Finding a place to scale the wall safely had been difficult. Beryl was starting to think that there was no part of the city that was free of the vine wires, but he eventually made it over.
Beryl was surprised to find that the other side was not littered with frayed filaments. While other structures had been brought down by the colorful cables, this structure seemed to have been improved. Popplefot’s factory was more imposing than he remembered and he saw no evidence of the cables being un-orderly. The building radiated a sense of growth as he turned to stare up at the chimney that already towered higher than even the Piermont Landing.
He had angled his head so far upwards that Tepic’s hat fell off. Beryl retrieved it with a small sigh and then went along the wall to get Arnold back. He had started to take a look at every step before he took it, but then he realized that he didn’t need to do that within the walls of the factory.
When Beryl finally got back to Arnold, the cat-head whispered conspiratorially, so that if the Dobermans were nearby they wouldn’t hear, “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t want to go inside and get cornered.” He didn’t know how much the place could have changed in his own Babbage since he had apparently been here since February. He did not want to see what it was like now. “We’ll wait at the corner of the building and at night make our way to the Imperial Theater.”
Arnold didn’t have any objection so they made their way to the corner of the building. Beryl laid down, their limbs sprawled to the side while he had Arnold turned the other way to watch his back.
Nobody went in or out of the building, though Beryl could see the front gate clearly and from time to time could see the Dobermans speed past on their disturbing steam-cycles. He had still failed to see them close up, but something about them unnerved Beryl.
The clock from the City Hall rang out every hour, keeping Beryl sure of the time. It seemed to go by so quickly now, minutes seemed to be hours, until finally the clock struck two.
Beryl didn’t have any thought that this hour would be any different than the others and was surprised when the doors of the factory opened and out came a small child walking very weakly away from the building towards the gate. Their head was down, back slumped, and they were perilously thin and wrinkled. Their skin seemed more like a withered old man’s than a boy’s…
Beryl could barely contain his shock as he realized who was about to shuffle through the gates, “Tepic?”
The young fox would have normally jumped at hearing his name whispered like that, but he only turned very slowly and raised his head towards Beryl. His face looked old, older and more wrinkled than even Mumsy, and he was wearing a different hat, engraved with a P.
“Hello.” Tepic sounded like an old smoker when he spoke and his eyes looked dead, as if he had forgotten what it meant to smile or laugh. “Can I help you?”
He wasn’t acting as if he recognized Beryl at all, “Tepic, what are you doing here?”
“I am working, of course.” Tepic spoke without any of his contractions or mannerisms. Was this really Tepic at all? “Everyone works in the factories. It is a good place to be. Popplefot is a decent fellow who feeds us and treats us well. No one is starving or dying on the streets anymore.”
Beryl couldn’t believe it, “You abandoned your camp… You let it mildew and rot… to go to work in a factory? You?!”
“It is better for us to be working. Everyone knows it.”
“What happened to you Tepic? Why is the city covered in broken wires? What is happening to the city?!”
“Nothing is out of place. Those cables are a good thing so long as you don’t touch them before they close up. When they’re done, this city will prosper.” Tepic’s monotone and lifeless eyes reminded Beryl more of a doll than the Tepic he knew. Some part of him had seen this Tepic before, but that had been in his nightmares.
The nightmares where the Dobermans were running over the streets of New Babbage as they were now. Could it be that many of his dreams just before he had fallen had been warning him of the dangers he would face when he came here?
“I have to go now. The voles. The voles need me…” Tepic said, and briefly, very briefly, Tepic’s eyes had a hint of life.
“Tepic, I need your help too…” Beryl said, trying to grasp the urchin’s desire to help people to bring him out of his stupor.
“Yer… need… me?”
“Yes, Tepic. I need you.” Beryl turned towards the gates. No one was watching, so he strolled out on all fours to sit in front of Tepic, looking up at him despite Tepics hunched nature, “Bad people are looking for me. I have to get away from them.”
For a moment it seemed like the color was coming back to his cheeks, but then a loud whistle sounded and Beryl jumped. Tepic performed an action by reflex and then stopped. He started to turn, muttering to himself, “The voles… the voles need me… gotta take care of the voles…”
Beryl’s soul cringed to watch his friend come back for a moment and then retreat, but he still had one thing left to try. He took off Tepic’s cap and held it out to his young friend. “Tepic, I think this belongs to you.”
Tepic turned once again and looked at his hat. Something about it seemed to spark something inside the beleaguered urchin. Warmth filled his soot-blackened cheeks and the wrinkles began to fade as he started to reach for his precious headgear. Something told Beryl that all Tepic needed to do was choose his own hat over Popplefot’s and he would be freed.
“But…I can’t take it now…she needs me.” The light and youth drained from him, leaving him older and more wrinkled than before. “It is all right. This is all in the name of Progress.” He walked away, head bent down towards the ground.