Connolly, Tina: “The Bitrunners”

The Bitrunners

by Tina Connolly

The thing about Mars is, they catch you when you yoink stuff.

Criming on Mars is about keeping your nose clean. It’s about please and thank you and slipping the credits and if you have to no-air someone, you do it slick and untraceable. You spike the software on their ship, you make it nice and accidental—nothing cop Station will have to squarely investigate or risk a visit from HQ of the Nine. And you specially stay spotless if you’re a thick-fingered brute Crimer dult who stands to inherit command of the biggest fronting casino of that joy-ridden planet.

Moonbase is another story.

Moonbase is grey and sharp divisioned. It’s got brute dult Crimers so nasty they take all of cop Station’s time. What’s left can slip through the cracks, if it knows to play small. You keep your nose clean on Moonbase, they know you’re up to something. Criming here is another con altogether.

This was the gang, the real gang: Batel, Webbl, Tank, and me. This was the heart.

Batel, sides all else, was the best yoinker on Moonbase. She once got the whole gang finger knives from the tightest midcircle store there was, and then she yoinked the bitties a new sleep inflatable on her way out, just so she could watch them sleep on it, cuddled up as sweet as inner circle babes. Those finger knives were under plastic, too, and looped with lasers to alarm the clerk.

For the lasers she used a bristle, course, and being Batel, she’d yoinked that from the cop Station when El Ted had ratted her and she’d been drugged in. It takes skill to master a bristle, to disrupt and reflect lasers how you want them. She holed up in one of her hideys three weeks, mastering the bristle. When I saw her at last she was skinnier than gridlines, and burned up and down both arms, and those big black eyes were dead craters.

And then the first thing she had to do, right there in the outer circle passage was dodge Martha’s sharpened picks, snick out her boot knife and take Martha in the kidneys, cause Martha must’ve thought to earn an important place she had to take Batel’s. Nega one had realized how crazy Martha’d gotten, till we saw it. Surely not even Batel saw it coming, not from the girl she’d taken under her wing—yet all burnt up and unprepared she took Martha down. Then she showed us what she could do with the bristle.

You want a cry story, try the girlie gang in the spacesuit district. I’m nega gonna bawl about what happened on Mars.

Our gang’s special. Oh, Randie from the Starslicers will tell you her gang’s totally fuelled and everyone knows it. And yeah, if you like brute power you can ask nicely to join up with them. You got some dult dolt trying to grab himself a quick kiddie fix, you can pay the Starslicers to put a stop on that, and a no-air final-type stop it’ll be, too. Or you don’t want brute, you want cool and swingin’, a hepcat gang of the wonkest kiddies, you go join Citizen. Citizen’s full of fast flicks, slick con talkers who’ll run the best lost rich kiddie con you ever saw.

But our gang? Sure, we got a rep. Riband’s known all over for being regular petty yoinkers. Batel and Webbl and I work hard to keep that average mec vibe well out there. It is a skill, perhaps hard a skill to master as a bristle. Thing is, any gang’s got to stay known. Else you have nega fuel, cause the size of your fuel’s measured by what it’s known you are liable to do. You get too known, you get extra sniffing from cop Station. So our skill is petty yoinking, and we make sure we’re good enough to keep in grub and gear, but not so good that others want to take us down to the dust.

But the main reason we gotta stay known is cause our gang has a secret. And when you’ve got a dead hidden secret you gotta front it. Mars you front it with legit stuff; casinos and joyrides. Moonbase you front it with pettiness. Kiddie or dult, brain or brute, Mars or Moonbase—there’s always a front, else sniffers will wonder how you got all that fancy gear you’ve been sporting.

See, the real gang, the heart of the gang, are bitrunners. And bitrunning is no-air dangerous.

It’s so dangerous it’s the whole reason we have to keep a gang around us, like midcircle Moonbase protects the credited who live inner circle. Nega one of Riband know what we really do. They just think we’re the best yoinkers, which we are, specially my Batel. And they think we chose them cause they’ll grow into future best yoinkers, which they nega no way no-air will. We chose them to keep us in trouble, little trouble. We chose them to keep our gang looking a little skilled and a little more lousy and a lot of petty. Grub we yoink, and used gear and duct tape. Petty stuff, so petty that if cop Station decides to bother kiddies they go stake out the brute Starslicers for a few days. Not us.

And that is the plan. Because bitrunning is so no-air dangerous it scares even the hardest brute Crimers. Crimers who bitrun make zeroes and zeroes of credits. dult bitrunners, like those my uncle hires, go on jobs with crazy numbers of backups, grown-up Starslicer types whose job is to look invisible and shield the bitrunner. And that job is no-air dangerous as well, though at least you got the chance to sell out your bitrunner stead of being negatid along with him.

But we don’t have shields, and we don’t have much else’n our finger knives. What we have is our bitcatcher install, our brains, and our secrecy. That secrecy is our outer circle.

Cop Station never did wise up to us. We bitran right under their noses for two solid years; raked up enough credits to each open an inner circle hotel if we wanted. We were never caught and never noticed and we bitran right up till Mars and my uncle.

Batel first started running cons eight years ago. Cons built around the truth are best, and just like me, Batel figured that out. First it was all truth and little con; she begged credits for being a half-orphaned kiddie with a dusted dad. As she got good and bored she added another layer and the truth con came to life—she played a con artist pretending to be a regular orphaned kiddie. Her brother Tank left his job porting baggage at the flyzone when he saw she was raking it, and they ran a modified pigeon drop with Tank as a Crimer hunter out to catch con kiddie Batel. Tank wasn’t dusting then; he conned well enough following Batel’s lead, but if the con fell through he fell straight back on his fists. When confused, Tank fought. That was his no-air dead end.

Webbl came next, just when both girls had passed their tenth. Batel said once that Webbl was already beautiful then, with her fine-boned face and fringed eyes. I think Tank was in love with her a little. She paired well with tiny child-like Batel—Webbl was from ten to midteen the perfect androgyne, able to pass for girl or girlie and turn heads either way.

With three of them under Batel’s lead the cons became more elaborate and more dangerous. With the trickier cons came times that Tank would mess up.

This is where I enter their story.

Batel and Tank’s story was simple: a dead mom and a dusted dad they avoided. Webbl was a typical outer circle orphan, parents unknown. The kiddie gangs are full of orphan center refugees. Our Leit was one, and the bitties Tap and Henry. Martha was of course not from outer circle. We should have known not to trust her. She was a credited inner circle kiddie who’d watched too many old Moonbase flicks. She pestered Batel to take her on. Later she tried to repay her with sharpened picks. You can’t trust those who had choices. They think different.

Batel and Webbl were twelve then. Tank had become a full-grown dult with a taste for dust. It was low then. He could keep it hidden. So far all Batel knew was that Tank was hanging out with nasty Crimer sorts, no scoopers, but nega brain Crimers either. Brute Crimers. He was considering joining some ex-Starslicers who were hiring out as shields—and though the no-brain nega knew it—slicers. Batel and Webbl were running most of the cons by themselves, slick things that made them giggle. They talked about the future. They needed to get out into the Nine, said Batel. The tourists talked about the gambling resorts on Mars. They flashed winnings which the girls took. Though she didn’t know thing one about criming on Mars, my Batel thought big and planned for it.

But the string of easy marks with fresh credits was too slick. Your shields go down when every-all’s moving your way.

Batel and Webbl tried to run a conner.

You want that sob story? It isn’t here, so don’t think it. Bam, things happen, your life changes. You plan, and then bam, another blow, a brand new direction. Roll with that cracked rib and get up again or you die. Things are what they are.

My parents were brain Crimers, slick conners who seldom missed their mark. They used me, they taught me, they were wonk, till a ship malfunction deep-spaced them, left them bug-eyed and splattered across the galaxy. That malfunction left my uncle—a penny ante no-brain brute—with zeroes of credits, the command of a thriving fronting casino, and me.

Do I have proof that my uncle jigged the ship software? In life, in cons, you don’t always need proof to know what happened. And sides, what’s proof good for? Good for throwing at a judge and seeing if she’ll buy a kiddie story. But they won’t, they never, and you gotta depend on your brains. Your closest friend might no-air you if they had to. Even if they nega wanted that. Your own self is all you got.

My uncle caught me sniffing his setup. Poking around his files, looking for the ship software hack I knew he had. But he’s a dult and my guardian. He didn’t have to run any con on me, spin any elaboration, not when I was still seven years away from being a dult and four from being a legal midteen. He packed me off to onboard school and I had to go.

Life hits you, you continue. I spent most the trip planning ways to run the onboard school. I couldn’t get to my uncle yet, I could at least run the other kiddies, who would no doubt be well stacked with credits. But when Batel and Webbl brought chance into my life I took it.

Jo Turn was my handler to drop me at onboard school. He’d been my regular handler on Mars, too, since I was a bitty, and though after the explosion he’d shut his mouth and quietly gone to work for my uncle—you can’t blame him. We’d been through a lot. I could count on him to look the other way for the occasional disappearing act. I liked Jo Turn. But to say truth, Jo Turn was an ex-conner who couldn’t give up the game. That’s why, when we were doing our touristy bit on Moonbase layover, when Batel and Webbl tried to run their modified con-yoink on us, well then, that’s when Jo Turn’s eyes lit with the old fire. Conning the conners was just about his favorite thing in the universe.

I liked Jo Turn. This is nega for sobbing. Some things happen. Things are what they are.

Jo Turn made himself out to be the biggest mark the girls had ever seen. He swallowed their hard-luck story as if it was green cheese. Like I said, the girls had gotten careless. They talked and dreamed, but that moment was an easy tourist time, with lots of credited émeegs moving through and out to the new luxury terraformation outside of the Nine. The girls truth conned them up and down, posing as kiddies posing as legal midteens. Then Tank would gear up all official and burst in just in time. After the mark bawled, he’d loose them with a warning—and a confiscation of the credits they’d paid the girls. The mark looked extra credited or extra weak, he’d demand a hard credit bribe on top.

Jo Turn went right along with Webbl’s con. He implied he had a thickness of hard credits on his person. He even gave some to Batel to “keep an eye on me.” Course, both of us could see right through the girls. Good conners always know they’re being conned.

Jo Turn shouldn’t have been conning while he was handling me. But he looks the other way for me, I look the other way for him. Sides, even wearing all that dult makeup Batel was clearly very wonk. I let her buy me a pop and I sat blinking and kicking my heels, conning that I was younger’n my ten years, eyeing the way things progress here on Moonbase. Meanwhile, Jo Turn proceeds with the con. And when Tank bursts in with his badge, Jo Turn flips open a splashier one. He’s an off-duty cop, he runs, just passing through Moonbase. He’d prefer to not tie up his vacation dragging conners to the local cop Station. But for the price of a very thick bribe….

I am told that Webbl said for Tank to give it up. Real cop or no, Webbl knew when they’d been licked. Sides, it was just once, then this dult would be gone.

But Tank thought he knew better. He was half dusted anyway, and stead of giving it up or talking through it, he whipped out a fistful of finger knives. Jo Turn was no dummy, but Tank was younger and faster and he shredded Jo Turn from belly to gullet before my handler could get more’n a few slices on Tank’s chest.

I knew Jo Turn was no-air gone soon as a white Webbl beckoned at Batel from around a passageway. You live your life with Crimers, you know when a drop’s gone wrong. Batel patted my head and told me to be good a moment, then she hurried after Webbl.

I vanished.

It’s funny. I’d managed not to think of Jo Turn for nearly four years, not till me and the girls and Tank were on that ship to Mars with our bitcatcher installs and our plans. He was a good mec. Not so slick, dicted to his cons the way Tank was to dust. But a good mec.

The thing about dults is, cops are on the lookout for them. But kiddies? They are sure we are braindead and super petty. Real cons, real yoinks—they nega think the kiddies are capable of that organization, and mostly, they are right.

The thing about dult Crimers is, they are dults first, Crimers second. The only reason for a Crimer—or regular mec—to hire a bitrunner is cause they’re sporting powerful info they don’t want sent through eyed channels. As for the bitrunner—once that bit packet’s shot into your wrist, you slap a bit of skin culture over the install and less’n a minute it’s vanished. You can walk right through security stations, right under Scanners, and nega one can read your data or even see that you have data, or an install, at all. Not less they slash your wrist, and that isn’t legal anywhere in the Nine. You look clean and you could be anybody.

But smart Crimers are on the lookout for anybody. They eye behavior patterns, they learn the bitrunners and they watch to see who’s making a downloaded run. They nab you. They pay you to turn. Or more likely, they cut the bit packet right out of your arteries, leaving one more bitrunner, cool and credited and dead on the ground.

Kiddie bitrunners—nobody suspected those.

With Jo Turn gone, I took my chance. I e-mailed my uncle from an untraceable account, complained I hated onboard school. Told him I was heading out of the Nine with the latest colony of émeegs and he shouldn’t bother looking for me cause I would be unfindable. I got a head-toe dye-job and headed out to the outer circle, mingled with the orphans like a recent midcircle abandoned. Pretty soon I let Batel see me pull a slick bit of con/yoink, and I was in the gang.

After their con on Jo Turn went bad the three of them straightened up. They made better plans, kept eyes peeled, and Tank stopped dusting while on a job. They started looking to the future again and pulling me in was a part of thinking ahead. I was pretty sure that was all it was—my own con-savvy mother wouldn’t have recognized me with the dye job—but you never knew one hundred percent what went on behind Batel’s round black eyes.

The bit about keeping our nose dirty, that was Batel’s slick idea. Even not growing up with the benefits of a Crimer family, even not knowing life out in the Nine, she thought of that. I give her full credit. Tank did not see its brilliance. Tank wanted to be known for being totally fuelled, possibly also brute. But he was dult then, and jonesing to split anyway. Not a couple weeks after I got near enough to him, he signed up as a shield for a bitrunner and the gang, the heart of the gang, was back down to three.

Bitrunning was old news on Mars, but it was new to Moonbase. It is beyond likely that Tank did not know what he was getting into. His bitrunner promised him a thickness of credits to stay clean and trustable and be one half the shield few times a week and he took it.

We nega thought of us bitrunning right away. First thing we did once I was on the inside was put Batel’s simple-slick plan into being as cover for whatever we would do. We took on some bitties from the orphan center, couple no-brain rejects from the other gangs. Martha, the inner-circle idiot. We kept all of them in secret as to the real work, kept them busy training and yoinking and plain old goofing, and Batel and Webbl and I ran some fine slick cons.

We were cool but not very credited. And Tank as a shield was now taking in credits by the fistfuls. I followed him some, watching him, eyeing the layouts of the dult gangs. It was clear that to get what I wanted this gang had to think bigger. I saw the way cop Station treated the kiddies, like so petty. And us the pettiest of all.

It was time to get away with real action. And that action was bitrunning.

Tank had already been in several serious applications of bruteness. And two other bitrunners, not his, had been negatid in nasty ways. Outer circle Moonbase was quick to realize the potential and thereby create the danger in bitrunning. It was a big step even for a gang that thought big.

Never-less. It was done, and the three of us got our bitcatchers installed in our wrists from a guy who was leaving Moonbase and thus could keep a secret. We set up a regular deal with the two Crimers and one official smart enough to understand keeping us secret was in their own interest. We would nega have told Tank even, cept Batel insisted. We started bitrunning.

The bitcatcher install is very very small. It’s a tiny port just in the blue vein at your wrist—visible if you look for it, less you want to keep covering it in cultured skin. Some bitrunners cover the plastic hole with jewelry between runs; a bangle or links with a timepiece in it. That would have drawn more attention on outer circle kiddies on Moonbase. We might have gone with nothing, but Batel was passing through an inner circle tourist trap and she yoinked the whole gang cheapo plastic wrist shields like Citizen was sporting last year. Out of date gang finery for a petty-fronted gang: Batel saw the precise details that made a con into art.

We bitran on Moonbase for two years and every one of the risks we ran would be a story in itself. Some days I thought I might not carry out certain of my old plans; just park on Moonbase and rake in bitrunning credits. But then you remember that nothing lasts forever. Even dults catch on eventually, specially when Batel’s less child-like and Webbl not so androgyne and even my feet are lengthening, so fast I can hardly yoink enough boots to keep up. My dye job’s fading too, as my skin stretches—it’s slow still, but you can tell by my feet I’m about to grow good and hard. I’m almost to my fourteenth and sometimes it hits me like a punch to the gut how little time I have left under the radar.

If I wanted to take the next step it had to be now.

I told the gang, the real gang, about my uncle deep spacing my parents. And that I had—a little—money if we could get to it. It’s best to use as much of the truth as you can. Didn’t need to use half my persuasions, neither. They jumped at the chance to get to Mars. So we planned a con to take us there. Never return, less we failed.

I pretended to be a lesser known Crimer contacting my uncle about expanding his business to Moonbase. It was the sort of mundane contact he’d buy, least enough to scope out the bitpacket we were sending. Though he’d be alert for cons as a matter of course, he was no paranoiac. He’d started as a brute, as I said, and conducted daily business with only a shield or two. So he’d been and so I’d confirmed with a trusted sniffer kiddie from Mars. More to the point, my uncle was a limited dult in his thinking. Less they were specially brainy, all dults saw were other dults.

It was a simple truth con far as the gang knew—me as both Moonbase Crimer and his bitrunner, Tank as my shield. I’d get a fresh dye job, play the slickest part ever. The girls would go to Mars but not to the meeting. I nega wanted Batel to be in the room, not when I couldn’t swear to myself exactly how it would play out. I told them my uncle hated girls, which might well be true as he deep spaced his sister without regret. Once on Mars, I said, I would download a business proposal, stick around to discuss it as my Crimer’s agent, and at some point—perhaps over a pint—give Tank the eye and jab my uncle with the poison. Tank’d clean up any shields before they knew anything had gone down.

It had to be poison; it was the simplest thing to smuggle to Mars and to my uncle. My uncle might not be paranoid wary, but still we’d nega get past his shields with guns or splosives. There was only one person on all of Moonbase who could yoink the poison from the nastiest Crimer in the spacesuit district—my Batel—and she did, bristling the laser locks and slipping past every trap as only she could. If there had been another way…. I hated to hurt her.

We got to Mars, we got to my uncle, slicker’n anything. Batel waited nearby, a lonesome midteen slouching around the passageways. And when my uncle asked Tank politely to download his packet to the table bitcatcher, he was confused. “I’m not the bitrunner,” he said. “It’s him.” But I was a scrawny kiddie and they didn’t look twice. Tank’s words were a deviation from the script and deviations put you on guard. My uncle’s brute tossed me to the floor. There was a pain like a finger knife puncturing my chest and I thought maybe I cracked a rib. I curled onto my other side and looked dead, which wasn’t hard except for the trouble breathing. Tank could still have talked it through, could’ve explained the truth as he knew it, even if he had nega the brains to figure it all.

But when confused, Tank fought.

He whipped out a fistful of finger knives and lunged at my uncle’s waiting brute. Mars has slicker weapons. But Mars has nothing on Moonbase in fighting dirty. A stab and a twist, and dult-wise, the room was down to Tank and my uncle.

Tank looked at me and I saw he knew then I’d set him up, though he nega knew why. I was sorry for that. I couldn’t like him, but I liked Batel for loving him. Didn’t want him to think his setup was meaningless. I couldn’t have got past both my uncle and the brute myself—and I definitely couldn’t do it slick and untraceable like Mars demanded, not with the cards I held. Petty brute Tank was my wild card, the mec I could justify taking down or letting live, as needed.

My uncle had all the time needed in the few seconds it’d taken Tank to finish off the brute. He shot Tank down; three precise pops, no louder’n the sound Tank made as he crumpled. Then Tank was limp and burbling on the floor and my uncle had slit his skin and was massaging his arteries with something like a long skinny suction nozzle. I wondered how long he’d look for that non-existent packet. I didn’t let him.

I rolled on that rib and came up behind him, glad my gasping was covered by Tank’s choking. I kicked his gun with my foot and slammed the poison dart under his ear. It’s the stuff they use to kill indigene beasts on new planets and the Crimers keep smuggling it around cause it’s the simplest stuff to slip past ship security.

My uncle turned and looked at me, just as Tank had. But unlike Tank—he understood. Despite my disguise, he knew. I thought it would make me glad but I just felt nothing. His eyes were like my mother’s, brown and bright. The memory of crazy credited-kiddie Martha attacking Batel went looping through my head, and Batel, who had once sung Martha to sleep, taking her down to the dust. Then at last my uncle’s mirrored eyes glazed over and he fell next to Tank, in the blood, just lying there, breathing long and shallow. I knew it would take awhile for the poison to stop everything. But somehow I had nega known how it’d be to stand there, hunched over a cracked rib, with my two murdering dults breathing their painful breaths, one on his last wet gasps, the other lengthening into forever stillness.

One last shudder and Jo Turn’s murderer was finally negatid. I dropped a handful of moondust right into his running arteries quick as I could.

Backed away just as a white Batel burst in. I knew she’d know. You live your life around Crimers, you just know when a drop’s gone wrong. She would’ve dropped to her knees next to her stiffening brother, cept I yanked her away from the river of blood and my still-breathing uncle. Wouldn’t do to be caught there, not when the scene was perfect as it was. She looked at me then with those beautiful black eyes so childlike and slick and I shivered like she’d caught me out, like I was crazy Martha myself. God, I hated to hurt Batel. But things are what they are.

I flushed my dye job, got a haircut, and intercepted the notice sent to my onboard school—kept loose ends tidy. Made it seem like we were just now coming in to Mars at the spaceport, sad and distraught, with a stumbling Batel at my side and Webbl carrying my luggage. Under my shirt, my ribs were taped with clean white bandages. My Batel had the choice to leave; the girls had plenty of bitrunning credits. But both of them stayed, and smart of them too. Within a week the judge confirmed the inheritance just as I hit my fourteenth and became a legal midteen, able to control my own future, what and how and who, all legit and above board.

See, Mars is different than Moonbase. In Mars, you have to keep your hands clean. The days of looking a little small and a lot more petty, those were over, negatid with the dead dusted Tank. This was the future, and Batel would be near me every second. She’s got a part in everything. The girls and I were ready to think big and Mars would fall at our feet. Legitimacy would be our new outer circle.

Cause this was the gang, you see. This was the heart, then and future, dead or live. Tank, Webbl, me.

And Batel.