpent into the infinite distance. “I just wanna drink myself to sleep in my own bed.”

“You’ve rendered unparalleled service to me,” said the pangolin. “You must join my highest order.”

“You mean the folks frozen by the fungi? No thanks.” I pried at the plates. “Let me out!”

“But you must have some reward,” said the pangolin.

I gave up opening the armor. I wasn’t leaving without a gift. “How about…” I searched the bloody floor. I collected the scale I’d removed and stowed it in my first-aid kit. “How’s that? Can I go now?”

“Thank you, Doctor. Yes, you may.”

The plates opened.

I couldn’t see anything as I walked out because my eyes were adjusted to the bright light, but I felt a cool evening breeze. The plates closed behind me and sunk under the sand, leaving only the bulge of a new-born dune. When my eyes adjusted to the dark I found myself a quarter-mile from town, and my clothes were folded beside me.

I haven’t seen any cultists since then—at least, not on purpose. On new moons junior cactus-herders come to town to beg for food, and when they do, they stop by to pay respects. Not to me; I have to let them worship the razor-sharp pangolin-scale.

I asked, one time, “why do you want to see it? This is sharp enough to cut through the thickest rubber suit.”

The junior cultist pulled down her scarf and said, “you can only worship what you fear. It’s the only way to keep yourself from leaking. In any case, this scale touched the skin over the muscle connecting the bones around the heart of God, and therefore it gleams like the moon in my eyes.”

Whatever floats their boat. I use the sharp edge for whittling.

But I always carry the scale when I step out at night to drink. It reminds me to climb the new dune the pangolin left bringing me home. There I drink tequila until the dunes are waves and I’m lost at sea.


(I think this short story conveys the meaning of Akayama DanJay in 2% as many words. If you liked it, why not follow me? I try to post something every week.)

Back

Homer and the Griffon

(This is part three of an ongoing project starting here. So far, Aria Twine has discovered a minotaur with a knack for the board-game which determines the fate of nations. He defeated a dwarf at table-war and won three mutilated gnomes.)


Homer watched the Giant Ax strike the distant horizon like a black lightning bolt from clear skies.

“Don’t worry, Homer. I won’t let anyone take you back to your maze.” Aria pat her minotaur’s head. By putting her legs over his broad shoulders and firmly grasping his horns, she could ride him almost like a horse. He carried the dwarfs’ three damaged gnomes and occasionally rocked them like wounded children. “Before we meet Queen Anthrapas, we’ve got to bring these gnomes back to their caves.”

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Homer still watched the ax. Where bandages once bound his wounds, now his scraggly brown fur refused to grow over thick scars. He adjusted his eye-patch so it didn’t rub his horns.

“Alright, Quattuor, where from here?”

The only gnome with a tongue shifted under homer’s forearms. “Fifty paces north and ten west.”

“Gnome paces, or minotaur paces?”

“Gnome.”

“Homer, five steps thatta way.”

Homer walked into a depression between grassy hills. Aria dismounted. The gnomes, once released, searched the grass by stomping with their stubby legs. “There is a sliding door,” said Quattuor. His one arm brushed long weeds to reveal a smooth, flat stone. “We are ill-equipped to push it aside.”

Aria knelt by the stone and slipped her fingers underneath. “Homer?” When her minotaur imitated her he easily slid the stone away. Beneath, stone steps led into darkness. Homer picked up the gnomes. His hoofsteps echoed down the stairwell. After a hundred dark steps, the staircase ended in a stone doorway. Homer squatted; his ten foot frame was too large for human portals, let alone a gnomish one. “Didn’t think of that,” muttered Aria. She ducked under the four-foot doorway. “How can Homer get through?”

“He will fit,” said Quattuor. “We know his dimensions from the marks on his brass.” Homer released the three gnomes to hobble through the doorway ahead of him. Then Homer put his horns through first, followed by his head and left arm. He scrambled through like a worm.

When he looked up, his claustrophobia evaporated. The gnomish caves had a vaulted ceiling supported by columns of rock like a ribcage. A flowing river of magma illuminated the area with a maroon glow.

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The three gnomes crawled toward the red-hot river.

“Rrrr.” Homer reached for them. “Rrire.”

“It’s fine. They’re gnomes.” Aria held his fur. “Just watch.”

As they crawled into the magma, their iron chains melted from their ankles. Bits of gnome rock bubbled to the surface and sunk again.

“Hey, don’t cry.” Aria wiped tears from the minotaur’s cheek. “Give them a second. There, you see?”

A white hand reached from the magma, pulling up a shoulder and finally a head with perfect eyes like crystal balls. This gnome’s body was no longer textured like gravel, but like smooth marble skin colored like milk.

Two more gnomes pulled themselves from the river. Magma dripping from them hardened on the ground like little black pearls. “Thank you,” said one. “I am Unde Triginta.”

“Viginti Quinque,” said another. “You have already met Quattuor.”

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Homer knelt to the gnomes and held them close despite still-scalding skin. “Told you it was fine.” Aria pat Homer’s back. “Anyway, you guys owe us a favor.”

“Gnomes owe no favors,” said Quattuor, “but serve anyway. How may we help you?”

“I want a gnome to train Homer to play table-war, and teach him gnomish, on our way to meet Queen Anthrapas. Quattuor, you have the easiest name to pronounce. Come with me.”

“Agreed.”


Each time the wagon rocked, Aria gripped its wooden frame until her knuckles were white. “Can your horse walk a little smoother?” She pressed her boots against the frame to help stabilize herself. “I get seasick super easy. I can’t take much more of this.”

“Humanity’s road to victory gets seasick?” Sir Jameson wrapped his horse’s reins around his hands. He’d removed his armor; apparently it was just for show during recruitment. Aria kept glancing at his biceps, wondering what they would look like depicted in the gnomish dot-language on a brass card. She once tried learning gnomish to read her own cards but the skill didn’t come easily to humans. “I thought more of you than that.”

“I wish. Sometimes standing up too quick gives me a head rush.”

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Behind Aria, Scales circled in his cage. Behind that, in another wagon, Homer sat on a box hunched over Quattuor. After only a day the gnome’s marble-smooth skin had darkened and cracked. In a week he’d be rocky as any gnome. He passed Homer one brass card after another and arranged metal figurines on a drawing of a map. Homer felt each brass card with three thick fingers while he squinted at the figurine the brass card represented. Quattuor spoke in English while tapping gnomish against Homer’s massive palms. “The complete algorithms for running table-war are a gnomish secret, but can simulate reality to any degree of accuracy. Sometimes extra gnomes must be recruited to help simulate table-war in a timely manner without sacrificing realism. Aside from this technical limitation, table-war opponents can agree on any rate for the passage of time on their table. Perhaps they pause the game to take turns, or perhaps they speed up so a table-war day passes every minute.”

Aria smiled. She remembered learning these rules when she was a kid. Those rules hadn’t changed since they were established to end a war against demons centuries ago.

“By the way, Miss Humanity’s-Path-To-Victory—”

“Knock it off. Call me Aria.”

Sir Jameson looked back at her. “If I was once called ‘Humanity’s Path to Victory,’ I’d make people say it all the time.”

“If someone once called ‘Humanity’s Path to Victory’ came up to me, I’d call them whatever they wanted,” said Aria. “I was killed. Now I’m just Aria.”

Jameson frowned. “Well, Aria, I meant to ask what you did to those dwarfs.”

“I beat them at table-war.”

“Yes, but when you left—” He clenched his jaw. “Someone said they saw one dwarf… eating the other.”

“What? Dwarfs eat rocks, and only when they don’t have ores or jewels to eat instead. Or gnomes. Maybe it was eating the other’s armor as a punishment for failure?”

“A merchant told us she saw the dwarfs mid-meal. They’d started with the head and worked their way down to the hips by the time she saw them,” said Jameson. “When we arrived, all we found were scraps. ”

“Geez.”

Jameson let the horse stop to rest as they rode up an incline. “Gnome decapitations. Skirmishes on elven territory. Sending commanders to markets to practice table-war. The dwarfs aren’t up to any good.”

“I’ve beaten dwarfs.” Aria watched her minotaur compare brass cards. “And there’s a lot of untapped talent in human lands.”


At twilight Aria pulled three enormous grasshoppers from a barrel; she’d taken one barrel of dragon fodder and paid for the rest to be delivered ahead of her. “Dindin, Scales. More elvish grasshoppers courtesy of some shorty no-one cares about.” Her dragonling rolled in its cage to show its belly. “I know you don’t like it in there, Scales, but you’ll be out soon. I’m leaving you with the royal beast-master while I talk to Queen Anthrapas about taking an apprentice.”

The icy lizard poked its muzzle through the iron bars. “Squaa.” Aria tossed it the grasshoppers. “Squaa!”

“Show mummy your wing-nubs.” She reached into the cage to brush the dragonling’s back. “When we release you, you just might fly away.”

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She made sure the cage was in position to receive moonlight throughout the night. Moonlight was good for ice dragons; it gave their eyes luster. Meanwhile, outside Jameson’s tent, Homer and Quattuor had made a shelter out of branches where the minotaur would sleep. The gnome just stood still, waiting for the sun to rise.

Aria yawned. It was time to retreat to her tent.

The minotaur slunk from the low opening of his branch shelter and trotted toward her. “Arra.”

She pointed to herself. “Aria?”

“Arra.” He passed her a long scroll of paper.

“For me?” It was the kind of scroll Quattuor used for sketching maps to review tactics with Homer. Homer had drawn a massive maze—a labyrinth with paths slimmer than the edge of a knife. One region consisted of right angles, but another had round, twisting, spiraling networks. Careful shading showed where paths passed above and below one-another. At the center was a circle around a dot.

“Arra.” Homer pointed to Aria and the dot in the center. Then he pointed to a small opening in the labyrinth wall marking the exit.

“This line-art is so… intricate.” She put her finger on the center and tried a few circular roads. Despite the bird’s eye view, dead ends popped up out of nowhere. How long would it take to escape if she were actually in the maze? Months, she decided, if even then. “No wonder you’re a natural at table-war. You’ve been solving puzzles your whole life, haven’t you?”

Homer nodded.

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“Hey, look.” She pointed over grassy hills into the night sky. “Straight up and down just like the Giant Ax. It’s a sword. The demons left them when the gnomes sealed them away.” Homer’s eye blinked. “Tens of thousands died when the dwarfs made a pact with demons to take over the surface. Eventually the dwarfs realized that the demons were so destructive, the surface wouldn’t be worth ruling. The dwarfs had to turn to the gnomes. Gnomes can’t be tempted, so they’re able to keep the demons in check, deep underground.”

Homer mimed using a sword and pointed to the sky. “Rraall.”

“Yeah, really tall. I’ve never seen demons, but they were huge. They gave gnomes leverage to make dwarfs accept the treaty proposed by humans and elves to replace war with table-war. Now no ruler risks violence, or the gnomes would make demons smite the aggressors.”

Her ice-dragon’s presence chilled the night, but Homer was warm. Aria leaned against him. In the night’s silence his heart beat thunderously like a distant drum.


It was noon when Aria, Jameson, and their beasts and gnomes reached the capital. Aria led the way to the royal beast-master.

“Aria, look.” Jameson pointed to a distant hill where a monster sunned itself. Homer couldn’t quite see it in the bright daytime. “That hippogriff has a noble air, doesn’t it? We acquired it recently. I think Queen Anthrapas should make it the symbol of humanity, for how it rules the hills.”

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Aria glanced from a clipboard. “That’s actually a griffon. Half eagle, half lion. Hippogriffs are half horse.”

“Oh.”

“And it’s not ruling anything.” Her gaze returned to the clipboard. She signed her name with a feather quill. “If it were in command, it’d prefer its natural habitat. Griffons live in the wild wastes on cold mountains.”

“Oh,” Jameson said again. “Why’s it out in this heat?”

“I don’t know. Why is it?” Aria passed the clipboard back to the royal beast-master. He wore a thick suit of protective leather padding. A scar across his nose claimed a divot of cartilage. “Your griffon should be in a freezer.”

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“It’s got an egg,” said the royal beast-master. When he smiled, his scar crinkled. “Wild griffon parents sit on their egg together. We captured the mother but not the father, so she needs the sun for extra warmth.”

“But give it shade,” said Aria, “or blindfold it. They hate prolonged light.”

The royal beast-master smiled to show his teeth; three were made of ivory where the scars crossed his lips. “You don’t need to live out there in a shack, Aria. Why don’t you come work for me?” He reviewed the paperwork. “Hey, aren’t you selling the minotaur?”

Homer looked up when the beast-master pointed to him. “Rrm-a-trr?”

“I don’t have time to care for monsters right now, I’m taking an apprentice. But the minotaur is coming with me.”

“Whoever studies under humanity’s path to victory is one lucky guy. Pity about the minotaur, though, he’ll have to go back to a labyrinth. They die of homesickness, otherwise.”

Aria ignored him. “You’re paying me for the dragon fodder, too, right?”

The beast-master passed Quattuor a brass card. The gnome read it with his fingertips and translated it. “This represents two thousand pieces of gold in Queen Anthrapas’ vaults.”

“Perfect.” Aria opened her dragonling’s cage. After some hesitation, Scales crawled onto the bright grassy field. “Okay, Scales, say bye to mummy.” She patted the dragonling on its muzzle. Its wing-nubs had grown into tiny, icy limbs.


The capital-building had alabaster marble halls supported by pearly pillars. Although vaulted ceilings gave him able headroom, Homer felt out of place. Humans gawked at him and his eye-patch.

“Homer,” said Quattuor, “perhaps you should wait outside while Miss Twine speaks with the queen.”

Aria smirked. “He’s coming with me. We’ll surprise the old bat.”

“Wait here outside the throne-room,” said Jameson. “If I weren’t escorting you the guards wouldn’t even let you in the courtyard. You know how Queen Anthrapas can be.”

“Homer, follow.” Aria pressed open the entryway.

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Queen Anthrapas’ throne-room was an ovular amphitheater with seating for hundreds to watch the center, where a tub of lava bubbled. Sunlight beamed onto a marble throne where the queen sat erect. Her aged, graying bun held the crown on her head. Her white robes were so long the lava threatened to ignite them. Two royal guards flanked her.

A gnome with dark goggles peered into the curdling lava. One of its hands was smooth and white.

“Twine,” stated the queen. “I haven’t seen you in ten years.”

“Try sounding more excited,” said Aria.

The lava popped. From the surface, a gnome’s white hand struck upward. The queen’s gnome matched that hand and together they tapped messages across the continent through molten rock. “Queen Anthrapas, the elvish queen demands—”

“The elvish queen?” Aria folded her arms. “Don’t waste your time on that lanky stick-figure, Anthrapas. She’s only queen because she’s twenty feet tall. A foot shorter and she’d be a brood-mother.”

Queen Anthrapas spared Aria only a glance. “Don’t interrupt. Humanity is at war.”

Her gnome continued. “The elvish queen demands four seats in the tournament.”

“That long-limbed mosquito! I’ll allow it only if we and the seafolk have four as well,” said Anthrapas. The gnomes clacked the news. “Elevated brood-mother,” she mumbled with clenched, arthritic fists.

Her gnome conveyed the response: “The elvish queen refuses, and says the seafolk’s Emperor Shobai already agreed to give them four seats unconditionally.”

“How much did they bribe those gill-breathers!” she shouted. “I’m lodging a complaint with the gnomes! See how she likes bureaucratic stalagmites poking around her hive!” After her gnome relayed her message, Anthrapas shook her head. “No offense meant, Septem Decim.”

“None taken, your honor,” said her gnome. “The elvish queen will allow humanity four seats in the tournament on the condition you reimburse her for the bribe she paid to the seafolk. She wants fifty thousand pieces of gold.”

“That overgrown maggot! Fresh out of the cocoon and she thinks she can swindle me. Emperor Shobai cleans his shell with rags worth more than that; why would he take such a measly bribe? This talk is over.” Septem covered the tub of lava with a stone table. The room’s temperature dropped instantly.

“You!” Anthrapas pointed at Aria. “What do you want. Wait. Hold that thought. Twine, you’re going to evaluate my best commanders. Pick the four best to fight the dwarfs.”

“Maybe I should leave,” said Aria. “I can tell you’re busy.”

The queen propped her hands on her throne’s arms to stand. She almost stumbled down the stairs; her royal guards moved to steady her, but she brushed them off. “Aria Twine. Ten years ago, when your game-piece died, I ordered you to take an apprentice and you left to farm monsters in a shack. My men should lock the doors so you can’t escape again. You! Jameson, right?”

Jameson stood at attention so quickly his metal boots clanged like a bell. “Yes, ma’am!”

“I wasn’t kidding. Lock the doors.” Anthrapas sat back on her throne massaging her hip. “Why are you here, Aria?”

“I’m taking an apprentice.”

“Perfect. By my estimation, my best commander is Harvey. You’ll train him eight hours a day until the tournament. Four hours a day, you’ll lecture to my other table-war hopefuls. With your guidance, they’ll—”

“The minotaur.” Aria balled fists and spread her stance. “Homer’s my new apprentice.”

The queen’s royal guards shared a glance. Homer looked to Aria, and then to the queen.

Anthrapas’ dentures ground slowly, like tectonic plates. “Aria Twine. Humanity’s path to victory. You’re still the bratty twelve-year old who beat my best commanders on the table.” She released the arms of her throne. “When your game-piece died I thought you’d enjoy continuing to serve the human race, but you turned me down. Now I see why. You’ve found a hoof-footed labyrinth baby you can ride to personal glory, not glory for humanity.”

“Homer will fight for humanity!” Aria rolled up her sleeves. “And with me as his tutor, Homer could beat that ‘Harvey’ kid blindfolded!”

The queen sighed. “Train Homer tomorrow. The next morning, Homer will face Harvey. If Homer wins I’ll give him one of humanity’s seats in the tournament. But if Homer loses you train Harvey eight hours a day, and lecture to my other commanders eight hours a night, until you’re old as I am!”

Aria turned to Homer. She swore he understood. “Deal.”

pictk

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Commentary

Inspirations

In Homer VS the Dwarf Aria brings her minotaur to the market to sell him, but he proves a force to be reckoned with in a game of table-war.

In this commentary I want to talk about my inspirations for this story, and what I hope it becomes.

Although the idea of a minotaur following “twine” is obviously related to greek myth, and I feature my own twists on the typical gamut of fantasy races (elves, dwarfs), the biggest inspiration for The Minotaur’s Board-Game is the anime YuGiOh. I enjoyed the show as a kid, and while it becomes more ridiculous every time I remember it, I still look back fondly on the series with a campy nostalgia.

In YuGiOh, a boy with improbable hair is possessed by an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who’s great at card-games. He wins every card-game he comes across and saves the world with the luck of the draw. The audience is rarely worried about whether the pharaoh will win, and more eager to see how he wins.

I already spoiled this in the last commentary: Homer the minotaur will win all his table-war matches. He’s not possessed by a pharaoh or anything, but his outsider’s perspective will let him surprise his opponents. I don’t think there are so many table-war games in this story that the reader to get bored of seeing Homer win; I hope the reader will be eager to see how Homer turns the tables, and yet still be surprised when he does.

One major joke regarding YuGiOh, among people in the know, is that the characters basically ignore the card-game’s rules. Occasionally YuGi’s catapult-turtle launches Gaia the dragon-champion at his own swords of revealing light, or whatever, warping the rules to give our protagonist a win. I hope to sidestep this by making up my own game, table-war.

Table-war has few, if any, explicit rules. The gnomes, impeccable machine-creatures, arbitrate each match with their own undisclosed guidelines meant to recreate real life. This way I get to focus on the back-and-forth of combat instead of worrying about a concrete set of rules and whether my characters are following them. The structure of the game is based less on YuGiOh’s hand of trading cards, and more on Warhammer 40k’s table of miniatures; I’ve never played 40k, but its tiny warzones are a striking image.

Another inspiration is The Turk, a book about a 1700’s clockwork machine which played chess. Spoiler alert, it was a hoax: someone hid under the table and directed the machine’s movement. Today we’ve got Deep Blue and other powerful computers which can whup humanity’s ass at chess and basically any other board-game, but a clockwork machine is a still great symbol.

My original conception of this story would have Homer, the minotaur, forced into a box to operate a Turk-style table-war machine. Sort of a Pixar’s Ratatouille thing. I still like this idea, and maybe I’ll return to it, but I’ve decided to have Homer fight against a machine in the final chapters; he’ll face a The Turk/Deep Blue style robot to prove that his unique, creative perspective is more valuable than pure computational power.

Another inspiration is modern warfare. Long-gone are the days of trenches; today we have drones and satellites which abstract war, and the internet delivers propaganda at light-speed. Likewise, in my fictional world, there is no actual war, just table-war. No one dies in battle; their game-pieces die, and the real person they represent probably doesn’t know or care. Rather than diminishing the effects of war, I hope table-war lets my fantasy setting comment on the nature of leadership in our modern era. How do you command people? How do you relate to people you could send to die in your name?

Still, in terms of what I want the story to achieve, I mostly want to have fun writing, because I enjoy writing and I think it’s neat.

But besides myself, who am I aiming the story toward? Honestly, I’m not sure. I hope the story is appealing to all age-groups, but I think I’m writing for people not much younger than me (24) of any gender. I’m minimizing the swearing and adult themes, so maybe I could claim it’s for young adults and teens.

Anyway, thanks for reading. If you’d like to read more, check out the table of contents or follow my site to receive emails whenever I update.

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