Solo-shuttles had got damn near roomy, and Cem supposed that this more than anything else had been the end. A standard unit was now built wide enough to account for the span of a large man’s shoulders with a little extra room up top to stretch your arms and hands. Cheap cryoprotectants were safer than ever to mix, and new runners no longer learned to endure those long days–weeks, at times–awake in forced stillness, with only the looping thoughts in your own head for company.
There was good money to be made once, working jobs no one else wanted, which had attracted a younger, stupider Cem in the first place. Transmissions were just barely faster than runners themselves, even now. Cross-cluster communication was an infant industry: the strongest signals were still faint, prone to glitching, and easily intercepted. If you wanted something done right, you forked out and sent a runner. It took a special kind of body to withstand the punishment of rocketing from planet to planet to lunar outpost and back again curled into yourself inside a tube, carrying information that couldn’t be trusted to anything else. If you were any good, you grit your teeth and made do. If you weren’t, there were always easier jobs.
But that was used to be.
Standards got soft, then softer still as running got easier. The rigorous mental training necessary to keep a brain from turning on itself became obsolete. Cem had owned a brain’s worth of imponderable questions that he chewed at over long runs, flipping them this way and that, poking his mind’s fingers into all their little corners until it felt like he could’ve solved every planet’s largest problems snugged down in the metal womb of his shuttle. He’d known his times tables up past the forties too, and thousands of songs he’d remember note by note when he’d wanted a break from thinking.
Now anyone could run, and so just about everyone did. Cem heard the newest shuttles had all kinds of luxuries: screens for talking, for watching old movies, and god sometimes he would’ve shot a man just to have had a window in front of his face, from which he could’ve watched the stars flash by. Even those far-off pinpricks of light to count distance by would have been a blessing.
Cem quit before it all went to hell. Better to let go himself, he reasoned, rather than be forced out. There was at least some dignity in deciding.
He caught a ride back to Earth proper, to the red dirt of his father’s father’s home, a place where it was still economical to use roads. Hard, flat roads—-hot asphalt and tar.
Trucking wasn’t the same, not at all. He missed his shuttle like a mother’s arms, the cramped cradle of metal walls, each groove and divot named, area calculated, memorized. He’d heard of ex-runners that couldn’t adjust, known a few himself. Too inflexible to unfold themselves into anything other than what they’d been, or too scared to scrape along like a shell-less crab.
Cem counted himself lucky. Sometimes the dark yawning of the highway soothed when the empty air around his body unsteadied him; and long hauls would always be familiar. Squinting in the night, Cem told himself that even taillights could be mistaken for stars.
Caitlin Prim lives and writes in New York City.
She can be found tweeting microfiction @whososez.