A gunshot shattered the silence of the night, followed by the bloodthirsty cries of the mob on her heels. Maria Chen heard her pulse pounding in her head in near-perfect time to the crash-crash-crashing of the mob through the dense. Scrambling over rocks she could not feel, running through brush that tore at her legs and her silk clothes, panic overwhelming her. She cleared the first ridge,slipping and sliding to the gully on the opposite side, and ran along the water course, the cold water splashing against her insensate legs. The cold would not stop her, not with her fear this strong. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Was her trip along the creek enough to elude her pursuers? Her panting breath sounded like the shriek of a banshee in her adrenaline fueled ears. Under the cover of thick brush, she held her legs to her chest, and rocked to comfort herself. She silently cursed her clumsiness, her hubris to think that she could single-handedly accomplish what had taken in other places a half-dozen.
Maria heard the angered voices of the mob and chastised herself – now was not the time for self-pity. She knew then that they would not be so easily dissuaded and she had to flee. She hadn’t seen bloodhounds, and hoped that meant there were none. She sat crouched against a tree, shielded from view by thick brush. The circulation in her limbs began to bother her more and more, but she remained still. Arms around her knees, she froze in the painful crouch, gripped by the basic need to survive. She rose with a hiss as the voices died away, wincing at the pain. She heldher clothing as tightly to her as she could, and walked quickly through the underbrush despite the complaints of her joints.
Past the trees she saw an artificial hollow, where one of the ventilation shafts for the mine stood. Maria sprinted toward the opening, hope for an elevator blossoming in her chest. Once in the mine the smell of oil and coal would surely help mask her departure. Her legs churned, pushing powerfully against the soft ground. She had run halfway across the clearing when the baying of bloodhounds echoed through the night and she knew her hopes were dashed. Even the smell of the mine wouldn’t be enough now.
She ran faster still, knowing her cause to be lost if she couldn’t reach the mine shaft. In the mine at least she had a better chance than the forest, with more water and less places to inadvertently leave her scent. Carefully done, she might be able to get in a cart and travel some distance without being caught. Her circulation pounded through her system, and she struggled to breathe deeper. Step after heavy and forceful step, her joints popped with the strain. She hissed and wheezed with the exertion.
Torches cleared the tree line, and she realized that her white silk clothing made her shine in the night like a ghost. “Get that bitch!” shouted one of the men, but she ran on and had nearly reached the air shaft. The gaping hole to the depths of the Earth lay three strides distant.
She knew that this was the only way she could protect her fellow circus mates from her attempted treachery. With hardly a second thought, she launched herself into the open air, spinning like a four pointed star as her limbs flailed. There was nothing but air under her, and a drop to the bottom of a ventilation shaft. The air rushed past her, grabbing at the folds of the silk. To her mind’s eye came the memory of coastal breezes, and she wished for the lush valleys of her home in Alta California.
When at last the grate opened and his guide, Ombudsman Godfrey, gestured the way James Flanders ran down the tunnel. As he drew near to the fluttering torchlight, he could see Maria’s body contorted in the rocks and mud. Far above like fireflies the torches of the mob danced. “Oh Maria, Maria, what have you done? Bùyào dòng.” He leaned closer to her, feeling for breath, his voice dropped to a whisper, “Bùyào dòng. Don’t move, my little dove. Wǒ de xiǎo gēzi.” He stroked her hair, kneeling in the rocky mud, and tears spilled from his eyes. “Bùyào dòng.”
James stood when he heard the Ombudsman’s footsteps scuffle against the rock. He brushed rock dust away from his trousers, but didn’t look at the other man.
“Is she –“
“Dead? Yes.” James paced carefully around her body, examining the damage from the fall. “Given your accusations of Maria here, we should have Miguel or Carlota take a look at your mining automata with your mechanics. We can see if Ms. Chen has done anything to them.” He knelt, felt at her wrist, and again at her neck. Assured, he looked at the Ombudsman. “There’s no pulse, Mr. Godfrey.” He looked up and down the tunnel. “We can’t leave her here like this. With your permission, I’ll take her and see to her burial?”
“May I check?” The Ombudsman’s voice quavered.
“I’d rather you not. It’s not something that we look fondly on in our tradition, a stranger touching the deceased, even those suspected of crimes.”
The Ombudsman frowned, for a moment, and looked sternly at the Amerindian man. “Well, I suppose burial’s not out of the question. It’s none of that tribal voodoun or something?” He worried at his abused hat’s brim.
“Nothing of the kind. A simple cremation is all we’ll need to do. If your kind city could direct us to the appropriate wood? We’ll make all the necessary arrangements.”
Godfrey nodded. “I can do that.” He stepped up to the taller man. They fixed eyes for a moment and Godfrey was the first to flinch, looking down. “I’m sorry to say this,” he coughed nervously, and fumbled for his snuff box, which he grasped at last until his knuckles whitened. ”There needs to be an investigation.”
James shrugged. “I suspected as much. Come with me, then. You can visit with me now, and if time permits before we need to leave, you’ll be able to speak with Miguel or Carlota.” There was a wheelbarrow a short distance down the mine corridor. He laid hand on the cart and turned to see the Ombudsman leaning in to touch Maria while his back was turned. He called out loudly. “May I use this, Mr. Godfrey?” The ombudsman stiffened, caught in the act. James could see the man deciding internally whether he’d been truly caught, or if his act had been hidden by the shadows of the tunnels.
When the ombudsman at last straightened, coughing an embarrassed “Yes,” James rolled the wheelbarrow down the dirt to the side of the tracks. He gently picked up the woman’s body, and laid it carefully into the cart. Grasping the handles, he pushed Maria’s lifeless corpse back toward the elevator that would lift them out of the coal mine. “Where should I start in my explanation, Mr. Godfrey?” He twisted the cart around larger chunks of rock and coal that littered the path, and waited for the ombudsman to begin the questioning.
“Well, what are you doing in these parts? You’re obviously not American, and you’re not Confederate, neither.”
“I’m sure Miguel’s queue was the first clue?” James smiled but the Ombudsman looked confused. “His long braid of hair.”
The ombudsman nodded. “Oh, that. Yes. Men might have longer hair in these rural parts, but plaited hair is for women.”
“Well enough. But, to answer your question, we’re a traveling show of exotics from the Far East. I took over the show as they travelled through Wulxia, down the Pacific Coast and have been with them through Alta California, Deseret and Louisiana. We made short stops along the Ohio River Valley, and intended to pass through the great cities of the East, then work our way back along the Great Lakes.”
“Who pays for you?”
“Well, it’s in part an effort of goodwill by the Emperor Meiji. He’s trying to build interest in the production capacity of Japan, a rival to China. He paid for several groups of tinkerers to come to North America and Europe spreading goodwill and sharing the beauties of the Rising Sun. Once they reached foreign shores it was their task to earn their way and eventually purchase a return trip to the home islands. Something of a Darwinian experiment, actually — sink or swim.”
He shifted his grip and pushed onward. “Ours is a group of these tinkerers and makers who want to showcase their works to those that might some day be interested in buying similar objects for their own showcases. This will only happen in the larger cities. For the smaller towns, we offer the animal spectacle and refine our arts. We only charge a minor fee to those cities and towns that take us in, and more often than not, it is in trade for food and lodging.” He smiled. “With careful trade we should be able to return at the end of our trip. I say we, but really it’s the others. I serve as a business guide.”
“And the city fathers took you in, here?” Ombudsman Godfrey looked pointedly at James, who smiled amiably.
“We were negotiating our fee when Maria Chen here was found to have broken into the shed containing the mining automata.” James gestured to the mining elevator. “Ombudsman, if you please?”
The elevator’s machinery whirred into action, and conversation was rendered impossible with the clinks and thumps as the elevator descended. James trundled the cart aboard and Godfrey closed the grate. They rose the 20 meters to the surface, where the mob of miners waited, torches bouncing in the air. As Godfrey lifted the grate, the mob howled in rage, eager to destroy the invader. The diminutive man stepped out into the face of the crowd who clamored to see the body, to tear her to shreds, to destroy her so utterly that no trace of her would be found.
Godfrey held up his hands, and the Sheriff quickly made his way through the crowd, and came to his side, shotgun held in the air. “ENOUGH.” His calm drawl rang over the shouts and oaths, and silence settled over the horde. “Gentlemen, we’re going to go back to the town. The girl is dead. The tinkers and makers of the travelling band have kindly offered to inspect our mining rigs. They can remove any changes this woman might have made.”
“Who’s to say they’re not with her!” An angry man shouted from the depths of the rabble and was supported by a chorus of agreements.
The Sheriff cocked his shotgun. “Now you settle down men. You know as well as I do that Mr. Flanders here and his tinkers all chased down the girl, trying to find her. They’ve tried to save our mine here. I don’t see anything done to the mine, and I can tell you that you’re not going to find anything wrong with the miners.”
A rumble of discontent followed his words, and grew to the roar of angered men, fearful for their livelihood. He discharged the gun into the air, and silence returned. “That’s quite enough there. We’re going to let this man and his group take their leave, and I’ll personally escort them to the next county. And I’ll make sure that Sheriff Hobart takes them to the next county line, and so on until they get away from you lot, if’n that’s what it takes.” He reloaded the shotgun and cocked it a second time. “Now then, are you going to go back to your barracks and homes, or do I have to form a posse to see you stay there?”
The group began to disperse, and the Sheriff and Ombudsman turned to James Flanders. He looked warily at the dispersing crowd. “It would seem, gentlemen, that I won’t be able to take care of the funeral rites of my countrywoman.”
Ombudsman Godfrey and the Sheriff nodded. The Sheriff looked down at the woman in the cart. “With the cool in the weather, she’ll keep for a day or two, as long as it takes to get you all out of the area.”
James looked at them both and nodded. “I appreciate your help, Sheriff. We’ve actually got cylinders of helium and a dirigible as part of our show. Give me just enough time and I’ll be able to get us airborne, and out of your jurisdiction. I won’t stop until we cross over into Pennsylvania, if that pleases your honor?”
The two men nodded, and helped James trundle the load to the waiting caravan. He was greeted by Miguel and Carlota who were being escorted by Deputies. He turned to them and spoke the patois of San Francisco. “Inspeccionó cǎikuàng zìdòng jī?”
Both sketched a minor bow.. “Shì de,” Carlota said, while Miguel answered, “Si.”
James could see the Deputies were listening in. “Was there anything amiss with the automata, then, from your inspection?”
Miguel spoke for the two of them, stumbling over the English words. “None, sir. I don’t believe Maria was able to get into storage shed with cǎikuàng zìdòng jī – the mi-ning auto-mata?”
James nodded. “Si – that’s the term. Good.”He twitched his head backward, toward the Sheriff and Ombudsman. “Zhǔnbèi fēitǐng. Preparar la aeronave.” When both had bowed and scurried off, shouting in the patois, and joined quickly by the Juarez brothers, he turned to the officials standing behind him. “Thank you, gentlemen.” He gathered up the body of Maria Chen, her arms and legs unwieldy, contorted at odd angles. “Thank you for your most kind help. Please excuse me, while I take care of preparations.”
Both men nodded politely and the Ombudsman grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow as it threatened to overturn. Just at the edge of hearing, James could hear Ombudsman Godfrey speaking. “Terrible shame. I was looking forward to the show. I’d heard from my cousin down in Charlestown that they put on quite the event with their mechanical animals.”
James smiled to himself, but stepped quickly up and into the gypsy coach that was to become the last segment of the gondola, and laid Maria upon the bench seating. With a twist of a knob, he locked the door behind him, leaving only the front entrance to the carriage open, where his crew made preparations with the remaining carts of their caravan. They would prevent interruption should it come.
Ever so carefully he unbuttoned the muddied silk robes and flayed them open, revealing her chest. The leather that covered her frame had been carefully dyed to match that of human skin, but with careful pressure in just the right spot under her arms, and at her hips, the leather peeled back easily enough. He set it deftly aside behind him on the opposing bench. Pushing the folds of white silk back, over her shoulders and waist, he exposed the mechanisms he would need to access to stabilize Maria’s breathing. Through the gaps of the skeletal supports he could see Maria’s misshapen body cradled inside its lovely carapace. He set to work, pulling a key from a cubby in her side, and rewound the mainsprings one after the other until all four were set to their maximum. Inside, the cogs and gears turned again, but he flipped a switch, to stop the inward and outward twitch of the chest walls for the time being.
Unlacing her sleeves at the shoulders, he exposed her arms, and did the same at her hips and ankles, exposing the mechanical workings of her brilliant mechanism. He moved from joint to joint, examining and noting any worn or broken gears. As he moved from the knees to the ankles, he carefully re-directed the brass patellas of her knees, helping the silken tendons to hold them in proper place.
He moved slowly from joint to joint, and looked for fractures in the metals and strains in the gutta percha of the smooth-slipping connections of elbows, shoulders, knees and hips, wrists and ankles. He knew he lost track of time as he straightened, feeling the protest of his back muscles. With a stretch, he set to work again, gently setting her arms and legs to a more natural placement and tied the silk bindings around her ankles and knees. As he turned to grab the leather exterior, he heard a rap on the outer door. Pushing open the upper half on its hinges, he looked down at Ling and Ping Juarez. With a mischievous grin, Ling smiled up at him. “Listo.”
James nodded, knowing that his facial expressions were clear to the two men standing across the field. “Vamanos.” He leaned back into the coach and waved at the Sheriff and Ombudsman Godfrey who spoke quietly together, surveying their departure. He turned to see Miguel lovingly restoring the leather to her chest. James caressed her hair and watched the simple mechanical motion of her simulated breathing as Miguel finished redressing her. He looked to the aging man, and whispered. “Listo?”
Without looking his way, Miguel nodded and said, “Shì de.
The front door of the carriage opened, revealing Carlota, Ling, and Ping. While Miguel finished caring for his daughter, James reached up to the ceiling, opening a secret compartment containing brass valves. On his tip-toes, he twisted the valves open and heard the welcome release of the helium that filled the balloons, inflating the dirigible above them.
He looked ahead, and fixed Carlota with his gaze. “Pilot us out of the area. Head us west. Ping, Ling, your turn at the propellers.”
The twins bounded forward and lifted open the two seats where they could sit and pedal, and with a series of clinks and clanks, James heard the propellers deploy. He turned to Miguel, who stood close by, staring down at Maria.
“I should’ve known.”
James stepped close and patted him on his shoulder. “Not any more than I should have. She was desperate to prove herself despite the frailty of her human body— and she did. I doubt that I would’ve had the strength to jump into the pit, regardless of the parachute her clothing provided.”
He put his hand on Miguel’s shoulder. “You were able to prepare the automata?”
Miguel smiled. “Of course. They’ll explode in about two weeks, when the acid has burned through cylinders we placed over the burners. It should make for some spectacular fires.”
James smiled as he made a final adjustment, pressing the switch that allowed Maria’s piston pressure to return to normal. “She did her job— and she’s resting. I had to reset some of the internal ligatures, and you’ll want to make a full inspection of her bones. Her circulatory system seems functional, but I’m sure you’ll want to check the pressures. I don’t know if she intended all the dislocations, although her control of this carapace is truly impressive. I doubt a human could exert such bodily control. Her ability to dislocate her arms and legs has come in useful more often than not.”
Miguel smiled. “She is my finest work— if only her mother could’ve made a body as fitting, I would not have had to resort to the clockwork.”
“Without your clockwork, we would not be so quickly done with Our Emperor’s task.” He patted Miguel on the shoulder and walked forward. “Well, my fellows, our work is done. By the end of the month or maybe next, a major blow falls against the European oppressors and their pawn, the Emperor Meiji – their coal mines will be ruined, burning for centuries until the precious commodity is gone. Long live the Qing!”
The crew shouted back, “Long live the Qing! Long live the Qing!”