Without further ado, here is the next installment of our tale!
Steam on the Horizon
Chapter 1, Part 5
Whenever Sir Smothers eventually went to his final reward, deserved or not, his empire would pass into the hands of his two sons: Richard and Albert. Richard had become his own legend in the airship business before turning his skillful attention to the railroad industry and had been steadily accumulating a fortune to rival the old man's and with the elder's blessing and assistance. In stark contrast, Albert had been a magnificent, chaotic failure in just about every endeavor he attempted. After both Oxford and Cambridge had made it known that despite his prodigious family wealth, Albert was no longer welcome to grace their ancient walls, Sir Cornelius had forced his young son into the business, to the detriment of all parties involved, the elder included. Time and time again, the old man had dragged his wastrel son from the whorehouses and opium dens and put the fool in command of an airship, and it had been a lavishly catastrophic failure each attempt. Too many ships to count had crashed or eaten up all their profits under the younger son's inept command before he was given the Horizon as a last resort; she was considered a black sheep anyway and it was marginally easier to blame problems on the airship rather than the one who commanded her.
Roberts had been offered a generous salary as the Horizon's first mate and the position came with a gentleman's agreement that he keep things afloat and functional and manage Albert's failures as best he could. It was no small task: after two years, the Horizon had only escaped crashing, bursting into flames, or running out of coal in the middle of nowhere more times than Roberts cared to think. That the airship and crew were still alive and functional was largely because of her first mate's tactful hand and realization that keeping the captain's rum stores well-stocked meant that the man would stay holed up in his cabin out of the way, leaving Roberts to run everything.
It was at this point, standing with his back to the patch of flooring containing one newly dead captain, that Roberts realized that his unspoken contract had most likely included a stipulation about keeping the wayward Smothers son from killing himself due to sheer stupidity. The mangled corpse several feet away was a physical representation of Roberts' career as an airship officer, and unless he managed some skillful damage control, he had no more chances of finding a position on board another airship than Captain Smothers had of rising to life again. Smothers elder was generous with success and ruthless with failure, and right now Jenkins was giving his first mate the kind of look that translates in every language as, Nice knowing you. Good luck, you poor sod.
Roberts troubled musings were interrupted by Jenkins. “Ship won't last when the old man gets a hold of her,” he said gruffly, reaching out to awkwardly pat the hull in an oddly affectionate gesture. “Sorry, old girl, but he'll have you for firewood, I'd be bound.” Roberts' mind flew to a rumor he had heard years ago – the only daughter of Sir Smothers had died in childbirth barely a year after her wedding, and the doctor who had attended her birth had quickly left England, some say with knives and clubs following after.
Angrily, Roberts growled, “It's not the Horizon's fault she was commanded by a fool.” However, his attention was already being directed above deck where the sound of thumping feet and yelling men was growing rapidly. Now secure in a berth, the wounded Horizon was being attended to and evidence was being evaluated. Something official was being shouted, most likely courtesy of a squadron of Her Royal Majesty's Military Airmen who patrolled the wharf in search of lawlessness to arrest. Boiler explosions were common enough that sabotage would be easy to conceal, and such an accident automatically earned an official inquiry, hence the uniforms currently crawling all over the Horizon. But Roberts guessed that the soldiers wouldn't prod too far: the Horizon was well-known as a tricky vessel and the younger Smothers as a complete disgrace to the captain's hat he wore. Few men would suspect anything of foul play. But Sir Smothers would be far less easy to placate.
Briefly Roberts wondered if it would help his case that he was not on board the ship at the time of the accident or if Smothers senior would only be that more furious that Roberts wasn't around to keep his son from blowing the whole damned thing apart. “What was the captain doing down here in the boiler room anyway?” he demanded of the two airmen facing him.
“He was, um, discussing something with Silverman,” Brown ventured timidly. “Um, well, I guess arguing was a better word for it.”
The boy flushed and Roberts put a hand on his shoulder. “It's okay, lad,” he rumbled. “Whatever reason he was down here, he's dead all the same.” Actually, Roberts had a fairly good premonition of what the topic of discussion had been, and the aftermath was currently lying in pieces across the hull. Captain Smothers had insisted on purchasing a new model of boiler a month ago, despite the fact that the Horizon's old boiler was perfectly serviceable. The new one was supposed to reduce their weight load by a hundred pounds and increase their fuel efficiency by 5%. Roberts had hated the blasted thing at first sight; the seams looked dangerously weak and while it was certainly lighter than the one it had replaced, he would have welcomed the extra hundred pounds if it meant another layer of protection against an explosion. But the captain had insisted and had paid an exorbitant price for it. Even worse, he had taken an uncharacteristic interest in the boiler's operation and was forever tinkering with it in a way that set everyone's teeth on edge. Both Jenkins and Silverman were constantly griping about the captain being underfoot in the engine room, and his endless fiddling with the new device in attempts to coax more efficiency out of it had been the source of more than one heated argument.
And just to Roberts' cursed luck, they were in home port, the bastion of the Smothers' empire not a quarter-mile from where the crippled airship lay drunkenly in the berth, waiting for the ministrations of the dock workers. Smothers senior would hear the bad news quickly; in fact, word was probably winging its way to his plush, opulent office right now.