"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!"