An original piece of short fiction published in The HERO Winter Annual 2020
Sixteen racecars drove in a tight pack, speeding across the flat desert. In a mile, the track would split in two and each driver faced the choice of winding through switchbacks or gunning down a straightaway. The straightaway was easier to steer through, and on it a driver could accelerate to a demonic speed without fear of losing control or drifting off course. But if someone was skilled enough to navigate the switchbacks without spinning out, as these drivers all were, then the route was a reliable shortcut. Its overall length was half that of the straightaway. Only a novice would consider taking the latter.
The driver currently in sixth place, Daphne, was not a novice, but she was bold. This was the second to last race of the tournament, and if she wanted to successfully defend her champion title from the year before, Daphne needed to secure one of the top three spots. At the last minute, she bet her luck on an unexpected plan. When everyone else entered the switchbacks, a bottleneck effect would occur, and their pace would all temporarily slow down. If Daphne could just get ahead of everyone during that time, first place was hers.
place was hers. When the fourth and fifth place cars swerved onto the twists and turns of the switchback, she held her wheel perfectly even, aiming down the long, unobstructed stretch of road before her. To conquer the straightaway before her opponents exited the switchbacks, she would need to push her vehicle to a speed it had never before approached, not even when she was alone in practice. In the distance ahead of her Daphne only saw two horizontal bands, the bottom one tan, the top one blue, and a beautiful, sharp line dividing them. Horizon bound, she sunk her foot into the accelerator.
160 MPH…190… 210… As her speed increased, Daphne thought she saw a thin line opening up between the blue of the sky and the brown of the earth. Paper-thin at first, then thicker, though only a little. At its thickest, the line could have been blotted out by a heavy leafstalk.
The light that she saw on the horizon was bright white, but then it switched, flickered, and turned black. No, it didn’t turn black, it was somehow both white and black at the same time. Not grey, not checkered or blended, just two conflicting signals reaching her eyes. So blinding and yet lacking energy, less a light than a void. Daphne was getting closer, but no, the horizon shouldn’t appear to be getting closer, it was still in the distance, unattainable, asymptotic. And yet…
A sound like a screaming bird tore into Daphne’s eardrums. The GPS system was warning that she was about to drive off course. Daphne jerked the wheel last minute and skidded back onto the main track. Because of her inattentiveness at this final, crucial moment, another racer from the switchback route pulled up ahead and zoomed away. No matter. The race was almost over, and the gambit paid off. Second place was respectable, and meant she still had a shot at winning the whole tournament during the final round tomorrow.
The finish line came into view, a giant chessboard banner hanging limp in still air. Daphne’s opponent’s car was stalled halfway over the line, with smoke coming out of the hood. The driver bolted out the door and away.
An explosion. Fire in the distance where the car once was. Flames climbed high and spread away from the car like a bird of prey unfolding its wings. The sky turned red. Between Daphne and the horizon there was a fierce wall. Too late to brake and if she swerved now she would crash into the crowded audience, injuring or even killing many onlookers. Daphne drove through the wall of fire. On the other side, past the finish line, she braked as fast as possible, slammed into the dashboard, unbuckled her seatbelt, opened the door, and collapsed outside. A crew of workers helped her back up and supported her as she walked away. She was stumbling, she always stumbled after a race, several hours in a cramped car, and then she looked at the accident. The burning car was extinguished and rolled off to the side. The sky was blue, not red. The flames were not a massive wall but only a few feet high and already dying. The horizon was where it always was, the blue and brown converging seamlessly, undisrupted by a flickering white black band of light or not-light. Daphne looked over her shoulder and fainted.
She woke up in a hospital room back in the city. The room was nicer than a normal hospital, a private suite it seemed like, probably paid for by the race committee. Daphne was the closest thing to a genuine celebrity in the North American league, and they couldn’t risk her being incapacitated before the final race. Vases full of light purple irises decorated three of the room’s corners. Their soft aroma did its best to overcome the smell of sour medicines and sanitiser but the latter was more powerful. The lights were turned off and the only person beside her was her husband, Alan.
“You’re all right,” he told her. The room was cool, unlike the desert.
“Is everyone OK?” she asked. “The explosion…”
“Everything’s OK. No one’s hurt. It looked worse than it was. That was Lydia’s car. She’s safe too. She’s uninjured. No one was hurt.” Alan kissed Daphne’s forehead.
“So Lydia won then.” Alan smiled.
“There’s still one more race in the tournament. You and Lydia are currently tied for first. So as long as you beat her tomorrow, you’ll win gold again. Second year in a row.”
Daphne looked at a glass of water by her bedside. The water was shaking. Maybe there was a minor tremor deep below. Or maybe a nurse was just rolling heavy equipment down the hallway outside.
“No,” she said.
“No?” “She’s going to win.”
“How do you know that?” “Because I’m not racing.” Daphne attributed her fainting to more than shock from the explosion. When she turned around after the race, the last thing she saw before losing consciousness was the image of her corpse behind the driver’s seat in her car. She explained to her husband that the sight of this is what caused her to pass out.
“Like a hallucination?” he asked.
“No. I didn’t really see it… It just appeared in my head. But it appeared so… intently that it was like I was seeing it.” “You think it was a sign?”
“No… But I don’t think it’s good.”
“I didn’t know you were superstitious.” Never before had Daphne expressed belief in auguries and omens. She believed in calmness, focus, patience. That was how she won a race.
“So you’ll race then?”
“Let me think. Just let me think…” Daphne closed her eyes, putting up a wall between herself and the room. Behind that wall, she could give herself over to calmness, focus, patience. On the other side of that wall was the world, full of distractions.
“You have to race,” she heard her husband say. It sounded like his voice was far away.
If Daphne refused to race, there would be a definite scandal. On top of the media speculation to hound her in coming months, she would be sacrificing support from her brand endorsements and sponsorships. But salaries and dollar signs were as insignificant to her just then as a colony of ants is to a cloud. If Daphne wanted to overcome her fear, which she did, as a point of pride if nothing else, she would need a motivation that could move her soul, a reason that was more moral and duty-bound than profit.
If she dropped out then whoever did win, most likely Lydia, would have their victory tainted by Daphne’s fear. If the main rival excused herself, the champion could never be certain that their title was achieved through skill alone.
That was it. A convincing reason to go on. To give the competition meaning, Daphne couldn’t drop out. In the spirit of discipline, in the spirit of fairness, in the spirit of respect, she would need to continue racing no matter what. Still, she couldn’t exorcise the phantom image of a doppelgänger body, charred, bleeding, and smashed behind a broken windshield, that haunted her imagination.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll race.” She said this with a staid precision that betrayed the fear and sadness growing inside her. Part of her refusal to give voice to these feelings was the fact that she could not imagine a reason behind them. She was safe and healthy. She had endured far more severe crashes and returned unscathed. Nothing about this situation was exceptional, except for the vision at the end. So the particular fear she felt at that moment was strange, misunderstood, a shadow in the mist.
“Why are you crying?” asked Alan.
“Hm?” Daphne looked over into the side of a semi-reflective grey machine monitoring her vitals. The metal was scratched but even in the blurred reflection she saw a sparkling line of water run down her cheek. She didn’t even know that she was crying. She could not imagine a reason for the tears.
And then the reasons hit her all at once, so many and so fast that she couldn’t parse them all. Various fears and sadnesses that Daphne accumulated over years of living flew through her mind like a swarm of locusts, ravaging her state before fleeing to more plentiful neighbouring land. On the other side of this spontaneous plague, her memory was wracked and vacant, unable to recall a single insect, a single source of pain and bereavement.
“Because,” she said, “I’m scared and I don’t know why.” This time when she closed her eyes, the walls protecting her from outside were thin and crumbling. The walls broke. All her calmness, focus, and patience drained away.
As desertification claimed larger and larger swaths of the planet, the sort of marathon, high-speed car races that Daphne participated in became increasingly popular worldwide. To construct the courses, tracks that stretched for hundreds of miles were created by using special machinery to flatten the surface of the desert. Early on, the courses used to be painted black or gray to resemble traditional pavement and roads, but this practice was quickly abandoned. The drivers were so accustomed to following directions via GPS that they didn’t have to look out their windows if they didn’t want to, and painting so many miles would have been a long and costly operation. All the newer tracks were left as is, perfectly flat though otherwise unmarked. From far above their smoothness was visible but not obvious, the race paths shining a little brighter than the rough and rocky land around them like tails of water droplets winding down a dirty windshield. Seen grouped together from above, the system of courses resembled a long block of script from a dead language, or the faded blueprints to an incomprehensible maze.
Alan was a geologist and one of the leading experts on the North American deserts where the races took place. In addition to his work at a prestigious university, he was employed by race officials as a consultant. Alan analyzed the soil and earth, determined which regions were safest and easiest for designing tracks on, and offered suggestions on how to make the events more ecologically friendly.
Some fans claimed it wasn’t fair for Daphne to wed a man who helped plan the racetracks. But Alan’s research and findings were mostly unremarkable, and all of it was available to review for free online. His research was of interest to engineers and geologists, not drivers. Daphne didn’t benefit from her husband’s expertise, at least not when it came to racing.
Alan’s knowledge was not practically useful to Daphne, but it was an endless source of curiosity for her. And it was because of her husband’s expertise that the morning after her near-crash and fright, when they were back at home and having breakfast before Daphne left to participate in the final race of the tournament, that she asked her husband if there had been a small earthquake the day before, remembering the trembling glass of water by her bedside in the hospital.
“Not that I know of,” he told her, “but it’s a possibility. There’s so much action happening at all times in the crust and mantle. Isn’t it astounding?”
“Isn’t it astounding that below our feet, I mean many, many miles below, there is always a violent fire? Volcanoes, churning, magma— absolutely incredible.”
“Well… I knew that.”
“I’m not trying to teach you. I’m just saying, I remember that and am astounded. To think, at any moment of the day, no matter how bland or boring it may seem, far beneath you is this violent geologic process millenia in the making. Boggles the mind when you really think about it.”
Daphne smiled. “You’re overthinking. If the surface of the Earth were always on fire, it would be astounding, just like if the core of the planet froze over like the Arctic. But everything is exactly what it should be. Why is it astounding that in a different place, things are different?”
“How do you feel now?” He responded, cutting off her challenge to his proposition like a loose thread on a sweater.
“You didn’t dream about a black cat or a cracked mirror?”
“Ha. No. I didn’t dream about anything. Unless…”
“Right before I woke up, I remember seeing some colours.”
“Blue and red. But I don’t think it was a dream. It was just colours. My dreams usually have, I don’t know, a setting at least.”
“At least it’s not another premonition.”
“Don’t call it that.”
“What I saw. What I imagined. Don’t call it a premonition. A premonition means it’s going to happen.”
“Ok, your vision, then. How’s that?”
“A little better.”
“Just a little.”
“What would you call it?”
“‘Vision’ is fine.” They ate and left for the desert.
By the time Daphne was finally behind the wheel of her car, all traces of fear and doubt were gone. Now her spirit was chrome, polished, fortified, resistant. Racing was familiar to her. She felt in control.
The first half of the race was uneventful. Daphne, Lydia, and a third, inconsequential contestant occupied the top three spots. Daphne examined the little green arrow and blue lines marking her GPS screen. Just like yesterday, today’s track also had a point at which it diverged into a straightaway as well as switchbacks. As long as Daphne stayed near the front of the pack, she wouldn’t need to risk it all on the straightaway this time. So far so good. Victory was in sight.
Bright, unblemished sky. Wide, unending desert. The cars were the only thing moving through the desert. The rest was dust and languid reptiles that only opened their mouths to catch flies and spiders and lick water off the undersides of rocks. Every few miles you saw a strange flower or the silhouette of a giant succulent with twisted limbs, always with a dense, spiny base. Daphne tore through the desert landscape and its stillness. Speed. Stillness. One balanced the other. This was the impression that Daphne got whenever she raced. It was an egomaniacal thrill. The racecourse was a painted backdrop against which she acted. Nothing changed unless she changed it. That is, until the horizon grew again.
The blackwhite band was back. TV static, thunderclouds, or shut eyelids all failed to capture the colour of what she saw. There was no adequate comparison to anything she already knew. Her coach’s voice blared over the radio.
“Daphne! Daphne! Wake up! What are you doing, get back and—”
“Mute.” The voice went away. The horizon reverted to its normal state. Daphne checked her GPS. Fuck. She was behind by several places now. Damn illusions. Damn horizon. No more distractions. At this point in the race it was too late for her to catch back up again before the switchbacks. The only strategy left was to take the straightaway.
No mistakes this time. Daphne’s spirit turned from chrome to steel. 190 MPH…210… 240… Faster. Faster. Because the landscape was so unchanging, all she saw was the same two streaks of brown and blue. Just a little longer. Just a little more and then it would all be over. Just a little more and—
The horizon broke open, but this time it wasn’t thin and flickering. It was a giant tear, as though someone were ripping the sky and earth apart in a violent separation. And the gap between the two was not a blackwhite band, it was not colour and it was not a lack of colour, it was not even something Daphne was sure she saw with her own eyes but a rift that she sensed with every cell. She was being funnelled into the profound gap between the world above and the world below.
“Daphne! Daphne!” Her radio was back on, whoever was trying to reach her must-have overridden her mute command, something only allowed in emergencies. But the voice sounded far away, much farther away then the horizon. Strangely, Daphne had accelerated to a speed where she no longer felt as though she were moving through the landscape so much as the landscape was moving through her. Now she was the stillness and the desert was speed. The world rushed by her, propelling her into the horizon. Colour faded. Daphne thought she heard another voice from far, far, away. Then she crashed.
Daphne came to lying outside her totalled car, the front of it smashed. The vision of death that frightened her the day before recurred. Just to be sure she was still alive, she opened the car door, half expecting to discover a corpse and be exposed as a ghost. The car was empty, but a muffled call came over the radio.
“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Daphne!” It was her husband, Alan. The weak signal made it difficult to hear the other end of the line, but over a short conversation she learned that her GPS cut out and the race officials could not ascertain her location. Helicopters were surveilling the desert but so far hadn’t found any clues. Even in the desert’s immaculate silence, Daphne couldn’t locate the whirr of a distant propellor. Nothing around for miles, no hills or mesas or trees. Nothing but crisp horizon in all directions.
Alan, who helped design the tracks by mapping every part of the desert, was more familiar with the terrain than almost anyone. The decision to have him be the one to contact Daphne wasn’t just to bring her the psychological comfort of a close relation, it was also imminently practical. He told her to stay where she was, but the signal continued to be so unreliable that she couldn’t understand much else. She thought she heard him describing landmarks, fault lines, asking her for odd details about the quality of the dirt where she was. Something about digging for water. She looked around at the blanket sameness of the place and knew she wouldn’t be able to recognize anything unique enough about it to help her husband find her.
“Hello? Alan?” He couldn’t hear her. The signal was shot. Daphne sat on the compacted hood of her car and gazed off into the distance.
Every once in a while a voice returned over the radio, but it was always so rough and staticky from then on that she didn’t bother responding. Once or twice the signal became clear enough that she could recognize the voice on the other end, sometimes a race official, sometimes Alan, sometimes someone she did not know. Even in those cases when she identified the voice, the words it spoke hid just outside the bounds of interpretation.
In the direction where her car was facing, the horizon glimmered like a tiny wave lapping up onto shore. The mysterious band of light or not-light was back, though far more tame than the treacherous void she witnessed at top speed. This time it wasn’t flickering in the same way as before. It seemed more stable, consistent. When she looked at it now, she felt strangely relaxed. At the very least, it was something she’d seen before in this otherwise alien landscape. The swollen horizon became her North Star.
Common sense dictated she should stay near the car. Daphne could go inside to keep shaded from the sun, and the car was easier to spot from helicopters than a solitary individual. No logic of self-preservation included leaving before she was found. That’s why Daphne could not explain why she chose to walk toward the horizon. Luckily, there was no one around whom she had to explain her decision to. The decision felt so natural and inevitable that she did not even feel obligated to justify it to herself.
The first several miles were the most difficult. Daphne’s racing suit was lightweight but tight, and the material started to chafe against her skin as she sweated. To remedy this, Daphne tore some holes in the synthetic fabric, which cooled her down until the exposed skin near the rips started to burn under the harsh sun. Those burns eventually blistered, burst, and leaked a gray, sticky pus. The pain was immense. She kept walking anyway.
It was not that Daphne wanted to avoid being found. In fact, even as she kept a steady pace there was a deep terror fomenting inside. What guided her toward the horizon was a promise of calmness, the way that when she stared into the band of light the rest of the world seemed to fade away, just as when she closed her eyes to think. So she focused on the band, paying no mind to anything but the farthest reaches of her eyesight. For miles and miles she was patient, devoted to a promise at the edge of vision. She thought about going up in a glass elevator and watching the system of weights and pulleys guide her heavenward. She could not explain the engineering or design of those weights and pulleys, but their visibility soothed her, gave her a sense that everything was in its proper place, working together. Likewise, the presence of the expanded horizon reassured her there was an order to this desolate world, even if that order resisted becoming knowledge.
Every once in a while, Daphne had a fantasy of being rescued. She imagined passing out again and being discovered by someone she once knew as a child, a former teacher or neighbour. Previous boyfriends and girlfriends occurred to her as well. Her husband Alan was not present in these fantasies. He was too likely to be in a party that might actually save her. She needed a total flight from reason to distract her from this situation. But her daydreaming felt at odds with the horizon. The more she stared into it, the less she was capable of imagining anything other than what filled her eye. Before long, her imagination was drier than the ground she walked on.
In the desert of Daphne’s imagination there remained one oasis, a placid, glittering pool in which reflected the faces of the people she dreamed might save her, textured by gentle ripples and floating algae. In the real desert that she wandered in, there was no oasis. There wasn’t even a mirage. Over time, her hope of survival grew quiet. She did not fight this quiet with words. It would’ve been so easy to prop up her atrophied hope with names, names to replace the silence with dreams and babble. More names of people who might come save her. More people she believed could find her here and drag her out before dehydration and exhaustion collected their ultimate toll. But she refused, and let her hope die with dignity.
Give it meaning. Keep going.
Now the sky was amethyst and the ground beneath her dark as rust. The horizon was even wider than before, but seemed to have finally reached stasis. No flickering or bulging and shrinking. Just one strong band, glowing, not glowing. Even though the sky had grown noticeably darker, there was no sun or moon to be found in it. The world she was in was stranger than any Daphne knew before. In spite of this, she felt an odd lightness. No panic. No pain. No fear. She had entered a new territory, crossed over a new border. And hadn’t she herself remarked to her husband that morning, “Why is it astounding that in a different place, things are different?” Her heart was as still as the desert as she moved through it. On the other side of hope, Daphne met serenity.
Calmness, focus, patience. Now she didn’t need to close her eyes, erect a wall and hide behind it, to bathe in those qualities. Now the world around her was suffused with them. Here, there were no disguises. No distractions. Daphne felt as though she could sense the world for what it truly was. For the first time since she began to walk, Daphne paused. She stared into the horizon. A perfect circle, a ring running around the world, the end of every direction. Our planet’s halo.
Inside Daphne’s heart remained one final mote of hope, so tiny and camouflaged that she didn’t even recognize it as such. That bit of hope was called destination. She did not know where she was headed towards, but she knew that she was going there. When she paused and saw the horizon surround her on all sides, the hope that Daphne was heading towards a destination withered. The band circumscribed all directions. It didn’t matter which way she walked. She would never reach a destination. Turn left, turn right, walk backwards, walk forwards. In this landscape every route terminated at the same impossibility. She thought she was moving towards something. She thought that she was getting closer, following the horizon, but she was following nothing. Everywhere led nowhere. Daphne was standing in the center of infinity. Terror returned. She screamed into the air and the world went dark.
When a helicopter finally rescued Daphne, two mysteries remained. The shape of damage to the vehicle suggested heavy impact with something solid, but no such obstacle could be found for miles near the crash. The other mystery was that Daphne’s body was recovered well over 150 miles from the crash, even though she was lost for less than twelve hours. No official investigation was ever conducted into finding an answer. There was something unsettling about the situation that deterred inquisition. Daphne’s bizarre absence lived on only as a myth told by conspiracy theorists.
After this experience, Daphne formally retired from racing. Over the course of her life, she would return to the sport exactly twice. Once was for a charity event, and another time for a reunion match that paid her a large dividend and sponsorship contract with a tire company off of which she could live for the rest of her life.
Decades later, her husband died on a research expedition to a canyon, where a landslide buried him until his body was excavated by a search team. After the funeral, Daphne hired a chauffeur to drive her out to the old tournament race tracks. Most of them were out of use by now, as the sport declined in popularity and the old tracks were abandoned. Daphne, now in old age, walked far enough away from her driver so he was just an indistinct speck. A faint, familiar line bubbled up on the horizon. This time it reminded her of the brightness under a closed door if she was sitting in a dark room and there was a lamp burning on the other side. Daphne closed her eyes. Calmness, focus, patience. The world required barriers. Her eyes opened when she heard the driver shouting her name. He was telling her it was time to go. The sun would be setting soon and the roads would be too dark to find at night, making the trip home risky. Yes. It was time for Daphne to go home now. Time for her to return to life. All she had to do was turn around and say she wanted to go home. It was that simple. Turn around and tell the driver “All right. I’m ready.”
Daphne hesitated. Her eyes remained attached to the horizon like a birthmark is attached to skin. She was on the verge of being frightened by a memory and steeled herself. Calmness, focus, patience. Don’t look away now.