Previously: “In the heart of the Twisted Forests we thought we had found sanctuary in a dilapidated family home protected by robotic turrets. Unfortunately, the deranged old gamekeeper who lived there turned out to be as dangerous as the strange creatures outside.”
Part 11: Lady Una
The gamekeeper stood over me, aiming the smoking elephant gun at my chest and smirking. I went for my holstered revolver, although I knew it was hopeless. As he leant into the rifle and squeezed the trigger, the old man's head suddenly blossomed open into a bright rosebud of blood.
The elephant gun fell to the floor with a heavy thud, followed shortly by the gamekeeper's limp body. Lady Una slipped her automatic pistol back into her bodice, one arm across her stomach.
I scrambled to my feet. “You've been shot,” I said - rather superfluously, I now realise.
She shook her head. “It just grazed me. Help me up.”
I took her arm and she started to clamber ungracefully up.
The door flew open and Sigrid and Major Thurlow burst in, rifles at the ready. “What's going on?” the Major demanded.
“She's been shot,” I explained.
Lady Una pushed me away and folded both arms over the ragged hole in the front of her dress. “It just grazed me. I'm fine.”
Sigrid picked up the elephant gun and let out a low whistle. “If he'd hit you dead on with this thing, we'd be scraping you off the walls right now.”
Thurlow kicked the gamekeeper's body contemptuously. “Knew we couldn't trust the old fool. Gods, look at his legs. No wonder he was shuffling like a cripple.”
We looked down at the unhappy and bedraggled form on the floor. As the old man had fallen, it was now apparent that his knees were reversed, bent backwards like a four-legged animal.
“These forests,” the Major growled. “We need to get moving. Immediately.”
Lady Una pulled on my arm, still clutching her stomach. “I need a moment alone with the doctor, first.”
“Fine,” the Major said. “But not in here. Stay as far away from this freak's altered body as you can. Come on, Phenice, let's see what EON-4 has made of those turrets.”
The two soldiers filed out, and we followed them, sidestepping into one of the more intact doors we passed on our way to the stairs. It was a bedroom - and a grand one at that. A four-poster bed took pride of place in the room, and there was still plenty of space left for dressers, wardrobes and other, more obscure luxuries.
Years of neglect and alien invasion had taken their toll, however. A gnarled and waxy branch pierced one wall and thrust up through the ceiling, mouldy leaves dropping on the carpet. Every surface was greyed with dust, and strange fungi sprouted at the edges of every piece of dark, expensive wood. It was only with reluctance that Lady Una perched on the edge of the musty bedsheets, still covering her stomach.
“You do realise that I'm not a medical doctor?” I asked, standing uncertainly before her.
She avoided my eye. “Yes, but you may be as much help as any other kind. I- I need to share something with you, something I would much rather have kept to myself.”
“You can tell me in complete confidence,” I said. “Not as a doctor, but as a friend.”
“It was five years ago," she began. "At the start of all these troubles. There was turmoil and danger of a less pernicious but more overt kind than you'll find today, even in Circhester. It would be several years before Kirkham would unite Fortress City; armies were still abroad, fighting as best they could, or just looting. And, of course, there were the Sky Spiders too. In any case, without going into specifics...”
“There was an occurrence, and, for want of a better word, I was...” She cleared her throat. “Eviscerated.”
“But you survived?”
“After a fashion. My uncle was close to hand. I'm sure you know already, but he was - still is, indubitably - the world's foremost designer of mechanised war machines. Faced with my broken body, he repaired it. The only way he knew how.”
She placed both hands either side of her, revealing the ragged hole in her bodice. Behind it, her stomach was of smooth and polished metal. “So now,” she said, “I'm half woman, half tank.”
“And the way you move?” I asked, carefully.
She pinched the sides of her hoop skirt and lifted the hem of her dress so that I could see. “Caterpillar tracks,” she explained.
“I see,” I said.
She touched her exposed stomach, gingerly, then withdrew her gloved hand as if frightened of what she might have touched. “It hurt when he shot me. Did the round pierce my armour?”
I knelt down to look more closely, and felt myself blushing. Lady Una looked up at the ceiling.
“There's a bit of a dent, I think,” I told her. “But otherwise it seems okay.”
She sighed with relief. “Thank you. I was frightened for a moment. But I need to check for internal damage. Could you please turn around?”
I did as instructed.
“Keep talking to me,” Una told me casually. “If I go quiet all of a sudden, then I've probably just dropped dead.”
“Is there anything I should know for such an eventuality?”
As she spoke, the fabric of her dress rustled. “Take a look inside me. If it's a mechanical fault, try and fix it. EON-4 might be able to help. If it's a problem with one of my organ bottles, then I guess you should bury me and inform my uncle. Can you pass that mirror without turning around?”
I did so. Behind me, I heard a metallic clunk.
“This mirror is filthy,” she continued. “But everything looks okay.”
“Are you familiar with your own workings?”
She laughed. “That sounds like the start of a ribald joke, doctor.”
I stammered a little at that. “At least you sound in good spirits.”
Another clunk,and further rustling. “In answer to your question, I've tried my best. Obviously, my uncle is nearing the end of his life, and I can't rely on him for maintenance any more. And the machinery that supports his existence is based on similar mechanisms to some of my own replacement organs, so I need to be able to help him as well as myself. Also, without wishing to sound ungrateful, there are many ways I'd like to improve upon my uncle's work. You can look now.”
As I turned around, she glided up beside me, examining her torn and soot-stained clothes. “This dress is ruined,” she sighed. “At least now you'll understand that it wasn't vanity that made me pack several.”
I looked around at the ruined bedroom and shuddered. “I'll be glad to get away from this place.”
“At least we're safe here. We didn't exactly do very well outside in the forest.”
I touched my revolver, almost superstitiously. “No, that's true.”
“Well,” Lady Una said, “if we run into more trouble, just get behind me, okay?”
And with that, she patted her hip with a metallic clang.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Will our heroes finally get the answers they're looking for when they meet the Iron Queen? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!