The crowd surged forward, breaking into a run as shells fell around them. It was impossible to speak or yell for Fei-cui to keep up with him. There were too many screams and the noise was almost deafening. Hao was borne along with them, realizing that trying to fight against this flow was the fastest way to get trampled to death.
Odyssey: The Journey Back
© 2010 by Walter D. Reimer
(Katie MacArran and the Iron Phoenix Squadron courtesy of John Urie. Thanks!)
Before he began concentrating on his own self-preservation, he spared a thought for Fei-cui and hoped she would make it.
In the darkness, he quickly lost sight of her.
After a while the sounds of explosions and screams faded away, to be replaced once more by the shuffling of hundreds of feet. Hao plucked a piece of greenery from a tree as he walked past and chewed on it as an alternative to a cigarette.
He would have killed someone for a Fortuna right now.
It got a bit colder as the crowd moved on, and his breath misted from his nostrils as he walked, tucking his paws into his sleeves for warmth. Lunch was a memory now, and his stomach was asking him if his throat had been cut recently.
Fei-cui had been carrying the food, and he cursed her again.
Oh well, the opportunity to eat would present itself at some point. He could steal, if no one would give him anything.
After several hours he looked up at the stars to orient himself and almost started cursing in English.
He’d been headed south, not west, and he berated himself for stupidly not staying focused on the task at paw. He also realized he was alone, the rest of the refugees having moved on.
Hao looked back up at the sky. Yes, there was Orion . . . there was the Dipper . . . okay, there was true north. He started to retrace his steps, headed back to the river, when he stopped, ears twitching in time to his tail.
If anyone who knew him had seen him, it might have been comical – Hao drew his Nambu pistol and started frantically looking for a place to hide. He had no idea how many of them there were, and he didn’t care. He knew he had to find cover, and fast.
A foot came down on empty air, and he stumbled as he pulled back from the brink of some kind of hole. With no way of knowing in the dark how deep it was, he scrambled to sit at the lip of the pit and dropped in, feet first.
The pit wasn’t all that deep, maybe five feet or so. The surface was soft and uneven, and he stumbled, falling forward on his paws and knees. The smell hit him then, and he managed to avoid crying out in shock.
Redolent with the smell of stale blood and wastes.
He had fallen into what appeared to be a mass grave.
The sound of voices grew closer and he realized that there was no time to climb out of the hole. Quickly, Hao tucked the Nambu into a sleeve and threw himself down on the pile of bodies. A moment’s hesitation and he pulled one of the sprawled corpses over him to give himself some more cover.
The voices got closer as he lay there, and he tried to slow or still his breathing as much as possible. It was difficult, as he felt his stomach churning in an effort to vomit at the thought of lying atop a heap of corpses.
Above him he heard the soldiers laughing, making crude jokes at the expense of the bodies in the pit. Various items of equipment jangled, and he heard one drinking from a canteen.
That reminded him that he was thirsty.
Some more voices, and laughing.
There was a pause, and he could hear liquid spattering on the corpse above him, and more on either side. A flying droplet hit him on the nose and he grimaced, unseen in the darkness.
The Japanese were showing their contempt for the Chinese by pissing on their corpses.
Which meant they were pissing on him.
Hao gritted his teeth and tried to stay absolutely still, resisting the urge to get up and try to kill the soldiers. He reminded himself that he was alone, likely outgunned, and Xiu was waiting for him back in Hong Kong.
It felt like an eternity, but finally the soldiers finished and walked away from the grave, talking among themselves. Had he really cared, he would have paid attention to what they were saying, but he just laid there as things grew quiet except for the sighing of the chill night wind.
The stress of the encounter over, Hao suddenly felt tired. Tired? Exhausted; he hadn’t slept in an actual bed in a couple of days or so, he was hungry again and his mouth felt like dry cotton.
The weariness was like some weird octopus, dragging him down into unconsciousness.
He let it, giving in to the desire to get some sleep. He actually wriggled a bit deeper into the layer of bodies beneath him, shifting the one he’d pulled over him a bit closer. Corpses they might have been, but they were mainly wearing coats and could give him some warmth that way.
He tried very hard not to think about what he was doing, though.
Slowly the octopus dragged him down into the darkness.
He was having the most wonderful dream.
A soft feather bed in the Grand, covered with a pile of down quilts. Xiu was with him as well, and although he couldn’t recall the start of the dream he was certain it concerned their honeymoon.
He had also dreamed of steamed dumplings and stir-fried beef, with chilled Tsingtao beer to wash it down.
It was getting light outside . . .
Hao’s eyes edged open a bare crack, and reality hit him in a rush as he blinked and stared into the sightless eyes of a sambar buck, his antlers cruelly snapped off before he had been shot and tossed into the pit.
Somehow he succeeded in not screaming.
He had to stuff a corner of his jacket into his muzzle to do it, but he succeeded.
Instead, he froze wide-eyed as he heard more voices approaching. Fortunately, they were Chinese voices, but he heard a few Japanese ones. He heard the word “prisoners,” and realized that the Chinese voices belonged to a group of men captured by the invaders.
It appeared to be just after dawn, so he kept still.
The voices faded, and strain as he might he couldn’t catch what was being said.
There was a sound, and suddenly a heavy weight landed on his ankles. The weight of it chilled his blood more thoroughly than when he had seen the two fighters swooping down to attack him.
That feeling of terror now seemed to have happened a thousand years ago to someone else.
Another shovelful of earth landed on the corpse above him, and a bit of the loam trickled down onto his ears. Hao whined as quietly as he could, painfully aware that he’d soiled himself.
He’d never panicked before, but he could feel a scream starting to rise in his throat. It would be over so easily – he could simply rear up. The Japanese might shoot him, but it’d all be over. The fear, the cold, the gnawing feeling in his stomach, the . . .
Death had rarely held any terror for Ni Hao. Death was something he gave to people, and he knew that he would die eventually. He had reconciled himself to that.
But that was before Xiu.
He had someone who would miss him now, someone who would always wonder where he had gone and how he had died.
Someone who would cry for him.
It was for her that he stifled the scream in his throat, for her that he kept himself still as the Chinese prisoners continued to shovel earth into the mass grave he had hidden himself in.
All for her.
He hoped she would appreciate his sacrifice.
Suddenly, as if in answer to a prayer, the shoveling stopped, and he strained his ears to hear what the Japanese were saying. Something about having to stop what they were doing. Their unit was moving on, toward Nanking.
Good. So long as they stopped filling in the hole, and cleared off. When night fell, he’d climb out and head west again.
He heard shouts then, screams and prayers.
Eclipsed by a volley of rifle fire.
Bodies fell into the pit around him and one, a sun bear, landed on top of him, pinning him under the corpse he had used to conceal himself.
The sun bear was still moving, moaning feebly, “No . . . please . . . “
There were a progression of shots, badly aimed as if the shooter was in a hurry. Each shot threw gobbets of dead flesh and dirt up, getting closer and closer to Hao.
He didn’t need to try to hold still this time.
The fear had frozen him in place, and he lay there as if dead as the bullets landed around him.
One shot dug into his right thigh, sending a blaze of pain through him; another grazed his upper left arm.
The body above him jerked from the impact of the shots, and bloody mud dripped down on the red panda.
There was a brief, bright flash and the suggestion of white heat across the back of his head.
And then all was darkness.
Am I dead?
Can’t be; it stinks too bad.
Head . . . hurts . . . yeah, I’m alive.
Hao slowly stirred, opening one eye a crack. It was dark again, apparently, and the stink of blood and soil was starting to tug at his nose. Try as he might, he couldn’t hear anything or anyone.
Just as well. He wasn’t about to stay around here any longer, no matter who might be around.
A fur standing at the lip of the mass grave would have seen a pair of corpses quiver, then move aside as a thoroughly bedraggled red panda dressed in soiled, dirty and blood-dappled women’s clothes slowly emerged. The figure stood up, favoring his injured right leg and looking about.
Hao gingerly probed the wound in his thigh. There was an entry wound in the back of his leg, but there was no blood pumping out of it, and he could put his weight on the injured limb. The graze on his left arm wasn’t as bad.
His head, though – his headfur was matted with blood and there was a painful lump back there. Well, he decided, as long as no brains were leaking out he’d be okay. Painfully he started climbing out of the pit, and when he was out he looked back up at the stars.
His first attempt at looking up at the sky caused his head to spin so violently he puked, dry-heaving as his empty stomach convulsed and leaving him on his knees, gasping for breath.
The second attempt was done more slowly, and eventually he picked out the Dipper among the whirling stars and re-oriented himself. Slowly he got to his feet and started to limp toward the riverbank.
The river water tasted like the best thing he’d ever drunk, and it was bitterly cold as he tried to wash some of the worst of the gore off him. Then, flapping his arms around him to stay warm, he shambled off westward.
The stars and the moon were the only companions he had on his walk, and he really didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, getting always nearer to his goal – the Kungs, and then back to Xiu in Hong Kong.
He paused at the doorway of a house, shattered as far as he could tell by artillery or bombs, and stood there a moment silhouetted by the moonlight.
A sudden movement in the shadows, and he cried out as a pair of rough paws grabbed him. The scent of a rabbit with breath that stank of cheap rice beer wafted past his ear and a voice said in Japanese, “Hello, girl.”
Hao struggled as best he could, but the fur behind him was much larger and pinned him against the doorjamb as the rabbit’s paws roamed and groped over the smaller red panda. A paw grabbed at his crotch, and Hao felt the rabbit give a start. “So, a boy, eh? Dressed as a woman. Well, boy, you try to hide as a woman, you pay a woman’s price . . .”
There were sounds of fumbling in the derelict house, followed by a scream.
The rabbit laughed as he buttoned up his trousers. “Not bad,” he muttered. “Now, to make sure you don’t tell anyone . . . “ He reached down and flipped Hao over onto his back as he drew his bayonet.
The lepine recoiled in surprise.
A Nambu pistol has an eight-round box magazine, and at this range there was no way Hao could miss.
Not even in the dark.
Not even in his current shocked, violated and half-dazed state.
Eight flashes of lightning, accompanied by eight claps of thunder.
The rabbit, bleeding from eight holes in a rough line from his throat to his stomach, fell atop Hao, who lay there under him for several minutes before rolling the dead soldier off him. The red panda lay there, panting, before getting up into a seated position and kicking the corpse away. He backed away until his back was to one of the house’s remaining walls, the empty Nambu still in his paw.
Art by Dennis Hu - http://www.furaffinity.net/user/deerock-gorilla/
His eyes were wide open, almost starting from their sockets and rolling wildly as he dropped the now-empty Nambu and drew his knees up to his chest, hugging them with his arms and shaking.
Slowly the trauma wore off, and Ni Hao started crying.
Just this once, he wasn’t the young man who had killed his first fur before his thirteenth birthday.
He wasn’t the young man who had killed three soldiers with bare steel.
Just this once, he was a child again, crying for his mother.
It was near dawn when he shuffled into a village northeast of the town of Taiping, limping badly on his injured leg as he negotiated the railroad tracks and feeling every bruise, bump and other injury he had incurred over the past few days.
After he had run out of tears he had looted the soldier’s kit. His rations were not the best, but he ate them ravenously and drank his fill from the canteen. The food and water helped clear his head as it filled his stomach, and he reloaded his pistol as he gradually collected his wits again.
Well, for the most part.
People who saw him scattered out of his way, some mothers pulling their children protectively to their skirts. He was a sight: Fur matted with mud and blood, clothes disheveled and equally filthy, and the eyes appearing dead and expressionless. His right trouser leg had been ripped apart and a length of the dead Japanese rabbit’s puttee had been used as a bandage. Another strip of cloth was wrapped around his head, and both were stained with blood.
Favoring his right leg, he sat down alongside the road and caught his breath.
He blinked, blinked again and looked up.
It was Kung Fei-cui.
There was no mistaking that fire-red fur.
Her stepsister and twin stepbrothers stared at him from behind her. “Hao, is that you?”
He blinked up at her again, then licked his lips and said, “Hi, Fei-cui.”
“You’re a mess,” she said, even as she started to help him up.
“Yes, you are,” and as she grasped his arm she planted one paw right on the deep graze he had sustained.
He hissed in pain, jerking away from her and falling into the dusty street as his wounded leg gave way under him. “You’re hurt!”
Hao snarled at her in Cantonese, and more than one passer-by promptly looked offended and walked away. “Thanks, I hadn’t noticed,” he growled, wincing at the pain. “Were you born stupid, or did you learn it in nursing school?”
“Lucky for you I am a nurse!” she shot back. “Now get up on your feet, runt, and I’ll see if I can fix you up a bit. You two,” and she turned to her brothers, “help him up and we’ll get him to where Father and Mei are staying.”
Ji-shan and Ji-tsao stepped forward and helped their cousin to his feet. As the group set off down the street Hao asked in a dull voice, “Is everyone okay?”
“Yes, thanks to you,” and she smiled at him over her shoulder. “Mei had the children on the lookout for me, and we’ve been looking for you.”
“I had a couple things happen.”
“I can see that. You’re limping.”
“We don’t have too far to go.”
The Kungs had secured a small shelter, little more than a lean-to, along a stretch of riverfront and had bargained for some food from nearby shops. As soon as they saw Hao, the elder Kung sent his daughter and wife to get hot water and whatever medicines could be found in the town.
The hot water was first and Hao had no qualms this time about being seen in his fur. He was too tired and sore to be embarrassed. By the time he was clean and wrapped in a blanket it was nearly noon, and after he had something to eat and drink Fei-cui started to examine him. “Hmm, that looks nastier than it is,” she said of the graze in his shoulder as she pressed a bandage to it and started wrapping it. “You say you got shot?”
Hao nodded despite the throbbing in his head.
She gently eased his headfur back and looked at the head wound. “You’re going to need a doctor for that, and for the hole in your leg,” she declared. “Even if I had the tools, I couldn’t do it.”
“So I’ll wait for a doctor,” Hao said. “Just bandage me up.”
“We still have your uniform, Hao,” Kung said.
The younger red panda smiled up at him. “Great. I’ll need it. I’m never going to hide as a woman anymore.” He refused to elaborate.
The pilots had at first balked at the orders, and only after the orders were confirmed did they carry out the mission.
The village they were stopped at was at a point in the river patrolled by Western gunboats, with one sporting a huge American flag. “There are two British boats closer to Nanking,” Kung explained as Hao, now back in his Chinese Air Force uniform, looked out over the water. The gunboat had shepherded three oil tankers up from the city and was now at anchor. A large island stood in the river to their left.
“We might be safe here,” Hao remarked. “I don’t think the Japanese would attack us, but I’d feel better if we were on the other side of the Yangtze.”
“Do you feel well enough to travel?” Kung asked. “You’ve taken a lot of punishment.”
“I’ll be all right,” the younger man said unconvincingly.
The group managed to scrape together enough money to bribe a waterman to taken them across the river. The small boat had an antiquated engine that seemed almost about to expire, and Hao shed his tunic so he could help the waterman’s son keep the motor running.
The bandage around his head helped catch some of the sweat, but the air was pleasantly cool as the boat cut across the flow.
Hao finished tightening a spark plug fitting and stepped back to listen to the engine when he heard it.
A deeper, droning note of aircraft engines.
He stepped out from under the small boat’s reed and canvas shelter to see a group of three twin-engine planes flying overhead. The trio was joined by a string of single-engine biplanes, six in all.
The six biplanes suddenly started losing altitude.
Then began diving.
It was clear that their target was the American gunboat.
The first bomb struck the wheelhouse, and the waterman immediately steered for the north shore of the river, trying to get as much distance as he could from the attack.
More bombs fell, and the bombers were joined by fighters who started swooping in to rake the ships anchored in the river with machine-gun fire.
But Hao was no longer seeing it.
He was no longer seeing anything, except the Nightmare, the same dream he had suffered off and on ever since he had taken the dare to spend the night on Sacred Island.
He stood in the middle of the main street of Fort Bob, midway between the town and the Beach, watching helplessly as yet another flight of bombers receded. Fort Bob and all of the buildings on the hill were destroyed, reduced to smoldering piles of masonry or burning pyres of lumber and cargo. Troops, which nation he’d never know, had landed and were shooting everyone who dared show his muzzle.
The nightmare never failed to terrify him, but he’d always managed to wake up from it.
But this . . .
This was not a nightmare, it was waking reality.
And he couldn’t escape it.
He had no control over it.
He was powerless.
Every time he thought he was safe . . . it came back to him.
It was real – all of it; the blood, the death and the overwhelming fear of it.
His mind fled from the reality of it.
As he collapsed and the Kungs rushed to help him, he missed seeing the arrival of a squadron of olive-drab monoplane fighters sporting Chinese insignia that immediately swooped to attack the third wave of Japanese planes. It would later transpire that this third group was composed of Navy planes, as the Imperial Navy was determined to steal the Army’s thunder by sinking the American gunboat themselves.
He missed the Kungs recognizing the planes as those of the Iron Phoenix Squadron. His younger cousins waved frantically, whooped and yelled “Tsui Hou Sheng Li!” at the top of their lungs as the Chinese planes attacked the enemy.
He missed seeing one plane attack and shoot down one of the Japanese dive bombers, but was itself unable to pull out of its dive. The plane failed to avoid striking the Yangtze, but succeeded in pulling up far enough to skim the surface like a flat stone before settling into the water.
The boat pulled up to the north shore of the river and the Kungs hauled the younger red panda out of the boat as a British gunboat approached the site of the crashed plane and fished the wounded pilot from the river.
“He’s catatonic,” Fei-cui said as she peeled back one of Hao’s eyelids and studied his pupil. “We need to get him away from here.”
The Kungs succeeded in joining the group of people who helped the survivors of the sinking gunboat get away from the river and to a nearby town, where the wounded received medical attention. Among them were a family with Kuo Han diplomatic passports and their escort, a wounded Chinese Air Force officer.
The Iron Phoenix Squadron had swept in to defend the USS Panay as it lay helpless and sinking under the attack by the Japanese planes, and succeeded in destroying several of the attackers before returning to its home base. Much to the pilots’ chagrin their commander, an English mare, was the one who had been forced to ditch in the Yangtze, wounded by the dive bomber’s rear gunner.
It was the first time Ni Hao had had the opportunity to see the famous Katie MacArran.
He was at the bottom of a deep, dark well.
Slowly something started to demand his attention, and he drifted upward to meet it.
It was a vague sensation at first that resolved itself into a powerful, astringent odor that made his nose ache and the tips of his ears feel hot and itchy.
He slowly drifted upward, and gradually awareness began to return.
Awareness punctuated by a harsh slap across the face.
“Snap out it, you little runt!”
There was another slap.
Someone seemed to be trying to get his attention, and he thought he recognized the voice.
He also gradually started being aware that he was rocking from side to side, and other sounds started making themselves heard.
Another slap, and the stink of ammonia began stinging his nostrils.
Fei-cui sat back as Hao raised a paw and batted ineffectually at the ammonia ampoule she had popped and stuck up his nose. “Come on, you idiot, wake up,” she growled, punctuating the last two words with hard open-pawed slaps to his face. She covered his mouth with her paws then, forcing him to breathe in the ammonia fumes and only relenting when he started coughing.
Hao batted her paws away and opened his eyes, blinking.
The first thing that met his gaze was the face of a feral pig. He shouted, “What the yiff?”
“That’s gratitude for you,” the pig seemed to say, but Hao shook his head and realized that it was speaking in Fei-cui’s voice. He turned and looked up at her.
“Oh, it’s you.”
“Yeah, it’s me. You gave Father and Mei quite a fright, fainting away like that.”
“Men don’t faint.”
She sneered at him. “Sure. We managed to drag you out of the boat and up to the main road, and I found a doctor who was looking after injured people from that air attack.”
“Air attack?” He sat up with a start, his eyes going wide as his ears perked and he reached for his pistol. He froze, reconsidered as he unsnapped the flap, and he sagged back on the straw he was lying on. “Is it still going on?”
“Long over. Relax,” Kung said soothingly. “We’re on the road to Hefei. This man,” and he gestured with his banded tail, “was kind enough to offer us a lift.”
Hao craned his neck and finally saw that he and the Kungs were in an ox-drawn cart carrying cages that bore feral pigs. The farmer who was driving the oxen forward took his pipe from his mouth and spat. “Kindness, hah. I expect to be well-paid for this.”
“You will be,” Kung said.
“Was I out for very long?” Hao asked.
“Several hours,” Mei said, and Hao noticed that the sun was lower in the west. “We were all very worried for you, Hao. Fei-cui was beside herself – thought that you might never come out of it.” She winked at him as her stepdaughter snorted.
“Fat chance of that, Mei,” Fei-cui said with a toss of her red headfur. “Honestly.”
“Her concern for me’s touching,” Hao remarked sarcastically as he started carefully assessing his injuries. His head and leg wounds had been cleaned and the dressings changed. “You found a doctor?”
“Did he take the bullets out?”
“No,” Fei-cui said. “Seems they were too busy looking after those American sailors. I only managed to get them to part with some iodine and bandages. They’re nothing like the missionary doctors back home. If they were going to give the city government to anyone, they could have done worse than to let the missionaries look after things – the Japanese would never risk harming Westerners.”
“Yes,” her father said absently, “like they respected the flag on that gunboat. They gave it a proper salute.”
“Twenty-one guns?” Hao asked innocently, then yelled, “Fire-God take thee, emphasis long-time-in-darkness, female with ringtail bereft of reason!” in loud Spontoonie as Fei-cui dug her thumb into the wound on his shoulder.
“Hao!” Ji-shan said happily. “You should have seen it! They came out of the sky like angels!”
“It was the Iron Phoenix, just like they say!” Ji-tsao chimed in. “They were great! I’m going to be a pilot, and kill Japanese!” The two then smacked their left fists into their open right paws and started yelling “Tsui Hou Sheng Li!” at the tops of their lungs until their mother shushed them.
“I’m almost sorry I was out, then,” their older cousin said dryly. A thought hit him and he looked at Fei-cui, his eyes narrowing. “You didn’t take my pants off, did you?”
“No, I wasn’t looking at what passes for your manhood,” The red panda femme sniffed. She smacked him across his muzzle again and sat back, an irritated look on her face as Hao sat up a bit further.
“’What passes for?’ I get no complaints, thank you, Miss Saving-Herself-For-Marriage,” he snapped.
“Then they must have low standards,” Fei-cui shot back, her banded tail whisking back and forth like a flag.
Kung and the driver of the ox-cart laughed. “Sounds like you like each other,” the driver remarked.
The sound of Fei-cui and Hao protesting was drowned out by laughter as the cart moved slowly nearer to Hefei.
At nine o’clock that night, the commander of the Nanking garrison, General Tang Shen-chih, left the city and crossed the river. The order for the garrison to withdraw was delivered haphazardly resulting in mass desertions and complete chaos as entire units dispersed, cast off their uniforms and looted stores in search of civilian clothes.
Faced with next to no opposition, the Japanese prepared to enter the city.
It was late that morning and they were only a few miles from Hefei when the ox-cart driver finally said, “This is as far as I can take you lot.” He accepted the money that Kung had promised to pay him, and a bit more besides, and went on his way. The family shouldered the small amount of belongings they had taken with them out of Nanking and walked into the city, Hao limping along beside them.
“You’re leg’s bleeding again,” Fei-cui said.
“I know,” Hao said. He grimaced as he pressed a paw to the wound on the back of his head, eliciting a fresh flow of blood from that wound as well. “It’ll help me in what I have to do.”
“Yeah, until you pass out again from blood loss or get infected.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to look after me.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t offer.”
Hao made certain to bump into a few passers-by as they made their way through the outskirts of the city, and managed to collect enough money to buy dinner at a small eatery and two rooms at a hotel for the night. The idea of spending the night in an actual bed was certainly appealing after too many nights spent lying on the ground.
It was sometime after midnight when sirens started their mournful wail.
Kung Tse-tao lay there, his sons hugged to his chest as the planes droned overhead and the whistle and crump of bombs sounded over the city. He heard harsh breathing from the other side of the room. “Hao?” he asked.
“Yes.” The younger red panda’s voice was shaking.
“Are you all right?”
There was a very long pause. “No.”
“Can I help? You’ve helped us with so much.”
Another, longer pause. “Yes.”
When Hao did reply, it sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth. “Never make me have to do this again.”
Kung hugged his sons a bit tighter and said, “That’s a promise.”
The city hadn’t received much damage during the night, and the family gathered for a quick breakfast as Hao checked on his wounds. His scalp was matted with his headfur and dried blood, and it felt rather hot to the touch. So did the wound in his thigh, all of which told him he needed to see a doctor and have his injuries tended to before things got any worse.
He made sure his uniform was somewhat presentable and joined the family as they were finishing their meal. He took a bowl of rice and some steamed cooked eggs and ate before saying, “We will be taking a plane south to Canton, or at least I’ll try to get us one.” He looked out at the street. “There’s no telling how far the Japanese are willing to come, but I hope we can get away.”
His twin cousins regarded him with wide eyes. “A plane?” Ji-tsao gasped.
Hao had to grin at his enthusiasm. Was I ever like that? He wondered. Aloud he replied, “Yes, an actual aeroplane, Ji-shan – “
“I’m not Ji-shan. He is.”
“Ji-tsao, then. But we’re nowhere safe – truly safe – yet.”
“Lieutenant Won, sir,” Hao said, saluting crisply as he stood at attention and remembering to use his cover name.
The avian who commanded the airfield at Hefei, Colonel Lo, returned the salute and looked up from his desk at the red panda. Young fellow, pilot’s wings, uniform dirty and rumpled, head bandaged and favoring his right leg. The duck asked, “Lieutenant, are you injured?”
“Yes, sir. I have come from Nanking. I was wounded there,” Hao replied. True, on its face. “On a mission.” Also true.
“Yes, sir.” Now it was time for the lies that were wrapped in the truth like the filling in a dim sum. “I was ordered by General Tang himself to escort a family out of the danger zone. They are the Kuo Han trade envoy and his family,” and he accepted the passports and papers from Kung and offered them. “I have the honor to present Mr. Kung Tse-tao,” and he took a half-step back, steadying himself a bit as his bad leg pained him.
The colonel read over the papers and studied the passports. Hao was certain that they would pass muster. Father had likely spent quite a bit in making sure of that. The signatures and chops of both General Tang and Generalissimo Chiang were difficult to copy, but possible.
Finally the officer looked up from the papers. “You look tired, Lieutenant. Are you certain you’re able to fly?”
Hao stiffened. “Sir, I am prepared to escort these people to Tibet if necessary!” he declared fervently. He meant every word of that – so long as his escort ended back in Hong Kong or, better yet, Krupmark.
He wanted to go home.
The avian raised a feathered paw and brushed at the side of his bill as he laughed. “Tibet? No, your papers say you are to take these people to Canton, so that they can return to their homes. I shall arrange an aircraft for you. Will you need any assistance?”
“No, sir. It is my honor to do this.”
The duck looked a bit impressed. “As you may be aware, we are in the process of evacuating this aerodrome. The Japanese raid us fairly frequently, so we can expect more of the same. As a result, there is a plane scheduled to leave here today, taking important papers and vital supplies south to Wuhan. I shall write orders enabling you to head further south from there, to Changsha and eventually to Canton.”
“Thank you, Colonel Lo,” Kung said. He hesitated a moment and added, “I will be sure to inform General Chiang of your generous assistance.”
The duck smiled and nodded graciously. The word ‘generous’ might connote greater recognition and a subsequent promotion, or even a posting somewhere quieter where he had a greater chance to line his pockets.
It also depended on how ‘generous’ Chiang might be feeling at any given moment.
An orderly wrote out the orders, and Colonel Lo signed them before Hao and Kung stepped out to rejoin the rest of the family.
“Are you ready to get the hell out of here?” he asked. When they nodded he said, “Good. Let’s see what these important papers and vital supplies are, and get going.” He paused and looked around. “But before we go, remember that for the rest of the trip I’m Lt. Won. Our lives will depend on that lie.”
The others understood, his twin cousins practically jumping up and down at the prospect of taking a ride in a real aircraft.
The ‘important papers’ turned out to be exactly that. The ‘vital supplies,’ however, consisted of Colonel Lo’s concubine and her maidservant. The concubine was dressed in silk and a fur-trimmed tweed coat, but despite her Western dress and airs she smelled of stale musk and too much perfume. Hao only hoped she and the Kungs wouldn’t get sick all over the place.
He wasn’t feeling all that well, either.
The young lady’s luggage turned out to include two steamer trunks and assorted boxes full of clothes and toiletries. Hao was reminded of what Shin told him about her school activities and traveling very light, and started thinking of how to balance the weight as the plane was loaded.
Hao did have a copilot for the trip, though, a young tiger named Chen Jinro wearing a second lieutenant’s bar on his uniform sleeve. He was introduced to Hao during the preflight check of the plane and seemed a bit in awe of the wounded red panda.
Their plane was a Junkers W33, a single-engine affair with a corrugated metal skin. The engine wasn’t too far removed from the aftermarket BMW engines on his GH-2, so Hao had little trouble poking around inside the cowlings while Lt. Chen watched.
Hao jumped down, wiping his paws and trying to hide the fact that they were shaking.
The idea of getting home was appealing, but the idea of getting back into the air again – with the possibility of having the Japanese up there, waiting for him – filled him with dread.
He still wasn’t completely over getting shot down – gods, how long ago was that?
Trying to shake it off and act normally he remarked, “My brother-in-law’s a tiger.”
“Is he?” Chen said. “I wasn’t aware that we were compatible – you know, that way.”
Hao grinned at him. “Well, they don’t have kids yet. But it’s definitely not for want of trying,” and he regaled the younger fur with a story from Fang and Shin’s courtship on Krupmark. He was careful to leave out a few details, however. The two of them were laughing as they strapped into the seats in the cockpit and gestured for the engine to be started.
The Junkers taxied away and took off, Hao banking into a course that would take the plane farther west before doubling back and heading south for Wuhan. “Why are we headed west, sir?” Chen asked.
“Well, I got shot down south of Hefei by two Japanese planes,” Hao explained, “so I’m trying to avoid their notice this time.”
“Sound reasoning, sir.”
After they had been in the air an hour, Hao went back to see how the Kungs were doing. Tse-tao had apparently flown before, as he was looking out the window. Fei-cui looked a bit nauseous, as did Li. The twins were hugging their mother tightly and looked scared to death. He gave them a reassuring smile.
Colonel Lo’s girlfriend merely looked bored, and barely acknowledged him.
The airport at Wuhan had been attacked a few hours before they arrived, with smoke still pouring from several planes that had been caught on the ground and a few hangars still on fire.
Fortunately, the runway wasn’t very badly cratered, so it was possible to not only land, but take off again. The Junkers looked like a sturdy plane that could take a great deal of punishment.
Hao saw off the colonel’s ‘vital supplies’ and other cargo, then took on as much fuel as he could. “We need to get out of here fast,” he said, half to himself.
He saw the tiger pelting across the runway to him and he yelled from the cockpit window, “Any sign of the Japanese between here and Changsha?”
“Intelligence isn’t reporting any,” Chen said as he boarded the plane. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t any, though.”
“True enough.” As he started the engine Hao looked up and growled. “Damn.”
“What?” Chen looked out the front windscreen and said, “Oh.”
A crowd of soldiers, many of them still throwing away their weapons, were starting to crowd around the plane. Military police were trying to hold them back, but as Hao watched one MP went down, bayoneted to death by two soldiers. “Hit the throttle and don’t stop,” Hao ordered. “Get us airborne no matter what.” His ears twitched at the sound of paws hammering on the fuselage behind him, and he got out of his seat.
The Kungs were up against the far wall of the cabin, staring at the door as people beat on it and loudly demanded or begged to be taken along. Hao stepped back there from the cockpit just as the door was wrenched open.
He drew his pistol and started kicking at the burly sergeant framed in the doorway. “Get off my plane!” he shouted.
The bovine snarled at him, and Hao started to kick him again.
Then paused, wincing as a jolt of pain rocketed up his wounded leg.
His teeth bared, he pointed the Nambu between the sergeant’s eyes and pulled the trigger.
Mei, Li and Fei-cui all screamed.
Blood and brains went all over the soldiers clustered behind the bovine, who toppled back into the crowd. Hao fired off a few more shots to keep their heads down and pulled the door closed, mindful of the ugly throbbing in his thigh matching the equally foul feeling spreading across his skull.
He promised himself he’d allow Fei-cui to look at him.
After they reached Changsha.
He went forward again as the plane lifted off, limping badly as he holstered the pistol. The plane was rising unsteadily.
Probably had a few soldiers clinging to the landing gear or the tail section. The Junkers rocked, confirming his thought, and the twins started screaming now. Their experience with planes was turning out to be less than positive.
Well, he’d make it up to them when he had the chance.
Lt. Chen stared wildly at him as Hao sat back down in the pilot’s seat. “Sir? What happened back there?”
“Deserters,” Hao grumbled. “I had to shoot a couple of them. What’s our course?” He rested his paws on the control yoke (noting that they’d stopped shaking) and looked at the compass, aware of the tiger’s eyes on him. “Don’t look at me like that. It had to be done, Chen.”
“Yes, sir.” The junior officer sounded unconvinced. “War.”
After another hour or so Hao got back out of his seat. “I’m going to check on our passengers. Keep us on course.”
“Yes, sir.” The tiger seemed to be in better humor now. He had a light touch on the controls and occasionally tapped at gauges to get a better idea of how the plane was faring. “Engine’s running hot; no loss of oil pressure, though.”
“You’re enjoying this.”
“I’ve always wanted to fly, sir,” Chen said happily. “I want to get behind the controls of a fighter, though.”
Hao nodded. For him, flight was pretty much a means to an end – getting items quickly from place to place with a minimum of fuss. It was why he always favored seaplanes; you didn’t have to look for level ground. “Good man,” the red panda said with more confidence than he felt. “We need furs like you in the Air Force.” He left the cockpit and headed back to the Kungs.
Ji-tsao and Ji-shan were finally asleep, and Li was looking out at the late-afternoon sun with her father. “Fei-cui?”
He sighed. “Could – could you look at my leg, please? It’s hurting worse.”
“With everything you’ve been doing, I’m not surprised.” At her gesture, Hao turned away from her and loosened his belt. He reached back and unbuttoned the tail gusset before lowering his trousers enough to reveal the bandage on his thigh. He hissed and forced himself to hold still as she probed the wound.
“Well?” he asked, doing up his pants.
“You’re not going to like this,” Fei-cui said. “Let me look at your head, numbskull.”
He submitted to her paws again, and this time it hurt even worse. “What is it?”
She held her fingertips up in the waning sunlight, showing a smear of something on them. “Smell.”
He sniffed and grimaced. It smelled foul. “Infected?”
“Yes. Both wounds are.”
Hao felt a chill run down his spine. “Infected. How bad?”
Fei-cui cocked an eyebrow at him, her banded tail flicking. “Take another sniff, dummy,” she said tartly. “We need to get you to a doctor, and soon.”
“But you used iodine – “
“On the outside of the wounds. No telling what got inside them,” and she sat back as he stared at her. “Makes me wonder just how many dung heaps you’ve rolled in over the past few days. So? When do we reach Changsha?”
“Soon,” he said, wondering just what had happened with his joss to saddle him with Fei-cui, and what he’d have to do to get his luck back. He avoided thinking about her taunt, and just what he might have lurking in his wounds. “We’ll stop for the night – have to service the engine before we take the last leg to Canton.” He headed to the cockpit and paused, looking back at her. “Unless you’d like us to crash?” he teased, batting her in the face with his tail and evading her grab.
Chen looked over at him as the red panda dropped heavily into the pilot’s seat and winced, hissing an imprecation. “You all right, sir?”
“My wounds are bothering me a bit. I’ll be fine.”
“You look tired.”
Hao smiled at the tiger as he rested his paws on the controls. “Don’t tell anyone, but I am tired.” The two of them chuckled, and he added, “We’ll have to stop over at Changsha for the night and get the engine serviced. How’s the oil pressure?”
Chen tapped at the gauge. “Not so bad, so far,” he said, “but it’s dropped a bit over the past hour.”
The Junkers lined up on the grassy strip at Changsha’s aerodrome and Hao piloted the plane to a landing. The plane jounced a few times before it settled down and taxied to a halt. Hao and Chen shut off the engine and Chen opened his logbook. “I have to log in my flight time,” he said in response to Hao’s questioning look.
“With that attitude, you’ll go far,” the red panda told the tiger, keeping to himself his private assessment of the feline’s gung-ho manner.
A guy that eager won’t last a second, he thought. He had no experience as a fighter pilot, but he’d seen overeager furs.
Only a few of them, and they hadn’t lasted long.
He took his time getting out of the seat, noticing an untidy wet smear on the seat cushion and a matching stain on his trousers. He hadn’t been paying attention to it, but the ooze smelled like . . . well, a bit like Mad Mac, the insane mephit that lived around the decrepit church on Krupmark. It was an odor of moist decay that caused his nostrils to wrinkle.
He got out of the plane and helped the Kungs out of the aircraft. “We have to stop here for the night,” he explained, “so that we can get the engine serviced. I plan on being back in Canton before sundown tomorrow, and then see you all safe across to Hong Kong.”
“What about you?” Kung asked.
“I’ll manage,” Hao replied. “Wait here and I’ll check in with the base.”
After introducing himself and explaining what he needed, the orderly excused himself and went to the inner office to talk to his superior. The canine came back out a few minutes later. “Colonel Chan will see you, Lt. Won.”
“Thank you,” Hao said, and walked into the office.
The bear scowled as Hao saluted. “You’re a mess. Are things that bad up in Nanking?”
“No, sir. I had some bad luck.”
“Heh. I’ll bet you did. My orderly tells me you need your plane serviced so you can head south.”
“That will not be happening.”
Hao blinked. “Pardon? Sir?”
“I need a transport plane. Changsha is being reinforced as a base, and we need planes.”
“Sir, I have orders from Generals Tang and Chiang – “
“And those orders aren’t worth wiping my arse on,” the bear said with a grim smile. “Tang ran out on his own army up in Nanking, and Chiang simply ran like a whipped cur. These Kuo Han people will have to find their own way south from now on.”
“By themselves, sir?” Hao asked, feeling the tip of his tail trembling. The pain in his head seemed to be getting worse as well.
“Yes, by themselves. You are going into the base hospital for treatment – or a long bath; you stink – and after you get out I’ll be assigning you to a front-line unit. Dismissed.”
Hao stood there, debating with himself whether it was possible to kill the man quietly.
The colonel looked up and bellowed, “DISMISSED! GET OUT OF MY OFFICE, WON!”
“Sir.” He saluted and limped out.
His anger spurred him, and by the time he rejoined the Kungs he had a germ of a plan in mind. Taking the elder red panda aside he said, “The guy running this place is not letting the plane go tomorrow – “
“Then what will we do?”
Hao glowered. “Shut up,” and at his tone of voice the older red panda stared at him. “I’m going to escort you to the nearest hotel, then I’m going to be out for a little while. I am still planning on getting out of here tomorrow.”
“You’re looking bad, Nephew.”
The younger red panda closed his eyes. “I know. I’ll manage.”
“I’ll have Fei-cui go with you – it’s only fair,” he said, as Hao opened his muzzle to protest. “You’ve helped us a great deal, and now it’s our turn to help you as much as we can.”
He could see the logic of it, although he doubted the young woman would be of much use . . . yes.
Hao smiled. “I’d be glad to have her come along.”
“Father was an idiot to have me go along with you,” Fei-cui huffed two hours later as she and Hao walked through the streets of Changsha. Hao was wearing the elder red panda’s jacket as at least a partial disguise. “I mean, what can I do? Wipe your nose for you?”
“Have you ever tried to talk with your jaws wired shut?” Hao asked.
“Have you? You’re good with a knife and a gun, little boy, but as you are now I’d beat your tail right here in the street,” she said contemptuously. “What?”
“You remind me of my sister,” Hao said with a smile. He refused to say anything more, which seemed to irritate the femme even further.
Finally Hao saw what he had been looking for – an alleyway with a series of seemingly random marks on the wall. He said to Fei-cui, “Wait here.”
“What? No, I’m going with you – “
“No, you’re not. These guys would as soon slit your throat as look at you, no matter what I’d say, or sell you off somewhere.” Her blue-green eyes widened at that and she nodded mutely, huddling into her coat as he stepped into the alley.
Two furs stepped out of the shadows, no weapons showing but obvious bulges in their coats revealing their presence. Hao held his paws out before tracing a sign on the wall with a finger. “Cold night, Brothers?” he asked quietly. They hesitated, and he repeated the sign of the Red Talon Tong.
“Yes, it is a cold night, Brother,” the taller of the two, a giant panda, said. “You’re not from around here.”
“No. I became a Brother on Kuo Han. My name is Ni Hao.” There followed another set of recognition signals.
The panda nodded, his own paws moving in countersigns. “Welcome, then. I am Ma, and this is Cho.” Cho was a macaque. “How may we help a brother in need?”
“If you will permit and he will allow, I wish to speak with your lodge master, please.”
The panda and the macaque looked at each other, and at his nod the simian slipped back into the shadows. “Cho will inquire,” Ma said evenly. Hao nodded and eased his injured leg by leaning against the wall, drawing his coat tighter around himself. It felt colder than it should have been.
Cho came back and beckoned for Hao to follow him. The red panda did so, keeping his paw near the butt of the Nambu pistol tucked away in his coat. Although these furs were lodge brothers, there was still the possibility of treachery.
It was the way of things, after all.
The local lodge Master was a short, grizzled wolf missing one ear and with the glassy eyes of opium addiction. “So, one named Ni Hao comes to me, showing the sign of a Brother,” he said softly.
“Yes, Honored Master.” Hao bowed.
“For someone from Kuo Han, you show good manners,” the lupine commented. He sniffed. “And you are injured as well. Was it one of our enemies?”
“No, Master. Japanese.”
The word elicited a sharply indrawn breath. “I see. Tell me.”
In as few words as possible, Hao summed up his adventures and the wolf listened, absently packing some more opium into his pipe. He lit the pipe, sending a thin stream of sweet-smelling smoke into the air. “It is a worthy thing you do, young Brother, to take such pains for your kin.”
“Tell me what your needs are.”
Hao replied, “Money – not much, perhaps enough for train tickets south to Canton – and something for pain. My injuries are causing me . . . some distress.”
There was some haggling over what the assistance would cost, of course, but an hour later Hao stepped back out of the alley and was immediately confronted by his older cousin. “Took you long enough. What was all that about?”
“Oh, nothing you need to worry your pretty head about,” he said, deliberately taunting her and raising a paw as she tried to slap him. From the alleyway he could hear Ma and Cho laughing at him.
Well, let them laugh.
Hao and Fei-cui set off down the road to the hotel, pausing to get some food for the family and a set of nondescript clothes for Hao. The uniform would be discarded, and “Lt. Won” could vanish without a trace.
And good riddance to him, too.
After dinner, Hao carefully cleaned and re-bandaged his wounds, then slipped from a pocket the other item he had secured from his contact with the Red Talons.
It didn’t look like much, just a brown glass bottle holding about half a British pint, and filled with a clear liquid.
He opened the bottle and took a small swallow, grimacing at the bitter taste before capping it again and setting it on the bedside table.
Despite the laudanum, it took him a while to relax sufficiently to fall asleep.
“Hao! Hao, are you in there? Wake up!” The words and the insistent banging woke the young red panda up, and Hao rubbed sleep from his eyes. The night had been filled with odd dreams, but on the whole he slept very soundly.
From the sunlight streaming through the curtains, perhaps a bit too soundly.
He rubbed his eyes again before calling out, “I’m awake. Who is it?”
“It’s Mei. You need to get some breakfast before we get to the train station.”
Oh, yes. They were going to take the train south to Canton. The journey would take another two days. Another two days added to the pain in his leg and his head, another two days away from Hong Kong.
Another two days from Xiu.
“I’ll be there shortly,” he said as he stiffly climbed out of bed.
After taking a quick bath and brushing his fur, he gently felt the wounds on his head and leg. The flesh around them felt warm under his fur and tender to the touch. He doused them with iodine and bandaged them again, then got into the purposely loose and baggy clothes he had purchased. The cap was a size too large for him and had ear flaps on it, like a Russian winter hat, and he thought it might help disguise him further.
Before opening the door he took another swallow of the laudanum and slipped the bottle into his coat pocket. Did it have to taste so wretched?
He took a breath and, smiling, he stepped out to greet the Kungs.
“You look well-rested,” Kung Tse-tao said.
“Flying wears you out a bit,” Hao said. “Let’s get something to eat and get out of here.”
They ate breakfast at the train station. Despite not having anything substantial over the past few days, Hao didn’t seem very hungry. Sipping at his tea he saw Fei-cui peering at him closely. “What? Am I growing another head?”
“No, that’d improve your looks,” she said. “Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”
“So far, yes.”
She nodded, unconvinced, and kept an eye on him as they boarded the train headed south.
The passenger cars were packed with furs of every description, most of them headed south away from the area where the Japanese had invaded, trying to seek safe haven in Hong Kong or Macau.
After several hours of sitting, the train rolling from side to side as it went over the tracks, Hao started squirming in his seat. “Leg bothering you?” Mei asked.
“Yes,” he told her. “It’s been hurting worse. These benches – “ He shrugged expressively.
Fei-cui cocked an eyebrow at him. “What?” he asked.
“You should be in a lot more pain than that by now,” she said in an accusatory tone.
He shrugged again.
The train stopped for coal and water, and vendors boarded the train to sell food to the passengers. Some had bought their own, and haggling ensued. Hao accepted a bowl of soup and ate it, savoring the taste of the thick broth and the flecks of vegetables and chicken.
He wasn’t hungry, but felt that he had to eat in order to keep his strength up. As the engineer signaled that the train was resuming its journey he settled back in his seat, trying to find a comfortable position and using the cap as a cushion for his head.
It was night when he woke up, feeling the pain as a sharp throb and a burning sensation in both his thigh and the back of his head. He tried to get back to sleep, but the pain began to get too insistent. He eased the bottle from his pocket and took a swallow of the drug.
“I knew it,” came a hoarse whisper to his right.
He blinked and turned to see Fei-cui glaring at him. “What?” he asked in the same tone.
“I knew you were taking something, you idiot. What is it?”
Hao shrugged. “Laudanum.”
The older femme’s eyes started from their sockets. “Are you crazy?” she hissed. “That’s poison! You trying to kill yourself?”
“It keeps the pain down,” he muttered.
“Your appetite too, huh?”
He paused, and nodded.
“Thought so. You should have eaten a lot faster than that.”
“Spying on me?” he asked, irritation creeping into his voice.
Now she shrugged. “Gives me something to do. You did save me, you remember.”
“Yeah, I remember.” He squirmed, turning away from her. “Trying to forget it, though.”
“What?” he twisted to look at her.
The look in her blue-green eyes made him pause. He saw sympathy in them as she said, “Thank you – for everything.”
He closed his eyes and turned away, hugging himself tightly in his coat as he felt the pain ebbing away from the effect of the laudanum.
Ni Hao was dreaming.
Or at least he thought he was.
He was back home, on Krupmark, and Xiu was with him along with his brother and sister. For some reason, both Xiu and Shin sounded like Fei-cui, and both were teasing him.
He had wondered why, when he had seen his reflection in the bar mirror at the Lucky Dragon, and he was dressed in woman’s clothes. The two girls, his fiancée and his sister, were praising his appearance.
“Better get used to it,” and he turned to see Stephanie standing before him, whip in paw. In his dream, she added, “You’re going to be wearing them forever.”
She raised the whip . . . and suddenly was covered in blood, just before being blown to fragments before his eyes . . .
Hao awakened with a start, breathing hard as he shivered in reaction from the dream. His head throbbed, and he took another sip of the opium-alcohol mixture he had acquired. As he waited for sleep to come back to him, he thought about the dream he’d just had.
Sometime, he knew, Xiu or someone else would ask him what had happened to him, and he wasn’t sure he could bring himself to tell anyone the entire story. He shivered again, despite the warmth in the car from so many bodies huddled together.
He couldn’t recall if he dreamed after that or not.
The train had stopped again just before dawn to take on more water and coal. Canton was maybe an hour or two away, and Kung Tse-tao reached out to rouse his nephew.
He withdrew his paw and looked down at the younger man, sleeping soundly. Not for the first time he wondered what had happened to create a man like this, who slept so well after killing several furs in cold blood. His daughter’s words to him burned in his ears.
“Father, you should have seen his face! His eyes – they looked dead – and he killed like an animal.”
What created such a person?
He reached out again, only to freeze as the sleeping red panda stirred.
“What?” The voice was thick with sleep.
“It’s morning. Do you want something to eat?”
The loose coat shifted a bit, and Hao sat up. “I could really devour a nice steak dinner at the Grand, you know.” He gave Kung a wan smile.
Kung grinned. “When we get there, it’s my treat. I promise. What will we do when we reach Canton? We’re not so very far away from it now.”
“Good.” Hao sat up a bit straighter and stretched, wincing as his thigh pained him. “I’ll talk to a few people, and we’ll get you down to Hong Kong. You’re still Kuo Han government, you know,” and he gave an impish smile, “so you have diplomatic immunity.”
Kung nodded and sat down beside him. “Hao, I want you to know that we’re in your debt. You’ve done so much, and suffered so much – I’m not blind – I just don’t know how we’ll repay you.”
A soft chuckle. “I’ll think of something. But you’ll have to talk to Father about any debts.”
As soon as the train stopped at the main station in Canton, Hao headed for the telegraph office, with Kung lending him a shoulder to lean on. His wounds were hurting worse, worse still as he hadn’t taken any laudanum since awakening. There had been too many eyes on him.
The laudanum still tasted horrible, the bitterest thing he’d tasted since his first attempt at making his own liquor. But at least it dulled the pain so he could sleep. It also dulled the edge of any nightmares, and he welcomed that.
He sent three telegrams, the first wiring money from his personal account in Hong Kong to a local bank. After a pause to collect his thoughts he sent two more:
NI HAO TO NI PENG-WUM C/O NI AND SONS SPONTOON ISLANDS MESSAGE STARTS PENG-WUM IM IN CANTON STOP WILL BE BACK HK SOON MESSAGE ENDS
NI HAO TO HU RENMIN C/O FAR EASTERN IMPORTS HONG KONG MESSAGE STARTS MR HU PLEASE LET XIU KNOW THAT I LOVE HER AND WILL SEE HER SOON NI HAO MESSAGE ENDS
Hao paused before sending both telegrams and scrawled 493 on the one for his brother, inserting it before the end of the message.
“What was that for?” Kung asked as they walked away from the office.
“Nothing important,” Hao replied. He was limping worse, and at one point he stumbled, the leg no longer easily bearing his weight.
“You need to see a doctor.”
“I know,” he said, his head buzzing a bit. “But in Hong Kong, not here.”
They ate near the telegraph office, Fei-cui still looking concerned at him. “Will you be coming with us over the border?” she asked Hao.
“Maybe,” he replied. “I don’t have a diplomatic passport, so I’ll have to take my chances. When I get the replies to the wires I sent, we’ll have a clearer idea.”
Li was looking after the twins as Mei ate, but Ji-tsao asked, “Hao?”
“Will you take us flying again?”
The red panda smiled and tousled his younger cousin’s headfur. “I have my own plane, and I’ll give you both a ride, okay?”
“Okay!” Ji-tsao grinned.
“You have your own plane?” Fei-cui asked. “How much money does your family have?”
Hao shrugged. “Enough, I think. I got my plane in a swap, though.” His ears perked at the sound of running feet, and he waved at the messenger boy from the telegraph office. The kitten gave him his replies, and Hao gave him a tip, waiting until after the boy had run off before studying the messages.
“The money will be in the bank at noon,” he grumbled. “That can’t be helped, so we’re here at least until then.” He looked at the Kungs, whose clothes were looking decidedly shabby since he had led them out of Nanking.
A week ago? A month? A thousand years ago?
He could no longer recall.
While they talked among themselves, Hao looked over the other two messages.
Peng-wum had replied, and he assured his younger brother that certain things were in motion to get him over the border quietly. The message included a few little codes, letting him know that things had been properly arranged.
The 493 code - that he was injured - was simply acknowledged.
Xiu had responded to his message to her father. Her message was very straightforward: COME HOME LOVE YOU
That cheered him up.
***“How much of that have you had today?” Fei-cui asked him suspiciously that afternoon as she rounded a corner and saw him tucking the bottle back into his pocket.
Hao glared at her. “What’s it to you? You’re not my mother.”
“Thank God for that,” she said. “I just don’t want you getting addicted to that slop.” He didn’t respond to either her tone or her words, so she sniffed disdainfully and marched off, freshly-cleaned tailfur bobbing behind her.
After withdrawing the money wired to him, Hao had gone with the Kungs to a store. New clothes were needed, followed by a trip to a hotel to get cleaned up. In addition to new clothes, Hao had bought another packet of cigarettes and the feel of the smoke in his lungs was like a long-lost friend.
His wounds were starting to worry him. They had stopped draining, but now seemed swollen and very hot to the touch. His mouth was dry a lot of the time and his appetite seemed low.
But he was determined to go to a doctor only when he reached Hong Kong. It might take time to get himself cleaned up, and he wanted to be safe while it was done.
Besides, the closer he got to Xiu the better he felt.
He’d been on this train before, on the way to Canton rather than leaving the city.
It seemed a lifetime ago even though it had only been – what? Two weeks?
His head throbbed unmercifully despite the laudanum, and he wondered if the infection had managed to get through his skull and into his brain. He didn’t feel any different, apart from a bit lightheaded. He giggled at that; Shin had always accused him of having no brains.
Well, maybe he’d find out for sure.
He looked out the window of the train, blinking away the traces of blurriness that had started to show up.
The train was a lot smoother than the one that had brought them from Changsha, and the afternoon sun came in through the windows as it made its way along the coast south to Hong Kong. The Kungs were finally relaxing a bit, although still nervous at having left their safe and comfortable lives.
Their experiences had marked them as well, but at least he was getting them out of the country in one piece.
A sudden flash of irrational anger boiled up in him. Father should have known, he thought. Was he trying to kill me? He dismissed the thought as silly, but it stayed with him nevertheless, whispering into his ears that this was a setup job, a calculated ploy to get rid of him.
Hao was about to reach for his pistol when he realized that he’d left it in Canton. He wasn’t going to get caught or delayed at the border this time. His Colt was gone, but he’d get another.
He almost felt tears at the thought of his lost weapon.
“Hao? Hao, wake up,” Kung urged as the train lurched to a stop at the border checkpoint. The younger red panda gave a start, blinking up at the older man. “We’re here.”
“Great.” He slipped the bottle from his pocket and looked at it, half-full of the drug that had kept him functioning this far. It dawned on him that he couldn’t keep it with him, as the British might have odd ideas about their laws. He put it under the seat, fingertips lingering on it before letting it go.
He leaned between Kung and his daughter as they stood in line at the checkpoint, and as he had predicted the Kungs went through Customs easily. He saw them meeting with Mr. Won, the Hu’s lawyer, and Hao started to relax.
He gave his passport to the officer, who asked him, “Enjoy your trip, sir?”
“Are you all right?” the officer asked, peering at the bandage that wrapped his head.
“I slipped and bumped my head,” Hao replied, smiling.
The customs officer gave him a disbelieving look, then shrugged and stamped the booklet before passing it back to him. “Welcome back to Hong Kong, sir.”
“Thanks,” and Hao limped across the line and into the Crown Colony’s territory, heading for the area where people waited for new arrivals.
He didn’t see anyone immediately, and his vision kept blurring as he shuffled forward.
“Hao?” He turned at the voice.
It was her, staring at him in mingled concern and joy.
He took a step toward her, but she moved faster, walking straight up to him. “Hao . . .”
He reached out to brush his fingertips against her headfur. So, she was real, and not some fever dream. “Xiu,” he whispered.
Xiu looked at him as he limped up and touched her. He looked bad, his head bandaged and a glassy look in his eyes. She leaned into his paw as he grinned crazily at her.
All of the tension seemed to drain right out of him.
The last bit of his strength followed it.
“Hao!” she exclaimed as his leg finally gave out on him and he collapsed to the floor.
He looked up to see her gazing down at him, and just before he finally relaxed and darkness took him he heard, “Let’s get him to the hospital. A bed’s already waiting for him.”
Somehow, although the face was Xiu’s the voice sounded like his father’s.
Disconnected voices, fragments that stuck in his memory:
“ – usted – “
“ – ankly, he’s a bit of a me – “
“ – eatened to kill – “
“He broke my arm!”
“ – ‘ve had to t – “
Finally, he slept.
Hao slowly woke up, blinked sleep away and saw that it was late afternoon. He carefully licked away the foul taste in his mouth and wondered how a small animal had managed to rot there, of all places.
He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, and from memories of visiting someone at Meeting Island – smells of antiseptic and bleach - it dawned on him that he was in a hospital.
So. I guess I’m alive, at least.
His head and his leg weren’t hurting nearly as much as they had been. That was good.
For some reason that troubled him, he couldn’t move.
Not that he really wanted to move at the moment, but it would have been nice to have had it as an option.
Another deep breath, and a scent caught his nose.
The red panda craned his neck and looked around, and spotted what his nose had already told him, namely that Xiu was in the room, curled up in a chair and reading a book.
And the reason he couldn’t move became evident as well. He was secured to the bed frame – wrists, ankles, tail - with stout leather restraints.
Hao swallowed, swallowed again and asked aloud, “Xiu? Why am I tied to the bed?”
At the sound of his voice Xiu threw the Chinese-language copy of the Bible across the room and was out of her seat immediately. Her headfur was in a single long braid that reached almost to the base of her tail, and she was dressed in a white blouse and a pleated tweed skirt. “Hao! You’re awake!” Before he could say anything she opened the door to the room and called out, “He’s awake!”
“Well, yes,” he said. “I’m awake. At least I think so. Why am I tied to the bed?”
Her smile was pure mischief as she closed the door. “Well, Stephanie found out you were in the hospital, and she said she’d be by later – “
“She did tell me you liked this sort of thing.” Xiu cocked an eye at the expression on his face, which was rapidly becoming fearful.
“Xiu! This isn’t funny!” He squirmed, tugging at the leather straps that held his wrists and ankles. “Please tell me you’re lying and Stephanie’s not coming.”
She grinned at him. “You look so cute when you’re scared,” she teased. “Actually, you woke up fighting at one point. I guess you were a bit delirious.”
“Oh.” He relaxed. “What did I do?”
“You broke an orderly’s arm before they got you tied down. I’m impressed – Master Shang didn’t teach me that the Three-point Flying Dragon Tail Hold can be used on arms.”
“I’ll show you someday. Now, could you?”
“Sure.” She moved to unbuckle the padded restraints but lingered over them, standing at the foot of the bed. “Do you want me to tell you what happened the past two days?”
“Two days?! Please.”
“Well, you collapsed in my arms,” and she smiled coyly as she stroked the black fur on his ankle. “Very romantic, by the way. We got you to the hospital – “
“The Victoria and Albert. Best one in Hong Kong, of course,” she giggled as she tickled the sole of his foot, making him squirm before releasing the straps that held his banded tail immobile. “I’ll tell you this, Hao, you were in bad shape.”
“I felt like it.”
“Well, Dr. McMurtry took two bullets out of you,” and she lifted a small glass from the bedside table and shook it, letting him hear the rattle. She then released his feet as she added, “He also cleaned out the infections. It’s a real good thing you’ve got such a hard head, sweetheart.”
“I’ve heard that,” and he rolled his eyes. There was a pause. “Xiu?”
“Did, um, did I talk, you know, about anything?”
Xiu looked down at him. She nibbled at her lower lip pensively. “Well . . .”
“What?” She saw his eyes start to go cold, and felt a chill crawl up her spine. Both his wrists were still pinioned to the bed frame, but his ankles and tail were loose. Based on his training, he was still very dangerous, and she knew it.
They had the same teachers.
She collected her thoughts. “Okay,” the Americanism rolling with difficulty off her tongue. “You did say some things, yes. They were very disturbing, yes. But I was the only one in the room when you said them. Do you believe me?”
“Then you know I won’t tell anyone.” Their eyes met, and finally he nodded. “By the way, I met your relatives. They really do like you, and want to thank you for getting them out. That one girl, though – “
“That’s her. She called you infuriating, but said you saved her life.” She smiled, then leaned over him and the two kissed. “Yech,” she said.
“I haven’t had time to brush my teeth today, sorry.”
She smiled, and kissed him again. “Hao, I’m going to release your wrists now.”
“Please? My nose itches.”
She unbuckled the strap nearest her, reached over him and unbuckled the other, then squealed as he caught her in his arms and kissed her. “I love you, Xiu,” he whispered when they broke the kiss.
“I missed you,” she said.
They heard someone clapping, and turned to see Fei-cui standing in the doorway. “About time you woke up,” she said. “Lazy.”
“Anyone’d be tired after having to lug you all the way here,” Hao said. He muttered a few choice epithets in Spontoonie as he smiled winningly at her.
“Hmmph.” She stepped aside and Hao gasped as his parents stepped into the room.
“Father? Mother? What are you doing here?” He sat up, aware that he still felt a bit woozy, probably as a result of being flat on his back for the past few days. Once he had sat up he looked at his parents.
Ni Peng smiled at her youngest son before turning to Xiu and Fei-cui. “Will you two excuse us? Private talk, you know.”
Xiu started to say something, then nodded as she saw the look in the older red panda femme’s eyes and headed for the door. “Come on, Fei-cui,” and the two young women walked out, closing the door behind them. Fei-cui had at first looked as if she’d refuse to leave.
Hao’s mother went to the bedside as Hao held out his arms to her, and she hugged him tightly as he buried his face in her shoulder. She rocked him gently as Hei patted his back consolingly. “Shh,” she said, “you’re safe now, Hao. You can relax.”
He withdrew from her grasp and sniffed before saying, “I really hope so, Mother. Father – “
“Hao,” and Ni Hei smiled at him. He looked at his wife, and said, “Hao, I want you to know that you’ve done very well. If I’d had any idea it was going to be as bad as it was, I would never have sent you in there. I am also very proud that even knowing what was going on you continued with it.” His paw gripped Hao’s good shoulder. “You have done yourself proud, and gained immense face in the family.”
Hao felt his breath catch and he looked up, his eyes brimming. “Father.”
“Son.” Hei hugged the younger fur tightly.
When they finally parted, Hao wiped his nose on the sheet and said, “I – Xiu said that you and the Kungs had met.”
“Yes. Things are arranged. Tse-tao and his family will be moving to Kuo Han first – it’ll be necessary to bury their trail – before anything else happens. Tse-tao’s talent with numbers is almost as good as Peng-wum’s – must run in the family - and was grossly underused by those idiots in the government. His oldest daughter’s interested in moving on to Spontoon.”
“Yes. Nurses and doctors are always good professions to be in if you’re interested in moving to better employment. A work visa might be a bit of a problem, but as long as she remembers to keep her mouth shut – “
“You too, eh?” Hao grinned. “I’m afraid I threatened to kill her. More than once, I think.”
“That’d explain it, then. She said that you were the most ill-mannered, vicious little blot she’d ever encountered – “
“I’m not that little, Father.”
“But she also said that you saved her life,” Peng interjected smoothly as they all laughed. “So things balance out.”
“I’m glad of that. But why are you two here? Who’s watching things back home?”
“Peng-wum. He and Nailani are on Krupmark now. She’s pregnant again, hoping for a daughter this time.” His mother beamed at the prospect.
“Wow. But, Father, if you don’t mind my asking, aren’t you and Mother taking a risk coming here?”
“Not at all,” Hei said. “None of us are wanted in any country, anywhere. Well, Fang has a murder warrant out for him, but in Shanghai. The police there may be a bit preoccupied at the moment. In fact, you being here helped take the Constabulary’s attention away from us for a little while.” He smiled. “Everything worked out for the best.”
Hao sat back a bit. “Did the Kungs tell you what happened?”
“That you were wounded, and that you seemed to black out at one point,” Peng said. “You were under a lot of stress.”
“I shot a man, right in front of them. And I owe Ji-shan and Ji-tsao a plane trip in my GH-2 sometime.”
“You did what you had to do,” Hei said. “You did well, and never forget that.”
“I won’t, Father. Could you ask Xiu to come in again, please? I want to talk to her privately.”
Hei and Peng nodded and left the room. A few moments later Xiu reappeared, trailed by a tall bloodhound in a long white coat. “Hao,” she said, “this is Dr. McMurtry.”
“Hello, young fellow,” the doctor said. He took a moment to check Hao’s pulse and peer into his eyes, then glanced at the small glass on the bedside table. “Fortunate young fellow, too. I took those bullets out of you in time to stop the infection before it became gangrenous.”
“Yes. We would have been forced to amputate your leg, but I’m afraid the young lady would have objected if I’d amputated your head as well.” He gave a slight smile at his little joke.
“Thank you, Doctor.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Ni. By the way,” and he paused as he headed for the door, “the bullet I took out of your head was spent. That’s why it didn’t end up in your brain.” He walked out then, closing the door.
“Are you feeling all right now?” Xiu asked.
Hao shrugged. “Let’s find out,” and he started to swing his legs over to the side of the bed. Xiu watched him as he sat there a moment, then smiles as he slowly eased his feet onto the floor, paws gathering the hospital gown he wore closed behind him. “Floor’s cold.”
She giggled, and stood close as he carefully put his weight on his feet and stood up. He winced. “Leg hurts.” He managed a few steps around the bed, keeping a paw out to balance himself before grinning at Xiu.
His fiancé smiled at him, then went and locked the door. “What are you doing?”
“Just wanted to look at something.”
“Good. I did warn you not to get anything shot off, lover.”
He still walked a bit stiffly even after getting out of the hospital two days earlier, but had already resumed his tai chi drills and fencing with Xiu. He thought he was a bit weak, and she was careful not to humiliate him by beating him despite his insistence that she fight all-out.
But he was on the mend, and getting better almost visibly.
The Kungs had already gone on to Kuo Han with the promise of a job in the legitimate part of the family organization. Fei-cui had gone with them to make sure her father and stepmother were settled in before deciding what she wanted to do with her life. To almost no one’s surprise, she had given Hao a hug before boarding the ship. “Look after yourself, Runt,” she had said, kissing his cheek before hugging Xiu and heading up the gangway.
Xiu had laughed at Hao’s angry blush. “What are you mad about?”
“She got the last word.”
Later, when it was completely dark, he and Xiu had stepped into the small cabana near the pool. There he told her everything that had happened.
Afterwards she hugged him tightly, and the two had drifted off to sleep together.
The next night they had supper at the Hu’s residence, enjoying each other’s company before business pulled Renmin back to his office and Hei back to Krupmark Island. Hao would be going with them.
Plans were being made for the wedding in January.
And certain people on Spontoon and in Fort Bob needed to know that Ni Hao was still a looming menace.
The Hu’s cook had done a superlative job, and the families were relaxing with coffee and conversation when it happened.
Just a little thing, really. A window shade, mounted on a spring roller, suddenly let go with a startlingly loud report, followed by the flapping of the shade.
Xiu had been sitting next to Hao, who had had his back to the window. From his customary slouched seated position, the sudden racket behind him had made him leap completely over the table, ending up under it.
His parents, fiancé and in-laws looked under the table.
Ni Hao crouched there, legs drawn up to his chest.
Staring blankly with wide and frightened eyes.
'Luck of the Dragon' continues