The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Series #3) by David Wingrove | Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Series #3)

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo Series #3)

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by David Wingrove
     
 

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The year is 2196. The great Empire of Ice, Chung Kuo, has finally been shaken after more than a century of peace enforced by brutal tyranny. The Minister of the Edict—an official responsible for licensing all technology that could lead to Change—has been assassinated. The seven ruling T’ang struggle to maintain Stasis, even as their mile-high,

Overview

The year is 2196. The great Empire of Ice, Chung Kuo, has finally been shaken after more than a century of peace enforced by brutal tyranny. The Minister of the Edict—an official responsible for licensing all technology that could lead to Change—has been assassinated. The seven ruling T’ang struggle to maintain Stasis, even as their mile-high, continent-spanning cities descend into chaos. Amid the chaos, the rebels responsible for the assassination seize the opportunity to effect Change. But the assassination was orchestrated by those far closer to the ruling power, and this betrayal—the first of many—will lead them all into the world-shattering War of Two Directions.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Imagine a collaboration between James Clavell and Frank Herbert and the result might be something very much like Chung Kuo . . . smart, involving, entertaining."  —San Francisco Chronicle

"One of the masterpieces of the decade."  —Washington Post

"The achievement of a master world-builder."  —Omni

"...an excellent novel and series that I can't recommend enough." —BookGateway.com

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781848877313
Publisher:
Atlantic Books
Publication date:
05/01/2013
Series:
Chung Kuo Series, #3
Edition description:
New series order
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
1,107,640
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Middle Kingdom

Chung Kuo Book 3


By David Wingrove

Atlantic Books Ltd

Copyright © 2012 David Wingrove
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84887-731-3



CHAPTER 1

FIRE AND ICE


Flames danced in a glass. Beyond, in the glow of the naked fire, a man's face smiled tightly.

'Not long now,' he said, coming closer to the fierce, wavering light. He had delicate, oriental features that were almost feminine; a small, well-shaped nose and wide, dark eyes that caught and held the fire's light. His jet black hair was fastened in a pigtail then coiled in a tight bun at the back of his head. He wore white, the colour of mourning – a simple one-piece that fitted his small frame loosely.

A warm night wind blew across the mountainside, making the fire flare up. The coals at its centre glowed intensely. Ash and embers whirled off. Then the wind died and the shadows settled.

'They've taken great pains, Kao Jyan.'

The second man walked back from the darkness where he'd been standing and faced the other across the flames, his hands open, empty. He was a much bigger man, round-shouldered and heavily muscled. His large, bony head was freshly shaven and his whites fitted him tightly. His name was Chen and he had the blunt, nondescript face of a thousand generations of Han peasants.

Jyan studied his partner momentarily. 'They're powerful men,' he said. 'They've invested much in us. They expect much in return.'

'I understand,' Chen answered, looking down the moonlit valley towards the City. Then, unexpectedly, he laughed.

Jyan narrowed his eyes. 'What is it?'

'See?' Chen pointed off to his right. 'There! Up there where the mountains almost touch the clouds.'

Jyan looked. Thin strands of wispy cloud lay across the moon's full circle, silvered by its intense light. Beyond, the sky was a rich blue-black. 'So?'

Chen turned back to him, his eyes shining in the firelight. 'It's beautiful, don't you think? How the moonlight has painted the mountain tops white.'

Jyan shivered, then stared past the big man towards the distant peaks. 'It's ice.'

'What? Plastic, you mean?'

Jyan shook his head. 'No. Not the stuff the City's made of. Real ice. Frozen water. Like the ch'un tzu put in their drinks.'

Chen turned and looked again, his broad face wrinkling. Then he looked away sharply, as if the very thought disturbed him.

As it should, thought Jyan, aware of his own discomfort. The drugs he'd been given made all of this seem familiar – gave him false memories of such things as cold and clouds and moonlight-yet, beneath the surface calm of his mind, his body was still afraid.

There was a faint movement against his cheek, a sudden ruffling of his hair. At his feet the fire flared up again, fanned by the sudden gust. Wind, thought Jyan, finding it strange even to think the word. He bent down and lifted a log from the pile, turning it in his hand and feeling its weight. Then he turned it on its end and stared at the curious whorl of its grain. Strange. Everything so strange out here, outside the City. So unpredictable. All of it so crudely thrown together. So unexpected, for all that it seemed familiar.

Chen came and stood by him. 'How long now?'

Jyan glanced at the dragon timer inset into the back of his hand. 'Four minutes.'

He watched Chen turn and – for what seemed like the hundredth time – look back at the City, his eyes widening, trying to take it in.

The City. It filled the great northern plain of Europe. From where they stood, on the foothills of the Alps, it stretched away northward a thousand five hundred li to meet the chill waters of the Baltic, while to the west the great wall of its outer edge towered over the Atlantic for the full three thousand li length of its coastline, from Cape St Vincent in the south to Kristiansund in the rugged north. To the south, beyond the huge mountain ranges of the Swiss Wilds, its march continued, ringing the Mediterranean like a giant bowl of porcelain. Only to the east had its growth been checked in a jagged line that ran from Danzig in the north to Odessa in the south. There the plantations began; a vast sea of greenness that swept into the heart of Asia.

'It's strange, isn't it? Being outside. It doesn't seem real.'

Chen did not answer. Looking past him, Jyan saw how the dark, steep slopes of the valley framed a giant, flat-topped arrowhead of whiteness. It was like a vast wall – a dam two li in height – plugging the end of the valley. Its surface was a faintly opalescent pearl, lit from within. Ch'eng, it was. City and wall. The same word in his mother tongue for both. Not that he knew more than a smattering of his mother tongue.

He turned his head and looked at Chen again. Brave Chen. Unimaginative Chen. His blunt face rounded like a plate, his bull neck solid as the rocks surrounding them. Looking at him, Jyan put aside his earlier misgivings. Chen was kwai, after all – a trained knife – and kwai were utterly reliable. Jyan smiled to himself. Yes, Chen was all right. A good man to have at your back.

'You're ready?' he asked.

Chen looked back at him, his eyes firm, determined. 'I know what I have to do.'

'Good.'

Jyan looked down into his glass. Small tongues of flame curled like snakes in the darkness of the wine; cast evanescent traces on the solid curve of transparency. He threw the glass down into the fire, then stared into the flames themselves, aware for the first time how evasive they were; how, when you tried to hold their image clear in mind, it slipped away, leaving only the vaguest of impressions. Not real at all, for all its apparent clarity. Perhaps that's how the gods see us, he thought; as mere traces, too brief for the eye to settle on.

There was a sharp crack as the glass split and shattered. Jyan shivered, then looked up, hearing the low drone of the approaching craft.

'They're here,' said Chen, his face impassive.

Jyan looked across at the kwai and nodded. Then, buttoning their one-pieces at the neck, the two assassins made their way towards the ship.


'Your pass, sir?'

Pi Ch'ien, Third Secretary to Junior Minister Yang, glanced up at the camera, noting as he did the slow, smooth movement of the overhead trackers, the squat, hollowed tongues of their barrels jutting from the mouths of stylized dragons. Bowing low, he took the card from his robe and inserted it into the security slot. Placing his face against the moulded pad in the wall, he held his left eye open against the camera lens, then stepped back, looking about him.

He had never been into one of the Imperial Solariums before. Even as District Magistrate, responsible for the lives of the twenty thousand people in his deck, he had lacked the status to enter such a place. Now, however, as Third Secretary to Yang Lai, he had been permitted to place his name on the list. But the list was a list, like all the others in this world – interminable. It would be many years and several more promotions before he would find himself inside for reasons of leisure.

The outer doors slid back.

An armed guard barred his way, indicating with his gun that Pi Ch'ien should go into the antechamber to his left. With a bow, Pi Ch'ien did as he was bid. Inside, in front of a vast, brightly coloured tapestry that filled the whole of the back wall, an official sat at a desk. The man scanned the screen in front of him, then looked up, smiling.

'Good evening, Third Secretary Pi. I am First Steward Huong. Might I ask the purpose of your visit?'

Pi Ch'ien bent his head respectfully.

'Greetings, First Steward Huong. I have but a trivial message to deliver. For his serene excellency, Junior Minister Yang Lai. Ten thousand pardons for imposing on you like this, for it is a matter of the least urgency.'

He looked up, holding out the almost translucent message card for the Steward's inspection. Both men knew it was immensely important.

'Forgive me, Third Secretary Pi, but might I have that?'

Again Pi Ch'ien lowered his head. 'My deepest apologies, First Steward Huong. Nothing would please me more than to oblige you, but I am afraid that is not possible. I was instructed to place the message, unimportant as it is, only in the hands of the most illustrious Junior Minister himself.'

Steward Huong stood, then came round his desk to stand beside Pi Ch'ien. 'I understand, Third Secretary Pi. We are but our masters' hands, neh?' He smiled again, all courtesy now. 'If you would be so kind as to permit me, I shall inform the Junior Minister.'

Pi Ch'ien bowed, feeling a pang of disappointment. He was not to go inside, then?

'Please, follow me, Third Secretary,' the Steward said, making the slightest bow, his head barely lowered as befitted their relative positions. 'Junior Minister Yang is with the Minister himself and may not be disturbed. However, I will have a maid come and serve tea for you while you wait.'

Pi Ch'ien bowed again, delighted by the courtesy he was being shown. He followed the official out and down a wide, high-ceilinged corridor on the walls of which hung a series of huge shanshui, landscape paintings, depicting rugged peaks and pleasantly wooded valleys.

Where the corridor turned he had a brief glimpse of another, more ornate passageway lined with bronze statues of gods and dragons, and at its end a huge, brightly lit chamber – the solarium itself. They walked on until they came to a small but plushly decorated room, hung with colourful tapestries.

First Steward Huong turned to him and smiled, indicating that he should enter and take a seat. 'Please be assured, I will keep you no longer than I must, Third Secretary. The maid, meanwhile, will see to all your needs.' Then, with a bow, he was gone.

Almost at once a maid entered from a door to one side. She was wearing powder blue er-silks with a pattern of tiny yellow sunflowers. Smiling, she set down the tray she was carrying on a low table at Pi Ch'ien's side, then knelt and bowed low to him. Straightening up, she poured the ch'a and offered it to him, her eyes averted. He took the cup, studying her closely. She was a pretty little thing, her skin almost white, her dark, fine hair tied with silk ribbons of blue and yellow. He looked down at her feet and saw, with satisfaction, how petite she was.

'You would like something else, sir?'

He leaned forward and gently drew back the hair to reveal her neck. It was as he had thought. There was a small circular mark low down on the left hand side of the neck, close to the collar bone. A Capital G with a smaller S inside, the letters English, but the style – the brushwork of the design – pure Han. She was GenSyn. Artificial.

He hesitated, not knowing how long the Junior Minister would be, or what etiquette prevailed here. Then he remembered the First Steward Huong's words. 'The maid will see to all your needs.' Screwing up his courage, he told the girl to close the door.

As she turned to face him again, he beckoned her back. Then, making her bow before him, he opened the front of his cloak and drew her head down into his naked lap.

'Here, girl. See to me.'


The three men in the craft had been masked and silent; even so, Kao Jyan had recognized them as Hung Mao – whites – from the sour, milky scent of their sweat. It had surprised him. His own guesses had taken him in another direction. But even as the craft set down on the roof of the City he was adding this new fragment to what he already knew.

When the door hissed open he went through quickly, followed by Chen. The dome of the Imperial Solarium was directly ahead of them, no more than a li – five hundred metres – distant; a vast hemispherical blister, lit from within. Half a li further on was the maintenance shaft. The two assassins ran, side by side, in silence, knowing that if others hadn't done their work properly they were already as good as dead.

But it would be okay. Jyan sensed it. Every step he took made him more certain of it. He was beginning to see how things connected, could even begin to make guesses as to names and motives.

There were those who would pay well to know such things. Who would grant amnesties, perhaps, to those who were merely the tools of other men.

Coming closer to the dome, Jyan slowed, looking about him. The moon was much lower now, over to the right of them. In its light it seemed as though they were running on the surface of a giant glacier.

'Circle left,' he said softly to Chen. But it was unnecessary. Chen was already moving out around the dome towards the shaft. It was his job to secure it while Jyan was at work.

Jyan stopped, looking down at the dragon on his wrist. Timing was crucial now. He had four minutes to climb the outer wall, then three minutes apiece after that to position and set each of the four charges. That left nine minutes to get into the shaft and away. If all went well it would be easy.

If all went well. Jyan took a deep breath, steeling himself.

He knelt, then reached behind him. Four catches fastened the lightweight parcel. Gently his fingers released the catches and eased the cloth-wrapped package from his back. Carefully he laid it in his lap and, with delicate, practised movements, drew back the thin folds of cloth.

The four plate-sized hoops had been bound together tightly with a hair-fine wire. They were a dull bronze in colour, unmarked except in one place, where it seemed the finger-thick cords joined upon themselves, like snakes swallowing their tails. Quickly, carefully, he untied the wire knots and separated the hoops into two piles on his upper thighs. They were warm to the touch, as if alive. With the slightest shudder he pulled two of them up over his left arm, looping them gently over his shoulder, then did the same with the others, securing them about his right shoulder.

Taking a deep breath, he stood again. Chen was out of sight, behind the dome. Quickly Jyan ran the final distance to the dome's base and crouched there, breathing easily. From the pocket over his heart he took out the claws and clicked them open. Separating them, he eased them onto his hands, respecting the razor-sharpness of their tips. That done, he began to climb.


Lwo Kang, son of Lwo Chun-Yi and Minister of the Edict, sat back in his tall-backed chair and looked around the circle of men gathered about him. The folds of his salmon pink pau hung loosely about him and his olive flesh glistened damply in the dome's intense light. He had a strong, but somehow ugly face; his eyes too big, his nose too broad, his ears too pendulous. Yet when he smiled the faces of the dozen men seated about him returned his smile like mirrors. Just now, however, those men were silent and watchful, conscious that their lord was angry.

'You talk of accommodation, Shu San, but the Edict is quite clear on this. We are not here to interpret but to implement. We do as we are told, neh?'

To Lwo Kang's left, Shu San bowed his head abjectly. For a moment all eyes were on him, sharing his moment of shame. Minister Lwo sniffed, then spoke again.

'Only this afternoon two of these businessmen – Lehmann and Berdichev – came to me. We talked of many things in the course of our audience, but finally they presented me with what they termed an "ultimatum".' Lwo Kang looked sternly about the circle of his junior ministers. 'They said that certain factions were growing impatient. Hsien Sheng Lehmann even had the impudence to claim that we have been subjecting them to unnecessary delays. He says that our officials have been overzealous in their application of the Edict's terms.'

There was an exchange of glances between the seated men. None had missed that the Minister had used the term Hsien Sheng for Lehmann – plain Mister Lehmann, not even the commonplace Shih or Master – when proper etiquette demanded the use of his full title, Under Secretary. It was a deliberate slight.

Lwo Kang laughed sharply, sourly, then shook his head in an angry gesture. 'The impertinence of these men! Because they have money they think themselves above the laws of other men!' His face formed a sneer of disgust. 'Hsin fa ts'ai!'

This time there was mild laughter from some quarters. Others, not understanding the term, looked about them for guidance, and formed their faces into smiles, as if half-committed to the joke.

Again Lwo Kang sniffed and sat back a little in his chair. 'I'm sorry. I forgot. We are not all ch'un tzu here, are we?'

Lwo Kang looked about him. Hsin fa ts'ai. Social upstarts. Ch'un tzu. Gentlemen. These were Kuan hua, or Mandarin terms. But not all were bred to the tongue who sat about him. More than half the men here had come up through the levels; had schooled themselves in the five Confucian classics and climbed the ladder of the examination system. He did not despise them for that; quite the contrary, he prided himself on promoting men not through connection but because of their natural ability. However, it sometimes made for awkwardnesses. He fixed his gaze on Shu San.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove. Copyright © 2012 David Wingrove. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Imagine a collaboration between James Clavell and Frank Herbert and the result might be something very much like Chung Kuo . . . smart, involving, entertaining."  —San Francisco Chronicle

"One of the masterpieces of the decade."  —Washington Post

"The achievement of a master world-builder."  —Omni

Meet the Author

David Wingrove is the Hugo Award–winning coauthor of The Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, and the coauthor of the first three books in the Myst series.

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