This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Alistair Vermilion, 15 years old-
Standing at the steps of the entrance to the Clockwork Palace, I felt a shiver run down my spine, a mix of equal parts excited and intimidated, with just a dash of fear. It had seemed so far away, a place that I would only be able to enter in my imagination, and now an excuse had fallen right into my lap, courtesy of Fior.
In my mind, I imagined a gallery of wondrous machinery, things that I would never be able to create with my own hands. Sure, I was making something I was sure the engineers of the Palace wouldn’t be able to create, the Vassar, but that was because they refused to work with internal combustion engines, citing that the steam engines were more fuel-flexible. What I wanted to see - and expected, from Fior’s description of a giant dragon - was technology that required precision or manpower that I simply did not have. Autonomous tin men, robotic monkeys with the fluid motions of a live specimen, all-terrain capable spider-shaped vehicles - things like that, though I hoped that the engineers of the Palace could exceed my expectations.
“Are you done staring at the Palace, young master? We don’t have all day,” sighed Wilford, who had been assigned to escort me - as well as keep me on task - by Father.
“Let’s get on with it then.” From my pocket, I pulled out the letter I had acquired from Father that would allow me to go up the floors of the Palace that required security clearance, and walked up to one of the guards.
“... What do you want?” asked the guard, eyeing me suspiciously. “Do you have your ID card?”
I handed him the letter, and he unfolded it as his colleague scratched his chin, probably trying to figure out if he recognized me. Not before long, the guard returned the letter, his eyes now wide open.
“I’m sorry, your Royal Highness. Please come this way.” The guard began to open the door, but his colleague stopped him, holding his hand out for the letter. Once he verified the contents, he too was bug-eyed.
Behind me, Wilford tried his best to hide a chuckle. “I see they didn’t recognize you, ‘recluse prince’.”
It was true that I was a recluse, rarely having gone down into town. The castle did have everything I needed for daily life, after all, and if I needed tools or materials, I could make a request to the royal family’s purveyor through a steam-mail. These facts, however, didn’t soothe the hurt I felt from not being recognized. My clothing even had the royal crest on its breast pocket, so they should have known I was someone important… though I suspected that perhaps my unruly hair had distracted them from that fact.
Stepping inside, the guards led Wilford and I to an elevator. Its inside was more rudimentary than I had expected; there was no decoration, and the control panel was just basic buttons. I could tell from how the guard pressed the button that it wasn’t spring-loaded. If I were to design this elevator, I certainly would have changed that, and much more. However, it was worth noting that the elevator ride was smooth, probably propelled upwards using a system of hydraulics. I made a mental note to study that; perhaps I could reduce the lag time on the Vassar’s controls by installing hydraulics.
Finally, the elevator came to a halt on the tenth floor. Awaiting us when we exited the lift was an old man who was leaning on the largest wrench I had ever seen.
“So yer the prince, huh?” he looked me up and down, before hobbling down the center aisle of the room. “Follow me - yer pops already filled me in on what’s happenin’ here through steam-mail.
“... Who’s that?” I leaned back to ask Wilford.
“He’s the Chief Engineer of the Clockwork Palace. You know, I thought you would have recognized him, seeing as he’s a pretty big figure in engineering history.”
“Ah. That explains it. I haven’t studied history,” I replied, earning a disdainful look from him.
As we walked down the aisle, I noticed that the projects being worked on on this floor were quite basic, if not downright boring. Several of them didn’t even seem to take a recognizable form, just an amalgamation of various mechanized arms and conveyor belts attached to a square pedestal - to make it modular, I suppose. Others were hidden under opaque glass cases; no matter how hard I squinted, the silhouettes inside them didn’t get any clearer.
Catching up to the Chief Engineer, who moved surprisingly fast despite carrying such a heavy wrench, I tapped his shoulder. “Excuse me, but may I ask what that project is supposed to be?”
“Ahhhh… those’re the modular factory units that Duke Alcott asked us to make. Dunno why - he never gave us a reason,” he replied half-heartedly. “It’s not like he’ll be closin’ down his factory to replace the machines; his products sell too well.”
Modular factory units…? I thought the Clockwork Palace was a place of unfettered creativity and machines that delighted… Why are they making something so boring - and at the request of a Duke? Wasn’t the whole point of the Palace to create a place for engineers to make whatever they wanted?
Evidently, my dismay had been noticed by the Chief Engineer, because he turned around with a sigh. “Listen here young’un. Every thirteen-year old boy comes here bright-eyed an’ all, saying they want to make a robotic bird, but they get disappointed. Why? ‘Cuz that era, where every engineer in here was working on somethin’ miraculous, is over. Nowadays, our budget’s running tight, so we’ve been acceptin’ commissions from the rich folks - and they never want robotic golems or cats, they jus’ want something to make their lives easier or make them more money.”
“But what about the giant robot dra-” My question was abruptly cut off as the Chief Engineer whipped around and thrust the wrench into my face.
“Don’t mention that around here, boy,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “Haven’t you ever heard of confidentiality?”
“Whoa whoa whoa, keep your bolts tightened! I didn’t know that it was confiden-”
“Don’t say it’s confidential so loud either,” he cut me off again. “The junior engineers have got great ears, and you don’t wanna be swarmed by questions about our secret projects.”
“Fine! Can you please get that wrench out of my face now?” As he retracted his wrench from striking range, I dropped back to speak to Wilford. “Bit of a killjoy, isn’t he?”
“I never said the junior engineers were the only ones with good hearing,” he hollered from ahead.
Arriving at the end of the aisle, there was another elevator, this one more equipped. Its surrounding portion of the wall was covered with thick metal plates, and the elevator door itself had the luster of stainless steel, a rarely used alloy in Redjuve. The Chief Engineer produced a thin metal card from his pockets, and pressed it on the wall’s surface in no particular place. Moments later, the door slid open, and we stepped in.
“Why’s the-” I was cut off again, mid-question.
“The junior engineers’ll try to break their way through the elevator just to get a glimpse of the secret projects. Had to install all this years ago ‘cuz one of them used explosives to get into the elevator,” he answered.
“Because every talented engineer from the outside that we bring in for our secret projects has the same question. Besides, you’re a curious soul, ain’tcha? I figured I’d answer yer questions - you nobles never visit, and this old man’s been itchin’ to give a tour,” he said, scratching his beard.
Not before long, the elevator came to a stop, and, with a hiss, the door slid open to reveal what I had dreamed of since childhood. Built into the other three walls, reaching all the way up to the ceiling, was a gallery of workshops, each with a team of engineers inside working on things I couldn’t make out from this distance.
“Welcome to the Clockwork Palace’s inner chamber,” the Chief Engineer said, gesturing vaguely around at the various workshops. “The elevator ride isn’t done yet, by the way. I just wanted to letcha take a look before we get to our destination.”
Leaving Wilford and the Chief Engineer behind in the elevator, I walked briskly to the center of the room and began examining the workshops as I climbed up a spiral staircase. From this distance, I could see the projects inside each one clearly. However, they didn’t meet my expectations. Certainly, they were more fascinating than the robots being worked on on the lower floors, but that was a low bar to pass. Some of the engineers were even working on what were familiar machines; terra-phones, hover-belts, and hyperskis were only a few of the projects I saw in the gallery that had already been invented for years.
So they’re not innovating anymore, are they? That’s a shame...
Just as my enthusiasm dwindled to its lowest point, I spotted something surprising in one of the workshops ten stories up from the ground. The machine was something that had been around for at least four decades - an air-skipper, one of the earliest personal flight machines - but what had caught my eye wasn’t the machine itself. On the ground beside the chassis was a component I never thought anyone on the island would ever use - an internal combustion engine.
Tip-toeing down the walkway that led to the workshop in question, I slid through the half-opened door and tapped the shoulder of the engineer working on the air-skipper. “Hey, is that an internal combustion engine?” I asked.
“Hyah! Who are you?!” The engineer, a tall, black-haired boy who looked about my age, leapt away from me, cowering in the corner of the workshop. “You’re not one of the engineers here, are you? Did you break into the inner chamber?! I’ll call the Chief Engineer, he’ll beat you up if you don’t get out of here!” Picking up a wrench on the workshop floor, he brandished it much in the same fashion as the old man had.
“N-no, it’s not anything like that,” I said, my mind racing to find an excuse. “I have royal authority to be here - the Chief Engineer’s with me, see? He’s down there, along with my escort.” I pointed down to the ground floor, where the old man and Wilford were just a speck.
From where he was huddling, he peered through the window, and instantly calmed down. “Ah, is that so?” The engineer stood up, straightened out his clothes and offered a handshake. “The name’s Lowell. Nice to meet you.”
“So, that’s an internal combustion engine, right? Why’re you putting it in an air-skipper?” I accepted his handshake before walking over the chassis to inspect the machine. The chassis was of a smaller size than typical, especially around where the engine was supposed to go.
Lowell picked up the engine, and with a heave, lifted it up onto the workshop table. “Well, the air-skipper went out of use because it was too slow to start and fuel-hungry, right? I figured an engine like this would be capable of warming up faster, and though it can’t accommodate the same variety of fuels, gasoline is more dense, so I thought I could shave down both fuel tank capacity and engine weight.”
On closer inspection, the engine he was fitting the modified air-skipper with was built peculiarly - though I supposed it was a result of Redjuve being behind in this technology. Spotting a strange apparatus attached to the side, I pointed to it. “What’s this? It doesn’t seem like a typical attachment to an internal combustion engine.”
“Ah! That’s my own creation. You see, if I use electricity to power the air-skipper, it’s quieter and more efficient - though it means I need to attach a battery. I can’t make it solely electric-powered, since I don’t have the battery capacity for long-duration flights, so this was all I could do.” Lowell’s eyes gleamed with pride at his own innovation. “The internal combustion engine feeds the battery, and the air-skipper switches to using the battery for power with a flick of a switch.”
Huh… that’s certainly a solution… I looked down at my watch, and realized that I had already spent quite a while exploring the inner chamber, let alone Lowell’s modified internal combustion engine. Wilford’s going to be mad about this, isn’t he?
“I’m sorry to ask this of you when I’ve just met you, and I’m sure you have your reservations about sharing your inventions, but can you write me a quick guide about how it all works? I’ll be back to pick it up later.”
Surprisingly, Lowell looked excited at the prospect of someone being interested in his project. “Absolutely! Swing by this workshop later and I’ll have it ready for you!” Immediately, he whipped out a pen and notepad and began scrawling down notes.
Descending the spiral staircase and returning to the elevator, I returned to a sleeping Chief Engineer and Wilford, who tapped his foot impatiently. “How many times are you going to have me wait for you, young master? His Royal Highness has to leave for a conference in three hours, and it’d be best if you wrapped up your task here and gave your report to him in-person,” he scolded me.
Ignoring his nagging, I woke up the Chief Engineer with a tap on the shoulder. “Wake up, sir!”
“Wh-whuh?” He rubbed his eyes with the collar of his shirt as he awakened. “Right. Let’s get on with it, then.” After pressing the elevator button, he let out a big yawn. “This body doesn’t work as well as it used’ta. Get everything you want done when you’re young, ya hear?”
“I wanted to ask about the giant robotic dragon…”
“Right, you heard about that from the blue-haired boy. His Royal Highness wrote to me in tha’ letter that the boy was a friend o’ yours, and that he’s from another world.” The Chief Engineer sighed, before continuing. “That man never changes, does he? If he keeps sharin’ secrets like this, one day it’ll end up in the hands of someone unsavory. Tell him to keep his lips shut for me, will ya?”
“You know him, sir?”
“You bet I do! Used to be drinkin’ buddies with the man, since I was the Chief Royal Engineer before I transferred here. Anyways, the robotic dragon. We’ll be seeing that next, so you can take a look for yourself and examine its construction once we’re done talking about the door.”
Right as he finished his sentence, the elevator came to a stop, and the door slid open to reveal what was, to me, something that could easily be called a “Wonder of the World”. This was what I had expected of the Clockwork Palace, in scale, aesthetics and technological advancement. It had to be at least four stories tall, and unlike the typical frail and innards-exposed designs Redjuve had been known for, its limbs looked strong and solid and shiny plate armor covered all the vital points. What it could be used for, I had no clue, but I supposed it was fine for inventions to not have a purpose and just be for the sake of expressing creativity.
I wonder if it spits fire from that mouth… Nah, there’s no way, right? As cool as it would be, Redjuve doesn’t produce weapons…
“Stop dawdling down there!” yelled the Chief Engineer, who had somehow already made it to the third floor. “I said you could take a look at it later! Now’s not the time!”
Quickly scaling the stairs up to the third floor platform, I saw the old man standing next to the door that had been my reason for coming here. Unlike the ornate door to Japan which was in the royal castle, this one looked just like an average maintenance closet door.
“So this is the other door to the other world? Why did my friend say you guys called it the ‘Useless Door’? It looks normal to me…”
“Let me show ya why.” The Chief Engineer stepped away from the area in front of the door, then gave it a powerful tug, revealing the azure blue sky that laid behind it. Looking out over the scenery below, I estimated that we were at least thirty floors up - a formidable height. Before he could close it, a powerful gust blew through and knocked me against the walkway railing.
“Ugh… Why would anyone put a door here?” I staggered to my feet, leaning on the railing.
“I don’t have an answer for that; it’s been here before anyone was there to witness it bein’ installed.” The old man brought over two chairs, one of which he promptly sat down on. “Now d’ya know why we never suspected that it could lead to other worlds? How’s it work, anyways?”
“It only opens to the other world for a six-hour window on one day a year,” I replied, sitting down on the other chair. “I suspect most of the engineers will have left by the time it happens, too.”
“A six-hour window, only? And you want to transport God knows how many crates through it?” asked the Chief Engineer, astonished. “This walkway can’t support that much weight, y’know? And besides, I thought you royals were keeping the existence of the other world a secret. Hell, I even had to shut one of our engineers up with a non-disclosure contract. How do you plan to get the crates out without the engineers noticing?”
“Well, that’s what we’re here to discuss today.” I folded my hands together, leaned back in my seat, and crossed my legs - the “business pose” that Father loved to use. “I’d like to ask, with the full authority of the royalty, that you allow the construction of an extension on the other side of this door. The royal family will pay for it, of course.”
“An extension, you say? What would it constitute?” The Chief Engineer began rubbing his temples, probably thinking of what excuse he would have to give to his engineers.
“We are planning to build an elevator down from up here down to basement level three, and have a tunnel constructed from there to the basement of the royal castle,” I said, reciting from the script Father had given me. “It will likely have to go through parts of the building in use, but we hope that you will cooperate with us.”
“And what would you be offering us, the Clockwork Palace, for this? Closing swaths of the facilities down for construction will come at a cost, y’know?”
“We will be offering you various metals in a contract that we will be sending you for review later.” I took a deep breath, knowing what I was about to say would sound outlandish. “Most importantly, among them will be two tonnes of platinum.”
His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. “F-four tonnes of platinum? How did you even-”
“Don’t ask questions,” I replied, mustering all the sternness a fifteen-year-old could. “Just know that we promise you its delivery with the royal guarantee.”
Before I knew it, we were already shaking hands to seal the deal. The Chief Engineer’s old, tired eyes now shone with excitement, and with my engineer’s instinct, I knew he was dreaming of the many things he could create with the super-strong, super-heat-resistant yet super-expensive metal. Most likely, I had given him an extra five years of lifespan with the offer.
“Good to be workin’ with ya!” The Chief Engineer waved goodbye at me sprightly as I walked down the stairs back to the elevator. Stealing one last glance at the giant dragon, I admired its sturdy design and beautifully intricate joints. However, now was not the time to gawk; with Lowell’s ideas coming into the picture, I wanted to get to improving the Vassar immediately. His innovation could possibly solve all my fuel problems - I just had to acquire a good battery. Perhaps I could ask for lithium from Fior if he had any to trade…
Returning to the showcase of workshops below, I scaled the spiral staircase to Lowell’s room. Clearly, he had been writing down a guide ferociously, as he sat there stretching his fingers on his dominant hand. When he saw me, his eyes lit up.
“Here’s your guide!” Lowell beamed. “If you ever need clarifications, come here and ask me!” He paused for a moment, and his smile faded, replaced by a more serious look. “Actually… you came here through royal authority, right?”
“... Yes?” I asked, puzzled. “What of it?”
“I’d be careful about being too close to the royal family,” he advised, “there’s been some hearsay about an anti-monarchy faction growing in numbers lately. Some say they have the backing of a couple of powerful nobles.”
“... I’ll keep that in mind.”
As I left the Clockwork Palace, Lowell’s warning would linger in my mind. To my knowledge, Father had no enemies. Perhaps there were a handful of disgruntled nobles, but nothing like a rebellion could happen as things were now, I reasoned.
Redjuve was a nation that had never stepped into any conflict, and while we exported technology, weapons were something the island didn’t produce, let alone sell. Thus, I thought, there would be no foreign powers who antagonized us. After all, all they had to do was pay for our technology - our nation did not discriminate.
Those assumptions would come back to bite me in the near future.