A band of black-cloaked marauders had formed a synchronized border around his men. They cradled flame rifles in their arms. Behind them, to the east of the unit, loomed a steam- tank. Taken by the enchanting iron vehicle, Melbourne admired its side--adorned with gold-painted symbols he did not understand. His heart felt ticklish when his eyes discovered the tiny colored lights wreathed around the barrel of its gun.
Feeling a jab in his spine, Melbourne instinctively raised his arms above his head. The rain made his hands cool; sent droplets down his sleeves and into his armpits. He shivered. The unknown assailant spat a slightly muffled command from behind his clothed mouth. Simultaneously met with a sharper prod, the Captain advanced toward his quietly taken unit. His officers shot him scowls as if to say, “How could you leave us to be captured, you stupid, stupid man?”
Melbourne pursed his lips. It wasn’t quite his fault. The wind and rain must have deceived him; placed ethereal hands over his ears to leave him oblivious to the chaos that had occurred behind him while questioning the native. Melbourne cursed himself for not recognizing the set-up earlier. The stopped caravan, the native’s strange smile and gait. Melbourne was sure the peasant was in on it; was probably paid off with a black-market mech-goat.
“English, yes?” A voice sounded from the top of the ornamented tank. Melbourne looked up to find another marauder leaning out the hatch. Droplets of rain collected on his goggles and Melbourne wondered if the man would even be able to see him—to remember him if something were to happen. Melbourne gave a shallow nod to the question when he was met with a third poke.
“Forgive me.” The man, who appeared to be the leader, climbed out of the tank. He pulled a crimson handkerchief from a silk waistcoat none of his marauders had the privilege of wearing, and rubbed his goggles most carefully. “My gang and I are only taking the necessary precautions, you must understand.”
Melbourne stared at him flatly, but was inwardly surprised by the smoothness of his voice. He sounded like any gentleman he’d have met at the opera or a London café.“I don’t know if I can understand a blatant attack on the British Empire.” Melbourne replied smugly.
The man brought a gloved hand forward and extended it out while giving a low bow. “I am Lord Kanishka. Ally to my people, enemy of war.”
Melbourne, now feeling emboldened, lowered his arms and crossed them over his chest. He grinned, “Lord?”
Kanishka’s eyes flicked from the insignias on Melbounre’s coat. “On the contrary, Captain, I have just as much a connection to England as I’m sure you do.”
Silent, Melbourne calculated about where he was located in relation to the point where he had been separated Alymar’s forces. He wondered if the other unit might be close enough to hear gunfire if a scuffle were to start.
Kanishka placed a hand on Melbourne’s back, motioned the jab-ready guard back, and began propelling the Captain forward. He spoke in a low voice, “I truly extend my apologizes, Captain—“
“The Queen demands me stop any who pass through this road, whether he be British, Ottoman, German, or Indian.”
“So you are loyal to the Queen?” Melbourne divided his attention between Kanishka and his own men, who were now resting against the Spiders and cautiously accepting hand-rolled cigarettes from their assailants.
“Not your Queen.” Kanishka began. Melbourne studied him, debated whether or not to take the man on at the edge of the riverbank. “The Queen is but a name. She is my sister—and I merely do her bidding. What do you English say--“the brains and the brawn?”
“I see.” Trying to remain still, Melbourne carefully reached for his flame pistol. The holster was empty. He should have known.
“I will take you to her. There is nothing more you can do today. The rains are too heavy. Your superior should have never sent you at this time of year.”
“Kut is under siege. The starving people there can’t wait.” Melbourne shot back.
“We will allow you to continue your mission. Don’t worry, The Queen has been sending food to Kut. She has her ways. The town will hold until you and your men commence a most valiant rescue.”
Melbourne continued with a mix of offense and interest. “I was under the impression you didn’t take sides.”
“Humanitarian aid requires no side, Captain.”
“We need to get our machines out of the rain.” Melbourne shifted the topic quickly.
“Of course. We will take you to our base. However, I’m afraid we must blindfold you and your men.”
“I suppose I should have seen that coming.”
“You are a fast learner, Captain.” Kanishka grinned. He paused, pulled something from his coat and smacked it into Melbourne’s hand. His flame pistol. Kanishka turned and made his way back to the waiting warriors, leaving Captain Melbourne dumb-founded on the bank of the raging river.
- - - Nichole Beard is in the process of earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. She is a little too obsessed with Star Wars and most other things deemed nerdy. She is working on her first novel, a historical fiction piece.