Of Sand and Steel: Laying the Desert Railway

By Jave Harron

Part I: Lunch

"You are being quite stubborn, my friend," the gremlin retorted, as his small green hand scratched his beard.

"No, I am being quite reasonable. You are both legally and magically bound to my service if I choose any more jobs between now and the end of next year," Stan countered, "Besides, it's not like I mistreat you."

"I'm a freelance machinist, and I prefer to remain that way," the gremlin replied.

"Correction. You are a freelance Archeologist-sponsored machinist. You are a mechanic who must prostitute his services. Any agency of theirs can hire you. That includes the committee running the railway project. You're fairly qualified, and hell, I'll throw in a bonus for you," Stan continued.

"Yes. But do you have any idea what lives in that desert?" the gremlin asked.

"No. But Gunther, if you know any interesting information, I'll also hire you as a "Local Wildlife Expert," for double pay," Stan continued.

"I know quite a bit on things in the Middle Eastern desert, so I'll try to help. However, I am warning you: You are underestimating the desert. And some well-armed people would have no qualms killing to keep it desert," Gunther replied.

"Like who? Both the Archeologists and Cartel have much to gain by linking their European and Asian rail lines. Not to mention, polls from the New Byzantium Times show ninety nine percent of people do not care about some empty desert wasteland," Stan asked.

"Yes, but ever heard of the Green Death and Black Horde?" Gunther asked.

"Green Death, yes. A bunch of tree-loving nutcases that want to send civilization back to the Stone Age, and eliminate all magic save their 'natural spells.' They've taken responsibility for the New Roma airship sabotage, screwing up countless construction sites, several bombings, killing families in the wilderness, a few incidents of unleashing monsters in public places, and lots of other such things," Stan answered, "However, I've never heard of the Black Horde."

"Have you heard of Mongolia?" Gunther asked.

"Yup. After R'lyeh was blasted by the Japanese Republican Army's clockwork atomic bomb, Allied Asia broke into warring states. Mongolia, long a savage frontier land, capitalized on the chaos. Since the Mongols were very adept at riding and raiding fast, they carved a swathe of destruction from China to India to Damascus. However, thanks to the Archeologists building machinegun nests, many of the Mongols were stopped dead in their tracks," Stan replied.

"The Black Horde are the remnants of the Mongolian army in the Middle East. They've taken to become feared raiders," Gunther responded, "Feared by even the already tough desert nomads."

"I've read a bit on the Middle East. Why have I not heard about them?" Stan asked.

"Well, there's a good reason for that. They've killed, hidden from, or injured most social scientists and emissaries that anyone has sent to contact them. Except the Green Death," Gunther replied.

"So you're telling me the Green Death operatives in the Middle East have a tribe of Mongols at their side?" Stan asked, somewhat shocked.

"Yes. And the Mongolians are very territorial. One of the kickers is the planned route of this rail line goes right through the heart of the Black Horde's land," Gunther answered.

"Shit. You think Alexius might be in danger if we bring him?" Stan asked.

"Yes. Neither the Mongolians nor the Green Death would like a self-aware train in their territory. Especially one where the mastermind of the railway building operations lives," Gunther replied.

"It's times like this I'm glad I'm a weapons collector. Since I've filled Alexius' interior with my collection, I doubt we'll have to worry too much," Stan commented.

"Stan, there's probably going to be foes weapons alone can't handle. Just keep that infamous silver tongue of yours in good shape," Gunther added.

"Did I ever tell you the story behind Alexius?" Stan asked.

"Many times, Stan. You can't seem to stop bragging about him or your other triumphs and accomplishments," Gunther replied.

"Well, I'm going to tell it again, whether you like it or not," Stan commented with a smirk.

Gunther rolled his eyes. The tale was told again. It was exaggerated more every time Stan told it. The basic story was the same, though. Alexius was originally a humanoid. His father was a green skinned brute, and his mother was a pointy-eared undersea dweller. Alexius was the product of a drunken dockside encounter. Because of such different bloodlines, his body had several physiological deformities, such as malformed gills and more metabolic disorders than one could shake a stick at. His life would be a painful and short one. That is, until he met Stan.

Stan befriended the dying Alexius through chance encounter. The two became friends, despite social class differences. Stan saw an opportunity in Alexius, though. He told Alexius about one of his newest projects: a Rail Golem, a sort of magical-technological train that looked like a centipede with wheels instead of legs. Stan deliberately mentioned a way to magically "upload" a mind into the new body. Alexius jumped at the chance and immediately volunteered. Since then, Stan kept Alexius around as a mobile home on the rails. Alexius was content with his new body, but in case of emergency, kept his old body in magical stasis somewhere on the train, in a place Stan himself did not know.

Once the tale was over, Gunther uncovered his ears. Stan pointed to the black and white photograph of him standing next to the recently completed Alexius. Gunther pleaded. "Now that that's over with, how about we start packing?"

"A capital idea. However, everything you need is already onboard Alexius, and I'm already packed," Stan said with a smirk, "I'll see you at the Southend Station in five minutes, or you'll be left behind."

With that, Stan left with a smug grin on his face as a hurried Gunther scurried out the door.