Captain Hunter walked from the ladder leading to the deck above towards the Brass Griffin’s small infirmary, his face dark as a thunderstorm. Beside him, Adonia obviously shared his sentiment, though her expression was peppered with shades of concern. The captain stepped through the hatch, then towards a knot of sailors at the entrance of the infirmary itself.
At the door, two sailors stood guard while inside two more – wearing leather and brass respirator masks – worked to clean Dr. Llwellyn’s tiny office. One operated a crank next to a broken knife switch. The crank, in turn, worked a bellows in the ceiling, circulating the air. Another sailor, using heavy leather gloves, carefully mopped spilled chemicals into a large container.
On one of a pair of cots for patients in the adjacent hospice, Thorias sat holding a wet cloth to his eyes. On the other cot Dr. Thomas Hunter resided in a similar state. Dr. Llwellyn glanced up wearily when Captain Hunter and Adonia entered, then replaced the cloth over his eyes. Krumer, the first mate, walked over to where Captain Hunter had stopped.
“Mr. Whitehorse,” the captain said, using the first mate’s name as both greeting and harbinger of a question. “Situation?” He spared a brief look of concern for the two sitting nearby. “How is my brother?” he added.
“According to Dr. Llwellyn, they were gassed by someone using a container of ether, Captain,” Krumer explained, walking with the Captain. “Both doctors are fine, nothing worse than a bit too much of the drug for their own good. No supplies are missing that we can see, but a piece of equipment was taken. Some custom thing Moira contrived for Dr. Llwellyn to use for chemical testing.”
“Confound it, the braggart took my Sort-Whirler and most of that sample we were looking at,” Dr. Llwellyn groused angrily.
“We nearly had it, Anthony,” Dr. Hunter snapped irritably, taking a break from breathing through a filtered respirator. “We were so bloody close. It might have given us a way to even track them.”
“What did you find?” Anthony asked.
Thorias pulled the cloth away from his eyes. They were bloodshot and irritated. “It’s a smoke bomb, but instead of using solid, burnable propellant, it was a liquid. Nothing I’ve ever seen before, but the bloody bastard made off with our only sample.”
Adonia folded her arms over her chest, then let out a long breath. “At least you both are relatively unharmed.”
Dr. Hunter nodded, immediately regretting it. “Save for this bloody headache, yes. It’s as if I drank an entire bottle of Scotch. I’m convinced that ether was tainted with something.”
“It’s like being chased by shadows,” Anthony growled unhappily, beginning to pace the breadth of the small room. “Or at the very least, sparring with one. We’re not even certain what they want.”
“Not entirely true,” Thorias replied. “Before our brigand made off with my device and our experiment, he made a reference to ‘secrets of the Brotherhood’.”
“What ‘Brotherhood’?” Captain Hunter asked with a scowl.
“I couldn’t begin to say, and our visitor wasn’t inclined to offer,” Thorias replied. “He also made reference to the ‘journal’ and the ‘knives’. He wants them deposited in the Britannia’s boiler room. He insinuated that failure to do so would result in unpleasant consequences.”
Anthony exchanged a look with Adonia. The Charybdian woman shook her head firmly. “I know that look. The knives are not a bargaining chip, nor bait, Anthony. They cannot be replaced.”
Captain Hunter make a sour grimace, then sighed. “The same can be said of that journal.” Seeing the problem in front of him, he fell silent into thought.
“What strikes me as odd,” Thomas Hunter said after a moment, “is the sheer dramatic nature of it all. His timing, I must say, is rather good. However, it falls apart when applied to the full levity,” he smirked, “of the situation.”
While the others glanced at each other in confusion, Anthony merely raised an eyebrow at his brother. “Why threaten a captive audience with destruction when you, yourself, sit in the same building you threaten to burn?”
“Precisely,” Thomas confirmed with a nod – which he immediately expressed regret for through a wince of pain. “Oh, that’s rather unpleasant. They want this journal and some knives, yet threaten to rain destruction down upon us if we do not deliver them. Pray tell, where do they think they will find themselves if they must carry out their deed? We are all of us suspended easily a half-mile above the waters of the mid-Atlantic. It’s not as though anyone can swim to shore.” He carefully gestured with his right hand around the room. “Destroy us … this ship … and the objects of their desire slide to the dark depths below.”
“They’re desperate,” Adonia replied, her hair-tendrils slowly writhing while her thoughts churned aloud, “as if on a timetable of some kind, but why? Trying to have all of the prize before the airships reach the Americas? We’ve plenty of days left before then.”
Thomas shook his head, “I couldn’t begin to say, my fair lady. However, with as many days left as we now have – especially taking into consideration the ruined means of propulsion – even a most bumbling thief would find himself with a wealth of chances to obtain the knives, perhaps even the journal. No offense, Anthony, but you never were much for ‘hide and seek’ when we were children.”
Captain Hunter’s cheeks tinged a faint shade of crimson for a moment. “That is beside the point.”
“They are stalling,” Thorias replied cautiously while the words fashioned in his mind. He chuckled as realization dawned. “They cannot destroy much more, as it becomes suicide for themselves. However, such a dramatic ploy does stir us into action, causing us to run about like mad. It’s the Magician’s Choice technique, only on a much larger scale.”
“What are you talking about?” Krumer Whitehorse replied, putting his hands on his hips while frowning at Dr. Llwellyn.
“Simple,” Thorias said, glancing at the first mate, “with a Magician’s Choice, the illusionist asks a spectator to make a choice – an apparent use of free will – among several items. No matter what the spectator chooses, the illusionist ends up with the item he wanted. So here, what do they want? The knives? The journal? Yes, perhaps, but those are not the choices. They don’t control those. Our brigands are presenting the choice of time. Namely, how long will you stall with these valuable items while trapped aboard crippled airships?”
“Which means we have a chance to turn some of this to our favor,” Captain Hunter replied, “if we act quickly.”
“How, pray tell, do we do that?” Adonia asked, an edge of harried concern in her voice. “We are a captive audience to their little ‘performance’.”
“We provide a show of our own,” Anthony replied with a smile. “They must have a means to occasionally observe us but not overhear, otherwise none of this would be happening now. They want the daggers and the journal? Very well, we’ll answer their Magician’s Choice with one of our own.”