Previously: “Deep in the Poison Wastes, we finally reached the small and derelict outpost of EON-1.”
Part 33: The Turk
Lady Una threw open the tent flap, and we peered eagerly inside. Sitting on the bare ground inside the tent was a stained wooden box with diamond-shaped metal antlers protruding from the top. Thick rubber hoses connected it to a small stainless steel cylinder.
Sigrid looked from Lady Una to me, her eyes just visible behind her protective mask. “I hope you two know what you're looking at, because I ain't got a clue.”
Lady Una stooped to get a better view. “It's a wireless transmitter,” she said. “And the cylinder is a small analytical engine.”
“I think the machine is trying to disguise the signal as natural white noise,” I said. “We had some success at hiding things from the Sky Spiders that way.”
Sigrid shrugged. “But hiding what? What kind of transmission?”
“There are two antennae, facing south-east and north,” Lady Una said. “North is towards EON-2. South-east is towards, well...”
Sigrid said, “A lot of things.”
“EON-2 was in contact with EON-1, we know that much,” I said. “And it thought that EON-1 was near here - just because of the direction of the signal?”
Lady Una pulled a small electric lamp from her pack and held it at arm's length inside the tent. “No, I think it had a better reason.”
Sigrid unslung her rifle. “What the hell is that?”
Something slick and black moved inside the tent, bulging and throbbing out of the sickly soil. I could recognise its otherworldly texture in an instant. “Sky Spider machinery,” I said. “It's in the ground. Growing like the roots of a tree, spreading out from that.”
I turned to point at the fiery rend in the world that split the horizon, spilling black smoke into the sky.
“Let's think about this a moment,” Lady Una said. “If we assume that EON-2 is telling the truth, EON-1 has clearly been lying to it.”
“Or they're both lying,” Sigrid chipped in.
“We're told to expect to find it here,” Lady Una continued, “but in fact it could be anywhere to the south-east.”
“Anywhere at all,” I suggested, “if there's another one of these things out there. A whole relay, perhaps.”
She seemed unconvinced. “Perhaps. But would EON-1 expect to need to go to such great lengths? How many people have passed this way in five years? How many have even left Fortress City?”
“Fortress City,” Sigrid said. “Which is to the south-east.”
Lady Una sighed. “Along with Unity City.”
Sigrid nodded, her breathing apparatus bobbing. “My money being on the latter.”
“But EON-3 is in Unity City.”
“Maybe EON-3 is behind this,” Sigrid suggested. “Maybe One and Three are in it together. Duping poor old Two. Four was probably in on it as well.”
“This is baseless conjecture. Are you okay, doctor?”
I had sat down on the ground, suddenly overcome with dizziness. “I've been better.”
Without getting up from her knees, Lady Una glided over to my side. Sigrid was too distracted by the contents of the tent to be surprised by the manoeuvre.
“We need to leave these accursed Wastes,” Lady Una said.
Sigrid closed the flap of the tent. “I'm with you there. Wait... Look out!”
Lady Una grabbed my arm and pulled me bodily to my feet. “Fuck.”
As smoke swirled around the barren and rocky ground, it parted in a wake, dragging around a sleek, near-transparent figure. It prowled forwards on reversed knees, clawing at the earth with ghostly, inhuman hands.
I coughed into my gas mask. “Disguising the signal as white noise... We had a lot of success with it, but when the Sky Spiders realised that we'd tricked them, they always reacted pretty strongly.”
Sigrid drew back the bolt on her rifle. The Sky Spider automaton didn't seem to notice or care.
“There's no point,” I shouted hoarsely. “Drop the rifle.”
She didn't hear, or wasn't prepared to listen. Worse still, Lady Una had drawn her automatic pistol. The automaton approached us unperturbed - the result of millions of years of technological advancement. Implacable and without mercy.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Can a surly soldier and a staid tank-woman defeat a sophisticated machine from beyond the sky? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!