The sound of the amberlamps faded from the street in front of Buford Automaton. Timothy Webber and Meredith Blauchman were carrying Adele, slumped over and deactivated, back into the company’s head office.
Lucas M. Buford was standing out front, bewildered and amused. I wonder if Ms. Lavashire or the Ministry will be seeking charges. This was the wrong day to test new code.
In his hand was a letter addressed to him from the Prime Minister, Mordecai Marigold himself. Lucas looked down at the envelope, designed with Technocratic aplomb. He gripped it with both hands, braced himself for the message, and opened it. He read the letter while walking back inside.
These had been exciting times at the office. Laurence returned from his stint as company liaison and head of automaton operations on the battlefields of VonKresser's war to reclaim control of the Prush Empire. He was no less energetic, but he returned with a lot more discipline, and a lot less of his right leg. Meredith had been back from Kuu for some time now, and Lucas was very happy to have the extra script-writing help from the both of them. They would be handling customer requests now.
That had allowed him to focus on other business, like the legal documentation needed to create his new Buford Institute of Technology. He also found more time to experiment with new ideas for automaton technologies. This was, in fact, the cause of the unfortunate—or fortunate depending on one's opinion of the woman—incident with Ms. Lavashire.
When he walked into his office, he found Meredith sitting in her favorite chair in front of his desk. She was scowling at a script-scroll. "Sir, what have you been writing? There's an enormous amount of memory recall written here. How does she even have this many memory slots?"
Timothy was there, waiting patiently, smiling. “I told—”
“I know you told me, I want the boss to explain himself.”
Lucas held up his hands defensively. “Sorry, yes. Timothy and I have been doing some modifications so I can do some more research It’s not all ready—”
“You can say that again,” said Meredith. She smiled.
Timothy stretched, sauntered towards the door and chuckled. “You should’ve seen it, Lucas. She knocked her off her socks… almost literally.”
Timothy left the room. Lucas could feel himself start to laugh, but stifled it to a small chuckle.
"As much as I found it amusing, I'm a bit concerned about what you're writing and that it could make Adele violent. Only Astam’s lawmakers love us, sir," said Meredith. “The war has left a lot of people asking questions.”
Lucas sat down at his desk and pulled a notebook out of the drawer. "Quite right, Ms. Blauchman. I've been working on the subtleties of our defensive logic, precisely because of the crude algorithms used in the war. Her new memory is for analyzing the probability of trust and threat. Adele was accurately processing our disdain of the bureaucrat as a dangerous amount of mistrust, but I… didn't intend her to conflate that so strongly with the physical threat level."
Lucas interrupted Meredith. "Yes, I informed the security officer. That's how Adele was deactivated so quickly. He was the one to shut her down. Speaking of which, did you start her up again?"
“Listen for yourself. She’s just down the hall.” Meredith put her index finger to her lips as a silent shush.
A grand piano echoed Otto Weisfeld’s Eighth Nocturne, the piece sweeping from the second to third movement. She, like all Buford Automatons, was enamored by music. It was deeply ingrained in their base programming, part of their birth routine and stuck with them until decommissioned.
“She likes to play that one when she’s upset,” said Lucas, “I won’t be loading the script until after we’ve fixed it, and... well, even then, I'll think more seriously about security when we test scripts that can rise to violence.”
“On that subject, sir. I’d like to request we never embed violence into any models again. That it’s strictly a script-driven thing. After—”
“No, the Prush models mostly didn’t have the actual violence built in. That was never an issue. I agree with your assessment, Ms. Blauchman. We’ll put it in the manual. Well, I’m just going to fix up—”
Meredith stood up and started rolling up the script-scroll. "Nope. I respect your talent, sir, but this requires some peer-review. I'm going to write a new draft once I fully understand the logic you've got here. You've got your own reading to do."
Lucas pouted, because he wanted to ignore the letter in his pocket, the reason for Ms. Lavashire's visit, and because the script-scroll would be more fun to work on.
"Alright, fair enough. Be done tonight?"
"Tomorrow at best."—she smirked and rolled her eyes while walking out of the office—"Sorry to have to take my time with such a bog-standard, run-of-the-mill script."
"Okay, okay." Lucas waved dismissively, left, and closed the door behind him. He sighed and rubbed his eyes with his natural hand. Okay, Buford. Let's deal with this letter.
Lucas kept Adele close as they walked through the halls of the Sangore Castle, now colloquially known as the "Ministry of Ministries", in Gearford. He was leading them down the halls, following the directions from the receptionist.
A revised script-scroll was running through Adele’s decision engine, which was effectively her brain. It had taken two weeks for Meredith to finish her edits, but that made it far more sophisticated, and didn't involve escalations to direct violence without any observed violence. Lucas turned to brief his mechanical daughter about the new programming.
"Just tap and tell me when you see something fishy, untrustworthy."
She immediately stopped, tapped him, and started describing many observed activities—too many. She signed quickly to convey all the suspicious activity she had been keeping an eye on.
Lucas was glad that most of the people here wouldn't understand the sign language they spoke between themselves. It was safer to speak freely that way. Many of the diplomats living here in the Horn District switched from common tongue to another language for the very same reason.
"Stop, Little Moon."—he realized the folly of his instruction in their current context—"In the middle of a ministry building, there will be many things like that. Keep watching everything, but forget about things that don’t show any signs of involving us, then tell us when one of them reaches concerning level."
The halls in the castle were as tall as he remembered from since before the revolution. Large stone columns held up the ceiling. Officials were discussing the issues of the day and legislative approaches. Scientists with large briefcases passed by them, on their way to deliver numbers-based advice to policy-makers.
They made it to the very top floor after laborious climbing. Lucas helped wind an auxiliary spring in Adele’s back and she let him lean against her. While not regal, the door to Marigold’s office was certainly of standout construction and showmanship. Lettering in ornate gold amidst Antifordian-flag blue detailing. Lucas pushed the door ajar and knocked courteously.
“Enter,” said the voice of the Prime Minister within.
Lucas gave Adele a word about restraint, opened the door for her to enter and followed suit into the grand room with the balcony set directly behind a large mahogany and ebony desk at which Prime Minister Marigold sat. He took one of the seats in front of the desk and his automaton companion followed. “Good afternoon, minister.”
Marigold cocked an eyebrow and took a deep breath. “I’d like to say it has been, but I’ve had a terribly busy time of things. There’s no end of plates to spin” — he stood up and looked out the window — “Do you love your country, Mr. Buford?”
“And respect her agents?”
“If you’re referring to Ms. Lavashire—”
“Among others, Mr. Buford. That poor woman has had nothing but trouble from you since being assigned your file.” — he turned and slammed one hand upon the desk, the other gesturing at Adele — “And you dare bring in the machine that attacked her into my office?”
Lucas quickly rose to his feet, the chair sliding back. “I must obje—”
“You MUST sit and LISTEN!” said Marigold.
There was a tense moment of observation between the two. Adele’s hands made fists at her sides. Lucas realized his precarious position and quietly took a seat. “Pardon my defensiveness at these insinuations.”
Marigold adjusted his vest and cuffs. “If I truly thought you were going to attack me with a machine, it wouldn’t have entered this room, Mr. Buford. While you may not always see my security, rest assured it is ever present.”
“She had been given untested instructions and those have been corrected before our visitation.”
“No doubt.” — Marigold sniffed the air pensively — “Enjoying our asymr technologies?”
Lucas nodded. The lack of certain odors and addition of another gave it away that Adele had been modified.
“Remember that the technology is a privilege afforded to you by this nation’s agents, and we have the right to revoke it — particularly should we suspect it being used in ways against us.”
“I understand,” Lucas said. “Is that all you called me in for?”
“Hardly.” — Marigold sat in his desk, drew photographs from a drawer and threw them upon the desktop — “These are photographs taken of Prush battlefields over the past couple years.”
These were images of heated battles full of the dead, dying, and combatants still engaged. All had a particular thing in common, an automaton engaged in combat, whether firing guns or stabbing confederates with spears and bayonets.
There were script runners frantically installing new instructions or fleeing to-and-from the automatons of war. One of the photos was simply of the mechanism within a landship that ran script-scroll instructions.
“You had been supplying a rebel army in a foreign nation with war machines.”
“It’s not a crime to sell goods and services.”
“It is dangerous. And furthermore, I do not know if I can trust this Von Kresser, and by extension, you,” said the Prime Minister.
“The Emperor is not interested in a war with Antiford,” said Lucas.
“I hope so, Mr. Buford, for all our sake.”
Lucas’s heart was thumping against his ribcage. “And what would you have me to do dissuade your concerns?”
“Excellent that you should be so eager,” — a wicked smile pushed the curled ends of Marigold’s mustache closer to his eyes — “You will serve your country and accompany the diplomatic mission to visit Dalaerum and talk with this new Prush Emperor. It’s only twelve days until we leave, so do talk with the secretary on the way out and make your preparations.”
Lucas stood up, “Will that be all?”
Marigold gathered up the photographs and placed them back inside the drawer of his desk. “No, actually. I am making an order, personally, for a bodyguard machine. It would do you well to fulfill it so I can bring it with us on our trip.”
“Twelve days to build you a bodyguard?”
“Just be very careful to avoid… untested instructions. That’s all, you may go.”
Lucas nodded, turned around, and walked out. Once he was out into the hall, he clenched his fists and breathed a heavy sigh.
Instead of taking the train straight back home, the pair left the castle and headed toward mid-Barret district, to the famous Black Leaf and Earl restaurant. It was the first time in a few months that the Order of the Badger was able to meet on their “regular” night. Phinneus had been abroad and even Abigail had been doing some travels.
Adele trod the streets, letting Lucas guide her. Their trip today had been something one would approximate as the automaton equivalent of stressful. There were contradictions across her base, script-added, and verbally-instructed instructions. She had been prepared to defend herself, run through those instructions, but instructed not to. On the walk through the back alleys of Gearford alone, she had trouble with the thresholds about when to be on alert and when not to. This wore quite literally on her mind until she settled into the idea that she was basically instructed not to attack.
They stepped into the restaurant and Lucas led her over to a two-person table in the back of the restaurant. “I’ll be in the back room if you need me.”
She sat down. There was a band playing music on a small stage near her table. She tapped her foot to the clearly Nyxian-inspired fiddle playing and guitar strumming. The singer, a young woman, was gleefully serving up some pun-infused lyrics. But their song came to an end, and there sat a silence, a void to fill worse than if the music hadn’t been there to begin with.
The patrons of the establishment refilled their hot drinks, some grabbed stronger liquid though it was too early to be drinking. Sandwiches and appetizers came around to tables. And Adele hadn’t finished tapping her foot to the melody.
She stood up, walked over to the upright piano by the edge of the small stage. She turned to see if anyone was about to object to her playing. She may have ignored them in favor of musical catharsis, but that decision wasn’t necessary; nobody noticed her.
She sat down, lifted the lid, and moved her hands into position as mechanically and precisely as anyone would expect an automaton to do. She tapped a couple of the keys to double-check her placement, and scooted over to the left a little. Then, a song came from her programming, to her fingertips, to the piano, and into the ears of anyone listening that night.
It was a lighthearted piece, something popular in urban drinking holes and Istoki desert saloons. Her left hand bounced up and down, marching the rhythm along, while her right hand played the melody out. She was still getting used to the intentionally-loose timing and randomly-changing nature of the piece, but her syncopation was much improved from the disastrous first few attempts to play it. She played it nice and slow, like they do out west, even though many here would expect it to be played quickly.
Lucas and his compatriots, among them Abigail and Phinneus, eventually came out of the private room behind the counter.
The music filled the place, and many chairs had been turned around to better watch his automaton play the mellow, urban melodies.
Phinneus cocked his head and looked at Lucas. “Since when did your robots play like that?”
Lucas grew a proud smirk. “She’s been practicing.”
“Almost as good as a player piano,” Phinneus said and ribbed Lucas. “Only pushing your buttons. Let us know how it goes out there, will you?”
“Of course. Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
They had discussed a great many things, and his trip into the Prush Empire involved a fair amount more than he’d expected, it seemed. When Adele had finished out the song she’d been playing when they finished their meeting, she stood up, curtsied, and ran to Lucas’s side. They took the train back to Astam.
“Ms. Blauchman, the boss wants to see you, right away,” said a man in a lab coat holding a small clipboard.
Meredith took off a pair of goggles and shook her head of whatever work had just been occupying it. “Thanks. Tell him I’ll be there. I seriously doubt he actually said ‘right away’. If that’s actually true, you can instead tell him to ‘give me a dry minute’.”
She brushed off her skirt and slid off the end of her stool. She packed her typewriter-like contraption used to write scripts up such that the handle locked the lid into place. She pulled aside one of the script-scrolls and tied a tag around it with the words “Do not install”.
She made her way through the smaller laboratories and onto the catwalk that ran across from there to the stairway. To the sides of the catwalk, great gigantic machines and boilers slammed and steamed all around. This was kept well below ground to maintain both the secrecy and the heat. She made sure to hold tight to the guard rail, as she wore rather tall shoes today.
She had been trying to make herself look as professional and boss-like as she could these days. When she looked around to who she reported to and who reported to her, it was one and many respectively. She hadn’t ascended any corporate ladder, they had just been busy building rungs below her since she joined Buford Automaton.
It was a fair few flights from the labs up to the fourth floor. She refused to use their freight elevator. It wasn’t intended for people, though Timothy and a lot of the other employees did so. She gathered her breath at the top of the step and walked into Buford’s office. He was holding some schematics and inspecting the inner workings of a new automaton that wore an Antifordian guard uniform, like they might wear for House of Engineer security.
"There you are. Here, I would like you to look over the specifications and take a look for yourself," said Lucas.
“You couldn’t have sent this down the tubes, sir?” She took the booklet from her boss and skimmed it for some time.
Then she poked around the new automaton's head cross-referencing the written materials. She looked at her boss and pointed to a section on the manuscript.
"What about it?" he asked.
Meredith squinted. "What the heck is this bit about? Reference manual 37? That's not a thing, sir."
"Remember how we spoke the other day about precautions for automatons with combat capabilities?" — she nodded — "Well, It's not written yet, but I'm going to be inserting some secret instructions such that we can de-escalate any combative automaton on command, put them to sleep."
"And the hush-hush?" she asked, "who's this one for?"
"The Prime Minister."
Meredith furrowed her brow, moved her head forward, and whispered, "What?"
"He personally requested a bodyguard. I'll handle the account myself, but I wanted you to know we're doing this moving forward. Please, be cautious about whom you work around. Nobody should know anything about the sleeper instructions. Basically, it's insurance on top of our new good practices. No automaton that can kill should step out of here without multiple fail-safes."
"Alright, but at least let me review all of the documentation and programming. I agree with it all, though."
"One more thing, how's Adele coming along?" Lucas asked.
"I've taken the in-memory adjustments and factored them into another revision of the programming. Darling won't have to keep it all in mind all the time. These are massive instruction sets, but it's getting better. Sadly, you won't really know how effective it is until she gets into a scrape."
"Yeah, I'm of two minds about that," said Lucas.
Meredith points to the Prime Ministers bodyguard. "About a few things it seems." — they chuckled — "Well, I'm gonna get back to my other work. Glad to see you taking point on so many things, boss."
Lucas continued his work on the Automaton in his office, door locked.
He spent quite a few days preparing for his trip. He’d created a new version of his listening devices, last used when the Order was getting a sympathetic individual appointed to the Technocracy governing body. It was a suggestion Abigail had made when discussing the upcoming trip with the Prime Minister and the diplomats.
The night before the trip, all of the members of the diplomatic entourage gathered in Gearford. They were to stay at a hotel if they weren’t local, and all went out to dinner as a kickoff meet and greet.
Lucas walked up to the maitre’d, took off his coat for one of the restaurant’s staff to take care of. “I’m with the diplomats, Mr. Buford… and guest.”
“Yes, they are already inside, it is the private room to the left,” — he raised his hand — “but afraid you'll have to leave your automaton outside. Strict rules.”
Annoyance contorted Lucas's face. He had never been asked this before, his personal automatons were specifically designed to be well-behaved in social settings. He closed his eyes, breathed, and then turned to sign with Adele. "Wander the city, refill your boiler. Come back in two hours."
Adele left for the city streets of Gearford at night.
Lucas went further inside, and found his table. There were two gentlemen and two ladies at the table, all young with the exception of the older dandy with the cane. The other gentleman, however, Lucas had already met before. Captain Leo Swift was just as surprised to see Mr. Buford as Buford was to see him.
"Fancy meeting you here," said Captain Swift.
Lucas took the seat where a plack bore his name. “Likewise, and where is our ministerial host?”
The uptight, bespectacled lady spoke. "The Prime Minister sends his regards, he had a last minute emergency to attend and will join us aboard the SS Charles Button in the morning."
Lucas paused a moment, feeling his pulse rise. The airship named after the man he'd more-or-less hired the gentleman across the table to assassinate. He wasn't ready for a reminder of past mistakes, and so he grabbed the menu and buried his nose in it for a while.
"I'd recommend their daily special Tajine, Za'alook, and they've got good wine here," said the short young woman with a beaming smile, "By the way, I'm Franco, Layla Franco."
"Pardon my appetite, completely forgetting my manners. Lucas Merriweather Buford."
He shook her hand. The rest followed suit with introductions. The uptight, bespectacled woman was Ms. Ellyson Maxwell, and the cane belonged to a Mr. Grover Rollins, the lead diplomat.
"How long have you all been employed by the Ministry of Foreign affairs? Since university?"
The ladies nodded. The smiling one, Ms. Franco, belted out an excited, "First year!"
"I've been doing this since before the castle changed hands," said Mr. Rollins, "and I’m sure I'll be doing this job after the next time."
The captain, to divert from the bold statement and keep things moving, interjected. "It seems we're both here because we fought—er, participated—in VonKressor's victory, yeah? Folks familiar with the Emperor."
"I do think that’s the major reason, Captain Swift, yeah," said Lucas.
Adele found an industrial water station in an alleyway by some factories closer to the canal. She pulled the rope that rang the attendant's bell, three times each four minutes apart.
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" the attendant said through his dangling pipe.
She stood perfectly still, waiting for the man to properly hook her up to the tank. He incorrectly fastened the nozzle and wasted precious water the first time. Her dress was now damp, which she hated. She was programmed to take pride in her appearance and this was, annoyingly, something she couldn't do much about. The attendant closed the valve, redid the coupling to her boiler, and tried again more successfully.
"You can detach it yourself?" he asked.
She nodded and he went back upstairs and into the door he'd come from, puffing away.
She'd had to turn off her boiler and rely her auxiliary power systems, spring and Stirling, to hook up to the system. Neither would last as long as the asymr-infused steam system, but usually held plenty long enough to last refueling or recover herself from an engine malfunction, neither of which were as common as before the new asymr technology.
The pressures evened out and no more water flowed into the boiler. Adele unscrewed the hose end from herself, closed the decorative cap, tightened a valve on the hook-up system and opened a valve on her back. The engine within her roared back to life and a small puff of initial steam released from a pipe protruding from her hair.
A gunshot rang out in the alley. Her dress ripped on the left hip as a bullet bounced off her.
Several rough-looking people came out of the shadows, faces shrouded by scarves. Some had knives, one or two carried guns. Their leader wore a golden-embroidered eyepatch. "You missed."
"Did not, can't you see where I hit?"
"Well let's knock her out, then."
They surrounded her, but kept their distance. She locked up, trying to figure out what to do. Well, I can defend against the gunmen, but I don't know which one. And they seem to have hostile intent, but I'm supposed to stand down, de-escalate if at all possible...
One of the dagger-wielding gang members ran at her, lunged, and missed with the blade, but slammed Adele off-balance regardless.
She was stuck in a loop.
"She's slippery," said the body-slamming attacker.
"Get out of the way," called one of the gunners, who then raised their gun to Adele.
Adele snapped out of it and into her fighting mode. She ran at the gunner, which alarmed everyone as they'd been observing a docile, stationary machine. Another gunshot rang out, but Adele was ducking, running fast so that when her punch landed, it threw him a yard or two back.
She didn't wait for the others to act before defending, those who hadn’t started running never got away from her near-merciless attack. She pummeled them until they stopped moving, stopped being a threat. After that, she stumbled back toward the restaurant.
Lucas stood outside the restaurant, bidding the fellow delegation farewell as he stood waiting for his automaton daughter to return. Captain Leo Swift had gone back in to use the restroom and, it seemed, to flirt a bit more with the waitress. When he exited the restaurant, Lucas stopped him, "Hey."
"Yeah, what's up?" Leo asked.
“You got a moment to grab a drink and talk?" asked Lucas.
"I think I ought to get back, Dr. White is expecting to run some tests I've got to oversee and I'm already a bit slop-dash, Buford."
Just then, Adele stumbled around the corner into view. Her dress was torn and bloodstained.
Lucas dropped everything and ran to her. He led her away, out of sight, and hailed a carriage. “Let’s get you home. What happened?”
“Bad men, a golden eye. They attacked me. I fought back.”
“You were hit first?” he asked.
“Yes,” she signed.
“Okay, let’s clean you up.”
They stepped into the paddington wagon, drawn by great engines. “Where to gov’ner?”
“Astam Junction, Buford Automaton’s Office. And I’ll pay the water to be quick about it.”
He calculated how early he would have to be in order to return to Gearford and get down to the docks on time. It was significantly before sunrise.
"There you are, Prime Minister," said Lucas.
He strut like a man with several hours more sleep and was accompanied by two automatons walking through the airport to where the SS Charles Button sat proudly, waiting for the journey. The rest of the delegation from the dinner last night were already there, waiting.
"It's nice of you to finally join us, Mr. Buford. I hear you didn't utilize the provided accommodations?"
"I was told your new bodyguard would be nearing completion, and so—you can see—I had to see to it personally that he was ready for you. Say hello… to Percy."
The new automaton stepped forward, raised his arm and opened up the mitten-like hand. He didn't have the dextrous fingers of Adele, but was instead outfitted with the phonography array similar to what Jacques had, so that he could speak simple phrases out loud.
The Prime Minister looked impressed, as if he hadn't much personal experience with Buford Automatons. "Hello… Percy. I am the Prime Minister."
"Hello — master — My duty is to protect the Prime Minister."
Marigold looked at Lucas. "Will it be having full conversations?"
"No, only a selection of canned statements," said Lucas.
"Thanks the gods. I won't abide a chatty machine. Loose lips sink airships," said Marigold. He turned and looked up at the airship. "And this is one I'm rather keen to keep aloft for some time."
The Ruk class ship was more landmark than vehicle. It swallowed them and provided the backdrop to their excitement. Nobody present had ever seen any type of ship—land, sea, or air—so big. Few knew about or had seen the only airship built that was larger. The cabin was comfortable and would accommodate the entire delegation, crew, several armaments, and still have plenty of room to spare.
Lucas lifted up what looked like a hat-box with a strap. "There are several, well-labeled scripts for him in this box for doing all sorts of bodyguard duties. He won't provide much protection without one installed, so I inserted one in there already. There's a small manual inside. I'll need to check up on him from time to time during the trip, just to make sure things are working correctly for you."
"Very glad you've made this delivery so timely, Mr. Buford."
Marigold fetched a nearby workman and instructed him to take the scroll set up to his room on the ship. Meanwhile, Lucas turned to the other automaton in their midst.
"Little moon," Lucas signed to Adele, "when do we become defensive on the airship?"
"Only if attacked directly, and only quickly," she responded.
Lucas hugged her. She had grown so much so quickly. She had so much logic to step through in order to answer the question correctly, it would boggle the mind of anyone who hadn't been steeped in the minutiae of each part of the process. Percy, the new Minister's bodyguard, was practically a shield with legs and a gramophone. Lucas didn't have to worry about complex matters of choice for that one. But, Adele was the most advanced daughter of Buford's, probably the most complex machinery on the Orr. This hug came from a genuine feeling of love and pride. It was also Adele's signal that her logical pathway was correct. When she received such praise, it cemented the things she said or did as correct, learning akin to childhood learning that bolstered the programming.
He let go, noticing the polite, sideways, and sometimes less discreet stares from the diplomats. Marigold was already in the process of boarding with his new bodyguard, not wishing to stand and watch what to him seemed an odd display of affection for a tool.
They were waved on by many of the crewman, some carry their luggage to their compartments, to board now. It was time to leave.
The flight was smooth and comfortable. To pass the time, Lucas studied one of the old Andrea Moreau journals he'd inherited from his late mentor, Lars Attridge. He had tried to sneak some listening devices into the rooms, but there were no openings, no time alone. It frustrated him, but there was nothing to be done.
The human mind is a complex series of fluids, and as experiments show, electrical impulses. I have little access to reliable electricity in the quantities that seem necessary to control a person, so let's instead delve into possible designs for chemical decision processes[...]
Lucas turned the book sideways to better view some of the diagrams. That crazy scientist. She probably sewed some living creatures together for this design.
It was well understood that Moreau ignored most common-sense ethics when it got in the way of her science. The long line of scientists and engineers in the Moreau tradition was filled with both individuals who took it upon themselves to make something respectable of the body of knowledge she left behind — to not allow the several humans sacrificed to die for nothing — and many individuals who found her behavior as much of a blueprint as her studies. How this book was passed down, stolen, and gifted to end up with Lucas is another story. And he didn’t tell anyone he owned such things, lest people assume he condoned anything. It wouldn’t be hard to make assumptions with the mistakes he’d made over the years.
Lucas searched around for a different book to read, but realized he’d done a poor job packing this morning and didn’t have another. Guess I could use some fresh air about now, see if I can't find where little moon's gone off to.
It was the latter half of the golden hour, long shadows and deep pink hues stretched across the Prush land below them. Lucas walked the starboard edge's railing, but his pace crawled to a stop so that he could better look at the landscape. It was dotted with scars for the War of Reclamation: blood, guts, oil, and craters.
"Haven't been out here to see it all, yet?" asked Captain Swift.
Lucas jumped. "Uh, no… No I hadn't got the opportunity before today, not from on high. Once or twice by caravan. Never like this, though."
"I didn't catch you when you dropped off the letter from the Emperor with my secretary. It's been a long time—what, four years?"
"I wanted to apologize—"
"Seriously? I'd like to keep the ordeal from five years ago firmly in the past, Mr. Buford," said the Captain.
"Still the adventurous type? Leading the air force for VonKressor? How was that?" asked Lucas.
Leo leaned back on the rails. “There was a lot of excitement, some good fights, and some really awful ones too.”
“I never saw the battlefields.”
Leo looked like he had something to say, but didn’t know if he should say anything. After looking over Lucas, he broke his silence. “Do you know what happened down there? I saw the day the Confederates switched their uniform colors and painted the battlefield. Those autos destroyed the men who brought them into battle, Buford. That was a real shit-show.”
Lucas looked sternly. “Yeah. I heard about every single strategy and backfire that happened. That kind of human toll, it’s been weighing on my mind a lot. I’m… I’m currently making sure that doesn’t happen again. New, advanced programming.”
“That doll you brought with you? That thing can kill!?” asked Leo.
“She’s not a soldier. She’s training to figure out who to trust and when to defend,” said Buford. “Speaking of, I’m also here to protect someone, so if you see—”
“I’ll do what I always do. Kick ass and save the damsel. But I’m not taking on any jobs right now, got it? Can’t get involved this time.”
Lucas chuckled. “Loud and clear, Captain.”
They looked out at the battle-scarred Orr below them until a cloud passed below them. Music drifted from the back of the boat, a flute. That can't be Adele, she… well, I can't imagine how she'd blow into a wind instrument.
"Is that your automaton companion?" asked Leo.
"It might be, uh, I'll catch you again, Swift."
At the starboard quarter, a cabin was lit up and full of flutist sounds. Lucas stepped inside to see Adele, dancing about in the center, and Ambassador Rollins playing at the edge of his small bed. Rollins looked up, smiling through his playing. Lucas smiled back and tried to think of the familiar tune. He had heard it played in some of the more rambunctious places: …way hey and up she rises… early in the morning…
Adele waved at Lucas excitedly as Mr. Rollins put down his instrument.
"Hello, little moon," he said and then switched to both signing and verbalizing for Mr. Rollins' benefit, "Having fun?"
Grover Rollins put his flute away in a case. "Quite a remarkable young lady you've got here. It took us a while to try and communicate, but she sure likes a good song. I used to be good friends with a gentleman who talked about these sorts of machines. I'm happy to see that vision come to live this past decade."
"Oh? Might I ask who that was?" asked Lucas.
"Gentleman named Lars. Funny fellow. Claurusian or Prushan… maybe it was Adelonian?" said Rollins.
"Lilithian. He was originally from Lilithia, but educated in Claurusia, close enough."
"So you knew the man?" asked Rollins.
Lucas smiled. "We talked often and at great length. I spoke at his funeral."
"Small world. I was in Jhardhandi at the time and couldn't get back in time for the services."
They paused a moment, reflecting privately. Lucas shook himself out of it. “So, I was told you needed protection, but they couldn’t tell me much more.”
Rollins walked over to the door and closed it. He quietly latched the door locked. “Where does the water flow?”
Lucas covered the side of his mouth and quietly mouthed “Only the Badger knows.”
“So you’ve followed in Lars’ footsteps? The order?” Rollins asked.
“Not here, sir. What can you tell me?” asked Lucas.
“It started just after their war ended. I’ve been involved with Prushan relations for a long time. Well, I set up this excursion to try and rebuild the lines of communications between us, make sure we don’t go to war again. That’s when I suddenly had a series of… my luck has been pretty bad. Small things, accidents, near-misses. I’ve been blackmailed to try and get me to retire. I took care of that, but never found out who it was. I deflated what they had on me.
“There’s more, but suffice to say, I think they’re going to try to off me before we return to Antiford, sonny.”
“They said you didn’t want an automaton or bodyguard?” asked Lucas.
“Just the truth: who’s after me. That’s it,” he said.
They paused, and listened for a moment. Double-checking they weren’t being listened to. Rollins got up and unlatched the door.
Lucas got up and grabbed Adele’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure, we should swap tales of Lars sometime.”
“Sounds like a good time. Over some stronger drinks, perhaps.”
They nodded and Lucas returned to his quarters. He was in the mood to read again.
When they made it to the capital city Dalaerum, there was a buzzing of crewman and energy, but instead of landing, they circled the city. Lucas suspected that it was to intimidate the Prushans, but a little eavesdropping revealed more. It seems the Prush weren't expecting to accommodate such a large airship in their port. It took some hours for the gentlemen on the radios to receive confirmation to land.
The three diplomats, Captain Swift, Prime Minister Marigold, and Lucas Buford were assembled. Ms. Maxwell addressed them. "It seems we will be landing shortly, just long enough for us all to de-board, and then the Charles Button will spend some time outside of city limits before returning to town when our work is done."
"Is the hotel far from the airport? from the meeting space?" asked Lucas.
Ms. Franco grabbed a rolled up map from Ms. Maxwell's satchel and brandied it about. "According to the maps we'd marked up, it shouldn't be more than ten minutes, either trip."
The map was snatched back. "It will be 15 minutes northeast to the hotel and 12 minutes northwest of that to our discussions, should we take a paddock's carriage. And there are several planned meals in the area alongside these trips. Our belongings will go ahead of us to the hotel whilst we go to dinner."
Lucas figured this might be his only opportunity install surveillance in the rooms, so he began holding his stomach and back of the neck. "I… Would it be possible for me to skip dinner tonight? I've been feeling more ill as the day presses on."
Maxwell turned to Franco, and they quietly socialized amongst themselves. When they looked up, Ms. Franco spoke. "If you're still feeling ill by the time we touch down, dear, you can arrive with the luggage. I'll let one of the men know and you can send the hotel staff for food later in the evening."
"I appreciate it," said Lucas.
"Please, quickly return and pack away your belongings. Whatever you don't carry will be properly taken care of. Anything you leave underneath the beds will be left on-board," said Ms. Maxwell.
The group split up, did as instructed, and returned to port for departure. A fleet of paddock's carriages were loaded up with people and luggage. Lucas was put on a carriage alongside Adele to go with the luggage after Ms. Franco checked in with his health. He started almost feeling actually ill having been pretending for the whole hour, maintaining cover even when alone in case he was interrupted in his room. Lucas watched the others load onto their carriages, and then his own took off down the city streets.
Once Lucas's things were brought up to the room, he dug through the luggage to find his new favorite contraptions, and something he'd been dying to get the chance to use, a mechanical lock-picker tool. One of his employees had been a double-agent for a Paorrian automaton company and was caught using one of these to sneak into locked records rooms. Lucas had asked Timothy to recreate the device as a side-project for bonus cash, posing it as a challenge to the team. It did generate a lot of great new ideas from the team, but more importantly: he wouldn't have been bothered by simple security measures doing his work today.
Aha! Nothing shook around in transit, good. And right next to the listeners. He put the listening devices down for a moment, and looked around his room for suitable locations to hide such a thing. Thankfully there was no lack of furniture with skirting to hide plainly-legged pieces. That would be the safest places to hide them. He poked his head out into the hallway. Nobody. We probably have the whole hallway.
Lucas grabbed the lock-picker and got to work on the door across the hall. Buzz, click, buzz, click, click, buzz. He turned the handle without resistance, removed the device and stepped inside the room. There were several pieces of fancy luggage marked with a Marigold flower. His heart raced as he slid the listening device underneath a couch. I probably didn't need to bug this room…
He repeated the process for the next few rooms, all of them receiving a recorder underneath some various furniture, locking the door behind him.
Knocks echoed from the hallway. "Sir? May I come in?"
Lucas jumped up and slammed himself up against the backside of the door in Mr. Rollins' room.
"I… I was told to check up on you," said the porter. "Sir?"
He held his breath. And waited. And attempted to listen through the door.
Absentmindedly, his mechanical hand knocked against the door. He couldn't hear much past the pounding of his heart.
Lucas closed his eyes and held his mechanical hand to his chest.
Should I open the door?
He waited a moment, turned the handle, moved the door open a crack and peered through.
The ported was still there, about to knock on his door in one last-ditch effort. "Sir?"
Lucas closed the door as quickly as would still be quiet. He heard a door open.
"Ma'am, excuse me. Is Mr. Buford available? … I'm sorry I don't … I— oh, I see… I think? Okay, I'll come back later."
Lucas listened for the footsteps to fade, and opened the door to find Adele in the hall, guarding the door. "Dad! There was a man looking for you—"
"Thank you," he signed back. "Let's get back inside the room."
He locked all doors, entered his own room, and tried, unsuccessfully, to read. His nerves were shot.
When they entered the room where the political discussions would be taking place, they were directed to sit on the side of the gigantic table closest to the fireplace. It gave them a view of the city through the window. The Prush Empire's ambassadors sat on the opposite side. Emperor Diederich Eirck VonKresser was looking out the window, smoking a pipe. Marigold declined the insistence by their aids to sit, himself insisting that he'd been sitting far too much already.
"It's interesting to see you here, Captain Swift. I thought you might like to keep serving as General in our airforce," said VonKressor.
Leo Swift straightened up. "Thanks Emperor, but I'm going to have to decline."
VonKressor raised an eyebrow and motioned his eyes toward Marigold. "Welp, the offer's there if you ever change your mind. Always looking for a few good fighters."
Marigold walked over and extended his hand to his counterpart. "It's a pleasure to see our countrymen working together so… amicably."
The Emperor took the Prime Ministers hand and shook with a bit more force than he'd expected, laughing heartily. "Sure, sure."
"The horrors done in the prodigious war are long behind us finally," said the Prime Minister.
Emperor VonKressor stopped shaking his hand and adjusted his vest. "Did you fight, sir?"
"No, but I aided our countrym—"
"Shame. Fighting gives you a different perspective on things. So what are we discussing today?" asked the Emperor.
Marigold walked around to the other side of the table, and finally took his seat.
Ms. Maxwell had opened her binder and one of the folders within. "The nation of Antiford humbly requests the Prush Empire supply property for an embassy to be established. In return, Antiford shall provide one for the Prush Empire within her capital of Gearford."
One of the gentlemen on the Prush side who had a fair bit of military recognition on his chest spoke. "Correct me if I misspeak, but I do not believe we are able to spare the expense of property during this time of rebuilding. I can't imagine an embassy would be unwanted, but land is money and we are tightly controlling both at the moment."
"He's correct, " the emperor added, "we've made a fair amount of promises to land and are managing the fulfillment of those."
"We can't be seen to be giving foreign governments land before our countrymen. We can revisit this in a few years," said the general.
Marigold sat, annoyance not once cracking his understanding, amicable expression. "If we were able to trade back some land promised to our own, it may indeed pay for a property in this city, however."
Another, skinny man spoke up from the Prush table. "Or, pay us in resources. We are in the midst of reconstructions."
Marigold subtly looked around at his diplomats, and landed his glace at Lucas. Does he—of course he knows about some lands I now own. I can't mention anything. Don't want to assume he knows the wrong thing and reveal more than he has.
Ms. Maxwell outlined several more points of discussion, many of them went smoothly. It seems a formal agreement that the nations were not at war was something symbolic Marigold's Technocracy was interested in. There was technically a peace treaty, but it was signed by a government whose authority had just been violently revoked. It seemed that VonKressor saw it as pointless, and ceded fairly easily.
To VonKressor's dismay, there were several more points to discuss over the next few days, and so he declared the following meetings two hours shorter. Buford and Swift were relieved to hear these would be five hour days and not seven hour ones as today had been.
Lucas had asked Adele to procure several items: notepads, pencils, and some mechanical odds and ends. It would give her something to experience other than politics and him something to do during their evenings. She was heading back after haggling for a small bit of oil. Her shopping bags were balanced between shoulders.
There had been so many sights to see. Dalaerum was an old city full of walking-only cobblestone streets and small street vendors. There was certainly a healthy market here. It wasn't all roses and cute cafes, the city still held scars from the past few decades of conflict: a building destroyed by Antiford, a street patched up from the revolution, and several parks torn up from the recent recapturing of the city.
Adele travelled from the mechanic back towards the hotel. The park that made up a big part of the walk was a dusty place filled with the more resilient trees and some nice boulders partly-shaped for seating and for children to climb.
A group of bowler-clad gentlemen entered the side of the large park, swinging their pocket-watches or keeping their hands by their hip holsters.
Are these people a threat or just going about their group business?
She kept the bags tightly to herself and carried forward and picked up the pace to avoid intentionally running into them.
"What's your hurry, dolly?"
She kept walking.
"Oy! Robot! You hear us? You got any ears in there?"
The gang changed their course to follow her. A few of them loaded guns. Others, equipped knuckledusters and kept their armored fists at the ready. She started to pick up the pace, almost running. Then, she ran into him.
A man with a gold-embroidered eyepatch was sitting at a piano that sat blocking the street. She had nowhere to go, cornered. And just when she might have started to attack, she could hear it, Otto Weisfeld’s Eighth Nocturne. He was playing it on the piano with maniacal aplomb. Her threat level estimations dipped below the threshold, and she didn’t know how to escape the men circling her.
A gunshot rang out.
She made fists and stood erect, looking around to see who fired. The other men were also looking for the gunman, as it wasn’t them.
Captain Leo Swift jumped onto a slanted rooftop and slid down it, guns blazing. “Snap out of it, auto!”
One of the henchman was named Otto, and this caused him to become extremely introspective, having misunderstood the captain’s abbreviating of “automaton” for his name. Otto thought to his family, to a daughter who never say her father. He dropped his hardware and ran. He ran from this life of deceit and violence.
Meanwhile, Adele had finally switched to a fighting mindset. She ran at the eyepatched menace and lunged at him. He jumped up onto the piano seat. She made a forward-jumping kick, and the man hopped out of the way, letting her destroy the keyboard of the piano instead of him. He reached down, grabbed the seat, and used it to brace against Adele. They pushed against each other until she lost her footing grip and he thrust the seat and her forward to the ground.
Leo had found a sword nearby and used it to defend against some nasty brass knuckles. He cut across the assailant’s hand and forearm when he deflected the man’s fist downward. He backed up to asses the situation.
Adele got up and moved to be back-to-back with Leo. The man with the golden eyepatch was nowhere to be seen, and only a handful of henchmen were left in the park square.
“Take out the men to your right, and I’ll do the same. Got it, auto?” he said.
Adele stretched her arm out and back to show a thumbs up.
A piercing bullet screamed across them and blew a chunk of Adele’s upper arm off, exposing piping. Hot steam billowed out of her arm.
“Hot!” Leo jumped forward, barking in pain. He lifted the arm that had been burned and fired at the man who had fired at them from a rooftop some small ways off. He fired off another shot, killing the last other man still holding a gun. One of the ruffians tried to flee, but Adele ran after him, grabbed him with the searing hot metal arm of hers, and she swung him around and towards her fighting comrade. Leo sidestepped the man and let him fall to the ground. That man passed out from the pain of searing flesh burnt through without any extra help from him.
The fight was over.
Leo checked the pockets of some of the men, checking for badges or some other clue as to their origin or intentions. Nothing.
Adele stumbled and collapsed from too little boiler pressure. She couldn’t maintain functionality any longer, and turned one of her own nobs to seal the leak.
Leo tried to lift Adele, but it wasn’t the simplest task. Too hot to handle, too heavy to make this easy. Can't just leave her here…
A tiny, hushed sneeze came from nearby.
Leo looked over to see a child with a cartful of vegetables. "You!"
The kid looked nervous and started to run.
"Wait, please," Leo called.
The kid froze.
"This automaton is hurt. Like people get hurt, by those guys."
The kid leaned to look around Leo at Adele.
"Would you help out? Use your cart? I’ll make sure you’re paid for your help."
The kid sunk back, looked up, nodded and nervously. "Vegetables."
"Vegetabl— ah. Yes."
Leo helped the kid empty the cart. They brought it over to Adele and, while he tried to avoid it, Leo's hands burned a bit throwing her up onto it.
The two wasted little time bringing the automaton back to Lucas at the hotel. Lucas heard the knocking and opened the door.
“Excuse us, coming through,” said Leo. He and the kid wheeled in a luggage cart. “They wouldn’t let us bring in the cart we were using, so, uh, you got anything for burns?”
Leo showed the underside of his forearms where he had to lift Adele a second time, from one cart to another. The kid wheeled Adele into the bathroom and returned.
Lucas was looking at everything, shocked. “What happened?”
“Real big fight, some fellow in a fancy eyepatch and his goons. I couldn’t get much on who they were,” said Leo.
“And I helped!” said the kid.
“Oh yeah, you owe Collin some Prushan marks for lending us his cart,” said Leo.
“Sure, let’s clean you up and put her in the bathtub. Actually…” Lucas walked over to his desk, opened up a compartment and took out some local bank notes, he separated a few from the bundle and offered it. “Here, Collin. Is that enough?”
Collin gave a coy shrug, “I guess so.”
“Alight, here’s double if you can keep what you saw to yourself.”
Collin took the money, smiling, and walked out.
Lucas locked the door and walked into the bathroom. He started to try moving Adele by lifting under her armpits into the bathtub.
Leo ran in to stop him. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry, Captain, She can’t burn this hand much,” said Lucas.
He was struggling to move her, so Leo grabbed her legs and lifted them over the lip of the tub for him.
Lucas went over to the bathroom mirror and opened it up to reveal a medicine cabinet. He found some ointment and an analgesic. “Here, these should help. I’ll be right back, I’m going to get some tools. Make sure she’s deactivated safely.”
Lucas went into the other room and Leo swallowed the painkiller. He unscrewed the jar of ointment and started carefully applying it.
Lucas came back with a small case with the company logo on the outside. He set down the box and opened it up. He grabbed a pair of heat-resistant work gloves, a screwdriver, and wrench. He put on a single work glove, on his normal hand, and started to tear off what remained of Adele’s dress.
It took him several hours to clear the damaged areas of debris, replace damaged parts, and restart the poor dear. Leo explained to Lucas the fight that transpired. They put her into a new outfit and set her into one of the chairs by the fireplace, but did not turn her back on.
"It's a dangerous city for her to be wandering, Mr. Buford," said Leo.
"Please, call me Lucas. I'm too exhausted for formality."
"Leo, then," said the captain. "It's dangerous to go alone. It–"
"I'm going to be honest, I sent her out to get into fights. It's new threat-detection technology."
"Then, she did a poor job defending herself. She can't defend herself only after getting beat up."
Lucas picked up the large scroll he'd removed. There weren't any scripts loaded right now, all removed. The script had been punctured. Even with this mishap, there were still probably things he needed to revisit. There would be a lot of rewriting and tweaking of script-scroll tonight. The script-typewriter sat, still in its case on the hotel desk.
"Thank you, Leo. If there's nothing else I–"
Leo stood up. "Just one thing, actually. Some of those men we fought. The guy with the gold eyepatch. Something about them was nagging me and I think I finally realize why.”
“I’ve seen their faces before. They fought for the confederates. I think they’re mercenaries, Lucas. I could be remembering wrong, but who knows.”
“Well thank you, Leo. I think we should call it a night.”
Leo stood up, “Well, I’m going to keep you to your business, but glad I could to help. That fight was quite a workout.”
The two chuckled, and Leo left the room. He would have a good night's sleep after all that brawling. Lucas would not sleep much, but Adele would be up and running in the morning.
For the next few days, Lucas would bring Adele with him to discussions. She would sit quietly in the corner: observing, processing. If she took another set of injuries like the other night, he would have to rush back to Astam Junction urgently.
The political discussions moved towards mostly dry topics. Marigold would inject both compliments and little challenges. He was trying to see what he could get.
Each breakfast, the group would stuff themselves full of eggs, bread, and meat to last them until dinner.
Dinner was more about alcohol consumption than anything else. As such, Marigold had been bringing his new bodyguard, Percy, with him unlike during breakfast. Lucas had been trying to avoid getting drunk, remembering the last time he drank in Prush— with Bird Von Wal. He occasionally feigned drunkenness, to be part of the comradery and let the others let down their guard a little.
Lucas was at the bar with Layla Franco and Grover Rollins, taking a break from trying to crack through Ms. Maxwell’s calculated walls and Marigold’s bigotry and mind-games. Lucas was legitimately trying to relax for once.
“... so then I told him to get out and take his damn icebox with him!” said Rollins.
Franco cupped her mouth and laughed. “No! You didn’t!”
“I did.” Rollins affirmed, his arms were crossed and he nodded. “Wish I could be that direct in that awful room.”
“I think VonKresser’s the only one allowed to do that, Grover,” said Lucas. “I think Marigold would throw a tantrum until he got what he wanted if we gave that sort of license to be honest.”
Franco gasped. “Don’t say such things! He’s right there and he… well it’s not right to criticise your leader like that.”
Grover patted her on the back. “Naivete. You’re still new to all this, but the first rule of any responsible citizen of any country is to be most critical of the folks you take orders from. Following blindly is for soldiers and automatons.”
“And unfortunately, both. I’ll drink to a bit less of that,” said Lucas.
“You’re going to make yourself sick, Mr. Buford.” said Franco, “You should really call it a night, you don’t want to have a hangover tomorrow.”
If he had been as drunk as he had acted, it’s likely she’d be right, but that— of course— was the point. Lucas got off his stool and wandered toward where Captain Swift, Maxwell, and the Prime Minister sat. Leo and Marigold were arguing about something in a way that seemed very not alright to get in the middle of.
Lucas made eye contact with Leo to gauge if he wanted to be bailed out of it. Leo shook his head, so Lucas accidentally ended up taking Ms. Franco’s advice, and called it an early night.
The next morning, when they called for him to venture out for breakfast...
"Mr Buford, " said Ms. Franco.
She knocked quietly. Lucas opened the door. "Please, my head."
"Oh goodness, I warned you this would happen, anything I can do for you?" she asked.
He touched his head. "Ms. Franco, you are so kind. It's just a bit of a hangover. I'll grab some fruit on my way to discussions today, I just need a moment of quiet."
"I understand, sir. Eleven sharp, don't be late."
Then as the group left, he listened for the footsteps. Boots, shoes, heels, shoes, shoes… good.
Giving himself a moment of safety buffer, he took out his small camera, disguised as a pocket watch. He unlatched it, and extended the lens forward. It looked fine to him, but it was still new. He folded it back into itself and grabbed the lock-picker.
From each room, he simply removed the listening devices. Whatever they picked up would have to be good enough for the trip. He remembered all the locations he hid them, but since the rooms were so similar, sometimes he’d have to try again. Franco and Maxwell both had diaries upon their desks. He made sure to flip through a few pages and take some photos of recent entries to read later.
When he got to Marigold’s room, he noticed that the Prime Minister had left the automaton behind, powered down and no script installed. He took out a complex circular key from his vest, and opened a compartment within Percy just below the neck and pulled out several small wax cylinders. He pocketed them and pulled out several new ones. Once the new cylinders were installed, he reset the device within the neck and re-locked it.
Back in his room, he sat with a portable phonograph attached to headphones and listened in on the collection of recordings. Each device made four recordings once per day. There was plenty of inaccuracy in that timing, but it would do to give snapshots of the goings on. It would not be until he got back to Antiford that he’d be able to develop the photos taken with the stealthy camera.
The first recording Lucas wanted to listen to was from Marigold’s room. He put it on and started it.
The cylinder began to fall apart as it rotated.
Lucas panicked and grabbed the machine to steady it and tried his hardest to listen for anything if it was going to be the only playing of this recording.
But it was useless, nothing came through.
The air smelled foul and he found it hard to breathe.
Lucas took off his headphones, turned off the device, and opened the window. He fanned the awful gas out of the room.
Shit, he thought. That bastard.
Once the room was aired out, he started again, with Maxwell’s tape. It was almost completely quiet with the exception of one section where she complained about the Prushan diplomats. Leo’s tape contained some of his ordering room service. He felt a little bad for spying on Leo. Ms. Franco’s tape had some sobbing, and a lot of fireplace sounds. Perhaps Ms. Maxwell had yelled at her. Mr. Rollins’ tape had some flute playing at one point.
The only recording of any interest were from the small bits that Percy had recorded. Marigold wanted to know who was spying on them. And later at a dinner, he whispered to Ms. Maxwell to hurry things along. He hadn’t remembered any time that the group was upset about dinner, so maybe it was in reference to the diplomatic and trade negotiations? Could be, but then why whisper?
It all left more questions than answers, he wasn’t sure what he thought he’d get with a handful of randomly-timed recordings.
Lucas spent his time feigning illness feeling properly ill due to the fumes, and doing more repairs to Adele. Being cooped up in his room became too much, however, so he ventured out in the late afternoon to find some coffee. He was recommended to try Prushan coffee by Laurence.
He made his way through town. The streets still showed signs of struggle and explosions. Many old buildings had new patches. Some of the roads were uneven, and still some parts of the city were left pristine. One thing that was absolutely thriving and surviving were the people of Dalaerum. To them, this was just another Mohday and they had lives to live. The famous “strong Prushan resolve” shone through.
Lucas found a cafe in the upper part of the city. He bought a paper to read and sat down. The coffee was as strong and resilient as the Prush.
He saw familiar faces in the distance and checked his watch. It was after the meeting, so yes, it probably was Captain Swift and Emperor VonKressor palling around town. Lucas laughed at the thought of the Emperor getting along famously with the plucky bounty hunter, while not bothering to spend much time with the Prime Minister, his counterpart in these dealings. It was a riot.
A beautiful woman in a long coat and sensible shoes came over and sat across from Lucas as if it were a perfectly natural thing to do.
He put down his paper. “Do I—”
“Yes, you pay the bill. It’s so good to see you come to our little neck of the world, Mr. Buford,” she said.
“Shall I Order you anything?”
At this point, he wasn’t sure which secret society she was working for and which pieces of information she knew, but it was definitely that sort of thing. The waiter came by and he ordered them a couple coffees, asked to make his a mocha this time. Once they were let alone and sipping, she spoke again.
“I find it interesting,” she said.
“Oh?” said Lucas.
“The technocracy was not absent from this last war here. They were backing the losing horse.”
“And why would you back the wrong horse on purpose?” he asked.
She double checked their surroundings. “To keep the race going. To exhaust the whole country. Interesting, yeah?”
“What I find interesting, is how I’m not sure what… cards you’re carrying.”
“There’s too many card-carrying folks south of the border, Mr. Buford, and we’re not all exclusive. But to ease your shaking cup, I’m not one of the two or three that hate you. I’ve never seen a contract out on you, but at least one mission for your interests.”
“Seen a contract on any older diplomats lately?” he asked.
“No, but it exists. My guess is the player whose been showing their hands most recently. I can’t be sure of anything else. If you’ll excuse me, I have to be taking a train soon. Auf wiedersehen.”
And with that, she stood up and glided off as quickly as she had come. So what did he know now? The Technocrats were extending the war, weakening the Prush land to be conquered, which explains the hit on Rollins. His rallying public support for peace ruined the plan. Also, Lucas was surrounded by enemies, one of which was now clearly targeting Adele. The man after Adele is probably going to attack Rollins as well.
Suddenly, he wished he hadn’t left the hotel without Adele. He was feeling so confident about himself and now felt exposed. He had forgotten that he traveled with his automatons as his bodyguards.
The next day’s negotiations would be interesting again. He’d spent a day away from it and was coming back with fresh eyes. He showed up with Adele ahead of everyone, save Prime Minister Marigold. The two of them awkwardly avoided contact.
“Have a nice nap yesterday, Buford?” asked Marigold.
“Not particularly, but my pain cleared up after a while and some of the local coffee. You should try some,” said Lucas.
“I don’t like to get too involved with these people. I suggest you keep your distance as well from now on.”
Lucas looked out the window, stunned by this command. “An odd—”
The doors opened and the Prushan delegation entered. Lucas avoided the Prime Minister and spoke with some of the Prush folks for a while. After a few minutes past eleven, Mr. Rollins was being escorted by Ms. Franco and Ms. Maxwell.
He looked as if he’d seen a ghost. He shook as they helped him to his seat.
Marigold approached them. “What happened?”
“I was nearly run over by a lunatic driving a landship through the city streets!” said Rollins.
Emperor VonKresser looked at one of the guards by the door. “You! Find the man responsible for this and arrest him! That behavior is for the desert and war, not where we’re trying to rebuild!”
Lucas sat down next to Mr. Rollins and listened closely to everything going on. It seemed Antiford was willing to let medicine and even food trade freely across the border, but asymr would be strictly forbidden, and tariffs were to be placed on other technology and especially weapons.
He understood the angle the Technocracy had in all this, but it was going to hamper some of his company’s sales and plans. But perhaps the Prush had seen enough of Buford’s Automatons already.
That night, he got dressed up and ready for dinner. He took a carriage ride over with Mr. Rollins and Adele. He gave her special instructions to trust Leo Swift and not to attack unless they were attacked when in a restaurant particularly. They were being watched closely, and he didn’t need the Prime Minister to have any excuse to be upset by her.
“So, other than almost dying today, I’d say it went smoothly,” said Rollins.
“What actually happened?”
“We were walking from breakfast, Ms. Maxwell wanted us to try this place that was a little out of the way. Well, I was in the middle of the street and the next thing I know, Ms. Franco is yelling something. So, I stop, you know? To see why the heck she was so much further behind me than I thought, and then BAM there it was. This crazy dome with metal wheels barreling down the street was on top of me before I registered what it was. Thankfully a stranger jumped out and threw me to the ground. The thing just missed us.”
“Need a drink?”
“More than anything,” he said. “By the way, where’d you run off to in a hurry this evening?”
“Oh, there’s a family in town I had a gift for,” said Lucas.
“Well that’s nice, didn’t know you knew anyone in Prush,” said Rollins.
“I’ve got a few things tying me here, now.”
They arrived at the restaurant, The Malt Fiddler. The food was fantastic. It was the best wurst and sauerkraut Lucas had had in his life. He offered to buy the table the first round of drinks.
When they’d all gotten their drinks, Lucas raised his stein. “To Antiford!”
The group cheered heartily, “To Antiford!”
“And to Mr. Rollins’ health! Let’s hope there aren’t anymore crazy drivers on these roads.”
The group toasted again. “To Mr. Rollins!”
Lucas’ eyes locked with Marigold. They were both giving wide, saccharine smiles for the other, trying to hide their insincerity. But Lucas’ edge was that he knew the toast was boiling the Prime Minister’s blood, and this brought a genuine warmth to Lucas’ smile. It was the sort of holding-back-laughter smile that Merideth had to contend with when Adele had knocked Ms. Lavashire out. I’m terrible.
After a few rounds, some of them ordered desserts. While they waited, a man in a suit that had never seen an iron and a hat covered in grime approached their table. “Hey, can you dry Antifordians keep the racket down!”
He was on top of Rollins’ chair, so he stood up, forcing the man backwards with the chair. “Can you please not breath right down my back. I’m sure we—”
The derelict punched Rollins right in the shoulder. Rollins, not being a weak man winced and stood tall.
Adele got up and walked slowly up to the ruffian. She raised her fist.
Lucas grabbed her arm and she turned her head. Lucas shook his head.
“Captain! Can you please remove this gentleman from the restaurant,” said Marigold.
Leo looked annoyed, but begrudgingly got up from the table anyway. Adele sat down again. Leo forced himself between Rollins and the man. “Are you okay, sir?”
“Fine, thank you,” said Rollins.
“Alright. Come on, man. Don’t make this any worse.”
The night was uneventful after Leo came back.
It was the final day of discussions, and there were still a few cards on the table between the Antifordian and Prushan delegations. It had gone on for far too many days, and most of them were exhausted. Much was already signed off and agreed to, but there were plenty of points still left at no concessions made.
"And finally, we return to the initial point of the establishment of embassies, gifted by each side," stated Ms. Maxwell.
"We've told you—"
Buford coughed. "I believe I may assist things. Emperor VonKressor?"
The Emperor turned around from his stare out the window. "Yeah?"
"The factories you'd given me, along the river to manage and build for you."
"What about them?"
"Well, I would be willing to return some of that land to the state, in exchange for some property in the city here."
VonKressor sat thinking. He squinted at Lucas. He waved for his other generals to come close and they discussed privately amongst themselves.
Marigold was smiling hard.
Captain Swift leaned in. "Are you—?"
"I'm plenty sure, captain," Lucas said loudly, to ensure all heard. "I've got other lands in Prush I'll be developing for private use. The Prush factories can run without the Buford Automaton Company."
Marigold's smile shrunk into a smirk.
He didn't know about that, then. thought Lucas. And now he can't make as if I were hiding anything in this deal.
The Prush delegation returned to the table and the Emperor extended his hand out to Lucas. "You've got a deal, Buford. Just keep up the investment into the empire with that land I gave you."
"Sure as an Istoki sandstorm, Emperor."
The two shook hands.
It was a pleasant wrap-up after that. Everyone shook hands, and there would be follow-up meetings when the two embassies go setup.
One more dinner in Dalaerum. The group would be heading out early tomorrow. This would be the last meal out on the town.
They exited their paddock's carriage onto the sidewalk in front of the doorway to the restaurant, Koch & Stein. It was a fancy steakhouse.
Marigold was at the front speaking with the maitre'd. "We have a table reserved on the roof. Listed under Prime Minister of Antiford."
Damn, thought Lucas. He was hoping for a ground-floor setup that would be easier to defend. Whatever attack there may be now, it'll be coming from another rooftop, or an explosive, a suicidal patron, maybe from an airship? Lucas was mulling it over, wondering if he could do anything special to defend against any of these possibilities.
They climbed the stairway and were led to their table at the edge of the rooftop.
"What a fantastic view!" said Ms. Franco.
She sat down, and Leo found a seat furthest from her. Rollins sat down next to Leo, followed by Lucas. Ms. Maxwell and the Prime Minister sat next to each other.
There was an empty seat next to Lucas.
"Please, I've provided a seat for your… companion, Mr. Buford," said Marigold.
"Much appreciated," said Lucas. It wasn't, today, the gesture having a motive other than consideration. Lucas turned to Adele. "Little moon. I want you to sit for a few minutes, and then look over the side and try to find someone looking at us."
"Okay, I'll do that," she responded.
"Does anyone else know sign language?" asked Leo.
It was uncommon, but not unlikely. Lucas hadn't thought of the possibility. He was a bit nervous.
Everyone generally shook their heads. Marigold leaned back with a smirk glancing back at Percy, standing directly behind him. "I prefer automatons not to be so talkative. Machines should follow orders, nothing more."
Ms. Maxwell chimed in. "I don't know, it tickles the imagination…"
They talked a while, ordered food, and began eating with no issue. Adele was looking out onto the world by the time the food came. Leo, who was seated strategically to look outward for threats, kept looking up.
Adele straightened up and walked off downstairs.
Lucas was confused. He wasn’t clear enough in his instructions, not at all. “Find someone” — she was probably off going to fetch somebody who happened to look their way. Then, he could hear it. Adele had found the piano downstairs and began to play.
Leo put down his fork, dabbed his mouth with the napkin and put it on the table. “You want me to see where she’s got to?”
“If you wouldn’t mind, thanks,” said Lucas.
Marigold looked at Percy. “Glad you didn’t add any nonsense to this one. A tool, standing where it’s told to.”
They eat a fair amount more of their meals, the music dies down.
Ms. Franco looks around. “You think they got lost? I’m going to go check on them.”
“Don’t get lost yourself,” said Ms. Maxwell.
Meanwhile, Rollins nudged Lucas and looked concerningly at his beer. “This doesn’t taste right to me.”
“That’s alright, have mine, I’m pretty much done,” said Lucas.
Downstairs, Leo could see Adele by the piano. And at a table nearby, he saw the man with the golden eyepatch. He was watching Adele with great interest and an evil smile.
Still got the ol’ element of surprise, thought Leo.
He made his way around the restaurant, taking the long, hidden way so as not to alert the man to his presence. Adele was staring back at the man, but still playing with mechanical precision. She was trying to fight the order not to fight in a restaurant with a learned fear of this attacker.
Leo made this all a lot easier. “Hello, gold and ugly. Fancy seeing you.”
The man turned around, fear and anger in his eyes.
“Miss me?” said Leo.
He grabbed the table and used it to fling his body across and kick the man to the ground. They got up and stumbled out of the restaurant.
Leo grabbed Adele’s hand. “Stop playing, come on.”
She stood up and followed Leo as he ran toward the door.
The delegation still upstairs could hear gunfire shoot out across the street. Lucas, Marigold, and Rollins all rushed to the edge of the roof to take a look at the goings on below.
In the street stood just Adele and the golden eyepatched man. She had a streak across her face plate where the bullet bounced off. She walked slowly toward him and the man stood his ground, firing at her shoulders and chest plate. She was still certainly taking hits, but Lucas had installed some extra armor plating around her shoulders after the last attack. What worked for him before wouldn’t work again. She grabbed him by the shirt and punched him in the face three times and let him go.
And then, the police came from all sides.
“Stop!” shouted Leo swift, not from the street, but behind them. He had a gun trained on Layla Franco, who in turn had a gun trained on Mr. Rollins.
Percy did his job and stood in front of the Prime Minister.
“I’m so sorry, sir. So, so sorry,” Franco said. She kept babbling the words repeatedly.
Lucas held his hands up. “Put… the gun… down.”
She clasped both hands around the gun.
Leo jumped at her, throwing them to the ground. Her gun went off into the air, harming no one.
The police came in and handcuffed her too. “Damn hell of a lot of commotion in one place.”
That night was long, full of gossip and packing up. The next morning struck sooner than felt right. Early was too early. Everyone retired to their rooms on board pretty soon after departing aboard the S.S. Charles Button.
Lucas sent Adele to visit with Mr. Rollins the whole trip, just in case there were and contingent assassination plans.
After they were in the air for a while, Lucas went to the bow and stared out. He tried to work out what direction Bufordshire— Bufordstadt— Bufordorf? Whichever name, the plot of land in northern Prush he owned was. He managed to keep hold of that the whole trip, so that was a win.
Leo Swift came to join him. "So, what's next for you? More politics and… that sort of thing?"
"Hopefully not. I'm opening up a school, and then trying to figure out how to get a town built," said Lucas.
"You're strange. I'm not sure I'd get out of bed if that was my to-do list."
"Well, I'm finally rich enough to have people to kick me out of bed."
Leo pictured butlers in the Swift estate, forcing his crew to get up and letting him sleep. "Must be nice."
"I suppose it is. It's like the old myth of the hill that grows bigger as the hero gets stronger on his journey to the top," said Lucas. "How about yourself?"
"Not sure yet. Gonna find a simple job to sink my teeth into, where the bad-guys are just bad-guys, loud and clear."
“Good luck with that.”
They both laughed. The sky below them was full of fog rolling along the landscape. It was pretty. Marigold’s automaton, Percy, came around the corner.
Leo looked uncomfortable. “That thing’s been patrolling around the ship since we left dock. Why you gotta make it so creepy?”
“Don’t look at me, it’s what you do with an automaton that makes or… damn that is creepy.”
Percy stood beside them, facing Leo.
The automaton walked unstoppably, grabbing onto Leo and right off the ship! Lucas didn’t have time to remember what the failsafe activation even was anymore. It was too late: it had caught them by surprise. Leo fought the machine off him as they both fell, tumbling into the fog below.
“MAN OVERBOARD!” shouted Lucas.
Several of the deckhands ran over.
“We’ve got to stop this ship!” he said.
The captain of the ship, a grey haired lady, came over. “Sir, we can’t safely land in a fog, never mind that thick. I wish there were something we could do.”
The Prime Minister stayed in his room. He must have been pretending to sleep. When the crew finally "woke" him up, he told them not to bother sending a scout to find him, that they would inform his crew after they returned, instead.
When they returned, the captain was reported as missing, and his crew was told of his last known coordinates. They blamed Ms. Franco for the rogue programming done. But Lucas seriously doubted she was responsible. Marigold ordered a replacement automaton, which Lucas was actually happy about. It would give him time to rethink and improve the whole failsafe idea. He decided it was important to tell Ms. Blauchman the things that had gone wrong during the trip, figure out how to fix everything. He couldn’t, of course. What was wrong, what needed fixing, were people, not the machines.
Grover Rollins took Lucas out for a drink in Gearford when they got back home.
“So you gave up your factories down in Prush, why?” asked Rollins.
Lucas finished sipping his beer. “The new tariffs. They would’ve made things really complicated. Oh, yeah, I never told you about that!”
“That family I gave a gift to. Nice kid named Collin, good eye for business, did me a favor. So I gave him the technology I’m leaving behind, he just had to promise to put his own logo on all the automatons he’ll make from now on. I let the Emperor in on it afterwards. He and his family will run the factories there for the Empire until they earn enough to buy the property.”
“You’re something else, Buford. Lars would be proud,” said Rollins.