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Dancing Automata

In the Castelo de Ribeira Seca Collection

By Philip CanterburyPublished 10 months ago Updated 6 months ago 10 min read
Runner-Up in the Improbable Paradise Challenge
Dancing Automata
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Shortly after his invitations went out, Benji, their would-be host, was indicted back home in Britain. Extradition requests encircled the equator. A hotline offered cash for tips on his whereabouts. Still, the striking gold foil invites arrived, each by drone, providing a selected ensemble with the precise intelligence sought by Interpol. Each kept mum as instructed while booking travel and preparing their luggage for the exclusive event.

Your favorite rebel CEO is now officially an outlaw, read the lavish cards. Your attendance is requested for a weekend commemorating his infamy. Retain discretion. Below, a string of coordinates, 17°10'11.4"N 25°08'20.0"W, then Benjamin Hyde’s grandiose signature beside a wax seal bearing his family coat of arms. Each drone chimed and withdrew only after securing NDA and RSVP data on mounted tablets.

The morning the diversions were to begin, hours before the first well-wishers landed, a parcel arrived for the host. A uniformed deliveryman sprang from an express van and, employing a well-greased dolly, set the container on Benji’s landing with skillful haste. The driver wore a straw hat and dark shades against the midmorning sun. He retreated without raising any dust through the perimeter gates.

Of course, Benji watched all of this on monitors within the room he frequented most often lately: the security hub, which he called the home’s panopticon. For the weekend, it was to be his quarters. The central suite doubled as an armored panic room. It was larger than a typical home security office and more lavish than a bunker necessitated. Then again, grandeur was the general tone of Benji’s hideaway, far surpassing other bespoke tropical villas.

He watched his trusted deputy, Amitai, coordinate with the butler to move the cardboard crate into the den. On the monitors, Benji saw them hoist the package and position it on the broad marble table beneath the elaborate chandelier. Before withdrawing to the kitchen, the butler retrieved a box cutter to split the crate’s plastic bindings. Benji rose, then walked the ornate crimson hallways to join Amitai, whom the papers speculated was in a position to resign over the spate of charges.

Sunlight skipping off the ocean drenched the hall through the grand east windows as Benji arrived. He nodded a good morning to his unswerving proxy.

“And what is all this, one wonders.”

Amitai offered Benji the box cutter. “Would you care to or shall I?”

Benji cocked his head, took the blade, and split the tape sealing the cube. Then, he lifted the sizable box top warily. As he did, he exposed the box’s contents, from the bottom up. First, a wide wooden base with a patinaed gold metallic crank protruding from the side of the platform. A small and variegated woven carpet, stood upon by delicate toes painted blood red. Tanned ankles supported strong calves, stern knees, and full thighs. A bejeweled dress covered the female figurine. She held a patterned snake above the platform; brunette hair tumbled to her waist. In her right hand, she balanced a slim flute between her fingers. Benji realized what she was before the box was even over her shoulders. She had been ‘too advanced’ for her day – upsetting decencies, both moral and technological. She had since become an obsolete antique, a true collectible. Soft amber-hued glass eyes perched amid her charming face, resplendent with long lashes and a cupid’s bow mouth. Benji wept.

“My good man! Do you know how long I’ve searched for her? Two hundred years old and only 15 ever made…” He let the sizable boxtop fall to the floor beside him as he adored the statuette. Gently, he fingered the fabric, tracing the outline of her waist, her seductive limbs, with his mouth agape. She was mechanized but managed to retain a presence all her own. As a professed robotophile, Benji was enamored. “I never dreamed we’d actually meet…” He knelt to speak with the automaton while touching her snake. Remembering Amitai, he said, “She’s perfect – right here! She’ll be the centerpiece for the party. But who sent her?”

Amitai handed him the accompanying paperwork. Benji considered the unfamiliar name. “Guessing that’s an alias.” Benji set the carbon copies on the table. Ms. Chance Johnson of Saskatchewan was the listed sender.

Benji fixed a hand against the statue’s wooden platform, placing his left atop the crank. “So much for provenance. But no matter,” he said. He grinned. “Want to see her come to life?” Benji regarded the artifact. He rolled the crank around several times, exhaled, and depressed a button in the base. He was giddy as the machine automated, transfixed by the aura of the dancer’s enticing charms.

Amitai observed his friend and employer rapt with joy; he ignored the private audition of the aged snake charmer with her breathing bosom.

Just after noon, the first helicopters began to make their landings. As guests disembarked, Amitai and the butler’s staff guided them to their quarters, either within the house or else to yurts throughout the walled botanical gardens. The helipad was close to the compound, but several others required the host’s private airstrip located further back into the canyons of Benji’s domain.

Soon, minglers enjoyed refreshments along the villa's east palisade balconies overlooking the sea cliffs. They spotted inbound yachts through field glasses and watched their parties come ashore down in Cruzinho. Shuttle buses ran back and forth to bring companies of seafarers up to Benji’s Castelo de Ribeira Seca. Before long, nearly 200 partied through the grounds and halls of the host’s castle. Some he had worked with closely, others he’d met only via email or video meetings, some were like-minded iconoclasts, a few still owed him favors, and several others were practically strangers to him.

Before sunset, Benji led an outing paragliding from the rim of the peaks rising behind his estate. They sprang from the crags and leaped into the wind. Jungles hosting long-abandoned stone ruins tucked into sprawling terraced valleys spread out below their feet. Benji landed on the western lawn beside the pool to applause, three of his close peers behind him. Jeeps awaited the rest beside the airstrip, so the other aeronauts rejoined the gala as Benji delivered pre-dinner toasts in honor of himself back at the compound.

After, as guests dined, the conversations revolved mainly around the respectable Mr. Hyde. In particular, how the charges and insults levied against him bore no bearing in a modern business climate.

“My question is: what sort of a message do these charges send to the rest of us?” asked one guest. He was an athletic, though stubby, young go-getter. “And to what end? How are we to ensure quarterly growth under such scrutiny?” He addressed a brawny woman wearing a flashy jumpsuit seated at a nearby table.

“I’m sorry,” the woman rallied, “but I saw those photos – of the devastation. There were plenty of people cleaning up those little seals. Was like a day spa for wildlife. I swear! I’d kill for even a 30-minute treatment like that! Luxuriating…” She cut into her fish steak.

At another table, a princess-type in a cakey gown observed, “Honestly, I can’t even understand all the different charges myself. How many are there?”

“It’s a classic case of overreach, darling,” replied her partner, an aging thing in a standard tuxedo. At one time, he might have been something to see. “It’s a fishing expedition. A fox hunt. He’s made enemies in powerful governments, after all.”

Two women awaiting drinks along the wide bar spoke casually with a muster of young peacocks. One of the women asserted, “I saw those girls: a whole mess of red flags. Each more than the last. Type that wants to be seen with a man like Benji and can’t handle the split after it’s over.”

“It’s having fun! Whatever –” one from the posse of braggarts added. “It’s a game, right? And it’s not like these women don’t know how to play up front. Then they want to argue about the outcome, like… C’mon, you knew the rules.”

And at each table, everywhere Benji roamed, his reception was supportive, motivating, reinforcing. With each passing hour and every emptied bottle, a sense of accomplishment inflated within Benji’s chest. At the height of the evening, when he gave his fourth and final toast, he felt more emboldened than ever before in his life.

Benji approached the marble table, where guests had adored the watchful eyes of the automaton since the party began. As Benji raised his flute, Amitai muted the party’s soundtrack and the crowd quieted readily.

“Some of you have been with me from the start,” Benji began. “Some are new compatriots in the fight against naiveté. But I’ll say this: I cannot be indicted as I’ve always been innocent! Securities, civil, criminal, international, and climate courts can all be damned! Right? They can’t stop us from prospering. By law of the jungle, men and women will be liberated from fear – as they once were! Kings and queens… masters over the Earth’s bounty. We’re engineering this future together! We are…” The audience gasped as he held their anticipation. Benji approached the automaton. “We need only look to the seeds in our past for renewed inspiration.” Benji gripped the crank. Amitai stepped discretely behind the table to avoid the eyes of the snake charmer – eyes which had not blinked all evening as merrymakers had revealed their true natures.

The host spun the crank. Party guests gazed into the golden eyes of the snake charmer. Mr. Hyde depressed the platform button, then stepped back to join his horde. Amitai watched the faces of the mesmerized spectators. A traditional Eastern melody played. The animatron began by tilting her head to and fro in a sensual motion. The archaic relic pivoted her left arm and the snake appeared to lurch at her. Her right arm rose to set the flute between her lips. Beneath her chest, a plate oscillated, which created the appearance of the automaton breathing as she seduced the snake into a state of compliance with her song. Gripped by deepening smiles, the audience – host and all – became entranced by the eyes of the primitive snake charmer. Their zeal for her performance transformed into panic as Benji and his flock began to contort into mounted automatons resembling the antique. They cried out, powerless to stop it, as they disassembled, doubled over, and unhinged. Amitai cringed at the cracking sounds of their deconstruction. Their proportions constricted down to one-third of their former scale. Their bones and muscles converted to metallic skeletons concealed by pre-fabricated components, pinned and flexible at the joints but fixed to a platform that had developed underfoot. A consistent aesthetic rendered each partygoer according to their most deplorable qualities – paint, wigs, and costumes finally defining their unique characters. This one was a disaster capitalist. This one a cutthroat lawyer. This one a trophy wife. This one an aging executive. This one was a gossip. This one an incel. This one an egocentric Silicon Valley crook.

Moments after, in the panopticon, Amitai reset the security feed memory after he swapped out the old hard drive. This he tossed over the nearest cliff into the rocky surf. The clear dawn was still hours from Castelo de Ribeira Seca as Amitai walked back into Benji’s reception hall, stopping beside the long bar. He looked over the statuettes populating the playroom, their voices gone; a collection of brightly dressed, suggestively posed animatrons mounted atop wooden platforms. He shuddered, then pulled a bottle from the well on the other side of the bar. Amitai spilled the contents of a nearby glass into the sink, then poured himself a scotch. He pulled a mouthful and let it rest on his tongue. His lips and sinuses burned.

As he swallowed, each of the automatons swiveled to life, each stirring to their own pinwheel song. The Gilded Age relics creaked and dipped and nodded and looped. They stared out, bristling, searching for him behind glass eyes. He let them.

Amitai used the house phone to alert authorities. After, he set the automata into the bunker. But Benji wouldn’t be the first missing billionaire criminal with an odd secret obsession. An empty palace filled with plenty of luggage but populated only by little robotic playthings. When Amitai gave his statement, he asserted that he’d only found the castle that way after he finally arrived late on the evening of the party. No one at home. Evidently, the former assistant, now the executor of Mr. Hyde’s crumbling ventures and vast estates, held no clues, the house itself providing only questions.

MysteryShort StoryHorror

About the Creator

Philip Canterbury

Storyteller and published historian crafting fiction and nonfiction.

2022 Vocal+ Fiction Awards Finalist.

Online Tutoring, ESL, College Essays, and Writing Coaching:

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