by Armon Mikal
Flickering street lights painted the cracked pavement in washed-out yellow hues, broken only by Zeke’s headlights as he raced down 104th street. He pushed the accelerator down, urging more speed from his car as he weaved his way around slower drivers. Occasionally a car honked at him, but he rarely paid any attention beyond making them the target of his loud cursing. He was a runner and had carved out his career in the criminal underworld one night at a time delivering stolen data, black market weapons, and even human organs—he would run anything, as long as it resulted in cold hard cash in his hand.
Twenty minutes had passed since he had been handed a small, neatly wrapped package with strict instructions for delivering it. Time is money, Zeke, Otto had told him. Takato must receive this within an hour or he won’t pay. Since then Zeke had raced at twice the speed limit from the mansions and sparsely populated roads of Minato Heights to the bustling slums of New Belcott. The time limit was a bit strange, but Zeke knew to avoid asking questions; the only question a runner should ask was how much he was being paid. Seeing an open parking spot, Zeke slammed on his brakes and pulled his car in, ignoring the chorus of car horns from behind. Reflexively, he patted his pocket, ensuring he still had the package as he stepped out of his car.
There was no such thing as day or night in New Belcott. Between the towering megabuildings that stretched across entire blocks and the streets in between to the multi-tier highways that ran grid-like across the city, most neighborhoods lived in perpetual darkness. The area was illuminated only by countless storefronts welcoming locals and tourists to buy wares both legal and not; flashing neon signs indicating hot guns, cheap eats, or willing flesh; and giant advo screens displaying commercials that offered solutions to your problems as long as you bought their products. There were very few suits to be found here, and Zeke wagered that any he saw probably had a pistol as large as his hidden about their person. Smells of cheap beer and stale cigarette smoke were almost strong enough to overpower the ever-present smog. The police often didn’t stray too far into these sorts of neighborhoods unless they were searching for someone extremely important or felt particularly hungry for violence.
Zeke strode down the broad sidewalk with his hands in the pockets of his vinyl jacket, his dark eyes scanning everyone and everything. His clothes were nice enough to draw a few eyes but not enough to make him a target for pickpockets. Fitting in was important in these parts.
Places like this were a reminder that the corporations didn’t own everything yet, although not for lack of trying. Some people sought to fight against the corporations, to wrestle control out of the hands of the aristocracy and give it back to the people. Not Zeke. He didn’t give a damn about any of that. The black market was his god, and he worshipped regularly at the altar of money.
“Hey there, handsome,” came a sultry voice to his left. “Need some company tonight?” Blue hair framed a bright-eyed face with pouting lips that promised a good time. The chrome of her nails reflected her neon surroundings like a mirror as she beckoned him closer. Whether she was human or synth, Zeke couldn’t tell. Not that he minded.
On a different night, Zeke would have spent the money, but he was in a rush. He shook his head and kept walking, laughing to himself as she shouted curses at his back and questioned his manhood. So she was human, then, he thought. Synths were usually programmed to be more…courteous. At least, pleasure synths were.
After two blocks he turned down Zhong Street. Only half of the stores here were still open this late, leaving the sidewalks bathed in dim tones of grayscale. Three men spoke in hushed voices in front of an empty building and eyed Zeke with interest. Zeke pulled his hands out of his pockets so the metal of his right hand was visible. That was usually enough to deter people; no one wanted to risk a mouthful of titanium. The hard look he gave dared them to make a move, and they averted their eyes.
Seeing an abandoned building with three stripes of spray paint on the corner, he turned and hurried down an adjacent alley. There was a hidden door in this alley where he was supposed to find his target. The smell of rotting garbage assaulted his senses, and he coughed and held a hand over his mouth. Without the presence of any street lights, it was pitch black, making every step a cautious venture. It was dark enough that he considered getting his eyes upgraded. Zeke knew a black market dealer that could get his hands on surplus Russian military equipment—such as his arm—and a surgeon that would handle the install. Such things were illegal, but then again most of Zeke’s life was too these days.
Something in the dark caught his boot and sent him stumbling down the alley, cursing loudly. He pulled his pistol from its holster and turned on the small flashlight beneath the barrel, all the while muttering under his breath about nearly face-planting in garbage. A hard circle of light scanned across the filthy concrete where he had been walking
His light fell upon a body lying facedown and partially buried beneath bags of trash. While the sight of a corpse wasn’t out of place in New Belcott, one wearing such fine clothing piqued his interest. Zeke turned the body over with his foot and his breath caught in his throat. He knelt next to the familiar face, trying to dredge the memory from a sea of nighttime jobs, all faded and dull with the smog of time. Farad Arnoult’s warehouse, a month ago. Zeke had helped deliver a shipment of black market cyberware—the kinds that were stolen from people, often while they were still alive—to Farad’s warehouse and had seen this man there. Just like Zeke, this man was a runner. Or at least, he had been. Now, he had two holes punched through his chest. At least the death had been quick.
“Don’t move! Drop the weapon and place your hands above your head!” A police officer in New Belcott? That was rare, especially one in riot armor, and alone. The pig was slapping his shotgun into his open palm.
“You’re going to have to pick one, buddy,” Zeke said, looking up from the corpse. “Either I don’t move or I drop my—“
The cop raised his shotgun and Zeke leaped to his feet, thumbing off his flashlight as he sprinted away into the darkness. He dived behind a dumpster, landing on a pile of refuse right as the cop’s shotgun rang out, once, twice. Searing pain flashed along the side of this thigh. A quick glance down showed him his leg had been grazed by the buckshot. Zeke rolled off the garbage and limped down the alley, struggling to evade the murderous officer who was shouting as he followed.
“Ezekiel Aurora, I find you guilty of murdering Eric Macdonald.” How did he already know the victim’s name? Or Zeke’s, for that matter. “I hereby sentence you to death.” Ah, now it made sense. Zeke had been set up.
Zeke reached down and scooped up a dented can full of something that smelled rotten. Twisting to the side, he hurled it at the pig and hurried down the alley. The cop’s shotgun rang out again, and one of the pellets struck Zeke’s arm. Fortunately, it was the one made mostly of titanium. Zeke’s long legs devoured the ground with each painful step as he fled down the long alley.
He exited the alley and holstered his pistol as he pushed through a small crowd of people, none too gently. People swore at Zeke, and one man eyed him as if he wanted a fight, but Zeke ignored them all. If the sound of gunshots moments earlier alarmed anyone, they gave no notice. This was New Belcott, after all. A woman commented on his bleeding leg, but he ignored her as well. Seeing a noodle shop across the street, he made his way through the crowd and pushed the door open.
“Hello, sir. May I—“
Zeke pushed by the server, muttering a quick apology as he passed. He needed a good vantage point, and fast. Moving around customers that raised complaints at the sight of his bleeding leg, he approached the large window at the front of the restaurant. Some cheap plastic decorations were taking up a corner, so he knelt behind them and peered out the window, wincing at the sharp pain from his leg.
He heard shouts from outside and watched as the crowd opened up around the cop, many of them ducking or fleeing at the sight of his raised shotgun. Zeke couldn’t hear him, but he appeared to be asking the crowd which way Zeke had run. Almost of its own accord, Zeke’s hand went beneath his jacket and wrapped around the grip of his pistol. Fortunately for him, denizens of New Belcott weren’t fond of the police, and they considered actively helping one to be shameful at best. Some people simply shrugged as they hurried away, and a few others pointed down the street, away from where Zeke was. With a sigh, Zeke let his hand fall as the cop hurried up the broad sidewalk.
Carefully, Zeke slipped out of the restaurant with his eyes following the cop through the crowd. Briefly, he considered following the pig and dealing with him, but he didn’t need that kind of heat right now. What he needed were answers. He turned and hurried away in the opposite direction.
People of all sorts crowded the sidewalks, making a quick getaway nearly impossible.
Zeke hobbled out onto the street, ignoring cars that honked and swerved around him as he ran. He got to his car and jumped inside, uncaring of the blood he got on his seat, and set the package on the seat next to him.
His tires struggled for traction as he held the accelerator to the floor. Red numbers on his dashboard indicated it was 12:35. There was still time. He told his watch to set an alarm for 1:02 and focused back on the road, dodging potholes and slow-moving transport vehicles. As New Belcott faded behind him, he began to catch glimpses of the night sky through his windshield. The smog was too heavy tonight to see any stars, but the moon fought to bathe the ground beneath with its glow.
After rounding a corner at high speed, his tires screaming in protest, he slid sideways into Otto’s driveway. Pushing the door up, he leaped out of his car, wincing at the pain in his leg. Cold, hard steel filled his hand as he held his pistol tightly by his side. The package he was supposed to deliver was in his other fist, rattling slightly as he pounded on Otto’s front door. There was a voice from inside, loudly complaining about the hour, and then Otto opened the door a fraction, surprise clear on his face.
“Zeke! Why the hell are you back here? What happened to….”
His words trailed off as Zeke slowly raised the package to eye level. He saw Otto lick his lips nervously, which helped confirm his suspicions. Otto backed away, and Zeke pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped forward, following him into the house.
“I think we need to have ourselves a talk, Otto.” Zeke lifted his massive pistol and scratched his chin with the barrel, smirking at the look on Otto’s face and the sweat forming on his brow. Zeke continued his way into Otto’s house, keeping his pistol in plain sight. Otto’s eyes went from the package in Zeke’s hand to an antique clock on the wall and his breath caught. Zeke always found it interesting how the most powerful of men turned to cowards once they had a barrel pointed at them.
“Look, Zeke, if this is about money, I’ll get you more.”
“You know this isn’t about money, Otto.” Just then, Zeke’s watch began beeping. Immediately, he flung the package across the room. Both of their eyes watched the small bundle—Otto’s in horror, Zeke’s in expectation—as it struck a far wall and fell to the floor.
Seconds later, it exploded. It wasn’t a big enough explosion to destroy the room, but if a person had been holding it, they would have lost an arm and probably their life as well. Tiny flames licked their way up the wall, and the smell of smoldering carpet began to fill the room.
“You see, what angers me the most,” Zeke said as he knelt next to Otto, who had crouched on the ground with his arms covering his head when the package exploded, “isn’t that you were trying to use me to assassinate someone without my knowledge—something that would surely result in a hit being put on me—but that you sent a pig after me to eliminate the evidence.”
“No, no! It’s not like that,” Otto pleaded. “Really, it’s not.”
Zeke struck him across the mouth with his pistol. Hard. “I figure you’ve got about two minutes to explain to me how it really is, then.”
Otto spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor. “Well, it was…. Look, it’s just competition, Zeke. That’s all. Takato has been taking my customers—”
Zeke raised his pistol and aimed it at Otto’s head. “That doesn’t explain framing me for someone else’s murder.”
“Okay, okay!” Otto drew a ragged breath. “Arnoult did this. One of his runners got busted a few days ago after that cyberware run last month. He’s been eliminating anyone with ties to that job to cover his own ass. That package was supposed to take Takato out, but looks like that idiot cop messed the timing up. He wasn’t supposed to reach you until after you made your delivery.” Sweat beaded on Otto’s brow as he admitted his guilt.
That made a bit more sense. Zeke, the man in the alley, Takato: they had all been involved in the deal. A lot of money had changed hands that night. It wasn’t surprising that a man like Arnoult would burn everyone involved to protect himself. It was one of the risks of being a runner, a middleman: they all knew they were viewed as disposable. Large sums of cash helped calm their fears, but every runner knew that one bad job could put them on ice.
“Arnoult called me earlier and told me how it had to happen. I had to send you on this run, or he would have burned down my house with me tied up inside. You know there’s not much I can do against a guy like Arnoult, Zeke.”
Zeke frowned in thought. Otto was right; Farad Arnoult was a big player, the kind that had half the police force and several politicians in his pocket. His fingers dabbled in every major job in the city. Taking the heat to him would be nearly impossible and more than likely to end with Zeke dead for his efforts. Realistically speaking, he needed to gather his money and leave town. Tonight.
“You got any cash, Otto?” While most of the world operated on digital currencies, cash—good old paper currency—was still the mainstay of the underworld.
Otto’s face brightened, clearly thinking he could buy his way out of this situation after all. “Yes! I’ve got thousands in the safe in my bedroom. Tens of thousands! The key is right here,” he said, taking his keychain from his pocket and holding it up.
Thousands, he said. It would have to do. It was enough to get him out of here and start over in a different city with a different name and a different face—often the only escape for a runner. He snatched Otto’s keys from him.
“Look, I’m really sorry, Zeke. This wasn’t something I wanted to do.”
Three rounds from Zeke’s .60-caliber AMK pistol made short work of Otto, leaving more of him splattered on the ground than kneeling.
“Same, Otto. Same.”
Armon has lived all over the country, but for some reason decided to settle in Ohio. He lives in Cleveland with his wife and son, and enjoys hiking, animals, and heavy metal. He recently published his first book, a fantasy novella titled The Fallen City, and is working on a series of cyberpunk novels. Armon plans to keep writing until they nail his coffin shut.