“It-It…it’s true,” Dr. Gammis confessed as he stood up slowly from the corner, balancing himself on an old bookcase. He slouched and kept his head down as he spoke to everyone gathered. “Their presence and resources are my fault, but most of the pirates and soldiers are acting only as mercenaries. They are not the real threat. They were hired by an organization that funds scientific research for…nefarious means. I-I betrayed Icarus Research, Aquila IX, and this city in the name of Progress.”
Beryl coughed suddenly, the nervous doctor jumped at the unexpected reaction, “You’ve heard of them?”
Beryl shook their head and waved for the group to ignore them. Father Walstrand turned to the old woman outside the crowded room, “Sister Pankirst, if you could introduce these strangers? I hope these are not mercenaries hired by the fisherman?”
The sister gestured to Book, “She referred to herself as Captain Bookworm Hienrichs of the New Babbage Militia, though she is here unofficially. They initially came to retrieve a clockwork, but were attacked.”
“Then I shall speak with her and Dr. Gammis alone. Escort everyone that is not important to this conversation to the kitchen and offer them rest and succor,” Walstrand concluded in a dispassionate tone.
“Oi,” Tepic shouted indignantly as he moved into the room to fix a stern look at the doctor. “I was the general of the BUMS army in New Babbage, so reckon I may outrank Ms. Book, and I gotta lot ter say ter this numpty!”
Avariel was also insulted by their presumption. She snorted loudly, “I am an official representative of the Lovelace Institute! I was chosen by the Board of Deans to discover what happened to Aquila IX! After all I went through to find Dr. Gammis I deserve to be here! Do you have any idea how many sticks I had to eat?! Sticks!”
“Captain Heinrichs will relay the details of our conference as she sees fit.” Walstrand’s lip gap made him slur his words and allowed spittle to escape as he spoke, but he was calm and deliberate. “Now begone children, the adults need to have a discussion.”
Bookworm was not pleased by this, nor were many of those whom the Father deemed unimportant. Beryl and Yang were happy their presence was not required, and Loki was eager to return to the kitchen at the promise of food. The others felt outraged at the manner of their dismissal, though Wright and Mariah hid it well. Tepic and Avariel however wore their fury openly.
Tepic muttered for everyone to hear, “Revolution, comrades, them as is worthy will be in the place they should be, not dismissed by the landed gentry like servants!”
“Your revolution will be short lived if you shout much louder. Our doors are not locked and soldiers may have taken shelter from the storm in the Cathedral.” Sister Pankirst stated quietly as she beckoned them to exit.
The companions quieted down and allowed themselves to be led back to the kitchen through the deserted hallways. Now that the Father extended his form of welcome, the Sister prepared everyone a bowl of stew, one apple, and a cup of coffee. She reluctantly offered two white apples to Loki when he refused the meat. He gratefully accepted devouring them both in less than two minutes.
“It appears I was not necessary,” Yang sounded relieved despite his sore throat. “But the Church has never been fond of Moreau, ‘sentient’ clockworks, or humans with…mutations. Unless I am mistaken they are also approaching the Fasting.”
“Could be, or could be they’s just rude in these parts,” Tepic said bitterly as he tasted the lukewarm stew. “Seems like a place ter send priests and sisters ter punish ‘em. They gets five months of snow up here? Yer ever heard our Brothers complain how cold Babbage gets?”
As Tepic and Yang gossiped, some of the companions realized Sister Pankrist could have the answers they were seeking. Wright was the first one to begin his questions after introducing himself properly he got to the point, “We were pursued by a group of men in white coats bearing their flag symbol. Who were they?”
“Mercenaries or soldiers working for Progress,” The Sister responded duly, watching Tepic and Loki closely. “Your captain will no doubt debrief you on this herself.”
“She may not think to ask this particular question,” Wright had not shown Book his discovery when it had hurt him. “Do you know why they would be carrying silver bullets? That seems a touch unusual.”
Sister Pankirst waved her wrinkled hand dismissively, “That is not uncommon anywhere in these mountains. The ‘Koudra’ are impervious to normal weapons and only silver and fire stave off the abominations. All their patrolmen arm themselves with those and special weaponry created by Dr. Gammis and his researchers.” Tepic spit out his stew when he overheard the extent of the scientists betrayal. Pankirst reached for a cloth and threw it to him. “Clean your mess, boy.”
Wright was mostly relieved by the answer. It meant the army had not been anticipating him and the others as well as Dr. Falcon. The flare and steam sled had given away their positions, but that did not mean the soldiers understood their enemy. It did mean that the group would have to tread very carefully. He tried to inquire about this special arsenal, but she deflected him.
Avariel noticed that Sister Pankirst was more keen to answer a question related to the local monsters, so she took the opportunity to try a query of her own, “Two weeks ago, roughly, I believe I killed one of those Koudra with my horn. Or I thought I killed it. I have been pursued by the beast ever since.”
“You did not kill the creature, at least not in a way that would prevent their resurrection.” The Sister examined Avariel’s horn and the rest of her frame. She did not seem to approve of the design thinking it impractical for a machine. “There is a proper procedure that must be followed exactly to circumvent their vengeful spirit from returning.”
“Procedure?” Avariel tilted her head. “How difficult is the procedure?”
“Difficult. A silver stake must be driven through their winter heart and the pieces need to be buried in a silver box under consecrated ground. Their bodies must then be hacked with silver axes, salted, and set aflame. Only after their ashes have been released to the wind can you be free of the beast and its curse.” Pankirst examined the antler wound on Avariel’s side that was mostly patched now. “How large would you say it was?”
“About my size really,” Avariel said recalling the glimpses she had gotten before. “Longer but much thinner.”
“Then you are being hunted by one of their young. That is very fortunate for you. The adults range anywhere between fifteen and thirty feet tall and uproot trees in their passing.” Pankirst saw the silver lining in her words, but the companions were not comforted. Tepic dropped his last spoonful of stew as his eyes widened. Even he had trouble visualising a thirty foot monster that moved like the one that attacked Avariel.
“I…may have been a bit hasty when I killed it.” Dr. Falcon miserably admitted. “But you said we have weapons to dispose of the Koudra, so we can deal with that problem later. Right now we have to fix Dr. Gammis’s mistakes!”
Bookworm had been waiting for this moment since Christmas Eve, when Aquila IX had sent the cargo train full of spiders to New Babbage. “I have so many questions to ask you Dr. Gammis that it would be best to start at the beginning. When did this organization first contact you?”
“B-before I earned my doctorate,” Dr. Gammis confessed sheepishly without raising his gaze. “I-I showed promise in several sciences th-they were researching themselves. They assisted my experiments and…and p-promised they could get me a position in Icarus Research.”
Bookworm examined Dr. Gammis who still had most of his naturally brown hair. He couldn’t be over forty years old, “And what were your duties to them?”
The doctor began to wring his hands nervously, “I…I spied on my fellow researchers. It was always for the greater good in my mind. Ev-everything we did was ‘In the name of Progress’. E-eventually they h-helped me secure my position at Aquila IX.” He sighed loudly. “Even that I couldn’t earn without their assistance. Other m-more qualified doctors who wanted the opportunity ch-changed their minds at the last moment.”
Bookworm grimaced as she imagined what must have caused the doctors to reject the offer. She hoped they were still alive.
“Pro-progress knew the truth about our facility and wh-why it is unstable. Th-they offered me ‘experts’, colleagues who would t-take control of the situation I inherited. I…” He steeled himself, trying to stop his constant stuttering. “I thought that Dr. Benton Harteschlägel was a gift from the Builder himself, but he…he tortured our experiments.”
Bookworm blanched slightly, “Did he happen to torment some of your spiders, Doctor?”
Gammis winced remembering the first messages coming to his desk from Dr. Falcon. “Yes, I understand you met Itsy and her brood. They were only a small part of his victims though.”
“Then why send them to New Babbage?” Bookworm demanded to know. That was something she had never understood.
“Captain,” Dr. Gammis sighed weakly as he sagged into himself. “Sending Itsy to Babbage was the last thing I would have wanted, gaining the kind of attention I spent half my life avoiding. I haven’t been in official control of my facility since the middle of December. Their creators learned about Progress just days before the attack and tried to send them away. The cart was intercepted and intentionally sent astray to New Babbage before that.”
“They didn’t recapture them?”
“No captain. Someone in Progress was intentionally attempting to bait Dr. Falcon and others from your fair city into investigating.”
Bookworm attempted to maintain a calm exterior, she did not want Dr. Gammis to start cowering again, but inside she was ready to smash a rifle into someone’s face. She spoke, deliberately pronouncing her syllables, “I see. Then that was their mistake. Who gave that order? Who is in charge of your facility now, doctor?”
“The order to send Itsy to Babbage was from Progress and delivered from Ms. Whitesmith. A cruel woman who reports directly to their highest authorities. But the doctor who has taken over the facility and Wuldram Shores with their blessing is Dr. Dupyre.”