I open my eyes to find crates everywhere; stacked up on top of each other all the way to the ceiling of the dimly lit compartment I’m currently laying in the middle of. A steady thud comes from each of these blocky boxes as the floor beneath us bounces.
I must have somehow made it onto the train. Either that or the SPs are carting me off somewhere, I guess. I don’t remember anything after hopping the white fence. I press my finger to my ear.
“Hey Cyrus,” his voice returns with a lot of static, “glad to see you’re with the living again. Wasn’t sure you were going to wake up before the train stopped.”
“How long was I out?”
“A little over four hours.”
There are no windows in the room, at least none I can see through the crates.
“How’d I get–”
“You were completely dead to the world when you got there. Some men cleaned you up and tossed you on the train. They left some food and water in there, too. It would be a good idea to make use of it.”
I find three bottles of water and a bag of fruit just out of reach. I attempt to stand, but my legs aren’t responding, causing me to land on my face. I do an army crawl to the provisions.
“Legs aren’t feeling too hot, huh?”
“Legs aren’t feeling at all, Geek.”
“I was worried about that. Your body needs rest, Cy. Getting some food in you should help, but you’re going to have to try to take it easy for a while.”
“Yeah,” I laugh, “I’ll remember that when I’m done with the run.”
I look at the fruit and remember vomiting before passing out. Nothing looks appetizing. I prop myself against a crate and open a bottle of water.
“So, I’m on my way to the bay?”
“Yep, the recruiter said he’ll be waiting for you at the station with the package. You should be getting there any minute now.”
“Perfect. After that?”
“What else? Run.”
“Right. What was I thinking?”
I feel the train slowing and hear the loud squeal of the brakes marking our arrival at the station. I struggle to get to my feet. Although The Geek claims I’ve been out for hours, my body doesn’t feel like it’s gotten any rest at all. I grab an apple from the bag and force myself to eat.
“What’s that noise?” The Geek asks.
“The train’s stopping. Don’t you have a satellite feed on my location?”
“The train’s running on an old subway system, all underground, you know?”
“That explains the lack of windows. So, I could really be anywhere then, couldn’t I? You sure you haven’t set me up for a trap.”
“Everything I’ve looked at checks out. No reason to be concerned.”
“I’m a little concerned you don’t know where I’m at.”
“Looking through the old tunnel maps, I have a pretty good idea where you are. Plus, why would the recruiter have lied about where the pickup is, even if it is a trap?”
“I have a bad feeling about it.”
“You have a bad feeling about everything.”
The large door slides open in front of me. “Looks like I’m about to find out if I’m right this time.”
“Guess so. Good luck.”
A man enters the doorway holding a briefcase to his chest. I lean against one of the crates as I take a bite out of the apple.
“Mr. Rhodes. My associates had made it sound like you were in much worse shape than you appear to be. I’m impressed.”
“Hey,” I say between bites. “You the recruiter?”
“Yes, hello. My name is Alvin Alexander. And your reputation does you no justice.”
“Thanks, Mr. Alexander. I like to believe justice is a relative term.”
“Oh, please, call me Alvin. And that’s a very interesting thought. I believe there are many today who would agree with you.”
“The file the Agora holds on you makes it sound like you are somewhat unreliable. I believe the statement is something along the lines of, although you may complete the run, you are not one to push yourself too hard even if the situation were to require it. The test with the train proved that to be inaccurate.”
“The train was a test?”
“Oh, yes. I run the train,” he smiled. “It could have departed at any time I wished. I wanted to see how dedicated you could be to the task. You passed, thankfully.”
“Seriously?” I ask, failing to hold back my rage. “You mean to tell me I almost got myself killed, not to mention captured, just so you could prove a point?”
“As they say, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
“Yeah, I’ll remember that when the SPs have me out in a holding cell for six months.”
“I assure you, you were never in any real danger of capture.”
“Right, sure, whatever,” I say, regaining my composure. “So, the briefcase, is that the package?”
“I have a few matters to discuss with you before we begin our arrangement. Please, come with me.”
“Look, Al, I really–”
“Alvin,” he corrects firmly.
“Alvin,” I say agitatedly. “If you want this thing delivered on time, I need to go now. We don’t have time to talk.”
“Oh, but Mr. Rhodes, if you want this job, you will make the time. Now, please, follow me.”
Alvin turns on his heel and walks away, up a nearby staircase. I stare at him as he exits before finally deciding to follow. He’s waiting for me as I reach the top of the stairs and, without speaking, steps swiftly to a door on the left. He opens the door and gestures for me to enter. The interior looks like it probably served as a break room for the subway’s employees back when this place was actually in operation.
Again without a word, he gestures to a chair on the other side of a nearby table in the otherwise empty room and sits down in the chair on the opposite side. The silence continues as I lean back and try to size him up.
Alvin opens the briefcase and shuffles through some papers, laying out several on the table in front of him. I look at the ceiling, wondering if this has all been a giant waste of my time when Alvin, finally, breaks the silence.
“So, Mr. Rhodes, as I said, I did have a look over your file, but, as you know, the Agora’s files on their contractors aren’t always the most reliable. If you don’t mind, I’d like to verify some of the information it contains.”
“Whatever you need,” I answer, wondering why he wouldn’t have been able to do this with The Geek beforehand.
“Thanks. So, first things first, how long have you been running?”
“Six years, give or take a few months.”
“Perfect,” he says, setting his pen to work on one of the sheets in front of him. “And I see you’ve done two cross country runs in the past.”
“Very impressive,” he says as he makes more notes on the papers in front of him. “Approximately how long did it take you to complete those runs?”
“I think if you check my records, you’ll see I’m one of the fastest there is. My times should all be accurate, that’s one of the things The Agora prides itself on.”
“If you don’t mind, Mr. Rhodes, I’d prefer to hear it from you.”
“Fine, my first one—“
“The one from Salem to Baton Rouge?”
“Yeah, that one. I did that one in just under 100 days. Pretty amazing stuff if I do say so myself.”
“I’d agree, Mr. Rhodes. I believe most Runners who have completed a cross country run state it can take them over half a year.”
“Yeah, well, not too many Runners have actually completed a cross country run either.”
“Very true. Speaking of which, your second cross country attempt, can you tell me about that?”
I adjust my weight in the uncomfortable seat beneath me. “Yeah, that one,” I shrug.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Rhodes, if I were concerned about the fact that you were caught, I wouldn’t have contacted you regarding this run in the first place. However, your file seems to be completely devoid of any information regarding what caused you to not finish.”
I try to hide a smile at that comment. I don’t know how he did it, but The Geek had managed to keep the information on that run from being too explicit, since the true story would have done a great deal of damage to my reputation, as well as my future job prospects.
“Yeah. . . well, I was hot off of the first cross country run and everyone was clamoring to have me do another. Recruiters get really excited when a Runner actually completes a CC, as I’m sure you know.”
“It is a very enchanting accomplishment in your line of business.”
“And even more so with me, since I had done it so fast. So, we decided to take some time off to just enjoy the attention.”
“Me and The Geek, you know, the guy you hired me through.”
“Ah, yes, the young gentleman who refers to himself as your manager.”
“Yep, that’s him. Anyways, like I was saying, we decided to take a break from running for a while. Jobs kept coming in, but nothing big enough for us to care about.”
“I’m not all that interested in your vacation planning, Mr. Rhodes.”
“Right. So, it was a few months, six or so, I think, before a job popped up that seemed exciting enough to even try.”
“Well, I guess exciting’s not the right word. The drop off was in New York and the payoff was huge. I’d never been to New York, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
“Do you often choose jobs based on what locations you will get to visit along the way?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s not like we were hurting for money or anything, so it seemed as good of a reason to choose a job as any.”
“Fine. So, you’ve explained why you selected the run, but you still haven’t explained the circumstances that led to your DNF.”
“Right, so, to make it a little interesting, The Geek and I had a little wager on it. Even though the distance was further than the other CC, I thought I could make it to the drop-off in an even shorter amount of time.”
“Sounds irresponsible,” he frowned.
“Sometimes we like to have a little bit of fun. We are just kids, after all. Back to the point, the run was going better than expected. I blew through 100 miles the first day. That’s not unheard of by any means, but I was pretty proud of it. That put me right in the middle of the Mohave. The way I saw it, I was already halfway to Vegas, which is one of the bigger split districts, so the second day, I put another 100 behind me.”
“I’m not certain I see how this relates to your DNF.”
“You’re right, it probably doesn’t. Anyways, in two days I found myself in Vegas. I was exhausted and incredibly dehydrated, but there I was in the middle of good old Sin City itself. I had only been to Vegas once before, and since I had already shaved some time off my schedule, I figured I could use the extra time to do some sightseeing while I was there.”
“I can’t help but get the feeling you’re attempting to buy yourself some time here, Mr. Rhodes.”
“Hey, I’m just giving you the details on how I found myself in the situation I was in. Vegas put me in the sightseeing mood. I mean, I was on my way to New York for the first time and was making great time already. Looking at the maps, I noticed that a trip to the Grand Canyon would only add a couple days on to my trip at worst. The Geek laughed at me, talking some nonsense about the tortoise and the hare or whatever, but–”
“Can we get to the point, Mr. Rhodes?”
“Well, I came up on the canyon on the wrong side. I either had to go across or all the way around. Going around would easily add another day onto the trip, since there is so much SP traffic around the perimeter of that big hole. So, I decided to cross. I found a nearby split that offered trips. They had this thing all planned out to a T. The SPs patrol that canyon like crazy, knowing it’s a great spot to catch sloppy Runners, but this split had all the patrol time tables laid out and scheduled everything perfectly around them. It all seemed safe enough and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to shave a little time off my run.”
“And the prospect of being able to see the Canyon from the ground floor didn’t play into this at all?”
“Well, you know, maybe a little. Anyways, things were going perfectly. We made it down into the canyon in no time. Without any issues, we begin crossing the Colorado River. There were 6 of us, all Runners who had decided to take a detour. One of them I had known for a long time.”
“I see in the report some mention of a Runner who goes by the name of Eve.”
“Yeah, that’s her. Anyways, to make a long story short, her mule went nuts right as we got on the water. It jumped off the raft and bolted back up the trail before we got even ten feet from the shore. The boat operator refused to turn back because of how tight their schedules are, but Eve needed the mule to make the climb back up, so she jumped out after it. I, stupidly, followed.”
“Stupidly? You were helping a friend, were you not?”
“Well, yeah, I guess, sorta. I mean, she’s not exactly a friend. I just really hate for a good Runner to get caught and the quicker I could help her get her mule, the better her chances at getting out of the canyon unseen. We never found the mule.”
“And this Eve? Did she get caught as well?”
“Well, no. You see, that’s where I was really reckless. We had found a great hiding spot when we determined the mule was long gone. We thought we’d hide out until the SPs passed and then make our way up the other side on our own. Problem is, Eve dropped a water bottle when she jumped off the raft. The patrol saw it and immediately began searching the area. We were stuck, incapable of moving without being caught. If we stayed where we were, we were going to get caught.”
“And you made the decision that having one Runner caught would be better than two?”
“Yeah, I guess. The stupid thing was, even though it was all Eve’s fault, I still felt responsible for getting us stuck in that spot. So, before she knew what was going on, I jumped out of hiding and starting running away, making sure the SPs saw me instead of her.”
“Great. Well, that’s all I needed to hear,” he responds as he begins replacing the papers into his briefcase.
“Oh, well, okay. Mind if I rest the legs a bit before I head back to The Corral?”
“What do you mean, Mr. Rhodes?”
“I had a pretty rough run here. Just thought you might be okay with me taking a little break before I head back home.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Rhodes, I’m not certain I understand your thought process here. I hired you for a job, didn’t I? I believe I even placed a deposit in your manager’s care as an advance on your services.”
“Well, yeah, but I just figured that after hearing about how I put another Runner’s safety over my own delivery that–”
“Can I speak openly for a moment, Cyrus?”
“It’s your meeting.”
“I represent a group who operates quite a bit differently than The Agora. We are an organization who prides ourselves on putting people first. The reason we hired you is because we’ve seen that although you present yourself in a rather confident and selfish manner, you have managed, time and time again, to consider the needs of others before your own.”
“Well, I don’t know if I’d go so far–”
“Don’t be so modest, Cyrus. We chose you because we need someone who thinks like you. This run is about something much more than just delivering a package. It’s about delivering a message.”
“So, the package is a message?”
“No, well, I mean, yes, it is, but that’s not what I mean. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’re exactly the person we’re looking for.”
“Well, of course I am.”
“Right,” he smiles. “Now, about the delivery.” He reaches into his briefcase once more and pulls out a manila folder. “Here,” he says as he slides the folder across the table to me. I pick it up and begin to open it. He holds up his hand. “Oh no, Cyrus. That’s not for you. That’s the package.”
“Ah,” I say, placing the envelope back down on the table. “Gotcha.”
“The information contained within that envelope is incredibly important to our cause and it is of the highest importance that it is delivered on time.”
“Makes sense. The Geek’s got the drop-off info, right?”
“Yes, I believe he does. However, I do not believe I can emphasize enough how important it is that this package is delivered at the appointed time.”
“Well, I mean, I turn AoA in 3 weeks, so we’ll get it there for you quicker than possible.”
“Cyrus,” he looks at me grimly, “I don’t believe you understand. This package must be delivered in 15 days. That is of the utmost importance.”
“Oh, yeah. No problem,” I respond confidently. Inside my head, I immediately begin cursing The Geek for holding this information from me.
“Your confidence is admirable, but we both know you’re going to need a lot of help to pull that off.”
“I prefer to help myself, if you know what I mean.”
Alvin smiles again. “Well, whether you think you need it or not, our organization is very powerful. We have people spread out all over the nation. If ever you find yourself in need of assistance, which we both know you will, please mention my name. You will find the help you need.”
“Whatever you say, Alvin.” I stand and extend my hand. “Well, it’s been great doing business with you.”
Alvin extends his hand as well and we shake. “Don’t think you’re going to be leaving so quickly, Cyrus. We’ve got dinner all prepared. We’ll feast, sleep, and you can leave in the morning.”
“Alvin, I appreciate it and all, but–”
“I know you’re anxious to get on your way, Mr. Rhodes. However, as I’ve already said, we put people first and it’s quite apparent you are in need of a rest. Don’t worry about the lost time. We’ll have a car take you to the state line tomorrow morning. That should more than make up for it.”
“I’d prefer to–”
“I insist you stay, Cyrus.” He gives me a stern look as he stands and exits the room. I don’t like it, but I’m beginning to think I don’t have any option but to do what he wants.
Go to Chapter Six