sábado, 4 de setembro de 2010

Chapter 9

An hour ago I severed my left hand with a hatchet. A new one has grown in its place. I now have fingers
of brass and iron, fingers strong enough to accomplish my next task, which is the removal of my eyes.
II. vi
Oliver was afraid of heights.
“I’m not bloody afraid of heights.”
Tommy snorted politely. “Come now, Ollie. You’re white as a ghost.”
“You clam up, Tom, or so help me I’ll be riding you down like a sled,” Oliver snapped.
Defiant pride managed to rise up and choke his fear for a few seconds. Oliver stepped up to the rim of
the tiny ledge and raised his lantern high. The light, focused by a curved mirror of polished silver behind
the flame, shot out into the dark, returning visions of smoke and the occasional gleam, indicating the
presence of a sapling steel beam. Already the glass goggles Bailey had given him had begun to blur from
greasy deposits that seemed carried on the very air.
He glanced downwards as long as he dared, charting the treacherous hand-over-foot route down into
Old Whitechapel. The “rusted stair” was a path over, under, and along the maze of beams that held up
the Shadwell Underbelly and went on to support the Concourse above. The path, such as it was, had
been marked by smears of yellow paint, the legacy of some long-forgotten explorer with more gumption
than sense.
People in this city have a strange definition of the word “stair.”
Bailey had led his team down first.
“How long, Phin?”
Phineas, reclining against the ladder leading to the public house above, had Tommy’s captured clickrat,
now eerily still, out in his palm. After a few seconds, he mumbled, “Eight minutes,” and returned to his examination.
“Let’s prepare, then,” Oliver ordered. Bailey had directed them to wait ten minutes, and then start their
Oliver adjusted the bandages on his right hand and the kerchief over his mouth, then buckled the clumsy
express rifle over his shoulders, tightening the dual straps to keep it from swinging too much. He also
wore a belt of ammunition about his waist, a two-quart canteen of water at his hip, and a pack on his
shoulder into which had been stuffed dried jerky, kerosene, an extra face mask, a compass, a few more
bandages, a matchbox, and one stick of dynamite.
“Why the dynamite, sir?” Oliver had asked.
“All men in my company carry a single stick of dynamite” was Bailey’s answer.
His load secured, Oliver slipped one foot cautiously over the edge. “I feel like a packhorse.”
“And look like a Swiss mountain hermit,” Tommy contributed.
“More an Edinburgh vagrant,” Phineas said, passing the rat back to Tom. “They can’t climb either.”
Oliver found purchase on the first dull smudge of paint, set his weight on it, and slowly lowered himself
from the sane, flat, sturdy ledge into total structural madness. A gust of wind shoved him sideways like a
soft but insistent pillow and he had to scramble for some minutes to find spaces for his other foot and his
two hands.
“Bugger you both,” Oliver spat through clenched teeth, that being the most scathing comment that visited
him. He craned his neck around, spotted the next yellow marker, and began shuffling his way along the
beam, thankful for once for the constant grit and ash that gave his fingers and soles purchase. Four
agonising eternities later, he discovered two beams running parallel and almost level. Tommy trotted up
behind him an instant later.
“Not so bad a climb, really,” Tommy said, grinning.
“I always knew you were an ape, Tom.”
“Apes walk on the ground, Ollie.Monkeys swing in the trees.”
“Lionsinjure things when they are pestered.”
Tommy guffawed merrily, having no apparent need for mask or goggles. “Our regular John Bull fancies
himself a lion, then. Knighthood in the future, I’ll wager.”
“If it turns one into an arrogant sot like Sir Bailey, Her Majesty can keep it.” Oliver fished a foot down
for a suitable beam. The next marker lay some twenty feet below. Three steps later, with his nose
pressed almost flat against an upshooting beam, Oliver beheld a clickrat skitter down and stop right
before his face.
It’s going to bite me,he realised. Slowly, he peeled his left hand from its roost, leaving his injured one
bearing most of the weight, and reached for his derringer, then reconsidered and reached for the water
canteen instead. One quick swat would do the job.
“Jeremy Longshore the Third hereby names you as his first knight. Arise, Sir Lion-upon-the-Cliffs.”
The clickrat swivelled and scuttled up the beam, leaping to Tom’s arm when it got close enough, then
clambering down his jacket into his pocket. Oliver shook his head and clamped his hand back onto the
“Good God, Tom, have youtamed that thing?”
“Jeremy Longshore cannot be tamed,” Tommy pronounced. “That is the essence of him: solid will and
indomitable spirit. He is the very symbol of perseverance.”
Phin appeared behind him, panting. “Bugger that, bolts-for-brains. He don’t have muscles to ache or
bones to pop about. Jesus, but I’m old.”
“And cantankerous as well,” said Tom. “Curmudgeonly, even. Perhaps churlish, if you prefer.”
“Right, laugh. Enjoy that young body while you can. The clacks is like to eat you up by your thirty-fifth
Oliver gaped. “Phineas!”
Phineas frowned down at him. “Oh, don’t be such a woman. I expect to wake up dead every morning
with my nerves given out. Can’t be easy on them, all this seein’ and hearin’ I do.”
“But how could you say…”
Tom waved him silent. “It’s all right, Ollie. That kind of talk doesn’t bother me.”
“You know what bothersme, ” Phin said. “Your new toy, there, is what. It isn’t really a clickrat.”
“Quite right,” Tom said, warming back to his new acquisition. “He is such a picture of majesty as no
clickrat could equal.”
“I mean it in earnest, tin-teeth. It has a different seeming to it. Something different inside.”
Oliver interrupted: “May we get moving? I would not lay odds on Bailey waiting for us.”
He calculated the contortions necessary for the next step, and stretched out for it.
“In a sour mood, is our chief,” Tommy said. His voice grew faint with distance and the intervening
thickness of the air. “He needs the company of a certain good woman.”
Nothing more was heard, not that Oliver would have spared the attention to listen to it.
Four marks and a thousand drops of sweat later, the faded light of the Underbelly above had vanished,
and Oliver could not see the next mark. He unhooked the lamp from his belt and swung it in all
directions, finding nothing but serpents of dust and ash coiling and uncoiling at random. The air moved,
rolling past him like a great ocean wave. A rumbling sound passed with it, shaking the beams, like the
breath of the Mother herself.
He leapt recklessly to his next perch, skidding a bit as he landed on a moist stretch of steel. Oliver
scrambled to fight the platform’s extreme slope, his hands flying out in all directions. His nails found rivets
in the platform and dug under them. Pain pricked up his fingers; annoying, but better than the alternative.
His injured hand skittered uselessly across the surface, unable to grip to anything.
I’m ill suited to this,Oliver concluded. He slid one foot carefully towards the more level beams running
up the right side of the platform. Before him, the platform’s slope ended in grey nothingness. Some of the
toxic air slipped around his mask and down his windpipe. He coughed it out, violently, shaking as his
chest caved inward. A burning sensation flared at the back of his skull.
The smoke turned and looked at him. Or maybe it was something within the smoke. Something, in any
case, with eyes and a face resembling human. It blinked and was gone.
Oliver froze and tried not to breathe.
Memories of Mama Engine flickered across his mind and vision, playing on the currents of ash. Had that
been something real, or the product of a violated imagination?
Oliver felt unmistakably like he was not alone. Quiet, indecipherable whispers reached out to him from a
burgeoning fire at the back of his head. Eyes searching the smoke, he reached for his derringer.
When it appeared again, he swung at it—throughit—as if it had never been there. The sudden movement
twisted his left hand. Two nails tore out of place and gravity claimed him.
The face watched him slip into the dark.
Scared awoke to find the heavy curtains around his bed frayed and singed.
He sat up, wiping the drool from his chin onto his nightshirt.
You were angry tonight, my sweet. You were aggressive, savage. Quite out of character for you.
Mama Engine was not in the habit of keeping secrets from their embrace, and Scared found it irksome.
Details and schematics had always been withheld—Scared cared little for those—but not her emotions,
not her urges. Those things that wereher were his to peruse, his to catch and hold, and then release at his
Playing a game, my love? I am very good at games.
He roused himself and shoved aside the curtains. The room was cool and dark, the fireplace empty, the
night table vacant. He dragged a knobby finger through the charcoal dust there and lamented the need to
order servants to keep out of his room, lest his lover annihilate them: the wood paneling had been
cracked and curled by heat, the floors stained with ash. The wan light of faraway electrics filtered into the
room through its single, frosted pane.
He hobbled to a low-backed plush chair in the corner and dragged the leather cover from it. Beneath
this, the fine velvet upholstery lay undamaged by heat, with a small bottle of yellowish liquid nestled
against the left arm. Scared lowered himself into the chair’s welcoming grip.
A strange night it had been. Towards the end, the nightmares had begun to creep in from the edges.
They had come through the singed curtains; he was sure of it. The burns inflicted on those curtains by the
night’s lovemaking had weakened them somehow, and they had begun to admit all those outcast thoughts
Scared had long ago banished to the far reaches of his mind.
He banished them now, clearing his head for the relentless chill of calculation. He retrieved and uncorked
the small bottle, allowing the faintest scent of the liquid within to twist into his nostrils. Scared replaced
the cork and settled back to let it do its work.
It is the chief folly of modern mathematics to confine calculation to the written page,Scared said to
himself, almost as a mantra in the fashion of the Indians ascetics.The scope of logical reasoning is too vast
to be expressed in human symbolism. All objects in the universe are data, all forces equations. All events
are the result of fast and fixed processes, algebraically perfect.
His nose began tingling, followed by the rest of his body. His hands began to shake, but he paid that no
mind now. The drug filtered into his mind, pushing the paltry needs of flesh aside, thumbing down the
trappings of morality and emotion until only the endless order of everything remained. He breathed
deeply, and dropped away from that chill, hidden room, into the spaces between molecules.
And now, my sweet, we will see what you have been up to.
He mentally pulled together the memories of her quivering essence as she had shuddered in his grasp.
These he crystallised until every detail stood out like a diamond among stones, and then delivered them to
the universe’s equations.
He held his thoughts back and let the calculations run themselves. The touch of man could only sully such
Some long minutes he stayed in such a state. There was utter timelessness here, though mere seconds,
perhaps, passed in the vulgar world.
The calculations delivered their answer. Mysteries became knowledge, variables became constants.
Scared leapt upwards and arrived slouched in his chair, the bottle of precious fluid rolling to a stop three
yards distant—recorked, thank the Lord. He pressed his hands hard onto his thighs to keep them from
shaking. Mama Engine had indeed been hiding a secret from him.
You filthy harlot,he thought.You’ve found another.
Her eye was on another man. A sudden, unbecoming tickle of jealousy nagged him. More calculation
would be required to discover this rival’s identity, but that would have to wait. Time and hot tea were
required now to banish the remnants of the drug from his blood. He had taken too much this morning,
enough to impair the flexing of fingers and bending of knees.
He reached out to the wall and pulled on the hanging cord. A wall panel, mounted on ceramic tracks and
wooden wheels, slid aside to reveal a rack of bottles and tubes. At the base of the shelves sat a panoply
of scientific equipment and a full washbasin. Still too tired to rise, Scared slumped back in the chair and
took deep breaths to steady his heart.
The question now was what to do about his lover’s new fancy. Death would be easiest, though the fickle
Lady might take that harshly. For the meantime, information would need to be gathered, control exerted.
He might have delegated it to one of his boys, but—if shewas courting another lover, if shewas intending
to betray him, the matter was Scared’s alone to confront.
He let his body recover over the next few minutes, allowing automatic mental processes to wheel in the
background of his consciousness. He had trained his mind so well over the long years that deduction no
longer required any conscious effort. As soon as it was able, his mind would deliver to him the answers
he sought. The potion was rarely needed.
Except when the deduction concerned Mama Engine—not her plans or her children; no, those were
plain to the ordinary, mortal eye. It was the Lady herself that required the superhuman mental space
brought on by the potion, which the Chinese calledmei kuan . To fathom her, in her entirety, to know all
the nuances of her psyche better even than he knew his own…that was a feat extraordinary in any set of
How many have you had, my sweet? How many have you burned to dust because they could not
understand you?
He forced himself up, fighting the shuddering aftereffects of the potion, and waddled to the washbasin.
He splashed the warm water across his face, letting it chase away the sweat and ashes. A yellow-skinned
ghast of the worst children’s tales scrutinised him from the mirror.
If anyone were to see me like this…
What did it mean, her thoughts of this other man? Could she be plotting to betray him?
Do you think, my sweet, that you can use me and cast me aside? It is far too late, pet, for second
And yet…she dared to spurn him.
Jealousy again, unwelcome and unbalancing. The calculations took space to function, and it would not
do to have his mind so crowded with petty worries and grievances.
But…he had to know.
The bottle hissed as he opened it again, its previous agitation having pressurised the gas within. The blast
of scent speared up his nostrils into the sensitive flesh behind his eyes. Gasping, he squeezed the cork
back into place with hands already trembling.
I’ve taken too much.
The bottle clattered to the floor. No tickle came this time, but a scraping fire under his skin. Scared
grappled at the arms of his chair. His knees cracked like dry tinder, and the floor rushed to meet him. A
swift strike against the boards, and he was away into that eternal, infinite space.
He had never dared consume so much before, but as the reaches of heaven glinted and soared all about
him, he never felt more regret for that decision. Even the transcendent mathematics of the clear mind
were inadequate to describe the sights he saw. More information could be packed into a single mote of
time than in all the depths of human history.
Lover, I will tear you apart.
The memories of the Lady came in full relief as he summoned them, playing before his eyes as if he were
witnessing them again from another body. The calculations whirled, visible now, spinning about him like a
flock of shining swallows, picking infinitesimal bits of data from the memories to link together and
His name,Scared demanded.
The image of Mama Engine flew apart in a ball of fire, pursued to the ends of the universe by the
relentless churning of mathematics.
His heart wavered, fluctuated, collapsed. He felt an omnipresent sting haul him back towards his lonely,
burned room. He fought it, letting that painful gravity rake through him as he awaited the answer.
His name!Scared bellowed.
Mama Engine’s flayed desires came back to him, piling one on the other in his vision, each stark and
plain. He waited for the answer to come, burning more for each moment he remained. Seconds passed,
and his mind began to shy from the vastness of the spaces about him. Fear and uncertainty crept on his
skin like living things, and his nightmares frayed the edges of his consciousness, sniffing for an entrance.
There were thousands of them—the twisted wretches of long-suppressed thoughts and memories. They
scraped with yellowed nails against his soft mind.
Unable to bear it any longer, Scared fled upwards, pursued in his ascent by screaming legions of his own
mental horrors. He swam up as fast as his wit would carry him, sinking his fingers into his own solid flesh
even as the teeth of a forgotten memory clamped on to his ankle.
He crashed back into the burned room in a spray of imagined monsters, sparkling equations, and
all-too-real vomit.
Lying on the floor, the spent remnants of the drug searing in his veins and organs, Scared began to
snicker, then to chuckle, and after a few seconds he burst into wild, cackling laughter. The calculations
had come together at the last second, and delivered him an answer even as he escaped to the
uncomfortable refuge of his body. As waves of vertigo and nausea took him, he spat the name through
crooked teeth.
“Oliver Sumner.”
Aaron was happy for a time, sleeping in his new body in the pocket of this mechanical man who called
him by another name. He dreamed of a dog, a little spotted terrier mutt of his youth that had chewed his
toes to wake him every morning, then of a sunset witnessed from atop the chimney of his childhood home
in Manchester—a moment of relaxation confounded by the dousing of the fire below.
Other dreams came to him as well, dreams of scurrying amongst garbage and dodging enormous feet, of
the odd pleasantries of scratching and gnawing, and of the luscious feeling discovered once by licking up
a sticky liquid spilled from a glass bottle.
He awoke wondering whether he had been a man or a rat, in the days before the void.
He uncurled himself and clambered out of the pocket. The world suddenly lit up with ambient vibration.
Aaron hooked his tail and his back legs into the fabric and leaned far out of the pocket to look down,
seeing only the fuzzy reflection of the streets, now not so far below, and the ghosts that haunted them.
So very many ghosts.
He looked into them, using not his body’s senses but those strange knowings he’d had as a man. These
souls had a seeming of his companion from the void, as if they were part of him, or he of them. Victims of
the disease? Wanderers lost to Purgatory?
He is the rot eating at the roots of the flower.
He clicked away the thought. What a very strange notion. A human one, perhaps.
The mechanical man dug his iron fingers into a beam and swung to the platform below with the grace of
an orang-utan.
The impact sent a vibration up the man’s legs and through his torso. The noise flashed like fireworks in
the strange eyes of Aaron’s new body. He spun his rounded snout to face his bearer’s chest and drank in
the vibrations there. Each manifested as a pulse of white across the screen of his mind, outlining skin,
bones, pumps, gears, pistons, and the other features of the man’s anatomy. There, too, Aaron perceived
the taint of the void dweller.
The void dweller had showed him this infection, had showed him how it ended.
Or perhaps showed me its purpose.
A human thought again. Stuffy. Complicated. The rat wanted to run and climb.
He scuttled out of the pocket, hooking on to the long coat, and looked about.
“Up and about are we, Jeremy?”
The mechanical man stroked him on the snout with his fleshy hand. The skidding of the hand’s rough
calluses played a music of lights across Aaron’s vision. When the mechanical man spoke, his voice
appeared as a boxed and rough image not unlike the man’s face.
“He’s got quite the lead on us. Probably your comment about the vagrant, eh?”
“Pride is the folly of all men,” said the old man, with an audible grinding of teeth. “Particularly the young.”
With a grunt, he swung himself over the same beam and dropped gingerly to the platform. Aaron scuttled
all around the rough wool of the coat, snapping at the lapels and nibbling the buttons.
“Right-oh, Mr. Philosopher,” the mechanical man said. “Still, he shouldn’t beso far ahead of us.
You…well, you don’t suppose he took a plunge, do you?”
“Unlikely, though he might have fell.”
“Now you’re playing with me, you codger.”
“No, I’m proving my superior wit. Move that two-ton cauldron you call an arse out of my way.”
The mechanical man chuckled, though it was a forced sound, betraying worry. His face creased
perceptibly and he cast a halfhearted search around him.
Suddenly eager to help, Aaron opened his jaws and emitted a click. The sound bounced back and the
area jumped to life as if lit with an electric torch. In a nest of twisting pipes some six or seven leaps
distant crouched the third of their party, struggling to right himself and moving with obvious pain. Ghosts
had gathered all around him, and floated in a rough sphere. The man pointed his rifle at one.
He should not be afraid of them,Aaron thought. He leapt from the coat to a nearby beam, clipping on to
one edge with his six limbs.
Follow me,Aaron cried, surprised to find nothing more than a click and a whirr escape his throat.
“Your pet’s escaping again,” the old man called.
“His Majesty is merely flexing his legs. Exercise serves even the greatest of men,” said the mechanical
man, “and rats.”
Aaron found himself clinging upside down as he approached the nest and the ring of ghosts. He had
never realised before that they were solid—after a fashion. Air currents shaped through them, defining
their features in layers of continually shifting ash and smoke.
He clicked at them. Two turned to look.
The sudden movement startled the besieged man, who swung his rifle about and let fly. Aaron’s senses
exploded for an instant, as if the atmosphere had turned solid. For a moment he stumbled, swaying above
the drop.
“You unsporting bastards,” the mechanical man bellowed, “hiding out there like foxes on the moor!
Have the decency to shoot me to my face.”
Another blast rang out, followed by three more. Each obliterated Aaron’s senses, until he teetered on
three limbs, tail flailing and jaws gnashing for purchase.
The beam glittered into being.
“Christ—Tommy, it’s me!”
Another shot. Another blinding field of white.
The body shuddered and gave out. Aaron dropped from his perch.
The air splayed rivers of light across his vision, rippling and gorgeous, flowing from nose to tail.
Will I die when I land?he wondered.Will the rat live? Will the man?
The rat screamed with rat terror and went limp at the behest of its instincts. The man turned his eyes
downward and despaired.
I do not want to die. There is still so much left undone.
Memories came to him, then: images of other men like himself who were his friends; of a vast city of
wasted human life; and overshadowing all, two towering creatures—one of brass, one of iron; one a
hammer to crush the soul, the other a mouth to devour it.
He remembered his own name. He remembered his mission.
Joseph! Help is coming!
His buzzing rang from the beams as he fell.
Bullets sparked off the beams all around.
Oliver squashed himself farther into the tangle of piping and clamped his hand down over his hat.
The last ricochet bounced into oblivion and the pipes hummed with dissipating vibration. It would be a
minute before Tommy’s clumsy hands could reload.
“Are you quite finished?” Oliver yelled.
The answer came back meek and wavering. “Ollie?”
“Yes, it’s me, you sot. Didn’t you hear me the first two times?”
“Well…there was a good deal of noise.”
“What, were you itching to mount me on the parlour wall?”
“You shot me first.”
“I didn’t know you were there. I was shooting at…”Ghosts? He slumped back against an irregular bend
in the pipes, wondering if he really was losing his sanity. Maybe it was the height, and the thought of all
those seconds of empty air before impact with a beam or a quick end on the streets below.
Something Tommy had said tingled his mental bell.
“Did you say that I shot you?”
“Clean through the chest,” Tommy called back. “I will, of course, be charging you for the clothing.”
“Are you all right?”
“Aside from the hole? The picture of health. I might mention, as well, that these express rifles were a fine
choice—hit like rhinoceroses.”
Oliver shook his head in disbelief. “Can you see any way across, Tom?”
“Can’t say I see much at all. Only way’s a thin couple of pipes that a monkey would balk at.”
Oliver squinted, but could make out little against the grey air. The dull glow of Tom and Phin’s lanterns bobbed in the distance like a two-headed will-o’-the-wisp. He retrieved the matchbox from his sack and
lit his own lantern, which had blown out during the fall. The light revealed only the immediate nest of pipes
and the two Tommy had mentioned, which zigged and twisted and looked thin and frail besides.
“Looks as if there’s no way across, gents,” Oliver called. “I’ll descend from here and try to meet up.”
“Aye, Captain. Last one to the ground buys the round!”
Oliver felt certain Tom was saluting.
The will-o’-the-wisp moved on downward. Oliver leaned the express rifle against two close pipes and
began to reload. He might have told them about his twisted ankle, he supposed, but that would have only
worried them enough to attempt a foolhardy rescue. What sort of leader required a rescue? And he’d
been embarrassed quite enough today, thank you very much.
In fact, it seemed all he could manage lately was to make a mess of things.
Well, I have two uninjured limbs, at least. That’s enough to affect a climb.
He made to rise, then retreated back to his uncomfortable nook as the pain flared in his ankle. He
clipped the lantern to his belt and began to massage his throbbing muscles.
After a few minutes’ rest, he tried the ankle again, finding it sturdy enough to bear weight. He rose,
buckled his sack and rifle to his back once more, and fished around for a possible route of descent.
Eventually he settled for an angular assortment of pipes and wires that resembled a ladder as one may
have looked in an opium dream. The descent proved no more or less troublesome than previous ones
had, and before long he had set foot on wide, solid beams.
He stopped to rest, sipped at his canteen, and polished his goggles to clear his vision. The
human-seeming wisps of smoke had gone, but the burning in his mind remained, dulled, as if fallen into a
light slumber.
Dark and heat and height had begun to take their toll: he felt exhausted. He downed another sip of grainy
water and thought of Missy—Michelle. She never let anyone else call her that. Why hadn’t he noticed
Because it was just another of the woman’s damnable mysteries, that’s why. She liked her secrets, that
one. She had a look, he reflected, a queer expression that crept onto her face in certain instances of
Oliver’s kindness, which she hid behind a quickly crafted smile. Perhaps it was to keep him guessing,
perhaps for other reasons—he might never know.
His train of thought breached the point at which it became more uncomfortable than continuing the
descent, so Oliver stowed his water, checked his straps, and shuffled to the platform’s edge.
No more yellow paint.Nothing below but a mass of near-vertical pipes slick with condensation; nothing
to the sides but silent ashfall; the only way onward, a treacherous slide down the pipes with no peripheral
means to reduce speed. His injured hand stung just looking at it; his guts clenched and squeezed like
kneaded bread. He spoke just to get away from his own thoughts.
“For our great and noble queen,” he said to himself, then shook his head. “We’ll do the strangest things for a lady.”
He flung his feet off the edge and dropped himself over.
“Peculiar, that,” Mulls whispered.
Bergen did not bother to look. Mulls had been repeating those same words over and over for the past
hour. It was a jungle fear—the fear of silence. Those few rich men and journalists he’d taken through
Africa in earlier days had shown similar reactions, talking gaily and commenting on every damn thing as if
noise alone would keep the snakes at bay. When he told them to keep quiet, they curled up like
chastised little boys.
But he needed Mulls sharp, and so tolerated the outbursts.
By now they were well below Aldgate Tower, and it was past two in the morning. Another hound attack
had left Bergen’s shoulder burned by the heat and chafed by the steam rifle’s straps. Penny had come
through, doing much better with his flasher than with a rifle. He now held the flasher’s copper-tipped
striking rod in front of him like a knife at all times, and his other hand effected a constant slow rotation of
the charging wheel at his belt.
The boy didn’t seem to tire. He stood watch during their rest stops, took lead on climbs through rubble
and old buildings, and even ranged a bit when Bergen stopped to get their bearings. His stance never
wavered from its catlike grace, and he did not relax for even an instant.
He is an animal, that boy,Bergen thought.A predator born by accident in a human womb.
Aldgate had an underbelly, though its residents preferred to call it a “subconcourse.” In an effort,
perhaps, to raise their status, they had installed a dazzling array of electric lights all across their ceiling and
in their streets, and it leaked through the haze into the downstreets with enough power to illuminate their
route as by moonlight.
That light allowed Bergen to keep better tabs on Pennyedge. Bergen’s senses had been alert for some
time to the boy’s attempts to circle and approach him from behind.
Bergen led them beneath Aldgate to the side closest to Commercial Street Tower, where their quarry
was reputed to have fallen. The two towers were so close as to be nearly leaning on each other, with the
outward-sloping base of the Stack mingling into their support beams.
The stench was vile. Aldgate residents, with their rich variety of imported foods, produced some of the
most pungent shit Bergen had ever had to endure. Its odour cut through even the omnipresent stench of
ash and smoke. They had passed earlier one of many vast septic pools, centred seven storeys below the
primary sewer drains, and they had all nearly choked on the air.
“Peculiar,” Mulls muttered.
Bergen forgot himself and snapped: “Can you make anyother comment?”
“But that’s someone moving, that is.”
Mulls nudged his rifle to the left. Bergen’s eyes shot to the location indicated.
Someone moving. Not a hound, or a clickrat, but a man, crawling.
“Penny, flank.”
The boy vanished to the right without a second glance.
“Mulls, cover him.”
Mulls nodded, then ran off to a suitably high outcropping of rubble, where he nestled his bulk between
two rotten beams and set his rifle’s barrel atop the remains of a plaster wall.
Bergen carefully set the steam rifle down, then reached for his Gasser. His right hand shook under its
weight as he lifted it, so he decided to leave it holstered. He was a fast enough draw with his left.
He approached from an oblique angle, through ruined buildings rather than along the old street. If his
quarry noticed any of them, he gave no sign.
Bergen examined the man through the rotted holes of his hiding place: definitely human, crippled,
struggling to pull himself along on his forearms, dragging unmoving legs behind like a grotesque train.
Bergen spotted a flat, circular case wedged in the crook of his left arm.
And there’s our prise.
He stood. The quarry noticed him immediately, staring dumbstruck for a long moment as Bergen
approached. Then the man erupted with laughter.
“You find something funny?” Bergen growled.
The man gagged, coughed up brown oil, then resumed laughing.
Bergen squatted down. The man’s fit choked itself out, and between ragged breaths he tilted his face
upwards. Only one red eye blinked up at Bergen, the other having been destroyed by the fall along with
the entire right side of the man’s face.
“Yer not one of Bailey’s men, are yeh?”
Bergen shook his head.
“I should have known better than to hope. For a moment I thought the lad might have devised some
flying machine after all. Yeh here for the tape?”
Bergen nodded, and held out his hand.
“Bugger all.” The man hung his head for a moment. “Not much to be done about it, looks like: won’t be
no running, nor fighting. Just answer one question of a dying man and answer true.”
“Are ye gonna use it?”
“Well, there’s a due turn o’ luck.” The man grabbed at the case with his left hand. The broken fingers
scraped over its surface, unable to close together. “Mind?”
Bergen retrieved it for him. He wiped some of the slime and blood from it on his trouser leg. The broken
man, relieved of his burden, collapsed to the concrete.
“Now,” he said, his voice muffled by the wet ground, “will it be a mite of conversation, or should we get
on with the shooting?”
Bergen slipped the sidearm out of its holster with his left hand. “I am curious how you managed to
survive the fall,” he said. “I expected to find a corpse.”
“Oddest thing,” the man said. “I’ve no heart, apparently. Rest o’ me broke like twigs, but this thing in me
chest kept pumping away. The lad knew, somehow. He pushed me over, murdering, brilliant, young man.
He knew I’d survive.” He chuckled. Oil burbled up from his mouth.
Aaron Bolden. He was an extraordinary man, my friend.
Bergen felt a powerful yearning to comfort the dying man, to tell him that his sacrifice would make the
difference in the rebellion. Bergen made a quick check of the surrounding street: empty, with twenty feet
to the nearest obstacle. If he was there, Penny would hear, and so Bergen said nothing.
“I have a daughter,” the man said. “Beautiful girl, big-boned like her mother. She was going to move to
Edinburrough with a tramp of an Englishman—a coal-backer, of all people! Loves the chap, though.”
Bergen nodded, already agreeing to the next request.
“Ellie McWhyte,” he said, “though she might be Ellie Pearson by now. Just give her me love.”
“I will.”
“Yer awfully polite for a German fellow. You have a name, so’s I can put in a good word with St.
He should shoot the man now—end this conversation, this dying attempt at camaraderie, before
sentiment put him in danger, but Bergen had been living amongst thieves and villains so long that a few
words of an honest man glittered like honey in his ears. It was stupid, but the man deserved to know he
was dying beside a friend.
Bergen leaned close to the man’s ear, so that his lips almost touched it as he spoke. He dropped the
German accent and let his native Dartmoor shine through.
“Nicholas Ellingsly,” he whispered. “Rest in peace, friend.”
Bergen stood and shot the man through the forehead.
The sight of the twitching body sewed shut any hint of sentiment. When Penny appeared out of the dark
at his side, Bergen’s expression had become as cold as before.
And now you know I shoot left-handed. Well, who are you going to tell?
“Five minutes for food and rest. Then we head back.”
He walked back to the steam rifle. Penny’s eyes narrowed to razor slits and followed him step for step.
Bergen stripped aside his mask and took a pull of water from his canteen, trying to quell the nagging fear
creeping up through his stomach.
For the first time, Penny had come right up behind him, and Bergen hadn’t noticed.

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