This is the full version of a short story that was submitted to the Quantum Steampunk short story competition. I stumbled upon it since one of my favorite authors Liu Cixin is a judge and posted about it on his Instagram. If you enjoyed reading it, consider voting for this story in the Popular Choice category!
Ai Pan (爱盘)
By Alex Chan
Tian squinted through a large magnifying glass. The sweat dripping down his face betrayed that he was, in fact, a living being and not a statue. In one hand he grasped a pair of thin tweezers, suspending a delicate gear over a hair-thin axel. His other hand slowly adjusted the opened guts of a mechanical elephant on the workbench below him. Finally, with the slow deliberation of a sloth, Tian clicked the gear over the thin axle, the teeth settling cleanly into the grooves of its surrounding gears. Immediately, a steady stream of whirring gears and the smell of burning oil greeted his senses. The elephant, now placed on its feet, walked across his workbench, a slight trail of steam trailing from its articulated trunk.
Hong Kong, December 1824
A gifted toy maker and inventor, Tian used to come from a wealthy family. However, his 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 inventions, his father’s glazed eyes always turned away in search of his opium pipe. Fleeing notoriety and debt, he brought his father and mother far 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 Wen, the young daughter of his boss. Tian’s toys, previously made to mute his father’s addiction, 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. Maybe it was because their daughter had already left home, and there was nothing to distract them from their ennui. 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 and empty 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 gwai-ah?” (What the hell are you up to?) his wife snapped in exasperation 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.
Thick humidity caused his stiff starch collar to be glued to his very flesh. His feet swam in puddles within his boots, giving off an odious stench that he was happily unaware of to the chagrin of those near him. 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. The proposed series of trade terms would be no small feat: firstly reparations and payment for the opium which the Chinese had confiscated and destroyed from British “merchants”, secondly permanent stations from which British “merchants” could do business, and thirdly – most importantly – being able to restart the sale of opium in China.
His primary negotiation tactic would be to astound the Qing Emperor with displays of the latest British technology. In his esteemed opinion, these backwaters lacked the scientific rigor of Oxford and Cambridge. Surely, the Qing Emperor would immediately recognize the supreme brilliance of the Empire and would agree to any terms once he realized how far behind his society was. In any case, if negotiations failed, Waite had the backing of the finest and most powerful military and naval force in the world. He didn’t care too much for violence, but the British war machine moved slowly. By the time any bullets flew he supposed he would be back home on some other diplomatic task.
Waite reviewed over three crate-fulls of the products of the Empire’s finest minds including mechanical clocks, telescopes, and the centerpiece: a light-emitting orb created by Sir Davy.
“Are we missing anything? Didn’t we have anything else here … something that was more shiny?” Waite inquired as he tugged his collar to let some air in. Doubt about the success of the coming negotiation was creeping into his mind as he reviewed each object, rehearsing in his mind how to describe their function and novelty in his limited Mandarin.
“No sir, this is all that was shipped here.”
Waite’s anxious brows furrowed deeper. If negotiations failed, he’d have to stay in this godforsaken humid hell for another year waiting for the British flotilla to arrive. He couldn’t bear to spend another Christmas apart from the Motherland.
“Well, this just won’t do. Come now, up! Let’s see if we can find any baubles in this sorry excuse of a town.”
With a groan, his small team remained content to move as little as possible in the sweltering heat.
“Now! Get to it!” squeaked Waite with an impatient stamp.
Tian saw the squad of British soldiers climbing the narrow, steep street lined with shops through the window of his workshop. A skinny, anxious looking British man in a crisp beige uniform perched atop a shaded rickshaw led the group. One hand clutched the tip of his pith helmet, while the other hand clutched the side of the lurching rickshaw as the group labored up the cobblestone road. Every so often, the group would stop and enter various shops – leaving with armfuls of whatever rare, interesting, or valuable goods they could get their hands on.
As the group neared, Tian went to the showroom adjoining his workshop, drew the curtains and gently locked the door to his toy shop. To be safe, he laid out some of the older toys he cared less about: the recently repaired mechanical elephant, a miniature hot air balloon with brilliant rainbow ribbons streaming from it, and a mechanical hopping toad. He carefully pulled his sleeve over the compass attached to his wrist, though it wouldn’t look particularly valuable to the layman’s eye, and was just about to retreat to his workshop when he heard a sharp knock on the door.
Tian stayed still – back to the door – hoping if he didn’t make a noise they would move on. This time he heard a series of sharp taps on the window. Tian peeked over his shoulder, and let out a long sigh.
He had left a crack in the curtains, and the anxious British soldier’s eye could be seen pressed against the small seam. Before he could unlock the door, it crashed open as a burly soldier shouldered his way in.
Waite squinted as his eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the toy shop. He smartly strode over to the closed curtains and whipped them open to flood the room with light.
“Pleased to meet you. I am Sir Waite, Envoy of the Empire and of the British East India Company. I saw you close these curtains not five minutes ago,” Waite reprimanded the shop owner, a ruddy-cheeked Cantonese man. He wasn’t sure if the man understood him, but that wouldn’t deter him from giving a scolding.
“What does this do?” Waite demanded, gesturing at a shiny metal elephant with his gold-tipped walking stick.
The shop owner, appearing to know some English, delicately opened a flap at the elephant’s rear and slid in what looked to be granules of coal. He then lit a match at the elephant’s trunk – and lo and behold! – the elephant began marching across the table. Waite made an effort to suppress his shock – after all the Empire was supposed to be the most advanced society in the world. He would have to examine this shop thoroughly.
His soldiers cooed and wow-ed as the elephant’s ears flapped in cadence with its steps. A similar scene played out as the brilliantly ribboned toy balloon hovered through the shop, and the mechanical toad leapt amongst the soldiers’ feet to their delight. Waite clapped to get their attention, and ordered them to bring the toys away.
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, then turned to retreat to a back room behind the shop. In the moment the shopkeep had raised his arms, Waite had caught a glimpse of 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 quietly padded after the shopkeeper and suddenly snatched his arm, hoisting up the sleeve.
“What is this?” demanded Waite.
“This … is nothing, it’s broken,” the shopkeeper replied in Cantonese.
“You said it’s broken, did you?” replied Waite incredulously as he pulled the glass orb closer for inspection. 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. Waite, a man of thin patience, knew there was something more going on here.
“I am not stupid. You will tell me what this does, or I will have you put in jail and we will get the answer out of you one way or another.” Waite made sure the shopkeeper understood by dramatically waggling handcuffs before the shopkeeper’s face. The shopkeeper’s ruddy cheeks looked more pale and drawn as the metal jangled before him.
After some moments, with a sigh, the shopkeeper replied in Cantonese, “It’s supposed to help me find my keys. But it just helps me find my wife.” Waite, with his limited understanding of Cantonese, took a moment to process.
“This helped you find your wife?” replied Waite, a puzzled look on his face in English.
Tian, taking a moment to understand Waite’s broken Cantonese, muttered “…yes?”
“With this, you can find love?” Waite clarified, his eyebrows raising in incredulity.
Waite hastily removed the bauble from Tian’s wrist and snapped it on his own. He could feel the cool metallic base press against his skin as he lifted the gadget to his eyes. After a moment, the needle sprang to life, swinging this way and that until it settled in a north-westerly direction. Waite took a few paces around the cluttered workshop, studying the needle which remained fixed in its north-westerly orientation. That seems roughly the direction of the Empire and my sweet Emma.
Waite’s pulse quickened: Could this device allow anyone to meet the love of their life? Their soulmate, if you will? A broad grin spread across his face, revealing yellowing teeth in contrast to his manicured pearl uniform.
“Incredible! But … just how exactly does this work?” Waite breathlessly inquired. To pass this off as British ingenuity he would at least have to know its internal functions. The shopkeeper began speaking at a fast pace, in Cantonese, gesturing at a manner of crystals and rocks and sketches of lenses in various distances and configurations. Waite noted intricate webs of piping attached to what looked to be large gas canisters wrapping around the workshop. He considered himself a man of science, and had indeed studied physics and natural sciences at Oxford, but much of the equipment strewn around the workshop was unlike any he had seen. Waite held up a hand to halt the shopkeeper mid-sentence. He hadn’t understood a single word the man had said, and for all he knew could be making things up.
“I’ll be taking this. And you”, Waite pointed at the shopkeeper, “you’re going to tell me how this works and how to make more of them in plain written English. I will head to Nanjing to see the Emperor in a week. I’ll have a translator sent to aid you. Write down a description on this paper.” Waite quickly wrapped the compass in a handkerchief and placed it in a small chest. From another pocket, Waite produced a bag and removed some bundles of coins, and stuffed them into the hands of the shopkeeper.
“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 under the direction of the Empire, and is in fact British technology.” Before the shopkeeper could protest, Waite snapped at the soldiers who had finished packing up the toys to keep watch on the shopkeeper, then turned on his heel and marched back into the heat.
“I’ll check back in three days, dear shopkeeper! I’ll be expecting some answers!” called Waite as he settled into the rickshaw, a smug grin on his face as he waved goodbye.
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. Briskly escorted away by armed Imperial Guards, Waite had left behind the boxes of various British inventions that Kumail was now tediously 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.
A royal convoy snaked through the streets of Nanjing. At the center of the convoy, atop a heavily ornamented sedan, sat Prince Yizhu. Despite being of age for many years, the prince had not expressed any interest in the hundreds of maidens that had been ushered before him, and the Emperor was beginning to get desperate for a grandson. Kumail guided his horse beside the prince’s sedan – he had convinced Prince Yizhu that he was taking him to the best tang bao restaurant in the city – better than what the imperial chefs could conjure. In reality, Kumail was closely watching the ‘love compass’ he had convinced the bored prince to wear, and was guiding the convoy in slowly constricting circles around the city.
As they paraded around town, Kumail could never be sure if the locals were staring at himself, at the prince, or perhaps both of them in tandem. Ethnic Indians were rare this far north in China – most gosain merchants confined themselves around Tibet and the Buddhist temples. But Kumail had come to China under very different circumstances, having escaped a life as essentially a slave for the British East India company. As a child, he had been taken from his family as punishment for refusing to grow opium. Millions like his family 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. Kidnapping, violence, and jail were extra insurance to their financial chains.
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 under the guise of running an errand. His few personal possessions fit neatly in a folded blanket tucked under his arm. He soon found work as a petty officer under Minister Lin Zexu, where he became indispensable in the recent campaign to purge China of opium. With his eyes closed, Kumail could name every local British “merchant” selling opium, where they stashed their wares, 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.
Kumail’s reminiscing was interrupted as he noticed their caravan had circled a dusty ceramic warehouse a few times. The compass was consistently pointing somewhere inside. Moments later, after a quick chat with the boss and a sum of money, Kumail had herded all of the women inside into a single file line. One by one, they walked past the bored Prince Yizhu in his sedan, while Kumail kept a keen eye on the needle.
Suddenly, Prince Yizhu straightened in his seat and tugged on Kumail’s sleeve, pointing discreetly to a woman halfway down the line. As the woman approached the sedan in cadence with the rotation of the compass needle, Kumail felt a rush of excitement wash over him. A device able to grant a man or woman the source of their deepest happiness … beyond the monetary value of such a thing, Kumail could only marvel at the implications should these devices be spread around the world! He knew then, his life’s mission.
Prince Yizhu and the maiden married promptly, and the Emperor to his delight had a grandson on the way months later. Kumail, his mind swimming with possibilities, had already summoned the mysterious inventor Tian to Nanjing – more compasses had to be made and Tian would have to be instated as an official Royal Alchemist. Tian was rushed to his new home shortly after, where he was lauded for the extension of the Qing Dynasty lineage. Kumail made sure he was also granted a full staff and laboratory to produce more of the compasses. They would also tinker with Tian’s other toys to find more practical applications.
Nanjing, October 1826
On their arrival to Nanjing, Tian and Wen had been set up in fine imperial quarters. They hardly had any time for their marital bickering, as each was waited on by an army of staff. Without having to maintain a household, Wen could disappear for relaxing baths and hikes into the hillside to avoid the gossip of other women in the palace. And Tian, to his credit, immersed himself in his work. After half a year at their workshop and with the help of an army of engineers, Tian and Kumail had been wildly successful.
Tian’s toy balloon designs had progressed into full airships – they could hold forty men and another 15 dan of fuel and cargo, reaching speeds of four-hundred li per day, more with tailwinds. Nanjing’s skyline became dotted with these gliding behemoths, each festooned with brilliantly colored banners to the delight of the city’s children.
Most 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. He had already gotten banned from most of the local brothels due to his fits of rage, and had now even started dabbling in opium to relieve his stress. It was Christmas morning and he had failed to depart what he thought a hellish place. As he sat in a drunken stupor at a local pub, he overheard his men whispering of a mysterious device, an ai pan. The device claimed to be able to lead you to your soulmate. Its discovery in Nanjing had been made in March, a few months after his own ignominious trip. He leaned in to hear more details: that the inventor was a relatively unknown toy-maker turned Royal Alchemist from Hong Kong. Furthermore, the ai pan were highly sought after and fetched a pretty price. The Chinese had been gifting them exclusively to other royals, but a series of thefts and subsequent black market sales had priced these devices at a hundred times their weight in solid gold.
Days passed by in drunken rage as Waite dwelled on the fact that his very ticket to fame and fortune slipped between his fingers. In spirals of intoxicated hate, Waite increasingly convinced himself that the compass and Tian were rightfully the property of the British East India company. Furthermore, they both had been illegally seized by the Chinese government. He could use this to force the Empire to use the military to bring both assets securely back into British hands. But military action could take months if not years as it waited for Parliament to approve it. He would need to play a pre-emptive trump card that would surely bring Tian and his creations back into the hands of the Empire … and bring him glory.
Off the coast of India, January 1827
In the dark of night, Waite breathed in the moist air as he balanced on the deck of a ship, listening to waves crash off its bow. Now that he was returning back to the Empire, he felt a cathartic release. His heart pumped and he felt an excited knot of anticipation in his throat. The operation to kidnap Tian had gone almost too well. A little coin went a long way in swaying individuals’ loyalties, and the two Imperial guards that befriended Tian could afford an early retirement with the coin Waite had paid. It was coin well spent.
Bringing Tian back to the Empire would secure one of the most pre-eminent scientific minds as well as the ai pan technology. Most importantly, it would surely secure his own promotion several times over, ensuring he would never have to return to the East he had grown to despise. Waite had sent a message ahead to the Empire to prepare a war fleet, and to make haste to escort his ship back to the Empire. He doubted the Qing Empire would give up Tian easily, but violence was a problem specially suited for Britain’s steel warships.
“Admiral Gage – how many more days until Mumbai?” Waite asked impatiently to the ship’s captain.
“Two more weeks, sir. We are on schedule.”
“Very well. Very well.”
Tian couldn’t tell how many days it had been since he woke up in a dark, cramped cabin on what he presumed to be a ship. What Tian did know is that he was on a British ship, with British guards who stiffly periodically placed plates of potatoes on his desk, before promptly turning on heel and locking the door behind them and ignoring any of his questions. Tian’s stomach gurgled. He could hardly stomach any more boiled potatoes, both due to their lack of taste and from the violent roiling of the craft. It seemed to be a lifetime ago when his Imperial guards had taken him out for a meal at a local tangbao and baijiu haunt. The last thing he remembered was slowly falling into a peaceful slumber during their drunken escapade, mumbling advice to his guards to enjoy romance in their youth.
Using the back of his spoon, Tian scratched his cabin wall to indicate another passing of a day. Five parallel lines welcomed their newest companion, but Tian couldn’t be sure how many days he had been unconscious. He was also sure no one knew where he was. Heck, he didn’t even know where he was. There were no windows, and daylight never reached this far into the shiphold. At least the British could be counted on for punctually serving three meals per day – his only way to reliability mark the passage of time.
Tian pondered potential outcomes to his situation. He could be imprisoned indefinitely in Britain. He could be executed, though that was unlikely since they could have disposed of him already. Perhaps worse, the ship could sink and he would be stuck in his cabin, left to drown slowly and be nibbled upon by fish and crabs. He shook his head free of his morbid thoughts. He had to find a way out of the cabin, maybe gain the trust of his guards, promise them gold and riches, steal a rowboat in the dead of night … and then what? With a groan, he lay back onto his cot and shielded his eyes from the dim lamp hanging over his cell door.
Just then – he caught a glimpse of a patch of discolored skin on his wrist. It was the tan line left by his compass. It seemed like a lifetime that he was eating the finest foods in the Imperial palace, tinkering on various projects with Kumail. He suddenly sat up right. Of course! The compass! His wife could use her ai pan to find him! Oh heavens … his wife!
His heart beat with his excitement, then suddenly lurched to a halt. The ai pan helped someone find their soulmate – but what if he wasn’t his wife’s soulmate any longer? What if she had also fallen out of love with him, as he had with her? He tried to remember the look in her eyes, the last he had seen her. But he couldn’t even remember the last time he had properly looked her in her eyes – he had always been in a rush to tinker with something in his workshop or catch the eye of one of her comely Imperial maids. Perhaps he had always been terrified to look into her eyes only to have her look straight through him.
“Oh, Wen!” Tian cried out. “I love you! I’ve always loved you! Please … come find me! I can’t eat any more of these potatoes! Please … please … Guan Yin, I’ve always loved her, you were right … oh please …”
Tian resolved to spend his hours in devout appreciation of his wife: her even temper, her rosy beauty, the hilarious daughter she had given them, her incredible cooking, her steadfast tolerance of his idiocy … he grasped his hands tightly in prayer, hoping that Guan Yin would preserve his bond with Wen.
He suddenly snorted in laughter.
That fateful night, he had indeed asked Guan Yin to find the spark of love again. Guan Yin had guided his broken hand to create the ai pan. And that had set in motion his rise from obscurity to imperial prominence, and of course his kidnapping. And now, as he sat in the bowels of this British ship with rekindled adoration for his wife, he could only cackle at Guan Yin’s devious providence, his guffaws loudly echoing through the dark shiphold.
Nanjing, January 1827
Breathing a deep sigh of satisfaction, Wen lightly threaded a carnation into a burgeoning flower arrangement. She had spent her afternoon painting, consumed a decadent chili fish lunch, and earlier in the morning had learned to ride a horse. But despite all of her whims being taken care of at the imperial palace, Wen felt slightly off. Having spent decades maintaining a house and cooking every meal for her man-child of a husband, Wen had to force herself to re-explore her identity, to dig deeper and find the young woman who had been burdened with childbirth before fully becoming herself.
As Wen fully shed the stresses of maintaining a household, a rekindling of romance had begun to spark between herself and Tian. Instead of irate annoyance at his child-like antics, she caught herself giggling as she once had in their younger years. She found herself lingering in his workshop, listening more closely to his tedious ramblings on technical details. And now they didn’t have to worry about Tian losing the keys to their home, the main source of their bickering.
Wen hadn’t seen her husband in a couple days, normal due to the constant pressure to produce more ai pan. What if he hasn’t been eating properly? Had he remembered to bathe? Finding an excuse to check on Tian, Wen descended the narrow steps down to the main workshop where she would normally find Kumail and Tian hunkered over some calculations. Curiously, it was only Kumail perplexedly studying a sheath of papers.
“Kumail, have you and Tian been eating properly?” she called from the stairwell.
Kumail glanced up at her. “Yes … well I certainly have been. I haven’t seen Tian since yesterday morning, I thought he was with you?”
Wen frowned, “No, not since lunch three days ago. He told me some local guards were going to show him a local tang bao restaurant. But he didn’t come home after. I assumed he was here with you, in the workshop?”
“Well then, let’s find which tavern our boy’s asleep in!” Kumail flashed a grin as he proffered an ai pan.
Kumail closely studied the ai pan on Wen’s wrist. With a bit of trigonometry, an abacus, a large map of China, and of course the ai pan, he could calculate exactly where Tian was located. After measuring the base angles of an elongated scalene triangle, he then used a ruler to draw the thin sides of the triangle that would intersect precisely … off the coast of Xiamen? That was halfway down China’s coastline!
Kumail frowned. He hadn’t made a mistake this big in his calculation as far as he could remember. He redid the calculation several times more, each time painstakingly measuring Wen’s paces as the base of the triangle, the angle of the compass needle and so on. Each time, the calculation seemed to be further and further off!
“Wen … you do love Tian still, right?” Kumail half hoped for his sake that Wen’s compass had locked onto some other man.
“Yes … I suppose I do.” pondered Wen, then more urgently, “What’s wrong, Kumail?”
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 two 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 colonizers. Keep that ai pan on you at all times, it’s the only way we can find Tian!”
Wen, her eyes wide with concern and anger, could only nod in agreement.
Mumbai, February 1827
Gliding silently through a glittering night sky, the airship’s propellers softly click-clacked over the dense rainforest. As the airship approached a clearing in a dense forest north of Mumbai, it snuffed out its burner and began its silent, dark descent. After twenty minutes, Kumail signaled to his squads to let down the ladder. Kumail and a group of his men nervously inched down the ladder, gun barrels pointed at the darkness around them. A shadowy figure approached them.
“Mera dosta!” called out the figure.
“Dosta!” replied Kumail, waving off his squad of primed Qing riflemen.
The two embraced in a tight hug.
“Wen, this is my old friend Mangal. He’s been my contact with the sepoy resistance ever since I joined the British East India company. It’s been a long journey. If there’s anything he can provide, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Mangal, calling up to Wen laughed “It’s an honor to rescue the reincarnation of Krishna, or Kama depending. Your husband is the love god!”
Wen nearly choked in response, and meekly offered up a nod.
Turning back to Mangal, Kumail noted gravely, “There will be a British warship berthing here in Mumbai in four days. We know this because of the ai pan – her husband has been imprisoned on board and we’ve been tracking his movement.”
Kumail grasped Mangal’s shoulders firmly and continued, “We’ll never have another opportunity to prepare an ambush like this. I have four dozen rifles and ammunition, in addition to two Qing rifle squads. If we are able to seize the Royal Albert, we will be in possession of one of the world’s finest warships. The Empire will have to take our sepoy movement seriously.”
Mangal’s kind eyes hardened as he nodded in understanding.
“We simply ask that violence be used as a last resort. We need to get Tian back alive. The British may execute him if they realize what is happening. I will find a way to get the captain of the HMS Royal Albert off the ship to the Watson Mansion. While the head of the snake is distracted and off ship, Mangal, you will personally escort Wen and use the ai pan to retrieve Tian from the ship. Then seize the ship, using any means necessary.”
Mangal’s broad smile had disappeared into a serious frown. “We’ve been able to rally five hundred sepoy freedom fighters and have hidden them throughout the city. Once their ship docks, they’ll have no choice but to negotiate with us if they want to leave Mumbai alive.”
Turning to the small group of sepoy soldiers who had gathered in the clearing, Kumail raised his voice. “The British have been at the necks of each of our nations for decades, forcing our Indian families to grow the very opium that has poisoned Chinese families.”
Kumail paused, and looked to the sky glittering with stars.
“In two days, we will breathe free once more.”
Kumail made an odd figure as he stood at the base of the gangway as the massive HMS Royal Albert glided into the port. The vessel’s silhouette was all the more intimidating against the setting sun. The local British authorities had cleared most of the onlookers from the pier but, confused by the presence of Qing Imperial robes on an Indian fellow, had left a small guard with him on the dock.
Waite saw him immediately as he was summoned to the deck, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. What was a Qing imperial doing in Mumbai? Could they possibly know about Tian? He thought about ordering their execution on the spot, but knew that British-Indian relations had been stretched thin recently. It would be better to take care of them out of sight.
“Admiral Gage, come with me. And please, dress for the occasion.” Waite dragged a finger across his throat dramatically, a thin smile on his lips. “Gunner Fletch, please fetch our guests, whoever they are, and have them meet me at my quarters.”
Kumail appeared stone faced, but his heart raced as he was escorted onto the massive British ship. His pistol had been stripped from him, but he knew Mangal was watching his every move closely through a telescope. Moments later, Kumail was sat in a lavish cabin, staring at a skinny British man who sneered at him across his desk. Kumail recognized the man immediately, with a slight chuckle. It was none other than the British envoy who over a year ago had given Emperor Xuangxong the offering of technological odds and ends, which Kumail had been tasked with sorting through. This man was responsible for handing him the ai pan.
“Sir Waite, was it?” Kumail called out to the man.
The British envoy’s eyes widened.
Kumail continued innocently, “How fortuitous to see you here of all places! I’ve been looking for you. We were curious to know when you had left your post in Canton without so much as a letter?”
Waite stammered, “Ah yes, well it’s about that time of year for … my leave. As a matter of fact, who exactly are you? Why are you looking for me”
“I’m just a concerned friend, and an emissary of the Emperor Xuangxong. I’ve been tasked with finding you in fact – to thank you for bringing us the ai pan. We would love to reward you and your Queen for such a valuable gift.” Kumail said with a warm smile. He would keep this conversation going as long as possible.
“Oh! Well, yes of course. It was just a small gift – I’m so glad you all have put it to fantastic use.” Waite gritted his teeth and forced a smile to his face.
“And where exactly is … this reward?” Waite allowed a genuine smile to creep onto his mouth. Was this man here to reward the Empire with gold? And if so, how large was this reward he was talking about? How much could he get away with pocketing for himself?
Kumail feigned a yawn. “Before we get into it, do you have any coffee? Tea? It’s been a terribly long day for me.”
“Ah … yes certainly!” Waite leapt to his feet, now enthusiastic to hear of how he might collect his prize. “We’ve got all manner of the finest teas. Black, Earl Grey, Jasmine, chai if that –”
“Black is fine, thank you.”
“So – as we were saying – what was the award?”
“Ah well – the gold is back at my hotel. It was much too heavy to carry with me, I hope you understand.”
“Oh? Yes, please don’t strain yourself. Which hotel?” inquired Waite with an overly friendly smile as he handed a steaming cup of tea back to Kumail.
“The Watson Mansion.”
“Oh yes, of course. Only the finest of accommodations would suit someone of your stature.”
“Oh and Sir Waite” – Kumail paused and dramatically leaned in to whisper out of earshot – “I’d recommend you take this award in person at the hotel. It wasn’t easy transporting royal concubines all this way.”
Waite leaned back with a warm smile and knowing nod “You are a man of impeccable taste.”
Waite leapt to his feet. He had no more use for this emissary – he would enjoy his award – but he had to make haste to Britain. “If you’ll excuse me – I’ll bring my men to the Watson Mansion now. Why don’t you stay a moment, and we’ll show you around this fine ship?”
Waite slipped into the adjoining galley, where Admiral Gage stood silently, gun drawn. Waite gave him a knowing nod, and hastily made his way to the dock a gleeful smile on his lips.
As Waite slipped out of the room, Kumail deeply smelled the bouquet of black tea in his cup. As a boy, he hadn’t tasted this tea until his kidnapping by the British. The bitter liquid was a constant reminder of what had been taken from him, and as he sat in Waite’s gilded office he chuckled imagining what his parents’ reactions would be if they could see him sitting here with flowing Qing gowns.
His musings were interrupted as the adjoining door behind him slid open again. He heard the tell-tale click of a revolver being primed. Kumail calmly placed the steaming tea back on the desk in front of him, and raised his hands.
Had Mangal made his move already? He couldn’t hear any fighting from the deck. In any case, the British never needed a particular reason to kill.
Kumail looked down behind him – the revolver had been dropped, its bullets spilled across the floor. In confusion, he swung around. The soldier who had dropped the revolver had clasped his hands over his mouth, and his eyes were open in shock.
“K-Kumail? Is that you?” squeaked the soldier.
Kumail’s brow furrowed as he rose unsteadily to his feet.
“Kumail…” the soldier whispered, “It is you.”
Kumail’s mouth hung agape. “Nathan Gage …”
Suddenly he heard a slap and felt a searing pain on his cheek.
“How could you have left without saying anything?” Nathan seethed at him, tears flooding his eyes.
“I … I couldn’t risk anyone knowing that I was going to escape. I did it to protect you!” Kumail stammered in response. Kumail’s memories began flooding back. It was true that the bitterness of tea reminded him of the family he had been taken from. But the bitterness also reminded him of his hidden love for Nathan, love that went beyond friendship, that he couldn’t express while they lived at the grim British Garrison in Canton.
The pair embraced in a warm hug. Suddenly Kumail broke free from the hug and fished an ai pan out of his deep pockets, placing it on his wrist.
Nathan looked suspiciously at Kumail. “Kumail, is that an ai pan?”
“Nathan, there’s something I’ve always felt. I just want to be sure.”
Kumail proceeded to take slow deliberate steps in a circle around Nathan, his eyes filling with tears.
Nathan watched closely, a loose smile forming on his lips as Kumail finished his circuit.
With a laugh, Kumail mumbled, “Nathan, I think –”
Nathan cut him off with a broad grin on his face, “I know. And I don’t need your ai pan to know.”
Kumail let out a laugh, and wiped his tears. “In moments, this ship will be overrun. Sir Waite is surely captured by now. Stay close to me.”
As Mangal and his sepoys descended on the Royal Albert, the disorganized sailors were completely caught off guard and quickly surrendered. Not a single shot needed to be fired, and as the Union Flag of the Empire was pulled down, a raucous cheer could be heard from around the dock.
Tian, emerged into the light with Wen bracing his steps, a squad of Qing troops escorting them. Kumail stood on the deck, holding the hands of a British soldier who was quickly introduced as “Nathan,” a friend of the sepoys.
Mangal could be seen amongst the rush of men, steel, and gunpowder in a frenzy to get the renamed warship battle-ready. Waite, his face purple with rage, sat on the deck bound to a group of morose soldiers in the baking heat. If this was the sepoy declaration of war, word would spread quickly and they would have to be ready for the Empire.
Looking at all the commotion, a troubled Tian pulled Kumail aside.
“Kumail, you and I both hate the British.” He looked out of the side of his eye at Nathan standing nearby, wondering if he understood Cantonese.
Tian continued, “But we can’t go to war. As I sat imprisoned in that ship for an eternity –”
Kumail interrupted, “Actually it was only two weeks and some days…”
“ – I’ve come to realize. Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned” finished Tian sagely.
Kumail groaned inwardly at Tian’s blatant plagiarism of the Buddha.
Tian continued, “The vengeance that festers in our hearts will only beget more violence in an unending cycle. Our ambitions – for more vengeance, money, power, more beautiful possessions and playthings, the exotic pleasure of drugs – these things no longer need to hold grip on humanity. All humans truly need is the company of loved ones. And the ai pan can help everyone get that.”
Tian and Kumail would continue to travel the world on the HMS Albert – now renamed the Kama – freely teaching each nation how to produce the ai pan. The ai pan became commonplace, borrowed freely by anyone as one would a book from a library.
In Japan, an Edo prince had set sail and followed an ai pan’s direction all the way to the North 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 later. 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. The newly crowned 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.