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…
As Sarah Huntingdon got on her London train that morning, Inspector Staneck smiled jovially as he strode into the Department 13 buildings on George Street. Packing crates lined the corridors, signs of a move either recently undertaken or about to happen, he wasn’t sure which. Picture a slim, red-headed Santa Clause and you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Department 13 was one of the branches of Lothian and Borders Constabulary that people didn’t know about. He stuck his head around the tea room door.
“Minions! Consider yourselves summoned. Briefing room, five minutes. Someone bring me a coffee.”
Five minutes later, with a steaming mug of standard-issue-almost-but-not-quite-coffee, he stood in front of a blank whiteboard.
“Righty. Locutian arms smuggling. Who’s got what? Someone give me a starter for ten.”
A hand was raised at the side of the room, a young blonde woman in jeans and T-shirt.
“Olga Antonova, yes.”
“Locutian? Please explain.”
“Sorry, you’ve not had your welcome briefing yet, have you.” Inspector Staneck waved a hand over the rest of the room. “Everyone, this is Olga Antonova, on loan from Moscow. We’ve had some very successful liaisons with the Watches recently and she’s the first of our exchange staff. You lot work hard and I’ll send one of you back to Moscow with her in time for winter.”
Inspector Staneck picked up a marker pen and started drawing interlocking circles on the whiteboard.
“Righty. Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. This big circle here is Prime. It’s what everyone thinks is the ‘real world’. All these other circles represent other realities, or Aspects, that are based off Prime and connected to each other through Gates. Gates can be one-way or two-way and all the known Gates are monitored and traffic through them controlled and policed. Locutia is one of the Aspects, one where high technology has run rampant – according to one nineteeth century record, the Aspect we now call Locutia used to be Steamtopia. Think of the Aspects as ‘what if…’ Botanica, for example, is best described as ‘what if the botanical gardens mutated and overtook the whole city?’; Salaam is ‘what if Edinburgh was actually the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights’; Neverwas is simpler – what if Edinburgh had never existed. Things like that. There are new Aspects popping up all the time as people imagine them, most of them don’t hang around very long. No one has a very complete map of the Aspects, one man I know has a sort of guidebook that he’s compiled over the years, but that’s as good as it gets. Happy?”
Olga nodded, a confused look flitting across her face.
“Good. Now, the Closed Gate have been asking serious questions…” Olga’s hand went up again.
“Sorry, the Closed Gate are an organisation of people loosely connected to lady Sophia Rocksilver of the Frozen North – that’s an Aspect where we’re locked into a perpetual ice age but otherwise largely unchanged. They want to restrict traffic between the Aspects completely. They’re opposed by just about everyone but unfortunately they’ve got friends in high, low and most places in between. If they get their way, they’ll have the final say over who gets to go where, many of the Aspects will stagnate and simply cease to exist.”
“I believe I understand. So someone is smuggling high-technology weapons from Locutia and using them to…?”
“Murder two people, so far,” said Inspector Staneck, wiping the board.
“Three, sir.” DC Munroe held a job sheet up for Staneck to see.
Munroe nodded. Staneck counted names off on his fingers.
“Three people, sorry. There have been a number of other crimes committed that could be connected but at the moment the murders are our concern.”
“Why are they not being handled by the regular police?” asked Olga, taking notes in a small black book.
“Because two of the victims were not found here in Prime and the one that was is definitely not native to this Aspect.”
Inspector Staneck looked down at his empty coffee mug.
“When did I drink this?”
“While you were drawing us a diagram, sir,” said Munroe.
“Of course. Of course. Thank you for volunteering to fetch another. This time, try to bribe the canteen staff to give you something that actually is coffee?”
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Emerging Technologies in Virtual Reality Simulations,” Stephen Shaw paused, glanced at his hand-written notes again. “Yes, ETVRS. You know, we really must come up with a better acronym than that for next year. Pause for laugh. Oh, no! I wasn’t meant to read that part! Can I start again?”
Professor Stephen Shaw was dishevelled, his nondescript suit slightly crumpled, his short brown hair stuck up at odd angles, bags just visible beneath his eyes. He’d been working for the past forty-odd hours getting everything ready for Gabrielle, out from under the prying eyes of the Closed Gate and whoever they had working within Locutian Central Processing. He looked around the room, hoping the nervous mad professor act was fooling everyone it needed to, nodded. People dutifully laughed at his apparent stumble and then again as his first slide came up – out of focus, upside down and back-to-front.
“It’s not my day, is it!” More laughter. “Anyway, welcome to our little conference. A special welcome to those who were in San Antonio, I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about that conference and was thrilled to be invited to open this one. We’ll be covering a lot of ground over the next three days and I hope we can all keep up. Firstly, a bit of good news. My team have been working solidly at the Suthana Simulation and I can tell you that we’ve got three rooms kitted out downstairs ready for you to explore. I’m not going to tell you where you’ll be going when you enter there, but you should have fun. We can comfortably take a party of ten and have all of them going in different directions.” A cheer from several people.
“Secondly, we’ve got a special control room set up so that anyone who wants to have a look at how it’s programmed can get hands-on. That’s assuming anyone’s interested in code here.”
He waited until the roar from the geeks who had already been in the bar quietened down.
As Professor Shaw said “Finally…”, Sarah felt a wave of not-quite-vertigo wash over her. He seemed to be delivering two speeches at once and she couldn’t focus on either of them. An odd group of figures near the back of the room caught her eye, that was where he seemed to be concentrating his gaze for one of the speeches. The group looked familiar but…
“Ow!” A sharp, stabbing pain shot through the front of her brain. Nigel appeared at her elbow.
“Are you alright, Miss Huntingdon?”
She removed the hand she’d clasped to her forehead, took the glass of water he was holding and drained it. Looking around, she couldn’t see the group she had been looking at. Professor Shaw was talking exclusively about the conference dinner.
“Thank you, Nigel. Just a bit of a headache. It’s been a long day.”