Masque Ball: Chapter IX

by Mallard

I had just enough left in me to stumble to the break room and pass out, barely managing to lay across several chairs instead of collapsing on the tiles. I was angry at Hattie, more so than I had ever been, but I trusted her to keep her word and wake me when the operation started. At the very least, she would know my threats of leaving were real, and I didn’t think she would risk that just yet.

Hattie awoke me with a kick, rattling one of the chairs I had fallen asleep on. I groaned.

“What time is it?” There were no windows in the room, no way to tell how many hours had passed.

“Just after eight. They found the hideout.”

That woke me. I nearly fell to the floor as I sat up, the chairs shifting beneath me on the tiled floor. “We’re going?”

“We’re going,” she confirmed. I followed her as she stomped out of the room, wearing her tattered uniform coat once again. A green-and-blue Peace Worker armband covered the bullet hole, though there was no hiding the bloodstains, now a rusty brown. I followed her in shoes that pinched, and grimaced. I hadn’t thought to change out of that damned tuxedo before falling asleep, and now it seemed I wouldn’t have time.

A rail line passes directly over the army headquarters across the square, so that what had once been its roof had been built up to form a small train station that serviced only soldiers. Trains were signaled up the track when they were to stop; otherwise, the station did not truly exist.

The square was busy with morning traffic, carts set up to sell hot pies and warm spiced cider, carriages and automobiles vying for space to turn through the pedestrians, cyclists weaving dangerously through the narrow spaces between. A lady called at us from a cart covered in flowers, while a carriage laden with small wooden crates bounded past, the horses wet with lather and spattered with mud. The tantalizing smells of baked goods mixed with the rich fatty scents of roasting sausage, and my stomach grumbled in displeasure.

Hattie and I ignored everything as we jogged across the square, her bloody uniform commanding respect and fear enough to grant us our way without obstruction. I, in my rumpled tuxedo and flyaway hair, garnered mostly confused looks.

The doorman knew to expect us and ushered us in at once, commenting only that the next train was arriving soon and would not wait for us. As he spoke, the building rumbled as the train neared, and Hattie and I jogged for the elevator to the roof station.

The team from the previous night were waiting for us there, and Sergeant Roger Amos gave Hattie and I a brief nod, acknowledging our place in the operation. Even though Hattie outranked him, he had been given official command of the team, as it was comprised of almost exclusively his own people. We stood in tense silence as the rumbling grew closer.

It was one of the outcity lines that passed above the building, and the double-wide tracks looked overly thick and heavy, connected by thick steel I-beams. The rumbling grew louder, traveling along the steel ahead of the train, and suddenly it was there, bursting into the room through the gaping space in the back wall of the station, a sleek metal beast with a head the size of a house and brilliant glaring eyes that flashed with firelight. Ports along the top of the train hissed steam into the cool air, the upper rafters of the space filling with fog. Brakes squealed as they dispersed the train’s enormous energy, the sound unnatural and ear-shattering in such a small space. At last, the iron beast let loose a final sigh of steam and lay still. A beat passed, and the doors nearest us opened, a conductor waving us into the car.

Those nearest the front were passenger cars, double-leveled and seating seven to a row, separated into three columns by a pair of spacious aisles. Further back would be the cargo cars, carrying machinery, food, fuel, or one of Kestral’s many exports, loaded from the trade ships that called into Kestral every day, or from the tradesmen within the city itself.

Hattie and I saw ourselves to a pair of seats by the door, ready to disembark first once we reached Cinsa Bargo, a town a dozen or so miles north of Kestral. Central to the town was the closest air field to Kestral, there being no room within the crowded city itself for such a wide open space.

At least, the lack of space was the official reason, but I was not alone in fearing what could happen if one of those insane contraptions failed in take-off or landing, and instead plowed into the city, crushing people and vehicles like bugs. The first time I rode in a aeroplane, and learned that the only thing that kept us aloft was the insane speeds at which we traveled, I vowed never again to board one of the death traps. Lead me to an airship any day, for at least if it runs out of fuel, the entire craft does not plummet out of the sky and burst into flaming wreckage.

Unfortunately, while noisier much less comfortable than a proper airship, the steam-powered aeroplanes were the fastest–and most expensive–method of travel over the relatively short distances they could traverse, and time was of the essence. There was no doubt that the pirates had noted the numerous craft circling near where we had lost the beacon the night before, and we couldn’t afford to give them time to move the prisoners. So Hattie and Sergeant Amos had requisitioned use of one of the cargo planes stored at Cinsa Bargo.

The small town was the first outcity stop for our train, and once we got out of the city limits, the train picked up speed, moving far faster than any automobile. The tracks between cities soared above the trees on arching concrete supports, which both enabled the train’s path to remain relatively level over uneven ground, and prevented the very real possibility of striking a deer or a careless automobile driver. A train with that much mass and moving at such high speeds needs to plan stops well in advance, and with that kind of energy, anything struck would be pulverized, and the damage to the train itself could be devastating.

In less than twenty minutes after we left the army headquarters, we were disembarking at the Cinsa Bargo station, and down one flight of stairs to ground level put us on the airfield.

The airfield had been built before the wars, as the utility of aeroplanes began to become more widely accepted. Hardly anyone traveled on them for pleasure, but for speedy travel with no stops, it was difficult to surpass. Only the major cities have airfields, and most of them are outside city limits due both to the noise and the expanse required to launch, land, and store the devices. Originally, the Kestral Airfield had been just that and nothing more, but as seems to be the case with everything in Kestral, the airfield grew and changed over time. People needed to buy things at the airfield, or ship items back that they couldn’t take with them; they needed restaurants to lunch at while the flight was prepped, hotels to stay at when the flight was delayed. It became clear that a smart businessman might make a profit providing such services. And soon, without official planning or sanction, shops and homes had burst into being around the airfield, and what had once been the Kestral Airfield became the small satellite town of Cinsa Bargo.

* * * * * * * *

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