Today’s Tuesday Serial is chapter three 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
I must have cleared another mile, threading my way around channels and through crowded lines of stalls, even hopping on a penny taxi and then off the other side again, before I felt safe enough to stop running. There was a rumble of thunder over Dreamingspires, and grey curtains of rain swept down over the canal, drowning the market and pouring out across the docks.
I took shelter at a food stall clinging to the edge of the canal, wasted a few pennies on some troot and fish, and ate it slowly while I watched the wee scurts scuttling beneath the bottom of the stall for shelter. I was trying to decide what to do next. This whole job was shaping up to be far more trouble than it was worth, and I thought about selling the last few bits from my satchel and heading home while I still could. On the other hand, then I wouldn’t get a penny from Shiftry, and Shiftry would get worse than nothing from Sheldrake. And there was my curiosity: what was Rook, where was this factory, and what had the goons been looking for on Mudside’s boat?
In the end curiosity and greed overcame good sense and I went looking for someone who could tell me where Seventh Street and Cutters Lane might be. I wasted more money on that: you don’t get anything for free in the City, information least of all. But I got directions and a scribbled map that pointed to a street in Bankside.
I took a haphazard route along Bankside’s main roads, dodging crowds wrapped up in plastic macs heading home in the rain-soaked gloom. I don’t know Bankside well, and that made me nervous. There were streets lined with bars hung with tattered streamers, and signs I didn’t know scrawled on the rotting concrete walls. I kept following the map. It’s too easy to put a foot wrong when you’re out of your patch.
When I got there the place was deserted, not even a Jake loitering in an alley mouth, which was suspicious in itself. The factory was a big building on the corner, dark and deserted. No—dark but for one, dim pane of shaded glass high up in the wall. Skeletal metal balconies hung high above street level, silhouetted against the darkening sky with the strange flapping shapes of empty boiler suits chained to them. There was one obvious door from the narrow street, but I hesitated. A bundle of cables ran from the houses opposite, power lines and dataflow access, so the place wasn’t as deserted as it looked.
I slipped round the back, into a wet cluttered yard in the shadow of an elevated railway line. The flicker of sparks from the rain on the power cables gave me enough light to see a back way into the building, half hidden behind fallen chunks of masonry. It was blocked with a metal grille, but there are some advantages to being a mechanic: I fished heavy cutters from my bag and had the thing off in no time. I was in and up the stairs.
The stairs were narrow, maybe a fire-escape, with walls soaked with damp and eaten by fungus. From the second flight up, rusted metal doors opened onto empty floors supported by concrete pillars. On the fourth floor there were walls beyond the door instead of empty space, a glimmer of light somewhere in the darkness, the low clicking of machinery. I hovered at the door, getting a feel for the place. Blood red walls, smooth like someone had covered them in fabric. Fabric on the floor, too: rectangular rugs, brown and thick, as subdued as the walls. The whole thing stank of luxury, but not luxury like I imagine the Macrocorps have, but strange, a luxury that didn’t make sense.
I eased through the door and moved cautiously along the hall, keeping low, fingertips brushing the wall. A train rumbled past, vibrating through the concrete floor. Another turn and the light shone brighter at the end of a corridor. The clicking sound I’d heard before echoed through an open doorway. I followed the light and the sound into a room at the front of the building. A little fish-oil lamp burned on a table under papered-over windows, a row of microscale dingins rattling away in a tangle of cables and metal tapes. Above the dingins flat screens angled downwards, their faces scrolling odd scenes and numbers in grainy black and white. Flowghost shit.
On the table in front of the dingins stood the package. It was all packed up in a box with the lid ready and a sheet of wrapping paper cut to size. I slipped over to the table. The thing was a metal device, gleaming, complex and mechanical, and fuck me if it wasn’t the slickest looking ekranoplan engine controller I’d ever seen. I lifted it carefully from the box, cupping it in one hand. It was clearly experimental. Nanoscale dingins maybe, or even something electronic, nothing else could be so small. No company logo, but the thing reeked of high technology. It was worth more than the job; it was worth more than the Beast. No—I could have used it to fix the Beast, once and for all. Plug it in and the Beast wouldn’t just be running, it would be winning! All I had to do was pocket it and get home.
“The only reason I haven’t shot you,” a voice said from behind me, “is because I don’t want to get blood on my carpet. That and the fact that I’m curious to know how you got in here and what you want. Now—why don’t you put that shooter down—carefully!—and turn around. Again, carefully—if you don’t mind.”
I did as the voice said. The man holding a gun on me—a very new and dangerous-looking magrail pistol—was as weird as the place we stood in. Thin, sunken cheeks like an Edge addict, with a long queue of greyish hair. An enormous pair of glasses with lenses as thick as bottle bottoms, magnifying his blue-grey eyes into insect-like orbs. A patterned robe of slick, shiny cloth, the sort you see Nakamura-Yeibisus wearing on cable, with a winged animal breathing flames on each breast.
He gestured with the gun, moving me away from the table—and my pistol—while moving himself closer. When we had switched places he reached behind with his free hand and ejected the clip from my gun. Then he stood, perfectly quiet, his gun hand steady, while his strange big eyes scrutinised me all over, taking me in. He didn’t speak until he was done. Then he said, “So, now that we have had a chance to examine each other, how about you tell me: one, exactly why you are breaking into my house, two, why you are so interested in that particular package, and three, why I should not shoot you right now and feed your body to the grateful fishes.”
There was something about the calm way he spoke that scared me far more than being shot at had. He clearly wasn’t going to take evasions or excuses, so I played my ace card—in fact my only card—right away. I added in a little guess I hoped was true.
“I’ve come from Mudside,” I told him. “To get his package. You are Rook, right?”
“Mudside, eh?” He didn’t sound convinced, but at least he was considering it. “Yes, I am Erasmus Rook. Good, you know my name. As for Mr Mudside, why is he not here himself? Our arrangement was quite specific, and it did not call for a go-between.”
I explained about the Corporate gunmen at the Pond and Mudside’s little “accident”. I didn’t mention Mudside had had no intention of giving me the package.
And what a package! I could hardly keep my eyes off it.
Rook gave my story a bit of thought, and asked a few more questions, checking out my relationship with Mudside. The gun stayed on me, steady as a rock. Even now I don’t know if he even knew Mudside. Maybe he’d gotten everything he needed to know off the Dataflow.
“Accepting what you tell me as true,” he said at last, “what do you suggest I do? Just give you the package, perhaps, and hope Mudside will pay me later? I’m guessing you didn’t come with a bag of cash for me.” He slipped on the safety of his gun with one skinny finger, then slid it into one of his sleeves. He went to the table and turned up the wick on the lamp, still watching me from behind those crazy specs.
The tension flowed out of me. He must have seen it, because he smiled a crazy little smile. I thought he was about to offer tea, but he picked up the ekranoplan controller and looked at me. Expectantly.
“Nice try,” I said. “No way you’d secure a thing like that without payment in advance, knowing Mudside as well as you do. My instructions were just to come and get it, as quick as possible. It’s due on the other side of the Grand before tomorrow noon.”
Rook raised a magnified eyebrow. “I was under the impression that Mr Kime was no longer in a position to complete the transaction.”
“He’s not. I am.”
Rook nodded like he was pleased, and then abruptly tossed the controller to me. “Very well, Miss—?” I gave him a name off the top of my head. “Very well, Miss Horn. Then you had best be going.”
I retrieved my gun and ammo, slotting the magazine back into the stock and stowing it carefully in its holster. Then I set about wrapping the controller in padding from the box, securing it with nylon twine and re-arranging my satchel to hide it at the bottom. Rook hovered, watching.
“So tell me.” he said, looking at the tools I’d removed from my bag, “what exactly is a mechanic doing helping Mr Mudside with this?”
I stiffened, trying to appear casual. “Oh, you know. I’ve got many talents.” It sounded like a lame excuse even to me.
“Seems to me I’ve heard a mechanic mentioned in connection with Mr Mudside,” he continued. “Only she wasn’t his partner, rather some lostfinder from the other end of the Three Canals. That wouldn’t be you, would it, Miss Horn?”
I tried to stall, wracking my brains for an answer that would keep him happy, when I was saved by the bell. Literally: there was a crash deep down in the crumbling factory that set an alarm bell ringing above the dingins. I saw movement on one of the screens hung above the table. “Look! There!”
Rook whirled round, silencing the alarm and flicking a series of switches. The image on the viewscreen jumped, then zoomed in on grainy figures hurrying up some stairs.
“Friends of yours?”
“Shit! The shooters from the market. How did they know—? Never mind! Look—we’ve got to get out of here!”
“I can take care of myself. But you must go, quickly, the same way you came in.”
Even as he spoke he was grabbing the lamp and hurrying into the hallway. There was something in the shadows there, something big and metal, and I thought better of protesting and got the hell out. Three sharp turns and I was back on the service stairs, plunging down three flights with the sound of muffled gunfire somewhere behind me.
Then I was on the street again, running until I lost myself in the crowds of Bankside, with only its everyday dangers to contend with.
END OF CHAPTER THREE