Previously: “Searching for the missing EON units, we found ourselves trapped in Fortress City, the way ahead guarded by a renegade Sky Spider machine...”
Part 4: The Delinquent Child
The walls of Fortress City weren't, as those who had never seen them often imagined, a single impenetrable barrier, but instead were layered like a half-disintegrated onion, inner barriers mounting up to the main walls, outer trenches and barricades devolving into tank traps and the lethal gaze of the city's big guns.
Halfway to no-man's land, buried beneath an avalanche of sandbags and topped with an unmanned machine-gun post, was a squat and eroded pillbox, its slit eyes peering out across the wasteland. Inside, feeling the oppressive weight of cold stone on all sides, I met Suzette for the first time in five years.
“Well,” she said, looking at me through a bristling multitude of lenses, “look which lizard decided to come crawling out of its hole.”
“Hello, Suzette,” I answered flatly, “I can't tell you how pleased I am to see you again. I brought a friend. We need you to tell us about Prometheus.”
Suzette somehow succeeded in peering over her goggles. “An EON unit, presumably the fourth one, the one that came back empty handed.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” EON-4 said.
“That's a philosophical proposition in itself,” Suzette responded. “Are you really pleased to see me – or just programmed to say that you are?”
EON-4's eye swivelled and refocused on her. “It seems you have better reason to believe I am pleased to meet you than I have to believe the same of you.”
With a clattering of cogs, the cradle from which Suzette dangled repositioned her closer to the narrow windows, her feet dangling a few centimetres above the floor. “A tin can with a sense of humour,” she mused. “What wonderful toys you bring for me, Gleve.”
She leaned forward to peer through a pair of binoculars mounted on the lip of the window, and grasped a brass speaking tube with emaciated fingers. “Position unchanged,” she said. “Declination thirty degrees, range four hundred metres.”
She looked over her shoulder at me. “You might care to cover your ears.”
I did so, just in time to have my bones thoroughly shaken up by the thunderous report of the city guns.
Suzette, unrattled, looked back through the binoculars. “Visual contact lost,” she told the speaking tube. “Target presumed destroyed.”
With a further clattering, Suzette's cradle crawled along its track on the ceiling, carrying her on a veering path towards an untidy desk of maps and telegrams. Curiosity overcame me and I stepped into her place to look through the binoculars.
“How are the other members of the Select Committee?” Suzette asked nonchalantly. “Did any of the others ever turn up, or are you still the only survivor?”
All I could see was a cluster of smoking craters in the churned-up mud. My eye picked out movement among the haze of dust and debris thrown up by the barrage, and my imagination shaped that movement into strange and horrific forms. “We need to learn about Prometheus,” I said. “We're part of a group hoping to get to the Twisted Forests by the most direct route possible.”
Suzette snorted. “The most direct route would be to load you into a shell and blast you across.”
I stood up and walked over to stand by her side at the table of maps. “A novel idea, unfortunately requiring more development time than we have to spare.”
“Only if you want to survive the journey,” Suzette said. She laid a finger on one of the maps, right next to a small plastic toy crab. “Prometheus. Our over-enthusiastic little guard dog. If the Sky Spiders can't get past it, you sure as hell won't.”
“How did you gain control of it in the first place?”
“We didn't. We still haven't. We raised it from the larval form we stole from the Sky Spiders during the battle for Unity City. A huge stroke of luck, some call it. I just call it the best thing that we were able to achieve with a million deaths. We raised it, so it respects us, in some alien fashion. But that doesn't mean that it likes us, or that it'll stop short of hurting us.”
I looked down at the map, trying to interpret the spaghetti of trenches and contour lines. “We need to distract it,” I said. “Lure it to the other side of the scorched earth.”
“How?” Suzette asked. “Don't think we haven't tried before. It only responds to genuine threats, and then it responds with lethal force.”
“What kind of lethal force?”
Suzette shrugged, the cradle rocking with the motion. “We're not entirely sure. Things that it takes an especial dislike to seem to... implode.”
EON-4 stepped forward. “What about aerial targets?”
Suzette looked puzzled. “Huh?”
“Prometheus destroys anything that enters the scorched earth, but do things in the air qualify as having entered it?”
Suzette frowned. “No idea.”
“Isn't there a hot-air balloon at the top of the fortress?” I asked.
“Yes, and it goes straight up and comes straight back down. It's tethered. We've only got the one, and we need it for spotting distant artillery targets.”
“We'd only need to borrow it. You can get it back as soon as the wind changes.”
Suzette was evidently far from impressed. “We still have no reason to believe that Prometheus won't pop you in mid-air, assuming the wind even carries you far enough in the right direction.”
“Experiment,” I said. “Experiment and observation. We don't know at the moment, but we will very shortly, I promise you.”
She smirked. “Kirkham will never agree to it.”
EON-4 spoke up again. “Perhaps I can help there. John Kirkham has requested to dine with me this evening. To discuss philosophy, I believe – that is my primary function, after all. Perhaps I can persuade him to relinquish the balloon to us, in the hopes that we will be able to return it.”
“Perhaps you can.” Suzette removed her goggles and looked me in the eye. “Well, I can only wish you the best of luck on your insane suicide mission, Gleve. At least this time my husband won't be going with you.”
“Thank you Suzette,” I said, earnestly. “I can only...”
I couldn't find the words. I just mumbled a goodbye and left.
Outside, EON-4 looked across the ruined landscape at the distant silhouette of Prometheus. “I feel quite confident that things are progressing well,” he said.
“Really?” I answered, starting to head back into the city. “I don't.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Will our heroes make it to the Twisted Forests? Will Prometheus mind them passing over its head? What happens when a hot-air balloon implodes anyway? Check back in a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!