Chapter 5
Karma's Bite

Caoshan (Montevideo), Bantian County, Shannanxi Province

Much unlike Tieu Thong, which had only been firmly under the Celestials' control for several years, Montevideo had lost its Viet name far enough back that only the older locals remembered it. It was well enough before Batista's time at any rate. Chances are, it was just the Viet reading of the Celestial name for the town, but Batista's Viet was hardly up to the task of figuring it out.
Montevideo wasn't much bigger than Tieu Thong, but it was the last rail stop in the province. That meant it got more traffic than most of these border towns, which could provide useful cover. The fewer people who took notice of Batista and Masako, the better.
They would be less noticeable if she wasn't piggybacking on him. He had been carrying her for the past several hours. At least she didn't weigh that much.
"Come on, princess," he said. "Time to walk."
"I cannot," she said weakly. "I need to rest."
"You've been resting."
"No, I mean real rest," she said. "An actual meal, a bath, sleep in a bed."
"You're not gonna get any a' that 'tween here an' Lingmu," Batista told her. "If we can get on a cattle car, maybe ya can sleep on some straw."
"A... cattle car?" Masako asked, like she couldn't even comprehend what he was telling her.
"That's if we're lucky," Batista said. "We'll prolly hafta settle for an empty freight car. It'll be hell on your back, but at least it'll be outta the wind an' rain. No walkin'."
"What if we are discovered?"
"Station hands might try ta beat us for stowin' away, but I can take 'em. Long as we can cross inta the next province, we should be able ta lose whoever's after us."
"Not all of them..." Masako said darkly.
If one noble house was hunting another, they had resources at their disposal Batista couldn't even begin to imagine. He couldn't worry about it too much, though. The Celestials weren't too likely to go down to the surface themselves, so that meant they'd be using Infernals as proxies. Fellow Infernals he could handle.
He let Masako down and though she was a little unsteady on her feet, she followed along after him. Just a couple of peasant farmers coming to town to buy some sundries. Nothing out of the ordinary.
They needed to get some food and water, then catch the next third-class freight train out of town. The water shouldn't be too hard to come by. Most towns had a public well. The food would be harder to get. If the marketplace was busy enough, he could probably nick something without drawing any unwanted attention.
All these small towns were about the same. Train stops had a few more shops, but that was about it. There must have been a groundwater vein running through Montevideo because they had a belowground well. Most places had to have water shipped in from the polar ice fields. It was a simple pump and there was a line of about twenty people, mostly women getting the day's water ration.
There was a sign in four languages warning about the daily limit of four liters per person. There were a couple of men with clubs who must've been constables or some other form of hired muscle to ensure no one took more than their share. When Batista's turn came up, one of the men held his club to Batista's chest to bar the way.
"Ration card," he said.
"No ration card," Batista replied. "Just passin' through."
"No ration card, no water," the man insisted.
Batista held up the empty gourd bottle and said, "We just wanna fill up, alright?"
The gourd bottle only held about a liter and a half. The man looked to his partner, then back to Batista and said, "Alright. Just this time. Make it quick."
Batista worked the pump and filled the bottle. He would've liked to get more, but he had nothing to carry it in. It'd be enough to tide them over to the next town, maybe farther if they had to. Batista took a drink, then handed it Masako.
"One mouthful," he said. "We hafta make this last."
Though it had been nearly a day since the bottle last went dry, Masako didn't try to greedily claim more than she was allotted. She took her drink and handed the bottle back to Batista. Now for some food.
If he only had a couple hundred chips, they could eat their fill at a noodle stall. Batista thought about the strings of chips in his trouser pockets that Madam Eng no doubt confiscated as a downpayment on what he owed her for that door, to say nothing of about three years' worth of pay sitting on account that had surely been seized by Coronel Obrado. Three days ago, he could eat, drink and whore as he pleased, but now he was going to have to resort to stealing a stray apple or meat bun like some flea-ridden street urchin.
They made their way to the marketplace. The narrow street was lined with about twenty stalls on either side. About half of them were food vendors. The ones selling fruits and vegetables were the easiest to steal from, but the smart ones stacked their wares in such a way that the whole thing would come tumbling down if you tried to take something anywhere but on the top layer where you could be easily seen doing it. The loss of a little merchandise for the sake of such a ploy was deemed worth it if another thief was taken off the streets. Unfortunately for the vendors, Batista was an experienced thief well before he had the luxury of plundering at sword- and gunpoint.
He leaned down and whispered to Masako, "When we go by, I want ya ta feel around on the fruits an' veggies like you're lookin' for somethin' fresh, but don't take nothin'."
Masako gave him an uncertain look but nodded all the same. The thing about stacks like the ones the vendors had was that not every piece was bearing its share of the load. For a thief with adept fingers--and you can't be much of a thief without them--, it was easy enough to find a piece that could be slid out without upsetting the rest of the pile.
They first went by some yams and then a couple varieties of peppers, but none them were much good raw and they weren't going to have a chance to cook whatever he pilfered. He didn't tell Masako what he intended to steal. He just let her play the part of the browsing wife while he played the part of the watchful husband. They passed several such displays until he was ready to try his hand. His first catch was a cucumber, followed by a couple little tomatoes. If he was with his squadmates, he'd probably make a joke, but Masako didn't seem like the type who'd appreciate it.
Before he could get anything else, there was a big ruckus as a couple of kids knocked over a display of melons trying to snatch one. Armed with a stick, the owner rushed out, swinging at the kids and streaming curses in three languages. While the chaos could provide an opportunity to get more stuff, Batista thought it best to move on. He took hold of Masako's arm and guided her out of the marketplace.
He hoped to get a little more, but it wasn't like these peasant clothes had a lot of storage space. What he got would be enough to get them to the next town. They made their way to the tracks. They didn't need to stick around any longer than they had to. Right now distance was their biggest ally.
As the end of the line, only two tracks ran through Montevideo. Batista was trying to decide whether he wanted to go upstream or down. He was pretty sure there was still fighting going on up north with Grandia. That could provide them some cover until they were ready to leave the borderlands. He was thinking about the sort of people who might be after them and where they would be expected to go. Someone running blindly would aim straight east to get out of the province as quickly as possible, but were their pursuers smart enough to anticipate that he would try to outfox them? Thinking about what other people might think he was thinking was one recursion too many. It was hurting his head. They'd go upstream and hope the border with Grandia would be too busy for them to be noticed.
Now it was just a matter of finding a suitable northbound train. The freight trains didn't tend to have as regular a schedule as the passenger trains. All they could do was lay low and wait. The buildings in town weren't that densely packed, so it wasn't as easy to hide as it was in a bigger town. Still, sitting down beside some clerk's office facing the tracks wasn't going to get much notice.
While they were waiting, they might as well eat. Batista took half of the cucumber and one of the tomatoes and split it between them. The juice of the tomato got all over his hands and was going to get sticky and annoying real quick, but he could clean his hands off with some of the powdery dirt they were sitting in later. He took a bite of the tomato and a bite of the cucumber. There wasn't much there, so he wanted to stretch it out over at least three or four bites apiece.
Masako gave him a stunned look as he ate.
"You are not going to wash them?" she asked. "Or peel them?"
Batista rolled his eyes.
"We don't have water ta waste washin' the food," he said. "An' there ain't much here, so we need the peels as much as the rest of it."
With the face she made, you'd think he told her to eat a live rat scooped fresh out of the sewer, still squirming in her hand. She didn't complain any further, though, and took a tentative, dainty little bite out of her piece of tomato. And Batista thought he was stretching it out.
She was still nibbling on her tomato when Batista finished his ration. He wished he could have some meat, but that was a luxury he couldn't hold out much hope for. It was a lot more difficult to steal a chicken than a tomato, after all.
After about an hour, a third-class freight train finally rolled into town. It wasn't long before workers went about unloading whatever percentage of the cargo was apportioned for this stop. It was more than a town this size would warrant because Montevideo supplied all the little border towns in a hundred klicks. If they weren't part of the front, they might not get much of anything, but that was one advantage the border towns had over towns the same size deeper in the country. Yes, they were the first to get caught up in the fighting if the enemy ever made an advance, but so long as they were providing amenities to the troops, they could count on fairly regular shipments of supplies.
Batista just sat there watching the men work, prompting Masako to ask him, "Why are we not going?"
"We gotta wait till right before they set out," Batista replied. "They're too busy thinkin' 'bout leavin' an' the longer you're on the train before they shove off, the more likely they are ta catch ya."
Of course the young noblewoman would know nothing about hitching a ride on trains, but Batista had run away from home a few times when he was a kid, whenever he got tired of his hometown, the mission school, that damned restaurant, all of it. He was never gone more than a month or two. He learned a lot during those times, not all of it good and very little came easily.
Batista had seen enough crews work to get a feel for their patterns. They didn't change much no matter where you went. Unless they had someone cracking the whip on them (sometimes literally), they would tend to slack off as the work was almost done. There wasn't much in the way of exports from the borderlands under normal circumstances, so there was very little to load up in place of all the cargo that was offloaded.
As Batista started to stand up, he gave a tug on Masako's sleeve to get her attention, saying, "C'mon, it's time ta go."
As they started to walk, he told her, "Don't go too fast an' don't go straight for the car you're after. Don't be turnin' your head ta look 'round for anyone watchin' us. Use your periph'ral vision. Act natural."
The typical worker in the railyard noticed little, often deliberately so, just as most everyone else ignored anything that didn't concern them both directly and immediately. That was good for rail hitchers. The only ones they really needed to watch out for were the yard bulls, but they didn't tend to get too worked up over a third-class freight train. Hitchers dumb enough to press their luck with a first- or second-class train, particularly a passenger train, would pay dearly for it. The trick was not to go out of your way to stand out and not to get greedy with your accommodations.
A couple peasant farmers weren't going to attract much attention. All they had to do was walk up to the train, look around like they were looking to get to the other side, then slip into an open car when an opportune moment presented itself. Except for the yard bulls, no one was putting much active effort into looking, so opportune moments to board came easily.
But before Batista could hop into the car that caught his eye, before he could even get within several meters of it, someone started shouting, "It's him! He's here! He's here! Fellas, get over here! I found him!"
As much as Batista wanted to believe he was talking about someone else, he knew better. So much for not attracting attention...
"He's here! He's here!"
If Batista had his knife on him, he would've let the guy try singing that tune while drowning in his own blood. He did have the hand sickle tucked in the back of his pants, but it was too late to kill him now that everyone but the most indifferent were looking in his direction. However many friends this guy had, it wasn't as many as the concerned citizens that'd come down on him for committing cold-blooded murder in broad daylight.
The man shouting was armed with nothing more a sawed-off broom handle. His friends came running from left and right. They were similarly armed with whatever they could get their hands on that resembled a weapon. A broken branch with all the twigs pruned off, a rotten board with a couple rusty nails in it, a hammer, etc., etc. There were eight of them. This would be tricky without a sword.
"Stay behind me, princess," Batista told Masako. "If that train starts movin', you hop on."
"What about you?" she asked.
"I can chase down a damn train," he said. "You don't worry 'bout me."
"Nobody's gonna worry 'bout you, you sonuvabitch," one of the men growled.
It took him a moment, but Batista remembered him from Master Vong's. That one conscript who was horning in on his escuadra's drinks. What did they call him, Beto or something? Some people might say this was karma biting Batista in the ass, but even if he gave this guy a kidney, he'd still be after him if there was a bounty on his head.
As with before, Beto seemed to be the de facto leader of these former conscripts, so he was the one doing the talking.
"You've got two choices," he said. "Either you can come quietly an' we beat the shit outta you but still leave you the use a' your legs or you can put up a fight an' we beat the shit outta you so the only way you're goin' anywhere is strapped to the back of a jackass."
Batista grinned and told him, "In honor a' your mother, I think I'll take the jackass option."
Beto's buttons were easy to press.
"Fuck you!" he barked.
That's right. Let that blood go straight to your head. Get angry and get stupid.
A more level-headed, less courageous member of the group said, "Don't let him bait you, Beto. Let's forget about takin' him alive. Let's just kill him an' take the ten dan. It's more than enough for us ta get back home."
"With a hundred dan we can buy home," Beto countered. "It's just one asshole ta eight of us. We can take him. He ain't even armed." He pointed to Masako and said, "Don't bang up the bitch or that old hag won't pay out."
Batista glanced at Masako. So Coronel Obrado and Madam Eng were in this together. He could've figured the Coronel had a vindictive streak to him, but a hundred dan? There wasn't a man, woman or child on the planet who wouldn't be after his head. A hundred alive and ten dead. That'd be enough to make most people want to keep him alive. He didn't know how much Madam Eng was willing to pay for Masako, but apparently she wanted her merchandise intact.
Now that Batista had the situation all sized up, he knew what he had to do. The brakes on the train hissed. It would be moving out soon. He had to finish things quickly.
Probably because some part of him felt sorry for these poor dumb bastards, he figured he'd give them a sporting chance.
"Alright, boyos, listen up," he said. "The only way you're gonna see home is if you walk away right now. Ain't one a' ya gonna see a single damn chip outta the Coronel's pocket. That's a promise."
"Beto..." the prudent coward whined. "We gotta kill him. It's the only way."
"Fuck that," Beto growled. "Whatever he thinks he can do, he can't take us all at once. Just look at him, all dressed up like some damn chino rice hopper. We know how to deal with chino rice hoppers, don't we, boys? Now, come on, get ready."
Batista scanned the men encircling him as he reached behind him to take hold of the sickle's handle. He was looking to see who was brave and who was a coward. Only Beto and one other, a bigger guy, had anything resembling courage, but he could see they were hesitant too. That hundred dan and his grudge was all that pushing Beto forward. It wouldn't be enough.
"Now! Get him!"
Batista sprang into action. He was faster than all of them and he was going to have to keep moving if he wanted to come out of this. Up against eight men with an unfamiliar weapon, he needed to keep it simple. He would work clockwise, starting with the one on his left. He had a broken bottle and made a wild swing that was easy to dodge. Rather than moving back or to the side, where the others were closing in on him, he moved forward, inside the bottle man's guard. Batista's arm went around him and slashed open his throat.
Next was Beto, who had a length of iron pipe. He tried bringing the pipe down on Batista's head, but Batista stepped around the swing as he dropped the bottle man to the ground. Before Beto could recover, Batista delivered a sharp kidney punch with his free hand. Beto recoiled in pain and Batista seized him by the hair, yanking his head back to cut his throat next. The arterial spray from Beto made the next two closest to him stagger back. If they'd kept charging, they might've gotten in a good hit or two.
Batista made a hacking chop into the neck of the one on the left, not as thorough as splitting him from ear to ear, but it would be enough to drop him so Batista could move on to the next one. He swung and sank the point of the sickle right behind the next man's jaw, under the ear. The sickle got stuck and while Batista was tugging at it to get it loose, one with a hammer managed to crack him on the arm. The sharp pain that nearly paralyzed his entire arm only served to enrage Batista.
A furious yank of the sickle failed to get it free, but did throw the man it was stuck in to the ground. Batista then punched hammer man square in the face, surely breaking his nose. Hammer man held up both hands to his face, even while gripping the hammer. Batista snatched the hammer from his hand and proceeded to demonstrate its use on his skull, pounding away at least half a dozen times before letting him drop. He followed with a single forceful blow that cratered in the temple of the next man.
The one with the broom handle charged screaming between his two most recently fallen comrades as if he had a spear. His thrust missed and Batista brought the hammer down on his head to take him down, then beat on him a few more times to ensure he didn't get back up again.
That just left the one sensible coward. He had abandoned whatever improvised weapon he had and was trying to run away. Of course, it wouldn't take much for him to find his courage later if he convinced himself he was doing it to avenge his friends. Batista had enough to worry about as it was. No loose ends.
The train was starting to move, but Batista didn't look back to make sure Masako was getting on like he told her to. The only thing he was thinking about was putting down the last of his pursuers. He ran after him, throwing the hammer when he was just a few meters behind. The hammer got him in the small of the back. He cried out in pain as he fell to his knees.
"No, please!" he wailed. "Don't kill me!"
"Too late for that," Batista growled.
Rather than go pick up the hammer and risk him getting up and running off again, Batista got the man in a headlock and lifted him up. He then twisted the man back and dropped down to one knee, using his leg as leverage to break the man's neck. A bit showy, but it got the job done.
The train was slowly picking up speed. He had to hurry. If any of the men weren't already dead, it wasn't likely the country doctor would be able to save them. He didn't have time to pick up the hand sickle or any of the other weapons the former conscripts were using. He could always improvise something later.
Masako wasn't standing there, so she must've gotten into a car. Batista ran full tilt to get to the car that was nearest to them when the fight started. As he was catching up to it, he caught a glimpse of her inside. As he was hoisting himself in, a fresh shock of pain shot through his injured arm. He cursed loudly but forced himself to get the rest of the way in first.
Masako didn't say anything. She just looked at him, about the way you'd expect a girl to look at you after you killed eight people right in front of her. Batista couldn't worry about that, though. He beckoned her to follow him.
"Come on, we're gettin' off," he said.
"But we just got on," Masako said.
"An' ever'one in the damn railyard saw us get on, too. We get on the next train, go south when they think we've gone north. Come on, before this thing picks up any more speed."
Fortunately for him, the southbound train was already on the adjacent track, having arrived about halfway into the unloading of the northbound train they were on. They weren't going that fast yet, so it wasn't too hard to hop off through the other side, then find another car to slip in while the northbound train was still hiding them from view. Once they were onboard and the train was moving, they could finally relax for a bit.
Batista held his injured arm. He didn't think it was a clean break, but the bone was probably cracked. It'd probably heal just fine on its own if he left it alone, but they didn't have that luxury. If he wasn't careful, he might end up breaking it the rest of the way and he wouldn't last long with a broken arm. No point in bringing any of that up to Masako, though.
That being said, it wasn't like she didn't notice.
"You are hurt," she said.
"I'll be fine," Batista replied. "It's not that bad." He grinned to play it off and added, "You should see the other guy."
"You killed them," Masako said quietly, barely audible over the racket of the train. "You killed them all."
Batista winced as he was feeling out the extent of his injury, grunted, then said, "I'll kill a lot more 'tween here an' Lingmu if I hafta."
"Will there be many more?"
"Depends on how many people know 'bout the bounty. For a hunnerd dan, my own mother might hand me over."
"For just one hundred dan?" Masako asked.
Batista gave her a critical look.
"I don't know what a hunnerd dan is ta you, but that's more'n most people down here could make in ten years with an honest livin'. Hell, the ten dan'd be more'n enough for most folks. An' that's not even considerin' however much you're worth ta Madam Eng."
Masako went quiet at that thought. Rather than let her dwell on it, Batista figured he might try to lighten the mood. It was something he noticed earlier, but he acted like he was just noticing it for effect.
"Ah, dammit..." he muttered.
"What?" Masako asked curiously.
Batista pulled out the other tomato and said, "I mashed the damn 'mato when I got on the car. Might as well eat it now 'cause it won't be good for nothin' once the bruisin' sets in."
He split the crushed tomato between them and though she accepted her half, she didn't start eating right away. Speaking of the bruising setting in, Batista wondered what his arm would look like in the morning. He'd have to come up with a plan before then. For the time being, though, he chewed on his tomato and tried not to think of the resemblance to the bloody mess he made of those conscripts. They should've taken the out he offered them. Damn fools...