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Pulling a couple of hairpins from their hiding places, Bookworm silently knelt by the door and got to work on the lock. She blessed Tepic for his lessons as she poked and prodded, pausing whenever Marshal McKenzie's snoring temporarily diminished. As she did that, Mariah padded around quietly behind her, mounding up blankets and pillows on Bookworm's cot to make a semblance of a sleeping body.
Finally, Bookworm heard the satisfying 'snick' of the lock being tripped. She pulled the door open just enough to keep it from locking again, then removed her hairpins and stuck them back in her hair. Inch by inch, she pulled the door open further, holding her breath, hoping it wouldn't make any sounds. Thankfully, it was well-oiled, and swung open silently on its hinges. When it was just wide enough, she slipped outside, leaving Mariah to slowly swing the door nearly shut.
Step by careful step, Bookworm went down the hallway to the closed door. It wasn't locked, and she swung it slowly open, freezing at one point for several minutes when it creaked. When nothing happened, she let out a silent, trembling breath and inched it further open until she could slip through.
The staircase was dark, and she leaned forward, groping ahead until her hands encountered some risers. With hands and feet both, she crawled up the stairs, testing each one carefully for loose or noisy boards.
It seemed an age before her head finally poked up above the floor of the storage room. She could dimly see boxes, barrels, and other typical storage-room detritus scattered about. What caught her eye, and nearly made her cheer out loud, was that the window at the far end had no glass, and its shutters were thrown open to the warm August night. She didn't know yet how to work that to her advantage, but she was sure that somehow it would.
She made the long, slow crawl across the floor, keeping herself below the windowsill. When Bookworm finally reached the window, she raised up for a quick peek down, which told her the automaton guard was standing at the door, looking straight ahead with no apparent signs of alarm. With that established, she took a longer look around.
The nearly-full moon was overhead, which told her it was almost midnight. Its light flooded down, giving her helpful light to take in the surroundings. Though she could faintly hear mechanical clanking above the chirping of crickets, there didn't seem to be any other automata within sight. Feeling a bit reassured, Bookworm levered herself up onto her knees, resting her arms on the windowsill, staring down at the automaton.
She watched it silently while she could still see it clearly, until the moon slid behind the roof of the sheriff’s office. She frowned at the few times it snapped to alert at a nearby sound, which always turned out to be caused by a roving animal. The thing moved faster than she’d expected from a mechanical man. Though she couldn’t see a great deal from her perch directly above it, there was one thing that kept catching her attention. A rubber hose was attached to the automaton’s head, near the neck, and curved down into something that Bookworm guessed was a reservoir of fluid, though she couldn’t see it clearly. The reservoir and hose would be hidden from view from below by steel plates on the bottom and sides, but the top was open. 'Protected from attack below, but open above for easy access?' she thought. 'Could this, perchance, be your equivalent of the carotid artery, my mechanical friend?' What would happen if she were to
'Only one way to find out,' she decided, silently rising to her feet.
This couldn’t exactly be called an impulsive decision, as it took many minutes for her to ease herself up onto the windowsill, time in which she could second-, third-, or even fourth-guess herself. But she didn’t; she knew that any moves against Cavendish had to be made quickly, before he had time to think about what she might actually be, and she and Mariah and McKenzie had to be free to do that. Standing on the sill, she shifted her position slightly, took her diamond-tipped boot-heel blade in hand, took a silent, deep breath, and jumped.
She landed astride the automaton’s shoulders, in a move that would probably elicit winces from any men watching. Her left hand grabbed its head to steady herself, her right hand immediately driving into the rubber hose, slicing away at it, an oily liquid spilling from the cut. The automaton brought up one hand to grab her leg, the other to use the electric cane on her. Thankfully, quick as it was, the loss of the fluid had a quicker effect, and its movements halted before either attack truly reached her. Bookworm sighed with relief and scrambled down its frozen body, making for the door it had been guarding.
She ducked through the office, grabbing a key ring that was sitting on the desk, and went back into the cell room. Mariah immediately pulled open her cell door. "You found a way to disable them?"
"Yes," Bookworm replied, fiddling with the keys. "Come on, Marshal," she called. "Up and at ‘em!"
His snoring came to a stuttering stop. "Huh? Wha?" he mumbled.
Bookworm rattled the keys. "Wake up, Marshal. Which key unlocks your cell?"
That brought him awake and out of his cot. Bookworm handed him the key ring. He flipped through several, found the one he wanted, and unlocked the door. Pausing long enough in the main office to grab up several weapons, they all slipped out into the night, ready for the next step--freeing the townsfolk.
The patient voice finally roused Cavendish from sleep. "Oh, what is it?" he mumbled grumpily.
"Unusual occurrence," came the metallic voice of the chief automaton, which was linked to all the others--an innovation that allowed Cavendish to order his small army remotely. "Automaton 5 has shut down. Cause appears to be malfunction in galvanic fluid distribution system. Cause of malfunction unknown."
"That's the one guarding the sheriff's office, yes?"
Cavendish sighed. "Go inspect Automaton 5 yourself. If you can't fix it immediately, take it to the workshop and stand guard yourself, and I'll look it over in the morning."
"Yes, master." The main automaton left the bedroom.
Cavendish, though, couldn't get back to sleep. He was planning on splitting up the three occupants of the jail cells in the morning, sending the older woman to work with the rest, and the younger woman to join the hostages in the hotel. He hadn't thought there was any danger in one night spent in the same room--certainly, the conversation the guard automaton had overheard and broadcast to him hadn't sounded particularly dangerous. But to have that automaton suddenly malfunction...
Could he have been wrong?
((To be continued...))