"Running" by Andy Miller

 

Running With the Bulls
by Peter Bergman, Jr.

 

Kevin Dandridge walked into Lyle Gunderson's cubicle and fell into the extra chair in front of the desk. "If I don't get some excitement in my life, I'm going to kill myself," Kevin said after a few moments.

Lyle looked up from the 3-D screen on his desk. He had in been in the process of entering invoices into the accounting files. The end of the fiscal month was coming, and Lyle still had a lot of work.

"You heard what I said," Kevin stated. "I'm going to go crazy if I don't get some excitement soon. This number crunching is driving me nuts."

"I thought you said you'd kill yourself," Lyle replied with a grin. "Which is it? Kill yourself or go crazy?"

"Maybe I'll go crazy, then kill myself!" Kevin grinned back. "And maybe I'll take a few honchos around here with me. So you'd better watch out."

Lyle snickered. Every year at this time it was the same thing. The stress and monotony of their jobs became unbearable. Cabin fever, or maybe spring fever, set in. It was time to start planning for a vacation. The two friends had been taking vacations together since college. And it had become a game to see how daring they could be on these trips, doing things they couldn't do in their high-tech, dreary jobs. They had agreed that when they eventually got married, they would continue to take challenging vacations every year, whether their wives liked it or not.

"We've built up enough points here at work; we can take a really nice vacation this year," Kevin said. They worked for the company that ran the Star-Cruisers, giant spacefaring faster-than-light vessels. They had earned free passage to any planet on the routes -- a bonus for high-performing employees. "Last year we took that short trip. We've still got a lot of bonus points saved, so let's go somewhere nice."

"I thought New Crete was nice," Lyle said, referring to the previous year's trip. He and Kevin had stalked a Minotaur, genetically bred creatures that resembled the savage-but-mythical beasts that were half-bull and half-man. They were illegal on some worlds but a big tourist attraction for New Crete, a small, mostly tropical planet. They hadn't been able to kill the beast, but their guide had gotten them close.

"It was all right, but I have someplace better in mind," Kevin said. "Besides, I've read that the Genetic-Creation-Rights people on New Crete are putting a stop to the hunts. They've managed to cancel all sanctioned hunts until the Legislature decides whether the Minotaurs qualify for Human Rights."

"So how about Harmonia?" Lyle asked. "They have some pretty spectacular pleasure houses, I hear."

"Naw," Kevin said with a grin. "I want something dangerous. Real dangerous this year. We can always visit a pleasure house in New Vegas if we need to. I'm in the mood for danger."

"How about climbing one of the volcanic mountains on Delta/Beta five?" Lyle suggested. "Or seeing those dinosaur creatures on the Andromeda planets? Or maybe swimming with the Leviathans on Venus II?"

"No, I've got a better idea," Kevin said, smiling. Lyle hated it when he smirked like that. It usually meant trouble. The last time he grinned like that before a vacation, they ended up spending an extra week in quarantine after being exposed to the spiderwomen on Lilith Four.

"Where?" Lyle asked hesitantly.

"It's a surprise," Kevin said. "I'll send the brochures to your electronic assistant this afternoon."

Before Lyle could respond, Kevin had walked out of the cubicle.


* * *

They spent the next two months training. They worked out on a regular basis year-round, spending an hour or two in the company gym four times a week. Ever since Kevin had sprung his brainstorm on Lyle, they spent at least three hours a day, every day, training. They also signed up for self-defense courses, learning various martial-art techniques.

"I'm not too sure about this," Lyle said after the first week. "If you want combat, why don't we just join one of the mercenary groups fighting the colonist rebels on Tantania or New Guam? They offer those fantasy vacations...."

"No way," Kevin said between reps on the weight-lifting machine. "They keep the tourists way in the back of the action, moving supplies and such. I want something dangerous, where the excitement is real."

"I think sometimes you have a death-wish, Kevin," Lyle said.

Kevin laughed. "I keep telling you, it's this job. It makes anybody want to kill themselves."


* * *

Lyle strapped himself into the safety harness, as the sounds from the shuttlecraft's engines began to whine. He glanced over at Kevin, who was grinning at him. Kevin was already strapped into his safety harness, impatiently awaiting the descent.

"Are you ready for this?" Kevin asked excitedly.

"No," Lyle replied.

"Relax, you're going to have fun," Kevin insisted. "You've worked all year to pay for this trip. We've trained hours on end. Now relax and enjoy it."

Lyle nodded, and opened his mouth to say something, but the pilot's voice came over the intercom. Lyle shut his mouth, and glanced around at the other passengers, who quieted down so they could listen to the pilot. There were several hundred others on the shuttle. He wondered how many were there to participate in the Event. He was sure some of them were journalists, along to view and report on what happened, as they did every year. There were probably a few scientists as well, doing research. Lyle guessed that most of those on board were tourists, along for the excitement. Kevin and he had been on the star-cruiser for two days, but they had spent most of their time at the bar, and had kept to themselves.

"We'll be disembarking SFC Houston in a matter of moments, and will begin our descent to Altair V, called Veridian by the local population," the pilot's voice announced over the PA system. "Please remain in your safety harnesses during descent. If you need assistance, please contact one of the attendants immediately."

Lyle half-listened as the pilot went on about the weather in Veridian's capitol, where the shuttle was scheduled to land. The pilot then turned on a recording of a brief history of Veridian. Lyle tuned it out. He was familiar with the history of Altair V. It was described in the pamphlets Kevin had forwarded to him, from the Veridian Department of Tourism.

He braced himself as the shuttle lurched and shook. Gritting his teeth, he silently prayed that the vessel wouldn't come apart at the seams. This was always the worst part of space travel. The shuttle would disembark from the Star-Cruiser. The Cruiser would continue through space to its next destination, at FTL speed, without slowing. The shuttle would drop out of warp speed, and start the approach to its landing destination. Sometimes, another shuttle would enter warp speed and land aboard the Star-Cruiser, to take its passengers or cargo somewhere else on the Cruiser's route. Cruisers only stopped for annual maintenance, or unless a problem developed. Shuttles provided planetary and space-station landings and departures, and also brought supplies for the Cruiser and its crews.

Sometimes, a departing shuttle hit an approaching shuttle. It was rare, but it had happened. Lyle tried not to think about it as the vessel shook as it reduced speed.

Lyle quietly cursed at himself for allowing Kevin to persuade him to take this trip. He had claimed it would be exciting, dangerous. Lyle had agreed, since they saw little excitement in their jobs. But now he wasn't sure he wanted the danger that was waiting for them on the planet below. He clenched his jaws and tightened his hands into fists, and began to silently pray again.


* * *

Nearly three-hundred-years earlier, Jon Veridia and his crew had explored the fifth planet of the Altair system. They had named the planet Veridian, after their expedition. It was the first habitable planet they had encountered on their voyage. They had already explored fourteen solar systems, and hundreds of worlds, but none so far had been acceptable for human habitation. A few had been marked for future mining, but miners still would be forced to remain in shelters for their tours on those worlds. But Veridia's comfortable atmosphere had even allowed for a native ecosystem to evolve.

Captain Veridia and his crew spent nearly six months orbiting and mapping this new world. In terms of size and structure, they found it to be remarkably similar to World Prime, also known as Earth. The atmospheres were nearly identical, in fact. There were three large continents on Veridia, separated by vast oceans. The continents were dotted with freshwater lakes and scarred by raging rivers. Deserts covered portions of two of the continents. Vast jungles and forests covered areas on all three. There were plains and grasslands on all three as well. Tundras were evident on the northernmost land mass. Arctic ice caps covered the North and South poles of the small planet. And three lunar satellites, all smaller than Earth's moon, orbited the planet.

The explorers landed several times to explore various areas. Whenever they left their enclosed shuttles, they wore self-contained, protective breathing gear, to secure themselves against possibly dangerous micro-organisms. They cataloged multiple species of plants and animals and recorded various weather patterns. Their exploration vessel left several satellites in orbit, as well, to continue monitoring the planet after the explorers left. The satellites sent their data back to the Corporations that paid for the expedition.

Shortly after Captain Veridia and his team left to continue their explorations, the Corporations sent a second team to establish a colony, and continue the exploration and study of the world. The colonists consisted of nearly two-thousand people, including scientists, environmentalists, botanists, biologists, as well as laborers, builders, guards, and others needed to establish and protect a colony. The huge colonist spacecraft contained shuttles, building and earth-moving equipment, and temporary shelters. For the first year, the colonists lived in their spacecraft, which orbited Veridia, and continued their survey of the planet. Teams landed to explore, and retrieve samples of water, plant-life, soil, and air to test aboard the spacecraft. Eventually, the environment of Veridia was deemed safe for human habitation.

After that year of studying from afar, the first colony was established on one of the continents of Veridia.


* * *

Lyle and Kevin walked through the crowded spaceport. Lyle's legs still shook from the shaky landing. The crowd from the shuttle filled the small building that housed the spaceliner companies and the shops that sold souvenirs. The two carried their luggage, having retrieved it already.

"We should get something to eat," Kevin suggested as they passed a cafe.

"Not here," Lyle said. "They'll charge a fortune. Besides, my stomach still doesn't feel too good after that landing. Let's find a cab and go to our hotel and check in. We can get something to eat later."

Kevin agreed and they went outside, where taxis and buses waited for customers. Lyle glanced up at the clear-blue sky. The yellow sun of the Altair system was similar in size and strength to World Prime's sun. Kevin waved to catch a cabby's attention. The taxi pulled up and settled to the ground next to the curb. A luggage hatch popped open on the vehicle. The two men threw their luggage inside, then climbed into the passenger seats. The taxi rose slowly and pulled away from the curb. The driver worked the controls as the taxi made its way down the street.

"Where to?" the cabby asked, glancing into the rearview mirror.

"Veridia Central Hotel", Kevin said.

"Here for the Event?" the cabby asked.

"Yeah," Kevin answered for them. "Do you get a lot of tourists for that?"

"Yeah," the cabby said. "We get tourists year-round. But during the Event we get a lot more. We get scientists and reporters, too. Have you been to Veridia before?"

Both men shook their heads. "Were you born here?" Lyle asked.

The cabby gave them an annoyed look. "Of course," he said. "Everyone who lives here was born here. We can't go anywhere."

"Sorry, I forgot..." Lyle started to say.

"You should come back in the spring," the cabby suggested, changing the subject. "This is a nice world. No pollution, lots of nature, forests, animals, and such. Not many big industries, except for those we need locally. It's like Earth was, a thousand years ago. It's a shame that the only thing we're recognized for is the Event. Are you here to observe or participate?"

"Participate," Kevin said.

The cabby glanced back at them again through the mirror. Lyle felt as if the man were sizing them up, trying to decide if they were up to the task they had come here for.

"Good luck," the cabby said after several seconds.


* * *

The colony had been established in one of the more comfortable locations of the largest continent. The settlers cleared an area along the banks of a slow-moving river where it opened to the sea. The area had been undisturbed by storms and hurricanes during their time of observing the planet. To the west were hardwood forests and grasslands, which could be converted to farms. Beyond that was a mountain range. To the north were forests of evergreens. To the south, the hardwoods gave way to jungles. The mountains shielded the area from storms from the west.

About a third of the colonists landed to build a settlement, while the others continued to study the planet from orbit. The colonists lived in temporary shelters while permanent housing units were built. Labs were made for the scientists to continue their studies. Workshops were constructed for the laborers. Defenses were established near the settlement's perimeter, as were storm shelters. Some settlers migrated west a little, and cleared forest or tilled grassland to start farms. Some of the settlers journeyed south into the jungles, or west into the mountains, to hunt the animals that lived there. Others braved the sea in watercraft they had brought and caught various sea creatures in their fishing nets.

The colony flourished. Word was sent back to the Corporations that had financed the settlement, announcing that the colony seemed to be a success. They requested livestock for breeding, and welcomed other settlers to come and help them build the planet.

Then, nearly a year after the settlement was established, disaster struck.


* * *

Lyle stood in the lobby while Kevin checked them into the hotel. A hotel employee approached him.

"Will you need help with your luggage?" the young man asked.

"Yeah," Lyle replied, and the employee picked up their extra bags. "My friend is checking us in now."

"Here for the Event, I imagine," the bellhop said, while they waited for Kevin to return. "Observe or participate?"

Lyle nodded his head. "Participate, I guess," Lyle said.

The bellhop looked him over. "If this is your first time, I might suggest that you observe. The hotel has a fine observation deck."

"That's all right," Kevin said, approaching them with key cards for the doors in his hands. "We've seen the videos and studied all about it. We won't be able to come back for a long time, so we want to participate."

The bellhop also studied Kevin for several seconds. "Very well," he said, at last. "You've signed your papers, not to hold anyone responsible in case of your death or injury?" Kevin nodded. "Good, then. I just hope you remember it's not personal. And good luck, sirs. Now, shall we go to your rooms?" He hefted their luggage and began to lead the way. "And if you need anything, either before or after the Event, please don't hesitate to call."


* * *

Later, Lyle and Kevin walked the streets during the early evening hours. Lyle glanced at the sky.

"Won't be long now," Kevin said. "Less than an hour." They both glanced at the sky, and saw that the three moons of Veridia were nearing each other.

"Maybe we should go back to the hotel," Lyle replied. "I'm not sure I'm up to this."

"Oh, come on," Kevin prodded. "Do you want to go home and tell your grandchildren when you're old that you were scared and spent the Event on an observation deck, or do you want to tell them that you participated?"

"I just want to be able to have grandchildren," Lyle replied. "I can't if I get killed here, on this miserable planet out in the middle of nowhere."

"Take a look around -- there are a lot of people here to participate," Kevin continued. "I'm sure it's just a lot of hype. Maybe a few people got hurt or maybe even killed the first time it happened, but that's because they weren't expecting anything. We're ready, we've been training. We can handle this. We spent months working out, preparing. I'm not going to sit and watch."

"I just don't have a good feeling about this," Lyle said.

"So go back to the hotel," Kevin said angrily. "I'm not. I'm going to be on the street when it happens. If I had known you were going to be so scared I would have looked for someone else to watch my back."

Lyle didn't reply at first, but glanced angrily at Kevin. "All right, all right," he muttered finally. "You win, we'll just keep walking until it happens."

They continued to walk down the city's boulevard, looking at the sights. Windows of shops and restaurants sported signs advertising specials aimed at the numerous tourists that had flooded the area. Recently erected booths and stands lined the streets, selling various articles, from good-luck charms to T-shirts. The vendor at one of the stands told them that he worked at one of the nearby factories, but took vacation every year to sell crafts he put together in his spare time.

As they watched, store workers began putting metal coverings over windows and doors, locking them into place. Heavy wooden booths were locked up, their goods securely inside. The store and booth owners worked swiftly.

Suddenly a clock started chiming. "It's time," Kevin said grinning.


* * *

The first time the Event took place, it was when the three moons of Veridia were going to appear in the sky at the same time. They would seem to be close together, to those on the planet, though in reality they would still be thousands of miles apart. It wouldn't be a true eclipse, but it would come close. Two hundred scientists and others from the spacecraft landed to observe the near eclipse, with the settlers.

After the Event, nearly half of those visiting from the spacecraft were dead, as well as dozens of settlers. The event happened so swiftly, that no one was sure what had happened, at first. The survivors tried to piece together what they had experienced, and determine what had caused it. The survivors from the spacecraft returned, and restrictions were placed on any future landings on the planet. Several colonists were brought back to the spacecraft, to be studied in the more advanced labs, but they died shortly after leaving the planet's atmosphere.

It was discovered that a microbe, a bacteria, seemingly harmless prior to the settlers' landing, had merged with a harmless bacteria that was borne by humans, and created a new species of microbe. These microbes then infected any humans who remained on the planet for a period of at least several weeks, settling in their hosts' DNA. The mutant microbes caused the change during the times of the lunar eclipse. It was believed that the magnetic pull from the three moons caused the reaction, making the mutant microbes that had lodged in the DNA strands change shape, causing a temporary chemical and psychological metamorphosis in their hosts.

It was also discovered that if someone was infected and left the planet, the microbes would perish, and kill their host. Several settlers died in attempts to free themselves from the microbes infecting them.

Colonization of Veridia halted. Those that were on the planet already were stranded. There was talk of turning the planet into a penal colony, from which there would be no hope of escape. That idea was scrapped because of the colonists already there. The colony continued, thrived, and as the generations passed, grew. Unfortunately, infants born on the planet were also born with the mutant microbe in their systems.


* * *

"This is just like the running of the bulls back on Earth, centuries ago, in Spain," Kevin explained. "They used to turn the bulls loose, except here, they'll turn the population loose."

Lyle looked around. Everyone on the street had stopped walking, and stood about, staring at each other. He noticed there were no children about. The colonists generally kept their children locked safely away during an Event. He knew there were locals who refused to participate, locking themselves up in padded rooms that would open by timer after the event was over. Other locals viewed the event as a way of life, a natural consequence of being born on this planet.

Lyle looked over the faces of the people around him, wondering whom the Event was going to change. It was hard to tell who were the locals, and who were the tourists. Only during the Event would it become crystal clear. He glanced up at the sky, and saw the three orbs close to each other in the starry sky. Lyle knew that it was theorized that the gravitational pull of the three moons caused the microbes to initiate the change, similar to the moon causing the tides to change on other planets.

Suddenly, someone on the street screamed. Lyle looked and saw that several of the people on the street with him were changing. Their faces twisted in rage. Teeth barred, they crouched animal-like, and lunged at the nearest person.

"It's happening!" Kevin said, the excitement filling his voice.

One of the locals hurled a tourist into the unbarricaded window of a nearby building. Another forced a man down and began pummeling his face. All around them, shouts and screams could be heard amidst the noise of breaking glass. Lyle stood in shock, watching the chaos around him, while Kevin ran forward and pushed a local off the man he was beating. The local rolled away, and was instantly back on his feet, charging them. Kevin lashed out with a kick, and sent the local sprawling.

"Come on!" Kevin yelled. "This is what we've trained for." As Lyle watched, Kevin rushed forward, and punched another local who was rushing him.

Lyle ran to the man who'd been thrown through the window, as he was trying to get to his feet. The tourist's nose had been broken, and his eyes were swollen. Lyle saw a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye and turned sideways, facing a local who was descending upon him. Lyle blocked the man's attack and punched him in the chest, making him stagger. Before the local could recover, Lyle kicked him in the stomach.

He and Kevin had been training for this for nearly several months. They worked out on a regular basis, but had trained harder the last couple of months, and taken lessons in fighting and self-defense. Now, he had to put that training to use. It was open season for the locals to attack the tourists, but it was also open season for the tourists to attack the locals.

Flipping another local aside, Lyle glanced around, trying to locate his partner. Kevin had disappeared into the crowd that was swarming around them. They had agreed to stick together, to watch each other's back, but they had been swept apart by the torrent of angry, violent bodies. He could see no sign of Kevin.

Lyle fought the attackers, holding them off with the skills he had learned during the last year. Soon, though, his arms and legs ached from the efforts. His breath tore at his throat, and his heart threatened to explode from his chest, but still he fought on in desperation. The tourist he had aided stood by his side, and more than once they had assisted each other in forcing back an attacker.

"Kevin!" Lyle shouted, trying to find out where his partner had gone. "Kevin!"

"I think your friend is that way!" the tourist shouted, motioning a direction. Slowly, they began working in that direction, forcing their attackers back as they moved. Lyle glanced around, searching for his missing partner.

He saw locals tearing in vain at the metal gates of the stores. One, in a desperate act to commit vandalism, threw himself hard at the metal gates and was severely injured. He fell down, bloody and broken, and was instantly attacked by others. In a fit of rage, several locals tipped over a taxi, while several others were jumping up and down on other vehicles. Fingers hooked and teeth barred, Lyle saw Veridians attacking each other, rolling in the street, clawing and biting like savage animals. Two locals tore one another apart, then began to attack each other over the bloody remains. There were little stands of tourists, fighting the locals, their efforts to survive etched on their faces, their clothing torn and soaked with sweat. Most of them appeared to realize that they had gotten far more than they had bargained for.

The one thing Lyle was grateful for was that for all their savagery, the locals attacked without thought or plan, their minds overwhelmed by the mutant microbes, while the tourists had trained and were prepared, most of them displaying martial-art skills.

"There he is!" the tourist who was working with Lyle said, taking a second to point before turning back to the locals that were pressing toward them. Lyle took a quick look, and saw Kevin was backed against a storefront, holding his own against the attackers. The expression on his face was one of excitement as he faced attackers larger than himself. He failed to notice the small local approaching him from behind.

"Kevin! Look out!" Lyle screamed, but Kevin gave no indication that he had heard Lyle over the sounds of the skirmishes. Lyle tried to inch closer to his partner, but a half-dozen huge locals suddenly blocked his path. The attackers seemed to resemble ogres from ancient fables because of the way the transformation had twisted their features.

Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was over. The rage left the faces of the locals. They stood normally. Several looked around, surveying the carnage that had occurred. Dozens of people, locals and tourists alike, lay still on the ground. The moans and cries of the wounded could be heard throughout the crowd.

Lyle forced his way through the throngs of people. "Kevin!" he called out, looking for his missing friend. All around him, people were helping the hurt, locals helped tourists they had been attacking moments before, and tourists aided the locals whom they had been fighting. At last, he spotted Kevin, lying on the ground, in the arms of a sobbing woman. Lyle made his way to them and knelt down.

"I'm sorry," the woman sobbed. Her hands and clothes were covered in blood. "I think I might have hurt him during, you know. I just don't remember if it was me or not."

Lyle looked at Kevin, whose eyes clenched shut against the pain. His chest was torn open, his shirt soaked with his own blood.


* * *

Lyle braced himself in his seat harness as the shuttle merged into warp space, in preparation for docking with the passing Star-Cruiser. He gritted his teeth as the vessel began to shake, gradually slipping into the same speed as the Star-Cruiser.

"Well, we survived, huh?" the tourist said. "Very sorry about your friend."

Lyle glanced at the man strapped in next to him. It was his impromptu partner during the skirmish. They had spent the rest of the weekend together, talking. The man's left eye was still swollen, and he had scratches along the left side of his head.

"Yeah," Lyle replied. "He knew the chances. It was his idea to come in the first place." Lyle was silently thankful that Kevin didn't have a wife he'd have to give the bad news to. Kevin's parents would be heartbroken enough.

"Yeah, but it's still too bad," the other man said. "I guess we have something we can tell our grandchildren."

Lyle was silent for a moment. "Yeah, I might even take them to visit Kevin sometimes." He glanced sideways at his companion. "Not during that time of year, though."

"I heard it's a nice planet," the other man said. "He'll be happy there, once he's healed. They'll find him a good job. A man of his experience and education is a rare thing on that planet. Few residents of that world have received education elsewhere."

"Yes," Lyle agreed. "He'll do fine once he heals, although he was quite angry that his injuries prevented him from being transported off-planet. By the time he's well enough to travel, of course, he'll be infected as much as the locals. I just hope he'll be happy." Lyle grinned ruefully. "He was the one who wanted to experience the Event. Now he can, every year -- but as an active member." Lyle looked at the man next to himself. "I'll just have to make sure I write to him often. And send him pictures from my vacations throughout the galaxy. It's the next best thing, I guess."

"Feels like we're beginning to enter FTL," the other man said.

The vessel began to shake violently, beginning its final ramp to FTL speeds. Lyle was no longer nervous about space flight, as he had been just a short time ago, when he had last been on this shuttle. Now his eyes were wide open.



Story copyright 2002 by Peter Bergman, Jr. plbrgmn@newnorth.net

Illustration copyright 2002 by Andy Miller kidscroll@hotmail.com




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