Bookworm and Arnold were still conversing when they both heard, from the direction of the Van Creed building, the sound of a door opening. Faster than she thought possible, they saw a figure stride past them and head for the nearby tunnel.
“Well, that was him,” Arnold said.
“Sir!” Bookworm called, running to the tunnel entrance, hearing Arnold following her. The figure stopped at the other end, and turned to look at her. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Are you Jason Moriarty?”
Bookworm advanced closer, looking at him with curiosity. He’d seemed so ordinary at first, but a closer look seemed to show something indefinably wrong with him. “I suppose it’s no use to ask you to stop all this?” she said abruptly.
Moriarty laughed. “Straight to the point, then.”
She shrugged. “Most things that can be said have already been said, I think.”
“And yet again, you think I’m the mastermind behind all of this?”
“If not you, then who?”
“You people need to start opening your eyes beyond your pitiful small bubble,” he said with disgust.
“Perhaps we see things here that you don’t.”
“Or you don’t see things at all.”
“I have a good eye,” Bookworm immediately riposted. “I can see a church by daylight.”
Moriarty, however, didn’t seem to recognize the quote. “I’ll afford you perhaps a bit of explanation, though I doubt you small-minded women of Babbage would even be capable of such a concept.”
Bookworm raised an eyebrow at that, but kept her peace. She’d taken that sort of talk from Mr. Steamweaver; she could take it from Moriarty.
“Think of life as one of those phantasmographic pictures,” he said, his voice falling into a hypnotic cadence.
‘Plato’s caves?’ Bookworm thought. ‘Couldn’t he be more original?’
“The flickering screen…those wonderful fantasy visions of magical tales…”
‘Ahh. Not Plato’s caves, then.’ She brought her attention back to what Moriarty was saying.
“Now imagine, if you will, that you are but a small character in the picture, placed there by the creators, playing the role you were destine to play by the creators’ design. You have no say in what you are doing; you simply exist to play out your role in the story.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Bookworm saw Arnold nodded his head along with Moriarty’s description. She also saw, over Moriarty’s shoulder, a small airship descending, and the figures of Gadget and Nat inside. It was not the quietest of airships, and Moriarty turned a little. “I see our meeting now has its own audience.”
“Yes,” Bookworm said. “And I’m sure they’ll be less patient than I.”
“Oh, good grief,” Moriarty said impatiently. “As if I would be troubled at this point by the patience of a few children.” As he turned around completely, Bookworm made shooing gestures that she hoped Gadget and Nat would see. But then she stiffened at the sight of the play of electricity around Moriarty’s hands. A bolt shot out, but the airship had already started ascending again, and just barely managed to avoid it.
Moriarty turned back to Bookworm and Arnold, and picked up where he’d left off, as if there’d been no interruption. “So imagine, if you will, that as a player in the picture, you suddenly are aware of your place and role, and that you are helpless to do anything but perform that role. “If you can imagine that, then you are halfway to knowing who I am.”
Arnold nodded. “A man with a destiny, who could no more argue than Jonah could lest he was swallowed by a whale and forced to do it anyways.”
“So what is your goal?” Bookworm asked. “What do you hope to accomplish with all of this?”
“Goal?” Moriarty barked, as if showing impatience with a slow student. “Are we seriously not learning a thing yet? You people are supposed to be such great thinkers… makes me wonder if all this town’s achievements have simply been accidents.”
Bookworm frowned, trying to rein in her temper. “Perhaps, then, I worded my question poorly,” she said carefully. “What is your *role*?”
“Now that’s more like it.” Moriarty smiled, a smile that Bookworm did not find at all reassuring. “My role in this picture–the part that I play, that I have been destined to play since I was born to my father, the founder of the Van Creed, whose role in this picture was to bring me into this world–the role set down by the Sinner Salador, for which I have been groomed with great care and attention over hundreds of years by the creator of this story, is the role that shall release us all.”
“Release?” Bookworm made a mental note of the name he’d said, wondering if she’d be able to find anything about it in the archives.
“From the lies that bind you to this existence.”
“Ahh,” Bookworm said. “Your ‘truth’ again.”
“I’m not going to tell you what my role is,” Moriarty said gleefully. “I am not the sort to spoil a good yarn.”
“And if we spoil yours? What happens to your ‘truth’ then?”
“I hardly think any of you have the ability to spoil anything. I mean, look at you all, running around like… well, like street urchins scared of Angry Jenkins. And your Mayor, refusing to believe in anything inexplicable. All you people do is party and pat each other on the back when cutting out brains in the name of progress.
“That’s hardly all we do,” Bookworm replied. “And hardly all of us do that. Many of us *create.* We bring things into the world that did not exist. That alone should be an indication of free will.”
Moriarty waved a dismissive hand. “Mere entertainment to enhance your belief that you mean something in this world. You are but children in a sandpit left to entertain yourselves and imagine yourselves as meaningful beings.”
“We do mean something. And I am sorry that you have lost sight of that.”
“If I have lost anything, my dear woman, it is ignorance. Something you people seem to fight to retain. Even when it’s futile, you stand her before me discussing choice. There has never been choice; your choices are just illusions.”
Bookworm looked at him and shook her head, pity showing in her expression. “No. You’ve lost more… so much more.”
Moriarty moved closer, stopping directly in front of her. Bookworm kept herself still. “If I say that I choose not to kill you right now, it’s meaningless,” he hissed. “Because you are already dead.”
“We shall see,” Bookworm said as calmly as she could manage.
Moriarty stepped back. “Again, I am tired by these insipid talks. You all come to me, trying to change my mind, as if I have any choice in the role I play. Wake up, my dear woman–you are already dead!”
Bookworm smiled to herself. “I am dead and alive,” she murmured, even as Arnold stepped forward, catching Moriarty’s attention. “Then can I have a word with you?” he asked. “I won’t argue for a meaningful existence.”
“Make it short,” Moriarty said. “My patience is thin.”
“I’m not here to argue that you could change your destiny; in order to do that you’d have to figure out how to stand up and punch in the face the creator of the lightshow that has directed your entire life for centuries. Obviously you’ve given up that fight so there’s no point talking about it. To be honest, you are right. I saw that video you left behind; you must have wanted us to see it. About how when you view the truth of your existence and that it’s all been a lie, some people choose to end themselves. I know because I made that choice in September, before you, or the Dark Aether had any say. I nearly let my existence itself come to an end…”
Arnold looked up at Moriarty. “There’s just one thing I learned during that time and that experience. It’s miserable, and being here is preferable, no matter how detestable and stupid these people are.” Bookworm bit back a comment as Arnold concluded, “I just felt like saying that.”
“Being here? Preferable?” Moriarty said incredulously.
“I didn’t believe it either, until it happened,” Arnold replied.
Moriarty shook his head. “It is regrettable that when it came to the choice, you chose to bury your head back into the lies that hold you in captivity. But fear not, for you shall soon be freed.”
He turned to leave, but Bookworm held up a forestalling hand. “Just one last question, Moriarty.”
“You do realize these questions are pointless?”
She plowed ahead anyway. “What happens to *you* when your role ends?”
“True freedom.” What that, he was gone. Bookworm sighed.
She and Arnold then proceeded to muse aloud, each seemingly caught up in their own trains of thought, and not listening to the other.
“That went well,” Arnold said sarcastically. “But I already knew he wasn’t going to listen.”
Bookworm shook her head. “I pity him, and fear him, and feel impatient with him, all at the same time.”
“At least I had a chance to tell him that what lies beyond isn’t so great as he imagines.”
“It’s a temper tantrum of the highest order, frankly.”
“Though once you stop existing you really wouldn’t be capable of caring.”
“Life hasn’t treated him well, so now he wants to die, and take as many people with him as he can.”
At that, Arnold looked up at Bookworm. “If he wanted to kill you, I think here would have been fine. He believes what he’s saying.”
“He does… only because it justifies his actions. And killing me here wouldn’t be a grand-enough gesture.”
At that point, they both heard the sound of Gadget’s airship landing near the entrance to the alleyway, and they hurried out to meet them. “You two all right?” Bookworm asked.
Nat said, “Bit singed.”
“We tried to tail ‘im but ‘e fired some weird stuff at us,” said Gadget.
“Sounded like thunder and lightning,” added Nat.
Bookworm looked down the alleyway at the Van Creed building. “Well, I’ve tried one end of the problem. Shall I go for the other?”
((To be continued…))