The Runner (Part I)
Dev never liked waiting in the Atrium for her assignments. The dead jungle of plants that were too stubborn to rot, holding on to chunks of dirt as if there was still life to cling to, were depressing to look at. The broken light bulbs, cracked walkways, and dirt-filled windows made her feel as though she was walking through a haunting, through the memories of millions of people over the course of the last thousand years.
And any day now, one of the Ghosts that Veep told her stories about as a kid would come to collect her.
But she was a runner, and her job required that she get her gigs away from the prying eyes of the government. The Atrium stood on the outskirts of Old Central, a district abandoned by the Silas Corporation – the government -- years ago and was one of the only places that the city-wide surveillance system did not reach.
This is where she met Draya, five years ago when she was running from the District Gatekeepers, when she was caught hacking into the servers, trying to find a way to erase herself from the Oculus System, the one that held every person hostage within the city walls. Once Draya stopped laughing when Dev began to cry as she saw the lithium swords and laser daggers pointed at her, she gave her a job.
A runner for the Alliance Collective, the massive underground network of information brokers, hackers, brawlers, black market buyers and sellers, fight ring and brothel owners, the heads of district gang leaders, even government officials, if they were feeling brave enough. She’d run the intel back and forth, using the tunnels underground, moving behind and beneath the surveillance watchers and tech systems.
Carrying the intel in a pocket hidden under her skin, she’d move in and out of the shadows in the most dangerous places in the city, the places she called home. She got bonuses if she could do a run in less than an hour; most times, she did it in 30 minutes, taking shortcuts that only a short athletic girl like her could take.
She was one of the best.
And tonight was a special gig, the one that Draya said would make Dev enough money – after she got the lion’s share, of course – to get out of Proyia and go east on one of the shipping vessels that still made the trip.
It was the one that was going to set her free.
Of course, Dev knew better than that. She’d heard it enough times that she could recite everything that Draya would say in her head before she said it:
This one’s the one, kid. No more running the tunnels for you. You get this one done, and you’re out. I’ll put you in the cargo hold myself. Save me the trouble of having to save your ass every week. Plus you can start a new network there. My contacts are drying up. I’d even owe you a favor.
It never quite turned out that way, obviously. Dev was still here, and she neared her 18th birthday, she knew she only had days before the Watchers would tear into the Catacombs, searching for her. She had been marked since birth for time in the Information Bureau, a gig that came with a full erasure of her memories and a new implant making her obedient only to the Silas Corporation.
It wasn’t impossible to get out of the IB, but as she saw with Veep, the ones who come out are never quite the same. They’re volatile and can still be activated for Corporation duty if they want, or need, that person’s skills.
She didn’t want to be used as a tool.
So, for Dev, this would be her last job. Draya didn’t know it, of course, because deep in the recesses of Dev’s mind, she knew that Draya didn’t want to lose her – she was the only person who could move information through the city the way she did.
And that skill was very important, so important, in fact, that Draya would rather have her killed than let her leave.
So Dev had been scraping her coins together for two years, hiding her small fortune, grabbing any little bit of work she could on the side, working for the District gangs under the table, feeding her collection.
She didn’t need much now, just five titanium coins. That would be about a fifth of a normal job, so if this was a “special” gig, she could be in the cargo hold by morning.
“Hey kid.” Draya’s low voice interrupted Dev’s daydreams of seeing the Eastern Shoreline. She snapped back to the Atrium, to the shadows, to see Draya, standing with her requisite Army jacket from the Old Wars, tattered with bullet holes, standing in front of her.
“Where are the boys?” Draya never went anywhere without her guards; not that she needed them, of course. She was fitted with so much tech that if the Silas Corporation found out, the only thing left of Draya would be the bolts from the titanium rod in her left ankle.
“They’re not in on this one.” Draya took out a long pipe, stuffing it with the godawful herbs that she insisted on growing in the lab. They make me think straight, she’d say, then five minutes later? She’d be hazed out and dead to the world for 12 hours. “It’s just us.”
“Okay, so where am I going?” Dev got up, stretching her legs. Even though she was bored of the job, she never got tired of running the tunnels. She knew them all by heart, by still – the wind rushing through her hair and the tricks she taught herself along the way made that part, at least, enjoyable. “The Chrome District?”
“Hang on,” Draya said, putting her hands out, the lights in her fingernails glowing light blue. This is the part where she would normally laugh, but she had a serious look on her face. “You’re not going anywhere in the city.”
“This gig is personal.”
“This isn’t about Kran, is it? I told you he was no good.” Dev rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you learn from the last job he pulled on us?”
“Kran’s dead.” Dev’s mouth dropped open. “Everyone else is fine. For now.”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s gone. And I need you to do this for me.” Draya’s voice was tense, hints of fear hiding within the silences. “But I’m gonna be honest with you, there’s no payment coming.”
Dev kept the anger off of her face.
“Because you’re not coming back,” Draya said, fishing in her coat pocket. “Here. Take this. It’s yours, obviously. I know you’re smart enough to know you weren’t getting paid honest. That’s why you’ve been saving up for years.”
Draya handed her a bag. In it were at least 50 real platinum coins, enough money to keep her going for years, if she saved right.
“How did you—” Draya flicked her fingers in the air, the lights shining different colors on her fingertips, a slight smile on her face. “You’ve been tracking me.”
“Had good reason.” Draya sat down on the old bench in front of what Dev could only surmise to be a waterfall – she hadn’t seen water fall naturally in her lifetime, but apparently it used to be normal. “I needed to make sure you knew how to be resourceful.”
Dev put the coins in her pants pocket, feeling the weight of freedom tug at them.
“You’re going East. On a ship. It leaves in one hour from the North Docks.” Dev waited. There’s more coming. “But you have to take something with you.”
“Who do I take it to when I get there?”
“You don’t give it to anyone. Anyone.” Draya looked at her, her face softening, making the scars on her face look less intimidating. “You hide it.”
“For how long?”
“Until I show up.”
“In a few weeks. I have some things I have to do, but this package is safer with you. No one will think to look for you. No one ever sees you unless they need something. You’ve done a good job of keeping out of sight for your entire life. Now I need you to do it because a lot of people are going to be looking for this package. And they will kill you to find it.” Draya sighed, running her hands through her hair, showing off the titanium skull that held her brain. “I don’t want to ask you to do this, Dev. You deserve to be free, to get away from me, from this damn city, but I can trust you with this.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Did you hear what I said? This isn’t like the time the Crowns came down here and threatened to kill us all over the Overlook bar. I mean people will literally kill you.”
“I heard you.” But I’m going East, so it doesn’t matter. “Listen, I said I would do it.”
“Great,” Draya said. She looked sideways at Dev. “You know, as much as it sucks, how your life turned out, you’re a good friend. I haven’t always been fair to you, but I’m glad you turned out better than me.”
“Don’t get used to it, kid.” Draya stood. “Look, the package isn’t here and you gotta get moving. I know you have your way of doing things, but the tunnels aren’t safe right now. You’re gonna have to use the rooftops.”
That’s when they heard it – gunfire. Rapid shots, in close succession, government style.
Dev’s stomach turned inside out. It was coming from below them, closing in.
“East Bridge, second column. It’s in a plain black box with airholes in a bag,” Draya said, pulling Dev to her feet.
“It’s not intel?”
“It’s more valuable,” Draya said, moving Dev to the maintenance doorway, the one that led to the stairs to the roof. “It’s not that heavy, but don’t lose it. Move fast. You need to be in the cargo hold 15 minutes before the ship leaves. There’s a cubby hole marked with a yellow light, they use it for life vests. Hide in there. There’s rations, more coins, snacks, frozen water. You’ll be fine.”
Draya pushed Dev through the door and into the stairwell.
The gunfire was now met with a chorus of screaming.
“Dev, look at me,” Draya said, her voice stinging. “Poiyra is dead. The city won’t fall tonight, but it will fall. There’s nothing here for you. You go but you don’t come back. You hear me? No matter what happens, you keep your ass out of Poiyra. You’re leaving a graveyard.”
Draya shut the maintenance door behind Dev and a second later, she could hear her welding the door shut.
“Draya!” Dev pounded on the door, the gunfire now piercing through the atrium.
“Dev, RUN.” Draya’s voice combined with a mechanical voice. Dev had only heard it once before, when a group of rival runners had tried to kill her in the tunnels when she was 15.
Draya had killed them all.
Dev knew what was coming, so she did what she did best: she ran.
Taking the stairs three at a time, thankful for the implant she’d gotten last year from Lein, she made it to the rooftop and burst through the door.
The night was erupting with muffled screams and gunfire that now echoed in the glass-walled building she stood on top of.
Dev could see the East Bridge from where she stood. It wasn’t far, maybe half a kilometer. Once she got past the bridge, she could move through the buildings with ease – they were less than a meter apart the closer she got to the docks. She’d have to move fast, but she could duck the Watchers.
She took a running leap off the edge of the atrium to the housing complex right in front of her, curling into a ball so her spine, made of titanium, could take the brunt of the impact. She made the jump with no issue, but as she got to the far side, she heard it.
It rang in her ears and shook the building she stood on. Even though she knew there was little chance of anyone being in it – the complex had been abandoned years ago when it was found out some kids found Uranium pellets and were playing with it in their bedroom – she still had to resist the urge to go downstairs and check.
She also couldn’t look back. She didn’t have to; she knew what happened.
The atrium was gone. The glass and metal was melting, the concrete was shattering, and it would likely cause a sinkhole big enough to reveal the system of tunnels that laid right under it.
Whether Draya was dead was a different story. She’d seen Draya being brought back to life three times, so the chances that she was truly gone weren’t great.
Dev didn’t have time to think too hard about Draya, so she kept moving, from building to building, faster and faster as the East Bridge approached. Every building she jumped to seemed to make another explosion happen, like she was leaving a trail behind her.
Once she got to the bridge and wormed her way into the columns, it stopped.
The Silas Corporation couldn’t bring a fight to their own people.
She was safe for now.
Five minutes went by and Dev found the package, tucked away in Column 2, in a black bag. Dev checked the bag to make sure it was the right one, and sure enough, it held a black box, made of some soft material, with airholes.
The bag was bigger than she thought, but not heavy, so she slung it over her shoulder and made her way out of the bridge on the Eastern side.
When she climbed onto the Cerberus building, the massive market complex next to the bridge, she could see that the drones, ever watchful, were gone. There was not one in sight.
The sky was completely empty and for the first time in Dev’s life, she could see a night sky without the stars of lights shining from the drones.
Dev checked the time stamp implanted on her wrist. She had 30 minutes to get to the ship. The Chrome District, where she now stood, was closest to the docks if she headed straight to the water and moved along the wall that had been erected before her birth. She’d scaled it before, but knowing the water was toxic had kept her from jumping and swimming away from the perimeter of Proyia.
This way, she’d skirt the Emerald District, which was notorious for housing all of the IB officers for the Silas Corporation.
With explosions still happening in the city, which she had begun to tune out, it was possible that they were protecting Manvrin Silas himself, who resided in the middle of the Emerald District. She wanted to avoid meeting them at all costs.
Dev pulled out her lenses, attaching them to her eye in a matter of seconds. She mapped her route through the rooftops, taking into account any trouble areas that she could find from logs she shared with Draya and her friends. Once it was set up, she saw she could do it in 27 minutes, so she’d have to move fast.
So she ran.
[Photo by Adi Constantin via Unsplash]
Part II will be up Thursday.
[Edit: This will up be up Friday morning!]