Wednesday, December 20, 2023

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten: The Cost of My Folly

It was in that moment, as I found myself frozen with horror at the monstrous truth of my predicament, that there was a sudden burst of movement; the Caddiganite soldiers rushed about, some seeking shelter, some gathering around the arrays that were searching the skies, as each of the great guns that ringed me turned in sequence, one after another like falling dominoes, and all locked their wicked intent upon a point in the heavens to the south south west.

Someone was coming, undoubtedly some kindly and stalwart friend and servant of the Crown, who upon hearing our cry of anguish and distress was rushing to our aid. Such meritorious intent, such goodheartedness, and yet they would soon be met with a fusillade of deadly malice from those who had crafted this malevolent ruse.

I was, in that moment, utterly mortified, for I was not in any way ignorant of my own foolish contribution to this wretched circumstance. My ill-starred choices had paved the road of woeful Providence; had I only listened to the warning so gently proffered by Father, rather than dismissing it as the empty fears spoken by a broken Father of my imaginings, this circumstance would not have come to be, and the thought of harm coming to yet another as a result of my blind, ignorant idiocy was in that moment cutting me to the quick.

My self-flagellation over the unquestionable path of causation was abruptly interrupted by a sudden and immense explosion; one of the tracked vehicles in my field of vision had simply ceased to exist, its dark form replaced by a great fountaining irruption of debris both metal and flesh. A second after the explosion came the thunder of a great metallic report, which I in an instant surmised was simply a part of that selfsame obliteration; the projectile that was responsible for this implacable and complete instant destruction must have been hypersonic.

No sooner had I come to this realisation than the moment repeated itself; another of the great guns vanished in a shower of flame and smoke and vapour, followed again by a sound worthy of a divine hammer striking the anvil of Vulcan.

As if startled to life, the remaining great guns thundered their reply in return, casting a wild hail of metal death towards the veil of clouds, around and within which blossomed a bouquet of deathly flowers wrought of black smoke and shrapnel.

I pressed my face again to the window, craning my eyes to the southern sky, my vision probing the greyness, and then; joy of joys, my heart thrilled to see a great cylindrical form parting the cloud before it; descending from the heavens like the rod of Divine Wrath.

It was the glorious vision of the HMS Firedrake, and from the clouds to its right and left, as stalwart and ready footmen, came the Dagger and the Weasel.

Father had arrived. His flotilla had left but a quarter of an hour after my departure, and our cry of distress must have reached his ears first; it was he who came fierce and swift to his daughter’s call.

All about me the Caddiganite guns roared their fury at the skies, their poisonous spite flying upward to strike the descending airships. Near and against the flanks of the Firedrake materialised a harvest of lethal blooms, whose terrible ferocity and accuracy had been previously sufficient to drive my Carriage to ground.

But the Firedrake was not a gentlewoman’s carriage, and Father had spoken discreetly but with pride at her construction; like all ships of the line, she was sheathed about with fabric, as airships have always been, but that fabric was of such wondrous ingenuity as to be stronger than the most robust alloy. Indeed, as my eyes watched the steel imprecations spat forth by the Caddiganite cannons, their hate failed against the best workings of the Royal Society, for all purposes as helpless as the petty blows of a child’s tantrum.

In reply, the Firedrakes’ great primary railgun spoke a third stern word of righteous anger, and another cannon was no more; the Dagger and Weasel, too, had their say, as each sent a triplet of rapier-quick rockets dancing earthward, missiles whose wroth rode on a bright point of fire, each guided on its implacable errand of justice by its own machine mind and eye. Every one found its hapless target, and now more than half of the vile guns lay sundered and afire.

It seemed, in that instant, that the day must be lost for the Caddiganites, and I felt the sweet joy that comes with a fervent hope fulfilled, and a deliverance realised.

Then, again, came the metallic blow of a nearby railgun, and my world came to an end.

The Caddiganites…they had…they must have…

For before my unbelieving eyes the noble form of the Firedrake was pierced; it staggered back heavenward as a man might reel from a mortal blow, then, in the time it took to me to take a single gasp, she vanished in a flash of brightness, one that for a moment lit the clouded world as if the sun himself had risen; my eyes were struck blind as if I had gazed directly upon its radiance.

I fell back, a cry of terror caught in my throat, and as I struggled to clear my vision that I might see what monstrous new trick the Fates had played upon me, there came another terrible percussion, and before my still clouded eyes a streak of white hot light leapt upward from a nearby copse, impaled the Dagger, and passed through it as a needle through cloth. The trusty frigate sagged, a portion of its superstructure shattered, but the generators and ceramic battery arrays that fueled it were unharmed, and it did not share the fate of the unfortunate Firedrake.

Below the now-bereft escorts, the flaming carcass of my Father’s murdered Firedrake drifted downward and to the south, lifeless as an autumn leaf, thick black smoke billowing from the punctured hulk as it clung insensate to the sky; debris and the charred bodies of her crew tumbling and scattering like ashes cast upon the earth.

The remaining Caddiganite cannons began their cruel assault again, filling the sky with flak and flame, and before the enemy railgun could strike again, the desperately crippled Dagger struggled upward, the now-outmatched Weasel casting down a hail of desperate rocketry and incendiary gatling fire to protect their retreat; together the two withdrew into the sheltering mists of the cloudbank as the Caddiganites spat iron and steel as a curse upon their departure.

Still the burning Firedrake drifted downwards, hanging in the sky like grapes before Tantalus, whispering that surely, surely in the smouldering, crumbling paradox of its gentle descent, there must be hope that some might have lived. The thought cried out to me, but I smote it down as a phantasm, nothing more than a delusion that spoke only lies about the horror that had come to pass. I turned my face away from that intimate vision of death and despair, for I could no longer bear to contemplate it.

None could have survived the destruction that I had just witnessed. There was no hope. All aboard the Firedrake had surely perished. Father was dead.

I sank back into the charred velour beneath me. I would have cried Father’s name, but my throat was closed, my whole body paralyzed by a blow of shock and grief that left me unable to move, unable to think, unable to speak, unable even to weep.

All was lost. O fool, O poor wretched orphaned fool.