All Under Heaven: A Pulp Wuxia Novel
Book I: The Enemy Within
By Jave Harron
Prologue: The River Unites Two
Kwan Sun ran his hand across his dark stubble covered chin as he examined the artifacts on the workbench before him. The stocky, hirsute village mechanic reached, without looking, for an object on his overcrowded shelves of tools and spare parts. He brushed some dirt off on his overalls, and reached for an object on the staff. He pulled out a magnifying glass and looked at the smallest of the objects. It was a hollow cylinder without a dent on it. Next to him, his tall, clean shaven, short haired, and lanky friend Li Bu nervously tapped his hands together. Bu's jacket and suit was covered with some dirt and dust.
"How much do you think they're worth?" Bu's eyes darted around.
"A fortune," Sun said sarcastically. "To a fool."
"What?!" Bu had practically jumped out of his pressed shirt. "There has to be something we can do with them!"
"You said you found these in the ruins southwest of town?" Kwan asked as he pulled out another tool, a measuring tape from his overalls. He began to measure the radius and length of the cylinder, calculating the rest of the dimensions in his head. "You know those were cleaned out years ago!"
"There was a new tunnel unearthed by a rock slide," Bu grinned. "I found it while on patrol down south. I covered it up so no one else could loot it. I can give you first dibs on it."
"We don't even know what these things do," Kwan complained. "Most of what came out of those ruins were just random trinkets. It could have been the dumping grounds of the ancients for all we know!"
"Ah, Kwan, I saw things that were far more interesting than just a few random trinkets," Bu added. "Those were to whet your appetite for the wonders within!"
"We should go tell Elder Yi, then," Sun replied. "He knows far more about these ancient artifacts than anyone else in this village."
"That crazy old coot's just going to want some of the loot," Bu added, trying to pull his friend along. "Come on! It's not to far from here, and if you bring a backpack, we can come back with a whole load of loot!"
"Still trying to get rich quick, Li?" came a feminine voice from the front of the workshop. Kwan turned to see his sister Lian Sun dressed in khaki village militia fatigues, holding a Rodchester 12 pump-action shotgun in her hands.
"Afraid so, Sis," Kwan turned his attention to his sibling, gesturing to the objects on the workbench. "Says he found a ruin full of trinkets like these."
"It's not just full of trinkets, Kwan," Bu grinned, trying to appeal to his friend's interests. "There's larger machines! Ones I'm sure you'd be amazed by! Think of how useful they'd be if you could study one. Or sell them to someone who could. This could help a lot of people!"
"Since I am authorized to act as representative of the village militia," Lian grinned. "I say we should at least check it out. Whatever's in there might be able to help us defend the village better."
Kwan grit his teeth. Now that his sister had interest, he'd never hear the end of it if he refused. She was in the militia following in their mother's footsteps, and had good reason for remaining there. Many of the men were intimidated by her.
"Shouldn't we at least tell someone where we're going?" Kwan protested. "Anything in the cave won't do anyone any good if we're all dead."
"What, worried about bandits?" Bu mocked. "They haven't been around this part of the country for years! There's nothing worth stealing out here!"
"No, I'm more concerned with cave-ins, gas pockets, and possibly handling items I have no idea about. What if one turns out to be made of some toxic material? Or otherwise dangerous to handle," Kwan replied.
"Then bring some of those work gloves of yours. Brother, think of it like a test of your inventiveness," Lian replied, buttering her sibling up. "Even if there's only an empty cave, wouldn't it at least be worth it to look for underground streams, minerals, or just survey an uncharted cave?"
Kwan knew his sister could easily change moods if refused. "Fine, Sis. I'll be looking at this ruin to see what's down there. I'll be proving both of you wrong, I wager."
"Yeah, how much?" Bu's eyes lit up as he wagered. "I'll be putting five yuan out."
"Forget I said it," Kwan replied. "I don't like wagering any money on fool's gold."
Lian, who has been thinking before, thought out loud. "Say, I know I'm probably just being paranoid, but everyone have a weapon?"
"Lian, please tell me you don't intend to use that thing in a cave," Kwan pointed at the shotgun. "If we hit any underground gas pockets and you use that, it'll go up faster than fireworks during the Spring Festival."
"So, brother, got any alternatives?" Lian asked. "I don't want to let you and Li explore without some method of defending yourselves."
"Defending us from what?" Bu asked. "Other than maybe a few spiders, there was nothing else in there."
"From whatever," Lian replied. "Would you rather be armed or unarmed if you find there's a pack of wolves living inside?"
"Armed, I guess," Bu shrugged. "But Kwan didn't like the idea of using guns in that cave. You have any alternatives?"
Kwan grinned and pulled an item from a drawer on his work bench. He pulled out an oddly shaped blade on the end of a stick. It was about a foot in length, not counting the blade. He stood up, stepped away from the other two, flicked a safety switch off, and then pushed a button. The handle extended to six feet in length, creating a full-sized polearm from the small weapon. Kwan pressed both ends of the weapon together, compressing it again. It was roughly two feet in length now.
"Don't you have any crossbows or anything?" Bu inquired. "And why bring a lance into a cave, anyway?"
"I do have a crossbow," Kwan added. "But I like having something I can use as both a tool and weapon. This, for instance, could extend to reach something we can't, and remains in compact form otherwise."
"Then what do I get?" Bu asked.
Kwan pointed to a folding entrenching shovel. "Use that," he said. "It's underground, so can't hurt to have one of those."
"Gee, thanks," Bu muttered as he held the shovel in hand. "I've got a Kruger pistol back at home, so I'll bring that along with me."
"As long as you don't shoot it underground," Kwan replied. "The shovel's going to be more useful for spelunking than that over-engineered, complicated pistol."
"As long as we can leave as soon as possible," Bu grinned. "We'll be rich and famous! Or at least famous."
"Calm down, and tell me where the place is," Lian added. "I'll go ahead and scout it out."
"Head down the south road for about a mile, turn west towards the Jade River, and follow it upstream until you reach the cliffs," Bu continued to describe the directions. Kwan jotted them down on a piece of paper.
"Give me a half an hour to get ready," Kwan replied to the others. "Bu, I'll meet you at the south side of the village. Lian, think you can take care of yourself out there?"
"Brother, I'm not a militia scout for no reason," Lian rolled her eyes. "Though I will be exchanging this shotgun for something more appropriate."
"Let me guess," Kwan tried to recall his sister's preferences. "Bolt action Gewehr 86 with bayonet and scope."
"Yup!" Lian piped in. "I'll be watching the outside of the cave while you two go in, so I'll have the eyes of a hawk!"
"Letting us do all the hard work?" Bu complained.
"Oh, think of it as providing the security to allow you to make your fortune," Lian replied. "Just don't forget those who made it possible."
"Li, Sis, don't get ahead of yourselves," Kwan replied. "Aside from Bu here, we have no proof there's anything more than a few trinkets there. Let's just get there, first."
The two nodded, and went their separate ways. Lian Sun went to get her rifle and scout the area, while Li Bu waited at the southern entrance to town. Now left alone, Kwan assembled the items he needed. He took some miner's helmets, gas-masks, and other supplies, and threw them into a backpack. He put a strap over his trusty collapsible guan-dao, and slung it over his shoulder. Quickly, Kwan composed a note based on the directions Bu had given him.
Kwan left the workshop, and noted it was early afternoon. There would hopefully be enough time to do perform this silly errand and return before nightfall. The rest of the village was its normal, tranquil self. The houses were half modern angular metal designs and half traditional pointed roofs, with various hybrids between the two. The rhythmic beating of the mechanical pump he had helped design and turning of the windmill he had set up to power it were the two loudest sounds. In the distance, there were some bird and animal calls. The rest of the villagers were likely in their homes, in their fields, or heading to nearby villages to trade. He walked towards a traditional-looking dwelling on the northern side of town. He looked around, and slid the note under the door. In case anything should happen to them, it was at least proper to allow someone else to know where he was.
Halfway across the country of Khitai sat a man in a seedy bar. Located in the port city of Haixia, the bar sat near the dead center of a patchwork of concessions held by crime bosses, warlords, and foreign powers. Flowing through the city was the Jade River, which connected the inside with the outside of the country. The city itself had bizarre architecture styles. The corpse of what was once a vibrant cultural center, it now had a skyline dominated by foreign and modern architecture styles. Above the Avalonian section of the city were elevated brick structures with all manner of pipes and smokestacks protruding from them. The former Wayland section (now run by the Avalonians) was dominated by sleek, streamlined skyscrapers. The Union section had squat, angular brick buildings all connected to featureless metal domes. A few Vignolan structures, with their columns and arches, were near the docks. The Yamato consulate sat distant from the rest of the powers, resembling a metal pagoda with strange lights glowing around it. Some structures had the traditional Khitanese pointed roof, but they were lost amongst the mess. The sky was full of zeppelins, gyrocopters, and airplanes of all designs, many heading for rooftop airports. Ships from Avalonian steamships to the atomic-powered Union ships to traditional junks and sampan vessels crewed by pirates and smugglers docked there. In the streets, masses of people dodged bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, trolley cars, and automobiles. It was an easy city to get lost in, intentionally or not.
Haixia was much so much a city as much a cesspool. Separated into a confusing mess of concessions to foreign powers and gang territories, there was plenty of place for shadier characters from around the world to hide. Mercenaries, criminals, and unfortunate refugees all resigned in the city. One of the more frequented scum-holes was a bar known as Yinfu.
Inside, a brown haired young Western man sat in the dim light reading a book marked "The Thirty Three Arts of War" by Zhu Bin. He was dressed in a brown leather jacket and pants, and had a pair of Mustang 19 automatic pistols on his belt. Roger Stevens looked up to observe the bar around him. A number of Khitai natives sat around, talking in a dialect he had not heard before. Some smoked opium, while others gambled, and a few went into the back with the girls. A few did more than one at once.
A number of foreigners filled the bar. Several Red Union Party members enjoyed the benefits of corrupt business as they drank opiate-laced vodka and forcibly dragged serving girls into the backrooms. A Vignolan Inquisitor sat in the corner, forcing the head of a serving girl under his black robe and not caring about his vow of chastity. At the bar, several well groomed Avalonian nobles gathered around a radio as they chugged down glasses of local liquor.
Roger knew that this horrid place was where his contact was supposed to meet. He would have preferred the dilapidated library where he spent most of his free time, but the client had specified this bar. Since Wayland had surrendered unconditionally, working as a mercenary abroad was the safest sort of employment for the former Rocket Ranger. A few of his old Ranger buddies had joined him, and even a few Khitanese and lower-class Avalonians joined his freelance rocket corps. Thanks to an Altendorfian scientist, he did have an appropriate base of operations. The mercenary work wasn't glamorous, but it put food on the table and gas in the tank. Still, he thought it was much better than what happened to the rest of his spoiled rotten family: Becoming collaborators and honorary nobles in the new regime. He'd rather work in the most dangerous factory or perform mercenary work than follow what they and their traitorous clique of Old Moneyed friends had done.
Long ago, he had been bitter and vengeful about it. That changed soon after he and his comrades had started operations in Khitai. They met another soul exiled, an Altendorfian scientist, from his Avalonian occupied homeland, and started working together. One benefit that Roger did find was that he had become more focused since he started reading about the local culture. At first, he only did so for information, as he had to know his potential enemies and clients. Now, he had more than a casual interest in it.
As much as he tried to ignore them, the suit-clad Avalonian nobles were raising their glasses and mugs high. Roger focused in on the radio to determine why. A female Avalonian voice went over some recent news. "In Union City today, demolition of treasonous Memorial Park statues commenced to the cheer of Waylanders of good breeding and virtue. The lower class ruffians and mongrels, however, proceeded to instigate a riot. Occupation forces were able to inflict significant casualties on the anarchists, and proudly report not a single Avalonian or honorary Avalonian was injured-"
Just then, one of the nobles turned to look back at him. Roger quickly looked back at his book, and the noble returned to drinking. If the noble was sober enough to recognize the patches on his jacket, some unpleasantness would ensure. They were probably out slumming and bar crawling, seeing how the less fortunate were forced to live, and laughing about it. Those born into wealth revolted Roger. Even the worst of the politicians in Wayland would pretend they had to climb the social ladder to have even a hope of getting elected.
"Long live Queen Elizatoria!" one of the nobles shouted.
"Glad we took back those uppity rogue colonies," another chimed in.
Roger grit his teeth and reached for one of his pistols, but soon pulled his own hand back. He would not want to instigate something. He was not on their level. He had followed the teachings of the Wanderer and Great Sage. The best way to handle the threat of battle was not to fight. He went back to reading his book and waiting for the contact to meet up with him.
Suddenly, someone smashed through the front door of the smoke filled room. Roger quickly turned his gaze toward the front door. An older Altendorfian man with disheveled hair and beard forced open the front door. He wore a lab coat and had goggles above his head. Quickly recognizing Herr Doktor Edmund Berman, Roger ran towards the scientist. He had a bloody wound on his shoulder, and held a Blitz Broomhandle S96 machine pistol in his hand.
"Der drecksack!" he swore in his native tongue. "That vile arschloch!"
"Herr Doktor, calm down," Roger held the scientist's shoulder. "Mind me asking how you got shot?"
"Do not bother!" the scientist yanked his hand, and pulled him out the door. "That drecksack played us for fools! All of us!"
"Who played us for fools, Dok?" Roger inquired. He tried to remember the teachings of the man the Khaitanese called the Great Sage. Calm rationality was the correct approach. "Tell me without blowing your top, and I will try to help you."
"Your contact!" the scientist pointed up at the sky. "Whatever his name was, der schwanzlutscher, he stole her!"
"He stole who?" Roger looked up at he sky. His eyes went towards a skyscraper that several zeppelins had been moored to. A familiar one was moving away fast. It had an olive green color, and had a large metal gondola underneath. Four propellers on massive engines provided control to the ship of the skies. The name Valkyrie was emblazoned on the side.
"Blast it!" the rocket-pack mercenary cursed. What had just happened was now apparent.
Their contact, the local warlord Yin Lu, had drawn them away from their airship while most of the other mercenaries had been given shore leave. Then, he and his goons had hijacked it.
"I have already contacted zhe others, und we have everyone vaiting to move out in a rented truck," the scientist muttered. "Zhere are still a few rocket packs we have as spares."
Doktor Berman ran towards a covered truck holding several of the mercenaries waited. The street was busy and teeming with people, but Roger and the Doktor managed to make it to the truck as it pulled away. Roger's men were still in a state of surprise. Most of their gear was still on the Valkyrie. A pair of spare rocket packs and flight gear sat in the center of the floor.
"Ey, boss, can't we just fly up and take it over?" Hughes, a low-class Avalonian medic, asked.
"We don't have enough rocket packs," he pointed at the two on the ground. "But I have a plan. Remain calm, and we'll all get through this. Yin Lu might have stolen our ride, but you know the old girl needs fuel, and her crew need food and water. He has to stop for supplies sometime."
He smashed his fists together. "And that is when we strike."
The mercenaries all nodded in agreement with their leader. "Now, Dok, mind telling me who shot you? Was it one of Lu's goons?"
The scientist looked embarrassed. "Nein," he replied. "It was me. Accidentally, of course! I was irate, so I grabbed my pistol in the improper way, und then, bang!"
"Well, everyone makes mistakes," Roger replied. "Next time, just try to remain calm and in control when holding a gun. The last thing I need is for you to plug yourself in the head. Now, Hughes, mind patching him up?"
The former low class Avalonian medic, Bernard Hughes, pulled out a medical set. He began to treat the scientist as the truck continued along the road. Roger hung from the rear of the truck, and looked up at the sky. The sleek skyscrapers and smokestacks of the city made finding the airship hard, but he eventually found it. The zeppelin was heading due west, directly along the Jade River. Looking out the window, Roger hoped that the craft had not been fully refueled when Yin Lu's goons jumped it. He swore to himself that sooner or later, he would retake the zeppelin.
A gray-maned elder man in a traditional robe and sandals picked up the letter from under his door. He read it. He began cursing to himself in a dialect unheard for years, and walked towards the back wall of his small dwelling. There was a bookshelf of traditional scrolls and manuscripts and Western books. Next to it was a small dresser where he kept his few outfits. Quickly slipping into more modern attire, he put on a trench coat, fedora hat, and boots. He picked up a belt holding a pair of Broomhandle pistols, and loaded both. Elder Yi knew that some things were better left buried. Hopefully, Kwan Sun and his companions would not realize this the hard way.