Previously: “Separated from our friends, EON-4, Major Thurlow and I needed to find a way to get to EON-1. One particular mode of rapid transport suggested itself.”
Part 27: Aerodrome
We stood in the long afternoon shadows of Smogton's modernistic towers. The airstrip was now long overgrown, the plaster of its blocky buildings cracked and stained, their roofs bending inwards under the weight of stagnant pools of rainwater.
The ground and air reverberated with the thunder of distant alien machinery.
“Every picture tells a story,” Major Thurlow said. “That heap of bones over there? Latterly a barricade of dead horses. And that automobile is riddled with holes and pointed straight at the exit. Looks like like the rank and file had a disagreement with the poor fellows in charge.”
I looked around at the various wings and fuselages rusting into the ground. “I don't see any aeroplanes in one piece, let alone in a state to carry us into the sky.”
Thurlow stroked his thin moustache. “They were probably stripping planes for parts. The ones they repaired flew straight to Unity City, and never came back.”
EON-4 walked ahead of us. “And yet, I believe there may have been one plane that they would not have committed to this engagement. In part due to its perceived value to the conflict in the future, and in part due to its unreliability under the stresses of combat.”
The Major and I watched as EON-4 approached a corrugated iron hangar and lifted the shutter. Behind it, in remarkably good condition was a sleek, two-seater monoplane.
EON-4 looked back at us with his single eye. “The Falcon F.VI.”
I folded my arms nervously. “Wait, I've heard of that one. Wasn't that the new prototype where the wing kept coming off?”
“Only when performing high acceleration manoeuvres. It should be perfectly safe as a passenger aircraft.”
“Wait,” Thurlow said, “the what kept coming off?”
EON-4 laid a hand on a group of faintly rusted red barrels. “The F.VI used a unique high-performance petroleum blend unsuitable for any other engine. We just need to fill the tanks and taxi out onto the landing strip.”
I touched the single wing, experimentally. It was raised up over the fuselage to afford the pilot and observer a commanding view of the ground below. “Perhaps there are safer ways to get around? We could always focus on returning to Fortress City. If the others succeed we'll meet up with them soon enough.”
EON-4 clambered up to look in on the pilot's seat. “With the utmost respect doctor, that's a mildly cowardly sentiment. We have the capacity to help our comrades, and I believe we should take it. I will certainly be leaving in this aeroplane, whether either of you accompany me or not.”
I raised my chin, a little peeved. “Well, if you put it like that. At least I have a pretty good idea of how I'll go if I die over the next few hours.”
“Burning to death in the wreckage of a crashed plane,” Thurlow added helpfully, under his breath.
EON-4 reached into the cockpit to flip some switches. The monoplane choked and juddered. “Would you give the propeller a hand, Major? And then stand clear of it.”
Thurlow obliged, and the engine shook throatily to life, the propeller spinning into a whirling blur.
“The tanks are full,” EON-4 explained. “There should be room for two in the observer's seat.”
We found a pair of goggles each on a table of maps and toolboxes, and then Thurlow climbed into the seat in the front of the plane and helped me to squeeze in next to him. EON-4 released the wheel brakes and the plane began to roll forwards. The wings and fuselage creaked uneasily as he tested the ailerons and rudder, and then we were turning onto the long stretch of unkempt weeds that constituted the landing strip.
Thurlow shouted to me over the roar of the engine. “I hope he knows what he's doing!”
On each of the five bounces it took to get airborne, I seriously wondered the same thing myself, but then we were in the sky, suspended only by the monoplane's lethally unreliable wing. I suddenly wished that I had learned more about heavier-than-air flight.
“Look!” Thurlow exclaimed. “What are they doing?”
I followed his pointed finger into the heart of Smogton. It was a slightly different view from high above, but I could still make out the familiar streets of red-brick houses, the chimneys of long disused coal-burning factories, the more regal and modern faces of the Academy for Machine Intelligence and my erstwhile home, the Imperial Society of Science - all these things making up the city of Smogton. And the city of Smogton curving in on itself, sinking down in a reluctant hemisphere of broken concrete and tumbling brick; pushed down by the pulsing white light of a black machine that stood over the city like a demonic, long-fingered hand.
Thurlow screamed at me. “That was a city of centuries of work, home to hundreds of thousands. Now look at it. Whatever gods there may be that care the slightest about the human race, I hope they curse these creatures to Eternity.”
It seemed a hopelessly primitive sentiment to me, but I suppose it was all we really had. EON-4 banked to the left, and Smogton Bridge slipped across the face of the world towards us, still carrying its pilgrimage of strange automata, giant machines that now seemed small and insignificant compared to the enormous construction that was destroying Smogton itself.
As we passed high above them, each of the Sky Spider machines turned its brightly glowing head up to look at us, then looked back down, unconcerned.
“We can't stop them,” I said. “You know that, don't you Major?”
But my voice was drowned out by the engine, and carried away by the freezing wind.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Our heroes close in on EON-1, and the biggest surprise yet! Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!