Saturday, September 07, 2013

Jonathan Swift Finds Nemo: An Alt History Short

I don't have any time travel tales, but I did dabble with an alternate history idea. It's one of my favorite short stories because it is very different from anything else I've written. Leave a comment on this post to win an ebook copy of my short story collection "Mixed Bag II: Supersized." Available in most ebook formats and in print.

Jonathan Swift Finds Nemo
Originally published at 5th Story Review.

Jonathan Swift sighed, setting aside his newly published book. It turned out to be wildly popular, the talk of the town. He’d written it as a travel book, but soon realized that he had to protect the Houyhnhnms. So, he changed it to a satire and populated it with thinly-veiled references to the Whigs. That, people would accept, even find amusing.

When he found the Houyhnhnm island, he was, as anyone would be, totally surprised at the discovery of a kind and gentle race of intelligent horses. They had so impressed him that he knew he must tell others. Alas, he had promised to never disclose their location, so he was forced into this fiction using the character Dr. Gulliver as his voice.

Now, he was becoming restless again. Since the untimely death of Stella, he found that no distraction could stop his thoughts from always turning to her. Still, life must go on, and he was eager to explore new vistas. He decided to go for a walk down to the harbor to see if any interesting ships had arrived.

Pulling on his heavy cape, to ward the London fog that descended, he ambled to the wharf and scanned the ships. His jaw dropped and he stared wide-eyed for a moment. One of the ships had sides clad in metal–not just strips used to strengthen and protect the seams, but entirely metal-bound. He walked rapidly to the side of this phenomenon and noted a man, apparently the captain, standing on the deck directing sailors in their tasks.

Ahoy, Captain of the ship.”

The ornately-dressed captain turned his way. His long coat was not entirely nautical in appearance. It reminded Jonathan of a Rajah’s attire, except heavily-braided on the shoulders and down the sleeves. “Est-ce que je peux vous aider?” the Captain asked.

Jonathan delved his memory for the French he had learned at school. “Parlez-vous Anglais?

The Captain nodded. “I do, monsieur. May I help you?”

May I introduce myself?” Jonathan placed his hand on his chest. “I am Jonathan Swift.”

The Captain smiled broadly. “I have heard of you, Monsieur Swift. I enjoyed your book, “Gulliver’s Travels.” A most imaginative travel guide. Quite amusing.”

Thank you, Captain.” Jonathan studied the Captains dark face thinking he must have Hindoo blood in him. He waited for the Captain to introduce himself.

My name is Captain de Nemours, Monsieur Swift. My ship is named, as you can see on the side, the Nautilus.”

I am curious about your ship, Captain. It appears to be entirely covered in metal. How does it float?”

Ah, advanced engineering. Not only does it float, but it can also dive under the surface of the sea. They call it a submarine. A Dutchman built the first of its kind for James I. Not a very practical model, requiring oars, but we have made a few improvements in the last hundred years.”

This ship is fantastic, Captain de Nemours. It amazes me that I have not heard of this means of marine transport before.”

This is the only one of its kind, Monsieur Swift. I am proud to be the first to command.”

Is it, then, a French invention?” Swift looked for a flagstaff, but couldn’t see one. “I do not see your colours.”

My crew and I have not allied the Nautilus to any country. I designed and built this ship myself.” He scanned the decks of the submarine with a slight smile on his lips. “We are free adventurers, traveling wherever we will, whenever we will.”

The two men chatted for a while longer. Finally, Swift could no longer contain himself. “I must sail in this ship, Captain de Nemours. Is there any possibility you could take me as a passenger? I don’t care where we go or for how long. I’ll pay whatever passage you ask.”

My most sincere apologies, Monsieur Swift. I cannot do that. We have, shall we say, things to do that preclude taking passengers.”

Swift was downcast and wondered whether to press the point. He decided to wait, perhaps get to know this Captain better, then he might relent and take him along. They said their goodbyes, and Swift returned to his home thinking furiously.

He immediately set pen to paper, describing the ship and its Captain in as much detail as he could remember. He intended to write about this ship and wanted to have accurate notes to go by. He hoped he would have the experience of actually sailing with the Captain.

Once he had written all that he could on the brief meeting, he took another piece of paper, a fine foolscap, and wrote a note to Captain de Nemours, inviting him to dinner. He called his footman, Ben, and sent him off to the wharf to deliver the invitation.

Ben soon returned with the note still in his hand. “I couldn’t find the ship, Master Swift. I asked around, but nobody seemed to know what I was talking about.”

Swift sighed. He thought the good Captain regretted all that he had told him and had set sail to preclude just this type of pressure. He picked up his notes on the ship, and heaving another sigh, he sadly put them in the bottom drawer of his desk. “Maybe someday the Nautilus will return.” He could only hope.

He pulled a few blank sheets of paper before him and picked up his quill. He had been working on this essay for a while and really should complete it. “What shall I title this?” he asked himself, then wrote “A Modest Proposal” at the top of the page.
* * *
More than one hundred forty years later, Jules Verne browsed through an antique shop in Paris. Spotting a desk of English design, he thought it would go nicely in his library. He bought the desk and gave directions for its delivery to his home.

Later, he sat at his new purchase to examine its features. In a lower drawer in the back, almost hidden from view, he found a set of papers describing a fantastic ship and a captain named de Nemours.

Hmm, this gives me an idea,” he muttered and began to write.


  1. That's a fun little story! Glad you published it here!

  2. One never knows when and from where inspiration will strike!