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Author Topic: Voyages of the Airship HMS Empire Builder (criticism needed)  (Read 1399 times)
« on: February 05, 2008, 04:32:12 pm »

Greetings all.  I'd like to present chapter one of a project I am tentatively calling "The Sun Never Sets."  Please rip it apart.  I would especially like to hear opinions on my use of technology, accuracy of titles, uniforms, and places, and the actions of Victorian Britons (I do know there's no train station at Hyde Park, an alternate location suggestion would be appreciated).  Please also criticize dialogue, believability and visible plot holes.  Attack anything and everything really, I need to improve this piece.

Have at it!

“The Sun Never Sets”

Chapter 1: Dramatis Personae

“My god, she’s beautiful!” Henry Emerson could hardly contain his excitement, he moved energetically, eagerly inspecting the body of the airship.  Every brass bolt, wooden strut, and metal cable quickened his breath and called to him, beckoning him to the open freedom of the skies. 
   His companion smiled, Major James Billingsworth had known his old friend wouldn’t be able to refuse an offer that involved such a splendid piece of engineering.  “So it’s agreed then?  You’ll pilot the expedition?”
   “Pilot it?  By jove I’ll bloody BE the expedition if it means I get to fly this!”  Emerson’s smile shone as he tore his eyes off the ship, “How big is she?  800?”
   “The HMS Empire Builder is a 1000 footer.”  Explained Billingsworth with a proud smile.
   Emerson felt his jaw drop as he turned back towards the massive dirigible.  “That makes her the biggest in the world James!”
   “I know.”
   “And you want me to pilot her?”
   “You’re the best in the service Henry, you distinguished yourself in more battles than I have fingers.  Everyone admits your maneuvers against the Prussian airfleet at Oldenburg practically defined modern airship combat.”
   “But James, I’m not IN the service anymore, has Her Majesty’s Royal Air Fleet forgotten my ‘dereliction of duty’?”
   “Forgotten and forgiven old chap!  You’ll be reinstated in the Fleet with a rank of Commodore Pilot, First Class, if you accept the assignment.”
   “Of course I accept! And James, I don’t want to know what strings you had to pull, but thanks.” Emerson gave his friend a jubilant hug, and then returned to his animated study of the airship.


“South America?  But sir, I don’t want to go to South America!”
   “Confound it Quentin, this is an opportunity, don’t you see that?  The London Times has been given exclusive rights to report on this expedition and I want you to be our man on the scene!”
   “But sir, South America is dangerous!”
   “And so is this newsroom if people don’t do what I say!”
   “I hear there are cannibals there sir, and a transatlantic flight in a zeppelin doesn’t sound safe to me!  And those savage Americans; all the trouble Her Majesty’s troops are having along the Confederate-British border!”
   “Enough!  You are either traveling with Doctor Flanagan and his expedition and sending back a fourteen-part serial by telegraph, or you are looking for another employment!  Are we clear?”
   Quentin Walpole nodded glumly; it looked like he would have to start packing.


“Professor, are you ready?  Your speech starts in five minutes.  Professor?”  Terrance Watson peered into the small cabin.
   “Eh?  Wot do yeh bloody want?”  A tousled head of white hair appeared from behind a row of brass contraptions. 
   “Your speech sir, the Admiral’s aides said you go out in five minutes.” 
   “Eh, right, right, hmm, well, best be gettin’ ready then mm?”
Terrence squinted suspiciously at a bulge in the old man’s coat pocket.  “Professor, have you been drinking?”
   “Har har!  No laddie!  Leastaways, no, I don’t think so…”  The professor’s voice trailed off as he scratched his head, trying to recall the events of the afternoon.
   Terrance sighed inwardly as he helped Professor Flanagan into his suit jacket and tried to make the old eccentric appear at least a little presentable.  A thunderous applause told him Admiral Lord Maynard Kensington had just introduced the famous inventor to the crowd standing outside the train.  With some effort he bundled the Professor out into the London sunlight, and onto the train’s rear platform.
   The platform and an adjacent stage were already quite crowded with dignitaries and governmental functionaries, all bedecked in clean pressed military uniforms or dapper suits with beaver pelt top hats.  A red line of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines stood as a ceremonial guard in between the platform and the mass of people that had crowded into Hyde Park to hear about the marvelous new discoveries the Professor had made in the uncharted jungles of South America, and about the massive expedition he was to lead there.
   The rumpled little man squinted into the sun and adjusted his glasses.  He sneezed thunderously and it was only after he had wiped his nose along the entire length of his grease-stained coat sleeve that he seemed to notice the crowd in front of him, or the obviously ruffled dignitaries and royalty sharing the platform with him.  With a roguish wink to the horrified bureaucrats, Professor Eamon Cogsworth, originally of Kildare, educated at Cambridge, but never turned into “one ‘o them damned Englishmen,” turned to the crowd and began his speech.


“I just don’t see the sense in a fine, proper young lady like yourself risking her life on some crazy adventure!” Sister Katherine Longbottom spat out the last word as if it were a curse.
   “Oh Kitty!  You worry too much.  There will be plenty of strapping red-coated lads to defend me from whatever dangers the Americas can conjure up.  Besides, it’s a scientific expedition, not a ‘crazy adventure’ and it will do wonders for my thesis.”  Marry Townsend admonished her friend as she bustled around the room, organizing clothes, toiletries and other feminine products into three gargantuan suitcases.  “And,” she added with a wink, “who says I’m ‘fine and proper’ anyhow?”
   “Miss Mary!  You shouldn’t speak that way, people might get ideas!”  The matronly woman was quite scandalized.
   “Let them.  I’ll take on the whole lot of proper society and make them all sorry they bothered me about being proper in the first place.” Mary smiled recklessly as she tossed a pair of silk drawers into one of the suitcases.
   Sister Longbottom, by now used to her charge’s rebellious and wild nature, replied rather peevishly, “Well, people will certainly get ideas what with you going on this ‘expedition.’  Imagine, you the only lady among a lustful pack of men.”
   “Kitty!  You make them sound like wolves!”
   “That they are Miss Mary, full of sinful thoughts and horrible plans.” Sister Longbottom replied sternly.
   Mary grew mock-thoughtful, “Perhaps you are right, Kitty.  I might need someone to protect me against the horrible plans of those men...  Would you care to join me?”
   “Heaven’s no Miss Mary!  A military expedition is no place for a woman of any station in society!”
   “It’s not a military expedition Kitty!  It’s a scientific expedition, the military is just along because of the dangers.” Mary smiled evilly at the distress this mention of danger caused Kitty.
   “Miss Mary, if your father were still alive-“
   Mary cut her off, “He’d be going too.  He loved ancient ruins why, he practically dragged me and mum off to Egypt before I was even 10!  Besides,” she grew quiet, “he was in South America when, when-“ She couldn’t finish, and Kitty nodded sympathetically.
   Mary looked up, “Pass me that scarf” she said a little too gruffly.


Nigel Crosby squinted suspiciously at the porter struggling with his oversized valise as he disembarked from his gleaming government steamcoach.  “Be careful with that, boy!  Those are very important Imperial documents!  If you so much as crease one of them I will make you wish you had never been born, I’m the Assistant Vice-Undersecretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I can make your life a living hell boy!”  The porter carefully lowered the valise and then turned to roll his eyes at the coach driver, who smiled surreptitiously.
   Nigel harrumphed loudly and turned his short, over-round frame towards the airship terminal and stalked off, followed by his diminutive aid.  “Hugh, make a note of that porter’s name, I want him sufficiently reprimanded before we leave.”
   “Y-y-yes sir” stammered Hugh Milverton, struggling to both write down his master’s instructions on his notepad and keep pace with the rotund little bureaucrat.  He was still scribbling furiously as the pair, followed somewhat belatedly by the porter and their luggage, entered the vastness of the airship terminal at Hatton Cross.  The vaulted steel and glass ceiling stretched away above them, opening on the other side of the vast concourse in at least ten massive airship berths, most already filled.  Even as they watched a large zeppelin, bearing the flag of the East India Company, the red cross of St. George and alternating red and white stripes, was guided into one of the openings in the glass and steel wall of the terminal from the field outside.  Even before the horses were unhitched from the front of the airship, passengers began to disembark from the upper decks while workers scrambled to unload goods from the immense cargo hold.
   “Ah, Mr. Nigel Crosby?” A young man of middling height approached the government official.
   “Yes.”  Nigel thought the man looked familiar.
   “Pleased to meet you sir, Terrance Watson, M.D.  I was told to meet you here and escort you to the expedition’s airship.”
   “Ah!  Terrance m’boy!  You’re that fellow who works for Professor Cogsworth, I met you at the sending off dinner the other night.”
   “Yes sir, now if you’ll follow me the Empire Builder is awaiting us on the landing field.”
   “On the field?  Why is a ship of her importance not brought into proper dock?”
   “Ah, the Empire Builder is, as you may have heard, the largest dirigible in the world, and with her extended top-deck and military grade smokestacks, she would just not fit in even the largest berth of the terminal.” explained Watson as the group wove through the packed concourse.
   “Ah yes, I see.” replied Crosby, though he didn’t, not really, not until the small troupe emerged from the terminal on the other side and into the sunlit landing field.  What had before been hidden by the bulk of the other airships in the terminal now lay visible at the center of the green expanse, Crosby almost gasped with wonder.  “Good god man!  Thats-“
   ”Her Majesty’s Ship Empire Builder, commissioned 13 August, 1888, completed 9 March 1889, fully 1000 feet long, 200 feet high, armoured all around and carrying a compliment of 200 of Queen Victoria’s best Royal Marines, a land ironclad, and enough cannon and Gatling guns to level a city.”
   Nigel and Watson both turned at the sound of the voice.  A tall man in the red uniform of a Colonel stepped away from the mass of porters and equipment whose loading he was helping to supervise and extended his hand.  “You are our final passenger, Mr. Nigel Crosby, I presume?”   
Crosby warily eyed the extended hand before taking it, “Yes, and you sir, are..?
        “I am Commander Lord Barrington Redgrave, and will be leading Her Majesty’s military compliment on this expedition.”
        “Ah yes of course!  A pleasure Commander, I’m certainly reassured knowing you and your boys are along.  I feel confident you can handle any dangers fate should see fit to throw our way!”  Crosby beamed happily.
        The Colonel looked at him icily, “Would I had your confidence in our prospects for survival sir.  Between air pirates, Prussian privateers, Confederate Gatling emplacements, restless natives, inclement weather, socialist sympathizers and tropical diseases I think we should be lucky to return to dear old England in one piece.”  With that he turned back to managing the loading of provisions, leaving Terrance to guide the rather nonplussed Nigel Crosby and his aide into the shadow of the airship and thence by pulley and ladder onto its sprawling upper deck.

 “ e’s not lookin’!  Quick!”  The two small forms darted out from behind the pile of luggage as soon as the stern looking man in the red military jacket had turned to talk with the three newcomers.  Brother and sister darted across the open ground, paused beneath a distended luggage trolley, and scurried past heaps of stores and provisions and grunting aero-mechanics and porters.  June tugged Peter’s sleeve and they stopped to catch their breath in the shadow of one of the airship’s immense landing struts.  Collapsing to the ground and leaning against the large rubber tyre, June wondered aloud, “Where d’you think Missus Hardwicke got to?” 
   “I dunno and I don’t care to find out” her brother replied.
        “I ‘ope she’s dead!  I ‘ope she got ‘erself crushed by one o’ them steam carriages as she was chasin’ after us!”  June spat into the ground.   
        “Well c’mon!  We don’t want to be around if she wasn’t!  She’ll make us go back!”  With that Peter and June Blackwell leapt to their feet once more and zigzagged in between the bags of flour, boxes of coal and other stores waiting to be lifted into the Empire Builders’s cargo hold.  They stopped short and ducked behind a pile of wooden crates at the sound of approaching workers.  The footsteps stopped on the other side of the crate pile and a stern voice said, “I’ve hidden the explosives in this bag of salt.  Make sure you remember it’s the one with the red “X.”  Detonate them in the engine compartment, but only after you have secured the information.  Understood?”  There was a silence, during which the companion of the man with the stern voice must have nodded, for Stern Voice continued, “And if anyone interferes with your work, or you suspect they know too much, kill them.  I don’t want any witnesses.  Make sure to have it look like an accident.”  Stern Voice’s companion must have nodded again, for the children heard the two start walking once more.
        June looked at Peter fearfully, “They’re coming right towards us!  They’ll see us!” she whispered. 
Peter looked around frantically.  “In there!” he whispered back, pointing to a large, half opened crate of silk airship patches.  Brother and sister scrambled in though the opening on the top of the crate and pulled the silk over themselves to hide their bodies from view.  The two pairs of footsteps receded into the distance, and the children let out mutual sighs of relief. 
        June whispered, “D’you think they’re-“ but was cut off by a hoarse yell from outside the crate. 
        “Oi!  This one’s next mate!  Colonel says the ones marked “essential” go on first!”  The children cowered in silence as more pairs of feet approached their crate.  Jane let out a little yelp when the heavy lid was slid into place above them, sealing the two runaways off from the light that had been visible through their silk coverings.  Next the crate began to move, and the children were bumped and jostled about as they felt themselves rolling over the uneven ground of the air field.  The crate stopped, and chains could be heard rattling overhead.  Peter thought at last they were done and moved to get up and open the crate.  He was about to shove off the lid when there came two thumps on the side of the crate and he heard a voice outside say, “Aright Johnny, take ‘er up!”  Peter was immediately thrown off balance and tumbled down again as the crate raised into the air, swinging side to side.  After several moments of motion sickness-inducing flight the crate and its contents were deposited unceremoniously onto the deck of the cargo hold.
        By the time the two children were again brave enough to pry open the heavy crate lid, the loading had already finished and the huge cargo bay doors were being hauled shut.  As the doors closed with a mighty metal clang, leaving the immense cargo hold lit only by sparse paraffin lamps, brother and sister looked at each other with expressions that were one part fear, and one part excitement.  They were about to embark on a marvelous adventure.
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