Today’s Tuesday Serial is chapter two 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.
You can also find chapter one of Ekranoplan here.
by David Donachie
Which is how I came to be heading out to Long Pond with a satchel over my shoulder and my gun snug in a holster under my jacket. The satchel had a few items that might be worth a shilling or two, no point in going to the market with nothing to sell. The gun was because no one who’s got a gun would go to Long Pond without it.
I caught a stuttering plastic water taxi down the length of the third ring a couple of hours after Shiftry left. It was a foggy day, you could only make out the buildings along the canal as looming shadows in the grey. The nearside bank was a jumble of lines and openings, with the Soldier a vague shape in the fog. Lucent Heights, on the other side, was nothing but a constellation of lights drifting in the gloom. One day, maybe, when the Beast is fixed and can do what she was made to, I’d ride her to victory and a house up there of my own.
As the taxi approached the confluence with the Grand Canal the noise washed over me, heavy with the thump of aerostat engines and thick with the roar of people and boats. They say the noise is never absent anywhere in the City, and my corner of Folly Hills is hardly quiet, but the din from the Grand Canal is something else. That afternoon the fog muffled the noise a little, which made it just about bearable, but it didn’t do anything to hide the stench. It also didn’t hide the painful chug of the taxi’s motor as it tried to slow down into the traffic heading out toward Long Pond. Maybe I should have offered to fix it…
The taxi got within a mile of the third ring end of the Long Pond before the shite really hit the fan. There was a whine like a mikefighter out of control, and then an eruption of yellow flame through the fog as some sort of cargo barge heading towards the Pond went up in a fireball. An instant later there was the rolling thunder of some sort of cartridge guns. I have no idea who was taking pot-shots at who—on the Pond it hardly matters. Then people started screaming and running and splashing into the water.
With an incoherent cry the taxi driver flung his outboard to the left, and I nearly flew off my perch at the bows as the boat careened towards the right bank. A moment later the boat drove up against a concrete dock, wedging itself into the mass of floats bunched up along the side. “What the fuck!”
The pilot gestured at the burning barge ahead. “This is as far as I go! You’ll no get me closer to that! Get the hell out o’ me boat or pay me for the return trip.”
I swore some more. “What the hell do you expect if you take a fare to Long Pond? I paid for the whole trip, you bastard!”
The wee shite wasn’t having any of it. I ended up storming the rest of the way along the banks of the canal wishing I could have afforded the train.
Have you ever been to the Long Pond? You haven’t? It’s quite a sight, even when the Syndicate and the Hohler Gang aren’t blowing each other up. Almost the whole of the Pond is covered by floating shops and walkways, washed this way and that by the wakes of the big barges and ekranoplans in the middle of the Grand. The little boats that make up the market are tied together in drifting bunches. There are boardwalks in some places, though half the paths are just planks laid from boat to boat or gaps to jump across; and there are shop fronts tied with banners and all sorts of brightly coloured flags raised up on metal poles. Here and there you see floating platforms with ordinary looking stalls, the sort you’d get down Folly High Street, or even solid stone and concrete pillars that serve as landmarks. The rest of the place is just people selling out of the back of their boats wherever they happen to tie up. If some berk by the canal-side tries to sell you a map you tell them to piss off—the best clockworkers in the City haven’t yet built a Dingin that could compute a map of this place.
Luckily for me it isn’t all quite as hopeless as it might seem to find someone in the Pond, if you know your way around. Even the locals need some sort of structure to find one another, so there are certain signs, as vague and complex as you like, to tell you where a certain part of the market might be today, or which direction you might have to walk to find it. Make a few friends, ask the right questions (and no I won’t tell you what, trade secret…) and watch the flags, and you can do a fair job of navigation. The easy way is to take a tug through the channels, they’ve got masts and semaphores and scopes to watch for the flags, but I’d paid enough for the stupid taxi already.
I spent the best part of an hour picking my way from stall to stall, stopping a couple of times to sell some of the junk from my bag. I made a few shillings on the first few, a couple of pounds on another, which wasn’t worth the journey by itself, but every little helps, right? The mist cleared up as well, and someone came and put out the burning barge so the smoke wasn’t too bad. The place is always crawling, mist or otherwise, but the crowds really got going when the sun came out. There were mudlarks and nomads selling cargo straight from the crates, fish fryers and noodle sellers sending gouts of steam into the air, hawkers shouting me over to their boat-sides, kids dodging legs as they ran to take messages, mechanics wiping grease from their brows, stringers following up the latest gang hits. Gangs of Syndicate hardmen eyed up squads of provosts out to collect protection money, while Hohlers shook down merchants right under their noses.
Eventually I found myself on the far side of the pond, bouncing down a corrugated gangplank to Mudside’s boat.
“Heya, Janie!” Mudside called out. “How’s it hanging?”
I gave him a wave and concentrated on getting to the other end of the plank, threading my way past a shoemaker hard at work on the deck of the next boat. Mudside: how do I describe him? He fancies himself an antiquities hunter, always hints he’s got a line on something really valuable, but he’s a mudlark through and through, and most of what he trades has come from the bottom of the Grand. He’s as dark as tea dregs from where the canal silt has stained his skin and hair and will never wash off. He claims to be black all the way through, but I’d trust him more than half the people on the Pond.
I dropped down onto the deck of Mudside’s boat and made a show of looking over the bits and pieces spread out under the awnings in front of the cabin. Mudside often has a few bits and pieces I can use, dredged up from wrecks—or nicked off other people’s boats when no one’s around. I fingered through a pile of copper rings and screw threads. “Looking for a package, Mudside…”
“A package? You doin’ that lostfinder thing again, Janie girl?”
I scowled at him. “I’m not a lostfinder, Mudside. I don’t do that ‘noble’ thing. It was just that one time.”
“Sure thing, Janie girl,” he smirked. “Sure thing. So what’s this about a package?” He grinned innocently, but I had the feeling he already knew something.
“Got a job, Mudside. Picking something up for a man. A package? I’m sure you know what I mean… A delivery for Folly Hills.”
“I know loads of men, Janie.”
“This one’s called Wilson Kime,” I said, naming Shiftry’s husband.
“Name’s not familiar.” Mudside came round the front of the stall. “Maybe there’s something else here that will do ye? I’ve got all sorts, nae problem.”
Needless to say this made me ever so slightly pissed off, and I let him know, forcefully, that I’d just trekked half way across the pond and been cheated out of half my taxi fare just to get this package from him. “So don’t give me that bullshit, Mudside. You got a package for Kime, I know you have. Hand it over and I’ll get out of your hair. Are you listening?”
It was at this point I realised that Mudside was not, in fact, listening. Instead his attention was on the three men who’d turned up on the gangplank. Two were blond, with heavily muscled arms bulging under anonymous ballistic jackets, the third was slighter, with light brown hair cropped up the sides. I took them for provosts—they were too well dressed for Long Pond gangers—come to collect protection money, until they pulled heavy pistols from under their jackets and opened fire.
I threw myself out of the way as bullets ripped the stall to pieces. Scraps of cloth and shards of plastic went flying, and I went flying, too, diving into a roll that took me under one of the makeshift tables. Then I was scrambling on hands and knees for the shelter of the wall. Behind me the three goons blazed away like they hadn’t noticed we’d gone; then the gunfire stopped, and I could hear them clattering their way through what was left of the stall, overturning tables and kicking through the merchandise.
Not provosts, then, and not robbers or Syndicate either. Petty criminals don’t shoot up the stall they were trying to rob, and Syndicate hitmen don’t hang around showing themselves off before the hit. I didn’t know who these guys were, but their whole attitude stank of corporates.
Something moved in the corner of my eye, and I had my pistol out and planted in Mudside’s belly before I realised who it was. “Easy girl,” he whispered. “We gots to gets us out of here.”
We ran low and quick for the stern of the boat, dodging as one of the two blonds sprayed bullets in our direction. His aim was no better than before, and all he did was chew up the deck behind us as we jumped to the next boat. Then we were running and dodging through the chaos of the market, with the three of them in clumsy pursuit. We dodged along a row of troot drying racks, thick with smoke and dirty water, then past a stall where a bearded man was hawking plastic jars full of water. The blond guy took the jump from the boat badly, then let loose a spray of bullets that slammed into the jars with muffled thuds. Definitely corporates—no one else could be so careless with ammunition. I certainly wasn’t wasting precious cartridges shooting back!
The water stall owner snatched a rusty sparklock from behind the bottles and returned fire while the troot dryers grabbed their chopping knives. One of the corporates went down, I think. The other two were closer behind, shouldering their way through the crowds, sending people splashing into the water or diving for cover as they let off wild shots. Mudside and me kept running, side-to-siding past a dozen stalls and skidding on the wet metal and fibreglass, heading for the edge of the canal with me slightly ahead.
“Wha-the-fuck ya do girl?” Mudside shouted.
“Nothing, Mudside! These guys are all yours!”
We barged through rails of clothing and then out onto a long narrow board leading to the bows of a rusty steamer.
“They’re after the package, aren’t they, Mudside? Aren’t they?”
He started to protest but I cut him short. “Cut the shite! Tell me about the package!”
“Ain’t—got it—” he panted. “Rook—Seventh and Cutters Lane—the Factory—”
I tried to ask him what he meant, but that was when the brown-haired guy came out of nowhere. Bullets splashed into the water, threw sparks off the side of the steamer, and chewed the flimsy gangplank to pieces. The board snapped in the middle, and Mudside plunged into the canal, while I went forward onto the steamer’s deck. I made a grab for Mudside’s hand, but the bullets kept coming, and I had to look out for myself instead. I got the steamer’s stack between myself and the gun, then kept running until I couldn’t hear the shooting any more.
I hope Mudside made it.
END OF CHAPTER TWO