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Some Steampunk Fiction

May 14, 2010

Fellow writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli, over on her blog, has started up an occassional fiction writing prompt meant to excercise certain fundamental writing skills that’s called “Author Aerobics”.  I’ve decided to participate when I can, so in accordance with that, here’s the first dose of genuine fiction written by your’s truly.

The assignment was this:

In 1000 words or less, write a piece of fiction that includes all the elements of the 3 act structure, including at least one crisis in the rising action. To make things more interesting use the word “zeppelin” somewhere in the story…

…There’s only one rule: set a time limit.

Throwing the word “zeppelin” up there to get the creative juices rolling got me this little story.  The only problem is that I totally blew the word-count limit (it clocks in at almost exactly 2,000 words), and it took me a bit more than just one lunch break sitting to type it up – more time than I’d set for myself.

It’s a highly flawed piece – the characterization is weak, the ending is not particularly satisfying, and it’s not especially original.  As such, I have no immediate plans to spruce it up into something more publishable.  But, so that you can get a taste of my writing (albeit not at my peak), here is your first sample of my work, a little steampunk tale I call:

The Last Flight of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance

By: Stephen Watkins

Leda watched as Captain Davney Ellory took the telescope from Saxwith and peered through it out the central window of the bridge.  Leda was done fixing the Engine Order Telegraph, but she was still tinkering with the controls, to give her a reason to stay on the bridge.  She liked being on the bridge; this was where the real action was!  Captain Ellory harrumphed, and lowered the telescope.  Leda followed his gaze to the horizon, where three black dots chugged on a course toward the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.  The Lord Winstead’s Vigilance was a dirigible, an aging battlecruiser stationed out on the frontiers of the United Principalities of Alberot, patrolling the demilitarized zone.  It was a rust bucket, yeah, but Leda was proud to serve on it.  It was her rust bucket.

“An armored cruiser,” the captain confirmed, “And two destroyers.  Markovian marks.  They’re no more than a dozen aeronauts from the demilitarized zone.  They’re flirting with breaking the armistice.”

“They’re no match for the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance, sir.” Saxwith pulled herself up haughtily.

“Individually, no, Leftenant Saxwith.  Together, they’d easily overpower us.  Put the ship on alert.” 

Saxwith nodded and  starting barking into the voicetubes, sounding general quarters.

“Captain,” Leftenant Arbery warned, “They’re signaling.”  The Markovian ships were closer, now.  Leda could just make out their profile.  And she could see the flashes of light, blinking in a pattern unknown to her, coming from the lead vessel.

“Take it down, Leftenant Arbery.”

Arbery confirmed the order, and pulled out a sheet of paper and began taking down the complex pattern.  As it began to repeat, he went back and translated, then gasped.

“Captain, they’re demanding our surrender!”

Ellory swore, and swiped up the telescope again.  “Damn, they’ve crossed into the demilitarized zone.”  He glanced back at Saxwith.  “Hold course steady, but ready the guns.”  Saxwith nodded, and grabbed the handle of the Engine Order Telegraph.  At that moment, a whistle sounded from the voice tubes, then a garbled voice.  “Crumwell to bridge.  Trouble in the engine room.  We’ve blown a gasket on the main boiler.  Send Tensbit to engineering, on the double.”

Saxwith glanced at Leda to ensure she’d heard the command, and Leda nodded before turning to the portside.  Leda raced down the ladder into the engineering hold, in the bowels of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.  As soon as she passed the bulkhead door, she was confronted with a wall of steam, smoke, ash and soot clogging the engine room.  She waded into the thick miasma, coughing and trying to clear her path by waving her arm.  She could see the bright orange glow from the furnace, and there were Haddock and Whir, the stokers, still shoveling coal.

“What in the name of burning Tarshish do you think you’re doing?”  Leda was Engineer’s Assistant, so she could pull rank on the stokers.

“What’s it bloody look like we’re doing?” barked Haddock.  “We shovel coal, that’s our job!”

“Shoveling coal when the main boiler’s blown a gasket?  You want this rig to explode?”

Haddock blinked.  Leda growled, then jerked her hand in a get-thee-behind-me gesture.  “Come on, let’s find Rubet and get this turbine rolling again.”  Leda swam deeper into the Engine room, and found the main shut-off valve on the central boiler.  She could feel the heat from the furnace through her leather work gloves as she grabbed the valve.  It was stuck, but she threw her shoulder into it, and Whir came up to help.  In a moment, they’d thrown the valve, and the steam began to clear.  As it cleared, she could see Rubet Crumwell’s legs sticking out of a hole in the side of the central turbine, wiggling.  He pushed himself up and out of the hole and settled his heavy frame on the deck, tapping the side of his head with a massive wrench.

“About got this problem figured out, no thanks to you, Tensbit.”  He looked back toward the gaping hole, then stuffed his wrench back in.  “You’re late by the way.  You were due back a half hour ago.”

Leda suppressed a blush, but offered no explanation.   “See here,” Crumwell ordered, “Tighten down that clamp on the boiler.  We’ve got to get this turbine spinning, else we’re dead in the air.”

As Leda headed over back to the boiler, the Engine Order Telegraph sounded with three loud rings.  The reader read “All Ahead Full”.

“See now!” Crumwell barked, “Hurry with the gasket on that boiler.  Cap’n wants power!”  Haddock and Whir hopped to help Leda pull out the broken piece of piping and replace the damaged gasket.  Before she got it sealed, the E.O.T. rang again, reading “Back Emergency”.

“Cap’n’s ordering evasive maneuvers!” Crumwell shouted.  “What’s going on up there?”

“Three Markovy ships bearing down on us!” Leda shouted back as she finished tightening the clamps.  She pointed and Haddock and Whir threw open the main valve as Crumwell set the turbine in reverse.    The zeppelin lurched as the turbine roared to life. “Looks bad!  Cap’n says we’re outgunned!” 

To punctuate her remarks, the armored zeppelin began to shake as artillery shells started exploding all around.  Then there was the deafening thump, thump of return fire.  Crumwell swore as the artillery barrage continued.  With each detonation, the engine room rattled.  Loose tools and materials started clanging to the floor, and Leda’s newly replaced gasket groaned.  “We can’t take much of this!” Crumwell yelled, “She’s falling apart!”  The look in his eyes said much more. He’d served on the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance since her maiden voyage.  For all Leda was proud to serve on her, this rig really was Crumwell’s.  But he’d not had the engineering staff he’d needed to maintain the venerable old ship since the armistice.  It was killing him to watch the Lord Winstead suffering so.

Leda ducked in time to dodge the blown rivets as her gasket job shook loose after a near-impact. The engine room began filling with steam again.

Then, as quickly as the barrage began, everything fell silent, except for the straining of the turbine and the whistling of the steam.  Then a voice sounded from outside the hull, in thickly accented Albish, ordering the vessel to prepare for boarding.  A moment later, the Lord Winstead shuddered as the boarding gangplank made contact.

“Hurry,” Crumwell waved Leda, Haddock, and Whir toward the back of the engine room.  “Into the air ducts.  They try to take the Engine, I’ll hold them off, here!”  Leda nodded as she climbed onto the back of an equipment bin and lead Haddock and Whir into the ducts.  As he lowered the vent cover, Leda watched for a moment as Rubet Crumwell dashed back to the furnace and started stoking the coal hot and high.  Leda turned on all fours and lead the way down the duct pipes.

“Where we going?” asked Whir.

“To the armory.”  Said Leda.  “We won’t let them have this ship without a fight!”  There were soldiers on board, of course, but Leda’d be damned if she let them be the only thing standing between the Markovian shock troops and mastery of the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.

The ducts were like a maze, but Leda’d done enough work on them to know her way.  She’d inspected nearly every inch of them in her time on the Lord Winstead.  Within minutes she’d lead Haddock and Whir to the armory, where she opened the vent and took a glance around.    As she’d hoped, the coast was clear.  The Lord Winsead’s armory was in an unconventional place for an Alberot battlecruiser, she had been drawn up on an experimental design that never caught on during the Albo-Markovy war, so Leda reasoned it would take the Markovian troops a while to find and secure it. She dropped lithely into the armory, followed by the loud klumps of Haddock and Whir.

Leda quickly secured a couple Prowith rifles and armed the stokers, then rummaged around a bit for the proper size shot.  She found a small pistol and tucked in her tool belt.  She grabbed another Prowith for herself, then shouldered up to the armory bulkhead door.  She threw the latch slowly, and peered out into the hall.  She signaled quiet to Haddock and Whir as she caught site of a dozen Markovian troops marching Captain Ellory, his Leftenants, and a few disarmed ship’s guard away from the quarterdeck.  She cocked the rifle, then stepped carefully out into the hall, behind the Markovian soldiers.  She didn’t wait to see if the stokers followed her.  She’d only handled a rifle a few times in her career.  But all hands on an Alberot aeronautical vessel are required to take training in marksmanship, and Leda found the memory of what to do rushing back to her.  She took aim and fired into the backs of the Markovy men.  Honor be damned!  They’d broken the armistice and boarded her ship!

The corridor quickly filled with smoke as Leda and the stokers fired off another round and the surviving Markovians  turned and opened fire.  Leda dropped to the deck floor, pulling out her pistol as the captured Alberot men turned on the Markovian and wrestled their rifles away.

The firefight was over as quickly as it began.  Leda pushed herself up from the deck, then saluted sharply as Ellory broke away from his officers to inspect her and the stokers.

“Fine work, Tensbit.” He complimented her.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I’m afraid, though, that the Markovians have us at a disadvantage.  We’re heavily damaged, and escape will be difficult, perhaps impossible.”  The look on his face was grave.

“Of course sir.”

Then Ellory grinned fiercely.  “But we’re Alberot people, in His Majesty’s service.  Never let a little thing like certain failure get in the way of our service!  Let’s see if we can regain control of my ship!”

“Yes sir!” Leda smiled as she saluted again then fell in alongside Ellory’s officers.  Ellory lead the way back down the corridor, while Arbery and Saxwith stopped off to gather more rifles at the armory.

The deck groaned as Ellory and Leda marched toward the crew quarters, then a loud crack shook the whole ship.  An explosive boom reverberated against the bulkheads, and the armloads of rifles Arbery and Saxwith had collected clattered to the deck floor.  Another explosion sounded, followed by another crack.  Leda lost her balance and fell as Ellory, Haddock, and Whir collided against the bulkheads.

“No!” shouted Leda.  “By Tarshish!  Rubet’s overstoked the furnace!  He’s going to blow up the whole ship!”

“Damn!” snarled Ellory.  A klaxon warning sounded, and a frank Markovian voice began yelling orders.  Though Leda didn’t speak Markovian, she knew enough to recognize a general order to abandon ship.

Ellory turned about and led the group down a side-hall.  “Looks like the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance is going down.  We’ll make for the escape skiffs.”

They passed another patrol of Markovian troops, but they hurried on without a second glance.  Smaller explosions continued to wrack the body of the dying zeppelin.  Ellory held the hatch as Leda, Saxwith, Arbery, Haddock, Whir, and the guards trundled into the small escape skiff.  Ellory was last to enter the skiff before pulling the hatch closed.  Leda climbed to the aft to start loosing the rigging tying the skiff to the Lord Winstead, while Arbery started loosing the rigging on the bow.  Ellory ordered the aerosail deployed, and in moments the skiff was away from shuddering dirigible.  Leda glanced out the starboard porthole.  The Lord Winstead’s Vigilance was engulfed in flames, and the Markovian ships were now moving to put daylight between them and the burning ship.  Nobody moved to give chase to the escaping skiff.

“That’s that,” sighed Ellory, “So much for the Versadian Accord.  So much for the armistice.”  He turned to the remnants of his crew.  “We’ll land the skiff comfortably in Alberot territory, where we’ll be picked up by His Majesty’s Army.  I want to thank you each for your faithful service on the Lord Winstead’s Vigilance.”

The end.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 1:14 pm

    You packed a lot of action into 2000 words! It’s good to see a sample of your writing, even though it’s a rough exercise, I can see your voice/style in it. You project a sense of preciseness and authority.

    I didn’t realize until after finishing the story, that the title gave away the ending, so I was a little surprised at the end. Wow am I unobservant in the mornings.

    Thank you for joining in the exercise! It’s funny how “Zeppelin” inspired two steampunk stories!

    -Tessa

    PS You know, I think that all stories should end with “The End.” It always brings to my mind a scratched black and white projection, with a triumphant trumpet blast of finality. Hehe I like it.

    • May 14, 2010 1:54 pm

      How can the word “zeppelin” not inspire a steampunk story? The two words are almost synonymous! 😉

      “Preciseness and authority.” That’s a pretty interesting characterization of my work. I think it matches something my wife said of my writing, too: that my writing is “professional” sounding. I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, in all honesty. But, whatever it is, it’s my thing, so I guess I’ve gotta own it!

      You’re right that the title telegraphs the ending. That’s mainly because I couldn’t think of a better title, and I wanted to include the name of the ship in the title because I kind of fell in love with the name of the ship.

      Also, I often end my stories with “The End”. I don’t know what it is, but it appeals to my inner child, I guess.

      • May 14, 2010 2:27 pm

        “I’ve gotta own it!” That’s right! I think you should take advantage of it 🙂 It’s not a bad thing, it’s yours 🙂

        I’m terrible with titles myself. They usually come as an afterthought! And yes, “the end” does also bring back memories of elementary school days listening to the teacher read to us. I always loved story time.

      • May 14, 2010 3:03 pm

        Usually, I can’t even get to work unless I have a title. I’m surprised I had almost this whole story figured out before I gave it a title.

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