Take Your Marks
In the world of Giant's Reach, uplifts are giant animals that can reason and think like humans - and play like humans. Helen is a hare, among the best at running - but before she can beat her rivals she needs to overcome her own insecurities...
The referee raised his voice so that all the animals could hear him.
“Alright you lot,” he rasped. “Let’s have a nice clean race. I know this one’s for the cup, but any of youse gonna be biting or scratching, you’ll find yerself disqualified quicker than I can start this race. Got that?”
From her third-lane position, Helen nodded. She extended her claws, scratching at the gravel of the track, then backed up a bit so she was even with the other hares.
“Shortlegs,” someone muttered.
Helen looked round sharply, but all the other runners were preparing in their own way. Big Jonk up in the first lane was stretching, legs extended far behind him; in the lane next to Helen bounced last year’s winner, the grey-and-black Reginald. He gave her a polite nod as she appraised him.
The others all seemed to be engrossed in their routine, so Helen got back to hers. She scooped a little of the gravel up and made sure to spread it liberally over her paws. Her ears twitched as it came again, this time from the left.
She growled and spun around.
“If you have something to say, say it,” she snapped. The five hares to her left all looked up, reacting with - or feigning - confusion. The nearest one, Yarn, shrugged.
“Only cowards hide in a crowd,” Helen muttered, shaking her head. The race organiser, who she knew had heard nothing but occasional squeaks and her growl, looked from face to face and shrugged.
“Right then,” he said. “Take your marks.”
Helen’s head went down, ears cocked and listening.
There was only the track ahead, shimmering in the midday sun, the murmur of the crowd, and her breathing.
“Ready,” the referee said, before she could do more than look sideways.
Helen powered forward, powerful back legs thrusting against the ground. Around her the others did the same, all of them suspended in the air for a fraction of a second as their initial lurch sent them forwards. Then her paws made contact, and the race was on.
The first lap was almost a warm-up, none of them willing to expend the energy to do much than keep the pace. Big Jonk, simply by dint of his size, ended up at the front of the pack; to go around him would require far more spent effort than was wise at this point. The second and third laps passed with little change, the yards turning to miles pounded underfoot.
Slowly but surely, Helen found herself pushed to the back of the pack. Ahead of her, the mottled fur of the others was like a solid wall. She kept her breathing steady, kept her stare forwards. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else, except -
“Shortlegs,” came the cry, but this time it came with the added sound of breathiness. Of someone struggling to find the air.
Got you, Helen thought, and adrenaline surged through her. With a conscious effort, she tamped it down, held on to it, squirrelled it away for later.
Five laps, six laps, and there were no words now. Nothing but heavy breathing, even from Helen. But she had reserves; she dug deep and kept moving. Her legs - yes, shorter than the others, if only by inches - beat a fearsome rhythm.
Big Jonk was the first to fall behind her - not because she had sped up, but because he was done. She spared only the barest look back to see him collapse to the side, gasping for air that would not come. She passed another, and another, never changing her pace, until she was behind last year’s champion.
He was the same as her - breathing heavily, but it was measured. The world shrank down to just her and Reginald, just them and the blue sky above and the crowd to the side and the last lap ahead of them.
The bell rang, almost unheard by the racers, and yet Helen heard what was whispered over it.
“Shortlegs,” came the cry. “Do it!”
She looked back, locking eyes with Yarn; her eyes were wide, foam at her panting mouth, and she nodded her defeat.
Helen let the adrenaline sing through her, rushing through her form; her legs found a new rhythm, a faster one, and she moved up alongside Reginald. The hated nickname seemed to lend her wings, to chase her up the track in a cloud of dust. The beleaguered hare glanced sideways just once as she passed him, one final leap propelling her over the line a mere nose ahead of him.
And the crowd went wild…
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