I looked at the pair of figures lying motionless in the dark, damp room. Water dripped from a pipe nearby and the smell of blood filled my nostrils. I turned to the old doc, his bionic eyes glowing in the bright light of the console in front of him as he looked at me, waiting. I nodded, he pressed a button, and there was a moment of calm. Then the pain hit.
WARNING: TRACE COMPLETED.
The words flashed red across my vision. I’d seen, and they knew, and I was finished. I jacked out and blinked in the dim light of the basement. I’d screwed up. I had no interest in their secrets, but why would they trust me to stay silent? But every runner knows their day might come, so I was prepared. I pushed back my chair and looked around the nest of monitors and wires, resigned. Grabbing my jacket, I turned and ran up the stairs and burst through the door leading to the street.
I stood, looking at myself. It had been a while since I’d looked in a mirror, and I didn’t realize how tired I was. My eyes were sunken pits, augments barely visible through the swollen capillaries. Those bloodshot eyes stared back at me for an eternity before I turned to leave. No, the other me did. The original. I looked at the other two forks - copies like me - both standing in silence. They looked back with the same familiar look on their unfamiliar faces. We knew what parts we had to play.
The alley was dark. I was the first of the forks to arrive. “All done?” the original me asked from the shadows. “Almost,” I replied looking back at the street.
I ran. I could hear the sirens wailing in the distance, but it wouldn’t be long before they caught up with me. The bag was heavy on my back. This body wasn’t as strong as the one I was used to and my legs burned. I didn’t think I could run for much longer. I needed somewhere to hide.
The memories flooded over me, like a waterfall, pummelling. I felt wetness on top of my lip, a copper taste in my mouth. My nose was bleeding.
The delicious smells of steamed buns wafted from the a nearby stall, brought by a group of vibrantly painted body modders shoving their way through the crowd, and I understood what it meant to perceive as someone else. The sweet, sticky smell more intoxicating, the bright colours more vibrant, than they had ever been before. Familiar, but not.
My eyes slowly adjusted to the dim alley, as I looked at the body I’d grown up in. Nostalgia and a deep longing grew in my chest, along with regret. The gun felt heavy in my hands, dead weight.
I spotted a jammed fire escape down the side of the next block, and dashed for it. The sirens were louder now. The ladder was just outside of my reach, so I put the bag down and leapt for it. I caught it on my third attempt, and it rattled down to the floor noisily.
The pain was unbearable. My thoughts had been torn into a thousand pieces, and now each memory was being sewn back into the whole, a confused patchwork of imagery and sensation. There was a low constant moan filling my ears. It took me a moment to realize that it was coming from me.
The original looked out onto the street, waiting for the others to arrive. I looked down at the semi in my hand, fiddling with the safety.
I grabbed the bag and climbed as fast as I could. My legs screamed for me to stop, but I couldn’t. Not yet. Just a few more rungs and I’d be up. A few moments later, I reached the top. The window was open and I slipped inside. The sirens peaked and fell as they passed. It didn’t look like anyone was home, so I slid to the floor, aching. I couldn’t rest for long, though. I needed to keep moving.
Click. I raised my arm and the other me staggered, gore blossoming from the hole in my chest like one of the lost flowers of my childhood. I watched as I slid down the concrete wall, leaving a bloody smear. It’s hard to surprise yourself, but there was a moment of shock in my original’s eyes. Just a glimmer before the resignation settled in.
I pulled myself away from the novel sensory experience and focused on my task. I walked on for a few more minutes, scanning the shops and stalls. There. I pulled my hood close and glanced around me before approaching the chop shop.
“I don’t see why I should be punished, we were all there, we all saw it,” the original gasped. “We all know why,” I said, barely more than a whisper, and we did. We both knew the corp wouldn’t stop. Not until I was in their hands or dead. One of us had to take the fall, and they knew about the original, but not about the rest of us. I watched as the life slipped from my old body’s eyes, staring at me. Through me. The nausea rose suddenly in my throat and I turned away from my corpse to vomit up this unfamiliar body’s last meal.
The memories had settled and the intensity had gone from the pain, leaving a dull throbbing behind my eyes. After a long while, I got up from the bed and made for the door. “All done?” the doc asked, and I nodded as I paused to look back at the motionless figures lying on the other beds. Corpses. Borrowed. Mine. “Treat them with respect,” I said, handing him the bag before pushing my way through the door.
“We all get what we deserve,” came the response after a moment, but I was already gone.