Today’s Tuesday Serial is chapter four 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
The night was a long twisting journey through unfamiliar streets, navigating by the wind and the distant spear of Luminosity, away south over the highest rooftops like the Architect’s own ambition. I don’t remember much of it now, just jumbled images. Flashes of light from the rumbling trains. Quick cries and muffled gunfire. The cry of a street vendor calling for customers in the night. Mikefighters screaming in the dark city sky.
In the end I took shelter in an all night café on the Bankside edge of the Third Canal. The place was full of travellers like myself, caught by the rain or with no place to go, using the old padded benches as beds. I picked out a booth where the red leather was mostly intact and wedged myself in with a lukewarm pot of tea and a smoky lamp for company. I should have slept. God knows I was exhausted enough. I must have run and been shot at more in that day than I had in the whole year previous, which is saying a lot when you live across the water from Mire End. I must have dozed a bit, blocking out the snoring and the hiss of the samovar at the back of the room, the drone of aerostats in the night, but I couldn’t really sleep. My head was full of running feet and gunfire, and the thing that held my attention most of all—the package.
Now let’s get this straight. I told you at the start about the Beast, my father’s bastard of an ekranoplan. It sits there in the back of my workshop, defying every attempt I’ve ever made to get it working. Oh, the jet runs well enough, though it could do with a replacement for the inner turbine ring and a big overhaul of the exhaust. And the hull is sound, even streamlined if I can keep the weed and the rasper snails off it. There’s nothing wrong with the controls, either, not once you know how to use them. The bits are good. But put it all together and the whole thing’s just one big pile o’ shite that doesn’t go anywhere. It chokes. It belches. It mocks anyone who dares call me a mechanic. Maybe my Dad could have made it work. I’ll never know. If someone could, the Beast would be a brilliant thing. It has innovations—designs my Dad cooked up late at night—even I don’t understand.
So there I was, with this ekranoplan that wouldn’t work, and this package full of cutting-edge Macrocorp shit, just waiting to be plugged in. It was all I could do to stop myself tearing off the wrapping right there in the café and just staring at it. Okay—I didn’t really stop myself. But at least I kept the wrapping half in place so no one could see what I’d got.
I’m no dinginsmith, but I know cutting-edge design when I see it. I may not race, but I follow the top teams. I’ve got a cable subscription to the racing channels and Speed Foils magazine, specially for us gear-heads. I even pay a man down in Coldbath for the occasional blueprint. Out of date, not even last year’s but the year before, but I read them like Third Churchers read scripture. There’s a box at the heart of every top-line ekranoplan that binds all its systems together. You plug everything in, fuel pumps and engine feeds, control lines and ballast valves. People might talk about the pilot, or about engine power or wing design, but this box is more important than all of that stuff. It’s the sort of thing no limited ekranoplan racer (and that would be me, by the way—if the Beast were working) could ever dream of owning. And I had one in my hands.
I tried to distract myself with questions.
Who was it made for? Doubtless some Class A racing team. Probably for the next GC:2000—and it might be the difference between winning and losing. How did Rook get it? Maybe some corrupt Corporate paying off a favour. Who were the goons with the guns? Corporate security wanting their part back? No, they weren’t competent enough. Then maybe team members trying to cover up the loss, or even rivals wanting it for themselves. Why did the Third Syndicate want it? Most likely they were backing a team of their own—some group of rank outsiders who’d clean up at the bookies with this bit of kit on board.
All of which were distractions from the real question. What was I going to do with the thing?
I bound the wrappings back in place and sank back on the worn leather of my seat, staring at the neon sparkle of raindrops on the dirty window panes. I’d dozed and fretted my way through the bulk of the night. It would be dawn soon, but for now I was in those dead hours when even the City grows quiet. It’s a time where I often fall to thinking about the future, and that night was no different. Only my concerns were a little more immediate.
I’d set out to do a simple job: pick up the package and deliver it to Shiftry, so she could get herself out of the hot-water her edjit of a husband had dropped her in. She’d stay unhurt; the Thirds would get their package; I’d get paid; and everyone would live happy ever after in Folly Hills. Only now I had this box that was worth a hundred times everything Shiftry owned. A hundred times everything I owned. And it wasn’t just valuable. No: it was exactly the thing I’d always wanted. The thing my Dad had always wanted.
It was like a message from the Architect! No one but Rook knew I had the package, and he didn’t know who I was. I doubt he even cared. Mudside was probably dead, and if he wasn’t he’d have been paid for his part already. Which just left Shiftry. And I didn’t owe her a thing. Right?
Only … I could imagine exactly what Sheldrake would do to Shiftry if he didn’t get the box.
Shall I tell you about Sheldrake? You want to know? He’s a stone cold killer. Black hair, black eyes, black heart. He grew up in the poison waters of Mire End, before he crossed the canal to Folly Hills, lived on the streets. He caught the eye of the local Third Syndicate Assembly and killed his way to the top. Now he’s the biggest man in the Syndicate on the East side of the hills.
He wouldn’t care that it was Shiftry’s husband who’d made the deal. He wouldn’t care that she’d hired me to get it. All he’d care about was making an example so that no one dared to rip him off again.
You might say, so what, I shouldn’t have cared. We were both citizens of the City. Everyone looks out for number one.
But I did care. I cared that Shiftry would get her legs broken, and that her house would be burnt down, and that it would all be my fault. Did I want that on my conscience?
I wrestled with it for the remainder of the night, while the tea grew cold and then ran out, and a pale dawn crept through the smog over Bankside. I still didn’t have an answer, but I knew I had to go back, at least try to get there before Sheldrake. And then do—something. I didn’t know what. Give him the package? Spin him a lie?
I hoped I could think of something on the way.
END OF CHAPTER FOUR
Chapter five of Ekranoplan will be available at our next Tuesday Serial slot on the 3rd November.