Monday, July 8, 2024

In the Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Twenty Eight

Chapter Twenty Eight:  A Fight for Our Lives

I was first made aware of this bitter shift in the winds of war by a sudden redirection of Ernest’s efforts, for it seemed that no sooner had he begun striking at those assailing the gate than he paused for a visible moment; with all the swiftness of a falcon in flight he raced through the sky towards the south.

There was, at that instant, the roar of a great detonation; a twenty metre section of the southernmost part of the outer compound wall was cast upwards and outwards in a fountaining cascade of splinters and tumbling fragments.  Two hundred metres away, through the now yawning gap in the wall, there came a great smoke-belching monstrosity, a clumsy and rough hewn brutalist war machine built from repurposed pre-collapse mechanisms; a “tank,” or so they were once called.   It was similar in design to those rude machines that had torn Father from the heavens, and the sight of it filled me with loathing.

The primitive tracked machine struggled for a moment or two to clear the shattered logs that had once comprised the battlements of the exterior wall, dark smoke pouring from a clattering, snarling engine within, but after a brief growling effort, it heaved itself into the settlement.  We were breached, and not simply by this rough vehicle, for behind the shelter of its armoured flanks came an accompanying rush of dark clad figures, Caddiganites all, several score of them all at once.

I saw, as all did, that what we had presumed was the primary assault on the gate of the compound was merely a diversionary tactic.  Their intent had been to press and tease against our resistance, drawing us away from their primary intent.  With similar clarity, it was now evident that our position had become most dire, for with Caddiganites still pressing their assault upon the beleaguered eastern gate, and the southern wall breached by some infernal explosive device, we were now both outnumbered and flanked to both east and south in a pincer; pinioned in such a dismal position there could be no meaningful cover, nor were we from our ground capable of resisting the savage assaults of their war machine.

To reinforce this dark realisation, the great phallic absurdity of the tank’s main cannon belched out fire, and one of the requisitioned trucks vanished in a great irruption of flame and ruin.  The other trucks circled wildly within the constraints of the outer compound, gunners returning fire, their machine guns chattering like outraged apes, but the armour of the Caddiganite vehicle was well nigh impervious against weapons of such limited calibre.

In addition to its immense cannon, there was also a machine gun mounted in a protective embrasure atop the turret, which was being used to dreadful effect by one of the operators of the vehicle.  Heavy rounds tore the air in a great rush, and were of such mass that I feared that even the trusty warding viscoelastics of Grandmama’s dress might not provide adequate protection.  

Yet just as it seemed that all might be cut down, that vile gun fell silent, the gunner slumping limp and lifeless from behind his protective shielding.  Our deliverer, it seemed, was Ernest, who like an avenging angel from on high neatly dispatched the gunner with a well-placed shot from his requisitioned rifle.  

With the tank’s antipersonnel weapon silenced, the battle recommenced with renewed intensity. 

The air filled with the crackle of fire and the slicing rush of projectiles, from the resurgent fascists and the valiant but overmatched settlement denizens.  I myself still lay low and prone, bullets hissing and rushing their lethal path just a handsbreadth above my head; with the very greatest of care I endeavoured to suppress the still-approaching Caddiganite advance.  Here and there, one of the dark-clad brutes would pop around the side of their armoured vehicle, and with the crude sights as my guide, I induced my rough-hewn rifle to hurl its leaden imprecations.  

This was, as I had feared, considerably less precise than my perfectly crafted Ruger, and only slightly more lethal in final result than had I been hurling pebbles in their general direction.

The late-lamented Libby’s rifle seemed not to be…how should I put this…”rifled,” as each round I sent through the barrel seemed to have a mind of its own, responding to each pull of the trigger with the same stubborn independence one might expect from an ancient libertarian asked to fetch one’s slippers.  There seemed only the very loosest correlation between where the barrel was pointed and where the bullet finally arrived, and so little consistency between shots that my carefully developed technique seemed more a hindrance than a help.

One shot flew low, another wide to the left, then wide to the right, then low again, and other than acting as a sort of threat display, I found that it was maddeningly impossible to exert any meaningful control over the trajectory of the projectiles.  I would watch as a Caddiganite would leap out from behind the sheltering bulk of the tank, presenting the sort of target that would seem utterly unmissable; I would strain finger against the overly heavy trigger, and off the bullet would fly, willy nilly, as if I’d not bothered to aim at all.

It was as if the wizened and doddering Kalashnikov was either a blunderbuss or some sort of peculiar quantum weapon, a Schrödinger’s gun, one that integrated a fundamental randomness into its most basic operation.  Given that it was such a dismally crude and seemingly probabilistic implement, I ascertained that my efforts to be judicious and precise in my fire were clearly the incorrect approach; better to simply switch it to full auto, show patience, and belch forth the entire contents of the magazine in one or two wild and profligate bursts when my assailants grew closer.

That, and I also discovered that unlike the more refined implements of my target shooting, the recoil from the hunk of ancient wood and iron I’d placed against my shoulder was simply monstrous.  It was not of such force as to trigger the defensive hardening of my dress, but had I chosen to walk over to the fascists and asked them politely to beat me with my own weapon, I suspect it would have left me no less bruised.

My efforts at engaging the Caddiganites having come to naught, it was all I could do to keep myself from suffering mortal harm from their malice; bullets kicked up dust all around me, and I was forced to again retreat back further beneath the tractor, where I soon found myself most frustratingly unable to do anything but keep myself bodily intact behind the shelter of my skirts.

To my left and to my right, several anarchists had taken up positions as best they could, from whence they tried as best they might to restrain the progress of the fascists and their war machine; three sought cover behind a mound of compost, another group of four behind a haphazardly cast pile of bricks that had clearly been harvested from the ruins of long abandoned homes, several more prone amidst the greenery.

Their efforts were valiant but similarly hopeless, as not a single one of their weapons made even the slightest mark upon the hull of the great belching machine.  Its progress was more gradual and hesitant than I would have expected given the terrible intent it conveyed, and it appeared the process of breaching our wall had done some modest but consequential damage to one of its ancient treads.  Nonetheless, it continued to advance, and for all of our efforts there seemed little that the assembled company could do to prevent it.

All suddenly grew more perilous still, as Ernest, who had been both judicious in his use of ammunition and an effective thorn in the side of the fascists, suddenly descended in a clumsy, precipitous plummet.  Something was clearly wrong, for though he came downwards toward me with clear purpose, there was an uncharacteristic lack of grace in his awkward approach.

He landed by the tractor, and took his position next to me.  I could see numerous cracks and fractures in his exoskeleton, and as he knelt and faced me, the reflective surface of his face showed much denting and scoring.

“They have damaged my thrusters, milady.  I am no longer able to maintain flight.  I also have only four rounds remaining in this magazine.  I shall remain here with you.”

“I am so sorry, Ernest.  You have been marvellous.  I fear that we are quite overmatched in this contest.  We may have to spend our lives as best we can.”

“Milady, I must tell you that our…”

There was another great roar from the tank gun, but twenty metres away now, which rudely interrupted his words, and with a crash the inner compound wall was punctured through.  My ears now ringing and quite deafened from the overwhelming din, I was unable to hear anything in that moment; though the lighted patterns on my dear servant’s face showed he was still speaking, his statement was lost to me.

I shook my head sadly, and pointed to my ears that he should know I was unable to hear his words of lament and consolation.

In wordless reply, Ernest pointed a finger upwards towards the heavens, and lifted his pitted, dented visage to gaze in the same direction.  I reflexively followed his lead, turning my dust-flecked and hopeless face skyward.

What I saw filled my heart with a fierce joy.

There, shining with the red-gold light of the rising sun, was the Finch.  

Stewart had finally arrived.

Chapter Twenty Nine: A Most Welcome Arrival (forthcoming)