Charlie wakes me early the next morning and tells me he’s the one who’s going to drive me to the border. After I take a few seconds to wake up and gather my belongings, he leads me to a small garage above the tunnels.
“I bet running’s changed quite a lot since The Agora took charge of it all, huh?” Charlie asks as he starts the engine on his beat up mid-sized sedan. The sound of the vehicle as it revs to life doesn’t instill much confidence in me. Miraculously, the vehicle exits the garage without any trouble.
“I don’t know how much it could change. We take things from one place to the other and try to not get caught on the way.”
Charlie laughs. “Well, yeah, son, but I mean, things have got to be a lot more organized than it used to be, right? For instance, if we went on a run, we just played hooky from school for a bit and no one noticed. Now that every one of your movements is scheduled, how do you kids deal with the whole schooling thing?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, aren’t you supposed to be in school? How do you keep the scheduling folks from noticing you’re not in class?”
“The Agora takes care of all of that. Can’t imagine it takes too much work since everything’s done electronically now.”
“Yeah, you know, over the computer.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I forgot they closed down all the real schools because of overcrowding or some such nonsense.”
“Right, so now they have thousands of kids in each class. It’s really easy to be overlooked.”
“But don’t you have to take tests or anything like that?”
“Well, sure, but The Agora’s got that all worked out, too.”
“Of course they do. I ‘spose they get you set up with all that junk the second you sign up to become a Runner.”
“Yeah, sorta. But it’s not like you actually sign up or anything.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, they’ve got the scouts. You know about the scouts, don’t you?”
“Son, when I was running, they had sign-up sheets in the schools. If you signed up, you were in. Wasn’t much to it.”
“Oh, well, they’ve got these scouts that go around to all the schools, paying attention to things like athletics and home life or whatever. I don’t really know what all goes into it. All I know is that a dude stopped me one day and told me I had been selected.”
“In my day, if a man stopped you in the street, you just kept going.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Still think it’s a little shady.”
“Isn’t everything The Agora does shady?” I laugh.
“I guess you’ve got me there, kid.” Charlie laughs as well. “So, if you take all your classes electronically, how can they actually scout you?”
“Well, not everything is electronic. I mean, it’s pretty hard to play sports over the computer.”
“They have those video games and whatnot, don’t they?”
“Those don’t meet the government’s physical fitness requirements or whatever. All students have to be in some sort of activity outside of the house.”
“So, what was your activity?”
“Cross country,” I smile.
“Of course it was,” he laughs heartily.
“Gotta run if you wanna run.”
“Okay, so, they scout you out, offer you the job, and then you just start running?”
“Oh, no. They’ve got a whole training plan and everything. The year before you become a Runner, The Agora has you transferred over to their training center.”
“They’ve got their own school now?”
“Yep. Makes it a whole lot easier for them to fake your school records.”
“How do they train you electronically?”
I laugh again. “It’s a real school.”
“A real school with fake students,” Charlie laughs. “So then what happens?”
“You train. Most of the year is spent learning survival skills. The rest is spent running.”
“So a whole year of training before they let you off on your own? Seems like you folks have it easy nowadays.”
“You also do some tandem runs first, you know, where you tag along with someone who’s done it before.”
“Jeez, Cyrus. Sounds like they’ve taken all the fun out of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when I was running, there wasn’t any training; no one knew what was going on. We just got a job and we ran. If anything came up along the way we had to wing it.”
“Winging it is what I do best,” I laugh.
He joins in on the laughter and the conversation continues as we make our way east. He tells me stories of the old days. I tell him ones of the new.
It doesn’t take long before I start to feel as though Charlie and I have known each other for forever. In fact, I don’t I don’t think I’ve felt this close to anyone before, except maybe The Geek. It’s possible that, for the first time in a long time, I’ve found someone I can truly consider a friend.
Unfortunately, my time with Charlie doesn’t last very long. He drops me off just outside a town called Floristan which, he assures me, is right on the Nevada border. After some quick goodbyes and good lucks, he’s gone. I look to the east and see mountains.
As I stand there, hidden just off the road, I can’t help but feel something is off.
I know this isn’t exactly the start of my run, but I kind of expected the same feeling of eager anticipation once I got out of the car. There’s nothing except this nagging emptiness inside. I look to the east and the nagging sensation grows, causing me to struggle to move forward.
I walk slowly, pull the earpiece out of my pocket, and place it in my ear. Maybe chatting with The Geek will lift my spirits.
“Geek?” I say as I press my finger to my ear.
I hear nothing in response. He’s probably still mad about me ignoring him last night. Of course, it’s still early, maybe he’s sleeping. I put my headphones on and press play on my music player. A very sad song hits my ears. Falling Slowly by The Swell Season. It doesn’t help my mood at all.
I slowly amble up the terrain which is covered by a light blanket of snow. I think about how angry The Geek’s going to be when he finally starts talking to me again. He’ll begin, I’m sure, by yelling at me for being so irresponsible, not only because I turned him off last night, but also because I’m moving at such a snail’s pace.
Before long, I notice my mind drifting off to thoughts about Charlie and the people in the not-so-abandoned subway station. Images of the many faces I saw down there fill my head. I’m so lost in thought that I don’t even notice the music stop.
“So, you’ve decided to let me back in your ear, huh?”
“Oh, Geek,” I stumble, waking from my daydream. “Took you long enough.”
“Ah, you’re even talking to me now too, huh? What’s changed your mind?”
“Nothing, I’m still pissed at you.”
“Because you lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie to you about anything.”
“Why didn’t you tell me we only had fifteen days to do this run? And what’s with this recruiter? And the underground refugee camp? What is going on with this run?”
“Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter? This is my life we’re talking about!” The anger I had felt yesterday returns. This isn’t a job anymore, it’s become a favor.
I don’t like it.
“It doesn’t matter because it’s not going to help you get to Boston on time. Besides, anything I have is purely speculation, so, forget it. How are you feeling today?”
“Whatever. I feel fine.” I don’t like letting him off the hook so easy, but I don’t have the energy to argue with him about it.
“Then why are you moving so slow? You don’t even move this slowly when you’re at home.” He’s right. I find it very hard to sit still.
I don’t have a good answer for him, not one I want to talk about anyway. So, I say, “I was waiting on you to make sure I’m heading in the right direction. Where were you anyways?”
“Taking a shower, Cy. I do get up from my chair sometimes, you know.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“Yeah. . . Anyways, you’re heading pretty much right, but you could’ve looked at your GPS to know that. Just get up the mountain. Once you get up there, it’ll be mostly flat for the next six miles before you hit the decline. If you keep northeast, you should be headed directly into Reno, which is a perfect spot to stop and pick up some supplies before heading further into the desert.”
“Alright then. Guess I should start running,” I say reluctantly.
“You got it, Cyrus.”
I release my finger from my ear, and the music comes back. Carry On My Wayward Son by Kansas. I’m still annoyed, but the song manages to lift my spirits. I continue up the mountainside. Looking up, I’d guess I’ve got about a mile to the top. I find enough footholds to move up the mountain pretty quickly and with very little trouble. It’s not a vertical climb or anything, but keeping an eye on where my foot lands is still pretty important.
Once I reach the top, I’m greeted by a welcoming forest. Unlike below, there’s not too much snow up here, probably all caught up in the trees and melted by the morning sun. I take a deep breath and enter the woods to feel warm air blowing across my face.
I quickly regain my love of the run as woodland critters scurry around me. Something about the woods feels cozy. Perhaps it’s to do with the tree cover that keeps all eyes in the sky from seeing me. My lifted spirits help me keep a steady pace. I have to cover a lot of ground today. Getting to Reno should be easy, but I’m going to want to get through the desert as fast as I can.
The run is pretty comfortable here too. The wind coming through the trees is warm, but also manages to keep me cool. It also helps that the trees themselves keep the sun from beating down on me. The leaves and needles on the ground provide a soft surface, which my feet love. Although I’m feeling a hundred percent better than I had yesterday, my feet still ache. It helps to have a soft surface to run on.
The trees open up around me and suddenly I’m in a large meadow. I make my way to the far end of it and determine I’ve probably made it three miles already. That makes it halfway through the mountain, if what The Geek said is right. Which, of course, it is.
I decide it wouldn’t hurt to take a short break and enjoy the scenery. I find a rock to sit on and turn to look over the meadow in front of me. Charlie had packed me a lunch. I take it out and nibble on it slowly, wanting to enjoy the view as much as possible before I enter the harsh desert.
I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything from The Geek while I take this unwarranted break. I mean, if this was a normal run, it would be pretty standard to take a break every three miles, but with the time crunch we’re in, I expected him to be yelling something about how irresponsible it was for me to be taking my time when I’m so early on in a run. Maybe he’s taking another shower.
I finish my sandwich and take a few sips of the bottle of water Charlie had given me and head back into the woods. Run by The Knux hits my ears. That settles it. The Geek is definitely playing DJ.
It isn’t long before I reach the decline. The trees open up around me again and I instantly feel as though I’ve stepped into a sauna. I see the desert laid out before me and can just barely make out Reno off in the distance. It’s always nice to see a landmark ahead.
The soft ground I had found in the woods gives way to a sandier substance beneath my feet. It slows my pace considerably, so I push harder, figuring I should make up for my break.
Seeing my waypoint ahead has brought back my focus. My cares fall away, blown by the hot wind running through my arms.
The music stops and I move my hand to my ear, but The Geek begins talking before I make contact.
“Hope you enjoyed your break.”
“I knew you’d yell at me about that.”
“You know, you really should–” I really don’t want to deal with another one of his tirades, so I decide to cut in.
“Hey, how come you can talk to me without me pushing my finger to my ear now?”
The Geek laughs.
“What?” I ask. The Geek laughs harder. “Geek, I’ll run right back to The Corral and strangle you if I have to.”
“Sorry. It’s just that, well, I don’t even know how to tell you.”
“Just tell me already!”
“Okay, well, um,” he giggles, “you never had to put your finger to your ear.”
“What?” I ask, angry and confused at the same time. I’ve been doing this for four years and he waits until now to tell me.
“Look, I just didn’t have the heart to tell you. Back when you did your first run with the earpiece, you kept putting your finger in your ear. You’d get this silly look on your face, like you thought you were a secret agent or something. I just couldn’t ruin your moment.”
“For four years?!” I yell.
“Yeah, I guess. I kept meaning to tell you, but. . . “
“Do you have any clue how annoying it is to run with your finger up in the air?”
“If only you knew how funny you look doing it,” The Geek begins laughing again.
“Seriously kid, when I get back there–”
“Yeah, if you get back here.”
An uneasy silence fills the air.
“Well that killed the mood,” I respond finally.
“Yeah,” he says sadly.
“Hey, kid, don’t get down on me. I’m Cyrus Rhodes. If they’re going to catch me, I’ll be dead.”
“Right,” he says softly.
“Any news?” I ask, wanting to change the subject.
“Nothing yet, but, well, there are some murmurs.”
“Yeah, the word around The Agora water cooler is that the SPs have become aware of a Runner running intel for a group of rebels.”
“Yeah? What does that have to do with me?”
“You haven’t figured that out yet?”
“Figured what out?”
“That you’re working for the rebels.”
“Seriously, Cyrus. You took a rebel-run train to pick up a package from a guy who obviously runs things on the other end. Heck, he even said he was in charge of the train. Are you saying you really didn’t make the connection when you saw all those people living down there?”
“Whoa. Wait a second here. You know I don’t get involved in any of this political stuff. I didn’t sign up for helping no rebellion.”
“Well, I didn’t know it was for the rebels until last night, not for sure anyways. It’s not like “Leader of the Rebellion” was something showing on his Agora bio. But, it’s pretty obvious now.”
“Is it? Maybe you’re just reading into it.”
“Jeez, Cyrus, you really are dense.”
“And you’re fat, so what?”
“Hey!” he whines.
“I’m just saying it’s pretty cut and dry.”
“If it’s so cut and dry, I wouldn’t be out in the middle of the desert doing a run for the rebels, would I?”
“Jeez, Cy, give it a break already. There’s no way I could have known.”
“Yeah, sure. So, I should forget how because of this I’ve now got the SPs looking for me?”
“Well, they’re not exactly looking for you. Not yet anyways. From the buzz on The Agora forums, it sounds like they merely got a heads up that a package is being moved. But, it’s only a matter of time before they find out who the Runner is. Which means you’re going to have to keep things really quiet at the splits.”
“Aren’t the splits the one place where I should be safe?”
“They are. But, it’s not like the SPs don’t know they exist. They’ll be pulling every trick in the book at any split they think you’ll be stopping at in order to find out who is running the package.”
“I can’t imagine they’d be quite so noisy about it yet to start doing any raids. They don’t want to scare you off. I’d guess they’d start by blackmailing the split owners. You know, tell them things like they won’t shut them down if they keep an eye out for you.”
“You bet it is. But, it’s not as bad as it could be. Still, every split owner from the Bay to Boston will be looking for you. You’re going to have to find some way to keep yourself from looking like the guy they’re looking for.”
“Well, that’s easy. I’ll just avoid the splits.”
“Yeah, right. How long do you really think you can make it before you need a split?”
“I don’t know, a while probably.”
“You don’t have any supplies, Cy. And you’re heading into the desert. You’re going to need something. The way I see it, you’re safe for now and Reno’s one of the bigger split junctions on the way. The SPs will be checking that out right away, but you should be able to stay under the radar pretty easily considering all the Runner traffic that goes through.”
“Sounds good. I’m just a couple miles out.”
“Right. So, get into Reno, pick up some supplies, and get out as fast as possible.”
“Can do. You know something, Geek?”
“When we complete this run, we’re going to go down in The Agora history books.”
“Cy, if you don’t get caught in the next couple of days, we might see the end of The Agora altogether. The SPs are going to stop at nothing to keep you from completing this run, even if that means tearing out the entire Agora infrastructure.”
“Cheery thought,” I laugh.
“Yeah, you could go down in history as the man responsible for the death of the black market. Heck, if this goes anything like the last rebellion attempt, you could end up being responsible for getting rid of the few privacy protections we’ve still got. It wouldn’t be too hard for the SPs to repeal even the AoA if they can connect Runners with what they consider a terrorist threat.”
“Alright then. . . Reno it is.”
“I’ll think about it,” I smile. I know I should feel concerned at how quickly the odds are stacking up against me, but I can’t help feeling a weight lift off my shoulders. I really only have two options, give up or finish the run. I don’t give up. Luckily I’m stocked full of unwarranted confidence, which is something I’m going to need a great deal of in the next few weeks.
Taking Care of Business by BTO hits my ears and my heart starts beating fast once again. This is going to be fun.
Go to Chapter Eight