A nearly imperceptible whir filled the air; a noise that spoke of invisible gears and infinitesimally small valves opening and hissing and spinning at tremendous rates. The air was filled with a light steam and the smell of oil. The Analytical Engine. A massive room with a single catwalk running through the centre, various ladders and ropes leading to the walls and ground and ceiling, where, through the faint orange light, the gears and switches of the massive machine worked on and on.
Breaking into places like this made Will feel uneasy. The room was too dignified. The security was perfunctory, like the base act of being burgulared was above it. The locks were simple, the guard automata were easy to bypass. Most thiefs would only get angry at the presumption. Will just felt he was in a place he wasn't good enough to trespass.
At the end of the catwalk stood a rolling sheet of paper across which several inked needles printed output. In front of the roll was a large brass and wood keyboard, a beast of a thing, that looked heavy enough to crush a small child and still leave a mark in the floor. The wood was lustrous, dark, something that would be used in a fine coach or dirigible, and then only decoratively. On either side small gaslights cast a flickering glow. Will suddenly worried if his shirt was tucked in properly.
Ann walked straight to the keyboard, and without a moment's hesitation, started typing, as if she wasn't wielding the power of one of the most advanced pieces machinery in the entire high city. She slid the Will's sheet of paper onto a well worn, gilded metal tray. Taking a match from underneath, she lit a phosphorous flash. Something deep in the bowels of the Analytical Engine churned awake, and the entire room shifted from its even chugging to a new task.
Will swallowed hard.
The room shuddered. No doubt this problem was nothing like what it usually worked with. Ann gave him a look that she had given him once too many times: What the hell have you got me into? Will made himself busy looking at the indecipherable printout.
Ann rolled her eyes and bumped him out of the way to read it herself.
"This isn't normal manifest stuff, Will. They don't encrypt it this much if it's run of the mill." She paused, and tried to catch his gaze. "There isn't anything you want to tell me about this, is there? Say, murderous thugs wanting to keep it out of prying eyes? Undue attention from the Concern? Please don't tell me this has anything to do with the Concern."
"What? No, no, of course I'd never bring you into anything that dangerous. I'd have told you if it was that. No, this is just a bit of graymarket stuff." He lowered his voice, as if an attentive teacher was within earshot, "It's this particular airship dock I've been staking. I think they supply some pretty interesting people. People the Concern doesn't bother with, yet they themselves are very... intriguing."
"Oh, no, you got that look in your eye."
"What look?" Will did his best impression of innocence. Which he was terrible at.
"You know I'm totally behind what you've been trying to do all this time, noble and heartbreaking and all that. But it always gets you into really bad situations." She put her hand on his arm, he tried to act like he didn't notice. "Be careful. More careful this time."
The output finished. She ripped off the sheet and read it.
Will felt two massive caterpillars crawl around his stomach, apparently in a fight to the death. The uneasiness of being in the Machine for so long, and the excitement that he had found them. Finally. The Clockwork Pirates. He clenched his sweaty hands.
"This is a list of times when CP docks. CP... What's that?"
"It's nothing, nothing. Don't even worry about." His stomach turned on itself. He grabbed the sheet and stuffed it inside his shoulder bag. "Let's go."
A thud sounded near the exit from the Machine. A deep, authoritative thud, like whatever made it was large and lethal and didn't particularly care if you were a student at the Academy, or if you had strenuous objections to being made dead.
They both froze. The caterpillars that had been fighting in Will's stomach turned into frenzied pythons and a rather panicked deer. His knees locked.
He tried to get out what was screaming in his head, in the quietest voice he could manage, he said, "A construct."
Ann let out an "Oh", one that was a little too scared and a little too high. Will saw her flinch slightly at it.
"We'll be fine. I'm sure it's just on patrol. No reason to.. to be worried. Must be on patrol, supplementing the toher automata we got past."
Ann nodded. Lies were always better when shared with a willingly ignorant partner.
There was no way they'd waste a construct on a routine patrol. Automata was one thing; clockworks, relatively speaking, were cheap. Clockworks and thaumaturgy together -- a construct -- that was no small feat, and not cheap.
They had gone too far. They had made some very serious people very upset.
The construct had thumped to the ground from an unseen hatch high above and stood between them and the exit. It hissed and clanked as it operated its three legs quicker and quicker, until it was hurtling at them, faster than any automata could manage. Plumes of steam pushed out from a stove-pipe on its body and the chorded, piercing sound of runes activating were the only evidence of the thaumaturgy imbued deep inside its clockworks. It thrust three prong-like spears in front of it. Most worrying, though, was the gigantic memory gem in the centre of its body, which glowed with a light deep inside, getting brighter and brighter.
"If we can just make it past before it can charge that gem."
Ann shot him a sarcastic look. "And the three jabbing spears of murder, those aren't going to be a problem then?"
He grabbed Ann's arm and pulled her towards the exit, and the construct.
"It's made for throngs of angry citizens, not two students about to escape without a scratch." He flashed a smile he hoped showed endearing confidence, and not terrified, forced bravado.
They picked up speed, their legs and arms pumping. The three weapons perfectly suitable for skewering teenagers became larger and jabbier with each step. At the last moment Will ducked down and slid between the three legs, pulling Ann down with him. He was right under it, and she, still in front, when a bright flash shot from the gem, and a surprisingly lurid curse came from Ann.
They pulled themselves up and ran for the door, the construct scrabbling, trying to turn around and stop at the same time.
They sat atop a squat building that housed a grocer and a small machine shop. The smell of cheap oil was cut, occasionally and not with much success, by a slightly mouldy scent of citrus. They looked across the high city of Travence, and watched the sun set and the streets come to life for the night. Stalls closed and drinking parlours opened. The hum and buzz of small coke engines played background noise to the celebratory bustle of twilight.
Will and Ann ate a small picnic of half stale bread and something that might have been cheese. It was a few hours before curfew, but only Ann really worried about that.
"So. That's it then. I've been completely had. That construct has my picture. Things have just gotten from hope-I-don't-get-expelled to please-don't-take-me-in-the-dark-of-night-to-some-heretofore-secret-gallows. God."
"We don't know it got your picture."
"Will, I was looking right at the gem when it went off."
They were both quiet for a time. She jabbed at her bread and his mind raced with how he could have gotten Ann in so much trouble. The sort that could get her expelled, thrown in jail. Or worse. Another part of him wondered how he could have gotten himself in so much trouble. Nearly, anyways.
"Well, I think... I think I've found them, finally." Will exhaled.
Ann looked up at him, momentarily shaking herself out of deep thought.
"Well, one of them," Will said. "The Clockwork Pirates keep off the map pretty well. But even they need to resupply sometimes. There are enough of them that it was a good bet at least one of their ships would dock at Travance." He flashed her a grin, hoping she'd be distracted by the mention of the Clockwork Pirates.
She started at the name. "So what are you going to do now? You just going to go aboard and ask them where they took your mother? Is that how it works? I think you're about six inches shy and a hundred pounds light to even try something like that."
The way she appraised his build made him want to puff out his chest and suck in his gut, like a middle aged man asking directions from a wildly disproportionate shop girl with limited modesty.
"I'm going to try and find some records aboard one of their ships."
"You really think they keep slave records?" She arched an eyebrow.
"I'm not the first one to think that they have someone else organizing them. Their raids and attacks have been, at times, highly coordinated, for specific effects. The Clarion has mentioned it more than once in their editorials."
"Oh right, news hound." She chuckled. He couldn't figure out if it was a 'I chuckle because I know you so well, since we are dear dear friends that might be something more', or 'I chuckle because you sir, are a dork.'.
"And, so... What are you going to do? Head back to the Academy before curfew, I'm sure." said Will.
"Not everyone has a taste for disorder and thievery, you know. Some of us want to graduate, get an apprenticeship. Some of us want to go onto collegium." She bit her lip and twisted her bread.
"Listen, they have a shipment being delivered tonight. Maybe you'd like to go on a little excursion? I mean, you've already gone this far. You could stay on the cargo ship."
"Get close to a Clockwork Pirate ship? It's one thing to break into the Analytical Machine. Well, at least, that's what I thought before I found out they had a construct protecting it. But to... to even get close to those, those things." She shuddered.
"For someone who wants to do graduate work in thaumaturgy, you have a pretty strong case of cowardice."
She looked up sharply. Jutting her jaw, she said, "Listen, I'm not scared of things that I'll have to... confront in thaumaturgy. I know the stories, I know the dangers that await me later. That's all part of the training, of learning the best bits. But to put myself in the way of the Pirates? That's a whole new level of stupid."
"Even for you?"
She punched him on the arm, which didn't hurt as much as it should've.
"How about this," Ann said, "maybe we could swing by the Academy. Scout it out, if everything seems fine, you can drop me off on your way to accomplish breathtaking feats of stupidity."
"And if things have gone south?"
"I will join you in your suicidal attempt to reunite with your mother. Maybe."