I heard tapping, as of fingers swiftly rapping, rapping gently on my outer chamber floor. Tiny hands, fingers rhythmically drumming, as if with impatience. Hundreds of them.
“I hear you,” I whispered in sing-song, feeling the madness of sleep-deprivation settling upon me and no longer caring. I had no time to care.
They were here.
The bedsheets, torn into strips, braiding a rope to effect my escape through the window, had been large enough to afford plenty of left-over. The sheets had been of a fairly good weave, surprising in a place such as this, and I packed this superfluous material as tightly as I could into the space beneath the locked door. I worked feverishly in the dim light of a lamp turned low, conserving oil. As I finished folding a thick wad of cotton weave the light beneath the door rippled. Shadows writhed within that bar of brightness: they were far too close. I heard myself gibbering as I crammed the cloth into the gap.
Finished, I scrambled backwards, crablike, until I fetched my head a sharp blow against the heavy wooden bedstead. I checked my emergency rope, tied firmly to the heavy frame, then got to my feet. I stared at the bottom edge of my chamber door, terrified of what I thought I saw, but the light was too dim to be sure. Snatching the lamp from its shelf, I swept it low before the door.
The packed cloth writhed, and I could hear snipping and whirring, faint, but there.
They were coming through faster than I had anticipated. Whimpering I tipped the lamp, carefully avoiding the open flame, splashing the liquid along the bottom of the door. The packed cotton soaked up the spill and I backed toward the bed once more. As I’d finished pouring I’d seen small, scissoring blades cutting their way through the final layers of cloth into the open air of my room, tiny bodies fighting to be free of the restraining fabric.
I thrust the lamp back onto its shelf and fumbled my matches from my waistcoat pocket, striking three with trembling fingers.
“Go tell Works he can burn in Hell!”
With this shout I cast the burning matches into the oilsoaked cloth. Flames erupted beneath the door, leaping up the wood where oil had splashed on the oak planks. The inferno engulfing the base of my chamber door would have more than discouraged any creature of nature, but nature had nothing to do with Works and his creations. I sprang to the side of my bureau and with a guttural cry thrust my shoulder against the heavy furnishing, tipping it to fall across the door, barricading it. I backed toward the imagined safety of the window, and my rope, and watched with heaving chest to see if it had been enough.
It had not.
Around edge of the dresser they came, bursting from the flames in a rush — two spiders, each easily two inches across, legs ticking rapidly over the wooden floorboards. They glowed red hot in the dim light, the remnants of the lamp oil still burning on their outer skins as they oriented on me. As I stepped forward they reared back, forelegs slashing the air in aggression, then charged.
One scuttled snake-quick across the uneven floorboards, but I was the quicker. My solid, hobnailed boot came down upon it with all my weight behind it, and with a crack the thing exploded. Tiny cogs and wheels slid and rolled across the floor while the mainspring that powered the thing shot through the air. I didn’t have time to feel elation at my success, however.
The other had leapt, landing on my thigh, eight blade-like legs slicing through trousers to sink into flesh. Red hot metal and burning oil cauterized the wounds and set my trouser leg aflame as I stumbled backward, shrieking and flailing in pain. I batted the mechanical monstrosity from my leg only to see it skid across the floor, right itself, and come back at me. Beyond it, more of its kind emerged from beneath the door, skittering and burning.
Scooping up my rope I flung myself at the window, smashing through the glass two stories above the naked cobblestones of the alley below. Clutching the rope like grim death, I swung back toward the house, the brick wall smashing the breath from my body. All but paralyzed by the impact, I glanced upward, fearing pursuit. There, at the top of my homemade cotton rope, I saw bits of flame.
Bits of flame containing razor-sharp blades.
I fell, landing poorly, my ankle breaking with a sound like a rotted branch snapping, and I sprawled with a cry.
“Portal just arrived. I’ll ring you back in a bit.”
“Yes, Mr. Works,” came the tinny response.
I looked up to see a familiar figure, tall and thin, facing the alley wall. Light projected from his right eye to splash upon the alley wall. In the light was a face, nodding acknowledgment of those spoken words. The man before me reached up to twist the eye in its socket and the projected face faded, replaced by the words ‘connection terminated’ before the light itself faded. Steven Works turned to face me, his hand moving to push down the antenna mounted in a socket before his ear. He focused his remaining orb on me, brows lowered dangerously.
“You thought you could hide from me? My clockwork agents can follow wherever you go.”
He pointed upward, indicating the conflagration that had once been my rooms.
“There is nowhere to hide. You are your company, William Portal, and your company is you. You die and Tinysoft Corporation dies with you. Without your competition, Portal, Pear Incorporated will reign supreme in this new twentieth century!”
He adjusted the lay of his frock coat, then turned away.
“Goodbye, Mr. Portal.”
It began to rain flaming iron spiders…