Prompt: Write a scene that incorporates one or more key elements of the Steampunk genre.
Source: Modified from the WeBook Steampunk Writing Challenge (basically they limited the scene to 500 words - this version is twice that)
Original Airdate: The writing challenge began April 3, 2011
Nelly jumped, jabbing her scalp with a hairpin. She swore, letting the strand of dark hair wrapped around her finger fall. She rubbed her scalp gingerly, almost expecting to find blood on her fingers when she drew them away. She was on her thirty-second pin curl and her fingers were beginning to go numb, but she had to finish. The curls needed time to set before they landed in London.
"Staff Sergeant Maude-Feenarty!" The speaker pounded at her door.
The released strand of hair hung limp above Nelly’s right ear. She glared at in her mirror. What a time for her hair to be uncooperative. Nelly sighed and was about to respond when the panicked voice called again, pounding all the harder. "Staff Sergeant!"
"What do you want?" Nelly leaned closer to her mirror, nose almost brushing the polished metal as she attempted to reset the lank curl.
"Ma'm, we're passing another airship."
Nelly succeeded in pinning down the lock of hair and reached for another pin. Her fingers fumbled in the pin box, totally numb and practically useless. She groaned, abandoning the attempt. Nelly turned back to the mirror, tugging discontentedly at the top of her corset. She could swear that the tight bodice made her chest appear lopsided. "One of our own?" she asked.
"Hostile trade ship," Came the instantaneous reply.
Nelly stood abruptly, knocking over her chair and brushing the box of hairpins from the vanity top. She threw open the door. A trembling blond Private stood before her door, fist poised to knock again. "Where?"
The Private pointed down the deck. Only a few meters from them on their port side, the red insignia of an enemy airship loomed. It was close enough that Nelly could hear the whir of its engines, smell its oiled gears and feel the breath of its feverishly running fans washing over her, uncomfortably warm and sooty. The airship was smaller than the HMS Alecto, but the sight of it made Nelly's skin prickle. Looking out, off the quarterdeck, she could see the haze that marked London on the horizon. Enemy trade ships that small only carried one thing: fire bombs.
Nelly swallowed. The vile contraptions had been created by Spanish scientists a few years previously, when the bombs landed it set off a chemical reaction that lit everything within reach on fire. The fire they produced was foul-smelling and a sickly shade of green; the flames were impossible to quench with water or sand and they had been known to continue burning without any fuel. Even a trade ship that small could take out a third of London with a single load of bombs.
"Sergeant Hanway," she barked. Her second in command snapped to attention. His pale eyes were crinkled in his heavily-tanned face, clearly worried, but he was steady, as he always was in combat.
"Shoot those bloody dogs down." Nelly turned to get her rifle. All of her men stood still.
A Private made a muffled noise as if to protest her orders. No doubt he had presumed to remind his commanding officers that their orders were to spill no blood, but he was silenced by Nelly's sharp look. No one had moved.
"What are you waiting for?" Nelly roared, hefting her enormous rifle from its rack. "Snap to it!"
Nelly went to the rail, bracing her over-sized firearm against the deck. She poured ammunition into its mouth, tamping it down angrily. The gun was gigantic, specially made to be shot from the hip, but despite its size, Nelly hefted it easily. Its long barrel was icy even through her gathered skirt, but she knew that after a single round it would blaze hot. The gun was designed to shoot an entire volley before reloading, shot after shot. Biceps flexed taut, Nelly dragged back the lever and let a hail of bullets into the enemy ship.
She could see the men she killed. They scrambled about their own deck, trying to organize and reload their single-shot weapons, until her shot - designed to explode into shrapnel on impact – sent them flying. Nelly bent her knees to keep her balance as a few of the soldiers returned fire and the Alecto rocked.
"They're hitting our belly, Staff, she can't take much more," At her side, Sergeant Hanway cocked two pearl-handled pistols with enormous sights, taking careful aim into the fray on the opposing debt. He fired, with a slight pinging sound, and the skipper of the enemy airship collapsed.
"Stay our course," Nelly ordered. She turned to a passing Private. "Get Flight Charlie out here, now."
Looking terrified to be addressed by his commanding, the boy uttered a "yes, ma'm" and ran down the deck. He stumbled as the ship yawed, grabbing the rail to keep his balance. Nelly let her own rifle fall to the floor and stood, tensed, waiting.
Flight Charlie pounded onto the deck a few moments later, their steps in perfect time despite the desperation of the circumstances. Nelly had conducted their specialized training personally. It was immaculate in every area; Flight Charlie was the pride of Staff Sergeant Maude-Feenarty’s command. Nelly snatched a revolver from one of their hip holsters as the boy passed, joining their line. He stood respectfully at attention.
Nelly aimed with both hands. Though much smaller than her own weapon, the handguns had a kick like a small horse, their rounds a take on the Spanish fire bomb technology. Few ships could survive an assault from Flight Charlie. "On my order," she barked. "Fire!"
The rounds were so large that for an instant, Nelly watched a line of black shot barreling toward the airship. The rounds punctured the airship’s red insignia. A moment after the ship caught flame. The fire was putrid, its flames low-burning and blood red. An alarm sounded on the enemy airship as it collapsed, sinking out of the sky. Breathing heavily, Nelly turned back to her men, expecting to find them celebrating. The two Flight Charlie soldiers nearest her blushed as she turned on them.
Nelly looked down at herself. Her hair was half-up in pin curls, the rest whipping around her face in a dark, sooty mane. She was only wearing her boots, bustled skirt and corset. Containing herself, Nelly drew in a deep, tenuous breath.
"Sergeant Hanway,” she barked. “Get these men back to the barracks. We'll be arriving in London in a few hours and they need to look presentable." She executed a crisp turn and marched down the deck, slamming her door behind her.