The zeppelin’s white skin glowed in the city’s lights as it approached the docking tower. Rivulets of water made it shimmer, drawing Tua’s eyes. She yawned, and squinted to re-focus her gaze on the cargo hold. Her mission brief was sparse on details, but the central question was clear: a handful of freight vessels had been dropping something while on approach for docking, beginning shortly after sunset. A few dock workers had seen whatever it was, and reported it to the Shipping Council, but there were no reports of anything falling from the sky, of damage, or of unexplained waste in the canals.
Something was being delivered by people who were willing to go to fairly extreme lengths to keep their business off of any books. Half the time, when Tua was called in to run an investigation, what she found was depressingly harmless. People operating in secret because they enjoyed the challenge, or starting up a strange new business venture that drew attention from “concerned citizens”.
Those didn’t tend to involve the clandestine use of one of the city’s major shipping routes. Freight zeppelins ran constantly around the country. They didn’t move particularly fast, but there was a never-ending stream of them drifting slowly around the continent. It was effectively a massive, airborne conveyor belt, and because it depended on lighter-than-air craft, weight was carefully monitored.
The zeppelin docked with a loud thunk, and Tua closed her eyes to rest them while the vessel was unloaded above her. Waiting was the worst part of this job.
Normally, smuggling investigations required very little effort. Most items that would get a smuggler in trouble were things that could poison the water or interfere with some of the city’s vital functions. Smuggling might allow someone to avoid paying access or import fees, but those were low enough that avoiding them often cost more, even if you didn’t get caught. That went doubly for smuggling anything by air. Tua had helped a gun-running operation in her teens, but that had gone along the canals. It turned out the guns were for an ill-conceived plan by a group to gain control over the city’s common housing system through a mixture of bribery, intimidation, and murder.
Tua didn’t understand it, but there always seemed to be those who wanted power over other people, and those willing to help them for one reason or another. She shifted carefully on her perch, and adjusted her goggle magnification. The next zeppelin was just visible on its approach.
I was one of those willing to help, she reminded herself. Her current gig as an investigator had started as community service after she was caught along with everyone else involved in the attempted takeover. She hadn’t known what goods she was moving, but neither had she asked. It had gotten her better food and housing, and more than enough money to access some of the more interesting clubs around town. It had also been more fun than she had had before or since.
A bell rang above her as the zeppelin finished offloading its cargo, and glided away into the rainy dusk. The next one approached, and Tua watched, her goggles recording everything in case she blinked at the wrong moment.
An object dropped from the hold, nearly invisible, and vanished between a couple buildings.
“Mark this section of the recording, and send it to Kenneth for analysis.”
Tua basked in the brief adrenaline spike for a moment as the zeppelin docked, then clambered rapidly down the outside of the tower. Two stories down from her perch, she slipped through an access hatch and closed it carefully behind her. The suit that covered her head to toe would prevent her from showing up on any heat-sensitive equipment, but the more time she spent out on the side of a building, the better the chances someone would notice her.
If the people behind this operation knew they were being investigated, they’d disappear entirely.
There was a soft beep in her ear.
“From what I can tell, you’re looking three rows north, one row west.” Kenneth’s voice was high, and a little nasal. “Based on your footage, there’s no way that hits the water without enough of a splash to draw attention, which means it’s being caught on the way down.”
“Any ideas how they’re doing it?” Tua’s mask prevented her voice from carrying more than a millimeter beyond her lips.
“Nothing you haven’t already thought of. There’s no permanent structure that would allow for it, so they’re putting out a net or something, without anyone noticing, catching the cargo, and pulling it in.
“And there’ve been no reports that might be related?”
“Not that I can find, no. The reports are all from dock workers, and altogether it seems like a considerable amount of something has been coming in at a pretty constant rate for some time now.”
Tua slipped quietly into a stairwell on the south side of the building, and headed down to another access hatch, guided by the display on her goggles.
“We won’t know till you get a better reading. Try to get a recording of the cargo being dropped, and we should be able to figure out how much each package weighs.”
“On my way.”
She heard someone the stairwell one floor below her as she reached her destination. She slipped through her door and closed it silently behind her. She followed her directions through a floor of offices to a utility corridor, and slipped out the access hatch at the end of it.
It let her out onto the roof of a causeway that ran through, and between buildings. Glancing up, she saw another zeppelin coming in to dock, its bulk peeking out around the sides of the building. Two thirds of the way across the causeway bridge, hopped over the side, hooking her grapple on a strut as she fell past it, and swinging up to cling to the underside of the bridge. A catwalk ran under the causeway, put there for inspection and maintenance of the machinery for the moving walkways that carried people around the city. She set off north at a jog, keeping her footfalls light. The hum of motors and gears above her would drown out most noises, but Tua liked to be careful when she was trying to avoid notice. Three rows north of the docking tower, she stopped in the middle of a canal and looked west.
“Wait there for the next drop, then reposition.”
“It’s always ‘waiting.’”
“Really? I had no idea.” Tua could hear Kenneth’s eyes rolling. He worked out of his apartment, and complained bitterly any time he was forced to actually go out and do any investigating.
Tua complained any time she was forced to sit and wait, and most of her work involved waiting. When she told someone what she did for work, they thought it sounded thrilling and glamorous. When she told them it mostly involved waiting around, they generally assumed it was to hide thrilling secrets.
She heard the soft sound of something moving against metal and glanced to the side. A cat had found her, and decided to join her.
“Well” she murmured, “I suppose a catwalk is more your domain than mine.”
Kenneth’s breath puffed against his microphone as he chuckled into it.
“Found another cat, did you?”
“They find me, Ken.”
“Just don’t get distracted.”
“Do I ever?” The cat sniffed delicately at her gloved hand, and then rubbed its face against her fingertips.
“Yes. Often. That’s part of why you record everything in front of your face when we’re working.”
“Then it’s not likely to cause any problems, is it?” Her new companion flopped on its gray-striped side, its paws pressed against her thigh, and blinked up at her, tail tapping gently on the metal grate of the catwalk’s floor.
“That depends.” Kenneth’s tone was dry. “Do you expect the cat to be catching the cargo? If not, you may need to actually look in the correct direction for me to have anything to analyze.”
“Analyze my butt.” She turned her head to glare down the canal, scratching at the cat’s ear with a knuckle.
“Ugh. No thanks.”
Tua grinned. The few times she’d asked about Kenneth’s social life, he’d described himself as being in a blissful relationship with his work. Nearly everything about his life seemed boring to her, but the more she worked with him, the more she realized that he hadn’t been kidding. His life truly was blissful. He got along with everyone, had a few close friendships, and absolutely no interest in romance.
When she got to know him well enough to see the shape of his life, she had said his lifestyle would drive her to jump off buildings just for something to do. He responded that she did that anyway, so clearly her own lifestyle was also too boring, and at least he was content with what he had.
He wasn’t wrong.
Uncovering secrets was an intensely satisfying job – more so than just keeping them for other people – but she did find that her craving for adventure seemed to build exponentially every time she had to just sit and wait somewhere. If something fun didn’t happen soon, she’d have to enter herself into a ring fight just to alleviate the boredom.
The cat hooked a paw into the grate and pulled itself so its head rested on her thigh. She glanced down at it and tickled her fingers on its exposed belly. It immediately grabbed her hand with its mouth and front paws, and rabbit-kicked her wrist. The tough material of her suit protected against thorns and cat claws alike, but he was keeping his weapons sheathed, and his bite was playfully gentle.
She cooed at him, forgetting that the sound wouldn’t escape her suit.
She turned her head and watched the long, glittering ribbon of the canal. The only disturbance on the water’s surface came from the dripping buildings, and the dripping sky. Movement caught her eye directly under her perch, but it was just the headlight of a small submersible drone, cruising along just above the bottom of the canal. As always, she wanted to know who was piloting it, and why, but that wasn’t the secret she was hunting tonight.
The cat let go of her hand, and sat up, staring at her. She gave it a shrug; she didn’t carry anything a cat could eat when she was working.
Her companion noticed the disturbance just as she did. A little less than one row west, something had appeared on the surface of the water.
“Kenneth, are you seeing this?”
It was a black circle against the lights reflected in the water, maybe about four feet across. Tua whispered a command and her goggles began cycling through polarization and wavelength filters.
“It looks like there’s some sort of tube or something leading from the surface down to a gap near the base of that building.”
“Yeah. Can’t tell for sure, but-”
An object dropped into the middle of the object with a soft flap, and Tua’s goggles showed it sliding down the tube like a large fish moving down a snake’s body in a time-lapse video. Before it reached the bottom of the tube, it had already retracted below the surface, until the whole apparatus pulled back down to disappear where the canal met the building.
“What the hell was that?” Kenneth sounded almost disturbed.
“What we’re looking for, and it’s something new!”
“I’m going to find a new perch. It looks like the vines on the side of the building will let me sit right over that spot without sticking out at all.”
“Be careful,” said Kenneth.
“That’s your job, Ken, not mine.”
“Stop whining, Ken. Mark that spot for me so I can make sure I’m positioned right?”
She stood carefully, and did a couple squats to warm up her legs again. The cat stood with her, but disappeared back the way it had come as she headed to the row of buildings. Her pulse drummed a little faster as she slipped from the catwalk into the building, and trotted down a narrow utility corridor. Her goggles had identified the building as a farm, which suited her fine. Farms always had a nice collection of walkways to allow people to do as much work as possible without risking contamination of the clean-room environment that kept the crops pest-free. After about 100 meters, she turned to a fire escape, and looked up, checking air traffic.
Her goggles outlined the long line of zeppelins for her, each about a kilometer apart. None of the sensors built into her suit were picking up surveillance beyond the standard stuff that wouldn’t care about her. She took a moment to pick a route, and began bouldering along the side of the building, moving from ledge to vine until she was over the bright orange spot Kenneth had put on her display to mark the drop point.
She hooked a couple straps to the vines around her so she could hold her position comfortably.
“In place. Time for more waiting.”
“Stop,” said Kenneth, “I can’t bear the excitement in your voice.”
“Hey now! We’re about to uncover a new secret! This is about as exciting as this job gets!”
“Maybe. From what we’ve seen so far, the next step is to call in a dive team. You and I might never even know what they find.”
“Hmph!” He was probably right. She hated not knowing.
“Stop whining. Look up so we can see the next one drop.”
She obeyed, pointing her face at the featureless, dripping sky
“At least the last spot had a cat.”
“Maybe this one will have a spider you can pet.”
“You’re so funny, Ken!”
“Nobody appreciate my genius.”
If any spiders were trying to befriend her, she couldn’t feel them through the suit. Every time she thought watching canals or buildings was boring, she could just remember watching the sky, and she’d feel better by comparison. The only changes in the sky were the transition from underlit yellow clouds at night, to overlit gray clouds during the day. Sometimes, a particularly dramatic sunset or sunrise would add a green or pink tint to things.
A zeppelin passed overhead without incident.
“How many more drops do we need to see?” The next zeppelin was a good five to ten minutes out.
“Probably one looking up, and one looking down,” said Kenneth. “Maybe two? Depends on how it’s dropped and on what we can gather from the landing spot.”
“Ugh. I’m gonna be stuck on this wall all night.”
“If it helps, it seems like about every third vessel on this route is smuggling cargo, so the next one should have some entertainment for you.”
“It had better…”
The next one looked different as soon as it came into view.
“Ken, are you see-”
“Yes, Tua. I’m seeing everything you’re seeing.”
There was a bulge on the underside of the zeppelin’s gondola. It was the same color, but looking carefully, even in this dim light, Tua could see that it was divided into three sections. The outer two were much larger than the central one, and Tua guessed they held a lifting gas. As it drew almost directly overhead, the outer sections suddenly deflated and retracted, and the whole thing dropped away, leaving the underside of the vessel completely unmarked. She kept her face turned upward as the object dropped past her, and flapped into its target, in case there was any activity on the zeppelin itself that she’d missed.
“They might not even…” Tua trailed off.
“Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s why nothing odd was showing up on the weight readings. The two sacks on the sides kept it neutrally bouyant on the underside of the gondola, and it probably had a releasable suction cup to keep it attached enough to move along with it.”
“That’s a really clever system.” Tua was impressed. “They wouldn’t even need to have anyone on the inside or whatever. If they’re a little careful, they could be attaching these things at any point along the route and nobody would notice.”
“I’ve been marking the ones that are carrying the extra cargo, so we’ll be able to track when the last time someone had a recording of the undersides. We should at least be able to figure out where they’re coming from.”
The zeppelin out of sight, Tua turned her gaze downward. With the help of her goggles, she could even see the hole at the base of the building.
“You know, I could probably just dive down and have a look at that hole…”
“And then drown at the bottom of the canal? Doesn’t seem worth the sacrifice to me, but it’s your life, I suppose.”
“Sun, Moon, and Stars, how boring can you get?”
“Sorry, it’s just-” She took a deep breath. “Our differences aside, this suit doesn’t just keep me off I.R. scanners, it also feeds me breathable air. It’ll do that under water, too.”
“Even without tanks?”
“Iffy. I’d need to move slow to keep oxygen requirements low.”
“Sounds like you’d get bored halfway to the bottom,” said Kenneth.
“Very funny. It wouldn’t be boring, it would be a challenge, and then we might actually get some answers.”
“Better to get people who won’t suffocate if they get out of breath.”
Kenneth sighed. “Look, just watch for the next one so we can at least get some idea of what kind of weight these things are.”
The gently rippling water below her was hypnotic. Time always passed more quickly when she was staring at the shimmer of lights and colors that made up the canal’s surface at night. After a little while, Kenneth spoke up again.
“Should be something on the next zeppelin, in about five minutes. I’m pretty sure they’re using hydrogen, and from the size of the gas bags, the cargo and container probably add up to around 70 to 75 kilograms.”
“Huh. That’s about what I weigh.” Tua couldn’t see any movement below her yet.
“You think they’re smuggling people?”
“With a drop like that? Not unless they don’t care if they’re intact on arrival.”
“I dunno…” Kenneth paused.
“I had some numbers running after we got that first recording. It looks like the water pressure on the outside of the tube might provide enough of a gradual slowdown that it wouldn’t do any damage.”
“Clever system all around.”
“If I’m right, the weight of the cargo would pull it down even without the momentum of that drop.”
“The inside of the tube would probably need to be oiled or something, but- wait. Tua I don’t like the tone of your voice.”
“Don’t be silly. How far down do you think it goes?”
There was a moment of silence, and Tua saw movement below her. The tube was slowly rising up below her, pushed by several long, thin rods attached to the hoop that formed the “target”.
“Probably down to the old subway tunnels, maybe below.”
“So maybe a minute or two in the tube?”
“And then someone at the bottom to receive it and clear the way for the next one.”
“Underwater?” The tube had almost reached the surface.
“No,” said Kenneth. “From what I can tell, I’m willing to bet there’s an aerated structure down there. This whole system seems designed to protect whatever they’re smuggling from water.”
“Even though they’re dropping it into a canal?”
The tube reached the surface, and stopped just above it. Looking down, Tua could see it had a flat black cover. The edge of the circle twisted around, and the cover opened like an iris, revealing a sort of gullet, glistening with the oil Kenneth had predicted, and held closed by the water around it.
“Yeah,” Kenneth sounded excited. Tua’s heart was pounding now. “See that? The cargo just slides in, and has an easy trip down. It’s like they’re bypassing the city entirely.”
“Don’t you want to know?”
“Sure, but- Tua you’ve got that tone in your voice again.”
“What tone?” Tua carefully unhooked her anchors, and glanced up. The zeppelin was almost there.
“Like that time you got so bored you used your grapple to take a joyride on the underside of a delivery drone.”
“Oh yeah, that was fun!” She stared at the landing spot. It pulled back in about twenty seconds after the cargo hit, and the cover took about five seconds to open.
“How much did you have to pay to cover damage and wasted fuel?”
“That was a legit company. I don’t think these people have the resources to enforce any fines.”
“I bet they have the resources to make you sorry you interfered…”
“Maybe.” Tua pulled out her collapsible baton, and clenched it in her right fist.
“You’ll get covered in oil.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Gross,” said Kenneth. “You could die.”
“At least it wouldn’t be of boredom. I wanna know what’s at the other end of that tube.”
“They might notice a dive team, but they won’t be expecting this.”
“Because it’s so reckless that nobody would-”
The smugglers’ cargo flashed past and flapped into the tube. Tua hopped after it.
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