Gray-black smoke smeared the corridor with a faint, bitter haze. The fumes traversed the space, and kept a tight grip on the air. Through the soot, harried figures of Britannia’s crew worked feverishly to carry salvaged debris and wounded crewmen from the affected area into the open air. Captain Hunter moved between them like a lost specter, a harried look on his face as he checked anyone he recognized for his blacksmith, Moira Wycliffe, or his longtime associate and current employer, Adonia Salgado.
Hunter stepped to one side, allowing what seemed to be the tenth wounded crewman – head bandaged securely – to be helped along by crew mates. Anthony covered his mouth and coughed as the smoke scratched at his throat. Noel soon appeared beside the captain, his tattooed brown face a mask of worry.
“I cannot say I see either of them, Mon Capitaine,” Noel said, concerned, “however, with this smoke, who can tell?”
“How are you after that shock?” the captain asked. “Do I need to waylay a doctor?”
Noel shook his head. “Non, Monsieur. It was only a little tingle. Best we stay searching for the ladies.”
Hunter suppressed another cough before he spoke. “Neither Moira or Adonia were among those already carried out, alive or dead. I’m hoping to find them both further in,” he hesitated before he completed his thought, “preferably alive.”
Noel gave the captain a reassuring smile. “Have faith, Mon Capitaine. Moira is nothing if not inventive, non? And Mademoiselle Salgado seems rather formidable, as well. We shall find them.”
“Where is Mr. Mason?” the captain asked, glancing over his shoulders.
Noel jerked a thumb back towards the direction from which they had come. “He is outside checking his crew, and worrying how this will look to the passengers and his captain,” the pilot said in a sour tone. “It seems some of the men he ordered to assist us were caught in the tender mercy of the explosion.”
“He what? He is concerned ‘how this will look to the passengers’?” Anthony repeated incredulously in a hushed voice so only Noel could hear him. The captain scowled, then bit back a string of curses. “He has wounded crew to see after, and he’s concerned about looks. The man is insufferable!” Hunter turned away, letting his eyes roam across the smoke-filled hallway again. His brows knit together in growing concern. Motioning for Noel to follow him, he continued his search amid the sailors examining the damage to the Britannia.
In the oppressive gloom, the familiar shape of a certain lady clockwork engineer materialized into view. Moira sat on a large, overturned pipe that had broken away from the ceiling. Her clothes were dotted with new soot stains while her face and hair were streaked with fresh grime. A new bruise had just begun to grace the left side of her face. All of this merely accentuated her dour expression.
Hunter let out a long sigh of partial relief. “At least we’ve found Moira,” the captain said, pointing her out to Mr. St. Claire, “alive, yet highly perturbed.”
“Perturbed? If someone attempted to set you ablaze, you would be out of sorts as well, non?” Noel replied, chuckling.
“Indeed,” Hunter added with a ghost of a smile, “point well made. Once we are certain Moira’s been well taken care of, perhaps she can give us some suggestion as to where Adonia has gotten herself.”
Moria was deep in thought – a bitter one from the look on her face – as Captain Hunter and Noel approached. The Brass Griffin’s lady blacksmith glanced up at the two men’s appearance from behind a small cluster of sailors.
“Cap’n, I’m sorry,” she said, her voice a mix of frustration and anger, “I thought I got it all unwound.”
“Now, none of that,” Hunter said, folding his arms over his chest. “It happens to all of us. At least you haven’t been shot. Your health and Adonia’s are my primary concern right now. The rest we’ll sort out in due course. You seem intact. I trust a doctor has been by, yes? Is anything broken?”
Moira glowered at her hands – still bearing faint red spiderweb-like scars from being electrocuted almost half a year ago. “Just my pride,” the woman growled. “The rest of me’s a bit scuffed, but nothin’ that will slow me down. A doctor’s looked me over already. He pronounced me reasonably together. I can be up and about at your say, Cap’n.”
Captain Hunter and Mr. St. Claire exchanged a brief glance. It was obvious Moira was beating herself apart over the explosion.
“I would rest first,” Noel replied with a sympathetic smile. “I know I will. Best to come at the problem with a very clear head, non?”
Moira clenched her fists. “There’s no time for that!” she snapped, then gave the captain and Noel an embarrassed look. “Beggin’ both yer pardons, they just caught me with me bloomers down, that’s all. It stings a bit.”
“All the more reason we’ll pay them back three-fold, Moira,” Hunter said reassuringly, “you’ve my word on that. Have you seen Miss Salgado?”
Moira nodded, then pointed off down the hallway in the direction Hunter and Noel had yet to enter. “Aye, she’s off with the same doctor who looked me over. He’s seein’ to her eyes. He said they’d be back in a moment.”
“Ship’s doctor?” Noel asked curiously.
“I suppose.” The lady engineer reached up and rubbed at the smoke stains around her eyes. “I don’t know, really. He seems to know what he’s about.”
“Moira, tell us what happened. Just how did you escape the explosion?” Captain Hunter asked curiously. “What happened to the men you and Noel subdued?”
She shrugged, her mood a shade more sour than before. “I thought I had it, Cap’n, I truly did. I figured out the orrey’s weight was keeping the countdown timer goin’. So I popped a couple of side springs, then quickly re-attached them to opposin’ sides of the crankshaft. That way when it tried winding around, it would wind back.”
Noel seated himself on the broken pipe next to Moira. He leaned forward in rapt attention. “So you froze it in time? Une idée magnifique!”
She gave him a lopsided grin. “I thought so,” she said, then her smile melted away. “What I didn’t see was the second gears under the first layer.” She clenched her fists in frustration again. “Under all that mess was the smallest Stirling engine I’d ever be layin’ eyes on. The orrey movements were keepin’ the hot and cold pressures even. Stoppin’ it threw the Stirling into action, and it started grindin’ away at the fuse – which I couldn’t reach!” Moira looked down at the deck again. “I had a bad feelin’ – really bad – there was no way I could stop it. I looked around, thinkin’ to grab them buggers that attacked us,” she glanced at the two men, frustrated, “but they were already gone! Just their coats layin’ about on the floor! So … I ran.” Her shoulders slumped a little, “I found a door open down the hall, and I hunkered down behind it and hid till it was over.”
Hunter nodded in understanding. “You did the right thing, Moira. Don’t lose sight of that. So, how much damage has the Britannia taken, in your estimation?”
“Mine?” Moira laughed bitterly a moment. “Well, for all that’s worth, just the steam transfer pipes. Nothin’ that’ll take this big girl outta the air, but it’ll surely slow down repairs some. Won’t really hurt the ship though, and sure won’t bother the passengers. It seems like she’s got enough secondary systems to get her through to her port o’ call just fine. Whoever made the bomb, though, they sure knew what they were about.”
“What do you mean?” Noel asked.
She glanced at Noel and shrugged. “The orrey? The tiny Stirling engine that worked better than any I’d ever seen? Then there’s the good part … the explosion.”
“What about it?” Hunter asked and frowned, taking in everything the woman told him. “It looked as if it made quite the mess. It was a bomb after all.”
Moira gestured at the walls, then the ceiling. “No, no. Y’see, the best way I can explain it is they ‘sculpted’ the explosion. Shaped it so the heat would cut into the steam pipes, maybe even burn open a hole to the deck above or below, but nothing else.” Moira gestured around them at the scorch marks. “All that mess on the walls? That’s from the arc lantern batteries overheating and blowing out.”
Hunter nodded, then covered his mouth to cough as a thin wisp of acrid smoke assailed his senses. “All of that, naturally, covers most any tracks that might be left behind,” he added.
Noel glanced around thoughtfully, then watched as one of Britannia’s sailors carried a burnt black leather coat and shirt from the hallway. “Oui,” he replied, “also anyone we might have spoken with.”
Captain Hunter frowned, looking around at the ruined hallway. “Why here? The damage seems so … random. There has to be a reason. Moira, do you remember anything more about the device itself?”
Moira frowned in thought a moment. “Whoever put it together knew what they were about, that’s for certain,” she replied. The young woman closed her eyes a moment, remembering the design she had so quickly memorized. She smiled slightly. “It was as pretty as a music box. I can’t imagine how they went about gettin’ it aboard without anyone guessin’ its purpose, given it reeked of black powder.”
“Excellent question. I, for one, would also like to know how they are getting around the Britannia at all,” Captain Hunter added. “They have an elaborate collection of devices – such as a pistol not unlike the one you made for me, Moira.”
“What?” She exclaimed angrily. “Them thieves stole me design?”
“Possibly, but stay on course. These brigands are well equipped, and have a penchant for theatrics. Someone must have seen something of their passing.” He looked over his shoulder into the gloom. “Did that doctor say anything about how long he would be?”
“No, Cap’n. All he said was that he’d be a moment,” Moira answered. Then, she pointed down the hallway. “Wait, there they are Cap’n.”
Adonia appeared from out of the dark haze. Her dress was smudged and rumpled, and her left hand bandaged. The Charybdian squinted into the smoky air, occasionally dabbing a wet cloth to her eyes or mouth, blotting any idea as to her mood. Her hair tendrils however, spoke volumes while they twitched and writhed in abject consternation.
Next to her walked a well-dressed man who carried himself with an air of confidence. His tasteful dark tweed coat and vest portrayed a man of style who kept practicality in mind. In one hand he carried a small leather bag, the other occasionally touching Adonia’s arm to help guide her through the now busy hallway. He smiled slightly when he saw Captain Hunter and Noel with Moira.
“A passenger airship suffering odd mechanical failure while two women find themselves far too close to the epicenter of a denotation,” the doctor said with a touch of humor in his voice. “Somehow, I sensed that at the center of this, I would find Captain Anthony Gabriel Hunter. How are you doing, Gabriel? Still charging into the mouth of hell armed only with a battered spoon, a belly full of righteous fire, and good intentions?”
A smile graced Hunter’s face for a moment. He looked over at Noel and Moira, and on seeing their confused expressions, he gestured to the doctor. “Moira, Noel, allow me to introduce you to Dr. Thomas Jordan Hunter: noted doctor, man about London, and my younger brother.”