Read Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines Online

Authors: Phillip Reeve

Tags: #sf_fantasy

Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines (10 page)

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Hester motioned for him to keep quiet and led him towards the foggy stern, where he could see a tall building that must be the Town Hall. As they drew nearer they made out a sign above the entrance which read:

 

Welcome to

TUNBRIDGE WHEELS

Population: 500 467 212

and still rising!

 

Above it flapped a black and white flag; a grinning skull and two crossed bones.

“Great Quirke!” gasped Tom. “This is a pirate suburb!”

And suddenly, from foggy side-streets all around them, came men and women as shabby as the town, lean and hard and fierce-eyed, and carrying the biggest guns that he had ever seen.

 

* * *

 

As the pirate suburb speeds on its way, silence returns to the Rustwater, broken only by the sounds of small creatures moving in the reed-beds. Then the ooze in one of the deep wheel-ruts burbles and heaves and vomits up the jerking wreck of Shrike.

He has been driven far down into the mud like a screaming tent-peg, ground and crushed and twisted. His left arm hangs by a few frayed wires; his right leg will not move. One of his eyes is dark and blind and the view from the other is cloudy, so that he has to keep twitching his head to clear it. Bits of his memory have vanished, but others come up unbidden. As he wades out of the suburb’s wheel-marks he remembers the ancient wars that he was built for. At Hill 20 the Tesla Guns crackled like iced lightning, wrapping him in fire until his flesh began to fry on his iron bones. But he survived. He is the last of the Lazarus Brigade, and he always survives. It will take a lot more than being run over by a couple of towns to finish Shrike.

Slowly, slowly, he claws his way to firmer ground, and sniffs and scouts and scans until he is sure that Hester escaped alive. He feels very proud of her. His heart’s desire! Soon he will find her again, and the loneliness of his everlasting life will be over.

The suburb has left deep grooves across the landscape. It will be easy to track, even with his leg dragging uselessly, even with an eye gone and his mind misfiring. The Stalker throws back his head and bellows his hunting cry at the empty marshes.

16. THE TURD TANKS

London kept on moving, day after day, grinding its way across the continent formerly known as Europe as if there were some fantastic prize ahead—but all that the look-outs had sighted since the city ate Salthook were a few tiny scavenger towns, and Magnus Crome would not even alter course to catch them. People started to grow restless, asking each other in whispers what the Lord Mayor thought he was playing at. London had never been meant to go so far, so fast. There was talk of food shortages, and the heat from the engines spread up through the deckplates until it was said you could fry an egg on the pavements of Tier Six.

Down in the Gut the heat was appalling, and when Katherine stepped off the elevator at Tartarus Row she felt as if she had just walked into an oven. She had never been so deep into the Gut before, and for a while she stood blinking on the steps of the elevator terminus, dazed by the noise and darkness. Up on Tier One she had left the sun shining down on Circle Park and a cool wind stirring the rose-bushes: down here gangs of men were were running about, klaxons were honking and huge hoppers of fuel were grinding past her on their way to the furnaces.

For a moment she felt like going home, but she knew that she had do what she had come here for, for Father’s sake. She took a deep breath and went out into the street.

It was nothing like High London. Nobody knew her face down here; passers-by were surly when she asked them for directions, and off-duty labourers lounging on the pavements whistled as she went by and shouted, “Hello, darling!” and “Where’d you get that hat?” A burly foreman shoved her aside to lead a gang of shackled convicts past. From shrines under the fuel-ducts leered statues of Sooty Pete, the hunch-backed god of engine rooms and smoke-stacks. Katherine lifted her chin and kept a tight grip on Dog’s leash, glad that he was there to protect her.

But she knew that this was the only place where she could hope to find the truth. With Father away and Tom lost or dead, and Magnus Crome unwilling to talk, there was only one person left in London who might know the secret of the scarred girl.

It had been hard work finding him, but luckily the staff in the records office at the Guild of Salvagemen, Stokers, Wheel-Tappers and Associated Gut Operatives were happy enough to oblige Thaddeus Valentine’s daughter. If there was an Apprentice Engineer near the waste-chutes that night, they said, he must have been supervising convict labourers, and if he was supervising convict labourers he must have come from the Engineers’ experimental prison in the Deep Gut. A few more questions and a bribe to a Gut foreman and she had a name: Apprentice Engineer Pod.

Now, nearly a week after her meeting with the Lord Mayor, she was on her way to talk to him.

 

* * *

 

The Deep Gut Prison was a complex of buildings the size of a small town which clustered around the base of a giant support pillar. Katherine followed signposts to the administration block, a spherical metal building jacked up on rust-streaked gantries and slowly revolving so that the supervisors could look down from its windows and watch their cell-blocks and exercise yards and algae-mat farms spin endlessly around them. In the entrance hall, neon light glimmered on acres of white metal. An Engineer came gliding up to Katherine as she stepped inside. “No dogs allowed,” he said.

“He’s not a dog, he’s a wolf,” replied Katherine, with her sweetest smile, and the man jumped back as Dog sniffed at his rubber coat. He was prim-looking, with a thin, pursed mouth and patches of eczema on his bald head. The badge on his coat said,
Gut Supervisor Nimmo.
Katherine smiled at him, and before he could raise any more objections she showed her gold pass and said, “I’m here on an errand for my father, the Head Historian. I have to see one of your apprentices, a boy called Pod.”

Supervisor Nimmo blinked at her and said, “But… But…”

“I’ve come straight from Magnus Crome’s office,” Katherine lied. “Call his secretary if you want to check…”

“No, I’m sure it’s all right…” mumbled Nimmo. Nobody from outside the Guild had ever wanted to interview an apprentice before, and he didn’t like it. There was probably a rule against it. But he didn’t want to argue with someone who knew the Lord Mayor. He asked Katherine to wait and scurried away, vanishing into a glass-walled office on the far side of the hall.

Katherine waited, stroking Dog’s head and smiling politely at bald, white-coated passers-by. Soon Nimmo was back. “I have located Apprentice Pod,” he announced. “He has been transferred to Section 60.”

“Oh, well done, Mr Nimmo!” beamed Katherine. “Can you send him up?”

“Certainly not,” retorted the Engineer, who wasn’t sure he liked being ordered about by a mere Historian’s daughter. But if she wanted to see Section 60, he would take her there. “Follow me,” he said, leading the way to a small elevator. “Section 60 is on the underdecks.”

The underdecks were where London kept its plumbing. Katherine had read about them in her school books so she was prepared for the long descent, but nothing could have prepared her for the smell. It hit her as soon as the elevator reached the bottom and the door slid open. It was like walking into a wall of wet sewage.

“This is Section 60, one of our most interesting experimental labour units,” said Nimmo, who didn’t seem to notice the smell. “The convicts assigned to this sector are helping to develop some very exciting new ways of recycling the city’s waste products.”

Katherine stepped out, clamping her handkerchief over her nose. She found herself standing in a huge, dimly-lit space. Ahead of her were three tanks, each larger than Clio House and all its gardens. Stinking yellow-brown filth was dribbling into the tanks from a maze of pipes that clung to the low ceiling, and people in drab grey prison coveralls were wading chest-deep in it, skimming the surface with long-handled rakes.

“What are they doing?” asked Katherine. “What is that stuff?”

“Detritus, Miss Valentine,” said Nimmo, sounding proud. “Effluent. Ejecta. Human nutritional by-products.”

“You mean … poo?” said Katherine, appalled.

“Thank you, Miss Valentine; perhaps that is the word for which I was groping.” Nimmo glared at her. “There is nothing disgusting about it, I assure you. We all… ah … use the toilet from time to time. Well, now you know where your … um . …
poo
ends up. ‘Waste not, want not’ is the Engineers’ motto, Miss. Properly processed human ordure makes very useful fuel for our city’s engines. And we are experimenting with ways of turning it into a tasty and nutritious snack. We feed our prisoners on nothing else. Unfortunately they keep dying. But that is just a temporary set-back, I’m sure.”

Katherine walked to the edge of the nearest tank. I have come down to the Sunless Country! she thought. Oh, Clio! This is the land of the dead!

But even the Sunless Country could not be as terrible as this place. The slurry swilled and shifted, slapping at the edges of the tanks as London trundled over a range of rugged hills. Flies buzzed in thick clouds beneath the vaulted roof and settled on the faces and bodies of the labourers. Their shaven heads gleamed in the dim half-light, faces set in blank stares as they skimmed the thick crust from the surface and transferred it into hoppers which other convicts wheeled on rails along the sides of the tank. Grim-faced Apprentice Engineers looked on, swinging long, black truncheons. Only Dog seemed happy; he was straining at his leash, his tail wagging, and every now and then he would look up eagerly at Katherine as if to thank her for bringing him somewhere with such interesting smells.

She fought down her rising lunch and turned to Nimmo. “These poor people! Who are they?”

“Oh, don’t worry about
them,”
said the supervisor. “They’re convicts. Criminals. They deserve it.”

“What did they do?’

“Oh, this and that. Petty theft. Tax-dodging. Criticizing our Lord Mayor. They’re very well-treated, considering. Now, let’s see if we can find Apprentice Pod…”

While he spoke, Katherine had been watching the nearest tank. One of the men working it had stopped moving and let go of his rake, holding his head as if overcome by dizziness. Now a girl apprentice had also noticed him, and stepping up to the edge of the tank she jabbed at the man with her truncheon. Blue sparks flickered where it touched him, and he thrashed and howled and floundered, finally vanishing under the heaving surface. Other prisoners stared towards the place where he had sunk, too scared to go and help.

“Do something!” gasped Katherine, turning to Nimmo, who seemed not to have noticed.

Another apprentice came running along the edge of the tank, shouting at the prisoners below him to help their comrade. Two or three of them dredged him up, and the new apprentice leaned down into the tank and hauled him out, splattering himself with slurry in the process. He was wearing a little gauze mask, like many of the warders, but Katherine was sure she recognized him, and at her side she heard Nimmo growl, “
Pod!”

They hurried towards him. Apprentice Pod had dragged the half-drowned convict on to the metal walkway between the tanks and was trying to wash the slurry from his face with water from a stand-pipe nearby. The other apprentice, the one who had jabbed the poor man in the first place, looked on with an expression of disgust. “You’re wasting water again, Pod!” she said, as Katherine and Nimmo ran up.

“What is going on here, Apprentices?” asked Nimmo crossly.

“This man was slacking,” the girl said. “I was just trying to get him to work a bit faster.”

“He’s feverish!” said Apprentice Pod, looking up plaintively, covered in stinking muck. “It’s no wonder he couldn’t work.”

Katherine knelt beside him and he noticed her for the first time, his eyes widening in surprise. He had succeeded in washing most of the slurry from the man’s face, and she reached out and laid her hand on the damp brow. Even by the standards of the Deep Gut it felt hot. “He’s really sick,” she said, looking up at Nimmo. “He’s burning up. He should be in hospital…”

“Hospital?” replied Nimmo. “We have no hospital down here. These are prisoners, Miss Valentine. Criminals. They don’t require medical care.”

“He’ll be another case for K Division soon,” observed the girl apprentice.

“Be quiet!” hissed Nimmo.

“What does she mean, K Division?” asked Katherine.

Nimmo wouldn’t answer. Apprentice Pod was staring at her, and she thought she saw tears trickling down his face, although it might have been perspiration. She looked down at the convict, who seemed to have slid into a sort of half-sleep. The metal decking looked terribly hard, and on a sudden impulse she pulled off her hat and folded it and slipped it under his head as a pillow. “He shouldn’t be here!” she said angrily. “He’s far too weak to work in your horrible tanks!”

“It’s appalling,” agreed Nimmo. “The sort of prisoners we are being sent these days are just too feeble. If the Guild of Merchants made more of an effort to solve the food shortage they might be a bit healthier, or if the Navigators pulled their fingers out and tracked down some decent prey for once… But I think you have seen enough, Miss Valentine. Kindly ask Apprentice Pod whatever it is your father wishes to know, and I shall take you back to the elevators.”

Katherine looked round at Pod. He had pulled down his mask, and he was unexpectedly handsome, with big dark eyes and a small, perfect mouth. She stared at him for a moment, feeling stupid. Here he was, being brave, trying to help this poor man, and she was bothering him with something that suddenly seemed quite trivial.

“It’s Miss Valentine, Miss, isn’t it?” he said nervously, as Dog pushed past him to sniff at the sick man’s fingers.

Katherine nodded. “I saw you in the Gut that night when we ate Salthook,” she said. “Down by the waste-chutes. I think you saw the girl who tried to kill my father. Could you tell me everything you remember?”

The boy stared at her, fascinated by the long dark strands of hair that were falling down across her face now that her hat was off. Then his eyes flicked away to look at Nimmo. “I didn’t see anything, Miss,” he said. “I mean, I heard shouting and I ran to help, but with all the smoke and stuff… I didn’t see anybody.”

“Are you sure?” pleaded Katherine. “It could be terribly important.”

Apprentice Pod shook his head, and wouldn’t meet her eye. “I’m sorry. …”

The man on the deck suddenly stirred and gave a great sigh, and they all looked down at him. It took Katherine a moment to understand that he was dead.

“See?” said the girl apprentice smugly. “Told you he was for K Division.”

Nimmo was prodding the body with the toe of his boot. “Take him away, Apprentice.”

Katherine was shaking. She wanted to cry, but she couldn’t. If only she could do something to help these poor people! “I’m going to tell my father all about this when he gets home,” she promised. “And when he finds out what’s going on in this dreadful place. . .” She wished she had never come here. Beside her she heard Pod say again, “Sorry, Miss Valentine,” and wasn’t sure if he was sorry because he couldn’t help her or sorry for her because she had learned the truth of what life was like under London.

Nimmo was growing edgy. “Miss Valentine, I insist that you leave now. You shouldn’t be here. Your father should have sent an official member of his Guild if he had business with this apprentice. What did he hope to learn from the boy anyway?”

“I’m coming,” said Katherine, and did the only thing she could for the dead convict: she reached out and gently shut his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Apprentice Pod, as they led her away.

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