Short Story – The Special Consultant

As my recent review suggests, I have not long finished Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. I enjoyed it, for the most part.

It reminded me that some time ago I wrote some short stories in that vein, and indeed began a never-properly-started cyberpunk-psychedelia Storium campaign with some friends to continue the idea.

It seemed a good time to revive this idea.

Picture the nighttime rooftops of the parts of a city that mostly do sleep. The curving banks of museums with their long glass facades that during the day pour filtered light over exhibits. The strange angles and bulbous fascias of office buildings – offices which do stop, the mundane and boring ones whose workers leave with the five-o’clock rush because they have no secret projects or vital dossiers to compile. Lights blink on and off in their windows as cleaners make their way around – but that is a dying art. Machines do it faster and cheaper. Most businesses do not bother with night watchmen any more. There are machines – impassive, unblinking eyes and lasers that flicker across gleaming floors. There are the Spectors – Urban Securty Inspectors, the centralised force that protects the city, and which forced out all rivals in the breaking legs and detaining thieves business.

While bands of the City are endlessly lit and home to constant crowds, in this digital age of electronics and cold lenses a growing swathe of it sleeps a vigilant repose.

And that is, to someone looking down from a rooftop, perhaps more terrifying than the alternative. A machine cannot be reasoned with, cannot be fooled or outrun. A building that is known to be empty until 7am will be locked down, magnetic bolts slamming roof accesses shut. A guard, puffing and perspiring and perhaps firing a warning shot, could be confused and evaded. But a modern office? If there is an intruder, if one of the lasers is broken or the wrong door is opened, lights will flicker on a server bank somewhere underground and suddenly the fire doors will be closed and quite unopenable until the Spectors arrive.

The rise of automation has created a world where humans are expected only within certain hours. The ultimate subservience – a city of permissions and exceptions intended to keep people safe, if your definition of safe was where you were expected to be at any given time.

Compare this image to the one you might have in your head of nighttime excursions among the rooftop maze. Of ducking in and out of corridors and maintenance shafts, moving in and out of empty offices through skylights and windows left carelessly open. There are places where that works. The liminal spaces, the boundaries between cold mechanical professionalism and lived space. The offices that never sleep, where humanity exists at all hours. And the districts where humanity reigns over the machines, where lives are lived.

The parts of a city that sleep are the parts of no interest to anyone. Straying into them is to be lost in an all but silent maze.

A silent unpopulated maze is the perfect place to lose those unfamiliar with it. And so he runs from ledge to ledge, from awning to awning, letting his pursuers be confounded. It is a risk, because a misstep – a hurried, instinctive turn into a door that would ordinarily be a safe haven, kicking down a welcoming air conditioning grate to get into the guts of the machine – might just draw his pursuers straight to him. And then there is the ever-present worry that the machine, operating in its mechanical and brutal definition of safety, will grant passage to his pursuers because it sees in them kindred spirits.

But without the movement of people and the flow of business through a city, it is a featureless playground of concrete and metal that someone attuned to running away can capitalise on. He climbs, swings and slides like a child in one of the mirror-and-water parks in the residential districts. He does not care where he is going. Perhaps it is round in circles, treading the same blocks and boxes and bars in different directions. But each new corner turned, each hard scraping slide under a pipe or duct, each frantic climb over a fence that rattles like a skeleton menacing a damsel in a gothic castle, is a little distance from the Spectors. They have armour, and guns, and visors that can see deep into the lightless quiet. He has freedom.

The strange traffic-and-static drone of the sleeping quarter is beginning to mix with thumping drum beats. He is close to the entertainment avenues, the long parades that loop around the city’s strange protrusions over the void, and as he rounds a corner it is like sunrise at midnight. Just a few rooftops and then he is in the gold-and-pink-and-blue abyss of Aphelion Broadway. He runs and turns and pushes in the direction of the light and then-

Business wants to stay away from pleasure, the old idiomatic distance suddenly becoming physical. Aphelion Broadway is the other side of a long multi-lane through-road, and he is high up, cornered and standing on the edge of the maze. If the world were kinder to nighttime runners there would be a crane or a cable to swing on or a line to slide down. The world is unkind and the Spectors are close.

Roads turn and end and form junctions. He can see something, a hub of potential ways to cross the void, at a point where this street intersects another. It is somewhere to go.

He has not gone anywhere near far enough when a building juts upwards with some mess of black metal vanes from which somewhere far above an antennae sprouts. It oozes the heat of computers hard at work into the sky. Too hot, too sheer to climb. He squeezes into the midsummer air of the heat exchanger to try and go under, but slips as the ground falls away and is trapped on a walkway above a bank of fans.

If the world were kinder to nighttime runners the door with the universal symbol for emergency exit on it would not be locked with an employee pass reader.

The world is unkind and the other door opens. Grey armoured figures who have enjoyed the keys to the city stack up along the balcony and he sees someone approaching along the bridge.

She is barely tired, and walks on the narrow, rattling bridge with the confidence of someone who has done his sort of work before. A cocky half-jog, mockingly like someone taking their morning exercise.

“That was exhilarating.” With a gesture, the Spectors fall away, melting back into the shadows of the maintenance passages they came from. “I found some routes through the offices that I’m sure someone could package in a gimmicky little self-help manual for the workers about improving productivity through efficient zoning. Probably a lot less strenuous than your workout, though. We should share routines some day.”

“You’re not going to kill me.”

“I try and avoid doing that where possible. A courtesy the man who taught me my job recommended, from an age when these sorts of places had human cleaners who hated their jobs when they didn’t have to wash blood from the carpet. Now, we’ve had our fun, so let’s talk business.”

The decision by Urban Security to take on one of the most able free-runners they could find as a special consultant had paid for itself in arrests and recovered property within a month. And the experimental scheme to recruit informants from newly-recruited gang members caught by the Special Navigation Unit had provided an incredible flood of information with only a minimal outlay in bribes.

The Special Consultant reminded her victim he was currently overlooking a number of very dangerous looking fans on a very narrow bridge, and started talking business.


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