Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Return to Fusang: The Danger Forward

Continued from HERE | Dovetails with THIS POST at the end

The engineering detail fixing the rudder housing is making a fine din below; I can hear the great sledgehammer blows as Angus attempts to true the rudder shaft the old fashioned way; by bludgeoning it back in place. He's a dab hand with a claymore or a hammer, I've found.. taking natural charge of the Chinese engineers despite not knowing a lick of Mandarin. The rest of the River Dragon is rapidly coming together-- bullet holes filled with putty, a quick white wash of the burnt spots and a mopping up of the blood on the decks, and she'll be ready to go within two hours.

Leaning against the taffrail, I watch solemnly as the last of Feng -hsiang's Army files over the ridge on an interception course with The Fusang Field Force under General Yang in the North.

Earlier, I had expressed my worries to General Feng about the upcoming clash. It will be a true test of a general, and we both know it will make or break the Army of Progressive Peace.

"You are outnumbered almost three to one, sir... I would advise extreme caution"..

Feng smiled. "Then I shall instruct my men to kill three men a piece, Colonel. How do you put it.. A piece of pie?"

"No sir, that would be cake".

"No matter. We shall scout ahead, Colonel, and look for the main chance. If he is moving this large of a force on these roads, I cannot see how he can move a compact force anywhere swiftly. My hope is to smash into Yang's front columns, hold him there and move the rest around the right flank."

Shea (now Major Lefevre, Army of Progressive Peace!) threw in eagerly: "Much like General Lee did at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Colonel! We shall stop him in his tracks, and deliver the hammer blow!"

I nodded, saluting General Feng. "Success to you, sir. May your men move swiftly, strike decisively, and retreat before counterattacks like feathers in the wind".

He smiled, returning the salute. "And success to YOU, sir. Much relies on your effort!" As he galloped away, he shouted "Who knows, Colonel? Perhaps we shall rename this army the Second Ever Victorious Army yet!" I noted the look of bitter disdain in Smith's face as he hears that. What the devil is the matter with that fellow?

Now, I exhale the last of the smoke from one of Doctor Mason's cigars. Much to do, much to do.

Folding the map, I look up at Dr. Mason. "Any idea of where Fuzz might be, Doctor?"

The doctor leans against the rail, stretching. It has been a long day. "Nary a clue. He went over the railing about five miles back, and hasn't been seen all day."

"You realize, we have to leave, and soon. I CAN'T wait here, or we're all dead" I gesture in the direction the army left in. "This.. all of this.. relies on US being fast.. reacting before they can communicate to the field army. This tub is going to give us the edge we need to get to Fusang in time. You savvy? We go whether Fuzz shows up or not."

Mason nods, gravely. "Fuzz has a way of showing up when needed. Have a little faith, Colonel!"

"Faith I have, in spades. What I NEED are soldiers. And maybe a little heavy artillery for the castle doors. Anything you can help with?"

Mason pulls out a well worn book out of his traveling bag. In old gilt letters, I read THE SONG OF OSIRIS in faded type. He grins apologetically. "Hard to find, and damnably expensive for a mere reprint. But I may have something in here that will at least clear a path to the door"
"How about that Staff of Ra thing? That was damnably impressive."

Mason suddenly looks even more tired. "I don't think so. To recharge that would drain me, and take a lot of time we don't possess. You have NO idea of what it takes from me... to make that whole". "Drat, I wish we had known.. well, it is of no matter, then. What will the Song of Osiris do?"

"It is a spell of advanced thaumatergical skill, resulting in a loud screech that debilitates a number of targets simultaneously.. To cast it, I must be in position, say the phrases, and point in the direction it will go, and then the targets will tumble like ninepins"

I nod, bemused. "I hope this will be enough"

"Is this Hsieh Lieng character a wizard in his own right?"

I shake my head "He never showed this kind of skill when he was a youngster... he was a fighting man, not a wizard. That's what puzzles me. How has he show such power? You either have it or you don't, am I not mistaken?"

"Not entirely so. He may be channeling power for another wizard, such as the Lien Bao fellow you mentioned, or.. someone else.."

"I've run into Lien Bao on many occasions. I would not have ascribed that skill to him, nor is he the type to share power with any other mortal. I sense something darker afoot"

I yawn, and stretch, myself.. I am damnably sore from assorted bashes and bangs.

Doctor Mason's eyes twinkle, as he offers a flask. "Now, in my medical capacity, Colonel, I strongly advise a hearty pull of this concoction, and perhaps an hour or so of rest. We both know what might be at the end of this excursion."

I nod, and return to the last stages of preparing for the trip upriver. The two pom-pom guns, and the unlucky mule teams that pull them, or loaded aboard on slings. The strike force is primarily soldiers from the Progressive Army, but there are a kernel of the bandit tribe along just for the mad fun of the adventure. They assemble on the fantail, and I say a few words.

"Comrades! we are heading into the heart of the devil's den. Our task is to bring the war to none other than the Dragon who Waits himself. Are you prepared to do so?"

The crowd of soldiers, bandits and ne'er do wells roar their approval.

"To accomplish this, General Feng has entrusted us with this fine vessel, which we have hastily repaired. We must rely on stealth for the first part of our journey! So I require most of you to stay in the hold below, with rifles and bayonet at the ready. The rest of you will find uniforms that are not too bloody, wash the gore out, and wear them so that we will deceive the enemy when we approach Fusang Port."

More cheers and raucous commentary.

"Now, alas... " I say, gesturing towards myself, Doctor Mason and Angus. "We three are at a disadvantage attempting to pass ourselves off as inhabitants of the Celestial Kingdom"

I rub my blond hair for emphasis, to general peels of high pitched laughter.

"So we will remain hidden until the time comes for us to spring into action and shoot our way into the palace. ARE YOU WITH ME, EVER VICTORIOUS ARMY???"

The Cheers and Hullabaloo are deafening.. I smile.. like old times.

"Then let us cast off! Our destiny is in the North!"

Grinning, the engineers ring for quarter speed on the screws, as dozens of helpful hands run to cast off lines and leap aboard. The Iron River Dragon noses about ponderously, but the rudder casing holds strong and true, and we start on the journey northward.. North to Fusang Castle itself. I give three long blasts on the steam whistle, and steer her clear for the center channel.

"A piece of.. cake" I murmur, and the helmsman stares at me with a blank smile. I had spoken in English.

"Oh, Nothing, nothing. Keep her on the steady center course at three quarters speed. I'm going to sleep for an hour, make sure I'm awakened one hour from now, on the dot, on pain of painful and humiliating death"

The helmsman gulps and bows his head, nodding...

"Relax, helmsman.. I'm joking. Just send someone to find me, please"

I nod at Angus Glitterach, who is cheerfully instructing the lads in a complicated five point pike drill on the fantail. I recognize a wedge formation, used by police to break up riots. Now that would be handy.

I collapse on the former first officer's cot, my eyes closing before my head hits the pillow-- rapidly spiraling downward into the black arms of sleep, as the steady *throb throb throb* of the engines knock me into the land of nod.

The vision comes upon me like a runaway freight train. Instantly, I recognize the setting. The Dock at Fooking again, where this journey started. Ward is standing there with Burgrevine, about to send me off downriver. We shake hands. Ward drawls in that Yankee accent of his.. "Well, O'Toole, be careful down in Shanghai, don't let the Mandarins befuddle you. We need the second Regiment ready within 8 months. You savvy?"

"Yessir, I won' t let you down!"

"Hmph. See you don't!"

Burgrevine snickers to himself. Had I known then what I know now, I would have killed him on the dock then and there.

"One last thing, boy.. take what I said to heart."
I nod, eyes wide.

"You're touched by the Gods, boy, I saw it in you back in India, and it's getting stronger every day. It will come in handy some day, but until then, you may find it a mixed blessing! You'll want to let that power out! Don't! Let it sleep within in you until the right time! Remember what I told you! Control! The secret lies within Control!"

I wave farewell at Colonel Ward and Major Burgrevine of the Ever Victorious Army. as the rowboat pulls out to the steamboat. I never saw Ward alive again. In two months, Burgrevine would betray Ward to the Warlords, and he would be killed. By the end of the year, Burgrevine himself would be dead, at the hands of Gordon himself.

I am awakened by Yao, shaking me awake, gruffly. The vision disappears as abruptly as it arrived. "Come along, Long Nose, there's a fight to plan"

In the stateroom, the Progressives have the old captain of the Iron River Dragon tied to a chair. The whites of his eyes are showing, and he babbles from fear. I don't have any time to persuade him, so I draw a pistol and point it directly into his face. "You understand me, yes?"

He nods, sweating.

"Than know this. We kept you alive because the dock master will expect to see your face on the Texas deck of this boat when you pull up at the quay. I will have this pointed at you from three feet away, the entire time we approach Fusang Dockyard. You will say EXACTLY what I tell you to say. You might try something heroic-- I'd certainly understand if you did. But understand for certain that if you do, the next thing you'll see is the back of your head, rapidly exiting the front of it. You understand THAT? No matter how fast you are, you're a dead man if you try something. They may kill me, but you will for certain sure be dead. Savvy?"

He nods, nervous, trying to kowtow. Disgusted, I tell him to get back on his feet.

I look at the assembled faces in the room. Yao, Doctor Mason, Sergeant Chen, Angus. Nieng Bandits and Soldiers of the Army of Progressive Peace, together.

"This will work if we move fast and strike hard. We have no real idea of who is in Fusang Palace other than Hsieh Lieng and Lien Bao. We don't know how many troops have been left behind. Sergeant Chen here knows the layout of the palace, having served in the Fusang Field Force. Chen nods. He will will draw us a picture of the palace, where the Household Guard might be, and where the throne room is. We don't have a lot of time to practice this. Our plan is to pull up to the quay with some made up excuse about having received battle damage, and then rush down the gangplank, across the plaza as fast as possible, up into the castle area. There are two dangers areas.. the plaza itself, and the courtyard of the palace. We can't get caught in a killing zone. We can't allow ourselves to be trapped in the streets. So we move out on the run, yes?"

A chorus of nods, and one rumbling "Aye, Laddie".
"Now, Sergeant Chen will be in charge of the riflemen. If we encounter knots of resistance, form three lines and perform volley fire once, then charge in with bayonets. Angus, take that squad of Pikemen you were playing with and position them out front to break up the crowd in front as a flying wedge. Darien and I will haul the mules with the pom pom gun teams with us. In front of the castle proper is a large Gatehouse with doors about a foot thick. We won't be able to get through, even with small artillery. However, there's a postern at the far end of the courtyard used by servants. That is not well guarded and not nearly as thick. Darien and I will blow the door to kindling. Then we need to get to the throne room to.. force the issue. Now, if things go to complete and utter ruin, we badly misjudge this effort, and have to fall back. We'll need someone covering us from the River Dragon. I'll need a small crew to work the secondaries here on the top deck to prevent soldiers from trying to take over the River Dragon. This is our only way home, gents. We need to keep the boilers stoked and engine running. Yao, will you take this on?"

Yao's face grows cold. "Aieeya, Long Nose.. I want to see Lieng's head on a platter as much as you do. Do you think you have the right to take this from me?"

I smiled, knowing this would be hard. "No, my friend, I don't. But can you run at a dead run for several blocks, fighting uphill for a portion of it? I know your ribs got stove in and you have a cracked pate. Do me this favor, will you? I will bring you Lieng's head to spit on today, or come back dead, this I promise"

The men nod, liking the high drama of that statement. It's a Chinese thing, we don't understand. Yao glowered, but relented. "It shall be as you say, Long Nose. I may kill many of them, in any case."

"I appreciate the honor of the kill, my friend..

Good, then. let's get to our stations. Remember, yell like madmen the entire time.. that will keep people off their fighting edge."

Gradually, the boat steam around the river bend, as the black towers of Fusang approach. The long line of Progressive soldiers and bandits crouch in the scuppers out of sight, waiting to spring into action.

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