Back to the street, back to reading the signs. Some were directions, some were just clues to puzzles I’d learned to solve before I was old enough to steal on my own.
Like seeing a man using a pay phone. In August. Wearing gloves.
The tag I was looking for wouldn’t be on any particular wall. I didn’t want a territory marker, I wanted a “work in progress” statement.
If you were a City-born businessman, that meant “blind copy,” a notation telling the recipient he was the other half of a twosome that left the third party in the dark. If he trusted the sender, that is.
But under the Sector’s canopy, “bcc:” was the tag of the Building Climbers Crew. Their trademark was high-altitude Parkour—a crew of flying thieves who soared between shadows and never took more than one fall.
I stood where they could see me. Lit a cigarette to show I was prepared to wait. Kept my hands in sight.
Time passed. Shadow-breakers buzzed my vision like darting sparrows. Then one of them dropped to the ground, landing as lightly as a venomous butterfly.
He was thin. Rope-muscled, with blue-blazed hair. Gloves and sneakers designed for his work. No elbow pads or knee guards—the bcc: always worked without a net.
“You want what?” he said, his voice years older than his body.
“I want E.J.,” I told him. “I know he’s gone. At the time he left, I couldn’t come to pay my respects. Now, I can. And that’s what I mean to do.”
“You knew E.J.?”
“He was my friend.”
“Say his name.”
“He was. And, the way it came to me, that’s how he left.”
“What came to you was true. You know the limit-words, then?”
“You try for the sky, you’re willing to die.”
“You know what to say. But I don’t know you. And I did know Edger. I knew all the crew who went before I took my place. So...?”
“So this: if you think I came here looking for information, information that you’d have, you’d be right. I don’t expect you to trust a stranger, so I won’t insult you with money. And I won’t embarrass myself by trying to use force. But I came for two reasons: the one you think—the info, yes; and one of my own—the one I said. You only get to say on the first one. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. But I’m here to pay my respect to Edger, and that you won’t stop me from doing.”
He watched me, not moving. Dark forms closed in.
I took a small black bottle from my jacket pocket. Razor Cognac, Edger’s score-celebration drink. I dropped to one knee, and spoke:
“I don’t know the spot where you fell, brother. So I mark this spot as yours, now.”
I poured an “X” onto the concrete.
“See you soon enough,” I said. And got to my feet.
I was almost to the corner when a voice came: “Wait.”
When I turned, there were three of them.
The first one who‘d dropped spoke. “If you’re who you say, if you’re who you say you were to Edger, you know the Recording Wall.”
“I don’t know it,” I told him, code-talking as I felt more shadows fill the untrustworthy light. “No outsider can know it, and I was never a member. But I know where it is. Would that tell you enough?”
“Enough to test. Will you climb with us?”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“Why can you not? If you knew Edger....”
“I already said I was never a member,” I told him. Then I switched to no-code truth: “I had the strength,” I said, speaking with the quiet gravity required for honor-talk. “I had the speed. I even had the balance. But I didn’t have the depth. Up close, I could do everything Edger could do. Better, in fact. And that’s what I did.”
A sharp intake of breath from one of the other two flanking their chief was the only response.
“You put in work?” the one with blue-blazed hair asked.
“Another test?” I answered his question with my own. “I know the bcc: doesn’t contract. I know you handle your own business in the Sector. But Edger had to cross the Membrane a number of times. If you knew him, you knew why. You know the rule.”
“Tell us,” he said.
“Some practice to better know, some risk to become better known.”
“And for those who learn? For those who become better?”
“Everybody climbs by themselves ... but nobody climbs alone,” I recited their creed.
“The one that went across with Edger those times, that was you?”
“It was,” I said.
“Where were you born?”
“In the night.”
“Not when, where?
“I just said.”
“Say your name, then.”
“That’s a dangerous name to claim.”
“For anyone else, it could be,” I said, adding a slight bow to soften my words.
“All we’ve heard.... But you never joined?”
“It’s my eyes,” I told them. “I can’t measure distances. I don’t mean I’m far-sighted or near-sighted or anything like that. I don’t need glasses. I can hold a ledge with my fingers, I can walk on my hands, I can drop from heights. But I can’t judge how far to fly. Too deep, too short ... never just right.”
“You can learn to—”
“—I tried,” I interrupted. “All I learned was how to fall. Edger could work blindfolded. He could feel distances I couldn’t even see. I could do some things, yes. But I’d always be ... limited.”
“And you couldn’t take that? You still could have joined. Still have been a full—”
“I couldn’t take that,” I admitted, in the voice of the deeply disaffected man-child I had once been. “There’s only three ways out of the Sector. The City ... plenty go, few stay. Stay alive, anyway. The Pure Zone ... who knows? The third path, Edger’s path, that was the sky. We came up together. If I couldn’t ride right next to him, I didn’t want to ride at all.”
The three of them stepped back. That’s when I saw one of them was a girl. She wasn’t hiding it, just not putting it out there.
I watched them talk, their faces turned sideways in case I could read lips.
They came back toward me.
“You won’t know how to find the building, and it’s not marked. But you’ll know the floor.”
“Thirteen,” I said.
“Follow us,” the girl answered, as if completing a riddle.
We walked for maybe twenty minutes. No one barred our way, but everyone watched. We stopped in front of a jagged tower I didn’t recognize.
“This is it,” the chief said. “You say you can’t climb as we do. All right—we’ll climb your way. With you.”
The place was an active hive, but no one moved toward us until the tenth floor. The man who stepped forward was a bullethead, about double my weight. “He does barriers,” a kid sitting on a wooden crate said. “Place for stop, lift for pay.”
Before I could ask the toll price, the humongo grabbed a thick rectangular pillar of what looked like ferrite that was standing against the wall. He hoisted it to his shoulder with a professional lifter’s grunted exhale, and carried it to where the four of us stood. He dropped to one knee and laid the pillar before us like he was unrolling a rug. He stepped back, mammoth arms too muscle-bowed to touch his sides.
“Just a trick,” I said.
“A trick?” the kid’s voice sneered. “Then you lift it.”
“Your man didn’t lift it,” I answered. “Not from the ground. It was standing, leaning against the wall. He just shifted it to his shoulder from there. But there’s no way to grip it lying flat as it is now.”
“Then how did it get to where he took it from?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Maybe took a dozen of you, working with levers. Or maybe a block-and-tackle. Hydraulics, air pumps ... there’s lots of ways. But you’ve got some system going. One you use all the time.”
“That’s just a guess.”
“Here’s another, then. I’m guessing your man can’t put it back where he got it from. Not alone.”
“So you won’t pay the toll?”
“I didn’t say that,” I said.
“Two gold,” the borderlord said.
“One,” I replied, knowing what was expected.
The thirteenth floor was empty except for stacks of concrete squares. They looked precisely uniform, no distinguishing marks. The girl pointed at a stack in a far corner. “Say your name again.”
“Carbon,” I spoke as if to Edger.
“Twenty-nine down,” she said.
The crew member who hadn’t spoken walked to a stack and began removing the squares from the top down, handling them as easily as if they were plastic poker chips. When he got down to where he wanted, he pulled a square free and carried it over to us. In one hand.
At a gesture from the girl, he turned over the square, revealing the handprint I’d placed in the wet concrete so many years ago. At another gesture from the girl, I walked to the opposite corner.
She dropped to her knees and mixed a little batch of concrete, then poured it into a wood frame. She held up one hand in a “Wait!” gesture.
A few minutes later: “Now.”
I knelt and placed my left hand down into the wet concrete, holding carefully to keep the impression as clear as I knew the other one would be.
Then we waited.
I put a pack of cigarettes on another stack. The girl took one. I lit it for her. Then I lit my own.
“You’re sure, aren’t you?” their chief said.
“Cradle to grave,” I told him. Words to convey commitment, not coverage. I didn’t remember my cradle, and Edger had out-raced me to the grave. But we’d come up together, climbing the milestones.
“They’re the same,” the girl told the other two.
“Put the new one back,” the chief told the silent one.
When he returned, the chief handed the original to me.
“A gift from Edger,” he said.
I handed the slab to the silent one, a hawk-faced youth with a long black ponytail. He knew what to do, holding it in two hands facing me. My first strike cracked the concrete. I snapped the individual pieces into smaller ones, working until there was nothing but dust. I used my hands to cup some of the dust into a tiny pile, then I swept the pile into a little leather bag and handed it to the chief.
“I know I can’t visit a departure place,” I said, formally. “I would be honored if you would add this to my friend’s last path.” I was speaking of a vapor trail, not a grave. There are no ground-burials in the Sector, only crematoriums ... some run as a business, some homemade. If the bcc: accepted my request, the dust from my mark—my true mark, not some added-on skin ink—would be tossed from the same spot where they’d said goodbye to Edger.
Each time the bcc: visited that spot, they’d get across on a wood bridge dropped between buildings. Each time they left, they’d burn that bridge.
He bowed his head, brought his fists together, then interlaced his fingers and touched the first knuckle of his right hand to his forehead.
I returned the gesture on pure muscle-memory.
When we descended to the tenth floor, the ferrite pillar was still lying across the corridor. The silent one pointed at it, looked a question at me. I nodded.
Together, we braced our feet against the wall, put our palms on the top of the pillar and walked it upright, as if we’d spent years rehearsing the move. When it stood against the far wall, I crouched and tipped it back toward me, taking it on my shoulder. Then I walked it past the kid on the wooden crate, all the way over to where the humongo had taken it from ... and tipped it against the wall.
The kid on the wooden crate held out the gold piece.
I shook my head in refusal. “You know who my friends are. You know they don’t need to climb stairs to reach your floor. Any floor. But, me, I needed your stairs. So your toll was fair.”
“We don’t charge tolls for friends.”
“We want to be friends,” the kid said, holding out the gold piece again. That time, I took it.