The Case for the Prosecution – a steampunk flash story

Picture by taymtaym via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by taymtaym via Flickr Creative Commons

Jenny grinned as she swaggered up to the defendant’s stand. Sweeping off her tricorn – an ostentatious little number modelled on the French admiralty style – she winked at the judge.

“Afternoon, your honour,” she said. “Busy day for you.”

“Indeed.” Judge Beckett took off his spectacles, rubbed the bridge of his nose, and then returned the glasses to their position, knocking his official wig askew in the process. The jaunty angle diminished his stern demeanour, as did the steam pouring from the legislative engine that filled most of the bench. “Captain Jennifer Kemper, you are once more accused of piracy on the high seas. How do you plead?”

“Not guilty, your honour,” Jenny said.

“Of course you do,” Beckett said. “Prosecution, your view?”

“We seek the death penalty, your honour.” Margaret Roberts, the crown’s top barrister in the southern counties, set aside her quill and stood ready behind her desk, a hawk ready to dive on its prey.

“Of course you do.” Beckett sighed. “Let’s cut the preamble – we’ve been here enough times before. What legal attack have you dreamed up this time?”

In the viewing gallery, Jenny’s crew laughed. This was as much part of the privateering game as chasing merchantmen was, the results just as certain.

“It’s not about me, your honour.” Roberts stepped up to the bench and handed the judge a wooden tablet punched with holes. “It’s the defendant. On nineteenth May last, she did wilfully and knowing attack a naval rig of the Worshipful Company of Artificers, a rig then testing steam trawlers off the coast of Cornwall.”

“We even used a steam powered boarding ram,” Jenny said with pride. “How’s that for worshipful artifice?”

“I refer you to the Statute for the Defence of Industry 1764, section nineteen, paragraph c.” Roberts turned a predatory smile upon Jenny. It was unsettling, but surely there was nothing the lawyer could do.

Judge Beckett slid the tablet into his bench and pulled a leaver. There was a hiss of steam, a rattle of gears, and finally a pop as a tube of paper burst out in front of him. He unrolled it, pushed his glasses up his nose, and read the text. Then he looked up at Jenny.

“I believe the crown has you at last, Captain Kemper.” He sat back with a smile. “The Defence of Industry act prohibits any action hindering research that might benefit the Royal Navy. Innovations in steam ships fit that criteria.”

“I’m a licenced privateer,” Jenny said. “That permits me to-”

“No,” Beckett said. “Section nineteen, paragraph c overturns the usual exemptions for privateers, lawyers and press gangs.”

Jenny’s heart sank. The liberty of a privateering licence had always allowed her and her crew to roam free. She’d stopped even bringing a lawyer to court, so bulletproof was that piece of paper.

She glanced nervously at the black cap lying next to Beckett’s gavel, and then out the barred window at the courtyard where other defendants were being hanged. But she had more than one document in her arsenal.

“Your honour.” She pulled a piece of paper from her pocket and carefully unfolded it. “I have here a contract hiring me and my crew for this privateering expedition. Legal responsibility falls upon my employers, not me.”

“In whose name is that contract signed?” Roberts asked, her voice honey sweet.

“The Brotherhood of Ludd,” Jenny replied. “You know, the machine smashers.”

“Oh, I do know.” Roberts turned to the judge. “All Luddite organisations are illegal under emergency measures following Liverpool machine riots. If the hiring organisation is illegal then the contract is not valid, and neither is Captain Kemper’s defence.”

“She has you again, Captain.” Judge Beckett reached for the black cap, and Jenny’s blood ran cold. “Unless you have anything else to say in your defence…”

There were snarls and angry shouts from the gallery. Beckett waved his hand and militiamen moved in, silencing Jenny’s unarmed crew with the menace of their muskets.

There was not enough time to prepare a rescue, as they had in Jamaica. The irony was terrible. She loved machines – automated cannon loaders, navigational clocks, calculating engines. Half the reason they’d taken the job was to try out the steam powered boarding ram. Now she was going to hang as a Luddite.

Neat as clockwork, something clicked in her mind.

“You said lawyers,” she said, pointing at the paper in front of Beckett. “That law stops lawyers as well as privateers hindering naval progress, am I right?”

“Innovations which may benefit the Royal Navy are protected from interference,” Beckett said. “You are not the Royal Navy.”

“Neither are the Artificers,” Jenny said. “But we both work under their licence, and my steam powered boarding ram could benefit the navy as much as those trawler engines could. I was field testing it, and that makes me immune from any interference by lawyers.” She pointed at Roberts. “Including her case.”

“This is absurd,” Roberts protested. “This interpretation cannot hold.”

Judge Beckett sat back with a sigh.

“I’m sure that you are right,” he said. “But you will need to back that up.” Setting aside the black cap, he glared at Jenny. “Captain Kemper, you will be returned to the cells. I can hold you for a month while Mistress Roberts seeks precedents, and I shall give her the full benefit of that time. Enjoy those days – they will be your last.”

“Very fair of you, your honour.” Jenny grinned and pulled her hat back on. Now her people had time to plan that rescue.

She hoped they used something powered by steam.

* * *

 

We all know piracy is bad and wrong, but still, it’s hard not sympathise with a rogue in a tricorn.

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