The Road Grew Strange

Over London Rail by Gustav Dor

“He was terribly injured, you know, in the boiler accident — ”

“ — lost both legs, I heard. You can hear the machinery when he walks — ”

“ — such a handsome boy. Cecilia is beside herself — ”

Sitting stiffly at the long table, Hector tried not to hear the whispered comments. It was physically impossible to shut them out, the sensitivity of his rebuilt ear too acute.

The piercing chimes of the crystal goblet silenced the talk, drilling into Hector’s brain.

“Attention — can I have everybody’s attention, please?” Sir Bartholomew stood at the head of the table.

“My dear friends,” Hector’s father said, beaming around at the guests. The buttons of his plum velvet suit strained. His face was florid and sheened with moisture. “You know how much I dislike the art of making speeches, so I will save you from that dire fate.”

A polite titter travelled around the table. Hector’s gaze followed the laughter. From old Meister Chancellor to the fourteen year-old bride sitting beside Callum Faust, his father’s partner, they wore the same expressions; eyes glittering with avarice and their mouths ripe to bursting with self-satisfaction. All were primped and powdered, their soft, doughy hands laden with jewellery.

“ — new increases in the fiscal quarter — ”

Was that all they cared about? The servants referred to their master as Bartie. Did he even know that? Perhaps he did, and didn’t care. He could buy or sell any of them, at any time.

“ — another prosperous year!”

The gentlemen lifted their glasses and the ladies tapped their hands together. The talk around the table rumbled as wine flowed into delicate crystal and down their throats.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Faust lean close to his child bride, the old man’s hand diving under the table. Seated opposite, two women talked, mouths pinched with shrewish rancour, eyes flicking back and forth, missing nothing. At the end of the table, his father roared with laughter, his jowls rolled up over the froth of lace at his throat.

Was this all there was? Self congratulation and malicious gossip and indulgence? Wealth derived from the work of others?

Hector pushed his chair back and walked from the room.

The fingers of his right hand traced the line of stone beside the window, finding the outline of where, once, a much larger window had been seated. He closed his hand into a fist, his mouth thinning at the clicks of the rods and whirring of gears.

The sheathing was the same flexible metal cloth that covered his burned skin from collarbone to midway over his skull. A wondrous new invention from the Science Guild. It gleamed gold in the lamp-light, following the contours of the articulated fingers and their sleeves of padding.

It was stronger than any man’s hand. He could knock out the stones in the wall with it, if he wished. It had taken a year to get used to that strength. To stop breaking things he’d tried to touch.

He lifted his head. Through the window, the city spread out; vast, dark, grimy and dangerous. The Circles were for their protection, his father had said. Like simply gets on better with like. Those who lived in the muck-strewn Fifth and Sixth Circles were happier not seeing the wealth and privileges of the First.

What were those places like? Filled with poisoned water and toxic gases, as his tutor suggested? Or as his Aunt had repeatedly told him, soul-pits for the filthy and depraved?

He couldn’t see the stacks of the factories from here, despite the height of his eyrie. In between, thick layers of low cloud and smog blocked the views of the farthest reaches of the metropolis.

Turning restlessly from the window, Hector wondered if he’d ever see the places that bought his food, paid for the tutor and the clothing and the most modern mechanical body replacements money could buy.

The bells of the High Church rang out, their carillon muted. Midnight.

Hector stared at the wall opposite. The guards changed at noon and midnight. The night was cold but no longer raining. His gaze focused on the thick cloak hanging by the armoire as thought and aching disquiet wound themselves into a thread of compulsion.

He didn’t realise he was moving until the cloak was in his hands, flung around his shoulders. He let the ornate, jewelled clasp drop to the floor, wheeling to the lowboy and yanking a drawer out, fingers scrabbling through the clutter to close around the plain, black pin he’d worn at day school. The cloak had a deep, cowled hood. It would hide his too-distinctive face from sight.

Pulling off his slippers, he thrust his feet into an old pair of boots. The soles were roughened, the leather scuffed.

As he opened the door, a burst of laughter rose up the stairs from the rooms below. The party would go until dawn. No one would miss him. He slipped out, pulling the door closed and locking it, walking in the opposite direction of the main stair. He could get out through the servant’s quarters. Out and down and into the night.

On the street, a thin, bitter wind swept through the streets, moaning in the iron fence surrounding the square. Hector huddled in the recessed doorway, his cloak clutched about him.

If you’re going to do it, he lectured himself over the chatter of his teeth, then do it.

Across the square, the lit doorway of the Guards’ quarters reflected on damp cobblestones. It was empty now, but if he waited any longer, the next watch would emerge and he’d have no choice but to return to his gilded prison.

He broke and ran before he could think further, the soft soles of his boots making little noise on the stones. For several heart-stumbling moments he was out in the open, visible to anyone watching, then he reached the other side of the square and slowed in the shadows, his lungs heaving with the damp, cold air, a moist fug of warmth inside his clothing.

It was easy enough to keep to the patchwork of black between the fierce orange gas lamps. Easier still, he realised, if he eschewed the main thoroughfares and worked his way east through the labyrinthine service alleys, carriage mews and footways behind the buildings. He had no idea of where — exactly — he was heading, but the city map, learned in painstaking detail, was in his mind and he knew that in twelve blocks, he would be out of the First Circle, and entering the Second.

In the unlit alleys and yards, his boots squelched through unidentifiable muck, treacherous and pungent with unfamiliar, potent odours. He could see perfectly well, his right eye dilating to its full capacity, his vision lacking depth but not clarity. Without the glare of the gas lamps, a softer, more widely spread light struggled through the miasma coating the sky, tinting the noisome, smoke-laden cloud to a pale and sulphurous yellow.

The maze opened into a broad lane, and Hector slowed when he saw the loom of orange to either side of the intersection.

“Look out!”

He slammed himself back against the wall as a shadow dropped from the sky. A kaleidoscope of colours; a second-long impression of small — lean — the bell of a skirted coat and a peculiar silhouette of hair like a cock’s comb —

“Here! Get the bugger!”

The bellow was amplified in the lane. Hector flinched, his hand rising to block his augmented ear.

“They’ll get you, or me, and won’t care which,” the figure in front of him said, showing a flash of teeth.

“Wha — ?”

“’e’s got an accomplice!” Another voice bounced from the high wall.

Hector swung around, his right eye focusing at the figures rushing toward him. Not guards. In uniforms. Bearded with truncheons in their hands.

The Constabulary.

He spun to see the mouth of the lane empty, a rapidly receding click of boot heels indicating a direction, but one he’d lose if he tarried.

He ran.

It wasn’t like running had once been. There was no cushioned lift as the balls of his feet hit the ground, despite the best efforts of the Mechanics to replicate all functionality. Each foot hit the cobblestones hard, the impact travelling up through his pelvis to spine. Rods pumped, servos whined, gears shifted, lifting the articulated legs and controlling the angles of the jointed ankles and feet. It was fast. Much, much faster than possible for muscle and tendon and bone.

His eyes narrowed against the wind he was generating, his attention focused on the sounds ahead — those boot heels, skidding through standing water, clocking on the smooth pavement on the other side of the thoroughfare.

He scanned the building facades. There! A shadow ducked into the service alley.

Whipping around the corner, Hector slowed in the empty passage. He came to a halt, pivoting as he searched the narrow lane. Empty and silent.

Impossible. There was nothing that could outrun him, certainly not in the seconds it had taken him to cross the thoroughfare and reach the alley. He wheeled again, the approaching tock-tock of the Constabulary’s heavy boots accelerating his pulse.

Hiding? He scanned the dust bins and sacks that littered the slimy ground.

“They went this way, Inspector!”

He couldn’t just stand here, waiting to be caught.

The noise was so faint, no other could’ve heard it. Hector looked up.

At the corner of the building, five storeys above, a spidery figure clung to the soot-covered stone. He could see the path taken: up the large, outset blocks to the balcony two floors above, along the decorative ironwork to the downpipes and up to the next balcony. Across and up, to the corner.

Tock-tock, tock-tock. A horse’s wild neigh and the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobblestones. Swearing of a driver forced to stop.

Hector jumped, his right hand latching onto the broad lip of the balustrade. He pulled himself up and scuttled to the ironwork lattice, wincing as an old, dead rose tore at his left hand. Climbing fast, he reached the corner of the fifth floor. The shadow raced across the roof top of the building next door.

“Oi! ‘e’s on the bleedin’ roof!”

The shout resounded and he glanced down. There were eight men milling around at the building’s base, their faces pale, sickly-hued in the moonlight. Hector jumped again, both legs and right arm propelling him from the building’s side and across the footway.

Under his boots, the steep gables went up and down, over slate and tile and asphalt. Past chimneys belching ash and smoke into the night, the wash of the gas lamps lighting the underside of the cloud cover with hellish colour and the mottled moon rising above, its intermittent, brassy lumination giving way to pewter and finally silver.

Driven by fear and a strange joy, he wasn’t sure when he noticed the buildings getting lower, the distances between them narrowing until they disappeared altogether, houses packed like sardines in a can. The roofs had changed too. Cracked clay tiles or wooden shingles, thatch and tin. Raucous music replaced the rattle of carriage and ring of hooves. Laughter, unruly and bawling, drifted up from the street.

The figure was only a few yards ahead and Hector lengthened his stride, reaching the steep, upward slope of the shingled roof a pace behind. He reached out. His fingers brushed over the belling coat and clutched at air. His second lunge secured a grip on thick fabric and he tugged, bracing himself as the figure teetered on the peak, arms pin-wheeling, and fell back on him.

They slid together to the valley. Hector stared as a number of items fell from the figure’s coat; a goblet, silver frames and cutlery clattering across the roof.

“You’re a thief?” he asked.

The coat was torn from his grip, and the thief crawled to the nearest item, the goblet with the distinctive lustre of gold, picking it up and tucking back inside the coat. “You’re not? Why did you run?”

“You told — ” Hector said. “I thought — ”

Gathering the remaining spoils, the thief laughed. “My mistake.”

The moon chose that moment to find a gap in the clouds, lighting the rooftop in silver, and Hector frowned as he saw the thief clearly.

Dark hair, chopped and hacked at, all different lengths. It framed a narrow, pale face. Straight, fine brows over long, almond-shaped eyes, a small nose and beneath it, a full, wide mouth.

“You’re — you’re a girl!”

She cocked her head, one hand patting the pockets of her coat. “Your powers of observation are extraordinary.”

With a single, fluid motion, she rose, her hand flicking out to throw back his hood.

“And you — ” she said, her expression cooling, “ — are a First Circle princeling.”

“No.”

“No?” Derision laced her voice. “No one spends that much lolly on state of the art reconstruction unless there’s a kingdom involved.”

“How would you know?”

“You think only rich little boys have accidents with machinery?”

He scowled at the shingles under his feet.

“Never been out of the Circle, have you?” She moved to stand beside him. He shot her an irritated sideways glance.

“I could have you arrested–branded–as a thief,” he said.

She laughed. “Sure you could, but not here. Not now.”

There was truth in that, he acknowledged with reluctance. “Where are you from?”

“Out there.” She sat on the slope, leaning back on her elbows. “You don’t believe me?”

“You’re not a worker,” he said, looking down at her. She was as relaxed as a cat.

“Hades,” she told him, her smile widening.

“That’s a myth.”

“No.” Her amusement disappeared. “It’s not.”

Father said it was a myth. A subterranean world, warmed by the internal fires of the planet. Peopled by those who’d tumbled down from the Fifth and Sixth Circles and were never seen again. He wasn’t sure what he believed. She didn’t look like a drone. There was health in her face; she’d run as far and as fast as he, over hard terrain.

“Prove it.”

“Why should I?”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Do I look as if I care for what you believe?”

He turned away with a huff of impatience. “You could be from the Third Circle.”

“I’d be dirty and surrounded by sprogs, if I were,” she said. “You never went to see what they looked like? The people whose lives your factories spend?”

“Not my factories,” Hector muttered.

“They will be, some of them,” she said. “Your drones. Your money, counted out from their misery.”

“What makes you think you know anything about me?”

She was on her feet and next to him before he could react, her hand fisted in the thick, rich fabric of his cloak. “This.”

“And this,” she added, pulling the cloak aside, revealing the lustre of the navy silk breeches he wore beneath. “And this.”

Her hand brushed the belt buckle at his waist, fingernails clicking against the heavy metal.

She pulled out the goblet and waved it at him.

“From your kind,” she said. “This’ll feed a family of twelve for four moons. It’ll pay for medicine. It’ll cover rent for nine moons — and the people I stole it from? They had thirty. In a cupboard covered in dust an inch thick.”

He snatched it, tilting it to the light, swallowing hard when he recognised the crest engraved on its side. The family were wintering in the south, on the shores of the Warm Sea.

Plucking it from his hand, the girl slid it inside her coat. “They’re someplace else, aren’t they? Someplace warm and safe?”

He nodded.

“You’re right,” he said, turning to face her. “You are right.”

She looked at him, eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Just like that?”

“This is the first time I’ve ever been — out of the Circle.” He drew in a breath, coughing as the acrid air touched his windpipe. “You think I had a choice about being born there?”

“No,” she said. “You have a choice about staying there.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” He straightened. “I — ”

What? Wanted to see the rest of the world? Have an adventure, knowing he could go back? They would take him in, even if he was a disappointment, even if they no longer loved him.

“You were feeling sorry for yourself,” the girl said, her expression critical.

He had been. He still was, he thought.

“Why did you follow? You could’ve just stayed put,” she asked. “You’d’ve been safe.”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I didn’t stop to think.”

“Better watch that, could get you into trouble some time.” She turned to look over the buildings, the gloom returning as the moon disappeared. “You know you stand out like a pretty crystal bowl in a junkyard? You should go home.”

He shook his head. “No. Not yet.”

“Your funeral.” She turned away and started to climb the steep gable.

“Where are you going?”

She looked back at him. “I got business to care of.”

“Can — ” Hector swallowed. He didn’t want to tag along like an unwanted appendage.

There was a gusting exhale above, and he looked up as the girl folded herself into a crouch. “You really want to see this?”

“Yes.”

“Tomorrow.” She shook her head. “You get some clothes that don’t mark you out. Same time, this roof.”

He nodded. She turned away and climbed to the ridge, disappearing down the other side without a backward glance.

By tomorrow night, she could have rounded up a few people to steal whatever he had. It was a risk his father would never be foolish enough to take.

For the first time in a long time, he laughed. That wasn’t something he was going to take into consideration. Not ever again.

He looked around. In every direction, the low buildings stretched out, featureless and daunting.

All he had to do was find his way back.