The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Stardust: Towne, Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Andreas strolled down the gangplank, and away from the Emerald Marenave, like he was walking on air. Home. It was so great to be back home. He took a deep breath and instantly recognized all the tropical scents he knew from day one. As with any day, the docks in Tropico City were bustling to the point of bursting. He quickly left the gangplank and stepped onto the dock. He picked up his pace the moment he landed on concrete. A dozen concrete piers jutted out into Turtle Bay, most of them at the mouth of an old dried up river, one that long since lost its name. Each pier was currently home to a ship, a freighter either loading or unloading cargo. Mostly the former. Coffee, sugar, rum and cigars were all destined to the far reaches of Towne, whether those goods were welcome or not.

Much to his minor dismay, he did not step off the boat alone. After thinking long and hard about his offer, Katrina decided she could not stay in a strange city alone. Nor could she venture on to the People’s Republic of Tropico, or so she thought. Stay or not stay, doomed one way or the other. Katrina decided it was better to stay with the doom she knew than ride out the unknown. No matter her decision, she knew she would regret it.

Her first impression of Tropico was quite the opposite to Andreas’s. She wrinkled her nose at the ocean, and its stench of rotting grass. Seaweed bobbed up and down next to the barnacle encrusted pier. The water looked filthy, dirty, and probably loaded with toxins. Run off from farms and factories likely flowed in the former river channel. If this was paradise, then paradise was certainly over rated.

The pier was crowded with longshoremen and teamsters. Both groups wore filthy clothes, the type that must have seen a few years– and not astronomical ones either. The workers were thinner than the ones she would have seen working back home. They worked harder too. Only a handful of forklifts were visible, and most of the cargo was pushed up ramps by hand carts and backbreaking work. Despite their obvious hardships, not a one scowled in anger. In pain perhaps, but none were angry. A few even whistled while they worked.

Further away from the ocean she moved, the more of a mistake this all became. Andreas lead her away from those docks and out on to the street. She was surprised to see it paved; from all she heard, they still used horse or paracophant drawn carts down here. Grant it, a few did, but they seemed out of place on black asphalt along. Sets of tracks ran right down the middle of the road, and on those tracks road several trolleys. A few sported new paint, but most appeared as they were; vehicles that have been left out in the tropical sun too long.

Autos did occupy the road as well, but mostly small buses and bright yellow taxis. There was something odd about the way they all drove, something that got her thinking of mirrors. A few seconds passed before she snapped her fingers. “They’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” she declared. All her life, she only seen autos driving on the left side of the road, as was the case across the entire continent. But here, on this island, the autos moved on the right. She never before seen anything so surreal.

“No, they drive on the correct side of the road,” Andreas corrected her with a smile. “You ever stop to think that maybe we’re right and everyone else is wrong?” He did not look back to see one of her patented glares. Instead, his eyes were fixed on a bus or tram he knew would head his way. He must make contact with his coworkers as soon as possible. The sooner the better; he would prefer to get the grilling over with so he could get back to work.

Taxis came and went, a jumbled mess as each tried to vie for fare. After spending the most of a thousand dinar in Port of Dreams, he did not want to spare anything he absolutely did not need to part. He eventually discovered a trolley headed his way. The social gathering place favored by Golden Hammer Enterprises was only a couple of blocks away from the People’s Palace. Only a couple of roads headed that way from the docks. Andreas tossed in a couple of dinar for fare, one for himself and a second for Katrina. He was still trying to decide what to tell his buddies about her. The Secretary wanted to gun her down the moment she ran– would he still want to? Would anyone stop him?

Katrina climbed aboard the trolley car and studied its interior. A dozen two-sided benches lined each side, with a thirteen covering the whole rear and a fourteenth covering the front .At least she thought one was the front and the other the rear. Either of the far benches, which took up the entire width, were already full of passengers. A single man stood in the center of the trolley,. He reached up with one hand to grab a cable, his other hand took a lever that stuck from the floor. The conductor– or at least the operator.

She and Andreas were the only two to board at the docks. A few men, dressed in coveralls and blue shirts, dropped off and headed off to work. Aside from those dockworkers, the rest of the crowd, both men and women, dressed like factory workers. Andreas told her about the factories here, and Katrina could spot one down the road. It was a small, skinny building. Half of its roof gleamed in the sunlight. A skylight let in much lumination and cut down on electricity. She could see the power plant’s towers beyond the cigar factory, it’s smokestacks belching out black smoke.

She could taste some of the factory exhaust in the air. It was not the scent of industry, of steel mills, though she did pick up the unmistakable aroma of burning coal. “What is that smell?” she asked Andreas. The moment the words came from her mouth, the nearest Tropicans’ gazes turned at her, and not in the friendly way. They were not hostile towards foreigners, but they did not share much love for Navenians.

Andreas sniffed, “what smell?” Andreas took a few more sniffs. “Oh that. Haven’t you ever smelt burning molasses before?” When Katrina shook her head, Andreas continued. “No, of course not. There’s a distillery not too far from here. A couple of them, if I’m not mistaken. Isn’t that so?” he asked the nearest worker.

The worker, an older man wearing wrinkled slacks and shirt, nodded. “It is. By the smell of it, I’d say they’re using some young cane.” Katrina knew little about rum, except it was distilled from sugar. The State discouraged even teachers from learning about certain subjects, and alcohol was one of them. Why know anything about a banned substance, it was not as if one had the opportunity to put such knowledge into practice. Now that she was here– she would probably learn fast. Safer than the water according to Andreas.

Katrina took another look around, and found it hard to avoid unfriendly stares. Yes, the Tropican rum worker did sound drastically different in accent. Even Andreas sounded different. Or to paraphrase him, perhaps Tropicans sounded right and everyone else wrong. She just looked past them and at the apartment blocks, and their free cousins the tenement. Apartments were colorfully painted, albeit faded with too much time under the red sun. The tenements were all the same color, a dull metallic blue. They owe their metallic look to aluminum siding. On an island where wood would rot within a blink of an eye, that struck Katrina as rather prudent.

Katrina found herself an empty seat and sat herself just before the trolley continued its routine. She sat across from Andreas, who enjoyed himself. Katrina supposed she would be the same way if she could go home. Unlike him, she could never return home. Even if she tried to slip into another colony of The State, he identity would eventually catch up with her. As soon as that happened, it was all over. She was now truly an exile, a woman without a homeland.

Her gaze continued to wander across the sights of Tropico City. A minute passed before they passed the first of the city’s many distilleries. The trolley came to a full stop in front of steel structure. Its entire front, at least Katrina assumed it to be the front, had a large door in the middle, surrounded by a mosaic of glass. The building reflected brilliantly the pulsing sunlight, causing her to glance away momentarily. She watched as many of the trolley’s passengers disembarked and trudged in for another long day of hard work. She could only imagine the hardships within, especially in this heat. Even with the temperature over three hundred degrees, thin smoke still escaped from the distillery’s twin brick smoke stacks.

The trolley picked up once the last worker stepped off. Nobody stepped back on, not this early in the morning. She did not suppose many honest folk would frequent the People’s Pub in the morning. Andreas told her they cook an excellent breakfast, but she was skeptical. A drinking establishment first thing in the morning– utterly suspicious. She now had meeting underground business men and other criminal elements to look forward to. Since most would be dwarves, nervous was a good word as any.

Lost in her thoughts, she did not notice the trolley come to another stop. “This is my stop,” she heard vaguely.

Katrina blinked and came back to life. “Right,” she said, standing up and quickly pursuing Andreas. She found their stop rather disappointing. It sat along side a sideroad, one made of brick opposed to asphalt. It was narrow, perhaps not even wide enough for two autos to pass each other, and crowded with pedestrians, bicycles and even a minibus. One thing she was starting to realize about Tropico was its lack of orange. All the plants she seen thus far were green Terraforms. She heard Tropico called the green isle long ago.

A dilapidated open air pub, with half of it out under open sky. The open half remained vacant at this early hour. Andreas already told her it boomed with life when the sun set. The indoor area, though not enclosed, did have a roof. The large window frames lacked glass but made up for it in rose vines. The flowers did give the drab exterior a much needed color. Aside from that, it was not a place she wished to visit. Yet she followed Andreas this far, and she saw no point in quitting now.

Andreas took one step into the People’s Pub and took in a deep breath. It was like hitting a wall made of the scents of rum, cigar smoke and that awful rotgut dwarves love so. Andreas smiled at the smell, for it was the smell of home. Nobody bothered to look up from their breakfasts when Andreas entered the pub. He was well known here, and would not draw any attention. His thirst began to grow as soon as he set eyes upon the shelves behind the bar. Hundreds of bottles of various rums and wines were so dense, he could barely see the mirror behind them. He was told the mirror made the place look bigger, but he did not know why. The pub could easily house two hundred.

And there was indeed quite a crowd at the bar. Sapiens and pygmaeus alike congregated and a few locked in intense conversation. Some leaned up against the pale white walls. Andreas did that once or twice before. He glanced around at the many pictures hanging from the walls. Some were paintings, others photographs. A lot of the photos were that of the Revolution, of when the people ousted the aristocratic Traditionalist Party. That was twenty-two calender years before, back when Andreas was but a toddler.

The pub was around back then, and after the Traditionalist were purged, the pub changed little– except for electricity. That powered an assortment of neon lights, each flashing a brand name of rum. They hummed and flickered in the morning light, and lacked the effect normally seen at the dark of night. Nor did the fact that nights drew in maximum capacity on an almost daily basis. Too bad Golden Hammers did not own the place, that would be some major coinage. As it was, the government owned the People’s Pub, and received all its profits. Profit going to the Tropican Worker’s Party did seem a bit paradoxical, but it beat paying taxes.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” the cook called out. He was an old man, gray hair and battered face. He worked years out on a plantation in the hills, tending coffee fields for some aristocrat. He was but a peasant at the time of the Revolution, and quickly joined the ranks. As far as Andreas knew, he been working in the pub since it ended.

“How you doing, Petro?” Andreas waved at him. “Lively crowd this morning.” Andreas had to speak up over the crowd– or at least one of the crowd.

“Now there’s a voice I never thought I’d hear again,” came a voice from the bar. A short, stout man sat on the table and swivel to meet Andreas’s gaze. Andreas could not tell if that was a smile or snarl behind the beard.

“Long time, no see, Ghulam,” Andreas told his colleague, or perhaps supervisor was a better term.

“Don’t be acting like nothing’s wrong!” Ghulam snapped. “Where have you been for the better of an Astro? You been any later and we’d have to put out a hit on you.”

Andreas took a half-step back and spread his arms in peace. “Calm yourself. I was stuck in Port of Dreams–“

”We gathered that,” Ghulam replied before Andreas could finish. He figured as much. The moment Andreas withdrew money from his account, the Golden Hammers would know his exact location. “You been there a whole week?”

Andreas shrugged. “Missed the boat. Had to eat and sleep.”

Ghulam’s stare turned cold for a moment, but only a moment. It warmed up instantly as the dwarf tilted his head back to laugh. “Missed the boat! That’s rich, real rich. How on Towne did you miss the bloody boat?”

“It’s a long story, pal,” Andreas told him. He would have relayed the story right then and there, except Ghulam’s gaze went past him.

“You brought the sheila!” he exclaimed, instantly deciding this was the worse choice Andreas ever made. “No wonder you’re late.”

Andreas’s face flashed. “That’s part of the long story.”

“You must have gotten sweat on her to bring her down here,” Ghulam chuckled.

Andreas did some snapping of his own. “It isn’t like that! We can barely say three words to each other without arguing.”

Ghulam gave his trademarked snort. “Sounds like every relationship I’ve seen.”

Andreas lowered his voice. “What was I suppose to do? Leave her stranded like a little lost puppy?”

“You always did have a soft spot for the little guy,” Ghulam said as a matter of fact. He then gave a shrug of his own. “Too late to worry about that now. Word of warning, the dragon’s in the henhouse.”

Andreas smiled. “And how is Niceto?”

“President Niceto?” Katrina gasped, partly out of shock– that a leader would mingle with the masses so casually; and partly out of disgust– for Niceto’s revolutionary ideals and socialist ideology.

“None other than,” Ghulam told her. “If you’re feeling brave, say hello. Just watch out for his charm.” The People’s President had more charisma than he knew what to do with. He was a political genius and master speaker. He was also an legendary womanizer– though he preferred the term ‘ladies’ man’. Despite his failings, he had an aura of charm that just kept anyone from staying mad at him. Which is exactly how he stayed president for twenty-two years and the Tropican Worker’s Party kept a sixty-one percent majority in the People’s Congress.

“I should say not,” Katrina replied with venom. She had nothing to say to the head of a socialist state.

Andreas could only sigh. She was quite the stubborn one, no two ways about that. “Looks like you won’t have to.” Before Katrina could piece it together, another voice answered her question.

“Andreas, my friend, where have you been?” A well groomed yet plainly dressed old man came his way. He was old, but only barely, only but a couple years past fifty. His hair had already started to fade. Andreas was surprised it had not done so already, not with the weight of the island on his shoulders. Parent’s hair tended to go gray before those without children, so being the president should make hair color far scarcer.

“Long story, Niceto,” Andreas replied with a grin. No matter his mood, he could not help but smile when coming into contact with the president’s eternal good mood. “Needless to say, I had a little run in with The State and had to take quite the detour–“

”And miss the boat,” Ghulam added with a deep chuckle.

Niceto shook his head. “Andreas, we can’t leave you alone for a minute, can we?” To this, Ghulam laughed an agreement. Niceto kept his gaze as friendly as ever, but it suddenly shifted. Shifted from friendly to captivated. “And what do we have here? I see you brought a friend with you.”

“It’s a long story,” he repeated as he glanced back at Katrina. She stood, rigid and defensive at the unwanted attention. “This lady here is Katrina.”

Niceto reached forth to grab her hand. “Always pleased to meet a beautiful lady. I am Niceto, the People’s President,” he brought her hand up to his lips and kissed her softly. “Perhaps we can get better acquainted.”

Katrina ripped her hand away from is grasp with a fury, “In a pig’s eye.”

Niceto’s eyes open with surprise. “A Navenian. Well I shall not hold that against you– I see why you missed your boat. If I was in the Port of Dreams with such a fine specimen, I would have missed the boat too, and the one after that.”

That brought forth a chuckle from Petro. “Comrade President, if you had a dinar for every beautiful lady to turn you down, you would be a rich man.”

Niceto’s face showed not anger at the jibe, but a wide smirk. He reached into his pocket to withdrawal a wallet. “I have a dinar for every lady to reject me,” he showed Petro an utterly empty wallet. This drew a round of cheers and laughs from the resident mobsters.

“He hasn’t changed,” Andreas told Katrina, not expecting anything less from the People’s President.

Katrina expected nothing, except to make her intentions perfectly clear. She reached into the side pocket of her denims and drew a single coin. It was a Marasuanian, worth more than a Tropican Dinar, but it would work. “Here you go,” she said, flipping the coin at Niceto, who caught it with ease. “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Niceto’s face went still for a moment. He was not known for a temper or snapping. After such a blunt rejection and public humiliation, there was no telling how any man would react. Niceto reacted in his typical way; with a laugh. “I like her! She’s feisty!” He said, then he added with a lower voice. “A bit of a cold fish, though. I’m sure the Tropican sun with cure that.”

“Don’t be on it,” Andreas told him, in a less-than-low voice. Katrina only glared at him, the same as she had for the past astro.

“Only time will tell,” Niceto said with finality. “Now if you’ll excuse me my friends, I have work that must be completed. The People’s business is never finished.” Niceto left as he arrived, alone and without any bodyguards. Most leaders would not dream of such a thing, but not Niceto. The People’s President had no fear for his life. He was beloved by the people. He was cheered as he departed.

During the cheering, Ghulam grabbed Andreas by the arm. “Come on, we’ve got a meeting of our own, and you’ve missed too many already.”

Andreas nodded, he was ready to get back to work. “Wait here, Katrina, I’ll be back in an hour. If she wants anything, Petro, just put it on my tab.”

Katrina watched as Andreas and his dwarven buddy disappeared into the pub’s only private room. It had the label ‘party room’ above its twin doors, but Katrina could not tell what sort of party it referred to. She hoped Andreas would not be too long, for she did not fancy staying in such a shady joint. Especially not after her encounter with the country’s head of state. The nerve of that Red, trying to come on to her. He had to be at least twice her age.

Katrina stood there for a moment, trying to determine her own course of action. What was she suppose to do while Andreas conferred? Maybe she will sit down an order herself a meal, a good one at that, the type that would raise his tab by a hundred dinar. That would teach him to go off and leave her alone in a strange land. Katrina, being from The State, was totally ignorant on the exchange rates. She did not realize the Dinar spent in the Port of Dreams were worth thirty-seven times as much as a Tropican Dinar.

Worst of all, once that impertinent president left, so did most of the sapiens. Aside from the cook, Petro was what Andreas called him, she was surrounded by dwarves– or rather pygmaeus. Some might be gnomes, but she could never tell the difference. Andreas did try to explain it to her. She understood the difference, but she could not tell them apart any more different than she could tell two sapiens of different nationalities apart. She could not tell a Rhodesan from a Maralonian, for they both dress and talk alike.

Katrina’s feet grew tired of standing, so she took up a stool at the bar. No sooner than she sat did Petro walk up to her. “What would you like, ma’am?”

Katrina looked at him curiously, not expecting any service. “You wouldn’t by chance serve café latté?”

Petro smiled. “Tropico has about every type of coffee ever served. One café latté coming up.” He turned away and walked over to a rather large brewing machine. She scantily noticed it as she walked into the pub. With all the alcoholic stench, she never once thought it was a coffee maker. Petro brought the machine rumbling to life. It barked and howled like a mad dog. A few gears grinded like they have not seen oil in ages. Petro gave the temperamental machine slap of his palm. “Stupid machine,” he was herd grumbling.

After a minute of wrestling the coffee machine, he brought over a steaming hot cup of café latté. Katrina took the cup into her hand and gave it a long sniff. Its aroma was far more pleasant than the sludge served aboard the Emerald Marenave. She tried that once, and only once. She resolved to stick with water for the duration. Sure enough, the latté tasted far better too. Not to mention was the freshest she ever drank. She savored the flavor like she would never seen, or taste, another cup for the rest of her days.

“So fresh,” she said to noone.

Petro caught her words. “Beans came from the hills yesterday. Only way I could get it fresher was to pick the beans myself. I’m sure the dwarves would, if they’d just stop drinking that rotgut they call booze.”

“You can’t get any better than a bottle of Starshine,” said a gruff voice three seats to Katrina’s right. The dwarf was busy shoving scrambled eggs into his beared maw, and did not have a bottle or shotglass nearby.

“Starshine?” Katrina asked the cook.

Petro shook his head. “It’s some noxious compound they get from fermenting and distilling mushrooms. That’s what the distiller who sells me the bottles says anyway. If you ask me, I think it’s the main ingredient in some sort of neurotoxin.”

“It’s got more kick than your mother’s milk of a rum,” the dwarf called back.

“It’s got enough kick to start an auto’s engine!” Petro retorted. “I would be pouring it into the tank too, if it didn’t cost ten dinar a liter. Probably get better fuel economy to boot. I tell you Katrina– that is your name, no? The only time one should consume dwarven spirits is when one is trying to kill tapeworms.”

Katrina managed a faint laugh at Petro’s humor and exchange with the dwarf. Despite all The State drilled into her, this dwarf was not a bad guy. Different; yes. Different species; most certainly. But evil; no, just rough around the edges. She even wondered if he was a gangster. One might assume everyone in the pub belonged in that category. That one would be wrong.

Katrina could not help but feel a little down, seeing as she is the alien here. “Why did Andreas drag me along so far?”

Petro heard her question and had not taken it as rhetorical. “Drag you?” Katrina explained to him how they first met. Normally she would be suspicious about strangers, but there was just something about Petro that made him feel trustworthy. She tried to keep her tone neutral when she told how she ended up in custody because of him, and how he came to free her.

“I’m not sure why he did it. He told me he just felt responsible,” Katrina finished. “It’s nice to find a bloke who is man enough to take responsibility for his mistakes. You know him better than I ever could, why do you think he’d go through so much trouble?”

Petro looked uneasy. “I figure it’d have to do with what happened to Gustavus.”

“Who?” Katrina asked. She never heard that name before.

“Careful there, Petro,” the gruff, tough dwarf barked a warning. “Andreas might not like you talking about– his past.”

Petro nodded. “True enough. Can’t tell you much more, ma’am. Don’t want to rub a Golden Hammer the wrong way.”

Katrina said nothing. She wondered just who this Gustavus was. An old friend? A relative? Something must have happened to him, something real bad. Andreas always kept his distance and his cool. Perhaps that cool, which often turned cold, hid something unhappy behind it. She continued to nurse her coffee as she thought. She wanted to know more, but Petro said nothing further about Gustavus as soon as the dwarf hushed him. She would make it a point to ask Andreas about him. That is if he bothers coming back for her.

Andreas suffered minor whiplash as Copper slapped him on the back. “Glad to see you in one piece, you’re body anyway. I heard you brought that sheila with you, so I can’t say the same about your mind.”

“If I have to say ‘it’s a long story’ one more time, I’m going to shoot somebody,” Andreas said with a hint of twitch in his voice. He did not like repeating himself, not in the least bit. “Maybe I should just wait for the meeting to start and announce it one last time. Or perhaps run an article in the People’s Paper, front page; ‘What Took Andreas so Long?’.”

“Stop the presses!” Copper hollered loud enough for other dwarves to look his way. He could not help but laugh at his own foolishness.

Andreas looked around the room, and noticed he was the only sapien in the midst. The Golden Hammers was predominately pygmaeus, but Andreas was not the only made sapien in its ranks. “Where’s Madrid and Hayward?”

“On assignment,” Copper told him. “Madrid’s at our offices in Corona, and Hayward’s checking up on our operations in Rhodes. I hear The State might be moving against them soon, but Hayward volunteered anyway.”

Andreas nodded. Made sense, after all Rhodes was an old ally of Tropico. Even after the revolution, they kept on being allies. Some where obsessed with politics to the point of destroying lifelong friendships. Rhodes was not one of those; they were by far more interested in commerce than anything else. They shipped thirty percent of Tropico’s exports north along the Dragon Swamp’s two railroads– at the pleasure of the dragons anyway. If not for the fact the railroads serves as convenient borders between individual dragon territories, they might not even exist. Those were one genus that loathed any development.

Andreas took a seat at the long table. Fourteen other mobsters lined either side of them. All were bearded, and all were a century older than Andreas. He was ‘the kid’ here. Despite the revel a sapien might take in rubbing his noise in youth, pygmaeus did not seem to care. As far as a dwarf, or gnome for that matter, cared, if you did the work then you got the job. Besides, when one lived upwards to two hundred fifty years, one was not so obsessed with the years that pass and those ahead.

At the head of the table, the oldest of the dwarves, pounded a worn gavel on the table. “Calling this meeting to order. So nice of you to join us Andreas, I was beginning to think you retired.” Several dwarves chuckled lightly at that. In the Golden Hammers, the usual way of retiring was feet first.

“Not a chance, boss,” Andreas said, wiping any suggestion of his demise off the table. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

“Uh huh,” the boss, known as Bronzemane, replied. He knew Andreas was a hard worker, and prided himself on his quality. “You’ll be happy to know, the package was delivered, and our contractee was quite pleased.”

Andreas smiled, pleased with himself. He almost forgotten why he ended up in Shownastadt to begin with. Whether those notes were for a government who wanted to keep tabs on The State, or a rival university wanting to upstage Doctor Hawk, it really did not matter. He had a job to do, and he did it. Bronzemane did not ask Andreas what took him so long. He must have known Andreas made a withdrawal in Port of Dreams and slapped the pieces together.

“Now our first order of business; this astro’s profits,” the dwarves droned on about how everything was up. Since The State conquered so much land, and banned so many products, the underground did better business now than it ever did in peace.

As soon as the numbers trailed off, far more pressing matters came to the table. “Our industry, along with several other ‘businesses’ have came under the scope of The State. They want us shut down,” Basalt spoke here. He was a black-bearded dwarf, who had his share of contacts in Tropico and Rhodes’ governments.

“What else is new,” Andreas said with a shrug.

Ghulam glared at him. “A little something we ran into while escaping Shownastadt.” His glare added a few more words, such as ‘had you accompanied us instead of chasing skirt, you might know what it is too’. “I’ve already gone over this with the boss.”

Bronzemane nodded. “It’s serious this time. Serious enough that Niceto is worrying. Go ahead and tell them, Ghulam.”

Ghulam cleared his throat. “When coming back, we had to take a long detour mucking through the Dragon’s Swamp. Columns of soldiers were massing north of the border in Langoon, with tanks, big guns and the like. That’s all we seen. The Secretary wanted to go charging like a rhino at them, and took us long enough to drag him away.”

“We only spotted that mass, but you can bet you account there’s more,” Copper added. “I spotted a few of their swept-wing airplanes buzzing over the swamp.”

Andreas did see this as a bit thin, but one thing was certain. One thing was set in stone; nobody entered dragon territory unless they had a plan. The dragons, even the sociable Blacks, did not appreciate large groups of humans in their space. And that swamp was all that separated the rest of the continent from Rhodes– which happened to be a mafia terminal.

“They conquer Rhodes and half our business with go up in smoke,” another dwarf, one named Silverthumb declared.

“No doubt,” Bronzemane echoed. “However, I met with Niceto earlier. He voiced a bigger concern over the Rhodesan Navy falling into the Naveinan’s hands.” Andreas saw the worry there. With Rhodes’ ships in their hands, The State would have a force that could tackle the People’s Navy, and with Rhodes in their hands, their air force could bomb Tropico with ease.

“We talking imminent invasion?” Andreas asked.

Bronzemane nodded, but gave no vocal conformation. “Niceto’s got word that the Navenian fleet is sailing around from the north to join whatever it captures in Rhodes.” The State is all around a land power. Its navy is pathetic by world standards. Through its conquests and treaties imposed, their victims surrendered their navies to The State. Many ships, in fact most, did manage to flee into exile. They found safe harbor in allied states and continued the fight against the occupiers.

Andreas knew better than to ask how Niceto knew. When and where the revolution is exported, plenty of eyes and ears followed. The fact that Tropico’s fifth largest export is the revolution is enough reason for the survivalist Navenians to want to crush any socialist states. They certainly had the motive, and if they moved fast enough, the means as well. With all those captured ships, they might just well smash their way onto Tropican soil. The People’s Navy and Air Force would do its best to stop them, but it might not be enough.

“In fact, Niceto is so serious, he’s calling in our favors,” Bronzemane explained. He need not explain the favor part. That referred to the Tropican government’s ability to turn a blind eye at the massive underground industry working within its borders. Most nations would shut it down, but while Tropico gets its share of ‘taxes’ it was content to ignore them. But now there was an actual price.

“Do I even want to know what that would be?” Copper asked with a sigh. Like everyone else in the room, he had an idea what that favor was going to be.

Bronzemane smiled, showing a set of well-worn choppers. “No, but you’re going to hear it anyway! He wants to conscript all the businesses. He wants us to be militia.” A series of groans came from the dwarves. The only thing that interested them was working, it was simply their nature. Anything that interrupted their work irritated them. “Calm yourselves, we won’t be wearing uniforms. When the Navenians invade, we will take up arms against them the same we would a rival business. The only difference is, we’ll be working with our competition to destroy the greater threat to business.”

The underground was not the only business he meant. Bronzemane spoke of the business of survival. They all heard tales from occupied lands, and from refugees, of how the Knights cracked down on anyone different from them, from ideology to species. Their threat to purge the genome struck home to all non-sapiens. It was even worse for the gobli, whom The Party did not even consider sentient. The dwarves knew that when the war came home, they would be fighting for livelihood and their lives.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, don’t we,” Ghulam stated the obvious.

“We do, and it’s time to get to work. I call this meeting adjourned,” Bronzemane banged the gavel once again. “And one more thing; welcome back Andreas; you’re vacation is over.”

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