Three more days of freebies over at Little Red Hen Romance, including Miss Annabel Lee and the Clockwork Wolf, the first chapter in our steampunk series. Wanna taste?
As soon as she knew they were gone, Annabel went down to the cellar. She dragged the old milk cans out of the corner, swept back the carefully strewn layer of dirt, opened the heavy trap door underneath, and took out a carpetbag she hadn’t touched since the day she arrived in Persistence.
She carried it back up to the bedroom where the Dragonfly was sleeping. “Let’s hope you’re worth it,” she muttered, setting it down. She squatted beside it and pressed a thumb to either side of the lock. “Annabel Lee MacGuffin,” she said in a clear, flat tone. “Blackwood Corporation ID number four-nine-seven-dash-three.” With a whirring of gears and a stench of burning gas, the carpetbag snapped open.
She took out her goggles (still partially charged, thank heavens), her rubber apron, and her tool/first aid kit. She tied on the apron and put the goggles on her forehead, then unrolled the kit on the bedside table. Back in the lab, she would have sprayed her hands with disinfectant and put on thin rubber gloves. Here on the Prairie, she made do with washing up with house soap then rinsing with vodka.
She pulled the goggles into place and pulled back the sheet from her patient. He was in a near-perfect state of stasis, the only movement his eyes twitching under his eyelids as if he might be dreaming. She clicked on the infrared sensor on her goggles, and he seemed to explode into fiery red light—he was burning up. “Are you malfunctioning?” she asked softly. “Or are you some kind of new model?” Whatever he was, he was beautiful. Dragonflies were always strong, but this one looked like he’d been carved from marble by a Renaissance master; every muscle and limb was in perfect proportion. And unlike most of the soldiers she’d seen in the course of her escape, he had a handsome face, too, with high cheekbones and a strong jaw under the short-cropped beard.
She ran her fingertips down his torso until she felt the thrum of his control pack under the skin just above his navel. He carried it lower than normal; most were installed just under the heart. And unlike the early models she had helped design, he apparently had no zipper access that she could find. “Sorry, soldier,” she said, taking out her scalpel. “I promise to sew you up pretty.”
As soon as the point of the scalpel touched his skin, the power pack underneath started to glow. An entire network spread out from it in lines along his neural network—a new security feature, no doubt. She withdrew the scalpel, but the glowing didn’t stop; in fact, it seemed to intensify, and his whole body began to twitch. Swearing an oath and thinking a prayer, she repeated her Blackwood security code, “Annabel Lee MacGuffin, Blackwood Corporation ID number four-nine-seven-dash-three.” The glowing immediately subsided. “Lovely,” she muttered, going back to work. “Just grand.”
The main control pack module looked mostly familiar but was twice the size of the ones she was used to, and a secondary unit like nothing she had ever seen before was mounted above it. Still, she was pretty sure his recovery protocols would be the same. If he was stable, she should be able to repair each of his systems one by one and accelerate the natural healing process at least enough to wake him up. With a tiny screwdriver, she opened up the brass plate on the main power plant and saw that yes, he was in an artificial stasis probably triggered by the impact of the crash. The miniscule crystal over his vitals gauge was cracked, but the readings were surprisingly good. The doc had been quite wrong; once his stasis was broken, his kidneys should function perfectly along with the rest of his organs. “How is that possible?” she mused aloud as she plucked out the broken crystal with tweezers. “At least some of you ought to be jelly.”
She replaced the crystal with a new one from her kit, and when she withdrew the tweezers, the very tip tapped the edge of the secondary control unit. The man spasmed all over, and the vitals gauge leapt up. She pulled her goggles back down and saw parts of him had gone even hotter—his brain, his heart, and his sex organs. “That can’t be good.” As she watched, the heat level started to fall, and the gauge dropped back to healthy stasis levels. But as it was falling, she noticed something else. A deep, nasty gash in his shoulder had started to knit itself closed.
“They didn’t,” she breathed. “They couldn’t have.” Her former mentor, Horace Blackwood, had worked for decades on a way to make his supersoldiers self-healing, but he had never cracked it. How could the apes in the military have found the answer in four short years?
She switched off the infrared sensor on her goggles and engaged the second level of magnification. The secondary unit seemed to have its own stasis failsafe attached to the man’s central nervous system. But while the primary unit had two settings, on and off, this one seemed to have at least six. The control cog was so tiny and so delicately calibrated, she could barely read it even with the goggles. Stranger still, these controls seemed to be entirely disconnected from the others; if she meant to wake him up, she’d have to turn on both.
“Secondary unit calibration test,” she said, forgetting she wasn’t in the lab being filmed. “Level one.” With one of the tiny instruments from her kit, she turned the cog up a notch. She noted a slight rise in body temperature and an increase in the REM sleep twitching, but his wounds remained unchanged. “Level two.” More heat, more twitching, and superficial skin wounds began to heal. “Level three.” The man went rigid, and she heard a rippling, crackling sound—his bones were actually healing. “I can’t believe it.” She checked the vitals gauge on the primary unit. His organs and functions all seemed to be fine; in fact, they seemed stronger.
“Level four.” She turned up the cog one more time. The man began to twitch more violently, fingers flexing, and a low moan, almost a growl, came from his throat. His jawline began to change, growing longer and thinner, and his brow began to protrude. His fingers and toes grew longer and started to curl.
“Level three,” she repeated, her scientist’s nerve kicking in, keeping her calm. As soon as she turned the cog back, the twitching stopped, and his bone structure returned to normal. “Oh good.” She ran a hand down the arm that had been shattered before and found it whole. The crackling had slowed down; his skeleton must be almost healed. “Good for you.” With rest, he would be as good as new. “Werewolf DNA,” she said, trying not to notice the tremor in her voice. “That explains it.” Some of the military consultants even back in her own day in the City had suggested splicing werewolf DNA into soldiers, but Blackwood had always refused to consider it—this issue had been one of the sticking points that had led to his downfall within the government. Apparently with him and his team out of the way, the apes had pressed on.
She set the timers on both units to keep the man in stasis another eight hours. “A good night’s sleep will fix you right up,” she said, replacing the brass cover and screwing it back into place. She pulled the edges of the incision gently closed, and before she could reach for her needle and silk, it had already started to seal itself back up. “I’ll see you in the morning.”