It’s a topsy, turvy world, I thought as I sat perched on my favorite high spot in the Crucibix Rookery district of Stormking. I was the lookout for my gang, the Corvidroods. I saw my friends, Trale and Kataryss far below pulling their stunts as some of the best pickpockets on this side of Northtop Mountain.
From my vantage point I could see everything that was going on in the market down below. Gark Businessmen in their frock jackets, top hats and canes would come down from the high city to make new deals among the factories. Didn’t they know that all eyes were on their kind in this working class town? Us in the gangs, all felt that they had it coming. It was plundering from the rich to give to the poor. Mingling among the patters and shoppers of the working class, these Garks sure stood out.
I thought we would use the money for various repairs on our skiffrunner for the next race or to bribe off The Law Machine or to pay tribute to gangs higher up the food chain than us. This will be our last theft, I hoped.There were many gangs. Over a hundred at my last count; and that’s in Crucibix alone, though the borders were fluid when coming to the gangs. They had their own, self-described territories that went outside of the lines that the Kratters drew. It’s as almost there were several layers on Stormking Island and the lower you went, the less power and less rich.
Enough worrying about the Garks and Krats for now, I thought, disrupting my daydreaming, as I saw some potential trouble approach the situation. In the large crowd gathered in the marketplace on the docks on a busy Wednesday afternoon I saw The Law Machine pushing their way through the people headed straight for Trale and Kataryss. My friends just pulled off their deed of relieving these gentlemen of some weight of their purse and watches. No one was any the wiser for it except The Law Machine seemed to know. They always know.
I sent down the usual message, a bird whistle that was only recognizable by the gang, down through the spires of smokestacks and and buttresses; and Kat and Trale heard immediately. Trale and Kat knew what to do. Trale jumped up to see through the crowd and he saw The Law Machine looking back at him coming at a faster pace. They were parting the crowd to make their way to capture. I saw all of this and started my decent to some planned strategic points and help out my pals.
The chase was on! Trale and Kat headed East away from TLM (The Law Machine), which was six, heavily armed men in their typical clunky uniforms, with every gadget The Corporation could outfit them with. A disadvantage, at least I thought so, because in every entanglement with TLM we always just weaved them through all the tight spaces found everywhere around the cities, such as sewers, pipes, tight alleys; that was our gang’s advantage. We all knew the districts better than any authority did and could navigate all the nooks and spaces far better than they could, especially with all their goofy gear. Now their gear could be lethal, there’s no doubt about that, but they were never going to use it in the crowds, and even when in an entanglement in a narrow alley with angles and curves, none of that brute force was going to work against the elegance of speed and teamwork.
You would think they would catch on that the gang had others on the look out to help out with such operations. They seem like roboids, unable to think about things like that. Maybe they were roboids. Though they looked like men with the bit of skin you could see, they certainly behaved like roboids. I wondered what kind of beings would even want to join The Law Machine.
We had rehearsed this scenario dozens of times, and we weren’t going to screw this up this tie. I was to slide down one of the buttresses at the corner of Soor and Brack streets and open the detachable cover on the inspection chamber shaft just in time for Trale and Kat to slide in. I would follow and replace the cover behind me. Down I went, sliding down the iron rail on top of a buttress holding up this tower and I made. The worn leather on the soles of my shoes was the perfect texture to slip down and still maintain my balance.The buttress was pointed exactly toward the chamber shaft opening, so it was all about timing. Trale and Kat were running as fast as they could through the crowd and I watched them, changing my speed so slightly so that I would get there just a second before them. It was a 10 foot drop from the end of the buttress to the street, so at the end I jumped off and landed with a somersault to break my fall. As I came up I grabbed the handle of the iron cover, yanked up just in time for Trale and Kat to jump down. A couple more seconds I was down after them and pulled the cover shut, all the while hoping TLM or their informants hadn’t seen any of this. We ran like hell down the tunnel and didn’t look back hoping they didn’t follow.
And follow TLM did not. If we had another lookout, I would have all loved to see the faces on the six TLM stooges. Alas, our gang was only three, but a thick three. We all grew up together on the streets as orphans, stealing our way to survive. Three was a very small number for a gang in Crucibix. From some of the other meetings I’ve attended, some gangs have hundreds of members. Some of them are working together, some of us are in competition, and others are in deadly war against each other. The Corvidroods were none of those. Though some of the more unsavory gangs would probably like us dead for the small piece of the pie they dip into, which isn’t much, believe me. Our take today would allow us a feast tonight; a feast to celebrate the end of the world, and then some small upgrades on my skiffrunner.
Most gangs steal the parts they need for their skiffs, skiff jumper, skiffrunner, soojchaser, whatever they want to call them these days, as they all have the same goal of going as fast as you can down the canals of the districts of Stormking; but the Corvidroods don’t rob their goods from the skrappers. They’re good folk the skrappers. They’re one of the good guys. . . usually. Only take what we can from the Kratters and Garks and then buy from the skampers, skrappers junkers and patters, what we need. It’s a verifiable black market down there under the cities. Don’t tell The Corporation that though. Those Kratters don’t need to know nothing. Though some say they know everything.
The buying of parts was for tomorrow. Tonight the we feast. Far below the chamber shafts in the old factories that Crucibix was built on we had our cozy little hangout among the old bricks and iron of the old city where we carved out a home. The threat of being found by TLM is always looming. We hear about it happening all the time to other rival gangs, but we are so far down, and so far back from anything and everything that the TLM wouldn’t see it worth their effort to even try to find us.
Crucibix Rookery is the fourth largest district on Stormking Island. Golgime City, where most of the Kratters live, is the biggest, and Dunsbay Tallow, all the way on the other side of the mountain, is the second biggest. Gothisport the third. I’ve lived here my whole life, never venturing far enough out to see much of the rest. In my 15 years of life I’ve seen most of the change that’s happened here though, and with all the progress the Kratters are making. They lay the most recent layer of the city on top of the rubble of the last. That leaves plenty of secret lairs for the gangs to crawl around in down there and never (hopefully) be found. The network of pathways criss-crossing up and down and back and forth can even get me second-guessing where I’m going.
After eating far more than my fill from the roast and the crobb and the endless spale, I sit back in my makeshift bed which is more or less a fancy hammock; as Kat dances through the night to Trale’s fiddle playing. We’re all sore from all the antics today, but it was a good day. We made a small haul and stayed alive for just one more.
The rumblings from down below woke me again. The island seems highly unstable to those of us that live below. The tremors used to occur once a month or so, and now they are every day or more. It’s the endless construction and the layers of old city beneath new factories providing less than the needed support. None of my worries. I hop out of hammock and take my share of coin from the previous day up to the surface for a day of shopping from the skrappers.
It takes awhile before I see light. The pathways go every which way and are like a web, but eventually he is out, using a different exit every few days to make sure The Law Machine hasn’t staked out one of the many entrances or exits to the underdeep. The underdeep is the gangs slang for all of the carved out areas of the mountains and sewers and old city ruins that create an endless network of maze.
Today I’m off to meet up with Skrin, a skrapper that probably has the piece I’m looking for to outfit his skiffrunner. Skrappers are merchants that roam the Long Sea for derelict craft and take what they find useful to sell in the cities. Sometimes they spend months out there and no one ever knows if Skrin is coming back. I like him because he doesn’t try to scam, like so many patters do. A patter is any merchant on Stormking; so skrappers are often patters as well, just with the skill of also scavenging. A skamper is pretty much the same thing as a skrapper but probably less knowledgeable about what they’re selling. That is, a skamper doesn’t go out on the Long Sea to do the salvage.
Then there is the gin tuner. I’m one of those, or hope to be. I’m constantly working on my skiffrunner to try to make it faster and faster to compete in the nightly races in the canals. a few of skrappers are also gin tuners, which has them save some of the best junk for themselves. That’s why I try to pay the highest coin I can, and that’s why I has to resort to crime to get my coin.
Trale and Kat have their own goals that they spend their share of the take on. Trale is saving for his own ship someday. At the rate he’s going it will be decades. He hasn’t ever been off Stormking either, but his dream is valid. Kat is trying to get into one of the many firefighting unions here on Stormking. They are a respected trade, as the daily fires threaten the burgeoning industries. To get into one of these unions is tough and often inherited. Both Trale and Kat want to be legit someday. Bander just wants to get better at his gin tuning.
One of these days he’ll win enough races to have a fortune and buy Trale his ship, and buy Kat bribes to get into the Union and he will put a small house on one of the small islands on the outskirts of Stormking. Or farther. If there is anything farther.
Skrin is in today just as I hoped. He gives me the nod when he sees me coming. The nod that means he’s found some good junk from his last haul and that the coast is clear from TLM. He probably figures I have coin too, and is eager to make some coin of his own. He knows how I come to my coin. He knows how I hope to change and get it legitimately someday. He hopes to get it from bets on the races, rather than stealing but, he thinks the Kratters deserve it just like I do.
I give Skrin the usual shoulder bump. He’s always so glad to be back on land and ready to make some coin. So you got any amplisaddle injector coils Skrin?, I ask him. I’ll take all that you have. Skrin usually gives me first dibs. He believes I can win the races someday. He bets me and my skill. I’ve been gin tuning for 9 years now, helping skrappers and gin tuners since I was a small boy, learning the craft. Tonight’s race will be extra tough, because parts of the improvised course will go through some new canals on the western coast. I’ve never been there, and one of the keys of winning, is not only one’s gin tuning skills, but also knowledge of the city canals and rivers, the shortcuts and bypasses that show up.
No one knows them all. Stormking, the name most of us call the conglomeration of islands grouped together, seems like one big city on one big island, but started out as small towns, far away from each other. House Stormking lived upon Northtop mountain and were even the richest back then. When the great storms came and buried most of the mountain in water, only the families at the top survived and became what are now the ruling houses. See! I know my history.
Now that there is this huge city sprawling across the whole of the islands, all the rivers in between serve to get us criminals quickly around from city to city, island to island. Then there are the dug canals that blend seamlessly between rivers; and all of the tunnels and sewers. Us ginners call this ‘the Web’, because it criss-crosses in all directions, but also because the spiders, The Law Machine, is always lurking trying to catch us. A map of the Web would be super helpful but to my knowledge, no one has drawn one yet. It doesn’t help that new structures are being raised every day and old ones taken down. Perhaps I will make a map someday, to help future ginners. Tonight will be my first venture outside of the Crucibix and the beginning of my exploration of all the Web, of which thorough knowledge is crucial to ginner success.
As I think I indicated, TLM has their ginners too. I don’t think they call them that, but they are out there in the Web. They all look the same so they’re easy to spot, but they’re fast. So fast that they often crash. They don’t know how to tune their skiffrunners to handle the banks and turns. Some of my buddies in other gangs have told me that TLM has started to disguise their skiffrunners like the gangs in order to entrap us, so I’m always on the lookout. For now I will still scavenge their wrecks for the best parts, if there’s anything left. The best scrappers don’t scrap in the city limits because The Corporation outlawed it. They do their best work out on the Long Sea. Someday I’ll get out there too.
Tuning a gin takes a lifetime to master, so I have a long way to go. Still, some of the gamblers put their money on me because they see my potential. I hope they’re right someday. I haven’t won a race yet, but am getting close. Heck, I’ve only done circuits in Crucibix yet; then again, I know these routes well. But I figure when I get out among the hundreds of kilometers of the Web I can really utilize my skills. Then there are others of the watchers who doubt my abilities. It was only once when the course went down a tunnel straight west and towards sewers of Gozon and I panicked and crashed my craft into the wall. It was my first time in something that narrow, and the thought of Gozon creeped me out. If you crash your craft in there, the goblins will scavenge your craft for who knows what before you can swim out of the water. Some tuners have even gone missing in there. So that was my one time I flopped on the race and didn’t finish. I won’t let it tarnish my record and I will keep on racing and eventually winning.
Skrin takes me to his back room away from the dock that is on the main canal. He runs a legit business in the front, but most of his coin comes from contraband, in which he is just about to show me. We go down some stairs and then turn right down some more to his skrapper workshop where he works on craft and gins. He steps on a lever on one particularly huge gin and part of it raises up making a path through the middle. He turns around to make sure no one else followed us and then knocks a secret know on a rusted iron door that blends in with the rest of the iron on the wall behind the gin. A slot opens and two greasy eyes look and then the door opens.
This is the first time I’ve been back here. Either things are getting harder for the skrappers with their contraband or he is beginning to trust me more. He usually would hand me the part on his main dock, but now I’m thinking that this part must be on the blacklist with The Corporation.
He leads me down some more stairs. I know we are now in the first sub-level which is part of the Old City. We call it the Old City because it is where one of the original cities was before the Corporation started building all their new factories and buildings for the last war. They are a semblance of buildings that have been crushed, some more recognizable than others. The sewers disrepectfully intersect with some of these buildings and mines have been dug under and through others. It is a huge, beautiful mess that us tuners and skrappers and any other folksters love for its seclusion from TLM. It’s not like TLM doesn’t come down here from time to time, but it is so rare that none of us sweat about it.
I follow Skrin through the tight corridors with men in working outfits, leather bibs and aprons and full of grease jut out of doors and in between steam gusts in the pipes over head. We have to turn sideways to allow a gentleman tinker carrying a annsdrospam hourpipe through the hall. It was bustling down here. Down the hall a little further Skrin turns right and into a gray grimy room with no sunlight and only the sounds of gears cranking and water dripping from leaky pipes. “There”, he says. “Sorry for all the walking, but I keep all the good stuff down here”. “Understandable”, I say.
“I want to show you something”, Skrin says. Skrin always wants to show me something. Some new piece to make my skiffrunner faster or control better, but he’s never announced it before. So that made me a little nervous. I’ve known Skrin since I can remember and he never had this nervous look on his face under long, grisly, painter’s brush mustache.
In the back closet there was a table with a dropcloth over it, which Skrin grabbed from a corner and pulled it back