mrcreek: Rana palustris, the pickerel frog (Default)
[personal profile] mrcreek
As you may have guessed based on the set-up from the last chapter, this chapter is very action-packed. Don't read if you have a problem with pH-based violence.

(Previous chapters: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

(2289 words)

Chapter 9

The fissure in the flank of the volcano snaked up the mountain toward us. We could feel the bedrock shake beneath the Locust, smell the hot acidic steam in the air, and hear the roar of the mountainside falling away into the river of proton lava gushing forth. As Fred and Emmett skidded down toward us in the grounded hummingbird, a sweltering cloud of stinging vapor hit us from below and immediately began to thaw the snow around us. We coughed and gasped in the thick sour gas. Seconds later, the terrain beside us split open and began spitting orange-red proton fluid into the air. The snow in the air became raindrops that hissed when they struck the burning acid.

The rising feverish breath of Mt. Thylacoma reached the careening rotorcraft and pushed against it, slowing its decent. More importantly, it warmed the frozen and immobile zwitter chains that controlled it. The blades twitched as they thawed. They twitched again, then started to rotate in fits and starts. Between the ascending steam and the increasingly vigorous turning of the blades, the hummingbird was lifted off of the melting snow. Its momentum still carried it toward us, but now it was slowly floating upward while the ground dropped beneath it. We watched it sail over our heads, gently graze the highest curves of the Locust as it passed, and then disappear into the mist.

Lava was now oozing through the gaps in the Locust's legs and pooling around its feet. With most of the snow melted, I could see that upon our final landing we had wedged ourselves into a deep cleft in the rock that was now filling with acid. The Locust's legs buckled. It lilted to one side. Its motion reminded me first of my damaged moped, then of my own overplayed limping at Fred's urging, then of the whole ill-fated venture of the Vispiliase which was having its foundation give way beneath it. The crippled Locust was sinking slowly like a quicksand victim as its lower extremities were denatured and unraveled.

Wilhelm grappled desperately at the control chains, his face white with despair. In the warm air, the Locust's parts were mobile again and triph was firing at a rapid clip, but the legs had lost their structural integrity and would not budge. The body of the Locust could still tilt, however, and Wilhelm lifted the nose as high in the air as possible to distance us from the dangerous lava. Water stored inside the Locust's head spilled out and hissed when it hit the protons, adding to the steam around us. As high as we were, we were still sinking, and we would not be safe for long.

"Sackwhiskers!" swore Wilhelm. "She won't budge."

"Look what you've done!" screamed Henry, shaking the parts of Petrosky that were not covered by Gao or myself.

"Surely you can't blame me..." Petrosky protested.

"If you hadn't shown up in that flying contraption..." countered Henry.

"Flight!" gasped Wilhelm. "Can you build it?" he asked Petrosky hopefully.

"Can I build...?"

"A rotorcraft! Out of these zwitters in the Locust? Hurry, before she sinks, we can fly out of here!"

"Let me up!" commanded Petrosky.

Reluctantly, we loosened our grip.

"I can break off a chunk that could serve as a cabin," thought Wilhelm aloud. "You just need to reconstruct the rotating part, I don't understand how that works."

"Can you do it?" asked Gao.

"Please," sneered Petrosky. "What do you think? Montgomery designed that thing. I haven't the foggiest notion how to build it."

"Then why did you make us let you go?" I asked.

"I just didn't want to die underneath all of your fat smelly..." The end of his sentence was cut off as we fell on him again.

"Need a ride, comrades?" called Fred. We all looked up. Emmett had circled the hummingbird back around and they were hovering only a few yards over our heads.

For a few seconds, none of us moved. "Go, Wilhelm," commanded Gao.

"I'm manning the controls," he replied, even though there was virtually nothing he could do at this point. "Tell your wife to get up there."

"Henrietta," nodded Gao.

"I'm helping you hold down this slimeball," she said, "Send the Colonel up."

"So am I," I said, "Are you saying you're stronger than I am?" I suspected that she was indeed saying that and that she was correct.

"It doesn't require three of us," said Gao. "Go, Wilkins."

I didn't argue any more. I pulled myself off Petrosky and scrambled to the highest tip of the Locust's nose. The wind was still strong, and the acid updraft now contributed to the fierce and complex air currents swirling about me. In the gale, Fred's craft could not remain perfectly steady. It swayed back and forth, occasionally passing only a few feet above my head. I lifted up my arms but didn't trust my own ability to hitch a ride when the lowest zwitter loops of the craft flew within reach.

"Come on!" shouted Fred. "Didn't you happen to notice the erupting volcano?"

"Myself getting him," announced Emmett. Leaving the controls temporarily to Fred, he locked his legs into a fold in the side of the machine and swung upside down, hanging like a bat. When he blew by, he latched his arms around me and pulled my up into the relative safety of the hummingbird.

"Thanks," I said to Fred and Emmett. "You kicked Petrosky out," I added with an admiring tone.

"He tried to kick me out first," said Fred. "I wouldn't stand for that."

"Wilhelm," said Gao below us. "It's time."

With a touch of reluctance, the young man abandoned his magnificent creation to save himself. His eyes brightened somewhat when he realized he was about to experience the flying machine firsthand. With the fearlessness of youth, he jumped into the air and caught the hummingbird without needing any direct assistance.

"Nice machine you've built here," Wilhelm complimented Fred. "Do the two blades counterbalance each other? What if you added some wide wings and attached the blades there? Or else you could..."

"Henrietta," said Gao below, "I've got him."

All of our faces were strewn with tears from the protonic steam, but Henrietta seemed to be crying with genuine emotion. It struck me that she thought she might be leaving Gao for the last time. She kissed him, then released her hold on Petrosky and followed the path blazed by Wilhelm and myself.

Gao remained with Petrosky. Despite his assertion, however, Gao hadn't got him. Moments after Henrietta let go, Petrosky wriggled out from under Gao and threw him over the edge. Gao tumbled halfway down the remaining exposed part of the Locust before barely managing to grab one of the Locust's chains and regain his balance. His cowboy had fell from his head and went spiraling down into the abyss, flitting like a butterfly on the updrafts. Flares of orange acid danced frighteningly close to our imperiled leader.

"The rotorcraft can't hold all of us," shouted Petrosky. "I'm not going to be left behind." He climbed like a monkey after Henrietta and tackled her. "Send me to jail if you must!" he yelled up at the weaving rotorcraft. "But if you want her aboard, you have to bring me too!"

"Oh, he is such a pain sometimes," said Fred. Without hesitation, she jumped from the hummingbird onto the Locust several yards below. She slid a little down the titled body of the machine before catching herself, then she climbed back up to where Petrosky was wrestling with Henrietta. In her absence, Emmett continued to hold the rotorcraft as steadily as possible over the struggle below us.

The fissure in the mountain had zigzagged its way to the crater, which now roared like primordial thunder. Above us, the planetary orifice vomited a colossal fountain of caustic broth straight into the clouded heavens. Corrosive gobs rained down all around us, distorting the Locust's chains into grotesque contortions and leaving holes wherever they hit it, like streams of urine carving tunnels in snow. The hummingbird dodged the deadly precipitation but came quite close to receiving several direct hits.

William tuned out the chaos around him and focused on the rotational mechanism. "The question is, how would you build a bigger one that could still stay aloft?" he mused to himself.

Underneath us, Petrosky groaned as Henrietta elbowed him in the sternum. He brought his hands around her neck to strangle her. Then Fred was upon them. "You don't mess with the Vispiliase," she threatened, "the Vispiliase messes with you." She attacked him with what seemed to be a combination of the secret handshake, secret waltz, and secret whistle. Her tactic confused him enough that Henry was able to launch both a punch to his gut and a knee to his groin.

Realizing that Fred was both physically less dangerous and a more valuable hostage, Petrosky released Henry and pounced upon Fred. He lifted her into his arms and wound his torso sharply to his right, positioning himself as if to snap left and fling her like a discus off into oblivion. "I fly or you fly, Ezekiel!" he shouted at her.

"Not to my boss!" yelled Emmett. He looked at Wilhelm and indicated the control chains. "You can," he said, then jumped down onto the Locust as Fred had done. Wilhelm's eyes lit up, and my stomach did somersaults as he experimented with directing the craft in all directions.

Emmett landed on directly top of Petrosky and knocked him over. Henrietta took advantage of Petrosky's temporary confusion and pulled Fred from his hands. Petrosky and the guard locked arms and began to roll together down the steep incline of the Locust's body, bumping over the mounds and dips of its lumpy surface. Each had a firm lock on the other and was unable to control their trajectory. The two men gathered speed as they fought. Hitting a particularly prominent hump, they slipped off the Locust entirely and glided through the air with a poignant grace. Below them lay a sea of proton lava. Seconds later, they splashed into the infernal lake and their bodies dissolved like lumps of sugar in a mug of hot tea.

Throughout all of this, the Locust had continued to sink. Gao was now mere feet from the surface of the lava. A falling spray had burned his left arm badly and he clutched it uselessly against his chest. The side of the Locust where he clung was too steep and slick with condensed steam for him to climb higher one-handedly. He called to us anguish.

"I think I have this down," said Wilhelm. He pulled a chain and we dropped like a rock, nearly skimming the surface of the deadly lake. He pulled another chain that lifted us just in time. "Sackwhiskers! Okay, not that one," he muttered. "Maybe this." He folded a loop of chain and we swung around the Locusts' legs in a wide horizontal circle, passing close to Gao but not stopping for him. "I don't know how to make this bloodsucking mosquito hover," Wilhelm admitted. "We'll come around again."

Gao was now tucking his legs up to his chest to keep his feet from submerging in the lava that was inches away. He looked like a tightly compressed spring, which I realized he would now have to be to survive. As we approached him on our next pass, I called out to him. "You'll have to jump for it as we go by!" Wilhelm slowed the craft as much as he could. Gao kicked his feet hard against his perch and shot out diagonally over the acidic tide.

"Boing!" he shouted, as he caught us and wedged himself securely in one of the side clefts of the hummingbird. "Thank you, Wilhelm," he said. "Let's rescue the other two before it's too late."

I realized that I didn't know what was happening on top of the Locust. Were Henry and Fred trying to push each other off? I couldn't see them through the steam. We spiraled up to find them clutching each other. Henry, being larger, was in control.

"Just end it then, if you must!" shouted Fred. "If you want that on your hands!"

"Montgomery!" she spat back. "I've waited for the chance to eliminate you for so long. How can I not take it?"

"Montgomery as you know him is gone forever!" said Fred.

"How can I believe that?"

"You already do believe it. Otherwise you would have tossed me over by now. You haven't because you know you've already won."

Henrietta paused for a long moment. Then she held Fred by the shoulders and lifted her into the air. She looked up at Wilhelm and nodded him closer. "Let's go home," said Henry, as she hoisted Fred up into my arms and I pulled her onto her rotorcraft. A minute later, Henry had joined us on the hummingbird and we were flying out away from the erupting crater and its sultry acidic deluge, away from the unraveling remnants of the world's most powerful jumping machine, and away from liquefied remains of Fred's two former employees.

We looked down at the devastation of our nominal failure yet felt strangely victorious and united as a group. Gao clutched Henrietta lovingly as she nursed his wounded arm. They both smiled at Fred in silent gratitude for her heroism. She smiled back with a similar sentiment. I looked around at the marvelous circumstances in which I found myself and felt truly glad to be alive for the first time in years. Wilhelm, meanwhile, reveled in mechanical ecstasy as he maneuvered the globular hummingbird over the forest that lay in the shadow of the deific volcano.

"Astronomical," he muttered.
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