The Girl in the Steel Corset Page 36

They filed out into the night. It was dry and cool, not the faintest hint of rain in the air. In the stables, they each climbed onto their velocycles.

Emily’s cycle was different from the others. It had two back wheels instead of one. Spaced about three feet apart, they gave more stability to her vehicle, which was needed because she had a small storage area built into the back of the cycle to store weapons and equipment. Her cat sat atop this bin. Powerful magnets insured that the cat wouldn’t fall off during travel.

It was at that moment, that even though she’d thought it before, Finley realized that Emily was a bloody genius.

Griffin started up his cycle and the others followed suit. Within moments they were speeding through Mayfair, toward their as yet unknown destination. Griffin had the tracking device, so they followed his lead, occasionally slowing or stopping so that he could get a better fix on the direction.

Eventually they arrived on the docks east of Victoria Embankment. It was darker here, the buildings throwing shadows where there wasn’t much light to be found. Here the smells of the Thames were strong and unpleasant, rife with the salty scent of fish and the much more pungent odors of human waste. Finley’s keen sense of smell rebelled and she shuddered at the overpowering smells. It was awful.

“Here.” It was Emily. She smeared a tiny bit of some kind of waxy ointment underneath Finley’s nose. Suddenly, all she could smell was lavender—not a scent she liked normally, but it was better than the rot of the harbor.

“We’ll go the rest of the way on foot,” Griffin explained as they gathered in one of the many darkened sections. The shadows hid their velocycles from view should anyone pass by the area. “Gather your gear and let’s go.”

Emily’s cat stood by her side as she opened the compartment on her cycle. “There are chest guards in here for everyone. Jasper, I have ammunition and the mechanical disruptor pistol. There’s a setting for engines and one for moving parts. I think you’ll find it works better than the old one. I want everyone to take one of these little gizmos, as well.” She held up a tiny bell-shaped metal doodad and slipped it into her right ear. “They amplify speech, so we’ll be able to hear one another regardless of pitch or situation.”

Finley stared at her. “You really are brilliant.”

Emily grinned at her. “Yes. Yes, I am.” Then softly, just for Finley’s ears, “Though I’d gladly give up just a little of my intelligence to fight like you.”

A slow smile curved Finley’s lips. “I’ll teach you if you teach me.” It was more than an offer between friends—it was a promise to make it out of this confrontation alive.

“Agreed.” Emily took the earpiece from her and slipped it into Finley’s right ear. “How’s that?” she whispered.

Finley’s eyes widened. It sounded as though Emily had spoken at her normal volume. “Perfect.”

“Good. Do you need a chest guard or are you wearing the corset I made you?”

“Corset,” Finley replied, feeling more than a little smart herself for having thought of it.

“Excellent.” Then Emily walked away to check on one of the other fellows.

Griffin appeared at Finley’s side. “You all right?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied, surprised to realize it was true. “I’m anxious to get it over with.”

“Me, too,” he confided. “Then, let’s do this. Stay safe, Fin.”

Fin. She had a nickname, like Em and Jas. She was one of them. The realization warmed and centered her in a way she never thought possible. At that moment, it didn’t matter if she lived or died, only that she would put her life at risk with friends, and if she perished, it would not be in vain.

They moved as a unit behind Griffin as he followed the tracker’s signal. A few minutes later they stood in front of an old warehouse that looked as though it had been around since London was a baby. That it was still standing was a miracle.

“This is The Machinist’s lair?” Jasper whispered, incredulous. “Not very impressive.”

“This is just a smoke screen,” Griffin replied just as softly, his words amplified by the earpieces. “The real den is inside, or beneath.” He disabled the tracker and slid it into his jacket. “Sam, you take point.”

Sam’s large shadow passed over them as he took the lead. If there were any traps waiting on the other side of the warehouse door, they’d hit him—the one who could heal from just about anything.

Sam opened the door. There seemed to be nothing on the other side of it but darkness. But then there was a soft click and a twanging sound. Sam pivoted out of the way and narrowly avoided an ax blade in the throat. The weapon embedded itself deep into the door frame, the handle vibrating under the force of impact.

Emily jumped, and Finley reached down and took her hand. What had scared the petite girl wasn’t the ax so much as where it would have struck Sam. Even he couldn’t recover from decapitation.

When Sam went to press on, seemingly unfazed by his close call, Emily stopped him and pointed at her mechanical cat. Griffin gave her the thumbs-up. Emily pushed up her left sleeve to reveal a long, leather cuff covered by metal panel that curved around her forearm. It opened like a locket to reveal the controls for the cat. She made a few adjustments, turned a few knobs, and when she was done, the metal feline took over Sam’s position as point. Any more traps and it would be the one to set them off.

Torches, similar to the handheld devices Emily had made, burned from within the cat’s eyes, lighting their path and enabling all of them to keep their hands free. They moved quietly through the desolate interior. It was obvious that this space hadn’t been used in some time, but footprints in the dust on the floor told another story. Finley frowned, realizing that someone had tried to conceal the tracks. Emily toyed with the controls on her arm again and the cat crouched, exhaling a fine puff of air that lifted the “new” dust to reveal boot prints pressed into the layers beneath. Whoever made the tracks—no doubt Garibaldi—had stepped in oil or something, and the dust stuck to the floorboard where he’d trod.

Bloody brilliant. Genius, Finley thought rather caustically. Garibaldi might be smart, but she was convinced he was no match for Emily.

The tracks led to a door, well concealed toward the back of the warehouse. The cat sat and waited for Sam to open it—and they all pressed themselves against the wall so if anything came flying out it would miss them. Nothing happened, and the cat slowly descended the stairs within. The metal beast was as quiet and stealthy as its wild counterpart.

Single file, they made their way down into the dirt and wet. A faint whiff of fish clung to the air, and there was something else she smelled over the lavender. Finley sniffed again. “Machine oil,” she whispered, alerting the others that they were on the right path.

The cat reached the bottom of the stairs. Finley watched as its right front “paw” struck something on the floor. Suddenly, the space filled with lights, the gas jets in the sconces on the wall igniting with such brightness it was almost blinding.

When her eyes adjusted, she saw Jasper had both pistols drawn, but there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger.

Well, at least not yet.

Standing like an army waiting for orders was row after row of silent automatons. Some looked like the metal man they’d fought before, and sure enough, there was the one they had fought there in the far corner. Others were small, like dolls or children. They were the most disturbing to Finley because of their garish, painted faces that looked nothing like the innocence of childhood. Not even the spiderlike creature with a doll’s head unsettled her quite so much. Others were nothing more than bits of rubbish put together. Some had feet, some had wheels. Some had faces and some didn’t have anything resembling a face. But one thing was for certain, they were metal, and they were strong.

But this mechanical army paled in comparison to their general.

Standing at the front of the ranks was an old woman, plump with a bit of a jowly look to her, dressed all in black, her white-and-gray hair back in a severe bun.

It was Queen Victoria. Not an automaton simply painted to look like her—it was the very image of Her Majesty right down to the flesh that glowed with vitality.

“Mary and Joseph,” Emily whispered on a breath. As though compelled, she moved closer to the…thing, her good hand outstretched. No one seemed capable of moving to stop her, they were so in shock.

If Emily was a genius, what the devil was Garibaldi to have conceived and built such a thing? No one, not even the queen’s own children would look at this figure and think it anything but their mother.

Emily’s fingers touched the thing’s face and then snatched back, as though burned. “It’s skin,” she whispered. “Real skin. He managed to do it. He’s made an organic automaton.”

Finley wasn’t quite sure what that was, but she knew it wasn’t good. She also knew it wasn’t good when “Victoria’s” eyes snapped open.

“Intruders,” it said in a perfect imitation of the queen’s voice. “We are not amused.”

“Well, well, well,” came a voice from the far end of the room. Finley turned her attention toward that voice, keeping the automaton in her peripheral vision. There, just inside an open door, was a dark and swarthy man of about average height and build. “Look who set off the imperceptible auditory alarm. Sam! How lovely to see you still alive.”

Beside Finley, Sam said nothing, but she could see the muscles in his jaw clench.

“This isn’t going to work, Garibaldi,” Griffin said in a firm, clear voice. Finley mentally cheered for him, knowing how hard it must be for him to keep his emotions under control.

“I think it will,” Garibaldi taunted. “I’ve worked long and hard to get here, Your Grace. I’m not about to let a bunch of children stop me now.” Finley jumped as his cold dark gaze met hers. “Much of this started with your father, you know. It was my carriage he tried to steal that night. He came to me, begging for help and as his friend I tried to help him, but then he changed right before my very eyes. He attacked me, otherwise I never would have shot him. That’s when I knew the Organites had to be revealed to the world. No more secret experiments left to go so drastically wrong.”

Rage, somehow both hot and cold, swept over Finley. Darkness flooded her and she let it, but instead of giving into it, she let it trip through her veins, drawing strength from it. Garibaldi spoke as though he had done the right thing—as though he had committed a service for her father rather than killing him without mercy and in cold blood.

“Do you mean that?” she asked calmly. “Or were you just put out that Greystone trusted my father with the experiments and not you?”

Garibaldi’s face flushed so dark, she could see it from where she stood. She’d struck a nerve.

“Edward went to Thomas Sheppard because Sheppard wasn’t bound by any promise to the queen. Edward knew that if Sheppard was caught there was little way to link his experiments to our discovery. How highly do you think of the heroic late Duke of Greythorne now?”

Finley glanced at Griffin, whose cheeks were also dark. He hadn’t known this about his father. She turned back to Garibaldi. “It doesn’t appear that you kept your promise to keep the Organites secret, either, sir. The duke tried to help my father. He was a true friend, which is more than you did for him.”

“My dear girl, it was self-defense. Your father was in such a feral state I feared for my life, as your friends should fear for theirs with you under the same roof. By the way, I must apologize for that incident at Pick-a-Dilly. The server automaton was not supposed to attack you or anyone else. You certainly made short work of the poor thing. Perhaps you have your father’s murderous tendencies.”

Heat rushed up from Finley’s feet to her face, but she didn’t look away. She would not be ashamed of herself. “You talk a lot.”

Garibaldi smiled. “Quite right. A flaw, to be sure. I will be quiet now, and let my children talk for me.” He threw a large switch on the wall. “Wake up, my dearests!”

The floor beneath her feet seemed to hum and vibrate as clockwork gears clicked into place beneath the machines. Suddenly every automaton raised its head, the room filled with a dull roar as each and every one of them was brought to life—even Victoria. He had put start mechanisms in the bottom of them, making it difficult to shut them down.

Finley moved first, followed by the cat and then Sam. She did exactly as Emily had told her to do; the first machine she grabbed had a headlike attachment lit from within. She tore that from the metal shoulders and threw it to the floor where Sam stomped it with his heavy boot, crushing it like a vegetable tin. Then, she reached into the chest cavity, grabbed hold of as many wires and guts as she could and pulled. The light in the thing’s chest sputtered and died as the machine fell to the floor.

One down. Twenty-five to go. Around her she watched as Sam ripped some of the lesser automatons apart with his bare hands. Griffin took on some of the smaller ones, as well, and helped Emily shut down others with her abilities as Jasper used the augmented guns Emily made him to cripple the machines. Finley and Sam double-teamed the larger ones.

Griffin kept going. Finley’s gaze skipped to the back of the space, where she saw Garibaldi throwing things into a valise. He was going to try to escape while the rest of them were fighting. A noise to her left caught her eye and she spied the Victoria automaton also moving toward Garibaldi, presumably to follow him. Another mech moved closer, as well—man-size and intent on Griffin.

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