The elevator rises in fits and starts, and I already know I’m in for a long afternoon. I adjust the mask that covers my mouth and nose, then check the gloves on my hands for the hundredth time. I try not to think about how old the cables are that pull the tiny metal box upward, never mind how crusted they might be with spores.
The box grinds to a halt, and I start to panic. The doors only open at the top and bottom of the shaft. It’s only been a few minutes, I’m nowhere near the surface. This would be a shitty way to die, trapped in a five by four coffin, my brain says. I tell it to shut up and remind it that Lewis wouldn’t leave me up here.
As if on cue, I hear his voice over the speakers. “We had a bit of a fuck-up with the machine, Yuki. We’re going manual. You should still make it up with plenty of time before the next sporefall.”
There’s no way to communicate back down with him, but I nod anyway. The elevator lurches upward again, a few feet at a time, and I let out a sigh of relief. It’s been fifteen days since the last time I was topside. Runners are supposed to wait three weeks between shifts. I managed to talk Lewis into letting me go early. It took a couple of days, and now I’m so close to the surface I can barely breathe.
“This is as far as we can get you,” Lewis says as the elevator grinds to a stop. “You’ve got two hours, make them count.”
I slide my goggles into place before pulling the hood up over my head, and tightening it down. The doctors find so much as single spore hitching a ride and you’re grounded for at least two months. I grab the crowbar that sits in every elevator, then pry the doors open. A small bit of blue sky peeks out at me from the two foot gap between the top of the door and the pavement.
Wedging the doors open, I jump and pull myself up. There’s always a moment, when you’re halfway through, when you worry about the elevator falling. I slide myself through the gap, careful not to tear my suit. It’ll only keep the spores out for a few hours, but then, two’s all I’ve got.
It takes my breath away every time. Above me, there’s nothing but blue sky, streaked with a few wisps of green from the last sporefall. My eyes drop down over the buildings to the street, still lightly dusted with pollen. Stepping out, I can just make out the same worn path from previous runners.
I follow it for awhile, noting the most common trails that branch off. My last run, all I came back with were a couple cans of rancid meat and a jar of pickles. I need to bring something good back for Lewis, and I won’t find it in picked over apartments and old offices.
I break away from the main track and start on my usual route towards the water. I’ve found some good stuff there before, and most of the other runners won’t go that far out of their way to find things. After a few blocks, I start to jog. I’m aching to feel the wind against my skin. But even the little bit left exposed on my face means a heavy scrub from the doctors when I get back.
The water is just barely visible when I see the tracks. Someone was here recently. My mind flashes back to the schedule, trying to figure out who would have the nerve to run my route. Parker went up last week, so she’s out for awhile, and Emma tends to go towards the other side of town. I kneel down to inspect the fresh footprints in the green dust.
Size 9s with a zig-zag tread. Simone.
“That bitch,” I think, as I stand up. She knew I was on the docket. I head down towards the water anyway, hoping to find something that she missed. I pass by the first two high-rises, knowing that I cleaned them out years ago. A little further down, I start looking for the telltale signs that someone’s hit a place: a hand print on a window or pollen pushed away from the entrance by a door opening.
Without much hope, I try a few buildings I’d been saving. Simone’s been too thorough. The lower levels are cleaned out and I don’t have time to reach the top floors. It’s not a complete waste, as I manage to grab a few tins of pudding from one. Simone ignored them, but I know the guys in maintenance have a sweet tooth. It never hurts to have them in your good graces.
I check a couple more places and manage to pick up some unlabeled cans of food. Feeling better about myself, I hit the fifth floor of the last stop on my run. I’m only up there a few seconds, when I see a flash from the sky. The sun peeks out from behind the sporefall, catching the top of a skyscraper that somehow escaped the usual dusting of green.
I stand for a moment, dazzled by the light shining off the metal. It’s not that far away. If I leave now, I have just enough time to check it out and still get back to the elevator.
Something crashes down in the room above me and I freeze. My first thought is Simone. I quickly dismiss it, since she’s not clumsy enough to make that much noise. Anyone who is should probably be avoided though. I give the place one last check on my way out.
On a shelf in the hall I find a couple of books and shove them in my bag before heading for the stairs. I always try to grab at least one book for Lewis every run. He’d burn through a novel a night if he had the chance. Plus, the look on his face when he’s absorbed in a book always makes me smile.
From the ground, the shiny building is a bit harder to find. I head in its general direction, but quickly become lost on the unfamiliar streets. The spores are thicker here, muffling all of the sound. There’s a faint hum in the air. Almost like a song that I can’t quite make out. It’s pretty clear that nobody has been by this way in a long time. I glance up now and then to make sure I’m headed in the right direction, but otherwise my eyes are moving back and forth across the street, marking off potential targets for my next run.
I’m so close that I’ve started shaking with excitement. The ground is thick with spores. Even through the mask, I can smell the pollen hanging in the air. The hum is louder here. I can practically feel it in my bones. My brain warns me that I’m running out of time, but all I can think of is the flash of metal in the sunlight. I hurry down an alley, hoping to cut some time off my travel.
Long tendrils of mold hang down from the fire escapes above me, floating gently in the breeze. Water drips steadily somewhere in the darkness. I rush forward, trying to keep my footing in the thick green around me. My feet kick up chunks of it with each step, and a quick glance behind me shows my footprints stretching back out to the street.
I hurry around the corner, holding my breath. There it is, the sharp gleaming spire I had seen earlier. I walk towards it in awe. Everything else is completely covered in green, but it only reaches halfway up this one. The top floors remain entirely untouched.
Moving slowly towards it, I remind myself to breathe. Every step causes small ripples to spread along the spores on the ground. Without thinking, I walk up to the front doors and the spores seem to shudder in anticipation. My hand moves on its own towards the door handle.
I shake my head and stop.
Backing away from the building, I try to clear my head. The hum grows louder and the spores slide away from me, revealing the pavement below my feet.
“This is new,” I think, before I catch movement out of the corner of my eye.
Ahead of me, on the street, something lurches up from under the green. I brush the pollen from my goggles and stare. More movement follows and a body drags itself towards me. Covered in pollen, its limbs moving jerkily, it’s already half a block away and getting closer. I glance back to the sidewalks and see more of them following.
I run back down the alley, trying to ignore the ripples that spread out with every step. I’ve just reached the other side when my foot sticks. I look down and see the spores harden around my left boot. Turning back to the alley, more bodies are shambling down the fire escapes and through the doors. They move like puppets, taking halting steps forward.
I grab my boot to pull it up, but the spores have already moved up another half an inch. My right foot is now stuck as well. Ahead of me is clear pavement. I unlace my boots, sliding my feet out, and jump for the pavement. My upper body hits hard against the concrete and I roll forward.
My heart breaks a little as I run back the way I came. Those boots were my mother’s, back when she was a runner. I give them one last look and they’re already completely covered in spores. I try not to think about how much damage the pavement is doing to my bare feet. The only important thing is getting back to the elevator.
The streets ahead are clear of pollen as more spore-covered bodies emerge from the buildings. They push forward off the sidewalk, trying to close off the street in front of me. I run faster, ducking under grasping green hands. Even as I run past them, my eyes pick up little details. The spores squirming under the skin. Muscles straining to fight even as they’re forced forward.
I can see the elevator now. I look behind me, and my feet slow to a stop. At the head of the pack is Simone. The spores wriggle under her skin, forcing her forward. The green has already broken through in places. But her eyes are still human and full of fear. I step back from her as she takes another halting step forward.
The elevator is only a few yards away now. She reaches out a hand for me, and I don’t know if it’s her or the spores. I turn my head and run for the elevator, sliding down into the narrow gap, and pulling the metal bar behind me.
The doors slam shut, and I sit in the darkness clutching the bar. I fight the urge to rip the mask and goggles off. There’s spores on my clothes, my skin. I try to breathe through the mask, but I can’t. Trying to calm myself, I check my bag. Follow the routine. Everything is still there. There’s a loud groan and I stare at the doors waiting. The elevator shudders to life with a squeal and the lights kick on.
“Good to have you back,” Lewis says, as the elevator begins its descent back home.
©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.