“What are you packin’?” He glares at me suspiciously.
“Not a damn thing.” All this: out here in the dark parking lot on a side of town that everyone calls the Wastelands for obvious reasons; meeting some scummy man I probably can’t trust; looking around and hoping nobody followed me; wondering if he’s a marshal with the Health Department and if he’s just setting me up… …all this just to get a baggie?
“Yeah?” He doesn’t believe me. “You come to a place like this and you ain’t got nothing?”
“I can take care of myself,” I say.
The way he looks at me changes, like he’s reassessing my body, looking for curves that I’m trying to hide under the overcoat. “How you gonna’ pay me?”
“In cash, same’s as everybody else. Stop your shit.”
“The price just went up.”
“Oh, did it?” I don’t need it as bad as he thinks I do. “Whatever. You ain’t my only one. I got another go-to besides you.” I start walking away, pieces of broken glass glittering and crunching underfoot. I hear small things, just out of sight, scurry for cover as I walk past. I hear his feet coming up behind me, too fast. I don’t wait for him to touch me. I wheel around and drive the heel of my hand into his lower jaw, smashing his teeth backward.
He’s shocked and spitting blood. “You bitch! Why’d you go and do that? I was gonna’ be nice to you, too.”
“Were you? Walking up behind me like that? Well be nice then and give me what I asked for.”
“I’ll give you more than that!” He charges at me but I already know it’s coming.
I rotate to my left and side kick his knee. He crumbles immediately but traps my leg, trying to pull me down. My fingers are wrapped around a short length of pipe called a shocker. My right fist reacts without me thinking, exploding from my pocket and connecting with the side of his face, stunning him. I don’t let him clear up but blast him, again and again, until he passes out. His blood is spattered everywhere now, on my coat and the ground. I pull my leg free and kick him off me. I don’t care if he lives but I wasn’t trying to kill him so I roll him on his side. I reach in his pocket. Nothing. I struggle to roll him to his other side and reach in that pocket. Nothing.
“Are you shittin’ me?” I hiss. All this and he doesn’t have anything? Naw, no way… I look at his shoes. I slip off one and don’t see anything until I pull the sole padding out of it. Nice and neat in there, four little baggies full of dark powder. I could take all of them. I ought to, all the hell he put me through, he owes me. But I’m not a thief either and I don’t want to be known as one. Besides, he got it from someone else and I sure as hell don’t want to be the one they look for when it’s time for payback. Nope. Keep it easy. I pull one bag out, slide the cash in its place, stuff the padding back in the bottom of the shoe and put it on his foot.
He starts moaning in pain.
“Keep it down. You’ll just call attention to yourself. Go home and sleep it off.” I walk away, heading for the U-Station. Everyone rides underground trams unless they’re super rich. The super rich have auto-cars. They’re like trams because they ride on a rail too but their rail is topside, right down the street, out in the light of day. That’s how you know the rich, they ride around in auto-cars while the rest of us take the Underground like a bunch of rats in a tube.
I walk casually from the U-Station to my compartment. It’s like everyone else’s. Two rooms and not a lot else. I shuck my coat, dropping it down the laundry tube. No one will be able to trace it to me because all the building’s laundry goes to one place, gets washed in the same big machine, and it’s returned in no particular order. Sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn’t but we all share the same clothes. Tomorrow, I’ll have another coat and it’ll look exactly like today’s coat. Might even have someone else’s blood on it.
I go to the Community Rooms. Each floor has one and it’s in the center. That’s where the kitchen is if we have anything to cook. There’s a couple toilets and a couple showers in the other room. Someone said once, like 300 years ago, people lived in houses and they had two or three showers a piece and they weren’t sharing them with anyone else except the people who lived in the house. And hot water to spare. And real water too, not the reconditioned water they make out of our piss. Man, that must have been nice. If it was ever true.
After the shower, I try not too look too excited when I pour a cup of hot water in the kitchen. But there’s no one around so I don’t have to try too hard but I hide it anyway, just in case the cameras are watching me. I go back to my compartment and walk to the back room. My bed’s in that one and I have a window that looks across at the other compartments and I can see their windows. And if I look up, I can see more floors going up so high there’s barely any sky at all.
But tonight, I don’t care. I sit on the bed and open the little baggie. It smells like something grown in a forest somewhere when there used to be forests we could go to. The rich are the only ones who can pay the entrance fee. I heard, sometimes they even stay there overnight. They call it camping, or something, where they just pay to sleep outside and burn their rations in an open fire. I dump the powder in the cup and watch it turn the water darker and darker. I lean against the metal headboard and prop my feet up, just kind of waiting before the first sip. I hold it in my hands and smell it and let the anticipation build and then I take that first sip…delicious.
Long before the Health Department issued daily rations, I was told that everyone could just go to any store and buy it. Anyone. It was so cheap people, rich or poor, could walk from one corner of the street to the next and buy it in shops. And that’s all the shops sold. It was on the shelves, when they used to have stores. Just rows of shelves and people could buy cans and bags of it but then the Health Department banned it during the First Pure Food Campaign of 2085. Well, banned it and anything that needed two ingredients to make so that was pretty much everything. There used to be stuff called cakes, and soda, and something called pasta and something else called pizza but the Purists said obesity was an epidemic. People were eating too much. Imagine that, people eating whatever they want, whenever they wanted it. Not anymore…
I sip again and close my eyes, imagining a world where I could buy a cup of coffee on every corner…