Authors: Phillip Reeve
Katherine found the fallen satchel, lying in the muck and blood on the stairs. It seemed to be undamaged, except for some unpleasant stains. “I’ve got to go to Top Tier. Stop MEDUSA. It’s the only way. I’ll go to the elevator station and…”
“No!” Clytie Potts came bounding up the steps from the front entrance. “A couple of Engineers who were stationed outside got away,” she said. “They’ll have raised the alarm. There’ll be a guard on the elevators, and more security men here at any minute. Stalkers too, probably.” She met Pomeroy’s worried gaze and dipped her head as if it was all her fault. “Sorry, CP.”
“That’s all right, Miss Potts.” Pomeroy slapped her kindly on the shoulder, almost knocking her over. “Don’t worry, Katherine. We’ll keep the devils busy here, and you can sneak up to Top Tier by the Cat’s Creep.”
“What’s that?” asked Katherine.
“It’s the sort of thing Historians know about and everybody else has forgotten,” said Pomeroy, beaming. “An old stairway, left over from the first days of London when the elevator system couldn’t always be relied on. It goes up from Tier Three to Top Tier, passing through the Museum on the way. Are you ready to travel?”
She wasn’t, but she nodded.
“I’m going with her,” said Bevis.
“It’s all right, Kate. I want to.” He was turning dead Engineers over, looking for a coat without too many holes in. When he found one he began to fumble with the rubber buttons. “If the Engineers see you walking about alone up there they’ll guess what happened,” he explained. “But if I’m with you, they’ll think you’re a prisoner.”
“He’s right, Kate,” said Pomeroy, nodding, as Clytie Potts helped the young Engineer into the coat and wiped away the worst of the blood with the hem of her robe.
He checked his watch. “Eight-thirty. MEDUSA goes off at nine, according to the Goggle-screens. That should give you plenty of time to do whatever you’re planning to do. But we’d better start you on your way, before those Engineers get back with reinforcements.”
The Jenny Haniver was filled with memories of Anna Fang; the mark of her mouth on a dirty mug, the print of her body on the unmade bunk, a half-read book on the flight deck, marked with a ribbon at page 205. In one of the lockers Hester found a chest full of money; not just bronze coins but silver taels and golden sovereigns, more money than she or Tom had ever seen in their lives.
“She was rich!” she whispered.
Tom turned round in the pilot’s seat and stared at the money. All through their long flight from Shan Guo he had not thought twice about taking the airship; he felt as if they were just borrowing her to finish a job that Miss Fang would have wanted done. Now, watching Hester lift the tinkling handfuls of coin, he felt like a thief.
“Well,” said Hester, snapping the treasure-chest shut, “It’s no use to her where she’s gone. And no use to us, since I expect we’ll soon be joining her there.” She glanced up at him. “Unless you’ve changed your mind?”
He shook his head, although the truth was that the anger he had felt earlier had drained away during his struggles to master the airship and steer it westwards through the fickle mountain weather. He was starting to feel afraid, and starting to remember Katherine and wonder what would become of her when her father was dead. But he still wanted to make Valentine pay for all the misery he had caused. He started scanning the radio frequencies for London’s homing beacon, while Hester hunted through the lockers until she found what she needed; a heavy black pistol and a long, thin-bladed knife.
For one night only, London’s great council chamber has been decked out with lights and banners and turned into a party venue. The heads of the greater and lesser Guilds mingle happily among the green leather benches and sit on the speaker’s dais, chattering excitedly about the new hunting ground, glancing at their watches from time to time as the hour for firing MEDUSA draws closer. Apprentice Engineers tack to and fro among the revellers, handing out experimental snacks prepared by Supervisor Nimmo’s department. The snacks are brown and taste rather peculiar, but at least they are cut into perfectly geometrical shapes.
Valentine pushes his way through the crowd until he finds Crome and his aides, a wedge of white rubber surrounded by the tall black shapes of Stalker security guards. He wants to ask the Lord Mayor what became of the agent he sent after Hester Shaw. He wades towards them, elbowing well-upholstered Councillors aside and catching quick snatches of their conversation: “There’s Valentine, look, back from Shan Quo!”
“Blew up the League’s whole Air-Fleet, so I heard!”
“What charming snacks!”
“Valentine!” cries the Lord Mayor when the explorer finally reaches him. “Just the man we’ve been waiting for!”
He sounds almost jolly. Beside him stand the geniuses who have made MEDUSA work again: Dr Chandra, Dr Chubb and Doctor Wismer Splay, along with Dr Twix, who simpers and bobs a curtsy, congratulating Valentine on his trip to Shan Guo. Behind her the black-clad guards stand still as statues, and Valentine nods at them. “I see you’ve been making good use of the old Stalker parts I brought you, Crome…”
“Indeed,” agrees the Lord Mayor with a chilly smile. “A whole new race of Resurrected Men. They will be our servants and our soldiers in the new world that we are about to build. Some are in action even as we speak, down at the Museum.”
“Yes.” Crome watches him slyly, gauging his reactions. “Some of your Historians are traitors, Valentine. Armed traitors.”
“You mean there is fighting? But Kate’s there! I must go to her!”
“Impossible,” the Lord Mayor snaps, gripping his arm as he turns to leave. “Tier Two is out of bounds. The Museum is surrounded by Stalkers and Security teams. But don’t worry. They have strict instructions not to harm your daughter. She will be brought up to join us as soon as possible. I particularly want her to watch MEDUSA in action. And I want you here too, Valentine. Stay.”
Valentine stares at him, past the frozen faces of the other party-goers, in the sudden silence.
“Where does your real loyalty lie, I wonder,” muses Crome. “With London, or with your daughter? Stay.”
“Stay.” As if he’s a dog. Valentine’s hand curls for a moment on his sword-hilt but he knows he will not draw it. The truth is that he is afraid, and all his adventures and expeditions have only been attempts to hide himself from this truth: he is a coward.
He stretches a smile across his trembling face, and bows.
“Your obedient servant, Lord Mayor.”
* * *
There was a door in the wall near Natural History, a door that Katherine must have passed hundreds of times without even seeing it. Now, as Pomeroy unlocked it and heaved it open, they heard the strange, echoing moan of wind in a long shaft, mingled with the rumble of the city’s engines. He handed Bevis the key and a torch. “Good luck, Mr Pod. Kate, good luck…”
From somewhere behind him came a great dull boom that set the glass rattling in the display cases. “They’re here,” said Pomeroy. “I’m needed at my post…”
“Come with us!” Katherine begged him. “You’ll be safer on Top Tier, among the crowds…”
“This is my Museum, Miss Valentine,” he reminded her, “and this is where I’ll stay. I’d only get in your way up there.”
She hugged him, pressing her face into his robe and savouring its smell of mothballs and pipe-tobacco. “Your poor Museum!”
Pomeroy shrugged. “I don’t think the Engineers would have let us keep hold of our relics much longer. At least this way we’ll go down fighting.”
“And you might win…”
“Oh, yes,” the old Historian gave a rueful chuckle. “We used to thrash them regularly in the inter-guild football cup, you know. Of course, they didn’t have machine-guns and Stalkers to help them…” He lifted her face and looked into her eyes, very serious. “Stop them, Katherine. Stick a spanner in the works.”
“I’ll try,” she promised.
“We’ll meet again soon,” said Pomeroy firmly, hefting his blunderbuss as he turned away. “You’ve got your father’s gift, Kate: people follow you. Look at the way you stirred us up!”
They heard the cannon roar again as he closed the door on them, and then the clatter of small-arms, closer now and tangled with faint screams.
* * *
“There!” said Tom.
They were flying high through thin drifts of cloud, and he was looking down at London, far ahead.
It was bigger than he remembered, and much uglier. Strange, how when he lived there he had believed everything the Goggle-screens told him about the city’s elegant lines, its perfect beauty. Now he saw that it was ugly; no better than any other town, just bigger; a storm-front of smoke and belching chimneys, a wave of darkness rolling towards the mountains with the white villas of High London surfing on its crest like some delicate ship. It didn’t look like home.
“There. …” he said again.
“I see it,” said Hester, beside him. “Something’s going on on Top Tier. It’s lit up like a fairground. Tom, that’s where Valentine will be! They must be getting ready to use MEDUSA!”
Tom nodded, feeling guilty at the mention of MEDUSA. He knew that if Miss Fang were here she would be coming up with a plan to stop the ancient weapon, but he did not see what he could do about it. It was too big, too terrible, too hard to think about. Better to concentrate on what mattered to him and Hester, and let the rest of the world look after itself.
“He’s down there,” whispered the girl. “I can feel him.”
Tom didn’t want to go too close, in case the Lord Mayor had set men to watch the skies, or sent up a screen of spotter-ships. He tugged on the controls and felt the big, slow movement as the airship responded. She rose, and London faded to a smudge of speeding light beneath the cloud as he steered her southward and began to circle round.
* * *
They climbed out of darkness into darkness, Bevis Pod’s torch flittering on stair after identical metal stair. Their big shadows slid up the walls of the shaft. They didn’t speak much, but each listened to the other’s steady breathing, glad of the company. Katherine kept looking back, expecting to see Dog at her heels.
“Five hundred steps,” whispered Bevis, stopping on a narrow landing and shining his torch upward. The stairs spiralled up for ever. “This must be Tier One. Halfway.”
Katherine nodded, too out-of-breath to speak, too on-edge to rest. Above them the Lord Mayor’s reception must be in full swing. She climbed on, her knees growing stiff, each intake of breath a cold hard ache in the back of her throat, the too-heavy satchel banging against her hip.
* * *
Through the windows of the airship Hester could see the Out-Country streaming past, only a hundred or so feet below, scarred with the same ruler-straight trenches that she and Tom had stumbled along on the days after they first met. And there was London, red tail-lights in the darkness, dimming as Tom brought the airship up into the thick poison-fog of the city’s exhaust. He was good at this, she realized, and thought what a pity it was that his plan was not going to work.
The radio crackled into life; London Docks and Harbour Board, demanding their identity codes.
Tom looked back at her, scared, but she knew how to handle this. She went to the radio and flipped the “transmit” switch up and down quickly, garbling her message as if the communications system was shot. “London Airship GE47,” she said, remembering the code name that had come crackling over the inn’s loudspeakers in Airhaven all those weeks before. “We’re taking Shrike back to the Engineerium.”
The radio said something, but she snapped it off. Black smog pressed against the windows, and water droplets condensed on the glass and went quivering off this way and that, leaving wriggly trails.
“I’ll circle the city for twenty minutes and then come in and pick you up,” Tom was saying. “That should give you time to find Valentine and…”
“I’ll be dead in twenty minutes, Tom,” she said. “Just get yourself safe away. Forget about me.”
“I’ll circle back…”
“I’ll be dead.”
“I’ll circle back anyway…”
“There’s no point, Tom.”
“I’ll circle back and pick you up.”
She looked at him and saw tears shining in his eyes. He was crying. He was crying for her, because she was going into danger and he would not see her again, and she thought it was strange that he cared about her that much, and very sweet. She said, “Tom, I wish…” and, “Tom, if I…” and other little broken bits of sentences that petered out in silence, because she didn’t even know herself what she was trying to say, only that she wanted him to know that he was the best thing that had happened to her.
A light loomed out of the swirling dark, then another. They were rising past Tier Three, and very close. Tier Two slid by, with people staring up from an observation deck, and then Circle Park with lanterns strung between the trees. Tom fumbled with the controls and the
went powering forward, low over the rooftops of Knightsbridge and up towards the aft edge of Top Tier. He glanced quickly at Hester. She wanted to hug him, kiss him, something, but there was no time now, and she just gasped, “Tom, don’t get yourself killed,” slammed the hatch-controls to “open” and ran to it and jumped as the airship swung in a shuddery arc over the rim of Top Tier.
She hit the deckplate hard and rolled over and over. The
was pulling away fast, lit by the sparkling trails of rockets from an air-defence battery on the Engineerium. The rockets missed, darkness swallowed the airship, and she was alone, scrambling into the shadows.
* * *
“A single airship, Lord Mayor.” It is a nervous-looking Engineer, a shell-like radio clipped to his ear. “It has pulled clear, but we believe it may have landed a boarding party.”
“Anti-Tractionists on Top Tier?” The Lord Mayor nods, as if this is the sort of little problem that crops up every day. “Well, well. Dr Twix, I think this might be a good opportunity to test your new models.”
“Oh, goody!” trills the woman, dropping a plate of canapes in her excitement. “Come along, my chicks! Come along!”
Her Stalkers turn with a single movement and form up behind her, striding through thrilled party-goers to the exits.
“Bring me the boarders alive!” Crome calls after her. “It would be a pity if they missed the big event.”