Part 34: Commute
It steamed fast towards us, crawling bat-like over the ruined soil, moving with impossible grace, as if it didn't even touch the ground. It was transparent. Barely visible, except where the thick, smoky air curled around it.
Sigrid fired her rifle at point blank range.
The automaton breezed passed her as if it hadn't even noticed.
I grabbed Lady Una's wrist, feeling the steel beneath her sleeve. She lowered the barrel of her automatic pistol, rolling back just in time to get out of the thing's path.
It stopped in front of the ragged tent and, without even pausing, tore it away from its moorings with huge, inhuman hands. The small bundle of equipment within lay exposed.
A glassy hand lowered over the antennae of the transmitter, fingers multiplying and growing to spread out over the cylinder of the analytical engine and the hoses that bound them to the throbbing black machinery in the soil. And then EON-1's equipment was gone - fading to darkness, silhouette, non-existence. The hole in the soil sealed up in the blink of an eye, closing like an earthy iris.
Lady Una swore again, the curse muffled by her face mask.
The automaton turned around. Something vaguely resembling a head turned from Sigrid, to Una, to myself. Stayed fixed on me.
Its hand shot out again - smaller now, with fewer fingers, almost human. It closed around my throat before I could even think about trying to get away. The grip was like iron. No, worse, like the grip of an ancient oak, infused with the strength of aeons. Lady Una shouted something.
It lifted me up off my feet. Another hand grabbed my gas mask and tore it away from face. I screamed with pain. The thick, toxic smoke in the air burned my eyes. Through my tears I could see the Sky Spider automaton looking at me, face to face.
I gasped for air, but nothing could get past the choking grip of its fingers. The air was poison anyway, without my mask. Lady Una was firing her gun, but it seemed very distant. Blood thumped insistently in my ears.
I could feel myself starting to faint. It was with a strange detachment that I noticed Sigrid had pulled a characteristic disappearing act. Small wonder, I thought, that she had survived so-
An elegant sitting room, the walls lined with books. Double windows stood open onto the balcony, providing a narrow view of a marble-white city, tinged orange by the sunset.
Lady Una stood up from her chair with a swoosh of skirts. “Wait,” she said, “what just happened?”
I looked down at myself. I was wearing a new suit. I felt clean and healthy. The pain of breathing that I'd grown used to over the past days was gone. “We were in the Poison Wastes,” I said. “There was a Sky Spider machine.”
Lady Una suddenly patted the sides of her dress. “My pistol. I assembled it myself. It's one of a kind.”
I shrugged. “I've lost two and counting so far.”
She fixed her aristocratic gaze on me. “Oh, don't you delight in being unsurprised. I suppose this kind of thing is all old hat to you, isn't it?”
I started to speak.
“I'm not interested in your wit, Peregrine,” she interrupted, before I'd even got a syllable out. “I just want to know where we are. And perhaps some minimal understanding of how we got here wouldn't go astray either.”
I pointed out the open window. “I recognise that skyline. Don't you?”
She rotated perfectly on her hoop skirt and stared out at the sunset, her hands on her hips. After a moment, she sighed deeply. “I suppose it would have to be, wouldn't it?”
The voice came from the door to the room, now thrown wide open.
Servants entered: human and immaculately dressed, their heads encased in bright white knots of Sky Spider machinery. Following close behind them was a tall, slender person: androgynous and impossibly beautiful.
“Dr Peregrine Gleve,” the person said. “I'm sure there must be some disorientation, but please allow me to explain. I brought you here from the brink of death.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Unity City. Everybody speaks badly of it, but is it such a bad place? Then again, surely some things are too good to be true... Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!