Part 20: The Assassin
I shook Lady Una gently by the shoulder. “Wake up,” I said. “There's trouble.”
She put her hand to her head and frowned, eyes still closed. “You don't have to be so bloody loud about it...”
“Come on. Up!”
Unsteadily, she rose from her bedside chair. “My head... Gods, I'm never drinking again.”
I drew my revolver. It still looked a little damp from my plunge into the canals of Fortress City. Lady Una glided ahead of me, and out into the hallway.
Major Thurlow awaited us. He smirked. “I couldn't find you in your room, doctor.”
Lady Una still frowned, fingers pressed to her forehead. “Surprised, Major? I thought you were a man of the world.”
“Oh, it takes a lot to surprise me, milady.”
I said, “But-”
“I left my automatic pistol on my night stand,” Lady Una interrupted, “is there cause for concern, Major? The doctor- We heard shooting.”
He stroked his thin moustache. “I don't think so. It had pretty much stopped moving when I left to find you.”
“You should probably come look. Especially you, doctor.”
Lady Una glanced at the stairs. “You two go ahead. I'll be down shortly.”
I slipped my revolver back into its holster and followed the Major downstairs and out to the front of the estate. He looked back once to wink at me. I studiously ignored him.
Lady Una, now in a hoop-skirted shirtwaist, sailed up to us as we stood around the thing, studying it in the ruddy dawn light. “What is it?” she asked me.
“I haven't the least idea. Some kind of humanoid machine. Thurlow said it moved like nothing he'd ever seen.”
She looked down at it, studying the shattered clockwork that lay behind its bullet-riddled skin of black-lacquered metal.
“I don't sleep much these days,” Thurlow explained. “And I didn't much trust your one-eyed soldier to be a good look-out - no offence, my man - so I spent the night on the porch. Saw this thing climb over the wall and scuttle around - fast, spider-like. It didn't really stop until we turned a machinegun on it. Don't much like the look of those claws.”
I shook my head. “This isn't a Sky Spider machine. That's all I can tell you.”
Lady Una made a thoughtful noise. “I know what this is.”
We all looked at her.
“I suspect EON-4 could tell us more if he were here. This was made by the Academy for Machine Intelligence. It was designed right towards the end of the war, intended to be a kind of offspring of the humanoid philosophy engines and more cumbersome war machines. The last records that we have here describe all the prototypes as being unbalanced and unwieldy.”
Thurlow prodded the mass of metal with the tip of his shoe. “Not this fellow. Quick as the wind. Balanced like a cat struck by lightning.”
She drew a breath through her teeth. “As things became more desperate, there was talk of using an existing solution for motion control. Specifically, a freshly donated human spinal column. I suspect this machine is evidence that somebody ended up putting that plan into motion.”
I looked from Lady Una to Thurlow. “The man who tried to kill me was definitely human.”
“Man?” Thurlow asked. “Pretty sure it was a woman after me.”
Lady Una fiddled with the tiny button on one of her gloves. “Just because they looked human, it doesn't mean they were underneath. It's not always so easy to tell these days.”
Thurlow snarled. “Mixing human flesh and machinery. The sort of thing the Sky Spiders would do. You have to wonder about the kind of twisted mind that would do it to their own kind.”
I cleared my throat. “Which brings us to the obvious question. Who is it that is sending these people - or machines, or some combination of the two - to kill us?”
“The most obvious answer,” Thurlow said, “would be the Academy itself.”
“But they sent us EON-4 as well,” Lady Una countered.
“Precisely. And where has he been through all this?”
“Probably fending off an assassin of his own,” I suggested.
“The Academy has no reason to wish us dead,” Lady Una said firmly.
Thurlow laughed. “Well as far as we know, nobody has any reason to want us dead except the Sky Spiders, and they'd send a far more effective machine than this to do the job.”
“There-” Lady Una began, then stopped. “There's also the Select Committee.”
Thurlow seemed bemused. “The who?”
I glared at Lady Una. “The Select Committee are all dead. And even if they weren't, they'd have no reason to try to kill us.”
“Are you so sure our deaths wouldn't be in tune with their aims, doctor?” she pressed. “Mightn't we be-”
“No,” I said, rather curtly.
Thurlow brushed between us, heading inside. “It's all meaningless. Whoever it is, when they come for us, we just get them first. Problem solved.”
Lady Una raised her face to the rising sun. “I'm almost glad to be heading out to sea,” she said. “Assuming I can stay afloat.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Will our heroes sink or swim? And who is it that's trying to kill them? More importantly: what strange things have swum out of the Twisted Forests and into the open sea? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!