Previously: “We sought the EON units for their knowledge of the Sky Spiders - five of us, though three became separated: EON-4, the one EON unit to fail in its mission; Major Thurlow a brave and dashing soldier; and me, a scientist from the Imperial Society and a member of the Select Committee. At the edge of the Poison Wastes, EON-4 suddenly killed Thurlow, and it seemed that I was next.”
Part 29: The Happy Cat
The wind blew from the north, bearing acrid dust that stung my lungs and eyes. I blinked hard at EON-4 as he stood on the roof of a corroded shack above me, rifle stock pressed into his shoulder.
I let my revolver fall from my hand. It landed in the dust by Major Thurlow's body.
EON-4's single round eye clicked and whirred as he sighted down the barrel of his rifle at me. “We share a mutual curiosity, don't we doctor?”
I nodded. “Certainly.”
“You know what they say about the cat, don't you?”
“That he died happy.”
A slight rotation of his cylindrical head, as if laughing to one side. “Then let's trade. One question of yours, for each one of mine. Honestly answered.”
I looked down at the Major, crouched down to close his eyes. “I'll start then,” I said, straightening up. “A small one. What is this place? How did you already have it rigged with explosives?”
“An outpost assembled by Academy for Machine Intelligence automata. Something they cooked up after the battle for Unity City, when manpower was at a premium. My turn: are the other members of the Select Committee really dead, as you reported?”
“No. They were all alive the last time I saw them. You were sent to interface with a Sky Spider analytical engine. Did you really fail - as you reported?”
He spoke almost with pride. “Of the five of us, identical in manufacture, it would be peculiar if all succeeded but one, wouldn't it? I've touched the mind of the Sky Spiders, doctor. Do you know what they want?”
“I know what, but I don't understand why. Have you been in contact with any of the other EON units?”
“With EON-1. And EON-5, but only since we encountered her as the Iron Queen. If you could stop the Sky Spiders, doctor, would you?”
I shrugged. “I honestly don't know. Now tell me, EON-4, after all this time, why try and kill us now? What would we have found if we'd reached EON-1?”
EON-4 jumped down from the roof, landing rigidly on the dry ground with knees that bent mechanically. “I'll answer that if you'll answer this: which other Select Committee members came back?”
“The game only works if you play honestly.”
“I'm telling the truth. They didn't want to leave. Sometimes I wish I hadn't left myself.”
“Unfortunately, I can't afford to believe you. Since we didn't complete our little trade, and I can't guarantee that you'll die happy, I'm going to leave you here, doctor. If you gather supplies from these buildings and head directly south, you may reach safety.”
EON-4 moved towards the monoplane, his rifle still trained on me.
“And you're going to find Lady Una and Sigrid Phenice,” I said. “To kill them too.”
“To divert them. Peacefully if I can.”
“But with bullets if you have to.”
“Needs must. Step back from the aeroplane. Far back.”
I complied, walking backwards over cracked earth until EON-4 lowered his rifle and climbed into the cockpit. As the plane's engine choked to life, the propeller threw up dust in great fits.
Naturally, when I'd crouched over Thurlow, I'd palmed his revolver. As EON-4 started to take off, I pulled it from the back of my belt and shot him through the head. No mean feat firing at a moving target a hundred paces away. More luck than skill, I'm sure.
EON-4's brain exploded into a cloud of tiny, disintegrating cogs. Inert gases puffed out from broken valves deep in his shattered, featureless face. The monoplane still accelerated forward, veering wildly to one side. When the wingtip touched the ground, the whole thing cartwheeled over, flying into pieces under the stress.
As the last piece of metal clattered to the ground, I slipped Thurlow's revolver into my shoulder holster. Burying him - either of them, seemed a pointless waste of energy. Poison carried on the wind. I was alone. My only living companions were far to the north, deeper into the toxic miasma.
I must have been dazed, or reckless, or both. I wrapped my scarf tightly over my mouth and nose, gathered what bottled water I could find in the encampment, and started to trek north, towards pollution, death and the Sky Spiders.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Alone in the Poison Wastes, inhaling alien toxins - the perfect time to think and recollect. Peregrine is haunted by surprising recollections of his past as he trudges straight up to death's door, in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!