Today I thought I’d share another excerpt from Where, No One Knows (or, as I’ve started to call it, the novel that killed two computers). It’s pretty much the entirety of Chapter 5, in which our protagonist, former agent provocateur and alchemist extraordinaire Pixie Sinclaire, faces off against a ten foot tall Murder-Bot and learns that the situation aboard the prison ship she has infiltrated is much more complicated than previously thought. Enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback on how it can be improved. A previous excerpt can be found here (though, it’s been revised since).
Pixie glimpsed a massive hand ending in four blade-like fingers reach around the edge of the hatch and grip the bulkhead. She hefted the musket, earning an incredulous look from Colin.
“If you do that,” he said, “I’ll run, taking my chances that you will miss and I will be able to sprint back to the hangar while that thing tears you apart.”
Pixie saw the terror in his eyes, and kind of wished she hadn’t. She lowered the musket. “Alright, then. What’s your suggestion?”
“We go back to the last cross passage, down through Ward A, and back up on the other side.”
“How long will that take?”
“Who cares how long it takes, the point is we’ll get there. Now let’s move!”
Pixie’s curiosity caused her to hesitate. Coward or no, until this point Colin had hidden his fear with jokes. Just what was it that could scare him so badly that even he couldn’t find a jest? Surely such a thing was worth finding out. She waited for him to get a few yards down the passage before edging back to the crossway and looking around the corner.
What she saw was the single most beautiful–and terrifying–thing she’d ever seen in her life. It was also very familiar.
A massive automaton constructed of brass plates and a complex system of gears filled the height and width of the passageway. A boiler rattled in its chest cavity, pumping steam through pipes in its back and arms. Strange symbols that looked at once familiar and alien to her were etched into these plates. In the haze of the steam rolling off of it, it reminded her of the great apes found in the mountains far to the east. Wide shoulders gave way to arms that reached all the way to the deck. Bowed legs shorter than its arms supported the mass of its body.
A meticulously crafted and horrifying perversion of the human skull cast in copper served as its head. Two glass eyes sat low in its face on either side of a skeletal nose. Even from this distance Pixie saw the inner workings of the eyes, like the apertures in the new compact, twenty pound cameras making their way into the NorEast. Wisps of steam periodically filtered out of four rectangular vents where the mouth should be.
Pixie had seen its like twice before. The first time had been during the war, the first time she’d worked with Rigel. It fell on them in the crags surrounding the Blackwood Grove, killing two thirds of the battalion they’d been sent with to investigate before they managed to take it down. Rigel had spent the rest of that expedition studying the fallen machine.
Had he built this thing for the Warden?
The metal beast turned at the waist. Metal shrieked and the sound of it washed down the passage toward her, sending a cold ripple through her body. All it had done was turn, and it had been terrifying. It searched for something, its tiny head swinging around to look down the way Pixie and Colin had been traveling. It cocked its head, like a curious dog.
Her second encounter had been in the central valley swamps of Monteddor, in a vault full of Old Empire artifacts. There had been several of them, and they had displayed some level of autonomous problem solving. Had Rigel uncovered that secret as well?
“What the hell are you doing?” Colin hissed, grabbing her arm. The sudden contact startled her and the stock of the musket banged against the bulkhead. The automaton looked right at them. It rotated its hips in their direction and swung the rest of its body around. Its hands came down with a loud bang, the blade-like fingers curling and slicing into the deck like a piece of cake. Steam burst from the face vent, producing an ear piercing whistle, and it charged.
Colin started to shout at her to run, but Pixie had already sprinted past him down the passageway. Around the corner she heard the mechanical monster’s gears and chains cranking as it built speed. She found the ladderwell that Colin pointed out earlier. Pixie reached out and grabbed a pipe, using it to turn quickly without losing any momentum. She jumped down the ladder well and darted into the hatch. She started pushing the hatch closed just as Colin appeared, along with a cloud of steam barreling after him.
“Hurry!” Pixie shouted. Colin readied himself to follow down the ladder. Before he could jump, the automaton’s arm thrust across the opening, blocking his passage. The metal beast pulled itself forward, its other arm pulled back to strike.
“Go on!” Colin said, dodging under the automaton’s arm. Pixie cursed and pushed the hatch closed, spun the wheel to lock it, and let out a breath. She backed away from the door, listening to the muffled sounds of the automaton beyond. She heard one last terrifying screech, and then silence.
Had the thing decided to pursue Colin? Perhaps she could double back and sneak down the corridor they’d been chased out of. She took a tentative step forward, and something slammed against the door. The steel bowed sharply inward and a bolt shot forward past her head. The automaton slammed against the hatch again and it snapped out from its setting. Pixie could see around the hatch now. The automaton readied itself for another push. It would break through.
Move your ass, Sinclaire, she told herself, and ran. She had no clue where to go, and didn’t much care. As long as it was away from here. She hadn’t gone very far when the hatch popped off of its hinges and came down the passage toward her in a deadly spin that trashed the deck and shattered light fixtures in its path. Pixie looked back just in time to see it tearing toward her and dived face first into the deck. The hatch thundered down the passageway before finally coming to a rest against the bulkhead.
Pixie looked back over her shoulder and saw the automaton pull itself through the door in a swirling cloud of steam. The blade-like fingers dug jagged grooves in the ship’s iron plating. It leveled its eyes right at her and whistled.
Pixie scrambled toward the far end of the passage, hopping over the hatch along the way. She didn’t look back, but she heard the thing winding up to a charging sprint right toward her.
Her eyes darted from left to right, frantically searching for a cross passage to duck into, or a crawlspace to hide in. She feared however, that even if she squeezed into the smallest hole in the world the thing would pursue her, no matter what damage it sustained in doing so.
The heat of it pressed against her back now, and steam rushed past her in the periphery of her vision.
Well, hell, she thought, considered it for a moment, then asked herself, That’s it? That’s my final thought? ‘Well, hell’?
No way. No way was she going to let that be her final thought in this world. She had one more move up her sleeve. Or more accurately, in her waist band. Without slowing down, she reached into the waistband of her trousers and pulled out the piece of salt rock she had stowed there before Haversham’s guards had confiscated her belt. She palmed it and managed to edge up her sprint just a little more.
The corridor rushed past in a blur of gray steel. Her lungs burned and her legs grew heavy. Hadn’t Colin said it was only a few meters? When did this passage end?
A hatch swung open ahead of her. Pixie had barely enough time and space to adjust her position and edge past. The guard that had opened the hatch let out a surprised “Whoof!” behind her.
“Oi!” she heard him yell. “Stop right the–” His voice cut off with a sickening wet smack as the automaton ran him down and continued its pursuit.
Fortunately for Pixie, a piece of the metal creature’s frame snagged on the hatch and the automaton lost its footing. She heard it hit the deck and roll, heard gears grinding in protest as the automaton tried to get its feet back under it. The odor of warm oil filled the corridor. Pixie stopped and risked a look back. For now, the automaton’s angle against the deck and bulkhead prevented it from finding the necessary purchase to pull itself up. That moment would pass quickly enough. She needed to do something now if she had any hopes of escape.
Pixie knelt with the piece of salt rock and drew what the uneducated man would undoubtedly call a ‘rune’. She supposed the term worked, depending on how one looked at it. The design was esoteric, and it had multiple meanings depending on the context.
For her purposes, however, the character she drew on the deck of the passageway was an arithmetic one, one in a series of alchemical equations that when done with the right element (in this case salt), upon the right material (iron), in the right environment (moist), could transmute the air in the area around it into something else. It only required a catalyst, in this case fire. Unfortunately, she only had one possible, though not ideal, way to make fire at the moment.
Pixie reached down and pulled the bag of gunpowder from the belt she had taken. Working quickly under the threat of the automaton, which had freed one of its arms and given itself some much needed room to maneuver, Pixie uncorked the bag and began to trace the outline of the formula with the gun powder. Normally, she would use her own bag, cut in such a way to measure the proper amount of fuel without too much thought required on her part. Alas, she did not have her bag, so she had to eyeball it. At least the simplicity of the reaction she hoped for allowed room for error. If not, her ensuing disintegration would be far less painful than being pulled apart by the automaton (though still pretty painful).
Finished with the marks on the ground, she turned to the copper pipes lining the wall. She drew a few more quick formulae and sprinkled them with more gunpowder, not bothering with proper measurement. The copper pipes immediately began to rust. Pixie hurried some distance down the passage and brought the musket to bear on the formula drawn onto the deck.
The automaton pushed away from the bulkhead and brought one of its stubby legs beneath itself. It stood and shook its entire body, not unlike a dog climbing out of a lake. Oil splattered around the passage, leaking from busted tubes meant to deliver the lubricant to its joints.
The guard’s blood glistened on its face and the bronze plating that covered its body. It fixed her in its sight. She heard mechanical whirring in its metal skull. The metal beast stepped forward, but did not charge. It tilted its head again, in the same curious manner as before.
Was it hesitating? Wondering why she had stopped? Nonsense. Rigel couldn’t have possibly replicated the technology necessary to make such a thing possible. Even if he possessed an example of such tech to reverse engineer, there would be parts missing, elements that no one could hope to understand in their lifetime, not at the Empire’s current technological development. They could theorize, imagine, and dream, maybe provide the starting point for future generations, but they could not execute. Not yet.
It took another step, coming more quickly now. Pixie waited for it to come close to the formula. She was not worried about the gunpowder tracing being disturbed…that only helped amplify the effect, but the success didn’t hinge upon it remaining intact.
It lumbered ever closer, slow, cautious. Pixie couldn’t believe her thoughts: Hurry up, dammit! The automaton’s foot slammed down on top of the formula. Oil leaked down its leg, soaking the powder. Even better, Pixie thought, and fired.
The ball struck the ground next to the beast’s foot and sparked against the iron grating. Unfortunately, the spark didn’t catch. The automaton looked down where the ball had struck, then looked back up and blew its whistle once again.
Was it mocking her?
Pixie had only one option left, and it was going to hurt. She thumbed back the hammer on the musket and lunged forward, right into the automaton’s shadow. She reached forward, placing the musket’s flint against a spot of dry powder, and pulled the trigger.
The hammer sparked and ignited not only the powder, but the fumes from the oil as well. Green flame flashed in the air around Pixie’s hand. She pulled it back, crying out in pain. A swirling pillar of fire climbed up the bulkhead, igniting the powder atop the corroding pipes. Steam rushed out and engulfed the automaton. The fire flared and went out, and the steam enveloped the automaton’s frame. A layer of frost, thin at first, crawled over the automaton’s body. It lurched forward despite this, reaching out with its blade-like fingers.
Pixie backed away, clutching her burned hand and watching the automaton slowly come to a standstill. The ice froze its feet in place, and then engulfed its entire body except for the outstretched hand. It stopped midway along the forearm. The fingers opened and closed a mere few inches from Pixie’s face. She frowned impetuously. That formula should have been enough to freeze the entire thing!
She heard a loud crack, and a tiny fissure traveled along the anterior side of the machine’s icy shell. In a minute or two, the unit would break free.
“Time to go.” Pixie spun around and came face to face with the barrels of four muskets leveled directly at her chest.
“Put your hands up,” one of the guards, a second lieutenant, said. Pixie complied. Their eyes flicked nervously between her and the frozen automaton, as though trying to figure out which was the bigger threat.
“Those things give me the creeps,” one of the guards said.
“Tell me about it,” said the one next to him.
The lieutenant nodded. “Me as well. James, bind her.”
“Sure thing.” The guard named James shouldered his musket and removed a set of shackles from his belt.
“Ow!” she cried out as he grabbed her hands. “Watch the burns.”
“Quiet,” the lieutenant said, not unkindly. “Where is Captain Nettle?”
“Captain Nettle, the officer of the guard that you and your compatriot took hostage.”
“Oh, Colin? Not sure. He ran off and left me when this atrocity of engineering showed up.”
The lieutenant narrowed his eyes at her story. It was the truth, sort of. She’d left out the bit where Colin had tried to get the automaton to follow him instead of her. That bit had surprised her, after his cowardly display a few short moments before.
“That coward,” another guard said, echoing her thoughts.
“No matter,” the lieutenant said, lowering his weapon. “He’s gone now, and we have who we were sent to look for anyway. James?”
“Let’s escort our new friend here to Dougherty.”
Pixie raised an eyebrow. No rank, or title. Just Dougherty.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” the third guard said. “Try to enjoy the last few minutes you have before you do.”
“Ooh, how ominous.” Her mockery did not amuse the lieutenant.
“Sir, I’m not sure taking her to Dougherty is such a great idea,” the fourth guard said. “Specially not with that attitude.”
The third guard turned to him. “Herman, how many times must we go over this. It’s ‘especially’, not ‘specially’. There’s an ‘E’.”
“Sorry, Marcus. Still, not comfortable with it.”
“Dougherty wants to see her, Dougherty gets to see her,” the lieutenant said. “The repercussions for failing to do so in a timely manner will be much worse than if our new friend here causes trouble. If she does, Dougherty will fix it. Now come on. Let’s get moving before this thing finishes thawing out.”
James nudged Pixie gently forward. While she didn’t appreciate being prodded, she forwent being belligerent and complied. Curiosity had won out. Who was this Dougherty character, and why were these prison guards afraid of their own machine?
Pixie was a bit dismayed that they changed direction and began to head toward the starboard side of the ship, but intrigued that they kept to maintenance passages that ran parallel to the main passage. To further bait her interest, whenever they encountered a patrol. the lieutenant, who she had since learned was named Shaw, would call on them to halt and keep quiet.
Pixie’s interest in this endeavor nearly died, however, when they reached the starboard hull of the ship and wound up at one of the suspended gangways leading to the starboard wing of the prison.
“Alright, boys,” she said, stopping before the hatch. “I’ve played along this far, but I’ve got an appointment in the boiler room of this ship. You either tell me what’s going on or I’m not going any farther.”
Shaw turned and pointed his musket at her knee, thumbing back the hammer. “Or I can shoot you in the knee and one of my men will carry you.”
“Please, miss,” Herman said. “I don’t want to have to carry you. Don’t wanna see you shot, neither. Just come along. Dougherty ain’t so bad. Wants to talk to you is all.”
Pixie barely heard the guard imploring her to comply, focused as she was on Shaw. She fixed his eyes with her own. They did not move or waver. He was steadfast in his decision. No doubt that he was the kind of man who, once decided, would go to any lengths to carry out his task.
Pixie backed down, deciding that she respected Shaw, if not outright liked him. She also decided that she should find out what his convictions were, so that she could play on them if need be. And part of her hoped that he would see right through her if she attempted such a thing.
“Well, since you put it so nicely,” she said, and walked out onto the gangway. She made the mistake of looking down as she did. A few hundred feet below her, the ocean churned and swelled, a deep blue mass that would easily swallow the prison ship.
Pixie had been on ships before, many of them much less sturdy than Where No One Knows, and had never gotten sick. But being suspended so high above the water and able to see it moving below her proved another matter entirely. Dizziness washed over her and her hand shot out to grip the rail. An almost imperceptible, sympathetic smile flashed across Shaw’s face.
“It gets everyone the first time,” he said, then gestured for everyone to move. They kept a careful eye on the other gangways. People moved along them, but they were so far away as to be unidentifiable. A few of the gangways had collapsed, corroded by the salty air. The thought of the supports under them having been eaten away only increased the queasy feeling in Pixie’s stomach, even though she could tell that this gangway had been carefully maintained and treated recently with thick, anti-corrosive paint.
She tried fixing her eyes on the ship ahead of them, thinking it would quell the sense of movement. The gangways were designed to sway with the bobbing of the ship, however, and looking so far ahead only made the dizziness worse.
Pixie groaned, and opted to focus on Shaw’s back.
Halfway across the walkway, musket fire broke out from another nearby. Two men in guard’s uniforms rushed toward the starboard wing, firing back behind them as they went. Pixie tracked the walkway back toward the mid-ship and saw what they were firing at–another group of guards.
“What the hell is going on?”
“No time to explain,” Shaw said. “Double time!”
The guards took up a light jog that Pixie struggled to maintain. Bullets whizzed by their heads. One struck the support next to Pixie and sent paint chips past her face. She yelped and looked back. Four guards headed toward them from the mid-ship.
“James, Marcus!” Shaw said, and the two men nodded. They took up positions in the rear and knelt, raising their weapons. Shaw grabbed Pixie’s arms and began tugging her along with him. Herman followed behind.
“What in the hell is going on?” Pixie demanded. Her intrigue had disappeared between her nausea and getting shot at.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Shaw asked as the men he left behind returned fire. “It’s a mutiny!”
Where, No One Knows is the first novel in the planned Blackwood Empire series. I plan on publishing it through Create Space in June. Stay tuned for more details!