Strangers

 

This part of town looks like shit…

I always expected the ECCs to want to keep their town clean but Back Bay all the way to the North End just fell apart after Marty was shot and Exxon-Rosneft took control of the city and cut funding to WM. If there’s one thing I’m happy for though, the cost of tobacco went down… $2.34 a pack at the 7/11 on Dartmouth, I figure the reasoning behind that one is the rest of us can die faster. I had parked around the corner in the alley. There’s less cameras on 439 for some weird reason & there’s a nice blind spot just before you hit the street so I’ll usually park out there for a few when I just want some quiet.

I’d just finished rolling my cigarette when I hear some slamming on my passenger window.

I can tell by this fucker’s hair and black coat just who he is, I don’t need a name, they’re all the same. I let out a sigh and roll the window down.

“Hey there buddy, you got one more lift in you tonight?”

This was fucking weird. Wasn’t 2 nights ago I split a guy like this’ eye open with my mag light on Devonshire over saying my kids belonged in a camp (I always keep a spare Artifact-Interference Balaclava and VP contact lenses under my seat). Usually they just say something like ‘Hey Kraut! I’m in a rush, step on it or I’ll file a report for insubordination.’

This guy was different. Nobody talks to street drivers like this, you usually have to be a state chauffeur to have any respect shown, but even then you’re not wearing the shit tattered clothes you can afford, the company gives you a uniform so it’s a little harder to profile an LCC.

“How about it, you willing to help me out?”

I finally snapped out of my sheer amazement this guy just didn’t act like rich trash

“Yeah, sure, where you headed?”

“Blue Hill Ave”

Ok, This is getting interesting.

“You sure about that?”

“Yeah. I am. Corner of Woolson. I’d prefer to not discuss it any further”

Not sure what this guy’s deal is, but I’m headed that way anyways and would fall short of my quota without the fare.

“Ok, hop in, I’m headed out to Roslindale anyways”

“Thanks”

-the fuck you mean thanks? Who is this dude? That’s when I saw it. The Command at Sea badge on his chest pocket flap as he was getting in the back seat. I must have missed it at first behind his jacket. I usually keep mine on so I don’t think about it much, must be why he’s being so nice. Weird having something in common with an ECC.

“You like music?”

He’s fumbling with his phone and looking around kind of frantically. It occurs to me I’ve never seen an ECC in a public alley before. I’m starting to think this guy really doesn’t fit. Finally dawns on him I asked him a question.

“What?”

“I asked if you like music”

He pulls out some weird little black box with a button on it, almost looks like one of those remotes that they used to use for TVs before the switch to VR. He pushes the button on it and I hear a buzz come from the in-car camera behind my head.

“Yeah, just no state music please.”

Clearly this guy won’t be reporting me so I’m going to press him.

“I thought that was all you guys listened to”

“Hey look, 1980’s music was great, but we’ve been listening to that same shit for over 2 decades now. I just need something else.”

I like this guy.

“Well, I guess my wife’s great uncle or something like that left behind a bunch of old music gear from the 10’s we got working again. Made this stuff with it to test it out with my kids and I’ve been listening to it on drives home. That alright?”

“You mean you made it?”

“Yeah, I made it.”

He kinda looked at me funny

“By all means, you’ve got me interested.”

I queued it up and put the cab in drive

“Don’t tell anyone you took this fare.”

He hands me a credit chip

“12k should cover it.”

Fuck quotas, I’ll take the reprimand. I don’t make that much in half a year and I’m sure as hell not about to turn it down.

I nodded to him and clocked off the meter. I get the impression we have more in common besides just a history of service.

The snow kept falling as we pulled out onto Clarendon

 

A Shot In The Dark

“…we could have a cure…”

 

That’s about all it takes I suppose given I’m standing here in this nasty fucking alley on a Tuesday when I could be home writing tunes with Elsie and the kids. It’s not like I care about my own future so I probably showed up for them more than me but this has to be a joke. The sooner I can get in and figure out what the hell is going on maybe I’ll feel the same kinda confidence he seemed to.

I see the stairs to the basement they told me about just down a ways, I’ll be happy to just get inside at this point, I wish someone had explained a little better how much the air hurts to breathe once you’re middle aged. Probably about the time everything really starts to go down the shitter and it doesn’t help me one bit dealing with the season change. Everything always just gets worse around the equinoxes. I wish I had been alive back when Spring and Autumn were still seasons, now you only get to read about it in pamphlets the Movement hands out. I guess they think bringing stuff like that up will make people mad enough to fight back but it sure hasn’t worked yet, always just makes me annoyed hearing about something I’ll just never get to experience.

The door at the bottom of this staircase is all rotted out and rusted, they’re really keeping an actual fucking lab down here? The door handle is coarse like it’s been washed with acid and lost it’s finish, the hinges are all rickety and I can feel it shutter from popping out of the swollen threshold above. Something reflects the lights from the alley just a few feet past the entrance.

There’s a big smooth door just in front of me, looks like it’s covered in sheet metal.

There’s no way this is actually solid…

It’s really heavy though as I’m trying to open it when I feel it push back out at me…

“Come on in! Sorry for the door, this lab has to be sealed in lead box if we want to keep it hidden from surveillance”

How the hell did they manage to build this down here?

There’s this slender woman standing in front of me, brown hair a little past shoulder length, she’s not wearing her race badge so I can’t quite tell her heritage but I’m assuming her family probably came from Central or South America before they locked the borders. She looks like she’s probably in her early 30’s judging from the dark bags under her eyes. That shit only gets worse as you get older.

“I’m Sidney! Welcome to my lab, I’m sure Wilhelm didn’t explain any of this to you so I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.”

She shuts the door behind me and I can hear the cranks inside locking down, this is probably the most secure place I’ve seen since leaving the Navy. That guy from the cab, Will, is standing in the corner. He looks up and gives me a nod but doesn’t say anything

“Well yeah, when some elite jumps into my cab, offers a cure for the mutation, and asks me for the one copy I had of music I wrote for my kids it kinda threw me off. Honestly I have no idea what question I’d ask first b-”

“That’s right! You’re the one who made that, I’ve been absolutely loving it here in my lab, fantastic music to work to!”

“-You mean he gave it to you? Will, what the fuck? You do realize I was just messing around with something for my family with that right?”

“Look, you made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal or anything and I really liked it, figured there’d be some others in the cause who’d enjoy it as much as I did”

Will just kinda smirks at me, not sure why he’s so damn smitten with my goofy tunes but I guess it feels kinda nice to have people enjoy something you made. First time for experiencing anything I guess.

“Don’t let it bother you Larry! Like I said, I really like listening to it, it helps me focus. Plus I thought it was so cool, you don’t hear about too many musicians these days, especially someone from the neighborhoods…”

Sidney has a seat on this beat up old stool she’s got pulled up to this table in the middle of the room. There’s rows of shelves behind her, stacked to the brim with bottles wrapped in worn down labels indexing chemicals with so many damn letters in them I won’t even think of trying to pronounce them. Will is leaning against the counter behind her to my right arms folded and just kinda staring off into space. If Elsie was here she’d ask him what’s going on, she always loves asking people questions and figuring them out – I’m really only here for this cure, it’s not like we’re war buddies or anything. Even still, part of me is really wondering what’s going on in that guy’s head. If he were a lake I bet he’d be the kind they didn’t have a depth measurement for.

Sidney drops a folder on the table but doesn’t open it. I can’t remember the last time I saw paper.

“So we asked you to come here today to be a test subject for a new trial to combat the mutation that increases our susceptibility to atmospheric toxicity… Before I explain that, let me give you a little context – for personal reasons I was drawn to study virology after returning from the military…”

Her tone just changed, she’s not as bubbly as before, bad military memory or something else?

“..During that time shortly after my return Wilhelm found me and explained how the Movement  has a science program, and invited me to join with resources to learn. I’ve spent years since then developing a virus that would repair the gene in our generation, which we could then pass on. In all honesty, we don’t know if this inoculation will work and our only prior volunteer died of unrelated symptomatic complications well before we had an opportunity to observe the virus’s effectiveness. We’d like to give you the inoculation now, and ask that you remain here for about 30 minutes for me to perform a test or two and then send you home. Wilhelm is going to maintain contact with you if anything happens and I want to have a regular bi-weekly check up, if I decide we need that to be more frequent we’ll do that.”

“So let me get this straight, you’ve asked me here to make me sicker?”

“Well, I’ve designed this particular virus to interact solely with the mutated gene, and in theory it would leave the rest of your body’s structure alone, this is not some common flu. The previous volunteer was 36 years old and died of a stroke just outside on those steps as he was leaving. Clearly I was worried this was the inoculation but after we had an autopsy done it was determined the cause was unrelated to the inoculation. You’re still in your twenties, albeit clearly the later side, so we’re confident you won’t have a fatal event.”

“Ok, but why me? How come you two don’t just take it if you think it’s so safe? Or just find some other member of the movement to do it for you, I’m just some driver trying to take care of my family.”

“We’ve had growing concerns lately that information about our developments could leak to the state and our whole operation would be compromised, therefore we thought it would be advantageous to seek someone who has no dog in the fight. For my part, should something happen I’m the only researcher with the full picture of this project in the movement currently and we can not afford to have this project slowed down. I wanted to secure a volunteer test subject with at least 3 weeks hard data recorded before submitting findings to the board. Wilhelm, as I’m sure you’ve already surmised, has been outfitted with NMAS and we assume those nanobots would simply destroy the inoculation as it enters his body like any other pathogen. I had asked Wilhelm to find me a test subject that would fit our criteria and here you are. As to why he chose you specifically, you’d have to ask him.”

Will shifts his weight from one foot to the other, his expression doesn’t change at all

“I’ll tell him if and when I feel like it’s important”

“Hey, fuck you too buddy.”

He smirks at me.

“See, Sidney”

“You know Wilhelm, we’re relying on Larry to accept our offer here, maybe try being a little nicer? Unless you feel like going back out to look for another volunteer…”

I don’t even know this lady and she’s sticking up for me? What’s the deal with her, they’re just going out on a limb trusting me implicitly here.

“Don’t worry Sidney, I came all this way, I’m not about to turn away with this kinda offer on the table, no matter how much of an ass Will’s being about it. I’ve known plenty of guys like him, just never one that was an ECC.”

Clearly Will has some other reason for asking me specifically and I’ll be damned if I don’t figure out exactly why he brought me here.

“One thing that’s going to stop me dead in my tracks though is knowing my kids won’t get a chance to have better lives than me if they lose the money they get from my cab now. My wife and I made peace with our existence but I refuse to let my kids live through the same hell we’ve had to. So if you think that I’ll-”

“Larry, I personally promise to you that your children will have the finest opportunity that any LC child can have until 16 should something happen to you before then. If you agree to do this you’re taking on the chance to change the world, I think the education and adequate shelter for a mother and 2 children is a small price to pay.”

I definitely don’t trust Will as far as I can throw him, but that’s a hell of a promise and he looked me dead in the eye when he said it. I’ve seen a lot of people make a lot of truly dedicated promises, and that one counts. Anyone who’s anyone knows an elite like him can spend more in 3 hours than I’d even earn in 3 years so I’m sure he wouldn’t even cough at that kinda money.

“Ok then.”

“So you agree to the inoculation?”

“Yeah I agree”

Sidney pulls the folder out from under her hands and flips it open. She reaches into her coat pocket and pulls out a sleek black pen and sets it down as she turns the folder and slides it across the table to me.

“I’d just like to have you sign this, for the records, without it none of this can be backed up by the program board and the research would be thrown out on review, we use paper copies because it’s much easier to verify as authentic these days because of it’s scarcity”

I truly had forgotten the gratification of writing with a ballpoint pen, the way the paper flexes under the pressure, the way the ink slowly dries and shimmers in the light… almost satisfying enough to make me forget I could be signing my own death note. So long as I make it out the door and up those steps I’ll have made it further than the last guy.

She takes the folder back from me and closes it, then gets up, walks around back behind the shelves and comes back with a syringe and your typical shot supplies.

“This part won’t be any different than a routine vaccination”

She points to a chair just behind me and gestures for me to sit down. I roll up my sleeve and she ties off the tourniquet and gives my shoulder a wipe with an alcoholic cloth. I feel the poke in my shoulder and my muscle tightens up. I hate that feeling when you suddenly have a whole bunch of shit just forced into your bloodstream, needles never really were something I got comfortable with.

“Just hold this cloth here so it clots and we’ll get a bandage on that. Feel free to relax while you wait, I’ll be back come back over in a bit to take a blood sample before you leave, don’t worry it won’t be in the same place.”

“Thanks Sidney, If it’s ok with you I’m just going to close my eyes for a bit, just feeling a bit sore right now.”

“No problem, I know how nice it is to have a break from all the noise in here”

I have no idea how someone her age could possibly be this upbeat all the time. She must really believe this is going to work.

I close my eyes and hear Wilhelm cross the room to the door.

“I have an appointment to be at briefly near by, I’ll come back to see Larry out”

The locking mechanism on the lab door lets out a heavy clunking noise as it closes behind him.

It’s stormy as all hell but the lightning flashes in the distance light up the horizon and I can see the silhouette of the ship about a 100 yards field off the starboard side. Any second now their weapons will be firing at us.  I hear the loud clunk of the steel door just behind me.

“What the fuck is wrong with that damn gun circuit?!”

I’m just trying to replace this one damn fuse and this dumbass decides to come out and blow the whole thing, they hadn’t seen me just yet and I could have gotten this thing up and running and back in before they saw me. Now he’s shouting and there’s no way they can’t see him.

“I’m working on it! Get back inside before they shoot at us or at least get the fuck down!”

“Get back in this ship! That’s an order!”

Just as I lock the fuse into position I hear a hollow pop ring out immediately followed whirring screech come from behind. As I look up my lieutenant’s head and left shoulder blow away from his body as if he were made of nothing more than copper smoke glowing in the flashes of the storm.

“Hey Larry, sorry to wake you!”

Sidney’s gently pushing on my shoulder, must have fallen asleep for a moment there. I fucking hate that dream.

“I just need to take a blood sample really quick but after that you’ll be all set to take off for the night”

Wilhelm is back in the corner where he had been before he had left. How the hell did I not wake up when he came back in?

Sidney’s already got the syringe ready and takes the sample quickly, maybe it’s because I already did this one time today but somehow this needle just doesn’t seem to bother me as much, could also be because I’m so exhausted. I’m ready to go home. She puts a small bandage over the the puncture and pats me on the shoulder.

“You’re all set! You’ve already lived longer than our volunteer, make it up those stairs now and you’re 2 for 2!”

“Uh.. Thanks”

“Wow, sorry, sometimes I try to be funny but I’m just way off the mark.”

I let out a chuckle for that part, the joke was terrible but I can tell she’s genuinely trying here which is more than I can say for any other scientist I met. Sidney is definitely ‘good people’

“No, it’s ok, I get you”

“Ok Phew!”

“Larry, you should get home to your kids”

“Yeah, couldn’t agree more”

“Oh that reminds me! Larry, if you’re feeling well when you get home, I would like you to consider speaking to your family about being potential volunteers as well. We would greatly benefit from having test subjects of both genders as well as younger volunteers so I can observe how the virus acts inside a less compromised vessel. Given you’ve made it through the past 45 minutes without any damage to your body, I think it’s fairly clear our previous subject was a one off fluke and the virus won’t affect anything else in your system.”

“I’ll think about it and bring it up with my wife, but if I get my family involved in this I want to know we won’t have a target painted on our backs.“

“Like I said Larry, I’ll make sure your family is taken care of, you’ve already done enough here to warrant protection and if I’m looking after you I’ll be looking after them by proxy. Now come on, let’s get you home.”

Will’s already getting the door which is good since I’m just feeling heavy and don’t want to do any kind of heavy lifting or pushing of any kind. Even putting my jacket on feels like a task right now.

“Ok Larry! It was nice to meet you! I’ll be seeing you in two weeks if everything goes smoothly and I’ll be checking in with Wilhelm as well so if you have any issues I’m available any time, clearly this all means a lot”

“You got it Sidney, Nice to meet you too.”

Will pulls the door closed behind him as I pull out a cigarette. As he opens the rickety door to the outside I see the steps leading up to the alley the light bouncing off the wet granite steps.

So I guess this is the moment of truth.

I light my cigarette and take a drag, if this is the last time then I sure want to enjoy it while I can.

 

I take the first step, and the next. and the next.

 

I reach street level and Will is just a step behind me, I feel him pat my shoulder.

 

“Looks like you made it”

“Yeah, I guess I did”

I take another drag, I guess I don’t get to punch any clocks quite yet.

“Look Larry, I don’t think I need to tell you to not share what happened here with anyone. Sidney wants you to talk to your family, and I think that’s fine but please make sure you all speak in a safe location. That vaccination makes you currently the most valuable asset we have, I’ve funneled a significant portion of my budget to the board into this particular project… I asked you because I trust you. Something about the way you looked at me that night when I got in your cab, something about that album you played me, as if you were showing me who you were rather than telling me… I don’t know, maybe I won’t ever find the words to explain, but it just felt right.”

“Well I appreciate that Will and thanks for helping my family. Maybe I can finally quit that taxi job and go be a stay at home dad.”

“Don’t do that, keep your job for now, I don’t want any NP’s to question why you’d suddenly stop working on the regular employment audits.”

“If you say so, I’m just along for the ride. I’d probably end up missing driving around aimlessly anyways. These days I feel like work and making tunes are probably the things keeping me going. That reminds me, take this, newest round of songs I wrote. Since you seemed so interested in that first album I figured I’d keep you up to date.”

“After giving me a hard time about showing it to people I certainly wasn’t expecting this, but thanks, I had been hoping you would show me more. May I show it around?”

“Yeah, people hearing it doesn’t actually bother me any, if I can do anything to make this world a little less shitty I’ll take a shot at it.  Sidney really seemed to like it to so make sure you pass it along to her. My kids will probably be excited to hear people in the world have been enjoying our little home project.”

“You’ve got it. Take care Larry, I’ll get in touch soon to check in with you.”

“Sounds good Will, take care.”

I turn and head down the alley towards the street where I had left the cab. Will’s footsteps slowly fade away as the echoes off the alley walls grow further and further from me.

For some reason the city seems louder tonight… it’s like I can feel the noise in my muscles and bones, I’m probably just tired and about to get a migraine.

 

Something about this buzzing is different though…

 

I turn out of the alley and pull my hat brim down. Can’t wait to finally get home.