Read Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines Online

Authors: Phillip Reeve

Tags: #sf_fantasy

Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines (17 page)

25. THE HISTORIANS

It is raining on London, steady rain out of the low, bruised sky, raining hard enough to wash away the snow and churn the mud beneath the city’s tracks into thick yellow slurry, but not to quench the fires of Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, which are still blazing like a Titan’s pyre away in the north-west.

Magnus Crome stands on the windswept roof of the Engineerium and watches the rising smoke. An apprentice holds an umbrella over him, and behind her wait six tall, motionless figures dressed in black versions of the Guild’s rubber coats. The terrorists who breached the Engineerium last night have still not been caught, and security is being strengthened: from now on the Lord Mayor will go nowhere without his new bodyguard; the first batch of Dr Twix’s Stalkers.

A Guild spotter-ship swings overhead and touches down. Dr Vambrace, the Engineers’ security chief, steps out and comes hurrying to where the Lord Mayor waits, his rubber coat flapping thickly in the wind.

“Well, Doctor?” Crome asks eagerly. “What did you see? Were you able to land?”

Vambrace shakes his head. “Fires are still burning all over the wreck. But we circled as low as we dared and took photographs. The upper tiers have melted and collapsed on to the lower, and it looks as if all the boilers and fuel-stores exploded at the first touch of our energy beam.”

Crome nods. “Were there any survivors?”

“A few signs of life, between the tiers, but otherwise. . .” The security man’s eyes go wide behind his thick glasses, looking like a pair of jellyfish in an aquarium. His department is always keen to find new and inventive ways to kill people, and he is still excited at the thought of the dry, charred shapes he saw littering the streets and squares of Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, many of them still standing upright, flashed into clinker statues by the gaze of MEDUSA.

“Do you intend to turn back and devour the wreck, Lord Mayor?” he asks after a moment. “The fires will burn themselves out in a day or two.”

“Absolutely not,” snaps Crome. “We must press on towards the Shield-Wall.”

“The people will not like that,” Vambrace warns. “They have had their victory, now they want the spoils. The scrap metal and spare parts from that conurbation—”

“I have not brought London all this way for scrap metal and spare parts,” Crome interrupts. He stands at the handrail on the roofs rim and stares east. He can already see the white summits of high mountains on the horizon, like a row of pearly teeth. “We must press on. A few more days will bring us within range of the Shield-Wall. I have announced a public holiday, and a reception at the Guildhall to mark the great event. Think of it, Vambrace! A whole new hunting ground!”

“But the League know we are coming now,” warns Vambrace. “They will try to stop us.”

Crome’s eyes are bright and cold, gazing at the future. He says, “Valentine has his orders. He will deal with the League.”

And so London kept moving, dragging itself eastward as the smoke of the dead conurbation towered up into the sky behind, and Katherine walked to the elevator stations through the wet wreckage of last-night’s celebrations. Broken Chinese lanterns blew across the shuddering deckplates, and men in the red livery of the Recycling Department wheeled bins around, gathering up abandoned party-hats and soggy banners whose messages were still dimly to be read: We V Magnus Crome and Long Live London. Dog played chase with a billowing paperchain, but Katherine called him sharply to heel. This was no time for games.

At least in the Museum there were no banners and no paperchains. The Historians’ Guild had never been as quick as the rest of London to welcome new inventions from the Engineers, and they made no exception for MEDUSA. In the dusty shadows of the exhibition galleries there was a decent silence, as befitted the morning after the death of a whole city. The sounds of the streets outside seemed muffled, as if thick, soft curtains of time hung in the dim air between the display cabinets. The quietness helped Katherine to gather her thoughts, and by the time she reached Chudleigh Pomeroy’s office she was quite clear about what she had to say.

She had not yet told Mr Pomeroy what she had learned in the Engineerium, but he had seen how shaken she was when he left her at Clio House the night before. He did not seem surprised to find her and Dog at his door.

“Mr Pomeroy,” she whispered, “I have to talk to you. Is Bevis here? Is he all right?”

“Of course,” he said at once. “Come in!”

Bevis Pod was waiting for her in the little teak-panelled office, dressed in borrowed Historian’s robes, his pale skull looking as fragile as an eggshell in the dim yellow glow of the Museum lamps. She wanted to run to him and hold him and apologize for what she had led him into, but crammed in around him were about a dozen Historians, some perching on the arms of chairs and the corners of Pomeroy’s desk. They all looked up guiltily at Katherine, and she looked back at them with a sudden, horrible fear that Pomeroy had betrayed her.

“Don’t worry,” said Pomeroy kindly. “If Pod’s to be a guest of the Museum I thought my fellow Historians should be introduced to him. None of us are friends of the Lord Mayor. We have agreed that Apprentice Pod can stay as long as necessary.”

The Historians made a space for her next to Bevis. “Are you all right?” she asked him, and was relieved when he managed a nervous smile. “Not bad,” he whispered. “It’s strange here. All this wood everywhere, and old stuff. But the Historians are very kind…”

Katherine looked around the room at them. She knew many of them by sight; Dr Arkengarth, Dr Karuna, Professor Pewtertide, young Miss Potts, Norman Nancarrow from Prints and Paintings and Miss Plym, who was sniffling into her hankie.

“We’ve been talking about the destruction of Panzerstadt-Bayreuth,” said Pomeroy, pressing a hot mug of cocoa into her hands. “This horrible MEDUSA device.”

“Everybody else seems to think it’s wonderful,” said Katherine bitterly. “I could hear them laughing and shouting ‘Good old Crome’ half the night. I know they’re relieved that we didn’t get eaten, but… Well, I don’t think blowing up another city is anything to be happy about.”

“It’s a disaster!” agreed old Dr Arkengarth, wringing his bony hands. “The vibrations from that vile machine played havoc with my ceramics!”

“Oh, bother your ceramics, Arkengarth,” snapped Pomeroy, who could see how upset Katherine was. “What about Panzerstadt-Bayreuth? Burned to a cinder!”

“That’s what comes of the Engineers’ obsession with Old-Tech!” said Professor Pewtertide. “Countless centuries of history to learn from, and all they are interested in is a few ancient machines!”

“And what did the Ancients ever achieve with their devices anyway?” whined Arkengarth. “They just made a horrible mess of their world and then blew themselves up!”

The others nodded dolefully.

“There was a great museum in Panzerstadt-Bayreuth,” said Dr Karuna.

“I believe they had some wonderful paintings,” agreed Nancarrow.

“Unique examples of 30th Century c-c-cabinet-making!” wailed Miss Plym, and collapsed in tears on Arkengarth’s knobbly shoulder.

“You must excuse poor Moira, Katherine,” whispered Pomeroy. “She had terrible news this morning. Crome has ordered that our furniture collection be broken up to feed the furnaces. It’s the fuel shortage, you see, a result of this mad journey east.”

Katherine couldn’t have cared less about furniture or ceramics at that moment, but she felt glad that she was not the only one in London appalled by what the Lord Mayor had unleashed. She took a deep breath, then quickly explained what she and Bevis had heard in the Engineerium; about MEDUSA and the next step in Crome’s great plan; the attack on the Shield-Wall.

“But that’s terrible!” they whispered when she had finished.

“Shan Guo is a great and ancient culture, Anti-Traction League or no Anti-Traction League. Batmunkh Gompa can’t be blown up…!”

“Think of all those temples!”

“Ceramics!”

“Prayer-wheels…”

“Silk paintings…”

“F-f-furniture!”

“Think of the
people!”
said Katherine angrily. “We must do something!”

“Yes! Yes!” they agreed, and then all looked sheepishly at her. After twenty years of Crome’s rule they had no idea how to stand up to the Guild of Engineers.

“But what can we do?” asked Pomeroy at last.

“Tell people what is happening!” urged Katherine. “You’re Acting Head Historian. Call a meeting of the Council! Make them see how wrong it is!”

Pomeroy shook his head. “They won’t listen, Miss Valentine. You heard the cheering last night.”

“But that was only because Panzerstadt-Bayreuth had been going to eat us! When they leam that Crome plans to turn his weapon on yet another city. …”

“They’ll just cheer all the louder,” sighed Pomeroy.

“He has packed the other Guilds with his allies anyway,” observed Dr Karuna. “All the great old Guildsmen are gone; dead or retired or arrested on his orders. Even our own apprentices are as besotted with Old-Tech as the Engineers, especially since Crome foisted his man Valentine on us as Head Historian… Oh, I mean no offence, Miss Katherine…”

“Father isn’t Crome’s man,” said Katherine angrily. “I’m sure he’s not! If he knew what Crome was planning he would never have helped him. That’s probably why he was packed off on this reconnaissance mission, to get him out of the way. When he gets home and finds out he’ll do something to stop it. You see, it was he who found MEDUSA in the first place. He would be horrified to think of it killing all those people. He will want to make amends, I’m sure he will!”

She spoke so passionately that some of the Historians believed her, even the ones like Dr Karuna who had been passed over for promotion when Crome put Valentine in charge of their Guild. As for Bevis Pod, he watched her with shining eyes, filled with a feeling that he couldn’t even name; something that they had never taught him about in the Learning Labs. It made him shiver all over.

Pomeroy was the first to speak. “I hope you’re right, Miss Valentine,” he said. “Because he is the only man who can hope to challenge the Lord Mayor. We must wait for his return.”

“But…”

“In the meantime, we have agreed to keep Mr Pod safe, here at the Museum. He can sleep up in the old Transport Gallery, and help Dr Nancarrow catalogue the art collection, and if the Engineers come hunting for him we’ll find a hiding place. It isn’t much of a blow against Crome, I know. But please understand, Katherine; we are old, and frightened, and there really is nothing more that we can do.”

26. BATMUNKH GOMPA

The world was changing. That was nothing new, of course; the first thing an Apprentice Historian learned was that the world was always changing, but now it was changing so fast that you could actually see it happening. Looking down from the flight-deck of the Jenny Haniver, Tom saw the wide plains of the eastern Hunting Ground speckled with speeding towns, spurred into flight by whatever it was that had bruised the northern sky, heading away from it as fast as their tracks or wheels could carry them, too preoccupied to try and catch each other.

“MEDUSA,” he heard Miss Fang whisper to herself, staring towards the far off, flame-flecked smoke.

“What is a MEDUSA?” asked Hester. “You know something, don’t you? About what my mum and dad were killed for?”

“I’m afraid not,” the aviatrix replied. “I wish I did. But I heard the name once. Six years ago another League agent managed to get into London, posing as a crewman on a licensed airship. He had heard something that must have intrigued him, but we never learned what it was. The League had only one message from him, just two words:
Beware MEDUSA.
The Engineers caught him and killed him.”

“How do you know?” asked Tom.

“Because they sent us back his head,” said Miss Fang. “Cash on Delivery.”

That evening she set the Jenny Haniver down on one of the fleeing towns, a respectable four-decker called Peripatetiapolis which was steering south to lair in the mountains beyond the Sea of Khazak. At the air-harbour there they heard more news of what had happened to Panzerstadt-Bayreuth.

“I saw it!” said an aviator. “I was a hundred miles away, but I still saw it. A tongue of fire, reaching out from London’s Top Tier and bringing death to everything it touched!”

“London’s dug up something from the Sixty Minute War,” a freelance archaeologist told them. “The old American Empire was quite insane towards the end; I’ve heard stories about terrible weapons: quantum energy beams that drew their power from places outside the real universe…”

“Who’ll dare defy them now, when Magnus Crome has the power to burn any city that disobeys him?” asked a panic-stricken Peripatetiapolitan merchant. “ ‘Come here and let us eat you,’ London will tell us, and we will have to go. It’s the end of civilization as we know it! Again!”

But one good thing had come out of it; the people of Peripatetiapolis were suddenly quite glad to accept Tom’s London money. On an impulse he bought a red silk shawl to replace the scarf that Hester had lost on that long-ago night when he chased her through the Gut.

“For
me?”
she said incredulously when he gave it to her. She couldn’t remember anyone ever giving her a gift before. She had not spoken to him much since they left the Black Island, ashamed of her outburst the night before, but now she said, “Thank you. And I suppose I should thank you for saving my life, too. Though I don’t know why you keep bothering.”

“I knew you didn’t really want to end up as a Stalker,” Tom told her.

“Oh, I did,” she said. “It would make things so much easier. But you did the right thing.” She looked away from him, embarrassed, staring down at the shawl in her hands. “I try to be nice,” she said. “Nobody’s ever made me feel they
like
me before, the way you do. So I try to be kind and smiley, like you want me to be, but then I catch sight of my reflection or I think of
him
and it all goes wrong and I can only think horrible things and scream at you and try and hurt you. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” said Tom awkwardly. “I know. It’s OK.” He picked up the shawl and tied it carefully round her neck, but as he had expected she pulled it up at once to hide her mouth and nose. He felt strangely sad: he had grown used to that face, and he would miss her lopsided smiles.

They flew on before dawn, crossing a range of steep hills like crumpled brown paper. All day the land rose up and up, and soon Tom realized that they were leaving the Hunting Ground altogether. By evening the Jenny Haniver was flying over landscapes too rugged for most towns to travel. He saw dense forests of pine and rhododendron, with now and then a little static village squatting in its cove of farmland, and once a white settlement perched on a mountain top with roads reaching out from it like the spokes of a wheel; real roads with carts moving up and down and a bright flutter of prayer-flags at the intersections. He watched until they were out of sight. He had heard about roads in his history lessons, but he had never thought he’d see one.

Next day, Anna Fang handed out balls of reddish paste to her passengers. “Powdered betel-nut,” she explained, “mixed with some dried leaves from Nuevo Maya. They help at these high altitudes. But don’t make a habit of chewing them, or your teeth will turn as red as mine.” The gritty paste made Tom’s mouth tingle, but it cured the faint sense of nausea and light-headedness that had been growing in him as the airship flew higher and higher, and it also helped to numb the pain of his broken ribs.

By now the
Jenny’s
tiny shadow was flickering over high snow-clad summits, and ahead lay summits still higher, white spires which hung like a mirage above the clouds. Beyond them stretched an even higher range, and then another, higher yet. Tom strained his eyes, peering towards the south in the hope that he might catch a glimpse of old Chomolungma, Everest of the Ancients, but storms were brewing in the high Himalayas and it was wrapped in cloud.

They flew for three days through a black-and-white world of snow and glaciers and the sheer dark rock of young mountains, where Tom or Hester sometimes had to mind the controls while Anna Fang took cat-naps in the seat beside them, afraid to risk leaving her flight-deck. And still they climbed, until at last they were skimming over the lower buttresses of great Zhan Shan, tallest of the earth’s new mountains, whose snow-capped caldera jutted into the endless cold above the sky. After that the peaks were lower, white and lovely, with sometimes a green vale between, where huge herds of animals scattered and wheeled at the sound of the airship’s engines. These were the Mountains of Heaven, and they swept away towards the north and east and sank down in the far distance to steppe and taiga and the glitter of impassable swamps.

“This is Shan Guo of the many horses,” Anna Fang told Tom and Hester. “I had hoped to retire here, when my work for the League was done. Now I suppose it may all be eaten by London; our fortresses blasted by MEDUSA and our settlements devoured, the green hills split open and made to give up their minerals, the horses extinct, just like the rest of the world.”

Tom didn’t think it was such a bad idea, because it was only natural that Traction Cities should eventually spread right across the globe. But he couldn’t help liking Miss Fang, even if she was a spy and an Anti-Tractionist, and to comfort her he said, “However powerful MEDUSA is, it will take years for London to gnaw its way through these great big mountains.”

“It won’t have to,” she replied. “Look.”

He looked where she pointed, and saw a break in the mountain-chain ahead, a broad pass that a city could have crawled along—except that stretching across it, so vast that it seemed at first glance just another spur of the mountains, was the Shield-Wall.

It was like a wall of night, black, black, built from huge blocks of volcanic stone, armoured with the rusting deckplates of cities that had dared to challenge it and been destroyed by the hundreds of rocket batteries on its western face. On its snow-clad summit, four thousand feet above the valley floor, the banner of the broken wheel snapped and raced in the wind and the sunlight gleamed on armoured gun-emplacements and the steel helmets of the League’s soldiers.

“If only it were as strong as it looks,” sighed the avia-trix, bringing the Jenny Haniver down towards it it in a long sweeping curve. A small flying machine, little more than a motorized kite, came soaring to meet them, and she held a brief radio conversation with its pilot. It circled the Jenny once and then whirred ahead, guiding the newcomer over the top of the Shield-Wall. Tom looked down at broad battlements and the faces of soldiers gazing upwards, yellow, brown, black, white, faces from every part of the world where barbarian statics still held out against Municipal Darwinism. Then they were gone; the Jenny was sinking down the sheltered eastern side of the Wall, and he saw that it was a city, a vertical city with hundreds of terraces and balconies and windows all carved into the black rock, tier upon tier of shops and barracks and houses with balloons and brightly coloured kites drifting up and down between them like petals.

“Batmunkh Gompa,” announced Miss Fang. “The City of Eternal Strength. Although the people who call it that have never heard of MEDUSA, of course.”

It was beautiful. Tom, who had always been taught that static settlements were dingy, squalid, backward places, went to the window and stared, and Hester came and pressed her face to the glass beside him, safe behind her veil and almost girlish. “Oh! It’s just like the cliffs on Oak Island where the sea-birds nest!” she cried. “Look! Look!” Down at the base of the Wall a lake shone azure blue, flecked with the sails of pleasure-boats. “Tom, we’ll go swimming, I’ll teach you how…”

The
Jenny Haniver
landed among some other merchant ships at a mooring-terrace halfway down the Wall, and Miss Fang led Tom and Hester to a waiting balloon that took them up again past parks and tea-shops to the governor’s palace; the ancient monastery from which Batmunkh Gompa took its name, whitewashed and many-windowed, carved out of the steep side of the mountain at the Wall’s end. Other balloons were converging on the landing deck below the palace gardens, their envelopes bright in the mountain sunlight, and in one of the dangling baskets Tom saw Captain Khora waving.

They met on the landing deck, the young airman touching down just ahead of them and running across to embrace Miss Fang and help her friends out of the skittish gondola. He had flown here from Airhaven the morning after Shrike’s attack, and he seemed amazed and happy to see Tom and Hester alive. Turning to the aviatrix he said, “The Governor and his officers are eager for your report, Feng Hua. Terrible rumours have reached us about London…”

It was good to meet a friendly face in this strange new city, and Tom fell into step beside Khora as he led the newcomers up the long stair to the palace entrance. He remembered seeing a trim Achebe 2100 berthed at one of the lower platforms and asked, “Was that your machine we saw at the mooring-place, the one with oxhide outriggers?”

Khora laughed delightedly. “That old air-scow? No, thank the gods! My
Mokele Mbembe
is a warship, Tom. Every ally of the League supplies a ship to the Northern Air-Fleet, and they are stabled together, up there.” He stopped and pointed, and Tom saw the gleam of bronze doors far up near the summit of the Wall. “The High Eyries.”

“We’ll take you up there one day, Tom,” promised Miss Fang, leading them past the warrior-monks who guarded the door and on into a maze of cool stone corridors. “The League’s great Air Destroyers are one of the wonders of the skies! But first, Governor Khan must hear Hester’s story.”

Governor Ermene Khan was a gentle old man with the long, mournful face of a kindly sheep. He welcomed them all into his private quarters and gave them tea and honey-cakes in a room whose round windows looked down towards the lake of Batmunkh Nor, gleaming among patchwork farmlands, far below. For a thousand years his family had helped to man the Shield-Wall, and he seemed dazed by the news that all his guns and rockets were suddenly useless. “No city can pass Batmunkh Gompa,” he kept saying, as the room filled with officers eager to hear the aviatrix’s advice. “My dear Feng Hua, if London dares to approach us, we will destroy it. As soon as it comes in range—boom!”

“But that is what I’m trying to tell you!” cried Miss Fang impatiently. “London doesn’t need to come within range of your guns. Crome will park his city a hundred miles away and burn your precious Wall to ashes! You have heard Hester’s story. I believe that the machine Valentine stole from her mother was a fragment of an ancient weapon—and what happened to Panzerstadt-Bayreuth proves that the Guild of Engineers have managed to restore it to working order.”

“Yes, yes,” said an artillery officer, “so you say. But can we really believe that Crome has found a way to reactivate something that has been buried since the Sixty Minutes War? Perhaps Panzerstadt-Bayreuth was just destroyed by a freak accident.”

“Yes!” Governor Khan clutched gratefully at the idea. “A meteorite, or some sort of gas-leak…” He stroked his long beard, reminding Tom of one of the dithery old Historians back at the London Museum. “Perhaps Crome’s city will not even come here… Perhaps he has other prey in mind?”

But his other officers were more ready to believe the Wind-Flower’s report. “He’s coming here, all right,” said one, an aviatrix from Kerala, not much older than Tom. “I took a scout-ship west the day before yesterday, Feng Hua,” she explained, with an adoring look at Miss Fang. “The barbarian city was less than five hundred miles away, and approaching fast. By tomorrow night MEDUSA could be within range.”

“And there have been sightings of a black airship in the mountains,” put in Captain Khora. “The ships sent to intercept it never returned. My guess is that it was Valentine’s
13th Floor Elevator,
sent to spy out our cities so that London can devour them.”

Valentine! Tom felt a strange mix of pride and fear at the thought of the Head Historian on the loose here in the very heart of Shan Guo. Beside him, Hester tensed at the mention of the explorer’s name. He looked at her, but she was staring past him, out through the open windows towards the mountains as if she half expected to see the 13th Floor Elevator go flying past.

“No city can pass the Shield-Wall,” said Governor Khan, loyal to his ancestors, but he did not sound convinced any more.

“You must launch the Air-Fleet, Governor,” Miss Fang insisted, leaning forward in her seat. “Bomb London before they can bring MEDUSA into range. It’s the only way to be sure.”

“No!” shouted Tom, springing up so that his chair fell backwards with a clatter. He couldn’t believe what she had said. “You said we were coming here to warn people! You can’t attack London! People will get hurt! Innocent people!” He was thinking of Katherine, imagining League torpedoes crashing into Clio House and the Museum. “You promised!” he said weakly.

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