Today’s Tuesday Serial is chapter five 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 dragged myself out of the café and onto the streets, caught up in the flow of early morning workers on their way down to the fish ponds. I’d much rather have been home the day before, snug back in my hammock with the job all done, but it wasn’t going to be that way. A night of restless deliberation had told me that I needed to do something to help Shiftry, I just didn’t know what.
The fastest route home would have been a quick hop on the Thackery Street ferry to Folley High street, a fifteen minute walk from the workshop. But the ferry was the obvious route, and those Corporates had caught up with me twice already. I didn’t rate my chances a third time, so I put my street knowledge to the test and took a route that would look like a scurt’s scurry if you plotted it on a map. Across the Third on the Singing Bridge to Coldbath Fell, then a loop round to the Grand Canal where the provosts keep an eye on the foot traffic. That put me on the pedestrian side of the Coldwater bridge, with the train rumbling below me and the iron-shod trucks trundling alongside.
By mid-morning I was on the funicular down the steep hill to the middle of Boundary Street, and half an hour after that I was in among the endless crowds of Folley High Street, where one turn led home and another to Shiftry’s house.
I should have taken the turn to Shiftry’s. It would have been a quick nip down Leadenhall Alley and I’d have got there before anything bad had happened. I’d like to tell you that’s what I did. Only… I couldn’t help thinking of the Beast, and the controller, and how they’d fit together. How the engine would sound, how the controls would feel, how easy it would be to forget about Shiftry and keep it all for myself. A better person than me would have ignored the temptation.
So I turned left and went home.
Only there was a blond-haired man in a padded leather jacket lurking in a doorway across the street from my workshop, casually watching the entrance. Either one of the goons from Long Pond or his clone. I couldn’t see the others, but I figured they wouldn’t be far away.
How had they found me? I ducked back into the crowd and tried to run through the possibilities. They couldn’t have followed me. Had they known who I was all along? Was the whole thing a setup?
Then the answer struck me. Either Mudside or Rook had sold me out! Mudside knew where I lived, and Rook—well, he was a Flowghost. He could find out. Maybe that was what he’d meant when he told me he could deal with the Corporates. Not mow them down with some nightmare weapon like I’d imagined—but give them what they wanted, at no risk to himself. Me, and the package.
So much for temptation. I guess the world didn’t want to give me a break. Or maybe something wanted to keep me honest instead.
I wasn’t about to fight a street full of Corporate thugs, so I went back and took the right turn down Leadenhall Alley to Shiftry’s place. But even if I sorted everything out with Sheldrake I still wasn’t getting out of this. I needed that plan.
So now I have another picture for you. Close your eyes and imagine. It’s not as pretty as me posing in front of the Beast.
Shiftry lived on Potter’s Lane, a rundown wreck of a place a few streets back from the Mire End ferry, where listless smog shrouds the old brick buildings. The lane is wider than its name suggests; the buildings on the eastern side collapsed a decade ago, and no one has ever tried to clear the rubble. Instead, people just crowd the tenements on the other side, balancing thin plastic shacks on top of the crumbling brick walls and stretching out tarps to turn the narrow vennels into more living space.
Now imagine one of the worst and most rundown houses, right at the end of the row, set on fire, and everything of value chucked onto the street. And imagine that included the owner, tossed into the wet and muddy roadway with four Syndicate men, immaculate in white dog-skin, getting ready to demonstrate what happens to people who cross the Assembly.
That should’ve been the point where I pulled out my cunning plan. The one I’d had all night and all morning to think up. The one that would turn this whole shitty mess to my advantage, and leave me with the controller and the reward.
Only I didn’t have a plan.
I didn’t have a clue.
Without even thinking, I ran to Shiftry’s side and dropped to my knees to see if she was okay. Sheldrake’s men were closing in, heavy metal poles ready to make an example of her, and all thoughts of plans vanished from my mind.
It was probably a good thing. I guess it makes me a hero after all. And a fool. That’s why I’m a penniless mechanic, not Erasmus Rook in his snug little Flowghost hidey-hole.
Sheldrake and his men surrounded us, ready to beat me into the bargain. I knelt in the bloody water, cradling Shiftry’s head and helping her to sit up. My gun was snug in its holster under my coat, but it stayed there. I wasn’t stupid.
But Sheldrake kept on coming.
“Wait… I have what you want.”
That got his attention. He gestured to his men to lower their clubs, and the locals peering from doorways or cowering in alley mouths ventured a little closer, eager to see.
“I’ve got your package. Never mind how. You’ll know it’s real when you see it. It’s in a safe place. I’ll give it to you if—”
“If…? If what?”
That’s when it came to me. “…if you’ll do something for me…”
END OF CHAPTER FIVE