Authors: Phillip Reeve
In the dark ages before the dawn of the Traction Era, lomad empires had battled each other across the volcano-maze of Europe. It was they who had built the Stalkers, dragging dead warriors off the battlefields and bringing them back to a sort of life by wiring weird Old-Tech machines into their nervous systems.
The empires were long forgotten, but the terrible Resurrected Men were not. Tom could remember playing at being one when he was a child in the Guild Orphanage, stomping about with his arms held out straight in front of him, shouting, “I-AM-A-STAL-KER! EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” until Miss Plym came and told him to keep the noise down.
But he had never expected to meet one.
As the stolen balloon scudded eastward, on the night-wind he sat shuddering in the swaying basket, twisted sideways so that Hester wouldn’t see the wet stain on his breeches, and said, “I thought they all died hundreds of years ago! I thought they were all destroyed in battles, or went mad and tore themselves apart…”
“Not Shrike,” said Hester.
“And he knew you!”
“Of course he did,” she said. “We’re old friends, Shrike and me.”
* * *
She had met him the morning after her parents died, the morning when she woke up on the shores of the Hunting Ground in the whispering rain. She had no idea how she came to be there, and the pain in her head was so bad that she could barely move or think.
Drawn up nearby was the smallest, filthiest town that she had ever seen. People with big wicker baskets on their backs were coming down out of it on ladders and gangplanks and sifting through the flotsam on the tide-line before returning with their baskets full of scrap and driftwood. A few were carrying her father’s rowing boat away, and it wasn’t long before some of them discovered Hester. Two men came and looked down at her. One was a typical scavenger, small and filthy, with bits of an old bug piled in his basket. After he had peered at her for a while he stepped back and said to his companion, “Sorry, Mr Shrike—I thought she might be one for your collection, but she’s flesh and blood all right. …”
He turned and stumped away across the steaming garbage, losing all interest in Hester. He only wanted stuff he could he could sell, and there was no value in a half-dead child. Old bug tyres, now—
were worth something…
The other man stayed where he was, looking down at Hester. It was only when he reached down and touched her face and she felt the cold, hard iron beneath his gloves that she realized he was not really a man at all. When he spoke, his voice sounded like a wire brush being scraped across a blackboard. “YOU CAN’T STAY HERE, CHILD,” he said, and picked her up and slung her over his shoulder and took her aboard the town.
It was called Strole, and it was home to fifty tough, dust-hardened scavengers who robbed Old-Tech sites when they could find them and scrounged salvage from the leavings of larger towns when they could not. Shrike lived with them, but he was no scavenger. When criminals from one of the great Traction Cities escaped into the Out-Country, Shrike would track them and cut off their heads, which he carefully preserved. When he crossed that city’s path again he would take the head to the authorities, and collect his reward.
Why he bothered to rescue her Hester never did discover. It could not have been out of pity, for he had none. The only sign of tenderness she ever saw in him was when he busied himself with his collection. He was fascinated by old automata and mechanical toys, and he would buy any that passing scavengers brought to him. His ramshackle quarters in Strole were full of them: animals, knights in armour, clockwork soldiers with keys in their backs, even a life-size Angel of Death pulled from some elaborate clock. But his favourites were all women or children: beautiful ladies in moth-eaten gowns and pretty girls and boys with porcelain faces. All night long Shrike would patiently dismantle and repair them, exploring the intricate escapements of their hearts as if searching for some clue to the workings of his own.
Sometimes it seemed to Hester that she too was part of his collection. Did she remind him of the wounds that he had suffered on the battlefields of forgotten wars, when he had still been human?
She shared his home for five long years, while her face healed badly into a permanent ruined scowl and her memories came slowly back to her. Some were startl-ingly clear, the waves on the shores of Oak Island, her mum’s voice, the moor-wind with its smells of wet grass and the dung of animals. Others were murky and hard to understand; they flashed into her mind just as she was falling asleep, or caught her unawares while she wandered amongst the silent mechanical figures in Shrike’s house. Blood on the star-charts. A metallic noise. A man’s long, handsome face with sea-grey eyes. They were broken shards of memory, and they had to be carefully collected and pieced together, just like the bits of machinery the scavengers dug up.
It was not until she overheard some men telling stories about the great Thaddeus Valentine that she started to make sense of it all. She found that she recognized that name: it was the name of the man who had killed her mum and dad and turned her into a monster. She knew what she had to do without even having to think about it. She went to Shrike and told him she wanted to go after Valentine.
“YOU MUST NOT,” was all the Stalker said. “YOU’LL BE KILLED.”
“Then come with me!” she had pleaded, but he would not. He had heard about London and about Magnus Crome’s love of technology. He thought that if he went there the Guild of Engineers would overpower him and cut him into pieces to study in their secret laboratories. “YOU MUST NOT GO,” was all that he would say.
So she went anyway, waiting till he was busy with his automata, then slipping out of a window and out of Strole, and setting off across the wintry Out-Country with a stolen knife in her belt, in search of London and revenge.
* * *
“I’ve never seen him since that,” she told Tom, shivering in the basket of the stolen balloon. “Strole was down on the shores of the Anglish Sea when I left, but here Shrike is, working for Magnus Crome, and wanting to kill me. It doesn’t make sense!”
“Maybe you hurt his feelings when you ran away?” suggested Tom.
“Shrike doesn’t have feelings,” said Hester. “They cleaned all
memories and feelings away when they made a Stalker of him.”
She sounds as if she envies him, thought Tom. But at least the sound of her voice had helped to calm him, and he had stopped shaking. He sat and listened to the wind sigh through the balloon’s rigging. There was a black stain on the western clouds which he thought must be the smoke from Airhaven. Had the aviators managed to get the fires under control, or had their town been destroyed? And what about Anna Fang? He realized that Shrike had probably murdered her, along with all her friends. That kind, laughing aviatrix was dead, as dead as his own parents. It was as if there was a curse on him that destroyed everybody who was kind to him. If only he had never met Valentine! If only he had stayed safely in the Museum where he belonged!
“She might be all right,” said Hester suddenly, as if she had guessed what he was thinking about. “I think Shrike was just playing with her; he didn’t have his claws out or anything.”
“He’s got claws? ”
“As long as she didn’t annoy him too much he probably wouldn’t waste time killing her.”
“What about Airhaven?”
“I suppose if it’s really badly damaged it’ll put down somewhere for repairs.”
Tom nodded. Then a happy thought occurred to him. “Do you think Miss Fang’11 come after us?”
“I don’t know,” said Hester. “But Shrike will.”
Tom looked over his shoulder again, horrified.
“Still,” she said, “at least we’re heading in the right direction for London.”
He peered gingerly over the edge of the basket. The clouds lay below them like a white eiderdown drawn across the land, hiding anything that might give a clue as to where they were, or where they were going. “How can you tell?” he asked.
“From the stars, of course,” said Hester. “Mum showed me. She was an aviator, too, remember? She’d been all over the place. She even went to America once. You have to use the stars to find your way in places like that where they don’t have charts or landmarks. Look, that’s the Pole Star, and that constellation is what the Ancients used to call the Great Bear, but most people nowadays call it the City. And if we keep
one to starboard we’ll know we’re heading north-east…”
“There are so many!” he said, trying to follow her pointing finger. Here above the clouds, without veils of city-smoke and Out-Country dust to hide it, the night sky sparkled with a million cold points of light. “I never knew there were so many stars before!”
“They’re all suns, burning away far out in space, thousands and thousands of miles away,” said Hester, and Tom had the feeling that she felt proud to show him how much she knew. “Except for the ones that aren’t really stars at all. Some of the really bright ones are mechanical moons that the Ancients put up into orbit thousands of years ago, still circling and circling the poor old Earth.”
Tom stared up at the glittering dark. “And what’s that one?” he asked, pointing to a bright star low in the west.
Hester looked at it, and her smile faded away. He saw her hands clench into fists. “That one?” she said. “That’s an airship, and it’s coming after us.”
“Perhaps Miss Fang has come to rescue us?” said Tom hopefully.
But the distant airship was gaining quickly, and in another few minutes they could see that it was a small, London-built scoutship, a Spudbury Sunbeam or a Goshawk 90. They could almost feel Shrike’s green eyes watching them across the deserts of the sky.
Hester started fumbling with the rusty wheels and levers that controlled the gas-pressure in the balloon. After a few seconds she found the one she wanted and a fierce hiss came from somewhere overhead.
“What are you doing?” squeaked Tom. “You’ll let the gas out! We’ll crash!”
“I’m hiding us from Shrike,” said the girl, and opened the valve still further. Looking up, Tom saw the gasbag start to sag. He glanced back at the pursuing airship. It was gaining, but it was still a few miles away. Hopefully from that distance it would look as if some accident had struck the balloon. Hopefully Shrike would not guess Hester’s plan. Hopefully his little ship was not armed with rocket-projectors…
And then they sank down into the clouds and could see nothing but swirling dark billows and sometimes a quick glimpse of the moon scudding dimly above them. The basket creaked and the envelope flapped and the gas-valve hissed like a tetchy snake.
“When we touch down, get out of the basket as quick as you can,” said Hester.
“Yes,” he said, and then, “but… you mean we’re going to leave the balloon?”
“We don’t stand a chance against Shrike in the air,” she explained. “Hopefully on the ground I can outwit him.”
“On the ground?” cried Tom. “Oh, not the Out-Country again!”
The balloon was sinking fast. They saw the black landscape looming up below, dark blots of vegetation and a few thin glimmers of moonlight. Overhead, thick clouds were racing into the east. There was no sign of Shrike’s airship. Tom braced himself. The ground was a hundred feet below, then fifty, then ten. Branches came rattling and scraping along the keel and the basket bucked and plunged, crashing against muddy earth and leaping up into the sky and down again and up.
“Jump!” screamed Hester, the next time it touched down. He jumped, falling through scratchy branches into a soft mattress of mud. The balloon shot upwards again and for a moment he was afraid that Hester had abandoned him to perish on the bare earth. “Hester!” he shouted, so loud it hurt his throat. “Hester!” And then there was a rustling in the scrub away to his left and she was limping towards him. “Oh, thank Quirke!” he whispered.
He expected her to stop and sit down with him to rest a while and thank the gods for dropping them on to soft, wet earth instead of hard stone. Instead, she walked straight past him, limping away towards the north-east.
“Stop!” shouted Tom, still too winded and shivery to even stand. “Wait! Where are you going?”
She looked back at him as if he were mad. “London,” she said.
Tom rolled on to his back and groaned, gathering his strength for another weary trek.
Above him, freed of their weight, the balloon was returning to the sky, a dark tear-drop that was quickly swallowed into the belly of the clouds. A few moments later he heard the purr of engines as Shrike’s airship went hurrying after it. Then there was only the night and the cold wind, and rags of moonlight prowling the broken hills.
Katherine decided to start at the top. The day after her father left London she sent a message up the pneumatic tube system to the Lord Mayor’s office from the terminal in her father’s room, and half an hour later a reply came back from Crome’s secretary: the Lord Mayor would see Miss Valentine at noon.
Katherine went to her dressing room and put on her most businesslike clothes—her narrow black trousers and her grey coat with the shoulder-fins. She tied back her hair with a clip made from the tail-lights of an ancient car and fetched out a stylish hat with trailing ear-flaps which she had bought six weeks before but hadn’t got round to wearing yet. She put colour on her lips and soft oblongs of rouge high on her cheekbones and painted a little blue triangle between her eyebrows, a mock Guild-mark like the fashionable ladies wore. She found a notebook and a pencil and slipped them both into one of Father’s important-looking black briefcases along with the pass he had given her on her fifteenth birthday, the gold pass which allowed her access to almost every part of London. Then she studied her appearance in the mirror, imagining herself a few weeks from now going to meet the returning expedition. She would be able to tell Father, “
It’s all right now, I understand everything; you needn’t be afraid any more…”
At a quarter to twelve she walked with Dog to the elevator station in Quirke Circus, enjoying the looks that people gave her as she passed. “There goes Miss Katherine Valentine,” she imagined them saying. “Off to see the Lord Mayor…” The elevator staff all knew her face, and they smiled and said, “Good morning, Miss Katherine,” and patted Dog and didn’t bother looking at her pass as she boarded the 11.52 for Top Tier.
The elevator hummed upwards. She walked briskly across Paternoster Square, where Dog stared thoughtfully at the wheeling pigeons and pricked up his ears at the sounds of the repair-work going on inside St Paul’s. Soon she was climbing the steps of the Guildhall and being ushered into a tiny internal elevator, and at one minute to twelve she was shown through the circular bronze door of the Lord Mayor’s private office.
“Ah, Miss Valentine. You are one minute early.” Crome glanced up at her from the far side of his huge desk and went back to the report that he had been reading. Behind his head was a round window with a view of St Paul’s, looking wavery and unreal through the thick glass, like a sunken temple seen through clear water. Sunlight shone dimly on the tarnished bronze panels of the office walls. There were no pictures, no hangings or decorations of any sort, and the floor was bare metal. Katherine shivered, feeling the cold rise up through the soles of her shoes.
The Lord Mayor kept her waiting for fifty-nine silent seconds which seemed to stretch on for ever. She was feeling thoroughly uncomfortable by the time he set down the report. He smiled faintly, like somebody who had never seen a smile, but had read a book on how to do it.
“You will be glad to hear that I have just received a coded radio signal sent from your father’s expedition shortly before he flew out of range,” he said. “All is well aboard the
13th Floor Elevator.”
“Good!” said Katherine, knowing that it would be the last she would hear of Father until he was on his way home; even the Engineers had never been able to send radio signals more than a few hundred miles.
“Was there anything else?” asked Crome.
“Yes…” said Katherine, and hesitated, afraid that she was going to sound foolish. Faced with Crome’s cold office and still colder smile she found herself wishing she had not put on so much make-up or worn these stiff, formal clothes. But this was what she had come here for, after all. She blurted out, “I want to know about that girl, and why she tried to kill my father.”
The Lord Mayor’s smile vanished. “Your father has never seen fit to tell me who she is. I have no idea why she is so keen to murder him.”
“Do you think it is something to do with MEDUSA?”
Crome’s gaze grew a few degrees colder. “That matter does not concern you!” he snapped. “What has Valentine told you?”
“Nothing!” said Katherine, getting flustered. “But I can see he’s scared, and I need to know why, because…”
“Listen to me, child,” said Crome, standing up and coming around the desk at her. Thin hands gripped her shoulders. “If Valentine has secrets from you it is for good reason. There are aspects of his work that you could not begin to understand. Remember, he started out with nothing; he was a mere Out-Country scavenger before I took an interest in him. Do you want to see him reduced to that again? Or worse?”
Katherine felt as if he had slapped her. Her face burnt red with anger, but she controlled herself.
“Go home and wait for his return,” ordered Crome. “And leave grown-up matters to those who understand them. Don’t speak to anyone about the girl, or MEDUSA.”
thought Katherine angrily. “
How old does he think I am?”
But she bowed her head and said meekly, “Yes, Lord Mayor,” and “Come along, Dog.”
“And do not bring that animal to Top Tier again,” called Crome, his voice following her into the outer office, where the secretaries turned to stare at her furious, tearful face.
Riding the elevator back to Quirke Circus, she whispered in her wolfs ear, “We’ll show him, Dog!”
* * *
Instead of going straight home she called in at the Temple of Clio on the edge of Circle Park. There in the scented darkness she calmed herself and tried to work out what to do next.
Ever since Nikolas Quirke had been declared a god, most Londoners had stopped giving much thought to the older gods and goddesses, and so Katherine had the temple to herself. She liked Clio, who had been her mother’s goddess back in Puerto Angeles, and whose statue looked a bit like Mama too, with its kind dark eyes and patient smile. She remembered what Mama had taught her, about how the poor goddess was being blown constantly backwards into the future by the storm of progress, but how she could reach back sometimes and inspire people to change the whole course of history. Looking up now at the statue’s gentle face she said, “What must I do, Clio? How can I help Father if the Lord Mayor won’t tell me anything?”
She hadn’t really expected an answer, and none came, so she said a quick prayer for Father and another for poor Tom Natsworthy, and made her offerings and left.
It wasn’t until she was halfway back to Clio House that the idea struck her, a thought so unexpected that it could have been sent to her by the goddess herself. She remembered how, as she ran towards the waste chutes on the night Tom fell, she had passed someone heading in the other direction; a young Apprentice Engineer, looking so white and shocked that she was
he must have witnessed what happened.
She hurried homeward through the sunlit park. That young Engineer would have the answer! She would go back to the Gut and find him! She would find out what was going on without any help from wicked old Magnus Crome!