Life on the street is hard. Drug dealers, thieves, and even the security officers of the giant walking city of Manhatsten are up to no good. But somehow, Mimi’s done it for centuries. Of course, it helps that she is able to peak into other people’s minds and avoid trouble most of the time. Unfortunately, that same talent is about to get her into a whole other world of trouble. One that she never even knew existed.
The Fishing Hole
The sharpened end of the broomstick plunged down below the waterline with a plunk.
“It’s hard to believe there’s any fish down here,” said Shannon.
“Best way to manage the algae,” Mimi said with a grunt. She pulled up the broomstick, free of fish, dripping water.
“Really? But I thought they wanted the algae to bloom for the biorecycler.”
Mimi’s eyes danced over the surface of the water, tracing the shadow of a fish just visible in the dim underground light.
“Algae grows better with the fish.”
The broomstick handle brushed the surface of the water, roaming back and forth. Then, she thrusted quick and sharp. When she pulled out her makeshift spear, a fish flopped back and forth, gasping for freedom. Mimi swung the end up to keep the fish from sliding off.
She shrugged. “Hell if I know. Something about ecology or some nonsense.”
Mimi knew. She knew a lot of things she shouldn’t know. She had skimmed the knowledge from a sanitation worker, one who managed the algae pools.
Mimi shrugged. She shifted the broom from one hand to the other and brushed her long black hair out of her eyes. “It’s not important. We best get out of here, maintenance is coming.”
“How do you know that?” asked Shannon. “How do you always know stuff like that?”
“They usually come around this time. Come on, we have dinner. Let’s go cook it.” She was lying. There was no set schedule down here. The only time someone showed up was when there was a problem.
They walked away from the stream, moving up the long tunnel and toward the main pond. It was hard to call it a pond, because it was larger than Central Park and it branched out in streams to several other parts of the excavated piece of earth on which the great walking city of Manhasten rested.
“You can really feel the legs moving down here, can’t you?”
“Every step. Gotta be careful, takes a while to get your sea legs.”
Mimi shrugged. “Nevermind.” She liked Shannon, but she asked too many questions. Mimi didn’t like questions. When you were homeless in a giant walking city, questions could get you killed. Yet, she always seemed to pick the ones who asked a lot of questions. Where were all her previous partners? She didn’t like to think about it.
She glanced up at Shannon’s face; she was pale and skinny, almost the exact opposite of the last woman she had dated. Her soft brown eyes caught Mimi staring at her. Her round face and blonde hair were lovely in the dim light of the underground.
“Nothing, you just look beautiful today.”
Shannon smiled and her face flushed a little. She reached out and grabbed Mimi’s hand. Mimi never failed to notice how much bigger Shannon’s hand was. Of course, Shannon was of a normal size, while Mimi was tiny.
“I’m glad you asked me to come down here and see this place. I didn’t even know it existed.”
Mimi said, “Only a few people outside of the sanitation workers do.”
They reached the edge of the pond and Mimi looked over it. It was quiet. Only the sounds of the water lapping against the edge of the land was prominent, interspersed with slim moments of the sound of the machinery pumping water in and out of the massive reservoir.
Shannon moved closed to her. She could feel her body pressed up against hers. It was soft and warm. Mimi took a slow breath, enjoying the feeling. She tucked her head into Shannon’s chest and took a moment to listen to her heart and linger in her scent.
Shannon said, “It’s kind of a turn-on being down here…all hidden and forbidden, I mean.”
Mimi smiled and looked up into her face. “Yes, but as I said, someone is coming.” She leaned in and kissed Shannon for a moment, then took her hand and led her further along the shoreline, back to the entrance where they had come.
It had been a long time since Mimi had felt close to someone. The last time had been several decades before. Over the centuries, she brought several partners down here. It was one of her favorite places in the whole city. It was almost always safe from the security patrols and the drug dealers in the lowers. There wasn’t a lot of room to explore on the streets of Manhastan, but down here…down here was nowhere. Down here was her nowhere.
The garbled thoughts of the maintenance workers were clarifying. It meant they were getting closer. The clearer she could hear thoughts, the closer someone was. At a few dozen yards’ distance, she could make out everything that was on the surface of a person’s mind, assuming there was only a few of people around. More than a few people and things got jumbled.
It was the other reason she liked being down here; she had quiet inside and out.
Suddenly, the two minds focused. They were moving quickly. She couldn’t understand why. Her heart raced, they would be on top of them at any moment.
“Shit, they’re coming now.” Mimi grabbed Shannon by the shoulder and pulled her behind a giant metal tube, one of many scattered around the perimeter of the pond. She could feel and hear a low hum coming from the tube.
“How do you know–”
Mimi put her hand over Shannon’s mouth. “Shh. If they hear us, we’re in deep shit.”
Mimi felt Shannon’s body relax for a moment. Then, as the elevator door across the pond spilled light out onto the choppy water and two sanitation workers stepped out, she felt Shannon’s body tense again. They were still more than a kilometer away, but if they had been out in the open, it would have been obvious.
The elevator. Of course. That was the reason for the sudden movement. Mimi should have known better. But why was she reading them as if they were much closer? There was no reason she should be able to hear them so clearly from this distance.
Mimi glanced at her companion and realized that she had let herself relax a little too much. It was stupid. She should have been paying more attention, even if she was getting an unusually strong read.
Mimi pulled Shannon a little closer. Shannon reached back and gave her bicep a squeeze. It occurred to Mimi that she found a deep sense of joy, feeling Shannon close. It was too late. She was falling hard. That was dangerous.
Mimi whispered in Shannon’s ear, “Stay still. We have to wait ‘til they pass. We can’t make a sound. You know what happened to Tanya, right?”
Without turning, Shannon tensed. She nodded her head.
“Let’s move a little further back against this wall. I doubt they’ll come this way. They’re here to inspect one of the lines on the other side.”
Shannon squirmed a little and turned her head. Her hoarse whisper was barely audible. “How do you know all this shit, Mimi?”
Mimi shrugged. She wasn’t about to tell Shannon how she knew it, or how she knew anything else. She was falling in love with Shannon, realized that she might even spend the rest of Shannon’s life with her, short as that may end up being, but there was no one she could ever trust with her secret, not again. It would never be like it was with Daniel. His was a miserable lesson.
Yet, she was making it obvious that she had secrets. She frowned to herself. All day she had been hinting about knowing information she shouldn’t. It occurred to her that maybe, on some level, she wanted someone to know. Maybe she was tired of being alone, maybe she missed waking up next to someone, trusting someone with everything. Lying was tiresome.
The two workers’ laughs echoed off the massive chamber. They made no effort to be quiet, and just as they got within a few hundred meters, they stopped. Their thoughts, loud and clear, disappeared. The sudden silence unnerved Mimi.
She reached out. More silence. She pushed a little harder, thinking of them. A bright red light and a powerful ringing in her ears hit her like a physical blow. She shuddered. Her body spasmed.
Shannon turned towards her. “Mimi?”
Mimi released her grip and stepped back, shaking her head and putting her finger to her lips. Shannon understood and turned back toward the workers.
When they moved again, they did so in her direction. Mimi frowned. Why had they changed direction?
Minutes passed. No sign of their minds. No intentions. Just silence and hints of footsteps and murmurs.
Mimi felt her heart beat harder. Sweat gathered on her forehead and she was having trouble breathing. She tried to will their thoughts back again, and that same red light and deafening ringing returned. She needed to know what these two were doing. Uncertainty was death in this world. She had watched through the centuries as so many of her friends and loved ones had been taken by the security forces and sentenced to a fate worse than death.
Only a hundred meters away now, the voices focused from the frame of echoes and sharpened in the space. “I don’t know, Frank, I swore I saw something over this direction.”
“Zelda, you kidding me with this shit? Ain’t no one even knows about this place.”
“I didn’t say it was a person, maybe it’s a busted pipe or something.”
“It’s almost quitting time.”
The woman stopped and faced the man. The woman was wire-thin, and the man had a large, round belly that almost intruded in the conversation.
“Frank, you know damn well if there is a major issue, we’re gonna be down here for weeks cleaning up the mess.”
“So, let’s report we heard some strange noises in the pipes and send someone else down to investigate,” said the man.
Mimi ground her teeth. No minds, only voices. That vacant silence felt as if someone had scooped something essential out of her. So far as she could remember, this had never happened before, not since the voices began. It could mean the end for her and Shannon. Was her future in the Runnercore? The remainder of their lives as prisoners out in the barren wasteland that the city traversed, running errands for a society that viewed them as disposable? Or perhaps they would die a brutal death at the hands of another city’s runners? But then, that was if they were lucky; they could spend centuries in semi-stasis, waiting in storage to be activated.
“It doesn’t hurt to just check it out, Frank. Besides, wouldn’t kill you to work off that gut some.”
There was a pause between the two. The man rubbed his stomach. “What, this old thing? Come on, Zelda, you know I’ve been carefully cultivating this thing for the last twenty years. Why you gotta go and try and go and get me some exercise?” The man laughed at his own joke. It was a deep, booming laugh that bounced off the high walls of the cavern. It did nothing for Mimi’s nerves.
Shannon started to squirm again and Mimi gripped her a bit more firmly. She tried to make it a loving, comforting grip, but when she looked down at Shannon’s right wrist, she saw that she was white-knuckled. Shannon’s hand was reddening. She relaxed her grip.
Shannon leaned back and whispered, “What’s wrong, I can feel you shaking.”
Mimi was shaking. Her whole body was betraying her with ripples of gooseflesh. Still, there was mental silence. It was a kind of fog that had climbed its way into her ears.
The woman turned their direction. “Did you hear that?” Her words were crystal-clear now. She was walking directly toward them.
Mimi cursed under her breath. Leaning forward as quietly as she could, she whispered into Shannon’s ear, “Get ready to run when I say so.”
Shannon tensed under her. She, too, shook.
Why had everything gone silent? It made no sense, unless maybe she was just getting old? Maybe her bizarre skill set withered away with age like anything else? But that made little sense. The regeneration alcove she semi-frequently snuck into rejuvenated all of her cells. Her mental capabilities should have been renewed in the process as well.
The woman was only a few dozen meters away now.
“Zelda, you’re killing me. Let’s just finish the job we came down for.” He was pleading with her. Mimi noted a sense of desperation in his voice. Something about that gave her a renewed sense of hope.
Zelda stopped and turned away. Mimi used that moment to pull Shannon all the way back behind the pipe so that she couldn’t see the woman, and the woman couldn’t see her.
“I’m telling you, Frank, there’s something over there. I’d swear it.”
“Bet your next paycheck?”
There was silence for a moment.
“If you ain’t gonna put your money where your mouth is, then let’s get back to work. The wife’s waiting, you know. And she doesn’t like it when I’m late all the time, especially when she knows I came down here with you.”
There it was. That was why he was pleading.
“Is she still on you about that shit, Frank?”
“Come on, you know some people, once they get an idea, it rubs at them ‘til they’re raw. She ain’t never gonna let it go.”
“Jesus Frank, it was one kiss twenty years ago, and I was drunk.”
There was silence again for a moment. It was a horrible silence. Mimi hated it. She had never thought she could hate silence so much.
“Alright fine. You win. Let’s get back to it.”
Mimi felt all the pressure inside of her release at once. The woman’s footsteps sounded as if they were walking away, but it was hard to tell.
Then, all at once, their thoughts flooded her mind again. She didn’t know what had turned them back on, but she was grateful. The pair was moving away; they would address a reported blockage on the other side of the pond and suggest that maybe something else was wrong in the area Mimi was hiding. Mimi had never felt so relieved in her life.
She stuck out her head from her cover and watched and waited a few minutes more. She probed the area for any other minds and when she sensed none, she said, “Come on, all clear.”
There were only two ways out of the pond: the elevator and the stairs. No sanitation worker in their right mind would use the stairs, it was 102 levels from the lowest sub-basement to the algae pools. Shannon had moaned the entire way down the stairs about how difficult it would be to come back up. She had complained that her legs were already jelly from going down 102 flights, and Mimi expected her to moan the whole way up. But as they approached the metal-grated stairs, still keeping their eyes on the ever-more-distant workers, Shannon was silent. They began their ascent.
Mimi turned and looked at her face; it was ghost-pale. Mimi didn’t have to skim her mind to know what was wrong. She shouldn’t have mentioned Tanya. She wanted her to take the threat seriously, but she didn’t want to scare the living shit out of her, either. She imagined that mentioning Tanya probably deepened Shannon’s terror as that woman had approached.
Mimi grabbed Shannon’s hand and faced her. She tilted her head up and kissed her deeply. Mimi pulled away and stared right into Shannon’s eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to mention it.”
Shannon looked down at the floor. “It’s okay… I just… I still can’t believe she’s gone.”
“She’s not gone. She’s in the Runnercore.”
“No, she’s not.”
Shannon twirled her hair and chewed on her lip.
“You know what they say about women in the Runnercore.”
“Weak women, Shannon. Tanya was bigger and stronger than most women.”
“Enough to move in those metal suits? Can you say for certain she’s alive?” Shannon was pleading.
Mimi said nothing. She had tried to find out. She had even snuck down to the docks several nights in a row to skim someone. The inspectors weren’t helpful, there were just too many Runners to think about and inspectors didn’t know anyone’s names. Once you became a runner, you were just a number, a designation. Unless she could find out what Tanya’s designation had become, there was no use. She had tried to probe the recycled runners but they were nothing but empty hard drives. Too empty, like trying to read a brick.
“They augment their muscles, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they inject them with some kind of hormone or chemical or something. It makes them stronger.”
Shannon’s eyes squinted, “How do you know that?”
“The same way I know everything else. I listen. If you would do as I tell you when we are out scavenging, you would know just as much as me.”
It was a lie. Shannon couldn’t skim minds. She wasn’t entirely sure if anyone else in the city could, either. As far as she knew, she was all alone. It almost made her laugh when she thought about it. What a great gift to be wasted on a homeless woman. Yet, something had happened this afternoon. Something that made her question if she was alone. Why the red light and the tone? Could someone out there be blocking her?
“Listen, you’re just going to have to trust me. Tanya’s okay. One of these days, we’ll bust her out.”
Shannon smiled, the corners of her mouth creeping to their highest altitude. She choked back a laugh. Mimi loved it when she did that.
“Oh right, two bag ladies are going to bust down into the runner docks to liberate another bag lady. Sounds like something from the vidscreens.” Her smile melted. “Sometimes having hope is foolish, isn’t it?”
Mimi squeezed her hand, “Crazier things have happened.”
“Um, we are in what was once bedrock at the base of a giant walking city, aren’t we? I think that qualifies as a crazy miracle. Whoever thought up this idea to deal with climate change had to sound like a total nut job, but they did it, didn’t they? They pulled it off, and not just once.”
“I guess so.” Shannon’s voice sounded soft and resigned. “Do you know how many cities are still out there?”
“I don’t know. Couldn’t be more than a dozen left.”
“You think Manhasten will be around for a while?”
“Hell if I know.” She nodded her head toward the stairs, “Come on. I’ll race you to the top.”
“You’re joking, right? I mean, you’re really joking?”
“Nope.” And Mimi ran up the stairs, taking two at a time.