Black Iron

Black Iron Excerpt, Chapter 1

It was the rain that woke him.

At least he hoped it was rain. When you find yourself lying on the street with something wet falling on your face, you can’t always be sure. There were other possibilities, but he preferred not to think about them.

His head hurt. So did his shoulder. His back, that hurt too. He could probably postpone worrying about the throbbing in his knee, at least for now, though it might present a bit of a problem when it came time to stand. With a bit of luck, he wouldn’t need to run, though that, too, was something you couldn’t always take for granted. Something in his pocket was poking most unpleasantly into his thigh, but he didn’t quite feel up to moving his leg just yet.

First things first. Where was he?

Reluctantly, with great effort, he opened his eyes.

The wetness falling on him was rain, an endless dreary drizzle of it pattering on the rough cobblestone around him. It pooled in the cracks between the stones. It formed larger rivulets that that set out in search of the mighty Thames, that enormous body of what was in theory water, or had once been water, or had water as one of its less odiferous components. Tiny fingers of cold water detoured on their trip to the storm grates and thence to the sluggish mud-colored river of maybe-water just long enough to flow into his pant leg and send icy wet misery down his back. They trickled from his collar to rejoin the rest of the water making its indirect way toward the river.

Everything around him was grey. Okay, that seemed right. Buildings towering above him, drab brick faces daubed with soot. Above them, a tangle of electrical wires, strung in hodgepodge fashion from building to building. Far above the buildings, an enormous zeppelin floated in the flat grey sky, angling down for landing. Its signaling lamp strobed a frantic staccato of brilliant light toward the ground.

New Old London, then. The wires were a dead giveaway. That was surprising. He was used to waking up across the river, in Old New London.

It hadn’t always been called New Old London. Once, it had simply been London. The city, driven by an ever-increasing population, had grown rapidly, sprawling helter-skelter until it fetched up against the banks of the Thames. It paused for a bit at the river’s edge, like a great swarm of termites gathering its strength. Then, all at once, it sprouted bridges across the river like tendrils of brick and metal. The moment those tendrils touched down on the opposite bank, the city resumed its growth with vigor.

For a while, the bit of London on the far side was called New London, which made the older bits Old London. Then, about the time the now-reigning monarch Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Margaret the Merciful, who had been granted that particular honorific by some unknown poet in an exuberance of artistic license, was just graduating from wetting herself to speaking in complete sentences, her father, the now-late Royal Majesty King John the Proud, had decided Old London was a bit fusty and by royal decree had ordered much of it razed and rebuilt.

A handful of people objected to his bold—some said “audacious”—approach to civil engineering, questioning both the cost and the small but nevertheless still important matter of what to do with all the people displaced by it, but a few beheadings soon sorted that out. A man can accomplish quite a lot when he commands both the royal treasury and the headsman’s axe. And it certainly helps when that royal treasury is groaning under the vast weight of gold sent home in a never-ending stream from the colonies of the New World.

So Old London became New Old London, which meant New London was now Old New London, and there you had it.

He moved his arm, the one pressed quite uncomfortably against the curbstone. His father had always said that any day you woke up looking down at the gutter instead of up at the gutter was a good day. By that measure, this was not shaping up to be a good day.

His father. That’s right, he’d had one of those, once.

A clue, then. He probably wasn’t an orphan. Orphans didn’t have memories of their fathers, did they? Maybe he would ask the next one he caught trying to pick his pocket. Having a father implied being birthed by human beings, which meant he wasn’t an animate, one of the not-quite-living constructs stitched together out of bits of the dead and then zapped back into existence with electricity and foul-smelling chemicals. And the fact that he was thinking about it clinched the deal. Everyone said animates didn’t have thoughts at all. They were frightfully expensive, and as beasts of burden they were only moderately useful, but they’d been all the rage since that doctor from Geneva had started making them a couple of years back. All the trendiest aristocrats employed one or two for menial tasks like carrying firewood, and a few inventive folks suggested they might have utility in some of the messier parts of home security. He found them creepy, with their weird and often mismatched eyes and their occasional bursts of unprovoked violence.

Not that humans were necessarily any better in the unprovoked violence department, but at least their eyes usually matched.

I think; therefore, I am not an animate.

That seemed a safe bet.

He still wasn’t quite sure who he was or what he was doing lying face-up in a gutter in New Old London, but he didn’t feel an undue sense of urgency about it. At the moment, he seemed not to be bleeding from anywhere, and nobody was chasing him. Might as well take advantage of this unexpected luxury, he thought.

He looked down the length of his body. Both legs present and accounted for, and in more or less the correct shape. Nothing obviously broken. But what were those ridiculous things on his feet? The shoes were gaudy, made of different kinds of leather assembled in a patchwork collage that was probably the current height of fashion among those who cared about that sort of thing, which he felt he most probably was not. They had bright red clasps and pointed metal tips. They were, he thought, certainly not the sorts of things he would wear under ordinary, or indeed even extraordinary, circumstances. They seemed quite impractical for either running or creeping, two things he had a vague sense that he did rather a lot of. Yet there they were, buckled to his feet in all their gaudy monstrosity.

Another mystery. That made two so far, and he’d barely been conscious for a minute. He hated days like this, or at least he thought he probably did.