Two weeks later…
The high-pitched screeching of the wheels seceded as the train came to a standstill. The doors opened, and the ramps landed with a thud in the grass.
Like quiet mice, the penal troops disembarked in a forest. After being stuck inside the sweltering carriage for a godly amount of hours, it felt good to feel the breeze on their skin again. But an eerie tranquility was encroaching upon them when they were forming up inside the trees’ shadows, while a stench akin to that of freshly fertilized fields overwhelmed their senses.
Paulus glanced at the shriveled leaves dangling from the branches like unwashed mops. It wasn’t the only thing disturbing thing about the forest. Despite it being a clear spring morning, in the distance between the trees, darkness stretched across the undergrowth like a shroud, as if something unseen was blocking the light.
“Mist,” one suggested optimistically.
“That’s no mist I’ve ever seen,” Paulus muttered, refraining from breathing the nauseating smell through his nose.
The tirailleurs came by with a box filled with protective masks to slit among the convicts. Paulus, however, was not impressed by the canvas sacks attached to an external filter through a hose. Still, the air sucked in through the filter was more accessible to breathe than the thick miasma.
The ground beneath Guesclin’s feet sunk in the dead grass as he approached the army camp accompanied by two Senegalese tirailleurs. Soldiers, wearing gas masks shaped like medieval visors, watched him as they passed rows chaval de frise wounds in barbed wire. After crossing a bridge spanning the trench surrounding the outpost, the Lieutenant walked up to the square pavilion amidst the rows of wedge tents. With permission of the guards, entered its interior, where two officers are studying a map spread across a large table. On the grid, various posts were marked, and nondescript pins were placed around the perimeter of a red circle. Recognizing the superior officer, Guesclin saluted. “Capitaine La Croix?”
Put off by the Lieutenant’s appearance, the officer responded. “C’est moi.”
“Lt. Guesclin. We are present, Capitaine. What’s the situation? It smells like a latrine.”
“I regret to say you are not wrong. It- The smell has been encroaching on us for days now.”
“How many, and how long have they been here?”
He reluctantly raised his eyebrows and pointed out the pins on the map. “Eyewitnesses spotted just one beast at any given time. The first sightings were about seven weeks ago. We have been here for about three. Unfortunately, we don’t have better information because our scouts have not returned-.”
“Seven weeks?” Guesclin said, surprised. That was far too long for a creature not to perish due to the effects of travelers’ disease.
“I apologize,” said the Capitaine missing the importance of Guesclin’s statement. “But once we got the order, we deployed with all haste.”
“Oui, never mind. What is this creature you are containing?”
He straighted his back and spoke word for word. “We are not sure. The latest witness described it as a walking dead tree. ”
“A dead tree that is walking.”
“Ah... It has legs?”
“He did not explain how he did, unfortunately. I apologize. Maybe I should have used the word moving,” he apologized. “This witness was a civilian. Any attempts by our own men to find it… Well. None of our reconnaissance reported back. Other civilians have not been accounted for.”
Guesclin nodded. “Very well. I’ll send out our own scout.”
The Capitaine glanced at his with suspicion. “You think you convicts can do better, lieutenant?”
Guesclin already knew where this was going. “My volunteers operate specialized equipment that Europe’s regular armies are not allowed to use,” he answered tactfully. “As a matter of fact, our new lady’s fashion needs a trial run.”
On the track’s bank, the convicts were sitting beside a turret-mounted train carriage. Paulus noticed how Leon eyed the new hanger carriage that came with the last reinforcement. Due to its unusual width, the carriage was somewhat funnel-shaped, indicating that whatever type of machine was in there was of unusual size.
“What do you think is in there?” Pondered Leon out loud.
Paulus puckered his lips. “Marie’s new funeral dress.”
Leon’s interest was piqued. “Her CB? Have you seen it?”
“Non. But I’m sure it the same dark science that rose her from the dead.”
“I heard she had a spine replacement,” said Leon.
“Too bad they didn’t replace her brain.”
One of the tirailleurs stepped up to them. “I told you to be quiet,” he bellowed. Their eyes grew wider when they recognized Sergent Comba. Behind his back, the convicts called him, The Black Bear not just because of his considerable physic that matched Paulus’, or his prowess as a soldier. It was that broad deceptive smile of his that, just like a bear’s docile expression, hid the man’s cunning and love for violence that inspired fear - even in his fellow tirailleurs. Paulus tried not the flinch when Sergent’s wide smile exposed his big white teeth. “What seems to be eating you today? Is the weather not to your liking?”
The two convincing looked at the withering leaves hanging from the branches. Leon compressed his lips into a bitter smile. “Just can’t wait to make the sacrifice for king and country, monsieur.”
Comba started to laugh heartedly. “You get your chance. What’s your name?”
His smile faded into a frown of regret. “Leon Trompette, monsieur.”
“Trompette!” Comba repeated, amused, and laughed again. “No wonder you’re so noisy.” But before he could berate Leon even more, he looked up, and the convicts followed his gaze. It was Lt. Guesclin marching up to the train. And his gaze looked as foul as the air surrounding him.
Inside hanger Trois, Toinette was sitting on an empty oil drum observing Emile, the mechanic. He was working on a small console lodged inside Pépite’s exterior, usually concealed by a secured hatch. Despite doing little more than plugging and unplugging wires, wet strands of dark hair stuck to the mechanic’s forehead. There was some attraction about his focused expression as he glanced back and forth between the console and the device he was holding. The mechanical dials of its numeric display rattled every time he moved the plug from one socket to another. She had no idea what those numbers meant. Just that somehow related to that strange analytical engine called Hugo standing in the middle of the carriage.
When Emile noticed her staring, Toinette immediately focused her attention elsewhere.
The mechanic cleared his throat. “You’re ready for your first mission with Pépite?”
“Barely got any time in this machine,” Toinette said.
“It should be fine. You have a powerful engine.”
“For a machine twice its weight.” She sighed. “Starting up Pépite was like getting kicked out of the hanger by a mule!”
“We decreased the torque as much as possible,” Emile said.
“Is that what you have been doing between her legs?” she asked jokingly.
Emile smirked. “What can I say? She is a demanding madame.”
“What about her previous pilot?”
“Marie?”He pouted his lips. “She is all bark, to be honest.”
“Oh.” Toinette leaned forward. “So, is Pépite ready?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I’m just keeping busy, really.”
“Well, if you want to keep busy.” Smiling, Toinette leaned back, shoulders raised, and moved her legs apart. “I could use some service too…” she whispered. “You know, before I have to leave.”
“Are you sure?”
“I might never come back again.”
After some brief hesitation, Emile laid down his tools. Toinette breathed in the warm air that tasted of oil and gasoline as he came closer and observed his hands touching her knees. His gaze moved across her body with an intense expression. “Why don’t you look under the hood,” she whispered.
He just smiled nervously.
Licking her lips, she breathed in more profoundly as his large fingers moved across her inner thighs toward her groin. Just as he was about to shift her underwear, the door on the other side of Pépite burst open.
Abruptly, the two had pretended to be occupied with other things, as Guesclin bellowed. “I have a mission for you.”
Toinette rose to attention as he marched toward them. “Qui, Lieutenant!”
“You are going into the woods,” he said, spreading a map across a drawing board. “This is an impression of the area. Don’t advance too far and put that periscope to use. The moment you locate it, you call in the extermination team.”
She blinked sheepishly. “Locate what, monsieur?”
Only the maimed part of his face was visible in the twilight as he looked at her sideways. “An undead tree, apparently.”
Before Toinette even got the opportunity to question what he had just said, he continued instructing. And so, Toinette climbed inside of Pépite wearing just her underwear, joint protectors, and a new model padded helmet with built-in headphones.
As Toinette ignited the engine, Pépite sputtered in protest. But then its engine began to roar, and its hydrophilic came to life while the carriage ramp folded down. Donning her goggles and rebreather, Toinette squinted her eyes against the daylight. Carefully, she pushed both control levers forward and prepared for impact.
Toinette got forced back into her chair as Pépite dashed down the train ramp and ran into the forest’s undergrowth. Even on softer ground, she struggled to control the machine that felt like an excited dog who couldn’t wait to explore its new surroundings. And yet, Toinette forced herself to maintain speed to make it look natural.
Since the moment Toinette had met Pépite’s original pilot, Toinette felt Marie’s presence like that of a scorned lover who got jealous whenever she was together with this machine. “Bitch,” muttered Toinette to herself while searching for the light switch. “I’m sure you would have known where it was. But what do you have to complain about.” Toinette continued muttering to herself. “You have a new CB built just for you. It can’t be worse than this hunk of junk. Darn it! What is wrong with this lever!” she growled as she shifted gears. “There’s just no pleasing some people.”
The machine followed the dirt trail leading deeper into the forest. The moist earth clotted up beneath Pépite’s feet as it advanced down the path. Fortunately, the machine decreased its speed accordingly. As Toinette drove further down the trail, she noticed the level of the fog rise. It was almost as if Pépite was walking into a lake. Despite wearing her colored goggles, Toinette got blinded by her own lamps that failed to penetrate the dense mist. There was just fog reflecting the light back at her.
Her anxiety grew worse, as if something was applying pressure to her chest, and breathing through her rebreather became increasingly difficult. Water droplets were rolling down the waxed surface of her view-port as the mist thickened to such an extent she felt as if she had submerged.
Toinette nearly bumped her head when Pépite walked into something, and she pushed the brake. At a dead stop, her heart was racing, and the bomb collar felt like it had grown tighter around her neck. If she didn’t want it to go off, she needed to find that Tree-thing, whatever it was. If only she could see where she was going.
“The periscope!” She reached for the wince of the newly fitted instrument, and turning the crank, the periscope rose, squeaking all the while. She folded down the binocular and pressed her eyes against it. To her amazement, she could see. Gleefully she peered across the surface of the fog that stretched into the distance like a milky sea dotted with a submerged tree. This mist, however, looked thicker than the surface of the sea. “Fuck…” she muttered, peering past the periscope at the front window. All she could see were blurry shadows of trees and indistinguishable objects like on the bottom of a lake.
Slowly turning the periscope clockwise, she was distressed by the trees standing on an incline whilst leaning against each other for support as bustles of leaves were hanging off their branches like spoiled fruit. And yet, there was something rustic about it, like a strange premonition in a dream.
Gasping, she froze as her eyes locked onto movement in the distance. Amidst all that decay, a dark mass floated through the mist. With macabre curiosity, Toinette followed its course when suddenly, she bummed her brows against the binocular. She reached for the controls in a panic as her chassis tilted forward.
Pépite’s legs were failing!
When she jerked the levers back, there was a cringe-inducing creaking of metal. The front window was about to kiss the putrid mud when she realized it wasn’t broken legs. Pépite was sinking! The engine roared in protest as Toinette jerked the levers toward her. She could feel the ground shift beneath Pépite’s hind claws as he tried to fall back. Clueless on what was happening, sweat ran into her eyes as she pulled with all her might. The engine screamed, and the legs screeched like the breaks on a train. There was nothing she could do other than hold on to those controls and wait for something to change.
Toinette pressed her nose against the glass.
Just past the precipice of her viewport, root-like tendrils crawl across the armor, exploring ways to entrap Pépite.
The machine wouldn’t budge when engaged in this tug of war. But Toinette was too scared to move, fearing she might lose the advantage. Her mind raced as the rising temperature made breathing harder in the smoldering cabin.
Then, the ground beneath Pépite shifted, and the fog was stirring. Toinette gasped when a shadow rose up from the ground before her. It looked like the roots of a toppling tree being torn from the ground, and swiftly the mass of tendrils lunged at her.
Scared out of her wits, Toinette pulled the triggers of her mitrailleuses. The guns spewed beams of light that sheared through the trails of smoke, shattering on impact and creating corrosive clouds of phosphor. The creature reeled back as phosphor did its job. Encouraged, thinking Toinette squeezed the trigger, but the guns had run dry.
The moment the barrage seized, the mass exploded into a burst of tendrils, engulfing the chassis until it blocked the daylight.
Like worms, slimy feelers crawled across the window while the chassis was pushed and pulled from all directions. Paralyzed, Toinette swayed from left to right in her chair while the cabin’s temperature soared.
This is it, she thought. She was going to perish inside her coffin. This, she always had considered that being the faith of all CB pilots. She just hoped her death would have been quick and painless rather than having to experience the anticipation of the inevitable.
But then, just as she was about to give in and fall asleep in the sweltering heat, a burst of whooshing roars made the air tremble. Then, a series of explosions.
With a jolt, the tendrils recoiled. Toinette could feel tentacles snap as the fog swallowed them whole.
The engine sputtered as Pépite tore its feet from the ground. She was free to move again, be she was walking with a limp that tossed Toinette back and forth with every step.
As Pepité walked backward, Toinette's heart pounded as she peered through the fog.
There, in the miasma, she saw an orange light dancing among the trees. It seemed to be a candle flame, but she couldn’t imagine how that was possible.
The low droning sound of a heavy engine approached.
Pépite, finally free from the tendrils’ grip, turned about. A massive shape appeared from the right side. A CB, black as night, unlike any she had seen before. Its flank looked like a grave monument waltzed through the mist, dark blue gun smoke floating about it as if trapped inside its gravity.
Toinette nearly jumped off her chair as machine gun bursts, mounted underneath its chin, lit up the surrounding fog. Despite the violence, the machine moved Fluidly—organic, even like a massive animal encased inside a metal shell.
Toinette just watched the machine pass until it disappeared in the mist like a specter.
Troopers, wearing masks resembling cloth sacks, ran towards the view-port and waved at her. “Oi! Are you alright in there?”
Sweat ran down Toinette’s skin as she struggled to breathe. She wanted out. Out of this tempestuous shell. Out of this life even, free of this dry guillotine that was choking her.
“Oi! Can you see where that thing is going?”
The tears at the corners of her eyes congealed with sweat while her mind drew a blank.