In the meeting room between officers cabins aboard the Brass Griffin, the static from the opti-telegraphic was nearly deafening. Captain Hunter paced like a caged tiger while Tonks worked feverishly over the non-functional device. The pilot turned the ‘S’-crank to recharge the batteries, as if that might alleviate the problem. He tapped one of the small brass-trimmed, black wooden typewriter keys on the device’s face.
“O’Fallon? Can ya hear me?” Tonks asked, growing concern in his voice. “O’Fallon?”
When Tonks spoke, Hunter paused in his walk and glared furiously at the eight inch long brass box. Almost as if he was angry that the device dared malfunction when he had spoken with his crew. The box ignored his anger and resumed its burst of static as Tonks released the key.
Tonks sighed in frustration. “Why does this thing always go out when I’m usin’ it?” he muttered under his breath in exasperation.
Oblivious, Hunter resumed his path across the room. “I should have gone with them.”
The pilot looked up. He had not known Hunter as long as some of the others, since he had only joined the crew four years ago upon retiring from Britain’s Home Office. However, Tonks knew Hunter shared a lengthy past with Krumer, Thorias, and O’Fallon. Scuttlebutt had it that they had followed Hunter from the Royal Navy over some mishap Hunter had been involved in. So far, he had not felt brave enough to ask. One does not pry unwanted into one’s own captain’s past. Tonks shook his head slightly.
“Cap’n, if ya had, then we’d be missin’ a captain along with a first mate and a quartermaster.” Tonks said it carefully, so as to not rouse the captain’s ire. “Ye set that policy down that in a bad scrape, the captain, first mate and quartermaster shouldna’ all be gone from the Griffin at the same time.”
“I remember.” Hunter said with a very long, drawn out sigh. He stopped his walk and rubbed his eyes a moment in frustration. “So. What are our options, Mr Wilkerson? Is it broken? Can it be fixed?”
Tonks looked from the captain to the stubborn device on the table. “Near as I can know, Cap’n, the opti’s not broken. Somethin’ cut across our chat and is keepin’ us cut off.” He saw the next question all over Hunter’s expression. Tonks raised a hand while he answered it. “I know, ‘how do we break through’? Whatever’s doin’ it has a load a power behind it. We’d need ta boost our own signal, or find a place where this interference isn’t goin’ ta bother us.”
Hunter thought it over a half-second then nodded, satisfied. “Good enough. Let me know when you’ve determined which direction serves us best.”
Tonks watched the captain leave the room quickly, with the weight of the situation obviously resting on his mind. The pilot exhaled slowly while his thoughts churned over both suggestions he had given. Suddenly, the opti-telegraphic chimed in response to a new signal. Tonks looked at the small set of numbers that flipped into place above the typewriter keys, and frowned.
“That’s not O’Fallon’s opti.” Tonks commented aloud upon seeing a strange number display on the opti-telegraphic. He searched his memory. Each opti-telegraphic contained a code-wheel sealed inside. No two were alike, any attempt to extract one usually destroyed it, and the complexity of the precise measurements of the forty-two code-wheel gears inside made duplicating just one a daunting, if not improbable, task. Counterfeit wheels were rare but did appear from time to time.
The pilot leaned over the machine curiously. “Never seen that code a’fore. And whoever ya are, just how did we pick up what yer sendin’ and not O’Fallon?” He tapped the ‘receive’ key to listen, and raised his eyebrows in surprise when he heard a fast spoken, harsh language that he could not begin to describe, let alone mimic. All he knew was that it definitely was not the Queen’s English.
He typed at the small keys, giving the command to display the rough longitude and latitude of the signal’s origin. The results with an opti-telegraphic were never precise, but were usually within a degree or two for nearby signals. The numbers flipped again, then stopped.
Surprised, Tonks sat back in the chair. “That’s the High Fens. How’d something several miles down in a marsh, with a storm over it, get through when the others can’t?”
Out on deck, the wind had picked up from before. The storm that had harassed the marshland below had begun to slowly rise toward the relay station and the Brass Griffin. All around, the crew began to secure loose items and prepare the ship to weather a storm.
Hunter walked quietly along the deck and watched the crew. Satisfied with their work, he looked out over the dock and then at the wrecked ship across from them, turning a few thoughts over in his mind. The captain quietly turned back towards his own crew and the Griffin, his eyes settled on young William Falke, busy checking the port side mooring lines.
“Mr Falke!” Hunter called out over the din of activity.
William straightened up immediately and brushed aside a tangle of brown hair from his green eyes. “Cap’n?” He replied, wiping sweaty hands on his brown vest and trousers as he hurried over.
Hunter folded his arms over his chest. “Take an armed group, no more than five or six, and set up a watch at the end of the dock. The dock master’s office is often large enough for a small mob. Use that as a temporary base camp.”
William nodded. “Aye Cap’n.”
“Good man.” Hunter said, then paused a moment. “And William, keep your wits about you. I may have to take the Griffin out for a short stint to solve a communications problem. If, for any reason you lose ground and we’re not here, take your group back to the wreck. We’ll come for you there. Otherwise use the Griffin as your fall-back position.”
“Aye.” William said hesitantly. He disliked the thought of being stranded on the eerie station, but he was not about to admit that in front of the captain. “Beggin’ the Cap’n's pardon, but are ya expectin’ some kinda trouble?”
Hunter looked out over the empty dock to the relay station warehouses. “Perhaps, but what kind, I’m not certain. I’ve hope that my fears are nothing more than phantoms. If Mr. Whitehorse returns with his scouting group, kindly return to the Griffin with them at that point. Understood?”
“Aye, Cap’n. Will do.” William turned quickly and raced off to collect a few firearms and and off-duty crew.
Tonks suddenly appeared on deck, in his hands he held a small set of papers and the opti-telegraphic. “Cap’n!”
Hunter turned at the sudden shout. “What Mr Wilkerson? Do you have them?”
“Not quite, Cap’n. Though I’ve an idea, and somethin’ strange ta tell ya.” Tonks hurried over to the captain and held out the papers.
Hunter frowned over the paper’s writings and diagrams while Tonks explained. “I’m thinkin’ the interference isn’t coverin’ the whole station. Just a certain portion. Once ya walked out of the cabin, that signal came in.” The pilot shuffled the papers to show Hunter one that was three sheets down. “It’s a language, but not one I’d ever go and speak. Think we ought to get William ta take a look?”
Hunter shook his head. “Young Will’s gift is for the one’s he hears. Not quite at the ones he reads.” Hunter held up the paper for a better look. “Are you sure of these words?”
“Aye, sure as I can be.” Tonks confirmed. “Like I mentioned, Cap’n, I can’t read a lick of it, much less say it.”
“Looks encoded. Who was sending this?” Hunter asked, peering closer at the paper.
“That’s the thing, I’ve not a clue. Whoever was sendin’ it, I think, was sendin’ to a broad band a’ opti numbers. We might happen ta have one of ‘em. Or whoever was sendin’ was in a hurry. Either way we’re eavesdroppin’ on their message. Whoever ‘them’ are, that is.” Tonks shrugged.
The captain returned the paper to its place in the stack. “Where did it come from?”
“That’s the odd thing, Cap’n. The Fens. Somewhere near or above it.” The pilot said, reshuffling the papers again in search of something else.
“Through the storm down there as well.” Hunter commented. “Interesting.”
“That’s what I thought, too. Whatever that message says, its far too long ta be a cry for help.” Tonks at last located the paper he wanted, and placed it atop the stack.
Hunter picked up this new piece of paper. “Well, take a shot at decoding it. It might be handy to know what they’re wanting. Now what’s this?”
“My idea, Cap’n.” Tonks grinned proudly. “If that signal from the Fens got inta us, that means we can get around the interference. I’m thinkin’ we need height. I could take some parts and rig a relay set to talk to our opti-telegraphic here. We send that relay up on a balloon and we should get around the worst of it.”
Hunter nodded and handed the paper back. “Sound plan. Take what you need and try it.”
“Won’t take but a moment, Cap’n.” Tonks rushed off for the spare parts bin below deck.
A few minutes later he returned with a balloon the size of an average man’s head. This was tied off to a strange looking box with a ghastly array of antennae over it. In the end, it resembled more of a terrified brass porcupine than a spare opti-telegraphic. He released the balloon into the air once he was on deck, and kept a tight hold on the tether between himself and the cured canvas balloon. After he had let out enough rope to set the balloon dancing wildly on the growing storm winds just above the Griffin herself, he turned on the opti-telegraphic in his hand. He was rewarded with silence and only a small amount of static.
“They could just have their opti turned off. At least we’re onta somethin’ though. The statics not nearly as rough now.” Tonks commented as he managed the small balloon and relay device.
Hunter watched the balloon quietly a moment. “True. Keep at it Mr Wilkerson. I think you’re onto something.”
“Cap’n?” Tonks asked. “What about that other signal?”
The captain’s thoughts turned over the options available in his mind. “We have no idea who that is or what they want. It could be nothing or something. Keep trying to get the shore party on the opti. I’ll chart a course to where that signal in the Fens came from. If we decipher their code and the next words from them are a cry for help, then we’ll made our course there straight away.”
“If they don’t?” Tonks asked before the captain walked out of hearing range.
Hunter paused and glanced at Tonks over his shoulder a moment. “Then at least we’ll know they are coming. Carry on, Mr. Wilkerson.”