13 BLOODY CRIPS TERRITORY, BACK EAST
Tall, broad of shoulder, imperious, Venom Chang strode through many rows of sullen prisoners, appearing to ignore the hundreds of captured Thirteeners kneeling in moist spring soil, dark heads bowed. Here, the shaved scalp of one of their supposedly elite forces. Bushy afro styles were far more common. Each cluster of six gangers was guarded by a two man Maintainers of Order team, the junior man an inferior Asian armed with an AK-47 carbine complete with 30-round banana clip, the senior a superior Chinese equipped with one of the precious laser Kitten Chaser weapons. Unreliable, ancient, prone to malfunctions no one in all of Hooded Cobra knew how to repair once the fifty year old battery packs failed, the light-shooters nonetheless terrified enemies out of all proportion to their reliability. They were worth using, and especially showing off, for the fierce intimidation factor alone.
Rare was the enemy fighter who could retain his equanimity when he saw the Kitten Chaser red light focused on his chest.
The so called Tiger was, naturally, attempting to pass as an ordinary ganger, huddling with five others at the far rear of their entire–again, “so called”–army. No tiger, this one. Not even a respectable pussy cat. Chang strode directly to the pitiful excuse for a man before coming to a stop. He stared down at the quivering fool but addressed his question to his aide, a man ten years his senior and a head shorter but built like one of the ancestors’ tanks. “This is their leader, Ban?”
“He is,” the shorter man assured him. “Anyone in all of their 13 Bloody Crips territory who dared defy this one’s orders did not live long or die well.” They spoke in Mandarin, the language of their great grandfathers, whom they chose to believe had been cousins. If nothing else, the Fall of humanity had made such decisions not only possible but impossible to disprove. Very convenient.
Chang, descended from voting Americans but known to his people as the Glorious Cobra’s Venom, or simply Venom, stood for nearly three minutes, studying his captive. Silence could be a useful tool, giving him time to think while the heavily tattooed black man shivered in fear, anticipating the worst. In his mid-thirties, the Shaking Man was fat. Really fat. Made Buddha look like Twiggy fat. Four…no, five hundred pounds if he weighed an ounce. Such a man clearly knew nothing of work, of self discipline, of pushing himself away from gluttony that less fortunate citizens might find something left to eat. His pitiful life had been one of self indulgence, oppressing his fellow Thirteeners, by all reports debauching underage girls and boys alike while conspiring with his equally corrupt opposite number among the Jews. There was no honor in this one, no virtue left worth cultivating, no hope of redemption.
Yet he had been the leader of more than seven thousand now-conquered people. He could not be left alive as a possible future rallying point for fools. The War Leader pondered, studying the fat man’s kneeling position. Telling him to stand up to face his destiny like a man would do no good whatsoever. Hauling him up by force would require a winch and a team of mules. Fortunately, the back of Shivering Coward’s fat-ruffled neck was exposed well enough. It would have to do.
Switching to Japanese, Chang spoke quietly to the man standing at his other side, the only non-Chinese warrior to ever serve in the Emperor’s inner circle. “Sora, is your sword sharp? It has drawn blood today. I fear we may need to ascertain it has not become dull.”
“Owatta,” the slender swordsman replied. “Done.” The katana slipped from its scabbard, swung high overhead, and sliced downward in one smooth motion, separating the fat man’s head from his gross body as cleanly as any French guillotine. The head did nothing remarkable, simply dropping face-down to balance on its broad nose in the damp earth. Wordless, the Skilled Man wiped his blade fastidiously on the mountainous corpse’s trouser leg before returning it to its scabbard.
“Give the rest of them their choice,” Wang said. “They can become Lesser Warriors serving Hooded Cobra, each squad led by a Chinese officer, or they can die. The matter is simple.”
WESTERN JEWISH STATE, BACK EAST
Every Council member was present. All but one were panicked, their fears fully rational. Not only had Moss Feldman made good his escape with his band of radical rebels, but he’d taken the only working machine gun with him. Hooded Cobra had wiped out 13 Bloody Crips opposition to the Serpent People’s invasion in a single battle, a battle which the cocky gangers had fully expected to win in a walk.
“Hot knife through butter,” one voice muttered. The Chinese-dominated Cobra force had proven themselves masters of both strategy and tactics. The gangs had proven themselves incompetent idiots.
And the Jews would be next.
There hadn’t been any ultimatum as yet, no threats whatsoever, no massing of troops near their borders. But there would be. The Chinese war leader, the aptly named Venom who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Sun Tzu himself…the man was a monster. He would eat them all and spit out their bones. Jews to the fires once again. Everything lost, lost, lost.
Ezekiel Gold, all too aware of his status as the only man capable of assessing the situation rationally, proved the exception. “Gentlemen,” he said in a quiet voice that nonetheless reached every corner of the room, “be calm. I have a plan.” They would not like his plan, but they would approve it unanimously. It salvaged much, bore some chance of massive reward, and–most importantly–none of them had a workable alternative to offer.
EMPEROR’S PALACE, HOODED COBRA CAPITOL
Emperor Thomas Mandalay Chung sat erect, comfortable in his gold-gleaming, well padded seat of power. With his smoothly muscled, royal derriere positioned precisely four inches above the silver clad administrative chairs to left and right, the supreme ruler of New Chinese Empire could easily converse with his advisers without allowing any courtier to misunderstand his absolute authority. Civil Advisor to the monarch’s left, his incoming side, wisdom taken to heart where it would be studied, evaluated, and placed in its proper niche. Military Advisor to the right, his outgoing fist, the Long Arm of Imperial Decree, carrying the force of law as well as the power of life and death.
T.M. Chung had no idea who his ancestors really were. Even the round-eye grandmother who had raised him had been pretending when she called him grandson. Still, both Advisors were legally his cousins, not by blood but by royal decree. Adjusting his crimson robes of state slightly, a mannerism more than a need, he took one long look around the throne room before getting down to mundane business. Where his artisans had found the hexagon-shaped floor tiles of rose-streaked pattern, alternating with others exhibiting a creamier base and chocolate streaking, he neither knew nor cared. The effect calmed and soothed him; that was enough. The walls looked like vertical bamboo posts, another pleasing effect, though one hundred percent illusion.
Enough. He would look up to enjoy the ceiling mural another time. Ignoring the hundred or so citizens waiting for a turn at the Emperor’s ear, he spoke quietly. “Advisor Chang, training goes as expected?”
“It does, Great One,” Venom replied with easy confidence. Of all the citizens in the Empire, he alone did not fear his Emperor in the slightest. The two of them had saved each other’s lives too many times to count, fighting back to back during childhood years that saw more than half of their peers dead before the age of puberty. Without their teamwork during the past two decades, there would never have been an Empire at all. “Seventeen percent of the trainees conscripted after our victory have died in training or been executed for trying to desert, for cowardice, or for being just plain stupid. Another two percent died during drug withdrawal. Both figures are within expected norms. Losses are tailing off nicely. By the time we are ready for the next step in your exalted campaign to unify this continent under your Imperial banner, Black Force should number around six hundred expendable but thoroughly trained shock troops.” Cannon fodder, in other words.
That did not count the Chinese officers who would be leading them, because those, too, were expendable, having come under scrutiny for various reasons ranging from political unreliability to drug use to getting caught in the wrong bed.
Six hundred freshly trained troops, none of them trustworthy individually but under total control as a group. Any wrong move by one man, or even a wrong comment, would be both reported by and disciplined by his own teammates. Fear of the tattle tale was a highly useful tool, extensively and effectively utilized by the twentieth century dictator, Adolf Hitler, as well as many others before and since. The teachings of Sun Tzu coupled with Gestapo practices could–and in the Empire’s case, did–produce a military machine capable of both precision and unparalleled ferocity.
“Our single kingdom denigrated by unbelievers as unworthy of the title has become a true Empire,” he observed quietly to Venom. “Ching would be proud.” Turning to his Civil Advisor, he queried, “How are the Jews doing?” It was more than idle wondering. They were next on his list for conquest, the Cuya County wizards being unassailable on their home turf and the Native American noncombatants having already begun to fade like smoke, disappearing into the steep, wooded slopes of New Range mountains. Those redskins claimed a huge amount of territory as their own. Their capitol city on Dead White Man River was a maze of earth-reinforced structures, each set halfway into the ground and more than useful as fighting shelters. Taking UTE City would be costly if not impossible. Additionally, the First People warriors had war parties roaming the banks of all four rivers running through their lands. If they were pressed too hard, all the Natives would have to do to cripple Hooded Cobra entirely would be…Emperor Chung shuddered to think of it. Poison the Kim Chee River and Hooded Cobra would die, writhing in agony. Up north, the Asians drew strongly from Fall Back River, but Kim Chee served as his people’s primary bread basket as well as providing the Cobra capitol’s entire fresh water supply.
So the white wizards and the red warriors would be left alone. For now. Once the Western Jewish State was no more, Hooded Cobra would control every inch of the Northeast Territory’s access to the Ocean of Sturms with its protected bays and coves teeming with fish, its rich delta lands. Let the Reds and Whites retain the inland…for now.
Advisor Wang referred briefly to the papers stacked in his lap. “Our spies continue to confirm their willingness to fight, Great One. They have begun digging in, setting up defensive positions. General consensus is that while with superior strategy we may be able to bypass a number of their fighting posts, it will not be possible to slip past all of them. They also stress that we would not want to do so in any case, as leaving combatants in fighting condition at our rear would be a risk.”
Venom Chang commented without waiting for permission from his Emperor. “They presume to judge what I will or will not want to do?”
“Ah…no, War Leader. I would not judge their dispatches in that light. Their wording is sometimes a bit intemperate, perhaps, but none of our operators in the field would presume to undermine your authority. They would not dare.”
The Emperor asked, “Do our spies have an estimate, or better yet an actual count, of these…fighting posts, as they call them?”
“No, your Excellency. They do not. In fact, that is the one most important detail they have not been able to ascertain. Secrecy is surprisingly tight; none of them–or us, for that matter–suspected the Jews of having this level of discipline, especially after the defection of the fighting rebels led by the one called Moss Feldman. One thing….” He shuffled his papers, looking for the one he wanted. “Ah. Yes. One thing they have been able to ascertain is that some if not all of their fighters will be mobile, enabling them to reinforce within minutes any post that comes under heavy attack. But how they are going to do that, we do not yet know. And–
The great double doors at the far end of the room opened abruptly, swinging inward, admitting a lone man who strode without hesitation toward the throne. He was stopped by the leveled weapons of Chung’s personal bodyguard a mere twenty feet from the dais. Other guards, closer to their Emperor, stood tensed and ready to throw their bodies in front of the Exalted One, should the intruder produce a ranged weapon. True, no one could have gotten past the door guards without knowing one of the Incontrovertible Passwords, but there was his appearance which worked strongly against him.
He was an unremarkable man of middle height. He was also obviously white. And a Jew.
The entire room was shocked at their Emperor’s response to this interloper. “Clear the room,” he said in a voice that said sooner rather than later, “of everyone but this man, my War Leader, Sora the Skilled Man, and myself.”
Had it not been worth their heads, many of them would have objected. None did.
Once the huge, ornate doors were closed, Chung’s royal visage relaxed visibly. “Come forward, Marcus. Grab that chair–yes, that one—and bring it over to the dais. You might as well be comfortable while we chat.”
The Jew with the Roman name settled himself, unconcerned that he had to look up a bit to the higher-seated ruler. Cricks in one’s neck were minor irritations, not worth considering. He did not speak, though. In the Emperor’s presence, one did not do so until commanded.
“So,” Chung cracked a rare smile, lighting up his face. “You must have important news if you felt it worth blowing your cover to report in person. Surely your WJS masters will have missed you long before now.”
“Yes and no,” Marcus replied, allowing a small smile of his own to crease his features. “Yes, I bring important news. No, they have not missed me yet–because they sent me to speak with you as their official Ambassador.”
Chung’s brows rose in surprise. “You have earned their trust to that degree?”
“Apparently so. Either that or they knowingly sent me as your chief spy, but I do not believe it is that. I am not aware of having made any mistakes, and I still look Jewish rather than Chinese. My ancestry is well hidden, though my grandmother watches over me. I can tell.”
The Emperor did not doubt that. As bastardized as some of his beliefs and practices might be when compared to Old China, the worship of ancestors remained intact. Though Chung had no record of his own lineage, he could feel the Departed Ones working with him, guiding his steps through danger. He might not know them, but they knew him. “Well then, my mixed-race friend, Ambassador from the over-proud WJS, what news?”
“Primarily this.” From within the slim satchel slung over one shoulder, he produced a single sheet of paper. Not presuming to pass it to his Emperor directly, he handed it to Sora, who handed it to Venom, who handed it to the Emperor.
Chung read the missive. Once, then again, and finally a third time, because he could not believe the contents. For the edification of his War Leader, he summarized the contents, causing Venom Chang’s eyes to widen. “Ezekiel Gold, speaking for the Ruling Council of the Western Jewish State, congratulates me on our conquest of 13 Bloody Crips. He lays on the flattery, blah blah blah. Then he suggests Hooded Cobra and the WJS become allies, joining forces to equip an expedition to the western lands for both exploration and conquest. And he suggests that if I am willing to meet to discuss such an alliance, or to designate a representative in my place, he would welcome that, and would himself handle their side of negotiations.”
Venom Chang was stunned. A warrior bred to the bone, he had been working on various plans for conquest of the Jews. But if they were willing to…he didn’t like it, and yet, it could save hundreds of casualties. Keep his entire army intact. Perhaps it was not a bad idea.
They could always take out the Semites later.
He was still trying to sort through the ramifications when his superior continued. “What are you up to, Mr. Ezekiel Gold?” The Emperor opened the topic for discussion between his Chief Spy (Jewish quarter), his War Leader, and even–should he have a worthwhile thought to insert, as he sometimes did–the Japanese swordsman, the Skilled Man. “It could be fear of us, plain and simple, but nothing is ever plain and simple with Jews. Their leaders, at least, have learned from history. The writer of this letter might be almost as tricky and deceitful as me.” Considering the topic, he spoke in Yiddish at first, but switched to unaccented English when he realized only Marcus understood the common street language of the Semites.
“Revenge could be a factor,” Venom Chang said.
“Revenge? On whom?”
The Jew-hating Jew answered that. “On the escaped rebel leader, Moss Feldman, and those who fled with him. Glorious Chang may have hit the nail on the head. Councilman Ezekiel Gold does not often let his emotions rule him, but the few times I’ve seen steam coming out of his ears have always related to Feldman. Not only did the rebel defy his entire government, but his daughter in law fled with him.”
“His daughter in law?” This Jew allowed himself to be influenced by a mere woman?
“Most assuredly. It seems Gold went to extreme pains, plotting to place young Merrilee Feldman’s husband–who was Moss Feldman’s son–in harm’s way during battles with raiders from 13 Bloody Crips. There is some speculation he even conspired with Thirteeners so they would know where the younger Feldman might be on patrol. In due course, the man did indeed die in combat, widowing his young wife. Gold clearly had eyes for the girl and thought she would fall easily into his grasp once her husband was out of the picture permanently, but she would have none of him. So, a combination of extreme lust and thwarted ego, that is my best guess. War Leader, your eyes are sharp and your ears wide, to have guessed this.”
Venom Chang nodded slightly in acknowledgment, though he had only known about Moss Feldman, not the girl Merrilee. Emperor Chung looked thoughtful. If lust and revenge, both emotions that blinded foolish men…if these drove Ezekiel Gold, he could be manipulated easily. Not that anything should ever be assumed to be easy until done was done, but…he chuckled involuntarily.
The others gave him polite, inquiring looks. What was so funny? “It is nothing.” He waved a hand, reverting to Chinese, indicating the discussion was closed. His War Leader would know and understand, but he wasn’t about to explain their childhood Triumvirate Gang to the others. Ching, Chang, Chung, we called ourselves. The men whose bell was rung. Destiny called, Ching done falled, and that’s how the song was sung. Short and slight, full of quick humor, their friend who’d come up with the names lay dying, the jagged knife wound having ripped his belly wide open. “Never mind me,” the boy had gasped. “Go found our Empire.”
Tommy Mandalay and the hard-muscled youth already known as Venom did both, of course. They minded their friend, seeing that he was properly cremated, his ashes kept in a jar in the Emperor’s private quarters. Then they had hunted down his killers, destroyed them, and begun building toward the future.
In private, between just the two of them, Venom and the Emperor considered their growing influence as nothing more than the Empire of Ching, whose original name they had never known.