Authors: Pip Ballantine
A MINISTRY OF
PIP BALLANTINE &
To Jared Axelrod and J.R. Blackwell, two of the most creative people we knowâthank you for being the gateway drug into this amazing world called Steampunk.
Wherein Our Intrepid Heroes Meet for the
First Time and Start Off with a Bang!
ellington Thornhill Books, Esquire, had never heard an explosion that close before. Considering the ringing in his ears, he would most likely never hear another one like it again.
Splinters, both of the wooden and metal variety, pelted his face, but he was far too distracted to notice anything painful. Perhaps they were from the cell door; perhaps they were from the contraption which held him fast. Was the engineer responsible for this torture device still where he was before the explosion? What of the guards? Time slowed, seeming to creep and flow as in the languid dreams of a deep sleep.
Two strange pops rang in his ears through the hum the explosion had left in its wake. He still could see nothing, but was grateful that he had been kidnapped by a gentlemanâone that had seen fit not to strip him of his clothes before shackling him to the wall. Only a complete cad would practice such ungentlemanly behaviour. His clothing had served him well as a minimal shield from the debris, but as his wrists were bound over his head, all he could do was turn his head, screw his eyes shut, and hope for the best.
Creeping through the hum in his ears was another soundâthe undulating blaring of klaxons alerting the complex to the intrusion. Considering the very liberal amount of dynamite used on his cell door, he assumed this was a full-on assault from the Ministry. He felt a swell of pride. It felt good to be so appreciated.
A lady emerged from the smoke and debrisâthough her improper fashions indicated she was unworthy of the title. She was wearing pinstripe breeches tucked neatly into boots that stopped just above the knee. More disturbing than the fact this “lady” was wearing trousers were the sticks of dynamite strapped around her thighs. The boots also had several sheaths for throwing knives. The bodice she was wearing was a black leather device, which not only served to lift the petite woman's bosom up but also provided a secure surface for the baldric she wore across it. All this was accented with an impressive, fur coat that flowed around her like a cape.
The stillness she engendered in the moment seemed odd to Wellington. Her gaze fixed on him, and there was no relief in her expression. She looked to be sizing him up.
Her pistols finally lowered as she spoke. Wellington's ears had cleared enough that her voice was discernable. “You Books?” she asked, sheathing her weapons.
Wellington coughed and spluttered before managing a choked, “Yes.”
“Jolly good thenâI'd hate to have come all this way for nothing.” She applied a queer-looking key to the restraints holding his wrists. Wellington was relieved to hear the metallic ring of iron snapping open and again as she freed his ankles. She knocked away from him the array of needles that had almost turned him into a human pincushion. A few quick, hard blinks, and Wellington observed his interrogator on his face, the remains of the door protruding from his back. There was a touch of poetry that, in falling to the ground, his tray of blades, needles, and other vile instruments had toppled on top of him, decorating his corpse with the tools of his trade. Close by his tormentor's body were two guards, freshly shot.
A deceptively delicate hand grabbed a handful of waistcoat. “Introductions later. Running now,” she said, yanking him off the wall.
Wellington would have liked a chance to examine this Angel of Destruction more closely, but she was correct in that they had to get awayâand, from the sound of distant voices adding to the clamor of the klaxons, rather quickly. While he felt exhilarated to step out of his prison cell, the dim lighting and smooth stone surfaces enveloping him only served as a reminder that he was deep within the stronghold of the House of Usher. As he followed his savior into the torchlit passageways, Wellington still struggled to ascertain how this secret society of ne'er-do-wells was able to deduce his position within the equally secretive Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.
Presently unable to write anything down, Wellington made a mental note nonetheless to inform the Director they had a serious breach of security somewhere. After the third left into another identical stone corridor, into another row of prison cells, he wondered if he would live to share his deductions with anyone.
“Do you know which way you are going?” he asked, his voice cracking slightly.
“Yes, we're going”âshe paused at a junction, her head whipping to either sideâ“this way.” Her hand on his jacket once again jerked him firmly after her.
They came upon another junction, identical to the other four they had already taken, when she immediately scooted back into the passageway and shoved him hard into the curve of its stone wall. On feeling the back of his skull kiss rock again, Wellington realised with horror he was being managed!
This would not stand
, he thought,
even in such outrageous circumstances.
“Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire,” he blurted, sticking out his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Agent .Â .Â .”
One hand slapped across his mouth as the other one drew one of the earlier-sheathed pistols. A regiment of foot soldiers ran by them, but her cold, hard gaze kept him as still as she had been in his cell.
After a few seconds, she tore her palm away and glared at him.
“Introductions?” she whispered sharply, “Are you mad?”
Wellington stared at her, and repeated, “Wellington Thornhill Books, Esquire and Chief Archivist at the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. And you are?”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “Eliza D. Braun, Field Agent.” Her eyes darted behind him, and the gunshot echoed through the crypt. Wellington turned to see the foot soldier crumple to the ground, still clutching his rifle. She smiled slightly. “Currently saving your arse for the Ministry. Come on!”
Wellington tried to will his heart to pump faster, his lungs to take more air so that he could run a little bit longer. The world began to dissolve, picked apart by a fatal rainstorm that fell around them both.
Agent Braun reached behind her to remove a small cannon strapped on her back. “Just stay on this path, Books. I'll be right behind you!”
The gunfire managed to strike only rock and earth. Then came three heavy detonations. They were hardly enough to cause a cave-in, but the cave did an ample service in amplifying and containing their individual shocks. Wellington, through the next volley of heavy fire, kept running forward. Had the bullets stopped? He could no longer hear the soldiers or their rifle fire. Darkness enveloped him for an instant, and then he saw a light ahead of them, pouring in an open peephole set in a cast-iron door. It was blinding white, more brilliant than anything he had seen before in his life. His hands pressed against the hatch, and he felt its chill. This was it: the way out!
The sound of something heavy dragging across the dirt snapped him back to the reality colder and harder than the outside world. They were still trapped inside the fortress, and Field Agent Eliza D. Braun was making a barricade for each of them; placing barrels right in front of the locked door.
They settled in between these, resting their backs against the wall. Wellington looked across the corridor at her.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked, the klaxons still distant but the sounds of soldiers growing louder.
“Thinking.” She began loading bullets into her pistols, the imposing cannon she was wielding earlier now lying by her feet. Satisfied she had enough, she snapped them shut and gripped the pistols firmly, framing her rather sweet face with the two weapons.
Wellington crooked an eyebrow. “Thinking?”
A bullet ricocheted not two inches from her head. “Yes,” she replied calmly, “I always think better when I am being shot at.”
Agent Braun leaned out, spraying the space before them with bullets that either found their mark or served to keep Usher's henchmen at bay. Wellington's eyes darted from one side to theother, catching only a shadow of a helmet or a rifle barrel.
“Wouldn't you think better if you used that?” he asked, motioning to the cannon.
“Katherina there is an experimental model from the Armory,” Agent Braun said, considering the impressive gun. “I'll have to tell them three shots just isn't enough!”
Wellington managed not to let the swear escape him.
She came from the top of their barricade on this volley, finishing off what was left in both pistols. Braun leaned back against the wall, her satisfied grin fading the longer she looked at him.
“Books,” she snapped, “where's the bloody rifle?”
Through her gritted teeth she replied, “The rifle the soldier I shot in the corridor was carrying!”
“Oh, was I supposed to pick it up?”
Her deep breath was interrupted by more bullets tearing into the earth. She snapped both pistols open and reloaded them. Agent Braun considered Wellington for a moment. One of the pistols twirled in her grip, and then she tossed it to him, handle first.
The weapon bounced in Wellington's hands like it was fresh from the forge. He immediately cast it back to her. Barrel first.
“Bloody hell,” she gasped, making certain it was pointed away from her.
“Madam, I am an Archivist for a reason!”
“I need another gun, Books! What bloody good is a
down here at present?”
” he retorted.
The howl from outside made Eliza's head snap up, as she leaned to the left to let out another volley of gunfire. He peered into the blinding white of the world outside. Freedom. It was theirs, merely a single turn of a handle and they wereâ
“Don't!” Agent Braun snapped, causing Wellington to start. “Just keep away from the door, Books.”
“Whatever are you on about?” Why weren't they having this conversation elsewhere, say, the other side of this door? “We're almostâ”
“Dead, that's what we are,” she stated, so final and certain that Wellington furrowed his brow. “The door is a deathtrap. Look at the lock.”
The mechanism appeared as a thick metal box the size of a man's fist, a
man's fist. Two cast iron coils came from the door frame and ran into the dial-decorated cube with four metallic tentacles reaching upward and disappearing into the stone ceiling above them.
He adjusted his spectacles on the tip of his nose to get a closer look at the numbers within the dials. He knew there were bullets still biting at the rock walls, and even a few struck above his head, the sparks lighting their little alcove for a moment. These bullets, though, were far less important than this puzzle.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Agent Braun extending her leg.
His throat grew dry. “What are you doing?”
“The door's armed to blow, right?” She grasped a stick of dynamite. “I'm going to help it along.”
The woman was quite mad, and he was going to have to treat her as such. “But the rest of your team is on their way,” Wellington said as calmly as the situation allowed.
“The Ministry remains rather underfunded by the Crown, Books, and I was given the choice of either backup or more dynamite.” She held up the stick. “I went with what I could trust.”
Bullets ate away at the barrels shielding them. One or two planks buckled. Their makeshift barricade would not last much longer.
“Throw it,” he shouted over the gunfire.
“Throw it!” he insisted. “I can solve this lock.”
She cocked her head, her eyes narrowing just before another spray of bullets danced along the wallsâone even ripped through her chemise sleeve.
“Trust me. I can do this, I just need a moment toâ”
Agent Braun grabbed from her baldric what appeared to be a lapel pin comprised of clockwork gears and cogs, fractionally larger than his thumbnail. She pierced the top of the stick and flipped an unseen switch on the tiny device in one smooth motion.
She had a good arm, but even so the explosion rang Wellington's head like a bell in Westminster Cathedral. Small bits of rock rained down on them for a few seconds and then the shock subsided.
Dimly he discerned her muttering, “Bugger.” Her eyes shifted back to him as she started to pull from other holsters pistols varying in size and caliber. “Right, you've got your moment, Books. Solve the lock.”
Braun continued to produce sidearm upon sidearm from her shoulder baldric. This was where they would make their stand apparently, and it was up to Wellington Books to make sure it was not their last.
There was not much light to work with, but some compound inside the cast-iron box gave the numbers a phosphorescent glow. He looked at the range of numbers, letters, and symbols on the dials, twenty-one by quick count, all of them appearing random. If they were in seven sets of three or three sets of seven, this would be a simple cipher; but he needed a key. A simple key. It had to be simple for those here to use regularly.