. The Amazing Chess-Playing Automaton
Friday, October 10th: The day of the Great Fire
The Mont Blanc was unlike any ship he had ever seen, one of the new hybrids that employed both sail and steam. Even at this early hour, not yet eight in the morning, a small crowd had gathered upon the wharf off Harrison Street where the magnificent vessel had docked the previous evening.
The boy felt his heart race as he gazed upon the foreign built ship. The polished wood and brass fittings shone beneath the early morning sun. Everything seemed so precise as he scanned along the length of the proud vessel; a hundred and fifty feet from bow to stern. He let his imagination play with perspective comparing what he was seeing now to the models he’d painstakingly built in his bedroom over the past several months.
Fourteen-year old Thomas Chandler shifted the school bag he wore over his right shoulder to prevent it from slipping down his arm then leaned back to look up at the two masts and single large chimney rising high above the deck. Though the sails remained furled he still felt a sense of adventure as he studied the intricate rigging and listened to the snapping ropes and clanging bells.
Aboard that ship was a very special device advertised as being unique in all the world– a computing automaton with the ability to play chess at the highest level. It was even rumoured that the chess playing automaton had beaten both La Bourdonnais and McDonnell, two of his chess playing idols.
Flyers had been posted to billboards all over town inviting people to test their skills against the wondrous chess playing automaton. On Saturday and Sunday the owners of the device would be holding a tournament in Market Square. For just a single silver coin, residents of Clockhaven would be given the opportunity to test their skills against the computing automaton. Winners would get to keep their silver and receive a second in return, losers would forfeit their coin but win the chance to play again.
Thomas scanned the crowd to make sure he didn’t recognize any of the people milling about. He was missing morning assembly to be here and he didn’t want anyone telling his mother when she got home from work later in the morning. There were a few faces he recognized but no one that knew him well enough to identify him by name.
Thomas started to walk along the pier toward the stern of the ship. Most people seemed to be clustered near the bow closest the roadway. If they really knew anything, thought Thomas, they’d be at the stern. It’s the propeller that makes this ship so special.
About halfway along the length of the vessel the fixed pier ended. Thomas carried on down the ramp to the floating pier, which was typically only used by dock workers. He continued toward the stern, enjoying the bounce to his step. By about three quarters of the way to the end the only person remaining in front of him was a girl, near to his own age, sitting hunched over on the rough wood slats with a sketchpad in her lap and a box of charcoal at her side.
There was no need to go to the end of the pier. He stopped about ten feet past the girl then glanced over his shoulder. She sat with her back to him and seemed completely absorbed in her work. He looked up at the deck but could see no one aboard. They are probably all on shore or below decks in the galley for breakfast.
Thomas took a deep breath and swallowed several times. He looked back over his shoulder again. The girl was still there but seemed oblivious to his presence. Come on Thomas, he told himself, this is no time to lose your resolve.
Thomas lowered his bag near the edge of the pier and knelt beside it. unclasping the hooks he reached his hand inside and retrieved a lenticular disk, about eight inches in diameter with rubberized coating around the outer edge. He was careful to hold it tightly. It weighed about three pounds and the last thing he wanted was to drop it in the harbour.
Thomas glanced from the girl, to the milling crowd at the far end of the pier, then finally up towards the deck. No one seemed to be looking in his direction. He quickly rolled up his sleeve and leaned over the side of the pier. With great care he was able to hold the disk into place against the side of the Mont Blanc about a foot below the waterline. He then pushed the first of two little bumps beneath the rubberized coating, releasing the little spring-loaded hooks which bit into the wooden hull of the Mont Blanc, anchoring the disk in place. He then pressed his nail into the second little bump and felt rather than heard the activation of the clockwork mechanism inside.
Thomas pulled himself back to the pier, rolled his sleeve back down into place and picked up his bag. He then started walking towards Harrison Street.
“That was pretty stupid. Whatever it was you did,” said the girl with the sketchpad as he drew to within speaking distance. At first he wasn’t sure she had been addressing him as she still hadn’t looked up. “I would not have trusted those fenders,” she continued. “That ship could have crushed your head against the dock.”
Thomas hesitated before speaking. “The ship’s secured to the fixed pier.” Thomas glanced over his shoulder at the Mont Blanc. When he turned back the girl was no longer focussed on her sketch pad but staring him right in the eye. She had dark hair that was pinned up beneath her bonnet and hazel eyes. Even though she had a fair complexion, Thomas thought, it would be a stretch to say she had a fair face to look upon.
“The floating pier is a lot narrower.” he continued, though he faltered under the girl’s interrogative stare. “It wouldn’t have crushed me.”
“What’s it like to touch all that bilge?” the girl seemed to speak without blinking.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” Thomas shrugged.
“The sailors poop in the water.” Her voice carried an accusatory tone. “You’re infected!”
Thomas, never having heard such talk from a girl, had no idea how to respond so he just stood there.
“You are wearing a school uniform,” the girl pointed out.” Why aren’t you in school?”
“Um,” Thomas trailed off again. As he hadn’t expected to talk to anyone he hadn’t yet prepared a suitable lie. “It was canceled today.”
“Are you sure?” the girl smirked.
“Pretty sure, yep” said Thomas. “What about you? Do you go to school?”
“Yeah, Miss Dreary’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies. I skipped out,” the girl replied. She stood up and took a step towards him. She was taller than he had assumed; taller than him by at least half a head.
“Do you live around here?”
“I live just off of Rampart Road, north of the settlements, south of the wall,” he replied. “So about a half hour – not too far.”
“I live over near Coronet Gardens,” said the girl. “My parents are wealthy.”
A sharp, unexpected crack caused the girl to finally break eye-contact.
“Did you hear that?” She swept her gaze along the Mont Blanc’s hull.
“No,” Thomas sounded unsure. “Hear what?”
“It sounded like crunching wood,” prompted the girl.
Thomas glanced back at the ship and shrugged. “I need to go,” he said. “I’m going to see if I can sneak into morning assembly without anyone noticing I was gone.”
“You just said it was canceled,” said the girl.
“Ah…” Thomas trailed off unable to think of anything convincing to say.
“What’s your name?”
“Thomas, Thomas Chandler.” He held out his hand then took it back not really sure if you were supposed to shake a girl’s hand or not.
“My name is Nellie Faulkner,” she said holding out her charcoal-blackened hand until he took it.
“Um, okay.” said Thomas. He shook her hand then dropped it. “I have to go.”
“Want to see what I was drawing?” Nellie asked.
“Well…,” said Thomas.
She retrieved her sketchpad and held it around so he could see her charcoal sketch. Thomas didn’t think it was very good. In fact, he hardly recognized it as a ship.
“Have you been drawing long?” he asked.
“Dad has been paying for lessons every Saturday for about six years,” the girl replied.
“It’s pretty good,” said Thomas.
“You think?” she said, taking another step closer and angling the pad so they both could look. “What do you like most about it?”
Another crack sounded from the Mont Blanc. In the distraction of speaking with the girl Thomas had forgotten about the ship. It appeared to be listing into the fenders of the fixed pier.
“You heard that,” said Nellie. “I saw you look back.”
“I think it’s the tide,” said Thomas. “It just turned. Maybe that’s all it is. Anyway, I have to go.”
“I don’t think it’s the tide,” said the girl. “I sketch boats here all the time. I’ve never heard that sound before.” Nellie smiled a conspirator’s smile and touched his arm. “Did you do something to that ship?”
“No,” said Thomas taking a step back. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you…”
“I think you did,” said the girl. “I saw you leaning over the side of the pier.”
“I saw something floating in the water and I wanted to see what it was.” Thomas shrugged but felt his mouth going dry under the girl’s interrogation.
“What was it?”
“What was what?” asked Thomas getting flustered.
“The thing you saw floating in the water.”
“Just a bill advertising that chess contest that starts tomorrow in Market Square.” Thomas shrugged. “So I left it. I have to go.”
“How old are you?’ she asked.
“Fourteen,” Thomas replied.
“So am I,” said Nellie. “What month?”
“What?” Thomas was finding it hard to reign in his frustration. “June.”
“I was born in January,” said Nellie, “That makes me your boss.”
From aboard the Mont Blanc they could hear a series of shouts raising some sort of alarm and then a third tremendous crack. It sounded as though something had split the hull.
“Is it going to sink?” Nellie sounded excited.
“Well…” said Thomas.
“Are you a villain?” the girl took another step closer, crossing securely into Thomas’s zone of comfort.
“A villain! What are you talking about? I’m just a kid.”
“That is boring,” said Nellie. “It’s the villains everybody loves.”
“Right,” Thomas glanced at the ship and bit his lip. “So, maybe I’ll see you around, I really have to go now.”
“My sister is getting married this afternoon at the Royal Oak,” Nellie stated.
“What?” Thomas’s face hardened. “Who cares about your sister?”
“Charles Tripsa apparently does,” Nellie replied. “He asked her to marry him. They are kind of disgusting together.”
“I really have to go right now,” said Thomas.
An alarm bell sounded aboard the Mont Blanc. The crowd along Harrison Street hushed as it became more apparent something was wrong. In an eye-blink the deck of the Mont Blanc had become active as people ran about putting into practice what had previously only ever been done as drills. Though the shouts coming from the sailors was in a foreign language, Thomas recognized the serious tone of the commands.
“Go then.” Nellie shrugged. “Don’t blame me for detaining you.” Thomas continued standing for a second before he realized the conversation was actually over. Holding his bag in place with one hand and his hat with the other he ran off down the pier.
By the time he reached Harrison Street the Mont Blanc was showing clear signs of distress. The onlookers, numbers swelling by the moment became animated with concern. Thomas didn’t wait to see what would happen. He already knew that within ten minutes the state of the art, foreign-built, steam vessel with the amazing chess-playing automaton would be dead in the water.