Her Majesty's Gift
A Steampunk Flash Fiction
Dan L. Hollifield
Captain William Harper strode the deck of the airship entrusted to his
care. His gray-bearded features set in a perpetual scowl, he carefully
observed the skeleton crew he'd picked to deliver this latest marvel of
the industrial age to its owners. Each crew member bent over their
tasks, concentrating mightily upon their appointed duties. Despite his
baneful visage, Captain Harper was pleased with the flight so far. The
weather was perfect, the ship and crew performed without a hitch. In
short, it was a beautiful flight.
So why did he have the misgivings that had troubled his sleep for the
past week? Was it simply that everything was going too well? He looked
once more at the crowded workstations that lined the airship's tiny
Bridge. Sighing, he took another sip of the bitter, strong coffee that
was his single vice. Its oily, acrid taste teased his tongue even as
the scent of freshly roasted coffee beans tickled his nose. So much more satisfying than tea, he thought.
"Mister Van Horne," said Captain Harper, glancing over at his First
Officer who was busy checking their charts against the ship's shiny
"Yes sir?" Van Horne replied, after the barest moment's delay as he penciled a notation on the charts.
"Course and speed satisfactory?"
"We have a bit of a tailwind, Sir. We are slightly ahead of our
estimated position from this morning's calculations. I would put us
roughly eight hours out from Washington."
"Good," said the Captain. "The sooner we can deliver Her Majesty's gift
to the Americans, the better I will feel. Has our passenger put in an
appearance yet today?"
"I regret to say," Van Horne replied, carefully repressing any
temptation for sarcasm that he might have suffered, "that Professor
Vernay has not yet graced us with his presence. He refused all meals
and sent word that he is still suffering from what he called 'air
sickness' from the minor turbulence we encountered two days ago."
"Lord help him if we run into a real
storm," said the Captain as he tugged his uniform into perfect creases.
"If a little squall put him into distress. Still, this is the first
time he's been airborne. Practically the first time he's been out of
his laboratory since being given the project to develop the new
lightweight steam engine. Three years in the making, and this little
boat is the result. He and his invention can help our American cousins
tame their new Western territories, if anything can."
"Hard to credit, Sir. I never thought I'd live to see anything replace
coal as a fit fuel for steam engines. Or this miracle metal alloy he's
come up with."
"Yes, he credits that Chinese scientist, Chang, for the discovery of
the ores used to smelt this 'Titanium', as Vernay calls it. As for the
liquid fuel, Vernay credits that to the Americans. Nasty smelling
"I agree, Sir. But without both, no one would be able to build an
airship like this," said Van Horne, admiration plain in his voice. "A
true example of international co-operation. One country supplies the
structural metals, another the fuel, another the fabric for the lifting
gas cells, another for the metalized fabric of the ship's skin-"
"And an Englishman to see how to combine the diverse elements into one
complete whole," said the Captain. "Don't forget that. Without us,
these foreigners would still be groping in the dark."
"I say, Sir?" Van Horne replied, frowning. "Isn't that a bit unfair? Surely the reverse is also true. Would even we have been able to achieve this wonderful machine without the efforts from around the globe that went into her development?"
"You're young yet," Captain Harper said loftily. "One day you'll see
that the Empire still stands for the highest achievement of
"Sir!' shouted one of the crewman tasked with lookout duty.
"What is it, Ensign?" asked Harper.
"Another airship, Sir." the lookout replied. "Approaching us from the stern, two degrees to starboard. Coming up fast!"
"Highly irregular," said the Captain. "Van Horne, sound Battle Stations and prepare the ship for attack."
"Yes Sir!" Van Horne said as he saluted and spun about to follow the
Captain's orders. A bell began clanging the alarm signal. More crew
members appeared, running to their action stations. Small ports in the
airship's skin opened and the muzzles of small, but powerful cannon
were thrust through. In the bow and stern of the airship, other ports
opened and the new American rapid-firing Gatling guns were made ready.
Captain Harper studied the oncoming airship with his own telescope,
then snarled out the single word that the crew dreaded to hear.
"Pirates," said the Captain.
Professor Vernay chose that moment to visit the Bridge. Once apprised
of the situation, he smiled. "Good," he said. "We can give our present
to the Americans a real test. Stop the engines on one side of the ship
and then reverse them, we can pivot in the air like a ballet dancer,
thus bringing our long range guns in the bow to bear on the enemy. If
they manage to slip alongside of us... Our cannon will have a longer
range. We can give them a broadside they'll never forget!"
"Professor," said Van Horne as the Captain furrowed his brow in
consideration of Vernay's proposal. "These airship pirates are almost
as good as the Queen's own Navy-"
"Exactly why the Americans asked us for help against these dogs,"
interrupted Vernay. "American airships are too slow and clumsy to defend
themselves in any effective way. But we, we can fight as well as any
seagoing battleship. I predict a short lifetime for these curs!"
"Helm, bring us about, just as the Professor suggested," said the Captain.
"They're firing," reported the lookout. "Shots falling short of us."
"In position to return fire," said the Helmsman.
"Fire all forward guns," ordered Captain Harper.
The pirate airship burst into flame as the guns of the HMAS Victory found their target.