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Tema: William Gibson ~ Vilijam Gibson  (Pročitano 46602 puta)
18. Maj 2005, 00:49:31
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Capo di tutti capi


I reject your reality and substitute my own!

Zodijak Pisces
Pol Žena
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava Unutrasnja strana vetra
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Apple iPhone 6
{b]Johnny Mnemonic[/b]


Stavio sam sacmaricu u torbu "adidas" i oblozio je sa cetiri para carapa za tenis, sto nije bas moj stil, ali na to sam i ciljao: ako misle da si sirov, budi tehnicar; ako misle da si tehnicar, budi sirov. Ja sam momak od tehnike. Stoga sam odlucio da budem sto siroviji. No, danas morate biti prilican tehnicar pre nego sto i pomislite na sirovost. Morao sam na strugu sam izraditi obe dvanaestokalibarske caure od komada bronze i onda ih sam i napuniti, morao sam iskopati stari mikrofilm sa uputstvom o punjenju caura, morao sam napraviti poluznu presu da podesim kapsule, a sve je to vrlo zeznuto. No, znao sam da cu uspeti.

Sudar je dogovoren u "Dromu", u jedanaest uvece, ali ja sam se odvezao podzemnom tri stanice dalje od mesta izlaska i vratio se pesice. Nepogresiv postupak. Proverio sam se u hromiranoj strani kioska za kafu - tipican kavkazoid sa cupom ostre crne kose. Cure u "Pod nozem" otkidale su na Sonyja Maoa i bilo ih je tesko spreciti da dodaju sik slicnosti tim raspevanim naborima. To verovatno nece prevariti Ralphieja Facu, ali mozda ce me dovesti u blizinu njegovog stola.

"Drom" je obicna uska prostorija sa sankom na jednoj strani i stolovima na drugoj, ispunjen makroima, mesetarima i tajnovitom postavkom dilera. Te noci na vratima su bile Magnetske pasje sestre i nije me radovalo da izadjem kraj njih ako stvar ne upali. Bile su visoke dva metra i mrsave poput hrtova. Jedna je bila crna, druga bela, a iskljucivsi to, bile su toliko jednake koliko ih je kozmeticka hirurgija mogla uciniti jednakim. Vec su godinama bile ljubavnice i u sori su predstavljale nepriliku. Nikad nisam bio siguran koja je od njih pre bila musko.

Ralphie je sedeo za svojim stalnim stolom. Dugovao mi je veliku lovu. U glavi sam imao pohranjene stotine megabajta, kao genijalni idiot, informacije do kojih nisam imao svesnog pristupa. Raphie ih je tu ostavio. Ali, nije se vratio po njih. Samo je Ralphie mogao vratiti podatke kodiranom frazom koju je sam izmislio. Kao prvo, nisam jeftin, ali cena mog prekovremenog uskladistenja je astronomska. A Ralphie je bio vrlo stedljiv.

I onda sam cuo da Ralphie Faca zeli izdati nalog da me uklone. Zato sam sredio da se nadjemo u "Dromu", ja kao Edward Bax, tajnoviti uvoznik, upravo stigao iz Rija i Pekinga.

U "Dromu" je zaudaralo na biznis. Metalni miris nervozne napetosti. Misicavci rasuti u gomili proveravali su robu, a i jedni druge, isprobavajuci blede, hladne osmehe. Neki od njih bili su toliko izgubljeni pod superstrukturama nakalemljenih misica da im oblicja nisu bila bas ljudska.

Pardon. Pardon, prijatelji. To je samo Eddie Bax. Brzi Eddie izvoznik, sa svojom neodredjenom sportskom torbom i, molim vas, ne obazirite se na ovaj prorez sirok toliko da mu propusti desnu ruku.

Ralphie nije bio sam. Osamdeset kilograma kalifornijske blond govedine budno se nasadilo na susednoj stolici, a borilacke vestine su bile kao ispisane na njemu.

Brzi Eddie Bax seo je na stolicu nasuprot njima pre nego sto je govedina podigao ruke od stola.

- Imas crni pojas? - upitao sam ga gorljivo. Kimnuo je, a plave oci automatski su proveravale moje oci i ruke. - Imam i ja - rekoh. - Tu je, u torbi. - Gurnuo sam ruku kroz prorez i otkocio. Klik. - Dvanaestokalibarska duplonka s povezanim obaracima.

- To je puska. - rece Ralphie, zaustavljajuci dezmekastom rukom napete grudi svog momka u plavom najlonu. Johnny ima staromodno vatreno oruzje u torbi.

Toliko sto se Edwarda Baxa tice.

Christian White: klasicno pop-lice s jasno oblikovanim misicima pevaca, isklesanih jagodicnih kostiju. Andjeosko na jednom svetlu, prekrasno izopaceno na drugom. Ali iza toga lica zivele su Ralphiejeve oci, a bile su male, hladne i crne.

- Molim te - rece - sredimo to kao poslovni ljudi. - Glas mu je bio pun odvratne, neodoljive iskrenosti, a uglovi njegovih Christian White usana uvek su bili mokri. - Ovaj Lewis je hrpa mesa. - Kimnuo je prema govedini. Lewis je to mirno podneo, drzeci se kao da je nesto napravljeno iz narucenog kompleta za sastavljanje. - Ti nisi hrpa mesa, Johnny.

- Jesam, jesam, Ralphie, lepa hrpa puna ugradjenih elemenata u kojima mozes drzati svoje prljavo rublje dok okolo trazis ljude koji ce me ubiti, Ralphie, s moje strane torbe cini mi se da imas nesto objasniti.

- To je ova poslednja posiljka robe, Johnny. - Duboko je uzdahnuo. - Kao berzanski mesetar...

- Lopov - ispravih ga.

- Kao berzanski mesetar, obicno sam vrlo pazljiv sto se tice mojih izvora.

- Kupujes samo od onih koji najbolje kradu. Kapiram.

Ponovo je uzdahnuo.

- Pokusavam - rece slabasnim glasom - ne kupovati od budala. No, bojim se da sam ovaj put ucinio upravo to. Njegov treci uzdah bio je znak Lewisu da ukljuci neuralni ometac koji su prilepili ispod stola, s moje strane.

Svim snagama sam se napregnuo da savijem kaziprst desne ruke, ali kao da vise nisam bio spojen s njim. Mogao sam da osetim metal puske i meku traku koju sam omotao oko okrnjenog kundaka, ali ruke su mi bile hladne kao vosak, daleke i nepokretne. Nadao sam se da je Lewis zaista hrpa mesa, dovoljno tupa da posegne za sportskom torbom i povuce moj ukoceni prst na obaracu. Ali nije bio takav.

- Silno smo bili zabrinuti za tebe, Johnny. Silno zabrinuti. Znas, zbog onog sto je u tebi, vlasnistva Jakuza. Neka budala im je to uzela, Johnny. Mrtva budala. - Lewis se naceri.

Sada je sve imalo smisla, i to ruznog smisla. Kao da mi se vrece mokrog peska slazu oko glave. Ubistvo nije bilo u Ralphiejevom stilu. Cak ni Lewis nije bio u Ralphiejevom stilu. Ali zapeo je izmedju Sinova neonske hrizanteme i necega sto im je propadalo, bolje receno, necega sto su imali, a sto je pripadalo nekom drugom. Ralphie je, naravno, mogao upotrebiti kodiranu frazu da me ubaci u stanje genijalnog idiota i ja bih prosuo ceo njihov program a da se ne bih secao ni jedne cetvrtine. Za lopova poput Ralphieja to bi obicno bilo dovoljno. Ali ne i za Jakuze. Jakuze znaju za SIPE, kao prvo, i ne bi zeleli strepeti da jedna od njih naidje na nejasne i trajne tragove njihovog programa iz moje glave. Nisam znao mnogo o SIPAMA, ali cuo sam price i pazio da ih ne ponovim svojim klijentima. Ne, to se Jakuzama ne bi svidjalo, to je previse nalikovalo na dokaz. Nisu postigli ono sto jesu ostavljajuci uokolo dokaze. Zive.

Lewis se cerio. Mislim da je vidio tacku odmah ispod mog cela i zamisljao kako da dodje do nje na grublji nacin.

- Hej - rece dubok glas, zenski, negde iza mog desnog ramena - vi, kauboji, ocigledno se ne zabavljate.

- Brisi, kujo - rece Lewis, a lice mu je bilo vrlo mirno. Ralphie je bio bezizrazajan.

- Razvedrite se. Hocete li kupiti malo dobre koka-baze? - privukla je stolicu i sela pre nego sto ju je ijedan stigao zaustaviti. Jedva da je bila u mom fiksiranom vidnom polju, mrsava cura sa reflektujucim naocarama, tamne kose podrezane u neuredan cuperak. Imala je otkopcanu crvenu koznu jaknu preko majice dijagonalno isprugane crveno i crno. - Osam somova gram.

Lewis ljutito zabrunda i pokusa je oboriti sa stolice. To mu bas nije uspelo, a njena ruka se dize i cinilo se kao da mu je u zamahu okrznula zapesce. Svetla krv poprska sto. Stisnuo je zapesce, clanci na prstima su mu pobeleli od stiska, a izmedju njih je kapala krv.

Ali, zar joj ruka nije bila prazna?

Bice mu potrebne kopce za tetive. Pazljivo je ustao, ne trudeci se da odmakne stolicu. Ona se prevrte, a on se izmakao iz mog vidnog polja bez reci.

- Bolje da mu lekar to pogleda - rece ona. - Gadna posekotina.

- Nemas pojma - progovori Ralphie, odjednom vrlo umornim glasom - o dubini govna u koje si se uvalila.

- Zaista? Tajna. Uzbudjuju me tajne. Na primer, zasto je ovaj tvoj frend tako miran. K'o smrznut. Ili, zasto sluzi ova stvarcica. - Ona podize mali kontrolni uredjaj koji je nekako uzela od Lewisa.

Ralphie je izgledao kao da mu je muka.

- Hoces mozda cetvrt miliona da mi to das i da prosetas?

Debela ruka se podize i nervozno potapsa bledo, mrsavo lice.

- Ono sto hocu - rece ona pucnovsi prstima tako da se uredjaj zavrteo i zasjao - jeste posao. Tvoj momak je ozledio ruku. ali, za cetvrt milje imas zamenu.

Ralphie naglo izdahnu i poce se smejati, otkrivajuci zube koji bas nisu bili odrzavani po uzoru na Christiana Whitea. Tada ona iskljuci ometac.

- Dva miliona - kazah.

- Moj tip coveka - rece ona i nasmeja se. - Sta je to u torbi?

- Sacmarica.

- Sirovo. - Zvucalo je kao kompliment.

Ralphie nije nista rekao.

- Zovem se Millions. Molly Millions. Hoces napolje odavde, sefe? Ljudi pocinju da gledaju.

Ustade. Imala je kozne pantalone boje osusene krvi.

I tek tada sam spazio da su reflektujuce naocare hirurski ugradjene, srebro se dizalo iz njezinih visokih jagodicnih kostiju zatvarajuci oci u njihovim dupljama. U njima sam video odraz svog novog lica.

- Ja sam Johnny - rekoh. - Vodimo gospodina Facu s nama.

Bio je napolju i cekao. Izgledao je kao najobicniji tehnicar na odmoru, u plasticnim bermudama i blesavoj havajskoj kosulji na kojoj su bila odstampana uvecanja najpopularnijeg mikroprocesora njegove firme, blag, mali covek, jedan od onih koji se obicno napiju sakea u barovima gde posluzuje kolacice garnirane algama. Izgledao je kao tip koji peva himnu svoje korporacije i place, koji se neprastano rukuje s barmenom. Svodnici i dileri ga ostavljaju na miru, oznacivsi ga kao urodjeno konzervativnog. Nije bas za zabavu, a kad i jeste, veoma pazi na lovu.

Kad sam posle razmisljao o tome, ukapirao sam da su mu amputirali deo levog palca, negde iza prvog zgloba i zamenili ga prostetickim vrhom, napunili ga, a kalem stavili u supljinu izdubljenu u jednom od vestackih dijamanata Ono-Sendai. I onda su pazljivo namotali na kalem tri metra monomolekularnog vlakna.

Molly se upustila u raspravu sa Magnetskim pasjim sestrama, pruzajuci mi priliku da proguram Ralphieja kroz vrata, sa sportskom torbom lagano pritisnutom uz njegovu kicmu. Cini mi se da ih je poznavala. Cuo sam crnu kako se smeje.

Pogledao sam gore, zbog nekog reflektora, jer se nikako nisam mogao privici na uzdignute lukove svetla i sene kupola iznad njih. Mozda me to i spasilo.

Ralphie je nastavio koracati, ali mislim da nije pokusavao pobeci. Mislim da se vec predao. Verovatno je imao predstavu onoga cemu se suprotstavljamo.

Pogledao sam na vreme da ga vidim kako se rasprskava.

Kada ponovo izvrtim film, vidim kako Ralphie krece napred, a mali tehnicar se pojavljujeniotkud, smeseci se. Kao da se malo naklonio i levi mu palac otpada. Cudesan trik. Palac visi kao obesen. Ogledalo? Konci? Ralphie zastaje, ledjima okrenut nama, tamni polumeseci znoja ispod pazuha na njegovom svetlom letnjem odelu. On zna. Morao je znati. I tada se vrh stosnog palca, tezak poput olova, isteze u brzom jojo-triku, a nevidljiva not koja ga povezuje sa ubicinom rukom prolazi postrance kroz Ralphiejevu lobanju, tik iznad obrva, fijukne gore i spusta se, rezuci kruskoliko telo dijagonalno, od ramena do grudnog kosa. Rezovi su tako fini da krvi nema, sve dok sinapse ne pocinju otkazivati i prvi drhtaji predaju telo gravitaciji.

Ralphie se raspao u rizicastom oblaku tekucina, tri razdvojena dela srusila su se napred, na plocnik. U potpunoj tisini.

Podigao sam sportsku torbu i ruka mi se zgrcila. Trzaj mi je umalo slomio zglob.

Sigurno je kisilo, mlazovi vode spustali su se iz probusenih kupola i rasprskavali se na plocama iza nas. Cucali smo u uskom prolazu izmedju hirurskog butika i antikvarnice. Provirivala je jednim reflektujucim okom iza ugla i videma pred "Dromom" samo jedan modul "volks" blestecih crvenih svetala, skupljali su Ralphieja. Postavljali pitanja.

Bio sam prekriven opaljenim belim krpama. Carape za tenis. Od sportske torbe ostala je samo plasticna narukvica oko zglavka.

- Ne shvatam kako sam ga promasio.

- Eh, on je brz, vrlo brz. - Obgrlila je kolena i ljuljala se na petama. - Ima podesen nervni sistem. Fabricki model. - Nasmejala se i zacicala od zadovoljstva. - Sredicu tog tipa. Nocas. On je najbolji, vrhunac, cisti umetnik.

- Ono sto moras uciniti za moja dva miliona jeste da me izvuces odavde. Onaj tvoj decko sigurno je napravljen u retorti u Chiba Cityju. On je Jakuza ubica.

- Chiba. Da. Molly je isto bila u Chibi.

Pokaze mi ruke, malo rasirenih prstiju. Bili su vitki, suzeni prema vrhu i vrlo beli prema jarkocrveno lakiranim noktima. Deset ostrica skljocne iz svojih proreza ispod noktiju, a svaka je bila uski dvostruki skalpel od bledoplavog celika.

Nikad nisam provodio mnogo vremena u Nocnom gradu. Tamo niko nije mogao platiti nesto sto bih pamtio, a vecina ih je imala mnogo cega za sta su placali da se zaboravi. Generacije strelaca sredile su neon i ekipe za odrzavanje napokon su digle ruke od posla. Cak i u podne lukovi su bili cadjavocrni nasuprot bledom sivilu.

Gde otici kada te najbogatija zlocinacka organizacija na svetu trazi svojim hladnim, dalekim prstima? Gde se sakriti od JAkuza, toliko mocnih da poseduju komsate i najmanje tri kosmoplana? Jakuza je uistinu multinacionalna, poput ITT-a i Ono-Sendaija. Pedeset godina pre mog rodjenja Jakuza je vec progutala Trijade, Mafiju i Korzikansku uniju.

Molly je znala odgovor:

- Sakrij se u Jami, najnizem krugu, gde svaki spoljasnji upliv stvara brze koncentricne talase ciste opastnosti. Sakrij se u Nocnom gradu. Jos bolje, sakrij se iznad Nocnog grada, jer Jama je preokrenuta i njeno dno dodiruje nebo, koje Nocni grad nikad ne vidi, znojeci se pod svojim svodom od vestacke mase, a gore cuce Lo-Teksi, u mraku, poput utvara, i cigarete sa crne berze vise im s usana.

Znala je jos jedan odgovor:

- Znaci, dobro i cvrsto si zakljucan, Johnny-san. Bez lozinke se ne moze do programa.

Vodila me u senke sto su cekale ispod svetla stanice metroa. Betonski zidovi bili su prekriveni grafitima, koji su se kroz godine isprepleli u jedinstvenu metaskrabotinu besa i frustracije.

- Podaci se pohranjuju kroz modifikovanu seriju mikrohirurski ugradjenim konraautistickih pomagala - odrecitovao sam svoju propagandnu verziju za musterije. - Klijentov kod pohranjen je u posebnom cipu. Osim SIPA, o kojima mi u poslu ne volimo razgovarati, nema nacina da se otkrije tvoja fraza. Ni drogama, ni rezanjem, ni mucenjem. Ja je ne znam, niti sam je ikada znao.

- Sipe? Ljigave, s pipcima.

Izasli smo na napustenu ulicnu trznicu. Sive spodobe posmatrale su nas preko trznice prekrivene ribljim glavama i trulim vocem.

- Superprovodni Instrument za Podatomske Anomalije. Koristili smo ih u ratu za pronalazenje podmornica i napipavanje neprijateljskih kibernetskih sistema.

- Da? Mornaricka roba? Iz rata? SIPA moze da procita taj tvoj cip? - Zastala je i osetio sam na sebi pogled iza ta dva ogledala.

- Cak su i primitivni modeli mogli izmeriti magnetno polje milijardu puta slabije od geomagnetne sile. To je kao izoliranje spatanja iz galame stadiona.

- Pajkani to vec rade s parabolicnim mikrofonima i laserima.

- Ali tvoji podaci su jos na sigurnom. - Profesionalni ponos. - Nijedna vlada nece dopustiti svojim pajkanima da koriste SIPE, cak ni najvaznijima u sigurnosti. Previse je prilika za nezgodne stvari izmedju sluzbi, neko bi te verovatno votergejtovao.

- Mornaricka roba - rece ona i osmeh joj zasja u senci. - Imam prijatelja koji je bio u ratnoj mornarici, zove se Jones. Mislim da bi bilo dobro da ga vidis. Samo, on je narkic. Stoga mu moramo nesto doneti.

- Narkic.

- Delfin.

Bio je vise nego delfin, ali s gledista nekog drugog delfina bio je manje od toga. Posmatrao sam ga kako se lepo okrece u galvanizovanoj posudi. Voda se prelivala preko ivice vlazeci mi cipele. On je bio visak iz proslog rata. Kiborg.

Podigao se iz vode, pokazujuci stare plocice po bokovima, kao neku vizuelnu salu, a umilnost mu je bila izguvljena ispod clankovitog oklopa i bio je nespretan i praistorijski. Dva deformiteta, sa obe strane lobanje, nacinjena su da sadrze senzorne jedinice. Srebrne ozlede svetlucale su na izlozenim delovima njegove sivo-bele koze.

Molly zazvizda. Jones lupi repom i jos malo vode sli se niz stranu posude.

- Kakvo je ovo mesto?

Buljio sam u nejasne oblike, zardjali lonac i stvari pod pokrovima. Nad posudom je visila nezgrapna drvena struktura, prosarana redovima prasnjavih sijalica.

- Luna-park. Zooloski vrt i karnevalske voznje. Razgovarajte sa Kitom ratnikom. Sve to. Bas je Jones neki kit.

Jones se ponovo izdigne i pogleda me tuznim starim okom.

- Kako govori? - Odjednom sam silno pozeleo otici.

- U tome i jeste stos. Reci zdravo, Jonese.

Sve se sijalice istovremeno upalise. Svetlile su crveno, belo i plavo.


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- Dobar je u simbolima, znas, ali kod mu je ogranicen. U mornarici su ga prikopcavali na audiovizuelni displej. - Iz dzepa na jakni izvukla je duguljasti paketic. - Cista roba, Jones. Hoces li? - upitala je. Ukocio se u vodi i poceo tonuti. Obuzdala me cudna panika, jer sam se setio da se moze udaviti. - Hocemo kljuc za Johnnyjevu banku, Jonese. Hocemo ga brzo.

Sijalice zatrepere i ugase se.

- Hajde, Jonese, kreni!

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Plave sijalice.

Tama.

- Cista! _Prava_je_. Hajde, Jonese.

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B B B B B B B B B
B B B B B B B B B
B B B B B B B B B

Beli natrijumski bljesak preplavi njeno lice, ukoceno i jednobojni, senki urezanih ispod jagodicnih kostiju.

Jones je prebacio pola svog oklopljenog trupa preko ruba posude i pomislio sam da ce se metal pokidati. Molly ga je ubola zamahnuvsi i smestivsi iglu izmedju dve plocice. On zapista na disajni otvor. Svetli oblici su eksplodirali jureci preko okvira i zatim se gasili.

Ostavili smo ga da pluta i tromo se valja u tamnoj vodi. Mozda je sanjao o svom ratovanju u Pacifiku, o kiberminama koje je pomeo, polako ulazeci u njihove sklopove pomocu sipe kojom je otkrio i Ralphiejevu pateticnu lozinku iz cipa ukopanog u mom mozgu.

Vidim kako su pogresili kada su ga demobilizovali, otpustili iz ratne mornarice sa netaktnutom opremom. Ali kako se kibernetski delfin zakvacio na hors?

- Rat - rece ona. - Svi su bili zavisnici. Mornarica je to ucinila. Kako ih inace pridobiti da rade za tebe?

- Nisam siguran da je ovo posao koji nesto znaci - rece pirat, ciljajuci na veci novac. - Specifikacije o cilju, komsatu koji nije zabelezen.

- Potrosi moje vreme, pa ni ti neces nista znaciti - kazala je Molly, naginuci se preko izgrebanog plasticnog stola da bi ga gurnula prstom.

- A mozda zelite kupiti mikrotalase negde drugde?

Njena ruka suknu po prednjoj strani njegovog sakoa, potpuno odrezavsi rever, a tkanina se nije ni zguzvala.

- Poslujemo ili ne?

- Poslujemo - odgovori on, gledajuci u svoj unisteni sako, kako se nadao, samo s pristojnim zanimanjem. - Poslujemo.

Dok sam proveravao dva kasetofona sto smo ih kupili, ona je iz dzepa sa zatvaracem, na rukavu jakne, izvadila komadic papira koji sam joj pre dao. Razmotala ga je i procitala bez glasa, micuci usnama. Slegnula je ramenima.

- To je to?

- Pucaj - rekoh, ukljucivsi dugmad za snimanje na oba aparata istovremeno.

Prelazak u stanje genijalnog idiota nije tako nagao kao sto ocekujem. Maska za piratovu stanicu bila je propadajuca putna agencija u pastelnoj kocki sa stolom, tri stolice i izbledelim plakatom svajcarske orbitalne banje. Par ptica-igracaka, staklenih tela i bakarnih nogu, monotono je pijuckalo vodu iz plasticne case na polici kraj Mollynog ramena. Kad sam presao u stanje, postepeno su ubrzavale, sve dok njihove svetlucavo obojene kreste nisu postale stalan luk boje.

Sedeo sam i pevao ukradeni program mrtvog Ralphieja tri sata.

Setaliste se proteze na cetrdeset kilometara od kraja do kraja. Nad onim sto je nekad bila arterija predgradja iskrpljeno se preklapa kroz Fullerovih kupola. Ako za vedrog dana iskljuce svetla, nesto slicno sivom sincanom svetlu probija se kroz slojeve akrilika,u prizoru slicnom skicama zatvora Giovannija Piranesija. Tri najjuznija kilometra pokrivaju Nocni grad. Nocni grad ne placa poreze i dazbine. Neonski lukovi su mrtvi, a svodovi su zacrnjeni od dima stoletnih vatri za kuvanje. U gotovo potpunoj tami nocnogradskog podneva ko vidi nekoliko tuceta lude dece izgubljene izmedju potpornih greda?

Penjali smo se dva sata uz betonske stepenice i gvozdene lestve unistenih precaga, pokraj napustenih osnovica i alata prekrivenog prasinom. Krenuli smo od necega nalik na zapustenu servisnu stanicu, punu trouglastih segmenata za krov. Sve je bilo pokriveno jednolikim slojem ispisanih grafita: imena bandi, inicijali i datumi iz vremena smene vekova. Grafiti su nas sledili gore, postepeno iscezavajuci, sve dok se samo jedno ime nije pocelo ponavljati u razmacima: Lo-Tek. Curecim crnim slovima.

- Ko su Lo-Teksi?

- Mi nismo, sefe. - Popela se uz aluminijumske lestve i nestala kroz rupu u komadu talasaste plastike. - Low Technics, Low Technology. - Plastika je prigusila njen glas. Sledio sam je, pazeci na bolni zglavak. - Lo-Teksi bi tvoj stos sa sacmaricom smatrali slabim.

Sat kasnije provukao sam se kroz drugu rupu, nezgrapno ispiljeni u iskrivljenoj sperploci, i sreo svog prvog Lo-Teka.

- Dobro je - rece Molly, dodirnuvsi mi rame. - To je samo Pas. Hej, Psu.

U uskom snopu njene svetiljke posmatrao nas je svojim jednim okom i polako isplazio dugacki, debeli sivkasti jezik, oblizujuci ogromne ocnjake. Zanima me zasto transplantaciju zubnih zametaka dobermana smatraju niskom tehnologijom. Sprecavanje imuniteta ne raste bas na drvetu.

- Molly. - Veliki zubi ometali su mu govor. Slina mu je visila s izvrnute donje usne. - Cuo sam te kako dolazis. Nismo se dugo videli. - Imao je mozda petnaest godina, ali su mu ocnjaci i svetli mozaik oziljaka, zajedno sa praznom ocnom dupljom, tvorili masku bestijalnosti. Trebalo je vremena i odredjene doze kreativnosti da bi se stvorilo takvo lice, a njegov stav mi je govorio da uziva u njemu. Nosio je otrcane trapke, crne od prljavstine i sjaje po savovima. Prsa i stopala bili su mu goli. Ucinio je nesto s ustima sto je nalikovalo na osmeh. - Pratili smo vas.

Daleko dole, u Nocnom gradu, ulicni prodavac vode izvikivao je svoju robu.

- Zice skacu, Psu. - Okrete svetiljku na stranu i ja ugledah tanke zice zavezane za karike, zice sto su se protezale do ruba i nestajale.

- Ugasi prokleto svetlo.

Ona ga ugasi.

- Kako to da onaj za vama nema svetla?

- Ne treba mu. Taj je opak, Psu. Ako mu vasi strazari prirede guzvu, vratice ih kuci u lakim kutijama.

- To je pravi prijatelj, Molly? - Zvucalo je to neugodno i cuo sam kako se pomaknuo na sperploci.

- Ne. Ali on je moj. A ovaj ovde - udarila me po ramenu - to je frend. Jasno?

- Dobro - rece on, ne bas odusevljeno, otklipsa do ruba platforme gde su se nalazile karike i poce trzati napetim zicama saljuci neku poruku.

Nocni grad se sirio ispod nas poput grada-igracke za pacove. U malim prozorima se videlo svetlo sveca, tu i tamo ostri svetli kvadrati osvetljeni baterijskim i klarbidnim svetiljkama. Zamisljao sam starce pri njihovim beskrajnim igrama domina, pod toplim, krupnim kapima vode koja kaplje s mokrog rublja obesenog o motke izmedju kuceraka od sperpoloce. Tada sam pokusao zamisliti i njega kako se strpljivo penje kroz tamu, obucen u bermude i ruznu turisticku kosulju, blag i spor. Kako nas je sledio?

- Dobro je - rece Molly. - Namirisao nas je.

- Pusis? - Pas izvuce zguzvanu kutiju iz dzepa i izvadi zgnjecenu cigaretu.

Pokusao sam prepoznati vrstu dok mi je pripaljivao kuhinjskom sibicom. "Yiheyuan" s filterom. Fabrika cigareta Beijing. Shvatio sam da se Lo - Teksi bave krijumcarenjem. Pas i Molly su se prepirali o necemu sto se, cini se, ticalo Mollyne zelje da iskoristi deo nekretnine Lo-Teksa.

- Ucinila sam ti mnogo usluga, covece. Hocu taj pod. Hocu i muziku.

- Nisi Lo-Tek.

To je trajalo najvecim delom krivudavog kilometra. Pas nas je vodio preko stazica i uz lestve od uzeta. Lo-Teksi pripijaju svoje mreze i mesta za spavanje uz strukturu grada pomocu sluzave epoksidne smole i spavaju iznad ponora u mornarickim lezaljkama. Njihovo je podrucje toliko suplje da se na nekim mestima sastoji samo od oslonaca za ruke i noge, urezanih u potpornje kupola.

Zvala ga je Pod Smrti. Teturajuci se za njom, dok su moje Eddie Bax cipele klizale po istrosenom metalu i vlaznoj sperploci, pitao sam se po cemu bi to mesto trebalo da bude smrtonosnije od ostatka teritorije. Istovremeno sam osecao da su prosvedi Psa ritualni i da je vec ocekivala da dobije ono sto je htela.

NMegde ispod nas Jones se okrece u posudi osecajuci prva probadanja narkicke mucnine. Policajci dosadjuju redovnim posetiocima "Droma" pitanjima o Ralphieju. Sta je radio? S kim je bio pre nego sto je izasao? A Jakuze prekrivaju svojim sablasnim telom gradske banke podataka, trazeci blede slike mene, odrazene u brojevima racuna, osiguravajucim transakcijama, racunima za troskove. Mi smo ekonomija informacija. To vas uce u skoli. Ali ne kazu vam da je nemoguce pomaknuti se, ziveti, delovati na bilo kom nivou bez ostavljanja tragova, komadica prividno beznacajnih fragmenata licnih podataka. Fragmenata koji se mogu vratiti, pojacati.

Ali sada je pirat vec poslao nasu poruku kroz liniju za kodirani prenos do komsata Jakuza. Jednostavnu poruku. Povucite svoje pse ili cemo emitovati vas program nasiroko.

Program. Nisam imao pojma sta sadrzi. Jos ne znam. Ja samo pevam pesmu, bez ikakvog razumevanja. Verovatno su to podaci o istrazivanju, jer Jakuze su odani napradnim oblicima industrijske spijunaze. Fin posao krasti sasvim mirno od Ono-Sendaija i pristojno zadrzavati podatke za ucenu, preteci da ce otupiti ostricu konglomeratskih istrazivanja tako da javno objave proizvod.

Ali zasto im to ne vredi? Ne bi li bili sretniji da imaju sta prodati Ono-Sendaiju, sretniji nego s mrtvim Johnnyjem iz Ulice Secanja?

Njihov program je bio na putu do adrese u Sidneyu, mesta koje cuva pisma klijenata i ne postavlja pitanja posto se plati mali honorar. Izbrisao sam veci deo druge kopije i snimio nasu poruku u nastale praznine, ostavljajuci upravo toliko programa da ga mogu identifikovati kao pravi.

Zglob me boleo. Zeleo sam stati, leci, spavati. Znao sam da cu uskoro flipnuti i pasti, znao sam da ce crne spicoke koje sam kupio za vece Eddieja Baxa izgubiti vrednost i odneti me dole, u Nocni Grad. Ali on se pojavio u mojim mislima poput jeftinog religioznog holograma, svetlucav, a povecani cip na njegovoj havajskoj kosulji nejasno se ocrtavao poput izvidjackog snimka nekog urbanog jezgra osudjenog na propast.

I tako sam sledio Psa i Molly kroz nebo Lo-Teksa, sagradjeno zbrda-zdola od otpadaka koje cak ni Nocni grad nije hteo.

Stranice Poda Smrti bile su duge osam metara. Neki je dzin provukao celicni kabel tamo-vamo kroz smetliste i sve to napeo. Skripao je kad se micao, a micao se neprestano, ljuljao i propinjao dok su se Lo-Teksi smestali unaokolo na policu od sperploce. Drvo je bilo srebrno od starosti, izglacano od dugotrajne upotrebe i duboko izrezbareno inicijalima, pretnjama i strasnim izjavama. Polica je visila na posebnim kablivima, koji su se gubili u mraku ispod sirovog belog sjaja dvaju prastarih reflektorki obesenih iznad Poda.

Cura sa zubima kao u Psa skocila je na sve cetiri na Pod. Grudi su joj bile istetovirane ljubicastim spiralama. Onda je pojurila preko Poda, smejuci se i natezuci s deckom koji je pio tamnu tekucinu iz litrene pljoske.

Moda Lo-Teka su oziljci i tetovaze. I zubi. Struja sto su je proveli da osvetle Pod cinila se kao jedini ustupak njihovoj sveopstoj estetici, stvorenoj u ime - rituala, sporta, umetnosti? Nisam znao, ali mogao sam videti da je za njih Pod nesto posebno. Izgledao je kao da je sklapan kroz generacije.

Drzao sam beskorisnu sacmaricu ispod jakne. Njena tvrdoca i tezina su umirivale, iako vise nisam imao naboja. Odjednom sam shvatio da nemam pojma sta se to u stvari desava ili sta treba da se dogodi. No, takva je moja igra, jer veci deo vremena proveo sam kao slepi upijac koga su drugi punili znanjem i zatim praznili, deklamujuci siteticke jezike koje nikad necu razumeti. Vrlo tehnicki momak. Zaista.

A tada sam zapazio kako su se Lo-Teksi utisali.

Bio je tamo, na ivici svetla, posmatrajuci Pod Smrti i galeriju s tihim Lo-Teksima. A kad su nam se oci prvi put srele, s obostranim prepoznavanjem, naglo sam se setio Pariza i dugackih "Mercedesovih" autobusa na elektricni pogon kako klize kroz kisu prema Notre Dame: pokretni staklenici. Kosooka lica iza stakla, stotine "nikona" koji se dizu u slepom fototropizmu, cvetovi od celika i kristala. Kad su me njegove oci nasle, iza njih su zujali isti takvi zatvaraci.

Potrazio sam pogledom Molly Millions, ali ona je nestala.

Lo-Teksi se razdvojise pustajuci ga da stane na stepenicu. Naklonio se, nasmesio i izuo sandale, ostavivisi ih savrseno poravnate, a zatim stupio na Pod Smrti. Krenuo je prema meni preko te nestalne trambuline od otpadaka, lako kao svaki turista koji gazi po sitetickom tepihu u bilo kom hotelu.

Molly pade na Pod, odmah se pokrenuvsi.

Pod zavrista.

Na njemu su bili instalirani mikrofoni i pojacala s pikapima na cetiri debele zavojnice u uglovima i kontaktnim mikrofonima pricvrscenim nasumce na zardjale delove konstrukcije. Lo-Teksi su negde imali pojacalo i sintisajzer i sad sam video i obrise zvucnika gore, iznad okrutnih belih slapova svetla.

Zapoce elektronsko bubnjanje, kao pojacano kucanje srca, ravnomerno poput metronoma.

Skinula je koznu jaknu i cizme, majica je bila bez rukava, a bledi tragovi instalacija od Chiba Cityja protezali su joj se niz tanke ruke. Kuzne pantalone sijale su se pod svetlima. Zapocela je ples.

Savila je kolena, cvrsto oslonjena stopalima na spljosteno benzinsko bure i Pod Smrti poce se napinjati kao da odgovara. Zvuk koji je stvarao nalikovao je na kraj sveta, kao da uzad koja drzi svod puca i savija se preko neba.

Ljuljao se s njom nekoliko trenutaka i zatim krenuo, savrseno procenjujuci micanje Poda, poput coveka koji koraca po ravnom kamenju u ornamentalnom vrtu.

Povukao je vrh svog palca, elegantno, kao covek lezeran u ponasanju, i bacio ga prema njoj. Pod svetlima je vlakno izgledalo kao prelomljena traka duge. Bacila se nisko, otkotrljala i odskocila kada je molekula prosla iznad nje, a celicne kandze skljocnule su na svetlu, verovatno zbog automatskog odbrambenog refleksa.

Ritam bubnja se ubrzao, a ona je poskakivala s njim divlje kose oko praznih srebrnih sociva, tankih usta, usana napetih od koncentracije. Pod smrti je grmeo i urlao, a Lo-Teksi su vristali od uzbudjenja.

Povukao je vlakno, stvorio brz, metar sirok krug sablasnih boja i vrteo ga pred sobom, rukom bez palca, u visini grudi. Stit.

A onda je iz Molly nesto provalilo, nesto iznutra, i to je bio pravi pocetak njezinog mahnitog plesa. Skakala je, uvijala se, bacala u stranu, docekujuci se na obe noge na liveni bok masine povezane direktno sa jednom zavojnicom. Pokrio sam usi rukama i kleknuo od zvucne vrtoglavice, misleci da Pod i galerija padaju, dole do Nocnog Grada i video sam nas kako se probijamo kroz stracare i mokro rublje i rasprskavamo se na plocniku poput trulog voca. Ali kablovi su drzali, a Pod smrti se dizao i spustao poput poludelog metalnog mora. A Molly je plesala na njemu.

Pri kraju, malo pre nego sto je izveo poslednju pokusaj s vlaknom, video sam nesto na njegovom licu, izraz koji kao da mu nije pristajao. Mislim da je to bila neverica, zapanjeno neverovanje pomesano sa cistim estetskim gadjenjem prema onome sto je gledao, slusao, onome sto mu se dogadjalo. Uvukao je rotirajuce vlakno, sablasni disk se smanjio na velicinu tanjira, zamahnuo je rukom iznad glave i ponovo napao, a vrh palca je okrenuo prema Molly poput zive stvari.

Pod ju je spustio, molekula je prosla tik iznad njene glave, Pod se zaljuljao, digavsi ga u putanju molekule. Morala mu je bezopasno proci iznad glave i biti uvucena u dijamantski tvrdu rupu. Ali odrezala mu je ruku, malo iznad zapesca. U Podu je bila rupa i on propade kroz nju poput skakaca u vodu, porazeni kamikaza na putu dole, u Nocni Grad. Mislim da je taj skok izveo zato da sebi omoguci nekoliko sekundu dostojanstvene tisine. Ubila ga je kulturnim sokom.

Lo-Teksi su urlali, ali neko je iskljucio pojacalo i Molly je smirila Pod do tisine, opustena, bela i prazna, dok ljuljanje nije prestalo i dok se nije culo samo slabo pucketanje izmucenog metala i strujanje rdje o rdju.

Trazili smo na Podu odrezanu ruku, ali je nismo nasli. Pronasli smo samo elegantnu krivulju na komadu zardjalog gvozdja, gde je molekula prosla kroz njega. Rub joj je bio svetao poput novog hroma.

Nikada nismo saznali jesu li Jakuze prihvatili nase uslove, cak ni jesu li dobili nasu poruku. Koliko znam, njihov program jos ceka Eddieja Baxa, na polici u zadnjoj prostoriji trgovine poklonima, na trecem nivou Pete centralne u Sidneyu. Verovatno su original prodali nazad Ono-Sendaiju pre nekoliko meseci. Ali, mozda su i primili piratsku poruku, jer me jos niko nije dosao traziti, a prosla je vec gotovo godina. Ako i dodju, ceka ih dug uspon kroz tamu, kraj straze Psa, a i ja vise ne izgleda kao Eddie Bax. Prepustam Molly da se brine o tome uz pomoc lokalnih anestetika. A moji novi zubi gotovo su se primili.

Odlucio sam ostati ovde, gore. Kad sam pogledao preko Poda Smrti pre nego sto je on dosao, video sam kako sam prazan. I znao sam da sam sit toga da budem kanta. Sada se gotovo svake noci spustam i posecujem Jonesa.

Postali smo partneri. Jones, ja i Molly Millions. Molly vodi nas posao u "Dromu". Jones je jos u Luna-parku, ali sada ima veci bazen i svake nedelje mu se doprema sveza morska voda. A kada mu treba, ima i robe. Jos razgovara s decom pomocu svojih sijalica, ali sa mnom razgovara u kucici sto sam je tamo iznajmio pomocu novog displeja, boljeg od onog sto ga je koristio u mornarici.

I svi dobro zaradjujemo, bolje nego pre, jer Jonesova SIPA moze procitati tragove svega sto je iko ikad pohranio u meni i prikazuje mi to na displeju, na jezicima koje mogu razumeti. Tako saznajemo mnogo o mojim bivsim musterijama. A jednog dana dacu hirurgu da iskopa sav taj silicijum iz mojih reznjeva i zivecu samo sa svojim secanjima, nicijim tudjim, kao sto drugi ljudi zive. Ali ne jos.

U medjuvremenu, ovde gore je zaista dobro, pusim u mraku kineske s filterom i slusam kapanje vlage kondenzovane na kupoli. Zaista je tiho ovde gore - sve dok se dva Lo-Teksa ne sretnu na Podu Smrti.

I poucno je. Sa Jonesom, koji mi pomaze da sve shvatim, postacu tehnicki nabolje obrazovan momak u gradu.

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The Difference Engine

FIRST ITERATION
The Angel of Goliad

   Composite image, optically encoded by escort-craft of the trans-Channel airship Lord Brunel: aerial view of suburban Cherbourg, October 14, 1905.
   A villa, a garden, a balcony.
   Erase the balcony's wrought-iron curves, exposing a bath-chair and its occupant. Reflected sunset glints from the nickel-plate of the chair's wheel-spokes.
   The occupant, owner of the villa, rests her arthritic hands upon fabric woven by a Jacquard loom.
   These hands consist of tendons, tissue, jointed bone. Through quiet processes of time and information, threads within the human cells have woven themselves into a woman.
   Her name is Sybil Gerard.
   Below her, in a neglected formal garden, leafless vines lace wooden trellises on whitewashed, flaking walls. From the open windows of her sickroom, a warm draft stirs the loose white hair at her neck, bringing scents of coal-smoke, jasmine, opium.
   Her attention is fixed upon the sky, upon a silhouette of vast and irresistible grace—metal, in her lifetime, having taught itself to fly. In advance of that magnificence, tiny unmanned aeroplanes dip and skirl against the red horizon.
   Like starlings, Sybil thinks.
   The airship's lights, square golden windows, hint at human warmth. Effortlessly, with the incomparable grace of organic function, she imagines a distant music there, the music of London: the passengers promenade, they drink, they flirt, perhaps they dance.
   Thoughts come unbidden, the mind weaving its perspectives, assembling meaning from emotion and memory.
   She recalls her life in London. Recalls herself, so long ago, making her way along the Strand, pressing past the crush at Temple Bar. Pressing on, the city of Memory winding itself about her—till, by the walls of Newgate, the shadow of her father's hanging falls…
   And Memory turns, deflected swift as light, down another byway—one where it is always evening…
   It is January 15, 1855.
   A room in Grand's Hotel, Piccadilly.

   One chair was propped backward, wedged securely beneath the door's cut-glass knob. Another was draped with clothing: a woman's fringed mantelet, a mud-crusted skirt of heavy worsted, a man's checked trousers and cutaway coat.
   Two forms lay beneath the bedclothes of the laminated-maple four-poster, and off in the iron grip of winter Big Ben bellowed ten o'clock, great hoarse calliope sounds, the coal-fired breath of London.
   Sybil slid her feet through icy linens to the warmth of the ceramic bottle in its wrap of flannel. Her toes brushed his shin. The touch seemed to start him from deep deliberation. That was how he was, this Dandy Mick Radley.
   She'd met Mick Radley at Laurent's Dancing Academy, down Windmill Street. Now that she knew him, he seemed more the sort for Kellner's in Leicester Square, or even the Portland Rooms. He was always thinking, scheming, muttering over something in his head. Clever, clever. It worried her. And Mrs. Winterhalter wouldn't have approved, for the handling of "political gentlemen" required delicacy and discretion, qualities Mrs. Winterhalter believed she herself had a-plenty, while crediting none to her girls.
   "No more dollymopping, Sybil," Mick said. One of his pronouncements, something about which he'd made up his clever mind.
   Sybil grinned up at him, her face half-hidden by the blanket's warm edge. She knew he liked the grin. Her wicked-girl grin. He can't mean that, she thought. Make a joke of it, she told herself. "But if I weren't a wicked dollymop, would I be here with you now?"
   "No more playing bobtail."
   "You know I only go with gentlemen."
   Mick sniffed, amused. "Call me a gentleman, then?"
   "A very flash gentleman," Sybil said, flattering him. "One of the fancy. You know I don't care for the Rad Lords. I spit on 'em, Mick."
   Sybil shivered, but not unhappily, for she'd run into a good bit of luck here, full of steak-and-taters and hot chocolate, in bed between clean sheets in a fashionable hotel. A shiny new hotel with central steam-heat, though she'd gladly have traded the restless gurgling and banging of the scrolled gilt radiator for the glow of a well-banked health.
   And he was a good-looking cove, this Mick Radley, she had to admit, dressed very flash, had the tin and was generous with it, and he'd yet to demand anything peculiar or beastly. She knew it wouldn't last, as Mick was a touring gent from Manchester, and gone soon enough. But there was profit in him, and maybe more when he left her, if she made him feel sorry about it, and generous.
   Mick reclined into fat feather-pillows and slid his manicured fingers behind his spit-curled head. Silk nightshirt all frothy with lace down the front—only the best for Mick. Now he seemed to want to talk a bit. Men did, usually, after a while—about their wives, mostly.
   But for Dandy Mick, it was always politics. "So, you hate the Lordships, Sybil?"
   "Why shouldn't I?" Sybil said. "I have my reasons."
   "I should say you do," Mick said slowly, and the look he gave her then, of cool superiority, sent a shiver through her.
   "What d'ye mean by that, Mick?"
   "I know your reasons for hating the Government. I have your number."
   Surprise seeped into her, then fear. She sat up in bed. There was a taste in her mouth like cold iron.
   "You keep your card in your bag," he said. "I took that number to a rum magistrate I know. He ran it through a government Engine for me, and printed up your Bow Street file, rat-a-tat-tat, like fun." He smirked. "So I know all about you, girl. Know who you are…"
   She tried to put a bold face on it. "And who's that, then, Mr. Radley?"
   "No Sybil Jones, dearie. You're Sybil Gerard, the daughter of Walter Gerard, the Luddite agitator."
   He'd raided her hidden past.
   Machines, whirring somewhere, spinning out history.
   Now Mick watched her face, smiling at what he saw there, and she recognized a look she'd seen before, at Laurent's, when first he'd spied her across the crowded floor. A hungry look.
   Her voice shook. "How long have you known about me?"
   "Since our second night. You know I travel with the General. Like any important man, he has enemies. As his secretary and man-of-affairs, I take few chances with strangers." Mick put his cruel, deft little hand on her shoulder. "You might have been someone's agent. It was business."
   Sybil flinched away. "Spying on a helpless girl," she said at last. "You're a right bastard, you are!"
   But her foul words scarcely seemed to touch him—he was cold and hard, like a judge or a lordship. "I may spy, girl, but I use the Government's machinery for my own sweet purposes. I'm no copper's nark, to look down my nose at a revolutionary like Walter Gerard—no matter what the Rad Lords may call him now. Your father was a hero."
   He shifted on the pillow. "My hero—that was Walter Gerard. I saw him speak, on the Rights of Labour, in Manchester. He was a marvel—we all cheered till our throats was raw! The good old Hell-Cats…" Mick's smooth voice had gone sharp and flat, in a Mancunian tang. "Ever hear tell of the Hell-Cats, Sybil? In the old days?"
   "A street-gang," Sybil said. "Rough boys in Manchester."
   Mick frowned. "We was a brotherhood! A friendship youth-guild! Your father knew us well. He was our patron politician, you might say."
   "I'd prefer it if you didn't speak of my father, Mr. Radley."
   Mick shook his head at her impatiently. "When I heard they'd tried and hanged him"—the words like ice behind her ribs—"me and the lads, we took up torches and crowbars, and we ran hot and wild… That was Ned Ludd's work, girl! Years ago…" He picked delicately at the front of his nightshirt. " 'Tis not a tale I tell to many. The Government's Engines have long memories."
   She understood it now—Mick's generosity and his sweet-talk, the strange hints he'd aimed at her, of secret plans and better fortune, marked cards and hidden aces. He was pulling her strings, making her his creature. The daughter of Walter Gerard was a fancy prize, for a man like Mick.
   She pulled herself out of bed, stepping across icy floorboards in her pantalettes and chemise.
   She dug quickly, silently, through the heap of her clothing. The fringed mantelet, the jacket, the great sagging cage of her crinoline skirt. The jingling white cuirass of her corset.
   "Get back in bed," Mick said lazily. "Don't get your monkey up. 'Tis cold out there." He shook his head. " 'Tis not like you think, Sybil."
   She refused to look at him, struggling into her corset by the window, where frost-caked glass cut the upwashed glare of gaslight from the street. She cinched the corset's laces tight across her back with a quick practiced snap of her wrists.
   "Or if it is," Mick mused, watching her, " 'tis only in small degree."
   Across the street, the opera had let out—gentry in their cloaks and top-hats. Cab-horses, their backs in blankets, stamped and shivered on the black macadam. White traces of clean suburban snow still clung to the gleaming coachwork of some lordship's steam-gurney. Tarts were working the crowd. Poor wretched souls. Hard indeed to find a kind face amid those goffered shirts and diamond studs, on such a cold night. Sybil turned toward Mick, confused, angry, and very much afraid. "Who did you tell about me?"
   "Not a living soul," Mick said, "not even my friend the General. And I won't be peaching on you. Nobody's ever said Mick Radley's indiscreet. So get back in bed."
   "I shan't," Sybil said, standing straight, her bare feet freezing on the floorboards. "Sybil Jones may share your bed—but the daughter of Walter Gerard is a personage of substance!"
   Mick blinked at her, surprised. He thought it over, rubbing his narrow chin, then nodded. " 'Tis my sad loss, then. Miss Gerard." He sat up in bed and pointed at the door, with a dramatic sweep of his arm. "Put on your skirt, then, and your brass-heeled dolly-boots. Miss Gerard, and out the door with you and your substance. But 'twould be a great shame if you left. I've uses for a clever girl."
   "I should say you do, you blackguard," said Sybil, but she hesitated. He had another card to play—she could sense it in the set of his face.
   He grinned at her, his eyes slitted. "Have you ever been to Paris, Sybil?"
   "Paris?" Her breath clouded in midair.
   "Yes," he said, "the gay and the glamorous, next destination for the General, when his London lecture tour is done." Dandy Mick plucked at his lace cuffs. "What those uses are, that I mentioned, I shan't as yet say. But the General is a man of deep stratagem. And the Government of France have certain difficulties that require the help of experts… " He leered triumphantly. "But I can see that I bore you, eh?"
   Sybil shifted from foot to foot. "You'll take me to Paris, Mick," she said slowly, "and that's the true bill, no snicky humbugging?"
   "Strictly square and level. If you don't believe me, I've a ticket in my coat for the Dover ferry."
   Sybil walked to the brocade armchair in the corner, and tugged at Mick's greatcoat. She shivered uncontrollably, and slipped the greatcoat on. Fine dark wool, like being wrapped in warm money.
   "Try the right front pocket," Mick told her. "The card-case." He was amused and confident—as if it were funny that she didn't trust him. Sybil thrust her chilled hands into both pockets. Deep, plush-lined…
   Her left hand gripped a lump of hard cold metal. She drew out a nasty little pepperbox derringer. Ivory handle, intricate gleam of steel hammers and brass cartridges, small as her hand but heavy.
   "Naughty," said Mick, frowning. "Put it back, there's a girl."
   Sybil put the thing away, gently but quickly, as if it were a live crab. In the other pocket she found his card-case, red morocco leather; inside were business cards, cartes-de-visite with his Engine-stippled portrait, a London train timetable.
   And an engraved slip of stiff creamy parchment, first-class passage on the Newcomen, out of Dover.
   "You'll need two tickets, then," she hesitated, "if you really mean to take me."
   Mick nodded, conceding the point. "And another for the train from Cherbourg, too. And nothing simpler. I can wire for tickets, downstairs at the lobby desk."
   Sybil shivered again, and wrapped the coat closer. Mick laughed at her. "Don't give me that vinegar phiz. You're still thinking like a dollymop; stop it. Start thinking flash, or you'll be of no use to me. You're Mick's gal now—a high-flyer."
   She spoke slowly, reluctantly. "I've never been with any man who knew I was Sybil Gerard." That was a lie, of course—there was Egremont, the man who had mined her. Charles Egremont had known very well who she was. But Egremont no longer mattered—he lived in a different world, now, with his po-faced respectable wife, and his respectable children, and his respectable seat in Parliament.
   And Sybil hadn't been dollymopping, with Egremont. Not exactly, anyway. A matter of degree…
   She could tell that Mick was pleased at the lie she'd told him. It had flattered him.
   Mick opened a gleaming cigar-case, extracted a cheroot, and lit it in the oily flare of a repeating match, filling the room with the candied smell of cherry tobacco.
   "So now you feel a bit shy with me, do you?" he said at last. "Well, I prefer it that way. What I know, that gives me a bit more grip on you, don't it, than mere tin."
   His eyes narrowed. "It's what a cove knows that counts, ain't it, Sybil? More than land or money, more than birth. Information. Very flash."
   Sybil felt a moment of hatred for him, for his ease and confidence. Pure resentment, sharp and primal, but she crushed her feelings down. The hatred wavered, losing its purity, turning to shame. She did hate him—but only because he truly knew her. He knew how far Sybil Gerard had fallen, that she had been an educated girl, with airs and graces, as good as any gentry girl, once.
   From the days of her father's fame, from her girlhood, Sybil could remember Mick Radley's like. She knew the kind of boy that he had been. Ragged angry factory-boys, penny-a-score, who would crowd her father after his torchlight speeches, and do whatever he commanded. Rip up railroad tracks, kick the boiler-plugs out of spinning jennies, lay policemen's helmets by his feet. She and her father had fled from town to town, often by night, living in cellars, attics, anonymous rooms-to-let, hiding from the Rad police and the daggers of other conspirators. And sometimes, when his own wild speeches had filled him with a burning elation, her father would embrace her and soberly promise her the world. She would live like gentry in a green and quiet England, when King Steam was wrecked. When Byron and his Industrial Radicals were utterly destroyed…
   But a hempen rope had choked her father into silence. The Radicals ruled on and on, moving from triumph to triumph, shuffling the world like a deck of cards. And now Mick Radley was up in the world, and Sybil Gerard was down.
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   She stood there silently, wrapped in Mick's coat. Paris. The promise tempted her, and when she let herself believe him, there was a thrill behind it like lightning. She forced herself to think about leaving her life in London. It was a bad, a low, a sordid life, she knew, but not entirely desperate. She still had things to lose. Her rented room in Whitechapel, and dear Toby, her cat. There was Mrs. Winterhalter, who arranged meetings between fast girls and political gentlemen. Mrs. Winterhalter was a bawd, but ladylike and steady, and her sort was difficult to find. And she would lose her two steady gentlemen, Mr. Chadwick and Mr. Kingsley, who each saw her twice a month. Steady tin, that was, and kept her from the street. But Chadwick had a jealous wife in Fulham, and, in a moment of foolishness, Sybil had stolen Kingsley's best cufflinks. She knew that he suspected.
   And neither man was half so free with his money as Dandy Mick.
   She forced herself to smile at him, as sweetly as she could. "You're a rum'un, Mick Radley. You know you've got my leading-strings. Perhaps I was vexed with you at first, but I'm not so cakey as to not know a rum gentleman when I see one."
   Mick blew smoke. "You are a clever one," he said admiringly. "You talk blarney like an angel. You're not fooling me, though, so you needn't deceive yourself. Still, you're just the gal I need. Get back in bed."
   She did as he told her.
   "Jove," he said, "your blessed feet are two lumps of ice. Why don't you wear little slippers, eh?" He tugged at her corset, with determination. "Slippers, and black silk stockings," he said. "A gal looks very flash in bed, with black silk stockings."

   From the far end of the glass-topped counter, one of Aaron's shopmen gave Sybil the cold eye, standing haughty and tall in his neat black coat and polished boots. He knew something was up—he could smell it. Sybil waited for Mick to pay, hands folded before her on her skirt, demure, but watching sidelong from beneath the blue fringe of her bonnet. Under her skirt, wadded through the frame of her crinoline, was the shawl she'd nicked while Radley tried on top-hats.
   Sybil had learned how to nick things—she'd taught herself. It simply took nerve, that was the secret. It took pluck. Look neither right nor left—just grab, lift her skirt, stuff and rustle. Then stand quite straight, with a psalm-singing look, like a gentry girl.
   The floorman had lost interest in her; he was watching a fat man fingering watered-silk braces. Sybil checked her skirt quickly. No bulge showed.
   A young spotty-faced clerk, with inkstained thumbs, set Mick's number into a counter-top credit-machine. Zip, click, a pull on the ebony-handled lever, and it was done. He gave Mick his printed purchase-slip and did the parcel up in string and crisp green paper.
   Aaron & Son would never miss a cashmere shawl. Perhaps their account-engines would, when they tallied up, but the loss couldn't hurt them; their shopping-palace was too big and too rich. All those Greek columns, chandeliers of Irish crystal, a million mirrors—room after gilded room, stuffed with rubber riding boots and French-milled soap, walking-sticks, umbrellas, cutlery, locked glass cases crammed with silver-plate and ivory brooches and lovely wind-up golden music-boxes… And this was only one of a dozen in a chain. But for all of that, she knew, Aaron's wasn't truly smart, not a gentry place.
   But couldn't you just do anything with money in England, if you were clever? Someday Mr. Aaron, a whiskery old merchant Jew from Whitechapel, would have a lordship, with a steam-gurney waiting at the curb and his own coat of arms on the coachwork. The Rad Parliament wouldn't care that Mr. Aaron was no Christian. They'd given Charles Darwin a lordship, and he said that Adam and Eve were monkeys.
   The liftman, gotten up in a Frenchified livery, drew the rattling brass gate aside for her. Mick followed her in, his parcel tucked under his arm, and then they were descending.
   They emerged from Aaron's into Whitechapel jostle. While Mick checked a street-map he took from his coat, she gazed up at the shifting letters that ran the length of Aaron's frontage. A mechanical frieze, a slow sort of kinotrope for Aaron's adverts, made all of little bits of painted wood, clicking about each in turn, behind leaded sheets of bevel-glass. CONVERT YOUR MANUAL PIANO, the jostling letters suggested, INTO A KASTNER'S PIANOLA.
   The skyline west of Whitechapel was spikey with construction cranes, stark steel skeletons painted with red lead against the damp. Older buildings were furred with scaffolding; what wasn't being torn down, it seemed, to make way for the new, was being rebuilt in its image. There was a distant huffing of excavation, and a tremulous feeling below the pavement, of vast machines cutting some new underground line.
   But now Mick turned left, without a word, and walked away, his hat cocked to one side, his checkered trouser-legs flashing under the long hem of his greatcoat. She had to hurry to match his step. A ragged boy with a numbered tin badge was sweeping mucky snow from the crossing; Mick tossed him a penny without breaking stride and headed down the lane called Butcher Row.
   She caught up and took his arm, past red and white carcasses dangling from their black iron hooks, beef and mutton and veal, and thick men in their stained aprons crying their goods. London women crowded there in scores, wicker baskets on their arms. Servants, cooks, respectable wives with men at home. A red-faced squinting butcher lurched in front of Sybil with a double handful of blue meat. "Hallo, pretty missus. Buy your gentleman my nice kidneys for pie!" Sybil ducked her head and walked around him.
   Parked barrows crowded the curb, where costers stood bellowing, their velveteen coats set off with buttons of brass or pearl. Each had his numbered badge, though fully half the numbers were slang, Mick claimed, as slang as the costers' weights and measures. There were blankets and baskets spread on neatly chalked squares on the paving, and Mick was telling her of ways the costers had to plump out shrunken fruit, and weave dead eels in with live. She smiled at the pleasure he seemed to take in knowing such things, while hawkers yelped about their brooms and soap and candles, and a scowling organ-grinder cranked, two-handed, at his symphony machine, filling the street with a fast springy racket of bells, piano-wire, and steel.
   Mick stopped beside a wooden trestle-table, kept by a squint-eyed widow in bombazine, the stump of a clay pipe protruding from her thin lips. Arrayed before her were numerous vials of some viscous-looking substance Sybil took to be a patent medicine, for each was pasted with a blue slip of paper bearing the blurred image of a savage red Indian. "And what would this be, mother?" Mick inquired, tapping one red-waxed cork with a gloved finger.
   "Rock-oil, mister," she said, relinquishing the stem of her pipe, "much as they call Barbados tar." Her drawling accent grated on the ear, but Sybil felt a pang of pity. How far the woman was from whatever outlandish place she'd once called home.
   "Really," Mick asked, "it wouldn't be Texian?"
   " 'Healthful balm,' " the widow said, " 'from Nature's secret spring, the bloom of health and life to man will bring.' Skimmed by the savage Seneca from the waters of Pennsylvania's great Oil Creek, mister. Three pennies the vial and a guaranteed cure-all." The woman was peering up at Mick now with a queer expression, her pale eyes screwed tight in nests of wrinkles, as though she might recall his face. Sybil shivered.
   "Good day to you, then, mother," Mick said, with a smile that somehow reminded Sybil of a vice detective she'd known, a sandy little man who worked Leicester Square and Soho; the Badger, the girls had called him.
   "What is it?" she asked, taking Mick's arm as he turned to go. "What is it she's selling?"
   "Rock-oil," Mick said, and she caught his sharp glance back at the hunched black figure. "The General tells me it bubbles from the ground, in Texas… "
   Sybil was curious. "Is it a proper cure-all, then?"
   "Never mind," he said, "and here's an end to chat." He was glancing bright-eyed down the lane. "I see one, and you know what to do."
   Sybil nodded, and began to pick her way through the market-crowd toward the man Mick had seen. He was a ballad-seller, lean and hollow-cheeked, his hair long and greasy under a tall hat wrapped in bright polka-dot fabric. He held both his arms bent, hands knotted as if in prayer, the sleeves of his rumpled jacket heavy with long rustling quires of sheet-music.
   " 'Railway to Heaven,' ladies and gents," the ballad-seller chanted, a veteran patterer. " 'Of truth divine the rails are made, and on the Rock of Ages laid; the rails are fixed in chains of love, firm as the throne of God above.' Lovely tune and only tuppence, miss."
   "Do you have "The Raven of San Jacinto'?" Sybil asked.
   "I can get that, I can get it," the seller said. "And what's that then?"
   "About the great battle in Texas, the great General?"
   The ballad-seller arched his brows. His eyes were blue and crazily bright, with hunger, perhaps, or religion, or gin. "One of your Crimea generals then, a Frenchy, this Mr. Jacinto?"
   "No, no," Sybil said, and gave him a pitying smile, "General Houston, Sam Houston of Texas. I do want that song, most particular."
   "I buy my publications fresh this afternoon, and I'll look for your song for you sure, miss."
   "I shall want at least five copies for my friends," Sybil said.
   "Ten pence will get you six."
   "Six, then, and this afternoon, at this very spot."
   "Just as you say, miss." "The seller touched the brim of his hat.
   Sybil walked away, into the crowd. She had done it. It was not so bad. She felt she could get used to it. Perhaps it was a good tune, too, one that people would enjoy when the balladman was forced to sell the copies.
   Mick sidled up suddenly, at her elbow.
   "Not bad," Mick allowed, reaching into the pocket of his greatcoat, like magic, to produce an apple turnover, still hot, flaking sugar and wrapped in greasy paper.
   "Thank you," she said, startled but glad, for she'd been thinking of stopping, hiding, fetching out the stolen shawl, but Mick's eyes had been on her every moment. She hadn't seen him, but he'd been watching; that was the way he was. She wouldn't forget again.
   They walked, together and apart, all down Somerset, and then through the vast market of Petticoat Lane, lit as evening drew on with a host of lights, a glow of gas-mantles, the white glare of carbide, filthy grease-lamps, tallow dips twinkling among the foodstuffs proffered from the stalls. The hubbub was deafening here, but she delighted Mick by gulling three more ballad-sellers.
   In a great bright Whitechapel gin-palace, with glittering gold-papered walls flaring with fishtail gas-jets, Sybil excused herself and found a ladies' convenience. There, safe within a reeking stall, she fetched the shawl out. So soft it was, and such a lovely violet color too, one of the strange new dyes clever people made from coal. She folded the shawl neatly, and stuffed it through the top of her corset, so it rested safe. Then out to join her keeper again, finding him seated at a table. He'd bought her a noggin of honey gin. She sat beside him.
   "You did well, girl," he said, and slid the little glass toward her. The place was full of Crimean soldiers on furlough, Irishmen, with street-drabs hanging on them, growing red-nosed and screechy on gin. No barmaids here, but big bruiser bully-rock bartenders, in white aprons, with mill-knocker clubs behind the bar.
   "Gin's a whore's drink, Mick."
   "Everybody likes gin," he said. "And you're no whore, Sybil."
   "Dollymop, bobtail." She looked at him sharply. "What else d'ye call me, then?"
   "You're with Dandy Mick now," he said. He leaned his chair back, jabbing his gloved thumbs through the arm-holes of his waistcoat. "You're an adventuress."
   "Adventuress?"
   "Bloody right." He straightened. "And here's to you." He sipped his gin-twist, rolled it over his tongue with an unhappy look, and swallowed. "Never mind, dear—they've cut this with turpentine or I'm a Jew." He stood up.
   They left. She hung on his arm, trying to slow his pace. " 'Adventurer,' that's what you are, then, eh, Mr. Mick Radley?"
   "So I am, Sybil," he said softly, "and you're to be my 'prentice. So you do as you're told in the proper humble spirit. Learn the tricks of craft. And someday you join the union, eh? The guild."
   "Like my father, eh? You want to make a play of that, Mick? Who he was, who I am?"
   "No," Mick said flatly. "He was old-fashioned, he's nobody now."
   Sybil smirked. "They let us wicked girls into this fancy guild of yours, do they, Mick?"
   "It's a knowledge guild," he said soberly. "The bosses, the big'uns, they can take all manner of things away from us. With their bloody laws and factories and courts and banks… They can make the world to their pleasure, they can take away your home and kin and even the work you do… " Mick shrugged angrily, his lean shoulders denting the heavy fabric of the greatcoat. "And even rob a hero's daughter of her virtue, if I'm not too bold in speaking of it." He pressed her hand against his sleeve, a hard, trapping grip. "But they can't ever take what you know, now can they, Sybil? They can't ever take that."

   Sybil heard Hetty's footsteps in the hall outside her room, and the rattle of Hetty's key at the door. She let the serinette die down, with a high-pitched drone.
   Hetty tugged the snow-flaked woollen bonnet from her head, shrugging free from her Navy cloak. She was another of Mrs. Winterhalter's girls, a big-boned, raucous brunette from Devon, who drank too much, but was sweet in her way, and always kind to Toby.
   Sybil folded away the china-handled crank and lowered the cheap instrument's scratched lid. "I was practicing. Mrs. Winterhalter wants me to sing next Thursday."
   "Bother the old drab," Hetty said. "Thought this was your night out with Mr. C. Or is it Mr. K.?" Hetty stamped warmth into her feet before the narrow little hearth, then noticed, in the lamplight, the scattering of shoes and hat-boxes from Aaron & Son. "My word," she said, and smiled, her broad mouth pinched a bit with envy. "New beau, is it? You're so lucky, Sybil Jones!"
   "Perhaps." Sybil sipped hot lemon-cordial, tilling her head back to relax her throat.
   Hetty winked. "Winterhalter doesn't know about this one, eh?"
   Sybil shook her head and smiled. Hetty would not tell. "D'ye know anything about Texas, Hetty?"
   "A country in America," Hetty said readily. "French own it, don't they?"
   "That's Mexico. Would you like to go to a kinotrope show, Hetty? The former President of Texas is lecturing. I've tickets, free for the taking."
   "When?"
   "Saturday."
   "I'm dancing then," Hetty said. "Perhaps Mandy would go." She blew warmth into her fingers. "Friend of mine comes by late tonight, wouldn't trouble you, would it?"
   "No," Sybil said. Mrs. Winterhalter had a strict rule against any girl keeping company with men in her room. It was a rule Hetty often ignored, as if daring the landlord to peach on her. Since Mrs. Winterhalter chose to pay the rent directly to the landlord, Mr. Cairns, Sybil seldom had call to speak to him, and less with his sullen wife, a thick-ankled woman with a taste for dreadful hats. Cairns and his wife had never informed against Hetty, though Sybil was not sure why, for Hetty's room was next to theirs, and Hetty made a shameless racket when she brought men home—foreign diplomats, mostly, men with odd accents and, to judge by the noise, beastly habits.
   "You can carry on singing if you like," Hetty said, and knelt before the ash-covered fire. "You've a fine voice. Mustn't let your gifts go to waste." She began to feed individual coals to the hearth, shivering. A dire chill seemed to enter the room then, through the cracked casement of one of the nailed-up windows, and for a strange passing moment Sybil felt a distinct presence in the air. A definite sense of observation, of eyes fixed upon her from another realm. She thought of her dead father. Learn the voice, Sybil. Learn to speak. It's all we have that can fight them, he had told her. This in the last few days before his arrest, when it was clear that the Rads had won again—clear to everyone, perhaps, save Walter Gerard. She had seen then, with heart-crushing clarity, the utter magnitude of her father's defeat. His ideals would be lost—not just misplaced but utterly expunged from history, to be crushed again and again and again, like the carcass of a mongrel dog under the racketing wheels of an express train. Learn to speak, Sybil. It's all we have…
   "Read to me?" Hetty asked. "I'll make tea."
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
   "Very well." In her spotty, scattered life with Hetty, reading aloud was one of the little rituals they had that passed for domesticity. Sybil took up the day's Illustrated London News from the deal table, settled her crinoline about her in the creaking, damp-smelling armchair, and squinted at a front-page article. It concerned itself with dinosaurs.
   The Rads were mad for these dinosaurs, it seemed. Here was an engraving of a party of seven, led by Lord Darwin, all peering intently at some indeterminate object embedded in a coal-face in Thuringia. Sybil read the caption aloud, showed the picture to Hetty. A bone. The thing in the coal was a monstrous bone, as long as a man was tall. She shuddered. Turning the page, she encountered an artist's view of the creature as it might have looked in life, a monstrosity with twin rows of angry triangular saw-teeth along its humped spine. It seemed the size of an elephant at least, though its evil little head was scarcely larger than a hound's.
   Hetty poured the tea. " 'Reptiles held sway across the whole of the earth,' eh?" she quoted, and threaded her needle. "I don't believe a bloody word of it."
   "Why not?"
   "They're the bones of bloody giants, out of Genesis. That's what the clergy say, ain't it?"
   Sybil said nothing. Neither supposition struck her as the more fantastic. She turned to a second article, this one in praise of Her Majesty's Artillery in the Crimea. She found an engraving of two handsome subalterns admiring the operation of a long-range gun. The gun itself, its barrel stout as a foundry stack, looked fit to make short work of all Lord Darwin's dinosaurs. Sybil's attention, however, was held by an inset view of the gunnery Engine. The intricate nest of interlocking gearwork possessed a queer beauty, like some kind of baroquely fabulous wallpaper.
   "Have you anything that needs darning?" Hetty asked.
   "No, thank you."
   "Read some adverts, then," Hetty advised. "I do hate that war humbug."
   There was HAVILAND CHINA, from Limoges, France; VIN MARIANI, the French tonic, with a testimonial from Alexandre Dumas and Descriptive Book, Portraits, and Autographs of Celebrities, upon application to the premises in Oxford Street; SILVER ELECTRO SILICON POLISH, it never scratches, never wears, it is unlike others; the "NEW DEPARTURE" BICYCLE BELL, it has a tone all its own; DR. BAYLEY'S LITHIA WATER, cures Bright's disease and the gouty diathesis; GURNEY'S "REGENT" POCKET STEAM-ENGINE, intended for use with domestic sewing machines. This last held Sybil's attention, but not through its promise to operate a machine at double the old speed at a cost of one halfpenny per hour.
   Here was an engraving of the tastefully ornamented little boiler, to be heated by gas or paraffin. Charles Egremont had purchased one of these for his wife. It came equipped with a rubber tube intended to vent the waste steam when jammed under a convenient sash-window, but Sybil had been delighted to hear that it had turned Madame's drawing-room into a Turkish bath.
   When the paper was finished, Sybil went to bed. She was woken around midnight by the savage rhythmic crouching of Hetty's bed-springs.

   It was dim in the Garrick Theatre, dusty and cold, with the pit and the balcony and the racks of shabby seats; but it was pitch-dark below the stage, where Mick Radley was, and it smelled of damp and lime.
   Mick's voice echoed up from under her feet. "Ever seen the innards of a kinotrope, Sybil?"
   "I saw one once, backstage," she said. "At a music-hall, in Bethnal Green. I knew the fellow what worked it, a clacker cove."
   "A sweetheart?" Mick asked. His echoing voice was sharp.
   "No," Sybil told him quickly, "I was singing a bit… But it scarcely paid."
   She heard the sharp click of his repeating match. It caught on the third attempt and he lit a stub of candle. "Come down," he commanded. "Don't stand there like a goose, showing off your ankles." Sybil lifted her crinoline with both hands and picked her way uneasily down the steep damp stairs.
   Mick reached up to grope behind a tall stage-mirror, a great gleaming sheet of silvered glass, with a wheeled pedestal and oily gears and worn wooden cranks. He retrieved a cheap black portmanteau of proofed canvas, placed it carefully on the floor before him, and squatted to undo the flimsy tin clasps. He removed a stack of perforated cards bound with a ribbon of red paper. There were other bundles in the bag as well, Sybil saw, and something else, a gleam of polished wood.
   He handled the cards gently, like a Bible.
   "Safe as houses," he said. "You just disguise 'em, you see—write something stupid on the wrapper, like 'Temperance Lecture—Parts One Two Three.' Then coves never think to steal 'em, or even load them up and look." Hefting the thick block, he riffled its edge with his thumb, so that it made a sharp crisp sound, like a gambler's new deck. "I put a deal of capital in these," he said. "Weeks of work from the best kino hands in Manchester. Exclusively to my design, I might point out. 'Tis a lovely thing, girl. Quite artistic, in its way. You'll soon see."
   Closing the portmanteau, he stood. He carefully slid the bundle of cards into his coat-pocket, then bent over a crate and tugged out a thick glass tube. He blew dust from the tube, then gripped one end of it with a special pair of pincers. The glass cracked open with an airtight pop—there was a fresh block of lime in the tube. Mick slid it loose, humming to himself. He tamped the lime gently into the socket of a limelight burner, a great dish-shaped thing of sooty iron and gleaming tin. Then he turned a hose-tap, sniffed a bit, nodded, turned a second tap, and set the candle to it.
   Sybil yelped as a vicious flash sheeted into her eyes. Mick chuckled at her over the hiss of blazing gas, dots of hot blue dazzle drifting before her. "Better," he remarked. He aimed the blazing limelight carefully into the stage-mirror, then began to adjust its cranks.
   Sybil looked around, blinking. It was dank and ratty and cramped under the Garrick stage, the sort of place a dog or a pauper might die in, with torn and yellowed bills underfoot, for naughty farces like That Rascal Jack and Scamps of London. A pair of ladies' unmentionables were wadded in a corner. From her brief unhappy days as a stage-singer, she had some idea how they might have gotten there.
   She let her gaze follow steam-pipes and taut wires to the gleam of the Babbage Engine, a small one, a kinotrope model, no taller than Sybil herself. Unlike everything else in the Garrick, the Engine looked in very good repair, mounted on four mahogany blocks. The floor and ceiling above and beneath it had been carefully scoured and whitewashed. Steam-calculators were delicate things, temperamental, so she'd heard; better not to own one than not cherish it. In the stray glare from Mick's limelight, dozens of knobbed brass columns gleamed, set top and bottom into solid sockets bored through polished plates, with shining levers, ratchets, a thousand steel gears cut bright and fine. It smelled of linseed oil.
   Looking at it, this close, this long, made Sybil feel quite odd. Hungry almost, or greedy in a queer way, the way she might feel about… a fine lovely horse, say. She wanted—not to own it exactly, but possess it somehow…
   Mick took her elbow suddenly, from behind. She started. "Lovely thing, isn't it?"
   "Yes, it's… lovely."
   Mick still held her arm. Slowly, he put his other gloved hand against her cheek, inside her bonnet. Then he lifted her chin with his thumb, staring into her face. "It makes you feel something, doesn't it?"
   His rapt voice frightened her, his eyes underlit with glare. "Yes, Mick," she said obediently, quickly. "I do feel it… something."
   He tugged her bonnet loose, to hang at her neck. "You're not frightened of it, Sybil, are you? Not with Dandy Mick here, holding you. You feel a little special frisson. You'll learn to like that feeling. We'll make a clacker of you."
   "Can I do that, truly? Can a girl do that?"
   Mick laughed. "Have you never heard of Lady Ada Byron, then? The Prime Minister's daughter, and the very Queen of Engines!" He let her go, and swung both his arms wide, coat swinging open, a showman's gesture. "Ada Byron, true friend and disciple of Babbage himself! Lord Charles Babbage, father of the Difference Engine and the Newton of our modern age!"
   She gaped at him. "But Ada Byron is a ladyship!"
   "You'd be surprised who our Lady Ada knows," Mick declared, plucking a block of cards from his pocket and peeling off its paper jacket. "Oh, not to drink tea with, among the diamond squad at her garden-parties, but Ada's what you'd call fast, in her own mathematical way… " He paused. "That's not to say that Ada is the best, you know. I know clacking coves in the Steam Intellect Society that make even Lady Ada look a bit tardy. But Ada possesses genius. D'ye know what that means, Sybil? To possess genius?"
   "What?" Sybil said, hating the giddy surety in his voice.
   "D'ye know how analytical geometry was born? Fellow named Descartes, watching a fly on the ceiling. A million fellows before him had watched flies on the ceiling, but it took Ren6 Descartes to make a science of it. Now engineers use what he discovered every day, but if it weren't for him we'd still be blind to it."
   "What do flies matter to anyone?" Sybil demanded.
   "Ada had an insight once that ranked with Descartes' discovery. No one has found a use for it as yet. It's what they call pure mathematics." Mick laughed. " 'Pure.' You know what that means, Sybil? It means they can't get it to run." He rubbed his hands together, grinning. "No one can get it to run."
   Mick's glee was wearing at her nerves. "I thought you hated lordships!"
   "I do hate lordly privilege, what's not earned fair and square and level," he said. "But Lady Ada lives and swears by the power of gray matter, and not her blue blood." He slotted the cards into a silvered tray by the side of the machine, then spun and caught her wrist. "Your father's dead, girl! 'Tis not that I mean to hurt you, saying it, but the Luddites are dead as cold ashes. Oh, we marched and ranted, for the rights of labor and such—fine talk, girl! But Lord Charles Babbage made blueprints while we made pamphlets. And his blueprints built this world."
   Mick shook his head. "The Byron men, the Babbage men, the Industrial Radicals, they own Great Britain! They own us, girl—the very globe is at their feet, Europe, America, everywhere. The House of Lords is packed top to bottom with Rads. Queen Victoria won't stir a finger without a nod from the savants and capitalists." He pointed at her. "And it's no use fighting that anymore, and you know why? 'Cause the Rads do play fair, or fair enough to manage—and you can become one of 'em, if you're clever! You can't get clever men to fight such a system, as it makes too much sense to 'em."
   Mick thumbed his chest. "But that don't mean that you and I are out in the cold and lonely. It only means we have to think faster, with our eyes peeled and our ears open… " Mick struck a prize-fighter's pose: elbows bent, fists poised, knuckles up before his face. Then he flung his hair back, and grinned at her.
   "That's all very well for you," Sybil protested. "You can do as you like. You were one of my father's followers—well, there were many such, and some are in Parliament now. But fallen women get mined, d'ye see? Ruined, and stay that way."
   Mick straightened, frowning at her. "Now that's exactly what I mean. You're running with the flash mob, now, but thinking like a trollop! There's no one knows who you are, in Paris! The cops and bosses have your number here, true enough! But numbers are only that, and your file's no more than a simple stack of cards. For them as know, there's ways to change a number." He sneered, to see her surprise. "It ain't done easy, here in London, I grant you. But affairs run differently, in the Paris of Louis Napoleon! Affairs run fast and loose in flash Paree, especially for an adventuress with a blarney tongue and a pretty ankle."
   Sybil bit her knuckle. Her eyes burned suddenly. It was acrid smoke from the limelight, and fear. A new number in the Government's machines—that would mean a new life. A life without a past. The unexpected thought of such freedom terrified her. Not so much for what it meant in itself, though that was strange and dazzling enough. But for what Mick Radley might demand for such a thing, in fair exchange. "Truly, you could change my number?"
   "I can buy you a new one in Paris. Pass you off for French or an Argie or an American refugee girl." Mick folded his elegant arms. "I promise nothing, mind you. You'll have to earn it."
   "You wouldn't gull me, Mick?" she said slowly. "Because… because I could be really and specially sweet to a fellow who could do me such a great service."
   Mick jammed his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels, looking at her. "Could you now," he said softly. Her trembling words had fanned something inside him, she could see it in his eyes. An eager, lustful kindling, something she dimly knew was there, a need he had, to… slip his fishhooks deeper into her.
   "I could, if you treated me fair and level, as your 'prentice adventuress, and not some cakey dollymop, to gull and cast aside." Sybil felt tears coming, harder this time. She blinked, and looked up boldly, and let them flow, thinking perhaps they might do some good. "You wouldn't raise my hopes and dash them, would you? That would be low and cruel! If you did that I'd—I'd jump off Tower Bridge!"
   He looked her in the eye. "Bar that sniffling, girl, and listen close to me. Understand this. You're not just Mick's pretty bit o' muslin—I may have a taste for that same as any man, but I can get that where I like, and don't need you just for that. I need the blarney skill and the daring pluck that was Mr. Walter Gerard's. You're to be my 'prentice, Sybil, and I your master, and let that be how things stand with us. You'll be loyal, obedient, truthful to me, no subterfuge and no impertinence, and in return, I'll teach you craft, and keep you well—and you'll find me as kind and generous as you are loyal and true. Do I make myself clear?"
   "Yes, Mick."
   "We have a pact, then?"
   "Yes, Mick." She smiled at him.
   "Well and good," he said. "Then kneel, here, and put your hands together, so"—he joined his hands in prayer—"and make this oath. That you, Sybil Gerard, do swear by saints and angels, by powers, dominions, and thrones, by seraphim and cherubim and the all-seeing eye, to obey Michael Radley, and serve him faithfully, so help you God! Do you so swear?"
   She stared at him in dismay. "Must I really?"
   "Yes."
   "But isn't it a great sin, to make such an oath, to a man who… I mean to say… we're not in holy wedlock…"
   "That's a marriage vow," he said impatiently, "and this a 'prentice oath!"
   She saw no alternative. Tugging her skirts back, she knelt before him on cold gritty stone.
   "Do you so swear?"
   "I do, so help me God."
   "Don't look so glum," he said, helping her to her feet, "that's a mild and womanly oath you swore, compared to some." He pulled her to her feet. "Let it brace you, should you have doubts or disloyal thoughts. Now take this"—he handed her the guttering candle—"and hunt up that gin-soak of a stage-manager, and tell him I want the boilers fired."

   They dined that evening in the Argyll Rooms, a Haymarket resort not far from Laurent's Dancing Academy. The Argyll had private supper-rooms in which the indiscreet might spend an entire night.
   Sybil was mystified by the choice of a private room. Mick was certainly not ashamed to be seen with her in public. Midway through the lamb, however, the waiter admitted a stout little gentleman with pomaded red hair and a gold chain across a taut velvet waistcoat. He was round and plush as a child's doll.
   "Hullo, Corny, " Mick said, without bothering to put down his knife and fork.
   "Evening, Mick," the man said, with the curiously un-placeable accent of an actor, or a provincial long in service to city gently. "I was told you'd need of me."
   "And told correctly. Corny." Mick neither offered to introduce Sybil nor asked the man to sit. She began to feel quite uncomfortable. " 'Tis a brief part, so you should have little trouble remembering your lines." Mick produced a plain envelope from his coat and handed it to the man. "Your lines, your cue, and your retainer. The Garrick, Saturday night."
   The man smiled mirthlessly as he accepted the envelope. "Quite some time since I played the Garrick, Mick." He winked at Sybil and took his leave with no more formality than that.
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Underpromise; overdeliver.

Zodijak Gemini
Pol Muškarac
Poruke Odustao od brojanja
Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
mob
Apple iPhone 6s
  "Who's that, Mick?" Sybil asked. Mick had returned to his lamb and was spooning mint sauce from a pewter serving-pot.
   "An actor of parts," Mick said. "He'll play opposite you in the Garrick, during Houston's speech."
   Sybil was baffled. "Play? Opposite me?"
   "You're a 'prentice adventuress, don't forget. You can expect to be called on to play many roles, Sybil. A political speech can always benefit from a bit of sweetening."
   "Sweetening?"
   "Never mind." He seemed to lose interest in his lamb, and pushed his plate aside. "Plenty of time for rehearsal tomorrow. I've something to show you now." He rose from the table, crossed to the door, and bolted it securely. Returning, he lifted the proofed canvas portmanteau from the carpet beside his chair and placed it before her on the Argyll's clean but much mended linen.
   She'd been curious about the portmanteau. Not curious that he'd carried it with him, from the Garrick's pit, first to the printers, to examine the handbills for Houston's lecture, then on to the Argyll Rooms, but because it was of such cheap stuff, nothing at all like the gear he so obviously prided himself on. Why should Dandy Mick choose to carry about a bag of that sort, when he could afford some flash confection from Aaron's, nickel clasps and silk woven in Ada checkers? And she knew that the black bag no longer contained the kino cards for the lecture, because he'd wrapped those carefully in sheets of The Times and hidden them again behind the stage-mirror.
   Mick undid the wretched tin clasps, opened the bag, and lifted out a long narrow case of polished rosewood, its corners trimmed with bright brass. Sybil wondered if it mightn't contain a telescope, for she'd seen boxes of this sort in the window of a firm of Oxford Street instrument-makers. Mick handled it with a caution that was very nearly comical, like some Papist called upon to move the dust of a dead Pope. Caught up in a sudden mood of childlike anticipation, she forgot the man called Corny and Mick's worrying talk about playing opposite him at the Garrick. There was something of the magician about Mick now, as he placed the gleaming rosewood case on the tablecloth. She almost expected him to furl back his cuffs: nothing here, you see, nothing here.
   His thumbs swung tiny brass hooks from a pair of miniature eyelets. He paused for effect.
   Sybil found that she was holding her breath. Had he brought a gift for her? Some token of her new status? Something to secretly mark her as his 'prentice adventuress?
   Mick lifted the rosewood lid, with its sharp brass corners.
   It was filled with playing cards. Stuffed end to end with them, a score of decks at the least. Sybil's heart fell.
   "You've seen nothing like this before," he said. "I can assure you of that."
   Mick pinched out the card nearest his right hand and displayed it for her. No, not a playing card, though near enough in size. It was made of some strange milky substance that was neither paper nor glass, very thin and glossy. Mick flexed it lightly between thumb and forefinger. It bent easily, but sprang rigid again as he released it.
   It was perforated with perhaps three dozen tightly spaced rows of circular holes, holes no larger than those in a good pearl button. Three of its corners were slightly rounded, while the fourth was trimmed off at an angle. Near the trimmed corner, someone had written "#I" in faint mauve ink.
   "Camphorated cellulose," Mick declared, "the devil's own stuff, should it touch fire, but naught else will serve the finer functions of the Napoleon."
   Napoleon? Sybil was lost. "Is it a sort of kino card, Mick?"
   He beamed at her, delighted. She seemed to have said the right thing.
   "Have you never heard of the Great Napoleon ordinateur, the mightiest Engine of the French Academy? The London police Engines are mere toys beside it."
   Sybil pretended to study the contents of the box, knowing it would please Mick. But it was merely a wooden box, quite handsomely made, lined with the green baize that covered billiard tables. It contained a very large quantity of the slick milky cards, perhaps several hundred.
   "Tell me what this is about, Mick."
   He laughed, quite happily it seemed, and bent suddenly to kiss her mouth.
   "In time, in time." He straightened, reinserted the card, lowered the lid, clicked the brass hooks into place. "Every brotherhood has its mysteries. Dandy Mick's best guess is that nobody knows quite what it would mean to run this little stack. It would demonstrate a certain matter, prove a certain nested series of mathematical hypotheses… All matters quite arcane. And, by the by, it would make the name of Michael Radley shine like the very heavens in the clacking confraternity." He winked. "The French clackers have their own brotherhoods, you know. Les Fils de Vaucanson, they call themselves. The Jacquardine Society. We'll be showing those onion-eaters a thing or two."
   He seemed drunk to her, now, though she knew he'd only had those two bottled ales. No, he was intoxicated by the idea of the cards in the box, whatever they might be.
   "This box and its contents are quite extraordinarily dear, Sybil." He seated himself again and rummaged in the cheap black bag. It yielded a folded sheet of stout brown paper, an ordinary pair of stationery-shears, a roll of strong green twine. As Mick spoke, he unfolded the paper and began to wrap the box in it. "Very dear. Traveling with the General exposes a man to certain dangers. We're off to Paris after the lecture, but tomorrow morning you'll be taking this round to the Post Office in Great Portland Street." Done with wrapping, he wound twine about the paper. "Nip this for me with the shears." She did as he asked. "Now put your finger here." He executed a perfect knot. "You'll be posting our parcel to Paris. Poste restante. Do you know what that means?"
   "It means the parcel is held for the addressee."
   Mick nodded, took a stick of scarlet sealing-wax from one trouser-pocket, his repeating match from the other. The match struck on the first try. "Yes, held there in Paris for us, safe as houses." The wax darkened and slid in the oily flame. Scarlet droplets spattered the green knot, the brown paper. He tossed the shears and the roll of twine back into the portmanteau, pocketed the wax and the match, withdrew his reservoir-pen, and began to address the parcel.
   "But what is it, Mick? How can you know its value if you've no idea what it does?"
   "Now I didn't say that, did I? I've my ideas, don't I? Dandy Mick always has his ideas. I'd enough of an idea to take the original up to Manchester with me, on the General's business. I'd enough of an idea to pump the canniest clackers for their latest compression techniques, and enough of the General's capital to commission the result on Napoleon-gauge cellulose!"
   It might have been Greek, for all it meant to her.

   A knock came. An evil-looking servant boy, cropheaded and snuffling, wheeled in a trolley and cleared the plates. He made a botch of it, lingering as if expecting a gratuity, but Mick ignored him, and stared coolly into space, now and then grinning to himself like a cat.
   The boy left with a sneer. At length there came the rap of a cane against the door. A second of Mick's friends had arrived.
   This was a heavyset man of quite astonishing ugliness, pop-eyed and blue-jowled, his squat sloping forehead fringed in an oiled parody of the elegant spit-curls the Prime Minister favored. The stranger wore new and well-cut evening dress, with cloak, cane, and top-hat, a fancy pearl in his cravat and a gold Masonic ring on one finger. His face and neck were deeply sunburnt.
   Mick rose at once from his chair, shook the ringed hand, offered a seat.
   "You keep late hours, Mr. Radley," the stranger said.
   "We do what we can to accommodate your special needs, Professor Rudwick."
   The ugly gentleman settled in his chair with a sharp wooden squeak. His bulging eyes shot Sybil a speculative look then, and for one heart-leaping moment she feared the worst, that it had all been a gull and she was about to become part of some dreadful transaction between them.
   But Rudwick looked away, to Mick. "I won't conceal from you, sir, my eagerness to resume my activities in Texas." He pursed his lips. He had small, grayish, pebble-like teeth in a great slash of a mouth. "This business of playing the London social lion is a deuced bore."
   "President Houston will grant you an audience tomorrow at two, if that's agreeable."
   Rudwick grunted. "Perfectly."
   Mick nodded. "The fame of your Texian discovery seems to grow by the day, sir. I understand that Lord Babbage himself has taken an interest."
   "We have worked together at the Institute at Cambridge," Rudwick admitted, unable to hide a smirk of satisfaction. "The theory of pneumo-dynamics…"
   "As it happens," Mick remarked, "I find myself in possession of a clacking sequence that may amuse His Lordship."
   Rudwick seemed nettled by this news. "Amuse him, sir? Lord Babbage is a most… irascible man."
   "Lady Ada was kind enough to favor me in my initial efforts… "
   "Favor you?" said Rudwick, with a sudden ugly laugh. "Is it some gambling-system, then? It had best be, if you hope to catch her eye."
   "Not at all," Mick said shortly.
   "Her Ladyship chooses odd friends," Rudwick opined, with a long sullen look at Mick. "Do you know a man named Collins, a so-called oddsmaker?"
   "Haven't had the pleasure," Mick said.
   "The fellow's on her like a louse in a bitch's ear," Rudwick said, his sunburnt face flushing. "Fellow made me the most astounding proposition…"
   "And?" Mick said delicately.
   Rudwick frowned. "I did fancy you might know him, he seems the sort that might well run in your circles… "
   "No, sir."
   Rudwick leaned forward. "And what of another certain gent, Mr. Radley, very long of limb and cold of eye, who I fancy has been dogging my movements of late? Would he, perhaps, be an agent of your President Houston? Seemed to have a Texian air about him."
   "My President is fortunate in the quality of his agents."
   Rudwick stood, his face dark. "You'll be so kind, I'm sure, as to request the bastard to cease and desist."
   Mick rose as well, smiling sweetly. "I'll certainly convey your sentiments to my employer, Professor. But I fear I keep you from your night's amusements… " He walked to the door, opened it, shut it on Rudwick's broad, well-tailored back.
   Mick turned, winked at Sybil. "He's off to the ratting-pits! A very low-sporting gentleman, our learned Professor Rudwick. Speaks his bloody mind, though, don't he?" He paused. "The General will like him."

   Hours later, she woke in Grand's, in bed beside him, to the click of his match and the sweet reek of his cigar. He'd had her twice on the chaise behind their table in the Argyll Rooms, and once again in Grand's. She'd not known him to be so ardent before. She'd found it encouraging, though the third go had made her sore, down there.
   The room was dark, save for the spill of gaslight past the curtains.
   She moved a bit closer to him.
   "Where would you like to go, Sybil, after France?"
   She'd never considered the question. "With you, Mick… "
   He chuckled, and slid his hand beneath the bedclothes, his fingers closing around the mound of her womanhood.
   "Where shall we go then, Mick?"
   "Go with me and you'll go first to Mexico. Then north, for the liberation of Texas, with a Franco-Mexican army under the command of General Houston."
   "But… but isn't Texas a frightfully queer place?"
   "Quit thinking like a Whitechapel drab. All the world's queer, seen from Piccadilly. Sam Houston had himself a bloody palace, in Texas. Before the Texians threw him into exile, he was Britain's greatest ally in the American west. You and I, why, we could live like grandees in Texas, build a manor by some river… "
   "Would they truly let us do that, Mick?"
   "Her Majesty's Government, you mean? Perfidious Albion?" Mick chuckled. "Well, that largely depends on British public opinion toward General Houston! We're doing all we can to sweeten his reputation here in Britain. That's why he's on this lecture tour, isn't it?"
   "I see," Sybil said. "You're very clever, Mick."
   "Deep matters, Sybil! Balance of power. It worked for Britain in Europe for five hundred years, and it works even better in America. Union, Confederacy, Republics of Texas and California—they all take a turn in British favor, until they get too bold, a bit too independent, and then they're taken down a peg. Divide and rule, dear." The coal-end of Mick's cigar glowed in the darkness. "If it weren't for British diplomacy, British power, America might be all one huge nation."
   "What about your friend the General? Will he truly help us?"
   "That's the beauty of it!" Mick declared. "The diplomats thought Sam Houston was a bit stiff-necked, didn't care for some of his actions and policies, didn't back him as strongly as they should have. But the Texian junta that replaced him is far worse. They're openly hostile to British interests! Their days are numbered. The General has had to cool his heels a bit in exile here in England, but now he's on his way back to Texas, for what's his by right." He shrugged. "Should have happened years ago. Our trouble is that Her Majesty's Government don't know their own mind! There's factions among 'em. Some don't trust Sam Houston—but the French will help us anyhow! Their Mexican clients have a border war with the Texians. They need the General!"
   "You're going to war, then, Mick?" She found it difficult to imagine Dandy Mick leading a cavalry charge.
   "Coup d'etat, more like," he assured her. "We won't see much bloodshed. I'm Houston's political man, you see, and his man I'll stay, for I'm the one's arranged this London speaking-tour, and on to France, and I'm the one's made certain approaches as resulted in him being granted his audience with the French Emperor… " But could that be true, really? "And I'm the one as runs Manchester's newest and best through the kino for him, sweetens the press and British public opinion, hires the bill-stickers… " He drew on his cigar, his fingers kneading her there, and she heard him puff out a great satisfied cloud of cherry smoke.
   But he mustn't have felt like doing it again, not then, because she was soon asleep and dreaming, dreaming of Texas, a Texas of rolling downs, contented sheep, the windows of gray manors glinting in late-afternoon sunlight.

   Sybil sat in an aisle seat, third row back in the Garrick, thinking unhappily that General Sam Houston, late of Texas, was not drawing much of a crowd. People were filtering in as the five-man orchestra squeaked and sawed and honked. A family party was settling in the row before her, two boys, in bluejackets and trousers, with laid-down shirt-collars, a little girl in a shawl and a braided frock, then two more little girls, ushered in by their governess, a thin-looking sort with a hooked nose and watery eyes, sniffling into her handkerchief. Then the oldest boy, sauntering in, a sneer on his face. Then papa with dress-coat and cane and whiskers, and fat mama with long ringlets and a big nasty hat and three gold rings on her plump soft fingers. Finally all were seated, amid a shuffling of coats and shawls and a munching of candied orange-peel, quite patently well-behaved and expecting improvement. Clean and soaped and prosperous, in their snug machine-made clothes.
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   A clerky fellow with spectacles took the next seat to Sybil's, an inch-wide blue strip showing at his hairline, where he'd shaved his forehead to suggest intellect. He was reading Mick's program and sucking an acidulated lemon-drop. And past him a trio of officers, on furlough from the Crimea, looking very pleased with themselves, come to hear about an old-fashioned war in Texas, fought the old-fashioned way. There were other soldiers speckled through the crowd, bright in their red coats, the respectable sort, who didn't go for drabs and gin, but would take the Queen's pay, and learn gunnery arithmetic, and come back to work in the railroads and shipyards, and better themselves.
   The place was full of bettering-blokes, really: shopkeepers and store-clerks and druggists, with their tidy wives and broods. In her father's day, such people, Whitechapel people, had been angry and lean and shabby, with sticks in their hands, and dirks in their belts. But times had changed under the Rads, and now even Whitechapel had its tight-laced scrubfaced women and its cakey clock-watching men, who read the 'Dictionary of Useful Knowledge' and the 'Journal of Moral Improvement', and looked to get ahead.
   Then the gas-lights guttered in their copper rings, and the orchestra swung into a flat rendition of "Come to the Bower." With a huff, the limelight flared, the curtain drew back before the kinotrope screen, the music covering the clicking of kino-bits spinning themselves into place. Broken frills and furbelows grew like black frost on the edges of the screen. They framed tall letters, in a fancy alphabet of sharp-edged Engine-Gothic, black against white:

   Editions
   Panoptique
   Presents

   And below the kinotrope, Houston entered stage-left, a bulky, shabby figure, limping toward the podium at the center of the stage. He was drowned in dimness for the moment, below the raw and focused glare of Mick's limelight.
   Sybil watched him closely, curious about him, wary—her first glimpse of Mick's employer. She'd seen enough American refugees in London to have ideas about them. The Unionists dressed much like normal Britons, if they had the money for it, while Confederates tended to dress rather gaudy and flash, but peculiar, not quite proper; to judge by Houston, the Texians were an even queerer and madder lot. He was a big man, red-faced and beefy, over six feet tall in his heavy boots, his broad shoulders draped in a long coarse-woven blanket rather like a mantelet, but barbarically striped. Red and black and umber, it swept the Garrick's stage like a tragedian's toga. He had a thick mahogany cane in his right hand, and he swung it lightly now, as if he didn't need it, but his legs shook, Sybil saw, and the gold fringe trembled on the fancy seams of his trousers.
   Now he mounted to the darkened podium, wiped his nose, sipped at a glass of something that plainly wasn't water. Above his head the kinotrope shuffled into a colored image, the lion of Great Britain and a sort of long-horned bull. The animals fraternized beneath small crossed banners, the Union Jack and the single-starred flag of Texas, both bright in red and white and blue. Houston was adjusting something behind his podium; a small stage-mirror, Sybil guessed, so he could check the kinotrope behind him as he spoke, and not lose his place.
   The kinotrope went to black and white again, the screen's bits flickering, row by row, like falling dominoes. A portrait-bust appeared in shaded jagged lines: high balding forehead, heavy brows, thick nose bracketed by bristling cheek-whiskers that hid the ears. The thin mouth was set firmly, the cleft chin upraised. Then, below the bust, the words GENERAL SAM HOUSTON.
   A second limelight flared, catching Houston at the podium, flinging him into sudden bright relief before the audience. Sybil clapped hard. She was the last to finish.
   "Thank you very kindly, ladies and gentlemen of London," Houston said. He had the deep booming voice of a practiced orator, marred by a foreign drawl. "You do a stranger great honor." Houston looked across the seats of the Garrick. "I see we have many gentlemen of Her Majesty's military in the audience tonight." He shrugged the blanket back a bit and limelight glittered harshly from the medals clinging to his coat. "Your professional interest is very gratifying, sirs."
   In the row before Sybil, the children were fidgeting. A little girl squealed in pain as one of her brothers punched her. "And I see we have a future British fighter here, as well!" There was a ripple of surprised laughter. Houston checked his mirror quickly, then leaned over his podium, his heavy brows knitting in grandfatherly charm. "What's your name, son?"
   The wicked boy sat bolt upright. "Billy, sir," he squeaked. "Billy… William Greenacre, sir."
   Houston nodded gravely. "Tell me, Master Greenacre, would you like to run away from home, and live with red Indians?"
   "Oh, yes, sir," the boy blurted, and then "Oh, no, sir!" The audience laughed again.
   "When I was about your age, young William, I was a lad of spirit, like yourself. And that was the very course of action I pursued." The kino shuffled behind the General's head, and a colored map appeared, outlines of the various states of America, oddly shaped provinces with confusing names. Houston checked his mirror and spoke rapidly. "I was born in the American state of Tennessee. My family was of the Scottish gentry, though times were hard for us, on our little frontier farm. And though I was born an American, I felt little allegiance to the Yankee government in far Washington." The kinotrope displayed the portrait of an American savage, a mad-eyed staring creature hung with feathers, cheeks streaked with kino-blocks of warpaint. "Just across the river," Houston said, "lived the mighty nation of the Cherokee, a simple folk of natural nobility. I found this suited me far better than a life with my American neighbors. Alas, for their souls were pinched by the greed for dollars."
   Houston shook his head a bit before his British audience, pained at his own allusion to an American national failing. He had their sympathy, Sybil thought. "The Cherokees won my heart," Houston continued, "and I ran from home to join them, with nothing, ladies and gentlemen, but the buckskin coat on my back, and Homer's noble tale of the Iliad in my pocket." The kinotrope shuffled itself bottom-to-top, producing an image from a Grecian urn, a warrior with a crested helmet, his spear upraised. He bore a round shield with the emblem of a raven, wings outspread. There was a light pattering of impressed applause, which Houston accepted, nodding modestly, as if it were meant for him.
   "As a child of the American frontier," he said, "I can't claim to have had much fine schooling, although in later life I passed the bar and led a nation. As a youth, however, I sought my education in an ancient school. I committed every line of the blind bard's book to memory." He lifted the medal-strewn lapel of his coat, left-handed. "The heart within this scarred breast," he said, and thumped it, "still stirs to that noblest of stories, with its tales of a valor to challenge the very gods, and of unstained martial honor that endures… till death!" He waited for applause. At length it came, though not as warmly as he seemed to expect.
   "I saw no contradiction in the lives of Homer's heroes and those of my beloved Cherokees," Houston persisted. Behind him, the Greek's javelin sprouted the dangling feathers of a hunting-spear, and war-paint daubed his face.
   Houston peered at his notes. "Together we hunted bear and deer and boar, fished the limpid stream and raised the yellow corn. Around the campfire, under open skies, I told my savage brothers of the moral lessons that my youthful heart had gleaned from Homer's words. Because of this, they gave me the red-man's name of Raven, after the feathered spirit that they deem the wisest of birds."
   The Greek dissolved, giving way to a grander raven, its wings spread stiffly across the screen, its chest covered by a striped shield. Sybil recognized it. It was the American eagle, symbol of the sundered Union, but the white-headed Yankee bird had become Houston's black crow. It was clever, she decided, perhaps more clever than it was worth, for two of the kinotrope bits in the screen's upper-left-corner had jammed on their spindles, showing dots of left-over blue; a tiny fault but annoying all out of proportion, like a bit of dust in one's eye. Mick's fancy clacking was working the Garrick's kino very hard.
   Distracted, Sybil had lost the thread of Houston's speech. "… the brazen cry of the battle-trumpet, in the camp of the Tennessee volunteers." Another kino-portrait appeared: a man who looked rather like Houston, but with a tall shock of hair in front, and hollow cheeks, identified by caption as GEN. ANDREW JACKSON.
   There was a hiss of breath here and there, led by the soldiers perhaps, and the crowd stirred. Some Britons still remembered "Hickory" Jackson, without fondness. To hear Houston tell it, Jackson had also bravely fought against Indians, and even been President of America for a time; but all that meant little here. Houston praised Jackson as his patron and mentor, "an honest soldier of the people, who valued a man's true inner worth above the tinsel of wealth or show," but the applause for this sentiment was grudging at best.
   Now another scene appeared, some kind of rude frontier fort. Houston narrated a tale of siege, from his early military career, when he'd fought a campaign under Jackson against the Indians called Creek. But he seemed to have lost his natural audience, the soldiers, for the three Crimea veterans in Sybil's row were still muttering angrily about Hickory Jackson. "The damned war was over before New Orleans… "
   Suddenly the limelight flashed blood-red. Mick was busy beneath the stage: a tinted glass filter, the sudden booming of a kettle-drum, as little kino cannons cracked gunpowder-white around the fort, and single-bit flickers of red cannon-shell arched rapidly across the screen. "Night after night we heard the Creek fanatics howling their eerie death-songs," Houston shouted, a pillar of glare beneath the screen. "The situation demanded a direct assault, with cold steel! It was said to be certain death to charge that gate… But I was not a Tennessee Volunteer for nothing… "
   A tiny figure dashed toward the fort, no more than a few black squares, a wriggling block of bits, and the entire stage went black. There was surprised applause in the sudden darkness. The penny-boys up in the Garrick's gallery whistled shrilly. Then limelight framed Houston again. He began to boast about his wounds; two bullets in the arm, a knife-stab in the leg, an arrow into his belly—Houston didn't say the vulgar word, but he did rub that area lingeringly, as if he were dyspeptic. He'd lain all night on the battlefield, he claimed, and then been hauled for days through wilderness, on a supply cart, bleeding, raving, sick with swamp-fever…
   The clerky cove next to Sybil took another lemon-drop, and looked at his pocket-watch. Now a five-pointed star appeared slowly amidst the funereal black of the screen, as Houston narrated his lingering escape from the grave. One of the jammed kino-bits had popped loose again, but another had jammed in the meantime, on the lower right. Sybil stifled a yawn.
   The star brightened slowly as Houston spoke about his entry into American politics, presenting as his motive the desire to help his persecuted pet Cherokees. This was exotic enough, Sybil thought, but at its heart lay the same snicky humbugging politicians always talked, and the audience was growing restive. They would have liked more fighting, or perhaps more poetic talk about life with the Cherokees. Instead, Houston had settled into a litany of his election to some rude equivalent of Parliament, various obscure posts in provincial government, and all the while the star grew slowly, its edges branching elaborately, becoming the emblem of the government of Tennessee.
   Sybil's eyelids grew heavy, fluttered, while the General blustered on.
   Quite suddenly, Houston's tone changed, becoming lingering, sentimental, a honeyed lilt creeping into his drawl. He was talking about a woman.
   Sybil sat up straighter, listening.
   Houston had been elected Governor, it seemed, and had gotten himself some tin, and been cheery about it. And he'd found himself a sweetheart, some Tennessee gentry-girl, and married her.
   But on the kino's screen, fingers of darkness crept in snake-like from the edges. They menaced the State Seal.
   Governor and Mrs. Houston had scarcely settled in when wifey kicked over the traces, and fled back to her family. She'd left him a letter, Houston said, a letter that contained an awful secret. A secret he had never revealed, and had sworn to carry to his grave. "A private matter, of which a gentleman of honor cannot and should not speak. Black disaster struck me… " The newspapers—apparently they did have newspapers, in Tennessee—had attacked him. "The tattling mouths of libel poured their venom on me," Houston lamented, as the Greek shield with the raven appeared, and black kino-blobs—mud, Sybil supposed—began to spatter it.
   Houston's revelations grew shocking. He'd actually gone through with it, had divorced his wife, of all the unlikely, awful things. Of course he'd lost his position in Government; outraged society had bounded him from office, and Sybil wondered why Houston had dared to mention such an ugly scandal. It was as if he expected his London audience to morally approve of a divorced man. Still, she noticed, the ladies seemed intrigued, and not entirely without sympathy perhaps. Even the fat mama fluttered at her double-chins with a fan.
   General Houston was a foreigner, after all, half a savage by his own account; but when he spoke of his wife it was tenderly, as of a true love, a love slain by some cruel mysterious truth. His bellowing voice broke with unashamed emotion; he mopped at his forehead a bit, with a fancy handkerchief from his leopard-skin vest.
   In truth, he wasn't a bad-looking cove, over sixty but that sort could be kinder to a girl. His confession seemed bold and manly, for he himself had brought the matter up: the divorce scandal and the secret letter from Mrs. Houston. He wouldn't stop talking about it, but neither would he tell them the secret; he'd pricked the curiosity of his audience—and Sybil herself was simply dying to know.
   She chided herself, for being so cakey, for it was likely something stupid and simple, not half so deep and mysterious as he feigned. Likely his gentry-girl wasn't half so angelic as she'd looked. Likely she'd had her maiden virtue stolen from her by some good-looking Tennessee beau-trap, long before Raven Houston came along. Men had hard rules for their brides, if never for themselves.
   Likely Houston had brought it all on himself. Perhaps he had beastly vile ideas about married life, come from living with savages. Or perhaps he'd milled his wife about with his fists—for Sybil fancied he'd be a right bully-rock, in his cups.
   The kino came alive with harpies, meant to symbolize Houston's slanderers, those who'd smeared his precious honor with the ink of a gutter press. Nasty crooky-back things, crowding the screen in devilish black and red. As the screen whirred steadily, they twitched their cloven hooves. Never had she seen the like, some Manchester punch-card artist having gotten the gin-horrors sure… Now Houston was ranting about challenges and honor, by which he meant dueling, Americans being most famous duelists, who loved guns and shot each other at the drop of a hat… He'd have killed some of those newspaper rascals, Houston insisted loudly, if he hadn't been Governor, and on his dignity. So instead he'd thrown in his cards, and gone back to live with his precious Cherokees… He had a real head of steam up, now; he'd stoked himself so, it was almost frightening to watch. The audience was entertained, their reserve broken by his bulging eyes and veiny Texian neck, but none too far from disgust.
   Maybe it had been something really dreadful that he'd done, Sybil thought, rubbing her hands together inside her rabbit-skin muff. Maybe it was lady's-fever, that he'd given his own wife a case of the glue. Some types of glue were horrible, and could make you mad, or blind, or crippled. Maybe that was the secret. Mick might know. Very likely Mick knew all about it.
   Houston explained that he had left the United States in disgust, and gone to Texas, and at the word a map appeared, a sprawl of land in the middle of the continent. Houston claimed he'd gone there seeking land for his poor suffering Cherokee Indians, but it was all a bit confusing.
   Sybil asked the clerky fellow next to her for the time. Only an hour had passed. The speech was a third gone. Her moment was coming.
   "You must envision a nation many times the size of your home islands," said Houston, "with no roads greater than the grassy tracks of Indians. Without, at that time, a single mile of British railroad, and lacking the telegraph, or, indeed, Engine resources of any kind. As commander-in-chief of the Texian national forces, my orders had no courier more swift or more reliable than the mounted scout, his way menaced by the Comanche and Karankawa, by Mexican raiding-parties, and by the thousand nameless hazards of the wilderness. Small wonder then that Colonel Travis should receive my orders too late; and place his confidence, tragically, in the reinforcing-party led by Colonel Fannin. Surrounded by an enemy force fifty times his own. Colonel Travis declared his objective to be Victory or Death—knowing full well that the latter was a surely fated outcome. The defenders of the Alamo perished to a man. The noble Travis, the fearless Colonel Bowie, and David Crockett, a very legend among frontiersmen"—Messrs. Travis, Bowie, and Crockett each had a third of the kino screen, their faces gone strangely square with the cramped scale of their depletion—"bought precious time for my Fabian strategy."
   More soldier talk. Now he stepped back from the podium and pointed up at the kino with his heavy polished cane. "The forces of Lopez de Santa Anna were arrayed as you see them here, with the woods upon his left flank and the San Jacinto river-marshes at his back. His siege engineers had dug in around the baggage-train, with emplacements of sharpened timber, represented thusly. By a forced march through Burnham's Ford, however, my army of six hundred had seized the wooded banks of Buffalo Bayou, unbeknown to enemy intelligence. The assault began with a brisk cannon-fire from the Texian center… Now we can witness the movement of the Texian light-cavalry… The shock of the foot-charge sent the enemy reeling in confusion, throwing his artillery, which was not yet limbered, into utter disarray." The kinotrope's blue squares and lozenges slowly chased the buckling red Mexican regiments through the checkered greens and whites of woods and swamps. Sybil shifted in her seat, trying to ease the chafing of her hoop-skirt. Houston's bloodthirsty boasting was finally reaching a climax.
   "The final count of the fallen numbered two Texian dead, six hundred and thirty of the invader. The massacres of Alamo and Goliad were avenged in Santanista blood! Two Mexican armies utterly defeated, with the capture of fourteen officers and twenty cannon."
   Fourteen officers, twenty cannon—yes, that was her cue. Her moment had come. "Avenge us. General Houston!" Sybil shrieked, her throat constricted with stage-fright. She tried again, pulling herself to her feet, waving one arm, "Avenge us, General Houston!"
   Houston halted, taken aback. Sybil shouted at him, shrilly. "Avenge our honor, sir! Avenge Britain's honor!" A babble of alarm rose—Sybil felt the eyes of the theatre crowd in upon her, shocked looks that people might give a lunatic. "My brother," she shouted, but fear had seized her, bad nerves. She hadn't expected it to be so frightening. This was worse than singing on stage, far worse.
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   Houston lifted both his arms, the striped blanket spreading behind him like a cloak. Somehow he calmed the crowd by the gesture, asserted command. Above his head, the kinotrope wound slowly down, its flickering domino-tricks whirring to a stop, leaving San Jacinto frozen in mid-victory. Houston fixed Sybil with a look of mingled sternness and resignation. "What is it, my dear young lady? What troubles you? Tell me."
   Sybil gripped the back of the seat before her, closed her eyes tight, and sang it out. "Sir, my brother is in a Texian prison! We are British, but the Texians imprisoned him, sir! They seized his farm, and his cattle! They even stole the very railroad that he worked on, a British railroad, built for Texas… " Her voice was faltering, despite herself. Mick wouldn't like that, he would scold her performance… The thought put a jolt of vitality into her. She opened her eyes. "That regime, sir, the thieving Texian regime, they stole that British railroad! They robbed the workers in Texas, and the stockholders here in Britain, and paid us not a penny!"
   With the loss of the kinotrope's bright play of images, the theatre's atmosphere had changed. Everything was quite different suddenly, oddly intimate and strange. It was as if she and the General were somehow framed together, two figures on a silvered daguerreotype. A young London woman, in her bonnet and elegant shawl, reaches up with eloquent distress to the old foreign hero; both part-players now, with the surprised eyes of the public silently fixed on them.
   "You suffered because of the junta?" Houston said.
   "Yes, sir!" Sybil cried, a practiced quaver stealing into her voice. Don't frighten them, Mick had said, but make them pity you. "Yes, the junta did it. They have flung my brother into their vile prison, for no crime, sir, but simply because my dear brother is a Houston man! He voted for you when you became President of Texas, sir! And he would vote for you today, although I fear very much they will kill him!" "What is your brother's name, my dear lady?" Houston asked.
   "Jones, sir," Sybil quickly cried, "Edwin Jones of Nacogdoches, who worked for Hedgecoxe's Railway Company."
   "I believe I know young Edward!" Houston declared, his surprise evident in his tone. He clutched his cane angrily and his heavy brows knotted.
   "Listen to her, Sam!" came a sudden deep voice. Sybil, alarmed, turned to look. It was the man from the Argyll Rooms—the fat actor, with his red hair and brushed velvet waistcoat. "Those junta rascals appropriated the Hedgecoxe Railway! A pretty business, that, from a supposed British ally! Is this the gratitude they show, for years of British guidance and protection?" He sat back down.
   "They're nothing but thieves and villains!" Sybil shouted alertly. She groped quickly in memory, picking up the thread. "General Houston! I'm a defenseless woman, but you're a man of destiny, a man of greatness! Can't there be justice for Texas, sir? Some redress for these affronts? Must my poor brother die there in misery, while cheats and tyrants steal our British property?"
   But Mick's fine rhetoric was drowned; there were shouts from the audience, here and there, over a muttered undertone of surprise and approval. Loud boyish hooting came from the penny-gallery.
   A bit of London fun, all told. Perhaps, Sybil thought, she had made some of them believe her story, and pity her. Most simply howled and joked a bit, pleased to see some unexpected liveliness.
   "Sam Houston was always a true friend of Britain!" Sybil shrieked, into the crowd's upturned faces. The words half-lost, useless, she raised the back of her wrist to her damp forehead. Mick had given her no more lines, so she let the strength seep from her legs and fell back, eyes fluttering, half-sinking into her seat.
   "Give Miss Jones air!" Houston commanded, an excited bellow. "The lady is overcome!" Sybil watched through half-closed lids as blurred figures haltingly gathered round her. Dark evening-jackets, a rustle of crinoline, gardenia perfume, and a masculine smell of tobacco—a man seized her wrist, and felt for a pulse there with pinching fingers. A woman fanned Sybil's face, clucking to herself. Oh heaven, Sybil thought, shrinking, the fat mama from the row before her, with that intolerable oily look of a good woman doing her moral duty. A little thrill of shame and disgust shot through her. For a moment she felt genuinely weak, sinking with a buttery ease into the warmth of their concern, a half-dozen busybodies muttering around her in a shared pretense of competence, while Houston thundered on above them, hoarse with indignation.
   Sybil allowed them to get her to her feet. Houston hesitated, seeing it, and there was a light gallant scatter of applause for her. She felt pale, unworthy; she smiled wanly, and shook her head, and wished she were invisible. She leaned her head on the padded shoulder of the man who had taken her pulse. "Sir, if I could go, please," she whispered.
   Her rescuer nodded alertly, a little fellow with clever blue eyes. His long greying hair was parted in the middle. "I shall see the lady home," he piped at the others. He shrugged into an opera cape, perched a tall beaver hat on his head, and lent her his arm. They walked together up the aisle, Sybil leaning on him heavily, unwilling to meet anyone's eyes. The crowd was roused, now. For the first time, perhaps, they were listening to Houston as a man, rather than as some sort of queer American exhibit.
   Her little gentleman held dingy velvet aside for her as they emerged into the Garrick's chilly foyer, with its flaking gilt cupids and damp-marked faux-marble walls. " 'Tis very kind of you, sir, to help me so," Sybil offered, noting that her escort looked as though he might have money. "Are you a medical man?"
   "I was a student once," he said, with a shrug. His cheeks were flushed, twin hot points of red.
   "It gives a man a certain air of distinction," Sybil said, not for any particular purpose, but just to fill the silence. "Schooling of that sort, I mean."
   "Hardly, madame. I wasted all my time versifying. I must say that you seem fit enough now. Very sorry to hear about that unfortunate brother of yours."
   "Thank you, sir." Sybil looked at him sidelong. "I'm afraid it was very forward of me, but General Houston's eloquence earned me away."
   He shot her an opaque glance, the look of a man who suspects that a woman is gulling him. "In all honesty," he said, "I do not entirely share your enthusiasm." He coughed explosively into a wadded handkerchief and wiped his mouth. "This London air will be the death of me."
   "Nonetheless, I do thank you, sir, though I regret we've not been introduced… "
   "Keats," he said, "Mr. Keats." He drew a ticking silver chronometer from his waistcoat, a many-dialed thing the size of a small potato, and consulted it. "I'm not familiar with the district," he said distantly. "I'd thought to hail you a cabriolet, but at this hour…"
   "Oh, no, Mr. Keats, thank you, but I shall go by the underground."
   His bright eyes widened. No respectable woman rode the underground unescorted.
   "But you haven't told me your profession, Mr. Keats," she said, hoping to distract him.
   "Kinotropy," Keats said. "The techniques employed here tonight are of some special interest! While the screen's resolution is quite modest, and the refresh-rate positively slow, remarkable effects have been secured, one presumes through algorithmic compression—but I fear that is all a bit technical." He put away his chronometer. "Are you entirely certain you wouldn't rather I attempted to hail a cab? Do you know London well, Miss Jones? I might escort you to the local omnibus stand—'tis a railless carriage, you see… "
   "No, sir, thank you. You've been exceptionally kind."
   "You're quite welcome," he said, his relief evident as he opened and held one of the half-glass doors to the street. Just then a skinny boy sidled rapidly up behind them, brushed past, and out of the theatre without a word. He was draped in a long dirty coat of canvas, something a fisherman might wear. A singular thing to wear to a lecture, Sybil thought, though one saw queerer garments on the poor; the sleeves flapped emptily, as though the boy were hugging himself, against a chill perhaps. His gait was odd, bent-backed, as if he were drunk or ill.
   "I say there! Young man!" Mr. Keats had produced a coin, and Sybil understood that he wished the boy to hail a cab for her, but now the wet eyes gleamed at them with alarm, the pale face hollowed by gaslight. Suddenly he bolted, something dark tumbling from beneath his coat, where it rolled into the gutter. The boy halted and looked warily back at them.
   He'd dropped a hat, a top-hat.
   He came trotting back, eyes still on them, snatched it up, stuffed it under his coat, and off again, into the shadows, though this time not nearly so rapidly.
   " 'Pon my word," Mr. Keats said in disgust, "that fellow's a thief! That water-proof is stuffed with the hats of the audience!"
   Sybil could think of nothing to say.
   "I imagine the rascal took cruel advantage of that commotion you caused," Keats told her, his tone lightly etched with suspicion. "Pity! One never knows who to trust these days."
   "Sir, I do believe I hear the Engine getting up steam for the kinotrope… "
   And that was enough for him.

   The installation of exhaust-fans, said the Daily Telegraph, had wrought a perceptible improvement in the atmosphere of the Metropolitan, though Lord Babbage himself held that a truly modern underground railway would operate on pneumatic principles exclusively, involving no combustion whatever, rather in the way mail was conveyed throughout Paris.
   Seated in a second-class carnage, breathing as shallowly as possible, Sybil knew it all for humbug, or in any case the improvement part, for who knew what marvels the Rads mightn't bring forth? But hadn't the Rad papers also published the testimony of medicals, in the pay of the railroad, that sulphurous fumes were therapeutic for asthma? And it wasn't only the fumes from the Engines, but vile sewer-seepings as well, and gassy leakings from collapsible India-rubber bags, that lit the carriage-jets in their wire-netted glass shades.
   It was a queer business, the underground, when you thought about it, racketing along at such speeds, through the darkness under London, where the navvies had come upon lead water-pipes of the Romans, and coins, mosaics, and archways, elephant's teeth a thousand years old…
   And the digging went on, this and every night, for she'd heard their great machine huffing, as she'd stood by Mick on the Whitechapel pavement; they worked unceasingly, the excavators, boring newer, deeper lines now, down below the tangle of sewers and gas-pipes and bricked-over rivers. The new lines were shored with steel, and soon Lord Babbage's smokeless trains would slide through them silent as eels, though she found the thought of it somehow unclean.
   The lamps flared all at once, the flow of gas disturbed by a particularly sharp jolt, the faces of the other passengers seeming to leap out at her: the sallow gent with something of the successful publican about him, the round-cheeked old Quaker cleric, the drunken dandy with his coat open, his canary waistcoat all dotted down the front with claret…
   There were no other women in the carriage.
   Farewell to you, sirs, she imagined herself crying, farewell to your London, for she was a 'prentice adventuress now, sworn and true, bound for Paris, though the first leg of the voyage consisted necessarily of the tuppenny trip back to Whitechapel…
   But the clergyman had noticed her, his contempt quite open, there for anyone to see.

   It was really quite horribly cold, making her way from the station to her room in Flower-and-Dean Street; she regretted her vanity, for having chosen her fine new shawl rather than her mantelet. Her teeth were chattering. Sharp frost shone in pools of gas-light on the street's new macadam.
   The cobbles of London were vanishing month by month, paved over with black stuff that poured stinking hot from the maws of great wagons, for navvies to spread and smooth with rakes, before the advance of the steam-roller.
   A daring fellow whisked past her, taking full advantage of the gritty new surface. Nearly recumbent within the creaking frame of a four-wheeled velocipede, his shoes were strapped to whirling cranks and his breath puffed explosively into the cold. He was bare-headed and goggled, in a thick striped jersey, a long knit scarf flapping out behind him as he sped away. Sybil supposed him an inventor.
   London was rife with inventors, the poorer and madder of them congregating in the public squares to display their blueprints and models, and harangue the strolling crowds. In a week's time she'd encountered a wicked-looking device meant to crimp hair by electricity, a child's mechanical top that played Beethoven, and a scheme for electro-plating the dead.
   Leaving the thoroughfare for the unimproved cobbles of Renton Passage, she made out the sign of the Hart and heard the jangle of a pianola. It was Mrs. Winterhalter who'd arranged for her to room above the Hart. The public house itself was a steady sort of place, admitting no women. It catered to junior clerks and shopmen, and offered as its raciest pleasure a pull at a coin-fed wagering-machine.
   The rooms above were reached by way of steep dark stairs, that climbed below a sooty skylight to an alcove presenting a pair of identical doors. Mr. Cairns, the landlord, had rooms behind the door on the left.
   Sybil climbed the stairs, fumbled a penny box of lucifers from her muff, and struck one. Cairns had chained a bicycle to the iron railing overlooking the stairwell; the bright brass padlock gleamed in the flare of the match. She shook the lucifer out, hoping that Hetty hadn't double-latched the door Hetty hadn't, and Sybil's key turned smoothly in the lock.
   Toby was there to greet her, padding silently across the bare boards to twine himself around and about her ankles, purring like sixty.
   Hetty had left an oil-lamp turned down low on the deal table that stood in the hallway; it was smoking now, the wick in need of trimming. A foolish thing to have left it burning, where Toby might've sent it crashing, but Sybil felt grateful not to have found the place in darkness. She took Toby up in her arms. He smelled of herring. "Has Hetty fed you, then, dear?" He yowled softly, and batted at the ribbons of her bonnet.
   The pattern of the wallpaper danced as she lifted the lamp. The hallway had seen no sunlight in all the years the Hart had stood, yet the printed flowers were gone a shade like dust.
   Sybil's room had two windows, though they opened on a blank wall of grimed yellow brick, so near she could've touched it, if someone hadn't driven nails into the casements. Still, on a bright day, with the sun directly overhead, a bit of light did filter in. And Hetty's room, though larger, had only one window. If Hetty was here, now, she must be alone and asleep, as no light was visible from the crack at the bottom of her closed door.
   It was good to have one's own room, one's privacy, however modest. Sybil put Toby down, though he protested, and carried the lamp to her own door, which stood slightly ajar. Inside, all was as she'd left it, though she saw that Hetty had left the latest number of the Illustrated London News on her pillow, with an engraving from Crimea on the front, a scene of a city all aflame. She set the lamp down on the cracked marble lid of the commode, Toby prowling about her ankles as though he expected to discover more herring, and considered what she should do.
   The ticking of the fat tin alarm-clock, which she sometimes found unbearable, was reassuring now; at least it was running, and she imagined that the time it showed, quarter past eleven, was correct. She gave the winder a few turns, just for luck. Mick would come for her at midnight, and there were decisions to be made, as he'd advised her to travel very light.
   She took a wick-trimmer from the commode's drawer, raised the lamp's chimney, and scissored away the blackened bit. The light somewhat improved. She threw on her mantelet against the cold, opened the lid of a japanned tin chest, and began to make an inventory of her better things. But after setting aside two changes of undergarments, it came to her that the less she took, the more Dandy Mick would have to buy for her in Paris. And if that wasn't thinking like a 'prentice adventuress, she didn't know what was.
   Still, she did have: some things she was 'specially fond of, and these went, along with the undergarments, into her brocade portmanteau with the split seam she'd meant to mend. There was a lovely bottle of rose-scented Portland water, half-full, a green paste brooch from Mr. Kingsley, a set of hairbrushes with imitation ebony backs, a miniature flower-press with a souvenir view of Kensington Palace, and a patent German curling-iron she'd nicked from a hair-dresser's. She added a bone-handled tooth-brush and a tin of camphorated dentifrice.
   Now she took a tiny silver propelling-pencil and settled herself on the edge of her bed to write a note to Hetty. The pencil was a gift from Mr. Chadwick, with THE METROPOLITAN RAILWAY CORPORATION engraved along its shaft; the plate was starting to flake away from the brass beneath. For paper, she found she had only the back of a handbill advertising instantaneous chocolate.
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   'My dear Harriet', she began, 'I am Off to Paris', but then she paused, removed the pencil's cap, and used the rubber to erase those last three words, substituting 'run Away with a Gentleman. Do not be alarmed. I am Well. You are welcome to any Cloathes I leave behind, and please do take Care of dear Toby and give him Herring. Yrs. sincerely, Sybil.'
   It made her feel queer, to write it, and when she looked down at Toby she felt sad, and false, to leave him.
   With this thought came thoughts of Radley. She was struck by a sudden and utter conviction of his falsehood.
   "He will come," she whispered fiercely. She put the lamp and the folded note on the narrow mantel.
   On the mantel lay a flat tin, brightly lithographed with the name of a Strand tobacconist. She knew that it contained Turkish cigarettes. One of Hetty's younger gentlemen, a medical student, had once urged her to take up the habit. Sybil generally avoided medical students. They prided themselves on studied beastliness. But now, in the grip of a powerful nervous impulse, she opened the tin, drew out one of the crisp paper cylinders, and inhaled its fierce perfume.
   A Mr. Stanley, a barrister, well-known among the flash mob, had smoked cigarettes incessantly. Stanley, during his acquaintanceship with Sybil, had frequently remarked that a cigarette was the thing to steel a gambler's nerve.
   Fetching the lucifers, Sybil placed the cigarette between her lips, as she'd seen Stanley do, struck a lucifer, and remembered to let the bulk of the sulphur burn away before applying the flame to the cigarette's tip. She drew hesitantly on the lit cigarette and was rewarded with an acrid portion of vile smoke that set her wracking like a consumptive. Eyes watering, she nearly flung the thing away.
   She stood before the grate and forced herself to continue, drawing periodically on the cigarette and flicking pale delicate ash onto the coals with the gesture Stanley had used. It was barely tolerable, she decided, and where was the desired effect? She felt abruptly ill, her stomach churning with nausea, her hands gone cold as ice. Coughing explosively, she dropped the cigarette into the coals, where it burst into flame and was swiftly consumed.
   She became painfully aware of the ticking of the clock.
   Big Ben began to sound midnight.
   Where was Mick?

   She woke in darkness, filled with a fear she couldn't name. Then she remembered Mick. The lamp had gone out. The coals were dead. Scrambling to her feet, she fetched the box of lucifers, then felt her way into her room, where the tinny ticking of the clock guided her to the commode.
   When she struck a match, the face of the clock seemed to swim in the sulphur glare.
   It was half past one.
   Had he come when she was sleeping, knocked, had no answer, and gone away without her? No, not Mick. He'd have found a way in, if he wanted her. Had he gulled her, then, for the cakey girl she surely was, to trust his promises?
   A queer sort of calm swept over her, a cruel clarity. She remembered the departure date on the steamship ticket. He wouldn't sail from Dover till late tomorrow, and it seemed unlikely that he and General Houston would be departing London, after an important lecture, in the dead of night. She'd go to Grand's, then, and find Mick, confront him, and plead, threaten blackmail, exposure, whatever proved necessary.
   What tin she had was in her muff. There was a cab-stand in Minories, by Goodman's Yard. She would go there now, and rouse a cabman to take her to Piccadilly.
   Toby cried once, piteously, as she closed the door behind her. She scraped her shin cruelly in the dark, on Cairns' chained bicycle.
   She was half the way down Minories to Goodman's Yard when she remembered her portmanteau, but there was no turning back.

   Grand's night doorman was heavy-set, cold-eyed, chin-whiskered, stiff in one leg, and very certainly wouldn't allow Sybil into his hotel, not if he could help it. She'd twigged him from a block away, climbing down from her cabriolet—a big gold-braided bugaboo, lurking on the hotel's marble steps under great dolphin-wreathed lamps. She knew her doormen well enough; they played a major role in her life.
   It was one thing to enter Grand's on Dandy Mick's arm, by daylight. But to walk in boldly from the midnight streets, as an unescorted woman, was another matter. Only whores did that, and the doorman would not let whores in. But she might think of a likely story to gull him, perhaps, if she thought of a very good lie, and if he were stupid, or careless, or weary. Or she might try to bribe him, though she had little enough of tin left, after the cab. And she was dressed proper, not in the flash clothes of a dollymop. She might, at a pinch, distract him. Smash a window with a cobblestone, and run past him when he came to look. It was hard to run in a crinoline, but he was lame, and slow. Or find a street-boy to throw a stone for her…
   Sybil stood in darkness, by the wooden hoardings of a construction site. Broadside posters loomed over her, bigger than bed-sheets, with great tattered shouting print: DAILY NEWS World-Wide Circulation, LLOYD'S NEWS Only One Penny, SOUTHEASTERN RAILWAY Ramsgate & Margate 7/6. Sybil pulled one hand from her muff and gnawed feverishly at her fingernail, which smelled of Turkish tobacco. She was dully surprised to notice that her hand was blue-white with the cold, and trembling badly.
   Pure luck, it seemed, rescued her then, or the nod of a sorrowing angel, for a shining gurney brougham came to a chugging halt in front of Grand's, its blue-coated fireman jumping down to lower the hinged step. Out came a rollicking mob of drunken Frenchmen in scarlet-lined capes, with brocade waistcoats and tasseled evening-canes, and two of them had women with them.
   Sybil grabbed up her skirt on the instant and scurried forward, head down. Crossing the street, she was hidden from the doorman by the barricade of the gurney's gleaming coachwork. Then she simply walked around it, past the great wood-spoked wheels with their treads of rubber, and boldly joined the group. The Frenchies were parley-vousing at each other, mustache-stroking and giggling, and did not seem to notice her, nor care. She smiled piously at no one in particular, and stood very close to a tall one, who seemed drunkest. They staggered up the marble stairs, and the tall Frenchman slapped a pound-note at the doorman's hand, with the careless ease of a man who didn't know what real money was. The doorman blinked at it and touched his braided hat.
   And Sybil was safely inside. She walked with the jabbering Frenchies across a wilderness of polished marble to the hotel-desk, where they collected their keys from the night-clerk and staggered up the curving stairway, yawning and grinning, leaving Sybil behind at the counter.
   The night-clerk, who spoke French, was chuckling over something he'd overheard. He sidled down the length of linteled mahogany, with a smile for Sybil. "How may I be of service, madame?"
   The words came hard, almost stammering at first. "Could you tell me please, has a Mr. Michael… or, rather… is General Sam Houston still registered here?"
   "Yes, madame. I did see General Houston, earlier this evening. However, he's in our smoking-room now… Perhaps you could leave a message?"
   "Smoking-room?"
   "Yes—over there, behind the acanthus." The clerk nodded toward a massive door at the corner of the lobby. "Our smoking-room is not for the ladies, of course… Forgive me, madame, but you seem a bit distressed. If the matter's vital, perhaps I should send a page."
   "Yes," Sybil said, "that would be wonderful." The night-clerk obligingly produced a sheet of cream-laid hotel stationery and proffered his gold-nibbed reservoir-pen.
   She wrote hastily, folded the note, scrawled MR. MICHAEL RADLEY on the back. The night-clerk crisply rang a bell, bowed in response to her thanks, and went about his business.
   Shortly, a yawning and sour-faced little page appeared and placed her note on a cork-topped salver.
   Sybil trailed anxiously behind as he trudged to the smoking-room. "It is for the General's personal secretary," she said.
   " 'Tis awright, miss, I know 'im." He heaved one-handed at the smoking-room door. As it opened, and the page passed through, Sybil peered in. As the door slowly closed, she had a long glimpse of Houston, bare-headed, shiny-faced, and sweaty-drunk, with one booted foot propped on the table, beside a cut-glass decanter. He had a wicked-looking jackknife in his hand, and was puffing smoke and jabbing at something—whittling, that was it, for the floor around his leather chair was littered with wood-shavings.
   A tall bearded Englishman murmured something to Houston. The stranger had his left arm caught in a white silk sling, and looked sad-eyed and dignified and important. Mick stood at his side, bending at the waist to light the man's cheroot. Sybil saw him rasping at a steel sparker, on the end of a dangling rubber gas-tube, and then the door shut.
   Sybil sat on a chaise-longue in the echoing marble lobby, warmth stealing through her damp, grimy shoes; her toes began to ache. Then the page emerged with Mick on his heels, Mick smiling back into the smoking-room and sketching out a cheery half-salute. Sybil rose from her seat. Seeing her there, his narrow face went bleak.
   He came to her quickly, took her elbow. "Bloody Christ," he muttered, "what kind of silly note was that? Can't you make sense, girl?"
   "What is it?" she pleaded. "Why didn't you come for me?"
   "Bit of a contretemps. I'm afraid. Case of the fox biting his own arse. Might be funny if it weren't so bleeding difficult. But having you here now may change matters… "
   "What's gone wrong? Who's that gentry cove with the gammy arm?"
   "Bloody British diplomat as doesn't care for the General's plan to raise an army in Mexico. Never you mind him. Tomorrow we'll be in France, and he'll be here in London, annoyin' someone else. At least I hope so… The General's queered things for us, though. Drunk as a lord and he's pulled one of his funny little tricks… He's a nasty bastard when he drinks, truth to tell. Starts to forget his friends."
   "He's gulled you somehow," Sybil realized. "He wants to cut you loose, is that it?"
   "He's nicked my kino-cards," Mick said.
   "But I mailed them to Paris, poste restante" Sybil said. "Just as you told me to do."
   "Not those, you goose—the kino-cards from the speech!"
   "Your theatre cards? He stole 'em?"
   "He knew I had to pack my cards, take 'em along with me, don't you see? So he kept a watch on me somehow, and now he's nicked 'em from my baggage. Says he won't need me in France after all, so long as he's got my information. He'll hire some onion-eater can run a kino on the cheap. Or so he says."
   "But that's theft!"
   " 'Borrowing,' according to him. Says he'll give me back my cards, as soon as he's had 'em copied. That way I don't lose nothin', you see?"
   Sybil felt dazed. Was he teasing her? "But isn't that stealing, somehow?"
   "Try arguing that with Samuel bloody Houston! He stole a whole damn country once, stole it clean and picked it to the bone!"
   "But you're his man! You can't let him steal from you."
   Mick cut her off. "When it comes to that—you might well ask how I had that fancy French program made. You might say I borrowed the General's money for it, so to speak." He showed his teeth in a grin. "Not the first time we've tried such a stunt on one another. It's a bit of a test, don't you see? Fellow has to be a right out-and-outer, to travel with General Houston… "
   "Oh Lord," Sybil said, collapsing into her crinoline on the chaise. "Mick, if you but knew what I've been thinking…"
   "Brace up, then!" He hauled her to her feet. "I need those cards and they're in his room. You're going to find them for me, and nick 'em back. And I'm going back in there and brass it out, cool as ice." He laughed. "The old bastard mightn't have tried this, if not for my tricks at his lecture. You an' Corny Simms made him feel he was right and fly, pulling strings! But we'll make a pigeon of him yet, you and I, together… "
   "I'm afraid, Mick," Sybil said. "I don't know how to steal things!"
   "You little goose, of course you do," Mick said.
   "Well, will you come with me and help, then?"
   "Of course not! He'd know then, wouldn't he? I told him you were a newspaper friend of mine. If I stay too long talking, he'll smell a rat sure." He glared at her.
   "All right," Sybil said, defeated. "Give me the key to his room."
   Mick grunted. "Key? I haven't any bloody key."
   A wash of relief went through her. "Well, then. I'm not a cracksman, you know!"
   "Keep your voice down, else you'll tell everyone in Grand's…" His eyes glinted furiously. He was drunk, Sybil realized. She'd never seen Mick really drunk before, and now he was lushed, lightning-struck. It didn't show in his voice or his walk, but he was crazy and bold with it. "I'll get you a key. Go to that counter-man, blarney him. Keep him busy. And don't look at me." He gave her half a shove. "Go!"
   Terrified, she returned to the counter. The Grand's telegraph stood at the far end, a ticking brass machine on a low marble pedestal decorated with leafy gilt vines. Within a sort of bell-glass, a gilded needle swung to and fro, pointing out letters in a concentric alphabet. With every twitch of the needle, something in the marble base clunked methodically, causing another quarter-inch of neatly perforated yellow paper tape to emerge from the marble base. The night-clerk, who was punching binder-holes in a bundle of fan-fold paper, set his work aside, clipped on a pince-nez, and came toward her.
   "Yes, madame?"
   "I need to send a telegram. It is rather urgent."
   The clerk deftly assembled a small box of punch-cards, a hinged brass perforator, a neatly ruled form. He took out the reservoir-pen Sybil had used earlier. "Yes, madame. Citizen-number?"
   "Oh… Would that be my number, or his?"
   "That would depend, madame. Are you planning to pay by national credit?"
   "May I charge it to my room?" Sybil hedged.
   "Certainly, madame. Room number?"
   Sybil hesitated for as long as she dared. "I suppose I'll pay cash, actually."
   "Very well. Now, the addressee's citizen-number?"
   "I'm afraid I don't know it, actually." She blinked at the clerk and began to chew on one knuckle.
   He was very patient. "You do have a name and address, though?"
   "Oh yes," Sybil said hastily. "Mr. Charles Egremont, M.R, 'The Beeches,' Belgravia, London."
   The clerk wrote this down. "It is rather more costly to send a wire with only an address, madame. It's more efficient to route it direct through the Central Statistics Bureau." Sybil had not been looking for Mick. She had been afraid to look. Now, from the corner of her eye, she saw a dark form scuttle across the lobby floor. Mick was bent almost double, with his shoes off, the laces knotted around his neck. He charged headlong at the waist-high mahogany counter, grabbed the forward edge two-handed, vaulted over it in a split-second, and vanished.
   He had made no sound at all.
   "Something to do with the way an Engine handles messages," the clerk was explaining.
   "Indeed," Sybil said. "But I haven't his citizen-number. I shall have to pay the extra, then, shan't I? This is very important."
   "Yes, madame. I'm sure it is. Pray go on, and I shall take dictation."
   "I don't suppose I should begin with my address and the date? I mean, a telegram's not a letter, really, is it?"
   "No, madame."
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Zastava 44°49′N - 20°29′E
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Apple iPhone 6s
   "Or his address, either?"
   "Brevity is the essence of telegraphy, madame."
   Mick would be creeping to the hotel's mahogany pegboard, which hung clustered with room-keys. She couldn't see him, but now she imagined she could hear him moving, almost smell him, and the clerk needed only to glance to his right to discover a sneak-thief creeping toward him, crazy-eyed and crouching like an ape.
   "Please take this down," Sybil quavered. "Dear Charles." The clerk began scribbling. "Nine years ago you put me to the worst dishonor that a woman can know."
   The clerk stared in horror at his pen, a hot flush creeping up past his collar.
   "Charles, you promised me that you would save my poor father. Instead you corrupted me, body and soul. Today I am leaving London, in the company of powerful friends. They know very well what a traitor you were to Walter Gerard, and to me. Do not attempt to find me, Charles. It would be useless. I do hope that you and Mrs. Egremont will sleep soundly tonight." Sybil shuddered. "Sign that 'Sybil Gerard,' if you please."
   "Yes, madame," the clerk muttered, eyes downcast as Mick sprang silently back over the counter in his stocking feet. Mick crouched low, hidden by the counter's bulk, then crept off quickly on his haunches, waddling across the marble floor, like a monstrous duck. In a moment he had rolled behind a pair of overstuffed chairs.
   "What do I owe?" Sybil asked the clerk politely.
   "Two and six," the clerk stammered, quite unable to meet her eyes.
   She counted it out from the little clasp-purse she took from her muff, and left the red-faced clerk at his station, punching telegram-cards from his box.
   Mick came strolling like a gentleman across the lobby. He paused beside a reading-rack hung with neatly ironed newspapers. He bent down, coolly re-tying his shoes, straightened, and she saw the glint of metal in his hand. Not bothering even to catch her eye, he tucked the key behind a cut-velvet cushion on the chaise-longue. Then he stood briskly, straightened his tie, brushed at his sleeves, and strode straight off into the smoking-room.
   Sybil sat for a moment on the chaise, pretending to read a gold-spined monthly, 'Transactions of the Royal Society'. Carefully, with the fingertips of her right hand, she fished behind her for the key. Here it was, with the number "24" engraved on the oval brass. She yawned, in what she hoped was a ladylike fashion, and stood, to retire upstairs, entirely as if she had a room there.
   Her feet ached.
   As she trudged along the silent gas-lit hall, toward Houston's suite, she felt a sudden amazement at having struck out at Charles Egremont. Needing some dramatic message to distract the clerk, she'd blurted out threats and rage. It had come boiling out of her, almost without her will. It puzzled her, and even frightened her, after having imagined that she'd almost forgotten the man.
   She could imagine the fear on Egremont's face when he read her telegram. She remembered his face well enough, fatuous and successful, which always looked as though it meant well, always apologized, always preached at her, and whined, and begged, and wept, and sinned. He was a fool.
   But now she'd let Mick Radley set her to thieving. If she were clever, she should walk out of the Grand Hotel, vanish into the depths of London, and never see Radley again. She should not let the 'prentice oath hold her. To break an oath was frightening, but no more vile than her other sins. Yet somehow here she was; she had let him do with her as he would.
   She stopped before the door, looked up and down the deserted corridor, fingered the stolen key. Why was she doing this? Because Mick was strong, and she was weak? Because he knew secrets that she didn't? For the first time, it occurred to her that she might be in love with him. Perhaps she did love him, in some strange way, and if that were true, it might explain matters to her, in a way which was almost soothing. If she were in love, she had a right to burn her bridges, to walk on air, to live by impulse. And if she loved Radley, it was finally something she knew, which he didn't. Her secret alone.
   Sybil unlocked the door nervously, rapidly. She slipped through, shut it behind her, set her back against it. She stood in darkness.
   There was a lamp in the room somewhere. She could smell its burnt wick. In the wall opposite, the outline emerged of a square curtained window to the street, between the curtains a faint knife-slice of upwashed gas-light. She faltered her way into the room, hands outstretched, until she felt the solid polished bulk of a bureau, and made out the dim sheen of a lamp-chimney there. She lifted the lamp, shook it. It had oil. Now she needed a lucifer.
   She felt for drawers in the bureau. For some reason they were already open. She rustled through them. Stationery. Useless, and someone had spilled ink in one of the drawers; she could smell it.
   Her fingers brushed a box of lucifers, which she recognized less by touch than by the dry familiar rattle. Her fingers, really, didn't seem to be working properly. The first lucifer popped and fizzled out, refusing to light, filling the room with a vile smell of sulphur. The second showed her the lamp. Her hands were trembling badly as she raised the chimney and applied flame to the wick.
   She saw her own lamp-lit reflection staring wild-eyed from tilted cheval-glass, then doubled in beveled mirrors set into the twin doors of a wardrobe. She noticed clothing scattered on the bed, on the floor…
   A man was sitting on the arm of a chair, crouched there like a great shadowed crow, an enormous knife in his hand.
   He stood then, but slowly, with a creak of leather, like some huge wooden puppet that had lain years in the dust. He was wrapped in a long and shapeless grey coat. His nose and jaw were draped with a dark kerchief.
   "Best be quiet now, missy," he said, holding up the massive blade—dark, cleaver-like steel. "Sam comin'?"
   Sybil found her voice. "Please don't kill me!"
   "Old goat still whorin', is he?" The slow Texian voice slid forth like treacle; Sybil could barely make out his words. "You his fancy-gal?"
   "No!" Sybil said, her voice strangled. "No, I'm not, I swear it! I… I came here to steal from him, and that's the truth!"
   There was a ghastly silence.
   "Take a look 'round you."
   Sybil did so, trembling. The room had been ransacked.
   "Nothin' here to steal," the man said. "Where is he, gal?"
   "He's downstairs," Sybil said. "He's drunk! But I don't know him, I swear! My man sent me here, that's all! I didn't want to do this! He made me do it!"
   "Quiet, now," he said. "I wouldn't hurt a white woman, less I had to. Put out that lamp."
   "Let me go," she pleaded. "I'll go straight away! I meant no harm!"
   "Harm?" The slow voice was heavy with gallows certainty. "What harm there is, it's for Houston, and that's justice."
   "I didn't steal the cards! I didn't touch them!"
   " 'Cards'?" He laughed, a dry sound at the back of his throat.
   "The cards don't belong to Houston. He stole them!"
   "Houston stole plenty," the man said, but clearly he was puzzled. He was thinking about her, and was not happy about it. "What they call you?"
   "Sybil Jones." She took a breath. "I'm a British subject!"
   "My," the man said. He clicked his tongue.
   His masked face was unreadable. Sweat shone on a strip of pale smooth skin across the top of his forehead. A hat-brim had rested there, Sybil realized, to shield him from the Texian sun. He came forward now and took the lamp from her, turning down the wick. His fingers, when they brushed her hand, were dry and hard as wood.
   In the darkness, there was only the pounding of her heart and the Texian's terrible presence.
   "You must be lonely here in London," Sybil blurted, desperate to avoid another silence.
   "Maybe Houston's lonesome. I got a better conscience." The Texian's voice was sharp. "You ever ask if he's lonesome?"
   "I don't know him," she insisted.
   "You're here. A woman come alone to his rooms."
   "I came for the kino-cards. Paper cards, with holes in them. That's all, I swear!" No answer. "Do you know what a kinotrope is?"
   " 'Nother damn machine," the Texian said wearily.
   Another silence.
   "Don't lie to me," he said at last. "You're a whore, that's all. You ain't the first whore I ever seen."
   She heard him cough behind his kerchief, and snort wetly. "You ain't bad-lookin', though," he said. "In Texas, you could many. Start all over."
   "I'm sure that would be wonderful," Sybil said.
   "Never enough white women in the country. Get you a decent man, 'stead o' some pimp." He lifted his kerchief, and spat on the floor.
   "Hate pimps," he announced tonelessly. "Hate 'em like I hate Injuns. Or Mexicans. Mexican Injuns… French Mexican Injuns with guns, three, four hundred strong. On horseback, got them wind-up rifles, closest thing to devils on earth."
   "But the Texians are heroes," Sybil said, desperately trying to remember a name from Houston's speech. "I heard about… about Alamo."
   "Goliad," the voice gone to a dry whisper, "I was at Goliad."
   "I heard about that, too," Sybil said quickly. "That must have been glorious."
   The Texian hawked, spat again. "Fought 'em two days. No water. Colonel Fannin surrendered. They took us prisoner, all the niceties, polite as you please. Next day they marched us out of town. Shot us down in cold blood. Just lined us up. Massacred us."
   Sybil said nothing.
   "Massacred the Alamo. Burned all the bodies… Massacred the Meir Expedition. Made 'em pick beans. Little clay lottery pot, pull out a black bean and they kill you. That's Mexicans for you."
   "Mexicans," she repeated.
   "Comanches are worse."
   From somewhere off in the night came the scream of a great friction-brake, and then a dull distant pounding.
   Black beans. Goliad. Her head was a Babel. Beans and massacre and this man whose skin was like leather. He stank like a navvy, of horses and sweat. Down Neal Street she'd once paid tuppence to view a diorama of some vast waste in America, a nightmare of twisted stone. The Texian looked born from such a place, and it came to her then that all the wildernesses of Houston's speech, all the places with such queer improbable names, were truly real, inhabited by creatures such as this. And Mick had said that Houston had stolen a country once, and now this one had followed, avenging angel. She fought down an insane desire to laugh.
   She remembered the old woman then, the vendor of rock-oil in Whitechapel, and the queer look she'd given Mick when he'd questioned her. Did others work in concert with the angel of Goliad? How had so strange a figure managed to enter Grand's tonight, to enter a locked room? Where could such a man hide, even in London, even amid the tattered hordes of American refugees?
   "Say he's drunk?" the Texian said.
   Sybil started horribly. "What?"
   "Houston."
   "Oh. Yes. In the smoking-room. Very drunk."
   "Be his last, then. He alone?"
   "He…" Mick. "He's with a tall man. I don't know him."
   "Beard on 'im? Arm broke?"
   "I… Yes."
   He made a sucking sound between his teeth; then leather creaked as he shrugged.
   Something rattled, to Sybil's left. In the faint glow from the curtained window she glimpsed the gleaming facets of the cut-glass door-knob as it began to twist. The Texian leapt from his chair.
   With the palm of one hand pressed tight against her mouth, he held the great dirk before her, a hideous thing like an elongated cleaver, tapering to a point. A length of brass ran along its spine; with the blade inches from her eyes she saw notches and nicks along the brass. And then the door was opening, Mick ducking through, his head and shoulders stenciled out by the light in the corridor.
   She must have struck her head against the wall when the Texian flung her aside, but then she was kneeling, the crinoline bunched beneath her, watching the man hoist Mick against the wall, a single great hand about his throat, the heels of Mick's shoes beating a frantic tattoo against the wainscoting—until the long blade struck, twisted, struck again, filling the room with the hot reek of Butcher Row.

   And all that happened after, in that room, was a dream to Sybil, or a play she watched, or some kino-show wrought with balsa-bits so numerous, so tiny, and so cleverly worked, as to blur reality. For the Texian, lowering Mick quietly to the floor, closed and re-locked the door, his movements unhurried and methodical.
   She swayed where she knelt, then sagged against the wall behind the bureau. Mick was dragged away, heels scraping, into the deeper darkness beside the wardrobe. The Texian knelt over him—there was a rustle of clothing, the slap of the card-case flung aside, a jingle of change and the sound of a single coin, falling, rolling, spinning on the hardwood floor…
   And there came from the door a scratching, the rattle of metal on metal—the sound of a drunken man trying a keyhole.
   Houston, throwing the door wide, lurched forward on his heavy stick. He belched thunderously and rubbed the site of his old wound. "Sons of bitches," he said, hoarse with drink, listing violently, the stick coming down with a sharp crack at each step. "Radley? Come out, you little whelp." He'd neared the bureau now, and Sybil snatched her fingers back silently, afraid of the weight of his boots.
   The Texian closed the door.
   "Radley!"
   "Evenin', Sam."
   Her room above the Hart seemed distant as childhood's first memories, here in the smell of slaughter, in this dark where giants moved—Houston reeled suddenly to slash at the curtains with his cane, tore them open, gas-light catching the patterns of frost on the glass of each mullioned pane, illuminating the Texian's kerchief and the grim eyes above it, eyes distant and merciless as winter stars. Houston staggered at the sight, the striped blanket sliding from his shoulders. His medals gleamed, quivered.
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