It was late morning, and the Britannia hummed with activity. Repairs to the engine progressed with the slow certainty born of a determined work crew. Parts and workers traversed the narrow boarding bridge between the Brass Griffin and the passenger liner. It was a thin lifeline that allowed the transfer of parts and skill to heal the Britannia’s ugly wounds.
Along the rails of both upper and lower promenade, passengers loitered to watch and gossip on the activity. Those of the lower class enjoyed the diversion from the usual routine of rented space in the open air of the lower promenade where they were clustered among fellow passengers. The upper class gossiped as to the reason for the work or how dangerous it might be. Then there were a few who used the presence of the Brass Griffin herself as an excuse to rail against the Britannia’s porters. Their objection was often an imagined slight against their perception of ‘proper comfort’.
Far below the promenade, away from the multitude of eyes, Lt. Greg Mason swung open a watertight door into one of Britannia’s service corridors. He stepped briskly through, and onto the bare floor of the hallway. Other locations aboard the passenger liner had red plush carpeted floors and polished, wood-paneled walls. This corridor was an area for the crew. That meant tan utilitarian walls, metal floors, and bare exposed gear boxes or steam valves for quick access.
Lt. Mason, ever fastidious, had changed into a fresh uniform following the altercation in the purser’s office. The scuffle had damaged his earlier one beyond his personal sense of ‘acceptable wear’. He hesitated just inside the hallway. It was not too long ago he had attempted something similar with the help of Captain Hunter, with less than favorable results. The first officer shook his head and shoved aside the negative thoughts, then continued down the hallway.
Dr. Thomas Hunter appeared a moment later, a look of fierce determination on his face underscored with mild curiosity. The doctor had likewise refreshed his clothes, his own torn during the same scuffle Lt. Mason had suffered. His dark suit made for a stark contrast against the tan walls and the first officer’s all too white uniform.
“Normally, I’d expect a passenger line to have no detention cells. So, when you said you possessed a means to secure our prisoner, I took it to mean a boiler room?” he asked with a brief glance around at the hallway.
The lieutenant gestured towards a pair of sailors at the end of the hallway. They stood stern and quiet on either side of a solid-looking metal door. Each man was equipped with a revolver and an abundance of determination.
“Until now, yes, it did,” the lieutenant explained, “but given the amount of mischief that our boilers have suffered lately, an empty workshop seemed proper, not to mention secure.”
The doctor glanced at the two sailors on guard ahead of them. “A workshop? Secure?” he said in surprise. “I trust it’s an empty one?” His voice echoed with a small note of concern.
The corner of Lt. Mason’s mouth turned up into a smile. “Certainly. I chose one that had been cleared out due to the emergency in the engine room. Plenty of isolated time to consider cooperating. Also, no tools to inspire mischief.”
Dr. Hunter chuckled. “A wise decision. I would hate to lose our guest before we have a chance to question him. If we can get him to elaborate, it’s possible he might shed much needed light upon this entire affair.”
Mason’s crisp walk slowed to a stop in the middle of the hallway. He turned to face Hunter. “Doctor, I failed to stress this with your brother, so I feel I should now. We are not the authorities. Despite how we came about our ‘prisoner’ and what he’s done, the man has a small measure of rights. Rights we should try to respect.”
The doctor clasped his hands behind his back in an academic fashion like a university professor. “Of course. I would venture you would be the closest we have to the ‘authorities’ at our disposal.”
Mason shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I know.”
“Which places myself at best in the role of specialist. Have no fear. I’ll not overstep my bounds.” Dr. Hunter considered the officer. The line of conversation had roused the doctor’s curiosity. “I take it you had a similar arrangement with my brother?”
Mason nodded briefly. “Indeed. When we had our hands on one of the Brotherhood, I thought it best to involve your brother in the whole affair since his ship had been jeopardized, as well.” The lieutenant sighed. “But the interview didn’t go as planned. Durante Marino incapacitated myself and two sailors on guard duty. Fortunately, your brother bought the man to heel. The entire situation was regrettable. I’d rather not make the same mistake again.”
“Understandable.” Dr. Hunter glanced at the door, then around at the hallway and asked, “so what is our plan of action, then?”
Mason pursed his lips. “The name of our ‘guest’ is Seaman Abelard Boyle. A new man brought aboard two ports ago. He had no references, but that wasn’t surprising from one of his station. Boyle said outright that shipping with the Britannia was a step up for him.”
Dr. Hunter frowned while his mind worked over this piece of information. “Of course it was. Given that his actual line of work is thievery, a passenger liner would be a promotion of a sort.”
“Quite,” the lieutenant replied tartly. “Precisely why I sent a reliable man to sift through Seaman Boyle’s kit. He found nothing at all of interest. Not even any tools to adjust that altered Seamstress Spider he applied to the vault lock. There was only a change of clothes, a few personal effects of no consequence, but nothing incriminating.”
The doctor looked surprised. “Oh? That is interesting.”
“What is? The clothes and personal effects?” Mason asked. The lieutenant hesitated a moment. “Or that he had no tools to repair the Seamstress in case of mishap?”
The doctor nodded. “Precisely, he had no tools, nor did he carry provisions for anything that might go wrong. An Autonoma Arachnae Extractor is a complex piece of machinery, despite its quaint nickname of ‘Seamstress Spider’. From what your ship’s doctor mentioned, Boyle’s accomplice was no better equipped. Now, we do know they are working for more than one person, Boyle admitted as much to us.”
“Which may be the clockwork engineer,” Mason added.
“True. Despite our meddling, this entire enterprise was well planned in advance.” Dr. Hunter pursed his lips. “I have a thought. The man so far doesn’t strike me as a ‘criminal mastermind’ so much as a thief hired or terrorized into cooperation.”
“Given his fear of his employers over anything the authorities might do? Yes, I see your point.” the first officer agreed.
Dr. Hunter cleared his throat and continued. “Well then, if hired, I suspect we will make little headway in our interrogation. But think for a moment, what if Boyle was coerced? He could be nothing more than a thief who owes one too many debts? That may be a way to work into his trust? A means to coax from him the true villains that are causing the trouble here before anyone else is hurt?”
“It’s a capital idea. That is, if Boyle can be pried free of the terror that has a death grip on him,” Mason reminded the doctor. “Remember, he is more afraid of ‘them’ and what they might do than anything about us or any ramifications around his actions. All the more reason I was quick to spirit him away to this place. I hoped being buried down in the bowels of the Britannia, he’d feel a measure of safety.”
“He was hidden among the crew.” Dr. Hunter countered. “He might have confederates still on board. They represent a threat, especially if they can move freely about the ship.”
The first officer rubbed his eyes a moment, the fatigue of the past day showing on his face. “I know. There isn’t much I can do about that. I selected the two men standing guard from among those that have served aboard the longest. They have orders to not allow anyone through save for myself, the captain, or any of the other Britannia senior officers. Despite all the invaluable help, even yourself or your brother the captain would not be allowed inside.”
Dr. Hunter started to reply, but a man’s scream from the workshop turned detention cell shattered the conversation like a hammer struck against crystal.
Startled, Lt. Mason and Dr. Hunter sprinted down the hallway towards where Seaman Boyle was held. Ahead of them the two Britannia sailors struggled with the door, which remained stubbornly in place. Boyle screamed again. The choking, horrified cry echoed through the hall, redoubling the men’s efforts. They shoved harder, strain glowing on their faces. Finally, the door relented and opened a few inches. It was not wide enough for a whole person, but granted a view inside the room. No sooner than the door parted from the frame, the sound of metal skittering against metal mingled with Boyle’s screams and flooded the air!