There wasn’t much left of the village when the grinder appeared on the horizon. The huge machine took two days to arrive at the village proper, so everyone had plenty of time to get most of their stuff packed up and leave. A few people stayed, mostly old people, sitting on their steps or in their living rooms, waiting for the end. For the grinding. Some people’s spirit was already broken. Some people seemed to welcome the end ... and the end was on its way.
Dutch’s family fled the day before, when the grinder was just a cloud of dust on the horizon. The thing had a path almost two klicks wide, so they needed time just to clear the blades. No waiting till the last minute. As Dutch was helping pull the platform he could feel the vibrations through the earth beneath his feet. There was no stopping or even slowing down the grinder. It came.
He’d seen, long ago, a projection of the grinder’s path around North Am. Seven grinders operated on the planet. They ground up the big cities first, their paths decided by computers to be the most efficient routes. Lots of little towns fell to them during the start, even, of course. After the big cities, came the smaller. Twenty years ago this one had started on the simple towns. Now it was basically cleaning up the villages and tiny towns. In another ten years it would be done. Cradle Three would no longer exist, as an inhabited, civilized world. The savers would have finished and gone by then, and the slavers. Cradle’s people would be spread throughout the galaxy, some as free citizens, some as slaves, and most as just more displaced refugees. The galaxy-wide war was slowly tapering down into little smoldering brush fires, but there was still plenty of time for suffering. Cradle’s people had done their share, and would still do a little more.
For the next four days, Dutch just felt like they were running away from the grinder. Finally the ground no longer trembled, and clouds of smoke and dust no longer billowed up behind them. They got the grav engine on the platform working the third day, and they made pretty good time after that. Dutch’s father was voted out as leader of their little group, but the man that took over still followed his plan. To the south. The further south they went, the safer they were. That was impossible to argue with. If they could make it out of the plains and into the mountains they would be safe from everything except slavers. And they even had a secret weapon for that problem, a neural grenade that somebody had come up with, although it was only good for one shot.
Dutch’s status had dropped when his father fell from the pedestal of leadership. Another neighbor forced Dutch to care for his kids by secretly threatening Dutch’s invalid mother. Dutch silently promised himself to kill the man but finally gave in and watched the man’s children. He hated the boy but loved the girl. She was young and sweet, a jewel in the rough. And she seemed to liked him. He idly thought about just taking her one night and striking out on his own, maybe on a ninety degree tangent from the group’s path. He knew they couldn’t afford to waste time hunting him down. If he could just take one of the rifles ... he’d do it. If he could lift a weapon from the group’s stash, he’d do it, he’d go.
He was selected for guard duty one night and walked around the floating platform, carrying one of the group’s four rail rifles. He carefully got his charges ready for bed but made sure the girl was prepared to move quickly. He got all her stuff in a bag and put it under her head, hushing her when she acted curious. She trusted him, though, and accepted all his instructions. That night, about an hour before he was supposed to wake up his replacement, he stepped to the side of the platform where the girl was sleeping. He put his hand over her mouth, and shook her awake. She could see him clearly in the light of the moon, and he felt her smile beneath his hand. He removed it slowly, making the “hush” sign with his finger over his mouth. She sat up, and he helped her down from the platform and took both her bag and his. She followed him without question. They crept away, into the darkness.
When the sun came up, they were at least four or five klicks away. He finally stopped and they sat on an escarpment while he talked to her.
“Lotus ... It’s only fair that I ask you this,” she smiled and nodded expectantly at him, “as you may have figured out, I am leaving the group. Do you want to come with me?”
She almost looked puzzled at that, that he would feel the need to ask her. She just gazed at him.
“Do you understand? Leaving them forever. I’m going out on my own. I’m heading south, into the mountains, where the grinder can’t go.”
He gazed at her. She finally just shrugged. He wondered if she realized the foreverness of what he was talking about. That part about going to the mountains wasn’t really fair, the other group was going to the mountains, too. She could go with them as well as him. But for some reason, maybe just simple loneliness, he really wanted her to come with him.
“Lo ... if you go with me, you’ll never see them again. Anyone. Your dad, or anybody. If they ever see me, they’ll probably try to kill me. Do you understand? Never.”
“Yes, I understand. I don’t care,” she finally said, seeming to realize what he was saying. He sighed, and they stood. They continued on their way, to the south.
A day later she showed him a stunner pistol she had hidden in her bag.
“Lotus!” he said, “Where the hell did you get that?”
She giggled. “I stole it from the armory. I’ve had it for weeks.”
Grief, she was useful, he thought. She was handy to have around. He grabbed her and bent her over and scrubbed her hair with his fist as she giggled and shrieked and fought him. He let her win. She was pretty cool, he thought. Pretty damn cool, for a girl.
A month later they crossed the grinder’s path for the first time. For a solid kilometer all they saw were the little pellets the thing spit out, and finally they were walking on nothing but grinderdust. The rain had glued a lot of it together in this area. Dutch finally got a loose handful, and he held it inches from his eyes, trying to identify anything. He couldn’t. It was just a crazy mix of ground-up stuff, rocks, trees, houses, people, anything that the grinder ran over. It didn’t even smell.
“Why did the grinder come, anyway? What do you know?”
“Uhm. That’s a good question. They gave this world away, in some peace treaty or something. They gave it to the Freaks. And the Freaks didn’t want our stuff on it, our cities and stuff. Part of the deal was to return it to it’s natural state ... that’s how the Freaks live. That’s what the grinder does ... it just ... grinds up the cities. Crazy, but that’s what it does.”
“Were there a lot of cities on Cradle?”
“Hell yeah. It was as populated as the core worlds at one time. I mean, that was before my time, and yours ... but, hell yeah.”
“Yeah, silly. Lotus ... some people say ... some people say that Cradle is where our people started from. That it’s the world that humans came from long ago ... our home planet.”
She was silent for a while. Surely, he thought, surely she’s heard that theory before. In her lessons, if nothing else.
“Yeah, they told us that in school,” she finally said, “I don’t guess it matters much anymore, though ... does it?”
“Nah, I guess not. I mean hell, they’re giving it away ... to the Freaks...”
One sunny day the girl proved her worth to him. She was about fifty meters behind him, and she was carrying the rifle. He was passing a large clump of stones when a man stepped out behind the rocks, followed by two others. The first thing Dutch noticed was their legs. From their knees down, they had spindly metal artificial legs, with hydraulic cylinders and springs. They were all clothed in dark plastic sheeting, their faces covered, and each had a large steel blade of some kind in their hands. The blades were all pointing at Dutch, and he backed up hurriedly, wondering what this was all about. One of the men displayed a small computer strapped to his forearm.
“You are logged into the Ephrium, sinner,” said the man, in a sonorous voice. “Your sins are entered, sorted and spell-checked. Prepare to be penitent. Say goodbye to your feet and legs. You are a kneeler from now on.”
A loud crack split the air and the man fell, blood spraying behind him to splatter on the other two men. A bright white perfectly straight line had been drawn in the air from behind Dutch to the man before him as the tiny ceramic pellet burned from atmospheric friction, propelled to a few dozen klicks per second by the rifle. The other men had regarded the shooting with surprise, but made no move to save themselves. The girl carefully shot each of them and then advanced to stand beside Dutch.
He approached the dead man and pulled the computer off the man’s arm. It might come in handy if he could get all the sin crap out of it.
“Lo ... thanks, darlin’,” he finally said. “They were gonna cut off my legs. Thank you.”
“No problem,” she said, holding the gun balanced on one hip jauntily. She looked sexy to him, in her flat black bodysuit, holding the weapon. She looked hot. He felt a surge of lust for her, and realized, to his surprise, that he loved her. Just because it was the two of them? he wondered. Just because they were thrown together like this? How and when had that happened, without his knowledge?
That night they holed up in a cave, after running a herd of squealing pigdogs out. He set up the invisible fence, and turned on a peeper, setting it for anything larger than a sand shark. They had a meal of roasted bi-corns, and drank from their devaporators. Finally the girl stretched out on the groundsheet, still looking sexy in her bodysuit.
Dutch stood. He began the slightly laborious process of stripping his bodysuit off.
“Darling. Lotus,” he said, and she looked at him expectantly, also a bit surprised that he seemed to be taking his suit off. “Take it off, girl.” he had the top off by now, and the cool evening air felt good on his skin. He motioned her to stand, and she finally did. He ran his fingers down her seals, and she helped him take her top off. He stopped for a moment and stared down at her, helpless. She was captivatingly beautiful to him. Her little breasts were small and beautiful, and her two brown nipples were fat and puffy. He wondered again how old she was and guessed maybe fourteen or fifteen. Her stomach was flat and hard, and rippled with muscle. She was completely muscle, no fat. For a kid, she looked hard and sexy. She really looked sexy.
She began stripping off her leg guards, and he dropped his, also. He removed his crotch-guard, and the air felt doubly good on his naked genitalia. She stopped for a moment and stared and he wondered if she’d ever seen male genitals before. It was so rare for anyone to get out of their suit anymore. She just stared for a moment and then went back to undressing herself.
He performed some tricks for her with his penis, just to make her laugh. Prehensile penises were always good for a laugh. When he was young he could even tie it in a knot, but he hadn’t done that trick in ages. He got a smile out of her, at least.
Finally she stood before him, as naked as he was. She took his breath away. Her muscular thighs were hard and he hungered to feel them under his hands. Her long dark hair reached almost to her waist. He could imagine smelling it. He looked down. Her beautiful little pussy peeked out from in between her legs. He imagined smelling that, too. He knew it would smell divine.
“Lotus,” he spoke, and she looked at him expectantly. “Have you ever done sex stuff before? Do you know about sex?”
She nodded shyly. Finally she spoke. “With my dad ... we made love most every night ... he showed me ... stuff...”
He idly wondered why his penis had interested her so, if her dad had fucked her every night. Surely she’d seen her dad’s penis. She still seemed fresh and innocent to him, in spite of her sexual experience. He knew that the next few hours were going to be wonderful.
He was right. They were. And she tasted ... divine. He bent his head down, and licked her sweet cunt for all he was worth. It tasted fabulous, sweaty and tart, just the right amount ... deadly sexy. He knew her bodysuit kept her clean and aired out ... but still, pussies developed their own tastes. Their own wonderful tastes. She was totally hairless and he wondered if she was still that young ... if she shaved or lasered it would have grown out by now. Well, she could have been depped, true ... but he knew she was young. Maybe it was family genetics at work. Maybe all her people were smooth. He forgot about her hairlessness when he saw her clit peeking out. It was huge, as big as the tip of his index finger. He wondered, not for the first time, if she was enhanced.
He idly wondered about her fertility. Though he figured she had and because ... hell, who hasn’t nowdays? he had asked her if she’d had the shot yet. Yes, she replied, last year. Good, no danger of babies, no matter where she was developmentally, then. He was relieved.
Her beautiful puffy nipples were exquisite. They felt fabulous in his mouth. He pulled as much of her breast into his mouth as he could and sucked, feeling her nipples stiffen. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and sucked on her nipples. Gods, she was sexy to him.
Dutch hadn’t had a lot of sexual experience ... times had been hard, the last few years ... he hadn’t had time or energy to get out and look ... but this. This was unreal, to him. And she was so sexy. It didn’t matter to him that she was so young. She was sexy.
He finally laid her down on the sheet, and turned her over. She seemed willing to let him do whatever he wished. She seemed to be enjoying herself, especially the pussy licking. He raised her little butt in the air, and bent down, spreading her ass cheeks apart. He fitted his face into her ass, and licked her asshole. Her asshole tasted wonderful, he thought. It definitely tasted, and it tasted good. It was spicy, and tasted like ass. Bitter, with just a hint of shit. Perfect. He licked and lapped, and finally drove his tongue into her body, feeling her sphincter muscle tighten on his tongue. She tasted the sexiest, then. His dick was as hard as iron. He imagined his dick in her sweet asshole, then and there. Maybe it would happen. Maybe it would happen, tonight.
She finally wiggled around a bit, impatient, it seemed. He decided to see if she wanted to play. He laid her back, and lay beside her, face to crotch. As he began to lick her upside-down pussy, he felt her hands on his hard dick. Yes, she did want to play. She stroked him and rubbed him, and finally he felt her mouth take the cap of his cock. He could have come at that moment, but he did not, he held it. She finally sucked him all the way in, hard and deep. She was good at it. Her father had taught her well, he realized. She slurped him in and out, in and out, running her tongue over the cap and down the front side. Damn, she was good.
He let her squeeze his head between her legs as he probed deeper and deeper between them. He wished there was a way to lick her asshole while she sucked him, but that would require practice and flexibility. He’d heard of people using wormholes for things like that. A nice, body-sized wormhole would be fun to have. Damn. Of course, he’d probably spend most of his time sucking himself off if he had one of those.
He felt like they had been doing this for hours. Maybe they had. He finally stopped her, and turned himself to be even with her.
“Darling, make love to me,” he said, and she giggled. She came to him, and clung tightly, hugging him. His cock was so hard it had lost its motility, but he wiggled and squirmed around until he felt the mouth of her sweet cunt on it, and he began to push in. She was tight, was she ever tight. He pumped in and out slowly, wetting his cock with her juices, and at last his groin touched hers, and he knew he was all the way in. He began to stroke in and out, and she wiggled and squirmed beneath him. She seemed to draw so much pleasure from just simple fucking that he wondered again if she was enhanced. He had barely started fucking her when she came, and she came a dozen more times, until at last he let himself cum. And she seemed to cum for a minute or more. He felt his legs lock, and his muscles tighten until they almost snapped. She was a good fuck, goodness, she was good. Her little pussy almost milked him dry.
They just lay there and hugged after that. She felt so good, she was soft and warm, and she smelled like heaven to him. The night got a little cooler, and she warmed him up. Her smooth bare naked skin ... he felt himself getting turned on again, getting hard again. This was better than he’d ever dreamed. He was glad all over again he’d taken her and run off. He had no idea now, looking back, why he’d decided to take her, he wasn’t thinking of sex, then ... he’d just known, somehow. Maybe his subconscious had seen how sexy she was.
Four hours later, they were kissing again. He pulled back, and said, “Darling ... Lo ... can I ... can I put it in your butt?”
She just looked puzzled.
“Lo ... did your dad ever do that?” he asked her. “Did he ever put his dick in your butt?”
“No...” she said, shyly. He almost laughed. She was shy, after they things she’d done so far?
“Can I?” he asked.
“I don’ care ... I guess...” she said. He slowly turned her over, and pulled her knees back, sticking her cute little butt up in the air.
He stopped for a while, and bent his face to her ass, again. She tasted as good as she had the first time. There was just something about ass ... He licked and probed, and she wiggled beneath him. He played with her clit with his finger, just in case the ass stuff wasn’t doing it for her. She seemed to be having a good time, at least.
He finally slobbered saliva all over her sweet asshole, and then raised himself up. He swished the cap of his cock in the spit, and then began pressing it into her wonderful little asshole. She moaned, and positively growled at one point, but she seemed to take it well. He got the cap all the way in, and began pressing deeper, finally having to go in and out to wet it with her juices.
“Do you like it, darling?” he stopped and asked her. “Does it hurt?”
“Yes ... no...” he hoped he understood her answers in the correct order. She had sounded breathless. He laughed softly and pressed deeper into her body. Finally he was at the bottom. She was tight, way tight. He could feel her pucker up, and tighten some more. His hands were on the sides of her hips, pulling her to him. He began to pump in and out, in and out. She sighed and moaned beneath him. It was obvious she was getting great pleasure from it. He knew that if she was enhanced she would have clitoral tissue around her asshole, also, and she’d enjoy it. Hell, just taking a shit would be a pleasure, if she was enhanced. He hoped, for her sake, that she was.
He came quickly, he didn’t want to wear her out, and it was hard to hold back, she was so tight. He filled her ass with sperm, moaning as she moaned, pumping hard. He finally pulled out, and collapsed beside her.
They lay there for a while, holding each other, loving on each other. She finally dragged herself up, and crouched by the side of the sheet, and pooped out his sperm, giggling. She wiped her butt with a rag, sniffed it, and tossed it into the back of the cave. He was turned on just watching her. She was so goddam sexy. How had he not noticed that, until now? So what if she was a kid, she was sexier than fuck.
He pulled a thermal blanket out of his pack, and they cuddled up beneath it. She felt nice and warm in his arms. He loved her a lot, at that moment. He was glad he’d taken her with him.
“Dutch?” They were walking down a narrow canyon. They’d spent three nights in the cave, just devouring each other. Dutch was almost worn out. Lotus had seemed insatiable, once she got started.
“Can we do that again, sometimes? If we find a safe place?”
He laughed. “Oh yeah, hell yeah. We’ll do it again, even if we don’t find a safe place. But we will. Yes, Darlin’, you bet your ass we’ll do it again.”
They walked a while in silence.
“Lo? Did you really like it?”
“Yes ... it was fun ... it was better than when my dad did it ... he just wanted to put it in me, he didn’t do all the licking and stuff.”
“Damn, he was missing the best part, then.”
“Yeah. He was.”
Later, Dutch had no idea how he’d gotten the idea or even why he’d gotten it. It just didn’t seem fair to him that a bunch of suits in a boardroom in the core had decided that his world must die. That it must be turned over to the Freaks. Wiped clean of all sign of human occupation, and turned over. Crazy. Cradle had belonged to humans for over thirty thousand years, maybe forever. And then some big shots gave it away, in the hopes of ending a war a little quicker? Double crazy.
The grinder was big, but he knew it was vulnerable. Any big machine was. It was just a matter of finding its weak points. Well, if he had a nuke, screw the weak points ... but how the hell could he get a nuke? He’d have to look for weak points.
Dutch stopped, one day, and thought. He knew where the grinder was, roughly. It moved fast, but not that fast. It was probably a month and a half’s walk north of them, by now. Slowly he began turning their path around in a big half circle. He talked to Lotus about his plan, but she didn’t seem to give a damn, if she understood at all. Hell, she was just a kid.
He knew the trouble he’d be in if he got caught. They’d just kill him out of hand, zap him. But the more he thought about it, the more he felt like he just had to try. It gave him a purpose, a meaning, he felt like. And, it was the right thing to do.
Dutch ran. He could hear Lotus pounding along right behind him. In twenty minutes, he was out of breath, panting hard. In another ten, they were in the grinder’s shadow. A thousand meters further, and a giant tread loomed. Dust filled the air. The body of the grinder started a hundred meters above them. They ran around the tread, and looked between it. Damn. No stairs. They headed for the next one.
Dutch had been able to use the computer to locate the grinder. The grinder sent out all kinds of signals, and the computer had no trouble seeing it klicks away. He tried to crack into the grinder using it, but the grinder wouldn’t let it log on. Well, maybe when they were close enough to use his fone, he thought. He had some specialized software that might get him in. He tried to port his cracking software into the computer, but then the computer wouldn’t take it. Grief. All these incompatible machines. Give me a break, he thought.
Five treads later, Dutch was ready to give up, and maybe die. “One more!” he gasped to Lotus, and they headed for a particularly large one a quarter of a klick away. They arrived in the middle of it, and ran around the end. At last Dutch was pleased. A stairway ascended into the body of the grinder. He was not pleased to see a guard sitting near the bottom step, lighting a choker. The guard saw them about that time, and jumped, reaching for his rifle. Lotus nailed him with her stunner, as she ran. Damn, the girl was good. The guy tumbled off the step, and rolled to a stop on the smooth, still smoking ground. Dutch rolled him over so he wouldn’t choke on the grinderdust and they ran for the stairs.
Grief, the grinder moved fast. For a machine as big as a small city, it just trucked right long. He was intensely aware of the immense steelex treads, just fifty meters to his left and right. They were passing by at a pretty good clip. The noise was deafening, rollers hissing, metal things pounding together, and an overall loud squealing of metal on metal that could not be ignored.
Dutch and Lotus ran. She was younger and quicker than he, of course, and she finally reached the steps and leapt aboard. She grabbed a railing, and leaned out, her hand reaching for his. He didn’t figure she was really strong enough to pull him on board, but she did a pretty good job, yanking and straining. He finally got a foot on the first step, and pulled himself aboard.
Dutch picked up the guard’s rifle as they climbed the stairs, and he was pleased to see it was a full sized long-range stunner. It had a UFP sticker on it, even. The Feds were involved in this? That was certainly no surprise.
They climbed for half a hundred meters. He held his breath as Lotus pushed the button on the door, and the door hissed open. Good. Not locked. They were inside the machine.
Up another flight of stairs, and they were truly inside the machine. They were in a room hundreds of meters across, filled with incomprehensible machines. It was noisy, but not nearly as bad as outside. Pathways led here and there. Dutch hurriedly checked the compass in his fone, while he still knew which way the front of the grinder was. They headed forward.
They crept through the machine for two hours before they saw their first person. Dutch and Lotus had been going slow the whole time, being careful, stopping at each open area and looking all around before they moved. Finally, Lotus poked him, and pointed. There, working on some incomprehensible machine were five or six teks with a floater full of tools. Dutch pulled her back into the stacks of machines, and they gave the guys a wide berth. Several other times they passed other groups, almost always teks working on stuff. He could imagine the maintenance crew this monster needed. He was surprised they hadn’t seen more.
Hours later, they were moving way slower. They had finally passed into the more populated area of the grinder. Dutch was surprised to see younger people, like Lotus. Kids. Did they live here, too? What a life, he thought, growing up on a machine that ate worlds. But it did give him an idea.
That night, they found a cranny between two apparently idle machine clusters, and crawled beneath, to find a comfortable hiding spot where they could sleep. Dutch was tired, and ready to sleep, but Lotus had other ideas. They made soft slow gentle love for an hour, and then she got up on her knees and he pounded her. They tried to keep quiet, but there was so much ambient noise from the machines it probably didn’t matter. Lotus came like the little volcano she was, and collapsed in a heap on the floor. After that they just wrapped their arms around each other, and slept. They were both pretty tired from chasing the machine for the last few days.
Before he went to sleep, Dutch had tentatively reached out for networks with his fone, ready to slam it down if anything saw them and tried to get a location on them. He had some illegal software for network cracking that would hide his location and other things, but he knew he could be probably pinned down pretty close just by the network nodes he was on. He tried to be careful and warned Lotus that they might have to move quickly.
The networks he found seemed pretty simple and open and he saw no signs of tracking. He didn’t find much of interest, either, just massive industrial control crap, and a little “our world” kind of BB thing that showed him that people did truly live on board this beast. He caught a video feed of an aircraft landing on top, and one of a wheeled vehicle being dropped from underneath to scout something. It was interesting, but ultimately didn’t tell them much about the grinder.
He finally found a map buried in a maintenance site. That was better. He found the bridge quickly. It was at least a kilometer on into the body of the thing, and quite a ways in front of them. He copied the file onto his fone, and finally dropped off the network. They slept.
After they’d slept a while, a noise woke them both. A few meters in front of them, a small ‘bot crouched, and spoke again in some unknown dialect. Dutch had no idea what it had tried to say. He had no idea, either, if it was simply a maintenance ‘bot, or something sent to investigate them due to his network snooping. He jumped as the ‘bot disintegrated into a shower of shards when Lotus blasted it with the rifle. He kind of wished she hadn’t done that, the ‘bot seemed harmless and at least it had tried to talk before it had done anything. Plus the rifle had made a lot of noise. They grabbed their stuff and got out of there.
They headed in towards the center as they made their way forward. Finally Dutch decided that they had to fit in a little better, and they holed up alongside what seemed to be a major thoroughfare. A few dozen people passed them before the right ones came along. Dutch nodded to Lotus, and they stepped out and blasted a couple from behind with the stunners. A man and a girl. Perfect. They dragged them into a machine room. The clothes were crazy, but they finally got the people stripped and the clothes on themselves. The clothes were adjustable, thank goodness, and fit well. They left their bodysuits for the people for when they woke up. Dutch was still trying to be as nice as he could, in spite of breaking into the grinder, and in spite of whatever he intended on doing to it. He was having more ideas in that department, too.
Lotus found a tarp in the room, and covered the rail rifle with it, in such a fashion that she could keep her hand on the grip. It didn’t look that weaponish, they decided, at a casual glance. Dutch fitted the pistol in his waistband, and it hid pretty well, too. They had to leave the large stunner, though. That was alright, Lotus had her stun pistol in her waist. He felt reasonably armed, for people who shouldn’t look armed at all.
The man’s suit had some kind of symbol on it but he had no idea what it meant. The suit Lotus had on was bare of symbols. They bravely walked out into the walking lane and took off for the bridge.
At the first meeting with grinder folk Dutch was surprised. A knot of people they had passed had greeted them with enthusiasm, and recognition it seemed. By about the fourth time he realized that it must be the symbol on his breast. The man must have been important. Finally they both acted like it was no big deal, and strode down the walkways like they owned the place.
The mood and the style of the interior of the grinder slowly changed as they made their way forward. It seemed more like a city, like people lived here. Obviously, people did. There were people everywhere, now. Men and women. Kids, younger than Lotus, even. The thing was basically a giant mobile city. A giant mobile city that ate other cities. Dutch idly wondered how they’d got it here, if it had been built on site, or if they’d flown it in from orbit. The thing might have gravs, even. If it had gravs, though, why the treads? Sometimes nothing made sense.
The thing he worried about the most was the language. If someone tried to talk to him, he’d be lost. What they’d heard so far was incomprehensible, with no hint of Irregular Standard at all. Many people had made signals to him, salutes, and hand signals, but luckily no one had tried to talk to him. He imagined he had seen puzzled looks on a few faces, and wondered if they were people who knew everyone of the rank he pretended to and if they were trying to figure out who the hell he was.
Why are we here? He asked himself again. He had it made, with Lotus. They could live out the rest of their lives in the hills, the mountains. They would be here long after the grinder was gone. And if the Space Freaks did come, if they moved into this world, they could worry about it then. Who knows, maybe they could steal a ship at some distant point in time. He could be happy with Lotus, he knew. He was happy with Lotus. Why was he inside the grinder, plotting its destruction? Why had this mattered to him so much? He didn’t have that much love for this world ... did he?
They were suddenly confronted with a gate, and a guard. The guard snapped to attention when he saw Dutch, rather when he saw the symbol on Dutch’s chest. The man opened the gate, and they passed right through. Easy. Was it always going to be this easy?
Two more gates, and two more guards. Now they were in a whole other atmosphere, quiet and serene. Important, it just felt important. Offices were off to the sides, and occasionally rooms full of underlings, busy at terms, most of them never even looking up as Dutch and Lotus passed by.
For the first time, he saw a sign on the wall in Irregular. It basically said “bridge” although it translated a little more like “control room”, but his mind fed him “bridge” when he saw it. He knew, at least, that they were on the right track.
At last, at long last, they approached a last guarded gate, and the sign on the door behind it read, in Irregular, among others, “Bridge.” They were there, it seemed.
The guard bowed his head respectfully, and said something in a language that Dutch did not understand. Before he could figure out what to do, Lotus spoke behind him. She reached up and touched his throat, still talking to the man. Shit, thought Dutch, she is handy to have around. The way she chattered, he knew she understood the language well.
The man pressed a button, the gate opened, and the door slid into the wall. Dutch nodded his thanks to the guard, and they passed through the door. They were in a corridor that seemed to be a kilometer long. He stopped and grabbed Lotus after the door had shut behind him.
“What was that about? What did he say?”
Lotus smiled. “He told you that a man named Orville was already here. He said to go right on in. I told him you had a virus and couldn’t talk.”
“Thanks, Lotus,” he hugged her. “What language was that?”
“It’s something called Central Redux. It’s all they speak in the core now.”
“Damn. I’m glad you knew it.”
She nodded, and they continued on down the corridor.
“Dutch,” she said, and he made a noise of assent.
“What are we going to do here?” she asked.
“I don’t really know yet...” he said. “If I could keep everyone out of the control room long enough, I’d drive this thing into the sea. But we must be a thousand klicks away from the sea. Maybe I can find a lake big enough. If I could get it mired down to where they could never get it out ... or I could flood the lower floors of it ... I dunno ... there’s gotta be a way to stop it, though.”
“I guess,” she said, “Dutch. Will we get captured?”
“Probably,” he said, “but don’t worry, they’ll let you go, you’re a kid.”
“Dutch. I wanna be with you. I don’t want you to be thrown in prison or zapped.”
“I know, Lotus ... I’m sorry ... we’re not caught, yet ... maybe something will work out...”
They passed through four or five anterooms and control rooms before they finally entered the bridge. It was huge. Dutch’s heart sank as he realized the real estate he’d have to control if he took over the bridge. A sniper could nail him from a hiding spot a hundred meters away. Amazingly, it seemed totally deserted, though.
They walked down a walkway, and along the front of the bridge. Huge windows looked out over the world below, though it was a little difficult to see directly below because of the height of the bridge. They were above the dust at least.
Everywhere were huge vid screens, showing things going on all over the grinder. A lot of them were ground views of where the grinding took place, of what would happen a few hundred meters below them. Right now it was just the ground racing by. In the lower right hand corner of each screen was a stylized heart, in green. Dutch knew that was the grinder’s health status. He wanted to see it red. Or better yet, black.
They walked a few hundred meters, and then came out into the center of the room. It was truly huge, but almost no one was in it. That was incredible. Of course, a machine like this would be so automated probably just one person could drive it. That’s the way machines were made.
To the front of the area were a half-dozen consoles, manned by teks. Several of them had neural helmets on and Dutch figured they were the guys actually running the grinder. Probably the pilot and a few teks to keep things going smoothly. The men were relaxed, leaning back, with their eyes hidden by the helmets.
A man sat in an elevated chair and watched a screen with a stylized graphic on it. He finally looked at them, his eyebrows raised.
“Pardon me. Is this the bridge? Is this where the grinder is run from?” Dutch said, feeling stupid. He knew that he was basically giving himself up, with a question that dumb. The man would know instantly that he didn’t deserve the symbol he wore.
The man acted like it didn’t bother him, though. Maybe he thought this was for the benefit of Lotus. Maybe he thinks she’s my daughter or something.
“Yes, this is the brain trust,” the man said, smiling, also speaking in Irregular. He motioned to his chair and stared at Lotus. “Would you like to sit in the captain’s chair, darling?”
Lotus nodded, handing Dutch the gun, still wrapped in the tarp. The man held her hand and helped her into the captain’s chair and she nodded her thanks to him.
Dutch studied the map in front of him on one of the large vid screens. The grinder was easy to identify at the bottom of the screen. Above it and off to one side he identified what he thought was a large lake. It was blue, big, and irregular shaped. The line of the grinder’s path went off to the side of it, quite close, actually.
“Okay,” said Dutch. The man turned from his attentions to Lotus, and looked at Dutch quizzically.
“Okay,” said Dutch again, loudly, this time. “This is a stick-up.” He brought the rail rifle out from the tarp, and brandished it in the man’s face. The man blanched. He knew what a railgun was, apparently.
Dutch turned to the men at the console. There were six of them. They knew something was going on now, it seemed. All but the three in the neural helmets.
“Okay,” said Dutch, a third time. He was having trouble getting started. Even Lotus appeared impatient for him to say something other than “Okay.”