Dark Spring: Dystopian Heist Short Fiction By JM Taylor
JM Taylor, author of Dark Spring, lives in Boston with his wife and son an rescue dog. His work has appeared in such mags as Thuglit, Crime Syndicate, Tough Crime, and Out of the Gutter, among others. His novel Night of the Furies, was published by New Pulp Press.
Michael Cinqua stood in an office on the top floor of 60 State Street. Scanning Boston Harbor through his binoculars. Huge container ships lay at anchor in the far distance, while Navy patrols kicked up wakes closer in. From this vantage point, he could just barely read the runway numbers at Logan under the murky water.
Directly below him, waves lapped through a second shoreline of trash along the old seawalls. Once the war along the southern front had expanded, federal upkeep had been abandoned, and the City found it cheaper to retreat to higher ground than to maintain them. That allowed the harbor creep up to its old limits, and beyond.
His legs ached from the climb. Thirty-eight floors through darkened stairwells took their toll, and he wasn’t looking forward to the trek down. At least this far up, he was safe from prying eyes: the early explorers and squatters never made it past the tenth floor, and in the past decade, even they had moved on. No one had been up here except Michael, and he had something more than an interest in expansive views to motivate him to such heights.
His legs ached from the climb. Thirty-eight floors through darkened stairwells took their toll, and he wasn’t looking forward to the trek down.
He put down the binocs and rubbed his eyes. His brother Tom would have loved the view, at least before he stopped caring about anything. But Tom was gone now, just another unemp to be forgotten.
He clapped his binoculars to his eyes again and searched the harbor. The March sun was sinking behind him, setting the buildings and distant hulls ablaze and throwing shadowed areas into sharp relief. The patrol boats cruised incessantly, protecting the imported goods from thieves. But smugglers had learned to camouflage themselves in tiny kayaks, and would capsize themselves to avoid the sweeping ships.
These cheap lenses wouldn’t be able to find anyone that far out, of course. He lowered his view to the canal-like streets of the Old North End. Plenty of places to hide there, though the houses were too rotten for even squatters. It made for good smugglers’ holes. Nothing yet.
An alert sounded on his watch and he checked the screen.
CAT GOT OUT AGAIN. BE SURE TO CATCH HER BEFORE SUNSET
He typed back,
It was a risk to keep any electronics on him, but at this height, they needed a better communication system than hand signals. He raised the binoculars again, and sure enough he spotted the small black craft drifting along Hanover Street, where Paul Revere seemed to ride his horse upon the water, warning that the Muslims were coming. That story never rang quite true, but that’s what all the history sites said, so he had no choice but to accept it.
The boat was low in the water, so low that even small waves rippled over it.
He followed the smuggler as he paddled around the corner to Parmenter Street. Mike could just make out the stern of the boat where it stopped and presumably tied up. He kept watch as the shadows grew longer, and he worried that he’d lose the smuggler in the gloom. But after about fifteen minutes, the kayak slid back into Hanover Street, riding high above the water. Whatever had been in its hold had been transferred to the stash house.
Mike checked his view against a paper map he and Juan had drawn. Tom would have been more careful about the relative distances, but then again, if he were around, they wouldn’t be scoping out the safe house. Funny how those things worked. Mike penciled a circle around the corner building, and estimated which window the smuggler had used to unload. He knew the building had a fire escape, now functioning as a dock. It was also not connected to any of the structures around it, unlike so many other buildings in the area. The stash had to be on-site.
He folded the map and hid the binoculars in an old filing cabinet. It would be fatal to be caught with them. Then again, so could being seen in a condemned skyscraper. But each time the patrol chopper had flown by, he’d ducked behind the desk where some long-forgotten executive had made millions, and he never believed the rumors they used heat-scanners to track down criminals. No one cared about this part of town anymore, no one cared what the unemployables did to survive.
He typed into his watch, FOUND THE CAT!
A few seconds later, Juan responded, DON’T FORGET TO LOCK THE DOOR THIS TIME! I’LL BE HOME IN AN HOUR. FINISH YOUR HOMEWORK.
It was a simple code, sure, and if the police bothered to track the signal, they’d break it in a second. But chances were that the computer sifting through the millions of texts in any particular sector would search for more incriminating words than lost cats. He hefted his backpack and headed for the stairway door. He gave his flashlight a few cranks to charge the battery before he began the descent. He wasn’t afraid of meeting another soul on the way down, but the rats enjoyed the dark.
The tide was going out by the time he reached the lobby, which was awash in about a foot of dirty water. He was glad he still fit into the hip boots his father had left behind, and stepped into them at the last landing. He waded through the muck slouching past the Old State House, now in crumbling ruins, and turning onto Washington Street. He could just see the corner of the former City Hall, a giant gray mushroom rising out of the decay. Nowadays, the city was run from a modern weatherproof building on Bellvue Hill, the highest point in the city. Ironically, it was on the site of a water tower, part of whose facade had been incorporated into the design, so it was called “The Castle” more often than not.
By the time he got to School Street, the water had receded, and he took off the waders, hanging them to drip down his back. He checked his watch. He was supposed to meet Juan in twenty minutes, and he still had to get past the swamp of the Public Gardens. He quick-marched along the darkened streets.
All around him, dim lights betrayed squatting families too poor to move. Not that there was anywhere to move to: whether they were injured or lacked the proper credentials, they were all unemployable, stuck here until they died or got sent to the southern front. Every one of them was utterly forgotten by the citizens on the other side of the entrenchment line, where the New City started at the Roxbury Hills.
Vape clouds erupted periodically from alleyways and the doorways of ruined Boston Brahmin mansions. Miserable souls lurched along the sidewalks, lugging bags of supplies scavenged or bought on the black market. He hustled past them, ignoring their pleas for food.
Copley Square was a tidal flat, but the Charles had receded with the tide, so he walked along the canyon of Boylston Street, dodging trickles of water that wouldn’t drain into the overwhelmed sewers. He passed the rows of old busses now used as squatters’ shelters in the old plaza, then mounted the steps between the green statues that guarded the library.
All around him, dim lights betrayed squatting families too poor to move. Not that there was anywhere to move to…
Inside, the former reading rooms in upper halls housed scores of families, one of them his. But instead of climbing the grand staircase to the living quarters, he plunged into the uninhabitable basement, the retreat of teens and the rest of the detritus trying to escape modern tenement life in the stacks. The smells of cooking, vape, rotting books, and human waste mingled into a suffocating miasma. He made his way through piles of wreckage to a corner room. It was dark, but when he entered, Juan clicked on the lantern. Mike closed the door behind him.
“How’d you get here so fast?” he asked.
“I didn’t have to climb down all those stairs,” Juan answered, winking his good eye.
“Next time, you do the heavy work.”
“We’ll do it together, if we’ve really found the safe house.”
Mike unfolded the map in the flickering lamplight. “We’ve seen them come from here,” he said, pointing to a spot near the Aquarium. “And we’ve seen them approach from here,” dropping his finger at the island where the Bunker Hill monument stood. “In both cases, they’ve ended up along this side street.” He indicated the circle he’d drawn on the corner of Parmenter.
“It has to be there,” Juan said. “The question is, how do we get to it?”
“I don’t think that sector has many spies. I didn’t see a single person or a signal as he followed his route.”
“There must be some, at least on the outer roads. We’ve seen the lights. And it wasn’t just a squatter who stopped me near the tunnel entrance.” Juan absently rubbed his shoulder. “Didn’t matter I had a sack full of scav, they beat me anyhow.”
“So we do this right, and from the other direction, where no one would be expecting us. No devices on us, nothing for nano-drones to lock on to. Just the two of us?”
Juan shook his head. “Without Viv, we’ll never get out alive.”
“True. Where is she?”
Juan shrugged. “Last I saw, up on the roof.”
Mike groaned at the thought of climbing more stairs. Juan shut the lantern, and they emerged into the squalor of the library basement. Marc, another unemp teen who was too far wasted to fight in the war, huddled against the far wall in a cloud of mist. He winked and pointed a warning finger at them. Before the cloud dissipated, he sucked in another hit and nodded off. Mike guessed it was one of the fentpods he’d seen unloaded that afternoon. By the time they reached the roof access door, though, he’d forgotten all about Marc.
The tiled roof of the old library was gutted with holes, but the newer addition was flat. Mike always enjoyed the view. A mile to the south, where the New City began, the steady light from luxury high rises illuminated a wall he would never be allowed to cross. Closer to home, only the crescent moon sitting in a nest of uncountable brilliant stars gave off enough light for them to pick their way around the haphazard collection of rain barrels and mismatched shards of solar panels. Beyond that, they found Viv, sitting on a plastic bucket. She faced the ruined church across the square and the checkerboard mirror of an old skyscraper missing half its windows.
Her makeshift easel held a scrap of sheet metal. In the moonlight, Mike saw that she’d painted the darkened contours before her, but instead of buildings they were hills. On top of one narrow peak stood a lone sheep, whose bright white wool was the same shade as the human bones she’d depicted as the hill’s support.
“Where’d you get all that paint?” Juan asked her.
Viv didn’t turn to face them. “I met a guy from one of the western ’burbs when I was scavving down the river. He goes to a brick and mortar school, and says they have loads of tubes of the oils I like. I was able to trade.” Her voice betrayed exactly what she’d traded. A ’burb boy—even a grown man—would pay that much and far more for a few minutes with an unemployable. If anything happened to her, there’d never be a record of it.
“The white was the hardest to get,” she said. “That’s why it’s a night scene.”
“Lucky you didn’t paint a snow storm,” Juan joked.
“What do you know about snow?” Viv sneered. “You’ve never seen a flake in your life.”
None of them had. Mike’s grandmother had told him that in the old times Boston was often covered by snow, but she was old and not very reliable. Most of her stories contradicted everything he’d learned on school. The thought that Boston was far enough north to get that cold was laughable.
“So you have a plan?” Viv asked, finally facing them.
“We found a safe house in Old North End. Looks like it’s on the second or third floor of a corner building.”
“Cameras? Drone coverage?”
Mike shook his head, “I didn’t see any obvious solar panels, unless they’re disguised.”
Juan added, “Looks like it’s bio-spies only, probably only on this side.”
Viv put away her paints, carefully zipping the precious tubes into her backpack. “Then let’s get started,” she said, leading the way to the door.
“What about your painting?” Juan called.
“It needs to dry. Besides, if anyone wants to steal it, that makes it valuable, right?”
The next afternoon, Mike logged his watch on to school, then set the app he’d written to do the assignments. He didn’t worry about missing out on any real education. Unemps were given only rudimentary lessons, enough to fill out court forms if they were charged, or if they applied for employment status, which was rarely granted anyhow. He could read well enough to guess that most of the history he learned had been rewritten by the government, and that the news was, too. Oddly, he thought, the classes on coding had actually helped, which was how he’d designed this app in the first place. He left the watch under his bed mat. If anyone checked on his location and activities, they’d see he was learning all about the president’s plans to honor her predecessor, her father, on the upcoming centennial of his birth.
He met Juan and Viv in the market, the former lobby of the library, now crammed with stalls hawking food, used clothing, useful bits of scav, and of course vape pods. These came in a range of types, from the fentpods so many of his peers were addicted to, to caffeine and cannabis to basic medicinal treatments. It was the easiest way to keep the unemps from ever organizing enough to cause more than an inconvenience.
“Clean?” he asked them. Both held up naked wrists. They stepped outside into the flooded streets, then entered the warren of busses in the old plaza, mingling with a sea of broken humanity. Ten, fifteen, and twenty minutes later, each one left, headed in a different direction. Mike moved east, toward the expanse of the ruined Fort Point Chanel. Viv followed basically the same route he had taken home the night before, her art supply pack on her shoulder and a narrow sheet of mostly flat metal under her arm. Juan took a middle path between them, through what had once been Chinatown, and into the skyscraping jungle of the financial district.
It was dark when Mike got to the channel. He found the skiff he’d hidden amid the accumulated garbage that formed a false shore and rowed silently into the harbor. He kept low, and far enough from land to avoid casual eyes, but stayed close enough to avoid the Naval patrols protecting the supply ships. If there were drones, though, he’d never know it, especially with the caw and clatter of the seagulls that swarmed above him.
The journey took him almost an hour, which gave Juan and Viv time to get to the rally point while he navigated to the end of Hanover street. He wore a black outfit, as similar to the clothes he’d seen the smuggler wear as he could manage. He hoped it would be enough.
Without a watch, he could only estimate the time when he had seen the smuggler coming in from the harbor. He tied up the skiff and huddled in a door way above the water line and waited.
After about fifteen minutes he saw the dark shape resolve on the waves. He listened for a signal, maybe someone giving the all-clear, but there was none. Nor did the smuggler seem to be more than generally careful. Repetition had made him and his colleagues lazy. A deliveryman on his usual rounds.
The black kayak glided silently over the street, low in the water, just as before. His path took him directly in front of Mike’s hiding spot. Mike let him get a foot or so past him, enough that he wouldn’t see Mike’s sudden leap, which sent the kayak spinning and capsizing.
The water was deep enough here to navigate a light craft, but not deep enough to avoid the smuggler cracking his head against the pavement. The shock immobilized him long enough for Mike to seize the paddle, but it wasn’t enough to knock him senseless. Before Mike could wrest the boat away from him, the smuggler had slipped out and stood in the frigid water, a knife in his hand. Mike kept the boat between them, warding off slashes of the blade with the paddle.
It was hard to move through the water, and garbage on the street made it even more treacherous. Now that he was upright, the smuggler moved surely inching closer, feinting moves to keep Mike off-balance.
“I get paid too much to put up with trash like you,” the smuggler hissed. He lunged across the kayak. Mike stumbled back to avoid the blade, barely keeping his grip on the paddle. But the smuggler was climbing into the boat’s cockpit, his free hand grasping for the oar.
But by the time he took hold of it, Mike had found his footing. And though he shivered with the wet and the fear, he yanked it hard enough to pull the smuggler over again. This time, he grabbed the man’s arm, twisting it and holding his head beneath the water. After a long time, longer than he thought possible, the smuggler fell limp. Mike wrestled the body—alive or dead he couldn’t say—out of the boat. Shaking uncontrollably, he got in the kayak, pushing off with the paddle and leaving the smuggler behind.
He had been turned around in the fight, but Mike shook his head clear and focused on his mission. Mimicking the man he’d just fought, he paddled down the middle of the street, as bold as he dared. He passed good old Paul Revere, and counted the blocks to his destination, wondering what the shops and restaurants had once served, what it was like to just sit and enjoy a meal. Swinging around the corner, he pulled right up to the lowered fire escape ladder.
They didn’t have a signal. If the plan worked, they wouldn’t need one. And right on cue, Viv dropped a rope from the roof where she and Juan had been hidden. Mike held it tight, and watched as Viv climbed down like a squirrel. Clinging to the rope with one hand, she worked the sheet of metal through the window casement and pushed the lock. Waiting a second to see if there was an immediate response, she decided there was no danger and slipped inside. A second later and a little less ably, Juan followed.
Mike scanned the area. No lights in any window. Even squatters didn’t want to live here anymore. There might have been a camera aimed at the window, but again thanks to Viv, they each had radically different faces. Mike even made up a story to explain the scar he had on his right cheek. He was glad he hadn’t just earned a real one.
A noise above caught his attention. Juan tied a bundle to the rope and lowered it to Mike. Seconds later, Viv added another. Altogether, they got half a dozen that fit inside the net bag attached to the kayak. Not much, but it would suffice.
“For Tom,” Mike said.
“For everyone,” Juan corrected.
They waved to each other, and Mike backpaddled to Hanover Street. Rowing as quickly as he could, he passed the smuggler’s face-down body. He shuddered, wondering what Tom would say about his killing someone, even someone like that. But he couldn’t dwell on it. They were already at war, though no one had declared this one, or ever would.
Once he passed the old stone wharves, he navigated out into the open water. Far to the right, the hulks of ships carrying their deadly cargo glinted in the moonlight. What he had stolen represented only a minuscule portion of it, a tiny drop in an ocean of oppression through addiction, but it was something. And the blazing firelight behind him proved the flammability of Viv’s paints. He hoped she hadn’t sacrificed her tube of white.
Legit or stolen, the shipment of fentpods were just like the one Tom had used. They all started in the same place, and ended up in the same place. Almost everyone Mike knew used, but maybe this would allow just a moment of clearheadedness in one or two people, just enough for someone to realize it hadn’t always been this way, and didn’t need to stay that way, either.
When he was far enough away from shore, alone except for the screeching gulls, Mike hauled his loot onto the compartment hatch. He pulled a knife from a sheath inside the cockpit and slit open the boxes. Hundreds of tiny cells shone in the moonlight. With a savage war whoop, he popped open as many as he could, careful not to get any on himself. The rest he let fall into the sea, which was poisoned and lifeless anyhow.
He almost wished he would get caught now, but then the story would never get told. He knew Juan and Viv were already headed home, and soon news would spread of this one small act of rebellion. There were networks that spread up and down the east coast to other unemp camps, and some were even stockpiling weapons. But even if word didn’t get past Old Boston, enough local people would know it was the work of the underground crew known as the Green Dragon. Certainly someone would comment on the fire that consumed the block on Parmenter Street.
That fire would die out, but not before sparking others.
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