Agatha H. and the Fair Dinkum Blue – Part 14

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!
–Blow, ye winds, o’ mornin’, blow, ye winds, high ho

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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 14!

Gilgamesh Wulfenbach growled through clenched teeth, to no one in particular, “We’ve been on the defensive since we first arrived! I’m done with it! From now on, we attack!

Tarvek Sturmvoraus glanced his way, nodded, and returned his attention to the two massive vortexes of five-hundred-plus kilometers per hour winds headed their way with deliberation. “Couldn’t agree more. Now would you mind defending the fleet against those tornadoes?”

Gil glared at his fellow Emperor and gave the orders to drop altitude and move the largest Wulfenbach airships – shields at full – towards the storm. Tarvek gave the same orders to his own and Heterodyne ships, for the second cyclone flanking the armies.The intention was to block the vicious winds as much as possible to allow for evacuation of troops. It was clear from the storm’s path of destruction that they were being controlled. They could not see by whom, but their guess was “Queen Matilda” and possibly Lucrezia herself.

Until the airship pilots could move into the path of the storms, the ground forces were being battered with impunity. Everything large and small, once picked up by the storm, became a deadly projectile. Battle clanks were picked up and ripped to pieces, with those pieces adding to the deadly mix. The heavier armaments dug in and covered as many of the living as they could. The enemy forces were not immune to collateral damage, but the cyclones’ paths were clearly being directed to avoid flattening all armies at once.

Zeetha and Higgs pushed their way through all this, surrounded by a mix of large battle clanks and constructs. Dimo was ushered to them via his own armed entourage. Once they met, Dimo’s questions were mostly unheard over the howls of the wind. All they could do now was press on and hope not to be stabbed through the head by a straw flying at supersonic speeds.

They made it to the enemy’s shield wall – just narrowly, after dodging a tank flying low over their heads – and met with the enormous clanks dispatched to pry open a sliver for them. The larger of the clanks was certainly optimistic about their chances, and after declaring itself to be “the” clank, smacked its fingertips against the wall and dug in hard. Its partner, which was apparently merely “a” clank, did the same as close to the same spot as it could.

Zeetha, Higgs, and Dimo were not allowed to sit by idly and watch, thanks to the streams of various enemy fighters making attempts to interfere with their work. The Jäger-like creatures were particularly offensive to Dimo, to nobody’s surprise. His offense goaded him into overly violent means of dispatching them. This repulsed neither of his companions. Higgs had a handicap due to the large sack he carried, which he was conspicuously not using to bash away the enemy. But he held his own well enough fighting one-handed. Zeetha had Othar’s shrinking ray slung over her shoulder, and after several minutes of slicing up the enemy the old-fashioned way, she had the thought to give the thing a try in combat. The trigger activated a steady stream that she swept across their attackers. Anything it touched was shrunk to doll-size. Dimo doffed his hat in gratitude and demonstrated that his boots were also made for stomping.

“YES!” they heard the massive clank exclaim. “THIS IS, IN FACT, HOW IT IS DONE! GO NOW! GO NOW!”

The clanks had, indeed, done it. A sliver just wide enough for a human-sized creature to slide through had been opened, though the two clanks were vibrating fiercely from the effort. The trio had seconds to get through before even “the” clank would be shaken loose. Higgs was closest to the portal. He activated his disk, which camouflaged him layer by layer as before. He carefully opened his sack as close to the opening as possible without touching it, and released dozens of Sturmvoraus tooth fairies inside. Two hit the edge of the shield as they swarmed inside, and were incinerated.

Higgs followed immediately, sucking in his gut and slipping through sideways. No part of him touched the edge, and he was through. As expected, the Dinnunderans inside who had spied the breech had the tooth fairies to distract them. Or eat them. Whichever they could do first. None seemed to take notice of his invisible presence. Still, he pressed against a wall and pulled out the portable mapping device provided by the Techmasters to indicate the quickest paths to the control room and the closest shield generator. The armored suit that Lucrezia wore, and its emitter hidden inside, was to thank for this.

From outside Zeetha had just begun to follow, when a blast of wind caught her and Dimo offguard. They stumbled but did not fall against the shield. The smaller clank finally succumbed to the cumulative effects of vibrations, and was shaken to pieces. Its torso, the largest part, hit the ground and rolled towards Zeetha and Dimo, no thanks to the gust of wind accelerating it. He grabbed her and dove away just as the torso would have rolled them both flat. More deadly debris flew over their heads. Zeetha did not care, and raged at Dimo for keeping her from following Higgs. Or from shrinking the piece into a harmless size, for that matter.

The larger clank was still upright and intact, and made certain that everyone knew this. It dug in with both hands and attempted to pry open the sliver by itself. From inside, Higgs could see this, even if those outside could not. He glanced at the mapping device. He had an extra cloaking disk. He may be able to hit all three targets if he planned it right and there were no delays. Blowing a kiss Zeetha’s way, he continued the mission.

****

“Get off me!” Zeetha yelled over the roar of the winds. She pushed onto her elbows to gain leverage, and was smacked down again by Dimo as more shrapnel sailed by.

“Not while dis stuff ken take our heads off!” he shouted back. He raised his head to survey the scene, and did not like it. “Look! Dey gots three funnels now!”

Zeetha peeked through the wind and confirmed this with her own eyes. A third funnel had formed, just as large as the first two, and was bearing down on the center of the fleet. The largest ships had been positioned to force the first two cyclones farther apart from each other, and away from the New Europan troops. And that left the smaller ships to be drawn into the third cyclone’s funnel. Their shields held enough to keep them from being torn apart, but they were beginning to rotate. Zeetha saw two of them get caught up in the wind, and set onto a collision course.

And then, the winds of all three began to die down. The funnels grew wider, but weaker, until dissipating into mere breezes. Airborne projectiles fell, rolled, or glided to a stop with minimal damage. Ships about to collide were able to steer clear of each other. Zeetha and Dimo watched the weather rapidly return to approximate normalcy. They checked for any approaching enemies before assessing the condition of their remaining clank.

Zeetha addressed it. “Hey, clank! Yes, you! Can you get it open on your own?”

“DOES A BEAR, IN FACT, DEFECATE WHEN IN THE COMPANY OF TREES??” the clank answered.

Zeetha and Dimo traded looks, then shrugged. “I… suppose?” she said. As long as the thing could pull it off, she did not argue its point.

*****

Lucrezia and Matilda pushed on the levers and buttons even harder, because this practice always made broken devices work again, before grunting in frustration and letting go of their controls at once. Lucrezia reached Mara first and gave her a mild shove on the arm. Unfortunately a “mild” shove with her armor’s strength sent her sprawling. Mara barely managed to avoid breaking any bones in the rough landing. She lay still in pain for a moment, then slowly crawled back to her feet.

Have I done something wrong?” she said. “Your Majesty.”

Imperial Majesty,” Lucrezia corrected. “I let you get away with that once. And our lovely weather machine ran out of power. Whatever will you do about that?”

I’m sorry,” she said, “Did what I could with its battery. Could only improve it so much.” She allowed her gaze to move up just a little bit, even if not enough to make eye contact. She glanced at the glowing power source in the chest of Lucrezia’s suit, then looked away.

Lucrezia noticed this, and covered the light with a hand. She scowled. “You’d love to take this from me, wouldn’t you?” Mara shook her head. “Wouldn’t you?

“What are you on about?” said Matilda, stepping between them.

“She’s eyeing my suit’s battery,” said Lucrezia. “It could restore our device’s power.”

A hundred times over, Mara thought, but did not say it.

“Then why don’t we use it?”

“Then I wouldn’t be able to move!” Lucrezia snapped.

It took an absurd amount of restraint for Mara to resist blurting about the backup power systems in Her Imperial Majesty’s suit. Agatha would know its capabilities. Agatha would know. Where was she? Was this vile woman her, but injected with spider venom? Was the metal cap on her head another sort of mind control?

Now that the roar of the winds was fading away, she could hear other sounds from the battlefield. Such as the moans and screams of the wounded and dying. Don’t look don’t look don’t look don’tlookdon’tlook

“Oh, honestly,” said Matilda, “Are you ever going to climb out of this suit?”

“Will you ever stop plotting to kill me?” said Lucrezia. Matilda widened her eyes in shock, then huffed in indignation. “Oh, stop it. It doesn’t matter which of you is talking; you both want me dead.”

Matilda continued the indignation act. “Well! Should I get my own to protect me against you?”

I’ll be a good girl,” said Lucrezia, grinning as she leaned closer. “Will you?”

For a moment, Matilda appeared to be trying to out-glare her, but then quickly broke away to retrieve Mara, who had been staring forlornly at the battlefield. Such a gloomy slave. Why she was so completely unable to appreciate her glorious gift for death and destruction was beyond the Queen’s comprehension.

“Come along, dear,” said Matilda. The slave followed, with Lucrezia all but breathing down her neck as they made their way inside. “The trouble is, this gets us the icing, but not the cake. We need to take down those ships, and to do that-“

“-We need to get through the shields,” Lucrezia finished.

“Exactly,” said Matilda. She called back over her shoulder to the slave. “You can do that, right, dear?”

I don’t know, your Majesty. They-”

“I don’t like that answer,” said the Queen.

Beg pardon,” said Mara. “They would have changed the codes by now. Changed the equations. Changed-”

“You want to be useful to us, don’t you?” said Lucrezia. “Live long enough to see your darling children again, perhaps?”

Mara tightened her mouth and shivered. “Yes, your Imperial Majesty,” she said. “I do.”

******

Higgs was making good progress in the mission. He had delivered the Emperors’ package to the main control room without being seen or heard, and was continuing to the shield’s power room. He did not know if Zeetha and Dimo made it through, but knew better than to wait for them. She would have tanned his hide if he’d jeopardized the mission for her sake, anyway. His readout indicated that his new destination was half a kilometer away. He had passed many Dinnunderans along the way, and had noticed a disturbing pattern of general unwellness in their appearance. The “healthiest” still had sallow complexions and a deadness to their eyes. The worst off were struggling just to stay upright, but were clearly being compelled to keep moving. But if they were revenants because of slaver wasps, it was some version of them that slowly killed its victims. These people didn’t have the benefits of Emperor Tarvek’s inoculation. Higgs had been around long enough, and in enough military campaigns, to know that “the enemy” – the boots on the ground, that is – were usually far from it. But he had a job to do.

He was about to turn a corner, then paused and flattened himself against the wall. Movement. The source of the mapping device’s signal – Her Ladyship’s armor – was moving, and moving towards him. He stayed absolutely still, and listened. He could hear the oddly soft thuds of the armor before hearing voices. Her Ladyship and… someone familiar. Both spoke a language he knew well, rather than the odd dialect of English common around here. He listened further. Oh, dear. Maybe the New Europan Emperors knew something he didn’t, but this was not an alliance that he’d expected.

The armor’s movement stopped, but the conversation between Her Mind-jacked Ladyship Most High and the would-be Heterodyne – and current “Queen Matilda,” most likely – Zola Anya Tinkle Veiny Whatever the Rest Was, continued. Higgs crept ever-so-cautiously around the corner, keeping to the wall all the while. The whirs and clicks and whines that the armor made whenever Lucrezia moved should help cover his approach. Recovering her was part of the mission, but taking out the shields was, regrettably, a higher priority. The two women had their backs to him and were standing in front of what appeared to him to be a blank, stone wall. Once he had a full view of them, he noticed a third woman standing quietly by them. She was dressed practically in rags, so it was likely one of the unfortunate revenants he’d been seeing.

“-an idea,” he heard Her Ladysh— rather, Lucrezia say. “We could force their shields into a specific frequency. Stop it from being randomized. Then we could penetrate that area.”

“Ooo, there’s a thought,” said Zola. “I hope they haven’t come up with that, too. What do you have in mind?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, how to do it, of course?” said Zola.

Before Lucrezia could answer, another Dinnunderan arrived and bowed to Zola, and after silent permission from her, reported the breach in the shield that Higgs had personally experienced. Zola and Lucrezia reacted by blaming and berating the messenger. While this was going on, the third woman, who was yet to speak, slowly turned around as if distracted by something other than the loud recriminations going on. Now he could see her face, and… Ah. Oh. It was good and bad news to see the Princess still alive, but clearly their captive. Her expression was as haunted and dead-eyed as the worst of the Dinnunderan revenants he’d seen. But she was alive. But thanks to the mission, he had to be on communication silence while inside and could not contact the fleet.

He realized that the Princess was searching, as if sensing ‘something’ just about where he stood. He moved his hand just enough to check his camouflage disk. It was still active. He still had time on its battery. But this might not be a good time to try to move.

Pay attention, you!” Zola snapped, and yanked the Princess back around. The poor messenger had been properly chastised, given orders about fortifying security, and then was to report himself to the royal executioner for proper disposal. Higgs fought back the bile in his throat and began to creep along the wall, but slowly enough to continue listening.

Honestly, you’re like a toddler.” Zola put something small on the wall, then tapped it. Whatever it was suddenly expanded in size, into something that reminded Higgs of a quilt. One large, square piece composed of many smaller squares, all showing a different image. He was no Spark, but took a wild guess that it was some kind of expandable viewing screen.

Zola pointed to a solid grey square – the only one like it. “This should be a portal opening directly to the Heterodyne flagship. But it only works as long their shields are down-“

“-Or compatible to ours,” said Lucrezia.

“Yes,” said Zola. “The enemy has made headway, brief though it was, and we do not like that. You’re going to surpass the enemy and take down their defenses. Get us inside the fleet again. Understood?”

Higgs could see why the Princess wasn’t answering. Again she had been distracted by a something in his direction. He froze against the wall and cursed his own curiosity. Shouldn’t have hesitated in the mission. He stared at the Princess, who did not stare back and was yet to make eye contact.

Zola yanked her around again. “What is the matter with you?? Have you heard a word??

Beg pardon, your Majesty,” said the Princess. Her voice was hoarse and pained. “You were saying?”

The visor of Lucrezia’s helmet clamped down. Now she was facing his way and actively searching. “Slave!” she barked. “Does this have any enhanced visuals? Never mind; Suit! Cycle through any visual modes that you have!”

“Cycling now,” said a male, mechanized voice.

“We’re not alone?” said Zola. It seemed directed at no one, and then she nudged the Princess. “Well? What’s this about? Do you see something?”

No, your Majesty,” said the Princess. “It seemed that… Beg pardon. Probably nothing. Er, you want their defenses down, yes?”

“There!” said Lucrezia, now pointing directly at Higgs. Fight or flight scenarios raced through his mind. It wasn’t the plan to take her on alone; some combination of Dimo, Zeetha, and himself was. The only weak point he could see in this armor was its power source. Zola could be carrying more “Moveit” potions on her. The Princess… no clue how she’d react. But they could probably order her to attack him, too.

I love you, Zeetha, he thought to himself, and slammed into the armored usurper, intending to throw her off-balance before running for the next target: the shield’s control room. If he could make it there, and if he had to make a last stand, at least he could take their defenses down with him. Unfortunately the “off-balance” part did not quite pan out. His momentum was absorbed quite handily. She didn’t budge, and whatever “visual mode” Lucrezia was using allowed her to see him.

She grabbed his arms, forced them at his side, then lifted him up and slammed him hard against the wall. He felt a rib crack. Not the first time that had happened. His legs were still free, so he raised up his knees and managed to get his feet flat against the armor’s torso. Not so easy to absorb a slow, but strong shove. It worked; she was pushed back and lost her grip on his arms. Higgs dropped to his feet and made again for his next target. Not the first time that every breath he took felt like an explosion in his chest.

“Where is he now??” said Zola. “Is he escaping??”

Lucrezia had recovered quickly and pointed her palm his way. Higgs heard a whining noise just before getting knocked forward by a blast of concussive force and heat. The display device was knocked from his grasp, as was his hat. Once they left his camouflage field, they became visible.

“Who is it??” said Zola. She may not have been able to see him, but she could see what he’d dropped. He heard her growl, “I know. that. hat. Slave! Fetch those items! Now!”

Lucrezia had managed to grab his leg and drag him backwards. He kicked hard with his free leg, for all the good it did. Higgs was reminded that armor like this had survived massive explosions unscathed. He saw the Princess obeying Zola and fetching his fallen items. He reached for the device and was beaten to it by the Princess, who glanced his way, even if still not seeing him.

Lucrezia still had him by the leg, and held him up while struggling to restrain the other. Finally she succeeded, and then snapped him towards the wall. His head made hard contact. Wouldn’t be the first time he was left seeing stars. She held him aloft again and shook him a bit before holdng him firmly against the wall. This seemed to be her go-to move at the moment.

“Still wondering why I’m wearing this?” she called over her shoulder to Zola, who approached now that he was apparently helpless and immobilized.

“Yes, yes, no need to gloat,” she said. The two exchanged looks, then shared a mutual giggle. “Oh, well, maybe a little.”

She now addressed Higgs, who was back to silently weighing his options. “Airman Higgs. You can keep up the silent treatment all you like.” She held up his hat. “This already speaks for you.” When he did not reply, she reached out – blindly, but still effectively – and felt around until finding his belt. Her hand rested on his belt buckle a moment. Then she made a fist and smacked him – hard – a little bit lower. Or rather, higher, considering his current orientation. He grunted in a somewhat higher voice than was his custom, but did not speak.

“Yes,” said Zola, “You’re a man of few words. But we know it’s you, so there’s no point to the invisibility.” After he still did not make an appearance, an unexpected grin crossed her face. “Slave! Come here.” The Princess appeared at her side. Without looking away, Zola handed the device to the Princess, and then grabbed her by the hair to pull her closer. She gasped in pain but did not resist. Zola produced a knife and held it close to her ‘slave’s’ throat. Still no resistance.

“Last time, airman,” she said. “Show yourself.” He switched off the camouflage. Layer by layer, Higgs regained a more solid appearance. Zola tucked away the knife, then snatched off the disc from his belt. “This ought to come in handy. Don’t you think, your Imperial Majesty?”

“Agreed, your Majesty,” said Lucrezia.

Zola retrieved the mapping device from the Princess before pushing her away. She held it up to Higgs. “And what’s this? Let’s take a look, shall we?” As Zola studied the device, behind them the Princess had returned to the expandable portal that was still on the wall. It still had its quilt-like appearance, with each image representing a different location.

Zola held the device out to Lucrezia. “Well… Agatha,” she said, “It looks like your suit has been calling back home.”

“Don’t divide my concentration,” she said, keeping her steely gaze on Higgs instead. “What are you showing me?”

Zola sighed. “This is showing a layout of the palace, equidistant to a central point. Which happens to be your suit.”

What??” said Lucrezia, and for a second, divided her concentration. It was all the time that Higgs needed to grab for her suit’s power source, hold tight, and twist. Lucrezia yelped in anger and released one of his legs in order to smash his left arm. He heard and felt a crack. It wouldn’t be the first time that bone had been broken. But his other hand was free, and finished the job of yanking out the battery and tossing it aside. The suit’s arms went limp, and he was dropped. As luck would have it, his left shoulder took the brunt of the fall. It wouldn’t be the first time that arm was rendered useless.

He still had three other working limbs, and used them to flip back onto his feet. Zola was coming around behind the now-immobilized Lucrezia to intercept his escape. He gave the suit another push – not shove, sending it toppling onto “Queen Matilda.” Higgs stepped onto and over Lucrezia to make his way to the portal on the wall.

The Princess was as still and unreactive as ever, but one of the images had – somehow – been expanded to full-size. It looked like a beach and shoreline, but where? And had it happened on its own, or had she…? No time to work it out.

“Stop him, you idiot!” Zola bellowed at the Princess, who switched from docile golem to warrior in an instant.

A blur that was her fist slammed into his bad shoulder like a battering ram. He grunted in pain, then turned his injured side away and fought to remain conscious. His new goal was to grab her with his good hand and pull her into the portal with him, but she defended against all of his attempts. It was difficult to tell, but he may have heard her whispering “I’m sorry” each time she evaded him.

By now Lucrezia’s suit had loudly announced “rerouting to auxiliary power,” and she and Zola were quickly getting to their feet. He took a moment to recognize quietly that this mission had ended up about as pear-shaped as usual, and jumped through the portal. His hand accidentally hit the edge as he went through.

He was now on a seashore, just as the image had shown. He looked behind himself immediately, to find… nothing. Nothing but land around him, that is, as opposed to Zola and her friends in hot pursuit through a still-open door. So. He had escaped. Now to work out where. He felt something small in his right hand. A little metallic square about the size of a parcel’s postage stamp.

***
“CURSES!!” shouted Zola as she slammed her fists against a very solid wall.

A group of about eight guards now arrived on the scene. “Your Majesty!” one said. “We heard a commotion here! Are you-?”

Zola cold-cocked the guard across the jaw. She stepped over his unconscious form and glared at the next poor, unfortunate soul. And then spoke with a disturbing calm. “How efficient of you all to arrive now. It would have been simply awful if you’d been here, say, TWO MINUTES AGO! WHEN YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN USEFUL!”

None of the remaining guards dared to speak. She regarded each of them with a baleful eye, then barked out orders to look for invisible intruders. One was foolish enough to inquire how one might look for something that could not be seen. After stabbing him in the heart, she waited for him to fall dead before sweetly offering some suggestions, such as turning on sprinklers in all corridors. Silly little things that might possibly diminish the advantage of invisibility. The surviving guards left with all due haste to carry our her suggestions.

Agatha’s locket acted to supress the worst of Mara’s discomfort and nausea, and possibly some of her will. But she had grown pale with nausea, and not only from the venom. Lucrezia flipped up her visor and stomped over to the girl. As always Mara avoided eye contact, but could feel Lucrezia’s own version of a furious gaze. Then Lucrezia’s gauntlet snapped up and held Mara’s jaw – firmly, but just lightly enough to not snap it in two.

She spoke in a low growl. “You helped him escape. Didn’t you?

Mara shuddered in pain and closed her eyes. Lucrezia jerked her head just quickly enough to give her a fright. “Yes,” she whispered. “Your Imperial Majesty.”

A very long quiet ensued as the two women glared at her, occasionally sharing glances that implied some telepathic communication. Then Lucrezia released her grip and stepped back. Mara checked her jaw carefully for damage as the two monarchs shared a chuckle.

Still resisting?” said Zola, patting her cheek as if with affection. “I can’t pretend that’s not impressive. Those Heterodyne women just don’t give up, do they?”

Lucrezia snapped her head over. “What?

“Oh, lighten up, dear,” said Queen Matilda. “You of all people, honestly…” That got a growl from her ‘sister,’ which only added to her amusement. “Now will you consider removing that suit? Or at least find that tracking device!”

“Agreed,” Lucrezia huffed, and ordered Mara to help her find and destroy the tracker. Mara could not lie that it was not part of the suits’ usual equipment. Another Techmaster’s work, no doubt. While working on her Imperial Majesty, she spotted something very small on the ground that was easy for most to dismiss as a natural bit of palace detritus, but she certainly recognized her own work. Fortunately her mistresses were not asking her to point out found objects, so she did not tell.

Zola grabbed Mara’s arm. “Come along, slave. Time to get you settled in a lab. Our friend Higgs may be stranded on the far side of the continent, and may not be a Spark, but we can’t let our portal’s loss be their gain. The faster you make more horrors like your instant killer weather machine, the sooner we kill everyone and win this war! Win the WORLD!

Kill everyone…” Mara whispered. “The world…”

Zola slapped her chest playfully. “Good girl! And it’s about time. That’s the kind of spirit you’ve been lacking!”

*****

Higgs felt around his ears for his communicator. Rotten luck. It must have fallen out during the scuffle. Not good news if it were found. The sooner he got back to the fleet, the better. He tried a bit of tapping and tugging on the little portal-making device, but no progress yet. Well, he was going to have time to keep at it while heading back. Given that the ocean was one way, his best option was to walk away from it and hope to start seeing something familiar, if indeed he was even still in Dinnunder. From the looks of things, there was going to be a lot of wilderness between him and the fleet. Wouldn’t be the first time he had to take a very long hike.

–To be continued

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