Previously: “In the fight against the mysterious, seemingly man-made squid machine, Major Thurlow, EON-4 and myself were cast overboard. Stunned by the machine's death throes, I sank helplessly beneath the waves.”
Part 26: The Sky Spider Automaton
I could hear a thunderous clanging of metal. It reached me even in whatever submarine depths I languished, beneath a crushing weight of freezing water.
Something hit my chest and I leaned to one side, spewing out fluid and sucking back air so cold it burned. The weight seemed to lift from me. I felt dizzy.
“Breathe,” I heard Major Thurlow say softly, “but breathe quietly.”
I opened my eyes. I stared up into a spider's web of wrought iron latticework. It quivered in time with the clanging, flakes of corroded paint falling from it like black snow. Hands grasped my shoulders and the view overhead changed. I was further under the iron web. A black shape moved through the structure above, ponderous and graceful.
The structure above me, I realised, was the Smogton bridge. The silhouette could only be a Sky Spider machine. I sat up, my hands sinking into gritty mud. Water lapped around my heels. The horizon was obscured by thick white mist.
Major Thurlow knelt by my side. He touched a finger to his lips to quiet me.
I nodded that I understood.
Above us, the bridge reverberated with clanging metal. Most of the sounds were distant - the movement of Sky Spider machines across the top of the bridge. But every few seconds there was another kind of sound: not louder, but far more obvious to the ear because of its unique character. The peculiar sound of something enormous trying to move stealthily.
Slowly, his wet hands quivering almost imperceptibly, Thurlow slid forward the bolt of his rifle. Muddy water flowed out from the breech.
“That's no use,” I said, unable to speak above a whisper even if I had wanted to.
“Well it makes me feel better,” Thurlow answered.
“Leave it,” I said. “It'll only get you killed. When that thing sees us, we need to be as non-threatening as possible.”
“If it sees us,” Thurlow corrected me.
“It'll see us,” I said.
We could certainly see it now. A black shape like a bat without the wing membranes, moving on four long, clawed limbs. It seemed to have little respect for gravity, pointing straight down while stepping from strut to strut as if it were moving along the ground. As we watched, one of the struts snapped clean in two and the machine reached out for the next one without even changing its stride. Slowly, inexorably, it was creeping down the bridge towards us.
The closest thing it had to a head was an incandescent flower of bright white light, aimed straight at us.
“It sees us,” I said. “Throw down your rifle.”
The Sky Spider machine fell. If I'd thought it was enormous when it was high above us, seeing it plummet directly at us only solidified that impression. Instinctively, I threw my hands over my head. Rationally, I knew it was a pointless action.
Close by, straight up, there was a thunderous impact on metal.
Thurlow grabbed my shoulder, pulling me to my feet.
I opened my eyes. The Sky Spider machine was clinging to the struts of the bridge right above us, blotting out the sky. It fixed its glowing white gaze directly at Thurlow.
I shoved him, hard. He was a strong man, but tall as well, and I managed to knock him clean off his feet. I looked up. Immediately the machine's gaze had switched to me. It stared hard, burning into my eyes like the sun. Dripping wet and freezing cold, I shivered uncontrollably.
The Sky Spider machine turned inside out. Suddenly it was facing the opposite direction and climbing gracefully back up the bridge.
Thurlow stared up at it, reluctant to stand back up. “What just happened?”
“I don't know,” I said, lying.
I offered him my hand.
“Very peculiar,” a new voice said, calm and soft-spoken, but startling us all the same.
EON-4 walked out of the water, rising up like a rock at low tide.
Thurlow relaxed his grip on his rifle. “You survived then.”
“They made me well,” EON-4 explained. “Which side of the bridge are we on?”
Thurlow sighed. “The wrong side. Fancy a visit to Smogton? Perhaps we could visit your parents, Four?”
“The Sky Spiders are doing something there,” I said.
EON-4 wrung water from his sleeves. “It's interesting to ponder exactly what.”
“I'm sure our first priority,” Thurlow said, “is to get to EON-1. Academic suicide missions can wait until after.”
“What happened to the others?” I asked.
“The ship limped off, trailing smoke. I suspect the others think we're dead.”
“Lovely. What do we do now? Can we cross the river beneath the bridge?”
Thurlow studied the murky water. “Perhaps. If we can grab onto the struts to take rests. And if we don't encounter anything nasty from the Twisted Forests.”
“There are better options,” EON-4 said. “For example a military aerodrome not too far distant from this bridge.”
“And you think the planes there will have held up better than, say, this bridge?” I asked. “Or the HMS Inquisitor?”
His single eye rotated thoughtfully. “Well, unlike those two examples, the planes will not have been sitting in salt water all this time.”
“What about fuel?” Thurlow asked.
EON-4 extended a hand towards the mist-choked sea. “All I am saying, is that it is a long way to walk from here to the Poison Wastes, and a walk which will take us quite close to Unity City. A swifter mode of transport than our shoes seems a fine idea for a brief diversion, at least to me.”
“If we can find a plane,” Thurlow said carefully, “can you fly it?”
“I'm well versed in the theory of mechanical flight,” EON-4 responded.
“And your practical experience?” I asked.
EON-4's eye clicked, a little sheepishly I thought. “None.”
Thurlow looked thoughtful for a moment. “We've done more dangerous things,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “Why not.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Can our heroes achieve the age-old desire of heavier-than-air flight?! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!