From the air, London resembles a vast, sprawling clockwork curiosity, a city of wheels and gears and steel and steam, the gothic towers of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament rising through the mist alongside the capacitor and telegraph aerials and the murky, coiling line of the River Thames spanned by new ironwork bridges. There is not much green, aside from the neat rectangle of Hyde Park and the smaller isosceles of St. James’. It is a world of bronze and brick and brass, stone and soot, burning coal to such a degree that faint yellow fog lies over the city even on clear days (and this being London in any century, there are not that many of those). But the yellow is mixed with the finer gold of the aetherium, which burns the brightest at sunrise and sunset and casts an eerie, lovely sheen over the crowded rooftops and old church steeples, the dome of St. Paul’s and the narrow crookback lanes that lead to forgotten medieval cemeteries and shops that murmur of magic. There is plenty about this London that is not at all beautiful, that is deprived and crammed and brutally poor in tenements and workhouses, opium dens and sleazy dancehalls, but when the aether falls on it, you tend to forget.
Lucy Preston sits by the isinglass window as the airship starts its final approach, firing its thrusters and easing down toward the Greenwich docks rapidly taking shape below. This is a comfortable passenger liner that nonetheless has made the transatlantic float from New York in only four days; its owners, the Great Western Airway founded by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, will be taking out advertisements in the papers to boast of speed records. Lucy has traveled second class, somewhat shockingly unaccompanied, and she glances at her faint reflection in the window. She is dressed for traveling in a striped-silk gown, belted overcoat, and broad-brimmed hat, parasol propped by one gloved hand and matching clutch held in the other. Women in 1887 require an obnoxious amount of accessories.
There are several bumps and jerks as the zeppelin’s crew throw down mooring lines and the well-dressed passengers get to their feet, preparing to disembark. Lucy subsides inconspicuously into the crowd and waits her turn in the queue like a proper Brit, feeling the cool, damp September air on her face as she starts to file down the ramp. Porters in caps and shirtsleeves are pulling the luggage off, trunks and portmanteaus and hatboxes, crates and birdcages and what looks like an entire household. Lucy waits until she is reunited with her own modest movables, pressing a penny into the porter’s sooty hand. She hasn’t gotten more than a few steps from the looming airship before a boy in a grubby neckerchief comes speeding up. “Carry your bags for a bob, mum? Fetch a hansom cab for you, mum?”
Lucy is aware that if she starts handing out too many tips, she will have half the urchins in London following her around (to say nothing of pickpockets) and she’d prefer to maintain close control of her possessions until she gets her bearings. She politely but firmly shoos him off, has to repeat the process five seconds later, and finally reaches the street. She could go by river, as there are plenty of small craft bobbing along the Thames, but decides she is not quite brave enough to step onto any of those. She hails a hackney carriage, climbs inside onto a hard velvet seat and a dim, musty interior, and gives the driver an address in Bloomsbury. He shuts the door, climbs up behind the horses, and with another jolt and a jerk, they roll off.
It turns out that it would definitely have been faster to sail. It’s a miserably slow, stop-and-start journey into central London, the cobbled streets crammed with horses, carts, broughams, hansoms, costermongers and their barrows, a reeking tarlike slop six inches deep that should barely be dignified with the name “mud,” and here and there one of the new clockwork carriages, running on steam and driven by automatons that almost look human until you get close enough to see their blank metal faces and spinning-gear hands. Strictly speaking, they don’t need to look like that, but the wealthy Londoners who can afford the carriages have a certain expectation of it. Still need to show that they have underlings doing their bidding, mortal or mechanical.
It’s getting dark, the gaslamps striking on in small islands along the street, by the time they reach the boarding house in Bloomsbury, not far from Russell Square, and the hackney rolls to a halt. Lucy accepts the driver’s hand down, pays him, and allows him to carry her bags up the front walk as she rings the bell. After a few moments, a maidservant in a starched black dress and pinned apron comes to answer it, and Lucy, with a final thanks to the driver, steps inside.
The boarding house is suitable, if plain, and the landlady, one Mrs. McBride, seems friendly enough, if clearly confused why Lucy is traveling alone. “Are ye meetin’ your husband then, mum?”
“No,” Lucy says. “I’m here to take a lecturer’s post at Somerville Hall, in Oxford. I’ll be traveling up there in a fortnight, when Michaelmas term starts.”
“Oxford, is it?” Mrs. McBride clearly is not sure how to react to that. She seems to decide that since Lucy is, after all, American, that may explain some of her more outrageous peculiarities. “They’re taking on ladies now, are they?”
“Not all of them,” Lucy says wryly. “Or most of them. But Somerville was founded for women, I’ll be teaching history there.”
Mrs. McBride nods cautiously. “Your husband will join you up the country, then?”
Lucy starts to open her mouth to explain that no, in case it wasn’t clear, there is no husband anywhere in this equation. But given as she is thirty-four years old, and spinster status starts anywhere past twenty-five, that seems likely to provoke an outpouring of sympathy as if she has a terminal illness, or askance looks as if there must be something seriously wrong with her to stop an otherwise eligible young lady from getting married (is it the books? It must be the books) or more questions than she feels like answering. “Yes,” she says. “He’s coming to join me later.”
This momentarily settles the issue, though it leaves Lucy wondering if she’ll have to invent a husband, and Mrs. McBride summons her son, a strapping seventeen-year-old redhead named Seamus, to carry Lucy’s things up to her room. It has a narrow bedstead with a brass headboard, a wardrobe and side table, and a roll-top desk with a chair, as well as a filament lamp. The lavatory, Seamus informs her proudly, is just through the door there, and they’ve got a toilet done by the same chap who’s done the Prince of Wales’ at Sandringham House, holds a Royal Warrant. None other than the famous Thomas Crapper.
Lucy chokes a little at this, though she manages to avoid letting him see, and goes in to look. The hot water is not unlimited, so there will be no long showers, but there’s a claw-footed bathtub, a sink, and a pull-chain toilet, CRAPPER emblazoned over the back in raised porcelain letters. Lucy thanks Seamus, assures him that it’s suitable, and waits until he’s gone. Then she ensures that the door can lock, glances out the window to check the sight lines, and draws the curtains. Goes to her suitcase, undoes the catches, and looks to see if the knots she did up in a certain way have been undone or changed at all, or if there’s any sign of her things having been rummaged through. She doesn’t think anyone could have gotten to it on the airship, but she needs to check.
As far as she can tell, everything looks the way she packed it, and she’s kept the most sensitive bits in her valise, which never left her possession during the whole trip. Lucy digs through the skirts and petticoats and jackets, stockings and garters and blouses, takes them out and hangs them in the wardrobe, then opens the valise. She removes a six-shot Colt “Peacemaker” revolver and a box of bullets, loads it, and spins the chamber with her thumb. There is also a smaller one-shot, pearl-handled derringer, a gun barely powerful enough to do more than threaten cheats at cards in a smoky saloon, and a disassembled Winchester Model 1886 lever-action rifle, the heaviest thing she’s got going. It should be enough to drop anything coming at her, as long as she doesn’t miss. And depending on who – or what – is coming at her, it is an essential precaution.
Lucy pauses, then hides the Colt in the side table drawer, assembles the Winchester, and stows it beneath a loose floorboard under the bed, finishing her unpacking and stifling a yawn. The bunk in the airship cabin was not particularly comfortable, she was close enough to the droning engines that it was always loud, and she had to maintain the same level of vigilance on the crossing, which means that she’s starting to run in a permanent state of sleep deprivation. That is not useful for the kind of work she is going to be doing, so perhaps she should try to catch up. Supper first, however. She doesn’t exactly have anyone to cable about her safe arrival.
Lucy changes out of her traveling clothes into a plainer shirtwaist and buttoned skirt, peering into the small mirror to tidy her messy bun. She briefly wonders if she should bring the derringer, then decides that if she really thinks she’s going to get murdered over dinner in the boarding house, she’s doomed from the start and all of this is a waste of time anyway. A bell rings to call the lodgers to mealtime, and she goes back downstairs.
Mrs. McBride dishes up portions of her hearty Irish cooking (Lucy has a feeling that potatoes in some shape or form will constitute a large part of her culinary experience over the next fortnight) for her current boarders: Lucy, a pale, wheezy young parson on his way to a new living in Hampshire, and a slightly self-important-looking fellow from Cambridge in the city to present a paper on aetheric science at the Royal Aeronautical Society. Lucy is the only woman, so after the parson has said grace (Mrs. McBride tactfully overlooking the fact that it is Protestant grace), the men both turn their feelers on her. The Cambridge fellow patronizingly congratulates her on a post at Oxford (the implication being that of course Oxford is a suitable place for someone of her second-tier intellectual caliber) and the parson wants to know about when her husband will be joining her. Lucy apologetically says that Mr. Preston is very busy in America and it may be several months. God, she hopes she doesn’t have to suffer through too many pleasant dinnertime conversations with these planks. Or perhaps she should search their rooms and –
No, no. She is getting too relentlessly paranoid (she has some reason, but still). Lucy makes a compromise with herself that she’ll look into them further if they do anything suspicious, but they’re both due to be gone by the end of the week. Neither of them have any particular reaction to her name or American accent, aside from the usual oh-dear expression of Brits confronted by expats from the colonies, and if she is going to suspect every condescending Victorian man of being a Rittenhouse agent, it will be a very long stay indeed. At least her polite fuck-you smile will get a lot of use, but that’s nothing new by now.
With that sorted, Lucy makes it through the rest of dinner, then graciously excuses herself and heads upstairs. As she’s reaching the top landing and about to turn down the corridor to her room, she pauses at the window, pushing the lace curtain aside for one last glimpse. She’ll just look, settle her mind that there’s nothing, and –
There’s someone standing just out of sight of the streetlamp, cast in shadow. They’re wearing a trench coat and bowler hat, initially looking like any other Londoner out for an evening stroll, but as Lucy looks harder, she can see the flat bronze gleam off its face that means it’s not a person, it’s an automaton. This one is entirely in a different mold from the ones that were driving the carriages, and for just as obviously a different purpose. Clockwork servants have been advertised as the new fashionable modern innovation (almost makes you wonder if the British Empire, currently at its height and owning a literal quarter of the earth’s landmass and population, would stop exploiting it, but nah) but this automaton has not been designed to scrub laundry boards or sweep floors. It is huge, square, and solid, has pneumatic pistons for arms and some kind of broad-barreled blunderbuss strapped on its back. Its head turns to either side with eerie, mechanical slowness, as if scanning the street and passerby. Back and forth, back and forth, for as long as it keeps ticking. It will need to return to its clockmaker to be re-wound at some point; most automatons can’t manage more than twelve hours independent, so they are still vastly inefficient for long-term operations. But who does Lucy know that got their – got his – start as a clockmaker? Who would be very interested in this new technology?
Rattled, she jerks the curtain shut, and speeds to her room, shutting the door and turning the key. Not that the door would be much deterrent if the automaton suddenly bashed its way in, and even her Winchester is not likely to drop a murderous metal giant that doesn’t feel pain and is operated according to esoteric scientific principles. God, she wishes Rufus was here, but even he is not likely to be much help. This is entirely different from anything he has ever studied.
Right, Lucy thinks. Risk or no risk, she needs to go out tomorrow and see about acquiring herself a weaponry upgrade. It could just be a coincidence that a skull-crusher of a mechanical soldier is stationed right outside her boarding house, but that is really pushing it, and it unfortunately seems to vindicate her fear that Rittenhouse is already on the lookout for her here. Is that thing going to be there every night? Don’t risk pushing curfew or coming back too late after sundown, or – squish? It can’t stand there all the time, the neighbors would notice, and as noted, it needs to get rewound. It has to leave eventually.
To say the least, however, this is not a recipe for peacefully catching up on lost sleep, and after she’s undressed and shrugged on her nightgown, she makes sure the Colt is in reach and warily closes her eyes. Opens them every time the floor creaks, of course, but it’s an old house and it does that often, and one advantage to the automaton being so godawfully huge is that it would definitely make a lot of noise breaking in. Not exactly a stealth operator.
Lucy manages to doze off, though it takes a while, and wakes in the morning without having been crushed into pulp by the rise of the machines. She washes in the small amount of hot water she can get, dresses and does her hair, and puts on her hat and gloves and boots. It’s grey and drizzly outside, so the parasol will function for more than just the aesthetic, and she looks out the window on the landing before venturing any further. The spot by the lamppost is empty; there’s no sign of the automaton anywhere. A solitary hansom cab clatters by, iron-shod wheels making a racket on the cobblestones. Otherwise, the street is quiet. Lucy decides she’ll buy breakfast while she’s out, checks that the Colt is snug in its inner pocket in her belted tweed overcoat, and takes a deep breath. All right. She can do this.
She pushes through the door and out into the mist, adopting a confident stride as she heads south, toward Covent Garden. London at least looks mostly like she remembers, with the streets and neighborhoods in the same place, though there are of course countless new side lanes and unfamiliar buildings and no other familiar points of reference. But she has a good sense of direction and she doesn’t get lost, or at least too much. Covent Garden Market is just opening for the day, butchers hanging fresh-slaughtered pig carcasses, bakers and greengrocers and cheesemongers and milkmen setting out their goods, and all of it smells very nice, but aside from paying a halfpenny for a hot roll, Lucy doesn’t stop. Makes her way to the back of the market, and the dusty door there, set down several steps and barely visible among the slimy bricks that surround it. Here goes nothing, probably.
Lucy finishes off the hot roll and then digs in her purse, pulling out a small bronze obelisk and fitting it into one of the carvings on the door. It briefly seems to glow of its own accord, casting the alcove in burnt-umber shadows, and she turns it, hearing a whirring of gears clunking and clicking behind the door. After another moment, it slides open to the side, as if running on a track, and reveals a steep, narrow staircase that descends out of sight under the earth. The steps are cracked and mossy, uneven underfoot, and Lucy keeps one hand on the wall as she starts down. The last thing she needs is a dramatic facer into the Croft.
The door rumbles shut above her, sounding like a tombstone, and for several moments, the way is entirely dark, so Lucy has to feel with each foot for the next step. The Croft is not the Night Market, which was raided, destroyed, and put out of commission thirty-six years ago, and it is much more prosaic in its goods and services on offer, but it’s the only place in London she’s going to find heavy automaton-killing weapons without immediately drawing unwelcome attention. Everything sold here is, strictly speaking, terribly illegal, but that is a trifling account in Lucy’s life now, and it’s not like any of its denizens are very fond of coppers (or peelers, she thinks that’s what they’re usually called right now, after Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Met). Especially if enough money is involved, nobody should be talking.
After a few more minutes, Lucy can see weak grey light ahead, reaches the bottom of the stairs, and steps out into a long, low hall of indeterminate placement whether above or below ground. There are windows, but it’s not clear if those correspond with any particular light from outside, and the water that drips on the walls looks as if they might be in one of the countless old tunnels under London, near the Thames. The Croft, like Covent Garden, is a market, with stalls set up and sleepy-eyed proprietors boiling coffee in tin pots and pulling colored scraps of cloth off their wares, but everything you can get here should not be tried at home.
Lucy glances around, spots something that looks likely to cater to her needs, and starts off in that direction. It takes all of two minutes, however, for the usual problem to return. “You want what now, mum? If it’s a lady’s pistol you’re looking for, I’ve some handsome ones here, fit into a handbag and not too heavy for a – ”
“I have a derringer,” Lucy says impatiently. “I want something that could take down an automaton. I assure you, I know what I’m about.”
“Something that could do for a tocker?” The proprietor does a double take that would almost be comical in other circumstances. “The bloody hell would – sorry, sorry for the language, mum, sorry – a lady like you need something like that for?”
Lucy senses that the fuck-you smile is going to get a lot of use indeed, but she still needs to convince him to sell to her. She’s just wondering if she should casually pull out the Colt and twirl it like a gunslinger, when the faded bit of calico in front of the stall is pushed aside, and a man comes strolling in. He’s slightly weaselly-looking, with a sandy mustache and a pocket watch chain looped across his dirty waistcoat. “Morning, guvnor. You got the guns ready?”
“Ah – ” The proprietor shoots a guilty look at Lucy, as if a lady should really not have to witness this grubby transaction. “Got as many as I could get me hands on. Given the trouble of collecting ‘em, I really think it should be another guinea on the price? Or – ”
“It’ll be two, like we agreed.” The man glances at Lucy. “Didn’t know you had your trouble visiting today, eh? Looks much too good for you.”
“No, not mine, she just – ” The proprietor is clearly hoping that Lucy will remember some pressing business and clear out on her own accord. “This bird turned up and wanted a piece as could do for a tocker, would you believe that?”
“Did she?” The man’s attention is now fully on Lucy. “Why’d that be, mum?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize this was the Spanish Inquisition.” Normally she might just go off and come back later, though she’s not certain that attitudes will have become progressively more enlightened in six hours, but now Lucy’s mad, and she isn’t leaving here without that gun. “Why exactly are you here, Mr. – ?”
“You can call me Karl.” He shrugs. “Don’t think I’ve seen you in the Croft before, Mrs. – ”
“You can call me Lucy.” She stares at him narrowly. “I’m new in town.”
“Apparently.” Karl raises an eyebrow. “How about you run along, then?”
“I want to buy a gun, and if that’s too – ”
“Can’t,” Karl interrupts, looking smug. “I’m here to buy all of them. None left for you anyway. Nothing against you being a lady, I’m sure, but – ” He reaches into his trouser pocket and after a brief interlude of digging, removes two tarnished but still-good golden guineas. “Go on, Dooley, there’s a good man. I’ve got the lads just outside, waiting to carry them off.”
There is another uncomfortable pause as Dooley, as the merchant’s name apparently is, glances between Karl and Lucy. Then he gives her an apologetic shake of his head and disappears into the back of his stall, reappearing in a few minutes with the first of several crates. Karl whistles, and several strapping-sized men troop in, crowding Lucy back against the plywood wall with no more notice than if she’s a wax figurine at Madame Tussaud’s (currently a highly popular attraction on Marylebone Road). There are three crates of guns, and these are not just polite little pistols that shoot ordinary bullets. Lucy catches a glimpse of highly modified stocks with aetheromagnetic receptors, electrical filaments and broad-bore muzzles, until it looks as if Guy Fawkes has turned up almost three hundred years later and really does not intend to fuck around. Who the hell needs this many guns? You could take down a whole airship. Or blow up the Tower or London, or –
It is obviously a less than advisable idea to be standing here as a clearly identifiable witness to a large-scale illegal arms deal, and unless Lucy is going to drive a private bargain for them to skim one off the top, she should in fact get out. She ducks out of the stall as Dooley is bringing the last crate out, but she has only gotten about a dozen yards when someone grabs her arm. “Where’re you off to in such a hurry, ma’am?”
Lucy turns and glares icily at Karl. “Let go of me.”
“In a minute.” Karl does not appear in any hurry to do that, until Lucy reaches up and pries his fingers off. He looks momentarily startled at the strength of her grip, and adopts an obnoxiously ingratiating smile. “Just thought – no need to make any trouble for anyone, now, is there?”
Lucy continues to stare at him coldly. She knows that no good can come of asking him flat-out why he’s buying so many guns, and she searches his face, trying to decide if he looks Rittenhouse. Not that Rittenhouse is so obliging as to wear a sign around their neck, but she does have some practice at it by now. Finally she says, as neutrally as possible, “Big party?”
“Something like that.” Karl shrugs. “Look, I’ll sell you one of the guns, if you really want. As long as you keep your mouth shut and don’t get in our way.”
Lucy wonders exactly what that means. Nobody is buying this amount of high-powered weapons just to put them into a cellar somewhere, and it seems more than likely that things are about to get very interesting, whether in London or outside it. She does need the gun, but she’s left unsure if this is a bargain she should be making. Is Karl a noted underworld figure? That is currently a thriving element in London, mundane or otherwise, and the Croft is, as noted, the hub for the extra-legal activities that spread their feelers through this strange steam-powered Victoriana. He doesn’t look like a feared crime kingpin, but that means nothing. They never do.
“Oy, Karl.” Right on cue, one of the henchmen pops up, gun crate in his beefy arms. “We got to get moving. Boss won’t be happy if we’re late.”
Karl turns to shoot an annoyed glance at his associate, even as Lucy notes that down with interest – Karl himself isn’t the boss, they’re working for someone else, though Karl seems to be some sort of trusted, arms-procuring consigliere. With a long look at Lucy warning her that he is definitely going to remember her face, but now is in a hurry to blow this joint, Karl opens the crate, pulls out a midsize, short-barreled musket with a heavy stock and an aether coil, and hands it to her. “On the house,” he says. “This time. Like I said, you better not arse it up.”
With that, and no apology for his coarse language whatsoever (not that she needs it, but still a decided contrast to Dooley), Karl jerks his head at his trio of muscle-bound thugs, and they make a smartly paced exit. Lucy is left with a gun that she doesn’t really know how to operate, a hundred more questions than when she entered, and a lingering sense that she might have just made (another) powerful enemy. Who, she has no idea, and after a long pause, she stuffs the gun into her valise and ducks back into Dooley’s stall. “So who were they? Regular customers?”
“Wha – Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you scared me.” Dooley was clearly hoping very badly that he was done with unexpected visitors for the morning, and Lucy does feel for him, but she also needs some answers, and she’s willing to play a little dirty to get them. “Mum, you just saw – they bought my whole stock, I couldn’t sell to you even if I wanted.”
“I believe you,” Lucy says pleasantly. “You clearly had prepared their order, though. Admirable service. Who in London is buying that many guns, though? Any chance someone might know that they all came from you?”
Dooley’s eyes flicker back and forth. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, mum.”
“I’m fairly sure you do.” Lucy folds her arms. She is definitely going to take the opportunity to make misogynists squirm. Though it isn’t really something outstanding or personal in any case, not that that excuses it, but just what polite Victorian society has taught them from the ground up. The National Society for Women’s Suffrage was founded twenty years ago, and Emmeline Pankhurst lives and works in Russell Square right now, but still, change is going to be slow. “You’re frightened of whoever Karl works for, aren’t you?”
“Be a bloomin’ idiot if I wasn’t, wouldn’t I?” It’s hard to place Dooley’s origin – his surname is Irish, his accent is generally working-class London, though at that, it turns broad Cockney. “You want to get in trouble with that maniac? Be my bleedin’ guest.”
“Maniac?” Is this some notorious local bruiser and small-time mafioso that Rittenhouse has recruited to terrify the London underworld and coordinate some of their incidents? Lucy leans forward. “What maniac?”
Dooley looks as if he very deeply does not want to be having this conversation, but out of an apparent charitable desire to help prevent her from getting herself killed, he sighs and begrudgingly spills the beans. “Name’s Flynn. His lads come along, it’s just better you do what they say, easier for everyone. Only been in London a few years, but he’s taken down big fish already, bigger than ‘im. You want some advice, mum, stay away from all that. And please, for the love of Christ, don’t go telling anyone about. . . all this. I’ve got me the three nippers.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone.” That, at least, Lucy can promise him. But since it is readily apparent that he owes her a favor, and she still hasn’t quite forgiven him for making it so difficult and inadvertently getting her entangled in this when he could have just sold, she pulls the gun Karl gave her out of the bag. “I need cartridges for this. And anything else it takes. I expect you’ll give me a good rate on the price?”
Dooley cringes, but can clearly tell that he has made his own bed with this, and busies himself in fetching the required items. Its bullets are an inch long and half as wide, looking heavy enough to take down big game on safari, and there’s a hand pump that activates the electrical current if it is to be used on, as Dooley calls them, tockers. Since the only legally owned military automatons are those belonging to the Army and the Met, it is plainly obvious that anyone buying this weapon is going to be getting into trouble with important people. And the mysterious Flynn sent his henchmen to buy three crates? Clearly, he is taking no chance that there is any important person in all of Great Britain that he might accidentally neglect to piss off. No wonder Dooley doesn’t want his name anywhere near it.
However, this fact is still gnawing at Lucy’s head as she leaves. Flynn could very easily be Rittenhouse, just because they like to have a monopoly on force and/or weapons of any kind, and certainly don’t give a Thomas Crapper whether or not it’s legal. But they have also always preferred to go the shadow-in-the-halls-of-power route. Recruit important people in high-ranking positions, get the system to work for them, turn the institutional wheels to their own advantage, rather than operate as rogues or outlaws. Rittenhouse is the law, that’s their strength. They make it, they are its organization and its enforcement. They’re much more likely to be using the automatons as their lethal weapon, in other words, rather than getting guns to destroy them. Flynn could be buying up the guns on Rittenhouse’s behalf in order to get rid of them, thus making it harder for the masses to oppose the tocker takeover, but it’s just strange enough that Lucy frowns. No matter what Dooley has said, she wants to know more.
By the time she climbs up the stairs from the Croft and emerges into Covent Garden, it’s midmorning, and London is awake and teeming with noisy, dirty, colorful life. Dodging past taverns, tenements, general stores, guildhalls, gentlemen’s clubs, booksellers, banks, hurdy-gurdies, townhouses, telegraph offices, tea shops, cemeteries, churches, more churches, insurance companies, statues, streetlamps, sideshows, park squares, museums, and houses of ill-repute, not to mention the countless boys flogging the Times or the Telegraph or other bastions of considerably yellower journalism, Lucy tries to think how to do some more digging without being totally obvious. She can’t get too far off track with her other little project either, but she can’t walk straight into Westminster and ask if anyone here is an agent for a dangerous American secret society. It’s always been hard hunting Rittenhouse, but here she feels like she’s doing it with a blindfold on and both hands tied behind her back.
Lucy stops to get a hot pasty for lunch, eats it while strolling down the Mall, and glances at the square grey oblong of Buckingham Palace at the end. Victoria has been queen for fifty years now; in fact, they celebrated her Golden Jubilee in much style and expense this past June. After a dip in popularity resulting from her decades of mourning and withdrawal from public life following Prince Albert’s death, she is once more a beloved, grandmotherly figure, prone to forming deep attachments to younger men – first John Brown, her Scottish equerry, and more recently to Abdul Karim, the Indian “Munshi.” If Rittenhouse was making some sort of play for her and her vast empire, wanted to make sure it was their sun that never set, would they send in a new favorite, a good-looking young fellow instructed on what to say and do to draw the aging queen’s attention? Disrupt Victoria’s attachment to Abdul before it becomes too deeply set (they only met a few months ago) and provide a more suitable (read: whiter) candidate for the tastes of the deeply starchy, conservative, and racist British court? It seems possible, at least.
Lucy tries to think if William Gladstone or Lord Salisbury is presently prime minister, as it changed back and forth several times during this decade, and that assumes that everything happened the same way here. It is obviously very close, with the addition of clockwork men and flying airships and other minor differences, but surely some things have changed, events nudged one way instead of another. How consequential is that? As well, it shakes up her usual rule of thumb for dealing with this. She doesn’t know what has happened, or what is going to happen, and that leaves her without any frame of reference for what she should or should not try to save.
After a pause, Lucy tosses the rest of her pasty to the ravenous pigeons, hails a hansom cab, and rides back to Bloomsbury, where she heads to University College, London. It started admitting women nine years ago, but that does not mean that the human fossil who peers down at her from behind a high wooden desk is happy to see her. “Can I help you, Miss. . .?”
“Professor.” Lucy smiles pleasantly. “Professor Preston. I would like to go into the Royal Historical Society’s library, please. I hold a position at Oxford – Somerville Hall, I’m on my way to take it up. So if you’d just – ”
She can sense herself about to be taking about her tenth Misogyny shot since landing, when there is a loud tut-tutting noise from behind her, and a small silver-haired woman, possibly in her seventies, appears from around the corner. “For goodness’ sake, Hubert,” she snaps. “I did promise I’d ensure you got the sack if I saw you being obnoxious to the lady students again, and I can entirely see to that happening. Surely you would prefer to avoid that? Otherwise do let me know, and we can make life altogether simpler for everyone.”
The porter – Hubert, apparently – opens and shuts his mouth, comes up with nothing, and is posthaste browbeaten into admitting both Lucy and the old lady, who is carrying a bronze-clasped case in one hand and her walking stick in the other, into the RHS archives. Lucy glances sidelong at her, feeling obliged to thank a fellow female academic, and someone who clearly has considerable standing around here to just sail in and shut people up. “I do appreciate it, ma’am. I’m Lucy Preston, by the way. I’m taking up a lectureship at Somerville in October.”
“I heard that.” The old lady regards her with a shrewd dark gaze, head slightly to one side. “Mary Somerville was my tutor and teacher, I knew her well. I am Ada, Countess of Lovelace. She taught me mathematics as a young girl, and we were quite close.”
“You’re – ” Lucy’s jaw drops. “You’re – oh my God, Ada – Lady Lovelace, I’m – I’m honored, I’m very honored to meet you. I just thought – well, never mind, I – I didn’t know you had – had a post here?”
“I don’t,” Ada says aristocratically. “I do stop by on occasion to tweak the Analytical Engine, though. It does need a terrible lot of fiddling, and I’m still really the only one who knows how to do it. Will you have read any of my papers, then?”
“I – yes, I’ve – I’m familiar with your work. You and – and Mr. Babbage, you managed to actually build the Engine, then? I didn’t think you did.”
“It was quite a trial.” Ada glances around the library, then starts toward a door from behind which a faint whirring and clicking is emanating. Lucy trails worshipfully after her – after all, it is Ada Lovelace, only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, mathematical genius, and essentially the first computer programmer, in partnership with the great inventor and eccentric Charles Babbage. She has clearly lived well past the age of thirty-six, enjoyed a successful career, and become a respected intellectual powerhouse in the age of steam. Ada pulls a key out of her case and unlocks the door, revealing a room containing a large, clattering machine. Treadles stamp, cards are punched, pistons spin, gears clank, and keys slam, and it smells like oil and hot metal. “Don’t stand too close, dear. It can tend to spit.”
Lucy takes a precipitate step back as Ada forages in, removes a pair of goggles from her case and puts them on, and takes a wrench out, regarding the machine like a doctor preparing for a complicated surgery. She expertly ducks as it throws a bolt, shakes her head at it, and levers it back into place, tightening it a few turns and checking the cards that come chittering out. Then she tips her head at Lucy. “Here, give it a try. Ask it to find something in the library for you.”
“Is that what it. . .” Lucy supposes there must be several operable Analytical Engines, designed for different tasks, and that University College owns this one, at enormous pride and expense, so its students don’t have to dig through card catalogues like everyone else. Wary of any more bolts, she steps closer. “Do I just ask it out loud?”
“Yes. Just there.” Ada points at a bronze speaking trumpet. “Nice and clear.”
“Er.” Lucy glances reflexively over her shoulder. There’s no one there, but she feels nervous anyway. As quietly as she can, she says, “Rittenhouse?”
“What was that? Don’t mumble, dear, I can’t abide mumblers. The machine won’t understand you, anyway.”
Lucy raises her voice. “Rittenhouse.”
There is a corresponding clack and whir from the Engine, riffling through punch cards, but it does not last for very long, or spur a second phase of operations. Ada shakes her head. “Nothing on that topic, I’m afraid. What on earth is Rittenhouse?”
“It’s better if you don’t know.” Lucy considers, then clears her throat. “Flynn?”
This time, there is a louder and longer flurry from the machine, and a trapdoor bangs open, a tray comes rattling through, and then another, containing several stacks of newspapers and a few books. Lucy, after a glance at Ada to confirm that is what she is supposed to do, takes out the papers and carries them out to the reading room, spreading them on one of the tables. They are all the articles or other items containing the word Flynn, and Lucy quickly discovers she should have been a lot more specific, as it is a common Irish surname and there are apparently five hundred Patrick Flynns in the city, to say nothing of all the other names. Just as she’s about to give up, she comes across an article in the Times from last year, condemning the disruption and mayhem of one Garcia Flynn, and the lawlessness he has brought to London’s underworld (not, one has been given to understand, a particularly lawful place to start with – they probably don’t even take tea at four o’clock, the hooligans). It is the opinion of the Editorial Board that he is riffraff, and a gipsy to boot. They really cannot wait until some public-minded citizen gets him chucked into the Old Bailey where he belongs. Newgate gallows are not out of the question.
Lucy stares at it for a long moment. She can’t be sure, but this sounds like her man. She was figuring he was Irish, and a gipsy could mean that, as it’s used to refer to Irish Travelers, but it could also mean an Eastern European more generally. Garcia isn’t an Irish name, though, and the blurry, three-quarters photograph affixed shows a tall, dark, sharp-featured man, face turned away from the camera; he is obviously not about to sit still for the several minutes it takes for a full exposure. He is wanted for questioning in regard to several unexplained incidents of a violent nature. A substantial reward is offered for information.
Since this article is from August 1886, and it’s presently September 1887, Lucy can assume, given her run-in with Flynn’s boys this morning, that they have not in fact caught him. Dooley said he’s been in the city a few years – was this just the first time he brought himself to the attention of the authorities? Either way, he doesn’t fit the profile for a likely Rittenhouse mole, not if his name and (most of) his picture are in the paper urging the public to turn him in. Who the hell is this man? She’s heard of a lot of people, but she hasn’t heard of him.
Having sifted through the rest of the papers and not found much else, Lucy carries them back and puts them in the tray, pushing them back through the trapdoor. Ada is continuing her tinkering, and Lucy supposes it’s best to leave her to it; besides, she’s nervous about cutting it too close with getting back to the boarding house, in case the automaton returns at dark. It’s only midafternoon, but dusk comes increasingly early in London in autumn, and she can make a few stops beforehand. She tells Ada once more how amazing it was to meet her, and hurries out.
The rain has stopped, though it’s still murky and cool, and Lucy weighs up where she wants to try next. She’ll probably have to venture to the rougher parts of the city at some point, and even with a good deal of heavy weaponry, that will be a gamble as a woman alone. Her feet are getting sore in their fashionable buttoned boots, and she wants to sit down, so she crosses the road to a coffee shop and goes inside. The faint reminder of home briefly makes tears sting at her eyes. It’s been a long time, after all. In more ways than one.
Lucy drinks her coffee from a porcelain cup and saucer with a white-gloved waiter solicitously at her service, spaces out for a while, and then, hearing the nearby church bells call four, decides that she should definitely get a move on back to the boarding house. It isn’t far, since she’s still in Bloomsbury, and should be a swift walk, but the air is pink and blue and grey when she steps out, and it makes her hurry her steps. The automaton didn’t turn up at sundown last night, but if it – or rather, its masters – know for a fact now that she’s there –
Lucy is waiting at a corner for a trolley car to pass when she hears a murmur from around her, which quickly deepens into a shocked hiss. Fingers point upward, necks crane, and people stare at the sky. It is generally well-trafficked with airships – passenger cruisers, pleasure barges and tourist flights, cargo freighters, Royal Navy aeronauts, and steam balloons – but at the moment, there’s only one that has caught everyone’s attention. It’s a zeppelin about the size of the one Lucy arrived on, in fact might have been making its way to the Greenwich docks for a scheduled touchdown, but that will remain a mystery. It’s on fire near the tail, coming in hard and low, and there’s an alarmed outcry over the instinctive fear that it will crash directly onto their heads. As soon as that fire reaches the hydrogen supply – but while accidents are not uncommon, a world that relies so much on airships should have found a better way to –
At that, a dark, unformed suspicion crosses Lucy’s mind. She really does hope she’s wrong, and she will happily eat any amount of crow if she is, but she personally saw all those guns being bought this morning, and even had the thought that that was enough firepower to take down an airship. She should definitely get out of here, but she stares up at the burning zeppelin, hesitates a moment longer, then starts to run.
The airship swerves and veers overhead, almost close enough for Lucy to hear the flames crackle, as she tries to fight her way through the crowds running, sensibly enough, in the opposite direction. It’s not going to make it much further; it looks like it’s going to crash in Regent’s Park, which at least has a lot of open space for it, though it’s surrounded by expensive villas and has the possibility to put a lot of rich people unhappily out of their houses. The zeppelin is burning in good earnest now as it plunges, and there’s the sound of breaking glass as passengers decide to smash windows and jump out rather than wait for the crash. Lucy dodges as someone falls out of the sky in front of her and hits the paving stones with a gruesome sound, but doesn’t stop running. She doesn’t even know what she’s going to do or what she’s looking for, just that if this is what she thinks –
The zeppelin blocks out the sky above the street, its pilot house scraping on the gate with a massive fountain of sparks, as it does a half-somersault and plows nose-first into the green expanse of Regent’s Park. Lucy can feel the heat lashing her face, and skids to a halt, staring, at the oiled-silk skin charring away to reveal the bones of the frame. People are still stumbling from the wreckage, coughing and gagging on the smoke, and the distant sound of alarm bells means that the London Fire Brigade is on its way – there is nothing that Lucy can do to help anyone, and she needs to go, she needs to go, she needs to go. But for some inexplicable reason, her gaze is drawn up as if by a lodestone, across the way to where a tall dark figure is just turning as if to run for it. For a horrible moment, she thinks that it’s the automaton from last night, that it has somehow followed her here, or even that it downed the airship itself – but why?
And then, a gout of violent firelight falls on half of the figure’s face, and Lucy sees that it’s a man, not a tocker. A man that, even from distance and from a bad newspaper photograph, she somehow recognizes at once.