Read Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines Online

Authors: Phillip Reeve

Tags: #sf_fantasy

Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines (12 page)

“It was a lucky day for you when Tom came aboard,” she told the mayor. “He’s an expert on etiquette. He’s the politest person I know. He’ll tell you anything you want, Peavey.”

“But…” said Tom, and winced as she kicked his ankle.

“Lovely-jubbley!” cackled Peavey, spraying them both with half-eaten sandwich. “You stick with old Chrysler, Tommy boy, and you won’t go far wrong. As soon as we’ve scoffed our big catch you can start work. It’s waiting for us on the far side of these marshes. We should reach it by the end of the week…”

Tom sipped at his tea. In his mind’s eye he saw again the great map of the Hunting Ground; the broad sweep of the Rustwater, and beyond it… “Beyond the marshes?” he said. “But beyond the marshes there’s nothing but the SeaofKhazak!”

“Relax, Tommy boy!” chuckled Chrysler Peavey. “Didn’t I tell you? Tunbridge Wheels is
specialized*.”
Just you wait and see. Wait and
sea,
get it? Wait and
sea,
ha ha ha ha!” And he slapped Tom on the back and swigged his tea, his little finger delicately raised.

18. BEVIS

A few days later London sighted prey again; a scattering of small Slavic-speaking tractionvilles which had been trying to hide among the crags of some old limestone hills. To and fro the city went, snapping them up, while half of London crowded on to the forward observation platforms to watch and cheer. The dismal plains of the western Hunting Ground were behind them now, and the discontent of yesterday was forgotten. Who cared if people were dying of heat stroke down in the Nether Boroughs? Good old London! Good old Crome! This was the best run of catches for years!

The city chased down and ate the faster towns and then turned back for the slower ones. It was nearly a week before the last of them was caught, a big, once proud place that was limping along with its tracks ripped off after an attack by predator suburbs. On the night it was finally eaten there were catch-parties in all the London parks, and the celebrations grew still more frantic when a cluster of lights was sighted far away to the north. A rumour started to circulate: that the lights belonged to a huge but crippled city; that it was what Valentine had been sent to find, and radio signals from the 13th Floor Elevator would lead London north to its greatest meal ever. Fireworks banged and racketed until two in the morning, and Chudleigh Pomeroy, the acting Head Historian, reduced Herbert Melliphant to Apprentice Third Class after he let off a fire-cracker in the Museum’s Main Hall.

But at dawn the happiness and the rumours died away. The lights in the north belonged to a huge city all right, but it was not crippled; it was heading south at top speed, and it had a hungry look. The Guild of Navigators soon identified it as Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, a conurbation formed by the coupling together of four huge Traktionstadts, but nobody else cared very much what it was called; they just wanted to get away from it.

London fired up its engines and raced on into the east until the conurbation sank below the horizon. But next morning, there it was again, upperworks glinting in the sunrise, even closer than before.

 

* * *

 

Katherine Valentine had not joined in with the parties and the merrymaking, nor did she join in the panic that now gripped her city.

Since her return from the Deep Gut she had kept to her room, washing and washing herself to get rid of the awful slurry-pit stink of Section 60. She hardly ate anything, and she made the servants fling all the clothes she had been wearing that day into the recycling bins. She stopped going to school. How could she face her friends, with all their silly talk of clothes and boys, knowing what she knew? Outside, sunlight dappled the lawns and the flowers were blooming and the trees were all unfurling fresh green leaves, but how could she enjoy the beauty of High London ever again? All she could think of were the thousands of Londoners who were toiling and dying in misery so that a few lucky, wealthy people like herself could live in comfort.

She wrote a letter to the Goggle-screen people about it, and another to the police, but she tore them both up. What was the point of sending them, when everyone knew that Magnus Crome controlled the police and the Goggle-screens? Even the High Priest of Clio had been appointed by Crome. She would have to wait for her father’s return before anything could be done about the Deep Gut—providing that London hadn’t got itself eaten by the time he came home.

As for her search for the truth about the scarred girl, it had ground to a halt. Apprentice Pod had known nothing—or pretended as much—and she could think of nowhere else to turn.

Then, at breakfast time on the third day of London’s flight from Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, a letter came for her. She had no idea who would have written to her, and she turned the envelope over in her hands a couple of times, staring at the Tier Six postmark and feeling oddly afraid.

When she finally tore it open a sliver of paper dropped into her algae-flakes; ordinary London notepaper, recycled so many times that it was as soft and hairy as felt, with a watermark that said “Waste not—want not”.

 

Dear Miss Vallentine,

Please help me there is something I must tell you. I will be at Pete’s Eats in Belsize Park, Tier Five today at 11am.

Singed yours truly,

A Friend.

 

A few weeks earlier Katherine would have been excited, but she was in no mood for mysteries any more. It was probably somebody’s idea of a joke, she thought. She was in no mood for jokes, either. How could she be, with London fleeing for its life and the lower tiers full of suffering and misery? She flung the note into the recycling bin and pushed her breakfast away uneaten, then went off to wash again.

But she was curious, in spite of herself. When nine o’clock came she said, “I will not go.”

At nine-thirty she told Dog, “It would be pointless, there won’t be anybody there.”

At ten she muttered, “Pete’s Eats—what sort of name is that? They probably made it up.”

Half an hour later she was waiting at the Central Shaft terminus for a down elevator.

She got off at Low Holborn and walked to the tier’s edge through streets of shabby metal flats. She had put on her oldest clothes and walked fast with her head down and Dog close against her. She didn’t feel proud any more when people stared. She imagined them saying, “
That’s Katherine Valentine, a stuck-up little miss from Tier One. They don’t know they’re bom, those High Londoners.”

Belsize Park was almost deserted, the air thick with grainy smog from London’s engines. The lawns and flowerbeds had all been given over to agriculture years and years before and the only people she could see were some labourers from Parks Gardens who were moving along the rows of cabbages, spraying them with something to kill greenfly. Nearby stood a tatty conical building with a sign on its roof that read “Pete’s Eats” and, in smaller letters underneath, “Cafe”. There were metal tables under awnings on the pavement outside the door, and more tables inside. People sat talking and smoking in the thin flicker of a half-power argon globe. A boy sitting alone at a table near the door stood up and waved. Dog wagged his tail. It took Katherine a moment to recognize Apprentice Pod.

“I’m Bevis,” he said, smiling nervously as Katherine sat down opposite him. “Bevis Pod.”

“I remember.”

“I’m glad you came, Miss. I’ve been wanting to talk to you ever since you come down to Section 60, but I didn’t want the Guild to know I’d been in touch with you. They don’t like us talking to outsiders. But I’ve got the day off ’cos they’re preparing for a big meeting, so I came up here. You don’t see many Engineers eating in here.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Katherine to herself, looking at the menu. There was a big colour picture of something called a “Happy Meal”, a wedge of impossibly pink meat sandwiched between two rounds of algae-bread. She ordered mint tea. It came in a glastic tumbler and tasted of chemicals. “Are all Tier Five restaurants like this?”

“Oh no,” said Bevis Pod. “This one’s much nicer than the rest.” He could not stop staring at her hair. He had spent his whole life in the Engineer warrens of the Gut and he had never seen anyone before with hair like hers, so long and shining and full of life. The Engineers said hair was unnecessary; a vestige of the ground-dwelling past, but when he saw Katherine’s, it made him wonder…

“You said you needed my help…” Katherine prompted.

“Yes,” said Bevis. He glanced over his shoulder as if to check that nobody was watching them. “It’s about what you asked. I couldn’t tell you down at the Turd Tanks. Not with Nimmo watching. I was in enough trouble already, for trying to help that poor man…”

His dark eyes were full of tears again, and Katherine thought it strange that an Engineer could cry so easily.

“Bevis, it’s not your fault,” she said. “Now what about the girl? Did you see her?”

Bevis nodded, thinking back to the night London ate Salthook. “I saw her run past, with that Apprentice Historian chasing after her. He shouted for help, so I ran after him. I saw the girl turn when she got to the waste-chutes. There was something wrong with her face…”

Katherine nodded. “Go on.”

“I heard her shouting at him. I couldn’t catch it all, over the engines and the noise of the Dismantling Yards. But she said something about your father, Miss. And then she pointed at herself and said, ‘something something something Hester Shaw’. And then she jumped.”

“And dragged poor Tom with her.”

“No, Miss. He was left there, looking a bit stupid. Then the smoke came down and I couldn’t see nothing, and next thing I knew there were policemen everywhere, so I made myself scarce. I wasn’t supposed to leave my post, you see, so I couldn’t tell anyone what I’d seen.”

“But you’re telling me,” said Katherine.

“Yes, Miss.” The apprentice blushed.

“Hester Shaw?” Katherine turned the name over in her mind, but it meant nothing to her. Nor did she understand his description of events, which didn’t seem to tally with Father’s. Bevis must have made a mistake, she decided.

He glanced around nervously again, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Did you mean what you said, Miss, about your dad? Could he really do something to help the prisoners?”

“He will when I tell him what’s happening,” vowed Katherine. “I’m sure he doesn’t know. But there’s no need to call me Miss; I’m Katherine. Kate.”

“Right,” said Bevis solemnly. “Kate.” He smiled again, but he still looked troubled. “I’m loyal to the Guild,” he explained. “I never wanted to be anything but an Engineer. But I never expected to get assigned to the experimental prison. Keeping people in cages and making them work in the Gut, and wade about in those turd-tanks—that’s not Engineering. That’s just wicked. I do what I can to help them, but I can’t do much, and the supervisors just want to work them to death and then send them up to K Division in plastic bags, so even when they’re dead they won’t get no rest.”

“What is this K Division?” asked Katherine, remembering how Nimmo had hushed the other apprentice when she mentioned it. “Is it part of the prison?”

“Oh no. It’s up top. In the Engineerium. It’s some sort of experimental department, run by Dr Twix.”

“What does she use dead bodies for?” asked Katherine nervously, not at all sure that she wanted to know.

Bevis Pod went a little paler. “It’s just a rumour, Miss, but some people in the Guild say she’s building Stalkers. Resurrected Men.”

“Great Clio!” Katherine thought of what she had been taught about the Stalkers. She knew that her father had dug up some rusty skeletons for the Engineers to study, but he had told her they were only interested in the electrical brains. Could they really be trying to make new ones?

“Why?” she asked. “I mean, they were soldiers, weren’t they? Sort of human tanks, built for some old war…”

“Perfect workers, Miss,” said Bevis, wide-eyed. “They don’t need feeding or clothing or housing, and when there’s no work to be done you can just switch ’em off and stack ’em in a warehouse, so they’re much easier to store. The Guild says that in the future everybody who dies on the lower tiers will be resurrected, and we won’t need living people at all, except as supervisors.”

“But that’s horrible!” protested Katherine. “London would be a city of the dead!”

Bevis Pod shrugged. “Down in the Deep Gut it feels like that already. I’m just telling you what I’ve heard. Crome wants Stalkers built, and that’s what Dr Twix does with the bodies from our section.”

“I’m sure if people knew about this awful plan…” Katherine started to say. Then an idea occurred to her. “Does it have a code-name? Do they call it MEDUSA?”

“Blimey! How do you know about MEDUSA?” Bevis’s face had turned paler than ever. “Nobody’s supposed to know about that!”

“Why?” asked Katherine. “What is it? If it’s not to do with these new Stalkers…”

“It’s a big Guild secret,” whispered Bevis. “Apprentices aren’t supposed to even know the name. But you hear the Supervisors talking about it. Whenever something goes wrong, or the city is in trouble, they talk about how everything will be all right once we awaken MEDUSA. Like this week, with this conurbation chasing us. Everybody’s running around in a panic thinking it’s the end of London, but the top Guildsmen just tell each other, ‘MEDUSA will sort things out.’ That’s why they’re having this big meeting at the Engineerium tonight. Magnus Crome is making an announcement about it.”

Katherine shivered, thinking about the Engineerium and the mysterious things that went on behind its black windows. That was where she would find the clue to her father’s troubles. MEDUSA. It all had something to do with MEDUSA.

She leaned closer to the boy and whispered, “Bevis, listen; are you going to this meeting? Can you tell me what Crome says?”

“Oh no, Miss … I mean Kate. No! It’s strictly Guildsmen only. No apprentices…”

“Couldn’t you pose as a Guildsman or something?” Katherine urged him. “I have a feeling that there is something bad going on, and I think this MEDUSA thing is at the bottom of it.”

“I’m sorry, Miss,” said Bevis, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t dare. I don’t want to get killed and carted off to Top Tier and turned into a Stalker.”

“Then help
me
go!” said Katherine eagerly. She reached across the table to take his hand, and he flinched at her touch and pulled back, staring at his fingers in amazement, as if it had never occurred to him that anybody would want to touch them. Katherine persisted, gently taking both his trembling hands in hers and looking deep into his eyes.

“I have to find out what Crome is really up to,” she explained, “for Father’s sake. Please, Bevis. I have to get inside the Engineerium!”

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