Later that day, the sun had moved high overhead, watching the scattered parade of clouds marching beneath it. Skipping across a low-lying white and gray knot of vapor, the Brass Griffin raced forward. Her narrow prow cut a neat furrow through the cloud tops while the faint sound of sailcloth rustling in the breeze and the steady throb of her propellers carried in the crisp air.
Ahead, suspended by four enormous gas bags – each one easily larger than the Griffin herself, was the relay station of Port Signal. In the clear daylight, the station’s steel frame and its brass and aluminum buildings shone brightly. The relay station was not dissimilar to others of its kind.
Suspended three miles above the dark waters of the North Sea, it floated among the clouds like a metal and wooden island in the sky. The rigid frame gas bags that held the station aloft was connected to a wide platform hundreds of yards wide via a web-like series of cables. Air beneath the station was constantly churned by the cluster of steam-powered propellers under the middle of the structure. This stabilized the station, helping to maintain its relative position.
Atop the platform and surrounding the central hub that housed the station’s massive steam engines stood buildings of all shapes and sizes. Awash with color, some were adorned with canvas awnings, others with small banners fluttering in the light breeze. All of them were built with stout wood and metal plates that gleamed in the sunlight.
Usually the plates were an aluminum or steel to ward off the effects of bad weather. Above these, a forest of skeletal towers littered the metal rooftops, culminating in one massive antenna that rose from a central point. All were positioned to listen for, capture, and re-transmit opti-telegraphic signals sent from other ships or relay stations.
Sea birds, mostly gray-white seagulls and crimson-feathered firehawks, swooped and circled noisily overhead, darting over buildings and between the massive rigging for the station. Like wooden fringe, long piers extended out from the edge of the station’s main platform, serving as docking slips for visiting ships. Even at the half-mile distance of the Brass Griffin, it was plain to see a steady hum of activity from both visitors and regular inhabitants of this flying city.
Dr. Thorias Llwellyn scaled the short wooden ladder to the quarterdeck. Dressed in his usual white shirt, trim blue waistcoat and trousers, he looked more suited to an afternoon walk in Hyde Park than for walking aboard an airship.
With a nod to the helmsman manning the wheel, the elven doctor crossed to the railing where Captain Hunter stood. Hunter was still dressed as he was before, with arms clasped behind his back, watching a pair of airships in the distance. They were cutters flying the French flag, on their final slow approach to Port Signal.
“As I understand it, we’ve now taken up piracy as hobby.” Thorias quipped. “You do realize there are safer activities, such as growing orchids, for example? Usually, it results in fewer stitches.”
The captain chuckled at the doctor’s dry wit. “I’ve my reasons, Thorias. Has anyone told you just what was on the cylinders?”
“Yes, Moria told me,” the doctor replied solemnly. “What I would like to know is: do you believe it really was John Clark?”
“I heard his voice myself,” Hunter said. “It was unmistakable.”
“Bloody hell,” Thorias replied with an exasperated sigh. “So, given you taking to piracy is about as likely as a bovine serving in the House of Commons, what is your real intent around this occupational dalliance?”
Hunter glanced at his old friend with a faint smirk, “Rather straightforward, actually. There were no bodies in the water – otherwise we would have seen the longskiffs – and only a bare handful aboard the Fair Winds. That leads one to assume Clark took both passengers and crew with him. Angela’s cleverly done message, directs us here to Port Signal. I say it’s a safe gamble that Clark came here with his cargo of unwilling guests.”
The doctor considered that a moment, “Logical, but no one would be able to keep a cargo hold full of kidnapped people a secret. Someone would notice. What people notice, inevitably one talks about.”
Hunter nodded, then looked out at Port Signal again. Slowly, while he watched, a British cutter slid out of port. On leaving the station behind, her sails billowed out as they caught the wind, pulling the vessel away from the station. Sunlight shone warm along the canvas stretched across the rigid frame of her gas bag, highlighting the blue, red and white of the Union Jack flying in the breeze.
The captain frowned, then called over his shoulder, “Mr. Baker! Back a third. Let’s allow that cutter to be on their way before we get too close.”
“Already got it, Cap’n,” The young man at the wheel replied, tapping out a sequence on a small set of lettered keys on a stand attached to the ship’s wheel.
Hunter glanced at Thorias and shrugged, “Normally, I would agree. However, according to Moira, Port Signal has a more ‘interesting’ side. Keeping a cargo hold of kidnap victims sealed against their will might not be out of bounds – once we make the right acquaintance in low places, that is.”
The doctor crossed his arms. “I see. So we make port, piracy claim and all, but what then?”
Hunter returned to watching the ships drifting around the station. While he watched, the two French ships from a moment before slowly made their way into docking slips, far ahead. The captain unclasped his hands, rubbing the palm of his clockwork artificial left hand to ease a phantom ache.
“A gamble,” Anthony admitted, “a very risky gamble. If Clark is intent on seeking our deaths, he’ll know in short order we’ve arrived and make a nuisance of himself. So, it makes sense someone distracts him, while the others quietly search for the innocents he’s abducted.”
“Of course, why didn’t I see it?” Dr. Llwellyn replied as realization dawned. “You’re using yourself as bait again. Anthony, we don’t know he won’t shoot you on sight, and me as well, for that matter.”
“Yes, he just might,” the captain admitted. “That’s why I plan on going to find him first. To try and talk some reason. I don’t fully expect it to work, but while I entertain him, you and Tonks can turn this station upside down for those people … quietly of course.”
“Surely, you’ll not be alone?” Dr. Llwellyn asked, concerned.
“Of course not alone,” the captain scoffed, “I’ve not taken leave of all my senses. I’ll have some of the crew along, and I’ll keep to the more public venues.”
“Brash and risky,” Thorias said shaking his head slowly, as he watched the British cutter turn away from Port Signal and vanish among the clouds, “I see your logic, though … along with one glaring flaw. We’ll surely be seen leaving the ship, even if you leave first.”
“Quite,” Hunter replied. “However, Tonks has found his way out of more problematic spots, as have you.” The captain called over his shoulder, “Mr. Baker, ahead a third, and have someone send a telegraph to the station, let them know we’re requesting an open slip.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Mr. Baker replied from the ship’s wheel, tapping at the nearby telegraph keys.
Dr. Llwellyn smiled, “True. I’ll speak with Tonks. With you leaving first, we might could use that to some small advantage.” The doctor hesitated, “Anthony, if I may … you’re being rather forthcoming with your plans. Something worries you.”
Anthony did not reply, but stood silently for a moment, then sighed. “There’s something larger at play here, old man. I don’t want to worry anyone needlessly, but Clark is playing at something more than revenge.”
“Taking a ship simply to use as bait is extreme for anyone,” the doctor said after a moment’s consideration. “And the message from the Intrepid was rather timely also … if they were so close to know we tried to lend assistance, why weren’t they at the wreck when we were?”
“Precisely,” Hunter replied with a serious glance over to Thorias. “Something foul is at play, which is why I’m so candid over this. Stay alert while casting about for our kidnap victims. We we may catch a hint as to what is really afoot.”
Thorias said nothing, but was lost to his own thoughts and planning while the Brass Griffin’s bow turned, beginning her final approach towards Port Signal.