Previously: “Separated from our friends, EON-4, Major Thurlow and I needed to find a way to get to EON-1. To that end we commandeered an experimental monoplane and embarked on a flight across the country.”
Part 28: Percussion
We landed somewhere north of Unity City and south of the Poison Wastes - a small, rural military encampment of prefabricated buildings and a flagpole flying a faded rag. As the Major and I jumped down from the observer's seat, EON-4 singled out one squat shack in particular.
“The mess,” he said. “There may be some rations or clean water. I wouldn't recommend drinking any groundwater.”
The ground beneath our feet was dry and cracked, dotted with yellow clumps of sickly grass. What trees we could see through the dust that carried on the wind were pale and leafless. Thurlow pressed his sleeve across his mouth and nose, and I followed suit.
He gestured towards the mess. “Let's not spend longer in the open air than we have to.”
“It's probably just dust,” I said. “It's a westerly wind.”
“All the same, let's not hang around to find out.”
The door to the building opened with ease, though Thurlow braced his shoulder against it. We stepped inside to find a sparse and clean canteen, chairs tucked neatly under their tables, bright daylight still finding its way in through the dust-caked windows.
“What is this place?” Thurlow said. “I guess towards the end they were building places to house conscripts that were never going to turn up.”
He clambered over a counter top to get to the cupboards, leaving muddy bootprints across the spotless surface. I looked around and sat down at one of the tables, enjoying the feeling of being on solid ground for the first time in hours.
“Tinned food,” Thurlow muttered. “Not too old by the looks of it, either, and I bet it would have kept for the full five years anyway. I wonder what lunatic kept stocking this place after the end of the world.”
He sawed open two tins of fruit with his combat knife and climbed back over the counter to sit opposite me. I sighed.
He grinned. “You're thinking of Her Ladyship, of course.”
“We have reached the conclusion that she thinks we're dead.”
“Take my word for it: on the many occasions that I've turned out to still be alive, no-one's ever held it against me. Well, now that I think about it, I should say no-one that I actually liked.”
I picked out a slice of pear and put it into my mouth. Thurlow did the same. We both spat our mouthfuls back into the tin.
“So,” Thurlow said, “I suppose we'll just have to starve.”
We sat in silence for a moment. Thurlow added, “You know, I really don't understand this place.”
“What about it?”
“What exactly we were doing building huts in the middle of nowhere while creatures from the stars disassembled our civilisation.”
I shrugged. “It sounds about as good a reaction as any other we had.”
“But who built it? How did they find navvies but not soldiers? And-” He stopped talking abruptly and stood up. “And I'm wondering why there are wires running along the underside of that counter. Up! Out!”
The Major sprinted out through the door like he expected the place to explode. Having reached the same conclusion, I was out the door only moments after him.
A rifle shot battered my ear drums and Thurlow dropped to the dirt with a yell of pain.
Standing on the roof of a nearby shack, EON-4 worked the bolt of his rifle. It was a reprieve of a fraction of a second, and I took it - diving under the wing of the monoplane and into cover.
Thurlow screamed. He was still alive and still in open ground.
“That's the thing about the Poison Wastes,” EON-4 said, his voice calm and booming. “Electrical wiring lasts a few days at best - and it's never as reliable as clockwork and valves in the first place. Trying to use explosives in this environment was my first mistake.”
My revolver was in my hand. I drew back the hammer.
“Doctor,” EON-4 continued. “You'll notice that I've engaged you in conversation - and also that I've left the Major alive. I have no interest in killing you. Please consider this to be, at worst, an aggressive negotiation.”
Thurlow clutched his shoulder, blood spurting out between his fingers. He spoke through clenched teeth. “You think we're stupid? If your damn fuses hadn't failed we'd be in pieces right now.”
Another rifle shot. The bullet struck the dead, dry ground next to the Major's head, throwing up a puff of yellow dust. “Nevertheless,” EON-4 said. “You can die quite slowly if the doctor chooses to continue cowering out of sight.”
Thurlow laughed, his dashing smile shining through the grimace of pain that contorted his face. “That's what you think, is it?”
Within the space of a second Thurlow had pulled a revolver from his belt and taken aim. With the third crack of a rifle, EON-4 had shot him clean through the head.
“I'm sorry doctor,” EON-4 called out, “but I'm a philosophy engine, not a war machine. I had to act in self defence. And don't let my vulnerability move you to a similar act of futility. I'm fully versed in the philosophy of marksmanship. Are you still there, doctor? You've gone very quiet...”
I rolled out from under the aeroplane on the opposite side. EON-4 made a stark silhouette against the dust-clouded sky - pointing his rifle quite a few degrees in the wrong direction. I aimed my revolver at the centre of his body and squeezed the trigger. The hammer released with a limp click.
It seemed my trusty revolver had received one or two dunkings too many.
“Well,” EON-4 said, seeming about as smug as you can with a featureless metal cylinder for a head, “this is an interesting predicament. I seem to have you at gunpoint, doctor. And there are a lot of interesting questions I've always wanted to ask a member of the Select Committee. The kind unlikely to be answered in more sanguine circumstances.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Oh dear! What on Earth is going on now? Why does EON-4 suddenly seem to want everyone dead? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!