Melisande wondered how many shots she had left. Two had done for Katia, the magazine carried fifteen . . . not enough for the number of chimaeras staring her down. The gun Katia had dropped carried only stun pellets, without which she wouldn't be alive but which did her very little good now. Her knees wobbled, and she ruthlessly crushed the adrenaline rush. Even with those being stun pellets, if Katia hadn't decided to wake her up early from the first dose with the anti-agent for a bit of recreational torture she would still be unconscious and Ardsley might be dead. Taking two doses of the sleeper agent in quick succession, combined with the side effects of the anti-agent, and she was going to have a terrible headache tomorrow. Of course, as the alternative was being dead tomorrow she couldn't really complain about a headache.
She could feel Ardsley brace himself and she shook off the wool-gathering. They had to move before the chimaeras decided to make a preemptive strike. "Go!" she hissed and to his credit he simply went, bolting for the stairs. As the first rank of chimaeras swung their weapons Melisande drew a bead on the closest to the platform and fired. Her shot struck the neck, lower than she'd been aiming, and she saw a spray of glass shards and green fluid. The creature staggered, its weapon arm, tipped by some sort of vibrating blade, swung in a wild shower of sparks as it stumbled into its nearest comrade, sending both tumbling into the canal. The water crackled and steamed with the electrical discharge as the chimaeras twitched, spasmed, and went still. Two down, at least.
The four remaining in the front rank turned, swinging their weapons to bear on her. Melisande's momentary flush of triumph evaporated as the first rank dropped to one knee, while a second row moved up behind them, their weapons turning to track Ardsley. She heard the click and whirr of their various weapons charging or cocking, and had time to squeeze off one shot before the first grenade came flying and she had to dive for cover.
Ardsley heard the explosion behind him and leapt for the steps to the gantry, forcing himself not to look back. If either of them failed, chances were neither of them would get out of here. He had to trust that Melisande could take care of herself. He had a mad Spark (if that wasn't redundant) to take care of. Vanya was still cackling like the lunatic he undoubtedly was, and the unhappily familiar sound of electrical arcing told him the equipment above had all the usual mad-science bells and whistles, including pointless open circuits and it would probably be a matter of guessing which gears, levers and dials actually did something and which were on the controls simply because the parts had been there and what was an evil superweapon without a few extra widgets?
A rain of needle-like darts slammed into the brickwork inches from him, and he swung around the railing, taking what little cover he could find. Two shots and the sound of glass shattering told him Melisande was laying down cover again and he risked a look. She had ducked behind the rack they'd been shackled to, which didn't provide much cover but was all there was to chose from. She also seemed to be conserving her ammunition, which meant he had to hurry. The chimaeras didn't seem likely to give her a cease-fire to find a new supply and reload.
He heard a crackle and smelled ionization in the air and jumped, grabbing for the railing, just before the metal stairs snapped and sparked with what was probably a lethal charge. Ardsley pulled himself up, swinging over the rail before he found out if that was electrically rigged, too. That also saved him from the cluster bomb the chimaeras fired that exploded into tiny burr-like mini-bombs, obviously designed to snag on clothing before they, too, blew up. Dodging that saved him from being blowing to bits but it had been a distraction, and it was only a flicker in his peripheral vision that saved him. He rolled, the iron bar Vanya was swinging missing him by inches. As he came up to his feet he managed a quick look around the platform–large levers, obviously running valves that controlled the mix and flow of the ichor, an set of rotary valves that seemed to operate the sluice gates and the hydroelectric generators they ran. The dam itself was blocking the exit tunnel, slowing the water to a shallow trickle on the far side.
Vanya swung again, but this time Ardsley was ready, waiting til the last possible second and grabbing for one of the levers as he dodged and yanking. There was a loud clang and a roar of water as the uppermost of the sluice gates opened and a torrent of water poured through, slamming against the next set of gates. The change to the flow caused a metallic wail from the system as power level fluctuated.
"You fool! Are you trying to kill us all?" Vanya spun away, yanking at series of smaller switches.
"I think that's your job," Ardsley retorted. The ichor was churning in two enormous glass cylinders, and while shattering them would almost certainly shut the operation down he knew enough about Aldinic reactions to know dousing himself (and by necessity Vanya) in the substance would likely not end well. On the other hand, risk of death by electrocution aside, overloading the dam and causing a surge might short out Vanya's army and the controls. He spotted the heavy switches beneath a row of flow gauges and bolted for them.
A foot snapped out and caught him sideways in the leg, which still ached from the shock cuffs' torture. He tumbled sideways, grabbing for any support he could find–one of the levers on the ichor vats. The momentum yanked the lever all the way down and the fluid began to churn violently, the glass shaking with an ominously increasing vibration. He had only a moment to consider that this was probably not a good sign before he was being yanked violently around. Vanya's expression was eerily present for a Spark in the midst of madness and before Ardsley could really process that, he was reeling from a very un-Spark-like punch to the jaw.
"You are supposed," Vanya said, in icy tones that were much, much too sane for Ardsley's liking, "to be testing my clanks." He picked up the iron pipe he'd swung before and was holding it in a disturbingly confident manner. "It's so hard to find good minions these days." He raised the pipe.
A crackling explosion and a shower of glowing metal and glass shrapnel made both of them turn and stare.
Melisande had only a second to note that Ardsley had reacted the control platform before the chimaeras laid down a barrage of fire–in one case literally, as the blobs of gelatinous substance it fired ignited on impact. She squeezed off another shot but this one ricocheted off one of her target's metal joint and sparked harmlessly against the stone walls. At least it drew the attention of the second rank, that or they recognized Ardsley was too close to their master to fire on safely. Unfortunately she also couldn't get a clear shot at Vanya, either, but Ardsley ought to be able to hold his own.
Of course now she was facing all of them herself. The metal gantries weren't providing a lot of cover and several darts exploded far too close for comfort. A crash from the control deck forced her back on task–keep them occupied. Or better yet, shut as many down as she could. Eleven shots was not enough to accomplish that. She froze behind the minimal protection of the grating as the ruby-covered eye sockets swept over her hiding place.
And kept going.
She took a tentative step and had to dive for shelter again as the chimaeras swung back around, weapons coming to bear on her.
Motion-sensitive, the crystals in their eyes were motion sensors, but crude enough they needed actual motion to focus on. That explained their inability to aim even after acquiring a target. One of those little things, no doubt, that Vanya had wanted to fix after 'live testing.' With good reason–here was a weakness she could exploit, one potentially far more useful than the eleven rounds she still had in the pistol. Or was it ten?
She used another, shattering the red crystal on one of the second rank. It swung the chain-blade on its arm, smashing its compatriots to the left and right, which set off another random burst of explosions before the one shooting explosive darts happened to hit the glass tubing in the other two. All three went to pieces in the midst of a crackling, hissing wash of the ichor. Three more down, but twelve to go–with at most nine bullets.
She looked up at the glass pipes over the chimaeras' heads.
That had some interesting possibilities.
One of the blobs of flaming gel struck the grate above her and she had to dive forward, drawing a barrage from the other weapons. At least Vanya seemed to have thought simple machine pistols would have been too trite for a Spark's genius. Lucky for her as if he had gone the boringly conventional route she'd probably be dead already.
There was a junction of the pipes where they split off into smaller channels, presumably running to the different 'charging stations' in the side caverns. It was held together with brass collars and bolts and the ichor entered a brief pool in the elbow joint. The chimaeras were in their firing line beneath that junction.
Moving as slowly as she could, hoping not to draw their attention again, she aimed for the junction point. If she missed, she wasted at least one round and that was one less chance to take one of the chimaeras down. Then again, given how many there were, one bullet, more or less, wasn't going to help that much anyway. There was a crash from the platform and the thud of a body striking a hard surface, followed by a metallic roar. Ardsley. You have to buy him time. Taking a deep, steadying breath she sighted on her target and fired.
Vanya's wail was somewhere between denial and rage. The rain of ichor, glass, and metal cascaded down on the chimaeras, who were stumbling in sudden shambles as the substance burned their metal parts and bones, and the collisions as they lost control of their reflexes shattered glass segments in their power systems. "What have you done? My clanks!"
Ardsley took a brief, precious second to look for Melisande and shout "Head for the ladder!" He saw her bolt from behind her cover and then he turned and lunged for the sluice-gate controls. The master valve was tight, but he wrenched it as hard as his aching muscles allowed and jammed it into the open position. Before Vanya could react he lunged from the control levers for the dam itself and threw it to what he hoped very much was the emergency shutoff position. Somewhere he heard turbines squealing as the gears attached locked up and a grimly final crash of the flow-through gates shutting. The water continued to rush through the wide-open gates, but now it was rising behind the blocked dam. There was a gap into the cavern beyond at the very top, but by the time the water reached that height the cavern they were in would be flooded higher than the platform.
"You–no! You've killed us all!" Vanya turned back from his now-floundering army and lunged for the controls. Ardsley punched hard for his solar plexus, sending the madboy reeling backwards. In the seconds that gave him, he scanned the control panels, looking for any sort of weapon. Their own guns were below, already swamped, and the best he could find here was a utility belt hanging off one of the support rails, with what looked like repair tools and emergency cave gear–it must have been Katia's, it was all too highly practical for a Spark. He grabbed for the only thing with a pistol grip, but found that wasn't a lethal weapon. Still might be worth keeping for later and he jammed it in his belt–
"Agh!" The enraged shout gave him enough warning and he kicked back blindly, connecting with Vanya's stomach and sending him staggering back. They always screamed, never thought about how much a split second could matter in combat.
Unfortunately what he'd failed to consider was that one thing Sparks were good at was improvised weapons. Vanya, protected by the heavy rubber lab gloves, grabbed one of the power cables running to the ichor tanks and yanked. Now he had a crackling, high-voltage weapon that made up for what it lacked in reach with one-touch kill potential. And of course, behind Ardsley was the railing of the command platform and a drop to the rapidly-rising flood below. All he had was a thoroughly nonlethal tool. From the gleam in Vanya's eyes he'd just made a similar assessment of the situation.
"Maybe we're all going to die down here," the madboy said, advancing a step. "So maybe it doesn't matter who goes first. But I think I'd die happier if it was you!"
He lunged–and slammed forward on his face mid-stride. Ardsley looked, and once again fought the inappropriate urge to laugh. Melisande was clinging to the edge of the gantry, the steep metal steps swaying violently as the water turned into a whirlpool as it rushed to fill the cavern. Rather, she was clinging with one hand, and with the other she'd grabbed Vanya's ankle and yanked hard, sending him down in a pratfall. The torn cable bounced away, spitting like an electrified snake.
Vanya kicked back, forcing Melisande to let go, but she pulled herself up and covered the few steps to Ardsley's side before he could do more to retaliate. "Shoot him?" She managed to sound so briskly professional, even soaking wet and shaking.
"Seems the thing to do, and I haven't got the gun." Ardsley looked around the gantry. "Though–is he the only one who knows the way out?"
Vanya was pulling himself to his feet by the railing. "The way out? You took care of that!" He pointed at the whirlpool and the flailing, dying chimaeras. "Unless you can fly."
"Have to admit, he has a point." Ardsley looked up. It was hard to see, but there was a shaft, probably for ventilation or a supply drop from when this was a quarry. It was also out of easy jumping or climbing range.
Vanya didn't seem reassured by being told he was right. "At least I get to see the two of you die with me! You've ruined everything, Melisande, you stupid little whore! You, and you–" and he jabbed an accusing finger at Ardsley. "So what will your British masters say when your body turns up in the sewers? How does it feel to know you'll go down as a miserable failure of a lackey? Couldn't stop a Spark without getting yourselves killed, could you? You might have destroyed my work but at least I'll be remembered as a genius! When they find the remains of my army, I'll–ack!"
The claw-arm closed around Vanya's chest from behind, and his gasp became a scream as the leaking ichor from the dying chimaera started to eat into his clothes. "What–no! What are you doing?" The flailing clank's red-crystal eye was half-shattered, but it apparently had enough motion sensitivity left to be attracted by flailing madboy. "Stop this! Release me! I AM YOUR CREATOR AND YOU WILL OBEY–"
The railing gave way under the chimaera's weight and it, and Vanya, plunged into the rising flood below.
The gantry lurched and Ardsley grabbed the railing while Melisande grabbed him. In other circumstances he would have enjoyed that a lot more but now was not the moment. They weren't sliding towards the broken rail, though, and he had a chance to take a breath and look. There was a brief glimpse in the turbulent waters below of Vanya, still flailing wildly in the clank's grasp, and then another rush of water dragged them down and they were gone.
Ardsley turned away. "I think he was in over his head." Then he looked down at Melisande. "I gather you don't feel like dying down here, either?"
"If you have a way out, I'd love to hear it." She tucked the pistol into her waistband. "I think I have two shots left but I'd rather not use them on us."
"I don't think that will be necessary." He peered up into the shaft above. "Grab on."
She locked her arms around his waist, and blinked. "Why, Ardsley," and even now, she could make him melt with just her voice, "is that a grappling pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"
He grinned, and aimed the gun up the shaft. "Hold on tight." The water was starting lap over the edge of the gantry, washing dangerously close to the torn live wire. He was only going to get one chance at this . . . .
The pistol fired with a soft puff and the cable whirred, higher, higher–there was a hard, metallic thunk as somewhere up the shaft it latched onto a ledge. He flipped the switch to 'retract' and they were yanked clear of the platform seconds before the water struck the live wire and the entire gantry crackled with electricity. Then they were up the tunnel and the sound of rushing water faded into the distance as they slowed and finally reached the end of the shaft and the iron sewer grate that the hook had caught. Ardsley braced them both against the sides of the shaft while Melisande picked the latch, and they climbed into a Parisian alley that he didn't recognize, but which from the buildings and the scent of the river was somewhere closer to the Seine than where they'd started from. It was also dark, meaning they'd been unconscious and trapped for at the very least ten hours.
And it was Thursday night.
The exhaustion, the post-stun rush, the pain, the rapid-fire ups and downs, and that was the capper. He started laughing and simply couldn't stop. Melisande stared at him as if she weren't quite sure whether she needed the gun again. "What is it?"
"I was only thinking, it's Thursday night," he said, managing to stop himself long enough to speak, "I can definitely forget that library job now."
Melisande stared blankly for an instant, and then she laughed, too. "Oh, dear. I hope you weren't planning to use them as a reference. I suppose it's a good thing I didn't have any lectures today, either."
"Oh, that would have been bad." The shaking in his legs was under enough control he could go to her, and from the way she fell into his arms she wasn't that stable yet. Her laughter was quieting and she clung to him, her face pressed against his chest, and he could have stood there forever and never let her go.
Why not? He'd never find another girl like Melisande. He'd certainly never find another who would understand so completely why he did what he did, how important duty could be. She was beautiful and brave and scarily competent in the field, and he would never have to worry even when they were apart that if someone tried to get to him through her, she couldn't defend herself. She might worry about him, but she would understand what he did, that he was, in fact, capable of surviving his mission, and she would not hate him for the absences and the danger. They were two of a kind.
Why not forever?
"Come on," he said, kissing her forehead and taking her arm.
"Where are we going?" She was taking two steps to his one and he forced himself to slow down.
"The Consulate. It's late, but so much the better, no one will see us going in." He stopped at the end of the alley, trying to get his bearings. It might be faster to call a cab or a rickshaw, but then again they didn't have any money.
"You think we're still in danger?" Melisande looked up and down the street as well, obviously scanning for trouble. "From what?"
"No, that's not it." Ardsley realized he was not going about this in the best way. "The Consul General can perform weddings for British subjects abroad, so he can marry us tonight, and he can arrange travel papers for you-you'll have to swear allegiance to the Crown, of course, but you won't mind, will you? You'll have citizenship quicker as my wife–"
"What?" She stared at him, eyes wide in the golden light of the street lamps. "Your–Ardsley, what are you saying?"
"Oh, I'm not doing this well at all, am I?" He forced himself to take a deep breath. "I thought you were dead tonight. I can't lose you again. I can't spend who knows how long on this assignment wondering if you're safe, wondering where you are and who might have found you and hurt you or shipped you off to Siberia. Katia and Vanya are dead but I doubt your uncle is going to take the entire situation well at all. I have to know you're safe and the best way to do that is for you to be in England, and not as some refugee or hostage but as my wife." He paused. "I know it won't be the best marriage, not at first, but I promise, when this mission is over if I've succeeded I'll be able to ask for any position I want, and I'd try to see you whenever I could until then, and if something did happen to me the agency's benefits for widows and orphans are really quite generous . . . ." He was babbling, something he never did, and he forced himself to stop. "Melisande . . . marry me."
For one agonizing heartbeat, he thought she was going to say no. He started breathing again when she smiled, and softly whispered in English, "Yes."
The two Serpents patrolling the banks of the Seine in response to reports of earth tremors and intermittent gas cutoffs all afternoon saw the two young people embracing beneath a street light, clearly oblivious to anything in the world but each other. The two officers briefly considered stopping to question them, but then reconsidered and walked on, leaving the lovers their privacy. There was nothing really worthy of note about the scene. It was a warm, pleasant night with spring turning to summer, and this was, after all, Paris.