Friday, December 15, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine: A Worm on the Hook

O dear reader, how my heart quailed when I awoke, for I felt upon regaining consciousness much as I had on those mournful, unwelcome mornings when I had opened my tear-wearied eyes following Mother’s passing; one finds oneself returning to a bitter dawn far less preferable than the Land of Nod, a reality from which the soft oblivion of unconsciousness had been a welcome respite.

My mind was an addled cacophony at first, uncertain of the nature of the waking nightmare in which I found myself, or the manner in which I had arrived in such a dreadful state, a confusion that likely rose from the great concussion of our crash to earth. I felt a deep nausea, and my head throbbed unbearably, both from the terrible whirling madness of my recent plummet from the heavens and the blow that my person had received when said plummet was halted with terrible abruptness.

The wreck of the Town Carriage upon striking the earth must have been a tumbling carnage, for it was clear that the Carriage had alighted with a force that was in diametric opposition to its typical grace, rolling and crashing upon terra firma repeatedly, and in so doing tearing itself nearly to pieces. The integrity of the Carriage cabin, which had been constructed with all of the ingenuity of Her Majesty’s Coachbuilders, was nonetheless sorely breached, crushed inward so that there was scarce room for me to move my limbs, stirring in me the trapped anguish of an enclosed claustrophobe.

Yet even more horrid to me was the state of my dearest Amanda, my most cherished servant from childhood. She remained arched above me, her strong legs and arms locked, her whole self a shield wrought from the deepest service. It was her body and its prodigious strength that had restrained the utter collapse of the cabin onto my far less robust flesh, and her intent to spare me from violation had been fulfilled only at the ultimate price.

A single structural spar had been thrust violently through her torso, and thusly impaled, her graceful form twitched and spasmed but inches from my bosom. Her eyes flickered and sparked, her ceramic face was cracked and broken, small fragments of porcelain from her face shaking loose to fall upon my own as her head spasmed again and again to the left. Each movement brought a rough whirring, as the damaged motors and actuators that had formerly imbued her every motion with such delicacy continued in a mindless reflexive rhythm; her movements driven not by her mechanical mind, which was utterly gone, but by some lingering impetus of her waning energies. Yet still her arms held firm, their strength lingering even after her untimely demise.

“Oh, Amanda,” I said, my eyes brimming with tears, extending my hand to touch the hard coolness of her broken cheek as it gave yet another empty clockwork twitch.

How many precious hours had Amanda dandled me on her knee, or chased me about the woods of the estate? How often, when Mother and Father were absent, away at some great gathering of society, did she dry a tear or bandage a scraped knee? She had been my protectress and companion, a comforter of my puerile sorrows and a chastiser of my childish, petty mischiefs. Like the dignity of the Crown, she was unchanging, or so it seemed even in light of her many upgrades over the years, and it had been in my heart that she might provide a similar care to any heirs produced by Stewart and myself, and perhaps to their children as well.

We all would like to believe that the ones we love are immortal, but in the case of Amanda, such belief was not simply the wishful fantasy of childhood, but could have…had Lady Providence not been such a cruel mistress..been an ongoing comfort for lifetimes.

Yet now, I faced a conundrum of potentially mortal consequence, for while the restraining netting of the Carriage had released as intended, I remained pinioned by Amanda’s inert form; close upon me, and pressed tight against my skirts, my protector had inadvertently become my prison. Her mass was considerable, for though she was of my stature, and the alloys from which she was wrought were the lightest our material science could muster, she was nonetheless almost thrice my weight. Of even greater concern, the grip of her lifeless hands on my chair remained unbroken, and I was quite trapped. Should I be unable to release myself from beneath her, I might soon find myself caught in some conflagration, for the smoke of nearby flames hung heavy in the air of the cabin, scratching at my lungs with every intake of breath.

Further, if I could not effectuate my escape, I knew that in but moments the brutish Caddiganites would surely descend upon the wreck, intending to take from it whatever they might steal from the Crown, including my own person as a hostage, or worse.

My mind raced in pursuit of a solution, until a lesson from my advanced robotics tutoring suddenly fell to hand; there was, as I recalled, a release of sorts, one integrated into the design of every Series 9, one that in a circumstance such as this one could disengage…yes…there it was. Unbuttoning her blouse, my fingers searched inward across the surface of her carapace, where they found the pressure point at her sternum, upon the pressing of which a small panel opened. Working at close quarters, it was terribly awkward, but my hands are nimble, and I was able…with effort…yes…there!

Her hands released, her elbows unlocked, and suddenly her weight was heavy upon me, whereupon I found myself much grateful for the hours I spend each week in the gymnase, for with the greatest of effort I was able to move myself from beneath Amanda’s dead weight, and, after similarly extricating my skirts, to move to the door on the opposite side of the cabin. This was necessary, as the final resting position of the Carriage had resulted in my own door being pressed hard against a mound of earth; my only option for egress was on the other side.

I pulled at the release, but found that the door would not open, for in the crash the structure of the cabin had been so deformed that the door was locked in place. I flung myself against it, once and then again, but found myself yet again imprisoned, for it would not budge. I pressed my face against the well-nigh impenetrable transparent aluminium of the window, hoping against hope that I might spy some hope of rescue without.

What met my eyes made my blood run cold in my veins.

All around my position had formed a veritable army of Caddiganites, who had evidently had the time to consolidate their positions whilst I remained insensate to the world. Judging from what I could see from my little window, there were overland trucks and transports of varying types and vintages, a motley assortment unified only by the drab dappling of grey, green, and black with which they had been painted. Even more alarming were a dozen or more tracked and armoured vehicles of crude yet purposeful design, which had surrounded my fallen Carriage at an approximate distance of one hundred yards, each of them emblazoned with the stark design of their vile movement; a stylized grey warhammer with a red handle, resting atop a white circle with a black border. Every one of these primitive yet effective war machines had a top mounted turret, from which protruded the long lethal snout of some kind of projectile weapon, undoubtedly the selfsame guns that had struck me and my entourage from the heavens.

I felt a thrill of terror, for no escape was reasonably conceivable, and surely I was to soon be their captive; yet as I watched, I found myself at first baffled, and then more and more filled with a rising sense of unease and trepidation.

Every one of the great cannons was pointed not towards me, but skyward, and not a soul amongst the dozens of black and grey clad soldiers who milled about several arrays of sensor equipment were making any noticeable effort to move towards me; for they, too, were looking upward at the lowering cloud cover with fierce intensity. Here I was, helpless and at their mercy, I and all of the subtle workings of the Carriage and its design there for the taking; yet none of them made any movement to do so, as if content with my position.

It was at that moment that I realised the truth of my unfortunate situation, and knowing the monstrous purpose to whose end I was being used, my mind recoiled in redoubled horror.

I was not the quarry.

I was the bait.