The long winter evening was beginning to descend as Bookworm Hienrichs hurried north through the streets of New Babbage. There wasn’t much time left for her to try the diplomatic way out, so she’d decided to simply present herself at the entrance to the Van Creed building, and see if anyone would talk. As she made her way through a dark tunnel, though, she heard steps behind her. She quickly exited the tunnel, dashed across the alleyway, and whirled around, hand near her revolver…
In time to see Arnold emerging from the darkness. She sighed with relief, relaxing a little. “Hello, Arnold,” she said as he spied her and approached.
“Great,” he said. “Here, of all places?”
Bookworm nodded. “Someone has to keep an eye on it.”
But Arnold evidently had other matters on his mind. “I think someone brought a bomb in today at the asylum,” he said abruptly.
Bookworm started. “Why there?”
“The owner, Canergak, brought it in on purpose, for whatever reason he had. I doubt he intends to blow the place up.”
“Huh,” Bookworm replied, taking the news in stride. “That would seem counterproductive.”
“Yes. Yes, it would. There are a lot of other funny things happening around town. But the Christmas Party at Brunel Hall seems to be the kick off to the end now. So I’m sending Maddox away to Abu Dah-I mean Mondrago.”
Bookworm cracked a small smile. “Good idea.”
“Stormy keeps threatening to send people to that other one. I keep slipping,” Arnold said wryly. Then he looked down the alleyway at the Van Creed building, discomfort clear on his face. “It’s watching us…”
“I don’t doubt it,” Bookworm replied soberly.
“Do you have any wishes or last thoughts you want shared with the world? I gave Avariel a last recorded message sometime long before I fell…well there. I need to update it, though. It had been that I hate this city.”
“I’ve already arranged a message to my family, to be delivered if things go wrong.”
“By someone outside Babbage, I would hope?”
Bookworm nodded. She’d sent it to the owners of the lodge she and Mariah had made use of several times, with a note asking them to send it on to her family if they should hear of the fall of New Babbage.
They stood in silence for some time, each lost in their own grim thoughts. They were both startled out of their contemplations by the approach of an elderly man, one bowed down by the equipment and strange-looking weapon he carried. “Good evening,” he said. “Miss Hienrichs, I presume?”
Bookworm nodded. “Good evening, sir.”
She heard Arnold hiss at the man. Eyeing Arnold, he said, “Has that thing there led you here? I would suggest leaving as soon as possible.”
Based on that, Bookworm guessed the man to be Mr. Canergak. “I’m keeping an eye on things,” she replied, trying to keep her tone equable. “Someone has to.”
“Indeed, someone has to,” he said. “And I have since my return. Sadly, there is but one thing I could do, and I apologize in advance should it become necessary.”
Bookworm raised an eyebrow. “Then you know of the Van Creed’s return?” She really wished someone had told *her* the moment it was suspected.
“I care little for them,” Canergak said. “They are pawns who will find a welcome place within my facility, should it be determined they are of unfit mind–which they must have been to do what they’ve done with no safe guards, no devices to keep in check that which they have delved.”
Bookworm nodded, finding herself rather in agreement with that assessment.
“Unfortunately, the true matter of what they have delved into is a danger to the entire world, perhaps,” he continued. “And for that, the needs of the world outweigh the needs of this city.”
Arnold looked at him sharply. “I don’t like where you are going with that reasoning.”
“Neither do I,” Bookworm added, frowning.
“The city can’t be allowed to endanger the world. If at the end of it all this turns wrong, the city must be destroyed.”
“And how do you propose to do that?” Bookworm asked, trying to hide how aghast she felt. “And, more importantly, when?”
“Not when, I simply will do it should things go wrong, if the city loses the fight which the Writer tells of tomorrow. Rest assured, I have no intention of doing so otherwise.”
“But who determines the timing of that? I’d hate for you to set things off while we still are fighting.”
“Ahh, now I would not tell you that lest it be prevented by our enemies.” Bookworm frowned at that, but Canergak continued, “But rest assured that it would be handled only after there is no hope, there is someone trustworthy holding the button–an urchin who has lived in this city for some time. From what I hear, your city has some respect for these children.”
“How did you get one of them to agree to this?” Arnold asked. Canergak ignored him, though, looking at Bookworm. “Do you find my plan that repulsive, Miss Hienrichs?” he asked. She nodded.
“It is of no matter. If you are already dead, your authority will have ended, will it not? When it is activated, there would be no one around to care.”
“Perhaps. But having one private citizen decide on such a course of action is…rather less than helpful.”
“The last remaining citizen of any place is its last defender, Miss Hienrichs.” Canergak sighed. “In truth, I should not have even told you what I intended. It is an action, taken in desperation, when no one could possibly be there to tell them no, because everyone else is dead.”
“I don’t argue that,” Bookworm said, trying to keep her patience. “But setting this action up on your own initiative is what I object to.” It was all part-and-parcel of what Ms. December had said–everyone was following their own reactions to events, with no communication or coordination between anyone.
“Are you here on Militia orders?” Canergak asked. Bookworm looked at him sharply, wondering if that was a shrewd riposte. But then he continued, “I had simply assumed the cat was dragging you somewhere dangerous.”
“I followed her here,” Arnold said indignantly.
Bookworm nodded. “I’m still looking for a non-violent way to stop this.”
“Then I wish you the best Miss Hienrichs, because that would be much simpler and cause less death and destruction, which no one needs.”
“Thank you,” she replied wryly. But then Canergak coughed and gripped himself as he went to one knee. She took a step forward. “Are you well, sir?” she asked with concern.
He stood back up. “Unfortunately, the weather is not agreeing with me.” He looked around. “Good day. I must seek a fire.”
Bookworm nodded, and watched him walk away slowly.
“Wonderful,” Arnold said sarcastically. “That’s just…lovely.” Bookworm nodded, feeling an incipient headache.
“There’s a deadly thing staring at us wanting us all to give up and die; there’re crab creatures that want to tear us apart, more creatures on the way, a hole being dug, men banded together digging a hole, and at least four different scientists finding new ways to kill us all,” he continued. “Oh, and let’s not forget that Lord Smashington is probably still done.” He paused. “Oh, and a child is sitting on a doomsday button. We’re going to all die.” He paused again. “Actually, there’re probably several children in this city with doomsday buttons.”
“Somehow, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Bookworm said wryly. ‘New Babbage finds more ways of bringing itself to the brink than I thought possible,’ she thought. ‘Maybe it would be better to let it go over the edge.’ Then she shook her head violently, trying to dispel that thought. ‘No. No, no, no. None of that.’
“So you’re going to stand here all evening?” Arnold asked.
“What are you waiting for–someone from the Van Creed to talk to?”
She nodded. It did seem a bit silly now, though, standing around in the cold and snow, hoping for someone she wanted to talk to simply to appear. ‘Then again, what else is there to do?’ she thought, stamping her feet to try to bring some feeling back to them. ‘Sit at home and worry? Sit at Militia headquarters and worry?’ It was a last-ditch effort, and doomed to failure, but she still had to try.
((To be continued…))