Monday, June 18, 2007


The Day's Progress

Short work day today, as I spent this morning reinstalling my wiki database after switching service providers, and this afternoon reworking the tense on the first few chapters I wrote last week. My brain appears to be hardwired to past tense, and I kept dropping back into past as I was writing. When my masters at Solaris wrote to express some slight concern about maintaining the voice over a prolonged narrative, I took the excuse to retool and go with my instincts. So if you read the bits from last week, just switch the tenses in your head and you're right up to speed.

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In today's sample, which is the entirety of Chapter Four, Zhuan Jie gets the highlights of the plot spelled out for him.
“It’s called the Dragon.”

The rough-hewn man with the qilin badge of a first-rank officer stitched across the chest of his Eight Banners dress uniform slid a lithograph across the table to Zhuan Jie.

“Strange name for a Mexic vessel,” Zhuan said, looking up from the image.

“It’s our code-name for the craft,” said the man wearing the red surcoat of the Interplanetary Fleet’s dress uniform, the insignia of a fleet admiral on his breast. “And it’s no longer a Mexic vessel, to be precise. It’s ours.”

There had been three people seated across the table when Zhuan was lead in. A general of the Eight Banners named Qiao, an admiral of the Interplanetary Fleet named Geng, and a woman introduced only as Agent Wu. So far the woman had not spoken, but the admiral paused and glanced at her before continuing, almost as if looking for permission.

“Came down after a firefight with a reconnaissance patrol,” Admiral Geng said. “Impacted on Gonggong, with minimal damage to the craft’s structural integrity. The crew wasn’t as lucky. Their radio had been shot out in the exchange, and they were unable to call for any assistance. The last of them died just as our salvage team was getting the hatch pried open.”

“A salvage team of bannermen,” General Qiao was quick to amend.

The admiral nodded in the general’s direction, a conciliatory gesture. “As you say. In any event, once the bodies were cleared out, and as much of the blood as possible, our artificers went to work restoring the craft’s systems to full functioning. As well as accommodating for the more...” He paused, grimacing slightly. “...brutal aspects of the craft’s control mechanisms. The lead artificer reports that the newly-christened Dragon should be vacuum-worthy in another two days’ time.”

Zhuan studied the image before him, the oblong, lozenge-shaped body, with looping armatures from the dorsal and ventral sides. A brutal design, so unlike the baroque curves of a Middle Kingdom vessel.

“What is this to do with me?” Zhuan looked up, his gaze taking in the three people before him.

The two men glanced at each other, then to the woman, before the general finally answerd. “Have you ever heard of Xolotl?”

Zhuan shook his head.

The general’s eyes cut to the silent Agent Wu, and he continued. “There have been rumors about a secret Mexic base for some time, fragmentary reports and whispers from the lips of dying prisoners. But until recently, we’ve been unable to ascertain the base’s existence, much less its location.”

“For years,” Admiral Geng said, folding his hands on the table before him, “the strategists of the Middle Kingdom have wrestled with the question of precisely where the Mexic fleet is based. They don’t come all the way from Earth for each sortie, clearly. But neither are they based on or around Fire Star. And yet time and again the Mexica are able to get warships in orbit around Fire Star, or attack ships of the Dragon Throne in the interplanetary gulf between the orbits of Fire Star and Earth. It’s long been theorized that the Mexica employ some sort of orbital base, but all attempts to locate it have been stymied.”

“Until now,” said the woman named Agent Wu, with a slight smile. “Recently, the Eastern Depot received intercepted transmissions that proved to be coded Mexic communications. These were decrypted by the Eastern Depot’s best cryptographers, and were revealed to contain information not only about the location of Xolotl, but also about its security protocols and pass-codes.” Her voice unsettled Zhuan; sounding of honey and sweetness, there was something toxic and sharp just beneath the surface. She treated Zhuan to a sweet-seeming smile, and then pulled another lithograph from the sheaf before her, and flipped it across the table to him.

Zhuan leaned forwards, keeping his hands in his lap. The lithograph depicted an asteroid, the image apparently taken at a considerable distance, if the graininess could be assumed to indicate high-magnification.

“Once we knew were to look,” Agent Wu continued, “it was a matter of ease to find. Using a high-powered remote-viewing mirror, we were able to find out even more about the asteroid. It’s almost two kilometers in diameter, and follows an elliptical orbit around the sun, between the orbits of Earth and Fire Star. For months at a time it tracks very near Fire Star, just a few degrees off the red planet’s orbital plane. The delta-v requirements to get from Earth to Xolotl, or from there to Fire Star, are comparatively low. Its close proximity to Fire Star makes it an ideal staging ground for the Mexic forces, and it is believed that Xolotl acts as the home base for the majority of the Mexic fleet and ground forces. They’ve even managed to put enough of a spin on the asteroid that the hollowed interior must have an appreciable gravity, probably somewhere around that of Earth’s moon.”

General Qiao shifted forward in his seat, splaying his fingers wide on the table’s surface, looking like a predator about to pounce on its prey. “This Xolotl is just the thing we’ve been after, all this time. If the forces of the Dragon Throne can successfully knock this rock out of the sky, we could deal a crippling blow to the Mexic Dominion’s ability to wage war.”

“Come to that,” Admiral Geng put in, “if we take out Xolotl, we might end the threat posed by the Dominion altogether, in the vacuum and on Fire Star definitely, and possibly even on Earth itself.”

Zhuan frowned. “Again, and begging your pardons, but what is this to do with me?” He glanced at the dark shadow of the asteroid on the lithograph. “I’m not expected to attack this thing, am I?”

The general shook his head, chuckling. “Don’t worry, sailor. We have some real soldiers picked out for that particular duty.”

The admiral shot the general a sharp look, and seemed to bite back a response, before turning his attention back to Zhuan. “The strike team is already assembled. But we need someone to get them there.”

Agent Wu extended a long finger, pointing at the lithograph of the lozenge-shaped Mexic craft. “Which brings us back to the Dragon,” she said with a slight smile, “and your part in this enterprise.”

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