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He followed closely as they tromped through the marshy piece of outland, tripping now and then by the railroad track embedded neatly into the ground by a layer of crab grass and contagion-fed corrosion. Now and then one of the black masks would turn at him, the long strut of its beak giving what ought to be a bob of the head in the right direction, veil rippled, glass eyes glimpsing at snatches of electric lamp posts through the stark still three-am. On either side, untidy rows of shanty houses lined the make-shift boardwalk, and in the distance, a smaller outhouse set between the splitting rail tracks and, from what he could make out, patched together with bits of eroded board and rusting sheets of metal. Even in the cool darkness he could feel droplets of sweat begin their patterns across his forehead, and now and then, the humming buzz of something he couldn't see.

The three stopped outside a double-floored installment; a mess of two half-aluminum-half-wooden huts conjoined at the belly, with all but a single window acting as a lighthouse to this dismal place. The first, the tallest, pulled back the bit of tarp serving as the entrance, signaled to him, stepped inside.

This place, was it some kind of roughened Clanker abomination? It seemed to be composed of metal scraps, and these urchins had crawled into the space they were not welcome and not wanted, had made their home in the twilight riverside, on this bed where once Clanker engines had rolled on from town to town. The other two waited politely as he pulled back at the tarp and stepped inside, the ring of dim light flooding his vision.

As his eyes slowly adjusted to the bare candlelight, he made out the rough circle of three, regarding him, the second one tipping now and then from side to side to catch a better glimpse of the odd foreigner. The smallest, barely up to his nose, he realized, tugged the odd ebony beak off, replacing the black goggle glass with wide dark pools, sparking either curiosity or the fluctuation of flame in the night.

So they were human after all. Or at the very least, he could presume that this one was. The skin was a darkened coffee brown, dingy black hair framing an oval face of wide, black eyes and a stern mouth; the expression of a boy who had grown up too fast for his age, had learned too much in exchange for too little.

One by one, the other two followed. Cautiously at first, and with some convincing to have the tallest pull off the strange beak. They were all tanned, somewhat yellowed at the root like the Oriental Darwinist tradesmen, the other a pale caramel.

His experience of what these denizens would look like was a wild guess at the morning papers back home, and his mind struck out at crude cartoon drawings of monkey-like aborigines in desks, Uncle Sam waving a stick, the charmingly dressed American woman standing side by side by what seemed to be rude apes, black jutting lips and kinked hair, scratching at bottoms and picking fleas. The bottom, as always, had read, "Our American saviors".

Memory scrawled out the small inscription underneath the illustrated brutes, little negroes of the wild who lived in trees and thought like beasts.


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Lil Mage


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