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The Gamble

Beryl growled, joining a chorus of protests from everyone, from Bookworm to the Professor, as Progress tormented Beatrixe Rouse.  Tepic shouted in a horrified rage about the promise, but none of their words moved the heartless machine as it continued to slowly kill Beatrixe.

What Beryl could not understand was why, if Progress was going to force Beryl to upgrade anyways, was it trying to make him agree willingly.  What difference did it make?  Beryl looked around the room for help from the others, but Bookworm and the others looked as angry and lost as Beryl felt.  His eyes rested on Tepic for a moment, still wearing his hat with the P on it instead of his own hat and he remembered something he had told Arnold.

“You need me to accept you.” Beryl said aloud, turning back to Progress which lowered itself to stare at him and blow its steam into Beryl’s face. “It comes down to choice.  It always comes down to choice here.  You can capture and you can kill, but you can not force obedience from anyone.”  Beryl looked at Avariel, who still struggled with the Steam Hare’s arm that was locked in a salute.  “Even some clockworks resist your complete control.”

Progress let out another terrible whistle as it blew hot steam at Beryl, making him cough, but he would not be deterred now.  “You can kill Beatrixe, but that will never make me accept you.  It will only drive me and others away.”

Progress did not relent Beatrixe’s torment, and try as she might Erica could not cut the power.  The wires were attached to Progress itself.

Beryl thought back to his time spent here and what he could use to change the bargain that Progress wanted to make.  He did not want to become like Tepic : gaunt, green, a slave to the will of others.  He knew it would happen, he could still feel a small connection to Sanderson even now. 

Beryl brightened slightly as he realized another way, “How about…a game.”  Before Progress could respond Beryl added, “If you win, I will serve Progress forever.  You will not even need to upgrade me.”

“No!!”  Bookworm and the others shouted, “Beryl!”

The switch flipped and Beatrixe Rouse relaxed finally in her bed.  Her fur smelled singed, and she was cringing, but she was still alive as Erica tried to calm her down, soon assisted by the other prisoners.  The guards had all backed away along with PJ from Progress’s wrath.

“What is the game?”

Beryl had not considered that far yet and looked to his friends again, crowded around Beatrixe and trying to comfort her, sparing him a glance now pleading with him not to continue.  He turned to Avariel who had finally removed her other arm in order to free herself.  Arnold was back in her other arm, and stared at Beryl with teal eyes that said that even he knew what game they should propose.

“I’ll ask you a riddle,” Beryl said.  “Just one question, and if you can answer it I will serve you forever.”  Beryl paused for just a moment to make sure he had Progress’s attention. “But if you cannot then you will free everything here from yourself and leave this place.”

“You wish to test my intelligence against your own?”  Aether cables descended from the ceiling, growing larger as they attached themselves to the walls and broke through the stone.   “You do this knowing there is no answer that I cannot find?”

“Do you accept?”  Beryl asked insistently. 

“Your proposal is acceptable.” Progress inched forward, its teeth inches away from Beryl, Avariel, and Arnold. 

“Then we have a contract,” Arnold extended his hand slowly, then looked at the steam billowing over the jagged teeth of Progress. “Shall we shake, or should I do so with your man, PJ?“

  “That is not necessary. The contract is formed, familiar.  Ask your riddle.”

  “I am that which Progress will never understand.”

  Progress blinked its single eye as steam dribbled out its jaws.  “What was that you said, familiar?”

  “I am the one thing that Progress will never understand, what am I?!” Beryl repeated with a shout so Progress and everyone was sure to hear him. “That is the riddle.”

  “There is no such thing!”  Progress bellowed confidently as it rose and the building shook as aether cables constricted against the walls.  “There is nothing that I can not discover, nor that I will never be able to comprehend!”

  “You’re mistaken!  It is the thing inside all of us that allows us to resist you, Progress!” Beryl shouted as the building shook even more as Progress constricted the aether cables running through the foundations even more. “And you do not know what it is!  It is the thing that allowed Tepic to fight when he saw what you were doing to Beatrixe!  What is it, what is the one thing in us, in Avariel even, that prevents you from controlling us?!  This is your last chance!”

  Progress let out a billow of steam on everyone as the building shook and stones from the ceiling fell as it came loose.  Philips’ men ran out a rear door to escape, the man himself only slightly behind them. Tepic tried to use his tiny frame to shield Beatrixe and shouted that Progress could not have her while Bookworm tried to get Erica and the Professor to help her get Beatrixe out of the room.

  “We had a contract!” Beryl cried in defiance as he stood with Avariel and Arnold against the wrath of the machine.  “You failed to answer the question!  Release Beatrixe!  Release the city from your cables!  Release the aetheric entity that you’ve attached yourself to and begone!!”

  “I am Progress.” The machine sparked angrily and the switches in the room began to turn on and off repeatedly. Beatrixe went into a cycle of seizures as Bookworm and the others were forced to retreat or join her.  “ And Progress does not heed the wishes of others. I never stop.”

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