Monday, October 27, 2008

Return to Fusang: In Which The March of Progress Shows its Flaw


ENTRY POINT | Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

I shake my head in disbelief. Here are three old Ever Victorious Army comrades-in-arms from almost twenty years ago. Have I gone back in time, then? Pu Ying, in particular, had been a banner leader (roughly equivalent to a Western Captain, with two companies under his command). Small Shang had never risen above what we would call a "Top Sergeant" but he was a demon for drilling. The Filipino.. the name finally came to me.. "Kasukalan Tauhan" had always been a mouthful. I recall him being a demon in a fight, disdaining musketry and charging into a brawl with his Malay Chopper out, screaming in Tagalog, chopping away. All of them were wearing what appeared to be the dull green field uniform of the Fusang Infantry these days, with strange insignia on the sleeves. Behind them is a man I don't know, clearly a high officer in the Fusang Field Force.

"What brings you here, bannerman Ying?" I ask, respectfully.

Ying's eyes widens, and his eyes goggle in theatrical fury. I am not expecting a backhand slap that rattles my teeth in my head.

"The Prisoner will not speak! The Prisoner will ONLY LISTEN!" he barks, mechanically. Small Shang and Kasuk keep their eyes lowered in deference.

"It pains me to converse with you, foreign long-nose devil," he continues. "The pollution of the Western Ways will not be undone in a day or a night, as our glorious Dragon who Waits reminds us. My Superior Officer, Colonel Po, has no knowledge of your tongue, so he instructs us, who knew you once and know your language, to communicate details of your fate. Listen, for this will be so. Tomorrow, you will be escorted Northward along the rail line to Fusang. A seat on the Land Dragon is being prepared for you, as well as an escort fitting for your station. Until then, we will make every effort to avoid foreign devils and their devil's lies! "

I splutter a bit at that last. "Devil's Lies? Pu Ying, you were a Bannerman in the Devil Soldier's Army, commanding the respect of the corps, how is this lies?"

He raises his fist, threateningly. I gaze up, placidly. I can take this... he's not hitting very hard for some reason.

"Oh Princes of the West! You make a grand noise of modernization, and bettering the lot of the peasants, and ending repression, and you gave us the knowledge of walking in straight lines and shooting many times prodigiously, and the rifle that fires many bullets... but in the end, as always happens, where were you when your moneyed masters called you home? Where was the Celestial Kingdom? A mere afterthought. The Dragon who Waits means to be a strong leader.. to stride boldly on the world stage, and to treat with you foreign devils as the inferior beings you are!"

I shake my head up at him, pulling at my chains.

"Nonsense, Ying. This Dragon Who Waits is a Slave commanding an army of Slaves. He has no notion of true Power, which derives from the people-- he can only feel the corruption of force. Lieng wishes to set himself above all other men. I spit on this tyrant's chair-- I would not wipe my arse on the throne of Fusang! At least in Ward's Army you held you heads up as free men! Look at you now! Fighting for money, then? Can you truly call yourselves anything but slaves any longer?"

That last statement probably is a mistake. Yes, definitely. The results are predictable, graphic, and quite visual. I have only myself to blame. "O'Toole, ye great brawling lout!" the Duchess said to me repeatedly during training. "False heroics are the enemy of good analysis! Shut that mouth of yours and open your eyes and EARS!"

Yet, somehow, it was not as severe nor damaging a pummeling as the clumsy beating administered on shipboard. When they are finished, the officer with them hisses a command, and they walk out sullenly. The officer, whom I assume to be Colonel Po, walks over to examine me. I am still sitting up, hands behind back. He leans in close, letting out a tuneless, sibilant hissss between his teeth... "He's examining for damage" I think to myself. What in the world are they so spun up about? Why is it so important to deliver undamaged goods, as it were? As he examines me, I become aware of an object in my lap, which hadn't been there before. I hide this by keeping my knees together. Apparently, he is satisfied that my face is not too badly bruised, and abruptly leaves without having uttered a word. I look down in my lap. There, in the folds of my peasant's jacket, is a clasp-knife with a black handle and 7 inch blade. One of my comrades in arms had dropped it there. They have not lost faith after all! Sure, they had worked me over, but I have to commend them for playing it smart. And the knife was fast thinking. It will come in handy. For now, I will hide it in my boot.. if I limp, well, that can be explained away easily enough..

That night, the lady entrusted with my care comes to me again with a simple meal of fish, rice buns and tea. I eat greedily. Afterward, she cleans my much abused face with a hot towel, and applies some herbal concoction that quickly coagulates the surface cuts and alleviates the swelling to a prodigious degree. "A healer," I think, "probably the village healer.. and a damned fine one. The Duchess would be interested in this herbal concoction" I try to speak to her in Mandarin, but she shakes her head and refuses to be drawn out. I ask her for the name of the herb, and she readily tells me. I mentally make a note..

"What is the Land Dragon, little Miss?" I ask. Her eyes are wide with fear. "It shakes the earth! You will see it soon enough!"

I realize there probably aren't words to describe the Land Dragon in her experience, so gratefully take a straw mattress and go to sleep. Again, I am no seer, not given to prophecy and certainly not a far-seer like the Baroness. Yet my dreams, which were so vague before, grow increasingly sharp and fraught with meaning and portent. I see the Sheriff, a large flamboyantly dressed man wearing a kilt, and Doc Mason in a small enclosed space, firing wildly out of a porthole at a group of smaller, black airships that are attacking them in... an airship of their own! What could this mean? The scene is quite vivid.. I sense this is not potential, but real. As the vision fades, it is replaced with a scene of a complete stranger.. a man of my own age, stocky and well-muscled, with the steady hand of a soldier and man of action, asking questions in the stalls and dives of Kowloon. "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY! I'M UP HEEERE!" I shout at him in my dream.. but he does not appear to hear me.

I am awakened the next day by shaking. The little go-down's walls are shaking, rumbling and rattling as a I hear a distantly approaching roar. The healing lady runs in.. she gestures wildly in the direction of the noise. "Land Dragon!" she says again and again, urgently. Shortly thereafter, Fusang soldiers enter the room, unshackle the chain from the hasp in the wall, and unceremoniously drag me to my feet, and out into the sunlight. Once again, I blink.. as an apparition enters the remains of the town square of Hangxian. Later generations will not be shocked and amazed by them, but in my time.. these beasts are only whispered about in military circles.. the amazing Landships that are just now coming out of Woolwich, Edinburgh, Pittsburgh and Cinncinati. So my jaw drops about as low as many of those of the soldiers present, who are showing a disconcerting desire to break ranks and run as far from this beast as possible. This is impossible!! They are only in prototype! Yet, here is one, chugging up to me flying the flag of Fusang. The beast is escorted by a small troop of gaudily dressed Mongol cavalry, spearpoints and carbines at high port. It rumbles to a stop in front of the Go-Down, and emits a hugh hissing sigh. A small metal door on the top of the beast opens, and small man of European origin hops up and stands on the roof, staring down at me, his hands on his waist in a jaunty and confident manner.

"I say, old man" I venture, convivially enough "Are you my pre-arranged transportation? I shan't be a second to pack my valise."

He grins, and says "Я думаю, возможно, Вы должны быть тихими и позволить мне делать разговор." Which is "If I were you, I'd shut up and let ME do the talking", in flawless Russian.

My consternation can only be imagined.

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