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December 16 – Turned Away (Dark Aether)

It was, again, that time of night when the streets of New Babbage were empty of humans, when streetlights seem dimmed by the pressing darkness, when men and women sleep deepest.  But near the Van Creed building, there were figures moving in the shadows–one human, several felines.  They all paused nearby, and Felisa looked down at the assembled cats.

“That’s the building,” she said, pointing to it.  “Search around for every entrance you can find, including anything you think might work for me.”

The cats softly meowed or arched their whiskers forward in assent, and silently padded away.  Felisa watched them go.  They’d talked things through late Thursday morning, trying to determine a plan of action.  They had finally decided that the cats would scout the building thoroughly, looking for entrances they could use–rat holes and the like.  The best case would be if they found one large enough not only for themselves, but for the notebook.  In that case, they would go in, look for the right one (the one that carried both her scent and that of Gadget’s, which they’d picked up at the safe house), and bring it out to her.  If that didn’t work, then hopefully they could find something she herself could get through, so she could look for it herself.  If neither plan worked…well, then Lisa would have to try to convince Tepic to come with them the next night and try to open the door with his skills.

A long sleep through the afternoon and evening, and hunting by the cats in the time before midnight, was followed by their stealthy approach to this spot.  And so Felisa waited, hoping a way in would be found.

The moon had shifted a fair bit before the cats reassembled before her.  Softstone spoke up first.  “I think there’s a way you can get in.”  He waved his tail toward a pile of crates.  “If you can stack those high enough and climb them, there’s a ledge up above with windows above it.  One of those windows is loose–I think you might be able to open it.”

Lisa looked at the crates, then the building, dismay plain on her face.  “Is that the only way?” she asked.

“I’m afraid so,” her sister, Tealla, replied.  “There are several rat holes around, but they’re only large enough for us to get through.  The thing you want would never fit through them.”

Felisa sighed.  “This won’t be fast.  Or quiet.”

“We’ll keep watch for you,” Softstone said.  Felisa nodded and watched them scatter to their posts, while she softly crept to the crates.

The first two were empty, and relatively easy to slide through the snow to bring them next to the Van Creed building.  The third crate, though, was heavy–very heavy.  She squatted down and tugged at it, trying to get it to move.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”

Felisa squeaked at the voice, which came from the crate.  She abruptly let go, and fell backwards into the snow.  From that vantage, she saw the open slit in the side of the box, and the faint gleam of eyes peering through it.  She scrambled to her feet, seeing, out of the corners of her eyes, the cats disappearing into hiding places.

“Wait–I won’t hurt you.”  The top of the crate lifted up, and a woman stood up.  She was dressed in a grey uniform, with a black cloak draped around her shoulders, and her brown hair was braided and pinned up out of the way under a wool hat.  She stepped out of her hiding place, and held out a helpful hand to Felisa.  “My name is Bookworm Hienrichs,” she said.  “I’m part of the Militia.”

“Bookworm…”  The name sparked memories of the conversation the urchins had had when Gadget had disappeared.  “Tepic… Tepic said you could be trusted.”

“I’m flattered.”  Bookworm smiled, trying to put the girl at ease.  She hadn’t seen this urchin before, and wondered how long she’d been in New Babbage.  “Come, let’s move away a little,” she said, drawing the girl after her down the alleyway, until they were near the tunnel entrance.  Bookworm leaned against the wall and hunkered down a little, bringing her face more on a level with the girl’s.  “Now then–you want to sneak in there, don’t you?”

Felisa nodded, feeling miserable.  Caught before she could even get started!  She looked down at the ground, kicking her shoe a little.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Bookworm said.  “The Van Creed don’t seem to like the urchins much; I can’t imagine they’d be very happy if they found you.”

“But–but I *need* to,” Lisa softly burst out.  “They have something I–we need.”

“They do?”  Bookworm was puzzled for a moment, but then remembered what Gadget had told her in the hospital.  “Oh–do you mean Dr. Martel’s notebook?  The one the Van Creed took from Gadget?”

“You know about it?”  Bookworm was started when the girl raised her head sharply to ask that question, fear plain in her eyes.  She chose the words of her answer carefully.  “I know of its existence–Gadget told me that much.  He didn’t say how he got it, though.”  There–there was no mistaking the relaxing of the girl’s tense shoulders at that.  Did this girl somehow know more about Dr. Martel’s death?  Something else to follow up on–later.

“Look, you really should leave the city,” Bookworm said kindly, cautiously laying a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder.  “Whatever is going to happen, we think it will happen this afternoon.”

“So soon?”  Felisa was dismayed by that.  There would be no second chance to find the notebook now.

Bookworm nodded.  “It’s best to go now, before it gets…bad.  And I promise you, if I get the chance, I’ll look for the notebook.”  She met the girl’s wary gaze steadily.  “And if I find it, I promise I won’t look inside it.  I saw enough of Dr. Martel’s other notebooks to know what this one will look like on the outside.”

Lisa studied the woman’s face intently.  There didn’t seem to be anything other than truth in her face and voice, and Tepic had said she could be trusted… “All right,” she finally said.

“Good girl.”  Bookworm squeezed her shoulder, then stood up and reached for her small pack, rummaging inside it.  “Here–take this.”  She handed the girl a small bag that contained a few sandwiches and the last of the apples Bookworm had had at home.  “You’ll probably need it.”

“Thank you,” the girl replied solemnly.  Clutching the bag to her chest, she skittered away east.

Bookworm watched the girl go.  She had, indeed, been unable to sleep, so had come back to the Van Creed building, scouring the outside for anything that might be helpful.  She’d been investigating the stack of empty crates, hoping to find a clue to what they had contained–battle clank parts, perhaps?–when she’d heard the very, very soft footsteps approaching.  She hid inside the crate, peering through a gap between the boards.  At first, all she’d seen were a few cats nosing around the building.  Then, after a while, she heard a crate sliding over the snow, and caught a glimpse of a small human figure edging it into position next to the building.  It hadn’t taken Bookworm long to figure out what the girl was trying to do, and she decided it would be better to nip that plan in the bud.

‘Now what?’ she thought, looking back at the Van Creed building.  Should she continue her watch here?  She pursed her lips, looked at her watch, and shook her head.  It wasn’t long until dawn–best to go to Militia headquarters and wait for anything from Commodore Dagger.

——-

Felisa hurried on her way, knowing the cats had watched what had happened, and would soon catch up with her.  One by one, they joined her on her route.  “Will we try again later?” Tealla asked.

“No,” Felisa replied, shaking her head.  “We’ve less time than I realized, and no time to try again.  It’s time to leave this place to its fate.”  In grim silence, she led her feline family and friends out by the Palisade gate, and off to the northern countryside, as the eastern horizon began to lighten.

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