Chapter Fifty-Four - Watering the Rails at night
I woke up and immediately started looking around for trouble.
Didn’t take long for my heart to settle, not when I saw Clin’s sock-covered feet just ahead of my face. I sighed and listened for a bit. The constant thump of the train engine, the chug of the rails shifting over the tracks... the sounds of two people having a good time muffled by the thin walls of our cabin.
Shifting so that my back was to Clin, I tried to return to sleep.
There was a mighty annoying problem though. I had to take a piss.
Grumbling, I shoved off the bed, then rubbed at my face.
“Are you alright?” came Clin’s sleep-addled voice.
“Need to piss.”
“Ah,” he said.
I looked for my boots and slipped them on, then I took them off and put them on the right feet. Still a little tired, I made sure my belt was on and my gun was holstered before I walked over to the door. “Be right back.”
The washroom was a cramped little cubicle, way off at the end of the cabins. There were two of them, marked by gender. I slid into one, locked the latch on the door, and did my business. The fact that the toilet was just a seat over a hole with the tracks going by beneath wasn’t optimal, but I lived with it.
There was a little window next to the toilet, just low enough that I could see out of it while I did my business.
There were lights out ahead, in the desert.
Looked like some mecha, maybe. Nomads? They never shied away from using light, even at night. But these were just a few glowing dots next to some dunes, and they flickered off almost as soon as I focused on them.
And then I heard the distant thump of an explosion.
It wasn’t the engine. I’d heard enough explosions to recognize the sound.
I had all of half a second to brace before the Sandpiercer’s brakes started to squeal.
I was thrown forward, and with my trousers caught at my ankles and my faculties addled by sleep, there wasn’t anything graceful about my fall. I used a few choice words to describe my situation, in case any errant gods were listening in.
The train started to move in a direction that wasn’t forward, which could only mean we’d come off the rails.
We stopped, wheels digging into sand with a familiar sort of shifting halt. The car wasn’t even with the ground anymore, but it wasn’t too far off.
I tugged my pants up and did up my belt before scrambling to my feet. The cabin was lit by a single tiny light, the sort fed by a sprinkling of core dust that warmed up an element. It was flickering.
Either the battery was knocked loose, or there was some heavy magical interference in the air. I was willing to bet it was the less favourable of the two options.
I stuck my head by the window and looked out.
A golden flash, in time with the crack-boom of a cannon firing and hitting. Something exploded out ahead.
A couple of fidiots with some old mechs trying to strike it rich by robbing the passengers? I heard a clunk from somewhere above and ahead, and by leaning to the side I could make out a gun-emplacement on the roof of the car ahead of ours. Two guns, in ranks sticking out of a glass dome. The sort of thing used to scare off animals and shoot down nosey sand-wyverns.
The guns opened up, twin tracers of green fire zipping across the night and impacting a dune before the gunner walked the shots over to the nearest mech partially hidden behind sand.
I swallowed dry.
It wasn’t a bandit, not unless the bandits around here had gotten their hands on new-looking gnomish warmechs, the same sort that had tracked Clin down some time ago.
The AA guns did nothing to the mech.
The return fire was a whole lot more effective.
I ducked down with a wince as a golden beam tore the roof and gun emplacement apart, the explosion shattering the glass of the window I was looking out of.
“Damnation,” I swore.
I had to get my gear, and Clin.
I could make out some small lights racing across the dunes, some of them already at the cars ahead. Soldiers, in groups of five.
Not an entire army, but at least some ten squads.
I didn’t know enough about gnomish doctrine to know how many mechs would be supporting that many foot soldiers.
I ran out of the washroom. Folk, at least a couple of them, were stepping out of their cabins. “What’s going on?” I heard someone ask.
“We’re under attack!” I screamed. “Bandits! It’s bandits!”
Explaining that there was a gnomish army out there would take time, and folk would try to run. Against some bandits though? I saw some of the tougher looking guys rushing back to their cabins and I heard the familiar sound of guns being loaded. Some of the people here were militia on their way back. They’d either rally or not, but either way, I was hoping for time.
I burst into the cabin Clin and I shared. “Get up.”
“Is something happening?” he asked. He was moving, but not nearly fast enough.
“Gnomes. I saw one mech, and about fifty infantry. They’re heading this way.”
As if to punctuate my words, the distant pop-pop of guns started from somewhere at the front of the train. Were they not going to hit from every direction at once?
Then again, did they need to?
“They derailed the train?” Clin asked. He was moving faster now, shoving his feet into his boots and scrambling for his coat.
“Yeah. Will they take prisoners?”
“No,” he said right away. “This was an act of war, or as close as you can get to one. No witnesses.”
“Then we’d best get out of here. Rusty’s at the back.”
“We’re taking the mech?”
“We’re not going to go off on foot,” I said. “Might as well surrender at that point.”
He nodded and tucked his hat on. “Right.”
Clin had left his shotgun in Rusty, and I’d left my rifle there too. No need for something like that on a train.
I regretted it now as I pulled out my revolver. “I’ve got six in the gun and six in my pockets,” I said. The rest of my ammunition was in my mech. Nice and safe and far from me.
“I’ve got three rounds,” Clin said. He wiggled his pitiful little handgun around.
I snorted. “Don’t miss.”
We exited into a corridor filled with uncertain people. No one had taken charge, no one was giving directions, and all of them were huddling around, waiting for the inevitable. It would just take one gnome with an explosive to subdue the entire damned carriage.
I shoved my way towards the back, Clin keeping up with me.
“Hey! Where are you going?”
I half-turned to see some guy wearing half a militia uniform looking my way.
“Stay here. We’re stronger together,” he said.
I snorted and kept on going. Maybe they’d serve as a break, slowing down the gnomes, but I doubted it.
Clin and I moved into the little airlock room at the back, and I reached up and smashed the handle of my gun against the light, plunging us in darkness.
“Thanks, I hate being able to see,” Clin said.
“The dark’s as much an advantage to us as it is a disadvantage,” I said. “Hope you have decent night vision.”
“Are we going to the other cars?”
It was a fair question. We could cross the train from the inside, with decent cover, or take our chances in the sand and in the open.
“We’ll use the cars as much as we can. If we get caught in one we won’t have any room to escape, but they’ll give us some cover.”
I nodded to him, then opened the door leading out while trying to be quiet about it. It was cold outside, the lack of sun showing. Cold and dark.
The pops of gunfire were louder, but also intermittent. The gnomes were being professional, or maybe they really weren’t meeting all that much resistance.
The door behind us slammed open, and I spun, revolver rising.
It was the old woman, the pervert we’d met yesterday. She was bleeding.
Behind her, at the other end of the car, I could make out the forms of people moving in, civilians, some injured, others not, and past them flashes of red light.
They were being chased.
“Let’s go!” I said. The last thing I wanted was to be caught in the press of the crowd before the gnomes came around to execute us.
“I wish I had a few more hours of sleep,” Clin complained.
“We can sleep when we’re both dead,” I hissed back.
These gnomes were really starting to irritate me.