Read Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines Online

Authors: Phillip Reeve

Tags: #sf_fantasy

Mortal Engines me-1: Mortal Engines (3 page)

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There was nothing else of interest in the skip; Salthook had been a practical sort of town, too busy gnawing at the old sea-bed to bother about digging up the past. But instead of going straight back to the warehouse Valentine led his companions up another staircase and along a narrow catwalk to the Incomers’ Station, where the former inhabitants were queuing to give their names to the Clerk of Admissions and be taken up to new homes in the hostels and workhouses of London. “Even when I’m not on duty,” he explained, “I always make a point of going down to see the scavengers when we make a catch, before they have a chance to sell their finds at the Tier Five antique markets and melt back into the Out-Country.”

There were always some scavengers aboard a catch -townless wanderers who roamed the Hunting Ground on foot, scratching up pieces of Old-Tech. Salthook was no exception; at the end of a long queue of dejected townsfolk stood a group more ragged than the rest, with long, tattered coats that hung down to their ankles and goggles and dust-masks slung about their grubby necks.

Like most Londoners, Tom was horrified by the idea that people still actually lived on the bare earth. He hung back with Katherine and Dog, but Valentine went over to speak with the scavengers. They came clustering round him, all except one, a tall, thin one in a black coat—a girl, Tom thought, although he could not be sure because she wore a black scarf wrapped across her face like the turban of a desert nomad. He stood near her and watched while Valentine introduced himself to the other scavengers and asked, “So—have any of you found anything the Historians’ Guild might wish to purchase?”

Some of the men nodded, some shook their heads, some rummaged in their bulging packs. The girl in the black head-scarf slid one hand inside her coat and said, “I have something for you, Valentine.”

She spoke so softly that only Tom and Katherine heard her, and as they turned to look she suddenly sprang forward, whipping out a long, thin-bladed knife.

3. THE WASTE CHUTE

There was no time to think: Katherine screamed, Dog growled, the girl hesitated for a moment and Tom saw his chance and threw himself forward, grabbing her arm as she drove the knife at Valentine’s heart. She hissed, writhing, and the knife dropped to the deck as she twisted free and darted away along the catwalk. “Stop her!” bellowed Valentine, starting forward, but the other refugees had seen the knife and were milling about in fright, barring his way. Several of the scavengers had pulled out firearms and an armoured policeman came lumbering through the crowd like a huge blue beetle, shouting, “No guns allowed in London!”

Glancing over the scavengers’ heads, Tom glimpsed a dark silhouette against the distant glare of furnaces. The girl was at the far end of the catwalk, climbing nimbly up a ladder to a higher level. He ran after her and snatched at her ankle as she reached the top. He missed by a few inches, and at the same moment a dart hissed past him, striking sparks from the rungs. He looked back. Two more policemen were thrusting through the crowd with crossbows raised. Beyond them he could see Katherine and her father watching him. “Don’t shoot!” he shouted. “I can catch her!”

He flung himself at the ladder and scrambled eagerly upwards, determined to be the one to capture the would-be assassin. He could feel his heart pounding with excitement. After all those dull years spent dreaming of adventures, suddenly he was having one! He had saved Mr Valentine’s life! He was a hero!

The girl was already heading along the maze of high-level catwalks which led towards the furnace district. Hoping that Katherine could still see him, Tom set off in pursuit. The catwalk forked and narrowed, the handrails only a yard apart. Below him the work of the Digestion Yards went on regardless; no one down there had noticed the drama being played out above their heads. He plunged through deep shadows and warm, blinding clouds of steam with the girl always a few feet ahead. A low duct caught her head-scarf and ripped it off. Her long hair was coppery in the dim glow of the furnaces, but Tom still couldn’t see her face. He wondered if she was pretty; a beautiful assassin from the Anti-Traction League.

He ducked past the dangling head-scarf and ran on, gasping for breath, fumbling his collar open. Down a giddy spiral of iron stairs and out on to the floor of the Digestion Yards, flashing through the shadows of conveyor belts and huge spherical gas-tanks. A gang of convict labourers looked up in amazement as the girl raced by. “Stop her!” yelled Tom. They just stood gawping as he passed, but when he looked back he saw that one of the Apprentice Engineers who had been supervising them had broken off his work to join the chase. Tom immediately regretted shouting out. He wasn’t going to give up his victory to some stupid Engineer! He put on an extra spurt of speed, so that he should be the one who caught her.

Ahead, the way was barred by a circular hole in the deckplate, ringed by rusty handrails—a waste chute, scorched and blackened where clinker from the furnaces had been tipped down. The girl broke her pace for a moment, wondering which way to turn. When she went on, Tom had narrowed her lead. His outstretched fingers grabbed her pack; the strap broke and she stopped and spun to face him, lit by the red glare of the smelters.

She was no older than Tom, and she was hideous. A terrible scar ran down her face from forehead to jaw, making it look like a portrait that had been furiously crossed out. Her mouth was wrenched sideways in a permanent sneer, her nose was a smashed stump and her single eye stared at him out of the wreckage, as grey and chill as a winter sea.

“Why didn’t you let me kill him?” she hissed.

He was so shocked that he couldn’t move or speak, could only stand there as the girl reached down for her fallen pack and turned to run on. But behind him police whistles were blowing, and crossbow darts came sparking against the metal deck-plates and the overhead ducts. The girl dropped the pack and fell sideways, gasping a filthy curse. Tom hadn’t even imagined that girls knew such words. “Don’t shoot!” he yelled, waving towards the policemen. They were lumbering down the spiral stair beyond the gas-tanks, shooting as they came, as if they didn’t much care that Tom was in the way. “Don’t shoot!”

The girl scrambled up, and he saw that a crossbow-dart had gone through her leg just above the knee. She clutched at it, blood welling out between her fingers. Her breath came in sobs as she backed up against the handrail, lifting herself awkwardly over it. Behind her, the waste-chute gaped like an open mouth.

“NO!” shouted Tom, seeing what she meant to do. He didn’t feel like a hero any more—he just felt sorry for this poor, hideous girl, and guilty at being the one who had trapped her here. He held out his hand to her, willing her not to jump. “I couldn’t let you hurt Mr Valentine!” he said, shouting to make her hear him above the din of the Gut. “He’s a good man, a kind, brave, wonderful…”

The girl lunged forward, shoving her awful noseless face towards him. “Look at me!” she said, her voice all twisted by her twisted mouth. “Look what your brave, kind Valentine did to me!”

“What do you mean?”

“Ask him!” she screamed. “Ask him what he did to Hester Shaw!”

The police were closer now; Tom could feel their footsteps drumming on the deck. The girl glanced past him, then heaved her wounded leg over the handrail, crying out at the pain. “No!” pleaded Tom again, but too late. Her ragged greatcoat snapped and fluttered and she was gone. He flung himself forward and peered down the shadowed chute. A cool blast of air came up at him, mingled with the smell of mud and crushed vegetation; the smell of the speeding earth beneath the city.

“No!”

She had jumped! She had jumped right out of the city to her death!
Hester Shaw.
He would have to remember that name, and say a prayer for her to one of London’s many gods.

Shapes loomed out of the drifting smoke. The policemen were advancing cautiously, like watchful crabs, and Valentine was with them, running ahead. In the shadows under a gas-tank Tom saw the young Engineer looking on, shocked. Tom tried to smile at him, but his face felt frozen, and the next moment another thick swag of smoke had folded over him, blotting out everything.

“Tom! Are you all right?” Valentine ran up, barely winded by the long chase. “Where is she? Where is the girl?”

“Dead,” Tom said lamely.

Valentine stood beside him at the handrail and peered over. The shadows of the drifting smoke moved over his face like cobwebs. There was a strange light in his eyes, and his face was tight and white and frightened. “Did you see her, Tom? Did she have a scar?”

“Yes,” said Tom, wondering how Valentine could know that. “It was horrible! Her eye was gone, and her nose…” Then he remembered the terrible thing the girl had told him. “And she said…” But he wasn’t sure if he should tell Mr Valentine what she had said—it was a lie, insane. “She said her name was Hester Shaw.”

“Great Quirke!” hissed Valentine, and Tom flinched backwards, wishing he had never mentioned it. But when he looked up again Valentine was smiling kindly at him, his eyes full of sorrow. “Don’t worry, Tom,” he said. “I’m sorry. …”

Tom felt a big, gentle hand on his shoulder and then -he was never sure quite how it happened—a twist, a shove, and he was pitching over the handrail and falling, just as Hester Shaw had fallen, flailing wildly for a hold on the smooth metal at the brim of the waste chute.
He pushed me!
he thought, and it was more amazement that he felt than fear as the black throat swallowed him down into the dark.

4. THE OUT-COUNTRY

Silence. Silence. He couldn’t understand it. Even when London wasn’t moving there was usually some sort of noise in the dormitory; the whirr of ventilators, the hum and rattle of distant elevator shafts, the snores of other apprentices in the neighbouring bunks. But now—silence. His head ached. In fact, all of him ached. His bunk felt strange, too, and when he moved his hands there was something cold and slimy that oozed between his fingers like…

MUD! He sat up, gasping. He wasn’t in the Third Class dormitory at all. He was lying on a great humpbacked mound of mud, on the edge of a deep trench, and in the thin, pearl-grey light of dawn he could see the girl with the ruined face sitting nearby. His horrible dream of sliding down that fire-blackened chute had been true: he had fallen out of London, and he was alone with Hester Shaw on the bare earth!

He moaned in terror, and the girl glanced quickly round at him and then away. “You’re alive, then,” she said. “I thought you’d died.” She sounded as if she didn’t much care either way.

Tom scrambled up on to all fours, so that only his knees and his toes and the palms of his hands were touching the mud. His arms were bare, and when he looked down he saw that his bruised body was naked to the waist. His tunic lay on the mud nearby, but he couldn’t find his shirt at all, until he crawled closer to the scarred girl and realized that she was busily tearing it into strips which she was using to bandage her wounded leg.

“Hey!” he said. “That’s one of my best shirts!”

“So?” she replied without looking up. “It’s one of my best legs.”

He pulled his tunic on. It was tattered and filthy from his fall down the waste-chute, full of rents that let the chill Out-Country air through. He hugged himself, shivering.
Valentine pushed me! He pushed me and I fell down the shaft into the Out-Country! He pushed me… No, he can’t have done. It must have been a mistake. I slipped, and he tried to grab me, that’s what must have happened.

Hester Shaw finished her bandaging and stood up, grunting at the pain as she pulled her filthy, blood-stiffened breeches on over the wound. Then she threw what was left of Tom’s shirt back at him, a useless rag. “You should have let me kill him,” she said, and turned away, setting off with a kind of furious limp up the long curve of the mud.

Tom watched her go, too shocked and bewildered to move. It was only when she vanished over the top of the slope that he realized he didn’t want to be left alone here; he would prefer any company, even hers, to the silence.

He flung the torn shirt away and ran after her, slithering in the thick, clagging mud, stubbing his toes on fragments of rock and torn-up roots. The deep, sheer-walled trench yawned on his left, and as he reached the crest of the rise he realized that it was just one of a hundred identical trenches; the huge track-marks of London stretching ruler-straight into the distance. Far, far ahead he saw his city, dark against the brightening eastern sky, wrapped in the smoke of its own engines. He felt the cold tug of homesickness. Everyone he had ever known was aboard that dwindling mountain, everyone except Hester, who was stomping angrily after it, dragging her injured leg behind her.

“Stop!” he shouted, half-running, half-wading to catch her up. “Hester! Miss Shaw!”

“Leave me alone!” she snapped.

“But where are you going?”

“I’ve got to get back into London, haven’t I?’ she said. “Two years it took me to find it, trudging across the Out-Country on foot, jumping aboard little townlets in the hope it would be London that scoffed them. And when I finally get there and find Valentine, come down to strut round the yards just like the scavengers told me he would, what happens? Some idiot stops me from cutting his heart out like he deserves.” She stopped walking and turned to face Tom. “If you hadn’t shoved your oar in he’d be dead, and I’d have fallen down and died beside him and I’d be at peace by now!”

Tom stared at her, and before he could stop himself his eyes filled with stinging tears. He hated himself for looking like a fool in front of Hester Shaw, but he couldn’t help it; the shock of what had happened to him and the thought of being abandoned out here overwhelmed him, and the hot tears flooded down his face and cut white runnels through the mud on his cheeks.

Hester, who had been on the point of turning away, stopped and watched, as if she wasn’t sure what was happening to him. “You’re crying!” she said at last, quite gently, sounding surprised.

“Sorry,” he sniffed.

“I never cry. I can’t. I didn’t even cry when Valentine murdered my mum and dad.”

“What?” Tom’s voice was all wobbly from weeping. “Mr Valentine would never do something like that!

Katharine said he couldn’t even bring himself to shoot a wolf cub. You’re lying!”

“How come you’re here, then?” she asked, mocking him. “He shoved you out after me, didn’t he? Just because you’d seen me.”

“You’re lying!” said Tom again. But he remembered those big hands thrusting him forward; remembered falling, and the strange light that had shone in the archaeologist’s eyes.

“Well?” asked Hester.

“He pushed me!” murmured Tom, amazed.

Hester Shaw just shrugged, as if to say,
See? See what he’s really like?
Then she turned away and started walking again.

Tom hurried along at her side. “I’ll come with you! I’ve got to get back to London, too! I’ll help you!”

“You?” She gave a hissing laugh and spat on the mud at his feet. “I thought you were Valentine’s man. Now you want to help me kill him?”

Tom shook his head. He didn’t know what he wanted. Part of him still clung to the hope that it was all a misunderstanding and Valentine was good and kind and brave. He certainly didn’t want to see him murdered and poor Katherine left without a father… But he
had
to catch up with London somehow, and he couldn’t do it alone. And anyway, he felt responsible for Hester Shaw. It was his fault that she had been wounded, after all. “I’ll help you walk,” he said. “You’re injured. You need me.”

“I don’t need anybody,” she said fiercely.

“We’ll go after London together,” Tom promised. “I’m a member of the Guild of Historians. They’ll listen to me. I’ll tell Mr Pomeroy. If Valentine really did the things you said then the law will deal with him!”

“The
law!”
she scoffed. “Valentine is the law in London. Isn’t he the Lord Mayor’s favourite? Isn’t he the Head Historian? No, he’ll kill me unless I kill him first. Kill you too, probably.
Ssshinnng!”
She mimed drawing a sword and driving it through Tom’s chest.

The sun was rising, lifting wreaths of steam from the wet mud. London was still moving, visibly smaller since the last time he looked. The city usually stopped for a few days when it had eaten, and some part of Tom’s brain that was not quite numb wondered idly, Where on earth is it going?

But just then the girl stumbled and fell, her bad leg crumpling under her. Tom scrambled to help her up. She didn’t thank him, but she didn’t push him away either. He pulled her arm around his shoulders and hauled her up, and they set off together along the mud ridge, following London’s tracks into the east.

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