Though I call them prophecies, they are not the visions of John and Daniel. What the Lady and her
Consort consent to show me of the future is derived of exacting calculation and long-practiced
methodology. He is a masterful observer with a capacity of extrapolation that parallels the omniscient.
She is a force of will stronger than the very tectonic plates of the Earth.
This future that I have been shown is more true than any premonition, for it is a future they will build
themselves. If these visions were prophecies only, I may still have hope.
Bergen’s neck tingled. Like a dull knife run up and down over the hairs, the sensation saturated his
muscles with tension. It was a familiar feeling, one honed in the jungles of the dark continent over half a
lifetime of travel there—a feeling Bergen linked with the savage heritage of man, a relic of primordial
times when danger lurked all around.
He was being watched.
“Ready yourselves,” he ordered.
Mulls and Pennyedge unslung their air rifles.
Bergen unbuckled the straps of the steam rifle’s holster and lowered it carefully to the ground. He
scanned the shifting smog around them.
For the tenth time he cursed the air that clung to the downstreets. It was a suffocating blanket of oily
yellow blackness, staining everything it touched. Just to breathe it required a cloth tied tight across the
mouth and nose that had to be kept wet at all times and regularly scraped to remove the buildup of grime.
The eyes, too, needed protection, for the air would sting and water them. Von Herder had given them
fish-bowl spectacles: half spheres of glass ringed in rubber and held tight over the eyes by a leather strap.
Their curvature distorted Bergen’s peripheral vision, and he cursed them, too.
“Nothin’ out there, Gov,” Mulls grumbled, sweeping his lantern side to side.
“Quiet.” Bergen braced his legs and hauled the heavy weapon from its holster. He set the butt end over
his shoulder, nestling it in the slight dip between his deltoid and his neck. The heat from the gun pressed in
on his face as he raised it. The boiler was heated electrically, and rapidly came to full pressure.
“Not like we’s can see anyway,” Mulls grumbled.
“Quiet!” Bergen snapped. “I want a circle, torches facing out.”
Mulls muttered something under his breath and complied. Penny obeyed without question. The boy’s
eyes darted from shadow to shadow, and he held himself in a ready half crouch. The boy held the air rifle like it might be a spear, and shuffled his feet side to side. In contrast, Mulls and Bergen stood tall,
straight, relaxed, weapons slightly lowered so the eyes could scan wide, but high enough to snap the guns
into aiming position when necessary. Bergen nodded to himself at Mulls’ form. The man must have
listened to his instructions after all.
Something metallic scraped in the dark as it moved. Mulls started badly. Pennyedge merely angled
himself towards the sound, remaining ready. The American-made electric torches tied to their belts
illuminated more of the falling ash than the surrounding terrain; beneath the Shadwell Underbelly, no other
light existed. The shifting air hid whatever other motion might be visible.
Bergen knew what it must be: he felt the rhythm of an animal prowl.Like Africa, he thought.Like the
Dark Continent watching me through the eyes of her supplicants.
He mentally dropped the analogy. These were not tigers, nor lions, nor even wolves. These creatures
would not halt to consider whether their prey was worth the trouble. These creatures merely considered
the best way to close for the kill.
“They are coming. Both of you be prepared to drop low. Hit them in the face or shoulders to delay
them. The killing shots will be mine.”
Seven heartbeats passed.
A scrape and growl exploded from the ashfall near Mulls. Mulls locked his rifle into position and planted
two solid shots into the charging creature’s head. The air rifle puffed soundlessly as it discharged, stirring
Bergen’s hair with wind. Bergen did not turn for that creature yet.
Another leapt from Penny’s side, at the far right of Bergen’s field of fire. Penny threw two haphazard
shots into it. The beast whirled and skidded to its right, directly into the path of the steam rifle. Still
Bergen did not fire.
Another charged from behind. Bergen let Penny take that one as well, knowing Mulls could hold it back
if Penny could not. Mulls fired twice more at his own quarry.
Bergen leveled the steam rifle and sighted along the length of it. Between the weapon’s bulges and
lengths of crinkled metal tubing, he watched the creature right itself to all fours, then spin on him. The
torchlight bounced back off brass-knob eyes, cast-iron skin, and teeth of tarnished steel. The beast
roared, a sound like a great machine collapsing, and leapt for Bergen’s throat.
He put a round between its jaws.
The steel bullet vanished into the creature’s body trailing a blast of steam that burst into a dance of
lightning an instant later. The force of the discharge torqued Bergen’s body to the right. He let the
momentum carry him in a spin, dissipating it in motion rather than in tearing his shoulder apart. His target
vanished, sparking, into the smog.
The sweep of the weapon carried Bergen’s field of fire to the area behind him. He found Penny
crouching, still holding the air rifle like a spear, hurling his last few rounds into the swerving mechanical
horror beyond. Bergen hauled back on the rifle’s handles, pushing it into his shoulder to stop the spin. His
next shot was sloppy, splattering steam across Penny’s back. It took the target through the shoulder,
splintering a portion of its torso and casting its gears over the ground.
He’d been unprepared for the recoil. The rifle kicked into his shoulder like a horse, and he felt muscles
twitch and spasm in his chest and back as he strained to keep hold of it. Penny dropped to the ground as
the steam cloud’s electric discharge jolted him. The beast fled into the dark with a yowl like glass
scraping on glass.
Mulls cracked off two more rounds and Bergen knew without keeping track that they were his last. A
grunt or growl escaped Bergen’s lips as he tried to pull the steam rifle around and sight on the third beast.
Mulls dropped to one knee, scrambling to pull cartridges out of his belt. His target, knocked flat by his
last shots, pulled itself effortlessly to its feet. In a heartbeat, the creature had dug in its heels and leapt at
him, stretching wide its beaklike maw.
Bergen bit down against the pain in his shoulder as he steadied the steam rifle.
Mulls brought up his weapon and jammed it horizontally into the creature’s mouth. The steel teeth
crushed the barrel and splintered the stock and casing. Mulls screamed as one of the creature’s forepaws
landed on his chest and began to tear into his coat.
Bergen took an extra second to steady himself, bending his knees and bracing for the discharge. The
creature tossed the shredded remains of Mulls’ rifle aside and plunged its jaws towards his face.
Bergen put the shot into the base of its neck, parallel to the spine. The rush of steam blocked all vision,
but Bergen knew it was a hit.
Silence descended quickly after that. Bergen let his arms drop and settled the steam rifle bore-first to the
Freed to move again, his shoulder burst into a storm of pain. Muscles spasmed up along his back. He
couldn’t help but drop to a collapsed squat, wondering if anything were sprained.
“Unspeakable rotter!” Mulls cried.
He was alive, then. Good. Bergen reached a shaking hand up to wipe the condensation off his
“Help me, you sots,” Mulls said. “The rotter’s bloody heavy.”
Bergen laid the steam rifle on its side and staggered to help. Penny joined him, still walking light and
tense like a cat, and together they wrestled the metal carcass of the third creature off Mulls’ chest. The
big man gave the thing a kick, then sat up.
“Stupid beast. What in God’s name was it?”
“They are called Ticker Hounds.”
“Blimey. Didn’t think they’s real. Just stories, you know.” Mulls accepted Bergen’s hand and stood. The
action, so unconscious a reflex, strained Bergen’s throbbing shoulder.
“Are you wounded?” Bergen asked.
Mulls’ eyebrows twitched up; a metallic growth in his cheek swivelled a bit. He patted down his chest.
“Nothing but me coat, Gov.” He stretched the coat away from his body to show the three tattered
slashes across the front. “Bit o’ the vest beneath. Bit o’ the shirt beneath that, I wager. Christ, but it had
Bergen glanced at Penny, who, besides breathing harder, maintained his disinterest as he examined the
Mulls crossed himself. “That thing is downright unholy.”
The carcass of the hound lay on its side. Its back from the base of its neck to its hips gaped wide,
streaming black oil and a colourless ooze onto the flagstones beneath. Its guts had laid a cone-shaped
mark behind it, some ten feet long. Twisted bits of metal had been scattered across the area, with some
wet lumps that might have looked like flesh in better light.
The thought came to Bergen that there might be more.
“Boy, give Mulls your weapon,” Bergen ordered.
Penny spun on him with narrowed eyes. Bergen stared coldly back.
“The weapon goes to the man who will make the best use of it, boy.”
Bergen could feel the lad’s suspicion. Still Penny hesitated.
Bergen placed his right hand on the hilt of his sidearm. Tendon and bone grated together inside his
shoulder and he winced. He tried to disguise it as a sneer.
“I have not the time for thisBockmist right now.”
An empty threat, and the boy knew it.
“Easy, mate,” Mulls cut in, addressing the youth. “You can have the flasher. You’re better in close than
Not breaking eye contact with Bergen, Penny reached out one hand with the rifle. Mulls fully wrapped
his fingers around it before attempting to haul it away, and passed over the flasher. Penny snatched it and
let it hang from his fist by the leather shoulder strap. He made no move to put it on.
“Do you know how to use that?” Bergen asked.
Penny did not answer.
Had Johnwanted this sojourn sabotaged, sending along such a disobedient child?
Bergen’s frustration mounted. The boy clearly considered himself Bergen’s equal, and would take every
opportunity to challenge him from then on out. Allowing that balderdash was no way to run an
“Come and kill me, then, boy,” Bergen rumbled. “See how far the two of you make it. What will you do when there are five or six hounds? What will you do when the clickrats in their hundreds become hungry
for your bones, or the nesses drag you down into their holes? How is your sense of direction, boy? How
is your sense of time?”
Penny’s lip twitched at the corners.Angry? Good. As long as you’re listening.
Bergen beat a fist against his chest. “I have crossed the Sahara and the Alps, boy. I have been in and out
of the Congo a half dozen times. You are here because John Scared assigned you to me, and for no
other reason. I will have your concentration and your obedience or I am done with you. And when you
think of murdering me, think first of this: I am quite capable of returning to the city under my own
direction and with the help of no one else. Therefore: I can kill you, but you cannot kill me, lest you doom
yourself. Is that clear?”
Though Bergen saw no change in Penny’s outward expression, he felt the boy’s presence diminishing,
until he seemed less an adder than a toothless dog trying to affect ferocity.
“Put on the flasher. I will waste no more time on these childish games.” Bergen turned his back and bent
to wrap the steam rifle in its holster.
He is not a toothless dog,said a thought in Bergen’s mind.Right this instant he is contemplating how best
to dispatch you. He knows he is faster than you.
Bergen ignored the thought. He’d left the boy little choice but to fall into step, and so the boy would fall
Bergen detached and switched the handles on the steam rifle. Von Herder, in one of his characteristic fits
of brilliance, had designed the weapon with the ability to be configured for left-or right-hand firing. The
right shoulder would not heal sufficiently for some hours. Fortunately, Bergen was left-handed.
Mulls stood nervously to the side, shifting weight from one foot to another. Bergen might have chastised
him for it, but that he didn’t want to give Penny any reprieve from the embarrassment of his censure. He
calmly reloaded the steam rifle’s empty chambers, then hefted the mechanism onto his back. The right
shoulder strap bit sharply into the skin, a sure sign of a developing bruise.
“Come,” he ordered. “We are barely past Lenman Tower.”
He marched into the gloom without looking back.
Oliver idly watched a clickrat gnawing on Tommy’s boot. The little creature looked more like a
truncated snake than a rat, sporting a pointed silver head and a stump of a tail, and getting around on six
spiderlike tin legs. It did have prodigious teeth, though, which it put to use with some vigour on its chosen
prey. Tom fluffed his newspaper and didn’t seem to notice.
“Always seem to come to Shadwell the instant anything goes awry, don’t they?” he said, turning the
Oliver looked up to see a group of four gentlemen gold cloaks striding purposefully down the street
towards the lifts at the far east end. Their gold capes gleamed against the background of grey-and
black-clad humanity that wandered antlike along the street towards their homes and families after a long day at the factories. The street was officially named Marlowe Street, and ran the length of the
Underbelly, from the lifts at the one end to the sheer drop at the other. The natives had named it, as well
as the people who walked it, the Beggar’s Parade.
“They came from Phin’s area. Think he marked them?” Oliver asked.
“He probably tried to engage them in dither.” Tommy folded the newspaper neatly in two and passed it
to Oliver. “Ah. There he goes.”
Oliver scanned out into the crowd, picking out a crooked hat bobbing on the river of humanity as certain
as a leaf on a true stream. It floated after the cloaks as they turned up a side street called Disraeli’s
Amble. Phineas had them well in hand.
Oliver wondered briefly what a real river looked like.
“Queer bit,” Tom said, “and a waste of personnel, getting one whole crew to watch the Underbelly.
Only one way in, after all.”
“Sir Bailey is keeping us out of his way,” Oliver said with undisguised bitterness. “Thinks we’re all
rabble. A lesser class.” The newspaper turned out to be the midday edition of theWhitechapel Guardian,
a rag put out by Baron Hume’s personal publishing house in Cathedral. “Why are you reading this tripe,
Tom shrugged, cocked his head, and watched the clickrat nibble his boot. “We’re all a lesser class,
Chief.We were born here, weren’t we? ”
“Mmm…” Oliver scanned the yellowed paper. The topmost story read “Engineers Confirm the near
completion of the Great Work.” It went on at some length about the heroic strides of the crows in
bringing Mama Engine’s mysterious goal to fruition. They had been saying the same thing for years, so
Oliver passed on. The next story detailed the capture of several groups of rebels in league with the British
Crown, and dwelt at length on their various evils and the degree to which the streets would be safer now
that they were gone. Oliver almost tore the paper in two right then.
The rest read like an advertisement for the grand benefits of joining up with the canaries.Yes, please cut
my heart out with a dull pick and replace it with a bunch of gears and springs. That would be smashing.
“Why are you reading that tripe, Ollie?”
“Shut your trap.” He folded the paper over and tucked it under his arm, with the intention of throwing it
down the next hole he came to. “Did you notice if the cloaks were still performing searches?”
“Mainly up towards the lift,” Tom said. As he regarded the relentless assault of the little clickrat, a dull
smile crept onto his face, as of a stern parent finally relenting at his child’s cries for candy. “I think I’ll
Oliver frowned. “Keep him? That creature would eat the nose from your face.”
“Got some energy, eh?” Tom pulled a length of wire from the pocket of his oversized long coat. Oliver
watched with fascination as Tommy bent down, squeezed the rat’s cheeks with his mechanical hand to
make it release his boot, and held it fast while tying its jaws shut with the wire. That done, he lay the
clickrat on its back in the palm of his hand, where it squirmed and clicked furiously. He removed another length of wire and bound all six legs together against its body with an ingenious multiple-layered loop.
Thomas held his prise high.
“I shall call him Jeremy Longshore the Third, and I dub him King of the Clickrats. May his reign be long
and fruitful, free from tribulation, and rife with bountiful harvests and competent public works ministers.”
He dumped the struggling creature into a coat pocket and returned his attention to the Beggar’s Parade
as if nothing had occurred.
Oliver shook his head in amazement. “Just don’t bring it in the hideout.”
The hiss of steam echoed across the Underbelly, drawing both their eyes to the lift. It ascended the shaft
on clacking chains, vanishing behind the massive clock that hung halfway up. Canaries would be stationed
at the top of it as well as the bottom.
“We’ll have a bit of difficulty getting Sir Bailey’s prise out of this place, what with all this company,” said
“Not if Missy takes it.”
Tommy cracked a toothy grin. “Good call, that, mate. You’ve had this planned out for a while, then?”
“You know I’d have planned a deal more if Bailey deigned to render me as much information as we
Tommy made a sympathetic face.
“Yes, you’d surely be running all the crews by now. Poor Ollie: your greatness languishes unrealised.”
Yes, that’s it. Like a kick in the shins the morning after a good gaff.He’d thought many times about
breaking with Bailey and fighting their silent war independently. He’d worked it out to the last ha’penny:
financing, recruiting, placement, encoding and packaging information—even a method to smuggle any
gathered intelligence out of Whitechapel via the German airships. He was still working on a way in and
out of the Stack, but Hews could help with that. It was his perpetual daydream: to personally contrive the
fall of Baron Hume and his puppet master godlings.
But then his mind always came back to the Uprising, and the magnificent plan fell to ashes and scrap. He
knew that no one blamed him for it. Many of the Shadwell locals still looked on him with awe, even
gratitude, that he had dared to pick up a gun and do what he did. But the fact was that when the Boiler
Men had marched down in their hundreds and shot half the men and a third of the women, he hadn’t
been prepared. That was the truth of it.
As if to break their silence, Tom patted his pocket where the clickrat still fought furiously for his
freedom. Tommy squeaked in mock outrage: “‘Give me liberty or give me death!’”
“He’s a Yankee, then?”
“He quotes freely from rebels and state heroes alike.”
Tommy stuck his mechanical hand into the pocket and made cooing sounds.
“Perhaps I’ll leave you two,” Oliver said. He straightened his vest and coat, then dragged one finger
around the brim of his ash hat. It came back nearly clean. It was the one positive trait of the Underbelly:
almost none of the grey snow got past the Concourse above. “I’ll be back around in twenty.”
He stepped off the sidewalk, tipped his hat to a passing madam he knew, and fell in step with the
Parade, natural as donning an old slipper.
He moved along, shuffling and loping with the gait of the tired but vocal backers and sweaters, greeting
those he knew, smiling politely at those he didn’t, until he was able to angle into the Amble. Disraeli’s
Amble struck such a contrast to the busy and noisy Beggar’s Parade that for a moment Oliver’s ears
rang with imagined shouts. The Amble never seemed to have carts, hawkers, or even much foot traffic.
Everyone in the Underbelly agreed that it was named for Disraeli’s ghost who, having lost his famed
“blank page” between the Old and New Testaments, had gone there to mope about it, and no one likes a
He found Phineas in wide-eyed contemplation of a streetlamp. “Where are they?”
It was several seconds before the old sailor answered. “In their impossibly subtle way, they’re askin’
Bart Cagey about the state of the Underbelly.”
“Jolly good. He’ll be as helpful as a spokeless wheel,” Oliver thought aloud. “You’ll keep a watch on
“I’ll keep an ear on ’em if it’s all the same. I can hear a lot farther than I can see.”
Phin cocked his head. His crushed top hat slid down over one ear. “Bart’s shaking hands now, tellin’
’em how honoured he is to have ’em in his shop.”
“How farcan you hear, Phin?” Oliver asked.
“A few blocks, now that I’m out of that blasted crowd. There’s a cloak coming up the Parade, by the
Oliver peered down to the sea of hats, looking for the signs: stiff-legged walk, rhythmic steps, straight
spine. In seconds he’d picked out the cloak, a tall middle-aged man in a vest and beret, a stock of books
balanced on a tray he held in front of him. A hawker not hawking, despite being shoulder-deep in
potential customers. Why did these people even bother attempting stealth?
“I’ll dog him,” said Oliver. “At least until he gets onto Missy’s block. Keep that sharp ear open.”
Phineas nodded, already turning his attention back to the lamp. Oliver jogged down the Amble and took
his place in the Parade.
Oliver had never been a good hound. He was far too tall, standing on average a full head above the
stunted forms around him. His trick was to seem unimportant, so that when he inevitably drew a target’s
eye he would render the appearance of a mere sweater, haggard and worn down by work and smoke and dark, and not worthy of more than a glance.
The cloak appeared oblivious to pursuit, a blind fox in a field of dogs. He walked purposefully ahead,
maintaining the exact pace of the crowd, looking neither left nor right, not up at the dim ceiling many
storeys above, nor down at the uneven and ever-shifting roadway.
Oliver had decided years ago that he hated crowds. People moved on the streets like herds of animals,
barely daring to whisper to one another, lest they be overheard by some spy. They spoke to one another
only in the safety of their own homes, and then in low voices, for their neighbour might own a clock, or
their son or daughter might have been induced to betray them. Such was life beneath the thousand faces
of Grandfather Clock and the omnipresent breath of Mama Engine.
Hews had once mentioned the congeniality of London, where people would speak easily on the streets,
comment on weather and current events, shake hands, tip hats, and go off merrier than before. Oliver
suspected more than a little romanticising on Hews’ part, for such was his habit, and Oliver had declared
the whole story poppycock. Were there not policemen in London? Were there not ministers and
noblemen and landowners? What was the difference if one’s overseers were flesh and blood instead of
iron and brass?
Hews had told him to wait until he saw it.
The crowd slowed as it reached the “domino hole,” a gap in the Parade spanned by numerous wooden
bridges of varying quality. The hole split the Underbelly from east to west, and on each side thin ledges
ran along the sides of the closest buildings, called, respectively, Alley-on-the-Left and
The disguised cloak huffed across the large central bridge with the flow of the crowd. Oliver was about
to follow when he noticed a small child watching from Alley-on-the-Left. Oliver squinted at him over the
heads of the crowd.Do I know that one?
No,he realised. That one wasn’t a native of the Underbelly, or was perhaps a new arrival, but Oliver
thought not. He would be one of Scared’s children.
Oliver caught back up to the cloak rather quickly. The man seemed to have slowed the instant he
touched the south ledge. Still, he walked with focus, staring ahead.
A little bell began ringing in Oliver’s head. On the pretence of stretching a sore neck, he glanced behind
him. Two more gold cloaks, hard-eyed young gentlemen who had chosen gold vests instead of cloaks,
hustled over the bridge in his wake. A third followed unhurriedly behind, a wide-beamed gentleman
dressed in an impeccable grey suit and hat with a gold Albert chain and gloves.
“Christ on his bloody cross!” escaped Oliver’s lips. He barely noticed the offended looks from the
people closest to him.
Oliver recognised the man. He was the one Oliver had seen shot dead just that morning in a warehouse
in Stepneyside. They’d left him an inert and bloody mass staining the warehouse floor, and now he
walked steady and stiff, in the manner of the gold cloaks, and had nothing to show for his injuries but a
bruise on his cheek and a few isolated spots of oil showing through his vest.
He thought of Tommy stabbing himself in the heart, and a sourceless rage flushed into his face and neck.
Men shoulddie when they’re shot or stabbed. Men should greet women on the street. Children shouldn’t be hauled off by Chimney gangs or recruited to work for lizards like Scared!
His long fingers slipped around the grip of the derringer in his pocket. He gritted his teeth, fighting the
instinct to whirl around and place a shot between the man’s eyes. He knew he could do it—he was tall
enough to fire over the crowd, and his earlier shooting mishap, well, that had been because he wasn’t
ready. He hadn’t the will, then.
His fingers uncurled. And he didn’t have it now. These poor sweaters and charwomen marching all
around him didn’t deserve such a random end as a battle here would give them. It wasn’t their fight.
But itwas their fight, damn it. Every able-bodied man should have taken up arms at the first opportunity.
How could they go to the Baron’s factories and give their lives to Mama Engine’s Great Work? How
could they drink the baron’s oily sludge and breathe his air and let their children do the same and do
He forced the anger down. His feet had carried him automatically in pursuit of his quarry, who was
leading him expertly towards the thin, dead-end alley between a slanting bookshop and a
yellow-windowed public house. He cursed himself.You stupid bugger. You’re being led like a
locomotive on a rail. It occurred to him that the man might be a local, to have passed several other alleys
all equally crooked and misanthropic and angled to the only one that ended without escape.
They were trying to trap him, of course. Oliver and company had done the same thing to their foxes
many times. Luckily, then and now, the trick worked only on the unobservant and the inexperienced, and
Oliver Sumner was neither.
He obediently followed his fox nearly to the mouth of the alley, passing between two vendors and their
wagons, built of tin strips and rivets and loaded respectively with tiny flags and cotton breathing masks.
As he stepped beyond the range of the streetlamps’ muddy light, he ducked suddenly and deftly to the
left, stealing up the stairs and into the bookshop, sliding through the door without fully opening it.
A little bell dinged overhead.
He spun and peered through the window, squinting to see past the condensation on the outside of the
glass. The cloth of gold his pursuers wore shimmered as they entered the range of the closest lamp. The
two younger ones clearly wanted to charge directly into the alley mouth, but the grey-suit called to them
and they stopped. The grey-suit gestured to the left and right, and the two subordinates took off along the
walk at a trot. The man who should have been dead then reached behind his back, beneath his coattails,
and drew forth the same large weapon he’d held that morning. He advanced with exaggerated caution
towards the alley mouth.
Still feeling the sting from before, eh?
The subordinate dispatched in Oliver’s direction ran past the bookshop with nary a glance. Now would
be an ideal time to escape, but Oliver hesitated, wondering if the subordinates had been ordered to circle
back to the alley mouth after a block or two. It seemed a prudent order, and the canaries weren’t entirely
fools. Better not to go out quite yet, then. Perhaps the shop would furnish another exit.
Oliver came about, and nearly jumped out of his skin.
“May I help you?” the proprietor grumbled. His face resembled a beaten scrap of unsculpted leather,
lopsided and caved in around the eyes. The piercing yellow light of the store’s single electric lamp deepened all the crevices of his face and rumpled clothing. The man smelled of cinders and smoke.
Oliver cleared his throat. “Yes, of course. May I browse?”
“Suit yourself.” The shadowed eyes flicked to the paper Oliver still held beneath his arm. “Glad to see
the younger folk keeping current.”
He swivelled without sound and vanished back into the rows of bookshelves. How had he not heard that
ghastly gentleman approaching? He mentally reprimanded himself for such a lapse and retreated into the
The building from the outside appeared to lean some thirty degrees to its right, hanging over the alley and
perhaps ultimately resting on its neighbour on the second or third storey. The inside conformed so
perfectly to that configuration that Oliver wondered if perhaps the building had been built standing straight
and had fallen over. The ceiling and walls were skewed at a disorienting angle; the rafters were steel
beams thick enough to be of natural growth. The shelves were an eclectic collection of makes, styles, and
states of disrepair, filled with cobweb-sheathed books arranged in no discernible order.
Oliver idly inspected the bookends and let his thoughts run. Was the crew in danger?Likely not. The
grey-suit just recognised me from this morning. And the men captured yesterday had never seen the faces
of Oliver’s crew. Bailey had made sure of that by keeping contact exclusively between the crew captains
and himself. Hews had mentioned something about the vast knowledge of the man called Aaron,
but…no, he had to assume the crew was safe for now, and even if they were spotted and unmasked,
they could escape through the terrain of the Underbelly, which they all knew well. Old hats at criminal
enterprise, they were, one and all.
No, not criminals. Rebels. Soldiers. They hadn’t even commented on their missing stipend.
The bell dinged again. Oliver ducked behind the shelf closest to the inward-slanting wall, squishing into a
triangular space half his height. In the process he coated his hat and much of his left sleeve with
The crisp footfalls of well-tailored shoes sounded against the faint buzz of the electric light. The bell
dinged again as the door swung closed.
“Fickin!” the new arrival shouted, much louder than necessary in the closed space. Oliver recognised it
as the clicking voice of the grey-suited cloak. “Fickin, where’ve you got to?”
Oliver heard the proprietor answer: “Who is it? I’ve had quite enough interruptions for one…Oh. It’s
“Hardly a proper greeting for one of my stature, Fickin. Have you no manners at all?”
“I hand mine out sparingly, Westerton. Now state your business or move on. I am in prayer right now.”
Westerton sounded a derisive grunt. “The Lady will forgive you. Did a man enter your shop?”
“Plenty of men enter my shop.”
“Just a few minutes past.”
“Sticky fellow. Tall like a willow.”
“That’s him. Where did he go?”
“What’s he done?”
“He is a rebel and a murderer. For your sake, I hope you are not concealing him.”
“Your accusations are unwarranted, and frankly, insulting, Westerton. He’s in the back. Browsing, he
Oliver drew the derringer. Two shots, and small ones at that. What good would those do against a man
who could be shot to death and be taking a sprightly stroll a few hours later?
The proprietor raised his voice again. “If he must be shot, please do it on the front steps.”
Conversation ceased. Only the faint taps of the cloak’s shoes remained. Oliver was sure he had that
oversized weapon of his out. He fished in his pockets for his flick knife, and found it missing: he’d left it
on the floor of the warehouse. He snatched a heavy book off the shelf instead, almost laughing at himself.
A book and a gun shorter than my index finger. Always prepared, eh?
A pile of books blocked the other end of his hiding spot, so he positioned himself to face the aisle he’d
come from. His motion, though careful, stirred up the dust and the scent of paper and old leather.
The footsteps reached the aisle just beyond. Oliver raised the derringer, wishing it were a rifle. With only
two shots, he would have to take his enemy through the eye or forehead. Any shot to the torso would
probably end up lodged in springs and gears.
A gold glove appeared, followed by a grey trouser leg. Oliver’s hands tightened on the derringer.
The barrel of the man’s weapon poked into the space, followed by his face. The dull whirr of the man’s
inner workings spread into the hole, buzzing icily in Oliver’s ears.
Go on, in the face.
Oliver sat frozen.
And then? Rush a man who can’t be killed wielding nothing but a book?
The cloak scanned the interior of the hole briefly, flicked his gun’s barrel at the floating dust particles,
and then withdrew.
“He isn’t here.”
“You’re disturbing me again, Westerton.”
“Where is he?”
“He must have left. Probably robbed me as well. I was inprayer, Westerton. I didn’t hear.”
Oliver dared to breathe. How on earth had the man not seen him?
“Well, my boys will catch him if he’s taken to the street. The Brothers of Time thank you kindly for your
“The Brothers of Creation thank you kindly for leaving me in peace.”
“You are a cantankerous fool, Fickin.”
“Then it seemsyour manners are also in limited supply. Now, will you be going or shall we continue this
transgression against common etiquette?”
The little bell dinged. The muted noise of the street filtered in. The cloak spoke once more, with a
dangerous edge in his tone.
“You have no clock, Fickin. It isn’t proper not to have a clock. People will talk, you know.”
The door closed. Silence descended. Oliver waited for the shop owner to retreat back into whatever
room he took prayer in, but heard only the buzz of the electric lamp and the scritching of rats inside the
He should get back on the street, he knew. Find the crew, locate Westerton and somehow detain or
eliminate him. Otherwise, Oliver could not move safely in the open street. But how long to wait before
attempting an exit? He couldn’t very well stay too long in the abode of a crow, but he had to give
Westerton and his cronies time to move off a few blocks.
Eventually his cramping muscles decided for him, and he shuffled out of his place of concealment.
Instantly, the proprietor was there, poking his gnarled head from behind a bookcase. Oliver’s fingers
clenched on the derringer.
The old man smiled without guile. Perhaps he hadn’t noticed the gun.
“I wondered if you had left or not,” he said. He shuffled silently up to Oliver and offered a hand. Oliver
did nothing for a moment, waffling between a feeling of knotted suspicion and an inbred impulse to
politeness. As the silence stretched, etiquette won the field. Oliver dropped his weapon casually in his
pocket as he accepted the man’s hand.
His shake was frail, the skin seeming to swim on top of the bones without the intervening benefits of flesh
“Grimsby Fickin, at your service.”
“John Bull, at yours, sir.”
The man winked. “Risqué to be using such a name, don’t you think? I don’t mind, though. I understand
the old patriotism dies hard, just like the old religion. You’ll be taking that, then?”
Oliver blinked.The book.
“Ah…certainly,” he replied congenially. “What are you asking for it?”
He reached out a hand to the book, which Oliver passed over to him. The man let the book fall open
and flicked through several gold-coloured pages marked with angular symbols in thick black ink.
“This is a fine edition,” he said. “There’s real brass in the pages, you know. I can’t part with it for less
than a crown.”
Oliver coughed up the requisite coins, mentally despairing at how light his pocket had become.
Mr. Fickin vanished the money into his clothing somewhere. Oliver noticed then that the man, as well as
dressing all in black, wore no trousers. Instead, a canvas skirtlike garment hid his lower extremities.
Smoke trickled idly from the man’s nose and ears, and he emitted an unpleasant, lingering heat.
“Good to see the younger generation taking an interest in scripture,” Fickin said. “You’ll be taught to
read it only after you’ve taken your vows, but there is much to be learned through simply becoming
familiar with the symbols.”
Oliver nodded as if he understood. He glanced down to find himself holding a copy of Atlas Hume’s
Summa Machina, the sacred book of the golds and blacks.
Treat carefully with this one,a little voice warned him, but the man seemed nice enough and a few
minutes’ further delay seemed prudent, so Oliver embellished a tad.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been wondering what it’s about, you see. TheGuardian rarely gets into specifics.”
“Of course,” said Fickin. He turned and led Oliver back through the stacks. “The bloody canaries print
it. Bunch of self-important bureaucrats. I don’t know why the Lady keeps them around.”
Oliver’s interest piqued.Yet more dissention? A lovely day this is, indeed. “Beg pardon, sir, but isn’t that
a bit blasphemous?”
The man snorted, shooting smoke out like the puff of a cigar. “Says who? Those fops are like their
namesake: pretty to look at but fragile. Now, black! That’s the colour ofiron, my lad, a sturdy and
enterprising material worthy of emulation. That’s something a man can build a dynasty on.”
Oliver suffered a sudden chill.Dynasty? “Then, you have children, sir?”
The man halted his soundless floating and winked over his shoulder. “It’s not really mine.”
As they navigated to the rear of the shop, Oliver noticed increasing layers of dust on the floors, shelves,
and rafters, undisturbed by the tread of man or rodent. The air also became increasingly thick and hot,
and heavy winds meandered through the aisles, reminiscent of the skies around the Stack. Mr. Fickin led
him to a mahogany door on the rear wall. It must have at one time been quite lavish, but now sported the
first pits of rot on its panels, and dark burn marks around its edge.
The old man reached for the door handle, hesitated. “Aren’t you going to ask me why I’m aiding an
I wasn’t going to bring it up, in fact.“I’m no murderer, sir.”
He waved off the comment. “Likely you murdered Westerton himself. This would be his sixth time, I believe, and I wish him a dozen more. And you, lad: a young man who reads theGuardian and the
scripturesand murders canaries in his spare time? A fine postulant, I say. Mighty fine.”
Oliver alternated between marveling that the rebellion’s great enemy could be so divided and marveling
at his own near-mystical ability to draw paternal responses from aged men.
Fickin’s hand clenched and unclenched on the doorknob. “You wanted specifics, Mr. Bull. Well, what
you are about to see is my own humble part of the Great Work.”
Choking back his excitement, Oliver answered, “I’m honoured, sir.”
He waved that away as well. “It seems the Good Lady favours you, my boy. You’ll find, once you have
one, that the furnace”—he tapped his chest—“guides your decisions sometimes. You’ll learn to trust it.
The Mother is quiet, true. She doesn’t demand things of you like her consort, but she still tells you what
to do, if you listen.”
He turned the knob.
“And she’s telling me, furnace or no, that you’re ready.”
The door swung wide. Oliver staggered back, his hand shooting into his pocket and snaring his gun.
Beyond the door loomed a monster, a grotesque giant of cast iron, reaching two storeys in height. In its
centre hung a black globe twice the width of a man, studded everywhere with brass rivets and covered in
bulbous glass eyes. From this central point issued a mangled array of limbs, ranging in form from
humanoid to tentacular, tipped with claws and blades and spikes of steel. Lengths of chain tethered the
creature to the ceiling, while the glow of open furnaces on all sides cast it in a hellish red light.
Fickin glided into the room, across a floor littered with tools and bits of scrap metal.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked.
Oliver could not find an answer. Fickin did not seem to expect one.
“It’s finished,” he said. “For near a fortnight now, finished.”
“What is it?” Oliver choked out.
“A child of the Great Lady,” Fickin said. “Incubated in the hands of her adopted son. These are her
seeds, and when they are sufficient in number, they will roll out over the world and grow gardens for the
Mother to dwell in. All the Earth will be made a paradise in the image of her great city.”
Oliver took a step back. The words escaped his mouth of their own accord. “A dynasty.”
Mr. Fickin looked up at the beast with tears in his eyes. “Now kneel with me, Mr. Bull. Pray to the
Not waiting for a response, Fickin lowered himself closer to the ground. The skirt he wore flared out in a
wide circle, revealing ominous bumps and edges.
“Blessed and holy Mother,” he began, “who loveth boundlessly…”
Oliver jumped as the furnaces in the room’s four corners flared, blasting him with heat.
“Praise to your sacred womb,” Fickin continued. “Praise to your Great Work.”
The furnaces flickered and their light changed from dull red to scorching orange and Oliver decided it
was time to leave. He spun to find the door shut behind him.
He leapt for the knob. As his fingers closed over it a horrid electric heat shot up his arm, searing him
through skin and bone. He screamed in pain and terror, plucking his hand away.
Fickin cried out suddenly: “Mother! You’re here! You’ve come to me.”
A sound like the tolling of a bell smothered the howl of the furnaces, fading away into a watery
Fickin’s voice echoed as if heard from the end of a long pipe.
“We, your children, who love you to the coming of winter…”
Rigid with fright, Oliver watched as the shadows on the wall before him retreated before an intensifying
Reach for the door,he urged himself.Escape.
He extended one shaking hand, balking at the cracking skin of its palm. The ferocious heat bit at him,
reddening the back of his hand, blackening the knuckles. Oliver dared not breathe.
“Forgive us our faults,” Fickin cried. “Forgive us our imperfections. We wish only to be humble…”
Inches from the knob, Oliver’s fingers froze. The heat dribbled like a thick stew into his mind, erasing
thoughts as it progressed.
Move!Oliver screamed inwardly, but the fingers would not budge. With mechanical precision, the heat
slipped into every chink in his mental armour, exploiting every fear and doubt to gain entrance.
And then Mama Engine was in his head. The horrid infernal vastness of her tore apart all comprehension
and blasted away his sense of the space around him. Oliver beheld a savage universe of pulsating desires
given form in random and hideous shapes of iron, linked across distant leagues by strings of luminous,
fiery coal. Through these tumbled the charred bodies of so many souls, worried at by shapeless creatures
of molten glass.
The closest corpse turned to him and grinned.
“She fancies you, Mr. Bull.”
Oliver squeezed his eyes shut against the sight, but it would not leave him.
The blistering heat on his neck woke him just enough to see the door shimmering through the shifting air
The doorknob! He lunged forward. His hand exploded in a flaming ruin, but the door opened, and he toppled out into the shelves. Books fell on him. The floor struck him in the face. The floorboards
scratched at his knees and palms.
He shouldered aside a bookcase that toppled into his path, kicked at another that reached for him from
the side, struck a third with his fist. The lamp leapt from above in an effort to strike him, but he dodged
aside and bolted for the door. It, too, defied him at first. Then he wrapped his charred fingers around the
handle, planted one smouldering boot on the frame, and tore it open.
The little bell dinged. He was free.