Part 3: Fortress City
Fortress City was a sprawling imbroglio of noise and activity. A million people were crammed into crooked, soot-blackened houses, trying frantically to convince themselves that human civilisation continued as normal. Then again, perhaps for them, in those brief few years, it actually did.
Moving inland from Circhester, we actually couldn't see the main fortifications that protected the city – just the encircling wall of ancient stone and a few token watch towers guarding against a hypothetical threat from the coast. It seemed like any other city you might find in the world: trees and fields giving way to buildings and cobbled roads dotted with wrought iron gas lamps. The exception, of course, was that in this city, people thronged the streets, hurrying about their business, loitering happily, hawking their scavenged wares.
We moved into the city on foot, some of the viscount's men struggling to follow us through the crowds with our belongings strapped securely to a horse-drawn cart. Lady Una glided ahead of us, her hoop skirt moving smoothly over the cobblestones as if her feet didn't even touch the ground, and I found myself walking alongside Sigrid Phenice, the gruff soldier. She stomped along with one hand on the strap of the rifle slung over her shoulder, head down, showing little interest in small-talk. Which suited me fine. The last five years had done strange things to my humour.
Ahead of us, the central keep rose out of the city, town houses clinging to it like barnacles. An ancient castle, now hybridised with the great steel machinery of modern artillery – fat factory chimneys, enormous loading cogs, and the long barrels of obscenely huge cannon. At the highest point, a railed observation platform jutted out from the ramparts, tethered to the colourful bubble of a hot air balloon.
“Quite a sight, isn't it?” Thurlow called out from behind. “Gives new meaning to the phrase 'human scale'. Affirming to one's sense of significance, don't you think?”
I glanced at Sigrid and met her eye.
She declined to answer the Major's remark; as did I.
At that moment, several of the fortress guns opened up, a series of thunderous reports that sounded deep in your bones before it reached your ears. The clouded sky flashed bright white. And the people of Fortress City continued to bustle around us, unconcerned. Certainly, the guns didn't fire again that time, and whatever they were shooting at must, at the very least, have decided to hastily reconsider its course of action.
I glanced about me at the other travellers. They hid it well, but I could see that, like me, they were starting to mull over the thought of moving past those guns and towards what they aimed at. Well, each of the travellers but EON-4, its featureless head bobbing mechanically as it walked.
John Kirkham said there was no way across the zone of scorched earth dividing Fortress City from the rest of the continent. And he took us out on his balcony to show us why.
I'd heard the name John Kirkham enough times, but never met him. His house was pressed up right against the inside of the front wall of the fortress keep. A huge circular door was set in the wall of his sitting room, like the entrance to the innermost vault of the world's most paranoid bank. On the other side was Kirkham's balcony, an elegant affair with a small circular table in one corner.
“I like to take my afternoon tea here,” he told us, “and meditate on the state of the world from above.”
I looked out at the world as John Kirkham saw it. It was a barren expanse of churned-up mud, divided up by trenches and craters, and dotted here and there with the splintered wooden forms of tank traps and dead trees.
“Yes,” Thurlow said. “I can see the appeal.”
Lady Una stepped forward, placing a gloved hand on the balcony's ornate railing. “It certainly won't be easy to cross,” she said. “But hardly impossible.”
There was no way to tell what expression Kirkham really had, behind that immobile mask of gold, but somehow I got the impression he was smiling. “You think that because you haven't seen it yet.”
“Seen what yet?” Lady Una asked, a little curtly.
Kirham raised a hand to point across the wasteland. “Prometheus.”
It was something that I'd assumed was a part of the landscape, a low and midnight black mound like an outcrop of rock or a burnt-out building. But actually looking at it, it was unlike anything Earthly. Its complete blackness had a kind of vibrant sheen, something that's difficult to explain unless you've seen something like it before. Which, of course, we all had. Except...
“It's a Sky Spider machine,” Thurlow hissed, stepping back warily towards the door.
Kirkham clasped his hands together. “Actually, it's our Sky Spider machine.”
“That face,” I said. “That human face, like a statue.”
The others stepped up to the railing to look. Overall, the thing looked like a curled up crab or closed fist, fat appendages bunched up beneath it. But what perhaps had lead to us overlooking it as some hill or ruin was the way it was topped with a human head and shoulders, completely immobile and inexpressive. A human head and shoulders, I now realised, with the same serenely beautiful features as Kirkham's mask.
“I'm impressed,” I said, speaking under my breath. “Very impressed.”
Kirkham touched a finger to his golden lips. “I wouldn't be too eager with your praise, doctor. Prometheus is a blunt weapon. Effective, but destructive and unrefined. It destroys anything that enters the scorched ground. In this way it keeps the city safe from incursion - and also prevents us from moving inland. I'm sure that you all arrived on this side of the scorched ground by sea, and that's how I recommend you cross to the other side.”
“That's not an option,” Lady Una stated flatly. “It would increase the length of our journey across open country tenfold, and take us right past Unity City. We'd stand a much better chance of passing Prometheus, especially since it is, apparently, a known quantity.”
Kirkham spread his hands, palms upward. “Not quite as known as we'd like, otherwise we'd stop it from attacking us too.”
Lady Una didn't seem to enjoy Kirkham's sense of humour. She looked from his golden mask towards me. “See that Dr Gleve is given every relevant piece of information regarding Prometheus,” she instructed Kirkham. “We'll be crossing the scorched ground as soon as we can. We need to know anything that might distract or allay this creature – or machine, whatever it is.”
With that she glided back through the vault door, the others following close behind her. Thurlow paused to slap me hard on the back, laughing to himself.
“Doctor,” Kirkham said, turning his golden face to me, “I'm hardly capable of giving you such technical details myself, so I'll refer you to Suzette. Professor Suzette Layling – I believe you must know her from the Imperial Society?”
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep my expression neutral. “I know her.”
This was just getting better and better. Even if the Sky Spider war machine wasn't going to murder me, Suzette certainly would.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: What is Prometheus? Does it have a weakness? And what's the deal between Peregrine and Suzette? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!