Bookworm and Mariah spent a few weeks in Yellowstone. Bookworm was endlessly fascinated by the geysers, and would spend hours, even days, watching particular geysers, trying to discover patterns in eruptive behaviors and intervals. Mariah didn't have the patience for such work, but enjoyed riding out with groups of other visitors to explore lakes, waterfalls, and rivers, as well as the teeming wildlife of the area.
Chilling weather brought an end to their visit, as they knew they needed to get to the coast before winter started in the mountains. They struck out west, hurrying through the mountain passes. Mariah was confused, though, when she saw that their track was leading a bit south as well. "Aren't we going to Steelhead?" she asked Bookworm.
"Eventually, of course," Bookworm replied. "But there's one more place I want to visit first. I read about an incredible mountain lake in southern Oregon--the author called it 'Crater Lake'--but I've not seen it myself yet. This seems like a good opportunity."
"I see." Mariah chuckled to herself, amused at Bookworm's undaunted exploratory nature, but she amiably went along with it, even as their route took them across a seemingly endless, dry plain. After several days, they finally saw another mountain range rising before them--the last range, Bookworm told Mariah, before the Pacific Ocean.
After some casting about, and much consultation with maps, Bookworm led the way north, up into the hills. They camped overnight in the thick forest, and continued on the next morning. Late in the morning, Bookworm, leading her horses, looked ahead and thought she could see a large, open space ahead. "I think we've finally found it," she called back over her shoulder to Mariah. She took a few more steps, leaving the view-concealing trees, and stopped dead in her tracks.
"Oh, good," Mariah said. "I was beginning to wonder if the place existed." When that teasing statement didn't elicit any response, Mariah tethered her horses to a tree and stepped to Bookworm's side, wondering what was holding her so silent. Then the view struck her, too. "Oh, my," she breathed, awe infusing her voice.
How long they stood there, spellbound, they never knew. Finally, without taking her eyes from the panorama before her, Mariah said, "Book?"
"Mmmm?" Bookworm, too, kept her eyes forward.
"We're going to stay here a few days, aren't we?"
"Mmm-hmmm," she replied enthusiastically.
They took their time circling the rim of the crater, pausing, it seemed, every few feet to point out a new detail, or simply to reassure themselves that they really were seeing this. After a couple of days, they found an area where it looked as if they'd be able to make a safe descent to the crater floor, and to the lake itself. The descent and exploration lasted another few days.
It was the snow squall, which hit them shortly after they'd made their way back up to the rim of the crater, that convinced them it was time to move on. Bookworm had also run out of photographic plates, which certainly seemed to be another sign for them to end their journey. But it was with reluctance that they turned their horses westward again.
When they reached Steelhead, they went immediately to the telegraph office to check for any messages that might have been sent to them. There were, in fact, several; one that caught Mariah's eye immediately was a telegram from Mrs. Pritchard, telling them the announced date of Mrs. Breezy Carver's ball opening the fall season. She showed it to Bookworm.
"Yes, we'll have to return for that, certainly," Bookworm replied, flipping through other telegrams. She pulled one out and handed it to Mariah, grinning. It was an announcement of the marriage of Marshal McKenzie and Sandy Perkins.
"I rather thought that might happen," Bookworm said. "They've been going around and around for years, wanting to marry, but being afraid to."
"Well, his job isn't exactly a safe one--she's always been afraid it would take him away from her, temporarily or permanently. And after his wife died, he's been reluctant to let anyone else into his heart, for fear that would inevitably lead to some catastrophe or other that would cause her death."
"So it took a catastrophe to bring them together." Mariah chuckled.
"Yes. I'll have to find something here to send them as a present." Bookworm tucked that telegram in her pack, and thumbed through the others, which were also from McKenzie. Cavendish had been sent on his way from Clarkton... Cavendish had arrived safely at Fort Laramie... Cavendish had been sent off from Fort Laramie in federal custody...
And, finally, the last telegram. "Cavendish escaped from federal custody in Chicago. Whereabouts unknown."
"Heh." She passed the telegram to Mariah, who glanced it over and grunted. "I'd love to know how he managed that," she said.
"So would I," Bookworm replied. "But at least McKenzie and the 6th Regiment are safe from any reprisal from the feds."
"What about reprisal from Cavendish?"
Bookworm thought a moment. "I doubt it. He doesn't have any resources, he's got the whole US government on his tail... My guess is, he'll go to Canada and try to start over there."
"Hmm. Well, I'll keep an ear open with my contacts, just in case."
"And in the meantime, let's do a little sightseeing before we have to head back to Babbage." Bookworm smiled as they exited the office and strolled down the street, pointing out shop displays to each other.
((And that's it for this story! Unless, of course, I finally do think of some mischief they could get into in Steelhead. But if so, that's a story for another time.))
"So what do you want to do?" Marshal McKenzie asked.
"To allow him to keep his sight--" she held up a hand to silence the protests building from the three men, "*if* he agrees not to escape while in your custody." In the stunned silence that followed her pronouncement, she turned to Lieutenant Richards. "Do you think your commander at Fort Laramie would also agree to this?"
"I... I *think* so..." Richards replied, somewhat dazedly.
"Good." Bookworm began moving to the inner door. "I'll go talk to him now, and let you know what he says."
"Wait a minute," Dr. Williams said. "Cavendish hasn't said thing one to me this whole time. Will he really talk to you?"
"And can we actually trust his word?" McKenzie added, outraged and skeptical.
Bookworm paused in the doorway, looking back at them. "The answer to both your questions, gentlemen, is, 'Under these circumstances, yes.'" She left the front room.
The three men looked at Mariah, who shrugged, smiling a bit. "It's a hero thing."
Bookworm strode down the short hall, toward a door that was being guarded by two cavalrymen. She was intensely curious about how this conversation would go, never having managed to turn the tables like this in her conflicts with Dr. Obolensky. She nodded, startled, when the two men saluted her. One of them unlocked the door and let her in, closing it after her.
It was an inner, windowless room; the only light came from one lantern hung by the door. Its light played across the figure of Cavendish, who was lying on a cot positioned against the far wall, a light sheet covering the bulky cast on his legs. His face turned toward the door, and paused when he saw her. Several moments passed before Bookworm finally broke the silence. "Well."
"Well," Cavendish echoed. He began levering himself up into more of a sitting position. "I must congratulate you - Miss Hienrichs -" He grunted, and finally settled himself into a comfortable posture. "That was a most devestating campaign."
Bookworm inclined her head, acknowledging his words, and trying to keep a flush of pleasure from her face.
"So. What is next for me?" he continued.
"As soon as Doc clears you for travel, you'll be taken to Fort Laramie in the custody of the cavalry. Some time after that, federal agents will arrive to take charge of you. I can't say what will happen after that."
"I see," Cavendish said thoughtfully.
"So you do," Bookworm replied, amused at the opening he'd given her. "So long as you have those goggles." He twitched in what Bookworm took to be surprise. "You didn't think we'd really missed that, did you?" She cocked her head to one side. "How did that happen, if you don't mind my asking?"
"A genetic problem," he said. "It runs in my family. Came on me early, though." He paused. "So why do I still have these?"
"You have them," Bookworm said, "for bargaining purposes."
"Ahhh." Cavendish nodded with understanding.
"You may continue to keep them if you give me your word that, while in the custody of Lieutenant Richards, you will not attempt to escape. Lieutenant Richards is of the opinion that his commanding officer at Fort Laramie would also be amenible to such a bargain. If so, I want your word that you will not attempt escape while in custody there, either."
"And when the federal agents arrive?"
Bookworm shrugged. "I cannot speak for them."
"And you, and they, would accept my word?"
Bookworm gave him the same answer she'd given the men in the other room. "Under these circumstances, yes."
Even through the mirrored lenses of his goggles, Bookworm could feel Cavendish's keen gaze on her. She wondered if he'd divined her reasons for wanting to make this bargain. Frankly, she didn't care if he did or not, if he would just agree... which he very well might, based on what he'd told her...
Several minutes passed in silence. Finally, Cavendish nodded. "I give you my word."
"Thank you," Bookworm replied solemnly. She put her hand on the door knob, then glanced back at him. "I'll see you at your trial."
"Hmmm. We'll see," Cavendish said thoughtfully. Bookworm smiled, and replied, "So we will."
"He's given his word," Bookworm announced to the occupants of the front room. At the looks the three men gave her, she relented and began her explanation. "Look, even blinded, I wouldn't put it past Cavendish to be able to escape, either from her or from Fort Laramie. This was the surest way to make sure he wouldn't. Now, his first opportunity for escape will come when he enters Federal custody, and it will be much harder then. If he doesn't, well and good. If he does... well, at least the Feds won't be able to make you the scapegoats."
"I see!" Richards' face cleared, and he gave her a smile of relief. "Thank you, Miss Hienrichs."
"Besides, it also frees Mariah and I up to continue our own journey." Bookworm grinned. "If we're going to spend any decent amount of time in Yellowstone and still make it over the mountains before it starts snowing, we need to be going."
"When will you leave?" Dr. Williams asked.
"First thing tomorrow morning," Bookworm replied. "We'll just need to regather our own supplies today, and get another good night's sleep."
Marshal McKenzie and a few of the townsfolk helped Bookworm and Mariah track down their supplies and equipment. Folks also kept pressing foodstuffs and other gifts on them, despite Bookworm repeatedly telling them that they could get anything they needed at any of the towns further along the trail. By evening, though, everything was squared away, and after a good dinner, they spent another night in the hotel.
The next morning, the entire town turned out to see Bookworm and Mariah off. As Bookworm tightened the saddle girth on her horse, McKenzie stepped closer. "You sure you can't stay another day?" he asked softly. "I... might have some good news to share soon."
Bookworm looked keenly at him, seeing that he was actually blushing a little bit. She glanced over the crowd, saw Sandy Perkins standing among the other well-wishers, then directed her gaze back to McKenzie, and grinned.
"Send a wire to Steelhead," she replied just as softly. "I arranged for them to keep messages until we arrive. If it's good news, I'll send you a present from there."
"All right," McKenzie said, holding out his hand.
She grasped and shook it. "And send me anything you hear about Cavendish, would you?"
"Certainly will!" With that, he stepped back and watched as she mounted. With many waves and calls of farewell, she and Mariah rode out of town, heading northwest into the forested hills.
((One post to go...))
Bookworm hurried out the front door of the hotel and turned aside to where Doc Williams was kneeling by the prone figure of Cavendish. Marshal McKenzie and Mariah were shooing people away, urging them to go home and get some rest. Bookworm knelt down by the doctor, in the pool of light shed by a lantern set on the ground nearby. "Well?"
"Oh, he's alive, all right," Doc replied. "Those bushes did a good job of breaking his fall. Broken right leg, possible broken rib or two, probable concussion. Couldn't say yet about any internal injuries; that'll take a more extensive examination. But Miss Hienrichs--take a look at this." He slid Cavendish's goggles down to the end of his nose, and peeled back first one eyelid, then the other.
Bookworm inhaled sharply in surprise, then bent forward more, examining the goggles as well as she could in the flickering light, running her hands along the skullcap, even tucking her fingers inside it a little and feeling around. Finally, she sat back on her heels and whistled softly.
"Should I take them off him?" Doc asked.
After a few seconds of thought, Bookworm shook her head. "No, keep them on him, if they won't be in your way. And don't tell anyone else about it yet. This... could be useful later."
Doc nodded, then stood up as two townsmen approached, carrying a stretcher between them. Bookworm tried to rise to get out of their way, but a wave of exhaustion swept over her, and she thumped back into a seated position. She watched as the three men wrangled the still-unconscious Cavendish onto the stretcher and bore him away.
Then Mariah stepped forward, holding out a helping hand. "Come on, Book," she said. "They have things well in hand now--time for us to get some sleep. Ms. Gustafson has a room for us."
Bookworm nodded, gratefully accepting Mariah's help to get to her feet. She stumbled along in Mariah's wake as the Captain led her to a room that was, thankfully, on the ground floor. The sight of the two beds drove nearly all other considerations from her mind. "Tell them to wake me at sunrise," she mumbled as she fell into one of the beds. She thought about loosening some of her clothing, but was asleep before she could make any such effort.
Bookworm indulged in the luxury of waking up slowly, enjoying the comfortable bed. She couldn't, for the moment, remember why she was in a bed, but it didn't seem to matter. It didn't, that is, until the events of yesterday rushed back into her conscious mind. Her eyes flew open to a room lit by sunlight leaking around the curtains. She shot bolt upright, then swung out of bed and went to the pitcher and basin, pouring some water out to splash on her face. Her grumbles muffled by the towel, she quickly dried herself and headed out the door.
She went to the small dining room of the hotel, and found Mariah there, sitting with a cup of coffee. "I thought you were going to wake me at sunrise," Bookworm said, as she sat down and poured herself a cup.
"You needed the sleep," Mariah replied with equanimity. "Besides, I *did* wake you at sunrise."
"You did?" Bookworm was arrested in her reach for a plate of biscuits.
"Mm-hmm. You most eloquently said, 'Buh,' and went immediately back to sleep."
Bookworm burst into laughter. "I guess I did need more sleep, at that. Well, I'll just have some biscuits and coffee, and then we can go find the marshal." The scent of the biscuits had reached her, though, and forcibly reminded her that she hadn't eaten for nearly a day. Her stomach growled loud enough to be heard across the room, which caused Mabel Gustafson, coming in heavily laden with plates, to laugh.
"Your stomach has more sense than you do, Miss Hienrichs," she said, divesting herself of her burden. "You just eat up first. Everything else will keep."
Bookworm would have tried to dispute this, but her mouth was full.
Feeling better than she had in hours, Bookworm left the hotel with Mariah, looking around. Townsfolk and cavalrymen alike were bustling about with purpose, though Bookworm wasn't sure what those purposes were. She finally spotted Deputy Allen in the mixture, and waved. "Deputy!" she called.
He looked around, spotted her, and waved back, trotting across the street to join them on the steps. "Feeling rested, Miss Hienrichs?"
Bookworm nodded. "Do you know where the marshal is?"
"I believe he and Lieutenant Richards are in Doc's office." Allen gestured to a building across the street and a few doors down.
"Perfect," she said with satisfaction. "Thank you!" She and Mariah walked briskly to the front door of the indicated building. Bookworm knocked, and opened the door at the muffled invitation to come in.
Marshal McKenzie and a young man in a cavalry uniform were lounging in a pair of chairs; they quickly stood as Bookworm and Mariah entered. "Miss Hienrichs," McKenzie said with true warmth in his voice. "Are you feeling rested?"
"I'm feeling much better, marshal," Bookworm replied.
"I don't think you've been formally introduced yet," McKenzie continued. "Miss Hienrichs, this is Lieutenant Richards of the 6th Cavalry Regiment. Lieutenant Richards, this is Miss Sarah Hienrichs."
Bookworm shook the Lieutenant's hand. "I want to thank you for what you and your men did. This would have been a great deal harder without your help."
"Happy to be of service, ma'am." He gave Bookworm an interesting expression, one composed nearly equally of respect and disbelief. She and Mariah exchanged amused glances as they sat down in a pair of chairs the marshal had pulled closer.
"What news?" Bookworm asked.
"Well," replied McKenzie, "we sent a couple men after the noncombatants. By the time they caught up with them, though, everyone was already nearly at my ranch. So they decided to go there, rest a while, and then come back in a couple of wagons. They should be here this afternoon."
"That's good to know," Bookworm said with relief.
"My men fixed the telegraph wire," Lieutenant Richards said. "Sent a report off to Fort Laramie first thing, and we've already got our orders."
"That was fast," Mariah commented.
Richards nodded. "Once Doctor Williams gives the OK for Cavendish to travel, we're to take him to the fort. We'll have custody of him there for a few days, until some federal agents can arrive and take charge of him. They're also sending some agents here to study his equipment." He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I must admit, I wish we weren't going to have custody of him for so long. Folks like him are notoriously hard to keep corralled. Even with a cast--"
"Who says it's just one cast?" Dr. Williams said, grinning, from the interior doorway. The rest looked at him with varying degrees of surprise. "Well, *we* know Cavendish has only one broken leg. *He* doesn't. Which is why he's currently resting in a half-body cast."
Mariah snickered. Richards muffled a guffaw behind his hand. Even McKenzie stood up and slapped Dr. Williams on the back, grinning broadly. "Doc, you're wonderful," he said, amusement plain in his voice.
Bookworm, though she smiled, kept a rather serious mien. "That's a definite help, Doc, but it may not be enough. But there is something else we can do." She looked around at the others. "Doc discovered something last night about Cavendish. He's blind."
"Blind?" Richards looked dumbfounded, and Marshal McKenzie not much better. "But... how..."
"His goggles and skullcap contain some very sophisticated wiring and other electronics. Somehow, they're sending images to his brain."
Mariah whistled, impressed. "I wonder why he did that, though, instead of implants."
"Well, the implants I've seen have been rather obvious. If he wanted to hide his condition, this is a good way. He can always pass off the goggles as an affectation, rather than a necessity."
"So, all we have to do is remove the goggles and skullcap, and he'll be helpless?" McKenzie said in astonishment. "Let's go!"
"Wait!" Bookworm held up a forestalling hand. "That's not actually what I had in mind..."
((To be continued...))
Cavendish growled. All he had now were the weapon behind him and the hostages below him. He quickly realized, though, that he'd also lost the latter, as he saw figures emerging from the front door directly below him. He recognized the marshal, the hostages, and one of the women captured just that day. He was absolutely furious by now, and the pitch of the mechanical whine from the shed told him he now had an outlet for that fury. Pressing a button, he watched the sides of the shed fall away, revealing the weapon. Another button started it rolling along tracks that had been installed on the roof, bringing it to the edge.
Cries rising from below him told Cavendish that the townsfolk had spotted the weapon. He swung himself into its seat, looking down and spying the marshal standing with several others. "You'll be the first," he growled, aiming the weapon down, hearing its hum rise to a fever pitch.
Bookworm inched up the stairs carefully, not wanting another unwelcome surprise from an automaton. She had no idea if the automaton Mariah had disabled was the only one guarding the hotel--and Cavendish--or not. There didn't seem to be anything at the top of the stairs, at least. She paused in the shadow of the exit, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the rooftop. The night was completely clouded over now, and warm gusts of wind, laden with the scent of moisture, were creating an almost continuous rushing in the pine trees.
She heard noises from closer at hand, and ducked behind a pile of boards. Peering out, she could now see Cavendish standing by a hastily-constructed shed. She jumped a little as the sides of the shed suddenly fell outward; luckily, the sound of the walls hitting the hotel's roof masked any sound she might have made. The weapon now revealed, though, made her hiss a breath in with consternation. It looked like a cross between one of the Tesla cannons on the New Babbage city wall, and any of the death rays created by Dr. Obolensky or Professor Parx. Blue electrical discharge was building up around its muzzle, and playing in a large, glass chamber mounted at the back. Bookworm could just make out a large crystal or gemstone inside the chamber.
As she watched Cavendish swing himself into the seat attached to the weapon, Bookworm realized she'd waited too long. There was no way she could reach the thing before Cavendish fired it. Frantically, she looked around for a stone or loose brick she could throw, but saw nothing. Finally, she pulled the revolver out of her belt, grasping it by the muzzle. 'I hope this works,' she thought as she stepped out from her hiding place and hefted it, taking aim. She flung it as hard as she could, straight at the back of the weapon.
The spinning revolver impacted the crystal chamber handle first, producing a most satisfactory sound of breaking glass. Electricity crackled wildly for a second or two, then died away. Once it had cleared, Bookworm saw that the gun had knocked the crystal out of its housing, and it now lay shattered on the roof.
"Nooooooo!" The cry of rage brought her attention back to Cavendish, who now leaped from the weapon's seat, head swinging around as he looked for the source of the attack. Bookworm now saw that he was still wearing his mirrored goggles, so she couldn't see his eyes, but there was no denying that he was incandescent with fury--especially when he spotted her.
"You!" he cried. "A sidekick?!" He advanced on her, grabbing an electric cane from where it was leaning the weapon's platform.
"Sidekick?" Bookworm yelped, momentarily forgetting that she'd cultivated precisely that role in front of him earlier. "I'll sidekick you into the middle of next week!"
Cavendish advanced toward her, electric cane held at the ready. "I'll make you rue the day you lighted in this town," he growled.
"Ohm afraid you're in for a shock," Bookworm replied, jabbing at him with the cane taken from the automaton that had been guarding the hostages.
Cavendish fell back a little, seemingly as much in surprise at her reply as to avoid her attack. "If you had a spark of intelligence, you'd give up now," he said a little tentatively, as if testing her.
"Oh, no. I don't bolt from a fight," she replied.
Bookworm was suddenly struck by what was happening. A hand-to-hand fight between hero and villain on a rooftop, complete with banter. All that was missing was--
A flash of light from the clouds mirrored the flashing of their electric canes, and a growl of thunder came soon after. Bookworm couldn't help but grin. 'Dr. Obolensky would be so jealous if he knew.'
Her grin seemed to disconcert Cavendish, who paused, then intensified his attack. Bookworm was holding her own, thanks to Mariah's training, easily blocking or sidestepping his attacks. Her dodges, though, had brought her into the debris field of the weapon's glass chamber, and in the darkness, she missed seeing one of the pieces of the crystal. Her foot came down right on it, throwing off her balance. Cavendish pounced on the opportunity, using his cane to knock hers out of her hand. The cane went spinning into the air, flying off the roof.
Bookworm immediately threw herself to one side, avoiding a jab that would have delivered a very nasty shock. She rolled away from him and the glass debris, then bounded to her feet. She scanned the rooftop frantically, looking for the revolver she had thrown, but even the fitful flashes from lightning didn't provide enough light for her to see it. Ducking away from another jab by Cavendish, she tried to spy something, anything she could use to defend herself.
"Oh, hell," Mariah said, watching Bookworm's electrical cane falling from the roof. She, the marshal, Lieutenant Richards, and several others were watching what they could of the rooftop fight, after seeing the reveal, then the disabling, of the weapon. Mariah hadn't been particularly worried about Bookworm when the fight started, but she certainly was now. She rushed to where the cane had landed, but it was obvious that the impact had damaged it.
"I need another one," she shouted back to the others. "Find me another one, quick!"
Marshal McKenzie looked around, and spied Deputy Allen nearby, wrenching a cane from a disabled automaton. He whistled shrilly, catching the deputy's attention, and waved him over urgently. Allen trotted over, handing the cane to McKenzie, who then tossed it over to Mariah.
Mariah backed up several steps, watching the rooftop intently, biding her time. When she saw Bookworm by the edge again, temporarily cornered by Cavendish, she yelled, "Bookworm! Catch!" She took a few running steps, then hurled the electric cane upward like a javelin.
Bookworm heard Mariah's shout, and guessed what she was at, but she didn't dare take her eyes off Cavendish. How, she wondered, would she be able to catch the thrown weapon before it was in a position to be batted away by Cavendish?
But then, as Cavendish looked down, she saw the spark of the working electric cane reflected in his mirrored goggles, and a desperate hope took hold. She waited until she thought it was close enough, then shot back her hand and, using the reflection as a guide, actually managed to pluck the cane from mid-air behind her back.
'I'll never be able to do that again,' she thought, amazed. 'Or that, or that,' the thought continued, as she first made an unorthodox block of Cavendish's attempt to shock her before she could bring her new weapon into play, then actually managed to drive him back, giving herself room to maneuver.
Cavendish fell back a few steps from her assault. Bookwork couldn't see his eyes, but his demeanor seemed... bewildered. "Who are you?" he finally asked.
"Who am I?" she replied, pressing forward her attack, and involuntarily exclaiming during some of her moves. "Ho! Ha-ha! I am Miss Sarah Hienrichs."
"Member of the New Babbage Militia."
There was no mistaking the shock Cavendish felt at her last statement. That shock turned into a renewed, furious attack, but Bookworm felt the unthinking desperation behind it, and easily turned it back, circling around him and pushing him back. He didn't even notice that he was now in the debris field of broken glass and shattered crystal, not until a piece of glass slipped out from under his foot. He staggered, tripped, and fell backward--and over the short parapet that marked the edge of the roof.
Bookworm inhaled sharply, and rushed forward. She found him dangling, his left hand gripping the parapet, his right hand still clenched around his electric cane. Bookworm dropped her own weapon and held an arm down. "Take my hand!"
Cavendish stared up at her. All she could see was her own, wild-haired reflection staring back at her. "Take my hand!" she repeated.
His right hand moved, swinging the cane a little, then suddenly thrust upward. Bookworm reared back, seeing the cane pass within inches of her face. But his sudden movement caused his left hand to lose its grip, and with one short cry, he plunged downward.
Bookworm leaned forward, looking down. Cavendish lay below, unmoving, among the ruins of the shrubbery that had been planted by the hotel's front door. "You didn't have to do that, you know," she muttered, before grabbing her discarded electric cane and hurrying to the stairs.
((To be continued...))
She crept to the front desk, groping in a drawer where, according to Deputy Allen, Mabel Gustafson kept a weapon. Pulling out the small revolver, she grimaced, but tucked it in her belt anyway. It was better than nothing.
One slow step at a time, she made her way upward. The second-floor hallway showed itself as dark as the bottom floor as she passed its entrance. As she ascended the next flight, though, and especially as she neared the 180-degree turn that would lead the stairs up to the third-floor hallway, she saw bright light spilling down. There didn't appear to be any way for her to look up the staircase without revealing herself. But she needed to know what was above her. Taking a breath, she darted her head around the corner, craning her neck upward, and withdrew it.
It was a bare second that she exposed herself to sight, but it was enough. She'd seen the automaton waiting at the top--and it had seen her. "Unknown person on stairs," came its unstressed, metallic voice, "approach unarmed, or hostage will be killed."
Bookworm cursed silently, and stepped out of hiding, hands high in the air, still holding the revolver, though not at the ready. She slowly mounted the stairs. At the top, she squatted down and placed the revolver on the floor, then straightened up and kicked it away a little. The automaton had retreated a little down the hallway. One of its hands was firmly clamped around the arm of a woman about Bookworm's age; it was Sandy Perkins, whom Bookworm remembered from her last visit. The automaton held an electric cane in its other hand, positioned only inches from Sandy's tensed body.
"Identity confirmed," the automaton intoned. "One of the two women captured ten hours ago." It paused. "Where is the other?"
Bookworm thought she caught a flicker of movement well behind the automaton, a flicker that seemed familiar. "Oh, she's probably outside helping the others disable your cohorts," she replied casually.
As the cavalry troop thundered into town, a male figure stepped forward to intercept them. Lieutenant Richards reined in. "Who are you?"
"Marshal McKenzie," the man replied, showing a badge. Richards relaxed marginally. "What's the situation here?"
McKenzie tersely summarized what had happened in Clarkton for the past ten days, and that they were making their bid for freedom now. He described the automata, and their one weakness. "The hose is up too high for us to reach easily, though," he concluded, looking up at the lieutenant.
A dawning realization crossed McKenzie's face, matched by the lieutenant. Richards looked around, and spied an automaton nearby, in the middle of the street. It was surrounded by townsfolk, who were trying to herd it toward something tall that one of them could climb, but the automaton stubbornly resisted, keeping them at bay with its electric cane.
Richards drew his cavalry sabre and spurred his horse toward the automaton. Even as the automaton kept busy with the townsfolk in front of it, Richards came up behind, quickly spying the hose McKenzie had described, and easily slashed it open with the sabre. Within seconds, the automaton slowed, then stopped.
"All right, men," Richards called over his shoulder. "You saw what we need to do. Let's finish off this problem!" With a roar of fierce agreement, the rest of the cavalry troop rode out, splitting up to find the rest of the automata.
McKenzie, watching them with a look of grim approval, heard his name being called, and turned to see Deputy Allen running up. Allen told him the noncombatants had been safely sent off, and that Miss Hienrichs and Captain Lanfier had gone to the hotel to get the hostages.
"You help out here," McKenzie said. "I'm going to the hotel myself." Leaving no time for Allen to protest, he took off down the street.
The flicker of movement had disappeared, but Bookworm kept her attention fixed on the automaton, guessing that it would be back. At all costs it mustn't think there was anything going on behind it.
"Hostilities must cease immediately," the automaton said.
"With your surrender? I accept," Bookworm replied a bit facetiously. If she could just keep it talking...
"Negative. Townspeople must cease hostilities, or hostages will be killed."
"I see." The flicker of movement was back, and now Bookworm clearly saw Mariah standing down the hallway, looking as if she was gathering herself for some move. "And how are we supposed to get that word to them?"
As if in answer to Bookworm's question, she heard footsteps running up the stairs. She turned, hoping to wave whoever it was away, but it was too late. "Unknown person on stairs, approach unarmed, or hostage will be killed," intoned the automaton.
Marshal McKenzie, his face expressing his chagrin, came into Bookworm's view. She was still facing away from the automaton, so she mouthed silently at him, "Keep focused on the automaton." He nodded once, though his eyes showed his puzzlement, as he climbed the last flight of stairs. Bookworm turned back around, and nearly allowed her astonishment to show as she now saw Mariah hanging by her hands from one of the exposed beams.
"Sandy," the Marshal said, his tone deceptively even. "Are you all right?"
"I am, Brian," Sandy replied, fear plain in her voice.
"Identity confirmed," said the automaton. "Marshal McKenzie."
"Look," Bookworm said. "You have the marshal. You have me. Let her go. She can tell the rest to stop fighting." She steadfastly ignored Mariah's gymnastic display behind it.
"Negative. The marshal has authority in the town. He will tell the rest to cease hostilities. The two women will stay here. You will step forward."
Bookworm moved slowly toward the automaton, holding her breath.
Mariah hadn't spent much of her life on board ships without learning how to climb just about anything. She found her own route up the exterior of the hotel, reaching a balcony that ran along the third floor. She'd hoped to get the hostages out that way, but the exterior doors and windows weren't just locked, but boarded up. There was a smaller window at the end of the balcony that was open, though, and she quickly slipped through that.
A short passageway led to the brightly-lit main hall. Mariah could hear voices at the farther end, and she risked a quick peek around the corner. She saw an automaton standing there, and beyond it, Bookworm, standing with her hands in the air.
'Oh, damn,' Mariah thought. How would she be able to reach and cut the hose to disable the thing? Another look at the hallway showed her the exposed beams running straight above, under the peaked roof. The automaton was standing just in front of one of them. Suddenly, an idea took hold, and Mariah ducked back into the passageway and through the window.
Out on the balcony, she removed her jacket and everything that might make noise. She took off her boots, too, retrieving her own diamond-tipped blade from one of the heels before leaving them on the pile. Then she reentered the hotel and silently stepped into the hall, clenching the blade in her teeth. The automaton was still focused on Bookworm, and it sounded as if she was doing her best to keep it that way. 'I hope this works,' Mariah thought as she gathered her strength and crouched down a little. Then she flung herself up in a tremendous leap, reaching up for the beam above her head.
It was a close thing, but she managed to grab onto the beam and hang on. Looking down the hall, she saw the automaton still focused forward--and saw that the marshal was with Bookworm now. Wasting no time, Mariah shifted her grip on the beam to the side nearer the automaton, then let go her left hand and began swinging. When she judged her momentum was enough, she swung through the air and grabbed the next beam with her left hand, bringing her right hand over to the other side of the beam.
She continued her acrobatic progress until she reached the beam just behind the automaton. Once there, she bent herself up and hooked her legs over the beam, letting her arms fall free. She bent up at the waist, and found herself with a perfect view of the automaton's weak spot. Without even touching the automaton, she sliced her blade through the hose.
"Mal--mal-func--" That was all the automaton had time for before the loss of oil stopped its functioning. Marshal McKenzie leaped forward, grabbing for Sandy, and prying apart the automaton's hand just enough to get her arm out.
"Oh, Brian," Sandy said, letting herself be comforted in his arms. "Thank goodness!"
"Thank you, Captain Lanfier," McKenzie said as Mariah dropped to the floor. "Now what?" he continued, looking at Bookworm.
Bookworm spied a ring of keys hanging from a hook at the automaton's waist. She grabbed them up and tossed them to Mariah. "Get the rest of them out of here, please."
"What about you?" McKenzie asked.
Bookworm had retrieved the revolver from where she'd set it, and now wrenched the electrical cane from the grip of the motionless automaton. "It's time I gave Cavendish a shock of his own." She raised the cane in a salute, and ran silently down the hall.
Allen nodded and squatted down to the rough dirt floor, using a small pipe to sketch a diagram of the hotel, including where the hostages were being held, and which rooms Cavendish had taken over for his own use. Around them, the noncombatant townsfolk were using wrenches and hammers on the barrier machinery. When Allen had finished his detailed explanations, he looked up at Bookworm and Mariah. "You should know--Cavendish has been working on something at the hotel. We've all heard noise coming from there, and Doc and the others commented on it, but we don't know what it is."
Bookworm and Mariah exchanged a significant look. At that moment, though, the sound of running machinery ground to a halt. The three of them rushed to the door, peering outside. The glow of the electrical barrier was gone.
"You did it," Bookworm called back over her shoulder. "Get yourselves out now, and we'll send word when it's safe." Bookworm, Mariah, and Deputy Allen stood guard as Chet led the others outside, and away into the surrounding woods.
"Allen, please find the marshal and let him know Mariah and I are going for the hostages," Bookworm said as the last of the noncombatants made it safely out of sight.
"Right," he said with some enthusiasm. "I can't wait to tackle these things myself!" He dashed off toward the middle of town, where the sounds of combat were loudest.
Bookworm and Mariah exchanged quick grins, and began making their way from shadow to shadow, slowly heading toward the hotel. As they went, they watched the running battles between the townsfolk and the automata. Already, they could see at least two automata were down and unmoving. There were a few people down, too; Bookworm hoped it wasn't permanent. Judging from the combat she saw, though, it looked like the automata couldn't shock people long enough to kill them, not without opening themselves up to attack from behind. People were attacking from above, too--climbing trees, porch roofs, whatever was handy. They did seem to be at least holding their own.
"So what do you think Cavendish has been working on?" Mariah asked as they drew closer to the hotel. Warm gusts of wind were driving clouds across the moon, and carrying a scent of rain.
Bookworm looked up, spying what appeared to be a small shed built up on the roof. "At a guess... a weapon. Hopefully, we'll get to him before he can deploy it."
Mariah nodded. "You going in the front?"
"I think so."
"I'll see if I can find a different way in." Mariah trotted off in a different direction as Bookworm moved cautiously toward the front door.
Second Lieutenant Richards of the 6th Cavalry Regiment looked up from the campfire at the call from Corporal Benson. He stood up, casting the stick he'd been whittling into the fire. "What is it, Corporal?"
Corporal Benson skidded to a stop on the pine needles, saluting even as he regained his balance. "Sir. The electrical barrier around the town has gone up again."
"Has it?" Lieutenant Richards strode off into the dark, heading toward the vantage point they'd found that overlooked the town. Corporal Benson trailed along behind. "Did you see anything before that happened?"
"There was some activity at the other end of town, sir, but it was too dark to make it out."
Lieutenant Richards sighed, staring down from their lookout point, staring at the barrier that was glowing strongly in the night. He and his men, part of Troop C of the 6th Cavalry Regiment, stationed at Fort Laramie, had been sent to find out why the small town of Clarkton had apparently lost communication with the rest of the world. They hadn't thought this would be anything more than a routine check, though the chance to be out and about on an easy mission was welcome. They'd arrived at a spot overlooking the town earlier in the day--just in time to watch two women entering the outskirts of the seemingly-empty town. They watched, startled, as the electrical barrier appeared, cutting off sight of the town. When the barrier went down about 15 minutes later, there was no sign of the women.
Camp was made not far from the vantage point, and someone was always on duty, watching the town. Meanwhile, debate had raged among the troop about what to do. Richards, though, saw no point in approaching the town at that point--they'd only be trapped themselves. He decided to spend the night there, then ride back to the fort in the morning with the news, leaving a few men behind to keep an eye out for any more unusual occurrences.
Now, though, he wondered if the unusual occurrences mightn't be happening tonight. And, indeed, after just a few minutes, the barrier went down again. Shortly after that, sounds of fighting drifted up to their position. Richards grabbed his field glasses, wishing for more moonlight. There were a few lights shining out from windows, though, allowing him to catch glimpses of large, metallic figures, with people swarming around them.
"We need to move now, Corporal," he said tersely. "Looks like the townsfolk are fighting back against whatever's invaded there. They'll need our help for sure. Get the others now!"
"Sir!" Benson spun on his heel and dashed back to their camp. Within minutes, the men were assembled behind him, horses stamping and champing at their bits. He mounted his own horse, which Corporal Benson had brought along.
"Benson, you stay here and watch what happens. If that barrier goes up again with us in there, you'll have to ride back to Laramie yourself with the news."
"Yes, sir." Richards hid a smile at the disappointment evident in Benson's tone. Gesturing to the rest of the troop, he said, "All right, men--we weren't expecting trouble like this, but we've found it. Let's go take care of it!" Accompanied by a blast from Sergeant O'Malley's horn, they spurred their horses down the hill, aiming for the center of town.
((To be continued...))
"But at least we know there *is* a way," replied McKenzie with some satisfaction.
"Can you take us to where the townsfolk are being held?"
"Yes--but what about the hostages?"
"They'll have to be last," Bookworm said, firmness and regret mingled in her voice. "We need plenty of people to help us defeat the automata." McKenzie nodded, and led them away through town.
They slipped from cover to shadow, shadow to cover, always on the lookout for automata. Once, they had to press themselves into a small space behind a set of stairs, as an automaton moved purposefully in the direction they'd come from. When it had passed, they silently left their hiding place and continued on toward their target.
The townsfolk had been forced to erect a large building to house various large pieces of machinery they and the automata had built. Underneath, there was a large, rough, dug-out basement where the townsfolk had to stay, making rough beds from blankets, and continually digging small latrines. It certainly wasn't healthy housing, but they hardly had any choice. The trapdoor leading down to their cellar was usually locked, and an automaton stood guard at the outside door.
Bookworm peeked out from behind another building to assess the situation. Ducking back, she said to the others, "Ideally, I'd like to disable this one without it raising an alarm. Any ideas?"
McKenzie took his own quick peek, then settled back and thought for a moment. "You said these things reacted to outside noises?"
"Could you provide the same sort of distraction, without being seen?"
Bookworm nodded again, slowly.
McKenzie looked at Mariah. "And do you think you could stay balanced on my shoulders for several minutes?"
"Aye, that I could, Marshal," Mariah replied, with appreciative comprehension in her eyes. Bookworm, too, saw now what he was planning.
"All right. Miss Hienrichs, once you reach the bushes, give us five minutes to get into position." Bookworm nodded, and slowly worked her way around to a house that stood nearby the machinery building, then crept into the bushes that lined its front wall, all the while keeping a close eye on the automaton. Thankfully, it never moved. She waited the prescribed five minutes, then began shaking the bushes with her hands, peeking out between the branches to see the automaton's reaction.
It worked just as they'd hoped; the automaton's focus was entirely in her direction, its electric cane now held in a position of readiness. It even came forward a couple of steps--which was just what McKenzie and Mariah needed, as they edged around the corner of the machinery building, Mariah perched on McKenzie's shoulders, holding her own diamond-tipped blade in one hand. McKenzie went forward, step by careful step, obviously working hard to keep his walking silent. When they were close enough, right behind the automaton, she reached out with her free hand, grabbed the rubber hose that was accessible from her perch, and slashed it with the blade.
The automaton barely had a chance to move; it certainly didn't have time to raise any sort of alarm before the loss of oil from the hose made it grind to a halt. Bookworm sighed with relief and extricated herself from the bushes, hurrying to join her friends. They entered the building quickly, Mariah closing the door behind them.
Banks of machinery stood in several lines through the building, leaving only narrow lanes between them. Some of it looked like components of an assembly line, which Bookworm guessed was meant to create more automata when the raw materials were available. She wasn't sure what the rest of it was for, but that wasn't her concern at the moment. "Do you know where the trapdoor is for the prison?" she asked McKenzie. When he shook his head, she said, "We'd better spread out and look, then. Be quick!"
They were quick, indeed, as the trapdoor wasn't very far from the outside entrance--probably so any attempts to fiddle with it would be heard by the automaton guard. Bookworm knelt down, pulled out her hairpins, and got to work on the lock that secured it. "McKenzie, when I get this open, you go down--they know you. Mariah, keep a watch outside." Mariah nodded and moved to the door, opening it a crack to peer outside.
With a satisfying 'snick,' the lock opened, and Bookworm and McKenzie hauled the trapdoor open. The stale air that wafted up, redolent with the stale scents of unwashed bodies and urine, made Bookworm glad not to go down there. McKenzie descended the ladder into the gloomy cellar, which was lit only be two dimly-burning lamps. "It's me, folks," he said. "Head on up--let's get you out of here!"
Bookworm remained at the top, helping people up the last few steps of the ladder, saying an encouraging word or two, greeting those she remembered from her last visit. She was both glad and surprised to see Chet McKenzie, the marshal's son, among them; he explained that he'd kept his family name a secret from Cavendish, and the rest of the folk had played along to protect him. The marshal was the last one out, joining the group that now filled the aisles between the machinery.
Bookworm looked around in silence for a moment. "All right, folks," she finally said. "What do you want to do? Leave, or fight?"
Most of the men, and not a few women, expressed their eagerness to take back their town. Bookworm had the noncombatants separate themselves out and looked them over. "We need a few volunteers to go with them," she said, looking at the group of eager fighters. Two men and two women stepped forward from that group. Chet and his father looked at each other; they seemed to carry on an entire, silent conversation, which culminated in Chet rolling his eyes, but stepping forward to also join those leaving. Bookworm grinned, handing him the pistol she'd grabbed from the sheriff's office. "It's no sinecure, you know," she said quietly.
"I know," he replied. "Pa, I'll take them to our ranch. We can decide from there where to go, and we'll be able to get some wagons and horses."
"Good idea, son," the marshal replied. He gathered the fighting folks around him, describing how to disable the automata.
The automaton Cavendish had given orders to was dragging the malfunctioning automaton toward the workshop, where the machinery and tools were housed. Through its connection with the other automata, it knew when the one guarding that building had suddenly also malfunctioned, and was prepared to inspect that one as well.
As he was passing the hotel, though, Cavendish's voice rang out. "Stop." He'd been unable to get back to sleep, and finally threw on some clothing, pulled on his skullcap and goggles, and left his hotel suite to intercept Automaton 1. "Let me take a look at Automaton 5 now."
Cavendish muttered to himself as Automaton 1 held the other one in position for inspection. It was only a matter of seconds for Cavendish to find the cut in the hose. "This is deliberate!" he said with alarm. "Didn't you look inside the jail cells?"
"You did not order such," Automaton 1 replied. "Automaton 7 has also malfunctioned."
"Damn and blast!" Cavendish considered quickly. "Order all remaining automata to converge on the workshop and prepare for a fight; they must have released the townsfolk by now. You go upstairs and guard the staircase to the roof; let no one but myself by. Take one of the hostages from the guarded rooms with you. If anyone comes, threaten to kill that hostage unless they give themselves up."
"Yes, master," Automaton 1 replied, striding toward the hotel entrance. Mechanical sounds from all directions indicated the other automata beginning to gather.
Cavendish also hurried inside, going to his suite of rooms on the third floor. From there, he was able to remotely start the machinery that generated the electric barrier around the town. Then he grabbed some specialized tools and hurried out, past Automaton 1, and up to the roof. It looked like it was time to employ his secret weapon.
Bookworm started as some of the machinery suddenly powered up around them, cogwheels turning and pistons cranking. Mariah grimly called over her shoulder, "The barrier's up! And we've got company gathering."
"I knew it was too good to last," Bookworm muttered. She looked around at the whirring machinery, then at the tools hanging from hooks on the walls. She grinned suddenly. "Marshal, will you lead your group out to intercept the automata? The rest of you, grab these tools and do whatever you have to do to disable the currently-running machines. Once the barrier's down, we'll give you cover to escape. And Deputy Allen, will you stay with Mariah and I for a few minutes?"
A chorus of assents came from all sides. "All right, folks," Bookworm said, standing up. "Let the battle begin!"
Finally, Bookworm heard the satisfying 'snick' of the lock being tripped. She pulled the door open just enough to keep it from locking again, then removed her hairpins and stuck them back in her hair. Inch by inch, she pulled the door open further, holding her breath, hoping it wouldn't make any sounds. Thankfully, it was well-oiled, and swung open silently on its hinges. When it was just wide enough, she slipped outside, leaving Mariah to slowly swing the door nearly shut.
Step by careful step, Bookworm went down the hallway to the closed door. It wasn't locked, and she swung it slowly open, freezing at one point for several minutes when it creaked. When nothing happened, she let out a silent, trembling breath and inched it further open until she could slip through.
The staircase was dark, and she leaned forward, groping ahead until her hands encountered some risers. With hands and feet both, she crawled up the stairs, testing each one carefully for loose or noisy boards.
It seemed an age before her head finally poked up above the floor of the storage room. She could dimly see boxes, barrels, and other typical storage-room detritus scattered about. What caught her eye, and nearly made her cheer out loud, was that the window at the far end had no glass, and its shutters were thrown open to the warm August night. She didn't know yet how to work that to her advantage, but she was sure that somehow it would.
She made the long, slow crawl across the floor, keeping herself below the windowsill. When Bookworm finally reached the window, she raised up for a quick peek down, which told her the automaton guard was standing at the door, looking straight ahead with no apparent signs of alarm. With that established, she took a longer look around.
The nearly-full moon was overhead, which told her it was almost midnight. Its light flooded down, giving her helpful light to take in the surroundings. Though she could faintly hear mechanical clanking above the chirping of crickets, there didn't seem to be any other automata within sight. Feeling a bit reassured, Bookworm levered herself up onto her knees, resting her arms on the windowsill, staring down at the automaton.
She watched it silently while she could still see it clearly, until the moon slid behind the roof of the sheriff’s office. She frowned at the few times it snapped to alert at a nearby sound, which always turned out to be caused by a roving animal. The thing moved faster than she’d expected from a mechanical man. Though she couldn’t see a great deal from her perch directly above it, there was one thing that kept catching her attention. A rubber hose was attached to the automaton’s head, near the neck, and curved down into something that Bookworm guessed was a reservoir of fluid, though she couldn’t see it clearly. The reservoir and hose would be hidden from view from below by steel plates on the bottom and sides, but the top was open. 'Protected from attack below, but open above for easy access?' she thought. 'Could this, perchance, be your equivalent of the carotid artery, my mechanical friend?' What would happen if she were to sever it?
'Only one way to find out,' she decided, silently rising to her feet.
This couldn’t exactly be called an impulsive decision, as it took many minutes for her to ease herself up onto the windowsill, time in which she could second-, third-, or even fourth-guess herself. But she didn’t; she knew that any moves against Cavendish had to be made quickly, before he had time to think about what she might actually be, and she and Mariah and McKenzie had to be free to do that. Standing on the sill, she shifted her position slightly, took her diamond-tipped boot-heel blade in hand, took a silent, deep breath, and jumped.
She landed astride the automaton’s shoulders, in a move that would probably elicit winces from any men watching. Her left hand grabbed its head to steady herself, her right hand immediately driving into the rubber hose, slicing away at it, an oily liquid spilling from the cut. The automaton brought up one hand to grab her leg, the other to use the electric cane on her. Thankfully, quick as it was, the loss of the fluid had a quicker effect, and its movements halted before either attack truly reached her. Bookworm sighed with relief and scrambled down its frozen body, making for the door it had been guarding.
She ducked through the office, grabbing a key ring that was sitting on the desk, and went back into the cell room. Mariah immediately pulled open her cell door. "You found a way to disable them?"
"Yes," Bookworm replied, fiddling with the keys. "Come on, Marshal," she called. "Up and at ‘em!"
His snoring came to a stuttering stop. "Huh? Wha?" he mumbled.
Bookworm rattled the keys. "Wake up, Marshal. Which key unlocks your cell?"
That brought him awake and out of his cot. Bookworm handed him the key ring. He flipped through several, found the one he wanted, and unlocked the door. Pausing long enough in the main office to grab up several weapons, they all slipped out into the night, ready for the next step--freeing the townsfolk.
The patient voice finally roused Cavendish from sleep. "Oh, what is it?" he mumbled grumpily.
"Unusual occurrence," came the metallic voice of the chief automaton, which was linked to all the others--an innovation that allowed Cavendish to order his small army remotely. "Automaton 5 has shut down. Cause appears to be malfunction in galvanic fluid distribution system. Cause of malfunction unknown."
"That's the one guarding the sheriff's office, yes?"
Cavendish sighed. "Go inspect Automaton 5 yourself. If you can't fix it immediately, take it to the workshop and stand guard yourself, and I'll look it over in the morning."
"Yes, master." The main automaton left the bedroom.
Cavendish, though, couldn't get back to sleep. He was planning on splitting up the three occupants of the jail cells in the morning, sending the older woman to work with the rest, and the younger woman to join the hostages in the hotel. He hadn't thought there was any danger in one night spent in the same room--certainly, the conversation the guard automaton had overheard and broadcast to him hadn't sounded particularly dangerous. But to have that automaton suddenly malfunction...
Could he have been wrong?
Bookworm smiled. He hadn’t been exaggerating—his snoring was truly prodigious. As it settled into a steady rhythm, she said softly to Mariah, “There. Now we can talk.”
“You think Cavendish is somehow listening in, then?” Mariah asked.
“He was here within minutes of us waking up,” Bookworm replied. “How else could he have done that without something nearby?”
“Of course—the automaton guard outside.”
“Yes. After he left, he would, of course, expect us to ask the marshal more questions, so I obliged—but only with questions I wanted him to know we asked about. The silent questions gave us knowledge he doesn’t know we know. If that makes sense.”
“It does,” Mariah said with amusement in her voice.
“As for now… well, now is the time to make plans. And I defy *anything* to hear us over that.” Bookworm chuckled softly at a particularly stertorous breath from McKenzie.
“So what do you make of this Cavendish?” asked Mariah.
“Oh, he’s a Villain, all right. Quite in the same family as Dr. Obolensky--grandiose plans, brilliant but complicated inventions, little, if any, regard for others except as tools to further his plans. He pegged McKenzie as the only potential hero in town, and made sure to isolate him.”
“Then why are we kept here, too?”
“I think,” Bookworm said slowly, “he’s confused by us. He strikes me as the type that wouldn’t easily consider a woman as a hero. Yet here we are, two women traveling alone through the wilds of the West, well armed, evidently capable of taking care of ourselves. Hopefully, I’ve given him a solution he likes.”
“Ahh—is that why you changed your demeanor when he came in?”
“Yes. I wanted to keep his focus on the marshal as the potential hero, and give us roles that are believable, but not necessarily dangerous to him at this point—potential hero sidekicks. Or, if Cavendish wants to see this as a dime-novel situation, the marshal as the potential hero, you as the potential hero sidekick, and me—“ Bookworm coughed softly, “as the potential hero love interest.”
Mariah chuckled. “He took the bait, then?”
“I think so. Otherwise, he would have focused much more attention on us, and searched us more assiduously. I still have my hairpins, and—“ She broke off, fiddling with her boot heel. “I still have my heel blade.”
“So do I,” replied Mariah as she put the boot back on. “What now? Can you pick the lock? And if so, do we try to leave town and get help?”
“I can pick it, yes. But we’re not leaving.” Bookworm’s voice was still quiet, but very firm. “Even if we could get past that electric barrier—and that’s a big if—neither we nor anyone else would even be able to get in. Cavendish would definitely be on his guard. No, we’re going to have to take him down from within. Which means that our first step is to try to find a way to disable the automata.”
Bookworm rose silently from the cot, Mariah standing up beside her. “I’ll pick the lock and let myself out,” Bookworm whispered. “Then I’ll go upstairs, to that window Marshal McKenzie said overlooked the entrance to this building. Hopefully, I’ll have a good view of the automaton guard from there. If I can see a weakness—even better, if I can disable it myself—then I’ll come and get you and the marshal.”
“All right,” Mariah said, a little unhappily, but knowing this was the sort of thing for which Bookworm had been training for a long time. “Good luck.”
((To be continued…))
He wasn't a tall man--only a couple of inches taller than Bookworm--but he looked to be strongly built beneath the lab coat he wore. He was also wearing a large set of goggles with mirrored lenses that hid his eyes entirely. That, and the few wisps of very light-colored hair that escaped the skull cap that covered his head, made Bookworm wonder if he mightn't actually be an albino. Whatever else he was, though, his mannerisms and mode of speech, even considered apart from his actions, screamed "Villain!" to her.
"Nowhere else," he said, stepping into the cell room, "have I found the perfect combination of the raw materials I need and the convenience of a free labor force."
"You monster!" Bookworm said. "What are you doing to these poor people?"
Mariah shot a quick glance at Bookworm. The words were right, but the tone wasn't. Instead of being a strong, indignant statement, it was breathless, with even a hint of a quaver of fear. It sounded, in fact, the way she would have spoken to Dr. Obolensky years ago, when she first began confronting him. Mariah guessed that there must be a reason for this, but took a protective step closer to her anyway.
Cavendish smiled smugly. "Do not worry, my dear young woman. They won't always be digging ditches or running on treadmills to generate electricity. It won't be long now before most of them will be working in my mines!"
"Mines?" Marshal McKenzie shot the man a puzzled look, and Cavendish turned to face him.
"Yes, for iron ore."
"But we had geologists and mining engineers here years ago about that. It's all titaniferous magnetite deposits--too expensive to smelt and process for iron, or to extract any other minerals. That's why we don't have any large-scale mining here."
Over Cavendish's shoulder, Bookworm nodded at McKenzie and made a quick, encouraging gesture. She definitely wanted him to take over the conversation, and take Cavendish's attention off of her.
"Pah!" Cavendish made a dismissive gesture. "They didn't have *me* here when they made their half-brained assessments. I've developed a process for smelting such ore, and the titanium and vanadium elements are perfect for creating the steel needed for my automata."
"And just what do you intend to do with those automata?" McKenzie asked warily.
"Once your hard-working townsfolk have finished building the factories and assembly lines I need, and start mining the raw materials, I'll be able to build up an army of my automata. I think you can guess what happens next."
"You'll never get away with it," the marshal said warningly.
"We'll just see," replied Cavendish. He turned on his heel and stalked out, the automaton following. Bookworm peered after them, and watched as they exited the sheriff's office, even catching a glimpse of the outside world as they opened the door. Then she fixed a keen gaze on Marshal McKenzie. "Follow my lead," she mouthed silently at him.
"Oh dear, oh dear," she said out loud, practically dithering. "Whatever can we do? Is there no way out of here?"
"Even if we could somehow open the locks on these cell doors," McKenzie replied, "there's one of those mechanical men standing guard outside." Even as he said this, though, he started at Bookworm. She was pointing to the door on the other side, and mouthed, "That door--where?" He inhaled to reply, and she held a warning finger to her mouth. "Mouth it," she said silently.
So, while she audibly replied, "Oh, dear, that *is* difficult, isn't it? I don't know what we can do," he silently said, "Storage room. Runs the length of this. Window at entrance end." Bookworm nodded with satisfaction at that news.
They continued on in this fashion, with both audible and inaudible conversations; Mariah chimed in from time to time to help them along, though both she and the marshal were definitely puzzled by why Bookworm was doing this. But in this way, she built up a picture of where the townsfolk were being held, where Cavendish was staying, where the automata might be stationed. Finally, she noticed that the light was fading with the onset of night. "We should get some sleep," she said out loud. "Perhaps something will come to us in the morning."
As Mariah replied, "Yes, you may be right," she mouthed at McKenzie, "Can you sleep on your back?"
He looked startled. "I can, but I'll snore something fierce," he said silently.
Bookworm grinned. "Perfect," she mouthed emphatically. He shrugged, and said out loud, "All right, then. I'll see you in the morning." With that, he settled down on his cot, making sure he was on his back. Bookworm and Mariah sat down on her cot, patiently waiting for him to fall asleep.
((To be continued...))