#1 Run a contest – The flier made it sound easy enough: run the race, win fifty pounds. You didn't even have to come first; just cross the finish line. ‘Everyone who makes it to the end will win a prize!’ Harry needed the cash to pay off the lay-by on his tv and, he reasoned, he certainly enjoyed a leisurely jog now and then (‘then’ being one of those abstract sort of times that we always think about happening but never seems to arrive). So he called the number and got the address of the race track from the automated voice and turned up at the given time.
The address was for a big building in an industrial part of town, a warehouse-looking structure clad in shiny corrugated steel. Spray-painted on the double doors was a large red spiral. The doors made harsh scraping sounds along the concrete slab as Harry pushed them open. He found himself in front of a row of gates set into a mud brick wall, each with a light above it, some glowing red, some green. Directly before him was something resembling a music stand, bearing a laminated sheet of instructions on top of a pile of forms, and a blue biro tied to the stand with a length of string. The instructions were printed neatly in an Arial font, and at the top of the page was a logo of a red spiral in a black box.
‘Please sign the attached form,’ they read, ‘then take a numbered vest from one of the hooks behind you and enter a gate. Available gates are those with a green light. The race will begin at the sound of the horn. Please keep to your lane and move straight ahead. Thank you for your participation and good luck’.
Harry signed a form without paying too much attention to what it said, then took his vest and entered a gate. The light above the gate’s entrance flicked from green to red, lighting the space with a strange glow. The gate was a crude archway, leading to a poorly lit tunnel which appeared to be made from the same mustard-coloured mud brick as the wall. A door made of metal bars blocked the tunnel entrance.
Harry had just started doing some warm-up stretches when the door swung open and a horn sounded. He had been expecting an air-horn, something loud and startling, but this was different; rumbling, primal, called forth from bone and penetrating him like the call of a predator. He began to run.
As soon as he had left the gate the concrete floor gave way to roughly paved earth and he stumbled repeatedly, knocking into the wall and grazing his elbows. Flakes of mud brick settled on his t-shirt and mingled with the blood from his cuts, forming a paste. After a few minutes of frantic sprinting Harry slowed, a stitch stabbing painfully in his side. He breathed deeply, clutching his ribs, laughing to himself at his sudden fit of panic but unwilling or unable to stop walking.
He looked up, trying to identify the source of light. The roof of the tunnel was surprisingly high, but he could make out what appeared to be shallow bowls of burning oil hanging from chains. There was no sound in the tunnel save for his own panting, and the air smelled like dust and iron.
Harry wondered about the other participants; there had been at least seven other occupied gates when he had come in. He felt a little proud at how fast he had just run, and thought that for sure he must have gotten a decent head start. He decided to pick up the pace a little, determined not to lose his edge; what if there was a bigger prize for coming first? Harry started jogging, humming gently to himself. He continued on for quite a while, pleased with his stamina, noting absently how the floor seemed to be gradually sloping downwards.
There were gaps at random intervals in the wall, tall archways leading to other tunnels which seemed more or less identical to his, but he paid them no attention. He just kept following the path as best as he could, keeping his eyes on the ground so he didn’t trip on the uneven stones.
Hot wind blew from the archways, occasionally making a shrieking sound as it blew past. And there was a smell that came on the wind, like farm animals and rotting meat. After a while Harry began seeing things through the archways, just out of the corner of his eyes, like glistening red streaks on the ground or the spectre of an outstretched hand. Something ran in front of him, across his tunnel from one side to the other, a scrabbling, stumbling, human-shaped thing that looked at him with one wide, rolling eye before disappearing through an archway.
Harry assumed they were just trying to find a short cut and was miffed that the others were trying to cheat, and resolved to go faster and try and beat them through sheer skill. Surely the race must finish soon? How much further could it be?
After a while he realised there were footsteps behind him, not just the echo of his own but independent, another participant trying to muscle in on his track. He put on a short burst of speed, sprinting a couple of metres around the long curve of the wall. The footsteps behind him kept their pace. Harry was sweating heavily, and could feel a hot wind blowing behind him. It was thick with the rotting animal smell, and he hoped he would soon be past it.
He tripped on something which rolled out from under his foot, putting his hands out to steady himself and landing palms-first on a small pile of bones. The force of his fall splintered them and yellowed shards stuck out of his palms. He swore, struggling to his feet and pulling out the splinters of bone with his teeth as he kept walking. His palms were slick with blood and the footsteps behind him quickened.
Harry’s whole body ached and his breath was wheezing out of his body, and he wondered if he couldn’t cut a deal with the race officials to take the winnings of anyone who didn’t cross the finish line. He’d have to buy antiseptic on the way home and he didn’t want that coming out of his fifty quid.
Whoever was behind him seemed to be gaining, and Harry realised he hadn’t looked over his shoulder once the whole time. Were they close enough to see yet?
The curves of tunnel were beginning to get very tight. He should have read that form more closely. He felt like he’d missed something important. It was in an ancient language, something he didn’t want to read. Why did he sign it?
He must be close to the end now. He hadn’t heard any screams on the wind for a while. Maybe the others had given up. Or maybe they’d all gotten to the end. Maybe he should have tried cheating too.
Why hadn’t he looked over his shoulder? It seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do. He hadn’t even really thought about going through one of the archways, even though he might have been able to find another participant. They could have chatted. He could have told them about the tv he was paying off. He might have even made a friend. After all, they weren’t really competing. Everyone who made it to the end won a prize.
The footsteps were very close now. Harry could hear their breath, could feel it like a hot wind. What if he just peeked over his shoulder a little bit? He must be very near the end now, and everyone else was dead. Surely that should win him a little something extra.
The smell was terrible. It was all around him.
Harry turned his head, just a little, just enough. And then he started to run.