"One of the masterpieces of the decade." —Washington Post
"The achievement of a master world-builder." —Omni
The eighth installment of David Wingrove's colossal series
The year is 2207. Currents of unrest and tides of innovation threaten to overwhelm Chung Kuo's stability, and some threats are beyond the immense city's control. When a lethal epidemic strikes the Seven's chief supporters, Li Yuan acts ruthlessly to wipe out the disease. But his actions incur far/b>
The eighth installment of David Wingrove's colossal series
The year is 2207. Currents of unrest and tides of innovation threaten to overwhelm Chung Kuo's stability, and some threats are beyond the immense city's control. When a lethal epidemic strikes the Seven's chief supporters, Li Yuan acts ruthlessly to wipe out the disease. But his actions incur far more fatal consequences for the rule of the Seven. While the Seven splinters, Kwibesi, the detention camp for terrorists, continues to establish order. However, rebellion is brutally contained inside the camp and a growing sense of injustice stirs in its guard, Kao Chen, who begins to question his sense of duty. The Seven are divided among themselves, and around them allegiances are shifting.
"One of the masterpieces of the decade." —Washington Post
"The achievement of a master world-builder." —Omni
THE TIGER'S MOUTH
Ebert looked about him, then turned back to Mu Chua, smiling.
'You've done well, Mu Chua. I'd hardly have recognized the place. They'll be here any time now, so remember, these are important business contacts and I want to impress them. Are the new girls dressed as I asked?'
Mu Chua nodded.
'Good. Well, keep them until after my entrance. These things must be done correctly, neh? One must whet their appetites before giving them the main course.'
'Of course, General. And may I say again how grateful I am that you honour my humble house. It is not every day that we play host to the nobility.'
Ebert nodded. 'Yes ... but more is at stake than that, Mother Chua. If these ch'un tzu like what they see then it is more than likely you will receive an invitation.'
'Yes. To a chao tai hui – an entertainment – at one of the First Level mansions. This afternoon, I am told, there is to be a gathering of young princes. And they will need ... how shall I put it? ... special services.'
Mu Chua lowered her head. 'Whatever they wish. My girls are the very best. They are shen nu ... god girls.'
Again Ebert nodded, but this time he seemed distracted. After a moment he looked back at Mu Chua. 'Did the wine from my father's cellar arrive?'
'It did, Excellency.'
'Good. Then you will ensure that our guests drink that and nothing else. They are to have nothing but the best.'
'Of course, General.'
'I want no deceptions, understand me, Mu Chua. Carry this off for me and I will reward you handsomely. Ten thousand yuan for you alone. And a thousand apiece for each of your girls. That's on top of your standard fees and expenses.'
Mu Chua lowered her head. 'You are too generous, Excellency ...'
Ebert laughed. 'Maybe. But you have been good to me over the years, Mother Chua. And when this proposition was put before me, my first thought was of you and your excellent house. "Who better," I said to myself, "than Mu Chua at entertaining guests."' He smiled broadly at her, for once almost likeable. 'I am certain you will not let me down.'
Mu Chua lowered her head. 'Your guests will be transported ...'
He laughed. 'Indeed ...'
After Ebert had gone, she stood there a moment, almost in a trance at the thought of the ten thousand yuan he had promised. Together with what she would milk from this morning's entertainment, it would be enough. Enough, at last, to get out of here. To pay off her contacts in the Above and climb the levels.
Yes. She had arranged it all already. And now, at last, she could get away. Away from Whiskers Lu and the dreadful seediness of this place. Could find somewhere up-level and open up some small, discreet, cosy little house. Something very different, with its own select clientele and its own strict rules.
She felt a little shiver of anticipation pass through her then stirred herself, making the last few arrangements before the two men came, getting the girls to set out the wine and lay a table with the specially prepared sweetmeats.
She had no idea what Ebert was up to, but it was clear that he set a great deal of importance on this meeting. Only two days ago his man had turned up out of the blue and handed her twenty-five thousand yuan to have the house redecorated. It had meant losing custom for a day, but she had still come out of it ahead. Now it seemed likely that she would gain much more.
Even so, her suspicions of Hans Ebert remained. If he was up to something it was almost certain to be no good. But was that her concern? If she could make enough this one last time she could forget Ebert and his kind. This was her pass out. After today she need never compromise again. It would be as it was, before the death of her protector, Feng Chung.
The thought made her smile; made her spirits rise. Well, as this was the last time, she would make it special. Would make it something that even Hans Ebert would remember.
She busied herself, arranging things to perfection, then called in the four girls who were to greet their guests. Young girls, as Ebert had specified; none of them older than thirteen.
She looked at herself in the mirror, brushing a speck of powder from her cheek, then turned, hearing the bell sound out in the reception room. They were here.
She went out, kneeling before the two men, touching her forehead against her knees. Behind her, the four young girls did the same, standing at the same time that she stood. It was a calculated effect, and she saw how much it pleased the men.
Ebert had briefed her fully beforehand, providing her with everything she needed to know about them, from their business dealings down to their sexual preferences. Even so, she was still surprised by the contrast the two men made.
Hsiang K'ai Fan was a big, flabby-chested man, almost effeminate in his manner. Treble-chinned and slack-jowled, his eyes seemed to stare out of a landscape of flesh, yet his movements were dainty and his dress sense exquisite. His lavender silks followed the fashion of the Minor Families – a fashion that was wholly and deliberately out of step with what was being worn elsewhere in the Above – with long, wide sleeves and a flowing gown that hid his booted feet. Heavily perfumed, he was nonetheless restrained in his use of jewellery, the richest item of his apparel being the broad, red velvet ta lian, or girdle pouch, that he wore about his enormous waist, the two clasps of which were studded with rubies and emeralds in the shape of two butterflies. His nails were excessively long, in the manner of the Families; the ivory-handled fan he held moved slowly in the air as he looked about him.
An Liang-chou, on the other hand, was a tiny, rat-like man, stringily built and astonishingly ugly even by the standard of some of the clients Mu Chua had entertained over the years. Flat-faced and beady-eyed, he was as nervy as Hsiang was languid, his movements jerky, awkward. Meeting his eyes, Mu Chua smiled tightly, trying to keep the aversion she felt from showing. Rumour had it that he fucked all six of his daughters – even the youngest, who was only six. Looking at him, it was not hard to imagine. She had seen at once how his eyes had lit up at the sight of her girls. How a dark, lascivious light had come to them: the kind of look a predatory insect gives its victim before it pounces.
Unlike Hsiang, An Liang-chou seemed to have no taste at all when it came to dress. His gaudily coloured pau hung loose on him, as if he had stolen it from another. Like Hsiang he was heavily perfumed, but it was an unpleasantly sickly scent, more sour than sweet, as if mixed with his own sweat. She saw how his hand – the fingers thickly crusted with jewelled rings – went to his short ceremonial dagger; how his lips moved wetly as he considered which girl he would have first.
'My lords ... you are welcome to my humble house,' she said, lowering her head again. 'Would you care for something to drink?'
Hsiang seemed about to answer, but before he could do so An Liang-chou moved past her and, after pawing two of the girls, chose the third. Gripping her upper arm tightly, he dragged her roughly after him, through the beaded curtain and into the rooms beyond.
Mu Chua watched him go then turned back to Hsiang, smiling, all politeness.
'Would the Lord Hsiang like refreshments?'
Hsiang smiled graciously and let himself be led through. But in the doorway to the Room of Heaven he stopped and turned to look at her.
'Why, this is excellent, Mu Chua. The General was not wrong when he said you were a woman of taste. I would not have thought such a place could have existed outside First Level.'
She bowed low, immensely pleased by his praise. 'Ours is but a humble house, Excellency.'
'However,' he said, moving on, into the room, 'I had hoped for ... well, let us not prevaricate, eh? ... for special pleasures.'
She saw how he looked at her and knew at once that she had misjudged him totally. His silken manners masked a nature far more repugnant than An Liangchou's.
'Special pleasures, Excellency?'
He turned then sat in the huge, silk-cushioned chair she had bought specially to accommodate his bulk, the fan moving slowly, languidly in his hand.
He looked back at her, his tiny eyes cold, calculating amidst the flesh of his face. 'Yes,' he said smoothly. 'They say you can buy anything in the Net. Anything at all.'
She felt herself go cold. Ebert had said nothing about this. From what he'd said, Hsiang's pleasures were no more unnatural than the next man's. But this ...
She waved the girls away then slid the door across and turned back, facing him, reminding herself that this was her passage out, the last time she would have to deal with his kind.
'What is it you would like?' she asked, keeping her voice steady. 'We cater for all tastes here, my lord.'
He smiled, a broad gap opening in the flesh of his lower face, showing teeth that seemed somehow too small to fill the space. His voice was silken, like the voice of a young woman.
'My needs are simple, Mu Chua. Very simple. And the General promised me that you would meet them.'
She knelt, bowing her head. 'Of course, Excellency. But tell me, what exactly is it that you want?'
He clicked the fan shut then leaned forward slightly, beckoning her across.
She rose, moving closer then knelt, her face only a hand's width from his knees. He leaned close, whispering, a hint of aniseed on his breath.
'I have been told that there is a close connection between sex and death. That the finest pleasure of all is to fuck a woman at the moment of her death. I have been told that the death throes of a woman bring on an orgasm so intense ...'
She looked up at him, horrified, but he was looking past her, his eyes lit with an intense pleasure, as if he could see the thing he was describing. She let him spell it out, barely listening to him now, then sat back on her heels, a small shiver passing through her.
'You want to kill one of my girls, is that it, Lord Hsiang? You wish to slit her throat while you are making love to her?'
He looked back at her, nodding. 'I will pay well.'
'Pay well ...' She looked down. It was not the first time she had had such a request. Even in the old days there had been some like Hsiang who linked their pleasure to the pain of others, but even under Whiskers Lu there had been limits to what she would allow. She had never had one of her girls die while with a client, intentionally or otherwise, and it was on her tongue to tell this bastard, Prince or no, to go fuck himself. Only ...
She shuddered then looked up at him again, seeing how eagerly he awaited her answer. To say no was to condemn herself at best to staying here, at worst to incurring the anger of Hans Ebert. And who knew what he would do to her if she spoiled things for him now? But to say yes was to comply with the murder of one of her girls. It would be as if she herself had held the knife and drawn it across the flesh.
'What you ask ...' she began, then hesitated.
She stood then turned away, moving towards the door before turning back to face him again. 'You must let me think, Lord Hsiang. My girls ...'
'Of course,' he said, as if he understood. 'It must be a special girl.'
His laughter chilled her blood. It was as if what he was discussing were a commonplace. As for the girl herself ... In all her years she had tried to keep it in her mind that what her clients bought was not the girl but the services of the girl, as one bought the services of an accountant or a broker. But men like Hsiang made no such distinction. To them the girl was but a thing; to be used and discarded as they wished.
But how to say no? What possible excuse could she give that would placate Hsiang K'ai Fan? Her mind raced, turning back upon itself time and again, trying to find a way out, some way of resolving this impossible dilemma. Then she relaxed, knowing, at last, what to do.
She smiled and moved closer, taking Hsiang's hands gently and raising him from his chair.
'Come,' she said, kissing his swollen neck, her right hand moving down his bloated flank, caressing him. 'You wanted special pleasures, Hsiang K'ai Fan, and special pleasures you will have. Good wine, fine music, the very best of foods ...'
'And after?' He stared at her, expectantly.
Mu Chua smiled, letting her hand rest briefly on the hard shape at his groin, caressing it through the silk. 'After, we shall do as you wish.'
* * *
Charles Lever's son, Michael, sat at his desk, facing Kim across the vastness of his office.
'Well? Have you seen enough?'
Kim looked about him. Huge tapestries filled the walls to the left and right of him: broad panoramas of the Rockies and the great American plains, while on the end wall, beyond Lever's big oak desk and the leather-backed swivel chair, was a bank of screens eight deep and twenty wide. In the centre of the plushly carpeted room, on a big, low table, under glass, was a 3-D map of the east coast of City North America, ImmVac's installations marked in blue. Kim moved closer, peering down through the glass.
'There's an awful lot to see.'
Lever laughed. 'That's true. But I think you've seen most of the more interesting parts.'
Kim nodded. They had spent the day looking over ImmVac's installations, but they had still seen only a small fraction of Old Man Lever's vast commercial empire. More than ever, Kim had been conscious of the sheer scale of the world into which he had come. Down there, in the Clay, it was not possible to imagine the vastness of what existed a wartha – up Above. At times he found himself overawed by it all, wishing for somewhere smaller, darker, cosier in which to hide. But that feeling never lasted long. It was, he recognized, residual; part of the darker self he had shrugged off. No, this was his world now. The world of vast, continent-spanning Cities and huge Corporations battling for their share of Chung Kuo's markets.
He looked up. Lever was searching in one of the drawers of his desk. A moment later he straightened, clutching a bulky folder. Closing the drawer with his knee, he came round, thumping the file down beside Kim.
'Here. This might interest you.'
Kim watched as Lever crossed the room and locked the big double doors with an old-fashioned key.
'You like old things, don't you?'
Lever turned, smiling. 'I've never thought about it really. We've always done things this way. Handwritten research files, proper keys, wooden desks. I guess it makes us ... different from the other North American Companies. Besides, it makes good sense. Computers are untrustworthy, easily accessed and subject to viruses. Likewise doorlocks and recognition units. But a good, old-fashioned key can't be beaten. In an age of guile, people are reluctant to use force – to break down a door or force open a drawer. The people who'd be most interested in our product have grown too used to sitting at their own desks to commit their crimes. To take the risk of entering one of our facilities would be beyond most of them.' He laughed. 'Besides, it's my father's policy to keep them happy with a constant flow of disinformation. Failed research, blind alleys, minor spin-offs of more important research programmes – that kind of thing. They tap into it and think they've got their finger on the pulse.'
Kim grinned. 'And they never learn?'
Lever shook his head, amused. 'Not yet they haven't.'
Kim looked down at the file. 'And this?'
'Open it and see. Take it across to my desk if you want.'
Kim flipped back the cover and looked, then turned his head sharply, staring at Lever. 'Where did you get this?'
'You've seen it before?'
Kim looked down at it again. 'I have ... of course I have, but not in this form. Who ...?' Then he recognized the handwriting. The same handwriting that had been on the copy of the cancelled SimFic contract he had been given by Li Yuan. 'Soren Berdichev ...'
Lever was looking at him strangely now. 'You knew?' Kim gave a small, shuddering breath. 'Six years ago. When I was on the Project.'
'You met Berdichev there?'
'He bought my contract. For his Company, SimFic.'
'Ah ... Of course. Then you knew he'd written the File?'
Kim laughed strangely. 'You think Berdichev wrote this?'
Kim looked away. 'So. He claimed it for his own.'
Lever shook his head. 'Are you trying to tell me he stole it from someone?'
In a small voice, Kim began to recite the opening of the File: the story of the pre-Socratic Greeks and the establishment of the Aristotelian Yes/No mode of thought. Lever stared back at him with mounting surprise.
'Shall I continue?'
Lever laughed. 'So you do know it. But how? Who showed it to you?'
Kim handed it back. 'I know because I wrote it.'
Lever looked down at the folder then back at Kim, giving a small laugh of disbelief. 'No,' he said quietly. 'You were only a boy.'
Kim was watching Lever closely. 'It was something I put together from some old computer records I unearthed. I thought Berdichev had had it destroyed. I never knew he'd kept a copy.'
'And you knew nothing about the dissemination?'
'You mean, you really didn't know?' Lever shook his head, astonished. 'This here is the original, but there are a thousand more copies back in Europe, each one of them like this, handwritten. Now we're going to do the same over here – to disseminate them amongst those sympathetic to the cause.'
Excerpted from The White Mountain by David Wingrove. Copyright © 2014 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.
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.
and post it to your social network
See all customer reviews >