Clouds of steam erupted around the longskiff when it slid to a stop on the packed snow. The whine of turbines echoed with a haunting cry among the wreckage of gas bag, pieces of wood, brass, rigging and spots of blood. When the longskiff came to a rest, O’Fallon jumped out, pulled the bowline and lashed the craft to a nearby tree. He tugged at his dark wool coat around him and turned just as the wind stirred the snow in small clouds around his boots. Captain Hunter followed the quartermaster a moment later, his eyes swept over the upthrust pieces of wood and bent brass fittings.
“Quite the mess here,” Hunter commented.
O’Fallon tugged at the mooring line and, convinced it secure, took in his own view of the wreckage with a sigh. “She took quite the beating, nothing more’n grapeshot, but a large sight ‘o it.” He knelt and pulled a dented brass object from where it lay half-buried. Shaking the snow loose, he turned the sextant over in his hands before he handed it to Hunter. The captain turned it over himself while Moira and William vented the steam which powered down the air screws and reduced the tension in the longskiff’s gas bag.
“Lets spread out. O’Fallon, you and William take starboard. Moira, you’re with me here at the bow.”
O’Fallon nodded then gave the younger William Falke a reassuring grin. “Let’s see who be layin’ about.”
William sighed and managed a smile although his eyes still swept the ruined ship with a look of dismay. The young man rubbed his gloved hands together to beat off the cold, then pulled his gray woolen coat tighter around him before he followed O’Fallon’s boot tracks.
When the pair had left, Moira sighed. Dressed in a leather long coat, warm shirt, trousers and her usual well worn boots, she was suited to the weather but not the scene before her. She shook her head slowly and put her hands on her hips. “The bow’s a mess Cap’n. Nothin’ be livin’ through that.”
“Likely as so, but we still need to check. An then there is funeral detail for the crew and what passengers they had. Might have to dig for a few that would’ve been buried by the impact of the crash. They all deserve at least that.”
Moira cast a somber look at the scattered remains of the former merchant ship then recovered her canvas shoulder bag of small tools from the longskiff. Light snow fell softly on the broken, bloodstained wood and covered the few ruined bodies of victims that had been thrown clear during the crash. “Aye Cap’n. Ah’ll look for personal items ta try and return ta families. Ones Ah can find anyway.”
“Understood and good thinking.”
Moira stretched an hour later, dirt packed onto the most recent grave in the snow and dirt. Captain Hunter carefully lifted another long plank but found nothing underneath except a torn crumple of sailcloth and stiff with the cold. Moira looked around; they had only managed to search a quarter of the wreckage so far.
“Cap’n, Ah be thinkin’. We may be goin’ about this all wrong.”
Hunter stood and stretched his own knotted muscles. “Go on.”
“We be lookin’ fer tracks o’ survivors. In this snow? Ah be thinkin’ that if Ah be in a bird goin’ down, especially on her bow, where would Ah want tae be? Ah’d think near the boilers.”
Hunter looked at the whole of the wreckage. The bow, or front of the ship, was in several large pieces near one another. The stern or rear of the ship typically held passenger and officer quarters as well as the airship’s tiny engine room underneath both for boilers and batteries. That entire section lay partially buried in the snow but was largely intact. The reinforced plates of wood and copper protected the stern, not from a boiler explosion but from impact on a snow-covered mountainside.
“Moira, I think I owe you an ale. Brilliant!”
In two steps Hunter put himself in earshot of the other two searchers. “O’Fallon! William! The boiler room!”
O’Fallon waved a hand in reply and motioned his younger partner. By the time Hunter and Moira reached the ruined stern section, the other two had used steel rods from nearby to pry open a bent copper and steel door that led below. Their footsteps squeaked in the powdery snow, Moira and Hunter climbed aboard the wreck and joined in. The snow fell harder, the cold hampering the work. Finally, with the added help, the door relinquished its hold on the frame. With a groan and a sharp pop that echoed in the cold air, the door was swung aside and fell in a lopsided heap next to them. A brief cloud of powdery snow surrounded them for a moment. William let out a heavy sigh, gestured to the black doorway and grinned.
“Your doorway Cap’n.”
Moira waved a hand at William. “Sush a moment boy.”
Suddenly, her eyes went wide at a sound so faint, she barely could made it out. From the darkness, the hollow ring of copper being struck with something metal reached their ears. Behind that was muffled and panic filled shouts. In a mad dash, she grabbed the door frame and dropped from sight into the musty darkness below.
“What’s she on about?” William asked in surprise.
Hunter and O’Fallon exchanged a look. Captain Hunter shrugged.
“Moira’s hearing is quite good.”
O’Fallon started to reply with some story as an example when Moira’s voice piped up from below.
“Cap’n! We got a couple here!”
O’Fallon stopped his story before it started and shrugged. Hunter grinned at the two crewmen with him. “Never fails, somehow she hears them. Well you lads heard the lady, let’s lend her a hand.”
With William and O’Fallon helping, a moment later two children, a boy and girl no more than six and nine years of age respectfully, emerged into the light.