The Imperialist juggernauts were side by side, facing in through the headlands of Botany Bay. The Romanov was the larger of the two, almost as large as Liberator. Col understood now why the Filthies had asked ‘What’s it pulling?’ The Russian juggernaut was in three articulated parts, a main segment towing two smaller segments. The segments were painted khaki and appeared to be all slab-sided hull. There was no superstructure except for the bristling masts and birds’ nests on the main segment. The two towed segments were solid blocks, flat-topped and featureless.
ttttThe second juggernaut was lower and smaller, but more sinister. It had a single domed shell of armour like a crab, painted a dull black colour that swallowed the light. Having no obvious front or back, it looked as though it might move off in any direction. Camouflage nets swathed its sides; higher up, its metal surface was dotted with blisters; higher again, four bulbous funnels stuck up in the shape of onions. Col read its name from white lettering on the black shell: GROSSE WIEN. It was the Austrian juggernaut.
Col also understood why the Filthies had cried ‘Not like our rollers’. The Romanov had caterpillar tracks under its segments of hull, a great many sets of them. The Grosse Wien had a smaller number of gigantic rubberised wheels that protruded beyond the edges of its shell.
ttttEven as Col watched, the wheels started to turn, the caterpillar tracks started to roll forward. 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.
ttttThe Imperialist juggernauts came after it. They split up as they advanced, obviously aiming to cut Liberator off on either side. The Grosse Wien blew a blast on its horn, an unearthly, wavering sound that went tunelessly up and down the scale. It made the hairs prickle on the back of Col’s neck.
ttttHe remembered how his grandfather had described the speed of their own juggernaut as ‘faster than a galloping horse’. But the Imperialist juggernauts seemed to be moving at least as fast, especially the Grosse Wien. Churning across the bay on their wheels and tracks, they threw up a great spray of liquid mud. Soon they were both more brown than khaki or black.
ttttThe Grosse Wien had already taken a lead 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 conclusion, because in the next moment Liberator altered course to the left.
ttttSuddenly, there was a loud crump! and a brightness in the air.
ttttLooking down, Col saw that their prow had ploughed over the 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 indifferently through the flames.
ttttVeering to the left had brought them closer to the Romanov—and now 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: a megaphone voice speaking in Russian.
ttttThe words made no sense to Col, but the tone of menace was clear in any language.
ttttLittle by little, the Romanov edged forward alongside. Its prow came up level with Liberator’s stern—then up to the back of Liberator’s superstructure—then level with the last of Liberator’s six funnels. In spite of every effort, they couldn’t pull clear.
ttttNeither juggernaut swerved aside from the coal-loaders that lay in their way, Girders buckled and burst apart as they smashed into the huge spidery structures. 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.
ttttThe impact slowed the Romanov more, perhaps because the mangled metal snagged on its caterpillar tracks.
ttttBeyond 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.
tttt‘Sdavaisya! Sdavaisya! Sdavaisya!’
ttttThe gold flag of the Imperial Russian family 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.
ttttWhat was their plan? They seemed in no hurry to use the special weapons of which Septimus had talked. Rather, they were trying to box Liberator in and force it to a standstill. And they had almost succeeded.
ttttOnly one way of escape remained—and Liberator took it.
ttttWith a sudden lurch, the great juggernaut slewed again to the right. Col clung to the barrier as the scenery swung around him. The Romanov was slower to change direction, moving further away.
ttttNow Liberator approached 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.
tttt‘Straighten course!’ Col yelled a warning, though there was no one to hear. ‘Straighten course!’
ttttBut 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.
ttttHe felt the tilt under his feet. As Liberator reared up at the front, so it also canted over to the left.
ttttFor 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.
ttttStill the tilt increased. The platform dropped down on Col’s side and up on the other. ttttHe felt as if he was about to be tossed out over the barrier.
ttttThe ground was far far below. No spreading tiers or grey metal decks; as the juggernaut listed further away from the vertical, he looked straight down at the dense green vegetation of the coastal fringe. He was hanging over a sheer dizzying drop of a thousand feet.
ttttHe 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.
tttttttStill Liberator struggled to heave itself up over the hills. The turbines laboured on with a thunderous roar … and there were other more ominous noises too. A thrumming whistle—could that be the sound of the rollers becoming airborne on the uphill side, spinning round and round without friction? And that low, grating vibration—surely the rollers on the downhill side skidding and digging deeper and deeper into the ground. So far as Col could tell, Liberator had lost all forward momentum.
ttttThen 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.
ttttCol had the sense that he was going over backwards. He closed his eyes—or they closed themselves. 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. At least it would be quick.
ttttBut it didn’t happen. Liberator was moving forward again. He felt the change of angle as its prow came over the top of the hills and started to level out. With another mighty creaking of metal, its weight shifted and it tilted gradually back towards the vertical.
ttttCol had slid unawares from a squatting position to a sitting position. He opened his eyes and gazed up at the bands of cloud passing across overhead.
ttttIn his mind he was still off balance … but finally the truth sank in. The juggernaut had returned to an even keel and was even picking up speed. They had made it!
ttttHe hauled himself to his feet and looked out over the barrier. The tops of the hills were relatively flat, a high plateau covered with patches of forest. The small gullies and gorges were no obstacle at all to Liberator.
ttttCol was more worried about what lay behind than what lay ahead. He looked back and, yes, there was the Romanov. Only the tips of its masts were visible above the hills, still crackling with flashes of electricity, brighter than ever against the darkening sky. It hadn’t yet climbed the slope.
ttttDid it intend to? Col watched for a few minutes and decided that the Romanov had come to a dead stop. The Russians dared not risk their juggernaut on so steep a gradient!
ttttIf only the Austrians had given up too … He rushed across to the other side of the platform.
ttttNo such luck. The Grosse Wien had already climbed up onto the plateau. It followed them a few juggernaut-lengths to the rear, a few juggernaut-breadths to the right. Col groaned. Something told him that the sinister dome-shaped shell wouldn’t be so easy to shake off.