Friday, May 24, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Nineteen


Chapter Nineteen: I Am Full of Surprises

I knelt immediately, whispering to Mother’s dress the necessary instruction to return to camouflage, for it seemed clear that our assailants believed they had encountered the entirety of our party; we must not be seen.  Around us, bullets whined and spat lethally against the trunks of trees, to which Diego, who had taken cover with fallen Lucretia behind a large oak, returned fire in bursts from Lucretia’s rifle.

“How many are there, Ernest?”

He took a moment to conduct a thorough assay of our circumstance, his head scanning slowly from left to right, in a measured surveillance of the firefight ahead.

“Twelve, milady, standard light Hammer patrol.  They’ve formed a skirmish line along the far side of the clearing, and first fired from cover.  They appear to be advancing dangerously on our comrades ahead, milady, but are unaware of our presence here.  What is your will, milady?”

I considered our options, as one must when considering any decision of consequence.  Neither parley or surrender could be considered with such a barbarous and cruel foe; flight or retreat were not realistic, as we were many miles from safety, and likely to soon be overrun by Caddiganites coming to the aid of this cursed patrol.  With Diego pinned down, and Lucretia either dead or incapacitated, the situation of our erstwhile allies was utterly impossible; we could not expect them to defend us.

Diego was bravely holding them off, firing short bursts at every moment he was given opportunity, all the while covering fallen Lucretia with his own body, but for all of his admirable courage even I could see that the noose our enemies had cast around them was tightening.  Time was of the essence.

Reason counselled bold and direct action on our part, and Prudence, though she be oft one to commend an avoidance of risk, here seemed also to reluctantly concur.  I took a deep breath, and turned to Ernest.

“Ernest, I have decided.  I require two things of you.”

“What are they, milady?”

“First, I require the Ruger from my bag.”

He opened the fire-scarred leather pouch, and retrieved the trusty pistol, which he placed in my begloved hand.  It felt so comfortably familiar, light and perfectly suited to a ladylike hand.  Generally speaking, it would not have ever been considered a weapon of war, as in its time it was used solely for sport.  I knew it as well as I knew my own mind, however, and now my mind was turned to martial endeavours.

“What else do you require, milady?”

I took a second deep breath through my nostrils, and felt the cool of the air charge me with purpose; my gaze fixed upon the far off brutes who grew ever closer to their presumed prey.

“Kill them, Ernest.”

He bowed slightly, showing no more concern than had I asked him to fetch me my slippers.

“Yes, milady.”

Ernest turned, and with a swiftness and grace worthy of Hermes himself began to run, his course inscribing an arc parallel to the left flank of the firefight ahead.  It was clearly his intent to strike them on their right flank, and this left very little doubt as to the most appropriate course of my own action.  I advanced rightward at a brisk pace, my eyes regarding Diego’s increasing peril with some concern.  He was unable to return fire now, so nearly encircled was he, and I suspected he was also suffering from a paucity of ammunition.  

I was soon within the range of the little Ruger, or, to be more precise, within the range within which I had near absolute confidence in my own capacity with it.  One might have thought, in such a moment, that one’s priority would be a stealthy engagement, but as I marked Ernest’s near completion of his flanking manoeuvre, it occurred to me in a flash of insight that this was precisely and exactly incorrect.  

I did not need to be invisible; I needed to be blinding.

A whisper, again, to Mother’s dress, and in an instant, it went from a chameleonesque invisibility to maximum albedo, as the nanoscale fabrics of the dress redirected all of the sun’s light outward in the brightest of possible hues.  

I was radiant, the most brilliant object in the field of vision of all.

The startled Caddiganites froze as one, momentarily confused by the appearance of a wild and blinding apparition before them; it was at that moment that I took most careful aim and fired.  The nearest of them, a large and heavyset brute, was just under thirty yards away, and I felled him cleanly with a single round to the temple.  My second shot brought down another, whose jugular the bullet ruptured in a most gruesome manner.

The startling effect of my bright manifestation was quickly dispelled by their awareness that I had a decidedly lethal intent, and all ten of the remaining members of that patrol turned their murderous fury on my person.  

Their dark rifles chattered with rage; I cast my besleeved arm upward to protect myself, but I was struck most violently by their hail of bullets, and I fell.

Here, dear reader, I can hear you saying: What?

Did you not just tell us that you were struck down?  How can that be so, and yet you still live to tell this tale?

I most certainly was, and I most certainly do.  I would imagine, from the insights you have gleaned previously regarding the capacities of my garment, you shall not be surprised to learn that it is also radically viscoelastic.  In practical terms for the layperson, this means that while the fabric is as soft and flowing as the finest silk, it transforms under duress; impacts in a given area of the garment, those that exceed a certain threshold of kinetic energy, trigger a hardening effect across an appropriate portion of fabric, to include the entirety of the dress if fate necessitates such a response.  It becomes quite impermeable to all but the most forceful penetration.  It is, as again you might have surmised, woven from a similar doughty material as the fabric from which we construct our airships.  Newtonian laws being what they are, however, the force of those ballistic impacts was most rudely conveyed to me, albeit in an even distribution; I was cast most indelicately upon the forest floor.

It was at this very moment that Ernest appeared among them, for my purpose was not merely to strike at these villains, but also to draw attention from his rapid approach.  As a Series Nine, his physical prowess is immense, and he is capable of sustained flight; he swept down from behind the distracted Caddiganites as the Angel of Death upon the Egyptian firstborn.

I did not not see the first of his victims, for I was still struggling to rise to my feet; I confess that even though I had trusted fully in the aegis of Mother’s wondrous dress, I had not quite anticipated the sharpness of the blows I would receive, and I was most shaken in both body and mind.

I will assume, from what I witnessed upon raising my bleary eyes, that Ernest’s first action was to smite the closest Caddiganite into the dark of lifeless oblivion, and then wrest from his insensate form the rifle with which he had so recently been seeking to do us harm.  This I did not see, but simply inferred from what I beheld: nine shots in rapid succession, followed by nine men crumpling to the ground; the entire carnage was completed in less than the time it takes the second hand on a watch to count off two ticks.

His duty completed, Ernest waited patiently for my arrival in the clearing, which I effectuated as expeditiously as I could; my ears were still ringing most disagreeably, and I was certain that I had received the ugliest of bruisings.  I strode forward to inspect Ernest’s handiwork along the fallen patrol; of them, two remained alive, one barely breathing, the other gurgling piteously from a wound that had shattered his jaw.

I dispatched both of them to the mercy of the Lord’s care.

It was then that Diego approached; he had risen from his redoubt, and was carrying the unmoving form of Lucretia in his arms.  He regarded us both with an equal admixture of amazement and the deepest concern.

“Full of xxxxing surprises,” he intoned, barely above a mutter.

“‘Cretia’s in bad shape,” he continued more audibly, his voice growing husky and tightening.  “We’ve got to get her back to the settlement doctor, like xxxxing now.”

And so, collecting our necessaries and taking to our vehicle as quickly as we were able, we did.

Chapter Twenty: Our Woeful Return