These two short stories form together the opening to what was originally going to be a longer piece of writing which I found never quite worked out. In time I may return to it, but for now I think they stand quite well on their own.
The initial plan was to write something in the cyberpunk genre that also captured the dystopian psychedelia of Mirror’s Edge, Eureka Seven and Jet Set Radio, given my own spin via the music of Public Service Broadcasting. My aim was to create a world of postwar dreams soured into high-technology surveillance state, where overwhelming optimism was reinforced via a 1984-esque mass media reminding people over and over of the marvels of technology and the luxuries of the modern world so they come to accept it. This seemed a natural place for free-running countercultural gangs…
They said only the poor and the homeless “fall through the gaps of society.” Small comfort to the kid currently wedged between a brace and a glossy black window, somehow halfway up the side of a building in the uptown parts of Babylon, one foot hanging over air. Definitely a gap. And something was definitely about to fall through it. He could feel the strap of his shoulder-bag slipping and didn’t have a free hand to grab it.
He let go. Of the bag and of the brace, and yet despite all odds he wasn’t falling. There was the punch to the gut of a sudden drop and a jarred ankle but he had landed where he had hoped to, on one of the metal rings that circled the building, slightly lower than the one he had been holding onto. Nothing broken. Nobody following him yet.
He ran through the steps that had brought him there. Get the bag from behind the air-cooler on the top of the Starliner Building and bring it back to me before 3pm. He had made it to the roof of the Starliner Building easily, dodging the fare at Williams Station, swinging up onto the long glass roof and from there climbing up and out over the edge of the world and dropping down, going one building and sign at a time down. From there, the plan had been go through the empty offices next door, get as low as possible and then… then the cops had caught up to someone where they shouldn’t be. He’d heard sirens and panicked way too early, cutting out of the empty block too high up, jumping wildly for somewhere to land. Now, somewhere in the street below, there was a police patrol and he couldn’t see them.
A cable, whistling taut in the wind between his current location and the other side of the road, was within reach. It seemed appealing. The buildings were more densely packed there, further away from the tier-wall as they were, but he had to be one move ahead of that. If anything, hitting street level was the best thing. The police were looking for a trespasser on the upper floors of the empty tower.
It was 2.15, and he was still in the wrong tier. Surveying the horizon suggested the Orbital line was only a block or two away, and he knew that took half an hour to get back down to where he needed to be. Longer, of course, if the Patrol stepped in and tried stopping the trains. That was the Orbital. He could get the Grace line, maybe, but that would put him very much in the wrong bit of the block and he’d have to take his chances with any number of other gangs. Even when he got off the Orbital he’d have to get from Deno Station to the storm drain and find the alcove he needed to be in.
Stop thinking. Act.
He grabbed the cable with a rag pulled from a pocket and launched himself into the sky. Sirens lit up and someone shouted something, and he hit the roof of the other building and ran, taking stairs two at a time and stumbling through an at-first-unyielding fire escape to grab for a ladder and not quite catch it and fall for a few nauseating seconds before finding a grip. Solid pavement was welcome. Blind alleys were not. His feet moved in ways that knew how a city should be, and he let his instincts look for a main road or a subway station. Exertion burned in his lungs as he didn’t stop until his body forced him to, coughing and hacking and scrabbling for breath as he realised he was hanging onto a bus stop as a bus disappeared down the road.
“Where you headed?” He wiped sweat and hair from his eyes to see who was talking. “Saw you missed a bus, where you headed?”
“That’s lowtown isn’t it? I can’t take you all the way but if you want I can drop you at the downpass.”
The downpass. He could cut through the serviceway and come out right in the drain.
“Sure.” Anything past single words was far too hard at the moment.
“Jump on. You seem in a real hurry, you know. It’s… not anything to do with those cops right?”
“No… just… have a date.”
Not strictly true. Easier to understand. He clutched the bag tightly, not wanting to lose it as the woman he had met, who had saved him, hit the engines of her bike. They turned down alleyways and back-streets in a way that seemed oddly familiar. The route he would have taken, had be been running and time had been on his side. He found himself craning his neck to try and get a look at her bare shoulders, or the triangle of neck visible at the collar of her top. Trying to see if he had just leapt straight into the fire. There was the hint of a tattoo just below the fabric line and he really needed now to know what it was.
The bike slewed wide onto the main road and the downpass was coming up fast as they suddenly screeched into a bus lane and then across onto a wide strip of pavement with bike racks. He saw as she leapt off the bike a little more of the tattoo, and realised that while the situation was not perfect it was probably not too bad. Definitely a gang tattoo. Definitely not one of the bad news ones.
“This is your stop.”
“Thanks.” He had finally caught his breath. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“Hope you make it on time. 3, I take it?” She knew and she had probably known and she had probably been sent to see if he took her help.
“Hope you don’t have far to go.” Their little adventure had taken – he checked his watch – ten minutes. 2.25. He ran.
The pavement of the middle tiers was spongy, a yielding pale-dyed composite that felt good to run on, and as it headed towards the pedestrian part of the downpass, the maze of ramps that took drivers around and up and down, there was a gentle decline that made it even easier. Running so obviously would have had him shouted at normally, too clearly someone whose practice of running the streets was from something other than a trendy desire to be thin, but time was short and he had already been observed. Sensing glances from other pedestrians he slowed his pace into something feigning the raggedness of exercise, fishing in his tracksuit pocket for headphones to disappear into music. The moment he found them, the world disappeared into a soft beat. This was what he practiced for, that moment where everything faded out and you just saw your route and ran it. He still needed the music for that, something to force distractions away. Perhaps that could be his thing. The downpass gates were getting closer and around them metal beams that could easily – if you could get over a four-foot metal fence with sharp wire around the top, and probably the inevitable patrol response, be climbed. They would be a good run. Out over the lower city, and then find a way down in the nest of access-lifts and cables and the massive flags that had the faces of the Council on them.
If he had slightly more than half an hour to do it, and the confidence to take the fence and dodge a Spector team, he would do it. Be the first to.
A distraction like dreaming was fatal. He stumbled to avoid a barrier, and the bag slipped, pulling him after it straight into the wrong corridor, and into a crush of people pushing him away from home. The elegance of forward motion was gone and he was dragged on until he reached a landing, where headphones clattered against the ground and he was just an idiot running too fast on stairs and pulling himself upright. He had no idea where the crowd was going, and simply followed.
By 2.40 he had emerged on the platform of one of the circular lines, halfway between the middle tier and his destination. No ticket, no plan. A train arrived and he acted, ducking aboard in the midst of the crush to hide his lack of ticket and he let himself look at the map only after it was moving. The greatest runner of all time, Watanabe, said you had to do this. Act. If you don’t do it yourself, you will never get anything. Two stops would get him back on the right track, a transfer to the Orbital line and only a stop from the lower town.
Changing trains might be difficult, he realised, when he saw the rail police beginning to mill about on stations, ready to shift from catching fare-dodgers like him to loading up to shift drunks from the city’s transport routes.
Do it yourself.
He didn’t run. He walked, slouching among a crowd of students and cutting off to the Orbital line platform. Another tracksuited figure, lost in loud music, carrying a dented satchel. He thought a rail police looked at him the moment he left the train, the hint of a cyan light flicking over him, and he did nothing. Watanabe said that, too. Said it even worked on Spectors. Look down, look away, and you’re suspicious. Act normally and you’re normal. It was late in their shift and they weren’t checking tickets so much as checking the crowd for anyone they could pick up easily. He didn’t need this slowness, though. One missed connection and it was over. Staying pressed within the crowd he was forced through a gate by the osmosis of packed bodies, and then he was on a train. It seemed odd that the rush hour – or the start of it, the time when the people who mattered could leave work early and the people who didn’t matter had nowhere to go but anywhere – was a good time for running, but it was the easiest time of the day to disappear. The news of a breakin at some empty tower was probably nothing more than a complaint passed around the police offices as a myriad traffic offences and less lucky fare dodgers and parking tickets flooded their desks. It was how it was. The police needed to stop crimes, and so the best time to commit them was when everyone else was because the odds of them catching you were comparatively less.
Next Station: Upper Deno. Switch for Foot Access to Deno Block.
He began pushing for the door before the words were finished. Perhaps the last in his line of mistakes. He didn’t see that one of the bodies he was pushing past was in grey, a soft cloud-coloured jacket over slate trousers.
“Hold up, kid.” The bag was snagged on the soldier’s shoulder. “No hurry.”
“Sorry.” He froze. Attention from the army was going to be very bad for his prospects. He wasn’t quite practiced enough at dodging attention to avoid eye contact, and found himself looking at his opposite number. Young, tousled-haired, tired. Pale, well-fed, but naïve. Not a threat unless he had friends.
“It’s cool.” This soldier wasn’t the usual type. But then again the soldiers didn’t usually come to Deno like this. “Just chill, you know. This fragile?” He indicated the bag. “Because you’ve been holding it pretty tight.”
“Just… precious. Present for my date.”
“Hope it goes well.”
He was on the platform, getting ready in his mind for the last run. 2.53. Seven minutes to go down the thirty-six steps from Upper Deno Station to the Deno Residential Block, then out of the station access, through the underpass and drop down into the drain.
He made to run and then felt the cyan lights on his back again, physical walk don’t runs. Hardly anybody got off at Deno. Running would be bad. To try and look normal he flipped a news-seller a few coins and took a paper he had no intention of reading, and headed with the blindness of business down the empty, echoing stairs. The way down into Deno felt very much like a descent into hell – from neat, well-lit stations with music and plants and posters to plain white-metal walls and blinding white light strips that made them burn like magnesium with nowhere to hide. Hell was bright whiteness as far as the eye could see, especially when it faded, as Deno did, into the dullness of overly-lit night. Babylon had to gleam in the eyes of the world, the Council said, and all that meant was darkness was the privilege of the rich and the curtained. Free of watchful eyes, he took the stairs two, three at a time, miscalculating and almost twisting an ankle as he ran into the underpass. 2.56 as he leapt into the drain and ran faster than his body tried to tell him was possible, the jump easy compared to what he had tried before.
2.58 he was breathlessly handing the bag over to a waiting woman in a sleeveless, halter-necked top of sleek green material and close-fitting long shorts. The meeting-place was an old computer room for the water board, back from when it had not been centralised, lined with derelict machines and populated by bucket seats and hard plastic tables. A tapped power line lit hanging ceiling-lights in conical fittings and the rush of water somewhere below in the main drains was a constant beat to the meeting. It was home, of a sort. The place he had dreamed of, the meet of the Suns gang, where they printed their magazines and made their music. Buying the land for a small business had been easy with the capital a running gang could make – the water board had no need for it and the affairs of the lower tiers rarely troubled the new government.
Again, Watanabe’s words filled his head. Running is your world but it isn’t your life. Life in the Suns would not all be running, he knew that. They just took jobs. When people needed things from places, or taken to places. There was silence as he waited for judgement.
“I can’t fail you. That’s all I can say.”
“I can say a lot more.” A dark-skinned man wearing a sports jersey eased himself over a railing. “No subtlety, no sense of timing, but some damned good running. But that was pretty much the sort of run you were doing when you were his age, Yuu. I remember we had the hot date run together, same day, different sides of the city. I was waiting for you at the underpass so we could get back together. Had to wait a quarter-hour, you know, and nobody believed I did it just to be with you.”
“So, Tai, if I was that bad, and I’ve got better, and I’ve taught him now, he shouldn’t make the mistakes I did, right? Anyway, it’s welcome, I guess, to the Suns. What should we call you?”
The part he had been waiting for, yet he hadn’t dared to dream about or think about. This mattered. This would be his name. Not the name the state knew him as, the name the runners knew him as. And he was choking on it.
“No hurry. See you in the morning, with a name, I guess, unless you want to be called scrub or something until you make your mind up.”
That was it. No drinking, no celebration. That would come later. When the crew actually had something to celebrate, they would throw in a toast to the new members who had made it possible. Otherwise you were losing your edge and throwing your money away every time someone made their milk run, and the turnover in some gangs was pretty high when the Spectors came knocking.