Steam on the Horizon
by Melissa Conroy
Chapter 1, Part 1
The Horizon bobbed and swayed, tugging at her mooring lines like a rebellious horse pulling against its halter. From his position on the wharf, first mate Gavin Roberts eyed the bloated canopy of the airship critically as he approached the vessel. Tight as a woman's corset, the airship's envelope was straining to hold back cubic yards of agitated steam from bursting loose and the seams of the airbags were visible underneath their rough canvas cover as they stretched desperately outward in futile attempts to find more space. On the crowded, noisy wharf, other airships were snugly strapped down in canvas-cushioned berths or tied up at the wharf in preparation for takeoff, but they were all sedate and restrained in comparison to the Horizon's erratic dance across the sky. The airship was hissing in impatience, and Roberts' feet quickened, carrying his broad-shouldered frame through the press of crowds roving up and down the length of the wharf.
Idiot Silverman's ignoring the pressure gauge again, Roberts thought to himself darkly as he irritably shoved his way past an airman overloaded with gunnysacks. The airman staggered out of the way, barely avoiding a collision as the taller man plowed through the crowd with nary a glance at who might be impeding his path. I'm gone a half hour and it all goes to hell, Roberts added, his gray-green eyes fastened intently on the airship, seeking any evidence of an imminent catastrophe.
Cursed ship. They all said it about the Horizon, too many burst valves and men falling to their deaths to encourage an onslaught of eager volunteers every time there was an opening on the ship's roster. But Roberts knew better; sure, the Horizon was a fussy little bird, apt to sulk or threaten a crash if mishandled, but she was as light as a cloud and damned fast, capable of racing a scant twenty hours from London to Edinburgh on a good run if she had the right crew to baby her.
But Captain Albert Smothers was not the type of man to get the most out of an airship like the Horizon or any airship, truth be told. When he wasn't boozing it up in his quarters, the captain was apt to be barking out orders that changed by the hour or fighting with the engineers or sometimes leaning over the edge of the ship spewing his guts out over whatever landscape they happened to be crossing due to chronic airsickness combined with too much alcohol. More than once, some doxy had come wandering sheepishly out of the captain's cabin after the Horizon had docked in a port, and then there had been the care and feeding of the unexpected passenger until the airship could land somewhere and see the girl off with enough money to get back home.
It was Roberts ran the show, had to, otherwise God knows where they would have ended up on this last run, what with the Captain demanding a change of course halfway through their flight to Liverpool that added an additional three hundred miles to the trek. Roberts had been flying under Captain Smothers' unskilled leadership (if it could be called that) for nigh on two years now, and if the captain had any discernible attributes, predictability was one of them. By this point, Roberts had grown reasonably skilled at tactfully redirecting his superior away from the worst of his idiotic ideas and mitigating damages if the Captain Smothers insisted that his harebrained schemes be enacted. Now, worriedly observing the Horizon's bloated envelope straining to keep from bursting, Roberts knew that his brief absence had allowed yet another magnificently stupid decision to manifest.