This story is ancient. I take no responsibility (now) for its many errors of grammar, style, punctuation, and spelling. Read my childhood works and despair.
This story is ancient. I take no responsibility (now) for its many errors of grammar, style, punctuation, and spelling. Read my childhood works and despair.
A|State, Contested Ground Studios' 2004 dystopian Tabletop RPG was the work of my friends Malcolm Craig and John Wilson. Part of the follow-up product line included the "Lostfinders' Guide" series. This story was intended to feature in one of them, but the product line ended before it could be used.
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 dashing rake's attitude, and a load of money. He'd be spraying champagne over the winner's podium and heads of his admiring fans while his shining machine gleams in the background. If I added that the racer in question came from Folly Hills you'd probably modify the image to be a little more dashing and a little less rich, but the essentials would stay the same. So if I tell you that I'm an Ekranoplan racer from Folly Hills then you probably think you've got me down pat, only the 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 actually, and so was the dream of being a racer, the best racer that Folly Hills has ever seen. He built it himself, part by part, over the years. It was the only thing that ever came before his family when I was a wee girl. Only now he's dead, and somehow the Ekranoplan and the dream have both become mine.
All of which is a rather fancy way of saying that I'm a girl with an Ekranoplan, big ideas, and no money. Which is really just a way of saying that I need money.
Now it will probably come as no surprise that a half broken-down hand-built rust-bucket of an Ekranoplan doesn't make a girl a lot of money. Sure I do a bit of repair work for this and that; fix the little alcohol pumps on the local fishing boats, climb up rickety old balconies to hammer the blades of a wind-fan back into shape, even get that mother of a fish-grinder over at the sausage works on Splitside street back up and running when the regular mechanic's too drunk to take a look. All of that just pays the day to day bills, though. If I want to fix the old Beast, that's what I call it, and follow that dream I need to make more than that, which is where this story starts.
So there I am in my workshop, which is really just a sort of makeshift thing by the edge of a little side channel, menacing a fuel pump from The Beast with a spanner, when I spy a nervous looking woman over by the alley mouth looking for me. I could tell she was nervous by the way she hesitated at the edge of the yard, taking in the view of stacked up boxes, corrugated steel roofing, and big bottom-tench hung up to dry in the nets over The Beast like she'd never seen them before. I could tell she was looking for me because there isn't any other reason to be in my workshop, even by accident.
I looked her over quick-like as I put down my tools. Middle-age, clothing smart as a slum allows, hands worn but not dirty, hair drawn back conservative style. A widow I pegged her, —cause she'd have brought a husband if she had one; unless he was the one who'd gone missing. Someone would have gone missing, I was sure, 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, as they say, ain't me. People just call me that because I find things, 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 a 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 well be a husband after all then. He might well be the thing that was missing for that matter.
"It's about my husband" she began, and I congratulated myself on getting it right, but then she continued "Well not really —" and I felt stupid and let her explain it from the start.
It seems her name was Shiftry, and she did indeed have a missing husband, but she knew exactly what had happened to him, he'd run off with cogmaker's girl from up in Calculus Tor and she didn't want him back. The problem was that before he'd run off he'd made a deal with the local Third Syndicate assembly, promised them delivery of some package or other to pay off a debt. Now the package was late and the syndicate were going to take the debt out of Shiftry if they couldn't take it out of him.
I raised an eyebrow. "If you want me to get the Syndicate off your back then you've come to the wrong woman!" But it turns out she wanted me to find the package instead. "I have to give it to Sheldrake! I have to give it to him tomorrow!" she pleaded. "You don't know what he's like! It's just me on my own now. I can't afford to make enemies out of the likes of him!" 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.
I asked her "Do you have any idea where this package is? Or for that matter what this package is?"
She shook her head no. "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, no problem. I let her know I was willing to help her, if the price was right, and that there would have to be a price, just in case she'd heard the stupid story about the tailor's daughter as well. "I don't have much," she said "But I've got a few bits of savings, and I can give you some of them" and she named a reasonable sum which was probably even more of a stretch for her than it would have been for me.
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 too 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 entirely. 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 about 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 of panic the taxi driver flung his outboard over to the left, and I was nearly wrenched off my perch at the bows as the boat careened half out of control towards the right hand bank. A moment later the boat drove itself up against a concrete loading dock, wedging itself into the mass of plastic floats bunched up along the side. "What the fuck!"
The pilot gestured at the burning barge up 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."
"What the fuck?" I repeated, "What the hell do you expect if you take a fare up to Long Pond? I paid for the whole trip you bastard!" Unfortunately the wee shite wasn't having any of it, and I ended up storming the rest of the way along the banks of the canal wishing I could have afforded to take 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 over it. 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 out in the middle of the Grand, tied together but always drifting too. There are boardwalks in some places, though half of the paths are just boards laid from boat to boat or gaps to jump, and there are shop fronts tied with banners and all sorts of brightly coloured flags raised up on metal poles. Here and there you have floating platforms with ordinary looking stalls on them, like 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 own boats wherever they happened to tie up this time. If some berk by the canal-side tries to sell you a map tell them to piss off, their isn't a Dingin yet created that could draw a map of the Pond as fast as it changes.
Luckily for me it isn't all quite as hopeless as it might seem to find someone in the Pond, not if you know your way around. Even the locals need some sort of structure to find one another, so there's certain signs, as vague and complex as you like, to tell you where this 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. Sure 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 spent enough on 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, and 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 the merchants right under their noses.
Eventually I found myself on the far side of the pond, heading down a bouncing corrugated gangplank to Mudside's boat.
"Heya Janie!" Mudside called out when he saw me, "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 always says he's just as black all the way through, but I'd trust him more than half the people on the Pond and no worse than most of the rest.
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 and "Looking for a package Mudside."
"A package? You doin' that Lostfinder thing again Janie girl?" I scowled at him. "I'm no 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 had an idea of what I meant.
"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 ken loads of men Janie"
"This one's called Wilson Kime" I said, naming Shiftry's husband.
"I don't think I know the name." 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 got me a wee bit 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 just don't give me that bullshit Mudside. You got a package for Kime, I know you have, just hand it over and I'll get out of your hair. Are you listening?"
It was about this point that I realised that Mudside was not, in fact, listing, so I turned around to see what he was looking at over my shoulder. This gave me a good look at the three men standing on the gangplank. Two were blond, heavily muscled arms bulging under anonymous ballistic fibre 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 on Mudside's stall!
I threw myself out of the way as bullets ripped the stall too 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 cabin's back wall. Behind me the three goons kept blazing away like they hadn't noticed we'd gone, then the gunfire stopped and I could hear them clattering their way through the remains of the stall, overturning tables and kicking through the merchandise.
I hastily revised my estimate. Petty criminals didn't shoot up the stall they were trying to rob and Syndicate hitmen didn'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 blonde goons sprayed bullets in our direction. Luckily his aim was as shite as before and all he did was chew up the deck while we jumped the gap 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 right along a row of Troot drying racks, thick with smoke and dirty water, then left past a stall where a bearded man was hawking plastic jars full of bright pure water caught from the Clearwater Break filter outfall. The blonde guy took the jump from the boat badly, then let loose a spray of bullets that slammed into the water jars with muffled thuds. Definitely Corporates, no one else could be so careless with ammunition, I certainly wasn't wasting any of my precious cartridges shooting back!
The water stall owner grabbed 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, slipping into Menace.
"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 long 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 Mudside! Tell me about the arsing package!"
"Ain't — got it —" he panted, "Rook — Seventh and Cutters Lane — The Factory —"
I started to turn to ask him what he meant, but that was when the Brown Haired guy came out of nowhere and shot up everything around us. 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 down into the canal while I managed to throw myself forward onto the steamer's deck! I tried to make a grab over the side for Mudside's hand, but the arse with the cartridge SMG kept on shooting and I had to look out for myself instead. I got the steamer's stack between myself and the gun, then kept on running till I couldn't hear it any more — and then some.
I'm hoping Mudside made it.
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 away over Dreamingspires, and grey curtains of rain that swept down over the canal, drowning the market in pools and pouring out across the decks.
I took shelter under the awning of a food stall clinging to the edge of the canal, wasted a few more pennies on some Troot and Fish, and ate it slowly while I watched the Scurts scuttling for shelter under the edge of the stall. I was trying to decide what to do next. This whole thing was shaping up to be far more trouble than Shiftry's price was worth, and I had a good think about selling the last few bits out of my satchel and then heading home while I still could. On the other hand, though, if I did that I wouldn't get a penny from Shiftry, not after Sheldrake was done with her. And there was the curiosity too, what was Rook, where was this Factory, and what were the goons 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 and Cutters Lane might be. I had to waste a penny on that too, you don't get anything for free in The City, information least of all, but I got directions and a map scribbled on some Huyzel paper that led me into Bankside.
I took a haphazard route along the main streets into Bankside, dodging crowds wrapped up in plastic macs, heading home in the rain-soaked gloom. I don't know Bankside well at all, and that made me nervous. There were streets with bars set from side to side above ground level, with tattered streamers hung from them, and signs scrawled on the rotting concrete walls that I didn't know. Too easy to put a foot wrong when you're out of your patch. I kept following the map, though, till I found Seventh Street, and then Cutter's Lane.
The place was deserted, not even a Jake to be seen in the alley mouths, which was suspicious in itself. The Factory was a big building in the corner, dark and deserted, no — dark but for one dim pane of shaded glass high up in the bulk. There were skeletal metal balconies well above street level, silhouetted against the darkling sky with the strange flapping shapes of empty boiler suits chained to them. There was one obvious door letting onto the narrow street too, but I hesitated. There was a bundle of cables strung up from the houses opposite, power lines and dataflow access, so not as deserted as it looked.
So I slipped round the back of the factory, into a wet cluttered yard in the shadow of an elevated railway line. The flicker of sparks from the rain hitting the power cables gave me just enough light to see by, just enough light to see that there was a back way into the building, half hidden behind fallen chunks of masonry. It had been blocked off with a metal grille, but I guess there are some advantages to being a mechanic after all. I fished my big wrench and a pair of heavy cutters out of the bottom of my bag and had the thing off in no time. Then I was quickly in, and quietly up the stairs.
The stairs were narrow, maybe some sort of fire-escape, with walls that were soaked with damp and eaten away by fungus. From the second flight up there were rusted metal doors that opened onto big empty floors, supported by concrete pillars. On the fourth floor there were walls on the other side of the door instead of empty space. There was a glimmer of light somewhere in the darkness, and the low clicking of machinery. I hovered cautiously at the door, getting a feel for the place. The walls were dark red, like blood, and smooth, like someone had covered them in fabric. There was fabric on the floor too, rectangular rugs, brown, thick, as subdued as the walls. The whole thing stank of luxury, not luxury like I imagine the Macros have, but some strange sort of thing that didn't make sense to me.
I eased through the door and moved cautiously along the hall, keeping low, fingertips just touching the wall. A train rumbled past outside, the feel of it vibrating through the concrete of the floor. A turn more and I could see the dim light more clearly, it was coming from the end of a corridor, along with the clicking sound I'd heard before. I followed them into the room at the front of the building. There was a little fish-oil lamp burning on a table under the papered over windows, and a whole row of microscale dingins rattling away to themselves in a tangle of cables and metal tapes. Above the dingins were flat screens angled downwards, their faces filled with odd scenes and numbers scrolling past in grainy black and white. Flowghost shit.
On the table in front of the dingins was the package. I knew it was the package because it was all packed up in a box with the lid ready to go on and a sheet of paper cut to size to wrap it. I slipped over to the table and took a look. It was metal, it was gleaming, it was complex and mechanical, and fuck me if it wasn't the slickest looking engine controller for an Ekranoplan I've ever seen. Hesitantly I lifted it from the box. It was an experimental thing, I was sure of that. Nanoscale dingins, or even something electronic, I don't know. There was 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 fixed The Beast with that, once and for all. Plug that into The Beast and it would run for sure, run and win. All I had to do was pocket the thing and get home.
"The only reason I haven't shot you," said a voice 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 your carrying down on the table — carefully! — and then turn around, again carefully if you don't mind."
I did as the voice said, and then turned slowly round. The man who was holding a gun on me, a very new and dangerous looking magrail pistol by the way, was as weird as the place he lived in. He was thin, with sunken cheeks like an Edge addict's under a long queue of greyish hair. He had on an enormous pair of glasses, with lenses as thick as bottle bottoms, that magnified his blue-grey eyes into huge insect-like orbs. He was wearing some sort of patterned robe of slick shiny cloth, like you see Nakamura-Yeibisu's wearing in the shows on cable. On either breast was an embroidered design of a winged sort of animal with flames coming out of it's beak.
He gestured with the gun, moving me away from the pistol and the table while moving himself closer. When we had switched places completely he reached behind with on hand and ejected the clip from my gun. Then he was perfectly quiet for a long while, his gun hand very steady, while those strange big eyes flicked this way and that, taking me all in. He didn't speak, I think, till he was sure he had me all worked out. 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 now and feed your body to the grateful fishes."
There was something about the calm way he spoke that scared me far more than the bullets down in the Pond. He wasn't going to put up with evasions or clever excuses. So I played my ace card, in fact my only card, right away, and 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 however, why is he not here himself? Our arrangement was quite specific, and did not call for a go-between."
So I explained all about the Corporate shites from the Pond, and Mudside's little accident. I didn't mention that Mudside hadn't had any 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 designed to test my relationship with Mudside. All the way through the gun stayed on me steady as a rock. I don't know to this day if he even knew Mudside himself, 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 the safety of the magrail on with one skinny finger, then slid it into one of his sleeves. He went to the table next and turned up the wick on the lamp, still watching me from behind those crazy specs.
The tension flowed out of me, and he must have seen it, because he smiled a crazy little smile at me. The way he was looking I thought he was about to offer me tea, next, but he just picked up the controller from the box 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 here 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 over to me. ". "Very well Miss —" I gave him a name off the top of my head. "Very well Miss Horn. You had best be going then."
I went to the table and retrieved my gun and ammo, slotting the magazine back into the stock and stowing it carefully inside it's holster. Then I set about wrapping the controller in foam padding taken from the box, wrapping it in nylon twine to make it secure, and taking things out of my satchel to hide it at the bottom. Rook hovered nearby, watching me.
"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, while trying desperately to appear casual about the question. "Oh you know, I've got many talents." It sounded lame even to me.
"Seems to me I've heard mention of a mechanic in connection with Mr Mudside," he continued, "Only she wasn't his partner, rather some sort of Lostfinder from the other end of the TCMA. Now that wouldn't be you would it Miss Horn?" Clever.
I turned, stalling, wracking my brains for an answer that would keep him happy, when I was saved by the bell, literally. There was a crash from somewhere deep down in the crumbling structure of the factory, that set some sort of alarm bell ringing over the dingins. At the same time I saw movement on one of the screens hung above the table and I pointed. "Look! There!"
Rook whirled round to the machine, silencing the alarm, and flicked a series of switches. The image on the viewscreen jumped from one viewpoint to another, then zoomed in on a grainy picture of three, four, maybe five figures hurrying up a flight of stairs.
"Friends of yours?"
"Shit! Yes, the men from the market. How did they get the address — 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, towards the front of the building. There was something in the shadows there, something big and metal, and I thought better of protesting about his own safety and got the hell out of there. Three sharp turns and I was back in the service stairs, three flights plunging down while the sound of muffled gunfire began somewhere behind me and I was down on the street again. Then I was running, again, till I could lose myself in the crowds of Bankside with only normal dangers to contend with.
The night was a long twisting journey through the 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 looking for customers in the night. Mikefighters screaming in the dark city sky.
In the end I took shelter in an all night caf— 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 of the seats was still mostly in place and wedged myself in there with a lukewarm pot of tea and single smoky lamp to keep me company. I should have slept, God knows I was exhausted enough. I must have run more, and been shot at more, in that one day than I had in the last year, which is saying a lot when you live across the water from Mire End. I dozed a bit for sure, blocking out the sounds of snoring, and the hiss of the samovar at the back of the room, and the drone of aerostats outside in the night, but I couldn't really sleep. My head was full of running feet, and gunfire, and most of all the thing that really held my attention — the package.
Now let's get this bit straight. I told you right at the start about The Beast. That's my father's bastard of an Ekranoplan. It sits there in the back of my workshop, defying every attempt I've ever made to have it working. Oh the jet runs well enough, though it could do with a replacement for the inner turbine ring and a really 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. But that doesn't mean that any of those things work together. They don't. Put together the whole thing's just one big pile o' shite that doesn't go anywhere. It just sits, and chokes, and belches, and mocks anyone who dares to call me a mechanic. Maybe my Dad could have made it work right, I'll never know. I've always been convinced that if someone just could then The Beast would be a brilliant thing. There are innovations in there, designs my Dad cooked up in late nights by lamplight, things I don't even understand. The Beast could be a winner if I could just make him work!
So there I am with this Ekranoplan that won't work, and this package full of cutting-edge Macrocorp shit, just waiting to be plugged in and make it work. It was all I could do to stop myself tearing the wrapping off right there in the caf— and just staring at the thing. Okay I didn't really stop myself, but at least I kept the wrapping half in place so no one else could see what I'd got.
Now I'm no dinginsmith, but I knew cutting-edge design when I saw it. I may not race but I follow the top teams. I've got a cable subscription to all the racing channels, and there's a magazine, "Speed Foils" specially for us gear-heads as well. I even pay a man down at the Coldbath end of the hills for the occasional technical blueprints. They're always out of date, not even last year's but the year before, but I read them like Third Churchers read the scriptures. There's a box like that one at the heart of every top-line Ekranoplan, it's the thing that binds all the complex systems together. You plug everything into it, fuel pumps and engine feeds, control lines, ballast valves, the whole lot. Sure people might talk about the pilot, or the engine power, or the wing design, but this box was more important than the lot of them. It's the sort of thing no limited Ekranoplan racer, and that would be me, by the way, if The Beast were working, is ever going to own. And there it was, in my hands.
I tried to distract myself with questions.
Who was it made for? Some Class A racing team, beyond a doubt. This was intended for the next GC:2000, and it might be the edge between winning and losing. How did Rook get it? From some corrupt Corporate no doubt. Who were the goons with the guns? Corporate security wanting their part back? No, not competent enough. Team members trying to cover up the loss maybe, or rivals wanting it for themselves. Why did the Third Syndicate want it? How the hell should I know! Maybe they had a team of their own, no, certainly they had a team of their own, and what an upset for the bookies this baby could cause.
All of which, like I said, were distractions from the real question, what was I going to do with the thing?
Oh sure, I'd set out planning to pick up the package and give it to Shiftry so that 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 thing that was worth a hundred times everything Shiftry had, a hundred times everything I had too. And not just any valuable thing, no, just the thing I needed to give up this stupid mechanic life and become a racer, just like I always wanted. Just like my Dad 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, nor care I should think. 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 package. He wouldn't care that it was her husband who'd made the deal not her. He wouldn't care that she'd hired me to get the package. All he'd care was that someone had done him out of a deal, and that someone had to be made an example of. I know I shouldn't have cared, I'm a citizen of the City aren't I, and everyone looks out for number one here, but for some reason I did. 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.
Shall I tell you about Sheldrake? You want to know? He's a stone cold killer that one. Black hair, black eyes, black heart. Grew up in the poison waters of Mire End before he slipped across the water to Folly Hills. They say he was the son of a prostitute, killed his first man at the age of ten, same night his mother died. After that he took the ferry across the Green, caught the eye of the local Third assembly, worked his way up the ranks the usual way. Now he's the biggest man in the Syndicate on the East side of the hills. Shiftry was right when she said I'd know what he was like, and what would happen to her. Did I want that on my conscience?
I wrestled with the questions all through the night, while the tea grew cold and then ran out, and a pale dawn crept through the smog over Bankside. By the end of it 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 just hoped I could think of something on the way.
I dragged myself out of the caf— and onto the streets, caught up in the flow of early morning workers on their way down to the fish ponds. I should have been back in Folly Hills the day before, and the quickest way now was to get down to the canal where the Grand met the Third and take the ferry to the Thackery Street docks. That would put me fifteen minutes from the High Street and a short run for home.
Only the ferry was the obvious way home, and those Corporates had caught up with me twice already. I didn't count my chances for a third time. So I took the singing bridge across the Third from Bankside to Coldbath Fell under the watchful eyes of the Provosts, and made my way around to the Grand Canal from the other side. Then I took the pedestrian side of the Coldwater bridge, while the train rumbled along below me and the iron-shod trucks grumbled the other way out of Folly Hills. By mid morning I was on the funicular that descends the steep hill from the East end of the bridge down to the middle of the three hills, which dropped me, eventually, onto Boundary Street. From there is was a short shove through the endless crowds and smoke back towards the North side and home.
I should have gone straight to Shiftry's house. I could have, when I got to the corner of Leadenhall Alley; but I couldn't help thinking of The Beast, and the controller, and how they would fit together, how the cables would fit, how the engine would sound — Okay I couldn't help thinking that maybe I could still just forget all about Shiftry. Go home. Keep the package. Get away clean.
Only there was a blonde haired man in a padded leather jacket leaning against the doorway across the street from my workshop, just casually resting one hand on the bulge inside his jacket which I knew would be a cartridge SMG. He was either one of the two goons from Long Pond or his clone, and I was sure that where he was the others wouldn't be very far away. How did they find me? I was certain I couldn't have been followed! Had they known who I was all along? Was the whole thing a setup? Then the answer struck me — Mudside or Rook, one of the two had sold me out! Mudside knew where I lived already and Rook, well he was a Flowghost, he could find out. Maybe that was what he had meant when he told me he could deal with the Corporates. Not mow them down with some nightmare weapon like I'd somehow imagined, but by giving them what they wanted at no risk to himself, me and the Package.
Which meant that suddenly I was out of options, and getting the hell out to Shiftry's place in the hope I could come up with a plan!
So now I have another picture for you to close your eyes and imagine, only its not as pretty as me posing in front of The Beast. Shiftry lived on Potter's Lane, a run down wreck of a place a few streets back from the Mire End ferry, where the smog is thick and listless, hanging over the old brick buildings like a shroud. The lane is wider than the name suggests, because the buildings on the eastern side collapsed after some sort of accident a decade ago and no one has ever tried to clear the rubble. Instead they just crowded into the tenements on the other side, balancing thin plastic shacks on the crumbling brick rooftops and stretching out tarps to turn the narrow vennels into more living space.
Got it? Well now imagine that one of the worst and most run down of the houses, right at the end of the row, had been set on fire, with everything of value inside chucked out onto the street. And imagine that that included the owner, thrown down into the wet and muddy roadway while four men of the Syndicate, immaculate in coats of leather and dog-skin, prepared to show what happens to those who dare to cross the Assembly,
Well now you know exactly what I saw when I got to Shiftry's house.
Now this would be the point where I pulled out that cunning plan that I'd had the whole morning to think up. The cunning plan that would turn this whole shitty situation 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!
Instead, without even thinking about it, I found myself running to Shiftry's side, dropping down to my knees to see if she was okay. I saw her lying there, with Sheldrake's men closing in, the heavy metal poles in their hands ready to make a real example of her, and all thought of a clever plan just seemed to fall out of my head. That's probably a good thing. I guess it makes me the hero after all, and doubly the fool along with it. That's why I'm the poor mechanic, not Erasmus Rook in his snug little Flowghost's hideyhole.
Only now Sheldrake and his men were surrounding me as well as her, ready to beat her, and me into the bargain. I knelt in the blood-dirtied water, cradling Shiftry's head and helping her to sit up. My gun was snug in it's holster under my coat, but I wasn't stupid enough to reach for it.
Sheldrake kept on coming.
"Wait," I said again, "I have what you want."
That got their attention. Sheldrake gestured to his men to lower their clubs, and the locals who had been peering from their doorways or cowering in the ally mouths ventured a little closer, eager to see what was going on.
"I've got your package. Nevermind how, you'll know it's the real thing when you see it. I've got it in a safe place, and I'm willing to give it to you if —"
"If you do a little something for me."
After that it all went easily enough, for me at least. I guess it wasn't so good for Shiftry, but at least she wasn't hurt — badly. Once Sheldrake realised that the package was being delivered he lost all interest in Shiftry and her stuff. They left her house to burn, of course, but there were others willing to help her put it out once the threat of bloody violence was out of the way. In the meantime I had words with Sheldrake, which is to say he told me exactly how much of my deal he was, and was not, willing to do. I count myself lucky though. If he'd realised that the controller was right there in the bottom of my bag the whole time we were talking, ripe for the taking, I don't think I'd have gotten a thing.
When it was all over for good, with the fire out and Sheldrake and his men gone to their next job I finally managed to make my way home, one package lighter and no richer than when I started. Isn't that just the way? There was fog closing in over the hills again, swirling down the streets and crowding the doorways, chill enough that I wished for a heavier coat. I was dog tired from all that running, cold and hungry, and dismal for having let my Father's dream slip through my fingers.
Leadenhall Alley was deserted this time around, all silent under it's cloak of fog. I slipped up the lane towards the workshop under its cover. I unlocked the heavy gate that led into the courtyard, ducking under the hanging nets and winding my way through the crates and barrels over to the shelter of the tarpaulins. The Beast was a half seen shadow in the fog to one side, the windows of my basement flat were black holes on the other.
"Hold it there if you don't want to get hurt!"
That was the second time in as many days that someone had held a gun to my back, and I didn't like it. I reckoned that I was a lot more likely to get shot this time than when Rook had been holding the gun, so I stood where I was while rough hands took the satchel off my shoulder and the gun from it's holster. There was the rattle of metal on the concrete, then the hands shoved me over towards the table and the barrels. I lost my footing on the wet concrete, stumbled, caught myself on the edge of the table, and turned to face Brown Hair and his goons.
"The Controller." Brown Hair's voice was a guttural rumble, Hirplakker accent. One of the blonde-haired ones had already emptied the contents of my satchel on the ground and was pushing the contents around with his foot.
I shook my head. "I don't have it."
Brown Hair's face twisted up with anger, "Wrong answer!" He raised his gun and I closed my eyes as the shot rang out.
I opened my eyes slowly. Brown Hair was looking at the blood soaking the front of his shirt with a look of surprise in his eyes. One hand came up, touched finger tips onto the blood stain, trembled, and slowly fell away as he began to topple. The blond haired bodyguards, three of them, went for their SMG's but the men bursting their way out from behind the barrels were faster, guns roaring. Two of them went down at once, the last made a dive for the canal, but he wasn't fast enough.
When the smoke cleared Sheldrake stepped from the shelter of the tarpaulin and nodded to me wordlessly before gathering his men, and anything valuable from the bodies, and taking his leave.
Only then did I go into my basement and rest for real.
So there we have it. In two days I'd killed four men, crossed half the TCMA, got my hands on a piece of Macrocorp tech half the mechanics of Folly Hills would kill for — and given it away. I didn't even get paid! Well not really. Shiftry offered me what she could, of course, but it just didn't seem right when I thought of what I'd given up. And anyway she had a house to rebuild. Don't think of it as selling out, it's an investment for the future. And anyway — she gave me dinner.
You know what? People are never going to believe I'm not a Lostfinder now.
You do though — don't you?