The Agora Files – Part I – Online Edition – Chapter Eight

I make it to Reno in no time and immediately feel at home. I’ve been here before, but I’m still amazed at how bright a city it can be. It seems like everything has a light on it. Trees, sidewalks, buildings, they are all brightly lit, even when the sun’s out.

It’s early, but this place is busy. Reno’s one of the few places in the country where you can still see people walking the streets at all hours of the day. That’s because it’s one of the few sanctioned entertainment districts left.

From what I hear, gambling used to be frowned upon across the country, since people thought it indicated bad character or something. Once the federal government took over everyone’s daily lives, they recognized people still needed some sort of recreational outlet. In fact, the first big rebellion attempt is blamed on the fact that people just had nothing to do.

Reno is now one of the largest vacation destinations in the States. And the best part about that for Runners is how people are allowed to roam freely here, as long as they stay within city limits. There are no designated activities for those who have been given leave from their jobs.

The SPs are kept busy, since the crime rates in Reno are some of the highest in the nation. It’s a magical place. It’s not hard to imagine how Reno became the biggest Runner’s hub in the nation.

At last count, I believe there were around twenty splits located within Reno’s city limits. That amount of splits within one area is unheard of otherwise. Generally, there’s only one within any metro area and then out in the boonies, well, you’re lucky if there’s only 30 miles between them.

It’s important to know where the splits are. Most DNFs are caused by a Runner not being able to find a split before they run out of food and water or whatever, meaning that way too many DNFs end up in some kid dying just attempting to deliver some crappy piece of merchandise. Luckily for me, The Geek keeps a giant database of splits, so we always know where the nearest one is. I doubt even he knows about all of them.

That doesn’t matter in Reno. If you’re a Runner in Reno and you can’t find a split, well, you shouldn’t be running in the first place.

I head for the New Fitzgerald’s Casino, per the directions The Geek has loaded onto my GPS. This is one of the oldest splits in the country, so I should be in good company. I arrive at the imposing marquee which lights up the front of the building and enter through the front doors. Most splits are hidden in dark alleys, off of fire escapes, or in corners of the world no one else would dare enter. That’s not how it goes here. In Reno you waltz right through the front door amid all the glitz and glamor the rest of the world gets to see.

Walking into the New Fitz, I feel like a new man. There’s club music blaring, joined by the constant beeping and jingling of slot machines. Add into that the sound of people cheering which comes from all over the cavernous room and you start to feel like you’ve entered a new world where anything is possible.

I go directly to the Lucky Streak Lounge. When I enter, I gesture to the bartender with the pinky finger on my right hand. It’s an old Runner’s signal which has persisted for as long as I’m aware. The bartender flashes his pinky back and looks to a wall on the other end of the bar. I walk to the wall, turn away from it, and knock slightly behind my back. The wall opens and I enter.

The scene inside the split is quite different than the rest of the New Fitz. Looking like a dingy saloon that would be better suited in some movie about the Wild West; no one would expect this to be hiding right in the middle of such a flashy building. It’s quiet in here, much quieter than outside. And dark. There’s not a single soul in here outside of me and the woman standing behind the bar. I guess I must have hit the slow period. I just hope it isn’t a sign that the SPs have already cleared this place out.

As my ears and eyes adjust to the change, I find a table in the corner. A middle aged woman, wearing a nametag stating her name is Flo, walks to my table, chewing on a piece of gum. They’re always named Flo. The Geek tells me it’s some sort of tradition that started back in the early days of running. It’s probably just another stupid way to keep things all secretive and whatnot.

“Whatcha need, hun’?”

“Hey, just need some level 3 provisions.”

“Sure thing, sweetie. Where you running to today?”

Normally I would tell the Flos everything about my run, because they always carry the news of the road ahead, telling me what areas to avoid and what the weather looks like. This is usually info The Geek already has on hand, but they’ve had stuff we didn’t know about a few times before. It never hurts to check. Well, except this time.

“Vegas. Casino-to-casino job.”

“Yeah, we get a lot of those around here. Can’t say I’ve seen you before though. Your first?”

“Yeah. Wish me luck?” I smile.

“Sure thing, sug’. Need directions at all?”

“Nope, I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the course. Any news of the road ahead?”

“Sounds like them patrollers are getting excited about something, but I don’t think they’ll be getting in your way too much. Sounds like they’re more interested in the folks heading east.”

“East huh? What’s out there except for desert?”

“No clue, honey. But if those Street Patrollers are looking for them, I can’t imagine they’ll be out there for too long. Level 3s you said?”

“Yep, thanks.” She walks away and heads into the back to retrieve my order. The Geek chirps in my ear.

“Why are you only getting 3s?”

For once I’d like this kid to stop worrying so much about my orders. To make things simple for Runners, most splits offer provision packages. They’re designated by number for how far you’re running. Level 1s are for people doing long runs, across state lines and such. Level 3s, like what I ordered, are for people doing a much shorter run, it’s barely enough for the run from Reno to Vegas. I hope she doesn’t notice.

I whisper, in case Flo happens to be able to hear me from in back. “I thought we wanted to keep a low profile. Ordering a Level 1 would be a sure sign I’m heading cross country.”

“That’s a good thought, but also pretty reckless. You know you’re heading into the desert, right?”

“Don’t worry, we’ll figure something out.”

The waitress reappears with a small box, which I recognize as the Agora Level 3 provision box. I hand her my Agora Market Card, an identification card used to charge items to my Agora account

She runs off to charge my order. While she’s gone, I pack the box into my bag, careful not to damage the rebel package. If I’m going to risk my life for this job, I’m going to make sure the package makes it in pristine condition.

The waitress reappears, hands me my card, and wishes me luck one final time. Although I’d love to sit and chat, I know I should get out as quickly as possible. If The Geek’s right, the SPs could be checking this spot at any moment. And to be honest, the fact that this place is empty has me feeling anxious.

I stand and give the pinky salute to the waitress. She steps behind the bar as I walk to the wall I entered through. She reaches under the counter and the wall slides open.  The quiet ambiance is quickly replaced by the noise of spinning slot machines and sad humans.

I hate having to leave Reno so quickly. It seems like I never really get to enjoy myself here, which is disappointing, because it seems like such a nice spot to just relax. I guess that’s one silver lining to getting a government-sanctioned job; I’ll be able to come here for all my vacation days. The thought is more depressing than reassuring.

I take to the alleyways for my run through the city. Although there’s very little immediate SP danger, I would hate to draw attention to myself. Luckily the buildings are so large around here that it’s easy to find dark alleys to use for cover.

I get up to speed and The Girl from Ipanema by Frank Sinatra hits my ears. I reach the older parts of the city and it feels like I’m being taken back in time. Although these parts of town are run down, you can still imagine a bit of their old glory. I find the alleys to be rather crowded around here. Burnouts and druggies litter the ground, all reaching toward me as if they would love to do me harm, but just don’t have the energy to follow through.

It gets to be a bit depressing, seeing this part of what the city can do to a person. Of course, I guess I would probably be the same if I ended up being stuck behind a desk for the rest of my life.

A little under an hour later and I’m outside the city limits. Asphalt and lights gives way to sand and sun. Since I have to avoid the roads, there’s really not much to see out here except some sparse animal life, thin grass, and rocks. Lots of rocks. I can already feel the dry air ripping through my lungs. I slow my pace. Can’t overdo it. Looking ahead, all I can see is desert, and I’m pretty sure that’s all I’m going to be seeing for a while.

A few more miles and I decide to stop and take a rest. I’m about 3 miles outside of Reno, meaning I’ve made it a good six miles already. Pretty good. I open up my bag and pull out my Level 3s. When I open the box, the music stops and I hear The Geek.

“You’re making good time, Cyrus.”

“Yeah? Good enough to make it to Boston on time?”

The Geek laughs. I pull a bottle of water out of the box and take a small sip. There’s just this and one other bottle in the box; a couple apples, an orange, and two sandwiches make up the rest of my purchase. If I’m going to make it through this heat, I’m going to have to conserve every morsel. I take one more sip of water and swish it around my mouth, hoping to use every drop to make it feel less leathery.

“So, how big’s this desert again?”

“You’re better off not knowing, Cyrus.”

“Okay, well, how far till the next split?”

“With the SPs looking for a cross-country Runner, we either have to stick with well-established splits we know we can trust or ones that we’re pretty certain the SPs don’t know about.”

“Okay, and how far till we find one of those?”

“Well, there’s one that actually meets both criteria in Olinghouse. It’s a little shack up on a hill. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s been there for about 30 years now. It should be safe.”

“How far?”

“About 15 miles. Shouldn’t be much trouble, but having only a Level 3 pack means you’re going to have to take it easy on the water, which won’t be too easy out there.”

“No problem. Which way am I heading?”

“Almost directly east from where you’re standing. I’ll input it into your GPS for you.”

“Great.”

By the sun’s position in the sky, it must be already past noon, which is apparent by how hot it’s getting. The sun beats down on me hard. I can’t afford to sit around much longer. I’ll be in as much need of water just sitting on my butt as I will be while I’m running and I don’t have much left. I take one large swig from my bottle and toss it back in my bag. The music starts back up on my player. Black Betty by Koerner, Ray and Glover.

There’s not much to see for miles, except rocks and sand and brush. I notice a few vultures flying overhead, looking for their next meal. I hope they’re not expecting to get it off me, because they’re going to be disappointed. I give them a wave, letting them know I intend on staying around for a while.

Another five miles under my belt and the run is beginning to wear on me. I feel the wind start to pick up. It’s cold. Really cold. At first it feels great, but not only is it now getting unbearably cold, it’s pushing against me, making the run that much more difficult. I strain on, figuring I should attempt to make it at least one more mile before stopping again. I look off in the distance and see that’s not an option.

Just as I notice my situation, the music stops and I hear The Geek in my ear once again.

“Cyrus, you know what that is, right?”

The large wall of haze ahead of me is unmistakable. There’s only one thing that looks like a brown fog out here in the desert. “Yeah, sandstorm,” I say through my dry throat. I stop in my tracks, trying to work out how I’m going to get through this new problem.

“Looks like the temperature is dropping around you quickly. You feel it?”

“Yeah, I feel it. It’s freezing out here.”

“It’s moving fast. Can you see any cover around you? You’re going to need to get under something if you can.”

I look around me, there’s nothing to see but rocks.

“Wait, look to your left,” The Geek says excitedly. I look and all I can see are rock spires coming out of the ground. “You see that? There’s a hole in the rock over there. It’s not much, but it should give you at least a little bit of cover.” I look back at the sandstorm. It’s already covered half the distance between me and it; and the rock formation The Geek’s talking about is at least 400 feet away. “Run!” he yells.

I cover the distance between me and the small cave quickly. Even though I’m moving at top speed, the storm is faster. I jump into the hole, tighten the hood around my face, and bury it into my shirt; hoping I can keep as much sand out of my face as possible.

The sand begins like a wave, lightly brushing against me, but quickly becomes a rough stoning by miniature rocks.

No matter how hard I press my face into my shirt, the sand invades every corner of my being, getting into my eyes and mouth and whatever else it can find. It beats into my pores, ripping at my skin with every pulse of the wind.

The pain is unbearable. I want to cry out in agony, but I know opening my mouth to do so would only invite the storm further into my body, possibly even my lungs. I hold my eyes closed as tight as I can, trying to keep any further sand from entering. They burn with fire as more and more sand makes its way in. Tears form at the corner, failing in their attempts to wash the grains of sand from them.

For what feels like an eternity, the sand continues beating against me, invading my space, violating my body. I hear The Geek shouting commands at me, but I can’t hear him over the wind and can’t make sense of anything in this senseless storm. At this moment there is nothing but me and the pain.

I feel a weight piling against my waist. I resist the urge to look and assume the sand is beginning to pile up against me, burying me within this hole in the middle of the desert. I have no clue how long I have left before I’m completely covered, but if this storm doesn’t end soon, that might not matter.

And just as I think it, the wind slows. The constant tearing at my skin becomes a light throb before finally stopping altogether. I open my eyes, tears falling from them quickly, my sight all but completely gone at this point.

I jump up and brush off the mountain of sand which has formed around me. Through half-open eyes I reach for my bag, digging to find the water. I open the bottle and dump it into my eyes. There is nothing on my mind except the need to get the pain out of my face. The bottle empties quickly and I reach for the second, just as The Geek yells in my ear.

“Stop!”

He’s right. I can’t waste my last bottle of water now with so much distance left to cover before the next split. I put my hand up to try to rub the last of the sand out of my eyes and see my arm is caked with more of the stuff. I blink rapidly, but nothing seems to completely remove the sand from my vision. I can’t run like this, I can’t even see.

I slowly pour a small amount of water over my hands, trying to remove whatever sand I can. I get a few fingers clean and use them to scrape the sand out of my eyes, blinking to remove whatever extra I can as I go. Slowly, my sight returns, although still hazy. My face itches from the cuts covering it.

I look down at what’s left of my last bottle of water. It’s half full. My mouth is coated with sand and I still have ten miles to go. I spit as much of it out as I can and fill the cap of the bottle with water. I put the cap’s worth of water into my mouth and swish it around.

“Geek,” I say harshly. My throat is too dry.

“Cyrus, you’re going to have to drink some water.”

“I can’t,” I sputter. “Not enough.”

“We’ll deal with that when we come to it. You need water.” I weigh the odds. Either I die now or I go on without any water. I drink it as slowly as possible, attempting to ensure none of it gets lost down my shirt or otherwise.

“Cyrus,” he speaks softly. “Cyrus?”

“Yeah,” I hoarsely respond.

“The SPs know who’s running for the rebels.” I stop breathing. “They know it’s you, Cyrus.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“Cyrus. . . “

“What, Billy? Get on with it!”

“They’ve put out a bounty for you.” He almost whispers this last bit.

Having a bounty on your head is a death sentence in this business. Suddenly you’re not just running from the SPs, every single person you meet will be weighing the option of turning you in for the hefty pile of cash the SPs promise on all their bounties. If there’s a bounty out for me, there’s no one I can trust.

“Doesn’t matter, Geek. I’m not going to be able to make it to Olinghouse anyways.”

“I know.”

“So, what are the options? Head back to Reno?”

“Reno’s the last place you want to be with a bounty on your head. It’ll be too hard to get out of town if you’re seen. Plus, it’s just as far back there as it is to Olinghouse.”

“So?”

“So, I’ve got nothing. There’s nothing else any closer.”

“Well, I didn’t get into this business to sit around. I guess I’ll make a try at Olinghouse.”

“It seems unlikely, but I honestly don’t see any other option.”

“Good thing I’m good at what I do then, huh?”

“Let’s just hope you’re good enough for this.”

Go to Chapter Nine

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