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The Crawling Smoke

by Charlotte Allen 4 months ago in Adventure
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A Night's Ride through Mayhem

Through endless shafts of darkness flickered a green beam of light. It was cloaked in a mist thicker than a filthy pond. Bars enclosed the narrow windows in the roof, obstructing the view and allowing the night’s icy breath to spew frost down into the dark, rambling chamber. Cages crouched in the shadows, streaked with inky, black fluid that refused to dry in the saturated air. It left the floor cold and wet. Plus it reeked of the prisoner’s nerves that had erupted from their lurching stomaches onto the rust-covered plates.

Evidently, it had not been a smooth ride for everyone.

Two Handlers absorbed jostling movements of the compartment, dressed in the mechanical hazard suits with the glowing rings around their arms that flashed their red call numbers. They needed them since there were no visible faces behind those helmets, removing the identity of the being underneath the bulky uniforms. Incoherent warbles squelched from their Comms., hissing with fluctuating static. The signals were breaking the further the tram rolled into the unknown, piercing the hungry mist.

Carson had gazed into the darkness that night and fell into a temporary stasis. Something terrible was out there, drawing him to look. It petrified his nerves and erased the events of the last few days. He lay in a cold sweat amidst the metal box, staring through the grate without consciousness thought until the paralysis finally wore off. While he shivered so violently he could feel his bones rattling, he managed to peel himself from the vibrating floor.

One of the radios crunched to life, the message broken and inaudible. The Handler leaned into their Comm., “MH290, repeat transmission.” More scrambled messages. He repeated more urgently, “MH290, repeat transmission!”

With no response, the other remarked in a flat tone, “Dead patches. Probably front rider’s warning about more UME’s. If our scouts catch them, then it's a bigger payday for us.”

“What if there’re not Crawlers? What if there’s a swarm of Stingers out there? Or a Crusher? Remember MH185? Those drills…boring into him.”

“Better for us,” she said amidst a chuckle. “A Crusher would fill fourteen containers of Hemofuel by itself. One major score.”

“You want to watch as she tears you inside out? Hardly seems worth it.”

“Sacrifices for a big payload,” she said dismissively. Her mask turned towards the row of cages along one wall of the compartment, “Anyway, we have enough meat-bags on board just in case.”

Carson tried to make sense of things. Not only was he a captive on this transport, but the transport itself was an unwelcome guest in a territory swarmed by predators. Even now he could hear the distorted growls echoing in the distance, looming somewhere in the fog. Getting closer with every heartbeat. They must not have been happy to have guests tonight. Or, they were excited to have a fresh meal being delivered right to their doorstep.

It was haltingly quiet for far too long, save for the whirr of the grinding wheels on the tracks and the eerie screech of the coupling rods bending under the weight of the massive, plated freight cars.

A hand sprang from the adjoining cage, ensnaring his forearm. Carson’s pulse stopped dead. Their skin glistened and was marred by a web of pink scars that ran up the length of a an arm. Attached to the mangled limb was a woman, with sharp eyes encircled by dark edges and claw marks dragged from forehead to jaw in two jagged lines. The dim light played with menacing shadows on her bony face as she whispered through the bars.

“Just Penelope. I told you to watch out for the eye, C,” she warned pointing towards her own. “Its the left one that leaves you cold. Stiff. That’s how she gets you.”

“Hey!” called one of the Handlers, pulling the ElectroStaff from their back. Every one of their steps clanged with the weight of the MHS. When he halted at the girl’s cage he struck the gate with the end of the staff. Arcs of red projected from the electrified tip, raining sparks down all around them. They darted against the wall to avoid being seared. The Handler gave the cage door a few taps for good measure. “Shut it!”

There was a loud pounding on the door from the next car, drawing the Handler instinctively to the lock. Carson watched carefully as the guard deactivated the lock with a keycard he had tucked in a breast sleeve. Once the lock turned from red to green, the metal door slid open with a slice. Another pair of Handlers marched in, bringing with them tendrils of icy frost that settled over the ground in a layer of white film.

“Eight,” the guard who came in announced. The man in the cell before Carson’s scrambled to the back wall. The Handlers moved in on the cage, using the keycard on the mechanism. The man began struggling as soon as they grabbed hold of him, kicking and lashing out with every limb. In their MHS’s, they were practically invulnerable. They zapped him once with the ElectroStaff, sending him into aimless convulsions. The man wriggled like a worm as they dragged him out. All the way he cried out in protest, begging for his life. It was the sound of a wounded animal, being prepared for slaughter.

The door slammed and the crying stopped. The first eight cages were empty. Four were left. There was no telling how long before they returned for another captive.

When the radio started again, Penelope leaned against the bars and motioned for Carson to come closer until he felt the vapor from her breath on his face. “They’ll come for you next, C. You’ll have to slip me the keycard so I can come snag you.” His gut twisted into knots. He still was unsure of what was going on. How could he even accomplish what she asked? “We’re getting off this transport. I won’t let them have you juiced like the others.”

The door slid open at the end of the car again. No announcement, just determined steps thumping down the corridor. The Handlers came face to face with Carson in his cell, looking down with that misshapen armor of black mesh blocking out the light.

One turned to the other, “No one said we brought in a Rover. Thought we took care of those guys.”

“He’s the last one,” the other started. “Tried escaping. Got stupefied by one of the big ones.”

“Unlucky moron.”

They laughed. “Speaking of unlucky,” he remarked with a chuckle. The pair moved to the next cage and peered inside. Penelope shrank herself to stay out of sight to no avail. There was nowhere to hide on this freighter. The duo leaned against the bars.

“So this is where she’s been?” The two Handlers shared another low chuckle. “Don’t suppose our friends’ll mind rearranging the order of appetizers?”

One of them slipped out their card, completely bypassing Carson. Instead, he deactivated the lock on Penelope’s cell.

Carson lunged forward in an act of determination, but was met by the blast of the ElectroStaff. He pressed a blistered palm against his forearm which had taken the brunt of the minor burns, gritting his teeth to keep from screaming. He could not stop them from dragging Penelope from the cage. She gave him a subtle glance when they went by his cell and collapsed full weight, letting her hands limply fall like a rag doll’s past their breast pocket without them noticing. The slickness of the oily floor gave the keycard a softer landing, making barely a sound. Once they pulled her back into the upright position, she went quietly through the compartment door.

He had little time to save Penelope. There was no telling how many compartments they would traverse or how long the process took. So he acted fast, keeping as quiet as a rat so as not to attract the attention of the guards. Of course, once the door to his cage opened, they would notice exactly what he was doing.

Pressing himself to the dank floor, he reached his hand through the bars of his cell, until he felt the keycard graze his fingertips. He scooted it soundlessly into his palm and retracted his arm back into the confines of the cell. While he waited for an opportunity, something strange was taking place outside.

It was a deep groan of metal gears, much louder than the train’s inner workings could produce. The sound reverberated overhead in pulsating waves, more like the roar of a large animal stalking its prey. Carson shuddered as it sharpened, making it seem that the thing was waiting just outside those narrow windows. Then a clamp banged against the roof of the car. Something heavy landed on the metal plating, making a sizable dent. The force loosened the bolts in the grates and shot pinprick-sized holes through the ceiling, letting in streaks of flashing green light. Carson only caught a glimpse of the metal body as it crawled over the small openings. They were too small to reveal anything but rotating joints that spat more oil and steam down into the compartment. Razor-sharp claws that ripped through steel like the train was made of toothpaste.

“What was that?”

The other replied uncertainly, “I…er…scouts have it under control.” She tried using the radio to send a transmission but the signal screeched with warbled feedback indicating that something on the other end had gone haywire.

Carson moved quickly, slipping the keycard through the lock. As soon as the lock deactivated and the cage door swung open, the Handlers caught on to the scheme.

Both pulled their weapons in a synchronized motion and charged forward with the electricity already bursting in red forks. When the first one came within striking distance, he took a large step back before kicking the cage door further outwards. It whipped across the corridor, slamming into the Handler’s staff that was level with his helmet. It only startled him for a moment, but was enough for Carson to wrestle for the staff. Once he had it, he jabbed the end in the one spot left exposed by the MHS. At the nape of the neck. He twitched and flopped on the floor, sizzling with red lightning. Not dead, but certainly not enjoying it.

The other guard was in the midst of attempting to transmit, “MH290, fodder is free in holding area 7. Dispatch agents to subdue,” she repeated. She stood between Carson and the door. Fighting her would only waste time, but he had no other choice. Even with one of their weapons, they were heavily armored and he was still dazed from his night in paralysis.

Rather than charging into a one on one tussle, disoriented and ill-equipped, Carson concocted the only idea that would come to him. Keeping an eye fixed on the obstacle, he slunk backwards, going until he was beside the second to last cage. Inside was another captive, his eyes wide and ravenous. In one motion he deactivated his lock and opened the door. The man bounded out like a hungry dog, looking every which way for an escape. When the captive locked focus with the guard, he darted forward in a blur of flailing attacks, ready to strike anything that moved.

The Handler poked him in the side with the staff. Judging by the dozens of burns all over his body, it barely fazed him. Although it repelled him enough, granting her time to wait for the weapon to recharge itself to full power. Meanwhile, Carson unlocked the last cage. The captive in the last cell waisted no time. She charged with a savage scream in full sprint towards the Handler. The captive took hold of the weapon and attempted to rip it from the guard’s hands, but instead was pushed away by a forceful kick to the abdomen. Once the staff was at full power, the Handler ran towards Carson.

There remained two ways out of this prison car. The door and the ceiling grate that had been loosened by the impact of the unidentified mechanical entity. The guard blocked the door, and by her persistence would not simply let him pass. And the exit through the roof led into an unknown void, deeper into the den of beasts.

She quickly surpassed the line of a dozen cages, ready to thrust the staff at his chest. Instinct set in, and with little contemplation, he beat the the lighted end of the ElectroStaff against the ground. It created an expanding pool of red electricity between them, spreading out towards the Handler’s feet. At the last possible millisecond, she through herself over the pool. With the weight of the armor and the wobbliness of the train, it caught her off balance and sent her tumbling past him through the slippery sludge.

It gave him a split seconds to use his dead staff to bang on the weakened ceiling grate, blasting it out to be swiped away by the powerful, icy winds outside. The captives looked between the open grate and the Handler trying to get back to her feet.

“Come on!” Carson insisted with a wave. Pulling himself through the slight opening with every ounce of strength, he helped hoist the others onto the roof as the night wind bit clean to his bones. The frost felt like a thousand sharp needles cutting through the flesh. They all had to use at least one appendage to shield their eyes while using the other three for balance on the misshapen freight.

The captives began inching their way towards the back of the transport, where a dozen more cars snaked into the void of smoke puffed out by the massive locomotive. But Carson had to save Penelope, who had been taken in the other direction. So he turned and slunk hand over hand along roof’s spine to where he hoped would be a solid plan to rescue her.

“Your grave,” one of the captive’s rasped in warning before she and the other prisoner faded into the darkness. Only their small outlines were visible now.

A green beam suddenly pierced through the fog, radiating from the tail of the winding transport. The sight of it caused Carson to stop, though the freed captives forged onward. The light bobbed five cars away in the thick of the murk, where reality vanished into oblivion and a spindly giant barely emerged into existence. With it came the crashing of steel joints, its very steps ripping plates from their bolts, letting them fly into the rocky wasteland beyond the tracks. Though he could not quite determine the shape, the mere shadow of it made the captives appear like rodents in its wake. They retreated as soon as they witnessed the commotion but were too slow to escape. It leapt like a panther from the fifth car to the fourth where its clamps cut clean through the roof. The captives had only reached the third car and were desperately close to the second, but the beast had more in its arsenal. From behind its body, a contraption of gears and rotating joints formed a twelve foot tail, fixed with three blades at its end like a scorpion’s stinger. When the blades flexed, the tail whipped outwards and slammed into the side of the third car with so much power that it not only caused the two screaming captives to spiral into certain doom, but it severed the connectors from both ends of the car, separating one half of the train from the other.

Carson scrambled to the edge of the roof, keeping his head and body low. He hastily slid down the ladder and landed in an uneven stance on the rickety fall plate. With a rocky jump, he crossed without slipping to a gruesome fate on the tracks, torn apart by the chugging rods and wheels. He used the keycard to open the next door, seeing darkness inside. Once the door locked itself behind him, it was not as frigid, though just as dank and full of dread.

There were no Handlers waiting, no cages. Instead, there were mountains of cubed containers piled from floor to ceiling with scant space between to squeeze through. The units were so numerous they blocked most of the upper grates, leaving the car in a state of pitch blackness save for fractals of dull atmosphere that guided his passage. He could just make out the labels on all the containers. They were filled with a glowing, red liquid and marked with the word Hemofuel. The Handler mentioned that earlier before hauling that first prisoner away to his death.

Muffled voices rang out beyond the exit. Carson froze, unable to do anything but wait in a tight, uncompromising space.

“Scouts said they saw a Crusher tonight.”

“Shouldn’t we abort the delivery?” one asked with a tone quaking with nerves. “We’re twenty MH units down after deposing the Enforcer’s and her men.”

“No…,” the other answered, their words faltering. “We’ll just gather all the other meat-bags for feeding time. That’s what they’re for anyway…Right?”

Once the exit opened, Carson did the only thing that sense would provide him and barreled forward without restraint, shoving the first person to come through the door. The Handler crashed into her companion, launching him off of the fall plate and onto the tracks. In a flash, he was sucked under the belly of the train and disappeared with his silenced cry of alarm. The other swiveled on her feet as well but regained balance in time to dodge the swing from the ElectroStaff.

Carson’s jaw crunched when she punched him with an armored fist. The blow dispatched him back into the towers of crates which started falling along the length of the car. Unfortunately for the Handler, she was pummeled beneath a tidal wave of heavy cubes that buried her deep beneath them.

He climbed over the fallen stacks and out onto the platform, ready to open the next lock. But when the door opened, another guard lay in wait for him and snatched the keycard out of his grasp.

“Tickets please,” she said, tucking the card away.

Her weapon had been chewed in half by something and was spewing the most ineffective amount of energy. Hardly enough to do any damage, which worked in Carson’s favor. The one he had stolen had already recharged, though it was quickly running out of juice. He had maybe three more in the reserves and did not want to use them if not necessary. He aimed it towards the Handler. Surprisingly, she raised her hands and took several steps back into the unit of storage where she had emerged.

“Listen, Rover,” she began saying. “I’m not trying to detain you. I just need to get off this transport before things get worse.”

“They’re worse,” Carson pointed out, knowing greater dangers remained.

“Right.” She continued backing up. “I was on board with overthrowing Geyser. The Enforcer rushed the operations far too often. But these morons managed to antagonize a Crusher without the proper means to capture or kill it. Now the transport is doomed. Maybe..” She stopped once her back was pinned against the wall, letting the point of the staff get dangerously close to the screen of her helmet. With slow movements, she pressed the button that unhooked the headpiece from the rest of the MHS and removed it entirely. One of her eyes glowed orange, surrounded by a steel plate embedded in her temple. “I can help.”

“I don’t believe you want to help,” he decided easily. “You’re a Handler.”

“I don’t want to,” she replied bluntly. “But everyone else is either being juiced or bound to die a horrible death. I need you. And, much as you might hate this, you’re going to need me.”

Carson weighed the options and settled on the least of the bleak choices. He lowered the weapon, but left it tightly in his hand. The Handler smiled and refastened her helmet before motioning for him to follow. They made their way out of the storage car, balancing on the intermittent platform. The next railcar was much heftier than the ones before, expanding past the width of the tracks. The electric sign on the back of the unit read “Warning: Processing Center” with a red light flashing above it to indicate that a transfusion was in progress.

Unlike the freight cars before, this one was compartmentalized into concealed rooms with solid walls running the length of each individual chamber except the middle where there were grates providing slight visibility into the dark sections.

“Keep low,” she suggested. “They’ll freak if they see you.”

“More Handlers?”

She whispered as they crouched in the middle of the expansive hallway. “Crawlers.”

Right on cue, a whining echoed on the other side of the wall. A cyborg no larger than a dog had the processor on its back wired to one of those Hemofuel containers. It rested while the flowing liquid was drawn from its back and drained into the cube at an agonizingly slow speed.

The Handler sounded disgusted, “Its one of the sickest things I’ve ever seen.”

He scoffed, “Not the most?”

She replied, “Nope. The twisted part is seeing people fed to those living batteries. Like coal being shoveled into a starving furnace.”

“You’re the ones holding the shovel,” he pointed out.

“Wrong,” she corrected. “Geyser is—was—the one holding it. If they did things Selene’s way, they’d leave the messy part to the buyers.”

“Can’t see how your way is any different,” he noted. “Maybe you should rethink your career path if you really want to keep a clear conscience.”

The conversation was interrupted by a rumbling up above. The whole railcar began to rock back and forth, titling this way and that under an invisible force. The Crawlers began reeling as their wiring began to malfunction. Some sprang leaks while others were ripped right out of the containers. The fluid sprayed in all directions, dousing the pair in a shower of scalding Hemofuel. It smelt just as foul as one would expect. A combined stench of warm, iron-rich blood and the inner acids from the UME’s filters. The brunt of it washed over Selene, so much that it powered down her MHS and doused her helmet in an opaque sheet of scarlet. No longer able to see, she ripped the helmet off and wove through the chaos, eventually making it to the other end. The rocking eventually ceased, but the heaviness remained present on the roof. Carson could see the sprays of green light filtering through the mist. It was passing over them now.

“Don’t look up!” Carson called, remembering the source of his initial state of delirium.

Selene lowered her head as she fumbled for the keycard. Meanwhile, Carson wormed through the thick sludge to meet her. Every time the green light passed, he froze in hopes that the eye would detect no motion and thus would continue onward. While the glow pierced through the grates, flecks of oil bathed him in a blanket of black ooze. Still he remained flat and unmoving. He could hear the drills spinning in the creature’s mouth, the swoosh of its lethal tail. It never attacked, but it never left either. There was no other route of escape save for the slim chance once Selene had the door deactivated.

She nearly lost it in the violent stirrings but was able to slide it through. Once the door started to open, Carson leapt up from the ground and made a break for the exit. The creature roared, tearing the entire roof into pieces. The pair forced their way across the platforms before it could grab them. Selene used the keycard once more and the two dove to temporary safety.

It was not what either had expected to find.

This was the feeding ground, according to the sign. Yet, there were no machines. Only a gigantic cage that had been smashed to pieces and binds that were torn asunder. In the middle was a pile of MH units, dragged from one spot or another and deposited in the open where they would be easy pickings for the Crusher. It was the final car before the cab, but it was the worst place to be now that the beast was loose.

Carson had even more of a sinking feeling, knowing he had been too late to save Penelope. Without memory of the previous day, it was the only thing keeping him focused, something he needed to do to survive the night. Hesitantly, he approached the pile of unconscious bodies, wondering if she had been one of them. But since he could not see anything but mechanized suits, he assumed the worst had happened.

“Let’s just get to the cab,” Selene suggested. “Best chance is to cut the engine from the rest and speed on out of here before…well.”

They exited the final door and made it to the cab, where there was nothing but a console and monitor showing scrambled images of an endless night displayed in the front. All they needed to do was break this car off from the rest of the train and hope it saved them from the fate of the others poor souls.

“Just pull the purple switch twice to detach,” she instructed.

As his fingers wrapped around the handle, he heard the cab door sliding open. He turned to see a wide-eyed Selene flinch as bright arcs encased her torso. She toppled over, stunned, and ceased moving all together. ‘

Penelope stood behind where the Handler had fallen, both hands equipped with a sizzling staff. “Mindless,” she sneered.

Carson forwent the questions of how she managed not to be juiced or incapacitated. Instead he informed, “She was trying to help us escape.”

“No,” she responded, “She wanted to get rid of my cargo. I really did want to help you, C. Even though your people are the ones who created these monsters all those years ago,” she assured. “But everyone else betrayed me. So you were really my only hope. But, if you pull that switch, I’ll be ruined.”

“What are you on about?”

“My business profits off of your past mistakes,” she stated affirmatively. “I thought you and I could benefit from each other once again. But I need my Hemofuel intact.”

“Its too late, Geyser,” Carson admitted.

“It is too late,” the former Enforcer said. “For you.”

She darted forward but was stopped when a crash broke through the roof. The plates collapsed in on themselves and sent all parties flying into the walls of the cab.

There it was. Now in full view. Greasy scales, jagged blades, and all. Its body took up the width of the cab, most of it still poking out of the top. Carson ducked when the green beam went straight for him, narrowly missing being struck by one of the clamps. He hit it once with the ElectroStaff and waited for it to charge before hitting it again. The blows stunned the beast momentarily, making him angrier and the angrier. The drills in his mouth spun in agitated circles, waiting to chomp down on something in vengeance. When it readied it final charge, he thrust it upwards, as deep as he could into the glowing eye. It sputtered and sprayed, partially blind.

Penelope thought to take the opportunity to stab it in its processor, but that only made it mad again. Before she could evade it, the Crusher scooped her up and launched her into the air. She shrieked as it leapt up after her and gobbled her up in one grinding swoop.

While it swallowed the Enforcer back on the roof, Carson pulled the unconscious Selene closer to the console, which was out from under the massive gash in the ceiling. Now that the Crusher was on the roof, detaching would do absolutely nothing. But he had just one more terrible idea to execute, lest they be eaten like Geyser.

He reached past the purple switch and instead clutched the red. The one that would force the transport to a screeching halt. If it did to the monster what he hoped it would, they might be able to not only escape it, but destroy it. Taking a deep breath, he waited for the sound of his clamps to get as close the the front of the cab as possible. On the monitor, he could see it level its bladed tail at the feed, prepared to skewer the driver with a piercing blow.

He pulled the switch.

Every wheel, every piston, and every rod screamed as the powerful locomotive came to abrupt stop. However, it didn’t really stop. Only slowed, fire rocketing from under the wheels with the momentum still carrying it forward. The suddenness of the maneuver launched the Crusher from the roof of the cab, sending it bounce down the tracks in fracturing pieces. It roiled once it finally came to a stop somewhere in the distance, its tail getting stuck under the tracks.

Perhaps people could fill its belly. Geyser used them to make bank. But they could not destroy it by themselves. The creature would never know what had hit her. The Crusher would never realize that, in the end, it had been beaten by a much bigger beast.

Carson braced himself as the freight rammed at speed into what had been left of the Crusher, watching on the monitor as it exploded into a thousand shards of shrapnel and scales. When it was completely annihilated, and the train came to a full stop, the monitor went blank, and all that remained was the ghostly sound of the night and the smell of smoke.


About the author

Charlotte Allen

I love adventure, fantasy, mystery, and romance. I love to explore life and ideas through books and stories.

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