The Doomsday Machine (Horatio Lyle) (2 page)

BOOK: The Doomsday Machine (Horatio Lyle)
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As he moves forward, he methodically turns his coat, pulling the sleeves back in on themselves and out the other side, revealing underneath a pale grey fabric, sewn just like the black, and looking just as much like the outside of a coat as its lining, complete with bulging pockets. He starts pushing his arms back into the sleeves, almost kneeling down among the crowd to hide his actions, then straightens up, scrunching his hat down to a handful and ramming it inside his coat pocket in a further effort at disguise. He peers over the heads of the crowd, then looks down the short distance to the pit, where a fight, over what he couldn’t guess, has broken out in one corner near the old man with his three-stringed fiddle. A hint of black coat somewhere on the edge of the crowd, really too finely cut to be in this hall? Perhaps - it is hard to tell in the dim light.
He edges to the far corner of the hall, where the shadows are deepest, and muscles his way into a patch of wall between an old soldier missing an ear, and his drinking companion, who is clinging on to the wall to stop it swaying around him. He shuffles down to keep his head low, folds his arms across his chest, tucks in his chin and prepares to wait out the evening amid the sweat of the hall. He claps when the audience claps, boos when they boo, swears fluently when they swear, roars with laughter when they laugh and somehow, by a strange twisting of his face and lilt of his voice, isn’t the same toff who walked in a few minutes ago, but shrinks down into himself while throwing his voice out across the hall with every cry of ‘Get off!’ or lets a tear well in his eye with the sadness of a true war veteran when the man in the big waistcoat and huge moustache raises his hand and calls for a moment to remember the lost of the Crimea and Britain’s noble undertaking. Only when he thinks no one is watching does the openness of his face cloud for a moment, as he scans the crowd in search of something out of place, and shrinks further into the darkness at some half-imagined shimmer of movement by the doors.
And while the man hides in the music hall, and watches, without any connection or awareness of circumstance, the thoughts of another are about to turn in his direction, and they go something like this ...

Xiansheng
?’
‘Berwick has gone. Run. They found his bed empty in the night.’
‘I find it hard to see how.’
‘Nevertheless.
They
helped him.’
‘How could they know?’
‘They have friends in high places; you know this. They were watching him for some months before the calamity at St Paul’s.’
‘Where has he gone?’
‘I don’t yet know.’ A sigh, a letting out of long breath, that just happens to have casual words tangled up in it. ‘He took the regulator.’
A moment ’s silence, while the full implication settles in. Then an overly contained, ‘I will send my men.’
‘They won’t find him.’
‘You underestimate our will,
xiansheng
. What are you thinking? ’
‘If Berwick felt himself to be in danger, where would he run?’
‘The city is a good place to hide.’
‘Who would he run to?’
A silence while the speakers in the room contemplate this question. Then, very quietly, one man says, ‘Oh. I see what you might be thinking. Is it going to be a problem?’
‘Maybe. Not yet. We ’ll see what he does first, we ’ll see if Berwick contacts him. There’s still time.’
‘I hope you’re right,
xiansheng
.’
 
Some miles away from both the hiding man and those who contemplate him, a hand stained black with coal dust reaches out for a lever the height of a ten-year-old child and the thickness of a woman’s wrist, and presses the brake off. Its owner looks up, awaiting a command.
‘Well?’ says a voice like the snap of a silk flag in a strong breeze.
‘Without the regulator . . .’ stumbles the owner of the blackened hand.
‘The regulator is only needed for discharge, and by his own mathematics that is three days of pumping away! Do not concern yourself with the regulator.’
The man with the black-dusted hand, who is smarter than the owner of the commanding voice gives him credit for, thinks about this, then shrugs to himself and pushes all his weight against the lever, rocking it heavily forward. Somewhere a long way below the gantry on which he stands, something goes
thunk
. Something else gives off a long, painful hiss, something tall and metal screeches inside stiff gears, a furnace door slams, a shovel digs into coal, a fat coil of tightly wrapped cables, each one thicker than an arm, turns on an axis and locks into place between two metal points that gleam in dull orange light from the banks of burning coal a long way below, and, as slow and irresistible as an iceberg, the Machine starts to move.
It is bigger than the deck of the largest man o’war; it fills the space of an average cathedral; it burns more coal than twenty trains rushing from London to Edinburgh; it contains more metal than Brunel’s greatest construction; it is hotter than the hottest music hall on a summer’s night; it needs a hundred men to throw coal into its furnaces just to keep it powered up. Even to the man who created it, whose monster it is, it can have no other name than the Machine.
 
Although he didn’t know it at the time, to the man hiding in the music hall, all these things were, in fact, related. If he had known that then, he might have been tempted to argue that by the same reasoning, everything in the universe was related, an endless pattern of inter-connectedness and general shared being, and so on and so forth, but frankly his attention was occupied with more practical matters. The fight in the corner of the pit was resolved by the fiddler smashing a small sandbag over the head of the nearest combatant. This in turn led to a general acceptance that nothing more in the show would be as impressive, and so the two singers, looking relieved, started winding it down. This was followed by a huge burst of rousing applause and a spontaneous chorus of five different versions of ‘God Save the Queen’, three of which weren’t even that profane, and which led the hiding man to think that maybe this was a comparatively civilized hall after all and that perhaps when circumstances were different, he might come back again for a nice night out, maybe bring the children as an educational experience or nostalgia trip, depending on which child was watching.
As the crowd started to move, he took hold of an arm belonging to the drunk old soldier, who seemed too far gone even to notice the stepping of his own feet, and with a muttered, ‘Evenin’, pops,’ started walking him towards the door, keeping his chin tucked down towards the old man’s face as if at any moment the man might speak words of wisdom that he had to hear. ‘Come on, grandpa, ain’t your night, where ’s the patch, huh?’
With the old man supported firmly under the arm, he made it out into the night air on a tidal wave of heat, the darkness shockingly cold after the hall, and followed the main flow of the crowd along the street. The walk took him west, towards Smithfield, and he was almost on the edge of the market there before the crowd started to thin out to just a few stragglers. He found an inn, the door half-open and the shutters drawn, and led the old man in, depositing him by the scarcely burning fire. The drunken man, oblivious, let his head loll and, within an instant of being settled, gave out a sound that was half a belch and half a snore.
Satisfied with his night’s work so far, the man in the grey coat slipped to the door and peered outside. A single lamp hung down from a house bridging the end of the narrow street; at the other end, another faint light burnt by the doorway of a small church, its stones stained black with soot. Across the way was the high wall of a workhouse, all the lights long since out, and the gate chained shut for the evening. He listened for the sound of movement, and heard nothing more than the scuttle of a rat somewhere in the churchyard, the hiss of a cat that has seen its prey, and, in the distance, the shout of the butchers as they started to prepare their meat for the morning’s market, and the bleating of a flock of sheep being herded through the arches of Smithfield for slaughter.
There was no sign of another person on the street.
The man let out a sigh, closed the inn door quietly behind him, and started walking, his feet barely making a sound now as he moved up the side of the road, hands in his pockets. He passed under the light and glanced round the corner, into more quiet streets, all darkened now. He took a moment to recover his bearings, glanced up out of habit to see if there were any stars - the clouds were too thick that night to tell - and looked down again, into a pair of bright green eyes, so bright he could see their emerald colour even though the owner stood just outside the light.
He didn’t speak, didn’t even have time for the surprise to show on his face, but dragged one hand out of his pocket and opened his fingers, hurling something small and silverish on to the floor. It shattered, the fragments of glass lost behind a sudden explosion of smoke and sparks that hissed and spat around his feet, obscuring him in a second. He turned and ran. Down the street, past the door of the inn, over the old rusted fence of the church, into the churchyard, bounding over graves and past ancient memorial slabs, over the fence on the other side - a longer drop than he expected; his feet almost went out from under him on the street as he landed - crouching low beneath the raised bank of the churchyard wall, turning and running again, down an alley that smelt of the sewers and old refuse, into a courtyard criss-crossed with empty washing lines, round the side of an old trough converted into a washer-woman’s basin, searching for an alley at the other end, a flicker of light ahead, the sound of a voice calling, ‘Two of the clock, two of the clock!’ somewhere in the distance, and a policeman’s whirling rattle. He chose a direction based on the sound and ran blindly into the darkness, feeling his way along a wall, across shut doors spiky with splinters, until the wall stopped and turned into an alley so tight he had to swivel sideways to edge through it, pressing his back against one wall and shuffling his way along it towards the darker patch of darkness at the end that suggested, dear God, perhaps another street.
He stepped out into it, looked left and right, and saw just a second too late a white-gloved fist swinging towards him. He turned his face in time for it to hit his shoulder, knocking him back; heard steps, and felt another hand grab his other arm, dragging it back, another hand somewhere across his face, leather-covered fingers scraping over his teeth and nose, pulling his head to one side. And there it was again, the flash of green eyes that he shouldn’t be able to see were green, like the gleam of a cat’s gaze in the night, before it darts away. Knowing too well what he might see, he closed his eyes as tight as he could even as he gave up fighting, feet scrabbling in vain for a foothold, slipping half to his knees, held up only by the hands that restrained him.
Silence settled. The only breathing he could hear was his own, fast and heavy. He took a deeper breath and held it, letting his ears adjust to the quiet in those few seconds, and heard other, softer breaths near by, from at least three or four people, and the sound of shoes on the cobbles. He let out his breath in a rush as fear and adrenaline took control of his heart again and made it hammer.
Gently, a voice said, a woman’s voice like the sound of wind chimes, ‘Open your eyes.’ He squeezed his eyes shut even tighter and rammed his chin into his chest, bending his head down towards the ground. ‘Please open your eyes,’ said the voice. He didn’t respond. ‘You know, I could try my subtle womanly graces on you,’ continued the voice easily, ‘or I could cut off your little finger. Which would you rather?’
When he didn’t answer, someone took his left hand, which was duly raised, turning his palm skywards. He blurted, still not opening his eyes, ‘Subtle womanly graces, please! Any day!’
The fingers across his hand stopped moving, although the grip on his arm wasn’t relaxed.
‘Where is Berwick?’ He could feel the warmth of the woman’s breath in his ear as she whispered the question.
‘Who what?’
‘Little fingers are surprisingly useful; it’s difficult to play an octave on the piano without your little finger. Where is Berwick?’
‘Uh . . . south of Wensleydale?’
‘Mr Berwick, Mr Andrew Berwick Esquire.’
‘I think you’ve got the wrong man, ma’am.’
The fingers that had seized his hand let it go, then brushed his chin and gently pulled it up. ‘Why do you close your eyes?’ breathed the voice.
‘Nervous reaction?’ hazarded the man.
‘Don’t you want to see who I am?’
‘No, not at all!’
‘Why not?’
‘You might . . . not want a living witness?’ he suggested.
‘To what crime? Here we are, pleasantly discussing an acquaintance of yours. Where is Berwick?’
‘Never met the man.’
‘He was your father’s closest friend.’
‘Children never pay attention to their parents; it’s all part of learning about life!’
‘Are you scared of being bewitched?’
‘I’m superstitious, me, never open my eyes anytime I get mugged in case of the evil eye and the pox and ... and ... other bewitching things.’
‘I thought you were a scientist.’
‘Why’d you think that, miss?’
‘The contents of your pockets are unusual for an ordinary working man.’
‘I’m a physician’s apprentice.’
‘You’re too old to be an apprentice.’
‘A physician’s life is one of constant learning, miss!’
‘You’re certainly a poor liar, whatever else you may be.’
‘You catch me at a bad time.’
A foot hit somewhere behind his kneecap, not particularly hard, but enough to send him staggering, sliding awkwardly down on to one knee, head immediately pulled up from behind to look at what he guessed must be the darkness in which stood the woman with the wind-chime voice. She said, ‘You are carrying a magnet inside your coat pocket, sir. And you’re still afraid of us? Does it not make you wonder why, after all that you have done and all you have seen, we do not just kill you now? Don’t you desire to know answers? Don’t you want to know where Berwick is?’
BOOK: The Doomsday Machine (Horatio Lyle)
4.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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