The Price of Magic – Chapter 17 Excerpt

Iolana stopped shoveling, and placing the tip of her shovel on the seam of the metal floor, she used it to prop herself up.  Her blond hair was plastered to her head and her clothes were soaked through with perspiration.  It was at least 130 degrees in the engine room, closer near the open furnace door, and she had been shoveling coal for what seemed like forever.

“Keep shovelin’,” said her companion, as he threw another scoop into the furnace, the flame reflecting on the smooth sheen of his sweaty, shirtless body.

She imagined that it would feel so good to shed the khaki uniform blouse.  It would certainly give the crew of the crawler a shock.  She really wanted to do it.  But she just couldn’t.

“I’m all talk,” she said to herself.

“No time to talk. Just shovel.”

“How’s it going, men?” called Tiber Stephenson’s voice from the engine room hatch.  “Nice and warm in here, eh?”

“You’ve proven your point, Tiber,” said Iolana, staggering as she scooped more coal.

“That’s Lieutenant to the likes o’ you!” shouted the shirtless soldier.

“I’m not having you shovel coal to prove a point, My Lady,” said Tiber.  “I’m having you shovel coal because that’s what makes this vehicle go.” He looked at the shirtless soldier. “How long till shift end, Swaim?”

“About forty more minutes, Sir.”

“Good.  When your relief comes, bring our little stowaway up to the officers’ quarters.”

“Right you are, Sir.”

Though she managed to finish out her shift in the engine room and then march along behind Swaim to the front of the vehicle, when he left her just inside the door to the officers’ quarters, Iolana’s vision began to swim and she collapsed.  If Tiber hadn’t been there, she would have fallen to the sheet metal floor.  Instead, he caught her and carried her over to an empty bunk, laying her down.  Then he opened a vent and cool, moist air from outside blew gently across her face.

“You look a little warm, My Lady.”

“Bugger yourself,” she said.

“Now that language is certainly not very ladylike.”

“I’m not a lady.  I’m a grunt who works in the engine room.”

“Well, relax grunt, and when you’re ready, I’ll get you something to eat.”

Iolana was asleep before he finished his sentence.  She didn’t know how long she slept, but when she woke, the sheet metal floor and everything that touched it was still throbbing with the energy of the steam engine. The buzzing of the saws still echoed through the metal walls.  She slowly sat up; her arms and back crying out in anguish.  She didn’t think she had ever done so much physical labor in her whole life.  When she stood up, her legs, if anything, hurt even worse than her upper body.  She moved like an old lady across the room and out the door.  She turned and walked up the sloping passage toward the front of the crawler, her hand against the wall.  She hadn’t gone very far when she saw Tiber walking toward her.

“I was just coming to check on you,” he said.

“How long was I asleep?”

“About fourteen hours. I was starting to get worried.”

“You mean I slept through our stopping for the night?” she asked.

“No.  We haven’t stopped and we won’t.  We have a crew of twenty-two officers and men so that we can run twenty-four hours a day.”

“What about the relief column that’s with us?  The men can’t march all night.”

“Oh, they’re not traveling with us.  They merely left at the same time.  I imagine they’re forty miles ahead of us by now.”  He took her by the shoulders, turned her around, and marched her back to the officer’s quarters.  “They stop for the night, but then they move much faster than we do.  We’ve only gone about forty-five miles from the city’s edge.”

“Forty-five miles?” wondered Iolana.  “Then, when you found me, we couldn’t have been more than a long walk from town. You could easily have turned back, or even made me walk back myself.”

“You didn’t want to go back, did you?”

“No, of course I didn’t. Though now I’m wondering about your motivation.”

“Please, My Lady,” said Tiber.  “I’m a gentleman, one little kiss notwithstanding.  Now sit down. I have something for you to eat.”

Iolana took a seat in one of the two metal chairs that faced a small metal table between the two bunks. The young lieutenant hefted a canvas rucksack from cubby and dropped it heavily on the table.

“Well, you have a choice: beef stew, corned beef, or pork and beans.  Take my advice and skip the stew.  Heated up, it’s barely edible.  You’re eating your food cold, and in such a case, it’s plain disgusting.”

“Pork and beans, please.”

“Here you go.”  He handed her the tin can.  While she peeled off the key and began opening the can, he continued.  “You also have a block of cheese and a box of crackers.  You might want to skip the crackers.  You can crack a tooth if you don’t soak them in water or tea.”

Iolana dug into the beans with a flat wooden spoon, also included in the kit.  She recognized that the pork was nothing but a square bit of fat, but she was so hungry that it tasted wonderful.  While she ate, Tiber poured water from a canteen into a folding cup and used the edge of his knife to grate off bits from a block of condensed tea into it.  Then he unfolded a small packet of sugar and poured it in.

“Here you go.”

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