Moth Girl vs. The Bats, Part the Fourth
Here’s the fourth and final episode of my steampunky tale story inspired by that Thea Gilmore and her wonderful songs. I hope it has recalled for you a flavour of those serial films of the Thirties and Forties such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. As ever, thanks to @theagilmore and @ratporchrico for the initial spark. Fans of Thea’s music might like to amuse themselves by spotting song-titles and lyrics scattered through the text. If you are new to Moth Girl, click these links for the first three episodes.
At the end of our last heart-thumping episode, Moth Girl had discovered that the evil mastermind behind the metallic bat attacks has been collecting the blood of his victims. But why?
Now read on…
Episode 4 – Something to Sing About
Thea moved quickly, ducking into a dark corner close by the sparking sphere. Her nemesis obviously had some way to see her; that much was plain. She lifted the spyglass once more and searched the vaulted roof.
The thick arched girders were spattered with all manner of bizarre devices, any of which could be a viewing machine. It was a waste of her time even to look.
As she put away the spyglass there came a loud bang from her right that was quite separate from the cacophonous rhythm of the engine. A door had opened, but a spout of steam from nearby obscured her vision for a moment.
“Can I help you?” scraped a tinny, scratchy voice. It sounded as if it came from one of those new-fangled wax cylinders.
Thea immediately dropped into a squat so that she could see below the hot cloud of steam. What she glimpsed appeared to be a grotesque amalgam of man, machine and arachnid. The uppermost part of the creature was more or less humanoid, though made of a metal that shone ochre in the strange light. The head moved from side to side, the arms were outstretched as if in welcome. On the metal chest was some sort of identification plate. It read ‘29’.
The lower half the creature was not at all human. The torso of the creature squatted on a circular disc of iron, from which depended eight thin articulated legs upon which the creature scuttled further into the room, its pointed feet tip-tapping on the metal deck.
“Can I help you?” it repeated, its jointed jaw falling and rising in a rough approximation of a human mouth. Thea stood and readied her flintlock. It turned towards her.
“Can I help you?” once more, as it raised a hand as if to beckon her forward. A curve of electrical energy streaked out of its fingers like a bolt of lightning. The air crackled and the energy singed the end of Thea’s hair as it barely missed her head. The smell of burning hair mingled with the ozone tang of the electrical discharge.
Thea wasted no time. She raised her pistol and fired directly at the thing’s head. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the metal skull.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. What did you think would happen? And why the hell didn’t you reload?
She dropped to her knees as another bolt of crackling death passed close to her hip.
“Can I help you?” mocked the automaton, lowering its hand, its weapon, to point directly at her. She threw herself into a forward roll, moving immediately into a squat by the machine and scything her right leg across those spidery supports. The automaton crashed sideways, its legs waving helplessly in the air. Before it could push itself upright, she was on it and jabbing her knife into whatever orifice she could see.
“… help …” the thing said, discharging electricity wildly from both hands in a vain attempt to throw off its attacker. Finally Thea jabbed the knife directly into the rectangular slot that passed for a mouth. There was a smell of burning and sparks shot out of the mouth hole as the autominion, as the voice had called it, became still and silent, save for the occasional sparking of a short circuit.
“Did you see that?” Thea yelled, still kneeling and looking up. “I’m coming for you, you freak, regardless of what you send at me! I’ll be your silver bullet! I’ll be your knotted rope! I will end this madness of yours, and I will end you!”
Silence. Of course, her enemy might have heard nothing of her melodramatic outburst, but at least it had served to boost her confidence, steadying her determination to overcome any obstacle in her path. She would prevail, no matter what dangers she met.. Regardless.
“Can I help you?”
She whipped around to see a second autominion scuttle through the door, closely followed by a third. “Can I help you?”
It was like a weird scratchy echo, both automatons creaking the same inane words as they turned towards her.
“Can I help you?” “… help you?”
She thrust upward hard, leaping high into the air and somersaulting over an arc of lightning that would have taken off her head. She came down behind the nearest autominion, and whipping around, she took hold of both its arms from behind.
She forced the limbs together and directed the twin streams of electricity directly at its companion. The other automaton exploded loudly, shards of metal fizzing through the hot air, so that she had to use the robot she was holding as a shield. She wasted no time in leaning around and thrusting her knife into this one’s mouth, and it died like the first.
She ran to the door through which the autominions had emerged and found a corridor beyond. Tight-lipped with resolve she marched purposefully along it, boots ringing out on the deck. An autominion emerged from an alcove on her right. She thrust her knife directly into its mouth without breaking her stride, hearing it fall and spark behind her.
At the far end of the corridor was a metal ladder bolted to the wall, leading upwards. She gripped the knife in her teeth and scaled it; hand over hand, foot over foot.
She emerged into a large room, brightly lit from one side by the sun streaming in through a huge picture window. With a jolt she realised that she was looking out of the flying bat’s eyes, which gave a magnificent view of the arc of the earth’s horizon far below, the ocean glittering beneath the bright sun like a sea of jewels. No wonder she had been spotted approaching. She had been stupid to imagine otherwise.
“Hello, you wondrous thing. How did you get past my autominions?”
Thea turned to her right, towards the smooth voice that came from the far end of the enormous span of glass now on her left. She glanced about the large circular room. This must be the bridge of the vessel. Instruments and dials covered the walls, while in the centre sat a plush chaise-longue, upholstered in what appeared to be red velvet. Beside it stood a metal pedestal into which were built lights, switches and levers.
The man who had spoken from across the room was tall, and wore a top hat that made him appear even taller. An embroidered frock-coat swept around his legs. The wry curve of his lips lifted his firm jaw pleasingly. His eyes flashed, or maybe that was just a reflection from the monocle, fashioned from the centre part of a large cogwheel, fixed in his left eye. He leaned nonchalantly on a silver-topped cane.
“Baron Stonier!” she exclaimed.
“You know me? How flattering.” He gave a small bow.
“But you were banished,” Thea pointed out.
“And those who are banished always do what they are told?” He felt at his shoulder with a white-gloved hand. “I was tortured too, let us not forget that. But aye, I was indeed banished from the land. Not, however, from the air.”
“I’m sorry; I have to ask—what on earth is going on with your hair?”
“What?” she asked, putting her hands to her head. “Oh. Helmet hair.” She ruffled her dishevelled mane so that it hung more evenly.
“Oh, that’s far better! You have deliciously lovely hair, my dear.”
“Thank y— no wait!” What was she doing, engaging in chit-chat? He was an evil mastermind, a villain, not some man that she was trying to impress over a strong Bloody Mary down at The Murphy’s Heart. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
“Flirting?” he grinned. God, his smile was lovely.
“Well stop it.” She shook her head to clear her mind of the thought that had just crept in, of what Stonier might look like naked. “I mean what are you doing with the bats and the killing and the huge flask full of gore?”
“Oh that,” he answered dismissively, “Measuring my revenge. Drink?” He crossed to the pedestal and pressed a button. A door opened in the back wall revealing bottles and glasses which shimmered in the bright rays of the sun.
“Oh, go on. Indulge yourself. After your exertions you must possess quite the thirst. If your plan is to attack me, then you would be fitter so to do without a dry throat. If, after our little chat, you decide otherwise, then you’ll have had a refreshing drink. Here, have a Berryade at least.” He held out a tall glass in which ice chinked and a green liquid fizzed. Thea removed her gauntlets and took it, noticing the man’s slender fingers and manicured nails.
“Now, please have a seat and rest those shapely legs,” he indicated the chaise-longue. Thea saw little reason to refuse at this juncture. The Baron was right. She needed a sit down and a drink no matter what might happen next. She sighed as relief spread through her tense calf muscles. The cool liquid coursed down her dry throat. It steadied her mind, too, and she realised what she had to do.
“A short time ago,” she said, “You were planning to fling me out of the waste disposal.”
“That was before I properly saw you,” said Stonier, pacing before the window. “It would have been a shameful waste. Now, however, I hope to persuade you to join me.”
“Piss right off. For all your handsome manners you are still an evil blackguard.”
“Oh, come on. Being an evil mastermind is fun! You’d enjoy it. You could say Mwahaha. And you’d be the cutest villain I’ve ever seen.”
“I understand that you were badly treated, I do! But you cannot revenge yourself on Lord Liejacker by slaughtering innocent people!”
“Of course I can. I am doing. And they are his people, tiny and insignificant.”
“No one is insignificant.”
“Oh, dear. You’re one of those. A moralist. You have misguided moral concerns.”
“Yes! I mean no, they are not misguided. The people you have slaughtered did nothing to you! You are so wrong. You are wrong, you are evil, and you have one hell of a high opinion of yourself. You have to stop this.”
“I see. You’re not persuaded at all, are you?” Stonier sighed. “In that case, I am sorry…” He stepped back to the wall and lifted a silver lever. A circular hatch in the roof irised open and bats tumbled out in scores, glinting in the yellow light that flooded the bridge. They arrowed at Thea.
She threw herself from the chaise-longue to avoid the vanguard as they sliced at her head, chittering. She caught a glimpse of Stonier, hands on hips, shaking his head at her and smiling. A bat cut painfully at her buttocks and she threw herself over onto her back, whirling her arms and legs as fast as she could, swatting away the bats that were trying to reach her. One got through and took away a chunk of cloth from her tunic. Another slashed the flesh of her thigh.
She could not last long, that was plain. Punching away a bat that took the skin from her knuckles she threw a despairing look at the mocking Baron Stonier, just as the huge window beside him exploded into the bridge, shattered by the enormous prow of a red and yellow dirigible that had ploughed into the face of the Pipistrelle, hidden by the sun.
Glass flew into the room, shards tumbling across the bridge, glittering among the wheeling bats. Thea was hit by several before she managed to cover her face.
Before Thea could properly grasp what was happening, a small figure leapt from a hatch in the front of the attacking vessel and leapt onto the bridge. Ratporchrico, for it was he, looked about quickly and grinned when he spied Thea. In his hands he gripped the end of a hose that ran through the shattered window back to the dirigible.
Baron Stonier, sprawled on the floor close by, mouthed a foul curse and pulled the silver handle of his cane, drawing out an evil looking blade. Before Thea could shout a warning, he had plunged the wicked blade deep into the old man’s body.
Ratporchrico grimaced and fell to his knees, but managed to turn a wheel attached to his hose. An emerald fluid spurted from the end and drenched Baron Stonier where he lay.
The bats attacking Thea suddenly swerved away and swarmed at Baron Stonier. She slowly lowered her slashed arms and legs and turned to watch as they tore at the man’s screaming figure.
“Moth Girl!” called Ratporchrico, labouring to turn off the flow of green liquid from the hose. Thea struggled to her knees and crawled over to him while the bats bit and sliced at the thrashing, heaving body of the Baron.
“I told you—”
“Shu—HUU!” Ratporchrico coughed, blood spraying from between his wrinkled lips. He clutched his pierced side. Crimson oozed from between his fingers. “Throw the… the switch.” He raised his hand in the direction of the silver lever.
Thea struggled to her feet and limped around the mass of bats clattering about the Baron, who had now fallen still. She pulled the silver lever back down.
The bats immediately left Stonier and returned to their hole in the roof, which spiralled to a close after the last one had left. What they left behind was an oozing mess of bone, flesh and ragged bits of cloth. A cog-monocle lay in the spreading pool of blood on the floor.
Thea returned to Ratporchico, who now lay on his back, gasping for breath. She knelt by him and took his hand.
“Take it easy, you old git. Let’s see what we can do about patching you up.”
“It was the green… liquid. Attracts the bats… you see. He had vats… vats of it hidden about the town. He had—”
“Ssssh, save your breath. I’ll fetch cayenne, and honey.”
“No use. I’m a bit too knackered for med… Brought one vat of the stuff… with me. Thought it might… help.”
Thea soothed a hand over his sweating forehead. “Shhhh, don’t speak,” she soothed.
“Bugger off,” coughed the old man, spilling more blood. “I saw… through the spyglass… he had you drinking it. The green stuff. Had to… act fast.”
“By crashing your ship into us? You mad fool.” Her eyes softened. “You saved me, old man. Thank you.” She kissed his forehead. His eyes were turning milky. Blood trickled down his chin.
“I think I broke the dirigible… when I… crashed it. Sorry.” He looked up at her. “I’m a bit poorly, aren’t I, love?”
She nodded. “Yes.” Tears rimmed her emerald eyes and ran down her face, stinging a score of small cuts.
“Ah well. It’s been… a good life. A long one. I love you, Moth Girl. I’m proud… of you.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Cheer up, girl. I may be dancing on the line, but there are still some things to sing about. We beat the bad guy. Sing for me, Moth Girl. Sing me on my way.”
Thea sniffed back her streaming tears and squeezed Ratporchrico’s hand as he closed his eyes. His breathing was shallow now. Hesitantly she began to sing, her voice wavering and weak.
Hope has roots like a willow tree
Arcing and searching for the water in me.
Oh I love you, I love you, and I watch you ascend
With joy and with loss, oh my friend goodbye.
My friend goodbye.
Ratporchrico gave a rattled gasp and his grip loosened. He fell limp. He was gone.
Thea hugged his body to hers and threw her head back in an anguished howl. Great racking sobs shook her body. Grief overwhelmed her. What was she to do now? She felt abandoned, lost, and thoroughly alone.
“Can I help you?”
An autominion scuttled towards her across the bridge, its thin legs scattering shards of broken glass. She began to reach for her knife. Somehow, though, her life did not seem important now. She left the knife where it was and awaited oblivion.
The autominion came close, the ‘29’ on its chestplate glittering in the radiance of the sun. It raised its hands… and gently began to bathe the cuts on her forehead with a moist cloth. She smelled antiseptic, and looked up at the creature, frowning. What had caused the change from deadly spiderbot to caring mechanurse? Whatever it was, she realised that was glad of it, and that this wasn’t the end. She released a huge sigh.
“Can I help you?” squawked the autominion.
“Can you help him?”
“I am sorry. I do not understand. Please rephrase your question.”
“Can you help this man here?”
The autominion laid a hand on Ratporchrico’s chest and Thea held her breath, hoping beyond hope.
“No. This man here is dead. Can I help you?”
“Help me to stand up.”
The autominion scurried behind Thea and lifted her to her feet. She limped over to the chaise-longue and sat down, letting its cushioned seat relieve her aching backside. She eyed the control pedestal curiously.
“My name is Stephen, Baron.”
“Oh. Stephen. Well then, Stephen, do not call me Baron. Call me Th…” she paued. “Call me Moth Girl.”
“Very well, Moth Girl. Can I help you?”
“Are you strong enough to push that dirigible out of the window?”
“Please define dirigible.”
“The great thing sticking its prow into this vessel. Can you move it, Stephen?”
“Yes, Moth Girl.”
As she watched Stephen heave the wrecked dirigible away from the flying bat, Thea mused on the possibilities ahead of her. With a little cosmetic structural work, a few sheets of metal, several thousand rivets, and a strong autominion, she was sure that the Pipistrelle could be altered sufficiently to look more like a moth than a bat.
Her way now clear, hair dancing in the wind that breezed through the shattered window, Moth Girl tilted the steering lever slightly to the left and followed the faint blue trail that led to home. She smiled.
A loudspeaker above her head crackled into life.
“NS13 calling NS29. Serotine to Pipistrelle. Do you read me? Hello Pipistrelle?”