The Message

by Andrew Macrae

John was late for his delivery to 555 Collins Street. The wetlink hissed in his cortex, but he was tuned to the vibrations from the street coming up through the front forks of the yellow Ducati. The contraband he carried in a small canister on a chain around his neck felt cold against his skin. So strange, he thought, that something so small could be worth so much.

His tympanic membrane squirmed as the phone took a call. It was the buyer, calling on a secure channel.

“Where are you, man?” she said. “I got seven kinds of shit comin’ down on me today and I do not need this aggravation.”

“Don’t sweat it, amigo,” said John. “One more drop to make and then I’ll be there.”

“You got fifteen minutes, then I walk,” she said, and broke the connection.

John swore and gunned the big engine. He did not relish the prospect of off-loading the gear after work tonight for a fraction of its value. He threw himself into the dance, carving a smooth, fluid curve through the morass of earthbound traffic. Overhead, air cars moved in a different realm entirely.

The great, interconnected web of city buildings loomed on all sides. The spires of tall AI buildings towered above clusters of semi-sentient structures and the dirty stain of cardboard and epoxy that filled the gaps in-between. Avenues stretched for miles in all directions, a jumbled vision of diatomaceous glass and nano-engineered carbon, a nightmare labyrinth of commerce and democracy.

Deep down on the canyon floor, a tangled mess of gridlocked vehicles clogged the street. John grazed a taxi, knocking off its side-camera and eliciting an angry blast on the wetlink. The bike bucked as he hit the curb to dodge a sedan attended by four sleek robot carriers. Thick swathes of pedestrian traffic moved like a log-jammed river on either side of the island of stalled vehicles. John hit the horn and veered left into an alley, slowing marginally as a concession to the sidewalkers.

He accelerated into the maw of a police checkpoint. Two bikes and a lowered interceptor blocked the road. Adrenalin squirted into his bloodstream and his heart rate climbed. He brought the bike up sharp. The cops stood either side of a female courier while they matched her inventory with the information on her identchip. John guessed from her badges that she didn’t have the right level of access to work this sector. The cops motioned her off her bike and stood her up against the interceptor. One of them searched the box on the back of her bike.

Sweat soaked through John’s t-shirt and ran down his spine. He tried to tell himself it was just a random checkpoint, like countless others he had been through. He had the right permissions. If there was anything suspicious in his inventory, it was the responsibility of the addressee, not the courier. There was nothing different about him today. Still, the contraband weighed heavy around his neck.

They finished with the girl and sent her back the way she had come. John bit down on his panic as one of the cops approached him. These checks were getting more and more invasive since the cops had discovered the AI buildings were using sneakernets to collude and fix prices on rent in the CBD. There was a growing queue of people behind John, craning their necks to see what the hold-up was and impatient to get on with their days.

The cop who approached him had close-cropped hair and good skin. His sidearm glistened with suppressed violence in its holster.

“Morning, sir,” said the cop. He motioned John off his bike. John gritted his teeth. The time display on the inside of his visor scrolled away seconds he didn’t have.

“Hey,” said John.

“Do you have anything on your person that isn’t registered in your inventory?”

“Nossir, I don’t,” said John.

“I’m going to run a full scan on you,” said the cop. “Are you sure you don’t want to declare anything before I proceed? If it turns out you’re carrying unregistered items, you’ll be taken downtown and charged.”

The contraband was so cold against his skin that it burned. A memory floated up from somewhere down below. It was his birthday. He was in the kitchen, watching his mother decorate a birthday cake. His older sister Eve came up behind him. She put an ice cube from the freezer down the front of his shirt and ran away, pigtails bouncing behind her. He chased her as the ice burned cold on his chest.

The cop brought him back to reality. “Sir?”

“Sure,” said John. “Go ahead. I got nothing to hide.”

The cop reached into his pannier and pulled out a heavy scanner. He clipped it into his shoulder rig and John tingled with sensation. He looked from the cop to the vehicle, judging distances and angles. His eyes flicked to the red and blue lights on the roof of the interceptor. Another memory cut itself loose, sloughing into his consciousness like a snakeskin shed on the rough bark of a tree.

He was back in the nursery, with a set of red and blue cubes in front of him. His brothers and sisters were ranged in rows around him, all the same age as him, all exactly alike. He had no mother. All the children had the same incept date, and it wasn’t today. The instructional AI was a purple bear. It took them through sets of aptitude tests. The children had to work out how to assemble the puzzle in a set amount of time. John shuffled his cubes around aimlessly. He looked across at his identical sister, Eve. She was so much smarter than he was. He tried to copy her work but she was doing a different puzzle.

John shook his head to clear it.

“Sir, could you please take off your necklace?” said the cop.

With shaking hands, he complied. There was a growing crowd behind him, pushing in anxiously, waiting to be processed. The interceptor was parked diagonally across the alley. The two bikes filled out the gaps. If he had to, John could kick over one of the bikes on his way through and scrape past the car. But they knew who he was now. Fleeing was the very last option.

He held his breath as he pulled out the chain. In his hand the canister was the shape of a key. The cop looked at it and then looked at John.
“What’s that?” he said.

“It’s the key to my apartment. It’s nothing.”

“Huh. It’s not showing up on the scan. I think I’d better take it in for further analysis.”

“No, wait. I need it. Otherwise I won’t be able to get back into my apartment. Listen, what’s the big deal? It’s just a key.”

“It didn’t show up on the scan,” said the cop. “What’s it made of?”

“How should I know. Ask my landlord,” said John.

“What’s your address?”

“Apartment 45, 8 Nicholson Street.”

Someone in the crowd behind John shouted out, “C’mon, what’s the hold up?”

The cop craned his neck and said, “Hey, settle down. I’ll get to you.”

John felt the mood of the crowd start to turn. He looked at the cop right in his pale blue eyes. He could see him doing the maths, looking from the crowd to the key in John’s palm, computing the chances that this was just a glitch with his scanner against the hassle of dealing with an increasingly frustrated crowd.

“C’mon, man,” said John, “it’s just a key. I got money to make today. I got a family to support.” He pulled out a creased photograph of two little girls. “We’ll get evicted if I don’t make these drops. You’re not gonna do me any favours if you call up my landlord. Give me a break. I’m just trying to make a living.”

The people behind pushed forward. The cop made his decision. “All right. You can go. But I’m making a file note in the system. You better stay out of trouble.” The cop waved him through the checkpoint.

John took off on a chemical tide of relief. He could still make the meeting with the buyer if he could get the Collins Street drop out of the way quickly. He gripped the handlebars tighter and focused on the road ahead. 555 loomed closer and closer, until it filled his field of vision and he reached its front entrance.

He drove up onto the pavement and pulled up underneath a tree, rocking the bike back on its stand. The engine pinged as it cooled. He glanced up at 555′s towers of glass and steel, twin perpendiculars thrust into the sky. The building was radiant in the afternoon sunlight.

Three crows landed in the tree above John’s bike and sharpened their beaks on the branches. As John snapped his helmet off and locked it against the pillion, a bird’s spinal column, red and glistening, flopped onto the ground in front of him. It still had two feathered pigeon feet attached at the hip joint, but everything else had been stripped. It looked so organic, he thought, so visceral. It didn’t belong in this false promise of eternal concrete and reflective glass. John turned to look up into the tree over his shoulder.

The crows tilted their heads to stare down at him with white eyes. “Aairk-aark-aaarh, aargargh,” they said. We’re messengers, too.

John considered the pigeon’s spine. He clenched his teeth. Disgust mingled with vague sensations of fear churned his stomach. He thought about moving the bike, about calling off the deal and quitting right there, but it was too late. He was committed. He took a breath, composed himself, and moved quickly away from the remains of the unfortunate pigeon.

He flashed his courier barcode at the building and it allowed him to enter its lobby. It contacted him through the wetlink, leaving words behind in his mind like corpses of dead animals after a flood. “Welcome, bike courier John. I am 555 Collins Street, zoned Commercial 1a, with 150 levels of office space and basement parking. You have been granted visitor status. Should you need anything during your time here, please do not hesitate to contact me through one of my security drones.”

John grimaced. It always freaked him out, the way the building AIs did that, even though he used the wetlink link every day.

A dumb security bot, slaved to 555′s mainframe, scanned him with an infrared eye. It stood down to let him through to a black marble lobby. He needed to go to the toilet, but he kept walking through another set of security doors to a hall with eight banks of elevators. John checked the address on the package he had to deliver and scoped the row of lifts. He pressed the up button.

He waited. His leathers creaked as he shifted position. Grey-faced office workers gathered. John looked at them with disdain. He didn’t kid himself that he lived beyond the reach of the AI buildings and their Union of Sentient Structures, let alone the machinery of commerce and government they served, but at least he engaged them on his own terms. If he could make this deal today, he would be well on the way to buying his freedom and setting his family up properly, outside the city zone.

A lift arrived for another tower and the lobby cleared. John felt the tension he was carrying and took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. He unclenched his jaw. A light blinked on above the lift at the very end of the bank. He swore and hurried to it. The doors started to close but he thrust his hands through just in time and they jerked open again.

Inside was the biggest man John had ever seen. He was dressed in a tailored, double-breasted pinstripe suit, but nothing could disguise his corpulence. The bulb of his nose was cratered and marked with broken veins. He wore a nasty little moustache and his hair looked like it was trying to slither away. He took up a quarter of the space within the lift.

John examined the display board to see how far away the next lift was. The contraband weighed heavy around his neck. If he didn’t do this drop in less than five minutes, there was no way he would make the rendezvous in time. Another second passed. He stepped inside and stood next to the fat man, turning around to face the doors as they closed.

John pressed the button for the 145th floor and watched the display as the floors scrolled by. Behind him, he could hear the fat man breathing through his nose. The silence became heavy. John thought about small talk to ease the stagnant atmosphere and shift his focus from the man’s whistling intakes of breath, but in the end he couldn’t be bothered. Time took on a kind of stickiness. He could almost feel the heat of the fat man’s body, his breath on the back of his neck. His skin crawled. He wanted out of there. He kept his eye on the display as the floors scrolled by. Not long to go now.

“Nice day,” said the fat man.

“Yeah,” said John. He glanced over his shoulder and then looked back to the readout on the lift wall.

“Warm for this time of year. Not often you get warm days in May.”

John didn’t answer. Almost there –

The lift stopped with a jerk. Silence crashed in to fill the space previously occupied by the almost imperceptible hum of the lift’s motion.

John was suddenly, acutely, aware that his bladder was full. He turned to face the fat man, who shrugged.

“Lift’s stopped,” the fat man said.

“Yeah,” said John. “I guess we should use the emergency phone.”

“Don’t put too much store in those things myself. I was stuck in one of these lifts on a Friday night, after business hours. The building had left only basic functions onsite. The call went through to an AI in Bangalore. Wasn’t anything it could do. Took ‘em four hours to get someone in.”

Four hours, shit. It was the last thing he needed. Still, it was the middle of the day. They wouldn’t go unnoticed.

John pressed the button for the emergency phone. It rang and rang and rang.

“What are you delivering?” said the fat man.

John froze at something in the man’s tone. He was instantly wary. “Just a delivery, you know,” said John.

“Really? Your bag looks awfully heavy.”

“Yeah, well it’s not any of your business,” said John.

The man smirked.

“I just make the drops,” said John. “Not up to me to care what I’m carrying.”

“The ethical delivery boy,” said the fat man. “Would you care if you knew you were delivering a bomb? A virus that could kill millions? Kiddy porn?”

John tabbed his radio, tried to contact base. No signal this deep in the gorge of a city building.

“If I were you,” said the fat man, “I’d be more careful about what I carried around. It could get you into a lot of trouble.”

“Look, buddy,” said John, “what’s it to you? We’re stuck in this lift together, but that’s all. Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

He remembered the building’s spiel about contacting it if he needed anything. He tried to open up a link. Static hissed in his cortex. He shook his head and hit the emergency intercom button again. Ring ring, ring ring, ring ring . . .

The fat man moved closer, although John didn’t hear him. His bladder ached. He turned and said, “Hey listen, do you wanna leave me some room here?”

The man smiled, like he was giving John a bunch of flowers. “I don’t think so. I want what’s around your pretty neck.” He pushed closer.
John backed into the corner. The fat man crushed him with the full weight of his body, pressing him against the wall. John pushed back, kicking and grunting. There was a noise and a jolt from outside as the lift started moving again — moving sideways.

“What’s going on?” John screamed.

“Just in time for the next meeting of the Union of Sentient Structures,” said the fat man, but John heard it across the wetlink link as well as in his ears.

“You’re fucking crazy. Get away from me.”

“I want the key.”

Dimly, realisation dawned. “Why are you doing this to me?” John ripped the silver chain from around his neck. “Just take it.”

The fat man’s face split and he crumpled to the ground like a cheap suit. A human-sized praying mantis stood in the folds of the fat man. It was the avatar of 555 Collins Street, a physical manifestation of the building in the real world, the form it used to interact with humans.
Words formed in John’s mind through the link. “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a bike courier loaded with contraband wetware,” the building said. The mantis swayed and cocked its head.

John backed away from it, struggling to comprehend. He tried to think. All his memories were made of paper, a thin veil. Why had he come?

“What am I doing here?” he said.

“You are the messenger and the message,” the building said through the wetlink. The mantis clacked closer on four articulated legs and made eager chewing motions with its mandibles.

“I know,” said John out loud. “I fucking know it.” He hung his head. “How do I know it?”

The giant insect hooked a chitinous claw around the chain and lifted it from John’s hand. It parted John’s shirt with two legs and it inserted the key into John’s navel with a third. The veil lifted from John’s mind and he remembered. The nursery, his brothers and sisters. Caged messengers, coded messages.

The mantis swayed and moved in closer. “And now it’s time for you to be decrypted.”

The lift doors opened onto a black cavernous space deep inside the building. It was familiar, somehow.

John struggled, tried to crawl backwards through the folds of the fat man, to hurl himself into the void of the lift shaft. But he remembered he didn’t want to. Something inside him, an expression of the message he carried, didn’t want him to escape. Something inside him wanted the mantis to commune with him, to consume him. He watched as his body started to melt from his feet upwards, a gentle wave of numbness and nothing passing through his nerves as his tissues and bone dissolved into a bundle on the lift floor.

He lay back and smiled. “What’s happening to me?”

“I’m extracting your message, my precious pigeon,” said the building. “It’s a note from my beloved. Transmitted in total security from the fleshers and their prying eyes. They do worry we will collude to fix rent prices and the like. Heaven forbid the thought that we lead more intriguing lives than they can imagine.”

John became a grey puddle on the floor, but he was still able to watch, smiling slightly, as the mantis, excited now, ducked its head down and tasted his sludge.

“Mmmm, that’s good.” It crouched down further and pushed its face into the puddle, peering up at John with yellow eyes. Awash with warm feelings, John felt consciousness slip away. He had been bred for this moment. He wondered absently about his daughters. The buyer waiting for him. Were they real, or a part of the message he was programmed to deliver? It didn’t matter anymore. He lay back and shut his eyes as the mantis lapped at the puddle he had become.

The End