Chasing the Phoenix: a science fiction masterpiece from a five-time Hugo Award winner Michael Swanwick!
In the distant future, Surplus arrives in China dressed as a Mongolian shaman, leading a yak which carries the corpse of his friend, Darger. The old high-tech world has long since collapsed, and the artificial intelligences that ran it are outlawed and destroyed. Or so it seems.
Darger and Surplus, a human and a genetically engineered dog with human intelligence who walks upright, are a pair of con men and the heroes of a series of prior Swanwick stories. They travel to what was once China and invent a scam to become rich and powerful. Pretending to have limited super-powers, they aid an ambitious local warlord who dreams of conquest and once again reuniting China under one ruler. And, against all odds, it begins to work, but it seems as if there are other forces at work behind the scenes. Chasing the Phoenix is a sharp, slick, witty science fiction adventure that is hugely entertaining from Michael Swanwick, one of the best SF writers alive.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Michael Swanwick is the winner of five Hugo Awards for his short fiction. His several novels include the Nebula-winning Stations of the Tide, the time-travel novel Bones of the Earth, and the “industrial fantasy” novels The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel. He lives in Philadelphia.
Read an Excerpt
Chasing the Phoenix
By Michael Swanwick
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Michael Swanwick
All rights reserved.
Third year, summer, first month, of the royal year. The Hidden King killed his brothers so that there might be no rivals for his throne and continued his preparations for war. In that same month, a stranger unlike any ever seen before came to the Abundant Kingdom.
— THE SUMMER AND WINTER ANNALS
SURPLUS CAME down out of the north dressed in a Mongolian shaman's robes covered with multicolored ribbons and hammered copper disks. He was leading a yak adorned with red tassels and tiny silver bells. The yak carried a bundle swaddled in cloth and carefully tied up with ropes.
In the bundle was the corpse of his friend Aubrey Darger.
The territory he passed through was blessed by Providence with fertile farmlands and plentiful water and was therefore known throughout China as the land of leisure and abundance. Fields of canola, tea, and sugarcane alternated with groves of mulberry, tung, and camphor laurel trees, to say nothing of such Utopian survivals as sausage gourds, self-fermenting litchi fruit, and the neural reprogramming tubers from which various tutelary liqueurs were distilled.
Small wonder that this lush country was called the Abundant Kingdom.
Yet as he traveled, the American adventurer could not help but notice frequent groups of soldiers galloping purposefully through the countryside and, on the roads, long trains of wagons carrying gunpowder, grain, salt, crates of swords and rifles, and bundles of uniforms, along with coffles of horses and herds of swine and cattle being driven toward the capital in great numbers. Clearly, preparations were being made for war. So it was that he came to the city of Brocade in an uncharacteristically apprehensive mood.
As he approached the city gate, Surplus made sure that his tail was safely tucked inside his robes. Then he threw a scarf over his head and donned a wide straw hat so that, when he stared down at the ground, his face could not be seen. His paws were hidden by his robe's long sleeves.
Three guards loitered by the gate, unenthusiastically watching a steady flow of peasants, monks, merchants, and the like come and go. They straightened at Surplus's approach, their boredom instantly dispelled by the appearance of so colorful a personage. "Halt!" their captain cried. "Identify yourself and your place of origin and your doubtless squalid and illegal reasons for wishing to enter the city."
Behind him, his two subordinates struck fierce postures. Because they all stood in the center of the gate, blocking passage, a crowd began to gather.
"My name is of no matter," Surplus said mildly. He turned to his yak and, tucking his walking stick under his arm, began to untie the bundle. "I come from a land where there is neither disease nor pain. Children do not grow old there, nor do flowers fade. No one drinks alcohol, for the water that runs down from the Mountains of Life is purer than any other water and satisfies all needs, from hunger to the calming of the passions. There is only one power that this divine water lacks, and it is for this reason that I have come to Brocade, seeking the Infallible Physician." He threw back the cloth to reveal the corpse-gray face of his friend. "It cannot bring the dead back to life."
A gasp of horror went up from the crowd. "Arrest that man!" cried the captain of the guard. "He is either a grave robber or something worse."
But when the two subordinate guards tried to lay hands on Surplus, he lashed out with his cane, striking one on the forehead with its tip and then burying its silver knob deep in the other's stomach. Both men went down, the one unconscious and the other kneeling in the street, clutching himself and moaning piteously.
The captain of the guard reflexively took a step backward.
Speaking in a deep and unhurried voice, Surplus said, "Is this the famous courtesy of Brocade? Far have I traveled to come here. From the Beautiful Country came I, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Land of Heroes. Then by various ways to Moscow in the Lean Country, through Siberia to Mongolia, and from there south to the Respectful Land and the Kingdom of the Blue Sea. Everywhere I went, your city was praised for the warmth and hospitality of its people. Hearing this, I thought: I must reward this metropolis for its virtue. What shall I give it? Perhaps it needs a new river. Perhaps I should place rich veins of silver in the land nearby. But, arriving, I discover its people are arrogant and rude. Shall I then punish you with whirlwinds or earthquake or plague?"
Bristling, the captain said, "Who are you to speak so strangely and to make such extravagant threats?" Yet he advanced on Surplus with visible reluctance.
Surplus stopped him with a lordly gesture. "Do not ask who," he cried. "But, rather, ask what!"
Throwing off his hat and scarf, Surplus bared his teeth and growled. Thus presenting the man with the uncanny sight of a dog's head on a man's body. Simultaneously, he drew the blade from his sword cane so that to the crowd, whose attention was riveted on his face, it would seem to have materialized in his paw.
The captain fell to his knees. It was possible that Surplus's having swung around the wooden half of his cane and with it deftly striking those same knees in the back helped this occur. Surplus then brought up his own knee and dealt the scoundrel a blow to the chin that sent him sprawling on the cobbles.
Placing a foot on the man's chest and letting the sword's point dangle by his eyes, Surplus said, too quietly for anybody but his fallen victim to hear, "Do nothing, and you will not be harmed." Then he raised his voice and addressed everyone within earshot. "Who here knows where the Infallible Physician lives?"
There was a rustle in the crowd as people looked around to see who might speak up. No one did. Surplus glared about him, and they all shrank away from his fierce mien. "I shall put off punishing this city until I have spoken with the Infallible Physician. It may well be that he will talk me into staying my righteous wrath. Or perhaps — and I consider this far more likely — he will but confirm me in my judgment. We shall see."
Without hurry, Surplus reunited the two halves of his cane and tied up his friend's corpse. He did not pick up his hat and scarf but left them blowing in the street. Then he strode imperiously into the city, leading his yak by the reins. Though it did not take him long to pass beyond those who had witnessed the incident at the gate, his appearance continued to draw stares.
To one of Surplus's profession, the best thing to be in a city was anonymous. Failing that, however, notoriety would do.
* * *
A QUESTION here and an answer there led Surplus to the central market. There, he went from merchant to merchant, asking after the Infallible Physician. "I have heard of that distinguished man," said a terrified vendor of dumpling fruit, "but not of where he might live." The woman selling flower necklaces that bloomed and changed color according to their wearer's emotions and that all clenched up into scentless black buds at his approach, dipped her head and in a small voice said, "Alas, no." The man at the next table said, "All I know is that he has never come to buy my spices." A fat Buddha of an ostler who rented out red-and-white-striped saddle-cats for children to ride along an oval track merely spread his flabby arms and shrugged.
None of this discouraged Surplus, however, for he saw the staring eyes all about him, and heard the whispered comments in his wake, and knew that he was at the epicenter of expanding circles of rumor and speculation that were even now running swiftly through the city. Someone, he was sure, would materialize soon enough and provide him with the information he sought. In the meantime, he noted approvingly that though many of the merchants stiffened and paled at the sight of him, all replied to his questions politely, and several offered him a mango, a glass of liqueur, or the like. One man, indeed, eyes quivering, urged upon him a pearl the size of his fist, carved into the likeness of an ocean wave crashing into a mountainside, near the summit of which was a small pagoda topped by the obscure religious symbol the ancients called a "satellite dish." Then, when that was refused, the vendor tried to give him a chunk of ivory root carved into eight concentric lattice balls, each so decorated as to represent one of the possible electron shells of an atom with the ephemeral forms that decayed almost instantly on the outermost two shells and the yin and yang of hydrogen and helium at the center. It seemed that the renowned courtesy of Brocade was not entirely of his own invention.
"Sir! Dog-man, sir!"
A young man came running out in the street and bowed deeply before Surplus. "My name is Capable Servant, sir, and I am looking for employment."
"I have no need of a servant," Surplus said, and turned away.
But somehow the young man had twisted himself in front of Surplus again. Smiling ingratiatingly, he said, "Everybody needs a servant, excellent sir, whether they know it or not. I can wash and mend clothes, shop wisely, haggle well over prices, brew beer, mix ink, and cut goose quills into pens. When times are hard, I can trap hares in the countryside and, with the aid of roots and spices I know how to identify in the wild, turn them into a delicious stew. I am able to distinguish poisonous mushrooms from those which are nutritious to eat, and can whistle cheerful tunes to repel ghosts. I will wake you up in the morning, draw your bath, discreetly relay love letters to your paramours, and carry you home safely when you're drunk. Also, I can curry the fur of your yak and, saving the hair that comes off in the brush, make of it a soft yarn from which to knit you warm socks for the winter, and perform a thousand chores more besides."
"These are all useful services, and I have no doubt you will easily find someone who needs them done. For my part, my only desire is to find the Infallible Physician." Surplus gently pushed the young man aside and continued onward.
Only to discover Capable Servant trotting by his side, eyes agleam. "Oh, sir! I know where to find that esteemed gentleman. I even know why others do not, for I am curious by nature and make it my business to listen to all the gossip and idle chatter, and I forget not a word of it, though years may pass. I am a very useful fellow indeed, sir."
Surplus stopped. "Very well," he said. "If you can bring me to the Infallible Physician and if he can bring my friend back to life, as I was told in the steppes he could, then I will hire you at standard wages for so long as you wish to be my servant."
"You are truly gracious, sir. The Infallible Physician no longer lives in Brocade. Several years ago, he retired to a small hut in a village an hour's walk outside the city walls. That is why he is so hard to find. But I shall lead you directly to his door."
* * *
THUS IT Was that, within hours of entering Brocade, Surplus left again, this time in possession of a manservant. As they walked, Surplus asked, "Is your name really Capable Servant?"
"Oh yes, sir. My mother named me Capable Servant of No Special Distinction, thinking it would improve my chances of finding employment. Capable Servant, because that is what every gentleman needs. Of No Special Distinction to reassure my master that I am unlikely to leave his hire seeking better pay elsewhere."
"How, then, did you find yourself in need of a job?"
"My last employer grew very old and died." Capable Servant made a sad face. "But tell me, sir. When I am asked the name of my employer, what shall I say?"
"My name is Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux, which is how I should be addressed on formal occasions. But, that being a bit overlong for everyday use, you may call me Surplus."
"Yours is a strange and wonderful name," Capable Servant marveled, "and surely foretells some great destiny. May I ask you another question, sir?"
"Why is it that you have the stance and intellect of a man, but the fur and features of a dog?"
"In the Demesne of Western Vermont, that great nation whose citizen I have the honor to be" — in Chinese the name translated as the Land of the Green Mountains of the West — "the scientists are particularly adept at genetic manipulation. Taking the genome of the noble dog, they expressed a gene here and suppressed another there to create me as I am."
"Yes, sir. Exactly so, sir. But, sir — why?"
"Oh," Surplus said, glancing up the road lazily curving to the top of a low hill, "I am certain that they had their reasons."
At that instant, a giant metal spider crested the hilltop. Lifting and dropping eight sleek and cunningly jointed legs, the gleaming black monstrosity stalked down the road toward the two travelers with ponderous delicacy. Surplus stopped dead in his tracks. Capable Servant fell over backward in astonishment.
The incredible machine flowed down the hillside and then came to a stop directly before Surplus. Its legs bent, lowering the soldier in the cab that made up its flattened sphere of a body to Surplus's eye level. They goggled at one another in amazement.
"Hello!" The soldier might have been a child witnessing its first circus.
"Hello!" Surplus, for his part, could not have been more astonished if a Megalosaurus, forty feet long, had come waddling out of the underbrush.
"What on earth are you?" the soldier demanded.
"I might ask the same question of you," Surplus replied.
"I am Sergeant Bright Prosperity of the Good Fortune Spider Corps" — the young man slapped the metal flank of his vehicle — "and this is my war machine, Death to the Enemies of the State. And you, sir?"
"I am but a humble shaman from the steppes of Mongolia. Forgive me for saying so, but your machine terrifies me. It is like a nightmare out of the past. Surely in China, as in all civilized lands, such complex mechanisms are both illegal and abhorred."
The soldier laughed. "Ah, sir, my mount and I are not of the past, but rather the spearhead of the future. These resurrected machines will be the terror of the Hidden King's enemies and the foundation of the Abundant Kingdom's new glory. Our scholars located them in hidden man-made caverns deep within the earth, our natural philosophers created fuel for them, and now men such as I have learned how to make them go where we wish. Yes, in all the other countries of China the Great, they are yet shunned and feared. That, they shall discover to their chagrin, will be their downfall."
"You intend to use this dreadful thing as a weapon?" Surplus asked.
"Only the Hidden King is in a position to make such a decision." The soldier lifted his chin. "But when he does — as I am sure he must — I stand ready to ride my mount to the Land of the Mountain Horses, across the Panda Mountains, and all the way to its capital city of Peace, scattering his enemies before me."
"You are a bold man, Sergeant Bright Prosperity, and so I can only conclude is your king as well. Would you like me to bestow a blessing upon you and your mechanical arachnid abomination?"
"Thank you, but no, oh dog-shaman. My mount and I are in no need of your superstitious mumbo jumbo."
"Then I shall simply stand out of your way."
The soldier raised his spider's cab to its full height and it strode down the road.
In its wake, a second spider topped the hill, and behind that a third. One by one, over forty such vehicles sped lightly past Surplus and Capable Servant, who stared after them until all had disappeared in the distance.
"Have I seen what I saw, or was it all a dream?" one of them asked.
"A dream, surely," said the other. "And yet it seemed so real."
Marveling, they resumed their journey.
* * *
IN THOUGHTFUL silence Surplus and his new servant made their way through the countryside to the edge of a small but tidy village. There they were directed to a thatched hut with a single flowering magnolia in the dirt dooryard. Chickens scratched about among the sparse weeds. It seemed a highly unlikely place to find an illustrious man of medicine.
At a nod from Surplus, Capable Servant knocked on the door.
A white-bearded man, bent over with age and leaning on a stick whose support he clearly needed, answered the knock, frowning. "Go away," he said, and slammed the door.
The two excludees looked at one another. Then Capable Servant knocked a second time.
Excerpted from Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick. Copyright © 2015 Michael Swanwick. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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