As promised many moons ago, here’s the opening chapter to Fogbound: Empire in Flames.
Fingers of toxic red fog clawed at his clothing as he stepped over yet another dead body. Sir Pelham Simmons stalked the Fogside wastes with his rifle slung over his right shoulder. His greatcoat hugged him tightly, holding the fog at bay.
An acrid smell hung thick in his nostrils: too thick. He coughed and tapped his respirator. He thumped it again, harder this time, and gasped as cold air hit his throat with a taste of charcoal. Damn, I need to change these filters. He blew a long breath between his lips and bent to inspect the night’s latest victim. A tangled mass of hair splayed around the young woman’s head where she lay face-down in the filth.
He rolled the body over with the tip of his boot. Crimson tears streaked her pallid face, dark veins prominent beneath the skin.
He’d seen plenty of tainted before, but this was just a child, fifteen at most.
Rubble shifted close by, sending his hand leaping to his belt. Drawing his Webley service revolver, he spun, bringing the weapon to bear.
Two shadowy figures skulked into view through the waist-deep blanket of red. A thick web of dark veins writhed beneath their skin, groping for an exit from their fleshy prison. Thin tendrils of red weed snaked from bloody eye sockets tasting the air, sensing him.
He kept the pistol aimed at the nearest. The other moved, trying to flank him—not intelligent, more instinctive—and unlikely to give up an easy meal.
The Webley barked out two shots, breaking the silence, and the creatures slumped to the ground.
Wings thrashed behind him, and he ducked, hands protecting his face as he was buffeted by dark shapes. A couple of strikes to his leather gloves, painful but not enough to draw blood, then they scattered. A dozen crows faded into the pre-dawn darkness, their raucous laughter ringing in his ears. Damned birds.
One of the weed-ridden creatures was struggling back to its feet, tendrils whipping about in a frenzy. Simmons fired another round into the centre of its head, dropping it for good this time. Damned bleeders.
He needed to get moving and quick. Bleeders travelled in packs, and the gunshots would draw more of them. He’d ridden his luck enough for one night.
He returned to the girl and tipped the peak of his wide-brimmed hat. With a sigh escaping his dry lips, he lowered the pistol. “I’m sorry there isn’t a better way, girl. But I can’t let you become one of them.”
A single crack echoed around the ruins, and he stepped back, reloading his revolver. He knew she was already dead, that she wouldn’t suffer, but it didn’t make it any easier.
Now he had to get to the city, to safety.
He clambered over the rubble remains of collapsed buildings, picking his way through the scorched and shattered stone. As much as he’d like to quicken his step, he couldn’t risk it. A twisted ankle or a break here could prove fatal.
What was that?
He dropped to one knee, sinking into the eddies of scarlet around him. His breathing felt like a blacksmith’s bellows, and his chest ached from the bad air, but he waited with the revolver aimed back the way he’d travelled.
He strained, listening for anything that might indicate pursuit.
A series of howls echoed in the distance, dull through the dense fog. More bleeders.
A sharp crack of splintering bone cut through the night air. With a shudder, he stood, turning to leave. He didn’t want to hear any more—he had enough trouble sleeping as it was.
Whitechapel Gate loomed above the thick fog ahead. Simmons trudged forward. It had been a long night, and his feet ached like hell. He couldn’t wait to get back to his lodgings and out of his fog-gear. A relaxing soak in a hot bath and then, perhaps, sleep.
He hadn’t found the man he was hunting, but the net was closing in. Eyewitness accounts of his target, a killer named Maddox, placed him amongst the Red Hands. The gang conducted their shady business in the flooded streets south of the river. He’d need to speak to the watermen who transported folk across the deeper sections to see what more he could learn. But that could wait till tomorrow.
The gate, a solid slab of metal wide enough for a dozen men, fused into the wall’s outer structure which towered over fifty feet into the chill dark sky. He pressed the intercom button and waited.
A groggy voice sounded from the metal grille. “Papers.”
Simmons thrust a sheaf of yellowed parchment at the lens. Energy crackled as an arc-lamp burst into life.
“Hold them closer,” the voice said with a yawn. “Name and business?”
Simmons prodded his gloved finger at the wax seal at the bottom of the travel permit. “My name is Simmons, and I’m on official business. Now open the damned gate.”
“Registered man catcher, eh?” The voice dripped with contempt. “Your paperwork seems in order. Stand back.”
Light sliced through the fog as the lens swivelled, scanning, probing for hidden danger. Three metallic thuds rang like gunshots as bolts released, metal grated as the segmented steel door rolled up into the wall providing an entrance into the city.
Simmons ducked through, striding twenty feet to the midpoint of the tunnel. The dim lighting flickered from green to red, but he didn’t need telling to stop. A familiar hum grew to a roar as turbine fans spun into action. The last remnants of fog fled the screeching gale to rejoin the vast red sea outside. He’d turned through a half circle with his arms out before the intercom crackled. “Turn around, arms—”
“I know the drill.”
He completed his rotation, fingers reaching to slacken the respirator, as the outer door clanged shut behind him. The turbines slowed to a dull drone as he pulled the mask free. It surrendered with a loud sucking sound, and he scratched at his moustache and mutton chops—Damn, that feels good. The itch had been bothering him for hours. Maybe he should shave them off, but after thirty years, military habits died hard.
Green light flooded the tunnel again as the door ahead clanked open onto a dirty, cobbled street. A single streetlamp illuminated a lone uniformed figure, lounging with boots on the guard-post desk. The man’s black uniform collar gaped at the neck. Simmons smiled. Even the Black Guard let standards slip on the graveyard shift.
If an officer caught the young man in that state of dress, his reprimand would be both sharp and severe. But it seemed unlikely any of the Black Guard’s top brass would pull a surprise inspection at this hour. They were more likely sleeping off a skinful of whisky, cigars or something much stronger.
He held his papers to the grilled window, but the guard waved him through without a glance.
The usual mix of buildings greeted him—some intact, most ruined with rubble spilling onto the cracked cobbles. Spotlights scoured the streets for curfew-breakers, and in the distant centre, the great Inner-City walls thrust into the night sky. Lights zipped away as black carriages, reserved for the military and ruling elite, sped beneath rail tracks suspended high above the ground.
Only a few short years ago, that would have been me. Simmons suppressed a laugh as he crossed into the fortified city of London.
Home once again.