Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 3 of 5

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.

Meng Wu only saw Meng Shi because they were related, but he said plainly that Meng Shi had to have something to do with the disaster.

“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.”

“Your question?”

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.”

“Why do you feel that way?” Alexis asked for his opinion, and people sat up to pay close attention.

“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.

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MONDAY

The gunpowder factory needs to be shut down, and the cowboy-outlaws need to be stopped.  Monday.  Until then, Happy Reading.

*

Guardian Angel-2 Elsewhere, part 1 of 3

Ethan shot his hands up into the air before he nodded toward the woman at his feet.  The man on horseback relaxed and waved his gun casually in the woman’s direction.  Ethan bent down slowly, and lifted Jill’s head from the grass.  “Miss Lucas.  Jill.”  He spoke softly, and while he held her head up with one hand, he set down his briefcase to put his other hand on her cheek in a soft caress.  Jill fluttered her eyelids before she opened them.  She saw him and smiled before she screamed.

The horse bucked. The man on horseback had to turn the animal to keep from trampling the couple even as he grabbed tight with his knees to keep his seat.

“What are you doing here?”  Jill clenched her teeth in an attempt to whisper.

“I don’t even know where here is!”  Ethan shouted before he also whispered.  “We have company.”  He shook his head in the big man’s direction as he helped Jill to her feet.  He noticed she slipped the watch-thing into her lab coat pocket.

aa-lars1The man quickly settled his horse like an expert rider and kept his gun at the ready the whole time.  He said something in a bouncy language and then added, “You are Anglish?”

“Yes,” Ethan said.  He raised his hands again the moment he was upright.  He felt the nervous perspiration that covered his hands, and the cool air chilled the sweat on his forehead.  It made him feel like he had a fever.  Oddly enough, his tongue felt completely dry.

“How did you come to cross my farm?”  The man shut one eye to scrutinize them more closely.

“Accidental,” Jill said as she stepped to the front.  “My name is Jill Lucas, and this is my husband, Ethan.”

“Husband?”  Ethan blurted the word.

“Husband?”  The man on horseback’s question came a second later, even as Jill stepped back and slipped her arms around Ethan.  Ethan had to lower his hands, but otherwise he thought this was a wonderful idea.  She felt as warm, comfortable and exciting as he had imagined.

“So you are married?”  It seemed the man wanted to be sure he understood the language properly.

“Just married.”  Jill emphasized the “just” and gave Ethan a kiss on the cheek.

“Only a week,” Ethan added.  He was unable to contain his smile until Jill pinched him in the back to tell him to be quiet.

“You came out from New Amsterdam on the train?”  The man on horseback looked thoughtful.

Jill nodded, so Ethan nodded.  “But we don’t know your name,” Jill said, sweetly.

The man thought for a minute before he holstered his gun.  “Lars Hjorth.  It is too late to walk back to Hill Town tonight.  Come.”  He turned his horse around, and they were obliged to follow, having nowhere else to go.  Besides, Ethan was not about to argue with a man who carried a six-shooter.

Jill let go of Ethan the minute Lars’ back was turned, but Ethan picked up his briefcase and took her hand, and since they were pretending to be newlyweds, she could hardly deny him.   He smiled as he looked around and thought that this was his first real chance to examine this God-only-knew-where place.

aa-ethan-2He was surprised at what he saw.  The oaks and maples with the occasional birch and pine looked remarkably like the trees back home.  He saw a robin in flight, a squirrel that might have lived in the tree outside his own house, and the bushes were just bushes and the grass was just not suburban mowed.   When they walked downhill, he saw a field of stubble in the distance that he guessed was freshly harvested corn—plain, ordinary corn, and he felt the urge to risk a whisper.

“Hill Town?”

“Hush.”  Jill responded rather firmly, squeezed his hand, and Ethan hushed and thought that for all the familiarity in the setting, he would never walk back home at the rear end of a horse.  He turned up his nose and felt very confused about what was going on.

“Besides,” Lars spoke up loudly over the tromp of his horse and the swish of their walk through the tall grass.  “You haven’t paid the toll.”

“Toll?”  Ethan spoke before he could stop himself and Jill squeezed his hand extra hard.

Lars turned his head to eye the couple and closed that one eye again to look close.  “Half price for newlyweds.  Two gold crowns would do, though I should charge double for Anglish.”  He snickered and said no more.

In a short while, Ethan saw a simple log cabin with a brick chimney where smoke promised a snug fire against the chill in the air.  They had to wait at the door while Lars tied off his horse by the big barn that stood off to the side of the house.  It stood, separated from the house by a tremendous vegetable garden protected by a wire mesh, designed to keep out the free range chickens that clucked and ran around the rest of what passed for a front yard.  A few pigs wallowed in a nearby pen, and a bull in a fenced in area promised cattle somewhere.

aa-lars-3aEthan thought about the cows and decided that Lars looked like a cowboy.  The big man came complete with cowboy hat, boots, chaps, a lasso tied to the saddle and a six-shooter at his side.  Maybe Ethan felt confused about where he was, but he could not deny the reality of either the place or the big man who stepped up to the door and slapped him on the back hard enough to make him wince and rub his shoulder.

“I see you have luggage.”  Lars pointed to the briefcase clutched in Ethan’s hand.

“My work,” Ethan responded and he noticed that Jill barely kept her foot from kicking him in the shins.  Obviously, she wanted him to shut-up.  He looked at her closely and wondered what she knew that he did not know.  Sure, she was Grimly’s assistant, but as far as he knew, this was her first trip to God-only-knew-where too.

“Angelica!”  Lars hollered from the doorway and then turned to the couple when they came into a living room with a cathedral ceiling that was lit up by a great fire and several oil lamps.  A kitchen, and a long table for eight sat at the far end of the room, and a hallway in the middle of the back wall led to some back bedrooms.  A staircase on the back wall led up to a loft that overlooked the high-ceilinged room and was open, but for a railing.  The loft looked full of junk, as far as Ethan could see around the great bearskin rug that hung over the railing.  “My wife was Anglish once,” Lars explained, regaining Ethan’s attention.  “Angelica!”

Ethan heard a door click shut in the back of the house and the shuffling of slippers on a plain wood floor in the hallway before a round, older woman came into the room.  She tried to push back a long strand of hair that had escaped the bun on her head.  She said something in that singsong language, and Lars responded in kind while he hung his hat and chaps on hooks by the door.  He looked once at the couple and squinted with that eye before he took himself and his gun down the hall.

“You are Anglish?”  The woman looked directly at Ethan.  “And what business has brought you into New Sweden?  My husband said you came out from New Amsterdam.”  She had a welcoming smile, but she was clearly not satisfied with what she had heard thus far concerning their sudden appearance.

aa-jill-9Jill stared at Ethan for a second.  “My wife had better explain,” he said.  He set down his briefcase and stepped over to the big fireplace to warm his hands while Jill smiled.

“We are newlyweds, but we found the city too stifling.”  She sounded so reasonable as she spoke, Ethan wondered how anyone could question her.  “My husband and I wanted to spend some time in the country, just the two of us, and the train ride to Hill Town was fun.”  She stepped over to Ethan and curled up in his arms.  Ethan was so pleased with this charade; he could not help acting like a lovesick puppy.  He kissed her, smack on the lips, and she was obliged to kiss him back.

Guardian Angel-1 The Company, part 3 of 3

“You’re the accountant?”  The security guard got up from his desk, opened the big research and development steel doors, and frowned.  Ethan had to fight to keep a frown from forming on his own face.

“Ethan Hill.”  He stuck out his right hand to shake and shifted his briefcase to his other hand.  The briefcase held his all-important supplies: a couple of blank notebooks and pens, and his laptop.  “Marketing.  Not accounting.”  The guard who blocked the doorway to the hall shrugged as if it made little difference in his book, but after he examined Ethan’s identification, he opened the door wide enough for Ethan to squeeze through.

“The powers that be want to be prepared with information for the select committees.  Reelection time, you know.  But it is with the understanding that nothing will go public without say-so.  All kept hush-hush.”  Ethan tried to keep his smile while he babbled, but his guide seemed too dour ab-grimley-lab-1for hope.  The guard opened a door down the hall and Ethan got ushered rudely into a room that had the look of a high school science classroom, with a big lab table in the middle surrounded by stools, and some charts on the walls.  Whiteboard covered large portions of the walls.  The door closed loudly behind him, but Ethan looked up to see an older man and the woman he had been dreaming about for the last two days.  The old man returned Ethan’s smile, which still covered his face in the vain attempt to penetrate the grumpy face of the security guard.

“Come in.  Come in.”  The old man came close and took Ethan by the hand.

Ethan felt the warmth of the old man’s reception even as he noticed the frigid stare from the young beauty.

“Doctor Grimly?”  Ethan knew who it was.

“Yes, yes.”  The doctor brought Ethan to the side of the lab table that looked covered with a mess of electronic parts.  Ethan could not even guess what most of those parts were good for.

“Ethan Hill.”  He gave his full name and Doctor Grimly looked up and raised an eyebrow, but Ethan hardly noticed.  He kept looking at the young woman in the hope that she might add her name to the mix.  She declined.

“Lovely to have you here.”  The doctor said, as he went back to concentrate on his work.  He scribbled in the margins of a notebook and fiddled with a wristband of some kind that looked something like an old wristwatch with an enormous dial.

aa-grimley-1Ethan stood quietly and watched, his eyes fastened on the beauty, his mind as blank as a new sheet of paper.  Suddenly, he did not know how to get things started.

Jill got up from her stool at the table and brought something to the doctor.  She set the piece down beside Doctor Grimly’s watch-thing rather firmly, frowned at Ethan and returned to her stool where she appeared to be working on a similar device.  The doctor stopped, looked at the piece and then looked up as if two and two finally made four in his mind.

“So, who are you exactly, and why are you here?”

“Ethan Hill.”  Ethan tried again.  “Didn’t you get the memo?”

“Memo?  No.  I never bother with that sort of thing.  Miss Lucas intercepts them anyway to keep me at my work.”  He waved generally in the direction of his assistant.  “She is a slave driver, that one.  Brilliant.  But a slave driver.”

“Mister Hill.”  Jill started to speak.  Ethan thought her voice sounded as beautiful and enchanting as her gray-blue eyes, and he hated to interrupt, but he did.

“Ethan.  Please.  I am not here to interfere with your work.  I just want to know what you are doing to see if any of it, with your permission, might be worth squeezing a few extra dollars out of the budget committee.  All of the departments are cooperating, only I am sorry to say, you’ve got me.”  He shrugged, sheepishly.  It was his cover.  “I will try not to take up more of your time than necessary, though I’m afraid you will have to explain things slowly and in plain English, if you don’t mind.”

“Mister Hill.”  Jill tried again, and once again, Ethan interrupted.

aa-jill-c1“Ethan, please.”

Jill took a deep breath.  “Ethan.  What I am trying to say is at present there is nothing I can tell you.  It is just research for now, not good for anything in this world.”

“Perhaps, Miss Lucas, but I know you are not just driving down roads at random.  I am sure you have some final destination in mind.”

“No end yet in sight.”  Jill shrugged and smiled in a friendly manner.  She assumed that should end the conversation, but Doctor Grimly, having carefully added that last piece to his watch, took the jeweler’s lens from his eye, stood, and grinned broadly.

“Not exactly true.  It worked well enough on the rabbits.  Bilbo Baggins.  There and back again.  Eh?  I believe we are ready.”  He held out the watch, and Miss Lucas gave Doctor Grimly a look intended to wither the man’s mouth.

“Rabbits?’  Ethan asked.  “Ready?”  He jumped on the word.

“Yes,” The Doctor said, as he forced the watch on Jill.  “It should confine to body plus six inches or so to account for clothes.  Maybe further, I am not exactly sure, but not less for sure.  Can’t send you out naked, my dear.”

“Mister Hill.  I’m sorry.  Ethan, if you don’t mind you can see we are at a critical point.”  Jill took the watch but at the same time, she took Ethan’s arm to escort him to the door.  Ethan gripped tight to his briefcase.  “Now is not a good time for interviews.  If you would not mind waiting outside, or better yet, perhaps tomorrow.  You come back tomorrow and I will be glad to sit down with you and explain everything.”

aa-lars1“Wizard of Oz?  Go away and come back tomorrow?”  Ethan got more curious than ever.  He sensed something important was about to happen, and he craned his neck around his escort, while she held fast to his elbow and pushed him toward the door.  Doctor Grimly slipped around the table to a computer console.

“Now, you will see something, Mister Ethan.”

Ethan got out the word, “Hill,” and Jill shouted over him, “No!”  The brilliant flash of light came which Ethan knew would leave him seeing spots.  He felt Jill let go of his arm, even as he raised a hand to rub his eyes.  When he could see again, he shouted.  He found himself standing in that open field with grass beneath his feet.  Jill had fainted, and a very large blond man on horseback rode up and pointed a gun at him.

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Guardian Angel chapter 2-Elsewhere, M, T & W of next week, 8AM post.  Don’t miss it.