Part 32: Glad
It was dark. The sky was almost pitch black, churning with windblown shadows. And along the horizon, bulging out at the middle as if barely contained, orange light so bright it hurt to look at and left a lingering after-image. It flickered with the long-legged silhouettes of alien machines.
Smoke coiled and flowed through the air like liquid.
I was starting to doubt the efficacy of my battered old gas mask.
The ground rumbled constantly beneath my feet, but I still just made out the crack of a rifle shot over the din. Turning to its source and wiping soot from my eyepieces, I saw two distant figures on a low crest of ruined earth: one short and aiming a long-barrelled rifle at the sky, the other tall and clad ridiculously in a hoop skirted dress.
I raised my arm to wave to them.
They wore glass-fronted face masks that connected to oxygen tanks strapped to their backs. Much more advanced and comfortable breathing apparatus than my own civilian mask, which was intended only for emergencies and instead used for years by someone long dead.
Lady Una stepped up to me so I could hear her muffled voice over the cacophony of a world being reshaped. “Is it really you?” she asked.
She touched my arm. “I thought you were dead.”
All I could think to say was, “I'm alive.”
Through her soot-smeared faceplate, I thought I could detect a smile. “I'm glad.”
“What about the Major?” Sigrid asked. “The tin man?”
I shook my head. “When we can talk properly, there's a lot you need to know.”
We all looked at one another, and then at the hellish vision on the horizon. Sigrid pointed at it, and we walked on together.
It seemed to step over us and the horizon in a single movement of its long, armoured legs. A Sky Spider machine like a mountainous black hand with a palm of fire. We all dropped to our knees instinctively as it passed overhead.
Lady Una shouted, “We're safe, right? As long as we don't bother them.”
“Yes,” I yelled back.
“And because we're with a member of the Select Committee.”
“I'm certain that doesn't make a difference,” I said, though I honestly wasn't too sure.
Sigrid nudged me and pointed into the smoke and shadows that surrounded us. “I'm glad you're certain, because that thing is bothering me.”
“I don't see anything.”
“That's a significant part of why I'm bothered. You have to look real careful like.”
Perhaps, in the rolling smoke, I did just make out something almost solid, a transparent stem, ghostly and jointed like an inverted knee.
I shrugged. It was ridiculous to think that they didn't know we were there, weren't poised to exterminate us as soon as we became pests. As the footsteps of the enormous black machine faded into the rest of the noise, we walked on towards the fire ahead.
Sigrid gripped her rifle tightly, eyeing the smoke around us.
It was a small tent, now holed and ragged, but otherwise untouched. Various tools and spare parts littered the black soil, all of them badly corroded.
Sigrid grabbed my shoulder and shouted into my ear. “So we think this guy has hung around in this place for five years?”
“According to EON-2.”
Lady Una kicked at the pitted cog of an analytical engine as it protruded from the dirt. “We'll be lucky if there's anything of it left.”
With characteristic directness, she glided over to the tent and flung open the flap.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: What strange secrets will EON-1 have to reveal? Will it be mad, like the Iron Queen? Hostile, like EON-4? Or will we finally find the answers we seek? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!