Where They Keep Their Promises
By B. Pladek
I imagine you eating the chocolate bar.
It will arrive tomorrow, I hope, though the war has disrupted the medrunners’ routes between Chicago and London. It will arrive, though. I promise.
I imagine you unwrapping it, double-checking the forged postmark from your old orphanage, the forged note that says only happy birthday, since I never learned your real name. You’ll guess it’s chocolate, though it’s so expensive you’ve never tasted it before. Only copywrit people can afford chocolate.
The thought gives me pause. You believe I’m copywrit now, and I’m the only person who has ever bought you sweets. If you guess the bar is from me, you might throw it away.
Promise me, Fi. Promise me you’ll eat it.
I look up, away from the cartel’s sleek chemlab, and out over the Chicago skyline, hazy with sunset.
How dare you, you might reply if you were here. How dare you make me promise you anything.
Sweets were my present to you when we were first assigned as partners, after I’d dropped out of med school at University College London, before I knew what medrunning was really like—back when I still thought it was a sort of under-the-table medical courier service, a non-Corp job, sure, but not too dangerous. The Corp that owned my family had only just folded, and I thought I was still copywrit enough to choose things like jobs. I didn’t know any better.
You did. Fizer Lee, twenty years old, guerilla surgeon at twelve, medrunner since fifteen. Uncopywrit since birth. The cartel’s boss had warned me about you, using words like angry, silent. “Stick to testing the meds, oldbrand, and don’t try to make conversation,” he’d said. “I took that kid in as a refugee. He’s seen some shit.”
But you were no kid, and when you opened the pączek’s wrapper and took a ginger bite, your face opened—the smallest smile I’d ever seen, and the most perfect.
“What’s this for?” you snapped, waving the pastry with your brandless hand. You glared suspiciously at my wrist, the defunct SLAVICRP copyright stamped there in black ink.
“Because you’re my new partner?” I said, flushing and feeling like a fool. “It’s a hello gift.”
“Idiot,” you said, chewing.
But the smile stayed.
I try to imagine that smile now, as you open the chocolate.
It’s hard. In the last few months before I left you, your cheeks stuck tight to your jaw in a constant grimace. You thought you could leer the pain away. You couldn’t: it was a new strain of tuberculosis, lingering and lethal. It had all the hallmarks of an assassin bacterium: low contagion, limited outbreak. Probably a private spat between two pharma executives at AMERINC. But since the strain hadn’t crossed the Atlantic, no London cartels bothered sending medrunners for the cure. There was simply no market for it.
“A cure probably doesn’t even exist,” said our boss as you leaned against my shoulder, hacking. “Corps don’t design assassin-bugs to be survivable. You probably picked it up on that job in Chicago.” He shook his head. “Damn shame. It’s a good disease.” He elbowed you in the ribs, and added hopefully: “Not a chance it could mutate? Start an outbreak?” Then he shrugged. “Sorry, kid.”
“Damn shame,” I growled, listening to your breath rattle.
I imagine you taking a first small bite, turning the chocolate round on your tongue. I can only pray you don’t notice the strange taste. If you do, you’re cautious enough that you might stop eating.
Please, Fi, suspend your caution. Just for an hour. Be like me during our first jobs: naïve and credulous, trusting in everything. Including myself. Including the future.
“Don’t look so shocked,” you’d say after saving my life yet again—sewing my arm in the ship’s hold in Havana, or wrapping my burns in the false bottom of a Houston boxcar. The cartel did not always retrieve us on time, though it always retrieved the med drops.
You were never surprised. “We’re uncop,” you said. “You think those copywrits care if we live or die?”
I bristled. “I’m not uncop, I’m SLAVICRP. It might be an oldbrand, but it’s still a brand—”
“And the boss promised—”
Your sneer was mixed with a little wonder. “What, they keep their promises where you come from?”
Promises are ways of imagining the future, and imagining the future is my strength.
My mind is always a week, a month, five years ahead. It’s why I got the last medical scholarship UC London offered before the war, and why, stuffed joyously in my mother’s little Camden flat, celebrating with beer and kabanosy and the good smoked cheese Papa smuggled back from Krakow, I knew it wouldn’t be enough. Between my acceptance and matriculation, SLAVICRP had folded, and my whole family lost their jobs overnight. Brands prove loyalty: buying a license to be branded shows you’re serious about your Corp, that a respectable employer can hire you. If we wanted good work, we’d need new licenses. And even with my scholarship, we could not afford them.
So I researched what jobs would take an oldbranded med school dropout. When UC London dismissed me, I already had the cartel’s offer.
By then the war was on: drones shedding virus from the sky; serum embargoes; antibiotics held like hostages. Big Corps like EURO and AMERINC waged biowar every few years, weaponizing new illnesses so they could hike the cost of the meds they manufactured to cure them. Wars were good times for the cartels whose medrunners ducked between Corp borders, stealing meds to resell to everyone who could not pay Corp prices.
I’m contracting for a EURO subCorp, I lied by text before mailing the money home. Sorry, no time to visit. Because of my medical training, I had been hired as a chem-tester, a runner who could design and deploy field tests for med purity, and who was paid a bit more for their trouble. Alone in my flat, I calculated the years it would take me to afford my family’s new copyrights. I imagined; I planned. It’s my strength.
You couldn’t see it as a strength, at first. You didn’t see the point in imagining the future. You’d lived without one your whole life.
Dropping me off at my tiny flat for the first time, you stood wondering at the maps on the walls.
“You can sleep here if you want,” I said, and offered you some krówki from Mama’s last package. Chewing the sticky toffee, your mouth twitched in amusement as you watched me rehearse streets, traintables, sewers.
“You sure plan a lot for an uncop,” you said.
But then in Toronto as we panted beneath packs clacking with medlaced preserves, I said “left here, they’re steering us towards a blind alley,” and your eyebrows jumped. We wheeled; a bullet skinned my calf. I panicked and fell, gasping, and suddenly you were there beneath my shoulder, chanting “breathe, breathe, breathe.”
Or hovering over me in the cartel’s chemlab at night, you dropped bemused questions as I devised new testing techniques—“what serum is this? what’s this paper for?”—while your quick surgeon’s fingers nicked phials, then returned them to mine.
“Why do you try so hard?” you asked, leaning so close that our cheeks touched.
Why are you still here?, I thought, the blood loud in my ears.
But then in Manzanillo when I shook a drop over the treated paper and whispered “fake,” your eyes widened. One hand went to your holster, the other to my arm, to calm the shaking. “Follow me,” you said, and I did: below your cover fire, down the charred stairwell, aboard the ship and beneath the cargo-nets and beside you, curled together in the dark.
Planning is my strength, but also my weakness, the flaw for which you became the compensation. If I always looked ahead, you never looked back. Between us, I began to hope, we might build a present.
I imagine you finishing half the bar, then folding it up to store. You do it with all food; you can’t trust there’ll be more coming.
Outside the chemlab, stars wheel over Lake Michigan. You’re probably still sleeping. You won’t check the post for another six hours.
Planning is a way of controlling the future. If I retell our story to myself like this, try to order its scattered pieces into a plan, maybe the ending I imagine will come true.
Squeezing my eyes shut, I imagine the chocolate is so good that you take it back out. Unwrap it again. Eat. Indulge, for once, the way you never let yourself.
I imagine so hard my eyes hurt.
And then there was Chicago.
It was a bad job. We would have never have taken it, if we’d had a choice. Chicago is AMERINC’s headquarters, whose stockpiles of trademarked serum are guarded by impossible levels of security, and where once a day some pharma exec tries to virus his way to a promotion. We were caught by the security, and you were caught by the virus, though we didn’t know the latter at the time. As they threw us into the icy holding cell, your thin chest was already starting to wheeze.
“It’s over,” I gasped, sinking to my knees. “We’re dead.”
But in a low voice you said, “No.”
I felt your cold hand touch my shoulder, and I craned my head to meet your eyes. They were sickly, frightened—trusting.
“You’re good at planning,” you said. “So make us a plan.”
I stood. My eyes roamed our wet cell, cataloguing its contents; my mind’s eye placed our location in the city. I recalled what I knew of Chicago, its maps, its history. Outside our cell there was a guard, and on that guard’s hand, beneath the fresh AMERINC brand, I could just make out the outlines of an older stamp.
Taking a wild guess, I rose and dangled my wrist through the cell-bars. Then I whispered in Polish.
An hour later we were in the alleys, our direction set by the stars angled between the buildings.
You went before me, palming a knife you’d found somewhere. “We lost the shipment,” you muttered. “Might as well defect to an American cartel. You speak Spanish too, yeah?”
“I’ll talk to the boss. We’re good runners. He wouldn’t dump us over something like this.”
“Thick head! I told you those copywrits don’t care about us.”
“Fi, I’m a copywrit, I was born in—”
“You think that’s what the boss sees when he looks at you?”
“But he took you in as a refugee!”
“Refugee?” You laughed, then hacked so hard you stumbled. I dove to steady you. “Is that what the boss told you? And you bought it?”
“Idiot,” you said, smiling.
You told me then, coughing, as we found a cargo hauler and smuggled ourselves aboard; as I spent my last few credits on dry rations and a blanket; as we settled into the hold for the long, cold ride up the Great Lakes and across the ocean to London. You told me how you were raised in a Vancouver orphanage, where they gave you all the things you thought uncops didn’t get, like a name, and a birthday, and a home; how after five years there you were stolen in a raid by a medrunning cartel, whose bosses taught you to bind wounds and set bones, and who renamed you after an old pharma Corp as an advertising stunt so they could sell you, Fizer Lee, to a Calgary cartel; how Calgary sold you to Toronto, then Toronto to Montreal; how they kept selling you, because you were valuable, and because they could.
Until a cartel boss from London, visiting on war business, chanced to see you sew a wound in two minutes. He paid your way out, promised you a EURO copyright if you worked long enough, hard enough. Two months later he handed you the bill for your freedom. It wasn’t buying, technically.
“How much do you owe him?” I asked as we shivered together in the hold. Your hair lay damp on my lap.
“How long would it take to—”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Come on, give me the numbers.”
Your wheezing laugh. “What, you gonna make a spreadsheet?”
“We’re on a bloody month-long illegal boat ride, what else are we going to—”
But I shut up when you put a hand to my lips.
“They keep their promises where you come from?”
Weeks later, after we’d made it back to London, I copied down the plan we’d worked out. Six years; five if we were thrifty, took big jobs. We, I said, and you didn’t argue.
“When’s your birthday?” I asked, and you told me, though when I asked you your real name you just smiled. Your cough wasn’t so bad then. We didn’t know what it was yet; we thought it might improve.
You pinned our plan to the wall above my bed, like a map of the future.
It was still there the night I left you.
I imagine you finishing the chocolate bar. You lick the last brown smudge from your lips, then crumple the wrapper. A fit of coughing folds you, but the chocolate stays down.
That night you were thin and pale. The previous day the boss had dismissed you, grumbling about sunk costs. On my bed, in my flat, your lungs rattled in your chest like a rusted engine.
Yet below the rattle ran the fire, and you still had enough of it to bark “Suitcases?” when you saw them lined up against the door.
“You can stay here,” I said. I couldn’t look at you. “Rent’s paid off for a year.”
My chest was made of needles. “I’m sorry.”
“I got a job with AMERINC.” I flashed you my hand, its fresh copyright dark against my skin.
Your voice was muffled. Wiping my eyes, I risked a look. You’d turned your face towards the wall, and your shoulders were shuddering. But the voice that trickled from behind them was familiar: cold, unsmiling. Betrayed.
Choking, I clenched my arms behind my back, so that you could not see the ink smudge on my forged brand. Because if I didn’t, I would have taken you in them and told you everything, and it would have been over.
As I walked away from the flat, from you, I recalled the voice of my Chicago contact. I’d called the previous night using a burner code, saying I’d gone out for soup. It was the first lie I’d ever told you.
“You want what?” my contact had snorted. “You realize no one’s even synthesized that? It’s a fucking assassin bug. What do you mean, you’ll do it? Who do you think you—”
“Say, this is the London cartel’s chem-tester, isn’t it?”
“Enjoy your new copyright,” you said.
“I’m so sorry—”
You didn’t turn. “Go.”
“It’s a deal,” my Chicago contact had said. “We’ve seen your work. We like it. We like you.” She’d paused. “But you must understand, we don’t do contracts with uncops. We do sales. You get me?”
On the other end I’d whispered, “But I’m SLAVICRP.”
“Sure, sure,” she’d said. “You should’ve sounded less desperate.”
I imagine you tossing the wrapper away, the chocolate coating your throat. For the first time in months, you swallow back a cough.
In your blood, the serum spreads.
They keep their promises where you come from?
My hands are naked now. The AMERINC brand I drew to keep you from following me faded quickly, and the Chicago cartel burned off my old SLAVICRP stamp. The new boss wanted no confusion that his latest property was copywrit to a Corp, even an old, defunct one.
Outside my lab window, stars turn over the lake. My naked hands stir samples in a little beaker, the same one I used to mix your antidote. Beside me sits the brick of dark chocolate from which I melted your bar before lacing it with the serum. It’s good chocolate; I made sure. It was part of my price.
Because I’m proud, I imagine you are in my bed when you eat the bar, your narrow back propped up on the pillows that smell like us.
But if you’re still in my flat, it means you still care enough to ask questions. And you’re not stupid: you’d figure it out. Maybe not all the details—the exact nature of my sale, the lies I told my family, the precise alley where I slumped to cry the night I left you—but enough. You’re proud too, and despite what you say about yourself, you keep your promises.
You’d figure it out, and you’d come for me.
And they’d catch you. It doesn’t even matter which they. Like me, you’re uncop. Our only currency is ourselves, and so many have a claim.
No, then: I’ll plan a different ending. I imagine you eating the chocolate bar, but you’re eating it somewhere else, far away from everything that recalls me. I imagine whatever hole I’d made in your life suturing together, clean as one of your stitches, knit scarless by anger.
Someday, I imagine, I’ll escape back to London to find you. The plan we made could still work, especially if I find a way to smuggle out some expensive serum when I go. I imagine the ways I could do it: couriers, false bottoms, mule pills. Some nights, I even imagine buying my own copyright, getting us Corp jobs, our own apartment. I imagine returning to my family, keeping my promise to them. I imagine the future. It’s all I have.
Midnight lingers over Chicago. Somewhere across the dateline, you’re waking up. I imagine you rise, coughing, and walk to the post. In your box there’s a package, stamped from your orphanage, the only place that never tried to own you.
I can’t imagine you’d forgive me.
But forgiveness doesn’t matter. Only this does: that though I may never see you again, and though I can’t imagine you free—uncops don’t get free—I can imagine you alive.
You lift the package and unwrap it, cautiously.
It smells delicious, and you’re hungry.
By Mur Lafferty
About this story, B. Pladek says: “I wrote this story in 2018, long before anyone had ever heard of covid, so it’s eerie that it’s appearing in a time rife with conspiracy theories about powerful groups purposefully creating and releasing the virus for various reasons (to control people, for profit, etc.). So I want to go on record saying I don’t believe these theories about covid. I wrote this story as more of a general critique of capitalist medicine, mixed with one of my favorite tropes (unacknowledged self-sacrifice).”
Of all the unexpected feelings and takeaways from this year, I’m finding the feelings about food to be some of the most complex. As is shown here, food has always meant something — usually love. We use food in almost all known holidays — or the absence of food, which also shows the power that food has. I don’t want to downplay or deny eating disorders, for the record. Like all love, it can be twisted and unhealthy.
But I think a lot of people, perhaps to stem the weight gain of the populace, have grabbed onto the fact that food isn’t love. But with Covid, I keep finding myself turning to food when I usually do- I want to take a friend out to lunch to celebrate something, I want to go out for my birthday, I want to cook food for a neighbor. I’ve been perhaps too stressed about how to give out Halloween candy, but I’m unsure if kids are even going door to door. My kid is in college now and won’t be coming home until after finals because of the virus, and my mind goes immediately to Thanksgiving, and realizing it’s just going to be me and my husband. We’re still cooking, and experimenting with new things, which is a lot of fun. We can show our love for each other in food, but I’m thinking we’re going to have to come up with a different way to celebrate that doesn’t involve food. And that breaks my heart a little bit. Food is totally love, like it or not.
About the Author
B. Pladek is a literature professor and fiction writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor and academic who teaches creative writing to everyone from pre-schoolers to postgraduates. In 2018 she founded the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, a literary journal publishing multilingual creative work. When she’s not working with words, she’s either lifting heavy things or dancing.