Breakfast was served at seven-thirty. The crew and Captain of the brigantine ate their meals together in the aft section of the ship. The captain sat at the head of the table with his wife, Sarah, on his left, with their daughter, Sophia, balanced on her knee.
“I’m glad to see she has her appetite back,” Briggs said to his wife. He grinned at his little girl as she accepted a mouthful of food.
“All this rolling to-and-fro,” Sarah said. “It was bound to upset the little one’s stomach sooner or later.”
Benjamin shoveled another portion of scrambled eggs into his mouth as he shook his head. “I thought she’d be born with sea legs. There’s so much salt in my veins, it’s a wonder she took ill at all.”
“You’ll have her up and reeving the rigging soon enough, captain,” Edward Head said, and then laughed at the image of the little girl running around in the sails.
“She’ll do no such thing!” Sarah looked at her husband. “It’s bad enough her father spends his time roaming the seven seas. Did you know he feels more at peace on a ship than on land with his wife and family?”
Benjamin looked suitably abashed as his face touched off a light pink to his cheeks. Sarah had roused him on more occasions than he cared to remember about giving up his sea faring life to settle down like a normal family. He’d actually given it some thought since his daughter had been born.
“It’s the only life I’ve ever known,” Benjamin said. “The sea has been my home for more years than I can count. What else do I know?”
Volkert Lorenson looked up from his breakfast and offered the captain his own insight: “It is no life for a married man with children, captain.”
“I thank you for your wisdom, Mr. Lorenson,” Briggs said, “but isn’t near time you checked on the cargo this morning?”
Volkert nodded once. “Yes, my captain.” He wiped his plate clean with the last piece of bread before standing. “I will go and attend to my duties at once.” He nodded his head to Sarah before departing on his rounds.
“That was mean of you, Benjamin,” Sarah said in a soft voice to her husband. “Just because he pointed out the plain to see.”
“Every man has his chores, my dear,” Benjamin replied as he pushed the finished plate aside. “Just like young Edward will soon clean the pots from this morning’s breakfast.” He took a swallow from his coffee before pointing at Andrew at the other end of the table. “And, Mr. Gilling there will soon find himself aloft in the rigging, learning his way under the watchful eye of Mr. Richardson.”
“That is the way of things at sea. As they are in all parts of life,” Gotlieb Gonderschall said to Sarah, hardly able to look her in the eyes across the table. “Every man has his work that must be done, Mrs. Briggs.”
Sarah smiled at the young sailor. He didn’t look old enough to shave yet alone understand the wisdom of his words. “I understand,” she said. “My husband has been master of many ships. I realize the importance of duty.”
“Just like our new President, Ulysses S. Grant, up there in Washington,” Edward said as he gathered up the empty plates from the table. “His duty is looking after a whole nation. Now there’s a job I wouldn’t want.”
“You would not like to be President of your own country?” Gotlieb asked the ship’s cook as he stirred his coffee with a large hand. The small man’s hawkish looks intensified as he furrowed his brow. “I would think it would be the highest honor for any American.”
Edward grinned and shook his head. “Not for all the rum in the world!”
“What about the alcohol in the barrels we carry below?” Gotlieb pointed at his feet and then laughed.
“Just pull one to your mouth and chug-a-lug,” Andrew Gilling said as he pantomimed lifting a heavy barrel full of alcohol to his lips.
“Devil’s water!” Briggs shook his fist as he stood abruptly. “There’ll be no talk of that evil brew on my ship.” He glared at the three sailors who tried to avoid their captain’s eye. “It’s a curse that I must carry that wretched concoction as cargo aboard my vessel.” Briggs slammed his fist into his palm. “I will not allow any fool to get the notion of breaking into a barrel to sample her wares.”
“Captain, we would never—”
Briggs raised his hand and cut off Edward. “I run a tight ship and expect only the best from my crew. In return, I shall do my utmost to deliver her and my cargo to port.” He made the sign of the cross on his chest. “God willing,” he added.
The room was filled with tension as the captain sat back down. Only the sound of Sophia’s happy chuckles floated through the strained atmosphere as Benjamin continued to glare at the sailors.
“I think I shall take our daughter up on deck,” Sarah said breaking the silence. She picked up Sophia and wiped smears of butter from around her mouth with a finger. “For the air in here in not conducive to her health.” Sarah touched Benjamin on the shoulder as she passed, giving him a gentle squeeze as she took their daughter up into the fresh autumn air.
“I should be about my chores, too,” Edward said. He headed for the galley with his arm loaded down with dirty plates.
Briggs took up his coffee and drank the remains. He stood to take his leave when Volkert came striding into the cabin with a bewildered expression on his face.
“There is something alive below deck, captain!” Volkert pointed at their feet as he came up to Briggs. Scratching at his thick blond hair, he added: “There’s something calling like a bird in the hold, but it doesn’t sound like any creature I have ever heard. It is eerie.”
“What are you saying?” Briggs placed his cup down.
“Do you have birds in America that nest in ships?” Volkert asked.
Benjamin shrugged. “Possibly, although I’ve have never seen such a thing.”
“Albatross and gulls have been known to follow a ship for days,” Andrew said from the table. He tapped his empty pipe against the side of the chair before he stood.
“No.” Volkert shook his head. “I have seen those things, and I know the sound those birds make.” He pointed at his feet again. “Down there it is different. It is the strangest of sounds. You must come and hear for yourselves.”
“Very well, Mr. Lorenson,” Briggs said. “You lead the way and Mr. Gilling and I will follow.” He turned to Gotlieb. “Inform Mr. Richards that I will be there momentarily to relieve him from his watch. But first I want to see to our mysterious visitor.”
“Aye, captain,” Gotlieb said as he touched his hand to his temple.
Briggs turned to the other two. “Now, let’s go and see what this is all about.”
The air reeked of evil spirits. Benjamin’s nose twitched as he descended the ladder into the hold following only a few rungs behind Volkert. Andrew stood above on the swaying deck, waiting for the captain and other sailor to reach the bottom before he too could climb down to join them.
Forbidding the men the use of torches or lamps in fear of catastrophe from the rising fumes of his cargo, Captain Briggs found the gloom of the hold unsettling as he and Volkert waited for Andrew to make his way down the ladder. When the young sailor stood beside them in the semi-darkness, Volkert motioned for them to follow as he walked off between the high isles of stacked wooden barrels filled with grain alcohol.
The large barrels were held in place by stiff rope, strapped in loops around each container, allowing them to be stacked into tall rows packed tightly into the brigantine’s belly. With seventeen hundred barrels crammed below deck, there was little space for the men, forcing them to walk in single file.
“I heard the noise from this direction,” Volkert said as he took them towards the furthest corner of the hold.
Sure enough, Briggs and Andrew became aware of a peculiar sound: a noise that sounded exactly like the chirp of a small bird. Except the constant chip chip chip that repeated itself over and over, was nothing like anything either Briggs or Andrew had heard before. To both their ears it sounded unnatural.
“That noise wasn’t here last night,” Andrew said as he brought up the rear. “I checked the hold myself before turning in, and it was as quiet as a grave down here.”
“It sounds like it’s coming from there.” Volkert pointed at a barrel at the top of one of the rows. The three men stopped.
“It does, doesn’t it?” Benjamin squeezed past Volkert and looked up at the barrel as the chip chip chip continued its never-ending call. It grew louder the closer he leaned his head towards the row.
“Shall I take a closer look, captain?” Andrew said as he reached up and grabbed hold of the thick cord of rope around the closest barrel. Without waiting for Benjamin’s consent, he pulled himself up the side of the barrels and lay on his belly along the top row. His head was only inches from the hold’s ceiling. “I can wriggle my way to the barrel,” he said, then started forward using his arms to drag his body.
“Don’t fall off, Mr. Gilling.” Benjamin watched the young man’s swift progress. “I can only deal with one problem at a time, thank you.”
Andrew shook his head. “I won’t, captain, and besides,” he looked down at them and smiled, “I’m here now, anyway.” He reached the end of the row and stopped one short of the barrel he intended to open. Reaching back along his body, Andrew felt for the knife at his side before he drew it up next to his face and started prizing loose the lid of the sealed barrel. Within moments he stared down at the contents of the container.
“Well, what have you found?” Volkert stood on his tip-toes and tried to see what Andrew had suddenly started smiling at.
Andrew reached into the barrel and threw a bundle down for Volkert to catch.
The large sailor looked at the cloth in his hands. “A bundle of rags?” He turned to the captain and offered it out for inspection.
Briggs took the fabric and lifted it up. The cloth unrolled into the shape of a woman’s pretty pleated cotton skirt. In the gloom, Benjamin could still see it was a beautiful lilac color with small black flowers printed from the waist down.
“It’s not your color or size, captain,” Andrew said but quickly dropped his grin when Benjamin glared at him.
“What else is there, Mr. Gilling?” Briggs folded the dress over his arm.
Andrew reached inside again and threw another bundle down to Volkert.
The blond man lifted it up and then whistled. “Very lovely indeed,” he said as he admired the silk waistcoat lined with polished brass buttons. “A gentleman’s fancy vest if I ever did see one.”
“There’s something else in here, captain.” Andrew reached inside the barrel and drew out the source of the chirping sound.
“What in the name of our Lord is that?” Briggs motioned for Andrew to throw him the apple shaped object. When he caught it, he was amazed at how light the contraption seemed. Turning the bronze-colored metallic object over in his rough hands, Benjamin felt the cold, smooth surface with his fingers.
“Is it a broken music box, captain?” Volkert peered over Benjamin’s shoulder.
“I have no idea, but I believe Mr. Richardson may have a better understanding.” Briggs waved for Andrew to climb down and join them. “This is all very curious, indeed. Come with me, gentleman.” Benjamin slipped the contraption into his coat pocket. He turned towards the ladder and headed back out of the hold, intent on showing his first mate the metallic device and the clothing discovered among the cargo.
“Never seen anything like it before,” Albert said as he handed the chirping apple back to Briggs. “I’ve seen that Morse code device, and the steam engine, but nothing that comes close to the workmanship of that.”
The Captain and his first mate stood at the helm. Albert still had one hand on the wheel as they talked about the discovery.
“What does it all mean, Benjamin,” Sarah said. She had walked over after he had come up on deck with Volkert and Andrew in tow. She still held Sophia in her arm who was trying to pull at the blond locks of Volkert’s hair.
“I don’t know, my dear.” He handed her the woman’s dress and the gentleman’s vest. “They’re not new.” Benjamin pointed at a red-brown patch near one of the brass buttons. “There’s a stain on the silk and the dress has the scent of a woman’s perfume about it.”
“Why would anyone hide that aboard?” Albert said as he pointed at the bronze apple in the captain’s hand, “along with some used clothing. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Can you not make that constant chirping stop?” Volkert said. He rubbed his temples with his fingers. “It is making my head throb from that evil sound.”
“It does sound like a bird’s chirping, though,” Andrew said at Volkert’s side. He pulled out his pipe and started packing it with a wad of tobacco from a small brown pouch.
“That it does,” Briggs nodded. He rolled the cold object around in his hands as an unsettling sense of ill fortune crept its way through him. He looked up into the grey bags of clouds rolling past, saying a silent prayer to the Lord for guidance in the strange circumstance they suddenly found themselves within.
“What do we do now, captain?” Gotlieb said.
Briggs looked at his wife and group of sailors who relied on his guidance and experience to see them safely to port. He dropped the apple into his pocket as he spoke: “Maintain our course to Genoa. As far as I see it nothing has really changed. With God’s good graces, we shall make landfall on time. We passed St Mary’s Island yesterday, and we’ve a good wind at our backs.” He moved to the helm and took the wheel from Albert. “Have faith in our Lord, gentlemen, for he shall see us safely to port.”
Sarah wrapped her free arm around his side as the rest of the crew departed to attend to their duties. “Do you really think everything will be alright?” she said.
Briggs nodded. “I cannot see what harm a chirping metal contraption and some used clothing can do to us.” He squeezed his wife closer. “The only question is, who put them onboard in New York, and to what ends?”
“Old clothes and a chirping apple… ” Sarah frowned then shook her head. Her dark hair lifted and caught in the breeze, blowing backwards in a long tail across her shoulder. Sophia giggled on Sarah’s other arm, waving her tiny fingers at the long strands of moving hair. “What strange things to find among the cargo. Do you think there’s anything else hidden in the rest of the barrels?” she asked her husband.
Briggs didn’t answer straight away. He looked down at the compass and shifted the wheel half a turn to the left before he answered: “That is a question I hadn’t thought upon. I believe you may have it right, my dear. There is a good possibility we carry more than the devil’s brew in my hold.”
“I don’t like it, Benjamin. Someone came onboard and stowed those things away without your knowledge.”
Briggs glanced down at the dress and waistcoat where Sarah had hung them over a chest containing spare cloth for the sails.
“I don’t think they actually came onboard.” Benjamin looked at his wife and gave her a reassuring smile. “More likely they placed them in the container while it was on the dock, or even earlier at the warehouse.” He waved to his first mate who was just starting to climb the forward mast. “Mr. Richardson!”
Albert hurried over to his captain.
“Albert, I want you to take Arian Martens and Boy Lorenson down into the hold to check the shipment over.”
“Something wrong, captain?” Albert’s brown creased with concern.
“I’m not sure yet. I want you to take the men below and check each barrel. I know it will be time consuming, but we must make sure there is nothing else hidden among our cargo.”
Albert raised his eyebrows. “You think there might be more things like that apple?”
“I have no idea. Only the Lord knows,” Benjamin said.
Albert nodded his head in agreement. “And there’s only one way for us mortals to find out.”
“I suggest tapping each barrel,” Briggs said. “If it’s not full of that vile liquid, it should make a different sound.”
“It’s going to take a while with that many barrels, captain.” Albert waved to Boy Lorenson to join them.
“Open the other cargo hatch, too,” Briggs said to his first mate. “It will offer more light to make your progress swifter.”
Albert held up a hand to stall Boy Lorenson’s question as the young sailor stopped in front of the captain and first mate. “We’ll get started straight away,” Albert said. “I’ll give you my report as soon as it’s done.”
“Very good, Mr. Richardson.” Briggs gave a curt nod, dismissing his crewmen. He knew he could rely on Albert to do a thorough job.
Benjamin watched as they moved to the forward hatch and Albert called to Arian Martens. The old German sailor went over to help, bending his knees as he grabbed the sides of the hatch heaving it free. He dropped it on the deck while Boy Lorenson disappeared into the hold below.
“Do you think they’ll find anything?” Sarah asked.
Benjamin shrugged. “I hope not. Yet I have this strange feeling …”
Sarah squeezed his arm. “What is it, Benjamin?”
Briggs looked at his calloused hands. “How does that saying go?” He waved his thumb in the air. “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” He felt Sarah shake at his side as he returned his hand to the wheel and waited for his first mate to bring him news.
Briggs had his answer an hour later. It didn’t come from Albert or his crew. It came from the sky.
Sarah had taken Sophia to their cabin for her morning nap. Gotlieb had also gone below to attend to his duties. Benjamin stood at the helm while Andrew and Volkert weaved their way back and forth through the mast’s rigging, tightening or adjusting the ropes, looking for tears in the sails that would need repairing.
A loud thunder-clap boomed directly overhead, throwing Briggs to the deck with the force of a charging bull. He cried out in shock as he covered his head with his arms. Through his ringing ears, he heard Andrew shouting Volkert’s name over and over.
Shaking his head as if to clear a mist, Benjamin grabbed the wheel and hauled himself upright on trembling legs. The taste of copper soured his tongue as he looked up into the rigging as Andrew continued to call the other sailor’s name.
Benjamin spotted Andrew easily enough. The young man had climbed into the ships ‘crows nest’, the observation platform near the top of the mast and was stretched out as far as he could lean, looking starboard into the swelling dark water.
“Report, Mr. Gilling!”
“Man overboard, captain!” Andrew answered without taking his eyes from the place Volkert had gone in.
Benjamin prepared to drop sail and launch the ship’s small oared yawl to search for the German sailor, but a disc of brilliant light, the size of the brigantine, popped into life twenty feet above the ship’s bow making Briggs look upwards. The grey day turned a glowing white in an instant.
The light burnt into the back of Benjamin’s eyes, making him squint to avoid being blinded. He recited the Lords Prayer as he threw up an arm to shield his face. The dark curls on his head stood upright, and he could feel a tingling sensation through his body -- as if thousands of ants crawled on his skin -- as he tried to peer upwards into the purest light he’d ever seen in his life. The sheer force of the glow made him turn away.
Benjamin headed forward, still holding his arm up against the glare, making his way toward the forward mast, stumbling in the white haze until he grabbed the rope webbing of the ladder. Pausing for a moment to gather his wits, Briggs prepared to climb aloft when Albert emerged from the cargo hold.
“Captain! What the hell is going on?”
Benjamin let go of the ladder and made his way towards the sailor. Unable to see his way clearly due to the pain in his eyes, he nearly tripped several times as he went. He could feel the crawling sensation nagging at his skin as he reached Albert and helped his first mate emerge from the hold.
Albert tried to peer upwards, but the disc, as bright as the sun, forced him to look away blinking the tears from his eyes. “Jesus wept,” he said as he grabbed hold of Benjamin’s coat. “What in God’s name is that?”
Briggs shook his head. He had no answers for his first mate. “Come with me,” he said, and took Albert’s arm in his and headed back toward the mast, the two of them shuffling blindly like old men cast in the blazing nimbus that showered the ship.
Years at sea allowed both men to climb the ladder with ease, and within moments they joined Andrew in the cramped crows-nest, where the young sailor huddled in a kneeling position with his hands wrapped around his head against the light.
“Stand up, Mr. Gilling!” Briggs said in his most imposing voice. “Whatever is happening here, a man should face it standing upright, not curled in the corner like a shrinking flower.”
That got the young man on his feet. Andrew clung to the rail of the crows-nest as he faced his captain. He shielded his face with his arm so he was able to look at Briggs. He nodded once to show he was alright then asked in almost a whisper: “What’s going on, captain? That thunder knocked Volkert clear into the water.” He looked over the side again at the sea which now sparkled by the disc that reflected on its surface.
“I don’t know, lad,” Briggs said. He scanned the water with a seasoned eye, but saw nothing of the blond sailor lost overboard. He made a cross on his chest and offered up a prayer for Volkert’s swift entry into heaven.
“This is the strangest—” Albert began, but was cut off mid sentence by a loud roar -- like the report from a canon firing -- coming from the direction of the disc. The three sailors squinted and looked upwards.
A whistle began to blow. It shrieked from the disc, loud enough to force the men to grab at their ears. It grew in pitch, seeming to push physically down on them, forcing Briggs and the others to their knees. The wooden boards of the observation deck began to shake and rattle as the piercing noise charged the air. The sound vibrated faster and faster through the skulls of the terrified sailors, until it reached a level that no man could stand. They lost consciousness and fell one after onto the platform while the whistle continued to blow.
Benjamin woke with the taste of blood in his mouth. He sat up and realized he must have bitten into the side of his cheek. Rubbing a hand through his hair as he blinked, Benjamin tried to stand. He felt weak and groaned with the effort, but managed to pull himself upright with the help of the railing. Albert moaned at his feet. Andrew was slumped by the first mate’s side with his arm draped over Albert’s back. Both men appeared to be breathing, but unconscious.
Briggs looked up at the grey sullen sky. There was no sign of the bright disc that had hung suspended above the ship moments earlier. The whistle, too, had stopped, leaving only familiar sounds of the creaking of the ship and the rolling crash of waves parting across the brigantine’s bow -- and the constant muffled chirping coming from the apple in his pocket. There was nothing to show of the events that had just occurred until Benjamin turned his sweeping gaze downwards. That’s when he saw the black dome perched on the bow like a giant beetle.
He didn’t dare approach too close, but stood a good ten feet distance and stared half in horror and half in bewilderment at the black shape.
Benjamin judged the dome to be twenty foot in width and at least twenty five in height. Its black surface was dull and seamless. It also appeared to be fastened to the solid wooden railings from both sides of the bow. Thick metal rods that protruded from its flat belly had sunk deep into the timber, fixing the hulking shape steadfastly to the ship.
“God in heaven.” Benjamin touched the small cross that lay under his shirt as he slowly backed away. It gave him a chill down his back as a thought floated into his mind: could this be one of the Devil’s creation he was looking at? That would explain the fantastic light in the sky and the appearance of the black shape on his ship.
“Ah shit!” a voice said behind Benjamin.
Briggs spun and threw up his arms as he gasped in shock. A demon stood before him. It was dressed from neck to toe in a glittering silver skin and wore the guise of a man in his twenties. Tall with its black hair tied back in a long pony tail, the face was almost handsome if the nose hadn’t been so big and the large brown eyes set a little too far apart.
“Ah shit!” It said again as it looked at Benjamin with a truly human expression of annoyance. It dropped the ship’s sextant onto the deck with a clank and pointed an accusing finger at Briggs. “What the hell are you doing awake?” It had the dress and waistcoat from the hold draped across its other arm.
“Get ye behind me, Satan.” Benjamin reached into his shirt and pulled out his cross, holding it up like a shield as he took a step backwards closer to the dome.
The demon laughed. It reached into a slit near its hip and drew out a small disc which it studied briefly. “You shouldn’t be awake for another twenty minutes,” It told him.
“The Lord is my Sheppard, I shall not want—”
“Give it a rest,” the Demon said. “I’m not the devil.” It grinned then added: “But in my business people have called me worse.”
“Lord of lies! Get ye hence!” Benjamin held his cross in a shaking hand but managed to sound defiant even to his own ears.
The demon sighed and looked at the disc again. “Okay, I haven’t got that much time left, so if you can just hand over my location beacon it will speed things up tremendously. Opening the wormhole sent alarms ringing throughout the sector. Those Time Corp goons will be all over the grid scanning for my location.” It looked up briefly at the grey sky. “I’ve got about fourteen minutes left to load what I came for, so be a good fellow and hand it over, will you?” It looked at Benjamin and raised a dark eyebrow.
Briggs stared at the man-creature as it babbled on in that mild, friendly tone: Worm’s holes? Alarms? Time Corp goops? The words made no sense.
The demon clicked its fingers and pointed at Benjamin’s pocket. “I know you have it; I can hear it beeping in there.”
Benjamin touched the apple through the coat.
“Come on, hand it over.” The demon waved its hand impatiently.
Briggs slid his hand into his pocket and felt the cold metal surface of the contraption against his fingers. The demon had come for its magic box. Benjamin looked at the dress and waistcoat slung casually over the creature’s arm and wondered why a spawn of Satan would need a dress and a man’s smart vest in the fiery pits of Hell.
“Prehistorics,” the demon said and shook its head. “Don’t just stand there gawking at me. Give me back my property.”
“What did you do you do to my ship and crew, Demon?” Benjamin said as he removed his hand from the pocket and looked at the chirping apple. “For this? And those?” He pointed at the garments the creature had taken.
The demon sighed and rolled its eyes with impatience. Dropping the bundle onto the deck next to the sextant, it struck its hands on hips and gave Benjamin a withering look. “Look, captain, I’d love to stop and chat but time is really of the essence in more ways than you can imagine.”
“I’ll give you nothing until you answer me,” Benjamin said as he drew himself a little taller. He had no idea what the creature was capable of, but he trusted in God to keep him safe.
“It was just a sonic blast of energy, nothing harmful,” the demon said. “Set to a certain frequency, it was supposed to knock you and your crew out for half an hour.” It smiled at Benjamin. “No one’s hurt. The crew will have a nasty headache for a day or so, that’s all.”
“Liar!” Briggs clenched his other hand into a fist. “Death follows wherever you tread, Demon.” Benjamin pointed to the starboard rail. “I’ve lost one soul already since your manifestation!”
The sm ile dropped from the demon’s mouth. “Sorry, that wasn’t supposed to have happened. I’m not a murderer, captain. I’m more what your call an acquirer of rare antiquities.”
“Spawn of Hell!” Briggs clenched the cross in his hand again and thrust it out towards the demon’s face.
“That’s getting really dull, captain.” The demon waved a dismissive hand. “Isn’t that only supposed to work on vampires, anyway?”
Benjamin bared his teeth. “Get your foulness off my ship!” He held the apple up in the other hand. “Or I shall cast this over the side and be done with it.”
“No!” The demon raised its hands and took a step backwards. “Don’t do that! I’m sure we can come to some sort of agreement.”
“I’ll make no pact with a demon.”
“I keep telling you I’m not a demon, captain.”
“I would expect you to say that.” Briggs took a step sideways, closer to the rail.
“Please stop!” The desperation in the creature’s voice was very human like, and it wrung its hands together as it glanced from Benjamin’s face to the apple and back. “That’s a very expensive piece of hardware, captain. It cost me a lot of money. There’s only a dozen been made so far and that’s the only one that Time Corp doesn’t have in its grubby hands.”
Benjamin looked at the apple and then returned his stare to the demon. “What are you doing on my ship?”
A slight flush of red painted the creature’s pale cheeks as it pointed at the bundle of clothes. “That’s President Ulysses. S. Grant’s vest and Mrs. Grant’s dress. They were wearing them on the night of his swearing-in ceremony in Washington. I grabbed them from his hotel suite after they went to bed.”
“You stole the President of the United States waistcoat? And Mrs. Grant’s dress?”
The creature nodded its head. “You bet. I’ve already got a buyer lined up who can pay me an insane amount of money to add those to his collection of pre-twentieth century clothes.”
“What’s so special about someone’s used clothing, even if they do belong to the President?”
“What’s so special?” The creature whistled as it scratched its cheek. “Those things are worth more than you could ever imagine. Authentic pieces pre-owned by a great leader like Grant are sentimental items. Private collectors are willing to hand over almost anything to add them to their collection.”
“And my sextant?” Benjamin pointed at the brass instrument that lay on its side beside the clothes. “Is someone willing to pay insane amounts of money for a simple device that allows me to navigate my way to and from port?
A smile turned up the corners of the creature’s mouth. “You better believe it, captain. Any original artifact -- especially one in prime condition -- dated before the nineteenth century always goes for a monstrous price.” It winked at Benjamin. “I try to get the things my customers most desperately want. It’s all about profit in my line of business, captain.”
“I believe you are a man after all,” Benjamin said.
“That’s what I’ve been saying all along.”
“A thief and definitely a human one at that.” A sour look passed over Benjamin’s face. “And I shall add the death of my crewman, Volkert Lorenson, to your list of crimes. I hope God sends you to straight to the depths of hell when your wretched soul stands before Him on judgment day.” Benjamin returned his cross to its place of rest under his shirt.
“I believe you might be right, captain,” the man nodded. “But not today!” He smiled as he spoke but looked up briefly at the grey bags of clouds shuttling over the ship. “Unless I’m unlucky enough to be here when those Time Corp thugs turn up.”
“What name do you go by, thief?” Briggs asked the young man.
“William will do for now.”
“Well, William, I ask you again why you are on my ship. I know you came for those.” Benjamin pointed at the clothes. “But why were they on my ship in the first place?”
William shrugged. “You may as well know,’ he said. “I’ve already broken so many local laws; why not add a few federal ones to the soup.”
“I have no idea what laws you have violated, although I am sure they are many, but I demand an answer to my question.” Brigg folded his arms across his chest.
William looked at the disc in his hand before he answered: “Basically, it’s all about time travel. About a hundred years ago, some smart guys figured out a way to open up these things called a wormhole.”
“Worm’s holes?” Benjamin asked, not understanding the connection with the small creatures in the soil.
“No, not holes, just one hole. And it’s just a singular worm, too.” William grinned at Benjamin’s confusion. “It’s just a name, captain. That’s what they call the tunnel that allows people from my century to travel backwards in time.
“That was the disc in the sky?” Benjamin said. “That bright light like the sun. Was this your wormhole?”
“Partly,” William nodded. “But from what I understand, when they started out the hole wasn’t that structurally sound. In the early days it had a habit of collapsing just as the ship,” he pointed at the dark sphere perched on the bow, “like my little friend there passed inside. It would mash the people inside flat in an instant.” He smacked his hands together with a clap. “So they had to figure out a way to stabilize the hole and keep it large enough for a craft to travel safely through.”
“Fantastic,” Benjamin said. “You say you are from the future?”
“You bet. Twenty-third century is my home.”
“I’m sorry to see that the Lord’s commandments are still being broken. I would have hoped man would have become more pious in a future time.”
“Thall shall not steal,” William said. “That’s the one you mean, isn’t it?”
Benjamin’s eyes widened. “I am surprised a man of your character knows any of the Ten Commandments.”
William shrugged. “Religion isn’t completely dead in my century, captain. It’s not practiced as much as it was, but don’t worry, it’s still alive and kicking back home.”
“I am glad to hear such news.” Benjamin touched the cross through his shirt. “There is always hope for man when he gives himself over to God’s words.”
William waved his hand. “Okay, what ever gets you through the night, captain. Anyway, the hole couldn’t be kept open for any length of time.”
“They obviously discovered a way.”
“You bet. Ghost radiation they call it. It’s an energy field that keeps everything stable inside the tunnel. Like a protective capsule, it stops everything collapsing around your ears. When it’s activated, it becomes a protective field of bright light surrounding the object entering the wormhole. That was your light in the sky.”
“You still haven’t answered why you had to stow those things aboard my vessel.”
“I’m coming to that.” William glanced at the disc in his hand. “We still have a while left, captain.” He slipped the small instrument into his pocket before he continued: “When the scientists realized they could stabilize a hole and travel back in time, they founded Time Corp Industries. It was a gold mine for them.”
“Incredible,” Benjamin said
“You bet,” William agreed. “They organized tours. Strictly monitored of course, but they started taking paying customers back to different points in our world’s timeline. They were very subtle trips at first: minimum contact with the natives, strictly distant observation of people and places. That was in the beginning. Later on things relaxed a great deal and people wanted more and more for their money. Finally the tourists were going back dressed in full period costumes and walking the streets and mixing in with the natives.”
“Why have I never read about strange lights in the sky and people like you appearing where they don’t belong?”
William compressed his lips with a thin smile. “Time Corp is very professional, captain. Locations are specifically chosen away from major populations, and normally pass-through is initiated at midday when it’s bright and sunny.”
“Yet, you did not appear in such a manner.”
“No, not this time. I have a friend who works for Time Corp. He created the unscheduled wormhole for me to come and collect the clothes. I’m giving him fifteen percent of the cut when I unload the artifacts to my customers.” William’s thin smile broadened into a cheery grin. “This trip will be worth it, though. Even with that super expensive Time Corp vacation I had earlier to Washington.”
Benjamin nodded. “That is when you had opportunity to relieve President Grant’s waistcoat and Mrs. Grant’s dress.”
“That’s right, captain,” William said. “There was a problem on that trip, though. Time Corp had implemented a new policy. Would you believe they started running a customs bureau back home? Just because a few of us more enterprising individuals were procuring a few items worth a great deal of money.” He shook his head. “They were searching people when they returned and confiscating anything they found. I had to think on my feet about where to hide the goods until I could come back later and collect them.”
“That is when you saw my ship?”
William nodded. “Our meeting point before departure was the docks. While I was waiting for the others to turn up, I hid the dress and waistcoat in one of the barrels due to be loaded onto your ship, and stashed that,” he pointed at the device in Benjamin’s hand, “to give me a fix on your vessel wherever you traveled.”
“And now you have returned to collect your booty,” Benjamin said, and then sighed. “Volkert died so you could line your pockets with gold. I hope you remember his name.”
“I am sorry about that, captain,” William said. “It was an accident. I didn’t plan to hurt anyone.”
“Each act damns your soul ever more.”
“I’m not a religious man, captain. I don’t believe in God.”
For the first time since the other man’s arrival, Benjamin smiled. “That is of no consequence, William, for he will be real enough when you stand trembling before Him on judgment day.”
“We’ll see, captain.” William bent and retrieved the bundle and sextant from the deck. “Now you know why I’m here, I would really appreciate it if you could hand over my location beacon so we can be on our way.”
“Our way? I have no plans on leaving my family or vessel.”
“I’m sorry to break it to you, captain, but you really don’t have a choice. Federal laws are very clear on the matter. When I landed and found you awake, we broke Toben's law of contact by speaking to each other.”
Benjamin shook his head and pointed to the black craft affixed to his ship’s bow. “Take what you have come for and depart. I shall remember this remarkable meeting with awe, but you have my word as captain and a gentleman I shall utter no word of your presence here today.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” William said, and plucked the transmitter from Benjamin’s hand before he could react. “When those Time Corp goons get here and find you awake.” He made a slicing motion across his neck with a finger.
“They would kill me?” Benjamin touched his cross. “Why would they murder me? What crime have I committed?”
“Federal law prohibits any disclosure of wormhole technology to any previous inhabitant on the time line.”
“They will kill me simply because I have seen and know of your wormhole?”
“You bet. That’s dangerous information as far as Time Corp and the government sees it. I’m sorry, captain, but the only way for you to live is to come with me when I depart.”
“I cannot leave my wife and daughter behind. And the crew… what would become of my crew without their captain? And what of my young son back home?”
“If you want to live it’s the only way.”
Benjamin refused to accept his fate. “Nonsense, William. A man always has more than one option open to him. You must look at the problem from more than one perspective.”
William shrugged. “What did you have in mind?”
“I will talk to these fellows when they arrive,” Benjamin said. “Make them see reason. I will give them my word I shall not repeat what I have seen and heard here today.”
William sighed and shook his head. “No good, captain. When they get here they won’t be interested in having a chat with you. As far as they see it, you’re a man with dangerous information that can’t be allowed to repeat what you’ve seen.”
“But, my word is my honor.”
“I’m sure it is, but that won’t wash with them. The only chance anyone has on this ship is to be either unconscious or gone when they arrive. So you have to go with me, captain.”
“If I must,” Benjamin said, “then I will go only if we take Sarah, Sophia, and the crew with us.”
“Are you crazy? I can’t get a ship load of prehistorics unloaded back home without a bunch of people noticing.”
“That is the only way I shall leave this ship.”
“No deal, captain.” William shook his head as he walked towards the black sphere.
Benjamin followed after him. “Look here, William. I did not invite this intrusion on my vessel and crew. As far as I see it, we are the innocents in your game of greed.”
“Thanks for the kind words, captain,” William said. He dropped the bundle, searched in his suit, and produced a white rectangle the size and shape of a playing card which he slapped against the side of the dark craft.
A vertical line of light split the dull surface. It raced from the top to the bottom before splitting into two horizontal lines that shot off at right angles. The light ran up to the top again and back along to the starting point forming the outline of a door.
William pushed on the metal and the piece in the centre slid to the side, disappearing into a groove on the ship’s shell. He picked up the bundle and placed it gently inside the hatch.
“Look, captain,” William said as he turned to Benjamin. “I really can see where you’re coming from, but there’s no way I can afford to bribe that many people to look the other way.” He went to touch Benjamin’s arm but hesitated and drew back. “My pass-through point is in an old part of the facility building at Time Corp that isn’t used anymore. I can probably get you past security and outside, but if all of us were piled into my ship when we land…” He shrugged and spread his hands.
“I thought you were a man of substance, rolling in cash, or was that all bluster and bluff?”
“Oh, I have money, captain,” William nodded. “Plenty in fact, but bribing that many guards, security personnel, and anyone else that saw us traipsing through the place would lower my profit on this trip right into the red zone.”
“So it all comes down to money.”
“You bet, captain. A man’s got to live.”
“A man also has to live with his conscience, too.”
“I sleep okay at night, captain.”
“What if I can think of a way to increase your profit even with us added into the equation?”
William grinned. He rubbed his hands together. “If you can do that, captain, then it’s a deal.”
Benjamin turned his head and measured up the black sphere. “I believe not only would this contraption’s belly be large enough to carry all of us, there would be room to add the ship’s yawl inside and a few other things as well.”
“Sorry, captain, you got me there.” William tugged on the end of his ponytail. “What’s a yawl? And what things did you have in mind?”
“Come with me and I shall show you,” Benjamin said and walked back towards the helm.
“They don’t make things like they used too,” William said as he strained under the rope attached to the brigantine’s small rowing boat. “This thing is heavy.”
“Sturdy,” Benjamin agreed. “You need to trust something that is made of solid craftsmanship.” He had hold of the rope, too, as the two of them heaved and puffed and dragged the wooden boat inside William’s ship.
“That’s more exercise than I’ve had in a year,” William said as he wiped the coat of sweat from his dark eyebrows. “But you’re right, captain. This here boat will fetch a remarkable amount and will go along way in paying back what this trip is going to cost me.”
“Work is good for the soul, William.”
“Well I don’t know about that, but with your ship’s papers and even the clothes you all have on.” William waved his hand where the sleeping crew and Benjamin’s wife and young daughter lay. “I’m going to come out with so much money I think I’ll have a holiday.”
“Another trip back through time?”
William held up his hand. “Not for a while, captain. I’ve had enough adventure for a while. Maybe a few weeks by the sea to relax and do some fishing.”
“There is so much I need to—”
Benjamin was cut off by a loud pinging emanating from William’s pocket.
“Okay that’s it. That’s the signal that our time has run out.” William moved to the hatch and touched a white panel just inside. Silently, the door slid back into place, sealing them off from the outside world.
“So, we just sit and wait?” Benjamin said as he knelt next to his sleeping wife and daughter and brushed Sarah’s dark hair from her cheek.
“You bet,” William nodded. “It’s all automatic from here on in. We made it, captain. We’re safe.”
“Safe?” Benjamin shook his head. “Maybe, but what is ahead for my family and crew?”
“Don’t worry about that, captain. There are plenty of things for you to do. Who knows, maybe you can teach ancient nautical history to the kids in school. We can worry about that later. Let’s get home first and take it from there.”
“A teacher?” Benjamin rubbed his chin. “Sarah always wanted me to give up my life at sea.” He shook his head. “Our Lord surely works in mysterious ways.”
“It’s a crazy old universe, captain,” William said. “There's about fifteen minutes travel through the wormhole, so you can give me a bit of history about yourself. Your people will be waking up soon, but while we’re waiting I’d like to hear more about you and your ship. Where have you traveled and what have you’ve seen? You see, captain, I’ve always been a big fan of the old sailing rigs.”
Benjamin nodded. “They are beautiful in their own way, William. Very well, let’s start with my name.” He held out a hand to William. “Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs. The brigantine Mary Celeste is the name of my ship, and this trip we were bound for the port of Genoa.”
“Mary Celeste?” William said. “The Mary Celeste?”
“I know of no other vessel with that name.”
“So, that’s what happened.” William slapped his thigh and laughed out loud.
“You find our predicament amusing?”
“No, captain, not at all.” William put his hands to his head. “I always wondered what happened to her. There were so many theories.” He continued to smile as he talked. “Now who would believe I’d have a hand in making history.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, captain, you have no idea who you are, do you?”
“Don’t speak nonsense, William, of course I know who I am.”
William’s smile slipped into a grin. “No, not who, captain, but better to say what you are.”
“You appear to talk in riddles, young man.”
“You’re famous, captain,” William said. “You and you’re ship.”
“I’m famous? Why?”
“It’s all about how you and your crew disappeared from your ship one day. You and the crew vanished without a trace. Now it’s one of those famous stories in history. The riddle has never been solved until now.”
“Yes, we know what happened to us,” Benjamin said.
“You bet. And now that I know who you are and where this stuff is from.” William picked up the sextant and there seemed to be a glitter in his eye as he turned it over in his hands. “This is going to be worth triple, maybe even four times as much as before.” He glanced up at Benjamin. “This is going to be a very interesting trip home, Captain Briggs.”
“That, William,” Benjamin said, “is the most sensible thing you have said since we met.