For my editors, Kirsten Stansfield and Holly Skeet, with thanks,
And for Sam Reeve, Tom Skeet, and
Edward Stansfield, one day.
At first there was nothing. Then came a spark, a sizzling sound that stirred frayed webs of dream and memory. And then—with a crackle, a roar—a blue-white rush of electricity was surging through him, bursting into the dry passages of his brain like the tide pouring back into a sea cave. His body jerked so taut that for a moment he was balanced only on his heels and the back of his armored skull. He screamed, and awoke to a sleet of static, and a falling feeling.
He remembered dying. He remembered a girl’s scarred face gazing down at him as he lay in wet grass. She was someone important, someone he cared about more than any Stalker should care about anything, and there had been something he had wanted to tell her, but he couldn’t. Now there was only the afterimage of her ruined face. What was her name? His mouth remembered.
“It’s alive!” said a voice.
“Again, please. Quickly.”
And then another lash of electricity scoured away even those last strands of memory and he knew only that he was the Stalker Grike. One of his eyes started to work again. He saw vague shapes moving through an ice storm of interference, and watched while they slowly congealed into human figures, lit by flashlights against a sky full of scurrying moonlit clouds. It was raining steadily. Once-Borns, wearing goggles and uniforms and plastic capes, were gathering around his open grave. Some carried quartz-iodine lanterns; others tended machines with rows of glowing valves and gleaming dials. Cables from the machines trailed down into his body. He sensed that his steel skullpiece had been removed and that the top of his head was open, exposing the Stalker brain nested inside.
“Mr. Grike? Can you hear me?”
A very young woman was looking down at him. He had a faint, tantalizing memory of a girl, and wondered if this might be her. But no: there had been something broken about the face in his dreams, and this face was perfect: an Eastern face with high cheekbones and pale skin, the black eyes framed by heavy black spectacles. Her short hair had been dyed green. Beneath her transparent cape she wore a black uniform with winged skulls embroidered in silver thread on the high black collar.
She set a hand on the corroded metal of his chest and said, “Don’t be afraid, Mr. Grike. I know this must be confusing for you. You’ve been dead for more than eighteen years.”
“DEAD,” he said.
The young woman smiled. Her teeth were white and crooked, slightly too big for her small mouth. “Maybe ‘dormant’ is a better word. Old Stalkers never really die, Mr. Grike…”
There was a rumbling sound, too rhythmic to be thunder. Pulses of orange light flickered on the clouds, throwing the crags that towered above Grike’s resting-place into silhouette. Some of the soldiers looked up nervously. One said, “Snout guns. They have broken through the marsh forts. Their amphibious suburbs will be here within the hour.”
The woman glanced over her shoulder and said, “Thank you, Captain,” then turned her attention to Grike again, her hands working quickly inside his skull. “You were badly damaged and you shut down, but we are going to repair you. I am Dr. Oenone Zero of the Resurrection Corps.”
“I DON’T REMEMBER ANYTHING,” Grike told her.
“Your memory was damaged,” she replied. “I cannot restore it. I’m sorry.”
Anger and a sort of panic rose in him. He felt that this woman had stolen something from him, although he no longer knew what it had been. He tried to bare his claws, but he could not move. He might as well have been just an eye, lying there on the wet earth.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Zero said. “Your past is not important.
You will be working for the Green Storm now. You will soon have new memories.”
In the sky behind her smiling face, something began to explode in silent smears of red and yellow light. One of the soldiers shouted, “They’re coming! General Naga’s division is counterattacking with Tumblers, but that won’t hold them for long…”
Dr. Zero nodded and scrambled up out of the grave, brushing mud from her hands. “We must move Mr. Grike out of here at once.” She looked down at Grike again, smiled. “Don’t worry, Mr. Grike. An airship is waiting for us. We are taking you to the central Stalker Works at Batmunkh Tsaka. We shall soon have you up and about again…”
She stepped aside to let two bulky figures through. They were Stalkers, their armor stenciled with a green lightning-bolt symbol that Grike didn’t recognize. They had blank steel faces like the blades of shovels, featureless except for narrow eye slits, which shone green as they heaved Grike out of the earth and laid him on a stretcher. The men with the machines hurried alongside as the silent Stalkers carried him down a track toward a fortified air caravanserai where ship after ship was lifting into the wet sky. Dr. Zero ran ahead, shouting, “Quickly! Quickly! Be careful! He’s an antique.”
The path grew steeper, and Grike understood the reason for her haste and her men’s uneasiness. Through gaps in the crags he glimpsed a great body of water glittering under the steady flashes of gunfire. Upon the water, and far off across it on the flat, dark land, giant shapes were moving. By the light of the blazing airships that speckled the sky above them and the pale, slow-falling glare of parachute flares, he could see their armored tracks, their vast jaws, and tier upon tier of ironclad forts and gun emplacements.
Traction Cities. An army of them, grinding their way across the marshes. The sight of them stirred faint memories in Grike. He remembered cities like that. At least he remembered the idea of them. Whether he had ever been aboard one, and what he had done there, he did not recall.
As his rescuers hurried him toward the waiting airship, he saw for just an instant a girl’s broken face look up trustingly at him, awaiting something he had promised her.
But who she was, and what her face was doing in his mind, he no longer knew.
Several months later, and half a world away, Wren Natsworthy lay in bed and watched a sliver of moonlight move slowly across the ceiling of her room. It was past midnight, and she could hear nothing but the sounds of her own body and the soft, occasional creaks as the old house settled. She doubted that there was anywhere in the world as quiet as the place she lived in—Anchorage-in-Vineland, a derelict ice city dug into the rocky southern shore of an unknown island, on a lost lake, in a forgotten corner of the Dead Continent.
But quiet as it was, she could not sleep. She turned on her side and tried to get comfortable, the hot sheets tangling round her. She had had another row with Mum at supper-time. It had been one of those rows that started with a tiny seed of disagreement (about Wren wanting to go out with Tildy Smew and the Sastrugi boys instead of washing up) and grew quickly into a terrible battle, with tears and accusations, and age-old grudges being dredged up and lobbed about the house like hand grenades, while poor Dad stood on the sidelines, saying helplessly, “Wren, calm down,” and “Hester, please!”
Wren had lost in the end, of course. She had done the washing up, and stomped up to bed as loudly as she could. Ever since, her brain had been hard at work, coming up with hurtful comments that she wished she had made earlier. Mum didn’t have any idea what it was like being fifteen. Mum was so ugly that she probably never had any friends when she was a girl, and certainly not friends like Nate Sastrugi, whom all the girls in Anchorage fancied, and who had told Tildy that he really liked Wren. Probably no boy had ever liked Mum, except for Dad, of course—and what Dad saw in her was one of The Great Unsolved Mysteries of Vineland, in Wren’s opinion.
She rolled over again and tried to stop thinking about it, then gave up and scrambled out of bed. Maybe a walk would clear her head. And if her parents woke and found her gone, and worried that she had drowned herself or run away, well, that would teach Mum not to treat her like a child, wouldn’t it? She pulled on her clothes, her socks and boots, and crept downstairs through the breathing silence of the house.
Mum and Dad had chosen this house for themselves sixteen years before, when Anchorage had only just crawled ashore and Wren was nothing but a little curl of flesh adrift in Mum’s womb. It was family history, a bedtime story Wren remembered from when she was small. Freya Rasmussen had told Mum and Dad that they might take their pick of the empty houses in the upper city They had chosen this one, a merchant’s villa on a street called Dog Star Court, overlooking the air harbor. A good house, snug and well built, with tiled floors and fat ceramic heating ducts, walls paneled in wood and bronze. Over the years, Mum and Dad had filled it with furniture they found among the other empty houses round about, and decorated it with pictures and hangings, with driftwood dragged up from the shore, and with some of the antiques Dad unearthed on his expeditions into the Dead Hills.
Wren padded across the hall to take down her coat from the rack by the front door, and did not spare a glance or a thought for the prints on the walls or the precious bits of ancient food processors and telephones in the glass-fronted display case. She had grown up with all this stuff, and it bored her. This past year, the whole house had begun to feel too small, as if she had outgrown it. The familiar smells of dust and wood polish and Dad’s books were comforting, but somehow stifling too. She was fifteen years old, and her life pinched her like an ill-fitting shoe.
She closed the door behind her as quietly as she could and hurried along Dog Star Court. Mist hung like smoke over the Dead Hills, and Wren’s breath came out as mist too. It was only early September, but she could already smell winter in the night air.
The moon was low but the stars were bright, and overhead the Aurora was shimmering. At the heart of the city, the rusty spires of the Winter Palace towered black against the glowing sky, shaggy with ivy. The Winter Palace had been home to Anchorage’s rulers once, but the only person who lived there now was Miss Freya, who had been the city’s last margravine and was now its schoolteacher. On every winter weekday since her fifth birthday, Wren had gone to the schoolroom on the ground floor of the palace to listen to Miss Freya explaining about geography and logarithms and Municipal Darwinism and a lot of other things that would probably never be any use to her at all. It had bored her at the time, but now that she was fifteen and too old for school, she missed it horribly. She would never sit in the dear old schoolroom again, unless she did as Miss Freya had asked and went back to help teach the younger children.
Miss Freya had made that offer weeks ago, and she would need an answer soon, for once the harvests were in, the children of Anchorage would be going back to their lessons. But Wren didn’t know if she wanted to be Miss Freya’s assistant or not. She didn’t even want to think about it. Not tonight.
At the end of Dog Star Court, a stairway led down through the deck plates into the engine district. As Wren went clanging down the stairs, a summery smell came up at her, and she heard flakes of rust dislodged by her boots falling amid the heaped hay below. Once this part of the city would have been full of life and noise, as Anchorage’s engines sent it skating over the ice at the top of the world in search of trade. But the city’s travels had ended before Wren was born, and the engine district had been turned into a storeroom for hay and root vegetables, and winter quarters for the cattle. Faint shafts of moonlight, slanting through skylights and holes in the deck plates overhead, showed her the bales stacked up between the empty fuel tanks.
When Wren was younger, these abandoned levels had been her playground, and she still liked to walk here when she was feeling sad or bored, imagining what fun it must have been to live aboard a city that moved. The grown-ups were always talking about the bad old days, and how frightening it had been to live in constant danger of being swallowed up by some larger, faster city, but Wren would have loved to see the towering Traction Cities, or to fly from one to another aboard an airship, as Mum and Dad had done before she was born. Dad kept a photograph on his desk that showed them standing on a docking pan aboard a city called San Juan de Los Motores, in front of their pretty little red airship the Jenny Haniver, but they never talked about the adventures they must have had. All she knew was that they had ended up landing on Anchorage, where the villainous Professor Pennyroyal had stolen the ship from them, and after that they had settled down, content to play their roles in the cozy, dozy life of Vineland.
Just my luck, thought Wren, breathing in the warm, flowery scent of the baled hay. She would have liked to be an air trader’s daughter. It sounded a glamorous sort of life, and much more interesting than the one she had, stuck on this lonely island among people whose idea of excitement was a rowboat race or a good apple harvest.
A door closed somewhere in the darkness ahead, making her jump. She’d grown so used to the quiet and her own company that the idea of someone else moving around down here was almost frightening. Then she remembered where she was. Busy with her thoughts, she’d walked all the way to the heart of the district, where Caul, Anchorage’s engineer, lived alone in an old shed between two tier supports. He was the only inhabitant of Anchorage’s lower levels, since nobody else would choose to live down here amid the rust and shadows when there were pretty mansions standing empty in the sunlight up above. But Caul was an eccentric. He didn’t like sunlight, having been brought up in the undersea thieves’ hole of Grimsby, and he didn’t like company either. He’d been friendly once with old Mr. Scabious, the city’s former engineer, but since the old man had died, he had kept himself to himself down here in the depths.
So why would he be wandering about in the engine district at this hour? Intrigued, Wren crept up a ladder onto one of the overhead walkways, from where she had a good view across the old engine pits to Caul’s shack. Caul was standing outside the door. He had an electric lantern, and he had raised it up so that he could study a scrap of paper that he held in his other hand. After a moment, he pocketed the paper and set off toward the city’s edge.