In anticipation of my upcoming novel To Rule the Skies, I present its Anteprologue, a little teaser which takes place immediately prior to the beginning of the novel, and introduces a few important characters and a bit of the world in which the novel takes place. Enjoy!
Professor Boffin turned from his conversation as Lord Clarendon entered the room. He had expected Clarendon to attend the retirement dinner for the Captain, but he had not expected the person who followed him.
“Elizabeth!” he exclaimed, ignoring his benefactor and father-in-law altogether as he rushed to his wife. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you before you flew off. Father says that Flamel is to depart in the next couple of days.”
Boffin looked quizzically at Clarendon. “Is this true, sir? I’ve heard nothing of new orders.”
“I apologize, Nicodemus. I heard of it just before leaving Newton Hall this afternoon. I’m afraid all the details have not coalesced as yet. I am still waiting to receive the details from the Admiralty. Anyway, when I mentioned it to Elizabeth, she insisted upon accompanying me here to Croydon.”
Although Professor Nicodemus Boffin was the Expedition Commander of Her Majesty’s Research Airship Flamel, it seemed to him sometimes that he was the last to hear when Flamel was ordered on what was termed “extraordinary assignments” for the Government. And Boffin did not like the feeling of his position being ignored and disrespected. His wife saw the irritated look on his face and took him aside.
“Nicodemus, do not worry about what orders you may be receiving.”
“Why? Why am I the last to know? Do they not respect me at all?”
“Let tonight be an enjoyable time. For the captain.”
Boffin’s troubled visage softened. He could not resist his wife’s combination of logic and honest sentiment. He looked at her face, turned up to his with one eyebrow raised hopefully.
“Yes, of course, dear. Tonight is in celebration of the captain. I shall not let what may come tomorrow interfere with the festivities. But I do have some matters that I must discuss with your father before dinner.”
The Professor excused himself and went off to look for Lord Clarendon who he found listening to one of the Captain’s stories of the Air War.
“Excuse me, Captain, I must speak with Lord Clarendon, if you don’t mind. Be sure not to tell all your stories. You’ll have none remaining for your speech later.”
Boffin and Clarendon stepped over into a corner of the hall. “Sir, I must protest how these orders have been handed down. I must be given prior notice. The ship hasn’t been made ready.”
“In this case, Nicodemus, it was unavoidable. As I said, I do not know everything yet. There is something big afoot, big enough that the Admiralty is falling over itself to keep it a secret, that much is clear.” Clarendon put a hand on Boffin’s shoulder, “But you do have a point. I will consult with the Air Admiralty to devise a more unambiguous communication practice.”
“Thank you, sir. That is all I ask. A further question: Has there been any word as to a new captain for Flamel? We surely can’t depart without one.”
“Of course, Nicodemus. The Air Admiralty has identified Captain Daniel FitzHugh as their top candidate. Unfortunately, he is on holiday and can not be reached until tomorrow. Should he accept the posting, he will have to come aboard at the last minute before Flamel departs. Not optimum, I suppose, but your crew should be up to it.”
“FitzHugh? From the Afghan Affair?”
“The very same. The Air Lords believe that FitzHugh performed admirably in that situation. They feel he saved his airship and prevented the situation from becoming worse than it did. That the Foreign Office does not share their opinion is of no matter to them. The Air Admiralty feels FitzHugh has been treated shabbily and believes that his long career in the Air Service warrants his appointment as Flamel’s new captain.”
“And if he should refuse the posting?”
”We are sending Captain Grainger and Mr. Willoughby Smith of the Royal Institution to inform him of the offer. They are very persuasive.
Boffin remembered their visit to him in Edinburgh almost a decade ago. “Yes, indeed they are.”
As it neared the appointed time, the banqueting hall attached to The Flying Frigate pub filled with the crew of Flamel as well as a few of Captain Warner’s old shipmates from the Air War. They had come to celebrate the Captain’s retirement from the service. The Captain began his long career in the Royal Navy, and transferred to the Air Service when the first British airships were being built during the Air War. He had served on several ships, ultimately as First Officer on Draco at the war’s end. When Flamel was launched as a ship of scientific research and discovery, he decided that it would likely be a soft assignment after the ardors of war. Little did he know that Flamel, because of its advanced capabilities, was often called to take on special assignments for Queen, Country, and Empire.
At the head table was the Captain, of course, in the place of honour at the right hand of Lord Clarendon who was acting as host for this evening. To Clarendon’s left was Professor Boffin and Boffin’s wife, the Lady Elizabeth Boffin. The crew of Flamel and guests took up the remainder of the seats at table in no particular order, mirroring the relaxing of ranks that Boffin strove to maintain on his ship. After dinner had been served and enjoyed, Lord Clarendon rose, glass in hand. Although Lord Clarendon was not a tall man, he had an imposing bearing and soon the eyes of the room were on him
“Thank you. Tonight we meet to celebrate our Captain, James Warner. I first met Captain Warner almost seven years ago, when we at The Endeavour were searching for a Captain for Flamel as she was nearing her launching. We knew that as her captain Flamel would demand a skilled airman with bold leadership, a curious mind, and a brave soul. When we heard about Captain Warner’s record, we were certain that we had found Flamel’s captain. His performance over the last seven years has only confirmed our choice. We will not soon forget Flamel’s extended Asian cruise, including some unique zoological collecting by Professor Boffin. And those of the crew who were on board at the time will long remember Flamel’s first voyage to pluck that important personage from the mountaintop in the Bavarian Alps, although there are those at the Foreign Office who might prefer otherwise. But let us tonight toast our Captain and wish him a happy retirement. To the Captain!”
Clarendon raised his glass and those assembled rose and followed his example. Although normally a loquacious man, the Captain was somewhat embarrassed at the public attention given him, so he only reluctantly rose to say a few words.
“Thank you, thank you, Lord Clarendon, Professor and Lady Boffin, friends, and crewmates. I scarcely know where to begin—I am at a loss for words.”
“That’s got to be the first time for that, eh, Nicodemus?” said Lord Clarendon, leaning back in his chair to whisper to the Professor behind his daughter’s back. Boffin smiled and nodded in agreement.
“To my crew, my comrades, we have shared many adventures, fought many foes, and explored the world. Believe me when I say that I would travel to Hell and back with you.” Then remembering a lady was present added, “Oh, please excuse my language, Lady Boffin.”
Elizabeth sat up straight in her chair and cleared her throat for attention. “Captain, I was raised as my father’s only child, and he gave me all the education and experiences he would have a son. Trust me when I tell you that I have heard much saltier language in my life. No need to apologize at all when the word in question carries such a heartfelt sentiment. Now let’s continue the damned toast!” As she laughed, her flaming red hair almost shook itself out of its carefully coiffed arrangement.
The Captain laughed at her joke so much that his face turned red and his eyes teared. As he regained his composure, he looked around at those in the room at the faces of the men that he had served with for the last seven years. He thought that of all the crews that he had served with in his career, how skilled and courageous was this ship’s company, and of all the ships he had served on, both naval and airborne, how singular a ship was Her Majesty’s Research Airship Flamel.