Pigeon nearly dropped her cigarette in shock.
“You!” she exclaimed. “Everyone is looking for you.”
“I know,” he replied. “That’s why I’m here. I think I was followed.”
“We’ve got company!” shouted a voice from inside.
Drawing her revolver, Pigeon rounded the front of her house, taking cover behind the broken garden wall. Peering over the top, she saw four militia members clamouring out of an oversized pickup truck, each one wielding some sort of assault weapon. Pigeon slid one of the grenades that Holly had given her into the palm of her hand, pulled the pin, waited a few moments, and then lobbed it underhand towards the back of the truck.
It erupted while it was still in the air, shredding the two guys closest to it. They fell to the ground, writing and screaming, clutching at their faces. Pigeon rounded on the remaining two, firing shots blindly over the top of the wall.
They returned fire while she was reloading, chips of cinderblock blasting the top of her head. A brief pause, and she poked her head over the top to see them reloading. She stood up, took aim, and squeezed the trigger twice. The rounds went wide, embedding themselves in the hood of the car.
She quickly ducked back into cover as another hail of gunfire hammered her position. Now, they were alternating, covering each other while the other reloaded so that she was unable to leave her position. Huddled under cover as bullets rained around her, Pigeon swore to herself, digging another grenade out of her pocket.
Creeping to the edge of the garden wall, she waited until one of the men shouted “Reloading!” before blindly throwing the grenade, based on where she remembered them to be standing; another explosion and another howl of pain, debris from the ruptured driveway sprinkling her hair.
Suddenly there was a man on top of her, grappling her, an arm around her neck, hand scrabbling at the gun in her hand. Pigeon fired a quick elbow behind her. It connected hard, but he held on, spinning her around and delivering a quick head-butt. Stars popped in front of her eyes, a dull ringing in her ears. She fell to her knees and he kicked her in the chest, sending her sprawling onto her back, gun falling with a thud to the ground. He straddled her chest, pulling his hand back to deliver a knock-out punch.
A gunshot, and he fell onto his back screaming and writhing. Scrambling to her feet, Pigeon saw Kim standing over her, a snub nosed revolver held in her outstretched hand.
“Kim!” exclaimed Pigeon.
“In the meat,” she said breathlessly. “Now, let’s tab out before more of them come.”
It had taken them more than an hour of waiting in traffic to finally reach the checkpoint, a constant stream of people attempting to leave the City but being turned back. As they approached, Pigeon had begun to sweat. Elizabeth, Noah, at least a dozen other Green Room refuges were crammed into the backseat and the trunk, hiding under blankets. This was a stupid idea, she had thought to herself as they crept towards the front of the line.
“Sorry ma’am, this checkpoint is closed to-“ began the police officer wearily.
“I’m with the Company,” she interrupted, flashing her pass.
“Oh, I’m sorry, come right on through,” he had responded.
As they crossed the Oak Street Bridge, a nightmare image had seared itself into her mind: a convoy of tanks, rolling down the opposite lane, flanked by a small fleet of attack helicopters. Now they were holed up in her Richmond safehouse. The power was still out, and they were huddled in the cold as rain hammered the over –large windows, listening to fighter jets roar and circle and streak overhead. In the distance, they could see bursts of brilliant light: air strikes against the horizon. Unlike in the Green Room, where they had continued to talk politics, they now sat in silence. For Pigeon, there was simply too much to process, let alone converse about, and it seemed as if the sentiment was shared with her new compatriots.
Noah, who had remained silent despite his assertion that he needed to speak to Elizabeth, was the first to speak.
“We need to go back.”
“No way,” said Kim, shaking her head.
“My research isn’t complete, but it might offer us a way to stop all of this,” he responded.
“What is your research?” asked Elizabeth, genuinely curious.
“I am building wetware/software interfaces,” he responded simply. Elizabeth frowned. Evidently she knew what he was talking about, and didn’t like it.
“And how will that put an end to the violence?”
“A server reboot, inject malicious code all throughout the System,” he gestured with his hands, implying a large explosion.
“No way,” repeated Kim. “After all the shit we had to pull just to get out of the City, and that was before it turned to an active war zone. She shook her head again. “No way.”
“I’ll do it,” said Pigeon, speaking up, Anita’s ghostly phone call still fresh in her mind. She went to the spare bedroom and pulled a panel away from the wall, revealing a small arms cache. “Let’s get this done.”
Pigeon spread Kim’s map of the city out on the coffee table, weighing down the edges with machine pistols she had retrieved from the other room
“We need to get from here,” she pointed out their location on the map, “to here,” she indicated the location the Noah had given her. “We know that they have checkpoints here, here, and here. Which means that we need to find a way into the city that doesn’t cross one of those main bridges.”
“Sounds impossible,” said Kim.
“Not if we use the network of old rail tunnels running underneath the city. There should be one here, that will take us under the Fraser and drop us a few blocks from where we need to be.”
“Who else knows about these tunnels?” asked Elizabeth knowingly.
“Well, that’s the bad news,” said Pigeon, scratching her head. “Even without the System breathing down our necks, we can still expect to have to watch our backs.”
“I’ve never used a gun before,” said Noah, raising his hand.
“Then you’d better stick close to me,” responded Pigeon. “Who else is in?” Hesitantly, Kim and Elizabeth agreed.
Bouncing over the rotted railroad ties, Pigeon flicked on the highbeams. She slowed to a crawl, her mind playing tricks on her, every tattered shadow a militia member.
“Is this what it’s like to Run?” asked Kim.
“No,” responded Pigeon. “Running is solo, trying to stay cold, distant, uninvolved. This is the opposite of Running. I’m done Running. This ends tonight.”
Pulling out onto the street on the other side, Pigeon killed the lights entirely. The last thing they needed to do was announce their presence to the world. In the distance, they could hear the pops and clatters of machine-gun fire, interjected with the roar of echoing explosions. Fighter jets streaked overhead, and her Runner’s Sense fed her images of them dropping their deadly payload at any moment, landing directly on top of them, annihilating them.
Fortunately though, no such thing happened. In fact, they encountered no resistance whatsoever, the fighting seeming to be concentrated in the eastern part of the City. Near Holly’s compound, she realised.
The laboratory was cold, poorly lit, books laying open on tables like dead butterflies. In the centre of the room was a large mainframe, all whriing fans and blinking lights, exposed cables ran crisscrossed along the floor, snaking into wall sockets. One wall was caved in, wiring spilling onto the floor and finding its way into the machine. A bedroll lay in the corner, next to an unfinished bowl of cheap ramen noodles.
“We need to jack in,” said Noah. Elizabeth and Kim duitifully began rolling up their sleeves, but Pigeon hesistated.
“Quickly, we don’t have much time,” urged Noah. Bracing herself, she feed the input jack into the relay on her forearm, and felt the world go blank.
Blinking in the sudden sunlight, Pigeon fought to gain her bearings. The simulation pulled at the edges of her consciousness, pushing her further into the shared dream. Elizabeth, Kim and Noah stood in a semi-circle arond her, each wearing the same, identical white terrycloth robe. The space was white, not blank, but clean. The smell of fresh laundry hung in the air. Sunlight shone brilliantly through large bay windows, reflecting off of ocean waters. In the distance, Pigeon could hear the pounding of the surf.
“This way,” said Noah, leading them through an ornate set of double-doors. Up a set of equally ornate marble starirs, and they were in what appeared to be some sort of hotel. Guests in mathcing robes greeted Noah formally, and he returned the greeting: flats, 2D sprite renderings of living people, intended to round out the population of the place, make it seem less empty than it really was.
As they approached the front desk, Pigeon began to feel sick. She hated cyberspace, but this was something else. Some anxiety, ancient, unbiden, rose in her mind. She was being followed. Whipping around, she saw no one.
“Who else is in this simulation?” she asked Noah under her breath.
“Just us”, he said, then turned to the conceirge.
“Good afteroon, Shelley. I’ll be needing to close down the sim,” he said bruskly.
Pigeon looked around for the source of the voice, but no one else seemed to have reacted. Elizabeth was engrossed in the folds of her robe, rubbing the material thoughtfully, while Kim stood at the window, watching the simsurf crash against rocks made from ones and zeroes.
Noah was deep in conversation with Shelley, some technobabble that she didn’t understand. Finally he emerged from the conversation, a frown etching itself into his smooth simfeatures.
“The wetware isn’t interfacing,” he said simply.
“So we’re dead in the water, then?” asked Elizabeth.
“It says it wants to speak to Pigeon,” replied suspiciously. All three of them turned to face her, her face flushing.
Noah led them too an elevator, that took them to the top floor, a roof top garden. No, not a garden, but a park. Pigeon recognised it almost immediatley. It was the park where she had met Anita. As the four dreamers appraoched the centre of the park, the dream began to feel more like a memory. As it did so, Pigeon began to notice certain things out of place. An oriental garden where there hadn’t been one, trees of the wrong species, weeping willows instead of battered old oaks. A water feature, something the City certainly never would have paid for. But aside from that, exactly how she had remembered it. Even the sun beating down on them, though now it was tempered by a cool sea breeze. In the distance, she could hear the sound of the surf pounding.
Steering the party away from the centre of the park, she led them towards the spot where they had sat that whole summer. Instead of the Pandora statue, however, she found a pagoda, cast in shadows that seemed to eminate from the structure itself.
“Say what you need to, but make it quick,” instructed Noah., as the others hung back with him.
As Pigeon stepped into the pagoda, the dream shiifted. She was sixteen again, fresh out of the vat. She was in the CHEEK, walking down a brick corridor, flanked by two flats dressed as security officers. She knew where they were leading her, becuase she had been there before: the isolation cells, deep in the bowls of the complex. Cell number 8. It had been her only home for months, the punishment for her inadequecies.
She passed through the door way and the dream shifted again. She found herself in a space that was darker than dark and colder than cold, and for a moment, Pigeon was terrified that she had brain-died. But no, there was a life here, some thrumming in the dark. She reached out with her mind until she could feel herself make contact with the source. There was a breif squal in her ears, like an old internet connection attmepting to find a server, and then silence.
“Hello?” she said hesitatantly.
“Hello, babe,” said Anita. “You’ve finally come.”
A blinding flash of light and a searing pain her frontal lobe, and Pigeon was awake, tearing the jack out of her arm just in time to roll onto her side and throw up. Memories cascaded through her brain, thoughts that weren’t her’s. Voices, shouting. She dry heaved, rolled away from the puddle of vomit and scrammbeld to her feet just as KIm, Elizabeth, and Noah were coming too.
“What happened?” asked Kim. “We saw a flash of light and then you were gone. Took out most of the hotel with you, some sort of explosion.”
Ignoring her, Pigeon rounded on Noah. “What the hell was that?” she demanded.
“I assume it was some sort of ECM burst. I see you vomited. Are you having trouble keeping your thoughts straight?”
“Damn right I am,” said Anita, from Pigeon’s mouth.
“I didn’t mean to say that,” said PIgeon.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Anita.
“You died,” said Noah simply.
“Bullshit,” said Anita.
“No, he’s right. I found you.” said Pigeon.
“Pig,” said Kim concernedly. “Are you okay?”
“I will be once someone explains to me what the hell is going on,” demanded Pigeon.
“Your body is hosting an upload,” said a voice from the corner.
Pigeon whirled around and saw Sophie, standing in the corner.
“Dr. Demarais!” exclaimed Noah, face turning white.
“Shelley told me that you were on the move. Apparently you two have been working quite closley, behind my back, these last few months,” she said.
“What do you mean, host?” asked Anita.
“Your consicouness is split, inhabiting a single wetware interface,” explained Sophie.
“Wait, wetware… are you saying people?” Pigeon demanded.
“Yes,” interjected Elizabeth. “I was afraid of this.”
“What’s going on?” asked Kim, bewildered.
“Noah, care to explain?” asked Anita.
“I want to hear you say it,” growled Pigeon.
“In order to bypass the System’s network standards, I’ve had to use a non-standard network interface.”
“Which means..?” asked Kim.
“It means he killed her girlfriend and stole her brain,” said Elizabeth, repulsed.
At this, Pigeon snapped, taking a swing at Noah. Her fist landed on the side of his head, a dull thud, and he fell to the ground. She was on top of him, raining blows onto him, relishing in the sting of the connecting blows, feeling his nose give way, blood staiing her knuckels, and then suddenly KIm was on top of her, pulling her off.
“I will fucking kill him!” she screamed.
“I didn’t kill anybody!” protested Noah, huddling behind Sophie.
“Oh, so you’re a grave robber. Real upstanding!” shouted Pigeon.
“It’s true,” said Anita. “I remeber things going dark, and then…” Images flashed through Pigeons mind, memories that belonged to someone else. A childhood that was never her’s. Meeting herself, seeing a lonely teenager sitting alone on a park bench. Flatlining alone in tenement, while her girlfriend visits violence on a rival dealer. Dying real brain-death, and then darkness, new life, reborn as something unnatural.
“All in the name of progress, hey Soph?” said Elizabeth with a cocked eyebrow.
Sophie was spared the trouble of responding by a figure emerging out of the darkness. It was Holly.
Natsumi stood over the dead bodies, Mr. Takahashi’s baleful gaze illuminating the darkened room. She checked her watch. The drugs should have worked their magic by now. She made a phone call.
“It’s done. Congratulations. You are now the most powerful man in Vancouver. Welcome to Kuroyama. I’ll send the paperwork over in the morning.”
She hung up, bowed to Mr. Takahashi, then severed the uplink. Pouring herself a tall drink, she sprawled out on the bed, laying on top of the covers. It was done, but there were still looses ends. Her down-jack relay had been pinged a half-hour ago: Holly was still full bank. What to do with an old friend that had overstepped her boundaries and outlived her usefulness?
Then there was that Pigeon bitch, she thought. Unpredicatble. It was a mistake to bring a Runner onboard, she knew that now. A wild card in the otherwise perfect web that she had spent the last twelve months spinning. Though, she still had a role to play. A picture-in-picture display swam before her eyes, a geo-spatial trace of PIgeon’s current whereabouts. She had left the city, then come back, to a non-descript location near Marine Drive, where she had jacked in to a server and retreived a sizable dataload.
This is it, she thought.
Natsumi made another phone call.
They were locked in a standoff.
Holly had a pistol in each hand, one pointing at Sophie and Noah and the other pointed in the direction of Kim, Elizabeth, and Pigeon, while the three of them held Pigeon’s submachineguns at arms length, pointing back.
“Play time is over,” she said. “Now, hand me the chip.”
“The chip won’t do you any good,” said Elizabeth. “It’s already been downloaded and wiped.”
“Bullshit,” said Holly. “I want what’s mine.”
“It’s true,” said Anita.
“All the data is up here,” added Pigeon, tapping her temple.
“Then I need your brain, dead or alive. Isn’t that right, Noah?” sadi Holly. “You’ve resurrected the dead before, no reason you can’t do it again.”
“Like hell I’m letting you take my brain,” said Pigeon. She raised the muzzle of her sidearm and brought it to the side of her head.
“Don’t you dare,” said Holly threateningly. “Natsumi told me everything, and now she wants me dead, and sooner of later the System will come for you. Unless we destroy it first.”
“Wait,” said Pigeon. “Do we all want the same thing here? The destruction of the System?”
“No,” said Elizabeth. “I wish it was as easy as all of us against the System. But you know, Pigeon, that we all want different things in the aftermath.”
“What should I do?” asked Anita.
“You should make a choice,” said Sophie. “RIght now, the fate of the world is in your hands.”
“Pigeon, I’m scared,” said Anita. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
Pigeon screwed up her eyes, willing memories to the surface of her mind. Every conversation she had with Elizabeth, Sophie, Natusmi, and Holly. Trying to explain to Anita, without speaking, what the stakes were, what decisions they would have to make together. Kim’s political diatribes, Noah’s explanation of how they could take down the System.
Her thoughts were intrrupted by the laboratory door swinging open viiolentty, and Detective Pendleton charged in, flanked by two Kuroyama goons. He froze for a moment, taking in the bizarre tableau, his jaw agape.
“Can someone,” he said finally, “explain to me just what the hell is going on?”
Pigeon began to laugh involuntarily, the abssurdity of the situation overwhleming. Pendleton seemed unnerved, this woman with a gun ponted to her own head giggling hysterically.
“Everyone, put the guns down!” he shouted, struggling to retain some control over the situation and, Pigeon suspected, his own composure.
“That’s not going to happen, officer,” sneered Holly. “You’re in over your head here.”
A moment, where time seemd to dilate. Pigeon could feel her heart beat in her throat. Once, twice. The tension in the air was palpable.
“Now!” screamed Anita, in her head, echoing the cry of her Runner’s Sense. Pigeon sprwaled on the floor, as the room erupted in thunder. Sparks and debris filled the air, as bullets richocheted off of every surface. She belly crawld into cover, befroe retunring fire herself, blindly spraying with her submacinhe gun.
“Covering fire!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “Kim, Elizabeth, let’s go, NOW!”
“Don’t you fragging move!” screamed Pendleton over the din
Suddenly Elizabeth was with her, wincing in pain and out of breath.”Kim, we have to move, now!” she shouted.
“I’m pinned down!” Kim screamed back.
With an animal howl, Pigeon peaked out of cover just long enough to send a spray of bullets in the direction of one of the Kuroyama mercenaries. Running in a half-duck, Kim slid into cover, spraying submachinegun fire while Pigeon reloaded.
“Okay,” she shouted, “Let’s move!”
Overhead, they could hear the thrum of a helicoptor hovering above the building, as more men in white Kuroyama fatigues began to pour in.
“No, no, no, no, NO!” screamed Holly from the corner, raining bullets down on them as Noah and Sophie made a break for it.
Firing blindly over their shoulders, the three of them ducked through a back stariway, Pigeon leading them underground. Her hunch was correct: a rotted wall had caved in, revealing the abandoned rail tunnel that ran parrallel to it. On the other side was the same van that Holy had modified to run on train tracks.
“Get in, get in!” she shouted. From the building above, they could hear gunshots and screams, punctutated by a deafening explosion. Luckily, Holly had left it running so as soon as the last of her passengers had climb aboard, she stomped on the accelerator and sent them rocketing into the dark.
Pigeon cursed. “What now?”
“We need to figure out what to do with the ghost in your head,” said Kim.
“What needs to be done?” asked Anita.
“We can’t stay here, or we’ll be sitting ducks.” said Elizabeth.
“We need to find a place where I can jack in,” said Pigeon.
“How?” asked Kim. “The power is out.”
“Maybe, if we can get to a high enough point, you can use your phone to reach broadcast level?” said Elizabeth.
“Downtown?” suggested Kim
“Not worth risking, if the System is still in lockdown,” said Pigeon. “What about the Sky Bridge?”
“Let’s do it,” said Anita as Pigeon jerked the wheel, sending them careening down a Skytrain tunnel, Dodging darkened trains, they made their way underneath the city as quickly as Pigeon thought she could manage without risking a derailment.
Bursting out in to the night, the first thing that Pigeon noticed was just how dark the City was. It was unnerving, like they had just entered into the dusky cavern of some sleeping giant. She slowed to a crawl just at the apex of the span, and killed the engine.
Sliding out of the cab, Pigeon was immediatley hit by a strong gust of wind. She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Fishing her phone out of her pocket, she started to climb the security access ladder that led to the top of one of the suspension bridge’s towers. Hand over hand, herr knuckles white in the cold. It started to rain.
At the top of the tower, Pigeon lay down, the cold wind whipping rain drops all around her. She shivered.Pigeon stripped the back of the phone off, removing the relay card and hooking the empty jack into her forarm with a short length of wire that Elizabeth had found in the glove compartment. Suddenly she was dreaming again, a flat white expanse rippling softly in the dark.
“God I hope this works,” said Pigeon.
“Me too, babe,” said Anita.
“I love you.”
“I love you, so mu-”
More pain than she had ever thought possible, coursing from her brain throughout her entire body, forcing her to shudder involuntarily. Spots popped in front of her eyes and she gasped for breath, willing herself not to lose consiouness, but teetering on the brink. Then, the world went dark.