They were behind and I wanted them to stay there. Preferably further behind with every step.
Ahead, the inhabitants of the Box and the customers of the downmarket stores didn’t care. None of them moved out of my way. None of them looked up except to shout a curse as I barged past or bounced off bodies more solid than my own. I did my best to avoid the small children who clung on to their mother’s or father’s hands.
Underfoot the deck plating flexed. If it had been good quality, if the city owners and builders had cared about the Box dwellers it would be firm and rigid. I’d heard of Boxes in other cities where the floors had given way, collapsing down onto the level below. The death tolls had been mere estimates, gathered and judged only by the wailing of women missing husbands, children wandering lost, or men staring at empty hands with guilt filled eyes. I knew that look.
Such is existence in the Boxes. You struggle to survive and few mourn when you escape into death.
A left turn, a sharp ninety degrees like every turn in the Boxes. Simple planning, simple building, low costs. More shops and more people. There were shouts from behind. My pursuers were not as interesting in looking after the people they barrelled through. They weren’t trying to make friends and I certainly wasn’t planning to introduce them to my small, almost non-existent social circle.
It was difficult to avoid everyone, but I did my best, only two ‘fucks’ and an ‘arsehole’ followed me down the next passageway. Sticks and stones wouldn’t break my bones, but three men chasing me would definitely be using something a lot heavier to accomplish that aim. Back when I’d done my service in the forces, training to use the Fish-Suit, we’d had to pound the racetrack as part of our fitness regime. It hadn’t really been a racetrack, more a path around one the various sub bays that marked the outer perimeter of the base, and we’d have to run with a full pack. I’ve no idea why. My first instinct and it has served me well over the years, is to drop everything I was carrying when trying to escape. I’d found out early on that I move a lot faster when I am not weighed down with a lot of kit. During training, I’d usually been right at the back. Never far enough behind to be punished for my lack of pace, nor fast enough to get noticed by the instructors. A solid just below average was my goal.
Now I was going for an Olympic medal in the hundred metres, two hundred, eight hundred, three-k and marathon all at once. The desire to survive can do that to you. It pushes you beyond your limits, makes you burn your way through all those carefully hoarded reserves of energy. I’d pay for it later. The later the better, and preferably when I was sat in Tom’s bar with a beer in hand or tucked up in bed with just the memories of the last whiskey upon my tongue.
It was better than waking up in a hospital bed swaddled in bandages and drinking my meals through a straw.
Another corner, a right hander and a small hop, without breaking stride, over the bulkhead seal on the floor. The little raised lip of metal that would separate the inhabitants of the Box from death if there was a leak was a trip hazard. How the design ever got past health and safety was beyond me. The law of double effect maybe? The evil of a few thousand dead against the few thousand broken legs, twisted ankles, snapped wrists and concussions. Someone had probably had to make the tough call in the end.
More shops and a few bars nestled amongst them. Bright lights proclaiming the brand, the franchise, the delights offered within or just the name of the owner, you either knew what they sold or you didn’t. They probably figured if you didn’t know, you couldn’t afford it and were, therefore, a time waster. Early evening was not the best of times to be chased through the streets of my city, but sometimes you don’t get the choice. Stupidly, I’d had the choice and made the decision. I stand by it. It was the right one.
My destination, my escape route was just a few corners away. It was fool proof. Well, it was foolish but effective. I’d used it before. Which isn’t strictly true. I’d had it used on me before. If my pursuers knew about it, it wouldn’t help them much. They were welcome to follow me. I didn’t think they would. They weren’t that brave.
It doesn’t take much in the way of bravery to threaten a mother and child. Not when you are built of more steroids and energy shakes than any human body should be able to consume in a lifetime. They had necks, of that I am sure. I couldn’t see them on account of their enormous shoulder muscles that promised to rip the seams of their t-shirts. If they’d bought clothing of the proper size they wouldn’t have had that problem. My advice would probably have fallen on deaf ears or been ignored by the shared brain cell.
Down in the Boxes there were no security guards. Not on patrol or wandering amongst the populace, making friends or safeguarding the community. They only came here in great numbers and wearing full body armour. Here you looked after yourself, your family and close friends. Everyone else was either out to get you or just another victim in waiting. I hadn’t grown up in the Boxes. I’d had a family outside of them. That was gone, but I still hadn’t learned the lesson. My great failing, I got involved. I’d come into the shop to buy tonight’s meal.
“You owe us,” the biggest one said, pointing the stuffed sausage of a finger at the tiny woman and her son who couldn’t have been more than five or six.
“We paid,” she wailed in return.
I’d taken a look around. The shopkeeper had vanished and the rest of the place was empty. It can be like that. Many Box dwellers have evolved a fine sense of survival. The three bruisers had the woman corralled against the chiller cabinet at the rear of the shop and were blocking my access to the beer.
“Excuse me,” I said, all polite and shop basket in hand, “would you mind passing me a six-pack?”
They turned, all at the same time. It was strange. Almost alien-like. Their heads didn’t rotate, their whole body did, at the waist. I think those shoulder muscles must have hindered their necks.
“Fuck off,” said the leader.
“No thanks, I don’t like that brand. The brewery puts some strange stuff in the vats if you ask me.” I smiled. It was nerves not bravado.
The muscle man on the left rolled his shoulders and a small avalanche of implied threat cascaded down upon me. Subtle. I really didn’t want a fight. For a start I was hungry. Secondly, I would lose. I’d seen their type before. Back in the service. The soldiers so jacked up on drugs and the need to prove how manly they were by hurting others. Small penises. Had to be.
“Little man,” the one of the right rumbled, “you’ve made a big mistake.”
“You don’t approve of my dinner choice? Algae burger not your thing? Perhaps you’d prefer a baby or just candy stolen from a small child?” My right palm was getting sweaty hanging onto the plastic covered handle of the shop basket. “Pass me my beer and let the lady and her child go.”
“You got a death wish?” the leader said.
“So my psychologist told me,” I answered. I stared him right back, noting that even his eyebrows had developed visible muscles. My heart was hammering in my chest and I could feel everything south of my belt retreating back to safety. “She also said that I am sucker for a hard luck case, have no sense of my own safety, and an occasional paladin complex, and no I’ve no idea what the last one meant either. Now, my beer, the lady and the child. I don’t know what you’ve got against her, and I don’t too much care. What I do care about is my beer and the fact that three grown men,” I could afford to be generous as the phrase ‘small dicked, drugged up, brain dead, school yard bullies’ which I wanted to use would probably not endear me to them, “are terrifying a small child. You have business with her, fine, but don’t drag the child into it.”
“Last chance,” he said in return. “Fuck off.”
I swung the basket right at his head