Chapter Fifty-Nine - A Long Chat in a Quiet Desert
The last of the gnomish mechs did the smart thing and ran off.
Something about seeing its twin get crushed by the Sandpiercer while the train engine chased both mechs down and ignored any return fire must have drilled the consequences of attacking something an order of magnitude heavier into the mind of the pilot.
The gnome infantry broke too. Not in a large group, but piecemeal. Every squad removed, injured, or killed, reduced the pressure on the passengers and engineers, and with that pressure gone, people suddenly found themselves feeling a little braver.
By the time I walked Rusty over to the passenger cars, the gnomes had consolidated in one car, using it as a rallying point and cover from which to attack the others.
That was, until I got tired of it all, stomped over to the car, and tore a chunk of the side apart.
It was nothing but a thin layer of tin. Enough to keep the sand out, but not much more than that. Rusty was more than strong enough to open it like a tin can in the jaws of a hungry sandwyrm.
There was a bit of fire from the gnomes within, until I pulled Rusty’s revolver out and pointed it at the lot of them, then gestured to the ground.
The fighting, at least for the moment, was over.
Some thirty dead gnomes, with maybe twenty captured. Five gnomish mecha taken out, and one running off into the distance with no one willing to run after it.
I thought those were some pretty decent numbers until I came around the back of the train and found where they were laying out the dead.
The engineers, some half-dozen of them, and a few of the braver passengers, had taken charge of things.
I I figured it was the engineers who were laying out the dead. The rows were neat and orderly. Ten rows, seven bodies in all but the last.
“How many passengers were there?” I asked.
Clin shifted behind me. “I hardly counted. But, three sleeper cars, each with ten rooms per side. That’s sixty rooms total. Some had two people in them, I assume others had more. But there had to be a few that only had one passenger, or that were entirely empty for this trip. I would guess about sixty passengers minimum, with twice that many maximum.”
“And how many engineers?” I asked.
“For a train of this size? I wouldn’t want to be working on it without at least five others, minimum. And that’s in the engine alone. So a dozen for the engine, six per shift. Perhaps a dozen more across the train.”
“Oh,” I said.
I could make out some hats placed over the bodies, many of them were the flat-topped grey caps the engineers wore.
“There were some train staff too. Cooks, waiters. Not too many, mind.”
“And there was a car with some militia in it,” I said. Three bodies in the last row wore those familiar grey-blue uniforms.
“Why are you doing the reaper’s math?” Clin asked.
“Because I have nothing better to do than stoke my anger,” I said.
I walked Rusty past all the bodies and closer to a mixed group standing near them. There were some people near the dead, crying while kneeling over someone they must have cared about. I tried to be as quiet as I could, out of politeness if nothing else.
The group parted ways as Rusty came next to them. I brought the mech down to one knee, foot digging into the sand as I repositioned us to be lower. I didn’t want to disconnect from Rusty, but I figured I didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted a civil sort of conversation.
I waited just a moment for the disorientation to pass after I shut most of Rusty’s systems down, then I pushed the cabin door open and I leaped down a metre or so to the ground.
There were three groups, I noticed right away. Or maybe calling them camps would be more accurate. We were all in this together, in a way. “Hey,” I said.
“Hello,” one of them replied. A kobold, of all things. Shorter, his fur matted down by soot and oil, and his engineer’s hat crooked between his ears.
I nodded to him, then took in the other two groups. They had their own leaders, it seemed. A man with some lieutenant's pipes on his chest from the Dreggar militia who was standing tall and proud—couldn’t be older than his mid twenties—and one big looking man that looked to have the civilians rallying behind him. A tough looking bastard, with a close-trimmed beard flecked with white.
“Where did you come from?” the militia man asked.
He gestured to Rusty. “Your mech, you, where did you come from?”
“The mech was in the rear of the train,” the kobold said. “I supervised its loading.”
“You stole it?” the lieutenant asked.
I glared at him. “That’s Rusty. My mech. It’s been mine for longer than you’ve had hair on your chin. I rushed back to get him when things got hairy. I can kill gnomes all day and all night, but I get more of them dead when in my mech.”
The lieutenant nodded. “We’re requisitioning the mech,” he said.
I blinked, then looked behind him at the two soldiers stationed at his flanks. One looked young, with an obvious injury of some sort, but one that had been bandaged before our late-night mess had started. The other looked positively ancient.
I tore my revolver out of its holster and pointed it at the Lieutenant’s gut. “No,” I said.
“You’d dare point a weapon at a lieutenan--”
“I’d dare discharge it if you don’t stop speaking stupid,” I snapped.
The kobold jumped forwards, and I almost fired, but his back was to me, and he stopped before the soldier. “My authority supersedes your own here, lieutenant, despite your disagreements about my species. You will stand down, and you will not be taking any passenger’s possessions,” he hissed.
I lowered my gun. The soldiers behind the officer hadn’t even gotten theirs out yet, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Clin shifting in Rusty’s cabin, his shotgun in hand.
“Mind filling me in on what in the god-damn is going on here?” I asked. “Or is it petty squabbling all the way down?”
The civilian man chuckled. “The militia are muscling their way around, trying to take charge,” he said. “The engineers here are trying to get everything fixed back up and running again. And me and mine, as well as all the other passengers, are just wanting to know when things will be returning to some semblance of normal.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“I’m Patrick. Just Patrick. I’m a miner. Have a few of my men and their families with me,” the big civilian said.
The engineer half-turned after glaring at the officer. “I’m West Cinder Railway Union Engineer Slavisa Ral.”
“Pleasure,” I said. “I’m Charlie. Charlie Norwood. Bounty hunter out of the Vasts. Are you in charge here, Engineer Slavisa?”
The kobold nodded. “Senior Engineers Daougst and Roland were killed. I’m next in order of seniority and rank. Our goal is to move all the cars over to the next bit of track, ahead of the missing section, or to repair that well enough that we can pull the train once more. The Sandpiercer can do most of the work.”
“But it’ll take time,” I said.
“We don’t have time,” the lieutenant said. “We need to report this, now.”
I rubbed at my nose. “I actually agree with him. This wasn’t some accident; it’s an outright act of war. And with their attack on Daggerwren.”
“Those were goblins,” the officer said.
“Those were goblins with gnome mechs, gnome guns, and the sort of plan of attack that no goblin would come up with,” I replied.
The engineer cleared his throat. “We can’t exactly do all of this quickly. Even with volunteers to help, our team was cut in half, and we were short already.”
I rubbed at my neck. “I’ll go then.”
“You would need a proper representative of the militia,” the officer said.
“Nah, just write something up that I can deliver to the Dreggar headquarters. You too, Engineer Slavisa. Something that the West Cinder Railway Union would find credible. Even on foot... I think we’re a day and a half away from the next city over, two maybe?”
“It will take a day, at least, to set the train back on its rails,” the Engineer said. “Maybe a little more than that. I think we will be moving slower afterwards too—the Sandpiercer has accumulated some damage, and I don’t think it wise to push the engine more than it needs.”
“Then that’s that,” I said. “Write things up for me. I can walk through the night for a while. We’ll make good time, I’m sure.”
Getting away sounded plenty good to me. The gnomes would be back, I was sure, and sooner than anyone would like.