By Jennifer K. Oliver
Steampunk, fantasy. 660 words.
Many thanks to Yvonne and Dabs for the beta-fu.
by Jennifer K. Oliver
The cabin creaks under the pressure of unspoken questions.
Captain Rommaline Grey rubs a cuff over her multi-specs, then pushes back the copper-spun curls that have fled her braid. She checks the navigation dials in front of her, makes two small adjustments to match their coordinates, and squints into the twilight.
Darkening clouds sag like giant washed-out nets, hung from the nearest constellations. The Panorama rumbles steadily across the continent, its crew gritty, wearied by three days of travel and the expenses they know they will not make up in passenger fares, thanks to the four last-minute cancellations.
The gondola feels heavier than usual, weighed down by the awareness that the envelope needs replacing. Every one of the them knows The Panorama won't make another substantial flight until the repair funds have been secured, but not one of them knows how they'll make the coin.
"Captain? Your tea," Benjamin says at her elbow. Steam curls up from the teacup he holds out to her.
"Many thanks." Captain Grey's voice is scratchy, her lips sore. She expects the junior engineer to head back down to the engine room, but he lingers a while at her side, watching as the ship cuts through the netted clouds.
"Will it be all right, captain?" Benjamin asks after a while.
Captain Grey sips her tea. She glances at him through the corner of the multi-specs which turn his features into a kaleidoscope of thermal colours.
"We've weathered all types of storm," she says, not one to make promises she may not be able to keep.
He sighs, his shoulders drooping. "I don't understand it. You don't see people leaving the country just because Her Majesty is a woman. Why is this ship different?"
A smile tugs one side of Captain Grey's mouth. "Perhaps it is because they're not putting their lives in Queen Victoria's hands at six-hundred-and-fifty feet, now are they?"
After a few seconds, Benjamin slowly, reluctantly smiles back.
From the etherscope panel, Lieutenant Pennyworth looks up to the captain's station and says, "I hear they managed to wrangle their way onto Falcon's Glory. Left an hour after us. Same route, smaller ship, pricier fare. Absurd, if you ask me, ma'am."
"Perhaps, but Falcon’s Glory is a widely heralded warship," Captain Grey says. "She was rebuilt twice before retiring to civilian service, so she is newer than our dear girl, and we are not so famous." A part of her likes it that way; using heavy artillery against those unfortunate enough to be embroiled in war is not something she particularly wants to be lauded for. Nor does she have any envy for the posthumous commendations awarded the previous captains of the Falcon’s Glory.
"You're the better captain," Benjamin mutters. "You kept everyone alive."
His defiance warms the chilly cabin, and Captain Grey finds the journey slightly easier going after that.
In the early hours the next morning, amidst jaw-aching yawns and red-rimmed blinks, news crackles through the etherscope that the Falcon's Glory is in trouble. Captain Grey strides calmly, steadily to the back of the ship and watches the distant black clouds become backlit by pulsing oranges and flickering reds, eerie as an unnatural sunrise where no sunrise has a right to be.
She feels her crew's eyes on her, every one.
Captain Rommaline Grey may live for her ship, and she may be a woman, and it may be difficult sometimes, carving her way across the sky in the ruffled white trails of her peers. But she is, first and foremost, a professional, and she does not mention that sometimes the older models are better, more sturdily built.
It is impossible to render assistance to an airship in flames, and they will watch this one fall as they have watched many others. Quietly she returns to her station, puts her palms to the wheel, and maintains their Easterly course, flying on into the true dawn.
© Jennifer K. Oliver, 2012.