Previously: “Our foray into the Twisted Forests had ended with the capture of EON-5's raving head. Now we had a choice: head north to try and reach EON-1, or return to Fortress City to take stock.”
Part 16: The Right Decision
Sigrid eyed the forest dwellers with one hand on her rifle sling. “I still don't trust these guys.”
“Good,” I said. “Don't trust anyone.”
Ahead, the forest was thinning out - warped, occasionally writhing foliage giving way to a spacious grove where the trees seemed to shrink away from the shrivelled flesh of a huge and grotesque toadstool. Thousands of spindly spores descended from above, glittering ethereally in the early morning light. I crouched down to tie a scarf over my mouth and nose. Sigrid did the same.
“Do we know what it does?” she asked.
I pushed aside a branch and brought my small, folding telescope to one eye. “Obviously,” I said, “it twists the Twisted Forests.”
Sigrid peered through her rifle sight. “It's terrifying, isn't it?” she said calmly.
“Yes,” I answered.
If a translucent lobster and a mass-production factory had a child, it might look like this - like the Sky Spider facility that EON-3 had apparently interfaced with. It sprouted up from the ground as if it had grown there - which it might well have done for all we knew - looming over us like a bio-mechanical mountain. At first glance you might think that it swayed in the wind, but comparing its movements to the trees below it was clear that it moved with its own slow, lumbering strength, scattering glowing spores and transparent eggs across the forest canopy. Thick veins coiled down to the ground from between its armour plates, throbbing as they sucked up some fluid from the ground, or injected it into the soil.
“I think I'd go pretty crazy if I had to look into that thing's mind,” Sigrid said.
I watched the skittering shapes that clambered up and down the thing, clutching tiny, limp forms in their pincers. “Tell me about it.”
“Have we made the right choice?” she went on.
“I think so,” I said. “We're not even sure what we've found out at this point. Risking it, when we're not sure how valuable it may be seems foolhardy.”
“Back to Fortress City then,” she said, lowering her rifle. “I have family there, you know?”
I folded up my telescope. “Really? That sounds peculiar somehow. Usually it seems that everybody has wound up dead one way or another.”
She pulled down her scarf and smiled cruelly. “Oh, plenty of them are dead too, but I found a few still clinging to life after I came back from the front. To be honest, it's looking at their lives in Fortress City that makes me so keen to get out beyond the bars of the cage.”
“You're not sorry to go back, though?”
She laughed. “Are you kidding? The grass is always greener. Factory manufacture slop three times a day is always better than never knowing when you'll next get a chance to eat.”
I pointed at the Sky Spider... thing. “Have you seen enough?”
“Me? I don't know what I'm even looking at, doc, so if you're good to go, so am I.”
We turned from the structure and back into the gloom of the woods. Forest dwellers watched us with keen curiosity.
“Aren't you worried,” Sigrid pressed me, “about Unity City? I mean, taking such a big detour. We might even end up back here.”
“Not quite,” I said. “I'm hoping to take us around Unity City in the opposite direction. Up the coast and then west, avoiding the Poison Wastes as much as we can.” I tugged my scarf down. “I question the effectiveness of our protection from noxious vapours.”
Sigrid looked puzzled. “So we're, what, rowing?”
“Not quite. I'm the last surviving member of the Select Committee.”
“I don't know what that is.”
“Good. All you need to know is that it's a position that comes with a number of significant perquisites - in addition to considerable distrust and back-stabbing. A few years ago, I commandeered an ironclad steamship, and to my knowledge it's the last one in working order. It should still be docked at Portensea after I made the crossing from Ridgeford.”
Sigrid twisted her mouth. “I get sea sick.”
“It's a short journey, I promise. And for all we know, it might not even be necessary. I'm certain the Iron Queen is capable of rational thought and communication. She's shown a strong sense of purpose, and with a little time I think we might be able to unravel just what it is that she knows.”
Sigrid glanced back at the huge structure that was busy reforming the Twisted Forests into something new. “I'm not sure we really have more than 'a little time', doc.”
“Perhaps. But we could at least leave the Iron Queen with people who could focus on studying her, while we leave in search of other options.”
“Back to Fortress City then,” Sigrid repeated.
I nodded, feeling a vague sense of relief at the idea of returning to what passed for civilisation, confident that I had made the right decision. I had no idea that I had far more dangerous enemies in Fortress City than anywhere else in the world...
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: A return to Fortress City, and the revelation of strange new dangers! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!