Mariah Lanfier hesitated at the door to Bookworm Hienrichs’ bedroom. For the past two weeks, Bookworm had been struggling with depression over a project that had not ended as she’d hoped, and a fear that she’d alienated her relationship with some New Babbage folks past repair. She’d been very withdrawn and uncommunicative since then, hardly stirring out of their house. Finally, Mariah knocked and, at a sound from Bookworm she interpreted as assent, she opened the door.
“Bookworm, how long are you going to immure yourself in here?” she asked. Silence answered her. “Come, let’s at least go for a walk.” More silence. “I’m not leaving here until you agree,” she finally said, taking the tack of parent with recalcitrant child. Thankfully, that worked–Bookworm grabbed a hat, jammed it on her head, and followed Mariah downstairs, still silent.
They went east, Mariah setting a brisk pace at first to get their blood warmed up. The exercise seemed to do Bookworm good; as they slowed their pace, Mariah started a brisk patter of talk about news and rumors to a friend who was showing more interest in such than she had in several days. She continued her one-sided banter as they passed the docks in Port Babbage, nearing the entrance to Clockhaven.
That was when the explosion roared across the bay, washing its sound over them. Unerringly, they both turned toward the sea, and saw the column of smoke rising–rising from what could only be one place.
Dr. Obolensky’s observatory.
With an exclamation of startlement, Bookworm took off running down the street, Mariah trying to catch up. Bookworm darted into the Militia headquarters, and even before Mariah could arrive, panting, at the door, she was back out, struggling to shrug some sort of contraption on her back. Mariah recognized it as the personal flying device Bookworm had received as a prize from Ms. Darlingmonster Ember, and she grabbed for Bookworm’s hands, which were fumbling with the straps. “Are you crazy?” she yelled. “You can’t go over there!”
“I have to know what happened!” Bookworm shouted over the growing commotion in the streets, as other New Babbagers rushed out. She darted south to the water’s edge and threw the machine into motion. Mariah watched, amazed. Bookworm had always been hesitant in her previous flights with it, but now she hurled herself upward with confidence and darted off across the water.
Mariah paced back and forth along the water, eyes constantly on the distant structure, smoke pouring out of its roof. As the minutes passed, even from where she was, she could see it grow more and more unstable, until finally, with an almighty crash that lagged slightly behind sight, the entire thing crumpled in on itself.
“If she’s alive, I’m going to kill her,” she muttered, scanning the horizon. Finally, a dark spot separated itself from the smoke and grew larger. Flying much more slowly than she had before, Bookworm descended to the ground in front of Mariah and switched off the machine’s engine.
“Well?” Mariah drawled impatiently.
“He was there,” Bookworm said hesitantly, face hidden as she shrugged the flying machine off her back. “I didn’t have time for more than a cursory examination, because of the fire. But I’m… sure… it was him.” She finally looked up, a dazed expression on her face. “He was dead. Shot through the heart.”
She continued through Mariah’s stunned silence. “And that explosion took out the entire complex, all at once. It can’t have been an accident.”
“I had recently heard that an old enemy of his was looking for revenge,” Mariah said thoughtfully. “But Dr. Obolensky must have heard that, too. How could he have been taken so off guard?”
“I just… I can’t believe it’s ended like this,” Bookworm said flatly, looking out across the water at the last curl of smoke. “What is a Heroine, even one in training, to do,” she said after a moment, mostly to herself, “when there are no more Villains?”
A few days later, Mariah looked at the back of Bookworm’s slumped head, concern clear in her eyes. If she’d thought Bookworm was withdrawn before, she was much worse now. She never left the house, not even to go out to the shed to work on her photographs. It seemed a chore for her just to get dressed. She didn’t even read with the same speed and verve as before. Mariah shook her head. Enough was enough.
“I think it’s time you went west again, Bookworm,” she said briskly, striding into the woman’s view. That pronouncement brought Book’s head up sharply, a startled look in her eyes.
“But I was just there, last month,” she said, bewildered.
“I know,” replied Mariah. “But how did you feel while you were out there?”
“Good,” Bookworm said a bit grudgingly. Then a softer look came to her face. “Very good. Oh, Mariah, the things we saw…”
“Mm-hmm. And how do you feel now?” The silence from her friend was reply enough. “You’re depressed, dejected, and discouraged,” Mariah continued, squatting down by the chair Bookworm was curled in, “with no duties or obligations to help mitigate that. You need to get away. So let’s go.”
“Us?” Bookworm gave Mariah another startled look. “You’ve never been more than five miles away from the sea–you’ve said so yourself. Many times.”
“So isn’t it about time I broadened my horizons?” Mariah sighed silently in relief at the chuckle that statement elicited from Bookworm. “Come on,” she continued, straightening up briskly. “Start packing your photographic equipment and planning our journey. I leave the itinerary in your capable hands. I’ll ask Mrs. Pritchard to start packing our clothing and supplies.” Heartened by the renewed signs of life and interest in Bookworm’s eyes, she went downstairs.
At the bottom, she hesitated, thinking about the long journey, and the miles and miles of shore-free land she was about to subject herself to. “The things I do for friendship,” she muttered, continuing on into the kitchen.