For All Nails #21B: ". . . And Met With My Downfall"
By M. G. Alderman
- Six jolly soldiers to carry my coffin
- Six jolly soldiers to march by my side
- It's six jolly soldiers take a bunch of red roses
- Then for to smell them as we go along.
- --Traditional, "When I was on Horseback"
Evening mess, always a splendid evocation of the past glories of the United Empire that the CNA had gradually slipped from, was even more glorious that evening. Special guests from Burgoyne at the head table.
Orderly ranks of white-draped tables stood beneath the gleaming intricately carved hammerbeams of the hall, gleaming with silverware and regimental candelabra. Dark oils from the early days of the Confederation glowered down on the assembled company from their gilt frames, imported to give the academy a sense of military tradition, a difficult proposition for a corps less than twenty years old. But airmobiles had been around since the Great Northern War, and beneath elaborate Gothic niches, display cases full of pilot's memorabilia proclaimed the long lineage that the officers of the RCNAAF had so thirsted for. Framed portraits of flyboys in dusters and goggles, standing before tri-wing airmobiles, grinning, ready to fly off into the wild blue expanse of the skies.
On the low dais that stood below a large mural of the first military airmobile test flight in the CNA -- looking like a disturbing proposition as the contraption seemed to resemble a petrol-powered box kite more than anything else -- were the dignitaries whose arrival had been so long trumpeted. A canopy terminating in an elaborate panoply of flags, arms, drums and trumpets beneath the mural gave decorum to the occasion and helped tag who was who.
The jack and stripes of North America easily identified Lieutenant-General Sir William Bragg, Chief of Staff in Burgoyne, while Count von Kramm, the German military attaché was easily deduced by the Prussian black and white folds of his Empire's ensign. Next to him, distinctly unimpressive, was a matchstick old woman, sallow, white-haired -- Rebecca Barak, the new Numidian ambassador. FN1 Her nation's blue and gold flag seemed more of a presence than she was. I would have expected a tallith at least, if not a hat and sidecurls, thought Cadet Gilmore, knowing full well of the absurdity of such a notion.
The female cadets were clustered at one end of one of the tables below, close enough to be shown off to the dignitaries. They were a sight to see that night, splendidly sheathed in their high-collared red mess jackets and long straight black skirts, candlelight glittering off buttons and brocade, faint mirrors to the great swaths of glittering braid on the chests of the Commandant of the Academy and Sir William, who were in turn put to shame by the lemon-yellow Attila that the Count sported, the evening dress modification of his hussar's uniform. Not that hussars really counter for much anymore; nothing save their dress uniforms distinguished them from ordinary mechanized cavalry, though in rank-conscious Germany, undoubtedly the officers thought otherwise.
The tastefully-made-up faces of the lady cadets in the lamp-lit shadows repressed slight giggles at dull jokes, swiftly changing to dagger glances at one of Stapleton's own cockeyed sneer at the silliness of the entire thing. Gilmore put a calming hand on her shoulder, with a smile to her friend that seemed more like a smirk to Stapleton.
The ceremonial toast came with a grating of chairs. The Commandant raised his glass, cut facets fragmenting and refracting the pale yellow glow of the thousands of candles and faint electric lights tastefully concealed, and opened his mouth. "His Majesty, the King--"
The great doors of the mess hall swung open with a warping burst. Screams, thudding of feet on marble. Stapleton saw a corporal flung to the ground as he tried to subdue --
Mark Stapleton. Two years can be a long time. She had heard rumors of drunkenness, or that he had been committed to a sanitarium, but had been afraid, deep beneath her bluster, to inquire.
But there he was.
He jumped atop one of the tables, running like a madman, screaming incoherently, and stopped abruptly before the dignitaries. Several full-uniformed guards slowly advanced on him. Bragg signaled them to halt.
"What the devil is going on, sir?" he exploded.
"I have come for justice!" Mark said with a peculiar warble. This was amazing. Alexandra had always assumed her father had no backbone. Here he was, raving like a madman, but at the same time, he seemed -- she was afraid to say it -- like some great hero facing down the enemy in their lair.
She dismissed the thought immediately and began to feel slightly sick, embarrassed, wondering how she would live this down.
Her father continued, gesticulating crazily. "D--mn all you warmongers, bloodthirsty maggots who throw out all hope for peace and justice! You self-serving tyrants with your fancy uniforms and fine ranks, well, you never think about what the other side might be doing, do you? That they might be scared to h--ll just like you are? That they might want peace too? And what about the boys and girls you send into the maw of death so you can sit so confidently in your big offices in Burgoyne --"
"Mr. Stapleton," cut in Gilmore forcefully. Mark, eyes blazing, astounded by being interrupted, broke off for a moment, swiveling his head towards her. She continued, asking, "would you be so kind as to shut your trap? If we had wished to hear this sort of tirade, we would have gone to one of your Peace and Justice rallies, though I do admit that your speech does have more balls in it than the usual wifty-wafty nonsense one endures at --"
"Oh d--mn you all, shut up, shut up!" screamed Alexandra. "Shut up all of you!" A torrent of obscenities poured from her mouth. Astonished shouts and groans rose up around her.
"Justice will be served! You generals, you killed my daughter -- you took her, gutted out her soul and turned her into this unrecognizable ... creature, a war-machine. You killed my life, you destroyed her life and all the thousands of others who have come before her and will come after her. For that you must pay!"
He reached into his jacket as guards raced towards him, his arm thrusting out, glittering automatic in hand. Count von Kramm reached for his sabre, but everyone else was frozen with shock. He squeezed the trigger. "This is for Alexandra --" A sickening thud, the acrid smell of smokeless powder. "For Marie," "For the Bomb," "For the Global War," "For the Great Northern War," "For the Hapsburg War." He fired blindly into the head table, Bragg's red coat stained with red, the frail Numidian crumpling onto the fine china of her plate-setting. Screams, bloodcurdling cries. Ev Gilmore leapt onto the table, bringing him down with a clattering thud, sending candlesticks and salt-shakers flying, the pistol falling, skidding along the far end of the table. They struggled, exchanging blows, her hands locked around his neck, until they dropped off the table, Mark's hard head meeting with the hard stone floor with a dead crunch. Blood stained the gold trim of Evangeline's red shell jacket, and there was little doubt that his skull had been smashed.
The man of peace had died from violence of his own making.
But all Cadet Stapleton had seen was that her father was dead, and Cadet First Class Evangeline Adrienne Gilmore had killed him.
Forward to FAN #22: Mangia!.
Forward to 6 December 1970 (Ev and Alex): Bachelors' Hall.
Return to For All Nails.