Since I did make a few minor changes to last week’s snippet, I’m going to repost it here. That makes today’s snippet fairly long. There’s a lot of backstory that happens here that I might trim a little in the final draft, but you might find it interesting, so I’ll keep it for now. (First draft for the most part, subject to heavy changes later.)
Usually only poorly brewed tea managed to shake her composure, but as Charlotte stared at the carnage, she wanted to weep. A large screen ten paces high and wide covered the wall, rendering disfigured, charred bodies in gruesome detail. Alien, yes, but no less disturbing.
As long as I live, I shall never forget the sight of those poor people catching on fire, exploding, torn apart.
Evidently Queen Majel was not encumbered with any such trivial emotions as she sued for a brutal peace with the Razari. “We won’t permanently station a peacekeeping force on your planet as long as half of your surviving able-bodied males agree to serve a ten-year period of indenture to Britannia.”
The Matriarch of the Razari hissed at the screen, revealing razor-sharp fangs. A mix of browns and greens, her skin tone spoke of the mostly swampy condition of her home planet. “You leave only a remnant of my people alive and then you take half of those? We’ll starve or be overrun by the neighboring planet. The Shee have always coveted our crystals.”
As do we. Charlotte hid a wince of recrimination. It wouldn’t do at all to show any weakness, regret, or hesitation. Let alone disgust at what my own mighty nation has wrought.
The Matriarch wore a crude necklace bearing one of the coveted crystals. Approximately the length and breadth of an index finger, the crystal was powerful enough to fuel a Razari ship’s engines for a month. If the small twin-engine prop hadn’t crashed so conveniently close to a Britannian outpost, and if the border guards hadn’t done such an admirable job and sent the crystal straight through to Queen Majel’s personal scientist…
Then millions of Razari would still be alive and free.
Charlotte’s throat ached from holding back her rage. She’d researched that damnable crystal, yes, and had found it fascinating. Who wouldn’t? But she’d never intended for this to happen. Dear God, an entire planet practically wiped out, and for what? A few chunks of rock?
The Matriarch glared with righteous fury. “One quarter of our males and only seven years.”
Without replying, Queen Majel stretched out her graceful hand toward the electronic panel. One large red button drew the alien’s attention, her eyes slitting with alarm. The poor creature probably thought that button would send the final blast through their planet, and it was all Charlotte could do not to blurt out the truth. Although the button would merely end the transmission, nothing would stop Queen Majel from ordering the destruction with any of the other brutal weapons at her command.
Or perhaps she’d use more subtlety to conquer the Razari. If she released Charlotte’s latest creation of hungry dissemblers, within a fortnight there wouldn’t be a trace of metallic technology or structure left on the entire planet.
She pressed a hand to her stomach, fighting not to be ill. I never intended for this atrocity to happen. Forgive me.
Gripping the intriguing crystal with one scaly paw, the Matriarch gritted out, “Agreed. On one condition.”
Queen Majel arched a brow at the alien but gave a slight nod for her to continue with her request.
“Any male who signs a contract of indenture must be allowed to keep his deathright, or crystals, as you call them. They possess a religious meaning for us, Your Majesty. Taking away a Razari’s crystal is akin to damning his soul but leaving him alive, which is why so many of us are dead instead of surrendering.” Obviously a respected and powerful leader in her own right, the Matriarch bowed her head, still gripping her crystal. “Please, Queen. We’ll abide by your terms, as long as we’re allowed to keep our deathright.”
“As long as you have no reluctance in allowing us to mine your crystals for less holy use.”
“No objection as long as we may keep ours along with our traditions.”
Queen Majel smiled more kindly. “Then we have reached an agreement, Matriarch. Expect the treaty to be transmitted within the hour. Welcome to Britannia’s fold.”
Welcome to hell. Charlotte held her tongue, waiting until the communication channel was closed. As Duchess of Wyre and Queen’s Physician, she had more leeway than most nobles when it came to handling their liege, but one must never question Her Majesty’s orders before others, most especially their enemies. If she’d dared to press Queen Majel’s feet to the fire in front of the alien, Charlotte’s head would have rolled, no matter how justified her argument.
On a whim, Queen Majel left the viewscreen up, displaying the torn, burned bodies on the wall.
She turned to face Charlotte. “Don’t even begin, Wyre.”
Most Brittanians would only see her regal manner, the proud tilt of her head, the centuries of breeding, wealth, and command bred into every bone of her body. However, Charlotte knew the queen better than anyone except possibly Murray, her personal assistant and seneschal of the empire. Queen Majel revealed a slight tremor in her hand as she absently tucked a wayward strand of raven hair behind her ear.
“There are certain outcomes of this situation that I regret, but I had no a choice.”
“No choice!” Charlotte paced the floor before the formidable royal desk. “We could have bartered for the crystals. We could have bribed officials to allow us an outpost in order to mine our own. We never tried a peaceful solution at all, Your Majesty!”
“There are reasons and explanations to which you’re not privy.” Queen Majel sat behind her desk, trying to pretend that the most powerful ruler of the most technologically-advanced nation in the universe was not shaken to her core. That faintly trembling hand checked her hair again, needlessly smoothing her perfect coiffure. “Assuredly, I shall be pursing recourse, but I chose to allow the assimilation rather than cause this nation any embarrassment.”
If someone had acted without Queen Majel’s approval… With narrowed eyes, Charlotte planted her palms on the desk and leaned down, searching the queen’s face for the truth, but her classically beautiful visage revealed nothing. Changing tactics, she lightly laid her fingers against Queen Majel’s throat. “Are you well? Have you experienced any new side effects from my treatment, Your Majesty?”
“I’m quite well.” Queen Majel jerked back violently, but then tried to disguise her unease. “Thank you for your concern. Oh, did you notice? We owe the success of this assimilation to your wonderful technology.”
Ice trickled down Charlotte’s spine and her stomach flopped in a very uncomfortable roll. She turned back to the screen, forcing herself to examine the bodies as a scientist and not a horrified humanitarian. The scene looked like a bomb had torn through the village, tossing bodies and charred limbs about like kindling. A flash of molten fire, raging to the heavens, and then the explosions, over and over, tearing the Razari apart.
Gingerly, she stepped closer, her bones aching and fragile as though they might shatter. It couldn’t be her dissemblers—she’d engineered them to attack only metal, and the discarded weapons lay unaffected on the hard-packed earth. “I never created any weapon, Your Majesty, certainly no bomb capable of tearing those poor people apart.”
“I’m afraid the fire and explosions were their own creation,” Queen Majel replied in a light voice entirely inappropriate in the face of such carnage, as though she merely shared the latest on dit. “If you’d shown more interest in cracking open the crystal instead of merely utilizing its power, you’d have experienced the nasty side effect of releasing that glorious energy first hand.” Which would have saved me the trouble of having you killed myself.
Of course, the queen didn’t utter those last words, but Charlotte felt the threat in that deceptively pleasant voice. Danger tightened like a noose about her neck. Don’t be silly, she chided herself, stifling a desperately ragged laugh. Majel cleans up her messes with assassins, not public executions.
“Evidently, this is the religious power the Matriarch spoke of,” Queen Majel continued. “They’d rather die in a blaze of glory than bend knee to another nation.”
Charlotte only half listened. One of the limbs looked rather odd, even for a Razari. She was quite sure that scales covered the flesh instead of swamp-colored skin. Had some other hapless animal been included in the carnage? Surely not in the middle of their village, however rural compared to Londonium. More, the limb possessed disturbingly humanoid fingers. Perhaps a genetic mutation? Caused by…
Her heart thudded slow and heavy, struggling to pump chilled blood through her veins. If not her latest invention, then the weapon must have been crafted from her older research.
The research which saved the queen’s life by attacking a virus at its molecular level.
No one knew how closely Majel had walked with death, nor how she’d been saved. Charlotte’s earliest research had been wondrous, truly, but also frightening. She’d only just begun to experiment with her tiny nanobots, certainly never daring to test on a person. However, Britannia’s next queen had lain on her deathbed, her mother had tottered on the edge of insanity, and every traditional treatment had failed to stop the merciless march of the engineered virus. Sent by Francia in one last desperate attempt to end the Hundred Year War, the Black Death had killed millions across their planet and very nearly managed to decimate House Krowe’s royal line.
Charlotte had had no choice but to inject Majel with the warrior-bots and pray they managed to save her. They’d battled the nasty biotech weapon effortlessly, but instead of ceasing operation as Charlotte had intended, those tiny units still functioned inside the queen. To this very day.
Majel hadn’t been sick in years, not even the most minor sniffle. Basic physical examinations proved she possessed increased strength and mental acuity. Wonderful side effects, assuredly, but undeniably mutations. The queen wasn’t exactly—merely—human any longer.
Charlotte couldn’t help but wonder and dread what consequences they might one day pay for meddling with the delicate balance of life, especially once a princess and prince were born. Could Majel’s children carry a trace of lady-made technology? Had House Krowe been permanently altered?
Unfortunately, Majel had come to the same dreadful conclusion. Every time the queen looked at Charlotte, she saw an increased wariness and cold reserve edging away the lingering gratitude. Someday, Majel would decide to silence the one person who knew her secret.
“I hear it was a trivial matter to reprogram your nanobots to attack alien cells instead of viral as you intended.” Majel gave a careless little laugh that chilled Charlotte’s blood. “Your creatures managed to make the Razari even more repulsive! Before they ever knew a Britannian warship had entered their airspace, they began detonating their crystals to save themselves. From you, dear Wyre.”
It took a lifetime of manners and breeding to keep her face smooth, but Charlotte’s stomach heaved. They’d twisted her desire to help and heal into a tool for murder unlike any nightmare she could have ever conceived.
Worse, Majel’s secret could not possibly be so very secure if a third party had used and warped that technology. Even Charlotte possessed only one last prototype and she kept it under lock and key even from herself.
Moment by moment, the truth became glaringly obvious. Only one group was close enough to Britannia and Queen Majel to somehow acquire this secret technology, and also possess enough advanced equipment to alter the nanobot’s programming and replicate it into this sort of weapon. Of course. No wonder Majel had been shaken yet so determined to pretend this had been her intent all along.
Only the Military Intelligence and Galactic Sciences division would dare challenge Majel’s authority in this way. Instrumental in the war against Francia, MIGS had gained considerable power over the years. Lately, they’d been overstepping their bounds—in the queen’s opinion—by keeping their research secret from the Crown. If such blatant disregard for her authority became public knowledge, her supreme right as ruler of this great nation would be cast into jeopardy.
Charlotte gazed back at Majel and knew the knowledge must gleam in her eyes. As the queen had surely intended, else why had she dropped that little fact about Charlotte’s own technology being used? She’d never have taken a closer look at the body parts otherwise. Watching the cold political mask harden on the other woman’s face, Charlotte could almost sense the shifting of the ground beneath her feet, the glide of one pawn to another spot on the board.
I’ve always been a threat to her because I knew her weaknesses. Now, I’m a liability. With my backing, MIGS could denounce House Krowe and set their own queen on the throne.
Majel turned her attention to the stack of official documents and datapads waiting for her attention. “That will be all, Wyre.”
After a decade and more in service, Charlotte had been dismissed. Perhaps not publicly, not yet, but Queen Majel had made her decision. For all Charlotte knew, her death sentence had already been drafted, awaiting the queen’s final stamp of approval in that very stack of documents. Thousands of Queen’s Ravens were stationed in House Krowe’s stronghold as well as throughout Londonium.
I might not even make it out of Winsor alive.