Friday, November 28, 2008

Space: 1889 The Steppes of Thoth II

... and here is the second installment in the Audio Play, THE STEPPES OF THOTH, set in my favorite steampunk universe of all time, SPACE: 1889 from GDW.


Return to Fusang: Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place

Links from | Meanwhile...

O'Toole in the Sorghum field
The newcomer is shorter than me by about half a head, wearing Western clothing (ill advised in the surrounding neighborhood), and transmits an earnest, energetic air about him that is not unpleasant.

"Who might you be, sir?" I say, nodding at the MI-5 signal, giving a countersign (three fingers brushing the hair back, as if distracted; not that this will do the casual reader any good; they will have been changed by now).

"Aye, stranger, whom might YOU be?" says Yao. The newcomer could not but feel a bit apprehensive at so many rifles, carbines and choppers pointed in his direction by big, grinning bandits. I think Yao doesn't like to have the rug pulled out from under him in this manner. He is perhaps a tad peevish about a newcomer walking in unannounced with no warning from his scouts. Tsk. Crafty devil, this fellow.

"I am Shea LeFevre, a trader and resident of Caledon. This is my companion in whose company I have traveled with since Kowloon. You are Colonel O'Toole, if I am not much mistaken?"

"No use denying that. I rather doubt there are that many Westerners in this neck of the woods to confuse me with"

"Sir! Are you aware that there is a rather concerted effort to see you dead by the so-called "Dragon who Waits", from Fusang?"

I goggle at that one, and start laughing. The bandits join in after Yao translates.

"Yes, Mr. LeFevre, I had some notion. But I thank you for the warning, nonetheless."

He goes somewhat red-faced.

"That is to say, you are familiar with her Grace, Eva Bellambi?"

Yao intercedes, grinning. "Ah! The head of Caledon MI-5! You have hidden depths, Colonel!"

I shrug my shoulders, repeating tonelessly: "There is no Caledon MI-5. There never was a Caledon MI-5. If such an agency existed, I'm certain *I* should have had nothing to do with it."

Even LeFevre laughs at this jibe.

I continue: "I have made acquaintance of the lady of which you speak, sir, I believe I met her at her last Winter Ball. Charming affair. Somewhat spoilt by a Norwegian fellow with gigantic boots that insisted in gobbling up the cucumber sandwiches before I could hook a few for myself.. " Yao and LeFevre look at me, quizzically.

", in any event, yes, I have met her."

Shea continues. "The Duchess has arranged for your exfiltr... er.. your repatriation after wiring me for assistance and intercession. I have an extra horse for you, sir. If we ride out now, and are stealthy about it, we can make Kowloon via the North shore of the Yalu in four days."

Yao frowns. I look at the healer lady from the Hanxian village and smile. She smiles back at me. I know that English isn't her native tongue so she's probably getting one word in 50.

"You are mistaken, sir..." I start, grinning.

"I am in no means in distress. Nor, as you can see, am I 'kidnapped' any longer. I will not be leaving until certain business here is concluded."

His eyes bulge at that one. "But SIR! You are commanded! Surely you are in no shape for.. that is to say.. how could you possibly... you seriously don't mean..?"

"Oh, I mean to, alright" I reply. "The Western Powers have made a horrid mess of things here in the Celestial Kingdom, for an easy price they didn't have to pay. These last few days, I've seen not dozens of people, but hundreds of people slain by this madman. HUNDREDS. Wrap your mind around that, son. How did they do that? With tanks and aeroplanes and cannon that the Chinese didn't used to have.. until WE gave it to them. People like ME gave it to them. We have to fix this. And I intend to do so."

It is hardly our fault that the Dragon Who Waits is a genocidal madman, Colonel...

Yao looks sharply up at LeFevre.

"No? it isn't? Listen here, long nose, and learn some wisdom. You know how we in the Celestial Kingdom used to go to war? We would all meet on the assigned time and place. There would be bands along playing gongs and drums. The astrologers would be along to cast portents. The generals would stand on hills under umbrellas! In my father's time, we took breaks in the middle of the battle for tea and rice! All very ridiculous to you, I'm sure, but very Chinese to us, and the way it has been done for a thousand years. Now we witness the machines that rend the earth, and the black smokes, and Land dragons with iron skins.. and.. villages destroyed..."

His voice is catching with anger. I look at him with some sympathy, suddenly realizing why a divinity student had become a bandit leader working for British Intelligence.

She turns back to me: "But sir! Listen to reason! They have tens of thousands of men under arms, they have a steam leviathan! There are rumors of kite-ships in the air, and railroads, and other, larger constructions of war! You don't stand a chance! Besides, the Duchess has commanded it. "

Mr... Lefevre? What would your rank be, in that non-existent organization, if it did exist (speaking entirely hypothetically)?

"J-junior field agent, sir. Probational. I mean, if it were real, that is."

"And mine? If there was such an organization?"

"S-s-ector lead, Celestial Kingdom desk, sir"

"Entirely correct. So if, say, a notional sector lead says 'make it so', does a theoretical junior field agent say 'no, you have to follow me instead'?" "

Er, nossir, I didn't mean to make the presumption...."

"I thought not. Now, we have plans to make, and you could be useful as well as energetic. Someone has to scout the approaches to Fusang Castle. You're quite correct, they have a very large army.. But it can't be everywhere at once, so we can move quite freely in the places where it is not. I suggest we move with Yao's band here, as close to Fusang as we can go, and then perhaps a small band of 3 to 5 of us try to infiltrate in through cover of darkness..."

At this point Yao snorts derisively.

"In the words of my grandparents, 'you one crazy long nose devil'. Infiltrate.. and do WHAT?"

"Unspecified tasks.."

"Colonel, just a minute ago, you were boasting that The Dragon Who Waits has lived long enough. If you mean to kill him then say so."

"That's the rub, Yao.. governments don't kill leaders, they don't make war on individuals."

He laughs at that one. "You don't strike me as being naive, Colonel. Though they won't come out and say it, I suspect that is what your former masters are attempting to do right now."

"The British? How?"

"They are funneling arms and supplies to the Army of of Progressive Peace, under General Feng They are trying to goad him into making an advance on Fusang to commit an 'unspecified task' on General Lieng"

Trust the British to use one warlord to supplant another. Isn't Feng a bit long in tooth for this sort of adventure?

"The son. Old Feng died about four summers back. The younger Feng is a different breed. A reformer, you might call him. Wants land reform, and a representational government"

"That would be a first. I'd like to meet him some time, but not until we are through with Lieng... do you think you could get us close to Fusang, Yao?"

"You are not listening, Colonel. Fusang has the largest armed force in the Celestial Kingdom at the moment. More so, it is whispered, than the army of the Emperor himself. There are dozens of patrols. Machines that march on land and fly in the air. Even now the engineers from the West are building him the Iron River Dragon. There is no way to get there undetected. You plan is rash, and smacks of heroics... I am not eager to play the role of 'convenient villager who helps the Western heroes along, only to conveniently die assaulting the fortress' and I don't want that for my men, either. I suggest we make for the Yalu and join forces with Feng, who should be advancing on the Southern bank of the Yalu. It may take more time, but it will be more sure than just riding into the jaws of the Dragon who Waits."

Shea jumps on this argument.

"Yessir! The Army of Progressive Peace has grown tremendously in the last six months. They have the start of an aerial squadron of some sort, and British advisers, from what I have been told.

I am bemused.. " 'An aerial squadron' you say. As in airships? "

"If reports are true, yes, and other, faster style aeroplanes under the command of a British pilot they have sent out here to assist."

Yao puts in: "And more Westerners have arrived, from the reports"

"Anyone I would know of?"

"THEY appear to know YOU, Colonel. They asked for you by name!"

I'm startled..

"They asked about me? Who was this?"

"Three men. Two American by appearances. One could not be mistaken for being anything but a Scot"

"Did you see them? What do they look like?"

"No, I did not, the information was sent via courier. But I am told that one of them carries the Moon curse, but not from the tribe that was tracking you just now"

"Moon curse? You mean.. a Lycan?"

"Yes, that is your word for it."

"What about the other American?"

"Large moustache, carries a doctor's bag"

I am dumbfounded. Americans? A Lycan? This could only mean... Sheriff Ortega, and that sounded like Doctor Mason. The Scot, I'd never heard of. Good lord above, what were they doing here? Suddenly, many of the pieces fell together at once. The hallucinations, the visions while under torture and in a coma. This is heaven sent! They had come here looking for ME, of all people. I am touched. I never expected this. This changed things drastically. Suddenly I was close to allies I could trust...

"Yao! I see the light of your wisdom. I shall make for the Yalu, and attempt to join up with General Feng. Mr. LeFevre, will you and your strange accomplice accompany me?"

LeFevre is grinning and bobbing. "Absolutely, Colonel!"

I turn to Pu Ying and address him in Mandarin: "What will you do, oh brave bannerman of the EVA?"

Ying grins. "We have the job to complete for iron boat Masters (the Pigeon, he meant). We escort this one (gesturing to the little healer lady) back to Hanxian before she gets in trouble. Then we enter Fusang's army once more and record information for Iron Boat master"

I bowed, deeply.

"Thank you, Small Shang, for the gift of the knife. I buried it in the Russian's heart"

(Not exactly true; but theatrics is part of job in China)

Shang breaks into a bucktoothed grin and bows three times, chattering excitedly.

At that revelation, the bandits chatter excitedly, too. I sense Ignatieff was roundly hated by the local citizenry.

I turn to LeFevre.

"I suggest we get started at once. We have tarried in this spot FAR too long, and every minute brings more Fusang Cavalry patrols closer."

"One moment, sir! I brought Anh from the village to see if she could assist your wounds. Those are good field dressings, but that hand is looking nasty"

Anh, eh? I realized I hadn't learned her name.

I bow to her, respectively. She blushes.

"I am at your disposal"

She sits me down on a stump while the camp saddles up the horses and makes their gear ready.

She removes the torn and bloody shirt I am wearing. Clucking with sympathy at the angry red wound in my side from the bayonet. Reaching into her basket, she pulls out a small pair of scissors and three bottles of some form of liquid.

She gestures to the stitches..

"Yes, Anh, they were the best I could manage with one hand."

"This is.. not bad work" she says, shyly.

She quickly cuts the stitching I made (shooshing protests) and pulls the thread out. Filling the wound with the blood-stanching, constricting medicine I had seen earlier, I felt the area grow warm and tingly. Then she uses another medicine (this one thick and gluey) to pack into the wound. The whole area was bandaged around with clean linen. Almost immediately, it begins to itch horridly..

"Do NOT scratch. That is body going back into harmony. Do not disturb it"

I scratch at other parts, instead. I suspect whomever had this outfit prior to me had a flea problem. Wounds or no, a long soak in a tub would be wonderful at this moment.

Next, she looks at my left hand with the broken small finger. She applies an orange-ish, tingling medication to the broken finger, which is quite swollen. Then she holds the finger bones together, which is an agony.. yet, within minutes the swelling goes down, and I can tentatively waggle my fingers again. This is a miracle of healing!

I rise up and bow again.

"I must depart. I am sorry about what happened at Hanxian"

"So am I" she says, shaking her head sadly.

"I hope to make things right, Anh, or try to"

"Be Careful" she says.

I mount up on the little mare that had provided such excellent service escaping from Fusang cavalry earlier.

"Yao, Mr. Lefevre, shall we go?"

Yao grins, and gives the move out whistle to the rest of the bandits.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A British Envoy Arrives in Loch Avie

Steelhead Adventures/Return to Fusang

Private Journal Entry
Head, MI-5

I was sitting in my private offices in Taigh Róis late one afternoon working through the many files requiring my attention, and preparing to write several letters when my assistant knocked on the door asking if I would receive one Lord Lloyd George of Her Majesty Queen Victoria's Intelligence Agency. She presented his card for my inspection: First Earl of Dwyfor.

"Welshman," I thought to myself, and began recalling through the few phrases of Welsh that I was still able to credibly pronounce.

"Do tell His Lordship that I will join him momentarily. And please brew a pot of the Earl Grey Supreme for us."

I freshened myself and descended the stairs. Taking in the gentleman: moderate build, receeding hairline, teeth in need of some repair, impeccably dressed and an air of superiority oozing from his pores.

"Da bnawn , 'm Naf Dwyfor. At beth gwna Fi ddylu hon anrhydedda?"
"Good afternoon, My Lord Dwyfor. To what do I owe this honor?"

"'r anrhydedda ydy pawb chloddia , 'ch Gras. Gobeithia Ca 'ch bydew." He responded
"The honor is all mine, Your Grace. I hope I find you well."

I seated him in the parlor off the main ballroom and served the tea. A few pleasantries being passed, he jumped straight to the chase.

"As head of this small country's intelligence agency, I am sure that you are aware of the current crisis in the Fusang region of the Celestial Kingdom."

I nodded.

"I am sure that you are also aware the our government has for some time been working in the region, but I shall not divulge the full resources or operations details."

"Yes, Lord Lloyd, Her Majesty has informed me in the past of such things that interest her in the region."

He sniffed, took a breath and said, "Then I will thank you to kindly remove the amateurs from Caledon who are upsetting the delicate plan regarding the army of progressive peace."

"Amateurs?!" I questioned intensely, but softly.

As he nodded I reminded him that my agent did not choose to be kidnapped.

"Why then, you should simply be prepared to disavow him. For if you know anything about The Great Game, young lady, you will understand that this is how it is played. Agents who cannot be managed - who cannot be trusted to stay out of the way, must simply be moved out of the way. No sentimentality. No softness."

I arched a delicate brow.

"But perhaps you are too young to understand this, and being female... Well I can see that this may be too difficult for you to understand, I could certainly assist you in making the plans for such a thing. Why I could even...."

"Lord Lloyd!" I interrupted cooly. "YOU have greatly facilitated this entire mess with your Wards and your Gordons. Your armour. YOUR æroplanes. YOUR tinpot dictators. You should be grateful that our small nation is even willing to help salvage your chestnuts from the fire."

"Hmmmph," he grumbled like a great walrus beached on a distant northern shore. "WE already have operatives on the scene. And your operatives in the region trying to save this O'Toole and whatever else your little minds might have thought about trying - should stay out of our way. We cannot guarantee your agents' safe passage."

Calmly and cooly I looked directly into his eyes, leaning slightly onto the table between us. "My operatives, sir, are taught to fend for themselves."

"I remind you, Dwyfor, that Caledon and some of her allies, being smaller countries, are uniquely able to have a lower profile in the region, and should be of benefit to Her Majesty's efforts. Fortunately, O'Toole's situation seems completely unrelated to MI-5, Caledon, or England, sir. And I will see that he is safely home."

"Now that you have finished your tea, I shall see you to the door, sir. I believe that you have said all you came to say. Rather than trusting a letter to Victoria through your delivery, I shall send through my normal secure channels."

The door closed.

Good Lord what an insolent little man.

"Your Grace?"

"What is it, agent?"

"Some slides and a memo that may interest you."

I retired to my offices once again.

Your Grace. The Steam Lemur is functioning beautifully as you can see.

We have found him. He is alive, but entirely recalcitrant. You did not warn me of the possibility that he might refuse exfiltration!

He was not pleased with my suggestion for removing him from Celestial Kingdom.

Reasoning did not good whatsoever.

He was much in earnest. Until I receive further orders, Your Grace, I shall stay with O'Toole - the only way to ensure his eventual extraction, ma'am.

I sigh and and frown a little. "Heroics again, O'Toole?"

Yes. Yes, of course.

I draw the silver pen from it's place on my desk, find the ink, and begin my orders to LaFevre...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Space: 1889 The Steppes of Thoth

A slight diversion, one that will be welcomed, I trust.

This is the start of an infrequent posting from SPACE 1889: The Steppes of Thoth audio play from one of YHN's favorite RP settings of all time, SPACE: 1889 from GDW Inc.

In Syrtis Major's corridors of power, a threat to the British Empire's dominion over Mars is close to discovery, and Governor-General Sir Henry Routledge faces ruin if it ever comes to light.

In the wilderness of the Thoth Steppes, enemy powers, savage tribesmen and even nature herself bar the way to the wreckage of a lost Ether Flyer, and the secrets it hides.

For Captain Roger St. John Ffolkes, it is a mission he cannot refuse; for the adventuress Georgina Golightly, a journey that will risk all - and for Mars, it is the chance to save a world...or ignite a war.

Everything Jules Verne should have written.
Everything H.G. Wells could have written.
Everything Arthur Conan Doyle thought of, but never published -
because it was too fantastic.

Space 1889 - Scientific Romance from Noise Monster Productions

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Return to Fusang: Headlong Flight

Continues From.. | Meanwhile.. | Meanwhile...

The mare is in fine shape; she speeds down the reverse slope of the pass where the Land Dragon had stopped for the night, bullets starting to whisk by us right and left.. one of them coming uncomfortably close, plucking at my sleeve. It does nobody any good to ruminate on bullets. When they find you, they find you. Besides, the mare is a dark grey color, and so are my Chinese peasant clothes. I doubt the cavalrymen are doing anything more than frantically pursuing their decamped horses and firing wildly into the night

I do not grieve Ignatieff's death; I'm not in the slightest bit shaken about the moral implications of taking his life-- he was dangerous, fanatical and absolutely ruthless. He would not shy away from killing ME were our positions reversed. The boy soldier fumbling with his rifle, though, the fear in his face... that will bother me for a long time, I suspect. I must shake that thought away, and maintain the fury for a while longer... long enough to get me to a place of safety. Moral pondering will weaken the Fury almost immediately. I know, instinctively (for there is no science to the berserk), that I had not had nearly enough bodily essence (what the scientists are now calling metabolic energy) to maintain the berserk for very long-- a steady diet of rice and fish scraps will only take you so far. I am keenly aware I am in a race against time.. my hands are already shaking with adrenalin quivers.

At the bottom of the mountain trail the railroad cut disappears, although the foundation for a railroad bed spreads out before me pointing in an almost perfectly straight line towards Fusang.. German engineering again. Clearly the Fusang engineers wished to tackle the harder part of the task first, and are busy dynamiting and grading the cut through the mountains, no matter how many slaves they kill doing it. The railroad bed is fine, pulverized rock and packed dirt; my little mare hardly makes a dent in it. Perfect for hiding the trail-- long enough to throw off pursuit. I had no doubts about the inevitability of pursuit-- a Celestial Kingdom cavalry unit can be quite proficient under the right leadership, and I know it would be reformed shortly (if it wasn't already) and the pursuit would be on. They fear the consequences of failure far too much. Tsk Tsk.. is this any way to run an army?

Five Li of riding along the railroad bed and the trees open up on either side to reveal a wide field full of untended sorghum plants. I smell the corpse-stink long before I see the pathetic group of bodies at the side of the railroad bed. Had they tended these fields? Had they objected to a railroad being built by strangers running straight through it? Perhaps a necromancer could find out, but I will never know.

I pull off the railroad bed and ride South and East now, trying to cover tracks as best I may.. through the fields of sorghum. I have been riding for an hour and a half, and the fury has left, and the withdrawal is coming on full force. Hands and feet shaking, vision dimming.. I manage to get the mare to the edge of the forest before falling off... flopping about in a fit like an epileptic fakir, in pain and nausea. I raise myself to my hands and knees, feeling the welling up of toxins inside me.. and I vomit, copiously, again and again. The Fury must be fed, or the price is somewhat dire-- the rage eats you instead, and this malaise and sickness always ensues as the body seeks to rid itself of the toxic effluvia of rage. I blank out as the pain from the bayonet wound suddenly reasserts itself. My normal nervous system has returned-- My eyes are blue again, I am down to my normal size, and I cannot ignore pain any more. I grunt, a broken finger shouldn't be nearly as distracting but for some reason I'm aware of it more than the wound in my side. I look down at my left hand, covered in blood, holding my steadily bleeding side. This wouldn't do. I stagger up to my feet... the mare is still there, cropping sorghum plants placidly, appreciating the down time after the long run. I mumble something that must sound soothing, her ears flick away at flies calmly. I put one arm around the mare's neck and walk her a bit.. where there is a field, there is a hut. Another corpse is by the door, in an advanced state of putrescence. I walk through the fly cloud (some of which take an unhealthy interest in the blood flowing out of my side), and look about the hut. Not much is here.. overturned baskets, grain larder taken.. the floor dug up to look for the typical cache of meager coins the family managed to save. I am astonished to see even the ancestral statues are looted. My heart sinks for the unknown owners of this house. Even the worst of the worst would not dare the wrath of heaven in the Celestial Kingdom by committing this worst of all atrocities.

I doubt the Fusangs would loot the kitchen, and a quick glance shows that aside from breaking such crockery as they had, they had not done much here. Looking through my nameless benefactor's herb collection, I find what I'm looking for: Achillea millefolium, commonly called bloodwort or yarrow. My eyes are swimming a bit now but I manage to make a poultice from an herb paste of bloodwort, charcoal, and a little wild honey. Yes, honey. I don't trust the water here one bit. First, I sew the wound with one of her precious sewing needle collection, which she had stuck in the curtain in a neat little row. Clever woman! May angels speed thee to thy rest! comes unbidden into my brain. The poultice is the work of minutes, bound tight with ripped pieces of cloth from the mattress ticking (already slashed with bayonets). As I work, I look out the window from time to time.. no pursuit yet. Tsk.. surely I hadn't shaken off their pursuit this easily. I shall be revising my view of their cavalry soon.

A few more valuable minutes.. binding and splinting my left little finger, which is now a swollen agony. At least it's my left hand. As I leave, I turn and painfully bow three times in the direction of the niche where the ancestor statues are supposed to be. Nobody is alive to be honored any more, but I feel as if *something* should be done to thank my nameless farm wife, who, all unknowing, has helped me far more than she could ever realize. It hurts to walk, and isn't going to be a treat to ride, either. But I suspect I have lost my valuable lead time now.. the Sun is just beginning to silver the edge of the horizon, and I do not wish to anywhere out in an open field by daylight. As I painfully attempt to mount the mare, I hear the first of the far-off Chinese voices punctuated by a weird, ululating cry. Fight, Flight, or Hide? Fight: not recommended.. I can barely stand up, my side is imperfectly stitched, and I'm still sickened in the aftermath of the Fury. Flight is possible, but I don't relish riding in the open anywhere near the Fusang Immortals. They look proficient enough with those carbines. Hide, then. There's enough time to hide with the little mare in the hayrick out behind the hut. Painfully, I climb to the top of the rick and lay down. The view is excellent-- I'm laying on a pile of moldering hay sighting down the railroad bed. Far off, I see a small troop of cavalry approaching. Only ten of them? No, 9.. plus an odd figure that is running ahead of them, close to the ground. That's about 8 more than I can manage in this state. They must have lost my trail and split up to cover a wide search pattern.

I slide down to the ground, and carefully untie the mare and walk her to the woods edge. At this point, the sounds of the approaching cavalry are very near. I hear excited exclamations in Mandarin with more of the strange whoops and howls. They have spotted something.. of course, blood. DAMMIT.. I forgot. They've been following a blood trail-- that strange figure, it's so familiar. Of course! A Lycan! The Celestial Kingdom is crawling with both kinds-- of course Fusang would have some in their employ. I can't believe I made such a stupid mistake. They will be at the farmer's hut in minutes. Already I can just make out the first of them coming through the edge of the sorghum field. FLIGHT then! I lead the mare into the trees and painfully mount up, moving out on a walk. There's no trail, but the forest grove is thin here, opening up to another field to the South, planted with some form of grain I don't recognize. Spurring the mare now, I bring her to a light canter, ever jolt a bit of fire in the side.. there are dense woods farther off.. dammit, I will be in view for a substantial distance. Perhaps they will not look this way. mmm hmmmm... Nothing for it, then, I lean over the mare's neck (excellent, uncomplaining creature! There are oats in your future!) and lay it on for all it is worth. She flies through the field, exalting at the chance to run. I hold on for dear life, crouched low over her mane. From back at the tree line, I hear the yelps of Fusangs again, they have espied my fleeing form. CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! bullets whiizzzzz by, uncomfortably close. Nobody is a crack marksman with a carbine on horseback, no matter what.. the far edge of of field looms closer, closer. I hear the CRACK CRACK CRACK of rifle fire, again. This time, is it my imagination, or am I hearing it on two sides? Have I been flanked? Dear lord... I crash through the wood's edge at the far side of the clearing.. the tree branches are very low here.. suddenly, I feel a tremendous clout to the head, I see the ground approaching quickly, then, darkness.

I have awakened with a cracked skull in many a dicey spot in the past. This is an unfortunate hallmark of my profession. Occasionally, I have awakened to have a weapon pointed at me. This was what I was expecting when I came to, an unknown amount of time later. Instead I found myself gazing into the ape-ugly, grinning face of Kasukalan Tauhan. I never could get my brain wrapped around Tagalog, but his intentions are clear-- he is wrapping a bandage around my throbbing head. Pu Ying and Small Shang are behind him, grinning. I sit up. "Ying! Shang! Father of Fakers! It was a ruse!" Ying grins. "We work for Long Noses from the Iron Boat at the mouth of the Yalu. They pay many yuen for us to spy on Fusang, join army, tell them what Dragon who Waits does. You work for Long Noses, too, no? Or has Father Ward sent you from heaven?"

"What about the cavalry, Ying?"

He gestures with his rifle. At the clearing's edge, hanging upside down, are ten bodies, stripped of clothing and accouterments.

I shudder a bit. "Ying! we don't treat the enemy this way!"

He frowns, and points behind him.

"I do not, Banner Chief (using my old EVA title). But they do."

I had not noticed it, my brain was so fuzzy from riding full tilt into a tree branch. There is a small crowd here. Men and women, all of a certain type.. dull black clothes, mixed in with discarded Fusang uniforms, wielding recently liberated carbines, bandoleers, swords, shotguns. A very ugly crowd. Nieng Bandits.. answerable to nobody. They were a plague in the side of the EVA back in the old days. They must be a plague in the side of Fusang, now, judging from all the captured Fusang weaponry I am seeing.

"Their leader, Hai'zi, wishes to speak with you"

A rather rotund Chinese man approaches. Unlike his rather evil looking counterparts he seems big, healthy, cheerful.. a veritable Buddha. Unlike almost any Chinese man I have met, he seizes my hand and pumps it vigorously, Western style, a large smile on his face.

"I am Hai'zi"

I sound this out in my head... it is Cantonese for...


He laughs. "Close enough. I am the Bandit Leader the Fusangs call "Big Baby Yao". His English is remarkably good.

"Schooled in the West, perhaps?"

"Indeed! Two years divinity school, Trinity College, Dublin!"

My facial expression must be comical for he laughs loud and long.

"You marvel at it being such a small world, Colonel! I sometimes do work for British Intelligence, which has a headquarters on the HMS Pigeon, at the mouth of the Yalu. What my colleagues here call the Long Nose Iron Boat. You have caused quite a stir, sir!"

"I have? I didn't know anyone knew I was gone!"

"Oh, rather! Inquiries from the Pinkerton Agency. From the British Government. From a small intelligence unit named "Caledon MI-5" whatever that might be. Your presence here is like the pebble dropping into a still pond.. the ripples spread ever outward... touching many, perhaps, who knows, toppling Empires?"

"How did you end up... here...?"

"Let us say... I chose to, and leave it at that. Now, you might do me a favor, Colonel."

"Anything in my power, of course."

"This group of partisans (NOT Bandits, despite appearances) are quite suspicious. They think you are the reincarnation of the Devil Soldier, or his son. You know these types. Would you speak with them, please? I don't wish for any misunderstandings.. they could be fatal."

"Certainly, er.. what do you wish for me to say?"

"Tell them who you are and why you are here, please"

I stood on my (rather wobbly) feet. One of the bandits rushed to give me a flask of tea, which I gulped from. My imperfect Mandarin would have to do.

"Hear me, friends. I am Banner Chief O'Toole, who fought with the Devil Soldier in days of old. I fought with Ward and I would not fight with Burgrevine (many present spat at that unlucky name), so I left the Celestial Kingdom as my enemies had grown many and were endangering the Ever Victorious Army. I have fought in many wars since, in many places. Now I have returned, not as the reincarnation of Ward (At this, many downcast eyes), nor as his or Gordon's son. In truth, I came to the Celestial Kingdom uninvited. Now that I am here, I will make this promise. I am here to see H'sieh Lieng dead. That is one man who has stayed above the ground far longer than his time. I will accept no other outcome. I have said my piece." I stand with my arms crossed.

The cheers in that small clearing are very gratifying, but perhaps too loud. They may draw attention from unseen quarters.

I must have a prescient streak, for as the cheers died down, I heard another clear English voice say (in a pronounced Southern accent)

"Why, I am delighted to hear that, suh! We may be walking the same path after all!"

Into the clearing strides a strange man, a Caucasian-- tall and lean, ruddy of face, with dark hair and eyes. Alongside him is a strange were-creature, unlike anything I've ever seen. A raccoon? Too big for that.. and very strange eyes. And the sad little village healer from Hanxiang! I glance back at the man, frowning in puzzlement.. He seems familiar. I realized where I had seen him before! I had dreamed of this stranger in a fit of delirium, some nights ago! His eyes are gesturing.. to his raised hands (an excellent precaution, as 30 Nien rifles are at this moment pointing at him). Suddenly I realize what he is doing-- he is bringing my attention to his fingers. They are flashing the Caledon MI-5 recognition sign!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Return to Fusang: The Russian and the German

Connected HERE | Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

I stand in the doorway of the Go-Down, mouth agape in confusion, hands still manacled with chains, being very careful to disguise the fact that I understand Russian. I took the crash course they had given Indian hands at the training center at Lucknow, but never rose to the level of conversational. Later, I had sat in on the Grafina's "sack lunch Russian" series at MI-5 headquarters, but I'm afraid they were far too pedantic for my feeble attainments.

Who, then, is this chap, and what brings him here from the other side of Asia, hmmm? he stands, squinting at me. A tall chap, thin blonde hair, a sour face with slavic eyes. I note with a start that he possesses an interesting half brown and half blue "gotch eye". That settles that, I have never met the man before. He has a memorable look. He looks me up and down. I fear I am not too prepossesing at the moment. "войдите бак, англичанина, мы имейте длиннее путешествие вперед" he rasps (which is: "enter the tank, Englishman, we have a long journey ahead"). I don't rise to the "Englishman" insult, but continue to look affable and stupid. It works on Russians.

"See here, fellow.. what the DEVIL is a Russian doing here, of all places in this forsaken wilderness?" I say, trying to play the imperious card. He jumps down from the steamtank and slowly walks up to inspect me, removing his gloves.

In heavily accented English, he says:

"Ai aym Count Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatief of the Tsar's Semioysky Regiment, Anglishmann. You are moy prisoner, and you will accumpanye me to Foosang in the Land Dragon. Ai have read your dossier, Colonel, and ai aym given to understand you are known to be resourceful. Do NOT attempt an escape, Colonel, such an attempt will surely spell your death."

"I am NO Englishman, sir! I am Irish by birth, Caledonian by adoption. I suspect your dossier is faulty! And what is a Russki doing out here in China, anyway?"

He signals. The local Fusang Army captain pulls the chains up, holding my arms behind my back, painfully. Ignatieff slowly lights a reedy cigarette, one of those foul Turkish kind, and inserts it into a cigarette holder.

"Ferst of all, Colonel, let us define the terms of thiss relationzhip." He sucks in on the cigarette, making the tip glow red, and blows smoke in my face, making me choke and splutter. Swiftly, he grabs my throat with one iron hand, holds my head up, and burns my left cheekbone with the tip of the cigarette.. The pain is intense, causing me to thrash hard enough against the Fusang Captain to cause him to call for another guard excitedly.

"Now, filth.. this is how it goez, yes? You are prisoner. I am jailer. I ask questions, you answer, yes?" Waving cigarette close to eyes. "What I tell you, that is what I choose for you to know, yes?" closer. "Yes?" Furiously, I nod.

Alas for the plans of mice and men, this is the moment when the enterprising Fusang captain discovers that the chains below my wrists are substantially weakened. Much hullaballo and high speed dialogue in Mandarin. the Chinese cavalry dismount, and six of them are instructed to draw a bead on me with their rifles, as the chains are exchanged for new ones. In the crowd behind them, I see my old comrades Small Shang and Pu Ying. Our eyes lock as they are hammering the rivets on the new chain. Small Shang nods. It was he that planted the knife. I very subtly nod back to him.

"Colonel, you will enter zhe Land Dragon, walk to the right gun sponson, and Captain Engels will lock you to the gun chassis. If you attempt enhee shenaniganz, I will shoot not only you, but everyone left alive in this village. Are we quite clear on this?"

I nod, glaring. I will not put a village to risk by my actions. Ignatieff, the bastard, certainly is the kind of man who will do exactly what he says. The dour Fusang cavalrymen ("Fusang Immortals", they are called) give me a hand up to the roof of the giant land-machine. Dropping into the roof hatch, I am expecting a gloomy dark interior, which isn't a surprise. What I wasn't expecting was a long drawn out curse in the German language, with colorful biological and religious metaphor. Inside the Land Dragon, there is another European, clearly of Germanic origin. The originator of the salutation is a dark visaged, bearded, powerful individual of medium height. Much of his face is obscured by large green goggles. He stands up, making an imperious heel click salute, which ended with him pranging his head on the low ceiling.

"I haff the Honor of beingk Hauptmann Friederich Engels, Imperial Prussian Army, on extended detached duty to the Prince of Fusang. You may call me.. Fred".

As he stuck out a paw grimy with grease. "Colonel Hotspur O'Toole, First Caledon Lancers", I reply stiffly, wiping my hand surreptitiously on my peasant smock.

"Erm, ja, I know dat. Now, I vill chain you to the right gun, rechtig? Make no trouble, Anglander, dot's a gut fellow"

I nod.. my right arm is held painfully up, and chain is cuffed to the steel gun frame.. I try it. This is no rusty old freighter. I look around the interior of the compartment. The Land Dragon is a long rectangle of rhomboidal aspect, with a moving circle of steel plates transversing a system of rolling wheels causing traction, much like steam tractors. A small, but powerful steam plant in the back appears to be the domain of the coveralled Hauptmann Engels. There is a small room forward for the Dragon commander to steer the dragon in, and command the gunfire. Apparently Ignatief pilots the Dragon from there. There are two powerful 37mm guns on sponsons right and left of the central rectangle, plus a rapid fire weapon up front. The gun sponsons remind me of dreadnought guns on a ship... a Landship, in this case.

I settle down, making myself as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. The chain to the gun is tight. My face hurts.. my ribs are only half healed yet. I grimace to myself.. "no heroics, O'Toole. False heroics are the enemy of clear analysis!" I can still hear the Duchesses' ringing voice reprimanding me so long ago.

So, time to analyze. If my sense of the map is clear, Fusang is at least two days away overland, perhaps more. These beasts do not move swiftly from what I know of them. And we will be going up a slope, probably along the railroad cut. What do I know now? He still wants me alive for some reason. This seems very elaborate for simple revenge. What does he have in mind? Unknown. Why the Russian? Why the German? Easy enough. Prussian Krupp Guns and Krag Rifles. Russian narrow gauge railway engineering, light cavalry tactics. And this remarkable copy of the English Mark V landship. Why would the Kaiser and Tsar detach men to come here, then? What would they have to gain?

I realize that my old masters in the Horse Guards would be grinding their teeth to find out some of these secrets. But I resigned that commission in India. Still... a Chinese army, with these weapons of war? Led by a madman? This could be a major threat... The English should be told. Maybe the Yanks, too. And certainly MI-5. Hmmm.. to attempt it would be foolhardy in the extreme. A death sentence. Yes, surely. Ah dash it all.. who am I kidding? Of course I'll try to get away. Sorry, Duchess. It will be cheap heroics after all.

The engine sound is loud and roaring; the entire compartment vibrates and shakes alarmingly.. slowly, the tracks rotate around the edge of the conveyance. The Landship sways back and forth, and starts to move.. I shake my head in the darkness. What will these whizzo chaps think of next? I really should file a report with the Guvnah about this thing. If the Celestial Kingdom can copy it, surely we coudl in Caledon. I could see Somme's reaction. "And give up HORSES, man? Are you MAD?"

The trip is slow, and rather dull. The heat in the engine compartment grows oppressive. I talk with Fred from time to time. Unlike that cold-hearted bastard Ignatieff, he seems like a pleasant blockhead, and unlike most Prussians I know. Sure, he's a Captain in an Engineering Company, but not a Ritter or a blue blood. His mutterings about historical materialism and "der alienation uf der working class" whenever Ignatieff would shout down an imperious order or two in Russian accented German were certainly puzzling.

"So Fred, what is the story behind Russian and Prussian military advisors out here in the back of beyond? Are the Kaiser and the Tsar in bed with each other then?"

I'll say this about Fred; he has a sense of duty.

"Dot is nun of yur business, Anglander. Ve go vere our leaders tell us to. Und der Kaiser has sent me out here to advance the Foosang regime.

Ah well, a dutiful blockhead, but still likeable for some reason. He's a bit like a male version of Tombola, if she spoke Prussian.

"What about Ignatieff? He doesn't seem like your sort."

"Ach, he is.. er.. how you call it, one evil bastard. He hass been out here for 23 years, working with Chinese warlords against the English, French and Yankees."

Now that was interesting. Perhaps a long term alliance with Lieng, eh? I never saw him back in the day, but that does not mean he wasn't here.

Fred loosens his collar and opens the side sponson doors to let the air in. The air inside the compartment grows less close. I lean my head out the door a bit to catch some air. We are advancing up a very narrow valley where the railroad cut was being hewed out of the mountain by a veritable horde of laborers.. my nose wrinkles at the charnel stink of the valley. Hundreds of peasants are here, breaking rocks with picks, moving rubble with baskets.. men, women, children, elders, engaged in slave labor of the foulest kind. Suddenly, I knew why there weren't any people in the riverside villages the last time I had come up the Yalu in search of Chiang. They are all here now, building a railroad for Fusang's Army. The corpses line the railway cut, bloating in the sunshine where they fall.

The day passes, I chat with Fred now and then. We take a break or two to do a brewup and to attend to bodily needs. The Chinese cavalry follows behind the Land Dragon, seemingly impatient to be loping along so slowly while keeping pace with the machine. By nightfall, we were at a point I would consider a third of the way to the Capital, up in the desolate mountain range between the Yalu and the Pei-Yang. Apparently Ignatieff thinks the way is too treacherous up here for the Land Dragon to operate in pitch darkness, so we camp for the night. Ignatieff and Engels converse with each other, and they gesture for a cavalryman to haul me out of the Land Dragon for a meal. Again, a small squad point rifles at me to prevent escape, while I am treated to a decent helping of rice and some meat of some sort. I stretch next to the fire while I eat, being glad to have room to uncramp my legs. I could use more red meat, dammit. I will need it for what will happen next.

Ignatieff coldly ignores me. Fred sits next to me, checking the chains briefly, then, looking somewhat abashed from a withering glare from Ignatieff, moves off to sit by himself, muttering in German. I drink the weak Chinese tea by the pot load.. I've been lightheaded for a while now, a state I attribute to dehydration. After I am finished, Ignatieff gestures to the Cavalry sergeant major and I am pulled back inside the Land Dragon for the evening. We'll see about that. I am chained to the sponson, as before Gradually the night sounds diminish as the soldiers doss down for the night. From the sounds of it, Fred and Ignatieff are sleeping on the roof.

Good, very good indeed. I flex my muscles against the steel-- it is hard and unyielding.. I pull harder, slapping my face hard to bring the possession on me.. reach down deep, there's a feller.. bring on the battle madness. harder.. harder...

I feel the blood pumping in my veins... faster and faster.. my breathing is great gasps of air.. as I pulll pullllll PULLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL... YES!! YESS! IT IS UPON ME! THE RAGE!!! KILLLL!!! With a noisy wrench, the chain parts at the wrist cuff, breaking the cuff and my small finger, but I do not feel it.. I am full with the berserk, the battle lust, and I do not care who hears me now. My eyes glow the deep red color of the berserk as the hatch smashes open and Ignatieff is down in a trice. I am waiting for him, one length of chain in my hand, the other holding the clasp knife from my boot. I am grinning terribly...

Ignatieff lets out a hiss of hatred and pulls out his cavalry saber.. STUPID WEAKLING! I think... This is not a place for fighting with swords.. I am on him. claws and biting. He cuts, once, twice.. upper arm and grating along hip bone.. but it is enough to make me jump back.. crouching in wariness, swining the broken chain in a small circle. He circles me, point guard out.. Stupid man... his intentions are so obvious.. he telegraphs the attack. I move inside his attack, and whip the chain around his neck, simultaneously body blocking him a blow that knocks him back ten feet. His neck snaps in mid air and falls ponderously to the deck. His sightless eyes stare uncomprehendingly at the ceiling.

Up through the hatch I go.. The camp is surprisingly not fully awake, I hear Chinese voices raised in alarm but the only one near me is Engels.. he gazes up, his eyes pale in fear. Shielding his head with both arms, he cringes... and I bring a spanner down on his head. Even in my rage state, I cannot kill him.

Where were the horses... up the cut a bit, tied up on a trot line. I leap off the land dragon and run like the devil is behind me.. There is a sentry present, a young Fusang boy with a carbine. He starts to raise it.. and time telescopes as I LEAP from 20 feet away to land upon him in a snarling melee of claws, teeth, chain and rifle. The carbine goes off, and I feel a stabbing wound in the abdomen, but I have not been shot, it seems. In the midst of the melee, I shove the clasp knife into his ribs, and he sits down with a "CHUFFF" sound, looking surprise and pained as he dies. I look down.. and that's when I discover the bayonet sticking into my side. I had not felt it. Running forward, I seize a likely looking mare and slice the trot line, galloping up the railroad cut into the direction of Fusang...

Loud angry Chinese cries behind me.. the bullets whistling overhead.. holding my side (for fear of my entrails coming out), I lean over the horse's neck and kick my horse with my heels. She moves out like a good 'un, and we gallop off into the night, the horses in the picket line following me. It has cost me dearly, but I am free, and I have a well rested horse under me, and I know the land. Woe betide me if I allow them to catch me now. I'd sing if it didn't hurt so much...

As I gallop off and night enfolds upon me again, the old bastardized Latin phrase comes again to my mouth, all unbidden:

Imperiequeritis, tria pendent corpora ramis dis meus et gestas in media et divina potestas dimeas clanator sed jetas as astra levarut...

Immediately Following...

Note: As forewarned, there are real historical characters in this narrative, and we introduce two of them here-- Count Ignatieff and Friedrich Engels. Astute readers may note they are a tad bit "out of time and place" here, but in this universe, they aren't. So there.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The First Report from the Celestial Kingdom

Steelhead Adventures/Return to Fusang

Personal Journal Entry - Head MI-5:

After a very long and dark day, I was sitting in the Conservatory in Loch Avie when I saw some lights go on in the Keep. One of my staffers was still working. I decided I had better pull myself up and go see what was happening.

As I walked into the offices, I found one of my most senior agents sitting at the desk pouring over maps, a small dossier tucked under his thumb.

"Your Grace." he nodded. " Report from our man on perimeter security. He found this morning: 'hoofprints in the mud around the Loch....a recent arrow fletching recognized as Sir Tele's nearby.' We realize that TS is abandoned but there are rumors of a rider who moves silently in Caledon...usually in the Loch itself, watching."

I smiled softly. "Yes. I have seen this rider on occasion in the dark of the evening, or when I am awake in the middle of the night."

He handed me the folder. "This was found near the spring where the campfire was located."

"Thank you. I will retire to my offices in the manse. Keep alert tonight. There are strange things afoot."

He nodded silently and stood as I walked out of the Keep.

I called to Bucephalus, who followed me up the hill to the manse. My groom was awaiting us and took the horse to his well-earned rest.

Once inside the house, I opened the sealed envelope.

Eyes Only - Head MI-5

Report directly to you, Rose. Your message and gift of the Steam Lemur was received. I have made contact with Dau as per your instructions and we have successfully infiltrated the exotic animal show that is traveling through the region.

We have heard rumors - as you have - of movement among the Dragon and his minions and now something about an Iron Dragon or a Land Dragon. Reports vary. We had been following the most recent rumors of a white male in the company of known agents of H'sieh Lieng, when we found ourselves in Hangxian.

The poor peoples of the region, who are now essentially slaves, were talking non-stop about a steaming metal beast and a small, but evil, Russian-speaking man. Upon our arrival in the village, we were greeted with some level of suspicion, but the moment we pulled out the animals - snakes, exotic birds, a large Bengal tiger, and my lemur - the blank eyes began to brighten. We had a large group of both villagers, and soon thereafter, soldiers around us for quite some time. This was the opportunity we needed to begin talking to some of the people and to see the area.

I was able to pull away from the soldiers bringing the lemur with me as they were much more interested in the power of the tiger. Dau and her Bengal kept them well occupied. I gathered a small group of children around me and began trotting through the village staying near the river. A small woman approached us and readily followed along our path. She seemed to physically examine me as her eyes passed over my face shoulders, neck. It seemed to me that she was looking for a way to speak to me. I sat the Steam Lemur down on the ground and the children promptly scampered along the river's edge with it. As soon as they were occupied, the woman said, "You come with Dau. She knows people from outside the Celestial Kingdom. Do you?"

I acknowledged that I did and that I had been born in the Americas. She seemed to understand me and smiled carefully. She told me that a Land Dragon had just roared through the city along with many of the Dragon Who Waits' closest companions. 5 hours ago - or less, she estimated. She took me to the tracks of the beast.

Your Grace, they are enormous! This iron beast is larger than I believe our scientists imagined possible. The woman spoke swiftly now as the lemur approached taking pictures as instructed and the children not far behind. She made it known that she and her entire village had either become the slaves for the Dragon Who Waits, or they were killed. Having no particular affection for H'sieh Lieng given her current circumstance, she described the white man who was injured and then loaded onto the steam tank. Her description fits that of O'Toole. She was sure he was headed to his death.

The rest of the entry described how he and Dau would follow the tracks of the beast and monitor for any course changes. Looking for any opportunity to free the prisoner.

I sat the dossier on the seat beside me as I began to think of what my response would be. The lag time on this message had not been too bad - but time is definitely of the essence.

Suddenly I had odd visions before me:
Shea and Dau questioning villagers in a southern port city....The Dragon was not nearby.
Hotspur injured, but running, calling out to someone.

Imperiequeritis, tria pendent corpora ramis dis meus et gestas in media et divina potestas dimeas clanator sed jetas as astra levarut

Ah - the visions were entirely replaced by this snippet of a spell. Again. Over and over it ran in my mind.

I pulled out my fountain pen and began to write my instructions.

Agent LeFevre - Mark me well, do not fail.....