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The Impossible Cube

A Novel of the Clockwork Empire

Steven Harper - Author

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ISBN 9781101585405 | 400 pages | 01 May 2012 | Roc | 18 - AND UP
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In an age where fantastic inventions of steam and brass have elevated Britain and China into mighty empires, Alice Michaels faces a future of technological terrors…
 
Once, Gavin Ennock sailed the skies on airships and enchanted listeners with his fiddle music. Now, the clockwork plague consumes his intellect, enabling him to conceive and construct scientific wonders—while driving him quite mad. Distressed by her beloved’s unfortunate condition, Alice Michaels sought a cure rumored to be inside the Doomsday Vault—and brought the wrath of the British Empire down on them.
 
Declared enemies of the Crown, Alice and Gavin have little choice but to flee to China in search of a cure. Accompanying them is Dr. Clef, a mad genius driven to find the greatest and most destructive force the world has ever seen: The Impossible Cube. If Dr. Clef gets his hands on it, the entire universe will face extinction. 
 
And Gavin holds the key to its recreation…



THE STORY SO FAR

We include this section as a courtesy for new readers who did not have the opportunity to peruse The Doomsday Vault, the most excellent first volume in this series. The information may also prove useful to experienced readers who require a bit of a refresher, or who lack a mechanized cranial implant with fully realized library. Thoroughly experienced readers are encouraged to leaf their way over to Chapter One, where they will find Gavin Ennock in awkward and perilous circumstances.

The year is 1857.

Nearly one hundred years earlier, a new disease ravaged the world. The plague causes rotting of flesh, and also invades the host’s nervous system, causing motor dysfunction, dementia, and photosensitivity. Victims lurching through the late stages inevitably became known as plague zombies. However, a handful of victims end up with neural synapses that, for a brief time, fall together instead of apart. Advanced mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry become as toys to them. But as the virus slowly destroys their brains, they eventually lose their grip on reality. Their attachment to mechanical inventions and their detachment from normal human emotion earned them the name clockwork geniuses or clockworkers, and the disease itself became the clockwork plague.

Two nations—England and China—built opposing empires using the fantastic inventions supplied by captive clockworkers, and only the delicate balance of power holds the two empires in check.

In The Doomsday Vault, we encountered Alice Michaels, an impoverished woman of quality who had finally caught the eye of wealthy industrialist Norbert Williamson. Norbert promised to pay Alice’s family’s debts if she married him and provided their eventual child with a title. Alice reluctantly agreed. Mere hours later, she rescued from great danger a handsome young street musician named Gavin Ennock.

Before Gavin met Alice, he served aboard the American airship Juniper. An unfortunate encounter with pirates left him stranded in London with no means of employment save playing the fiddle on street corners. After Alice’s dramatic rescue, Gavin found himself attracted to her, and she to him, but her circumstances and his social standing didn’t allow for a romance.

A great many adventures followed. Alice’s aunt Edwina turned out to be a clockworker. Plague zombies attacked London. A great mechanical beast kidnapped Alice, and Gavin rescued her with the help of a mutated walking tree designed by another clockworker. Gavin and Alice learned of a shadowy organization called the Third Ward. The Ward, led by Lieutenant Susan Phipps, has been charged by Queen Victoria herself to scour the world for clockworkers and bring them back to London, where they build inventions for the good of the Crown—and the detriment of the Orient.

Aunt Edwina’s diseased mind created a pair of cures for the clockwork plague, but such cures would upset the careful balance of power between the British and the Chinese, so the Third Ward locked Edwina’s work in the Doomsday Vault, which houses only the most dangerous of inventions. Infuriated, Edwina infected Gavin with the plague in hopes of forcing Alice to retrieve the cure and, in the process, kill everyone in the Third Ward. Edwina’s plan worked—almost. Alice and Gavin stole the cures, but stopped short of murder.

Aunt Edwina did not survive the release of her own airborne cure, and Alice found herself the disconcerted owner of a mechanical gauntlet that can cure the clockwork plague with a scratch. Unfortunately, neither of Edwina’s cures helps clockwork geniuses; they only cure people in danger of becoming ordinary plague zombies.

Alice left her betrothed and declared her love for Gavin. She attempted to cure Gavin of the plague and failed; Gavin was becoming a clockworker.

Alice and Gavin fled London in a small airship, with Lieutenant Phipps hot on their heels. Joining them are Gabriel Stark (a clockworker who calls himself “Dr. Clef”), Feng Lung (the son of China’s ambassador to England), Kemp (Alice’s mechanical valet), and Click (Alice’s windup clockwork cat). They are heading for China, which has its own supply of clockworkers, and may have a more powerful cure that can restore Gavin’s fading sanity and save his life.

CHAPTER ONE

Gavin Ennock snapped awake. His temples pounded, his feet ached, and his arms flopped uselessly above his head. Far above him lay green grass strewn with twigs. It took him several moments to understand he was hanging upside down by his ankles. At least he wasn’t naked this time.

“Hello?” he called.

Below him, nothing moved. He shifted in confusion, and the iron shackles around his ankles clinked like little ghosts. How the hell—? The last thing he remembered was walking back to the inn from a much–needed trip to the bathhouse and someone had called his name. Now he was hanging head–down amid a bunch of trees. Most were little more than saplings, but a few were full–sized. Gavin didn’t know trees, but these certainly didn’t seem . . . normal. Their branches twisted as if with arthritis, and the leaves looked papery. Two or three bloomed with bright blue flowers, and bees bumbled among them.

The forest itself was contained within a domed greenhouse, three or four stories tall. Gavin’s head hung fully two of those stories above the ground. Glass walls broken into geometric designs magnified and heated angry summer sunlight. The whole place smelled green. Water trickled somewhere, and humidity made the air heavy. Breathing felt almost the same as drinking.

Poison ivy vines of fear took root and grew in Gavin’s stomach. “Hey!” Blood throbbed in his head, and his voice shook more than a little. “Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?”

From around one of the trees limped a man. His back was twisted, and his sparse brown hair clumped unevenly against his skull. This and his scarred, gnarled hands gave the initial impression that he was old, but Gavin, who wasn’t yet twenty, quickly realized the man was barely older than he was himself. The man was a clockworker, and the plague had left him with physical and mental scars both.

“Shit,” Gavin muttered.

“Is he awake?” The man had a French accent. “Yes, he is awake.”

“I’m an agent of the Third Ward,” Gavin called down to him, lying. “When I don’t report in, they’ll send a team to see what happened to me. You don’t want that. Let me go, and—”

The twisted man threw a lever Gavin hadn’t noticed before, and Gavin dropped. The ground rushed up at him. His stomach lurched, and Gavin yelled. At the last moment, the twisted man threw the lever again and Gavin jerked to a stop five feet above the ground. His ankles burned with pain, and the headache sloshed hot lead inside his skull.

“I think he has no idea who I am.” The twisted clockworker pressed a scarred hand to Gavin’s upturned cheek in a strangely tender caress. The gesture created an odd convergence of opposites. Gavin’s captor stood firmly on the ground. His body was twisted and warped as his trees, his face was scarred beneath greasy, sparse hair, and he wore a filthy robe that looked like it had once belonged to a monk. Muddy hazel eyes peered at his captive. Gavin had even features, white–blond hair, and blue eyes. His black shirt and trousers contrasted sharply with his fair skin and hair, and his fingers were straight and strong.

The clockworker cocked his head, as if hearing a voice—or voices. “Then maybe he should look around and try to remember who I am. Maybe he should.”

Gavin considered socking the clockworker, but discarded the idea—bad leverage, and even if he managed to knock the other man unconscious, he would still be trapped in the shackles. His earlier fear gnawed at him again, mingling with the pain.

Now that he was lower, he could see nearby a large stone worktable littered with wicked–looking gardening tools, a large control panel bristling with levers, dials, and lights, and, incongruously, a brass–and–glass pistol. A power cable trailed from the stock and ended in a large battery pack.

“Listen,” Gavin said with growing desperation, “I can help you. I can—”

The man turned Gavin, forcing him to look at the trees. “I don’t know if he remembers. Maybe he will if I point out that the forest is old but the greenhouse is new. What do you all think?”

“What are you talking about?” It was useless to argue with clockworkers—the disease that stoked their brains also lubricated their grip on reality—but Gavin couldn’t help himself. “You aren’t making—”

One of the trees moved. It actually leaned down and in, as if to get a closer look at Gavin. The blue blossoms shifted, and a glint of brass caught the light. Long wires and strips of metal ran up the bark. Gavin’s breath caught in his throat. For a moment, time flipped backward, and he was fleeing through a blur of leaves and branches that were actively trying to kill him. A tall, bearded clockworker in an opera cloak rode one of the walking trees, steering it by yanking levers and pressing pedals. His partner, Simon, shouted something as Gavin spun and fired the electric rifle attached to the battery pack on his back.

“L’Arbre Magnifique,” Gavin whispered. “This is his forest. But the greenhouse wasn’t here before, and you aren’t him.”

“I heard him mention my father, L’Arbre Magnifique,” the clockworker said. “But I don’t believe he asked my name.” He paused again. “Yes, that was indeed rude of him. He should know my name is Antoine.”

Gavin’s mouth went dry. Fantastic. What were the odds of two clockworkers showing up in the same family, or that Gavin would run into both of them in one lifetime? The shackles continued to bite into his ankles with iron teeth.

“Look, Antoine, your father is alive and well,” Gavin said, hoping he was telling the truth. “In London. We gave him a huge laboratory and he invents great . . . uh, inventions all day long. I can take you to him, if you want.”

Antoine spun Gavin back around and slugged him high in the stomach. The air burst from Gavin’s lungs. Pain sank into him, and he couldn’t speak.

“Ah,” Antoine said. “Do you think I hurt him? I do.” Another pause, with a glance at the trees. “No, it was not as painful as watching him kidnap my father.” He turned his back to Gavin and gestured at one of the towering trees. “That is true. My father only taught me to work with plants. I will teach myself how to work with meat. Slowly.”

An object flashed past Gavin’s face and landed soundlessly on the grass where Antoine couldn’t see. It was a perfect saucer of glass, perhaps two feet in diameter. Startled, Gavin looked up toward the faraway ceiling in time to see a brass cat, claws extended, leap through a new hole in the roof. The cat fell straight down and crashed into some bushes a few feet away. Antoine spun.

“What was that?”

It took Gavin a moment to realize Antoine was talking to him and not the trees. “It was my stomach growling,” he gasped through the pain. “Don’t you feed your prisoners?”

A string of saliva hung from Antoine’s lower lip. “Yes. I feed them to my forest.”

The leaves on the lower bushes parted, and the brass cat slipped under the worktable, out of Antoine’s field of view. It gave Gavin a phosphorescent green stare from the shadows. A ray of hope touched Gavin.

“Your father is a genius, Antoine,” he said earnestly. “A true artist. Queen Victoria herself said so.”

The trees whispered among themselves, and a storm crossed Antoine’s face. “You are right! He should never mention that horrible woman’s name, not when her Third Ward agents took my father away from me!”

“Simon and I captured a tree with him, remember? The tree turned out to be really useful,” Gavin continued, a little too loudly. The pain from the punch was fading a little, but his ankles still burned. “It helped us track down a clockworker who hurt a lot of people.”

Another glance at the trees. “Ah, yes. I miss Number Eight, too. What? No, I have definitely improved your design since then. Look at yourselves. I can make you blossom and create seedlings that grow their own metal frameworks, if only you have enough minerals in your roots. The entire forest will walk at my command! I only need more money. Money to buy more metal for my hungry trees.”

Through the hole in the roof flew a small whirligig, its propeller twirling madly to keep it aloft. It trailed a rope. The whirligig zipped down to a support beam close to the ground and grabbed it with six spidery limbs, leaving the slanted rope behind it. Two of the trees creaked and leaned sideways, as if they were searching for something. Antoine, sensitive to their moods, started to turn. The unnatural position of Gavin’s arms started new pains in his shoulders. The aches made Gavin’s concentration waver, and he had to force himself to speak up and divert Antoine’s attention.

“Where are you going to get money?” he said. “You live in a forest.”

Distracted, Antoine turned his attention back to Gavin. “He doesn’t know that I will collect a reward for capturing him, yes, I will. But will I play with him first? Also, yes.”

Gavin froze. “What reward? What are you talking about?”

“Is it a large reward? Enormous!” Antoine began to pace. The cat watched him intently, and when Antoine’s twisted back was turned, it bolted out from under the table and took a flying leap onto Gavin’s back. His claws sank into Gavin’s skin, and Gavin sucked in a sharp breath at the pricks and stabs of eighteen claws.

“Ow! Click!” Gavin gasped.

Antoine glanced sharply at him, but the cat was hidden from view behind Gavin’s body. “Click?”

“I said I’m sick,” Gavin managed. “Who could be offering a reward for me? I’ve been in France only a few days.”

“That would be Lieutenant Susan Phipps.”

Gavin’s blood chilled. “No,” he whispered.

“Ah. Did you see the way I frightened my new subject?” A pause, and his expression turned churlish. “But I should be allowed to play before I turn him over to Lieutenant Phipps. Just a little. Just enough.”

“What about Alice?” Gavin couldn’t help blurting. “Is there a reward for her, too?”

“Would I like to double the reward?” Click the cat climbed higher just as Antoine snaked out a hand and pulled Gavin closer by his hair, which gave Gavin an excuse to yelp in pain. “Where is your little baroness?”

At that moment, a woman in a brown explorer’s shirt, trousers, and gloves slid through the hole in the roof and down the slanted rope. Her hair was tucked under a pith helmet, and her belt sported a glass cutlass. Her expression was tight, like a dirigible that might explode. Alice Michaels. Oh God. Gavin’s chest constricted and he felt a mixture of love and alarm, devotion and dread. He was so glad to see her he wanted to go limp with relief even as he was terrified the clockworker would capture her as well.

“We split up,” Gavin gasped, too aware of the cat on his back. What the hell was the damned thing doing? “Right after we left England. The Third Ward was chasing us and we decided it would be safer. You’ll never find her.”

“Do I believe him? No, I do not. Do I think his Alice is somewhere nearby? Yes, I—”

“MONSEIGNEUR!” boomed one of the trees. “MONSEIGNEUR! ROCAILLEUX!”

Everything happened at once. Antoine snatched up the brass pistol from the worktable. Click scrambled up Gavin’s legs to his ankles and extended a claw into the shackles. Alice whipped the glass cutlass free with one hand and sliced the rope below her. Clinging to the top piece like a liana vine, she swung downward. With a clack, Gavin’s shackles came open and he dropped to the ground, barely managing to tuck and roll so he wouldn’t hit his head. Antoine fired the pistol at Alice. Yellow lightning snapped from the barrel. Thunder smashed through the greenhouse. An anguished shout tore itself from Gavin’s throat. The bolt missed its target, and four windows shattered. Alice landed several yards away from the circle of trees, stumbled, regained her feet in waist–high shrubbery. Click dropped to the ground in front of Gavin. Antoine took aim at Alice again.

Now enraged, Gavin tried to come to his feet, but his legs, chained for too many hours, gave way. Instead, he snatched up Click and threw. Click landed on Antoine’s head with a mechanical yowl. Antoine’s arm jerked. The pistol spoke, and thunder slammed the air as the yellow bolt tore through the top of one of the trees. Another window shattered.

“ROCAILLEUX,” the tree cursed. To a tree, anything rocky was bad.

Alice crashed through the bushes toward Antoine, who was still struggling with Click. Blood flowed from a dozen tiny cuts on the clockworker’s face and head. He finally managed to fling the cat aside and bring the pistol around on her.

“Alice!” Gavin’s heart wrenched with terror for her. Already he could envision the smoking hole in her chest.

Antoine’s finger tightened on the trigger. Without pausing in her stride, Alice swung the glittering cutlass and severed the power cable. It spat sparks and dropped to the ground like a dying electric snake. A magnificent move, and Gavin grinned. But instead of hesitating, Antoine swung the barrel of the pistol. It clipped Alice on the side of the head, and she stumbled.

“Pute!” Antoine snarled. “Do I care if I get a reward for her alive? No, I do not!”

Angered again, Gavin wrenched himself to his feet and rushed at Antoine, but the clockworker was ready, and stiff–armed Gavin in the chest. Antoine looked old, but he was actually young and strong and gifted with heightened reflexes by the disease that was also burning through his brain. Gavin possessed similar strength and reflexes, but he was still hobbled by his hours in shackles, and he staggered back.

Alice recovered herself, but instead of going for Antoine, she ran for one of the brass–limned trees. Antoine snatched up a set of huge hedge–trimming shears and flipped a switch. They chattered and chopped as he ran toward her, foam and spittle trailing from his mouth. Alice scrambled up the tree. Antoine swung the shears and gouged out a chunk of brass and bark just below her boot.

“ROCAILLEUX,” the tree said.

Knives and needles slashed Gavin’s sore muscles, but he ignored them and forced himself to move. He slammed into Antoine from behind, stopping the clockworker from swinging the shears again but not knocking him over. Instead, Antoine’s plague–enhanced reflexes allowed him to spin and jab at Gavin. The shears snapped at Gavin’s arm, and he barely yanked it out of the way. Air puffed past his fingers as the blades closed. He grabbed Antoine’s wrist and twisted, hoping to force him to drop the shears, but Antoine was stronger than he looked and Gavin’s stiff muscles continued to disobey him. Antoine slowly forced the shears back around until the blades were snapping at Gavin’s neck. A warm drop of saliva dribbled from Antoine’s mouth onto Gavin’s cheek.

“Will the boy pay?” he hissed. “He will!”

The tree Alice had climbed creaked and bent. “Gavin! Down!”

At Alice’s shout, Gavin relaxed and let himself fall. It never occurred to him not to. He dropped to the grass, leaving Antoine standing above him. One of the tree’s branches swung around at chest height. Gavin caught the surprise on Antoine’s face just before the tree swept him aside like a toy soldier knocked off a table.

“Hurry!” Alice called. “Climb up.”

Gavin struggled to his feet and jumped onto the lowered branch. Click followed, his claws digging into the bark and offering a clear advantage over Gavin, who had to cling as best he could while the branch hauled him up to the main trunk. Alice, surrounded by pedals, cranks, levers, and pulleys, was seated on a bench built into the wood. She spun one of the cranks, and the tree straightened again. Then she grabbed the front of Gavin’s shirt and pulled him down for a long kiss.

The world stopped for a moment. The pain in Gavin’s body receded, and Alice’s warm lips pressing against his own made him feel both safe and calm, even as they stole his very breath. He kissed her back, so thankful to see her that tears came to his eyes. They parted.

“That’s for being alive when I came to get you,” Alice said, then slapped him lightly on the cheek. “And that’s for getting captured and scaring me half to death in the first place.”

“I love you, too.” Gavin said. “Now, run! He’ll recover in a minute, and I’m not up for fighting him. I don’t suppose you brought Dr. Clef’s power gun.”

“Too heavy to carry down the rope, darling.” Alice held out an arm and whistled. The whirligig buzzed in and settled on her shoulder. Click took up a position on the bench beside her. “We’re safe for the moment anyway. These trees don’t move unless you tell them to. Do you want to drive? I never handled the original Tree back home.”

Below, Antoine had already regained his feet and was staggering toward the worktable.

“Antoine can control them from the ground,” Gavin said tersely. “Go! Go now!”

Alice didn’t hesitate or ask for further explanation, which was one of the many reasons Gavin loved her. She hauled ropes and yanked levers. The tree stomped forward on a bifurcated trunk that ended in balled roots. Antoine reached the worktable—and the control panel. Alice stomped another step forward, and another. She had nearly cleared the ring of mutated trees.

“Will I kill them?” Antoine screamed from the control panel. “Will I?”

“He’s losing his mind,” Gavin observed as Alice worked. “He’s not even answering his own questions.”

Antoine’s hands moved swiftly over the panel, flipping levers and twisting dials. A low–pitched hum throbbed through the earth and vibrated even the tree.

“FEUILLU,” said the tree.

“Is that French for leafy?” Gavin asked.

“Yes,” Alice said. “He must like the vibrations. I find them most uncomfortable.”

“It’s a very low C,” said Gavin.

“You and your perfect pitch. Good heavens, how I missed you, darling.”

Antoine yanked a large lever, and all the other trees snapped to attention. “Destroy them!”

“Uh–oh,” Gavin said. “Can you move faster?”

“The tree is trying to follow Antoine’s orders instead of mine,” Alice replied grimly. “But I seem to be getting the hang of it.”

The tree picked up speed even as the other trees—four of them—turned as one and stomped in Alice’s wake. Alice, for her part, was guiding their own tree straight toward the perimeter of the glassy greenhouse. Gavin clung to the branch with white fingers. The noise was incredible. Heavy trees thudded across the ground like an army of gods, the vibrations that controlled the others throbbed in Gavin’s bones, and Antoine’s shrieks chased them faster than a flock of ravens.

“It’s still fighting me,” Alice shouted. Her arms and legs worked the controls in a blur. “It wants to do what the others are doing.”

“How are we going to get out of here?” Gavin called over the noise. “I don’t see a door.”

“Cover your eyes!” was all Alice said.

“ROCAILLEUX,” screamed the tree.

They hit the greenhouse wall. Glass exploded in a thousand directions, and Gavin lurched forward. His feet left the branch, and he was flying through the air. The tree hadn’t smashed completely through, and its top third was caught on the remains of the greenhouse. Gavin tumbled forward, but the clockwork plague suddenly took over completely. The universe slowed. Green leaves and glittering glass surrounded him like strange snowflakes. Just below him were the tree’s branches, and he was aware of drag coefficient of the bark, which places would slow him down and by how much. He saw every bump and nub, every side branch and twig, and his brain instantly mapped out a route that would take him to safety. Behind him floated Alice, and he calculated the arc of her flight pattern as well, then readjusted his own route accordingly.

The universe burst back into motion, and his body, finally free of its earlier stiffness, turned the dive into controlled leaps and jumps down the tree’s branches until he came to rest on solid ground outside the greenhouse exactly where he wanted. Then he whirled and caught Alice. Her helmet flew on without her and cracked against a boulder. Gavin nearly went over backward, but just managed to keep his feet with Alice in his arms. Thank God. He held her tight, feeling her heart pound against his chest. The universe could come to a complete stop now, and he wouldn’t mind in the slightest.

“Thank you, kind sir,” she gasped, pushing a lock of tousled honey–brown hair out of dark brown eyes. “That quite took my breath away.”

“Clockwork reflexes,” Gavin said. “I should be in a circus.”

The tree was now standing with its lower branches sticking out of the glittering greenhouse, while the upper part was still trapped inside. Behind it stampeded the other trees. Click trotted out of the wreckage, his metal ears back, and the whirligig whizzed overhead, unhurt.

“Now what?” Gavin asked, setting Alice down. “You do have a plan, right?”

She took his hand. “Yes: Run!”

A rutted dirt road twisted through the woods ahead of them, and they sprinted down it. The late–summer breeze should have been uncomfortably warm, but it felt refreshing after the hot, still air of the greenhouse. Behind them, glass smashed and tinkled as the trees hit the side of the greenhouse, but they were tangling up with each other, and they were further hampered by the fact that all of them were making the exact same motions under Antoine’s control. Gavin, Alice, and the two little machines rounded a bend in the road, leaving the greenhouse and its howling inhabitant behind.

“Why didn’t you have Click cut an exit at ground level instead of coming in through the ceiling?” Gavin puffed.

“The glass is thicker at the base to support weight,” Alice pointed out. “It’s thin on the roof.”

“So where are Dr. Clef and the Lady? Shouldn’t they be—?”

A crackling crash brought them up short. From out of the trees beside the road about fifteen feet ahead of them burst a pair of mechanicals. They were nearly two stories tall, with squat, round builds, heavy legs, long arms, and gleaming brass skin. A glass bubble enclosed the top of each. Inside one rode a young man with dark, curly hair that peeked out from around his hat, and inside the other sat a woman in a long skirt, puffy white blouse, and fashionably small hat. The man pointed one of his mechanical’s arms at Gavin, and the hand ended in an impressively large gun barrel.

“Aw, no,” Gavin groaned. “Simon, Glenda—you aren’t serious.”

“Surrender, Gavin. You too, Alice,” said Simon d’Arco into a speaking tube. His voice, carried outside the bubble, sounded tinny and distant.

“We’ve got you,” the woman added in a similarly tinny voice. “And you know it.”

“I know nothing of the sort, Glenda,” Alice shot back.

“What if we tell you to piss off, Simon?” Gavin said. “Are you going to shoot me? Squash me? We were partners in the Ward for months.” And you were half in love with me, he added silently.

“You destroyed the Ward, Gavin,” Simon said. “It’s gone now. The Queen herself disbanded it. Our last mission is to arrest you for treason and bring you back for trial.”

“Now that you released that cure,” Glenda added, “we’ll have no more clockworkers to hunt down. The few we have are dead or dying.”

“And millions of other people will live,” Alice replied hotly. “I don’t regret it for a moment.”

“You thought of nothing but yourselves,” Glenda snapped, showing some agitation. “Nothing! The Ward was everything to me, Alice. I gave you a chance with the Ward and with Gavin, and this is how you repay me?”

“We’re not going back to England, Simon,” Gavin said. “So are you ready to shoot me?”

“He doesn’t have to shoot you,” said a voice that made Gavin stiffen. “He only has to delay you. Just like Antoine did, and admirably.” From the trees stepped a second woman. Her black hair, only slightly streaked with silver, was pulled into a twist. She wore a blue uniform with hat, boots, and epaulets. The coat was cut to show her left arm, which was entirely mechanical. It also had six fingers. Her name was Lieutenant Susan Phipps.

“In the name of Her Royal Majesty and the Third Ward,” Phipps said, “I place you both under arrest for sedition, treason, and attempted murder.”

“No,” Gavin said, though some of the bravado had left him. Phipps by herself was more imposing than even two agents in mechanicals. He made himself stand upright, though he was sweating under his arms. “Sorry, Lieutenant—Susan—but we all know that Glenda and Simon aren’t going to hurt us. We saved you from that doomsday invention Alice’s aunt dropped on headquarters. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but it wasn’t very smart to bring those two. You should have brought someone who doesn’t know us.”

“They’re loyal,” Phipps said, unruffled, “and won’t disappoint me. Unlike some.”

Gavin couldn’t help flinching at that. When Gavin was only seventeen and stranded in London, Phipps had offered him a position as an agent of the Third Ward. She had seen him through his training, encouraged him, opened doors for him. She had lifted him out of the gutter and handed him the keys to the world, and he had betrayed her.

“I’m . . . sorry, ma’am,” Gavin said. “Look, I’m not happy about what I—”

“Oh, shut it, Gavin,” Alice interrupted. “We learned the Empire had been keeping the cure locked away to ensure the plague continues creating clockwork geniuses. You let thousands of people die excruciating deaths, Phipps, and have no right to debate morality.”

“Thousands more will die because you released the cure,” Phipps said. “Because of you, China will have clockworkers for much longer than we, easily long enough to take over the world, and that conflict will cost countless British lives. So come quietly, or come noisily. It makes no difference.”

“Noisily?” Gavin said. “What do you mean by—?”

Phipps reached into her pockets with both hands and came up with a pair of tuning forks. Gavin’s eye automatically measured their length and thickness with clockwork precision. When struck, they would produce the notes D and A–flat. For the second time that day, his blood chilled.

“Run!” Alice screamed, but it was too late. Phipps clanged the forks together. The two notes rang down the road. Dual vibrations tore ugly ripples through the air faster than Gavin could react, and the discordant interval, a tritone, slammed into his brain. The noise made its own string of numbers inside his head, and they spun around him, refusing to coalesce into anything that made sense. A tritone has, at its base, the square root of two, and it is the only musical interval that is expressed as an irrational number, a number that does not truly exist, and yet at that moment it did exist in the sound Gavin was hearing. The paradox that he could hear so clearly tore at his mind and made his head dizzy with pain. He clapped his hands over his ears, but the sound was too loud to shut out.

He was vaguely aware of Alice shouting something, and he heard clunky mechanical footsteps. Hard metal hands scooped him up. The tritone began to fade, then clanged again, and Gavin cried out in fresh pain as an explosion rocked his body.


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