Updated: May 11
I have been working on writing 150-word blurbs every day to tease future stories and add new content overall in preparation for a potential project. So, instead, here is a draft of a new book I am working on. This is the third chapter. You can check out part two here.
Two days later…
Laying on the table, Marie was looking straight into the silver eyes of the sickly man hovering over her. “You better not screw this up,” she warned the creep whose chest feelers were exploring her body.
One of Petiot’s small limbs that clung to his chest folded out like a typewriter key and pointed a needle at her neck. “Miss Pelican. Screwing things is exactly what I do here… I’m going to put you under now. This is your last chance to object.”
“That’s what they said when I volunteered to become a pilot.”
“You must have a wonderful track record of good decisions.”
“It doesn’t matter what I choose. I always get screwed over somehow…”
“Aren’t you a bundle of joy?”
“Please, forgive mademoiselle,” said Warton, standing inside Cesare's shadow. “She had little to distract herself with the past few weeks.”
“Let’s get this over with,” Muttered Marie. Her pupils grew when Petiot inserted the needle into her veins. Warton watched how the syringe’s liquid disappeared inside Marie’s body. Suspiciously, she glanced at the ominous vat on the table beside the gurney.
“Cesare. Get her ready,” said the Constructor, attaching an array of sharp implements to his auxiliary arms. Warton jumped aside as the assistant came into action. He carelessly removed the blanket that covered Marie’s nakedness and proceeded to turn the small woman on her belly. With measured movements, he disinfected her back and marked the incision areas as if these were beef cuts.
In the meantime, one of the mechanical arms attached to the ceiling reached inside the mysterious vat and submerged its claw into the liquid inside. Warton’s eyes grew larger when the claw reemerged. The blue gel seeped down the metal as a mechanical vertebra was lifted from the canister like a rabbit being pulled out of a hat.
“You’ll replace the whole spine?” asked Warton, astonished.
“It's less work than augmenting faulty biological components…” Petoit replied. “Any objections?”
She swallowed and shook her head. “Non.”
Buzzing like a swarm of bees, the arms above the table came to life and hovered over the patient like a predator about to strike at its prey. Warton faced away as the arm equipped with the scalpel lunged at Marie's back to cut across the length of the spine with the same apathy a butcher would cut into a carcass.
“What I am wondering, Elisabeth,” said Petiot while operating. “Why the sudden change of heart?”
“In your case, that could be considered a threat,” responded Warton, still looking away.
“Fair enough… At first, you took this treatment in stride. Now you are taking the whole procedure rather light-hearted. What happened?”
“I considered it and believe this to be in the best interest of the patient,” she answered while a saw blade started to spin.
“You are hiding something from me,” Petiot said. “I do not like that. It was the reason I had to escape my brothers and sisters.”
In the meantime, the steel of the blade made contact with the bone. “It does not concern you, Constructor. It’s between me and my conscious.”
He lowered his head. “Very well... Your presence is not required. I will monitor the patient until I deem she is ready to return. It will be a while.”
Warton grid her teeth as a buzzing of the blades persists. “I’m sure she is in good hands.”
A few weeks later…
On a clear day, from the ramparts of Little Guinea, a dark smokestack could be seen crossing the Ilé de Ré bridge that spanned the Gulf of Biscay. A clandestine military transport raced past the harbor of La Rochelle on its approach to the military prison.
Inside, a cool breeze spread the sea’s scent through the train carriage when a female prisoner was standing on her toes to peek through the small slit that let in the air. A strip of light was projected across her face as she assessed their destination and smiled optimistically. The isle adjacent to the blue sea looked pretty—nothing like the uncultivated coast of Guinea or the plain harbor of La Havre.
“Soubirous! Get down!” cried one of the Senegalese tirailleurs passing her cage.
Caught off guard, Toinette nearly tumbled as she jumped off her bunk and clumsily stood at attention.
The black soldier in a Zouave uniform, with baggy marine trousers, just gave her a disapproving glare and addressed all the convicts within the prison carriage. “All of you! Get dressed and gather your kit.”
As Toinette gathered her few belongings in a sack, the woman in the cage beside her’s leaned closer to the bars. “What did ya see?” she asked in a rural accent.
“It looks like an island. It has a pretty beach.”
“Grand,” she grumbled, stuffing her belongings in a sack. “More sand.”
“At least we are back in France.”
“Oh yeah,” grumbled Bernadotte tying up. “The last pilots sent here only left a few months before we did.”
Bernadotte dropped the sack on her mattress and turned to face the door. “Never mind.”
The high-pitched screech of the engaging breaks announced their imminent arrival, and all the prisoners grabbed hold of the bars till the train came to a shrieking standstill.
Then, nothing happened. The doors didn’t open. No guard told them what to do next, making the prisoners restless as their usual disembarking routine was interrupted. “What’s going on?” Toinette asked. But before anyone could answer, the carriage door closest to Toinette’s cage opened. To her astonishment, soldiers dressed in regular red and blue uniforms entered. She had never seen regulars around the train before. Neither did they appear pleased to be here, as they looked at the convicts with disdain while holding their noses. Especially the officer with a thin, well-waxed mustache looked around, frowning his lips, and didn’t hide being disgusted with the smell.
Toinette looked down, careful not to draw attention as the three of them, accompanied by a Zouave, walked by.
When the officer looked her in the eyes, Toinette flinched despite herself.
“This one!” commanded the officer.
The Zouave walked up to the cage and unlocked the door to let the regulars in.
Toinette backed away as they entered. They were close enough for Toinette to smell as the officer pointed at her small bag. “Open it,” he sneered.
Toinette protested. “We already checked-“
“Shut up and open the sack!” he snapped and slowly turned his gaze to the Zouave. “We would like to know if anyone would have given you gifts.”
Toinette did as she was told and left the open bag on her bunk.
The soldier picked it up and spilled the contents on the blankets. With disdain, he sifted through her belongings. [finds something]
Unsatisfied, he left everything scattered on her bed, and the three left off to search two other cages before leaving the carriage.
“What was that about?” asked Toinette.
“They were reminding us of our place,” said Bernadotte. “Just be grateful they are not burying us beneath your pretty beach.”
Ten minutes later, the prisoners finally got to step outside and form up in two columns on a concrete terminal supported by thick steel beams and fist-sized rivets.
Toinette felt the touch of the sun for the first time in days as they shuffled down the steps toward the red brick fort, whose most prominent features were a few windows and the bird-dropping covered parapet. Everything else was but brick surfaces at shallow angles. The beach could be overseen from a circular outer wall, but there were no guns defending it. The side facing inland was defended by an older star fort structure, whose wreathed gun emplacements appeared to be in disuse. Toinette figured this was just a prison then. A fort built for a different age of warfare repurposed to suit the present in ways that were not intended.
Above the entrance gate, an embossed shield displayed the coat of arms of the Empire; A Imperial golden eagle standing on a thunderbolt on an azure shield, surrounded by Napoleon’s imperial mantle, and two crossed wands concealed beneath. One adorned with the royal scepter and the other with the Hand of Justice. Justice… As she passed the gate, Toinette pondered if that word meant anything to her and how it applied to her current predicament.
As they marched into the courtyard, the fort’s insides looked alike to the exterior. To Toinette’s right were four curved canvas hangers that also served as tunnels to the train terminal. A means of escape was her first thought. But then she felt the sweat forming beneath her bomb collar. Not to mention, the only way to get off the aisle was a train bridge. Bernadotte might have a point about being buried beneath the beach. But Toinette could imagine worse burial places.
After the roll call, the new arrivals were allowed to mingle with the other inmates, except for the women who were laid away by the tirailleurs.
Paulus was playing backgammon with Leon. Leaning over the board with his hands clasped together, Paulus assessed the newcomers critically. They looked like mangy dogs that had been locked up to long. He could only hope the sunlight would do them good… But would they be useful?
Leon hailed one of the arrivals who still was getting used to walking again. A pale man with droopy melancholy eyes - Possibly due to alcohol withdrawal. “Oi. Are you our reinforcements? Do you have any experience?”
The pale man moved his arms awkwardly. “Uhm. I went into the bush once. I saw an Outsider then.”
He looked at Leon, who subtly shook his head. “So, what’s the news from Cayenne?”
“Nothing good… Ah- Are you all that’s left of the battalion?”
“We got some wounded in the wards… Not that they’ll be of much use. Suppose their sentences will be suspended soon. Lucky bastards.”
“You sure they are lucky?” asked the pale man.
“What do you mean?”
He pointed out another prisoner. A man with a somewhat impish face and big nose. “Isaïe over there came back to Cayenne.”
“Is-“ Paulus rose to his feet and looked over the heads of the other prisoners until he saw a familiar face. “Yo! Isaïe!”
The prisoner looked up in surprise.
“Connard!” cried Paulus. “What are you doing here?”
The prisoner shrugged as he came closer. “What can I say, Paulus? I missed you all.”
“Come here,” Paulus said, waving his massive arm. “Did they arrest you again?”
“Well, I kinda wanted to… I-I ‘ve been here for years. I didn’t know what to do.”
“What are you? Stupid? You were out.”
“I know… It's just that. I know what to expect when I am here. I tried, you know. I really did! I just didn’t… Every time I tried a job, they would ask where I had been these years. How I lost my finger,” he said, holding up his hand that missed a pink. “Every moment I had to keep my lies straight. More and more of them every day... And I’ve been away too long.”
“Too long, how? In the legion.”
“Non… Oui! I mean. France is not the same anymore. The last war changed things. In the north, I mean…”
The other prisoners looked at each other. “Well, don’t keep us in suspense. What do you mean?”
He looked about skittishly and whispered. “You know the feeling? The one you get when you encounter large groups of Outsiders. You know. That sense that you are sleepwalking. Like this is not reality.”
The others glanced at each other again. “Oui…”
“Yeah… That is what the North feels like now. Met a lot of Germans too. Said they had to flee Lorraine due to monsters.”
Isaïe shook his head. “They don’t know the word. There is an exclusion zone there now. Since ‘71, I heard.”
“You think that’s because of a rift?”
“Like I said. I felt that same feeling.”
The next day, as the Médicine entered the secluded ward of the west wing she found Marie passing through the room like a restless child with her arms crossed, wearing an improvised shirt that only covered her chest, thus revealing the pink scar tissue covering her vertebra. More unsettling was the array of sockets in the back of her neck that clearly gave the patient great discomfort as she contorted her neck excessively.
“It’s good to see you’re walking again.”
She stopped to look at her. “What choice do I have,” she muttered. “The bloody itching is driving me mad. And the Creep says I can’t scratch.”
“Well, what did you expect?”
“I dunno. You’re the doctor.”
“I have no idea how any of your new body parts work, Marie. Please don’t tell me you haven’t considered that?”
“Just… Just… Where is Pepité?” she asked like a child who lost her doll.
“My chassis! Where is it?”
Outside, Bernadotte and Toinette were joined by Tiana as they observed the vehicles in the hangers being assembled by the mechanics.
“So, you just operate the lights then,” Bernadotte asked Tiana.
“So what? Sometimes the spotlight actually burns Outsiders. Especially underground.”
Toinette looked at the red chassis assigned to her. The CB looked rather small, and its armor was no thicker than a car’s. These models were supposed to fit in a train cart, but this one looked that fragile; she wondered what the point was.
Then, beside the CBs, stood a caterpillar tractor called ‘Croc’ whose box-shaped appearance was nothing to write home about. With its wedge-shaped nose at an obtuse angle, it looked like an upturned clothing iron with caterpillar tracks. But it had mounts for either two small grenade launchers or light machine guns, currently absent for obvious reasons.
“Isn’t that the same one as in Cayenne?” asked Toinette.
Bernadotte nodded. “They built a new model better suited to the climate over there. Or so they told me.”
“Is there anything wrong with this one?”
“Other than that, they build it too wide to turn properly, and the transmission suffers because of that, it's fine.”
Their conversation got interrupted. “I don’t think you ladies are supposed to be here,” cried a loud voice from beneath the caterpillar tractor.
“Why is that?” asked Bernadotte, crossing her arms. “Are you afraid you might be stuck down there looking at us?”
A macchiato mechanic’s head appeared from beneath the vehicle, his already dark face smeared with grease. “Keep talking like that, and we just might.”
“I’m more interested in her than you,” she said, hinting at the tractor.
“So, am have to be honest. Never got to work on suspensions like these before.”
Crossing her arms, Bernadette lifted her boson. “Have you now?”
“What about this chassis?” interrupted Toinette climbing Pépite. “She looks… Light.”
Emile got up. “We were told to make her lighter and install the new periscope.”
“So… I’m a scout now?”
“Means you stay out of danger,” Bernadotte remarked.
“What about weapons?” asked Toinette.
The mechanic pointed out the four guns lodged inside the armor plates. “It kept the Mitrialeuse… The bullets also have more propellant for range, but are also larger.”
Toinette rolled her eyes. “Grand.”
Bernadotte walked toward the other chassis fitted with floodlights, Ariel. “So… If Pépite is a reconnaissance chassis. That last one has lights, and I operate that caterpillar tractor. What about the heavy support?”
“Hé, you. Get the fuck off!” cried an angry woman from across the square.
Toinette froze as a woman of small stature came pacing toward her with violence in her eyes, despite her sickly appearance. Toinette immediately jumped off the machine and screamed at the mechanic. “Emile! What have you done with Pépite?”
Bernadette rubbed her brown. “Oh, merde. Where did she come from?” she grumbled. “Allo, Marie. Why don’t you greet us by saying hi.”
The small woman froze and looked to her side. “Bernadotte! What are you doing here?”
Bernadotte sighed. “Well, you clearly haven’t gotten any brighter. And where is your collar?”
Marie stepped back en responded defensively. “None of your damn business.”
Bernadette started to circle Marie. “What’s that in your neck?”
Clumsily Marie covered the socket up with her hand. “Nothing…”
“Just show me, you dumb broad.”
“Non. Don’t touch me.”
“Enough!” bellowed the low voice of Guesclin across the yard. “Marie! That one ain’t yours anymore.”
Marie stamped her feet. “Why the fuck not?”
“Come here!” he snapped, pointing at that ground. “You are to valuable to flog but don’t think I won’t find a way to punish you for insubordination.”
“Wh- What do you mean to that?”
“Come here, you dumb bitch!”
The rest watched on in silence as Guesclin dragged her off to the last hanger, whose contents were obscured.
“What’s in there?” asked Bernadotte.
Her face contracted in a petty frown, Marie followed the Lieutenant to the hanger. After detaching the padlock, he held the door open, saying. “You are still in your medical grab, and already you managed to aggravate me.”
“You try laying bed for two months!” she rebuked him.
After grabbing her by the chin, he squeezed her checks together. “I don’t know if that’s true or the fact you’ve been doped up all that time. That attitude ends now!” he threatened. “Do we really have to go through the acclimation process like we did the first time?”
The convict shook her head to the best of her ability.
He let go of her. “Bien. Now, shut up. If you give me more lip, I’ll cut them off and keep them. Got that?”
She nodded hastily.
When leading her inside the dark barracks, he flipped a switch.
Marie squinted her eyes as the bulbs hanging from the rafters lit up a vehicle covered up by an oil-stained canvas. The machine was larger than Pépite, but its shape was sleeker, like a feline.
Guesclin grabbed the cloth with both hands and pulled away the heavy cover.
Marie scanned the surface of the machine as it was revealed. A black Chassis d’Bataille whose exterior was covered by a fiber mesh, unlike the cast steel of Pépite. The CB also had two weapon systems, unlike the CB’s; Two large mitrailleuse on either side of the cockpit and a ball-shaped turret with two barrels hanging down the nose.
Guesclin didn’t comment, preferring to observe her reaction to this new machine.
“It’s big,” was all Marie could say.
“You learned to operate BC’s almost the same size.”
“Why don’t you give it to the new girl? I know Pépite and how it works. She might as well learn how to use this one.”
“Because you are the only one who can,” Guesclin said, pointing at his neck.
Marie reached for the sockets in the back of her skull. “W-Why? What about them?”
I hope you enjoyed this installment of the Casket Girls which I am currently writing. Bound for the Styx should be done mid-May, and Anwin! is being proofread. New AoI stream on Radio Retrofuture this Sunday Want to be involved? Meet other Steampunks, History- and fellow Indy-Writers enthusiasts? Join our Discord.
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