Chapter 114 – Niner on the Armature Express
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Stanley dried his face and leaned forward over the wash basin, allowing the last few droplets of water to dribble freely from his angular chin. He met his own eyes in the mirror and grimaced, as unsettled as ever by sight of the alien-looking boy staring back at him.

Father’s friends often commented on his unusual features, lauding him for his pure white hair and the singular blueness of his eyes, but the praise always struck him as insincere. When they said such things, all he heard was “you’re different”. “You’re strange.”

“You don’t belong here.”

At moments like these, Father–the great and magnanimous Alistair Montrevi–would usually cut in to offer context. “I found him wandering on the windswept tundra during my adventuring days,” he’d say. “Larsen-born, we think. He couldn’t have been more than five or six at the time; so, naturally, after a fruitless search for his biological parents, I took him in and raised him as my own.”

It was the same story every time. And, once told, the looks of puzzlement and curiosity would turn to sympathetic frowns. “Oh, the poor dear!” they’d say. “You’re very lucky, young man.”

“If Mr. Montrevi hadn’t found you, you might’ve frozen solid!”

…But that was just it. No matter how hard Stanley tried to remember, the memories of his rescue eluded him. He’d spent plenty of time in Larsen, of course, training with Zariska to become the skilled operative he was today, but anything he’d done before the age of seven was a total mystery, as if that entire stretch of his young life had simply been erased.

He tore his eyes away from his own haunted expression and smoothed out his uniform. No matter. As his father always said, what truly mattered was the here and now. The past was only important insofar as it affected the present, and as it was, he could hardly complain; provided this mission went well, he was certain to win his father’s favor and cement his chances of inheriting the Montrevi empire.

Surely that was more important than a handful of childhood memories?

Stanley thrust open the bathroom door and proceeded through the passenger car, lifting a hand to shield his eyes against the rays of the morning sun. After an uneventful night aboard the Armature Express, it was time to check on their “guests” again–a task that he had gladly volunteered for, given Viper’s incompetence and the girl’s familiarity with Diallo. He’d figured it would be simple. After all, he could be quite charming when he needed to be. How hard could it possibly be to watch over and see to the needs of a mere three passengers?

He slid open the door of their compartment and flashed a smile, noting that all three of them were awake. “Good morning, travelers. I trust you all slept well?”

The blonde one–Mimi–regarded him with a sour expression on her face. “I assumed we’d be seated in one of the overnight compartments,” she sniffed. “You know, the ones with beds? Sleeping upright is horrible for one’s posture.”

“I’m terribly sorry, ma’am,” he replied smoothly. “The cleaning staff are usually contacted in advance of scheduled trips. Since this one was unscheduled, those compartments haven’t been tidied.”

“How old are you?” the Truvelan girl interrupted.

“Me? Oh, I, uh,” he stammered, forcing himself to meet her penetrating stare. “I’m eleven.”

“Eleven?” echoed the man in the red coat. “Isn’t that a bit young for a train attendant?”

“I’m, uhm, just a trainee,” Stanley lied. “Since there are so few passengers, my supervisor thought this might be a good opportunity for me to learn the ropes.”

“Ah, that makes sense,” the man said agreeably. His doglike pistol, though, started barking and growling in its holster, prompting him to rub behind its ears in an effort to calm it. “Sorry about that! Sniffer’s been really agitated lately for some reason. Seems like he’s barking at just about everyone!”

“No trouble at all. Now, before I go, do any of you need anything?”

“Actually, yes,” Mimi declared. “I’d like a breakfast menu, please.”

“Err… So, again, I’m sorry to say that we’re operating with a skeleton crew at this time. There are no kitchen staff on board.”

“So, what, then? We just starve?”

Stanley tugged awkwardly at the collar of his uniform. “I, well… No, of course not. I’m sure I can find something for you to eat,” he said, working hard to project confidence. Where the hell was he supposed to get food for these people? “Just give me a few minutes to make arrangements. I’ll be back.”

As he moved to slide the door shut, he heard an impassioned huff from inside. “Unbelievable!”

“I thought you told us to be nice to the staff, Mimi.”

He strode rapidly down the length of the car, making his way toward the front of the train. His colleagues weren’t likely to know anything about where–or if–food might be stored on the Armature Express between trips, but if he was lucky, Ken might have a sandwich on him or something. For all his faults, the man did tend to be well-prepared… Even if those preparations were usually squandered on his shoddy execution.

Stanley arrived at the railway car to find both men engaged in their respective tasks. Viper shoveled clump after clump of coal into the steam engine’s firebox, while Diallo stood by the controls, monitoring the panel of buttons and switches before him with what looked like comprehension. He recalled that Father had given the man a brief rundown of how to operate the train before they’d left the GGE, but it was nonetheless impressive that he’d taken to it so naturally.

Then again, locomotives only tended to move in one direction at a time. Maybe he was giving him too much credit.

“Ke–Uhh, Viper,” Stanley called, raising his voice to be heard over the myriad sounds of the engine room, “the passengers want food. Do you have anything on you?”

Ken looked back at him with a smirk. “Of course I do, kid. You don’t get where I am without learning to tame the beast that is hunger.” With that, Viper pulled a trio of circular containers from a pocket on his bodysuit. They were stamped with the insignia of Gunn’s militia–the closest thing Wesson had to a standing army.

“...Those are military rations.”

“Yeah. So what?”

Stanley felt his cheeks flushing in irritation. “I can’t give train passengers military rations, you idiot!”

“Gentlemen…” Diallo said, barely audible above the rumble of the train.

“Why not?” Ken countered. “They’re not real passengers, right? They’re basically prisoners.”

“Yes, but we don’t want them to know that!”

“Gentlemen…!”

Ken set his shovel aside and crossed his arms. “I don’t see what the big deal is. If they don’t like it, tough. It’s not like they can leave! Hell, we might even be doing them a favor–eating the same thing soldiers eat might put some hair on their chests.”

Stanley groaned and rubbed at his temples. “Two of them are female. You know that, right?”

“Of course I know! That was a… What do you call it?”

“GENTLEMEN!”

“No, no, that’s not it,” Ken muttered, his hand wheeling rapidly as he tried to jog his memory. “What’s that thing where you say one thing, but you actually mean another thing?”

“What…?” Stanley racked his brain, trying to fathom what the man could possibly mean. “Oh! You mean a metaph–”

“FOOLS! LISTEN!” Diallo barked. “THERE IS SOMEONE ON THE TRACKS!”

Stanley’s eyes flew wide, and he dashed forth immediately to gaze out the front window. Sure enough, a figure stood a ways ahead of them, gazing unflinchingly toward the oncoming train. It was impossible to make out any details from such a distance, but judging by the stranger’s posture, they seemed disinclined to move.

“Can we stop before we hit him?” he asked.

“Almost certainly not,” Diallo replied, glancing skeptically at the brake lever. “If I know one thing about trains, it is that they are difficult to slow once they have reached their top speed.”

Ken nodded gravely. “So we’re gonna pancake the guy.”

“That is not how I would put it,” Diallo said, “but, essentially, yes.”

The three of them stared straight forward, two parts stoic and one part morbidly curious. Stanley had never seen anyone run over by a train before, but if he was honest with himself, he found the idea of it somewhat intriguing.

“If he’s just going to stand there, he deserves whatever he gets,” he concluded, settling in to observe. They were close now–a hundred feet. Eighty Feet. Fifty feet. Still, the wanderer didn’t move. It was almost as if they expected to survive.

Then, at the very last second, the unthinkable happened. The stranger produced a weapon of some kind and shot at the train, then simply… Whipped out of sight. It happened in the blink of an eye, and drew a gasp of utter surprise from him and Ken.

“What the hell was that?” Ken growled, eyes scanning the empty tract of wasteland ahead of them. Then the sounds began: the clomping of boots on metal, issuing from somewhere nearby…

Somewhere overhead.

“He is on top of the train,” Diallo predicted. “I do not know how, but we must stop him. He may be a threat.”

Stanley gave a quick nod. “I’m on it,” he said, making his way to the locker at the back of the engine room. From there he retrieved his treasured weapon, Neverthaw, and made for the sliding door at the side of the locomotive, intending to climb the metal rungs beyond it and confront their unexpected stowaway.

Before he could, though, he felt a hand come down on his shoulder.

“I’m with you, kid,” Ken pledged.

“Now, let’s kick some ass.”

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