Echoes of Sin
Watching Malcolm's long dark frame sagging, all the threatening strength rushing out. A mountain of power collapsing in on itself. Falling to his knees, vibrant colours flowing away from him and washing over Pickle. The last echos of powerful magical work.
Lost in amazement, as she let the coating of magic flow over her skin, Pickle felt at peace. A wake of rainbow glycerine flecks sparkled off her fingertips, leaving multicoloured eddies as she played with the breeze, scattering across the landscape. Fascinated at the iridescent course of glittering magic, the first thing her brain thought of was flight.
Gravity wakes were tears across the sky, a churning motorboat kicking up three-dimensional eddies in the sky. Her extremities were little fishes in the clear pond, not breaking the water like the powerful engine but flowing through the rainbow currents, touching the spell.
The sky was iridescent blue in its purity, the air smelled clean. She wrapped her fingers around the multicoloured dust closing her hand to feel it shift into nothingness. She felt freezing, noticing the thin blanket of warmth her body kept up against the wind had been stipped back, leaving her naked to the fresh dry winter air blowing over her skin and through her new clothes.
She heard the chunk chunk chunk of the train interrupt thoughts, and then she a loud clunking noise. The moment popped like a soap bubble blasting her mind.
"Incoming, eleven o'clock. Doc get Malcolm, and the girl is gone. Ka Front."
Her mind reeled back from the edge. It was a sudden and sharp feeling of loss. She felt a strange sensation in her skin as it tingled. Trying to shut down the self-examination to look around. She found herself naturally crouching, ready to run. Was there anywhere to run to? It was then she noticed Doc rush past her.
Doc passed her. She noticed that Ka had also gotten off his spin bike. The orc was grabbing his crossbox from the cargo pile. Ka turned the weapon over, slotting in bolts to the feed tray and checking the mechanism. Scraps frantically worked on the Spin drive, pulling leavers and adjusting controls. Northcott was writing down something with almost clerical disinterest in the unfolding situation, flipping a page in his small notebook. Whirling fully around back to the front, she eyed Doc helping Malcolm.
The mage seemed somehow diminished, less scary, as Doc put his arm around her shoulders. It slid under that fire red hair as she held his weight, strength in her pose, gentle concern and professional evaluation on her face. She was talking to the tired mage while checking over him, leading him to the back of the train.
The doctor's sudden request, delivered in no-nonsense professional tones, unstuck Pickle's feet as she felt herself clearing the path. Hearing Scraps yell a question forward.
"Stay free," Gunther shouted back, not looking up from his work.
Gunther stood at the front of the train with the most oversized rifle she had ever seen. He was securing the weapon to the front railing with a small mounting clamp. Working quickly, shifting the weight with his iron claw on the left, and his dexterous right hand making the fine adjustments. She thought the gun might be a chem rifle, but not with that huge cannon of a barrel. The whole gun was comically large, inflated with tons of fans and bits she had never seen before.
Moments later, Ka'Shek joined Gunther upfront with his crossbox in hand. The tall orc stood with his feet wide, making no move to secure his large weapon. Ka stood slightly back and to the left of Gunther, offering support to the captain but not encroaching on his setup, which despite its complexity, was lightning fast.
Pickle was familiar with guns, mainly from the club, but this setup was totally alien to her experience. This wasn't the kind of weapon the Billy Boys or Jack Jack run, nor was it the sort you saw mercs or corps swagger into the club with. The door girls would relieve them quickly with Bruno's help. As the chalkboard sign proudly declared, "Your coat, your keys, and any weapons please."
Plasma powered weapons were sleek and deadly, the preferred choice for most. The mighty little plasma batteries and instability of magic had shifted most away from the more traditional chem guns. You saw chem guns, statement pieces almost always personal weapons, never issued to standard forces, corps or that ilk they were used by mercs and in exceptional cases.
Chem weapons always made people nervous their crude designs were likely to explode without notice at the first flare of magic. Though she had never seen it happen. The things were blasted loud, ringing out loud enough to deafen you. When fired, they made a statement. Besides, the ammo was pretty dumb.
Plasma weapons came in countless varieties, the core power drawing from the powerful little batteries but deployed in an endless range, from short-range concussive thumpers, which mall cops and social security used when they weren't using sticks or stunners. Most carried mag guns which could propel a variety of smart or dumb ammo. Needle guns like hers and the other variants were used by the more discrete, less military sorts. Though she had seen some other strange high tech weapons when the corps were in town to party.
The tribals tended to favour a variety of more medieval weapons, though to call them that was insulting. Refined by modern engineering and, in some cases, magic. Tribal weapons tended to share one trait they were powered by the person. Hand-cranked or fueled by personal magics. The most common and popular type was the crossbox. It was to the crossbow what the modern multi rocket artillery was to the catapult.
Designs vary, but Ka seemed to be wielding a more traditional model. It had five barrels in a long wooden block carved and polished. There was a feeder tray holding a few bolts ready to be gravity fed into place. Ka had a traditional wheel winder to tension and reload the weapon. The wooden bar was the length of the block with two polished and well-worn handles on each side. She watched as he gave it a few turns to tension the weapon.
She had seen a variety of designs and materials all working around the same principle. Really the inventiveness of weaponry sometimes felt without limit. Outcasts sometimes modding weapons to tension plasma fueled motor or compressed gas. Mages working magic into the weapons or replacing pieces with inscriptions. Not even including the whips, psi-blades, personal defence and cyber that came down to fight on the wall. They fascinated her.
Watching Gunther now sighting down the rifle barrel, she noticed the monster weapon did not have a smart scope or holo but rather an old fashioned glass tube scope. Like a pirate's telescope mounted on top with brass fittings holding glass atop the bloated receiver. Looking at the massive barrel and what she assumed was the magazine, the bullets must be gigantic. Though she couldn't see a breach anywhere, every chem gun she had seen outside of revolvers had those waste ejectors.
The gruff captain looked through the pirate scope atop his rifle, drawing a bead on something moving up ahead and to the left.
Dust trail headed by a miniature black spec off in the distance. It was hard to pick out from the background terrain. It was running out from the tall veld grass, tearing up its path.
The first thing she noticed was how it was jerking forward in its motion. Never slowing down, but it seemed to be leaping forward like someone running in low gravity. The second thing she noticed about the creature is it wasn't running towards them.
It was easy to miss at first, but the creature was running to a point a few minutes ahead of them on the track. It was chasing where they would be, not where they were. That superior calculation of a hunter sent a shudder down her already chilled spine. They were being hunted.
She thought Gunther would take the shot any moment, but the seconds drew long as his rifle continued to track the creature waiting for some silent signal. The black spec formed into a pony-sized black cat. The light played on its form strangely. Her mind tried to process what she was seeing.
Six legs. The creature wasn't leaping forward but galloping like a horse with all the limbs leaving the ground as it did progressive speeding leaps ahead. The strange lurch was due to the six legs prolonging the launch time, extending the air time and then repeating. Even that didn't seem to account for its strange gait like it was wearing a grav belt. The creature galloped faster than any vehicle would drive inside city limits.
The was no set definition of Wild vs animal. It was as an old English judge once said regards porn, "We shall know it when we see it." This monster was Wild. She now saw it had soft black feathers, not sleek fur. The eyes were dark red, illuminated by some infernal internal energy. Staring into the eyes, leaping closer to her with each step, she felt something.
It wasn't the ear-shattering gunshot she expected, but the rifle rang out loud. Quickly followed by the creature faltering in its stride, a flash of feathers flew up into the air. She heard the pull and slide of metal clanking as Gunther loaded another round into the chamber. The sound of a single metal token dropping into an old arcade machine tinkling next to her.
Another loud shot, expected this time, belting out moments later. This time the beast's head yanked back. It collapsed under its own momentum rolling then sliding to a dusty demise not far off the train tracks ahead. She heard the gun reload again. They were closing in on the point of convergence.
The corpse lay still, examined through scope by Gunther and tracked by Ka's bow. Before she could register the details of its twisted form or the dust had fully settled from its ungainly end, the train was already passing it. Moving from threat to vanquished in moments.
Gunther was checking his weapon. The most insignificant amount of smoke seemed to expel from the end of the barrel. A mere wisp. Ka lowered his weapon then pulled the bar in the counter direction releasing the tension from the crossbox. Simultaneously everyone relaxed, breathing out.
The train was more silent than she recalled, realising that since just before the magic, the engine had stopped making any noise and the only sound was wind and the gentle chunk chunk of the rail beneath her feet.
Gunther's turned to Scraps while he worked on his weapon. "We rang the dinner bell. See if the line is connected and tell them we are coming in a bit warm."
"Yes, boss," was Scraps' immediate answer, as she started fiddling with a more complex box of wires beneath a floor panel. Gunther continued on.
"Ka, I want you to keep watch. Hopefully, nothing, but we should be coasting in soon."
Pickle couldn't help but ask, "What do you mean, the Dinner Bell? Sir."
Gunther looked up from his weapon, almost surprised to see her. Ka quickly interjected, looking out at the golden scenery turning green. The noonday sun left almost no shadow as his deep voice cut clearly through the wind.
"We are a tower of little notice. Passing beneath the giants, we guard our wall without song. We hope to stay in balance, escaping magic or technology, drawing no undue audience to dance the deadly footsteps beneath our watch. Death, however, rings louder than any song of magic or symphony electronica."
The tall orc hand resting on his crossbow, staring out at the rushing scenery scanning for danger, was lost in words.
"Magic will draw attention as Malcolm has just shown you. Anything hotter or colder than expected will draw some attention. Magnetics, plasma, radiation, live wires or worst of all grav gel will draw them. I've heard they chomp Phantoms those brain boxes like candy, delicious little cyborgs. Though nothing draws the Wild more than death. You must have heard we eat no meat on the wall?"
Remembering her last warm meal of mushrooms, cheese and root veg. A fond recollection of flavour sitting cold in her stomach, the last slice of the ordinary she recalled. She had heard it was bad luck to eat meat. Ka did not wait on her response, continuing his monologue.
"Well, the killing of livestock or the decay of life draws attention. I hear some organisations use synth meat or just shield their canteens, but most old towers have no murder on them. No one dies on the wall, not truly. Burial and cremation have both drawn too much attention in the past. No death or killing. Bar that in defence of the wall. Even then, wounding or driving away is preferable. Though the captain had to put down that Six Stalk fast, it being south of the wall. He could have put it out of commission without death if he had the option."
Gunther cut in, "Dunno, tough to kill. Thought first shot would do." He shrugged unconcernedly at the encounter. It was then that Scraps approached with an ancient-looking telephone on a wire leading into the floor near the engine.
"Lines scratchy boss, but I got Leon on the other end." Scraps handed over the phone before rushing off to return to work on the engine. As Gunther had a gruff, short conversation over the phone, the Doc joined them upfront. Gunther paused for a moment, making eye contact with her, and she gave a slight nod and smile. Gunther continued on the phone.
"What is that about?" Pickle asked, turning to Doc. Doc seemed to cast off her professional concern and adopt her relaxed tone from early.
"Oh nothing, Pumpkin. The old captain just wanted to know our resident mage was fine and dandy, which he is."
"I thought comms were a problem on the wall?"
"Oh no, papa hooked this up on the line. Well, the last bit of track, at least. Sets off an automated alarm letting the tower know something is coming on the track and provides a line to piggyback on. Scraps will be dumping some power into the line from the braking system as we come in."
Pickle nodded, not entirely following Gunther's conversation but desperate for information. She asked, "We arriving soon then?" making to peer forward, looking for the end of the tracks.
"Oh yes. Pumpkin, come on up top. Let me show you before we pull in."
Doc grabbed Pickle's hand in both of hers and pulled her back towards the large pile of cargo stacked in the middle of the train. Securely fastened. The Doc led her upwards, showing the obvious handholds though Pickle did not need the help. She had climbed and fallen off this particular pile once already. Thank you very much. This was old hat.
They both reach the top of the pile to sit down. Wind blasting in their faces. Harsh noon sun with barely any shadow in any direction left the terrain sharply lit. Behind them, from where they came, the terrain was dust and golden grass with spindly trees dotting the landscape in tiny clusters. Small Kopje dotting the horizon but no sign of the civilisation they left behind bar the train tracks. The discarded wild body, a black speck now fading into the horizon.
The terrain ahead of them was lush with patches of green trees, and the grass was washed with more green than gold. The ground was much less visible between low bushes and growth. Trees more plentiful but younger in their growth. Less old baobabs and more mopane and marula trees. Their big bushy green spheres and umbrella of green.
It was comforting to see all the life. Off to the left, past the tree line, she could see a white tower stretching into the sky. It was maybe as tall as a seven-storey building, hard to tell with the trees. She thought it was less than thirty meters into the sky but definitely more than twenty. What was strange was its shape. It glistened white with a rounded top. The sun reflecting off glass windows and solar panels.
It looked like a giant's tictac dropped onto the horizon like some comical joke. A train line was similar to the one they were on now cut through the landscape not far to the west. Leading to the tower. She guessed it branched off the line they were previously on.
"Medpoll research and development tower. We don't talk to them much outside the captain's call once a week. They are arseholes, but they shield pretty well. See that white paint apparently, it is a new shielding tech of some sort. Still, they get more beasties than us."
Pickle looked at the Doc, her red hair blowing in the wind, the braids flapping. She noticed the black ribbons holding them, her gaze distracted and fixating on them. The Doc didn't seem to notice, instead turning to look to her right as if Pickle was looking past her.
It was then she noticed the sleek black needle tower. Not an actual needle but rather a black triangle with its tallest edge facing out to the wild. The building bristled with equipment and gun emplacements. At about the halfway point, there was a small landing pad of sorts. The needlepoint must have been ninety or so meters from the ground. It was almost lost in the sun glinting high above, though she expected it cast a long shadow south most times of the day. The low winter sun high but slightly to the north put the southern side in shadowed relief.
Doc wrapped her arms around herself, holding her shoulders as if she had just noticed the cold from the wind. "Mars Weapons System Tower. You know them big weapons manufacturer. Used to be old Keeplan's tower before the swarm twelve years back. The company sold their plot after then. Old man Keeplan lost the will aftermost his company was slaughtered. We tried to help. They were low emission like us. Used to be dozens on the wall. Mars makes a lot of noise. They like killing beasties to test new weapons out."
"I can't see our tower," Pickle was peering as hard as she could to the gap ahead. All green trees and some of the stone hill Kopje.
"Well, that is the point, silly Pumpkin. Low profile and low emissions." Doc pointed her finger ahead, tracing one particular outcrop. "See that one there."
Looking ahead through the crisp, clear air with the wind directly blowing into her eyes, drying them out, she could just about make out the shape.
"That is our home. You will see the metal once we are close, but dad likes the rock on the south end to hide some bits. Need to keep the tower clean, so nothing can climb up easy."
Home. Without knowing it, Pickle found herself rolling the word over her tongue. She hadn't really thought of the club as home. Queenie had given her a small room docking rent from her wage. Nothing much more than a bedsit. Small single bed with a tiny desk and a few drawers under the bed. There was a slimline closet in which she could hang a few dresses but not much else. Maybe a square meter of floor to stand-in. Lock on the door, but of course, Queenie had the override code. Better than a cap bunk.
Those small honeycombed capsule hotels were filled with little coffins. Many mercs or travelling freelancers hired those out for the few nights they were in town. Though those with a bit of cash splurged on a hotel room. The brave or foolish stayed in the hostels, though unless you were a squad or hooked up with the local gang, that was silly and a surefire way to end up poorer in the morning. If you woke up.
She knew of some tribal plots, corporate campuses, or embassy grounds which all had on-site housing. A few wealthier folks, merchants or free agents had genuine homes, but the urban sprawl was much tighter these days. People didn't like suburbs spilling out into the countryside.
If you live outside the city, you were in a walled community with private security or on a farm complex much the same. She thought back to the mining barracks, her earliest bunk. The little sleep she got was in whichever cot was empty. Any privacy she had was contained in a small locker with a combination lock on. The lock was a joke which could be kicked open. No one kept anything of value in there. A place for some bedding and a spare rag or two. You kept anything of value on you always.
No, she had never had anywhere she would call home. She had a few favoured street spots she knew you could get a good kip in. Where the cold or rain wouldn't get, others where the heat or wind wouldn't. Never both. Each hideaway comes with its own perils. Even the soup kitchen old Ghilli ran was more a stopover. The nuns had been lovely, but beds had been few, and once she was better, it was best to move on. Home.
"Well, I have never known any place else. Mum had me on the wall in this tower. Pa says not a single creature attacked that week. Like I was blessed."
Pickle was pulled out of her memories by Sarah's words. She was still huddled up against the cold wind. Though now, instead of her arms wrapped around herself, they were tight against her chest as she felt a small golden locket around her neck. The shallow oval gleamed. It was the sort that held a photo. Pickle didn't need telling. She put her arm over Sarah's shoulder.
"Don't think I've ever called a place home," admitted Pickle. The was silence for a while, then a tiny sniffle from Sarah. Feeling the awkward silence pull the words out of her, she continued. "Well, I moved around a lot from place to place. Had a warm bed the last few years, but that wasn't always true. Been lucky the last few years." Pickle noticed Sarah rubbing the locket.
The silence stretched on. She wasn't sure if Sarah was listening or lost in dark memories. She could feel the sadness and didn't want to leave her drowning. "Home." She rounded her lips around the sound. She didn't want to think about her childhood either.
Not that there was much to say. Her mother was a distant memory lost to dust or whatever the old-timey high was of the time. She didn't blame her. She was human, or at least some of the guards seemed to remember her as such. That made her think about the day her ears started to point. She squeezed Sarah tight. These were dark thoughts indeed.
They lingered there for a while with the wind and cold.
While watching the greenery envelop them and the veld vanish, they spotted a large white bird in the sky. Sarah pointed up at it, adding, "That glider is back. We should go tell the boys in case they have not spotted it yet."
Rubbing her eyes, Sarah tucked the locket away and stood up. Bending down before leaving and placing a small kiss atop Pickle's head. "Thanks, Pumpkin. We will be home soon."
Smiling awkwardly, Pickle waved Doc off and watched the glider as Doc clambered down the pile. As Doc descended down the cargo pile, the glider descended in the sky. Doc in a mostly straight line going from handhold to handhold the glider in a spiralling down towards the white tictac tower. Closer now, she could see the red cross in a circle. Emblem of Medpoll bright red on the white wings of the glider.
The glider was unlike any shuttle or transport she had seen before. Her closest point of reference was a street merchant in Harare who sold toy planes for kids to throw. Made of balsa wood, they included a propeller with elastic you could wind up. Throwing them, you would see the little prop spin and pull them forward into flight. She had fixed a broken one once, discarded on the side of the road. It had only needed some tape. Amazing what tape could fix. She had played with that discarded plane for hours.
It had nothing on the mech drones with their noisy engines and small power cells. Flying at high speeds, flipping and turning on a dime. A toy plane like this glider needed a long time to wheel around. Formal lady in white gently dancing across the sky. No bending of wing or whirr of the engine, just a gentle twirl of motion and momentum.
She thought back to all the larger grav craft. Anything she could think of which was big enough to carry a human was equipped with grav gel. The distortion wake left everywhere by the gel was the sign of civilisation. The saying went city folk looked straight ahead round the next corner. She had always heard that remark from tribals talking about how tricky city folk were. Or from corp serfs talking about how city people tended to think in circles. Though most who lived it knew with pride that danger and opportunity were always hiding in the side alley.
Though in a thick enough wake, you could see the light bend around a corner. She had heard some of the kingdoms had strict limits on grav in city limits, but, well, most places the distortion wakes were like the smell of progress. Though if the trail was thick enough, you could sometimes smell or taste it. To her, it was always a sharp tin smell of burnt metal. Tangy on the tongue with a slick after taste which made her want to drink something warm.
Breathing in the fresh clean air, she could smell new growth and dry dirt on the wind. The low humidity and cool air dried out her skin and made her hair feel like thatch. She noticed the glider was dropping something a recess on the bottom of its hull. The small white box fell and was caught in a net almost invisible attached to the side of the tower. The glider continued to spiral downwards. Pulling tighter and tighter.
She could see the entire craft clearly now. The small pilot was using sharp turns to descend at speed. She had no idea how the glider would land on the round top. Watching with fascination, expecting a smoking wreck any minute. Suddenly the glider pulled out of its spiral. Widening its approach, it just clipped the top of the tower. Flying maybe a meter above, it snagged a small case onto a hook suspended beneath it. The small package flapped in the wind like the Doc's braid.
The glider then pulled up all the energy going into a climb. Moments later, the sound of the motor spinning up reached her, the craft pulling itself forward like the toy used to. Deeper in pitch than the toy. Infinitely louder than the silent grav gel but softer than the chem rockets she had seen. It was a new sound, so the propellers must have just turned on to aid the climb.
With the airshow over and cold in the rushing wind, she decided to climb down the leeward side of the cargo pile. Escaping the wind briefly. At the bottom, she found Malcolm snoozing in his preferred spot among the cargo and the little clerical man making some notes in a notebook with a pencil.
"It seems strange, doesn't it, Ms Pickle." He tapped the pencil on the page then secured it, closing the notebook to look at her.
"What?" Once again, feeling the little geek's academic look, she felt like she needed to make a better showing of her education. Such as what it is. "Strange how Northkit."
"Northcott madam if you please. Virgil, if you find that too formal." He paused, allowing his correction to stand clear before continuing onto his preferred subject.
"Why the glider, of course. Though plane would be more accurate as it seemed to leave under power. Why go to all the trouble and expense of building an ancient plane to avoid grav gel only to equip it with an engine. Do you suppose they used plasma cells or chemical fuel?"
"Chemical fuel?" Pickle asked, confused how guns applied here.
"Oh, a few drill heads are still run occasionally though they are risky operations. You can still get old-style fossil fuels though most oil goes to other manufacturing. Solar, thermal or even drawn down from gravity harvests are cheaper. Though I'm told, chemical fuel draws less attention. I must ask Gunther. I wonder if the northern tribes have any fuel sources they use."
Pickled had heard about the head hunters, cannibals and other inhuman tribes which lived among the monsters. "I thought they were all devolved?"
"Oh no, propaganda mostly. They are different. Though of course, we know many countries and almost a billion souls were lost on this continent during the wilding all those years back. Of course, some would find a way to continue. Other's it said are so far from human well..."
"I never got that. Why didn't we hold onto more?"
"We tried, oh we tried very hard, but in the end, this beachhead of Azania and some isolated areas up north were all we could hold. It happened too fast, and we had too much going on at home to care. People never really cared for Africa, even before magic. It was just a convenient place to hide our crimes, Europeans that is and of course Asia in older and more recent times. The cradle of our birth, how we must hate our mother."
What a strange little man, she thought. She was reminded again of how pleasant his voice was when not being rude. It was calm, with every word carefully picked out, not a wasted breath in a sentence. There is no doubt about the exact tone and meaning behind each word like there would be a test later. Not flowery like Ka'Shek or slithering like Malcolm. Just polished. He continued on, switching the topic on her again.
"Have you spent much time in the outdoors?"
"Travelling place to place, not much."
The little clerk adjusting his round glasses on the bridge of his nose looked directly at her.
"Well, you will be spending a great deal of it soon. I confess that's my first time on the wall or in the true Wilderness. The Free Republic doesn't count, I'm told since the council reclaimed it."
"Are you with the government?"
"Oh heavens no," he smiled, amused at the question. "I worked for a small consultancy company, Thunder Limited. My employer hired Mr Gunther for a limited service. So I might spend some time in his tower observing his rather unique stratagem."
"What kind of research would someone want to do on the wall?" she asked, genuinely curious.
"Plenty. Many of the towers are mostly funded by research. Such as the Medpoll tower we were just observing. This is the edge of beyond. The frontier with as much to be discovered here as any frontier. In truth, my enquiries are much milder focused on this company and its methods. Low emission towers are exceedingly rare, and this is one of the longest still standing."
"This tower is special?"
"Partly, all towers practice waste reduction except those who thrive on kill count or weapons testing. Such as our dark neighbours to the east."
The little man cleaned his glasses with a cloth and then pointed at the tall black needle tower. He placed them back and continued on. "To a greater or lesser extent. Though almost all use plasma as their primary power source with other methods as fallback or complement. None other depend on Gunther's methods. Not anymore. Yup, Gunther's section hasn't breached in decades."
This news came as a shock to Pickles, "The wall has been breached?"
"Oh, of course, think back to our little roadside attraction we had. It is not actually a wall in most places, but a range of sentry towers, some large, other's small. A virtual wall of firepower holding back the Wilderness. There have been slip-ups and even large scale ones. News doesn't cover it much."
"Surely people would want to know?" She asked, incredulous at the deception. Bloody corps hide everything.
The little man shrugged. "Those interested enough to ask, know."
She was confused by the different approaches to the towers, expecting a more uniform design. Though in truth, her watching of the companies and train station had only ever shown an eclectic mix of society, she supposed she was naive to think it wouldn't be like that at the wall as well.
"It is ultimately a business like any other Ms Pickle. Hence your shares, or stake as I believe you people call it. You bought registered voting shares which entitle you to seasonal payout of profits as per the company charter, did you not?"
She glanced down at her wrist, the small metal plate still fresh and new to her. Strange but sunk into her flesh. All signs of the binding cord now gone, dissolved into her flesh. You would need to cut her up to remove it now.
"Well anyway, the tower earns a fixed commission for defending a section of the wall. A fixed agreed fee is adjusted on an annual basis by the Azania government. This stipend is the primary source of income for Gunther's Guns. There are, of course, payments for kill count and some bounties. Surge fees and the like. Though in truth, most towers make their money through research, testing or some other mix of money making methods. Such as staging areas for incursions."
This was all news to her, though not entirely new information. She still had the image from the holos burnt in her mind. Brave soldiers fighting on the wall defending humanity from the roiling hordes of the Wild. Waiting for any moment when society could be wiped off the continent by a break in the wall. Storylines and films were always about some brave hero saving or evil villain endangering the sanctity of the defence.
The hole is always being plugged at the last moment. No creature ever breaks through the brave heroes and flawed anti-heroes bravely defending with whatever blend of romance, comedy or mystery your particular sub-genre mixed into the tale. This cynical bean counter and imperfect view of the ultimate human defensive line was just... well, real. She supposed.
She cursed herself for being a naive kid. Thinking back to the dead monster along the side of the train tracks. This was reality. Not the show on the boards with makeup and lighting hiding all the imperfections while the music and dazzle drew out for every dream. This was backstage with the grit, cussing and piss soaked leggings as dancers worked blisters and tried to get the stench off with wipes as the shower cubicle was broken again. Drain clogged with hair and glitter.
She had once heard all of life was a stage, but in her experience, a small portion of it was in the spotlight. Most of her experience was in the messy backstage with crying, underpaid performers and sweaty customers paying for the filthy disappointing reality of their dreams. Backstage where the world was dark, nothing made sense, and you heard the distant clapping and saw the lights flooding into the wings. Hinting at another better world if only you could reach it.
It was at that moment, lost in the dark thoughts, that the sun vanished. The canopy of trees quickly enveloped the sky. It was at that moment she realised that for the last while she had been feeling a gentle feeling drawing her to the front of the train now become a sharp breaking motion. No instant jerk but more instant as the speed was bled off the train.
It dipped and sunk beneath the ground as they pulled into a covered trainyard. The wind gone, the train finally came to a halt. The tunnel was wider than she expected but still relatively narrow. Illuminated by small red lights, the darkness was held back by a wash of red now colouring everything in sight. A looming set of metal doors stood in their way, blocking any hope of travelling forward.
Pickle stepped away from the little clerk and towards the front on the other side of the cargo pile. Sarah and Ka starting to unclip cargo holding lines. Working at a fast but unhurried pace, efficient. Gunther was still holding his rifle, looking about the place with an air of inspection. Scraps running around at speed tending to her engine, working through some complex docking process.
It was at this point she noticed the doors swinging closed behind them. They moved without sound, smoothly closing inwards. She noticed there was a tiny gap between the doors where they met the track. Big enough, a small child could crawl through on their belly.
The doors gave a loud clunk of closing with some locking mechanism engaging. It was perhaps not as loud as she thought, but the enclosed space enlarged the sound. Hearing the sound continue in front, like a stereo dial yanking from ear to ear. She saw the doors ahead open up towards them. She noticed with approval that this set of doors seemed to have a gap blocker where the previous one did not. A small seam was present, but no child would crawl through these metal doors with strong rivets.
Once the doors were halfway open, the train again had a small puff of speed, drawing it into berth. The end of the line was just big enough for the train. Not more than a meter of space was left as the train gently tapped against the cushioned rubber end stops. The doors now closing behind them.
The arched ceiling of brick enclosed two platforms on either side. Awash in red light, her eyes were immediately drawn to a weathered figure sitting on a wooden box smoking a pipe and an old man in overalls working a control console next to him. The smoker pulled on his pipe and blew out a small cloud of smoke in a large ring which he then shot a dart of smoke through as an idle afterthought. In thickly accented tones, the man greeted them all.
"Welkom home, shamwari."
This is an ongoing web novel updated every Thursday. I really hope you enjoy it, this is my first attempt but I've spent a lot of time in this world, over two decades. Running roleplaying campaigns, writing comics and creating stories so it feels really natural to tell a story in this world.