“You are vast, and you may be Progress, but even you must be bound by rules!” Beryl shouted as the Power Station rumbled around him. “You will free everyone, everything, here from yourself and leave! You do not have a choice!”
The machine let out a hiss that covered everyone in another batch of its steam breath. Beryl’s eyes watered but this time he did not back down. He stared at Progress in defiance, knowing that their contract was old magic that existed long before Human Progress, before even Evolutionary Progress.
It was obvious that the machine was struggling and the aether cables were even retreating from the walls, and they had even detached from Beatrixe Rouse allowing her to fall back to the relief of everyone. The wires were going back into Progress while it twisted about trying to fight something unseen. And then it hissed lowly, steam dripping from its ragged jaw like saliva from a mad dog, “If I must go, and I must free everything here then I shall free it from life, for without Progress there is no life!”
Switches around the room flipped simultaneously. Avariel gasped and threw Arnold back to Beryl as she ran to the controls for the aetheric entity. “The power is going wild! At this rate the Station is going to overload and take the entire city with it!”
“Is there any place we can go?” Bookworm asked and Avariel shook her head. Rance and the others were looking for an exit, but the doors would not budge.
Arnold growled and looked up at Beryl, “You know what? I don’t care anymore! If we’re all going to die anyways, I say we take Progress with us!”
Beryl shook his head and turned Arnold to face him, “Attacking it won’t change anything! We have to think of something else!”
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT MADE YOU THINK LIFE WAS WORTH LIVING, BUT I DON’T CARE! THROW ME AT PROGRESS!”
“But that’s-” Beryl stopped as he finally understood the last piece of the puzzle. Why Zaros had brought him Arnold’s head.
Beryl whispered quietly, solemnly into Arnold’s ear, “Then…this is goodbye, Arnold. Forever.”
Arnold stared forward, determined, his reply was just as quiet, “Nothing would make me happier.”
Beryl turned towards Progress which was still continuing to build its stolen power and he hurtled Arnold towards its open jaws. The cat let out a defiant shriek as he entered into steam coming from its maw and disappeared. There was a shriek of pain from within and gasps of shock from his friends-even Progress looked confused by what had just happened before it let out a dismayed mechanical roar.
The stolen energy from the entity wreaked havoc throughout its entire frame. Arnold had latched onto one of the thousands of wires inside Progress with his teeth and was acting as a conduit. While Progress thrashed about, hitting the walls and everything else, the doors were opened and Rance and the others found their escape, Erica and Bookworm carting Beatrixe to safety. Avariel found that the switches had been freed from as well as she moved to get the station back under her control.
Beryl moved back as parts of Progress showered down, crushing the floor beneath as Avariel worked. Beryl almost ran to her, but the falling debris forced him back. Rance took hold of him and pulled him back with the others as they left Avariel to her work.
The entire building shook as a small earthquake spread through the city, in the distance Beryl could hear buildings collapse, a part of him knowing that Bunny Tower and the Brewery were just a few of the victims of Progress’s final wrath.
“There!” Avariel shouted triumphantly as she threw a switch and ran back towards the others but was blocked by falling debris. Something large crashed into her, a large support beam now crushing her lopsided legs and trapping her.
A small eruption passed through Progress and he fell from the ceiling in a rain of parts and steam. The aether cables began to wither and turn dark brown until they appeared to be nothing more than dead vines, and the earthquake ceased its plague on this Babbage. Avariel’s head somehow sailed through the air and landed in Erica’s grasp, who promptly dropped it with a shriek, just as the body it had been attached to was crushed beneath hundreds of tons of metal.
The vastness that was Progress, the essence, retreated now that the body was nothing more than broken parts. Beryl and the others let out a sigh of relief, Erica going as far to let out a loud whoop of excitement as she hugged everyone. Beryl happily hugged her back, purring, and happy to have finished this nightmare.
Rance was also smiling, though he remained reserved as he spoke for the first time since Beryl had arrived, “What just happened here, old friend?”
“Arnold simply did what I would not,” Beryl said in a soft reply. Even now he knew that all he would find of Arnold now was ashes. Arnold had started to leech the energy from the moment he was inside, but that was not the whole story. If that machine had been Progress, then Arnold had been almost pure Stagnation. He was not only already dead, but every life changing or altering decision that had affected Arnold in the past-he had no recollection of, nor had he wanted to. Arnold, unlike Beryl, was the same cat he had been since the day he had first arrived in New Babbage. He had not grown or changed in any way.
He turned to Bookworm, Tepic, Erica, Beatrixe, Avariel, and even Rance slowly. He took in their faces and who they were and what they meant to him. These had never been Arnold’s friends. Arnold had never had any friends. That had always been me, slowly being born.
That changed things. That changed everything.