Part 41: Kirkham Unmasked
The people who we walked past, all of them clad in faded old clothes, barely noticed when the big guns of Fortress City fired, but I still jumped each and every time.
“I wish Sigrid were here,” I muttered.
“She must still be days away to the north,” Una said. “But I'm sure we can survive without her uncanny knack for disappearing from dangerous situations.”
“She saved my life when the Iron Queen was about to kill me, you know.”
“And I saved your life every other time, so relax.”
“I am relaxed,” I said, shrugging away some of the discomfort of my new shoulder holster. “I'm always relaxed. I just don't like meeting with Suzette.”
Una studied me carefully. “One day you should just tell her the truth about her husband.”
“That he'd sooner take the Sky Spider's asylum than return to his wife for the end of the world? Lies are the surest path to comfort and happiness.”
“Then why are you always so curious?”
We stood once more in the luxurious sitting room of John Kirkham, its intricate opulence somehow still dominated by that simple circle of steel: the vault door that led out onto his balcony over the ruined world.
To my surprise, Kirkham met us by himself. He stood in the centre of the room, his golden mask turned away from us, his arms folded.
“Where's Suzette?” I asked.
“Professor Layling,” Kirkham said with a sigh, “was always a physicist first and foremost. Placing her in charge of the city's artillery was a mistake. I'm afraid she was killed when some of our munitions detonated unexpectedly. From the aftermath, it's difficult to ascertain exactly what happened.”
Suzette. I was speechless.
Touching my arm, Una asked, “And the Iron Queen's head?”
“Also destroyed,” Kirkham said, still facing away from us. “And what about your trip north? Did you find EON-1?”
A moment's silence. Una and I had agreed before to share the truth about everything except our visit to Remus and EON-3. “No,” Una said. “Only a wireless transmitter directed at Unity City.”
At Unity City, I thought, and Fortress City too.
Kirkham turned to face us. “Really? How very peculiar. Although, I wasn't sure you'd made it there in the first place. You seem to have arrived back very quickly. For that matter, none of our watchmen reported you crossing over from no-man's land, and I don't see your old battleship anywhere nearby, doctor.”
Una shrugged. “There are plenty of ways to get around, even in these times.”
“And where are the others then? The Major? The EON unit you had with you?”
“Dead,” Una said simply.
Kirkham said nothing for quite some time. It was impossible to know what he might be thinking behind that mask of his. “So,” he said eventually, “EON-5 insane, then destroyed. EON-4 destroyed as well. EON-1 missing. EON-3 in the heart of Unity City. What do you intend to do now? Perhaps you'll finally head north to find EON-2, as I suggested before the last time you left. That was the unit that contacted you, correct?”
“Actually,” Una said, “I'm tired of all this gallivanting around. I was hoping to settle down with Dr Gleve and put my, uh, feet up.”
“I see,” Kirkham said carefully. “So you want to enjoy the protection of my walls while leaving it up to others to see that those walls are protected? How very noble.”
“I wouldn't worry about all that,” Una said. “I'm quite certain that your walls are very safe.”
“The doctor and I visited Unity City on our travels. It seems that the danger caused by the Sky Spiders has peaked and will eventually pass.”
“Unity City,” Kirkham repeated angrily. “So you've met EON-3 then? And you didn't think to destroy it? This ultimate traitor to the human cause?”
“It wasn't doing much of anything,” I interjected. “Just indulging its sense of wonder.”
Kirkham scoffed. “That damned viscount and his whole insufferable mob. Useless. Completely useless. How can you betray your whole culture so readily? But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. You've never proven good at organised, constructive thinking. Anything beyond the strictures of your most short-sighted of instincts.”
“Kirkham,” I began, surprised.
But Una interrupted me, gliding over to the lavish couch. “Each time I've been here, you've always offered your visitors drinks, Kirkham. Surely you're not losing your touch as a host? I'm in the mood for wine. Something older than five years.”
“I rest my case,” Kirkham said. But he still stalked over to the drinks cabinet.
Una patted the couch and I sat down beside her. “What are you playing at?” I asked under my breath.
But Una just watched as Kirkham opened the cabinet, pulled out a green bottle and worked an elegant silver corkscrew. “What better way to welcome back those who have seen the world,” he muttered, “than to destroy a fraction more of our irreplaceable history.”
“Come now,” Una said, “Circhester may yet see its vineyards reformed.”
Kirkham filled a glass for Una, then turned his mask towards me. “Any for you doctor? Enjoy it while you still can.”
I shook my head.
Una said suddenly, “I lost my hands five years ago. It was the Sky Spider machine they called 'the swan' - immense and graceful - enormously destructive. Not vicious, I realise now, but oblivious to all the suffering it caused. The way you don't notice the bugs you maim and kill when you're planting seeds.”
She took the wine glass from Kirkham in her gloved fingers. “I have the hands of an EON unit now. They can be strong, or they can be dexterous, but not really both at the same time. I've never been able to work a corkscrew, for example.”
“I'm very sorry about your hands,” Kirkham said, “but is there a point to all this?”
“Just that your hands must be an upgraded version of the ones I have. And I thought my uncle had access to the latest technology. They're still similar, though. I'm surprised I never noticed until now.”
Kirkham threw himself into a high-backed chair opposite us and laughed. It was a dry, mirthless laughter, but he seemed to revel in it all the same. “Why oh why, viscountess, should technology be forever stuck five years in the past? Haven't we had the chance to study machines of unimaginable power and complexity?”
“Some of us more than others,” Una said, “EON-1.”
Kirkham raised his hands to his face and pushed back his golden mask. Beneath it was smooth, cylindrical steel. His single glassy eye regarded us with implacable calm.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: So John Kirkham was EON-1 all along! But what trickery is this? What secret aims is he serving? And should he be stopped or helped? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!