“I thought you said the workshop was empty?” Dr. Hunter snapped while he raced alongside Lieutenant Mason to the door.
“It is! Or at least it was!” the first officer’s retort was sharp. “I checked the bloody room myself! The door does open into the room, but there isn’t anything he could use to brace the door! He should be alone in there!”
“No! Get back! Get them away!” Seaman Boyle screamed from within the room.
They skidded to a stop just as Seaman Miles Taylor, the younger of the two guards, gave the door a frustrated glare. He raked a hand through his tawny hair, then shoved his right arm through the opening. “Door’s stuck. I’ll knock off what’s keeping us out.” He assured the others.
At that moment, the door slammed closed, crushing his arm with the strength of a vice! The sailor screamed in agony, his face twisted into a mask of pain. The door squeezed his arm unmercifully, threatening to snap the bones!
“Taylor!” Lieutenant Mason exclaimed as he lunged for the errant door. Dr. Hunter and the other Britannia sailor joined him.
“It’s like needles!” Seaman Taylor exclaimed, his eyes wide with a wild panic. “So many needles, just stabbing at my arm! Bloody hell, make it stop! Make it bloody stop!” His words dissolved into mindless screams. Thrashing in agony, he clawed uselessly at the metal door that kept his arm pinned.
In the room beyond, Seaman Boyle’s own screams intensified. The sound cut the air with a knife’s sharpness.
Lieutenant Mason let go of the door and glanced around him. He snatched up a stout metal bar that leaned against the bulkhead to the left of the door. “Here! Push this through that crack between the door and the frame! We’ll pry it open!”
Dr. Hunter gave a sharp nod. “With all we’ve got! Now push!”
The doctor and the other guard, Seaman James McCabe, kicked the metal door once, then twice. On the third time, the door retreated a few inches. Lieutenant Mason jammed the metal crossbar into the gap between door and frame, then threw his body against it. The uninjured sailor and Dr. Hunter joined the first officer a moment later.
With the force of three men behind it, the bar made an agonizing and slow effort to force the door away from the frame. Shrieks of protest, like gears turned the wrong way, answered from the door. A great force pushed back, but lost ground with each second. Inch followed inch until Taylor, the injured Britannia sailor, fell backwards to the deck. He clutched his blood-soaked right arm and howled in pain, wide-eyed. In the workshop, the sounds of scraping metal were deafening. Seaman Boyle threw himself at the door. His Blood-slick fingers gripped the door’s edge and pulled, desperate to help his rescuers!
The first officer nodded to Dr. Hunter, “We’ve got this! See to Taylor!” Dr. Hunter needed no encouragement. He rushed to Taylor and carefully pulled him away from the workshop door.
“You’re safe now, quite safe. Now let me take a look.” The doctor’s voice was a smooth, measured calm. With no small effort, he firmly but carefully pulled the sailor’s right arm into view. The doctor gave a sharp start at what he saw.
Shredded as neatly as one carved a cooked bird, the sailor’s tattered uniform sleeve clung to the edge of the clothing near the man’s shoulder. Blood soaked the rest of the cloth that intertwined with skin in neat, staccato punctures along the man’s forearm and elbow. They were flawless rows as if made by a razor sharp needle hammering hundreds of times to complete a stitch. Worse yet, many of the bloody holes had swollen and turned an ugly shade of purple, as if contaminated.
Seaman Taylor clenched his eyes shut against the waves of pain that shook his body. He clawed at his uniform as if desperate to attack what hurt him. Without warning, his body curled tight in agony!
Dr. Hunter recovered his wits and glanced along the hallway. He spotted what he needed: a metal box marked ‘emergency supplies’ secured in a niche a few feet away on the wall. Dr. Hunter bolted over, jerked the box free of its straps, then raced back to his patient. The doctor ripped open the lid in search of the tools he needed.
“What is it? What’s happened to him?” Mason asked in shock.
“He’s gravely injured!” Hunter replied without looking up from his wounded patient. “I’ll see to your man here. You get Boyle free of that … thing!”
The lieutenant turned around, then braced one boot on the door frame near a hinge. With his back against the makeshift prybar, he nodded to Seaman McCabe.
The young man let out a rattled breath. Seaman Boyle’s screams of terror and his shipmate drenched in blood from a mad seamstress’ sewing had left him a deathly pallor. “Aye, ready,” he said.
“Good man. Fix your courage, we’ll get this done. Now, put your back into it! Shove!” The first officer shoved backwards, his legs bracing against the door frame itself.
The men pushed and shoved; in reply the bar bent. At last whatever held the door closed relented. At first the door gave only an inch, then two more, finally it flew open a few feet with a sharp, deafening metallic clatter! Brass needles and twisted metal spines no longer than a man’s forefinger sprinkled through the air.
Time held its breath for a count of three. Through the open door, Lieutenant Mason and Seaman McCabe looked into the writhing mouth of a nightmare.
Beyond the open door, dozens of metal spider bodies skittered along the walls, across the floor, and over each other. Mandibles curved with bright steel needles, each threaded with a thin, ominous twine that trailed, gossamer-like from their abdomens; a forgotten testimony to their innocent origins. Metal legs beat out a madman’s composition, underscored by Boyle’s hoarse and panic-strangled cries.
Inside the room, the terrified sailor was shackled by one his wrists to a chair that he used as a club to keep the clockwork spiders at bay. Countless mangled brass arachnid legs lay at his feet. Their small, crushed metal spider bodies lay in a wrecked pile. He trembled, but his eyes blazed despite the overwhelming terror painted across his pale, sweating face. His shirt was sliced, his trousers torn, but so far he had suffered no puncture wounds.
“Bugger me dead,” Seaman McCabe stammered in a hushed voice while he looked into the room.
“What?” Hunter snapped tersely. He did not dare take his eyes off his patient while he worked to stop the bleeding. Taylor spasmed again, this time striking the doctor across the mouth in mid-convulsion.
“Right now would be a poor time to elaborate, doctor.” Mason kicked one of the clockwork devices back into the room when it attempted to enter the hallway. “We have to keep all of … them … contained! Boyle! Run! This way!”
Boyle’s head snapped up at the sound of his name. With a manic strength born of terror, he raced out among the legion of metal spiders, lashing back and forth in front of him. Using his chair, he struck out at the source of his fear. A gradual, and temporary, path appeared to the open door. But for every batch of spiders he slapped away, twice that number swarmed in behind him.
McCabe kicked one of the clockwork spiders back into the workshop. It slapped the far wall with a sharp ping then fell to the floor in pieces, which vanished when four other brass spiders raced over them.
“Leftenant,” McCabe said, “he’s not gonna make it!”
“The deuce he isn’t!” the lieutenant snapped back. “Brace the door open! He’ll make it!”
Seaman McCabe slammed one end of the bar against the open door, the other against the door’s metal frame. But whatever force had tried to push the door closed before showed little interest now. McCabe kicked another of the brass spiders back into the workshop, then held the bar firmly in place.
In the workroom, Seaman Boyle continued to brandish the chair in front of him. Brass spiders flew in both directions, a few landed on their backs, others smashed against the wall. With each slow, stubborn second that clawed by, the sailor split a narrow lifeline between himself and the safety of the open doorway.
Lieutenant Mason stamped a boot heel on a brass spider as it ventured outside the workroom. Gears erupted from the thin brass body and skittered over the floor. He noticed a nearby clockwork spider snatch up a gear and race off deeper into the workroom. The image was both disturbing, yet enlightening. The lieutenant resolved to think on the former later when lives were not in immediate danger. He ducked under the bar, scooped up a handful of broken parts from the latest smashed clockwork and faced the nightmarish mob of brass machines.
“Here!” Lieutenant Mason shouted. “You want Boyle? Or these? Make your choice, eh?”
Dozens of glittering black mechanical lenses focused on the lieutenant. The dozens of brass spider bodies frantically crawling over each other in the workroom slowed to a snail’s pace. They turned their unhealthy attention to Mason.
“Choice? What the bloody hell are you doing?” Dr. Hunter demanded from out in the hallway, his hands covered in blood from the wounded man on the floor.
“If I’m fortunate, its something frightfully clever!” Lieutenant Mason replied. He pitched a handful of gears out over the packed workroom. Spiders launched themselves from the walls, ceiling and floor, desperate to grab at the gears that sailed overhead.
Suddenly, Taylor sputtered. A brackish ichor spilled over his lips and his eyes shot open wide. His body twisted in a violent contortion as if caught between a pair of vice grips that pulled in opposite directions. He had stopped breathing; something stoppered his throat.
“No! Blood and sand, no! You will not choke on this bile!” Dr. Hunter roared in fury. In one motion, he snatched up a knife, alcohol and chloroform from the emergency kit. The next moment, he braced the dying man against the floor and began a tracheotomy.
In the workroom, with the clockwork creations distracted, Seaman Boyle lifted the chair over his head and broke into a full run. Sweat poured over his pale face from both physical exertion and terror. He was four feet from the door when the mechanical arachnids moved in his direction.
At first, two of the brass spiders charged Boyle. Two became, six, then six became a dozen. The sailor jerked as if shaken, the initial wave of spiders slamming into his back. Their weight dragged him to his knees. He was a single step away from Lieutenant Mason.
“Boyle!” Mason blurted out.
Mason grabbed Boyle by the lapels of his uniform, intent to drag him bodily from the room. The prisoner’s skin had just turned the shade of paste. He jerked in a sporadic motion that accompanied a sick, wet, puncture sound. With the last ounce of strength, he shoved Mason hard enough that the man stumbled backwards into Seaman McCabe.
“The uniform,” Boyle admitted, his pain-stricken voice hoarse. “They’re looking … for the uniform. I … I’ve done a vile thing. I need to be paying for it.”
“Not like this!” the lieutenant snapped. He pulled himself upright, and in one motion shed his uniform jacket and made to re-enter the room.
“No!” Boyle yelled hoarsely. “Forget me! I’m dead! Just … oh bugger the pain,” he convulsed against an unseen agony that gripped him like a giant fist.
“Stop him!” Dr. Hunter ordered. “Those spiders are injecting a poison! I’ve just lost your man here to it! No!”
“Leftenant! Don’t!” McCabe cried. Tears streamed down his face, he threw himself at the lieutenant. Bodily restraining him, he dragged a determined Lieutenant Mason away from the workshop.
“Damn and thunder! Let me go!” the lieutenant raged.
“Sir, no. Bloody hell, no.” McCabe’s words shuddered, caught between tears and terror. “Taylor … he looks bled out already. Boyle’s got twenty of those things stabbing at him.”
With an extreme force of will, Boyle gasped for air and fixed hard, bloodshot eyes on the three survivors in the hallway. “Listen! You’re thinkin’ it’s the knives, and you’re wrong!” He winced, his right hand clawed at the metal floor in agony. “You’re wrong! I’ve been sure she’s been runnin’ things. Not RiBeld. The other one. Herself is the one behind this! It’s why she wants me dead! The knives aren’t what she’s about!”
“What is she wanting?” Dr. Hunter asked, his bloody fists clenched in restrained fury. Every fiber of his crouched body demanded to rush to Seaman Boyle’s aid, yet cold, unfeeling logic held him in check. The logical part of the doctor’s mind knew: the man was dead already.
The spiders’ stabbing and sewing increased to a maddening pace. It was as if they were desperate to silence Boyle, and any information he knew. But the sailor was not about to go that easy. He just needed a few moments more.
“Hunter!” the dead man rasped. His voice was thick, his breathing labored and wet. A strange brackish fluid started to emerge from his throat and stain his lips. “She’s … she’s wanting that Captain Hunter, and … and someone named Wycliffe. A … genius clockwork engineer … named Wycliffe.”
With those last words, Boyle’s body convulsed from a bone-jarring cough. As the corpse twisted involuntarily, the brass “Seamstress Spiders” turned clockwork assassins now crawled over the dead man towards the open door.
Overwhelmed by the moment, the three survivors stared dumbfounded at their imminent peril. It was Lieutenant Mason who regained his composure first. With a wordless snarl of white hot rage, he stamped a boot-heel against the closest brass spider. The device shattered instantly, spilling its life-blood of gears and grease over the floor. In a wild burst of strength, the lieutenant yanked the bar free from where McCabe had jammed it. Mason brandished it like a maul and struck out at the brass clockwork devils.
Parts scattered, and clockwork retreated before the fire of rage. Strike upon strike, Mason attacked. It was as if a modern-day Leonidas fought against the waves of clockwork spiders in his own personal Battle of Thermopylae. Right behind the lieutenant, Dr. Hunter and Seaman McCabe stamped and kicked spiders back into the workshop. The trio forced their way to the body of Seaman Boyle.
“Drag him out! I don’t care what he’s done, he won’t be left here alone!” Mason snarled. “Not with those things!”
Neither Hunter nor McCabe spoke in reply. Determined faces set in stone, they grabbed Seaman Boyle’s body then retreated for the door. Behind them, Lieutenant Mason kept a stalwart rear-guard. With no one left inside save for the clockwork assassins, McCabe yanked the metal door shut. Lieutenant Mason slammed the bar into place to secure the room.
A heavy, dead silence fell with exhaustion on the three men in the hallway. Dr. Hunter’s eyes shifted between the two sailors he had failed to save. In his mind, the cold, terrifying kernel of knowledge that concerned his brother and Moira Wycliffe burrowed to his attention. He struggled to his feet, robbed of his usual mild swagger by the weight of events.
“My brother,” he croaked. “We’ve got to warn him! We’ve got to warn his engineer, Moira! They must know she’s after them!”
“She who? Who the bugger is this ‘she’?” McCabe struggled to push himself upright from the wall. On the second try, he succeeded. His hands shook from the terror that still gripped him. He ran a filthy hand through his dark hair in a useless attempt to comb it straight.
Lieutenant Mason’s voice was ice calm and as steady as his form. His eyes found the dead, bloody bodies of Seaman Taylor and Seaman Boyle. He fixed McCabe with an unblinking look. It has been said that as fire tempers steel, the fire of adversity tempers the hearts of men. The lieutenant’s look was hard and bright with the steel glint of new-found purpose.
“I know of only one ‘she’ that travels with Duke Archibald RiBeld.” Mason spoke in a low voice that chilled the hallway. Dimly, the scratch and claw of metal spider feet in the workshop receded to nothing. The lieutenant knelt to lift the corpse of Seaman Boyle. He gestured for one of the others to bring along the second dead man.
“I have him,” Hunter said solemnly. The doctor struggled a moment, but managed to lift the dead sailor.
The lieutenant looked into McCabe’s eyes. “That would be the Duchess Julia Maria Von Ferrin. Warn them, McCabe! At once! I want every able-bodied man scouring the decks for that woman! Duchess or no, she’ll answer for this! Even if I have to take her to hell myself!”