Michal stood in the sun, smoking. Overhead, the Skytrain clattered by. In the distance, gulls squalled and squawked. The solitary horn of a tugboat pulling a barge through the muddy Fraser River. This was New Westminster, summer of double ought.
The Millennium had come and gone, and though she had heard whispers in dark corners of the borough’s dive bars, rumours of some evil lurking in the shadows, she was more interested in the moment, the now. The future didn’t concern her, and the dark didn’t scare her. She was a creature of the dark, and she had seen the future, and she feared it more than anything. It kept her awake at night, the possibilities spiraling outwards like ink in water, dirty tendrils grasping at the most pessimistic parts of her mind.
And for now, she had a simple goal: to make it up the street, a few blocks away. Her longest Run yet. She stubbed out her butt on the bottom of her shoe and flicked it away. She took a deep breath, steeling herself for the task ahead. The target was a convenience store, one that she had been casing for weeks. The take was simple, anything small and valuable that she could shove into her pockets, razor blades, painkillers, cash from the till if it was left unattended and she could manage it. Anything that could be easily flipped for snow.
Nanomachines, hacked to suppress signals in the neuroreceptors that registered pain. The System classified them as narcotics, but Runners called it snow. It was the hip new thing, pricey as hell but better than any traditional poppy-based product you could score for the same price. The grey goo came out of the factory as a paste, but plug it into a deck and mess around with the source code and the flecks of dust shifted and squirming until they became a dormant white powder. Heat reactivated them, either boiling them down for an injection or smoking them, depending on how how they’d been reprogrammed. The more time consuming the hack, the easier and more intense the high.
As she crossed the street, the shadow cast by the Skytrain flickered, as if being pulled towards her on a gossamer thread. Instantly, she broke into a sweat that had nothing to do with the humidity. As she walked, a pain grew in her joints, like someone had poured sand into them. She made sure not to bump into any pedestrians, lest the spell be broken. In the distance, the gulls called.
Across another street, the shadows shifting and pulling to keep her cloaked in darkness. No one that she passed noticed this, nor her. She kept walking, sweat pouring off of her with the exertion. The pain in her joints blossomed like a sickening flower, shoots winding their way through her body.
Up a small hill, and now the pain had settled in her muscles, as if something was trying the pry the flesh from her bones with a crowbar. She struggled to keep her breathing even, to disappear into her mind. She thought of Davi, alone, waiting for her to return. She would give anything to be back with her now, for all this to go away. To stop Running. In the distance, the gulls. A train rattled over head. Fragments of shattered conversations, people waiting for a bus.
A breeze blew a piece of trash across her path like a tumble weed in a western movie, the kind of spaghetti western they played for them in the CHEEK. No, too painful. A different memory. Strapped to a table as a needle pressed into her eyesocket, transorbital injection. No. Still too painful. Think of Davi, The soft contours of her face, her favourite stained t-shirt with the faded band logo, the smell of her hair, the way her face crinkled when she laughed. As if either of them laughed anymore.
Into the convenience store now, tracking a shadow in with her. She was hit with a cool blast of air conditioning that did nothing to dissipate the sweat now pouring off of her in hot, salty rivulets. She loaded up her cargo pants, then slipped out into the summer heat.
“Jesus, you scared the shit out of me!” exclaimed her dealer. He was sitting in the shade, and he started when she finally let the shadows drop from her. “Where did you come from?”
“I’m always around, you know that,” she said.
“Right,” he said, unconvinced.
“You cold?” she asked, changing the subject.
“You know I am.”
“Right. I’ll take a full ounce.”
“Sure thing. You trying to nuke a horse or something?”
“Edgy. I’ll chip you in. This shit is fob, primo puro.”
The best hacks came from over seas, less oversight and cheaper, faster RAM. She always checked the IP address before shooting up. This batch was Caracas by way of São Paulo. It figured. El Pulpo was building up its space program and there were plenty of rogue aeronauticists looking to make a quick buck on the international market. El Pulpo. The irony of the Spanish nickname didn’t escape her, although it seemed to escape the jingoistic fear mongers.
Davi stirred in the dark, light filtering through dirty lumber cast bars of shadows on her face. The shack smelled like creosote and brine, unwashed bodies and tobacco. They had been crashing there for a week, ever since Dani had her last vision. The System was closing in, and they were circling the drain. She knew they didn’t have much time left, zig-zagging through back alleys, always only one step ahead. Davi was good, but the System had nearly unlimited resources. Even after ’99, even as the world died. Even as it imploded under the strain of privitisation. With it’s dying gasp it snuffed out the last of the Runners.
“You’re home,” said Davi dreamily.
“I got the snow,” said Michal.
“My longest Run yet.”
“We can’t keep doing this.”
“How much longer do we have?”
“I don’t know.”
Michal breathed a sigh of relief. It was time to flatline.
As the sun set, they sat on the edge of the shore, toes dipping into the water. In the distance, the gulls called. Holding hands, Davi conjured a vision of the future. It was cold, white, bleak. Blue tinted, like a bad VR. It was empty, devoid of soul. Clean. People like them had been swept aside.
In the distance, gulls called while the City died, and they died with it.