Chapter Sixty-Three – The Messenger
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Chapter Sixty-Three - The Messenger

I paused in front of the Dreggar Militia headquarters and waited for a smaller warmech to thump its way out of the passage next to the building before I moved Rusty in through the alley and into the space in the back.

There were standard mounts for mecha, the sort I’d expect to see next to an inn or something, with catwalks and ladders set by deployable arms designed to hold mecha in place.

Most of them were occupied. Not with warmechs--though there were a few of those--but with smaller transport mecha. Troop transports.

It made some sense. The militia had more foot soldiers than mecha as far as I knew. Going by the scant budget they seemed to have and the age of their mechs, it made sense to invest their money in better equipment for their troops rather than shell out for better mecha.

It didn’t change the fact that of all the mechs behind their headquarters, Rusty was the only one that looked like it could actually keep up with a modern war machine, and it wasn’t designed to be one.

The warmechs stationed around were squat things, with fat legs and stubby arms. They looked like bloated toads ready to roll back at a moment’s notice.

I pulled Rusty around one of them, spun around, and stepped back into an open gantry.

It was a smooth, practiced move, and maybe a way to show off to the mecha pilots, who looked like they’d just figured out how to avoid waddling.

Rusty slid down to one knee, and I slid my arms out from the controls. “Not even connected,” I said.

“Somewhat impressive,” Clin said as he started to squeeze his way forwards. “I think I should be able to take care of this next part on my own.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, hand pausing over the latch to open the cabin.

“More or less. I doubt my wanted posters have reached this far, and from what I’ve been told, I don’t believe we’ll be receiving much of a warm reception. A quick bit of bureaucratic nudging, then I’ll be right back out.”

“Alright,” I said as I slid on my mask, then my hat. I waited for Clin to pull up the collar of his robes before pushing Rusty’s front open. The warmer air swept in, and stole whatever coolness we had.

I stepped out first, turning to slide a foot into a stirrup and letting go to land in a crouch on the gravelly ground. I stayed close as Clin jumped back, in case the elf stumbled, but he landed on his feet and only needed a bit of windmilling to stay upright. He managed to make it seem dignified.

“Right, good luck in there,” I said.

“Thank you,” Clin said. He tugged at his robes and then verified the letter he had before nodding to himself. “I’ll be right back.”

I waved him off, then stretched out until my back popped. That’s when I heard the laughter.

A couple of guys in Militia uniforms, but with leather jackets and chaps, were nearby, smiling to themselves in the shade of one of their rotund mecha. They saw me glancing their way and turned away while still laughing.

I sighed and started walking over. “Come on, don’t leave me out of the joke,” I said.

There were three of them, pilots all. One seemed younger than the other two, who were around my own age if I had to guess.

“It was nothing, ma’am,” the younger one said.

“We, we just, ah, wondered who was piloting that mecha?” one of them asked. He was a short fellow with a bushy moustache, mask dangling around his collar from a couple of straps.

“I was,” I said.

“You weren’t,” the other older one said. I looked at him, taking in his uniform that barely fit over his larger frame.

“And how do you figure that?” I asked.

He smiled, the smug sort of smile of someone who was damned certain they were right. “You’re not disorientated. When a pilot disconnects from a mech’s system, it’s like... going from being a god to being a mere mortal. It makes you dizzy, nauseous.”

I rolled my eyes. “A god, really? How god-like do you feel piloting one of these fat old things?” I asked, a thumb over my shoulder pointing to the nearest militia mech. “I piloted over here disconnected.”

“You, uh, can’t move a mech when it’s disconnected,” the youngest said.

“What?” I asked. They laughed, but I just shook my head. “As a safety precaution, right?”

“Yes,” Moustache said. “To make sure the pilot is aware before moving.”

“To leave you dead, more-like. What happens when you take a hit to the gyro mid-fight? Or some gnomish bastard with a shock-rifle tags your mech and fries a limb’s controls? If you can’t disconnect, you’ll cook your brain.”

“And if you do, your mech won’t be able to move,” the fatter one said.

“That’s why the first thing you do is rip that junk out. If you can’t pilot by feeling alone then you’re dead weight the moment you lose the crutch of being fully connected,” I said. “Not that I’d enter a fight disconnected.” I tugged my collar and scarf to the side. The entire side of my neck and collarbone was a mess of old scars, I knew.

The youngest winced.

“You use neck injectors?” Moustache asked.

“Come on,” Fatty said. “Those have to be fake.

“No woman’s going to scar herself like that for show,” Moustache argued. I could do without the commentary.

“Neck injectors are faster. Less wiring, less tubing. When things get knocked around, you don’t want anything to get caught in those,” I said.

The youngest swallowed. “What do you do, um, miss?”

“I’m a bounty hunter, usually out in the far end of the Vastness,” I said.

“Nothing lives there,” Fatty said.

“Plenty of nasty shit lives out there. It’s my job to correct that. Not as glorious as you’d think. The nastiest things will go down with some poison or a bomb strapped to a lump of meat. Mostly it’s the goblins and other nasties that require any amount of actual fighting.”

“And what are you doing out here?” he asked.

“War is good for people in my profession,” I said.

The youngest’s eyes widened. “War?”

“She’s pulling your leg,” Fatty said.

“I was out in Daggerwren a few days ago. Place was assaulted by a couple of bands of goblins.”

“I heard of that,” Moustache said. “Hardly war.”

“Goblins with gnome mechs, and gnome guns, and gnome supplies,” I said. “That train, the Sandpiercer, was just taken out. Way I hear it, it was gnomes that did that too. I think you boys had better hope that these old mechs of yours are worth half as much as their weight in scrap, because you can bet your last copper the gnomes won’t be coming over here with mechs that were old when their grandpas were still around.”

“It won’t come to that,” Fatty said. He was still sure of himself.

“I hope for your sake that it doesn’t,” I said. “But when you see a wall of sand over the horizon and hear the gnome shells raining down, do try to keep a level head.”

I glanced back and saw Clin leaving out of the backdoor of the headquarters, his collar lowered and mouth set. He was as expressionless as usual, but something about the set of his shoulders told me he wasn’t in the best of moods.

Figured dealing with idiots would set him in a bad mood.

“Right, that’s my job here done. See you boys around,” I said.

“There’s no war,” Fatty said, a weak sort of parting shot.

“Sure,” I replied as I waved over my shoulder.

Clin joined me next to Rusty. “That went about as poorly as expected.”

“Tough,” I said. “We should head out. I think there’s still a train running from here to Cinderwich. Leaves in the morning.”

“Good, good,” Clin said. “I don’t want to be here when the gnomes show up.”

“Let’s grab a room for the night then.” I gestured for Clin to move in first, his spot being at the rear and all. “I could use some time to catch up on my sleep.”

“That does sound enjoyable. Did you have a nice conversation with those pilots?”

“No,” I said as I climbed up after him and pulled the door shut. I fell into my seat and started Rusty up, moving the mech right away. “They’re idiots.”

Clin made a noise that might have been a chuckle. “No lack of those around here, it seems.”


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