On the dark, misty streets of Providence, the night dispatcher of the Secret Post at first thought he’d found an obsolete computer—her worn crinoline dress frayed to the point of tatters, her ill-fitting corset losing its ribbing, her aging vacuum-tube crown cracked and battered.
But as she staggered closer, her disheveled hair, her addled gaze—and the basket of illicit coca puffs crooked in her elbow—told the night dispatcher he’d found the perfect thing to warm his cold watch on the dockyards: a tube junkie desperate for her next fix.
Her next words did not disappoint: “Sweet treats to keep ya on your feet,” she cried, hefting her basket demonstratively as she approached the loading dock, her gaze flickering over the dispatcher and his two guards, her shifty eyes hungry for returned interest. “Sweet treats—”
“Well, aren’t you a sweet treat yourself,” said the younger guard, leaning in to look.
“Shove off, tubie,” snapped the elder guard, barring her way. “What are you after—”
“Oh, help us get a spark, love,” she said. “A girl just wants an honest livin’—oi!”
Pushing between the guards, the dispatcher darted a hand into the basket and popped a puff in his mouth. The fizz on his tongue quickly spread through his body—but the puffs were weak. “Oi yourself. Shillin’ puffs? You’ll never scratch together a spark sellin’ this lot.”
“A girl does what she has to,” she said, leaning towards him—smelling of faded perfume, not grime. Her hair was greying, but a few gleaming copper threads still poked out of the thick mass, and the face beneath it, while dirty, was not too lined—pretty, for a worn street beggar.
“Does she? We’ll buy the lot,” he said, lifting her basket out of her arms. Not hearing him at first, her hands went after the basket, her eyes going wild—then her face turned crafty when he said, “And no worries, love, I’ll see you get a full charge. Search her.”
The computer laughed as the older guard took her arm, wobbling unsteadily on her feet as the younger swept a coil-wand over her. It zzowed as it swept over her corset and crown, but other than that, the most metal she had on her body were her copper bracelets.
“Well, now,” she said, looking at the wand. “That’d get a girl’s attention—”
“You’re a feisty tart,” the younger guard said, popping a puff. “She’s clean.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” the older guard said, looking disgusted—but also popping a puff.
“Just keep your eyes out for the Expeditionaries—we’ve paid off the watch,” the dispatcher snapped, taking the computer’s arm and steering her inside. “No excuse for falling asleep on the job, not with that fizz in you. You need more, come in and get some.”
The guards laughed. The laughter continued inside the Secret Post’s warehouse, even when the dispatcher gave the basket of fizzy stimulants to the men guarding the pyramid of wooden crates. “Stay sharp! The delivery gets loaded five minutes after the boat arrives!”