Tuesday, June 11, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Three: My Second Argument with Diego

My erstwhile host was sitting at the large, plain table in the centre of the room, gazing with deep intensity at the screen of an ancient computer.  It was dim, the space unlit, as the soft hush of dusk without pressed in upon the chamber, with the sole illumination in the space being that very screen; the effect was decidedly morbid and funereal, which was appropriate given the immediacy of recent loss.  

He did not rise, nor shift his gaze upward to mark my arrival, so intent was he upon his task; given the dark radiance of his grim mood, I refrained for several moments from even announcing my presence.  An awkward moment passed, then another, and then several more, until at long last, just as I was preparing to either cough or make a formal proclamation of my response to his summons, he looked up and met my gaze.

Diego’s comely visage was tight and hard, lips pursed, jaw clenched, giving to his aspect an unquestionable ferocity; and yet in the fae-blue light of his timeworn machine, I could see his golden eyes abrim and glistening with the dew of his sorrow, which was so intertwined with his fury as to sharpen the flavour of wrath and woe alike.  Beneath his eyes, the dark circles of sleeplessness stood as shadows of his sorrow; I had rested, but I could be sure that he had not.  

“You’re awake.”   His voice was a flat and featureless expanse, yet also charged with a nameless, burgeoning menace; he added, in a low growling sotto voce, “Finally xxxxing awake.”

I realised, at this precise moment, that he was grievously wounded, and that from his place of anguish at the loss of his lover this conversation might become a dark impediment to the establishment of our common purpose.  His proverbial teeth were bared, his soul raw and bloodied, and like all injured wild creatures wearied and desperate at the end of a chase, he was not to be approached lightly.

He rose slowly and with effort, although the effort involved seemed less a struggle to stand than a struggle not to spring wildly, madly forward in a blind rage.

I cleared my throat.  “You had asked to see me.  Please do forgive my inability to meet with you sooner, but I was completely overcome with exhaustion, and in such a state was unable to…”

“Glad you got your beauty rest,” he said brusquely, interrupting my apology in a rude but not unanticipated manner.  “We’re all pretty xxxxing tired.  But there’s more xxxx to be done.  Look at this.”

He turned the portable computer around, the screen now facing in my direction, and with a deft motion slid it across the smooth wood surface of the table.

“Tell me what you see.”  

I peered down at the images, which were only partially occluded by areas where the screen had faded, or where individual pixels had failed.  What met my gaze were pictures of the Caddiganite fire base.  It was, in both construction and evident population, rather larger than I would have anticipated, with numerous buildings of substantial construction, and the manifold evidences of vehicles both martial and of more utilitarian purpose.

“Ernest?”  I said, motioning him to come to my side and provide insight.  “Could you please give me your critical assessment of this facility?”

Stepping forward, my stalwart aide leaned forward, and proceeded to interface directly with the venerable machine, showing precisely the sort of capacity I would expect from a Series 9.  Images and videos flashed across the screen in blindingly rapid succession, blinking in and out so swiftly that the effect was dizzying.  Ernest was not, of course, reviewing this data visually, and the images I was seeing were merely a side effect of his direct encounter with the relevant information.

“I have completed my review of the reconnaissance data, Milady.  The facility observed covers three point two acres, and appears to be heavily fortified, with multiple rings of razorwire, evidence of minelaying both antivehicle and antipersonnel, and significant automated defensive hardpoint enhancements in these fifteen locations along the perimeter wall.”  A series of illuminated circles popped into being, highlighting the hardpoints of which he spoke.  “Total projected combat strength, battalion level, approximately seven hundred Caddiganites, thirty two armoured vehicles, to include ten main battle tanks of pre-collapse design.  Substantial ground to air capacity is evident, here, here and here.  Here, to the north north west, there’s construction on a landing strip, to augment landing pads for rotorcraft at these two locations.  The central building, here, is particularly well-constructed, and given the generator…here…appears to be designed for a combination of research and/or assembly purposes.”

Diego grunted, then spoke in a low growl.  “Yeah.  Exactly.  There’s no xxxxing way we can deal with that xxxx.  Just no way.  Even if we play every mutual security chit with every collective in the entire region.”  His eyes flared with an inchoate fury, which suddenly coalesced in a terrible focus upon my person.  Something within him had broken, and a dark insidious flame now burned in his heart.

“We should never have saved you,” he hissed.  “Just told your xxxxing bot to xxxx off.  Never have done any of this.  If you hadn’t been xxxxing around doing xxxx knows what, if you hadn’t let those fascist xxxxxxxxxers get their xxxxing hands around your precious selfish tech, none of this would ever have…”

Here, dear reader, one might expect that I would have been wounded, struck to the quick by the stark cruelty of his fulminations.  They were, I will confess, more cutting and antipathetic than I had anticipated, and such a cruel and marked variance from his recent benignant declamations (as reported by Raj) that one less versed in the nature of loss might have taken mortal offence.  

Yet loss and anguish are not strangers to me, orphaned as I now am, and my many years of good counsel from the wise crones of the Ladies Aid Society following Mother’s passing had well prepared me for such a seemingly incongruous outburst.  

When our hearts are wounded to the quick, and our very selves shimmer with the anguish of loss and fear, it is all too human to turn the blades of our blind howling pain against the very souls who would give us succour.  In these past few days, I had come to know Diego as a man of passion, of volatile Latin temperament, whose intellect was oft untempered by the restraints of reason and prudence.  It was, in many ways, his gift, and what made him a man of action and a worthy ally.  Now, however, as he lashed out savagely and without consideration, his gift had become his hubris, and was a threat to our mutual purpose.

The night before, he had been singing my praises to one and all.  But a long seething day of waiting, following a sleepless night of weeping and rage?  That could turn a soul to dark and terrible thoughts, and even to finding blame in even their closest companions.

Was it comprehensible?  Of course.  Was it forgivable?  As Her Majesty shows abundant grace, absolutely.  

But permissible?  No.  Never.

One must never tolerate in oneself emotions that destroy the fundaments of decorum, for, as the inestimable Mme. Toussaint so rightly asserts, 

Il ne faut jamais permettre que ses blessures justifient le mal d'autrui, et dans de tels domaines, la retenue et l'introspection sont les marques d'une société véritablement gracieuse.

It is of equal import for one to be clear and forthright about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and to do so in the manner most likely to bring about a restoration of civil relation.  Diego was a man of volcanic temperament, and just as a forest blaze is commonly thwarted by the efficacious advance burning of available fuel, both reason and my feminine intuition concurred that I must meet fire with fire.

This is why I set aside my customary probity and set myself about responding in kind: with an interruption.  As he raged, I mouthed a single word, without sound or breath:  Amplify.  

Then I imposed my will.

“Are. You. Mad?”  

It is difficult, from these words alone, to grasp the intensity of my fervent interruption.  Each word, in rising volume, with the last of a pitch and timbre close to a shriek.  With that last word, I stepped forward, eyes ablaze, and struck the table with the flat of my hand, augmenting my voice with a percussive slap.  That was not all: Ernest, having instantly attended to the meaning of my soundless instruction, and always attuned to the needs of the moment, added to my intent by receiving my words and amplifying them through his own system of sound production, pitching in over and undertones, to the effect that my voice roared deafening from all directions as if it emanated from the very fabric of the universe itself.

Diego was, understandably and visibly startled, for he had not expected the sort of reply that arrives as a Jovian thunderclap.  That was my advantage, and I pressed it.

“How dare you jeopardise our alliance!  Such aspersions are beneath you as a man, and as a leader among your people!”

“If you hadn’t…” he roared back, attempting to recover, to rally to the redoubt of his misguided self-righteousness.  I would have none of it.

“Blame? What right have you to blame me, and for what?  For having the audacity to assume I would not be molested on my journeys?  For being most rudely assaulted by our mutual enemies, where my very life and person was in the most intimate of jeopardies?  For putting my own life at risk in my heartfelt attempt to save you?  For killing to save you, when I have never before taken the life of another human being?”  

My words, still bearing the force of Ernest’s synthetic emphases, thrust forth as sharp as a fighting epee; I could see each of them find their mark.  Diego’s face contorted, his inner struggle now roiling the surface of his person in ways terrible to see.  He was pinioned by my logic and sound sentiment, from which no words of his might offer escape.

Finally, in wordless reply, Diego seized one of the sturdy wooden chairs that encircled the table in the grasp of his immensely powerful cybernetic arm, and with a singularly terrible effortlessness hurled it against the hewn log floor of the Central Committee building.  There, it shattered with a great clangour, as he roared with a deep and rasping fury.  Neither his bellowing utterance nor his act of vandalism were, I noted well, directed at my person, but downwards, as if he would smite at the foundations of the earth itself.  His cries continued, and he folded in and around himself; his entire body balling up, flesh and metal manifesting the energies of his loss and anguish as the tension of a spring twisted to breaking.

In reply, and noting his new redirection, my next words were tightly measured and scalpel-precise; with Ernest at my side, I stepped closer to deliver them at the very instant his raging ceased.  I raised my hand for Ernest to cease his efforts.  Here, the only voice must be my own.

“Caddigan murdered my father. Caddigan murdered your lover.  He threatens both of our people.  I know you are tired.  But do not waste. Your righteous anger.  On your friends.  I am your friend, Diego.  Remember our cause.  This is.  Our.  Cause.”

Diego let out a long, hitching breath, and then a slower inhalation as he rose and uncoiled to his full height.  I sensed, as his now-softened eyes turned to me, that the daemon had left him.  There was a pause, as he struggled to compose himself.

“I’m…sorry.  That was, that was wrong. I was wrong.  Please, forgive me, Rebecca.  I have been…  I owe you my…”

I could see the confused exhaustion upon him, the familiar weight of loss upon his shoulders, and my heart stirred with a deep sympathy.  I rounded the table, and placed my hand against the cool alloy of his shoulder.

“Of course, Diego.  Of course.  Grief can be such madness.  I know the choleric depths of its wrath so very well myself.”

“Thank you.” 

“You are as exhausted as I have been, Diego. You need to rest. There is work that must be done tomorrow.”

“OK.  I will…Rebecca.  Again, I’m…sorry.”  With that, he sighed again, and began to make his way towards the staircase.  He stopped, and again turned his gaze to me.  His weary eyes had a peculiar sparkle about them, and a wry smile spread across the contumely perfection of his face.



His eyebrow arched, and the smile spread beneath still-welling eyes, his expression conveying a most peculiar admixture of sorrow and mischief.  

“Lucretia was my sister.”  And with that, he took his leave.

Ah.  Well.  

One can’t be right about everything, I suppose.

Chapter Twenty Four: A Walk in the Night (forthcoming)