“Alright, sweet thing,” Maggie said, resting her hand on the copper plate. “Just talk to me, and we’ll get you all better.”
The towering engine didn’t say anything in reply. They never did, not with words, but sometimes Maggie would swear that she could hear the metal sing.
Today, all she got was a quiet grumble.
Maggie shook her head. “Don’t be stubborn. This is for your own good.”
The machine was huge. Eight feet tall and twice as long, bristling with copper coils and runes. When it ran, it could hold a fifty-seat passenger car in the air or accelerate it down a subway tunnel at great speed, handling two kilometers of subterranean tunnels. It was the sort of technology that humans had been struggling to develop for decades. Her people, with a bit of magic, had perfected it a century ago.
It had stopped running, and since public transit through this part of the tunnel was unable to run without it, Maggie was getting paid top dollar to diagnose its problem and fix the damage.
A cool breeze wafted up the tunnel, and the engine shuddered slightly, its many metals contracting.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t give me that. You’re too young for joint pains. What are you, five years old? Ten?”
The metal still glimmered as she looked it up and down. The only iron in the whole construction, a polished flat plate on top to conduct the magnetic lift, looked almost brand new. Given that, it was probably a construction error, some fault by the engineer who’d installed it, leading to undue stress and wear on its internals.
So, Maggie walked back to her truck, where her complete set of tools were waiting to deal with any issue she might face. She’d been able to drive right down into the subway from a maintenance entrance half a kilometer up the tunnel, which was a blessing - it meant she didn’t have to schlep her hundreds of pounds of gear down by hand. Plus, she could use the light rack on her truck instead of setting up a dozen work lights, at least to get started.
Sifting through options, she picked up her flashlight and a thirty-inch crescent wrench. It was steel, but her heavy-duty leather gloves ensured that she wouldn’t break out at the touch. There were non-ferrous tools that were strong enough for the job, but with proper PPE, Maggie never had an issue with iron.
Her tools selected, she put the flashlight in her pocket and walked back to the engine, getting to work on the access panel so she could see what was going on inside.
Maggie had to put in some real grunting and effort, putting her weight into the wrench to free each seized bolt. It was harder work than it should have been, just to get open the access panel, but that gave Maggie a theory of what was wrong. Metal warping could have a lot of causes, and it could cause a lot of malfunctions, from overtight bolts to loose valves to completely nonfunctioning engines.
“Now, let’s see what secrets you’re keeping,” Maggie said as the fourth bolt came free. She set down her wrench, pulled the access plate free, and took out her flashlight to peek inside. The light was magic powered, and with a hint of effort and a word, she brought out a bright point of light.
The inside was torn apart. It looked like a rat had gotten inside and chewed everything up to make a nest, except that rats generally chewed up old linens, not hardened metal gears and conductors.
“What on earth happened to you?” she asked, looking up at the engine with concern. This couldn’t have happened by accident, the engine’s contents were absolutely shredded.
Raising her light, she looked in more carefully, and from deep within, she saw two little red points. An indicator light, perhaps, except… indicator lights didn’t have blinking eyelids.
Pest damage, Maggie realized. A shamworm, maybe, though it’d have to be a particularly big one. Whatever it was, it’d taken up a nest inside the engine, and she’d need to coax it out.
“Hey, there, little guy,” she said, willing the light from her flashlight to get brighter so she could get a better look at it. “What are… you…”
It wasn’t a shamworm. Shamworms didn’t have armored plates of chitin, they didn’t have claws, and they couldn’t scream.
The thing, whatever it was, screamed. Then it lunged, out of the engine and straight towards her face.
Maggie ducked to the side of the access panel before it could take her head off. She dropped her flashlight, spinning to face the thing.
It was cast in silhouette in front of her truck, visible only as a dark outline the size of a wolf, chittering and yowling angrily. Its glowing red eyes were narrowly placed, giving it an almost comical grimace on its oversized body.
Maggie bent her knees, slightly, feeling for-
The creature lunged at her again, and she seized her wrench from off the ground, swing all thirty inches of high carbon steel at its head. The beast had a lot of momentum, but her impact knocked it out of the air mid-leap with force that reverberated up the heavy steel tool, through her gloves, and into her joints.
It didn’t even seem fazed, and as Maggie recovered from the shock of the attack, it came at her again. She raised the tool in a defensive gesture, putting the steel between her and the thing’s gnashing teeth.
It bit at the wrench, ripping it out of her hands and knocking her back into the engine. Hitting the ground on all fours, it shook the tool like a dog with a bone, bit down, and broke it in half with one good chomp.
Maggie decided, then, not to let the creature bite her.
She bolted to her truck. The keys were already in the ignition, half turned while she kept the lights on, so she grabbed them and twisted, revving the engine to life.
A chitinous claw slammed through the ceiling. The first creature was visible in front of her, stalking towards the truck, which meant...
There’s two of them.
Heart racing, Maggie slammed the truck into drive, hit the gas, and accelerated as fast as she could.
Two impacts. First, a solid whump as the front of her truck slammed into the creature. Then, a loud, crunchy WHAM! When the truck and creature both hit the solid metal engine that it had been nesting in.
Her truck had an aluminum frame and was fairly lightweight, but it was still solid and carried plenty of mass, and it was going nearly thirty miles an hour when she crashed, wrapping the front of the truck around the first creature and flinging the second from her roof.
A second too late, the car alarm began to wail, and the airbag kicked in. Maggie flipped out her pocketknife, slashing the inflated bag and shoving it out of the way so she could get free of the truck and see what was going on.
The creature she’d hit was pinned. It didn’t seem injured in the slightest, and was more annoyed at being stuck.
What does it take to kill these things?
The other one pounced, not at Maggie, but onto the hood of her truck, claws ripping to free its friend. Like the thing’s teeth, its claws shredded steel like tissue.
Head ringing, Maggie ran.
The creatures pursued.
Deep in the tunnel, every sound was amplified by echoes, coming from all directions. Her hearing was acute, but with all the noise coming at her—the scraping, the chittering, the wail of the alarm—she couldn’t tell how close they were behind her.
She stole a look back. They were thirty feet behind, but gaining. She put on the speed and stopped looking back.
The maintenance entrance was barely in view up ahead, lights peeking through the open service gate on the left of the tunnel. If Maggie could make it through, close it behind her, and…
Will it even stop them? Those claws...
She could see the light up ahead, peering through the open service gate that she’d driven through not half an hour ago. She was closing on it, but her speed was capped by the limits of muscle and bone.
It seemed that her pursuers didn’t have those limits. When she stole a glance over her shoulder, she could see the red eyes coming closer, too close.
She wasn’t going to escape. Fighting the creatures seemed like a fool’s errand, but they seemed to only have animal intelligence. Maybe, just maybe, she could scare them off.
Legs still pumping away, she considered her options. First, she still had her knife, a trusty tool she never went anywhere without. Second, she had her flashlight, which was really a handle with a crystal and a simple glowing charm. Third, she had…
Is that really it?
It was just those two things, and she scolded herself for not bringing along any real self-defense tools. She’d left herself without much to work with.