Drake paused and adjusted the angle of his fedora, resting it just a hair's breadth above the collar of his slate-grey trenchcoat. Donning dark leather gloves, he passed through a door that took him to an alleyway filled with acrid black masses of the scummy air the locals bitterly called "either"—leftover bits of aether from the Cloud so polluted by residue from every other resident of the country that breathing it meant instant receptacle overload unless one possessed a filter (the effect was a euphoric high and total disorientation, so some of the wilder youths would venture down there to "snort either" without leaving the Descender) or minimal credibility for those accustomed to picking through what amounted to an informational landfill for any bit that could be of use.
Revulsion caused Drake to wince and draw a sharp breath—then he grimaced and covered his face as the nearly-palpable bits of info burned the sensitive membrane inside his nose. He reached for his receptacle and activated the filter; normally he would ignore the filthy smog—he'd always had a death wish, reboot or no reboot—but today, he could not afford the attention. The filter had a reverse feature: whatever of the cleaner bits of info he inhaled, these were the only bits he exhaled as well. He did not absorb the info, and neither did he add any info of his own.
Drake's quick ears caught a high, sustained whine cutting through the hubbub of normal Street life. He glanced upward as an egg-shaped hover-bot enter the atmosphere from above. He maintained his pace as some of those around him foolishly stopped and pointed. Several ejaculations issued from a narrow alley, and a couple miscreants emerged and tried to run, but froze as the bot aimed the smaller end at them and tagged their receptacles. It moved on, punctuating the whine of it's motor with periodic whooshing sounds, as it took in the black "either" and searched for any contraband info—the trademark programming of a Sniffer. Drake remembered the two boys' wallets in his pocket and he grinned maliciously. Accessing them with his receptacle, he put a bit of info on each: both were high-level rumors, and both contradicted each other. He left the wallets on the sidewalk behind him and withdrew to a corner to watch the fun.
He nearly had to duck as the Sniffer came barreling toward the info it "smelled." It hovered over the two wallets, "sniffing" madly till Drake began to wonder if Sniffers ever hyperventilated. Clearly it did not realize that these wallets were not carried by a person, nor could it snag the wallets without verifying the information—but which one should it verify? Back and forth it wavered, till at last the info came that discredited both bits. The Sniffer shot back into the stratosphere. Drake laughed and moved to retrieve the wallets.
"One o' these days, yer antics'll get ye disconnected, laddie," a dry voice commented behind him.
Drake turned as a pile of trash shifted to reveal the face of the man wearing it. He grinned, showing the six remaining black incisors that allowed him to eat solid food still.
"I been wonderin' when I'd see yer face, Master Draconis," said the man.
Drake nodded. "D'you have something for me?" He pocketed the wallets and moved closer.
The dirty man laughed. "Don't I always? You know I was a spy in th' War, don't you? Ol' Skin-eye, they called me. Ah, those were th' days—"
"Yeah, yeah," Drake waved a hand. "Save it for later, Corey; right now I need info from the Gala."
Corey grinned again, almost preening his repulsive garments. "Did you see me?"
Drake recalled the image that contained a pile of trash remarkably like this one secreted behind several bushes where no one would look because it was so obviously trash.
"I did," he said. "You're lucky that Skyline security scans receptacles when it can't see faces."
"A Face with no face," Corey chuckled. "That's what you wanted, i'nnit?"
"Yup," Drake responded curtly. "Now, spill."
"Awright, awright, keep yer safety on! Now, I was waitin' in this sweet little hideaway near the shrub'ry, right before an alleyway, see, cause nobody looks at trash in an alleyway, know it? People is worried 'bout blokes seein' 'em go inter the alley, they don't pay no mind ter anybody wot's already in there, 'specially if that somebody hides all stealthy-like under a pile o' toss—"
"Corey!" Drake snapped, stemming the rambling flow of words. "What did you see?" He struggled to keep his cool.
"I'm gettin' t' that, okay? anyways, I was sittin' there, and who should saunter on my way but Shawna Barstowe!"
"Barstowe?" Drake repeated, as his receptacle drew up images of her at the gala, dressed in the latest fashion and duly escorted by— "The Chief 's wife? What did she want?"
"Oh, Drakey-boy, it was juicy! She's standin' there all pert-like, an' this bloke up'n' says—"
"What Bloke?" Corey fairly exploded. "Why, The Bloke! Captain Whitaker hi'ssel'!"
The weight of the info immediately pressed down upon Drake's mind. He felt rooted to the spot and light as a feather in the wind in the same moment. He could hardly speak, his mind spun so fast.
"W-wh—how... What did he say?"
Corey fixed the younger man with a pronounced stinkeye. "If ye want me ta tell ye, ye's gorra stop interruptin', ye know?"
Drake nodded without saying a word.
Corey forged ahead, placated.
"He chatted ta Mrs. Barstowe like they was old friends, an' then 'e starts in with summat like, 'I'm still waiting for your answer.' and she gets to fussin' an' says 'The answer's yes, you heartless old—"
"Never mind what she called him," Drake spoke over his friend as the panhandler repeated the epithets with particular vim. "Answer to what?"
Corey shrugged one shoulder. "Dunno; even after she told him yes, he asked if 'it' was ready—that's all 'e ever said, 'it'—an' she said she had it an' I thought I saw a stick or two change hands."
"You thought?" Drake snarled. Could this at last be the elusive scandal he sought. "Corey, tell me right now exactly everything you saw at that precise moment, or I swear I am going to—"
"'Alf a moment! 'Ere now!" Corey shoved him away with surprising strength for one so emaciated. "Whippersnapper! I was watchin' 'er at least—He stayed outta sight, the old bag—saw the street lights glint offa her pretty diamond necklace, she was wearin' somethin' by Queen somebody—you know the one—and she was all anxious about somethin', standin' from foot to foot, and... Yeah, after they talked, I saw them touch hands, and she said somethin' like 'Hope it's enough' and they parted ways."
Drake smiled; it certainly had been a handoff, from what Corey described. This was just the start he needed. "Thanks, Corey," Drake grunted, and stepped away from the hobo.
"Oy! Drake," Corey waved a grimy hand. "Better watch yersel' round these parts. There's spooks about, in street clothes no less."
Drake blinked as he processed this information. "What are WRAITHS doing on the Streets?"
Corey shrugged again. "Dunno; just thought I should warn ye, seeing as ye might be able to find them, being one of 'em back in the day an' all."
Drake nodded, wincing as his filter scrubbed out references to his former identity that sprang from his organic mind. In programming his memory chip he had included all of the skills of an officer of the Welsh Representative Assembly Information Tech Hit Squad, but nothing that ever referenced him by name, as that would be illegal and also a beacon for the authorities to find him where he hid. These tech security officers were known by their acronym, WRAITHS, or, by the disenfranchised, “spooks.”
“Thanks, Corey,” said Drake. “I’ll keep a weather eye.”
“You do that.” Either Corey had suddenly developed a manic tic, or there was something he wanted Drake to see without appearing to look.
Drake surreptitiously slid his eyes over to the spot Corey indicated a man sat at a dingy table in front of a grungy café, nursing a tall stein of something. He’d been sitting there the whole time, this down-on-his-luck Walker. Drake nearly concluded that Corey was being paranoid. Then the man raised the tankard to his lips and tipped his head back, downing the whole thing. Drake chose that moment to continue on his way.
By the time the disguised WRAITH lowered the stein, his quarry had all but vanished. But the officer had been prepared for this. Scratching his hairless forearm under the rough fabric of his Streetwalking garb, he shuffled on to the next checkpoint. A woman admiring the distressed clothing in a shop window spotted the Walker and suddenly decided to enter the shop. Five minutes later, a Descender loaded with uniformed WRAITHS penetrated the either.
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