Read Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines Online

Authors: Phillip Reeve

Tags: #sf_fantasy

Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines (2 page)

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“Still, that’s what comes of living in a slum on the lower tiers, I suppose,” smirked Melliphant, turning back to Clytie Potts. “Natsworthy’s mum and dad lived down on Four, see, and when the Big Tilt happened they both got squashed flat as a couple of raspberry pancakes:
splat!”

Tom didn’t mean to hit him; it just happened. Before he knew what he was doing his hand had curled into a tight fist and he lashed out. “Ow!” wailed Melliphant, so startled that he fell over backwards. Someone cheered, and Clytie stifled a giggle. Tom just stood staring at his trembling fist and wondering how he had done it.

But Melliphant was much bigger and tougher than Tom, and he was already back on his feet. Clytie tried to restrain him, but some other Historians were cheering him on and a group of boys in the green tunics of Apprentice Navigators clustered close behind and chanted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Tom knew he stood no more chance against Melliphant than Salthook had stood against London. He took a step backwards, but the crowd was hemming him in. Then Melliphant’s fist hit him on the side of the face and Melliphant’s knee crashed up hard between his legs and he was bent double and stumbling away with his eyes full of tears. Something as big and softly yielding as a sofa stood in his way, and as he rammed his head against it, it said, “Ooof!”

He looked up into a round, red, bushy-eyebrowed face under an unconvincing wig; a face that grew even redder when it recognized him.

“Natsworthy!” boomed Chudleigh Pomeroy. “What in Quirke’s name do you think you’re playing at?”

2. VALENTINE

And so Tom found himself being sent off to do Gut-duty while all the other apprentices were busy celebrating the capture of Salthook. After a long, embarrassing lecture in Pomeroy’s office (“Disobedience, Natsworthy. . . Striking a senior Apprentice. . . What would your poor parents have thought?”) he trudged over to Tottenham Court Road station and waited for a down elevator.

When it came, it was crowded. The seats in the upper compartment were packed with arrogant-looking men and women from the Guild of Engineers, the most powerful of the four Great Guilds which ran London. They gave Tom the creeps, with their bald heads and those long white rubber coats they wore, so he stayed standing in the lower section, where the stern face of the Lord Mayor stared down at him from posters saying, Movement is Life—Help the Guild of Engineers keep London moving! Down and down went the elevator, stopping at all the familiar stations—Bakerloo, High Holborn, Low Holborn, Bethnal Green—and at every stop another crowd of people surged into the car, squashing him against the back wall until it was almost a relief to reach the bottom and step out into the noise and bustle of the Gut.

The Gut was where London dismantled the towns it caught: a stinking sprawl of yards and factories between the Jaws and the central engine-rooms. Tom loathed it. It was always noisy, and it was staffed by workers from the lower tiers, who were dirty and frightening, and convicts from the Deep Gut Prisons, who were worse. The heat down there always gave him a headache and the sulphurous air made him sneeze and the flicker of the argon globes which lit the walkways hurt his eyes. But the Guild of Historians always made sure some of its staff were on hand when a town was being digested, and tonight he would have to join them and go about reminding the tough old foremen of the Gut that any books and antiques aboard the new catch were the rightful property of his Guild and that history was just as important as bricks and iron and coal.

He fought his way out of the elevator terminus and hurried towards the Guild of Historians’ warehouse, through tubular corridors lined with green ceramic tiles and across metal catwalks high above the fiery gulfs of the Digestion Yards. Far below him he could see Salthook being torn to pieces. It looked tiny now, dwarfed by the vastness of London. Big yellow dismantling machines were crawling around it on tracks and swinging above it on cranes and clambering over it on hydraulic spider-legs. Its wheels and axles had already been taken off, and work was starting on the chassis. Circular saws as big as Ferris wheels bit into the deck-plates, throwing up plumes of sparks. Great blasts of heat came billowing from furnaces and smelters, and before he had gone twenty paces Tom could feel the sweat starting to soak through the armpits of his black uniform tunic.

But when he finally reached the warehouse, things started to look a bit brighter. Salthook had not had a museum or a library, and the small heaps that had been salvaged from the town’s junk-shops were already being packed into crates for their journey up to Tier Two. If he was lucky he might be allowed to finish early and catch the end of the celebrations! He wondered which Guildsman was in charge tonight. If it was old Arkengarth or Dr Weymouth he was doomed—they always made you work your whole shift whether there was anything to do or not. If it was Potty Pewtertide or Miss Plym he might be all right. …

But as he hurried towards the supervisor’s office he began to realize that someone much more important than any of them was on Gut-duty tonight. There was a bug parked outside the office, a sleek black bug with the Guild’s emblem painted on its engine cowling, much too flash for any of the usual staff. Two men in the livery of high-ranking Guild staff stood waiting beside it. They were rough-looking types, in spite of their plush clothes, and Tom knew at once who they were—Pewsey and Gench, the reformed air-pirates who had been the Head Historian’s faithful servants for twenty years and who piloted the 13th Floor Elevator whenever he flew off on an expedition. Valentine is here! Tom thought, and tried not to stare as he hurried past them up the steps.

Thaddeus Valentine was Tom’s hero: a former scavenger who had risen to become London’s most famous archaeologist—and also its Head Historian, much to the envy and disgust of people like Pomeroy. Tom kept a picture of him tacked to the dormitory wall above his bunk, and he had read his books,
Adventures of a Practical Historian
and
America Deserta—Across the Dead Continent with Gun, Camera and Airship,
until he knew them by heart. The proudest moment of his life had been when he was twelve and Valentine had come down to present the apprentices’ end-of-year prizes, including the one Tom had won for an essay on identifying fake antiquities. He still remembered every word of the speech the great man had made. “
Never forget, Apprentices, that we Historians are the most important Guild in our city. We don’t make as much money as the Merchants, but we create knowledge, which is worth a great deal more. We may not be responsible for steering London, like the Navigators, but where would the Navigators be if we hadn’t preserved the ancient maps and charts? And as for the Guild of Engineers, just remember that every machine they have ever developed is based on some fragment of Old-Tech—ancient high technology that our museum-keepers have preserved or our archaeologists have dug up.”

All Tom had been able to manage by way of reply was a mumbled, “Thank you, sir,” before he scurried back to his seat, so it never occurred to him that Valentine would remember him. But when he opened the door of the supervisor’s office the great man looked up from his desk and grinned.

“It’s Natsworthy, isn’t it? The apprentice who’s so good at spotting fakes? I’ll have to watch my step tonight, or you’ll find me out!”

It wasn’t much of a joke, but it broke through the awkwardness that usually existed between an apprentice and a senior Guildsman, and Tom relaxed enough to stop hovering on the threshold and step right inside, holding out his note from Pomeroy. Valentine jumped to his feet and came striding over to take it. He was a tall, handsome man of nearly forty with a mane of silver-flecked black hair and a trim black beard. His grey, mariner’s eyes twinkled with humour, and on his forehead a third eye—the Guild-mark of the Historian, the blue eye that looks backwards into time—seemed to wink as he raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Fighting, eh? And what did Apprentice Melliphant do to deserve a black eye?”

“He was saying stuff about my mum and dad, sir,” mumbled Tom.

“I see.” The explorer nodded, watching the boy’s face. Instead of telling him off he asked, “Are you the son of David and Rebecca Natsworthy?”

“Yes sir,” admitted Tom. “But I was only six when the Big Tilt happened… I mean, I don’t really remember them.”

Valentine nodded again, and his eyes were sad and kind. “They were good Historians, Thomas. I hope you’ll follow in their footsteps.”

“Oh, yes, sir!” said Tom. “I mean -1 hope so too!” He thought of his poor mum and dad, killed when part of Cheapside collapsed on to the tier below. Nobody had ever spoken like that about them before, and he felt his eyes filling with tears. He felt as if he could tell Valentine anything, anything at all, and he was just on the point of saying how much he missed his parents and how lonely and boring it was being a Third Class Apprentice, when a wolf walked into the office.

It was a very large wolf, and white, and it appeared through the door that led out into the stock-room. As soon as it saw Tom it came running towards him, baring its yellow fangs. “Aaaah!” he shrieked, leaping on to a chair. “A wolf!”

“Oh, do behave!” a girl’s voice said, and a moment later the girl herself was there, bending over the beast and tickling the soft white ruff of fur under its chin. The fierce amber eyes closed happily, and Tom heard its tail whisking against her clothes. “Don’t worry,” she laughed, smiling up at him. “He’s a lamb. I mean, he’s a wolf really, but he’s as gentle as a lamb.”

“Tom,” said Valentine, his eyes twinkling with amusement, “meet my daughter Katherine, and Dog.”

“Dog?” Tom came down off his chair, feeling foolish and still a little scared. He had thought the brute must have escaped from the zoo in Circle Park.

“It’s a long story,” said Valentine. “Katherine lived on the raft-city of Puerto Angeles until she was five. Then her mother died, and she was sent to live with me. I brought Dog back for her as a present from my expedition to the Ice Wastes, but Katherine couldn’t speak very much Anglish in those days and she’d never heard of wolves, so when she first saw him she said, ‘Dog!’, and it sort of stuck.”

“He’s perfectly tame,” the girl promised, still smiling up at Tom. “Father found him when he was just a cub. He had to shoot the mother, but he hadn’t the heart to finish poor Dog off. He likes it best if you tickle his tummy. Dog, I mean, not Father.” She laughed. She had a lot of long, dark hair, and her father’s grey eyes and the same quick, dazzling smile, and she was dressed in the narrow silk trousers and flowing tunic that were all the rage in High London that summer. Tom gazed at her in wonder. He had seen pictures of Valentine’s daughter, but he had never realized how beautiful she was.

“Look,” she said, “he likes you!”

Dog had ambled over to sniff at the hem of Tom’s tunic. His tail swished from side to side and a wet, pink tongue rasped over Tom’s fingers.

“If Dog likes people,” said Katherine, “I usually find I like them too. So come along Father; introduce us properly!”

Valentine laughed. “Well, Kate, this is Tom Natsworthy, who has been sent down here to help, and if your wolf has finished with him, I think we will have to let him get to work.” He put a kindly hand on Tom’s shoulder. “There’s not much to be done; we’ll just take a last look around the Yards and then…” He glanced at the note from Pomeroy, then tore it up into little pieces and dropped them into the red recycling bin beside his desk. “Then you can go.”

Tom was not sure what surprised him more—that Valentine was letting him off, or that he was coming down to the yards in person. Senior Guildsmen usually preferred to sit in the comfort of the office and let the apprentices do the hard work down in the heat and fumes, but here was Valentine pulling off his black robes, clipping a pen into the pocket of his waistcoat, pausing to grin at Tom from the doorway.

“Come along then,” he said. “The sooner we start, the sooner you can be off to join the fun in Kensington Gardens…”

 

* * *

 

Down they went and down, with Dog and Katherine following, down past the warehouse and on down twisting spirals of metal stairs to the Digestion Yards, where Salthook was growing smaller by the minute. All that remained of it now was a steel skeleton, and the machines were ripping even that apart, dragging deckplates and girders away to the furnaces to be melted down. Meanwhile, mountains of brick and slate and timber and salt and coal were trundling off on conveyor belts towards the heart of the Gut, and skips of furniture and provisions were being wheeled clear by the salvage gangs.

The salvagemen were the true rulers of this part of London, and they knew it. They swaggered along the narrow walkways with the agility of tomcats, their bare chests shiny with sweat and their eyes hidden by tinted goggles. Tom had always been frightened of them, but Valentine hailed them with an easy charm and asked them if they had seen anything amongst the spoils that might be of interest to the Museum. Sometimes he stopped to joke with them, or ask them how their families were doing—and he was always careful to introduce them to, “My colleague, Mr Natsworthy.” Tom felt himself swell with pride. Valentine was treating him like a grown-up, and so the salvagemen treated him the same way, touching the peaks of their greasy caps and grinning as they introduced themselves. They all seemed to be called Len, or Smudger.

“Take no notice of what they say about these chaps up at the Museum,” warned Valentine, as one of the Lens led them to a skip where some antiques had been stowed. “Just because they live down in the nether boroughs and don’t pronounce their ‘H’s doesn’t mean they’re fools. That’s why I like to come down in person when the Yards are working. I’ve often seen salvagemen and scavengers turn up artefacts that Historians might have missed…”

“Yes sir…” agreed Tom, glancing at Katherine. He longed to do something that would impress the Head Historian and his beautiful daughter. If only he could find some wonderful fragment of Old-Tech amongst all this junk, something that would make them remember him after they had gone back to the luxury of High London. Otherwise, after this wander around the yards, he might never see them again!

Hoping to amaze them, he hurried to the skip and looked inside. After all, Old-Tech
did
turn up from time to time in small-town antique shops, or on old ladies’ mantelpieces. Imagine being the one to rediscover some legendary secret, like heavier-than-air flying machines, or pot noodles! Even if it wasn’t something that the Guild of Engineers could use it might still end up in the Museum, labelled and preserved in a display case with a notice saying, “
Discovered by Mr T. Natsworthy”.
He peered hopefully at the heap of salvage in the skip: shards of plastic, lamp stands, a flattened toy ground-car. … A small metal box caught his eye. When he pulled it out and opened it his own face blinked back at him, reflected in a silvery plastic disc. “Mr Valentine! Look! A seedy!”

Valentine reached into the box and lifted out the disc, tilting it so that rainbow light darted across its surface. “Quite right,” he said. “The Ancients used these in their computers, as a way of storing information.”

“Could it be important?” asked Tom.

Valentine shook his head. “I’m sorry, Thomas. The people of the old days may only have lived in static settlements, but their electronic machines were far beyond anything London’s Engineers have been able to build. Even if there is still something stored on this disc we have no way of reading it. But it’s a good find. Keep hold of it, just in case.”

He turned away as Tom put the seedy back in its box and slid it into his pocket. But Katherine must have sensed Tom’s disappointment, because she touched his hand and said, “It’s lovely, Tom. Anything that has survived all those thousands of years is lovely, whether it’s any use to the horrible old Guild of Engineers or not. I’ve got a necklace made of old computer discs…” She smiled at him. She was as lovely as one of the girls in his daydreams, but kinder and funnier, and he knew that from now on the heroines he rescued in his imagination would all be Katherine Valentine.