Chapter four: Out in the Darkness

Sentinels, chapter four: Out in the Darkness

The Near Reaches of Outer Claslat were a maze of chambers and tunnels, descended into pitch darkness. Endless chasms gasped amidst jungle of wires hanging from the ceiling twenty feet above. Huge, incomprehensible machines rumbled, while mechanical custodians swarmed over them, making repairs, greasing wheels, clearing away debris and carrying away whatever components or materials they produced. Lakes of pale acid glittered menacingly in the light of electrical arcs. Tubes the size of metropolis streets leaked steam from their joints, giving off moans like those of injured animals.

A resounding roar of engines and a deafening clatter of metal wheels broke through the eternal night, shattering it with the piercing glare of powerful headlights. The Harmegis Express tore through, seven long wagons pulled by a black, bullet-shaped locomotive, trailing sooty smoke from its boilers and sparks from where the wheels ground against the tracks. The machine spirits who dwelled in the Reaches spent barely so much as a glance at the tram. It was only one machine among a myriad, and the fact that this one carried human beings meant nothing to them.

In one of the two passenger carts sat Force of Brutal Necessity, on her way to Harmegis. The cart was perhaps five times three yards, holding stuffed leather seats next to a square metal table, three fold-out beds and a space for the passengers’ luggage. The air smelled of smoke and oil and cleaning fluids.

The other two passengers in the cart had been giving Force nervous looks since they left Tol two hours ago, but so far kept to themselves.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force sat with her back ram-rod straight. For the past two hours she had catalogued her surroundings, engaged in subtle but lingering scrutiny of her short-time companions and immersed herself in the machine-scape as it flashed by. Now, she had exhausted all other avenues and was left only with her thoughts.

She hated this past time most of all – sitting, waiting. At least when she rode her mech-strider, she would plot the course, navigate her surroundings. Here, there was nothing but her own mind to keep her – and her mind was not a comfortable place to stay.

“Well, it’s going to be a long journey,” one of Force‘s companions piped up, speaking with the forced-cheerful tone of someone who is trying to be outgoing despite having no actual inclination for it. "We should get to know each other, shouldn’t we? My name is Tul, cleric of Sector Seventeen."

She was a pale, slender woman of indeterminate age. Her black hair was arranged into a tight bun on the top of her head, secured with a golden pin with a cogwheel-shaped head, and she wore a cleric’s simple white robe beneath an elaborate coat adorned with an intricate pattern of interlocking gears. She carried herself in a prim, somewhat unsettling fashion – everything she said sounded like there were quotation marks around it.

The man in the cart just muttered something under his breath and remained captivated by a data slab he was working on. He was elderly, with long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, a bushy beard and a preoccupied air. He wore a normal Populat overall, but there was a gold emblem on his breast, and his soulgem was purple and diamond-shaped, showing him to belong to a Sodality.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force looked from the woman to the man and stated, flatly: “I am Force of Brutal Necessity, Alchemical Exalted of Claslat.”

“Oh, yes, I recognise you from your posters,” Tul said, smiling unconvincingly. “It’s a great honour to meet you. Why are you going to Harmegis – if it isn’t classified, of course?”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“I am persuing a person of interest.” Force blinked once, decided that this inanity was at least better than the cast of her thoughts, and continued speaking. “What is your business in Harmegis?”

“Oh, I have been invited to hold a lecture on the methods we have used to pacify the metal elementals in the caverns around Tol,” Tul said.

A lie. Force was sure of it. A pretty skillful one, but a lie, nonetheless – Tul was just a little too forceful about it.

“What about you, citizen?” she said. “Come, come, asocial behaviour is not the way of the Great Maker. Is that not so, Champion Force?”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“Neither is telling falsehoods to your Champions,” Force intoned.

Tul boggled.

“What?” she said. “But I didn’t… I…”

The man gave off a nasty, angry laugh.

“See the virtue of silence, woman?” he said. “We all have our little secrets. Are you that sure that you want to talk to someone is custom-made to root them out?”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“If either of you have information that need be reported to the Regulators, now is an appropriate junction to do so,” Force said into the silence generated by the man’s rhetorical questions. “Infractions occuring subsequent to this date will be looked upon harshly if not remedied at the present moment.”

“N-no,” Tul said. “The Regulators already… No.”

Force believed that protestation, at least.

The man grimaced, his expression holding a complicated mix of emotions – humour and anger and stubbornness and self-contempt.

“I am Romm, of the Luminors,” he said. “I am going to Harmegis for a seminar on heat distribution through crystalline structures. I do not wish to make small talk and I do not wish to confess any crimes at this time.”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“I accept your inclinations,” Force said. “Tul of Secot Seven, if you wish to continue making small talk, I will receive you for the remainder of the journey.”

“I, ah… thank you,” Tul said in a small voice. She seemed to have lost all desire for talking, though.

The door to the cabin opened, letting in the ruckus of the tram’s progress through the Reaches – to pass between the carts, you needed to walk across the bridge between them, out beneath the distant ceiling of the cavern. A rat-like little woman stepped in. Her hair was prematurely grey, and she had a round, black soulgem.

“Good citizens,” she said, her eyes carefully on the floor, “the honourable Citizen Nach desires your company for dinner in his cabin.”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force stood sharply as the door slid open with a rattling screech. When the woman spoke, Force’s eyes narrowed. “To what purpose?”

“For recreation,” the woman said humbly. “For the hope of stimulating conversation between elevated intellects with some understanding of the situation in our Nation. And because close social ties is pleasing to the Great Maker, of course.”

Tul did not look happy to have her earlier sentiments echoed back at her, but she got up from her seat.

“Well!” she said. Her voice had gotten back a shadow of its previous well-aren’t-we-having-a-nice-time crispness. “I suppose it would be most inappropriate to refuse such an invitation.”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force supposed it would be against her offical image to turn own socialising – given her recent past, it might even come to be a mark against her record if she continued her isolated ways. It was part of her duty to set an example to the Populat. “I suppose it would,” Force concurred. “Lead on.”

To her surprise, Romm got to his feet as well – not happily, but quickly.

“I suppose I could do with a meal,” he said gruffly.

The mousy woman led the way across the bridge between carts – there were no handrails; Autochtonians strongly believed that if you were aware of a hazard, you were perfectly capable of looking out for the hazard, and so Autochtonian structures had plenty of warning signs, but little in the way of physical constraints – and into the next cabin. It was much the same as the other one, except that a large, rectangular table had been folded up in the middle. A very large man, his frame thick with fat and muscle alike, sat at its head, clad in an elegant suit of finest artificial silk. His face was ruddy, with bad skin, and he had an air of menacing smugness to him, like a man who loves himself all the more for knowing that others hate him. His soulgem was round and black, marking him as Populat.

“There you are,” he grunted. “Sit, sit. I’m Nach, formerly of Harmegis – now a bit of a world citizen, har, har. Bann will serve us some food. From the stores I brought, not this slop they serve us on the tram.”

He squinted at Force.

“You really are a Champion, huh?” he said. “Har! Do you people even eat?”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“Eating is useful to ensure peak effiency, as it is for you.” Force said, as she sat at the table, opposite Nach.

Romm and Tul sat down on opposite sides of Nach, Romm looking resigned, Tul looking a mix between worried and angry. The servant – Bann, apparently – went over to a counter to the left, fiddling with some metal containers there.

“Excellent, excellent,” Nach rumbled. “Never been face to face with a Champion before – well, there was that time when I had to run away from one after a bit of a misunderstanding, but that was more like face to ass, har!”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“What kind of misunderstanding?” asked Force, not bothering to sound uninterested for the sake of subtlety.

“Eh, there were some components who needed to get to a factory,” Nach said. “Being an enterprising fellow, I tried to make sure they got there. But the Regulators seemed to have gotten the idea that they’d been smuggled in from Yugash. I wouldn’t know anything about that, of course. And what does it matter, I say, as long as the Machine God’s most hallowed factories go on running, har!”

Force could tell that he was lying, since he made absolutely no effort to sound sincere. He didn’t think she could do anything to him. There he was of course greatly mistaken.

“Now, here comes our last quests…” Nach said, half-turning.

The door leading to the locomotive opened, and two men came in. Both of them were Populat, with black, round soulgems. They wore black overalls and looked a bit schwartzy and dirty, and also somewhat uneasy with being in this company. They were completely alike, twins.

“This is Neqq and Darr,” Nach said. “Don’t ask me which is which, because no mortal man could tell, har! They’re the ones responsible for getting us all to Harmegis, so I thought they deserved to have a bite as well.”

“Greetings, citizens,” Neqq (possibly) said nervously. Darr (maybe) mumbled something similar.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“Responsible for getting us to Harmegis? Did you construct this train? Do you drive it?” Force asked, turning her attention to the newcomers.

“Yes, Champion,” Neqq said. He smiled hopefully. “My brother and I are the engineers of the Harmegis Express. Not that it needs much steering, of course – it has a state of the art guidance system – but we are responsible for stepping in and righting any problems that might occur.”

The twins sat down on each side of Force.

Force noticed that they both wore a pair of matching, thick leather bracelets. They were heavier than they looked, she guessed, from the weighty way that the twins moved their arms – there was metal or something like it inside of them.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force nodded crisply. “And the purpose of our all meeting presently?” she enquired.

“Must I have a reason?” Nach said. He tutted. “We are all on this journey together, should we not take the opportunity to get to know each other? Possibly even exchange some ideas about the state of our Nation and what we, as good citizens can do about it?”

“But you’re not a good citizen!” Tul snapped. Apparently she had been holding this back for a while now. “You’re… you’re a Glot Baron, aren’t you?”

Nach smiled lazily.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” he said.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force said nothing. She knew the history behind glots. They had been introduced as an incentive – but that incentive had unintended consequences. She knew the Regulator’s stance on Glot Barons was unsteady – the Barons were disliked by those in power, precisely because they had found their own way to garner it had nothing to do with the State.

They were not, however, about to openly condemn their own incentive scheme, or risk moral decline by revoking it altogether.

Bann opened a row of flat, cylindrical containers standing over on a long table to the left. Each one contained some form of refined slurry, in the form of pellets in a thick sauce, in the form of a light soup, in the form of solid cakes, in the form of thin, fine slices. Each dish smelled good, whether spicy or rich or sweet or tangy. Bann brought forth square metal plates and cutlery and laid them out on the table.

“It is,” Tul said. “You work to enrich yourself, completely ignoring the needs of the Nation, completely ignoring the will of the Great Maker…”

“Oh, cleric, you get me all wrong,” Nach said. He dug into his meal with good appetite. “I am encouraging people to work even harder by giving them extra incentives. Lose money gambling? Now you have to take extra shifts to earn the money to pay me back. Want some fun times with my prostitutes? Extra shifts to pay for it. You want music, decorations, privately made clothes, education? Extra shifts, extra shifts, extra shifts.”

“Yes, but…” Neqq grimaced uneasily. “All those extra shifts aren’t always a good thing. We’ve had a lot more accidents in the tram system in the last few years, because people are overworked and make more mistakes.”

“Exactly!” Tul said. “If the Tripartite thought that working everyone until they dropped was optimal, they would order three-shift days.”

“Well, who says that the Tripartite always knows best?” Nach said with dignity. “People like me, we’re the future. We’ll make Claslat greater than ever, through some personal initiative. Just you wait and see.”

Force of Brutal Necessity:
“The Tripartite has the ultimate word,” Force stated, but even she felt her words were dull in contrast with Nach’s own, so she continued, albeit a little unsure. This was not her domain. “Your scheme has the potential to create desperate inequality and unhappiness.”

“Of course. Of course.” Nach smiled greasily at Force. “I’m a law-abiding citizen, me. Wouldn’t dream of doing anything the Tripartite told me not to. But anything the Tripartite hasn’t said isn’t fair game, well, that’s left up to our best judgment, right? And as for potential…” He burped. “You can’t get anywhere without taking a few risks. Think that one might even be in the Tome of the Great Maker.”

Tul didn’t dignify that with a response, which probably meant that it was true.

“How about you, Romm, old buddy?” Nach said. “Aren’t you going to help me out here? You’re a big supporter of free enterprise, aren’t you?”

Romm gave Nach a look of unadulturated loathing, and said nothing.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force sat in silence, possibly in solidarity with Romm, or possibly because she had absolutely nothing to add.

“Aw, come on now,” Nach said. “I’ll tell them if you don’t.” He grinned at the others. “Romm likes his gambling. He’s been a patron of my establishments at times. Well, where’s the shame in it, I say, as long as you pay back what you lose? Look at Bann – she owes me some Glots too, but here she is, working off every last one. Wouldn’t know what to do withot her. I might just have to find a way to make her owe me some more before she’s finished, because I’d hate to let her go, har!”

Bann looked away, her face tight.

“You all need to learn to see the benefits of progress!” Nach said. He raised his glass. “I’ll drink to that, if no one else will! To taking opportunities when they arise!”

The lights went out, throwing the cabin into pitch darkness. From ahead, there was the screeching sound of engines powering down. There were shouts and exclamations and much rattling of chairs.

Force of Brutal Necessity:
Force was on her feet before the carriage had stopped – she rocked her weight back as it settled to a halt. “Stay where you are!” she shouted.

There was a loud, electric noise, and a strong burned scent reached Force’s nose.

“What’s going on?” someone shouted. Force was pretty sure it was Bann.

“Power malfunction… where’s my handlight…” someone else mumbled, either Darr or Neqq.

Before anyone could do anything more, the lights switched back on.

Tul was still in her seat, trembling at Nach’s shoulder, but pulled back with a scream when she realised that he was sitting tilted back in his chair, a horrific, twisted grin on his face, and with dark smoke rising from him – clearly and horribly dead. Romm sat leaning forward, looking sick. Bann was fumbling with something over by the counter. Neqq and Darr were both on their feet, caught in the motion of fumbling their way to the engine cart.

Force saw each of their faces. Tul, horrified; Romm, sick and resigned, not appearing to have noticed what was goin on yet; Neqq and Darr, intent and serious; Bann, frightened and wide-eyed.

It seemed that she was back to work.



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