Part 31: Ghost Town
I sat up, coughing. My throat and stomach muscles hurt. Twinges flickered in my lungs with every breath. Where was I?
A room lit only dimly by what light could filter in through the filth-caked window panes. The edges of the window were packed with rags and tape. I was lying on a musty bed. My jacket was folded neatly over the back of a chair.
I reached for my revolver instinctively. My shoulder holster was gone.
I got unsteadily to my feet. The door was unlocked. As I pulled it open, its yellowed paintwork shed a small shower of flakes.
Outside was a small sitting room, its window and door both sealed with rags and tape in the same manner as the window in the room I awoke in. A man with stark white hair sat sleeping in a ratty armchair. He opened his eyes as I suppressed a cough.
“You're awake,” he said.
“Where am I?”
He stood up. His face seemed surprisingly young. “This is Plainham. Not anywhere in particular, really. No-one's passed through here in years and the telegraph cable is in tatters. We were starting to wonder if there was anyone left but us.”
“Not too far from the truth, really. Dr Peregrine Gleve.”
He shook my hand. “Dr Miles Serene. I gotta say, it's nice to have another man of medicine about.”
“I'm not a medical doctor.”
“That's a shame.” He pointed at the top of my head. “If you won't ask about my hair, I'll ask about yours. Everyone in Plainham's as bleached white as I am. The poisons in the air, the water, the animals, it bleaches the hair. You dying yours, or what?”
I sighed. I didn't have time for this. “Not everywhere is like this. In the south we call this place the Poison Wastes.”
He shook his head slowly. “Over the years people have left here. Some of them went south-”
“I wouldn't beat yourself up over it. They're probably dead anyway. Poison is the least of our worries.”
He took my tone in his stride. “I see. There's so much we don't know.”
“What's the last thing you heard about?”
“Last I heard, we were marching on Unity City. We could see the flashes and smoke from here, so I imagine it didn't go too well.”
“To put it mildly. Look, I need to head north.”
He nodded. “I'll lend you a gas mask. We have a surplus now. Where are you going, if I might ask?”
“I'm looking for a mechanical man. He was heading right into the source of these poison clouds.”
Dr Serene nodded. “The mechanical man. Our last visitor, all those years ago. And now his friend. Or enemy...”
“At this juncture, I honestly don't know which.”
“And you say that there's no poison to the south,” he mused, “but it might even be more dangerous? What kind of danger?”
“Stay a little while,” he said. “You need to eat and build up your strength.”
“What do you have to eat in this place?”
He looked a little sheepish. “Whatever the hunting parties find. Often we're not really sure what it is we're eating.”
“I think I'll go hungry. Do you have my gun?”
“Well, I suppose you seem friendly enough. You do know that your pistol is a different calibre from your spare bullets, don't you?”
I suppose I should probably have checked something like that before taking Thurlow's revolver. “No, actually, I didn't. It was my friend's gun, until he died.”
“I'm sorry. I'll show you how to put on the mask and see you out.”
In my funk, I'd made it further into the Poison Wastes than I should have had any right to. Outside, the air was thick with dust and fumes. I could only just make out the dilapidated buildings of Plainham, the gas masked forms moving furtively between them.
You might think it would be easy to lose yourself in that kind of place.
But straight ahead, visible over the thick, ground-level murk, was a great mushroom cloud of black smoke. It poured out of the unseen horizon like liquid, rising high into the sky and quickly tumbling back down as a discoloured snowfall of ash.
I wondered what it had looked like when EON-1 first set off in that direction. Smaller certainly, less pervasive, but no less frightening - and humbling. Now I was to follow in his footsteps.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: The Sky Spiders are working right through the crust of the world. To do what? And for what purpose? Should any mere human try and approach such dangerous geological construction? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!