Steam on the Horizon
Chapter 1, Part 4
Brown, Richardson, McFadden, Carter, Smith, Roberts counted quickly as men started to emerge from the rubble, pull themselves shakily to their feet, and stagger towards him. Carter the bosun was bleeding even more heavily and Richardson the day pilot was being dragged forward by Brown, a gangly airman with only four flights under his belt. Richardson had a chunk of wood embedded in his thigh while Brown looked unhurt but about three seconds away from total panic. McFadden was sporting the beginnings of a significant bruise on his forehead and was clutching an arm to his chest in a way that indicated it was broken. Smith seemed dazed but reasonably intact but after unfurling himself from the wreckage and taking a few steps forward, he sat down very carefully with his back to a crate and closed his eyes.
“Where's Johnson?” Roberts bellowed to the second mate, a tall fellow of African extraction who spoke precisely modulated English like a professor. The second mate looked unhurt and, as always, serenely unruffled.
Bowing his head regally, the massive dark-skinned man said in his deep, rolling tones, “Sir, I believe Mr. Johnson fell during the accident.” As he spoke, something crashed heavily below deck and Roberts heard the bellows of Collins the quartermaster as the man thudded up the ladder towards the main deck.
“Sir! The Captain! Captain's dead, sir!” Collins staggered into view, clutching a mangled arm. The man was a sight – half his shirt was gone and patches of exposed skin were covered with the angry red wounds of steam blast. Boiler accidents were almost inevitably a catastrophe – a blown boiler could strip the flesh from a man's bones in a heartbeat and as Roberts thundered down the ladder towards the engine and boiler room, he had a looming premonition of what he would find there.
The hull was a chaotic mess, hot steam filling the air with choking clouds and jagged debris littering the floor. The door and much of the bulkhead walling off the engine and boiler room has been blasted outward and the heavy engines in the middle of the wreckage were silent, their cogs stilled as the furnace glowed a furious red. The boiler was a twisted mess of distorted metal, shrapnel lying in chunks across the hull as boiling-hot water spilled out of the ruined machine. It hit Roberts' boots, soaking through the worn areas in the soles, but as he moved forward he froze, momentarily ignoring the hot liquid seeping into his boots.
Two, well, bodies was perhaps too strong of a word for it, lay not far from the mangled boiler, strips of angry pink flesh and shredded bits of clothing loosely arranged around exposed bones. The faces were completely mangled, and what looked like an arm was lying against the opposite wall. A sickening odor that faintly reminded Roberts of cooking meat filled the air and he turned away, choking back the bile. But the glance had been enough – the captain and the day engineer were clearly dead beyond any hope of recovery.
Poor bastards, Roberts thought grimly. Captain Smothers had been a colossal idiot and Silverman little better, but neither man deserved that kind of death. At least it was quick, Roberts shook his head. Or at least he hoped so; nothing hurt like a steam burn, and for their sake, he deeply wished both men hadn't know what had hit them.
Roberts backed away from the grisly picture, his feet already complaining mightily as the hot water soaked into his boots, and the rest of him casting about for a way to hide the boiled blood and curls of violent pink flesh from view. Pausing, his ear caught the sound of footsteps racing towards him. He held a hand up to check the onslaught and shook his head as Brown's thin, anxious face appeared at his right side.
“Sir! I....” Roberts cut him off halfway and steered the youth away from sight, blocking the view with his broad-shouldered frame.
“You don't want to see that lad, trust me on this one.” The lanky teenager gulped audibly and for one moment, Roberts thought Brown was going to lose his lunch all over the hull but no vomit issued forth and aside from being the color of a sunbleached sail, the young airman looked as if he was maintaining tolerable control of his faculties.
“Right! I....eh...um....Sir, we think we lost Johnson. Oboe saw him fall out the hole in the side of the ship and...uh....” Brown trailed off and a sickly green pallor crept up over the whiteness of his face.
Roberts nodded grimly. “Oboe told me.” The tall African had some incomprehensible jumble of consonants for a native name and attempts to pronounce it had quickly degenerated into Oboe. The man answered to it so Oboe he had permanently become.
Brown, Richardson, Carter, Smith, Oboe. Where's Jenkins? Roberts thought and if reading his mind, the night engineer appeared, staggering down the ladder into the hull, fury written on his face.
“Just what have those bastards done to my engines?” he growled, clutching a dirty cloth to a bloody head wound. Roberts stuck up a hand to stop him and shook his head.
“They're dead, Jenkins,” Roberts rumbled “The Captain and Silverman both.” Jenkins froze and for one brief moment Roberts saw the struggle between genuine sorrow over the tragedy and a recognition that both idiots got exactly what they had coming to them. But the engineer swallowed the second and focused on the latter as he whistled through his teeth. In the middle of rising curls of hot, acrid steam and the steady drip of water falling from the ruined boiler, not to mention the two very dead bodies just feet away from the men, Jenkins uttered something Roberts had not had the leisure to consider.
“Sir Smothers is going to have your guts for garters, you know.”
Reality punched Roberts in the gut as he frowned deeply, realization rushing over him like the hot water determinedly soaking into his boots. Oh. Dammit. He closed his eyes for one long moment and let loose a heartfelt sigh, then glanced back at the ruined engine room. It was currently interring the still-steaming remains of Mr. Albert Smothers Junior, second son to the shipping tycoon Sir Cornelius Smothers and partial heir to the vast empire of airships cruising the skies from Canton to London and everywhere in between.