Ai Pan

By Alex Chan 

This is an abridged version of the full story, leaving most dialogue and description to your imagination! I’ll post a full version soon.

Hong Kong, December 1824

As a child, Tian’s father had become addicted to opium, initially pushed on him by a British business partner. Tian had picked up toy making in an effort to distract his father, creating all sorts of fantastical steam-powered toy trains and boats. But no matter how curious his invention, his father’s glazed eyes always turned away in search of his opium pipe. Fleeing their notoriety and debt, he brought his father and mother far to the south to the sleepy fishing village of Hong Kong. 

It had been spring when Tian had landed in his new home. He became apprenticed to a local toymaker, and soon after fell in love with the young daughter of his boss, Wen. Tian’s toys, previously made to distract his father, now existed to bring a smile to Wen’s soft lips. His inability to fully communicate with his to-be wife, who spoke Cantonese to his Mandarin, fostered an intoxicating allure of mystery and intrigue between the two.

Some thirty years later, their miscommunication was no longer a source of laughter and romantic assumptions of best intentions. Now, Tian occasionally pretended to not understand Cantonese so he could ignore Wen’s nagging about him losing his keys. To be fair, it happened more often than he cared to admit. 

These days, Tian preferred to escape to spend long hours tinkering in the workshop he inherited from his father-in-law. For months, he had been attempting to create a compass which would always point to his often misplaced keys, but he hadn’t been having much luck. The compass needles continued to drift aimlessly, despite his every effort to bias its internal mechanisms using strong magnets with unique frequencies. One evening, letting his mind get creative, he broke out some British liquor from a friend, “rum” as his friend had called it. He coughed as he poured it down his throat, his eyes tearing up, but he could already feel the screws of his mind begin to oil and loosen. After a few more cups, Tian’s mind began to feel very, very loose. 

He awoke the next morning to see his workbench in a mess, a complicated web of lenses, emptied gas vials. Curiously, some Buddhist pamphlets and talismans were also strewn about. Not thinking much of it and a bit embarrassed, he cleaned himself up and groggily made his way to the kitchen.

At breakfast, still slightly buzzed from his morning drinks, Tian reached for a handkerchief in his pocket when he felt the familiar glass sphere of the compass he had been tinkering with. Pulling it out, he immediately noticed that its slender needle remained fixed in its orientation. With a start, he pulled the compass closer to his face. His eyes drew a line to where the compass was pointing … across the table to his wife. Tian got up, and slowly circled the table towards his wife keeping a close eye on the needle. Still, the needle remained stubbornly pointed at his wife, Wen. 

Nei jo mut yeh” (What are you doing), drolled his his wife as she rolled her eyes. Ignoring her, Tian walked slowly around the room, twirling this way and that. He jumped up and crouched down, and yet despite his best efforts the arrow remained stubbornly pointed at his wife. 

“You don’t have my keys, do you?”

“Why would I have your keys?”

“I don’t know!”

“They’re right. Over. There.” Wen glared as she pointed fixedly across the table where he was just sitting. His keys were by his plate.

In a fit of confusion, Tian snatched up his keys and rushed to his workshop. 

Tian surveyed his desk. That night he recalled drinking. He remembered that the alcohol had made him … emotional. He remembered singing old love songs he had used to serenade Wen with. He recalled praying to Guan Yin and Buddha. What had he prayed for? Squinting his eyes, he remembered praying for love. He prayed for his heart to leap again like when he had first met his wife. But he must have slurred his prayers, for Buddha simply guided his drunk hand to create a compass that simply pointed at his same old wife. 

Sir Waite was an impatient, inflexible envoy to China on behalf of the British Empire. Currently stationed in Hong Kong, he longed to finish his assigned negotiations to re-open the opium trade so he could return to Britain. He hated the local humidity. His primary negotiation tactic would be to astound the Qing Emperor with displays of British technology, after which the Emperor would surely immediately recognize the supreme brilliance of the Empire and would agree to any terms. Sir Waite, also being equally insecure and anxious, wasn’t sure the telescopes, clocks, and light-bulbs would ensure he’d be home in Essex by Christmas. He decided to whip up his men and scour Hong Kong to find more baubles to overwhelm the emperor with.

Despite Tian’s best efforts to make his shop appear closed, Waite and his men eventually forced their way in. Demanding explanations for the toys strewn about, Waite was quietly awed by a steam elephant’s ears flapping in cadence with its steps. A similar scene played out as a brilliantly ribboned toy balloon hovered through the shop, and the mechanical toad leapt amongst the soldier’s feet. Waite hid his surprise and ordered his men to pack away the toys to bring before the Emperor. 

As the soldiers handily snatched the toys, the shopkeeper reached out his arm in protest. The soldiers ignored him and realizing there was nothing he could do, the shopkeeper cursed under his breath raising his hands in capitulation. In the moment the shopkeep had raised his arms, Waite caught a glint of light. The shopkeep had subsequently quickly pulled his sleeve back down as he stepped into the backroom, a telltale sign of hiding something valuable. 

Waite snatched Tian’s arm, and pulled up his sleeve. Under the sleeve, a glass orb was attached by a leather strap to the shopkeeper’s wrist – in the glass orb Waite could make out a small slender needle. Waite, with his keen eyes, noticed that the needle remained fixed in a south west direction. Waite glanced out the shop’s window to double check the position of the sun. Whatever this was, it was certainly not a traditional compass: in addition to its non-northern orientation, as Waite raised the shopkeeper’s arm up and down the compass needle compensated and continued to point stubbornly south west and up the hill.

After a series of miscommunications in broken Cantonese, Waite snatched the compass off Tian’s wrist. “I’ll be taking this too – please write a description for whatever this bauble is and the toys. Make them sound impressive, please.” Waite, with a thin smile, shoved some money in Tian’s hand as recompense. 

“Furthermore, you’re officially in the employ of the esteemed British East India company and have been for the past month. Thus, the technology you’ve created here was my direction, and is in fact British property.” Before Tian could protest, Waite snapped at the soldiers to finish packing the goods, then turned on his heel and marched back into the heat.

Nanjing, March 1825

Kumail Devi, a young, bright, but stern Qing military and science officer had been tasked with sorting through the various boxes a British envoy had proffered last weekend. Kumail, fluent in both English and Mandarin, observed the botched negotiations with amusement. The British envoy, Waite, blustering and overconfident had attempted the negotiations in broken Mandarin. The Emperor, misinterpreting the chests full of goods as a tribute from the British Empire, offered his thanks but had no interest in further trade relations – and definitely no interest in restarting the opium trade. Kumail saw no reason to intervene there. Escorted promptly away a huff, Waite had left behind the boxes of various British inventions that Kumail was now sifting through. 

Among the various gaudy telescopes, clocks, and leaping mechanical frogs, Kumail saw a curiously small chest. Opening it, he found what looked to be a simple glass orb attached to a wrist strap, a thin compass needle contained within the orb, and a hastily written note. The author of the note, some toymaker named Tian, claimed that the compass would point towards one’s “wife”, or soulmate, depending on interpretation of the writing. 

Bemused, Kumail placed the device on his own wrist. The orb’s needle sprung to life, swinging this way and that until it settled in a south-easterly direction. Kumail took a few paces around the cluttered workshop, studying the needle which remained fixed in its south-easterly orientation. He briefly allowed a small smile to creep onto his lips.

Eager to determine if the compass worked, Kumail decided its test would be to find a spouse for the stubborn Prince Yizhu. Following the direction of the compass, Kumail and Prince Yizhu made their way through Nanjing. As their royal convoy paraded around town, Kumail wasn’t sure if the locals were staring at himself or at the prince. Ethnic Indians were rare this far north in China – most gosain merchants confined themselves around Tibet and their Buddhist temples. But Kumail had come to China under very different circumstances. He had escaped a life as a slave for the British East India company, starting with his kidnapping as punishment for his family’s refusal to grow opium. Millions of other families like his were trapped in credit enslavement, as the cost of rent, fertilizer, water, and labor outweighed the trickle of income the Indian farmers received for their efforts. 

Over the years Kumail had gained the unwitting trust of his superiors at British East India, slowly simmering under a placid smile. On his eighteenth birthday he quietly departed the British compound in the early morning. He had left behind a dear friend, but there was no future down that path. He soon found work as a petty officer under Minister Lin Zexu, where he became indispensable in the campaign to purge China of opium. With his eyes closed, Kumail could name every local British “merchant,” where they stashed their opium, who their Chinese distributors were, and so on. That summer, the hammer of justice came swiftly. When nearly 20,000 li of opium bricks were set aflame, so too did Kumail’s heart roar with vengeance.

Eventually, the royal convoy found themselves circling a ceramics warehouse. Inside Prince Yizhu and a woman locked eyes, and months after, the Qing lineage was extended with a grandchild. Kumail, his mind swimming with possibilities, had already summoned the mysterious Tian to Nanjing.

Nanjing, October 1826

After half a year at their workshop, Tian and Kumail had been wildly successful in scaling Tian’s toy balloon designs to full airships – they could hold forty men and another 15 dan of fuel and cargo, reaching speeds of twenty li per hour, more with tailwinds.

More importantly, the pair had figured out how to scale production of the soulmate-finding compasses, which had become known as ai pan.  They were distributed by Qing emissaries to the royal courts and governments around the world as guarantors of happiness and of life-long love for those willing to submit to their divine direction. 

Hong Kong, December 1826

Waite, still nursing his ego and relegated to Hong Kong by his disappointed British directors, had languished in the months following the failed negotiations. As he stewed in a bar Christmas afternoon, Waite schemed about how he could reclaim the ai pan technology – after all Tian had been a “British East India employee” – at least he had convinced himself so. While he could try to convince Britain to take military action, Waite decided the best course of action would be to capture Tian to serve the Empire. Not bothering to finish his drink, he jumped up to make preparations.

Off the coast of China, January 1827

The victim of bribery and alcohol, Tian woke from a doze which had started in a local restaurant in Nanjing. He found himself stashed in a cell attended by dour-faced British guards. He surmised he was on a ship due to his disturbed stomach, and the constant sound of water sloshing around him.

After long days of darkness, Tian slowly came to the uncomfortable realization that the only way his situation would be remedied would be if his wife were to use the ai pan to find him. The uncomfortable part of that was he wasn’t sure their love still held strong after decades of his neglect. Tian grasped his hands tightly in prayer, hoping that Guan Yin would preserve his bond with Wen, promising to pay for his misdeeds should he ever get the chance.

Nanjing, January 1827

Wen was enjoying herself in the Imperial Palace. Having spent decades maintaining a house and cooking every meal for her man-child of a husband, Wen finally had time to re-explore her identity, to dig deeper and find the young woman who had been burdened with childbirth too soon. She was currently deeply absorbed in silk-embroidery courses every afternoon. 

One evening, Kumail rushed into her quarters. It had been a couple days since he’d seen Tian – a normal occurrence if Tian had been off eating and drinking – but he needed him immediately in the workshop. Curiously, Wen also hadn’t seen her husband for a few days. Not thinking much of his absence, the pair, using Wen’s ai pan and some trigonometry, discover that Tian is curiously halfway down the coast of China in Xiamen. Subsequent calculations show his trajectory bearing further south. 

A cold chill slid over Kumail as he considered if their calculations were in fact correct. 

“Mumbai. If the British have Tian, they should berth in Mumbai within three weeks, fastest. If we take the airship, flying like a bird straight there we could arrive within one.” Kumail hesitated, then whispered, “I have contacts near Mumbai … sepoy soldiers that can be rallied should it come to blows. We’ve long been seeking a chance to throw off our British colonists. Keep the ai pan on you at all times, it’s the only way we can find Tian!” 

Mumbai, February 1827 

Kumail made an odd figure as he stood alone at the base of the gangway in his Qing robes as the massive HMS Royal Albert glided into Sassoon port. Under the guise of wanting to deliver a thank you gift to Waite for the ai pan, Kumail boarded the ship. Ten-thousand sepoy troops were hidden throughout the surrounding dock, as Kumail regaled the ship’s command with an enticing description of a reward, much too heavy for him to carry, waiting at the Watson Mansion hotel. Moments after the ship’s command left for the local hotel, the sepoy troops threw off their disguises and began seizing the ship. Thus began the public debut of their long-brewing rebellion. In the chaos that ensued, Wen slipped through the ship with a group of Kumail’s trusted men to retrieve Tian. 

The disorganized sailors stood no chance and the boat was seized without a single shot fired. Emboldened by their rout of the British soldiers and capture of their command, Kumail and the sepoys lusted to immediately fit the ship for war against the Empire as dawn broke the next morning.

Tian, emerging into the light with Wen bracing his steps, embraced Kumail and thanked him for his efforts. Looking around at the rush of men, steel, gunpowder, a troubled Tian pulled Kumail aside. 

Tian implored to Kumail that the impending violence, the vengeance that stirred in both of their hearts would only beget more violence in an unending cycle. Human ambitions – for more money, power, a more beautiful spouse, the exotic pleasure of drugs – could be sated if individuals found the company of a loved one.

The solution lay in the ai pan, in the love it brought between two people that would quench any misguided desires. And access to love was not something that should be tethered by intellectual property laws and gated behind a huge price tag. Nodding in agreement, Kumail and Tian knew they were meant to share the ai pan with the world. 

Epilogue

In Japan, an Edo prince had set sail and followed an ai pan’s direction all the way to the Americas, where he fell in love with a native woman. Their families, treating their newfound love with reverence as directed by some higher power, vowed to create a harmonious society rooted in their common culture of celebrating and protecting Mother Nature.

In the Vatican, an ai pan had made its way to the wrist of an archbishop who sought to disprove it as Satanic – for only God Himself could prescribe love. A big hullabaloo was raised as he rallied newsmen and fellow clergy to join the experiment. To his dismay, but eventual joy, his journey ended just down the street where the ai pan directed him to make the acquaintance of an older baker, Giuseppe. News of their legitimate love between man and man would blossom into a wider societal awakening that would ripple across Europe and the world.

The Empire itself had not been immune to this wave of love that was enveloping the world. A young princess Victoria had stubbornly stolen an ai pan, commandeered a ship and ended up in India months. After trekking by foot for two weeks, the ai pan led her to a tall yogi begging in the streets of Gujarat. Their love quelled tensions that had been brewing between the emboldened sepoys and the Empire quickly diffused, as the then Queen Victoria remade the British East India company with the mission of reparations for families torn apart by being forced to grow opium.  

Centuries later, the ai pan was scientifically explained as a device which helped an individual find their quantum entangled twin.

Most still preferred the simpler term, soulmate

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