Read Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines Online

Authors: Phillip Reeve

Tags: #sf_fantasy

Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines (20 page)

31. THE EAVESDROPPER

London gathered speed, racing towards the mountains. Semi-static towns that had hidden for years on these high steppes were startled out of their torpor by its coming and went lumbering away, leaving behind them green patches of farmland and once a whole static suburb. The city paid no heed to any of them. The whole of London knew the Lord Mayor’s plan by now. In spite of the cold, people gathered on the forward observation decks and peered through telescopes towards Shan Guo, eager for their first glimpse of the legendary Wall.

“Soon!” they told each other.

“This very night!”

“A whole new hunting ground!”

 

* * *

 

Most people at the Museum were used to Katherine and Dog by now, and nobody paid very much attention as she hastened through the lower galleries with the white wolf trotting behind her. A few noticed the frantic look in her eyes and the tears on her face, but before they could ask her what was wrong or proffer a pocket handkerchief she had swept past, heading towards Mr Nancarrow’s office at a near run.

There she found a smell of turpentine and the lingering scent of the art-historian’s pipe tobacco, but no Nancarrow and no Bevis Pod. She ran back out into the hallway, where a fat Third-Class Apprentice was mopping the floors. “Mr Nancarrow’s in the store-rooms, Miss,” he told her sullenly. “He’s got that funny new bloke with him.”

The funny new bloke was helping Mr Nancarrow drag a picture out of the storage racks when Katherine burst in. It was a huge, gilt-framed painting called “
Quirke oversees the rebuilding of London”,
by Walmart Strange, and when Bevis dropped the end he was holding it made a crash that echoed and re-echoed through the dusty store-room like a small explosion. “I say, Pod!” complained Nancarrow angrily, but then he too saw Katherine’s face and quickly restrained himself. “You look as if you need a nice cup of tea, Miss Valentine,” he muttered, hurrying away into the maze of racks.

“Kate?” Bevis Pod took a few uncertain steps towards her. “What’s happened?” He wasn’t used to comforting people; it was not the sort of thing an Apprentice Engineer was trained for. He held his arms out stiffly to touch her shoulders, and looked shocked when she flung herself against him. “Er …” he said, “there, there…”

“Bevis,” she sniffled, “it’s up to us now. We have to do something. Tonight…”

“Tonight?” He frowned, struggling to keep up with her rapid, half-sobbed explanations. “But do you mean just us alone? I thought your father was going to help us…”

“He’s not my father any more,” said Katherine bitterly, and realized that it was true. She clung to Bevis as tightly as she could, as if he were a raft that could carry her safe across this mire of misery and guilt. “Father’s Crome’s man. That’s why I’ve got to get rid of MEDUSA, do you see? I have to make amends for the things he’s done. . .”

Nancarrow came pottering back with two tin mugs of tea. “Urn! Oh! Ah!” he mumbled, embarrassed at finding his two young friends in one another’s arms. “I mean … yes. Paperwork. Must dash. Back in an hour or two. Carry on, Pod. . .”

As he left, he almost fell over the fat Third-Class Apprentice, who had been mopping the passage just outside the store-room door. “For Quirke’s sake, Melliphant!” they heard him snap. “Can’t you keep out of the way?”

But Herbert Melliphant could not keep out of the way. Ever since his demotion he had been looking for a handhold that would help him claw his way back up to First Class. This Pod person had caught his eye a few days ago; this stranger who seemed so friendly with the old Guildsmen; who went about with the Head Historian’s daughter; who dressed as an Apprentice but who didn’t sleep with the others in the dormitory or join them for lessons. He had heard on the Goggle-screens that the Guild of Engineers were still hunting the people who had infiltrated their secret meeting, and he was starting to suspect that Dr Vambrace might be very interested in Nancarrow’s little helper. As soon as the old man was out of sight he put down his mop and pail and stepped back to the door.

“. . .the Anti-Traction League can’t defend themselves,” Katherine was saying. “That’s what Father has been doing; spying out their cities and blowing up their Air-Fleet. That’s why it’s up to us.”

“What about the Historians?” asked Bevis.

Katherine shrugged. “They’re too scared to help us. But I can do it alone, I know I can. Father’s invited me to the Lord Mayor’s reception. I’m going to go. I’m going find Father and tell him I’ve forgiven him, and we’ll go to Crome’s party like a happy little family; but while the others are all telling Crome how clever he’s been and eating sausages on sticks I’ll slip away and find MEDUSA and smash it. Do you think a hammer would the trick? I know where Dr Arkengarth keeps the keys to the caretaker’s stores. There’s bound to be a hammer in there. Or a crowbar. Would a crowbar be better?”

She laughed, and saw Bevis flinch at the mad, brittle sound. For a moment she feared that he was about to say something like “Calm down,” or “It can’t possibly work:. . .” She touched his face, his blushing ears, and felt the quick pulse beating in his throat and the muscles flexing as he swallowed.

“A bomb,” he said.

“MEDUSA must be huge—it probably fills half of St Pauls. If you really want to smash it you need explosives.” He looked excited and scared. “The cleaning stuff Museum caretakers use has nitrogen in it and if I mix it with some of Dr Nancarrow’s picture-restoring fluids, and make a timer. . .”

“How do you know all this?” asked Katherine, shocked, because even she had not thought as far as bombs.”

“Basic chemistry,” said Bevis with a shrug. “I did a course, in the Learning Labs. . .” “

“Is that all they think about, your lot?” she whispered. “Making bombs and blowing things up?”

“No, no!” he replied. “But science is like that. You can use it to do whatever you want. Kate, if you really want to do this I’ll make you a bomb you can put in a satchel. If you can get to MEDUSA, leave it near the computer brain and set the timer and run away. Half an hour later…”

Outside, Melliphant’s ear flattened itself against the wood of the door like a pale slug.

 

* * *

 

Faster and faster and faster. It is as if the Lord Mayor’s eagerness has infected the very fabric of his city; the pistons in the engine-rooms beat as eagerly as his heart, the wheels and tracks race like his thoughts, rushing towards the Wall and the next chapter in London’s great story.

All afternoon Valentine has hunted for Katherine through the park, startling his friends from their suppers by suddenly looming up at the French windows, a dripping wraith in blood-stained clothes, demanding, “
Is my daughter here? Have you seen her?”
Now he strides to and fro across the drawing room at Clio House, his boots dribbling water on to the muddy carpet as he tries to walk the wet cold of the park: out of his bones, the fear out of his mind.

At last he hears footsteps on trie gravel drive, footsteps in the entrance hall, and Pewsey bursts in, looking as wet and miserable as his master. “I tracked her down, Chief! She’s at the Museum. Been spending a lot of time there lately, according to old Creaber on the front desk…”

“Take me there!” shouts Valentine.

“You sure, Chief?” Pewsey studies his own feet rather than look at his master’s feverish, tear-streaked face. “I think it might be better if you let her alone for a bit. She’s safe at the Museum, ain’t srie, and I reckon she needs a chance to think things over. She’ll come back in her own time.”

Valentine slumps down in a chair, and the old aviator moves quietly around the room, lighting the lamps. Outside, the daylight is fading. “I’ve polished your sword, and laid out your best robes in the dressing room,” says Pewsey gently. “It’s the Lord Mayor’s reception, sir, remember? Wouldn’t do to miss it.”

Valentine nods, staring at his hands, his long fingers. “Why did I go along with his schemes, all these years, Pewsey? Why did I give him MEDUSA?”

“I couldn’t rightly say, sir…”

He stands up with a sigh and heads for the dressing room. He wishes he had Kate’s sharpness; to know so easily what’s right, what’s wrong. He wishes he had the courage to stand up to Crome the way she wants him to, but it is too late for that, too late, too late.

 

* * *

 

And Crome himself looks up from his dinner (a puree of vegetables and meat-substitute, with just the right amounts of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, et cetera), looks up at the shivering Apprentice Historian whom Vambrace has just thrust into his office and says, “So, Apprentice Melliphant, I gather you have something to tell us?”

32. CHUDLEIGH POMEROY PULLS IT OFF

She found that she could cope. Earlier she had wanted to curl up in a corner and die of grief, but now she was all right. It made her remember the way she had felt when her mother died; flattened by the great numb blow of it and faintly surprised at the way life kept going on. And at least this time she had Dog to help her, and Bevis.

“Kate, I need another bolt, like this one but longer…”

She had come to think of Bevis Pod as a sweet, clumsy, rather useless person, someone who needed her to look after him, and she suspected that that was how the Historians all thought of him as well. But that afternoon she had begun to understand that he was really much cleverer than her. She watched him work, hunched under a portable argon globe in a corner of the Transport gallery, carefully measuring out the right amounts of scrubbing powder and picture-cleaning fluid. Now he was building a timing mechanism out of lengths of copper picture wire and parts from the dashboard of a centuries-old bug, fitting it all into the satchel she had found for him.

“A bolt, Kate?”

“Oh, yes…” She ratched quickly through the pile of spare parts on the floor beside him and found what he wanted. Handed it to him. Checked her watch. It was eight o’clock. Soon she would have to go back to Clio House and fit a smile on to her face and say to Father, “I’m sorry I was so silly earlier—welcome home—please can I come with you to the Lord Mayor’s party?”

“There,” said Bevis, holding up the satchel. “It’s done.”

“It doesn’t look like a bomb.”

“That’s the idea, silly! Look.” He opened it up and showed her the package nestling inside, the red button that she had to push to arm it and the timing mechanism. “It won’t make a very big bang,” he admitted, “but if you can get it close enough to the computer-brain. …”

“I’ll find a way,” she promised, taking it from him. “I’m Valentine’s daughter. If anybody can get to MEDUSA, it’s me.” He looked rueful, she thought, and she wondered if he was thinking of all that wonderful old-world computing power, an Engineer’s dream, about to be sacrificed. “I’ve got to do it,” she said.

“I know. I wish I could come with you, though.”

She hugged him, pressing her face against his face, her mouth against his mouth, feeling him shiver as his hands came up nervously to stroke and stroke her hair. Dog gave a soft growl, jealous perhaps, afraid that he was losing Katherine’s love and would soon be abandoned, like the poor old soft toys on the shelves in her bedroom. “Oh Bevis,” she whispered, pulling back, trembling. “What’s to become of us?”

The sound of distant shouting reached them, echoing up the stairwell from the lower floors. It was too faint to make out any words, but they both knew at once that something must be wrong; nobody ever shouted in the Museum.

Dog’s growl grew louder. He went running to the door and they both followed him, pushing their way quietly out on to the darkened landing. A cool breeze touched their faces as they peered over the handrail and down, the long spiral of stairs dwindling into darkness below with the bronze handrails gleaming. More shouts, then the bang and clatter of something dropped. Torch-beams stabbed a lower landing and they heard the shouting voice quite clear: Chudleigh Pomeroy’s, saying, “This is an outrage! An outrage! You are trespassing on the property of the Guild of Historians!”

The Engineer security team came up the stairs in a slapping rush of rubber-soled boots, torchlight sliding over their coats and their shiny, complicated guns. They slowed as they reached the top and saw Dog’s eyes flashing, his ears flattening backwards as he growled and growled and crouched to spring. Guns flicked towards him, and Katherine grabbed him by the collar and shouted, “He won’t hurt you, he’s just frightened. Don’t shoot…”

But they shot him anyway, the guns giving sharp little cracks and the impact of the bullets wrenching Dog away from her and slamming him back against the wall with a yelp; then silence, and the whispering sound of the big body falling. In the dancing torchlight the blood looked black. Katherine gasped for breath. Her arms and legs were shaking with a quick, helpless shudder that she couldn’t stop. She could not have moved if she had wanted to, but just in case a sharp voice barked, “Stay where you are, Miss Valentine.”

“Dog…” she managed to whine.

“Stay where you are. The brute is dead.”

Dr Vambrace came up the stairs through the thin, shifting smoke. “You too, Pod,” he added, seeing the boy make a twitching move towards the body. He stood on the top step and smiled at them. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you, Apprentice. I hope you’re ashamed of yourself. Give me that satchel.”

Bevis held it out and the tall Engineer snatched it from him and opened it. “Just as Melliphant warned us; a bomb.”

Two of his men stepped forward and hauled the prisoners after him as he turned and started down the stairs. “No!” wailed Katherine, struggling to keep hold of Bevis’s hand as they were dragged apart. “No!” Her voice bounced shrilly back at her from the ceiling and went echoing away down the stairwell, and she thought it sounded frail and helpless, like a child having a tantrum, a child caught playing some stupid, naughty trick and protesting at its punishment. She kicked at the shins of the man who held her, but he was a big man, and booted, and didn’t even wince. “Where are you taking us?”

“You are coming with me to Top Tier, Miss Valentine,” said Vambrace. “You will be quite the talking-point of the Lord Mayor’s little party. As for your sweetheart here, he’ll be taken to the Deep Gut.” He grinned at the little noise Bevis made, a helpless gulped-back squeak of fear. “Oh yes, Apprentice Pod, some very interesting experiences await you in the Deep Gut.”

“It wasn’t his fault!” Katherine protested. She could feel things unravelling, her foolish plan running out of control and lashing backwards to entrap her and Bevis and poor Dog. “I
made
him help me!” she shrieked. “It’s nothing to do with Bevis!” But Vambrace had already turned away, and her captor clamped a chemical-tasting hand across her mouth to stop her noise.

 

* * *

 

Valentine’s bug pulls up outside the Guildhall, where the bugs of most of the Guild heads are already parked.

Gench gets out and holds the lid open for his master, then fusses over him like a mother sending her child off to school, brushing his hair off his face and straightening the collar of his best black robe, buffing the hilt of his sword.

Valentine looks absently up at the sky. High, feathery cloud, lit by the fast-sinking sun. The wind is still blowing from the east, and it brings a smell of snow that cuts through his thoughts of Katherine for a moment, making him think again of Shan Guo.
Hester Shaw will find you,
the Wind-Flower had whispered, dying. But how could she have known about Hester? She could not have met the girl, could she? Could she? Is Hester still alive? Has she made her way somehow to Batmunkh Gompa? And is she waiting in those mountains now, ready to climb back aboard London and try again to kill him—or, worse, to harm his daughter?

Pushing Gench’s big hands away, he says, “If you don’t mind missing the party, boys, it might be worth taking the
13th Floor Elevator
up for a spin tonight. Just in case those poor brave fools from the League try anything.”

“Right you are, Chief!” The two old airmen have not been looking forward to the Lord Mayor’s reception—all that finger-food and posh chat. Nothing could cheer them up better than the prospect of a good fight. Gench climbs in next to Pewsey and the bug veers away, startling Engineers and Beefeaters out of its path. Valentine straightens his own tie and walks quickly up the steps into the Guildhall.

 

* * *

 

The Engineers marched their prisoners through the lower galleries of the Museum to the Main Hall. There was nobody about. Katherine had never seen the Museum as empty as this. Where were the Historians? She knew they couldn’t help her, but she wanted to see them, to know that somebody knew what had become of her. She kept listening for the pattering feet of Dog on the floor behind her, and being surprised when she couldn’t hear them, and then remembering. Bevis was marching next to her, but he wouldn’t look at her, just stared straight ahead as if he could already see the chambers of the Deep Gut and the things that would happen to him there.

Then, at the top of the steps that led down to the main entrance, the Engineers halted.

Down in the foyer, their backs to the big glass doors, the Historians were waiting. While Vambrace’s men were busy upstairs they had raided the display cases in the Weapons Warfare gallery, arming themselves with ancient pikes and muskets, rusty swords and tin helmets. Some had strapped breast-plates over their black robes, and others carried shields. They looked like a chorus of brigands in an amateur pantomime.

“What is the meaning of this?” barked Dr Vambrace.

Chudleigh Pomeroy stepped forward, holding a blunderbuss with a brass muzzle as broad as a tuba’s. Katherine started to realize that other Historians were watching from the shadows at the edges of the hall, lurking behind display cases, pointing steam-powered rifles through the articulated ribs of dinosaurs.

“Gentlemen,” said Pomeroy nervously, “you are on the property of the Guild of Historians. I suggest that you unhand those young people immediately.”

“Immediately!” agreed Dr Karuna, training her dusty musket on the red wheel between Vambrace’s eyebrows.

The Engineer began to laugh. “You old fools! Do you think you can defy us? Your Guild will be disbanded because of what you’ve done here today. Your silly trifles and trinkets will be fed to the furnaces, and your bodies will be broken on engines of pain in the Deep Gut. We’ll make you history, since history is all you care about! We are the Guild of Engineers! We are the future!”

There is a heartbeat pause, near-silent, just the echo of Vambrace’s voice hanging on the musty air and the faint sounds of men reaching for guns and arthritic fingers tightening on ancient triggers. Then the foyer vanishes into smoke and stabbing darts of fire, and the noise bounces from the high-domed roof and comes slamming down again, a ragged crackle split by the deep boom of Pomeroy’s blunderbuss and the shrieking roar of an old cannon concealed in a niche behind the ticket office, which goes off with a great jet of flame as Dr Nancarrow sets his lighter to the touch-hole. Katherine sees Vambrace and the two men next to him swiped aside, sees Dr Arkengarth falling backwards with his arms windmilling, feels the man who holds her jerk and stumble and the thick slap as a musket-ball goes through his rubber coat.

He falls away from her, and she drops to her knees and wonders where to hide. Nothing remains of Vambrace but his smouldering boots, which would be cartoony and almost funny except that his feet are still inside them. Half his men are down, but the rest are rallying, and they have better weapons than the Historians. They spray the foyer with gunfire, striking sparks from the marble floor and flinging splinters of dinosaur bone high into the air. Display cases come apart in bright cataracts of powdered glass, and the Historians who are cowering behind them go scrambling back to other hiding places, or fall among the fallen exhibits and lie still. Above them, argon-globes smash and gutter until the hall is dark, stuttering like cine-film in the migraine flicker of gun-light, and the Engineers are pushing forward through it towards the doors.

Behind them, forgotten, Bevis Pod reaches for an abandoned gun and swings it up, his long hands feeling their way across the shiny metal for catches and triggers. Katherine watches him. The air around her is thick with wailing shot and whirling chips of marble and moaning battle-frisbees, but she cannot tear her eyes or her mind away from Bevis long enough to think about finding cover. She sees him unfold the gun’s spindly arm-rest and wedge it into the crook of his elbow, and sees the small blue holes it makes in the backs of the Engineers’ coats. They fling up their arms and drop their guns and spin about and fall, and Bevis Pod watches them through the bucking sights with a calm, serious look, not her gentle Bevis any more but someone who can kill quite coldly, as if the Engineer in him really does have no regard for human life, or maybe he has just seen so much death in the Deep Gut that he thinks it is a little thing and does not mind dealing it out.

And when he stops shooting it is very quiet, just the rubbery lisp of the corpses settling and a quick bony rattle that Katherine slowly recognizes as the sound of her own teeth chattering.

From the corners of the hall Historians came creeping. There were more of them than Katherine had feared. In the flicker of battle she had thought she saw all of them shot, but, although some were wounded, the only ones dead were a man called Weymouth, who she had never spoken to, and Dr Arkengarth. The old curator of ceramics lay near the door, looking indignant, as if death was a silly modern fad that he rather disapproved of.

Bevis Pod knelt staring at the gun in his hands, and his hands were shaking, and blue smoke unravelled from the mouth of the gun and drifted up in scrolls and curlicues towards the roof.

Pomeroy came stumping up the stairs. His wig had been blown off and he was nursing a wound on his arm where a splinter of bone had cut him. “Look at that!” he said. “I must be the first person to be harmed by a dinosaur for about seventy million years!” He blinked at Katherine and Bevis, then at the fallen Engineers. None of them were laughing at his little joke. “Well!” he said. “Well, eh? Gosh! We showed them! As soon as I told the others what was going on we all agreed it wouldn’t do. Well, most of us did. The rest are locked in the canteen, along with any apprentices we thought might support Crome’s men. You should have seen us, Kate! ‘We won’t let them take Miss Valentine!’ we all said, and we didn’t. It goes to show, you know. An Engineer is no match for a Historian with his dander up!”

“Or
her
dander, CP!” chirped Moira Plym, hurrying up the steps to stand beside him. “Oh, that’ll teach them to fiddle with my furniture, all right! That’ll show them what happens to—” The visor of the helmet she was wearing snapped shut, muffling the rest.

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