Nursery rhymes of soot and despair, remembered only as dreams; of the Devil and a burning hill—always the same, since I was a boy. The earth gives way beneath me, venting gouts of flame and deadly steam....
Wakefulness came slowly in a fog of sirens and dull pain. But even in my muddlement I recognized the sirens’ familiar cadence as meaning all clear; the air was once again safe to breathe. I smelled a sharp antiseptic tang of alcohol mixed with the heavy brown odor of animals and rust. I heard the animals, clucks and murmurs and the rattle of clawed feet in cages; felt the ache of a body curled on a hard cot, the scratch of a wool blanket; the rhythmic pounding of blood in my temples. But try as I might, I couldn’t see a thing.
The one certainty I would swear by, irrationally, was that I wasn’t alone inside my head.
The screech of a cage door forced open mustered what little attention I possessed. A protesting squawk, the furious rustle of feathers, the decisive whack of a blade striking through bone. I flinched at the ugly sound.
“Ah. Good morning. I thought you’d be stirring about now.”
The man’s voice was deep and heavy with years, but not unpleasant. Mine was a dry whisper. “Why can’t I see?” The unaccustomed presence of whiskers chafed as I worked my jaw.
“Try opening your eyes.”
I did, with considerable effort. Truth be known, it felt as though something other than myself was compelling them to open.
“A fissure opened on the Quarry Bank Road,” said an indistinct blur. “Your carriage upended into the canal. I fished you out and brought you here.”
I remembered the canal, its dark waters befouled by runoff from the towering ironworks and colleries that lined its unsightly embankments.
“I’m afraid your horse did not fare as well,” he continued. “Pity, that, she was a handsome animal.”
She was, though I couldn’t conjure any true feelings of loss for the poor beast. I didn’t even know what her name had been. Just another thing of this World to which I’d already said good-bye.
“How long—?” I asked.
“A good fortnight, I should think. You needed time to heal.”
The blur before me sharpened into the bearded figure of a man outfitted for metalwork in gauntlets and heavy leather apron, pockets filled to overflowing with tools. In a time long before the Instrumentality had come and remade the World into its mechanistic idea of Perfection, he would have looked a bit like Father Christmas, broad and still rugged despite his age.
We were inside a tinker’s shop, tall and narrow. Steam-driven implements of every size imaginable; scrap metal and boilers, pistons and gear-trains, all illuminated by pools of gaslight and cold blue electricks. The walls were buttressed with copper pipes and tubing, the roof tiles replaced with panes of leaded glass. The loft above was enclosed in more panels of glass, green growing things visible within.
In one gloved hand the man held a game bird—a grouse, if I knew such things—all blood and feathers and minus its head. With the other he yanked a hatchet from a well-worn chopping block. Additional blurs coalesced into cages containing more birds and shabby little creatures that looked like chimney brushes; all sickly, due no doubt to the unhealthful environs outside, very few of them mechanically enhanced.
Only then did I discover two alarming facts about my own person: I was naked beneath the scratchy blanket, and my wrists and ankles were bound in chains.
“Bloody hell! What’s all this—?”
“A man can’t be too careful in times as these, lad.” He pulled another bird from its cage, this one putting up little fight, and pressed its neck to the block. “I know most everyone who travels the Quarry Bank....”
My carpet-and-leather satchel lay overturned, the contents arrayed on a heavy sideboard before him, all of it ruined by the foul waters of the canal: some changes of clothing, a wash kit, portfolios, papers, and blackened photographic plates.
“...but I do not know you.”
He beheaded the bird with a great whack of his hatchet.
“My name is Saint-Jean,” I said, feigning the truth as masterfully as I could under the circumstances. “Marcel Saint-Jean. Perhaps you’re familiar with my work.”
“No,” he said without elaboration. “You’re a dabbler in the photographic arts, I gather.”
“Yes, newly returned from the Continent. I just finished a showing there and was en route to a new gallery in Whitehall.” The presence in my mind made itself known again, wrapping around each word as if searching for hidden meaning. “Owned by a very dear and important friend, I might add. The gallery.”
“Ah. Of course.”
I watched as my host studiously ignored the notebooks and open portfolios of photographs that had been retrieved from my carriage. Presented therein were proofs from the aforementioned exhibit (“mechano-erotica”, it had been dubbed by the artistic community). Androgynous waifs posed in the controlled symmetry of Machines; naked flesh wrapped in barbed wire and grafted to motorized limbs and organs of every shape and description; the hair on their heads and elsewhere thickly woven with industrial cable; black metallic powders darkening eyes and lips.
Getting nowhere, I thought it best to keep his attention on the animals. “What are you doing, if I may ask?”
“Breakfast,” he said, as casually as if he were preparing jam sandwiches.
“You must be hungry.”
The old man looked up. “Oh, it’s not for me.”
Before I could question him further a woman’s shriek echoed from a townhouse visible through the open door. The man didn’t react, nor did he even seem to notice. I however remained a captive audience and was unnerved to the bone.
Instead, he removed his gauntlets and carefully turned my head to and fro with scarred hands, then looked into my eyes with variable-loupe spectacles and an odd electrick torch. Up close he smelled of bay rum, and I could see that his forearms had been scalded time and again, likely from tending the very steamworks that dominated the shop.
He pushed back the painted black hair that hung over my face, examining the piercings and scrollwork tattoos. I went to great lengths to look as if I’d stepped from the black-and-white tintypes in my possession.
“I thought you might still have a nasty lump or two but you seem all right to me,” he said. “You swallowed a good amount of canal water, though. That alone should have killed you.”
“You’re a physician then?”
“Doctor of Industrial Arts, long since retired. I designed and oversaw the construction of mining automata. I busy myself with botanicals and home remedies now.” He nodded to the house across the way. “Honoria reacted badly to the laudanum they gave her in hospital.” He stood and pulled his gauntlets back on. “Name’s Faversham. Folks here in Priory Hull just call me Doc.”
“That’s bloody brilliant.”
“I didn’t say they were very bright.”
“Right, well now that we’ve exchanged formal pleasantries you can let me go.” I lay back expectantly, eyes up. An ore-laden dirigible thrummed above the glass roof, close enough to touch, kinematic advertisements flickering along its belly.
Faversham said nothing and turned away.
“Let me go, you dodgy git!”
I pulled and fought against the bonds, metal cutting into my flesh. The chains were formidable and held together by an intricate system of combination locks and gears.
“There, lad, hold still. You’ll hurt yourself. You’re in no condition to walk.”
“Bugger that,” I said, “I’m clearing off.” I struggled to my feet, casting blanket and cot aside, and dropped immediately, my head swimming, as if my very will had been stolen away.
The shop floor was without comfort on my backside and the skin beneath my chains had begun to bleed. Freedom taunted me beyond the open door—if anyone could truly be free in Great Albion—the ruddy light of forges reflecting on a perpetually black sky of smoke and soot. My suit of clothes and inner garments, ruined by the noxious waters of the canal, hung on a peg just out of reach. Glass-lensed gas masks hung alongside them; masks for use when the level of carbons from the coal fires was too high and lenses to protect the eyes from hot falling ash.
Faversham sat me up again. I watched as he returned to his grisly task.
Priory Hull, he’d said. I knew the name but could not place it (from a child’s poem?), something lost in dream and memory.
I pointed my unshaven chin to photographs on the shop wall, dozens of them, all the while calculating any possible avenue of escape. Each had a militaristic look about it: aerostats and gun dirigibles, a young man in uniform before the flag of Great Albion, a fleet of airships above and beyond. The same man, strapped into a brass-and-leather flight harness, helmet tucked under his arm; another portrait in wedding attire, a storybook bride adorned in lace at his side. Honoria? “So who’s the exemplar of patriotic virtue?”
“He was my son. Lieutenant Thomas Averly Faversham. Royal Flying Corps. Has a proud ring, don’t you think? I never tire of saying it. Nothing is more important than family.”
Only then did I see the newspaper clippings from the Times and Bromwicham Mail, faded gray headlines that whispered from a past long dead:
Tragedy in the Skies.
West Mercia Family Mourns Horrific Loss.
“The newsmen and penny-dreadful scribblers went away once the commotion waned,” he continued. “No one remembers Averly anymore.”
“Perhaps they stopped coming round because of your cheery hospitality. I don’t need to be chained.”
Faversham opened his mouth as if to answer but coughed violently into a kerchief instead, loud and wet and long.
“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.
“Coal lung. Too many years crawling through the mines to check on my blessed Machines.”
“There are Machines to check on other Machines, old man. You should know better.”
He shrugged. “I love the nuts and bolts of things. Every man has his passion.”
“And what was Averly’s then?”
“He wanted to be a hero.”
I didn’t know what to make of the highly personal nature of Faversham’s confession—his lost son, his ruined health—nor that his countenance betrayed nary an emotion as he pulled what looked like a weasel from its cage, its fur darkened all the more with a dusting of black soot, and carried the creature to the chopping block. Rather, a detached inevitability seemed to govern his movements and mental state.
Perhaps he was simply looking for the proper words.
“Averly was serving aboard the Pax Britannica,” he finally said; “awaiting his next deployment to the Outer Spheres. An object appeared in the sky above Bromwicham, dropping with incredible haste. It could have been a felled observation balloon or, at worst, yet another of those dratted Martian dreadnaughts come to vex us again.”
Inexplicably, the foreign presence that burdened my will eased its hold the deeper Faversham lost himself in thought.
“Averly soared upward to investigate, wings unfurled like an avenging angel, like Icarus himself off to touch the great lamp of the Sun. There was a flash—you could see it for miles—then both vanished from telescopic reconnaissance. Neither was found nor seen again.”
In a thrice, the presence in my mind was gone altogether.
I leapt, barreling into Faversham while I was still able, and wrapped the chains that bound my wrists round his neck. I pulled backward with all my weight. “Let me go, you barmy old shit! Let—!”
Blinding, incandescent pain. My every nerve aflame, my brain an arcing mass of white-hot electricks. The presence had returned with a vengeance, ripping into my psyche with steel-jacketed fury. It tore away every protective layer, exposed every secret, every charade, every deception stripped bare and vulnerable. Marcel. My name is Marcel. I clung to the falsehood as if it were gospel. My name is Marcel....
The presence released me. I stumbled against a heap of copper and bronze and slid to the ground, stupefied, every pore slick with perspiration.
Faversham steadied himself against the sideboard and wiped his forehead, the color drained from his ancient face. “God in Heaven, I hate doing that.” He coughed again, then cleared his bruised throat and spat.
My lungs were starved for breath. “You’re an ensorcellor,” I gasped, as if such a thing could truly exist in this Modern Age.
“No, I’m not. Just an old man doing the best he’s able for those in his care. I dropped my vigilance and for that I truly apologize. But I had to shake you, had to see what was hidden behind this mask you wear, Barnaby.”
The perspiration tricking down my sides turned ice cold.
“Marcel,” I said. “My name is Marcel.”
Faversham shook his head and looked at me with eyes like scrying-globes. “The name with which you were christened is Drum,” he said with utter conviction. “Barnaby Drum. You were born in a ward long abandoned because of the coal fire burning deep in the earth beneath it. Your father worked the mines and forced you to do the same, no older than the tender age of five.”
The old man had stripped my mind clean, and visions of the past flowed freely with nothing to keep them in check. Ragged children compelled to labor in tunnels too narrow and low for grown men; lethal clouds of carbonous gases swirling through the dark chambers like the ash that fell above. All to sate the Great Machines’ appetite for coal and steel, the reality beneath the gilded façade that sustained Her Eternal Majesty’s empire of steam and gears.
“No,” I said, maintaining my composure. “You’re wrong.”
“Twelve years on and your father long dead from drink, you were plucked from the soot by Marcel Saint-Jean. In you he saw a work of art in the ruff. But servicing him in and out of bed was not enough, fagging about to suit his fancy, assisting in his photographic endeavors. You knew that he represented your best opportunity to jump the armillary rails of Earth and escape once and for all, to flee this dark World forever. A liberal dose of arsenic, a body consigned to the coal fires, an accent and manner cultivated to be convincingly neutral. Barnaby Drum became Marcel Saint-Jean, your mentor’s guise worn as your own.”
“We all wear masks,” the real Marcel would whisper between deep coital thrusts. “Choose yours wisely, Barnaby, and never let it go.”
“You’re talking bollocks,” I spat at Faversham. “My friend in Whitehall, he’ll come for me—”
“A friend to whom? You met him at a gala to which Barnaby was not invited, and you allowed him to ravish you in the cloakroom with Marcel’s fashionable black trousers pulled down round your knees. Likely he doesn’t remember either of your names at all.”
There was no point in further denial. My every memory was open to him like a well-read ledger, but I was not yet ready to give up the ghost. “Why are you telling me this?”
Faversham smiled a sad smile and tapped the side of his bearded head. “I had to know who you really are, Barnaby, what you would leave behind. Because something even more terrible happened the day Averly fell from the sky.”
“He came home.”
Honoria’s screams and cackles resounded across the lane as factory sirens began to wail—the air had once again turned foul with carbons—and true terror sunk its icy nails into my heart.
Faversham readied himself with gas mask and a coachman’s hat implanted with an electrick lamp, then gathered the dead animals into a canvas sack and lugged them outside. He returned and buckled a mask to my own face. I tried to twist away but in vain; Faversham’s will had once again commandeered my own.
“Ramses, attend,” he said, his voice a metallic echo inside the mask.
The heap of copper and bronze behind me rumbled, lurched, and rose to its feet. One of Faversham’s automatons, here all the while. To say the Machine was man-like only meant it had two arms and legs. No face to speak of, just a cluster of dark glass lenses that reflected my chained and naked person as I, in desperation, tried to clamber away like a cornered animal. It lifted me easily, thin plumes of steam venting from its massive joints, and carried me out the shop door.
I was lowered into the back of a wagon next to the sack of carcasses. Faversham climbed aboard, the conveyance swaying under his weight.
“To the springhouse, Ramses. You know the way.”
The hulking apparatus obeyed, taking hold of the steering posts that would normally have been hitched to a team of horses, and set out with heavy steps, clouds of soot kicked up by its motorized feet.
The factory town of Priory Hull was blanketed in a fog of falling ash. Threads of steam hovered like phantoms above cracks in its narrow brick lanes, and streetlamps glowed amber in the endless gloom. Passersby laden in mining gear paid us no heed, as if there was nothing at all uncommon at the sight of our motley company, while clockwork shapes in the sky above followed our progress, mechanically airborne on spring-driven wings. Crows. Why were there always crows....
The road out of town wound through hills and countryside ruined by unchecked mechanization. The lamp in Faversham’s hat illuminated the way when needed, his great bronze automaton avoiding sinkholes and fissures where the mine shafts below had collapsed. This is where the Machines were born, the Black Country. Not their cold and methodical Minds, of course—Lord Babbage would bear eternal blame for that—but their limitless form and function, their cogs and ratchets and mechanical entrails. It was here they arose, the Machines and the clockwork Gods they engendered, in a revolution of industry that had remade the World.
Faversham was lost in thought despite the bumps and jostles while the Sun climbed ever higher along the arc of its rails, a gunmetal disc in the sullied clouds above. In time he cast his attention my way.
“It’s important that you understand the rest of Averly’s tale,” he said gravely; “what happened after he vanished.”
“I can barely contain my indifference,” I muttered. The old sod continued as if I hadn’t said a word.
“Averly dropped below telescopic view, as I have already mentioned, and came down in Baggeridge Wood. Yes, he survived the fall. He made his way home on foot. Honoria found him at our country house, bless her poor soul. Something unimaginable covered the top half of Averly’s body, viscous and pulsing like a sickly mass of jelly. She could see the shadows of his bones and organs inside. One of his arms was gone and a monstrous tentacle writhed about in its place. He called to Honoria in a voice no longer his own, reached to her with that inhuman appendage, begging for her help, but she ran. She ran, her mind driven to madness before she reached my door.”
I was dumbfounded. “And I’m expected to believe this because—?”
“It doesn’t matter if you believe me or not, lad, as long as you do believe your eyes.” He turned to face the road ahead.
At last we came to rest at the cottage of what had once been a small orchard overlooking the hellish factories below, its trees barren and leeched of all color. The cottage itself was in shambles, the orchard devoid of native fauna or birds of any kind; even the crows that stalked us from Priory Hull kept their distance, roosting in the dead trees, watching through cold industrial lenses instead of eyes but coming no closer.
A notch cut into the hillside accommodated the springhouse. It was a simple structure of timbers and stacked stone, heavy with moss and vines.
At Faversham’s direction the automaton placed me on the sooty path in front of the building. Inside the dank space I could make out a low circular wall that enclosed the source of the spring. I was surprised to see that the well was still functional. Virtually all of the natural water sources in the Black Country had dried up long before in the heat of the underground fires.
Faversham carried the sack of dead animals slung over his shoulder—reinforcing the image of a goggled and masked Father Christmas—and set it down before me. He leaned back against the stacked stone, looking older and more haggard in the dirty gray light.
“Barnaby Drum left no one behind in the steelworks and colleries,” he said, “and Marcel Saint-Jean was a recluse known intimately to very few. Neither of you had an honest purpose in this World beyond your overwhelming desire to flee it. The sad truth is, Barnaby, for all your fanciful dreams, you could vanish today and no one would be the wiser.”
“That’s been my plan from the first!” I said. “Surely if you can hear my thoughts you know the fact of it. Barnaby Drum cannot book passage without selling his future to indentured servitude, but Marcel Saint-Jean has the coin and papers to go where he pleases. He can cross the Channel to the Great Mirror in Armorica, far from Albion’s reach, and leave this wretched orb forever.” The old man turned away. “But now to my great amazement and inconvenience, I find myself bound and naked and at the mercy of a bloody madman who likes to behead things and poke about in people’s bloody brains!”
If Faversham was listening to my frenzied bombast he offered no evidence of it. One by one, he removed the animals from his canvas sack and piled them inside the springhouse. I heard a splash of water and then another, much louder; a wet echoing clatter against heavy stone.
Something was in the well.
It surfaced in a spray of warm droplets and muck, uncoiling before us like a nightmarish serpent. Faversham had referred to the appendage as a “tentacle”, but this atrocity was nothing like the tactile extremities possessed by squid or cuttlefish. It was translucent and wormed throughout with the color of bile, with pus oozing from scabs and barbed thorns too sickening to contemplate. It wrapped itself round the carcasses and pierced them with its thorns. The barbs were hollow. They siphoned away the nutrients and fluids still present, leaving pale white masses of meat drained of all color, like something that had been chewed too long and spat out. Then, with the agility of a metal-mesh whip, the tentacle gathered the depleted remains into its coils and slid back down the well.
The clockwork crows in the trees above us cawed and roared and rattled their metal wings as if in demented applause. The automaton stood motionless as a statue.
I could not move, could not look away, nor could I whimper even the faintest of sounds, my terror was so great. At last Faversham turned to face me. His eyes behind the goggles’ glass lenses were brimming with tears.
“I’m dying, lad,” he said, his head oddly twitching to one side. “The coal lung has claimed me at last and I can no longer care for my boy. But neither he nor his dear bride must be left unattended. Nothing is more important than family.”
And Barnaby Drum must atone for his sins, the presence in my mind said.
Faversham’s head wrenched again, more pronounced now. He was in pain, clearly, his breathing suddenly labored. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t banish the sight of that grievous appendage from my eyes.
“We’re called into this World to attend others, lad. ‘Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.’”
His head reared and jerked to the side once again, so violently that I heard the bones in his neck snap. He looked at me one last time as his ear erupted in a gush of blood and viscera, a ghastly abomination crawling from the cavity on tiny segmented legs. It paused as if testing the foul air, then scuttled away as Faversham blacked out from the pain.
“Faversham!” I cried. “God in Heaven. Faversham!”
With a great splash the tentacle whipped upward again and coiled around Faversham before he could fall, lancing his body with its hollow barbed thorns. The thing that had once been Thomas Averly Faversham fed on its father. It drained my captor of life and essence, then pulled the spent form with it into the well and the watery end that awaited.
Pin-pricks stabbed me in the ankle, then the shin....
The creature that had burst from Faversham’s ear was crawling up my leg. I tried to kick it off, furiously, but the chains that bound my ankles and wrists restrained my movement, and the creature’s razor claws dug in with each step. The thing was scabbed over and of the same sickly cast as the tentacle—Averly’s tentacle—as if condensed from the same vile elements. The tip of its spiked tail dripped a clear liquid.
Through the dark tangle affixed to my pubis it climbed, over my stomach and heaving chest, my wretched breath thunderous in the confines of the gas mask. Up my neck, over the mask’s buckle and straps, into my ear. Burrowing into my ear....
I awoke with no memory of pain, no memory of discomfort at all. I lay naked as a newborn on the sooty path before the springhouse, the great automaton Ramses standing watch, backlit by the gray disc of the Sun. Dried blood caked the side of my face.
Gingerly, I unsnarled my knot of chains and sat upright. Without a thought I knew the combination to their locks and opened them easily, free at last. A disconcerting impulse to flee suddenly came over me, to run away from the masks and false lives to which I’d somehow been connected, but just as quickly the feeling disappeared. How strange it seemed now.
A calm clarity enveloped me. All should have been quiet, but nothing would ever be quiet again. I heard the plaintive susurrus of minds in the village below, too numerous to count. I heard dear Honoria and the innocence that remained among the shards of her broken intellect. And Averly, poor Averly, bless his tortured soul. No intellect at all, not anymore, just the elemental need to survive. He’d be hungry again before long. Best I saw to it. Boiler No. 3 in the workshop still needed its slip valve replaced as well, and a new batch of sedative was waiting to be brewed. Motherwort, certainly, perhaps with a touch of lavender or skullcap. Honoria liked that. The distilling of potions—an odd thing for a coalminer’s son to know. (A miner’s son.... Where had that come from?) No matter.
I looked down over the ironworks that clung to the side of their burning hill, chimneys belching fire and corruption into the melancholy air while rivers flowed red with molten slag.
The nursery rhyme that had haunted my every dream since childhood suddenly came to mind, as if I’d known the words all along; the poem and the World it described:
When Satan stood on Priory Hull
And far around him gazed,
I never more shall feel, he said,
At Hell’s fierce flames amazed.
Silly things to fret about when there was so much work to be done. There was nothing more important than family. I looked up at my towering clockwork companion.
“Ramses, attend,” I said.