Previously: “Our journey towards the Twisted Forests immediately ran into trouble when our hot air balloon attracted the attentions of Prometheus – a renegade Sky Spider machine that harboured some begrudging respect for John Kirkham, the mysterious leader of Fortress City.”
Part 6: No Man's Land
Snagged on splintered wooden barricades, the balloon fluttered loudly in the cold morning wind. As I helped Major Thurlow out of the torn basket, he leaned on me heavily.
“Grab a satchel each,” Lady Una commanded calmly, miraculously upright in her hoop-skirted dress.
“Choose food and water over ammunition,” Thurlow growled. “We won't find any fit to touch in the Twisted Forests.”
EON-4 slung a battered bag over each shoulder in turn. “We should move sooner rather than later,” he suggested, helpfully. “We managed to make it perhaps more than halfway across the scorched earth. If we move quickly, we may outrun our new friend. It's still quite some way distant, I believe.”
We could all hear it. A sound like heavy weights being dropped in quick succession. I risked a glance over my shoulder. It was vertigo inducing, to see the black mountain of Prometheus surging toward us on a dozen legs. The worst part of all being how easily – gracefully, almost - this small mountain of strange technology moved, its hard human face barely bobbing as it stepped over crumbling trenches and shattered war machines alike.
Thurlow slipped out of my grip, limping badly, and managed to grab hold of a pack and rifle, leaning on the weapon like a crutch. “Duck,” he said calmly.
I shot another look over my shoulder. There was one low, cratered hilltop between us and Prometheus. Now the creature seemed focused on it intensely. Under its unmoving gaze, a crackling sphere of blue lightning was flickering into existence, surrounding the hilltop completely. I followed the major's advice, but perhaps a little too late.
Unmistakeably, the electrical sphere imploded, collapsing in on itself with a ear splitting crack and a powerful inrush of earth and air that lifted me bodily off my feet. I landed heavily on all fours, my fingers sinking into hardened mud. Lady Una grabbed my arm and lifted me up with surprising strength. Together, we began to run. Across the ruined landscape, I thought I could just make out a thin sliver of green that might be distant woodland.
“Where's Phenice?” Thurlow demanded, glancing back at us.
I looked around, but the riflewoman was nowhere to be seen.
“Did she fall?” Lady Una asked, pinching her skirt with both hands and gliding with impossible ease over the detritus of a five year war.
“She was with us when we landed,” I called out, risking an ill advised look over my shoulder. “I'm certain of it.”
EON-4 sprinted easily away from us, then turned to address us from some way ahead. “I'm afraid my memory system is poorly equipped for recording moments of rapid action, but I'm certain she was with us when the basket touched down.”
Thurlow let out a grunt of pain and frustration as he half-ran, half-hobbled forwards. “Well where the hell is she?”
There was another crack, and a distant hilltop imploded in the same fashion as the first. I looked back at Prometheus, still bearing down on us. “What's it doing?”
Thurlow grimaced. “If it wanted us dead, doctor, I'm quite certain it could have killed us in mid-air. I don't think this is violence directed at us, so much as a temper tantrum. Prometheus knows that daddy wants us left alone, and it wants us to know how unhappy that makes it.”
I looked yet again at that impassive face, so reminiscent of Kirkham's. “How can you be so sure?”
“Well, the other option is that it's bored out here by itself and it intends to toy with us for as long as possible before moving in for the kill.”
“I prefer the first hypothesis,” EON-4 interjected.
I looked back over my shoulder once more to see Prometheus tear noisily through the rusted skeleton of an armoured vehicle. The trouble with something so huge was that it was difficult to judge how much it was gaining on us. All I could be sure was that it was, in fact, gaining on us. Kirkham's silhouette jutted up higher into the sky each time I looked back.
Of course, if I'd spent more time looking forward I wouldn't have fallen into the trench. I rolled and managed to land on my back. At least I'd landed on something soft, I thought at first. Until the furry expanse that had cushioned my fall moved beneath me. I leapt to my feet, brushing my arms and legs compulsively. Rats. Crawling through the rag-clad bones of a dozen dead soldiers - a sea of mangy brown rats.
“I wouldn't be too frightened,” a voice said softly, startling me all the same.
I whirled round to see Sigrid Phenice sitting on her haunches in the trench with me, her rifle across her lap.
“I've been looking around,” she said. “There are enough dead things about to keep the rats well fed. They're unlikely to try sampling live human flesh unless you lie still for too long or something.”
“Really reassuring, thanks.”
“I wouldn't worry too much about him, either,” she went on, nodding in the direction of Prometheus' footfalls. “Either he's not really trying or he can't shoot straight. He'll never keep us from the forests.”
I stood on tip-toe to look around for the others. The trench was only waist high, but from here I could no longer see them. “We need to get moving,” I suggested.
“No,” Sigrid continued, “if I was going to worry about someone, it wouldn't be the rats or the big noisy crab. It'd be the other ones.”
Something in the tone of her voice made me crouch back down. “What other ones?”
She smiled. “You see? The really dangerous ones are the ones you never know are coming. Look.”
She got onto her knees, casually brushing a few rats aside, and rested her rifle on the parapet. She gestured for me to look through the telescopic sight and I knelt down beside her. It took a while for me to make out the forms I was looking at. They were human, at least to a point, uniformed even. But they moved on all fours, crawling through craters hand over hand. And above the neck, their heads disappeared into branching, sun-bright tangles of Sky Spider machinery.
“I've done a rough count,” Sigrid whispered. “There are no more than two hundred.”
“Well,” I said, “it could be worse.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Check back in (half) a week’s time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders, and meet the two hundred new members of the cast!