Monday, December 25, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven: An Angelic Intervention

Though my shattered heart would have had me remain there in the bliss of catatonia, unthinking and unfeeling, for the remainder of my miserable life; still my mind struggled to stir me to action, for I knew that I remained in peril. I knew this, and the truth of it lay all about me, yet for what seemed like a time interminable, it was as if all vitality had left my frame; though reason would have dictated a desperate effort to free myself, and to perhaps take advantage of the distraction of battle to attempt my escape, I could not stir myself to even the slightest movement.

What would it matter if I moved? Father was dead. Hope for rescue was gone.

It was as if, in that moment when Father had been burned from the world, that same fire had torn through my own soul, leaving me empty of all purpose and intention. I was a hollow thing, an empty vessel, a soulless golem whose animating force had left her. I was no more able to move than the now-motionless remains of Amanda beside me.

The thought of Amanda, and the sight of her form, pushed aside and damaged beyond likely possibility of repair, stirred an ember within in me; her care for me since childhood, her selfless sacrifice for my well being, an above all her final words as the Carriage plunged to earth, words that were not simply hers, but that reflected the fundamental duty of every servant of Her Royal Highness.

Was I a servant of any less competence or responsibility? Were the demands upon my person less, or did I as the heir to House Montgomery have a sense of honour that did not rise to the standards set by my childhood nursemaid? Of course not.

And from that thought, that ember within me grew hot and caught, for I was of course no longer simply the heir apparent to all that Father had lived and died for. I was, right now, in all actuality and in the eyes of the Crown, the Countess Montgomery.

I had, with Father’s death, taken on the heavy mantle of the Countess Wexton-Hughes of Montgomery.

The thought put the steel back in my spine, and as the engine of my pride the knowledge of my duty again animating my frame, I lifted my eyes again to regard the door that remained what I imagined to be the sole barrier between myself and my liberty.

My eyes grew wide, for there, peering in with a rapacious sneer, was the narrow, sallow countenance of a Caddiganite soldier.

“Hey!” he cried, in a rough voice. “Lieutenant! We got one a them alive in here!”

“What?” came an answering shout from nearby.

“There’s one a them alive.”

“A bot?” replied yet a third voice. “Gotta watch out for those bots. Stronger than you think.”

The cold blue eyes of the Caddiganite regarded me with a terrible avarice. “Nah. It’s a girl.”

I was, of course, no such thing, for I had not been a girl for years; but I do not think, given my estimation of the vile design underlying the soldiers’ leer, that it would have made a difference had I been barely more than a child.

“Who’s got the crowbar? Get me the crowbar! It looks like I’m gonna get me another girlfriend!” The hunger in the pale face before me was visceral, and cruel laughter followed from what sounded like a dozen voices outside.

I pressed back to the crushed far side of the cabin, as from within me rose a rage that I could barely contain, but though words both unladylike and profane offered themselves in defiant proclamation, I remained silent, cold and composed.

“Awww. She’s makin’ room for all of us to join her. Ain’t that sweet?”

Another face, flat, thick and scarred, appeared at the window, wielding a crude iron bar in his hands. “Here I was all mad about us being left behind to sort through the leftovers while most of the brigade gets to go after the prize, and, well, looks like we got us a prize too.”

“I saw her first. I’m first,” growled the sallow faced one in complaint.

“Hey, there’s a dead fembot, too. Maybe you can have a go at that!” the larger, flat faced one jeered, and there was much cruel laughter from the circle of faces that now pressed in to examine their cornered prize.

The bar was applied, and they began a struggle against the door, whose strength and concomitant resistance brought many imprecations and curses.

My righteous fury burned all the brighter with each futile heave given to the bar, and I could feel my hands begin to tremble with it; this would not do at all, not at all. I focused the rage into a white hot beam, pressed down hard with my will, and the trembling vanished, for I would need a steady hand. My retreat deeper into the cabin was not in fear, but strategic, and my withdrawal to my former seat near the inert Amanda was with a particular purpose.

In anticipation of any possible difficulty in our travels, I had been sure upon our departure from House Fairfax to place my ancient Ruger in the storage compartment next to my seat, along with several small boxes of ammunition crafted specifically for use in its venerable receiver. Although the cover to the compartment had shattered, I was able as I pressed myself back into the small space to slip my hand surreptitiously within, where I found the familiar comfort of the pistol grip as it slid into my grasp.

I withdrew the slender weapon from the compartment, and with it still hid behind my skirts, slid off the safety, whispering an ardent prayer for the strength to do what I must do; for with ten rounds in the magazine, I had resolved that nine of these rapacious troglodytes would die before I used my final bullet to make myself of no use to them, or at the very least drive my soul from my flesh, for I would not put an unnatural necrophiliac lust past such degraded brutes.

Still the barbarous Caddiganites struggled to breach the resolute Carriage door, with the utterance of many unrepeatable curses; having committed my soul to God and my mortal frame to the only possible course of action, I found rising within me a strange impatience at their incompetence, an eagerness to complete the terrible task that I had pledged to complete, and I found myself tempted to command them to hurry about their business.

Such a word was rising to my lips when, suddenly, from a soldier out of view, there came a shout of alarm.

“Anarchists! It’s an ambush! Ana…”

The voice of alarm was strangled out by single shot, in a terrible glottal abruptness, and then came a sudden storm of gunfire, a score of weapons discharging at once; the clatter of it was as a hail on a tin roof, punctuated intermittently and to my immense satisfaction with the death cries of one and then another of my erstwhile assailants. As they scrambled to find better cover than their vulnerable position near the crash, small arms fire tore through them, dancing bloody against the impermeable sides of the fallen Carriage, the rounds ricocheting wildly; the Caddiganites desperately returning fire with their own hastily seized weapons, using the Carriage itself as a woefully inadequate shield against an unseen assault from all sides.

“Grenade!” came the panicked cry of the sallow faced soldier, and it would be the last word he ever spoke.

A bright flash filled and rocked the cabin, and a burst of yellow and orange flame filled the window, penetrating through the window of my redoubt with a fiercely radiating heat which briefly reddened my face, but that mercifully passed in an instant. From without, the desperate war-shouts of those who had been seeking my flesh turned to shrieks of utter anguish; horrific cries of the mortally seared that continued until they were silenced one by one by a series of singular retorts.

Under other circumstances, perhaps, my natural womanly compassion might have been moved to pity by the gruesome sufferings of these burned men, but as it was, my only sentiment was a feral and bloodthirsty delight.

Now, though, the scent of fire that had been but a mild annoyance grew inescapable, and the air within the cabin hung thick with swirling and deepening smoke; a noxious particulate cloud that, though I covered my mouth and nose as best I could with my sleeve, nonetheless began to trouble my breathing most fearsomely. Outside of the cabin, the window showed embers and flame rising, and it appeared that for all of my glee at the immolation of the Caddiganites, I might soon experience their same awful fate.

Then at the window appeared a shadowy and hooded form amidst the rising inferno, one I struggled to discern through my smoke-teared eyes. It stood for a moment, as if in contemplation, and then stepped forward and reached an arm towards the edge of the door. To my amazement, the entire door was wretched bodily away, torn from its very hinges in a feat of near impossible strength; then hurled aside with the ease that a passing zephyr might fling a kite skyward.

Into the cabin the hooded figure leaned in, extending a hand of rescue towards me, a mechanical hand that was formed from alloy of the most sublime manufacture. Then the hooded form raised its head to me, and I was startled to see in that moment that it was not a machine but a man; and not just any man, but the most perfect Adonis I had ever in my life observed.

One does not typically impute beauty to the male of the species, but before me was such a face and such a form that Aphrodite herself might have swooned, such beauty that I confess that it was neither smoke nor shock that rendered me briefly unable to breathe.

Beneath the black hood: a cascade of lustrous hair, itself dark as a starless night; a strong brow, flesh cast in a fertile hue as rich as red soil; eyes more golden than brown that seemed somehow to cast their own light; full, inviting lips that were at that moment firm with manly purpose; a close cropped beard that traced the lines of a jaw seemingly chiselled from living rock.

His form was nigh-impossibly well turned, broad but not overbroad of chest and shoulder, possessed of a precise muscularity; his arms, striking in their distinction, one arm decorated with ornate tribal tattoos in a much pleasing pattern, the other a sophisticated and powerful mechanical prosthesis of dark alloy that only augmented his nearly overwhelming virility.

“Are you…real?” I may have stammered, although given the trials of the last hour and my tenuous emotional state, my recollection of that moment may not be entirely accurate.

“Time to go,” said my impossible angel, in a firm yet silky Latin-inflected voice that somehow only deepened his remarkable appearance; all I could do was nod as he took my delicate hand in his outstretched cybernetic grasp, and I felt most deeply the potency of his reassuring strength as I was drawn up to my salvation.