I have a Category 3 problem in my world

This is an from problem. The story requires a secret message to get past pirates and I don’t know how to design the captivity for it.

Setting: Several kids get shanghaied and impressed into service with pirates, then the story gets them rescued only because one kid has a special ability: She can read lips and uses sign language— she is deaf. A rescue needs coordination with the captives, who must follow instructions from a secret message. Their captivity is well hidden but needs to have a hole in it somewhere for this message.

Premise: Unique language skills among captives creates an opportunity to get a secret message past captors.

Tech level is 19th century. Ships are actually airships but that shouldn't objectively affect the solution more than making it in-theme.

Research: The captors are stereotypical storybook pirates of common-knowledge. Specifically:

World settings so far:

  • Captives are held under the typical threat of death or hurting one of the friends.
  • The crew is in an enclave in an uncharted region. Unaided escape is near certain death in the wilds.
  • Captives are forced to maintain ships or serve aboard vessels during raids, doing grunt work.
  • There are no trained “guards,” the crew has a loyalty to their captain and they all basically keep things in check.
  • Most of the crew are somewhat fickle and uneducated, and superstitious.
  • Captives have no direct communication to the outside world, but certain privileged “clients” come to the enclave for illicit gambling. Communication and contact is a privilege earned when you are “made”
  • Captives don't get weapons.
  • Trusted crew run covert supply runs into civilian cities occasionally because the enclave is hidden from the world.

Additional tech and setting info (because someone asked):

Weapon Tech is cannons, revolvers and swords. Culture is a mix of French, Chinese, American and English. It’s not technically earth but that doesn't matter, it all works out the same. Steampunk.

Good answers provide the HOW for this problem:

  • QUESTION: HOW did this allow a secret deaf-language message through the pirates?

If I have missed anything in the Perfect Question Checklist I would appreciate a comment in the chat set up for this question

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 4:36

10 Answers 10


Exploit the pirates' superstitions

Superstitions usually demand strange forms of observance. There were rules for many areas of human activity. Some applied generally, others only to people in specific circumstances. Some rules had to be followed to avoid bad luck, others to gain good luck.

Some historical superstitions specifically involved children. For example, German culture placed special superstitious value on clothing made by children.

Since your world is not actually Earth, I figure you're cool with inventing new superstitions to suit your purpose. So, here are some thoughts about how you might design one:

  • Give the captive children special duties that undermine the pirates' otherwise-adequate security measures

Maybe it requires the children to exit the pirates' compound to perform some chore, and they must do so without an escort (or at great distance). This provides an opportunity for a child to discover objects or signs left by the hero without the pirates noticing.

Note that the children may share the superstition and agree with their captors that the chore must be performed for the sake of everyone who lives at the compound; the children might not care about the pirates' fate, but still cooperate for their own sake. I think that means the superstition must be concerned with avoiding bad consequences for members of a household.

The hero would not mind interfering with the ritual because s/he doesn't care if the pirates suffer, and intends to save the children long before the bad consequence is supposed to occur.

For instance: a child or virgin must bury some animal part (from typical family food waste) on the night of the full moon, within sight of the home's threshold, or the next month will be a hungry one. The hero could exploit this because s/he'd know the pirates will be doing this, and so could search around the pirates' location to find the burial site.

  • Give the pirates special duties that undermine their otherwise-adequate security measures

Pirates can be compelled to do strange things to bring good fortune to the crew, unlike the children. (They can also be compelled to avoid bad luck, like the kids.) Also, the pirates' range of activity is greater than that of their captives: pirates are sailors, warriors, and thieves, and will do whatever they can to ensure that each of these activities is safe and profitable. And the hero probably wouldn't care whether those activities go badly, or may not share the superstition if s/he is not also a sailor, warrior, or thief.

Perhaps this requires the pirates to bring home some kind of otherwise-worthless refuse or scrap whenever they encounter it, as an obligation, either to ward off bad luck or bring good luck. The hero could exploit that by planting garbage, or hiding some kind of message or sign inside legit garbage.

Or perhaps it requires the pirates to bring a child on certain types of errands to ensure the success of the errand, even though doing so risks detection or escape. For this specifically, they might preferentially choose the deaf child, trusting that handicap to minimize the risks, and not realizing that the child has (yet?) developed compensating skills like lip-reading and sign language.

As an example: the pirates might bring the child along when fencing certain stolen goods, because any bargain struck with a child present is guaranteed to be more profitable. Thus, the deaf child might actually be brought practically to the hero's doorstep, putting them in almost direct contact.

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    $\begingroup$ This could really make the reading more interesting. Out of the box! $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 2:02


The key here is that the kids haul loot, and the deaf kid can understand sign language. So if the person slipping them the message can get a bulky, visibly obvious object like a treasure chest painted with hand symbols, then it will look like a chest painted with pictures of hands. The pirates capture or find the chest, and the kids haul the chest or see it amongst the loot.

Pirates aren't going to leave a potential valuable behind. Looters can't be choosers. Who is going to question a decorative painted box with illustrations all over it containing presumptive valuables? Sure, it's quirky art, but who wouldn't decorate valuable things? If a chest isn't good for you, why not a "painting" of hand symbols in a valuable-looking frame? Or if the kid can read, then perhaps a book with a series of illustrations tucked into it of people making various gestures. The kid can "assess" the value of the book by scanning through it, noticing the series of pictures relaying the message.

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    $\begingroup$ Honestly never thought of an art trap. Not at all unrealistic $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 1:44
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    $\begingroup$ I won't make it into answer, since it is essentially same, but with another language: You can use religious painting with something which looks like Bible verses (book chapter:verse "text") at the bottom, written in language, that only deaf person knows. Even though pirates cannot read that, they can easily identify text as Bible verses, and together with religious images, their superstitions will prevent them from defacing it "just in case". And soon, your deaf kid finds herself looking at the secret message, brazenly displayed on the painting. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ A collection of statuettes might also be able to carry a short message in sign language. As a crew member, I wouldn't suspect a thing: I'm used to seeing expansive, unfamiliar gestures depicted in statues, and I rarely think about what they mean. Some kinds of figures, like ribbon dancers, might work especially well for conveying motion. To write this effectively, it would be crucial ask a fluent signer about the efficiency and potential pitfalls of trying to sign through still images. $\endgroup$
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 11:24
  • $\begingroup$ On thing that this question could add a little more detail on is that deaf people often do not write in the same language as hearing people. Hearing people use a phonetic alphabet which is very hard for deaf ppl to learn because they can not sound it out, so deaf ppl tend to invented very different written languages that may not look much like hand signs or phonetic writing to a person who does not know the language. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 23:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Even better! A completely secret language! All the same applies to the question, though. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Mar 1, 2022 at 2:39

Deaf Rhyming

Deaf language includes rhyming, similar to spoken languages. These are signs that look the same but are different in meaning. These don’t match up to spoken languages, so even in the same language the rhymes are different. While the pirates don’t know sign language, the deaf person does. The message is then encoded in a silly poem that starts by not rhyming at all, but the words do rhyme in sign language. Then the rest doesn’t rhyme in sign language but replacing the last word with a rhyme that is similar to the word at the end of the line is the next word. Now you can put this message up in public, as friendly correspondence and the pirates can read it with no chance of the message being intercepted.


Since the girl knows sign language, use that in an unconventional way. Rather than standing out in the open signing, which will obviously draw attention, arrange objects to spell out words in the sign language. This will be very slow as compared to manual signing.

The feasibility of this will depend on the sign language in use: don't go into much detail about that. Things that might be used include:

  • Arranging fruit on a stall into patterns.
  • Arranging the rigging ropes into patterns.
  • Drawing a sign or two in mud or dust on the ground.

The hero needs to know the sign language themselves, and to make sure that the symbols have been noticed before the message starts being laid out. They also need to know where the girl will go in the enclave so that she sees the symbols in the right order.

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    $\begingroup$ This loosely (if not directly) fits the concept of a honey pot. Maybe a Trojan Horse is a better analogy… clever $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 0:41


Steganography is the art of concealing a hidden message inside of another, public message. For example, you might write a letter in such a way that, by taking the fifth word of each sentence, you can reveal a hidden message. Or you could write a bill of sale but replace the "pence" column with hidden coordinates.

The main difficulty is that the kids would have to know about the hidden messages. It could've been something they were already familiar with (some word puzzles incorporate steganographic elements, and kids sometimes invent such schemes to pass notes in secret), that would be obvious enough to stand out on examination.

Getting the message to the kids is relatively straightforward since you indicate that the ships take on supplies from outside their enclave. Bills of sale, labels, the arrangement of items in boxes, sizes or weights of items - there are many avenues to hide a message in a supply shipment. You haven't indicated what the kids do aboard ship but in general, I would expect them to have plenty of duties where they can interact with ship's supplies: loading, preparing meals, fetching for more experienced crew, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Yes they do all the grunt work until they are crew. Not allowed weapons or in fights. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 0:33
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    $\begingroup$ I had thought of this only if the hero had some back connection trading code $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 26, 2022 at 0:41


The message is provided by a raven, in the early morning when everyone is still asleep, the girl is wandering around on deck. The raven is smart.. it drops the message at her feet and disappears. She knows what to do now.

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    $\begingroup$ If movies are to be believed, this can also be a problem in modern prisons. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented Feb 27, 2022 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ It would have to have been a pet I think, but how would the bird find her? Maybe she had the bird when captured, it escaped and went home; friends attached the note to return? Thinking about this. Ravens aren’t really homing pigeons. What bird did Noah use to find land? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet it's a bird.. that's my proposal. If you prefer pigeons maybe that would work as well, but I just had to put a raven for this. Call me a romanticist. I like ravens. A raven could do 12 miles off shore easily, they have good eyes. You didn't specify a location, there's a rescue operation ;) also keep in mind a raven has magic ways to let its presence be known to little girls. $\endgroup$
    – Goodies
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 22:40

Most of the crew are somewhat fickle and uneducated, and superstitious. Stereotypical pirates.

Could it then be as simple as passing a written message to her? If she's the only one around who can read, then you don't even need to worry about who might intercept it. Just write it somewhere she can see it.

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    $\begingroup$ To me personally, stereotypical pirates also means that the captain is slightly smarter than the actual crew and, at the very least, can read. And when a crewmate sees a written message in such a constellation, the natural reaction would be showing it to the captain. $\endgroup$
    – Egor Hans
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ True enough. I guess that brings it back to the top answer - stylizing the letters enough to look like an ornament to the illiterate. (Or otherwise make it look like a natural part of an object) $\endgroup$
    – Vilx-
    Commented Feb 28, 2022 at 17:22

A missionary priest visits the children to ensure their condition is reasonable for the times and brings them food. He greets every child individually and in doing so holds each child's hand or hands and says a brief greeting or prayer.

When he holds the hands of the deaf girl he is able to tap a short message on the girl's hand, in a tapping sign language, which both understand, but no-one else notices.

  • $\begingroup$ Or he could be mumbling the prayer very softly and passing the message without speaking out loud. Ah -ha! $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 14:47
  • $\begingroup$ I'd +1 this solution, because it certainly simplifies my approach of thinking it would be essentially the kid reading a broken/adjusted Morse code sounder - or one that doesn't quite hit the resting bar and the end soundpoint - if the tapping motion is large enough to be noticeable by somebody who's deaf, but doesn't make an audible sound, the deaf person could notice it where only they would notice it. That way, they could simulate the Morse code click-clack motion, but without actually making the noise that's associated with that. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 7, 2022 at 0:16

A Telescope!

enter image description here

Because the girl can lip-read, all she needs is a telescope to be able to receive information from the distant land.

This is a simple device which fits the setup of the story perfectly, without restricting your conclusion.

The message received is not just a secret, it is a double-secret. Nobody else knows they have received a message, let alone what it is. This is convenient from a storytelling perspective. The message can easily contain a sentence, or an image. The author has lots of space to work with.

Details/info If the protagonist and her friends can get hold of a telescope on board the ship, and the vessel has line-of-sight to the message senders, the main character can look through the telescope and see something nobody else can - what people are saying.

A telescope is a helpful, historic and common object to be found on pirate ships of all kinds. The ship would have its own one in some form, and a crewmember could own a handheld one. There could even be one in stolen treasure locked up. All they need is for the ship to come within a certain distance and line-of-sight of the message senders for the message to be received.

As a worldbuilding note, exact visibility limits of the telescope will depend greatly on the shape of your world. For example, a telescope is much more powerful and effective on a flat earth model.

  • $\begingroup$ What you’re saying is, I just need to get the pirates to make her do lookout duty… Wow. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ Telescopes are cool. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 0:22

Flag Semaphore In Dance

It's like long distance sign language. The pirates don't know it, but the deaf kid knows it and can read it quickly. The message could be disguised as part of a dance or as stick figures on a wall, so unless you were looking for that sort of thing you'd probably ignore it.

A great possibility for the story is to have one of the rescuers go in disguise as a dancer who is going to entertain the pirates. She does an alluring dance that uses the positions in flag semaphore to send a secret message to the captives as soon as the dancer is sure she's in view of the captives.

  • $\begingroup$ Most sailors understood flag signs very well since the 18th century, if we are talking about standard signaling. But if it's a secret language, it still looks very conspicuous jumping around with signal flags? Or did you have a different idea? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking drawing stick figures on a wall or hidden in a book about interpretive dance. Alternatively it could actually be a hidden message in a dance. That's a good idea for the story. I'm going to edit my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Mathaddict
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 17:35

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