Authors: Phillip Reeve
A few hours later, as the evening mists came curling from the Rustwater Marshes, Tunbridge Wheels rolled down to the edge of the sea. It paused there a while, gazing out towards a cluster of islands that rose dark and rugged from the silver water. Birds were streaming in off the sea in long skeins and as the suburb cut its engines the beat of their wings came echoing over the mudflats. Small waves beat steadily against the shore and a wind from the east blew hissing through the thin, grey marram grass. There was no other sound, no other movement, no light or smoke-trail of a wandering town anywhere on the marshes or the sea.
“Natswurvy!” shouted Chrysler Peavey, standing with a telescope to his eye at the window of his observation bridge, high in the Town Hall. “Where is the lad? Pass the word for Natswurvy!” When a couple of his pirates ushered Tom and Hester in he turned with a broad grin and held out the telescope, saying, “Take a look, Tommy boy! I told you I’d get you here, didn’t I? I told you I’d get you through these marshes safe? Now, have a look at where we’re going!”
Tom took the telescope and put it to his eye, blinking at the trembling, blurred circle of view until it came clear. There were dozens of little islands speckling the sea ahead, and a larger one which loomed in the east like the back of an enormous prehistoric monster breaking the water.
He lowered the telescope and shuddered. “But there’s nothing there…” he said.
* * *
It had taken more than a week for Tunbridge Wheels to pick its slow way through the quagmire, and although Chrysler Peavey had taken quite a shine to Tom he had still not explained what he hoped to find on the far side. His men had not been told either, but they were happy enough snapping up the tiny townships which had taken shelter in the mazes of the Rustwater, semi-static places with moss-covered wheels and delicate, beautiful carvings on their wooden upperworks. They were so small that they were barely worth eating, but Tunbridge Wheels ate them anyway, and murdered or enslaved their people and fed the lovely carvings to its furnaces.
It was a horrible, confusing time for Tom. He had been brought up to believe that Municipal Darwinism was a noble, beautiful system, but he could see nothing noble or beautiful about Tunbridge Wheels.
He was still an honoured guest in the Town Hall, and so was Hester, although Peavey clearly didn’t understand his attachment to the scarred, sullen, silent girl. “Why don’cha ask my Cortina out?” he wheedled one night, sitting next to Tom in the old council chamber that was now his dining hall. “Or why not one of them girls we took off the last catch? Lovely lookers they was, an’ not a word of Anglish, so they can’t give you any lip…”
“Hester isn’t my girlfriend!” Tom started to say, but he didn’t want to have to go out with the mayor’s daughter and he knew Peavey would never understand the truth; that he was in love with the image of Katherine Valentine, whose face had hung in his mind like a lantern through all the miles of his adventures. So he said, “Hester and I have been through a lot together, Mr Peavey. I promised I’d help her catch up with London.”
“But that was before,” the mayor reasoned. “You’re a Tunbridge-Wheelsian now. You’re going to stay here with me, like the son I never had, and I’m just thinking that maybe the lads would accept you a bit more easily if you had a better-looking girl; you know, more lady-like.”
Tom looked across the clutter of tables and saw the other pirates glaring at him, fingering their knives. He knew that they would never accept him. They hated him for being a soft city-dweller, and for being Peavey’s favourite, and he couldn’t really blame them.
Later, in the little room he shared with Hester, he said, “We have to get off this town. The pirates don’t like us, and they’re starting to get tired of Peavey going on at them about manners and stuff. I don’t even like to think about what will happen to us if they mutiny.”
“Let’s wait and see,” muttered the girl, curled up in a far corner. “Peavey’s tough, and he’ll be able to keep his lads in line as long as he finds them this big catch he’s been promising. But Quirke alone knows what it is.”
“We’ll find out tomorrow,” said Tom, drifting into an uneasy sleep. “This time tomorrow these horrible bogs will be behind us…”
* * *
This time tomorrow, and the horrible bogs were behind them. As Peavey’s navigator spread out his maps in the observation bridge a strange hissing sound echoed up the stairwells of the Town Hall. Tom glanced up at the faces of Peavey’s henchmen as they clustered around the chart-table, but apart from Hester no one seemed to have heard it. She looked nervously at him and shrugged.
The navigator was a thin, bespectacled man named Mr Ames. He had been the suburb’s schoolteacher until Peavey took over. Now he was settling happily into his new life as a pirate: it was a lot more fun, and the hours were better, and Peavey’s ruffians were better behaved than most of his old pupils. Smoothing his maps with his long, thin hands he said, “It used to be the hunting ground for hundreds of little aquatic towns, but they all ate each other, and now Anti-Tractionist squatters have started coming down out of the mountains and setting up home on islands like this one…”
Tom craned closer. The great inland Sea of Khazak was speckled with dozens of islands, but the one Ames was pointing to was the biggest, a tattered diamond shape some twenty miles long. He couldn’t imagine what was so interesting about it, and most of the other pirates looked baffled too, but Peavey was chuckling and rubbing his hands together in glee.
“The Black Island,” he said. “Not much to look at, is it? But it’s goin’ ter make us rich, boys, rich. After tonight, ol’ Tunbridge Wheels’11 be able to set up as a proper city.”
“How?” demanded Mungo, the pirate who trusted Chrysler Peavey least, and most resented Tom. “There’s nothing there, Peavey. Just a few old trees and some worthless Mossies.”
“What are ‘Mossies’?” Tom whispered to Hester.
“He means people who live in static settlements,” she hissed back. “You know, like in that old saying, ‘A rolling town gathers no moss…’ ”
“The fact is, ladies and gentlemen,” announced Peavey, “that there
something on the Black Island. A few days ago—just before you come aboard, Tom—we shot down an airship that was footling about over the marshes. Its crew told me something very interesting before we killed ’em. It seems there’s been a big battle up in Airhaven; fires, engine-damage, gas-spills, the whole place knocked about so bad they couldn’t stay up in the sky but had to come down for repairs. And where d’you fink they’ve landed?”
“The Black Island?” suggested Tom, guessing as much from Peavey’s greedy grin.
“That’s my boy, Tommy! There’s an air-caravanserai there, where sky-convoys refuel on their way up from the League’s lands south of the mountains. That’s where Airhaven’s put down. They think they’re safe, with sea all round them and their Mossie friends to help ’em. But they ain’t safe from Tunbridge Wheels!”
A ripple of excitement ran through the assembled pirates. Tom turned to Hester, but she was staring out across the sea towards the distant island. Half of him was appalled by the thought that the lovely flying town was lying crippled there, waiting to be eaten—the other half was busy wondering how on earth Peavey planned to reach it.
“To yer stations, me hearties!” the pirate mayor yelled. “Fire up the engines! Prime the guns! By dawn tomorrow, we’ll all be rich!”
The pirates scrambled to obey his orders, and Tom ran to the window. It was almost dark outside now, with a last ominous glow of sunset bruising the sky above the marshes. But the streets of Tunbridge Wheels were full of light, and all around the edge of the suburb huge orange shapes were unfolding, growing like fungus in a speeded-up film. Now the hissing from the lower deck made sense; while Peavey talked his town had been busily pumping air into flotation chambers and these inflatable rubber skirts.
“Let’s go swimmin’!” shouted the pirate mayor, sitting back in his swivel chair and signalling the engine rooms. The huge motors rumbled into life, a plume of exhaust gases drifted aft, and Tunbridge Wheels surged forward across the beach and into the sea.
* * *
At first all went well; nothing stirred on the darkening waters as Tunbridge Wheels went chugging eastward, and up ahead the Black Island grew steadily larger. Tom opened a small side window on the bridge and stood there feeling the salt night air spill over him, feeling strangely excited. He could see pirates gathering in the old market square at the suburb’s forward end, readying grappling hooks and boarding ladders, because Airhaven would be far too large to fit into the jaws—they would have to take it by force and tear it apart at their leisure. He didn’t like the idea, especially when he remembered that his aviator friends might still be on Airhaven, but it was a town eat town world, after all—and there was something exciting about the cut-throat recklessness of Peavey’s plan.
And then suddenly something fell out of the sky and exploded in the market square, and there was a black gash in the deck and the men he had been watching weren’t there any more. Others came running with buckets and fire extinguishers. “Airship! Airship! Airship!” someone was shouting, and then there were more rushing things and buildings were exploding all over the suburb, with people flung tumbling high up into the air like mad acrobats.
“For Sooty Pete’s sake!” shouted Peavey, running to the shattered observation window and staring down into the smoke-filled streets. His monkey jumped up and down on his shoulders, jabbering. “These Mossies are better organized than we gave ’em credit for,” he said. “Searchlights, quick!”
Two wavering fingers of light rose above the town, feeling their way across the smoke-dappled sky. Where they met, Tom saw a fat rising shape shine briefly red. The suburb’s guns swung upward and fired a rippling broadside, and pulses of flame stalked the drifting clouds.
“Missed!” hissed Peavey, squinting through his telescope. “Curse it, I should have known Airhaven would send up spotter ships. And if I’m not mistaken it was that witch Fang’s old rustbucket!”
“The Jenny Haniverl” gasped Tom.
“No need to sound so pleased about it,” snarled Peavey. “She’s a menace. Ain’t you heard of the Wind-Flower?”
Tom hadn’t told the pirate mayor of his adventures aboard Airhaven. He tried to hide his happiness at the thought that Miss Fang was still alive and said, “I’ve
of her. She’s an air-trader…”
“Oh, yeah?” Peavey spat on the deck. “You think a trader carries that sort of fire-power? She’s one of the Anti-Traction League’s top agents. She’ll stop at nothing to hurt us poor traction towns. It was her who planted the bomb that sank Marseilles, and her what strangled the poor Sultana of Palau Pinang. She’s got the blood of a thousand murdered townsfolk on her hands! Still, we’ll show her, won’t we, Tommy boy? I’ll have her guts for goulash! I’ll hang her carcass out for the buzzards! Mungo! Pogo! Maggs! An extra cut of the spoils to whoever shoots down that red airship!”
No one did shoot down that red airship; it was long out of range, buzzing back towards the Black Island to warn Airhaven of the approaching danger. But Tom could not have been more filled with grief and anger if he had seen it falling in flames. So that was why Miss Fang had rescued him, and been so kind! All she had wanted was information for the League—and her friend Captain Khora had been in on it, spinning that tale about her just to win Tom’s sympathy. Thank Quirke he had not been able to tell her anything!
Tunbridge Wheels was battered and burning, but the Jenny Haniver’s rockets had been too small to do any serious damage, and now that the element of surprise was lost Miss Fang did not risk another attack. The suburb chugged on into the east, pushing a thick bore of flame-lit water ahead of it. Tom could see lights on the Black Island now, lanterns flickering along the shore. Closer, between the island and the suburb, shone another cluster of lights. “Boats!” shouted Mungo, peering through the sights of his gun.
Peavey went and stood at the window, robes flapping on the rising breeze. “Fishing fleet!” he grunted, sounding satisfied. “First meal of the night; we’ll eat ’em up by way of an
That’s ‘starters’ to you lot.”
The fishing-boats started scattering as Tunbridge Wheels bore down, running goose-winged for the shelter of the shore, but one, bigger and slower than the rest, sagged away to windward. “We’ll have him,” growled Peavey, and Maggs relayed his order into the intercom. The suburb changed course slightly, engines grumbling. The steep crags of the Black Island filled the sky ahead, blotting out the eastern stars.
What if there are guns on the heights?
thought Tom—but if there were any, they stayed silent. He could see the white wake of the boat ahead, and beyond it a faint pale line of breakers on the shore…
And then there were other, closer breakers, dead ahead, and Hester was shouting, “Peavey! It’s a trap!”
They all saw it then, but it was much too late. The fishing boat with its shallow keel ran clear through the reef, but the great lumbering bulk of Tunbridge Wheels struck at full speed and the sharp rocks clawed its belly open. The suburb lurched and settled, throwing Tom off his feet and rolling him hard against the legs of the chart table. The engines failed, and in the terrible silence that followed a klaxon began lowing like a frightened bull.
Tom crawled back to the window. Down below he saw the streets going dark as a great rush of water came bursting through the palisades. White geysers of foam sprayed up through gratings from the flooded under-deck, and mingled with the whiteness he saw black flecks of debris and tiny, struggling figures. The boat was far away, tacking to admire her handiwork. A hundred yards of sea separated the doomed suburb from the steep shores of the island.
A hand grabbed his shoulder, heaving him towards the exits. “You’re coming wiv me, Tommy boy,” snarled Chrysler Peavey, snatching a huge gun from a rack on the wall and swinging it on to his shoulder. “You too, Amesy, Mungo, Maggs, you’re wiv me…”