We can learn a lot from little kids. They stay in the moment, leave tomorrow to itself and they find amusement in the simplest things.
Then again, adults get to play with twenty foot robots, machine guns and rocket launchers.
Never mind. Put the kids to bed.
Wendell had no idea just how popular Trench Wars was until he followed Alhannah and RH into public.
Billboards and posters were scattered across buildings, in shop windows, even flyers were being handed out from street corners, touting the upcoming start of the new season. Kids passed them by, holding miniatures of S.L.A.G.s and wearing their favorite team shirt.
Wendell couldn’t help but feel self-conscious.
And they’re all going to be staring at me, he gulped.
Alhannah and Shamas chatted openly as he tagged behind them, seemingly ignoring him until they stepped onto the transport platform. As they waited for the next train, gnomes flocked around Alhannah. They wanted to shake her hand, take pictures with her and begged for autographs, cheering and asking questions about why she’d left the games.
Shamas kept Wendell at his side and navigated all three of them through the crowds. When they got onto the tunnel tram, he shielded both Wendell and Alhannah in a corner and kept passengers at arms length.
At first Wendell thought it was silly, to be riding public transportation, especially if the object was to avoid being mauled.
“We want people to know we’re here,” Alhannah told him. “Get some rumors started.”
“You want rumors started? Why?”
“Nothing moves through a community faster than a rumor. So we make a simple showing but avoid any direct questions and they’ll spread among the working class—the water cooler types. That’s where the real fans are.”
For two hours they traveled across town and down into the heart of the city. Unlike the district where Morty’s warehouse sat, Wendell got to see the center shaft of the main tower. A gigantic hole in the middle of the structure, thousands of feet in diameter. Hundreds of heavy lifts rose and fell at incredible speeds—shuttling passengers, machinery and goods to their destination.
He stared upward, into the light—but he could get only glimpses of the outside—small wisps of blue and white at the top of gargantuan tube of steel and stone.
It blows me away that such little people could build all this. All this, he thought of his stay at Til-Thorin Keep, when the humans seem so far behind. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s like I’ve stepped into another world…again. But he had to smile, At least it looks and feels a bit more like Earth.
Shamas and Alhannah led him to a small alcove where an open cage sat, waiting. The metal was rusted and hung from a giant chain overhead. An old grey-bearded gnome sat on a bucket next to a big level. He grinned, displaying his three front teeth, then turned and spat something brown into a small pot on the floor next to him.
Alhannah casually got into the cage.
Wendell could see the entire container swaying under her weight. “We’re…getting into that?” he whimpered.
She smiled and waved him forward, “Come on—it’ll be alright. It’s an express lift. Fastest way to get around—just costs a bit more. If we wait for one of the main lifts to go to the bottom, it could take all day.” She motioned to him, “It’s ok, Wendell, trust me.”
With Shamas muffling his laugher unsuccessfully, Wendell inched his way across the threshold.
The old gnome scoffed, “Move it sonny, before I keel over and die for TGII’s sake.”
Wendell stumbled against the cage wall as the brakes released and quickly grasped the railing. He gulped and clenched his eyes tight. The vibration through the floor made his knees shake.
“You alright?” Alhannah asked.
He nodded vigorously, but kept his eyes closed. Breathe Wendell, breathe…you can do this. It’s just a stupid elevator, that’s all.
He gulped again and peeked out from one eye. One, two…he looked down…and clenched his eye tight once more. A stupid elevator hundreds of stories in the air, plunging into the blackness of gnome hell!
The further they descended into the tower, the darker it got. Flood lights popped on inside the lift. A dull yellow light that looked sick and weak and gave the operators skin and putrid green tone, like a zombie.
The rhythmic beat of the small engine attached to the top of the lift echoed across the expanse of darkness.
“How you doing, little brother?” Shamas asked quietly.
Wendell nodded, but put his head against the cage of the lift, weaving his fingers through the chain-link. When is this going to stop? Please stop. Please. Please. His ears began to buzz…the sound of other engines growing faint. We’re dropping into the belly of the beast.
Wendell dared to open his eyes. It was completely black—which, though frightening in and of itself, wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be.
He looked around. It was impossible to see other lifts passing them.
Are we the only one? His ears popped—allowing the hum of the engine back into his skull and he reeled at the flood of sound. I think I’m going to be sick.
Alhannah lifted him under the arm and helped him stand up straight. “We’re going to have to ride a lift like this often, so you’d better get used to it now.”
Wendell looked up, pale as a ghost. “I need to throw up,” he gurgled.
She patted him gently on the back. “Then do it over the side.”
Wendell nodded and pulled himself to a small opening where the chain-link opened near the operator. Poking his head out, he took one look over the edge. Scattered yellow and red lights flickered back in the expanse of nothing, which looked a lot like eye staring at him from the abyss. He jerked his head back into the lift and clamped his teeth down over his lips.
Both Shamas and Alhannah laughed. “Second thoughts?” she asked.
Wendell just nodded…and swallowed.
Wendell cringed with each step. Like the old horror movies where the innocent got trapped in boiler rooms before they were hunter down and slaughtered, Wendell felt impending doom with each squishy sound. It was an endless maze of corridors and staircases, weaving back into the deepest bowels of the city.
Tattoo parlors, pawn shops, smoke shops, bars, and once in a while he got a glimpse of gnomes walking in a line, each with a hardhat and a pick, faces covered in black soot. Everything around them had the sick yellow lighting that made the walls look like they had a life of their own—bubbling green and black ooze dripping down to the floor.
“Keep up, Wendell,” Shamas encouraged him, “we’re almost there.”
The neon sign said W.E.T. INC., which was convenient, because that’s exactly what it was down in the lowest levels of Clockworks—wet, dank and foul. The sign had a glowing shape of a muscular male gnome flexing his chest and arms. Under it, two rusted doors beset by guards so big, they looked more like kutollum than gnomes. Both were bald with beards braided down their chest, held together by metal rings.
Each sporting a single word tattoo across their foreheads.
One said TRENCH, the other said WARS.
Wendell moved behind Shamas as they approached the guards. Right. We’re going in there? What is this—the gnome mob…or their version of a biker bar? He gave a nervous smile at WARS.
Alhannah strode up to the bigger of the two. “Sup Percy, ya fat cow.”
The gnome with TRENCH on his forehead lowered his glasses and grinned. “My, my, my, it’s the prodigal wench, back for more. Run out of money girly girl?”
“I see they’ve upgraded security from stupid to stupid and bald,” she grinned.
Percy chuckled nonchalant, “Ya see Frank, no matter what I do, respect isn’t part of the package.”
The gnome with WARS on his forehead snorted, “What do ya expect when you treat a star like dirt? Ya got no sense, Percy.” He smiled and nodded to Alhannah, “Good ta see ya Red.” He held out a fist, “And long time no see, RH.”
Shamas tapped knuckles, “Frank.”
“Are they in?” she asked, nodding towards the doors.
Frank smirked, “You think we’d be standing in the wet n’ cold like idiots if they weren’t?” With a muscular arm, he pushed and held the door open for her.
Alhannah laughed and gave Percy a final wink as they entered, “One of you would.”
Wendell stumbled across the threshold into bright florescent lighting.
He had to blink.
Unfortunately the light didn’t do much for the patrons still sitting at the bar or in the booths. Covered in tattoos and piercings, they looked even scarier in detail. A round machine with flashing lights in a rainbow of colors sat in the far corner. It reminded Wendell a great deal of a jukebox, as it choked out an edgy beat…a mixture of techno and industrial punk.
Pipes seemed to be the main form of decoration. They lined the ceiling, wrapping and weaving around one another haphazardly, while dripping green and orange goo down brick walls.
“Why exactly are we here again?” Wendell peeped, backing away from a snoring gnome with pierced eyelids and a tattoo across his nose a cheekbones that said FEAR. He bumped into Alhannah.
“Because I want to make sure we get a spot in the games, Wendell. They only allow fifteen pilots each season, so I’m looking for some insurance.”
Black frames hung along the walls—dozens of them, arranged in haphazard patterns. Smiling faces looked out from the frames, catching Wendell’s attention. Hellllooo. What have we here…?
They were pictures of pilots, standing in front of their S.L.A.G.s or looking down from the cockpit.
Hehe, glancing around, I was wrong—it’s a sports bar…for little people.
There was even a picture of Alhannah, slightly bigger than the rest. Her S.L.A.G. was kneeling, cockpit open…and she stood there bold as the dawn sun, a gold medal hanging from a ribbon around her neck.
Well I’ll be.
Pool tables lined one end of the room near the jukebox, while the far wall was taken up by the bar counter. Neon blue, green and orange signs speckled the wall with words like BLITZ, SPOP, DOYT and COMATOSE.
Huh. I’m going to guess those are drinks…and most likely what I should stay away from.
But behind the long bar, positioned in the center of the wall were a series of narrow black slates bolted into the brick. He blinked a few times, trying to focus on the small writing…and the bartender, a female gnome with a purple and orange mohawk, smiled back. Her rather large nose ring swayed over her upper lip as she tilted her head forward and winked at him.
Wendell gulped. “What are all those numbers?” he jabbed Shamas with his elbow, then pointed to the slate.
Shamas squinted at the rows of scribbles in white chalk. “Those are odds being offered on the up coming Trench games.”
“They bet on this sport?”
Shamas laughed, “Wendell, gnomes find reasons to bet on anything they can. One of the most popular aspects of Trench Wars is the complex wagering. You can make a bet on almost anything” He patted Wendell on the back, “Straight bets, proposition bets, parlays, progressive parlays…even head to head wagers. In fact, you can even do a triple weeker—where if you can make three successful long odd bets on the same day, three weeks in a row—they’ll pay you a hundred times your money.”
Wendell gasped, “A hundred times your money?”
Shamas nodded, “You can do it all here, at the headquarters of Trench Wars.” He leaned closer and whispered, “This is where the big money is made…and lost.”
“Well, well,” chuckled a deep voice, “if it sin’t the Banshee herself!” It sounded like wet gravel scraping down the inside of a rusty can.
At the far end of the bar, a skinny gnome in greasy overalls lifted his head. He had oil and grime all over his scruffy face, neck and hands—welding goggles straddling his forehead.
“I thought you’d been banished, Alhannah! Where the tick-tock have you been?”
At the mention of her name, a chubby gnome in similar overalls looked up from a booth. Tiny electronic components lay spread out all over the table.
“Well I’ll be,” he beamed, his plump face revealing deep dimples as he smiled. The gnome excitedly slid out from the booth and rushed towards Alhannah.
She grinned and shook both their hands warmly. “Hello Ernie. Burton.”
Burton stared for a moment, then poked Alhannah in the shoulder with a thick finger. “You feel solid enough, so you ain’t no ghost.”
Alhannah chuckled and shook her head, “No, not a ghost. But I needed to put a few to rest…which is why I bailed.” She frowned at them both, “Didn’t leave you two in the lurch, did I?”
Ernie threw his head back and cackled, “You most certainly DID, young lady! We set up an exclusive interview with WHRN and when we sent the car ‘round, you were,” he puckered his face, “PHHT! Gone.” His bushy black eyebrows rolled forward, “It’s been over a season, Red…you couldn’t send a note? A bleepin’ email? We were worried the fan mob got ya!”
Burton picked up his shot glass and casually glanced over Alhannah’s shoulder at Shamas. He gave the bodyguard a nod of acknowledgement, but ignored Wendell altogether. “We still got room left in the games if ya want some action,” he slurred. “I don’t mind makin a few billion credits off ya.” He chuckled to himself and raised his glass in toast, “To the first and best S.L.A.G. pilot of the games.”
Shamas nodded, “Here, here.”
The female bartender leaned over the counter and made smooching noises at Wendell. He fidgeted closer to the bodyguard.
“That’s what I came for,” Alhannah grinned, “three slots in the games.”
Ernie and Burton looked at one another, then back at her.
“Three?” they said in unison.
She grinned, “Ernie and Burton Trench, I’d like to introduce you to Wendell Dipmier. I’ve been personally training him for the games.”
Burtons unibrow arched high on his forehead, “Have you now?” Reaching forward, he grabbed Wendell’s hand in an iron grip and shook vigorously. “Well then, I’d say this is a pleasure all around, dontcha think little brother?”
“Yes I do,” Ernie grinned wide, grabbing Wendell’s hand next. “Pleasure, Wendell…absolute pleasure.”
Wendell smiled, “Sir.” Then to Burton, “Sir.”
They both laughed. “Well ain’t this a first—a Trench pilot…with manners!” guffawed Ernie. “Where’s your third, Red? Or is RH moving up from brawler to…well, brawler plus?”
The brothers and Alhannah laughed.
“Oh no,” Shamas said, holding up his hands, “you boys leave me out of it. I’ll watch, but I have no intention of playing.”
Alhannah chuckled, “No, my third is back working on our S.L.A.G. modifications—we have a lot to do to get ready. Name is Dax. A grappler by nature and the best I’ve ever seen.”
Ernie looked overly impressed, “The best? Well isn’t that interesting…”
Burton wrapped his arm around her shoulder, “You know ‘Hannah, it’s not like season one and two,” he slurred, “When you vanished, all the tech-kids jumped on board. Messed things up as far as I’m concerned.”
Ernie laughed, shaking his head, “You made it look so easy, everyone thought they could pilot a S.L.A.G..” He snorted, “Most of ‘em tried, too. We had to take out a whole line of insurance policies, just to protect ourselves from the initial damage those greenies did to the arena!”
She frowned, sliding out from under Burtons arm. “You boys trying to warn me off??”
Burton shook his head and nearly fell over, “We’re saying, Red, that the game isn’t just swingin’ a sword anymore. Trench Wars is more than just the skill of pilot…,” he looked over at Wendell and, studying him from head to foot, “it’s also about the skill of your RAT team.”
His head swayed and his eyes drooped. He lightly jabbed her in the nose. “You’re still my favorite, Red. So much talent…it’s a pleasure just to watch you scrap the others.” He sighed heavily, “I’m just saying watch yourself, ok?” He patted her hand and tried to turn around, but he bumped into the stool and Ernie had to catch him. “Now I’m going to go take a nap...for a day or two.”
He gave a two finger salute to Shamas.
Ernie swung one of his brothers arms over his shoulder and helped him to the back door. “Entry fee has gone up, Red, but there’s a trade off—we no longer make you qualify to play.”
“Seriously?” she scoffed.
Scratching the scruff on his beard, Burton chuckled, “We figured if you’re dense enough ta spend the credits and actually get into the trench, then we might as well use you for entertainment fodder.”
Ernie stopped in the open doorway and stared back at Alhannah. Wendell noticed a concerned look on the gnomes face.
“Have you seen him yet?” he asked soberly.
She shook her head.
“Not everyone’s gonna be happy you’re back.”
Burton held her gaze for a few moments, then added softly, “Be careful. You’re still my favorite.”
The rusted doors squeaked closed behind them.
Stepping further away from the bar and the scary woman making kissy-faces at him, Wendell whispered, “Alhannah, what did he mean?
Her eyes narrowed, “It means we have work to do.”