Read The Difference Engine Online
Authors: William Gibson,Bruce Sterling
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Historical, #Steampunk, #Cyberpunk
Composite image, optically encoded by escort-craft of the trans-Channel airship Lord Brunel: aerial view of suburban Cherbourg, October 14, 1905.
A villa, a garden, a balcony.
Erase the balcony’s wrought-iron curves, exposing a bath-chair and its occupant. Reflected sunset glints from the nickel-plate of the chair’s wheel-spokes.
The occupant, owner of the villa, rests her arthritic hands upon fabric woven by a Jacquard loom.
These hands consist of tendons, tissue, jointed bone. Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman.
Her name is Sybil Gerard.
Below her, in a neglected formal garden, leafless vines lace wooden trellises on whitewashed, flaking walls. From the open windows of her sickroom, a warm draft stirs the loose white hair at her neck, bringing scents of coal-smoke, jasmine, opium.
Her attention is fixed upon the sky, upon a silhouette of vast and irresistible grace — metal, in her lifetime, having taught itself to fly. In advance of that magnificence, tiny unmanned aeroplanes dip and skirl against the red horizon.
Like starlings, Sybil thinks.
The airship’s lights, square golden windows, hint at human warmth. Effortlessly, with the incomparable grace of organic function, she imagines a distant music there, the music of London: the passengers promenade, they drink, they flirt, perhaps they dance.
Thoughts come unbidden, the mind weaving its perspectives, assembling meaning from emotion and memory.
She recalls her life in London. Recalls herself, so long ago, making her way along the Strand, pressing past the crush at Temple Bar. Pressing on, the city of Memory winding itself about her — till, by the walls of Newgate, the shadow of her father’s hanging falls . . .
And Memory turns, deflected swift as light, down another byway — one where it is always evening . . .
It is January 15, 1855.
A room in Grand’s Hotel, Piccadilly.
One chair was propped backward, wedged securely beneath the door’s cut-glass knob. Another was draped with clothing: a woman’s fringed mantelet, a mud-crusted skirt of heavy worsted, a man’s checked trousers and cutaway coat.
Two forms lay beneath the bedclothes of the laminated-maple four-poster, and off in the iron grip of winter Big Ben bellowed ten o’clock, great hoarse calliope sounds, the coal-fired breath of London.
Sybil slid her feet through icy linens to the warmth of the ceramic bottle in its wrap of flannel. Her toes brushed his shin. The touch seemed to start him from deep deliberation. That was how he was, this Dandy Mick Radley.
She’d met Mick Radley at Laurent’s Dancing Academy, down Windmill Street. Now that she knew him, he seemed more the sort for Kellner’s in Leicester Square, or even the Portland Rooms. He was always thinking, scheming, muttering over something in his head. Clever, clever. It worried her. And Mrs. Winterhalter wouldn’t have approved, for the handling of “political gentlemen” required delicacy and discretion, qualities Mrs. Winterhalter believed she herself had a-plenty, while crediting none to her girls.
“No more dollymopping, Sybil,” Mick said. One of his pronouncements, something about which he’d made up his clever mind.
Sybil grinned up at him, her face half-hidden by the blanket’s warm edge. She knew he liked the grin. Her wicked-girl grin. He can’t mean that, she thought. Make a joke of it, she told herself. “But if I weren’t a wicked dollymop, would I be here with you now?”
“No more playing bobtail.”
“You know I only go with gentlemen.”
Mick sniffed, amused. “Call me a gentleman, then?”
“A very flash gentleman,” Sybil said, flattering him. “One of the fancy. You know I don’t care for the Rad Lords. I spit on ‘em, Mick.”
Sybil shivered, but not unhappily, for she’d run into a good bit of luck here, full of steak-and-taters and hot chocolate, in bed between clean sheets in a fashionable hotel. A shiny new hotel with central steam-heat, though she’d gladly have traded the restless gurgling and banging of the scrolled gilt radiator for the glow of a well-banked health.
And he was a good-looking cove, this Mick Radley, she had to admit, dressed very flash, had the tin and was generous with it, and he’d yet to demand anything peculiar or beastly. She knew it wouldn’t last, as Mick was a touring gent from Manchester, and gone soon enough. But there was profit in him, and maybe more when he left her, if she made him feel sorry about it, and generous.
Mick reclined into fat feather-pillows and slid his manicured fingers behind his spit-curled head. Silk nightshirt all frothy with lace down the front — only the best for Mick. Now he seemed to want to talk a bit. Men did, usually, after a while — about their wives, mostly.
But for Dandy Mick, it was always politics. “So, you hate the Lordships, Sybil?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” Sybil said. “I have my reasons.”
“I should say you do,” Mick said slowly, and the look he gave her then, of cool superiority, sent a shiver through her.
“What d’ye mean by that, Mick?”
“I know your reasons for hating the Government. I have your number.”
Surprise seeped into her, then fear. She sat up in bed. There was a taste in her mouth like cold iron.
“You keep your card in your bag,” he said. “I took that number to a rum magistrate I know. He ran it through a government Engine for me, and printed up your Bow Street file, rat-a-tat-tat, like fun.” He smirked. “So I know all about you, girl. Know who you are . . .”
She tried to put a bold face on it. “And who’s that, then, Mr. Radley?”
“No Sybil Jones, dearie. You’re Sybil Gerard, the daughter of Walter Gerard, the Luddite agitator.”
He’d raided her hidden past.
Machines, whirring somewhere, spinning out history.
Now Mick watched her face, smiling at what he saw there, and she recognized a look she’d seen before, at Laurent’s, when first he’d spied her across the crowded floor. A hungry look.
Her voice shook. “How long have you known about me?”
“Since our second night. You know I travel with the General. Like any important man, he has enemies. As his secretary and man-of-affairs, I take few chances with strangers.” Mick put his cruel, deft little hand on her shoulder. “You might have been someone’s agent. It was business.”
Sybil flinched away. “Spying on a helpless girl,” she said at last. “You’re a right bastard, you are!”
But her foul words scarcely seemed to touch him — he was cold and hard, like a judge or a lordship. “I may spy, girl, but I use the Government’s machinery for my own sweet purposes. I’m no copper’s nark, to look down my nose at a revolutionary like Walter Gerard — no matter what the Rad Lords may call him now. Your father was a hero.”
He shifted on the pillow. “My hero — that was Walter Gerard. I saw him speak, on the Rights of Labour, in Manchester. He was a marvel — we all cheered till our throats was raw! The good old Hell-Cats . . .” Mick’s smooth voice had gone sharp and flat, in a Mancunian tang. “Ever hear tell of the Hell-Cats, Sybil? In the old days?”
“A street-gang,” Sybil said. “Rough boys in Manchester.”
Mick frowned. “We was a brotherhood! A friendship youth-guild! Your father knew us well. He was our patron politician, you might say.”
“I’d prefer it if you didn’t speak of my father, Mr. Radley.”
Mick shook his head at her impatiently. “When I heard they’d tried and hanged him” — the words like ice behind her ribs — “me and the lads, we took up torches and crowbars, and we ran hot and wild . . . That was Ned Ludd’s work, girl! Years ago . . .” He picked delicately at the front of his nightshirt. ” ‘Tis not a tale I tell to many. The Government’s Engines have long memories.”
She understood it now — Mick’s generosity and his sweet-talk, the strange hints he’d aimed at her, of secret plans and better fortune, marked cards and hidden aces. He was pulling her strings, making her his creature. The daughter of Walter Gerard was a fancy prize, for a man like Mick.
She pulled herself out of bed, stepping across icy floorboards in her pantalettes and chemise.
She dug quickly, silently, through the heap of her clothing. The fringed mantelet, the jacket, the great sagging cage of her crinoline skirt. The jingling white cuirass of her corset.
“Get back in bed,” Mick said lazily. “Don’t get your monkey up. ‘Tis cold out there.” He shook his head. ” ‘Tis not like you think, Sybil.”
She refused to look at him, struggling into her corset by the window, where frost-caked glass cut the upwashed glare of gaslight from the street. She cinched the corset’s laces tight across her back with a quick practiced snap of her wrists.
“Or if it is,” Mick mused, watching her, ” ‘tis only in small degree.”
Across the street, the opera had let out — gentry in their cloaks and top-hats. Cab-horses, their backs in blankets, stamped and shivered on the black macadam. White traces of clean suburban snow still clung to the gleaming coachwork of some lordship’s steam-gurney. Tarts were working the crowd. Poor wretched souls. Hard indeed to find a kind face amid those goffered shirts and diamond studs, on such a cold night. Sybil turned toward Mick, confused, angry, and very much afraid. “Who did you tell about me?”
“Not a living soul,” Mick said, “not even my friend the General. And I won’t be peaching on you. Nobody’s ever said Mick Radley’s indiscreet. So get back in bed.”
“I shan’t,” Sybil said, standing straight, her bare feet freezing on the floorboards. “Sybil Jones may share your bed — but the daughter of Walter Gerard is a personage of substance!”
Mick blinked at her, surprised. He thought it over, rubbing his narrow chin, then nodded. ” ‘Tis my sad loss, then. Miss Gerard.” He sat up in bed and pointed at the door, with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “Put on your skirt, then, and your brass-heeled dolly-boots. Miss Gerard, and out the door with you and your substance. But ‘twould be a great shame if you left. I’ve uses for a clever girl.”
“I should say you do, you blackguard,” said Sybil, but she hesitated. He had another card to play — she could sense it in the set of his face.
He grinned at her, his eyes slitted. “Have you ever been to Paris, Sybil?”
“Paris?” Her breath clouded in midair.
“Yes,” he said, “the gay and the glamorous, next destination for the General, when his London lecture tour is done.” Dandy Mick plucked at his lace cuffs. “What those uses are, that I mentioned, I shan’t as yet say. But the General is a man of deep stratagem. And the Government of France have certain difficulties that require the help of experts . . . ” He leered triumphantly. “But I can see that I bore you, eh?”
Sybil shifted from foot to foot. “You’ll take me to Paris, Mick,” she said slowly, “and that’s the true bill, no snicky humbugging?”
“Strictly square and level. If you don’t believe me, I’ve a ticket in my coat for the Dover ferry.”
Sybil walked to the brocade armchair in the corner, and tugged at Mick’s greatcoat. She shivered uncontrollably, and slipped the greatcoat on. Fine dark wool, like being wrapped in warm money.
“Try the right front pocket,” Mick told her. “The card-case.” He was amused and confident — as if it were funny that she didn’t trust him. Sybil thrust her chilled hands into both pockets. Deep, plush-lined . . .
Her left hand gripped a lump of hard cold metal. She drew out a nasty little pepperbox derringer. Ivory handle, intricate gleam of steel hammers and brass cartridges, small as her hand but heavy.
“Naughty,” said Mick, frowning. “Put it back, there’s a girl.”
Sybil put the thing away, gently but quickly, as if it were a live crab. In the other pocket she found his card-case, red morocco leather; inside were business cards, cartes-de-visite with his Engine-stippled portrait, a London train timetable.
And an engraved slip of stiff creamy parchment, first-class passage on the Newcomen, out of Dover.
“You’ll need two tickets, then,” she hesitated, “if you really mean to take me.”
Mick nodded, conceding the point. “And another for the train from Cherbourg, too. And nothing simpler. I can wire for tickets, downstairs at the lobby desk.”
Sybil shivered again, and wrapped the coat closer. Mick laughed at her. “Don’t give me that vinegar phiz. You’re still thinking like a dollymop; stop it. Start thinking flash, or you’ll be of no use to me. You’re Mick’s gal now — a high-flyer.”
She spoke slowly, reluctantly. “I’ve never been with any man who knew I was Sybil Gerard.” That was a lie, of course — there was Egremont, the man who had mined her. Charles Egremont had known very well who she was. But Egremont no longer mattered — he lived in a different world, now, with his po-faced respectable wife, and his respectable children, and his respectable seat in Parliament.
And Sybil hadn’t been dollymopping, with Egremont. Not exactly, anyway. A matter of degree . . .
She could tell that Mick was pleased at the lie she’d told him. It had flattered him.
Mick opened a gleaming cigar-case, extracted a cheroot, and lit it in the oily flare of a repeating match, filling the room with the candied smell of cherry tobacco.