©2021 William A. Lasher
March 13, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Hong Kong Airship Station
In the winter months, the trades blew from almost due north over the South China Sea, and as a result, the strong headwinds continued to impede our progress. It was 1,200 miles from Borneo to Hong Kong, and it took a full five days to make the journey. Cruising at high altitude, we were within a hundred miles of the British colony when the telegraph machine came to life.
“It’s a message from Captain Galloway,” said Wingham as she deciphered the code.
We received a distress call from a merchant ship, the Windhover, bound for Hong Kong with a cargo of opium and silver bullion. They’re being tailed by two pirate airships, the Sentinel and the Freebird.”
“Robots,” said Molly. “Rogue automatons commandeered both of those ships.”
“Rogue automatons?” exclaimed Moonblade behind the ship’s wheel.
“We received a bulletin from Hong Kong. The robots overwhelmed the crews of both ships after leaving the Easterbrook Robotics factory.”
“They’re merchant ships then? Unarmed?”
“They’ve retro-fitted the ships with cannons since the hijacking.”
“Robots retro-fitted the ships with cannons?” repeated an incredulous Wingham. “Like the police robots on the prison ship?”
“Apparently there were a number of more advanced machines in the shipment. Automatons. They’re more human-like, more intelligent, and for some reason they turned against their creators – they murdered the crews of both ships and threw their corpses to the sharks.”
The squadron abandoned our high-altitude flight path, and descended towards the surface, the gunboats making better time than the mother ship. We located the Windhover tacking into the wind in choppy seas. The two pirate airships were tailing the clipper ship closely.
“Send a telegram and see if they respond,” said Molly to Wingham.
Captain Abbotsford of her majesty’s MEF hereby orders you to surrender possession of the hijacked airships. When we see your white flag, we will escort you to Hong Kong.
Wingham went to work tapping out the message on her machine. “How can we be sure they’re even monitoring their telegraph machines, Captain Abbotsford?”
“We can’t, and most likely they won’t respond, but we need to give them fair warning before we open fire.”
The Amelia Snavely was out ahead of us and closing in on the Sentinel. Our modern gunboats were the fastest aircraft in the skies, making 20 knots or better under prop power alone. The pirate ships were outdated, using coal powered steam engines to turn their props, the vertical exhaust stacks pointed downward, away from the rigid balloon.
In lieu of capitulation, the Sentinel instead opened fire with their cannons. Most of the cannonballs fell short, and none connected with the Amelia Snavely, but the battle had begun. We now had due cause to down the hijacked airships.
Once they were within range, Kurniawan’s forward gunner hit the pirate craft with his flamethrower. The Sentinel’s gondola burst into flames. The Morpurgo adjusted his weapon’s trajectory, and when he hit the dirigible, it triggered an immense explosion. Apparently, the pirate ships were using H gas as a lifting agent, and though a few hundred yards distant, we could feel the shock wave from the blast inside the Fiery Crimson Messenger. The Sentinel’s flaming wreckage hit the ocean in a tremendous splash, and the charred skeleton lay sizzling on the surface as we passed overhead.
There was a slight delay aboard the Amelia Snavely as Kurniawan’s crew recovered from the explosion – they were close enough to feel the heat, and the percussion had knocked a few of them off their feet. The sailing crew was topside but had retreated to the center mast cabin when the battle stations alarm was sounded.
The second pirate ship veered off to the west, and the robot crew began to light off their gondola mounted cannons. An inaccurate weapon at best, most of the heavy iron cannonballs missed their mark, but one scored a direct hit, crashing through the fuselage of the Amelia Snavely. None of the crew members were seriously hurt, but the cannonball left a gaping hole in the port side of the gondola, and severely damaged the galley.
“They hit the Amelia Snavely – after them!” exclaimed Molly.
Steady behind the ship’s wheel, Moonblade opened the throttle to full speed ahead, and began to close the distance between the Fiery Crimson Messenger and our slower moving prey. Molly flipped a lever that activated the battle stations alarm, alerting our sailing crew to take cover.
The Freebird’s robots lit off a second volley from their aft mounted cannons. The cannonballs whizzed by us, careening through the air in long arcs, and then crashing into the rough seas; wild shots, we were lucky none of them hit their mark.
I hurried down the ship’s ladder to the forward gun emplacement where I found an excited Queensbury sighting in the flamethrower. We were almost within range of the fleeing pirate ship.
“Don’t use the flamethrower,” I said. “Take them with the Longstone and avoid hitting the dirigible with your fire. That last explosion was a lulu.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” Queensbury vacated the flamethrower controls and moved towards the machine gun.
“If you want me to take over, I will.”
“No, sir. I can do it.”
“Alright then, crank up your weapon and open fire, private.”
Queensbury lowered himself into the Longstone chamber and planted his chest against the padded stop. He put his feet on the pedals and cranked up the firing mechanism. We were within 100 yards of the pirate ship and closing on them fast, our rotary motors humming at full speed. Queensbury spun the wheels that controlled the sights with skill, and after zeroing in on his target, he opened fire. The .60 caliber slugs tore into the Freebird’s gondola, and the closer we got, the more damage they did. Finally, the gondola burst into flames.
“Hold your fire and brace yourself.” I raced up the ship’s ladder to the main deck where we had a commanding view of the pirate ship from the bridge. The gondola was fully engulfed, and the flames were beginning to lick the rigid balloon.
“Cut back on the speed and let them pull away from us now,” said Molly to Moonblade.
“Aye, aye, skipper.” Johnny pulled back on the throttle and turned the ship’s wheel towards starboard.
“The dirigible is likely to explode at any time– ” The words were just leaving Molly’s mouth when there was a huge kaboom! as the H gas in the rigid balloon ignited. The explosion shook the window glass audibly, and I could feel the percussion in my chest as it went off. The fireball blew the pirate ship to pieces, and the wreckage tumbled into the choppy seas.
We had outrun the Constantina in our swift pursuit of the pirates. Looking towards the south, I could see the mother ship sailing towards us in the distance. Extinguished by seawater, the flames died down quickly on the remnants of the pirate ships, replaced by billowing clouds of thick black smoke.
Kurniawan telegraphed Molly to say the damage to the Amelia Snavely was substantial, but the propulsion system was unharmed, and the airship could continue to Hong Kong at a lower altitude. A message from Captain Galloway arrived next – he congratulated us on downing the pirate ships and said the captain of the Windhover sent his thanks.
The squadron fell back into formation, now sailing just a few hundred yards above the surface of the ocean. We caught up with the Windhover, and provided the merchant ship with a military escort for the remainder of their journey; it was another eighty miles or so to the busy port.
I climbed down to the rear gun emplacement where I had a view of the thick black smoke rising from the smoldering wreckage still floating on top of the choppy seas. I sat in quiet contemplation as I watched the scene of the battle growing smaller behind us.
The confrontation with the automated pirates had taken us by surprise. When Molly received the advisory, she thought the probability of encountering the outlaw ships was small, and it seemed incredible that a gang of robots could hijack two airships in the first place. Could there have been someone or some thing behind their malicious actions?
The airship station was on the north side of Hong Kong Island, at the edge of Victoria Harbor, a deep, well sheltered anchorage known to the Chinese as hèung-gáwng, or fragrant harbor, named after the scent of its sandalwood incense factories. The terrain was mountainous and the climate wet.
The British took possession of Hong Kong Island and the adjacent Kowloon Peninsula after defeating the Qing Dynasty in two wars fought over the opium trade. By the time our airship squadron landed in February of 1883, Hong Kong was a busy seaport and manufacturing center. A densely populated city, it was in many ways like London – a small sized aristocracy growing rich as a result of the industrial revolution, and a rapidly expanding mass of poor immigrants seeking work.
Owing to the Amelia Snavely’s damaged gondola, our stay in Hong Kong would be longer than anticipated. We had originally planned a brief refueling stop, but now our sister ship needed major repair work.
Captain Galloway summoned Jacob MacDougall, a Scottish ship builder to assess the damage. The MacDougall Shipyard mostly worked on clipper ships, but the technology behind the craft was similar in many ways to the building of airships.
MacDougall’s shipwrights had done work for the MEF in the past. The Constantina was the first airship in history to be outfitted with sailing apparatus, and the work had been accomplished by the MacDougall Shipyard.
“Aye, they did some damage alright, some of it structural, but it’s not excessive.” MacDougall was inspecting the cannonball hole with Galloway and Kurniawan. A tall man with a full beard, he wore an olive highlander’s bonnet.
“Practically brand new.” Kurniawan clicked his tongue. “She was just commissioned in November.”
“And a fine ship she is, cap’n. With adequate time my men can make her look brand new again.”
“How long do you need?” said Galloway. “We have a long journey ahead of us yet, and we’re already behind schedule.”
“We’re quite busy these days with three new clipper ships underway. I could put a rush order on your job, but it all depends on how much the Crown is willing to pay.”
Captain Galloway carried a pad of note paper. He wrote a number on it with his pencil and stuck it under MacDougall’s nose. “General Evernight authorized me to offer you this much.”
MacDougall looked at the pad, then raising his hand to his head, he lifted one side of his wool bonnet, and lightly scratched his longish hair. “Well, I would say you’re getting close there, cap’n. If you could sweeten up the pot a bit, I think we might get her patched up in a month.”
“A month is too long. If you can accomplish the work in ten days-” Captain Galloway wrote another number on the pad and showed it to MacDougall. “That’s it. All the money I have to offer.”
MacDougall looked at the pad and smiled, “I think that’ll do it. Ten days is cutting it close, but I’ll promise you two weeks at the longest. My usual terms apply – half the money in advance, and the balance on delivery.”
“Then we have a deal?” Galloway offered his hand.
“We have a deal.”
Kurniawan’s crew flew the Amelia Snavely to the shipyard with no delay. They vacated the aircraft and moved into a barracks house at the Caroline Hill garrison.
The Morpurgos‘ temporary lodging was a short walk from General Arlington Weatherstone’s residence. The general was commander of the British military forces in Hong Kong, and he invited the leaders of our squadron to afternoon tea on the day after our arrival. Two carriages arrived at the airship station to pick us up. Molly and I rode in one with Captain Galloway, and Professor Krause took the other with Rebekah and Kristin.
The General’s house was towards the top of the steep hill. We sat on a flagstone patio above the terraced hillside with a tremendous view of the harbor below. It was easy to pick out the immense dirigible of the Constantina, and further down the waterfront, we could just make out the Amelia Snavely’s rigid balloon moored at the shipyards. The grounds were well maintained with a variety of meticulously trimmed shrubs and ornamental trees.
It was a breezy day, just a few degrees short of what I would call warm. Hong Kong was at the northern edge of the tropics, with a handful of cool days in winter, the climate moderated by its proximity to the Chinese mainland.
Weatherstone was an older man, well spoken, with an air of nobility. His stout wife Clementine joined us on the patio where a Chinese houseman named Dequan brought us pots of tea and trays loaded with a variety of tea cakes, cookies, and sweets. Dressed in all white, Dequan spoke English with a heavy Cantonese accent.
“I’m positively tickled to see a woman in an officer’s uniform, my dear,” said Clementine, moving into a seat next to Molly, gently laying a hand on her knee. “And this would be your security man?” lifting her chin towards me.
“Yes, this is Sergeant Highgarden. We were both conscripted into the military service at the same time.”
“A pleasure to meet you, sergeant.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mrs. Weatherstone.”
“There’s a sensational shopping district called Central Square within walking distance of the airship station, Margaret. The stores are as sophisticated as anything you might find in London or Paris.”
“Thanks for the tip. Sergeant Highgarden and I will take a walk over there this evening.”
“Watch out for mutant crows, missy,” said Dequan as he poured fresh tea in Molly’s cup. “There’s a full moon over Hong Kong tonight.”
Out of the blue, I felt a rolling motion in the ground beneath us, as if we were sitting on top of a huge vat of gelatin, and it was enough to rattle the teacups and silverware on the glass topped table.
“Was that an earthquake?” said Rebekah.
“Just a little one, missy,” said Dequan as he refreshed Rebekah’s cup. “When the big one comes, you’re gonna know it.”
“A minor tremor,” General Weatherstone with a dismissive wave of his hand. “They’re rather frequent, caused by the extraction procedures beneath the gas plant.” He gestured towards the towering smokestacks of the Extremo H Gas installation across the harbor. “They’ve been ramping up production lately to meet the increased demand.”
“Perhaps one day they’ll develop a less startling extraction method,” said Krause with a small smile.
“Frankly, I’m more concerned with those automated scoundrels we encountered over the high seas yesterday,” said Captain Galloway. “And there’s little information available in regard to how the two merchant airships were hijacked in the first place.”
“I’d like to wring their robot necks for shooting that cannonball through my gondola!” Kurniawan was normally easy going, but the damage to the Amelia Snavely had him on edge.
“No need to worry, captain,” Weatherstone signaled Dequan to refresh Kurniawan’s teacup. “MacDougall has the best shipwrights in the Far East. They should have you airborne again in a jiffy.”
“I made an appointment to visit the Easterbrook Robotics factory tomorrow,” said Captain Galloway. “I’m hoping they can fill us in on how the hijacking occurred in the first place.”
“The new automatons are much more advanced than the robots you’ve been familiar with in the past. Built to appear more human-like, each one has a unique appearing face crafted from fine porcelain, and they’re able to carry on intelligent conversation.”
“How do they manage that?” said Kristin. “How can a machine carry on an intelligent conversation?”
“Easterbrook is quite secretive about the details of their technology. I’m not sure how the automatons work, what makes them tick, and I don’t know how far you’ll get finding out much more in your visit tomorrow, but good luck, that’s about all I can say.”
“You want a hot candy, sarge?” Dequan held out a small plate that held a handful of peculiar looking sweets. Each one had a bright red core surrounded by a semi-transparent shell. “Sweet on the outside, hot in the middle.”
I hesitated for a moment, and then in the interest of remaining polite, I plucked one of the candies off the tray, and popped it in my mouth. “Thank you, Dequan.” As promised, it was sugary sweet on the outside, and when I bit into it, as spicy hot as any food I had ever tasted. Hot enough to make my eyes water.
“Here’s a glass of water, sarge – I knew you were gonna need it.” Dequan handed me a glass, grinning. “Tien Tsin chili peppers, I grow them myself in the garden.”
After returning to the airship station, Molly and I walked to Central Square as the sun was setting over Victoria Harbor. It was located on a boardwalk avenue, busy with hansom cabs, rickshaws, and a number of Chinese policemen patrolling on horseback. The gas lamps were just coming on along the red brick sidewalks as the sun sank into a placid sea to the west. As darkness settled in over the city, a cool wind from the north made me glad we had brought along jackets. The pungent scent of the ocean was mixed with the strong smell of coal smoke and food cooking in restaurants.
We window shopped in front of a couple of clothing stores, and then went inside a clock shop where I bought Molly a new pocket watch in a sterling silver case. We both had money to spend from saving our paychecks, and when we went inside the jewelry store next door, Molly insisted on buying me an expensive emerald ring. I thought it was too much, but now that she was a captain, Molly had bigger paychecks than me. The green gemstone was set in 14k gold and was almost as pretty as my bricky girlfriend’s bonny green eyes. (Almost, but not quite.)
The strong smell of food cooking was too much to resist. We decided to try a restaurant near the jewelry store and were asked to remove our shoes at the door. It was good fun learning how to eat with chopsticks, neither of us had ever used them before, and we ate roast duck with rice and vegetables, and had banana rolls for dessert.
Back at the airship station, there was a bench at the base of the stairs that led up to the mooring platform. Molly and I lingered there for a while, talking and enjoying each other’s company. We were about ready to climb the stairs and call it a night when a police wagon pulled up. The enclosed carriage had iron bars on a lone window and bore the insignia of British military police. Two soldiers sat on a high seat at the front.
“A good evening to you,” said one of the soldiers. “We have a pair of prisoners to deliver to the Constantina. Do you know where we might find the captain?”
“I’m Captain Abbotsford, commander of the Fiery Crimson Messenger,” said Molly as we both got to our feet. “Captain Galloway isn’t available at the moment.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said the lead soldier as both climbed down off their high perch to salute her. “Sergeant Cunningham of her majesty’s Shore Patrol.”
“Corporal Burnfield, Ma’am,” said the other giving Molly a snappy salute.
“Who’s in the back?” Molly gestured towards the wagon.
“That would be Private Zanetti and Private Wildenstein.”
“What are the charges?”
“Drunk and disorderly, but we’re not going to write them up. We just wanted to make sure they made it back home in one piece.” Cunningham unlocked the carriage door and swung it open.
Zanetti and Wildenstein looked terrible, like they had been on the losing end of a vicious fight. Both of their faces were beat up and covered with dried blood. Zanetti’s left eye was swollen shut, and Wildenstein’s button-down shirt was torn to shreds.
“What in the world happened to you chaps?” I said as the pair climbed down out of the carriage. They both reeked of heavy drinking.
“We were sitting there talking with these Chinese fellows at the bar,” said Wildenstein as Cunningham and Burnfield rode off. “Well dressed, and their English was quite good, I thought. They asked us if we’d like to join them in a card game out back. High stakes poker they said. I thought it seemed a bit odd when we went through the back door, because there wasn’t a card game in sight. Just a dark alley, and the next thing we knew, a whole pack of them jumped out of the shadows.”
“Aye,” said Zanetti. “They beat the crap out of us, Donavan. Skilled in some form of martial arts they were. Took off with both of our wallets, I had a month’s pay in mine.”
“And my watch,” added Wildenstein. “They stole the gold watch my grandpa left me.”
Molly and I escorted the unlucky duo up the long stairway that led to the mooring platform. It was slow going as both were still quite drunk. After cresting the stairs, we walked them up the ramp that led to the Constantina’s gondola. Standing watch by the entry, a saucy Jane Deven called out, “medic!” when she saw the injured men stagger through the door.