Steam on the Horizon
by Melissa Conroy
Chapter 1, Part 2
By now, Roberts had the captain firmly enough in hand that as long as he kept an eye on things, the Horizon stayed aloft and on course and the men received their pay. But with the increased numbers of empty bottles rolling out of the captain's cabin, keeping a tight ship was becoming harder and harder. Roberts had nearly walked away from the whole damned mess more than once, but the pay was too good. After a successful run, Captain Smothers was apt to freely distribute bonuses in a rum-inspired fit of generosity if coaxed into the right mood, and Roberts was hording every farthing he could lay hands on. One day he'd have command of his own airship and none of this nonsense of slaving away under an idiot in the command seat.
Preoccupied with the future, both immediate and distant, Roberts stalked forward, mind growling irritably with thoughts and eyes intent on the bobbing bulk of the Horizon dancing impatiently in the stiff wind. Here, further down on the wharf, there was less traffic and fewer things to impede his feet except a huge stack of crates piled high in the middle of his path and being negligently supervised around by a small knot of Chinamen, the tonal chops of Cantonese rising in the air. Despite his grumbling worries over the Horizon, Roberts had to smile thinly to himself as he caught wind of their conversation: he knew enough of their tongue to surmise that they were talking about women, as men were wont to do after too many weeks crammed inside an airship with nothing but other men for company.
But the smile was fleeting as Roberts stepped irritably around the traffic jam, impatient to get back on board to discover just how much chaos had been unleashed in his brief absence. Mind thus preoccupied, he was completely taken off guard when an enormous explosion rocked the wharf, shock waves reverberating along the wooden planks as something exceedingly powerful struck it like a battering ram. Knocked off balance, Roberts fell to his knees behind the stack of crates, then rolled quickly out of the way as one at the top teetered for a moment, then fell to the deck with a crash, spilling open and sending a battalion of paper-wrapped opium logs careening across the deck.
A scream of Cantonese, and a Chinaman slide helplessly towards the edge of the wharf, slithering down the length of a floor plank that had knocked loose and was tipping the unfortunate man towards the ground seventy-five feet below. With a growl, Roberts shot forward on his hands and knees and grabbed the coolie's ankle, halting the fall and leaving the man dangling upside down from the lip of the wharf, his thin arms flailing pitifully as terror shook his small frame. But Roberts had a firm grip on the man's bony ankle and like most Chinamen, he was a skinny little runt; Roberts pulled the man to safely with one swift jerk of his arm and clambering to his feet with a heart-thumping suspicion of what had just happened.
He wasn't mistaken. Rounding the edge of the tower of boxes (which was now a disorganized jumble), Roberts burst into view and then froze at the sight of the chaos spreading before him. It was worse than he he had anticipated, much worse. The Horizon was wreathed in angry smoke, a gigantic hole gouged out of her hull and her engines shrieking in alarm as the airship sagged on her mooring lines, her airbags already deflating before Roberts' eyes. The once taut envelope was now rapidly deflating from a sizable hole in one of her airbag that must have been caused by a piece of shrapnel tearing through the tough canvas, for the jagged wound was loosening steam in angry waves of white and the airship was losing air by the minute.
They hadn't properly docked the airship on Captain's orders, hadn't carefully set her down on an empty berth where she could have rested against the canvas-cushioned supporting beams and waited for Roberts' return. Captain Smothers had insisted that they simply tie the Horizon off at the wharf and let her bob in the wind, a common procedure for a quick stop, but one that left the ship dancing about and too prone to slam into things, such as other airships also tied up like balloons at the wharf. With nothing underneath her but air and her deflating airbags struggling to keep her aloft, the injured Horizon was tilting backwards, her aft sagging towards the ground as her bowsprit edged upwards into the sun in a ferocious squeal of overheated engines.