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 brass chronometer.

"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 stuff, though."

"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 civilization-"

"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.

The End