Today’s piece is our first Tuesday Serial installment – chapter one of David Donachie’s novella Ekranoplan, based on the A|State RPG setting. David Donachie (not the one who writes naval fiction) is a long-time gamer and would-be author who lives in Edinburgh with his wife, junk, and a vast number of exotic pets, including more cats than a sane person would put in one small flat. David is the author of the Solipsist RPG, the owner of grophland.com (the world’s best slug-based virtual pet site), and a web developer. In what remains of his spare time he likes to run roleplaying games and enjoy the bracing Scottish beach-side weather.
by David Donachie
If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine an ekranoplan racer, you’d most likely conjure up an image of a man with a perfect white-toothed smile, a rakish attitude, and a load of money. He’d be spraying champagne over the winner’s podium and the heads of his admiring fans, while his shining machine gleamed in the background. If I told you the racer came from Folly Hills, you’d probably make him a little more dashing and a little less rich, but the essentials would stay the same.
So if I tell you I’m an ekranoplan racer from Folly Hills, then you probably think you’ve got me down pat. Only truth isn’t much like reality. To start with, I’m a girl, not a guy—the size of my ekranoplan notwithstanding. And I’m not much older than you. Younger, probably. And I’m certainly not rich.
My ekranoplan doesn’t shine much either.
The ekranoplan was my father’s, and so was the dream of being the greatest racer that Folly Hills had ever seen. He built it himself, part by part, over years. It was the only thing that ever came before his family when I was a girl. Only now he’s dead, and somehow the ekranoplan and his dream have become mine.
Which is all a fancy way of saying I’m a girl with an ekranoplan, big ideas, and no money. Which is just a way of saying I need money.
Now it’s probably no surprise that a half broken rust-bucket ekranoplan doesn’t make a girl a lot of money. Sure, I do a bit of repair work on this and that: fixing the alcohol pumps on local fishing boats, climbing up rickety balconies to hammer a wind-fan’s blades back into shape, even getting that mother of a fish-grinder at the sausage works on Splitside back up and running when the regular mechanic’s too drunk. All that barely covers the bills. I need more, which is where this story starts.
So I’m in my workshop—just a sheet of corrugated plastic perched on breezeblock walls, by the edge of a side-channel—menacing a fuel pump from the Beast with a spanner, when I spy a nervous-looking woman by the alley mouth looking for me.
She was hanging around at the edge of the yard, darting glances at the stacked-up boxes, corrugated steel roofing, and the big bottom-tench drying in the nets strung over the Beast, like she’d never seen any of it before. I knew she was looking for me because there’s no other reason to be in my workshop. Even by accident.
I looked her over quick-like as I put down my tools. Middle-aged, clothing as smart as a slum allows, hands worn but not dirty, hair drawn back in a conservative style. A widow; she’d have brought a husband if she’d had one. Unless he was the one who’d gone missing… Someone must have gone missing; no one looks that nervous about broken machinery.
“Can I help you?” I asked, picking up a rag to wipe my hands and walking over.
“I’m lookin’ for Jane Sallwater? The lostfinder?
I grinned back. “That’s me.” Which was true enough. Well, the name at least—but I’m not a lostfinder. Lostfinders got issues. Lostfinders got causes. Lostfinders work for free, and that ain’t me. People call me a lostfinder because I find things, is all, and because of that one stupid time with the tailor’s daughter. But that was an exception.
“Call me Janie.”
She cracked a nervous smile, and I invited her into the cleaner part of the workshop to tell me more. She perched on the edge of the plastic barrel I used for a seat, toying nervously with a ring on her left hand, while some part of the Beast thumped away in the background. There might be a husband, then. He might be the thing that was missing.
“It’s about my husband,” she began, and I started to congratulate myself. But then she continued: “Well, not really…” And I stopped and let her explain it from the start.
Her name was Shiftry, and she had a missing husband. But she knew exactly what had happened to him: he’d run off with a cogmaker’s girl from Calculus Tor, and she didn’t want him back. The problem was, before he’d run off he’d made a deal with the local Third Syndicate assembly, promised them a delivery of something to pay off a debt. Now the package was late, and the syndicate wanted payment—and they were coming for her.
I raised an eyebrow. “If you want to get the Syndicate off your back, you’ve come to the wrong woman.”
“No, it’s not that. I want you to find the package. I have to give it to Sheldrake tomorrow. Please—you don’t know what he’s like! It’s just me on my own—I can’t afford an enemy like that!”
In fact I had a very good idea of what Constan Sheldrake was like, and I agreed. I didn’t want an enemy like him either.
“Do you have any idea where this package is? Or what it is?”
She shook her head. “All I have is a name. Mudside. I don’t even know if it’s a place or a person.”
I suppressed a smile. I knew who Mudside was, but I wasn’t going to tell her—that information was worth money. Tomorrow… She’d left it late, but I could get to Mudside and back in a few hours. I let her know I was willing to help, if the price was right—and that there would have to be a price, in case she’d heard about the tailor’s daughter too.
“I don’t have much. But I’ve a few savings. I can give you some of that.”
Then she named a reasonable price which was probably more of a stretch for her than it would have been for me. I didn’t argue, I needed the money.
Time to go to work.
END OF CHAPTER ONE