The Middle Kingdom

The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove Read Free Book Online

Book: The Middle Kingdom by David Wingrove Read Free Book Online
Authors: David Wingrove
Tags: Fiction, General, Science-Fiction, Action & Adventure, Dystopian
was told to bring it here at once."
    "Give it
here!" Yang Lai said irritably.
    Pi Ch'ien edged
forward and handed the card across. Yang Lai stared at it a moment,
then turned away. With upturned eyes Pi Ch'ien watched him tap his
personal code into the instruct box and place his thumb against the
release.
    There was a
moment's silence from Yang Lai, then he gasped. When he turned to
face Pi Ch'ien again, his face was ashen. For a moment his mouth
worked silently; then, without another word, he turned and left the
room, his silk cloak flapping as he ran.
    Pi Ch'ien lifted
his head, astonished. For a moment he stood there, rooted to the
spot. Then he rushed across the room and poked his head out into the
corridor.
    The corridor was
empty. There was no sign of Yang Lai.
    He looked
back into the room. There, on the floor, was the message card. He
went across and picked it up, then turned it in his hand, studying
it. Without Yang Lai's thumb on the release pad the surface of the
card was blank; even so, it might prove interesting to keep.
    Pi Ch'ien
hesitated, not certain what to do. Yang Lai had not formally
dismissed him; but thert, he had fulfilled his duty—had
delivered the message. Surely, then, it was all right for him to go.
He went to the door and looked out again. The corridor was still
empty. Careful now, consciousjsf the watching cameras, he stepped
outside and pulled the door shut behind him. Then, composing himself,
trying to ignore the strong feeling of wrong-ness that was growing in
him by the moment, he began to walk toward the entrance hall.
     
    THERE WAS
movement up ahead. Chen crouched in the narrow circle of the
horizontal shaft, perfectly still, listening. Beside him, tensed, his
breathing like the soft hiss of a machine, Jyan waited.
    Chen turned,
smiling reassuringly. In the dim overhead light Jyan's face seemed
more gaunt than normal, his cheekbones more hollow. The roseate light
made him seem almost demonic, his cold black eyes reflecting back two
tiny points of redness. Chen wanted to laugh, looking at him. Such
delicate features he had; such neat, small ears. He could imagine how
Jyan's mother would have loved those ears—back when Jyan had
yet had a mother.
    He looked away,
sobered by the thought. It's why we're here, he realized, waiting,
knowing the noise, the movement, would go away. If we had loved ones
we would never have got involved in this. We're here because we have
no one. Nothing to connect us to the world.
    Chen kept his
thoughts to himself; like a good kwai he cultivated the
appearance of stupidity. Like all else it was a weapon. He had been
taught to let his enemies underestimate him; always to keep something
back—something in reserve. And lastly, to take no friends.
    Ahead it went
silent again. He waited, making sure, then began to move up the
access tunnel once more, his right hand feeling the way along the
tunnel wall. And as he moved he could sense Jyan immediately behind
him; silent, trusting.
     
    MINISTER LWO
pulled himself up out of his chair and stretched his legs. It was
almost time to call it an evening, but first he'd dip his body in the
pool and cool off. His junior ministers had risen to their feet when
he had stood. Now he signaled them to be seated again. "Please,
gentlemen, don't break your talk for me."
    He moved between
them, acknowledging their bows, then down three steps and past a
lacquered screen, into the other half of the dome. Here was a
miniature pool, its chest-deep waters cool and refreshing after the
heat of the solarium. Small shrubs and potted trees surrounded it on
three sides, while from the ceiling above hung a long, elegant cage,
housing a dozen songbirds.
    As he paused at
the pool's edge two attendants hurried across to help him undress,
then stood there, heads bowed respectfully, holding his clothes, as
he eased himself into the water.
    He had been
there only moments when he heard the pad of feet behind him. It was
Lao Jen.
    "May I join
you,

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