Like Clockwork Springs
This is a mildly-revamped version of something I wrote years ago as part of an original steampunk story called The Andromeda Project, which sadly wound up being abandoned for a while; this is me trying to revive it. (Note that my writing style has change a lot since this was first done and that I've gone back in and tried to update it, so please forgive any awkwardness.) Several events mentioned here have been written in another piece, but it was never finished and at this point I'm tempted to just start it over so I can post it here.
Everything here is 100% mine~ More character info in the footnote.
At ninety-eight degrees the human body functioned normally. At one hundred and four degrees the human body began to go into hyperthermia and shut down. A human being would normally die once they'd reached one hundred and six degrees.
Coppernica was currently running a fever of one hundred and twelve.
Her body temperature had always been slightly higher than that of a normal human being, but this was beyond ridiculous. Four days. Four. Days. Any person other than the steam witch would have long since died by now, frankly speaking, and the entire situation had left him completely and utterly baffled.
Cornelius sat in the ship's lounge, trying his best to keep his eyes open as worry buzzed through his skull. It had been two months since the attack on their lives, two months since he had nearly lost his friend to the fire that lived behind her eyes, and now this. He racked his brain for the millionth time - had the strain of her magic caused her body to somehow eat away at itself? Had it exacerbated an already existing condition? If so, why hadn't she come to him sooner? Or at all?
For the same reason she didn't come to me when her arm had been blown off, he thought, wincing and resting his pounding head in one palm. She doesn't trust me...
Deciding that if he sat there any longer he would most likely only succeed in making himself sick, the good doctor closed the book of medical anomalies he had been half-heartedly attempting to leaf through and stood up. His mind exhausted, he was having trouble keeping his mind focused on treating the sickness - which he felt awful for, helpless in his inability to figure the puzzle out, but he also found himself returning time and time again to the question of just why the mechanic was still keeping things from them all, even after the amount of time she'd spent with them. He doubted that even Nickeli, young as the little grey tabby cat was, knew the full extent of his master's history.
He glanced at the timepiece on the wall. Three o' clock in the morning. Undoubtedly Coppernica would be asleep by now – or, at least, she should be. He hoped she was, yes, for the sake of her health, but even then he couldn't seem to shake the urge to go and check up on her. Just once. Just to see. It was all he'd need, he told himself, before he, too, finally gave in and went to bed. The thought carried him out of the room and into the narrow corridor of the airship's living quarters, where he softly closed the door behind him and stepped out into the dark of the hall.
Coppernica's room was at the far end of the corridor from his own, a rather small cubbyhole in the wall compared to the much bigger space that housed her workshop, the broom closet serving as the corner where she actually slept. Cornelius slipped gingerly past the enormous piles of scrap metal and strange, mysterious tools that could very likely put any surgeon's arsenal to shame if compared, vaguely wondering how she managed to keep anything organized. With only a single stumble over a fallen coil of sheet metal, he reached the door to the tiny storage space where his shipmate slept and paused just outside it with a hand on the doorknob. He steeled himself with a deep breath and cautiously cracked open the door.
He was expecting to find her asleep; instead, he was greeted by a pair of fever-clouded copper eyes blinking at him in the near darkness.
Cornelius startled at the sound of the steam witch's gravelly voice. It unnerved him to no end just how much deeper she sounded when not speaking in her usual high-pitched childlike tone, often forgetting that the sound he was accustomed to hearing was not her natural one. Shaking his surprise aside with a deepening frown, he stepped further into the space and stood, arms crossed in the doorway like a disappointed father. "Now what are you doing awake at this hour, young lady?" he chided softly. "And especially in your condition."
The mechanic turned her head to look at him properly. "I couldn't sleep," she rasped. She paused then, watching his face with carefully guarded neutrality. "What about you?"
"Neither could I," he replied with a quirked brow, "but no doubt for slightly different reasons."
He studied her as she shifted to find a more comfortable position. In the dim light of the single gas lamp her skin was flushed with fever and shining with a thin layer of sweat, two-toned hair lying plastered to her forehead. She looked... frail, a wholly foreign concept to him, and something he'd never thought to apply to such a bright, capable young woman. She looked wrong.
Nodding to himself, Cornelius pivoted on his heel and strode over to a sink in the corner. From a makeshift clothesline strung above the tap he tugged a relatively unstained towel and, with a quick motion of his opposite hand, twisted the mechanism to unleash a spray of cold water from the faucet. He waited for a moment or two, letting the water grow colder, before sticking the towel beneath the stream and soaking it. Once satisfied, he returned to the bedside, grabbing a stool along the way.
Coppernica eyed him with an unreadable expression as he sat down beside her. Any other time he might have wondered why her face darkened the way it did, but right then he was more concerned with the redness burning hot and blotchy across her skin. He reached forward to brush a shock of blonde from her eyes - which, surprisingly, she let him do. it was when he tried to lay the cold rag upon her brow, however, that she grimaced and shifted as far away from him on her small cot as she could get.
"Don't…" she groaned.
Cornelius bit at his cheek in frustration, more than a little irritated. He scooted the stool closer to the bed and tried again, this time placing a hand on her shoulder to keep her still, but once again she turned her head away from him with a quiet whine through gritted teeth. The rest of her attempted to follow the movement, but Cornelius's hand held her firmly in place, her body much too weak in her current state to push it off.
"Coppernica," he huffed, soft and stern and laced with annoyance, "I need to lower your temperature."
She fidgeted, still trying to keep her face away from the damp cloth in his grasp. "It won't do any good."
"I beg to differ."
She swatted at him limpy with her mechanical hand as he tried a third time to place the compress over her skin. "Nnnnooooo." She bared her teeth at him, hissing through them as she scrunched her eyes shut and tried again to roll away.
Cornelius pulled away with a scoff, fed up, and slapped his hands down on his knees. "Damnit all, child, why won't you let me help you?!" He clenched his fists, only vaguely aware that the water displaced from the towel was absorbing into his trouser leg. "Whenever you are sick or injured you always insist on doing things yourself and, frankly, it has become a bit of an insult." His gaze drifted from her sweat-slick features down to the mass of copper and wires that extended from her forearm, the mechanical remains of what was once her right hand. He scrunched his eyes shut, reaching a hand to push up his glasses and pinch at the bridge of his nose at the memory painted in photographic detail against the backs of his eyelids - Coppernica seated at her work table, caked in oil and dried blood as she drove a screwdriver in to tighten the gears of her new appendage, pieces of her old, flesh and bone one splattered across the walls. "I didn't want to bother anybody…"
Beneath his hand, the doctor's expression turned hard. It wasn't just insulting, he thought, it hurt to think that his friend did not respect him enough to ask for his help. He lingered on the still-mangled arm; the prosthetic remained in a state of half-repair after the events of their battle aboard the mercenary airship, with Coppernica's attempts to salvage it failing and rendering her obligated to build a new one from scratch. Something that had taken far longer than it should have with her sudden onset of blistering fever.
So focused was he on past mistakes and self pity that he did not notice her turn to face him, expression twisting. "You don't trust me," she whispered, voice croaky and small, words so quiet that Cornelius wouldn't have caught them if he hadn't been sitting to close.
He snapped his head back up and stared at her incredulously, eyes wide and confused. He didn't trust her? Preposterous! He frowned, mouth and brows turning downward as sharply as they could go. "I hardly think that's an appropriate thing to say in this circumsta—"
But she cut him off. "You don't trust me," she said again, "to know what I'm doing. None of you do." She coughed, body shuddering. "I'm not as young as you all think I am, remember?"
Oh… That's right.
With as young as Coppernica seemed, it was easy to forget that she was older than all of them on the airship combined. In that moment, though, with the dark circles under her eyes and the way her blankets almost seemed to swallow her whole, she looked it. She was smaller somehow, older than she should have ever appeared, with bright eyes now dulled and tired, and the innocent smile entirely gone. Defeated, Cornelius decided. That's the word.
He barely managed not to grimace.
They both were silent for a bit; him not knowing how to respond and her apparently deeply lost in thought. Eventually, the foggy quiet was broken by the soft rustle of bed sheets as Coppernica attempted to move.
Startled, Cornelius moved to push her back down, but the mechanic just shook her head. "Help me sit up."
He paused, unsure, but finally, hesitantly, did as she'd asked, slipping one calloused hand beneath her shoulder blades he lifted her upper half into from the mattress. For a moment it looked as though she would not be able to stay upright by herself, but thankfully, she managed. With a creak of joints she slumped forward, head hanging and chin resting against her collarbones. At first she did nothing, simply sat there motionless. But then she reached up and tugged at the tie strings on the neckline of her long sleep shirt.
Cornelius's eyes shot open. "What on earth are you doing?!" he gasped, neck and ears flaming deep red in shock and scandal. He moved to stay her actions, at the same time he lifted an arm to cover his eyes, leaving him flailing blindly for a moment, trying to find her hand to still it.
But the witch didn't answer him. Instead, she swatted his hand away, and Cornelius could hear the rustle of fabric as she finished undoing the first set of ties and then moved on to the ones across her shoulders. As she tugged the last string from its place there came a long 'swish' as she slid the shirt from around herself. "It's alright, you can look now."
Hesitantly, the doctor peeked out from behind his arm to find she'd pulled the blanket up to cover her chest, her night shirt puddled around her waist. She had slouched over even farther than she'd been, forehead nearly touching her legs through the covers. Her bare back was exposed to him, thin and bony and not at all what he had expected from someone with years worth of smithing and mechanical tinkering to build up her muscles.
But… that isn't bone…
"What on earth?" he repeated, voice almost lost to awe and apprehension. Along nearly the entire expanse of Coppernica's spine, going deep beyond the pool of shirt fabric at her waist, seemingly down to her tailbone, was a strip of deep brown leather with a line of metal studs down the center like buttons on a blouse. With a trembling hand, he touched a tentative fingertip to the leather, jumping back in surprise at the feel of it.
Coppernica twitched, and the muscles under her skin moved in a way that seemed… too jerky to be the fluid motion of a normal human being. As Cornelius watched, Coppernica rolled her shoulders forward, curling in on herself with a sharp movement that he could only liken to a dry heave. The studs snapped open one by one in succession, the flesh of her back folding outward as the leather strip split in twain and peeled open, and Cornelius felt the air force itself from his lungs.
Coppernica, sweet, obnoxious, overly-energetic Coppernica, was carved out like a jack-o-lantern.
She wasn't hollow, not entirely, but instead of a muscular or skeletal structure there was a bloody mass of metal resting above where her organs should have been visible from behind. Plates and springs, bits of copper and bronze, all fused to her shoulder blades, sticking up from between the slats of her ribcage, and ticking with the mechanical rhythm of the innards of a clock. Cornelius trailed his eyes back up to the leather and studs that had folded across her sides, seeing the underside at last; the strip of leather, the seam that kept her body bound together, was attached to the muscles as well.
But that wasn't the most shocking thing by far. In place of her spinal column, wide teeth rising where the line of white bone should have been, was a thick, blunted, curving expanse of slightly corroded brass - a clockwork wheel. "Coppernica…" he whispered, his voice shaking. He swallowed, throat tight. "What…What is this?" He wanted to touch it, to see if the horror before him was real and not just some sort of sleep-deprived hallucination. But he couldn't move.
"That, Doctor," Coppernica drawled, a hint of cynicism that Cornelius had never heard from her before coloring her words, "is my spine."
"Mechanical? Yes, I know." She chuckled; a dark, strangely bitter sound that seemed that much more out of character with the sickness sapping her energy. "Look closer, what do you see?"
And so he looked. Alongside the larger wheel were several smaller ones that jerked, first one way and then the other. He leaned in closer; deeper down, hiding in between them all, was what looked like several small, open wounds. Fissures in the raw tissue of her insides. He looked to the other side of the massive central wheel and found more of the same.
"How did you get this?" Cornelius whispered, covering his nose against the smell of too-hot metal and corroded, corrupted blood. He leaned back in his chair, trying to catch his friend's eyes, but Coppernica's face remained hidden by the fall of her soft brown hair.
He hadn't known. He hadn't known about any of this, and it made him sick to his stomach to think of the possible scenarios that could have caused her to need such a drastic surgery. His heart hurt.
Coppernica chuckled again, slow and deep and very, very tired. "One secret at a time, Doctor."
"But I don't understand."
The mechanic shook her head. "Best you don't for now."
And the way she said it, the tone of her voice and the exhaustion behind her eyes, made him see her in a new light. She was not the child she portrayed herself as, she was a full-grown woman, a witch, ancient and world-weary. Like a battered old steam engine that had ruptured one too many times but had been patched and repaired and kept going.
But then her shoulders shifted and she was back to being the sick little witchling with the fever of one hundred and twelve.
She sighed. "The magic in my body reacts with the metal and tries to assimilate it, turns it to rust." She shifted again, as though uncomfortable with her insides exposed to the open air. "Every twenty years or so it will cause pockets of infection to spring up around the gears. That…" she fidgeted her hands against her chest, looking for the correct word. "That incident a while back, on the mercenary ship… when I thought you and Newt and Nickel were all… The stress accelerated the process." She turned her head to peer at him through her hair, glazed copper eyes shining out like low candle flames. "That's what's making me sick."
Cornelius let out a long, slow breath through his nose, tongue pressed to the backs of his teeth. What did he even say to that? Here he sat, having just minutes before been completely prepared to hold his shipmate down and force a cold compress to her forehead, and Coppernica now was trusting him with something intensely personal – the first layer of a secret at least, even if he would never get the whole thing. He felt a twinge of guilt for not believing her before, as well as a drop of self-disgust for having put her in a situation where she'd likely felt she had no other option but to tell him.
"I've been deliberately keeping my body temperature well above normal," the witch continued, oblivious to the doctor's own mental beratement. "To try and burn the infections out." Another cough wracked through her and she shivered as it passed.
Cornelius leaned towards her in his seat, eyeing the girl's inner workings. "Perhaps if there was some way to replace it? Maybe I could..."
Could what? What could I even do?
Coppernica shook her head again as Cornelius trailed off. "There's nothing you can do for me, Doctor" she said, offering him a sad smile. "Just like every time before, I simply have to wait it out." He opened his mouth to speak but she gave him a look, hollow and resigned, and he snapped it shut once more. "If the cog is removed," she whispered, "then I die."
The words struck him low in his ribs. "...Die?" he echoed. No. No, that… No. That couldn't happen - he'd already thought he was going to lose her before, when she'd nearly slaughtered the captain of the mercenary's airship, when the young woman he'd come to call his friend had seemed nowhere in sight - in her place a stranger with eyes like molten bronze. Had she not seen them all alive and well, Coppernica could very well have died along with the captain, the stranger with bloodied hands the only thing remaining.
To think of her again but with dead eyes and still lungs was enough to drive the air from Cornelius' own.
As if she could see his train of thought, Coppernica chuckled. It was feeble and exhausted, fatigue and long nights of fever showing through the cracks of her original self - a watered-down version of the steam wielder he knew. "I've been dealing with this for over two hundred years and it hasn't killed me yet."
Two hundred years. Such a long time to live with everything that had apparently been done to her. In a way, Cornelius was proud of her for managing to come as far as she had. And yet…
Poor child shouldn't have had to do it in the first place.
Cornelius forced himself to move one corner of his lips upward in semblance of a smile, though it strained at his skin; he owed her that much, at least. He reached over and patted at her arm, just above the junction between living flesh and copper plate.
In response, the girl (woman, he corrected himself,) rolled her shoulders back and uncurled from her ball. Just as they had undone themselves, the snaps along the seam of her skin clicked back into place and sealed the gaping maw of her back, hiding the cogs from view.
Cornelius turned away respectfully while she pulled her sleep shirt back up to cover herself. As he waited for her to tie the strings along her neckline, he reached into his breast pocket and hesitantly withdrew one of the many syringes he always kept somewhere on hand. He studied it for a moment, taking care to check he'd pulled the right one and not something dangerous. He himself might have been immune to everything he'd been growing in his lab, but he wasn't entirely sure his companion could say the same; the last thing he wanted to do was make her any sicker.
From the corner of his eye he saw that Coppernica had stopped moving. Satisfied that he had the right needle after all, he turned around to face her properly, silently thankfully to find her once again fully clothed.
"I'm going to give you something to help you sleep," he told her quietly. He eyed her expression with a quirked brow "Are you alright with that?"
She didn't answer, simply held out her left arm – the real one – for him to use. There were none of her usual protests or exclamations of her dislike of injections, only a nigh-imperceptible grimace as the needle dug into her skin.
Cornelius slid the needle from her arm with care, and gently set it aside on a small drawer next to him. Unconsciously, he rubbed the pad of his thumb over the scarlet pinprick that sprouted from her vein, then gently eased her back down onto the cot. Neither one spoke; the only sound the soft ticking of the clock on her bedside table.
Cornelius sighed to himself as his eyes felt suddenly heavier than he could ever remember them feeling. Time for bed for him as well, he supposed. He leaned inward, ready to push off from his thighs and stand when Coppernica moved her stare from the ceiling over to him.
He stilled. "Yes?"
She paused, swallowed, suddenly childlike in the saddest of ways. "No one else but Rote knows about the cog, not even Nickeli." She licked at her bottom lip. "Could…Could you not…" her words trailed off, leaving the question unspoken.
'Please don't say anything.'
Cornelius smiled at her. "I won't tell anyone. You have my word." She had been brave enough to let him in on her secret, one that not even her own familiar knew of; the least he could do was to keep it safe.
"Thank you." She smiled in return before resting her head back against the pillow and letting her eyes drift shut, a look of relief washing over her. "Will you stay with me until it kicks in?"
Flattered, Cornelius could not find the words to properly answer his friend. All he could manage was a simple, honest, "Yes, I'll stay."
Silence descended once more as he listened to Coppernica's breathing slowly even out, shallow and steady. Something warmed, deep within his chest, and with the warmth came the impulse to do a thing he had never thought to do before. Carefully, making sure not to wake her though he knew the sedative had taken effect, he leaned down and pressed a kiss to the girl's forehead. "Goodnight, child."
And with that the doctor stood, stepped back through the small door, and with one last glance at the sleeping mechanic, closed it behind him.
Yes, he decided, it was time for sleep.
Coppernica: A witch with the powers of combustion and steam who serves as the airship's mechanic. Her right arm is a mechanical prosthetic from the forearm down.
Dr. Cornelius: A plague doctor, the airship's physician, and a father-figure to all aboard. He likes to experiment with diseases and cures, using his own body to test them.
Newt: A self-proclaimed sky pirate and captain of the airship. She knows how to pilot the ship but not much else.
Rote: The "Red Inventor", a 12-year-old engineering prodigy that stowed away on the ship and became everyone's little sister.
Nickeli: Coppernica's familiar, a little grey tabby cat that speaks via a mechanical voicebox on his collar.