Rattly tin doors slid aside, venting the damp air of the train and welcoming a cool breeze that smelled slightly of bog.
People pushed and vented with the air into a bustling station platform outside. Men and women distinguished by pale blue uniforms welcomed them darkly. Most carried rifles with darkened muzzles, and the TMC’s white logo shipped against the metal and smeared with dirt against their uniforms.
Others lingered on the platform, watching the train wistfully or spitting at the disembarkers. The platform corridor went from sullen to bustling in a matter of moments. A scuffle broke out, voices raised, and then were lost in the trampling of feet.
Rook held Levi and Sierra close to him until the train was almost silent. Finally, he gently led them toward the platform.
“Go back to the Rock, Lunie,” somebody barked.
“Dad,” Levi murmured.
“Are they talking to us?”
“Don’t worry about it, bud.”
They stood for a moment in the corridor. Rook dared not close his eyes but tried to take a deep breath of the new city. It was cool and fresh – infinitely better than the warm plastic smell of a new air canister.
“Move along,” a uniformed woman nearby muttered.
“Sorry –” he started “We just arrived as commissioned workers for the Corps. Is there a place we need to check in, or –”
He reluctantly let go of Levi and fished inside his jacket pocket. Withdrawing a grungy plastic card, he handed it to the agent.
The uniformed woman barely glanced at it before handing it back. “You’ll be checking into the tick at oh-four-hundred tomorrow morning. You’re responsible for your own housing and food.”
She rolled her eyes. “Crack, I don’t understand why they bring you guys in. Terralauch Industrial Complex. Don’t call it that, though, or everyone will know you’re a Lunie.” She jutted her hand toward the south side of the city. “Show up to any of the main gates at the TIC, and they’ll check you in.”
Rook tucked the card back into his pocket and offered her a hand. “Thank you so much.”
She pointed her rifle at him from her hip. “Scratch off, Lunie. I don’t want to touch you.”
Nodding curtly, Rook withdrew the hand and guided the children down the corridor, into the throngs. Voices raised, sticky bodies shoved past, and Rook’s eyes danced among numerous glints of metal worn by passersby in the crowd. People barked and heckled each other, and he felt more than one finger jab him in the ribs as they passed.
“I’m hungry,” Sierra pouted over the din.
“I know, love. We’ll find some food here soon.”
“You need a bite,” someone passing them asked, turning to face them as they kept walking by. The face was hard to see under a cap pulled down over its eyes. “Go to gates up yer and hang a left. Bimble can set you right.”
“Oh, thank you!”
The stranger was already lost in the crowd, and the masses hastened to everything except replying to his appreciation.
The station around them had polluted beauty. Stone walls carved with columns and windows rose to a steepled ceiling some fifteen feet above. Most of the windows were cracked class and smeared with soot too dark to see through, but muffled voices and clamoring alluded to unseen life surrounding the dense column of people filling the main corridor.
Mechanical chimes hummed over the bustle, and a warbly recording said something unintelligible. Deeper into the station, the crowd kicked up a cloud of dust that never settled under the shuffling feet. Rook coughed at the dry clouds and hoped not to hear similar coughs from Levi and Sierra. Such things brought back bad memories.
Suddenly a line was forming, leading off to the left. People elbowed their way to join it, and pushed against him and the children until he was forced to stick his elbows out like a chicken to fend off encroachers.
“Fug you,” someone spat, and a scuffle broke out.
“Calm down,” an unseen voice bellowed down the hallway. “There’th plenty t’ go ‘round. Keep hold a’ your tinths now.” The voice was heavy and low, like each word was the air gasping from beneath a dropped pallet. Even before it had finished speaking, the crowd had sorted itself into a single file that trailed into the main corridor.
Leaning to look through the uneven heads of his fellow line members, Rook caught a glance at the speaker.
The man was huge. A threadbare tweed jacket with both brass buttons missing from the left sleeve color and an extra sewn into the right fought to contain enormous folds of hairy fat. A civilian hat was pulled down over fuzzy ears, with a short brim that jutted over mighty jowls. At first, Rook couldn’t make out the man’s eyes. But then a tiny glint flickered between the man’s sideburns and his brow, and Rook felt himself be examined.
It took another twenty minutes or so to make it to where the man was propped. At his feet, a cauldron almost as enough as him simmered and steamed with brown broth. The man tossed a nod at Rook, an action that sent jiggles down the folds of his face.
“Where’th your tinths?”
“Our tins?” A moment of panic. “We don’t have any.”
The man waved a chunky hand that was poking through a fingerless glove. “Never you mind ‘bout it.” He stooped down as much as his girth allowed and scooped dingy soup cans off the ground. He handed one to Rook and then seemed to notice Levi and Sierra.
“Butter me,” he laughed. “Who might these morsels be?”
Rook smiled faintly. “My children. Say hello.” Sierra managed a wave, but Levi just watched the man warily.
“We don’t get many kiths around ‘ere. Where yous says you was from?”
“We just arrived on the newest indentured worker program with the Corps. I was on a Moon factory in Tycho until they announced they needed workers in New Detroit.”
The man tried a low whistle, but a gap in his front teeth made it more of a gurgle. A blob of spittle landed in the soup cauldron. “And you made it out.”
Rook swallowed. “We were blessed.”
A furry eyebrow shot up. “Blethsed? Not a word you hear much ‘round here.”
“Might I ask your name?”
“’Might you –‘” the man cackled and slapped his knee with a thwack. “You talk funny ath one of them Jupiterean printheths. You might! I’m Bimble.” He swept his hand over the bubbling stew. “Bimble the Pot they’ths call me.” He dropped the enormous ladle he’d been holding and rubbed both his hands on his thighs before offering one to Rook. Rook shook it.
His hand didn’t even reach all the way around Bimble’s palm.
“Well, tho, I thspose you’ll be needing a plathe to thtay then, eh – what was your name?”
“Rook,” he answered.
Another eyebrow. “Rook? Ith that right?” Voices in line behind them quieted a little, and Rook heard the swishes of whispering. “Well, I’ll tell you what, Rook. Thith, thith here’th the Hub. Unless you’re taking a rocket to thpathe or you’re wandering the wilds, you’re not getting in or out of thith city ‘cept through here. But I like to take care of the guyth ‘round here. Thenate knowths the Corpth won’t,” Bimble spat.
A cold creep traced its way up Rook’s back. “Is that right?”
“That’th right. Tho I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna have one of my friendths get you a key. And that key’ths gonna get you into a room in this ‘ole thubway. A room you’ll have all to your thelf for you and your kidths like.” Bimble pounded on his chest. “And you can count on ‘ole Bimble to serve you up two steaming meaths a day.”
Rook shuffled his feet. “That’s a kind offer. But I couldn’t pay you.”
“Nah, I don’t expect none of that. We’ll just be friendth like.”
A bubble popped in the stew pot. A ways back, a dog started barking and a woman shouted at something another woman had called her.
“I… Thank you.”
Bimble smiled wide, his jowls peeling back to show two rows of dark teeth. Retrieving his ladle, he doled out three sizzling portions of stew to Rook, Levi, and Sierra.
“No thanks necessary.”