Archive for June, 2012
Half an hour later, Captain Hunter arrived on the sporadically illuminated lower decks of the Britannia. The captain, now dressed in his usual weather-beaten leather long coat and a blood-free shirt, walked with purpose through the hallway. RiBeld – still bandaged, irritable, and poisoned – had been delivered into the skilled hands of the Britannia’s physician with assurances to Hunter that, despite complaints to the contrary, Duke RiBeld would easily live to see another day. Captain Hunter resigned himself that one cannot always have what one wants.
He stepped through a doorway that segmented two corridors and looked around. The area was crowded, but since it was near some of the crew bunks, that was no surprise. The captain was in general unfamiliar with the Britannia’s overall design. He was not quite willing to say he was lost, perhaps only slightly misdirected. Hunter stopped the nearest sailor who happened to cross his path at that moment.
“You there,” the captain said, “I was told to meet your first officer, Mr. Mason, at the fourth aft boiler station. Where is that from here?”
The young man looked at the captain in wide-eyed surprise. He recovered his voice quickly. “Easy enough. Just set straight from here, Sir, and take the third left. Then make for the last door in the corridor. It’ll be marked with what you’re lookin’ for.” He hesitated, eyes narrowed suspiciously, before he spoke again. “Beggin’ your pardon, you seem familiar. Who might you be?” the sailor asked curiously.
“Captain Anthony Hunter of the Brass Griffin,” Hunter replied tersely.
The young man abruptly snapped to a quick attention with a brief salute. “Beggin’ the Cap’n’s pardon, I didn’t recognize you right off! Seaman Farrow, here. Cap’n, let me escort you down.”
The captain returned the salute. “Certainly,” he replied pleasantly.
The sailor led the captain through the crowded hallway. He glanced nervously once or twice at Hunter, but never found the courage to approach the subject obviously on his mind. Captain Hunter broke the silent stalemate before they reached the third left Farrow had previously indicated.
“Is there something wrong, Farrow?” Hunter asked curiously. “You look nervous.”
The sailor paused at the corner, then pointed towards a thick steel door at the end of the corridor to his left. “That’s the fourth aft boiler station, Cap’n,” he explained, then smiled nervously. “Not to be forward, Cap’n, but – if I may – why the firearm? Is this all about that man they drug through here earlier? Are you expectin’ some kind of trouble?”
Hunter glanced down at the customized Schofield revolver in the holster on his belt, then back to the sailor. “Lately, it’s proven to be safer with one than without. As for this ‘man in black’, I couldn’t say. Your Mr. Mason was quite insistent that I come down here, though he wasn’t eager to share any details. As you said, that door just ahead is the one I’m after?”
“Yes, Cap’n,” Farrow replied.
“Good,” Hunter said.
The two exchanged a brief salute before Captain Hunter continued down the hallway. Unlike the previous corridor, this one saw much less traffic. First among many reasons, the captain suspected, was due to the lack of crew quarters. Instead of hammocks or the more modern ‘pocket bunks’ that folded against the wall, there was an abundance of maintenance closets. These, he knew, were for the wide array of steam and clockwork mechanisms that inevitably needed some form of repair on any airship. At the end of the hallway, Hunter found the door Seaman Farrow had indicated. To the left of the steel hatch, painted in bold, black letters, was “Boiler Station Four” – just the place he wanted. Captain Hunter frowned. An odd feeling passed over him, almost a suspicious chill, as if from nerves. He looked behind him.
At the other end of the hallway, in the direction Hunter had just left, a young man in an officer’s uniform had stopped to speak to Seaman Farrow. The newcomer’s rank was bracketed by the gold and metal-trimmed insignia of a sextant superimposed over a gear. It was the symbol that traditionally marked an airship’s Journeyman Engineer. Seaman Farrow looked nervous, and spoke quickly as if he was being firmly interrogated by the officer. Unfortunately, Hunter could not quite hear the conversation. After a moment, the Journeyman glanced towards the captain with a stern look. Hunter watched the pair in return.
Tiring of the staring contest, which took all of two full seconds, Captain Hunter turned smartly towards the two men. He started to walk back down the hallway to find out what was so interesting. However, before the captain could reach them, Farrow, who already looked uncomfortable, hurried off out of sight with one last, uneasy look at the Journeyman. The Journeyman himself frowned at Hunter, then stalked off in the opposite direction from Farrow.
The captain’s walk slowed to a stop. He considered following one of the men, most likely Farrow, but knew he could not do that and meet with the first officer. The captain filed the curious event away in his mind for later; at that moment, he had more pressing matters. Hunter returned to the riveted steel door, rotated the wheel, then stepped inside.
The boiler room was of a modest size, with only a pair of arc lanterns to provide their usual blue-white light. Around the circumference of the chamber, steel pipes threaded through tarnished pipe collars, which held their valuable contents firmly against the wall. Those were the veins and arteries of the Britannia, and its contents the lifeblood of the airship. At least within this room, all pipes lead to an immense pump and boiler system several feet in diameter and over seven feet tall – one of seven “hearts” of the ship.
In the middle of the room, a man with curly dark hair – wearing a rumpled dark suit and elaborate opera cloak – was seated in a wooden chair. The chair and the man were contained in a dull metal cage locked from the outside. Hunter suspected the cage was normally intended for other purposes, given the Britannia being a passenger liner. On either side of the cage, two young sailors stood armed with rifles. Captain Hunter suspected at least one of them old enough to shave on occasion. They looked nervous and uncertain; no surprise given their occupant was possibly one of the anarchists who had explosively killed their engineer. Inside the makeshift cell, the dark-haired man looked up and smiled when Captain Hunter arrived. The smile was rat-like and suspicious.
“Ah, il grande Capitano Anthony Hunter. It is good to see you,” the man said, an almost musical tone to his Italian accent. “I am most humbled that you would stop by.” He raised his hands to gesture at the cell around him. “Some tea?”
The captain stopped a few paces short of the cage door. “A generous offer, but forgive me if I decline.”
“Sì, of course then,” the dark-haired man replied with another of his rat-like grins. “Perhaps that is for the best. My cupboard? She is empty.”
“Pity that. Hemlock always does add quite the spice to a cuppa,” Hunter replied tartly.
“Oh, sì, Capitano,” the prisoner replied with a nod. “So true.”
Hunter looked to the sailor on his right. “I’m curious, just where is your first officer, Mr. Mason? I was informed he would meet me here?”
The sailor was about to reply, but instead gestured towards the door to the room when its latch mechanism moved. The door opened as if on cue.
“You’re here, Captain. Capital,” Mr. Mason said from the doorway. “Thank you for coming so quickly, I was delayed in the dining room. The guests are naturally upset over what happened, and it fell to me to give the proper explanations.”
From his flushed look, the first officer appeared as if he had been in a hurry. Hunter suspected Mr. Mason had been running from a good distance. Despite his exertion, the man’s uniform was immaculate. The captain was not surprised. He suspected dirt refused to cling to the man.
“Quite understandable. I’m sure a spot of tea to calm the nerves will do them all good before they talk of ticket refunds,” the captain replied dryly. He spared a brief glance to the disheveled man in the cage, who seemed to enjoy the conversation more than Hunter. The captain did his best to ignore that for the moment. “Mr. Mason, what do you need of me?”
Mason brushed a bit of imaginary dust from a sleeve. “Assistance. Our man there indicated he wished to talk, but only if you were here. I felt if we were to get any peace and resolution to this sordid affair, you would not mind lending a quick hand.”
“Sì, that is true, Capitano. I did ask very politely,” the prisoner interjected. His disconcerting smile never seemed to leave his face.
Hunter frowned. He did not like this one bit. Something was terribly wrong, Hunter simply could not put his finger on it. “Mason, I trust you searched this man?”
The first officer looked annoyed. “Given what he and his ilk have done? Of course I did! What kind of buffoon do you take me for?”
Captain Hunter refused to justify the question with a descriptive answer. Instead, he turned to face the man in black seated in the cage.
“I take it that you’re willing to explain yourself and this ‘Brotherhood’?” the captain asked, putting his hands on his hips. “If so, crack on with it.”
The prisoner slowly stood up from his chair. His stained, dark cloak swirled about him ever so gracefully. It was rich, black silk that moved of its own accord, as if a wind stirred the fabric to life. Captain Hunter knew it was a trick of the light and fabric, even if the sight was a bit unsettling. The prisoner’s motion was predatory, like a giant, hungry bat who had unfurled its wings. Captain Hunter’s right hand instinctively shifted an inch towards his revolver. Inside the cage, the man bowed slightly at the waist.
“First, there will be introductions. I am Durante Marino,” the Italian said casually. “Yes, I am with the Brotherhood of Mulciber. What explanation does the great Capitano Hunter require? You know what we want. We had an arrangement, one I trust will still be met, even despite this,” he gestured gracefully at the cage around him, “unpleasantness?”
“That remains to be seen. Yes, I do know what you want,” Hunter said curtly. “The explanation I want is how many of you are aboard? I want who they are, and where are all the explosives you’ve threatened to use? That is, if you’re willing to be reasonable about this.”
“That is not what you want to know,” Marino replied in a cold voice. His dark eyes glittered like gemstones while he watched Hunter carefully. “Oh, it interests you at the moment, but it is not what you really want to know, Signore. You, like everyone before you, you want the secret of the knives!” Marino lunged forward and gripped the bars. “You cannot have it! The Brotherhood will never allow it!”
“I don’t want them!” Hunter snapped irritably. “I’d throw the bloody things into the ocean if I could!”
“This from the man with that journal? That special journal you took from the High Fens?” Marino snapped back. “The man who bested the devil RiBeld? The grande capitano who broke the back of the vile Fomorians? I do not think so! What with your past, eh? You want the prize for yourself!”
One of the sailors hammered the butt of his rifle against the cage. “Back, you! Keep a civil tongue about you!”
Marino jerked his hand away before his fingers were bruised. He glared at the guard. “Never do that again.” His words were as sharp as a knife.
Emboldened a by the moment and youthful ego, the sailor glared back. “Or what? Sod off! You’re in the cage, not me!”
Mr. Mason’s drawn face was pale. “That’s enough! Seaman! Stand down!” Then the first officer turned toward Marino. “As for you, Sir, you will control yourself!”
Marino’s eyes shot irritated daggers at Mason, then flicked back to Captain Hunter. “This is pointless, Capitano,” he said with a sour expression. With the flick of his wrist, two small glass spheres fell into the Italian’s hand, then were hurled to the floor!
Mason turned pale with shock. “Where did he get those?”
“Look out!” Hunter warned, a moment too late.
Glass shattered, then smoke erupted like a geyser, filling the cage and spilled out into the room. Captain Hunter, the two Britannia seaman, and Mr. Mason retreated backwards as the cloud leaped out and engulfed them in its thick oily vapor. Deep inside the cage, the lock snapped open with a click. It then fell heavily to the floor with a solid, metallic clang.
The boiler room door slammed shut. “I’ve got the door. Stop him! I think he’s loose of the cage!” Mr. Mason called.
“Aye!” one of the guards replied. The young man suddenly grunted sharply, as if struck repeatedly. There was the sound of a body falling to the stained floor a second later.
Captain Hunter squinted against the smoke in an effort to see, but with little result. He had heard the lock fall, knew that Marino was loose in the room, and suspected in moments the latter would lose himself among the crew. After all, he had proven able to do that before, why not now? He slipped the leather loop from off the end of his revolver and fought back the urge to cough.
To Hunter’s right, another body fell to the floor. The captain wondered if it was Mason or the other guard, or perhaps both given how pronounced the sound was. He shook his head. It was a distraction. If Hunter were escaping from a cage, he would subdue everyone in the room quickly under the cover of the smoke. Only then would he make for the door, when he was certain no one would follow. The captain gripped his revolver where it rested on his hip and closed his eyes. He could not see, but he could hear. He hoped it would be enough.
At first, there was little more than the boiler’s incessant churn of liquid being converted to steam. Behind that, he could just hear the muffled metallic ring of gears and turbines buried deep within the great vessel’s circulatory system of pipes. Hunter took a step towards where he remembered entering the room. His boots echoed dully in the shroud of smoke; once, then twice. He frowned. That was one step too many.
The captain promptly opened his eyes, stood, and spun around. His right hand moved in a blur. Immediately, his Schofield was free of the holster. As Hunter thumbed the switch, the electromagnets hummed to life like a swarm of angry bees. The captain aimed in the clouded gloom directly at the chest of Durante Marino, barely a few feet away!
Marino, about to leap at Hunter, froze where he stood. The Italian’s eyes watched the captain warily.
“My terribly brilliant, if at times delightfully erratic, clockwork engineer and blacksmith ‘adjusted’ my revolver recently,” Hunter explained casually to the man in front of him. “I understand the basic use. In fact, I’ve tried it with great success already on some of your ilk. However, I have just noticed there are two more positions to this switch. Knowing Moira as I do, I doubt the other settings are simply ‘a spot of gears glued on for effect,’ to use a phrase. As I’m in an experimenting mood, and I’ve another clean shirt, what do you say? Let’s find out what they do. In the name of science, naturally.”
Hunter flipped the switch again with his thumb, and was rewarded by a delightful show of St. Elmo’s Fire around the cylinder of the revolver. The occasional blue-white static arc danced over its steel surface. The captain smiled at the Italian with a outward calm he did not entirely feel. He hoped the man would not notice. “I am willing to entertain other ideas, if you’ve any to share?” he added.
“Ah, Capitano,” Marino said with a nervous smile. He took a slow, careful step backwards. His eyes moved constantly between Hunter and the dangerously electrified revolver. Slowly, the man raised his hands. “I think, perhaps, I was a little hasty in my judgment, eh? Instead of science, we should enjoy a simple conversation?”
Hunter smiled. There was nothing like proper use of etiquette at the proper time. It often brought out the best in a person, even if the ‘best’ was brought out kicking and screaming.