Col followed his grandfather to a staircase that went up steeply at the side of the Bridge. The metal steps shuddered under Sir Mormus’s weight.
They went up through the ceiling and into a small round chamber like a turret. Then Sir Mormus unbolted a door and strode out.
It was incredible. Following his grandfather, Col walked out into a world of fresh air and sunshine. Openness on every side! He had never known anything so glorious. The cold wind fanned his hair and made his cheeks tingle. He opened his mouth and let the freshness fill his lungs.
They had come out onto a platform above the Bridge. All around were masts and wires, which sighed and sang in the wind. Col watched half a dozen small puffs of cloud—so close, it seemed he could reach out and touch them. He could have stayed there for ever, just feeling the sun and air on his face. It was like sailing in the sky.
But already his grandfather was striding forward to a waist-high barrier of solid steel that ran round the front of the platform. Col hurried to join him. He too leaned forward and looked out.
His vision swam with the vast scale of it all. There were the grey metal decks of World-Shaker, far, far below—but even more, the landscape spreading out all around, unfolding into the distance! A panorama of forests, hills and seas!
'What do you think, my boy?’
What did Col think? He didn’t know how to put it into words. It was as though the maps in his atlas had come to life. He traced a winding boundary between the blue of the sea and the colours of the land.
'Where are we, sir?' He pointed. 'What's that?'
'That? The east coast of southern India. We've travelled over the Nilgiri Hills and the Marthanda Valley. See those light green and brown patches?’
Col followed his grandfather’s gaze. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Cultivated plains. Primitive agriculture. See those paler yellow patches?’
‘Native towns and cities. Little centres of tinpot kingdoms. We’ll reach the coast in another three hours and cross Palk Strait to Ceylon.’
Ceylon was a dim shape of low-lying land, barely visible on the horizon.
‘The water is so shallow we can cross it on our rollers, without changing to propellers,' Sir Mormus continued. ‘As a future Supreme Commander, you’ll need to understand these things.'
Col was puzzled. 'We don't seem to be moving at all.’
Sir Mormus rumbled with amusement. ‘We’re thirteen hundred feet above the ground, my boy. On the ground, we're travelling faster than a galloping horse. Keep your eyes on that dark line there.’
‘What is it, sir?’
‘The Vaigai River. We’ll be rolling over it in a couple of minutes.’
The dark line ran across just a little way above the juggernaut’s blunt prow. Col stared and saw how the interval between them grew less and less. For one moment, he glimpsed the glitter of the river itself; in the next moment, the prow had blotted it from view.
‘Sir, what do our rollers look like?’
‘Three hundred and forty of them, each weighing eight hundred tons.’
Col tried to picture the rollers rolling over the Vaigai River, but his imagination failed him.
‘We have them cleaned whenever we stop at a coaling station,’ Sir Mormus went on. ‘Do you know what a coaling station is, my boy?’
‘It’s a base where we take on coal and raw materials. We have to restock every eighteen months. Next due in a month’s time.’
Col remembered the red dots on different continents in his atlas. ‘Is that like Gibraltar and Hong Kong, sir?’
‘Yes, and Singapore and the Cape and Botany Bay. Outposts of the Old Country. Forts and depots.’ Sir Mormus’s hands clamped down on Col’s shoulders and turned him around. ‘Now take a look the other way.’
The view to the stern was largely hidden by a huge black funnel at the back of the platform—and an endless row of similar funnels behind it. They were all pumping out smoke, leaving a long, dirty trail in the sky.
‘Look at our cranes,’ said Sir Mormus. He meant the steel arms that stuck out at various angles from the side of the juggernaut. ‘That’s what we use for loading coal.’
Even from this restricted angle, Col could see dozens and dozens of cranes. Mighty scoops like jaws swung out on cables through the air. They were swivelling and lowering even as he watched.
‘What are they doing now, sir?’
‘Trading, my boy. Our juggernaut lives by trade. We exchange manufactured goods for raw materials. Trade and profit, the imperial principle. A Supreme Commander plans the route where the trading will be best. Do you want to do that, Colbert?’
Still gripping his shoulders, Sir Mormus rotated him through a complete circle. The busy cranes … the tremendous superstructure … the landscape spread out like a map …
‘All yours, Colbert. You will rule this juggernaut and everyone in it. Ten thousand people.’
‘Including the Filthies, sir?’
‘Ten thousand people and two thousand Filthies.’
Another rotation. The wind roared in Col’s ears and made his eyes go blurry.
‘This iron colossus, Colbert, this mechanical mountain, this predominator. You will be it and it will be you. Do you want that?’
‘Sir, I do.’
And he did, he did. He felt dizzy and drunk with the greatness of it all. He wasn’t thinking of his duty to the Porpentine family or Queen Victoria. This was what he was born for, this was his inheritance! Yes! Yes! Yes!
Sir Mormus released his shoulders. ‘You’ll do, my boy, you’ll do.’
Col leaned back slightly, planted his feet and drank in the tremendous panorama all around. Iron colossus. Mechanical mountain. Predominator. His heart filled with pride.
But his grandfather was no longer beside him. Col turned and saw that Sir Mormus had returned to the turret. Reluctantly, he followed.
‘Do we go down to the bottom now, sir?’
‘Are you ready to see Below, my boy? Ready for the engines and the Filthies?’
‘Sir, I believe I am.’ Col felt ready for anything.
Sir Mormus uttered a grunt of approval. ‘Good. But not today.’ He ushered Col into the turret and closed the door. ‘I shall take you to a viewing bay tomorrow morning.’