Eliza stood in the queue for the omnibus. The line at the stop snaked around the corner into Taffeta Street. On a normal Tuesday evening, silence would hang heavy in the queue. Citizens would stare straight ahead, eager to avoid even eye contact with those around them. Today, nervous chatter filled the air as people jostled together amid handshakes and greetings.
"Looks funny up there, doesn't it?" asked the woman beside Eliza.
"I'm sorry, what does?"
"The sky. It's essentially empty."
Eliza looked up. Dirigibles should be puncturing the thick plumes of smoke from the factories out west, puttering through the clouds. Instead, a bomber droned above the city on its third sky patrol of the afternoon.
"I heard they tore down the north east transport tower last night, right before they torched the scrapyard," replied Eliza.
"Really? Well I'm not surprised the Council stopped the airships running after that,” said the woman. She gestured to the queue. “I suppose that explains why there are more people waiting for the omnibus."
"I've never seen it this busy so early but I suppose everyone wants to get home before Curfew." Eliza glanced at the Public Order notice strung from the lamp post. Black letters on a red field spelled out the consequences of disobeying a Curfew.
"All the shops are closed in the Merchant's Quarter. Even in Central Street – it should be heaving by now." The woman noticed a shopkeeper across the street. He drew a rattling iron grille across the window of his butcher's shop before scuttling away.
"All the shutters in the world won't stop the Swarm," replied Eliza. She looked up the street, half expecting to see them stampeding towards her.
"Do you think they’ll come again tonight?" asked the woman.
"I don't know. How do you predict a mentality like that?"
Eliza shuddered to think of the Swarm, rampaging gangs of feral youths from the hinterlands around the city. They'd ventured into the outlying suburbs before, usually just to scavenge, but only in twos or threes. No one had ever seen so many at once, pouring into the City to loot shops, burn buildings and attack anyone who got in their way.
"Did you see what they did to Renfield?" asked the woman.
"Yes, someone brought the daguerrotypes into the office. All those poor people...I heard they had to pull the buildings down. Too much fire damage, or something," replied Eliza.
"Shocking, shocking. And I bet that's bad news," said the woman. She pointed to the telegraph wires overhead. They thrummed and bounced between posts. The police commandeered the network the night before, and judging by the violent vibrations, the news wasn't good. Eliza imagined her nerves looked the same way.
A horse-drawn police wagon clattered past. A banshee clung to the roof, wailing a warning. The queue fell silent to watch its progress along the cobbles. A gust of wind lifted the canvas flap to reveal grim-faced policemen clad in grey uniforms. White knuckles wrapped around batons. The same gust of wind brought the sharp scent of smoke. The tension in the queue wound itself tighter.
"Looks like it's started already. So much for the Curfew," said Eliza.
An omnibus trundled along the street. The sign on the front announced the destination as Edinsville, a bohemian community to the east. Eliza turned to the woman beside her.
"Are you going this way?" she asked.
"No, I'm waiting for the one to Onslough. You have a safe trip home though," said the woman.
"You too." Eliza reached out and squeezed the woman's shoulder. The woman smiled.
Eliza clambered on board the omnibus and slipped into the last available seat. The passengers shared idle reports of things they'd heard or seen, dropping to conspiratorial whispers to discuss what the police should do about the Swarm. Eliza found herself drawn into a conversation between two men in suits.
The omnibus trundled into Becker Square. Front doors stood open as quaking homeowners stepped into the street. They clutched makeshift weapons culled from the items left lying around their homes. Loyal household automatons placed themselves as guards in front of the families they served.
Eliza wished each and every one a safe night.