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Where did it all begin? When was the first step taken on that downward path that led to Armageddon? Perhaps it was on that fateful June day in 2043 when President James B. Griffin, last of the sixty-two presidents of the United States of America, was assassinated while attending a baseball game at Chicago's Comiskey Park.
The collapse of the sixty-nine States of the American Empire that followed and the subsequent disintegration of the allied Western economies brought a decade of chaos. What had begun as the "Pacific Century" was quickly renamed the "Century of Blood" -- a period in which the only stability was to be found within the borders of China. It was from there -- from the great landlocked province of Sichuan -- that a young Han named Tsao Ch'un emerged.
Tsao Ch'un had a simple -- some say brutal -- cast of mind. He wanted to create a Utopia, a rigidly stable society that would last ten thousand years. But the price was high. In 2062 Japan, China's chief rival in the East, was the first victim of Tsao Ch'un's idiosyncratic approach to realpolitik when, without warning -- following Japanese complaints about Chinese incursions in Korea -- the Han leader bombed Honshu, concentrating his nuclear devices on the major population centers of Tokyo and Kyoto. When the dust cleared, three great Han armies swept the smaller islands of Kyushu and Shikoku, killing every Japanese they found, while the rest of Japan was blockaded by sea and air. Over the next twenty years they would do the same with the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, turning the "islands of the gods" into a wasteland while the crumbling Western nation states looked away.
The eradication of Japan taught Tsao Ch'un many lessons. In future he sought "not to destroy but to exclude" -- though his definition of exclusion often made it a synonym for destruction. As he built his great City -- huge, mile-high spiderlike machines moving slowly outward from Pei Ch'ing, secreting vast, tomb-white hexagonal living sections, three hundred levels high and a kilometer to a side -- so he peopled it, choosing carefully who was to live within its walls. As the City grew, so his servants went out among the indigenous populations he had conquered, searching among them for those who were free from physical disability, political dissidence, or religious bigotry. And where he encountered organized opposition he enlisted the aid of groups sympathetic to his aims to carry out his policies. In Southern Africa and North America, in Europe and the People's Democracy of Russia, huge movements grew up, supporting Tsao Ch'un and welcoming his "stability" after decades of chaos and suffering, only too pleased to share in his crusade of intolerance -- his "Policy of Purity."
Only the Middle East proved problematic. There a great Jihad was launched against the Han -- Moslems and Jews casting off centuries of enmity to fight against a common threat. Tsao Ch'un answered them as he had answered Japan. The Middle East and large parts of the Indian subcontinent were reduced to a radioactive wilderness. But it was in Africa that his policies were most nakedly displayed. There the native peoples were moved on before the encroaching City, and, like cattle, starved or died from exhaustion, driven on by the brutal Han armies. Following historical precedent City Africa was reseeded with Han settlers.
In terms of human suffering Tsao Ch'un's pacification of the globe was unprecedented. Contemporary estimates put the cost in human lives at well over three billion. But Tsao Ch'un was not content merely to eradicate all opposition, he wanted to destroy all knowledge of the Western-dominated past. Like the First Emperor, Ch'in Shih Huang Ti, twenty-four centuries before, he decided to rewrite the history books. Tsao Ch'un had his officials collect all books, all tapes, all recordings, allowing nothing that was not Han to enter his great City. Most of what they collected was simply burned, but not all. Some was adapted.
One group of Tsao Ch'un's advisers -- a group of Scholar-Politicians who termed themselves the "Thousand Eyes" -- persuaded their Master that it would not be enough simply to create a gap. That, they knew, would attract curiosity. What they proposed was more subtle and, in the long term, far more persuasive. With Tsao Ch'un's blessing they set about reconstructing the history of the world, placing China at the center of everything -- back in its rightful place, as they saw it. It was a lie, of course, yet a lie to which everyone subscribed . . . on pain of death.
But the lie was complex and powerful, and people soon forgot. New generations arose who knew nothing of the real past and to whom the whispers and rumors seemed mere fantasy in the face of the solid reality they saw all about them. The media fed them the illusion daily, until the illusion became, even for those who worked in the Ministry responsible, quite real and the documents they dealt with some strange aberration -- a mass hallucination, almost a disease that had struck the Western peoples of the great Han Empire in its latter years. The officials at the Ministry even coined a term for it -- racial compensation -- laughing among themselves whenever they came across some clearly fantastic reference in an old book about quaint religious practices or races of black -- think of it, black! -- people.
Tsao Ch'un killed the old world. He buried it deep beneath his glacial City. But eventually his brutality and tyranny proved too much even for those who had helped him carry out his scheme. In 2087 his Council of Seven Ministers rose up against him, using North European mercenaries, and overthrew him, setting up a new government. They divided the world -- Chung Kuo -- among themselves, each calling himself T'ang, "King." But the new government was far stronger than the old, for the Seven made it so that no single one of them could act on any major issue without the consensus of his fellow T'ang. Adopting the morality of New Confucianism, they set about consolidating a "peace of ten thousand years." The keystone of this peace was the Edict of Technological Control, which regulated and, in effect, prevented change. Change had been the disease of the old, Western-dominated world. Change had brought its rapid and total collapse. But Change was alien to the Han. They would do away with Change for all time. Their borders were secured, the world was theirs -- why should they not have peace and stability until the end of time? But the population grew and grew, filling the vast City, and, buried deep in the collective psyche of the European races, something began to stir -- some long-buried memory of rapid evolutionary growth. Change was needed. Change was wanted. But the Seven were against Change.
For more than a century they succeeded and their great world-spanning City thrived. If a man worked hard he could climb the levels into a world of space and luxury, if he failed in business or committed a crime he would be demoted -- down toward the crowded, stinking Lowers. Each man knew his place in the great scheme of things and obeyed the dictates of the Seven. Yet the pressures placed upon the system were great, and as the population climbed toward the forty-billion mark something had to give.
It began with the assassination of the Li Shai Tung's Minister, Lwo Kang, in 2196, the poor man blown into the next world along with his Junior Ministers while basking in the imperial solarium. The Seven -- the great Lords and rulers of Chung Kuo -- hit back at once, arresting Edmund Wyatt, one of the leading figures of the Dispersionist faction responsible for the Minister's death. But it was not to end there. Within days of the public execution of Wyatt in 2198, the Dispersionists -- a coalition of high-powered merchants and politicians -- struck another deadly blow, killing Li Han Ch'in, son of the T'ang, Li Shai Tung, and heir to City Europe, on the day of his wedding to the beautiful Fei Yen.
It might have ended there, with the decision of the Seven to take no action in reprisal for Prince Han's death -- to adopt a policy of peaceful nonaction, wuwei -- but for one man such a course of action could not be borne. Taking matters into his own hands, Li Shai Tung's General, Knut Tolonen, marched into the House of Representatives in Weimar and killed the leader of the Dispersionists, Under-Secretary Lehmann. It was an act almost guaranteed to tumble Chung Kuo into a bloody civil war unless the anger of the Dispersionists could be assuaged and concessions made.
Concessions were made, an uneasy peace maintained, but the divisions between rulers and ruled remained, their conflicting desires -- the Seven for Stasis, the Dispersionists for Change -- unresolved. Among those concessions the Seven had permitted the Dispersionists to build a starship, the New Hope. As the ship approached readiness, the Dispersionists pushed things even farther at Weimar, impeaching the tai -- the Representatives of the Seven in the House -- and effectively declaring their independence. In response the Seven destroyed the New Hope. War was declared.
The five-year "War-That-Wasn't-a-War" left the Dispersionists broken, their leaders dead, their Companies confiscated. The great push for Change had been crushed and peace returned to Chung Kuo. But the war had woken older, far stronger, currents of dissent. In the depths of the City new movements began to arise, seeking not merely to change the system, but to revolutionize it altogether. One of these factions, the Ping Tiao, or "Levelers," wanted to pull down the great City of three hundred levels and destroy the Empire of the Han.
Among the ruling council of the Ping Tiao was a young Hung Mao, or "European," woman, Emily Ascher. Driven by a desire for social justice, Emily orchestrated a campaign of attacks on corrupt officials designed to destabilize City Europe. But her fellows on the council were not satisfied with such piecemeal and "unambitious" methods and when the new Dispersionist leader, DeVore, offered them an alliance, they grabbed it against her advice.
Once a Major in Li Shai Tung's Security service, Howard DeVore had been instrumental in both the assassination of Li Han Ch'in and the "War" that followed. Based on Mars, he sent in autonomous copies of himself to do his bidding, using any means possible to destroy the Seven and their City. The House of Representatives, the Dispersionists, the Ping Tiao -- each in turn was used, then discarded, by him, cynically and without thought for the harm done to individuals. Aided by a network of young Security officers he had recruited over the years, he fought a savage guerrilla war against his former Masters, his only aim, it seemed, a wholly nihilistic one.
Yet the Seven were not helpless in the face of such assaults. Tolonen, promoted to Marshal of the Council of Generals, recruited a giant of a man, Gregor Karr, a "blood," or to-the-death fighter, from the lowest levels of the City -- the "Net" -- to act as his foil against DeVore and the Dispersionists. Karr was joined by another low-level fighter named Kao Chen -- one of the two assassins responsible for the attack on the imperial solarium that had begun the struggle.
For a time the status quo was maintained, but three of the most senior T'ang died during the War with the Dispersionists, leaving the Council of Seven weaker and more inexperienced than they'd been in all the long years of their rule. When Wang Sau-leyan, the youngest son of Wang Hsien, ruler of City Africa, became T'ang after his father's suspect death, things looked ominous, particularly as the young man seemed to delight in creating turmoil among the Seven. But Li Yuan, inheriting from his father, formed effective alliances with his fellow T'ang, Wu Shih of North America, Tsu Ma of West Asia, and Wei Feng of East Asia to block Wang in Council, outvoting him four to three.
Even so, as Chung Kuo's population continued to grow, further concessions had to be made. The great Edict of Technological Control -- the means by which the Seven had kept change at bay for more than a century -- was to be relaxed, the House of Representatives at Weimar reopened, in return for guarantees of population controls.
For the first time in fifty years the Seven began to tackle the problems of their world, facing up to the necessity for limited change; but was it too late? Were the great tides of unrest unleashed by earlier wars about to overwhelm them?
It certainly seemed so. And when DeVore managed to persuade Li Yuan's newly appointed General, Hans Ebert, to secretly ally with him, the writing seemed on the wall.
Hans Ebert had it all; handsome, strong, intelligent, he was heir to the genetics and pharmaceuticals Company, GenSyn -- Chung Kuo's largest manufacturing concern -- but he was also a vain, amoral young man, a cold-blooded "hero" with the secret ambition of deposing the Seven and becoming "King of the World," an ambition DeVore assiduously fed. While Ebert turned a blind eye, DeVore began to construct a chain of fortresses in the Alpine wilderness at the heart of City Europe, preparing for the day when he might bring it all crashing down. But that was not to be. Karr and Kao Chen, aided by a young lieutenant, Haavikko, uncovered the plot and revealed it to Marshal Tolonen, whose own daughter, Jelka, was betrothed to Hans Ebert. Tolonen, childhood companion of Ebert's father, Klaus, went straight to his lifelong friend and told him of his son's betrayal, allowing him twenty-four hours to deal with the matter personally.
Hans, meanwhile, had been instructed by Li Yuan to destroy the network of fortresses. His hands tied, he did so, then returned to face his father. Klaus would have killed his only son, but Hans's goatlike helper -- a creation of his father's genetic laboratories -- killed the old man. Hans fled the planet and was condemned to death in his absence.
That marriage made her rich beyond all dreams, yet riches of themselves meant nothing to her. She was still driven by a vision of Change, and now began to pursue it by other means, playing Conscience to the great North American City and taking on the role of "Elder Sister," determined to alleviate the suffering in the lower levels of her adopted City. Ranged against her, however, were other forces with different agendas: the Old Men -- Michael Lever's father, Charles, foremost among them -- with their insane pursuit of Immortality; Wu Shih with his desire for stability at any cost; and Joseph Kennedy, whose crusading zeal had been effectively neutered by Wu Shih. All in all it was a recipe for disaster, and disaster eventually overtook them in the winter of 2212 -- though not from any of these sources.
Wu Shih might have survived Emily's "Elder Sister" campaign; he might even have survived Joseph Kennedy's on-air suicide; but when one of the orbital factories -- its systems' refurbishments long overdue -- fell from the sky into the midst of his City, he could not ride out the storm that followed. Wu Shih died, attacked in his own imperial craft, while his great City burned.
Many got out -- Michael and Emily among them -- but billions perished when North America fell, and the dark shadow of that fall etched itself deep in the minds of those that remained. Tsao Ch'un's dream of stability -- of a Utopia that would last ten thousand years -- once so solid and unchallengeable, was coming to an end.
For some time the actions of the young T'ang of Africa, Wang Sau-leyan, had created divisions among the Seven, particularly in Council, where all important decisions were made. In the autumn of 2213, however, division tipped over into open warfare. Wang's direct assault on his fellow rulers at one of their ceremonial gatherings -- an attempt that almost succeeded, with two of his cousins killed and another badly wounded -- brought a swift reprisal. Li Yuan's dream of a ruling triumvirate finally came about -- though in darker circumstances than he had envisaged -- when he, Tsu Ma, and Wei Tseng-li, the new T'ang of East Asia, sent their armies into Africa to destroy Wang Sau-leyan's power.
The death of the odious Wang closed one chapter of Chung Kuo's history, yet it could not stem the headlong tide of Change. In the seventeen years since Li Shai Tung's Minister, Lwo Kang, had been assassinated in the imperial solarium, all respect for the Seven had drained away. Li Yuan sought to reverse this tendency by giving the people greater representation in government and -- in the war against Wang Sau-leyan -- by creating people's armies, but it was not enough. The great House of Representatives at Weimar spoke only for those with money and power and then only on a limited range of matters, for real power remained firmly in the hands of the Seven. And all the while a number of other factors -- the corruption of officials, the constant nepotism, the vast disparity in wealth between those at the top of the City (First Level) and those in the Lowers, the ever-increasing population -- only served to stoke the great engine of popular discontent.
To be honest, these were not problems that had begun with the City -- such things were millennia-old long before the first mile-high segment of Tsao Ch'un's world-spanning megapolis was eased onto its supporting pillars -- but conditions within the City exacerbated them, and while the rich continued to prosper, the poor grew daily poorer and more hungry. Something had to give.
Indeed, something would give. Yet behind the struggle for power -- that age-old battle between the haves and have-nots -- was another, far greater struggle for the imagination, and for the very soul of Mankind: the "War of the Two Directions," a war that would ultimately center upon a pair of individuals who, in their work and lives, would embody entirely different approaches to existence.
Those two were Ben Shepherd and Kim Ward, the former the most talented artist of his time, the latter the most gifted scientist. Growing up during these years of dramatic change, their work came to represent a level of creative life that, for more than a century, had been harshly suppressed by the Seven. The world into which they were born was culturally sterile: its science was at a standstill, filling in gaps in old research and perfecting machines developed centuries before; its art even worse, having returned to principles more than 1,500 years old. Its scientists were technicians, its artists artisans. Coming into this climate of creative atrophy -- a climate carefully nurtured by the Edict and the "Rules of Art" -- Ben and Kim could not help but be revolutionary.
Ben Shepherd, the great-great grandson of the City's architect, was born in the Domain, an unspoiled valley in England's West Country. There, in those idyllic surroundings, was nurtured his fascination with mimicry, darkness, and "the other side" which was to culminate eventually in his development of a wholly new art form, the Shell. Over the years he would shamelessly draw upon his own life -- the death by cancer of his father, the lost love of a young woman named Catherine, and his complex sexual relationship with his sister, Meg -- weaving these elements together to create a powerful tale.
Kim Ward, on the other hand, was a product of the Clay, that dark land beneath the City's foundations. Rescued from that savage hell, he spent the formative years of his early youth in State institutions, surviving that brutal regime through an astonishing quickness of mind and a matching physical agility. His innate talents recognized by Berdichev, Head of the great SimFic Corporation and a leading Dispersionist, Kim was bought and then, almost as casually, discarded when Kim's darker side -- rooted in his experiences in the Clay -- emerged after one particularly provocative incident when he badly hurt another boy.
Fortunately Berdichev was not the only one to recognize Kim's unique intellectual talents and he found an unexpected benefactor in Li Yuan, who, when Ward emerged from a long period of character reconstruction, gave him both his freedom and the wherewithal to begin his own Company in North America. But that was not to be. The Old Men, seeing in Kim the means of achieving their dream of Immortality, deliberately set about destroying his business venture, hoping to force his hand. But Ward would not serve them.
Kim had other dreams, among them the dream of marrying the Marshal's beautiful daughter, Jelka. But Tolonen would not permit the match and sent his daughter away on a tour of the colony planets. Kim, devastated, swore to wait until she came of age and signed a seven-year contract as a Commodity slave with the SimFic Corporation in a deal that would make him fantastically rich. And while he waited he would pursue his other dream -- his vision of a great Web, first glimpsed in the dark wilderness of the Clay.
Shepherd and Ward, Shell and Web -- the two are antithetical, representing in many ways those very things over which Li Yuan and DeVore had fought for so long -- the "Two Directions" facing Mankind in the future.
Ben's Shell is the image of inwardness, a body-sized sensory-deprivation unit designed to replace objective reality with a subjective experience that is more powerful than real life. Unlike reality, however, its very perfection is as seductive and consequently as addictive as the most lethal drug, its perfection a form of death by separation -- a withdrawal from the world.
The Web, on the other hand, is the very symbol of outwardness, a vision of an all-connecting light: quite literally so, for Kim's Web was conceived as a means of linking the very stars themselves.
The safety of the past or the uncertainty of the future? Inwardness or outwardness? Connection or Separation? These choices, like the perpetual Yin and Yang of the ancient Tao itself, would determine Chung Kuo's future. Yet the shadows cast by past events would also play their part. Back in the summer of 2203 Li Shai Tung called together his relatives, his advisers, and his closest friends to celebrate the betrothal of his son, Li Yuan, to the Princess Fei Yen. But while outwardly he smiled and laughed, secretly the old T'ang had misgivings about the match. Fei Yen had been his murdered elder son's wife, and though the marriage had never been consummated, it felt wrong -- an affront against tradition -- to let his younger son, now heir, step into his dead brother's shoes so blatantly.
That same day his son received two special gifts. The first was from Li Shai Tung's archenemy, DeVore. It was a wei chi set, a hardwood board and two wooden pots of rounded stones. Such a gift was not unusual, yet whereas in a normal wei chi set there would be one hundred and eighty-one black stones and one hundred and eighty white, DeVore had sent three hundred and sixty-one white stones. Stones carved from human bone.
Symbolically the board was Chung Kuo, the stones its people. And white . . . white was traditionally the Han color of death. DeVore was telling Li Shai Tung that he would fill the world with death.
But there was a second gift, this time from the Marshal's daughter, Jelka. Her betrothal present to Li Yuan was a set of miniature carved figures: eight tiny warriors -- the eight heroes of Chinese legend, their faces blacked to represent their honor.
Shocked by the symbolic message of the first gift, Li Shai Tung was delighted by the second. A bad omen had been overturned. There would be death, certainly, yet there would also be heroes to fight against its final triumph.
Yes. It was written. When the board was filled with white, then, finally, would the eight black heroes come.