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about the author…
I am a novelist, screenwriter, producer, poet, actor, and freethinker who supports both imagination and rationalism. I am an advocate for film and the written word and possibility.
I am a recent (2013) winner in the Writers of the Future contest and have since had work accepted in Escape Pod (“The Nightmare Lights of Mars”), Daily Science Fiction, Apex (winning the 2013 Story of the Year Reader’s Poll), Clarkesworld, COSMOS, Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Electric Velocipede.
about the narrator…
Mat reads stuff. Sometimes he voice acts too. Oh, and he just beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.
by Brian Trent
The black steamrotor chugged noisily beneath the maze of damp brick arches, cutting a frothy wake in the underground canal. Edward Oakshott stood rigidly at the bow, leaning against his silver cane. The dank stink of London’s forgotten netherworld perspirated over the vessel’s wood, the humidity visibly beading like a spate of glassy insect eyes on the many green lamplights they passed. Edward drummed his fingers against one clammy hand. His sense of direction, precise as his fashionable gold pocketwatch, reckoned they must be passing directly below the evening crowd at Charing Cross’ Hungerford Market.
Yet he wondered at their boatman’s skill in navigating these dark, labyrinthine channels. How often were customers ferried to Thoth’s subterranean bazaar? Edward grinned in nervous anticipation and peered from beneath the rim of his hat at the constellation of green lamps marking the canal’s many twists and turns.
“We shall be late if this continues,” Sophia Westbury said behind him. Her folded parasol looked like a pale sword against her shoulder. “Really, Edward, was there no earlier date you could meet him? It had to wait until the very eve of war?”
“The party shall wait for me.”
“It will be a scandal,” Sophia said, though her bell-like voice belied the smile on her lips. Edward was already the scandal of the decade. Chessmen were synonymous with shadowy, secret shufflings in the night; living legends who could be your banker, teacher, butcher, parent, or carriage driver during times of peace. Edward’s public antics had shocked Europe into a buzzing hive.
Sophia sighed and looped her arm round his. “What do you know about this Thoth? Any man who dwells like a spider beneath London, spinning mechanical webs beyond the Ministry’s sight…” She shivered. “I feel like Faustus!”
“Henry sent a Bishop here last autumn, darling, the one who defended Cornwall. If Henry says Thoth is trustworthy, that is good enough for me.”
At these words, the boat banked sharply through a new arch, throwing up a huge wake. Edward steadied himself with pressure to his cane, but cast a ghastly glare at their boatman in the ship’s small cabin.
The engines cut. They were adrift on a Stygian lake with a circle of distant green lamps in the distance enclosing them. Edward noticed Sophia lowering her parasol, one of her lacy gloved hands poised over the handle switch. For his part, he slipped a finger beneath his hat rim and lowered a cat-sight monocle over his left eye. Instantly the darkness blazed into a brilliant shade of blue. He spied a ring of brick columns plunging into the water, a vaulted ceiling, and several tunnels. The water lapped in gentle, uneven tides.
In the spectral blue of his monocle, Edward watched another vessel emerge from one of the tunnels. It was smaller and swifter than their steamrotor. It gave the appearance of an Italian gondola without rowers or visible engine of locomotion.
“A single man is at the helm,” Edward reported, hand straying to the oversized steel revolver in his belt holster. “Something odd in his look.”
Sophia scowled and readied her grip on the parasol. Who could trust any immigrant creature living in such a ghoulish netherworld? She had an aunt who loved scaring the family’s children with gothic tales of revenants lurking beneath London’s streets. If only the old woman knew how near to reality her fictions were!
“Hail him, Edward!” she whispered. “Let us hurry this nasty business!”
“No harm will come,” he said calmly with a glance at his lover. The monocle turned her into a creature of stark contrasts; with a blink he saw her alternately as lovely Aphrodite of Victorian society garbed in the latest Parisian fashion, or a livid blue ice banshee… beautiful, slender, and deadly as a Chinese sword.
The figure on the strange boat called out to them. “Be you lost, sir?”
“Most certainly,” Edward replied. “Hopelessly lost, unless you are the old Egyptian they call Thoth who lives down here. Thoth who toils in his unseen laboratory, who emerges only to peddle his illegal wares!”
“The upper world delights in its stories, I see.”
Edward heard the exotic, foreign cadence cladding each word like strange silk. The voice was baritone, oily and betraying a wheeze. “I am here at the behest of Henry Harding. He spoke of the aid you provided a Bishop from Cornwall. You saved his life.”
The other vessel continued to drift soundlessly forward into the galaxy of phosphorous lamplight. Edward wondered what manner of machinery whirred beneath the vessel so gently as to leave the glassy canal surface undisturbed. Suddenly the ship stopped as if anchors had harpooned the canal floor. Edward gazed upon the shriveled face of Thoth. He felt his mouth go dry.
Half of Thoth’s ancient face was like a withered tree, knobby, cracked, and with the rugged patina of a crocodile. The other half was a corroded metal mask, studded with screws and rivets. A rotating wheel of a half dozen false eyes was bolted into the steel near his aquiline nose. Leathery hoses protruded from Thoth’s skull and snaked into a cumbersome backpack strapped about his waist.
Thoth breathed deeply, and the machinery of his backpack whined with the effort. “I was unaware of the Bishop’s outcome. Anubis decides life and death, not me.”
Sophia hissed her displeasure and snapped the parasol open, leveling it like a shield. The Egyptian’s wheel of eyes blinked at the menacing tip in the center.
But Edward held up a hand. “Sophia, we must be cordial.”
“He’s a heathen sorcerer!” she whispered.
Edward called to the stranger, “I am a Knight.”
Thoth rubbed a grizzled chin thoughtfully. “The world has known that for four years.”
“London is being threatened by a Rook.”
The Egyptian nodded again. Water poured from the ceiling, bursting in a short-lived stream out of gutters above.
Edward waited. “I do not wish to die just yet.”
“No Knight has defeated a Rook in ten years.”
“Precisely why I have come to see you.”
“Anubis – ”
“Yes , yes, yes,” Edward felt his temperature rise. “Perhaps Anubis would consider a sacrifice of gold for his interred pharaohs? What will ten thousand guineas buy me? An electro-plated Book of the Dead? A feather of truth? Or perhaps something that can aid a Knight in the battle of his life?”
“What nation has declared against Britain?”
“Will my answer change your price-list?” Edward pounded the deck once with his cane. “What do you have for me?”
Thoth laughed shrilly. “To business it is, then! I only wonder if it is your death you fear, or losing face now that yours has become so public?”
Edward went flush. Truthfully, his public revelation was less audacity than unfortunate circumstance. Four years ago during a desperate battle with a German Knight, the melee had exploded out through the arena walls and over London streets. In full view of hundreds of upturned faces, Edward and his cursing opponent battled past church spires, marketplace roofs, and Hyde Park. Only then had Edward managed to deliver a crushing blow into the Knight’s face. He remembered the way the man’s eyes rolled white, and how he plummeted like a stone into the green park. The point of impact was subsequently honored by Her Majesty with a handsome placard.
Coming out publicly was a terribly natural thing to do after that. He descended on his rocket-pack straight into a crowd, found the nearest reporter, and said, “Edward Oakshott, Knight of Her Majesty’s War Ministry, at your service!”
Society was shocked. Newspapers gave a swift cry urging Edward’s disbarment from the Chesswar. Others didn’t agree, and four years later it remained a contested subject, hotly debated in smoking room brawls and organized protests, for or against Oakshott, from London to Edinburgh and beyond.
To Thoth, Edward said, “What can I buy for ten thousand guineas?”
“Anubis,” the boatman repeated. “Your lady thinks I invoke pagan gods when I speak of the Underworld Judge. This is not so. Anubis is what you may purchase, Sir Edward.”
Hearing his name spoken by this ghoul brought a chill to Edward’s spine. He pushed the monocle back under his hat rim. “And what is Anubis? A pet jackal to guard my estate?”
“A device which you wear over your heart. It can jolt the dying back to life.”
Sophia hissed again and began to protest, so Thoth wheezed angrily, “If my inventions offend certain sensibilities, then perhaps you have come to the wrong place! The Anubis is worn over the heart! Touch its switch, and it injects tiny steel spiders into your body. They will revive you from a mortal wound.”
“In point of fact they more closely resemble horseshoe crabs. Yet they weave and spin flesh, repairing damage as a spider may correct a sundered web. Tiny, tiny! More than four thousand folded up tight within the Anubis cocoon! Life from death, at the touch of a switch. A powerful advantage in a Chesswar duel, would you agree?”
“I would,” Edward gasped, controlling his breathing. Dear Lord! Has the ingenuity of our most marvelous age finally overthrown the tale of Lazarus? His blood thrilled at the notion.
“The price is twenty thousand guineas,” Thoth said. “And your oath before God to keep it secret! Place the money onto the dinghy beside you.”
Edward realized that a miniscule float of wood, painted black as the water, had silently crept to the rail of his ship.
He tipped his hat. “Indeed, great Thoth. To the coffers of Osiris goes my gift!” He walked gingerly to a small hold and hoisted a lacquered mahogany box from within. Swiftly he opened it and removed two drawers of gold, did a quick tabulation of what remained, and closed the lid. For an instant he worried that the weight would sink the dinghy, and when he set the box upon it the water crept across the planks in neat horizons. Yet it stayed buoyant. The dinghy twirled once in the water like a leaf and moved towards Thoth.
“Best wishes,” Thoth called out, as he and the dinghy retreated into one of the tunnels.
Sophia looked ready to spit. “Edward! This – ”
He hushed her as another dinghy moved on the water, bearing upon its deck the promised prize.
“Edward Oakshott, your arrival is almost too late to be fashionable!” snapped the corpulent Mrs. Harding, wife of War Minister Henry Harding, the instant he stepped into luxurious Ministry Hall.
Edward hesitated for the firing squad of photographers, Sophia attached to his arm. He let his eyes move to the baroque wall clock in the instant before the flash. Those iron scythe-like hands were poised a few minutes from the ominous ring of 8-o’-clock.
Then the camera bulbs flashed noisily. “Mrs. Harding,” Edward said congenially, “Good fashion relies on lost punctuality.”
He moved past her into the widening maw of London’s socialites, politicians, merchant kings and foreign diplomats. Reporters threaded the crowd and surrounded him.
“Have you heard the latest from Nanjing?” one asked. “Minister Lin declared that you mock the art of war with your public antics! Do you have a response?”
“Yes. It surprises me Lin is so eager for a second war with Britain. Was losing Hong Kong not enough for the Emperor?”
The gatherers laughed uproariously, although a few politicians turned purple with consternation. Reporters hand-cranked their phonograph cylinders like dairy workers churning butter; Knight Oakshott was one of England’s most quotable personalities, to the delight of newspapers and the chagrin of politicians.
“Mr. Oakshott,” asked Gibson Bennett, a ferret even among journalists. His whiskered face, bespectacled eyes and pronounced nose made Edward think back to Thoth’s secretive underground. How much would Bennett pay to expose that concealed British netherworld? “In the face of the latest Russian aggression across Europe and Turkey, do you think the old ways of war should be resumed? Armies, instead of sixteen elite soldiers for each country? Should the fate of so many people reside on the performance of so few?”
Edward’s eyes flashed, and a photograph snapped that very second. Beautiful! he thought. He was already imagining the picture in tomorrow’s edition: Saucy, possessed, a model of controlled aggression, enough to get ladies’ pulses pounding. He suspected the edition would sell out within an hour.
“Ah yes,” Edward said, measuring his words carefully. “It makes much more sense for all of London to be in the hands of falling bombs, bullets, and ballistae! Yes, let’s trade in our Chessmen for a thousand-fold army of plunderers! Every political disagreement will once again result in cities destroyed! Risk the Parliament, the pyramids, and Paris because one monarch stubs his toe on another’s footstool!”
The crowd erupted. Even the politicians smiled at this, and Edward saw Henry’s mustachioed face in the crowd, nodding agreeably.
“A civilized age,” Henry added, causing the crowd heads to whirl in his direction, “Requires civilized warfare. The old ways are over with, done! Consider how much money, resource, and lives went into our spat with the American colonies. Nowadays an official declaration of hostilities would involve thirty-two combatants rather than thirty-two thousand.”
“But Oakshott will be facing a Rook!” said a high voice from the crowd.
“The Rook has yet to declare its move,” Edward said evenly. “He may choose to advance on Norwich instead. He may choose to sit tight.”
The crowd turned its collective head again, this time to the baroque clock. The Rook was required to announce its next move by 8-o’-clock. If no declaration came, it would fall to Knight Oakshott to announce his move: Remain in London, attempt a strategic outflank to a neighboring prefecture, or jaunt straight to Coventry for a noble suicide against the Rook, an adjacent Pawn, and a newly invading Bishop. There might even be an enemy Queen among them; unlike all other units, Queen movements were as insidious and unseen as a viper in the shadows.
“Are you not petrified?”
Edward felt the sweat squeezed from his pores. He conjured a convincing smile. “Indeed I am. My heart is stone, my nerves are steel, and I will be a Knight to remember!” He tossed up his cane, and the crowd gasped as it twirled twice, only to be caught by Sophia. She laughed at what seemed chance reflex, and suddenly Edward hopped over to her, knelt, his hat in his hands.
“Would you do the honors, my good lady?”
Sophia whispered. “You tempt the Fates, Edward.”
He smiled, disguising an anxious swallow. A heavy bead of sweat crawled through his scalp and swelled like dew at his hairline. In less than twenty-four hours, he knew he’d be sweating in battle with a Rook, dear Lord!
Silence filled the room like a toxic vapor among marble statues. Someone’s nervous titter shattered the sickening quiet, and the crowd flinched.
“Sir Edward Oakshott,” Sophia began, “Do you promise to protect Her Majesty’s Empire as you have done so faithfully before?”
“I do, and most humbly!” There was a hearty outburst of laughter at this.
Life was choice and chance, he thought while waiting for Sophia to continue. He felt the sweat droplet growing heavy, tugged at by gravity. The Ministry floor was covered in a spray of inch-long gray and white tiles. He tried to guess which floor tile the sweat droplet might splatter against. More to the point, could he control the fall of the droplet, guarantee that it hit white? Was tomorrow’s fight the same combination of choice and chance? Each Chessman had an established menu of technological enhancements agreed upon by international guidelines. Edward’s success against four Spanish Pawns, a Portuguese Bishop, and even that legendary public duel with the German Knight owed to an alchemy of skill, knowledge, and chance.
And now Anubis was a factor.
“Do you commit yourself to this battle without reservation, and remain in it to whatever end?”
Thoth’s device was heavy in his jacket pocket. He tried imagining the vast armies of sleeping silver spiders inside. He wondered what it would feel like to have them invade his body, scuttling through his veins and along the ropes of tendons, weaving scabs onto wounds and stitching up muscles. Then what? Do they stay in the body? Do they insidiously set the stage for him to become like the monstrous Thoth?
He found himself remembering a controversial cover illustration to Quincy’s Quarterly, in which mechanical ladies were shopping for gears, wire, and replacement joints. Was that the future? Everything like a windup clock, hot blood replaced by greasy lubrications, and the soft timbre of Sophia’s midnight confessions traded for hollow musical notes belched from a pipe organ?
Edward blinked at the gray and white tiles.
But Oakshott will be facing a rook!
A Rook was a hulking horror clad in screws-and-bolts. It’s designation during the First Chesswar Council in Frankfurt, 1798, caused three months of public debate (far more than any other Chessman caste), and the Yanks were especially vocal, swearing that that “Europe would let monsters fight her wars now!” Not as powerful as the all-powerful Queen, a Rook nonetheless provoked the most terror in public consciousness.
“Then our hopes rest with you, our Knight!” Sophia finished.
Edward grinned, eyes still transfixed by the row of floor tiles. His heart panged a strained note, and his fear rattled chains of self-control. I choose the white tile!
Sophia tapped him on both shoulders with the cane.
The last tap shook the droplet loose from his eyebrow. It fell like a glassy bead, splintered into a vaguely star-shaped pattern against the floor.
The clock chimes rang, hollow and ghastly in the spacious room. Eight-o’-clock rang its solemn notes in somber precision. Edward remained on his knees.
A teletype sprang to life.
Reporters surged toward the machine. The Ministry guards heaved to repel them. The teletype clacked madly and Henry leapt to it, grabbed the end of the leaflet and tore it free.
Henry read it for several lengthy seconds. Then he turned to the audience, found Edward, and announced in a clear high voice: “Rook advances on London.”
The Old Street warehouse was perched on a narrow tower of colorless bricks like a country citadel. It was sandwiched in by several new government buildings which formed a kind of maze, so there was little chance of someone stumbling into its lonely alley. Should a careless carriage or wayward pedestrian see it, the warehouse appeared as just another unsightly example of crowded and careless development. Access was only possible from the ramp at its base which led to twin lifts grinding up the tower chute to the arena.
Inside, Edward and Harding walked abreast of the War Ministry’s official witnesses, listening to a heavy downpour assail the corrugated steel walls. The spacious interior stank of damp sawdust and the smoky sweet odor of diesel. No windows interrupted the rusty walls. No doors. No escape.
“No ferret interruptions, I trust?” Edward asked his friend.
Harding patted his forehead with a handkerchief. “Plenty of decoys out today. Should lead Bennett and his troops on a merry chase.” Then the man lowered his voice. “Is everything set?”
“As long as Thoth is no liar.”
“He is not.”
“These metal spiders, Henry. Do they – ”
They passed the observer’s box, a cube of reinforced concrete and steel where the witnesses would wait and watch, making notes and crossing fingers at the mirror-bourn images piped in from the periscope growing out of its ceiling.
The Russians were already gathered at the far side of the arena, having arrived by airship to the Queen’s palace and then shuttled off among a parade of decoys through London. Edward counted eight people. Behind them, just out of the cone of overhead lamplight, a hulking shadow lurked.
Edward’s hand jerked towards his heart. His feet halted at a raised row of screws painted red. He regarded the invaders across the gulf of ten meters.
“Sir Edward Oakshott,” Harding said, “Meet the Russian Rook.” The Rook resembled a large black cylindrical boiler on tripod legs. The sturdy bowl-legs were set within a thick, grooved iron waistband; Edward marveled at the tracks which would allow easy limb rotations and readjustments. The legs’ construction was exposed to plain sight, displaying a clockmaker’s paradise of gears, rods, and pistons. Each terminated at a foot little more than a lead-colored squarish block.
The iron body was smooth except for a single porthole – a glass eye encircled by a black rim of rivets. Edward suddenly recalled the voice of his old Ministry instructor: “Shooting the hellish thing in the eye will seem the natural thing to do. You might even get lucky. But a Rook will protect its weak spot. Many Chessmen have died while trying to play Odysseus versus the bloody Cyclops.”
There was no head. Instead, two grotesquely long arms sprouted from the top of the cylinder. They looked like pale branches of a muscular tree, and Edward felt his blood chill at the thought of the surgery necessary to rearrange a human body to fit this nightmarish reconfiguration. Rooks were different from other Chessmen. They didn’t melt into normal life after they were made. What manner of man would elect this hellish existence… a freak living only for the battle? Each arm was entwined by leather support hoses like black ivy garland, and each hand vanished into the sleeve of a weapon. The right arm hooked into a flame jet. The left was a kind of rifle. The bare elbows flexed and swiveled.
Edward pulled his pistol from his beltline. The Rook’s arms froze in their hydra-like gyrations. Its porthole eye rotated to face him.
The Russian and British entourages quietly filed out of the arena and into the security of the witness box. Edward reassuringly touched the three circular ammunition wheels clipped to his jacket. Each wheel contained a unique set of projectile.
Harding shouted from his sanctuary: “The War Ministry of the British Empire declares –”
Edward plucked off the first of his three ammunition wheels and snapped it like a crest onto his revolver.
“That the battle between Knight and Rook, on this 23rd day of April, 1843 in the Year of Our Lord – ”
He held his left arm rigid, balanced the revolver on its horizontal line, and used his wrist to activate a hidden switch. From his forearm a metallic shield unfurled in noisy extendable shutters. He withdrew the pistol before the last shutter clicked into place, and peered over the rim of the defensive shield at his opponent. He winked.
“Shall be recognized as an official proceeding in the engagement of war between the British and Russian Empires.”
The Rook’s glass eye turned red. Steam floated, wisp-like, from its seams.
A pistol shot rang out from the witness bunker.
The Rook sprang to life. Its right arm thrust forward the muzzle of a flame-jet, and suddenly Edward’s shield was ablaze. He tilted the shield to redirect the incendiary flow, while also giving himself an opening for his pistol. Edward squeezed off two shots at the Rook’s right arm as it turned towards him.
The slugs landed with meaty thwacks into the arm’s flesh, expertly avoiding the tangled weave of hoses. The arm snapped back. Beneath the eye, a hatch squealed open and disgorged a nasty black oil cloud in Edward’s direction. He hopped back two steps, discharging four more shots into the obscurity and hearing them flatten against the iron body.
Edward wasted no time in reloading the pistol. He snapped his shield arm down and his weapon arm up, a motion which pulled the tether to his concealed rocket pack. As he propelled up to the warehouse rafters on a plume of white steam, the Rook lunged through the oil cloud in that very instant, all legs coming at him like a nightmarish spider. The left arm loosed two mushroom-shaped shells at high pressure speeds. They hit nothing. The eye rotated wildly, seeking its target.
From the rafters, Edward perched and loaded the next ammunition wheel. He took careful aim at the abomination’s left arm and squeezed off three rapid shots.
The first slugs had been brass, but this next batch was acid. Only one found its target, but the Rook let loose a shriek like a chorus of tea kettles and unloaded a wild barrage of flame and shells into his general direction while its legs stomped about in a dance of agony. The rafter was shredded into haze of metal particles, but Edward was already gone.
He had intended to land behind the Rook, but he watched that crimson eye track him unnervingly well. As he swooped in low for a landing the Rook was already rotating. Edward hastily changed tactics, his heart galloping at a frightful pace. The right flame arm was coming up to his face when he wrestled it, slapping himself against its solid, clammy flesh. He heard the flame shoot behind him and felt the backsplash of heat.
The Rook’s strength was ungodly. Each pivot of the massive arm took Edward off his feet and slammed him down painfully. He thought crazily of being a slab of meat beneath a chef’s mallet.
In desperation, Edward hooked his pistol over his head, aiming blind at the Rook’s top, and fired four more times.
It wasn’t merely the eye that was an Achilles’ Heel. The Rook’s top was a colorless dome beneath which the fleshy interior of this man-thing was hunched. The bullets flattened on impact, but dissolved away at the dome. Metal squealed and popped, opening the creature’s vulnerable body to harm.
Then the left arm did the impossible. Edward had been warned about the superhuman flexibility of a Rook – that its human-looking arms were multi-jointed improvements on the mortal frame. Bending inversely, the left arm hooked over the Rook and fired point-blank into Edward’s head.
The impact was stunning. His hat – like his clothes – was designed to stop bullets, but dear God they hurt! Edward fired, aimlessly, and then he felt new hammer-strikes of bullets against his chest. He blew back from his enemy, the air driven from his lungs like a popped balloon.
Edward looked up from the floor and drew a startled breath, for he saw not one, but three Rooks. His head throbbed. He watched the trio of monstrosities rushing to him.
In a Dublin tavern in his reckless youth, he had once been involved in a fight with several sailors. One fellow had clubbed him upside the head with a bottle, and the resulting double-vision had lasted several minutes and created the mirage of fighting in a maelstrom of unwashed assailants.
But it hadn’t looked like this.
Edward hastily drew down his monocle from beneath his cap, and squeezed his other eye shut. Two Rooks vanished, revealing the master of the illusion. In the center. It was pure Rook-trick, this manner of optical hallucination. Ah!
Edward exhaled as he pulled the trigger on his last acid round.
The shot plastered itself over the Cyclopean eye.
It was a masterful aim, and sent the Rook mad. Even as Edward tottered unsteadily to his feet, the Rook was unable to cope with being blinded. Edward hopped back, feeling his fear burned away by success. Some of his old flair came back into his steps. He turned to the witness box, raised his monocle, and bowed low. Then he disengaged the empty ammunition wheel.
The Rook clearly felt its opponent was still lying prone, because it was expending its flames all across the floor. Heat vapors rose around it like the spirits of slain warriors, and in a bout of frustration it expelled another oil cloud. Edward snapped the last wheel onto his revolver and rested it on his shield arm. He searched the black and white fog, moving the barrel a millimeter back and forth, gauging the confusing dark shapes.
The infernal mists parted like a majestic curtain. The parted veil revealed the Rook’s clunky geometry. Edward calmly took aim and squeezed three shots in deliberate, staccato beats. Incendiary bullets.
Something was wrong.
He knew his bullets must have hit his target, but there was no sound of the impact. Edward’s sharp eyes caught sight of three bullet holes against the far wall. That couldn’t be! Unless…
He reached up for his monocle again when his head snapped back. There was no pain at first, even when his head crashed into the floor. His cheek felt wet. Salty blood gushed down his throat.
When he came to his senses the Rook was already leaning over him, its false double gone. Its porthole eye had been melted away, and inside the ruined porthole Edward spied another eye, smaller and raw, set in a red face stapled with leather stitches and needles. There was tortured suffering and livid bloodthirst, but no inhumanity, in that blue gaze. It was a living hue, not the crystalline glassiness of sapphire or the lifeless veneer of cobalt. Edward could count the flecks in the iris if he wished. The pupil quivered, poised between expansion and contraction in the uneven luminosity. A tiny vein pulsated in the corner.
Edward’s own vision was growing grey at the edges. His hand twitched toward Thoth’s secret resurrection switch.
The blue eye watched Edward.
Press the switch and unleash the spiders into your body!
Edward’s vision was fading fast, the blood in his throat a steady downpour that filled his stomach. Hit the switch! he thought. Spring back to life!
His fingers hesitated. He thought of the Quincy’s Quarterly cover with the mechanical ladies shopping for spare parts. He remembered Thoth’s frightful visage in the Stygian dark beneath Charing Cross.
The Rook’s eye studied him with what seemed strange sympathy. Dear Lord, what a monstrosity the thing is! Did it have parents once? What sort of man had it been before volunteering for such alterations? And what may I become should my body become nest to Thoth’s insectile army? I am a man with tools, not a tool fashioned in mockery of man!
Edward gingerly touched the Anubis switch but did not press it. He imagined he could sense the spiders’ urgency inside the device, humming with ugly need. Let us build nests in our host! Stitch egg-sacs into his muscles and red flesh, take position behind his eyes and into his brain, imprison his soul like a fly in eternal amber!
An ugly lethargy burdened his arms. He imagined the ease of restoring life, winning London for London, and then one morning he would be like this abomination before him, a single eye trapped in a steel cage. Unexpected regret filled him as he thought of the thing’s tea kettle shriek.
“Sophia,” Edward whispered. He let his hand fall limp. He managed a feeble nod to his opponent as his vision faded into an omnipresent street fog.
“Victory goes to Rook!” the Russian Minister pronounced, emerging gleefully from the witness box.
Harding stared at Edward’s corpse in open-mouthed despair, not caring who saw it. “He nearly won.”
“Nearly does not a victory make. I congratulate you on a splendid fight, though the London marker now belongs to us.”
Harding ignored him and walked past the Rook, hating its monstrosity even more than usual. He stared at Edward’s bloody, shattered face.
“The London marker,” the Russian repeated, raising his voice. “It was a brilliant match but your Knight lost, Sir Harding.”
Harding stroked his mustache. “Yes, he did. But the marker will remain in my possession until the London battles are over.”
“What? They are over! This is an outrage!”
Footsteps sounded behind them. Sophia entered the room, her face as tight as steel and full of venom as she perceived her lover’s body on the floor. Oh Edward!
Minister Harding bowed in anguish before her. “My Lady.”
She returned the courtesy. “There is no need for telegraphs or senseless formalities here, would you agree?” She turned to the Russian Minister, and then let her gaze drill into the Rook. “Queen,” she declared, “advances on Rook.”
Within the melted porthole, a blue eye grew wide.