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Extract from LIBERATOR (2)



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Extract 1




(The juggernaut that used to be Worldshaker, now called Liberator, has stopped to re-stock with coal at a coaling station. But two Imperialist juggernauts turn up suddenly: the Russain Romanov and the Austrian Grosse Wien. As Liberator tries to escape, Col goes up to watch events from the platform above the Bridge …)

On the Romanov, crackles of electricity flashed like lightning along the wires between the masts. Steam burst out from under the shell of the Grosse Wien. The two juggernauts had completed the changeover from sea propulsion to land propulsion. Now they were commencing their final advance upon Liberator.

Liberator continued to veer to the right, away from its enemies. It completed a lumbering half-turn, then straightened and surged forward.

The Imperialist juggernauts came after it. The Grosse Wien blew a blast on its horn, an unearthly, wavering sound that went up and down the scale without ever hitting a note. It made the hairs prickle on the back of Col’s neck.

He remembered how his grandfather had described the speed of their own juggernaut as ‘faster than a galloping horse’. But the Imperialist juggernauts were at least as fast, especially the Grosse Wien. Churning across the bay with its pools and channels, their wheels and tracks threw up a great spray of liquid mud. Soon they were both more brown than khaki or black.

The juggernauts diverged as they came, obviously aiming to cut Liberator off on either side. The Grosse Wien was already further ahead to the right.

Steer left, Col willed, wishing he could communicate with the Filthies on the Bridge.

Someone on the Bridge must have reached the same realisation, because in the next moment Liberator altered course to the left. There was a loud crump! and a sudden brightness in the air.

Looking down, Col saw that their prow had ploughed over the line of steel tanks where he’d waited with the attack force, nine days ago. The contents of the tanks had exploded, one setting off another all along the line. Liberator rolled on through the flames without a tremor.

Veering to the left had brought them closer to the Romanov—and the Russian juggernaut was starting to overhaul them. A new sound boomed out even above the thunder of engines, the crunch and grind of rollers. They were being addressed by a megaphone voice.

Ack Noy! Ack Noy! Ack Noy!’

The sound made no sense to Col: words spoken in Russian, presumably. But the tone of menace was clear in any language.

Little by little, the Romanov edged forward alongside. Its prow came up level with Liberator’s stern; then up to the back of Liberator’ssuperstructure; then level with the last of Liberator’s six funnels. In spite of every effort, they couldn’t pull clear.

Coal-loaders lay in the way, but neither juggernaut swerved aside. First Liberator, then the Romanov smashed into the huge spidery structures. Girders buckled and burst apart. Compared to the juggernauts, the loaders were frail as matchsticks. There was a scream of metal, a convulsion of upflung ribs and struts. Then the loaders went down and the juggernauts rode on over the wreckage.

The impact slowed the Romanov more, perhaps because the mangled metal snagged on its caterpillar tracks. But not for long. Beyond the loaders were pyramids of coal, and again both juggernauts rumbled on regardless.
They didn’t go over the top but simply bulldozed the pyramids aside. Liberator had the more difficult passage and a greater mass of coal to push through. By the time they emerged from the pyramids, the Romanov had made up for lost ground.

Ack Noy! Ack Noy! Ack Noy!’

Its gold flag flew out behind, electricity crackled between its masts. Now its prow was level with Liberator’s middle funnels—and it was gaining all the time. Col couldn’t see the Grosse Wien on the other side, but he was sure it wouldn’t have been left behind.

What was their plan? They seemed in no hurry to use any of the special weapons that Septimus had talked about. Rather, they were trying to box Liberator in and force it to a standstill. And they had almost succeeded.
Only one way of escape remained—and Liberator took it.

With a sudden lurch, the great juggernaut slewed again to the right. This time Col was ready for it. He clung to the barrier as the scenery swung around him. The Romanov was slow to change direction, moving further away.

Now Liberator was coming to the chain of hills at the back of Botany Bay. They rose like a green sloping wave, as high as the Bridge of the juggernaut itself. No gaps, no breaks, no valleys. The juggernaut couldn’t bulldoze through so much solid rock; it would have to go up and over.

‘Straighten course!’ Col yelled a warning, though there was no one to hear. ‘Straighten course!’

But the hills were too close and the juggernaut travelling too fast. They needed to go up the slope head on, but they were approaching at an angle. Liberator was still in the middle of its turn when the prow began to lift.
He felt the tilt under his feet, followed by the far more dangerous tilt to the side. As Liberator reared up at the front, it also canted over to the left.

For Col, it was as though the whole world was coming unhinged. He had lived all his life on the juggernaut; it was his base and foundation, his measure of stability. It couldn’t lose balance and capsize. It just couldn’t.
Still the tilt increased. Liberator was struggling up the slope. The platform went down on Col’s side and up on the other. He felt as if he was about to be tossed out, right over the barrier.

The ground was far far below. No spreading tiers or grey metal decks; as the juggernaut listed further and further away from the vertical, he looked straight down at the greens, browns and blacks of the coastal fringe. Individual details swam in a blur before his eyes. He was hanging over a sheer dizzying drop of fifteen hundred feet.

He turned away, squatted on his heels, leaned with his back against the barrier—and immediately wished he hadn’t. The other side of the platform towered over his head. He gazed up at the sky and the clouds seemed to be falling on top of him. When he looked away, his eyes met the impossible sight of the juggernaut’s funnels angled at forty-five degrees.

Still Liberator struggled to heave itself up over the hills. The turbines laboured with a thunderous roar—and there were new notes too. Was that low grating vibration the sound of rollers on the downward side skidding and digging deeper and deeper into the ground? And that whistle … surely the rollers on the other side had become airborne, spinning without friction? So far as Col could tell, Liberator had lost all forward momentum.

Then came the very worst sound: a terrible creaking throughout the juggernaut’s vast body. Every metal beam and wall and joint straining under unnatural stress … Liberator hung suspended at the tipping point.

Col had the sense that he was going over backwards. Any minute now, the slow inevitable fall would begin and the whole weight of the juggernaut would come down like a mountain on top of him. He closed his eyes—or they closed themselves. At least it would be quick.

But he was wrong about the juggernaut’s forward momentum. Liberator remained at the same angle, but its prow had already reached the top of the hills. As it continued up and over, there was more creaking of metal as its weight shifted again. Then it began to level out.

Col opened his eyes. In his mind he was still toppling, and at first he couldn’t believe they’d stopped short of the tipping point. But finally it sank in. Liberator had come back on an even keel and was picking up speed again. They had made it!






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