Uh-oh, big oopsie! As I was getting ready to upload today’s chapter I realized that I got the structure all wrong last time. As in ‘the beginning of this chapter should have been the ending of the previous one’ wrong.
What’s nice about posting online, though, is that I can always go ahead and change things later. And I will do so, once we move ahead with the story. And most definitely when I upload the book to the big A store.
For now let’s not overly complicate things. Just consider yourself lucky that you were spared a cliff hanger last time–I know you hate those, Nat 😉
That said, today’s episode will have three scenes instead of two. Enjoy!
If you are all new to my story, please consider starting with Chapter 1 🙂
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
The next time Abbida woke up, some time must have passed. Lian lay slumped to the side, leaning against Abbida’s shoulder now, whereas Li Xiao had moved away from her and rested his head on his knees. Not without guilt, Abbida felt a twinge of disappointment.
Carefully, she plucked her arms from underneath the warm blanket and lifted Lian’s head off her shoulder. Cool air breezed past her, she yawned and stretched, and was about to crawl out from under the blanket when suddenly she felt… something… at her heels.
Her pulse raced, and her brain screamed at her: take a look! Now! But her instincts told her not to move. At all. Whatever it was, it might have been attracted by her body heat. If she stirred, it might feel threatened and… bite, sting… whatever!
“Lian,” she whispered. No reaction. Louder, she hissed, “Lian! Help me!”
In her half-sleep Lian grumbled, then Abbida’s words must have registered, and her eyes flew open. “What?”
“Don’t move!” Abbida hissed. “I think there’s something sitting at my feet.”
To her other side Li Xiao stirred. In the blink of an eye he understood the situation, and got to his feet in one smooth motion. “I’m taking a look. Hold still.”
He didn’t have to tell her that. Breathing as shallow as possible, Abbida had no intentions of moving a muscle. Lian huffed, but it sounded affirmative rather than annoyed. He lifted the seam of their blanket to peek, and Abbida tried to see for herself, but her knees were in the way.
Li Xiao pursed his lips and softly drew his breath. “Shit.”
“What?” squeaked Abbida.
“Huang Lian, I’m going to need your blaster,” he demanded.
Li Xiao watched Huang Lian closely, adding, “It’s a snake.”
“What kind?” she asked coolly.
He shrugged. “I’m no expert. There’s a rhomboid zigzagging pattern along the length of its back.”
Abbida’s eyes became larger than they already were. “A sand viper? How?”
Li Xiao tilted his head. Interesting. What was a sand viper doing down here? “Maybe it got trapped like the rest of us.”
Huang Lian hesitated, and he could almost see her thoughts racing as she was weighing the odds.
“There really isn’t much to decide,” he said. “If it is a sand viper, it’s very venomous. Are you willing to take chances on that?”
Silently, he urged Huang Lian to come to the right conclusion.
“All right. Take it,” she said, thin-lipped. Li Xiao exhaled in relief. “But I can’t move to take the blaster out. You’ll have to get it yourself.”
With his free hand he lifted the blanket millimeter for millimeter and leaned in to have a better look. Abbida’s legs were still tugged under his jacket, and the sight sent a strange tingling sensation through him. Concentrate!
He snapped his mind back to the task at hand. In slow motion he reached in and clipped the blaster from Huang Lian’s leg holster. So far the snake hadn’t moved. It lay curled up in itself and appeared to be sleeping. As he took aim he could feel Abbida’s breath on his clenched jaw. Startled, he glanced up and realized how close she was. Her brown-green eyes widened, and he almost dropped the blaster because suddenly all he knew was his reflection in her dilated pupils and a feeling of vertigo: what if he lost himself in this conflict?
He cleared his throat. “Do you trust me?”
He didn’t even know why he asked that. Because, seriously, how could she– even in this situation? Especially in this situation.
A mix of emotions flickered over her features, of anxiety and determination. “Do it.”
He blinked to cast off the spell, even as Huang Lian cleared her throat.
“All right.” He locked his eyes on the snake. In a swift motion he released the safety lever and pulled the trigger. The sudden burst of heat must have seared Abbida’s skin for a friction of a moment, too short to cause any real damage, he hoped.
In a long hiss she breathed out. Li Xiao reached down and pulled the snake out from behind her feet and tossed it far behind. It smacked against the rock and tumbled to the ground, just barely missing the stream. There it lay in a tangled heap, its head thoroughly charred, the stench of burnt meat almost turning his empty stomach.
Adrenalin was coursing through his blood, and he was not going to fool himself–it wasn’t because of the snake. A long time ago he had learned the hard way, that if he was ever going to trust anybody, he needed to be honest with himself first and foremost. And there was no denying it–what rattled him was the look on Abbida’s face: she trusted him!
“How could you be so naive?” he accused her.
Abbida’s eyes widened in shock. “What do you–?”
“You don’t know anything about me! On the contrary–the tiny bit you do know should have worried you sick! I’m a sworn soldier, an officer of the homeland! It’s my duty to take you as prisoners. More so, I am Zhao Li Xiao, youngest son of the House of the Dragon, designated heir to the Haodang Long, future patriarch over all humanity. It’s my right to do so!”
He got on his feet. Still holding the gun.
Huang Lian never let him out of her sight, her face unreadable. Nobody said anything.
For a long moment he just stood there, jaws clenched, sweat pelting down his forehead. The rushing of his own blood filled his ears, mingled with the noise of the stream. The cave suddenly seemed darker, claustrophobic even. The walls seemed to be coming closer, the rough surface chafed his skin where he’d unwittingly pressed his back to a rock. His gaze locked onto Huang Lian’s, and he lifted the hand holding the gun. His mouth turned dry.
‘All humanity’ was hardly more than a bunch of people on the brink of extinction now. The last remnants of a lost civilization. A reality Li Xiao had known all his life. But if one took Abbida’s people into account, there was a whole different picture. The natives lived a comparatively short life of deprivation, but prior to this campaign they had been free to prosper at their own pace. In the decades and centuries to come, their descendants might repopulate the Earth. Build a new civilization, that hopefully avoided past mistakes.
Of course, not many people in the homeland took the natives into account for anything. And those who did mostly regarded them as primitives–good enough for being used as test objects. A shudder ran through him as he exhaled slowly, and secured the safety lever.
Turning the gun butt-first towards Huang Lian, he held it out. Huang Lian’s eyebrows went up. Without a sound, she snatched the blaster from his hands.
Abbida slumped back against the wall. Despite everything, she broke into a smile. He didn’t smile back.
Up until recently he had belonged to that same group of Han who never thought outside the box. Having grown up as the heir to the leading House, his days had been filled with school, training and exams. To him the history of other peoples had been nothing but more lessons to memorize. But, now that he was gaining first-hand experience things were changing. He was changing.
And he feared, she knew it.
Colonel Guo pulled up the collar of his coat to ward off the drizzle. It had been raining for hours, and still clouds darkened the sky, heavy as lead. How he hated these unpredictable changes in the weather! Not for the first time today he longed for the controlled, disciplined surroundings of his garrison back at the homeland. Instead, he found himself plodding through muddy, unpaved alleys towards his makeshift headquarters which he’d had his soldiers set up on the northern rim of the native village.
Made from recyclable frame work and nano-coated panels, the building was sophisticated and sturdy enough to keep out the rains and storms of this cursed planet. Alas, it wasn’t enough to keep out the station commander. Admiral Zhao Meng Hui had barged in the day before and put up camp without so much as an afterthought. Guo gritted his teeth. He’ll be damned if he was going to share a workspace with that man!
On entering the headquarters, he found the admiral engrossed in an opulent breakfast, with his personal cook hovering in the background, ready to jump at any of the admiral’s culinary desires. How was that appropriate for a war zone? Trying hard to keep his face neutral, Guo gave a proper salute and said, “You wished to see me, Admiral.”
Zhao barely looked up. With a sloppy wave of his hand he pointed at a chair at the opposite end of the table. Again, Guo didn’t let his annoyance show. Oh, he’d love to shoot a neat little hole right through Zhao’s bloated face! Instead, he sat, but didn’t touch his plate. As usual, he’d had breakfast with his staff in the officers’ mess before morning roll call. Jaws clenched, he waited to hear what this meeting was about. He had a job to do, for crying out loud!
Seeming oblivious to Guo’s increasing impatience, the admiral picked bite for bite from no less than ten different dishes, sipping tea now and then, while going over reports that his adjutant offered him on his service pad on the side.
“I will not sign this! It’s sloppy. Do it again. This, too. This one is okay. You need to do better! The style of my reports reflects on my esteem with the Haodang Long!”
“Yes, Sir.” The adjutant bowed. “Would that be all, Sir?”
“For now. Dismissed.”
“Yes, Sir.” The adjutant bowed again and rushed out without looking anyone in the eye.
Inwardly, Guo groaned. If ever someone thought to ask him for a perfect example of wrong choices in staffing topmost military ranks–he was sitting right across from one now. This opportunistic rat face knew as much about military procedures as the barber who neatly pruned his mustache every morning!
Of course, that wouldn’t be so bad, if Zhao had stuck to his trade of pen-pushing as usual. But no, out of the blue he had to play head of command, bungling the one operation he shouldn’t have. If he hadn’t shown up precisely when Guo had the village woman pinned down, she would have revealed to him the hiding spot of the black box from the wrecked Second Exodus ship. The first indication of the pioneers after almost a century!
But Zhao had blundered his victory.
Under the table, Colonel Guo balled his fists. He was not ready to give up yet. The box was out there somewhere, and he would find it. If his advisors’ assumptions proved to be correct, and the black box was intact after so many years, his boldest dreams could still come true: to clear a path to the stars again and finally shake off the tyranny of the Zhaos! After a century of humiliation the House of the White Tiger would lead again.
Without the White Tiger the Five Grand Families could never have raised enough money to build the colony in the first place. Not to mention follow-up costs for ships, the domes, life-support, terraforming, satellite surveillance. All that had to be designed, built and maintained, and a steady power supply had to be secured. They’d needed raw materials! The continued search and mining for extraterrestrial resources required astronomical amounts of money, in the true sense of the word. Without the technology of the House of the White Tiger Project New Homeland would have failed before it ever started.
Everyone owed today’s living standards to the House of the White Tiger. Which was exactly why they were the First House. They had worked for that status! Then along came the Zhaos. Called themselves House of the Dragon, as if there was still the blood of the old emperors running through their veins. Ludicrous! But thanks to their intrigues and political tactics the other Houses were swayed to the Zhaos’ side.
That–and military might.
Guo’s ancestors had made one unforgivable mistake: thinking it beneath themselves to wield weapons. By the time they realized the consequences, the Zhaos had filled the gap with their own people. The actual coup to overthrow the White Tiger was then a matter of mere hours.
The Family never recovered from the hit. Almost two centuries passed until cousin Tien Min stepped forward to replace her aging father as head of the Family. But, during the past ten years she led them from resignation back into the light. In her hands the House’s businesses flourished. It was the scientists and investors of the White Tiger who had led the Han to their prior greatness. And a White Tiger woman would lead them back from the dark ages into the future.
Thinking of cousin Tien Min filled him with warmth, and he relaxed his balled fists. She was the most beautiful and inspired woman he ever had the honor to meet. An untouchable goddess whose goals he would defend with his life. If he could present her with the rediscovery of dissident technology, she could multiply her influence on the Five Families in no time.
Already the White Tiger dominated the engineering sector, which the Haodang Long in his arrogance still considered subordinate. With the technology of the black box cousin Tien Min would bring the House back to full bloom by her own efforts and be spared this unbearable humiliation of marriage to the usurper’s kid brother, Zhao Li Xiao.
The Haodang Long stuck to the status quo like scale insects to a leaf. Back in the day his hostility towards advanced technologies had driven all the visionaries and scientific elite to leave the colony and take to the stars. If not for that, they might have realized much earlier and be able to stop the widespread deterioration of fertility in men and women alike. In the end, they had Zhao Shi Wei to blame for being forced to return to this cursed planet, desperately searching for a cure.
Tense, Guo watched the admiral pick his next bite. He’ll be damned if he let the fruits of this operation go to the Zhaos!
“What about that box, now?” the admiral said, startling Guo out of his thoughts. His eyes were still wandering appreciatively over the dishes. “Have you found it?”
“Without the statement of the indigene woman–who fled during the chaos your nephew caused–the search has become difficult,” he said through clenched teeth, adding a belated, “Sir.”
The admiral may have been an idiot, but this ill-concealed hostility he couldn’t miss. Zhao frowned. Piercing the air between them with his chop sticks he snapped, “Isn’t it your failure, Colonel, to let those people escape?”
For a while they stared at each other angrily across the table, and Guo fought down his urge to shoot Zhao here and now and take over. It was too early!
“Be that as it may,” the admiral said, grunting. “Send out every man you can spare. We’ve got one week before Professor Huang Quan arrives. By then, I want this box on my table! Understood–Colonel?”
Guo breathed in and out, then he said, “Yes. Sir.”
Zhao nodded patronizingly, “You may leave.”
Mustering all the self-restraint he was capable of, Guo stood and stomped out of the makeshift headquarters into the still drizzling rain.
“Damned bootlicker,” he heard Zhao inside, before his own personal guard stepped up and any following words got drowned out by the crunches of their boots on the loose gravel. On the way to his own makeshift command post Guo ran the admiral’s words again and again. If Zhao thought just once which House all these soldiers surrounding him came from, his arrogance would fly in the blink of an eye.
As it was, the admiral’s ignorance actually worked in Guo’s favor. Zhao didn’t even know what great treasure he let slip through his fingers. To him the black box was nothing but a trophy. A curiosity to exhibit in his private collection. A trinket to adorn himself with, so he could boost his social position within the Five Grand Families. What a vain moron.
Once cousin Tien Min held the black box in her hands the patriarchy of the Zhaos was history–and with it its shameful isolation policy. The Zhaos’ fear of the technical singularity had thrown back the evolution of the once prideful Han for centuries. Who knew, the star pioneers of the old days might have developed so much they might have cut ties to humanity entirely. They might not even look human by now. A thought that never failed to freak him out as much as excite him.
Guo balled his fists again. This bootlicker here is going to show you what humbleness means, he vowed to himself. He couldn’t wait to leave this godforsaken planet and to see the House of the Dragon finally go up in flames.
Not one day too soon.
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