Part 17: Shadowed Streets
As a rust-encrusted tram rattled past, Lady Una pulled me to one side. “Are you insane?” she whispered sharply. “I have no legs and titanium armour for skin, and you want me to take an ocean cruise? I probably won't be able to get up the gangplank without falling overboard and sinking like a stone.”
I opened my mouth, but couldn't think of anything to say straight away. “I hadn't thought of that,” I confessed.
She sighed. “And you're supposed to be one of the nation's leading brains.”
“Sorry. I just don't tend to think of you as... Well, you know.”
She reached up behind her head to touch her hair, as if afraid that it might have uncoiled from its tight bun. “I'm not sure if that makes you charming or inconsiderate. At any rate, I'm returning to Circhester presently, to check on my uncle. I'll take the opportunity to try and achieve neutral buoyancy as best I can.”
I blinked. “Yes, good luck with that.”
She adjusted the fingers of one glove. “You are, of course, very welcome to accompany me.”
“I...” I cleared my throat. “I'm afraid I have to meet EON-4 and John Kirkham. Perhaps if you were to postpone your trip until evening...”
“Time is against us. We don't have the luxury of postponement.”
“So I keep hearing.”
Lady Una took my hand delicately in hers. “Goodbye, doctor.”
“Until I see you.”
We had crossed over No Man's Land at night, just close enough to the distinguished black profile of Prometheus to feel protected. It remained unmoving, its arthropodal legs folded up tightly beneath it. The soldiers standing guard in the trenches had stared at us like we were ghouls walking out of a graveyard. Through a network of cramped and dank tunnels, we had passed beneath the walls of Fortress City and into its almost equally cramped and dank streets of cobble and coal-fire smog.
Now I stood once more in the home of John Kirkham, the city's most prominent, powerful and respected citizen. Professor Suzette Layling sat upright in an elegant wooden wheelchair, studiously ignoring me. EON-4 sat on an opulent couch, his legs crossed. In the centre of the room, perched on what in these times must have surely been a priceless antique table, was the head of the Iron Queen, her single eye clicking as she looked around the room.
John Kirkham breezed in through a pair of lavishly handled double doors, his face hidden, as ever, behind a gold mask with a serene expression. “I'm sorry for the delay,” he said, casually. “Ah, here we are. The spoils of adventure and exploration.”
The Iron Queen said simply, “Who are you? Another mirage.”
“Quite an amusing piece to have on my coffee table,” Kirkham continued, “although I can't help but wonder about its practical applications - or lack thereof.”
EON-4 stood to shake Kirkham's hand. “I'm afraid EON-5 seems to have sustained significant damage or corruption. It will take considerable work to unravel its - her apparent insanity.”
I stepped forward to take Kirkham's outstretched hand. “This is something I'd like to leave in the capable hands of what scientists and engineers exist in Fortress City,” I explained, “while we head north to try and contact the other EON units.”
“I see,” Kirkham said. “Since you left it came to our attention that their seems to be a rather formidable vessel anchored off the coast. I assume that it has something to do with you? Perhaps you intend to sail north and find EON-2?”
I frowned. “Why number two?”
He sounded like he was smiling behind that mask of his. “Well, that was the unit to contact you, correct? And the only one you know to have touched the mind of the Sky Spiders and come back with some measure of coherence?”
“It's also the most distant. We were hoping to reach EON-1.”
Kirkham laughed. “There have been few enough people to arrive at Fortress City from inland over the past couple of years that I can remember them all - name and face. And their stories. Things are happening in the north of this continent, doctor. The poison wastes are just the... the byproduct, the side effect of something more profound and sinister. Something that is almost certainly highly dangerous - probably even lethal to terrestrial life as we know it.”
“And you know,” I said carefully, “that this is the area where EON-1 is located?”
He stepped over to a drinks cabinet and opened the ornate glass front. “I'm a benevolent uncle to most of what remains of the species, doctor. I know a little bit of everything. I know enough, for example, to be more interested in seeing out my life with a glass of brandy in one hand than in solving possibly unsolvable mysteries that may not even hold the secrets to our survival. Speaking of which, would you care for a drink, doctor? Professor?”
I shook my head.
Suzette held out a hand. “Whisky. Whatever you've got. Neat, please.”
“You'll excuse me if I choose to drink alone, ladies and gentlemen,” Kirkham said, gesturing to his mask. “I prefer to share my scars only with myself.”
“Anyway,” I said, “I see no reason that EON-1's location, especially approaching from the east, should be any more hostile than the Frozen North. Suzette- Professor, I hope that you can dedicate at least some time to studying this head with what resources you have, while we are gone.”
She regarded me with aloof curiosity. “I'm sure the gunnery sergeants that constitute my faculty will be intrigued. Are you sure you wouldn't rather drop it off at the Imperial Society on your way north?”
“I don't feel,” EON-4 said, “that we should risk this prize any more than we already are. I'm still not convinced we should pursue EON-1. A bird in the hand, as they say.”
Suzette smiled at me. “Or maybe you're worried that the Society will snatch the prize out of the clutches of the Select Committee? That you might never see your pretty robot head again?”
“I hope you won't take her apart,” I said. “At least not more than you're absolutely certain you can put her back together again. Try talking to her at first. I think there may be a strange kind of consistency to what she says.”
I looked at the Iron Queen then, expecting her to interject. She said nothing.
“Don't worry,” Suzette told me. “I'll look after your strange little toy.”
I stepped out into Fortress City. Already the sky was darkening, black smoke from myriad chimneys coiling up around the blood red sunset. People walked past in small groups, their shoes clicking harshly on the cobbled street.
As I crossed a small, secluded bridge, a voice spoke from nearby. “Gleve? Dr Peregrine Gleve?”
“Yes?” I said, a little surprised.
A man in a long coat stood watching me. He chuckled. “That's something I like to see. Not so common any more. Naïve honesty.”
He lifted his hand, and aimed a long-barrelled revolver at my head.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Who's this? How will Peregrine escape staring down the barrel of yet another gun? Who is it in Fortress City that wants him dead?! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!