The Running Man : Chapter 1
In the year 2025, the best men don't run for President. They run for their lives...
MINUS 100 AND COUNTING
She was squinting at the thermometer in the white light coming through the window. Beyond her, in the drizzle, the other highrises in Co-Op City rose like the gray turrets of a penitentiary. Below, in the airshaft, clotheslines flapped with ragged wash. Rats and plump alley cats circulated through the garbage.
She looked at her husband. He was seated at the table, staring up at the Free-Vee with steady, vacant concentration. He had been watching it for weeks now. It wasn't like him. He hated it, always had. Of course, every Development apartment had one-it was the law-but it was still legal to turn them off. The Compulsory Benefit Bill of 2021 had failed to get the required two-thirds majority by six votes. Ordinarily they never watched it. But ever since Cathy had gotten sick, he had been watching the big-money giveaways. It filled her with sick fear.
Behind the compulsive shrieking of the half-time announcer narrating the latest newsie flick, Cathy's flue-hoarsened wailing went on and on.
"How bad is it?" Richards asked.
"Not so bad."
"Don't shit me."
"It's a hundred and four."
He brought both fists down on the table. A plastic dish jumped into the air and clattered down.
"We'll get a doctor. Try not to worry so much. Listen-"She began to babble frantically to distract him; he had turned around and was watching the Free-Vee again. Half-time was over, and the game was on again. This wasn't one of the big ones, of course, just a cheap daytime come-on called Treadmill to Bucks. They accepted only chronic heart, liver, or lung patients, sometimes throwing in a crip for comic relief. Every minute the contestant could stay on the treadmill (keeping up a steady flow of chatter with the emcee), he won ten dollars. Every two minutes the emcee asked a Bonus Question in the contestant's category (the current pal, a heart-murmur from Hackensack, was an American history buff) which was worth fifty dollars. If the contestant, dizzy, out of breath, heart doing fantastic rubber acrobatics in his chest, missed the question, fifty dollars was deducted from his winnings and the treadmill was speeded up.
"We'll get along. Ben. We will. Really. I... I'll..."
"You'll what?" He looked at her brutally. "Hustle? No more. Shelia-She's got to have a real doctor. No more block midwife with dirty hands and whiskey breath. All the modern equipment. I'm going to see to it."
He crossed the room, eyes swiveling hypnotically to the Free-Vee bolted into one peeling wall above the sink. He took his cheap denim jacket off its hook and pulled it on with fretful gestures.
"No! No, I won't... won't allow it. You're not going to-"
"Why not? At worst you can get a few oldbucks as the head of a fatherless house. One way or the other you'll have to see her through this."
She had never really been a handsome woman, and in the years since her husband had not worked she had grown scrawny, but in this moment she looked beautiful... imperious. "I won't take it. I'd rather sell the govie a two-dollar piece of tail when he comes to the door and send him back with his dirty blood money in his pocket. Should I take a bounty on my man?"
He turned on her, grim and humorless, clutching something that set him apart, an invisible something for which the Network had ruthlessly calculated. He was a dinosaur in this time. Not a big one, but still a throwback, an embarrassment. Perhaps a danger. Big clouds condense around small particles.
He gestured at the bedroom. "How about her in an unmarked pauper's grave? Does that appeal to you?"
It left her with only the argument of insensate sorrow. Her face cracked and dissolved into tears.
"Ben, this is just what they want, for people like us, like you-"
"Maybe they won't take me," he said, opening the door. "Maybe I don't have whatever it is they look for."
"If you go now, they'll kill you. And I'll be here watching it. Do you want me watching that with her in the next room?" She was hardly coherent through her tears.
"I want her to go on living." He tried to close the door, but she put her body in the way.
"Give me a kiss before you go, then."
He kissed her. Down the hall, Mrs. Jenner opened her door and peered out. The rich odor of corned beef and cabbage, tantalizing, maddening, drifted to them. Mrs. Jenner did well-she helped out at the local discount drug and had an almost uncanny eye for illegal-card carriers.
"You'll take the money?" Richards asked. "You won't do anything stupid?"
"I'll take it," she whispered. "You know I'll take it."
He clutched her awkwardly, then turned away quickly, with no grace, and plunged down the crazily slanting, ill-lighted stairwell.
She stood in the doorway, shaken by soundless sobs, until she heard the door slam hollowly five flights down, and then she put her apron up to her face. She was still clutching the thermometer she had used to take the baby's temperature.
Mrs. Jenner crept up softly and twitched the apron. "Dearie," she whispered, "I can put you onto black market penicillin when the money gets here... real cheap... good quality-"
"Get out!" She screamed at her.
Mr. Jenner recoiled, her upper lip raising instinctively away from the blackened stumps of her teeth. "Just trying to help," she muttered, and scurried back to her room.
Barely muffled by the thin plastiwood, Cathy's wails continued. Mrs. Jenner's Free-Vee blared and hooted. The contestant on Treadmill to Bucks had just missed a Bonus Question and had had a heart attack simultaneously. He was being carried off on a robber stretcher while the audience applauded.
Upper lip rising and falling metronomically, Mrs. Jenner wrote Sheila Richards's name down in her notebook. "We'll see," she said to no one. "We'll just see, Mrs. Smell-So-Sweet."
She closed the notebook with a vicious snap and settled down to watch the next game.
MINUS 099 AND COUNTING
The drizzle had deepened into a steady rain by the time Richards hit the street. The big Smoke Dokes for Hallucinogenic Jokes thermometer across the street stood at fifty-one degrees. (Just the Right Temp to Stoke Up a Doke-High to the Nth Degree. That might make it sixty in their apartment. And Cathy had the flu.
A rat trotted lazily, lousily, across the cracked and blistered cement of the street. Across the way, the ancient and rusted skeleton of a 2013 Humber stood on decayed axles. It had been completely stripped, even to the wheel bearings and motor mounts, but the cops didn't take it away. The cops rarely ventured south of the Canal anymore. Co-Op City stood in a radiating rat warren of parking lots, deserted shops, Urban Centers, and paved playgrounds. The cycle gangs were the law here, and all those newsie items about the intrepid Block Police of South City were nothing but a pile of warm crap. The streets were ghostly, silent. If you went out, you took the pneumo bus or you carried a gas cylinder.
He walked fast, not looking around, not thinking. The air was sulphurous and thick. Four cycles roared past and someone threw a ragged hunk of asphalt paving. Richards ducked easily. Two pneumo buses passed him, buffeting him with air, but he did not flag them. The week's twenty-dollar unemployment allotment (oldbucks) had been spent. There was no money to buy a token. He supposed the
Highrises, Developments, chain-link fences, parking lots empty except for stripped derelicts, obscenities scrawled on the pavement in soft chalk and now blurring with the rain. Crashed-out windows, rats, wet bags of garbage splashed over the sidewalks and into the gutters. Graffiti written jaggedly on crumbling gray walls: HONKY DON'T LET THE SUN SET ON YOU HEAR. HOME FOLKS BLOW DOKES. YOUR MOMMY ITCHES. SKIN YOUR BANANA. TOMMY'S PUSHING. HITLER WAS COOL. MARY. SID. KILL ALL KIKES. The old G.A. sodium lights put up in the 70s busted with rocks and hunks of paving. No technico was going to replace them down here; they were on the New Credit Dollar. Technicos stay uptown, baby. Uptown's cool. Everything silent except for the rising-then-descending whoosh of the pneumo buses and the echoing clack of Richards's footfalls. This battlefield only lights up at night. In the day it is a deserted gray silence which contains no movement but the cats and rats and fat white maggots trundling across the garbage. No smell but the decaying reek of this brave year 2025. The Free-Vee cables are safely buried under the streets and no one but an idiot or a revolutionary would want to vandalize them. Free-Vee is the stuff of dreams, the bread of life. Scag is twelve oldbucks a bag, Frisco Push goes for twenty a tab, but the Free-Vee will freak you for nothing. Farther along, on the other side of the Canal, the dream machine ions twenty-four hours a day... but it runs on New Dollars, and only employed people have any. There are four million others, almost all of them unemployed, south of the Canal in Co-Op City.
Richards walked three miles and the occasional liquor stores and smoke shops, at first heavily grilled, become more numerous. Then the X-Houses (!!24 Perversions-Count 'Em 24!!), the Hockeries, the Blood Emporiums. Greasers sitting on cycles at every corner, the gutters buried in snowdrifts of roach ends. Rich Blokes Smoke Dokes.
He could see the skyscrapers rising into the clouds now, high and clean. The highest of all was the Network Games Building, one hundred stories, the top half buried in cloud and smog cover. He fixed his eyes on it and walked another mile. Now the more expensive movie houses, and smoke shops with no grills (but Rent-A-Pigs stood outside, electric move-alongs hanging from their Sam Browne belts). A city cop on every corner. The People's Fountain Park: Admission 75c. Well-dressed mothers watching their children as they frolicked on the astroturf behind chain-link fencing. A cop on either side of the gate. A tiny, pathetic glimpse of the fountain.
He crossed the Canal.
As he got closer to the Games Building it grew taller, more and more improbable with its impersonal tiers of rising office windows, its polished stonework. Cops watching him, ready to hustle him along or bust him if he tried to commit loitering. Uptown there was only one function for a man in baggy gray pants and a cheap bowl haircut and sunken eyes. That purpose was the Games.
The qualifying examinations began promptly at noon, and when Ben Richards stepped behind the last man in line, he was almost in the umbra of the Games Building. But the building was still nine blocks and over a mile away. The line stretched before him like an eternal snake. Soon others joined it behind him. The police watched them, hands on either gun butts or move-alongs. They smiled anonymous, contemptuous smiles.
-That one look like a half-wit to you, Frank? Looks like one to me.
-Guy down there ast me if there was a place where he could go to the bathroom. Canya magine it?
-Sons of bitches ain't
-Kill their own mothers for a
-Smelled like he didn't have a bath for
-Ain't nothin like a freak show I always-
Heads down against the rain, they shuffled aimlessly, and after a while the line began to move.
MINUS 098 AND COUNTING
It was after four when Ben Richards got to the main desk and was routed to Desk 9 (Q-R). The woman sitting at the rumbling plastipunch looked tired and cruel and impersonal. She looked at him and saw no one.
"Richards, Benjamin Stuart."
Her fingers raced over the keys. Clitter-clitter-clitter went the machine.
"Twenty-eight, six-two, one-sixty-five."
"Certified LQ. by Weschler test if you know it, and age tested."
"One twenty-six. Age of fourteen."
The huge lobby was an echoing, rebounding tomb of sound. Questions being asked and answered. People were being led out weeping. People were being thrown out. Hoarse voices were raised in protest. A scream or two. Questions. Always questions.
"Last school attended?"
"Did you graduate?"
"How many years, and at what age did you leave?"
"Two years. Sixteen years old."
"Reasons for leaving?"
"I got married."
"Name and age of spouse if any."
"Sheila Catherine Richards, twenty-six."
"Names and ages of children, if any."
"Catherine Sarah Richards, eighteen months."
"Last question, mister. Don't bother lying; they'll pick it up during the physical and disqualify you there. Have you ever used he**in or the synthetic-amphetamine hallucinogen called San Francisco Push?"
A plastic card popped out and she handed it to him. "Don't lose this, big fella. If you do, you have to start back at go next week." She was looking at him now, seeing his face, the angry eyes, lanky body. Not bad looking. At least some intelligence. Good stats.
She took his card back abruptly and punched off the upper right-hand corner, giving it an odd milled appearance.
"What was that for?"
"Never mind. Somebody will tell you later. Maybe." She pointed over his shoulder at a long hall which led toward a bank of elevators. Dozens of men fresh firm the desks were being stopped, showing their plastic LD.s and moving on. As Richards watched, a trembling, sallow-faced Push freak was stopped by a cop and shown the door. The freak began to cry. But he went.
"Tough old world, big fella," the woman behind the desk said without sympathy. "Move along."
Richards moved along. Behind him, the litany was already beginning again.
MINUS 097 AND COUNTING
A hard, callused hand slapped his shoulder at the head of the hall beyond the desks. "Card, buddy."
Richards showed it. The cop relaxed, his face subtle and Chinese with disappointment.
"You like turning them back, don't you?" Richards asked. "It really gives you a charge, doesn't it?"
"You want to go downtown, maggot?"
Richards walked past him, and the cop made no move.
He stopped halfway to the bank of elevators and looked back. "Hey. Cop."
The cop looked at him truculently.
"Got a family? It could be you next week."
"Move on!" the cop shouted furiously.
With a smile, Richards moved on.
There was a line of perhaps twenty applicants waiting at the elevators. Richards showed one of the cops on duty his card and the cop looked at him closely. "You a hardass, sonny?"
"Hard enough," Richards said, and smiled.