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Bookworm drifted quietly up the steps to the hotel’s front door. She wasn’t exactly happy making a frontal assault, but it really was the quickest way to the staircase, and time was of the essence now. She entered the front room, dark except for one lantern burning by the stairs. Still, she could just make out the exposed beams in the ceiling, a feature she remembered enjoying when she’d last been here.
She crept to the front desk, groping in a drawer where, according to Deputy Allen, Mabel Gustafson kept a weapon. Pulling out the small revolver, she grimaced, but tucked it in her belt anyway. It was better than nothing.
One slow step at a time, she made her way upward. The second-floor hallway showed itself as dark as the bottom floor as she passed its entrance. As she ascended the next flight, though, and especially as she neared the 180-degree turn that would lead the stairs up to the third-floor hallway, she saw bright light spilling down. There didn’t appear to be any way for her to look up the staircase without revealing herself. But she needed to know what was above her. Taking a breath, she darted her head around the corner, craning her neck upward, and withdrew it.
It was a bare second that she exposed herself to sight, but it was enough. She’d seen the automaton waiting at the top–and it had seen her. “Unknown person on stairs,” came its unstressed, metallic voice, “approach unarmed, or hostage will be killed.”
Bookworm cursed silently, and stepped out of hiding, hands high in the air, still holding the revolver, though not at the ready. She slowly mounted the stairs. At the top, she squatted down and placed the revolver on the floor, then straightened up and kicked it away a little. The automaton had retreated a little down the hallway. One of its hands was firmly clamped around the arm of a woman about Bookworm’s age; it was Sandy Perkins, whom Bookworm remembered from her last visit. The automaton held an electric cane in its other hand, positioned only inches from Sandy’s tensed body.
“Identity confirmed,” the automaton intoned. “One of the two women captured ten hours ago.” It paused. “Where is the other?”
Bookworm thought she caught a flicker of movement well behind the automaton, a flicker that seemed familiar. “Oh, she’s probably outside helping the others disable your cohorts,” she replied casually.
As the cavalry troop thundered into town, a male figure stepped forward to intercept them. Lieutenant Richards reined in. “Who are you?”
“Marshal McKenzie,” the man replied, showing a badge. Richards relaxed marginally. “What’s the situation here?”
McKenzie tersely summarized what had happened in Clarkton for the past ten days, and that they were making their bid for freedom now. He described the automata, and their one weakness. “The hose is up too high for us to reach easily, though,” he concluded, looking up at the lieutenant.
A dawning realization crossed McKenzie’s face, matched by the lieutenant. Richards looked around, and spied an automaton nearby, in the middle of the street. It was surrounded by townsfolk, who were trying to herd it toward something tall that one of them could climb, but the automaton stubbornly resisted, keeping them at bay with its electric cane.
Richards drew his cavalry sabre and spurred his horse toward the automaton. Even as the automaton kept busy with the townsfolk in front of it, Richards came up behind, quickly spying the hose McKenzie had described, and easily slashed it open with the sabre. Within seconds, the automaton slowed, then stopped.
“All right, men,” Richards called over his shoulder. “You saw what we need to do. Let’s finish off this problem!” With a roar of fierce agreement, the rest of the cavalry troop rode out, splitting up to find the rest of the automata.
McKenzie, watching them with a look of grim approval, heard his name being called, and turned to see Deputy Allen running up. Allen told him the noncombatants had been safely sent off, and that Miss Hienrichs and Captain Lanfier had gone to the hotel to get the hostages.
“You help out here,” McKenzie said. “I’m going to the hotel myself.” Leaving no time for Allen to protest, he took off down the street.
The flicker of movement had disappeared, but Bookworm kept her attention fixed on the automaton, guessing that it would be back. At all costs it mustn’t think there was anything going on behind it.
“Hostilities must cease immediately,” the automaton said.
“With your surrender? I accept,” Bookworm replied a bit facetiously. If she could just keep it talking…
“Negative. Townspeople must cease hostilities, or hostages will be killed.”
“I see.” The flicker of movement was back, and now Bookworm clearly saw Mariah standing down the hallway, looking as if she was gathering herself for some move. “And how are we supposed to get that word to them?”
As if in answer to Bookworm’s question, she heard footsteps running up the stairs. She turned, hoping to wave whoever it was away, but it was too late. “Unknown person on stairs, approach unarmed, or hostage will be killed,” intoned the automaton.
Marshal McKenzie, his face expressing his chagrin, came into Bookworm’s view. She was still facing away from the automaton, so she mouthed silently at him, “Keep focused on the automaton.” He nodded once, though his eyes showed his puzzlement, as he climbed the last flight of stairs. Bookworm turned back around, and nearly allowed her astonishment to show as she now saw Mariah hanging by her hands from one of the exposed beams.
“Sandy,” the Marshal said, his tone deceptively even. “Are you all right?”
“I am, Brian,” Sandy replied, fear plain in her voice.
“Identity confirmed,” said the automaton. “Marshal McKenzie.”
“Look,” Bookworm said. “You have the marshal. You have me. Let her go. She can tell the rest to stop fighting.” She steadfastly ignored Mariah’s gymnastic display behind it.
“Negative. The marshal has authority in the town. He will tell the rest to cease hostilities. The two women will stay here. You will step forward.”
Bookworm moved slowly toward the automaton, holding her breath.
Mariah hadn’t spent much of her life on board ships without learning how to climb just about anything. She found her own route up the exterior of the hotel, reaching a balcony that ran along the third floor. She’d hoped to get the hostages out that way, but the exterior doors and windows weren’t just locked, but boarded up. There was a smaller window at the end of the balcony that was open, though, and she quickly slipped through that.
A short passageway led to the brightly-lit main hall. Mariah could hear voices at the farther end, and she risked a quick peek around the corner. She saw an automaton standing there, and beyond it, Bookworm, standing with her hands in the air.
‘Oh, damn,’ Mariah thought. How would she be able to reach and cut the hose to disable the thing? Another look at the hallway showed her the exposed beams running straight above, under the peaked roof. The automaton was standing just on front of one of them. Suddenly, an idea took hold, and Mariah ducked back into the passageway and through the window.
Out on the balcony, she removed her jacket and everything that might make noise. She took off her boots, too, retrieving her own diamond-tipped blade from one of the heels before leaving them on the pile. Then she reentered the hotel and silently stepped into the hall, clenching the blade in her teeth. The automaton was still focused on Bookworm, and it sounded as if she was doing her best to keep it that way. ‘I hope this works,’ Mariah thought as she gathered her strength and crouched down a little. Then she flung herself up in a tremendous leap, reaching up for the beam above her head.
It was a close thing, but she managed to grab onto the beam and hang on. Looking down the hall, she saw the automaton still focused forward–and saw that the marshal was with Bookworm now. Wasting no time, Mariah shifted her grip on the beam to the side nearer the automaton, then let go her left hand and began swinging. When she judged her momentum was enough, she swung through the air and grabbed the next beam with her left hand, bringing her right hand over to the other side of the beam.
She continued her acrobatic progress until she reached the beam just behind the automaton. Once there, she bent herself up and hooked her legs over the beam, letting her arms fall free. She bent up at the waist, and found herself with a perfect view of the automaton’s weak spot. Without even touching the automaton, she sliced her blade through the hose.
“Mal–mal-func–” That was all the automaton had time for before the loss of oil stopped its functioning. Marshal McKenzie leaped forward, grabbing for Sandy, and prying apart the automaton’s hand just enough to get her arm out.
“Oh, Brian,” Sandy said, letting herself be comforted in his arms. “Thank goodness!”
“Thank you, Captain Lanfier,” McKenzie said as Mariah dropped to the floor. “Now what?” he continued, looking at Bookworm.
Bookworm spied a ring of keys hanging from a hook at the automaton’s waist. She grabbed them up and tossed them to Mariah. “Get the rest of them out of here, please.”
“What about you?” McKenzie asked.
Bookworm had retrieved the revolver from where she’d set it, and now wrenched the electrical cane from the grip of the motionless automaton. “It’s time I gave Cavendish a shock of his own.” She raised the cane in a salute, and ran silently down the hall.
((To be continued…))