Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Return To Fusang: Making Connections

Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

Personal Journal Entry - Head MI-5:

It has been three days since the last dispatch from Shea. Either he has fallen or is in deep cover work and is not able to get any word to me. Blast it, where are the others? The Celestial Kingdom is almost silent to me at the moment, and I REALLY hate that.

The snow was falling steadily outside my offices as I sat down to write to Shea and Dau. I could feel my frown drawn down as it always does during periods of intense concentration or worry. Just then there was a tap on my office door. It was one of the junior offices of the Lancers. Apparently they had just escorted a foreign guest to the manse. When he handed me her calling card, I asked that he please send the young lady to my offices in the keep. I would meet her here

Angelica Ortegavich ascended the steps of my office. Tall – nearly 6 feet, blonde, and blue eyed. While she looked very little like her brother, Fuzzball, she has his same expressive face and intense eyes.

Smiling I offered her a seat, and told her that I assumed she was visiting Caledon – and specifically me – for business purposes rather than pleasure, since she had offered me a card with the Pinkerton emblem and motto.

We talked for some time about what we knew and didn't know. Angelica being very close to her brother had some personal interest in what was transpiring, and I was happy to have confirmation about his whereabouts along with those of Dr. Mason, and Dogg. I had whispers coming my way, but had not been able to confirm anything. However, Angelica is also senior enough in the Agency that she had been officially assigned to this case – keeping an eye on the situation for the Americans. She has been authorized to talk to me of their concerns particularly surrounding the actions and inactions of the British governmental agencies. Of prime concern to the US is the intelligence that has been coming in regarding Nayland Smith's "backup plan" to eliminate American interference in the region. I believe that she has rightly concluded that he means to kill Fuzzball, Glitterach, and Darien. Certainly the British envoy who visited me indicated that they did not appreciate Caledon's part in this. I suspect that Shea, Dau, and O'Toole are on that list as well.

We talked long into the evening and made agreement to keep in close contact via our secure channels. Daily status updates and coordination. It is an agreement that I feel entirely comfortable with.

I walked the loch, thinking. I could feel the junior Lancer following me several steps behind. Good man. Somme and O'Toole would feel proud of him: keeping watch per orders, but maintaining a distance.

What do we know about the British? I asked myself.

  • We know that England wants no more EVAs; they regard them as popular movements, which are too hard for them to control.
  • We know that after Gordon was put in charge about 18 years ago the EVA disbanded after a year, and the Warlord "system" started with England in a very predominant place.
  • We know that Nayland Smith is "British establishment". Most agree that he felt Ward was an amateur and never appreciated his management of the EVA years ago.
  • We HEAR that there is a resurgence of nationals in the Kingdom who think that Ward has come back from the dead. This must be related to the appearance of Hotspur and possibly others from the old EVA days back into the Fusang regions.

Still not enough information. I need to have first hand accounts from the front lines, as it were. LaFevre! Where are you?

The Following Day

I should not have even been thinking about this, but I knew that the only way that I would quickly be able to learn what was going on in Fusang was to contact Lady Amber. God bless her, she had at one point been able to make a direct psychic connection with Hotspur, though that experience nearly brought Lien Bao through the rift. It has taken many months for her to get over the trauma of that connection.

I was not even sure she would help me but I sent the message to her last night with some little hope. She just arrived in Loch Avie as I was at my weapons practice. She said that she was extremely fearful of taking on this evil again, and that she did not want to do it. Her hands were shaking and she trembled, but I could see her resolve. She felt this was her duty. Somehow she found the strength (and this time without the laudanum that had plagued her since the last encounter) and asked that I find a location on my property of "intense energy" for me.

Lady Eva – your energy should help me connect to Hotspur once more time, and should hopefully also protect me.

I chose the area near the base of the waterfall and she began her preparations.

She asked me to quiet my mind of all thoughts or concerns (a rather large order if you ask me, but I did my best to comply) and to sit in the circle as she began her incantations. The soft murmurs she made actually did make it easier for me to relax and clear my mind.

She spoke clearly. I see Hotspur. Oh Lady Eva he is in a battle and there is water, and some monstrous steam gun boat. OH! OH! The image is gone.

Suddenly I could see something - a palace. I started to speak, but could sense that Amber knew I was seeing what she was seeing. I kept quiet and watched the scene unfold. It was as if we were flying through the castle – up and down corridors and stairs. The gilt and stone sparkling around us, I could feel the wind against my face and flowing through my loosened hair. Then I heard something. I was not sure what, but the spirit guiding us obviously also heard it, for we seemed to move in the direction of the sound.

Lien Bao! He found us in the rift. No. He did not see
me. He was completely focused on Amber.

I heard him taunt her as he laughed,
"Small child, why do you try to hide from me again? You cannot find him. He is mine."

Amber wavered slightly, but just as quickly as the fear came, it was replaced by anger and strength.
"I will find him despite your power. Get out of my way or I shall move you."

The laughter deepened and, as if only to spite her, Lien Bao made himself appear larger and began to weave his way through the rift. He was going to step through! My eyes were open I could see my home around me, but could also see into his palace. Suddenly the fog moved from around Lien Bao and his image became clearer. A foot, a hand. He reached for Amber as she began to slump over her table.

"No! No you will not harm her!" I heard myself yelling at him as I stood and drew my Claymore back.

He had not seen me.

I felt the cold, hard steel of my Claymore slice into his abdomen as his eyes found mine for the first time. He was utterly surprised and began his retreat back across the rift.

Suddenly there was a flash of light and I could feel myself falling. Still holding my Claymore which was deep in the flesh of the old wu-jen, I too was falling through space.


We both hit the stone floor. In his palace in Fusang. In what appeared to be a small, austere laboratory. There was smoke all around us, much of it emanating from Lien Bao himself at the point where my sword entered his body.

Quickly, I pulled the claymore out of his body certain that I would need it to defend against the arrival of his soldiers. He moaned loudly, cursing me in Chinese. I was in battle crouch, ready for what might come my way (or hoping that I was), when the old sorcerer began rapidly transforming in front of me. He wounds were deep. I was certain they would have killed any other man nearly instantly, but he was not going to die easily, if at all.

A large raptor, a black bear, a fox demon, a dragon, a zhenmushou

With the last transformation the smoke rising from his wound intensified and he burst into flames. I shielded my eyes the fire was so bright. Shrieking as if from a hundred souls swirled around me, and then quiet. Complete and utter stillness.

Lien Bao was gone – diminished to the small pile of ash on the floor of his palace.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Space: 1889 The Steppes of Thoth IV

While (ahem) awaiting patiently developments from my collaborators on RETURN TO FUSANG, I shall post the next thrilling installment of the STEPPES OF THOTH! Here is Part IV.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Space: 1889 The Steppes of Thoth III

We've been getting a tad behind in the Steppes of Thoth, so here is episode III of that thrilling narrative!


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Return to Fusang: When all else fails, attacking remains an option

Directly follows from HERE | Meanwhile... | Meanwhile...

I'm torn between firing at the Marines landing just upriver of the Bridge City and running back and forth to the South side of the bridge to signal to the oncoming flotilla. I can't do two things so I wave at Shea to come out on the bridge. He complies by dashing out with five bandits armed with a collection of weapons. I explain the situation to him and he nods, taking up a firing position behind some rubble and directing fire at the Marines landing. He's a damned fine shot, if a little wet behind the ears. Even at this distance, I see the bos'un at the back of the whaleboat leap up and fall into the water, clutching his chest. It's critical we slow their advance AND maintain the fiction that the bridge is mined and we will blow it at any provocation.

The firing from the secondary batteries on the Iron River Dragon starts to intensify as the ship ponderously noses around in a long curve, bringing its two giant main batteries to bear directly at the center of the bridge. They still aren't firing with the big guns yet.

Looking South my spirits soar as I see the tiny fleet of shallow draft paddle wheel steamers chugging up to the bridge city, their decks crowded with Celestial soldiers in brick red uniforms. Obviously this is the vanguard of the Army of Progressive Peace, and Feng has stolen a march on his opposite number in Fusang, General Yen. I fancy that killing one of the foreign observers in the Land Dragon slowed Yen's advance to a crawl. Fred is a very competent engineer from what I have seen, but he is no great leader of men I trust he isn't in charge at the moment.

On the lead riverboat, I make out a shape I can recognize. A shabby green coat, bottle green glasses, panama hat and handlebar mustache. He is standing next to a florid giant of a man wearing a rather absurd tam-o-shanter. It's Mason, here, in the middle of the back of beyond. He is pointing a spy glass in my direction. This IS good news! The Progressives are getting excited-- the musicians (musicians??) on the riverboats start up a good old fashioned Chinese caterwaul-- banging on gongs and cymbals, shooting off fireworks. I can't help but laugh a bit-- here, at least, was someone who enjoyed the traditional Chinese ways of going to war. I wave the makeshift red flag more energetically, until I am sure the troops on the Texas deck can see me. I gesture to the North side of the bridge excitedly, then point to the shore. The riverboats are made out of wood, and would not stand up to even a single shot from the River Monitor's main gun.

Running back to the north side of the bridge, I can see that perhaps our ruse may not last much longer. The white-coated marine force have landed and are forming up for a bayonet charge into the north section of Bridge City, being held by a paltry force of bandits with pea-shooters and limited ammo. Chen runs up, panting, with a bandoleer of bullets and the small rapid fire gun.

"Comrade Yao states that you can get a better angle on the white sailormen from here, Long Nose"

"He's right, too! We need to set this up at once!"

With Shea providing covering fire, we set up the rapid fire gun and commence firing at the party of marines. At least they do us the honor of scrambling for cover in a hasty fashion; we manage to down nary a one, but we have slowed them down. That's the GOOD news. The bad news is that now I can distinctly hear the two rear main turrets cranking up-- they are clearly aiming at the bridge now. I have just enough time to shout a strangled "Duuuuuck!" when the nearer gun belches fire and smoke with a loud HOOOOOM! I dive for the ground covering my head with my hands.. only to hear the WHOOOOOOOSH of the giant projectile lobbing over the bridge to land on the other side. I can't run over to see where it fell but it's clear that the River Dragon is firing over the bridge in hopes of hitting targets beyond-- the Riverboats. Then I hear distant WHAM! SWOOOSH! And a water spout appears over the South railing of the bridge. How could that be? How had the River Dragon seen them? As if supplying a mocking answer, I look up, alerted by the whirrring sewing-machine sound again. The kite-thing is back-- high in the air, circling above the river fleet. As I watch, it launches a red rocket I can just hear go off as a distant popping noise. That damned flying thing! It is acting as a flying artillery observer for the River Monitor! There's not much I can do from this distance-- the pea shooter I'm firing with hardly has the range.. then an idea hits me!

Maintaining a steady, if somewhat ineffectual fire on the marines, I motion to Chen and explain the plan to him in short sentences. He grins, and is off again, like a wild rabbit, his green ex-Fusang uniform rather distinctive against the bridge background. I cross my fingers, as the secondaries from the upper decks of the Monitor stitch a deadly pattern of misses directly behind him as he runs. Yao leans a head and shoulders out of the upper story of the bank. I point up above at the Kite-Thing circling around. He understands at once and his head bobs up and down vigorously.

Shortly thereafter a team of two Jingal-men appear outside the bank and set up their long, outrageous weapon in anti-aircraft mode.

In case you have never seen one of these ancient siege weapons, they are a two man "small cannon" in musket form, originally used in siege warfare and castle defense. They have become en vogue in recent years for punching through armor on vehicles and smashing down doors at strong points. What the lack in portability and accuracy, they make up in sheer punch. A Jingal bullet is the size a water-glass, and can punch a giant hole in a wooden door, but the bullet is relatively slow. This would be tricky work. Chen tries to spot for them... the first shot is wide, and the second.. I shout, impatiently, in bad Mandarin: "LEAD them, you fools! LEAD them! The Flying Kite Thing is faster than your bullet.! You must shoot ahead of them, slightly!" They bob their heads nervously, and try again. CRAAAAAACK!!! A hit! The top "windsail"? "windvane?" "Steering Vane"? Gives way suddenly, and the Kite-thing flip flops over and over spiraling down into the forest beyond the river on the South Side. The Bandits AND the men on the riverboats (from what I can hear) are yelling excitedly. "AIiiiiiiiyah! A hit! You are a clever fellow, Huan! Well done!"

I go back to providing covering fire for the bandits. The marines have abandoned their bayonet charge and have scattered to skirmish order, which makes them harder to hit at a distance. They are advancing in leapfrog bounds, one squad of ten covering the other two as they advance. Well trained, these. I suspect the Prussians again. One bandit topples off the roof, then another, then another. I am running low on ammo for the quick firing gun, now at the last bandoleer. As I busily reload, I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look down, and see that it is huge, and freckled. I spin around, and a cup is thrust into my hands. As I sip, I stare up at a kilted giant of a man. "You ordered COFFEE, laddy?" I sip gratefully, and realize it is liberally dosed with whiskey. Gods! But that is good. After months of living on rice and fish and water.. But I must be sociable.

"You have the advantage of me, sir! Hotspur O'Toole is the name, late Lieutenant Colonel in the First Caledon Lancers!"

"Och, aye, and more besides that, but we're not telling.." he wheezes. "Angus Glitterach is me name, of Edinborough. Airship Cap'n and Explorer. I've heard stories of you. Looks as if ye have a fight on your hands here, and no mistake!"

"That wouldn't be the half of it." I gesture. "See that? That's a German River Monitor with 8 inch Krupp guns. If they WANT to, they can turn this bridge into slag. That makes me think there's a large Fusang army nearby that wants this bridge intact. But they havent' shot at the bridge yet, possibly because I've tricked them into thinking we mined it. They HAVE landed marines on the north shore over yonder, and they're proving deucedly hard to kill at the moment, with the weapons on hand. I have a small force of bandits and refugees in the remains of the north village there, underarmed and rapidly running out of ammunition. Ideas?"

"I may have something up my sleeve", says a new, very familiar voice, as a figure with a panama hat and handlebar moustache heaves into sight from behind the massive Glitterach, accompanied by a squad of the brick-red soldiers.

"Doctor Mason! Good lord, man, what brings YOU to the back of beyond, like this? You are most welcome!" We shake hands enthusiastically.

"Trust you to leave Steelhead in chains, disappear, and be found on the other side of the world, leading an insurrection!" Mason grins sardonically.

"I confess, it wasn't in my plans to do so-- these things just seem to happen to me."

"Aye, they certainly do. Fortunately we are here to assist at a key moment, it seems. What are the targets of opportunity?"

"The Marines. The Giant Metal River Dragon.. er.. River Monitor, yonder"

"Hmm. not a moment to lose, then. Here, both of you help me here..."

Ducking from the incessant spattering gunfire from the River Dragon, Glitterach and I help him unship and assemble a series of connecting gold metal rods of increasing girth, so the assembled pole, about 8 feet long, tapered slightly. Then we set it up on a tripod, bracing the feet. Mason grabs the thick end and sights down it the pole.. and turns to me. "Which target, Hotspur? We've got ONE shot at this!"

"The marines! As many as you can get..."

Doctor Mason crouches over the end of pole-thing, and starts chanting in a sibilant, yet guttural voice, in a tongue that contained a few familiar words but is on the whole indiscernible. Gradually a glowing red nimbus forms on the thick end, steadily glowing at first, then sparking on and off, running up the pole and down again, and the faint hummmm of the contraption grows to an almost roar, when suddenly we are rocked by a huge BOOOOOOOOOOOM!! as a giant arc of red fire leaps from the narrow end of the pole and arcs over to the Marine force.. most of them are caught up in the weird, eldritch red fire and even from a distance, it appears sickening to see them dance with electrical discharge like so many excited puppets.

Of the force of 60 men (approximately) there appear to be ten left, standing in stunned silence.

"Gods above, Man! What hell-spawn IS that thing? "

"Staff of Ra," Mason grins smugly. "Takes forever to charge. "

Even Glitterach is impressed. "Och, laddy, that was something your Da nebber taught you and make no mistake!"

The remaining Fusang marines have dropped their rifles and have their hands up, obviously upset. Suddenly a secondary battery in the top cupola of the River Dragon swivels around and stitches across them, right and left, and all of them collapse to the ground, killed or wounded. So much for surrendering to the enemy as a soldier of Fusang.

"That's bad news, then?" asks Mason.

"It might be. The Captain may loose patience any second now and start firing."

As if prescient, the top most main battery swivels, aims and fires, in about as much time as it takes to tell it. This time, they land a shell directly on top of the bank building holding Yao and some other bandits. The roof collapses, messily.

I frown, remembering Yao's words about not seeking a death in service to the Western powers, and yet, that is just what occurred.

"Can't cross over, can't advance against it.. the big Egyptian boom-stick is spent.. What to do?" I asked the company.

"Perhaps we can help.. " says yet another voice, this time from a lean, ascetic looking Englishman, and his huge companion, dressed in aviator flying gear. They are accompanied by a youthful, but serious looking Chinese officer in brick red robes. Was this General Feng? It was. Introductions all around. The Englishmen are a government functionary type named Nayland Smith (whose name I've read in the Far East Review from time to time) and an Aviator named Biggles. The Chinese man is indeed General Feng.

I bow respectfully upon meeting him, and he returns it.

Smith begins.. "They are currently advancing against the current at a low rate of speed to maintain position, with the stern of their ship toward us. To do this, they need rudder, the top part of which is discernible from here, the river being low. We have some portable artillery that won't be able to penetrate that ship's armor, but might impair their steering".

"What sort of artillery?"

"2.5 inch Mountain Guns, mostly"

"Oho! The old Pom Pom Guns!"

Feng nods. "British Surplus. Very accurate"

I nod, delighted. "I am familiar with the ordinance in question. It has been a few years since I have used it, though."

Feng says "Our Gunners are quite proficient, Colonel. Let us demonstrate our drill for you."
No need, Sir. Let us demonstrate on yonder Iron behometh!

The conversation is punctuated by another shelling of the North side of the bridge, this one landing in the town square, creating a giant dust and debris cloud.

The Pom Pom Gun team is as proficient as advertised. They perform the assembly drill in almost the same amount of time as a British Gun Crew; certainly as well as the old EVA gunners used to manage. Smith sights along the barrel.

"Word of Warning, Smith.. that Captain has been here for three hours, waiting for the field army to show up. He may be getting excited. I suggest you make your shots count."

He gives me an odd, withering look. Oh, I know that look. Doesn't like to be lectured by an Irishman, does he? Oh well, he can play at being in charge then.

I find myself mouthing the commands silently as Smith attempts to adopt a heroic stance, pointing at the stern of the River Monitor.


POM! (they didn't call this the Pom Pom Gun for nothing)

SPANNNNG!!! The round ricochets off the steal taffrail of the river monitor. The crew needs to decrease elevation 1 notch and correct to the left about a yard. The effect on the Monitor crew is electric. They think they are facing some quick firing automatic guns, the artillery, small as it is, is a new wrinkle. Even at this distance, we can see them diving for cover.

Again, then!



The report isn't much, but it is a square hit and a small explosion. When the smoke clears, it's clear that the shot had achieved its goal: not much in the way of actual damage, but the top part of the rudder is bent sideways from the explosion and broken off its fitting. The Monitor, which had been firing in a desultory way towards the shore, is now a beehive of activity. Even at this distance I can hear the captain frantically ringing for full speed ahead.

Tsk, tsk.. running from a little Pom-Pom gun?? This is the vanguard of Fusang's naval future?

The River Dragon gets the steam up, and attempts full speed ahead upriver. The effect is almost comical. Slowly, the boat describes a long circle in the Yalu, fighting against the current, and when it arrives at the bottom of the circle, the captain can be seen frantically tugging at the wheel, trying to free the rudder. He's not noticing what the rest of us are.. The River Monitor has executed an almost 360 degree turn and is stuck at an angle heading upriver somewhat, but mostly perpendicular to us-- and the boat is drifting inexorably right towards our position on the bridge.

Feng blows harshly on his whistle three sharp blasts. In Mandarin, he barks out orders... three squads of the brick red soldiers arrive, armed with parangs, temple swords and short pikes. I don't have a cutlass, so I make do with a Chinese sword-- far more decorative than I like, and balanced oddly. It'll do, I think.. making a few swishes in the air. I check my pistol. Three bullets left. Doctor Mason is priming a giant clockwork gun of some sort, and Angus has a pump shotgun.

I see the captain clearly at last, a thin, spruce looking gent, looking up with eyes in wide astonishment as his River Monitor, almost at level with our position on the bridge, strikes with a grinding, rending crash against bridge. Almost at once, a wave of Brick Red Progressives, Bandits, myself, Doc Mason, Glitterach and le Favre leap across the taff rail.

The captain had gambled by placing his entire Marine detachment on shore, and now he had lost-- there was nobody left on board to provide shipboard defense. What is left is the core engineering and gunnery crews, as well as some officers. Once we are 'inside the perimeter' and they can't shoot at us from a great distance, we make short, bloody work of them.

It takes all of 20 minutes to hunt down the last handful of crewmen, and hold them prisoner at sword's point.

Glitterach, Mason, LeFevre, Smith, Biggles, Feng and two of his officers meet me on the bridge.

Feng is looking around him in wonder.

"Think of it as the flagship of the Army of Progressive Peace, General." I say, a tad grandiloquent.

Feng nods to his officers, one of which spreads a map out on the chart table. It is suprinsingly good; far more detailed than any I had seen of the Yalu before this. Feng points to a mark on the Yalu, about 80 miles form Fusang.

"This is where we are." He gestures again, to a point 20 miles inland. "this is where I estimate the main army of the Fusang Field Force to be. They are approaching this point rapidly."

"Naturally" grunts Smith. "They wish to seize this bridge. It will be our duty to defend it".

The officers nod, not looking thrilled with the prospect.

"How many men do you have under arms in that flotilla, General?"

"Around 6000 Infantry, 10 small batteries of artillery, 2 squadrons cavalry. There are more downriver, but this is the most we could bring on such short notice." Feng said, giving Smith an arch look.

"Against a field force estimated to be 10 to 12 thousand? It's doable, I suppose. They won't be all in one spot.. this army doesn't march that fast, I've noticed. If you can hit the head, or better yet, the tail of that column, then retreat.. then hit again, you'll have a chance. I wish there was some force that could pin them down, though..."

Smith suggests: "Suppose we take up a defensive position on the North side here, with the Monitor supporting us? We would have firepower, then."

Feng, surprisingly, is dead set against it. "I did not mobilize the Army of Progressive Peace to avoid a decisive battle, Mr. Smith. We must meet the enemy on the field of battle and decisively defeat him, one way, or the other."

I interrupt. "I have a third option, perhaps."

They all look up, sharply.

"We repair the rudder, which is damaged but servicable.. although it will take longer to fix than we have time before the Fusang Field Force arrives. I suggest we put some of our Chinese nationals in the Fusang Navy uniforms, keep a small force of Progressives and Bandits below decks, and sail this ship right up to the Capital itself. Meanwhile, General Feng fights a hit and run battle with the FFF down here."

Feng's eyes widen. "What do you wish to accomplish, Colonel?"

I turn on him, excitedly. "Don't you sense it, General?? NOW is the time.. The Dragon who Waits has sent all his forces abroad.. abroad to smash YOU and carry on to Kowloon. How many forces can he possibly have in his capital now? A thousand? two? He CANNOT defend everywhere all at once. NOW! We strike at the snake's head NOW!

I can tell he is intrigued by this possibility. "Assuming you can sail up to the dock..." he is interrupted, rather rudely, by Smith. "Preposterous, sir! You could never pulls this off in a thousand years!"

Feng holds his hand up... "Mr. Smith, need I remind you who commands here?"

"er.. no, sir, forgive me.. but his suggestion endangers any position of retreat we could manage on this river! If we lose in the field, we will need this bridge to cross and we will need the Monitor to hold it"

Feng looks troubled, but looks up, a decisive tone in his voice. "I have decided, my friend."

Turning to me: "What will you need?"

"Engineers to fix the rudder as fast as humanly possible. A small field gun, perhaps two.. those Pom-Poms will suffice. We will need them for the assault on the palace. And about 100 picked men. I only wish Yao had survived to see this, he would have liked to have taken part."

"Oh, but he has, Colonel!" In marches a grinning Yao, his arm bandaged and head in a sling.

"YAO! My God, man, are ye hurt? The building fell in on you!"

"Oh, I have the luck of a Celestial, Long Nose." Turning to the General:

"Captain Yao, Second Ever Victorious Army, reporting, sir"

We all laugh.

Doctor Mason chimes in. "Well, O'Toole, this sounds like a mad enterprise, almost certain death, with little chance of success. naturally, I'm in."

"Aye, me too, Laddy! You have the devil's luck, for an Irishman, and I mean to see it through!" rumbles Glitterach.

Sir? a quiet voice behind me asks. It is Shea. He looks positively shame-faced.

"I was wondering.. erm.. if I might accompany General Feng? Perhaps I am a novice at Field Intelligence Work, but the Army of Progressive Peace is about to engage in a form of warfare that I DO know, intimately.. when I was a cavalryman in the late unpleasantness, this was the sort of hit and run warfare that we excelled at" He mumbles... "Perhaps I could be useful..."

"Hell's Bells, Shea, it's fine by me if it's fine by the General!" Feng nods, granting permission.
"But don't you getting yourself killed, you hear me? The Duchess will beat me about the head and shoulders if we bring you back in a tar sack!"

"Nothing personal, sir, but I think the odds are with ME this time.. " he returns, seriously.

"To work then!" cries Feng, and we scurry off, to take charge of our various tasks.

Followed by HERE (about 20 hrs. later)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Return to Fusang: Refugees and Bridges

Continued from HERE | Meanwhile...

It is our second day since meeting with Yao and the field agent Shea LeFavre. I had been ready to run some appalling risks to get into Fusang by myself, if need be, but the introduction, entirely out of the blue, of trusted friends and comrades from Steelhead-- no matter how far away off they might be when it was reported... well, this opens a world of possibilities I have not anticipated.

Perhaps I may emerge from this alive.

I admit I had not given thought of an alternative plan other than sneaking into the Fusang citadel and confronting Lieng. The rational part of me agrees this is a stupid idea-- not from lack of bravery, but the realization it would be a futile waste of life (and other lives not mine to waste). I am surprised how easy it was for me to jump on the idea of heading south to the Bridge city to link up with this "Feng's" army. I really must look into him. He sounds promising.

I still need to arrange a situation where I will be within a very short physical distance from Hsieh Lieng-- the facts are what they are. I have no chance of killing Lieng in any other situation. So we must be canny, and we must find strong allies. So, Feng it is then.

In the last two days, we have encountered and absorbed two more bands like Yao's and fought two sharp skirmishes with Cavalry patrols. We are moving fast, not as fast as I would like, but fast enough to outstrip any infantry force sent against us. Sadly, this means we cannot slow down to shelter a refugee column. I tell the ones on foot to head for the river and cross over to South of the Yalu as fast as they can. As we ride, the rain of the last three days abates and the sun breaks out. I realize, oddly, that I am strangely content. 20 years may have gone by, yet here I am, engaged in an irregular war, dressed in rags, bandoleered like a Mexican bandit, enjoying it far more than the bureaucracy and paperwork waiting for me back home. Every refugee group we meet has Ward or Gordon's name on their lips.. "Devil Soldier has Returned!" Silly, superstitious lot that they are.. they know, intellectually, that Ward was killed in a crossfire arranged by his own lieutenant years ago. That won't stop the hoping, no matter how hard I try to correct the assumption. I won't deny the comparison gives me an entirely irrational stab of pride-- the flattering devils.

But that has been the last two days. Today's encounter is shaping up to be a pickle.

Yao and Shea and I are on the edge of a drained rice field, having blundered into a Fusang cavalry force. The leader, a young Mongolian captain, brandishes his new-fangled Automatic pistol in my direction and gives the order to charge in guttural Cantonese "Look! It is the Long Nosed Devil there!". Suddenly, his face is blown off. The sergeant, behind him, canters forward, stops,and rips the Fusang symbol off of his tunic. The men follow suit, pulling out a crude imitation of the old EVA banner they had hidden in their saddlebags.

Yao and the Sergeant (Chen by name, apparently an EVA veteran from the red turban he puts on, but I don't recall the man) are having a spirited discussion as we head South towards the bridge. There is a large pattern of cavalry patrols near the river, performing a circular pattern search at Fusang General Yen's insistence. There is a large field force, Chen says, marching down the North bank of the Yalu with the intention of crossing the bridge to invade Feng's territory to the South. 10,000 men, all branches of arms, several guns, and the Land Dragon. Having killed the Land Dragon's pilot, I wondered how fast that devil's chariot would be moving onward any time soon.

I gaze up at the sky, worried.. three times today I have seen the strange kite-craft that moves against the wind.. a large unwieldy conveyance made of wings and gears and emitting a strange whirring sound, not unlike a modern sewing machine. The Kite-Craft is clearly here to observe and not fight-- he dropped some explosive charges last night, but they were weak, designed to flash and bang like fireworks, not explode and wound. I think they are signaling other forces to triangulate on our location.

There are about 200 bandits and refugees streaming along in our wake when we crest the bridge to gaze out at the mighty Yalu stretching out in front of us, armed with a motley collection of rifles, Fusang carbines, muskets, blunderbusses, Jingal Guns and even parangs. The Bridge City appears to be uninhabited-- the North section burnt and deserted, with only the bank, the gate house and the jail standing intact. I gesture to Yao, pointing at Bridge City downstream. He dispatches Chen and Red-Top, another bandit, to reconnoiter the city as we approach.

Within moments Red-Top is seen, pelting back to us as fast as his nag can carry him.

"Master Yao! Come Quick!"

Yao and I ride down to the village where we tie up our horses at the edge of the main street. I can see Chen frantically signaling me with a hand wave on top of the Gatehouse at the edge of the bridge. Quietly, Yao and I run over to talk to Chen.

Our hopes are somewhat dashed as we climb up on top of the Gatehouse, for, rounding the North bend of the Yalu has come something new to this section of the river. With a loud ringing of bells and whoosh of steam whistles, a large deep water River monitor of Germanic design is approaching under a full head of steam, her guns rotating to place the Bridge City's northern side in her sights. The Iron River Dragon is finally ready, weeks ahead of schedule. And she appears ready to blast her way to Kowloon, if she hast to.

DAMN that kite-like thing in the sky, it had been calmly transmitting our location to this ship the entire time! A ranging shot from the forward gun fires; it lands short but with an impressive spray of water. I look up on the ridge, where the rest of them are dangerously overexposed, and run for my horse. Yao is right behind me.. it takes but a second to get to the force of bandits on the hillside, and to start them moving towards the hard points in the city-- the customs house, gatehouse and remains of the bank. We are going to need hard walls here.

Yao, LeFavre and I take stock. We have about 80 rifles, varying amounts of ammunition. One light rapid firing gun we took off a cavalry patrol, about 5 drums of ammunition for it. Not enough, not enough. As we disperse the men (and women) to firing positions, the first shell lands in courtyard, the shock wave sending roof tiles, bricks and dust flying.. I run over to my horse to get her under cover. She turns, stares at me for a second, and crumples to the ground to lie on her side, dying in seconds. A shell splinter has ripped her throat open, leaving me staring, blinking back tears. She was such an excellent little mare. I pull two ammo bandoleers off of the saddle and run for the bridge. Red-Top, Chen and Le Fevre are there, gazing at the approaching Iron River Dragon. It has stopped, rotating against the current and bringing the North side under her guns again. Le Fevre gestures excitedly and hands me his binoculars. The River Dragon is dropping boats over the side, as cool as ye please. White jacketed Chinese soldiers are starting to load into the boats-- I have to assume these are some form of marines.

I see Yao's men setting up the little rapid fire pea shooter on top of the Customs House. I wave and point at the boats, making a chopping motion. He grins, catching on and directs rifle and rapid fire on the boats. Sadly, they are out of range yet. The Fusang officer in charge of the landing force is taking no chances.

We are in a fix here. We can't cross the bridge without getting shot to pieces. There appear to be no boats, no fording places handy. Heavy caliber shells are landing on the village, but not the bridge, which tells me something. They are only using light caliber secondaries to fire on the bridge itself. They don't wish to damage it-- the Fusangs want to take and KEEP the village. Why is that? To get to the other side with a large force, that's why. So that tells me there is likely a large field force on its way here, which means they have come out to fight The Progressives at last. Chan's report from the field is borne out by the evidence of my eyes now.

Suddenly, I have an idea. Wrapping a rag around my head in imitation of the old EVA turban, I sling my rifle, and explain my thought to Red-Cap. He grins excitedly and runs off for necessary equipment, returning with a box, a spool of twine and a rope spool. I put the box on my shoulder, and he winds the twine around the empty spool. Then with infinite care, walking as if I had all the time in the world, I move towards the center of the bridge, standing up to do so. Red-top follows behind, unspooling the twine, looking for all the world like an engineer's assistant in the EVA helping a engineering officer mine a bridge. The secondaries open up fire again, but as I predicted, they don't have the range yet. We make it to the middle of the bridge before the River Dragon has drifted downstream long enough to fire on the center of the bridge with her secondaries. Red-top and I leap the last ten feet or so, as the bullets are now spattering on the metal parapet of the bridge, getting all too close.

I think they have bought it hook line and sinker. I laugh, turning to Red-top to congratulate him. He returns a glassy stare. I hadn't heard the bullet hit him, but it had gone through the base of his throat so quickly he didn't have time to react.. he just dies. I nod, closing his eyes for him. Slowly, I raise my head over the parapet to assess the situation. The parapet of the bridge is taking heavy small arms fire from the River Dragon, still, but they do not know where I am. Yao is waving at me but he is too far away for me to make out what he is going on about.. is he pointing DOWN stream? Or Up?

I risk a peek-- the landing boats are still coming, gun fire or no. It appears that a bloody fight is in the offing, one which a bandit force is ill equipped to handle with only one light quick firing gun and some rifles. The bandits may have to find another way to cross over into the country south of the river. I am running out of ideas.

Suddenly, I understand what Yao is gesturing and waving about. I hear a chuff chuff chuff sound from down river, followed by the immediate appearance of a the lead ship in a small flotilla that is making its was upstream. The lead boat is flying a strange flag with Chinese characters, but is followed by the British flag. Grinning, I reach out and pull a strip of red cloth from Red-Top's turban. tie it to my rifle barrel and wave it at the River flotilla.

"Good heavens! It took you lads long enough!! Do you have any coffee? I'm dying for some!"