This particular piece of fiction was set up shortly before I took over as line developer, but got put in reserve while there were other, more immediate items to talk about. From there it kind of got forgotten about while we had the final development and release of the Companions going through. Given that the information on the Levellers is now out (in the 1879 Game Master’s Companion, if you weren’t aware), and to be completely honest, given that I’m totally swamped between prepping for GenCon and working on final items for Fort Alice, it seems like a good a time as any to bring it back out.
The day’s cacophony from the ironworks and the ships in harbor had subsided, leaving the docks down by Woolwich eerily quiet. A few sleepy squawks from gulls fighting over roosting spots failed to echo in the yellowish fog. The wharf buoy clanked somewhere nearby, its iron bell sounding like a lost cow forlornly wandering the Thames. Sam O’Rourke asked himself again if he was sure about this. Exposure could mean the noose for him, and betrayal of his cell, with transportation the best his fellow workers could expect. Success could be even worse, given the few scraps of stories the Levellers had been able to gather from troops returned through the Rabbit Hole. Bugs the size of cows, exploding plants, and the dead rising up to fight against Her Majesty’s army. Sam turned up the collar of his jacket and pulled his cap a bit lower, but the chill he felt wasn’t the evening.
“Thick weather.” The voice nearly sent him right up out of his boots. At the corner of the warehouse, a big man in the bowler hat and wool coat of a dockside laborer stood, absently picking at his nails with a wooden match.
“London – “ Sam cleared his throat, annoyed at the near-squeak that he’d managed to force out. Get a grip on yourself, man. “London Particular.”
“Bad for the lungs.” The big man glanced up at Sam from under heavy brows. Tusks jutted up from his lower jaw, revealing him as a snark.
“I’ve got a prescription for it,” Sam replied. He’d met Boojums before. They were just people, like anybody else, despite the obvious physical differences.
“Right then.” The snark tossed his match out into the sooty fog. He slipped a hand into his coat, came out thankfully not with a badge or a gun, but a sheaf of paper. “You’ll be wanting these.” He offered the papers to Sam.
Sam reached out, took a step forward. The dock creaked beneath his foot.
“What’s all this then?” The figure that loomed up through the mist couldn’t be seen clearly, but the bell-shaped head could only be the helmet of a Peeler, the dreaded blue-coats, the police.
The snark shoved the papers in Sam’s general direction, let them go. As Sam lunged for the papers, snatching them out of the air before the bundle could fly apart and pages be lost, the snark spun, seized the copper by his tunic, set his weight and heaved. A startled yelp from the copper, a grunt of effort from the big man, and the policeman went flying off into the fog. A heavy splash told of his arrival at the Thames.
Sam took to his heels, pelting off back up the wharf for land and the safety of the bar crowds. Behind him, the copper managed part of a call for help before going under again, and whistles sounded in the darkness. Nothing for it now, the snark was on his own. Off the docks and onto cobbles Sam went, slowing, breathing harder than necessary to catch his breath so that he wouldn’t arrive in the street beyond panting and obviously being pursued. He shoved the papers into his jacket, and made his way around the corner of the chandlery into a lane mostly taken up with cheap drinking establishments, brothels, and places that were a bit of both. Longshoremen, navvies, and other laborers thronged the doorways and the street. In his slouch cap and dun jacket, workboots and rough woolen trousers, Sam vanished into the crowd.
“Have you got’em?” Jackie asked again. Sam waved off his fellow worker, taking a second long pull at his beer. His nerves steadied a little more. He glanced around, seeing only his shipyard mates in the barroom.
“Aye,” he responded, and pulled out the papers.
“Well, let’s have a look at’em.” Jackie reached for the sheaf, but Sam fended him off.
“Easy there, man, can’t be getting’ grease stains on the documents.” He wiped a hand across the small, rickety table to make sure it was dry and clean, then laid the papers out. “Certificate of birth, three letters of reference from fine, upstandin’ employers, record of address, doctor’s report. It’s all here, Jackie.”
Jackie gave a slow, approving nod. “Then you’re ready.”
Hardly. But Sam couldn’t back out at this point. His cell of the Levellers had spent most of the funds in the union chapter’s account on these forged documents and their backgrounding. Anyone checking up on these papers would find people willing to attest to their validity. And they had his description on them. Tomorrow, Sam would cease to exist. He would rise from his bed, put on a new name, Archibald Collins, with his new waistcoat and bowler hat, and stride down to the offices of Hawley and Smithers where a position awaited him. He would become a steamfitter’s apprentice, and report for work on the trains that rolled into and out of the Rabbit Hole. A few weeks from now, he’d be loading the locomotive with more than coal and water, slipping coded messages into the nooks and crannies of the vast machine for his brothers on the far side of the portal, and retrieving their replies. If all went well, and he made journeyman, a year from now he could well be on the far side of the portal, landing the Levellers’ message traffic in Fort Alice. It all was too much. Sam took another long pull at his beer.
“It’s all right, boyo,” Jackie said. “Aye, it’s dangerous, but think of the good you’ll be doin’. Don’t worry, yer brothers in the union’ll see to yer family.”
“That’s what worries me, Jackie,” Sam admitted. “What if I never see me ma and da again?”
Jackie snorted. “Don’t you go believin’ the tales the redcoats tell. They never spoke the truth before, not in Dublin, not in Belfast, why should they in London?”
Sam couldn’t find a reason to disagree. But he couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom either. Deep cover, salting into a non-union shop, that was all old hat for the Levellers, but this, going through the Rabbit Hole into another world. Well. What was done was done. “To Sam,” he said, picking up his glass in a toast. “He was a loyal fellow worker.”
Understanding, Jackie picked up his glass as well. “To Archie, a fine upstandin’ young man who’ll go far,” he replied. They clinked their glasses and drained them.