We had been traveling with the flow of traffic for several hours since leaving Watu Djamus, and the sun was getting quite low in the sky, when I caught a peculiar sound from behind. Turning, I saw an astonishing sight on the rail line paralleling us. A train was coming up fast, doing about eighty, I guessed, and above the brilliant glow of the headlight rose a huge plume of white smoke.
"A steam locomotive?" I said in astonishment. "Here?"
Kiri chuckled. "I told you the technology mix on Deshtiris was bizarre. They're avoiding using normal energy sources for anything except military aircraft and the transformers like the one at Tar Deshta. The process they use to manufacture artificial petroleum for these antiquated motor vehicles produces a combustible substance similar to coal as a by-product. And steam locomotives are much easier to manufacture than diesels. So what could be more logical than to use them for transportation?" A moment later the locomotive was passing us, the traditional "chuff chuff" speeded up into a shuddering roar, followed by the heavy metallic clatter of the freight cars.
"I can't believe how much that looks like an Earth locomotive," I said admiringly. I had only seen steam locomotives in movies, but even on a 2D screen in black and white they had been impressive. Here it was overwhelming.
"It should look familiar," Kiri snorted. "It's built from plans for a Nickel Plate Berkshire type, circa 1943. When someone here got the idea to use steam for locomotion, it was easier to copy the plans from an Earth library than to design one from scratch." The train appeared to be carrying a wide variety of freight, including many boxcars, some tank cars, and a number of flatcars bearing Brizal motor vehicles. There were also a few empty flatcars mixed in here and there.
"That is so cool," raved Senaria, her eyes wide, as the train pulled past us. "Too bad we can't hitch a ride." Kiri turned and stared at her, until Zyanita nervously mumbled "Uh, Kiri, the road..."
"Will, get me the road map," Kiri abruptly demanded. "It's in that compartment there. Oh, don't let it blow away, for god's sake." Baffled, I found the map and unfolded it, and Kiri traced the road we were traveling between glances at the highway ahead. Apparently finding what she wanted, she emitted a gleeful laugh. "Senaria, you're a genius!"
"What?!" said Senaria, as puzzled as anyone.
"Will, you show her," Kiri retorted impatiently. Quite as mystified as Senaria, I just sat openmouthed. Finally she broke down and explained. "Tar Deshta is located up in the mountains ahead; in fact, it was originally a mine before SamariCorp got into pharmaceuticals and turned it into a factory. The rail line takes the long way around while the highway goes directly up a steeper grade. There's a side road here," and she vaguely gestured at an indeterminate location on the map, "which follows the tracks part of the way. Once we're out of sight of the freeway we can overtake the train and hitch that ride."
"And then we just wait in the Futaba's living quarters while the train is inspected, and once inside we go about our business," finished Zyanita admiringly. "Not bad." Senaria beamed proudly.
Sure enough, we soon saw the flat plain ending in what appeared to be low hills rising ahead as the tracks began veering off to the right, the train itself long gone. A few minutes later we reached another exit, labeled only "Access Road," which we took. It turned out to be the remains of a paved road, now very bumpy and with most of the pavement long gone. Before long the freeway had begun climbing out of sight as we took the more roundabout route, and within another five minutes we were alongside the tracks again, feeling as if our teeth were going to be rattled out of our gums in spite of the truck's supposedly "enhanced" suspension.
Now out of view of the freeway, Kiri lifted the Futaba into the air and over the tracks and began accelerating until we were flying along at over ninety miles an hour. We easily overtook the train, already slowing on account of the mild grade, and since Deshtiran trains don't use cabooses (neither do American ones any more, by the way) we were able to fly over it and select a suitable empty flatcar without detection. The track was curving its way through a series of cuts, and we were well out of sight of the locomotive and its crew. A moment later we touched down and became just another unremarkable piece of freight.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now we hide in the living quarters until we're past the inspection point," Kiri answered, shutting down the Futaba's control console and switching off the truck's "motor." We all clambered over the seats and through the disguised entrance to the living quarters, Kiri entering a command into a keypad on the wall as she closed the door behind us. A clear window appeared in the gateway.
"Can't they see us in here when they do the inspection?" Senaria asked.
"No. This is a view screen, not a window," Kiri replied. "Also, I've disabled the latch on the other side. As far as they can tell, it's locked or jammed. I doubt if they'll make an issue of it at this time of night. Now we might as well make ourselves comfortable. It's probably going to be a long wait." She wasn't far wrong, either, as the train began slowing severely for the steepening grade, and was soon panting along at only fifteen miles an hour or so.
I suddenly started to laugh aloud. Seeing Kiri and the others staring at me in surprise, I explained, "Sorry, but it just hit me. Here I am on a planet thirty-five light-years from Earth, attacking a super-scientific enemy installation in a shape-shifting starship, hitching a ride on a railroad flatcar behind a 1950s-era steam locomotive."
"1940s era," Kiri corrected me with a grin.
"You forgot about the swords," added Senaria, also getting into the spirit of things. Zyanita of course failed to see any humor whatsoever in the situation.
Later that evening I asked Kiri a question that had been nagging at me ever since our misadventure at the crossroads. "Maybe I shouldn't bring this up," I said, quietly enough so that the others wouldn't hear, "but it's about what you said about killing that soldier." She looked at me expectantly. "You didn't seem to feel much remorse about those Brizali back on Earth that you nuked. What was the difference?"
"No, I didn't," she said without hesitation. "The Liquidators aren't sentient, first of all. They're more like biological machines than conscious beings. They have no will power, no conscience, and just enough programmed intelligence to follow orders without detailed explanations. Not to mention that they had obviously just murdered several innocent police officers. And the one human you
"Listen, Will," she added resolutely, "if we're successful, more people are going to die, and directly because of us. And most of them probably don't really know what it is that they're a part of. But if we don't
It was a good two hours, and pitch dark outside, before we began to see lights moving alongside the train through the viewscreen. It was an eerie feeling to see the motion through the little "window" but to feel absolutely no sensation of movement where we were standing (which was, of course, actually the case). In the meantime we had been reviewing the maps Zyanita had provided for Tar Deshta and particularly for its heart, the former SamariCorp plant.
Kiri unfolded a detailed map of the city. "There's the main roadway into the plant," she told us, tracing one of the many streets. "Obviously we can't go that way; it'll be heavily guarded. We've got to find another way across."
"Across what?" I asked. She explained that as the SamariCorp plant had expanded, the plateau it was situated on was expanded outward with earth fill and concrete until it jutted out a considerable distance from the mountain side. Since then the Brizali had dug a deep trench around the base of the fill as an additional security precaution, so that simply climbing up the concrete wall was out of the question.
The trench, or moat as I wryly thought of it, extended in a semicircle around the plant itself. Kiri pointed to a building at the edge of the trench on the plant side. "That's the building Jinhos was talking about: the tunnel starts in its basement. There's a small bridge or catwalk here," and she traced her finger along a narrow line crossing the trench, "which leads across directly into that building. If we can reach it we may be able to slip over without attracting a lot of attention."
Eventually the train came to a stop in a brightly lit railyard, and we could see inspectors in Brizal uniforms, bearing the same general-purpose support insignia that I had worn earlier, swarming over the various cars, cyber-clipboards in hand. As I had expected, the unfortunate fellow assigned to our car was obviously in a quandary, for after all this flat car was supposed to be empty. For some time he stood scratching his head in evident perplexity. Finally he left, returning with several other officers in Brizal secret police uniforms.
Kiri entered a command into the keypad, and now we could clearly hear their conversation, with the metallic sounds of the railyard in the background. For a few minutes they speculated on whether this could be the same vehicle used by the nefarious Qozernan spies reported earlier, and then proceeded to go over the vehicle with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. At one point they seemed to be looking directly at us through the viewscreen, but of course were actually only inspecting the rear door, which to them appeared solid.
Finally, after carefully examining the engine serial number and the embossed identification numbers on the sides (which Kiri had altered on our way to the freeway), they concluded that a clerical error must be at fault. Double-checking the computer records for the registration once more, and apparently finding the results to their satisfaction, they left, and a few minutes later the train clanked back into motion.
I suddenly realized that my heart had been pounding wildly, and took a deep breath. "Don't relax yet," Kiri said grimly. "This part was a piece of cake." She adjusted the viewscreen so that instead of looking into the Futaba's rear compartment we were looking out the back of the truck, making it considerably easier to see the landscape we were passing through. It appeared to be a small city, with street after street of cookie-cutter institutional dwellings and offices, broken up by the occasional corner convenience store. There was no sign of parks, monuments, or any attempt at more than functional architecture.
"Another fugly place to live," observed Senaria.
"No one's allowed here except Brizali and support staff," Kiri explained. "No families at all. It's just as well," she added darkly. Eventually we entered another railyard, this one much larger, and finally came to a stop. "Perfect," she said in satisfaction, "we're right alongside a street. I was afraid we'd end up surrounded by freight cars somewhere in the center." She took a deep breath.
"This is where it's really going to get dangerous," she said quietly to all of us. "Once we leave now, there's a good chance we won't be coming back, even if we're successful. If anyone wants to stay here, I'll understand. If we're not back by daybreak, you can transform Futaba and outrun anything they have in the air back to Qozernon. I've set the ship to respond to all of your voices." She looked at us, and behind her contacts I saw a momentary flash of green through the artificially small pupils as the light caught her eyes.
"I'm with you," I said.
Senaria was right behind me. "Of course I'm coming, you ditz."
"And I," said Zyanita.
Kiri looked away and said nothing for a few moments, then turned back to us. "You're all crazy," she said, "but I love you for it. All right, then. Whatever you do, don't bring along any maps or other stuff you shouldn't. If we are picked up, we might be able to bluff our way out since our computer records are good as far as we know. Let's go."
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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