“In there?” Arnold asked, nodded at the Van Creed building. “Not much chance of convincing anyone of anything in there.”
“We’ll provide aerial cover, Miss,” Gadget said. “Be careful.”
Bookworm nodded at Gadget, marched boldly up to the door, and knocked. “Is anyone there?” she called. “This is Ms. Hienrichs of the New Babbage Militia. I wish to have a word with the person in charge.” She waited a few moments, hearing Arnold conversing with a newly-arrived Dr. Sonnerstein. Finally, the door opened, and a man with the Van Creed symbol pinned on his shirt stepped out. “Please leave,” he said shortly.
“Are you, perchance, Mr. Hopkins?” Bookworm asked.
“Please. This is private property,” he said.
“All I wish is a few moments of your time, sir, to talk.”
“Hmmm.” Mr. Hopkins looked at her keenly, but she waited patiently, keeping her expression pleasantly neutral.
“I will grant you a moment, but you must tell your flying companions to stop circling this building, or we shall shoot them down.”
Bookworm glanced back at Arnold and Dr. Sonnerstein, in time to see the latter grimace. “Call them down, will you please?” Dr. Sonnerstein nodded, and she mouthed silently at them, “And stay here.”
“Please be quick,” Mr. Hopkins added. “The cannons are already following their movements.”
“Gadget, come down here, please!” shouted Dr. Sonnerstein.
Without waiting to see if the call was successful, Mr. Hopkins gestured toward the door. “Please follow me, Miss Hienrichs.”
She followed him down the hall and into the main room. Her eyes widened at the sight of the built Aether Pump, and she nearly checked her stride, but Mr. Hopkins continued on to one of the staircases, and she had to hurry to follow him. Upstairs, the rebuilt Porta Terrarum sat waiting. Mr. Hopkins hurried past it, and opened the door to one of the offices. Bookworm followed him inside.
“Right. How can I help you?” he asked curtly.
“There are several things I would like to understand–“
“Can I first mention,” he interrupted, “that it is rare for anyone to be allowed in on Van Creed activity, so do not be surprised if I refuse to answer any of your questions.”
Bookworm smiled wryly. “I would have been more surprised if you hadn’t, frankly.” She took a breath and asked, “Would you be willing to discuss your organization’s current relationship with Mr. Jason Moriarty?”
‘Figures,’ she thought. ‘But I notice he doesn’t deny there *is* one…’
“Well, then,” she said aloud. “Are you aware of the existence of a writing automaton that came to the city two months ago?”
“Yes, we are aware of that,” he replied, “and we are aware of the town’s rather irrational response to it.”
“You do not believe that what it is writing could happen, then?”
“Madam, it is an automaton. Entertainers and magicians have been constructing such things for a while now, and their job is to amaze and cause illusions of disbelief.”
“Yet it has accurately described the machines that appeared throughout town–the large machines, and the crab machines that come from them. How do you account for that?”
“We do not believe the two are connected,” Mr. Hopkins replied grandly. “Someone in this town is playing to the town’s fear, and writing the book as things unfold. In the meantime, the Machines have a different origin.”
“Which is what?”
“We believe they are merely spyglasses from the other Aether world.”
“Rather…violent spyglasses,” Bookworm said wryly. “And for whom, or what, would they be spying?”
“As we peer into the Aether, they on the other side peer back at our world, perhaps for the same reason we are looking into the Aether.”
Bookworm leaned forward, resting her hands on the table. Could this be her chance to convince them that, even if their view was right, there was still danger? “All right, then,” she said. “Assume that you are right, and we are wrong.”
“Yes, you are wrong,” he interjected.
“These “spyglasses” are violent. They *do* attack people.”
“You speak of the crab-like creatures. From what we can tell, they are a parasitic life form from the Aether that hitch a ride on the canisters.” He shook his head impatiently. “Look, you have to put this in perspective. We are at a moment in time comparable with the discoveries of new continents, with new possibilities, new materials, new frontiers–the expansion of progress. The City that gets there first will have the biggest part to play in the future of mankind.”
“But what you are risking is comparable to Columbus bringing back an unkillable creature that proceeds to wipe out Spain. Rather self-defeating, that.”
“Standing back and taking no risks is not how progress achieves greatness, my dear. There is risk in all things.”
“There are acceptable risks, and there are unacceptable risks,” Bookworm said as intently as she could, trying to somehow break through his stubborn front.
Again, you must tune your perspective, young woman,” Mr. Hopkins said archly. “The industrial age sees many put at risk for the prize of leading innovation and progress. Children in the cotton mills die each year by the machines they use. Miners die by hundreds as they dig for the materials needed to motivate the machinery.”
“But innovation and progress do no good if there is no one left alive to benefit by them.”
“You have been reading too many automaton books,” Mr. Hopkins said dismissively. “Now, if you don’t mind, I would like you to leave. I have answered enough of your questions.”
Bookworm sighed. “I am sorry to find you so resolute. I will just say this: Moriarty plans to kill us. And you will not be immune to it.”
“We are aware of Moriarty’s mental attitude,” he replied. “But I have already stated we will not discuss the man.” He gestured firmly toward the door, and Bookworm followed him out and down the stairs. She paused a moment at the bottom, looking at the machine, then glanced back at Mr. Hopkins.
“She’s a magnificent machine, yes?” he said proudly.
“In a way,” Bookworm replied. Then she muttered under her breath, “As the tiger is magnificent even as it tears out your throat.”
“She will become the symbol of Babbage’s new dominance in industry, once we start her up in a month’s time.”
Bookworm’s ears pricked up at that, but she said nothing as she followed Mr. Hopkins to the door. He followed her out, glancing at the others waiting below. “We would prefer it if you told the urchins not to play around here. It is dangerous.” Bookworm nodded noncommittally. “I bid you good evening,” he said, going back inside and shutting the door firmly.
“Didn’t work, then,” Arnold said.
“No,” Bookworm replied. She walked a bit further away from the entrance.
“It’s not like you could expect anything else,” Arnold continued, following her. “Moriarty’s master that he keeps talking about is right there, practically. There was no way you’d be able to sway him in there.”
She sighed, knowing the truth of his words, and paused, leaning against the wall.
“Are you feeling well, though, Miss Hienrichs?” he asked.
“I was starting to worry…” Dr. Sonnerstein added.
Bookworm nodded. “I…had something of my own breakthrough a few days ago.” She smiled as Dr. Sonnerstein tilted his head, a questioning look on his face. “Nothing much, but enough that keeping it in mind keeps the Dark Aether more at bay.”
Gadget and Nat had landed by this time. Bookworm looked around. “Should we…go someplace to talk? Someplace warmer?”
The two urchins said they had their own work to do, but Dr. Sonnerstein and Arnold followed her to the Bucket. As she’d said, it was unlikely that anyone would look for her there, and she wanted to be sure they weren’t interrupted.
They found the bar was nearly empty, which gave them plenty of choices for seats out of earshot. “We already knew he wasn’t going to change his mind,” Arnold said as they sat down around a table. “I do have to ask what justifications he tried to give. That’s the only thing I don’t know… his excuses.”
“They don’t believe the writer automaton, and they don’t believe the crab creatures are a danger,” Bookworm said bluntly.
Arnold rolled his eyes. “Of course.”
“They think someone is using the automaton to scare us,” she continued, “and that the canister machines are spyglasses from whatever is in the Dark Aether side of existence, spying on us as they are spying over there. He wouldn’t discuss the Van Creed’s relationship with Moriarty, though he didn’t deny there was one. And he said they were aware of Moriarty’s ‘mental state.'”
Arnold nodded, and Dr. Sonnerstein sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “And he probably thinks their course of action and belief is perfectly rational…”
Bookworm nodded. “They’re too focused on their progress and innovation to see the risk involved.”
“Well, when you stop to think about it, their assumption is rather logical. We’re all the ones on the insane path, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one.”
“So,” Arnold said. “We have had three meetings with three different people today who weren’t willing to listen to us, Miss Hienrichs. Wonderful.”
“Three?” asked Dr. Sonnerstein. “What was the third?”
Arnold told Dr. Sonnerstein about their earlier conversation with Mr. Canergak, and his plans to destroy New Babbage if they lost to the Dark Aether. Dr. Sonnerstein gritted his teeth as Arnold finished. “If we fail to stop the Dark Aether from invading the city, it isn’t necessarily the end.”
Bookworm suddenly interrupted, realizing there was one thing from her last conversation that she hadn’t mentioned to them yet. “There is one thing Mr. Hopkins let fall, though, that was very interesting. He said they plan to start the machine in a *month.*”
Arnold said, “Time has changed; it might be as ready as it would have been before. But more likely we set off an explosion there during the attack, which made a giant hole and breech with their machinery.”
“Or does Moriarty do something?” Bookworm said firmly.
“Or else something from the other side decides to make its move,” Dr. Sonnerstein suggested.
Arnold shrugged. “I find it more likely we originally doomed ourselves during that attack on them. It’s the Babbage way.”
Bookworm coughed, trying to hide the unpleasant surprise that idea was. And yet, was it really that much of a surprise, considering how quickly her mind had turned to self-fulfilling oracles when the Writer automaton had first appeared?
“Plus, using the confusion of a battle to make us meet our own deaths… very appropriate,” Arnold continued. “It’s probably laughing at us for that.”
“I dearly wish I could have reasoned with Moriarty, though,” Dr. Sonnerstein mused. “It didn’t have to turn out this way for him.”
“Yes, it did,” Arnold said grimly, “the minute he stopped fighting it. It was beyond reproach or doubt for him, even when I told him of my own choice. For him, me choosing to exist was me making a mistake.”
Dr. Sonnerstein’s ears flicked back. “You know damn well what I mean, Arnold. He’s lost, but it didn’t have to be like that. He still could turn back if he just chose to–“
“Ahh, but there is no choice in life, is there?” Bookworm rolled her eyes, her voice replete with sarcasm.
Dr. Sonnerstein smirked. “There’s always a choice, even if you don’t see it.” Bookworm nodded her agreement.
“Well,” Bookworm said after a moment’s silence. “There’s much to think on, and not much time to do it.” She stood up. “Good night.”
She left them in quiet conversation, and walked slowly toward home, thinking over the three fruitless conversations. Suddenly, she realized something, something that brought her up short for a moment–she’d seen no signs of any battle clanks inside the Van Creed building. Certainly a few could have been hidden, based on what she knew of the building, but the book seemed to indicate there would be many more than that. So where were they?
‘Either they are there, and it’s easier to hide them than I thought,’ she mused, ‘or they’re bringing them in between now and tomorrow afternoon. Or they won’t be there at all.’ But which possibility was the right one? She hated to consider that the Van Creed would be bringing them now, because that would indicate…
‘That would indicate,’ she thought grimly, ‘that my visit precipitated that action. Even though I was as diplomatic and non-threatening as I could possibly be.’
Worry sped her steps home, where she found a message from Miss Falcon, asking that she come, if she could, to the Clockhaven Power station at 1:00 tomorrow. ‘She must have something in mind,’ Bookworm thought. ‘But what?’ She set the note aside and went upstairs to her bedroom, wondering if it was worth even trying to go to sleep.