Never did a man hanged see such a funeral. Old Cobb leaned on his spade to watch the barges come down the canal in caravan, in smoky procession, each decked out with black solemnity. Crowds lined the bank, quality and commoners all intermingled, while open carriages and charabancs blocked the roadways behind. Gentlemen and coolies removed their hats as the cortège steamed slowly by; ladies bowed their heads, while their maids dropped a dutiful curtsey. Soldiers saluted, officers and troops together. They were not—quite—a formal muster, but a great many had chosen to turn out in full parade dress today, a scarlet glory against the green.
Flags were everywhere, at half-mast every one. Poles had gone up overnight at every measured furlong to ensure it. That had been a job of work. Cobb knew; he’d had the navvies in his bothy before dawn, drinking tea, smoking, grumbling. Now they too were beside the water, clean shirts and a shave, grouped around the last pole they raised, just opposite the cemetery’s watergate. Proud of their achievement, showing their respect. Mute before their betters, awkward in any society other than their own, standing their ground today. Cobb knew them intimately, them and their kind. Perhaps he admired them, though he would scorn to admit it. Admiration was for the idle classes who had time to compare this to that, others to themselves. He was a navvy himself, in all but name. But for an accident of birth, unless it was the grace of God. His mother had said the one thing, parson the other. He needn’t believe either. He was just glad of the red stripe on his blue passport—red, red, white and blue—that said he was a subject of Her Britannic Majesty, and Mars-born. This and that together: the best of both worlds, as they liked to say. And give Venus never a mention, they liked that too. Venus was in Russian hands, and the Czar no friend to the Queen Empress.
Cobb’s birth was a privilege, maybe, but he worked as hard as any navvy fetched up from Earth on a judge’s warrant. Graves don’t dig themselves. Nor do cemeteries beautify themselves, even on a day with no digging. Paths must be weeded, hedges trimmed. Old dried wreaths taken away, fresh flowers laid. The route from gate to burial had been marked down on a scribbled map and sent urgently to the city, to be sure that no one put a foot wrong—and even so Cobb had taken time to string black ribbons from tree to tree and in judicious places, swagged along the back of a bench and garlanded around a sleeping cherub’s neck, to stand as mute guide wherever the path divided. Nothing about today was spontaneous, though it was meant to look that way. Not our work, Authority meant to say to any eyes that watched, we had nothing to do with this. The man died in his shame, at our hand; all else is the will of the people. That and, See how the people feel, Authority meant to say that too. They choose to honour him this way. That should surely tell you something.
Someone, from somewhere, must be watching. There was not a nymph to be seen in the water, though, not an imago in the sky. That seemed appropriate. On such a day, they ought to keep their distance.
People said, They’re shunning us, they think all this disgusting. Old Cobb didn’t know about that. He didn’t have the finger-talk, no one he knew had the bubble-talk. If there was an air-talk, no one knew it at all; who could talk to imagines? They wouldn’t hold still long enough. Flibbertigibbets. The creatures lived their lives half backwards, as it seemed: growing old and wise and ever deeper, from nymph to naiad in the slow dark waters, and then abruptly young and foolish. Briefly, in mid-air. Merlins, he liked to call them. People did, all up and down the classes. He’d heard the word from a widowed duchess and a weaver’s boy. You had to call them something, after all; and Martians didn’t apply. He was a Martian himself, born and bred. Red-blooded. They said that too, all up and down. Even the lordlings who might have boasted otherwise, bluebloods they’d be called on Earth. Not here. Red dust under their fingernails, despite a lifetime’s scrubbing.
Digging graves is a profession and a privilege, not a punishment detail. To a man with the right mind, it’s almost a sacrament. Cobb knew his work and he knew its value. In a smaller town, given a simpler church with a lesser congregation, he’d be sexton and respected. But Cobb was Cassini-born, raised within the sound of Thunder Fall, in the shadow of the cathedral rising on the flooded crater’s rim. He had never thought of leaving. The sexton here was a most superior man, far above Cobb’s touch, with airs and responsibilities both. Cobb was content to be gravedigger, and do the work that mattered.
No digging today. The spade was a prop to his comfort, not a tool to his hand. The cathedral might be unfinished; the cemetery had seen a century’s use already. Of course the great families had their private vaults and mausoleums, stone-built, adorned with weeping angels and Latin mottoes, the reverence of ornament. Sir John’s great-grandfather had been on the first Settlement ship. His grandfather was signatory to the Charter. From the day he was born, it had been known where he would lie in death: beside them in the family crypt, on the shelf that already bore his name. Only the date, this day was a surprise.
The date, and the manner of his coming. He might have expected pomp, but not disgrace. Disgrace and pomp. The unseemly rush to judgement, arrest and trial and execution should have been startlement enough, so hurried they were. That and this funeral too, this frantic elaborate fair, the very opposite of discretion or diplomacy or tact: startling. We bend the knee to the merlins, people said—the navvies had said it, around Cobb’s hearth this morning—when we stretch his neck so fast, because they ask it; we slap them in the face—for his sake, aye—when we bury him with honour, as we do.
Just who had ordered the flags, the barges, the sense of great occasion would likely come clear only in time, in the account-books. Someone must be paying for all this. The crowds had not been ordered, quite—except the schoolchildren, perhaps, in their scrubbed and serried ranks, boys in Eton collars and girls in white pinafores, with flowers in their hands—but they had surely been expected. The schools must have been told, you are expected. The common people could simply be relied on. A public hanging at first light, a gentleman, a man of reputation, the whole city would turn out for that; and even before the body was cut down, the rumours must have started.
No one quite knew anyway, whether he was condemned for murder or for treason or for breaking the Charter, or all three. His trial had been held in camera, and the proclaimed verdict was conspicuously unforthcoming in its detail. Easy then to understand how quickly people accepted that his crime had been noble and terrible and strange, that he had died in the service of Queen and Empire, although the Queen would necessarily say nothing and the Empire was obliged to disavow it. The Viceroy was subtle or else craven, depending on your point of view, but could be disregarded either way. The city of Cassini meant in any case to say a solemn farewell to its fallen son. The funeral cortège was steam-up before dawn in the basin below the Fall; the poles stood waiting for their flags; authorised or not, informed or not, the city took a half-holiday to see him silent home.
Given his choice, Cobb might have stood with the navvies by their flagpole. He valued their salty, uncouth respect more highly than the prescribed and public sorrow of the cathedral’s clergy as they stepped from the leading barge onto the heavy timbers of the landing-stage. From archbishop to thurifer, their words and roles were written down; it all came easy to the likes of them. They could speak of honour and sacrifice and debt, exhibit all that was proper and not necessarily mean a word or a moment of it. Cobb trusted the navvies more.
He had his place too, though: just within the locked gates, ready to open them at need. There was no need—the archbishop himself did the honours with his plated key, and the lock turned sweet as any, because Cobb had bathed it in rock-oil overnight and only fitted it back an hour ago—but this was not a day to be taking chances. You could feel it. This was a day for history to remember, in books and in the home, in family legend.
You listen to your grandad, he was there.
Here he was, and glad of a sort, however much he wished himself marginally elsewhere, just a little transported. Over there. The clergy stood for ritual, tradition, what was careful and proper and ordained from far away; the navvies for a sullen passion that rips the heart, the urgency of presence, the true spirit of the Empire.
The sexton drew the gates wide, with barely a glance at Cobb. He was in his whites, as was the dean and all the chapter too, with just a band of red at the hem of every alb as though the linen dragged inch-deep in Martian dust. Wherever it flew, from Westminster to New Shoreditch to the canalside today, the Union Flag wore that same red border now. In happier times, on church parade, the children sang their way around it:
Red, red, white and blue
These are my colours and my fealty too.
It was simple, stirring, cheerful, an unofficial anthem. Some days half the crowd would join in. That might be another way to spot the Mars-born: which songs they stood up for.
Cobb had a red handkerchief at his throat today. It jarred perhaps with his dusty dutiful blacks, but he was hardly alone. He’d have been hard pressed, indeed, to find man or woman or child who wasn’t showing a flash of patriotic primary somewhere, along with their mourning bands: a ribbon in the hair, a buttonhole thread, the cuff of a glove turned back to show its lining. The schoolgirls’ flowers were every shade of crimson, scarlet, cardinal, maroon.
It was like seeing all rumours confirmed, to see the hierarchy of the Church of Mars line either side of the landing-stage like an honour guard. The merlins would hate that, surely, if they ever understood it. What they demanded had been granted them, and this was the response: the letter of the law, and the spirit of the Empire. He was not a sentimental man, but even old Cobb felt a twist in his throat, a prickle behind his eyes. They did this well, he thought, his people. Each of them individually stood high today, and raised their neighbours higher. The Viceroy couldn’t be here, of course, to see a man buried who had been hanged at his command—but the Widow at Windsor would hear of this through the aether, and nod, and recognise its worth.
The second barge carried the coffin beneath its pall of red, and the six men who would bear it home. Six troopers, drawn by lot—Cobb had heard—when every man in barracks stepped up to volunteer.
By the look of the fortunate six, every man in barracks had lent a hand to be sure they would not disgrace the regiment. From the plumes on their shakos to the pipeclay on their belts to the blacking on their boots, they gleamed and dazzled.
Before them, a single cherubic boy stepped ashore in a plain white surplice belted with scarlet. As the men shouldered their burden he stood quite still, gazing ahead through the double line of clergy and the open gates to the green of the cemetery, beyond the cemetery to the butterscotch sky, beyond the sky itself perhaps to very heaven: he seemed that innocent, that pure.
He might perhaps have had a signal, the twitch of a finger from the canon who was his music-master in the cathedral choir school. Perhaps it was the preternatural hearing of the very young, to catch exactly when the pallbearers were ready at his back: the last deep breath, the rustle of immaculately pressed serge and the creak of polished leather, the sudden silence following. Or else there was simply a moment, when waiting was done and the next thing had to begin. When the silence couldn’t last a moment longer.
At all events, he sang. His lone treble rose like larksong, so high and true it could carry perhaps all through the aether and back to the Widow herself, to sing to her directly.
Red, red, white and blue…
Not a hymn, not a psalm. Not perhaps what the boy had been instructed or expected to sing. The troopers—forewarned, perhaps?—didn’t miss a beat as they slow-marched behind him, their faces carved to solemnity, but Cobb felt a stir along the lines of white. No one would say anything, here and now. If Cobb was right, the boy was safe to be thrashed later; he might even lose his place at school. He might think even that worth while in payment for this moment, when the province’s senior clergy closed ranks and marched behind the coffin, lending their imprimatur to the simple schoolboy tune that lay buried in every Martian’s marrow.
Red blows the wind and free
From Mars to the Empress in the old country.
This is the order for funerals, wherever subjects of Her Majesty have land and leisure wherewith to mark their loss. First comes the innocent, the cherub, a herald of sorrow; and then the dead. Then the religious. The military, the secular, the family follow on together, all one in the eyes of the Church.
Here came the mourners, then. The Mawes and their immediate relations, stiff with grief and shock: clad from eldest to youngest in severest black except for those who had served the Queen Empress in her wars, whose uniforms blazed somehow brighter red than any. Officials and dignitaries from the city, the men who had drawn up the warrant that hanged Sir John, determinedly not crept into hiding. The Viceroy couldn’t lend his countenance to the occasion, but they felt obliged or entitled or at least able, in formal civilian dress with not a mark of rank between them, not a mayoral chain or a hint of precedence to suggest that they came ex officio. Senior officers, by contrast, had all their medals defiantly on display. The man belonged to the regiment, and the regiment was here to acknowledge that. The Arean-Messenger was here in the august person of its editor, taking notes like any cub reporter, listing all the society ladies and the men of business who had begged or bought or commanded a seat in a barge, a place at the heart of this ceremony.
Anyone and everyone, and Cobb. He might not have seen the choirmaster’s signal to prompt the boy; he did see the sexton’s, aimed at him as the clergy shuffled by. A swift beckoning finger, follow on. Cobb might have ignored it, he had his place and it was not in that procession; but he had his curiosity too. Deep and dark and slow as a merlin naiad just before the change, unconfessed as his patriotism, rooted and grown in the same red earth. It stirred within him now, and of course he followed on. Spade in hand.
The Sabaean Plain is broad and flat between its high-walled craters, broad and flat and fertile wherever it can be irrigated. The first settlers landed half a world away, but they were frontier folk by nature. Every canal was an invitation and an opportunity. They scattered, they spread, they settled. Inevitably they had contact with nymphs along the way, with naiads when they disturbed the crater lakes. That was before anyone had guessed the merlin lifecycle, before anyone had named the merlins anything. Of course there had been deaths, deaths and deaths. Settlers and soldiers died in droves, before the Charter.
Their first graveyard here overflowed, before ever there was a city on the crater wall to feed it further. Authority was wise, ambitious, confident; the Viceroy bespoke a stretch of land between three canals. As if to remind himself that he had been from home before, if never quite this far, he called it San Michele and gave it to the new Church for her people. Forbade bridges, so that the city ever after should call it the Isle of the Dead and see it as separate, contained, particular. See it from the crater’s height, indeed, vivid green all year amid the cornfields, set like a jewel in its narrow bands of water. San Michele was a promise to the future: here we lie and shall lie, white bones in red soil under a canopy as green as England’s own. In perpetuity, in Mars. This world is ours.
Along broad paths that were deliberately neither straight nor level, through groves of maturing trees, between tombs and monuments and stones already weathered as though a country churchyard had been laid out on the scale of a city park, they followed the coffin and the boy’s sweet call to the final resting-place of all the Mawes of Mars. That name was cut above the low vault’s entranceway; the iron grille stood open because Cobb had left it so this morning. The coffin was set down before it, on trestles he had laid out in the half-dark; the scarlet pall hung to the ground like a veil of discretion. Mourners gathered in a respectful half-circle on the grass, while the archbishop read the words of interment from a book held open for him by the choirboy. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes: a solemn symbolic handful lifted from a silver chalice and cast across the pall. They had come to Cobb for that too, as though soil dug by a real worker were more pure or more true. The archbishop wiped his hands after on a linen napkin. Even he must have red dust beneath his nails, unless he bleached it out.
Now the family stepped forward, to scatter their own thin handfuls and lay flowers on the cloth. Sir John’s mother, his sisters, his young son. At least he had a son. The boy would likely have a time of it at school, but he’d carry the name forward another generation, and perhaps have the chance to redeem it. Find the chance, or make it. Here was a world of empire, barely scratched; a young man might do anything, if his family stood behind him. Or the regiment would take him, surely. Blood wipes away dishonour, and the Queen Empress always needed men.
Or young Mawe could lose the family name and disappear, he wouldn’t be the first. Turn his back on all his people, in rage or disappointment or relief; take a mule and a dust-mask and a waterskin, strike out for the high country, terra incognita.
Lord knew, there was enough of it. Away from the main canals, vast ranges still stood open to be farmed or mined or simply wandered through. If a man learned finger-talk, he could learn to survive. Or not. He could lose himself, lose his life, never come home to occupy his own shelf in the vault. It happened; Cobb knew. Traders and trappers fetched in bones sometimes, the shoddy remnants of a life abandoned. They’d bring them to him, rather than to the clergy. He’d bring them to God himself, in a private corner of San Michele in the quiet of dawn, untroubled by questions of identity or baptism or state of grace. There was no such thing as an unmarked grave; God marked the fall of every sparrow. So, Cobb thought, did the Widow. Even this far away, where sparrows were imported, rare and costly.
No call for Cobb’s intervention today. Sir John had been given communion in his cell, before the hangman came; he was blessed on the gallows, before the drop. Now the troopers lifted up his earthly remains one more time, and bore him down into the crypt.
Not the archbishop, but the dean followed, and some few men in suits whom Cobb could not have named or rated—and the sexton, who looked back and again beckoned, follow on.
Cobb picked his way through the mill of mourners, following.
Every crypt and every vault is different. Cobb knew all of his, inside and out. This one, he had its every corner fresh in mind, he had swept and mopped them all in readiness—but he had never seen it quite like this. It was not at all how he had left it. The coffin was set down again on trestles, not his own; storm-lanterns glowed in niches all around. The troopers were dismissed. The strangers discarded their tailcoats and addressed the pall in waistcoats and shirtsleeves, scattering dust and flowers in casual profusion as they stripped the cloth away.
The dean’s face twisted: anger or distaste or something stronger, contempt perhaps, unless it was disgust.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Open it!”
Cobb looked at the sexton, the expectant circle, the unexpectedly cheap wood of the revealed casket.
He said, “I don’t have a screwdriver, sir. With me, I mean. I didn’t…”
“Your spade, man. Use your spade. Good Lord, don’t tell me you have scruples? Does that look to you like anything deserving of respect?”
Actually, it looked to Cobb more like a crate than a coffin. And yes, he did apparently have scruples, shaped by the silent company around the walls, the long dead in their bones and boxes. He might have said something eventually, something of that, but he was always slow to speak; one of the men he didn’t know was quicker to speak for him.
“Hardy, go easy on the man. He has no idea. God willing.” And then to Cobb, gently, as he might speak to a child or perhaps a horse, “Set your mind at rest. This is…not as it seems.”
“Indeed.” The dean, speaking effortfully in his outrage. “A pantomime, no sacrament at all. You may use your spade freely, sirrah. You desecrate nothing that is not already defiled beyond recourse.”
“Gently, though,” the stranger urged. “The spade, by all means, if you have no crow to hand—but gently. Not to harm what lies within.”
Was Sir John not dead, then? A pantomime, the dean called it. Had the execution been only show? That would be a bold move, under the public eye. Crowds could be fooled, though; Cobb knew. The people delighted in a grand illusion. They wanted, almost, to be fooled. And he had seen Romeo and Juliet, enacted by the gentry for the people’s education. He knew about heroes playing dead for posterity, for the law, for love.
He lifted his spade with some energy, then, a sudden eager vigour. Agentle vigour, yes. The crate was rudely made and rudely lidded, nailed shut, not even screwed. He could slide the blade’s edge quite easily between lid and case, and simply lean on it.
The creaking squeak of steel forced from wood; the lid rose up an inch. He moved to another corner.
Methodically, far from mechanically, Cobb raised the lid on all sides, then loosed it completely with one last heave and lifted it away.
Beneath was the Union Flag in all its red-rimmed glory, the flag that should have been Sir John’s pall, except it was impossible. No man hanged could be seen swathed in imperial colours, whatever his rank, whatever his service. That was the edict, and it might have been written exactly for this occasion, so that he who shrouded the body—Cobb wasn’t thinking corpse, not now—could deal justly by the Viceroy and Sir John both. Wrap him in the Widow’s flag and nail down the lid, cover that over with a simple red. The letter of the law, the spirit of the Empire.
The flags that lined the canal path could be shrugged away—a random act, mute insubordination, the work of a few malcontents who would be dealt with later—so long as no flag draped the coffin or was seen to drape the corpse.
The dean was here to witness for the Church. The men in their shirtsleeves must be doctors, standing by to revive the body from its seeming death, its trance-state. No conscious man could lie so still for so long, in a box. Under a cloth.
Not Cobb’s place, to peel back that cloth. He wished they would hurry; how could Sir John breathe, beneath its folds? If he were breathing. There was no shift in the fabric, not a hint of stir. The friar’s potion had left Juliet seemingly beyond the gates of death. cold and still and breathless. The shirtsleeved gentlemen had a leather bag which Cobb hadn’t noticed till now, much like a doctor’s. No one had carried that through all the obsequies, from barge to tomb; it must have been brought in before, like the trestles, and set down on an empty shelf. One man opened it, and yes: scalpels and lancets and scissors and saws, all the gleaming steel of the surgeon’s art.
In a disregarded corner—but Cobb was looking everywhere now, disregarding nothing—stood a pile of wooden boxes strapped with leather. It was the furthest corner from the entranceway, deeply shadowed; no one standing outside would see. Cobb had never imagined that he held the only key; of course the family could come and go at any time. Even so: he thought all of this had been hurried in this morning, after he unlocked the crypt. He thought the family didn’t know.
He wondered if they would be told, and when, and by whom. And how. Not, surely, by Sir John himself. That would be appalling, to meet him as an unexpected revenant, the rope’s mark still about his neck. Perhaps they were never to learn. Sir John could rise again and vanish, take ship to another city or another world, take a new name and never be himself again. These few who stood here might be the only men who ever knew the truth, and Cobb was one. For what, the virtue of his spade? They could have thought to bring a crowbar and do the work themselves. To bear witness, then, to represent the people as the dean did the Church? Perhaps, but…
The boxes held coils and wires, valves and clamps, electrical machinery. The largest were batteries, into which one of the doctors decanted acid as he watched. Restoring a man to life, that might well call for some extremity of science, tamed lightning.
At last, another doctor stepped up to the crate and threw back the shrouding flag to reveal—no. Not a man’s body. Not yet. A case of spun and burnished copper, rather, a coffin within a coffin. No doubt some complex instrument, a pressure-chamber of some kind that might hold a man preserved, until such time as his resurrectionists—
No. Cobb might be old but his eyes were sharp, and his mind had not dulled yet. That…was not copper, no. And not the work of any man. It was shaped near enough like a highpine cone cut from its stem—round like a spindle, broad at the shoulder and tapering to a narrow foot, near enough like a man’s shape if he were wrapped and wrapped until he lost all form else, near enough a man’s height that a coffin-box might hold it—and the shape was intimately familiar. Not that colour, nor the way it gleamed in the lamplight, but Cobb knew it for what it was when he looked in honesty rather than hope.
There would be no Sir John rising from this tomb, today or any day. Sir John was not here.
On Mars as on Earth, trees grew by canalsides and overhung the water. As on Earth, they might have been planted there for shade or fruit or shelter, for beauty perhaps—if the merlins could see beauty, if they cared—or for other reasons more mysterious; but chiefly, it was believed, trees and canals went natively together in the merlin mind because they echoed the deep waters and the highpines, those massive trees that grew beside the crater-lakes.
It was no coincidence, that a merlin chrysalis looked like a highpine cone. Boughs hung heavy-laden with them half the Martian year. The first settlers harvested them for foodstuff and fuel, and felled the trees for timber. And died for it, many and many, before the Charter brought peace. Nymphs were quick and vicious, but naiads, oh: if a naiad rose from the deeps, whole settlements were wise to run.
Survivors learned to be more circumspect, to keep their distance from the highpines. They watched—from distance, yes—and learned the merlin cycle: from nymph to naiad, unhurriedly, uncounted years coming to maturity in the deep waters, in the dark; and then the climb into air, the stiffening skin, the months of hanging sessile and dry among the cones, indistinguishable. They must have faced predators at one time, people said, to need such a disguise. It was impossible to imagine now. The Church had another argument, that God made the merlins this way to show that they were an element of nature and no different, no better than any other animal, only larger and more dangerous than most. They could point for proof to the airhead imago which tore itself free of the chrysalis and lived a short, gay, heedless life in flight. They could and did do that until the first bold settler—a woman, as it happened—learned finger-talk and spoke with the first wary nymph.
Then no one could deny their intelligence, although their origins were mysterious and their motives obscure. Even more obscure, once it was understood that the great ships that shuttled swiftly and silently between Mars and Earth were merlin-piloted. No one knew how or why, but sometimes a chrysalis would not hatch, its imago not emerge. Instead another choice was made, internally or otherwise. The skin would harden to this burnished shell, and the pupa would be cut away whole from its tree, borne off by imagines to become the living brain in a ship that spanned the aether.
“This,” Cobb murmured. “This is what he died for.”
“Indeed. And what a sacrifice that was.” One of the shirtsleeved men—not doctors, no; scientists, anatomists, not here to heal after all—ran his hands over the textured surface of the stolen chrysalis. Awed and covetous and possessive all three, those hands, his face. “His life for us, for our future, for our race. He took this and had to row it across the lake, where the racket of a steam-yacht would have brought the naiads up. Even so, they knew; he was barely ahead of the imagines when he reached the safety of the city. No safety for him, he knew his life must be forfeit under the Charter. He thought it worthwhile. He told me so himself. I think it was the Viceroy’s sense of humour, or else his sense of honour, that had us smuggle it here under the guise of Sir John’s coffin. We’ve told the merlins that he destroyed it trying to open the thing, that he was mad, quite mad. They don’t believe us, of course. They’re hanging over Cassini now and watching everything—but they won’t look here, they think it’s revolting how we treat our dead.
“We’ll be here some time, I expect,” he said, “trying to understand the thing, and how to make it fly. You need to know that. If we can learn how the merlin ships are worked, if we can train it to fly for us, we won’t be dependent any more. We can build our own ships, harvest as many of these as we need, and sail the aether as we ought, under the Pax Britannica. We could take our empire to the stars, and wouldn’t the Widow love that?”
“But the Charter…” They couldn’t think to hang a man for every chrysalis they took. There weren’t that many heroes.
“Once we know,” the man said, “once we have the wherewithal to fly ships of our own, we can write a new Charter. Or tear it up. We only negotiated because we need them to ferry us back and forth. When that’s no longer true—well. We needn’t live in fear any longer. The Army can subdue the creatures, sure. Exterminate them if need be. It may be their time. No one here believes that they built the canals, or the aether-ships either; they don’t have the physical make-up for engineering on that scale, whether or not they have the intelligence. They inherited this world from some other race, or else they took it by force. The same must be true of the ships. Now it’s our turn, perhaps, to take it all from them. This could be the first step on that journey, what we do here, what we learn.”
Perhaps all men of science were so ruthless. Cobb looked again at the scalpels and the little saws, the drills, the electrical wires; and felt glad that the creature in its shell had no mouth to scream with, to eat like acid at Cobb’s day. His days.
And turned to go, because surely this was why he was here, to understand this, that secret men would be inhabiting this vault a while with their experiments. Well, he knew it now; and the air would be cleaner outside.
And he had barely gone two paces before he checked, and turned, and said, “Sir John—where is he now? And when will he be brought here?” And how? would have been another question. Not in pomp, clearly, not as he deserved. Many a hero had seen a hurried grave, though, and…
“Oh, he shan’t come here.” That was the dean, interrupting coldly. “The archbishop has declared it. This far from home we must be stricter, more adherent to the rule of God’s law and the Established Church. By any measure, Sir John’s death was a suicide. He did what he did, he chose to do it, knowing what must follow. A sacrifice, yes—but he put his own head in the noose, and did it willingly. He cannot be buried in consecrated ground. You must do with him as you do for other executed felons, back at the prison, where his body lies.”
Had Cobb thought that scientists were ruthless?
The hanged in this city were supposed to lack even an unmarked grave. Tradition would have buried them beneath the prison yard, but the merlins would not bear that, and there was in any case no soil on the crater rim. It was Cobb’s task then to immerse them in a solution of lye for a few hours, until their flesh was gone. Then he was meant to crush the fragile surviving bone—with the flat of his eternal spade, yes—and scatter the powder to the winds.
“As I do for the others, sir, yes.”
First the barrel of lye, yes, to eat off the corruptible flesh; but then—well, old Cobb knew the value of his work. It was a sacrament, almost. And he came and went between the city and the island, and no one ever wondered what he ferried back and forth, what he might be bearing in his sack. And he had his own private graveyard in a distant corner, where he brought lost men unsupervised to God, felons no less than wanderers. There would be digging after all, this day.