Authors: Phillip Reeve
London was climbing towards a high plateau where the town-torn earth was dusted with thin layers of snow. A hundred miles behind it rolled Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, not just a threatening blur on the horizon any more but a huge dark mass of tracks and tiers, the gold filigree-work of its ornate top deck clearly visible above the smoke of factories and engines. Londoners crowded on to the aft observation platforms and watched in silence as the gap between the two cities slowly narrowed. That afternoon the Lord Mayor announced that there was no need for panic and that the Guild of Engineers would bring the city safely through this crisis—but there had already been riots and looting on the lower tiers, and squads of Beefeaters had been sent down to keep order in the Gut.
“Old Crome doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” muttered one of the men on duty at the Quirke Circus Elevator Station that evening. “I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but he’s a fool. Bringing poor old London way out east like this, day after day of travelling, week after week, just to get scoffed by some big old conurbation. I wish Valentine was here. He’d know what to do…”
“Quiet, Bert,” hissed his companion, “here comes some more of ’em.”
Both men bowed politely as two Engineers strode up to the turnstiles, a young man and a girl, dressed identically in green glastic goggles and white rubber hoods and coats. The girl flashed a gold pass. When she and her companion had gone up into the waiting elevator Bert turned to his friend and whispered, “It must be important, this do at the Engineerium. They’ve been swarming up out of their nests in the Deep Gut like a load of old white maggots. Imagine having a Guild meeting at a time like this!”
* * *
Inside the elevator Katherine sat down next to Bevis Pod, already feeling hot and self-conscious inside the coat that he had lent her. She glanced at him, and then checked her reflection in the window, making sure that the red wheels they had drawn so carefully on each other’s foreheads had not got smudged. She thought they both looked ridiculous in these hoods and goggles, but Bevis had assured her that a lot of Engineers wore them these days, and the other occupant of the elevator, a fat Navigator, didn’t so much as look at them while the car lurched towards Top Tier.
Katherine had spent the whole day restlessly waiting for Bevis to arrive with her disguise. To while away the time she had looked up the name HESTER SHAW in the indices of all her father’s books, but couldn’t find it. A Complete Catalogue of the London Museum contained one brief reference to a Pandora Shaw, but it just said she was an Out-Country scavenger who had supplied a few minor fossils and pieces of Old-Tech to the Historian’s Guild, and gave the date of her death, seven years ago. After that she tried looking up MEDUSA, only to learn that it was some sort of monster in an old story. She didn’t think Magnus Crome and his Engineers believed in monsters.
Nobody gave a second glance as she and Bevis strode across Top Tier towards the main entrance of the Engineerium. Scores of Engineers were already hurrying up the steps. Katherine joined them, clutching her gold pass and keeping close to the apprentice, terrified that she might lose him in this crowd of identical white coats.
This will never work!
she kept thinking, but the Guildsman on duty at the door wasn’t bothering to look at passes. She took a last look at the fading sunset behind the dome of St Paul’s, then stepped inside.
It was bigger than she expected, and brighter, lit by hundreds of argon globes that hung in the great open shaft at the centre of the building like planets hanging in space. She looked around for the staircase, but Bevis tugged at her arm and said, “We go up by monorail. Look…”
The Engineers were clambering into little monorail cars. Katherine and Bevis joined the queue, listening to their muttered conversations and the squeaky rustle of their coats rubbing together. Bevis’s eyes were wide and frightened behind his goggles. Katherine had hoped that they would be able to get a monorail car to themselves so that they could talk, but more Engineers were arriving all the time and she ended up sitting on the far side of a packed car from him, wedged tightly in with a group from the Mag-Lev Research Division.
“Where are you from, Guildsperson?” asked the man sitting beside her.
“Um…” Katherine looked frantically at Bevis, but he was too far away to whisper an answer. She blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “K Division.”
“Old Twixie, eh?” said the man. “I hear she’s having amazing results with her new models!”
“Oh, yes, very,” she replied. Then the car moved off with a lurch and her neighbour turned to the window, fascinated by the passing view.
Katherine had expected the monorail to feel like an elevator, but the speed and the spiralling movement made it quite different and for a moment she had to concentrate hard on not being sick. The other Engineers seemed not to notice. “What do you think the Lord Mayor’s speech will be about?” one of them asked.
“It must be MEDUSA,” said another. “I heard they are preparing for a test.”
“Let’s hope it works,” said a woman sitting just in front of Katherine. “It was Valentine who found the machine, after all, and he’s only a Historian, you know. You can’t trust them.”
“Oh, Valentine is the Lord Mayor’s man,” said another. “Don’t let that Historian’s guild-mark fool you. He’s as loyal as a dog, so long as we give him plenty of money and he gets to pretend that foreign daughter of his is a High London lady.”
Round and round they went, and up past offices and workshops full of busy Engineers, like an enormous hive of insects. The car stopped on level five and Katherine climbed out, still flushed with anger at what the others had said. She linked up with Bevis again and they all trotted together along chilly, white corridors and through hanging curtains of transparent plastic. She could hear the babble of voices ahead, and after a few twists and turns they emerged into an immense auditorium. Bevis led the way to a seat near one of the exits. She looked about her to see if she could spot Supervisor Nimmo, but it was impossible to make him out. The auditorium was a sea of white coats and bald or hooded heads, and more were pouring through the entrances all the time.
“Look!” hissed Bevis, nudging her. “That’s Dr Twix, the one I told you about!” He pointed to a squat little barrel-shaped woman who was taking a seat in the front row, chattering animatedly with her neighbours. “All the top Guildspersons are here! Twix, Chubb, Garstang … and there’s Dr Vambrace, the head of security!”
Katherine began to feel frightened. If she had been unmasked at the door she might have been able to pass it off as a silly prank, but now she was deep in the Engineers’ inner sanctum, and she could tell that something important was about to happen. She reminded herself that even if they discovered her, the Engineers would never dare harm Thaddeus Valentine’s daughter. She tried not to think about what they might do to Bevis.
At last the doors were closed and the lights dimmed. An expectant hush filled the auditorium, broken only by the slithery whisper of five hundred Engineers rising to their feet.
Katherine and Bevis jumped up with them, peering at the stage over the shoulders of the people in front. Magnus Crome was standing at a metal lectern, his cold eyes sweeping the audience. For a moment he seemed to stare straight at Katherine, and she had to remind herself that he couldn’t possibly recognize her, not with her hood and her goggles and the tall collar of her coat turned up.
“You may be seated,” said Crome, and waited until they had settled themselves before going on. “This is a glorious day for our Guild, my friends.”
A ripple of excitement ran through the auditorium, and through Katherine too. Crome motioned for quiet.
Up in the ceiling of the auditorium a slide-projector whirred into life, and a picture appeared on a screen behind his head. It was a diagram of an enormous, complicated machine.
“MEDUSA,” announced Crome, and there was a sort of echo as all the Engineers sighed, “
“As some of you already know,” he went on, “MEDUSA is an experimental energy weapon from the Sixty Minutes War. We have known about it for some time—in fact, ever since Valentine found these documents on his trip to America, twenty years ago.”
The projector-screen was flickering with faded diagrams and spidery writing.
Father never told me that!
“Of course, these fragmentary plans were not enough to let us reconstruct MEDUSA.” Crome was saying. “But seven years ago, thanks again to Valentine, we acquired a remarkable piece of Old-Tech, taken from a long-lost military site in the American desert. It is perhaps the best preserved Ancient computer-core ever discovered, and it is more than that; it is the brain of MEDUSA, the artificial intelligence that once powered this remarkable machine. Thanks to the hard work of Dr Splay and his comrades in B Division, we have at last been able to restore it to working order. Guildspersons, the days when London had to run and hide from other hungry cities are at an end! With MEDUSA at our command we will be able to reduce any one of them to ashes in the blink of an eye!”
The Engineers applauded wildly, and Bevis Pod nudged at Katherine to join in, but her hands seemed to have become frozen to the metal arm-rests of her seat. She felt giddy with shock. She remembered everything she had heard about the Sixty Minute War and how the Ancients’ terrible thunder-weapons had blasted their static cities and poisoned the earth and sky. Father would never have helped the Engineers to recreate such a terrible thing!
“Nor will we have to go chasing after scraps like Salthook,” Crome continued. “In another week London will be within range of Batmunkh Gompa, the Shield-Wall. For a thousand years the Anti-Traction League has cowered behind it, holding out against the tide of history. MEDUSA will destroy it at a single stroke. The lands beyond it, with all their huge static cities, their crops and forests, their untapped mineral wealth, will become London’s new hunting ground!”
You could hardly hear him now; the cheers of the Engineers rolled like breakers against the wall behind him, and it slid slowly open, revealing a long window that looked out towards St Paul’s Cathedral and the turrets of the Guildhall.
“But first,” he shouted, “we have more pressing business to attend to. Although I had hoped we might keep MEDUSA hidden until we reached the Shield-Wall, it has become necessary to give a demonstration of its power. Even as I speak, Dr Splay’s team is preparing a test-firing of the new weapon.”
Even if Katherine had wanted to hear more it would soon have become impossible, for Crome’s audience were all talking excitedly among themselves. A few Engineers, presumably those connected with the MEDUSA project, were hurrying to the exits. Standing up, Katherine started pushing her way to the door. A moment later she was out in the antiseptic corridor, wondering what to do next.
“Kate?” Bevis Pod appeared behind her. “Where are you going? People noticed you leave! I saw some Guild security people watching us…”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” whispered Katherine. “Where’s the way out?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the boy. “I’ve never been to this level before. I suppose we’ll have to find our way back to the monorail…” He shook Katherine away as she tried to take his hand. “No! Somebody will see. Engineers aren’t supposed to touch each other…”
They hurried along the tubular corridors, and Katherine said, “Crome was lying! My father didn’t go to America seven years ago. He just went on a little trip to the islands of the Western Ocean. And he never told me he’d found anything important. He’d have told me, if he’d really found MEDUSA. He wouldn’t want anything to do with old-world weapons, anyway…”
“But why would the Lord Mayor lie?” asked Bevis, who was secretly rather pleased that his Guild had stumbled upon the keys to yet another Ancient secret. “Anyway, he didn’t say your dad went to America for this thing, he just said he acquired it. Maybe he bought it from a scavenger or something. I wonder what Crome meant about a demonstration…”
He stopped. They had come to the end of the corridor, and there were no monorails in sight. Three doorways faced them. Two were locked, the third led only on to a narrow balcony that jutted out from the Engineerium’s flank, high above Paternoster Square.
“What now?” asked Katherine, hearing her own voice high and thin with fright, and Bevis, just as nervously, replied, “I don’t know.”
She stepped out on to the balcony to catch her breath.
The moon was up, but veiled by thin cloud, and a cool drizzle was falling. She pulled off her goggles and let the rain spill down her face, glad to be free of the heat and the chemical stench. She thought about Father. Had he really found MEDUSA? Bevis was right; Crome had no reason to lie. Poor Father! He would be in the air now, somewhere above the snow-peaks of Shan Guo. If only she had some way to warn him what they were planning to do with his discovery!
A low, mechanical rumble came drifting across the moonlit square. She looked down at the wet deckplates, but could not see what was making the noise. Then something made her glance up at St Paul’s. She gasped. “Bevis! Look!”
Slowly, like a huge bud blooming, the dome of the ancient cathedral was splitting open.
Had the Stalker only just arrived, or had he been standing watching them squabble, dark and still on the stone-strewn hillside like a stone himself? He took a step forward, and the damp grass smouldered where he set his foot. “they are mine.”
The pirates swung round, Maggs’s machine gun spraying streams of tracer at the iron man while Mungo’s hand-cannon punched black holes in his armour and Ames blazed away with his revolver. Caught in the web of gunfire, Shrike stood swaying for a moment. Then, slowly, like a man walking into a strong wind, he started forward. Bullets sparked off his armour and his coat tore away in rags and tatters. The holes the cannon made spewed something that might have been blood, might have been oil. He stretched out his arms, and an iron claw was ripped away, and another. Then he reached Maggs and she made a choking sound and went backwards into the bracken and down. Ames flung down his gun and turned to run, but Shrike was suddenly behind him and he stopped short, gawping at a handful of red spikes that sprouted from his chest.
Mungo’s gun was empty. He threw it aside and pulled his sword out, but before he could swing it Shrike had grabbed him by the hair and wrenched his head back and severed his neck with one scything blow.
“Tom,” said Hester. “Run!”
Shrike flung the head aside and stalked forward, and Tom ran. He didn’t want to; he knew there was no point, and he knew he should stand by Hester, but his legs had other ideas; his whole body wanted only to be away from the terrible, dead thing that was coming towards him down the hill. Then the ground gave way under him; he plunged into cold mud and fell, rolled over, and came to a rest against an outcrop of stone on the edge of the same mire that had swallowed Chrysler Peavey.
He looked back. The Stalker stood among the sprawling bodies. Airhaven was overhead, testing its engines one by one, and its lights kindled cold reflections on his moon-silvered skull.
Hester stood facing him, bravely holding her ground. Tom thought, She’s trying to save me! She’s buying time so that I can get away! But I can’t just let him kill her, I can’t!
Ignoring the countless voices of his body that were still screaming at him to run, he started to crawl back up the hill.
“HESTER SHAW,” he heard Shrike say, and the voice slurred and caught like a faulty recording. Steam hissed from holes in the Stalker’s chest and black ichor dripped from him and bubbled at the corners of his mouth.
“Are you going to kill me?” the girl asked.
Shrike nodded his great head, just once. “FOR A LITTLE WHILE.”
“What do you mean?”
The long mouth dragged sideways, smiling. “WE ARE TWO OF A KIND, YOU AND I. I KNEW IT AS SOON AS I FOUND YOU THAT DAY ON THE SHORE. AFTER YOU LEFT ME, THE LONELINESS. . .”
“I had to go, Shrike,” she whispered. “I wasn’t part of your collection.”
“YOU WERE VERY DEAR TO ME.”
Something’s wrong with him, thought Tom, inching up the hill. Stalkers weren’t meant to have feelings. He remembered what he had been taught about the Resurrected Men all going mad. Was that seaweed hanging from the ducts on Shrike’s head? Had his brains gone rusty? Sparks were flickering inside his chest, behind the bullet-holes…
“HESTER,” Shrike grated, falling heavily to his knees so that his face was at the same level as hers. “CROME HAS MADE ME A PROMISE. HIS SERVANTS HAVE LEARNED THE SECRET OF MY CONSTRUCTION.”
Fear prickled the back of Tom’s neck.
“I WILL TAKE YOUR BODY TO LONDON,” Shrike told the girl. “CROME WILL RESURRECT YOU AS AN IRON WOMAN. YOUR FLESH WILL BE REPLACED WITH STEEL, YOUR NERVES WITH WIRE, YOUR THOUGHTS WITH ELECTRICITY. YOU WILL BE BEAUTIFUL! YOU WILL BE MY COMPANION, FOR ALL TIME.”
“Shrike,” Hester snorted. “Crome won’t want
“WHY NOT? NO ONE WILL RECOGNIZE YOU IN YOUR NEW BODY; YOU WILL HAVE NO MEMORIES, NO FEELINGS, YOU WILL BE NO THREAT TO HIM. BUT I WILL REMEMBER FOR YOU, MY DAUGHTER. WE WILL HUNT DOWN VALENTINE TOGETHER.”
Hester laughed; a strange, mad, terrible sound that set Tom’s teeth on edge as he reached the place where Mungo’s body lay. The heavy sword was still clamped in the pirate’s fist, and Tom reached out and started prising it free. Glancing up, he saw that Hester had taken a step closer to the Stalker. She tilted her head back, baring her throat, readying herself for his claws. “All right,” she said. “But let Tom go.”
“HE MUST DIE,” insisted Shrike. “IT IS PART OF MY BARGAIN WITH CROME. YOU WILL NOT REMEMBER HIM WHEN YOU WAKE IN YOUR NEW BODY.”
“Oh please, Shrike, no,” begged Hester. “Tell Crome he escaped or drowned or something, died somewhere in the Out-Country and you couldn’t bring him back. Please.”
Tom clung to the sword, its hilt still clammy with Mungo’s sweat. Now that the moment had come he was so scared that he could barely breathe, let alone stand up and confront the Stalker. I can’t do this! he thought. I’m a Historian, not a warrior! But he couldn’t desert Hester, not while she was bargaining away her life for his. He was close enough to see the fear in her eye, and the sharp glitter of Shrike’s claws as he reached for her.
“VERY WELL,” the Stalker said. Gently, he stroked Hester’s face with the tips of the blades. “THE BOY CAN LIVE.” The hand drew back to strike. Hester shut her eye.
“Shrike!” howled Tom, hurling himself up and forward with the sword held out stiffly in front of him, feeling the green light spill across his face as Shrike spun hissing to meet him. An iron arm lashed out, hurling him backwards. He felt a searing pain in his chest and for a moment he was sure that he had been torn in two, but it was the Stalker’s forearm that struck him, not the bladed hand, and he landed in one piece and rolled over, gasping at the pain, expecting to see Shrike lunge at him and then nothing, ever again.
But Shrike was on the ground, and Hester was bending over him, and as Tom watched the Stalker’s eye flickered and something exploded inside him with a flash and a crack and a coil of smoke leaking upwards. The hilt of the sword jutted from one of the gashes in his chest, crackling with blue sparks.
“Oh, Shrike!” whispered Hester.
Shrike carefully sheathed his claws so that she could take his hand. Unexpected memories fluttered through his disintegrating mind, and he suddenly knew who he had been before they dragged him on to the Resurrection Slab to make a Stalker of him. He wanted to tell Hester, and he lifted his great iron head towards her, but before he could force the words out his death was upon him, and it was no easier this time than the last.
The great iron carcass settled into stillness, and smoke blew away on the wind. Down in the valley, horns were blowing, and Tom could see a party of riders starting up the hill from the caravanserai, alerted by the sound of gunfire. They carried spears and flaming torches, and he didn’t think they would be friendly. He tried to push himself upright, but the pain in his chest almost made him faint.
Hester heard him groan and swung towards him. “What did you do that for?” she shouted.
Tom could not have been more surprised if she had slapped him. “He was going to kill you!” he protested.
“He was going to make me like
screamed Hester, hugging Shrike. “Didn’t you hear what he said? He was going to make me everything I ever wanted; no memories, no feelings. Imagine Valentine’s face when I came for him! Oh,
do you keep
“He would have turned you into a monster!” Tom heard his own voice rising to a shout as all his pain and fear flared into anger.
“I’m already a monster!” she shrieked.
“No, you’re not!” Tom managed to heave himself to his knees. “You’re my friend!” he shouted.
“I hate you! I hate you!” Hester was yelling.
“Well, I care about you, whether you like it or not!” Tom screamed. “Do you think you’re the only person who’s lost their mum and dad? I feel just as angry and lonely as you, but you don’t see me going around want ing to kill people and trying to get myself turned into a Stalker! You’re just a rude, self-pitying—”
But the rest of what he had been planning to tell her died away in an astonished sob, because suddenly he could see the town below him and Airhaven and the approaching riders as clearly as if it were the middle of the day. He saw the stars fade; he saw Hester’s face freeze in mid-shout with spittle trailing from the corners of her mouth; he saw his own wavering shadow dancing on the blood-soaked grass.
Above the crags, the night sky was filling with an unearthly light, as if a new sun had risen from the Out-Country, somewhere far away towards the north.