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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...
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.