©2020 William A. Lasher
March 24, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Hong Kong Airship Station
Professor Krause discovered a quick way to disable the captive automaton. It was as simple as throwing a tiny on/off switch that was located on the small of the mechanical man’s back. With the automaton successfully deactivated, he thought transporting it to Princess Franziska’s estate would be easy – we could simply prop it up in a carriage seat.
But as we were preparing to depart for the Kowloon, Captain Galloway said he thought we should find a way to keep it concealed from possible Qing dynasty spies we might unknowingly encounter along the way. After all, it was still a secret mission. He asked Jane Deven if there was a gear bag or container of some sort aboard the Constantina. Something big enough to put the automaton inside.
Deven checked the storage locker log. It had a list of items that had been crammed into the small sized room.
“Well, cap’n, we have everything from gardening implements to bowling pins, but no containers,” she said as she read down the list. “Except, wait a minute, we have a casket onboard.”
“Yes, sir. It’s from when Private Bickle was killed by human zombies in the Western Territory.”
“Oh yes. I remember that. A rather unfortunate incident.” Galloway moved in closer to her desk, craning his neck to look over Deven’s shoulder at the list. “I recall the funeral, he was buried at Fort Greyling. So why would we still have his casket in the storage locker?”
“There was a mix-up. Two different coffins were ordered from two different suppliers, and they both showed up at the same time. We decided to bury him in the nicer box, and put the extra in storage in case we ever needed one again.”
“Intriguing. Let’s go see if we can find it.”
Zanetti helped me dig the coffin out of the cramped storage room as Captain Galloway looked on. It was on the floor, stuffed full of rain gear and boots, buried beneath an assortment of other items.
“Isn’t carrying an empty coffin on an airship bad luck?” said Zanetti as we slid the simple pine box through the doorway.
“Carrying an empty coffin unlucky?” Galloway raised his eyebrows and fiddled with his mustache. “I’m not that superstitious, Private Zanetti, but with that said, I don’t think getting rid of it is a bad idea at all. We’ll use it to transport the automaton to Dr. Jafata’s laboratory, and perhaps leave it there if he has any use for it afterwards.”
Once the automaton had been loaded inside, we recruited Wildenstein to help carry the box down the platform stairway. It was a tedious enterprise with the low man supporting most of the weight, and we could feel the automaton’s body shifting about as we descended from one level to the next.
Professor Krause had hired a pair of enclosed carriages, and they sat waiting at the base of the stairway. Anxious to get on the road, Molly was seated on a bench chatting with Rebekah and Kristin.
We cleared the last flight, and at the behest of Galloway, we carried the casket towards the cargo shelf on the rear of the lead carriage. We were about to slide it onboard, when our progress was interrupted by the driver, a heavyset Chinese man with a Fu Manchu mustache: “Hold on a minute there, captain. No coffins allowed.”
“What do you mean, no coffins allowed?” responded Galloway.
“Just what I said – no coffins allowed. It’s against the rules.”
“Oh come now. We’ll pay you extra then.”
“Nope. No can do.” He pulled a small booklet from his inside coat pocket. “It says it right here in the Hong Kong rules for horse drawn conveyances: ‘A carriage normally used for transporting passengers shall never be used to transport coffins or corpses.’ I could get fined and lose my job if I let you load that coffin on my carriage.”
We set it down on the boardwalk instead while Galloway continued to argue for an exception. He opened the lid causing the driver to take a step backwards in alarm. “It’s not even a human corpse, it’s a deactivated automaton. Does that look like a dead body?”
“I don’t care what it is, captain. No coffins on my carriage.”
“Then we’ll take it out of the box and prop it up in the back.”
“Nope. No dead bodies allowed.”
Professor Krause stepped in: “Can we hire a funeral carriage then?”
“Sure,” said the driver. “Brubaker Funeral Home has one. They’re right down the street.”
“Alright then,” said an annoyed Galloway. “I’ll go down there and see if I can hire a hearse. We’ll still need the regular carriages, so give me a few minutes, I’ll be right back.”
“Of course,” said the driver who was grinning now. He checked his pocket watch,”the clock is running, take your time.”
A half an hour later, Galloway returned with a funeral carriage. “Perhaps transporting the automaton in a coffin wasn’t such a clever idea after all,” he said as we loaded the casket in the back. “General Weatherstone will be aghast when he finds out how much of the Crown’s money I just spent.”
The other passengers on the ferry kept their distance from our faux funeral procession as we crossed the harbor. Some removed their hats, and their expressions turned grim as they gazed upon the horse drawn wagon with the jet black paint job.
Upon reaching the Kowloon side of the strait, we set out for Princess Franziska’s estate. Molly and I rode with Galloway in the lead carriage, we were followed by the hearse, and the professor’s carriage brought up the rear. It was an overcast day with storm clouds gathering over the steep green mountains to the west.
On our first trip to Princess Franziska’s estate, we were riding in her royal coach, and the watchman had waved us through the front gate without stopping us. But this time he chose not to yield, instead signaling us to stop as he stood blocking the gate with a suspicious look on his face.
Galloway hopped out to talk to him as our procession came to a stop. “I’m Captain Galloway of her majesty’s Mutant Eradication Forces. We’re here to see Dr. Jafata.”
“Oi,” said the watchman, a Welshman named Hogwood, “he’s expecting you, but he didn’t say anything about you bringing a hearse.” Hogwood looked past Galloway, towards the funeral carriage, narrowing his eyes, and cocking his head to one side. “Who died? And why are you bringing ’em here?”
“No one died.”
“Then what’s with the hearse?”
“It’s a long story.” Galloway was growing exasperated. “We’re carrying a deactivated automaton, and we needed to do it undercover. A coffin seemed like a likely solution, but I had no idea a regular carriage would refuse to transport it, so I ended up having to hire a hearse.”
“Well, I’ll take your word for it, captain, but it certainly does sound like screwy story.” Hogwood walked over to the heavy wrought iron gate and unlatched it. “You know how to get to Dr. Jafata’s laboratory?”
“Yes, we were just here last week.” Galloway retook his seat inside the carriage and slammed the door shut behind him. “If I’d known it was going to be such a problem, we could have brought the confounded thing over here in the Constantina, and lowered it in the cargo basket.”
We proceeded down the drive, and as we pulled up in front of Dr. Jafata’s laboratory, Galloway breathed a sigh of relief. “Let’s get the automaton unloaded and send the carriages on their way. I’m sure the Princess will allow us to use her royal coach to get back into town.”
“We probably could have asked her for a ride out here to begin with,” said Molly.
“I agree. We should have sent her a telegram. Hindsight is golden.”
Professor Krause was halfway up the walk when Dr. Jafata appeared at his laboratory door. “It’s wonderful to see you back again so soon, professor.” He looked towards the hearse with a puzzled expression. “And why in the world did you bring a funeral carriage this time?”
“Captain Galloway became a bit carried away in his efforts to keep the automaton a secret.” said Krause with a hint of sarcasm. “He didn’t want to attract too much attention.”
“He didn’t want to attract too much attention?” Jafata lightly scratched his thinning black hair. “So he hired a funeral carriage?”
Krause shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s carry the automaton inside and have a look at it.”
We slid the coffin out of the back of the hearse. Molly and I were on one side, Galloway and Rebekah on the other. We carried it up the walk, and Krause held the door open. It was a tight squeeze moving it through the entry. Jafata showed us an examination table to lay it down on as we hauled it inside the building.
Professor Krause opened the lid after we had set it down on the table. Kristin helped Dr. Jafata roll a wheeled tool cart over to the table.
“It has a brass skull,” said Krause, lightly rapping his knuckles on the metal after removing its dark haired wig. “The easiest way in might be removing the porcelain face.”
“But we might break it,” said Jafata as he leaned over to take a closer look. “I don’t see any connectors.”
Krause took a closer look too. “Wait a second, it appears the top of the skull can be pulled off easily. Kristin, hand me a screwdriver.”
The professor went to work carefully removing a total of seven partially concealed screws until the brass skull was loose. He grasped it firmly with both hands, pulled it off, and laid it down on the table.
“My goodness,” said Jafata, “it looks like an organic brain.”
“I think you’re right.” Krause lightly touched the exposed grey matter with the blunt end of a forcep. It was pliable.
“An organic brain?” exclaimed Captain Galloway. “An organic brain from where?”
Dr. Jafata used a scalpel to cut a tiny sample from the brain and delicately placed it on a slide. He gently clipped the slide in place over a nearby microscope’s aperture, looked into the eyepiece, and focused in on it. After a few moments of observation, he pulled his face away from the instrument, and gazed at Krause with a wide-eyed expression of astonishment. “Human cells. The automaton’s brain is from a human being.”
We heard a loud knocking on the door.
“See who it is, Highgarden,” said Galloway.
I walked to the door, opened it, and found Audrey, her head moving from side to side in mechanical degrees, herky-jerky. “I have a question for Dr. Jafata.”
Jafata walked towards the doorway and stood next to me. “Yes, Audrey. What is it?”
“Princess Franziska wants to know why she just saw a funeral carriage leave the estate. Did someone die?”
“Tell her not to worry. No one died. I’ll come up there and talk to her about it in a little bit.”
“Thank you, doctor.” Audrey bowed deeply, turned on her heel, and hurried back up the drive.
(I had taken to referring to the captive automaton as an it, but referred to Audrey as her, mostly because of her very human-like personality, and having just witnessed the discovery of a human brain inside the captive automaton’s skull, I now thought the pronoun her might be more appropriate anyway.)
“My God,” exclaimed Galloway after I closed the door. “Do you think Audrey and Nevin could have human brains inside their skulls too?”
“At this point I would say anything is possible,” said Krause.
“But where did the brain come from?” He regarded the automaton’s open skull with an expression of horror. “Should we notify the Hong Kong police?”
“Let’s find out more about it first,” said Jafata, leaning in to examine the robot’s head closely. “Now that the skull is removed, it appears the porcelain face will come off easily too.”
He undid a pair of tiny brass latches above its forehead, and found two screws concealed beneath its chin. I could scarcely believe my eyes at what was revealed when he gently pulled the porcelain face free and laid it down on the top shelf of the tool cart.
We could now see inside the automaton’s head. The organic brain was supported by a copper cradle that had a bundle of wiring and clear glass tubing attached to it. The tubing had green and blue colored liquids running through it. A few of the wires led from the cradle to two elongated brass cylinders that held what appeared to be human eyeballs. Beneath that, another bundle of wires led to a hinged brass jaw that supported what appeared to be a human mouth.
“Fascinating,” remarked Krause. “It appears that the automaton is powered by electricity.”
“Electricity?” said Galloway. “Where does the electricity come from?”
Dr. Jafata continued his work disassembling the mechanical man. He disconnected a metal breastplate that covered its torso, and when he removed it, he discovered the source of the electricity. There was a compact H gas motor housed in the automaton’s abdomen, and a drive shaft protruded from both ends of it. On one side, the shaft turned a copper armature that appeared to generate low voltage electricity. On the other, it turned a conglomeration of gears, pulleys, and wheels that led down into the automaton’s legs and up into its arms – its limbs were spring loaded, and the motor kept them wound tight.
The motor had an elbowed exhaust pipe that was connected to a posterior port. The H gas storage tank was located in its rear end as well, a much smaller tank than the one we had seen inside the police robot at the Easterbrook manufactory.
The laboratory fell into a protracted silence as we gazed upon the inner workings of the mechanical man in awe. Then out of nowhere, we heard another loud knocking at the door. I practically jumped out of my shoes when the heavy rapping broke the quiet.
“Answer the door, Highgarden,” said Galloway.
It was the butler, Nevin. He tried to look over, and then around my shoulder to see what the big attraction was on the examination table, but I stood my ground, blocking his view. Dr. Jafata walked over to stand next to me.
“Yes, Nevin. What is it?”
“Princess Franziska graciously requests your party’s attendance at dinner this evening. The main course is grilled miniature beef ribs with sauteed mushrooms and snow peas. Cocktails and appetizers will be served quite soon.”
Jafata checked his pocket watch. “Tell the princess we’ll be up there in a few minutes.”
Nevin’s head moved from side to side, herky-jerky, and then he bowed deeply. “Very good, sir.” He turned on his heel and hurried back up the drive, his ambulation stiff and machine-like. As he walked past the miniature black Angus grazing along the side of the drive, the pint-sized cows watched him closely with confused looks on their faces.
“If Easterbrook is using human body parts in their automatons,” said Galloway, “the question is, where are they acquiring the humans?”
“It could very well be a matter for the Hong Kong police,” said Jafata.
“I’ll contact General Evernight in London, and find out how the Crown wishes to proceed. In the meantime, can we leave the automaton here?”
“Of course.” Jafata closed the lid on the coffin. “It’ll be safe and sound here in my laboratory.”
It was hard for me to take my eyes off of Audrey’s shiny porcelain face as I sat listening to Princess Franziska’s loquacious chitchat in the great room. Did Audrey have a human brain inside her metal head too? And if she did, where did it come from, and did she have any recollection of her previous life? Had she always been named Audrey?
“Would you like another gin and tonic, Sergeant Highgarden?” said Audrey, standing before me holding a tray loaded with drinks. Her head moved from side to side, herky-jerky, as she waited for my response.
“Certainly. Thank you, Audrey.” I took one of the tall glasses from the tray, and then used a set of fancy dining tweezers to select another miniature game hen from the appetizer plate that sat on a low table before Molly and I.
Princess Franziska seemed slightly intoxicated, and she sat between Kristin and Rebekah on a plush velvet Chesterfield. Kristin was wearing a short skirt, and the princess had her hand resting on the attractive German’s thigh. It appeared to be nothing more than an innocent overture of female camaraderie, but Kristin was keeping her eye on the princess’s hand nonetheless.
“I acquired some photographs from an intelligence contact in Berlin recently, and I thought they might be of interest to you and Professor Krause,” said Princess Franziska turning towards Rebekah and then back towards Kristin.
Though involved in a scientific discussion with Dr. Jafata, the professor’s interest was instantly aroused when he heard mention of his name. “Photographs?”
“Yes, professor. A packet of photographic slides that were taken on the Elbe River in Hamburg.”
“Tell us more,” said Rebekah.
“The photographs were taken with a special lens that makes objects easier to see at night, and my contact has verified their authenticity.”
“What’s the subject of the photos, princess?” Krause was on the edge of his seat now.
“The subject is der Wasserwolfe. The slides clearly show a pack of the mutant wolves emerging from the river.”
“Good God,” said Galloway, “that’s big.”
“Ja,” said Kristin, “If the slides are authentic, it’s an extremely significant achievement. As far as we know, no one has ever managed to capture der Wasserwolfe on film before.”
“Kristin and I witnessed an emergence in Rostock,” said Rebekah. “We’ve seen them in person. May we take a look at the photographs?”
“Of course. That’s precisely why I brought it up. I’ll have Nevin set up the projector in the drawing room.”
We moved into the drawing room where Nevin set up a complicated looking slide projector that used a shielded H gas lamp to illuminate photographic images on a screen. Professor Krause was excited at the prospect of finally seeing the aqua wolves, and he volunteered to operate the projector after Nevin had drawn the drapes.
The photos were taken from a high vantage point, and viewed in sequence, they showed the progress of a large pack emerging from the river in the German city. The projector had a magnification feature, and when Krause rotated the control knob to it’s highest value, close-ups of individual wolves filled the screen. The images looked grainy, not as sharp when magnified, but we could still make out the wolves clearly, from their long pointed ears to their bizarre shark’s tail and dorsal fin. The first thing they did after emerging was to shake the brackish river water from their woolly coats.
After viewing the images, I thought that the actual wolves looked far more fearsome than the stuffed model on display at the Museum Of Abnormal Science in Dulwich. Der Wasserwolfe in the flesh was more muscular and had an appearance that might be best described as supernatural. The photographs were terrifying, and after viewing them, I found myself consuming the gin and tonic at an accelerated rate.
Professor Krause was mesmerized, and when he began going through the series a second time, Princess Franziska spoke up: “You may take the photographs with you if you’d like, professor. I have no desire to view them endlessly.”
“That would be superb, princess. Their scientific value is incalculable.”
The sun was setting as we left the drawing room and entered Princess Franziska’s formal dining room. There were paintings on the walls throughout the house, and in the dining room, a fine oil portrait of the current German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm. The bald-headed monarch had extremely long mutton chop sideburns, and a blonde mustache that featured long curled ends. He had posed for the artist in a military uniform. It had gold epaulettes, and was heavily adorned with medals, including a prominent Iron Cross.
The princess took her seat at the head of a polished maple wood table that was covered with a fancy lace tablecloth. There was an elaborate crystal chandelier suspended from a baroque coffered ceiling above it. The larger than life portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm hung on the wall behind her.
Audrey laid out settings and used a long wooden match to light the candles in the chandelier. The food was delicious, and though the beef ribs were quite small, the portions were large. Audrey kept the wine flowing, and by the end of the meal, we were all growing slightly inebriated.
Following dinner, the Princess began to doze off on the Chesterfield in the great room, and Dr. Jafata had Nevin call for the royal coach. We made it back to the city in time to catch the last ferry across the harbor.
The next morning, Captain Galloway asked Molly and I to accompany him to the Hong Kong police station. Professor Krause and his research assistants were conspicuously absent, and in the privacy of the enclosed carriage, Galloway brought them up in his conversation: “I’ve been meaning to fill you in on the details of Rebekah and Kristin’s employment with Professor Krause, Captain Abbotsford. There’s more to it than what meets the eye.”
“In what regard?” said Molly.
“The story they gave you about being graduate students at the University of Rostock was a ruse. The truth is, they’re both high level espionage agents who answer directly to Kaiser Wilhelm.”
“German spies? How long have you known?”
“General Evernight filled me in on the details before we left London. The Crown’s intelligence people did a thorough background check on both of them, and they discovered what you might term a few loose ends in their resumes.”
“Delone was right then,” said Molly turning towards me in her seat. Then turning back towards Galloway: “Delone thought there was something suspicious about the way Rebekah and Kristin happened to show up in the same pub as us, on the night of the aqua wolf emergence at the Southwark Bridge. He’s been convinced ever since that they were tailing us.”
“Delone may be a bit of a misfit but he’s a bright one. Though we’re currently allies, the strategic relationship between Britain and Germany has historically been tenuous. Queen Victoria herself was consulted on the matter of Krause and the ladies accompanying us, and she said to go along with their ruse. ‘Play dumb’ as she put it. It’s a rather complicated game of cat and mouse, and I’m not sure if they know we’re on to them or not.”
“If Rebekah and Kristin are faking their credentials, they’re good at what they do,” said Molly. “Krause constantly goes to Rebekah for information. She’s smart as a whip – a walking Britannica of sorts.”
“Yes, the report I read said Miss Krämer has a genius level IQ, and they are actual graduates of the University of Rostock. It’s where they became so well acquainted with the professor, but they’re both currently employed by the German government.”
Galloway took a pinch of snuff and then continued on with his discourse: “The passing of the photographs from Princess Franziska to Professor Krause last night may not have been quite as innocent as it appeared. Though married to the Prince of Liechtenstein, Franziska is a German by birth and well connected to the Kaiser’s House of Hohenzollern by blood. You may have noticed the rather large size of the envelope she handed him – it may have contained more than the slides we viewed. Oh, and by the way, I’m not entirely sure the images we viewed last night were real. They may have been pictures of common middle Russian forest wolves that were doctored to look like the mutants.”
The carriage slowed and came to a stop. “Well, it looks as if we’ve arrived. I trust you’ll keep everything I just discussed confidential, captain. You too, Highgarden. Not a word of this to Delone or anyone else, including Sergeant Moonblade.”
I was a bit stunned by the realization that our German friends were spies for the Kaiser. Ever since we’d left London, I had regarded Professor Krause as an authority in our squadron, close to Galloway in clout. Had Molly and I unknowingly provided them with any sensitive information? I thought it unlikely, and it was hard to believe they wished us any ill will. We had become the best of friends after we shared the bottle of schnapps in Molly’s quarters.
The Hong Kong police department was housed in a three story brick building on the waterfront. It was past Central Square, on the far side of the MacDougall Shipyard from the airship station. We met with two detectives in a cluttered office on the third floor. Their desks looked as if they had been purposely spread as far apart from each other as possible, separated by filing cabinets that had folders overflowing with paperwork piled on top. The humidity was up in Hong Kong, and a long bladed fan rotated slowly on the ceiling above us.
“So you think the Easterbrook Robotics manufactory may be involved in disreputable business dealings?” said Inspector Dowling with a hint of sarcasm. He leaned back in his squeaky armchair, and smiled. “Why am I not surprised?” Dowling had a bushy mustache below a prominent beak shaped nose.
“We’ve had them under surveillance for quite some time,” said Lieutenant Ngai. Standing by a window with a cup of tea, he was watching a Dutch clipper ship as it cleared the docks and headed out towards the open sea. Ngai had an edgy demeanor, and the eyes of a hawk. He spoke fluent English, but his speech had strong overtones of Chinese in the local Catonese dialect.
“You may have heard about the trouble we had with the rogue automatons on our way into Hong Kong,” said Galloway.
“Oi,” said Dowling, “it was all over town.”
“We subsequently visited the Easterbrook manufactory to try and make some sense of what happened. Their cannonball did extensive damage to the Amelia Snavely, which is one of our most modern airships, it was commissioned less than six months ago. In any event, a Mr. Marwick agreed to give us a tour. He seemed like a genial chap at first, and it was interesting to see how the police robots are put together, but he declined all questions about their more advanced automatons, and when I pressed him on it, we were escorted off the premises by armed security guards.”
Ngai turned towards us, took a sip of tea, and then addressed Galloway: “You said in your telegram that you managed to capture and disassemble one of the automatons?”
“Yes, its currently housed in Dr. Jafata’s laboratory out on the Kowloon. And we discovered certain features inside its shell that made me think it was a matter for the police.”
Ngai raised his eyebrows. “Certain features, Captain Galloway?”
Galloway paused, made eye contact with Molly and I, and then continued: “It may sound far-fetched, but there’s a human brain inside the automaton’s metal skull. Dr. Jafata used a microscope to make a positive identification.”
Dowling winced and tossed his pencil on his desk. “The day after your squadron landed, we made an alarming discovery at a rail siding near the Easterbrook manufactory, and what we found there falls right in line with what you just told us.”
He nodded at Ngai, and the inspector’s Chinese partner picked up where he left off: “I have a number of local informants who keep me advised of unusual occurrences along the waterfront, and a trusted source told me about an odd steam train that recently arrived from the mainland. A locomotive pulling just two cars and a caboose parked on a rail siding as Inspector Dowling just described. The two train cars were passenger cars, but the windows were blacked out so you couldn’t see through them.
“A gang of local thieves decided to have a look at what the train was carrying, and they successfully distracted a pair of armed guards while one of their cohorts picked a lock and slipped inside the cars. What he saw scared the daylights out of him, and later that same evening, he related the information to one of my pigeons.”
Dowling leaned forward in his chair, and smoothly took up the story where his partner had just left off: “Based on what Lieutenant Ngai’s informant told us, I managed to get a writ of inspection from a judge. The guards we encountered at first resisted, but we called in a squad of uniformed reinforcements, and finally they allowed us to board the train.
“What we found appeared to be a mobile organ harvesting laboratory. There were a number of decapitated human heads propped up in pans with metal framework holding them upright. The pans were filled with a curious bubbling liquid that was circulated through a network of tubing. The glass tubes ran down to the floor, joined together, and finally connected to a strange looking machine in the center of the car. It appeared to be a pump of some sort, powered by an H gas motor.”
“The human heads,” said Galloway, “were they Chinese?”
“Yes they were,” said Ngai. “And all appeared to be Zhuang. Where they came from, and how they ended up on the train is a mystery. We found an engineer and a fireman in the caboose playing cards, but they’re both playing dumb. We couldn’t get anything out of the guards either.”
Dowling produced a pipe with a long curved stem. He loaded the bowl with tobacco, struck a match, and lit it. “We’ve been unable to get any cooperation from Easterbrook whatsoever. They denied having any knowledge of the dreadful scene we discovered on the steam train, and our sources tell us the administrators subsequently fled Hong Kong, and are currently in Saigon. Lieutenant Ngai and I are working with the chief prosecutor to build a case against them.”
He paused to puff on his freshly lit pipe, and then pulled it from his mouth and continued: “The disassembled automaton you described could be a valuable piece of evidence.”
“We’ll give it to you then,” said Galloway. “This is clearly a criminal matter, beyond our mission as MEF. We could go out there today. I’m sure Dr. Jafata would be happy to turn it over to you.”
Dowling smiled. “I’ll call for a carriage.”
After descending the stairway, we stopped on the first floor so Galloway could send a telegram to Dr. Jafata. A roomy police carriage pulled by a team of husky Belgians was waiting for us outside. The driver was a uniformed patrolman, and the conveyance bore a prominent Hong Kong police emblem.
It was our third trip to Princess Franziska’s estate in a week, and I was beginning to recognize familiar landmarks along the way. As we approached the gated entrance, Hogwood stepped out in the road, and motioned for the driver to stop. Galloway got out to talk to him.
“Back again so soon, captain?”
“We’re here to see Dr. Jafata.”
“Oi, he’s expecting you, but he didn’t say anything about you bringing the police.” He eyed the uniformed driver suspiciously. “You’re not here to arrest anyone are you?”
“Of course not, Hogwood.”
“Alright then, captain. You may proceed.” He unlatched the gate, swung it wide, and waved us through.
We found Dr. Jafata standing outside his laboratory. As the police carriage came to a stop, he continued to look up the drive expectantly. Galloway introduced Dowling and Ngai as they exited the carriage, and then the trio hurried inside to scrutinize the disassembled automaton. Molly and I lingered outside to talk to Jafata. He checked his pocket watch and continued to watch the drive anxiously.
“I’m waiting for another important visitor who should be arriving any minute. An old friend is bringing an unusual insect specimen from Tangxia. Could be of great interest to the MEF.”
A hay wagon appeared, making its way down the cobblestone drive at a relaxed pace. It was pulled by a team of brown and white oxen. There were two Chinese men on the driver’s bench, one a young man barely out of his teens, and the other middle-aged. The older man gave Jafata a friendly wave when they drew close enough to make eye contact.
“My old friend, Li Wei Chung,” said Jafata.
As the wagon pulled in behind the police carriage, Jafata and Chung began to converse rapidly in Chinese. The younger man climbed over the bench and into the cargo area of the wagon. It was half loaded, and he began digging down into the hay, throwing handfuls of it aside. Apparently they had something concealed in the back that they wanted to show us.
Chung climbed down from the bench and shook hands with Jafata as the pair continued to converse in Chinese. Molly and I didn’t speak Chinese, so consequently, we had no idea what they were saying. The two walked around the wagon, towards the back and Chung gestured for us to follow.
“Li Wei doesn’t speak much English,” said Jafata, “but he’s brought an extraordinary mutant insect specimen that was discovered in the rice paddies north of here. They concealed it under the hay so they wouldn’t attract attention on the way down here.”
“What is it?” said Molly as we rounded the tail end of the wagon.
“A giant blister beetle,” said Jafata.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw what was in the back of the wagon – an unusually large insect, at least three feet long, maybe bigger, jet black with dark yellow spots and six legs. Its long tail end was covered by closed wings, and it had a large round head featuring lengthy antennae and compound eyes. Thankfully, the giant insect appeared to be deceased.
Molly and I were speechless, gazing at the gargantuan insect in awe as Chung’s assistant stood over it in the bed of the wagon, nodding and smiling. Jafata and Chung continued to converse rapidly in Chinese until Galloway appeared, walking towards us from the laboratory.
“Inspector Dowling wants to take possession of the automaton, and I said it would be-” He stopped in mid-sentence as he rounded the tail end of the wagon, and when he saw the colossal insect he exclaimed: “Holy Christ! What in the name of God is that thing?”
“Giant blister beetle, captain.” said Jafata. “The Qing dynasty has been doing their best to keep the situation under wraps, but swarms of these giant blister beetles have been multiplying in the Gobi Desert north of the Great Wall. Another biological mutation brought about by the effects of the Great Hydrogen War.”
Chung began speaking quickly in Chinese again.
“Li Wei says imperial troops have mounted flame throwers on the Great Wall to keep the beetles away from Peking. Small villages in rural areas have been completely wiped out.”
“What makes the insects so dangerous, doctor?” said Galloway. “Why are they so deadly?”
“The beetles secrete cantharidin, a poisonous substance that causes chemical burns. A normal sized blister beetle can secrete enough of the poison to burn your hand if you pick one up. The amount discharged by one of these giant sized mutants is lethal.”
“Why do the insects secrete poison?”
“A natural defense mechanism. The normal sized females coat their eggs with the sticky substance for protection against predators, but the mutants coat their prey with poison to immobilize them so they can devour them. From all indications, the mutants have climbed to the top of the food chain, and have become apex predators themselves.”
“Where did they find it?”
“They found this one dead in the rice paddies near Tangxia, and from what Chung told me, it was part of an immense swarm that’s headed due south. A swarm of mutant blister beetles headed right for Hong Kong.”
“When you say ‘immense swarm,’ how many are we talking? How big a swarm is it?”
Jafata and Chung exchanged more rapid dialog in Chinese, and then the doctor turned back towards Galloway: “Li Wei says thousands and thousands. The swarm is so big it blacks out the sun and casts a gigantic shadow on the ground. And it’s flying straight towards Hong Kong.”
Galloway turned towards Molly. “I need to contact General Evernight immediately. We may be airborne again sooner than I thought.”