"Bloody hell!" cursed Thricetin once they had passed safely under it. "Go on, clear off! I should have piloted this bloody thing after all..."
Lily scarpered out of the Lady's way as the woman leant over the panel. Her old hands moved quickly over the controls, and the orphanage began to rise up again, the balloons beneath the building swelling as they were reheated.
For Thricetin Orphanage was not the only building to float in the grey skies of this glum planet, and neither was London the only sphere-city. There were dozens and dozens of other sphere-cities and sphere-towns all scattered loosely amongst the clouds, and there were hundreds and hundreds of other sky-buildings, drifting from city to city, everything from pretty little cottages to opera houses to full-fledged cathedrals, all of them similar in that they all floated on a bunch of gas balloons and were propelled along by rotor blades.
But London dominated the sky like a star made of bricks and mortar, making Manchester, and Birmingman, and all the other cities that floated with it seem no larger than mouldy peas in comparison, and London was still growing, still feeding, still fattening as it attracted more and more sky-buildings to become a part of it, its low taxes and promises of wealth drawing in the factories, the manor houses, the corner shops and opium dens; a sphere-city made of steeples and spires, half of it light, and half of it dark, but all of it stinging out into the ragged lightning-clouds of the tired, war-torn planet Earth.
Something strange was moving in the stairwell of Big Ben, making its way swiftly up the clock-tower's twisting spiral staircase, following the marble steps as they wound around and around within the tower like a tortured, twisted spine, the strange figure not stoping once for breath as it glided up the stairs like a ghost.
It was certainly pale enough to be a ghost, and old enough, for when it passed through a patch of light, you could see that it looked like a ghastly, hook-nosed old man, completely naked as it walked, its swinging arms long and skinny and ending in clawed hands, its belly huge and bloated, bulging like a maggot and streaked with black veins that floated in its flesh like the hair of drowned corpses.
But it wasn't an it. It was a he, and he was the Lord Mayor and master of London, his breath rasping in his wrinkled throat, his long white hair combed back against his old scalp and flowing down his unclothed back, and his eight, robotic spider-like legs all clicking on the marble steps as they carried him swiftly up the twisted stairs, steam hissing from the screeching metal joints. The Lord Mayor was a man-machine, half machine and half man, and only a man from the waist up, his lower body gone, replaced by the spidering mass of tangled machinery, the mass of whirring cog-wheels and flickering micro-furnaces that kept his crippled, maggot-pale body alive, supported on those eight, spindly spider legs, each leg ending in a needle-sharp point.