Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 10

Genre: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy
Stumbles Clumsily InGirl Genius
Mara’s Involvement: heavy
Time: continuing after The Pauper Princess and the Way of the Trilobite.
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The story so far!
–Looks like victory is all wrapped up for Our Heroes!

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Legal disclaimer stuff:
“This story is not approved by, sponsored by or affiliated with Studio Foglio LLC or Airship Entertainment.”
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The Pauper Princess Fanfiction Theatre Presents:
Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 10!

As the Dinnundrian fleet reeled, the aerofighters filled the air and spread out to the smoking, crippled ships. The Mechaniwasps, Franz, the Guardians, the ever-famished Tooth Fairies, the Screeching Horrors (ironically, known for their impeccable polka harmonies when off-duty), the bomber drones, and other flying or gliding abominations that few dared name. Most took to naming themselves, such as “Skullcruncher” and “Jolly Old Tom.”

The big guns on the flagships perforated the weakened shields enough to provide multiple entry points for the New Europan attackers. Return fire was sporadic and wild; in some ways this made it more dangerous, without any pattern to follow or plan for. Avoiding enemy fire was up to the effectiveness of armor, maneuverability, or both.

Lucrezia convinced the Emperor Boys to temper the attack with mercy and search for survivors. To do so meant boarding vessels; eventually they agreed to this plan, with caution. Fliers with communicators received the orders to retrieve survivors, if any. Captain Seamus directed Guardian teams to approach and board to the best of their abilities. Talkbox chatter overlapped orders and acknowledgments.

“Power levels on most craft are low or fading. Personal torches advised.”

“Smaller craft first; don’t enter if their structure won’t hold!”

“Team Red, split into teams of two, find a ship, and make it quick!”

“Show mercy if they surrender; none if they don’t!”

“Couldn’t we show mercy, no matter what?”

“Quiet, Mara.”

“i WiLl DeVoUr ThEiR sOoOoUuLs!”

No, Jolly Old Tom! No! Bad! Will someone keep him away from survivors?”

“Roger that!”

“wHaT aBoUt JuSt ThE eArS?”

“No body parts!”

“hUrRrRrR…”

“Any signs of surface-to-air weapons?”

“None. Any signs of Bang??”

“Red Two, standing by!”

“I didn’t ask for a count-off!”

“No signs, but we’ll find her eventually. She loves mayhem too much to stay away!”

Captain Seamus and his partner flew inside a somewhat stable vessel. Quick but efficient searching revealed no living organic entities so far. In a few minutes they found one crewmember, but dead. Functioning clanks followed their programming and attacked, and were blasted for their efforts.

Talkbox communication was left open as the aerofleet boarded the most stable vessels they could find. They provided running commentary as needed. On two occasions the audio took on the flavor of an exciting radio episode of Agatha Heterodyne (Girl Genius!), as weapon fire was exchanged. The members of Team Red that encountered enemy fire assured the flagship commanders that enemy clanks, not organic crew, had been responsible. No moral qualms, then, about the lack of mercy for them. More worrisome was that any organic crewmembers found in each ship could be counted on one hand, and were dead.

The fleet leaders spoke amongst themselves over their private channel. “What do you think?” said Gil. “Suicide?”

“Likely,” said Tarvek. “I wonder about the small crews in general. Either the ships have been well-automated, or maybe Dinnunder’s population isn’t enough to man a fleet this large?”

“Or it’s a trap,” Gil mused back.

“How original,” said Lucrezia.

Tarvek scoffed. “Not encountering a trap would be original.” He switched to the fleet-wide frequency. “Attention, aerofleet: have any survivors been found?”

Different voices overlapped the talkboxes to answer in the negative.

Gil switched back to their private channel. “This is a waste of time. We should pull the teams.”

Lucrezia said quickly, “Let’s allow them one more sweep. Even if no survivors, they might find some useful tech.” Idiot Matilda, making her practically beg for more time!

“These people aren’t Sparks,” said Tarvek. “They wouldn’t know useful tech if it introduced itself with a song. Bridge: how does the power look on the ships? Still low?”

A crewmember in the background answered in the affirmative.

“Well, that’s that,” said Tarvek. “Agatha, it was a nice, noble sentiment, but-”

The same bridge crewmember was heard agin. “Sir! Enemy ship power levels rising rapidly!” Finally, thought Lucrezia.

Tarvek huffed, “Does anyone care about originality??”

“ALL FLIERS, RETREAT FROM ENEMY SHIPS!” said Gil fleet-wide. “RETURN TO BASE! RETURN TO BASE!”

Communication from the boarding parties was still open. They could be heard running, calling out to their partners, and the more daring of them kicked on their boot jets and flew through corridors. But then: deafening explosions and screams. The fleet’s viewports offered an impressive view of the cavalcade of destruction that followed. It was no nice, orderly procession of explosions, but random detonations that enveloped whole ships in flames.

“All hands, brace for shockwaves!”

“NOOO!! SEAMUS!! HEATHER!!” Mara was the first to shriek out anyone’s names in anguish. No one else was calling out individual names – only orders. She raced to a viewport. It was a scene of horror: fire, plummeting wreckage, plummeting bodies, shrapnel spraying in all directions.

Lucrezia yanked her away. “Don’t cover the windows!” she snapped. “And keep quiet or switch off! They’re not our only casualties!

But Ag–! Your Ladyship, they’re-!” She stopped herself midsentence and sneaked another glance outside, and then to the Jägergenerals, who were uncharacteristically quiet. Then she forced her head to nod in acknowledgment, and returned to her station. After a second of thought, it occurred to her that she could rework its sensors to find survivors. This spurred her to new action.

There were shockwaves from the explosions. Some of the retreating aerofleet was caught in it and pushed hard towards the New Europan fleets’ shields. This was the painful decision to make, and it needed to be made now: keep up the shields and protect the fleet, or lower them to allow survivors inside, only to risk damage or even destruction?

Tarvek made it. “All fleet personnel! Lower the shields! Let them through!

“What??” said Lucrezia. “You’re risking us all! Never mind the damage; our enemy could sneak through!”

“They only need a few seconds,” he said. “We’re taking the risk!”

“I say that we don’t!”

Gil chimed in. “Agatha, lower your ship’s shields!”

Mara and the Jägergenerals looked her way. “Your Ladyship,” she said, “You were the one who suggested looking for survivors?”

Lucrezia pointed at them in turn. “If we take damage, it’s on all of you.” Mara was already shutting down the shields by the time Her Ladyship was proactively blaming them.

“Mistress, look!” said General Zog, pointing at a viewport. “Franz; he iz vounded!”

Sure enough, the family dragon was still in flight, but blood was visible even from a distance. His flight was erratic and steadily veering downward.

“Boooys?” said Lucrezia. She actually had a fondness for that dragon. Just a little bit. “Do you have anyone that can help Franz? A shrieking horror, or, uh…?”

“Oh, you need me to rescue Franz?” said Gil. “Not the slightest bit ironic.”

“i WiLl ‘ReScUe’ HiM! aT lAsT, mY rEvEnGe UpOn ThE lIzArD iS-“

“Someone other than Jolly Old Tom!!”

“On our way, Your Ladyship!” a familiar voice piped in through the communicators. Mara’s eyes went wide and her heart soared; her vision was threatened by tears of relief and joy. Captain Seamus was alive, and swooping to the rescue. “Team Gold, let’s get our dragon!”

All Guardians that had been caught inside exploding airships survived the “adventure.” Team Gold was already converging on Franz’ position. Lucrezia’s eyes went wide, as well, but there were no tears of joy to match Mara’s.

Four Guardians caught up quickly to Franz and supported his return flight to the Heterodyne flagship. Not all members of the aerofleet were so fortunate. Half of the Mechaniwasps had been melted to slag. Many Tooth Fairies had had their last meal of enamel. Screeching Horrors went down screaming like little girls. But don’t repeat that to the others; it wouldn’t end well. Still, a substantial number of the aerofleet remained, and all were racing to escape the concussive and hot convection.

The risk paid off; the heat and force of the explosions had dissipated enough to have minimal effects with shields down, but this was no time to get cocky. The instant the last survivor passed through, orders were sent to restore power. Dinnunder could have more than one “death from above” satellite around… or worse.

The sky rumbled and darkened. The chaos and confusion inherent in any battle had obscured the change in weather. Did Matilda have a weather device, or was it naturally dynamic and dramatic here? And if a device were responsible, was a storm approaching for cover, as a weapon, or both?

The Heterodyne fleet was unconcerned with this at the moment. Franz was flown straight to the flagship’s hangar bay. Lucrezia ordered the Jägergenerals to run the bridge as she headed for the door. General Gkika and Mara were right on her heels. Lucrezia heard them and stopped to face them. She arched an eyebrow.

“Vat?” said Gkika, spreading her arms. “Hyu dun vant os helpink hyu save de big lizard?”

“…Yes!” she said finally. “Of course I do. To sickbay!”

*************

In her haste to race heroically to Franz’s rescue, with medical supplies and assistants in tow, it finally occurred to Lucrezia that she had never learned the secrets of this construct. Really, of any of the Heterodyne constructs. She had the name by marriage, and the Castle, while accepting her as “family,” was skittish at best about giving up any secrets to those outside of the bloodline. Over time she had managed to unearth many secrets – some of them literally unearthed – but not all. The Jägers in particular, and also Franz, though she had made clandestine attempts at studying both. Without a “real” Heterodyne nearby, she could only hope that her efforts did not speed up his demise. On the other hand, for all she knew, her daughter had been offering advanced courses by now in Heterodyne Constructs at TPU.

Well! She could take charge, order the others about, and if Franz died, they’d be to blame. If he lived, she would have even more of his loyalty.

While she and the others raced inside the hangar bay, Franz lay on his stomach as the Guardians’ Captain and his “Team Gold” carefully removed his armor and wing harness. To their credit, they had not removed the giant piece of shrapnel protruding from the dragon’s left shoulder blade. That would take extra care to remove without causing further damage.

The weather outside had progressed from angry clouds to a full electrical storm. The whistling of high winds and thunder were heard through the open hangar door.

“Hello, my Lady,” the dragon groaned weakly at her approach. “Sorry: my Ladies. Looks like I’ve made a mess of myself.”

The Princess smiled. “Oh, you’ve done no such thing, dear!” she chirped. “Just relax, and you’ll be in strapping good health in no time!” Even in an emergency like this, she had treacle to spare. She turned to share her smile with Lucrezia, who met it with a nonplussed stare instead.

Lucrezia’s thoughts strayed a bit. Why did Franz say “Ladies,” plural-?

Right!” she said finally, putting on a wide grin. “Back to your old self. General Gkika, get pressure on those wounds. Any of you others, too. It’s going to take brute strength to stem the bleeding.” She began rummaging through the supplies on their cart, and grew frustrated. She pointed at Mara. “You! Didn’t you bring anything to cauterize his wounds? You want him to bleed to death?”

“Want him to-?” said Mara. “Wh-How could you say such a-?”

“Mistress,” said Franz, “I could really use… some juice.”

“You’re thirsty,” said Lucrezia. “Yes, we need to get you hydrated.” She pointed at Mara. “How much plasma and sugar water did you bring?”

“I—” she stammered, glancing to Gkika, and then their supplies, “We packed what you told us to pack. I don’t think we-”

Then go get some!” said Lucrezia, pointing to the exit. “Take someone with you and go!

“On my way, on my way!” She beckoned to a Guardian to follow. They had run a few steps, when Mara suddenly pivoted and called back, “How much do we need?”

“Juice, please…”

Lucrezia scoffed. “All of it!”

“The plasma or-?”

“All of it!”

“Mistress!” said Gkika. She did not let up keeping pressure on his wounds. “Hy dun tink he means de drinking kind uv juice? Yas?”

“What?” she said, glaring at the Jäger. As if answering for Gkika, a particularly bright show of lightning filled the entire bay with its light. The thunder following a half-second later shook the walls.

Lucrezia smacked her forehead. “Gnnhh! Stupid! Of course! Juice! JuiceJuiceJuiceJuiceJUICE!” The last uttering of the word was accompanied by her grabbing Mara by the shoulders and giving her a brief shake. Before she could reply, Lucrezia pointed about the room. “Don’t just stand there! Get some parts together for a collector! We need to get that electricity out there, into him here!”

“But…” said Mara, “Does or does he not need hydration-?”

“No!” she shrieked. “We all understand what ‘juice’ means now, yes? Can you make a lightning collector or not?”

“…Yesss,” Mara said through gritted teeth, and shifted gears to begin scanning the room quickly for any parts to scavenge. When her gaze fell on Franz, and the Guardians assisting him, her face lit up, and not from any of the lightning flashes outside.

She called over the Guardian nearest her, who turned out to be the same female that Lucrezia had earlier mistaken for a male. She asked the woman – Greta – to hold out her arm, and then popped open a panel in the forearm. Her small tools for fine work appeared in her hands almost out of nowhere, and became a blur of action.

Lucrezia held her arms wide. “What are you doing?? I give you a task, and you’re tinkering with your toys??”

Mara had her back to her all the while. She looked up at the mention of “toys.” Greta noticed a flare of the nostrils, a narrowing of the eyes. Then Mara’s countenance returned to the appearance of calm. She resumed her work.

“Lightning is too unpredictable,” she said, only glancing back over her shoulder.

Lucrezia grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. “Tremble and obey!” The sounds of multiple, metal-clad knees dropping to the floor echoed in the room. Without missing a beat, Mara tugged Greta’s arm upward to keep her from spontaneously kneeling and trembling. Gkika’s legs had buckled, but her resolve to aid the dragon kept her on her feet.

“He needs ‘juice,'” Mara said flatly, and was neither trembling nor obeying. Her eyes were fully dilated. “We can give him juice, on demand and as much as needed. Now let. me. Work.”

Lucrezia opened her mouth to rant some more, then reconsidered and moved in for a closer look. “How,” she demanded. “Wait; don’t tell me. I’ll work it out.”

Mara did not answer, and paused over the final step of her task.

“You’re opening a direct path to the battery,” said Lucrezia. “No conversion to heat or concussive power? Straight energy?”

“Correct,” said Mara. “Greta, this is going to put on a big show, but you won’t be harmed. Do you trust me?” She nodded. “Everyone else, stop trembling and move back. At least a few meters, and yes, that means you, too, General! Faceplates down.” She waited for compliance – even checking over her shoulder to make sure that Her Ladyship had moved to safety – then hesitated over the final step. “If I’m not quick,” she said quietly to Greta, “I’m the one who’ll get fried.”

“Your Highness, no-”

Mara made the last adjustment, then leaped back just in time to avoid the near-instantaneous discharge of the battery’s unrestricted power. She caught some voltage on her arm and held the spot where she’d been shocked. She stood beside Her Ladyship, who, if she had seen Mara’s near-miss, did not react to it.

The “show” consisted of an ever-growing mass of writhing electrical tendrils, arcing, sparking, snapping, crackling, and popping. Greta, who by all appearances was unharmed, stood with her arms up and palms forward. So far the rampant energy seemed content to gather in the air, only sometimes connecting with Franz, who moaned at each contact. Some arcs flew over just to tickle the Guardians. They were just as unaffected as Greta.

The power appeared to be reaching a crescendo. She had become almost a sphere of dancing, white light. Lucrezia screamed over the cacophony. “Get ready, Franz! You’re about to get all the ‘juice’ you need! You! Grab him! Grab him now!

The Lieutenant laid her palms on the dragon, who was jerked by the sudden shock to his system. “WOOAHHHHH!!!” he roared to rival the electricity’s din. “AHHHHHHHHHH!! AHHHHHHHH!! AHHHHOHHHHH YEAHHHHHH!! WOOOOO HOO!!”

“Yas!” said Gkika, pumping a fist. “Dot’s our boy!” A wayward blast of electricity slammed into Gkika. She doubled over and dropped to one knee. A Guardian saw this and ran over to block any further discharges with his suit.

Franz began standing on his hind legs now. Once he had balance, he held up his front legs as if in a triumphant pose. “THAAAAANK YOOOUUU, PRINCESS!” he shouted. Over the din Lucrezia couldn’t quite make out the last word. Had he thanked her, or that Mara woman?

“Shut it down! Shut it down!” she shouted, but could not be heard. By chance, Greta looked back as if requesting instruction. Lucrezia gestured to turn off the power. Greta seemed to understand, and seemed to be trying, but the show was not ending. Two Guardians stepped over and looked to the Sparks for guidance.

Mara shouted, “Remove her battery! Remove her battery!” which was not heard, but her miming of pulling it from the chest was comprehended. One held her from behind, and the other – Seamus, actually – activated the mechanisms that would allow the battery to be removed. The very instant he did so and held it in his hand: Silence. The battery itself – really, no larger than a scone – glowed its customary light blue, but gave off no further discharge. The show was over. With the suit’s power absent, the second Guardian had to hold Greta upright and pop open her faceplate so she could breathe. Lucrezia made a mental note of this aspect of their construction.

Franz shook out his limbs and stretched. In all the commotion, the shrapnel in his shoulder had been flung from his body and become embedded in a wall. The wound it left behind had been healing already, thanks to the ‘juice.’

“Well, that was fun,” he said. “I owe you guys.”

“No need,” said Seamus. “We look after our own.”

“Awww, I’m crying from all this love,” said Franz, and gave him a friendly shove. So friendly that he was knocked down and slid back several meters. “Heh. Sorry.”

Lucrezia stood with arms akimbo and grinned. “Well! Er, job well done, all. But the war won’t wait, so I must return to the bridge. Somebody stay with Franz to make sure there are no relapses.”

“Ah, but I feel great, Mistress!”

“If you insist that you’re fine,” she said, “You’re welcome to return to duty. But better safe than sorry. Gkika? Are you here?”

“Uhhhh, yas, Mistress,” she groaned, rubbing her limbs as she shuffled over. She forced a laugh. “Took sum uv Franz’s juice, hy tink!”

“Oh, my goodness,” Mara mumbled, and hurried to fuss over the Jäger. This earned her a bit of a chuckle.

“Tenk hyu, dollink, but hy be fine in no time,” she said, adding a pat on the shoulder. “Hyu iz goot to os Jägers.”

Lucrezia frowned. “All right,” she said. “You give Franz a lookover. The rest of you, back on patrol!” She pointed outside, which obliged with a dramatic display of more lightning and thunder. Mara hurried over to Greta to return her suit to normal functionality. Lucrezia, for once, waited without complaint. Instead she watched the Princess carefully as the suit’s power was reworked, and the battery returned. Mara quietly asked Greta if she needed rest, but the Lieutenant was still game.

“Finished?” said Lucrezia. “Fine. I’ll be on the bridge.”

The Guardians wasted no time flying outside for patrol. Lucrezia was heading in the opposite direction, to the other exit. Gkika caught Mara’s eye and subtly beckoned her over. Mara complied and leaned in close.

“So, Prinzess,” the Jäger whispered, “Hy tink ve need to tok. Haff hyu noticed dot-?”

“Are you coming?” Lucrezia called from the doorway. “Mara? Oh my Techmistress?”

“Um…” said Mara, glancing between the two of them. “On my way!” Then to Gkika: “I agree, but… later?”

“Yas. Later. But a soon vun.”

When Mara rejoined Her Ladyship, Lucrezia asked, “Something I should know about?”

“About what?”

“Whatever you and the General were discussing?” She stared at Mara, who stared back.

Mara shrugged. “We didn’t really say anything. Just some parting words.”

“Is that all?” she asked, staring again. And Mara shrugged again. “Then no time for chit-chat. We’ve got a war to win.”

**********

Storm or no storm, the war needed to move from the air and to the city’s borders. Doctor Kratzenschnupp’s thumpers had managed to map a portion of the underground city. Parts of it appeared to be entrances to the surface, and even if they were not, New Europa would make entrances. Bombers dropped nonexplosive slugs to gauge the boundaries of the city’s shields. To the naked eye, there was nothing but dirt and scrub below them. The sonic wave motion cannons were fired, but appeared to have little effect this time. The barrage would continue as long as they had power, then. Dampening fields were added to the attack and aimed to cover the same area as the cannons. It made sense for the city to have the strongest shields.

The images being sent from the thumpers suddenly disappeared, setting the fleet on yellow alert. Investigation revealed that they had been pulled underground and likely destroyed. The Emperors showed no overt concern about this; at least the enemy was reacting in some way. Watcher ships were sent to the edges of the thumpers’ maps to look for any activity beyond.

The Jägergenerals rejoiced over “finally gettink to fight!” They had no taste for silly air vehicles doing the work of super-soldiers. Their job, along with any other ground troops to be deployed, was to protect the 87th Pneumatic Drill Team. The drills were set up at the boundaries of the shields and set to work. The vibrations brought more spiders and hoppers from below. The Jäger made a collective shrug and got to work. It was not that fighting the same enemies was boring them, but a little variety in a relationship always kept things fresh.

“Generals,” Lucrezia announced, “You have the bridge. But contact me the instant that anything changes.”

“Yas, Mistress.”

“Your Ladyship,” said Mara. She looked haggard. Even a little bit unsteady. “I’d like to get some rest, too, if you don’t mind.”

“Who said that I’m getting rest? We’re at war, you know.”

“Oh. Well, I thought– Of course we’re at war,” she said, “But at the moment, it doesn’t seem that my direct contribution is needed?”

“Mistress,” said Gkika, “Ve ken handle Var, uv all tings. Hyu both go und do vat hyu need to.”

Lucrezia shrugged indifferently. “Fine. Come on. I’ll walk you to your quarters.”

“Oh,” said Mara, “Thank you. That’s kind of you.” She looked back to the Jägergenerals. Her gaze lingered half a second longer on Gkika. “Good evening to you, Generals.”

“Prinzess.”

Gkika watched them both leave, then sighed, put her hand over her mouth, und tot about vat to do.

****

Once the Princess was deposited in her quarters, Lucrezia made haste for the lab. Time to study the fleet’s shield configurations. Matilda, for all her bluster, had expressed a certain unease over the durability of their defense. It was as if the New Europans had made improvements on her confiscated tech. How rude. And so it was up to Matilda’s so-called partner to save her precious queendom. There would be some renegotiating before this was all done.

Now that she had the chance to study the improved tech, it was a simple matter to fashion a small device that could disrupt it remotely. Or the Heterodyne shields, anyway. From what she could determine, each Empire used its own algorithms, when they weren’t forced to borrow each others’. Shutting off the Heterodyne shields would only temporarily open them up for attack, then, but it was better than nothing.

Now to gather what other tech she could. This place was so cluttered, there were samples of just about everything lying about, working and non. A battery, any scribbles and specs she could find. That little nuisance, the Jäger-clank that kept scurrying about, could stay here. Ah, but not the sample of that indestructible metal the suits were made of. Speaking of which, too bad the Princess didn’t keep a whole suit here. Or maybe there was, but buried under a tarp or something. It was worth a look.

A soft knocking came on the door. Lucrezia froze, and listened. The lab was fairly well-insulated against noise, but she kept silent, anyway. Maybe it was that Zeetha woman again, here to talk about feelings. Just what she needed.

She heard the locks being undone, and sighed in frustration. After a pause, the Princess opened the door a scratch and poked her face through.

“Agatha?” she said quietly. Lucrezia stood with a hand on her hip and suppressed an eye roll. She forced a smile when the Princess noticed her. The Princess smiled back and pushed the door all the way open, carefully balancing a tea set on a tray. “Before you say anything, yes, I’m supposed to be resting, but I thought we could both have a little… just relax a bit and… talk about things.” She brought the tray over and pushed things aside to set it on the table.

“Um…” said Lucrezia, “That’s very thoughtful, but unnecessary. I don’t need to relax or talk right now.”

“Well, I do,” said the Princess. She waited for an answer, and after getting none: “Please?”

“…Fine,” Lucrezia pulled out a chair for herself and sat, but did not relax. “Just a cup, then you get your rest.”

“You need it, too, hon,” said the Princess, pouring the tea for Her Ladyship. Lucrezia bristled, but decided to say nothing about the ‘hon’ business. The Princess poured her own cup, added her extras, held it up, smiled, then clinked it gently against Lucrezia’s.

“In fact, that’s, um…” she said, “That’s something of the reason I stopped by. As much as I need sleep right now, I couldn’t. So typical of me. But in this case, I—Well, I can’t really put it delicately. I’m worried for you.”

“You’re… worried for me,” said Lucrezia, flatly enough for it to be a statement rather than a question. (Better than suspecting that Agatha had been overcome by a superior mind, one supposes.) “Again, that’s unnecessary.”

“Well-well-see, that reaction is an example of what I mean,” said the Princess. “It’s guarded, it’s… dare I say it, hostile. And that’s what I’ve been sensing… seeing… since your return, and it worries me. You know, you’ve been rather snappy at times, and… It’s easy to take such things personally. But I’ve been meditating on it, and I’m fairly certain it’s not me that the anger is directed against, but something else.”

Lucrezia leaned back and sighed, but said nothing. (Oh. Sweet. Lightning. This charade cannot end soon enough.)

“You’d been through…” the Princess continued, “An awful experience the last couple of days, and no one would blame you for experiencing some trauma for that.” (Please; continue your beginner’s psychology.) “And you’ve been running on all cylinders since. Agatha, it’s all right to relax. I-I struggle with that myself, obviously. But I just want you to know-” She leaned forward and put a hand on Lucrezia’s. (Oh, for a sharp knife right now!) “-You don’t have to put on any acts around me. If, for any reason, at any time, you need to talk, I’ll be there. And… no one would hear of it from me. I swear.”

(She’ll be killed first when I can drop this façade. Yes. But now I’m going to be up all night, thinking of ways to do it! Curses!)

The Princess waited for a reply, and when there was none, withdrew her hand and settled back in her seat. She picked up her tea cup, but kept it in her lap.

“Ohhh,” said Lucrezia in a blast of air. “Well! You are… certainly here for me. That’s much appreciated. Really, much. But you might have noticed that we’re in the middle of a war right now, so… a bit of strength is called for, wouldn’t you say?”

The Princess sighed. “I’m fully aware that we’re at war. You’ve become fond of saying so. And yes, there’s the need to appear ‘all together’ for the troops, but I meant behind closed doors. Even in a war, there are moments for that.”

“Right, well,” said Lucrezia, rubbing her fingers in thought, “I shall consider your offer.” (Poison? No, then I’d have to block an autopsy. Ooo! Lab explosion! Bits everywhere! Nothing to identify!)

“Oh,” said the Princess. She seemed sad. How useless. “I just thought I’d, um… put it out for you. But then… You and Zeetha have known each other longer. You’re probably each other’s confidantes. And really, we only need one, don’t we?”

“Exactly,” said Lucrezia. “Hit it right on the nose.”

“Hm,” said the Princess. “I won’t impose any more on it, then. After all, I have my husband and Heather. Being able to confide in my friends and family is precious to me.” Lucrezia stared, but said nothing. “Equally precious to me,” the Princess rambled, “Is that they feel that they can do the same with me.”

More waiting. Then: “It was very traumatic,” said Lucrezia, “And I promise to work on my… hostility. I’m very grateful that you noticed it, and pointed it out.”

“Any time,” said the Princess. “Wh-I mean… In terms of showing concern. Yes, as you say, we’re at war, but it’s good – necessary, even – to think of other things at times. It helps to ground us. Remind us what we’re fighting for.” (The power to shut people up?) “Isabel is turning five in two days,” said the Princess. (Ohhh, splendid, she has a kid. If she pulls out ANY pictures-!) “Hopefully I can call her, but this is the first time I’ve been away for any of their… special occasions. I think she understands why, but I don’t think Edward does. (Kids, plural. Great) He just knows that I’m gone. But Isabel… I can’t tell you how surprised – and proud – I was when she gave me Sturm. You know, to ‘protect’ me. So sweet.”

Sturm… Oh, yes, Isabel’s (wait, her kid’s??) little clank for you. That she made before the age of five.” (Sweet light-)

“I know!” said Mara, suddenly gleeful. “So proud. Er.. speaking of that, Theo and Sleipnir are keeping pace fairly handily with the big project. Theo more than she, I suspect. Sleipnir’s in the wicked throes of morning sickness. Poor thing. I can certainly sympathize with that.”

“Oh, so can-” Lucrezia began, then: “-Any mother, I’m sure. So… let’s hope that it doesn’t keep her from finishing the ‘big project’ on time.”

“I wasn’t aware that there’s a deadline for it.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean a deadline,” said Lucrezia. “I meant… just not dragging things out too long.”

“I wouldn’t want to, either,” said the Princess. She sighed. “So much else to do for the kingdom. I want things back to normal. Well—as back to normal as they can be, after that’s all done. And assuming you give your blessing, then… my world changes.”

“Oh, don’t be modest!” said Lucrezia. “Hon. The whole world would change.” (Hate guessing. No clue what this is about.)

“You’re not joking about that?”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

“About this,” said the Princess, “I wouldn’t want you to be. I mean, when… when you stood there, and announced to everyone that you were a Heterodyne – sorry, the Heterodyne – was that the most frightening thing for you?”

“…That?” said Lucrezia. “Oh… Well, you could ask anyone who witnessed it. It was big and dramatic and yes, frightening, but really… it was my finest moment. I mean, how could it not be?” (It better have been!)

“Hm,” the Princess mused. “Giving birth to my children was all of that for me. Please understand, I’m not diminishing your experience, not at all, but for me… Announcing being a Heterodyne will be those things, most certainly, but if I’m being honest, and I should be, I don’t think it would be my finest moment. Really, I… I just want to get it over with. I hope that doesn’t offend you. But it would be such a big relief.”

(What.)

“Agatha?” said the Princess, leaning in cautiously. “Does that offend?”

NO!” said Lucrezia. The Princess jerked back. “Wow, that came out louder than… No, that does not offend. At all. Your… announcing that-” She began to stand. “You know what? I just realized that I have something for you, and I would love it if you’d wait here. Be just a moment.”

“Wh– Agatha, I appreciate that,” said the Princess, “But I am entirely out of fuel here. I was just about to leave for my quarters-”

“It’ll only take a few minutes,” she said. “Please?” She grabbed the Princess’ shoulders and rubbed them playfully. “For my faaavorite Techmistress?”

The Princess smiled through gritted teeth. “Nnn, yes, fine.” Lucrezia made a gleeful noise and raced from the lab and straight to sickbay. Time to mix some chemicals in the proper proportions.

When she returned, the Princess had nodded off. Aww, she’s meeting me halfway, Lucrezia thought. She had also brought a new tea tray with piping hot water. She quietly set the other one aside and placed her new set down just as the Princess stirred.

“Oh!” she said. “Sorry, did I, um…?”

“Just for a jot,” said Lucrezia. “Hon. You know, I apologize for not finding my little something, but I did make more tea, so let’s both have another cup and call it a night.”

“Uh…” said the Princess, reaching for a bag. Lucrezia tried not to watch too intently which bag she took. “All right, just-” She was cut short by a loud yawn. Then she sleepily mixed her drink and clinked glasses again.

“Mara,” said Lucrezia, patting her hand, “It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry about the announcement. You don’t think it will be your finest moment, but really… it will be much more impactful than you think. I should know!”

“Mm,” said the Princess. She finished off her drink, then set down the empty cup. (Good girl!) “You’re right. I’m trying to predict something that can’t be. But I can predict that you’ll be there with me, yes?”

“Of course!” said Lucrezia, arms wide. “And that Doom Bell will toll for you. And your children.”

She smiled, then stood and nodded. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m off, then. And you promise to take care of yourself, too, yes?”

Big grin. “Of course.”

Mara made a little wave, then turned… and stumbled. At the last moment she stopped herself with an elbow to a table. “Ah! Goodness. I… I almost… Hooo… I guess I’m more… um… feeling… Agatha?”

Lucrezia did not answer, but continued sipping her tea. Mara stayed still a bit longer, then braced herself on furniture to turn around. “Agatha…” She was breathing heavily. “Something’s… I need help…” Such a doe-eyed look she has. Pure fear in her eyes. Delicious terror. “Help me…”

Lucrezia set aside her tea and stood, taking a moment to straighten out her clothing. This material wrinkled so easily. She watched the Princess trying so hard to remain upright, to calm her breathing, to slow down the rapid beating of her heart. The Princess’ head began to droop. She was putting up a pretty good fight, that was certain. And then, to Lucrezia’s great surprise, she suddenly bolted for the door that happened to be closer to her than to Lucrezia.

“No you don’t!” she called, and yanked on the Princess’ sleeve. The response was for her to use her momentum and spin back on Lucrezia, slugging her handily in the jaw. Lucrezia grunted in pain and let go of the sleeve. But the Princess’ balance was useless; she fell from the effort, but damned if she wasn’t now trying to crawl to that door. Lucrezia grunted in frustration – and pain- and fell onto the Princess’ back. She wrapped her arms around her to keep her in place until the drug took final effect; the Princess slammed her head backwards into Lucrezia’s nose. She growled in even more pain and released one arm to check for blood or busted cartilage. The Princess wriggled her way free and reached – reached – reached for the door knob. Her fingers touched it. Lucrezia dove once more onto her back.

A loud grunt from the Princess, then silence. Blessed silence, at last. She had finally stopped moving. Her breathing was deep and slow. Lucrezia rolled away from her, onto her back and sighed loudly. Quite a fight for someone barely conscious. She made a mental note to be careful about stimulants.

Finally she stood, double-checked the lab’s doors – locked! – then dragged the Princess over to a wall with the least amount of clutter nearby. She grabbed her tech goodies bag and slung it over a shoulder. The portable shield dampener was ready for its first field test. She clicked its remote power button, then listened intently for the subtle shift in tone indicating power loss.

And the clock was ticking. She reached into a pocket and pulled out what resembled half of a green postage stamp. She pressed it against the wall at waist height. It stayed in place; she tapped it quickly twice, and the “stamp” grew in seconds to approximately two by one meters in height and width. The wall had not become green, but its very faint borders were. Inside those edges was a view of a corridor, but not the one on the other side of this wall. Lucrezia poked her head through and looked both ways.

With a grunt and a groan and an oof, she hefted Mara over one shoulder and carried her through the new door. She turned around, now standing inside a corridor within Matilda’s palace, double-tapped an edge, then grabbed the now-compacted, portable portal from the other side.

–To be continued

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