Trench Wars by WantedHero | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

CHAPTER 15 - Learning to Walk

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Some people learn the moment they’re exposed to new information or experiences. Others may take hours, days, weeks, even years to grasp the same thing. The point is, when you’ve got…you got it.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes, so long as you keep trying until you make that knowledge your own.

 

 

“No, no, no!” Alhannah yelled. She had to duck and roll to avoid the flying debris in the hangar as the giant S.L.A.G. floundered on its back. Crates exploded as steel arms hit the concrete, wood fragments shooting about like grenade shrapnel. “Use your left foot with your right index finder, Wendell!”

“I—I’m trying,” crackled his voice over the speaker in the Gnolaum’s chest. “Sorry.”

Both Dax and Nat slapped their hands over their faces. Lili, who decided to stay in a corner near the door, cringed with each fall.

“Is he alright in there?” she asked.

“Yes,” Alhannah snapped, not even looking up. She didn’t sound very reassuring.

The rest of the team had stopped working altogether. The loud ringing of metal reverberated throughout the hangar, making it impossible to concentrate. One by one, Freak and the TNT crew walked over and gawked as the giant tried to get up off the ground for the sixth time.

“Hasn’t he driven one of these before?” Freak asked.

“No,” grumbled Alhannah, getting ready to roll.

“And you entered him in the games anyway?”

A sigh, “Yes.”

“Doesn’t look like that was such a bright idea, now, does it?”

Sighing louder, “Not at the moment.”

“You know,” chimed in Socket, “all the other pilots have to do at this rate is trip him. He won’t be able to get back up.”

Alhannah rubbed her eyes and growled as Gnolaum fell on its face for the seventh time. She cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed, “Left foot, RIGHT index finger!

They could all hear the heavy breathing and stress in Wendell’s voice as is crackled through the speaker, “I’m…sorry.”

“Didn’t he learn the basics of assisted mechanics in school?” asked Telly.

“No,” Alhannah grunted, exasperated.

“Cause he sucks,” piped Nibbles.

“ALRIGHT!” Alhannah snapped. Spinning on her heels, her motion was so fast the crew took a step back altogether. She said softer, in a calculated tone, “I get he doesn’t have much skill…”

Tumbler snorted, “Well THAT’s bein’ kind—the skill bucket’s bone dry with this one, dearie.”

“AND I have a lot of work to do, so if you don’t mind—I need the other two S.L.A.G.s completed ASAP.” Her frustrated look turned to exhaustion as she leaned on Nat’s chair. “Wheels, would you make sure the automated systems are disabled in Banshee?”

“Disabled? I can, but…”

Raising her hand, her head drooped low. “Stop. Don’t argue. Just do it. Alright? Please, just do it because I asked you to do it and I want you to trust me. Ok?”

Nat kept his mouth shut and just nodded. He watched the gnome warrior rub her temples and turn back to Wendell’s attempts to get off the floor. Entering a few notes on his lap pad, he then wheeled around her to escort the RAT team back to work.

“You know this isn’t any of their fault,” said Dax. Shuffling up behind Alhannah, he nudged her with his shoulder. “Go easy on ‘em. They’re doing everything you’ve asked. More even.”

She threw her head back, breathing deeply. “I know. I know.”

“Besides, Wendell isn’t a gnome. What’s normal to you, Hannah, is lookin’ ta be completely alien to him.”

“But this is so simple!” she protested, still staring at the ceiling. “Basic mechanical knowledge every…” she stopped. Her head flopped forward and she stared at Dax, realizing her mistake, “Every gnome should know.” Shaking her head,“Maybe this was too crazy of an idea.”

Dax patted her on the shoulder, “Oh, I don’t know about that. He’s surprised us this far hasn’t he? Out in the wild, helpless, without us…” he tried not to laugh, “smart ones to aid him. He did alright. Things have a way of working out. Don’t give up so easily.”

With another thud, Gnolaum collapsed back onto the ground. This time, it just lay there—the heavy engines rumbling.

Dax shrugged, “Not yet, anyway.”

Alhannah quickly jumped up onto the shoulder of Gnolaum and rapped her knuckles against the metal. “Wendell?”

There was a long delay, then a squeaky voice crackled, “I’m sorry, Hannah. Really…I am so sorry. I’m trying.”

She leaned forward and tapped softer on the chest cavity again, “Come on out, Wendell. It’s alright. Training lessons are over for the morning.”

The S.L.A.G. beeped and blooped and gave off a mysterious honk before the pressure seal gave and the cockpit opened. The thick steel doors whined and creaked as the gears twisted and pulled. Wendell sat, strapped into the plush pilot seat, sweating between the folds of leather and cushion. He wiggled and tried to get his entire arms free so he could reach the safety straps and hit the release button.

Alhannah tried not to giggle, but it looked like a bean bag giving birth.

Wendell tugged and pulled at the gloves he wore, which attached to long cables and levers. As he did so, the machine flinched and spasmed until he freed himself. He avoided making eye contact with the gnome.

“Hit the power button Wendell…”

He reached out and slapped a big blue button on the console. “Sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Alhannah. I’m trying to follow your instructions, but I can’t,” he kicked the S.L.A.G.s console with his heel, “make this thing go!” It beeped back at him angrily.

“Well you’ll have to do more than make it go if we hope to make it through the first tier of combat. We need to step back and clear our minds—and when you’re ready to start again, we’ll fire Gnolaum back up. Alright?”

Wendell’s head slumped low, “Sure.”

Without another word, he hopped out of the machine, shuffled across the hangar and right past Lili.

“Wow,” Dax whispered, “he must be upset.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He didn’t give that girl so much as a blink.” Dax scratched his head. “Well, he’ll get it soon enough,” he murmured, watching Wendell vanish through the doorway.

Alhannah smirked, “You don’t think Chuck might have a S.L.A.G. pilot charm, do you?”

 

****

 

Because both Alhannah and Dax were experienced fighters in real life, Freak worked to modify the chest cavities in both S.L.A.G.s. He named Dax’s machine Turnpike, and Alhannah kept her Banshee trademark. The chubby mechanic slid off Turnpike’s chest and wiped the greases from his hands. He was grinning from ear to ear in triumph.

“So we gutted the dashboards and ancillary doo-dads that you’re not likely to need, like life support, air conditioning and, well…the seat.” He smirked and adjusted his goggles, “Then we re-welded the pieces to install it as a standing platform, instead.” Patting the chest cavity of Turnpike, “Go on, take a look.”

The inside was a crazy maze of exposed wires and spot welding, but at its center was what looked like a vertical table with a safety harness bolted to it.

“I know it don’t look like much yet, but the straps will hold you in place, so you won’t have to actually stand. Think of it more like…floatin’ with style. The controls have been rerouted to a pair of boots and gloves.”

Nibbles hopped up onto the shoulder plate and sat down with her legs hanging over the side. “I’ve got them wired to follow your motions, sending the movements through a relay to the main CPU. It’s not perfect, but we can work out the kinks once you try them out.”

“Nice,” grinned Dax. “So I can actually grapple in this thing?”

Nibbles bit off another piece of a candy bar she had jutting out of her shirt pocket. “Should. We’ll have to test it, but I think you could roll, punch and kick. Don’t know how natural it’ll be, but I wouldn’t count on doin’ what you could in your own skin.”

Dax jabbed Alhannah, “Why can’t we do this for Wendell? If we make it less complicated, he could…”

“He could what?” she cut him off, “Use his in depth knowledge of combat to compensate? He doesn’t have any fighting skills to fall back on.”

 

****

 

By the time dinner was ready, no one had seen Wendell all afternoon. Chuck was talking to himself…and losing the argument by the sound of it, while Lili was busy helping him in Morty’s kitchen. They were both cooking up a storm, while the tinkerer and Deloris set the table.

“What’s wrong with him?” Morty whispered.

Deloris frowned, “I’m not sure, but he’s looked stressed since this morning. When I offered to help him, he shook his head and wandered off, mumbling ‘Remember, blast you—remember.’ So I let him be.”

The tinkerer watched the wizard chopping the food mechanically, pausing to look up at the ceiling. With the dull side of the large knife, Chuck smacked himself on the forehead and went back to chopping.

“Well he’s making me nervous,” Morty finally blurted out. “And that’s saying something.”

Freak, Socket and the TNT crew lined up at the bathroom, under threats from Deloris. Each grumbled and complained as they scrubbed their hands and faces before being allowed at the table. Nat was already sitting there, working from his laptop, while Cryo64 sat on the counter acting as a radio, playing the latest interviews with last years Trench Wars pilots.

When Alhannah showed up, she had a noticeable spring in her step. The S.L.A.G.s were turning out better than she’d hoped and now her only  concern was training the gnome…who wasn’t a gnome. She looked around the kitchen and sitting areas, “Where’s Wendell?”

“Don’t know,” blurted Dax, rounding the corner behind her. “I can’t find the kid anywhere. Looked in the laundry, in the hangar, the loading dock and even the library. Thought may he’d be hanging out with the old man.”

“Nope,” snapped Chuck, furiously chopping greens, “haven’t seen the boy. Too….” He froze in place, eyes staring blankly at the cutting board. “Forgotten something important. Something critical. Just know I have.” He banged his forehead with the flat edge of the knife several more times, “Remember, remember, remember!”

“Woah!” Dax snatched the knife from the wizards hand, “Watch what you’re doing with that—you could get hurt!” He backed away and set the knife down on the table, “It’ll be ok, Chuck. You’ll figure it out…,” he hesitated, “whatever it is.”

The wizard shook his head in mild irritation, pulled a new knife from the sleeve of his robe and resumed cutting.

Lili set a large salad bowl onto the table, fresh lettuce, red peppers and three varieties of mushrooms mixed together perfectly. She smiled at her handiwork, “I think he’s still in the storage room.”

Dax chuckled, “What’s he doing in a….wait, wait,” he smirked, “What were you two doing in the storage room? Hmmm?”

She grabbed a bread knife and wiggled it in his direction, “WE weren’t in the storage room. He looked so upset, I,” she paused, then said quietly, “it doesn’t matter—he didn’t want to talk. He just wanted to be left alone to play some kind of game. Something he recognized.” She nudged the wizard behind her, “what did he call it?”

“Video games.”

“That’s right.” She started slicing pieces of bread, “He found it a few days ago and said it helped him get his mind off things.”

Chuck stopped stirring the soup and stared boldly at both Dax and Alhannah. His brows jumped forward like a furry avalanche down over his eyes. “What have you two been doing to that boy?”

Alhannah produced her I’m-completely-innocent pose. “Just trying to encourage him, Uncle Chuck. Promise.”

Dax scooted past the gnome, “I’ll get him.”

Neither he nor Chuck had really explored the huge building since they’d arrived. Dax had to wonder—when did Wendell get the time to wander off and explore? There were dozens of these huge warehouses, each the size of a mansion for any gnome. Twice Dax found himself lost down corridors he never knew existed.

Rooms filled with old, rusted and out of date machinery, broken windows and nests for birds and mice. One room looked like it had been a break area at one time. A dented and rusting fridge sat next to a sink and small counter. The red paint of the round table was peeling and had faded. Water damage bloated the wood, while three lonely chairs lay sprawled across the ground, overturned and abandoned.

Frustrated and hungry, Dax was about to give up when he heard a faint beeping sound. Almost indiscernible at first, his overly sensitive ears—still huge as a gnome—led him to a small glow behind a glass door at the end of a long corridor.

“Wendell?”

No answer…but the beeping and clickity-click sounds continued.

The door creaked and resisted at first, but Dax pushed firmly.

He peeked in.

Wendell sat on a long, striped couch, legs missing from one end.

It was a storage room.

There were no windows, boxes were piled high and tipped over…and it smelled strongly of dust and mildew.

Wendell looked like a statue, sitting there in the dark, relying on the TV as the only light. He’d arranged the boxes and broken furniture around him—everything focused towards the TV. His expression was solemn, eyes focused intently on the action of the screen.

“Hey buddy—time to eat. You hungry?”

“I’m good.”

Dax slipped into the room. “Right. Ok. I just…” but he stopped, his attention drawn to the bright flashes of color on the screen. He plopped down on the opposite end of the couch. “Good game?”

Wendell shrugged, “It’s alright I guess.”

The TV groaned as another creature fell under the sword and shield of the warrior knight.

“Look kid, I know this is hard—trying to learn something new, especially with so much pressure. But you can’t expect ta be an expert at piloting a S.L.A.G. even if ya did understand the technology.”

“I thought it would be easy.”

“I know.”

The knight on the screen entered a dark grove. A pale moon hung overhead as he waded through the trees. Swaying from side to side Dax noticed six creatures slithering out from the trees. They hunched over, like wild men, furry with long claws and teeth.

“No,” Wendell sighed, “I don’t think you do, Dax. It’s been nice, staying here with the gnomes. More like home. Earth. Yeah, there are some differences, but this environment is a lot like where I come from. So I thought, how hard could this be, right? Learning how to use technology—total snap, right? We have computers at home, we have cars, motorcycles, even robots…” but he paused, “ok, not the twenty foot kind, though.”

“Wendell…”

Blocking the blow of a claw from one creature, the knight stabbed under the round shield, piercing the beast in the chest. A second lunged, but the knight spun, striking a third across the jaw and slipped outside the circle.

“But I can’t get it to work!” Wendell bellowed. He quickly clicked a few buttons and another beast was instantly cut in two. “The controls in the S.L.A.G. are awkward. So…weird, and unnatural to me.”

The knight spun down on one knee, slicing outward, cutting through legs. The creatures squealed, only to be silenced by decapitation. The last two converged on the screen, but Wendell pushed the controller forward. With a final jump, the knight landed on his knees as the first beast sailed overhead, overshooting its mark.

Thrusting upward, the sword drove through fur and bone of the second beast, penetrating its heart. It fell forward, without a sound. Dropping back, the knight yanked the sword free and held it aloft as the first attacker lunged back, claws outstretched.

The beast landed on the blade…and slumped to the ground.

Wendell sighed, “Unless there’s some sort of miracle, there’s no way I’m going to be able pilot that thing out there.” He set the game controlled on the floor and looked up at Dax.

The elf looked at him, then at the TV…then back at Wendell.

“What?”

Dax stared at the TV screen once more and shaking his head in disbelief...and laughed.

 

****

 

Nibbles flipped up the visor on her head, “Ok, I’ve completely redone the system. Socket reshaped the dash and then I modeled the controllers after the game console you gave me. Ready to give it a go?”

Alhannah nudged Wendell in the back.

“Uh…yeah—sure!” he said, trying to sound enthusiastic.

Nibbles wiped the sugar drizzle from the side of her mouth on the back of her welding glove. “Well?”

Wendell jumped forward, “Oh! Sorry…you mean now?”

“Duh.”

“Right,” he muttered and scrambled up onto Gnolaum’s chest. Lowering himself down in to the cockpit, he strapped himself into the new seat.

Hmmph. Comfy.

The chair had more room, now that the main dashboard was smaller. It supported his weight rather than engulf it. “And you say this works just like the video game I was playing?”

Nibbles nodded, “Nat and Cryo broke down the code and reworked it to mimic the knight character you enjoyed playing. So, if it works—you should be able to move this S.L.A.G. by matching the controls you use for the character on the screen.”

Cooool.

He pressed a button and sealed the latch. Staring down at the power switch, he hesitated.

Ok Wendell—you’ve been willing and eager to do something right, so lets knock this one out of the park for a change, alright? Right. Here goes…everything.

He pushed the starter.

Gnolaum came to life, the engine set deep in the back of the torso humming—the light vibration resonating through the chair.

So far, so good. “Righteo. Let’s take this baby for a spin.” Gripping the joystick on the dashboard with one hand, Wendell lightly rested his other fingers on the buttons. “Uh, Nibbles?” he spoke through the microphone.

“Yeah?” answered a crackly voice.

“What are these other buttons for…the one’s above the joystick? Those weren’t in the game.”

“Oh, don’t worry about those—they’re not hooked up to anything, not yet. But we wanted to have room for some goodies if we decided to come up with something. Now get off your butt!”

“You got it.” Holding down the first button and pushing the stick forward, the S.L.A.G. slowly got to its feet.

“It’s working,” muttered Alhannah, stunned.

“It’s WORKING!” cheered Dax and all the TNT crew cheered with him.

Gnolaum took a few steps, turned, then suddenly sprinted to the bay doors. At less than a foot from impact, it skidded to a stop and rotated the chest cavity around 180 degrees.

Wendell’s laughter poured out of the speakers and echoed through the hangar.

It’s clobbering time!

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