Authors: Phillip Reeve
Tom nodded, trying not to show his disappointment. He glanced across at Hester, but her head was hanging down and she seemed to be asleep, or unconscious. He hoped it was just the effects of her long walk and her full stomach, but as he started up to check that she was all right Wreyland said, “I tell you what, though, lad; we’ll take you to the cluster!”
“To the what?”
“To the trading-cluster! It’s a gathering of small towns, a couple of days run south-east of here. We were going anyway.”
“There’ll be lots of towns at the cluster,” Mrs Wreyland agreed. “And even if none of them is prepared to take you and your friend to London, you’ll soon find an air-trader who will. Bound to be air-traders at a cluster.”
“I…” said Tom, and stopped. He wasn’t feeling very well. The room seemed to waver, then started to roll like the picture on a badly-tuned Goggle-screen. He looked at Hester and saw that she had slipped off her seat on to the floor. The Wreylands’ household gods grinned at him from their shrine on the wall, and one of them seemed to be saying in Orme Wreyland’s voice, “Sure to be airships there, Tom, always airships at a trading-cluster. …”
“Would you like some more algae, dear?” enquired Mrs Wreyland, as he fell to his knees. From a long, long way away he heard her saying, “It took an awfully long time to take effect, didn’t it, Ormey?”, and Wreyland replying, “We’ll have to put more in next time, my sweet.” Then the swirling patterns on the carpet reached up and twined around him and pulled him down into a sleep that was as soft as cotton wool, and filled with dreams of Katherine.
Above Tier One, above the busy shops of Mayfair and Piccadilly, above Quirke Circus, where the statue of London’s saviour stands proudly on its fluted steel column, Top Tier hangs over the city like an iron crown, supported by vast pillars. It is the smallest, highest and most important of the seven Tiers, and, though only three buildings stand there, they are the three greatest buildings in London. To sternward rise the towers of the Guildhall, where the greater and lesser Guilds all have their offices and meet in council once a month. Opposite it is the building where the real decisions are taken: the black glass claw of the Engineerium. Between them stands St Paul’s, the ancient Christian temple that Quirke re-erected up here when he turned London into a Traction City. It is a sad sight now, covered in scaffolding and shored up with props, for it was never meant to move, and London’s journeys have shaken the old stonework terribly. But soon it will be open to the public again: the Guild of Engineers has promised to restore it, and if you listen closely you can hear the drills and hammers of their men at work inside. Magnus Crome hears them as his bug goes purring through the old cathedral’s shadow to the Engineerium. They make him smile a faint, secret smile.
Inside the Engineerium the sunlight is kept at bay behind black windows. A cold neon glow washes the metal walls, and the air smells of antiseptic, which Crome thinks is a welcome relief from the stench of flowers and new-mown grass that hangs over High London on this warm spring day. A young apprentice leaps to attention as he stalks into the lobby and bows her bald head when he barks, “Take me to Doctor Twix.”
A monorail car is waiting. The apprentice helps the Lord Mayor into it and it takes him sweeping up in a slow spiral through the heart of the Engineerium. He passes floor after floor of offices and conference rooms and laboratories, and glimpses the shapes of strange machines through walls of frosted glass. Everywhere he looks he sees his Engineers at work, tinkering with fragments of Old-Tech, performing experiments on rats and dogs, or guiding groups of shaven-headed children who are up on a day-trip from the Guild’s nurseries in the Deep Gut. He feels safe and satisfied, here in the clean, bright, inner sanctum of his Guild. It makes him remember why he loves London so much, and why he has devoted his whole career to finding ways to keep it moving.
When Crome was a young apprentice, many years ago, he read gloomy forecasts which said that prey was running out and Traction Cities were doomed. He has made it his life’s work to prove them wrong. Clawing his way to the top of his Guild and then on to the Lord Mayor’s throne was just the start. His fierce recycling and anti-waste laws were merely a stop-gap. Now he is almost ready to unveil his real plan.
But first he must be certain that the Shaw girl can make no more trouble.
The car comes sighing to a halt outside one of the upper laboratories. A squat, white-coated barrel of a woman stands waiting at the entrance, hopping nervously from foot to foot. Evadne Twix is one of the best Engineers in London. She may look like someone’s dotty auntie and decorate her laboratory with pictures of flowers and puppies (a clear breach of Guild rules), but when it comes to her work she is utterly ruthless. “Hello, Lord Mayor,” she simpers, bowing. “How lovely to see you! Have you come to visit my babies?”
“I want to see Shrike,” he snaps, brushing past, and she dances along in his wake like a leaf in the slipstream of a passing city.
Through her laboratory they go, past startled, bowing Engineers, past glittering racks of glassware—and past tables where rusting metal skeletons are being painstakingly repaired. Dr Twix’s team has spent years studying the Stalkers, the Resurrected Men whose remains turn up sometimes in the Out-Country—and lately they have had more than just remains to work on.
“You have completed your researches on Shrike?” asks Crome as he strides along. “You are certain he is of no further use to us?”
“Oh, I’ve learned everything we can, Lord Mayor,” twitters the doctor. “He’s a fascinating piece of work, but really far more complicated than is good for him; he has almost developed his own personality. And as for his strange fixation with this girl… I shall make sure my new models are much simpler. Do you wish me to have him dismantled?”
“No.” Crome stops at a small, round door and touches a stud that sends it whirling open. “I intend to keep my promise to Shrike. And I have a job for him.”
Beyond the door hang shadows and a smell of oil. A tall shape stands motionless against a far wall. As the Lord Mayor steps into the room two round, green eyes snap on like headlights.
“Mr Shrike!” says Crome, sounding almost cheery. “How are we today? I hope you were not asleep?”
“I DO NOT SLEEP,” replies a voice from the darkness. It is a horrible voice, sharp as the squeal of rusty cogs. Even Dr Twix, who knows it well, shudders inside her rubber coat. “DO YOU WISH TO EXAMINE ME AGAIN?”
“No, Shrike,” Crome says. “Do you remember what you warned me of when you first came to me, a year and a half ago? About the Shaw girl?”
“I TOLD YOU THAT SHE IS ALIVE, AND ON HER WAY TO LONDON.”
“Well, it seems you were right. She turned up just as you said she would.”
“WHERE IS SHE? BRING HER TO ME!”
“Impossible, I’m afraid. She jumped down a waste-chute, back into the Out-Country.”
There is a slow hiss, like steam escaping, “I MUST GO AFTER HER.”
Crome smiles. “I was hoping you’d say that. One of my Guild’s Goshawk 90 reconnaissance airships has been made ready for you. The pilots will retrace the city’s tracks until you find where the girl fell. If she and her companion are dead, all well and good. If they are alive, kill them. Bring their bodies to me.”
“and then?” asks the voice.
“And then, Shrike,” Crome replies, “I will give you your heart’s desire.”
* * *
It was a strange time for London. The city was still travelling at quite high speed, as if there was a catch in sight, but there was no other town to be seen on the grey, muddy plains of the north western Hunting Ground, and everybody was wondering what the Lord Mayor could be planning. “We can’t just go driving on like this,” Katherine heard one of her servants mutter. “There are big cities further east, and they’ll scoff us up and spit out the bones!” But Mrs Mallow the housekeeper whispered back, “Don’t you know nothing, Sukey Blinder? Ain’t Mr Valentine himself being sent off on a hexpedition to spy out the land ahead? Him and Magnus Crome have got their eye on some vast great prize, you can be sure of it!”
Some vast great prize perhaps, but nobody knew what, and when Valentine came home at lunchtime from another meeting with the Guild of Engineers Katherine asked him, “Why do they have to send
off on a reconnaissance flight? That’s a job for a Navigator, not the best archaeologist in the world. It’s not fair!”
Valentine sighed patiently. “The Lord Mayor trusts me, Kate. And I will soon be back. Three weeks. A month. No more. Now, come down to the hangar with me, and we’ll see what Pewsey and Gench have been doing to that airship of mine.”
* * *
In the long millennia since the Sixty Minute War, airship technology had reached levels that even the Ancients had never dreamed of. Valentine had had the 13th Floor Elevator specially constructed, using some of the money that Crome had paid him for the Old-Tech he found on his trip to America, twenty years before. He said she was the finest airship ever built, and Katherine saw no reason to doubt him. Of course he didn’t keep her down at the Tier Five air-harbour with the common merchantmen, but at a private air-quay a few hundred yards from Clio House.
Katherine and her father walked towards it through the sunlit park. The hangar and the metal apron in front of it were busy with people and bugs as Pewsey and Gench set about loading the
with provisions for the coming flight. Dog went hurrying ahead to sniff at the stacks of crates and drums: tinned meat, lifting gas, medicines, airship-puncture repair kits, sun lotion, gas-masks, flame-proof suits, guns, rain-capes, cold-weather coats, map-making equipment, portable stoves, spare socks, plastic cups, three inflatable dinghies and a carton labelled “Pink’s Patent Out-Country Mud-Shoes -
Nobody Sinks with Pink’s!”
In the shadows of the hangar the great airship waited, her sleek, black, armoured envelope screened by tarpaulins. As usual, Katherine felt a rising thrill at the thought of that huge vessel lifting Father up into the sky—and a sadness too, that he was leaving her; and a fear that he might not return. “Oh, I wish I could go with you!” she said.
“Not this time, Kate,” her father told her. “One day, perhaps.”
“Is it because I’m a girl?” she asked. “But that doesn’t matter. I mean, in Ancient times women were allowed to do all the same things men did, and anyway, the air-trade is full of women pilots. You had one yourself, on the American trip, I remember seeing pictures of her…”
“It’s not that, Kate,” he said, hugging her. “It’s just that it may be dangerous. Anyway, I don’t want you to start turning into an old ragamuffin adventurer like me; I want you to stay here and finish school and become a fine, beautiful High London lady. And most of all I want you to stop Dog from peeing over all my crates of soup…”
When Dog had been dragged away and scolded they sat down together in the shadow of the hangar and Katherine said, “So will you tell me where you are going, that is so important and dangerous?”
“I am not supposed to say,” said Valentine, glancing down at her out of the corner of his eye.
“Oh, come on!” she laughed. “We’re best friends, aren’t we? You know I’d never tell anybody else. And I’m desperate to know where London is going to! Everyone at school keeps asking. We’ve been travelling east at top speed for days and days. We didn’t even stop when we ate Salthook…”
“Well, Kate,” he admitted, “the fact is, Crome has asked me to take a look into Shan Guo.”
Shan Guo was the leading nation of the Anti-Traction League, the barbarian alliance which controlled the old Indian sub-continent and what was left of China, protected from hungry cities by a great chain of mountains and swamps that marked the eastern limits of the Hunting Ground. Katherine had studied it in Geography. There was only one pass through those mountains, and it was protected by the dreadful fortress-city of Batmunkh Gompa, the Shield-Wall, beneath whose guns a hundred cities had come to grief in the first few centuries of Traction. “But why there?” she asked. “London can’t be going there!”
“I didn’t say it was,” replied Valentine. “But one day we may
to go to Shan Guo and breach the League’s defences. You know how short prey has become. Cities are starting to starve, and turn on one another.”
Katherine shivered. “But there must be some other solution,” she protested. “Can’t we talk to the Lord Mayors of other cities and work something out?”
He laughed gently. “I’m afraid Municipal Darwinism doesn’t work like that, Kate. It’s a town eat town world. But you mustn’t worry. Crome is a great man, and he will find a way.”
She nodded unhappily. Her father’s eyes had that haunted, hunted look again. He had still not confided in her about the girl assassin, and now she could tell that he was keeping something else from her, something about this expedition and the Lord Mayor’s plans for London. Was it all connected somehow? She could not ask him directly about the things she had overheard in the atrium without admitting that she had spied on him, but just to see what he would say she asked, “Does this have something to do with that awful girl? Was
from Shan Guo?”
“No,” said Valentine quickly, and she saw the colour drain from his face. “She is dead, Kate, and there is no reason to worry about her any more. Come on.” He stood up quickly. “We have a few days more together before I set off; so let’s make the most of them. We’ll sit by the fire and eat buttered toast and talk about old times, and not think about… about that poor disfigured girl.”
As they walked back hand in hand across the park a shadow slid over them; a Goshawk 90 departing from the Engineerium. “You see?” said Katherine. “The Guild of Engineers has airships of its own. I think it’s horrid of Magnus Crome, sending you away from me.”
But her father just shaded his eyes to watch as the white airship circled Top Tier and flew quickly towards the west.
Tom was dreaming of Katherine. She was walking arm in arm with him through the familiar rooms of the Museum, only there were no curators or Guildsmen about, nobody to say, “
Polish the floor, Natsworthy,”
Dust the 43rd Century glassware.”
He was showing her around the place as if he owned it, and she was smiling at him as he explained the details of the replica airships and the great cut-away model of London. Through it all a strange, moaning music sounded, and it wasn’t until they reached the Natural History gallery that they realized it was the blue whale, singing to them.
The dream faded, but the weird notes of the whale’s song lingered. He was lying on a quivering wooden deck. Wooden walls rose on either side, with morning sunlight glinting through the gaps between the planks, and overhead a mad confusion of pipes and ducts and tubes crawled over the ceiling. It was Speedwell’s plumbing, and its burblings and grumbles were what he had mistaken for the song of the whale.
He rolled over and looked around the tiny room. Hester was sitting against the far wall. She nodded when she saw that he was awake.
“Where am I?” he groaned.
“I didn’t know anybody really said that,” she said. “I thought that was just in books. ‘Where am I?’ How interesting.”
“No, really,” Tom protested, looking around at the rough walls and the narrow metal door. “Is this still Speedwell? What happened?”
“The food, of course,” she replied.
“You mean Wreyland drugged us? But why?” He got up and made his way to the door across the pitching deck. “Don’t bother,” Hester warned him, “it’s locked.” He tried it anyway. She was right. Next he stumbled over to peer through a crack in the wall. Beyond it he could see a narrow wooden walkway that flickered like a Goggle-screen picture as the shadow of one of Speedwell’s wheels flashed across it. The Out-Country was rushing past, looking much rockier and steeper than when last he saw it.
“We’ve been heading south by south east since first light,” explained Hester wearily, before he could ask. “Probably longer, but I was asleep too.”
“Where are they taking us?”
“How should I know?”
Tom sat down in a heap with his back to the shuddering wall. “That’s it then!” he said. “London must be hundreds of miles away! I’ll never get home now!”
Hester said nothing. Her face was white, making the scars stand out even more than usual, and blood had soaked into the planking around her injured leg.
An hour crawled by, and then another. Sometimes people went hurrying along the walkway outside, their shadows blocking out the skinny shafts of sunlight. The plumbing burbled to itself. At last Tom heard the sound of a padlock being undone. A hatch low down on the door popped open and a face peered in. “Everybody all right?” it asked.
“All right?” shouted Tom. “Of course we’re not all right!” He scrambled towards the door. Wreyland was on hands and knees outside, crouching down so he could see through the hatch (which Tom suspected was really a cat-flap). Behind him were the booted feet of some of his men, standing guard. “What have you done this for?” Tom asked. “We haven’t done you any harm!”
The old mayor looked embarrassed. “That’s true, dear boy, but times are hard, you see, cruel hard these days. No fun, running a traction town. We have to take what we can get. So we took you. We’re going to sell you as slaves, you see. That’s how it is. There’ll be some slaving towns at the cluster, and we’re going to sell you. It has to be done. We need spare parts for our engines, if we’re to keep a step ahead of the bigger towns…”
“Sell us?” Tom had heard of cities that used slaves to work their engine rooms, but it had always seemed like something distant and exotic that would never affect him. “I’ve got to catch London! You can’t sell me!”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll fetch a good price,” Wreyland said, as if it were something Tom should be pleased about. “A handsome, healthy lad like you. We’ll make sure you go to a good owner. I don’t know about your friend, of course: she looks half dead, and she was no oil-painting to start with. But maybe we can sell you off together, ‘buy one, get one free’ sort of thing.” He pushed two bowls through the flap, round metal bowls such as a dog would eat from. One contained water, the other more of the blue-ish algae. “Eat up!” he said cheerfully. “We want you looking nice and well-fed for the auction. We’ll be at the cluster by sundown, and sell you in the morning.”
“But…” Tom protested.
“Yes, I know, and I’m terribly sorry about it, but what can I do?” said Wreyland sadly. “Times are hard, you know.”
The hatch slammed shut. “What about my seedy?” shouted Tom. There was no answer. He heard Wreyland’s voice in the passage outside, talking to the guard, then nothing. He cupped his hands and drank some water, then took the bowl across to Hester. “We’ve got to get away!” he told her.
Tom looked around their cell. The door was no use, locked and guarded as it was. He peered up at the plumbing until he had a crick in his neck, but although some of the pipes looked big enough for a person to crawl through he could see no way to get into them, or even to reach them. Anyway, he wouldn’t have fancied crawling through whatever that thick fluid was which he could hear gurgling inside them. He turned his attention to the wall, feeling his way along the planks. At last he found one that felt slightly loose, and gradually, as he worked at it, it started to get looser still.
It was slow, hard, painful work. Tom’s fingers filled with splinters and the sweat ran down his face and he had to stop each time someone passed along the walkway outside. Hester watched silently, until he started to feel cross with her for not helping. But by evening, as the sky outside turned red and the racing townlet started to slow, he had made a gap just wide enough to get his head through.
He waited until he was sure there was no one about, then leaned out. Speedwell was passing through the shadows of some tall spines of rock, the town-gnawed cores of old mountains. Ahead lay a natural amphitheatre, a shallow bowl between more rock-spires, and it was full of towns. Tom had never seen so many trading suburbs and traction villages gathered in one place before. “We’re here!” he told Hester. “It’s the trading cluster!”
Speedwell slowed and slowed, manoeuvring into a space between a ragged little sail-powered village and a larger market town. Tom could hear the people on the new towns hailing Speedwell, asking where it had come from and what it had to trade. “Scrap metal,” he heard Mrs Wreyland bellow back, “and some wood, and a pretty seedy and two fine, fresh, healthy, young slaves!”
“Oh, Quirke!” muttered Tom, working away at enlarging the hole he had made.
“It’ll never be big enough,” said Hester, who always expected the worst and was usually right.
“You could try helping, instead of just sitting there!” Tom snapped back, but he regretted it at once, for he could see that she was very ill. He wondered what would happen if she was too weak to escape. He couldn’t run off into the Out-Country alone and leave her here. But if he stayed, he would end up as a slave on one of these filthy little towns!
He tried not to think about it and concentrated on making the hole bigger, while the sky outside grew dark and the moon rose. He could hear music and laughter drifting across the trading cluster and the sounds of gangways being run out as some of Wreyland’s people went off to enjoy themselves aboard the other towns. He scrabbled and scratched at the hole, prising at the planks, scraping at them with a rusty nail, but it was no use. At last, desperate, he turned to Hester and hissed, “Please! Help!”
The girl stood up unsteadily and walked over to where he crouched. She looked sick, but not quite as bad as he’d feared. Perhaps she had been saving herself, harbouring her last reserves of strength until it was dark enough to escape. She felt around the edges of the hole he had made and nodded. Then, leaning all her weight on Tom’s shoulder, she swung her good foot up hard against the wall. Once, twice she kicked it, the wood around the hole splintering and yielding, and at the third kick a whole section of planking fell out, spilling across the walkway outside.
“I could have done that!” said Tom, staring at the ragged hole and wondering why he hadn’t thought of it.
“But you didn’t, did you?” said Hester, and tried to smile. It was the first time he had seen her smile; an ugly, crooked thing, but very welcome; it made him feel that she was starting to like him and didn’t just regard him as an annoyance.
“Come on then,” she said, “if you’re coming.”
* * *
Hundreds of miles away across the moonlit mud, Shrike spots something. He signals to the Engineer pilots, who nod and grumble as they steer the Goshawk 90 down to land. “What now? How much longer are we going to keep flying back and forth along these track-marks before he’ll admit the kids are dead?” But they grumble quietly: they are terrified of Shrike.
The hatch opens and Shrike stalks out. His green eyes sweep from side to side until he finds what he is looking for. A rag of white fabric from a torn shirt, soggy with rain, half-buried in the mud. “HESTER SHAW WAS HERE,” he tells the Out-Country at large, and begins sniffing for her scent.