Saz sat on the shredded couch, a cup of herbal tea with a splash of laze mixed in to calm his mind and help with the unwinding. “The more stress you put on the connections, the longer it takes.” The witch told him.
The witch, Minerva, sat next to her console and told him everything she knew about him. She told him that he had contacted her earlier that week for an interception, she admitted to him that she had lied about being capable of intercepting him, she had done plenty of interception before, but never for a human. In hindsight, she wished she hadn’t agreed to their deal. Human interceptions were not unheard of, in fact they were theoretically feasible and were one of the primary ways people were abducted and held for ransom, or worse, sold into slave labor. Various systems had been put into place to prevent such a thing, but even then crafty hackers could still reroute a human mid sprint. Human interceptions typically left the victim dazed and confused for hours, sometimes days, as their mind unwound. There were tales of people being intercepted and sold into slavery, who didn’t know any better, obeying commands as if they were always a mindless drone, until months later when everything flooded back to them and they realized everything they knew had been taken from them.
Since her sprinter was outfitted only for inanimate objects, and not living beings, she had told him to sprint naked, just to be safe, and if he had any augments to have them removed. Saz was not augmented, as far as he remembered. It would require two trips, one for him and the other for the goods. When he arrived she had left the room to give him “some decency” while he changed and adapted to his new surroundings. Probably not the best idea for somebody suffering from temporary amnesia.
“Made a few modifications to help with the unwinding,” she said. “Been a while since I’ve worked on a sprinter though. Hopefully I didn’t fuck it up. You’re welcome to stay until you fully unwind. But, “she stuck out a finger, “on the condition that you stay within this room. When you’re ready to leave I’ll have you blindfolded. Can’t have you knowing where I am. We’re in a similar line of work, I hope you understand.”
Saz nodded and sipped his tea.
He held out his hands, he recognized them easily. From their olive undertones, to the pale scare tissue wrapped around his right wrists like a fleshy bracelet. His left arm was spotted with lighter scare tissue, small and irregular, like a pale leopard.
He placed his right hand on his hair, well head. There wasn’t much up there. A short buzz cut, no longer than the thickness of his fingers. He wondered what color his hair was. Brown maybe?
“I got to make a quick call,” Minerva said. “You promise you won’t strangle me again?”
“Promise,” Saz said.
She left the room, leaving Saz alone with his thoughts.
Like dancers moving across a dance floor while the lights strobe about them, memories appeared and disappeared, as soon as he’d remember something it would be gone, only an after image remained in their place. He’d see a clear image of a gun, held by gristle harry hands. Only hands though, the rest of the body faded into a dark hulking silhouette.
There was a woman with neon pink hair fully illuminated standing in an alley flashing neon signs hung above her, and then she was gone. Then another woman with neon blue hair, her face a dull blue, like glowworms in a dark cave. On her shoulder sat a glowing red five pointed star. Each time she flashed into existence, her hair was different. Her face, a void, but in each iteration she bore the same glowing red star on her shoulder.
He remembered his line of work, or at least of them. He been a runner. He ran chems and other contraband substances from point A to point B, then return back with the cash. He had come to Case City for the big bucks, it was the only city that still printed its own physical currency, making a paradise for libertarians and outlaws alike.
The hatched door swung open, Saz looked over. Minerva shut the door behind her.
“I hope you’re happy,” she said, “I canceled the date.”
“Aren’t you a little old to be dating?” Saz asked. “Don’t you have grand kids or something?”
“Hun,” she said, “you’re never too old to have a little fun.” She still wore the black dress, the drops of light still trickling down the fabric. “Oh, and that’s thirty six strands you made me tear. A hundred and eighty extra bucks coming out of your bill.”
“Fine,” Saz sighed. So what’s your story?” Saz asked.
“I intercept, I get paid, I make a living. Nothing else too it,” she said.
“Did you make that yourself?” He pointed towards the sprinter in the middle of the room.
“What makes you think so?”
“Sprinters aren’t supposed to look like that. Looks like you Frankensteined your own.”
“I’m not going to have the kid with a wound up head tell me what a sprinter should or shouldn’t look like. Pfft,” she spun on her chair. “You get back to your business, and I’ll get back to mine.”
She turned around and began working on the console again. Case watched the sprinter, he knew what they were supposed to look like. That was burned deep into his minds eye. They were supposed to be larger than this, have holoscreens and dials for picking your route, and have a protective shielding. This one was barebone, just a stainless steel coffin, no protective glass or anything. It was either cheap old crap or counterfeit. He knew more about sprinters than himself at this point. In one sense it was relieving to know so much about one thing when he knew nothing else at all, but in another sense he was frustrated that he only knew so much about one thing.
The sprinter began to purr, the purple plasma drifted across the invisible barrier between the room and whatever hocus pocus wonderland lied in the chasms between sprinters. He envisioned a three dimensional roadmap, with highways, feeder streets, main arteries, all the way down to the rustic dirt roads. Each road terminating at a different sprinter, allowing who (or what) ever entered to be whisked away faster than the speed of light from one place to another. He saw the network with clarity, The Case City Network, the CCN.
He watched the specs of light dance across the plasma membrane. The plasma functioned like a break, slowing down the matter passing through the CCN. A sprinter warped only a few packets of matter at a time, in order to not clog up the routes. Whenever a packet hit the plasma would light up like a firefly in the night sky. After the packet of matter had been sufficiently slowed down the sprinter itself would begin organizing said material in accordance to the blueprints it had received from the sender side. The machine would then begin piecing together the packets using a mix of nanomachines and other high tech wizardry he either didn’t know or couldn’t remember. You were effectively dead the moment you began sprinting, only to be miraculously brought to life in another within a few minutes of entering one. Because of this, sprinters had earned various nicknames: coffins, caskets, death booths, Lazarus chambers, and so on.
In theory the material was the same between both ends, but sometimes a packet would be lost or mixed up, most of the time it was benign, other times people would emerge with missing organs, or limbs they had not entered the sprinter with. The cases were few and far between, and mostly happened with counterfeit sprinters. Saz looked at his hands, they looked right to him, seamless and the right proportions.
The sprinter’s plasma barrier retreated back into its hiding spot, like the ocean retreating from the shoreline during a low tide. In the middle of the metallic coffin sat a black box with a white cross atop it. Case stood up and looked at it curiously.
“Hey, hey,” Minerva said, “don’t touch that.” She stood up from her console and walked to the sprinter.
“I wasn’t going to,” he said. “What is it?”
“Medicine,” she said. She sat herself down on the side of the sprinter and retrieved the box. She opened it and produced a small flask. “I’m sure they won’t mind being one vile short.” She sat the box back down in the center of the sprinter and turned to Saz. “Take this,” she held the vile towards Saz. He took it and sat back down on the couch.
“What is it?” He held the vial up to his eyes and inspected the label. ‘REMEMBRANCE’ it said in bold letters, beneath it in smaller text, ‘Case Co Biolabs.’
“Supposed to help with the unwinding,” she said. “You’re lucky that was my first interception tonight.”
“How do I take it?”
“Open it,” she mimed a twisting motion with her hands, “and bottoms up.”
Saz twisted the top off and peered into the vial. A green liquid sat within the container’s walls. He tossed his head back and downed the medicine. It tasted of oil and rotten fruit. He gagged.
“Taste like shit, but works like a charm,” she smiled. “No, don’t spit it out.”
Saz’s gag reflexes overloaded his throat. His throat closed up and his diaphragm began convulsing, he coughed the green liquid up. Some of the green serum spilled on the couch. Minerva rushed over and snatched the vial from his hands.
“No, no, no,” she said, “you are not wasting this. Did you swallow any?”
“A little bit, bleh,” Saz stuck out his tongue, “I think.”
She sighed and screwed the cap back on. “Half left,” she said, “we’ll give it another shot after your stomach settles.” She returned to the console and booted up the sprinter again.
“What are you doing?” Saz asked.
“Figured I’d make a little cash intercepting tonight,” she said, her back turned towards him. “If I got to babysit you in the sprinter room might as well.”
“Why would anyone want that vile stuff?” The taste still lingered in his mouth.
“Runners using counterfeit sprinters mostly, or maybe a sprinting station is in need for an emergency,” she shrugged. “I don’t ask questions, just send it to whoever’s paying the most.”
The plasma receded reveling an empty casket. His gaze drifted from the casket across the room towards the wall with the light board, “Welcome Saz!” still written in radiant green.
“Why’d you write my name on the board?” Saz asked.
Minerva shrugged. “When you called me for the job I could sense distress in your voice, like something was wrong. I thought maybe it’d help with making you feel welcome.” Beneath the hoarseness of her voice, Saz sensed a tinge of warmth in her tone. “Who’d you piss off?” The warmness gone from her voice.
Her console beeped, she spun around on her chair and resumed her work.
“And we have another,” she said. The sprinter booted up once again, Saz watched it, waiting to see what lied beneath the curtain. The sprinter did its magic, the plasma curtain closed, and opened. In the middle of the sprinter lied a steel case, maybe a half a meter long an no more than a quarter meter wide.
“Mind checking it for me?” Minerva asked.
“Uhh, sure…” Saz went to the sprinter and opened the case. Nestled inside a crooked crevasse embedded within a cushioned surface sat a black metallic arm. The reflection of the florescent light above the sprinter twisted around the arm like an ever shifting tattoo. At the shoulder of the cybernetic arm, in luminous scarlet sat a flower with five petals, drawn so intricately. A single line started from the tip of the top petal, it traced the outside and spiraled inwards, growing thinner and thinner until it twisted into a perfect circle in the center. He felt his eyes begin to water, he didn’t know why.
“A runner without augments? You must be quite the paranoid type,” a woman’s voice echoed in his head. The same one from earlier. “I don’t even want to know where you hide the contraband.”
Saz cocked his head.
“How’s it look?” Minerva asked.
“Familiar,” the word just slipped out of his mouth.
“No, I mean what condition is it in?” She asked.
Saz shrugged. “Looks good to me, what are you doing with this?”
“Close the case and set it by the door,” she said.
“I’m not your assistant,” Saz said.
“You’re going to make a little old lady like myself lift a heavy box like that?”
“I bet you’re augmented from head to toe. Just how many implants do you have in you?”
“Didn’t your mother tell you to never ask a lady if she’s augmented?”
Saz was sure that wasn’t a thing people told him not to ask.
“Usually I’d leave that hatch open,” she pointed to the door, “let a little bot take care of it, but since you’re here I figured I’d give the bots a day off.”
“Fine, fine,” Saz closed the hatch and lifted the container out of the sprinter. It was lighter than he expected, he carried to the door and sat it down. “There, are you happy? He said walking back to the couch.
“You make a fine assistant,” Minerva laughed.
“What’s the arm for?” Saz asked, sitting down.
“Refurbishment job,” she said. “Client wants it polished.”
She didn’t mean what she meant, nobody in her line of work would do a simple “refurbishment job.” No, he remembered clearly what those words meant for people like her. She was going to wipe it of any ID tags and markings.
“No,” Saz shook his head, “you can’t do that.”
“Yes I can.”
“How much are they paying you? I’ll double it!” Saz didn’t know what he was saying. There was something about that arm that beckoned him to protect it, like a child holding on to a teddy bear while his mother threatened to toss it out.
“Why do you want that arm so badly? It’s not even your size, it’s clearly a woman’s.”
“Just please,” he closed his eyes. Images of the woman with the luminescent hair and the five pointed star tattoo flashed through his mind’s eye like a corrupt video file. He slammed his fists into the couch. “I’ll triple it, quadruple it. Just tell me how much.”
“Saz, calm down,” his eyes were still closed but he heard her voice draw closer. He felt her hand touch his shoulder, her palms were rough and calloused, like a shopkeeper’s. “I can sedate you if it’ll make this easier. I read some studies that said that dreaming can help with the unwinding process.”
“No, I’m fine,” he opened his eyes and gazed at the sprinter. “Just give me more tea.”
She removed her palm from his shoulder, leaving a cold mark on his skin. He looked at his palms, twinkles of sweat glistened across his skin. Like he had just broken a fever.
Another image of the woman with luminescent hair flashed before his eyes. She was smiling at him, her tattooed gave him a thumbs up. She had long scarlet hair draping to her shoulder, like lava flowing down a volcano. The strands flowed into her flesh, and began gently twisting into a delicate pattern. Soon a five pointed star emerged, and the red river continued flowing inwards. The lines spiraled towards the center, tracing the same pattern over and over again, stars within stars, until it ended in a circle. Her flesh turned pitch black, leaving only the tattoo. He had been wrong, it wasn’t a star, it was a flower.