Lank summited Esk Fell. He stood for a moment on the top to look around. But he could barely see anything. All was black smoke.
There were blinking lights, like LEDs, of the conurbation below. He breathed. In. Out. His black mask whirring. He had an hour’s oxygen left in the tank. Black oil was splattered on his armoured boots. To an onlooker he would have been almost invisible, but he was alone there anyway.
A moment passed. And then he was done looking. He started to make the twinkling descent down the trash scree of Esk Fell.
‘Rough day in the dumps,’ said the cook, stirring noodles. Dark soy coated the tentacles as he stuffed them into the carton. Lank coughed acknowledgement and swiped his arm by the credit reader, before taking the noodles to a table. He knew he looked brooding, but he didn’t brood. He just ate. Passers-by, some smiling like revellers and some trudging grim, passed through his vision and he tried to ignore them. One day he would get out of the fog and run somewhere clear. When he could afford it.
Nightly he dreamed of it: a roaring fire. Oatmeal on the stove. Mulled wine at Christmas. And snow fell running.
He slept in a capsule. His brain was lucid with pictures of winter trail running. At school he’d been a middle-of-the-pack runner, rarely selected for track meets and championships. He felt he hadn’t improved much since those days, despite all the training. He believed in it more — more and more, the older he got. But it wasn’t translating into strength. He blamed that on his hideous environment. He’d have to get good to get out — sports companies would pay scholarships to the promising ones. But every day this city was more polluted, every day it was harder to breathe running without an expensive and heavy oxygen tank. And every day more and more trash trails disappeared, cordoned off so the authorities could make an interminable show of dealing with toxic waste, unexploded devices and disease. Lank coughed into his carton of finished noodles. He was done. He wondered if his sport was healthy anymore.
He couldn’t even cook a thing for himself here, there was no room. All the take-aways sucked, everything seemed greasy and cheap. When he was younger, he thought ‘slumming it’ was cool. But it stank. It wasn’t natural. He stank.
He had one thing though: one thing that could make him free.
It was a gun. A toy gun. When he locked his lips around it, and pulled the trigger, and sucked, POOF. A soft dumpling, halfway between gas and solid, some thing with the texture of a vapour bao bun, shot to the back of his throat. A moment of exquisite taste, a rich, dark, but sharp flavour, and then a shiver through his whole body.
He’d resisted the lure of an edible trip for years. Could it be the same as really leaving? Out of the fog to a happier place? Unmistakeably not — and was the half hour of blissful retreat worth the comedown when you woke up in another capsule motel, stinking and naked? Unmistakeably not. But Lank had drunk a little sake — he was a lightweight — and was all alone, and had been feeling suicidal. Better this than a real gun. He still had a mum and dad who wanted him safe, who his death would devastate. So pop and in went the pleasant mushroom. And he was off.
He tumbled. Tumbled in the tumble dryer of his hoped-for history, tangling through sinews of sparkling wishes. When he landed, all was quiet and stolid in the Savage Land of Karmir, the location he had dialled in. He stood outside his cosy cabin on a frozen fresh winter morning, the rocky valley open below. Vapours like cigar smoke buffeted in front of him; he had made it — he had run from the valley floor to his mountain cabin. Easy, base miles. Three deer bounded across his sight below. A moment of rest, and then he would climb further, summiting Dove Peak.
The first trip ended like the others would. With sobbing. A few weeks later, he was at least not alone when he came to. He was in his brother’s arms. He was strong, a powerlifter. Short, stocky. Lank lay weak against the coarse brown hair of his sibling’s forearms. Having been addicted, his brother already knew it was a dead-end. He’d kicked the habit, and got a scholarship — an apartment, even. And as he stared into Lank’s bloodshot eyes that were broiling with tears, he thought: he looks like a dead end too.
Will Lloyd is a writer of SF and fantasy from Northumberland, UK.