Things did not go quite as smoothly as Meng Shi presented it to the captain. Wang Jian refused to see him and sent word that if he discovered Meng Shi was in any way responsible for the ruin of the magic powder, Meng Shi’s life would be forfeit.
Meng Shi slowly led the travelers down the line, and found the body of young Billy Porter. Boston cried. She said she liked Billy. Millie offered her thought.
“He was not just young, and innocent in a way. He was simple. The kind of young man that might have benefited from some institutional help.”
No one said a hundred years after Millie lived, they got rid of those kinds of institutions. Society no longer liked institutionalizing people, not to mention the expense. Sadly, the result was such people, instead of being helped, they got discarded—basically, thrown away. They often ended up homeless and living on the street.
They buried Billy right away, just before Alexis found one last barrel of unexploded gunpowder. The soldiers driving the wagon became surprised when a giant gust of localized wind knocked that heavy barrel right off the wagon. It hit a rock and split wide open. It dumped more powder after the travelers got finished examining the evidence. Then it seemed to set itself on fire. No one could explain that. It was not even near a campfire. People ran away. but this time, it did not goBoom. It made something like a big Poof, and that was it.
“The famine is not an answer,” Meng Wu said, once he stopped yelling. “Tell King Zheng he will have to do something better to break this stalemate.”
Meng Shi nodded. “I will send word. Right now, I have to get back to Meng Yi in Anyi. That is a stubborn, reluctant city, and your son Yi is still young and inexperienced.”
“I have every confidence in my boys,” Meng Wu said, and lifted his hand to the shoulder of his elder son, Tien. Tien at least had the kindness to wave good-bye.
Meng Shi and the travelers moved quickly from the Qin camp before Wang Jian changed his mind and the questions became too pointed. They took Billy Porter’s horse, saddle, and guns. Nothing from the future got left behind in the Qin camp. It took a week from there to reach the city of Anyi, even traveling mostly on roads of a sort. Meng Shi stayed quiet most of the way, but he did tell the travelers a couple of things.
“King Zheng will eventually conquer all of the other warring states and establish the Qin dynasty as the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang-Di.”
“I’ve seen it mostly written Qin Shi Huang,” Katie said. “Without the Di.”
“That is because he styled himself as a god-like king. That is not a god-king, like in the Middle East or among some of the crazier Roman emperors. He isn’t looking for the people to worship him, necessarily. But he wants to be honored and revered, and his name to carry weight even in distant lands. And he will not permit his decisions to be questioned. The thing is, the people that come after him do not venerate him in that way. His rule is rather harsh and cruel. So mostly, they drop the god-connection.”
“Just as well,” Decker said.
“But he will succeed?” Millie said, like a question.
Meng Shi nodded. “I have seen that level of intense, single-minded ambition a few times over my many lifetimes. Alexander was that way. Caesar, though he isn’t born yet. Patton, mostly. The thing is, King Zheng doesn’t need gunpowder added to the mix.”
“Gunpowder was a Chinese invention,” Evan pointed out.
“Yes, but not for another thousand years,” Meng Shi countered.
The next day, Katie woke up with a serious thought. “I’m confused. The way it was explained to me, you always have one or more future lives you remember, for example, you remember the twenty-first century where we come from. But the immediate future is unknown to you., or so you claim. I have heard you say, the next hundred years are a mystery, because they are just now in the process of being written.”
Katie took a moment to frame the question, and the people around the fire waited patiently. “Qin Shi Huang will conquer the warring states, as you say. If I did not know the history, exactly, I could read it in Lincoln’s database. But that will happen in the next ten years or so, which is far less than the hundred years you say is a mystery to you. How is it you know this?”
Meng Shi understood. “Two reasons,” he said, and then framed his own thoughts. “First, I think by the grace of God, I always seem to know what does not belong in the time I am living, like gunpowder. Such things stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and I get the overwhelming urge to do something about it. Normally, I understand I am the only one who can do something about it.”
“Like, knowing us when we show up?” Boston said, putting it together in her own mind. “You always know us right away, because we don’t belong in this time period.”
Meng Shi agreed. “Like knowing you.” He smiled for Boston, and she returned the same. “At whatever point in my life you find me, I remember who you are and what you are attempting to do. I remember the time gates around this time zone; things I normally don’t know about, or at least have no reason to think about. I remember some of your past journey, and some of your future, which I am not at liberty to talk about, and I remember the twentieth and twenty-first centuries which is your home. Of course, after you leave, it becomes like real memory. I remember you being here, and whatever time I spent with you, but I believe the deep past and future memories mostly fade, unless there is some reason to remember.”
“Okay,” Katie said. “But that does not explain how you know about Qin Shi Huang. As I understand it, he does not take that name until after he finishes his conquests, ten years from now.”
Meng Shi sighed, like he did not really want to talk about it. “Well, first, when something odd, like gunpowder shows up, I generally get glimpses of the broader picture surrounding the issue. Maybe the best way I can explain it is I get like two competing visions of the immediate future. I see one that feels right, even if King Zheng would not have been my pick to win the battle of the states. Then, I see a vision with gunpowder, and eventually guns, and that feels terribly wrong. That is why I know I have to do something about the gunpowder, for example.”
“And the second reason?” Katie asked. “You said there were two reasons.”
Meng Shi frowned and stood. “Sometimes, when I near the end of the life I am living, I glimpse some of the future, both of the life I am currently living, when work is unfinished, and some inkling of the life to come.” He stepped away from the fire and toward his horse, and mumbled. “I feel I may be a woman next time. I will have to ask my wife about that.”
No one dared ask Meng Shi what he meant about the end of his life until two days later at supper. Lincoln said Meng Shi could not be over forty. “Thirty-eight or so. I read the years in the database and did the math.
“Forty is plenty old for this day and age,” Meng Shi countered. “But I know what you mean. Still, I am not immune from diseases or accidents.”
“Maybe you will die in battle,” Decker said.
Meng Shi appeared to think about it, but ended up shaking his head, no. “Not battle, but I sense violence.”
Lockhart added what had been on his mind. “You said even without gunpowder, your king will conquer the other kingdoms in this land. Some connection to all that fighting would be a reasonable guess.”
“Stop being morbid,” Alexis complained. “You are talking about the man’s death.”
“I am certain King Zheng will find a way to win,” Meng Shi said. “But I won’t be there to see it.”
“It is complicated. There is a servant of the masters in the capitol. He is introducing germ warfare. He is growing bacteria—some disease.”
“Any idea what?” Alexis the nurse asked.
“Plague of some kind, you can be sure. But what is worse, he has captured the ear of the king with talk about being alive two thousand years in the future. Now, you know, like me, he will die and be reborn in the future… This is complicated.”
“Who are the Masters?” Millie asked.
“Demons from Hell,” Meng Shi answered, but he grinned. “No. Mostly I refer to them as the enemy from the future. I assume some people in the far future don’t like the way things turned out and are determined to change history. Somehow, they know about my many lifetimes, and figured out a way to give a future life to various people scattered throughout history. These servants of the Masters then train and teach the future life, to give the skill necessary to accomplish certain tasks in the past life, as the two lives link in time and information gets shared between the two lifetimes.”
“Like what?” Millie asked.
“Like assassination, or developing some plague. Early gunpowder, guns, and weapons of mass destruction is something that the Masters are usually involved with. And it is all for the purpose of changing history, to make it turn out more the way they want.”
“So, there are people who have another life in history after all,” Katie said.
“And not all servants of the Masters. My own friends in the future, as I sometimes call them, have similarly given a second life, or even a third life to some people who have been a tremendous help at certain critical points in history. There is, however, a limit on how many times a person can be reborn in that way. I manage almost a hundred and fifty lifetimes, because there are no great gaps between lives. At least, I don’t think so. Also, when I was made, I had all the genetic material for a man and a woman, but all jumbled up in one person, me. The ancient god, Cronos, figured out how to make that work, so I could be born. Fortunately, my friends in the future that took over the work decided it would work better if I took turns, more or less, between male and female. I think being both makes me more of a complete person, like the first Adam before the woman and man became separated. As long as I stay more or less balanced between male and female, like the two sides of the same coin, I might be reborn forever. God, I hope not. But for most one-sided people, too many times in a row as the same sex, and a person becomes mentally unhinged, among other things.”
“That would not be good,” Boston said.
Meng Shi shook his head. “I think Rasputin was his seventh rebirth, and he was loony as a dodo.
The gunpowder factory needs to be shut down, and the cowboy-outlaws need to be stopped. Monday. Until then, Happy Reading.