He pulled his eyes from the controls and stared through the viewport. The distance to the ground gave him a queasy feeling, like peering down from a hayloft with thoughts of jumping.
The edge of the forest loomed only twenty meters away. Did they really expect him to pilot this machine through those dense trees and tangled roots...at night?
"At your pleasure, young master," Count Volger said, sounding bored already.
Alek set his jaw, resolving not to provide the man with any more amusement. He eased the saunters forward, and the huge Daimler engines changed pitch as steel gears bit, grinding into motion.
The Stormwalker rose from its crouch slowly, the ground slipping still farther away. Alek could see across the treetops now, all the way to shimmering Prague.
He pulled the left saunter back and pushed the right forward. The machine lumbered into motion with an inhumanly large step, pressing him back into the pilot's seat.
The right pedal rose a little as the walker's foot hit soft ground, nudging Alek's boot. He twisted at the saunters, transferring weight from one foot to the other. The cabin swayed like a tree house in a high wind, lurching back and forth with each giant step. A chorus of hissing came from the engines below, gauges dancing as the Stormwalker's pneumatic joints strained against the machine's weight.
"Good...excellent," Otto muttered from the commander's seat. "Watch your knee pressure, though."
Alek dared a glance down at the controls, but had no idea what Master Klopp was talking about. Knee pressure? How could anyone keep track of all those needles without driving the whole contraption into a tree?
"Better," the man said a few steps later. Alek nodded dumbly, overjoyed that he hadn't tipped them over yet.
Already the forest was looming up, filling the wide-open viewport with a dark tangle of shapes. The first glistening branches swept past, thwacking at the viewport, spattering Alek with cold showers of dew.
"Shouldn't we spark up the running lights?" he asked.
Klopp shook his head. "Remember, young master? We're pretending we don't want to be spotted."
"Revolting way to travel," Volger muttered, and Alek wondered again why the man was here. Was there to be a fencing lesson after this? What sort of warrior-Mozart was his father trying to make him into?
The shriek of grinding gears filled the cabin. The left pedal snapped up against Alek's foot, and the whole machine tipped ominously forward.
"You're caught, young master!" Otto said, hands ready to snatch the saunters away.
"I know!" Alek cried, twisting at the controls. He slammed the machine's right foot down midstride, its knee joint spitting air like a train whistle. The Stormwalker wavered drunkenly for a moment, threatening to fall. But long seconds later Alek felt the machine's weight settle into the moss and dirt. It was balanced with one foot stretching back, like a fencer posing after a lunge.
He pushed on both saunters, the left leg pulling at whatever had entangled it, the right straining forward. The Daimler engines groaned, and metal joints hissed. Finally a shudder passed through the cabin, along with the satisfying sound of roots tearing from the ground -- the Stormwalker rising up. It stood high for a moment, like a chicken on one leg, then stepped forward again.
Alek's shaking hands guided the walker through its next few strides.
"Well done, young master!" Otto cried. He clapped his hands once.
"Thank you, Klopp," Alek said in a dry voice, feeling sweat trickle down his face. His hands clenched the saunters tight, but the machine was walking smoothly again.
Gradually he forgot that he was at the controls, feeling the steps as if they were his own. The sway of the cabin settled into his body, the rhythms of gears and pneumatics not so different from his runabout's, only louder. Alek had even begun to see patterns in the flickering needles of the control panel -- a few leapt into the red with every footfall, easing back as the walker straightened. Knee pressure, indeed.
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