Previously: “When we neared Smogton bridge, our ship was attacked by a giant, tentacled machine. As the deck buckled, I stumbled through a rusted railing and towards its gnashing metal jaws.”
Part 25: Against the Squid Machine
A gloved hand closed around mine, slender fingers pinching with a machine-like grip, and Lady Una pulled me back to safety, throwing a protective arm around my waist. With a crash, the ship's aft superstructure partially collapsed, sheets of corroded iron peeling away from it like torn paper. Somebody - one of the crew, I supposed - leapt for safety, tumbling through the air and into the mist-obscured sea.
Major Thurlow was crouched in the gangway, his face turned up towards the nearest steel tentacle. “EON-4,” he bellowed, “where are you?”
The machine's calm, quiet voice answered from close by. “I'm right here, Major.”
The ship started to lean backwards. Something slid from the deck and into the water with a splash.
The Major turned EON-4 aft, towards the machine's segmented body and the meeting point of its constricting arms, “We've got to take this thing apart before it sinks us. Have you got any ideas?”
EON-4's single eye clicked and whirred. “I'm a philosophical unit, not especially familiar with nautical automata, or even basic mechanical maintenance.”
“I can help,” Lady Una interrupted. “Complex machinery has been a late interest of mine.”
“Well get out of that get up,” the Major said, gesturing to her hoop skirted dress, “because we're going over the side to deal with this thing up close.”
Lady Una stammered. “I- But-” She looked at me for a way out.
“This is no time for propriety or modesty,” the Major began.
“It's not that,” I said. “She can't swim. I'm not all that good with machines, but I guess I know as much as anyone other than Lady Una. Perhaps the ship's chief engineer-”
“He's overboard,” Commander Kelson said gruffly, scuttling along the gangway with a shell under each arm, followed by a sailor carrying two more. “Sigrid said you might need these, though I don't think I like what that implies.”
Major Thurlow grinned lopsidedly. “She's got a good head on her shoulders, I'll give her that. Doctor, EON-4, take a shell each. Let's see if we can't stick them somewhere where they'll do some damage.”
EON-4 looked from the Major to me and back again. “This does not seem like a good plan to me.”
Lady Una took my arm. “Me neither.”
“If you have a better one,” the Major said, “you have the time it takes us to get over that railing to think of it.”
“At least leave EON-4 here,” I said. “He's vital to our ultimate goal.”
The Major hefted a shell under each arm. “So you say, but if we sink here he's no more use to us than if he gets torn apart over there - and whatever he says, I'm sure he knows more about automata than he's letting on.”
“I am standing right here,” EON-4 said.
Thurlow stood up and turned to the squid machine. The deck thrummed as the superstructure folded further in on itself. “Good,” he said. “See that you keep that distance from me. Come on.”
I followed after him, but Lady Una pulled on my arm. “I should be the one going,” she said. “Don't die. If you can help it.”
“I'll certainly try my best.”
She pulled me closer still and kissed me on the cheek. “That's only for if you don't make it,” she explained. “If you live, forget I did it.”
“I'm sure I'll be fine,” I said, just as a mechanical tentacle flung a screaming sailor high into the air.
Major Thurlow waved to me. “Stop mooning and get a move on!”
I rushed aft, following close after him and EON-4. The squid machine's arms were close over us, crushing down onto the ship and shattering the rusted deck into uneven and disconnected shards. But it was massive and cumbersome and we were small and nimble. When the Major leapt over the railing, towards the segmented body, I paused only just long enough to see him land safely before following myself.
As my feet hit the smooth armour plating, I started sliding immediately towards the churning water. EON-4 grabbed my sleeve and pulled me to my feet.
“What do you make of that eye?” Major Thurlow shouted over the clanking of giant machine arms.
Jutting up from the automaton's body was a brass periscope that ended in a spherical glass eye. “Worth messing with,” I suggested, “but not likely to stop the thing now it has a grip on us.”
No sooner had I finished speaking then a tentacle rolled back onto the mechanical squid and snatched up EON-4, flinging him across the sea. The humanoid philosophy engine's featureless cylindrical head had registered little in the way of surprise, and he had made no sound.
Thurlow jammed one of his shells into the ring around the periscope. “It can't fight us if it can't see us,” he yelled, popping the shell's percussion cap and reaching inside. “Sixty seconds!”
I looked around frantically. The machine's eye fixed on me, and I heard the sound of at least one of its arms clattering through a rapid motion. Just behind the eye I saw something promising.
“Here!” I darted forwards. As I did so, a tentacle clanged off the armour where I had been standing on a moment before.
Thurlow saw immediately what I meant. “What is it?”
I started kicking at the fine mesh of the grating. “Exhaust, coolant vent, ballast tanks, something else - it doesn't matter. It's a way in. How long?”
We both ducked as another tentacle whipped overhead, trying to knock us overboard.
“I've lost count.” the Major confessed. “Keep kicking!”
Under both our feet the grating gave way. The Major set the fuse of his second shell in the same manner as the first. “Fifteen seconds this time!”
I handed him my own shell. He had just removed the cap when a tentacle punched right towards me. I tried to dodge to the side. I don't think it actually touched me, but it didn't matter. The gust of air in its wake was enough to pitch me off the squid-like war machine and into the sea.
I hit the water with stinging force, and had just resurfaced when Major Thurlow landed on top of me.
“No,” he gasped, “under!”
He grabbed a fistful of my hair and dunked me back beneath the water. It felt like I sunk deeper than I'd ever swum in my life. But when the war machine exploded, the shock still pulsed right through me. I saw the air rising from my lungs in a flurry of bubbles, and then passed out.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: As great as the dangers may seem beneath the bridge, there are yet worse things crawling atop of it. Thurlow and Peregrine come face to face with implacable alien machinery in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!