©2021 William A. Lasher
March 16, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Hong Kong Airship Station
The Easterbrook Robotics factory was located on the Kowloon Peninsula, on the far side of the harbor from the airship station. On Hong Kong Island, most of the scarce land was on steep mountainsides, but on the north side of the strait, there was more level ground to build on. Numerous factories and warehouses rose up along the waterfront, and squalid shanty towns blanketed the hillsides beyond, the extreme poverty reminiscent of Bombay.
We rode a ferry across the harbor. The barge was powered by a noisy compound steam engine, the housing stained with grimy exhaust residue. Packed with passengers, the lumbering craft sat so low in the water I was afraid it might be on the verge of sinking. The horses on board seemed especially nervous, and I breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the far side of the strait.
It was mid-morning, and after a cool night, the sun was beginning to gain altitude as the ferry’s passengers and odd carriages spilled out onto dry land. Molly and I trailed Captain Galloway and the Germans up an inclined pedestrian walkway that led to the boardwalk street. Before us was the heart of the Kowloon industrial district, and the acrid smell of coal smoke laid heavy on the down slope breeze.
As we walked, I felt a phantom bobbing motion from riding on the overloaded barge across the ocean swells – quite odd, the outrigger canoes in Borneo had produced nothing like it. I mentioned it to Molly, and she looked at me with a puzzled expression.
It was strange, because when I looked into Molly’s eyes, a random memory from our lost youth inexplicably surfaced in my conscious mind. Sometimes I had trouble recalling the name of something I had just learned a few minutes before, but walking along the busy Kowloon waterfront, I suddenly remembered the time Molly and I had gone fishing for yellow perch on Summerville Lake. Perhaps it was the phantom bobbing motion from the barge, and the rich smell of the South China Sea that brought the memory back so vividly; the image of Molly sitting in the bow seat facing me as I rowed the small boat across the lake. I was telling her jokes, and Molly was laughing, the soft rays of the Appalachian sun streaming through her pretty red hair. Where had those lost thirty years gone?
The factory was within walking distance of the wharf, a couple of blocks inland, in a conglomeration of plain looking buildings, most windowless. There were tall fences around the perimeter, and the facility was patrolled by dour looking security guards smoking Woodbine Cigarettes and carrying rifles. We found the public entrance and walked through the gate. We were greeted by an affable chap wearing a striped dress shirt, bow tie, and suspenders.
“You’re right on time, welcome to Easterbrook Robotics. I’m Mr. Marwick.”
“Captain Galloway, commander of the Constantina.”
Marwick led us into a stuffy conference room furnished with a table and chairs, not much else, and it seemed odd that the windows were blacked out – it was impossible to see anything through them at all.
Captain Galloway introduced the rest of our party as we filed into the conference room: “This is Professor Hermann Krause our science adviser, and his colleagues Miss Krämer and Miss Schumacher.” The Germans took seats on one side of the table. “I’m also accompanied by Captain Abbotsford, commander of the Fiery Crimson Messenger, and her security man Sergeant Highgarden.” Molly and I took seats across from Rebekah and Kristin.
“I understand you had an encounter with a crew of our malfunctioning robots the other day?” Marwick settled into a seat at the head of the table.
“We certainly did, and that’s precisely the purpose of our visit, to find out more about your machines, and perhaps get an explanation of what went wrong.”
“It was an unfortunate turn of events, and a shame you had to destroy the airships. If the automatons could have been returned to us, we might have been able to reprogram them.”
“Well, once they opened fire with their cannons, we had every reason to shoot them down.”
“Of course you did, captain. And I’m not disputing that.”
Professor Krause spoke up: “So what made your mechanical men go awry?”
“We’re not exactly sure, and our senior engineers are hard at work coming up with an answer as we speak.”
“Could it have been sabotage?” said Molly.
“At this point, anything is possible, that’s all I’m authorized to say.”
Marwick agreed to take us on a tour of the manufactory. He handed out safety goggles and led us down a hallway that led to a set of double doors. On the far side of the doorway, we found ourselves in a colossal fabrication and assembly area. Scores of workers, mostly Chinese, were hard at work creating various parts – gear wheels, levers, dials, curved plates, etc. Some of the workers operated foundries and molds, others used welding torches and wrenches to connect the parts together and create more complex components.
Above our heads, a complicated network of steam pipes and H gas supply lines led to the presses, punches, and lathes on the factory floor. Narrow windows at the top of tall ceilings allowed a minimal amount of natural light, and suspended gas lamps provided the rest of the illumination.
The various tasks generated a substantial amount of ambient noise, and Marwick spoke loudly to be heard over the metallic din. “This is where we build our most popular product, the police robots you may already be familiar with.”
We came to another set of doors, and after going through them, found a work area that was less noisy. A conveyor belt moved the parts down an assembly line where the robots began to take shape. By the time we reached the far end of the gigantic building, we came to an area where the finishing touches were being added to the towering mechanical men that Mr. Knightingale had referred to as Pendlebury robots – the automated police that held Molly and I captive in Dunkwell Heights.
“They’re built so tall to accommodate both a compact rotary motor, and the hydrogen tank that powers it.” Marwick stopped us in front of one of the robots. Its metal breast and abdomen plates were swung open on hinges. I looked inside and could see how the H gas motor’s drive shaft was connected to an array of gears and armatures that ran down within its metal legs, and another set that ran up into its arms and neck.
“How are they able to move about independently and make decisions on how to conduct themselves?” said Krause as he leaned in to examine the inner workings more closely.
“All of their actions are pre-programmed. Here, let me show you the mechanical brain.” Marwick unlatched the behemoth’s scary metal face and swung it open to reveal the inside of its brass skull. “You see this copper disc? That’s the extent of its ability to think. The disc revolves on this spindle.” Marwick pointed out the various mechanical parts as he referenced them. “And this stylus reads the code on the disc.”
Rebekah moved in to take a closer look too. “How is the disc coded?”
“A technician codes the disc with a series of tiny bumps and depressions in concentric lines on the face of the soft copper. A more advanced version of Morse code you might say, and it controls how the robot reacts to stimuli and what words come out of its voice box. Its available reactions and vocabulary are limited to what’s been programmed on the disc.”
“Fascinating,” said Krause. “But what about the advanced automatons that hijacked the merchant ships? Surely their mechanical brains have more to them than a simple revolving copper disc.”
Marwick lost his smile. “The automatons you’ve referenced are currently classified top secret. I’m unable to divulge any information about them whatsoever.”
“Oh, come now,” said Captain Galloway. “The reason why we came was to have a look at your automatons, and we’ve yet to see one.”
“In light of the hijacking, our production of the automatons has been suspended indefinitely. That wing of our manufactory has been closed down and secured.”
“As an officer of the Mutant Eradication Forces, I’ll let you know I’m an official envoy of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, my good man.” Galloway was visibly flustered, and his voice became more elevated. “Hong Kong is British territory, and your company is subject to the rules and regulations of industry that have been established by the Crown. Our official party wishes to conduct an inspection of your automaton production facilities, and I am politely requesting your compliance.”
A gruff appearing security guard left his station by one of the doorways and walked over to stand next to Marwick. He struck a wooden match against the stock of his rifle, lit a Woodbine cigarette, and gazed at Captain Galloway with an expression of contempt.
Marwick held out his hands. “I’m unable to help you, captain. I can’t let you in. Nobody sees the automatons.”
Krause spoke up. “Well then, thank you for the tour Mr. Marwick.” He checked the time on his pocket watch and turned towards Captain Galloway. “If we’re going to catch the next ferry back to the island, we should probably head down to the wharf.”
The gruff security man and two more newly arrived reinforcements tailed us as our tour guide led the way, back through the production area, and down a long hallway to the entrance. Marwick attempted to keep things friendly with a bit of nervous small talk, but the confrontation had cast a dark cloud upon our engagement, and I for one was glad when we reached the front gate.
We had a half hour to wait until the next ferry departed, and we bought fried fishballs from a street vendor with a pushcart. Another vendor had cold drinks on ice – sugar cane juice and lemon tea.
We sat on benches next to the wharf as we ate. The wide boardwalk avenue along the waterfront was busy with pedestrians – many of them workers from the factories, and an occasional wealthy European passed by in a hansom or full carriage.
“It seems rather obvious that Easterbrook has something to hide,” said Captain Galloway, wiping his mouth with one of the paper napkins the food vendor had provided.
“It would seem that way wouldn’t it?” responded Krause as he examined one of the skewered fishballs.
“I could probably petition the governor for a writ of inspection with some help from General Weatherstone.”
“Might be a waste of time. The local politicians are more than likely closely allied with the factory owners. What we call a Seilschaft in Germany.”
“You’re probably right, I just feel as if I have a responsibility to thoroughly investigate the matter, considering the damage to the Amelia Snavely, and the great expense to the Crown.”
“But even if you can get a writ of inspection, they’ll likely drag their feet, and by the time we go back in, whatever they don’t want us to see won’t be there anymore. That’s my humble opinion, captain.”
“Yes, you’ve convinced me with your common sense, professor. It would probably be best to let sleeping dogs lie, and once MacDougall has the Amelia Snavely patched up, we won’t have time to dilly dally around in Hong Kong anyway.”
Krause paused to polish his eyeglasses with a soft cloth he carried in his top pocket. “In the meantime, I may have another way for us to see the mysterious Easterbrook automatons in action. Let me send out a couple of telegrams when we return to the Constantina. I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Two days later, our landing party crossed the harbor on the same ferry route, this time to visit the estate of Princess Franziska Valentina von Filderstadt. The 3,000-acre property was located on the northern end of the Kowloon Peninsula, close to the British colony’s border with China proper.
Princess Franziska sent a luxurious carriage to pick us up. It was bigger than any wagon Molly and I had ever traveled in before, though I had seen some like it crossing the old Blackfriars Bridge in London. Instead of four wheels, it had six, and the interior was big enough to accommodate three rows of leather seats. Constructed of fine hardwoods, mostly cherry and mahogany, the carriage had fancy stained glass windows, and was pulled by a team of sturdy Belgian draft horses. The Scottish driver had mutton-chop sideburns and wore a heavy oilskin overcoat and wide brimmed hat.
Professor Krause told us more about the princess as we traveled north through steep green mountains: “Princess Franziska is related to Queen Victoria by marriage, she was the niece of the Queen’s late husband, Prince Albert, a German, of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. The Princess wed Prince Johann II, the presiding monarch of the Principality of Liechtenstein in 1870. It was an arranged marriage, and things didn’t turn out well, mostly because of Prince Johann’s reclusive behavior. The man is well-known as an obsessive introvert who shuns all forms of socializing.”
Molly spoke up: “Where is the Principality of Liechtenstein, professor? I’m sure I’ve heard of it before in my studies.”
“Liechtenstein is one of the smallest countries in the world, just 62 square miles, it’s bordered by Switzerland and Austria, along the upper Rhine River. It gained its sovereignty many centuries ago as a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire and has managed to remain independent through a number of different alliances, most recently with the German Confederation, before the coalition was dissolved in the years following the Great Hydrogen War.”
“Prior to that,” said Rebekah, “Liechtenstein was part of Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine, after the French defeated Austria and Russia at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1806.”
“Ja, a small country with great fortitude, that’s why it’s survived through the years.” The wagon creaked and groaned as we crossed an uneven spot in the road. Krause adjusted his position and continued: “Princess Franziska was unhappy in her marriage to Johann, but a divorce would have been too controversial, so instead, they agreed to an amiable separation. No one would know the difference, because Johann rarely appeared in public anyway. Queen Victoria remained close to Franziska after the untimely death of her husband Prince Albert, and to keep her happy, she gave Franziska a land grant here on the Kowloon. Franziska is still Princess of Liechtenstein but resides here in Hong Kong.”
Captain Galloway produced a tin of snuff and gingerly took a pinch as the carriage rocked back and forth on the rough road. “So how did you become acquainted with her royal highness?”
“A Chinese national, Dr. Jafata, was invited by Princess Franziska to set up a laboratory on her estate. I’m well acquainted with Dr. Jafata from his visits to the university in Rostock. He’s a Manchu from Peking and goes by the singular name.
“A brilliant speaker.” said Kristin. “I attended his lectures.”
“He’s working in genetic research now.” Krause nodded at Kristin. “Using science to enhance agriculture. The Princess is sponsoring his research with money from her family fortune.”
“How does the good doctor’s research fit in with our investigation of the rogue automatons?” said Captain Galloway.
“According to the telegram I received from Dr. Jafata, Princess Franziska is using Easterbrook automatons as servants.”
The carriage crossed a narrow divide between two mountain peaks and began a descent into a more level valley. After another mile or so we reached the entrance to Princess Franziska’s estate. Tall iron fencing defined the perimeter, stretching out in both directions for as far as the eye could see. A watchman swung the gate wide when he saw the familiar carriage approaching. As we cleared the entry gate, I noticed a pair of men on horseback, armed guards patrolling the inside of the fence line. There was rolling green pastureland behind the iron barriers, bordered by forest in the distance.
The ride improved greatly as we left the rough dirt road behind and started down a lengthy cobblestone drive lined with waist high rock walls. Black Angus cattle were grazing in the pastures on both sides of the drive, and from my window seat, I was first to notice there was something different about the cattle.
“Those cows look awfully small,” I said to Molly. “Is it my imagination?”
She paused to have a look, and then: “No, I think you’re right. Angus are not an overly large breed, but those cows aren’t much bigger than small dogs. They appear to be the size of cocker spaniels.”
“Are they calves?”
“No, look – there’s a couple of calves over there, and they’re even smaller.”
“Liechtenstein miniature farm animals,” said Professor Krause, shedding light on the mystery. “It appears Dr. Jafata has been hard at work.”
After a few hundred yards of travel on the cobblestone drive, we reached Princess Franziska’s luxurious home. It was built from granite blocks and looked like a small sized castle, a prominent circular tower with a witch’s hat roof rising above the rest of the house. The driver stopped the wagon in front of an elaborate arched entryway.
When we exited the carriage, we were greeted by a slender man dressed in a high-buttoned black waistcoat. “Welcome to the royal estate. I’m Nevin, Princess Franziska’s butler. Her majesty and Dr. Jafata are taking tea in the atrium. Please follow me.”
From a distance, the butler appeared normal, but when I took a closer look at his face, I could tell he wasn’t human. Constructed of fine porcelain, his face had a polished sheen, and though his eyes and mouth moved, the rest of his mug looked rigid. When he pivoted his head, it wasn’t a smooth fluid movement; the motion was choppy, it moved in mechanical degrees.
We found the Princess and Jafata having tea in an octagonal glass atrium surrounded by a colorful flower garden at the rear of the house. There was a steep drop-off beyond the back lawn that afforded a view of the city of Shenzhen in the distance, across the Sham Chun River, the boundary between colonial Hong Kong and China proper.
Princess Franziska was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, but noticeably overweight. She spoke English with a thick Bavarian accent, and quickly involved Molly, Rebekah, and Kristin in long-winded talk of fashion and the arts. She dominated the conversation, delighted to have female company, and it was hard for any of the other women to get a word in edgewise.
There were other automaton servants at the royal residence. Audrey served us tea and cookies in a black and white maid’s outfit, and her porcelain face had the same polished sheen and herky-jerky movements I had noticed with the butler. Two more of the life-like robots were gardening in the flower beds outside the glass, weeding the geraniums and chrysanthemums, and watching them move, I thought it would be obvious to anyone that they weren’t human.
“So how are you making out with your Easterbrook automatons, your highness?” asked Captain Galloway when there was a lull in her gossipy chatter.
“Oh, they’re wonderful, captain. I’m quite pleased to have them.”
“A gang of them managed to hijack two of our airships.”
“Dr. Jafata told me all about it, and I must say I’m rather surprised. I’ve had Nevin and Audrey for over three years now, and I’ve never had a problem.”
“Three years, eh? I wonder if there’s any difference in the ones manufactured more recently.”
“Yes, there’s a considerable difference,” said Jafata. He was round faced, wearing wire rimmed eyeglasses with thick lenses. He spoke crisp English with a northern Chinese accent. “The current models are more advanced with improved intelligence and reasoning ability.”
“When we visited Easterbrook on Monday, the tour guide allowed us to inspect one of their police robots,” said Krause. “It was rather fascinating looking inside its brass skull, seeing the copper disc assembly that constitutes its mechanical brain. But they wouldn’t let us anywhere near their automatons.”
“The automaton’s brain is significantly more advanced as compared to the police robot.”
“How does it work?” Galloway took a sip of tea. “What makes it tick?”
“I’ve never cracked one open; I really don’t know. I took a close look at Nevin, and it appears that opening up his head requires some type of special tool, and a knowledge of the robot’s inner workings that Easterbrook is keeping confidential.”
Princess Franziska gazed at Dr. Jafata with an expression of astonishment. “I wish you wouldn’t use such coarse language, doctor. Cracking open my dear butler’s head sounds quite macabre.”
“My apology, Princess,” replied Dr. Jafata politely, bowing his head. “Perhaps I was a bit carried away in my terminology. It wasn’t my intention to offend you.”
“Of course it wasn’t doctor. I’ve just become so accustomed to having automated domestics, that I’ve almost begun to regard them as real people. Often when I’m here by myself, I’ll talk with Nevin and Audrey, and though they have limited vocabularies, they provide me with companionship. I’m so sorry you had trouble with the automated pirates, captain, but for me, owning Easterbrook automatons has been simply wonderful.”
As the Princess continued to speak, Audrey stood before us with teapot in hand, cocking her head from side to side, herky-jerky, moving in mechanical degrees. The automaton’s shiny porcelain face remained expressionless, as rigid as the teapot, conveying no emotion at all.
“Would you like more tea, Ma’am?”
“Yes. Thank you, Audrey.”
Dr. Jafata’s laboratory was located further down the cobblestone drive. It was a warm and sunny day, and we decided to walk the few hundred yards to the low brick building. Though she looked as if she could use the exercise, Princess Franziska chose to remain in the atrium and play her flugelhorn.
We walked by more of the pint-sized black Angus grazing in pastureland on both sides of the drive. They were quite small indeed, the cows no bigger than small dogs. Dr. Krause and his fair German colleagues seemed to be well acquainted with the concept of miniature cows, though Captain Galloway was as startled as Molly and I.
“Why in the world would there be an advantage to breeding livestock so small?” Captain Galloway walked close to the fence line, and he craned his head to have a better look.
“Miniature farm animals were originally bred in Liechtenstein to take advantage of limited pastureland in the very small nation,” responded Jafata. “A small sized cow eats less grass and takes up less room in the stalls.”
“Hold on a minute. That doesn’t make sense because a smaller sized cow is going to produce less beef. Instead of smaller farm animals, the Liechtensteiners would simply need fewer farm animals. There’s less people to feed in a small sized country too.”
Jafata smiled and nodded, “Well, it would appear that way, wouldn’t it? And technically, captain, you’re right, but what the miniature farm animals really did for Liechtenstein, was give the small nation a degree of notoriety. In the years leading up to the Great Hydrogen War, it became fashionable for well-heeled tourists to dine on Liechtenstein miniature game hens and miniature pork chops that were no bigger than the end of your thumb.”
“It would take an awfully small pig to produce a pork chop that small.” Captain Galloway held his hand out and gazed at his thumb.
“Yes, quite small.”
“How would you go about eating a pork chop that small?”
“With a special set of dining tweezers.”
We arrived at Dr. Jafata’s laboratory and followed him inside. He showed us a pen full of pigs that were no bigger than mice.
“Excuse me if I sound impertinent,” said Captain Galloway, “but once again – what in God’s name is the point of all this? Why are you spending so much time breeding farm animals that are so small?”
“The small sized meats are a delicacy in China and Japan. Very small equals very expensive in Tokyo and Peking.”
“Well, that explains it – there’s money in it. I should have known.”
“A small sized pig eats less feed and is worth its weight in gold.”
“For the sake of scientific discovery as well, captain,” added Krause. “Breeding miniature farm animals is a thoroughly fascinating endeavor.”
“They certainly are cute,” said Molly.
Galloway looked towards me and rolled his eyes. “Well, thank you very much for the tour, Dr. Jafata.” He quickly checked his pocket watch. “We have important matters to attend to in Hong Kong and should be heading back now.”
“Of course, captain. It was a pleasure meeting you. If there’s anything I can help you with, please don’t hesitate to call.”