The imagination, a down-at-heel sage once said to me, is the only tool we need to get inside another’s head.
He was drunk, half out of his own head on cheap communion wine, and though I remarked that an axe wielded by a strong arm was as equal to the task, he maintained that the mind capable of abstract thought was a weapon still to be bested. To prove his point, he sweet-talked himself into sharing my bed for the night. But then, I’ve always been susceptible to men with a little something extra between their ears.
Many years later I found myself regretting not having paid more attention to what he had said. I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been, with a man my mother—bless her soul—would have warned me to stay away from, committing a crime that only the empty or addled of head would even contemplate. It was a cold, heartless night - so inhospitable that pleasure was the only true principle governing the actions of girls who found themselves out in it. And if later that night I shed any tears, it was simply because I had ignored my sisters’ better judgement.
I shouldn’t have been standing there. Where? Thirty feet above the ground, with my legs splayed and my bare feet gripping the rough clay tiles of a workshop roof on the edge of Chemytown. With the wind whispering around my legs and ruffling my skirt whilst a member of the city’s finest idly passed by on the pavement below.
If the man had taken a moment to look up instead of examining his flat feet, he’d have seen a sight to stop him in his tracks. But he kept his head down as he morosely completed his beat; not for the first time, I wondered why it is that they call themselves the watch. I remained rooted to the spot. My partner in crime—one Mercury Jones, five feet six inches of fabulous intellect trapped inside a Toulouse-Lautrec physique—was clinging to a straining metal gutter for dear life. His knuckles were white and his arms shook with the effort of defying gravity’s relentless tug on his little body; his face was a mask of concentration and fear. Of limited stature, he doesn’t like heights at the best of times, so hanging from a rusty strip of metal thirty feet above a Lebensraum street, in a bone-chilling December wind, just before the chimes of midnight, wasn’t his idea of fun. However, he had no one but himself to blame.
I could see that the wind and the cold, not to mention the strain of keeping his grip, were taking their toll on those little arms and it seemed to me that he too was having second thoughts about the wisdom of this nocturnal foray. Good. The way I saw it, I should have been settled in the Silver Cage with a jug of iced gin in one hand and a fan of cards in the other, fleecing some out-of-towner for all he was worth. The action was hot in the Cage whatever the weather; the only threats in the gambling hall were to a fat purse; and wearing a knee-length brown leather dress with a scooped neck was a boon for an evening instead of sheer folly. Mercury looked at me pleadingly, but I was still annoyed with him for bringing me here. I turned away, rubbing some warmth back into my goose bumps.
Lebensraum glittered under the dark sky. From my vantage, her tall towers and bulbous domes, squat warehouses and jumbled slate roofs looked fearful and grotesque, as if I had imagined them. To the south, Chemytown chain-smoked fumes into the sky, as if the night were not already black enough; by the warmth of their roaring furnaces the alchemists no doubt secretly plotted against one another. To the west Galleon beckoned, where, under one of those roofs, the charms of the Cage welcomed pleasure-seekers. The moon bathed the city in its chill silver light and the wind blew from the west, carrying with it the sour odour of Babble, the beggar settlement, from beyond the city walls. People had bolted their shutters and doors, everyone was staying in or holing up in a coffee house or drinking den for the evening; this was not a night for thieves to be abroad.
And yet, there we were. Standing on—or hanging from—the roof of a workshop at the bottom of Glove Street. The watchman at last turned the corner and vanished from my sight. My arms and legs were stiff with cold, but they moved quickly enough when Mercury’s grasp suddenly failed him. I fell to my knees and hurled myself forwards - over the edge. My left hand hooked a sleeve and clamped around a frail wrist whilst my legs clung on to the undulating ridges and grooves of the tiles, scraping my toes and knees but somehow arresting my fall. Mercury was breathing deeply, and his face - eyes closed, teeth clenched, forehead furrowed - was that of a man anticipating the touch of death. With my free hand I was able to push myself up onto one knee, and then I raised the little man up onto the roof; I let him go and he rolled himself into a trembling ball. While he pulled himself together, I decided to take a look around.
The workshop—whose drainpipe we had both just climbed up—was an old building with a second storey recently grafted on top. The roof was pan-tiled and almost horizontal across its middle, falling away on all four sides as you approached the edge. The eves were narrow, which had allowed us to gain access to the guttering. There were four skylights in the centre that looked down on the workshop below.
‘This is worse than stupid,’ I said to Mercury when he joined me. ‘Once we’ve got in, how do we get back out?’
‘Angel, Angel,’ he said, shakily raising his hands, ‘the solution will present itself to us the moment we require it. Have patience.’
I glared at him, but the little man ignored me. He took his glasses off and polished them with a cloth that he pulled from his sleeve. Unlike me he was dressed for the evening’s work—black boots, trousers and jacket, with a small knapsack on his shoulders. His cropped black hair gave him a military bearing, but his pale, soft face and intelligent eyes gave the lie to that impression.
‘It’s perfectly simple. We find the alloy and we leave. The workshop is empty so we will have no further problems.’
‘Is that what the Nestorians told you? They’re hardly reliable, you know.’
‘I’m sorry it had to be tonight. It was blind chance that the workshop was shutting early today—otherwise I’d have warned you. I’ll admit it seems rushed, but they’re paying us well—it’s worth it, Angel.’
I rubbed my scratched knees doubtfully.
‘I need your strength, Angel. We work well together. The little guy and the tall girl; there are no two jems in Lebensraum to touch us.’ He smiled and I brushed a stray strand of hair from my face.
‘And what about the workshop’s owners? The Phlogiston are bound to suspect one of the other guilds. If they are given our names, they’ll be after our blood.’
‘I was careful. The Nestorians don’t know who is working for them. The identity of the perpetrators will never be known.’ His eyes twinkled; this clearly amused him, but I couldn’t see the joke.
‘You know the Phlogiston have spies everywhere. They’re virtually at war with every guild in Chemytown and their membership is growing. This is not a good time to work for the competition.’ His recklessness had so annoyed me that I even threw in some gossip I’d picked up. ‘I’ve heard that they’ve got a member on the Council of Seven.’
‘I told you that.’
‘Then you should know that ripping off the Phlogiston is near suicide. Here’s something else you once told me: never cross an alchemist.’
He looked pained. ‘Can we get on? It’s cold up here.’
From his knapsack, Mercury took out two small knives and worked on removing the screws that secured one of the skylights. His hands were steady as he worked and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the speed with which he had recovered from his ordeal. In moments he had removed the metal frame that held the skylight in place and the workshop was breached. He uncoiled a length of thin rope tied around his waist and secured it to the metal frame with a knot, dropping the end into the workshop. We both looked down into the darkness. Beneath us lay the ghostly outlines of objects caught in the moonlight, but everything was vague and indeterminate.
‘After you,’ said Mercury.
The floor was made of timber and the painful pricks in the soles of my feet told me that it hadn’t been swept recently. Though my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, the clutter I had seen from the roof was no less confusing from where I now stood. I could see work surfaces strewn with tools and instruments, coils of wire and curved sheets of metal. Large wooden crates were stacked in the corner opposite the stairs that led to the ground floor. I hoped Mercury was sure of what he was looking for, because I didn’t rate our chances of finding anything worth stealing among this paraphernalia.
Guessing that any Phlogiston establishment would be plumbed for gas, I went in search of a burner. I stepped carefully between the workbenches, painfully discovering that boxes of nails and screws were stacked on the floor. On the benches themselves were vices and clamps that held paired rods of metal that had been bolted together to make levers. Some of these arrangements I could see—even in the moonlight—were very elaborate, with cogs, springs and counter levers attached to the skeletal rods. Elsewhere I saw what appeared to be metal casing with which to enclose the mechanisms. This workshop was Mercury’s idea of heaven and—not for the first time that evening—I wondered if this wasn’t some elaborate ploy of his to take a sly gander at someone else’s research. I could hear him behind me, making heavy work of lowering himself down the rope, and I cursed him for bringing me here. It was clear that there was something he wasn’t telling me about this workshop. The Phlogiston weren’t mechanics and I was sure clockwork instruments like these were on their manifesto of scientific apocrypha.
Nearing the tall crates, I almost came to a sudden halt. Straight ahead of me, standing between two wooden stacks, was a motionless figure. The moonlight reflecting off his bald forehead had given him away. He was facing me so he must have seen me and I was in no doubt that he was waiting for me to get close enough before he pounced. I silently cursed Mercury for not doubting the word of the Nestorians. I glanced at the workbench to my left and then forced myself to continue walking, hoping that the watcher had not noticed my eyes settling on him. There were less than a dozen steps before I would be on top of him. I cast around for a weapon, but the benches at this end of the workshop were clear. The watcher remained stock still, obviously intending to tackle me up close. But I was prepared for him: I balled my fists.
From behind, a voice whispered in my ear: ‘I shouldn’t, you might hurt yourself.’
I dropped to the floor, spinning on my heel and cutting upwards with both fists. But Mercury had anticipated me—the little man had stepped back unharmed and was grinning at me like a fool. ‘It’s a construct,’ he said. ‘Quite harmless whilst deactivated—though its metal skin would bruise even your hands, Angel.’ He waved his hands in front of the silent figure’s face. Now I could see that it had only a crude approximation of human features. The eye sockets were too large and deep, and they were inset with crystal. Its mouth and nose were also too large and seemed to serve no purpose—perhaps they were purely decorative, more for my benefit than its own. I felt as though I was looking at some monstrous cousin of the human race, a Neanderthal that should have been extinct, but had been somehow resurrected in durable metal.
‘What do the Phlogiston want with mannequins?’
Mercury had found a burner and was looking for a gas tube and an outlet. ‘It’s a construct. A mechanical mannequin, if you like. The tailor’s guild spent a vast sum of money several years ago to develop clockwork dummies.’
‘I remember. They weren’t very popular.’
‘Of course. The springs would run down too quickly. The mass of the gears, levers and other metal components was too large for the winding mechanism to cope with, so they kept breaking down.’
‘And there was I thinking that it was because customers found the jerky movements and unnatural poses too disturbing. They never sold a stitch.’
Mercury had at last found a rubber tube and a gas valve. He patted his pockets, looking for matches. ‘The idea caught on in Chemytown. I was told by an excitable mathematician that they had used ticker tape and punch cards to give later models rudimentary programming, allowing the constructs to perform simple duties. Though the problem of limited endurance persisted.’
I examined the face of my phantom foe. He didn’t look so tough now that I knew his ancestors modelled clothes. His skin might have been metal and his bones steel rods, but I was living, breathing, thinking flesh and blood. He wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Behind me, I heard the hiss of gas escaping and then the striking of a match. A scattered light bathed the room in butane’s soft radiance. The crystal orbs were suddenly alive, reflecting the flame, but I also saw my own pale eyes trapped in there. The dead eyes were strange windows, but to what? I heard a drawn out click—as if time had slowed—and I could have sworn that for a second one of the eyes darkened, that it had winked at me.
I never got the chance to ask Mercury why it should do that. I was falling backwards, my arms pinned to my sides, both of them burning with pain. I crashed down onto the floor with the construct on top of me. Its terrifying weight knocked all the breath out of me and I lay dazed and gasping. I heard the clicking and whirring of mechanisms inside the casing of the construct—like thousands of buzzing insects. It was alive! I was pinned to the ground, and for a second I thought that perhaps it had stopped, wound itself down like the tailors’ clockwork mannequins.
I felt rather than heard the gears in the arms shift and turn. The arms already held me in an unbreakable bear hug, but now they squeezed even tighter, determined to crush the life out of me. Before I could even recover my breath, it was being pressed out of my lungs. My elbows dug further into my ribs under the pressure, and I felt a burning pain in my chest. I tried to kick my legs, to knock it off me, but it did no good. I couldn’t move.
All I could do was stare into those dark, dead orbs, seeing my own fearful eyes looking back at me, alien and uncaring. In moments the blackness of unconsciousness would mercifully release me from even that horror.
It jerked suddenly and violently, as if it had a fit. The mechanisms inside were silenced and still. Moments later—or maybe it was an eternity—I felt myself pulled out from under the machine and I sucked raggedly at the dusty air.
The water was cold, stale and tasteless. The kind you get in laboratories and health spas with all the minerals and impurities distilled out. But I swallowed it gratefully, spilling a mouthful down my front, the chill splash bringing me refreshingly back to life.
Mercury sat back, putting the beaker down. He said nothing, instead examining my arms. They both had deep crescent-shaped cuts across the upper arm, but the bleeding, though profuse, had been short lived. He found some muslin and used it as a crude but effective bandage. My ribs were certainly bruised and since I found it painful to breathe let alone move, I supposed that more than a couple were broken.
He had propped me up against a work bench alongside my fallen attacker. The light from the burner’s flame cast a soft, comforting glow over this devil’s workshop.
Mercury turned his attention from me to the construct. It lay face down on the floor, supported by its two arms and looking as though it had paused whilst doing press ups. Protruding from its back I noticed the brown leather handle of one of Mercury’s knives.
‘You stabbed it?’ The effort of speaking sent me into a fit of coughing; it was agony.
Ignoring me, he worked his other knife along the casing near the blade stuck into the small of its back. He wiggled it slightly from several different angles until a panel clicked open. He smiled. ‘The trick was finding the right place to puncture it. They’re almost unstoppable otherwise.’
Wincing with pain, I leant forward. He had exposed the innards of the machine. There, inside, were the springs, gears, levers and wires that littered the work tables ingeniously arranged together to form its complicated workings. Each blind individual part intricately and harmoniously combined with the others to effect the movement of the metal man. Mercury’s finger pointed me to a strip of white tape with dozens of tiny square holes punched in it, running the length of the opening. Mercury’s knife punctured the skin in its path.
‘You broke the mechanism with that little knife.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s only jammed. The construct is waiting for its next instruction from the tape. Like all good analogue systems, you only get something out when you put something in, and this one, whilst my knife remains where it is, isn’t getting any input.’
He peered at it some more. ‘What I don’t understand is what gave it such strength.’
‘Mercury, we don’t have time for this. Get the alloy and then we’ve got to leave.’ My head was swimming and I was finding it difficult to focus my thoughts. How much blood had I lost? I wondered—which just goes to show my state of mind at the time—whether this was how Mercury felt all the time, letting every stray thought distract him, leading him on new seas of thought. I think I passed out for a while, because I noticed that Mercury was no longer beside me. I wanted to call out to him but I was afraid that someone might hear me. I worried that our light might be noticed by that inattentive watchman on his rounds.
Then his face appeared in front of me; it looked far away, but it must have been inches from my own. He was agitated. ‘There’s something not right about this workshop,’ he said, almost to himself. I was having trouble paying attention to what he was saying.
‘We’ve got to leave,’ I said, trying to rise.
He shook his head. ‘There are more constructs in those crates. And there are parts for the assembly of many more.’ His glasses glinted in the gas light, lending his eyes the flame of fanaticism.
‘Get the alloy …' I said through clenched teeth.
‘I think I’ve found it, but that’s not all. I think I know why the Phlogiston have developed it.’
‘It’s none of our business.’ I tasted blood in my mouth.
He held up a strip of bluish metal that was coiled into a disk the size of a small plate. It must have been heavy because he was holding it in both hands. ‘According to the Nestorians, this alloy has many unique qualities—the two which interest the Phlogiston, though, are its strength and rigidity.’
I closed my eyes and, pushing down on my hands, I managed to raise myself to a crouch, leaning against the bench. At the other end of the workshop, concealed in the shadows, was the rope hanging from the skylight, but there was no way that I was getting out the way we had come in.
‘I can see why the Nestorians might want it, but the Phlogiston …'
‘I’m leaving with or without you.’ I ran my tongue around my gums and spat on the floor, a dark dollop of blood and saliva.
He looked at me, finally comprehending. Then he put his finger to his lips. I heard it this time, too. Voices. Somewhere downstairs a door opened and then banged closed, and I distinctly heard two men arguing as they mounted the stairs.
I hunkered down deeper against the crate, trying to make myself smaller. Where was Mercury? After extinguishing the burner, he had helped me over to the shelter of the crates and then he had vanished. There was a dull ache at the back of my head and I was finding it difficult to focus my eyes.
‘You see to the lights, I’ll check everything is ready.’ The voice was thin and reedy, commanding but without authority. Through an opening between two of the crates I could see two figures—both fat and robed—pass in front of a window. One approached me, the other disappeared from my sight.
‘Why, it’s cold in here tonight,’ said the other, from the far end of the workshop. His voice was nasal and whining. There was a flash and then the soft, warm glow of gas light.
‘Asquinol, look here,’ said the first voice, just beyond the crate. ‘How did this happen?’
‘Ruberic, first you ask me to see to the lights, now you call me over there; I wish you’d make up your mind.’
‘It was upright when I left. It must have fallen over. We can’t leave it like this. Help me get it back in position, will you. This wouldn’t make a terribly good first impression.’
They struggled to raise the fallen construct off the ground, making several attempts before they succeeded. Having felt its weight, I sympathised with their efforts.
‘There is oil on the floor. Get a cloth and clean it, will you.’
The raised construct stood against the crate that I sat behind and I tried to shrink as Ruberic fussed over it, ensuring that it was undamaged from its fall. Mercifully for me, he didn’t check its rear side or notice the knife.
‘Okay, that will do. No more lights. We wouldn’t want the watch to come knocking on our door tonight of all nights, and I don’t want our brother to be distracted by the clutter. We must focus his mind on the matter at hand.’
I hoped Mercury had hidden himself in the shadows of the workshop. If we were discovered the consequences would be dire. The Phlogiston do not tolerate interference in their activities and they have their own ‘justice’ for those offenders who come to their attention; we would almost certainly suffer the highest penalty.
‘Brother, we are doing the right thing, aren’t we?’
‘My dear Asquinol, do not worry yourself. Once Brother Merimee understands the power of what we have to show him, he will come round to our way of thinking.’
‘Yes, but we could be expelled. I would hate to leave the workshop.’
‘So would I, my brother, so would I. Have faith.’
‘I do, but it says in the manual of apocrypha that clockwork is one of Father Newton’s errors, coming as it does between the blasphemy of the diffracting prism and the untruths of calculus. It is heresy.’ His voice dropped to a whisper. ‘They call it science.’
‘Calm yourself. We have taken back this much-neglected field from the realm of the scientists. With our alloy we help our brothers in their interpretation of the great mystery. We will lead them boldly into the darkness. Remember we are giving him an alloy. That is what we have produced, as instructed. The property that we shall show him was discovered quite by accident.’
‘What if he objects to your suggestion?’
’ ”Our” suggestion, brother. If he objects, we shall throw ourselves on his mercy and beg forgiveness for our error. But do not think of that, for I know Brother Merimee. He will understand our proposal. He will see its true worth. Our names will become legend, Asquinol, mark my words.’
There was a rapping on the door downstairs.
‘Stay here,’ said Ruberic. ‘And don’t worry.’ He trotted down the stairs, leaving fat Brother Asquinol pacing back and forth like a condemned man awaiting sentence.
In public the brotherhood disdain to speak, but in private - when their suspicions are quietened - they talk to one another like born orators; preachers converting the faithful. And they talk long and they talk hard. I realised - too late - that I had gone into shock; everything seemed distant and unimportant, like it was happening to someone else. The voices, the pain in my arms and chest, all belonged to a place I didn’t inhabit. I had retreated into my own internal world and what was outside of this space was nothing to do with me. Periodically a wave of nausea would wash over me and reality would come crashing back, and with a shiver I was reminded of who and where I was, and the trouble I was in.
Merimee had brought three brothers along with him, acolytes who said nothing and stood near their leader’s side. But they were not there to protect him. Merimee used them to intimidate Asquinol and Ruberic. Fear is what motivates the Phlogiston—fear of rivals, failure, each other—it explains the total control they have over their members and their rise to power in Chemytown.
Merimee was leaning over a workbench, his hood thrown back, revealing the long, snaky curls of his brown hair. Despite the gloom in the workshop he wore black-lensed round glasses—I’d heard it said that he had never been seen without them. I’d also heard that beneath them his eyes were blinded by white cataracts, or, alternatively, that they were inky black like those of a seal—which goes to show that rumour gives not a fig for consistency.
‘Copper, aluminium and platinum,’ he said without interest.
‘With a layer of steel added in the fourth folding,’ added Asquinol quickly.
‘A composite and an alloy. It gives it the strength required, otherwise the metal ruptures when stressed,’ said Ruberic.
Merimee stepped back and was blocked from my sight by the construct. ‘You didn’t invite me down here this late at night to show me this metal. What can it do?’
Asquinol spluttered, but Ruberic interrupted him. ‘You see all, brother. We thought you should know immediately our tests were complete. We have heard the rumours that we are soon to consolidate our position in Chemytown; our discovery may serve that end.’
‘I see.’ Merimee spoke slowly. Even in my own distracted state I could tell that Ruberic had overplayed his hand. ‘You will tell me later how you came by this information; but first, please tell me how it is that you believe your alloy will aid our struggles, brother.’
Their conversation slid away from me. I found it hard to pay attention to what they were saying. I may even have passed out again. The next thing I can remember is thinking that I could smell gas and being startled by the whir of gears in motion, the sound of a thousand little mechanisms working together. I thought the construct in front of me had come alive again, but no. Far down the workshop, I saw another metal man lurching from one foot to the other at a speed I found barely credible—did I dream it? It followed Asquinol’s commands, turning to face him as he moved around it. It even navigated the benches with ease. I shivered to see it in action—unstoppable; its speed was as terrifying as the knowledge that you could not reason with it or turn it aside from its course.
‘You’re quite sure the alloy coil will provide power for an hour’s activity?’
‘At least, brother. We haven’t perfected it yet. Asquinol believes we can get more out of the machines. The simpler the commands the —’
‘And you really expect my brothers to work alongside these mindless, rational machines? You hijack the tools of science and you aim to use them to further our cause. The end is laudable, brothers, but the means? And when we have achieved those ends can we be sure that we will allow ourselves to give up these automaton? If they help us, can we justifiably say that we prevailed as alchemists when we used the tools of our enemies?’
‘Brother Merimee, is not the life of every alchemist sacred? Every week we hear of one of our brethren taken by the city watch, locked away from us, and prevented from carrying out his work. How many might we lose in the coming struggle? Forgive me, but I have heard the tales of our own brothers swelling the ranks of the Nestorians and other lesser guilds. There are those who say that we sometimes ask too much of them and they look to our less disciplined rivals. This new weapon will help us. It does not question its orders. It has no desires or intentions, only a program that we give it. It has no understanding of or concern for its own existence and it has one function only and that is to carry out our—your—orders. We can arm it like a bomb; secrete it in an enemy’s house as a simple servant awaiting our command; or send it into battle. It will kill our enemies and while it still functions it will not stop until the job is done. If that is blasphemy, then I stand accused.’
Ruberic may not have been silver tongued but he knew how to appeal to Merimee’s basest instincts.
‘I must think through the implications of what you suggest,’ said the sly alchemist.
I shook my head—I could still smell gas. We had to act soon. It wouldn’t be long before it was too late—if it wasn’t already. Merimee would quickly have a swarm of acolytes watching the workshop. Then we would be discovered and that would be the end of us as clearly and simply as if they had set one of their constructs to kill us.
The workshop lay at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Whenever I tried to move, there was a delay - a time lag - before I saw my tired limbs react. I shook my head, but the black walls edged closer, blocking out more of the workshop. Soon, I thought, I would be looking through a peephole into the world. The smell of gas was now pungent. It soaked into my pores and drenched every painful breath I took; I felt as though it would soon choke the life out of me. The alchemists remained oblivious to its reek. They could not smell it, having years ago destroyed their olfactory glands by inhaling the noxious vapours given off by their crucibles.
I could see Merimee examining the construct in front of me. From my hiding place, I could see that he was gripped by a fascination for it. His fingers fidgeted, stroking one another nervously. I wondered what he saw in those crystal eyes. What possibilities was he dreaming of and what bold new future did he now scheme? Then I realised that he could see nothing but his own black-tinted lenses reflected back at him. What else was there?
I willed my arm upwards. Slowly, ages later it seemed, it reacted. I forced it to reach out and, with an effort of will I didn’t know I had, I made my hand grip the handle of Mercury’s blade. It took me two attempts. My grip was feeble, that of an old woman, but I pulled with all my strength, forced my body to sink further into the floor, bringing its own weight to bear on the knife.
It slowly slid out. The construct buzzed like a thousand angry wasps trapped in a jar and it hurled itself forward into the protesting arms of Merimee, knocking him backwards and out of my sight. I could hardly move. His attendants rushed to help him. I still couldn’t stand up. They were coughing, unable to direct each other. I closed my eyes and I waited for Mercury.
There was a flash that I saw through my eyelids, a thunderclap as if heaven had opened its gates and my ears popped. I felt blistering heat surround me for a second. Glass shattered and someone screamed and was suddenly silenced.
Moments later, I felt myself lifted. I tried to stand, ignoring the pain. I opened my eyes—half of Mercury’s face was singed, his quartermasters’ haircut ruined. He smiled at me and took my arm. By the light of the flames jetting from the shattered lamp fittings and the dozen fires taking hold, I saw the devastation we had wrought. The acolytes lay in a bloody pile next to the shattered construct that lay over Merimee. Asquinol stared sightlessly at the ceiling, whilst Ruberic lay next to him with a metal rod protruding from the back of his head. I turned away as we edged down the stairs, no longer able to pretend that this was happening to someone else.
Outside, we managed to mingle with the crowds now gathering, defying the winter weather to gawp at the spectacle. I sat down in the street and buried my head in my hands. With each sob that shook my body I felt as though I was ruptured by some terrible force. Mercury took my hand, but I shook him off. Pain was all I wanted to feel: all the hate and fear and envy of those men in my cuts and bruises, in my cracked bones. But it was all lost. The metal men following ticker-tape instructions—as if tape could ever describe how to be in the world—never got the chance to make a choice of their own. All the plans and schemes of the alchemists, all their desires and needs, were now no more than fiery heat and soot rushing up into the chill winter sky whilst the pleasure-seekers laughed and trilled at the burning building, unaware of the human fuel driving the pyre.
And that’s when the words of my sage came back to me. When I finally understood what he had been getting at all those years ago.
Colin Brush lives in London where he earns a crust, not to mention the contempt of authors and the public at large, by writing words for the covers of books. He is one of the founders of Territories magazine (an illustrated London ‘quarterly’) and edited the first three issues between 1999 and 2000.
Copyright © 2001 by Colin Brush.