“She says she can do it,” Campos told the other two, to whom Mavra’s words were just unpleasant squawking. “The trouble is, what would she do to as if we let her, eh? That is the problem. That is everybody’s problem with her.” “So where are we goin’ and what’re we gonna do?” Audlay asked her. “We are going to change trains a few times just for insurance’s sake, and then we are heading for another border. This is a nice place for a getaway, but it is hardly the kind of place where I think any of us want to spend more time than we have to. Have either of you ever been this way before?”
“I went down to the place in Agon a few times and once or twice to the islands, but that’s about it,” Kuzi told her. “I don’t think Audlay’s been out of Buckgrud since she ran away from the farm. Right?”
“That makes us all strangers, but I have more experience being a stranger in a new land than either of you,” Campos told them. “Still, I admit I have never been in this strange a place before. We need some information. We need to know what is in the hexes that are around this place.”
In a way, Clopta hadn’t been nearly as alien as she would have expected if she’d just heard of it. The buildings were odd, some of the customs were very strange, the people looked different and had in some cases different needs and comforts, but overall, it really hadn’t been that different from Earth. That was what had made it easy for her to fit into it. Deep down, they were the same sorts as those she’d known back home. Agon hadn’t been all that different, either, no matter how different the look of the people or what they ate or what their houses looked like, and some of the other races she’d met at the complex hadn’t been alien enough where it counted to really worry her. This, though, was unexpected. There were places, nearby places, on this world where things were so alien, she could not fit in. It had added a layer of difficulty almost from the beginning that she hadn’t counted on at all.
“Find one with power, a real bathroom, and running water,” Kuzi said, half in jest.
“It will get harder than this, I think!” Campos warned them. “We cannot use the modern hexes. Modern hexes have computers and electronic identity checks and efficient policemen and probably corrupt officials with ties to those we left behind. No matter where we go, we stick out. We are a different breed. Best for the time being to stick to places where it is difficult to find people who do not want to be found, where news travels very slowly, and where the government is a three-day ride. We need food, and shelter, and privacy. We must move until we find it.”
“What then?” Kuzi asked her. “We just sit and hope they bust Taluud and his whole rotten lousy crew?”
“For a start,” Campos told her. “Still, I feel that there is something else, something valuable that I am missing here that will be the answer to all our problems.”
“Yeah, well, so long as you have something they want, they’ll keep looking for us,” Kuzi noted.
Campos’s head snapped up, and her long lashes almost hit her forehead. “What was that? What did you say?”
“I just said that so long as we have the birdie and they want it, they’ll keep coming.”
“Yes! That’s if!”
“Huh?” the other two both said at once. “I wonder what price, what guarantees we might get at the highest levels for her. I have been an idiot! We have a treasure this whole world wants, no matter what the reason! It is simply a matter of making sure we can safely cash it in!”
“Yeah? How are you gonna do that?” Kuzi asked her. “You know Gen and his mob. Would you trust them on any deal once they had what they wanted and didn’t need us no more?”
“Not a bit,” Campos admitted. “But if it were from the government, in writing, and public, then perhaps it would be honored, no? A full amnesty, a full pardon for anything we might be charged with first and foremost. Some money-reward money-for returning what was lost. Quite a lot of money. Enough to buy all the finer things. A villa, perhaps, or a ranch, and some strong-necked, simpleminded men to carry out our orders and see to our needs. It has possibilities, does it not?”
“You think you can get ‘em to buy that?”
“Over time. It will have to be well thought out and carefully done, but yes, I think we can get at least that. But first we must have that place I spoke of.” “You mean the ranch with the cute dumb guys?” Audlay asked.
Campos ignored her. “We need to hide out for a bit. Make them uncomfortable, even desperate for a solution. Then we can make any sort of deal with confidence.”
She needed more than ever to find out about the hexes farther on. Somewhere on this crazy world, where every country seemed no larger than Ecuador, there was the kind of place she sought.
“Yes, three Cloptans, a horse, and a lot of baggage,” the colonel said. “We know they came at least this far.”
“Oh, yes,” the stationmaster responded, standing on her hind legs and looking very much like a parody of a human. “I remember ‘em. They did change here. Kind of odd, two groups of foreigners coming through. We don’t get much of that here, you know.”
The colonel and Taluud were counting on that. It had been frustrating to stop at every transfer point and make the queries, particularly with the train crews so insistent on keeping the schedule so perfectly, but it had paid off. “They took another train from here?” the colonel pressed impatiently. “Oh, yes.”
“Which train? Going where and in which direction?”
“You know, we’ve been hoping to replace the roof on the main silo over there before the rains come,” the stationmaster commented.
“Just let me have a few minutes with the little bug, boss,” one of the gunmen whispered to Taluud. “I’ll find out what we need.”
Taluud slapped the man hard in the face with the back of his hand. “Idiot!” he commented. He could estimate the number of bugs within shouting distance, and he didn’t like the mental image of what would happen to them if they roughed up the key official in town.
“So you need a new silo roof?” the colonel responded. “And how much will it take to get one made for you, say, in Clopta?”
“Oh, not a lot, but more’n we got,” the stationmaster responded. “Maybe six hundred units.”
Lunderman could hear Taluud choking slightly in back of him, but he knew how much cash the man had in those suitcases. “You’ll have your new roof, sir. Now, as to the others?”
“Train 1544,” the stationmaster responded. “Eastbound.”
“When is the next train due in that direction, if I may ask?”
“Oh, there’ll be one by in an hour and forty-one minutes,” the station master responded, looking at the enigmatic station clock.
“Then we’d also like passage on it when it arrives. How much will that be?” “Can’t say,” the Mixtimite told him. “I don’t know how far you want to go.” “How far did they buy passage to?”
“End of the line. That’d be the Hawyr border.”
Gen Taluud saw a long string of such transactions ahead and groaned. “Don’t worry so much,” the colonel told him. “After all, they don’t have nearly the cash with them that you do. They can’t keep this up for long.” “Long enough,” Gen Taluud growled, turning to one of the gunmen. “Pay the man. And add six hundred for his damned roof.”
For a society without money, they all sure seemed to have a good knowledge of the finer points of the system, he
“These documents from your own government railway commission tell you to give us full cooperation as well as free passage,” Julian argued.
“I see it,” the stationmaster told her. ‘Trouble is, we haven’t been on the friendliest of terms here with the Mother Nest. Been hard to get materials.” “He’s sayin’ that the government’s all well and good, but his three hundred babies all need shoes,” Gus commented. He turned to the stationmaster, who had reacted as everybody always did to Gus’s sudden and fierce appearance. “Tryin’ to scare me poppin’ in and out like that?” the stationmaster asked nervously.
“It’s a habit. We understand what you are getting at, but they didn’t give us a great deal of cash, just enough to get by, and we may have a long way to go. We’ve spoken with other stationmasters here, and they have understood the problem. What makes you think we can give you more?”
“Got a new silo roof out of the last bunch.”
“The last bunch? You mean there’s more than the Cloptan women?” Tony asked. “Sure. Was they women? Can’t tell the difference myself. But first the one bunch comes in, and they buy tickets for themselves and freight for their stuff. Then this second bunch comes in, also Cloptans, but with a real strange character like nothin’ I ever saw before-as strange as all of you. And they seemed right interested in pay in’ whatever it took to find out where the first group went. Guess I shoulda held out for more than a roof, huh?”
Julian thought a moment. “What did this other one, with the second group, look like?”
“Didn’t look like anything at all. No, I mean it. Just a giant ball of goo. Nice manners, though.”
“The colonel! The colonel’s after ‘em!” Gus hissed. “Okay, look, we could give you a paper that would authorize you to go to Clopta and place a prepaid order for something if you want, but we can’t give you cash.”
“I dunno. We don’t work like that here.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll tell you how we work. We try and be reasonable and hope for cooperation,” Gus told him, some menace creeping into his already intimidating voice. “If we don’t get any cooperation, we note who didn’t give it to us. Then we have to send a message to our people and to your government that we could not do our jobs because we couldn’t pay his bribe! Might not get us what we need, but it sure brings us satisfaction.”
“Oh, goodness, yes!” Anne Marie put in, getting the drift of things. “I wonder what happened to that last one who did this to us. We never did find out because when we had to backtrack to check, they were marching out the whole population of his town somewhere. It was most distressing!”
The stationmaster’s limbs twitched a bit, and the antennae atop her head seemed to cross.
“Give me a sheet of the official notepaper with the seal,” Gus told Tony. “I’ll put it on the next train to the Mother Nest. Then all we’ll need from you, sir, is your name and title and the name of this lovely little town here.” The twitching continued, and finally the stationmaster said, “First batch took 1544 eastbound. The second group followed ‘em.”
“And when is the next train?”
“We thank you for your cooperation,” Tony told her. “We will report our satisfaction with the line to the authorities.”
“No, just leave me out,” the stationmaster responded. “They’d just come and take away the money I already got …”
“Amateurs,” Gus hissed contemptuously.
“Hawyr is out,” Juana Campos muttered, looking at a map which she couldn’t read but which she’d marked up in Spanish. “High-tech and reported not very friendly anyway. Karlbarx is nontech, but they’re said to be some sort of giant rat thing and they eat meat. I don’t think they sound too great, and there’s not much trade there or a line going all the way to the border, anyway. Quilst I’d already ruled out, so that leaves Leba. I don’t like it, but that seems to be the best choice.”
“Are they all full of flesh-eating monsters or what?” Audlay asked plaintively. “I mean, gee, it sounds like a horror show.”
“Well, the Lebans are plants, and they supposedly don’t need much except dirt and water, so that’s something,” Campos commented. “They’re also semitech, but the only use they seem to make of it is that they’ve allowed the Mixtimites to extend a few railroad lines through.”
“Phew! More smelly boxcars?” Kuzi said rather than asked.
“Maybe. We’ll have to see what it looks like. The trains are basically through to the other borders and don’t seem to have many stops in Leba. I doubt if a plant that gets all its nourishment from the sun, rain, and soil needs much from anywhere else. Trouble is, we go up there, we can get boxed in fairly easily. There’s only one more hex to the equator, which, I am told, cannot be crossed. The Leban trains don’t go there; they head for Bahaoid or something that sounds like that, which is a high-tech hex to the west that they do trade with. So we got this plant hex, and then a nontech hex up against a wall, and a high-tech on both sides. Not great.”
“We could turn around and go back,” Audlay suggested. “Maybe they wouldn’t figure that.”
“The last thing we want to do is go back toward Clopta, believe me. We’d be in jail or worse, and most of them in there with us would be part of the old organization and maybe not too keen on seeing us, either. No, I don’t think so. Not now.” She sighed. “Leba it is, then.”
“You say they’re plants’?” Kuzi asked her. “I just can’t imagine that. A flower garden that talks back.”
“Somehow I don’t think it’s going to be like that,” Campos responded. “We can only go and see. And I hope we can arrange for some fresh food for our little troublemaking prize here. As an insect eater, she’s probably been going nuts being unable to eat this whole population.”
LOW HILLS BEGAN AS THEY TRAVELED NORTH TOWARD THE BORDER in Mixtim, and soon the countryside began to be broken and interesting once more. Along the rivers there was lush green vegetation, but beyond the hills were covered with grassland, too arid to really farm effectively, considering that the water had to come uphill, but sufficient to provide sustenance for a few small villages that seemed to exist primarily for the railroad.
There were no border controls as such there, but the station and small yard right against the hex barrier were used to rewater the engines and give them a checkout as well as to change engines and crews for the haul through Leba. The steam engines used had a different look to them; they were much larger, with long boilers, and had huge coal tenders just in back of the engine in place of the wood carriers of Mixtim. While the engines were prepared and checked out, there was a two-hour layover.
“Figures,” Gus commented. “You wouldn’t want to burn wood in a land where the people were the plants. They might take it personal.”
“They must mine the coal elsewhere,” Tony noted. “There didn’t seem to be any signs of such mining or of coal, period, anywhere we passed.” She sighed. “Well, time to at least find out some information. Excuse me.”
Anne Marie stood looking at the ghostly border and what was beyond. “Looks rather ominous,” she commented. “And certainly wet.”
The skies within Mixtim were bright, with just a few clouds, while the skies on the other side of the border were a low uniform gray. The place was certainly green, though; it seemed like an endless forest, perhaps a rain forest from the looks of the fog and mist curling through the tops of the trees beyond. Tony returned a few minutes later. “News good, not so good, and in between,” she told them. “First, no more switches. They went into Leba, all right, and so did the colonel’s bunch following them. The ladies went through many hours ago, the second group only on the train before this one. We are certainly catching up, but I fear to the wrong group. I am most worried about the colonel, Gus.” “He’s a slick meanie, all right,” Gus agreed, “but I handled him.” “Yes, once. I remember thinking when we spoke to one another of Brazil and Carnivale and old times that I was glad he was on our side. Now that it seems he is not, my fears are realized.”
“I still say he can be handled.”
“In a high-tech hex, yes. He is as vulnerable to the energy weapons as we are. But the energy weapons do not work here, Gus, or in Leba, either. Regular guns, crossbows, that sort of thing, they will work, but what would be the effect on a creature like him of shooting him full of bullets and arrows? Not much. He can drown, yes, but we are far from the ocean, and I doubt if we will be able to entice him to jump into a deep lake. We need a way to counter him or we might rue catching up to him.”
Gus considered it and nodded. “I think I see what you mean. In this kind of hex you gotta think like you’re in a western, and they didn’t have Colt .45 disintegrators back then. There’s gotta be something, though, that’ll get him. If those things weren’t mortal, they’d have eaten this whole damned world by now!”
“That is a point,” Tony admitted. “But what?” Her eyes looked around the rail yard, not really knowing what she was looking for but hoping for some kind of hint, something that would give them an edge.
“What is that little beetle doing with the small tank up in front of the engine there, dear?” Anne Marie asked.
“Putting oil in the headlamps for the dark, I would say,” Tony responded. All three of them suddenly said at exactly the same time, “Say! Why not?” “I wonder how much they can spare and how much we can safely carry?” Anne Marie mused at last.
“Yeah, and don’t forget the matches,” Gus added.
Tony sighed. “That is still a worry. It looks awfully damp in there.” “Look on the bright side,” Anne Marie said with a smile. “If they are all intelligent plants over there, at least we won’t be executed for starting any forest fires.”
“There is a sort of train service area and such right here, in the middle of the hex, just before the line branches off to the east,” Juana Campos noted. “That is where we must get off.”