Previously: “Five years ago, the Sky Spiders descended from space and wrought untold destruction and change on our world. Now Una and I had discovered that the leader of the largest remaining group of survivors was EON-1 - a thinking machine once sent to steal the Sky Spider's secrets.”
Part 42: The Clockwork Gamekeeper
Una set her glass of wine down on the coffee table, and Kirkham set his mask down beside it. He watched us with his single eye of circular glass. “I'm surprised,” Kirkham said. “How long have you known?”
“I was only certain when you took off your mask,” Una said, “but I've suspected for some time.”
I looked from her to Kirkham. “Well this is all rather surprising to me.”
“And what do you both intend to do with this newfound knowledge?” Kirkham asked. “Bearing in mind that your answer is closely tied to your likelihood of living to see the sunset.”
Figures entered the room, moving quietly. I recognised the man who'd tried to kill me the last time I was in the city.
Una reached out a gloved hand to take the wine glass. “That's not very promising, EON-1. Because our answer is also closely tied to the reasons behind your deception. Are you just a petty tyrant taking advantage?”
Kirkham laughed. A strange expression coming from someone whose head was a featureless cylinder. “A tyrant, perhaps, but not petty. I'm concerned for the future of humanity. It's why I was created, after all. It's my most basic instinct. To preserve your culture. And your lives.”
Una sipped her wine. “How noble. And yet I wonder what Professor Layling or the Iron Queen would say to that last part.”
“We don't have the luxury of being less than ruthless, Viscountess. There are now less than one million natural humans in this city. From an estimated world population of one and a half billion five years ago. If some humans must die so that even more may live, I don't think we can rightly pick the worse ratio just because it happens to feel better.”
“Like a gamekeeper culling the herd?” Una suggested. “It's striking how similar you are to the Sky Spiders.”
“Perhaps. We're both interested in the future of human civilisation. But I hope to preserve it intact, while they seek to change it irrevocably.”
Una looked down at her hoop skirt. “It would change anyway. Everything always changes.”
“Yes,” Kirkham said, “for example alive people often change into dead people. I've done much to rectify that over the past five years.”
“Really?” I interjected. “You mean defending Fortress City with Prometheus.”
“Yes. Thank you doctor. Precisely.”
“And yet I'm still not certain,” I said, “exactly who you're defending it from.”
Kirkham's eye twisted and refocused. “From the Sky Spiders.”
“Who have no interest whatsoever in attacking us. Who never have. Who have killed us in our droves, but only ever incidentally. Why do the inhabitants of Unity City come to be killed by Prometheus? Why do the Sky Spiders send them and not their more advanced machines? If they wanted to, they could level this whole city in the blink of an eye. If they cared about it at all.”
“This is fascinating, doctor,” Kirkham said. “Do go on. I rarely get a chance to indulge such fantastic thoughts.”
“There are people who do care, though. The new humans in Unity City. All this time we thought that Prometheus was a guard, to keep the Sky Spiders out. But in actuality, it's a jailer, to keep us inside, and to take part in this little charade of defence you've organised with Unity City.”
Kirkham laughed again. “This is too much. Now I'm colluding with the Sky Spiders?”
“Not the Sky Spiders, but the new race of humans they've created. And not colluding, but threatening. They're beholden to you, for the simple reason that you have this entire city held hostage and they actually give a damn about our lives. Maybe the Sky Spiders would have the power to step round you, to disable Prometheus. But they don't care. And the people who do only have a fraction of their power.”
Una looked at me and raised an eyebrow. Kirkham said nothing for a while, and then stood up with a sigh. “EON-2 is still out there. An unknown quantity. That's all I really care about right now. Is it a traitor like the Seer? A well-meaning madwoman like the Iron Queen? Or a comrade in arms like my dear departed EON-4? The worst thing is that as long as it's out there, it's a potential danger not just to Fortress City, but to other settlements that have to exist outside my protection. And since neither of you seem likely to be much help in this regard, I'm afraid that your participation in my society has reached its end.”
He strode towards the door, waving a curt gesture to the figures waiting in the wings.
Una carefully set down her wine glass. “Get behind me,” she said.
I went for my gun.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Surviving John Kirkham is no small task - his own automata may be deadly enough, but that's nothing compared to the destructive power of Prometheus - and is fighting him even the right thing to do? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!