Chapter Sixty - Flats Ahead
We didn’t walk far that night. The lighting was poor, even with a half-moon out illuminating things. So I parked up by a dune for the night what had to be a klick away from the Sandpiercer, and I immediately fell asleep.
We woke in the morning, walked around Rusty a bit to work out any cramps. We had breakfast from the dwindling supplies stashed in Rusty, then before the mech’s frame grew too hot, I gave it a quick inspection.
There were bullet scores where the paint had been scraped off, and a few little dents where rounds had hit Rusty head-on, but overall, the old mech had come out of a night’s excitement with minimal damage.
We took off, and I kept us walking in a nearly straight line towards Flatbluff. Following the train tracks was a slight risk. There was always the chance that the gnomes were plotting a second ambush, but it also meant that there was no way to really get lost.
The day passed slowly, each step carrying us a little closer to our destination. It was warm, though not quite as hot as I was used to.
Either Caroline had messed with the cooling system, which I figured was likely since the air in Rusty’s cabin didn’t have quite the same smell to it, or it was a little cooler past some of the mountains separating us from the Vastness.
It wasn’t until late in the evening that I saw the first trees in the distance.
“We’re getting close,” I said.
The sun was well on its way to setting when I stopped by one scraggly tree for the night. It was a pitiful thing, all drooping branches and long, narrow leaves, barely taller than Rusty’s shoulders. Still, it was nice to see some green to break up the hundred shades of sand.
We chewed on some hardtack, drained some water from Rusty to drink, and slept the night away in Rusty’s warm embrace.
When the morning rolled around, I veered away from the tree and found the train tracks again. It took a few hours more before the Dreggar woods appeared.
I wasn’t sure if appeared was the right term, really. One moment there would be a tree every klick, then there was a tree every hundred or so paces. By the time I stopped for a break to work the cramps out of my legs and give Rusty another look, there were some trees close enough together that their shadows would sometimes overlap.
There was grass too, long yellow-green stalks, growing in patches where the ground had pulled enough water to sustain them.
“What a lively place,” Clin said as he climbed back into Rusty. “Reminds me of home.”
“All nice and green where you live, no?” I asked.
“Greener than here,” he said.
I pushed on, still keeping sight of the tracks, and actually glad for the grass and more stable footing. They did wonders to make Rusty’s steps harder to see. Sand tended to leave a trail, at least until the wind picked up. It took a different sort of tracker to find someone in this kind of environment.
By mid-afternoon, the first signs that we’d arrived near Flatbluff started to show up.
The woods were all clumped together, dozens of mixed trees in batches, with plenty of room between them. They were hogging the fertile, more humid soil, and avoiding the rest.
Some of those clumps had been cut down, just stumps barely taller than Rusty’s ankles left over.
Trees didn’t cut themselves that way, so there had to be some folk around.
The first people I saw were farmers toiling around little farms. Patches of land that were green enough to tend to some crops. A few spots with rows of fruiting trees, even a field or two, surrounded by stone fences to keep in some grazing animals.
The wells by the squat little homes hinted at how they kept themselves going, and the homes themselves, short and partially dug into the ground, were the sort of places someone would need to get good cover from a passing storm.
Didn’t seem as safe as having a proper wall, or building around a natural wind-break.
In fact, as we moved deeper south and an actual road of packed earth appeared, I couldn’t help but feel that the people around here had it easy.
That was probably unfair, but I knew some folk who had never seen a tree before, and here people were using them for firewood.
Water-rich is what the nomads would call the people around here.
The farms grew in number, and soon the woods thickened too. There were still large openings where nothing much grew, but the land was more green than not, and I started to spot little villages tucked away here and there. Mostly they were just collections of homes, four or five of them set close enough together that the people living there could share things. Farmsteads, where simple folk lived simple lives.
Flatbluffs came into view slowly. The land was too flat to get a good overview, but it was unmistakably a city. Squat buildings, most of them following the edge of the tracks, turned into taller tenements and homes, then the walls of Flatbluffs rose behind them, protecting the city from the wind and storms, as light as they were around here.
I don’t know what it was about Flatbluffs, but I took an instant dislike to it.
The homes were too open, the walls too low. I saw kids running around on the roads and normal folk taking care of their own things, but no guards, no visible gun emplacements. It was making me itch.
“Where do we go first?” I asked as I stepped Rusty onto what looked like a proper road. It was certainly smoother to walk on than the loamy ground.
“That depends,” Clin said. “Who do you think will listen to our warning first?”
I had two letters tucked away. One from that militia officer, and another from the engineers on the Sandpiercer. “We’ll move over to the rail yard first,” I said. “The militia here looks downright pitiful; I wouldn’t be surprised if they only send one scout mech over to see if things are as we say they are. The West Cinder Railway Union has a financial incentive to make sure that their train comes back in one piece.”
“Pragmatic,” Clin said.
“I try to be.”
The gates leading into Flatbluffs were wide open. Not that they’d do much closed. The doors themselves, while large, looked to be made of steel with a wooden frame, probably to keep them light.
A medium-sized mech could likely ram them down with a run-up.
The guards, all in the grey-blue uniforms of the Dreggar militia, wave people past when they’re not too busy covering up their yawns. They weren’t even inspecting the few other mechs on the road leading into the city proper.
“This place is a mess,” I said. “No defences, no army mechs stationed by the gates, nothing. Daggerwren was better defended.”
“They don’t have an army here,” Clin said.
“Aren’t the Dreggar militia an army?” I asked.
Clin shifted. “No, they’re not. I’m surprised you don’t know.”
“I’m not keen on this part of the world. Too green for my blood.”
The elf hummed. “There was a Dreggar army. It wasn’t terribly impressive, but it was a proper army. Then its commander, a General Astley, decided to install himself as president for life. The coup failed, and the president at the time disbanded the army.”
“Then what’s the militia?” I asked.
“A militia. Or it was. All volunteers and veteran soldiers. I think now it’s serving as a sort of... home guard? It’s not a proper army, not on paper.”
“So, when the gnomes walk on over with a few hundred mechs...”
“They’ll be met with farmboys and conscripted drunkards, yes. Likely all in equipment left over from when the army disbanded forty years ago.”
I shook my head. I’d never heard the history, but it didn’t surprise me; I did hear stories about corrupt guards and such. “No wonder the gnomes want to attack, they’ll be fought off with equipment that’s four decades out of date.”
Mechs had been slow to improve over the last hundred or so years, but there had been changes. Even Rusty, with his many, many repairs and modifications, was showing his age. Mass-produced, cheap equipment for the army that hadn’t changed in nearly forty years? They would be stomped down with barely any resistance.
And we were the ones here to tell them that they had all of a few days to prepare.