The working title for the novel is The Datong Incident, which I’m describing as an anti-imperialist steampunk-spy-romance novel. Any feedback is of course welcome.
Sunday, May 2, 1902
The sad, dull silence of a depopulated country enveloped the riders as their horses plodded through the mud. The road wound through stands of cedars and willows, and the wind blew leaves and branches into the faces of the riders, who were so intent on finally seeing Peking, the Celestial City, that they did not notice. The fine rain, lightly falling from the grey sky, was borne on northern winds so dry that the drops barely wet the riders’ cloaks. They had been riding for hours and were beyond casual speech.
The lead rider, a British cavalry officer, suddenly stood in his stirrups and cried, “Peking! There!” He pointed at a distant mass obscured by mist, a city wall of unthinkable size.
The riders spurred their horses forward, but as they drew closer to the wall and its details revealed themselves they slowed their horses again until they were walking almost hesitantly. The wall, gloomy in the grey morning’s half-light, stretched endlessly in each direction. Seen closely, it was a dead black structure of frightening scale, higher than what any of them had conceived of as possible.
It began to snow, and the wind picked up, blowing flakes and dirt and dust in random gusts.
The riders stopped in front of the shattered gates. Despite the cold and the snow, none made an effort to ride into the city. The empty solitude of the miles leading to Peking had been bad and preyed on their nerves, but this was worse. The ground at the base of the walls, ravaged by days of shelling and aerial bombing, was an uneven carpet of churned earth and bodies and still-smouldering machines, all covered with the eternal black ash that was what most of Peking had been reduced to. Atop every remaining battlement or shell hole crows stared balefully at the riders, cawing at them and waiting for them to leave so that they could resume their lunch.
The abrupt appearance of Peking, after so many hours peering through fog and rain, had disconcerted the riders, but the silence and feeling of being alone oppressed them. At length they resumed riding through the broken arches of the wall, hoping to see some sign of life, some movement or color inside the city.
Beyond the arches were the ruins of the two triple gates and the five-storey towers which had formerly surmounted them. Once, they had been made of the strongest stone and crafted into impregnability through the effort of countless laborers. Now they were broken rubble, scored with burn marks and coated with ash. One tower had been brought down in the fall of one of the French Fusils Aerienne, and now the airship lay sprawled across what was left of the tower, a giant aluminum and steel corpse in a world of decaying fleshy bodies.
As the group rode through the rubble of the gates and arches, along the winding path cleared by the steam shovels and Movers, the dust and ash, black as coal, grew deeper, enveloping the horses’ hooves and coating all it touched. Silently the riders entered the city, a land of silent desolation, ruin and ashes, out to the horizon. In the distance, at what had been the major intersections–Legation Street and Great Eastern Street, Custom Street and Tung Ch’ang–Sentinels stood. Beneath them their crews huddled against the cold, their gloves and coats dull black with coal dust.
Besides the Sentinels and their human crews, the only signs of life were a few squalid beggars shivering in corners, their tattered blue rags no comfort against the cold, and a few dogs recently grown fat on Chinese corpses. Everything else was rubbish and smoke. The small gray bricks out of which so much of Peking had been built were strewn everywhere, countless thousands of them. The small houses and ancient walls and palaces of the city were now only ash-covered piles of debris. Fire and shell and aerial bombs and Allied machinery had reduced the tidy decorous order of the city to chaos and abomination.
The riders slowly steered their horses toward what had been the Imperial City. The gloomy, silent monotony which follows every apocalyptic fire was broken only by the rare glimpse of porcelain or cloisonné peeking through the eternal ash. A Russian “Yaga Hut” leaned against one wall, its iron chicken legs all that remained of the mobile gun platform. In an inner square near a chapel was what was left of a Japanese “Archer Boy.” Only the end of its bow and its quiver were visible, all else destroyed or submerged beneath the universal little gray bricks.
The riders stopped in front of the pulverized stone of what had been the Tiananmen Gate. The labyrinth of smoking ruin which had been the Imperial City after the Allied assault was finished was in the process of being cleared out–in the distance gangs of coolies and the occasional steam shovel and land-mover were laboriously moving rubble–but orders had come down from London: the ruins of Tiananmen were to remain, as a monument to the dead white hostages and as a reminder to the Chinese what their rebellion had led to.
One of the riders, a man in the uniform of a captain in the Army, nodded at the others, and they rode ahead into the city, leaving one man behind. He wore civilian clothing and a somber expression.
In a quiet voice the captain said, “Have you considered the Director’s offer?”
The other man said, “Yes, sir. I’m inclined not to accept it. I’m flattered, but–“
“Well, sir…as you know, I’m now a father, and while Elizabeth understood my being away from home before, it seems to me unfair to make her raise Anna by herself. And, frankly, sir, I’d like to be home to raise her myself. I can do my job from London nearly as well as from Berlin.”
“I understand. We’ve only the one, May and I, but I wouldn’t trade my time with Alastair for anything. Nonetheless…”
The other man’s face remained impassive. “Yes, sir?”
“We need you here. We’re going to be staying, and–“ He waited for the other man’s reaction, but got none. He remained as neutral as ever. “And so are the rest of the Allies. It’s been decided, by the Prime Minister and his colleagues in Moscow and Tokyo and Berlin and Washington, that China is too valuable to be governed by the Chinese.”
He paused, examined his surroundings to make sure that they no Chinese were within earshot, and said in a lowered voice, “Much too valuable. So much so that the Partition will never last. You know as well as I do that there will be another war here, soon, this time between the Allies themselves. It may start here, it may start in Europe, but it is coming, and it will take place here more than anywhere else, over China. And India. And all the colonies out here. Great Britain cannot lose this war. We cannot. But if we are to win, we need good men watching our enemies. And you are one of our best.”
The other man looked at the broken pieces of what had been a massive stone lion. He picked up a piece which had been its nose and wiped the ash from it. After a moment, he replaced it.
The captain said, “I understand your reluctance, Hall, but…your country is calling. Will you respond?”
The captain chose to ignore the note of resignation in the other man’s voice. “Excellent! I’ve been authorized to promote you to Lieutenant, effective immediately–I’m sure your wife will appreciate the extra money in her pay envelope.” He nudged the hind quarters of the stone lion. “Tch. Waste of good stone. Typical of the Chinese. Overdone and underthought.”
“I’m to serve here, sir?”
“Good lord, no. No, after it’s rebuilt Peking will remain the capital, but I want you in Shanghai. I think you’ll be of more use to us there. China’s not like Germany. Too big to be centrally governed, and too independent. Lots going on away from the capital. ‘The mountains are high, the emperor is far away,’ isn’t that what they say? No, McKelvie will be stationed here. You’re for Shanghai. More to be learned here from commerce than government, I think.”
The captain looked around, nodded, and mounted his horse. “I’ll have your orders wired to you as soon as I return to the Union Jack. Take a month to visit your wife, then report to headquarters in London. We’ve much work to do here and not a lot of time to do it in.”
A shadow passed over the two men, and they reflexively looked upward. One of the British patrol aerostats was making its rounds, leaving a contrail of coal smoke behind it. The aerostat’s Indian crew cheerfully waved to the two men.
The captain ignored them. His last words to Hall, before riding into what had been the Imperial City, were “It’s a new century, Hall, but our enemies remain the same. Remember that.”
Hall’s, “Yes, sir” went unheard as the captain rode off. Hall watched the captain thread his way through the rubble, then rode into the city, looking for his friends.