Part 30: Skyscrapers
The red sun was sinking into the horizon, shining through the black skeletons of unfinished towers. Long-necked cranes stood guard over deserted scaffolds. Every construction worker in the city had probably been conscripted. Most of the skyscrapers of Kingchester - the tallest intended to reach sixty storeys - were unlikely to ever be finished.
Any lingering fear of heights I might have held had evaporated by now, by the end of my second week interred in a room on one of the highest floors of the Gilbert Spire. That said, I still had difficulty sleeping through the constant drone of airships docking with the rooftop fuel station, biplanes buzzing about them like frightened watchdogs. Something was happening, and no-one would tell me what.
Another coughing fit stopped me in my tracks. I could taste blood. Around me nothing but thick, roiling mists. Exactly why my time in Gilbert Spire resurfaced in moments like this, I never knew. I suppose that it was the only time I was ever called upon to justify myself - my actions in the Select Committee - and looking back I thought that I could have done a much better job.
I sat in my usual seat on one side of the long, mahogany table. The door opened and a portly man in army dress uniform barged in.
“General Cass,” I said. “At last. I've been answering the same questions from each of your subordinates in turn, so seeing you appear yourself makes me feel like I've made some progress.”
He sat down directly opposite me, steepled his fingers in that way he did when addressing someone he was scared might be smarter than him. “Doctor Gleve. It's been quite some time since we last met, hasn't it?”
“Yes,” I began, carefully, “the Minister for Science introduced us. In fact, I'm surprised I haven't seen her yet.”
He met my eye defiantly. “Parliament has been dissolved.”
“Now is the time for action. Politics have failed us, as you know more than most.”
I decided to let that statement hang in the air.
“You mentioned being repeatedly asked the same questions,” he said. “Well, I'm sorry to disappoint, but I'm not about to buck the trend. I am, however, going to stick to only those questions most important to our immediate aims.”
Again, I said nothing.
“What happened to the other members of the Select Committee?”
I answered without missing a beat. “They're dead.”
“How did they die?”
“Prolonged exposure to an environment hostile to human life.”
He smiled and spread his hands. “And yet, here you are.”
“As we anticipated, the Sky Spiders showed utter indifference to our lives. They made no move to harm us, but as our equipment failed, they made no attempt to help us either. At least, not until I was the last one alive and my pressure suit began to leak. At that point they moved to aid me, I believe only in order to protect the message they had given me.”
“That message being?”
“That they won't tolerate attempted interference of any form, but, if we leave them alone, they won't harm us intentionally.”
“Intentionally,” General Cass repeated.
“Yes. For example, responding to whatever gambit you seem to be mobilising at the moment. You don't stand a chance against them, General. We're as far behind the Sky Spiders as the other species of this world are behind us.”
He kept his voice controlled. “That's what you think is it? A lot has happened while you were away. We've observed these creatures and their automata, reverse engineered some of the underlying principles. The Viscount of Circhester has designed war machines the likes of which the world has never seen before. A million soldiers are going to march on Unity City. Alongside them: tanks, aeroplanes, machine men, air fortresses, golems born of electricity, enough artillery to level a city in a day...”
“I'm sure that chimpanzees feel just as powerful when they pick up sticks and stones.”
He laughed humourlessly. “We're moving you to Ridgeford, doctor. We want to keep you safe, naturally.”
“And out of the way.”
“Given the circumstances, can you blame us for distrusting you?”
I fell to my hands and knees, my fingers sinking into soil that burned to the touch. Instinctively, gasping for air, I pulled down my scarf. Pink froth bubbled up from my lungs. I spat. I couldn't think straight, could barely feel my surroundings. This wasn't, I realised with a sudden shock, that bad a way to die.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Surely, after all this time, this has to be it for Peregrine! Get your black armbands ready, and check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!