3. Pest Control

Ms. Rosemary brushed one steel thumb under her nose and looked at the oily black that oozed over the metal with a dissatisfied grunt. Her reinforced frame had shrugged off the impact of flying off of the tracks more or less intact. It had taken her some time to peel away the twisted rail cars that strived so very hard to be her tomb. At first all she could do was stare at the distant battle raging and be sullen because it kept opening ground between it and her. Now things had ground to a halt. No, that wasn’t exactly right. The fight still raged between fantastical warmachine and simple train – including all the living creatures both carried. It looked so very much like ants making war with one another while two larger insects murdered one another – to be more accurate like a praying mantis doing in a fat caterpillar.

“Tch.” The Irishwoman tested her legs before starting off at a jog. She was as strong as a team of oxen, but lacked the speed of Ms. Thyme. Still, it didn’t look like this skirmish was going to be over anytime soon. With any luck she’d make it over and save the day. Her boots bit deep into the decayed ground. So sparse was the vegetation that there was nothing to hold the dirt in place, thus each step kicked up a small plum of grey. What grass there was held a sickly parlor, even the rocks looked brittle despite having survived for eons. There was no animal life to speak off as she stalked along. In fact if it wasn’t for the ring of deadly conflict she’d have a feeling that the land around her would be as silent as any tomb. It made her shudder and brought the Lords’ Prayer from her lips. If only she had a harpoon left this would be easier, though nothing was going to save this mission for being a total cockup. If Sage was here… She shook her ginger head and tried to push such thoughts away. For now the focus needed to be on the fight. With a ripple of determination she redoubled her efforts and broke into a full sprint. No doubt if Ms. Parsley caught glimpse of her she’d make a joke about a mad bull on the hoof. That brought a smirk to the brawler’s fine lips.

She vaulted her way up and then over an outcropping of rock instead of wasting time to go around it. Her oversized gloves creaked as she pushed herself harder, propelling off the side more simian than woman. Ms. Rosemary hit the ground with a grunt. The Vermin Engine recoiled as a bevy of brave men placed mortars into its belly. The smoke from so many guns firing on every side cast a haze across the titantic brawl. And she was missing out. The ginger hissed and picked up a fist-sized, for her, stone, and let it go with all her might at the machine. It fell short, but by how far she didn’t know.

“So much fer lobbin’ rocks at it. Tch. It would think I was tryin’ ta flirt anyhoo.”

Ms. Rosemary ran as fast as she could in her blasted skirts, but didn’t ponder for one moment that she should tear them. To her horror the battle was still going on as she had neared. Most of the squishy humans, and things near human, had disembarked and were trying to kill one another in the sickly fields on either side. Above it all was the sanguine glow from the warmachine’s face. One of its arms dangled limp, little more than scrap metal now. The other was digging through the engine of the doughboy’s train. She muttered a prayer for Harper, but didn’t have to worry if the coachman had made it out okay. It was time to do what she did best, bust some heads.

As the beautiful brute thundered into combat she founded it easier to tell the difference between friend and foe than she expected. The conscripts weren’t clad like soldiers of the Crown, but she didn’t start swinging with indifference. These were human beings and her blows were meant to disarm, incapacitate, instead of slay. An arm would be broken here by a punch, her glove would snatch a rifle and crush it between fingers. She shattered legs, coshed men to unconsciousness. Alas both sides were too busy murdering one another for her to stem that tide. The Irishwoman whipped her head about to try and spot a commander driving the emaciated troopers on. There wasn’t much success in that regard, but she did spy Captain Redgrave amid the fury. The gynoid shifted the direction of her offensive and plowed through any formorian scum in her way.

She took hold of a conscript by the back of his neck just was the blighter was about to hurl a grenade at Basil. The man whimpered as he was ripped from the ground, and tossed high in the air. He exploded before he ever reached the zenith. Ms Rosemary scowled and tried not to think on that sight. Instead she kicked another enemy out of the way before hopping over a hunk of rail car metal the captain and his men were using as an impromptu barricade.

“Ms. Rosemary, glad you made it back. You are just in time for tea.” The Scot cracked off a shot with his rifle and jerked on the bolt action. A dangerous target from afar with a heavier weapon fell, but it gave one of the lightly armed thugs time to make it over twisted metal. Basil stepped forward and smashed the man right in the gasmask with the reinforced butt of the rifle. When the soldier feel Redgrave gave him a good kick in the gut too. “Rory, shore up that flank of yours damn it!”

“I shoulda brought biscuits, t’en.” The becoming brawler lifted up the man Basil had just beaten down with two hands and threw him into the next wave. As expected all of those struck toppled over. She snorted and moved to adjust some of the discarded metal with her great strength. The stronger command point the captain had, the better.

“It would’a been lady like, aye.” He teased her and fell back several steps to reload his rifle. In between Basil glanced up to survey the situation. Which was all chaos—the true nature of battle. “Thank you for the assist though, Rosie.”

“My pleasure, Captain. Dun suppose ye’ve seen me sisters?” Ms. Rosemary peered toward the thrashing war-machine. She already knew the answer in her coiled copper and crystal heart. Basil followed her gaze, mutely nodded. That was the last time she’d seen him. His gaze shifted downwards, and he shoulder the rifle once more. The man’s jaw set. It took another moment before she noticed the squad of redcaps plowing their way through conscripts for their position. “Least they think yer a valuable target.”

“I know I’m a bloody valuable asset. I don’t suppose you can keep them off our backs. We need a rallying point.” Basil puffed a stray bang away from his eye. After he gently squeezed the trigger across the way one of the mechanical fairy’s crimson core exploded. The redcap went inert, but its companions relentlessly continued. In unison the shock troops lifted their flat blades and wide forearms to shield that delicate target. “Look alive lads, we’ve got caps to kill. Stop dwaddling with these peasants now! Hathaway, lay down some suppressive fire on the left there. That’s a good man.”

“Well they be between me ‘n where I need ta be, Captain. Carry on.” She saluted Ms. Parsley’s paramour before vaulting back over the barricade. As she landed Ms. Rosemary shattered on man’s floating ribs with a kick, then swept her arm wide. Several other emaciated soldiers went flying. The rest spread away from her. A crooked grin set on her pretty lips. Now she had a straight line for the Redcaps.

The shapely scrapper veered off to the far right of the fairy squad and full-bore tackled the redcap there. The two of them tumbled away from the mass of constructs, but they all turned to assault the Thistle Sister instead of their intended targets. Such was what the woman had intended. She didn’t take time to pat herself on the back, rather her fists rained down swiftly until her victim’s black-iron head was smashed flat. Once the droid went slack she rolled away, taking the fiend’s great sword with her. Despite the fact the weapon was little more than a sharpened hunk of iron which had more in common with a battle-wagon’s armor plates than a sword, she easily held it in one hand.

“Well what’r ye waitin’ fer ya bleeding white lilies?” She snarled, knowing full well that the automatons broached no hesitation. Neither did Ms. Rosemary. The Irishwoman threw herself headlong at her adversaries. The stolen sword battered away the first redcap’s blade. She drove in close, plunging her fist into its chest. Once massive-steel clad fingers wrapped around the hellstone at the center she crushed and yanked away. Just in time, too as the next two brutes brought their weapons down to where she had been. With the pair over extended she took her opening and hurled her weapon into the chest of one. The other stumbled forward and checked her hard with an elbow. Ms. Rosemary grunted as she was hurled way with a snap of skirts and flow of red locks. She didn’t stay down. As soon as she hit the ground the pretty pugilist dragged a human corpse into her hands as she stood. The meaty weapon did little more than splatter off of the redcap as is charged forward with the last of its brethren behind. The explosion of gore, as impolite as it was, clogged the fairy’s vision and bought her precious moments.

Ms. Rosemary ducked low and sprung forward. She put the gentle round of one shoulder against the redcap’s knees, wrapped her arms around, and heaved. The most unladylike grunt spilled from her lips, but the gynoid lifted the droid off of the ground. She surged forward and deposited it, quite harshly, in its fellow just behind. The two redcaps went down in a jumble, but they were not out. She pounced into the pile of grinding metal and decapitated one in short order. It took several stomps of one boot to cave in the chest of the other. Back at the rally point the lad’s cheered, but soon fell back into fighting for their lives.

With the way clear the ginger brushed her hair back, tried not to take stock of her clothes. They were better than they usually ended up. She hefted up two over-sized blades and twisted left and right. Her iron-boned corset groaned, but did not give under the stain. Ms. Rosemary marched toward the thrashing Vermin-Engine. She settled her new weapons across her shoulders and smirked in a grave fashion. “Don’t worry, sisters. I’m coming.”

Ms. Thyme felt a fresh pulse of worry. It was not a common emotion, then again she was the sort of woman feelings were foreign too. Her leggy sister had been lost somewhere in a tumbling torrent of the dead. She had managed to kick the beautiful one in her perfect jaw and sent the woman bouncing across the infernal contraptions back. Thus the vain and her hellstone bauble were far separated from one another. The swordswoman’s internal gyroscopes and remarkable reflexes helped her keep her balance as the machine she rode thrashed about.

Alas Stag’s Head had managed to find his footing too. As the Vermin Engine drove away from the crippled train under a hail of what cannons remained the formorian slid swiftly across the car the two dueled in. Sparks skidded up from his black-metal soles, electric fury pulsed from the axe he gripped. As expected Ms. Thyme vaulted over the savage blow, twisting with all the grace of an acrobat. Her vibrating blade skidded off of the vulgar angles of one of his pauldrons. Stag’s Head tried to catch her with a vicious backswing, but the sudden shifting of their battlefield elegantly carried her out of reach once more. The Vermin Engine keened with insanity and continued its flight. Fleeing conscripts were crushed under its trampling bulk. A shell whizzed between the two fighters. Green eyes narrowed. Jaundice ones reflected the sentiment. Alien strength and mechanical grace had come to a stalemate. The pair of warriors started at one another, readied their weapons for another pass.

The Vermin Engine twisted again, changing the angle of its stance. The mad machine abruptly decided retreat was not an option and churned up the ground as it skittered back toward its prey. As the titian charged already mangled train the last of the soldiers on it were fleeing. Their still smoldering artillery was abandoned at Harper’s orders. It felt odd having a civilian in commend, but at least he as making the right decisions. They moved directly into the fighting, providing the boost Captain Redgrave needed to firmly turn the fight in mankind’s favor. At any rate all of the infantry combatants moved away from the thrashing vehicle. It was safer to battle to the death elsewhere.

As the Vermin Engine tore into what remained of the train rent metal flew everywhere. Gallons of steaming oil splashed across the grayed landscape like blood. Wheels spun across rocky ground, specks of shattered glass filtered into the air. The sound of utter demolishing even cut off the insane howling of the victorious iron horse.

At the same time it hid the sound of the ongoing engagement on the steel behemoth’s back. Ms. Thyme first broke the stalemate by rushing in with an artful flank. Her follow up with her other sword had scored a flash of fetid blood. However, the half of the axe in turn jostled several of her porcelain teeth loose. Her skin tingled from where the charged axe-head had barely missed its mark. She rolled with another sudden shift in plane and braced her boots against the lip of the car. Her opponent came skidding after and used his momentum to reinforce a heavy two-handed chop. It didn’t land, but sent a cascade of electricity sizzling through the air. It chased after Ms. Thyme’s metal bones, cooking through her clothing and skin to get to it. With a hiss of agitation she sprung away, rolling as cultured flesh bubbled.

Stag’s Head’s wet chortle rolled from under his namesake. Clearly his armor was grounded for the galvanic discharge did nothing to the hulk. The alien neanderthal’s brain finally grasped the proper course of action. He lifted his battle-axe high and repeatedly slammed it down into the blood-smeared floor. The gore did little to dampen electricity as it violently thrashed out in widening circles. His laughter grew louder with each crash.

The blade-mistress subtly frowned. She tried to back away, but even her swift chassis couldn’t outrun Zeus’ fury. Her limbs quite suddenly rebelled and she barely managed to keep hold of her swords. Ms. Thyme felt the urge to collapse as she flailed, but squinted her eyes, gritted what of her teeth remained. Her legs quaked and all she could do to keep her arms still was point them straight down. If the Widow was here there surely would be chastisement on a lack of proper posture. She felt her hair start to friz and long trails of greasy smoke eddied up from her joints. The fomorian bastard kept laughing as he neared, slamming the augmented axe down with each step.

However, the raven-haired girl was not the sort to rely on timely intervention. Even with her eyes feeling like they were fit to boil right out of sockets she carefully gauge the cadence of her adversary’s movements. Her gaze slowly drew downwards to judge the distance. One blade slipped from her grasp as her fingers spread painfully wide before clenching so tight that iron knuckles tore through meat. Her legs bent, by her own accord as she forced them too. Ms. Thyme spun like a prima donna leaping into her stage lover’s arms. Instead she connected her foot against Stag’s Head sternum when the axe was at its zenith. Piston fired. Armor caved. Breastbone cracked. The fomorian went floundering away into the next car. The impact crushed what corpses remained there in a terrible display.

Equally Ms. Thyme was out of commission. Her sensitive systems faltered and she landed in a graceless heap. As before on the beach many months ago she felt a tide of memories wash in as unconsciousness overtook her. Her only hope was to ride the waves it back to wakefulness before her rival regained his half-wits. Her mind swam in numbness before latching onto a vision of Mr. Carson, Harper, Harp. Had he survived the mauling of the troop train?

She was sure that he had. Harper was the most resolute of men, despite being only flesh and bone. OF course, she knew that she could be put back together and threw herself headfirst into danger. However, their coachman was merely mortal and here nevertheless. She had to admit she admired that quality, and was hardly surprised. It had been the same with his father, a general disposition of all seamen – fearless. The depths of the ocean terrified Ms. Thyme. She could fathom facing their wrath, especially with a laugh on one’s lips. The way the water shimmered under the red moon cast it an imitation of a blood as if the Earth itself was bleeding out. The cold spray of brine pattered against her face as the Lioness cut across the waves. As farther predicted she’d not giving into seasickness, but similar sensation teased her stomach, nerves. No. Not nerves. Her innards were convulsing as the last of stolen lightning oozed from her.

Ms. Thyme collided with the lip of her car as the Vermin Engine’s mad rampage continued. She rolled over and grabbed onto the wooden railing. Ugh. The metal wall. The ship was cast about violently was fomorian raiding vessels attacked she thought she was going to be flung over the edge at any moment. Perhaps it would be best to accept fate, slip into frozen waters, and become just one more forgotten face floating in Styx. She knew what the moonmen did to their captives. Better death than such a ghastly… wait. She wasn’t a woman who needed to worry about such things. She was a weapon. She was the master of her own fate. The gynoid slapped her other hand down until she managed to grasp with it too. Firmly grounded Ms. Thyme pulled herself to her feet, and back into reality.

The first thing she did was whip her head around with the lashing of singed black tresses. Where was Stag’s Head? The fleeing formorian was quickly spotted thanks to light glinting off of his deer skull helm. He had the female vain slung over his shoulder and was in full retreat. About half-a-dozen redcaps trailed behind him as an inferior, and unneeded, rear guard. They were running northward, deeper into the gray zone. Despite herself Ms. Thyme was relieved to see him go. She didn’t feel like she was any condition to fight. Her view spun as the war machine lurched once more. Fully in the grip of madness the Vermin Engine thrashed about now, moving away from the infantry in search of fresh mechanical prey. Several miles off what remained of the supply train had come to a halt. It was too tempting for the insect-like juggernaught. The traitors aboard scattered like chaff on the wind.

“Bloody coward.” Ms. Rosemary bellowed as she unsteady tromped her way across link just behind the one on which Ms. Thyme rode. She had lost one of the great-blades chasing the fomorian off, and would have given both of them and her left arm to see that particular monster dead. Now wasn’t the time to pursue such exploits and the Irishwoman knew it. There was bigger fish to fry, and at the moment she was riding on the very black of it. She raised a hand in greeting as she spotted her sister. “Ye look a wee bit worse of wear, Ms. Thyme.”

“I have had better afternoons, that I shall admit.” The swordswoman looked about for her own weapons, soon reclaimed them. By then the beautiful brawler settled beside her, brushed a thumb under her nose.

“Where’s Ms. Parsley?”

“I do apologize, Ms. Rosemary. I have not the foggiest. She lost consciousness very early on in the conflict.” The shortest among them realized she was coming across as cold, but that was too be expected. She shook one arm and sighed in satisfaction. Her joints were in working order despite cosmetic damage. The primal fear of the sea retreated. “I am certain we shall run across her once this is through. For now we need to put this bucking behemoth down.”

“Right. Jus’ point the way n’ I’ll apply the elbow grease as needed.” The redhead nodded, and shifted as the monster violently quaked. It snatched the back of the supply chain and pulled.

“I have enough for the both of us, sister dear.” The quip was deadpan. Ms. Rosemary lifted a brow because she wasn’t sure if their dour sibling had actually made a funny. Ms. Thyme didn’t clarify, but pointed toward the seam the gunwoman had spotted earlier. “I think we shall find the heart which drives this beast in there.”

“Seein’ that’s its head, maybe ye mean brain. Either way, righto.” Ms. Rosemary marched forward, taking the massive blade she had with both hands. She eyed the all-but-hidden door for several long moments as the Vermin Engine swayed. Her ample bosom swelled and emptied several times as she focused, sent a small prayer to the Lord above. Once all the important stuff was done she thrust the blade forward with all of her might, then again. It took that second blow for blade to pierce, and Ms. Rosemary keenly felt each strike’s vibration in her arms. She twisted her lips. Now that she had a foothold she pressed until she got the metal a few inches deeper. Once that was done the ginger changed her grip and stance, used the sword as a lever.

Meanwhile, the armored monster twisted and curled its back ends around what remained of the locomotive like a constrictor with its prey. The grinding of metal proved too loud for the Thistle Sister’s to speak, let along think. Ms. Rosemary put her back into it, gears grinding against artificial gristle. Glass shattered. Supplies turned to pulp, corpses too. Steel twisted into war-born sculpture. Yet the Vermin Engine kept squeezing. The Irishwoman continued to heave and ho. With a hard thunk the door gave way by an inch and then was easily pulled open with a spray of cogs. Sanguine light spilled from shadowed depths.

Ms. Rosemary dropped the sword, settled her hands on her knees, and took in heaving breaths. If she had the capability to sweat she would be. Delicate shoulders rose and fell as she fought for breath she did not really need. “Bugger it all, that’s tighter than a nun’s habit, that is.”

“Really.” Ms. Thyme sighed, but didn’t chide any further. Quite fearlessly she strode into the depths. Her essential oils pooled over knuckles and ran down humming blade. Her sister took hold of the door frame as the Vermin Engine swerved again, pulled herself within.

Neither was prepared for the sight. The Lord’s name all but soundlessly spilled from Ms. Rosemary’s lips in face. The interior of the ‘skull’ was both opulent and horrifying at the same time. Polished plates of silver interlocked with those of cinnabar to cover the circular platform one sat into. Brass railing edged the outside, the interior covered with spiraling links. Both of the warrior women proper themselves against it, surveyed the space wide stairs descended to. The Vermin Engine’s head in shape could be best likened to a serpents, and thus the interior space came across as odd. Tucked into thin corners on either side of the stairs were huge chairs of expensive leather and burnished metal, and behind them sat direct vents pumping cool air. A trio of tall thin mirrors were mounted to either side, with steamer trunks in between. The center of the room was dominated by a round bed piled with virgin wool and fluffy pillows. It too had a solid frame of iron, but was covered with gold leafing and mother of pearl.

Not far off from the decadent pallet, on either side, were mahogany hemisphere tables covered with blue prints, loose gears, springs and struts. Underneath and alongside these benches sat buckets and drawers of further spare parts. There was even a few redcap skulls piled in one. Somewhere had to be a cache of hell-stones. None of these out of places wonders within the sleeper car arrested the girls’ attention for long.

That dubious honor fell to the far all, from where the red-light spread into the room and out through grated windows – the Vermin Engine’s eyes. Obscene instruments were patched together by cables arranged in some arcane patterns as if they had been laid out by a necromancer instead of engineer. It was possible that the Beautiful One was a bit of both. At every important axis of the central control unit hung human skulls. They were hardly decayed, but greatly abused. The conduits were screwed directly into ruptured craniums and spilled back out of unhinged mouths. Each one of them had one eye replaced with a hell-stone. The pulsing moonrocks were larger than the sockets they had been stuffed into, and it looked like they were spreading lattices across pallid skin, growing from putrid sustenance. There were somewhere between twenty and thirty grisly nodes.

Ms. Rosemary crossed herself. “Sweet Mother Mary! Those be the decapitated officers.”

“Among others.” Her characteristic placid nature unbroken Ms. Thyme still hesitated winding deeper into this workshop of horror. The sisters did not know the missing officers from Melrose well, but had seen their pictures. The others could be placed among other servants of the Crown who had gone missing of late – or at least their heads: A naval captain, a famous naturalist, two mathematics professors, and a trio of killer brothers whose heads went missing soon after execution last summer. One could easily guess why the psychopaths had been included, and where the mad instinct to destroy thus erupted.

“Madness.” The redhead breathed out the word without much emphasis.

Ms. Thyme strode down the steps. “By design. I suspect the vain we failed in snuffing out slept and worked here within her masterpiece. Clearly, this SIlverhand we face and his minions are employing tactics similar to Professor Scabious. The brain hooked up to a mechanical horror, a weapon. I would stay this network of multiple pounds of grey matter lends this behemoth its awesome power, instead of steam.”

Her sister followed with a dubious air. Were the Thistle Sisters any better than mad professor’s creations, than this Vermin Engine? Of course, they were kinder on the eyes. However, they were metal revenants that should not be. She bit the side of her lips as to not let such sentiment spill out. Ms. Rosemary was quite sure Ms. Thyme wouldn’t understand. “We need to destroy it.”

“Utterly so, yes. The notes should provide the insight we need to deal with such weapons in the future. I am sure these terrible foes have more atrocities waiting in the wings. First and foremost we must not allow Vetch and his ilk to get their mitts on this.” Ms. Thyme leaned in until she was nose to nose with one cadaver. Up close she noted the socketed rock pulsed with something akin to a heartbeat. “Why did not the sluagh take Colonel Thorne’s head? I can imagine they would have been able to reap quite a few secrets.”

“It musta been sent by other formorians.” One huge gauntlet wrapped around a head and without consideration ripped it free. Ms. Rosemary wondered if she should show more reverence for the dead, but in this case the skull was little more than the guts of an enemy vessel. It pained her to do it but the woman crushed it to a pulp. The Vermin Engine shuddered, howled in unholy agony. Machines shouldn’t feel pain. It knew it was dying. “It was after secret weapon plans our side had drawn up, aye? Ye don’t think they are like this thing, do ya?”

“Mr. Thistle would not allow such, nor would Colonel Thorne.” The humming sword glinted as it struck out, casting another head from its mount. The room around them quaked. Neither faux-woman was worried. “Save, of course, one of them is deceased.”

“I donna think I like where me mind be going.” When Ms. Rosemary pulverized another cranium the back end of the Vermin Engine stopped working, as if its spine had been severed. Neither woman verbally extrapolated what was rolling about in their heads. With the colonel out of the way what would men like Major Vetch do? Worse yet without Roland what would men such as Arthur Thistle do? Ms. Thyme rapidly destroyed one head, then another with a spin of heel and flash of sword. The room shuddered and the most awful grating sound resonated through the interior. Like any stricken beast the war-machine scrapped its remaining appendage against its head, trying to sooth the pain. Surely that was what the vile vessel felt. Perhaps it was a sharp stabbing sinus pain even, it was impossible to tell.

Miles away Harper blew out a heavy breath as he watched the mobile train’s life quickly ebb away. It was like watching a clock wind down, along with a serpent dying at the same time. He was soaked and sweat, his shoulder torn open too. Like many others he’d abandoned their train not a moment too soon and once he had his senses again joined the fray. With the Vermin Engine’s demise, and the lack of formorians in sight, what gusto the conscripts had for combat bled out. In mass they threw down their weapons. About half of those which still had the ability to run did so, southward. The others lifted their hands and prayed for mercy. A few of them met their end by bayonet and bullet before Harper’s order to lay off telegraphed its way through the ranks. Several doughboys muttered, but did as told.

The strong-backed man rubbed at his burnt hand as he went in search of Captain Redgrave. Along the way Harper directed the still mobile troops to start rounding up the prisoners, but treat them light. Even he could tell that they weren’t here by choice, stirred by nationalism, or armed with conviction. Sergeants got to work there, bossing men around with their voices. Harper paused to pull a two aside and told them to pull the medics together. There were too many wounded on both sides. Just as he spotted Basil among a bastion of twisted debris the Vermin Engine collapsed to never rise again. The contraption received such an inelegant end. It went silent without even a final howl. It’s insect like engine laying down slowly against the wastelands to become just one more carcass. No doubt the eggheads back home would want to tear it apart, see what made it tick. Of course they had nothing to get it back on, or themselves.

“That turned out better than usual.” Basil grinned and shoulders his rifle. He waved off a few of his men to help round up prisoners. He didn’t head over to his best friend first, but bend down to check on one of his wounded men. “How are your guts holding up, Moore?”

“Let no man say I have none, Captain.” The aristocratic private grinned in a grim way. He had his hands pressed to his abdomen, self-staunching bandages wadded up against the gash. “I would say that they are on display for all to see. Horribly gauche of me, thank the Lord there are no women present. Oh, I stand corrected. Hello, Mr. Carson.”

At first Harper was too stunned by the maimed man’s quip to respond. Then he belly laughed despite the carnage around him. Private Moore’s dry look continued, but he continued to breath it as well. Leave it to a noble to face death so boldly. “Har. Har. Private. Let’s get the medics to have a gander at you, eh? You’ll survive this with a heroic scar and a promotion no doubt.”

“I am not sure which shall be ever more terrible.” The solider grinned. “Not to worry, sir. I do not plan on dying.”

Few warriors ever did. Basil tried not to think of all the men he’d heard said that, only to write a letter to their surviving kin. Such was the burden of an officer. He prayed that Moore would beat the odds, bit with all the blue blood oozing out it seemed doubtful. He grinned crookedly and turned away, as if he was unworried. “And I do not plan on letting you, private. Right then. To clean up I suppose. First and foremost the wounded and prisoners. You seem to have folks bustling about on that. I’ll find one of the radio operators and see if we can raise command, or someone, to come with a handsome cab or three. It is going to be a long slog back otherwise.”

“Yes, yes it is.” Harper wrinkled his nose as he scanned the landscape. He could only imagine how it tore at the Scot to see his homeland in such a state. The spread carnage of flesh and machine only made it worse. “I hate war.”

“Now you’re talking like a real soldier, Harp. You should get someone to look at your wee cut there.” Basil had come out unscathed, again. He had the devil’s luck to go with his good looks. Basil brushed a hand through his hair. “A’fore I get off to my drudgery, I don’t suppose you’ve spotted the apple of my eye?”

“Ms. Parsley?” The question didn’t really need to be asked. Such was the way of conversion, though. “Not since the girls took the iron centipede by the reins.”

“How poetic.” Moore coughed.

“Don’t encourage him, Private. I’m sure she’s off that way then, finishing off whatever aliens are in that hellish thing.” Basil lifted his chin toward the inert Vermin Engine. He never for an instant assumed that his lady love was laying amidst the heaps of cooling dead. That would be where they would find her in a little over and hour, and the man’s crooked smile would fade. Like any other machine, though, Ms. Parsley would be easy enough to repair. That would be over a week in coming. The captain would be ecstatic with relief, and in both incidents his Scottish blood showing through English exterior. For now, though, he smirked at his best mate and turned away to take the lead. “Don’t want her to see us being lazy sods, now, do we?”

Harper chuckled and got down to business too.

The pallid land drank deep of spilled blood that day, but like a vampire never regained one ounce of color.


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