Part 1: The Five
By the time I met him, the viscount was more machine than man. The master bedroom of his ancestral home - a place of dark, ancient wood - was filled with paint-flecked metal cylinders and pumps. A multitude of hoses snaked under the covers of his bed, connecting with the lumpy figure beneath in ways I cared not to think about. Only the viscount’s head emerged from the sheets: bald, shrivelled and wrinkled in the harsh white light of morning.
The hissing, wheezing machinery left little room for the five of us standing around his bed. We stood uncomfortably close together for complete strangers, all our eyes turned to that little head on its pillow.
The viscount’s eyes swivelled around in their sockets, scrutinising us one by one. “You’re all here,” he observed, his voice dry and weak. “And I’m sure you all want to know why. I’m also sure you each have your suspicions - some more accurate than others. Let me confirm what I’m sure is obvious: this concerns the Sky Spiders. But these days, what doesn’t?”
I glanced at the person to my right, a short and stocky woman, weather-worn and dressed like a navvy. She met my eye and then turned her gaze back to the viscount.
“I can’t promise anything profound,” he continued. “In all likelihood this will amount to nothing. But there exists out there a potential source of knowledge about the Sky Spiders. We have no way of knowing what this knowledge is, what advantage it might confer on us - if any. But we have a duty to human civilisation to find it. Our first duty is always to learn, to grow, to try to overcome our problems, however insurmountable they may seem. But first, allow me to make formal introductions.”
He fixed his eyes on me. “Dr Peregrine Gleve from the Imperial Society of Science.”
I straightened my tie reflexively. “I’ll be glad to help in whatever way I can.”
The viscount turned to the man to my left, a dapper fellow in a black suit, his hair slicked back and his thin moustache filed to points. “Major Fabian Thurlow, formerly of Her Imperial Majesty’s Tropical Expeditionary Force.”
He bowed, elegantly. “Charmed, I’m sure.”
Next, a figure in a three piece suit, it’s head a slender column of shiny steel. “EON-4, from the Academy for Machine Intelligence.”
A gentle voice emerged from it. “It is my pleasure to serve.”
Now the viscount looked to the stocky woman to my right. “Sigrid Phenice, formerly of the 4th Company Rifles.”
She just nodded like we were all casual acquaintances in a bar. “Sirs. Madam.”
Finally, the viscount turned to the young woman by his bedside: tall and slender, her plain, reserved face set on top of the high collar of her dress, her figure devolving below the waist into a broad hoop skirt that reached the floor. “And this is my niece, Lady Una. A mathematician and naturalist, to be my delegate on this endeavour.”
She looked around at us. “I can’t claim to be worthy of the Imperial Academy, but I hope my studies may still be of some use.”
The viscount’s head produced a smile. A somewhat gruesome gesture. “My niece is too modest for her own good. Now, allow me to get down to business. First I must relate some details of recent history which some of you are likely to be more familiar with than others. The pertinent events occur five years ago.”
Major Thurlow looked at me and winked. “Quite a few more pertinent events to be found then compared to these more turgid times.”
The viscount laughed, the sound rattling through his ancient lungs. “Yes, indeed! Following the arrival of the Sky Spiders - a rather pertinent event, you’ll agree Major - and working from the assumption that such an advanced civilisation must rely heavily on technology similar to our own analytical engines, the Academy for Machine Intelligence rushed the EON series of humanoid philosophy engines to completion.
“Five units were constructed, and each was tasked with infiltrating a Sky Spider structure deemed likely to house analytical machinery - their ultimate goal being to interface with this machinery and obtain intelligence. One by one, telegrams reporting success were received from each EON unit. Of the five, however, only one returned.”
EON-4 stepped forward. “I think it is important to be honest, your Lordship. Full possession of the facts guards one against the unexpected. I was certainly the only EON unit to return. I was also the only one to fail to achieve the mission objective. It does not, therefore, seem improbable that it was exactly the act of succeeding at their mission that resulted in the disappearance of EON units one, two, three and five. Disappearance, that is,” EON-4 fixed the single glass lens in its featureless head on the viscount, “until now.”
The viscount nodded. “Una, show them the telegram.”
Lady Una turned to a tiny bedside table tucked in among the dense forest of hoses leading into her uncle’s bed. She carefully opened a narrow drawer and took a folded piece of paper between gloved fingertips, passing it first to the Major, who, after studying it for perhaps half a minute, passed it to me. This is what I read:
TO: VISCOUNT CYRUS OF CIRCHESTER
AWAITING FURTHER CONTACT FROM ACADEMY STOP ATTEMPTING TO CONTACT MEMBERS INDIVIDUALLY STOP CURRENTLY ENSCONCED IN FAR NORTH STOP POSSESS VITAL INFORMATION COMMA AS DO OTHER EON UNITS STOP HAVE CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE THAT OTHER UNITS STILL FUNCTIONING COMMA EXCEPT EON-4 END
I handed the telegram to Sigrid. She studied it carefully and then gave it to EON-4.
After a few seconds, EON-4 reached up a silvery hand to mime the action of scratching its head. “Most peculiar.”
“EON-2 was sent to a structure in the far north of the continent. Apparently, it is still in the vicinity of that location. The other EON units weren’t sent quite so far. I think it’s fair to surmise that they are also still close to the locations of their objectives.
“But if they’re so close, relatively speaking,” I began, “why didn’t they come back?”
“Perhaps they were captured,” Major Thurlow suggested. “Perhaps EON-2 has only recently escaped. Out in what was once the world of humans, wondering what the hell happened to the Academy for Machine Intelligence.”
Sigrid cleared her throat, awkwardly. “I take it then, your Lordship, that you intend for us five to try and find one of these EON units and see what exactly they know about the Sky Spiders?”
“If you are willing,” the viscount said, “yes. It will be dangerous, of course.”
The Major scoffed. “Simply existing is dangerous these days.”
“But that’s while trying to avoid the Spiders,” Sigrid said. “For this, we’ll need to head right for the heart of their spidery business.”
“There’s more,” the viscount added.
EON-4 looked at each of us in turn with its glassy eye. “Yes. It is possible that the failure of the mission was inevitable. That the disappearance of the four other EON units was an intrinsic result of the information they learned - a factor that may not be restricted to machine intelligences.”
“In short,” the viscount said, “I’m asking you to look into the mind of the Sky Spiders. And hoping that it won’t drive you mad.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Will this disparate five accept the viscount’s mission? What can have happened to the missing four EONs? And what the hell is a Sky Spider anyway? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!