#42 Expeditions and interrogations: part 5
Kaminski and Chakraborty arrive in Addis...
Previously: Detective Kaminski and Chakraborty from the SDC have been travelling from London to Addis Ababa, pursuing leads relating to a potential smuggling ring…
1965. Sene. (Gregorian: 1973. June.)
Addis was the city of the future. It’s how they described it in tourist brochures and, for once, the claim was entirely accurate. The train that had brought them from Cairo was in itself a marvel, powered not by steam but electricity, suspended magnetically on the rails and capable of travelling at absurd speeds. The station they pulled into was more of a botanical garden than a train depot, high ceilings affording space for trees and large-leafed plants that were a stark contrast to the dustier environment on the approach to the city. It was quite the statement upon arrival.
“I always thought London was at the top of the food chain,” Kaminski said, “but this makes Britain look…old. Stuck in the past.”
“It’s just a train station, Kaminski,” Chakraborty said, hefting her backpack onto her shoulders.
“Is it, though? Look at it!” The station was welcoming: clean, efficient, beautiful, even. It was a long way from the grease and steam of the London stations, with their crumbling Victorian-industrial architecture.
They moved swiftly through the concourse and exited through the doors into the city. The heat wasn’t as intense as he’d expected; it was more like a warm summer’s day back home. The journey down from Cairo had been hotter. This was quite manageable. Clouds circled the city, hovering over the distant hills.
London was not a quiet place, filled with trams and trains and factories, but the thrum of Addis was something else entirely. There was a beat to the city, a background energy that hit Kaminski immediately. The streets, though dusty, were clean, and filled with vehicles. More than he’d even seen - buses and cars everywhere, to the point where he could only assume that they were personal vehicles. The papers back home played down the on-going economic boom that had begun in Ethiopia with the appearance of the portal to Max-Earth, but it was plain to see before his eyes. The country was operating on another level entirely. Skyscrapers interrupted the view of the horizon, but they were not the concrete and rusted steel towers of London but gleaming spires, architecturally bold and covered in shining glass. They reminded him of the vision of the future he’d witnessed while staying on Max-Earth, albeit scaled down slightly.
“OK, I’ll admit that this is impressive,” Chakraborty said, gazing open-mouthed at the skyline.
A young man approached, barely out of his teens, holding a piece of paper with their names on. “Hello!” he shouted agreeably. “English? Mr and Mrs Kaminski?”
“Sounds like our ride,” Kaminski said.
“So much for keeping a low profile.”
The man hurried over and smiled widely. “Welcome to Addis,” he said. “Welcome! Is this your first time?”
“It is,” Kaminski said. “First time in Africa.”
“Ah! You are lucky. First time everything is new. Exciting! Let me take your bags.” He led them over to a waiting vehicle, a yellow car. Robin had made all the travel arrangements, including their pick-up at this end. Kaminski hadn’t quite realised they’d be chauffeur-driven - that was something only the richest executives or the most important dignitaries and politicians enjoyed back home.
“You must be tired,” the driver said. “Please, take a seat. My name is Isayas.” He deposited their bags into the rear of the vehicle, clearly used to carrying heavy items. “Let’s get you to your hotel.”
The car’s interior was plush and comfortable. “Water in the back,” Isayas said, “just take a cup and press the button in the centre, if you need some. It’s only a twenty minute drive.”
A low whine gave way to a gentle hum as the car began to move away from the station. “What kind of engine does this have?”
Isayas glanced back at Kaminski. “Electric hybrid, sir. All taxis have them here. Most other vehicles are going that way, too. You have them in Britain? In London?”
Throwing a glance at Chakraborty, Kaminski raised his eyebrows. “We’re working on it,” he said.
The hotel foyer was as grand as the train station, in its own way. Less foliage, more columns and art and marble. It felt both old and new at the same time. Chakraborty would have been quite happy to stay there forever.
“It’s like being in the future,” she said to Kaminski, as they waited for their hotel room passes.
“Feels like some of Max-Earth leaked through the portal and landed here. All the best bits.”
“I dunno,” Chakraborty said, rubbing a hand along the counter, “don’t you think they’d have done this anyway? It can’t all be Max-Earth’s influence.”
“Maybe,” Kaminski said, lighting a cigarette, “but you’ve studied Max-Earth’s history, right? Which would have been our history, if the portals hadn’t happened and changed the direction of our timeline.”
“Since when were you a portal scientist?”
“Yeah, whatever. Point is, Max-Earth has a particularly fucked-up history. All good now, sure, but they had some pretty dark patches back in the day. We outlawed slavery long before they did.”
“Well done Europe for not being quite so awful, yay.” Chakraborty sighed. “Also, that was only because it was a condition of opening up trade with Max-Earth. Don’t paint it as some kind of moral victory.”
Kaminski shrugged. “If the end result is good, then it’s good, right? We’re avoiding making the same mistakes Max-Earth did.”
She gave him a withering look. “You are aware that the British Empire doesn’t exist any more on Max-Earth, yeah? Empires don’t exist. Don’t kid yourself into thinking we’ve got everything right. Africa, sure, they’ve got their shit together. But you really think India’s ever going to get independence here? No way.”
“At least India exists. Poor old US of A never even happened for us. And there are talks happening between Britain and India, anyway.”
“Oh, fuck off. Like those are anything but theatre.”
The porter returned with two white cards and slid them across the counter. “Here you are. Room 24F. Your bags have already been taken up. Take the elevator on your left.” He glowered at Kaminski. “And there is no smoking inside the building, thank you.”
Kaminski blinked. “No smoking?”
The porter tapped a finger onto a sign that made the point clearly. That’s right, sir.”
“But I smoke.”
“You are very welcome to do so outside, or on your balcony.” He reached beneath the counter, retrieved an ashtray and positioned it in front of Kaminski.
Chakraborty grinned. “Let’s go, husband.”
He extinguished the cigarette with a grimace and followed her. “I take it back. I thought this place was sophisticated, but the Ethiopians have got it all wrong.”
“I’m sure you’ll survive.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
The lift was unnervingly fast and smooth, raising them twenty-four floors in an alarmingly short time. Despite its speed there was almost no sense of movement, other than a slight inertia at the start and end. The doors slid silently open and they stepped out into the corridor, which was wide and airy, natural light somehow filtering down from the ceiling.
Chakraborty was looking forward to seeing the room. Staying away from home was like pretending you were a different person for a time, someone with a much nicer life. Squint just the right way and she could convince herself that she was a celebrity on tour, living the high life, going from one fancy apartment to the next. A momentary escape.
They turned a corner and she nearly bumped into someone coming the other way; white, mid-30s and with a thin moustache. “Sorry,” she said. He smiled and hurried past.
“OK, let’s find 24F,” she said, scanning the room doors. Theirs was only three doors further. “Here we go.” She pressed her card to the door handle and it buzzed and unlocked. It was only then that she noticed Kaminski was still standing by the turn in the corridor, a concerned frown on his face. “Found the room, Zoltan, come on. Let’s see what’s in the mini-bar.”
He walked slowly towards her, deep in thought.
“Everything alright?” Maybe he was already having nicotine withdrawal.
Kaminski took a breath. “That guy,” he said, “I thought he seemed familiar.”
“You nearly collided with him. With the moustache.”
“What about him?”
“I think he was on the train.”
“No, the train through France. He was in the same carriage as us, in the cabin next to ours.”
“And now he’s here? That seems unlikely.”
“Yeah, it does.” Kaminski sighed. “We may have a problem.”
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Thanks for reading. This one was fun to write from a world building perspective, more on which I’ll get into in the author notes below. Before I head off, here’s a podcast I was a guest on which went up this week:
It’s a fascinating chat about all sorts of things, from themes and serialisation to foreshadowing and travel. Good stuff. I’ll probably write more about it next week.
Right, author notes coming up after the jump.
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