#3 of 36 Minutes
A thundering crash shook the cabin, and he sat up, fumbling in the dark, the walks shaking around him, like a dice in a cup. As the roar subsided, his seeking hands found the light switch, and the cool brass yielded, soft orange lights illuminating his room. He jumped from his bunk, peering about, hearing running footsteps outside.
He pulled thick trousers and a shirt onto himself, glancing at the clock on the wall. The ornate hands indicated five minutes to three. Pushing dark hair from his eyes, he moved to the door, stepping into the corridor.
While a huddle of creatures turned the far corner to the stairs, a tall black wolf was strolling the length of the rooms, opening every door, peering inside. At first the man was confused and fearful, but as he began to call out, the lupine turned to him.
"Everyone's up on deck! Help me check the rooms, I don't know everyone's out." The man walked out, nodding, and began to check each door. Many were ajar, all seemed empty. He motioned to the wolf, who nodded back to him, and they jogged toward the stairs.
He frowned, confused, at the left wall of the stairs. It was bent outward worryingly, protruding a foot or so into the stairway. The wolf walked around the bulge, looking back, and he followed. The lights above him, illuminated words, flickered. "Starboard Deck Access".
He pushed the metal door back as it swung toward him and followed the lupine out into the night, the wind rushing about them gently. A crowd of creatures was staring at the centre of the deck. He looked, and felt his stomach twist tightly in consternation. The centrepiece of the Hauler's Engine, it's tall bridge; was destroyed. By some means the rear mast had fallen from it's usual position supporting the balloon above, and crushed the command deck.
A battered looking crewman was talking to the passengers, waving his hands for calm, and the man watched him, frowning, considering his tattered, bloody jacket.
"Rear lifeboats are gone, I'm sorry; The mast took them with it. We need to get forward soon, everyone stay calm, and gather together. There're other crewmen just behind me." The man gritted his teeth at the crewman's words as the crowd began to sound alarmed. A tall bull beside him began to weep.
He continued to think rapidly, considering the scene about him as a group of crew; led by a husky flight-lieutenant, leading an injured passenger, appeared from the rear section of the boat, stepping out of the thin, ethereal fog. He noted the taught rear tether at the ship's rear, and realised the large balloon must be barely held to the airship. He looked forward, into the gloomy cargo crates cluttering the deck.
"Folks, we're going to be fine, my name's Terry Peterson, we are going to evacuate the ship, there's been some kind of accident. I want everyone lined out, can we get a headcount? Is there anyone left downstairs?" He could hear the troubled edge in the lieutenant's voice beneath his calm demeanour, and spoke out loudly.
"No, I just checked, all the rooms are empty!" He glanced at the black wolf, who was watching the officer intently. He peered up at the mast's stump, and saw that the central catwalk had been partially ripped away, shrouded in darkness, leering twisted from the mist.
"Alright then, everyone lining up please! Lines of six!" He heard the officer's call and stepped into line, still watching the broken gantry in morbid fascination. Another crewman, a thick set, pure white dog, opened a red fire-cabinet, and began to distribute blankets, face set. The count was rapid.
"Thirty-one sir! Six missing!" The voice of a bird, some sort of hawk cut the chatter, as the uniformed avian saluted the officer, who nodded appreciatively. A big cat of some kind, almost unseen through the throng, spoke up. He missed the words over the hubbub, but saw the husky nod.
"That leaves three missing, we'll search as we go, come on let-" Just before the officers words were cut short, the man looked up yet again. A curling glimmer shot through the night, some sort of petrol bomb, and exploded over the deck. He leapt back instinctively, and saw some poor horse, fur coated in flaming fuel, scream, and run desperately about.
He saw the dark figure on the gantry and pointed, yelling. "UP THERE!" He began to run at once, towards their shrouded assailant, joined by most of the crewmen, and that same black wolf from the corridor. They pounded across the boarding, away from the flames, shouting. The avian led the group, talons clanging over the metal as they crossed onto the cargo floor.
The figure had descended, rapidly, swinging down daringly from his perch, and as they gave chase, six of them by his own count, they began to gain on their prey, the floor-level lights illuminating it as it fled. His heart thudded in his ears, the elusive running figure slipping around bend after bend, still slipping their grasp.
Their chase took them towards mid-deck, passing the central mast. An enormous roar, a giant explosion from above near threw them to their feet, but glancing back in confusion they kept up their pursuit. The balloon had exploded on it's port side, the ship lurched heavily, and fire lit the night. Burning cloth and glowing ash filled the breeze, fluttering toward them as they ran, breathless. Ahead, they heard a crack.
Still full of adrenaline, they rounded a corner as a group, and stopped. A harsh red light illuminated the thin gorge between two crate stacks as they entered the artificial alleyway. A body rested against the darkness.
Lying against the railing was the corpse of a lynx, in a crewman's uniform. Her head was gone, a smoking flare gun in her hand, and blood ran from the stump of her neck as her feet twitched, writhing in death. As a group still, they advanced, and the hawk reached her. The thin smoke of the flare gushed over them.
"Oh god... We need to get back to the others." The hawk turned back to the others, but the lieutenant was not with them, only the human, black wolf, a male engineer, and two other crewmen; the white dog and a female cow.
The cow strode forward. "Calm it John, let's get some flares off. We're in way over our heads." Voice cool, she prised the gun from her companion's death grip, and broke the chamber, extracting the smoking shell, taking a fresh shot from the broken case strapped to the railing that had yielded the pistol.
The five males watched her solemnly, as she fired their distress into the darkness in bright red balls that hung like defiled stars in the high fog. A bleak eternity later she dropped the heat-tipped tool, and turned, walking away from the bloody body, it's ichors clinging to her hooves. They thronged with her, her calm assigning her leadership without question.
Across the metal he walked back with them, moving rapidly, shadows leaping like ghosts across the crates as they passed the flickering, floor level bulbs. They stole back past the mast, still watching about them, the night full of leering pools of black shadow. Soon a group, eyes full of fearing hope, loomed out of the dark, the husky herding them protectively, his uniform covered in small burns. Of the second engineer there was no sign.
"You should have damn well stayed with the passengers. I'll not have us falling apart now." His voice was cold, but firm, as the group of six rejoined the herd, walking slightly separated from the rest, the lieutenant between the two groups. "What happened, who was it?"
"It was Jane sir... She killed herself." The cow spoke quietly. The officer was visibly shaken, peering seemingly fearfully at her. The dark-haired man shook his head, peering at the other crewmen. He could see the husky's dilemma. If one member of the crew had betrayed them, what about the others, what about the exploding balloon? They continued on, slowly; more fearful now. The deck shivered imperceptibly, airborne ash gusting around the crowd.
Suddenly, far up ahead, above the crates; lights flicked on, bright bulbs illuminating a crane at the front of the deck. Even as people began to murmur, the lights died. The officer frowned.
"Stay together." As he spoke, they heard the crane's slow motions above the incessant creaks of the airship as the Hauler's Engine swayed. As he walked through the gloom, the man stared straight ahead trying to discern the crane's form, but it was invisible in the dark and the fog.
They heard the crane begin to lift, and suddenly a horrendous scream of metal cut the air. After a dead pause, it was followed by a mighty crash, of splitting wood and metal, and the main huddle stopped, only a few, the dark-haired man included, continuing to jog forward. Silence reigned again. At the crew's encouragement the migration continued; a few of the group now somewhat ahead.
Strung out now, the would be escapees passed a loading area, footsteps singing out into the dark, warm air, the ash seeming thicker now, though the glow from the balloon had dimmed.
The deck shuddered again, and a horrible crunch, a mirror of the one moments before, assaulted all their ears. Desperate eyes looked left, and, like a ghost out of the ether, a giant lifter from high above toppled ponderously onto the column of walkers. Screams filled the night as dust exploded upward, figures running, scrambling for escape, till the machine landed on the metal with a toll like a funeral bell. The man, dark hair greyed with dust; rushed back, towards the dust cloud, eyes wide.
The cloud faded slowly, and all was quiet, punctuated by sobbing moans. The crowd was decimated. Invisible in the black wreckage lay the corpses of most of the passengers, the lieutenant and the stocky engineer. He dropped to his knees, shaking his head desperately.
Three crew, the hawk, cow and dog remained. With them, including the man, a mere four passengers. One of them, a mouse, was half trapped under a broken bar, and the man rushed forward, tugging him, the hawk at his side suddenly, taking another arm. They pulled him free as the loader collapsed further, in on itself.
They all sat, desolate, on the decking for a moment, fur, skin, clothes feathers all coated in dirt and dust. At length, as the deck bucked again, the balloon above groaning, they began to stand, some faces tracked with tears, others dry and cold.
"I'm Richard. Are you OK?" He spoke softly to the mouse, crawling up onto it's knees. The mouse nodded.
"I'm good. Only cuts. My name's James; and thankyou. Both of you." He looked at the hawk as well as the man. The group came to it's feet, crowding together, eyes averted from the fallen loader.
"We can't stop. If we're talking names, I'm Liz. The lifeboats aren't far, we can't stop." The cow spoke, eyes hard, and all affirmed her words. Without more words, Richard followed her, the others crowding about them, as they continued their march, dogged, and tired.
They passed the mounting stairs for the catwalk, and turned left, towards port, steps soft in the disturbed night, as groans and thuds echoed over the deck, like phantasms in the darkness. On occasion the lights would flicker, and threaten to fail. They saw above them the crane, illuminated earlier, rising up above the encroaching containers.
A sudden quiet roar, muffled, echoed out over the deck, and the night glowed momentarily, illuminated like dawn. Fires had begun in earnest, at the stern of the Hauler's. They all watched in silence, feeling the ship's lurching stumbles, as flame began to spread forth, rushing up from vents far behind them, flickering demoniacally.
The hawk beckoned them, and they hurried onward, feet pounding, moving rapidly away from the threatening fires, that were rising up rapidly into a blaze. The balloon glowed, red. They rounded the corner, and stopped. There was no end to their troubles, it seemed.
The wooden balcony that allowed passengers to slip past the forward containers to the prow of the ship, and the lifeboats that rested there, was gone. The crane's arm, grabber-less, was suspended above, and something had been dropped onto the decking, breaking it clean away. A cavernous hole in the ship revealed the lower storage decks, crates inside tumbling occasionally from the rent into the abyss.
Richard walked forward first, unfased by the height, and looked down. He turned back, stepping away from the splintered edge.
"That's way too far to jump. Is there another way around?" Liz nodded at him, and began to speak, but with a far off â€˜thump' the fires leapt closer to them, vents well forward of mid-deck spewing fiery debris into the night air.
"Yes, but we can't reach it. We'll burn, the junction to starboard's too far back." All in the group cursed, and looked about them, many sweating, panic beginning to scent the air. Richard looked back at the chasm.
"Then we can bridge across." He knelt, and grabbed the exposed end of a broken board, pulling it upward, away from the deck, splitting it. It came away, several metres long, still too short. He began to pull at another, and the group twigged; rushing forward to help.
It took minutes, as the fires burned brighter and closer, the air heating, swirling, glowing ash blowing about them, burning splinters raining down. Finally, they had several boards long enough, and pushed them out over the dark, bridging the gap. The mouse, James, went first, followed by Liz, then two other passengers, both tigers. Richard mounted the planks next, walking calmly over the gaping hole, with the hawk at his back. The dog was last.
As the first tiger stepped clear, Liz already jogging toward the prow access door, another explosion split the night. The detonation was colossal, the entire sky glowing like lightning. The sound was a blow, pushing the boards free of their resting place like sticks in a hurricane. Wind whipped over the deck, and Richard felt the world lurch as he began to fall. The last he saw of the deck was the Tiger ahead jumping free, before he dropped into the night.
It was by luck more than effort that he grabbed anything, a broken wall plate of the ship's bottom level. The hawk clung beside him, one taloned hand on his shoulder. All was confusion, fiery light and dust, bodies battered as they hung above the great forest, clinging to the side of the ship's keel. Richard's brain threw up a statistic as he looked down, shock filling him.
â€˜We are approximately three thousand feet above the treeline.' He pulled with all his might, dragging his tired frame over the broken wall, falling a long way down the curved inner wall to the warm floor, solid beneath him, the avian struggling to follow. They thumped to the surface and panted as they lay, battered from their fall, in the flickering, orange dimness. Richard looked up, but the deck was invisible, high above, hidden by the intervening floors and the smoke. His ringing ears heard no shouts. Of the white dog, there was no sign.
He looked along the cargo floor back toward the far off bulkheads, the hawk pulling him to his feet, both of them coughing; bruised and burnt. The fire was terrifyingly close, leering closer to the fore, leaping like a malevolent force toward them. He barely held his sanity as he searched desperately around him.
"Look!" He shouted over the roar of the fire, in desperate recognition. A large stack of lead barrels rested at the very front of the cramped, smoky chamber, and around them was a thick, long, metal hawser. He rushed towards it, and pulled the releasing lever with gritted jaw.
The barrels, sweating in the heat, rolled free from their stack, joined by the cable, and struck the wall on the starboard side heavily. The first strike gave a hearty crunch, and as more barrels collided, the wall gave, revealing the night beyond, stars shining as the weights dropped into the dark. The hawser, night a foot thick and squashed, not quite round, held the hanging barrels, though from the heavy clangs resonating up, it was clear some of it's load had dropped free.
He looked back again at the fire, and checked the hawser's base. It was firmly bound into the metal of the ships skeleton. He beckoned the hawk, who nodded, spluttering, feathers singed, and they clambered out of the hole, Richard blessing whatever soul had secured the barrels so fast.
Painstakingly, lit by the cold glare of flare-light and the angry flicker of flames, they descended, till at length, utterly exhausted, they hung, sitting astride a barrel, clasping each other in fatigue. Above them, fire spat from their escape route, smoke gushing into the sky, a furnace igniting the night from all over the ship, the balloon starting to burn up.
"My name is Hiyoki." The hawk spoke quietly, utterly still. "We're going to die, aren't we." Richard held him tight, shaking slightly, giving a flinch as a barrel further up detached and clanged off the one below it, deflecting out into the night.
"I don't want to die." The hawk's voice was as threaded as his uniform. Richard felt tears' falling from his own eyes, soaking Hiyoki's smoking plumage. Above them, the inferno that was the Hauler's Engine bucked, tilting at a crazy angle.
"Hush. Don't let go of me." Richard quieted the avian, and entwined himself tightly with it. He would never let go. His smoke-filled, terror cut mind flushed it's emotion in final companionship with the bird, seeming beautiful in the harsh maelstrom of lights.
When, minutes later, their lifeline melted free, and they began to fall, the leaden barrels tumbling all around them, Hiyoki began to scream, his wings spreading; useless, never trained for flight. Richard silenced his terror, pulling the hawk into a weeping kiss, and clinging to each other they dropped silently, like stones. After an eternity's embrace their lights were dashed on the welcoming earth, and flickered out like dying stars.