An uncomfortable silence settled around the room, broken only by the steady, dull clank of the ship’s pistons and the regular hiss of steam from pressure valves. A cloud of mist drifted across, dissipating before it reached the other side.
On the workbench, the orange glow in the clockwork owl’s eyes dimmed, and the sound of explosions, gunfire, and crashes of steel came slowly to an inevitable stop. The glow dimmed further as the beak closed, and finally the head tilted to one side as a spring in the motor gave a sickening pop.
“Well,” Moira sighed, “I got it to work for a little while.” She frowned at the silent menagerie of brass clockwork parts. Reaching out, she tilted the owl’s head back into an upright position, looking into its dim mechanical eyes. “Maybe I can repair it again … just need to be makin’ a few alterations here and there,” she said thoughtfully, pulling the damaged mainspring from the device.
“What shall we do?” Arcady asked, his mechanical-clipped voice breaking the heavy mood. “Concerning this ‘Black Jack’ individual?”
Moira shrugged, “we go get ‘im before he hurts anybody else.” She looked at the captain and the first mate, “right?”
Captain Hunter nodded. “Indeed, if we can determine what hole he’s crawled into. The North Sea is not a small place, it’s quite wide enough to hide him for awhile.” Hunter thought for a moment, “I’ve one or two friends left in the Navy who still speak to me, I’ll send an inquiry – discreetly – about Black Jack. If he has gotten loose, the Navy might not yet be aware he’s in the North Sea.”
Krumer folded his arms over his chest, stretching his blue cotton shirt, “What about the cylinders from the Fair Winds’ opti-telegraphic? Could you play them on,” the orc waved a hand at the loose assortment of connected parts that comprised the clockwork owl, “your phonograph of the damned?”
The blacksmith set down the broken mainspring, wiped her hands on the brown leather vest she wore, then turned to grab a pair of black, wax-coated cylinders from behind her on a shelf. “Them cylinders from the Fair Winds won’t fit the owl. They’re just a few inches too big. I tried pullin’ some of the owl’s frame out of the way, but that didn’t help.”
To prove her point, she set the cylinders down next to the owl. Deftly, she flipped a latch a the base of the owl’s neck, just hidden by the last remaining feathers. A metal catch popped free, and the head swiveled open revealing a round, drum-like chamber designed to hold four cylindrical tubes. Each narrow chamber in the drum had a set of thin flexible needles, resembling brush-like teeth.
Moira picked up one of the two opti-telegraphic cylinders, and placed it against the opening in the owl. “See, cylinders in a servitor aren’t that wide, just narrow. An opti-telegraphic’s cylinders are a good inch longer and two inches wider.”
Krumer scowled at the two cylinders a moment, as if noticing something. “Moira, may I?” He asked, gesturing to the one the blacksmith held.
“A’course,” Moira replied, holding out the black, wax-coated tube.
The first mate turned the cylinder over in his hands, examining it closely. Moira pointed at the one Krumer held, “So, I borrowed the Griffin’s opti for a few spins. That one plays just fine. The first is just too scratched up to make any sense out of it.”
The first mate nodded sagely, putting the undamaged cylinder next to the owl, then picked up the scratched mate. “What was on it?”
“A few messages towards Edinburgh, and their distress call, a’ course,” Moira replied. “Oh! One kinda interesting one, too. Mrs. Von Patterson sent word she was bringing somethin’ back for the Royal Museum. Somethin’ they’d dug up near Normandy.”
“Normandy?” Hunter echoed. “Anything more specific than that?”
Moira shook her head, “no. She was all quiet about it. Just kept sayin’ that she wanted to make sure they’d have a reliable escort to bring the items to London.”
“An escort would suggest something of value,” Arcady commented.
“Indeed, it would,” Hunter replied, “And if valuable, Black Jack would’ve taken it … but why then take the passengers?”
“To get at you and Doc?” Moira suggested.
Hunter scratched his chin, turning the thought over in his mind, “No … he would have no way of knowing we have any knowledge of the Von Pattersons, the other passengers or even the Fair Winds herself.” The captain shrugged, “which is true, we didn’t know of the Fair Winds, or the Von Pattersons being aboard.”
Krumer turned the scarred cylinder over in his hands, lightly rubbing this thumb over the scratches.
Arcady descended from his hover, touching down lightly onto the workbench. “Perhaps, ransom?”
“That would make sense,” the captain agreed, “and would fit Black Jack’s mentality.”
Stepping around Moira, Krumer picked up one of two stubby charcoal pencils from a tin cup on the workbench as the others continued with the conversation. Looking around on the shelves, he located a piece of plain brown butcher paper, half covered with scribblings of unfinished notes. From the layer of dust, it had been forgotten for a while.
Captain Hunter noticed what Krumer was about, and glanced at him, curious. Unable to determine what the first mate was up to, he looked away and continued the conversation, “Unless he’s changed, he wouldn’t kill anyone right away. He would also need them under lock and key. Someplace very much out of the way. Chances are, at least one or more of the passengers, if not the surviving crew of the Fair Winds, would undoubtedly try to escape.”
On the corner of the workbench, Krumer spread out the paper, smoothing out the wrinkles. Across the table, Arcady watched with a fascinated interest, causing him to take a few steps across the table in the orc’s direction. This drew Moira and Captain Hunter’s attention, as well. It was not until Krumer experimentally scrubbed one of the charcoal pencils on the paper that anyone spoke.
“Hey!” Moira exclaimed reaching for the pencil, “them are expensive! I don’t got a lot of those!”
Krumer pulled the charcoal pencil out of her reach. “I’ve no intent to use them up completely. Spirits’ willing! Just humor me for the moment.”
Moira hesitated, then relaxed. “All right, but if ya use ’em both, I want new ones.”
Krumer smiled, “Bargain done.”
The first mate set the pencil aside, then picked up the scarred cylinder, gently wiping it clean against his cotton trousers.
“Mr. Whitehorse,” the captain began, but the first mate held up a hand to stall the captain’s question.
“I’ve a suspicion, Captain, that these aren’t just scratches,” he explained, “I think they are something more.” Brushing one of his black dreadlocks out of his face, he carefully rolled the cylinder in the butcher paper, then lightly scrubbed the charcoal back and forth on the paper.
Moira and Hunter leaned forward, curiosity getting the better of them. Arcady walked his way across the workbench, his brass-plated insect-feet tapping out a skittering, staccato pattern across the wooden table.
Faded at first, a number slowly took shape as Krumer rubbed the charcoal over the paper, exposing the etchings in the cylinder. A few rubbings more, a second number followed the first. At last, a word eventually appeared.
“It reads ‘Angela’!” Moira exclaimed.
“Yes, and those look to be navigational coordinates,” Arcady said, cocking his head slightly to the left while peering at the numbers.
Hunter smiled warmly, “Ah, clever girl. Knowing that a ship’s opti-telegraphic would be recovered, she left a hidden message.”
Arcady’s wings vibrated while he thought. “That’s quite capital, but why not just record her voice?” He asked curiously, “is her voice box in need of repair?”
“If I had to guess, she was afraid of being heard,” Krumer replied, still lightly scrubbing the charcoal over the paper. “Those pirates were thorough, from searching to laying the traps. A young lady recording a message into the ship’s opti-telegraphic would sure to have been discovered.”
Captain Hunter glanced over the numbers, then the words that followed. “The coordinates I don’t recognize square off. However, I think they are not far from here.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Her choice of words are interesting: ‘Sealed aquila’, ‘have monkey’, ‘Angela’.”
“A monkey?” Moira asked, leaning closer to get a better look at the rubbings.
“There was a monkey?” Arcady asked, just as confused.
“Not according to the manifest,” the captain replied. Anthony glanced over to Krumer, “Are you sure there isn’t more?”
The first mate stopped rubbing, dropping the pencil back into the tin cup. Pulling aside the butcher paper, he picked up the cylinder and lightly brushed his fingers over it, peering closely. He shook his head. “Not that I can see, Captain. That’s all she carved. Looks hastily done, too.”
“Well, there were pirates running underfoot,” Moira said, looking up at Krumer.
“True,” Krumer replied.
Hunter lifted the butcher paper to examine the rubbing again. “Arcady, you’ve been studying some of Mr. Tonks’ charts. Where are these coordinates? Am I correct in thinking they are a close distance from here?”
The clockwork dragonfly fluttered up, then flew over to hover next to the captain, for a better look at the butcher paper. He tilted his head to the left, considering the numbers, his eyes glowing a soft amber. “The coordinates are indeed in the North Sea, Captain. At my calculations, it is one hundred fifty-eight miles from Aberdeen’s coastline. The charts I have seen mark this as ‘Point Signal’?”
“Point Signal?” Krumer echoed, setting the scarred cylinder down next to its partner. “I’ve heard the name, but Spirits take me, I can’t remember where.”
“Indeed,” Hunter said, “last I heard of Point Signal was ten years ago, though the context escapes me as well.”
Moira looked uncomfortable, glancing down at the discarded, broken mainspring. “Oh, there.”
Hunter looked at the blacksmith curiously, “Anything you’d care to share, Miss Wycliffe?”
At the captain’s more formal use of her last name, Moira grinned nervously, fiddling with the part in front of her. “I know a Point Signal. Ya see, it’s a opti-telegraphic signal relay station, flying over the deep part of the North Sea, all out on its own. Smugglers, naval ships, merchants, and pirates of all sorts tend to stop by. After awhile, one of the stationmasters, he set up a kind of ‘Market Square’ in the down-below of the station. All on the hush, ya know. Lots a’ deals and smugglin’ of all kinds. Been there, oh, once or twice in the past.” The young woman blushed slightly, “nothing regular or anything.”
“That’s still well within the patrol routes,” Anthony replied, “surely the Navy would’ve found this little smuggler’s den by now.”
“That I don’t know about, but the North Sea’s big enough ta hide more’n a few things, Cap’n,” Moira said with a shrug, “you said it yourself.”
Hunter sighed, “Yes, so I did. Well, it’s as good a place to start as any.”
Moira put down the spring she had twisted into an unrecognizable shape. “Oh, Cap’n, ya can’t just march in there like ya normally would most places.”
“I beg your pardon. I ‘march’?” Hunter asked in surprise.
“Closer to brisk walk coupled with a determined air,” Krumer quipped as an aside to the captain. Hunter gave the first mate a pained look.
Moira waved her hands, “anyway, that’s not the point. The point I’m reachin’ for is that unless they know ya, or have someone that can speak for ya, there’s no way yer ever going to know about what’s really going on there. They’ll not let you just run around Market Square just cause ya want to.”
The captain nodded, “And if Black Jack’s there, I doubt he’d speak in our favor.” He sighed, “we need to get word to the Navy first. Before we head there and start asking any questions.”
A muffled commotion from outside the room rippled across the noise of the engines. Suddenly, the door to the engine room flew open. The ship’s pilot, Tonks Wilkerson, dressed in a faded red shirt, black vest and dark cotton trousers burst into the room, panting hard from running. In one hand was a brown piece of paper with a message on it.
“Cap’n!” Tonks blurted out, “incoming message, general broadcast.” He thrust the paper out for the captain.
Hunter read over the message, his face darkening into a concerned frown. Noticing the confused looks, he cleared his throat and read aloud, “It says: ‘All ships in the North Sea area, be advised to be on watch for the schooner, Brass Griffin. Be warned, she is armed and wanted in questioning for piratical actions against the passenger ship, Fair Winds, lost with all passengers and hands. Any sightings are to be reported to the HMS Intrepid at first opportunity.’ “
“We had nothing to do with that! We attempted to lend aid,” Krumer growled.
“Yeah, but if they think we killed all those people, are they gonna listen?” Moira replied sourly. “More like they’ll be ready for a fight.”
“I can reply quite accurately the events of our attempt,” the clockwork dragonfly replied, with just a touch of pride.
“Quite, true. Once you did, you’d be claimed as evidence and locked away, since your kind are not seen as ‘people’ yet by many,” Hunter replied. “There are risks I’ll take with my crew, that isn’t one of them.”
“Orders, Cap’n?” Tonks asked sharply.
Captain Hunter read over the message again, a slow smile appearing on his face. “Set a course for the coordinates Arcady is about to give you, Mr. Tonks. We make for Point Signal, top speed.”
“Cap’n?” Moira asked, concerned, “we’re goin’? That was a general message, they’ll likely get it there, too.”
Captain Hunter handed the message back to the pilot. “That’s what I’m counting on.”
“Captain?” Krumer asked, concerned by the implication.
“If they’ve gotten that message, and there’s no reason they would not,” Hunter explained, “they’ll be expecting pirates. Which may grant us some measure of acceptance at Point Signal. Therefore – for the time being – we’ll be pirates.”