Monday, May 20, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Eighteen: A Vital Reconnaissance

“How do you even walk in that thing?”

It was Lucretia who posed the question as I made my way with care up a densely wooded hillside; the desire to make that inquiry had been evident on her countenance ever since our party had exited the four seat all terrain vehicle that had carried us to within a half-mile of the Caddiganite encampment. The remainder of our journey was to be afoot, for it was imperative that we not alert our enemies to our presence; as we advanced, Lucretia’s frequent glances at my progress through bush and bramble evinced her concern that I would be unable to maintain their brisk pace.

I shall note, at this juncture, that such a failing on my part was not at all present; both Ernest and I had little difficulty staying with our two anarchist companions. Lucretia led the way through the leaf-heavy undergrowth, rifle slung over her shoulder, as in her role as chair of their Intelligence Committee such duties fell on her capable shoulders. Diego followed behind, for though his strength was prodigious, he was burdened with the carrying of the “Sounder,” a man-portable fast recon rocket of anarchist design. Ernest had, of course, volunteered to carry it himself, as such is a footman’s duty, but Diego would have none of that, a refusal that seemed to rise from some combination of masculine pride and a lingering uncertainty about our competence. Ernest had, instead, taken charge of my bag of necessaries, a duty to which he was much accustomed.

“It is considerably easier than you might think,” I replied quite calmly to Lucretia, an assertion emphasized by my utterly unwinded voice.

Mother’s dress was of a singular elegance, but it was hardly a hindrance, even in making one’s way through a barely broken trail. In another era, a dress of similar design would most certainly have been of near-insurmountable impediment, as the primitive fabrics would have snagged and torn dreadfully; the corsetry, too, would have been so constraining and lacking in elasticity as to make its wearer far more vulnerable to fatigue and spells of fainting, particularly as it was then considered unladylike to engage in the strict regimens of calisthenics that are now expected of gentlewomen.

Further, while my footwear at the gala…a lovely pair of Tavistocks…would not have been helpful in such terrain, I was not such a fool as to have worn them for my journey back to Port Baltimore, and instead wore more practicable boots of modest heel and greater comfort.

Ladies of the Peerage are flowers, yes, but we are not delicate flowers; our beauty is like that of Her Majesty, and our refinement is akin to the refining of steel.

Upon my response, Lucretia opened her mouth to say something in further reply; what that reply might have been cannot be known, for at that very moment Ernest, who was as always diligent by my side, stopped abruptly in his tracks, raising a closed fist to indicate that he required silence. In a clear, stern voice, he declared: “Hold please. All stop.”

I, of course, did as he asked, as did both Diego and Lucretia. For a moment, he remained silent, his head cocking from side to side in an action that mimicked a human listening intently; this was likely unnecessary, as his audio sensors are located in a variety of locations across his frame, but it helped convey the intent of his action to all of us.

Having confirmed whatever it was that had caused him to halt our progress, Ernest spoke words of alarm.

“Approaching drone, milady. Please, we must all find cover immediately.”

I, of course, did what was necessary with all due diligence; Diego and Lucretia again exchanged another meaningful glance, but rather than question Ernest’s urgency, they joined me in doing as he had so politely asked.

No sooner had we found suitable cover beneath a stand of pines than the tell-tale whirring of a drone became audible to our lesser human ears; it was a small patrol quadrotor, one that moved with execrable patience one hundred yards above the winter-denuded treeline. Closer and yet closer it came, the menacing mosquito-whine of its motors like needles to our ears, for should its controller ascertain our presence, our efforts so far would come to nothing.

It did not pass directly overhead, but a hundred yards to our southwest, and though for half an instant it seemed to linger in a most importunate way, this proved to be nothing more than an illusion; much to the relief of all, it effectuated a turn to the southwest, and was soon gone from both sight and earshot.

Diego rose from beneath the scrub-bush beneath which he had hidden himself and the rocket, and before taking it up again, called out to Ernest.

“Pretty xxxxing impressive,” he said. “Just how good is your hearing, uh, Ernest?”

“Thank you, sir. Like all upgraded Series Nines, I can discern sounds between 5 hertz and 150 kilohertz, with a sensitivity to -100 decibels.”


“It is, and again, thank you, sir.”

Lucretia, who had also extricated herself from her carefully chosen cover, herself was looking at me oddly.

“Can I help you, dearest Lucretia?” I said.

“Your…dress,” she said, with focused intentness.

“Yes, Lucretia?”

“It…changed colour. Went full camo. Like, you were almost invisible. Blink of an eye. ”

“Of course,” I said. “That was what I specifically requested of it. All garments of its type can replicate any colour or visual texture at a subvocal command. Generally speaking, of course, this is in order to match the particular sartorial demands of a given social occasion: festal greens and reds for Candlemas, various subtle luminescences for moonlit dances, expressions of interest in a partner, and the like. In other, less pleasant circumstances, such as this one, it clearly has a broader and more significant utility.”

“So it isn’t actually a black dress,” Lucretia murmured, half to herself.

“No,” I said. Mother’s dress had, at my whispered command after the passing of the drone, returned to the dun greyish black that it had been since we arrived at the anarchist compound. “It is not. It has no inherent colour. But it shall stay in these woeful colours, pressing necessity aside, until Father can be properly memorialised. I am, after all, in mourning.”

“You people are just full of surprises.” It was Diego, who had hefted the Sounder again upon his broad shoulders.

“We are indeed,” I replied, and with that, the four of us continued on deeper into the woods.

The remainder of our foray towards the Caddiganite firebase was without incident, and when we had reached a wooded rise that offered a suitable vantage point approximately one quarter mile from the location of the camp, Diego set up the Sounder on a crude launching apparatus. Buttons were pressed, transponders were activated, as he and Lucretia busied themselves about preparing the rocket for its short but vital mission.

From there, we retreated back along our prior route, until we had put sufficient distance between ourselves and the Sounder; this was not simply for our safety during the launch, but also to make it more difficult to determine our location when Caddigan’s thugs came looking for those who had just observed them.

Looking back towards where the rocket awaited, Lucretia made a few final adjustments on the portable that would receive the data we required.

“We good?” asked Diego.

“Sure are,” replied Lucretia.

“OK. Let’s go,” said Diego, and with a rather anticlimactic motion, Lucretia brushed her fingers across her antique screen.

From five hundred yards away, there was a faint roar of ignition, and with a throaty rush, the Sounder was away; it flung itself through the thick canopy of the treeline and disappeared skyward in a wild, low, corkscrewing ascent, one evidently designed to diminish the possibility of intercept prior to the capturing of target images.

“Hold. Image stabilising now. Hold. And…there. Got it. Perfect. We’re…”

There was a flat dissonant tone from the tablet, followed a half-second later by a tight, distant retort, as the rocket’s wild dash over the firebase was ended in a violent and lethal punctuation; Lucretia gave a short gasp of genuine bewilderment.

Xxxx,” she swore. “They’ve never been able to hit a Sounder before.”

“You got what we needed, though, right?” Diego asked.


“Right. Let’s get the xxxx out of Dodge.”

I took this archaic saying to mean that it was time for the four of us to beat a rapid retreat, and I was not mistaken, for within moments we were in a headlong flight back towards the small clearing where the all-terrain vehicle was waiting. Our pace, which had been formerly cautious, was now wholly governed by the necessity of escape, and all concern for discretion was abandoned.

I hiked my skirts as necessary, and made good haste, although I will confess that the bluntly practicable and simple garb of my companions permitted them to outpace me by a not inconsiderable degree; Ernest, of course, remained by my side; had he been so instructed, he would easily have pulled ahead of us all.

Further and further ahead Diego and Lucretia ran, nearly out of view through the trees, and as they descended the long rise that lead to the clearing a hundred yards ahead of us, I had a momentary and unwelcome vision of the two of them leaping into our vehicle and roaring away without Ernest and myself; it was utterly preposterous and unwarranted, and I batted it away as one might a pestering fly. These were our allies, and I trusted them implicitly.

At the very instant of that unfaithful thought, there came from ahead of us three most terrible and unwelcome sounds; first, a shout of alarm from Diego; second, a sudden fusillade of small arms fire, as a dozen rifles barked together; and third, a single cry of anguish from what could only have been Lucretia.

A Caddiganite patrol must have found our vehicle, and for the second time in two days, they had snared their unwitting victims.

Or so they imagined.