The junk steamed through the waters towards Indonesia, its paddle wheels leaving a churning wake behind. Out on deck, the crew were gathered around the automaton Susan had bought in Beijing, the one that excused her investment in engine oil and protective wrappings. They laughed as the mechanical dragon danced jerkily across the deck, oblivious to the smaller box hidden in Susan’s trunk, the one worth thousands of these high price novelty trinkets.
Captain Chao waved to Susan.
“So good!” he said in Mandarin. “Your husband will be delighted with his present.”
Susan smiled, nodded, and straightened her skirts. That imaginary husband was such a convenient cover, but he could sometimes be a hindrance. Chao had a roguish charm and she might have enjoyed his company more if not for the need to maintain her cover.
Suddenly, the sea in front of them churned. Jointed metal tentacles parted the waves, followed by the bulbous brass head of a giant squid. A smokestack on the back opened to let out a billowing black cloud.
Chao ran to the wheel and turned the junk, but they were already too close. The squid wrapped its tentacles around the prow. Wood buckled and splintered as it squeezed.
“Stop your engines and we won’t sink you,” a voice announced, made tinny by a speaking trumpet.
While Chao flung back a lever, Susan hid beneath the heap of crumpled canvas that was the junk’s emergency sails. The weight was oppressive, but better that than be taken for ransom by pirates.
As she peered out from beneath the canvas, men and women clambered out of a hatch in the squid’s head and down its arms. They wore loose, practical cloths and carried cutlasses and pistols. Chao knelt before them and started pleading for his ship.
As the lead pirate bent closer to Chao, Susan saw a symbol embroidered on his tunic – a yellow chrysanthemum. She smiled and shrugged off the canvas. This was no mere pirate raid.
The pirates looked up as Susan emerged, hands raised. She had pulled a book from her pocket and held it open, revealing an image of that same chrysanthemum. This wasn’t where she’d expected her contact to turn up, but it was certainly one way to avoid taking goods through customs.
“Mrs Talbot, I presume,” the pirate captain said in English. “You have them?”
She went to the back of the junk, where her trunk was stored. From within a pile of petticoats she pulled a bamboo box the side of a briefcase. Holding it carefully in both hands, she walked slowly back towards the pirates.
The captain reached out, opened the lid, and grinned like a wolf who’d just got into the meadow.
“Mechanical silkworms.” He stared at the dozen intricately geared tubes. “The first to get past the Chinese authorities. We’re going to be worth a fortune.”
“We should go.” Susan shut the lid. “Any delay increases the risk of capture.”
“Indeed.” The captain turned to his men. “Kill this lot and we’ll be going.”
“What?” Susan stared at him in horror. Chao, who spoke no English, was looking up at them with a frown.
“Got to cover our trail,” the pirate captain said.
“It is covered! I’ve done everything under a fake identity and you’re sailing a submarine disguised as a sea monster. These people aren’t a threat to us.”
“Can’t be too careful.”
The captain drew a pistol and pointed it at Chao’s head. Chao whimpered. Susan stiffened, took a deep breath, and turned away.
In two strides she was at the side of the ship, holding the case out over the waves.
“If you hurt any of them,” she snapped, “our prize drops into the deep.”
“You wouldn’t dare.” The pirate turned his gun on her.
“Try me. And if you shoot, you know I’ll drop it.”
“You were hired for a job.”
“Not for one involving killing.”
“Shows how naive you are. Now quit this nonsense and get over here. We’re on a timetable.”
Susan’s heart raced. If she gave in, Chao and his people would die. There was no way she could fight back against all those weapons. So how to get out of this?
“There’s air in this box,” she said. “Not enough to stop it sinking, but enough to slow it down. In one minute, I’m going to drop it overboard. If you want any chance of catching it, I suggest that you get into your machine right now.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
The pirate snarled and waved to his crew.
“Everyone back, quick!”
There was a mad scramble up the jointed tentacles and through the hatch. A lid closed over the smokestack and the squid released the junk.
“Time’s up!” Susan shouted.
She dropped the box just as the squid vanished from view. There was a splash and the treasure she’d come all this way for sank beneath the waves. Maybe the pirates would catch it, maybe they’d be too slow. Either way, they would be busy for a while.
Susan gripped the rail with trembling hands and took a deep, slow breath.
Chao got to his feet and walked over to Susan.
“I don’t know what you did,” he said in Mandarin. “But thank you, Mrs Talbot.”
“I’m not really a Mrs,” Susan said, turning to look back across the deck. The dragon automaton was still wobbling around, ignored by the pale and wide-eyed crew. “I don’t suppose you know anyone who would like to buy a dragon, do you? And maybe somewhere I could hide out for a month? I think I need to make a new life plan.”
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