Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
Water overflowed the old curbs which meant the city’s pumps had failed again. Marjoram sloshed through puddles and kept her head down as she shoved her hands deep into the pockets of her trousers. The contact surfaces kept her fingers busy as she trawled the net for pie recipes, leaving troves of data trails in her wake. Images flashed across her contacts, gathering in her periphery like pigeons. She swiped through advertisements for sweaters she couldn’t afford and let the profile build—it was better than staying quiet. Around her the chatter of private nodes mixed with the slosh of her shoes, and it kept her focused. She transmitted like everyone else, and her noise mixed in with the noise all around, and helped to keep her hidden.
Her day had started like any other: breakfast, exercise, check the drops, which were normally empty, except taped beneath the railing of an abandoned warehouse nearby she’d found a small chip barely larger than her pinky nail. It contained an image coded with a set of instructions. She read the message then burned the chip and wiped her hard drive. This had to be done in person, which was why base sent for her. Encryption wasn’t good enough. The existence of a signal could tip them off as well as the content itself.
She stopped near Rittenhouse park, her back against the wall of an apartment building, barely beneath its portico overhang. She had clear lines of sight, and an escape through the door if necessary, but she hoped it wouldn’t be. She looked down at her wrist like she was engaged with another surface, but watched the crowds stream past, all their data practically screaming at her. That’d been the first thing she had to get used to, back when she was a young field agent: all that data all the time. Civilians could choose to shut it out, but she had to be wide open to the world.
Messages pinged around her and she was tempted to intercept them. She was technically allowed to gather anything that was “relevant to craft and other tradecraft during specialized field outings,” whatever the hell that meant, but nobody would check either way. She watched the water roll down along the street instead, and spotted her buddy from a mile away as he turned a corner, swept his vision left to right, then stalked toward her with his hands shoved into his pockets.
He was young. She knew he would be, but it surprised her all the same: fluffy brown hair, light brown skin, boring eyes, plain clothes. His hands brushed over a contact surface and she felt him transmitting something, probably a smoke screen of data like her own. He leaned up against the wall next to her and let out a breath, almost as if he was uncomfortable.
“Not a bad morning,” he said.
“Rain never bothered me. Makes my bones aches though.”
He nodded once and shifted closer. She tried not to cringe, but couldn’t quite manage. If anyone was watching—but then that was the point.
His hand reached out and brushed against the contact surface on her thigh. He held it there for the briefest of seconds, and she felt the data pulse: transfer complete.
The file was encrypted with her public key. That was good, it would’ve been foolish to walk around with this out in the open. Still, no jacker would be able to intercept a direct transfer like that, as if over wire.
He pulled his hand back and put it in his pocket.
“I hope later today’s a little better,” she said.
He nodded once. “The sun will come out tomorrow. You know that old saying.” He flashed a smile, all teeth and awkwardness, then turned and walked away.
She let out a sigh and squeezed her eyes shut.
Bad tradecraft made her want to scream.
The buddy probably had no clue how awful that’d been. He was green, and she bet this was his first assignment, given how twitchy he seemed. She gave a silent ten-count, waiting for him to put some distance between them, then pushed off the wall and followed.
He walked head-down through crowds, shoulders hunched, and did a fine enough job blending in. She kept her distance, stopped once or twice, crossed the street, and kept him in her peripheral. He wasn’t transmitting: that was good and bad. Meant he wasn’t the final mark, but he also wasn’t keeping up his data cloud.
Bad craft all around.
He led her down a few blocks and around a corner, heading toward the bridge that led into west Philly. She hesitated—the bridge lacked cover. He’d have to cross first, and her second, and she’d hope to find him on the other side.
But he didn’t make it that far. When he stepped toward the footpath, she felt it: huge data, nearly overwhelming. He stopped dead in his tracks, paralyzed by the transfer.
It would only last seconds, she knew. Whoever it was, the jacker had to be nearby. That was her damn mark, making his move. Direct uploads of that size and speed had to be local. She scanned the area, dropping all pretense, her heart hammering in her chest, sweat beading along her underarms.
There: a ping twenty feet off the path, lurking between the buildings.
She ran, sucking in breath hard as she went. The upload continued, and her buddy’s face was locked in a shocked grimace. She almost felt bad. She could’ve warned him.
But this was the whole point.
She turned the corner and almost crashed into a stack of trashcans. She stumbled forward and felt the connection break off. Ahead, a person turned, dark hair, light eyes, and began to run. She held her wrist to her mouth and transmitted.
“Mark moving north along the river, away from the South Street bridge.”
She ran hard, chest heaving. Ahead the mark barreled into a dense pack of people out for an early afternoon walk, sloshing through the overflowed Schuylkill along the river path. She gritted her jaw and waded into the polluted water, shoving people aside wildly, only to come through the other side to nothing.
“Lost him on the river path,” she transmitted. “Overlord, copy?”
Silence from the Overlord, which was standard operating procedure.
She wanted to chase, but she knew her role: honey pot, then support. She turned from the river and gingerly stepped back out, heading to check on her buddy, and hoping that jack hadn’t been too aggressive. Otherwise, she’d have a body to lug back to a safe house, and she wasn’t looking forward to it.
Let Overlord deal with the double, the bastard. Her part was finished.
ps, Might take next week off, on account of the holidays. Have a great week everyone and thanks for reading!