Authors: Phillip Reeve
Once he had washed and slept and had something to eat, Tom began to decide that adventuring might not be so bad after all. By sunrise he was already starting to forget the misery of his trek across the mud and imprisonment in Speedwell. The view from the
big forward windows as the airship flew between golden mountains of dawn-lit cloud was enough to make even the pain of Valentine’s betrayal fade a little. At breakfast-time, drinking hot chocolate with Miss Fang on the flight deck, he found that he was enjoying himself. As soon as the
was safely out of the range of Speedwell’s rockets the aviatrix had become all smiles and kindness. She locked her airship on course and set about finding Tom a warm fleece-lined coat and making up a bed for him in the hold, a space high up inside the airship’s envelope, heaped with a cargo of sealskins from Spitzbergen. Then she led Hester into the medical bay and went to work on her injured leg. When Tom looked in on her after breakfast that morning the girl was sleeping soundly under a white blanket. “I gave her something for the pain,” explained Miss Fang. “She will sleep for hours, but you need have no fear for her.” Tom stared at Hester’s sleeping face. Somehow he had expected her to look better now that she had been washed and fed and had her leg fixed, but of course she was as hideous as ever.
“He has made a mess of her, your wicked Mr Valentine,” the aviatrix said, leading him back to the flight deck, where she took the controls off their automatic setting.
“How do you know about Valentine?” asked Tom.
“Oh, everyone has heard about Thaddeus Valentine,” she laughed. “I know that he is London’s greatest historian, and I also know that that is just a cover for his
work: as Crome’s secret agent.”
“That’s not true!” Tom started to say, still instinctively defending his ex-hero. But there had always been rumours that Valentine’s expeditions involved something darker than mere archaeology, and now that he had seen the great man’s ruthless handiwork, he believed them. He blushed, ashamed for Valentine, and ashamed of himself for having loved him.
Miss Fang watched him with a faint, sympathetic smile. “Hester told me a great deal more last night, while I was tending to her wound,” she said gently. “You are both very lucky to be alive.”
“I know,” agreed Tom, but he could not help feeling uneasy that Hester had shared their story with this stranger.
He sat down in the co-pilot’s seat and studied the controls; a baffling array of knobs and switches and levers labelled in mixtures of Airsperanto, Anglish and Chinese. Above them a little lacquered shrine had been fixed to the bulkhead, decorated with red ribbons and pictures of Miss Fang’s ancestors. That smiling Manchu air-merchant must be her father, he supposed. And had that red-haired lady from the Ice Wastes been her mum?
“So tell me, Tom,” asked Miss Fang, setting the ship on a new course, “where
The question was unexpected. “I don’t know!” Tom said.
“Oh, surely you must know something*.” she laughed.
“Your city has left its hidey-hole in the west, come back across the land-bridge, and now it is whizzing off into the central Hunting Ground ‘like a bat out of Hull’, as the saying goes. You must have heard at least a rumour. No?”
Her long eyes slid towards Tom, who licked his lips nervously, wondering what to say. He had never paid any attention to the stupid tales the other apprentices swapped about where London was heading; he really had no idea. And even if he had, he knew it would be wrong to go revealing his city’s plans to mysterious Oriental aviatrices. What if Miss Fang flew off and told some larger city where to lie in wait for London, in exchange for a finder’s fee? And yet, if he didn’t tell her
she might kick him off her airship—perhaps without even bothering to land it first!
“Prey!” he blurted out. “The Guild of Navigators say there is lots and lots of prey in the central Hunting Ground.”
The red smile grew even broader. “Really?”
“I heard it from the Head Navigator himself,” said Tom, growing bolder.
Miss Fang nodded, beaming. Then she hauled on a long brass lever. Gas-valves grumbled up inside the envelope and Tom’s ears popped as the
started to descend, plunging into a thick, white layer of cloud. “Let me show you the central Hunting Ground,” she chuckled, checking the charts that were fastened to the bulkhead beside her shrine.
Down, and down, and then the cloud thinned and parted and Tom saw the vast Out-Country spread below him like a crumpled sheet of grey-brown paper, slashed with long, blue shapes that were the flooded track-marks of countless towns. For the first time since the airship lifted away from Stayns he felt afraid, but Miss Fang murmured, “Nothing to fear, Tom.”
He calmed himself and gazed out at the amazing view. Far to the north he could see the cold glitter of the Ice Wastes and the dark cones of the Tannhauser fire-mountains. He looked for London, and eventually thought he saw it, a tiny, grey speck that raised a cloud of dust behind it as it trundled along, much further off than he had hoped. There were other towns and cities too, dotted here and there across the plain, or lurking in the shadows of half-eaten mountain ranges, but not nearly as many as he had expected. To the south-east there were none at all, just a dingy layer of mist above a tract of marshland, and beyond that the silvery shimmer of water.
“That is the great inland Sea of Khazak,” said the avi-atrix, when he pointed to it. “I’m sure you’ve heard the old land-shanty,” and in a lilting, high-pitched voice she sang, “
Beware, beware of the Sea of Khazak, for the town that goes near it will never come back…”
But Tom wasn’t listening. He had noticed something much more terrible than any inland sea.
Directly below, with the tiny shadow of the
flickering across its skeletal girders, lay a dead city. It stood on ground scarred by the tracks of hundreds of smaller towns, tilting over at a strange angle, and as the
swept down for a closer look Tom realized that its tracks and gut were gone, and that its deckplates were being stripped out by a swarm of small towns which seethed in the shadows of its lower levels, tearing off huge rusting sections in their jaws and landing salvage parties whose blow-torches glittered and sparked in the shadows between the tiers like fairy lights on a Quirkemas tree.
There was a puff of smoke from one of the towns and a rocket came winding up towards the airship and exploded a few hundred feet below. Miss Fang’s hands moved swiftly over the controls and Tom felt the ship lift again. “Half the scavengers of the Hunting Ground are working on the wreck of Motoropolis,” she said, “and they are a jealous lot. Shoot at anybody who comes near, and when nobody does, they shoot at each other.”
“But how did it get like that?” asked Tom, staring back at the huge skeleton as the
carried him up and away.
“It starved,” said the aviatrix. “It ran out of fuel, and as it stood motionless there a pack of smaller towns came and started tearing it apart. The feeding frenzy has been going on for months, and I expect another city will come along soon and finish off the job. You see, Tom, there isn’t enough prey to go round in the central Hunting Ground—so it can’t be that which has brought London out of hiding.”
Tom twisted round to watch as the dead city fell behind. A pack of tiny predator-suburbs were harrying the scavenger towns on the north-western side, singling out the weakest and slowest and charging after it, but before they caught it the
rose up again into the pure, clean world above the clouds, and the carcass of Motoropolis was hidden from view.
When Miss Fang looked at him again she was still smiling, but there was an odd gleam in her eyes. “So if it isn’t prey that Magnus Crome is after,” she said, “what can it be?”
Tom shook his head. “I’m only an Apprentice Historian,” he confessed. “Third Class. I don’t really know the Head Navigator.”
“Hester mentioned something,” the aviatrix went on. “The thing Mr Valentine took from her poor parents. MEDUSA. A strange name. Have you heard of it? Do you know what it means?”
Tom shook his head and she watched him closely, watched his eyes until he felt as if she were looking right into his soul. Then she laughed. “Well, no matter. I must get you to Airhaven, and we’ll find a ship to take you home.”
* * *
Airhaven! It was one of the most famous towns of the whole Traction Era, and when the warble of its homing-beacon came over the radio that evening Tom went racing forward to the flight deck. He met Hester in the companion-way outside the sick-bay, tousled and sleepy and limping. Anna Fang had done her best with the wounded leg, but she hadn’t improved the girl’s manners; she hid her face when she saw Tom and only glared and grunted when he asked her how she felt.
On the flight deck the aviatrix turned to greet them with a radiant smile. “Look, my dears!” she said, pointing ahead through the big windows. “Airhaven!”
They went and stood behind her seat and looked, and far away across the sea of clouds they saw the westering sun glint on a single tier of light-weight alloy and a nimbus of brightly coloured gas-bags.
Long ago, the town of Airhaven had decided to escape the hungry cities by taking to the sky. It was a trading post and meeting place for aviators now, drifting above the Hunting Ground all summer, then flying south to winter in warmer skies. Tom remembered how it had once anchored over London for a whole week; how the sight-seeing balloons had gone up and down from Kensington Gardens and Circle Park, and how jealous he had been of people like Melliphant who were rich enough to take a trip in one and come back full of stories about the floating town. Now he was going there himself, and not just as a sightseer, either! What a story he would be able to tell the other apprentices when he got home!
Slowly the airship rose towards the town, and as the sun dipped behind the cloud-banks in the west Miss Fang cut her engines and let her drift in towards a docking strut, while harbour officers in sky-blue livery waved multi-coloured flags to guide her safely to her berth. Behind them the dock was crowded with sightseers and aviators, and even a little gaggle of airship-spotters who dutifully jotted down the
number in their notebooks as the mooring clamps engaged.
A few moments later Tom was stepping out into the twilight and the chill, thin air, gazing at the airships coming and going; elegant high-liners and rusty scows, trim little air-cutters with see-through envelopes and tiger-striped spice-freighters from the Hundred Islands. “Look!” he said, pointing up at the rooftops. “There’s the Floating Exchange, and that church is St MichaePs-in-the-Sky, there’s a picture of it in the London Museum!” But Miss Fang had seen it many, many times before, and Hester just scowled at the crowds on the quayside and hid her face.
The aviatrix locked the Jenny’s hatches with a key that hung on a thong around her neck, but when a little bare-foot boy ran up and tugged at her coat saying, “Watch yer airship for yer, Missus?” she laughed and dropped three square bronze coins into his palm. “I won’t let nobody sneak aboard!” he promised, taking up his post beside the gangplank. Uniformed deckhands appeared, grinning at Miss Fang but staring suspiciously at her new groundling friends. They checked that the newcomers had no metal toecaps on their boots or lighted cigarettes about their persons, then led them back to the harbour-office where huge, crudely-lettered notices insisted NO SMOKING, TURN OFF ALL ELECTRICS and MAKE NO SPARKS. Sparks were the terror of the air-trade, because of the danger that they might ignite the gas in the airships’ envelopes. In Airhaven even over-vigorous hair-brushing was a serious crime, and all new arrivals had to sign strict safety agreements and convince the harbourmaster that they were not likely to burst into flames.
At last they were allowed up a metal stairway to the High Street. Airhaven’s single thoroughfare was a hoop of lightweight alloy deckplates lined with shops and stalls, chandleries, cafes and airshipmen’s hotels. Tom turned around and around, trying to take everything in and make sure he would remember it for ever. He saw turbines whirling on every rooftop, milling the wind to feed the central power plant, and mechanics crawling like spiders over the huge engine pods. The air was thick with the exotic smells of foreign food, and everywhere he looked there were aviators, striding along with the careless confidence of people who had lived their whole life in the sky, their long coats fluttering behind them like leathery wings.
Miss Fang pointed along the curve of the High Street to a building with a sign in the shape of an airship. “That’s the Gasbag and Gondola,” she told her companions. “I’ll buy you dinner, and then we’ll find a friendly captain to take you back to London.”
They strode towards it, the aviatrix in the lead, Hester hiding from the world behind her upraised hand, Tom still looking about in wonder and thinking it a pity that his adventures would soon be over. He didn’t notice a Goshawk 90 circling among a shoal of larger vessels, waiting for a berth. Even if he had, he would not have been able to read its registration numbers at this distance, or see that the insignia on its envelope was the red wheel of the Guild of Engineers.
The inn was big and dark and busy. The walls were decorated with airships in bottles and the propellers of famous old sky-clippers with their names carefully painted on the blades, Nadhezna and Aerymouse and Invisible Worm. Aviators clustered round the metal tables, talking of cargoes and the price of gas. There were Jains and Tibetans and Xhosa, Inuit and Air-Tuareg and fur-clad giants from the Ice Wastes. An Uighur girl played “Slipstream Serenade” on her forty-string guitar, and now and then a loudspeaker would announce, “Arrival on strut three; the Idiot Wind fresh from the Nuevo-Mayan Palatinates with a cargo of chocolate and vanilla,” or, “Now boarding at strut seven; My Shirona outbound for Arkangel…”
Anna Fang stopped at a little shrine just inside the door and said her thanks to the gods of the sky for a safe journey. The God of Aviators was a friendly-looking fellow—the fat red statue on the shrine reminded Tom of Chudleigh Pomeroy—but his wife, the Lady of the High Heavens, was cruel and tricky; if offended she might brew up hurricanes or burst a gas-cell. Anna made her an offering of rice-cakes and lucky money, and Tom and Hester nodded their thank-yous just in case.
When they looked up the aviatrix was already hurrying away from them towards a group of aviators at a corner table. “Khora!” she shouted, and by the time they caught up with her she was being whirled round and round in the arms of a handsome young African and talking quickly in Airsperanto. Tom was almost sure he heard her mention “MEDUSA” as she glanced back at him and Hester, but by the time they drew near the talk had switched into Anglish and the African was saying, “We rode high-level winds all the way from Zagwa!” and shaking red Sahara sand out of his flying helmet to prove it.
He was Captain Khora of the gunship Mokele Mbembe and he came from a static enclave in the Mountains of the Moon, an ally of the Anti-Traction League. Now he was bound for Shan Guo, to begin a tour of duty in the League’s great fortress at Batmunkh Gompa. Tom was shocked at first to be sharing a table with a soldier of the League, but Khora seemed a good man, as kind and welcoming as Miss Fang herself. While she ordered food he introduced his friends: the tall gloomy one was Nils Lindstrom of the Garden Aeroplane Trap, and the beautiful Arab lady with the laugh was Yasmina Rashid of the Palmyrene privateer Zainab. Soon the aviators were all laughing together, reminding each other of battles above the Hundred Islands and drunken parties in the airmen’s quarter on Panzerstadt-Linz, and between stories Anna Fang pushed dishes across the table to her guests. “More battered dormouse, Tom? Hester, try some of this delicious devilled bat!”
While Tom poked the strange foreign food around his plate with the pair of wooden sticks he had been given instead of a knife and fork, Khora leaned close and said softly, “So are you and your girlfriend crewing aboard the
“No, no!” Tom assured him quickly. “I mean, no, she’s not my girlfriend, and no, we are just passengers…” He fumbled with some mashed locust and asked, “Do you know Miss Fang well?”
“Oh yes!” laughed Khora. “The whole air-trade knows Anna. And the whole of the League too, of course. In Shan Guo they call her
Tom wondered why Miss Fang would have a special name in Shan Guo, but before he could ask, Khora went on, “Do you know, she built the
herself? When she was just a girl she and her parents had the bad luck to be aboard a town that was eaten by Arkangel. They were put to work as slaves in the airship-yards there, and over the years she managed to sneak an engine here, a steering vane there, until she built herself the
Tom was impressed. “She didn’t say,” he murmured, looking at the aviatrix in a new light.
“She doesn’t talk about it,” said Khora. “You see, her parents did not live to escape with her; she watched them die in the slave-pits.”
Tom felt a rush of sympathy for poor Miss Fang, his fellow orphan. Was that why she smiled all the time, to hide her sorrow? And was that why she had rescued Hester and himself, to save them from her parents’ fate? He smiled at her as kindly as he could, and she caught his eye and smiled back and passed him a plate of crooked black legs. “Here, Tom, try a sauteed tarantula…”
“Arrival on strut fourteen!” blared the loudspeaker overhead. “London airship GE47 carrying passengers only.”
Tom jumped up and his chair fell backwards with a crash. He could remember the little fast-moving scout ships that the Engineers used to survey London’s tracks and superstructure, and he remembered how they didn’t have names, just registration codes, and how all the codes started with GE. “They’ve sent someone after us!” he gasped.
Miss Fang was rising to her feet as well. “It might just be coincidence,” she said. “There must be lots of airships from London… And even if Valentine has sent someone after you, you are among friends. We are more than a match for your horrible Beefburgers.”
Tom corrected her automatically, although he knew that she had made the mistake deliberately, just to break the tension. He saw Hester smile and felt glad that she was there, and fiercely determined to protect her.
Then all the lights went out.
There were shouts, boos, a crash of falling crockery from the kitchens. The windows were dim twilight-coloured shapes cut out of the dark. “The electrics are off all over Airhaven!” said Lindstrom’s gloomy voice. “The power-plant must have failed!”
“No,” said Hester quickly. “I know this trick. It’s meant to create chaos and stop us leaving. Someone’s here, coming for us…” There was an edge of panic in her voice that Tom hadn’t heard before, not even in the chase at Stayns. Suddenly he felt very frightened.
From the far end of the room, where crowds of people were spilling out on to the moonlit High Street, a sudden scream arose. Then came another, and a long crash of breaking glass, shrieks, curses, the clatter of chairs and tables falling. Two green lamps bobbed above the crowd like corpse-lanterns.
“That’s no Beef eater! “said Hester.
Tom couldn’t tell if she was frightened, or relieved.
“hester shaw!” screeched a voice like a saw cutting metal. Over by the doorway a sudden cloud of vapour bloomed, and out of it stepped a Stalker.
It was seven feet tall, and beneath its coat shone metal armour. The flesh of its long face was pale, glistening with a slug-like film of mucus, and here and there a blue-white jag of bone showed through the skin. Its mouth was a slot full of metal teeth. Its nose and the top of its head were covered by a long metal skull-piece with tubes and flexes trailing down like dreadlocks, their ends plugged into ports on its chest. Its round glass eyes gave it a startled look, as if it had never got over the horrible surprise of what had happened to it.
Because that was the worst thing about the Stalkers: they had been human once, and somewhere beneath that iron cowl a human brain was trapped.
“It’s impossible!” Tom whimpered. “There
any Stalkers! They were all destroyed centuries ago!” But the Stalker stood there still, horribly real. Tom tried to back away, but he couldn’t move. Something was trickling down his legs, as hot as spilled tea, and he realized that he had wet himself.
The Stalker came forward slowly, shoving aside the empty chairs and tables. Fallen glasses burst under its feet. From the shadows behind an aviator swung at it with a sword, but the blade rebounded from its armour and it smashed the man aside with a sweeping blow of one huge fist, not even bothering to glance back.
“hester shaw,” it said. “thomas natsworthy.”
It knows my name! he thought.
“I…” began Miss Fang, but even she seemed lost for words. She pulled Tom backwards while Khora and the others drew their swords and stepped between the creature and its prey. But Hester pushed past them. “It’s all right,” she said in a strange, thin voice. “I know him. Let me talk to him.”
The Stalker swung its dead-white face from Tom to Hester, lenses whirring inside mechanical eyes. “HESTER SHAW,” it said, caressing her name with its gas-leak hiss of a voice.
“Hello, Shrike,” said Hester.
The great head tilted to stare down at her. A metal hand rose, hesitated, then touched her face, leaving streaks of oil.
“I’m sorry I never got the chance to say goodbye…”
“I WORK FOR THE LORD MAYOR OF LONDON NOW,” Said Shrike. “he has sent me to kill you.”
Tom whimpered again. Hester gave a brittle little laugh. “But … you won’t do it, will you, Shrike? You wouldn’t kill
“yes,” said Shrike flatly, still staring down at her.
“No, Shrike!” whispered Hester, and Miss Fang seized her chance. She drew a little fan-shaped sliver of metal from a pocket in the sleeve of her coat and sent it whirling towards the Stalker’s throat. It made an eerie moaning sound as it flew, unfolding into a shimmering, razor-edged disc. “A Nuevo-Mayan Battle Frisbee!” gasped Tom, who had seen such weapons safe in glass cases in the Weapons Warfare section at the Museum. He knew that they could sever a man’s neck at sixty paces, and he tensed, waiting for the Stalker’s skull to drop from its shoulders—but the frisbee just hit Shrike’s armoured throat with a clang and lodged there, quivering.
The slit of a mouth lengthened into a long smile and the Stalker darted forward, quick as a lizard. Miss Fang sidestepped, jumped past it and swung a high kick, but it was far too fast for her. “Run!” she shouted at Hester and Tom. “Get back to the Jenny! I’ll follow!”
What else could they do? They ran. The thing snatched at them as they ducked past, but Khora was there to grab its arm and Nils Lindstrom swung his sword at its face. The Stalker flung Khora off and raised its hand; there were sparks and a shriek of metal on metal, and Lindstrom dropped the broken sword and howled and clutched his arm. It threw him aside and lifted Anna off her feet as she came at it again, swinging her hard against Khora and Yasmina when they rushed to her aid.
“Miss Fang!” shouted Tom. For a moment he thought of going back, but he knew enough about Stalkers to know that there was nothing he could do. He ran after Hester, over a heap of bodies in the doorway and out into shadows and twilight and the frightened, milling crowds. A siren was keening mournfully. There was acrid smoke on the breeze and over by the power-plant he thought he saw the flicker of the thing all aviators feared the most: fire!
“I don’t understand,” gasped Hester, talking to herself, not Tom. “He wouldn’t kill
But she kept running, and together they dashed out on to Strut Seven where the
was waiting for them.
But Shrike had already made certain that the little airship would not be going anywhere that night. The envelope had been slashed, the cowling of the starboard engine pod had been wrenched open like an old tin can and a spaghetti of torn wiring spilled out on to the quay. Among it lay the broken body of the boy Miss Fang had paid to guard her ship.
Tom stood staring at the wreckage. Behind him, faintly, growing closer, footsteps trod the metal deck: pung, pung, pung, pung.
He looked round for Hester, and found her gone; limping away along the docking ring—running
he realized, for the damaged air-town was developing a worrying tilt. He shouted her name and sprinted after her, following her out on to a neighbouring strut. A tatty-looking balloon had just arrived there, spilling out a family of startled sightseers who weren’t sure if the darkness and the shouting meant an emergency or some sort of carnival. Hester shouldered her way through them and grabbed the balloonist by his goggles, heaving him out of his basket. It sagged away from the quay as she leaped in. “Stop! Thieves! Hijackers! Help!” the balloonist was shouting, but all Tom could hear was that faint, appalling
approaching fast along the High Street.
“Tom! Come on!”
He summoned all his courage and leaped after Hester. She was fumbling at the mooring ropes as he landed in the bottom of the basket. “Throw everything overboard,” she shouted at him.
He did as he was told and the balloon lurched upwards, level with the first-floor windows, with the rooftops, with the spire of St Michael’s. Soon Airhaven was a doughnut of darkness falling away behind them and below, and Shrike was just a speck, his green eyes glowing as he stalked out along the strut to watch them go.