The following is an excerpt (I suppose I can still call it that if it is all I have really written so far, right?) from a larger story set in the (as yet still unnamed) Victorian era steampunk setting that I have been developing for a while now. There is a lot that I want to do with this world that has grown up in my mind over the past year, this story is just the start of it all. This is also the setting that I have been talking on and off with several different people about running an IRC roleplay in.
As always, comments and questions are welcome and encouraged, and welcome to my world.
Jonathan Jackson (John to his friends and Jack to the Professor) leaned against the railing, staring out at the water some thousand feet below. The steady thrum of the engine and rhythmic whir of the propellers did little to calm his anxious state. Instead, it was the countless other little sounds that caught his attention: the creaking of the canvas, the intermittent grinding of an unevenly oiled propeller shaft, even the faint squeaking of a ill fitting support of the railing on which he leaned. Airships made him nervous. A wooden hull on water he could understand; wood being buoyant and all that. Even the steel skin most sailing vessels had these days made more sense to him than some strange conglomeration of wood, brass, canvas and steam sailing among the clouds.
This sense of ill-ease always struck him doubly so any time that they were forced to travel on this airship in particular. Jewel of the Empire she was called, and perhaps once she had been just that. Now she was like an old war veteran, carrying the scars of her service, but somehow still limping along. The Jewel had seen many a battle, both in military service in the Reclamation War as well as afterward against pirates and their lot in private trade, and she showed it. Man-sized patches of mismatched canvas dotted the sun faded cover of her lift balloons. Her decking changed color at least three times over its length, John suspecting that little of what was left was original to the ship’s construction. Most telling of all were the numerous copper patches along the hull, breaches that he was sure the captain always intended to fix, but somehow never quite managed to get around to. Yet for some reason the Professor seemed to love the blasted thing, opting to book passage on the Jewel when other, more modern, vessels were available, and at least once delaying one of his research expeditions by nearly a fortnight because the Jewel was in dry dock.
“Jack! There you are old chap. Been looking all over.”
Startled from his reverie John turned to face the approaching Professor.
“It’s John, sir.” He corrected, more out of habit than with any hope of it actually getting through to the man that employed him.
“Of course it is,” The shorter man said as he patted John on the back. “Come along now, Jack, got to go over the maps with Mary before we make berth in Cairo. Have to be ready, no time to lose on this one, don’t you know.”
John had long ago decided that the Professor only had two modes; somber, thoughtful, and pensive, or animated, excited and bordering on frantic. Tonight, it seemed, was he was running full tilt.
The Professor paused without warning, turning and looking at John as though he had just come to some great realization.
“Where’s your jacket, lad? Nan would be most cross with you if she saw you out here without it, you know.” Then, with an equally abrupt shifting of gears he returned to his original train of thought, “But anyway, yes… Map! Come along now.”
He gave a gentle press of his hand upon John’s back, urging him on towards the stairs to the lower decks.
Turned as they were, neither man noticed the dark shape drifting through the clouds some distance away. There were no lights shining on the black ship’s deck, her propellers still in the night air. The thin wisps of smoke from her stacks the only sign that she was not some derelict drifting on the Mediterranean winds. If either had noticed, then there might have been some warning for what happened next.
The steam cannon had been invented not long after the Newton cam came into common use, much to the chagrin of its inventor, Dr. Phinn Newton. He had hoped his creation would lead to breakthroughs in transportation, energy and industry. It did all these things, but as has always seemed to be the case with humanity, anything that can be used to build civilization up can, and will, in time be used to destroy it. While the steam cannon could never match more conventional munitions in range or striking power, it was more than effective at the relatively short ranges that most airship battles occurred, and the advantages, both in weight savings and the safety of not having to carry black powder on board, could not be denied. These cannons proved themselves in the American Civil War, mostly in use on the Union blockade ships, and the Confederate ships that did their best to vex them. By the time of the Reclamation War less than a decade later, they were the primary armaments of almost all airships, and were used along side more traditional canons on most waterborne steam vessels. They were even used by the Army as rail mounted siege weapons in the Battle of New York. Along the way they became increasingly popular with the resurgent pirates, for the weapon had no muzzle flash, and while not completely silent, was near enough to it that quite often the first warning a ship had it was under attack was when the first salvo of shot struck home.
The Professor had been right. He usually was, and while nice enough about it, he knew it, which could make them make quite insufferable at times. The first thing John heard upon entering the stateroom was the scratchy, mechanical voice of Nan chiding him for being out on deck without his coat. Nan, supposedly short for Nannette — though given her attitude on most things, John was partial to the theory that it was actually short for Nanny — was the Professor’s portable Babbage-Lovelace engine. The Professor had built her himself some years ago, she was the first and, as John prayed in thanks nightly for, only of her kind. The stateroom itself was rather cramped; space tended to be at a premium on board the Jewel; with much of the available floor space taken up by all of the Professor’s trunks, including the pink paisley one that served as Nan’s travel case, leaving barely enough room for the three people now crowded in the room to stand around the stateroom’s lone table.
The three studying the map were a study in contrasts, at a glance no more seeming to belong in the same room together than Victoria Regina herself belonged in the room with a Piccadilly carnie. John stood a good half foot over either of the others, his six foot three inch frame meaning he always had to be aware of the random pipes and any low hanging light fixtures on the Jewel. Dressed more like a lorry man than an assistant to one of the most respected minds in the Empire, his strong nose hinted at Italian somewhere in his southern Colonial American heritage. His dark hair never seemed to want to stay in place stray strands constantly falling in front of his tanned features. Mary had more than once threatened to shave it all off, if only she could reach his head. Mary herself tended to stand out in a crowd, her fiery red hair making sure of that even if it weren’t for how she dressed. Mary wore pants. Not the workman’s trousers that John tended to favor, mind, but pants none-the-less. Her favorite for most any occasion were her pantsuits, tailored to accentuate her athletic figure and leave no doubt that despite how she dressed she was still, most definitely, a woman. She stood across the table from John, leaning forward, a slender pipe; another of her odd foibles; clenched between her painted lips to look at where her uncle, the Professor, was pointing on the map, a spot of nothing surrounded by miles of even more nothing to John’s eye.
The man doing the pointing, Professor Maxwell Ambrose Newton, looked almost every bit the proper Victorian man; always clean shaven, his dirty blonde hair impeccably styled, his suits finely tailored. What stood out about the man, upon closer inspection, was all the little details, from the pattern of interlocking gears intricately embroidered on his waistcoat, to the goggle that seemed to always hang about his neck, to his oddly thick handled walking stick, and the fact that if you listened closely you’d almost swear that you just heard his top hat tick. Then there was his expression, except in his most somber, thoughtful moments, the Professor always seemed to have this perpetual, faint grin; the sort of grin that seemed to say “I know something you don’t,” the sort of grin that seemed to annoy and infuriate people. And when that grin slipped into a full on smile, that was when John really worried.
The Professor was smiling now.
“Right here is where we should find it,” the Professor said as though whatever it was he was saying was a foregone conclusion.
“Find what exactly, Professor? You’ve been on about this for over a week now and I’m still not sure what exactly it is we’re after,” John’s frustration at being left in the dark evident in his voice. He regretted it almost immediately as Mary’s head snapped up from the map, the glint in her green eyes making clear what sort of storm was brewing there. John braced himself for the lecture he was about the receive, the only question in his mind was as to which of Mary’s two favorites it would be, “If you were paying attention, or maybe if you were smarter, you’d know the answer,” or “You’re just here for the muscle, you don’t need to know.”
She never got the chance to begin her tirade, as her mouth opened to begin a sudden lurch of the ship sent falling backwards, flailing, onto the floor, her harsh words instead becoming a startled yell. John would likely have found this uproariously funny if that same abrupt motion had not sent him sprawling forward into the table to land face first upon the maps. Even as they were collecting themselves they could here the flurry of activity all about them as men rushed to their duty stations, the captain’s voice echoing from the tube in the room, “Pirates off t’ port, comin’ in fast!”
Rushing out onto the deck John got his first look at their attackers. Smaller than the Jewel, the other ship was approaching at a shallow angle, closing the distance while letting the maximum number of her guns to come to bear, her black and gunmetal finish making her lines hard to read against the night sky. The ship’s figurehead stood in stark contrast to this, a silver clad warrior woman, sword held out before her, the name Morrigan painted in the same silver flowing back from the figurehead like a cloak.
While smaller, the Morrigan easily outgunned the larger Jewel, with many of the latter’s guns having been removed over the years to make more room for cargo and passengers. Most of the pirates’ shots passed low, beneath their target, which was at least some encouragement to John as he climbed up the ladder towards the ship’s wheelhouse, rifle slung across his back. Aiming low meant they wanted to disable the ship rather than send it crashing down by bursting the lift balloon with a stray shot. They didn’t want them dead, at least not yet.
He could feel the vibrations in the ladder as steam was diverted from the boilers to the port side cannons that remained. This is going to get ugly, John thought, I hope whatever the hell it is that the Professor is after is worth it.