Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 12

Genre: Steampunk / Gaslamp Fantasy
Stumbles Clumsily InGirl Genius
Mara’s Involvement: medium
Time: continuing after The Pauper Princess and the Way of the Trilobite.
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The story so far!
–Even Sparks can have a use for flash cards

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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 12!

Lucrezia had spent most of the next hour working to replicate her portable shield jammer for the other two flagships. She was not devoid of suspicion that the algorithms – and designs of their weapons and defenses – provided to her were false, but to openly question their authenticity would raise flags of their own. The surest and quickest way to test the jammer was to press a button, and preferably on the Wulfenbach bridge.

Time to meet the others in the Wulfenbach war room. The higher in rank one was, the less sleep one got. Such was the curse of leadership. She felt a yawn coming on, and stifled it. She fished in pockets for more stimulants. They were needed more often now. (Zola had better make good on her promise to help get Her out, permanently.) Time to meet the others. Time to meet…

For a moment, her vision crossed. Another yawn, no way to stop it. StayFocusedStayFocusedFindTheStims and there it was: She was clawing her way back.

Lucrezia stumbled and almost dropped her device. “Get out,” she growled quietly through clenched teeth. One mind fought to maintain dominance, and the other scanned the room for… anything. Parts. Weapons. Escape routes. The talkbox on a table across the room. Lucrezia felt her body moving towards it, her hand reaching for it.

“No!” she cried, and physically pushed her arm down. She forced her eyes to stay open, and coughed repeatedly to keep herself awake and to prevent her own “Other” from creating atonal harmonies. No heterodyning on her watch!

“Ssstay… awake,” she hissed to herself. An arm unconsciously reached for the talkbox again. With her other arm, Lucrezia grabbed the device and hurled it across the room. Stimulants! Where?? Nothing in main pockets or pouches. She fished through back pockets with the hand that she had more control over. The other hand and arm twitched about, as though searching for a purpose.

At last she found a small vial, but it fell from her grasp. “Curses!” It bounced once and then disappeared. She dropped to her knees and crawled under tables. So dusty here; hard to see. “Curses!” again. She found it at last and didn’t care if it were covered in dirt, cobwebs, or droppings. She had to go. Lucrezia swallowed its contents quickly. Another surge from Her. Lucrezia slammed her own hand against a table leg to cause pain and give her a surge to keep fighting. The extra dose of stimulants gave her the rest of the strength she needed to fight Her off and stay conscious. For a while.

Slowly, she gripped the edge of the table to haul herself up. She grabbed a satchel and stuffed it with the designs and other papers provided her by the unwitting New Europans. Time to meet with them again… after a visit to sickbay for more ‘medication.’

*****

“Ah, our final member arrives,” Gil announced after Lucrezia arrived. “Agatha, I was thinking-“

She said nothing, but held up her hand while walking past Gil and his Techmaster. In the back of the room was a table set with some food and drink. She grabbed a pot of coffee, poured herself a cup, and downed it one swig.

As she poured another cup: “Agatha?” Gil asked. She held up a finger to stop further inquiry, and downed that one, too. She closed her eyes and let her head tilt back a bit. After several deep breaths, she was satisfied that the extra boost was giving her the energy she needed to keep Her away. She set down the mug and took a spot around the Wulfenbach war table.

“As I was saying,” said Gil, then snapped his fingers and slapped his forehead. “Ah! We’re still missing a vital element. If you’ll excuse me?” Before she could protest, he left to conduct some unseen business just on the other side of the door.

“Your Ladyship?” said the Professor, distracting her from watching Gil. “I wish to offer my sincerest condolences on the loss of your Techmistress.”

“And I,” Doctor Kratzenschnupp chimed in. “Her credentials may have been less than-“

Tarvek cleared his throat quickly. “Doctor….”

“Forgive me, your Majesty,” he said quickly. “Your Ladyship. I only intended to say that, regardless of all else, hers was a formidable intellect. She will be missed.”

“ThankYouDoctorAndProfessor,” said Lucrezia. Odd. People were speaking so slowly. Get some coffee into them! “HerLossIsKeenlyFelt. WhatIsGilUpTo?“

“But Your Ladyship,” Kratzenschnupp continued rather than answer her question. “You have a new Techmaster, yes?”

“Herr Tryggvassen,” groaned the Professor. “The-”

“Gentleman Adventurer?” said Kratzenschnupp. He looked to Tarvek. “I thought he was being held in custody?”

“Oh, well,” said Tarvek, “We were all simply bowled over by his charms.”

“Will he be joining us?” Kratzenschnupp asked.

“ToldMeThatHe’sWorkingOnSomething,” said Lucrezia. “SomethingHarmless.WhateverKeepsHimOutOfTheWay.”

“Did you say ‘harmless?’” said Tarvek. “Have you met the man? You need to get him in here, now.”

“Nonlethal,then,” she said. “ToCarryOnThePrincess’Work,heSays. Tarvek, DoYouReallyWantHimInAPlanningMeetingOrJustOut Of The Way? Hoo! Still so tired. Need more coffee.”

“Under no circumstances-!”

“Here we are!” Gil announced, opening the door to allow Zeetha, Higgs, and General Khrizhan into the room. They balanced champagne flutes on platters while Gil carried the bottles. He was all smiles as he popped the cork and poured out ‘the good stuff’ himself. The drinks were handed out to all, and he admonished anyone sipping too early. Lucrezia suspected what was coming, and managed a demure smile.

“Does everyone have a glass?” he asked. Seeing that everyone did, he continued. “Excellent. Friends and colleagues, Agatha and I have some happy news to share.”

Tarvek muttered under his breath. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

Lucrezia pretended not to hear, and slipped her hand into the crook of Gil’s elbow. She could not make herself blush, but could giggle and act otherwise gawkishly in love. “Ohhh, Gil…”

His face beamed as he held his glass higher. “Friends and colleagues…” He stopped, and his expression grew somber. “You know, we shouldn’t do this first.”

Lucrezia’s dreamy look vanished. “What’s that?“

“We need to acknowledge tragedy as well as triumph,” said Gil. “Join me first in a toast to those soldiers and citizens of New Europa who have fallen.” He looked her way. “And to our good friends.”

If they expected her to make a speech, they were about to be disappointed. “Thank you, Gil,” she said quietly, before clinking her glass to his. The others followed suit with the toast. The glasses were drained, then refilled just as quickly.

Gil beamed. “As for the good news…“ Lucrezia linked arms a little tighter with his now and pretended not to notice Tarvek narrowing his eyes. Then Gil stopped and sighed. “Ohhh, forget the speeches! Agatha has, at last, agreed to marry me!”

Zeetha let out a whoop of glee, Khrizhan beamed with pride, Higgs nodded and hinted at a smile, and the Techmasters expressed surprise and clapped poilitely. Tarvek glowered.

Gil continued. “Yes, it’s been… oh, a little over four years since we met, and I proposed just about on the spot!” He put an arm around Lucrezua and squeezed. “Didn’t I, dear?”

She chuckled and smiled for all. “You certainly did.”

Spot on, old man,” said Tarvek. Wulfenbach and Heterodyne eyes were now on him. He downed his drink quickly and set the glass on the table. He adopted a dignified pose and cleared his throat again, but less obviously. “Well,” he said. “Agatha: I can’t say that I agree with your decision. But I promised to accept it, whatever it might be. Congratulations. To both of you.”

“Thank you, old boy,” said Gil. “That means a lot to me. To us.”

“Oh, Tarvek,” Lucrezia said gently. “Thank you for understanding. If it’s any consolation, it did take me this long to finally decide.”

“Yes,” said Tarvek. “I am comforted by that. Unfortunately, there’s something less comforting about this situation.” He had been surveying the layout of the war table. As such tables are, it was covered with pieces representing the combined New Europan forces. He leaned in to the table and began picking up items representing Sturmvoraus forces and setting them along the edge.

“Your Majesty?” said Doctor Kratzenschnupp.

“Doctor,” he said, “My apologies for not informing you sooner, but please prepare to withdraw your equipment from the surface. And pass on the order to withdraw our troops, as well.”

“Sire-?”

“Sturmvoraus, what game is this?” said Gil with overt incredulity.

Tarvek glanced his way, but continued calmly removing pieces from the board. “No game,” he said. “You made it clear earlier that you and Agatha are more than capable of handling this war on your own.”

“That is not what I said!”

Hey,” said Zeetha to Gil, “You told him ahead of time? He was spoiled?”

“Yes,” said Tarvek, “But not to deliver happy news.”

“Tarvek, don’t twist my words,” said Gil. “I advised caution.”

“What’s that, dear?” said Lucrezia, always making a point of touching Gil. Linking arms, a hand on his back or shoulder. Always somewhere. “Boys, really, there’s no reason for schoolyard dramatics. Tarvek – dear – you are needed. Right here, right now. Are we not all New Europans?”

“Not according to your dear fiance,” said Tarvek. “He outright warned of a coming imbalance of power, with me as the odd man out. The lesser man out. I’m sure that you’ll give your combined empires some clever name now. Wulfendyne, or Heterobach, or something.”

“My Lord!” the Professor implored Gil in disgust. “Please tell me you wouldn’t!”

“Hyu Majesties,” said Khrizhan, “Far be it from me to be de peacemaker, but dis iz a verra bad time to be fighting vit ourselfs. Und Meester Storm King, dis dun make hyu look goot!”

“And how would that be so, General?” said Tarvek, scanning to see if any of his pieces remained. “If you’re implying that I’m appearing cowardly? That my feelings have been so hurt that I’m taking my toys and running home? No. But your concern for my image is noted.”

“Put them back, Tarvek,” said Gil.

“Sorry,” he said, “But I have work to do at home. Many preparations to make. I don’t doubt that you both will return home in triumph. But above all, Sturmhalten and my empire must remain safe.”

“Put. Them. Back.”

“Oooo,” said Tarvek in mock fear. “Getting in some practice for me as your newest minion? You remember what I had to say about that.”

Gil slammed a fist on the table hard enough for anything not nailed down to jump. “Damn your wounded pride and ego, man! This is treason!”

Zeetha held up her hands. “All right, hold it, you two-!”

Gil snapped, “This is none of your concern!”

“’Treason’ applies to betraying one’s country or sovereign,” said Tarvek coolly. “Of course that’s not what you meant by that?”

Lucrezia leaned in. “It means betrayal, full stop. Betrayal of your colleagues. Of your friends. Of New Europa!”

“Hyu iz schmott guy,” said Khrizhan, “Und ve Jäger rezpect hyu. Dun do nottink to change our minds!”

“Sorry to disappoint you, General,” said Tarvek, and with that, he produced a small, but formidable-looking weapon from his coat. “I’m leaving for home now; this is only to ensure that I’m able to leave the room. I’d rather not have to-“

“Giff me dot, hyu EEDIOT!” the General bellowed. His arm easily reached the width of the table; he grabbed at the weapon with the speed of a whip. Tarvek was a microsecond faster. The General just missed the tip of Tarvek’s weapon. And the Storm King fired.

A brilliant flash of light hit the General squarely in the chest. He roared and howled in agony as the weapon stripped away his body layer by layer, from clothing to skin to muscle to nerves and bone. He roared until there was nothing left of him to produce any sound. And then there was nothing left of him at all. Lucrezia could not hear her own screams over the screech of the weapon and the death cries of her General. She stumbled back and right into Gil, setting him off balance. He grabbed her and pushed her behind himself for protection. Zeetha and Higgs continued his effort by pulling her into the corner behind themselves.

Even Tarvek was stunned into silence after the din subsided. A lick of smoke curled upwards from his death ray.

Damn him,” he muttered, then glared at Gil with a fire rarely seen. “He brought that on himself! You brought us to this! I warned you not to underestimate me! I will defend my empire against all threats! ALL OF THEM!

Zeetha whispered over her shoulder, “Agatha! Get out!”

“I…!” Then she felt a boldness swelling inside. “You monster! You killed my General!”

“And this is how you’ll defend your empire?” Gil snarled. If he felt any fear, he did not show it. “Like some thug, disintegrating everyone you see? I am Gilgamesh Wulfenbach! There is nothing-!

His boast ended in another flash of light, the screech of the machine, and his gradual, agonizing disintegration.

“You were Gilgamesh Wulfenbach,” said Tarvek. “Now you’re nothing.”

Lucrezia screamed and reached out for him, but was roughly pushed back by Zeetha.

“Get out, Agatha! Get out get out get out!” As Zeetha barked the order at her zumil, anyone else still living rushed at Tarvek. His own Doctor met a horrifying end for his disloyalty. The Professor screamed his last by the time Lucrezia threw open the door and stumbled from the war room and into the corridor. She struggled to find traction and the correct direction to run. A woman’s cry from behind her; she glanced back just long enough to see Zeetha leaping through the door, only to fall straight down, dead. Or rather, half of Zeetha fell. There was nothing past her waist.

“Help!” Lucrezia shrieked as she ran. “Help me, please! Anyone!” Where were guards? Where were soldiers? Where was anyone??

“Ahh, there’s my plucky sidekick!” she heard a booming voice call out from a side corridor. She backtracked and raced up to Othar in a panic, pawing at his chest and trying to form words. She did not seem to notice him holding his own weapon-like device. “Whoa, hey there! I don’t blame you for your enthusiasm. I know; women just can’t help themselves around me, but really: dignity, my dear!” He held up his device. “I came to show you-“

“SILENCE, you oaf!”

“Excuse me! No need for the raised voices, young lady. I’m your Techmaster, remember? Or is being yelled at part of the job?“

“Tarvek’sGoneMadAndIsKillingEveryone!ProtectYourMistress!”

“Say that again?”

On cue, Tarvek’s ominously sing-songy voice could be heard echoing in the main corridor. He tapped the weapon against the metal walls as he walked. “Ohhhhh, Agathaaaa…”

Lucrezia shrieked and pushed past the Gentleman Adventurer to flee down the side corridor. Tarvek called out again. He was closer this time. Othar hmphed to himself and activated the power on his own device.

“Ha!” said Tarvek as he popped into view, his weapon primed and ready. His wicked glee became surprise; Othar had his own weapon aimed right back at him. Tarvek immediately pointed his weapon upwards and held up both hands. “Wait Wait Wait it’s not what-“

In another blinding flash and surge of power, Tarvek disappeared.

******

Lucrezia eventually found her bearings on the ship and made her way to a SideSwipe. It was just as she was leaving Gil’s ship that she began hearing alarms and chatter on the ship’s communicators. She flew the SideSwipe so quickly as to almost smash into the side of the Heterodyne ship, but managed to dock, if rather roughly. The same alarms and chatter could be heard on her ship as she careened through its corridors. But to where? Seek out protection from the crew? Return to Matilda? She needed to pull thoughts from this jumble of fear, confusion, and skepticism. That kind of madness wasn’t Tarvek’s way. Or was it? The Sturmvoraus were master schemers, but not strangers to savagery. Did he really destroy those people before her eyes? She was all for sowing discontent and setting them at each other, but it was supposed to be from a safe distance!

General Zog, who had been assigned to the bridge, found her halfway to it. “Mistress! Hyu iz safe! Iz de reports true?? Haff de Storm King gone krazy? Und not in de good vay. Vas he shooting effryboddy? General Khrizhan! Iz he-?”

“They’re all dead,” she huffed. “All of them! Perhaps Othar, too, but he died protecting his Empress!”

“As ve all vould,” said the General. “Dis vill not go unavenged!! But come! Hy take hyu sumvhere safe first!”

“I need to get away from the fleet,” she puffed. “From Tarvek. I-I need to… to blend in with the troops below. The Jägers will protect me, yes?”

“My, iz hyu out of sorts, to ask dot kind of qvestion! Come; dis vay!”

He led her to the hangar bay, which was a relief; if Franz wasn’t there to fly her from the ship, then there had to be a spare Guardian suit somewhere. The General all but dragged her along in his haste to reach a bank of large lockers.

“Hyu take hyu suit und go!” he said. “Fly avay or sumting! Hyu know dese tings iz toff! Hy bet even death rays von’t hurt hyu!”

“Excellent idea!” she said, knowing from experience how true this was. She set about trying to work out the locking mechanisms for the containers.

The General watched for a moment before losing his patience. He pointed to the locker at the end. “Hyu Ladyship,” he said, “Hyu dun vant hyu own suit?”

“Yes, General, that’s exactly what I’m trying to-!” she said, and then followed his finger and instantly recognized what had to be her own locker. White with gold trim, and with a larger winged trilobite insignia than the others. Well, that Techmistress had taken care of Agatha, at least.

“Er… of course, General! I was making my way there.” She guessed correctly about the requirements of a handprint and retinal scan to unlock the container. The gleaming suit of white and gold inside began to open for her. How thoughtful. She stepped carefully inside.

“General,” she said as the suit began to close itself around her, “As soon as I’m a safe distance away, fire all weapons at the Sturmvoraus vessels. Turn them to slag! We must avenge our friends! Avenge Gil!”

“Avenge Khrizhan!” he bellowed, and then stepped back to bow. “Hy vill crush dot maniac vit pleasure, Hyu Ladyship.”

“That’s ‘Your Imperial Majesty,’” she said, and with that, she activated her suit’s jets, rose up from the floor, leveled off, and rocketed away… missing the open hangar door entirely, and smashing through the wall just beside it. Zog winced in sympathetic pain. He took a moment to sigh before stepping over to the new ‘door’ and watching her fly with the least of ease.

His pace back to the bridge was perhaps more leisurely than Lucrezia might have liked, but she was not witness to it. He switched off the incessant klaxons, to the relief of all. Such verdammt ringing in the ears, they brought. The bridge crew watched him with a mix of perplexity and apprehension.

“Shtand down to yellow alert,” he said to the crew, and fastened his communication headset. “Hallo, ennyvun, hallo, hallo.”

“We’re here, General. Is she away?”

“Yas,” said Zog. “How iz Khrizhan?”

“He’s fine,” said Gil. “She left in her own suit, yes?”

“Hy iz not dignifying dot vit an answer,” said Zog. “Und hy dun like dis plan. Ve kent keep her safe eff she iz vit de enemy!”

“None of our options were without huge risks,” said Gil. “Othar showing up didn’t help in any case.”

“FOUL!” the General heard the Gentleman Adventurer protest from the background.

“Just reverse that thing, all right?” Gil barked at him. “Get Tarvek back to normal! Uh… So, General, you’re probably supposed to be attacking the Sturmvoraus fleet about now, yes?”

“Mistress’ orders, yas.”

“Understood. We’ll put on a good show, then.”

“For dis kind uv krazy plan, hyu had better!”

******

Now that she had made her escape, the inevitable ‘Now what?’ question forced itself into her mind. Matilda’s shields were still up, she had no direct means of communicating with her, and her prowess in flight was nothing to extol in any Heterodyne B… er, Girl’s adventures. At least she managed to keep the ongoing battle more or less below her, but based on her erratic paths, that could change quickly.

A male’s voice suddenly popped inside of the suit’s helmet. “You seem to be having trouble with your flight pattern,” it said. Its soothing tone had the unintended effect of increasing her anxiety and throwing off her direction even worse. “Would you like me to engage autopilot?”

“Who is this??” she demanded. “Uh, Suit – switch off all communication!”

“External communication is already inactive,” the voice continued. “I am your suit’s internal assistant. Your velocity is presently at terminal. Would you like to level off now?”

“Yes!” she shrieked. “Yes, level me off!” She felt the ‘assistant’ take control of the suit and move her limbs into slightly more aerodynamic positions. She was rocketing quickly to smash right into a platoon of Jäger – not a bad move, she thought to herself – but then was pulled up abruptly by the assistant’s piloting, with no damage to any New Europan troops. Better luck next time.

“Suit,” she said, “Turn off autopilot. Let me steer myself.”

“As you wish.”

“Thank-AHHH!” she said as the suit lurched violently for the several seconds it took for her to gain some semblance of control. She was far above the battlefield by now – almost level to the fleet’s main airships – which was where she wanted to be. She hovered awkwardly and watched the result of her orders. The Heterodyne fleet, joined by Wulfenbach ships, was firing on its new enemy, the Sturmvoraus Empire. Explosions lit up the sky as the combined fleets began making quick work of the traitor. Smaller ships went down in flames quickly; the larger ships would take time, but their end was inevitable.

Unbelievable. Tarvek’s Spark was strong, but even the greatest intellect was not immune to stupidity. He should have knuckled under to her and Gil. She shrugged. Farewell, sweet Storm King.

She glanced down long enough to realize that she had drifted away from the battlefield and was hovering towards the shielded center of the palace. She did not see any Heterodyne fliers heading her way to assist; had anyone bothered to look up? Ah, yes, she had shut off external communications. Perhaps-

That irritatingly soothing voice clicked on. “Vessel proximity detected,” it said. “Would you care for guidance on evasive maneuvers?”

“Wha-?“ she said, and spun in midair. Perhaps too quickly at first. It took her a good five seconds to stop spinning like a flywheel. A second later she was facing one of Matilda’s combat fliers. Like her, it was hovering, but its weapons did not appear to be hot. Then four more ships rose up from brief openings in the shield, and joined their lead. The lead-! Dupree, perhaps? Yes, very likely.

That accursed suit assistant chimed in again. “Vessels appear to be preparing for aggressive action. Would you like-?”

Silence, foolish artificial intelligence!” she barked, and looked for the controls to the suit’s own weapons. The four ships near the lead suddenly accelerated, came right at her, and then banked away at the last moment. The lead ship remained. She wanted to look back to see where the other ships went, but not if meant taking attention away here. After a moment, Lucrezia saw the red lights of the ship’s main weapons and heard the power building.

She popped open her faceplate and pointed to herself frantically. “Dupree! It’s me! It’s me!” There was a good possibility that the suit would not be destroyed, but there was no saying that a point-blank shot wouldn’t hurt.

The weapons stayed hot, but did not fire. After an uncomfortably long pause, there was a hiss, and then a bit of steam from the canopy as it opened. Lucrezia breathed in relief. It was Dupree. But why the staring contest? Was she going to lead Lucrezia through the shield or not? Now she was talking to someone and did not seem happy with the conversation. With any luck it was Matilda, ordering her not to shoot. The conversation seemed to end. Dupree glared at her, then made a brief beckoning motion to her before shutting the canopy and turning the vehicle.

Now Lucrezia looked back, and saw the other ships keeping some Guardians busy. Or one ship, anyway. The others had been destroyed; this one was on its last legs. The sound of Dupree’s engines revving snapped her back to attention. She followed unsteadily, but made it through the small opening in the shield that appeared before them. As soon as Lucrezia cleared it, it shut behind them, foiling any attempts of the Guardians to follow.

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

Admiral Dupree was not her usual cheerful self as she led Lucrezia, still clad in armor, to a control room occupied by Queen Matilda and various minions, including Hugh. She broke off her conversation with him to greet the Admiral, who grumbled, “I brought your girlfriend.”

Matilda scoffed. ”Oh, really, Admiral, it’s not as though you haven’t been killing anyone lately. But thank you for rescuing her!”

Dupree scoffed right back and made haste to leave in order to make up for the lack of mayhem in this errand. Lucrezia waited for her to exit before standing arms akimbo and grinning.

“Oh, the cleverness of me!” she said. It was important to present confidence at all times, whether one was brimming with it or not. “And I was not ‘rescued,’ you know. I was deliberately heading your way.”

“Rather unsteadily, we noticed,” said Matilda. Lucrezia’s grin disappeared into a grimace. “Very thoughtful of you to bring one of the suits! It’s a bit smaller than I expected, though. Still, my compliments to the chef. This will be a nice addition. By the way, are you here for good, or just running another errand?”

“For good,” said Lucrezia. She held out her satchel and flipped open its top. “Plans and designs, handed to me without a fuss.” Then she gestured to the banks of viewscreens taking up most of the room. “Perhaps you’ve seen my other handiwork? I did say that I’d set them at each other.”

“Oh, did you manage that?” said Matilda cheerfully. She followed the gesture to glance from screen to screen. “Is there anything to see here?”

“It should be obvious,” said Lucrezia, and peered at the various images. She found one that was focused on the fleet from a distance, and squinted. “Well, that’s… No, that’s not right. Can you zoom in?” A technician obliged. Lucrezia frowned and shook her head. “No. No, this must be an old image. Show something from right now.”

“All of these are live,” said Matilda. “This is from ‘right now.’ What should we see?”

Lucrezia pointed at a screen. “The fleet! You should be seeing smoke! Explosions! Tarvek’s ships should be in ruins!” Matilda studied the image in silence while Lucrezia flitted from screen to screen, looking for any proof of her claim. “What’s wrong with your imagers?”

Nothing is wrong,” said Matilda, frowning at the insult. “Whatever you think we should see, perhaps it’s too small.” Lucrezia gaped in disbelief. “I’ll send some scouts to get a better look. How about that?”

“…They tricked me,” Lucrezia muttered to herself. “They tricked me!! ME!!” She slammed a fist hard on one of the control panels, forgetting that the suit increased her strength significantly. Half of the table was smashed into bits. Matilda tugged at her arm, but in vain. Lucrezia scarcely noticed her and shook her fists at the sky. “Make a fool of me, will they?? I’ll show them! I’LL SHOW THEM A-!!”

“Will – you – STOP – that??”

“Don’t ruin my moment!”

“Well— Fine,” said Matilda, “But let’s have your moment in my lab! Check on our guest there, yes?” Lucrezia lowered her arms and brooded. “Let’s go!” Matilda addressed her minions. “Carry on, all! Oh! I almost forgot. Hugh, darling? Now that Her Imperial Majesty is with us for good, let the New Europans know that the petting zoo is open for business. And they need to meet the Kriegers, too. You’ll take care of that, won’t you?”

“With utmost pleasure, Your Majesty,” he said, flashing a megawatt smile before bowing. Lucrezia lingered her gaze on him a bit longer than the Queen appreciated, and they were off to the lab.

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

Matilda deactivated the complicated, and deadly, defenses guarding her lab. The door unlocked with a hiss of steam before moving aside. “Vous avez le cervau d’un sandwich au fromage!” she called to the four guards within, who recognized her voice and the sounds of the passphrase, if not the actual words, and allowed the women inside. She dismissed them and then shut and relocked the door.

Lucrezia was still fuming. She snapped off her satchel and tossed it aside. Papers flew out and scattered to the floor. “Nnngh! Even these are fakes!” she growled. “I’m certain of it!”

“Let me guess,” said Matilda calmly. “Probably can’t even shut off their shields remotely, hm?”

“What do you think??”

“Now just—“ said Matilda, her hands up in calming gestures. She debated gathering up the pages, but left them as is. “We both knew that the longer you stayed, the higher the risk they’d figure you out. Well, they did, and we’ll just have to work with that. Besides…”

She stepped around and snapped up a lever that switched the rest of the lab’s lights on one by one. Still strapped to the guest table and still unconscious was Mara, just as Lucrezia had left her. Or not entirely that. Matilda had been kind enough to put some clothing on her, thin and shabby though it was. She had also inserted an intravenous port in her arm. Clever. The poor girl…

What? Where did that come from? Lucrezia shook that vulgar thought from her mind. She continued staring at this strange woman who blithely claimed to be a member of one of the sparkiest of Spark families.

It happened again. A twinge – a tiny twinge – of compassion. She felt her legs moving in that direction, her hand reaching up slowly, as if to… what? Undo the restraints and rescue her?

Yes!

No!

“Are you all right, Auntie?” said Matilda.

“Not… Your… Auntie!” said Lucrezia(?). She grunted and bent over to focus on fighting back, but She was gaining more ground than before. “Stims! Need… stims!” She gasped and looked up abruptly, then all about the room in jerky motions. “M… Mara?” she said, and began to reach out.

“Merde!” said Matilda. “I’m going to need this, after all!”

“What?” said Lu… atha. She gasped. “Zola!”

“Hold still, ma chère!” said Matilda, and tried to clamp something onto her head. She resisted; the struggle that ensued would normally have been utterly one-sided, if it were not a three-way battle. Lucrezia’s burden was to keep Agatha from smashing everything to bits long enough for Matilda to place a helmet-like device on her head and to keep it there. Agatha unintentionally smacked her bare head against it during the struggle. The pain gave Lucrezia the boost she needed to regain dominance. She allowed Matilda to clamp on the device and switch on its power.

In a few seconds she was feeling more like her old self again. The daughter was being pushed down this time, ha ha! But it clearly was going to be her own version of the trilobite choker. And if Matilda didn’t come through with a (reverse) beacon engine, she’d just have to make one herself. After killing her and seizing her crown, of course. That thought brought on an unexpected twinge of guilt. Damn! It was only taking the edge off Agatha’s fight. There was only one way to make it permanent. She had to go.

“Soch a nize hat,” said Matilda in a mock-Jäger accent. “And does it help?” Lucrezia nodded. Matilda waited, and when no other response came: “Oh, you’re very welcome. All right; shall we wake our so-called Heterodyne and see if she has anything interesting for us?”

Matilda pulled a rolling tray closer to her. There were needles filled with various substances, and that sound-proof gag that Lucrezia recalled with disfavor, and-

“Why do you have that here?” she snapped, pointing to that accursed trilobite.

Matilda shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “It could come in handy. If she’s really a Heterodyne, perhaps it will affect her, too.”

“Just as long as you use it only on her.”

“Oh, worry, worry, worry,” said Matilda, and picked up a needle. She tapped it, squeezed out any air bubbles, and injected its contents into the intravenous port. She set the needle aside and waited.

“By the way,” said Lucrezia, “You won’t have trouble getting her to talk. The woman never shuts up. You’ll see.”

“Good. I look forward to her cooperation,” said Matilda without looking. Her attention was on their guest, who began to stir. Her breathing became a little faster and more shallow. “Ahh, wakey wakey now, dear.”

“…Mmph. Kelvin?”

“Sorry,” said Matilda. “I didn’t catch that.”

Lucrezia lost patience and smacked an armored fist on the edge of the metal table. It caused a dent and rattled the table as a whole. Mara jolted awake with a gasp. She felt the restraints on her limbs right away. She shook and tugged at them in confusion. Matilda stepped closer and waited for Mara to finally notice her. Lucrezia stood behind her and just out of sight. An awkward silence ensued. Mara only stared wide-eyed at the Queen. Matilda cleared her throat.

“Hello, my dear,” she said cheerfully. “Pardon the restraints, but safety first, non? Allow me to introduce myself; I am Queen Matilda the First of Australia. Or ‘Dinnunder,’ in case you know it as such. You are my guest here, albeit somewhat limited in movement. That could change, depending on your choices. But please; I’ve been told who you might be, but feel free to introduce yourself?”

Silence. Mara’s eyes narrowed slowly.

“Err, am I speaking a language that you understand?” said Matilda. “Parlez vous Francais? Espanol? …Russkiy?”

Silence. Mara looked straight up at the ceiling.

“Well!” said Matilda, clasping her hands. “You’re right, dear. I can hardly get a word in.”

Lucrezia yanked off a gauntlet, stepped into view, and slapped Mara – hard – across her cheek. Mara’s reflexes were good, but caught unawares and still a bit groggy, she took the full force of it without rolling with the blow. She yelped and shut her eyes, then tried to work through the pain without showing these barbarians any-

Lucrezia leaned in close to her face and snarled, “Think you’ll make a fool of me?? Answer us!!”

Mara slowly opened her eyes and turned her head to face this new enemy. She had that same doe-eyed look of surprise that had annoyed her so.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “Why are you claiming to be a Heterodyne??”

Matilda tried to interject, but was ignored. “Lucrezia-“

“You will tell us who you are,” she ranted, “You will supply us with real weapon designs and real shield algorithms, and you will create anything and everything we tell you to make to help us destroy our enemies and WIN THIS WAR!!” She stepped back and sneeered. “‘Hon.’”

“Well!” said Matilda with a smile. “It’s good to get that out of our system. Now-“

An unexpectedly calm voice interrupted. “Where is Agatha?” Mara asked.

Lucrezia regarded her with cynical amusement, then scoffed. “Have the sedatives affected your sight? I’m right here!” When Mara only stared more in silence before slowly looking away, Lucrezia smacked the table again, rattling it. “WHO ARE YOU??”

Agatha knows who I am,” she said quietly and without looking. “You’re not her.”

“Clearly,” said Matilda, “Instead of standing around screaming and being as intimidating as we can, we use the venom. I mean, we were going to, anyway, but she’s not as talkative as you’d thought.”

Nor was she one for witty quips to show her defiance. Silence was much more confounding to enemies. So few truly knew how to respond to it.

Matilda picked up a hypodermic filled with a gray fluid. She showed it to Mara. “Last chance to be forthcoming – even a little – before this. Before you have no choice.” Mara looked away again. Perhaps this ‘Matilda’ person didn’t know that New Europans had been innoculated against slaver wasp venom and parasites. She may be able to work with that lack of knowledge. Perhaps-

Matilda shrugged. “C’est la vie. You start with the venom of three slaving spiders, then.” Now Mara looked over. Her acting began now, to hide any concern about what might come. Slaving spiders? Matilda spoke matter-of-factly as she injected a small amount of venom into the port.

“Your everyday non-Spark,” she said, “They only need one, perhaps two, doses. But Sparks require at least three. Why, the former King himself, my late husband, needed five before he yielded to my will. I say my ‘late’ husband because I quietly assassinated him after he stopped being useful. Made it look accidental, of course. I’ve found that, in general, it’s more efficient to get what I need from Sparks, and then dispose of them. I know, I know. Worrisome to you now. But eventually it won’t…”

She stopped when Mara’s arms and legs tensed and began to twitch. Mara grunted and groaned and otherwise made a very good show of resisting the horrifying pain that wracked her body as the venom worked its way through her system. Matilda watched her closely for any signs of catastrophic bodily failure, as had occasionally occurred with others. Cardiac arrests, aneurysms, and ghastly combinations of those and other fatal conditions. This one seemed to be riding it out, though. She didn’t even need the gag.

Lucrezia, meanwhile, had sorted through her loose papers and found what she wanted. She pushed past Matilda and held it up to Mara.

“You!!” she said. “Is this the real formula for the indestructible metal? Answer me!!”

Matilda replied for her. “I think we both know that they gave us false documents.”

“This is a litmus test!” said Lucrezia. “No doubt she’ll keep trying not to answer… until the venom works. Right, ‘hon?’” Mara looked at the page, then away. “Answer me!”

“Clearly she needs more,” said Matilda, and picked up another needle. “Trying to beat the King’s record, are you? Oh, and I do apologize. Completely forgot to warn you about the pain! So silly of me! Sometimes I wonder how I keep anything in mind! Right! Three more doses, then.”

“Is this the real formula??”

There was no stoic suffering this time. Mara’s head fell back, and she screamed. Her body convulsed, buffeted by the storm of pain that left no nerve untouched. Matilda grabbed the gag and struggled to clamp it over the mouth. It took Lucrezia’s extra strength to hold her head still long enough. Matilda snapped it all into place a few seconds after Mara’s vocal blast began. It rattled their ears and even loose equipment in the room, until the sound was shut off. Or was it? As effective as the gag had been for Lucrezia and others, Mara’s screams could still be heard, even if just as a whisper. Matilda’s eyes widened.

“Er…” she said after composing herself, “Let’s give her a few minutes for the discomfort to settle.” They did, but the time passed slowly, for neither woman was in the mood for idle chitchat to pass the time. When Mara was twitching and shaking less, Matilda hovered her hand over the gag cautiously, and then peeled it off carefully. Just in case that blast happened again. A breath of relief when there was quiet.

Lucrezia called her name. Mara took a moment to glower at the ceiling before slowly looking over. Lucrezia held up the sheet again. This time she spoke calmly, but still quite threateningly. “Is this the real formula for your indestructible metal?”

Mara stared at the page a long time. Her lips trembled, but whether to form words or in response to the pain, they could not say. She looked away again, and did not answer. Matilda cocked an eyebrow. She leaned in to speak softly.

“I am impressed, dear,” she said. “That’s more venom than anyone has had before, and lived. I can tell you’re fighting its effect. Not just the pain, but that compulsion… that drain on your will. Obedience will make the pain go away. Did you know that? You can feel so much better if you just… give in and serve us. Give in. The pain will go away. Give in.”

Mara shut her eyes and breathed. The pain had never lessened. She was just using techniques learned over many years – most of them the hard way – to work through it. Barely.

Die first.”

“Hm,” said Matilda. “I was hoping you wouldn’t.”

“Keep going,” said Lucrezia, eyeing first Mara, then the remaining hypodermics on the tray. “Give it all to her.”

“But that-“ Matilda started, and then ended with a sigh. “Going to kill her, anyway, I suppose. But you want it to be as painful as possible. Did she do something to you?”

“She claims to be a Heterodyne,” said Lucrezia, and looked sharply at Matilda. “That’s enough for me.”

Matilda pondered this for a moment, and then placed the gag once more over Mara’s mouth. She took another needle – loaded with enough venom for four spiders – and emptied it into Mara’s veins.

Five minutes later, the chafing from the restraints had caused both of her wrists to bleed. She had shaken and twisted and flexed so violently, the women started making quiet bets with each other how she was going to finally die. At last, her back arched upwards as much as the restraints allowed; her head bent back to the farthest extent of the cervical vertebrae. Her eyes went round as saucers, and then she collapsed, and was still. After a moment of silence, Matilda sighed and reached for the gag. She drew back when Mara closed her eyes, but continued to stir, and to breathe.

The women traded looks; Lucrezia was the one to finally, carefully remove the gag. Foamy saliva dripped from both sides of Mara’s mouth, and she coughed to expel the rest. Matilda took a handkerchief and wiped away the remnants. Once Mara’s coughing subsided, there was silence, save for her labored, pained breathing. Her eyes were all but blind with tears. Matilda batted away those, too. Gently so, in fact.

And Lucrezia held up the page again. “Mara,” she said, and was patient enough to wait for her to slowly, haltingly, look her way. “Do you see this?” A long pause, and then she nodded, just a little. “Then tell me: is this the correct formula for your indestructible metal?”

Once again, she stared at the sheet. Once again, she looked away. Lucrezia’s mouth dropped open. “Unbelieva-“

No.”

“I’ll just tear her head off, then,” said Lucrezia, and prepared to do just that.

“Wait!!” Matilda shouted and gripped Lucrezia’s arm tightly. “You didn’t hear. She spoke.”

“Oh?” said Lucrezia. “Say it again: is this the correct-?”

No,” Mara whispered, and shut her eyes. “It isn’t.”

Finally,” said Lucrezia. “Now; that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Matilda gave her a Look. She waved it off. “What, sarcasm is wasted on you?” She faced Mara again. “Now that that’s out of the way, you’re going to cooperate fully. You’re going to do whatever we tell you to do. Make whatever we tell you to make. Aren’t you? ‘Hon.’”

“…Yes.”

“Yes… What?”

Mara slowly looked her way. Her expression was one of genuine confusion, not defiance. “Yes… Agatha?”

No,” said Lucrezia, and straightened up. “I am your Empress. Not ‘Your Ladyship.’ Not ‘Ma’am,’ and most assuredly not… ‘Hon!’ Now again: ‘Yes’… What?”

YesYour Majesty.”
–To be continued

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