Princess Deuce: Hexagonal Bullets

Rain ran down the smooth curve of her head and pooled in the collar of her coarse black shirt before finally trickling down her back with dispassionate slowness.

They had shaved her head upon her arrival; her beautiful, silken hair falling at her feet. Now, after a year, her head was covered in rough stubble, a sign of favour from the academy’s solemn hierarchy and a symbol of her slow progression through the ranks.

No newcomers, no matter what their background or status, were entitled to keeping their hair. It was both a tradition and a form of control, a small example of the wider philosophy that enriched the academy’s educational programme.

Hair, like identity, was something not granted to the unpolished but rather something that had to be earnt. She understood now why so many people had been hesitant to use her name before she came here; in their hearts they had known that she had no chance of retaining possession of it.

In her memory she saw her father, his lips moving in a shape that seemed familiar to her but that she could not recognise. Whatever her name had been, whatever small token her parents had afforded her, was gone now. In its place was the age-old nickname, adopted by the academy for its own purposes.

She adjusted her hold on the Whitworth rifle before her, keeping one eye close to the lengthy scope that ran along the barrel.

Beneath her was a scene she had become dispassionately familiar with; solemn grey buildings worn down by the beat of the rain and the howl of the wind, the bowed heads of commuters and the gathering traffic.

Her attention suddenly fixed on one of the various automobiles turning the corner and approaching from the left – a new, diesel engine model, not one of the traditional steam engines. Her training kicked in, her mind blanking almost as if someone had drawn a curtain over her past reflection and physical discomfort.

She followed the car through the scope, tracking its movements and steadying her aim, waiting in abject patience as the vehicle turned from the flow of traffic and paused outside the grey fa├žade of the hotel she had been watching.

A heartbeat passed; another trickle of rain down the back of her coarse shirt. A door opened and the car disgorged a prim chauffeur onto the pavement. He stood for a moment, breath crystallising around him in the cold January air and then reached out.

Another heartbeat; a second door opened and a head rose up, thinning dark hair revealing a bald spot of sunburnt skin.

In another life she would have stretched the bow strings and lined the head of her arrow up with that blistering skin; in this life, she simply curled her finger inwards.

The 0.451 inch hexagonal bullet burst from the rifle, the butt of the gun kicking hard into her shoulder and throwing her backwards to the ground. Before her body had hit the asphalt roofing, her mind had reached out and taken hold of the bullet, propelling it faster and further than the triggered combustion of the weapon’s design ever could have.

Heartbeat, rain; the man with the sunburnt scalp blinked and the bullet passed through his head, erupting in ribbons of blood from his right cheek and spattering chunks of gore onto the rain soaked streets and the prim chauffeur.

Both men blinked and then the shorter gentleman, his head now displaying a small puncture in the parietal area of the skull, the region where, ironically enough, the brain’s cautiousness resided beneath the layer of protective bone, and a open wound in the lower half of his face that left his jaw bone hanging, collapsed abruptly.

The rain continued to drum relentlessly upon the fallen body, blood slowly spreading beneath its crumpled girth like the tide of some dark ocean lapping at the polished shoes of the chauffeur.

There was a moment in which the city continued about its business, entirely oblivious of the situation that had taken place before the revolving doors of the prestigious hotel, and then suddenly the sound of klaxon song filled the air.

Alarms and shouts rose up like a flock of agitated seagulls, the cacophony of sound drifting from the scene of the large man’s death to the dark clouds and rooftops above.

She lifted her legs and then swung them down, kicking hard against the asphalt and jumping to her feet.

With one hand, she swung the Whitworth over her shoulder and with the other reached down for the reassuringly elaborate buckle of her belt.

The best reaction time of the enforcement robants was thirty seconds and, at this time of night, the nearest unit – Team #150481, she guessed – would just be turning back from the city’s east gate.

That gave her sixty seconds, she guessed, her feet already hammering the asphalt as she sprinted for the building’s edge, seventy seconds if she was lucky.

The edge of the building came into view, a momentary glimpse of the gap between it and the adjacent roof and then she was up in the air, legs kicking against nothing as her lithe body sailed over the sheer drop and the bleak alleyway below.

Effortlessly, she landed on the other rooftop and kept running, the motion unbroken by the physical demands upon her.

She heard a sudden crack of sound, like a peel of thunder resounding through the dark skies, and she glanced once over her shoulder, already knowing what she would find.

Crossing the rooftop behind were Team #150481, the Siege Engine at its head, royal purple cloak billowing in the wind, and its four satellite dolls arrayed about it in a defensive formation.

Her mind raced through possibilities, every long hour she had spent studying robant tactics converging into a single warning that urged her, at all costs, to keep moving.

She threw her arm out and snatched hold of a narrow metal stovepipe, using her speed and grip to pivot on the pipe and abruptly change her direction.

She reached another building ledge and once more flung herself into the air, allowing herself to cross the void and dropping down onto a winding, outside staircase with a grunt.

The Whitworth rifle slipped from her hand and fell silently into the blackened depths over the iron railings, clattering loudly on the ground several moments later.

Gunfire rang out in the night and she knew her window of opportunity had been drastically reduced.

Automatically, she reached down and snapped the buckle from the belt.

With a twist, she rotated the separated buckle and it snapped open, revealing a shimmering spark of raw energy.

The air about her crackled with static discharge as the spark brightened and her hidden armour unfolded from the coarse garments she wore.

Deceptively thin black armour engulfed her, white boots and gauntlets clothing her hands and feet, and a decorative white mantle and featureless masque swallowing her head.

The bullets slammed into her hard, knocking her from the railings and sending her spiralling downwards into the valley between the buildings.

She pulled her legs in close, twisted her body in mid-air and changed direction, landing in a roll upon the unbroken pavement. She swiftly sprung up and broke into a run, snatching the fallen rifle as she passed.

Both the fall and the impact would have been enough to shatter the bones of her limbs in her normal state but the armour, and the power that coursed through her body from that single spark in the belt buckle, was more than enough to ensure her survival.

It was this power that not only gave all the academy’s prized students their remarkable durability but also fuelled the various rival institutions and corporations and the robant squadrons that policed them, ensuring that no one group could break the stalemate.

With the bullet she had placed in the sunburnt man’s head, the young girl with the shaved hair had gone someway to undermining that stalemate.

Her victim had, in life, been the president of RMM Farming Industries, a man whose vices were every bit as corpulent and bloated as his physical appearance. His death would not only destabilise RMM but also send the various other competing parties into a futile power struggle and tie up robant resources.

All the while, her masters in the academy would be free to act according to their own agenda.

The wall to her right shattered in ruin, tearing her mind back to her present predicament with a gasp, as a second cadre of robant enforcers broke through the red brick.

She cursed loudly beneath the white masque.

In none of the predicted scenarios had she perceived the possibility of a second squadron.

Before she could react, the second Siege Engine had reached out and wrapped its giant hand about her hand, swinging her sideways like a rag doll and slamming her hard into the remnants of the wall.

Her body screamed in agony, vision blurring beneath the thin bar of black aluminiuglass arranged at eye-level in the otherwise featureless masque.

Steam hissed from the various valves and pipes of the Siege Engine’s body, its head regarding her with soulless disinterest as it hauled her out of the ruin.

The roar of movement in the distance indicated the impending arrival of the original robant group and she cursed once more beneath the armour. The prospect of fighting one group of machines was daunting enough, let alone the notion of fighting two.

She was now completely at the mercy of the inhuman agency.

The Siege Engine tilted its head slightly and then, much to her surprise, the head slowly toppled from the shoulders and clattered to the ground. The hand wrapped about her head spasmed, contracting briefly and then released her as the machine staggered backwards.

The four accompanying lesser robants rushed forwards and, through the tears of pain that filled her eyes, she caught sight of two anachronistic figures dressed in the colours of the Drowned World Society.

She dropped to her knees, reloading the Whitworth and bringing it to her shoulder, determined not to waste her second chance.

Levelling the gun, she peered through the sight and let off a single shot at one of the dolls, staggering from the kickback and once more reaching out with her mind to guide the bullet to its target.

Her thoughts clashed in the ether with another and she recoiled, the invading mind of the Drowned World operative seizing control of the bullet and stabbing it forwards like a knife into the Siege Engine’s chest.

The headless machine faltered and collapsed and she was granted her first full view of the two rival operatives.

Both wore clothing of dark purple, trimmed with spotless white; the first was a young man in a trailing surcoat, wielding a large sword. His hair was dark and tousled and his hazel eyes seemed to betray a seriousness entirely suited to the affiliation he held with the academy’s rival.

The second of the two operatives was a girl of her own age, dark hair tied in two knots either side of her head, and dressed in a maid’s uniform of frills and lace.

In direct contrast to the antiquity of her partner’s sword, she was armed with a Pattern 1861 Enfield Musketoon.

Both wore heavy belts following roughly the same design as her own, the symbolism of which providing all that was necessary to identify them as members of one of the five conflicting factions.

She lowered her gun and glanced at the far end of the alleyway before turning back to face the two Drowned World agents and their stumbling robant attackers.

The combined loss of the Siege Engine and the unexpected rescue of their target by a rival faction had thrown the dolls into confusion, reducing their effectiveness in policing the situation by such a radical amount as to render them temporarily harmless.

This fragile balance would change once the Siege Engine of Team #150481 arrived and the dolls instantly ceded authority to the larger machine, but for now, there was an uneasy peace between all parties.

Slowly, the swordsman lowered his blade, looking directly at her with his thoughtful eyes.

“You better leave now,” he remarked after a moment. “It won’t be long until further robants arrive.”

She frowned beneath the masque.

“Why are you helping me?” She questioned in genuine confusion.

The swordsman smiled enigmatically.

“You have no conception of how important you are, do you?” His voice was heavy with self-assurance and misplaced confidence.

She regarded him silently for a moment and then quickly swung the rifle over her shoulder and turned away without further comment.

“When your mentor asks you what happened,” he called out to her retreating form. “Tell him Johann Weisz sends his regards.”

She turned back to look once more at the two Drowned World agents but only the stuttering dolls remained.

In the distance, the roar of steam engines signalled the approach of Team #150481. Without thinking twice, she disappeared into the streets.

Behind the masque, her expression was troubled.

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