While Captain Hunter ordered his crew to seek out the intruder aboard the Brass Griffin, Moira and Noel had reached the primary engine room of the Britannia. The compartment itself was buried five decks deep in the stern of the great airship. A tall, wide room designed to host the massive boilers – each larger than a two-horse carriage – as well as the numerous array of turbines and backup clockwork generators. The heart of the Britannia was a masterpiece of architectural achievement. Trimmed all around with steel pipes, brass fittings and pressure valves that glittered like a myriad of gems, it was a veritable cathedral of technology.
However, as Moira and Noel approached, it was more akin to a charnal house for broken parts.
Steam interlaced with tendrils of smoke hung lazily in the air surrounded by a vague stench of burnt rubber. Pipes, some had ruptured from an immense pressure while others were dented and in strong need of repair, lined the walls. Only a few retained even a single pressure valve. The Britannia’s four boilers sat on the far side of the room from the entrance, and seemed actually intact, although the water pipes had been ripped from their couplings.
Water had sprayed a significant area of the engine room, giving the air a swampy texture that could almost be tasted. Surrounding the boilers, the nine large, bladeless turbines sat idle. Only two escaped puncture debris during the massive explosion that had shaken the room to its foundation.
Noel stood at the door, eyes wide, staring in amazement at the sight. It was rare that he spent any time in an engine room of any kind, let alone one with this much damage.
“Quel désastre!” the dark-skinned man said in a hushed voice, “only one explosion did this?”
Moira put her hands on her hips and scowled at the destruction. “Oh, I doubt it was just one,” she said, glancing around the room, “but it coulda been. Let me think a moment.”
Following each dent, every abused twist of jagged metal, the blacksmith took in every detail of the room. In her mind, time slowly reversed. Smoke curled like snakes through the air; scattered shards of metal flew across the room to reconnect. Chunks of metal knit, reforged, and reassembled back in their proper place. Gray fumes fled before the change, and steam retreated into the pipes against the wall. In her mind’s eye, the room repaired just enough for the young woman to deduce where the damage had started. Slowly, Moira stepped into the engine room and pointed in two different directions.
“It had to be two,” Moira explained while she stepped amid the debris, “One by the pipe outta the third boiler, and the second by them far turbines off to our right. It’s the only thing that makes any sense here.”
Noel looked around the debris in surprise. He saw none of this. However, he did not have to. His area of expertise lay along different lines. Picking up Moira’s tool bag, Noel took note of a fallen piece of pipe, steam curling from each end. He stepped over it while he made his way into the room.
“Then which do we start with, mon ami?” he asked with another curious look around.
The lady blacksmith and clockwork engineer pursed her lips, considering his question. She idly waved a hand through a waft of steam that coiled about her as if she were greeting a pet.
“Boiler,” she said at last. “Won’t do to have the turbines runnin’ when we’re down at least one boiler to feed the water pressure through ‘em.” She gave the pilot a grin, “Roll yer sleeves, Noel, this’ll be fun!”
With a fervor, Moira set to work. Noel followed her lead.
Not far from the third boiler, Moira found the bilge pump for the room and pointed it out to Noel. The pilot cranked the large steel-gray wheel to drain the remains of the standing water while Moira explored the rip in the metal. The angry gash extended from the first elbow curve of the pipe to a steel joint collar that was still flush against the massive metal container. Dragging over her toolbag, she rolled her sleeves partway up her arms, exposing a series of tattoo-like marks that looked for all the world like a connected set of reddish-brown fern-like patterns drawn along her skin.
Noel paused in his labor on the bilge pump crank to frown at the marks on Moira’s arms. Moira, however, was using a hammer and chisel to knock loose a damaged steel ring from the boiler.
“Do they still hurt?” he asked curiously.
Moira hesitated in mid-swing, then stared down at the marks on her skin. “A bit,” she replied quietly, “More like a tingle. Itch fierce when I get near a generator.” The woman stared off into the middle of the room, watching something unseen. “Almost like,” the words caught in her throat a moment before she continued in a smaller voice, “the lightnin’s lookin’ for me all over again.”
Noel frowned and slowly stood upright.
She usually seems so unshakable, the pilot thought to himself, like a lioness. This is disquieting.
Moira glanced back, giving Noel her more customary smile. “Nothin’ about it though,” she replied, her mask of cheerfulness back in place, “Best get at it. We’ve a room full of work, y’know?”
The pilot watched her a moment longer, then returned the smile briefly, “Oh, of course, mon ami. It will not fix itself, non?”
“Right,” she grinned, then bent back to her work.
Noel resumed his work at the emergency bilge pump, slowly lowering the water until the clockwork gears for the standard pump were exposed. Letting go of the wheel, he stretched, rubbing sore muscles, then walked over to the main system. Kneeling down, he removed pieces of shredded rubber and cloth from the mechanism, then checked for any damage.
With the gears cleaned of debris, the pilot saw to the relief of his back muscles that the clockwork system was undamaged. It had only been jammed. Reaching in, he withdrew a brass crank, pulling it outward until it formed an ‘L’ shape, locking into place with a satisfying click.
“Ah, this is better,” he said to himself, rubbing his calloused hands together.
He gripped the brass lever, then pushed. It fought back, stubbornly refusing to move. Noel pushed harder, putting his back into it, and finally won out. With a rough grinding sound, gears turned, the massive double-helix springs winding with a series of steady metallic clicks. He turned the crank five, ten, fifteen times until it came to an abrupt halt. Noel wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead, then reached down and flipped a small metal toggle switch.
Immediately, the ‘L’ shaped lever receded into the mechanism, and the gears started to turn methodically. Somewhere within the walls, the sound of a pump throbbed like a heartbeat, drawing water out of a dozen grate-covered holes situated around the room near the floor.
Noel put his hands on his hips and smiled at his handiwork. “C’est du gâteau,” he said.
No sooner had he relaxed, than the gears abruptly hammered against each other! The pilot dove for the switch, turning the pump off.
“What be all that racket?” Moira called out from the other side of the boiler.
“A bit of something stuck in the pump, non?” Noel replied waving a dismissive hand in her direction, “Nothing I cannot fix.”
“Give a shout if it gets interestin’,” she replied, then resumed her work with the hammer and chisel.
Kneeling down by the mechanism, Noel pulled out a pocket knife and carefully pried off a metal panel covering the main gear box. Inside, he saw the main gears, interlocked as he would expect. Deeper in, he saw the beginning of one of the main springs that provided the energy for the pendulous motion which powered the pump itself. He frowned. Nothing looked out of place. Then, he saw a glimmer near the lower-most pair of gears, obscured by the water.
The glimmer was a small helical gear, a little over two inches in diameter, that was no larger than the palm of the pilot’s hand. It was mostly brass, with what appeared to be silver tips to the gear-teeth and a ring of silver around the outer edge. Gingerly, he reached in and tugged at his find.
At first, it remained stuck fast. Noel continued to rock it back and forth until, at last, it popped free in his hand. Pulling himself out of the machinery, he replaced the metal cover, then flipped the switch back to the ‘on’ position. Immediately, the pumping sound began again in earnest with no further interruptions.
Holding the gear up to the blue-white light of the arc-lanterns, Noel studied the curious gear closely. The silver band that formed a circle at the outer edge of the gear was a half-inch wide. It was perfectly uniform, and quite possibly inlaid into the body of the gear itself. Gently he rubbed a thumb across the teeth. They were dented slightly, as if well used – a mate to a larger gear.
In the reflection of the light, Noel could make out a series of small scratches that formed concentric rings about the silver. These were only interrupted at one point where the gear had been caught in the bilge pump mechanism. The imprint of gear teeth crushed the silver at that location and scraped across the brass helical gear itself, disfiguring it horribly. Curious, he walked around the boiler to ask Moira about it.
“Moira, what use would a gear with a silver band be?” Noel asked curiously.
The clockwork engineer and Brass Griffin’s blacksmith looked up from something she, herself, was studying. She frowned at the object in Noel’s hand.
“Silver? Not sure, that’s pretty soft for high heat,” she replied. “It’d be somethin’ delicate. Let me see,” she asked, holding out her hand.
Noel handed over the part, then looked over her shoulder at the ruined remains of a small container she had salvaged from the water. It looked no bigger than a foot long on each side. The box was wood, covered in a thin sheet of metal and riveted at the corners. Only a small portion of what might be the cover was still intact; the rest was twisted outward as if struck by a great fist. Wire dangled loose through the hole and terminated at charred ends of copper. Half-melted springs were attached to the inside, suggesting a more complicated mechanism long destroyed by an explosion. The most interesting portion of the device, to Noel anyway, was the presence of a smear of blood on the inside of the container.
“Mon ami, where did you find that?” Noel asked, pointing at the ruined box.
She glanced at Noel, then the box. “I was gonna ask ya that about your gear. I found that box out of sight on the back of this boiler above the waterline. Odd thing about it? Once set, it shouldn’t gone and caused this much damage. I’m just guessin’ but it seems someone opened it up and was tryin’ to make some adjustments after the bomb had been put here.”
“To defuse it?” Noel asked curiously.
Moira shook her head, “No, I’m thinkin’ they were tryin’ to make it worse. Problem is, they didn’t know nearly as much as the person who made it.” She gestured around the room. “One person was trying to make a mess, but not this much. I think someone was coming back to use it for their own reasons.”
Noel looked astonished, “So we have two bombers?”
The engineer nodded, “I need to look at it more, but I’m thinkin’ so.”