A suit with a bowler was walking up the street. Non descript African face, with a classic bespoke suit that cost more than Spires made in a month. In place of a gentleman’s walking stick he carried a Zulu knob-kerry. Mercury, he called himself. Messenger of the Gods. The authorities had their various subpoena giving magistrates. The underworld had Mercury.
Mercury never looked Spires in the eye, he just walked by and flung a penny on the shop front floor, continuing his brisk walking pace towards the Gelato shop. Tokens to the poor.
“I’d keep that, if I were you.” Mercury said over his shoulder.
The penny had a message scrached into the copper, or etched by some chemical, more likely.
“He will come at Last Dog Watch. Look up.”
Sure enough, at 8 o’clock, a personal airship, a large personal airship hovered over his shop, arclamps blazing down. Instead of personal arms,or identifying tag, the vertical fin showed a symbol of a dog’s severed head and a broom. So it was The Oprichnik. Kir’s ship. Why did it have to be Kir?
A rope latter nearly hit him in the face. He grabbed him and climbed up.
“Quite an extravagance, flying in the city.” Spires said, once aboard, and frisked by a guard. Kir sat on a cushioned chair, looking out over the nightscape of New Babbage.
“Cover of night. ” Kir responded, in a voice that always had a curious trace of Devonshire in it causing strange vowels to interrupt his St Petersburg accent . “I daresay you use it often enough. Besides, it’s air krakken season. No one’s looking for me.”
Kir as a pirate, and not unknown. With a price on his head, everyone who mattered was looking for him. It was said he hadn’t set foot on the ground longer than an hour or so in several years.
“I don’t want to be seen with you, you don’t want to be over land too long. Let’s both cut this short. What are you want. Repairs? Spare engine?”
“I can repair my own ship” Kir said sharply. “I got a little proposition for you. You got any experience with clanks? Difference engines?” Kir started to smoke a cheroot from an ivory holder.
“I may know a little on the subject.” Spires admitted. “But good clackers are a easy to find though. Whatever it is, I’m not your man.”
“Could you kill one? With code I mean?” Kir said, stairing intently.
Spires didn’t like where this was heading, “I couldn’t, no. It’s possible of course, if by kill you mean disable permanently. A few persons have tried. Entering punch cards that cause the central computational mill to try to access an integer that cannot be processed while making a subcall to the same operation as a fallback point. Took out a lot of first generation units.
“Back then, you know, practically all of the first generation were derivatives off .. what was it.. I think Smithson’s Microproportional Datamill. They called it the data plague. Since the units used all manner of data throughputs, someone incorporated the code process into a joke. The Killing Joke. Took quite a few of them out. You can pick up a first gen, clank for next to nothing.
“Some of these new models though, they have all manner of special protections built into their prime algorhythms. Quite beyond my specialty, of course. Some of the gears remill themselves, I’ve heard. Really bad business. Gives the springers feelings of self, and all that. Start demanding their rights and emancipation.” He chuckled.
“This is what I thought.” Kir said quietly. “Indeed, this is what experts have told me. But.. such a .. bad algorhythm, it would perhaps make a clank ill for awhile?” Kir asked, blowing out smoke. “So you could make one ill?”
“You could,” Spires admitted, “But a gentleman never would.”
“How’se business?” Kir said, changing the subject. “Mercury says you can’t get the parts you need from Steelhead any more. Prices go up, but sales are flat. That’s what Merc says. He hears a lot of things, does the Messenger.”
Spires scowled, “What are you offering.”
“10,000 to not be a gentleman.”
That would go a long way, Spires had to admit. “And your target for this.. contagion?” he asked.
“No one you know. I know you. You’re one of us. A human, and you’ll side with humans every time. Mercury will give you details. Here.” he handed over a leather wallet thick with bills. “Thousand to tide you over.”
The airship swung too. “I’m going to have to put you down in Pallisades. You can hire a cab.”
Fat chance of that, this time of night, but Spires climbed down the ladder into a bit of open field. The pirate’s airship roared off into the night, unobscuring stars as it trudged off northwards.