The inside of Hub 22 was just the old-fashioned way Drake liked it: metal stools, strobing lights on the walls, and plenty of the heart-pumping, chest-thumping music so obnoxiously bassy you could taste the beat. He paused to soak in the atmosphere. The bars in the upper levels had definitely lost their touch. In the concentrated effort to find the perfect balance of sensory resonance for optimal libation, all clubs and lounges of any kind were nothing more than padded restaurants that served more alcohol than food. Here in the Streets, they still knew how to club.
"Lemme go! I got rights! I can be 'ere same as everybody else!"
Drake heard the high voice pierce the comfortable sound barrier of the music. He craned his neck to see what was going on. Two bouncers made their way to the door, bearing a compact, struggling body between them. Drake curled his lip in a sneer and resumed jostling his way to the bar. Stupid kids; the Streetlings were convinced that the laws Up There didn't apply Down Here, that one could drink and smoke and do whatever the heck they wanted when they felt ready to deal with it. The bouncers returned from the doorway and resumed their posts along the wall of the pub.
"Fire in the Hole!"
Drake's eyes lit up as he saw the flaming stein on the corner. He let the flames die and then took a sip, the scalding beverage desensitizing his tongue before searing a path down his throat to smolder in his stomach. All that remained was the blessed taste of the gin on his breath.
"The Dragon walks," she murmured, winking at him as she pulled three drafts and set them on a tray. Her bouncy brown curls reflected the colored lights and made her ponytail sparkle like some child had dumped glitter all over her head. "I was beginning to wonder if I would ever get the chance to serve the Fire again before I left."
"Oh, come on, Marta," Drake chided, "It hasn't been that long, has it?"
Marta winked her icy-blue eye at him. "At my age, three months might as well be eternity!"
Drake snorted as he sipped his drink. Marta didn't look a day over thirty, but then again, life expectancy in the Streets plummeted every year past 25—the age he'd been when They deactivated him. Drake shrugged it off and changed the subject.
"What's that you were saying about leaving?" He prompted. "What, Streets of Wales not good enough for you?"
Marta shrugged easily as she loaded bins of flutes and steins into an automatic washer. "I'm just saying I want to be in charge of the day I leave—get out before I get thrown out, y'ken?"
"Thrown out?" Drake echoed, mystified. "What do you mean?"
Marta shot him an incredulous sneer. "You didn't smell that?"
Drake buried his face in the charred foam. "Sorry honey; filter's on."
Marta rolled her eyes. "Here." She pulled her wallet out of her apron pocket and activated it. Drake used eye contact to activate a wireless connection with his receptacle. What he learned caused a deep frown to form on his face.
Assembly-sanctioned evacuations were underway. The WRAITHS razed homes around the outskirts and chased the families away, forcing them to relocate—but where? A high wall separated the Streets from the rest of the world. Once, countries had no such borders and citizens could visit other countries at their leisure—but now that was a privilege only possible for the City Levels.
"Where are they going?" Drake asked as his receptacle compiled the data. "The relocation program provides permissions for at least being able to go over the wall, right?"
"Yeah," Marta snorted. "For a price! I don't know where the ones who can't afford it go. Some have Witnessed a few of the Displaced returning to sites that have already been raided."
"So why evacuate?" Drake pressed, nodding to signal that they were going to engage in covert matters now. "What news from Up Top?"
Marta smiled; with her bouncy curls straightened and her artificial scar over her right eye, and the one Upper-Level dress she had ever owned and worked hard to keep in the latest style, no one would ever know that the enchanting beauty at all the galas was just a Street-level barmaid spying on them all.
"Sure, Big Daddy's got big dreams," said Marta.
Whitaker is definitely planning something—something expensive.
"For the farm or for the family?"
Are we talking something nationwide or just focused on a specific level of citizens?
"It starts with family, but I hear Daddy's fixing to buy the farm next."
Whatever he's got planned, the evacuations are the first stage, but he's going to practically have control of the country when they finish.
"And how does Big Mama feel about this?"
Would the Assembly—or even Parliament —let him get away with this?
Marta smirked. "Mama was always scared of rats, you know; so Daddy told her it was just a new mouser."
Whitaker had been playing up the evils of the streets and the crime for so long, that the Assembly will very likely let him do what he wants under the guise of "crime control."
Drake recalled the raid he'd Witnessed on the way over. "Mousers," he muttered, echoing the code word for the WRAITHS. "You heard about the sting that almost happened?"
Marta smiled as the Whitaker topic took a backseat for a while. "Word is, Somebody's channeling bloody St. George. By the time I heard anything, it sounded like they'd pigeon-holed you."
Drake chuckled, "So I'm a pigeon, am I?"
"The way Corey told it, you're a bloody sparrow. He says it took him hours to finally eye the bugger, and you scoop him out in half a second."
She crossed her arms and leaned conspiratorially over the counter. Her white neck gleamed in the strobing light. "How do you do it, anyway? The spooks figure out how to look, act, and sound like us, but you suss them as soon as blink."
Drake drained the last of the Fire and gestured to his forearm. "It's the hair," he answered. Normally, he wouldn't care to tell even an old trusted friend like Marta, but the drink had made him amiable, and he'd had a very productive day already. He continued under Marta's interested gaze.
"Part of a WRAITH's duty is to accept applications from Assembly members who need something done."
Marta shuddered. "That's black market stuff!"
"I know," Drake answered. "Whitaker would handle the whole thing; you know, those fat cats want nothing more than to live in their perfect little floating bubbles of happiness—they don't care how it's managed."
"Okay, but what do applications have to do with hair?"
"You know how an application works, right?"
"Not really," Marta admitted.
Drake showed her an image from his wallet. "An application is a clear silicon sheet that has been printed with a chemical ink that only reacts with human skin. The only way it gets read is by activating the ink—"
Marta nodded. "I get it: applying it to the skin. But how does that explain how you knew the spook was WRAITH?"
Drake pulled back the cuff on his sleeve so Marta could see the scars on his arm. "The chemical burns the skin to be visible. Softer skin is less painful, but the message doesn't last very long. Most Mercs use the inside of the arm as a nice, taut surface, but too many applications, and it sears over. The only choice then is to apply on the back of the arm. The hair burns off fast, and the skin takes longer to sear."
Marta's eyes flicked up to his face. "His arm," she whispered.
Drake nodded. "Saw it when he drained his glass. No hair means Mercenary Witness—and Mercenary Witness out and about when the WRAITHS are haunting means spook."
Marta chuckled appreciatively at his cleverness.
Drake chuckled to himself as he sauntered down the alleys of the Streets toward the bunker. In a way he was almost glad that he no longer had his old job that required him to live in The Stacks, as Walkers referred to them. There were no secret corners or hideaways there. Each living space had to be registered in order for a Descender to carry the resident to it—the only way people ever got around anymore. Drake paused at the door and glanced up.
This was one of the few vantage points from which at least one outer face of the "vertical nation" was visible: he could see into the low-twentieth level, watch the Descenders like so many beetles crawling up and down the sides of the city, along the tracks. Drake gave the lot of them a one-finger salute and stomped down the stairs to his bunker.
Archie and Blaine had not returned. This was no surprise; it was supper time, after all, and Hannery's wife brooked no absence from this auspicious meal. Drake removed the filter and activated his receptacle. The comp activated in response and commenced offloading the info he'd picked up from his "faces." Such a confusing mass of data. The streams dribbled before his eyes like rain down a window pane; as the leather chair absorbed his body heat and confirmed to his shape in its cradle, his eyes drooped...
Drake Ross hit the floor with a bang that sent a jolt through his entire body. The comp unit blinked "OFFLOAD COMPLETE"—but wasn't that usually a silent affair?
Someone stepped out of the shadows behind him. Her dirty blond hair looked like she'd cut it herself with dull scissors. His practiced eyes noticed the minute scar on her brow line that bespoke a fine-grade receptacle—but it was the grungy pip from the Hub!
"Heard you was in," she grunted, sounding for all the world like the Walker she looked. "Th'said you could do it."
Drake's brain felt like a rusted comp unit trying to track a six-tera data stream. "Hell..." was all he could manage.
She stepped toward him, still fixing those weird blue eyes, which he knew he'd seen before, on him. She wore scuff-rags on her hands, and the delicate fingers were so clean compared to the rest of her clothing that they fairly glowed. "Can you?" She asked.
Drake shook off the shock and smirked derisively. "Do what?"
"Delete somebody for me."
It sounded so morbid, the way she said it so flatly, Drake choked back a laugh. "Aren't you a little young to want somebody dead?" He asked.
"Not that sort, you numpty!" She spat, rolling her eyes. "Cybercide."
Drake balked, sizing up the street-pixie who seemed to know a heck of a lot more about him than he knew about her—such as where to find his bunker, and how to get in!
She misread his hesitation. "You are the one they call the Dragon, right? The bloke who blew the servers at the Assembly with the Rot and got the I.A. Minister booted last month when all the rainmakers were trying to tell us he was a shoo-in?"
Drake smiled smugly in spite of himself at the memory. That was some clever bit of wriggling, finding just the right penetration point in the Minister's data stream to divert specific messages to the WRAITH team just when they were on the cusp of searching for him—but how had she known that? She certainly looked more like a pickpocket than a hacker. Those scuff-rags didn't just keep your hands from getting cut by rough cement, and the adept fingers needed to be free for more of a reason than just their aesthetic value. Drake sent a signal from his receptacle to power down his wallet so she couldn't swipe it.
"Okay, kid," he sighed and smirked at her. "You got me; I'll bite. What's the job?"
She crossed her arms and shook her head. "First promise you'll do it!" She demanded.
"Listen you little chit," Drake loomed over her, "I don't have to promise a damn thing! I am the Dragon, and this is my Lair, and I can throw you out so fast you won't know which way is down!"
The two glared at each other for a very long time. The girl broke first.
"Fine then!" She retorted. She reached into her left scuff-rag and dug out a small microchip, which she handed to him. Drake grabbed a digital "bump-drive" and began decrypting the information it contained.
"What's this?" He asked, even as his Receptacle recognized the data as reference files, copies of the data he could use to "scent" every last vestige in the Cloud. The more reference data, the stronger the "scent"; a stronger scent, in turn, meant a more complete deletion.
"Who's the target?" He asked, as the general files commenced decryption.
The girl watched the white data streaming on the blue field as if she knew exactly what she saw.
Drake was so preoccupied with sorting the data that he almost missed her answer.
"Come again?" He blinked.
The girl huffed. "That memory chip is my info. I want you to erase me."
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