Trench Wars by WantedHero | World Anvil Manuscripts | World Anvil

CHAPTER 12 - Rats

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When you have to deal with sleazy, conniving, back-stabbing people…sometimes it’s wise to employ a few of your own.

 

 

“Oh HO!” cried Morty, his smile as big as a sunrise on his face, “I almost didn’t recognize you boys!” He squinted as Dax walked up, fully dressed. His mouth dropped open.

“Shut up. It’s me. Moving on.”

Morty snickered, then bowed low as Lili and Alhannah past through his doorway, “Er, and ladies. What brings you to this part of town? I thought you were working to get ready for Trench Wars?” He stepped aside, waving them all through. Nat was the last to roll over the threshold. He looked a bit nervous.

“Is Deloris here, by chance?”

“Not by chance,” Morty grinned, “by choice.”

“Could you let her know we’re here? We need to talk with her.”

The tinkerer looked between them curiously, “You’re not planning on taking her away again are you?”

Nat opened his mouth, but Alhannah stepped in. “Of course not!” She grew an overzealous grin, “She’s staying right here where she belongs.”

He beamed, “Then I’ll go get her!” Strutting across the cement floor, there was a bounce in his step. “Make yourselves comfortable!” he called back.

When Morty was out of sight, Dax sighed. “We shoulda told him.”

Alhannah smirked, “He’ll find out soon enough.”

 

****

 

“Absolutely not!”

“Dear…”

“Oh, so THIS is why they wanted to talk with you—so you could be brought into the loop—to soften me up and persuade me, isn’t it?”

Deloris grabbed his arm and didn’t let go. Instead, she snuggled up close to him and smiled softly, “Morty, this is the best idea I’ve heard in a while and I want you to see it.”

He rolled his eyes, “Pssht.”

“Don’t be that way.” She led him to the desk and sat him down in a chair. “We have an obligation to help Wendell. Not only because he sought our help, but because his future is our future, if you believe him to be the Gnolaum. Would you agree?” Wendell shifted uncomfortably in the doorway as everyones attention shifted to him.

Morty’s frown softened when he looked up. Wendell hadn’t asked to be here. He was brought by those trying to save him. None of this was his fault and Morty had seen the Ithari in the boys chest first hand. There was no denying it. His head drooped, “Agreed.”

Deloris smiled and lifted her husbands chin. “The way I see it, this puts both you and I at an advantage. Motherboard could only secure this arrangements with my assistance—which is to work with Chuck.” She batted her eyes at Morty, “Now that we’re together again, I…don’t want to leave.”

He blushed. When he saw the others smiling at him, Morty cleared his throat and forces a frown back to his face.

“So if they use the warehouse, I can stay here while working with Chuck.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Just give them a chance to explain their idea, then you can decide—that’s all I’m asking.”

The chair creaked as he leaned back and folded his arms. “I’ll give you five ticks.” He looked at his watch, “Go.”

Alhannah walked over casually and hopped up onto the corner of the desk. “Look Morty, the way I see it, we can help each other. We have limited funds. That means, for us to compete, we’ll have to cut corners, conserve funds. Nat’s put together a team of talent…which could not only cover all three S.L.A.G.s, it could serve dual purposes, which include you.”

Morty shifted in his seat. “How?”

She grinned wide, her white teeth gleaming, “Think about it. Having a warehouse of brilliant people, half of them tinkerers? It could come in handy.”

“Tinkerers?” he unfolded his arms, “Here? Really?”

“Really.” Crossing her legs, she leaned over, “Now Wendell, being who he is, needs to be kept under the radar. Nat’s created papers, credentials and a fake background, but Trench Wars is a rough and tough crowd. We want to keep the Gnolaum away from the other pilots as much as possible. We can’t keep the S.L.A.G.s on G.R.R. property, or we run the risk exposing them if we gain in popularity. We also can’t afford our own warehouse. That’s why we came here. You have the space, you have a secure location…so we thought, maybe we could scratch your back—if you could scratch ours. If we’re all under one roof, we all have access to multiple talents, if needed.”

Morty kept tugging at his handlebar mustache, rolling the ends between his fingertips. “You know I’m monitored by the government. Just being here puts Wendell at risk. I can’t just turn off the equipment they’ve installed—they’d think something was up and investigate.”

“That won’t be a problem,” piped in Nat. “I’ll have Cryo64 with us. He can control the feeds if you like. In fact, he can report crafted information and give you some freedom…wiggle room.”

That grabbed his attention. Morty sat forward with a jerking motion, “You can do that?”

Nat nodded, “Absolutely. He’s had full access to the primary datacenter at the capital for years. Simple enough to send false information, create a forged log…and if you’d like the snooping to stop…?”

Morty gave a grin of desperation, “Oh, I would, I would.”

“There’s one other thing,” Alhannah cut in, hopping down from the desk. “Something you can do for both of us.”

Morty frowned over at Deloris, but she shook her head and shrugged. “And that is?”

“You mentioned that your inventions have earned you a bum rap from the public?”

The tinkerer sighed heavily, “You have no idea.”

Alhannah strolled across the room and stood in between Dax and Wendell. She elbowed the elf and threw her arm over Wendell’s shoulder. “How would you like to fix that reputation, Morty?”

He squinted and for a moment, studied the warrior’s face. “How,” he said warily.

Smirking, “I want you to join our RAT team.”

“You’re…not…serious,” he sputtered, choking back the laughter. But Alhannah’s expression didn’t change in the least. He let out a guffaw, “You ARE serious!”

If Alhannah was phased, she didn’t show it. “I talked with Chuck. Your talent is energy. We need a specialist like that on our pit crew. Help us with the S.L.A.G.s and the public will love you. Our fame becomes your fame. They won’t care what happened yesterday.”

His eyebrows arced his, “But I don’t know anything about S.L.A.G.s.”

“You don’t have to, Mr. Teedlebaum,” said Nat, “we need you to be a part of a think-tank and your willing ness to help us where and when you can fit in. That’s all.” He rolled closer to the tinkerer, “We’re not asking you to stop what you’re doing. Only to help us from time to time. In return, I would be most honored to assign Cyro64 to be your assistant. He’s quite clever and might be able to help you solve some of your miscalculations.”

Morty chuckled, “You can do that?”

Nat pulled a small round disc from a compartment in his wheelchair. He held it up in the palm of his hand. With a fingernail, he flipped a tiny switch along one of the ridges. “Cryo, have you been listening?”

Always. That is my job.

Morty’s jaw dropped open as a small blue hologram of a face, no bigger than the tinkerer’s fist, appeared over the disc.

And I would be delighted to be of assistance to Mr. Teedlebaum, if he would have me.” The face rotated up to look at Morty, “It would be refreshing to be appreciated.

“Well I’ll be,” Morty gasped. His round little belly jiggled as he laughed out loud. “Then you have a deal!”

The room boomed as everyone, including Deloris, let out a cheer.

“Alright, alright,” Morty held his hands up for silence, “…I’ll see about shifting my projects into the smaller rooms. I can give you children the main hangar and storage level for your S.L.A.G.s and shop. They’re not being used anyway. It has a delivery bay, which should help. We’ll have to reroute some power down there, but it shouldn’t be too difficult.” He got up from his chair and straightened his lab coat.

Deloris smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

“So,” he huffed, rubbing his hands together, “how soon do you kids need to move in?”

Alhannah looked over at Nat, who looked up sheepishly.

“Would right now be too soon?”

 

****

 

Lili and Chuck joined Deloris and Morty in getting some of the smaller sections of the warehouse set up as living quarters. Cryo immediately tapped into the audio and video feeds and downloaded Morty’s work logs from the past two season. Within minutes, a ‘trickle format’ was created, sending information to the government that looked like Morty was conducting trial and error experiments. The loop would feed new information, completely useless to those monitoring the tinkerer, for the next nine months—leaving him free to make progress at his own pace. Morty couldn’t stop giggling. He walked about thanking the floating blue head he held in the palm of his hand.

Alhannah, Dax, and Wendell accompanied Nat down a level to meet the delivery trucks.

With a grunt, Dax flipped the rusted lever on the breaker box. Pop-pop-pop went the rows of bulbs, creating the unnatural, yellow glow of artificial light. Other than scraps, stray garbage and a dozen or so broken pallets, the hangar was completely empty. Wendell wandered into the middle of the room and spun around in place.

This place is HUGE! You could build just about anything in here! Which made him wonder how big these S.L.A.G.s actually were. The excitement that Dax and Alhannah exuded was rubbing off. Trench Wars was a big deal to the gnomes and now Wendell was going to enter the competition. This is SO COOL! He bounced on the balls of his feet.

ERR-ERR-ERR-ERR! A red light flashed over the huge bay doors.

“They’re here!” yelled Nat, rolling to the control box. He flicked a few switches and frowned, “The door motors are shot…give me a hand, guys!”

Unbolting the latch, Wendell and Dax pushed the bay doors open, which slid into the pockets of concrete. A gust of wind carried dirt and runaway scraps of paper into the hangar. Wendell wrinkled his nose. The air smelled old and tainted, like the oder of a well-used gym, mixed with grime and oil. Three large carrier transports were backed up to the opening. Wendell smiled to himself, Hey, they look a lot like semi trucks. Green soiled and torn tarps covered the flatbeds, held down by rope and metal cables. He could see flashes of metal underneath. I wonder what they look like?

“Who’s gonna sign?” grunted the fat delivery gnome. He gnawed on a cigar vigorously, puffing vile smoke into the air. Dax whimpered.

“That would be me, Mr. Whipple,” Nat answered cooly. He pulled up the shipping order on the screen of his wheelchair.

“Oh! My apologies,” Whipple grunted, “sir,” he added and spit the cigar onto the ground. With a sharp whistle between his teeth, the other drivers jumped from the cabs of their vehicles. “Cut the ropes and make ‘em naked boys!” he shouted.

While no one was looking, Dax snatched the cigar from the ground, brushed it off and ran back into the hangar.

Yanking the tarp off the first transport, Whipple read from his clipboard. “We got us one used Crumbler 2200, newly retired with reinforced chest, shoulders and upper leg supports.”

Wendell’s eyes bulged like a child in a candy shop. The machine was immense. A giant robot of tarnished, scratched and dented metal lay across the bed, lifeless. Wendell walked around the far side of the vehicle, reaching up and running his hand over the surface of its metal forearm. Wow. I wonder if this one’s for me? It had a small head, which sat low into the broad chest of the machine. It had thick arms and legs, and Wendell noticed that most of the scars were on the front side of the robot. The underside of the arms and legs were nearly smooth and unblemished. He imagined what it would be like to command such a powerful looking giant and excitement rushed through Wendell’s chest. This is going to be awesome!

Nat tapped away on the small keyboard, “Did you secure the hammer used for this unit?”

“Indeed I did,” replied the driver, “just as yous asked. They even threw in a second, for no extra charge, so I brought it too.”

“Excellent. Next?”

They moved to the back of the second transport, where a red-headed, freckled face youth was folding the tarp neatly under his arms.

“Next we got a refurbished Flashward unit.” Whipple paused and scratched his head, “I knows you asked for a 16BB model, sir, but there ain’t one ta be had. The only one I did find was nearly double your spendin’ limit. This is a 16A2 unit though.”

Nat shook his head, “There has to be another…”

“I tried sir,” he cut in, “I did—but there ain’t much o’difference in the 16BB and 16A line, anyway, but its guidance systems. Nothin a bright computer gnome like yourself can’t handle, eh? I go this at a closed auction and got it on that cheap, too.”

Nat set the pad down, his face stern, “Mr. Whipple, do you enjoy our business arrangements?”

The delivery driver immediately stood at attention as if he were in military service, all expression wiped clean from his face. “I do indeed, sir. You n’ Mr. Motherboard have been very kind to me family, sir.”

“Then please refrain from making decisions you have no right to make.”

“It’s fine,” Alhannah said casually, staring up at the robot on the truck, “We’ll take it.”

“Alhannah, I did my research and this is not what I ordered. We have limited…”

“Options right now. I got that, Wheels, but this looks like it might be a better find.” Grabbing a hold of the side wall, she pulled herself up onto the vehicle’s bed, “It looks like it’s been modified.”

Mr. Whipple smirked, “Right you are, Ms…”

“Alhannah Luckyfeller.”

At the mention of her name, all three drivers snatched the caps from their heads. The two younger drivers mumbling in awe at one another.

Mr. Whipple beamed, “Yes, mam. I was able ta get yous one with a retardant skin. Was used for evacuation training, so it had to live in the flames, not just get through ‘em.”

Nat adjusted himself in his wheelchair, annoyed. “Alhannah, I hardly…”

“Know your machines,” she cut him off, “I know.” Sitting down on the back of the vehicle, she patted the foot of the robot. “Look, Nat, I’m already impressed with what I’m seeing here. You’ve done your research, but let me enlighten you. The 16AA has speed, which is great, but the 16A2 has reinforced limbs. It’s the bigger, badder model to train the lightweights. One is made for rescuing people, the other was originally designed for property damage. That means it can take a beating. We’re going to need all the armor we can get, which isn’t cheap—and with this retardant skin, we just became fireproof to boot.” She gave the driver a grand smile, “Mr. Whipple did very well…and saved us a small fortune.”

Standing with his cap in hand, Mr. Whipple stood silent…watching Nat intently.

The crippled gnome fidgeted uncomfortably, tapping his fingers against the rim of his wheelchair. “I apologize Mr. Whipple. If Ms. Luckyfeller says this is an exceptional buy, then I am grateful. Thank you.”

The driver beamed. “Well, sir, I have saved the very best for last! Something special,” and he rushed to the third vehicle.

Nat sighed quietly, “Oh no.”

The third driver, a middle aged gnome with an unusually high forehead, overly big ears and front teeth, smiled and bowed to Alhannah.

“Show ‘em, Lou,” grinned Mr. Whipple.

Lou flicked the hydraulic switch on the side of the truck. With a whine and creak, the bed raised, giving all a perfect view of the last bot.

“Wow,” gawked Wendell, “That looks like it could be a boxer.” And he was right. It was the tallest of the three machines, but it was proportionally perfect. The head, broad shoulders, thick arms and legs—it looked like a giant human in a thick suit of armor. It’s a knight.

“Wow, indeed young sir,” grinned Whipple. “Now I know yous ordered a standard collector bot, Mr. Nat, but this came on the market only hours ago. Those fools on the Traffic Committee sold off a few of these just to fluster the Labor Committee. They have no idea how much an ancillary model is worth.”

“Woah, woah, woah,” Alhannah coughed, “this is a heavy duty collector? With a secondary exoskeleton?”

Mr. Whipple nodded in pride, “It is and it does…and it cost less than your original order.”

“Less?!” Alhannah gasped.

“How much less,” asked Nat, curious by her reaction.

The fat driver rocked back and forth, heel to toe, “Enough to take my standard fee from the difference.”

Now it was Nat who beamed. “The entire fee?”

“Every last credit, sir.” He looked between Wendell and Alhannah, and it’s got the extra wide chest cavity for modification purposes.”

“I don’t believe it,” she whispered, shaking her head. “We just hit the jackpot.”

Nat shook the drivers hand. “Well done, Mr. Whipple,” then laughing, “well done indeed.”

 

****

 

“That’s it,” Dax grumbled, “I want a tobacco fund worked into the budget.”

“You’re hurting that bad?” asked Alhannah. She shoved the pry-bar into the seam of the crate and pulled.

“It’s been days, ‘Hannah…and all I’ve had to drink is watered down gnome juice. I’m ready for some Blackseed Rum or ale…or anything from the Roadkill.” He leaned against the crate and sighed, thinking of red meat off the bone, buttered delights and an endless supply of grown-up drinks. He stood upright and licked his lips, “Can’t I just pop back to the market and grab some supplies?”

She yanked the pry-bar free and waved it warningly in his face. “No. You’re here to help Wendell. You never know what could happen…and that charm might not hold if you port, ever think of that?”

Hitting the side of the crate, “Well I’m demanding a tobacco allowance, then.”

She ignored the whining, “Wendell, how’s it coming?”

There was a grunt, then a gasp…then a little squeak followed by a clunk and a crash. “Uh…is the head supposed to come off like this?” His flushed face poked out from around the other side of the crate. Gasping for air, “If I was…heavier, I think I would have more leverage to get those bolts off. Whew!”

Alhannah laughed, “Welcome to the gnome world, my friend.”

The three potential S.L.A.G.s had been unloaded and propped up against a wall in the hangar. Though they were waiting on the remaining deliveries, such as tools, spare parts and their own transport vehicle, Morty had seen fit to loan them what he had. But the more they worked on opening up the machines, prepping them for modifications, the more Wendell was getting nervous.

These standard robots were over twenty feet tall. Each had a small area in the chest cavity where a gnome sat or stood, to pilot each device. Even with being as small as he was, to Wendell it looked like a tight fit. Too tight for comfort.

“Has anyone ever…I don’t know, suffocated in one of these?”

Dax looked up at Alhannah’s Flashward model and shivered, “That would suck.”

Alhannah hit the elf in the shoulder.

“Hey!”

“No Wendell,” she said calmly, “no one has suffocated in a bot before. They all come with specific safety mechanisms. Yours for example, is used for work among normals and other citizens. It has safety programs hard-coded so it doesn’t step on anyone. If you were suddenly surrounded by people, it would lock up and shut down until the crowd passed.”

What worried Wendell was all the buttons and levers across the control panels. Not that he knew what he could expect, but this whole plan suddenly seemed less doable. “And you want me, not only to learn how to pilot this thing,” he tapped the chest-door with his socket wrench, “but compete with pilots who have been fighting for years?”

“It looks a lot harder than it is, so just relax,” she urged him. “We will have to modify some things, but we still have three weeks until the games begin. If we can make the modifications quickly, we should have two weeks to train you.” She patted him on the shoulder, “You’re going to do great.”

“Wendell!” called Nat, “Alhannah, Dax, would you join me please?” Sitting near the bay doors, Nat was surrounded by a small group of odd-looking characters.

Wendell set the tools down and jogged after Dax.

Nat was laughing with a round, jolly looking gnome with thick goggles strapped to his head. “Wendell, guys—I’d like you all to meet Craig Werber, our RAT pit captain.”

“Call me Freak,” he said, giving Wendell a jovial grin. He held out a dirty-gloved hand, “they all do eventually.” Wendell shook his hand. “Done a lot of work for the G.R.R., but when Nat here said I could come work for Alhannah Luckyfeller and sink my teeth into the Trench games…well, how could I say no?” He laughed, smacking the tallest gnome in the stomach, “Time to show these corporate pansies how real gnomes play, eh?”

“You know it,” snorted the tall gnome.

Freak grabbed Alhannah’s hand in both of his and shook it vigorously, “Sooooo honored, mam. Really. No, really. Truly.”

“She get’s the point, hun,” said a short brunette gnome. Slipping up to his side, she pried his hands from Alhannah’s and grinned. “Name’s Sophie Werber,” she grinned wider, bearing all her sparkling white teeth, “his wife.” With that, she boldly put a hand on Alhannah’s chest and pushed her back a step. “They call me Socket,” then with a softer tone, “and I’m the feisty one.”

“I’m the head mechanic, by the way,” cut in Freak, “Sockets my essential counterpart—genius tinkerer, then we have our crew.” He turned around and pulled the tall gnome forward. “This here’s Telly, also a wicked mechanic. That there is Tumbler,” he pointed to an old man with grey hair and stained overalls. A long cigar stuck out from his mouth, a heavy trail of smoke trailing off behind him. “Then last but never least, we have…”

“How are you Nibbles?” grinned Alhannah. Stepping through the crew, she gave the short-haired brunette a firm hug.

“I’m well ‘Han, you?”

Alhannah patted her on the back, “Feeling lucky now, with you here. So these are the goons you partnered up with?”

Natalie nodded, “Best decision I ever made.”

“Good to hear.” She hugged her again, “and even better to see you.” Turning back to Wendell and Dax.

Nat was shocked, “You know these guys?”

She shook her head, “Just Nibbles. Wendell, Dax, this is Natalie Coco, an old friend from school. When I wanted to be a warrior growing up, Nibbles here made me the weapons and armor. You couldn’t ask for a better fabricator.”

Freak laughed, “Well you could, but you just wouldn’t find one.” The team laughed and Nibbles turned red.

“Wait,” Alhannah gasped, “Are you telling me that you’re…”

Nibbles grinned, “TNT.”

“I’m lost,” murmured Wendell, “Who’s TNT?”

“Don’t look at me,” Dax grumbled.

“Top Notch Team,” Alhannah clarified, “supposed to be some mystery pit crew that got famous for some super designs and modifications at the end of season two and into season three. The corporations wouldn’t reveal who they were. Secret weapon, they said.”

“Well,” chimed Nibbles, looking at her fellow mechanics, “we are the best.”

“The rumor was you developed some unique exoskeleton designs and engine modifications.” Alhannah stared at Freak, “But they were suspected of using stollen blueprints and were dropped by their sponsor. Word travelled fast and no one else would touch them in the Trench Wars league.”

“Completely bogus,” grumbled Freak, his face turning red. Socket lifted his hand to her mouth and kissed it. “We were framed by the F.O.R.D. corporation, because we refused to cheat. They wanted us to sabotage several of the S.L.A.G.s in the competition, and when we refused, they started some rumors through their competitors and canned us.” Gritting his teeth, “They ruined our spotless reputation.”

“Vallen piss,” grunted Tumbler. He stoked his cigar, then pulled it from his mouth and spat on the ground. His face was a maze of dried wrinkles carved into bronze skin. When he squinted, it looked like his whole face would crack and fall apart. “We’re still who we were. Naw, even better! Just gotta prove that to the locals and the corporate scum’ll have ta eat it.” He waved the cigar in Nat’s direction, “And that’s what one-wheel’s doin’ for us—given us the chance to kick some metal can.” He grinned a near toothless grin at Nat and gave a loose, two-finger salute, ash falling onto his nose.

“That’s right,” piped Socket, “The Freaky TNT Crew is back in business.”

Hands exchanged clasps, smiles were offered and everyone walked into the hangar, until the rumbling sound of a cycle echoed over the conversations. The crew paused, but Alhannah waved them all on. “Go inspect the new machines,” she encouraged them, “see what we have to work with. I’ll be right with you.”

A jet black cycle pulled up, with looping handlebars and polished chrome. Astride it, a gnome in black leather and a helmet with a mirrored visor. With a smooth motion, the kickstand jutted out to the side and the rider dismounted.

“Who’s that?” Wendell asked curiously. The rider pulled the helmet off his head and hung it on the handlebars.

“A friend,” Alhannah whispered.

Running a hand once through his dark wavy hair, the gnome strode into the hangar. There was a confident air to his stride, but the handsome, scruffy face held no emotion…only focus.

“Who’s the boy toy, ‘Hannah?” asked Dax, joining them.

She stood her ground and folded her arms, watching the rider approach. Whispering, “You and I are going to be busy once we enter the game. We’ll be able to watch and protect Wendell for the most part, but we’ll have a new problem. One you probably didn’t consider. Pilots earn attention…and not all of that attention is good.”

“What’s your point?” he grunted.

“My point, Uncle Dax, is that we all need protection now. Another set of eyes to watch our backs, our machines and to stand over us while we’re asleep.”

Wendell stared at the gnome intensely as he approached. It was strange, thinking a gnome could be considered macho—but that was the only word to fit the impression he now had. “And this guy is going do all that?”

Alhannah and the rider both grinned at the same time. “He’s the only one in Clockworks who can, Wendell.”

Stopping arms length in front of Alhannah, he slipped his fingers into the pockets of his leather jacket.

“RH,” she said with a nod.

He returned the nod, “Red.”

“Boys, I’d like you to meet Shamas Wrenchturner. While it’s our job to stay alive in the games…his job is to make sure we stay alive outside the games.”

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