Hanley's throat was slit by a crazed airship worker, and his body strung up and hoisted onto the back of a stolen air carriage, his head lolling to the right, his tongue protruding like he were a petulant child with a simple-minded sense of humour. For all I knew, he could have been. The entire concept of politics hadn't reached me in all my years, and the now not so indiscreet murmurings of negotiations, demonstrations and revolution may as well have been the words of some sort of alien language.
However, I knew something had changed. I huddled on the corner between Gregor's Steelworks and Meredith's Cloth Hall, along with a thousand or so other manual labourers, all of us smeared in dirt and grease, a great majority nursing injuries or suffering from poor posture.
I watched the blood drip from under Hanley's bruised chin, leaving trails of glistening red behind, as a couple of burly, scarred steelworkers steered the carriage up and down the freeway, swerving in and out and around the colossal columns of concrete and the even bigger columns of thick, black smoke.
Endless cheers and chants went up from the sea of workers, all reveling in the glory of slaughter. I shouted with them, and even rattled off the slogans that they began to roar into the skies, completely disregarding the fact that I didn't even know what Hanley had been killed for.
The metropolitan guards swooped in just as the night did. One of which was welcome; the other, not so much. Burning torches were forged, lit by the coal that I and my co-workers had hauled up from the ports. Holding one in my hands, feeling its glowing warmth, and watching as the rioters all clutched theirs in pride gave me an odd rush of self-respect and power. I shivered. The ache in my back was almost a small price to pay for it.
We held the police out for a good ten or fifteen minutes, waving torches precariously in their direction and rushing forward with whatever pieces of jagged or heavy scrap metal we could lay our hands on. But they outnumbered us by at least a third, and they also donned thick bronze armour over their bodysuits.
I watched in desperation as our people were tackled, captured and carted away. People began to panic, and turn on each other. The horse pulling the stolen air carriage became spooked, and began to rear and buck and canter precariously. The steelworkers driving it were thrown a good hundred metres by the force of it, but Hanley's battered corpse remained intact. The stallion took down at least another six unfortunate rioters who happened to fall into its crazed path. A woman - seemingly the only female caught up in the commotion - clutching a screaming infant hurried away quickly, aided by the men as she passed by them, until she was a good fifty metres out of the way.
I drank in the clamouring chaos, my head spinning from shock. It was a battlefield among the chimneys, and no one, not the rioters or their employers, or the guards, or even the acclaimed (for what, exactly?!) politician Hanley could put an end to it.
That settled it.
I'd have to do it.
I swung around and darted towards the cowering woman that had crouched behind the coal bunker with her baby. She whipped her eyes up at me in terror, instinctively drawing the child closer to her bosom. I was taken aback for a moment when I recognized her.
Her breath came in rasps, and she seemed unable to speak. She'd aged so drastically. Her face was practically all bone, her skin grey, her hair all but fallen out.
A moment of affection crept over me. I hadn't seen her since the night I'd stolen Millicent's ring, but she'd often crossed my mind. She'd fallen ill with fever, and hadn't returned to class, and it was generally believed that she'd died. What I felt was something like relief, only with a twinge of something else. Something.... unpleasant.
"Silus," she sobbed. "You have to help me."
"I know, I know." My mind spun fast, and suddenly clicked into place with a plan. "Flora, listen to me. The guards, they've - they've taken him."
"What?" she exclaimed, a deathly paleness passing over her face. "They've taken Ernest?"
"Yes. You have to go."
"Oh, God, oh Jesus! Oh God above!" Flora cried out, throwing her head back, wailing at the sky, her voice barely carrying over the shouts and roars of the rioters.
"Give me the baby. Go rescue him."
She looked appalled at such a request.
"You only have one chance," I said softly.
Her eyes darted from my face to her baby's. She kissed its forehead softly and gently, and whispered something in its ear before handing it over to me.
"I'll come back here," she said as she rose to her feet. "I'll come back for you, my darling."
For a fanciful moment, I fantasized that she was speaking to me, referring to me so sweetly as her darling, rather than the child.
As soon as she was swallowed up by the pulsating sea of men and fire, I made a dart for the nearest chimney. A few rioters who'd I'd been standing next to yelled after me, thinking I was fleeing the battle;
"Gutless bastard! Come back here!"
"Yeah, run away, ya yellow piece a' shit!"
I frowned as I ran, steeling myself. I never was a graceful runner, and it wasn't something that improved with time either. My knees never seemed to hinge sufficiently enough for me to get up any significant speed, and cradling a child in my arms made nothing easier. I wheezed and puffed as I flew. It wasn't as it my lack of physical stamina mattered much. It was the last time I'd ever have to run in my life.
A spiral staircase ran around the entire circumference of the steel chimney, installed for convenience when it came to maintenance and repairs. Luckily, I knew there was also an emergency ladder reaching from the ground directly to the top of the chimney. I'd seen men hurry down this in a flurry when their clothes had caught fire or something silly like that.
I'd always hated silly people. How difficult was it not to set your clothes on fire?
I and came to the back of the chimney, craning my neck like I was staring up into the face of a giant. I puffed out my cheeks, secured my grip on the child with hands frozen from the January evening.
And I began to climb.
* * *
I've often wondered what the people of London must have thought when they saw me. My mind churned out the endless possible questions over the years. Was he mad? Was it a hero? Was he even human? Was he the angel of death, waiting to swoop down and claim them all?
And most importantly - what's he going to do with that...?
"STOP! LOOK AT ME! STOP!" I screamed, banging hard against the cold, echoing steel of the chimney. The sounds gradually pulled the attention of the majority of the guards. The rioters were more difficult to distract, but eventually they all glanced skywards, torches and makeshift weapons falling helplessly to their sides.
They all stared at the man holding a baby over the side of a ten-storey chimney.