Winged Things
#1
Across the city, through the shady alleys of Echomire and the hovels of Badside, in the lattice of dust-clogged canals, in Smog Bend and the faded estates of Barrackham, in towers in Tar Wedge and the hostile concrete forest of Dog Fenn, came the whispered word. Someone’s paying for winged things.

Like a god, Lemuel breathed life into the message and made it fly. Small-time hoods heard it from drug dealers; costermongers told it to decayed gentlemen; doctors with dubious records got it from part-time bouncers.

Isaac’s request swept through the slums and rookeries. It travelled the alternative architecture thrown up in the human sumps.

Where putrefying houses loomed over courtyards, wooden walkways seemed to self-generate, linking them together, connecting them to the streets and mews where exhausted beasts of burden hauled third-rate goods up and down. Bridges jutted like splinted limbs across cess-trenches. Isaac’s message was couriered across the chaotic skyline in the paths of the feral cats.

Little expeditions of urban adventurers took the Sink Line train south to Fell Stop and ventured into Rudewood. They walked the deserted train tracks as long as they could, stepping from slat to wooden slat, passing the empty, nameless station in the outlands of the forest. The platforms had surrendered to green life. The tracks were thick with dandelions and foxgloves and wild roses that had shoved pugnacious through the railway gravel and, here and there, bent the tracks. Darkwood and banyan and evergreen crept up on the nervous invaders until they were surrounded, enclosed in a lush trap.

They went with sacks and catapults and big nets. They hauled their clumsy urban carcasses through the tangled roots and thick tree-shadows, yelling and tripping and breaking branches. They tried to pinpoint the birdsong that disoriented them, sounding on every side. They made faltering, useless analogies between the city and this alien realm: "If you can find your way through Dog Fenn," one might say fatuously and wrongly, "you can find your way anywhere." They would spin, look for and fail to find the militia tower of Vaudois Hill, out of sight behind the trees.

Some did not return.

Most came back scratching at burrs, stung and torn and angry, empty-handed. They might as well have hunted ghosts.

Occasionally they triumphed, and some frantic nightingale or Rudewood finch would be smothered with rough cloth to a chorus of ludicrously overblown cheers. Hornets buried their harpoons into their tormentors as they were swept into jars and pots. If they were lucky, their captors remembered to pierce airholes in the lids.

Many birds and more insects died. Some survived, to be taken into the dark city just beyond the trees.

In the city itself, children scaled walls to pull eggs from nests in decaying gutters. The caterpillars and maggots and cocoons they kept in matchboxes and bartered for string or chocolate were suddenly worth money.

There were accidents. A girl in pursuit of her neighbour’s racing pigeon fell from a roof, breaking her skull. An old man scrabbling for grubs was stung by bees until his heart stopped.

Rare birds and flying creatures were stolen. Some escaped. New predators and prey briefly joined the ecosystem in New Crobuzon’s skies.

Lemuel was good at his job. Some would only have plumbed the depths: not he. He made sure that Isaac’s desires were communicated uptown: Gidd, Canker Wedge, Mafaton and Nigh Sump, Ludmead and The Crow.

Clerks and doctors, lawyers and councillors, landlords and men and women of leisure…even the militia: Lemuel had often dealt (usually indirectly) with New Crobuzon’s respectable citizenry.

The main differences between them and the more desperate of the city’s inhabitants, in his experience, were the scale of money that interested them and the capacity they had not to get caught.

From the parlours and dining rooms there were cautious murmurings of interest.

In the heart of Parliament a debate was taking place about levels of business taxation. Mayor Rudgutter sat regally on his throne and nodded as his deputy, Montjohn Rescue, bellowed the Fat Sun party’s line, poking his finger aggressively across the enormous vaulted chamber. Rescue paused periodically to rearrange the thick scarf he wore around his neck, despite the warmth.

Councillors dozed quietly in a haze of dust motes.

Elsewhere in the vast building, through intricate corridors and passages that seemed designed to confuse, suited secretaries and messengers brushed busily past each other. Little tunnels and stairs of polished marble bristled from main thoroughfares. Many were unlit and unfrequented. An old man pulled a decrepit trolley along one such passage.

With the bustling noise of Parliament’s main entrance hall receding behind him, he dragged the trolley behind him up steep stairs. The corridor was barely wider than his trolley: it was a long, uncomfortable few minutes until he had reached the top. He stopped and wiped sweat from his forehead and around his mouth, then resumed his trudging plod along the ascending floor.

Ahead of him the air lightened, as sunlight tried to finger its way around a corner. He turned full into it, and his face was splashed with light and warmth. It gushed in from a skylight and, beyond that, from the windows of the doorless office at the corridor’s end.

"Morning, sir," croaked the old man as he reached the entrance.

"Good morning to you," came the reply from the man behind the desk.

The office was small and square, with narrow windows of smoked glass that looked out over Griss Fell and the arches of the Sud Line railway. One wall was flush with the looming dark bulk of Parliament’s main edifice. Set into that wall was a small sliding door. A pile of crates teetered in the corner.

The little room was one of the chambers that jutted from the main building, high over the surrounding city. The waters of the Gross Tar surged fifty feet below.

The delivery man unloaded his trolley of parcels and boxes in front of the pale middle-aged gentleman sitting before him.

"Not too many today, sir," he murmured, rubbing his moaning bones. He went slowly back the way he came, his trolley jouncing lightly behind him.

The clerk sifted through the bundles and rattled out brief notes on his typewriter. He made entries in an enormous ledger labelled "acquisitions," skimming the pages between sections and recording the date before each item. He opened up the packages and recorded the contents in a typewritten day-list and in the big book.

Militia reports: 17. Human knuckles: 3. Heliotypes (incriminating): 5.

He checked for which department each collection of items was bound, and he separated them into piles. When one pile had grown big enough, he put it in a crate and carried it over to the door in the wall. It was a four-by-four-foot square, which hissed with a rush of siphoned air and opened at the behest of some hidden piston when he tugged a lever. At its side was a little slot for a programme card.

Beyond it a wire cage dangled beneath Parliament’s obsidian skin, with one open side flush with the doorway. It was suspended above and on either side by chains that swung gently, rattled and disappeared into an eddying darkness that loomed off without remission in all directions that the clerk could see. The clerk lugged the crate up into the passageway and slid it along into the cage, which pitched a little under the weight.

He released a hatch which closed sharply, enclosing the crate and its contents with woven wire on all sides. Then he closed the sliding door, reached into his pocket and pulled out the thick programme cards he carried, each clearly marked: Militia; Intelligence; Exchequer, and so on. He slid the relevant card into the slot beside the door.

There would be a whirr. Tiny, sensitive pistons reacted to the pressure. Powered by steam driven up from the vast basement boilers, gentle little cogs rotated the length of the card. Where their spring-loaded teeth found sections cut from the thick board, they slotted neatly inside for a moment, and a minuscule switch was thrown further along the mechanism. When the wheels had completed their brief passage, the combination of on-off switches translated into binary instructions that raced in flows of steam and current along tubes and cables to hidden analytical engines.

The cage jerked free of its moorings and began a swift, swinging passage beneath the skin of Parliament. It would travel the hidden tunnels up or down or sideways or diagonally, changing direction, transferring jerkily to new chains, for five seconds, thirty seconds, two minutes or more, until it arrived, slamming into a bell to announce itself. Another sliding door opened before it, and the crate was pulled out into its destination. Far away, a new cage swung into place outside the clerk’s room.

The Acquisitions clerk worked quickly. He had logged and sent on almost all the assorted oddities before him within fifteen minutes. That was when he saw one of the few remaining parcels shaking oddly. He stopped scribbling and prodded it.

The stamps that adorned it declared it newly arrived from some merchant ship, the name obscured. Neatly printed across the front of the package was its destination: Dr. M. Barbile, Research and Development. The clerk heard a scraping. He hesitated a moment, then gingerly untied the string that bound it and peered inside.

Inside, in a nest of paper shavings that they nudged fitfully, were a mass of fat grubs bigger than his thumb.

The clerk recoiled and his eyes widened behind his glasses. The grubs were astonishingly coloured, beautiful dark reds and greens with the iridescence of peacock feathers. They floundered and wriggled to keep themselves on their stubby, sticky legs. Thick antennae poked from their heads, above a tiny mouthpiece. The hind part of their body was covered in multicoloured hairs that bristled and seemed coated in thin glue.

The fat little creatures undulated blindly.

The clerk saw, too late, a tattered invoice attached to the back of the box, half-destroyed in transit. Any invoiced package he was supposed to record as whatever was listed, and send on without opening.

Shit, he thought nervously. He unfolded the torn halves of the invoice. It was still quite legible.

SM caterpillars x 5. That was all.

The clerk sat back and pondered for a moment, watching the hairy little creatures crawl over each other and the paper they sat in.

Caterpillars? he thought, and grinned fleetingly, anxiously. He kept glancing at the corridor before him.

Rare caterpillars…Some foreign breed, he thought.

He remembered the whispers in the pub, the winks and nods. He’d heard a chap at his local offering money for such creatures…The rarer the better, he’d said…

The clerk’s face wrinkled suddenly in avarice and fear. His hand hovered over the box, darting back and forth inconclusively. He got up and stalked over to his room’s entrance. He listened. There was no sound from the burnished corridor.

The clerk returned to his desk, calculating risk and benefit frantically. He looked closely at the invoice. It was stamped with an illegible crest, but the actual information was handwritten. He fumbled in his desk drawer without giving himself time to think, his eyes darting constantly back to the deserted passage outside his doorway, and brought out a paper-knife and a quill. He scratched with the sharp knife at the straight line on the top and the end of the curl on the bottom of the 5 on the invoice, gently, gently, shaving them away. He blew away paper- and ink-dust, smoothed the roughened paper carefully with the feathered end of his quill. Then he turned it around and dipped the fine point in his inkwell. Meticulously, he straightened the curling base of the digit, converting it into crossing lines.

Eventually, it was done. He straightened up and squinted critically down at his handiwork. It looked like a 4.

That’s the hard bit, he thought.

He felt about him for some container, turned his pockets inside out, scratched his head and thought. His face lit, and he pulled out his glasses case. He opened it and filled it with shredded paper. Then, his face wrinkling with anxious disgust, he pulled the edge of his sleeve down over his hand and reached into the box. He felt the soft edges of one of the big caterpillars between his fingers. As gently and quickly as he could, he plucked it squirming from its fellows and dropped it into his glasses case. Quickly, he closed the case around the frantically twitching little creature and fastened it.

He buried his glasses case at the bottom of his briefcase, behind mint-sweets and papers and pens and notebooks.

The clerk retied the string on the box, then sat back quickly and waited. His heart was very loud, he realized. He was sweating a little. He breathed deeply and squeezed his eyes closed.

Relax, now, he thought soothingly to himself. That’s your bit of excitement over.

Two or three minutes passed, and no one came. The clerk was still alone. His bizarre embezzlement had gone unnoticed. He breathed easier.

Eventually he looked again at his forged invoice. It was, he realized, very good. He opened the ledger and entered, in the section marked R&D, the date and the information: 27th Chet, Anno Urbis 1779: From merchant ship X. SM caterpillars: 4.

The last number seemed to glare at him as if it was written in red.

He typed the same information onto his day-sheet before picking up the resealed box and carrying it over to the wall. He opened the sliding doors and leaned into the little metal threshold, pushed the box of grubs into the waiting cage. Gusts of stale, dry air billowed onto his face from the dark cavity between the hide and guts of Parliament.

The clerk pulled the cage shut and closed the door before it. He fumbled for his programme cards, eventually pulling the one marked R&D from the little pack with fingers that still trembled, just a little. He slotted it into the information engine.

There was a juddering hiss and a ratcheting sound as the instructions fed along pistons and hammers and flywheels and the cage was pulled vertiginously up, away from the clerk’s office, beyond Parliament’s foothills, into the craggy peaks.

The box of caterpillars swung as it was tugged through the darkness. Oblivious to their journey, the grubs circumscribed their little prison with peristaltic motion.

Quiet engines transferred the cage from hook to hook, changing its direction and dropping it onto rusted conveyor-belts, retrieving it in another part of Parliament’s bowels. The box spiralled invisibly around the building, rising gradually and inexorably towards the high-security East Wing, passing through mechanized veins to those organic turrets and protuberances.

Finally the wire cage dropped with a muted chime onto a bed of springs. The vibrations of the bell ebbed into the silence. After a minute the door to the shaft snapped open and the box of larvae was yanked brusquely into a harsh light.

There were no windows in the long white room, only incandescent gasjets. Every cranny of the room was visible in its sterility. No dust, no dirt invaded here. The cleanliness was hard and aggressive.
All around the perimeter of the room, white-coated figures were huddled in obscure tasks.

It was one of those bright, hidden figures who untied the box’s string and read the invoice. She gently opened the box and peered inside.

She picked up the cardboard box and carried it at arms’ length through the room. At the far end one of her colleagues, a thin cactacae with his spines carefully secured beneath thick white coveralls, had opened the large bolted door for which she was heading. She showed him her security clearance and he stood aside to let her precede him.

They walked carefully down a corridor as white and sparse as the room from which they had come, with a large iron grille at the far end. The cactus saw that his colleague was carrying something gingerly in both hands, and he reached past her and fed a programme card into an input slot in the wall. The slatted gate slid open.

They entered a vast dark chamber.

Its ceiling and its walls were far enough away to be invisible. Weird wails and lowing sounded distantly from all sides. As their eyes adjusted, cages walled with dark wood or iron or reinforced glass loomed at them irregularly in the enormous hall. Some were huge, the size of rooms: others were no larger than a book. All were raised like cabinets in a museum, with charts and books of information slotted before them. White-clad scientists moved through the maze between the blocks of glass like spirits in a ruin, taking notes, observing, pacifying and tormenting the cages’ inhabitants.

Captive things sniffed and grunted and sang and shifted unreally in their dim prisons.

The cactus walked briskly off into the distance and disappeared. The woman carrying the grubs made her way carefully through the room.

Things lunged at her as she walked past and she shuddered with the glass. Something swirled oleaginously through a huge vat of liquid mud: she saw toothy tentacles slapping at her and scouring the tank. She was bathed in hypnotic organic lights. She passed a small cage smothered in black cloth, with warning signs plastered ostentatiously on all sides and instructions on how to deal with the contents. Her colleagues drifted up to her and away again with clipboards and children’s coloured bricks and slabs of putrefying meat.

Ahead, temporary black wooden walls twenty feet high had been thrown up, surrounding a floor-space forty feet square. Even a corrugated iron ceiling had been hammered over the top. At the padlocked entrance to the room-within-a-room stood a white-suited guard, his head braced to take the weight of a bizarre helmet. He carried a flintlock rifle and a back-slung scimitar. At his feet were several more helmets like his.

She nodded to the guard and indicated her desire to enter. He looked at the identification around her neck.

"You know what to do, then?" he asked quietly.

She nodded and put the box carefully on the floor for a moment, after testing that the string was still tight. Then she picked up one of the helmets by the guard’s feet and slipped the unwieldy thing over her head.

It was a cage of brass pipes and screws that slotted around her skull, with one small mirror suspended a foot and a half in front of each of her eyes. She adjusted the chinstrap to keep the heavy contraption steady, then turned her back on the guard and fiddled with the mirrors. She angled them on their swivelling joints until she could see him clearly directly behind her. She switched focus from eye to eye, testing the visibility.

She nodded.

"All right, I’m ready," she said, and picked up the box, untying it as she did so. She stared intently into the mirrors while the guard unlocked the door behind her. When he opened it he averted his eyes from the interior.
The scientist used her mirrors to walk backwards quickly into the dark room.

She was sweating as she saw the door close in front of her face. She switched her attention again to the mirrors, moved her head slowly from side to side to take in what was behind her.

There was a huge cage of thick black bars filling almost the whole space. From the dark brown light of burning oil and candles she could make out the desultory, dying vegetation and small trees that filled the cage. The gently rotting growth and the darkness in the room were thick enough that she could not see the far side of the room.

She scanned quickly in the mirrors. Nothing was moving.
She backed quickly up to the cage, to where a small tray slotted back and forth through the bars. She reached behind her and tilted her head up such that the mirrors angled down and she could see her hand groping. It was a difficult, inelegant manoeuvre, but she managed to grip the handle and tug the tray out towards her.

She heard a heavy beating in the corner of the cage, like thick rugs being slammed quickly together. Her breath came faster and she fumbled to pour the grubs onto the tray. The four little undulating lozenges slipped in a shower of paper debris onto the metal.

Immediately, something changed in the quality of the air. The caterpillars could smell the inhabitant of the cage, and they were crying out to it for succour.
The thing in the cage was answering.

These cries were not audible. They vibrated in wavelengths other than sonar. The scientist felt the hair all over her body bristle as the ghosts of emotions fleeted through her skull like half-heard rumours. Snippets of alien joy and inhuman terror wafted in her nostrils and ears and behind her eyes, synaesthetically.

With trembling fingers she pushed the tray into the cage.

As she stepped away from the bars, something stroked her leg with a lascivious flourish. She gave a moaning grunt of fear and yanked her trouser out of reach, clamped down on her terror, resisted the instinct to look behind her.

In her head-mounted mirrors, she glimpsed dark brown limbs uncurling in the rough undergrowth, the yellowing bone of teeth, black ocular pits. The ferns and scrub rustled and the thing was gone.

The scientist knocked brusquely on the door as she swallowed, holding her breath until it was opened and she stumbled out nearly into the arms of the guard. She snatched at the clasps under her head, pulling herself free of the helmet. She stared intently away from the guard while she heard him closing and locking the door.

"Is it done?" she whispered eventually.

"Yes."

She turned back slowly. She could not look up, but kept her eyes firmly on the floor, checking that he told the truth by looking at the base of the door, then slowly and with a rush of relief raising her line of sight to eye-level.

She handed the helmet back to the guard.

"Thanks," she murmured.

"Was it all right?" he asked.

"Never," she snapped, and turned.

Behind her, she thought she heard a massive fluttering through the wooden walls.

She walked briskly back through the chamber of strange animals, realizing halfway through that she still clutched the now-empty box in which the grubs had come. She folded it and put it in her pocket.

She pulled the telescoping gate closed behind her on the massive chamber full of shadowy, violent shapes. She returned the length of the scrubbed white corridor and at last back into the Research & Development antechamber, through the first heavy door.

She pushed it closed and bolted it, before turning happily to join her white-suited fellows staring into femtoscopes or reading treatises or conferring quietly by the doors that led to other specialist departments. Each had a legend stencilled on it in red and black.

As Dr. Magesta Barbile walked back to her bench to make her report, she glanced briefly over her shoulder at the warnings printed on the door she had taken.

Biohazard. Danger. Extreme Caution Required.


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