Flames consumed the sky, with acrid black smoke choking out the sun. The heat blistered the air around Anthony Hunter, and everywhere he looked flared the dusky orange blaze of hell struggling to swallow him whole. Heat gripped his lungs, and fire lashed at his arms, searing his skin to the breaking point.
With a wordless shout of pain, he jerked upright in his bunk. Instinctively, the captain rolled to one side, coming to his feet with a pistol clutched tight in his right hand. Panting, his wits slowly returned as he recognized the familiar surroundings of his cabin.
An abrupt break from the hellish landscape of his nightmares, warm sunlight streamed through the dusty cabin windows, gracing the old wood of his desk and the smooth planks of the deck beneath his feet. Hunter sighed heavily as the nightmare slowly evaporated in his mind, retreating like fog from the morning sun.
Suddenly, the door to his cabin flew open. Krumer Whitehorse rushed inside, followed by Dr. Thorias Llwellyn. His nerves still on edge, Hunter spun immediately, pistol at the ready. Seeing their disheveled captain standing there in trousers, soot-stained shirt, wool socks, and brandishing a loaded gun and a angry snarl, the pair immediately threw themselves to either side of the door.
“Captain, wait! Hold fire!” Krumer said quickly.
Captain Hunter blinked twice, looking past the lingering vision of flames and imagined scores of pirates bearing down on him to finally see Krumer and Thorias. Anthony glanced down, considering the pistol a moment, then dropped it into the holster next to his bunk.
“My apologies,” The captain said, slightly distracted by the last fleeting memories of the nightmare.
Krumer looked around the cabin in alarm, “Captain, what is it? Why the shout?”
“The ship?” Hunter asked, ignoring the first mate’s question, “how is she?”
Seeing the captain was in no danger, the first mate relaxed. “Fine enough, for the most part. We’re a bit singed, but nothing that can’t be patched as we go.” Krumer gave Hunter a suspicious glance, “Captain, are you certain there isn’t anything wrong?”
“Nothing,” Hunter said wearily, “it’s nothing.”
“Nothing doesn’t inspire one to grab a firearm, and wave it about while half-dressed,” Thorias quipped, giving his old friend an amused look.
The captain rubbed his left shoulder, suddenly realizing that it ached just slightly. Crossing the room to a washbasin on the far side from his bunk, he stripped off his torn, soot-stained shirt, and turned a spigot to fill it with a little water pumped up from below decks. Shutting off the spigot, he splashed some of water on his face.
“Just reliving the leap from the Fair Winds,” Anthony finally admitted, turning the crank that drained the water from the basin towards the ship’s water purification distillery next to the engine room. Turning away from the water cabinet, he crossed to a small wardrobe to retrieve a clean, blue cotton shirt. “How long have I been out of commission?”
“Before you do that, let me check your shoulder,” Thorias said quickly before the captain could pull on the fresh shirt, “best check now to see if anything new has developed.”
Hunter waited impatiently. “Very well. It’s only a mild ache. I’m right as rain, all things considered.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. Also, given how you came back aboard with O’Fallon and William, I’m surprised it’s only just an ache,” Thorias said wryly. “You’ve been here for four hours at the least, old man. The blast took a good bit out of you, and naturally William, too, as he’s not fully recovered from his own adventure in Edinburgh with that murderer. O’Fallon is, well, as he always is.”
Krumer chuckled, his deep voice rumbling with humor. “Which means if he felt any of it, who’d notice? He’s scaling rigging now, doing some patch work on the gas bag.”
“Bruised but not broken, which is good, considering you partially landed on that shoulder when you rolled across the deck.” Thorias said, stepping back from the captain.
Hunter finished pulling on his shirt, ignoring the complaints from his shoulder. “Good enough for now,” he said, picking up his coat from the back of a chair.
The doctor shook his head slightly. “I would suggest you rest, but I know better. If you both will pardon me, I need to check on Lucas and William. Both of whom, I might add, are dutifully following the doctor’s orders,” Thorias chided, shaking a finger and giving a stern look at Captain Hunter.
Krumer grinned broadly, while Thorias turned smartly on his heel and stalked from the cabin. A bemused smile crossed Hunter’s face before he, too, left the cabin for the main deck.
On deck, a brisk wind raced across the ship and through the rigging. The steady pulse of the ship’s propellor hummed in the air, driving the Brass Griffin forward. Sunlight warmed the deck the ship sped along in the clear, almost cloudless sky over the North Atlantic.
Captain Hunter paused to listen to the crew going about their business: the creak of the ship’s wood, the rustle of the fabric of the gasbag overhead, and the rasp of the sailcloth stretched by the wind. Familiar and comforting sounds, much opposed to the sounds of fire and explosions.
“Anything come of those recording cylinders?” Hunter asked when Krumer joined him on deck.
“Moira has them now,” the first mate replied. “She said she could cobble something together that could play them from the spare parts of an opti. That was a few hours ago, though.”
“Between those and that ruined servitor, she’s bound to have found something by now,” the captain said, walking across the deck to a raised cover protecting one of the two hatches below decks. Hunter paused just before the hatch, staring ruefully at the ladder as he massaged his aching shoulder.
“Well, Arcady is with her,” Krumer said matter-of-factly, “so given it’s a machine they’re repairing, I’ve no doubt he’ll be helpful.”
“‘He’?” The captain said with a smirk, “not ‘it’? Softening on the Clockwork as a whole?”
A faint blush crept into the orc’s cheeks, “it’s simpler to think of Arcady as a ‘he’. An ‘it’ would be a chair, and a chair doesn’t talk back. Arcady talks incessantly.”
“Well, he does spend quite a lot of time with Thorias,” Hunter offered, chuckling, before carefully descending the ladder.
Just below the main deck, towards the rear of the vessel, the pair walked between a couple of wooden shelves, one set resting above a lower one. These were edged with wooden planks to fashion a bed frame for crew members.
Every bunk contained a modest blanket and canvas duffle, or ‘ditty bag’, that held a sailor’s personal belongings. The occasional clockwork ‘spark’ lanterns, small hand-sized lanterns lit by an electric arc dancing between a pair of carbon rods, hung from wooden pegs providing an eerie pale blue-white glow.
This was one of two ten-foot-long sleeping compartments for the crew. This one was situated adjacent to the Brass Griffin‘s claustrophobic engine room where the massive steam engines, clockwork mechanisms, and Tesla barrel transformers regulated the vessel’s power.
Crossing to the far end of the room, the captain and the first mate stopped at the narrow wooden door, stained with water and other odd residue from the boilers. The faded words ‘Wear your Goggles!’ Could still be made out on worn, scarred surface. Anthony opened the door, just as Moira Wycliffe was about to do the same from the opposite side.
“Cap’n! Mr. Whitehorse!” She exclaimed in surprise. Moira grinned from beneath a pair of her leather-framed work goggles. The lenses gave her a slightly bug-eyed appearance. “I was about to go find ya both!”
Anthony raised an eyebrow with a smirk. “Indeed? We were coming to see if you’ve made any progress on that servitor.”
“Quite a bit,” she said cheerfully, gesturing for them to follow her. Inside, Moira led the two through the tangle of wires and confusion of pipes that was commonplace in most airships. Through the narrow corridor and into the engine room itself, she turned right and stopped at a narrow workbench littered with both tools and half a reconstructed owl servitor.
On the table, a buzzing sound hummed over the racket of the ship’s engines. In a blur, an oversized dragonfly of brass and leather leapt up into the air, hovering over the dismantled servitor. “Greetings Mr. Whitehorse, and good to see you fully functional, Captain. You are repairing well?”
“Arcady,” Krumer said flatly in greeting.
Captain Hunter ignored Krumer’s mildly irritated tone, and smiled at the Clockwork warmly. “Thank you, Arcady, I’m … repairing … quite well.” The captain glanced at the nightmarish mash of parts that had once been a feather-covered clockwork owl not long ago.
“I was told there was some progress with the servitor,” Hunter said hesitantly, “does it … work?”
“Oh, sure Cap’n,” Moira said, propping her goggles atop her head, “just let me wind ‘im up.”
Producing a small brass key from her brown vest pocket, she inserted it in a slot near the base of the neck beneath some of the few remaining feathers. Several turns later, with a nerve rattling grind, the small gears took hold, turning in the machine’s chest.
“I tried to get it all the way workin’ but the personality cylinder’s been shot up pretty bad,” Moira explained. “So I took that out and just hooked it right up to the memory cylinder.”
“Turning it into a nightmarish phonograph?” Krumer quipped.
“Exactly,” Moira replied with another grin, oblivious to the teasing from the first mate.
While the gears rattled up to speed, the glass eyes of the mechanical beast glowed a dusky orange. The brass metal beak opened, but instead of a flat, mechanical voice asking for instructions, or even to acknowledge whom it was to speak to, a wash of static-rich noise rolled out.
The captain and Krumer exchanged a dubious look. Moira gestured to the half-rebuilt servitor at their reaction. “Now just wait,” she prompted. “Give it a moment. I wouldn’t have told ya I had somethin’ if I didn’t.”
As if on cue, the unmistakable sound of an explosion echoed through the room. The first mate and the captain sprang instantly back, looking around at the steam pipes and main boiler as if something had burst. Realizing it was only a recording, they exchanged a look, then stepped back over to the workbench. The moment they returned, the sounds of explosions were replaced with several voices raised in anger, pain and surprise.
Hunter lifted his eyebrows in astonishment, then cleared his throat. “Interesting, does it get any clearer?”
“Just wait,” Moira said eagerly.
“Yes, be patient, Captain,” Arcady echoed.
Krumer chuckled, which earned him a sour glance from Captain Hunter. Beside the four shipmates, the gears rattled again, and the servitor shuddered.
“Send the general distress!” A strong clear voice erupted out of the general static and noise.
“Aye, Cap’n!” came the reply.
The recording continued, “if we’re fortunate, someone will hear us. Providence knows we need it.”
“Damnit man, who’s attacking you?” Hunter growled, leaning forward on the table in anticipation.
“Cap’n,” Moira started to reply, but Anthony waved a hand to forestall any comment.
“I know, its only a recording,” Hunter said. “Just caught in the moment.”
Suddenly, another explosion punctuated the flow of orders from the captain of the Fair Winds. As the noise settled, a new voice broke in.
“Ah, so here’s where you’re hiding, Captain!” said the new voice in a clear, British tone. “Stand down, and I’ll spare enough to load my ship.”
Krumer shot a surprised look at Anthony, “Spirits above. Captain, I thought he was serving a prison sentence in Bermuda?”
Moira and Arcady exchanged a confused look. “Who?” Moira asked.
“John Charles Clark,” Hunter explained, looking just as astonished as the first mate. “We called him ‘Black Jack’ Clark when we all served together. He was caught stealing the payroll to bankroll an opium smuggling venture. Nothing that would earn him a hangman’s noose, but enough to have him soundly discharged and shipped to the prisons on Bermuda. I remember his sentencing ten years ago, he should still be on Bermuda with the chain gangs, working the shipyards.”
“He had to have escaped,” Krumer said, both impressed and astonished, “but coming back here? Surely he knows he’ll be caught again.”
The captain shook his head. “Oh, I’m certain it’s crossed his mind once or twice, not that he’d give the thought any credit. If Black Jack took this ship, then he’s after something specific. Otherwise we’d have found the bodies of the passengers to go along with bodies of all the crew. He’s a base thief, and not above killing or kidnapping to get what he wants.”
“But why here?” Moira asked curiously.
“Perhaps evading the authorities in Bermuda?” Arcady offered.
“It would make sense,” the first mate agreed. “What do you think, Captain? You knew him best.”
“I wouldn’t go that far, but perhaps,” the captain agreed. “If we’re lucky.”
“Why would luck be considered?” Arcady asked in his tin-sounding voice.
“Because on one hand, he’s here for something valuable, like the Von Patterson artifacts mentioned in the Fair Winds manifest,” Hunter explained darkly, “on the other, he might actually be here to murder Thorias and myself. Specifically, Thorias.”
“Doc?” Moira asked, eyes wide in alarm, “why? Doc doesn’t hurt anybody, less you’re gettin’ patched up, then he really don’t mean it.”
“It was Thorias who witnessed Black Jack stealing the Intrepid‘s payroll. I was the one who caught the scoundrel before he could kill Thorias and make his escape. We made an account of it at his hearing,” Hunter said firmly. “Last thing he said was, he would kill us both, and he didn’t care how many others he had to kill to do it.”