Chapter Sixty-One - Calm
Just past the northern gates of Flatbluffs was a section of the city called the Oldtown. The name was newer than the building around it, which all had a few signs of aging to them. They were squat, tough old things, the original Flatbluffs, before all the walls went up around it and the city grew out to be as big as it now was.
There was a certain look to the older buildings too, and not just because they were squat. They were brick, covered in thick cement. The kind of buildings better suited to a place without any trees and with much harsher storms than what they got here.
Now Oldtown was just another part of Flatbluffs. Likely some of the families that occupied these old homes had been there for generations, but some had to have moved on.
“How’s the city?” Clin asked.
From his spot on Rusty’s floor behind me, there was no way for him to see outside. “Busy,” I said. “But it doesn’t look like it’s busier than usual.”
There were plenty of carts and smaller mechs on the roads, and more foot traffic still. Some bicycles too, their steel-rimmed wooden wheels clattering over the flagstone street. Plenty of people, but none of them gawking at the traffic. No jams, none of that air of excitement that happened when things weren’t usual in a city.
“That’s... probably not that good. Dreggar might be behind in terms of technology and preparation, but there are a lot of civilians here. If they knew about the gnomes, they’d be preparing.”
“Conscripting people?” I asked.
“Bounty hunters, mercenaries, and any private guard companies,” Clin said. “There must be a few of those, for guarding banking convoys. And then yes, conscripting able-bodied men and women.”
“I don’t think they’d conscript the women,” I said.
“They wouldn’t?” Clin asked.
I glance back at him. “Of course not.”
“Strange. We wouldn’t conscript the young under thirty or so, of course, and any woman with child, but in case of an emergency, most elves would be drafted.”
“Yeah, this isn’t an elven place. Damned foolish though. As if a woman can’t shove a shell into a gun,” I said. I’d long-since reconciled my thoughts on the matter.
A few signs ahead read “the Cistern,” often with arrows pointing off in the same direction. There were more people, often with cart or wheelbarrows, sometimes with jugs in hand or hanging off of poles fitted over their shoulders. They were lined up to one side, with lazy guards watching over them.
The people returning from the roads learning to the cistern had barrels full of sloshing water.
So, the city had a centralized water system?
I noticed dozens of warning signs above, some metre or two taller than Rusty’s head. They warned folk off from hitting a heavy-looking pipe tilted ever so slightly in the direction of the cistern. An aqueduct system, then.
They had to be pumping the water from somewhere. There weren’t any mountains or the like around.
I imagined that someone was making a pretty copper selling all that water all day. Was it sold by the litre?
I moved on and into the centre of the city. Taller buildings, more commercial places. Some had to be governmental, I imagined. This wasn’t some desert town where every building lining the main road had a palisade front. Flatbluffs wasn’t the capital, but it was a busy place.
The militia building wasn’t hard to find. It was a tall, stately thing, all sandstone cut at precise angles. Two guards stood by the front, long rifles with their butts on the ground next to them, backs straight and uniforms so starched they’d likely stand on their own once the kids wearing them pried them off.
I walked right past, only pausing long enough to note the wide alley next to the building and the courtyard behind it. Somewhere to leave Rusty later.
I was a little lost past the centre of town. Never had business to be here. Still, I didn’t want to stop.
The next section of town looked nicer. A gated community, with more guards around it, and homes with some room around them. Not what I was looking for, so I found myself turned around.
“Are you lost?” Clin asked.
“Nah,” I said as I searched around.
“We could stop, ask for directions.”
“I know where I’m going,” I lied. I did have some pride.
It took a bit, but I finally noticed some plumes of brackish smoke reaching into the sky, and using those as a guiding star led us a little ways south and east and into an area with wider roads and factories.
The buildings were nearly all the same. Long, with tin walls and windows cut out near the top of roofs with barely any slope to them. Smokestacks poking out from within spewed thick black smoke that was quickly brought back down as little flakes.
Stacks of steel beams, piles of coal, and a swarm of smaller mechs dotted the yards around the factories.
I stepped Rusty aside as a mech jogged by, a long wagon jostling along behind it.
I continued down, scoffing when I crossed a yard filled with near-identical mecha. “Model Ts,” I said.
“What?” Clin asked.
“A cheap mass-produced mecha. It can do anything—poorly. You see them around sometimes. They barely cost more than their weight as scrap. Dreggar’s been pushing them for a year or two, but I don’t think they’ll catch on.”
“Oh,” Clin said. “I can see a use for something simple to repair and produce though.”
“Hmm, maybe,” I said. “But they lack soul.”
The trainyard came up ahead. A place where the wall had a dozen huge gates in it, most of them open so that long trains could be pulled in. I saw an engine similar to the Sandpiercer, if smaller, stationed nearby with a team of engineers at work on it, the flash of their welders like lightning striking in plain daylight.
The West Cinder Railway Union building was impossible to miss. It was the one with the huge WCRU sign before it. The entire rear section looked like something out of Caroline’s wet dreams, but the front was a more stately and proper building, likely where they had their offices.
“We’re here,” I said as I brought Rusty to the front and found a place to kneel down next to some other, smaller mecha. We probably stood out, being so heavily armed, but there wasn’t much to be done about that.
“How do you plan on doing this?” Clin asked while I carefully disconnected myself from Rusty’s controls.
“Walk in, find the most important person, and give them the letter. Maybe explain things.”
“This isn’t some shop in a backwater,” Clin warned. He stood up as best he could and gestured to the hatch and the building beyond. “There will be secretaries and managers, and a whole level of bureaucracy in place.”
“Why bother with that kind of thing?” I asked.
“Because the time of the people in charge is worth more than your convenience,” Clin answered simply.
I scoffed as I pushed Rusty’s front open. “We’ll see.”
I regretted not putting my mask on. I figured with the lessened winds and the lack of sandy dunes the place wouldn’t be dangerous. The stench made me regret that.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Dyes,” Clin said as he landed next to me. “And coal, as well as ammonia.” The elf shook his head. “Some of it’s nasty stuff. They should consider filtering things before letting it out. People breathing this all day will have coughing fits.”
“I don’t think anyone cares that much,” I said. I gestured to the building, and we both made good time crossing over to it. A few folk exited ahead of us, men in nice suits with short-brimmed hats who gave us strange looks as we passed.
The interior wasn’t anything too special. A hall with some displays to one side, miniature models of train engines sitting within, and a desk at the far end where a young secretary was waiting. “Hello,” she said. “May I help you?”
I nodded as I approached. “Who’s in charge here?”
“What my companion means to ask,” Clin jumped in, “is ‘are there any managers that we could speak to?’” He smiled, smooth and toothy. It looked wrong on a face that never emoted. It was... fake. “We have something of an issue that we think might be sensitive.”
The secretary gave us some pleasantries about waiting, then left.
“Really?” I asked.
“I think I might be better prepared to deal with this one,” Clin said. “No offense.”
“I would be offended if I knew how to handle the kind of people that work here,” I muttered.
Clin nodded. “I don’t blame you.”
The secretary returned. “Hello again. If possible, could you describe your issue a little? I’m not entirely sure with whom you should speak.”
“Sure,” I said. “Your Sandpiercer, heading north? It was attacked and derailed. We have a letter from the head engineer.” I raised the letter and wiggled it around. “Or acting head; the other’s dead.”
“Ah,” the secretary said. “Well, that might take a moment more then.”