The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 1

This has nothing to do with the AHN Universe, save that I suppose it could always be a book written there. I'm going to post one of my Stardust stories, a series far older than An Alternate History of the Netherlands.

Chapter 1

The red sun lighting his way, Andreas continued his slow cruise down many of the land’s rural roads. Many roads lead into the land once known as Goai. Years before, The State invaded and annexed the land, quickly spreading The Party’s ideology and settling the land with The People. At the moment, the war raging across a great deal of Towne was of little concern to Andreas. His only goal was to find a paved road and continue his drive into Showna, and avoid the vigilant eyes of the Knights of The State.

Shownastadt, known as Pi Showna before The State came, evicted the populous not considered The People, and colonized it with Navenians, shown ahead. The farms surrounding the dirt road gave not lumination, even at this time of the morning. He would expect the farmers to already be in their fields, but still, somebody must be in the houses. Andreas dismissed it with a simple thought; no electricity. This was not the first stretch of land powerless he ever saw. After all, this certainly was not Tropico.

Many farms were without power; the utility companies not considering it worth their profit margins to extend their power lines. The Party might dictate every aspect of life, but they left their economy very capitalistic. Survival of the fittest, and nuts to the rest. Andreas snorted at the thought. As long as the power companies did not interrupt the megalithic State works, say by diverting power to unnecessary sectors, The Party left them alone. Left the companies alone that is– the employees were subject to the same invasiveness as the rest of The People.

Andreas finally arrived at the intersection of a paved highway. To the south, this road lead to the border with Endopia, and was tightly sealed. Though The State was at war with Endopia, it had yet to invade it. Most of their forces were pushing through its neighbor, Langoon. No minerals in Langoon that were worth fighting over, just farmland. Andreas assumed The State’s true goal was to take Rhodes, and its port– maybe even its navy. After that, they would hit Tropico. The State and Tropico were ideological opposites, all the excuse extremist on one side need.

Andreas yawned, feeling fatigue creep up on him. It was a long night, and hard drive. He switched from one rural road to another, back-tracking and zig-zagging just to cross the border. If not for the contract his ‘company’ had signed, Andreas would have none of it. Truth was, he was one of the few Sapiens employed by Golden Hammer Enterprises, and The State had no use for non-sapiens. They awarded him this job by default.

Traffic this morning was light, as it had been for the past couple of days. Keeping to the back roads as soon as he entered artillery range of the front, Andreas seldom had a single auto pass him to his right. It had been a long two days, with little rest in between. Thing about navigating through a warzone; if one remained stationary for too long, one became a target. He had the option of switching with his colleagues down south, but not since they crossed into The State’s occupied territories. It was his show, and his alone.

His lumbering LMW ‘Mule’ kept a gradual pace of forty kilometers an hour. It was the workhorse down south, the most numerous small truck in production. Its capacity was limited so the Golden Hammers crammed it full of crate, allowing only enough room for a man to walk through to open them. Andreas insured each four cubic meter crate was secured. The last thin he wanted was for his cargo to be cranky when they arrive. All-in-all, a real challenge, considering the Mule drives like a drunken tortoise on the best of roads.

Once on a proper road, the rest of his trip went smoothly. To his right, endless fields of grains. To his left, the Jaipur River and an adjacent railroad. Between rails and water, the slums of Shownastadt. Many were displaced to make room for colonist, and not just non-sapiens. Anyone The State deemed unworthy either fled the area of ended up in the forest of lean-tos. Shanty towns were isolated, sealed off from the rest of the world by both river and fences. The State pinned up many in these ghettoes, thus controlling their movement. Only a select few could get past the checkpoints and enter the city, and that was only for the most remedial and lowest paying of work. The undesirables did work beneath The People.

Andreas entered the town as the railroad veered off sharply to the west. An old bridge, perhaps two hundred years of age, held massive trains above the river. It was an ugly structure, a suspension bridge that used hideous I-beams instead of graceful cables. A sharp, and dramatic contradiction to the elegant, snow-capped peaks to the east. Already the snow glowed a faint red as Towne’s sun cleared the horizon. Andreas read many an article about that red star, and how planets like Towne should be tidally locked, yet the planet still rotated. Nobody knew why, but most experts speculated the hundred million year old machines buried at both poles played a part.

Andreas felt a sharp jolt as he passed over train tracks. By the hoarse sounds in the back, he was not the only one who felt it. His ‘cargo’ were just a sensitive to bumps as him, if not more so. He had a seatbelt, they did not. His job was to deliver this cargo to the University of Shownastadt. Delivery boy was the perfect cover. After all, nobody would think twice about cargo dropped off at the university’s renown physics department. It was so renown, that Gold Hammer Enterprises were contracted to– extract certain notes from certain labs. Andreas knew it was something big. He might not be a scientist, but he read his share of magazines.

Traffic grew marginally denser as he entered city limits. Shownastadt was rebuilt when The State took over. They upgraded much of the infrastructure, including in their budget the addition of traffic lights. They were a bane in the existence of anyone who loved driving, always turning right as one reaches them, but it was far better than having traffic cops. If The State set soldiers, or worse, the Knights of The State, out on every corner, eventually one might get curious as to Andreas’s cargo. Far better dealing with the automated irritants.

Aside from lights on most every corner, the only other thing that bugged Andreas, was the housing. These were not elegant structures, or rustic, or anything with character. They were simple, mass-produced breadbaskets, all with horizon siding. Truly an eyesore. They alternated between few colors, all of those drab. That was about the only good thing he could say– at least they were not eyesores painted a gaudy color. Houses in Tropico were like that, very bright and vibrant. One had to pay a lot extra to live outside of the high-rise tenements.

Andreas endured several minutes of stopping and going. Not so much because of traffic, but because of the idiot who programmed the lights. One could not travel more than a couple of blocks before stopping. This was killer on his fuel efficiency, and he would need every drop to get out of here once his job was finished. With some luck, or what the dwarves call ‘a bit of skill’ they should infiltrate the lab, grab the papers and be on their way out before the university even opens.

He turned the LMW down onto the first numbered street he could find. It was the same with most of The State’s urban areas; east to west streets are numbered, and the north to south ones are named. He sought out Echo Drive, for that would take him to the lab. He hit the road and drove straight on towards the university. Thirteenth Street was up ahead, on the corner of Echo and Thirteenth, there was where he found the loading dock.

Like everything else in Shownastadt, it was quiet. Andreas backed his auto into place, docking the truck with the interior loading dock. His cargo was too– controversial to be out in the open. The lab was northwest of the three main buildings. Each stood three stories in height, and were built from bland red bricks. Windows were nearly evenly spaced at four meters apart. The building was too utilitarian for its own good. Andreas would go stir crazy living in such a bland town. What did The State have against a little decor?

Andreas pushed the door open, and dropped on to the concrete ground. Many patches showed a variation of color, light and dark grays. One thing was sure, this building has seen plenty of traffic. Andreas glanced around, spotting only a single man standing watch. He was an old man, too old to serve in the army, but not old enough to retire. The graying man looked up at Andreas, bored, or perhaps tired. He certainly did not expect a delivery yet.

“What a shock, an early delivery,” the old loader said with a dash of sarcasm. He was accustomed to late, to teamsters who ran their shifts without a single shred of consideration for anyone else. Andreas knew a few of those, the type who take up most of the road and travel half the speed limit– or maybe the type that speed while driving through a downtown not designed for their bulk. Yes, they were certainly a selfish bunch. He was also accustom to sloppier dress. Such fine clothes raised only a tinge of suspicion. If a driver wanted to dress fancy, the old man could care less– just as long as the job gets done. Andreas wondered why The State, sticklers for efficiency, have not yet rectified that particular situation.

“I could come back in an hour,” Andreas retorted, just as sarcastic. “That is if I’m interrupting your busy schedule.”

The old man was far from busy. He looked to be sleeping under the morning sky. Cool air blew in from the east, chilled by a night in the higher altitudes. Mountain air always refreshed Andreas, especially after days of stuffy atmosphere. “No, it’s no bother at all. Gives me one less thing to worry about.” He took a hard look at Andreas, and Andreas could guess his thoughts; ‘this man was too sharply dressed to be a driver’. “Papers?”

Andreas nodded. He pulled out several papers, each one being two pieces sandwiching a piece of carbon paper. “Certainly.”

The old man looked them over. Nothing out of the ordinary here, just some centrifuges and transistors. “Appears all in order. Nothing personal, just like to do things by the book.” To which Andreas simply replied with a short shrug. The State did love its protocol. He wasted no more time. He walked over to the loading dock, unlocked the door and let Andreas in.

The interior was quite cluttered. Too many goods and not enough space. Crates of all shapes and sizes. Even a few were marked ‘urgent’ and ‘important’, but were mixed in with the rest. Whomever was in charge of the university’s warehouse certainly did not care for order. If his own employers ever saw a mess like this, they would pitch a fit. Worse yet, if The Party ever inspected the place—

The dock between truck and building rolled up, leaving only the truck’s door as a barrier between him and his cargo. The old man started to walk off, presumably to get a lift. Andreas no longer needed his help, and decided to relieve him of his duty. With a short, sharp strike to the back of his head, Andreas knocked the only man down cold. “Nothing personal.” Non-lethal response was quite satisfying. After all, no point in whacking a man for doing his job. Andreas and his crew were all armed, but it was best not to fire them off here. A general education center was located on campus, fortunately in another building. He would not want to fire off rounds at guards while a bunch of little kids were in class.

Andreas threw up the door to his Mule, removing the last barrier between him and his cargo. Of all the crates, only three mattered. Andreas walked up to the first, grabbing the crowbar off the truck’s wall. He approached the first such crate and knocked on it. “You awake?”

A muffled growl came in response. It was quite menacing and would scare most, but all Andreas did was laugh. He stabbed the crate’s front, a pulled the cover off. “About time!” a short, stout man stomped out of the crate. Like Andreas, he wore a shiny black suit. Unlike Andreas, he carried a stout brief case.

Andreas looked the dwarf over. “You came out a little worse for ware, Ghulam.”

Ghulam snorted. At one hundred, seventy years old, his seniority was almost a century and a half ahead of Andreas. He was under Golden Hammer employment before Andreas’s parents were even born, and almost as long as Golden Hammer Enterprises existed. “Free the others.”

Andreas nodded, and did just that. The second one freed, another dwarf by the name of Copper, stumbled out with less grace than Ghulam. Copper was not his birth name, but he went by it for so long, he almost forgot his real one. He earned that nickname by the color of his hair. Such red hair was unusual for a dwarf, and almost hinted that one of his recent ancestors was a hybrid.

The third one freed, simply strolled out of his crate like he was strolling out of the highest class joint in Tropico. He was by far the most dangerous of the three dwarves. The middle-age dwarf went by the name ‘The Secretary’. His name had nothing to do with his clerical skills, and far more to do with his temperament. Went provoked, Secretary would set off his Atlus Submachine gun the same was a secretary would set off on a typewriter. However, when an ASM went off, it shot streams of lead, not rows of words. Its clanging sound gave it the nickname ‘the Loonburg Typist’. Andreas heard the weapon at full force before, and could scarcely tell the difference. So much so, that he once nearly jumped out of his shoes when a real typist started hammering away at her clerical machine.

The three pygmaeus and one sapien wasted no time with pleasantries. All knew that only a limited time remained before somebody got curious. The State would kill them all, same as they would for employees of any other company. The Golden Hammers were but one such company in what the press colorfully dubbed ‘the dwarven mafia’. The dwarves scoffed at it, saying they were perfectly legit. After all, it was not their fault that The State, and a few others, have embargoes against Tropican Cigars and their rum. The governments might not like it, but the people, they demanded the products. And where there was a demand, somebody had to fill in and supply it.

Finally out of the dark warehouse, Ghulam took a look each way down the hall. “Alright Andreas, where’s this lab?”

“First floor,” Andreas replied, as if there was no other answer. After all, where else would one put Laboratory one-seven? There was no seventh floor, so that left only one logical option. The real question was, did he want to go left or right to find this lab? The nearest door, other that the one simply labels ‘warehouse’ had the numbers one and fifteen.

Ghulam just snorted again. “Well, right or left?”

“This way,” Andreas jerked his thumb towards the left. Left, right, what was the difference? The halls were looped, so either way they would reach the lab.

The quartet of made men cruised down the hall. They produced little noise, but they did not try to sneak. They strode like they owned the place. In fact, they did. The place remained empty, so much so that not even janitors were out. They finished their jobs the night before. Perhaps they lucked out and arrived on a day off. Whether their luck was good or ill, was let to be seen. If today was a day off, surely somebody would notice the lights on– and report it.

Like everything in The State, the hall was quite bland. Simply checked black-and-white linoleum covered the floor. Even the interior walls were made of bricks, and not a single picture hung on the wall. The doors were gray steel with a single square window on the top. Each window was labeled with white numbers. Andreas noticed the numbers counting down; thirteen to eleven to nine. Yes, this was the right track. They stopped at number seven.

Andreas launched his hand out before Secretary could smash the window with his loaded briefcase. Sure enough, the door came open with ease. Andreas jumped back with a bit of surprise, at first thinking somebody was leaving just as he was entering. When the door swung inward, revealing an empty room, his three dwarven pals could only laugh at his expense.

Andreas took his turn to snort. “Better that then tripping every alarm in the place,” he glared at Secretary when he said that. Andreas was a tough nut himself, which earned him a little respect from the trigger-happy dwarf. Because Secretary respected the sapien, Andreas was one of the few people to get away with it.

“Mind your manners, boy,” was all Secretary said as he stomped into the lab ahead of Andreas.

Andreas followed, keeping his peace. He was slightly puzzled at the room. If this was a lab, then he was Marlaonian Prince. No centrifuges, no test reactors, not even a beaker. Not a piece of machinery aside from a monestrous mainframe. The computer took up the back half of the room. It was a metal beast, so large that one could walk inside. Often, one had to, just to replace a burned out part. Not so often now than when they used vacuum tubes. Tubes were easier to replace, being about ten times the size of transistors.

Most of the surface comprised of polished aluminum. Only a few monitors broke up the monotony, along with large typing boards. Unlike typewriters, which pounded ribbon, these typing boards hit switches to enter numbers and symbols into computer. Just like typewriters, the boards often jammed. Andreas could see the use of computers, but sometimes they sounded like more trouble than they were worth. Engineers predict that transistors can be shrunk to the point that one day computers would only take up the area the size of a desk. Andreas would believe it when it happened.

Aside from the computer, the room was filled with desks. Sure enough, each desk owned its own pile of paper. Most were stacked neatly, but a few were shuffled messes. Andreas hoped they held the notes he sought. At least nobody would notice a little more shuffling. The way luck worked, the tidiest desk with the most detailed of scientist would hold their quarry. Its departure would also be noticed immediately.

“Too bad that contraption was off,” Ghulam grumbled. Like most dwarves, he had no use for what he deemed ‘gnome toys’. However, Sapiens embraced new things the way the gnomish half of pygmaeus did. “We could just record the data on one of those tape deals.”

“Too bad indeed,” Andreas replied. Computers were great for crunching numbers, but that was about all. The moment main power was cut, all the electrical impulses inside vanished. Instead of shrinking them, engineers really should find ways to store data– aside from those awkward tape recorders. Just like the movies, it could only play from start to finish– useless when seeking random bits of memory.

“Think this is what they want?” Copper asked. As usual, he spoke only when he had to– that was just how Copper worked. Sure, he would chat over a mug a lager, same as any dwarf, but when it came to a job, he was all business.

Andreas nodded. “Couldn’t hurt to snap a few shots.” Copper did just that. He withdrew the microfilm camera from his jacket’s interior pocket. The device was not much bigger than a flask of rum, and shaped the same way. Copper screwed a bulb into its top and snapped away at the blackboard. Hopefully the contractees would understand these formulas. Andreas had trouble figuring out where it began and ended.

“Nothing here except reports,” Ghulam said. He took to rummaging through the desks, while Secretary kept watch. All hoped he would find nobody, for if he did, he would whip his ASM out from the briefcase and type away.

Andreas spent about fifteen more minutes searching the desks before arriving at the same conclusion. Naturally, Ghulam jabbed him. “See, if you’d listen to me when I said so, we’d be out of here.”

Andreas shook his head. “No, we wouldn’t. We still have to find Dr. Hawk’s office.” No doubt he would keep his most important research notes there, in a secure location. Since the lab was not locked, Andreas did not anticipate running into any safes. All the same, Ghulam was ready to crack them. Before he took up employment with the Golden Hammers, he was a top safe-cracker. He was so proficient, he did not even need to hold his ear to the safe. He could feel the gears through his stubby fingers.

“Ok you guys, take what looks complicated and shut the door behind you,” Ghulam told the other two dwarves. Andreas might have driven them here, but Ghulam was in charge. Copper nodded, and took a few shots of charts and formulas he found here and there.

Copper was last one out, and he closed the door as gently as it had opened. He brought up the rear as the gang headed for the nearest stairs. Andreas was not so sure where Hawk’s office was located. He looked around for a directory, which most universities have, but found nothing. Since these were physicists studying some rather explosive theories, their location might just be kept under wraps. Nobody knew how their contractees came up with his location. Nobody wanted to know. Those who hired the Golden Hammers for this espionage had the power to make their operations within their country– difficult to say the least.

They quickly ascended two flights of stairs, no effort for Andreas but a bit of a work out for the short-legged pygmaeus. Unlike the quiet lower floors, some activity rang on the third. Andreas reached into his jack, feeling his Bison ‘957. Just touching his nine millimeter slug thrower made him relax. He glanced back at the dwarves, Secretary already cracking open his briefcase. Within a second, Andreas knew the dwarf could crack out his ASM and start typing.

Andreas shook his head at him. No way soldiers or Knights of The State were up here. This was an administrative level. Nothing but offices, filling reports and pushing papers. “Probably just an early bird.” Andreas whispered. At the top of the flight, he peaked around the corner. A few lights were on, but nobody was out in the open. A bit of sneaking would be required, and his dwarven friends were not the best at walking softly. It will be tricky to avoid contact–

Contact, that might just work. Andreas, nor any of the dwarves, know the location of Hawk’s office. Perhaps, whomever is in early knows. Andreas waved the dwarves back as he started forwards. Ghulam cleared his throat. “Where do you think you’re going.”

Andreas looked back and grinned. “I’m going to ask for directions.”

Ghulam snorted. “That’s not very stealthy.”

Andreas shrugged. “Don’t need to be.” He straightened the collar of his shirt, as well as his jacket. With a single run through his hair with his hand, he was ready. “What’d you think? Don’t I look all business?”

Ghulam scoffed. “Ha! You look like a thug.”

Andreas waved off his remark. “Trust me.” His dwarven fellows could only frown. They trusted him to do his job, there was no doubt there. What was in question was Andreas’s diplomatic ability. He was just as likely to punch as to talk.

Andreas walked down the hall, glancing around for the first university employee that came into view. All the while, he mind cooked up a story. Hawk was a famous researcher, and The State has gone to great lengths to keep its research anonymous. So, if somebody sought out Hawk, then he must work for the government. That was a thought to turn his stomach. Work for a government, not a chance. He would not even work for Tropico, despite the fact the Golden Hammers had good relations with them.

A courier was a good tale. If Hawk was to be kept hidden, then one could not simply telephone him. Telegram would work, but Andreas was overdressed for a simple messenger boy. It must be an official correspondent. The only advantage of conning inside The State was that those still ‘free’ had sense enough not to ask too many questions.

Andreas did not have to walk far before he found help. Inside the room marked ‘Basic Educators’ he spotted a well-fashioned teacher leaning against a desk, looking down at papers. Andreas admired her figure, rounded in all the right spots. With a grin on his face, Andreas tapped against the open door. “Excuse me, ma’am.”

His voice caused the figure to jump, her hair bouncing in the process. It was a silky fabric, dark red in color, and far prettier that Copper’s red hair. The teacher turned around, staring at Andreas with warm brown eyes. Was she suppose to be in here, or was she snooping? Perhaps everyone was a bit jumpy in a land where The State can come knocking without a moment’s notice.

“Yes? Can I help you?” She asked, her voice strained. Obviously she expected nobody to walk in on her at this early hour. No stranger anyway.

Andreas tried not to eye her up and down. If he did, then he was not a very professional courier. “Do you know if Doctor Hawk is in?”

The teacher’s reaction showed she knew him, and showed she knew others were not suppose to know. “No, he’s not.” She said, leaving it at that.

Very well, she was not interested in being helpful. “No? I have a message for him. If he’s not here, then would you be so kind as to point me to his office. I’ll just leave it on his desk.”

The teacher frowned. “I’ll be happy to deliver it to him–“

Andreas held up his hand, waving his finger at her. “Not this letter. It’s marked for his eyes only.” He patted the breast pocket of his jacket. He let it open just enough to reveal part of the harness beneath, the type of harness that held a holster, and a concealed weapon.

“Very well,” she replied. She was not pleased about being pulled away from her own desk. She lead the way from the general office and back into the hall. Andreas followed her, keeping an eye on her walk. Yes, she was certainly a fine looking specimen. Andreas knew he could not live without women– he also knew there was no way he could live with them. His experience taught him they were a double-dealing, back-stabbing lot, incapable of saying what they mean or meaning what they say. In the back of his mind, he held doubt about this one too. She might just lead him right into a trap, or call the Knights while he made his ‘delivery’.

For once, his luck with the ladies held. She lead him to a door, clearly marked with a plaque saying ‘Dr. Hawk’. Andreas reached for the knob, pushed the door open. Like everything in here, it was unlocked. Andreas wondered why. Did they trust all their neighbors, or where they to scared to lock their doors in case The Knights come asking why they locked it? In a society when three doors down might be house to a Party snitch, Andreas doubted the former.

The office was quite tidy, and dimly lit by the rising sun. One whole side of his office were lined by books on a shelf. He hoped the papers were not hidden there. All day would pass and half of tomorrow before he found it. He casually glanced around, not wanting to peak the suspicions of an already suspicious teacher. Andreas let out a sharp, short whistle. It might sound like he was impressed, but the dwarves would not here it that way. They knew exactly what it meant.

He looked down at the desk, spotting a few binders stacked on it. That was all he found. Any papers, pens or even paper clips, were all stored neatly out of sight. Each of the binders were labeled, and Andreas knew his luck was running high. One was marked ‘articles’, one was ‘quantum’, another ‘ultima’ and the bottom two ‘results’. Perfect. Andreas pushed the top one aside and flipped open the one housing notes on Ultima Radiation.

His teacher guide watched him rummaging through sensitive materials, while trying to avert her gaze. She did not want to know that which she was not suppose to know. Life in The State was just so much simpler went kept in ignorance. This courier was a bold one though. She suppose one authorized to deliver Hawk’s mail had clearance to look at his secret notes. She looked away just enough to catch something from the corner of her eye. Three somethings in fact, and three that should be nowhere near Shownastadt.

“Hold it right there, sheila!” the lead dwarf said. He was unarmed, as was the red haired one. A third, already threw his briefcase away and waved a mean looking machine gun at her. It was not just any gun, but a typist, the type gangsters use. How did they get in here– more importantly, what were they doing here. She gasped at the sudden feel of a cold barrel against her back.

“It’s in all of our best interest if you just keep quite,” Andreas told her. Without turning around, the teacher simply nodded.

“Find what you’re looking for?” Ghulam asked.

“Oh yeah,” Andreas replied. “These binders hold enough goods to fulfill our contract.”

Ghulam nodded. “Copper, give him a hand– and I don’t mean applause.” Copper chuckled as he picked up the last three. Ghulam gave a sharp look at the teacher. “What’ll we do with the sheila?” Secretary looked anxious to fire off a few rounds.

Andreas derailed that though. “We’ll take her, let her go once we’re well on our way.”

Secretary scowled, and Ghulam was not pleased. He expected Andreas had a soft spot for this female sapien. Ghulam could not blame him; he would not cap a lady dwarf unless in self-defense. “Fine, but listen here lady, you make any sudden noises and it’ll be the last you make, got it?” Again, she only nodded. “Ok, let’s get out of here.”

Katrina cursed her luck every step of the way. This was a horrible way to start off the work week. First she was interrupted from planning her weekly curriculum by that so-called messenger. Sure, he was handsome in a brutish sort of way, well groomed and all. She should have guessed he was too well dressed to have an honest occupation. Now, because she had the manners to not ask questions, she was hostage to, what she could only assume was the Dwarven Mafia. Which gang, who knows. Not that it made any difference, they were all criminals. And they wonder why The State expelled their species from The People’s lands.

Katrina thought about bolting down the first corridor and barricading herself in the first open door. Would not do much good; no locks on any door inside the building. These dwarves would smash the door down after her, and make short work of her. Dying was not on her daily list of things to do. She had the feelings they wanted to eliminate her right away. She had only a flimsy promise of release once clear of the city. She did not want to chance their word in the Goai countryside. There has to be a way out of this.

The mob stopped as soon as they descended on to the first floor. Which way to go was the question. Surely if these– folks were brazen enough to enter The State, and quick enough to elude detection, they must have a way to escape. She was just as glad they spoke not about it; they certainly would not let her live if she knew their escape route.

“This is taking longer than it should,” Ghulam muttered, glancing out the nearest door. It was half glass and half metal. Outside, the day had rose, as had a few of the locals. They did not give the university a single glance, at least not yet. That was bound to change, and Ghulam wanted to be as far away before discovery.

Andreas thought about the general layout. There was no access to the underground in this building. The original plan involved reaching the utility house before anyone noticed their presence. Surely somebody would notice their passage out through the open. Naturally, none of the buildings connected to the shed. That block of concrete was not far from the loading dock, perhaps a minute’s walk. As long as the poor dock hand has not awaken, it was doable. “Then let’s not waste anymore time.”

Making it through the halls was a simple enough task. Only a few minutes navigation back to the loading dock, and not another single sapien had yet entered the hall. Yes, they should be long gone by the time the top researchers realize their research was gone. Andreas had the feeling somebody as brilliant, and paranoid, as Hawk would keep back ups. For all they knew, he long ago expected such a heist. No point in worrying about duplicates. After all, the contract only calls for delivery of information.

Traveling outside tensed up all of the gangsters. Beneath the warm, dull sun, a fist size red orb that never seemed particularly bright, three stout figures would stick out. They kept near the brush and under the trees. The shade covered their retreat. Their escape went smoothly, albeit slower with a captive. She was in no hurry, and outside, they could not simply shoot her. Firing off an ASM in Shownastadt was a kin to sending up a flare in the darkest of nights.

All was going smoothly, up until they reached the door. Like everything else in this town, it bore no lock. However, the dwarves had to stop and crouch. “Gray caps,” Ghulam spat the word as if it were the most vulgar and degrading word in the whole of language. To the dwarves, it was not far off. No more than ten meters away, walking away from them, were a pair of gray-clad uniformed men. Andreas glared at them as well. He was a sapien, but he still had no love for the so-called Knights of The State. They patrolled the streets, keeping eyes open for ‘undesirables’. In a few minutes, they would be out of sight. At they required was a bit of patience.

One of them lacked it. Katrina was not about to be hauled off by these thugs. Andreas still had a tight grip on her arm. She knew she could not break that grip. Instead of pulling, she decided on a thrusting attack. She picked up her foot and slammed the heal down on Andreas’s polished-shined shoes. Andreas hissed at her, but could do nothing. She quickly followed with an elbow to his face, knocking the crouching man off balance. Instead of dragging her down with him, he let go for a second to catch his balance. A second was all she needed.

Katrina bolted from cover and out into the open. The racket she caused by leaping through an orange, Towneform hedge caught the two Knight’s attention. “Dwarves!” the first one called. Both ignored the fleeing sapien, and focused on the short figures. Both drew their weapons, intent on removing the dwarves.

The dwarves were not about to surrender. Ghulam and Copper threw open their briefcases, rapidly assembling their AMCs. While they dawdled, Secretary went to work. He let out a solid stream of typing, cutting down both Gray Caps before they could react. So skilled with the Typist, he managed to shred both Knights with three seconds of firing. Secretary’s blood boiled, and he sought another target to gun down, the woman who blew their cover came to mind.

“Come on,” Andreas said, waving his Bison ‘957. His own sidearm, drawn since they capture the local teacher, sat cold in his hand. Andreas did not even get a chance to fire on the Knights. “Let’s scram.”

“Should have capped her to begin with,” Secretary muttered, wanting a little payback.

Ghulam snapped at him. “Drop it! I think our presence is known. So get in that shed and drop down the hole!”

Secretary reluctantly lowered his weapon. He glanced over at the shed, the door already wide open, and stomped off in retreat. As he stomped, Andreas kept an eye open from his higher vantage point. He kept lookout until the three dwarves climbed down into Shownastadt’s underground. As soon as Copper hit bottom, Andreas wasted no more time. They took what they came for, and now their welcome was worn out. Andreas dropped down the ladder, not even bothering to look back.

Katrina’s breaths came in gasps as she pumped her legs. They already burned from her abrupt workout. She felt no pain; adrenaline already flowed in her veins. She would feel sore and tired later, for now she must ensure she had a later. She dared not look back. So wrapped up in survival, the thought of a bullet’s speed never crossed her mind. Katrina’s eyes darted about, looking for help. Knights of The State would deal with those despicable thugs. Already two lay dead at the hands of that psychotic dwarf. He would have cut her in two, too, if not stopped.

Even after clear of the fight, she continued to ran. So fast, she almost ran over an Atl sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. The blue and black Towneform bird looked up just in time jump. They often reminded her of flightless sparrows, or perhaps feathered squirrels. Some call them feathered rats, but not her. Cute as they were, she did not slow down and the little Atl was forced to hop furiously to avoid trampling.

Safety lay ahead as she rounded a corner. “Help!” she called to another pair of Knights, these ones running in the direction she fled. Katrina skid to a stop in front of them, her breath trying to catch up. “There– dwarves. Dwarves are over there,” she pointed in the direction from which she fled. “They broke into the university–“ Katrina pieced together her story while the Knights listened.

Both of the gray-clad men looked at each other, suspicious of this teacher’s story. Anyone with contact with non-sapiens were suspect, and their order had protocol to follow. The Knight on the right, the senor officer, picked up his radio and called for backup. He told them to check out the utility shed next to the Physics Building.

“Very well, now if you’ll come with us,” the leader gestured back towards the way he came.

Katrina hesitated. “But those gangsters are over there!” She pointed to her origination. “They’ll escape.”

“I doubt that,” the officer replied dryly. “Now come with us. We have questions you must answer.” The second Knight flanked Katrina, cutting off any escape route– not that one could escape from a Knight of The State. The whole situation gave her a bad feelings. Katrina bowed in submission. There was no point in arguing with them. All she could hope for was they would apprehend those criminals. If she could help, then she would. However– if she were doing the right thing, then why did it feel like she leapt from one captivity into another?

“I’m going back,” Andreas flatly told Ghulam. The gang managed to easily elude any pursuit underground. The fact that The State went to great pains to label each intersection and every landmark above made it all the more simpler. Unlike pygmaeus, sapiens had absolutely no tunnel sense. The underground tunnels were plenty large.

On two sides of a running stream of waste water sat sidewalks. These walkways obviously made it easier for maintaining the whole system. The walls, if one could call the sides of these tubular tunnels such, held pipes. Each pipe was clearly marked ‘electricity’ and ‘telephone’. On the ceiling, two small pipes flanked two larger ones. The larger ones Andreas knew carried fresh water. The smaller ones, he assumed they delivered fuel. Certainly a number of bats hang from them. This close to the exit, all sorts of animals frolicked.

“Out of the question!” Ghulam snapped. He snap echoed down the halls, sending rats and atls alike scurrying for shelter. While he and Andreas argued, the other two dwarves stood guard at the exit. Beyond ran the Jaipur River, along with its riverside slums. The State was not likely to search these areas for quite some time. No doubt they will try to seal all the exits, but by the time the bureaucratic machine processes the order, the Golden Hammers planned to be down river, safely in Endopia.

Andreas clenched his fist. “Boss, you know what the Knights will do to her.” Ghulam nodded, not even show a hint of regret. If ‘The People’ want to kill their own, that was fine by him. It was not fine by Andreas, not by a long shot. “I’m the one who drug her into this, and it’ll be my fault what happens to her.”

“And after you free her, then what?” Ghulam knew that anyone associated, even accused of associating with non-sapiens in The State was black marked for life. It would be a mercy to simply let them kill her quickly and be done with it.

Andreas shook his head. “I don’t know, but she’s my responsibility now.” Had any other sapien been so adamant, Ghulam would have shook it off as lust. Yes, that teacher was a fine looking woman– for a sapien. Maybe Andreas felt a little attraction, maybe not, but with him it was different. This had less to do with an innocent bystander than it did with Gustavus. Ghulam knew it, and Andreas knew that Ghulam knew it.

“Fine! Go off and be boneheaded!” Ghulam dismissed him. “But we ain’t waiting around for you. We have a contract to fulfill. By the time you free that woman, we’ll be clear across the border.” The dwarf hoped this was not a mistake. He did not fear Andreas turning on them, but he certainly did not want to loose such a skilled ‘employee’.

Andreas nodded in reply. “Yes, yes, I’ll see you guys in Tropico.” Ghulam replied with a grunt as he leapt off the end of the manmade cave. He landed less than a meter below, his head still visible, on the soft shores of the Jaipur. Two more dwarves followed in rapid succession, leaving Andreas alone on his quest. Andreas was not sure which part would prove more challenging; breaking into the Knight’s local office, or breaking out of the city. “One thing at a time,” he told himself as he began backtracking into Shownastadt’s underground.

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