Four spiders skittered through the open vent and rained down on Moira Wycliffe. Terror clawed at her. It tore open her resolve, bleeding her courage like a raw wound. Fear gripped her tight. It was as if icy fingers had wrapped around her ribcage. She fought for breath, her heart pounded loud in her ears. All she saw were the spiders. All she imagined was the burning pain of electricity. Abruptly, something deep inside her snapped.
Eyes wide, a shriek of mad rage ripped from her throat. She slammed a boot heel down on the first clockwork spider. It ruptured immediately. Tiny gears, bent springs and brass spider legs shot out in all directions. A second and third spider followed the first, but Moira slapped those across the room, using the servitor like a club.
The last spider slipped past her defense. It snagged her vest and leaped onto her arm. Mandibles punctured her right sleeve, a short jolt of electricity followed a second later. Moira yelped from the stab of needles. The electricity sent her into a fit of convulsions. She tilted sideways and fell towards the wooden crate. The crate, already battered from before, fell in on itself. Broken wood erupted around the young woman and scattered through the small room. Mercifully, the electricity drained out of her.
Tiny gears clicked. Electricity crackled close by. A wave of involuntary convulsions washed over her. The young woman lay on her right side in the debris, her left hand clutched tight to the broken ferret servitor. Her right, by sheer force of will, slowly closed on a foot-long broken piece of wood.
Suddenly there was pressure on her leg. It was the staccato beat of tiny metal spider legs skittering along her trousers. Two she suspected. They crept carefully up her prone body, but would stop when they sensed any motion from Moira. When they stopped, their mandibles crackled with electricity. Once the spiders were convinced the young woman was not about to sit up, they continued to crawl along her body.
Seconds dragged by at slow, maddening pace. Moira’s joints ached. Her muscles screamed as did her pent-up terror. Despite this, she remained where she was. She knew she had to.
Closer, she begged silently. I need ya close if I’m to be tryin’ this. Come on now. Just a bit closer. Don’t pay me much mind, cause I’m just layin’ here all knocked out.
Two spiders reached her left arm and stopped. Gears clicked and spun in the two devices, like a mechanical debate. One of them cautiously picked its way forward. A foreleg touched the engineer’s elbow. The moment she felt the pressure, the young woman was instantly in motion.
She pushed off the debris-strewn ground. Shattered wood and spiders tumbled away while she forced herself to one knee. One spider recovered itself and barreled across the floor at her. The second spider followed two steps behind its companion.
Moira stabbed with her makeshift spike. It neatly speared the first spider in half. The second dashed for her exposed hand, but she was faster. Electrified needles bit into wood, not flesh. The engineer quickly scooped up another plank from the broken trunk and hammered the device with it. Tiny gears shrieked, snapped and fell silent.
The engineer glanced around, wide-eyed. Her throat felt ragged and harsh, burned by the room’s damp heat. So far as she could see, nothing else moved in the room. The only sound was the ping and tick of metal in nearby copper pipes. Once she was sure nothing else would jump at her, Moira pushed to her feet and took a careful step forward.
She immediately fell to the floor when her right leg gave way. Stabbing pain lanced through her hip. It radiated outward, sending countless nerve endings into a macabre chorus of discomfort. The engineer struggled to a sitting position and massaged her leg.
A distant, yet frantic skittering of metal taps echoed through the air. Moira glanced around in alarm, then up at the partially open air vent. She saw no clockwork spiders. But the sound was unmistakable, there were more nearby.
“How many of those damn things does that bloody bastard be keepin’ on hand?” She lamented with a rasp. No one answered her. But she did not expect one; it was a rhetorical question. Moira did not really want to know how many he had, she just wanted him not to have any left.
She forced herself to her feet again. This time she leaned against the wall and balanced most of her weight on her left leg. The young woman reached up for the vent. Her fingers could touch the grate, brush it, but not grab it. She tried again with no better success. Moira tried a third time and had to catch herself against the wall. With the pain in her hip, she could not get the leverage she needed to close the opening.
The tapping started again. This time it was closer. Moira limped away from the loose grate and wiped perspiration from her eyes. A heavy sense of desperation settled on her while she frantically looked around the room. She studied the spark lantern, the steam valves, and the narrow dark tunnel lined with more steam and water pipes for anything she could use against the clockwork menace.
Two minutes later, Moira was scrambling along the narrow, mold-covered space between the hot pipes. She glanced back, her lungs clawing for air in the heat. Over her shoulder, the blue-white glow from the spark lantern in the utility room wavered like a wraith. Shadows bent upward, long and spindly, yet they still maintained a spider-like shape.
“No, no, no. Why isn’t it workin’?” Her voice was rough. She turned to face the darkness opposite the glow, and doubled her pace. Hands, arms and knees brushed against scalding hot steam pipes. In the darkness, she slipped on a patch of thick slime and fell hard onto her side. Moira struggled back to her hands and knees, careful not to lean on the steam pipes any more than she had to.
Then, behind her, the overloaded spark lantern exploded in the utility room, springing her trap. Moira Wycliffe threw herself back to the slime-covered floor.
A ball of lightning tore out from the lantern like a vengeful spirit. Clockwork spiders tried to rush to the safety of the ruined chest, the tunnel, anywhere the miniature lightning storm was not. Those not shaken apart by the immediate blast perished in flame when the fuel cell detonated a second later. A gout of flame roared along the tunnel and over Moira, who had curled into a ball on the floor.
It ended as quick as it started. Pitch blackness pounced on the room, tunnel, and everything contained in both places.
On the heels of the lantern’s death throes, abused pipes creaked in anger. Moira pushed herself up. Her arms shook and hip ached. The engineer ignored the pain and willed her way forward. She knew this tunnel had to connect to another utility room, or better yet, a smaller boiler room. Moira knew she just had to get there and she would be safe.
Without warning a water pipe, savaged from stress, ruptured with a loud metal pop. Rivets ricocheted and water shot out. It hit the engineer like a punch to the ribs. The water slammed her against a hot pipe and pitched her over an open shaft in the floor she had not seen. Moira scrambled to catch herself, but her fingers could not get any purchase on the tunnel floor. She fell into the darkness.
The young woman eventually crashed in a heap atop a steamer trunk. Her body ached from one end to the other. Moira blinked wearily. With great care, she pushed herself upright. The room was no less dark than the tunnel, but the choking heat was gone. The air was stale, but cool. She took a deep breath, then let go of it reluctantly.
Once the pounding in her head subsided enough for her to think, she felt around in the darkness. By touch, she discovered crates, boxes and yet more trunks. Each were labeled with tags and lashed to the floor. Moira realized she had found one of the Britannia’s cargo holds.
She sighed. “At least it be better than where I was.”
The engineer felt at the trunk and crates around her. This time it was to get her bearings before she tried to stand. Her fingers then encountered a familiar shape. The inactive servitor ferret she had found in the utility room.
“Hello there,” she croaked with a faint grin. “I thought I might have lost ya to the fall. Hope ya didn’t mind me cartin’ you about?”
The ferret did not reply. Not that she had expected it to. It simply felt good to talk to something that was not herself and did not mean her harm. Even if it was a deactivated, and most likely broken, servitor. Moira lightly brushed her fingers over the device. The young woman eased off the steamer trunk and onto her feet. She almost stumbled, but stayed upright.
“Now, if this be made like any other hold I know, we just need to be followin’ this row I’m in to the far wall,” she told the servitor. “There ought to be a door there.”
She took a careful step. Her eyes watered from the pain, and her hip threatened to give out from under her. Moira clenched her jaw and ignored the sensations as best she could. One step at a time, she limped down the aisle.
A few minutes’ search turned up the cargo door right where she suspected it would be. It was also locked from the outside. Unlike the door to a utility room, this had no emergency unlock latch on her side. Exhausted, she leaned her head against the door and closed her eyes.
“I got to be gettin’ word out about what happened.” Fatigue and pain nibbled away at her concentration. “The Cap’n, Miss Salgado, all of them. They need to be knowin’ Garrin Farrow’s up to no good before something else happens.”
Moira shook her head in dismay. A feeling of helplessness settled on her like a heavy weight. It mingled with the pain and washed over her. Tears flowed down her soot and dirt-stained face while she sobbed. The young woman slid slowly to the floor and clutched desperately at the servitor while the barbed, pent-up tangle of emotions uncoiled inside her.
A few minutes passed before Moira regained a measure of composure. She wiped her nose on the back of a grimy sleeve, then brushed her fingers over the artificial ferret. It was too dark to see the device with her eyes, so her fingers ‘looked’ at the servitor instead.
Gears, quartz eyes, and leather joints all formed in her mind a complete picture of the clockwork device. She sniffed and wiped the tears from her eyes. The servitor was nearly intact. Inside, she found the parts for power regulation, instruction processing, and opti-telegraphic communication were missing.
“There be one thing I can do.” A small smile touched her face. She reached into her vest for her leather pouch of tools. “I can fix you with whatever be down here and you can be tellin’ them for me!”
In the dark, she searched the nearby crates until she found one open. Moira reached inside and froze. Her fingers had found a small, engraved box strapped to a set of metal canisters. It also vibrated very softly. At any other time, she might have thought it a strange clock or music box. But this box and its engravings felt all too familiar.
Slowly, she opened the lid. Her fingertips brushed against a familiar series of gears and a tiny mechanical model of the solar system, also called an orrery. The engineer remembered one other device just like this one: the bomb she had failed to defuse. Also like before, this bomb was counting down to explode.