As an aside before we continue… This is a post for 23 in 2013, a project detailed here. It’s my NaNoWriMo project from 2012, a year I failed to complete the 50,000 words. It’s also the first draft – there will be typos, inconsistencies, mis-named characters and all of the other things that plague a first draft. The comments are there both for you lovely readers to post words of encouragement, point out “but he said… in the last chapter, that contradicts…” and keep me straight, and for me to bash ideas around. File this one under Urban Fantasy | Edinburgh | Parallel Worlds, as they might one day say on Angry Robot.
If you missed the introduction, it’s here – come back when you’ve read it…
Chapter 1 – Welcome to Edinburgh
She is returning.
Is she Aware?
Then stop her. Delay her. Do not harm her. He would not be happy.
Stupid o’clock, Sevenoaks Station. Sarah Huntingdon was not surprised that her train was late. In fact after her alarm clock had failed to go off and her Taxi turned out to have been booked for the next day a late train was to be expected. When the taxi had arrived they’d hit every single red traffic light possible between her house and the station. She’d sprinted to the platform, ticket in hand to find the train due in about an hour following “an incident” in Tonbridge.
“Bloody hell, I could’ve driven to Edinburgh by now!”
Sarah leaned back against the platform wall, all the seats already taken by other commuters in exactly the same boat. No one even batted an eyelid at her exclamation. The wind, bitingly cold, whipped along the platforms, tugging her shoulder-length red-blonde hair loose, and she wrapped her black overcoat more tightly around her glad of the warmth of her travelling clothes – jeans, T-shirt, sensible boots. The formal wear was in her travelling case at her feet.
Predictably the train was packed when it eventually arrived but the past few years had taught Sarah the commuter’s tricks to finding comfort where and when she could on a packed train. She found a gap just big enough to accommodate her 5’6″, lean, frame, tucked herself in and put on her headphones. Only seven stops to London, a short tube journey to Kings Cross and then time to find out what train she would now be taking to Edinburgh. It had already been a long day.
Two men sat in a Cafe just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Above them, the Castle. Below them, the Palace of Holyrood. All around them, the Gormenghast jumble of buildings clinging to the side of the Castle mound. The first, Milo, is completely bald, lightly tanned, handsome enough at first glance but unsettling on closer inspection, something the observer can’t quite pin down. Maybe it’s the way his lips are slightly out of synch with his speech. His T-shirt, currently grey-green, shifts colours when no-one is looking. His right foot tapped the floor, leather boots drumming quietly. The other, Ash, across the table from him is a study in gray. His greatcoat, T-shirt, jeans and boots are all variations on gray. He’s mister urban camoflage. Grey hair topped off an average face made unusual by pale grey skin. Only his eyes have any color, flashing cobalt blue as he smiled. The third chair at their table is waiting for an occupant.
“You’d better bring me up to speed, Milo. I’ve been with Jeckyl all week here in Prime finishing the arrangements for this conference.” Ash gestured around with his left hand, the right holding a thermal mug full of black coffee. He drank. His voice is tired, worn, grey. Too little sleep, too much to do. “Stephen’s been making things interesting.”
Milo almost chokes on his tea. “Seriously? Stephen Hyde’s here? He must be crazy. The Closed Gate are offering a fortune for his head. Murdoch himself wants to perform the chop. If he weren’t such a good friend I’d be tempted to turn him in!”
Ash nodded. “I know what you mean. That amount of money could keep you in spare batteries for quite a while. But Murdoch ebing out for blood doesn’t surprise me. He’s a troll, it’s what they do. It all depends on who’s out of favour with Lady Rocksilver today. Am I still on their list?”
Milo drank more carefully. The cup doesn’t seem to touch his lips, rather it passes through them. he set the cup back on it’s saucer.
“This time it’s different. Apparently Stephen managed to break in to one of their strongrooms, stole Chapman’s Remote, used that to escape.”
Ash grinned. “That’d do it.”
Sarah bailed out at London Bridge. Somehow the train driver had managed to lock himself out of his cab and no-one had a spare key. Another one was on it’s way, apparently. Just about typical for this journey, really. That a cow had somehow got into the Underground tunnels was unusual, that the queue for the taxi rank wrapped around the block was not. Shouldering her bag, Sarah set off for the bridge and a bit of shopping. If she was going to be late, she might as well be fashionably late.
“Certainly did. None of the guards had the guts to tell Rocksilver in person so they called in Aamalan as a messenger. So the whole of Locutia knew before Rocksilver herself did and Stephen ended up on the ‘Shoot on sight’ list.”
“Well, he’s in good company, then.” Ash called the waitress over. Young, blonde, foreign accent he couldn’t place. “Can I get one of those almond croissants and a refil, please?” She took his mug and hurried off. “Something familiar about her, Milo. You recognise her?”
Milo took a long look at the waitress, his eyes flickering as he did. “Nope. Never seen her before in my life. Nor have the security systems at any of the Gates.”
“Strange. Sure I recognise her.” Ash shook his head. “It’ll pass.”
“Weren’t you on that list?”
Ash grinned, “Still am, as far as some people are concerned. Three years may be a long time in politics but it’s the blink of an eye for a troll. Murdoch would happily try to collect the bounty they put on my head after the Open Moon incident.” His grin faded.
“We’re still looking for her, Ash. I’ve got people going over the sensor records from the incident. The harmonics were too complex then, hell they still are now. But we’re getting there. We’ll find her. Trust me.”
Ash smiled again, forced but a smile nonetheless.
Milo picked up a brochure from the table, “Emerging Concepts in Virtual Reality Simulations”.
“So,” he waved the brochure under Ash’s nose. “What time’s registration?”
The walk across London was therapeutic. Second-hand bookshops provided Sarah with reading matter should the conference literature become too fascinating, a deli sold her a pastrami sandwich that smelled divine along with a hazelnut coffee that she sipped as she walked. And then she hit the crowds milling around outside Kings Cross. A long way outside Kings Cross.
Sarah collared the first policeman she saw.
“‘scuse me, officer, what’s happening?”
The young policeman spoke briefly into his lapel radio and smiled.
“Bomb scare, miss. False alarm, miss. They’re letting everyone back into the station now. Apparently someone reported a suspicious package, turned out to be a pot noodle. EOD diffused it with the aid of a kettle and fork.”
“Oh. Okay then. Thanks!”
Over the next hour or so the crowds filed in to the station and vanished as trains whisked them away. Sarah walked straight on to the first Edinburgh-bound train – her train from this morning, delayed from earlier – and sank into her first-class seat. Edinburgh in four hours. Ish…
York, Durham, Newcastle, Berwick, all zipped by without a hitch. Sarah had plenty of time to read over the conference literature her boss had given her. That had been an interesting meeting.
“Tom, you’re off to San Diego. Go cover Comic Con for us. Michael, you’re in Vegas. Sarah?”
“Not Barcelona? Or San Antonio?”
“Nope. Edinburgh. This virtual reality conference is only in it’s second year but it’s already drawing the big names. You’re going north.”
Sarah shrugged. Don’t sleep with the boss, go to Edinburgh. Sleep with the boss, go to the US. Maybe next year.
She spread the literature out on the table in front of her. “Emerging Technologies in Virtual Reality Simulations.” Fascinating stuff. Actually, it was a bit. Some of the stuff she’d read about Hyde’s work on the Suthana simulation sounded as close to Star Trek’s holodeck as anyone had come yet. The only fly in the ointment was last year’s conference. Last year’s conference had been held on the Riverwalk in San Antonio. And she got to go to Edinburgh. Head. Desk. Thump.
Sarah flicked through song selections on her phone. Nightwish, not conducive to her current mood. Colin Hay, better. Funky Gibbon? Who put that there? Jarre? Perfect. She took a few deep breaths, a long drink of water and delved into the proceedings again.
The all-too-familiar shape of Arthur’s Seat and the Crags appeared through the train windows. And stayed there for over an hour as the guard and driver explained increasingly unbelievable reasons for the train not moving.
Milo handed Ash the flyer, Ash squirreled it away in an inside pocket.
“Registration’s six unti eight. Dinner at Atrium then Pepper and Ghost are laying on a ghost walk for anyone who wants to go.”
“Atrium? Nice. How many are we expecting?”
“About fifty, all told. About a dozen of us and the rest are the smoke screen.”
Milo picked at Ash’s croissant.
“So. You and me, obviously. Jeckyl. Who else? Jade? Yvonne?”
“Yep. Yvonne Bailey’s confirmed, she’s coming through the Thin Gate on George Street in about an hour. Jade sends her apologies but she’s got business in Salaam that’ll keep her busy until well into the week. Gabriel Dudley should be joining us here any minute – next time the waitress is passing, order up an espresso for her. Kiss, Tin Man and Copperplate are signed up. Sea Shaw of course.”
“And who are the other three?”
Ash grinned again. “You’ll find out tonight.”
The bell over the coffee shop door rang, both Ash and Milo looked up then stood. Milo pulled back the third chair at their table, Ash waved at the lady who entered the cafe.
‘Gabriel! Over here.’
Gabriel Dudley, a tall thin woman with straight, jet-black hair, strode across to the table, eyes scanning the room as she did. Milo caught the waitress’s eye and she brought an espresso and another almond croissant over to them.
‘Gentlemen.’ Milo pushed her chair in as she sat down then he and Ash seated themselves again. ‘Good to be back in Prime.’
They exchanged nods, drinking in silence for a while. Gabriel clicked her fingers and Ash passed her the conference brochure. Reading through it, she nodded aprovingly.
‘Looking good.’ She set her cup down, drummed the six fingers of her right hand on the table. ‘Milo, how quickly can you have the Suthana simulation up and running?’ She drained her cup, waved to the blonde waitress and ordered a refil. The as the waitress caught her eye, Gabriel blinked and the waitress faltered in her steps, nearly dropping the cup.
‘If I can get Prof Shaw to concentrate, maybe by midnight tonight? Certianly by nine tomorrow morning, we were going to be pulling an all-nighter anyway. He’s got a bunch of his students working on it now. Why?’
‘I’ve been running simulations of the Open Moon incident. I need to see them in three dimensions before I can go any further.’
Ash very carefully set his cup down, laid both hands flat on the table.
‘You’ve got something.’ A statement, not a question.
‘Maybe. Maybe. There’s still some problems but I might be able to tell you more tomorrow. Might.’ Gabriel looked over at Ash’s plate. ‘You eating that? Keeping this data link open is hungry work.’ When Ash said nothing she reached across and pulled the plate in front of her. Three croissants disappear in short order. As the waitress passed their table Milo tapped her on the arm.
‘We’re going to need about a dozen more of those and if you see that espresso mug empty, top it up?’
Finally! The train now arriving at platform 11 is the phenomenally late Kings Cross service that should definitely have been here several hours ago. Sarah’s watch told her she had now been travelling for almost 11 hours now. Still, the end was in sight and there was an overtime claim to put in that would make her boss wish he’d sent her to San Diego. She could’ve been interviewing Nathan Fillion, Joss Whedon, anyone! But the end was in sigh. Shouldering her bag, she stepped off the train and almost skipped up the steps towards Princes Street and the Balmoral Hotel, her home for the next few days.