By the time Captain Anthony Hunter had ordered the search for the intruder, Dr. Thomas Hunter stood in the threshold of one of the Griffin’s cargo holds. The doctor adjusted his tailored coat sleeves, almost a habit before entering a new locale, then crossed inside.
The cargo hold, while large, was bisected down the middle. The right half was still occupied by the anticipated stacks of crates, bags and other odd pieces of cargo. The remainder of the space, however, was something else entirely.
The left side of the cargo hold had been walled and subdivided into a handful of smaller rooms: a hospice, a medical office, a tiny storage locker for medical supplies, and last of all, Dr. Llwellyn’s sleeping quarters. Each room was lit with its own wall-mounted arc lantern. They gave a bright island of contrast in the otherwise cavernous darkness.
Thomas crossed the short space between the hatch and the open doorway to Dr. Llwellyn’s rooms, where light spilled out warmly. The doctor stopped at the opening, grinning at the room’s sole occupant there.
“I swore I heard that my brother has every bloody soul scouring this ship from stem to stern,” Thomas began cheerfully, “yet here you sit reading a book and making notes. How did you get such special consideration, eh?”
Dr. Llwellyn’s face lit up with a smile. Setting aside his brass mechanical quill, he stood up and clasped Thomas’ outstretched hand. “Thomas! Its good to see you, old man. When did you come aboard?”
Thomas waved a hand back in the direction he had come. “Shortly before my brother started his fox hunt, it seems. Apparently, today is determined to be a day for emergencies and surprises.”
Thorias nodded sympathetically. “Ah, I see. Well, as I have to maintain guard over the medical supplies, it affords us a chance to talk.” He gave his friend a long, measured look. “However, from the look about you, I take it this is not precisely a social call?”
“Astute as ever,” Thomas said, “and accurate, also. I’m afraid this is more business. I’ve come across something that requires your chemical expertise.” Dr. Hunter withdrew a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his coat. Carefully he unfolded the cloth to reveal a small, round vial wrapped with bands of brass. He held the container up to the nearest arc lantern, then tilted it. The viscous liquid slid along the curve of the glass chamber ominously.
Dr. Llwellyn scowled with curiosity at the glass bottle with its odd contents. “Pray tell, just what is it?”
Thomas grinned. “That, old boy, is what I’m here to find out. Care to collaborate?”
“Certainly! My laboratory is small but serviceable,” Thorias replied, “it’s back this way.”
With Thorias in the lead, the two doctors left the small hospice, stepping though an open door to a medical office. It was little more than a small box, with barely enough room for a single desk, two wooden chairs and a narrow wooden table dotted with odd, dark stains. Dr. Llwellyn crossed over to the table, then opened one of the wooden cabinets bolted to its surface.
Inside, the cabinet was filled with small pieces of chemical laboratory equipment, from beakers and metal tongs to flint strikers and iron stands. Thorias glanced back at the vial with a practiced eye before selecting the tools he needed. Once Dr. Llwellyn was satisfied, the two doctors went work. While they began their analysis, Dr. Hunter repeated what he had told his brother Anthony, explaining what he knew, suspected, and had seen.
Several minutes later, the table was covered with an elaborate connection of rubber hoses connected to a glass cylinder, two flasks and a brass cube with round glass ‘windows’ protruding from its sides. The cylinder, used for distillation, ran between a flask and the brass box itself. Inside the box, a liquid bubbled merrily while its vapor traveled up through the distillation cylinder, condensed, and ran down to collect in another flask.
Dr. Llwellyn turned a brass key on the box. The bubbling slowed, turning into an energetic simmer. Thorias tugged the leather gloves off and deposited them on the table.
“So, If I understand what you’re telling me, there is a pack of bloody anarchists, possibly thieves, aboard the Britannia who have a flair for the dramatic,” the elven doctor said on hearing the full story.
“Yes, at least in theory,” Thomas replied.
Thorias waved a hand toward his apparatus. “This concoction seems to agree with you,” he said. “I dare say I know little of the workings of stage theatrics, despite having seen a few performances, but this fluid is rather fascinating. Its primary function is a smoke bomb, but the liquid is some sort of fuel. Shattering the glass causes a static discharge of some kind, igniting the liquid. It rapidly burns away, releasing the smoke. The smoke, I believe, contains some trace elements of a hallucinogen. This, if you are correct, would aid in their ability to create their illusions, among whatever other preparations they might use.”
Dr. Hunter peered at the bubbling fluid. “So, is this liquid safe to boil here?”
“Oh yes, quite safe,” Thorias answered.
“Brilliant,” Thomas replied, still fascinated by the unusual device. “Pray tell, where did you happen upon this design? I could use one as well.”
Dr. Llwellyn yawned slightly, “pardon me. I’ve not slept as well as I ought lately. Moira, our clockwork engineer, suffered some rather unique side effects from electrical burns a few months ago that have required some regular treatment.” He blinked away the fatigue before he answered. “This decanter is a little something Moira and myself cooked up for boiling and separating volatile chemicals through a spinning apparatus inside the chamber. The entire idea grew out of a bad experience with some anarchists who were overly fond of elixirs. She calls it an Autonomic Sort-Whirler.”
Dr. Hunter nodded, then stood upright. “Most brilliant! At some point, when we have more time, I’d love to hear in-depth about how this lovely device works.” Suddenly, Thomas turned his head to suppress a yawn as well. “Bloody hell, now I’m doing it. In any case, device or no, I would think these men might need a knowledge of where they are ‘performing’. I was thinking, what if they are hiding themselves among the crew of the Britannia They would then have the widest access to the ship.”
Thorias considered this a moment. “Interesting thought. Usually crew are above suspicion, but often beneath notice. However, on something the size of the Britannia, they’ll have officers to manage groups of sailors. Surely they would notice any new faces?”
Dr. Llwellyn turned towards the Autonomic Sort-Whirler to make another adjustment. He caught himself on the edge of the table when his knees lost their strength and tried to buckle. It felt like they had turned to water! The room spun lazily for a moment while he struggled to keep his eyelids open.
“What the devil?” he exclaimed.
Dr. Hunter reached out to help his friend, but nearly stumbled to the ground himself. He clutched desperately at his side of the table, trying to maintain his own footing. “The mixture … Thorias … it’s giving off a gas!”
Through his fogged perceptions, Thorias recognized the nauseatingly sweet and pungent smell that began to permeate the air. His eyes went wide.
“My God, it’s ether!” Thorias exclaimed with a slurred voice, “the switch above the table, throw it! It’s the exhaust fan! I’ll get respirators.”
Thomas nodded, too drugged to reply coherently. He struggled to reach for the wooden-handled knife switch to the right of the table. However, no matter how he tried, the switch seemed forever out of reach. Dr. Hunter rubbed his eyes, then yawned again. He reached once more for the switch, but instead collapsed to the floor in a heap. Quickly he slipped into unconsciousness.
Staggering like a drunkard fresh from a night’s binge at a pub, Dr. Llwellyn stumbled away from the table. His elven nature was more resistant to ether, preventing him from succumbing quite as quickly. However, he was not immune to the vapor’s intoxicating side effects. Dr. Llwellyn fell against his desk, clawing at the drawers. His fingers found purchase in the handle of the second drawer on the right side. Thorias jerked it open, accidentally spilling the contents of the floor.
He scrabbled among the items on his knees, trying to lift a leather mask with brass trim that would wrap around the entire lower half of a wearer’s face. The mask itself had two round compartments on either ‘cheek’ that would scrub the air before the wearer could breathe it in. Hands shaking, he slowly lifted the mask to his face.
A black-gloved hand slapped it away. The mask tumbled across the floor, out of the doctor’s reach!
A cowled face leaned forward into Thorias’ watery vision. The doctor squinted, desperate to make out any facial features, but the vapors had taken their toll. It was like trying to see the details of something held underneath a slowly moving pool of water. He tried to rise, but his arms would not cooperate.
“Ah, Signore,” the man in the cowl said with a thick Italian accent. “I commend your efforts, but the secrets of the Brotherhood are not for the likes of you.” The Italian stood up, then walked over to the table, his black boots echoing on the wooden floor.
Thorias watched, helpless, while the intruder reached out with a black-gloved hand and expertly separated the Autonomic Sort-Whirler from the apparatus. The Italian turned it over, considering the unusual device while it rapidly cooled.
Who the devil are you? Thorias thought angrily through an ether-induced mental haze. How did you even get this far aboard without anyone seeing you? Not even the Britannia’s crew would have been allowed here.
“Very interesting, Signore,” the man said casually, “you say this Moira is one who created this? Interesting indeed.” He turned toward the Griffin’s doctor. “I think the Brotherhood should speak at length with this woman. Thank you for this.” The cowled man bowed formally.
Like bloody hell you will! the doctor raged silently, trying – and failing – to rise from where he lay on the floor. I will find a way to track you to your misbegotten lair! Mark me on this!
From his place on the floor, Thorias desperately squinted, trying to improve his vision. For a moment, he swore he saw a hint of mustache and an unusual scar across the right cheekbone.
The Italian smiled from under his cowl. “Now, I have a message for you. Tell your capitano, we wish the knives and the journal he has hidden. He may leave the journal in a box aboard the Britannia in its main boiler room, along with the actual, authentic knives. He may keep the forgeries for whatever he desires. Now, if he chooses to be stubborn about our offer? Ah, well, then we will be disappointed, and that will be unfortunate for everyone.”
With the Autonomic Sort-Whirler in hand, the Italian walked slowly out of the office and into the tiny hospice adjacent, then the ship’s hold beyond. His mind still shrouded in a fog, Thorias clawed along the floor desperately to the mask. He could not recall how long it took. Only that by the time he reached it, he dimly heard Krumer shouting his name in alarm, the air thick with the smell of smoke – a kind he dimly associated with the theatrical performances of an illusionist.