I press my finger to my ear and I hear The Geek sigh before I’m even able to speak.
“I know, I should have told you.”
“Told me what, Geek? That there’s even less time available than you let me believe, or that the guy hiring us is apparently completely against us actually getting the job done? I think either one would have been an incredibly important piece of information.”
“It’s not like that, Cy–”
“Then tell me, what is it like?”
“Just trust me okay. This guy’s legit, I promise. Plus, he’s giving you a ride to the border. Like he said, it’ll more than make up the time. Plus, you could use the rest.”
“I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.”
“You’ve never cared who we were working for in the past.”
“I’ve never had to sit down and have dinner with them in the past.”
“You’re still sure this isn’t some sort of trap?”
“As certain as I can be. Just relax, get yourself a full belly, and some sleep. I’m working on a few ideas for how we can get you through Nevada. On the bright side, once you get dropped off, you’ll be almost all the way through the mountains.”
“Good, glad there’s a bright side.”
“I’ve got everything under control, Cy.”
I release my finger from my ear, feeling tense. I’ve never had a recruiter take so much interest in my run. If it isn’t a trap, there’s still something going on that isn’t quite right. For now I guess I have no choice but to do what Alvin wants, but there’s absolutely no chance I’m letting my guard down. Not yet.
A short, frail-looking man enters the room. He must be at least 80. He sees me and gives a big smile.
“Yes sir,” I respond.
“My name’s Charlie,” he says, extending a hand. “Alvin said you’re going to be staying with us for the night. If you’d like, I can show you to where you’re going to sleep so you can drop off your bag before we head down to the cafeteria. It should be a pretty good meal tonight. We just got a fresh supply of goods in.”
“Why don’t we just head down for some food? I can check out my bed later.” I don’t want to let my bag out of my sight. There might not be much in there of worth, but I don’t trust these guys enough to not be ready to run at any moment. And I’d really hate to walk into a trap without my Taser on me, at the very least.
“Whatever you want. Follow me.” He holds the door open for me as I exit and then leads me down the hall to a set of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs is a large cafeteria with rows upon rows of tables. There are people scattered around the room, a lot of them. Most of them are eating and the rest are standing in line at the other end of the room. It reminds me a lot of the lunchroom back at The Agora Training Center. The old man leads me to the end of the line.
“So, what is this place?” I ask. I have a hard time believing these people are doing the government’s work down here, which means they are all AWOL from whatever job they were assigned. And there’s a ton of them.
“This? Just the cafeteria. You know, where we eat.”
“Right, I get that, I just mean—never mind.”
“So, you’re a Runner, huh?”
“I used to be a Runner. One of the first.”
“You?” I ask. I’m not one who cares about this sort of thing, but I can’t help notice he has the same skin as Violet, that dark shade that tends to make it even more dangerous as a Runner. There were a few folks who looked the same who went through class with me, but they only account for a handful out of the hundreds. Dark skin has the tendency of getting you placed into federal care as a kid. I’ve never really understood why the color of a person’s skin should matter, but people always seem to be uneasy around them.
“Oh yes, sir. I know, I know, not too many fellas like me out there anymore, right? Back then the future still had a little bit of hope for all of us, back when freedom actually meant something. Yeah, things were a lot different back then, even outside of running. I remember a time when they thought we would all be considered equal. That all changed mighty quick.”
“What do you mean?”
“Depends on what you want to hear about. The running, or the other.”
“I’m not sure,” I shrug.
“Well, how about we stick with the running then? You can learn about the other stuff in pretty much any history book. Although, you might not get the whole story.”
“Sure,” I nod.
“Back then the Street Patrols hadn’t been put together yet. All of the law enforcement was done on the state or city level, so we just needed to avoid the harsher districts whenever possible.”
“Yeah, we like to call them the good old days. From what I’ve heard, pretty much everyone was willing to look away if you had enough cash to pay them off.”
“Right. As long as you had a pocket full of paper, you could get through just about anywhere. Of course, it wasn’t all better back then. We didn’t have the splits set up yet, so it was a whole lot easier to run out of supplies. And then, of course–”
I’ve heard this all before. It’s all part of the standard training for becoming a Runner. In fact, I think the history courses were run by a guy about the same age as Charlie. I tune him out and look around the room to try and get an idea of what might be going on in this old subway station. I see people of all ages, men, women, girls, boys, and even babies. If I didn’t know better, I’d say these people were living down here. But why?
I finally get to the front of the line and grab a tray off the stack. The person behind the counter doesn’t even look up as he ladles a pile of some murky brown substance into a bowl. He mutters something and the old man pushes me forward to retrieve his own dinner.
“Roast beef!” the old man yells excitedly. He nudges me with his shoulder and shoots a giant grin. “You’ve definitely come down here on the right night, Cyrus.”
I give him a weak smile. If he’s excited for this, something has to be wrong. I follow him to a table with several other old men already sitting, apparently waiting for my guide to arrive.
“What took ya so long, Charlie? Were you having trouble getting your pants on again, you old coot?” one of the old men cackles.
“You’re one to talk, Frank. Heck, I was already here and gone once while you were still trying to get out of your chair.”
“Sure you were, just like I had been out taking a jog around town,” Frank laughs. The group joins him in an eruption of laughter that fills the room. I smile uneasily as I sit down beside Charlie.
“Boys, this is my new pal, Cyrus. He’s doing the special delivery Alvin’s been talking about.”
“Ah, are you now, boy?” another of the men asks. He has a thick accent I can’t quite place. He sounds like one of those police officers in those old movies I used to watch with my parents when I was little. The memory makes me smile.
“Yeah, I guess,” I mumble.
“Well, that Alvin’s been talking up this special delivery for weeks now. You find out what he’s been planning yet, Charlie?”
“Not yet, but he seems to think it’s pretty big. Cyrus here is supposed to be some sort of prodigy Runner.”
“Prodigy?” I shrug. “I’m pretty good, I guess.”
“Ah, yeah. I remember those days–” the man who talks funny begins.
“Can you remember back that far, Patrick?” Frank laughs again.
“I remember back when your mother was still pretty enough to date, Frankie.” Patrick laughs as well.
This continues for quite some time. No conversation can go on for more than a couple seconds before it becomes another joke about old age. Before long, I join in and find myself right at home. These guys are different than most of the old people I’ve talked to in the past. They seem more relaxed, more open to talk about whatever. It’s weird, but nice.
Just as I’m settling in, ready to enjoy myself for the night, Alvin enters the room. He walks briskly to the serving line. I’m not the only one to have noticed his arrival. The entire room grows silent, even the old men at my table. Alvin steps up on a chair and clears his throat.
“Good evening,” he shouts across the room. The room responds loudly. “As many of you are aware, today marks a new day in our plans. We are officially moving into Phase 2.”
The room bursts into cheers.
“Everything has been finalized and things are looking good. The next step is simple and I believe you all know what it is, so I won’t bore you with any more of my rambling about how we’re going to do this or need to do that.” People around the room laugh lightly. “So, since I want to keep this short, I will leave you all with one responsibility. Cyrus, if you’d please join me up here.”
Alvin looks directly at me and my heart stops. He gestures firmly. After realizing everyone’s attention is focused on me, I reluctantly stand and trudge to the front of the room.
“Cyrus Rhodes, everybody!” Alvin exclaims. The room breaks into applause, as though I were here to accept some award. Usually in my line of work, we try our hardest not to be noticed. That isn’t going to be possible here. “Cyrus comes to us highly recommended and I’m really excited to announce he’s joined our team.” On their team? I’m sure the confusion on my face shows, but Alvin decides to ignore it.
“Cyrus is going to stay with us here for the night, but first thing in the morning he begins his run to Boston.” The room again bursts into cheers and applause. “So, what I need all of you to do is to get the word out. Cyrus is going to need a lot of help to get to Boston on time. I know many of you have friends and family across this once-great nation of ours. I need you to tell them he’s coming. Have them be on the lookout and be ready to help him along in whatever way possible. Our primary duty right now is to make sure that Cyrus makes it across the country in time. If he doesn’t, all is lost.” The room hums in agreement.
“But enough of that.” Alvin looks over his shoulder. “Brenda, is that your famous roast beef I smell?” A woman standing behind the counter nods happily. “Well then, today is a day to celebrate, isn’t it? So, eat already!” The room laughs and continues in a cheery noise.
My previous feeling of comfort disappears quickly as I make my way back to the table, so I ask Charlie to lead me to my sleeping quarters. After exchanging several more jokes about how old everyone is, he complies.
He takes me further downstairs to an area that looks much more dingy than the tiled walls and floors above. The walls are made of stone and look as though they were chipped away at slowly by hundreds of tiny little tools. The ground is mostly dirt and rock. It’s not much better than just a deep hole dug in the ground. I’m led into a room lined with bunks, which stretch deep into darkness. Charlie flips a switch on the wall behind us and several dim lights flicker to life down the cavernous interior.
“This is one of the newer rooms, so they haven’t assigned anyone to live here yet. You should be able to sleep in peace tonight.”
I thank Charlie and he exits quietly. I walk to the far end of the room, noticing there is no other exit than the one I entered by. The pit of my stomach churns as it comes to the realization of how easily this situation could turn worse. I choose the top bunk on the bed furthest from the door, figuring the distance from the entrance would buy me some time, should anyone attempt to cause trouble. I place my bag under my head and stare at the ceiling as I lay in silence.
“Cyrus,” The Geek says. I pull the earpiece out of my ear and throw it across the room. I can’t deal with him tonight. Maybe tomorrow. We’ll see.
Go to Chapter Seven