When they reached Anyi, Meng Shi checked with his nephew Meng Yi, the one he left in charge of the city. No more wagons or barrels of magic powder went up the road on the way to the army in Handan. That was good, so Meng Shi spent a day interviewing Yi, and others, concerning the condition of the city. He found things calm and the people far more settled and at peace with Qin rule than he expected. He told the others that his nephew was a natural. They headed out for Xianyang, the capitol of the Qin state. That would be a five or six-day journey.
On one of those nights, they sat around an inn within Qin territory, and the subject of the servant of the Masters and his attempt to develop a plague came up.
“But here is the thing. This scientist of the Masters has talked about being alive in the far future. He has the king thinking about immortality, but in the way the gods are immortal, and I have not heard any suggestion that perhaps that is not the case. The king is superstitious, you know. He has decided that there must be some kind of magic formula. He is going to be the spark that sets off two thousand years of Chinese alchemy in the search for immortality. True, there are some good things discovered in that time; but mostly, what a waste of human skill and ingenuity, and too many good people will die, testing the potions, and in other related ways.”
“But that isn’t what made the people turn against him, is it?” Millie asked. She had been wondering about that, and did not get a satisfactory answer from Evan, who admitted he knew little about Chinese history, or from Katie, or Lincoln.
Meng Shi admitted. “I can only read the writing on the wall, so to speak. I have no definitive answer, either; but I would say he will centralize everything, like some two-bit fascist, socialist dictator. He will massively raise taxes, which will crash the economy. He will redistribute the wealth, mostly to his own pocket, and to his friends, which are those who suck up to him. He will begin massive government work projects, digging canals, making roads, building the Great Wall of China. More than a million people will die from overwork and malnutrition. The people will be miserable, and hate him.”
“What about the nobility?” Katie asked.
“That much is certain,” Meng Shi said. “He is convinced the hereditary nobility is what caused the Zhou Dynasty to fall. He plans to replace the nobles with an elite class of bureaucrats. You know how graft and bribery work. Worse, at least the nobles had a vested interest in what happened to their land, and the workers on their land. You can’t get rice from a dead man. National bureaucrats can make the most inhumane, insane rules and could care less what happens to local people, as long as the people keep the rules. That is all that matters to bureaucrats.”
Alexis complained. “Bureaucrats are just people, like any others. They are good people, mostly.”
Several people scoffed, and Lockhart quipped, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Meng Shi said, “You should find the time gate down around Shu, in Qin territory. Let me say, if you go through the city and stop in the market, I hope you don’t have to sneeze.”
“Why?” Decker asked.
Meng Shi grinned. “About five years ago, a man in the market sneezed in front of a petty bureaucrat. The bureaucrat complained that the man made the pomegranates wet. He went home and wrote a rule that said you were not allowed to sneeze within twenty-feet of a market stall. He had the man arrested. He wanted the death penalty, and the judge said his hands were tied, because it was the rule. I had to intervene. I took them all to the market, got a feather, and tickled the bureaucrat’s nose until he sneezed. Then I told the judge to pass the sentence. Both cases were dropped, but the law is still on the books, so to speak. So, if you go to the market in Shu, try not to sneeze.”
When they arrived in Xianyang, they quickly found the factory and warehouse where they were making the magic powder. Meng Shi had the authority, being of the king’s court, to commandeer the house next door. Alexis, Lincoln, Millie, and Evan all protested, but Meng Shi already had his purse out. He later mentioned that he gave the homeowner enough money to buy a new house, if that became necessary.
Elder Stow asked if he should get out his sonic device, but the day was on. The sun got ready to set, and the factory appeared empty. Meng Shi said he did not necessarily want to kill the workers, but they had to be sure the cowboys were there. Lockhart added that this might be their one chance to capture the cowboys and put them out of business, permanently. So, they waited. They cooked what food they found, and had with them, and settled in for the night, sleeping on the floor, and watching out the windows.
When the dawn arrived, they watched the workers file into the buildings. Decker imagined they were making a new batch of gunpowder for the wars ahead. Katie voiced her reservations.
“I understand we have to catch the cowboys, but if we set off the black powder now, won’t we be killing mostly innocent workers?”
“I have asked Tien, my son, to protect the innocent,” Meng Shi responded. “I have also asked him to search the minds of the people to see where the knowledge of making the gunpowder may have spread among the people.”
“Will he have to kill those people, too?” Katie asked.
“No, he can clean the memory, but you must understand.” Meng Shi stepped over to the back door and called. “Alexis, Sukki, and Lincoln,” he called, and they came in from the cooking fire in the back yard, to listen, so they all would hear and have no excuse. “We won’t always have the luxury of the gods to clean up the mess. In situations like this, very often the innocent and guilty will die together. It can’t be helped. To delete the work of the masters, or whatever cowboys happen to wander through the field, sometimes the innocent will suffer. Better you make peace with that thought now. Alexis, better you get your tears and complaints out now and over with. Going forward, I may need all of you to do what must be done, regardless of who suffers.”
“Understood,” Decker said.
“Understood,” Lockhart agreed.
No one else said anything, except Boston, who raised her voice. “We got company.”
People rushed to the widows. They saw the two cowboys and a third man ride into an alleyway as soldiers began to fill the street. The third man wore fancy silks, and Meng Shi named him.
“Li Si. He is the king’s counselor. He should not die. For the rest of them, you need to defend the house.”
Decker shot out the window. The soldier that appeared to be in charge and getting the little army ready to charge the house, collapsed.
“The homeowner turned us in,” Lockhart surmised.
“Probably figured to double his money,” Katie agreed. Katie got her rifle, and Lockhart, his shotgun, and they took up the position to the right side of the door, opposite Decker. Evan got Katie’s handgun and went to the door, beside Lincoln. Li Si stood up in the alleyway and yelled at the soldiers. One of the cowboys pulled him back down behind a box.
“Get ready,” Decker yelled, as Sukki stepped up beside him, holding Boston’s handgun. Decker switched his rifle to automatic fire. Katie had already done that.
The soldiers across the street appeared to take a deep breath, and prepared to attack, when Boston, holding Alexis’ hand and dragging her behind, stepped between Evan and Lincoln, and out the front door. She had her wand out, and used it like a flame thrower. She laid down a line of fire in front of the soldiers, and burned many, including some in the face. The soldiers scattered. Some ran for their lives, but many backed up into the houses across the way.
Several arrows came from the archers on the roof across the street. They struck the front of the house, but did not come near Boston. One of the cowboys, however, fired his Winchester. Boston took a bullet in her shoulder and staggered back into the house, as Alexis pulled her to safety.
“Damn,” Boston griped as Alexis got to work. She had Elder Stow’s device, which she ran over the wound. The bullet pulled out and clattered on the floor. Alexis laid hands on the wound, and a golden glow surrounded her hands and Boston’s shoulder. Right away, the bleeding stopped and the wound began to close up.
“Get ready.” Katie yelled it this time. Sukki went back to stand behind Decker, after checking on Boston. Lockhart traded places with Evan. He made Evan back-up Katie with his pistol, while he held the shotgun by the door, ready for the charge.
“That feels better,” Boston said to Alexis. She grabbed Alexis with her good hand and tried to catch Alexis’ eyes. “You have to fire the explosive arrows. You need to get the guys on the roof.”
“Shut-up,” Alexis told her. “You need to relax to heal.”
“What are they waiting for?” Evan asked.
Evan got the question out before he threw his hands to his ears. Everyone covered their ears, and opened their mouths, Katie, Alexis, and Lockhart making a sound of surprise and pain at the same time. Meng Shi stood by the window at the side of the house and held the sonic device. He stuck it out the window, but turned it up all the way.
For a few seconds, only the sonic scream could be heard, before it got overshadowed with the sound of a massive explosion. The warehouse blew up and became splinters, while the roof broke apart high in the sky. Shortly, the workhouse blew up. The buildings, what remained of them, burned in a great conflagration—an inferno that destroyed everything. A couple of workers staggered out from the fire, but they were on fire, themselves, and quickly collapsed.
Meng Shi turned off the sonic device and handed it back to Elder Stow. He had a tear in his eye, and Elder Stow accepted the device without a word.
As soon as the warehouse roof fell to the ground, to be consumed by the fire, and the screaming sonic device got turned off, the soldiers across the street vented their anger and fear with screams of hate. They charged the house. Guns blazed. Soldiers fell in the street by ones and in groups. Two made it to the front door, only to be blown back by Lockhart’s shotgun.
The cowboys, Juan Reynard and Tom Porter used their Winchester repeaters sparingly. They tried to keep back the travelers in the windows and door. Finally, Reynard stood to get a clear shot, and either Katie or Decker got him with three bullets, dead center. Reynard collapsed, and the outlaw, Porter, stood, red anger in his eyes, and emptied his Winchester. He pulled his six-shooter, but took three bullets of his own, spun, and fell face down in the street.