Moth Girl vs. The Bats, Part the Third
Here’s the third episode of my steampunk-tinged story inspired by the serial films of the Thirties and Forties, although this tale will only have four episodes. Yes, I know I said five last time, but things are always fluid in writing. As ever, thanks to @theagilmore and @ratporchrico for the spark. Fans of Thea’s music might like to amuse themselves by spotting song-titles and lyrics scattered occasionally through the text. If you are new to Moth Girl, click these links for the first two episodes.
In the finale of our last thrilling episode, Moth Girl entered the gaping maw of the gigantic metal bat, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. Now read on…
Episode 3 – Regardless
After the reflective brilliance of the outside, now she could see nothing. Her goggles steamed up in the warmth of the interior, and Thea pushed them up out of the way.
She could still not clearly see. Her pupils needed time to adjust, but did she have time? For all she knew she could be flying towards danger, capture, or both. Perhaps she should end her flight, but then could she be certain that there was actually a floor underneath her? Yes, she had flown into the mouth of the bat, but there was no guarantee that there was an internal base to the thing, or that if there was a base that it wasn’t covered with, say, deadly spikes.
Finally her eyes began to clear. She began to make out a moving spiral shape in front of her. Wait! The spiral was the movement of bats as they circled in to pass through a tiny hole just a few yards ahead. She was about to crash into the wall.
She frantically palmed the Big Red Button and fell, knocking several bats out of the way. They chittered and righted themselves, swerving back up to enter their hole in the wall.
Pain shattered through her shoulder as it hit the ground first, and she rolled onto her front. She tried to push to her feet, but her sense of balance seemed all wrong and she fell over once more. The heavy cloak wasn’t helping, and she struggled to unfasten the strap that held it about her shoulders. She would need the cloak to return home, certainly, but that did not mean she could not take it off for the time being, at least until she found her feet.
Suddenly she realised that her sense of balance was not the problem. The floor itself was actually moving. It trundled past the walls at no more than a walking pace, but it was enough to throw her off her feet when unaware. She pushed herself to her knees, leaning against the movement of the floor. The cloak of wings flumped to the ground as she managed finally to unbuckle the clasp, and she immediately felt lighter and more capable. A quick rotation of her shoulder assured her that she had suffered nothing more than bruising.
She took a moment to take stock. She was kneeling on a sort of moving belt, made of a hard rubbery material, and stained with… well; she did not want to examine the stains too closely. The belt passed close between riveted walls of metal. Copper, judging by the warmth of colour. Expensive. Whoever had built this flying machine was rich. Very rich. As she watched, a plate passed by that declared, mysteriously, ‘29’.
Some ten feet above her head ran thick cables and pipes. The walls that she was passing between reached almost that high, but not quite. If she could reach the gap up there she might be able to climb out.
She looked behind to where she had fallen and realised that she must have been very lucky not to hit the piping above. Or had it been luck? She was now trapped in a channel with a moving floor.
She struggled to her feet and stretched her arms high. Her fingertips were at least two feet short of the lip of the copper barrier. It was unlikely that she would be able to jump high enough to reach, given the limited space she had to work with.
She tried it anyway, running along the channel against the movement of the belt and then leaping high and sideways. She clanged against the copper, but her fingers were tantalisingly short of the top.
She turned to try again, and saw just ahead the mouth of a wide pipe that opened above the channel. Before she could begin to consider whether this might be of any assistance the pipe emitted a gurgle, and a stream of filthy liquid shot out of the end. Thea was showered with a noisome mixture of detritus; brown slurry in which were mixed potato peelings, filthy oil, rags and bones, dead fish, old grounds of coffee and roses that had died a long time ago. Also some rather more disgusting things that Thea preferred not to think about. The stench was overwhelmingly disgusting, and she was so busy gagging that she almost missed the barred opening in the right-hand wall.
Almost. It was perhaps a foot square, with two diagonal bars running across it. She walked along the moving belt to maintain her position by the opening while she peered through. Under a light the colour of rust, colossal glistening pistons pumped, massive cogs turned against each other, and centrifugal governors whirled madly. Titanic forces were at work here. Machinery this large must generate enormous power. Such magnificent power, controlled and directed, surely could only be that which drove this airborne behemoth and kept it aloft. This must be the engine room.
Perhaps this small aperture might provide her with hand and foothold enough to climb out. Thea paused, allowing herself to move several feet from the opening, then ran back and leapt. She managed to insert her boot into the small opening, and with that brief support thrust upwards once more, getting a good handhold at the top of the partition.
Yes, she could get over this way. She began to haul herself up, then suddenly remembered her cloak. Damn. She’d better not lose that, if she hoped to see home again.
She dropped back down to the conveyer belt and ran along in the direction it was moving. It had carried her cloak some way while she had been trying to get over the wall. She was but a few feet from it when it dropped out of sight. It took her a second to realise that the belt ended here, doubling back underneath itself and dropping whatever it carried through a hole in the floor.
There was no way of telling how deep that hole might be, and she furiously back pedalled to avoid falling through herself. Her boots slithered on the slimy detritus that covered the belt and she tumbled onto her back. Frantically she rolled to her front and pushed with her feet. In utter frustration she felt her boots slide in the mess, and then she was kicking air as her legs reached the end of the belt.
She scrabbled with her hands as her waist reached the edge, her fingers unable to gain any traction. She felt her body weight begin to pull at her too as her backside swung down and with the final desperation of those drowning, clutched wildly for anything. With a frantic squeal she felt metal with her left hand and grabbed at it just as her body fell from the moving belt.
She swung from the left edge of the opening by one arm, the belt in front of her face continuing to throw rubbish below her. Luckily she had managed a good firm grip with her left hand, and she looked down, hoping to see a foothold or maybe even a ladder that she could use.
What she saw was the earth, thousands of feet below, bathed in the radiance of a morning sun. Her cloak, her one hope of returning home, was now a mere dot in the distance as it fell away to the distant earth. Still, that was the least of her worries. She searched wildly for anything that might help her to avoid following it.
In front of her face, and just above, the conveyer continued to dump rubbish into the atmosphere. There was no chance that she would be able to get a good grip there. An old teabag bounced off her chest as she looked to her right. The far side of the opening was not close enough to reach with her right hand. If she tried to swing over to it, there was a grave risk of her left hand losing its grip.
She dangled helplessly over the vertiginous void, her forearm beginning to ache now. Thank goodness for her gauntlets, which prevented the sharp metal cutting into her fingers. Without those she would already be plummeting through the clouds.
She looked up. There! Far up near the top of the copper wall was a large metal lever, about a foot long and tipped with an ornately wrought knob. The lever protruded from the bottom of a vertical slot in the wall, and a metal plate beside it declared, in a curlicue script, ‘Maintenance’. A smaller sign, equally intricate, told Thea that the lever was currently in the ‘ON’ position.
She felt a glimmer of hope. She felt down to her belt with her free hand and unhooked her flintlock. It was a pepper-box with three barrels, so hitting the target first time was not vital, yet speed was important as her left arm was becoming weaker by the second. She took aim at the lever, adjusted for the weight of the barrels, and squeezed.
Close, but a miss, above and to the right of target. The pistol barrels rotated and she aimed once more, adjusting slightly left and down. This time the bullet hit the knob and the lever slowly lifted. Thank goodness for well-oiled machinery. The belt before her slowed and stopped. Now she stood a chance.
She was just re-attaching the flintlock to her belt when her left hand slipped. Just an inch, but enough to send a surge of alarm coursing through her. Now only her fingers held her from doom.
She drew her knife from its sheath and, hauling herself higher with the remaining strength in her left arm, plunged it horizontally into the hard rubber of the now stationary conveyer. It held, firmly. She paused for just a moment before hauling herself up and on to the conveyer, this time with the strength of both arms.
She needed a rest, but was worried that the lever above might fall back into the ‘ON’ position. Investigating down the side of the conveyer belt revealed several drive belts and wires. Taking her knife she slashed at whatever she could cut.. Finally satisfied that the conveyer would no longer move, she collapsed onto her back. She lay there for some time, breathing heavily, heart-pounding, and muscles tingling with the release of tension.
“Sinew into steel, Thea,” she told herself, and pushed upright. She walked back along the conveyer to the barred opening she had discovered earlier, and clambered up and over the copper wall with comparative ease.
Outside the copper walls that enclosed the conveyer belt, the noise from the mighty engine was much louder. Steam hissed, pistons shrieked, cogs squealed and governors rattled. Every minute or so there came an enormous resounding clang, as two vast yet unseen pieces of metal crashed against each other.
Thea threaded her way through the machinery, the red-ochre light glinting from the goggles atop her head. The engines produced a lot of heat, and she unfastened her helmet to take it off. Where the helmet had been her hair was plastered to her head by sweat, while the rest stuck out at wild angles where it had been flung about by her travails.
She dropped the helmet and goggles on the floor. Without the cloak she would not be flying back home and would no longer need them no matter what lay ahead.
She edged carefully around a large metal ball from which arcs of electricity reached into the darkness above. Then she stopped, puzzled by the thing in front of her. An enormous cylindrical flask, fully twenty feet high, stood in the middle of an open space. It reminded Thea of the ones, much smaller, that Ratporchrico used for his occasional experiments into alchemy.
This giant version was also made of glass, for she could see that it was half-filled with a liquid that looked deep-red, almost black, in the orange light that suffused the vast engine room. Three-quarters of the way up the flask a black line had been etched around the circumference, and labelled with carefully-crafted gothic lettering. It said ‘ENOUGH’.
There was some sort of movement above the flask; a dark cloud that coiled and writhed. It gave an occasional flash of yellow light. Thea reached inside her waistcoat and withdrew a small spyglass that Ratporchrico had fashioned from cogs, pipes and old goggles. Holding it to her eye she was able to make out what the movement was.
Bats. Hundreds of metallic bats, whirling and spinning, their wings occasionally reflecting a flash of light. They emerged from a dark hole in the roof, and as each individual bat passed over the flask it deposited a small amount of matter before disappearing back up through the opening. As Thea watched, the stream of new bats slowed and eventually the remaining bats disappeared, their job done for now.
Were these the bats that had returned with her? And if so, what—
Oh God. It was blood. Blood and slivers of flesh and slices of bone that they had stripped from the creatures that they had killed in the town below. This horrific thought was mercifully interrupted by a deafening voice that reverberated through the engine room, louder even that the racket of the machinery.
“Well hello, my little train wreck,” the voice boomed, “Welcome aboard the ‘Pipistrelle’, uninvited though you were. I regret that you felt the need to damage my property. Shame on you. However, you have managed to impress me. Twice, in fact.”
“Wait!” Thea shrieked, irked that she’d been spotted. “Who are you? Why are you doing these things?”
“Your first impressive move was actually getting aboard,” continued the voice, ignoring her questions. “Ingenious. You further impressed me by managing to evade plummeting to your doom from the waste disposal. Although now, annoyingly, I have to repair said waste disposal.”
“Why are you collecting… is it blood? What kind of evil bastard does such a thing? And what does ‘Enough’ mean?”
“I am certain that you have many questions to ask me, and let me assure you that I will be answering none of them. My autominions will be along shortly to repair the damage that you have done, and also, incidentally, to escort you back to the waste disposal hatch and throw you the hell off my vessel.”
What will happen now? Will our intrepid Moth Girl succumb to the mysterious ‘autominions’? Who is behind the booming voice? And why is he collecting gore? Find out next time in this very blog in the final episode of Moth Girl, “Something to Sing About”.