Part 2: Caged Birds
A slender silhouette against the white light of morning, Major Thurlow slipped his hands into his trouser pockets. “Anything that might turn the tide against the crawlies,” he said, his mouth twisted into a crooked smile. “This is the perfect time for desperate gambits.”
I nodded. “We lose because we fight creatures millions of years in advance of us. Any chance to play catch-up is a chance worth taking.”
EON-4’s small glass eye flicked from me to the viscount. “Naturally, I wish to learn the fate of the other EON units. Perhaps even to fulfil my own purpose.”
We all turned to Sigrid. She sniffed and wiped her nose on her cuff. “Yeah, okay, count me in.”
The viscount’s head protruded from the thick sheets of the four poster bed. The conversation was underpinned by the wheezing and whirring of his life support machinery - anonymous chemical cylinders and inelegant pumps. Slowly, his bald, wrinkled head was deformed by a spreading smile. He grinned broadly, his eyes acquiring a glassy sheen.
Close by his side, Lady Una touched a gloved hand to the viscount’s forehead. “My uncle needs to rest now,” she stated. “If you gather your belongings and wait in the courtyard, we should begin without any further delay.”
Sigrid met the lady’s eye warily. “Where exactly are we going?”
I cleared my throat. “EON-5 was despatched to a location in the Twisted Forests. That’s closer than any of the others.”
Thurlow gave me a surprised look. “You seem to know a fair bit about this yourself.”
I said nothing in reply.
Lady Una stepped away from her uncle. “Detailed plans have been prepared. Copies of endless scenarios and debates from the Academy and the Imperial Society exist in this estate’s libraries. Almost all of them are hopelessly out of date, even after such a short amount of time, but...” She lowered her head. “You should consider me to be perfectly versed in all of the necessary details. And as the doctor said, the EON unit in the Greyham Forest - now the ‘Twisted Forests’ - is the closest, and arguably the easiest to reach.”
Thurlow laughed - a dry sound that expressed little in the way of actual humour. “Relatively speaking. I had the pleasure of passing through those forests on my way north a few years ago. Even then, well...” He laughed again in the same manner.
Lady Una stepped in between the Major and me, heading for the door. She stood by it, looking back at us pointedly. “My uncle needs to rest,” she repeated. “And I have business to attend to.”
One by one, we filed out of the viscount’s room. Behind us, the machinery that kept him alive whirred and gurgled.
Like the others, I’d arrived late the night before and been given one of the guest rooms to sleep in. My belongings sat in a neat little pile in the corner. Not that I had much with me: a satchel with a couple of changes of clothes, a case containing what few of my instruments had survived the past few years, and a leather holster containing a revolver and a dozen or so rounds of ammunition. I took off my jacket to slip on the holster, threw the satchel over my shoulder, took hold of my case, and walked out of the room and down the stairs.
Things were so quiet, outside in the countryside of Circhester, that it was unreal to me. Wind rustling through leaves, birds chirping - and in the distance, like a half-heard whisper, the soft sound of the sea. If the gates to the viscount’s estate weren’t being watched by a man sitting cross-legged at the tripod of a Gatling gun, I could almost have convinced myself that none of the events of the past half a decade had occurred.
I found Lady Una by accident, around the side of the mansion. She stood by stacks of wooden cages, opening them one by one.
I was just turning to leave her alone when she said, without looking at me, “Curiosity is the foremost virtue of a man or woman of science, don’t you think, doctor?”
I was caught completely on the wrong foot. “I’m sorry?”
She turned to look at me over her shoulder, her reserved features forming the barest hint of a smile. “You came to see what I was doing.”
I shrugged. “I could see birds flying away from here. I was...”
She stepped to the next cage, grasped the latch carefully between a gloved thumb and forefinger, and opened it. After a few seconds, a small black bird leapt out, flapping intermittently, climbing slowly up into the white overcast sky.
“These are your birds, I presume?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered, opening the next cage. This bird seemed more reluctant to fly the coop, and she shooed it out with a wave of her hand. “Actually, no, not any more. I’m letting them all go. It would be cruel to leave them caged when I can’t be sure that I’ll ever be back. I let them out once a day anyway, but this time they’ll have to fend for themselves.”
“Perhaps some of them will still be around when you come back,” I suggested.
She smiled. “Birds have short memories. And they’ll have to have learned to live from the land by then anyway. That, or die. They’ll belong to themselves, one way or another.”
A small bird, emerald blue, descended suddenly from above and settled on Una’s shoulder. She laughed, almost startling me with the sound. “This one’s lovely, isn’t she?” she said, softly, looking at the bird as it looked back at her, turning its head from side to side to use each eye in turn. “I expect she’ll be one of the first to die.”
“The light that burns twice as bright...” I began.
Una smiled, sadly. “But isn’t she stupid really? Too trusting?”
I shook my head. “She’s just curious.”
The bird turned to look at me, as if noticing me for the first time.
“The little bird scientist,” Una said. “Trying to understand the creature that cages her.”
“Like us and the Sky Spiders.”
With that Una’s smile faded. “Yes. Yes, I often think so myself. Sometimes I try to imagine how well my birds understand the idea of a cage, of the food dispensers - the idea of me, even. And I’m left thinking that they probably only have the vaguest grasp of the concepts. I don’t imagine it improving much, either.”
“I’m sure you’d be surprised. A lot of birds can be very intelligent, as I understand it. Some of them might well be able to get it, to an extent.”
Lady Una opened the last cage and then raised a hand to her shoulder, shooing the curious bird scientist away. “I suspect the Sky Spiders have similar conversations about us,” she said, solemnly. “Only more in the manner of the owners of a factory farm of chickens. On which note, I think we should find the others and get moving. I intend for us to be in Fortress City within a day and a half - right at the bars of the cage.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Our five adventurers arrive in Fortress City and find that the place is far from as safe as its name might imply... Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!