Chapter 1: Departure
There was a blue planet with a very large moon.
90 percent of the planet was covered in water, and the poles were covered in ice.
There was an oval, potato-shaped continent in the northern hemisphere of that planet.
The southern part of the continent was a brown desert. But as the latitude increased, the land exploded in a splash of green.
There was a massive mountain range in the middle of the continent, beginning at the desert. The mountains, capped with snow even in the middle of summer, ended abruptly about halfway up the continent. The two rivers on either side of the mountain range converged there, creating the massive Lutoni River that flowed straight north and into the sea.
There were two nations on the continent, one on either side.
In the east was the Roxcheanuk Confederation, also known as Roxche. It was made up of 16 countries and territories.
In the west were the Allied Kingdoms of Bezel-Iltoa, also known as Sou Be-Il. It was made up of the kingdoms of Bezel and Iltoa, along with a handful of small subordinate countries.
For eons, the people of the East and West had warred against one another with the Lutoni River between them.
In more contemporary times, each side of the continent forged alliances, and Roxche and Sou Be-Il were formed almost simultaneously. What followed was a cold war, one massive war, and many smaller conflicts.
But about 20 years ago, the cold war was ended by a certain incident.
The threat of another Great War was beginning to fade.
The capital of Roxche was the Special Capital District, a region independent of any country within the confederation.
It was on the northeastern end of Roxche, very far from the East-West border but also a fair distance from the sea.
The Special Capital District was a circular area about 30 kilometers in diameter. It had been built when Roxche was first formed.
The city center was home to the presidential residence, the Confederation Assembly Hall, civic centers, and courthouses. Outside the center was a business district crowded with department stores and hotels. Further outside was a residential district full of apartment buildings.
And on the outskirts of the Capital District, in the 9 o’clock direction, was Capital West Station.
It was one of the city’s three train stations, and also the largest owing to the fact that more of the continent sprawled out to the west.
The station boasted a massive parking lot next to the main intersection, and had a towering glass dome. The dome covered over ten platforms, and about 20 sets of tracks split off to the west.
Just through the main doors was a sprawling lobby.
The floor was tiled, and overhead was the great glass dome.
Across from the doors was a line of ticket windows; to the left, a restaurant, and to the right a pendulum clock about 10 meters in height. Under the face swung the massive pendulum, which could probably kill a man if it fell.
There was a small window cut into the face of the clock, which displayed the 8-day lunar cycle. The display showed a smiling moon indicating that the full moon had just passed.
Benches were arranged under the pendulum clock. There was also a stone monument inscribed with the words ‘Capital West Station Rendezvous Square’.
It was 9:45 in the morning.
The rush hour crowds had cleared out, emptying the lobby. Sounds from announcements and moving trains floated over from the platforms.
The bright summer sun shone through the glass dome, but the wind from the wide-open doors kept the station cool.
Seron Maxwell sat alone on a five-seater bench, reading a book.
Seron was 15 years old, and of average height. He was slender in build, and his long arms and legs made him seem even slimmer.
His slightly long hair was a shiny black. His eyes were grey.
Seron wore beige pants and a white button-down shirt, along with a light black summer jacket.
On his left wrist was a simple but expensive watch. Next to him was his favorite leather suitcase.
As Seron turned the page without a word, a boy with blond hair approached. He wore light brown cargo pants and a green T-shirt. The boy was short, but he had a muscular build.
There was a thin metal chain around his neck—it was not a necklace, but a military identification tag.
Seron did not notice the boy.
The boy—Larry Hepburn—waited one minute, until it was 9:46.
“Hey Seron! How’re you doing?”
There were lines of people waiting for taxis, buses moving in and moving out, and several ordinary cars at the intersection in front of the station.
Most of the cars were small sedans. But parked among them was a limousine.
It clearly stood head-and-shoulders above the others. The limousine was as long as a truck and wide to boot. Its white exterior made it seem difficult to approach.
Larry, and Seron—carrying his suitcase—stepped out of the station and approached the car.
“We don’t need to wait for the others, Larry?”
“Nah. We all met up out here. Lia and Megmica got here together, and I ran into Nick just now when we were both getting off our cars. Jenny was waving at us when we got here. You were the only one left, so I went to get you.”
“I see. Is that it over there? The big limousine?”
“Yeah. Megmica’s family’s pretty rich, but you gotta hand it to Jenny’s folks. This baby’s a top-grade Jones Motors limousine. It’s worth about 10 years of a normal person’s salary.” Larry raved.
The back seats were configured so that six people could sit in rows of three, facing one another. The windows were smoked glass and could not be seen through from the outside.
At the back of the car was a trunk large enough to fit everyone’s luggage, as well as a spare tire.
It was practically tradition in Roxche for cars to rub bumpers, but no one wanted to do such a thing with such an expensive car. The other cars at the intersection gave the limousine a wide berth.
Next to the car stood a man who was clearly a bodyguard.
He was in his forties and had short brown hair. The man wore a black suit, and was tall and well-built. With honed eyes he scanned his surroundings.
When Larry and Seron approached, he bowed courteously.
“This here’s Seron Maxwell.” Larry said to the bodyguard. “He’s the last newspaper club member. Seron, this here’s Jenny’s driver-slash-bodyguard. Mr. Edward Kurtz.”
Seron greeted Kurtz.
Kurtz replied with a bow and a hand over his chest. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
Kurtz first asked if Seron needed to take out anything from his suitcase for the trip, then received the suitcase. Then he opened the door for Seron and Larry and placed a hand at the top of the frame so they would not hit their heads on the way in.
Seron thanked Kurtz and moved—
“Wait, I’m going first.” Larry cut in, forcing his way ahead.
Furrowing his brow, Seron followed Larry inside.
Thanks to the smoked glass, it was dark inside the car. It took some time for Seron’s eyes to adjust. He took a seat next to Larry, at the rightmost seat facing forward. The other club members greeted him in turn.
“Good morning Seron. You seem to be doing quite well.”
The first voice came from someone on Larry’s left side—a boy with long hair sitting at the leftmost seat that faced forward.
It was Nicholas Browning—Nick—who had fair skin and a slender build. He had silky back-length hair and cool green eyes. As usual, he was easy to mistake for a girl. Today, he was dressed in a simple white button-down shirt and beige pants.
“What took you? New rule: the last one to arrive has to work harder than the rest at the camp. President’s orders.”
The angry second voice came from the leftmost seat facing backwards, across from Nick.
It was Jenny Jones, the petite girl with light brown eyes and short red hair. She was the president of the newspaper club and the daughter of the president of Jones Motors. Today she was dressed comfortably in a red long-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts.
“Welcome back, Seron. Good thing your train got here on time.” Said the tall girl next to Jenny.
It was Natalia Steinbeck, slender and tall with her hair neatly pinned up. She was Larry’s childhood friend, and the daughter of the world-renowned Steinbeck musician couple. Larry called her ‘Lia’, and the other members called her ‘Nat’. Today she wore skinny jeans and a white summer sweater.
“Good morning, Seron. It has been a while. How are you?”
Next to Natalia, at the rightmost seat facing backwards—in other words, right across from the seat Larry had forced Seron to take—was a certain pigtailed girl.
Her black hair was tied into pigtails with ribbons. She had fair skin and dark eyes, and—though she did not look it—was a year older than the other club members. Strauski Megmica, the Westerner. She was wearing a yellow cotton dress.
The first thing Seron saw when his vision finally adjusted to the dark was Meg’s dark eyes, looking straight into his. The smile of the girl he loved most, which he saw for the first time in 17 days.
Seron thanked Larry profusely in silence as he responded blankly and cooly, no different from any other day.
“Good morning, everyone. I’m doing all right. Thanks for asking.”
After placing Seron’s suitcase in the trunk, Kurtz walked around to the driver’s seat on the left side of the car.
Though Seron could not see, behind Meg—in the passenger seat beside the driver—sat a second bodyguard. A woman in her late twenties with short black hair, dressed neatly in a pantsuit.
There was a window cut into the pane of smoked glass that separated the back of the car from the front.
Kurtz opened the window and advised everyone to put on their seat belts, as they would be departing.
Seron and the others put on their 3-point seat belts and sat back in the comfortable leather seats.
Kurtz asked Jenny if they were ready. Jenny allowed him to set off.
The limousine rumbled as it began to move.
They left the intersection and slowly made their way down a Capital District thoroughfare.
Lining either side of the street were endless rows of department stores and hotels. The sepia world beyond the smoked glass passed by them.
“All right. The 3305 newspaper club summer camp is officially in session. This camp will run until we’ve come back safe and sound to the Capital District. Prepare yourselves for some hardcore training.” Jenny announced. “I’m not gonna let any of you drop out, got it? Remember this—covering a news story is like fighting a battle. In fact, it is a battle. And there’s no justice in battle, did you know that? It doesn’t matter if you’re covering a total psycho for a story—until he goes to jail, he’s simply a subject for you to cover! If you have time to cry, put down your handkerchief and snap a photo instead!”
“Sure, chief. We all know.” Natalia said lazily and turned her gaze to Seron. She pointed at the two large paper bags under her feet. “Want something to eat, Seron? We got snacks and fruit—loads for the trip. There’s juice and tea too if you want.”
“Not right now, thank you. —Jenny, thank you for providing the car and the accommodations.” Seron said with utmost gravity.
“Well, well! You get fresh sheets and a crisp new mattress, Seron. The rest of you can have the pick of the gardens or the shed.” Jenny grinned. The others—Natalia, Meg, Nick, and Larry—quickly jumped in.
“Thanks for everything, chief! I’m so moved, I can barely stand. Tomorrow I’ll compose a song in your honor and give you a live performance.”
“Then I will sing this song Nat made. I am too thankful to thank more, Jenny. Thank you.”
“Truly, you are the epitome of a benevolent superior. My soul trembles at your generosity, Jenny. Has there ever been such an honorable leader in history?”
“Nope. None at all. I’m happy to fight under such a great commander.”
Seron’s eyes narrowed slightly as he looked around at the others, who were clearly enjoying themselves too much.
“Too bad. Looks like everyone’s gonna get a bed.” Jenny admitted. At that moment, the limousine made a left turn into a larger street, which had a tram lane down the middle.
Seron spotted the street sign, then. And he looked around.
Then his eyes fell on something to his left.
“Sarcey Avenue, huh…” He mumbled, awestruck. Larry nodded.
“We’re gonna be invited to the wedding, right?”
“I’m already thinking of what to wear on the big day.” Nick chimed in.
“The wedding?” Meg wondered, tilting her head.
“Over there, Megmica.” Natalia said, pointing out a large building on the left side of the limousine.
Meg leaned forward and looked to her right. Not noticing the blank panic rising to Seron’s face as she drew near, Meg scrutinized the building and scanned the sign next to it.
“Ah! Yes! Of course yes! We all will be invited to the wedding! We certainly are!”
As Meg trilled excitedly, the limousine passed by a sign labeled ‘Ulericks Real Estate’.
Afterwards, the club members talked about their summer break so far.
Seron informed everyone that he spent the days reading, relaxing at his home in Weld. He also added that he was almost finished with his homework.
Larry had gone to his family’s villa as planned, where he enjoyed hunting, fishing, boating, motorcycling, and horseback riding, and obviously did not touch his homework.
Meg had met her friend Lillianne Schultz, and had attended a party with other Westerners where she met the fat colonel who quietly thanked her for her help with the Murdoch incident.
Natalia had lazed around at home, playing her instruments—the piano and guitar, not the violin.
Nick had relaxed at home, being teased by his sisters as usual. He had finished his homework.
Finally, Jenny had been hard at work rebuilding the newspaper club.
“What were you working on?” Asked Larry.
“Stuff.” Jenny replied.
* * *
The limousine left the perfectly planned roads of the Capital District and entered the Republic of Daurade, a member state of the Roxcheanuk Confederation.
For some time they drove through a suburb inhabited mostly by people who commuted to the Capital District for work.
There was more land available outside the Capital District, so the apartment buildings quickly gave way to detached houses. It was orderly to the point of being boring because the district had been planned meticulously from the bottom up.
Soon, the street led to an interchange—they were approaching the autobahn, which was the highway that connected the cities of Roxche.
The limousine drove up the interchange ramp and into the vast 6-lane highway that made excellent use of the flatlands of Roxche.
Like an airstrip, the asphalt continued endlessly into the horizon in the distance.
The limousine sped up as though gliding. Trees on the side of the road, which had been planted to protect against the wind, seemed to fly past.
Soon the suburbs gave way to nothing but endless green plains.
Farmlands that provided produce to the Capital District stretched on to the horizon.
“Ah, we’re on the autobahn.” Natalia said suddenly. “That means it’s time to bust out the snacks.”
“What’s the autobahn got to do with snacks? Explain in 100 words or less, Lia.” Larry demanded.
“‘Don’t sweat the details, shortie’. I’m gonna run out of words here.” Natalia replied.
That was when Meg threw out a question.
“In Roxchean, the road for cars only is called an autobahn? Then… what country’s language is the autobahn?”
The answer came, not from Larry the machine-lover, but from Nick the history buff.
“It comes from the Casnan language, once used in the nation of Casna at the easternmost tip of Roxche. The word ‘autobahn’ simply means ‘car street’. Casnan was used before the founding of Roxche, but the Confederation Minister of Transportation who planned the autobahn came up with the name ‘autobahn’—perhaps because he was from Casna, or perhaps because he wanted to show off. Or perhaps both. There were other suggestions for the name, such as ‘Transnational Freeway’, ‘Roxche Arterial Expressway’, ‘Confederation Defense Highway’, and ‘High-speed Freeway’. But well, they simply didn’t work quite as well. ‘Autobahn’ is quite elegant in its simplicity.”
“I understand.” Meg gasped. Natalia nodded.
“I’ve been a Roxchean all my life, but I never knew any of that.”
“Let me explain a little more about the autobahn, then.” Nick said. “As Roxche is composed mostly of flatlands, canals have always been the primary method of transportation. From prehistory to now, Roxche has been crisscrossed by canals. This is where the saying, ‘Roxche must be crossed by ship’ comes from. But eventually, automobiles were invented and trucks and cars came into common use. With that came the development of highways for ease of long-distance travel. However, this caused some problems. Can anyone guess what they were?”
A moment of silence followed the pop quiz.
But Seron finally answered.
“The canals got in the way.”
“Indeed. I expected no less from you, Seron. The highways that were being built had to cross the canals at points along the construction, which meant the government would have to spend a fortune building bridges over them. Large canals are traversed by equally large ships, which means any bridges that goes over them must be tall enough that such ships’ masts could pass through underneath. Ah, speak of the devil. Look over there—”
Nick pointed out the window on the right.
Outside was a wide canal that intersected with the autobahn.
It was lined on either side with concrete, which had been shaped into a park and a bicycle trail. A large freighter slowly made its way down the water, creating small ripples on the calm surface.
The autobahn climbed just before it reached the water, crossing over at quite a height before descending to the ground again.
The limousine’s engine grew louder as they approached the climb.
“Technically, we’re not crossing a canal but the Leine River. The Leine and Tarès Rivers are two of the most important rivers in the East, as they supply freshwater to the Capital District. The Leine flows directly into the North Sea, so if you were to set a small boat afloat it would eventually wind up at Port Watts.” Nick explained.
Larry chimed in. “True, but that would take days. And FYI, Port Watts is a military facility. You’d get arrested if you wandered in.”
“As you can see, wider roads call for wider bridges. Should the architects avoid crossing canals whenever possible, or prioritize straight roads at the extra cost of the bridges—this was what made it so difficult to introduce the autobahn. A similar problem occurred when the railroads were built, but train tracks are narrow and can be raised whenever necessary. The autobahn unfortunately does not have that option. There’s quite a few interesting stories about the land supply and the budget wars fought during the planning stages. Supposedly there was even a shipping war between trucks and ships.”
“There are no speed limitations on this road, no? When I first heard it, it was very surprising.” Meg asked.
“There are sections with speed limits, but generally there isn’t.” Seron declared.
“There’s a 130 kilometer per hour limit in sections like cities, since there are a lot of interchanges. And in places where they had to add a curve in the highway. But there weren’t any limits at all about 20 years ago. You could go as fast as you wanted anywhere. But back when the autobahn was first built, the only cars that could go that fast were either sports cars or really expensive.”
“If I remember correctly, there was a terrible accident on the autobahn about 19 years ago. A heated debate followed, after which the speed limits were placed on certain sections.” Nick chimed in. Larry nodded.
“Some reckless young driver went so fast he ended up slamming into every car around him. An entire family in one of those cars died, and there was a huge uproar because they were the daughter, son-in-law, and grandson of a former cabinet minister.”
“I’ve seen that article before.” Said Seron. “In an old newspaper archive, I think. Although I don’t remember the minister’s name.”
Larry continued. “The debate went on for an entire year, and they finally put partial speed limits in place. Funny thing about Roxche—these days lots of cars can go over 200 and people do get into terrible accidents, but the people who demanded a speed limit over the entire autobahn just couldn’t beat the no-limit lobbyists.”
The moment Larry finished, Natalia spoke.
“That was a great history lesson. Now let’s start on the snacks before we forget.”
“Just how does history connect to snacks again, Lia?”
“Correction. Let’s start on the snacks in so we won’t forget.”
Their stash included the Capital District’s infamously greasy deep-fried crisps, assorted chocolates, potato chips which had only recently hit the market, salami, scone and jam, raisins, gum, candy, and tea and juice in thermoses and small bottles respectively.
The newspaper club chattered away as they opened up one snack after another.
“Is there anything else you wanted to know about Roxche, Megmica? Seron or Nick could probably answer anything for you. I could help out if you’ve got any questions about the military.” Larry spoke up for Seron, who was having trouble talking to her.
Natalia provided support fire.
“Great idea. Ask ‘em while you can. ‘Why, when and how did Larry grow out of being a crybaby?’ That kinda stuff.”
“Never mind that, Lia.”
Afterwards, the conversation turned into a question-and-answer session with Meg and the Roxcheans.
The first topic of discussion was the Eastern educational system. They discussed the secondary school system and how it served simply as a stepping stone towards postsecondary education, and also discussed vocational schools.
Education had always been a primary concern for Roxcheans, and in the East it was natural for children to receive extracurricular education. This was completely foreign to Meg.
“It is very surprising. And—”
Another system that Meg found strange was the option to skip a grade, which existed even for primary school students in Roxche.
In Sou Be-Il, it was thought that students should not be separated by their academic performance from such a young age. But in Roxche, clever students were allowed to move on quickly through their education.
Then came the question of why Jenny, who was one of the top 10 students in school, had not skipped a grade.
“Tell us if it’s not too much trouble, chief.” Natalia urged. Jenny replied nonchalantly.
“Hmm… I never really thought that hard about it. I only have six years in secondary school, so I might as well get the full experience, right? It’s like reading a novel instead of just getting a summary.”
Outside the windows they could see a vast wetland. The conversation naturally moved on to the environment.
“The Razen wetlands. It’s home to countless species of waterfowl, and thanks to its proximity to the Capital District it’s known as a holy ground of birdwatching. Supposedly you’ll find quite the crowd on holidays.”
“They passed a protection law.” Larry added. “So hunting’s completely illegal in this area. In the old days, locals used to hunt birds for their meat and feathers, but they all went out of business afterwards. They’re the reason people in the Capital District call down jackets Razens.”
The conversation drifted to the differences between laws in Roxche and Sou Be-Il.
In Roxche, cars drove on the right side of the road and the driver’s seat was on the left side of the car. In Sou Be-Il it was the opposite.
As for minimum drinking age, every member state of Roxche had set it at 20. In Sou Be-Il, the minimum age had been lowered recently to 18, but depending on the region and type of drink, people could even drink starting at 14.
Natalia was awestruck.
“Fourteen? That’s ridiculous. I think I want to become a Westerner.”
“We raise toasts for high school graduation with wines together.” Said Meg.
“Egad! Larry, I’m going West!”
Then came the issue of gun control. In Roxche, citizens could possess weapons—even tanks or anti-aircraft weapons—as long as they passed an admissions process and paid an expensive licensing fee. But in Sou Be-Il, only soldiers and law enforcement personnel could possess guns, with very few exceptions.
They discussed several more differences, before Meg brought up an interesting topic.
“Now that I think to it, this is a very important fact—”
She explained that in the West, there was a lese-majeste law. That is, one could be prosecuted if they were caught insulting the royal family of Bezel or Iltoa in public. Then she added,
“But it is not a very heavy crime. This law is slowly losing powers.”
“I see. Looks like us Roxcheans had better be careful if we ever decide to visit.”
“It is all right. I told you before, I can follow you as interpreter for you.” Meg said with a smile. Seron’s thought processes froze for a full three minutes.
Afterwards, it came up that in Sou Be-Il, first-cousin marriage was strictly illegal. The Roxcheans could not hide their shock.
“Huh. It’s not that uncommon in Roxche, you know. Rich people actually prefer to marry their kids to cousins, since they can guarantee a good background.” Natalia said.
“Hmph.” Jenny frowned, putting a potato chip in her mouth. But no one noticed.
“Speaking of laws,” Nick spoke up, “I’ve heard recently that the death penalty has been abolished completely in the West. Is it true, Megmica?”
“Ah. It means the penalty is no longer used.”
“Yes. It has. Some decades before, one person was murdered on schedule and afterwards no one was executed.” Meg said solemnly. Natalia finished off the cookies and spoke up.
“‘Murdered’, huh. That’s a scary word to use, but guess it’s not wrong.”
“Then what about really bad people?” Larry asked, a piece of chewing gum in his mouth. “Like a serial killer, for example?”
“Well… in that case, the crime adds one on top of one, and the… prison term? Is this the correct word? The time he must be in prison goes up very very high. To 200 or 300 years.”
Larry and the others, including Seron—who had just come back to his senses—nodded.
Meg continued. “Several years before, a serial killer man who killed many many children was arrested by the policemen. It was a big talk of the country. Sou Be-Il was very loud. The man received more than 400 years, during the court. He can never leave the prison, and he can never kill other people now, but he is still alive.”
The others were appalled. Nick seemed extremely curious.
“It boggles the mind to think that even such a terrible man was spared the death penalty. It does make me wonder—the death penalty has been around for all of human history. What led Sou Be-Il to deviate from the traditional norm?”
“Back then, my teacher at the school told us many things.” Meg said gravely. “We did not know if he should be killed. The parents of the killed children sent many letters to the king and asked to kill the man but the laws did not change. …But you see, when someone who killed someone dies, he will certainly go to hell. Everyone knows he will. Is there ‘hell’ in Roxche?”
Natalia nodded. “Yeah. Grandma used to tell me I’d go to hell someday if I misbehaved.”
Larry shared a similar experience. Then Seron spoke for the first time in a while.
“A lot of people in Roxche think so too. Most kids grow up being taught that bad people go to hell. That’s why some people think the death penalty isn’t necessary. I’m sure there are people in Sou Be-Il who want to bring back the death penalty, just like the opposite is true in Roxche.”
“It is true. There are many people in this world.” Meg said, nodding again and again.
The limousine went quiet. Nick spoke up.
“I suppose that may have been too serious of a topic. Perhaps we should move on to something more lighthearted? Seron.”
“I’ve always been curious to know. How in the world does the Maxwell lamb sauté dinner with black pepper taste so good when all you have to do is simply heat it in the oven?”
“…The president—my mother—once told me, ‘if anyone in the Capital District asks, tell them this’.”
Nick and the others listened with bated breath as Seron revealed the secret.
“It tastes so good because it’s made with a mother’s love.”
“That is wonderful! Seron’s mother is a cool woman!” Meg exclaimed.
“We’ve reached a rest stop, everyone. We’ll refuel and take a short break.” Said the woman sitting in the front, opening up the window in the partition.
The limousine left the autobahn and pulled up into a parking lot surrounded by trees.
Jenny introduced the woman to Seron, and vice-versa.
The woman was named Elsa Litner. She stepped off the car first and scanned the area. Then she escorted Jenny and the girls to the bathroom.
“We’re fine. We’re not as famous.” Larry turned down Kurtz’s offer to escort the boys. He, Seron, and Nick dropped by the bathroom and headed to the store.
“Lia was really stuffing herself, eh? How’s she gonna eat lunch?” Larry grumbled, personally paying to refill their stash of snacks.
The moment they stepped out of the store, they ran into the girls. Larry handed the heavy paper bag to Natalia.
“Good thinking, Larry.”
As they returned to the limousine together, Meg looked up at the blue sky.
“It is very fun. It is very fun that everyone has come to this far place, and that everyone must go farther. It is very good.”
Three meters behind Meg, Seron silently but intensely agreed.
“No group photos?” Larry asked Jenny.
“Not if it’s not newsworthy.”
“Oh! That is not good. Even if the photo is not newsworthy, the photo will be a cool memory. So take a photo please, Jenny.”
“Megmica’s right. Club history’s gotta be newsworthy, right?” Natalia added.
Jenny shrugged. “All right. Once we get to the villa.”
Once the tank was full, the limousine left the rest stop and returned to the autobahn.
There were fewer cars on the road now. And as if to match, there was one fewer lane. The landscape around them seemed to go on forever, like a strip of grey on a massive green carpet.
The limousine signaled and changed lanes to overtake the car ahead.
“Look.” Larry exclaimed, “a road train.”
Meg and Natalia—who had been eating yet another cookie—looked to their right.
A train of trailers seemed to flow by.
Three trailers connected by metal bars were being pulled behind a single tractor unit.
Black smoke spewed from the tractor unit, which roared loudly enough to hear from inside the limousine.
“It’s long.” Seron observed.
“Yeah.” Larry nodded, his eyes glued to the passing trailers. “They’re actually not allowed in the Capital District because they’re so long. You don’t get to see them much.”
“Were road trains not determined to be less efficient than trains about six months ago? Road trains can get in the way because of their length, so I don’t believe we’ll be seeing many more of them now.” Nick said.
Larry turned. “You know a lot of obscure things, huh. Yeah. In terms of fuel efficiency it’s best to cover long distances by train and use regular-sized trucks the rest of the way. They’ve partially implemented a standard on shipping container sizes, and once it’s fully in effect the shipping industry’s going to switch over completely.”
“This is a bore.” Natalia said. Meg also showed little interest, her eyes on the truck disappearing behind them.
At that moment, Meg’s eyes met Seron’s. She smiled.
‘All hail road trains!’
‘Let road trains drive Roxche’s autobahns forever!’
In his heart, Seron heaped praises upon the endangered species.
About an hour past noon, the limousine left the autobahn again.
They drove down a road through a farmland before coming to a stop at a large drive-thru restaurant in town. The students and the bodyguards went into the room that Kurtz had reserved ahead of time.
“There’s no hurry, so please take your time.”
The adults left the room and the students sat at the table. Then came the food.
For lunch, they would have the restaurant’s specialty—the build-it-yourself burger.
Diners were provided soft buns straight out of the oven, fresh vegetables, the local specialty cheese, meat patties dripping with juice served on a small grill, and other ingredients and garnishes with which to dress their lunch.
“I’m going all-out!”
Larry spread butter over his bun, then expertly added the patty, salt and pepper, tomato slices, cheese, lettuce, onion slices, mayonnaise, a drop of mustard, a bun slice, butter, another patty, salt, pepper, cheese, tomato slices, pickles, and ketchup. Then he covered the top and put a long skewer through the burger for ease of eating.
“It’s on, Larry.”
Natalia made the same hamburger, except without pickles and onion slices and with extra mayonnaise.
“No way I’m going that far. ‘Sides, I like raw onions.”
Jenny piled a meat patty and onion slices onto her bun and finished without adding any other ingredients.
“You three are astounding. I’m still quite full from all the snacks.”
“So am I. But I like hamburgers. Before, in Sou Be-Il, it was against politeness to eat your food with your hands.”
Nick and Meg opted for plain burgers. Bun, butter, patty, assorted vegetables, pickles, and ketchup.
Seron was last.
“What should I do?” He wondered, picking up a bun.
Larry was already finished his first burger. He answered with mayonnaise on his mouth.
“Don’t think about it too hard, Seron. Just make it simple.”
“…Yeah. Thanks, Larry.”
Seron made the same plain hamburger Meg made.
And he happily dug into the same hamburger the girl he loved was eating.
Inwardly, Larry chuckled. He got to building his second burger.
“I’mma add another patty this time!”
“Three for me!”
After the burgers, the newspaper club members had chocolate ice cream for dessert followed by warm tea.
And the limousine set off once more, carrying six utterly stuffed students.
They sped down the empty autobahn again.
It was neither cold nor hot inside the limousine, and the seats were comfortable and impact-absorbent. The engine hummed peacefully.
As a result—
“Figures.” Larry muttered.
Nick, Jenny, Natalia, and Meg were all asleep. Nick and Jenny leaned against their respective windows, Natalia sat with her head tilted all the way back, and Meg with her head slightly bowed.
“Maybe I should get some shut-eye too.”
Larry turned. To his right sat Seron, desperately trying to keep his eyes open.
“Didn’t you say you didn’t get much sleep on the train last night, Seron?”
“Oh. Yeah. But…”
Larry looked at Seron, then at Meg. Seron sat nervously, and Meg slept peacefully. Seron’s dilemma was clear.
“Look, buddy. I know how you feel, but this is only the first day. If you rush, you’re gonna drive yourself into an early grave.”
“That’s not good… I’ll get some sleep.”
“Yeah. Relax, man. Take your time.”
“It looks like they’re all asleep.” Litner said, glancing back from her seat.
Kurtz slowed the limousine slightly and steadied his driving.
A short while later, he spoke again.
“I’m surprised that even Miss Jenny’s fallen asleep. She must really trust these friends of hers.”
“You’re right. I couldn’t believe she made five friends at once, personally.”
“And she’s taking them to Ercho Village. You think she’s gotten over her heartbreak?”
“I doubt it. I doubt she’ll ever get over it completely.”
“Is that a woman’s perspective, Elsa? I don’t think I’ll ever understand.”
The limousine continued due north.