The underground is everything. The upside was destroyed in the war. A war that still hasn't ended but is fought in new ways. All the factions saw that there would be no winners if they continued as they were. So came the races. There is always a race going on somewhere on the planet. Children are sent into training impossibly young, weeding out the ones who can't keep up. Who can't handle the intoxication.
The races require reflexes and imagination. They require thinking like something not quite human. They're augmented, eyes replaced, fingertips scrapped away to make room for circuitry.
When they leave the racing halls where they live and sleep, they move in packs like the creatures they pretend to be.
Above ground, the rich live. The ones who can afford air filters and sunscreen, who live in houses with tinted glass with water pumped up from deep reservoirs. The rich bet at the races and pretend they still serve a purpose. Pretend that it means something when the dog with its streaks of blue catches the rabbit before the others. All of them made up in their own colors, make up inked permanently into their skin like ancient tribal warriors.
The above is no great secret though. Hired help is needed to take care of vast homes. And the racers see it each time they plug in and attach to the metal dogs on the surface. They feel the pulsing of mechanical hearts and the pounding of metal feet on dirt. They salivate at the thought of catching the rabbit to make up for the way the metal dogs can't. They see the people there, made up in bright colors and the newest fashions. Exotic and intoxicating. They think and say nothing, but at night, when the implants in their brains tell them, they sleep and dream.
They dream of colors and light. Of joining the rich on the surface. Of knowing the sun through more then a temperature gauge.
They dream and dream and dream until they are told to awaken. In small pockets all over the world, all of them vying for a chance to compete. While they sleep, if they are lucky and if they are wanted, they are sent to new lands, and new race tracks to race again.
When the implants let them, they wake up alongside new racers. All with the same goal.
To win the race.
Kelev presses his hand into the registration slot to get his first meal. He feels the prick as the machine draws blood to verify his identity, make sure he has not already taken a meal. With that done, glass slides away letting him reach in and take the piece of bread. All the nutrients he will need until his second meal there, compressed in a few bites.
There are other racers milling around the common room. About twenty in total. Today will be a wild one. He shivers in anticipation. Ready to head into the Hall, to feel the rush as his senses leave him, become something greater and more.
He knows some of the faces, has seen them at other races. He lets himself be drawn towards one group, all eating their own meals, arguing about results from the last race in Souland. The name of the place means nothing to do them, all meal halls look the same. All race halls even more so. Big and blank, just waiting for them to take their places before lighting up. But they know the race. They know that if you're racing in Souland, the track is softer than in Kanad, but there's less of a chance of rain. It is the little things they keep with them, details to tell apart the great big world above they are not allowed into except through the eyes of their mechanical counterparts.
Souland was a few cycles ago, another big race with 20 racers, a number of heats, that lasted two days. Rumors said that the winner collapsed, his heart burst from adrenaline.
But they are only rumors.
The meal halls are big to accommodate racers for the annual races. The ones where everyone comes together, the races are projected on large screens for everyone living in the under. During other races, like now, it feels empty.
A hand touches his back, warm even through Kelev's jumpsuit. He turns to see who is there, coming face to face with bright blue eyes. Kelev needs to see nothing else to know who is touching him.
"I want to go to market, I'm bored with these faces. Come with me, Kel."
Kelev and Skulos trained together for five years, their final exam pitted them against each other. There are no friends among the racers. There are companions and there are enemies. The factions beliefs do not reach down this far, all the different sides are only colors to them. In the end, they will race for whoever picks them and they will not know that until right before the race. Often the different sides pick the same racers over and over, Skulos often runs for the Blue. It's why she turned her eye implants blue. No pupil or white visible.
But Kelev is better, everyone wants Kelev to race for them.
Other people find Skulos terrifying. There is an insanity to her races. They would whisper about addiction and the affects of implants but all the racers know that they are no better. They only need to leave their halls and head into the dark streets of whatever city they are now in to know that.
"I want something sweet. It's race day. Have to be ready," Skulos purrs.
Kelev doesn't know what draws him to her again and again. Maybe it is the way she touches things and people where everyone else shies away from it. The implants in their fingers make their touch sensitive. Their nerves burn in constant irritation. Racers have a habit of sucking on their finger tips, trying to cool the constant burn.
Skulos presses her fingertips into his skin, eyelids fluttering, making the bright blue flicker.
"Don't make me beg Kel."
"You're no good at begging, Skulos."
She laughs and it's a twisted whisper, barely loud enough to hear. "Then come with me and save us both from that pain."
"Lead the way."
Ameline stays in the car, looking out at the wasteland around them. The windows keep out the worst of the UV rays, and the creams she uses every morning do the rest of the work. The race will start soon and she'll have to get out. She can already see the staff setting up. The dogs have been brought out, still for the moment, ready for their racers to plug in.
Next to her, her boss watches the pre-race show on the screen in the car.
Her boss, Ren, third-eldest daughter of the Etrou family laughs at something another girl says. Ameline doesn't look, she is there as a bodyguard. The Etrou family controls a large portion of the eastern continent and the other families whisper about their matriarchal practices. But they know better then to try anything even with female bodyguards.
Ameline smooths an invisible crease from her tights, pale yellow to match her boss' dress.
She feels the shift in the seat before she feels the press of Ren's body against her side. The hard line of Ren's sunglasses dig into Ameline's cheek but she holds herself still. Her loyalty is not to Ren, it's to the family.
"Are they ready yet?"
Ren humphs and turns back to her conversation with the other girl. Ameline has never cared much for Ren's habits, her usual assignment is the eldest two, a twin boy and girl. But today plans were different. Lana is home with her mother and Alain is with his father in a different car. Ameline's duty is always to the eldest female, there are other bodyguards for the male Etrou.
The whispers about what if don't matter, the rumors about sharing and twins and men do not change her job. As much as she does prefer Alain's company to Ren, she has a job to do.
But finally they hear the music. It sounds like it's coming up through the desert underneath them. The music means three minutes. Enough time for everyone, representatives from all the families, to come out from their cars. They stay clustered in their own groups, in case anyone else tries something.
Ameline skims them, sees representatives from Smise, Xin and Hamzin, it's the last race of the day, top two places would go ahead to the Annual. All easily identified by color. Smise with their bright blue, Hamzin in black, Xin in green. Ren's girl sets up a viewing glass for the race, letting Ren peek through the lens when it's all set up.
Ameline watches the races with half an eye. She knows about the money placed on the dogs, the bets of land and resources. Life being bet away on some drugged up Darkers, people who lived in the vast underground cities, who couldn't afford to live in one of the few remaining cities on the surface.
A waiter comes over with drinks and Ameline gratefully takes one, pulling her hat lower on her head to deflect the UV rays. She had eye augments so she wouldn't worry about being blinded, though others preferred more traditional sun glasses. She found they got in the way when she had to work.
The race is intense then usual, even Ameline notices. Ameline has her eyes adjust so she can make out the colors, a special overlay that highlights each one, listing strong points, the name of the rider down below their feet. She ignores that information, mentally shifting it to the side to focus just on which dog is which. Not that she needs to see, each time one pulls ahead, that group becomes more excited.
At one point she thought one of the Xin men was going to ruin the whole race by getting in the way as the dogs sped past.
The whole crowd sucks in a breath when the blue dog goes down, but somehow gets back up again, chasing down the pack's leader. It takes a good rider, from the little Ameline understands, it takes a crazy rider to override whatever instincts have been programmed into the creatures. The blue dog sprints ahead, it's rider feeding off the adrenaline boost, almost overtaking the leader.
Except while whoever the blue rider is, is good. The leader is even better and keeps ahead. She thinks she sees the dog kick up sand to disrupt the sensors on the other dogs.
It's a photo finish but Ameline isn't thinking about that even while everyone else agonizes over who the winner is. She makes her way to the dogs, now beginning the shut down process.
She looks down at the yellow dog, the one who had kicked up sand.
In her experience, the riders were dogs. They lived for the races until their brains couldn't handle the sync up anymore or they lost themselves in it. Kicking up sand, keeping ahead like it had, whoever the rider is, they're not a dog.
She kneels down so she's eye to eye with the dog. And the thing tilts its head to look at her curiously. The rider is still hooked up, watching her back through dead mechanical eyes and Ameline grins.
There are ways between the cities underneath and the cities on the surface. Tunnels and elevators, carrying people back and forth. Most of the time, the only mixing is those from below who are brought up for manual labor.
They're invisible in the surface cities, lost in the bright glamor the cities have adopted, mimicking the burning light of the sun.
No one knows how the people whisper when they go back down to the below. Those on the surface who still bicker over old wars fought on forgotten fronts don't know about the new hate growing directly under them. The bitterness of those sick of the dark and stale recycled air.
Nothing spreads faster in the dark then whispers.