The morning has begun with the great beams ripping the clouds apart, brilliant and bold and harsh against the smoky vista of the skyline. Explosions rumble; the distant tumble of buildings folding inward on their own foundations rattles the mirror on my vanity. The reverberation of the ceaseless bombardment has been our church bell for some time now.
My hair is a mess.
Soot and the bitter tang of ionized flagstones drifts through the open-hatched windows of my morning room like martial perfume. Correspondence is spread across the desk, caught in the hellish winds that buffer the high and lofty walls of my husband’s twelve-storey townhouse. Inscribed in hasty script and curt command are the voices of our beloved city in disaster reports, casualty reviews, and pleas for reinforcements.
The voice of our city is a terrified rabble.
Jasmine and blood mingle with the hot breath of the steam drifting from the neck valve of my butler-servo. I flick a bejeweled ivory comb into my hand, rake it down the length of my back as I watch the salvage airships on the horizon ignite their gargantuan props and creep aloft like steel-skinned vultures.
Juxtaposition is the only element of wit that survives siege. Death is random. Tactics are pointless. The great are beaten into submission by the small, weighed down by stripes and epaulettes, welded shoddily into their positions by pampering. They break and shatter into tiny pieces on the podium or in the bunker, screaming like madmen as their armies and flotillas and batteries are dug out and scalded alive by the infernal beams.
Hair knots are a nuisance. I wish my station could stoop to the crop-cuts of the working masses. Practically does trump class, though the whole table inevitably cries foul and folds in protest.
A vermillion ray blinks through the fog on the horizon, melts the roof of the East Docklands Constabulary, and blasts the three-storey courthouse to the very ground. Tendrils of concussive force scurry along the streets like invisible fists to fling passers-by asunder.
Which dress shall I wear? Black or ochre?
We have been under bombardment for four months and seventeen days. During the summer months, when the skies are clear and bright, it is possible to glimpse the diabolical pylons hovering on the barest cusp of the heavens.
I’ve only three gowns left, all of them gently washed and ironed by the only locomotion-washer we have left. The other nine melted while I was running errands. All the coal for the washers is in requisition by order of the Royal Super-Artillery regiments. Pity.
The beams never waver. Colour is meaningless at such a distance, except when the alien structures power up and the thin midsection of their bodies brands itself on the retinas. Then death sprouts, and the city runs for cover.
Windows shatter down the street. There are more concussions. Screaming. And yet, I don’t flinch with the rouge pad on my cheeks. I’ve moved beyond that. I’ve learned to prioritize.
To comprehend one’s prerogatives is the mark of one’s station. All the working masses know is drink and desolation, made only worse by the duration of the siege. I am a lady, born and raised to the contempt of privilege and the smugness of my husband’s decorated actions as a colonel in the 7th Rocket Brigade.
There have been other men, other chances. A reedy man of Parliament. A dashing gentleman-engineer of the Royal Society for the Exploration of the Void. The chance to win my scroll of admittance to the Ladies High College of the Humanities.
Ladies from the salon are choosing to don surgical smocks and relinquish their estates to legions of nurses from the Surgeon-General. Even the twisted suffragette radicals are permitting enlisted artillerymen to billet in their boarding-houses and communal dwellings.
I simply choose dresses and plan tea parties.
I admit that I seem to have fallen short.
Steel-capped boots clink as my husband slowly ascends the stairs.
My hands fly to the desk and flip the top over. It slides into the wall, and hides the sources of my vanity with a quick clatter of lipstick bouncing off the wall.
A morass of keys and dials line the underside of the vanity. I twist one with delicate fingers, praying that I won’t crack a nail. Margaret’s due to arrive at three for crumpets and civil conversation. Both are rare as of late.
I attack the targeting board’s keys with my left hand, turning and beaming at my unshaven husband as unheard frequencies intensify. He is draped in an undershirt and leather-lined gunner’s trousers. I watch his beady eyes dart to the hall, even though the servants were dismissed long ago to eke out their existence in the wrecks of grand parlours downtown.
“Have you finished transcribing the latest attack order?”
“Of course, dear. The Constabulary was hit this morning. The pylons are hunting for more priority targets.”
“Marvelous idea, dear.”
A twist of a dial and a cracking of Morse keys dispatches the relevant information. One silo, containing three hundred tons of explosives for surface-to-air rockets. Enough to disintegrate six blocks and throttle the siege effort for a few days.
“You’ll be heading out, dear?”
“Yes, darling; to rally the men. I’ve a speech at nine o’clock. Can’t be late.”
He brushes a rough hand across my shoulder. Then he is gone.
Confirmation lights blink green across my panel. The mysterious and wondrous calculation engines aboard the pylons will perform the rest. Another beam, another target disintegrated.
The boulevards of Society have yet to taste the hot scalpel of the beams. The tailors, vintners or gentleman’s saloons remain unmarred. I am a scalpel of morality.
And I will carve out the progressives and the radicals and the suffragettes as long as the pylons hold to their assurances that our life of esteemed leisure will continue.
It is an ugly business.
But a lady must have her prerogatives in order.