A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 3, Scene 2
Elijah led several porters to their stations alongside the bar. Each location held a different type of food. Some were side dishes like carrots, peas and green beans or mashed potatoes. One table held a prime rib and the porter there sliced thick slabs of meat for the passengers. There were several poultry offerings, to which Ignatius gravitated.
He accepted several duck tenderloins in a brown dressing and added some vegetables to his plate. Elijah stepped over to him and pulled out a chair at one of the dining tables.
“Thank you Elijah, I appreciate it.”
“No trouble, Mr. St. Eligius. Can I get anything for you?”
“Just my coffee from the other table please.”
A man walked over to Ignatius’s table. He wore his hair in a double braid. His nose at one point had been straighter. A bolo tie with a large turquoise stone was the only second personal decoration that Ignatius noticed. A large cuff encircled the man’s wrist. On the dorsal side, a watch face counted the passing time. Next to the clock, a series of slides ran in parallel lines.
“Is this seat taken,” the stranger asked.
“Not at all, please sit down,” invited Ignatius.
“I am Joss White Eagle,” said the man.
“Ignatius St. Eligius, Mr. White Eagle. Nice to meet you. I see you are wearing a Henderson Cuff. May I inquire as to how you like it?”
“It is serviceable. Actually, it is preferred over the alternative. My condition requires constant monitoring.”
“Yes? I hope then you have the MkII model. That one has better timing and medicine distribution. It took Henderson a while to accept my advice, but he did add the compressed springs to drive the gears, which increased the reliability of the timing system…Listen to me run on. I do apologize.”
“You know Mr. Henderson?”
“He and I met a long time ago, when he was testing the Mark 1 model.”
“I suffer from mercury poisoning. I won’t trouble you with the story about how I got it. Suffice to say it was a bad deal that went worse.”
“Truly, I am sorry to hear that. I know the effects are not pleasant at all. How are you responding?”
“Pretty well actually. I am hoping to be cleansed soon.”
“Well then I think a toast to your good health is in order,” said Ignatius raising his coffee cup.
Joss smiled and lifted his crystal tumbler. He guzzled the brown liquid and put the glass down harder than he intended.
“What brings you to Harrisburg, Mr. St. Eligius,” Joss asked.
“Just returning home from a business trip. How about you?”
“I am headed to Washington D.C. in order to lodge a complaint with the congress about the treatment of my people.”
“Which nation are you from?”
“The Cherokee, I am surprised you asked like that.”
“I try to maintain a fairly broad mind. Do you know anything about the others on board, like the German fellow over there,” said Ignatius indicating the rotund man who was savagely tearing into a large slice of beef.
“I know enough to stay away from his kind. Heinrich Schmessinger. He is an arms dealer. He is a savage murderer at heart, mainly when your skin is not white.”
“I see. And the British gentleman?”
“Another untrustworthy individual if I understood the porters correctly. He represents a manufacturing corporation of a massive size in England. They have their hands in everything, steam engines, airships, armored vehicles. The Royal Crown is mad for the newest technologies. That man, Rodger Guilgood, is responsible for procuring it for Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.”
“You are remarkably well informed,” Ignatius said.
“It is not hard. These are soft men, easy to read, unlike yourself and the Chinaman. Chau, did he say his name was?”
“Something like that. Chau told me he dealt in silks.”
“Did you see the women with him? I have never seen such exotic beauties like them before.”
“You may want to double check them before pinning any hopes to them,” Ignatius said with a nod of his head.
May-Li sat at a table across the car from Ignatius and Joss, delicately slicing a bit of meat off a drumstick with a thin razor blade attached to her finger.
“So, probably not a delicate wild flower then,” said Joss.
“No, definitely not.”
“How is your dinner, gentlemen?” asked Elijah stopping at the table. “After you are finished we will be serving desert, coffee, cigars and brandy at the gaming table. Should either of you feel inclined to place a wager on a friendly hand of cards.”
“Do you play cards, Mr. St. Eligius?” asked Joss.
“A little,” said Ignatius.
“You will have to join us then,” Joss said.
He smiled and rose from the table.
“I am going to collect another drink from the bar and mingle a bit. Thank you for your company.”
Ignatius raised his hand in a small wave. He picked over the food on the plate before him. Not knowing what may be in store for him later, Ignatius ate a little of the food. As always, it tasted flat and unremarkable. Annoyed with the food and his own limitations, he slid the plate to the edge of the table. Almost instantly, one of the Pullman Porters swept in and carried off the plate.
“Elijah, may I have my bag from the couch please?” Ignatius asked.
The Pullman Porter handed the case to Ignatius and moved gracefully down the car, collecting dishes. Ignatius took the punch cards and fanned them out on the table in front of him. The cream-colored paper was water stained and wrinkled. However, with a little pressure from his palm, Ignatius was able to flatten the card down to a readable format. The problem now was trying to work out what each hole in the paper meant.
Obscured by weather the handwritten notes could offer no clues. Frustrated, Ignatius drank the dregs of his coffee and put the cup down against the saucer rather hard. It made a very loud clink. The Englishman strolled over to Ignatius’s table. He peered curiously at the punch cards.
“Don’t mind me, dear fellow. I noticed the cards on your table, they’re Automaton instruction cards, am I right?”
“You are,” answered Ignatius.
“Yes. Jolly good.” The British man smirked and smoothed down the front of his shirt. “Do you mind?” he asked Ignatius indicating the seat that Joss White Eagle had vacated.
“By all means,” invited Ignatius.
“Rodger Guilgood, Goode Industries. How do you do?”
“I am fine, thank you for asking. How does the British Empire fare?”
“Gathering steam every day, ha-ha. Her Majesty believes that now is the time to expand our technology at pace with our territory. It will facilitate managing our subjects.”
“I see. Do you worry about over-expansion?”
“Not at all,” Rodger said, “What sort of work do you do, Mr. St. Eligius?”
“I tinker a bit. I run several foundries and factories in Harrisburg. My businesses do your typical industrial work and other more ‘specialized’ work, which might benefit your government.”
“Oh really? What makes you say that?” asked the Englishman.
He raised an eyebrow, challenging Ignatius to impress him. Ignatius rubbed his chin for a few seconds. He smiled confidently at Rodger Guilgood.
“I can supply standard parts for most any machine you can imagine. We have a very flexible foundry that can adapt to different molds. In addition, I have access to shipping, so all the costs are from one source. If there money were generous, I might even be able to provide plans and instructions for machines of enormous power.”
“Bloody Hell, that’d be nice. I haven’t had much success in your Midwest. Something did come up, unexpectedly. I am on my way to procure it right now.”
“Can you offer any insight on these cards?” asked Ignatius.
Guilgood fanned the cards out in front of him. Peering at the paper stock, he murmured quietly as he traced the holes with his pointer finger.
“Very interesting. May I ask where you got these?” asked Rodger.
“They are part of an investigation,” answered Ignatius.
“Well, these three are standard instruction sets. Walking, obstacle avoidance and fetch and carry. This one,” said Rodger holding up the card, “this one is different.”
“It is more complex than anything I’ve ever seen. Do you see the number of holes punched? Most of the Automatons I work with only have rows half as wide. See the difference?”
Rodger held up the card for Walking and the other card. Ignatius could see that the holes on the second card were smaller and more plentiful both left to right and up and down.
“Whatever read this card is something extraordinary. I am afraid I cannot say what the instruction set is though. It is too far beyond my knowledge. Which manufacturer is it from?”
“I am not really at liberty to say. The investigation is ongoing, so until it concludes I cannot speak of it.”
“No trouble to me. I confess, I would be most interested in the particulars, when they become available. Perhaps you’d remember to get in touch?” Rodger asked, offering Ignatius a business card.
“Of course. Please consider my offer as well. I think we could all benefit from a joint venture.”
“Naturally. Will you be joining us at the card table?”
“I have not made up my mind just yet. We shall see.”
Rodger pushed his chair back and grinned. “It wouldn’t be sporting without enough players.”
He stood and made his way to a dessert table, picking a glistening tart on creamy white china. Rodger sat on a couch and when a porter walked past, the Englishman requested a pot of tea. Ignatius contemplated Rodger and Bey-Feng. The two had ample reasons and motives to purchase stolen plans. One driven to please his monarch, the other lusting for power. Of the German, Ignatius suspected a desire as well. The man dealt in weapons and was not squeamish in their use apparently.
“Herr Heinrich Schmessinger,” announced the German.
“Herr Schmessinger, what a pleasant surprise. Do sit,” invited Ingatius with a gesture.
With his other hand, he swept the instruction cards off the table. While he did so, he assessed the man before him. Large, fleshy, but very well-tailored. His Van Dyke was flawless as were his hat and cane. Ignatius concealed a smile. The cane looked like a newer variant of his. The Herr must not like to go about unarmed.
“Your reputation precedes you,” Ignatius said.
“As does your own,” replied Herr Schmessinger. “I have read of your exploits, you how do you say? Wagon of Battle?”
“A misunderstanding with some local gentlemen.”
“Ach, I do not care about them. What did you use? Doctor Gatlin’s model? Or did you manufacture something of your own?”
Ignatius blinked. The man did not seem to care about what he had done, but rather with what he did it.
“Weapons of all sorts fascinate me,” Herr Schmessinger confessed.
“I normally abhor guns, there were extenuating circumstances in that situation.”
“Ja, but the machine, I have only descriptions from newspapers. Tell me mien Herr, what did it feel like, controlling that machine?”
Ignatius sat back and thought for a moment. There were in his mind, two realities of that morning. The truth and his drug shrouded version. A pang of deep regret clutched at his stomach. The words of Franco the Engineer came back to him. The accusatory tone, the hate filled look. This was pushed aside by glowing brown eyes, welling with tears. The smell of lilacs in softly curling brown hair.
“Herr Schmessinger, it was without doubt, the second worse day in my life. If you will excuse me, I need to make a few preparations before the card game begins.”
Ignatius rose from his seat, taking his possessions and stormed out of the parlor car.
“Vas it something I said?” wondered Heinrich to no one in particular.