The traffic on Eglinton was at a complete standstill. He smiled; gridlock was his friend. Three blocks east. Like a speed-addicted mechanical Moses he split the red sea of brake lights down Eglinton's median.
Red light. Cross traffic seemed to be moving well on Mt. Pleasant Road. Without slowing, he checked his heads up display. The perpendicular projectiles on Mount Pleasant were represented by tiny green dots on his radar. People in cars were honking and yelling. But he couldn't stop to explain that it was... all... a... matter... of... TIMING.
He flew through the cross traffic at speed. A motorcycle that hadn't resolved itself on his HUD properly had to swerve to avoid him. Shit! Cutting it too close, he scolded himself. Get too confident and you get dead. But he wasn't dead yet.
The client's office was located in the fourth basement. The receptionist's beady eyes squinted at him as though they had never adjusted to the poor lighting. Her persistent mole stare seemed to pierce right through the reflective coating of his visor, through his eyes and deep into his inferior colliculus. I know, her stare said, I know that you shouldn't to be trusted with these. He signed the waybills, tossed the green copies in her direction, scooped up the two black bricks and left without saying a word. As soon as he was back on the road, he spoke into his radio: "Two on. Heading down."
Two-fifty-six flew directly back west down the Eglinton median. As he carved a tunnel between unmoving vehicles pointed in both directions, he could feel the reassuring pull of gravity on the two impenetrable bricks in his bag. As always, the curiosity nudged at him, but he ignored it. The mole-woman's distrust made two-fifty-six twice as trustworthy. Just to show her. He had always been a curious person. This was not a desirable quality in a courier. But when the visor was down and the feet clipped into the pedals, he displayed only one emotion. The only emotion any messenger that planned on staying alive long displayed: Don't fuck with me, kid.
Turning south onto Mount Pleasant, the traffic became feral and unpredictable. A few slow moving cars, possibly tourists, had injected themselves into a fast flow of traffic and, like some virulent catalyst, sent ripples of chaos through the stream of faster vehicles. Two-fifty-six considered cutting through Rosedale, the upper class residential district, but his HUD was flashing 4:49. He had less than five minutes to get the packages to the hub or sacrifice his commission. He couldn't afford the detour. He swallowed his caution and bore down on the pedals.
Suddenly he noticed some signal in the noise. A pair of eyes reflected in a side mirror. Some pimple-faced kid, slouched down in the driver's seat of his parent's minivan, anxiously watching his approach. Amateur, two-fifty-six thought. As expected, the kid threw the door open at the last second. Just a stupid punk kid looking for kicks. Two-fifty-six pulled up with his arms, legs and spirit at the same moment as the pneumatics built into his frame launched him free of the ground. He cleared the top of the door by inches.
He didn't have time to worry about dealing with the kid. Like all messengers, two-fifty-six carried a piece on him. A slick little Smith and Wesson 9mm automatic and he was a crack shot with it. There was a visceral part of him that was tempted to stop the bike, spin and teach the kid a lesson. Or at least scare him a little. But he didn't. The inexorable ticking of the timer on his HUD forbade it. Besides, it wasn't his style. He'd never once drawn his gun on duty and wasn't about to start now.
Two-fifty-six skidded to a stop in front of Hub One with thirty seconds left on his clock. As he pulled off his helmet, his dreads, thrilled to be free, sprang out in all directions before coming to rest on his shoulders. The camera above the door recognized his retinal imprint and he thought he could see the automatic turrets actually breathe a sign of relief. The door swung silently open for him and he stepped inside.
Entering the hub was always such a vicious shock. The one-two-three punch of desperation hit him every time. The stench of sweat, mildew and stale smoke that filled every corner of the cramped office knocked his sinuses spinning. BAM. The frequency of the bare fluorescent tubes running along the ceiling threatened to induce sudden epilepsy. BIFF. And in the background, behind some old piss and coffee stained cubicle wall, one of the phone jockeys could be heard screaming in her nasal voice at a client: "I don't give a fuck what you EXPECTED. You got what you paid for!" Knockout.
He swung his bag around to the front, withdrew the heavy black hermetically sealed bricks and thumped them down on the receiving desk.
"Pair of presents for you, Tina."
"You're a real charmer, Jamal," the package handler said as she deftly read the order numbers off of the bricks and deposited them in the appropriate bins.
Jamal glanced into his own bin and saw that it was empty.
"Got any thing going back north for me, Russ?" he asked the dispatcher.
"Stand by for five, please," he was answered impatiently.
"Yeah," whispered a voice right behind him, "that's what he said to me half an hour ago."
"You're lucky you still have a job at all, Buck," Tina snapped, "pulling your goddamned piece on a client like you did."
Turning around, Jamal caught Buck Yellow flipping Tina off. He couldn't tell whether the anger in Buck's sharp eyes was genuine or self-satirical. He never could. Buck had joined the company about a month after Jamal and had nearly been fired for insubordination or pissing off the clients on a weekly basis since. Somehow Jamal had no trouble imagining that he might have actually pulled his gun, an infamous hundred and twenty year old authentic Luger, and waved it at some poor secretary for some perceived slight. Jamal liked him in spite of it. Something about the way his violent rages were punctuated by periods of reckless and entertaining wit.
"Woulda shot the bitch too," Buck said grinning, "if I hadunna needed her sinnature on the waybill."
"Buck," Jamal said, "I doubt that antique of yours even fires."
Buck's eyebrows shot up and he reached his right hand under his vest. What did he think he was going to do? Jamal didn't want to find out. He put a calming hand on Buck's arm. "Chill out man. Let me buy you a coffee."
In the doughnut joint next door, Buck offered Jamal a smoke while they waited for their coffees.
"I don't smoke."
"I know," Buck said lighting up, "else I wunta offered ya one."
"Slow morning?" Jamal asked. Standard question.
Buck intentionally misinterpreted him. "Not me guy. Fast as ever. Parly an back in six with change ta spare. Fucken dispatch are the slow ones. Slow like the short bus, ya catch. Gotta switch outfits, guy. Be makin four bills a day at any other outfit. Steada bustin my ass fer barely nuff fucken green fer green."
Jamal nodded. Not in quite so many words, he'd thought the same thing many times. It was like a mantra: "gotta switch outfits." The grass is greener and the commissions bigger on the other side. Complaining makes the world go 'round. But there was something more than that on his mind this time.
"Why do we do it, Buck?"
"Do what now guy?" Buck asked absent-mindedly, his attention on the joint he was rolling. Their coffees arrived. Jamal blew on his and took a small sip before rephrasing.
"This job. Some punk tried to door prize me on the way down. Third time this week. What makes it worth it?"
Buck was briefly distracted by the heater dropping off the cigarette dangling forgotten from his lip. It fell directly onto the unrolled joint and set the rolling paper on fire. Once the fire was extinguished and the crisis averted, Buck said "Best fucken job inna world guy. No doubtin. Lotsa close calls, but none too close, eh? Whatcha wanna ride an office chair steada yer cyc? Be a suit? Er a fucken Statsup? Sit on yer ass en play VR coppers with the rest avem? We're really alive when we ride guy. Only real fucken job there is. Juss not at dis fucken outfit ya know?"
In his disjointed way, Buck was right about that. State support. After living the messenger life it seemed like about as much an option as suicide. Practically the only real jobs left were social or dangerous. And who the hell wanted to deal with people all day? But still...
"It's not just the danger. Don't you ever think there's something more than the adrenaline rush? Something more we could be doing?"
"Summin else like what?" Buck offered him the joint. Jamal politely declined.
Good question. Jamal played with his cup and tried a different approach.
"What sort of things do you think we deliver?"
"Packages man. Black bricks with more security onnem than a fucken bank. At's it. Not my job to grep what they are. We juss deliver em guy."
"Look, Buck." Jamal lowered his voice. "Have you ever thought about trying to open one of the packages?"
Buck sat up like a bolt and pushed back from the table half a meter. The joint burned unattended in the ashtray.
"No." Buck said after a menacing silence.
Jamal swore silently to himself. Buck started to stand up. "I was just kidding, man." Jamal pleaded. "Come on, sit down. I didn't mean it seriously. I just meant aren't you curious, not like would you actually do it."
Buck calmed dawn a little and sat back down. Jamal picked the joint up out of the ashtray, took a reconciliatory toke and handed it back to Buck. Bad move, Jamal thought, he's going straight to Russ about me as soon as I'm back on the road. Not that Jamal could blame him. The messenger ethos and mythos hit home very fast for some. Two weeks a courier and they could hardly remember a time before drop deadlines, dispatchers and door prizes. And rule one of the unspoken messenger code was "the packages are none of your fucking business." Buck could insult the dispatcher behind his back and to his face; he'd as soon shoot a receptionist as look at her; he was no doubt capable of stealing the last crumbs of bread from his mother's mouth and the moon from out of the heavens if he could trade it for something shiny. But violate the sanctity of one of his packages? The idea was not only repulsive to him but to even entertain it, though the concept would have been meaningless to him half a year ago, would unravel the very stuff of which he was made.
Jamal scolded himself mentally again. He was going to get another round of loyalty tests over this. He always passed them, but he never enjoyed them. They'd plug him into the neural interface VR. Quick, Your mom's trying to steal that package, shoot her. Now you've been captured, activate the package's self-destruct mechanism, it'll take you with it. And so on for hours until you wanted to scream "I fucking get it! The package is worth more than I am!" But that wouldn't be enough for them. They didn't care if you knew, they wanted you to feel it. Believe it. Measuring your unconscious neural responses the whole time. And you don't get commissions for loyalty tests either.
Suddenly both of their radios sprang to life simultaneously, the signal clear at such close range: "Biker down. We have a biker down on the DVP north of Lawrence. Priority one. Both of you."
Jamal wasn't certain what the look was that he caught a glimpse of in Buck's eyes, but he didn't have a chance to think too hard on it. Helmets on, they were out the door and on their bikes in seconds.
Messenger two-fifty-six looked over to one-forty-nine for a cue. One-forty-nine's voice came immediately over the helmet-to-helmet shortwave: "My lead."
With that he took off down the road at breakneck speed, bike wheels lustily gripping and shoving the asphalt. Two-fifty-six swore to himself. Speed was issue one, sure, but one-forty-nine didn't have a reputation for safety or sanity and he wasn't comfortable about being the madman following the madman. Sadly, his comfort wasn't a factor. He took off in pursuit.
There was a certain rarely enjoyed power to traveling in convoy. It freed one entirely of the fear of the idle attack. To dismount a lone biker was one thing, but to risk the vengeance of a companion was quite another. They were the kings of the road, the fastest animals by far. They were the select organisms of God, evolved to manage absolute speed in an environment designed rather for a certain plodding but consistent pace. They were flying when they hit the northbound asphalt on the DVP. The traffic was stopped dead, which immediately set alarm bells clang clanging in two-fifty-six's brain.
"Something's not right," he radioed to one-forty-nine.
"Lotta things ain't right," came the reply, "we juss keep ridin."
True enough. Straight up the gravel shoulder at improbable speed. But the danger signals were still bothering him. Gridlocked traffic on the DVP at eleven AM? It made no sense. He desperately needed more information.
"Which messenger is it?"
"Probably seventy-two," one-forty-nine replied, "it's her zone."
Seventy-two? Impossible. She had more experience than anyone else at the company. She'd been riding for a solid twenty years. She had a son who was a messenger in Seattle, went the story. Two-fifty-six wanted to say as much, but the immediacy of the road prevented further conversation. There were flashing lights up ahead. Had the coppers and parameds beat them to the scene? He glanced at the clock on his HUD. Impossible.
Sure enough, they were within seconds on the verge of overtaking the flashing lights and two-fifty-six's HUD informed him that the nearest messenger after one-forty-nine was still three kilometers up the road. And the number read seventy-two. So it was her. The confirmation hit two-fifty-six in the pit of his stomach. It hit with all the force of his own mortality. Two other bikers had gone down since he had become a messenger, but both of them in their first week. Reaching day thirty was supposed to be a badge of invulnerability, but something here had invalidated that. Again, he had no time to think on it.
One-forty-nine had sprung off the road, clearing the roadblock. The accident that was restraining traffic spread across all four lanes and both shoulders. Two transport trucks and at least a dozen smaller vehicles. No time to gawk. Two-fifty-six jumped as well. The second his wheels touched ground again, one-forty-nine's voice came urgent over the radio: "Evasive!"
They were being fired upon. Cops, giving voice to the frustration of the thousands of drivers in the thousands of unmoving vehicles. Two-fifty-six dropped into the ditch, behind cover of shrubbery. His bike complained and threatened to burst apart upon rocks and irregularities it could handle happily at seventy, but not at one-ten. And then they were around a corner and the road was empty. One-forty-nine apparently saw no reason to slow. Two-fifty-six maintained pace as well, but if the stopped traffic had made him uneasy, the absolute lack of it, even when explainable, downright terrified him.
They came upon seventy-two quickly and without excitement. One-forty-nine simply began to slow as the image of a twisted bike and three unmoving human figures became clear. Two-fifty-six could hear a noise that he recognized from training: the warbling of an angry package. Their helmets were designed to filter it sufficiently to make it bearable, but just. Another, not so equipped would find himself vomiting uncontrollably and most likely rendered unconscious. One-forty-nine was off his bike with his Luger drawn. He paid no immediate attention to the bodies, homing in directly on the package. It lay on the road next to the destroyed cycle. With a practiced motion, he disabled the wailer.
There was a second package some two meters away from the first. Or more precisely, the remains of one. Its self-destruct mechanism had been activated, probably by tampering, and that accounted for the two charred corpses nearby. They were both wearing some sort of strange outfit with bizarre headgear. To counteract the wailers and other defenses? Whatever this was, it wasn't a job by some bored kid out for a thrill and a taste of blood. The third corpse, for there was little doubt, lay much further down the road. Her momentum had carried her a long way. She must really have been flying, probably enjoying the open road and counting the car accident as a stroke of luck. Two-fifty-six was trying very hard to stay calm. But there was a feeling in the air that Death hadn't had enough fun for the day yet. He glanced at his HUD. Something seemed amiss. He wanted out of there fast.
One-forty-nine picked up the package that was still whole and read the order number off the top. Two-fifty-six noticed as he did so that the casing had cracked nearly in half. The package wasn't sealed! He realized then what wasn't right with his HUD. The proximity of the package should have registered. Its receiver/transmitter wasn't working either. It must have suffered serious damage in the explosion. One-forty-nine looked up at him. Through the impenetrable reflective coating of his visor, two-fifty-six was certain he could read distrust. One-forty-nine shoved the package into his bag and called the situation in to dispatch.
"Ten-four," came the reply, "Head to hub immediately."
Two-fifty-six was more than happy to comply. He climbed back onto his cycle and waited. One-forty-nine took the time to give each of the charred corpses a solid kick, as though they hadn't learned their lesson, before following suit.
And they were off north up the DVP, preferring to ride the extra couple of kilometers rather than risk another encounter with the police. One-forty-nine kept it below eighty, perhaps in concession to two-fifty-six now that the situation was dealt with. The further in their wake they left the grisly scene, the more relaxed two-fifty-six became. Seventy-two was dead. But he wasn't. He smiled a respectful but victorious grin beneath his helmet. His invulnerability hadn't worn off yet. He was still messenger two-fifty-six and the road still belonged to him. As soon as they got back, he'd plead half an hour's break from dispatch and buy one-forty-nine a beer. Rebuild some bridges and maybe avoid the loyalty tests after all. He could afford it, they'd probably get some portion of seventy-two's outstanding commissions as a bonus for retrieving the package. Maybe it wasn't going to be such a bad day after all.
Two-fifty-six's internal monologue didn't actually get the chance to get past "bad" before there was a crack of gunfire and one-forty-nine's bike disintegrated underneath him. His right leg had also disappeared in a red cloud and he hit the road like so much dead weight.
Two-fifty-six panicked. Man with gun in the ditch. Big gun. He threw himself from his cycle.
The rear wheel of two-fifty-six's bike disintegrated in the blast. The back tubes of the frame sheared apart, leaving ragged metal circles like screaming mouths. Two-fifty-six hit the road in a practiced roll. It was a roll he had practiced at thirty clicks. He felt his left arm break on impact. His microfilament suit held at first and then began to melt under the heat of the friction, searing his flesh. By the time he slid to a stop, his gun was in his right hand. Before the gunman even had a chance to realize that two-fifty-six was still alive, two rounds had pushed his face out through the back of his head. Through the back of the same strange headgear they had seen on the other corpses.
Two-fifty-six had never killed a man before. It was a day of firsts. He pulled himself to his feet, broken arm hanging useless. He looked around with killer's eyes and tried to determine if the world had changed. So far as he could tell, it just hurt a lot more. And he was pretty sure that would go away with some codeine or percs. Limping, he made his way over to one-forty-nine's body. The pool of blood from where his leg had been seemed to have more volume than his entire body. Two-fifty-six pulled off the corpse's helmet and closed Buck's eyelids.
"What's going on?" the radio demanded.
"One-forty-nine is down," two-fifty-six said simply.
"And the package?"
The package. Two-fifty-six looked around. It had been thrown clear of Buck's bag. The housing had cracked open completely, spilling the contents onto the ground. Two-fifty-six gingerly picked it up. It was heavy, and further packaged in a vacuum sealed plastic bag containing what looked to be a kevlar pouch. Seemed like a small thing for all this trouble. Worth something to someone, though. To several someones it would appear. What are you, he wanted to ask it. What are you that five people have died for you?
"The package?" dispatch asked again.
Two-fifty-six kicked away the remnants of the casing, and shoved the strange object into his bag.
"Gone," he said.
He was answered only by silence. He walked over to his bike. The front wheel was still spinning true on the MagnaSpin hub. That appeared to be about the only salvageable component. He pulled off his helmet and dropped it to the ground next to the wreck.
His radio came back to life. "Better head to hub then."
Jamal lifted the radio to his lips. "Negative. Going to the hospital."
He clicked his radio off. He was still holding the gun in his hand. A romantic feeling came over him.
"Rest in Peace, girl," he said. He lifted the gun and shot his bike. The bullet ricocheted off the MagnaSpin and hit the ground less than a meter from his feet. Jamal jumped and swore. Then, in the silence that followed, he laughed. He unclipped his radio and threw it to the ground next to his bike and helmet. Then he threw his gun down as well and turned to limp away.
On second thought, he went back and got the gun.
transient0 is Frank Duff who is also messenger 108 for Quick Messenger Service in Toronto. Frank Duff will be doing readings in seven cities in the northeast and Canada this month as part of the Perpetual Motion Roadshow.