Avalon 6.12 The Road Ahead, part 4 of 5

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.”

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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.”

“Puts.”

“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.

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.

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