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 anything earlier, they’re here – come back when you’ve read it…
“Welcome to Emerging Technologies in Virtual Reality Simulations 2, Miss?” said the over-happy looking blonde man behind the registration desk. He couldn’t be more than 20, thought Sarah, and if they were planning some eye candy they didn’t choose badly. 11 hours travelling didn’t do the best things for her mood or appearance. His accent wasn’t local, either. Probably a Kiwi over for the festival. A gold badge pinned to his white T-shirt read ‘Nigel, Gopher’.
‘Huntingdon. Sarah Huntingdon.’ And you’re doing what later, precisely? her brain added as an unwelcome afterthought. C’mon, thought Sarah. Shower, change of clothes, pint at the World’s End. Then worry about Nigel.
‘Won’t keep you a moment, Miss Huntingdon.’ He scanned the table in front of him, strewn with badges of various colours, plucking a green one and checking the photograph against the person standing in front of him. ‘Here you go,’ he held the badge a fraction longer than was socially acceptable as he handed it over. ‘You’ll need to wear this for all conference sessions including the dinner tonight and on the final night,’ he looked to have a pre-prepared speech ready to roll. Sarah cut him off.
‘What’s with the different colours, Nigel?’
‘Well. Green is for the media – magazines, newspapers, television, some websites. There’s a few of you here ready to report to your eager readers. Blue badges are for the uber-geeks, developers, coders, people really wanting the technical information that would put you or I into a deep sleep. Red are for managers, people who we know are just here for a few days in Edinburgh at the tail end of the Festival, there aren’t many of them this year, I think Professor Shaw put most of them off last time. Your badge lets you into any of the sessions you think will be interesting. Gold are for the organisers, if you have any questions just find a gold badge and ask.’
‘And the black ones?’ Half a dozen un-named black badges sat to one side of the desk..
‘Not sure. I’ve not given any of those out.’ He paused, flicked through a sheaf of notes. ‘Ah, no I see now. They’re for VIPs. Keynote speakers, that sort of thing. One of these will be Professor Shaw’s. He’s the keynote speaker tomorrow morning but he’s not signed in yet.’
‘Cool. Anything else I need to know?’ Sarah looked around the registration room. Bored now, need a shower and an explore. Wonder if that coffee shop on the Mile is still there.’
‘Yep,’ And here comes the prepared speech… Nigel reached behind him and took a leather conference folder from a box. ‘Here you go. There’s a welcome meeting in an hour in the Buchanan room followed by dinner at Atrium. Breakfast starts at six tomorrow morning, the first session is at eight and you’re not listening to a word I’m saying so I’ll just add that your room key is in the front of the folder, you’re in four-nineteen and if you’ve got any problems just phone reception.’
‘Thanks, Nigel. It’s been a long day.’ The binder was leather, nice! She unclipped it, found her key card. ‘Elevators?’
‘Are bad for you, you should take the stairs. But they’re behind you and to the right. Have a nice day.’ Sarah was about to reply but Nigel was already dealing with another delegate.
The world was still conspiring against Sarah. The lifts wouldn’t respond to her button mashing and when she slogged up the stairs to her room her key failed. Back down the stairs to reception, four flights. Think of the good this is doing your calves and cardio! It’s free exercise, you know. Brain, that’s not helpful.
“Hi. Sorry to bother you but my key isn’t working?” Why am I sorry? It’s not my fault!
“Sorry to hear that, let me check that for you.” The receptionist flashed Sarah her best, brightest smile and nearly blinded her. Teeth bleached much? She tapped a few keys and handed Sarah back her key. “What room did you say you were in?”
“According to our records you’re in five-nineteen, that would explain why the key didn’t work. Would you like some help with your bags?”
“That’s right, miss.”
“Thank you. Someone’s been feeding me misinformation.”
“Sorry to hear that, miss. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Nope. Thanks.” And she headed back for the stairs.
Okay. Plan of attack. Swift shower, change of clothes, head out and hit the Mile. It’s been years since I’ve been here and I need to see what’s changed. Wonder if that coffee shop is still open. Back here in time for the meet and greet and then across to Atrium. Heard good things, never been…
Room five-nineteen turned out to be a corner suite, two main rooms, bathroom, the works. A large desk dominated the first room, sited to give the user views over Princes Street, the gardens and the Castle mound.
“Alright! Bet Tom’s not got a view like that in Vegas!”
Sarah dumped her bag, hooked her phone up to the delegates’ WiFi and downloaded the conference app. It would flash up alerts when her chosen sessions were starting, download the presentations and the press pack for her. Nice. The desk had a few other surprises. Several flyers for Festival shows, a ticket for something called “Pepper and Ghost’s Walking Tour of the Old City” for tonight, a guide to the hotel’s strange selection of TV channels and pay-per-view movies and a beautifully handwritten note.
“Miss Huntingdon, forgive the intrusion. I have upgraded your room as per instructions from Above and trust the alteration did not cause too much inconvenience. It is in your interest to attend the walking tour tonight.”
It was signed, or at least finished, “Copperplate”. That was definitely the style of writing but was it a name? Curiouser and curiouser.
Dipping in to her bag she extracted toiletries and took them through to the bathroom. The bathroom! Wow! Right. New plan. Set an alarm on the phone for 10 minutes before the meet and greet is due to start, soak the journey away in that gorgeous bloody bath. Thank you, Copperplate!
In a side room off reception. A bank of computer screens show views of the assorted conference rooms, reception areas and a few corridors. 3 people watch the screens, occasionally tapping keys or pressing buttons. Ash stepped into the room from a side door that faded and vanished as he closed it.
“Milo.” He laid a hand on the shoulder of one of the three studying the screens. As it turned round, the white skin, laced with veins of blue light, black eyes reflecting the screens, shimmered and blurred, becoming the man Ash had been with in the cafe. “No need to put on a show for me, Milo, I know what you look like. Who’s here so far?”
“Stephen Hyde and Gabrielle Dudley are downstairs in the control suite working on the simulation that all the code monkeys want to play with and the journalists want to wax lyrical about. He’s excelled himself this time, Ash, he really has. It’s stunning.”
“Are they safe down there?”
“They’re under guard. We’ve got the corridors and adjacent rooms under surveillance, Yvonne Bailey and Tin Man are circulating. Tin Man did try to get your attention when you came in but you’re not at your most observant when you’re distracted.”
“It’s what Gabrielle said earlier. If she’s got some new information, something that might help me find Sarah, I want to know what it is.”
“We’ve a Sarah Huntingdon signed in already, she’s checked into her room.”
“Huntingdon? No, That’s not her.”
Milo brought up Sarah’s conversation with Nigel. Ash moved closer to the screen. There was something familiar about her, but then there had been with the waitress earlier today. Perhaps he was finally losing his mind. When everyone started to look familiar, then he’d start to worry.
“Sure. What about Copperplate?”
“Ironically, he’s had trouble with his travel documents. Oh, and Icarus is helping Department 13 with their inquiries.”
Ash raised an eyebrow, turned to face Milo who had gone back to the screens.
“What have they managed to pin on him?”
“Nothing, but they know he’s got connections in Locutia.”
“Oh, they’re still looking for someone to nail the weapons trafficking on, aren’t they.” Ash picked up a sheaf of papers, a list of names. He turned the pages, his eyebrow remaied raised. “That’s a lot of delegates.”
“Er, no. Just over fifty, like we said earlier.”
“Try two hundred and seven! Smokescreen, Milo! There’s supposed to be just enough people to cover what we’re actually doing here, we’re not meant to be running a genuine bloody conference!”
Never the whole truth from this bunch. Ash put the papers back next to Milo’s keyboard. No wonder Jeckyl had over-catered, over-booked rooms, grabbed the largest conference rooms the hotel had and officially organised use of space in two adjacent realities!
“Yeah, well. When I spoke to Gabrielle a few months ago I realised we needed a really good smokescreen. And the conference last time had been fun. Fifty people including us wasn’t going to cut it. The Closed Gate have been suspicious as it is. We’ve been able to cloak most of the organisation under the Festival Treaty but that comes to an end next week but hijacking a genuine conference was the easiest way to keep them off our trail.” Milo brought up a world map on one of the screens, a marker flag over Sydney, Australia. “I’ve already heard rumours about next year’s conference! It’s practically organising itself! Apparently the Marriott has superb facilities.”
The screen changed, the Marriott’s ample conference rooms, suites, restaurants. Ash’s smile faded.
“Milo, if I could leave Edinburgh – if we could leave Edinburgh – don’t you think we would? I’ve lived here all my life! Never even been to Glasgow, London, anywhere outside the bloody Boundary. We chose this conference because it was coming to Edinburgh anyway, not because one of us went to San Antonio and planted the idea of Edinburgh.”
“Sod off and have a drink with Tin Man.” Milo jabbed a now white finger at the screen showing the bar. “Go and ruin his mood if you must. I’m going to dream of Sydney.”