WELCOME TO VANCOUVER
Pigeon lay in bed, fully clothed. A light drizzle played against the window in a soothing staccato. Maria lay next to her, fingertips playing through her matted braids. Every time she touched one of the charms tied into her hair, Pigeon would tell the story of how she had acquired it. They had played this game before, but they both enjoyed it just the same.
“What’s this one?” asked Maria, touching a spent cartridge. “Is it new?’
“I had to take a pot shot at a dealer the other day,” answered Pigeon. “No one died, and I got paid.” Maria nodded appreciatively.
“And this one?” she asked, fingering a small gold ring.
“The only thing my parents left with me when they abandoned me. I swiped it back during my first Run.”
Her first Run. The Children’s Employment and Education Centre, or CHEEK for short. She flitted through the System like a shadow. Running was in her blood.
“The first Run is always the hardest,” reminisced Pigeon. “The first steps are in your mind. The knowledge that, once you start, you can never stop. That every breath you will take will be on borrowed time. That the System will hunt you down. That it always does, in the end.”
Some people never chose to Run. The System called them Citizens. To people like Pigeon, they were Squatters: passive, untrustworthy, living off crumbs. Maria fell somewhere in the middle, not a Runner herself but plugged into the underworld enough that she was not a straight Squatter.
Pigeon suspected that Maria viewed her life with a certain amount of romanticism, like some sort of swashbuckling action hero. The truth was that there was no romanticism to Pigeon’s life. The light had gone out long ago, and she had to harden her heart to survive.
Running in Vancouver was like pushing a dull blade against your forearm: a little painful, but unlikely to leave any permanent marks.
“What’s the scan?” asked Maria, taking a long drag of a cigarette.
“You have the time?” asked Pigeon.
“It’s about… this time,” said Maria, flashing the bioluminescent display embedded in the flesh of her left forearm.
“Edgy. Time for me to tab in,” said Pigeon, getting out of bed and grabbing the paper bag full of stolen hard drives she had left on the small kitchen table. She needed to be downtown to meet her fence, and she knew the commute would be dismal in the rain. Popping her collar against the cold, she set out.
The word loomed over her, carved from pink light. She stopped briefly, the billboard casting an uneven shadow across her pockmarked face. The hologram shifted; it was an advertisement for a trendy new designer narcotic. She kept walking. She had no interest in that sort of freedom. It was a trap; one she’d seen others fall into it. The feeling of being numb, warm, content. Feelings designed to make you stand still. To make it easier for the System to catch up to you. She knew a lot of Runners, too many, who’d been caught that way. She wondered if they had done it intentionally, if they had felt the System closing in and chosen to let themselves be taken while their minds floated on a bed of clouds.
She put the thought out of her head as she pushed open the door to the restaurant. It was a Squatter place, something ritzy and middle class. It smelled like bleach and alcohol, a combination she hated. Too clean. Too respectable. Everyone was wearing dark and drab colours, a lot of black and beige. Pigeon, in her layers of tattered and dirty street clothes, stuck out like a sore thumb. A bald man in the corner booth spotted her over his shoulder and signaled at her with an open palm. She made her way over to him, weaving through tables. She was on edge already, but her Runner’s Sense told her to be extra cautious: it appeared as though he had invited someone to sit in on their deal.
“Hey,” he said in a toneless grunt. As Pigeon slid into the seat next to him. Pigeon had been dealing with this same taciturn fence for almost two weeks, and she took this greeting as something bordering on sentimental.
“It’s all here,” she said, resting a paper bag on the table in front of them.
“Can I see them,” he said, sliding his hand into the bag and producing a slim plastic rectangle. He tilted it over, looking for imperfections.
“500 exabytes,” said Pigeon. “Like you wanted.” The man grunted, as if unhappy that he would be expected to pay the agreed upon price. He started to reach into his pocket, then hesitated. Pigeon noticed this but kept her face flat.
“You know,” he growled. “I’ve got a friend you should meet…” Her Runner’s Sense traced a cold shiver up her neck, while her hand drifted down to her waist.
“Why waste words when there’s money to be made,” replied Pigeon, throwing his words back at him. He grunted, sensing the irony.
The large man across from her shifted.
In one smooth motion she produced a bulky tube from her hip, pressed the tip of the tube to his forehead, pulled the trigger. There was a click, like a very loud stapler, and the big man slumped over, blood starting to bead from the nickel sized hole between his eyes. She turned just as quickly to face her now-former associate. He was fumbling with something tucked into his suit jacket, and she took the opportunity to cock the pistol and press the barrel to the underside of his chin. Another sharp click, and he slumped face down into his plate of calamari.
Pigeon quickly scanned the room. No one had heard the subsonic rounds over the din of the music and shattered conversations. Good. Two seemingly unconscious men would attract a lot of attention, and eventually someone would notice the blood. Then all hell would break loose. In a Runner bar it wouldn’t have been a problem. But Pigeon knew she couldn’t trust Squatters to mind their own business.
Hoping to salvage some profit from this failed transaction, she slipped a deft hand into her ex-fence’s pocket. She immediately felt a large wad of plastic currency and was just about to withdraw her prize when her fingertips brushed against something smooth and round. A key ring maybe? She hooked a finger around it and stuffed the whole handful into her pocket without looking. Shoving the bag of solid states into her pocket, Pigeon slipped out into the night, her mind racing. She needed to Run, that much was clear. But part of being a good Runner was knowing how to balance haste with sense.
After only a moment’s hesitation, she had decided on a plan, one of many that constantly swirled through her mind, being revised and re-revised with every waking moment: a quick trip to the squalid basement that she called home to grab a few things, then she would disappear. The light drizzle was building into a steady rain. Pigeon flipped her hood up and quickened her pace, head down, making a beeline for the nearest SkyTrain station.
Pigeon swiped the microchip embedded in her palm over the flat surface of the digital turnstile. The screen gave a sharp beep, and briefly flashed a picture of someone who bore a passing resemblance to her; could even have been her, if she was five years younger and white.
The chip was a mod, designed to let her pass through the System without being a part of it. The identity manifest had been purchased off the dark web, and the uploading process was no more than a sharp pinprick on the back of her hand, a quick trip to a back-alley salon. She could have paid more for a perfect replica of herself, scrubbed clean to avoid suspicion. But she also knew that some of the cheaper mods would flash info so unconvincing she didn’t know why people bothered chipping up at all. She supposed, as with all Runners, that it was some calculation of haste over sense. As far as Pigeon was concerned, it was always better to keep your wits and move quickly, than to break away from the pack completely and risk singling yourself out.
She made her way across the platform and ducked onto the train just as the doors slid shut. Three short tones, and the train rocketed into a pitch-black tunnel. Pigeon slumped down on the chipped vinyl bench seat, her reflection glowering back at her from the bank of windows opposite. Strips of advertising lit the train with a gloomy, dim light. She cast a quick glance around the carriage, taking stock of her surroundings.
A couple of mohawked young women with matching safety pins pushed through the bridges of their noses were breathless fingering each other through stud encrusted leather pants. An older model 'droid sat in the corner, tattered grey synthskin hanging in ribbons from an emaciated frame. It was watching them fervently from the corner of it’s one good eye, the aged servos in its exposed arm twitched in a rhythmic spasm. No one so much as glanced in Pigeon’s direction, and she allowed herself the luxury of relaxing momentarily.
A brief flash of electric pink and blue as the train rocketed out into the night, rooftop holos flickering and shimmering. Rain clouds stretched across the sky like gritty grey octopus, tentacles clinging to the mountains that surrounded the city, slimy bodies twinning through the downtown skyscrapers. In the distance, the jagged teeth of high-rise urban sprawl tore at the dirty horizon. Sodium streetlights bleached their surroundings an unearthly pallor, islands in a shifting sea of headlights and traffic signals.
Glittering jewels, endlessly receding.
Heavy raindrops hammered the scarred Plexiglas windows with the sound of a pot of water boiling on a stove. A second set of three tones, and a cool female voice with a slight metallic twinge called out the name of the station as the train ground to a halting stop. Pigeon used the momentum of the train to catapult herself out of her seat and through the doors just as they were beginning to dilate open. Her dirty canvas low-tops dancing lightly over the filthy station floor, she made her way up the stairs two at a time. She had just barely reached the top step, a little out of breath, when a baby-faced man with stringy, dirty blonde hair and wearing an orange down-filled vest over a greasy jean jacket shoved his way past her. She stumbled, but just barely managed to catch herself.
“Ass hole,” Pigeon muttered quietly, regaining her footing, and falling back into her stride. Rounding the corner, she found herself at the tail end of a queue. Peeking over the shoulders of the people in front of her, she saw that it was a fare check. There were three meathead transit cops standing in a delta formation, decked out in matching black PASGT uniforms and balaclavas. One officer was holding a device that looked like a hair dryer plugged into to an attaché case, except that where the locks would normally have been, there were instead a set of three small lightbulbs.
He was running the handset over the palms of people in line, letting them pass after ensuring that the light was flashing green. The other two cops stood behind him to either side with their hands resting on their sidearms, open-bolt machine-pistols that fired caseless sabots in a three-round burst. As the line of people slowly made their way through the check point, Pigeon took notice of the ass hole a few positions ahead of her in the line. He kept running the flat of his hand over his vest pockets in a nervous, repetitive action. Thick droplets of sweat beaded his forehead. Pigeon knew how this little drama would play out. She had seen it a hundred times, and each time she did, she took a little lesson for herself.
This was a Runner, about to be ensnared by the System.
The scruffy young man stepped up to the transit cop in turn. Wincing in anticipation, he held out his palm. Pigeon noticed that his hand was visibly trembling. As if on cue, the fare reader flashed red and let out a low tone. One of the transit cops stepped into action, breaking formation as he extended his riot baton. The polymer cylinder gave an electric hum as he pulled his arm back and drove the tip into the Runner’s stomach. There was a loud crack like a bolt of lightning, and the young man was double over in pain, convulsing slightly as his lips uttered an unearthly shriek of pain. The transit cop gave another two quick blows to his abdomen, forcing him to the ground and driving him up against the wall.
“Runner!” shouted the transit cop over the shrieks and cracks of the continued assault. “You are under arrest for breach of peace! Stop resisting!”
With lackadaisical indifference, the transit cop with the fare reader went back to checking palms, his compatriot looking on with the boredom that came only through well-worn routine.
Pigeon kept an eye on them with her peripheral vision while she passed through the checkpoint unmolested. She silently thanked her god that she had done so; stepping onto the dirty, rain splattered street, she was only a few blocks from her home, and only a few more than that from a successful Run. As usual, her calculation of haste over sense had paid off
Pigeon knew exactly what had to be done. She spent every moment that she wasn’t Running planning the next. She had imagined every detail, poured over it in her mind. Keep the Run going, keep the momentum going, always forward, always moving. She knew that there were two components to a successful Run: stay alive and face no consequences. Travel light, check your baggage at the door. Never look back. Always forward. It kept it her up most nights, constant hypervigilance taking its toll on her, visible in her silver hairs, her awful complexion, and the rings of dark flesh underneath her eyes.
Around the back, down a flight of stairs, turn a corner, down a second flight and she was home. She missed stepping over the pool of standing rainwater in front of the door and grimaced as she felt her feet get soaked through. Shouldering open the door, she immediately began tossing her belongings into the stained rucksack she kept hanging near the door. When she thought she had all of the essentials slung over her back, Pigeon gave the abode a quick once over, finishing by patting herself down.
There was a bulge in her pocket that surprised her, until she remembered the reason she was Running in the first place: double-crossed by that miserable old flat. Digging around with her long, spidery fingers, she produced a large of wad of polymer bills, and a small model scorpion made from twisted copper wiring. When she was pilfering the body of her former fence, she must have mistaken the curve of the hooked tail for the loop of a key ring.
That was the least impressive of her haul, however: riffling through the wad of cash, she had almost two-thousand dollars in small bills, unmarked except for the single crease running through the centre. Between that and the street value of the stolen hard drives packed in her bag, she had enough money to allow herself to disappear for a respectable amount of time, completely off the grid. Edgy. After tonight, she would need to tab out for a while, at least until the heat came off.
“Pigeon!” said a voice from somewhere behind her, causing her to start. “Hey slowpoke. Hurry up. What are you doing? Hurry up.” She whipped around; there was no one in the suite with her.
“Crap,” she said aloud. Now was not a good time. Had it been a month since her last injection? Maybe more. Like most Runners, Pigeon had trouble keeping track of time. “Meds. Add it to the list.”
A sudden pounding at the the door. “VPD! Open up!” Pigs. She didn’t know how, but they had found her almost immediately. She paid her monthly rent in cash, signed digitally using her modded chip. How? How did they trace her here? She put the thought out of her head, the only thing on her mind needed to be the Run. She wormed her way out through the bathroom window, kicking it shut behind her.
Clambering to her feet, she set out at a brusque walk, melting into a passing crowd of people waiting for the light to change. If she could only make it a few more blocks she could be back on the SkyTrain, and this Run would be more than half complete. Lost in thought, she had barely made it more than few steps when a deep, masculine voiced called her name from somewhere behind her. She turned, instinctively-
And was met with a sudden blinding pain in the centre of her face, dropping her to her knees and filling her mouth with blood; her nose had been broken.
“Pigeon Smith!” shouted the same deep voice. “You are under arrest for fifteen counts of breach of peace!” There was pressure between her shoulder blades, forcing her down onto her stomach, grinding her cheek into the gritty, stinking sidewalk.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought, as her arms were torqued behind her and she felt the polymer flexicuffs coil and tighten around her wrists. How could she be so stupid? She was an expert Runner; how had she let herself get caught so easily?
As she was shoved into the back of the cruiser, blood still pouring over her face and draining down the back of her throat, a thought occurred to her: she had been set-up. More than likely, she had been followed from as far back as the restaurant. With the realisation, she slumped down in her seat, dejected. She didn’t know what would be next, but whatever it was she was sure that it wouldn’t be good.