HOU XING
2008-


BOOK 1 : The Fire Star


CHAPTER 1

Last August, a shocking event turned the eyes of the world to China. A sense of comraderie was shared with nations around the world as the great nation of China suffered a great loss. What should have been a day of celebration had become a day of mourning, and the hopes and dreams of millions shattered on the cold stone steps of the Chinese National Space Administration.

The entire event had been staged as an international surprise by the CNSA... who announced after the launch of the Helu vehicle that instead of the planned unmanned Lunar Explorer, that the craft actually held a crew of 5 Chinese astronauts prepared to explore the lunar surface. After the initial international outcries of deceit, a particular strain of pride welled up as the craft neared lunar orbit. For the three days of space flight, the world's heart melted to see the Chinese crew on television and they became instant celebrities. Perhaps it was proof of an element of the universal human spirit of accomplishment that the world embraced the efforts of this troubled nation to reach for the stars.

And then, on the 24th of August, at 13:45 Beijing Time... the lights went out. The signal from Helu was lost... pandemonium struck. Instead of beginning it's orbital descent, Helu drifted helplessly out into deep space. Mission control override seemed to have no effect on the ship's systems. As it slipped behind the shadow of the moon, representatives from the CNSA announced that some major disaster must have befallen the crew. The last transmissions received from the crew all sounded positive and no systems malfunctions had been detected prior to the black out. The entire world found themselves helpless and the joy of the brief fame of the program quickly gave way to grief. It wouldn't take long for the grief to give way to anger and much blame was put on the Chinese for keeping the entire project a secret. Telescopes on land and on satellite were pointed in the direction of the drifting vehicle as it disappeared into the fathoms of space. Discussions of plans to build space craft to retrieve the crew where thrown around, but as Helu was in the height of it's speed trajectory, it would require huge payloads of fuel for a vessel to catchup to her and to then bring the remains of her crew back to Earth. The expense and the risk was deemed too great. The CNSA reported that the crew only had a 3 weeks supply of food and Oxygen... a full 5 days more than they would need on the journey itself, just as a safety precaution. When the third week passed, the director of the CNSA made a televised announcement that all food and water supplies aboard the Helu should be close to exhausted, and even if the crew is still alive and has managed to ration their food supplies, they would certainly be soon suffering from asphyxiation as last of the oxygen was used up. Conspiracy theorists ran wild with the unfortunately timed September 11th aire-date of the announcement. But conspiracy or not, all hearts sank for an internationally televised funeral ceremony.

****

For months, the ever-diminishing image of the ship splashed across newspapers and television sets. With time, the size of these reports shrank as much as the ship itself... eventually disappearing from the daily programs and being replaced by news of yet another war in the Middle East. Or was it the same one? Helu, and it's heroic crew, had simply, disappeared. A dizzying array of speculations of both the academic and sophomoric varieties sprung up about just what had happened to the Helu. Had she been hit by a large, unseen meteorite? Had a storm of microscopic meteoric particles sliced through the ship's hull, simultaneously killing the crew and killing all communications channels? Had an internal malfunction cut off the crew from outside communication as well as lock up their controls and set them adrift? Was it sabotage? Was it a hastily put together and untested space vehicle and space agency that was quite simply not ready for manned space flight? Due to concerns over the Chinese made parts in the current American fleet of rockets and vehicles, several US space programs were grounded until systems could be triple checked, and if possible, rebuilt with American and European made parts.

Among the grounded flights, the first rocket of the Bellona project... the US manned trip to Mars. Bellona I was to be an unmanned vehicle which would land on the surface of Mars and it's automated systems would monitor and regulate themselves for one year. If the system appeared to be stable, then the identical Bellona II vehicle would join 7 months later, with a crew of robots and lab rats, also touring for one year. Bellona III would be manned by a single astronaut who would land his capsule between Bellona I and Bellona II and set to work on attaching them together. This astronaut would be traveling with full knowledge of the danger of his mission and the extreme possibility of not surviving... in fact, many felt he would be lucky to survive the 7 month voyage from Earth to Mars. These three identical pods would serve as the infrastructure to the first Martian colony. Even if the first two stages were deemed a total success, it would probably take an Act of Congress to actually see Stage III put into action and many felt that the entire Bellona project was a waste of valuable resources. The loss of the Helu spacecraft and her crew put a damper on the entire Bellona project and support fell short for it. Bellona, war goddess and lover of Mars, it seemed, would never meet her mate.

Concerns shifted to the war in the Middle East and to domestic issues of dealing with the battered economy and a Space Race for the 21st century was hardly at the fore-front of US policy. As fuel prices rose to astronomical levels themselves, all exploratory space programs were put on hiatus until further notice in February. The project which was intended to inspire Americans to once again dream of a great future had had it's thunder stolen by this maverick Chinese space program. While the world at large still flew banners mourning the loss of the 5 Chinese crewmen, resentment set into the hearts and minds of the American community of space scientists and astronauts. China had at last trumped us at our own game, and had become the darlings of the international media pity-party. At least until March.

****

King Helu of Wu was known for creating the beautiful paradise of Suzhou in 514 BC. He was also known for using tactics of subterfuge and assassination to gain political power. He employed the great Sun Tzu, author of the book called "Sun Tzu" and now know to us as, "The Art of War" as a tactical advisor and general. King Helu is said to be buried underneath the rectangular Sword Pond at the base of Tiger Hill, along with over 3000 swords in the heart of the city of Suzhou. In 1976, a 20 mile wide crater on the surface of the distant planet Mars was named Soochow after the legendary city. The Soochow crater sits a few hundred miles South West of the landing site of the Mars Pathfinder Rover along the ancient flood plain known as the Ares Valles.

****

Fifty million miles away, the Earth looks like a large blue star, with it's white sister Luna always close by. From this distance, the lopsided moon Phobos can be seen swiftly racing around the orange red ball that is Mars. The frozen ice caps at the poles of this desert planet are visible... with the promise of drinkable water and breathable oxygen. For the crew of the Helu... it is a welcome site, and a wonderous Spring to the long and cold Winter of interplanetary space travel. And like Persephone with her seven pomegranate seeds, or Ishtar and her seven veils, the Helu rises again from the seven month darkness of Winter and it's symbolic death and voyage through the underworld to once again greet the people of the Earth....

CHAPTER 2


One thing had become painfully clear to President Richards... and that was that this had indeed become a winter of his discontent. The parade of advisers in and out of his offices had made him even more dizzy than the news they brought. He suspected, although he and was probably incorrect, that no other President had held a bigger secret from the American people knowingly. The events of last August had certainly been a media spectacle... but the White House had had to work feverishly to put tight reigns on how much the public could be allowed to know about the events taking place 200,000 miles above their planet.

Immediately after the launch, reports came in about the massive size of the Helu booster rocket, CZ-8... larger than the Saturn V rocket. The payload potential for this rocket was guessed by some expert advisers to be absolutely immense... 100 times the weight of the Apollo vehicles. Military advisers recommended shooting the craft out of the sky immediately as the payload could easily be enough hydrogen bombs to destroy the Earth 100 times over. Space-flight advisers suggested that the rocket could be carrying parts for a one-shot, independent Chinese Space Station. The military advisers countered that such a space station could be an orbiting missile platform... or something even more sinister. (Although he could personally hardly imagine anything worse.) Everyone who came through his office suggested that whatever it was, it wasn't good.

For 24 hours no-one slept... and then the announcement that shook the world... the smiling faces of 5 Chinese astronauts doing back-flips and playing with water bubbles. An ambitious Chinese moon shot. The advisers all agreed that the payload was too heavy to just be a lunar lander. Satellite recconniasence showed images of a craft that looked to be a lunar lander based on the Apollo designs... but weight analysis of the rocket proved that this appearance was a facade... what appeared to be a tiny space-pod on television screens must have actually been the size of a small house.

It became increasingly hard for the President to understand what any of this meant and when the craft left Lunar orbit to drift into deep space, he had to act his way through a televised address speech to the international community, extending the feeling of loss that all of America felt as much as the Chinese themselves. The truth was that he was greatly relieved. He had been briefed on how to deal with Middle-Eastern dictators and how to politely suggest that the power of the economy would come back at any moment. He had not been briefed on how to participate in an international cover-up. At times, he waxed poetic and imagined himself the James Bond of Presidents... even adding a rare French quinine wine to his private liquor cabinet. For a few months anyway. Most importantly to his relief, no missiles came crashing down from the heavens... no atomic blasts were shaking the Earth out of orbit, no space lasers were drilling holes through the Pentagon.... just the dead silence of a tomb floating away into the blackness of infinity.

****

A team out of Berkley with access to the Hubble for some near-Earth observations of meteorites noticed it first. Then other, more detailed reports came in from various observatories. Gin, Vodka, quinine wine and lemon gave way to straight Gin when the President's biggest headache returned. The evidence was undeniable. The trajectory was unwavering. Every week the updates came in and the animated computer models made it unthinkably clear. The impossibly large lunar lander, with it's crew of five smiling back-flipping ghosts, and their by-now rotted and bloating corpses, was making it's way towards the distant red dust ball of Mars.

There had been no communication, on any channel known to US intelligence. The crew was surely dead. Their ship was adrift... floating along it's original Lunar approach path out into deep space. And in 3 months that path would intersect the orbit of the fourth planet. Merry Christmas Mr. President!

There was a press leak, and through some connections at the network, the President was able to appear in a comedy skit deriding the Chinese government for attempting to colonize Mars with ghosts and he promised to send our crack agents, Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma to investigate. The public ate it up. Official reports called the trajectory a "1 in a million chance that happens to be just that, pure coincidence." A bombing in Palestein and marginal economic recovery during the Christmas holiday season sank the story as fast as it had bubbled to the surface. The news media is truly a fickle machine and when there is lack of public interest, stories tend to die, despite the existence of solid evidence. The President never felt more on top of his game than when several fashionable news programs blasted the more reputable ones for dragging the deaths of the Helu crew through the mud with these falsified reports. The absolute denial of the darling Chinese National Space Program seemed to seal things up. At least until March.

****

"The general that hearkens to my counsel and acts upon it, will conquer: let such a one be retained in command! The general that hearkens not to my counsel nor acts upon it, will suffer defeat:--let such a one be dismissed!"

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

****

The Feng is a sacred bird who defeats death... it is often associated with the western Phoenix. It is one of the 4 great beasts that make up the ancient Chinese cosmos. The dragon, tiger, turtle and bird of heaven map the four directions of the ancient skies and appear on the Feng Shui compass, which is actually an astrological tool used for star based divination. Through the kingdom of the Phoenix and the Tiger the great mass of the Helu silently glides. Space travel is in many ways similar to the ancient concept of death. The travel across the vast emptiness of the underworld to arrive at the gates of eternal life is a journey that all great heroes have made. Soon the crew of the Helu would awaken the entire world just as they have awoken from their slumber...

CHAPTER 3


Wei Tzou often considered himself the James Bond of China. Or at least this was one of the comforting things he thought to himself while staving off his cold and hunger in this horribly smelly yurt in the middle of the formidable Gobi desert. He couldn't recall a James Bond movie featuring the main character riding a camel through the desert, almost dying of dehydration until luckily running into the some wandering herds-men. He wasn't sure exactly how lucky he was, but some kind of thing resembling shelter and some kind of thing resembling food was preferable to a lack of both. He imagined to himself over the snoring of his hosts and their livestock, and the howling of the sand storm outside, that he was on some tropical island, sipping Martinis and playing poker with beautiful women who would trade their secrets for a night of love making.

Unfortunately, his career as a spy had not really gotten him close to any beautiful double agents, and had seemingly gotten him further and further from civilization. He honestly couldn't even remember who he was working for any more... but whomever it was, was about to own him big. Five months of a wild goose chase, culminating in this, a trek across the wasteland of one of the harshest deserts in the world during winter. Certainly his CIA training had not really prepared him for this. And he doubted seriously if his present location would provide any reassurance to the very nervous President he had spoken to in the Oval Office last September. He also doubted if it would help the nerves of the members of the Chinese Central Authority who had agreed to double his pay if he provided the information to them first. Even the chief of the Chinese National Space Administration would probably be shaking his head right about now, and probably trying to figure out how to reroute the cash intended for Mr. Tzou into his own personal private island fund. It was curious to him that not even the Space Administration knew the real mission or payload of the Helu vehicle.

It seemed that in all of mainland China, only one man knew... and Wei suspected that he wasn't even a real man. The pseudonym Shengye was the only name which had been given for the director of the mysterious Zhan Lu corporation which had apparently planned, built, and launched the Helu program outside of the direction of the Chinese Central Authority. Of course the Central Authority denied claims that they knew nothing about the project and went along with the charade just like everyone else. They even published ficticious and heartwarming post-mortem stories about the lives of the 5 astronauts, whom in reality didn't even exist according to Chinese Intelligence.

****

The main office building for the Zhan Lu corporation sits peacefully in an urban tract in the beautiful ancient city of Suzhou. The lobby looked much like you would expect the lobby for any military or aerospace contractor to look... models of missiles and satellites suspended from the ceiling and luxurious corporate furniture hugging the cold marble floor. If this sounds inviting to you, it was not for Wei. In fact, he was immediately kicked out of the building and put onto a bus out of the city. Apparently the direct approach was not going to get him into the office of Shengye the way it had with every other official he had met with. This fact alone led him to believe he had at long last reached the front door of the conspirators who had surprised the world. Two months, and several thousand miles later, he was just as sure that he was about to stumble upon the back door.

His research into the corporate architecture of the Zhan Lu corporation revealed it to be much like any other venture capital business... with it's fingers in mining, oil well drilling, military applications, commercial airliners, aerospace projects, private communications networks, and even providing funding for archeological digs... as long as they promised conspicuous returns of treasure. A regular corporate pirate ship after the American model, the Zhan Lu corporation was like many industries in the swiftly growing economy of China, who had outgrown both the Communist economic tradition and it's rule-of-law as well. It was, in a sense, a micro-nation working inside of the physical and economic structure of China, but working completely outside of it's control.

A clandestine meeting with a former member of Zhan Lu's private army, who had evaded murder at the hand of his former comrades, proved most interesting. Mr. Chu, as he called himself, had sought out Wei after watching him being escorted out of the Zhan Lu lobby. The stories Mr. Chu would tell Wei about a secret private army with training grounds deep in the Gobi were only a sweet sip of the knowledge this man held.

****

In the morning, the herds-men took Wei to the edge of a bizarre building they had discovered a few miles East of their temporary camp. In some ways, it's round structures resembled the yurt in which he had spent the night. Partially still covered in sand, the wind storm had dug the structures out over the night. The herds-men seemed cautious, even scared of this shimmering vision and left Wei on his own to explore them. The round buildings were obviously made of metal, probably aluminum judging by the dull sheen. The exterior doors reminded him of the doors you would see on a submarine, and the word "airlock" was clearly painted in Chinese on them. The first door he tried appeared to be locked tight. Wandering around the small complex of five round buildings, he finally came to an open door. The interior of this silver capsule was unmistakeibly that of a space station, gutted and all of the electronics removed... but the spherical layout and the circular doors in the floor and ceiling gave away the purpose of a building designed for low-gravity environments. And the tattered remnants of map glued to one of the empty computer cabinets displaying craters and mountains in pastel orange gave away the intended location.

****

King Helu of Wu is said to have been given three magical swords after defeating King Goujian of Yue. The swords, Zhanlu "Wholesome Land", Yuchang "Fish Intestine" and Shengye "Defeater of Evil" had been crafted by the great sword-smith OuYezi on Mt. Zhanlu. The Zhanlu sword judged King Helu to be a man full of deceit and so it left him and traveled to the state of Chu to rest beside King Zhao. The other two magical swords, the Yuchang and the Shengye are said to be buried with the king in his secret tomb under the Sword Pond, at the base of Tiger Hill, in the midst of the ancient city of Suzhou.

****

Space is an unimaginably lonely place. Even with familiar constellations against the backdrop, and the tasks at hand, the crew of the Helu was glad to be opening up communications with their home planet again. They had spent 3 years training in the desert in isolation, communicating with Mission Control at the CNSA by artificially delayed radio up-link to aclimate them for this mission. But somehow, even though the yellow filtered camera view outside of the pods showed only an inhospitable desert and an artificially yellowed sky... their brains still told them they were safely on Earth and only a few thousand miles from their families and friends. But being 60 million miles from home, floating through the abyss of nothingness, they each silently wondered how they would survive the coming years. One of them wondered if they were floating through the eternal being of the Buddha, slipping through his ethereal hands like a grain of sand into the void of Nirvana.

CHAPTER 4


On a small tropical island somewhere in the sweeping expanse of the South Pacific, there is a white man in a tuxedo sipping on a Martini. Despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, he has no one official identity. His extreme wealth affords him of this anonymity... traveling by private jets to privately owned airstrips far from the watchful eyes of security and customs. In fact, most of his days are spent on and off of these jets, moving from continent to continent to manage his empire of businesses. Most days. Today, he is waiting. He moves from the ocean overlook back to the small tiki bar to mix another drink. A man of his profile cannot afford to have anyone else mixing drinks for him, or witness him in his current state. He opens the refrigerated suitcase that contains everything he needs to make the perfect Martini and pulls out the shaker.

After pouring his drink he watches the chips of ice dance through the glass like snow flakes, catching the warm rays of sunlight, and occasionally looking like stars captured in this small vessel. The thought swam it's way to the surface of his mind.... someday the stars WILL be his... and dove again out of sight as he dunked a slice of lemon into the glass. It is very likely that no-one alive has ever seen this man this out of his element. For once in his life, uncertainty gripped at him, and he slid into his drink to try to hide from it. A buzz came from a panel behind the bar of the tiki hut. AT LAST, his mind raced. Reaching over the bar and slipping his finger onto the hidden button he asked in a proud clear British accent, "Yes?" The response came urgently "Mr. Shengye!?...Mr. Shengye!?"

****

From his desk, Mr. Shengye had watched the live security feed from the lobby and the scene of the man who called himself Wei Tzou being escorted out of the building. He smiled to himself. So had American Intelligence really gotten this far, or was this man just dumbly lucking into a situation? No doubt, he had talked to the chief of the CNSA who had pointed him in this direction. It was February, and the Americans had just announced the grounding of all non-pertinent space activity. Supplies for the Space Station would still be launched as scheduled, but the Bellona project was to be delayed. Mr. Shengye turned to his right hand security man, "Mr. Chu, why don't you find Mr. Tzou and give him another goose to chase? How about a desert goose?" How long would this trek into the desert take? Would he even find anything when he got there? A broad satisfied grin covered Mr. Shengye's round tanned face. Just long enough. March would soon be upon us.

****

It should be clear to you by now that any self-respecting, diabolical, multinational corporate villain has an underground volcano liar deep in the heart of his own private tropical island. Our Mr. Shengye is no exception. Lined with Chinese marble with jade inlays, the hallways of this subterranian complex looked indeed very similar to the corridors of the Zhan Lu corporate offices. One would almost expect to walk through an elevator and be in that high ceilinged lobby with the suspended rockets and the view of Suzhou just beyond the front doors. The fact is that the maze of halls and rooms of this island facility were 5 times larger than the small building in the Suzhou office park. From here, all operations of his multinational companies are monitored and policed by his private security force. And from here, the only communications array in the world capable of sending and receiving messages to the distant Helu space vehicle is in full operation.

Mission Control for the Helu project was here, in the heart of this volcano. In the last week, all of the computers have been checked and rechecked for proper operation in anticipation of the moment when communications with Helu would be revived. Technicians from all over the vast Zhan Lu empire had flown in to ensure that everything operates smoothly. And behind one-way glass, in an antechamber above the mission-control room, Mr. Shengye pours gin and vodka into a stainless steel shaker. On the back wall of this room, in a relief cut into the solid stone wall, hangs an ancient sword. Impressively covered with patterns detailing mythological beasts in a great battle, the sword is an unusual shape... having a kind of hip in the center before tapering to the point. The patterns of the swirling bodies of a long red dragon and phoenix wrestle their way across this amazing 2500 year old treasure. The Shengye, "Defeater of Evil" rests on this wall as a trophy and as a name sake. No-one except for Mr. Shengye himself knows of the whereabouts or even the actual existence of this legendary blade. For Mr. Shengye, it is his solitary emblem of luck, and both the corner-stone and the cap-stone of his empire.

****

"The general who is skilled in defense hides in the most secret recesses of the earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the topmost heights of heaven. Thus on the one hand we have ability to protect ourselves; on the other, a victory that is complete."

-Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

****

A hush entered the room of the underground Mission Control room as telemetry reports began appearing on several computer screens. Fuel and food supplies at acceptable mission levels and the crew's life signs seemed normal, even exceptional considering the stress of the last 7 months of communications black-out. A query is sent for visual and verbal communications. 6 minutes later, the first human voices other than their own reach the crew of the Helu after their long sleep. Outside, the spinning cratered surface of Mars shines brightly like a weathered basketball hanging right outside of the windows of the main module. The view and the excited cheers of the space voyagers fly back through space at the speed of light, are received by mission control, and are rebroadcast by the Zhan Lu satellites to all of the major news networks on Earth.

CHAPTER 5


Dark clouds rolled through the broad Wei river valley, north of the Qinling Mountains. Mr. Chu glanced up, to look across the plain at the storm advancing. It's black shadow enveloped the farms and tiny houses, and creeped up the sides of the three grassy pyramids in front of him. The three brothers, all the same size and orientation, covered in brush and small trees are devoured by the wall of rain. He ducked back into the shaft cut into the side of their mother, the larger earthen pyramidal burial mound. He walked across planks of wood scattered across the floor of the tunnel and searches the blackness with a pocket-flashlight. His thoughts turned to the project at hand as the symphony of rain reached the tunnel entrance and crescendoed against the boards of the walk-path.

Of the various duties that Mr. Chu preforms for Mr. Shengye, overseeing the pillaging of Chinese archaeological sites was his least favorite. Somewhere buried in his black heart rotted by money, power, and devotion to the Zhan Lu corporate interest, was a spark of national pride... or maybe it was a streak of racism, or was it jealousy? He resented Mr. Shengye's desire to rape important historical sites, especially the burial mounds of legendary kings, but in the same breath felt honored to be one of the few men in the world who got to appreciate their beauty. Regardless of the emotional effect, his mixed feelings of pride and betrayal kept him honest and efficient at his work. Perhaps Mr. Shengye even recognized this secret side of him.

But here, in a mausoleum at the heart of this man-made mountain, is a mysterious relic indeed. 800 miles to the West of the ancient garden city of Suzhou, the final resting place of King Helu of Wu, laying in the funerary clutter of the tomb of an unknown king, was an ancient sword resting on top of a small stone box. Perhaps not so much resting on top of the box, as mounted to the box by four ornately carved claws with sharp talons. The claws were in turn attached to arms with scale patterns across them, which wrapped down the sides of the box and apparently joined together underneath. What was immediately striking to Mr. Chu as strange about this artifact was not the dragon's claws or the bizarre box, but the sword. He brushed the beam of his flashlight across the blade and it's flawless etched surface casts intricate reflections against the muralled walls of the crypt. The patterns are unmistakably the mountains and clouds of an ancient Chinese painting, and the sword itself is unmistakably the form and size of Mr. Shengye's most prized relic.

****

It is said that when Ou Yezi went to Mount Zhan Lu to forge the five magic swords for King Goujian of Yue, that Mount Chijin tore itself open to yield rich veins of tin, and that the River Ruoye ran dry to reveal a sparkling bed of pure copper. Then the ground was swept clean by a driving rain sent from the rain god himself. Ou Yezi's bellows were filled by the god of thunder and the Flood Dragon carried the furnace on his back to heaven where the Emporer of Heaven filled it with divine coals. These five swords, Yuchang "Fish Intestine", Shengye "Defeater of Evil", Juque "Giant", Chunjun "Pure Harmony" and ZhanLu "Wholesome Land" were the purest, most powerful swords in the world.

2500 years later, a sword was unearthed in an ancient tomb by Chinese scientists. Analysis of the sword revealed it's structure to be of various bronze alloys with differing ratios of copper and tin, with traces of iron and lead added for resiliency and weight. The sword was found to be virtually free of any kind of tarnish, which scientists claim must be a property of it's complex chemical composition. It's short length with the graceful profile of waist and hips, and it's hardened edges and flexible core must have made it a formidable weapon. Intricate basket-weave patterns etched into the different alloys of bronze dazzle the eye, and written across the sword in majestic script that resembles writhing worms are the words, "Belonging to King Goujian of Yue, made for his personal use."

****

Out of one of the observation ports of the Helu space craft, the massive orange orb of Mars stretched. One of the five crew members looked out over this terrain in wonder. Geological charts and even three dimensional computerized models of this planet betrayed it's awesome presence. He could see the massive shape of the dry-ice capped peak of the largest mountain and volcano in the entire solar system. Named Olympus Mons after the home of the Gods, the 17 mile high and 340 mile wide mountain was almost beyond human imagination. And beyond this ancient furnace the three brothers... they were called the Tharsis Montes.... the mountains at the end of the world. The four volcanoes together make up the perfect geometric formation of a triangle with the three brothers as it's base... a unique occurrence in all of the solar system.

He let his mind wander back to Earth... he imagined himself a bird flying over the Nile River valley of Egypt, the three perfect pyramids of Giza below him catching the first rays of the rising sun. And then he was transformed again, he was the falcon god Heru bringing the disk of the sun to light the world below him. His wings stretched from horizon to horizon. Still in his daydream, he looked up to see the stars rising over the smokey rim of Mars... and here he witnessed for the first time in human history the rising of the three stars of Orion's Belt, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka over the three great mountains of Tharsis Montes, Arsia, Pavonis and Ascraeus. The Three Kings rose silently above the dusty world as the excited cheers of his crew-mates brought him back to his duties. As he went to join the others, he missed the rising of Rigel, the brightest star in Orion, which made a great triangle mirroring the mountainous one below.

CHAPTER 6


When the salesman asked Wei if he had ever driven a scooter before, the memories of riding a luxurious Italian scooter, with it's large fast engine and smooth ride through the wide lanes of San Francisco betrayed his thinking. The toothless exaggerated grin of the skinny man in front of him should have been a clue. The dusty shed which was politely called the showroom, should have been another.

The camel that the herdsmen let Wei trade his sorely abused one for, had gotten him to the edge of this shanty town before sitting down and refusing to go any further. Once it had found water, it could not be made to move one more step. He spat in the direction of the camel and it spat back, he considered them even and let it be. He walked the remaining two miles to the village, his western style clothing and sunglasses attracting the attention of the dirty round faces of the small clan of boys who had obviously long ago run out of village people to annoy. They lay traps for him in his wake, which he blundered into in his state of exhaustion. Whenever he tripped on one of their carefully placed twine tripwires, they circled him laughing and mocking him with shouts that he could only assume was some regional variation of the kinds of taunts that little boys have engaged in since the beginning of time. Playful cruelty, he mused, had obviously played some important role in the evolution of our species, and along with upright walking, speech and larger brains, must have been crucial to our survival.

Under the instruction of the salesman, he filled the gas tank to brimming full and tied a piece of fabric over his head. At first he had thought it some adult form of cruelty, a mock to his request for a helmet… but he was assured that the turban would keep him from passing out, and that there were only a few helmets in the village, which he might possibly be able to buy off of their owners for the right price. Capitalism it seemed, was not lost on these people whom otherwise seemed to hang in some apocalyptic version of Chinese feudal society, at the northern edge of civilization. So, turban secured, laces tied tight, leather jacket zipped up, and sunglasses polished, Wei Tzou sputtered and rattled his way out of town to the cheering and laughing of what he whole-heartedly believed must have been the entirity of the village, and possibly a few interlopers from nearby villages curious to witness the commotion.

This machine was not a luxury Italian motor-bike. It did not have streamlined knee guards or a wind screen. It did not have sculpted body panels to hide the engine. It barely had suspension, and the turn signals did nothing. There was only one road from the tiny outpost village to the nearest town with a bus. The road was 45 miles long, narrow, unpaved, and unmaintained, with almost as many potholes, rocks, and tree roots, as hair-pin turns and impossibly steep muddy hills. The fact that this was one of the preferred means of transportation throughout much of Asia did little to disturb his sense of unease as his little scooter bounced and screamed it's way through the countryside.

Coming around hair-pin turn number 5762, Wei lost control of the bike trying to avoid slamming into the business end of a water buffalo wandering it's way from one village to the next. Spilling a bike that weighs only slightly more than yourself at a speed more suitable for runners and lazy bicyclists than for a motorcycle, is not too terribly bad. He was already covered in dust, and taking a few minutes to get the bike running again gave him a chance to relax for a few minutes. His legs and arms were shaking… believing themselves to still be on that quaking machine, and not ready to settle down into the solid and quiet earth. His brain was swimming from the ride, and the sickly sweet smell of the leaded gasoline that had overflowed from the tank dissolved the otherwise strikingly peaceful beauty of his road-side stop. He wondered how much gas had spilled as he climbed back on and took off down the trail.

A few minutes later, he knew exactly how much gas had spilled. Just enough. He had come 40 miles in the most miserable two hours of his life, but now it was going to take another two to walk the rest of the way into town. He considered pushing the bike too, but thinking of the value of the information he had gathered, he pushed it off of the first steep hill he came to…. which was not far. It was turning out to be just that kind of day. For the first few minutes, he suddenly felt warm… without the constant wind blowing around him from the bike, walking seemed less cold. As it got darker around him, he got cold again, the shivering keeping him awake. He didn't remember this part of any James Bond movies.

****

Wei could have sworn that the clerk at the small inn said that the name of this town was Bai Gann… but in his delirious state, the clerk might as well have said it was Paris or Denver. He couldn't remember going to bed, but when we woke sixteen hours later, still in his dusty and scuffed leather jacket, with his dusty and scuffed shoes still laced to his feet and that sweat-stained turban still wrapped around his head, he was sort of glad he didn't. A hot bath with salts and herbs and a piping hot cup of tea later, he began to put himself back together. Had he really seen what he thought he had? Was there really a secret training facility out in the wilds of the Gobi desert? Was it really shaped like pods from a space station? Was there really a battered map of Mars hanging off of a cabinet?

It all seemed so unreal. Was this rebel Zhan Lu Corporation really sending five astronauts deep into the vast reaches of space to live on the inhospitable desert world of Mars? His head swam. The dirty little restaurant near the tavern had hot sake' to offer and Wei treated himself to a bit of brain clearing.

****

Another rough morning, the bruises and strains of the last few weeks of travel was finally catching up with Wei. The sake' hadn't really helped either. Another hot bath with rocks and leaves in it… another infusion of tea… another night of sake' and rice… another painful morning. His head was finally starting to clear. It was time to make the phone call that would magically transform this cold, impoverished town into a lush island jungle. The clerk at the inn put on a show of how happy he was to let Mr. Tzou use his only telephone, grumbling to himself as he walked away, looking for something to clean or beat or yell at. A water buffalo decided to take a nap in front of his main entrance, which gave him something to yell at and beat with a flyswatter, after which he set to work cleaning up the mess the creature left behind. He came back inside just in time to watch Mr. Tzou collapse to his knees and cry like a mother who's only son has just died of a tragic accident with a bus. So he swatted the man with a flyswatter and drove him out the door, cursing him in several dialects.

CHAPTER 7


Just between you and I, it is my opinion that newspaper headlines rarely have any real value in expressing anything resembling what is actually going on in the world. Mostly cheap shots, bad puns, and attention drawers, the purpose of the headline is to sell newspapers, not to report the news. Somewhere between the headline and the last page of the paper, may be some actual news, but I suspect that if you were to publish a newspaper made entirely of randomly generated words and statistics, you would have just about as good a chance as hitting on some actual real news as you would with most newspapers. Given this perspective, you should not be surprised to find that I was equally not surprised to read the following headline:

"PRESIDENT LAME-PEKING-DUCK RICHARDS ROASTS IN CHINA"

There is no question that he has been a kind of do-nothing President… and it is well known that the only reason he was able to win the election was because he was running against the single most incompetent and immensely hated Presidents to ever hold the office. In one single term the incumbent had managed to upset members of his own party in Congress and to ostracize himself from almost everyone on the planet, including his own wife, who left him after his second year in office.

Back to the headline. For one thing, President Richards has not even officially visited China as President yet, and has only even been to Chine once, traveling with a high school group to see the Great Wall. Secondly, the Great Wall is outside of the city once known as Peking, but the name of the city is currently spelled "Beijing". Thirdly, like in America, China was in the middle of winter when this headline was published, so even IF the President had visited, he would have been more of a "frozen-lame-Beijing-duck" than a "roasting-lame-Peking-duck". Regardless… the article had virtually nothing to do with the President's actual relations with China.

Ever since the administration of the prior-President-who-shall-go-unnamed, the popular media has taken up a pet issue dealing with China. Every chance they get, newspapers and anchormen can be read and heard babbling incessantly about the need for us to do something about China's environmental policies. No-one really remembers why the press latched onto this issue, but it has become a big one and even members of Congress can be caught parroting the media on this "hot-button issue". The thing that makes absolutely no sense about this rhetoric is that it completely and absolutely side-steps our own current domestic environmental policies, which under the previous administration reached all-time lows. The logic (if there indeed, is any) seems to stem from the idea that since China grossly pollutes more than we do, that we somehow have a right to tell them to clean up their act, while ignoring our own slow progress in this area. The media has chosen to lam-blast President Richards for ignoring the pollution and vast commercial waste of another country, and has dubbed him a lame-duck because of it.

****

If we could see into the private offices of Mr. Richards, we would probably witness him dunking a lemon into his extra dry Martini and accidentally splashing the contents all over these very headlines, shrugging to himself, and taking a satisfying sip while putting his slippered feet onto the Executive Desk right on top of those same soggy papers.

****

Now, this particular headline precedes an article that goes one step farther than the rest of the pack. In this article, a Chinese aerospace company called Zhan Lu is credited with beginning an initiative to move towards environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. The article seems to ignore the fact that Zhan Lu has not actually begun any changes in it's production practices, and also ignores Zhan Lu's history of environmental incidents, including an explosion at a rocket-fuel plant that not only killed hundreds of workers, but has become ground zero for a no-mans land encompassing several tiny villages. (Which is itself ironic because the word Zhan Lu means "wholesome land" in Chinese.) Also, suspiciously missing from the article is any mention of the connections between the Zhan Lu Corporation and the errant Chinese space vehicle, Heru. Instead, the article seems hell-bent on deriding the President at any cost, even if it means propping up the reputation of what is by all means, an evil master-mind entity.

****

The President was rubbing his eyes, feet on the Executive Desk, Martini in hand, when his phone rang… Not the press phone… Not the private line to his wife… Not the big red phone, that he hid at the bottom of the desk so even if it DOES ring he can ignore it… Just the regular phone to his office from his private secretary. She seemed excited… or nervous… or upset, he really couldn't tell. He asked her to calm down and speak more slowly… she just yelled at him to turn on the television and hung up. As he slowly placed the head-set back onto the receiver, and glanced around for the remote control, he thought to himself that it was probably time to look into appointing some new staff.

As he watched the images flash across the screen, any hopes of having a private St. Patrick's day romp with the misses at his retreat in Vermont, free from press and advisers, crumbled into what seemed like an infinity of infinitely tiny nothings. His recurring headache returned, and his entire being settled into the knowledge that China was about to define his presidency for him, where he had failed to take any initiative.

CHAPTER 8


Yei Xiao's reflection stared back at him... his corporeal form appeared as ether... a dream of a man, his veins and bones and viscera all made of stars burning billions of light years away. He cocked his head so that two very bright stars shone through the blacks of his eyes. He allowed his mind to do a little back-flip and now he was the man in the reflection... his cosmic twin, floating outside of this spacecraft, into depths of space. He closed his eyes and his body melted away and he was the stars, his body billions and billions of light years across... watching that tiny spacecraft. From here he could watch the ballet of the entire solar system... the spinning massive storms of the outer giants, the asteroid clouds, the volcanic explosions of radiation spilling from the throne of the King of Heaven as his court dances around him. Xiao opened his eyes. And here he was again... a grain of sand on the beach, a drop of water in the ocean... infinitely small... infinitely alone, here in the expanse between Earth and Mars.

He had long ago grown bored with the movies, television shows, video games, and electronic library prepared for him for his journey. Four months in the void had begun to take it's toll on him. The psychological examinations, the weeks in solitary confinement, the endless days in sensory deprivation floating in electrolyte.... none of it could compare with the reality of this journey. There were dozens of meaningless experiments he was supposed to perform on his journey.... but he knew as well as the program directors that these were just distractions engineered to keep him busy, experiments long ago performed by the crews of American space flights and members of the International Space Station projects. He also knew that every record of his activities would be destroyed two days before the rest of the crew was revived from stasis. He was a man without law, without companions, without purpose.

****

Space travel is not the romantic journey we imagine it to be. There are no warp engines... no swiftly moving stars around the ship... no rattling panels in the mechanical room... no roar of the space drive... nothing. In fact the stars didn't move at all. This was the hardest part for Xiao, for the boy who had loved to track the motion of the stars through the skies over China... to watch them rise and set through the course of the night... to watch the precession of the seasons from the perspective of Heaven, this had long been his dream. But here, on this ship traveling in a slow arc to meet it's destination, the stars did not move. He thought to himself that they should have had the craft revolve through one revolution every 24 hours, to give him the joy of the a perpetual night of tracking stars. Instead, he felt frozen. It is hard to imagine this feeling... to know with every part of your being that you are on a tiny space craft, traveling at a velocity that would seem wreckless and impossibly fast on the surface of the Earth... but to have no perception of this motion. Some days, his mind panicked with the thought that maybe his ship had actually stopped moving, that it had somehow lost it's momentum and was sitting absolutely still in the midst of the solar system, 30 million miles from home... stranded. The thought crossed his mind that maybe the ship's computer was lying to him as it tracked his progress.

The only thing to revive his sense of time and of progress, was the blue dot receding behind him and the red dot engorging in front of him. But here, four months into his journey, the two balls looked like matching marbles floating outside two different windows of the craft. It was one of his few joys, as the only things that moved across this stage backdrop of stars, where the planets. The gods themselves in their journeys. The sun's glare was safely behind the craft, and Mercury and Venus were also not visible... but over the course of the months, he had identified all of the visible planets in their slow dance.

****

There is not a culture on the planet who has not at some point looked to the motions of the stars and noticed how their movements held encoded into them the secrets of time, the seasons, the cycles of death and birth... although some cultures forgot these interests or moved beyond them... some specialized in them. Over six thousand years ago, at the dawn of civilizations all over the world, a special alignment happened that effected the minds of humans all over the world. Many peoples had already noticed that there are four special days in the year. There is the longest day of the year, when the Sun God rules over the Earth in his full glory, which marks the beginning of the harvest season. There is the shortest day of the year, when the Sun God has been totally overcome by the forces of darkness and is reborn to begin his struggle for victory. Then there are the two days of balance, when the forces of light and dark are balanced, these days marking the rise of Summer and Winter, are the center-points of every agricultural cult in the world.

Now, it just so happens that there are four very large constellations in the night sky who represent each of these days, and it just so happens that six thousand years ago, the four brightest stars within those constellations rose on the end of those four holy days. Aldebaran, the eye of the Bull Heaven, master of fertility, in his eternal battle with Orion the great hunter, the first king of Heaven and Earth, guardian of the gates of Heaven, ferry-man of the river of the dead, rose on the Spring Equinox. Regulus, the King star, the bright heart lying deep in the chest of the magestic royal lion rose in the glory of the Summer Solstice, to hail the Kingdom of Heaven, and mark the divinity of the kings of Earth. Antares, the blood red soul of the great Scorpion, the back-slider, the great Lord of Death forever chasing Orion and the abyss at the end of the river, rose at the Autumnal Equinox to show the triumph of the forces of darkness over light. And lastly, southerly Fomalhaut, the jewel in the mouth of the fish reminds us of Noah in the belly of the whale, his re-emergence in the last third of December bringing on the beginning of a new year, the rebirth of the Sun God, during the Winter Solstice. In ancient China, they were seen as the great Unicorn of the Earth, the golden Fire Bird, the Red Dragon and the Water Turtle.

These four stars, the gate keepers of the Temple of Heaven, the guardians of time and the seasons, the archangels, the watchers over all of creation, have become so deeply encoded into all cultures, that without them, humanity would be as lost as a tiny fragment of rock floating through the immensity of space. Or a tiny space-craft making it's way through the solar system.

CHAPTER 9


Mud began filling the lower levels of the tomb as Mr. Chu and his workers hurried to wrap and box the most valuable relics. Occasional flashes of lighting sparked from the end of the roughly-hewn tunnel. With every passing minute, artifacts disappeared in the deluge. As they worked, they could hear sections of the tunnel walls collapse into the pooling water and mud with a splash. The workers struggled in the mud, slipping as they moved the heavy boxes. As the water rose to below their knees, Mr. Chu had them bring the boxes out to the waiting truck.... up the muddy ramp of the tunnel and down the wet grassy slope of the pyramid, illuminated temporarily in flashes of lightning. The heaviest crate, the one containing the sword and the stone box slipped out of their hands into the blackness of the water. Mr. Chu reached down into the muddy water, groped in the cold darkness for the box with his hands and feet... when he found the top of it, he yelled at the workers to lift it. They struggled against the rising water, they found it's corners and slid their fingers down the sides of the box. They had to twist their heads around to keep their mouths out of the flood. With all their combined energy, they struggled to lift the box above the water and moved one foot at a time. The mud sucked at their feet, some moments it gripped them like slimy fists, and others it pushed them aside. The men grunted and wheezed... the weight in the box shifted and they almost lost it again. Slowly they made their way across the flooded floor of the crypt, to the edge of the ramp. Mr. Chu held the lower end of the box as they made their up the ramp. It was almost as if the earth itself was fighting against them, as if the force of gravity was being articifically increased on this crate.

****

The Valley of the Wei River is something of an enigma in the West... first documented in Western literature during WWII, when American bombers crossing the Himalayas reported a golden pyramid rising amidst the steep slopes of the Qinling Mountains. Ignored as a myth, western culture forgot about these reports as the specter of Red China rose from the ashes of WWII. Many people have undoubtedly heard of the great ceramic army of first emperor Ying Zheng, but few westerners realize that these amazing figures lay at the base of one of the largest earthen burial pyramids in China and are one of the few things that has been recovered from the tomb. The communist Central Authority has restricted archeological investigations into ancient Chinese culture and the validity of their findings is often doubted by western scientists.

Of course, few Americans even realize that there are hundreds and hundreds of similar earthen pyramids lining the Mississippi River valley, the arms of a great empire extending from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic and down to the Gulf of Mexico. It is curious the American fascination with the Egyptian and Mayan architecture, but the complete lack of interest in similar structures right in their back yard. Perhaps it is cultural denial... it is important to Americans to view the Native Americans as disorganized savages with goofy tribal beliefs and unsophisticated minds. If the bulk of Americans were to see the scope of the great Mississippian Culture... a true empire with a larger territory than the United States prior to the Civil War... with a beautiful and rich mythology and astronomical sciences just as advanced as any paleological culture... people might freak out. Maybe the whole of American society would have to undeniably admit that the death of this culture was their fault... that they continue to profit from this social holocaust. Perhaps it is the same kind of cathardic response that keeps the knowledge of the ancient Chinese burial pyramids a secret in America.

****

As Mr. Chu's team emerged from the mouth of the tunnel, lighting flashed all around them and a great thunder shook the hill itself. They could see all of the valley burned into their retinas by the white hot flash. The profile of three identical pyramids shown against the horizon, slightly below the ridge of the mountain chain that encircled this valley. The patterns of the lightning itself seared into Mr. Chu's mind... it gripped him and froze him. He had never seen lightning like that... it was as if the sky itself had written out a message. But it was not written in modern Chinese, but an ancient script, older than these mountains of dirt, older than most of the objects they had recovered. Except for one. Scrawled across the sword which was in the box he helped carry, was an ancient decorative script... it resembled writhing worms and flying birds... and now Mr. Chu realized... the patterns of lightning he witnessed here at the edge of the Qinling Mountains.

The three men stood blinking, temporarily blinded with the scene before them unchanging as they moved their heads and closed their eyes. Only Mr. Chu recognized what he had seen as a vision... the others only shouted and cursed at their own eyes. Fear sank into his heart... the excitement of the discovery, the anger of the exploitation, all of this melted away and was consumed by the fear. His mind reeled.

"What is this thing?" he cried silently to himself.

The supersticious nature of his grandparents welled up from it's hiding place. Reason and purpose, the communist ideals, fought against his ancient being. He felt, standing at the edge of this cliff, emerging from one world into another, that he was unleashing an unspeakable evil into the world. He felt that he had birthed a demon, and that all of nature was fighting against him. But he could not reverse the act. He could not simply return the relic, because he knew the military would arrive in the morning and excavations would be done on the tomb to preserve whatever had been left behind. And this machination would be allowed to surface.... perhaps he wondered, Mr. Shengye would be better prepared than some university to deal with this, whatever it was.

****

Their truck bounced its way across the narrow unpaved roads of the Wei River Valley. As the storm raged all around them, barraging the old truck, calm and purpose returned to Mr. Chu... the fear sank away and he again felt in control and determined. And in this moment... a new purpose was born for Mr. Chu he felt, no he knew, that he had to protect this artifact, this mysterious box with its padlock hewn from a magic sword held down by the arms of dragons, guarded by the very forces of the Earth itself. This idea, which came suddenly, cemented quickly into determination... into resolve. If he had angered some ancient forgotten gods, Mr. Chu would redeem himself, but not just for them.... for himself.

END BOOK 1