Previously: “Heading north on a battered old ironclad to find EON-1, we had to pass beneath Smogton Bridge. But it seemed that since I'd last passed this way, Smogton had fallen to the Sky Spiders. And then there was the strange sonar contact following us from beneath the sea.”
Part 24: What Lies Beneath
Lady Una reached out for the railing.
I held out a hand to stop her. “Don't put your weight on it.”
She clung to the hatch instead. “I almost wish I hadn't come up here, but I could hear that awful sound. It's them, obviously.”
I peered ahead into the thick mist. I could just make out the skeletal fingers of Smogton Bridge rising from the water. “Obviously.”
She followed my gaze, further up, towards the source of the metallic groaning and clattering. At times, spindly shadows seemed to be visible. But we could make out no more than that. “Their machines?”
She looked me straight in the eye. “Can you be more specific? What kind of machines? Doing what?”
“Why- How would I know that?”
She smiled mirthlessly. “We both know how. And I suspect we could even agree on the why.”
I folded my arms against the cold. “Well I don't. All I can tell you is that they shouldn't bother us. We're no direct threat to them.”
Lady Una raised an eyebrow. “That's quite possibly the most sublimely naïve thing I've heard anyone say in five years.” She looked up, sharply. “Gods, I didn't realise how close we are.”
The bridge was starting to loom overhead, an intricate wrought iron web against the white sky.
“Me neither,” I began.
At that moment, the persistent thrum of the ship's engines quickly ebbed away. Now we could hear only the lapping of water against the ship, and the creaking of the bridge as it swayed beneath a heavy, moving load.
“That was intentional,” Lady Una said, “correct?”
“I'd imagine so,” I answered uncertainly.
The Commander appeared on a higher deck, leaning brazenly over the railing. “I knew it,” she hissed. “Whatever that echo is, now that we're not under power it's gaining on us.”
“Then start the engines again,” I whispered back.
She gripped her pipe and laughed silently. “Unlike you, I'm not angel-shit crazy. This close to the crawlies, we coast. Besides, now they've made their move, our shadow can't back down, and I doubt we could outrun them in this old heap.”
A sailor stepped up to her with an armful of rifles and she passed two down to us. “Stand by to repel who-knows-what. We certainly can't bring the ship's gun to bear on it.”
“I always wanted to die at sea,” Major Thurlow said, stepping politely past Lady Una, his rifle casually resting on his shoulder. “Sigrid's up top, and the tin can's in the bridge nursing the green gizmo. Are you two sure you want to be on deck for this?”
“I should be on the front line,” Lady Una said, working the action of her rifle. “Besides, if we're sinking, I don't want to be trapped inside.”
“I'm behind her,” I said.
The Commander let out a low yell. “It's reached the surface!”
We ran astern, our footfalls rattling the deck and throwing up flakes of rust.
“What is it?” the Major called out to the upper deck.
Sigrid answered. “Don't know. Think we're gonna need bigger guns!”
At first I could see nothing but the mist. But shortly I could perceive a writhing silhouette, like angry snakes sprouting from a segmented shell.
Lady Una saw it too. “A giant cephalopod or nautiloid. Something from the Twisted Forests for sure.”
“No,” Major Thurlow said, “listen. Listen to it clanking and whirring, almost louder than our friends on the bridge. It's a machine.”
The Commander called down to us. “Sky Spiders? If so we should abandon ship.”
“No,” I said. “A human machine. Like nothing I ever saw before, but human all the same.”
It was closer now. Much closer. I could make out the dull sheen of its brassy segments.
Major Thurlow cursed under his breath. “We're not even going to dent that thing with bullets.”
The Commander slung her rifle over her shoulder. “Let it come to us then.”
I'm sure we all looked at her like she was mad.
“You don't make a ship with robotic tentacles to attack at long range,” she explained. “Let it get right up to us, and we'll hit it where it hurts.”
“If we can find anywhere it hurts,” Thurlow growled. “Get EON-4 here.”
Sigrid said simply, “Out of time.”
The squid machine hit us with the sound of high precision robotics tearing into flimsy rust. The deck lurched beneath us, throwing us in every direction. I reached out blindly for the railing.
It disintegrated in my hand, and I fell forwards, into the mist, and towards viciously churning metal tentacles.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Is this the end of the HMS Inquisitor and all who sail on her? Heroics are called for, and the Five will be divided! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!