Bullets rang off the metal deck plates while Wycliffe and Senhorita Salgado raced for shelter. Gouts of steam and smoke, thick in the air, chased their heels as they ran. Between the blur of barrels, grime-covered metal tanks and stained metal flooring, the women used wooden shelves heavy with boxes to give them sparse cover from their assassin. Over the echo of gunfire, they heard some of the Britannia’s maintenance crew call for help as they ran to safety.
Wycliffe skidded to a stop behind a particular wooden shelf loaded down with metal plates and boxes of bolts. A stray bullet slammed into the wood. Splinters showered the engineer. She sneezed from the cloud of dust that followed. The senhorita joined her a second later, her breath torn from her in ragged gasps. She sagged against the shelves.
“Adonia!” Wycliffe exclaimed. She grabbed the senhorita by the arm to steady her.
Dark red blood trickled down Salgado’s sleeve from a jagged bullet wound. She glanced at her arm, then shook her head. Senhorita Salgado’s yellow-gold eyes were hard and predatory. “A graze, minha amiga. I will be fine. Something I cannot say about that irritating man once we catch him!”
She braced against the shelf with her good arm and tried to stand. The senhorita’s knees buckled. Her mottled, brown-green skin turned a sickly gray. Wycliffe caught her before she collapsed to the floor.
“You’ll be fine enough after a wee bit o’ rest,” the engineer said trying to comfort the senhorita. But Wycliffe’s grim smile undermined the effort with worry. She eased her companion to the floor. Another bullet split wood overhead. Wycliffe held her breath when the shelf creaked in protest. A box rattled in reply to the disturbance. Fortunately, nothing fell from the shelf. “That man be damn bloody fool, shootin’ anything like a pistol or a rifle up here,” she commented. “I’d even be a bit worried about firin’ a needler in here.”
Salgado looked up at the vaulted chamber of the Britannia’s rigid frame. Solid ribs of wood and metal, stained with grime, soared high overhead. These joined to form the spine of the rigid gas bag frame. Beneath this was the enormous series of ten gas bags, each surrounded by a spiderweb of loose catwalks. Metal pipes fed the precious hot helium-air mix into one of the four airship engines, called Corona Engines. They pushed the final charged mix into the gas bags themselves. The blue-white glow from the charged, ionized air that rushed into the air bags provided an eerie glow over the entire chamber.
To the senhorita, the bulk of the construction looked sturdy. Even the fragile hexalift components of the Corona engines were protected. Then she realized the vulnerability.
“Because of the gas bags?” the senhorita asked.
Wycliffe nodded. “The rigid frame protects ‘em from the outside. Not so much from the inside.”
The senhorita winced. “A single shot would destroy one of those?” She indicated one of the enormous gas bags overhead.
Wycliffe shook her head while she examined the senhorita’s wound. The dark blood had soaked a considerable portion of the senhorita’s sleeve. “One shot? Them? No. It be takin’ more’n that. Not much more though. But if the gas starts leakin’, it might break the air channel in an engine. If it gets bad enough, the generators could blow out and we’d come out of the sky. Only to make it more fun, there’s those scattered about up here.” She pointed at a trio of tall copper acetylene cannisters. They gleamed in the blue-white light of the Corona engines.
The charybdian woman’s eyes widened. “Oh. I see.”
Moira grinned. “But see that workbench to our right? I’m seein’ a few things on there I can use to make a bit of short work out of that gunslinger!”
“Bloody shame you won’t get the chance,” said a voice from behind the shelves.
Wycliffe spun towards the voice. It was the seaman who had befriended Noel St. Claire and herself in the Britannia’s engine room. “Seaman Farrow?” she exclaimed in surprise.
“With a friend or two who’s been dyin’ to meet you.” He nodded with a smirk, then snapped his fingers.
A quartet of brass “seamstress” spiders leaped off the top of the shelf! Mandibles crackled, furious with electricity. Wycliffe froze in terror. Nightmares gripped her like a vice as she relived once more the explosion of her lightning pack invention. To her, the enormous spider-like tank towered over her while on her back, lightning ran wild. Her skin burned, and she was powerless to stop it.
A scream froze in her throat. Three clockwork spiders dropped onto her and went to work. One landed on the senhorita. Charged mandibles bit the young woman hard on her shoulder and arm. Wycliffe collapsed to the deck, convulsing from the electrical shock. Senhorita Salgado, bloodstained and singed, lay next to her covered in stray bolts of energy.
Their work done, the spiders retreated up the shelves. Seaman Farrow glanced around the hectic platform of the superstructure. What few of the Britannia’s maintenance crew he saw were busy checking for any damage. It was when he stepped closer to the two women that anyone took notice. A crewman walked over with a brisk stride, an ever present sneer, and an air of superiority. Unlike the rest of the maintenance crew, this one wore a journeyman’s engineer rank.
Farrow nodded in greeting to the journeyman. “Journeyman Maris. So, where’d Fineas get himself to? We’ve a mess to clean up here.”
Engineer Journeyman Maris gestured towards a nearby ladder. “Her Grace is wanting a spare pair of hands. We’re to handle dealing with these two.” He waved a hand at Wycliffe and Salgado.
On the ground, the senhorita’s eyes fluttered open. She recovered enough of her wits to keep herself still.
“Like those things aren’t enough for whatever bloody thing she’s needing now.” Farrow said with a half-hearted wave at one of the clockwork spiders.
Journeyman Maris tapped the end of a shoe against Wycliffe’s heavy leather boot. He gave the women a sour look. “They won’t help carry this one though. That’s where we come in.”
“I’ll bring her along to the Duchess,” Farrow said. “Still not sure what we need her for.”
“The seventh knife,” Maris replied in a flat tone.
The seaman frowned. “She knows where it is?”
Maris snorted derisively. “If I’m sure of anything the Duchess told me, that young woman is the ‘seventh knife’.”
Farrow looked confused. The journeyman waved a bored, dismissive hand.
“It’s got to do with havin’ the knack for assembling the connector for the map.” Maris shook his head at Farrow. “I’ll explain later.” He frowned at the senhorita. “That one now, she’s trouble. Been so since she’s been aboard.”
Farrow knelt down and picked up the unconscious Wycliffe. He nodded at Senhorita Salgado. “She’s pretty suspicious about the going’s on. This’ll make her double so when she wakes. If she was trouble before, she’ll cause no end of it now.”
Maris looked at the senhorita with cold eyes. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a pocket knife. “Don’t worry about the charybdian. I’ve got a surprise for her. It’ll fix her curiosity straight away.”
Senhorita Salgado’s uninjured arm darted up and snatched a pipe elbow joint from a crate on the nearby shelf. She slammed the steel pipe joint on Maris’ foot, which gave a sickening crunch. He yowled in pain and fell to one knee.
“I just adore surprises, senhor, don’t you?” she said with a chilly, sweet smile.
One of Britannia’s maintenance crew ran towards the group. A reedy, narrow-faced young man, barely in his twenties. “Anyone hurt here?” His eyes locked onto the pocket knife. “Hey, what’s this about, eh? What’s with the knife?” he asked in alarm.
Salgado tried desperately to haul herself upright using the shelf. “Stop them!” the senhorita blurted. “They are kidnapping her!”
Maris slammed a fist across Senhorita Salgado’s jaw. Her head snapped back against the deck and she lay still. The journeyman then lunged for the stunned sailor. Maris’ knife slid home between the man’s ribs. The maintenance crewman struggled, but Maris held him fast. Blood stained the young man’s uniform. Slowly, his struggles grew weaker, until the life fled his eyes.
“Bloody hell!” Farrow exclaimed, his face pale. He stepped away from the grisly scene as if to distance himself from it.
“Shut it!” Maris snapped, then let the body collapse to the deck. “It had to be done. Now get her below while I finish up here.”
Farrow took another step backward before he bolted towards a nearby hatch with Wycliffe. Maris watched him go with a disdainful look.
“This whole deal’s a bloody mess,” the journeyman muttered under his breath. His cold eyes watched Farrow retreating to the hatch. “Someone’s got to go and get it sorted out. Might need to sort you out as well, Farrow.”
He had turned partway from Farrow when something metal slammed into the side of his head. Bone crunched. Maris jerked, then collapsed to the floor.
“I agree,” the senhorita snarled. She dumped the pipe joint on the unconscious Maris, then forced herself to her feet. With a grimace, she gripped her wounded arm, and launched herself after Farrow.
The senhorita ignored the lance of pain that ate at her arm with each step. “Moira!” She shouted. The hum of the engine filled the air. It merged with the intense pound of her own heartbeat. She reached the hatch in the floor. An unusual sound behind her tickled her hearing. Salgado instinctively darted behind the solid steel hatch door. A second later, a knife rebounded off the metal. She peered out from behind the hatch.
Five feet away, Maris swore. His face, smeared with blood and pain, twisted into a murderous snarl. He jerked a second knife free from inside his coat and hurled it at the senhorita.
Senhorita Salgado ducked down behind her improvised shield. The knife bounced off and clattered to the floor.
A near soundless blast of smoke erupted around Maris. It was as if a volcano had belched its worth of gray-black smoke and brimstone under the man’s feet. He panicked and stumbled to his left, out of the cloud. In his haste, he did not see Durante Marino until the monk’s fist crushed the journeyman’s nose.
Maris’ head snapped back on his shoulders. He stumbled around drunkenly while his hands instinctively covered his nose. Blood seeped between his fingers as he yowled in pain. Nearby, the senhorita was ready with Maris’ own knife. She lunged after him, like a snake darting at its prey. Maris froze when the blade touched his neck.
“Where are they taking her?” She pressed the blade against his skin to emphasize her question.
Maris glanced at the knife. In the blue-white light of the chamber, it gleamed menacingly. He glared at the charybdian holding it.
Marino stepped closer. “Mia signora, the one with signora Wycliffe is escaping,” he interjected.
Senhorita Salgado became a fluid blur of motion. Her right knee jammed into Maris’ groin. He let out a choked garble of sound. A second later her right boot scraped his left shin and hammered down onto the instep of his foot.
“Signora! This will not help! Stop this!” Marino snapped sternly.
The journeyman screamed. His knees buckled, but the senhorita jerked the man upright by his collar. She glared at Marino.
“Não!” She snapped. The senhorita face was a mask of fury. Anger boiled out of her yellow eyes like a searing light. She bared her fangs, and despite the pain in her arm, shook Maris like a dog would a rag. “We have chased these bandits across the length and breadth of this ship. They know it far better than we do, and I am tired of running after them!” She fixed Maris with a chilling stare. “So, no more foolish chasing! Now, we have a better way to catch them.”
Marino started to step forward to intervene. The look on the charybdian woman’s face stopped him short. “They have a head start, signora,” Marino protested.
Senhorita Salgado glared poisoned daggers at her captive. “I know. But this one will help us get ahead of them, because he knows where they are going!” She darted her scowl at Marino for a moment. He instinctively stepped back. “And why are you here?” she demanded. “You were under guard when we left you.”
The monk tensed, then raised his hands protectively. “Now, signora, I can explain.”
“Oh, and you will, senhor.” She shook Maris by the collar once more. The journeyman’s head bobbled like a cork in water. “While this one leads us to free Moira!”