Chapter Sixty-Six – Not Done Yet
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Chapter Sixty-Six - Not Done Yet

Getting aboard the train was, once again, a pain in the ass. The paper-pusher in charge of the train accepted my ticket, but I ended up with one who was particularly uptight, and who wanted to make sure I owned Rusty. That meant showing him some old papers, which of course he fussed and muttered over.

I was considering shooting him, to get everything over with. I had a certain amount of patience for self-important, sanctimonious bureaucrats, and that amount was none.

Clin didn’t seem to mind at all. He was seated on one of the outdoor benches set outside of the terminal, next to the gate barring my path. He had his newspaper in hand, opened up to the page with his article on it. He wasn’t smiling or anything, but there was something about his posture that radiated a very elven smugness.

“Look,” I said to the pompous fidiot before me. “I don’t know how or why your company manages to only hire obstructive little shits, but I’m starting to think I could save everyone a lot of coin if I lined you up for a stomping.”

“Was, was that a threat?” he asked.

My hand shot out, grabbing the man by the shift before I dragged him closer. “Yes.”

Another worker rushed over, in full “fix this” mode, and started babbling until I let go of the twit and addressed the new guy directly. I handed over the ticket, grabbed my papers back, then asked where the nearest engineer was. They, at least, seemed to be somewhat agreeable, or at least they were quick to avoid socializing and the like.

Things were sorted out in due time, and I was able to move Rusty into the station proper where rows of carriages were being loaded. Most seemed ready to go. All that was missing was the engine at the front of the train, and likely the passengers to fill it.

Soon, very soon, we’d be out of the city and heading over to Cinderwich. I was looking forward to moving again. Taking even one day off from travelling had strained my nerves. I couldn’t help but imagine some gnomes making it into the city and spreading Clin’s wanted poster around.

It wasn’t as if there weren’t any of them around already. The city was somewhat cosmopolitan, though there was no doubt that it was, for the most part, a human-centric place.

The engineers were quick and efficient and, best of all, quiet. They took in Rusty’s size, had me stand the mecha on a scale, then directed me to a spot under a crane where I disembarked and watched as my mech was raised up and lowered into a tin-sided car along with a couple of other smaller mecha.

There wouldn’t be any busting out of that set-up, I figured. Something to keep in mind.

Though I didn’t think my luck was so bad we’d be ambushed twice.

I received some papers from an engineer armed with a clipboard, then I moved off to the terminal where I found that Clin had relocated to a bench in the middle of the room, not too far from a number of others.

“So you found a seat,” I said as I sat myself next to him.

He nodded. “I did,” he replied. “I didn’t want to be stuck in some dusty corner.”

Made sense. Trying not to grab anyone’s attention was often a great way to catch someone’s attention. The best place to hide in a place like this was likely right in the mix. The terminal was a grand, drafty place, the wind cutting through the room in hot waves, with the stink of the city and the trainyard thickening it even more.

“How’s the article?” I asked.

“It’s not bad,” he said. “It’s thought-provoking. I’ve heard a few people discussing it already, though I wasn’t purposely eavesdropping.”

“Of course not,” I agreed.

“People seem to think that it’s all a... not quite a hoax? Perhaps some sort of prank? Certainly overblown.”

“It’s a big thing to ask people to start gearing up and getting ready for war. It’s a whole lot easier to sit back and keep on doing as you’re used to doing.”

“I suppose It might encourage one or two to actually do something,” Clin said. He closed his newspaper up, folded it with the ease of long practice, then tapped his knee with the folded paper. “That’s enough for me.”

“There might be some official reaction too, if enough people talk about it. And the alarm yesterday. That makes two.”

“An official announcement that there’s no war and everything is fine? That would be wonderful” Clin said.

I tilted my head to the side a notch. “How do you figure?” I asked.

“If I was a... long-time neighbour, and I invited you to my home, say, for dinner, would you come?”

“Sure, I suppose,” I said.

“And if I insisted there was no need for you to bring a gun and everything would be fine?” he asked.

I chuckled. “I’d bring three.”

He nodded.

“I see what you mean. The more conspiratorial folk will think something’s up. For once, they’ll probably be right.”

“And politicians on the other side of whoever makes the pronouncement might act up, out of principle. People who dislike them might listen more to those that spread any warmongering news. Little things. If there is no war, then it’ll all blow over in a week or so. Most won’t even remember feeling worried.”

I shifted on the bench. Maybe we’d done better than I’d figured. “That paper’s going to be printed elsewhere, isn’t it?”

“Cinderwich, at least. A few copies will make it down to some smaller towns here and there, I’m sure,” Clin said. “Eventually copies will reach the gnomes, the dwarves, the elves.”

“That far?” I asked. “Can’t imagine any of them giving a damn about human news, gnomes aside.”

“Oh, not for public distribution. They’ll make it in the hands of businessmen. It pays to know what’s happening elsewhere.”

Supposed that made some sort of sense.

A whistle blew, and a small engine pulled in a row of passenger cars. I stood, as did Clin, and we joined the crowd of folk filing into the train. Clin and I didn’t have much with us, but some of the people had bags and luggage that had to outweigh me.

Once we were in, we moved towards the rear, where it was quieter. No booths here, just benches installed so each seat was facing another. We sat next to each other, and I held back a curse as a businessman-looking fellow sat across from us. He had the common decency to stay quiet though.

Clin leaned back, and I shifted so I had a shoulder against the wall next to our window. I supposed this line didn’t have to deal with storms or the full desert as much. The windows here were smaller, rounder things, but still bigger than I felt was safe.

The train was loaded up, eventually. A few crying children, to make the voyage that much better, and some folk who immediately started arguing about... I think it was a sport. Mecha fighters, maybe. There was an arena somewhere in the city, I knew.

We were moved along the tracks, and a mecha similar to the Sandpiercer, though slightly smaller, moved up on a set of ten legs and lowered itself at the front. I couldn’t see it for long, not from the angle we were at. The train shifted, and at long last, we started to move again.

Flatbluffs rolled past. The industrial district, the homes past that, then some slums, walled off behind a tall fence. Then we were out of the city and into the countryside beyond, our route snaking along to circle some of the larger hills around the city before things straightened out onto a steady uphill path.

“What is that?” the businessman ahead of me asked.

I jarred to full wakefulness, pushed myself back so I wasn’t slumping anymore, and followed his gaze out of the window.

Out in the distance was a large gathering of vehicles. It was to the north, just on the edge of the hills and woods surrounding the area. Half a day’s travel from Flatbluffs at a good clip on board a decent mech.

“Nomads?” the businessman asked.

Not nomads. That I dismissed right away.

Gnomes.

A whole damned army of them.

I swallowed as I tried to count the figures, but they were nearly impossible to make out. No bigger than a pebble at a hundred paces, and I could only see them because some of those mechs weren’t small. At least a hundred of them, moving with the slow crawl of a surfaced sandworm about to devour some already-dead prey.

“The city’s never going to last,” I said.

But I wouldn’t be there to see it fall. We were out. We were safe.

For now. For a few more hours.

I fixed my jaw. I had a mission, and it wasn’t done yet.

***

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