by BD Mitchell
A young clocksmith must rescue an inventor's family from the first ever Clockwork Manor.
(1st Place - "CLASH! " 2016)
Dear residents of London,
My name is Peabody Plumpocket. Yes, I am the man you are thinking of. The country's richest man, who invented and lives in the first clockwork household. Well, it appears that I have made some serious design flaws.
My children, Priscilla and George, wanted a live dog. Although automatic dogs are much easier to come by, they wanted the real thing. I searched all of Europe until I found one, and brought it home as a surprise.
Unfortunately, the dog has since triggered the automatic defense system. Its barking mimics the sound of bombs and its howling mimics the sound of sirens. My home is set to defend its residents when intercepted with certain recurring sound frequencies. And it has found those.
I have disposed of the dog, of course, but the system has malfunctioned, and is stuck in automatic defense mode. I and my children have been locked in my attic, and the manor has become an impenetrable fortress that I cannot control.
We have survived thus far due to the automatic food dispensary, however supplies are running low, and within a week we will be out of both food and clean water. My children are scared. I am scared.
I had originally intended to keep this a private affair. The mail system within my household still functions, and I tried mailing my neighbor for help. I do not know what became of him, but my children and I hear screams in the halls, which sounds like our neighbor. It has been a week since I sent the letter.
I realize now that I must make this affair public. I now am asking you, Citizen, for help. Penetrate the impenetrable. I have sent this letter to The London Times in the hopes that the establishment would reprint and make public my letter. If you are reading this, it must be so.
I realize that this task is dangerous, but I am prepared to offer a reward, of your choosing, should you succeed in freeing me and my children. You must break into my home, overcome whatever traps have been set in the halls, reach the attic, and get me safely to the manual shutdown, for which I have the only key.
Please, Citizen. Hurry to Clockwork Manor on Elizabeth Road! We haven't much time, and you are our only hope.
Dr. Peabody Plumpocket
The Curious Matter of Clockwork Manor
Part I: A Call To Arms
In the spirit of absolute honesty, I shall begin by stating that the adventures you are about to read are not my own. The true protagonist of our tale has many talents, but condensing his thoughts into a comprehensible narrative form is not among them. I hope I may then be forgiven my encroachment.
The events here chronicled took place in the year of Eighteen-Hundred and Ninety-Five. You may recall that it was the year of the inaugural launch of the Royal Mail’s new dirigible fleet. With those twelve airships, enabled as such to surmount both the highest mountain and the widest sea, it seemed that the supreme vastness of the world was dissolving away into nothingness.
But leaving aside the all the grand adventures and capital the air fleet represented, we shall instead sharpen our focus to the city of London, to a small but respectable lodging in the heart of Mayfair.
One of the benefits of selecting a career in writing is that one can always claim a pretense of working. I was deeply engrossed in one of these productive fits of inactivity when he burst into our shared flat in a state of chaotic disarray.
There was something about Ben Bradley that always put me in mind of a ferret. He did have a pointed face and an occasionally-twitchy demeanor, and his eyes were a sharp and inquisitive brown. It was remarkable that he ever had any energy at all; his days were largely spent in the workroom of a clock shop that had been in his family for three generations, and his nights were fully devoted to his meticulous little experiments in our flat. I admit that I have been rather sharp with Ben in the past about the issue of excessive clatter during hours at which all decent Englishmen should be asleep.
"Charlie!" he exclaimed, flinging aside his straw hat and topcoat. "Oh, Charlie – you'll never guess!"
"No, I daresay I couldn't," I replied groggily. "D'you have any idea what time it is?"
Ben fumbled briefly for one of his many pocket-watches. "Three-o'clock in the afternoon, of course!"
"What, again? Where does the time go?"
"No idea!" Ben said impatiently. "But really, Charlie, you'll never believe what's happened!"
"My dear fellow," I said, extricating myself from the sofa. "You always come home with that look of wild-eyed incredulity, and it's only after a lengthy preamble that I discover that the fuss is really just another switched lemur encampment at your father's shop."
"Swiss lever escapement!" Ben said sharply. "It's a fascinating design, really! It interacts more directly with the balance wheel, you see, thus causing less strain on the–"
"And while we're on the subject of clockwork, is there anything to be done about that contraption?"
I gestured to the corner, where a heap of cogs and pistons clanked and whooshed with inscrutable intent from atop Ben's worktable.
"How do you mean?" he said.
"It's been awfully clickety all day. Makes it a challenge to concentrate."
Ben's brow furrowed; all his frantic enthusiasm had collected and concentrated into his eyes.
"Really?" he said pensively. "That's peculiar. Perhaps there's a misalignment with a central cam – no! Look, man, I'm telling you something's happened!"
"So you keep saying, but with no further explanation. Do get to the point."
Ben began scrambling across the flat, gathering a calliper here or a spanner there and flinging everything into a leather satchel.
"If we actually are in the mid-afternoon as you suggest," I said, "I presume you were at the shop?"
Ben was impatiently perusing a selection of jewelers' lenses.
"At the shop, yes. I was trying to make sense of the most bizarre little mantel clock. I suspect its maker sets his prices by the quantity of components rather than the quality of the mechanism, for there was–"
"Pardon me for interrupting, Ben, but does the clock actually figure in to your big news?"
"What? Er, no, I suppose it doesn't. So I was in the shop, examining... well, any old thing, really, when a pair of policemen walked in."
"Oh, Ben – you weren't nicked again!"
"Of course not!" said Ben indignantly. "And I really don't think even that one time should count."
"Shouldn't count? The constable found you dismantling an electric carriage in plain ruddy daylight! There were gears and axles strewn across the street! And the poor cabbie – you're lucky he didn't bring you up on charges!"
There was a sheepish glow in Ben's cheeks. "It was only – I just – I mean, I had to know how it worked, you see. But I fixed it! Better than new, even!"
I sighed; it would be unproductive to parade him through that whole affair again, I knew.
"So what did the policemen want, old boy?" I said.
"The...? Oh! They were looking for clockmakers. The best in the city, they said – and someone had recommended Bradley & Co. as the genuine A-1!"
"What the deuce would the police want with clockmakers, I wonder?"
"That's what my father said!" Ben resumed his frenetic packing. "But eventually he agreed to leave my brother in charge of the shop and pop over to Savile Row. So we followed the constables to the department–"
"Hang on," I said. "The 'we' here being you and your father? Why did he have you along?"
There was no mistaking the expression that crept across Ben's face like sunrise on a clear morning. It was undeniably pride.
"He told the policemen straightaway that if the best clocks in the city were at Bradley & Co., then the best clockmaker was me!"
"I say! Well done, you! Of course, you'd better be the best after all the tinkering that goes on around here. But then, what exactly did they want with the best of the best?"
Ben beamed again. "To help Dr. Plumpocket, of course!"
I felt rather like I'd stumbled onto a punchline before hearing the rest of the joke. The name was familiar, of course; even a professional idler like myself would know the name of the single wealthiest man in Britain.
"The industrialist?" I said. "Why would he be interested in clocks?"
Ben stopped trying to cram one more ratchet into his overstuffed satchel and stared at me with his very best impression of a codfish.
"Surely you know Peabody Plumpocket!" he exclaimed. "Inventor of the triple-piston steam compressor? And the automated postal network? Why, his whole house runs on clockwork, by Jove!"
"Steady on, man, steady on! No need to get overexcited. So the chap's a bit of a dab hand with gears and springs. Is he looking for an apprentice?"
"Well, no. Apparently he sent a letter to the Times – the Chief Inspector showed us a copy. Something went wrong with Plumpocket's house, and now he and his family are trapped inside!"
I frowned. "Then wouldn't a locksmith be more on the mark?"
"I doubt a locksmith could get past anything Dr. Peabody Plumpocket designs," scoffed Ben. "Besides, the Chief Inspector said someone may have already died trying."
"I'm terribly sorry, Ben, old fellow – but it sounded an awful lot like you just said 'died'."
"I... I did."
"And if I may make an inference, you intend to try and disarm this world-renowned, incredibly dangerous clockwork house yourself?"
"Well... yes, I suppose I do."
"Then egad, man! What must your blood be made of? Are you not the least bit terrified?"
The room fell silent. Even the jumbled mechanism in the corner seemed eerily subdued. When Ben spoke at last, it was with a calm, confident voice that was wholly incongruous to his fidgety nature:
"Yes, Charlie, I'm afraid. You know me – I'm not adventurous. I have no desire to go tromping through any wild jungles or chasing down brigands. But this is Clockwork Manor we're talking about! This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the pinnacle of human ingenuity firsthand! I've waited my whole life for a moment like this.
"But more importantly, there is a man's life at stake. A man, a daughter, and a son. They need help, Charlie. They need help – and by God, I just might be able to help them. How can I refuse that? Where is the point in learning how the world ticks if you won't lift a finger to keep it ticking?"
Ordinarily, I'm not a man easily moved – but I tell you, reader, that in this moment I felt a great surge of pride and admiration for my friend. It was almost impossible to believe that this was timid, twitchy, ferret-faced Ben Bradley making an impassioned and surprisingly-eloquent speech about marching forward into certain danger!
"What can I say, old boy," I said with a sigh. "There's a noble streak in you I've never appreciated before. And it sounds like you've thought this through."
With a final effort, Ben managed to fasten the clasp on his satchel. "I hope I have," he said.
"Is there anything I can do? Short of coming along and being a general nuisance, I mean."
"I don't think so, Charlie, but thank you. Oh! Perhaps you could write some of this down when I return – it might make for an interesting story!"
"Just try your damnedest to make it back," I said. "I don't know how I could possibly go on without another lodger splitting the rent."
"Always the sensible one!" Ben laughed. "Very well, then. If your father still refuses to foot your bill–"
"Emphatically he does!" said I.
"–then I shall return straightaway, with notes of my exploits. But in the meantime – crikey! Sorry, Charlie, but I must dash! I promised I would meet Captain Durward at the Manor at 4-o'clock!"
Ben dove behind the sofa to retrieve his straw hat and rough leather topcoat. "Durward! Former dragoon, I think. The Chief Inspector said he might come in handy!"
"They're giving you a valet? I must say, that's very interesting. Do you suppose he would–"
"Finish that thought later, Charlie!" said Ben as he bustled out the door. "And I'll take notes, I promise – for the story, I mean! Good-bye!"
And with that, he was gone – speeding off to whatever adventures providence held in store.
The Curious Matter of Clockwork Manor
Part II: The Door Is Open
It should come as no surprise that poor Ben was a bit rattled. He had already seen more death at Clockwork Manor than in the whole of his life – and he was only as far as the foyer. The front gate had certainly been more decapitory than one would prefer in an entryway. Indeed, if it hadn't been for the quick reflexes of another adventurer, Ben would surely have met his own demise by a rather vicious ornamental jardinière. By the time the rescue party clambered through the front door, their numbers were evenly halved.
Once the whole motley crew arrived in the manor proper, the party immediately split and embarked on separate paths into the house, as no one seemed to be in a mind for conversation.
Or rather, nearly no one.
"It couldn't all be automatic. There must be some mechanism for precision aiming – do you think we have time to go back and check? No – I suppose you're right. Tempus fugit, after all. But it can't possibly be spring-activated! Perhaps some kind of piston-trigger...?"
Since it took every scrap of Ben's willpower to hold at bay the crippling panic, there was nothing left-over to temper his mechanomania. Mortal dread aside, he was having a grand old time.
His police escort, on the other hand, was not amused.
"You might look out for traps, sir," said Captain Durward gruffly. Though clad in a nondescript greatcoat and lightly-weathered bowler, there was the air of a big-game hunter about the captain. Perhaps it was the wary manner with which he carried his rifle, or the way he scanned the corridor as if constantly expecting a tiger attack.
"But Captain!" said Ben. "Within these walls is the most advanced technology on Earth! Are you not the least bit curious?"
"I expect you're more interested in devices of a head-lopping variety?"
"I suppose I can't fault you for that. But still! Just imagine the craftsmanship that produces this much clockwork! How is it powered, I wonder? It shouldn't be springs or pendulums – not on this scale! A steamwork furnace, I think, would fit the–"
Ben was tackled roughly to the marble floor. Something massive swept through the air at an ominous torso-gouging angle. Ben only managed a glance at the enormous glinting blade before it vanished back into the wall.
"You might look out for traps," Durward repeated, hoisting Ben off the ground.
"What could have triggered it?" said Ben, gathering the scattered contents of his satchel.
"Don't know, sir."
If Ben wanted to forestall a mad, screaming dash back through the treacherous yard, he had to bring his heart-rate down to a less-combustible frequency – and there was no meter in his life quite so influential as that of clockwork. "Well, let's take a moment to consider! It could be most instructive!"
Taking care to remain under the contraption's reach, Ben retreated along the corridor. He only managed two paces before the dread weapon re-emerged, slashing along its murderous arc and retreating behind a retracting panel.
"No tripwires," thought Ben aloud. "But then, there wouldn't be something so crude in a Plumpocket design. No pressurized plates in the floor. No visible mechanical activators at all, in fact– oops! That was close! Er, if I didn't know better, I would say the trigger is hovering right here, invisible to the eye – but that's impossible, of course. Then how... oh! Oh, I see!"
In the dim light of the corridor, a speck of light gleamed like a diamond. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a small glass lens masquerading as pearl imbedded in the wainscoting.
"I've never seen anything like this!" Ben exclaimed to the captain. "It seems to be an artificial, light-sensitive eye; any obstruction of the lens activates the trap. But how is light converted to a repeating mechanical action, I wonder?"
"The pearls launch the traps?" muttered Captain Durward.
"It would appear so, yes. Why?"
The captain said nothing, instead pointing to scores of watchful eyes glittering in the darkness. Poor Ben's nerves twanged again.
"I... suppose we're still committed to this venture, yes?"
"To save innocent lives, and all?"
"Er, capital," said Ben with a weak smile. "Once more unto the breach, then."
I don't believe I have the heart to describe in full detail every terrible trap our adventurers encountered in the slow trek through Clockwork Manor. However, an incomplete list would include such devices as a pair of whirling bladed chains, an array of air-cannons that launched a barrage of brass flechettes, a roaring fire-siphon, and a hall-spanning retractable floor that deposited one onto a bed of gleaming spikes.
Most of Ben's life thus far had been spent in the sedentary, gently-ticking calm of a clock-shop workroom. If left to his own devices, so to speak, the manor would have dispatched him without mercy. It was all the better, then, that Ben had a companion with faster reflexes than he.
"This is too much!" exclaimed Ben as he was hoisted back over the brim of the spike-pit. "Clearly this endeavor is better suited to a gymnast than a watchmaker!"
"Good catch, by the way."
"Thank you, sir."
Ben peered down into the pit. "Shame about that hat, though. They're not easy to find this time of year."
With several clicking shudders, the floor slid back into position. Ben shouldered his leather satchel again and steeled himself for the next obstacle; however, something about the captain's visage made him hesitate. Durward stared straight ahead, slowly raising his rifle to a firing position. Unnerved by this distressing posture, Ben listened to the darkness with all the concentration he could muster.
"I say, Captain," he whispered. "Do you smell nutmeg?"
The captain nodded.
"I thought so. Also, do you hear a voice?"
Captain Durward stalked forward intently. Ben followed; he glanced around for more of the little black lenses, but there seemed to be none this far into the manor. Perhaps there were no more traps to overcome.
The corridor ahead curved to the left in a sweeping arc, concealing the terminal end. With every step, though, the voice grew clearer:
"... won't be intimidated. No, I say! Not unless it's absolutely necessary!"
The voice was unfamiliar to Ben. It presumably belonged to another member of Plumpocket's rescue party, but as none of them had spoken in his presence, he couldn't say for certain.
"Of course not!" continued the voice. "It's here – I know it is! You saw the tracks!"
The invisible man seemed to be arguing with someone, but Ben could hear no other speaker. He wondered if some sort of wireless communicator could be an explanation.
Suddenly, the voice ceased. Ben nearly collided with Captain Durward, who had halted abruptly in his paces. Though he strained against the silence, Ben heard no other noise than his own repressed breathing. When a long attack-free moment passed, the captain beckoned Ben to follow again.
And there, quite abruptly, was the end of the corridor. The passage led straight into a solid wall, but it was a wall unlike any Ben had seen before. Apart from some brass ornamentation, it appeared to be solid steel. An array of massive gears held in place a pair of steel bars as big around as Ben himself. More so than any other structure yet encountered, this wall was built with a single phrase in mind: "highly impenetrable".
Quite suddenly, Ben's mind became occupied by a rather different phrase: "freeze in terror".
"Creeping along, are we, gentlemen?" said the mysterious voice.
Something cold and hard pressed into Ben's neck. The barrel of Durward's rifle whirled around, aiming just past Ben's head.
"Come now, soldier – let's not do anything rash. Lower your weapon, if you please."
Ben could see the reluctance in the captain's eyes, but Durward grudgingly complied.
"Very good. Walk forward, boy."
The obstruction on Ben's throat relented and he managed a few steps Durward-ward.
The first thing Ben noticed about the mysterious assailant was his eyes. Actually, more accurately, the first thing he noticed was the enormous curved knife vanishing into an ornate leather sheath, but the eyes were an easy second. While the man's tense posture and pinched face all spoke unfavorably of rough times, there were ghosts in those eyes.
Overall, he was a study in contrasts. His garb, mostly khaki in color, was quite shabby and worn, although very neatly arranged with no visible dirt. His accent was smooth and refined, but there was a savage edge just beyond audible range. And while his manner was polite, the massive leather-wrapped rifle strapped to his back suggested he could easily be otherwise.
"Very good. No need for unnecessary violence, is there, soldier?"
As usual, Ben's curiosity managed to overpower his fear. "How did you know he was a soldier?"
"He has the look," said the man. "I see it in the mirror every day; I know the signs."
"The mirror...?" puzzled Ben. "Oh! You're a soldier, too!"
"Formerly, yes. Captain Lewis Haven, at Clockwork Manor by way of South Africa."
"Er, Ben Bradley, at Clockwork Manor by way of Maddox Street."
"Are you being funny?" said Haven gruffly.
"No! Sorry – this is quite a new situation for me."
Captain Haven glared for a moment before turning to Durward. "And you, soldier – name, rank, and station."
"Captain John Durward. India."
"And just what are your motivations here, Captain?"
Durward said nothing more, and the way his grip seemed to tighten around his rifle was making Ben nervous; indeed, he was feeling a bout of chatter coming along.
"We're here to rescue the Plumpockets, of course!" said Ben quickly. "Isn't that why–"
"I'm sure I didn't ask you, civilian," snapped Haven.
The terse remark caught Ben off guard, but not nearly as much as what occurred next:
"That's not my concern," Haven muttered. "Mala'i matalaba chaina!"
It took the young clocksmith a moment to realize that Haven wasn't addressing either Ben or Durward. It was as though the world-weathered captain was having a conversation all by himself.
"Samasya tyahi ho, Sanjay. This really isn't the proper time."
"Er, are you... well, Captain?" ventured Ben.
Haven regarded him calmly, as if nothing amiss had happened.
"Have you seen it?" he said.
"Seen – er, seen what?"
"Don't palter with me, boy! Have you seen it?" Captain Haven turned to the great steel wall. "Why else would Plumpocket have a door of this magnitude? Not to ward off meager burglars, I'd wager – no, there is something else within these walls."
In his preparations for this Clockwork Manor incursion, Ben knew to expect deadly devices and fearsome traps of any description. It was only now, however, that a very different danger was becoming apparent. Ben glanced at Durward, hoping to glean some inkling of a plan that didn't result in personal injury, but he already knew this was an unlikely prospect. And turning back seemed an even riskier option; Ben was fortunate to have made a single trek unscathed through the corridor. Another attempt would surely be an undue strain on his luck.
"You may be right," said Captain Haven to his invisible companion. "We shall see. You – boy!"
Ben jumped. "Er, yes sir, Captain, sir!"
"You have the look of an engineer about you. What do you make of this barrier?"
Ben's focus gratefully turned from the menacing stranger to the steel wall.
"It appears to be an ordinary mechanized draw-bar lock – much increased in scale, of course. The primary bolting action is driven by a locking worm-drive that transfers power from the–"
"I'll take that as a yes," interrupted Haven. "Good. And does this mean you can open it?"
"I... I'm not sure. Possibly."
"That's not acceptable. If you can open the door, I suggest you do so. Otherwise – don't interrupt! My tone is irrelevant, and we're wasting time. Back to your post, Sanjay. Yes, noted – now back to your post! And you, boy – best get to work."
Ben understood that only half of these comments were meant for him, though the thought wasn't particularly reassuring. Either way, a glance at Haven's colossal rifle made the very notion of arguing unthinkable.
"If I built a door this big," thought Ben aloud, tapping idly on the steel, "I would want some kind of security bypass – otherwise I might become locked out of my own house. And if I were a bypass, I would probably be... here!"
With very little effort, a subtle crack in the corridor wall yawned open to reveal a much smaller clockwork device not unlike an elaborate sundial. Ben tested the dial and several other gears twitched in response.
"Remarkable!" Ben exclaimed. "So elegant!"
I expect that to you or I, the jumbled clockwork would appear random and indecipherable. But then, neither you nor I possess the peculiar mind of Ben Bradley, the ablest son of the best clockmaker in the British Empire. After mere minutes of prodding, perusing, and general pottering, Ben gave the dial four quick twists and stepped back.
With a whirring sound akin to an unspooling fishing reel, the clockwork lock spun into action. As more of the mechanism engaged, the whirring gave way to clicking, and the clicking to clanking. Finally, with the deep groan of metal on metal, the massive steel bars slid smoothly aside and the barrier parted. The door was open.
The three adventurers peered through the opening, all animosity temporarily forgotten. The corridor continued for a few meters beyond the door before finally sweeping upwards into a wide marble stairway.
Ben beamed. "It seems we're making progress, gentlemen!"
While Durward nodded in approval, Captain Haven's reaction was a bit more troubling. The battle-worn soldier stood silhouetted against the doorway, and even from behind, Ben sensed the man's nerves standing on end like the spines of a hedgehog.
"Er... Captain Haven?"
"Quiet!" hissed Haven. "Do you hear it?"
Aside from the fading whir of the clockwork lock, the corridor was completely silent to Ben's ears. Even Durward seemed to sense nothing.
Slowly, Haven reached over his shoulder, unsheathing the great hunting rifle. Once it was free of its leather case, Ben could finally appreciate the eerie beauty of its design.
The weapon was a masterwork. Every inch of it – from brass-inlaid wooden stock to gaping steel muzzle – gleamed even in the dim light of the corridor. A network of tubes snaked from several cylinders slung under the barrel into the main firing chamber. Free of its enclosure, the rifle began to hiss like a kettle about to boil.
"Did you not see the tracks?" said Captain Haven, staring through the massive doorway. "Can you not hear its heartbeat? The thump-thump-thump of those monstrous pistons – the raspy breath in its steel throat – the click of golden claws on the ground. Yes, it's here."
Perhaps the heartbeat Haven sensed was Ben's – it was certainly loud enough. Aside from the pounding in his ears, though, Ben could hear nothing else.
"W-what is it, Captain?" stammered Ben.
"It killed my men," said Haven quietly. "It's killed hundreds more. But no longer."
Suddenly, the captain whirled about, aiming the great steam rifle straight at Ben's head.
"I'll have you, lion!" Haven snarled.
Ben only had time to slam his eyes shut when a clang of steel on steel echoed through the hall. A scorching gust screamed over his head. The deafening blast charged through Ben's ears like an exploding locomotive. He was flung to the floor. Despite the relentless ringing, he forced his eyelids open.
It was Durward. In the crucial instant, Ben's comrade had knocked aside Haven's rifle, laying waste to a wooden pillar instead of Ben's head. The two soldiers struggled in the twilight. A flash of steel flickered and Durward staggered back.
"No!" roared Haven, brandishing the fearsome curved knife. "The beast is mine!"
"Get to the door!" barked Durward as he lunged forward.
Ben clutched his head. He knew he had to do something, but it was hard to concentrate. Someone had mentioned a door – perhaps that could be–
The thought sliced through the fog of Ben's mind: a door – doors can be closed!
He clambered to his feet and reeled through the doorway. Sure enough, there was another camouflaged panel on the opposite side. Ben ripped the hatch aside and tore at the clockwork inside.
"Durward!" he shouted. "Durward, come on!"
Ben lurched back to the opening, beyond which the battle raged. Haven lashed viciously with his knife, compensating for the cumbersome weight of his steam gun with pure unfettered fury. Durward parried slashes with his own rifle, but was too close to manage a shot.
The clockwork lock reached its critical frequency and the great steel doors slowly rumbled to life. The path through the doorway began to wane.
The combatants fought on, but now Haven faced away from Ben. Without thinking, the clocksmith ripped open his satchel, seized the first object his hand could find, and hurled it through the air.
The spare pocket-watch bounced harmlessly off Haven's shoulder, but the split-second flutter in his concentration was all it took for a rifle butt to crack into his jaw. Knife and steam-rifle clattered across the floor as Haven collapsed.
"Durward!" Ben cried.
Captain Durward sprang through the door as a gunshot rang out.
"Stop, lion!" bellowed Haven between revolver blasts. As the massive gates clanged shut, a final raging howl slipped through, fading quickly to an echo.
And finally, they were two once again.
Ben helped Durward wrap his knife-wounds. On one side of them loomed the great clockwork doors; on the other, the marble staircase. By some miracle or other, they had made it half-way through the manor.
The Curious Matter of Clockwork Manor
Part III: Monster In The Mist
Poor Ben flinched as shot after shot pealed through the hallway. He was trying to concentrate, truly, but the somewhat lively atmosphere made this a difficult feat.
"Almost there!" he shouted over his shoulder. "Just a few more seconds!"
Durward said nothing in reply. To be fair, the captain was a bit distracted by the horde of gleaming clockwork spiders that clicked and clattered along the corridor. For every automaton that fell before Durward's rifle, several more eagerly resumed the charge. From all three hallways they came, closing off every means of escape.
Time was running short. Any hope of survival depended on this locked door. Ignoring the quaver of his hands, Ben prodded at the gearwork again with his turnscrew.
Transference rotor tied to the interlock mechanism, rattled his clockish brain. A counter-weighted dial interface with even reductions from the central motor. The proper sequence should be–
Something metallic clinked against the wall by Ben's feet, breaking his focus. It was a sphere, plum-sized and brass-colored. Before Ben had even a second to consider it further, the sphere started to vibrate. Then, it began to shriek.
The noise wasn't especially loud, but it was certainly high in pitch. Like the whistle of a locomotive it split through the din of clockwork claws. Ben didn't so much hear it with his ears as he did feel it with his eyeballs.
The sphere spun faster and the screeching climbed higher until finally, the device burst like a popped corn. Ben felt as if he had been slapped. The turnscrew buzzed in his grip. And every clockwork spider within a ten-meter radius shuddered and collapsed.
Through the spots in his vision, he was aware of something human-shaped bounding over the twitching scrap heap. It seemed to be female – perhaps a year or two younger then Ben himself – and she was waving what looked like the smoldering remains of a parasol. Most immediately odd to Ben's muddled mind was the fact that she wasn't made of clockwork.
The newcomer seized Ben by the shoulders. She seemed to be saying something. She pointed down the corridor from whence she came and then gestured at the locked door. When Ben failed to respond, the girl struck him across the cheek.
"Please tell me you can open it!" she pleaded. "Hurry! They're coming!"
The blow knocked some amount of wit back into Ben's skull. At the very least, he was aware of glittering shapes skittering forward along the corridors.
"Right! Yes! Door!"
He forced his brain back into the whirring lock.
Twelve tumblers, with nearly identical variance.
"Quickly!" shouted the stranger over the roar of Durward's rifle.
Transfer delay of a micro-meter per reduction.
The chittering claws were nearly deafening.
"There!" Ben yelped. He jabbed a spinning gear with his turnscrew. The mechanism hiccoughed to a standstill and something deep within the wall clanked loudly.
"Everyone inside!" he said, flinging the door open.
The girl scrambled through the portal and Ben climbed in behind her. With a few more decisive rifle blasts, Captain Durward dove in after them. The three adventurers heaved against the steel. There was a great echoing slam, the click of a lock engaging, the belligerent scraping of metal on metal, and then silence.
I should say, silence except for the sound of heavy breathing.
"I say, Captain," panted Ben. "Another close one, what?"
Ben turned to their new companion. "I don't think I've ever seen better timing – and my family is in clocks, so that really means something."
"Thanks," said the girl, untwisting her singed parasol. "If I learn nothing else today, at least I'll know I have good timing."
A sheepish look flashed across her face. "Was that rude? I'm sorry – I don't mean to sound rude."
Perhaps it was the effects of narrowly escaping a swarm of bloodthirsty mechanical spiders, but Ben still felt a tad out-of-sorts.
"Rude? Er, no – I don't think so."
"Oh good!" said the girl. "Do let me know if I'm being rude. I promise I don't mean it. It's just a bit unsettling – having so many near-death-experiences in one day, I mean. I'm Maddie, by the way."
She thrust out a hand, and Ben suddenly realized it was his turn to speak.
"Er, Ben," he said. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. And this is – er – I'm terribly sorry, Captain, but I've forgotten your given name. Wait – John! That's right. This is Captain John Durward, and I've lost track of how many times he's saved my life today. And speaking of life-saving, what was that little contraption?"
"The– ? Oh! Some kind of sonic bomb. Non-lethal to people – thank God – but it does a real number on anything that runs on electrics."
"Sonic bomb?" Ben repeated. "Fascinating! What sort of power source does it use? I expect there's some manner of compression that triggers detonation – how does that convert to sonic waves?"
"I... don't know," said Maddie. "Sorry, but I don't know how it works. It's one of Victor's inventions."
Maddie's grip tightened around her parasol. "I met him downstairs. He helped me get this far, but he – he didn't make it."
"Oh," said Ben awkwardly. "That's – er, I mean – that's unfortunate."
As most of Ben's life-experience had thus far been limited to a clock shop workroom, there was a pronounced deficit in his interactions with people – especially with people who didn't chime on the hour. While this dedication to his craft had proved rather valuable up to this point, it didn't do him any favors in this cramped, mournful little moment. The trick would be changing the subject in a respectful and overall tactful manner.
"I wonder where those stairs lead?" he said quickly, pointing to an unembellished flight of narrow wooden steps.
To his relief, Maddie seemed to welcome the new topic.
"Did we make it to the attic?" she said. "Surely we must be close."
Ben nodded to Durward. "Let's have a look, shall we?"
Up the stairs they marched, with Captain Durward as the vanguard, Ben taking the rear, and Maddie in between. The narrow passage culminated in a solid-looking steel hatch in the ceiling. When no apparent locks became obvious and no gruesome traps sprang forth, the captain reached out and tapped three times with the barrel of his rifle. The troupe waited in the dark with bated breath.
Quite suddenly, the door begin to emit a clicking noise not unlike a clock being wound. With a slow, heavy groan, the metal hatch retreated upwards. In its place stood the most disheveled man Ben had ever seen.
"Oh, thank Heavens!" cried Dr. Plumpocket. Wincing, he pulled the hatch further aside to make room for the rescue party. "My communication system failed – I couldn't be sure anyone was still alive. But here you are!"
Even in this dark chamber that was perched atop two floors of death and mayhem, Ben was elated. He was ecstatic. In his mind, this unadorned little instant almost made up for all the previous fire, blood, and bullets. For here Ben stood, face to face with his most cherished idol.
The oddest thing about Dr. Peabody Plumpocket was certainly his appearance. That is to say, he looked utterly normal. He wore no frilly ornamentation, he was unblemished by grease or burns, and he seemed to be constructed of zero-percent clockwork. Here was the most renowned inventor and innovator in Her Majesty's Empire, and yet he could traverse any avenue in plain daylight with neither you nor I being any wiser.
But then something noteworthy caught Ben's eye, interrupting his hero worship. There was a rather savage gash in the doctor's waistcoat, through which criss-crossing bands of fabric could be seen. Both these bands and the surrounding waistcoat itself were stained a dull dirty red. Even with Ben's sheltered life to draw from, there was no mistaking the color of dried blood.
The realization latched onto Ben's mind and snapped him back to the present. He now noticed the pained cringe that accompanied Plumpocket's every step. He could see a boy and girl huddled together in fear against the farthest wall. And though it may have been his imagination, he could swear he heard the scuttling of mechanical claws from the passage behind him.
"How bad is it?" asked Ben, gesturing to the stained bandages. "I mean – sorry – can you be moved?"
The doctor winced again. "Even if I could make it through the traps in my condition – a proposition of which I'm extremely doubtful – I wouldn't dare attempt it with my children in tow."
"Alternative routes?" said Durward.
"Not with the defensive mode active. Every other route will be sealed quite thoroughly."
"So we can't go through the front door," said Maddie. "And we can't go through any other door. Is there no way out at all?"
"On the contrary," said Plumpocket. "Now that you're here, there may yet be a chance. A few dozen paces south of here is a manual override. I can disarm the entire system and make safe our escape if you can only get me to that mechanism. It will be hard, but it may be our only option."
Ben glanced at Maddie, and then at Durward. While there were some significant doubts in the back of his own mind, it was heartening to see that his companions seemed to have none.
"If we go, will your children be safe here?" said Ben.
"Undoubtably they will," said Plumpocket. "This may be an attic, but it's also one of the most impregnable spaces in the manor. Of course, their best hope of survival is for us to disable the defense mode altogether."
"It sounds like there's no time to waste, then," said Maddie. Her tone was overtly confident, but Ben thought he detected undercurrents of panic, suggesting that she too was thinking of an army of clockwork spiders.
The rescue party retreated down the attic steps, allowing Dr. Plumpocket space for a private conversation with his children. Ben scolded his brain for thinking of this as a final farewell.
"How many of those sonic bombs do you have?" he asked Maddie.
"Just one more. Should that be enough?"
"It might be. How are your ammunition stores, Captain?"
"Fair," said Durward. "Won't last forever."
"Hopefully it will last just long enough," said Ben as Plumpocket eased down the stairwell.
"Well, gentlemen," said the doctor. "My apologies – lady and gentlemen – er, shall we go?"
The captain pressed his ear to the hallway door.
"Do you think they're waiting for us?" asked Maddie.
"I wouldn't think so," said Plumpocket. "They're designed to pursue, not to ambush. If you leave their visual range for longer than a few minutes, they'll disperse and resume a patrol pattern. Nevertheless, we should be expedient."
He twisted the lock and took hold of the door handle.
"Are we prepared?" said the doctor. When he received three nods of varying degrees of certainty, he edged the door open slowly.
The immediate corridor was empty. That is to say, empty of anything intact. There didn't seem to be a single inch of carpet unlittered with gears, pistons, and twisted bits of metal. Apart from some vestigial twitching, the hall was motionless.
Motionless, at least, until Dr. Plumpocket stepped through the door.
From the deep shadows of the corridor came a tinny sort of bell note, like the chime above a shop door. In any other context it would have been quite a cheerful sound. In this hallway, however, it was a most ominous noise, made all the more ominous when another bell joined in. And then another, and another. Soon the darkness was filled with the sound of bells, calling and clamoring like a flock of crows who spotted a lurking fox. And now they were moving.
"This way, quickly!" shouted Dr. Plumpocket. Sealing shut the attic door behind them, the group veered right and scrambled down one of the hallways. Behind them scuttled the chiming, clicking, gnashing wrath of a clockwork army.
"Now?" panted Maddie.
"Not yet!" barked Durward.
"There it is!" said Plumpocket, pointing at a seemingly random door. Ben would have been relieved if not for the metal claws rushing to meet them.
"Now?" said Maddie.
"Hold!" said Durward.
They were almost to the door, but the glittering spiders were closer still.
"We're not going to make it!" said Ben.
The din of little alarm bells was nearly deafening. From both directions they came, pouring forth like a great gnashing tidal wave.
"Hands on ears!" In one quick motion, Maddie produced another brass sphere, flicked some hidden switch, and flung it at the floor.
Even though Ben was ready for it this time, he still wasn't ready enough. The sharp shriek of the sonic bomb seemed to bypass his ears entirely, instead burrowing into his bones and rattling his very marrow.
It was worth it, though, to see the oncoming swarm crumble into a jagged, multi-legged heap.
But the sense of victory was all too short. Beyond the barricade of fallen drones came the chipper chiming of yet more spiders.
"Just how many of these things did you make, Doctor?" asked Ben.
"I'm afraid I rather lost count," said Plumpocket, fiddling with the next lock panel. "They blurred together a bit after the first few dozen. Ah – there we are! Everyone inside!"
The group piled through the open door just as a fresh regiment of machines surged into view. With a mighty heave from Captain Durward – and Ben, to a lesser extent – the bloodthirsty wave broke harmlessly on a locked door. After some unproductive clawing and scratching, the spiders again fell silent.
"All things considered, Doctor," said Maddie, "it might be time for a different hobby."
"My dear, I believe you're right. I wonder if aviation might... might possibly... oh my."
The doctor blinked and swayed on his feet.
"Doctor?" asked Ben.
"I – I think perhaps I've lost a smidge too much blood. I'm feeling just a bit faint. No – my apologies – I'll be right again in a moment, I'm sure. But we really must press on. It isn't much farther."
With the doctor suspended between Ben and Durward, the party shuffled down the passage. It wasn't long before the flat featureless walls and ceiling vanished, relinquishing the space to a great cavernous chamber, sparsely lit by a handful of electric bulb lamps. Every flat surface was buried beneath a tangle of pipes. An array of pillar-like mechanisms spun haltingly, clacking like clocks and occasionally emitting little puffs of steam. The entire room hissed and whirred and clanked like a nest of giant mechanical serpents.
"My word, Doctor," said Ben breathlessly. "This is quite an engine."
Dr. Plumpocket smiled blearily. "Thank you. Most of the household mechanisms derive their power from this very room. It truly is my magnum opus."
What with one incident or another, there hadn't been much time for the full brunt of Ben's fanaticism to take charge. But here, in the very heart of Clockwork Manor, he couldn't resist.
"By Jove! How do you transport the energy – mechanically or electrically? Surely it wouldn't be practical to run steamlines to every corner of the building. Oh – what is the actual power source, if I may ask? I expect fuel costs and exhaust management would preclude the use of furnaces alone. How is the steam pressure contained? As sophisticated as your automatons are, I should think a self-regulating system... er... would be... ideal...."
Ben faltered under the gaze of his comrades. While Plumpocket wore a politely amused expression and Durward remained stony as ever, Maddie's peculiar stare implied a clear opinion of round-the-bend-edness.
"Sorry," said Ben. "I mean – well – it's quite warm in here, is it not?"
The doctor smiled. "I must say, it's always gratifying to meet another enthusiast. I wonder if–"
A massive clang exploded throughout the chamber. The accompanying tremor nearly shook Ben off his feet. The remaining blood in Dr. Plumpocket's cheeks seemed to evaporate instantly.
"It isn't – it couldn't be–"
Another peal of thunder rattled the engine-room. The weak electric lights buzzed and flickered. Several whistling jets of steam broke free of their pipage.
"D-doctor?" said Maddie. "W-what's the matter?"
"This room is the vital core of the house. In case of a security breach, I designed one final hurdle to protect my home and my family. But there were complications. It was deactivated – I'm sure of it! I – oh dear."
With one last concussive crash, a steel panel broke free of the wall and soared clear across the chamber, smashing open a steam conduit.
Something huge and hulking ducked through the gaping hole in the wall. It lumbered forward, slouching like a great jungle ape. Lit by dull orange lamp-light and shrouded in steam, it was truly fearsome to behold.
The steel-plated monster turned its glittering black gaze on the intruders in its domain. It stamped its feet, it bellowed, and it charged.
Ben staggered under Plumpocket's sudden weight as Durward fired off a volley. The first few shots might have been midgeflies for all the harm they did, but the beast hesitated when its right eye shattered.
"Get him through!" shouted Durward.
The colossus cocked its head, confused, before lurching after the captain. Ben didn't need to be told twice; he and Maddie heaved Dr. Plumpocket around the battle.
"I think, Doctor," panted Ben, "that your... security... is a touch... over-elaborate!"
"I shan't disagree," said Plumpocket weakly.
On the far side of the engine room was a small opening, easily short enough to leave a nasty bump if one wasn't cautious. The passage only ran for a few meters, terminating in a complex arrangement of dials and levers.
"This is it," said the doctor. "I... I just need to focus for a moment."
A metallic roar echoed from the engine room. The fight raged on, but it couldn't last forever; even the stalwart Captain Durward was still mortal and liable to die.
There was an unfamiliar feeling in Ben's stomach. It was a sort of weightless buzzing, right beneath his ribs. You may know it as the sensation you have when you decide to do something incredibly foolish and potentially dangerous.
"I'm going out there," said Ben.
"You what?" said Maddie. "Are you stark raving?"
"Most likely. But there must be something I can do. If I can't stop that monster, then at least I'll buy some time – I owe that much. Keep the doctor safe, won't you?"
Gathering up his satchel and his courage, Ben turned to the menacing glow of the great steamworks.
"Wait!" said Maddie. "I – I don't know if this helps, but it looked like it has a harder time turning right than left."
"It – you're sure?"
"Fairly sure. At least, it seemed that way to me. Oh – and also – here, take my parasol. It's done me some good so far. It might do for you as well."
"It might just. Thanks."
With a final nervous smile, Ben Bradley charged into the mist towards the stamping of giant feet.
It was harder than ever to see through the thick clouds of steam. He rounded one of the enormous clockwork pillars and something seized him by the collar, slamming him roughly into a steam conduit. Before Ben could react, a hand clapped firmly over his mouth.
It was Durward, materializing from the fog like a ghost on the moor. There was a fresh limp to his gait and his rifle was nowhere to be seen. The captain shot Ben a warning look as a mountainous shadow loomed through the steam. The beast stalked past, rattling the floor with its plodding footfalls.
In the absence of gunshots and the infernal roaring, Ben heard something new. Underneath the clanking plates of the steel hide was a sound knew well – a sound he had heard every single day of his life. It was the whir of gears. It was the rhythmic clack of an escapement. It was the familiar melody of a million tiny parts humming in unison. The terrible juggernaut may well have been a fearsome foe, but it was still made of clockwork.
And no one knew clockwork quite like J. Benjamin Bradley.
With a few wild gestures to Durward, Ben sidled around the steam pipe. His hands shook as he watched the prowling metal beast lumber through the mist. There was no doubt in his mind that this was the superlative reckless idea in a day chock-full of reckless ideas.
The crack of a revolver broke the silence. The colossus bellowed again and turned to pursue the captain. When its first powerful blow missed the mark, Ben saw the truth in Maddie's comment. The beast's whole body twisted to the left during its attack, but there was a jerking slowness while it re-centered. It seemed incapable of withdrawing its fists with the same ferocity that propelled them during an assault.
When the colossus attacked again, Ben sprang forward. If the monster was aware of the tiny human clambering up its back, it made no sign. Nor did it react when its passenger prised open an access panel, exposing the machinery within.
Auxiliary mechanisms linked to redundant transmission overlay, chattered Ben's brain. Primary impulse dictated by one... four... seven escapements.
The beast lunged for Durward, who narrowly escaped behind a clockwork pillar.
Central drive shaft powered by – could it be? A rechargeable dry-cell battery! Remarkable!
Once again the monster lashed out, and once again it missed by a hair's breadth.
Ben reached past the whirling teeth, wrenched loose a pair of wires, and jammed Maddie's parasol into the rocking escapements. Instantly, the mechanism started grinding like a barrel stuffed with gravel. The great clockwork beast shuddered and twitched. With one final tremendous spasm, the colossus pitched forward and landed with a terrible earth-quaking crash.
Ben slid clumsily off of the lifeless hulk, wobbling a bit when he hit the floor.
"Captain!" he called into the gloom. "Captain Durward, are you – ah, there you are! Everything all right, then?"
"Aye, sir," said Durward, staggering forward.
"I must say, you are a credit to your training, Captain. How many Englishmen can say they faced down such a foe?"
"Er – yes, of course. Dreadfully sorry. Well then, Captain, shall we see how the doctor fares?"
Despite the lingering cloak of steam, the engine room had lost some of its foreboding. Perhaps it helped that the lights stopped flickering. Perhaps it was an absence of the threat of fatal crushing. In any case, there was nothing to delay a cheerful reunion back at the security alcove.
"You're alive!" cried Maddie. "But you didn't stand a chance! I mean – sorry – that was rude. I only meant – well, that thing was huge!"
Ben smiled. He was still giddy from a near-death and a narrow victory; at the moment, almost anything would have been highly amusing.
"How are we, Doctor?" he said.
"Nearly there," said Plumpocket. His movements were weak still, but his hands on the controls had settled into an efficient sort of rhythm. "After today, I think I may redesign this interface – it's dreadfully inefficient in an emergency. Perhaps a simple key would suffice. And... there we have it!"
Ben knew something was different, but it was a moment before he knew why. Throughout his entire adventure in Clockwork Manor, there had been a sound. It was far below the range of his conscious mind, so he hadn't paid it any notice until it was gone. Without the house's ubiquitous hum, Ben felt a sudden wave of relief. He didn't dare hope that the horrors he had seen were over.
"Is the Manor safe again?" said Maddie, echoing Ben's thoughts.
"Undoubtably," said the doctor. "We can now walk completely unobstructed through the front door. Lady and gentlemen, shall we?"
With the doctor once again held aloft, the party began the trek back to the refuge of the attic.
"That was impressive work," said Dr. Plumpocket as they passed the vanquished colossus. "And with nothing more than a parasol, you say?"
"I... have a way with clockwork."
"I should say so! To make it through so many barred doors and then to fell my greatest contraption, you must have a true talent."
Ben's cheeks flushed. He was quite accustomed to having talent, but surely he would never become accustomed to receiving praise.
"My family owns a clock shop. I learned to tinker before I learned to talk."
"You don't say," said the doctor thoughtfully. "Which shop?"
"Er... 'Bradley & Co.' in Mayfair."
"Indeed? Well, Mr. Bradley, I suspect we shall be visiting your establishment quite soon and quite often. In the meantime, however, let us see to my children."
And so concludes the Curious Matter of Clockwork Manor. I'm sure, reader, that the positive ending comes as no surprise to you. After all, how could I compose this tale if our Ben hadn't survived to tell it to me? There was only the single logical outcome.
Maddie returned home with the express gratitude of Dr. Peabody Plumpocket – a fact that garnered no small amount of respect from her friends and family. I'm sure, though, that the financial rewards came as a lovely additional surprise.
Captain Durward returned to his post with the Metropolitan Police. He received a commendation for his service, but otherwise continues to serve in his customary capacity. I think you'll agree by now that his is a face you would rather not see during a night of unlawful mischief.
And as for the face of Ben Bradley, it has become something of a rarer sight than ever about the flat. He still works at the shop during the day, but now he spends his evenings at Clockwork Manor with the good doctor. I shudder to imagine the bizarre contraptions concocted by the two most peculiar minds in the British Empire.
We can only hope that they do indeed remember to design their escape route accordingly.