Lights In The Dark Part 3

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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.”

The moment PÉpite walked off the ramp, its feet sunk into the marshy grass. With the blink of an eye, Marie’s viewport was obscured by the rain running down her windshield. But most unsettling was the howling of the wind trapped inside the air vent while gusts of rain irregularly clattered against the exterior.
Through the watery veil, Marie saw dozens of electric lanterns, dangling from the legionnaire’s chests. They didn’t pity her now, poor saps.
Meanwhile, Oriflamme’s shape appeared to her right, its legs struggling to walk across the soft ground. From the front, the chassis looked like a cyclopic chevron-shaped crustacean on bovine legs. Ariel was to PÉpite’s left. She was an odd chassis, not equipped with any weapons, but instead carried four searchlights. They wouldn’t be turned though. Not until they made contact with whatever waited for them on top of the hill.
“Pépite,” spoke an indiscernible voice through the radio static. *Thi- is Fa- Jacques. Do you ree-*
*Frère Jacques. This is PÉpite. Reception is poor, over.*
*Underst- PÉpite. Over n- out.*
There was a loud banging on the side of her cabin. Marie reached for the small hatch to her side. When she opened it, she was greeted by Uncle Henry’s mutilated face that was just centimeters away. Two Segnailse soldiers stood by his side, while he held a decorative mace over his shoulder.
“Oui, Lieutenant?”
“Pépite will hold the third position together with Ariel,” he instructed. “You will not fire unless I give the order. Compris?”
“Oui, Lieutenant”
The officer spun around and lifted his mace into the air. “Formez le Rangs!” he cried. How he managed to scream like that without lips was a mystery to her.
Minutes later, the heat within the cabin rose as PÉpite struggled with the climb up the weathered road. Dry inside, Marie stared across the swarm of lights, emitted by chest lanterns and bomb collars, dancing in the darkness between the tree’s shadows that swayed about like waking flames. Oriflamme marched ahead of the column. Ariel was way at the back, along with some of the Senegalese tirailleurs. Somewhere down this road was an advanced platoon scouting out the situation, whatever it was.
The rain subsided by the time they encountered a signpost pointing them in the right direction. Marie couldn’t read their destination’s name. Neither did it matter. The moment they were done, their train would leave this place, never to return again.
As the road’s incline decreased, straight-edged silhouettes of the buildings in the distance stood in slight contrast to the angry sky above. When the column entered the town proper, PÉpite slowed down as the trooper’s lights spread through the street. There was little Marie could do apart from advancing through the narrow town street.
A sudden flash lit up the roofs ahead! The burst of light was followed by the sound of a gunshot that reverberated between the townhouses. Another flash. Gunshots cutting through the night made the men surrounding Marie scatter and seek cover wherever they could, lining up their guns in the direction of the unseen threat. Marie squinted her eyes, but all she could see were bright bursts from behind the townhouses.
Suddenly, a building’s roof collapsed, its silhouette appearing to tilt on its side as if it sunk into a cloud of dust. There were distant shouts, but the rain and the chassis engines droned them out.
Meanwhile, Uncle Henry was walking in between the soldiers, shouting orders all the while. Then he turned to face Marie and ordered her to move forward with a swing of his mace.
By the time the whole group advanced, the flashes had stopped. Either those in front disengaged or…
Uncle Henry’s mace shimmered in the light as he swung it overhead. It was an order to Ariel, but also a warning to everyone else. Marie closed her eyes, and when she opened them, slowly, Ariels” search lamps illuminated the town streets brighter than the sun.
They were near the town square, with a simple angular moment adored with Saint-Mary at its center. A typical French rural town, like the one she grew up in. Mortar brick townhouses with irregularly shaped foundations. Stores and stalls whose wares were wasted away in the rain. In front of a collapsed cart lay the eaten remains of a horse carcass.
Beyond the square was the churchyard surrounded by an old boundary. Then there was the small medieval church. Gothic is style mostly, but she recognized the monolithic stones in the wall right away. This was a repurposed pagan site. She had seen such a place twice before. And neither of them were welcoming.
Meanwhile, the searchlights scanned the ancient building and focused on a wide gash inside the church wall.
Marie collapsed PÉpete’s tusk-like blades on the front to prevent the machine from toppling as she instinctively brought her weapons to bear toward the breach.
The penal troops held their weapons at the ready while standing in a chevron-shaped formation, ignorant of what waited for them beyond the reach of the light.
The rain had finally gone, and Marie could finally see clearly. But Uncle Henry didn’t seem pleased at all as he looked up at the sky.
“Oi!” cried a tirailleur, exploring the graveyard. Marie recognized him, though she didn’t know his name. A fearless one, covered in a layer of ritual scars, reached down. When he rose up, he held something in his hand. It was a severed arm.
“Put that down!” bellowed the Lieutenant.
There was another cry. Two troopers came running from one of the ruins soon after, screaming. ‘they’re coming!”
“You’re the last?” Uncle Henry asked the men who were catching their breath.
“there were just so many of them,” one of them explained. “And then the house collapsed.”
Without saying another word, Uncle Henry produced his dreaded ‘controller’: a handheld console with an array of switches. He began flipping them seemingly at random.
In her mind, Marie started to count. As she reached ten, an array of explosions wents in on the other side of the church. That was the sound of the dead men’s guillotines going off. A flip of a switch was all it took.
There were strange hissing barks in the distance followed by throaty gulping noise that sounded like a dog drinking from a pool.
Marie shifted uneasily in her chair. Something was coming.
“Attention!”
The men assumed their formation when a creature resembling an emaciated furless canine walked into the light, unfazed by its intensity. Bony protrusions stuck out of its back. Its beak-shaped jaws contained needle teeth pointing outward, and eyes bulged out of its shrimp-like head like jet-black beads.
“tirailleurs! Fire!” cried Uncle Henry.
Four sharpshooters fired a volley at the creature. It seemed effective. After being struck, the beast made a death spasm before dropping on its side.
Marie observed it all intensely. Most of the Outsiders they encountered were, fortunately, from flesh and blood like this one. Still, she was worried. Maybe this was a remarkably stupid breed, but usually, animals didn’t sacrifice themselves like that. unless…
The sound of the alien’s persistent growling encroached on them. It wasn’t long before more of the things emerged along the ridge, and some even on the houses, using their hand-like paws to climb the roofs. This was… Unusual behavior.
As the creatures closed in, Uncle Henry signaled Oriflamme. At a moment’s notice, the machine doused the ruins in the left flank with a jet of flame. The rubble was set alight. Any of the creatures not caught in the inferno scattered. But moments they formed up in new packs and started at the legionaries. The horde was frenzied now and stormed forward with animalistic rage, or jumped down from the roofs on top of the men.
That was the moment Marie waited for. Uncle Henry swung his mace in a downward motion, and Marie squeezed the triggers. Like so many gas propelled rockets her mitrailleuses send a constant stream of grapeshot into the horde. The hail of phosphorus projectiles cut up the swarm like the devil’s paintbrush, shredding the creatures apart by the bunch.
Through the trails of smoke, Marie saw the flashes of the guns and the shapes of men fighting with monsters. She was safe. It seemed unfair to be surrounded by people fighting for their lives while she waited idly for the next order. But that is how these operations went.
As the smoke dissipated, the creature's numbers were greatly reduced. Some of the beasts fled leaving faint trails of smoke as the phosphorus shrapnel burned into their hides. The wounds didn’t seem like much, but it caused them enough discomfort so these Outsiders could either be shot or, or get their skulls bashed in by a legionary’s weapon of choice.
She caught sight of the young legionnaire that Paulus had pointed out, looking aghast at one of the beasts at his feet. So, he survived.
It appeared to be a short engagement. Strange. They encountered swarms before, but usually, Outsiders don’t attack in groups like this. They needed to be hunted, and only attacked when threatened, or hungry. Maybe this was an unusually aggressive species. But she figured it didn’t matter. It would be entirely different creatures next time. Now, the rubble was either on fire or covered in smoking carcasses. There was an occasional shot, or a trooper would strike one of the horrific carcasses just to be sure. It was over.
And yet, something about the situation felt wrong. Breathing in the heavy air, Marie wiped the sweat off her forehead while awaiting orders. “Mon, Dieu…” It was hot. She reached for the drinking tube and sucked on the straw. Even the water was warm.
Folding back the straw tube, Marie noticed a strange shimmer above the illuminated ruins, like a mirror reflection of the flames. She moved closer to the glass, just to be sure it wasn’t caused by the drops of water on her window. But then Marie spotted a piece of stone resting on its corner at an angle that seemed physically impossible as if some invisible force was holding it in place. Skeptical, she squinted her eyes. Maybe she just missed something?
Suddenly, the rock moved, tilting slightly further on its side.
Her whole body tensed up, and Marie squeezed the triggers.
As her weapons started to roar, troopers fled in all directions as Marie sent a volley of shrapnel into the ruin.
“Ha-alt!” screamed the lieutenant as he smashed his mace aggressively on the chassis.
As if released from a spell, Marie let go of the triggers.
"stupid broad, what did I tell you?” screamed Uncle Henry, swaying his mace in anger.
“I saw something,” she muttered, scanning the cloud while dust stuck to the wet glass.
“You what?”
“It is invisible!” she cried.
He looked over his shoulder at the cloud covering the ruins.
There was some weird movement in the smoke before the wind blew it away.
“Lieutenant!” said a trooper as he stared at a small streak of smoke that seemed to smolder off something suspended in mid-air. Carefully, he thrust his bayonet toward it.
“What the-”
Suddenly, the man was lifted off his feet and got flung through the air.
An enormous serpentine creature burst from the debris, though its shape and size could only be deduced from the amount of dust and rubble it moved aside with its considerable mass. But Mary could make out parts of the rudimentary wing-like appendages emitting smoke due to the sulfurous shrapnel lodged inside them.
Oriflamme propelled two waving jets of flame in its general direction while backing away with awkward motions. The pilot panicked, lighting the men in front of her on fire as well as the beast.
The inferno revealed the beast’s overall shape. That of some dragon from legend. As the flames danced on its skin, it lunged at Oriflamme, spreading its jaws like an angry crocodile.
"shoot it!” cried Uncle Henry. But Marie froze as the serpent wrapped itself around Oriflamme with such force, it lifted the chassis of the ground as its legs buckled.
He slammed his mace against the cabin again. ‘shoot! Shoot! Or I’ll have your head.”
It was just enough to wake from her trance and squeeze the triggers.
A hail of sulfurous grapeshot was unleashed inside the creature.
Oriflamme burst into flames, trapping the monster in the blazing inferno that covered the whole of its body. The beast rose up on its hind legs, swaying its arms around and cried toward the heavens while spreading its wings and releasing phosphorus vapors. Like a living torch twisting in torment, it illuminated the whole of the town, before toppling over and crashing into a row of houses just beside PÉpite.
“Keep firing!” she heard Uncle Henry scream over the gunfire and the abysmal hissing from the creature. “Keep firing!”
Mary squeezed the trigger again, but as she heard the senseless clicking of spend mechanisms. “I”m out…” Marie froze, sensing there was nothing she could do.
Suddenly a trooper in front was knocked aside. Before she could even contemplate what happened, the glass in front of her shattered, and PÉpite was knocked over. As the machine tilted she felt weightless until the machine hit the ground, and her head collided with the ceiling.
As her mind drifted back into reality, the air was permeated with the stench of burning rubber and napalm. Pain irradiating from a gash in the left side of the scalp gave the impression her skull was cracked open, and she couldn’t move her arms as she lay on the cobblestones, shivering in the rain.
“Lieutenant! She’s awake!” Somebody cried out.
She managed to open her right eye. The other one, she wasn’t sure. She seemed to have lost a tooth as well.
Uncle Henry looked down on her with disdain, but didn’t say anything. “Biene,” he muttered thoughtfully. ‘take her back to the train. I’ll deal with her later.”
Eventually, Marie was lifted off the ground on a stretcher. As she tried to move her hand, there was no response. She tried to shift her foot. No reaction. She wanted to sit up straight to see what happened to her body. But all she could do was stare at the sky where she saw something drift above the trees. Something that was observing them. Something not of this world glowing faintly like a marsh light.

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