Read Traction City Online

Authors: Philip Reeve

Traction City

 

 

Deep down in the metal heart of the great Traction City of London, a ruthless killer is at work. The glowing green eyes of something not at all human glimmer in the rusting darkness of the Base Tier. Three men lie dead, and each one is missing a hand…

 

A spine-chilling story from the sensational future world of Predator Cities.

 

 

This book has been specially written and published for World Book Day 2011. For further information please see
www.worldbookday.com
.

 

 

For Jeremy Levett, who lent a hand

1

These were mountains once. In Ancient times men knew them as the Alps. But bad things have happened to them in the centuries since: earthstorms and ice ages; a Slow Bomb strike in the Sixty Minute War. Now they are the Shattercountry, a steep land of rubble riven by clefts and rat-runs where the mining towns crawl, gnawing ore out of stumps that once were mighty peaks.

But tonight the passes are deserted. The mining towns have fled. The Shatterlands shiver at the coming of a new disaster. Up from the lowlands, engines roaring, smokestacks spewing thunderheads, a city is advancing. Banks of gigantic caterpillar tracks grind the ground to gravel as it goes. Above them, stacked in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the body of the city towers; factories and work-yards on the largest, lowest level, shops and houses on the ones above. The higher tiers are smaller and have parks about their edges, though the wild winds of the Shatterlands have stripped the trees of leaves. On the tiny topmost tier, among the council offices and politicians' palaces, an ancient temple to a forgotten god has been rebuilt, in honour of the city's past. Even the wretched Anti-Tractionists, watching from their hilltop hovels as it lumbers by, know the famous dome of St Paul's Cathedral. It tells them that this juggernaut is not just any city; this is London, first and greatest of all the Traction Cities of the earth.

For centuries now it has dominated the Great Hunting Ground that lies north of here, devouring smaller, slower towns to feed its endless need for fuel and raw material. Now, for the first time, its ruling council has decided to take it across the high passes to hunt upon the plains of Italia.

Smiff, ten years old and creeping catlike through the city's bowels, knows none of this. The Council might as well be gods to him, they live so high above the dank and rusty streets he knows. On the bits of Base Tier where he makes his living there are some worrying-looking rust holes in the deck plates, and you can look down through them sometimes and see the great wheels turning and the ground sliding by far below. But Smiff never knows which bit of ground it is, or what part of the wide world his city is hunting in. All he knows this evening is that London is climbing, and has been climbing for a long while. The roar from the engines is louder and harsher than usual; streets that are usually flat have developed a steep slope; the heat is immense.

One good thing about living in the chassis of a Traction City is this: the stuff that rich folk drop on tiers above comes down to you. Maybe a lady on Tier One feels the clasp of her necklace break while she's taking the air in Circle Park. Before she can stop it it's slithered through one of the gratings in the deck that lets light and air down to the tier below. It lands in the busy streets of Bloomsbury, where the wheels of one of those new electric cars clip it and send it down another grating to Tier Three. And slowly, if Smiff's lucky and no sharp-eyed Smiff-like person on the higher levels spots it, the ceaseless movements of the city shake it down from level to level, through grating after grating, until lands at last where all things must, on the grimy deck plates of Base Tier.

At least, that's what Smiff is hoping as he scurries towards Mortlake this evening. It's been a long time since he found anything better than a bent fork, but there are good gratings in the roof of Mortlake, aligned with other gratings right up through the city. All sorts of strange stuff comes rattling down to Mortlake.

 

Mortlake is an old industrial section, part of a huge complex called the Wombs, where, back in the glory days, London used to build whole suburbs for itself, refitting towns it caught and sending them off covered in bunting and civic pride, carrying some of London's excess population away with them. But it's been sixty years since the last suburb was launched, and Mortlake has fallen into disuse. DANGER – KEEP OUT say signs on the chain-link fences which bar all the approaches. Smiff's spent his life ignoring signs like that.

He looks left, then right, checking that no coppers are lurking. Then it's over the fence as easy as a monkey and down again into Mortlake's corroded gloom.

No lights here. No names above the rusty shopfronts. Fly-posters pasted to the huge support pillars advertise shows and patent cure-alls from fifty years ago. The district's few narrow streets wind around the flanks of the three colossal hangars in which suburbs were once built. In places where daylight can reach, wan clumps of nettles sprout among the rust flakes on the deck.

Smiff takes out his home-made torch and shines it on the deck ahead. He plays it over the heaps of debris that have collected against forward-facing walls as the city climbs, looking for shiny stuff that might have trickled down from tiers above.

In the first pile he searches there's a pewter button. Not much, but better than nothing, Smiff thinks (which is actually quite a good description of his whole life). He pockets it and moves on.

In the second pile there's just a fish head; shiny enough, but worthless, even to Smiff.

As he turns away the beam of his torch lights up the steel toecaps of a pair of boots.

Smiff raises the torch, and his eyes. Above the boots are trousers. Above the trousers, a paisley waistcoat. Inside the waistcoat a big, broad, red-faced man. Behind the man, two more, much like him.

“This here is
my
patch, kid,” says Costa Mulligan, king of the Base Tier scavs.

“I'm sorry, Mister M,” says Smiff, already sure that “sorry” won't be good enough. He looks past the men for an escape route. There's a rust hole in the deck plate there. If he could drop through that he'd land in the nets under the city. Provided the nets are strong enough to hold him. Provided Mulligan's boys haven't stripped them away to sell. He gauges the distance, wondering if he can make it to the hole before they grab him.

Turns out he can't. The men step forward and lift him, one by either arm. Mulligan grins down at him. A knife appears. The Life of Smiff seems destined to have a sudden and disappointing end. Until, surprising as a whirlwind, something comes out of the dark between the boarded-up buildings on the right. There is a scream. One of the men who was holding Smiff lets go. Then the other. Something reaches over his head for Mulligan. Smiff doesn't wait to find out what it is. He's gone, running for that rust hole and jumping through it, down into the wind beneath the city, the sudden, shocking cold of open air.

Nets of metal mesh are strung across the gulfs between London's banks of caterpillar tracks. They are meant to save hapless workers who tumble off the city's underside while they are repairing it. They are rusty, and in places parts are missing altogether, but Smiff's luck holds; the net beneath the rust hole is sound, and he doesn't weigh much; he crashes down on it and lies there winded. All around him the chill wind whinnies, and the dark is full of the
scherlink, scherlink, scherlink
of the huge treads passing, the grumble of the wheels, the squeal and grind of axles. But Smiff's not listening to any of those noises. He's still hearing the sounds from above; the awful sobbing screams which cut off suddenly and leave a silence which is worse. The heavy footfalls, as if (he thinks) some statue's sprung to life and is pacing about up there.

Something drops on him through the rust hole and he sees it falling just in time and rolls aside so that it doesn't crush him. It lands in the nets next to him, slack and weighty, unmoving till the movement of London sets it swinging. Smiff fumbles his torch on.

The slack and weighty thing is Costa Mulligan, or was till recently. Where his throat was there is now only red. And as Smiff drops his precious torch and goes scrambling for his life towards safer districts of the city he has time to notice one more nasty detail. The man's right hand is missing; severed at the wrist.

2

London climbs higher and higher as the night draws on. The last steep ridge of the Shatterlands looms ahead, swaddled in cloud. Even the auxiliary engines have come on stream now, bellowing with the effort as they help to heave the city up this final slope.

On the edge of Base Tier, snow blows in between the tier supports, melting as it settles on the warm iron pavements. Airdock Green Police Station is quiet tonight, but then most nights are quiet at Airdock Green. Sometimes there's a drunk from the pubs on Crumb Street to deal with, sometimes a pickpocket works the crowds of engine labourers around the elevator station on payday, but by and large there's not much crime down here on Base Tier. It was different in the days when the Airdocks were busy, but there's a smart new air-harbour on Tier Four now where most of the traffic pulls in. The coppers up there must see some cases, Sergeant Anders thinks wistfully as he strolls towards Airdock Green to start his shift. Stolen airships, smugglers, brawls. . . The quays behind his little station are half abandoned, except for some Goshawk 51s which the Guild of Engineers keeps moored there, their plump white envelopes like the speech bubbles of cartoon characters with nothing left to say. Tonight a little shabby red job has joined them; probably some country ship out of the Shatterlands come to shelter from the gale. It's so small that there can barely be room for a single aviator in its gondola. No hope there of a gang of liquored-up sky-boys to add some interest to a policeman's life.

Karl Anders has been thirty years a policeman, but only three of them aboard London. Before that he was chief of police on a little town called Hammershoi, just three tiers tall, that roved around the north country, right up into the Frost Barrens in the arctic summertime, stopping to trade with other towns it met. A happy place, till one bleak February Thursday it met London, hunting in the north. Anders still misses his quaint old police station; the parks on Obertier, the wooden cupolas of the Temple of Peripatetia – but Hammershoi's engines were just cheap gimcrack copies of the great inventions which drove London. The chase lasted fifteen minutes before London's jaws closed on Hammershoi's chassis and the town was hoiked into London's gut, looted and broken up to feed the hungry city.

There are worse cities to be eaten by. At least London doesn't enslave the people of the towns it eats. They are free to leave if they can think of anywhere to go, or welcome to stay aboard if they wish, and become Londoners as so many have before. So Anders stayed, using his long experience as chief of police to get a job with the London force, the “Coppertops”, or “Coppers”, as they're called. But they didn't need a chief of police, and refugees from eaten towns aren't welcome on the higher tiers or in high-ranking jobs. So Karl Anders had to start at the bottom again; Base Tier, at the bottom of London, a lowly sergeant, running the quietest cop shop in the city.

He buttons the collar of his blue uniform and pushes open the door, stepping into the hard, flickery light from the electric bulbs in their big tin shades that swing from the ceiling as the city moves. Constable Pym has his feet on the office desk and his nose in a book, but he pulls himself smartly to attention and salutes when Anders enters. A keen lad, just three weeks out of school. In twenty years or so, thinks Anders, he might make a decent policeman.

“Good evening, Pym,” he says, in his careful Anglish. “Anything to report, or shall I put on the kettle?”

Pym does have something to report. He can barely keep himself from blurting it out before his sergeant's finished speaking. “Corporal Nutter's got a prisoner, sir!”

Anders puts the kettle on anyway, clamping it carefully into the special fitting on the stove which will keep it there however steeply London tilts. He strikes a match and lights the gas. “What's this prisoner charged with, Constable Pym?”

“Anti-Tractionism, sir,” says Corporal Nutter, coming out of the holding cell at the back of the station and closing the door firmly. “Some foreign vermin, come in on a tramp airship, looking to blow us all up. I caught her snooping round the Engine District.”

Anders leaves the kettle to boil and goes to the cell door. The peephole on the door lost its cover long ago. He peeps through. A young woman is sitting on the bench at the back of the cell. Not really a woman, just a girl, or at that in-between stage, the age Anders's daughter would have been if she had lived. Only this girl is an easterner: golden skin, black eyes the shape of seeds. Black hair with a startling streak of white in it. Anders guesses at once why Archie Nutter, with his mean, dim-witted, London-for-Londoners prejudices, chose to harass her. She's pretty, too, which maybe didn't help. But what on earth could he have found on her that made him think it worth handcuffing her and bringing her in? Did he stop to consider how much paperwork he'd cause?

He unlocks the cell door with a key from the ring on his belt, unlocks the handcuffs with another. The girl doesn't say anything; just sits there with her long skinny legs stuck out in front of her and her hands resting together on her lap as if they're still cuffed. Anders stands looking at her. Pym and Nutter watch him from the doorway.

“So she's a saboteur, you say?” asks Anders. “Where is your evidence, Corporal Nutter?”

“Here, sir.” Nutter passes him a shabby knapsack. It's heavy. Anders looks inside. Whistles softly. He doesn't like to admit it but it seems Archie Nutter may be right, for once.

The thing in the bag is a demolition charge. A silvery disk, like a metal chocolate box or the lid of a tiny manhole. Cities which don't have London's vast Dismantling Yards use them to break up the towns they catch. Attach them to a weak point on the hull, turn that switch to start the timer, stand well back and
boom
. Use a few hundred and and there's no more town, just chunks of useful scrap. But there's no point anywhere on London's hull so weak that a charge
this
small could harm it.

“Are there more of these?” he asks. “You've searched her ship, I assume?”

“I did, sir!” says Constable Pym. Pym has a new boy's respect for paperwork; he hands his sergeant a form headed “
Aerial Merchant Vessel
Jenny Haniver
, Contents and Cargo

.
There's not much. Some third-rate jade, a bundle of books, her clothes. No more explosives.

Anders turns back to the girl, still holding the demolition charge. “What were you planning to do with this?”

The girl just stares at him. Her eyes look older than her face. Narrow, black eyes with hurt and hate in them. London shudders, scrambling over boulders almost as big as itself, and the bare bulb on the cell ceiling swings, sloshing shadows over her.

“She don't speak Anglish,” says Nutter.

Anders ignores him and squats down in front of the girl, holding the demolition charge with both hands. “Seems to me that maybe there's a simple explanation for this. Like maybe you were hoping to sell this to our demolition crews, not knowing that they have to get all their explosives through the proper channels. If that's so, you should tell me. Because if you don't I'll have to call upstairs. The Guild of Engineers are responsible for dealing with Anti-Tractionists. Once we hand you over to them, I won't be able to help you. So talk to me.”

The girl says nothing.

Anders tries not to think about the things the Guild's interrogators will do to her. He tries to think instead about how catching a saboteur will help his career. Maybe there will be a captaincy in it for him. Maybe a better posting, up on one of the higher tiers. He shoos Pym and Nutter from the cell, locks the door, and starts writing a report to send up the pneumatic-tube system to the Engineerium.

He is just folding it ready to put it in the message cylinder when the street door crashes open and a small, ragged figure comes dashing in. Constable Pym catches the boy as he stumbles. He's been running so hard that he can barely breathe, let alone speak. The three policemen gather round him, waiting as he gasps and pants.

“Smiff?” says Constable Pym. “It's Smiff, ain't it? What's the matter?”

“Mull . . . Mull . . . Mulligan. . .” the boy blurts.

“Mulligan's after you?” guesses Anders. “Great Goddess, boy, I've told you children a hundred times not to go scavenging in Mortlake. Has he hurt you?”

“No. . .” The boy looks up at him. In his time as sergeant here Anders has never seen anything but contempt in the eyes of these London scavenger kids. Now he sees fear.

“He's
dead
.
Murdered
. . .”

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