The weather was indecisive, and the sun seemed to come in short, manic fits between even shorter sprays of warm summer rain. The air was filled with the smell of rain and diesel fumes. Hot and humid was always a safe prediction for New Atlanta in August, but the rain brought a hint of cooler breezes.
Deck banked his bike hard and cut through an intersection during the heartbeat pause between one light turning red and its opposite turning green. He hit a stretch where the sidewalk was actually smoother and less crowded than the street, so he jumped the curb and rode the walk for a few blocks.
The sweat ran from beneath his shiny black helmet, emblazoned with the stylized "NC" that served as the logo for Nano Courier. He kept his head down, the throttle low, and the kinetic tension high as he pedaled hard over the even surface. He wanted to store up as much energy as he could for the onramp.
He glanced down to see he had managed to store about 10k in kinetic force. That wasn't going to be enough. He turned the tension up a bit more and pedaled harder, knowing that almost half of this extra effort would be lost in the transfer when he finally hit the ramp.
He pedaled furiously, and his speed remained fixed.
Some courier companies used motorcycles. This was fine since they were cheap and fast, but motorcycles had to obey basic traffic laws like stopping at red lights and staying off the sidewalk. They needed gas, and couldn't ride along the shoulder when traffic came to a standstill. In a highway delivery, a motorcycle would win every time. However, in the twisting, traffic-clogged arteries of the Undercity, a bike with a kinetic store was the fastest way to anywhere - assuming the rider was in top physical condition. The kinetic store was technically not a motor, and thus the bike was able to do things a motorcycle couldn't - such as riding on the sidewalk and performing u-turns across busy two-way streets to reach an onramp.
A horn mixed with a wailing string of curses as he released the tension and accelerated through the tight arc onto the onramp. The kinetic store was unleashing all of the effort it had been able to capture, and mixed it with the effort he was putting in now. The result was the bike riding uphill without losing speed. He watched the store decrease below the 1k mark as he hit the top. Another perfect ascent.
The problem with bikes had always been that the supply of potential energy was so uneven. On a downhill you would have far too much, and would need to actually throw some away by using the brake, despite the fact that you were really going to need that energy in a few seconds when you hit the opposing uphill grade. This was a problem for the rider as well. The result was a rider that was overworked on the uphill and under-utilized on the downhill. The kinetic store helped by letting the rider store up their effort and release it later. It also resulted in bikes that had higher, safer top speeds.
He normally stayed off the highway, but this wasn't just a delivery. This was a mission. Once in a while someone would call up Nano Courier with a special job. Usually, it was something that needed to be delivered in an impossible amount of time. Sometimes it was a delivery to a dangerous area of the city at night, or a complex series of pickups and deliveries that would test a rider's ability to navigate efficiently. These were rare challenges, which would award either disgrace for failure or cash bonuses for success.
Deck had never gotten more than one such challenge every few months in the years he had spent at NC. However, this was the third one this week, and all three jobs requested him by name.
He slid in behind an eighteen wheeler and rode in the draft. Traffic was slow, so he could keep up. He watched the shoulder carefully, since he would need to get over there in a hurry if the truck altered its speed too much.
The strangest part of the jobs was that they were coming from a business inside the Undercity. Usually their clients were white-collar corp. outfits that needed something moved through the Undercity, but the pickup and dropoff points were posh marble and glass towers on opposing sides the "the crater", as the Undercity was known to the white collar world.
Clients from inside the Undercity were rare, and this one was even stranger for the fact that it was a pizza place. One final unexplained aspect of this outfit was that Actio's Pizza - the client - was never involved. They paid for the job, but were never the pickup or dropoff point.
Deck was spending most of his effort just keeping up, but a little was going into the store. He was back up to 5k again. Some quick math told him this wasn't enough yet. He turned up the tension just a bit. He had over a mile to go before the next exit and didn't want to burn out too soon.
Why would a Pizza place want a courier? They had people that delivered stuff for a living! Deck wasn't complaining. They paid the premium fee for special jobs, and were insane tippers. In the last three deliveries for them he had pulled in almost an extra week's pay.
The jobs themselves were odd as well. Often they would be demands for deliveries with improbable timetables, allowing no error whatsoever in riding or navigating. Deck would have to push himself to the limit to reach the destination on time. When he got there, it was always the same. An older guy would take the package without seeming to be interested in it, much less in a hurry to get it. In return, he would give Deck a massive tip and close the door on him without a word. The endpoints of the trip changed every time, and none of them seemed to have anything to do with Pizza. A few places seemed to deal with computer hardware, but most of the places were so generic he couldn't tell what they did.
He glanced down. There was about 6k in the store. The truck in front of him began to slow and he darted over onto the shoulder as he released the reservoir of energy. The bike leapt forward, accelerating past the line of slowing commuters.
He hit the exit and coasted. Normally he would use the downhill to store some energy, but he was nearly there and had almost three minutes left.
He twisted through some minor side-streets scanning the markings on the buildings. For a moment he had an intense spike of deja vu. The next moment he was knocking on the door of his destination. He was in some alley, standing at the side entrance of some large business printing franchise. The deja vu passed, and the door opened.
It was the same guy he had delivered to yesterday. He was short, round, with tight curly hair and a thin moustache. Deck smiled at him but the guy gave absolutely no indication he even recognized Deck.
Inside Deck could see a small office desk with an unopened package. It was the same package he had worked so hard to deliver yesterday in a record amount of time.
The guy was mumbling something as he walked around inside the office and it took several seconds for Deck to realize the guy was talking to him. He watched in amazement as the guy took the package - the same package he had delivered to a completely different address yesterday - and handed it to him. A new address label had been taped over the previous one.
The guy looked down and spoke as if he were addressing the package itself, "Take this to the roof of the address listed on the front. When you get there uh, open it and follow the... instructions." He produced an envelope full of money and passed it to Deck without ceremony. He stared into the alley for a second before he continued, talking to his shoes, "They uh, don't know about this."
Deck made a face. "They?"
"The uh, guys in the uh, building there.", he gestured towards the address slapped on the side of the package. "So um. Getting on the roof is uh, up to you."
Deck opened his mouth to ask a question but the door was shut before he could decide what to ask.
He turned back to his bike and the door opened again. The guy spoke into the alley without addressing anyone in particular, "Oh yeah... gotta be there by three." The door closed again.
Deck didn't even look at his watch. It didn't matter how much time he had - he was still going to have to ride like a madman. He checked the address. As he expected, it was on almost the exact opposite side of the city.
The package was a cardboard box about the size of a dictionary. It was fairly light, but he resented the wind drag it was going to create. He slipped it into his backpack and tightened the straps to hold the whole thing as close to his body as possible.
He hit the highway, running the store empty just as he topped the ramp. He was going to see how far he could go without looking at his watch. He found another eighteen wheeler and slid in, leeching its airflow and dumping all of his energy into the kinetic store.
The after a mile the truck slowed. Another truck passed him on the left. Under normal circumstances, he would stay put behind this truck or move over to the shoulder. He never left the slow lane. However, he was on a Mission, and now was the time to be bold. He shot over into the left lane, releasing all the energy he could and accelerating to top speed. He grabbed the draft of the faster truck and brought his head down almost even with the handlebars.. An electronic whoop burst from behind him, a single note of unmistakable authority.
It was totally illegal for him to even be on the highway, but for the most part couriers were left alone if they stuck to the shoulder. Moving into traffic as Deck had done was a good way to get arrested, and actually using the passing lane was just begging for trouble.
The fine would be about a day's pay, but the real cost of getting stopped now would be that he wouldn't get his tip, his bonus, and probably wouldn't get any more jobs from Actio's Pizza. This was going to cost him a lot of money. He did the math and figured that if there was ever a time to try and escape, this was it.
Traffic was parting for the police car, which eased up behind him and blasted him with another whoop as if to say, "Yeah, we're talking to you."
At full throttle he was devouring the energy left in the store. He glanced down. Only 3k left. It was a waste to burn through it like this, since even at top speed he was still just on a bike, and they were in an overpowered police car. It was no contest.
Both sides of the highway were walled in with meter-high concrete barriers. They had just passed an exit and the next one wasn't for another four miles. Four miles would take about six minutes, which was plenty of time for them to stun him or run him onto the shoulder of the road and box him in.
He jammed on the brake. The kinetic store howled as it tried to absorb the energy. Behind him the cops slammed on the brakes, trying to avoid rear-ending him. As they drew to a stop, he yanked up on his front wheel and crossed the center divider. He hoped he had the timing right.
Deck leaned into a hard, banking left turn that formed a semicircle - taking him in the opposite direction the cops were heading. His u-turn cut across both opposing lanes of traffic. He cleared them by only a few meters. Horns wailed as drivers tried to come to a stop. There was an impact as someone got rear-ended. The curve was wider and took longer than he had imagined, and it nearly drove him into the outer wall of concrete. Once he was on the shoulder and away from the wall, he released the kinetic store again and began pumping like a madman.
There was no way the cops were going to cross the median to chase a traffic violator. Instead, they were probably just sending for someone to intercept him from the opposite direction.
He had a surge of intense deja vu again.
He raced along the shoulder and jumped off at the first exit he came to. He kept pumping on the downhill grade, filling the kinetic store. As he reached the bottom, the guage crossed the 20k mark, which was about as full as it could usefully get. He hit a straight, flat stretch and let it go, boosting himself to top speed again.
He relaxed, and released the tension. He couldn't resist anymore. He checked his watch.
Two thirty! That gave him about a half hour to get there. This was actually quite possible, but it was going to take a bit longer without using the highway. After that, he still had to somehow get to the roof.
He managed to cross town without further difficulty.
His target was the Iris International building on the outskirts of the Undercity. The building stood at the seam between the Undercity and the upscale business district beyond. It was not as tall or as impressive as the other buildings in the area, but it wasn't so short or shabby that it could be mistaken for part for the Undercity, either.
A combination security station / reception desk stood at the center of the lobby. He kept his pace steady and ignored it, as if he knew where he was going.
"Can I help you?
He turned, feigning surprise that they would question a lowly courier. "What? No. I'm just delivering to H. Markus." He had glanced at the directory on his way in and decided this package was headed for whoever had the highest office in the building.
"Oh you are?", the plump, tightly permed woman asked sarcastically.
Deck realized he had miscalculated. H. Markus was probably some old, semi-retired president that never actually came into the office, and thus not a good probable destination for a delivery. He couldn't stop now, though. "Well, I was told to deliver to H. Markus' office at the Iris building. I don't know who its going to."
Her patronizing smile broadened. "Fine. Give it here and I'll make sure it gets to the correct party." She extended a chubby hand to receive the package.
Deck smiled back, "Is it for you?"
"No, but I will make sure..."
"I'm very sorry, but I need the intended recipient to sign for it, or we don't get paid." This was a complete lie. All deliveries were paid for ahead of time, but he was betting she didn't know or care how the courier business worked.
Somehow she got pissed without the patronizing smile ever leaving her face. "Alright, take the elevator all the way in the back to the top floor. I'll let the receptionist know you're coming."
Deck thanked her for that last bit, although she had just made his job a bit harder, since he hadn't planned on seeing the receptionist when he got there.
The elevator chimed and he stepped out into a posh lobby. He made a right into the stairwell without even looking at the receptionist. He scaled the steps and emerged into the gusty daylight of the roof.
The roof was a stonehenge-like arrangement of communications gear. Deck suddenly remembered seeing the Iris logo on television. They were some sort of media company. The gear was the usual assortment of high-bandwidth communications stuff, most of it for talking to satellites. Some units were only a meter tall, while others towered overhead, swaying gently in the breeze like trees of copper, iron, and silicon.
He pulled his helmet off and let the wind wash over his shaved head. His right arm ached for some reason. It wasn't like his arm suddenly began hurting, but more that it had been hurting for a while and he hadn't noticed.
He had never opened one of his own deliveries before. Usually it was grounds for termination. He still felt a bit odd about it, even when it was requested by the client. He tore open the rough cardboard to find a lightweight metallic device, bearing a glossy sticker with the Iris corporate logo. There was also a half meter or so of cable, neatly wound and wrapped in plastic.
He set the thing down on the ground and stepped away. Was that it? Was he done?
Then he remembered that he was supposed to "follow the directions". What directions? The device was featureless aside from a few buttons and sockets. There were no other objects in the package.
He looked at the cardboard box itself and saw that something had been written on the inside in light pencil.
connect to ne tower & activate using red btn. take dupe unit and deliver to actio pizza - thx!
He stared at the directions for a moment and tried to make sense of them. Duplicate unit? He glanced around but he didn't see any to devices that looked alike, and certainly nothing that looked like what he had just brought. He decided he would just do his best and see what happened.
After figuring out which corner was the north-east, he moved over and set everything beside the tower. This brought him a bit close to the edge, which was scarier than usual since this building didn't have anything in the way of a railing or low wall guarding the ledge. With a strong gust of wind you could roll right off. He stayed as far as he could from the edge and kept himself low as he worked.
After some trial and error, he managed to connect the device to the large tower. To do so, he had to unplug the tower from the feed leading down into the building and place his unit in between the two. He tried not to think about what would be happening inside while this tower was unplugged. Hopefully nobody would come up to see what was going on.
He hit the red switch and the device began to move. It opened up and an antennae unfolded and reached skyward like a blossoming flower. At the end of the unfolding metal arm was a disc of thin metal that expanded and began sweeping across the sky, looking for something.
Once it had its bearings, the disc aimed downward and pointed into the Undercity.
Deck stood beside the device and tried to figure out where it was aimed.
The only obvious target, given the direction the disc was facing, was a shabby, sleazy hotel just under a half kilometer away.
The unit Deck had just installed was probably beaming the Iris cable feed over to the hotel, thus providing the manager with movies (probably porno) that he could sell to his guests. Deck hoped he was getting some sort of monumental tip for all of this, because he had just moved up from simple courier to data pirate.
He checked his watch again. He'd made it with over a minute to go.
Now that it was unfolded, Deck saw that it was indeed a duplicate of an item already in service on the roof. It was plugged in using a similar arrangement to the one he had just connected. He unplugged it and hit the red power switch on the back. The unit folded itself neatly into a box.
Deck dropped the device into his backpack and strapped his helmet on. He wondered how the secretary downstairs had reacted when he never showed up. She could have called the cops. She could have forgotten all about him. Only one way to find out.
Movement off to one side caught Deck's attention. The transmitter he had just installed turned briefly and aimed lower, into the heart of the Undercity. It hovered there a second and then returned to its original position.
He squinted into the distance and tried to figure out where the thing could have been pointed. It had aimed itself nearly due north, and there were no likely targets in that area for a datafeed. All he could see were rows of sad, short, worn old buildings huddled in tight groups all across the Undercity.
Deck pulled out his phone, which also served as a compass / directory / navigation aide. He checked the address of his next destination and found that Actio's Pizza was nearly due north. This wasn't about cable theft at all. The transmitter was probably sending bursts of corporate secrets to this "Pizza" place. Aiming it at the hotel was just a cover, so that the crime wouldn't be traced back to Actio's if the counterfeit unit was ever discovered. The words Corporate Espionage ran through his head.
It was a crime disguised as a far less serious crime, which was in turn disguised as a simple piece of broadcast infrastructure.
"Sir? Melissa tells me you never appeared in her office. I'm going to have to ask you where you've been."
Deck turned to the round face, heavy with makeup and distain. "Go ahead."
"Go ahead and ask me.", he grinned.
"Where were you?", the patronizing receptionist act was over now, and she was now just openly pissed.
"You did not go where I told you to go. I told you to report..."
"Yeah well, I don't tell you how to do your job, and you can do the same for me. Ok?"
She picked up the phone, "In that case, it is now my job to call the police."
Deck laughed out loud, "What? What do you want me to do? Hang around here and wait for them? Lady, if you wanted to send the police after me, then you needed to make the call about ten minutes ago." He gave her a friendly wave as he strolled out. He pedaled casually by the door, letting her see that he was in no hurry.
Once he cleared the building, he kicked it up to full speed. He wasn't worried about the cops, but he was anxious to find out what was happening at Actio's "Pizza".
Another episode of deja vu hit him, and his arm seemed to be on fire. He turned north, and bent low. There was not any apparent time limit on this trip, but he was going to see how fast he could do it anyway.