– Late Winter, Year 2030 – Border of South Memphis
Manna rubbed Nickel’s cheek softly as he nuzzled his face into her shoulder. “Keep to the shadows. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
He kissed her forehead as Nickel kept his hands clutched close to her heart. His lips lingered against her skin a second longer, and then he let go, pulling his hands from hers.
With a final look around, he pulled the rusted crow bar from his belt loop and ran across the darkened street. Once there, he turned around and gave her a quick wave.
Nickel dared not wave back. She pulled the collar of the black coat closer to her face as she watched him disappear down the alleyway between a crumbling parking garage and the red brick building he was going to break into.
The electric lamp above her head flickered, and Nickel stepped beyond the reach of its dim glow. Lamps dotted the cracked sidewalk of the old Memphis city street, about every fifteen feet, and Nickel jumped when she heard the glass shattering. The alarm of the Golden Grit Pawn Shop clanged from the same alleyway Manna had entered. The re-engineered alarm system of the old bank was designed to alert anyone of an intruder within a five-mile square vicinity.
Nickel turned around and saw her reflection in the broken, dusty store window. Stepping closer to the glass, she brushed her fingers through her auburn hair and pulled it back into a ponytail. Olive green eyes reflected back at her, and she creased her forehead changing the image. Taking one last look, Nickel moved onto the stoop of a deserted storefront just two doors down and tried to look inconspicuous. She shivered as the wind dipped down into the space between her shirt and pants and pulled up the too large, dark-washed jeans.
She eyed the nearly empty street once again, huffing and crossing her arms back over her chest. Looking side to side, Nickel scraped her teeth across her tongue trying to think of other things.
At this time of night, only creepers and the bio drug dealers loitered around the old downtown area.
“Why’d he ask me to be a look out?” she mumbled. Down the street, she could see one such woman standing in the lamp light. Nickel compared her own loose clothing to the tightness of the woman’s halter top and black pants.
Her clothing was made for running and hiding – for staying alive.
Hell, not even the most crooked of people were brave enough to go into what was aptly nicknamed the Bowels. The people who came here were either looking for a fix or death; she wasn’t seeking either. This area was where Lyc-O negatives disappeared, never to be seen again.
“Who am I kidding?” she said, pulling her coat tighter. Cold shivers raced up her spine.
A sleek car turned the corner, looking dark crimson in the dim glow of the street lamp. It was the third time it had made the rounds, and it was making her nervous. The first two times it had pulled around Manna and Nickel had acted like shivering, spastic Lyc-O basics. She stepped away from the corner and onto the sidewalk, into the full lamplight to get a better view of the vehicle. The red taillights disappeared over the hill, and the car rumbled away into the darkness.
“Damn it, I need to find a darker place to stand.” She eyed a darker storefront down the street from her.
Nickel knew she might end up sharing a corner with a basic looking for a fix of H967 morphine, but it was safer than being on her own. She thought about how the basics that had survived would not have much, if any, hair left. She scratched her scalp without thinking. Even the roots of a basic’s hair hurt, it made them pull out the strands to get away from the pain. Most would have infected or bloody welts from scratching constantly at their skin. Nickel shuddered at the thought and shook her head, still surprised that after twenty years, some basics still survived.
“Those people in the car think you’re a molly, Nickel,” a deep-graveled voice said from behind her.
Nickel’s heart jumped. She took a deep breath and turned around. Manna stood two heads above her, even though she was nearly five-seven and taller than most of the women at the compound.
She slapped his arm and took another breath to steady herself. “Don’t fuckin’ scare me like that again.”
She looked at Manna, but his face was cast in the shadows. “Did you get it?”
“Yeah.” Manna tossed the package into the air and caught it. “Now we can head back.”
“Let’s go.” Nickel turned around, but Manna caught her arm and pulled her back to him.
“You okay?” he whispered, brushing a lock of hair behind her ear that had come loose from her ponytail.
Nickel looked past him. The breeze was picking up, sending stray bits of paper and trash in and out of the shadows. She pulled away from Manna and glanced toward the dark alley behind them. Bitting her lip, she shook her hands to get rid of the shivery feeling that had the fine hairs on her arms standing on end.
“I feel like something’s about to happen.” Nickel pulled her jacket close to her body again. She shuddered underneath it, and looked up at the sky. Oh, to be able to see the stars again.
Since the release of the Trifold virus, it seemed as if the world had shut down as well. For over twenty years, they had been cast under a thin veil of clouds. The limited sunshine penetrating the clouds meant that only certain types of crops would grow. Humankind had been almost obliterated.
Looking from the sky to her hands, Nickel wondered how many people were actually left across the world. Many people had committed suicide, rather than become like the basic in the store front. Dependency on drugs was how they survived. If alone, a negative turned toward other means of making it, like the creeper down the street. Looking to her right, Nickel saw the woman in the halter top leaning into the window of the crimson car.
“A nickel for your thoughts, Nickel?”
Manna’s expressive, green eyes twinkled mischievously. Before she could answer, a piercing scream echoed from further down the street. A man punched the creeper in the back of the head, and then shoved her inside the car.
Nickel felt a sharp tingle go up her spine as the vehicle rumbled toward them. Instantly, she knew.
“Trekkers!” She gasped, looking around, but there was no time to think.
Manna grabbed her arm and dragged her back into the shadows. They barely had time to make it a few yards before the red car careened up the sidewalk. Manna tripped, propelling Nickel forward. She lost her footing, pivoting as she fell, and smacked her elbow and head against the cracked concrete. Nickel winced, taking a deep breath as she checked her side for broken ribs. She shoved Manna’s arm off her stomach and touched the side of her head. Her hand came away with the wet sensation of blood upon it.
Tires screeched toward them. She opened her eyes, shoving Manna’s shoulder, and calling his name as he came to. Both of them looked up as two car doors opened and then slammed shut. Nickel raised an arm against the headlight’s glare and saw the outline of two muscular men.
“We gotta go,” Nickel whispered, using the wall to get to her feet. Black dots danced in her vision as she reached for Manna’s hand.
As she helped him up, the engine roared to life again. Nickel clasped a hand against her ribcage and focused on getting to the alleyway in front of them. Manna stumbled beside her, but regained his footing and chased behind her. She was first into the narrow passageway, skidding to a stop in the darkness, hoping that it would grant them a brief moment of safety.
She slowed to a halt and turned around. “Manna –.”
Nickel heard the loud roar of the engine and then the sickening crunch of car breaking bone. Time screeched to a still silence as Manna sprawled across the concrete at the mouth of the alleyway in slow motion. Heart hammering, she ran toward him, but it was like running through quicksand. She wasn’t capable of moving as fast as she would have liked, but she was desperate to reach him before the Trekkers did.
Collapsing on the ground beside him, she pulled him toward her. If only she could get him into the alleyway, there was a still a chance –.
Manna stifled a scream and shook his head. He grabbed her hands, panting hard.
In the sliver of light, she saw the jagged edge of a bone jutting through a bloody hole in his pants. “No…”
Her eyes met his. They both knew the truth.
Fixing his face with pained determination, he opened his jacket and pulled out a small, wrapped package, holding it toward her. She shook her head and slapped his hand away. She didn’t want the parcel – she wanted him.
“Take it, Nickel.”
Shaking her head, she tried to move him again. She got to her feet and tried pulling Manna to his. She would carry him if she had to get him away. “You have to try, Manna, please.”
The Trekkers she spotted getting out of the car earlier were getting closer, and had been joined by two more. Nickel pushed the parcel back to him. She looked between him, them, and Manna, grabbing his arm a third time, but the four dark figures were getting closer. She grabbed for his arm again, and he pulled it from her grasp and slipped the package into her coat pocket.
He held her hand. “They can’t catch both of us.
“Fuckin’ go,” Manna hissed out. “And make sure the compound gets that package.”
“Manna,” Nickel quickly argued. “The rules -.”
As she spoke, Manna pushed her away and reached for a rusted tin can, throwing it toward the approaching men. “Fuck the rules. Just go.”
The pained look in his eyes broke her heart. Even now, when he was beyond all hope, he was trying to protect her. She stole one final, tearful kiss and ran into the alley. She wouldn’t let his sacrifice be in vain.
Charging deeper into the darkness, she turned down a smaller passage that separated one row of buildings from another. She stumbled along it, and quite literally fell onto the adjoining street. Her heart thudded inside her chest as she scrambled to her feet and pressed her back up against the rough texture of a brick wall. A guttural scream echoed through the night, and Nickel pressed her hand over her mouth.
She heard a distant crash and distant footsteps. Her breath shuttered out of her lungs as she remained against the wall, needing to get herself under control. Fear ran through her veins, and she didn’t know if she had the strength to out run four Trekkers for a prolonged period of time.
She peeked around the corner of the wall. The alley was empty, and she could see clear to the other side.
Pushing away from the wall, she ran down the street, blinking tears from her eyes. Why Manna? Why did you do that? She did not have time to cry and brushed away the tears that continued to threaten to fall.
Close to the old southern boundary, she sagged behind one of the larger trees, sobbing against its rough bark. Taking in a huge breath, another sob escaped. She slipped to the rock-strewn ground and rested her head on her knees. She squeezed her eyes shut and scolded herself for being so weak.
“Dying’s in the job description,” Nickel said, mimicking the words Manna had spoken before leaving the compound. She snorted and wiped tears from her eyes. “It wasn’t his damn time.”
Nickel pulled out the small parcel. Manna hadn’t told her what it was for, but the Golden Grit was rumored to trade in the drugs that helped basics get relief from the ravaging of their DNA.
“Why would they send us after H967?” she asked herself as she examined the brown paper wrapped box.
Shoving the packet back into her pocket hard, she used the heels of her hands to stand up. She was furious Manna had sacrificed his life for something as simple as H967 morphine. Pulling her coat tight, she set a hard pace to the old Mississippi state line.