Runner: a Stella Short

Stay awake. A little dab. Every now and then. Got to keep myself awake. Another dab. Stay awake, beat the pain. Ignore the noise. Stay awake, stay hidden. Ignore the noise. 
Gasps that aren’t gasps. Breaths that aren’t breaths echoing through the gym. Listen hard enough, you can always hear them, but I’m not listening so hard. It’s my knee. I can hear them; they’re close. It’s my knee. The pain makes it difficult to focus. I can’t run. Stay awake. I can drag myself, wrap my hands around the machines and pull myself into the shadows. Stay hidden. 
    I can’t run.
Before the crash it was all I did. Loved it. The competition. Athletes’ times were burned into my brain. I could get close to them, right within a half-second or so. I was never still, always on the balls of my feet, never feeling like the ground was for me, like a skateboarder without needing a deck. I never failed anything. Always running at whatever there was.
    No time for the message. Hope was in me, not out there. Until I lost my place on the athletics team – not my fault – and then I took more notice of it, the message. All those goodies, the solar, the bio-tech, the efficiencies, the agreements, the new global order, the new sports, the Cynosure Games, the upgrades. Her. Stella Reeve. That’s what got me:  the gamers, Stella Reeve and all the rest. All those old athletes and their times dropped from my mind. Losers’ times.
    I tried out for the Falcons; started small; knew I could get to the Mariners eventually. Came first in every race, long and short. The contract was there the next day. It fell through. Not my fault.
    There was a long time when I was like I am now: hiding, not running. A couple of years. I stayed still while the world changed; told myself I was waiting for something. Told myself I didn’t care that I didn’t fit. I applied for citizenship of the New USA. That was somewhere I could start again, away from the message and the gamers, away from the People and their promises. I was all set, ready to go. It fell through. Not my fault.
    I’d shown myself. The Cynics came calling. At the time it seemed like they’d call on anyone with a sad face. Join us! Not happy with the new world order? Join us! They were the first deads: some guy with a charisma overload tells them what to do and they do it whether it’s good for them or not. They do it without even thinking. I could see it even if I didn’t want a part of it. Cynics or People, I didn’t want either of them, but the people already here? How stupid were they?
    I hid again. I got good at it. Better, at least. Until I met him. I heard about him first. Couldn’t get to see him for a long time. Had to come out of hiding. Had to get back to running again. No major problems with my knee. Once I heard about him the People couldn’t come quick enough.
    Doctor Dreyfus. Doc D. He promised to make all sorts of promises real. I saved every penny; was even starving myself until he reminded me my body had to be healthy to take the mods. Fit and healthy. I was eating right and training right, my knee working fine. Mostly. The operation was delayed three times. Fit, healthy and clean, he’d said, and that’s what I was giving him. It wasn’t my fault. But Doc D told me it was. And he was right. I’d messed up so many times. Did I want to run again? Did I want to be the fastest? 
    So much.
    I can hear them, they’re closer. Their noise and stink comes at me.
    After talking to Doc D I was doing it right, doing it clean. Ran myself right into his office to pay for those mods. Fix my knee. And then I ran some more. The pain. I felt like I had to suffer to take Doc D’s help.
    When he saw my bloods Doc D just smiled and smiled. Like a dead that’s got no lips, just raggedy cheeks. 
    It was secret, dodgy, black market. He had a room at the back of a gym, cheap place that hardly anyone used. I expected the room to be smoky, full of shady men and shadier card games, but it was clean. Pristine. There were screens and simulators everywhere. He pointed a few out, just to remind me that he was the doctor: infra-red retro-reflective camera, 2D and 3D. Kistler Piezoelectric 3D Force Platform. 3D accelerometer. Isokinetiv Dynamometer with integrated PC. Force distribution instrumentation for measuring impact. Applied VR simulator.
    Before I knew it there I was on the screens, spewed up there as a body-shape of reds, greens and yellows, swirling together to form arms, torso, legs. No head. I couldn’t afford that.     It was all about the joints, Doc D said. They can be strengthened to take the shock. The strength of the head’s up to me.
    My knee was good. Better than good, it was strong, like the rest of me. 
    Ever since the crash, I’ve run the whole end of the world. I hear a scratch or a groan and I’m up and running.
    Now my knee’s bust and I hear them. They’re coming. Echoes of footsteps and that stupid breathing that isn’t breathing. They don’t breathe. But I can hear them now. Panting and excited like dogs.
     Stay hidden.
    I don’t think they know I’m here. I’ve dragged myself as far into the shadows as I can. 
    Another dab.
    Stay awake.
    My head’s a bowling ball. A cannon ball. My neck can’t cope with the weight.
    I remember the coloured image of my arms, torso and legs, the vomit of a body. No head. No neck. No reinforcement. I couldn’t afford it.
    She had her neck done. Reinforced and linked to the wings in her shoulders. They called them her wings because she could fly. I’m laughing but I don’t mean it. They worked on her head: a bionic eye. It was for the final, the final final. The gamers were playing to welcome the People. Wembley Stadium. 110,000 people waiting for the People. The final of the Games. A little different that night: pitch black for five-second bursts. We’d see the players in night-vision green on the screens and so would she through her bionic eye. Defenders and mids were blind, throwing themselves at anything. We’d see them. People laughed. She could see it all, the green gamers. One of them with the ball, a black hole in its green belly. Stella Reeve diving at them. She lost her real eye for that. Just let it go. Let a piece of herself go. Maybe they saved it for when she retired. Put it on ice.
    Then the world ended. Bet she was glad of that eye. Has she used it? How’s her neck? Her back? Her knees?
    I came out of that cheap gym a new man, ready for it all. I didn’t need anything else, none of the shit that I’d taken before. I ran and ran.
    That was the night. I watched her in some bar, promised I’d be with her, running at her, running with her. She was striker for the Mariners. The Cynosure. That was me within three years. I promised her. 
    The bar was full. Everyone having a good time. It was all perfect. One screen showing the gamers, another the ships. The one with the ships was quartered. They put a white grid on the screen so you could see which was which. They all looked the same to me. So did the missiles.
    I didn’t know what to do so I ran. Back to that gym. This gym. I’m behind a cross trainer and I’m trying not to look at the three years of dust and time and death covering the machine.
Stay hidden. Stay awake. One more dab.
    I love running from deads. I run at them, make them see me, wind them up, get them excited. It’s easy: draw them to a place, free up a space for me to search. I let them get close, feel my heart beating, adrenaline pumping, let them smell me, my life, my energy. I run around corners without checking. 
    The pain is in my knee. It stays there but it moves inside the joint, like it’s fluid; it moves around the cap or the cap moves around inside my skin. A half-filled acid balloon. If it bursts I won’t stay hidden. No way I’ll take that quietly. Scream like a girl. I don’t want to die crying. Stupid. 
    I cried a lot when I lost my chances. Cried in anger. 
    I’m angry now. I’m going to die hiding behind a dusty treadmill. 
    So tired. I could keep myself awake by trying to move my knee but I’m scared the balloon will burst. The deads are too close. They must know I’m here. Excited dogs. Just a cross trainer in the way. Just me in the dark. Stay awake. Another dab. Everything I ever took just to get me that extra half-second. Everything I never had. Everything that I should’ve had. I’m a runner. Alone. Running the end of the world. 
    I can’t run.
    It’s here. It wraps its hands around the machines and pulls itself into the shadows. It’s so loud. There are others behind it. So loud. Another dab. Get the echoes out of my head. Just another dead. I’ve run from a million of them. One of its legs is not there. Chewed away; leaves a slug trail. I laugh. What are the chances? Two of us in the same gym in the same end of the world with busted legs. 
    I can see it clearly now, its face framed in the cross trainer’s legs. Nagging exorcist. The little girl. Possessed. This wasn’t a girl, she’d been a woman, clean, good teeth. Probably beautiful before. Perfectly straight teeth. Still white. Bet she wore braces. A shy teenager; pain in her teeth and jaw meant she never forgot her metal smile. Self-conscious when she laughed. Kept her lips together as much as she could, a smile that was never as wide as it should’ve been. Never enjoyed the moment. All the boys teased her but loved her. All through school and college she hid. We hid. She hid those teeth and then she grew up and she never lost that reluctance to show those beautiful teeth.
    She’s not so shy now. 
    My head. I can’t keep my head up. No more dabs. Just pain. I move my knee and the balloon bursts. I scream and I cry and the dogs are more excited than I’ve ever heard them. 
My head is so heavy. I bet those teeth won’t even wake me.

 

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