"Well, it originally started as a camp for miners and engineers looking for gold and ores," Bookworm replied. "That didn't really pan out--there's a bit a gold and silver, but not enough to attract any large companies. However, on the other side of the hilly range we're on, there's a large valley that's perfect for cattle. So Clarkton grew where the camp had been to service the ranchers and the few independent miners who stayed."
Near midday, they paused at the top of a ridge, looking down on Clarkton. It was a larger town than Mariah was expecting, spread out through most of a valley that was cupped by hills in three directions. It was a pretty sight, but Bookworm frowned down on it. "There's no one outside," she said, sounding puzzled. "I wonder what's going on."
Mariah looked down again at the empty streets. "Do we go in, or go on?"
"Well, we do need more food."
"We could go elsewhere and get help."
Bookworm looked at Mariah with a wry smile. "And tell them what? If there is something wrong, we need information before we can get help. We go in." She kicked her mount into motion down the ridge, despite the dread she felt.
They passed the edge of the forest, their horses' hooves echoing into the empty main street. They'd just passed the first outlying building when a noise like thunder sounded around them. "What the hell?!" Mariah yelped. Bookworm had to take a firm hold of her gelding to keep him from bolting. Looking around, she saw a blue field, crackling with electricity, had appeared behind them, arcing above their heads. Peering around in all directions, she could make it out behind all the buildings.
"It's a trap!" she exclaimed. "It's surrounding the town!"
"Look," Mariah said grimly, pointing. Two large figures were walking slowly up the street. Bookworm and Mariah dismounted and hastily tied the horses to a fence, grabbing rifle and pistol from their saddlebags before turning back to see what was coming.
As the figures drew closer, Bookworm hissed in a breath. They weren't Smashingtons, that was certain. But they were definitely mechanical men, each about seven feet tall and clad in steel. Their faces were expressionless, with only optical lenses for eyes and a slash for a mouth. In their hands, they carried poles that, Bookworm saw, bore a resemblance to the electro-cane Dr. Obolensky had used.
Mariah and Bookworm looked at each other grimly, then turned back. As one, they raised their weapons and fired. The bullet from Bookworm's pistol ricocheted harmlessly off one of the mechanicals. The other was rocked back slightly from Mariah's rifle shot, but then came on again, with only a slight dent showing where the ammunition had hit.
As Bookworm took aim again, she heard an increase in the sound of the crackling energy behind them. Before she could look, though, she and Mariah were struck from behind by sizzling bolts from the field. Bookworm had just enough time to think aggrievedly, 'Oh, not again!' before she lost consciousness.
((To be continued...))