Mariah Lanfier looked down at Bookworm Hienrichs, and sighed. Miss Book simply wasn’t recovering as she ought. Even now, after being given a healthy dose of sedative in her tea, she was still sleeping restlessly, tossing and turning. Mariah could understand that she was upset by what the automaton was writing, but where this drive to solve the mystery–a drive bordering on obsession–was coming from, she didn’t know.
Shaking her head, Mariah went to her own bedroom for the night. She was, for the most part, recovered from her own fight with influenza, but a lingering weakness made her glad to crawl into bed. She went to sleep, hoping that tomorrow would bring better news.
But her own sleep that night was troubled by an old, old dream. She was young–just a child–sitting with her mates at the Port, watching ships being loaded and unloaded, talking and laughing. Suddenly, one of the boys cried out, pointing to the west. They all turned, to see a glow of fire there, a glow that grew quickly…very quickly. Mariah gasped, scrambled off her perch, and ran off toward it. Her home was in the midst of that growing holocaust–where were her parents? Her younger brother?
It wasn’t long before she ran up against a crowd of people fleeing the fire. She seemed to fight for hours, against the sea of humanity moving against her, the few people trying to keep the fire from spreading, the fire itself. She fought to find a safe way back home, fought even to find the general area where her home *was*, in a city turned strange with smoke, with familiar landmarks reduced to hulking shells.
Finally, she found the row of houses that had included her home–completely destroyed by the fire. Calling again and again for her family, Mariah scrambled over the still-hot debris. In the area where her home had been, she saw two bodies, one large and one small. They were burned beyond recognition, but as she knelt down by them, the watch by the larger body, soot-covered but with its patterned decorations still recognizable, told her that the worst had happened.
Nearly blinded by tears, she turned her head away, only to see a third body lying nearby. The legs were terribly scorched, but through some vagary of the fire’s pattern, her torso and head were untouched. Her hand shaking, Mariah reached out to turn the body over…
And, for the first time in this decades-long recurring nightmare, she grasped the body’s shoulder and rolled it over. And saw, instead of her mother’s face, her own lean, lined, tanned face, lifeless eyes staring back into her own…
Mariah woke, gasping as if trying to clear her lungs of the remembered stench of burned houses…and burned bodies. Looking out the window, she saw it wasn’t long until dawn, so she rose, threw on a robe and slippers, and went downstairs to make herself some coffee. After one fortifying cup, she took herself and a refill upstairs for a quick look at Miss Bookworm, who seemed to finally have fallen into a deeper sleep.
Sighing, she went back downstairs and stirred up the fire in the living room, then sat down on the couch, staring into the flames abstractedly. ‘How will this end?’ she wondered. ‘And where will we be when that end comes?’