October 15th, 2019, 12:57 PM
Season 5 Champion
Everybody in the main control room was on edge as the remaining racers prepared to cross the border from Algeria into Mali - the final border crossing and the final country of the Great Overlander. A small group was huddled together in one corner of the room, softly discussing various plans that had been set in motion. These included the regional race supervisor responsible for the Northern Mali sector, the official representative for Credit Suisse who would soon fly out to Timbuktu and present the first finisher with $1 billion at the finish line, and the poor, beleagured research assistant.
"So then you are assured that there will be no transportation... difficulties?" the representative asked. "The conflict reigniting in recent days has surprised everyone with its suddenness and intensity. It would be unfortunate should the rebels cause more problems than necessary."
"Everything has been arranged," the supervisor replied. "You will fly in to Algiers and take a charter to Timbuktu from there. My colleague responsible for Algeria assures me that the rebels do not have any influence that far north and would not dare disrupt operations in that country regardless. There are certain elements in that government that have long been sympathetic to the rebel cause."
"Excellent," said the representative. "I must say, your assurances aside, that I am quite relieved to be traveling by air instead of overland. How the rebels were able to arm so quickly remains a mystery, but from everything I have heard their weapons are of top quality and they aren't afraid to deploy them."
"Yes, well, not all of us can be Rene Regnault and pogo their way through the desert, after all." The two men softly laughed and shook hands as the representative departed to catch his flight.
"Excuse me, Supervisor?" the research assistant finally blurted. "Is it not traditional for the Director to meet with Credit Suisse to oversee final operations before the representative's departure? Where is Director Ducard?"
The supervisor turned around as if he had heard a piercing scream. "Sssssh!" he hissed. "Have you never heard of such a thing as plausible deniability?"
"I mean yes, but - "
"Well I haven't!" he said. "The Director is very busy ensuring that the final legs of this Great Overlander go off without a hitch and cannot be disturbed at the moment. Under his leadership this race is projected to be the most lucrative for us yet and he cannot risk turning his attention away and doing something that would detract from that!" With that, the supervisor walked away and made himself busy staring at a video screen set up at the border crossing checkpoint the racers would visit.
This left the research assistant, once again, to her own thoughts. "This race might be the most lucrative ever... but will there even be a chance for the next race to top it in five years if this keeps up? Will there even *be* a next race?"
The fence and accompanying border infrastructure rose out of the desert like some great monolith of old. It had broken the monotony of landscape that the racers were experiencing so sharply that at first the entire thing was deemed to be one giant mirage.
But the racers kept pogoing closer to it, and the "mirage" only grew in both size and detail, and ultimately they each individually came to the conclusion that they had, in fact, rejoined civilization, however briefly.
Algeria had fortified its long border with Mali at the height of the latter country's Tuareg rebellion earlier in the decade as the fighting had threatened to spill over into the Maghreb country. While the fighting had mostly died down (at least, until the surprising resurgence over the past few days) since then and the two countries were trying to resume full levels of trade and normalize relations, the border security was as high as ever. Thus, passing through *this* border checkpoint would have all of the official chutzpah behind it the same as the one from Spain into Morocco, though without any of the accompanying fanfare.
Ever since the dust storm of past days, the racers had settled into a sort of routine. They would pogo some during the day, but mostly rest - it was simply too hot and draining to fully exert themselves. They would instead get most of their miles in during the comparatively cooler nights. This sudden shift in active hours proved to be yet another complication for the beleaguered racers, but it was nothing compared to what they had already experienced by this point.
The racers obviously weren't fully aware of this, but it seemed like that ever since the dust storm, the Red Valkyries had accomplished their mission. There was no need to further attack or kill any of them as the billion dollars had already been secured. Those of the racers who were not part of the group tried to ponder the implications of this, but anything was better than focusing on how hot and miserable they all were. Still, it was impossible to deny that there had been a sort of loosening of the tension, as if the critical moment had come and gone.
And yet, there were still worries. This one bit of civilization aside, they were no means out of the desert, and the state of the border readiness had alarmed them. They had expected something similar to the Morocco-Algeria border; a small checkpoint populated by sleepy soldiers just marking time until their shift ended. These Malian soldiers seemed sharp, alert, paranoid. Almost as if they were expecting something.
None of their pre-race research had prepared the racers for this. Had something happened since the Great Overlander began in Barcelona? There was some talk of an old conflict from earlier in the decade that had threatened a radical route change in the 2014 race, but that was 5 years ago and the conflict had mostly ended since then. Curiouser and curiouser.
Still though, everybody tried to put it out of their mind. They were continuing to put miles behind them and were taking advantage of this brief period of air conditioning as their papers were checked. This was welcome. This was heaven.
Ri Yong-ju was the first to cross into Mali, the final country of the race. In the distance, she could hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire.
October 16th, 2019, 10:37 PM
Season 5 Champion
As the racers made their way through the northern half of Mali, the Sahara Desert finally started to recede and signs of civilization once again made themselves known. First there vegetation, then actual vehicles, and then signs of human habitation. Unfortunately, all of these reemerging signs came with disturbing implications.
The long-simmering conflict between the government and the northern Tuareg rebels had, in the past week, fully erupted to an intensity not seen since 2013. Nobody was quite sure of the cause. A ceasefire agreement had been signed years ago and was being upheld by everyone save for the most die-hard fighters. The remnants of the militant Islamists, the al-Qaeda and ISIS branches, that had tried to move in and establish themselves in the chaos, had been defeated. Stability - if not full peace - had been advancing in the region for quite some time.
So why specifically was the conflict restarting now? Who was even left to fight? And where were the rebels getting their funding and equipment from after all this time? All of these were troubling questions that the international intelligence communities were at a loss answering.
One thing that happened though, is that the conflict was far more salient and had much more global prominence this time around. This, of course, was entirely due to the fact that six racers on pogo sticks were passing directly through the area on their way to try to claim a billion-dollar prize, with international coverage in their immediate wake. As a result, horrifying images of the conflict were beamed worldwide, and the usual sporting pundits were desperately trying to educate themselves on the conflict in an attempt to appear the most informed.
The true chaos began when the racers were informed through their emergency channel to and from Race HQ that due to "unplanned disruptions" in the area, Rule 1 (all racers must follow the designated route) was temporarily being suspended and that the racers could simply find the path to Timbuktu they found quickest and safest without having to worry about disqualification. Of course, as they hadn't planned for this contingency with their teams pre-race, and given how maps of the area weren't exactly reliable or in vogue, results were varied.
Some of the racers, deciding not to brave the unknown, decided to press on ahead with the given route. Ri Yong-ju, leading the race and thus most willing to preserve the status quo, was one of these. Her decision was rewarded by a firefight taking place in the village she just happened to be passing through, causing her to hunker down and hide in the cellar of one of the buildings for hours while the gunfire raged around her. The North Korean had seemingly shrugged off every hazard the Great Overlander had thrown at her to this point, but as there was very little non-political crime in her home country, this was something different entirely for her. She had never felt more scared or helpless as she watched her lead presumably evaporate.
Rene Regnault also decided to stick to the original route. In another village further south, he too ran into a firefight, but this one quickly evaporated simply by his presence and star power. The top pogo racer in the world was, naturally, an international icon, and a few choice words, a kind grin, and a couple of autographs and selfies was enough to persuade the rebels to move, and he bounced through that particular town without further incident. Defying all predictions of doom, it looked as if the French short-track specialist would be very much a factor thousands of miles in.
Given that the conflict was primarily between the ethnic Berber Tuareg people and the black African Mali government, the Kenyan pogoer Cheris Musungu decided not to take any chances and gave every possible sign of civilization a very wide berth. As a result of this, she found that she didn't have to stop out of fear of being shot at any point, but even the former marathoner was approaching the physical breaking point. Her extra time in the Sahara and away from any comforts whatsoever were a hard burden to shoulder indeed.
Meanwhile, Michelle Steinlage decided to take advantage of the situation. Born and raised in west Texas, this climate and the gunfire out in the desert was nothing new to her. Coming up on a village under siege from the rebels, Steinlage quickly acted and made contact with the rebels, asking for a gun. The bemused Tuaregs gave one to her and, in a move that sparked outrage and furious political debate back home, she joined the fighting and helped drive the government forces out of the village more quickly so that she could pass through and resume racing. "Whatever it takes!" she shouted to a camera as she bounced by.
Ever the resourceful racer, Narender Puntambekar made a complete pit stop in the first village he saw, using his money to restock on food and water, and using the leftover to hire the services of a guide. After haggling the man down to 2/3 of what he was initially demanding, the Indian racer requested a route that got him to Timbuktu quickly and without any problems from the rebels or government soldiers. Two hours later, he and his guide were at a small camp out by an oasis where six men in military fatigues were demanding the rest of his possessions. He groaned. What was once a promising lead after the Atlases had now almost surely evaporated, and it looked like he would be pogoing into Timbuktu wearing only underwear.
Last of all was Larissa Davies. Torn between wanting to avoid her husband's fate and desperately trying to get information on him, ultimately her curiosity and desire overcame her fear and she found herself speaking with the leader of an armed band of Tuareg rebels, nearly with tears in her eyes. However, reality soon set in as showing the man the picture of Mick she carried with her everywhere did nothing, and she had no languages in common with anyone there. Accepting that nothing could be done at this time, she vowed to race on and spend however much of the billion it took to get answers.
The going was fraught and perilous, but in a departure from the race, none of them died. They made their way through the danger and came ever closer to true civilization, where the conflict had yet to touch. The miles melted away, and the Sahara and all of its troubles were now mostly behind them.
Just a few more bounces would take them closer to Timbuktu and the finish line.
???: Rene Regnault (France)
???: Larissa Davies (New Zealand)
???: Michelle Steinlage (USA)
???: Ri Yong-Ju (North Korea)
???: Narender Puntambekar (India)
???: Cheris Musungu (Kenya)
OUT: Pablo Rey (Argentina)
OUT: Eduardo Gonzalez (Mexico)
OUT: Saad Al Thani (Qatar)
OUT: Isabela Castaño (Spain)
OUT: Vasily Radionov (Russia)
OUT. Janine Bodie (Bahamas)
OUT: Lasse Abramczik (Germany)
OUT: Adílson (Brazil)
OUT: Francesco Vallefuoco (Italy)
OUT: Lucien Lapointe (Canada)
OUT: Morten Harders (Denmark)
To Be Concluded