Lights In The Dark Part 2

Read part 1

A loud cringe-inducing honk cut through the clatter of the rain. Everyone let go of the bars, and the doors slid sideways with metallic clamor. Dozens of inmates, men from all corners of the French Empire, dressed in uniforms with vertical red and white stripes, stepped out of their cages in unison. Some of them wore caps, cut of the same fabric, to hide their shaven heads. Marie and the other women too owned nothing but a pathetic scalp of hair after yet another delousing measure. Off-Course, Tiana managed to get a scarf from somewhere to hide her baldness. She had a knack for those things. But Mary refused to ask her how she got it. Even if Marie had, her pride would have gotten in the way of doing what Tiana had done.
Meanwhile, all the inmates faced the same way. Four Senegalese tirailleurs stood guard, hands on the grips of their machetes.
Paulus the Giant stood beside Marie, towering a head-length over all the other men in his column, making her feel but a child in his presence.
“HÉ,” he whispered to Marie. ‘seen that new guy? Cage 15.”
‘the small guy?” she whispered back, observing the inmate he pointed out. “He’s still a boy.”
“Oh yeah. I heard he’s a rapist,” Paulus said bluntly.
“What are you talking about? You all are.”
‘this is different… Listen. I just don’t want another Henrietta. That’s all.”
‘those connards deserved it.”
“Oh, yeah? I would have preferred to have used them as life bait instead. Then she could have burned them alive.”
“Jezus, Paulus.”
“We would still have Hieretta as operator… Now we have that one.”
As covertly as possible, Mary looked over her shoulder at the woman behind Tiana. She was like Marie, short and plain, with the airs of a housekeeper about her.
“Jeaninne? What’s wrong with her?”
“Don’t like child killers… That’s all.”
“Did she have an abortion?”
“No.”
As his silence persisted, she looked in front of her.
“Legionaries!” cried one of the guards. “Advance!”
Shoulder to shoulder, the two columns started to move and entered the adjacent train carriage. “Come on, keep moving. Get your gear!”
Like cattle, they walked forward, and in pairs men squeezed past each other through the tunnel into the next wagon: the armory. Each of the legionnaires had access to a locker with assigned equipment. Some padded body armor, a helmet, a repeating rifle, and some form of melee weapon. Improvised maces, machetes, or refurbished tools.
While the men geared up, Marie and the other two women stripped down to their underwear.
“Oh, why don’t you take the rest off!” Leon jested as she locked her closet.
‘to leave something for your fantasies,” she sneered. “Or are you just jealous of my dress?”
“If you call that Iron Maiden a dress!” he retorted. “I don’t envy you.”
She finished putting on her polyns and counters to protect her joints. But that was about it for protection.
“Leon, get out of the way,” she said while forcing herself through the crowd of men. She had to be careful not to get an elbow or sharp object in her face. But as usual, Marie managed to squeeze herself past them, unmolested.
Marie couldn’t help but be cautious as she passed the young man Paulus had warned her about. As Marie watched him while forcing his gambeson over his head, she noticed a butterfly tattoo on his wrist.
Suddenly, as he popped his head out of the collar, he looked Marie in the eyes. They were kind, wary eyes. The moment she blinked, he looked away, avoiding the sight of her scarcely dressed body.
His boyish reaction made her lips curl up into a faint smile… But she didn’t trust him anyway.
The three women separated themselves from the men and entered another tunnel. This time they entered Hanger Deux. The interior reeked of petrol and ground metal. An improvement from the ‘troop Sleeper”. And quieter. And cooler without the heat from her fellow legionnaires.
Halfway down the hanger, surrounded by consoles and fuel vats stood a quadruped vehicle that, when seen from the side, reminded Marie of a very short boar with two flamethrower nozzles sticking out of the front. A Châssis de Bataille Trois, or BC-3 for short. These were the so-called recon-chassis which were smaller, at the expense of fuel and battery capacity. Still, the vehicle called Oriflamme barely fit in-between the sides of the carriage and was held in place with clamps and heavy chains like some legendary beast. Due to the volatility, Oriflamme had its own carriage. It used to be piloted by Henrietta, but now it was assigned to the new girl. Mary didn’t envy her.
Her’s and Tiana’s were in the next carriage over: Hanger Trois. This carriage contained CB’s Ariel and PÉpite. Approaching her CB, Marie inspected

PÉpite’s was locked into places at the ankles. She looked very similar to Oriflamme in every way. Except that PÉtite’s four Mitrailleuses were concealed at the bottom of her chevron-shaped hull.
“Bonne chance, I suppose,” Tiana said, waving half-heartedly.
“Merci,” responded Mary. But Tiana was already squeezing herself past the automaton’s rear and disappeared inside the maze of machinery.
Mary began climbing up the bovine-like legs of PÉpite. The kneepads served her well during this ritual. When she reached the top, the hatch was already open.
A man called out. “Marie!”
Marie peered over the side. “Oui, Emile!”
The macchiato mechanic quickly blew out some cigarette smoke. “We tried adjusting the central axis. Shaved off a bit of the flywheel, it should run smoother now.”
“I told you, it works fine!” she cried.
‘that is not what Hugo indicates,” he said.
She frowned her lips as she looked at the machine against the side of the carriage. “Hugo” looked like a closet with a lot of blinking lights and four spools of tape. An Electric Difference Engine they called it. She didn’t understand it, but somehow knew everything she did during missions. From the number of shots, distance walked, down to how many times she turned each individual lever.
“What does a machine know of handling a chassis?” she muttered.
“What did you say?”
She ignored Emile and slid legs-first into the cockpit. As she squeezed herself in the padded capsule, she reached for the handle on the latch and pulled it shut.
She settled down into the canvas chair. The only illumination was the faint light that fell through the front porthole. She wore her dress now and felt no longer naked. Despite the squaller, she preferred it over her cell. The peace. The comfort. She turned the ignition key, activating the orange indicator lights of the console and gauges, which were as fascinating to her as candles. Her fingers slide across the various handles and buttons. It was her lover in the way. Something that only she knew how to please. All its awkward procedures, flaws, and quirks. Marie mastered them all. Every time she heard the mechanics talk behind her back about changes and improvements, she was afraid she could no longer control it with the same finesse.
A loud clunk reverberated through the machine as the mechanics removed the clamps. Behind her, the crank was inserted, and after a couple of spins, the engine behind her purred to life. Her cabin already started to heat up as the hydraulics activated, lifting her cabin off the ground. PÉpite balanced a bit awkwardly at first, but then the legs corrected their posture automatically. She didn’t know how the PÉpite knew how to stabilize itself, but it did. And that was all that mattered.
In front of her, the two-stage ramp folded down, revealing the darkness outside. A flash of lightning illuminated the forest of swaying trees while gusts of rain hosed down in waves. She glared at the uphill road that lay ahead and muttered to herself. “It’s one of these again.”

Continue reading part 3

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