Verity was broken, fractured in a way that Hester alone could never hope to mend.
Dissatisfied with her appearance, Verity would disappear for months on end, only to return bruised and bleeding from yet another endeavor in the name of obsessive self-expression. Used porcelain fingertips, as she could not afford new; piercings of reclaimed copper and steel; the hair on her head and elsewhere woven with salvaged industrial wire and cable, the business ends affixed permanently to bone.
Hester had not seen her for weeks, but when Verity appeared again at Hester’s shop late that sweltering summer night, when the heat and stink of the Downbelow’s great chimneys seemed at their worst, it was as though only a moment had passed. And in spite of her reservations, Hester was once again swept away.
There were no formalities between them, no declarations of love. Neither made issue of the purely physical nature of their relationship. An affectation on Hester’s part, that. Verity filled a need that Hester had never shared with anyone. “I want to be dangerous,” Hester would gasp between coital thrusts and, through Verity, her self-rebellion was made manifest—if only for a moment at a time. So Hester feigned indifference in return for something much deeper, allayed by the temporary distraction of dreamseed and stim.
But something was different this time. Verity was different. A decision had been made; Hester sensed it, despite her stim-addled haze. And even as Verity led her up the stairs to the unmade bed, gas lamps softly amber in the dark, Hester knew this night together would be their last. Verity was saying goodbye. So again, Hester set aside her abject sense of loss.
When Hester awoke the next morning, bedclothes smelling of metal and sex, Verity was gone. For good, Hester believed.
Hester operated the family printing business in Turnmill, an ancient warren of streets and alleys huddled deep in the gaps between the Great Machines; so named because of its proximity to the mills that had once harnessed the current of the Fleet Trench. She harbored a fondness for none of it but had inherited along with the print shop her father’s knack for tinkering and his maddening sense of responsibility. By now Verity had been gone for more than a year—here in the lowermost depths of Whitehall the Great, where increments of time were reckoned as “Noxious” and “Not As Much”—and the drudgeries of life carried on much as they always had.
Hester hated that life. Turnmill ground up its inhabitants and chucked them out like so much grain and chaff. Were it not for a promised delivery to Sessions House, Hester would not have been braving the night air at all.
She made her way north along Farringdon Close, hefting a package wrapped in thick brown paper and string. The lanes were dense with airborne soot. Even the light from storefront signage was unable to reach the pavement, left as multicolored halos of alchemic gas swallowed by the fog. It was always dark in the Downbelow. Only the privileged classes lived up in the light, and for Hester neither gas lamps nor electricks did much to pierce the perpetual gloom. Night-vision goggles illuminated her field of vision in flickering shades of stark electrick green, though secure footing upon the cobbles was no easier to find.
The old Sessions House on Turnmill Green was not unknown to Hester. She frequented the establishment when in need of a pint or spliff or someone to mitigate the loneliness and warm her bed for the night. Once a magistrate center prior to the coming of the Machines, Sessions House now provided drink and lodging for Turnmill’s dispossessed; neutral ground in a City that offered anything but.
The gearboys Nails and Ranzo were manning the door, as was customary. Hester asked for the proprietress Mrs. Hume and awaited her in the vestibule.
The entry hall, once graced by judges and dignitaries, had long-since been converted into a tavern. It was a loud and raucous space, thick with anarchists, exotics, rollers, and the mechanically-augmented, bemoaning the death of societal activism and revolutions that would never come.
At last Mrs. Hume emerged from the jury room—socialist, Free Radical sympathizer, arbiter-general of the underground Peace Faction—a battleship with a flotilla of lesser vessels caught in the wake of her flowing skirts; exotics on the left, Earthborn women on the right. The exotics looked like upright weasels and wore the livery of the Instrumental Union of Non-Human Workers. The others Hester recognized as the Sisters of Persephone, severe-looking women who always dressed as if in mourning. Hester nodded at one of them, Mina, younger than the rest with spiked, rebelliously short hair. Mrs. Hume dismissed both groups without a word.
She snagged a pint from one of her serving girls. “Never parlay a cease-fire without libations at the ready,” said Mrs. Hume. “My gullet’s as dry as a dowager’s quim. Hester, you’re soaked to the skin! Do get out of that dreadful hat and coat. Here, love, let me help with this.” Mrs. Hume took the package from Hester’s arms. “May I?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hester, pushing tightly coiled hair from her eyes. “They’re just as you ordered. I ran low of the magenta inks but I don’t believe anyone will notice.”
Mrs. Hume quickly unwrapped the package. Inside was a freshly printed stack of political broadsides, this batch titled The Glass Harmonica. Hester had long suspected that Mrs. Hume’s publications were actually coded communiques to the militant underground, but she had no proof. “Yes, love, they’re perfect. Thank you.”
“Oh, before I forget.” Hester produced a small velvet pouch. “Cleaned, mended, and good as new.” The pouch contained a pocket watch with multiple dials set in its face, unremarkable except for one peculiarity. “You know it runs backward...” she said, inflecting the statement as a question.
Mrs. Hume smiled. “Of course it does,” she said, the matter apparently closed. She indicated the package of broadsides. “I’ll see that Benjamin distributes these first thing in the morning.” With that, Mrs. Hume departed with the package to her chambers upstairs.
Hester hung her hat and coat alongside others in the vestibule, the goggles tucked into a coat pocket. She needed warming up, and she was in no hurry to return home to an empty bed.
She negotiated her way to the bar and ordered a Turkish coffee from Blind Ned, thick industrial lenses affixed to where his eyes had once been. Sessions House was packed with regulars and passersby alike, all seeking refuge from the late-autumn cold. The Black Mariahs were at their usual places along the counter, Zithembe and Ayanda—twin brother and sister of Zulu descent, their skin darker than Hester’s deep brown. They’d been surgically modified to look as identical and gender-neutral as possible, and were quite formidable in a brawl.
A man of striking proportions circled the hall handing out photographs. Well-appointed, wearing gray leather and broadcloth with a pair of blue variable-loupe spectacles. Every inch of his person was outlined beneath his clothing as if in bas-relief, above and below the belt. Unquestionably below. Hester put down her cup and accepted one of the photographs, a tintype of a young woman.
The man dipped his head just enough to look above the blue lenses. His eyes were silver. “I’m looking for someone,” he said. “Perhaps you know her?”
The woman in the tintype was Verity.
But not as Hester remembered her. Nearly every inch of exposed skin was embellished with the sheen of metallic tattoos. Hester’s heart sank.
Oh, Verity. What have you done now?
“Perhaps you know her?” the man asked again.
“No. No... I’m afraid not. She does resemble someone I once knew, but... No.” Hester felt her cheeks grow warm. “Why? Is something amiss?”
“We just want to bring her home, is all. Her family is quite worried.”
Verity has no family, Hester thought. But then, she’d never truly known anything about Verity at all.
“Are you certain?” the man continued. “Perhaps if we found a quieter place to chat...”
Just then Benjamin appeared alongside Hester, handing her a pint she had not ordered. A glym-jack by trade, he assisted Mrs. Hume about Sessions House in exchange for lodging.
“He’s gorgeous and I want him,” Benjamin whispered into Hester’s ear. “Tell him what he wants and be on your way.” To the man, “You’re wasting your time with this one, guv. No taste for bangers and biscuits, if you catch my purport. Bloody shame, that.”
“A shame indeed.”
Hester slipped the photograph into the pocket of her trousers. She turned and walked away, alone again, passing lovers huddled together in dark corners and politicos trading secrets in hushed tones amongst their own.
That was when Hester saw her.
She was seated in an alcove behind the north staircase, well isolated from the crowd, where the walls were thick with aging playbills and manifestos. Hidden not only from the hall’s principal entrance but the entirety of the room as well. It was Hester’s customary spot.
Her face was obscured within the hood of an oversized cloak. The spiraling scrollwork of tattoos were one with the shadows and could only be discerned by the skin between, as pallid as Hester’s was dark. But Hester had long ago memorized the spark in those eyes, whether illumination was present or not.
“I knew I would find you here,” the figure said.
“Verity.” A thousand conflicting emotions washed over Hester at once after a year of feeling nothing at all, and none of them appropriate for the moment.
One of Mrs. Hume’s bravos, the mursan Halka Olem BoQ—a four-armed dark blue beast from Gondu’el—emerged into the corridor from the backroom armory. Bloody hell, thought Hester. She positioned herself between Halka and Verity, then handed Halka the pint and told him the fancy man with the photographs thought he was pretty. Halka moved on with a deep, subvocalized harrumph.
Verity rose, her porcelain-tipped fingers brushing Hester’s arms, eyes as blue as cobalt.
Hester nodded at the facial artwork. All that she could think to say was, “Those are new.”
“Do you like them?” Verity leaned forward and whispered. “They’re everywhere.” She was drunk, a not uncommon occurrence.
“Verity...” Hester said in equal parts exasperation and concern. “Christ Iesu, are you in trouble?”
Verity grinned. “When am I not?”
The smile was dazzling, even in the dim gaslight. The teeth were new as well. How had she paid for them? Verity never had more than tuppence in her pockets.
“Hester, please,” Verity said, so quietly Hester could barely hear her over the tavern’s clatter. “Please help me...” She tried to smile again and failed. “I’ve really bodged it. I know that sounds daft. I’m sorry.”
Verity had never apologized for anything. Hester suddenly found it difficult to breathe. “Who is that man, Verity?”
“Not now, please. Is there another way out of here?”
“You know there is,” Hester said without humor, but Verity in her inebriation seemed all the more confused.
There was a side door, formerly the magistrates’ entrance, that opened onto Turnmill High Street. But it was located on the far side of a room full of toughs and blatted politicos.
Damnitall. Hester took Verity’s hand and led her past the north staircase, then ducked behind the bar, startling Blind Ned and even Benjamin, who had returned to fetch another round. Out the far end of the bar, weaving past the south staircase to another corridor that led to the side door.
They had just reached the exit when the man in gray appeared in front of them, barring their progress. He took Verity by the arm.
“She needs air,” Hester said, startled but refusing to let go of Verity’s hand.
“The air out there? You’d best fetch a respirator first.”
He released Verity’s arm and, in a move Hester could barely follow, grabbed Hester’s wrist and all but snapped it in two. Hester gasped in immediate pain.
“I’m amazed how quickly you’ve inserted yourself into an affair that doesn’t concern you in the least,” the man said. “I rather applaud that.”
Onlookers started to gather.
“Shadow, you bloody knob,” Verity said, addressing the man for the first time. “Let her go.”
He nodded and released Hester’s wrist, a wicked smile curling his lips, when a beefy non-human hand fell upon his shoulder and spun him about.
“Thanks for the pint, mate. I think you’re pretty too,” growled Halka, as he drove one of his four blue fists into Shadow’s face like a bolt from Heaven’s Engines. The man flew backwards into the heavy door, the multiple lenses of his spectacles shattering to pieces.
The tavern erupted. Shadow leapt off the floor with a speed Hester couldn’t have imagined possible and slammed into Halka, driving them both down the corridor and into the crowded hall. Within seconds the Black Mariahs had joined in, followed by every frustrated revolutionary who’d been spoiling for a fight. Bottles shattered on the stone walls and facades.
Then a concussive pulse of sound slammed into Hester from behind and reverberated within the hall as if inside a colossal steam-bell. The melee stopped, fists still raised, all eyes focused upward.
Mrs. Hume stood atop the landing where the two staircases met, an Infrasound Dissonator carbine in her hands.
“That’s enough!” she shouted with imperious authority, the sonic weapon whining as it powered up again. “That’s—”
The brawl resumed immediately. Spike-haired Mina leapt onto Shadow’s back, her arms wrapping around his neck as the other Sisters of Persephone joined the fight. “Run!” she yelled at Hester, the tails of her mourning coat flying. “Run!”
Together Hester and Verity pushed the door open and ran down the oily steps onto Turnmill High Street. Only then did Hester realize that she did not have her outerwear or goggles. Verity still wore the cloak but had no goggles either, and did not seem to require them. “This way,” Verity said, the cold air perking her up measurably, and once again took Hester’s hand.
Hester did not protest as Verity led her behind Sessions House onto Farringdon Close, then onto Turnmill Green. The narrow square was green in name only. Long since bricked over, no grass had grown there in eleven hundred years. Verity pulled Hester northward off the Green into Well Court, then into an adjoining maze of brick alleys and passageways. A deep miasma swallowed all sound.
Then Hester did hear a sound, unearthly and metallic, as if a dozen swords had been drawn at once. She looked back. Shadow was visible in the roiling fog but just barely so, eyes shining like silver ice even without his spectacles.
Something else was with them in the alley—a multitude of somethings—unseen, hidden in the dark, but approaching with haste. They ran faster. Where the alley opened onto Saxton Lane an automated cab passed, already occupied. Without a word, they darted through oncoming traffic and jumped inside.
Two priest-mechanics sat opposite them, barely visible beneath the dim carriage lamps; by their vestments, clergy from the Instrumental Church of Pistons.
“Sainted Mothers of Wells and Verne! What’s this?” said the elder of the two.
“Good evening!” said the driver-automaton. “Thank you for trusting Public Carriage for your transportation needs. Please state your destination.”
“Go, you bloody bucket of rust!” Hester shouted. The cab sped away into the murk. Automatons did not require the presence of light in order to see. How then had Verity seen in this near absence of illumination?
Hester kept the question to herself. She looked through the rear windscreen and saw multiple pairs of silver eyes receding one by one into the swirling dark.
The fog gave way to a greasy black rain. Without paying, and to the befuddlement of the priests, Hester and Verity jumped from the cab at one of the countless, insignificant corners in Turnmill, this one at Bratton and Eagle Court. A brick-lined gap between buildings led to Hester’s shop, built into the very base of the Machine Wall. A feeble light at the door was not enough to hold back the darkness. Hester felt her way with the latchkey from memory, thick swirls of mist and soot following them inside. Hester lit every lamp she could find.
Broadsides and printed pages lined the shop walls, below which were a bench and tools for light metalwork, mostly to repair household clockworks and to keep the automated presses in good order. The shop was mundane at best: printing machines and mechanized racks of type, rolls of paper and cardstock; a bench grinder, drills, and tins filled to overflowing with metal shavings and dust.
Hester found it unsettling to have Verity once again in her home, but the loneliness that haunted her was never more than a heartbeat away. I want to be dangerous, it whispered.
Hester pushed wet hair out of her eyes. “Come here,” she said. “I’ve been working on something. I’d like you to see it.” She led Verity to the residence upstairs and there showed her the very face of Heaven.
Verity looked about her, wide-eyed, and gently let go of Hester’s hand.
Diamond-white stars were scattered over the ceiling and down the walls of the single-room flat, painted upon fields of black and cerulean and midnight blue. Verity looked about the space and smiled her too-perfect smile, as if lost in a moment suddenly remembered.
Memories of a night sky, of two young women frozen in the rarefied cold and scarcely able to breathe, the air was so thin. Stealing to the top of the City itself, amidst stratospheric towers and constructs of the all-powerful Machines. A league above the soot-blackened warrens of the Downbelow into which they’d been born. The vast glory of Creation had shone about them. They’d never seen the open sky.
“I know this,” Verity said. “I know what this is. Live now, and never grow old.” She turned to Hester, the question clearly spoken in her eyes.
“I wanted something that was ours,” Hester said. “A moment that would never go away.” She paused. “Because you did.”
Verity nodded and wept, the exposed areas of her face even more pale than before, like frosted glass. A strong light would have shone right through.
“Best get out of those wet things,” Hester said, wiping her own eyes as she opened the wardrobe to change. She returned wearing a simple nightshirt, with a matching one for Verity.
Verity had laid her apparel over the back of a settee next to the stove, her garments as immodest and gothic as Hester’s were not. She looked much smaller without the buckles and boning but still cut an athletic figure. This was not the woman Hester remembered. Naked in the lamplight, exposed in a manner that radiated confidence instead of insecurity. Wire and cables were still woven through her hair, only more of them now, and longer. No...
It was the tattoos.
Verity was covered head to toe in a complexity of metallic black ink. The spirals and lines of varying widths suggested constant movement. Sensual movement, explicit in the way the patterns drew attention to her breasts and womanly abstractions, still pierced with copper and steel as Hester remembered them. Indeed, Hester could have sworn that the tattoos were subtly changing position of their own accord; though that was due to flickering lamplight, if not the lingering effects of the dreamseed in which she’d indulged the night before. She handed the shirt to Verity and turned away, flushing again, embarrassed.
“Tell me about that man,” she said. “It’s none of my business, but... tell me about that man. Damnitall, Verity! Where have you been?”
Verity sat naked by the lit stove as if for warmth but did not dress herself. Her natural skin, what little of it visible between the swirls of black ink, was unnaturally pale. She drew her legs up, arms hugging her knees.
“Shadow,” she said, then followed with a lengthy pause. “Shadow is as harsh and unforgiving as he is pleasing to the eye,” she resumed, as if from someplace far away. “And pleasing he is, in many respects.”
That startled Hester. She had never heard Verity speak of a man, any man, using such words. It bothered Hester greatly.
“If,” Verity continued, “a monster so thoroughly without remorse can be called a man. It doesn’t matter where we met. Don’t ask. But he wouldn’t let me leave, even as that wretched fuck of a place nicked a little more of my soul with every passing day.” She laughed bitterly. “And here I believed I’d never had a soul to lose in the first place.”
Hester didn’t know what to say. Sometimes there were no words. She couldn’t save Verity; likely no one could, not after this much time and pain. Hester was unsure if she even wanted to. She averted her eyes again as Verity stood in all her troubled glory.
“You’ve got a good heart, Hester. A strong heart. You always have.”
Verity moved closer and cradled Hester’s face, then kissed her. “Thank you.”
Hester held on tightly and returned the kiss. Verity was cold to the touch. Very cold. Her sharp porcelain fingertips pressed into Hester’s back; her breath quickening, mouth open; pierced tongue sliding down the side of Hester’s neck, licking...
Then without warning, Verity pushed Hester away and stumbled beside the fire. Hester caught her before she hit the floor. “Verity!”
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Verity repeated again and again, voice catching in her throat, tears streaming down the spirals and curves of her tattooed face. “I shouldn’t be here. I should never have come.” She hung her head and cried into Hester’s shirt.
“Verity, I brought you here because I missed you. I always do, every time you go away. Nothing, no one, has ever changed that.”
“Shadow will kill you if he finds me here. You can’t stop him. His nerves have been modified. That’s why he’s so fast, like bloody mad electricks.”
“Shadow just had his manhood handed to him. Mrs. Hume’s lads saw to that.” Which was a lie, of course. He’d chased them a good length through Turnmill’s narrow alleys. Was Hester omitting the truth of it to protect Verity, to grant her solace, no matter how false or undeserved? Or was it something more, something that Hester herself wanted...
“You don’t know what he’s capable of.”
“No, I don’t,” Hester agreed. “I do know that you’re here with me, and that’s all that matters for now. You’re home. Be free of him, Verity, for as long as you want to stay.”
I want to be dangerous.
Hester kissed Verity again and wiped the tears from both of their eyes. She did not remember moving to the bed but there they were, now and forever. She loosened her hair and let it fall in dark coils down her back. Her clothing rustled to the floor, bared arms tugging gently. They held one another for centuries, Verity’s breath sweet on Hester’s cheek, and they poured themselves into each other under the false stars of a painted sky.
Verity was gone when Hester awoke, as what passed for daylight leeched through the fog and coal smoke of a pre-winter dawn. She had left no note or message of any kind, as was her wont, with only her clothing and the nightshirt still draped by the stove attesting that she’d been there at all. Her clothing. Not the first time Verity had run starkers through the street. Hester’s thoughts were awhirl with unanswered questions, as was her wont, though this time she felt neither sorrow nor heartache.
Exasperated best described her frame of mind.
She brewed a quick cuppa, dressed, and opened her shop for business, but by noon she was no longer able to focus upon any of the tasks at hand. She was responsible for the row at Sessions House. She and Verity. And poor Halka had taken a beating in her defense, over an altercation Hester herself had set into motion. She propped the “closed” shingle in her window and returned to Mrs. Hume’s to make amends.
Blackened fog hung so heavily in the streets that lampposts were still lit from the night before. The more Hester thought about Verity’s confessions regarding the villain Shadow, the more practiced they had sounded. Rehearsed, to elicit maximum empathy. The Verity that Hester had known would never surrender her agency to a man, under any circumstance. Was the sum of it simply a lie then, another of Verity’s endless cries for attention? Hester stepped around a police cordon blocking the entrance to Well Court, then through the subsequent congestion of traffic on Turnmill Green.
Mrs. Hume’s doors were rarely closed to those in need and a percolator was ever on the boil—coffee, she insisted, being the most progressive of social beverages. But what Hester found there, apart from the regular coterie of exotics and anarchists, the lot of them oddly quiet, were constables and inspector-automatons questioning one and all. The police cordon, she realized.
Mrs. Hume was behind the bar conferring with one of the inspectors, while one of the Black Mariah twins applied a clean bandage and dressing to the other, Hester still unable to distinguish Zithembe from Ayanda. Halka himself was nowhere to be seen.
Hester caught the glint of tears in Mrs. Hume’s eyes and kept a respectful distance. Once the authorities had departed, Hester approached the bar. “Augusta, what’s wrong? Why were the rozzers here?”
Mrs. Hume took on a steely resolve. “Halka is dead, love. They found him last night, face down in Well Court.”
“Gods in Heaven...”
“His boneshaker was wrapped around a lamppost on the Farringdon side of the lane,” Mrs. Hume continued. “The police think he lost control in the rain.” Hester knew the vehicle, a Matchless Velociteer single-track modified for the big mursan’s weight and four hands. “They neglected to mention that most of Halka’s body was ripped to shreds, as if he’d been pulled through the gears of some damned bloody contraption.”
“His— How do you know this?” asked Hester, horrified. Despite his monstrous visage, Halka Olem BoQ had been among the gentlest of souls and had never shown Hester anything but kindness.
Mrs. Hume poured them both a drink. “I’ve an informant who works the morgue at Saint Barts. He sent me word not long before the police arrived. Says something dragged Halka into Well Court and ravaged him there while he was still alive. A pack of animals, or some such nonsense. There were deep scratches in the bricks and cobblestones. Very deep, and black as pitch.”
“A pack of...” Hester stammered. Her knees gave way; she sank onto the nearest bar stool. Something had been in the alley last night, lots of them. Hester had seen their eyes. Silver eyes. The same as Shadow’s.
You don’t know what he’s capable of, Verity had said.
She turned away. “I can’t believe it.” But of course she could, all too well.
“I don’t know what the bloody fuck is going on, but you stay nearby. I don’t like you spending so much time alone.” Mrs. Hume finished her drink, then poured herself another. “The Lords-Mechanical have abandoned us, love. The world up there in the light is wicked, and it’s unjust. I fear that only profound events here in the depths and the dark will be able to change any of it. And now with poor dear Halka, that may have already begun.”
Hester’s breath caught in her throat.
Mrs. Hume set her glass aside and drew a chain that was tucked beneath her bodice. At the end of the chain was the curious timepiece that Hester had returned yesterday.
“You asked about this,” she said. “It is indeed running backward. It’s ticking away the seconds until the end of the millennium. Three years and forty-seven days hence, to be exact. It’s a symbol of our societal countdown to zero.”
“What... What happens at zero?”
“I don’t know. Nothing good, I fear,” Mrs. Hume said with an air of melancholy. “I’ve not been privy to the workings of the Mobilization for a good while now. But revolution is inevitable. Whatever shape it ultimately takes is up to us. We all have a role to play in the new age to come, Hester. Even you, and it’s not to chase after that dodgy bint you pretend not to love.” Mrs. Hume let that sink in. “Stay with us tonight. There’s no need to be alone. You’ve a family here if you want it.”
Hester didn’t know what to make of the confidence Mrs. Hume had offered, other than feeling vastly unworthy of it. She was responsible for setting off Shadow’s rampage, and now Halka was dead. A murder she may well have unwittingly facilitated.
She stayed at Sessions House for the rest of the day and on through the night, helping to bus tables and wait on the crowd, as young Benjamin had not reported for work. Hester hoped for her own sake that Verity would return as well, with assurances that Shadow was not involved in Halka’s death. But neither did.
Hester sat hunched over a small table the next morning in the room lent to her by Mrs. Hume, tinkering on the brass-and leather device she’d commandeered from the armory downstairs.
Mina, seated opposite her on the rumpled bed they had shared the night before, donned her black netted stockings, one by one. Hester cast a quick glance through the wisp of smoke that curled from the soldering iron, noting that Mina dressed in a methodical, utilitarian manner. With Verity, dressing was an act of seduction.
“Now then,” Mina said, smoothing her skirts. “Tell me again what the bloody fuck happened. And keep it simple this time or you’ll bore me to sobs. Start with Verity.”
Denial or protest would have been pointless; Mina knew Hester’s history with Verity too well. Without looking up from her work, Hester related the past thirty-odd hours as best she could. So much was befogged; it had all happened so quickly. Mina stopped her when Hester had reached the point in the narrative regarding her interaction with Shadow.
“This was the bloke with the firehose in his trousers?” she asked, buttoning her ankle boots and cuffs.
“You noticed that?” Hester was surprised.
“From across the room I noticed. He disappeared after we chucked him out with the rubbish.”
“Right, and then he took after us.”
Mina leaned back against the bed. “Why would he kill Halka?” Her tone was more challenging than supportive.
“To get to me? I’m the one who set this bloody mess into motion.” Hester set the hot iron down and took a deep breath. “I have to tell the rozzers.”
Mina shook her head. “I already did. But I left your name out of it. This isn’t your fault.”
Hester chose to say nothing and instead went back to work, reconnecting wires to her device’s shield emittor.
“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Mina asked.
“Poppa had one during the riots. He showed me.”
“I can’t believe you’re even attempting this.”
“It’s a defensive weapon,” Hester countered. “Poppa didn’t believe in violence.”
“We’re not talking about him.” Mina knelt and wrapped her arms around Hester’s shoulders. “Now listen to me. If this bird of yours is on the run from a tosser who is butch enough to trade blows with a bloody damn mursan, you had best keep your distance. Gauntlet or no. She’ll only hurt you again. That is her predilection, yes?”
“She was with me all night,” Hester lied. “We fell asleep just before dawn. Verity could have snuck out at any time. She didn’t. She needs my help.” Lies on top of lies. In less than two days, Verity had succeeded in dragging Hester back into familiar, if thoroughly unwanted, habits.
How does dangerous feel now?
Mina stood and slid her fingers into fingerless gloves, then raked them through her spiked hair. “You’re better off without her, Hess.”
“That’s amazingly unsympathetic.”
“It’s not your purpose to fix her!”
“And what is my purpose, Mina? I honestly would like you to enlighten me.”
“You believe that in saving Verity you’re saving yourself.”
“That is not—”
“Hester, you wear loneliness and isolation like badges of honor. You keep everyone at a safe distance and not an inch closer. All except the one woman you can never have. And I’m not referring to me.” She shrugged into her mourning coat and adjusted her hat. “Now I’m late. Cheers, Hess.”
Damnitall. Again, Hester responded with an uneasy silence. But when Mina bent to kiss her goodbye, Hester took Mina’s face in her hands and returned the kiss with honest appreciation.
Done. The shield gauntlet was finished, but its leather glove and bracer were too big for Hester’s smallish frame. She removed her socks and wrapped them around her forearm, then slid back into the gauntlet. The straps buckled good and tight. It was a deceptively simple device, with the silver-white disc and vacuum tubes of the shield emittor affixed to the back of the glove and the firing stud wired into the thumb.
Holding her breath, Hester toggled the gauntlet’s power cells and clenched her fist.
Sparks and the stink of ozone filled her room as the shield snapped into being amid alchemic pops and crackles.
The width of the energy construct was variable, depending upon the pressure exerted on the firing stud, but measured scarcely a molecule’s span in depth. The shield could repel just about anything. Or anyone.
Gritting her teeth, Hester swung the shield in a wide arc and struck it edgewise onto the work table. The table sliced in two and collapsed, its severed ends smoldering.
She was ready for Shadow.
The morning passed in endless waiting with no news. Hours were wasted seeking information from Mrs. Hume’s informants and receiving none. Hester reminded herself repeatedly that Verity had disappeared countless times before, that nothing now was different. But of course everything was different.
That afternoon Mrs. Hume sent the Black Mariahs to search for Benjamin. Hester volunteered to accompany them, ostensibly to help find the boy, but her motivation was much more personal. Together they scoured the lowermost sectors of the Downbelow, where airborne soot and toxins were at their worst. Unbathed and jacked on a mixture of adrenaline and dread, Hester questioned every runaway, every bravo, every union thug and thief. North as far as Coldbath, west across Fleetbridge to the sprawling tenements of off-worlders that clung to the far side of the Wall, east to the edge of Houndsditch.
The noxious air and her exhaustion took their toll. Hester felt light-headed. She fought a sudden wave of dizziness, of disorientation. Her knees buckled. A darkness was closing in... She had to get out...
...and then she was running, naked in the cold. Faster than any living thing could run, her legs and breath pumping in steady rhythm with the pounding of her heart. Alongside were the creatures from that night in the alley, some upright, some on all fours, others flying low on wings that continuously changed shape, their eyes mirrors flashing alchemic light. They swept through the narrow lanes with the speed of thought, too quick to leave footprints or cast reflections in the storefront windows. Hester was afire despite the damp in the heavy air. She was alive in ways she never could have imagined.
She felt dangerous.
With a start she regained her wits. The Mariahs were on either side, one on each arm; they’d kept her from tumbling headlong onto the cobbles. Hester took a deep breath and choked on the ever-present stink.
“I’m all right,” she said, wiping perspiration from her face. “Thank you.” The twins released their grip enough to let her look about. She hadn’t traversed an inch. “Bloody hell.” Another wave of dizziness rose again and threatened to overwhelm her.
The Mariahs escorted her back to Sessions House.
Then word came: another body had been discovered, this one a mere stone’s throw from where Hester and the twins had crossed Fleetbridge. It was in the river, wedged between a garbage scow and the embankment wall, ripped beyond recognition from face to inner thigh. Only the remaining musculature identified it as female. Forensic-automata hauled it away for identification.
The scow pilot—a known drunkard, notoriously unreliable—reported that he’d fired a shot at something in the hours after dawn, something as dark as sin, while a dozen-odd pairs of metallic eyes looked down upon him from the embankment. He swore he’d hit the thing, but no evidence was apparent. As before, though, the cobbles were marred with deep black gouges.
Hester tossed about that night in her room at Sessions House, unable to sleep. There was no pressing need that kept her ensconced under Mrs. Hume’s roof, her hallucinatory episode notwithstanding; she simply did not want to be alone. This new victim might well be Verity, a conclusion Hester refused to believe, but the possibility of it remained etched in her mind. How had this happened? How had Hester come to be invested so deeply, so quickly? Scarcely two nights prior, she was unsure whether she’d had any feelings for Verity at all. Of course, she acknowledged bitterly, no one as yet had been torn to shreds. Moreover, young Benjamin had still not been found. Bugger that. When sleep finally claimed her, the only thing Hester felt was cold.
Mrs. Hume woke Hester the hour before first light. The river victim had been identified.
It was Mina.
The mood in Sessions House had worsened exponentially in the four days since the first slaying had been made public. Only the regulars braved the dark lanes to Mrs. Hume’s door, and their conversations had turned from manifestos to murder. Scratchy music emanated from the speaker horn of a phonograph alongside the bar. Hester flinched at every pop and tick. She felt as if all eyes were on her, as if she were the common denominator to Halka Olem BoQ and Mina.
Hester had not slept since Mina’s death. Nightmarish visions continued to plague her. Even the weight of the shield gauntlet had become a burden. She’s not removed the device in two days. It chafed despite the extra padding, and the leather underworks had taken on an odor.
Mrs. Hume sat in a corner by the committee room conferring quietly with her friend and sister radical Dr. Greer, a combat physician at Saint Jack’s Ambulance. And now with the murder of one of their own, the Sisters of Persephone were screaming for blood as well.
At the bar, Blind Ned wiped the counter top while an old sod who called himself Captain Swing regaled one and all with tales of Black Dogs and the Wild Hunt.
Verity would have hated this. She’d always been annoyed at the attention Hester had paid to this place, to these people.
“Mark my words, ‘tis the Devil’s dandy dogs,” said Captain Swing. “Out of the black they come, racing along the ground or just above it, leaving claw marks that cannae be washed away. On winter nights such as this, the Huntsman and his hounds can be heard rushing by in mad pursuit of white-breasted maidens.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Blind Ned. “Somebody shut him off.”
“Jet-black they are!” Swing continued. “With horrible eyes like saucers. Beholding the Wild Hunt is certain death to the one who witnesses it. Any mortal standing against the Huntsman will be punished, condemned to the land of the dead for the rest of his days.”
So Hester took it upon herself to interrupt the inane diatribe, cramming Ned’s bar towel into the captain’s mouth to the weary cheers of all, and left through the vestibule for some peace. She clutched her coat tightly. Hester was cold all of the time now, dawn or dusk, indoors or out, as if something was siphoning away the very warmth of her soul.
The night was thick as pitch. A mizzling rain had fallen that afternoon; Hester slid the goggles down over her eyes, and everything brightened in wet electrick green. She nodded to Nails and long-haired Ranzo standing watch at the door and drew deeply from the spliff they offered, trailing smoke as she exhaled and descended the slick steps.
Then she stopped short, realizing that while the entirety of her world was illuminated within these emerald-tinted lenses, she had nowhere to go. No one was about, no passersby, no automatons, no lorries or motor busses. Nothing existed but the dratted fog.
Someone approached from behind, down the tavern steps. Hester turned to find Ranzo with a steaming cup in his hands.
“Ned sent this out, miss. Thought you could use it,” Ranzo said. “He stirred in an extra splash to warm you up.”
Hester accepted the cup. Coffee, with a hint of single malt and vat-grown cream. It smelled wonderful. “Thank you.”
“Sorry about that Persephone girl,” Ranzo added with a hint of shyness. “Did you know her well?”
Thinking of Mina only worsened matters, but Ranzo was clearly trying to be helpful. Hester could not fault him for that. “Not as well as she would have liked, no,” Hester said with a pang of guilt. “You two should get back inside. You’ll catch your death.”
Ranzo shook his head. “Nah. It’s somber as a tomb amongst that barmy lot. We’ll take our chances out here, thank—”
Then something swooped out of the dark and grabbed him before his next word. In a spray of blood Ranzo was gone, swallowed by the night.
Hester spun and mashed her shield’s thumb switch just as a second figure struck in an explosion of sparks and screeching metal. The impact threw her into the street.
“Bloody fuck!” Nails shouted. He leapt off the steps as another figure pounced at near-invisible speed and dragged him away.
Hester struggled to her feet, dazed by the impact. Arm aching from the recoil, her goggles blinking in and out of focus. “Ranzo?” She turned this way and that in the maddening dark. “Nails!” Whatever had slammed into the alchemic energies of her shield had reared and fled, trailing an oily residue.
A man’s garbled voice called out for help. Nails crawled into view, his face and arms mauled and bleeding, backlit in the telltale illumination of twin electrick eyes. A silhouette darker than night clamped onto his legs and pulled him back into the fog.
Then she caught a scent, the odor of a woman, nearby and alone. Hester smelled the moisture on the woman’s body, the perspiration between her breasts. Her fear. The woman was running. Hester could smell her fear. Every nerve became electrick and aware. Hester saw everything in spite of the gloom, felt the irresistible rush of stark, merciless desire.
She sped in pursuit, heart racing, breath heavy and deep. A dark, viscous liquid flowed over her fingers and hardened, curving like scythes, metallic razors sliding well beyond the tips of her nails.
Hester leapt in defiance of gravity and was upon the woman in an instant, pulling her down to the oily cobbles. She ripped away the woman’s heavy garments with one set of claws to reveal deep,skin as brown as Hester’s own, and with the other slashed a long gash in her neck. She sank her teeth into the wound.
By then Hester’s unearthly companions had joined her, and she withdrew to let them feed. She tried to discern the woman’s face, framed in a tangle of tight black curls that was suddenly familiar. She pulled the curls back...
...and then Hester was in the street before Sessions House, shaken to the core, surrounded by low machinelike murmurs and metallic eyes that shone in the night like stars. The eyes receded into the shadows and were gone.
Nails and Ranzo were gone.
She was alone, and quietly going mad.
No... In the gutter alongside a public loo, not visible so much as a negative space defined by its lack of heat. The shape of a woman—motionless, and very, very cold.
Hester bolted across the Green and slid to her knees on the hard, oily cobbles. Verity was naked, the deep black tattoos rendering her invisible to the unaided eye. It was a miracle that Hester had seen Verity’s presence at all.
She toggled the gauntlet to power down and rolled Verity’s limp form, cradling her head, repeating her name again and again, the word catching in her throat.
Bruises spread between the swirls of black ink along Verity’s jaw and down her neck. Blood caked the corners of her lips; scratches cut deeply into her pierced breasts and the inside of her thighs.
“Verity, oh Gods, Verity...” Hester said, checking for a pulse, a shallow breath, anything that would indicate life. Verity’s flesh was deathly cold. Hester cried out for help.
Then Verity whispered, her breathing shallow and ragged.
Hester leaned closer, tears leaking beneath her goggles onto a face drained of color, porcelain white in the gaps between her tattoos.
“I knew I would find you here,” Verity said, forcing a smile that broke Hester’s heart. “I knew...” She coughed between sharp, gurgling intakes of breath. “I did it, Hester. I left him, just like you said. Just like...” She coughed again and tried to laugh. “He didn’t like it.”
Footsteps from Sessions House stomped and slid behind them.
“What’s this then— Bugger me!” Captain Swing’s voice.
“Clear off, you sod!” Mrs. Hume, taking command. “Greer, fetch blankets and your kit. Ayanda, Zithembe, scour the Green. Christ Iesu, where the fuck are Nails and Ronzo?”
“Someone call the rozzers!”
Verity opened her eyes and looked at Hester, shaking her head, mouthing the word “no”.
“No police,” Hester said to the crowd.
“She said no police! Damnitall, Verity...”
Hester whispered Verity’s name again, a wretched moan that came from the bottom of her soul. This had happened because of her. The bastard beat Verity to Hell and back because of her. He’d destroyed everything because of her.
She squeezed her eyes shut and wept, holding Verity to her heaving breast as gently as she could.
“Shadow!” she cried.
This was all her fault.
Hester slogged into wakefulness, drawn to the sound of a ringing bell. She was slick with perspiration. Stars wheeled into view overhead. The stars...
She bolted upright. She was in her residence above the print shop, tangled in a blanket on the settee before her coal stove. The painted stars on the walls and ceiling were where they had always been, and oddly granted her comfort.
Someone stepped into view to answer the flat’s annunciator, the source of the ringing: Dr. Greer, the combat-physician from Saint Jack’s Ambulance. One of the Black Mariahs—the one Hester had seen getting bandaged—stood in a corner watching them, arms crossed, dark brown skin barely visible in the gaslight.
“Bloody hell...” Hester rubbed her eyes, momentarily confused and not at all prepared to host anyone. Only then did she realize she was naked beneath the blanket. “Bloody hell!”
“Ah, Hester, you’re awake,” said Dr. Greer, covering the device’s mouthpiece with her hand. “You were in shock. I’m glad you got some rest.” She finished speaking into the annunciator and returned the device to its cradle. “That was Augusta. She’s on her way. One of her informants has learned something important about this one.” She looked to Verity, semiconscious in Hester’s bed.
“Thank you,” Hester said, clutching the blanket tightly about her person. She was so very cold, though the thought of Mrs. Hume being close at hand did warm her spirits. The last thing Hester remembered before waking here was Verity. No, not just Verity.
Dr. Greer shook her head. “Augusta took what was left of them to Saint Barts while the rest of us smuggled you and this one back here. You should be safe for now.” She paused, then added, “It appears that close proximity to you is hazardous to one’s health.”
Hester had no response to that. She stood with the blanket firmly in place and crossed to the side of the bed.
Verity’s head twitched in tiny, fevered ticks, her breath whispering nonsense. What with the metal cables twining through her hair, the systematic piercings, the swirls and flowing shapes of oily black ink, she looked as if she’s been spawned by one of the Great Machines.
“How is she?”
Dr. Greer let out a ponderous sigh. “Delirious. I’ve administered a sedative but she’s fighting it. And her wounds have all but healed. Don’t ask me how. Nor can I explain these.” She pointed to the black spirals exposed above the bed sheets.
“The tattoos,” acknowledged Hester.
Dr. Greer pursed her lips and led Hester back to the settee, sat her down, and with both hands flung open the blanket.
“Oi!” protested Hester.
“Forgive the lack of niceties, but your clothing was soaked through with that one’s blood.” Hester saw the ruined garments heaped in a corner, along with the shield gauntlet. Dr. Greer produced a hand mirror from Hester’s dressing table. “Now, my girl, what can you tell me about this?”
Hester looked, then took the mirror from Dr. Greer and looked again, her hands shaking.
Displayed in the unsteady reflection was a faint geometry of black swirls and spirals, difficult at first to discern on her dark skin. The tattoos scrolled away from Hester’s pubis, an inch or two down the inside of her thighs and up towards her navel. The flesh around them was irritated and red.
Hester bolted from her seat, stunned, and dropped the mirror. “What... what—? She broke anew into a sweat and could not feel her heart beating. She looked at Verity in the rumpled bed, at the dratted tattoos on her neck and face.
“You’ve not seen this, then?” asked Dr. Greer.
Hester’s voice trembled. “I don’t... No, I haven’t.”
“Not at all? When is the last time you bathed?”
“I... Not for a couple of days.” Guilt and shame suddenly compounded Hester’s dread. “I’ve been combing the streets night and day...”
“And you’ve had no indication.”
“No! I’ve... No. How is this possible? What is this?” Fear settled in; Hester felt her heart now all too well.
“I can tell you what it’s not,” Dr. Greer said. “This is not ink, and these are not tattoos.” She began to pace. “What in bloody blazes have you got yourself into? Markings like this don’t just pop up of their own accord like weeds in a garden.”
“I don’t know! Gods in heaven, I don’t know.” Hester looked again at Verity in the bed they’d shared so many times. She felt defiled, unclean.
What the fuck did you do to me?
Verity stirred, and Dr. Greer returned to her side.
The Mariah approached Hester with a bundle of garments from the wardrobe. “Here. Let me help you dress.” The voice was rich and genderless.
“Don’t touch her,” Dr. Greer cautioned while looking into Verity’s half-open eyes. “I’ve just the one pair of gloves. Wash your hands, at least. Bloody hell, I don’t know. Do as you wish.”
“She’s not a leper.”
“We don’t know what she is.”
Hester turned away and covered herself once more with the blanket, mortified at being the subject of their sorry exchange. “Don’t look,” she said. “Please.”
The Mariah did not budge and held out the bundle for Hester to accept.
Hester nodded meekly and took the clothing. “Thank you...”
Hester blinked away sudden tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know your name. I’ve never been able to tell you and your brother apart.”
“The body modifications were Zithembe’s idea. He’s a bit of a wanker.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Hester said, smiling in apology.
“He’s keeping watch downstairs.”
Hester dressed in silence with Ayanda’s assistance; the only sounds in the loft were Verity’s ramblings and the gentle hiss of the gas jets. She was barely able to stay on her feet; the doctor’s words cut her to the core.
We don’t know what she is.
Without preamble, a riotous commotion erupted from the print shop below: the shattering of glass; the crash of a door; a swift, muffled struggle. Panic-stricken, Hester looked to the stairwell as Ayanda drew a knife from inside her coat.
Verity scrambled to her feet, instantly awake but unsteady, naked as a wild animal. “He’s here,” she said. “He’s here!” Dr. Greer kept her from falling over.
Then Shadow burst upstairs into the flat as if he’d ascended the stairs in a single bound. Hester stood rooted to the spot. He was bruised and bloodied, and swirls of ink identical to her own were exposed where the front of his shirt had been slashed open.
“No one interfere,” he said. “Please. She’s not in her right mind.”
“You’re not taking me back,” said Verity, pulling away from Dr. Greer’s hands.
“That’s not your choice to make,” Shadow countered, an unmistakable tone of sympathy in his voice.
Ayanda leaned close to Hester. “Be ready to run,” she whispered. Then she charged Shadow, knife gleaming amber in the gaslight.
He felled her with one swing of his fist, then tossed her over the settee as if she weighed nothing.
Hester scrambled for the shield gauntlet, as did Dr. Greer for Ayanda’s knife.
Verity let out a cry and jumped at Shadow from the bed.
He backhanded her mid-leap. Her head snapped back, chips of dazzling white porcelain flying from her mouth: her perfect, more-costly-than-she-could-afford teeth. She soared backwards into Dr. Greer, and they crumpled to the floor.
Hester retrieved the leather gauntlet but fumbled with its buckles and straps, her hands shaking so badly.
Then Verity looked up and smiled, her lips parting in a bloody rictus, revealing scores of needle-like blades where her false teeth had been. And her eyes... The artificial lenses had been knocked away. Her eyes were a machinelike silver.
“Gods in heaven,” Hester choked.
Verity sprang and grabbed Dr. Greer, her left arm around the physician’s neck, her right cast back, fingers splayed like claws. The tattoos on the raised arm flowed as black liquid disengaged from the flesh, forward over her wrist and fingers, hardening into curved scythes.
Razors sliding beyond the tips of her nails.
Exactly as in Hester’s visions. How— She squeezed the thumb switch, and a whoosh and flash of alchemic energies filled the room.
“Don’t do it, Verity,” she warned, if this monster was still Verity at all. Hester tried to approach, the shield strapped to her arm shaking violently, but couldn’t for fear of glancing Dr. Greer edgewise. Everything she had ever believed as true was coming off the rails. “Don’t.”
Verity smiled again with her mouth of ghastly needles and ripped out Dr. Greer’s throat. She dropped her onto the bed, the dying woman’s life gushing red on the linens.
“Verity!” Shadow shouted.
Hester switched off the shield and ran to Dr. Greer, too late. She pressed her hands over the physician’s throat, blood spurting wildly between her fingers.
Verity leapt again at Shadow, and the fight tumbled down the steps in a tangle of fists and claws.
Ayanda stirred, then cursed, then charged down the stairwell after them.
Dr. Greer lay still. Hester could do nothing but force back her terror and race downstairs as well.
Verity, Shadow, and Ayanda stood wedged into a knot at the base of the steps, suddenly immobile, their eyes fixed upon the shop door.
Mrs. Hume stood in the splintered doorway, her infra-sonic carbine pointed at them all. Ayanda’s twin Zithembe, bleeding from a blow to the head, stood at the ready between one of the mechanized racks of type and Hester’s tool bench, a knife in each hand.
“Hester, move away! It was her,” Mrs. Hume said, the shrill electrick whine of the Dissonator building in pitch, its sights fixed on Verity.
Shadow leapt in a superhuman blur. He yanked the shield gauntlet from Hester’s arm and activated it as the Dissonator discharged. A beam of sonic fury struck the energy construct and rebounded, vaporizing a swath of coffered ceiling.
In a cascade of falling debris Hester scrambled over the bannister, but her hands were slick with Dr. Greer’s blood. She tumbled into the stack of tins behind the drill press, each one filled with scrap iron shavings and dust. The tins flew end over end and emptied, a cloud of heavy metallic grit settling over them all.
Suddenly the cold burn of electricks stung Hester from inside her trousers, like the touch of wires bearing a live current—exactly where the cancerous ink had invaded her flesh. Shadow convulsed in pain, franticly brushing the particles from his exposed chest.
But Verity screamed outright, again and again, the sound of metal wheels scraping against metal rails, each fleck of raw iron sparking with electrick discharge as it touched her skin. No, not Verity, Hester realized. The screams came from the patterns of black ink on Verity’s skin. The shapes tore free, each springing into a surreal semblance of life.
“Verity!” Hester cried.
They raced about on four legs, these constructs, though even that was debatable. Their shapes were fluid, indistinct; fractal elements presenting in but two dimensions—height and width but without depth, regardless of which way they pivoted. Their silver eyes gleamed with reflected light.
Mrs. Hume raised her weapon again, and Zithembe began slashing at the unearthly manifestations, to no effect. Ayanda grabbed Hester and pulled her down behind the presses.
Hester knew these constructs, these creatures, instantly. She had run naked with them in her visions. Had killed with them, and reveled in the horror of it...
“...tis the Devil’s dandy dogs... jet-black... with horrible eyes like saucers...”
They were the hounds of the Wild Hunt, and they sprang at everyone who’d raised a weapon on Verity. Shadow held his own against the assault, but Mrs. Hume and Zithembe were overwhelmed in the instant.
“Stop it!” Hester cried. “Verity, stop!” But Ayanda, forcefully, kept her from getting close.
The attack was savage but without precision; lightning quick, erratic, unfocused, and in a flash the constructs leapt back onto Verity and assumed their previous configurations about her person. Shadow spun her around and slammed his massive fist into her face.
Hester felt Ayanda’s grip tighten like a vise there beneath the drill press; she couldn’t help Verity even if she wanted to.
Again Shadow struck, then a third time, and a fourth and fifth. Finally Verity fell, unconscious and streaming blood from reopened wounds. Shadow lifted her easily and ran from the shop without looking back.
“Hester...” The voice was no more than a gurgled whisper.
Ayanda released Hester, and she slid frantically across the floor to Mrs. Hume’s side. The hounds had been brutal. Zithembe was dead; throat torn open, Mrs. Hume lay drowning in a widening pool of blood. She spoke in ragged whispers.
“What are you... I can’t understand,” Hester said, weeping openly. She leaned close.
“...zero,” Mrs. Hume said again, blood bubbling in her mouth. “Zero.”
She reached for the Dissonator with what little strength remained and pressed it to Hester’s chest. “Finish this...” And with that, the grande dame of the Downbelow was gone.
Hester took the weapon in her hands, then looked out the open door into the fog where Shadow had taken Verity. Cold, parasitic electricks roiled through the dark patterns spreading beneath her garments.
That is not going to be me.
Hester held on for dear life, motorized thunder roaring in her ears, as Ayanda’s boneshaker propelled them through the twisting lanes and alleys of Turnmill at breakneck speed, Ayanda in the driver’s saddle weaving through streams of cabs and lorries and traction-engines, with Hester in the sidecar scanning the streets before them and calling out directions.
Hester was still in shock, overwhelmed by the merciless supplanting of what she had believed in her heart with what she had actually seen.
Verity had killed Mrs. Hume. And Dr. Greer. And Ayanda’s brother Zithembe. And now Hester herself was corrupted with the same horror that had turned Verity into a monster.
“Left!” she shouted above the traffic noise.
Ayanda swerved the boneshaker from Docwra Court onto Saxon as ordered, narrowly missing a freight wagon and its team of mechanized horses.
It had been Hester’s idea to track Shadow in the same manner she’d spotted Verity in Turnmill Green, by using the goggles to discern the absence of body heat. Through the aid of electrick enhancement, Verity’s ink-stained blood stood out as a trail of negative spaces in the background imagery.
“You’re not taking me back,” Verity had said to Shadow, presumably to the place where they had received the tattoos.
Now Hester bore that same cursed ink. She had to know what the fuck was happening to her, wherever that trail might lead.
“Left!” she shouted again. The splashes of Verity’s blood rounded the corner of a deserted thoroughfare, then abruptly vanished.
All Hester could see through the goggles was a vast electrick-green space upon which hunched a dozen massive shapes in the same hue. The sector constabulary’s impound yard—a raised landing pad filled with moored airships and gyrodynes, captured for smuggling contraband nicked from towers and sky palaces high above.
Her heart sank. “Are they gone?” she asked in despair. “Did they bloody well up and fly away?” She searched the sky for the telltale flash of lights, but the fog was too black and thick, even with the aid of the goggles. “Dammitall,” she said bitterly. “We may as well be under the ground.”
Ayanda suddenly revved the boneshaker’s engine. “Not the impound yard,” she shouted above the roar. “What’s beneath it.”
She accelerated along the empty thoroughfare with Hester hanging on white-knuckled, then banked into an unmarked, steeply declining alley. In a blackened brick wall beneath the edge of the landing pad was a service door, framed in stone and topped with a weathered sculpture of a man’s face glaring down upon those who dared to enter.
“Here,” Ayanda said in equal measures of confidence and concern. The door was partially opened. With a loud humph she pushed the metal slab the remainder of the way, rusty screeches amplified by the stones. A powerful stench wafted up from below. “They’re in the Harrows.”
“Bugger me,” said Hester.
The Harrows. Hester knew the name, of course, as did anyone who dwelt in the seedy alleys of Turnmill. Once the infamous House of Detention, the ancient prison had been a blight upon the surrounding sectors for centuries, spawning some of the worst slums in the Downbelow. The structures above ground had finally been razed after a riot of off-worlder kreegs had cannibalized one of their own and detonated a bomb built from its radioactive entrails. But the ghosts and cell blocks remained.
Gods willing, Hester’s answers lay waiting in that awful place. She tightened the straps securing Mrs. Hume’s gun to her back and activated her shield.
Without a word, Hester stepped through the great door into impenetrable darkness, with Ayanda close behind.
They descended a spiral staircase to a guardroom, the ancient furnishings thick with dust and brittle cobwebs, then down again into the mechanical underworks of the long-abandoned prison, now flooded ankle-deep in runoff from the Fleet Trench. And not so abandoned after all, Hester realized. Steam conduits and cloth-insulated cables, all new, were bracketed to the vaulted brick walls, every junction of passageways illuminated in sputtering gaslight.
She looked one way and then the other, feeling the urgency of the chase drain away to despair. In the shimmering enhancement of her goggles, nothing distinguished one service tunnel from another. Nor, she admitted grudgingly, did the weapons she hefted bring any sense of confidence or comfort.
Lost, and with no idea of what she would do if she actually found Verity, Hester accepted Ayanda’s lead, following pipes and foul water ever deeper into the maze of brick chambers.
Before long Hester removed her goggles altogether, as the illumination cast by the energy shield provided enough light to see. Ayanda did not. Nor did she carry advanced weaponry of any kind, wearing instead a harness beneath her long coat that sheathed any number of knives and throwing blades. Signage on the brickwork, barely legible, pointed out the remains of the prison kitchen, washrooms, and laundry.
Hester could sense the malice that still lingered here, as if the sins of the World had saturated the very mortar of these ghastly halls. She felt the weight of the landing pad and moored aircraft above, bowing the tunnels, squeezing the air from her lungs. Buried alive, while Verity watched from afar and laughed.
Verity killed Mrs. Hume.
Verity killed Mrs. Hume.
It’s been her all along.
Hester slowed and steadied herself. Perspiration trickled down her sides, her breath echoing in the dark. Wait... The echo was not her own. Barely audible, resonating from one brick wall to the next.
She lifted her shield higher. Every inch of her trembled. “Is somebody giggling?” she asked. It was a strain to speak.
“He’s been trailing us since we arrived,” Ayanda whispered, her expression hidden behind the night-vision devices. Hester had yet to see her shed a tear for Zithembe. “Keep moving. Pretend you don’t know he’s there.”
She quickened her step, pulling ahead of Hester to the next junction of passageways. At the cross tunnel, just before the pool of illumination, Ayanda feinted right but spun left and pulled from the darkness a human-shaped prize, squirming in her grasp. But instead of howls and curses, the captive hooted with delirious laughter.
It was young Benjamin, missing since the night Verity had first sought out Hester at Mrs. Hume’s establishment. One of his arms was severed at the shoulder, and four deep gashes cut diagonally across his bare chest, the wounds stitched raggedly. His feet were unshod in the muck.
“Benjamin!” Hester cried. She switched off her shield and ran to him, cradling his face. His flesh was like ice. The boy flinched and reared back, but Ayanda held fast.
Recognition dawned in Benjamin’s eyes, and he smiled the same demented rictus that Hester had witnessed on Verity. “Hester!” he said. “Hester! Poor sad Hester, no taste for bangers and biscuits!”
Tattoos that were not tattoos—like Hester’s own but more pronounced—coiled and climbed from beneath the waist of his unbuttoned trousers, following the trail of hair up his belly like poisonous snakes. He’d been infected. Hester’s heart sank, yet again.
Benjamin laughed. “He’s gorgeous and I want him, remember? I remember! He’s right in there. Tell him what he wants and be on your way.”
The boy calmed himself and drew close to Hester’s ear. “It’s cold, Hester. It’s so cold. Make it stop.” He never stopped smiling. “Please make it stop.”
Ayanda drew one of her knives. Without hesitation she cut Benjamin’s throat, then let him fall.
“What have you done?” Hester gasped, horrified.
“What he wanted,” Ayanda answered, her voice steady. “It was a mercy.”
“Am I next, then? Are you going to slit my throat as well? Will that be a mercy?”
Hester wanted to scream but could not summon the will. One death after another, the cursed black ink spreading across her body like a disease. All because she’d let Verity back into her life. ‘What have you done?’ she’d spat at the Black Mariah. No. What have I done?
Ayanda led her along the passageway from which Benjamin had been extracted. Down a short corridor, then up a flight of steps to what appeared to be the terminus of the pipes and conduits—the prison infirmary.
“Do you smell that?” Ayanda asked.
Hester caught the odor as well, separate from the whiff of sewers. The metallic tang of blood. A great deal of it.
Hester steeled herself, holding precariously to her wits and the shield.
The room was a slaughterhouse.
Dead men clothed in white—some whole, some not—slumped over tables alongside phosphor screens displaying nothing but splatter and kinetoscopic static. Empty bedframes and cubicles had been pushed aside to accommodate great banks of Analytical Engines, the workings caked with splintered bone and entrails. Scattered about were plaques of memory-glass, annunciators, even a small ansible. All of them smashed. Claw marks, more than Hester could count, cut into the bricks and gore-slicked floor tiles.
“She did this,” Hester said aloud, trying to look away but failing repeatedly. She picked up a crumpled sheet of newsprint and smoothed it open. It was Mrs. Hume’s anarchist broadside, The Glass Harmonica.
A short pass-through led to the operating theater. A raised table complete with blood gutters dominated the center of the room, surrounded by steeply tiered rows of benches.
A dead man in his middle years was strapped to the table, his laboratory garments stripped away, exposing bare skin from neck to knee. More than a dozen needle-tipped hoses pierced his body, each leading to pumps still functioning. Great glass vessels of the black ink were suspended overhead. The infernal liquid oozed from his phallus and rectum, his mouth and ears and blind dead eyes.
And on the wall behind him, amid banks of brass toggles and levers, a large black circle had been painted, still dripping with the ink that was not ink. Not a circle, Hester realized. A zero.
“What happens at zero?” she had asked.
“I don’t know,” replied Mrs. Hume. “Nothing good, I fear...”
Shadow sat on the floor between shattered vials and steam-driven implements, propped against a steel wall panel. He bled profusely from wounds on his arms and a slash across his gut. Though his eyes were all but swollen shut, Hester saw a spark in them. He was alive and, unbelievably, still conscious.
“We do keep meeting under unfortunate circumstances,” he wheezed through shallow breaths. “I would offer you a beverage but I’m rather indisposed at the moment.”
Exposed flesh revealed the complexity of his tattoos, as well as a patchwork of surgical scars, long healed, where thick cords of artificial muscle had been grafted. To Hester’s eye, the gut wound looked fatal. She didn’t know how to feel.
“My name is Hester,” she said. “I think you saved my life.”
Hester wanted to wipe the blood from Shadow’s face but was wary of getting near. Despite his condition, he frightened her still. She hugged herself tightly. “Is Shadow your real name?”
The man tried to smile. “It suffices. I’m a test subject. One of them, anyway. In the regard, we’re all nameless.”
Hester pulled the familiar broadside from her pocket and showed it to him. “You’re with the Rads.”
He shrugged weakly. “Yes. And sometimes no. We use various names for various purposes, all to better serve the revolution. Does it matter what we call ourselves?”
“What’s been done to me matters,” Hester said, frustration breaking through her veiled composure. The revolution. Mrs. Hume had spoken of it. Hester was beginning to experience for herself the older woman’s melancholy, if this nightmare was truly the length to which the rebels had gone. “Why Verity? She hasn’t a political thought in her head.” Not the Verity that Hester had known, at any rate.
“None were needed. We appealed to her self-obsession. She was ours the moment we offered something shiny.” He glanced up at the tiered seats surrounding them. “They watched.”
Hester’s throat tightened anew. “Who did?”
“Everyone. All of them watched. Envoys from every union and militant cabal in the Downbelow. They wanted assurance that the black could stand against the Crown.”
Gods in heaven... They’d watched what was done to her.
“The black is a weapon,” Shadow said. “Miniscule, self-replicating machines—billions of them—suspended in a liquid medium. A weapon whose form is controlled by magnetick fields shaped through conscious thought. We needed a volunteer who had not yet undergone deep-tissue modification. An index case.”
Verity. Patient zero.
“The black is semi-autonomous, marshaled by the driver’s will. Verity was the driver.” He took a rattling breath. “But she wasn’t strong enough. The strain of controlling it was too great. She killed her handlers and ran. I was finally able to bring her back after the row at your shop. But she broke free again and finished what she’d started. Chased the last handful of technicians into the tombs. I’ve not seen her since.”
The row, he called it. Hester could not keep her anger in check, remembering the savagery she’d witnessed when Verity had cut loose. “What exactly happened at my shop?” she asked. “People died in my shop!”
“The cloud of iron particles you tossed about with abandon... It disrupted the black’s magnetick properties. Hurt like a bloody bastard, thank you very much.”
Hester experienced anew the jolting spasms, even through layers of protective clothing. She rubbed her thighs. What must it have been like on Verity’s bare skin?
Shadow looked at her closely. “You felt it...”
Hester said nothing.
“You felt it. How is that—?”
Hester remained silent, eyes brimming, and turned away.
“Ah,” Shadow said after a long moment. “I’m sorry. We suspected the black could be passed from one fluid-based medium to another—”
Hester spun around. “Stop, stop! Please!” Her face burned, tears streaming freely now. “Please. How do we get rid of it?”
“I don’t know.” He looked to the dead man on the table. “The only one who might have was Harkness. Verity got him first.”
Hester sank, weak-kneed, and felt her reality begin to cave in as it had teased out there in the tunnels.
Verity got him first. I’m going to die here, like poor Benjamin. Mad... Face down in a sewer...
“Hester. Hester, listen to me!” Shadow said. He tried to stand. “Verity is completely unhinged. She will say anything, manipulate anyone, in order to survive. You mustn’t stay.” He coughed, the awful sound of a death rattle, black blood foaming at his lips.
Hester looked up at him. He’d said something... Something important. He’d told her not to stay. “What are you doing?” she heard herself ask. Her voice sounded far away.
“I’m going to kill her.”
“Shadow!” Verity’s voice echoed from the dark depths of the Harrows.
Hester’s heart raced. Verity was near.
“Get out,” Shadow said again. “Run, while you still can. Hester!”
“I can’t leave. This isn’t her fault.”
“Bugger that. She left you, the instant she let herself be strapped to that table.”
“It’s not her fault! It’s mine.”
What have you done? No. What have I done?
It was too late to run.
She knew what had to be done. No emotions were attached to this understanding. She was numb to the core. Indeed, ‘Hester’ had already died. And the husk that remained needed to make this right.
Without a word, Hester powered up her shield and raced out to confront Verity.
Then Verity and her beasts were in the infirmary, faster than thought, her naked skin oiled in blood not her own.
She hit the floor, knees flexed, then jumped back, clearly startled by the presence of the Black Mariah. Her metamorphic hounds leapt and shuffled about erratically, their structures shifting and changing from one misshapen form to another.
Ayanda was already hurling knives in a flowing display of grace. Verity dropped flat and rolled, her metal claws deflecting them away; cabled hair wild, lips parted, needle-teeth glinting in the light. Ayanda’s movement was nuanced, almost choreographed. Verity’s was undisciplined and feral.
One of Verity’s hounds broke rank and leapt at Hester. She sliced the airborne construct in two with the edge of her energy shield, the halves dissolving instantaneously into their billion constituent mechanisms.
Then Verity seemed to let something go. She sprang in defiance of gravity, twisted, and touched down on the tiles behind Hester. With one set of claws, she severed the wiring in Hester’s gauntlet...
...and with the other slashed Ayanda diagonally from shoulder to hip. Her torso opened in a long bloody gash, ribs and entrails spilling forward onto the infirmary floor.
Verity’s black hounds jumped about and howled in unearthly applause.
Hester turned away, her knees threatening to buckle on the cold tiles; emotions spent, no tears left to shed.
She’d killed them all. Hester had, as surely as if this cancer upon her flesh had come into full manifestation. She’d wanted to be dangerous. Verity was simply the instrument of Hester’s profound irresponsibility.
Ayanda; Zithembe; Benjamin; Dr. Greer and the gearboys; Halka; Mrs. Huma and Mina. Everyone she knew. Death circling in, ever closer, with Hester herself in its center.
“Hester.” Verity spun about as if in a dance, oblivious to the carnage at her feet. “Am I not magnificent?”
“No, Verity.” Hester said, horror overwhelming her. She straightened, defiantly, but could approach no further. “You’re broken.”
“I’m whole. I’m complete, more than I’ve ever been. As are you, now. You’re just like me. You’ll never be lonely again.”
Hester felt ill with revulsion. “I’m nothing like you.”
Verity spread a hand over the womanly place at the joining of her legs, then traced her fingers upward sensually in slow swirls and spirals. “Give it time, love.”
Anger rose anew in Hester’s breast. She drew Mrs. Hume’s carbine from over her shoulder and with it pointed to the vile traceries. “This is what you did to Benjamin! It’s what you did to me. Why, Verity? Why?”
“Because I can. Because it’s what you wanted.”
“You lied to me. All this time. You were never in danger.”
“You wanted the danger!” Verity spat back, her own anger made clear in her tone. “Always the good girl. The responsible one. Your father’s daughter. Don’t think for a moment I never heard you, whispering your desires in our bed. I gave you the one thing you’re too afraid to claim for yourself. I gave you the freedom to be who you truly are. I gave you the stars.”
Hester grimaced inside, knowing she’d never again be able to face the hopes and dreams that were painted on her ceiling.
“I accept that,” she said. “But not like this. Damnitall, Verity. Not like this.”
Verity began to circle Hester, slowly at first, then in a tightening spiral, the way she had eliminated all competition for Hester’ affections.
“Think of what we can be together, Hester,” she said, her voice building. “I’m all yours now. There’s no one left to confuse you. We are the avatars of the new millennium. We can strike fear into the hearts of the wicked. We can be gods.”
Verity spread her arms, wide. The beastly constructs broke apart and reconfigured into a vast orbiting constellation of two-dimensional geometries, driven by fields of invisible magneticks, re-forming again and again into shapes of ever increasing complexity.
She was a god, and she would never stop.
“Live now, Hester. Remember? Live now and never grow old.”
“I want to grow old! I wanted that with you.” Hester laughed bitterly. “I was afraid that if I held on too tightly, I would push you away. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. Repeatedly. Time and again. And yes, I was too afraid to follow.”
“I always came back.”
“Not this time. No.” Hester blinked at suddenly returned tears. “Shadow was right.” She pointed to the operating theater. “Verity is gone. She died in that room. They just forgot to throw away her corpse.”
Something moved at the edge of Hester’s vision. She purposely did not focus on it and aimed the infrasonic carbine at Verity’s heart instead. Her hands trembled. “I have to make this right.”
Verity’s constructs returned to their surreal, hound-like shapes, the shapes of the Wild Hunt, ready to attack. Her laughter dripped with scorn and ridicule. “What do you plan to do with that?”
Just a few more seconds...
“Distract you,” Hester said.
“From me not being able to make the first move.”
An ink-constructed blade erupted from Verity’s chest.
Shadow shoved again and the blade slid further, a look of horrified disbelief on Verity’s face. Hester felt the blade as if it had pierced her own heart. Shadow withdrew his arm in a quick, merciless yank, the bloody construct flowing back into his tattooed swirls and scrollwork.
Verity staggered forward, looking into Hester’s eyes, pleading. Shadow stepped away.
“I’m sorry,” Hester said, weeping openly now. She pulled the Dissonator’s trigger.
The beam of concussive sound hit Verity dead-center. Her torso vaporized in a cloud of bone and blood, head and limbs falling to the floor in wet, sickening thuds. The demon hounds leapt at Hester...
...and disintegrated instantly into their constituent parts, raining down as oily black mist.
Hester’s gun clattered onto the floor tiles. Her knees buckled, as a wave of darkness threatened to sweep away any remaining vestiges of rationality. Shadow caught her. His arms had healed, the once-gaping slash across his abdomen no more than a ragged line.
Then she saw—she was sure of it—Verity’s severed head twitch, and smile, and roll over of its own accord. Spindly, spider-like legs protruded from the fleshy stump of the neck. The head righted itself, looked up at Hester, then skittered away into the Harrows, its inky black extremities clacking loudly on the floor.
With that the dark wave returned, irresistibly, and carried Hester into oblivion.
Hester tapped the last brick into place, then scraped away a lingering daub of mortar. There. Another tunnel sealed.
She extinguished her gas lamp. She could see quite well in dim light now, or no light at all for that matter. But the warm amber glow was comforting, even after she had become accustomed to the cold.
Hester had closed the prison tunnels one by one to keep Verity, or whatever it was that she had become, from escaping. And Shadow had hinted that there were more of their kind, more test subjects, still unaccounted for. A futile point, perhaps, but the work had to be done.
Shadow stayed for a time while his augmented body self-repaired, but in the end he had a revolution to wage. Before he left, he confessed that the militants to whom he was pledged did have a name: the Zero Underground. Black Zero, informally—the organization that Mrs. Hume had ferreted out just before she died. Whether they had been successful in igniting their war against the Government, or had been usurped by another activist regime, Hester hadn’t a clue. She drew Mrs. Hume’s watch from her pocket, the curious anticlockwise device that counted down to the end of days. Scarcely any time was left now. All Hester did know was that far above the depths of the Downbelow, up in the light, the great City burned. The new millennium was upon them all.
Shadow had been right, Hester came to realize. She was stronger than Verity. She had clung to life far longer than she’d expected, and the infirmary’s stockpile of provisions would last a good while further still, even as the cold black ink twined over her body in swirls and spirals of infinite complexity.
She had wanted to be dangerous. And because of it, she would mourn forever a love that must never be allowed to return.
“We all have a role to play.” Hester quietly repeated Mrs. Hume’s words. They had become her creed. Verity had said that Hester could strike fear into the hearts of the wicked. That seemed a role worthy enough for anyone.
Hester removed her clothing and summoned the hounds.
It was time to hunt.