Part XIV – The Songbirds Of Shantou

©2020 William A. Lasher

March 20, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Hong Kong Airship Station

There was an English style pub called Hennigan’s within an easy walk of the airship station. It was owned by a Brit, and the staff were mostly Chinese. Molly and I walked over after taking in the sunset from the platform, and we found Delone dealing poker in a semi-private room towards the back.

The manager had given his approval, and Private Delone was running the game on a table wide enough that he had to stand up to deal the cards. When we arrived, the players were Wildenstein, Jane Deven, Scribbens, and Zanetti.

Delone was smooth with a deck of cards, and he did a couple of magic tricks before reshuffling the deck and dealing out hands. “Five cards down, nines are wild, place your bets and you can draw up to three.” He finished the deal, set the remaining cards down at the center of the table, and retook his seat.

“No cheating this time, Delone.” Scribbens picked up his cards and took a long look at them, holding them close.

“Cheating? Why, I’ve never cheated at a thing in my life.” Delone feigned astonishment as he checked his own hand.

Molly and I took seats nearby where Moonblade, Sunarko, and Wingham were drinking beer. Shortly after we arrived, Professor Krause showed up, accompanied by Miss Krämer and Miss Schumacher. He bought a fresh pitcher of beer and asked the server to refresh the ones we already had going.

When Johnny reached for his wallet, Krause waved him off. “This round is on me, Sergeant Moonblade.”

“Thanks, professor.” Moonblade raised his glass.

“Of course.” Krause took a long drink and then used his handkerchief to wipe a bit of lingering foam from his mustache. “I’m pleased to find the same Filipino lager we sampled in Kudat. A truly exceptional draft and quite fresh I think.”

Krause carefully refolded his starchy white handkerchief, returned it to his coat pocket and continued: “I just finished a conference with Captain Galloway, and it appears there’s been a change in plans.”

“A change in plans?” said Molly, leaning forward in her seat, her interest piqued.

Ja, another commercial airship was hijacked by the cargo they were carrying – Easterbrook automatons. Somewhere between here and Shanghai. We received a flurry of telegrams from London a little while ago, and the Crown has ordered our squadron to investigate.”

“Without the Amelia Snavely?” I said.

“It looks that way. MacDougall has at least a week left on the repairs.”

“Kurniawan will be bent,” said Moonblade.

Captain Kurniawan had fallen into the habit of leading his men on an early morning run from the garrison on Caroline Hill to the airship station at the edge of the harbor. They ran through the forest on a trail that followed a tiny stream down the steep mountainside. The Morpurgos often passed solitary Buddhist monks meditating along the way. The trail had been built by the residents of a local monastery, and the monks had put considerable effort into constructing the footpath with stone retaining walls and steps cut into the earth here and there.

Once they reached the elevated platform, Kurniawan led the crews of all three airships in calisthenics as the sun rose above the South China Sea. As our civilian science advisors, Professor Krause and his assistants weren’t required to take part, but they joined us every morning nonetheless. Rebekah and Kristin were both in fairly good shape, and they did their best to keep up with Kurniawan’s pace. The professor had his own personal exercise regime that included touching his toes, stretching, and then sitting down to read the morning edition of the Hong Kong Post. 

Kurniawan led the rest of us through an hour or so of exercises, and then the crew of the Amelia Snavely departed the airship station, jogging down the waterfront towards the MacDougall Shipyard to check on the shipwrights’ progress with the repairs.

When Kurniawan and his men arrived at the platform on the morning following our visit to Hennigans, they were startled to see the Fiery Crimson Messenger and the Constantina in the midst of lifting off. The order had come late in the evening, and apparently Kurniawan had yet to be notified.

I was inspecting my weaponry in the rear gun emplacement when I saw the Morpurgos clearing the stairway and running out on to the vacated platform. I used my observation scope to focus in on Kurniawan’s face as we slowly gained altitude. He was stopped cold with a bewildered expression, jaw dropped and mouth open as he gazed up at us.

But then I noticed flashes of bright light crossing his face, and his expression changed instantly. Sunarko had reached the crow’s nest high atop our center mast, and he was flashing Morse code with a mirror, telling his fellow countrymen what we were up to. That we were departing the airship station on a mission to locate a crew of rogue automatons, robots like the ones that had disabled the Amelia Snavely with their cannon fire.

Cheering broke out on the platform as the airships floated out over Victoria Harbor, and Kurniawan’s Morpurgos raised clenched fists in solidarity.

Moonblade set a course tending east by northeast along the Guangdong coastline, with the Fiery Crimson Messenger in the lead, and the Constantina following at a slightly higher altitude. We stayed below the clouds so that we could observe the activity along the coast closely. There was no need for the sailing crews to don their cumbersome oxygen suits.

It was a busy shipping lane between Hong Kong and Shanghai, approximately 700 miles to the northeast. A number of European clipper ships and Chinese junks bound for Hong Kong passed beneath us as we flew a few hundred yards above the surface of the ocean. We overtook others tacking in the opposite direction towards Shanghai, their progress impeded by the strong trades. Our sails remained furled in the vigorous headwind and we averaged about 15 knots under H gas power alone.

Viewing the irregular coastline from my ordnance station, I saw numerous villages at the water’s edge, and fishing boats anchored in the bays. Steep green mountains rose up on the mainland with farming activity visible in the narrow valleys. The morning air was thick with humidity and warming up quickly after the brief cool snap we had encountered when we first arrived in Hong Kong.

My observation scope was strong enough to focus in on active fishing boats, and I could see their occupants standing in awe at the sight of our expeditionary airships passing overhead. The immense Constantina cast a shadow that was quite large indeed, and our military gun emplacements were something the indigenous natives were not accustomed to seeing on airships.

Sunarko flashed friendly greetings from the Crown for any of the boatmen who could read Morse code, but none responded. Rural Chinese were notoriously wary of outsiders, and their fascination with our airships was tainted with a degree of hostility.

By late morning, we cleared a rocky cape at Jinghai, and Moonblade brought us about to a more northerly heading. We continued up the coast towards Shantou, a port city at the end of the Han River Valley.

Scribbens had put a leg of lamb in the onboard smoker, and the aroma of slow cooking mutton began to permeate the interior of the gondola. I climbed the ship’s ladder to the main deck, to see if he had anything planned for lunch, and Molly called to me from her quarters as she saw me passing.

“Smells like Scribbens has something good planned for dinner,” I said, poking my head inside her chambers.

“He’ll have chicken soup for lunch in a few minutes.” Molly was seated at her desk, and she turned in her chair to address me. “Have you seen anything unusual in your observations?”

“Plenty of fishermen close to the beach, and a number of clipper ships and junks further out, but nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Step inside and close the door. I have something important to discuss with you.”

I ducked inside, gently pulling the door shut behind me. I rested my derriere on the settee. “What’s up?”

“I just finished deciphering a coded telegram from Captain Galloway. It looks as if the Tigress has been located. It’s moored in a remote location on Nan’ao Island, a couple of miles off the coast from Shantou.”

“The Tigress is the hijacked airship?”

“Yup. Similar to the ones we shot down on our way into Hong Kong. An outdated coal burner.” Molly stuck her pencil behind her ear and sat back in her chair. “It appears the automatons are working on modifying the ship. Installing cannons like the others had.”

“But it’s moored on the ground? That should make our job easy. We can fly in low and disable it with the Longstones.”

“Except the Crown wants us to bring at least one of the automatons back to Hong Kong intact. So we can crack it open and see what makes it tick.”

“That certainly makes things more difficult. How’re we going to pull it off?”

“There’s an undercover British operative in Shantou. He’ll lead a team in on the ground. The airship station isn’t big enough to accommodate the Constantina, but we should be able to land the Fiery Crimson Messenger without a problem.”

“Who’s the undercover operative in Shantou?”

“I don’t have that information yet. Galloway said he’ll get back in touch when we arrive at the station.”

A waning gibbous moon was rising in the eastern sky when Molly and I departed the Shantou airship station dressed in civilian clothes. Moonblade accompanied us, and she left Sunarko in charge of the airship. Our orders were to avoid contact with anyone until we arrived at the rendezvous point. We followed Galloway’s instructions, taking a footpath through an unlit wooded area. When we reached the center of the dark wood, we paused and stood quietly for a few minutes, to make sure we weren’t being followed.

We located the rendezvous point after we descended a slight hill and came upon a quiet row of houses and shops on a dirt side street. It was a blacksmith shop, and Moonblade knocked three times on the back door as we had been instructed. A light came on inside, and a soft spoken Chinese man answered the door. He spoke little English, but told us his name was Jing-Sheng. He motioned for us to follow him to an enclosed carriage that was parked in front of a barn behind the shop.

We took hardback seats inside the carriage, and Jing-Sheng climbed up on the driver’s perch. He paused to light a pair of H gas lamps that were fixed to poles on either side of his seat. Then he snapped the reins and we were off, pulled by a pair of stocky blonde horses.

I heard an owl hooting in the trees as we sat quietly in the carriage, proceeding at a moderate pace down a narrow dirt lane. From the salty smell of the onshore breeze, and the position of the moon, I could tell we were headed east towards the ocean. After two or three miles of travel, the carriage slowed, and we came to a dead end at a pair of wrought iron gates. There were stone columns on either side, and one of them bore a brass plate with fancy engraved lettering. The words said: Sir Evan Meriwether Beckwith III, Master Of Hounds. 

As we closed in on the gates, they sprung to life and opened automatically, I’m not sure if they were steam driven or perhaps powered by H gas, but as soon as we had passed, they closed behind us, with no sign of human interaction. Molly turned in her seat to watch them latch, and then turned towards me and silently raised her eyebrows in an expression of wonderment.

After traveling another hundred yards or so, we came to an imposing stone dwelling that was surrounded by a copse of deciduous trees. The entry was well lit, and a polite Chinese man walked out to greet us as the carriage came to a stop on the circular drive. He was short in stature and slight of build, and he reached out to catch the door as Moonblade swung it open.

“I’m Liang. Sir Evan is expecting you.” He motioned for us to follow. We climbed down, and once we were clear of the carriage, Jing-Sheng silently tipped his hat, snapped the reins, and rode off. Molly checked her pocket watch – it was a few minutes after 11:00 pm.

We found Sir Evan Meriwether Beckwith III in his tastefully furnished study. After greeting us, he invited us to sit by the fireplace. Molly and I sat next to each other on a fancy tufted Chesterfield, and Moonblade took a leather armchair between Beckwith’s chair and a small fire, just enough to take the chill off of the cool evening. Liang sat on a hardwood chair by the door; he remained silent, but followed the conversation closely.

Beckwith was an affable chap, about 50, well spoken, with an air of sophistication. He wore a burgundy smoking jacket and rawhide slippers. We never asked about his title, but apparently at some point he had been knighted by the Queen. He poured glasses of brandy and then offered us cigars. Moonblade selected one from the box while Molly and I turned him down. Moonblade clipped the end with a fancy silver cutter, planted it in his mouth, and accepted a light from Sir Evan.

Moonblade puffed on the cigar until it was well lit, and then he pulled it from his mouth to look it over. “That’s an interesting taste. Different than what I’ve had in the Western Territory.”

“The tobacco is grown here in China, on Hainan island. The seeds were originally brought from America, before the Great Hydrogen War. Subsequently, the product has acquired it’s own unique qualities.”

Sir Evan paused to light his own cigar and then continued, “I apologize if you were inconvenienced by the stealth that was required in your trip from the airship station, Captain Abbotsford, but it’s important that my relationship with the British military remains a secret.  I’m sure that by now, the appearance of your craft has been noticed by the local authorities, and more than likely their spies are observing it closely.”

“This is a beautiful house,” said Molly,”have you lived here long?”

“My grandfather built it many years ago. He died tragically during the Second Opium War when the estate was overrun by the Chinese Army. Following the conflict, Shantou was established as a treaty port, and as my grandfather’s heir, I was given the right to stay on. The land is Chinese territory, but I have full ownership. If they ever tried to take it from me, it would be an act of war.

“Captain Galloway said that the Tigress was spotted on Nan’ao Island. Is that far from here?”

“Not far at all. When the sun comes up, you’ll see it plain as day.” He paused to take note of the time on a tall longcase clock that stood against the wall. It was closing in on midnight. “We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow, so I think I’ll call it a night. Liang will show you to the guest house. If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”

We were up with the sun on the following morning, and had the opportunity to take a better look at our surroundings. The guest house was on the waterfront, a tidy two story affair with jet black shutters and white clapboard siding. The main house was across an overgrown lawn, on top of a slight incline. The property was located on a sheltered bay, protected from the ocean surf by a sand bar. The tide was out at sunrise, and we could see patches of the sandy barrier protruding from the water.

A pair of docks extended out into the bay, adjacent to the guest house. A sloop and a larger schooner were moored on either side of one of them, and a curious looking paddle-wheel boat was moored to the other.

Mrs. Gibbs was Sir Evan’s housekeeper, a stout turnip-shaped woman who spoke in a heavy east end dialect. She carried two covered trays down the walk from the main house, and Liang followed, carrying a pot of tea. Mrs. Gibbs served us eggs and toast with bangers and bacon for breakfast. Moonblade found an assortment of jams and jellies in one of the dining area cabinets.

“I hope you like your eggs scrambled,” said a terse Mrs. Gibbs before she departed, “and if there’s anything left over, feel free to throw it to the hounds.”

We’d noticed the kennels on our walk to the guest house the night before. Liang told us that Sir Evan conducted traditional British foxhunts, and as far as he knew, they were the only foxhunts that took place anywhere in China.

“What happens when you corner a fox?” Molly had asked. “Do you shoot it?”

“No, we let it go,” responded Liang. “The fox will learn from his mistake, and next time he might not be so easy to catch.”

Sir Evan walked down from the house and joined us as we were finishing up the food that Mrs. Gibbs had brought. “How was the breakfast?”

“Delicious,” said Molly as she wiped her mouth with one of the fancy embroidered napkins Moonblade had found in a drawer.

“Mrs. Gibbs is a bit brusque in demeanor, but a wonderful cook. She’s been with my family for a number of years.”

“Too good to throw to the hounds,” said Moonblade as he gave Molly a questioning expression and then snatched the last piece of toast from her plate. He used a butter knife to slather it up with apricot preserves before wolfing it down.

“So that must be Nan’ao,” I said, lifting my chin towards the dark green island that was visible through a window.

“It is indeed, Sergeant Highgarden. For the most part it’s a heavily forested islet with steep terrain, but my source said the hijacked airship is moored in a flat open area towards the center.”

The paddle-wheel was originally a river craft that Sir Evan and Liang had modified to run on H gas. The drive train was formerly powered by human cranked pedals, but it was slow on the water, and thus ill suited for ocean travel, so they installed an H gas rotary motor to power  it instead. They also moved the paddle-wheel to the front so that it pulled the boat instead of pushing it through the water, giving them the ability to drag fishing nets from the stern. It was a small sized vessel, and with the throttle open, it moved across the water at a brisk clip.

Halfway across the strait, Liang used a metal bar to pry the lid off of a wooden box that bore a seafood company logo. There were a number of firearms and also containers packed with ammunition inside. Mostly rifles, but Sir Evan handed Molly a .45 caliber holstered pistol on a belt. “Captain Galloway said you prefer a sidearm to a rifle, Captain Abbotsford?”

“Yes, thank you,” as she tried it on for size.

“I thought it best to keep the weaponry concealed until we cleared the coast.”

“Could your house be under surveillance?” I said as I checked the action on one of the .50 caliber rifles and then positioned the sling on my shoulder.

Oi, Shantou is thick with Qing dynasty informants. With the Fiery Crimson Messenger moored at the airship station, there’s liable to be government spies watching the estate closely.”

“Are there any settlements on Nan’ao?” said Moonblade. We were halfway across the strait and the island was coming into clear view.

“Nothing permanent. Sometimes fishermen will set up camps, but it’s a rather small islet, less than two miles long, and only a half mile wide. No one lives on it.”

“Probably why the automatons chose it then,” continued Moonblade, “but I was wondering where they came up with the cannons and other supplies they need to modify the ship.”

“They may have acquired the cannons elsewhere and brought them along, or perhaps someone is providing them with assistance. It’s hard to say.”

We took off our shoes when we reached the island, so we could wade in the water and drag the boat ashore. With all five of us pulling, we were able to drag it up on to the grey sand beach easily. Liang produced a bundle of rope from an onboard compartment, and we secured the craft to the trees so it wouldn’t float away when the tide came in.

Our landing point was at the far western tip of the oblong island, and we found ourselves at the base of a steep promontory. Sir Evan said that scaling the hill would give us a good view of the entire islet, so we set out climbing straight uphill through the dense forest. It was slow going, and at first we followed an ill-defined game trail. Further up, the forest thinned out, and we clawed our way up a scree covered cliff, until finally, after an hour or so, we reached the top.

The overall view was tremendous. Looking back towards the mainland, I could see the Constantina flying low over the Han River delta, and there below us sat the Tigress. We stayed low in the scrub brush as we eased our way out to the edge of the summit. Sir Evan laid down flat on his stomach to take a close look with his quadoptical, though it was fairly easy to see the details of the pirate ship with the naked eye.

There was a beehive of activity, and we could hear sawing and hammering echoing through the forest from our observation point. The robots were cutting holes on either side of the gondola, and then fashioning hinged doors from the scrap. It looked as if a few of the cannons had already been installed.

“A sitting duck for the Constantina,” whispered Moonblade.

“But we have to figure out a way to capture one of the automatons before we call them in,” responded Molly, keeping her voice low too.

“How’re we going to do that?”

“I’m not sure. What do you think, Sir Evan?”

“It looks a bit tricky, now doesn’t it?” He lowered the quadoptical and turned his head back towards the rest of us. “If we shoot one of them with a rifle, it will damage the internal workings.”

“General Evernight emphasized an intact unit in his telegram. That’s the whole premise of our mission.”

“I savvy that, captain. We need to find a way to trap one of them.” Sir Evan paused, and then, “what’s your opinion, Liang? How’re we going to pull it off?” He handed the quadoptical to his Chinese assistant.

Liang took a long look through the glasses and then, “It appears they have solitary sentries posted around the perimeter of the work area. If we can lure one of them into the forest we might be able to immobilize it.”

“Immobilize it, and then spirit it off before the others become aware. Now we’re getting somewhere. How will we trap it, and trap it quietly?” 

“Perhaps a fishing net might work,” responded Liang. “We have fishing nets on the paddle-wheel. Can you climb trees, Sergeant Moonblade?”

“You bet. I can climb trees like an ape.”

“Sergeant Moonblade and I will climb up into the trees and stretch a net out. Then Captain Abbotsford and Sergeant Highgarden will create a disturbance. Something to lure the automaton into the forest and under the trees. When it runs underneath us, we drop the net.”

“But the sentries are carrying rifles,” said Moonblade.

“They appear to be .30 caliber muzzle loaders.” Sir Evan took the quadoptical from Liang and went back to studying the pirate ship. “A primitive firearm at best. Notorious for misfires.”

“Still enough to blow your head off at close range,” said Moonblade.

“After we drop the net,” said Liang, “I’ll jump from the tree and land on the robot’s back. In the confusion, I can easily disarm it.”

“That might be easier said than done.”

“Liang has a black belt in bajiquan. Pouncing on the automaton and disarming it is well within his abilities.”

We climbed back down to the paddle-wheel and Liang opened a hatch where the fishing nets were stored. He located the biggest one. It was neatly folded in a compact square, but when stretched out, it proved to be quite large. We refilled our canteens from an onboard reservoir, and set out hiking, this time staying low along the beach. In less than an hour, we had reached the general vicinity of the pirate airship.

As we quietly approached it, concealed from view by dense forest, we could hear the automaton leader shouting out commands to the rest of the crew, his mechanical sounding voice echoing through the heavy undergrowth: Joe! Get busy with that saw, we’ve got no time for loafing! 

Moonblade and Liang found a pair of older ginkgo trees with thick lower branches, the lowest about ten feet off the ground. Johnny climbed one tree and Liang the other. They spread out the fishing net, and tied a length of rope to the edges of it on either side, as the rest of us crouched down in the brush and watched them work. The rope was rigged so that when they cut both sides in unison, the net would drop evenly, and trap their mark beneath it. Liang used sign language to signal Sir Evan that they were ready to proceed.

Sir Evan stayed near the trap while Molly and I sneaked through the woods towards the airship. We followed a sketchy game trail, and then ducked behind thick bushes when we saw one of the automaton sentries.

He, or should I say it, looked very lifelike except for its stiff porcelain face, and it moved its head in mechanical degrees, herky-jerky, like Princess Franziska’s domestics. The robot was dressed in a generic looking khaki service uniform and carried a .30 caliber muzzle loader.

“What do we do now?” whispered Molly.

“Get its attention somehow.”

“How do we do that?”

“Um, I don’t know,” I paused for a moment and then, “throw something at it.”

“Like this?” Molly picked up a rock and threw it at the automaton, hitting it square in the chest. The startled sentry swiveled its shiny face until it was staring straight at our hiding place. Molly and I stood up and took off running towards the trap, and as we had hoped, the robot laid chase.

The automaton’s ambulation was labored and stiff, and we had to slow down a bit to let it catch up. But it followed us nonetheless, and as it crossed under the tree limbs where Moonblade and Liang sat hiding, they sliced the ropes in unison, and the net floated down from the tree limbs smoothly, burying the Easterbrook automaton beneath it.

As the net blanketed the hapless robot, it began to flail its arms about, and yell from its mechanical voice box. Liang jumped out of the tree and pounced on its back, doing his best to immobilize and silence the machine, but it was too late, because the automaton leader had already heard the calls of distress.

Bob?! Is that you?! Why did you abandon your post?! What the hell’s going on out there?! 

Moonblade was out of his tree now too, and he and Liang did their best to keep the automaton quiet while they pulled the net off and tied it up with rope. They got it to its feet and began hustling it towards the beach in the opposite direction from the Tigress. Sir Evan signaled Molly and I to take up positions covering their retreat.

Before long, two more of the automated sentries came running up the trail in their not so smooth mechanical gait, and we dispatched them easily with our superior firepower. Molly dropped one with her sidearm, and raising my fifty, I hit the other with enough force to bowl it over backwards, and it landed in a mud puddle with an audible splat!

The yelling and commotion we heard next indicated the automaton leader had decided they would evacuate the island before they lost anymore of their crew. We saw the Tigress rising above the treetops and slowly gaining altitude as we reached the beach with our bound captive.

It was an outdated airship, with a coal powered locomotive engine, and the crew was experiencing difficulty firing it up. We could hear the engine start, run rough, and then stall out numerous times. Clouds of black smoke were pouring out of the bottom of the vertical exhaust stacks as the craft gained more altitude.

“They seem to be having trouble getting it to run properly,” said Sir Evan as we watched from below.

“And here comes the Constantina,” said Moonblade shielding his eyes from the sun, and pointing towards the west. The mother ship had a favorable tailwind, and with the sails rolled out on all five masts, they were gliding across the strait at full speed, topping 20 knots easily.

Finally, the pirate ship’s steam engine began to run smoothly as the Constantina closed in on the island.

“My guess is, Jane Deven just sent the Tigress a telegram, ordering them to fly to the Shantou airship station and surrender.” said Molly.

“You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?” said the captive automaton in a haughty tone of voice.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your mechanical mouth shut,” said Sir Evan.

“And what’ll you do if I don’t, you British blowhard?”

“Liang, gag the unruly automaton.”

Liang stuffed a bandana in the robot’s mouth.

Molly cleared her voice. “As I was saying, Jane Deven  just sent the pirates a telegram, but it’s unlikely they’ll cooperate.”

Instead, as my bricky girlfriend had just predicted, they lit off one of their newly installed cannons. It was a wild shot, and it missed the Constantina by a mile. They lit off another – it misfired, and the cannonball rolled out the end of the barrel and tumbled into the ocean.

The Constantina was bearing down on them now, and the forward gunner lit up his flamethrower, roasting the smaller ship’s gondola until it was fully engulfed in flames. Galloway ordered his pilot to back off on the throttle, and just as the mother ship began to veer off, and our landing party took cover, the H gas in the pirate ship’s dirigible ignited: Kaboom!  I could feel the percussion on my rib cage, the colossal explosion was so close.

Landing within a hundred yards of the beach, the flaming wreckage crashed into the ocean, issuing forth a tremendous cloud of billowing black smoke. We could hear the burning debris sizzling in the seawater.

The Constantina came about and flew towards us until they were directly overhead. One of the airlock doors opened, and Zanetti appeared. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled something at us, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying over the noisy ocean surf, so instead, he produced a signaling mirror and exchanged Morse code with Moonblade:

Zanetti: Did you manage to capture one of the automatons? 

Moonblade: Affirmative. Send down a cargo basket. 

A hatch on the underside of the craft swung open, and a cargo basket appeared, lowered by a steel cable towards our location on the beach. Moonblade and Liang tied the captive automaton securely to the basket, and then Johnny signaled Zanetti to retract the cable. He activated the winch and sent us a final message: Captain Galloway said return to your airship and we’ll meet you off the coast when you’re airborne. 

We watched from the beach as the Constantina sailed across the width of the island, and then as they gained elevation, cruised out over the open sea. The immense dirigible grew smaller and smaller in the sky as we set out hiking towards the paddle-wheel.

The tide was coming in by the time we made it back to the far end of the island. We launched the boat with ease in the high water and climbed aboard. Sir Evan fired up the motor and took the wheel, pointing the craft towards the mainland and we sailed back across the strait.

Halfway across, we laid the firearms back in the wooden seafood box. Moonblade helped with the cover and then Liang used a hammer to nail it shut. When he was done, Liang sat down on the box.

“How long did it take you to get your black belt?” said Moonblade as he took a seat on the gunwale facing him.

Liang narrowed his eyes in the late afternoon sun. He looked out across the ocean swells, and then towards Johnny. He smiled. “It’s a long road to proficiency in bajiquan, Moonblade. Not as easy as it may look. In Guangdong we start very young.”

Sir Evan bypassed the estate, piloting the craft around a point, and into the main Shantou harbor. He landed the boat at the end of a long public dock in front of a busy open air fish market. The outline of the Fiery Crimson Messenger’s dirigible was visible in the distance, at the top of a wooded incline.

“Walk through the market, and when you get to the other side of it, you’ll be on Taishan Road, it’s the chief thoroughfare in this part of town. At the top of the hill, where Taishan dead ends, you’ll come to a pathway through the forest. The airship station is on the other side of the wood.”

“Thank you for your help, Sir Evan,” said Molly extending her hand as we prepared to depart.

“The pleasure was all mine, captain.” Beckwith took her hand lightly. “Until we meet again.”

The area around the market was humming with activity. The merchants were mostly Chinese, and we passed a number of European sailors on the street; mostly British, and also Dutch, German, and Portuguese. The commercial buildings and houses along the waterfront were well kept, but the appearance of the dwellings further inland deteriorated quickly, typical of most of the Asian ports we had visited.

It was less than a mile to the top of the hill and the airship station. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and I was looking forward to seeing what Scribbens had planned for dinner as we cleared the wood and crossed a grassy area at the base of the platform. We were about to climb the stairway when a Chinese man standing by himself beneath a nearby ginkgo tree called out to Molly: “Captain Abbotsford, how did the mission go?”

All three of us stopped dead in our tracks at the entrance to the stairway. Molly gazed at the man silently for a few moments and then, “Excuse me?”

“You are Captain Abbotsford, aren’t you?” The man walked towards us. He had a friendly demeanor and was well dressed, in stylish European clothes. He was older, close to sixty, and walked with the aid of a cane and was smoking a pipe.

“Yes, I’m Captain Abbotsford,” Molly responded politely as she took a close look at the man. “And who might you be?”

“You could call me a concerned citizen.” He took the pipe from his mouth and smiled. “Fishermen reported a large explosion over Nan’ao Island a couple of hours ago, and then your mother ship was seen flying away from the scene towards the south. So I will ask you once again – how did the mission go, Captain Abbotsford? Were you successful in capturing an Easterbrook automaton and then destroying the pirate airship?” His small smile changed to a broad grin, and he nodded his head at Molly.

“I honestly don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course,” said the man, maintaining his friendly demeanor. “So what brings you to our small and humble airship station then?”

My common sense told me it would be best to avoid any type of confrontation with our mysterious inquisitor, and making eye contact with Molly, I could tell she was thinking the same thing. The man was alone, he had no back-up, and he didn’t appear to be armed.

“We stopped in to refurbish our supplies. To buy some local tea, and sample the wonderful fish market.”

“Ah, yes.” Nodding and puffing on his pipe. “To buy local tea, and visit the market. Of course.”

“And also to do some bird watching,” offered Moonblade straight-faced. “Shantou is famous for its songbirds, and we wanted to have a look.”

“Uh, huh.” The man continued to nod and smile. “Sergeant Moonblade is a bird watcher. Not a surprise. I just saw a pair of blue-throated bee-eaters myself. Of course.”

Molly gazed at Moonblade sternly, and then addressed our unknown questioner: “We’re preparing to lift off in a few minutes, so we’re going to board the airship now. A pleasure speaking with you, sir.”

“Yes, of course, Captain Abbotsford. A delightful conversation. British military are always welcome in Shantou, and we look forward to seeing you again. Quite soon, I hope.” The man bowed deeply, and then turned towards the wood and walked off.

We found the Constantina lingering off of Jinghai, waiting for us to catch up. With the stiff trade winds behind us now, we unfurled our full array of sails, and made it back to Hong Kong before midnight.

I was up early the following morning, and as the sun appeared over the South China Sea, I was not at all surprised to see Kurniawan and his crew of Morpurgos clearing the stairway. Moonblade and I were the first ones to greet them on the platform.

“Back home in two days,” said Kurniawan. “How did the mission go?”

“We captured an Easterbrook automaton and then blew up the hijacked airship,” said Moonblade. “Things couldn’t have gone better.”

“Did you open up the robot?”

“Not yet. It’s on the Constantina. Professor Krause wants to take it to Dr. Jafata’s laboratory and crack it open there.”

To Be Continued …

©2020 Surreal Science Fiction

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