By Genevieve Williams
10 March 2008
The runners are lithe and young. None are older than sixteen. Nothing about their hair or clothing dangles in excess, though they ornament themselves in other ways: hair cut in patterns like ornamental lawns, tint cascading through the patterns like advertising. Tattoos adorn them like jewelry or ripple across their bodies like silk scarves, wet and shining in the omnipresent April rain.
Kip, small and subtle, gathers with the rest of them on top of the platform shelter at Pike Station, 120 feet above the Street. There are fourteen runners besides herself, eying her and each other as though plotting how best to throw their competition off a building. Like her, they're masked and mirrored: a combination of camouflaged clothing, surveillance-reflective skins, and sensor-scrambling biosign suppressors will make watchful eyes slide right off them. Trainjumping is illegal, as are most of the other things runners do to win a race. Freerunning, bubble-riding, running along slidewalk rails—all of it.
Johnny has the starting gun. His silver, bullet-shaped dirigible—one of very few allowed in Seattle airspace, Johnny is a rich kid—is moored nearby, ready to carry him and assorted hangers-on, hollabacks, and boytoys to the finish point atop Northgate Research Center, some eight miles away. Lily is among the girlfriends, bottle-redhead, dressed in green. She's there for Narciso, but Kip pretends Lily's there for her.
"'Kay," Johnny says. "Rules, you know 'em: no driving, no fares. No throwing the competition off a maglev, skyscraper, airship, bubblevator, or taxicab. You run or you freeride. No exceptions." A high-pitched whine emanates from the tracks below, announcing the impending arrival of the northbound to Seattle Center. "First to reach the finish point wins. Wait for the flash." Johnny raises his right hand above his head. There's a black oblong shape in it, gleaming wet: not a real gun, but a flashbox that makes a hell of a bang when it goes off. Their eyes are pinned to it, and Johnny grins: he sincerely loves this shit.
The train arrives. Johnny presses the firing button. Something bright pops out the top of the gun like a muzzle-flash, and the bang cuts through the noise echoing up the city canyons: the whine of the maglevs, the hiss and patter of the rain, and all the celebratory racket of a Friday night.
Almost as one, the runners leap from the shelter roof. When the train leaves the station, they'll be on it, heading for the labyrinthine transfer station beneath the eye of the ancient, decaying Space Needle.
Kip, though, leaps extra far, vaulting the train entirely to drop fifty feet into a different, dirtier, older rail system. She knows the city's interconnected transit systems like the veins on the backs of her hands; she knows a better route than the one the others will take.
In freefall, she realizes she's not alone. Narciso has taken the plunge with her.
Lily wasn't in Kip's class, in any sense of the word. Kip knew this instinctively, if not logically, and it was not simply a matter of their never encountering one another in school, or in parties, or in games, or in any of the other locales where the ten-to-sixteens of the city or the world might find themselves. Lily sang full-throated arias with almost purely natural ability, serenading Narciso and the other runners at the afterparties; Kip's favorite singers owed their politics, songwriting, and gullet-scraping hollers to a guy from Kip's great-grandmother's generation named Jello Biafra. Lily read books with titles like The Importance of Being Earnest and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, seemed to understand them, and looked down her nose at the know-along adaptations they did in school. Kip read, too, but none of her friends knew it, and nothing any teacher would assign. Lily did light bloodborne intoxicants, but nothing more. Kip bought blackmarket ID masks and lived with the resulting sensory deprivation in order to take advantage of their considerable benefits. Upper city versus understory; Kip knew the distinctions as only a fifteen-year-old could. She and Lily never should have met, never should have known of one another's existence.
Lily stood out at the races. She might have anyway, but in addition to pale skin unmarked by tattoos or scars accidental or deliberate, long hair in a cascade of sculpted false red ringlets that nonetheless looked absolutely right on her, and a wardrobe more confident than her age would suggest, she moved in stark contrast to the runners' light quickness. Graceful as they, she possessed a slow languor that made Kip's skin prickle with unaccustomed heat.
There were plenty of good freerunners in Seattle, but Narciso, on whose arm Lily arrived one night like a movie queen, was the only one her own age who Kip had never beaten.
That night, Lily looked at Kip with wide brown eyes. Kip could not look away. She felt exactly as though she had leaped from a platform with no train to catch her.
Kip spreads her arms. Wings like a flying squirrel's patagium unfurl to slow her descent. To her left, Narciso's doing the same thing, except with a contraption that looks something like a giant umbrella.
The crosstown pulls in below them, slower and easier to time than a maglev. It's still a near thing. This system isn't on the maglev's schedule, which is perfectly optimized to shuttle uptown commuters, who never come below the 80th story if they can help it, to their hilltop enclaves. Runners trying this very trick have been known to be crushed under the steel wheels. Trainrunning isn't a sport for the slight of heart.
But she lands on the train car's wet roof without incident, tucking her arms close to her chest to draw in the wings, and dropping monkeylike to the car's roof. Her bare toes cling like a gecko's as the crosstown departs with a squeal and an ancient, polluting roar.
Narciso is one car down, his slippers and gloves gripping the surface. He grins at her, slick black lenses shiny over his eyes, and peels one hand away to wave. Kip doesn't wave back.
Kip discovered trainjumping when she was eight, on a rare night out on the Street with her mother, her aunt, her grandmother, and her older sister. Her mother held her hand from the funicular station at the bottom of Queen Anne all the way to the dinner theater by the canal. The Street's cracks spread in intertwingled spiderwebs, a beautifully incomprehensible interaction of weather and upheaval and wear. Kip sought sense in them, but found only detritus: weeds pushing through the cracks with the stupendous determination of several millions of years of evolution; the last fragmented degradations of a thousand kinds of trash dropped thoughtlessly from uptown, biodegrading noiselessly in the depths of the Street.
Kip ignored the dinner and the show, her mind playing in fascinated obsession with that lattice of cracked asphalt. The lines that joined, separated, and reconnected further than she could see were the city in miniature: the train tracks, the slidewalk routes, the carefully circumscribed way to get from her family's understory apartment to the gymnasium where she went for face time with her schoolmates. The lines had no beginning and no end. They admitted deviation.
As they waited for the funicular after the show, Kip looked up. This station was the end of the line, open to the world above all the way to the sky, though it was impossible to tell whether those tiny lights were stars, or just the illuminations of uptown. Kip stared unblinking past the edge of the platform shelter, willing them to twinkle, until her eyes stung.
The train rolled in with much creaking of brakes and ancient cables. The doors opened, spilling light onto the tilted platform, though no passengers: no one came to the Street at this time of night.
The darkness above deepened in its contrast to the fluorescent light from inside the car. An even darker shadow flickered across the narrow space between the platform shelter and the car.
Kip might have imagined it; except, when they reached the stop halfway up Queen Anne, where they would take the slidewalk home to what Kip's grandmother called their lower-lower-middle-class apartment, there was another flicker. It passed from the top of the car to the platform shelter, and in the late-night silence Kip was positive she heard the light patter of running feet.
"Come along, Kip," her mother said, because even this far above the Street, it wasn't safe after dark. Shining multifaceted orbs, like the eyes of giant flies, floated in the dark, watching them and everyone else. Except that shadow that had passed and gone so quickly that Kip still was not sure she had seen it, despite seeing it twice.
Kip jumped her first train three years later, and met her first fellow runner two weeks after that, and thence entered into the secret culture that ran above and across the rails and rooftops of every major city in the world. It carried routes, schedules, secret passages, and jackable doors in its collective memory and traded in illegal masks, physical and chemical, to hide itself from the constant observers Kip had never really noticed in her life until she spotted something they hadn't seen. It had been going on for decades, as every metropolis of half a million or more became a tightly interconnected lattice of highly efficient mass transit routes, and simultaneously built up, up, up. Every city was a game of Chutes and Ladders—the game Kip played at the overly bright, excessively padded gymnasium—writ large.
Kip's clinging to the roof of the crosstown and feeling pretty good; from the look of things, Narciso's the only other runner to plot this route. Even if she doesn't win the race, if she outdashes him she'll be happy. He's taller and has a longer stride, but she's lighter and nimbler, which in her mind makes things about even.
Then: off schedule, and nowhere near a station, the train slows.
Kip puts her ear against the cool metal of the car's roof. The train's hum gets much louder, but she can also hear the announcement inside the car: "Due to a mechanical failure, this train is out of service. All passengers must exit to the emergency platform on the left side of the train and take the Broadway slidewalk to Broadway & Roy Station. We apologize for the inconvenience."
"Shit," Kip says, thrown. On the car ahead, Narciso mouths the same thing, small comfort. Even if the next train plows up the ass of this one, she's going to miss her northbound connection; slidewalks, by definition, are not fast. Stuck on top of a stopped train twelve stories above the Street doesn't suggest a hell of a lot of options.
Above her, though, is the maglev: a branch of the same system that has carried the competition to Seattle Center by now, where they navigate its tangle of imperfectly internetworked systems and, probably, piss off evening commuters.
Kip knows she's lost the race. But she still wants to beat Narciso, who disappears over the side of the train and joins the small flood on the slidewalk.
Kip's lip curls. Another option floods her mind like prophecy.
The emergency platform and the slidewalk run alongside a building dark and shiny as black glass. Beads of semi-permeable plastic skim its surface like water droplets, carrying people inside them. Some, summoned by stranded passengers with the necessary connections, converge on the platform. As one of them ascends, expanded like a pregnant belly from the small crowd inside, Kip leaps and grabs a handful of the bubble-stuff and lets it carry her aloft. No one notices, including the bubble itself: the mask she bought really is top quality.
As the bubble slides past the maglev rail, Kip clambers up the outside, slipping a little on the bubble's wet surface. Now people notice. Their exclamations sound like kittens in a bag. Kip ignores them; attempting to catch a maglev in motion is an excellent way to get killed, and her timing must be perfect. She takes a breath and thinks of Lily's deep red hair.
The instant she spots approaching lights, she launches herself from the top of the bubble. It's like jumping off a pillow. The train's still approaching as she drops; when she lands, it's on the second to last car.
She's back in motion. The maglev is an express going south, not north, at 125 miles per hour; but even an express stops on occasion. At the next station, she can switch directions.
Kip jumped her first race when she was twelve. She couldn't get enough of it. She buzzed her hair, to her mother's distress, and assembled fitted clothes of slick material that wouldn't snag. Prices jumped as people who didn't even know what trainjumping was caught onto the clothing trend. She got the Sticky Fingers mod that gave her hands and feet a grip like a gecko's. She assembled a cocktail of masks that blocked positive ID from the surveillance net, and painted her face and arms with black and dark-blue stripes before each race. She had design and motion patterns all picked out for when she got to the top of the waiting list at Firebird Design, the best tattoo house in the city. She was short, something genetic modification still couldn't do a thing about, but she was long-muscled and lean, and being small was sometimes an advantage.
She got so she could pick out other runners on her networks and in the gymnasium; they had no net of their own, initially for pragmatic reasons—freerunning and trainjumping were illegal—and later for idealistic ones. But once you did it for awhile you could spot your own kind. They moved through the world as though it existed for their purpose; every building was a jungle gym, every obstacle a toy.
Kip would stand on the roof of Tytos Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Seattle, home to two dozen high-powered law firms, and think to herself that runners were the secret masters of the city. They knew things about it that it didn't know about itself.
Her performance in the races improved. She began to win.
The problem is, the maglev doesn't stop at any of the stations. Her only mistake so far might mean she won't finish the race at all: this train has finished its service run and is heading for home. It whips south, descending from Capitol Hill and skating the edge of Old Downtown before heading south down the Duwamish Valley: penthouses above, ancient industrial wasteland of empty warehouses and illegal nightclubs and theaters below. Then it whisks underground and stops at the Terminus with a whine just on the edge of hearing.
The Terminus is in what used to be called Tukwila. It's close to twenty miles from Northgate, and it might as well be on the moon: jumpers call it the Terminus because there are no connections here. End of the line.
"Shit," Kip says, again, and hops off.
The first time she raced against Narciso, they'd followed the same route from start to finish. She'd chased him through a network of concrete walkways that opened onto a treed plaza, a city park and incidentally also the race's finish point. Johnny had laid out a red target circle that lit up when the winner landed on it.
She'd been running, eyes on Narciso's black tank top and his brown arms and his dark, dark hair, when he leaped into the air with a flash of white slippers and landed in an athletic crouch. The red circle lit up around him.
Narciso always beat her after that. And once the race was over, he'd come up to her at the afterparty, his arm slung loosely over Lily's neck, and grin. "Tough luck, kid. Next time, eh?" And Lily would smile at her in a way that made Kip think of pity, and she'd hate them both.
But later, lying in bed, waiting for sleep to come, she'd forget the look on Lily's face and think of her hair, the paleness of her skin, the sharp line of her jaw. How all that would feel, under her fingers.
If she could beat Narciso. If only.
But right now, stuck in the deserted Terminus, Kip can only imagine how he'll grin and do a backflip or some other such stupid, flashy shit into the finish point. She wants to beat him so badly that the desire tastes like blood in her mouth.
No train will come to the Terminus for another ten minutes. Kip runs along the service platform. She could go out to the Street and hail a taxicab, the luxury conveyance of the uptowner who wants to explore the theaters, bars, fleshpots, and strange temples of the Street, but not too closely. But the cabs' impressive on-board security systems, which include a surface wired to deliver a 10,000-volt charge and automatic evasive maneuvers to foreign contact, prevent her from hopping onto their roofs as she would onto a train, and actually getting into and paying for a cab is specifically and explicitly against the rules of the race.
Kip knows how she'll feel if she wins the race on those terms.
Something tickles at the back of her head. She turns her attention to it, and it blooms into a full-scale announcement:
"There is a power outage in the Seattle Center area. Affected transit routes have been re-routed, re-scheduled, or cancelled. Please plan accordingly."
It must be one hell of an outage if they're bothering to announce it on the citywide net instead of just quietly re-routing people. Which means an effect big enough that people would actually notice. Which means a lot of dead trains.
Which means she's back in the game.
The service door will bloom alarms if she opens it, but the ceiling and the wall of the Terminus don't quite meet: ventilation. It's small, but so is she. She scales the wall, squeezes through the gap, and rolls and splashes into a gutter on the Street.
She pops to her feet and starts running. This is a quiet, deserted area: a part of the Street called the Underground, even though it isn't. Fast movement attracts attention. Her instincts, trained for the freerunning environment, are wrong here. A skinny man lurches out of a doorway like a zombie. She dodges him and runs up the middle of the street, in the dim light that filters down from the understory, then up the first staircase she sees.
There are people here, enough to remind her that it's Friday night in the world that still waits for the weekend to have a good time. The rain has stopped. And there, just to the north, is Skyway Station. Routes and timetables slam together behind Kip's eyes. She fades into the shadow of a building, scales a wall to a narrow ledge overlooking the station, waits perhaps twenty seconds, and drops onto the Street-level light rail, pressing her body against the roof to avoid notice.
It's not nearly as fast as the maglev, but ten minutes later she's back in the city core and riding a bubble up a building to the maglev, which will take her directly past Lake Union. The bubble is slow, so she has time to consider that right now, as she positions herself to jump off at the platform, a train is leaving the Terminus; right now, as the bubble rises blindly past and she leaps out to the shelter roof, it's accelerating out of the tunnel; right now, as she hops aboard a maglev northbound from Sixth and Pine Tower, that other train is rising toward the understory. She's beaten it by five minutes.
It might be enough.
And as she crouches there, the wind tearing at her scalp, fingers and toes gripping against the force of the train's acceleration, she spots another lithe, dark shape crouched against the top of the car ahead. Lights flash above them in rapid succession and she sharpens her gaze. She just knows that it's Narciso.
She crawls forward, fighting the wind of the train's speed that peels her fingers from the cold metal, seeing Lily's face and how different it will be if she reaches the finish point before Narciso.
The train slows around a curve, slinging her weight to one side as it swings east of Lake Union and then hits the northbound straightaway. Two stops until Northgate, which will be closest to the finish point. Four minutes.
The maglev decelerates with a falling hum. Some instinct makes Narciso turn. He sees her. He grins that grin, the one that's so charming, and shouts something. All she catches of it is "caught up."
She wants to throw him off the damn train. Onto the platform. He wouldn't be hurt. He'd catch the next one. And then he'd lose.
Narciso sees what she's thinking, maybe catches a bit of it in the aether of the net. The grin fades. And then, when the train's braking shoves her forward like a giant hand, sliding sideways off the car, her fingers and toes peeling from the surface like old tape, he reaches out and she thinks it's to shove her away or throw her off, but she ducks and her balance goes and she rolls sideways, off the maglev for the second time that night and into the endless glass and metal canyon of Lake City Way.
She spreads her wings, and looks down.
You never do this when jumping. Look at the ground and you'll hit it, that's the way the word goes. A red line across the city map in her mind: Roosevelt slidewalk, below and to the right. Crowded, but a damn sight nearer than the Street.
Her feet hit the slidewalk's moving rail. People stare as she runs, jumping over their hands to avoid mashing fingers, hopping over their heads from one side to the other. The maglev passes overhead with a magnetic whine and shoots away to the north. She ignores it and keeps running.
The slidewalk empties out. She jumps onto its moving surface and runs, runs, runs. She runs all the way to the damn Research Center. It glitters in the lights of the moon and the city, walled on all sides by nightclubs, galleries, restaurants, and luxury homes except where the maglev line cuts through.
She passes the maglev station. The train has been and gone. But when she glances up again, to the lip of the canyon that is the roof of the towers of the Northgate complex, there is a slim shape running. Ahead of her, where the slidewalk ends, stands a building artfully draped in vines growing from somewhere above and falling across the sheer, glossy wall like hair across a girl's bare back.
Kip catches the vines and climbs. The buildings are shorter here, slanting toward the water, a sprawled last-century office park with a disused helipad on one of the roofs. Kip reaches the top, runs across a flat roof, leaps a gap, runs through an asphalt field planted in parallel white lines, leaps another gap. To her left, along another row of buildings, Narciso is doing the same thing. Further away to the west comes the rest of the pack, delayed at Seattle Center by the power outage.
Kip grins. Now it's a race.
There's a crowd gathered on the helipad. The red finishing dot lies right in the middle of the old landing target. Kip's gaze locks onto it. Narciso has fallen back from her peripheral vision. She leaps another gap. Across one more roof and there's the final leap, biggest she's ever jumped, by the time it occurs to her that she might not make it she's already hurtling through the air, a war-whoop tearing from her lungs, she hits the other side rolling, she's up again and she pelts to the finish point and leaps onto the dot. It lights up. Only then does the silence recede into cheering.
They'd cheer anyone, they would. But she grins all the same, and looks for Lily's face in the crowd. See? she wants to say. See? See?
The crowd rushes. Things grow confused. The other racers arrive. Narciso grins at her and hugs her. Around them melt a hundred hearts, but Kip doesn't care. Johnny's saying something about posting their reels and the small mob begins to ooze toward an open-air Street-level place on the lakeshore for the afterparty, but Kip trails behind. She's just behind Lily, who's following the crowd with her head down.
Kip's heart stops. She trots a few steps and touches Lily's arm. Lily turns and smiles, and Kip tries to smile back, but she can't, because she's seen that smile on Lily before, and it's the way she smiles at everyone who isn't Narciso.
"Good job," Lily says, in a friendly way. Her heels click on the concrete.
Narciso comes up next to her. "Hey," he says softly. And Lily takes his hand, and they wander away from the crowd, to some other corner of the helipad, where the breeze off the lake will ruffle Lily's hair.
Kip stands very still. So still that no one notices. Oh, she could scream, cry, fling up her hands. But it's occurred to her that she has built this entire fantasy, as complex and far-reaching as the cracks in the ancient road, and neither Lily nor Narciso know a thing about it.
She feels like she's standing on the roof of a tall tower, looking down at an entire city that doesn't know she's there, imagining herself its secret master.
Then she goes home.