Authors: Phillip Reeve
A hundred miles ahead the sunrise shone on Circle Park, the elegant loop of lawns and flower-beds that encircled Tier One. It gleamed in ornamental lakes and on pathways glistening with dew, and it glittered on the white metal spires of Clio House, Valentine’s villa, which stood among dark cedars at the park’s edge like some gigantic conch shell abandoned by a freak high tide.
In her bedroom on the top floor Katherine awoke and lay watching the sunbeams filter through the tortoise-shell shutters on her window. She knew she was unhappy, but at first she did not know why.
Then she remembered the previous evening; the attack in the Gut and how that poor, sweet, young apprentice had chased after the assassin and got himself killed. She had gone running after Father, but by the time she reached the waste-chute it was all over; a young Apprentice Engineer was stumbling away, his shocked face as white as his rubber coat, and beyond him she found Father, looking pale and angry, surrounded by policemen. She had never seen him look like that before, nor heard the harsh, unnatural voice in which he snapped at her to go straight home.
Part of her just wanted to curl up and go back to sleep, but she had to see him and make sure he was all right. She flung back the quilt and got up, pulling on the clothes from last night that lay all crumpled on the floor, still smelling of furnaces.
Outside her bedroom door a hallway sloped gently downward, round-roofed, curling about on itself like the inside of an ammonite. She hurried down it, pausing to pay her respects before the statue of Clio, goddess of History, who stood in a niche outside the door to the dining room. In other niches lay treasures that her father had brought back from his expeditions; potsherds, fragments of computer keyboards and the rusting metal skulls of Stalkers, those strange, half-mechanical soldiers from a forgotten war. Their cracked glass eyes stared balefully at Katherine as she hurried by.
Father was drinking coffee in the atrium, the big open space at the centre of the house. He was still in his dressing-gown, his long face serious as he paced up and down between the potted ferns. A glance at his eyes was enough to tell Katherine that he had not slept at all. “Father?” she asked. “What’s happened?”
“Oh, Kate!” He came and hugged her tight. “What a night!”
“That poor boy,” Katherine whispered. “Poor Tom! I suppose they didn’t…
Valentine shook his head. “The assassin dragged him with her when she jumped. They were both drowned in the mud of the Out-Country, or crushed beneath the tracks.”
“Oh,” whispered Katherine, and sat down on the edge of a table, not even noticing Dog when he came padding in to rest his great head on her knee.
she thought. He had been so sweet, so eager to please. She had really liked him. She had even thought of asking Father about bringing him up to work at Clio House so she and Dog could get to know him better. And now he was dead, his soul fled down to the Sunless Country and his body lying cold in the cold mud, somewhere in the city’s wake.
“The Lord Mayor isn’t happy,” said Valentine, glancing at the clock. “An assassin loose in the Gut on London’s first day back in the Hunting Ground. He is coming down here in person to discuss it. Will you sit with me while I wait for him? You can have some of my breakfast if you like. There is coffee on the table—rolls -butter. I have no appetite at all.”
Katherine had no appetite either, but she glanced at the food, and noticed a battered leather pack lying on the far side of the table. It was the pack the girl assassin had dropped in the Gut last night, and its contents were spread out around it like exhibits in a strange museum: a metal water-bottle, a first-aid kit, some string, a few strips of dried meat that looked tougher than the tongues of old boots and a stained and crumpled sheet of paper with a photograph stapled to it. Katherine picked it up. It was an identity form, issued in a town called “Strole”, filthy and faded and coming apart along the creases. Before she could study the writing her eye was drawn to the photograph. She gasped. “Father! Her face!”
Valentine turned, saw her holding the paper and snatched it from her hand with an angry cry. “No, Kate! That is not for your eyes! It is not for anybody’s eyes…”
He pulled out his lighter and carefully lit a corner of the form, folding it into the ashtray on his desk as it burned. Then he went back to his pacing, and Katherine sat and watched him. In the ten years since she arrived in London Katherine had come to think of him as her best friend as well as her father. They liked the same things, and laughed at the same jokes, and never kept secrets from each other—but she could see that he was keeping something from her about this girl. She had never seen him so worried by anything. “Who is she, Father?” she asked. “Do you know her from one of your expeditions? She is so young, and so… Whatever happened to her face!”
There were footsteps, a knock at the door, and Pewsey burst into the room. “Lord Mayor’s on his way, Chief.”
“Already?” gasped Valentine.
“ ’Fraid so. Gench just saw him coming across the park in his bug. Said he didn’t look pleased.”
Valentine didn’t look pleased either. He grabbed his robes from the chair-back where they had been flung and started trying to make himself presentable. Katherine stepped forward to help, but he waved her away, so she kissed him quickly on the cheek and hurried out with Dog trotting behind her. Through the big oval windows of the drawing room she could see a white official bug pulling in through the gates of Clio House. A squad of soldiers ran ahead of it, dressed in the bright red armour of the Beefeaters, the Lord Mayor’s personal bodyguard. They took up positions around the garden like ugly lawn ornaments as Gench and one of the other servants hurried forward to open the bug’s glastic lid. The Lord Mayor stepped out and came striding towards the house.
Magnus Crome had been ruler of London for nearly twenty years, but he still didn’t
like a Lord Mayor. The Lord Mayors in Katherine’s history books were chubby, merry, red-faced men, but Crome was as thin as an old crow, and twice as gloomy. He didn’t even wear the scarlet robes that had been the pride and joy of other mayors, but still dressed in his long white rubber coat and wore the red wheel of the Guild of Engineers upon his brow. Those earlier Lord Mayors had had their Guild-marks removed to show that they were serving the whole of London, but things had changed when Crome seized power—and even if some people said it was unfair for one man to be master of the Engineers
Lord Mayor, they still admitted that Crome made a good job of running the city.
Katherine didn’t like him. She had never liked him, even though he had been so good to her father, and she was not in any mood to meet him this morning. As soon as she heard the front door iris open she hurried back into the corridor and started up it, calling softly for Dog to follow her. She stopped as soon as she was around the first bend, hidden in a shallow alcove, resting the tips of her fingers on the wolfs head to keep him still. She could tell that some terrible trouble had overtaken her father, and she was not going to let him keep the truth from her as if she was still a little girl.
A few seconds later she saw Gench arrive at the door to the atrium, clutching his hat in his hands. “This way, yer worshipful honour,” he mumbled, bowing. “Mind yer step, yer Mayorness.”
Close behind came Crome. He paused for a moment, his head flicking from side to side in an oddly reptilian way, and Katherine felt his gaze sweep the corridor like a wind from the Ice Wastes. She squeezed herself tighter into the alcove and prayed to Quirke and Clio that he would not see her. For a moment she could hear his breathing and the faint squeaks and creakings of his rubber coat. Then Gench led him into the atrium, and the danger was past.
With one hand firmly on Dog’s collar she crept back to the door and listened. She could hear Father’s voice and imagined him standing beside the ornamental fountain while his men showed Crome to a seat. He started to make some polite comment about the weather, but the cold, thin voice of the Lord Mayor interrupted him. “I have been reading your report of last night’s escapade, Valentine. You assured me that the whole family had been dealt with.”
Katherine flinched away from the door as though it had burned her. How dare the old man talk to Father like that! She did not want to hear any more, but curiosity got the better of her and she set her ear against the wood again.
“…a ghost from my past,” Father was saying. “I can’t imagine how she escaped. And Quirke alone knows where she learned to be so agile and cunning. But she is dead now. So is the boy who caught her, poor Natsworthy…”
“You are sure of that?”
“They fell out of the city, Crome.”
“That means nothing. We are travelling over soft ground; they may have survived. You should have sent men down to check. Remember, we don’t know how much the girl knew of her mother’s work. If she were to tell another city that we have MEDUSA, before we are ready to use it…”
“I know, I know,” said Valentine irritably, and Katherine heard a chair creak as he flung himself down in it. “I’ll take the
13th Floor Elevator
back and see if I can find the bodies…”
“No,” ordered Crome. “I have other plans for you and your airship. I want you to fly ahead and see what lies between London and its goal.”
“Crome, that is a job for a Planning Committee scout-ship, not the
“No,” snapped Crome again. “I don’t want too many people to know where we are taking the city. They will find out when the time is ripe. Besides, I have a task in mind that only you can be trusted with.”
“And the girl?” asked Valentine.
“Don’t worry about her,” said the Lord Mayor. “I have an agent who can be relied on to track her down and finish the job you failed to do. Concentrate on preparing your airship, Valentine.”
The meeting was at an end. Katherine heard the Lord Mayor getting ready to leave, and hurried away up the corridor before the door opened, her mind whirling faster than one of the tumble-dryers in the London Museum’s Hall of Ancient Technology.
Back in her room she sat down to wonder about the things she had heard. She had hoped to solve a mystery, but instead it had grown deeper. All she was sure of was that Father had a secret. He had never kept anything from her before. He always told her everything, and asked her opinion, and wanted her advice, but now he was whispering with the Lord Mayor about the girl being “
a ghost from his past”
and some agent being sent back to look for her and do… what? Could Tom and the assassin really still be alive? And why was the Lord Mayor packing Father off on a reconnaissance flight amid such secrecy? And why didn’t he want to say where London was going? And what, what on earth was
All that day they struggled onwards, trudging along in the scar that London had clawed through the soft earth of the Hunting Ground. The city was never out of their sight, but it grew smaller and smaller, more and more distant, pulling away from them towards the east, and Tom realized that it might soon be lost for ever beyond the horizon. Loneliness wrenched at him. He had never much enjoyed his life as an Apprentice Historian (Third Class), but now his years in the Museum felt like a beautiful, golden dream. He found himself missing fussy old Dr Arkengarth and pompous Chudleigh Pomeroy. He missed his bunk in the draughty dormitory and the long hours of work, and he missed Katherine Valentine, although he had known her for only a few minutes. Sometimes, if he closed his eyes, he could see her face quite clearly, her kind grey eyes and her lovely smile. He was sure that she didn’t know what sort of man her father was…
“Watch where you’re going!” snapped Hester Shaw, and he opened his eyes and realized that he had almost led her over the brink of one of the gaping track-marks. On they went, and on, and Tom started to think that what he missed most about his city was the food. It had never been up to much, the stuff they served in the Guild canteen, but it was better than nothing, and nothing was what he had now. When he asked Hester Shaw what they were supposed to live on out here she just said, “I bet you wish you hadn’t lost my pack for me now, London boy. I had some good dried dog meat in my pack.”
In the early afternoon they came across a few dull, greyish bushes that London’s tracks had not quite buried, and Hester tore some leaves off and mashed them to a pulp between two stones. “They’d be better cooked,” she said, as they ate the horrid vegetable goo. “I had the makings of a fire in my pack.”
Later, she caught a frog in one of the deep pools that were already forming in the chevroned track-prints. She didn’t offer Tom any, and he tried not to watch while she ate it.
He still did not know what to make of her. She was silent mostly, and glared so fiercely at him when he tried to talk to her that he quickly learned to walk in silence too. But sometimes, quite suddenly, she would start talking. “The land’s rising,” she might say. “That means London’11 go slower. It would waste fuel, going full speed on an uphill stretch.” Then, an hour or two later, “My mum used to say Traction Cities are stupid. She said there was a reason for them a thousand years ago when there were all those earthquakes and volcanoes and the glaciers pushing south. Now they just keep rolling around and eating each other ’cos people are too stupid to stop them.”
Tom liked it when she talked, even though he did think that her mum sounded like a dangerous Anti-Tractionist. But when he tried to keep the conversation going she would go quiet again, and her hand would go up to hide her face. It was as if there were two Hesters sharing the same thin body; one a grim avenger who thought only of killing Valentine, the other a quick, clever, likeable girl whom he sometimes sensed peeking out at him from behind that scarred mask. He wondered if she was slightly mad. It would be enough to send anyone mad, seeing your parents murdered.
“How did it happen?” he asked her gently. “I mean, your mum and dad, are you sure it was Valentine who-?”
“Shut up and walk,” she said.
But long after dark, as they huddled in a hollow of the mud to escape the chill night wind, she suddenly started telling him her story.
“I was born on the bare earth,” she said, “but it wasn’t like this. I lived on Oak Island, in the far west. It used to be a part of the Hunting Ground once, but the earthquakes drowned all the land around and made an island of it, too far off-shore for any hungry city to attack, and too rocky for the amphibious towns to get at. It was lovely; green hills and great outcrops of stone and the streams running through tangly oak woods, all grey with lichen—the trees shaggy with it, like old dogs.”
Tom shuddered. Every Londoner knew that only savages lived on the bare earth. “I prefer a nice firm deckplate under me,” he said, but Hester didn’t seem to hear him; the words kept spilling out of her twisted mouth as if she had no choice in the matter.
“There was a town there called Dunroamin’. It was mobile once, but the people got sick of running all the time from bigger towns, so they floated it across to Oak Island and took its wheels and engines off and dug it into a hillside. It’s been sitting there a hundred years or more, and you’d never know it used to move at all.”
“But that’s awful!” Tom gasped. “It’s downright Anti-Tractionist!”
“My mum and dad lived down the road a way,” she went on, talking straight over him. “They had a house on the edge of the moor, where the sea comes in. Dad was a farmer, and Mum was a historian like you—only a lot cleverer than you, of course. She flew off each summer in her airship, digging for Old-Tech, but in the autumn she’d come home. I used to go up to her study in the attic on winter’s nights and eat cheese on toast and she’d tell me about her adventures.
“And then one night, seven years ago, I woke up late and there were voices up in the attic arguing. So I went up the ladder and looked, and Valentine was there. I knew him, because he was Mum’s friend and used to drop in on us when he was passing. Only he wasn’t being very friendly that night. ‘Give me the machine, Pandora,’ he kept saying. ‘Give me MEDUSA.’ He didn’t see me watching him. I was at the top of the ladder, looking into the attic, too scared to go up and too scared to go back. Valentine had his back to me and Mum was stood facing him, holding this machine, and she said, ‘Damn you, Thaddeus, I found it, it’s
“And then Valentine drew his sword and he … and he…”
She paused for breath. She wanted to stop, but she was riding a wave of memory and it was carrying her backwards to that night, that room, and the blood that had spattered her mother’s star-charts like the map of a new constellation.
“And then he turned round and saw me watching, and he came at me and I dived back so his sword only cut my face, and I fell back down the ladder. He must have thought he’d killed me. I heard him go to Mum’s desk and start rustling through the papers there, and I got up and ran. Dad was lying on the kitchen floor; he was dead too. Even the dogs were dead.
“I ran out of the house and saw Valentine’s great black ship moored at the end of the garden with his men waiting. They came after me, but I escaped. I ran down to the boathouse and shoved off in Dad’s skiff. I think I meant to go round to Dunroamin’ and get help—I was only little, and I thought a doctor could help Mum and Dad. But I was so weak with the pain and all the blood… I untied the boat somehow, and the current swept it out, and the next thing I knew I was waking up on the shores of the Hunting Ground.
“I lived in the Out-Country after that. At first I didn’t remember much. It was as if when he cut my head open some of my memories spilled out, and the rest got muddled about. But slowly I started remembering, and one day I remembered Valentine and what he’d done. That’s when I decided to come and find him. Kill him the same way he killed my mum and dad.”
“What was this machine?” asked Tom, in the long silence. “This MEDUSA thing?”
Hester shrugged. (It was too dark to see her by this time, but he
her shrug, the hunch of her shoulders inside her filthy coat.) “Something my mum found. Old-Tech. It didn’t look important. Like a metal football, all bashed and dented. But that’s what he killed her for.”
“Seven years ago,” whispered Tom. “That’s when Mr Valentine got made head of the Guild. They said he’d found something in the Out-Country and Crome was so pleased that he promoted him, straight over the heads of Chudleigh Pomeroy and all the rest. But I never heard what it was he’d found. And I never heard of a MEDUSA before.”
Hester said nothing at all. After a few minutes she began to snore.
Tom sat awake for a long time, turning her story over and over in his mind. He thought of the daydreams that had kept him going through long, tedious days in the Museum. He had dreamed of being trapped in the Out-Country with a beautiful girl, on the trail of some murderous criminal, but he had never imagined it would be so wet and cold, or that his legs would ache so, or that the murderer would be London’s greatest hero. And as for the beautiful girl…
He looked at the blunt wreck of Hester Shaw’s face in the faint moonlight, scowling even in her sleep. He understood her better now. She hated Valentine, but she hated herself even more, for being so ugly, and for being still alive when her parents were dead. He remembered how he had felt when the Big Tilt happened, and he came home and found his house flattened and Mum and Dad gone. He had thought that it was all his fault somehow. He had felt full of guilt, because he had not been there to die with them.
“I must help her,” he thought. “I won’t let her kill Mr Valentine, but I’ll find a way to get the truth out. If it
the truth. Maybe tomorrow London will have slowed down a bit and Hester’s leg will be better. We’ll be back in the city by sundown, and
will listen to us…”
* * *
But next morning they woke to find that the city was even further ahead, and Hester’s leg was worse. She moaned with pain at almost every step now; her face was the colour of old snow and fresh blood was soaking through her bandages and running down into her boot. Tom cursed himself for throwing those rags of shirt away, and for making Hester lose her pack, and her first-aid kit…
In the middle of the morning, through shifting veils of rain, they saw something ahead of them. A pile of slag and clinker lay spilled across the track-marks, where London had vented it the day before. Drawn up beside it was a strange little town, and as they got closer Hester and Tom could see that people were scrambling up and down the spoil-heap, sifting out collops of melted metal and fragments of unburnt fuel.
The sight gave them hope and they pressed forward faster. By early afternoon they were walking under the shadow of the townlet’s huge wheels, and Tom was staring up in amazement at its single tier. It was smaller than a lot of the houses in London, and it appeared to have been built out of wood by somebody whose idea of good carpentry was to bang a couple of nails in and hope for the best. Behind the shed-like town hall rose the huge, crooked chimneys of an experimental engine array.
“Welcome!” shouted a tall, white-bearded man, picking his way down the clinker-heap, grubby brown robes flapping. “Welcome to Speedwell. I am Orme Wreyland, Mayor. Do you speak Anglish?”
Hester hung back suspiciously, but Tom thought the old man looked friendly enough. He stepped forward and said, “Please, sir, we need some food, and a doctor to look at my friend’s leg…”
“I’m not your friend,” hissed Hester Shaw. “And there’s nothing wrong with my leg.” But she was white and trembling and her face shone with sweat.
“No doctor in Speedwell anyway,” laughed Wreyland. “Not one. And as for food… Well, times are hard. Do you have anything you can trade?”
Tom patted the pockets of his tunic. He had a little money, but he didn’t see what use London money would be to Orme Wreyland. Then he touched something hard. It was the seedy he had found in the Gut. He pulled it out and looked wistfully at it for a moment before he handed it to the old man. He had been planning to make a present of it to Katherine Valentine one day, but now food was more important.
“Pretty! Very pretty!” admitted Orme Wreyland, tilting the disc and admiring the rippling rainbows. “Not a lot of use, but worth a few nights’ shelter and a bit of food. It’s not very good food, mind, but it’s better than nothing…”
* * *
He was right: it wasn’t very good, but Tom and Hester ate greedily anyway and then held out their bowls for more.
“It’s made from algae, mostly,” explained Orme Wreyland, as his wife slopped out second helpings of the bluish muck. “We grow it in vats down under the main engine room. Nasty stuff, but it keeps body and soul together when pickings is thin, and between you and me, pickings has never been thinner. That’s why we were so glad to come across this mound of trash we’re scraping through.”
Tom nodded, leaning back in his chair and looking around the Wreylands’ quarters. It was a tiny, cheese-shaped room, and not at all what he would have expected of a mayoral residence—but then Orme Wreyland was not exactly what he would have expected of a mayor. The shabby old man seemed to rule over a town composed mainly of his own family; sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and the husbands and wives that they had met on passing towns.
But Wreyland was not a happy man. “It’s no fun, running a traction town,” he kept saying. “No, no fun at all, not any more. There was a time when a little place like Speedwell could go about its business quite safely, being too small for any other town to bother eating. But not now. Not with prey so scarce. Everyone we see wants to eat us. We even found ourselves running from a city the other day. One of those big Prankish-speaking
it was. I ask you, what good would a place like Speedwell be to a monster like that? We’d barely take the edge off its appetite. But they chased us anyway.”
“Your town must be very fast,” said Tom.
“Oh, yes,” agreed Wreyland, beaming, and his wife put in, “Hundred miles an hour, top speed. That’s Wreyland’s doing. He’s a wizard with those big engines of his.”
“Could you help us?” asked Tom, leaning forward in his seat. “We need to get to London, as quickly as possible. I’m sure you could catch it up, and there might be more spoil-heaps along the way…”
“Bless you, lad,” said Wreyland, shaking his head. “What London drops isn’t worth going far for, not these days. Everything’s recycled now that prey’s so short. Why, I remember the days when cities’ waste-heaps used to dot the Hunting Ground like mountains. Oh, there was good pickings then! But not any more. Besides,” he added with a shudder, “I wouldn’t take my town too close to London, or any other city. You can’t trust them these days. They’d turn round and snaffle us, like as not. Chomp! No, no.”