Authors: Phillip Reeve
Tom and Hester had walked all night, and when the pale, flat sun rose behind drifts of morning fog they kept walking, stopping only now and then to catch their breath. This landscape was quite different from the mud-plains they had crossed a few days ago. Here they had to keep making detours around bogs and pools of brackish water, and although they sometimes stumbled into the deep, weed-choked scars of old town-tracks it was clear that no town had been this way for many years. “See how the scrub has grown up,” said Hester, pointing out ruts filled with brambles and hillsides green with young trees. “Even a little semi-static would have felled those saplings for fuel.”
“Perhaps the earth here is just too soft,” suggested Tom, sinking to his waist for the twentieth time in the thick mud. He was recalling the huge map of the Hunting Ground that hung in the lobby of the London Museum, and the great sweep of marsh-country that stretched all the way from the central mountains to the shores of the Sea of Khazak, mile after mile of reed-beds and thin blue creeks and all of it marked, Unsuitable for Town or City. He said, “I think this must be the edge of the Rustwater Marshes. They call it that because the water is supposed to be stained red with the rust of towns that have strayed into it and sunk. Only the most foolhardy mayor would bring his town here.”
“Then Wreyland and Anna Fang brought us much further south than I thought,” whispered Hester to herself. “London must be almost a thousand miles away by now. It’ll take months to catch it up again, and Shrike will be on my tail the whole way.”
“But you fooled him!” Tom reminded her. “We escaped!”
“He won’t stay fooled for long,” she said. “He’ll soon pick up our tracks again. Why do you think he’s called a Stalker?”
* * *
On and on she led him, dragging him over hills and through mires and down valleys where the air was speckly with swarms of whining, stinging flies. They both grew weary and peevish. Once Tom suggested they sit down and rest a while, and Hester snapped back, “Do what you like. What do I care?” After that he trudged on in silence, angry at her. What a horrible, ugly, vicious, self-pitying girl she was! After all they had come through, and the way he had helped her in the Out-Country, she was still ready to abandon him. He wished Shrike had got her and it was Miss Fang or Khora who he had escaped with. They would have let him rest his aching feet…
But he was glad enough of Hester when the darkness fell, when thick clots of fog rose out of the marshes like the ghosts of mammoths and every rustle in the undergrowth sounded like a Stalker’s footfall. She found a place for them to spend the night, in the shelter of some stunted trees, and later, when the sudden shriek of a hunting owl brought him leaping out of his uneasy sleep he found her sitting guard beside him like a friendly gargoyle. “It’s all right,” she told him. And after a moment, in one of those sudden flashes of softness that he had noticed before, she said, “I miss them, Tom. My mum and dad.”
“I know,” he said. “I miss mine too.”
“You’ve got no family at all in London?”
He thought about it. “Not really.”
“Who was that girl?’ she asked, after a little while.
“In the Gut that night, with you and Valentine.”
“That was Katherine,” he said. “She’s… Well, she’s Valentine’s daughter.”
Hester nodded. “She’s pretty,” she said.
After that he slept easier, dreaming that Katherine was coming down to rescue them in an airship, carrying them back into the crystal light above the clouds. When he next opened his eyes it was dawn and Hester was shaking him.
He listened, and heard a sound that was not the sound of woods or water.
“Is it a town?” he asked hopefully.
“No…” Hester tilted her head to one side, tasting the sound. “It’s a Rotwang aero-engine…”
It grew louder, throbbing down out of the sky. Above the swirling mist a London scoutship flickered by.
They froze, hoping that the wet black cage of branches overhead would hide them. The growl of the airship faded and then rose again, circling. “Shrike can see us,” whispered Hester, staring up at the blind, white fog. “I can feel him watching us…”
“No, no,” Tom insisted. “If we can’t see the airship, how can he see us? It stands to reason…”
* * *
But high overhead the Resurrected Man tunes his eyes to ultra-red and switches on his heat-sensors and sees two glowing human shapes amid the soft grey static of the trees. “TAKE ME CLOSER, ” he orders.
“If you can see them so clearly now,” the airship’s pilot grumbles, “it’s a pity you couldn’t tell that bloomin’ balloon was empty before we went chasing it across half the Hunting Ground.”
Shrike says nothing. Why should he explain himself to this whining Once-born? He had seen that the balloon was empty as soon as it popped back up above the clouds, but he had decided to keep it to himself. He was pleased at Hester Shaw’s quick thinking, and he decided to let her live a few more hours as a reward, while this slow-witted Engineer-aviator pursued her empty balloon.
He flicks his eyes back to their normal setting. He will hunt Hester the hard way, with scent and sound and ordinary vision. He calls up a memory of her face and sets it turning in his mind as the airship sweeps down through the fog.
* * *
“Run!” said Hester. The airship loomed out of the whiteness a few yards away, settling towards the ground with its rotors beating the fog like egg-whisks. She hauled Tom out of their useless hiding place and away across sodden ground, knuckled with tree-roots. White scuts of water spurted at every step, and black slime gurgled into their boots. They ran blindly, until Hester came to such an abrupt stop that Tom crashed into her from behind and they both went sprawling.
They had come in a circle. The airship hung just ahead of them, and a giant shape barred their path. Two beams of pale green light stabbed towards them, filled with dancing water droplets. “HESTER,” grated a metal voice.
Hester groped for something she could use as a weapon and came up with a gnarled old length of wood. “Don’t come any closer, Shrike!” she warned. “I’ll smash those pretty green eyes of yours! I’ll bash your brains out!”
“Come on!” squeaked Tom, plucking at her coat and trying to drag her away.
“Where to?” asked Hester, risking a quick glance back at him. She shifted her grip on the makeshift club and stood her ground as Shrike stalked closer.
“YOU HAVE DONE WELL, HESTER, BUT THE HUNT IS ENDED.” The Stalker was moving carefully over the wet ground. Each time he set down his metal foot a wreath of steam hissed up. He raised his hands and claw-like blades slid out.
“What made you change your mind about London, Shrike?” shouted Hester angrily. “How do you come to be Crome’s odd-job man?”
LED ME TO LONDON, HESTER.” Shrike paused, and his dead face widened in a steely smile, “I KNEW YOU WOULD GO THERE. I SOLD MY COLLECTION AND CHARTERED AN AIRSHIP SO THAT I COULD GET THERE BEFORE YOU.”
“You sold your clockwork people?” Hester sounded astonished. “Shrike, if you wanted me back that badly, why didn’t you just track me down?”
“L DECIDED TO LET YOU CROSS THE HUNTING GROUND ALONE,” said Shrike. “IT WAS A TEST.”
“Did I pass?”
Shrike ignored her. “WHEN I REACHED LONDON I WAS TAKEN STRAIGHT TO THE ENGINEERIUM, AS I EXPECTED. 1 SPENT EIGHTEEN MONTHS THERE WAITING FOR YOU TO ARRIVE. THE ENGINEERS TOOK ME APART AND PUT ME TOGETHER AGAIN A DOZEN TIMES. BUT IT WAS WORTH IT. I MADE A DEAL WITH MAGNUS CROME. HE HAS PROMISED ME MY HEART’S DESIRE.”
“Oh, good,” said Hester weakly, wondering what on earth he was talking about.
“BUT FIRST YOU MUST DIE.”
“But Shrike, why?”
The reply was drowned out by a thick, warbling hum that made Tom wonder if the Stalker’s airship was about to lift off without him. He glanced up at it. It was still holding the same position as before, but the steady chirrup of the propellers had been masked by the new noise, a rumbling, slithering roar that grew louder every second. Even Shrike seemed disturbed: his eyes flickered and he tilted his head to one side, listening. Underfoot, the ground began to tremble.
Out of the fog behind the Stalker burst a wall of mud and water, curling over at the top, capped with white foam. Behind it came a town, a very small, old-fashioned town, racing along on eight fat wheels. Hester scrambled backwards, and Shrike saw the look on her face and turned to see what caused it. Tom dived sideways, grabbing the girl by the scruff of her neck and hurling her to safety. The airship tried to veer away but the wheels of the speeding town caught it and blew it apart and ploughed the blazing debris down into the mud. An instant later they heard the Stalker bellow “HESTER!” as the huge front wheel came crashing down on him.
They clung together, rolling over and over as the town howled past, a flicker of spokes and pistons, firelight on metal, tiny figures staring down from observation decks, the long-drawn-out moan of a klaxon echoing through the fog. Then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone. The air stank of smoke and hot metal.
They sat up. Bits of airship were drifting down, blazing merrily. Where the Stalker had been standing a deep wheel-mark was quickly filling with black, glistening mud. Something which might have been an iron hand jutted from the ooze and a pale cloud of steam rose into the air above it and slowly faded.
asked Tom, his voice all quivery with fright.
“A town just ran over him,” said Hester. “I shouldn’t think he’s very well…”
Tom wondered dimly what Shrike had meant about his “heart’s desire”. Why would he have sold his precious collection to come after Hester if all he wanted to do was kill her? There was no way of knowing now. “And the poor men on that airship…” he whispered.
“They were sent to help him kill us, Natsworthy,” said the girl. “Don’t waste your pity on them.”
They were quiet for a moment, staring at the mist. Then Tom said, “I wonder what it was running from?”
“What do you mean?”
“That town,” said Tom. “It was moving so fast… Something must be chasing it…”
Hester looked at him and slowly realized what he meant.
“Oh, knackers!” she said.
The second town was upon them almost at once. It was bigger than the first, with vast, barrel-shaped wheels. On its gaping jaws some wag had drawn a toothy grin and the words,
There was no time to run out of its way. Hester grabbed Tom this time and he saw her shouting something, but the shrieking thunder of the engines meant that it took him a moment to work out what it was.
“We can jump it! Do as I do!”
The town rolled over them, its wheels passing on either side so that they were lifted up like two ants in the path of a plough, lifted on a wave of mud that almost smashed them against the lumbering metal belly overhead. Hester crouched on the crest of the wave like a surfer and Tom wobbled beside her, expecting at any moment to be swatted out of his life by a passing derrick or hurled under the wheels. Hester was shouting at him again, and pointing. An exhaust duct was rushing past them like a monstrous snake, and by the flare of furnace-light from vents on the town’s underside he made out the handrail of a maintenance platform. Hester grabbed at it and swung herself up, and Tom flung himself after her. For a moment his hands clutched wildly at nothing, then there was rusty iron under his fingers, almost jerking his arms from their sockets, and Hester reached down and took a firm grip on his belt and hauled him to safety.
It was a long time before they stopped shaking and clambered to their feet. They both looked as if they had been modelled crudely from the Out-Country mud; it covered their clothes and clagged in their hair and plastered their faces. Tom was laughing helplessly at the closeness of their escape and at the sheer surprise of finding himself still alive, and Hester laughed with him. He had never heard her laugh before, and he had never felt as close to anyone as he felt to her at that moment.
“We’ll be all right!” she said. “We’ll be all right now! Let’s go up and find out who we’ve hitched a lift with!”
* * *
Whatever the town was, it was small, only a suburb really. Tom amused himself by trying to work out what it might be while Hester picked the lock on a hatchway and led him up a long stairwell with rusty walls that steamed in the heat from the engines. He thought it looked a bit like Crawley, or Purley Spokes, the suburbs that London had built back in the great old days when there was so much prey that cities could afford to build little satellite towns. If so, it might have its own merchant airships, licensed to trade with London.
But something still nagged at the back of his mind. Only the most foolhardy mayor would bring his town here…
Why on earth would Crawley or Purley Spokes be chasing a townlet into the dreaded Rustwater Marshes?
They climbed on up the stairwell until they reached a second hatch. It wasn’t locked, and swung open to let them out on to the upper deck. A cold wind blew fog between the metal buildings and the deckplates shook and lurched as the suburb raced onwards. The streets seemed deserted, but Tom knew that small towns often had only a few hundred inhabitants. Perhaps they were all busy in the engine-rooms, or waiting safe indoors until the chase was over.
But there was something about this place he didn’t like; it certainly wasn’t the trim little suburb he had been hoping for. The deckplates were rusty and pitted and the shabby houses were dwarfed by huge auxiliary engines that had been ripped out of other towns and bolted haphazardly to this one, linked to the main engines on the deck below by a cat’s-cradle of gigantic ducts that wrapped around the buildings and burrowed down through holes cut in the deckplate. Beyond them, where Tom would have expected parks and observation platforms, a mess of gun-emplacements and wooden palisades ringed the edge of the suburb.