By Blaine Kaltman
One of the greatest ironies in human history occurred in China at the start of the 11thCentury. Taoist alchemists attempting to create an elixir of immortality mixed together charcoal, Sulphur, and saltpeter inventing one of the greatest killing agents ever known to man: gunpowder. In their effort to achieve everlasting life they provided humankind with the ability to kill from a distance. With indifference. By moving one finger. And inadvertently led to the deaths of millions, the extinction of species, mass migration, the upheaval of nations, and the transfer of uncountable numbers of dollars. If this was a balancing act of Nature- or God as the relics would perceive- when the scale tipped too far toward destruction the alchemists’ experiment yielded another unintended result: advancements in medical technology. The tourniquet, amputation, ether, post-surgical recovery and eventually robot prosthetic or 3D printed replacement limbs were born from the same Taoist blunder, as was the comatose care and muscle atrophy reversal therapy that not only kept Parker alive in a persistent vegetative state for five hundred years, but allowed him to wake up and return to normal- normal being a relative term.
If there was a metaphor to be found in the invention of gunpowder it was not Icarus flying too close to the sun or even the opening of Pandora’s box. It was indeed the path does not always take a straight or even obvious line- and sometimes the destination is not reached for fifteen thousand years. But in the year 2518 longevity, for those who could afford it, was the status quo. And the Taoist dream of immortality- once a yellowish combustible powder- was now a veritable reality.
Parker looked pretty good for a man that was over five hundred years old- not that he had ever ascribed much relevance to age. Even in his forties, before falling off a desk and being plunged into a coma for half a millennium, he maintained a more youthful appearance than his years. Rigorous exercise, healthful eating, and a carefree attitude were the reason but Parker naively believed it was due to frequent masturbation and ending showers with cold water.
“It tricks the body into thinking your fourteen,” he explained. Tony Wang- possibly in his thirties but also young looking for any age- took a long drag off his cigarette but did not change his indifferent expression. “Think about it- you’re having that same post orgasm endorphin dump,” Parker continued, “and the cold showers- it’s like a rebirth. It simulates the shock to the system of being plucked from that warm womb and thrust into the cold harsh world.”
He paused a moment realizing his statement was metaphorical to his own life. They were at an open-air food market- sitting at one of the hundreds of orange plastic tables lining the curb. Food stalls selling beer and skewers of various protein- bug, soy, rice, pea- cluttered the street. Crowds of noisy pedestrians pushed and shoved though the disarray. Above them was the incessant hum of sky ches-row above row of mini-helicopter traffic. Cacophonous music blared from the open-door of the electronics shop across the street. Sitting next to them was a Tubianti family that was more well to do than the other mutants Parker had encountered. At least they could afford to eat there. Parker identified the father’s shirt as Wakame Nanoonly it had extra-long sleeves- tailor made to obscure what disfigurement lurked beneath. One of his two daughters, however, could not hide her deformity. She had neither eyes nor nose. Her face was one long sunburnt forehead with a small mouth where it met her tiny chin. That mouth sloppily crunched grilled crickets until her father corrected her.
“Chew with your mouth closed,” he said.
Parker’s mom used to tell him the same thing. Parker’s mom who had celebrated her 70th birthday before he left for Thailand. Parker’s mom who had been dead for five hundred years. It dawned on him he would never even see her grave- much less inherit that antique banjo she displayed in her basement- an antique that by now could have been priceless.
“That’s the Major,” Tony said abruptly. Parker snapped out of his self-reflection. Despite the crowd of colorful figures, it was easy for him to spot who Tony indicated. The man was broad, tall, brown skinned. He had a thick moustache. Wearing a gray tracksuit, weaving his way through the crowd with an air of earned importance. People seemed to clear his path not because they knew him but because he seemed like someone you just sensed not to fuck with.
“He is Uighur,” Tony said, anticipating Parker’s next question. “He used to be a soldier but he went wall.”
“You mean AWOL?” Parker asked. Tony shrugged. He crushed out the remainder of his cigarette. “Just be careful. This man is dangerous.”
The dangerous man had many aliases but ten years ago he was named Timur Beg. A former Major in the Uighur army that had fought alongside Tibetan nationalists to win both provinces’ freedom from China in what was now known as the Tibetan-Uighur Revolution, 2510. However, Beg enjoyed the spoils of war a little more than his already corrupt commanders could turn a blind eye to. Amidst allegations of overseeing his platoon’s systematic rape and execution of a Han village inside what was formally the Uighur Autonomous Zone, rather than face a court martial designed to appease the neighbor of the country he had fought to establish, he and his band of marauders disappeared into China. Over the next ten years they worked their way 4000 kilometer east, settling in the Tianjing edge city where they ran a few profitable rackets including control of transport routes- which was why Tony Wang was meeting him today. To locals- and local law enforcement- Timur Beg was known as Major Black. His mob of battle-hardened soldiers: Gan Shou.
“It means Dry Hand,” Tony said flatly. “It has to do with them coming from the desert.”
Parker became dimly aware of the Tubanti father arguing with his daughter- something about her poor table manners- until he noticed beyond them, two other ethnically similar looking men standing not so unobtrusively nearby. By the food stalls was another. Parker glanced behind him and, sure enough, there were two more. Tony noticed the concern on Parker’s brow.
“They’re just as nervous as we are,” he whispered. Timur Beg was upon them.
“Tony Wang,” he said. Tony stood up slightly to shake his hand then sat backdown.
“Major,” Tony replied. “Nice to see you again. This is Parker. He’s a relic from the 21stcentury.”
Beg smiled warmly. “Welcome to our time,” he said, “and I assume my country.”
“Hey now,” Tony said jokingly, “this is my country. You can welcome him to your country when he travels to Uighurstan.”
Beg snorted. “I’m Uighur but I’m not from Uighurstan. Uighurstan didn’t exist when the war started. I fought on the winning side only to make my life in the losing country.” He thought a brief moment then added: “But Uighurstan is the real loser. They traded one bad ruler for another: themselves.” Abruptly he changed the subject by asking Parker: “How’s the food?”
Xishuai-in this case crickets crushed into a paste, mixed with a thickening starch and spices, and barbecued in the shape of silver-dollar pancakes- was not unpleasant. But Parker still hadn’t quite gotten his head around the idea of eating bugs.
“I don’t know,” he said honestly.
Beg laughed roundly, so did Tony.
“Well then,” Beg said, “much as I love talking politics and food, that’s not what we’re here for, is it?”
Parker found himself liking Beg. He was charming but business oriented. He liked how he acknowledged the need for small talk but then quickly and politely cut through it. And Beg was right, they were not meeting to discuss politics or food. They were there to plan a train robbery.
In 2518 The New Silk Road stretched from China’s south- eastern seaboard to the EU Balkan Dependencies transporting everything imaginable by dedicated high-speed rail tracks. The trains were miles long and traveled at 500 miles per hour, making a delivery from Shanghai to the Black Sea ports possible in under ten hours. For years the Dry Hand had disrupted the tracks and hijacked deliveries. So much that soon they were extorting the engineers and, after union complaints, the rail road itself for “arrival protection insurance.” In effect they had become the line’s private security- guarding shipments against the other gangs of bandits they used to compete with for bounty. But that didn’t mean occasional robberies weren’t going to happen. This was going to be one of them.
A drunk business man showing off to one of the Mu Li Flower’s working girls bragged about a deal he had brokered in which a large quantity of lobster was to be shipped from a Kowloon fishery to a gourmet grocer chain in the EU. A large quantity of lobster in 2518 could have been anywhere between ten and fifty. Farmed with extremely limited success in small batches it was all but extinct and afforded by only very rich vendors, and very very rich crustacean aficionados who could afford not only the delicacy, but the probability of requiring medical assistance. Indeed, for some the risk of “shellshock” from mercury toxicity increased the thrill of consumption. In 2518 all seafood was fugu’s modern equivalent. And as an off-menu snack for Bert’s wealthiest clientele, a serious money maker. He paid off a dockworker to electronically tag the lobster cooler before it was crated and off-loaded to the rail line. Then he contacted Timor Beg.
He knew whatever he offered would be less than the lobsters were worth, and The Major would have no good reason to deliver the loot. So, he offered a lumpsum to stop the train and allow his men- Tony Wang and Parker- “a few minutes to locate and retrieve an item with the cooperation of the passengers and crew.” The money was right and Beg accepted. Why wouldn’t he? For him stopping the train was an opportunity for his crew to cherry-pick the cargo, and a chance to reinforce the rail line’s need for his protection.
Out of the city, sky ches could fly at speeds of 300 MPH. Tony took Parker in his and they soared over suburban sprawl and eventually barren fields dotted with occasional netted cricket farms or factory complexes. Soon white rock towers were jutting out of the green brown earth. They had arrived at Shi Lian– China’s Stone Forest. 270 million years ago a shallow sea, now the barren landscape of an erased ocean’s floor- karst rock pillars stood like white petrified trees as far as the eye could see. Cutting through its center like an out-of-place black snake was the train track. Parker could see Beg and his men- tiny little figures- walking about the tracks below. In their adaptive camouflage they looked like a mirage, shimmering in and out of view as they blended with whatever background they passed.
“It’s funny,” Parker said, “in my time train robberies were a thing of the past. Something cowboys did in movies.”
Tony pushed the joystick forward and the Stone Forest tilted toward their approaching che.
“San shi nian he dong, san shi nian he xi,” answered Tony. He grinned at Parker. “It means thirty years on the east side of the river, thirty years on the west side of the river.”
Even in English Parker wasn’t sure what it really meant- but if there was any indication of “coming and going” around in the cycle of human history- train robbery being a 26thCentury reality was it. The last train robbery- according to Parker’s short and somewhat myopic historical timeline- occurred in 1937. Henry Loftus and Harry Donaldson boarded the Apache Limited out of El Paso and unsuccessfully tried to take the watches and jewelry of passengers at gunpoint- unsuccessfully because the passengers overpowered the inexperienced thieves and beat the shit out of them before handing them over to the sheriff. The media blamed their attempt on an “unhealthy fixation with the American Wild West.” To Parker, China in the 26thCentury was the Wild West. And now, as Tony landed carefully between sets of rocks next to the track, he felt a sense of almost frontier excitement. The wind-dome hissed open and the propellers droned to a stop. Tony and Parker climbed out of the cockpit.
There were other ches there, metallic and gold, glinting in the sunlight reflecting off the white rock formations. Beg’s men were wiring the track with explosives. They were armed with rifles. Basic assault weaponry had not changed beyond Parker’s familiarity. Rounds pierced more, and could be fired further with less noise, but the rifles Beg and his men carried- although lighter than Parker would have guessed- looked very much as he expected them to. Five hundred years of human evolution and the Taoist elixir for eternal life was still being used as a means to kill. Beg and his number one, a stout man with a shaved head, approached.
“Parker, Tony, this is Captain Khan,” Beg said. Khan and Tony exchanged polite nods.
“The train arrives in three minutes,” Khan said. “Once we blow the track the satellites will alert the engineer and he will stop for us. Kunming City is 50 miles from here- which means we will have five minutes from detonating before a response team arrives. We have shooters positioned to intercept them but…” Khan stopped talking and shrugged. Everyone understood- there were no guarantees.
“There may also be bandits monitoring the trains,” Beg pointed out. “They could get here even faster and unlike the response team, they won’t be coming to arrest us.”
“Don’t worry,” Tony said cheerfully. “We will be in and out like lightening. Isn’t that right Parker?”
“Yeah,” Parker said. Because what the hell else was he supposed to say? He became aware that he was smiling. Every time he started to consider the ludicrous turns his life had taken he had to stifle a bemused – or was it insane? – laugh. Every time he started to consider just how alone and vulnerable he really was in this ridiculous century…
“Ershi miao zhong!” Someone shouted. The soldiers were scurrying away from the wired tracks.
“Twenty seconds,” Khan echoed. Then loudly to his crew: “Ershi miao! Ershi miao zhong!”
“Come,” said Beg. “We must take cover.” He marched calmly up an embankment and stood behind a large rock formation. Parker and Tony followed. Other soldiers were yelling, counting down. Captain Khan, braced against the rock pillar next to theirs, put his fingers in his ears. Parker looked away and shielded his eyes.
There was a harsh boom- a single thunder clap- and the ground shook for an instant. Then dust and debris. Filling the sky, billowing out of the ignition site, raining down on the earth. It looked like a small volcano erupting out of nowhere. The mangled ends of the track hung like decapitate snakes over scorched dirt.
Khan was once again barking orders. Soldiers were taking point along the destroyed tracks. There was a whooshing sound in the not so distance. It was getting louder by the instant. Beg checked his watch and pressed a button on it.
“Wu feng zhong,” he announced. Then to Parker and Tony: “Five minutes. After that it becomes much more dangerous”
The whooshing sound was now a deafening wind. Abruptly it was joined by a thousand high-pitched squeals. The train was coming. And at 500 MPH it needed to brake fast.
Tony pulled a small device from his pocket. “The tracker,” he said to Parker. “It should be in the third car.”
The train, glossy-white and bullet-headed, careened through the Stone Forest, brakes fighting miserably to slow its momentum. Beg was hollering in Uighur but standing next to him Parker could barely hear. The train screeched louder and began to slow.
“Zhun bei!” shouted Beg. He jogged down the embankment. Khan and his other soldiers now had their rifle’s in hand, circling the tracks. Finally, the train begrudgingly lurched to a halt. Condensation hissed in thin vaporous clouds from beneath. Khan dashed to the front car. He fired off a warning shot.
“Kai men!” he commanded. “Open now!” There was a loud click and a previously invisible door unlatched and slid open. Stairs automatically populated the bottom of the entrance. Inside was the conductor’s car- a jumble of switches and blinking indicators – and a very frightened female engineer. Khan aimed at her and shouted: “Ju shou”-but her hands were already up. Parker noticed sweat stains beneath her arms. She backed into the car. Khan climbed the steps and went in after her.
“Go,” Beg said quickly. He glanced at his watch. “Four minutes.”
Tony and Parker’s eyes locked for a split second. And they were running. Up the stairs, into the conductor’s car. Khan was holding the engineer at bay in the corner. She was whimpering softly. He gruffly demanded something in Chinese. She responded and he said, “Train marshals are in cars seventeen and sixty. You have three minutes thirty-five seconds.” Tony fumbled with the dashboard finally finding the proper switch. The internal door to the next car hissed open. And he and Parker went through.
As a kid Parker once swam off the coast of Florida where the continental shelf drops off. Swimming over the precipice the temperature dropped a few degrees colder, and the water went from blue to black. Parker recalled thinking “I’m out here with the big fish now.” He had had that same chilling feeling since he first woke up in 2518. But now, stepping into the passenger car he had another disconcerting feeling: the hope that no one would die today- especially him.
His wish was not going to come true.
A long crimson carpet divided the aisle. A chandelier hung over head. This was clearly first-class and the clientele of passengers- a mix of different ages and ethnicities- were all well dressed and sitting on cushioned seats. Some were chattering, some eating, others peering out the tinted windows. One demanded, “What the hell is going on?”
“Please stay calm,” Tony said loudly. “We are stopping momentarily so an obstruction can be cleared from the track up ahead. This will only take a moment. Please stay in your seats for your safety.” By the time he had repeated the message in Chinese they were exiting the car. Parker smiled to himself. Whatever game was being played, Tony Wang seemed to know how to cheat.
The next door hissed open and Parker walked through. Fangs gnashed at his face. A black dog barked ferociously. Parker lunged back, stumbling into Tony who caught him.
“Come on man,” Tony laughed. “He’s in a cage.”
The kenneled dog continued growling. Parker pushed past keeping his back pressed to the wall. There were other animals in Car Two- a sleeping (drugged?) white tiger, chickens, and a pony. Any of which could become food, Parker mused. He hit the latch and the door to Car Three opened. This was a refrigerated car. Through his dissipating breath Parker observed birds on hooks, blocks of dry-ice, bags of frozen crickets, non-descript crates and coolers, and finally the crate they were looking for. Tony pocketed his tracker and pulled a chisel from his belt. He cracked open the crate revealing the red plastic cooler inside.
“Alright,” he said. He popped open the cooler and counted: sixteen lobsters. “Depending on how much they weigh- that’s over one million yazhous. Maybe more.”
Bert had offered Parker ten thousand for the retrieval. Parker wondered just how short he had sold himself.
“Let’s go,” Tony said. He snapped shut the cooler and the two made their way back to the conductor’s car.
Khan and the engineer had barely moved. She was still against the corner, same tears filling her eyes but too scared to roll down her cheeks. Khan coldly holding her- and her tears- in place with his rifle.
“Ok?” he asked.
“We’re good,” answered Tony.
Outside the train Beg was waiting.
“What did you get?” he asked.
Tony smiled meekly. “I don’t know,” he said. “Just this cooler Bert wanted.”
“What’s in the cooler?”
Tony and Beg stared each other down. Parker began to back up. He felt something poke his spine: a rifle barrel. He turned and faced one of Beg’s men. Others were moving toward them; others watching the perimeter. Khan emerged from the train and descended the steps. He leaned against the train, rifle trained on Tony.
“Hey Major,” Tony said nervously, “this is between you and Bert…”
“I’m not interested in Bert,” Beg cut in. “What is in the cooler?” Tony shrugged. He started to stutter a reply but Beg was out of patience. “Drop it,” he snarled. “Now.”
Captain Khan’s head exploded like a melon. Red brain matter splattered the white train and his body dropped inertly. Parker was stunned for a moment then instinctively hit the dirt. There was a sudden noise: a wavering high-pitched howl that drowned the wind and sent a shiver down Parker’s neck. At first, he thought a cricket farm had burst and a swarm was descending. But then he realized this was ululation. A hundred trilling voices. Intended to intimidate. Crack! A loud popping noise snapped overhead. Beg was barking orders in Uighur. Parker crawled on the ground. Through kicked up dust he saw Beg’s men running, taking positions. Another crack– a tuft of dirt erupted not far from his face. Parker shielded his eyes and snaked forward. He glimpsed Tony, also on the ground, crawling toward him.
“Bandits,” Tony shouted.
Beg’s men opened fire. Some kneeling, some standing, some running for cover. Blazing away into the surrounding stone forest. Thunderous gun fire. Blue flames flashing from muzzles. Limestone stalagmites were pulverized into dust. In the distance someone was screaming. A shadowy figure raced between rocks. Beg blasted with his rifle.
“Come on,” Tony screamed. “Let’s get out of here!” He tried to stand but immediately ducked. Behind him a solider was cut in two. His legs kept running- his upper body rode a fountain of blood to the earth. Parker was horrified. He became aware of Tony grasping at his arm.
“We have to get out of here!” he shouted. He scrambled forward. Parker followed. Gunfire roared overhead. A soldier crashed to the dirt in front of him, one eye fixed open, a lacerated hole where the other eye should have been. Someone was screaming “Fuck you!” Major Beg’s boots were sprinting for cover. Up ahead was the metallic glint of the sky ches.
Parker focused on Tony- Tony’s blue pants leg’s scuffling through the dust. His hand snatched the red cooler and he dragged it behind him. Parker followed. His throat was incredibly dry. He could taste iodine: limestone dust. He passed a discarded rifle but felt it wouldn’t do him any good. Or worse it would make him a more immediate target. The rifle’s owner was wallowing on the ground trying to stop his intestines from leaking out.
“Stop!” someone bellowed. Parker glanced back. It was Timor Beg. He was standing tall among his men, bullets whizzing and exploding all around him. He zeroed in on Parker and said it again. “Stop!”
In front Tony had reached his che. He clambered over the side and disappeared into the cockpit. Beg was yelling something- Parker looked back and saw a young soldier turning his rifle on him. Bullets peppered the earth in front. He leaped up. And ran.
“Kai shi!” Tony screamed. The voice activated sky che roared to life. The propellers whirled into an orbicular blur. Parker ran harder. Rounds pounded the ground and ripped apart the train. One whistled by his ear. He felt the wind. And heat. His neck bristled. And he dove. Headfirst into the cockpit. Tony wrenched the joystick and the che soared into the air. The young soldier on the ground followed the che with his barrel, taking aim…Crack! A bandit’s bullet slashed through his neck. He dropped his rifle and stumbled forward, trying to stop the blood spurting from his ruptured jugular. From fifty feet up Parker watched him whirl and tumble to the earth. Altitude didn’t obfuscate the whites of his eyes. Open. Fixed. As red blood drained out of him, soaking the earth.
“What a day!” Tony exclaimed. He slapped Parker on the shoulder. “What a ta ma deday!”
Parker watched the battle raging below give way into limestone rocks and eventually open fields. He was still breathing hard but managed: “We better hope those bandits kill them. Otherwise they’ll be coming after us.”
“No way,” said Tony. “The Dry Hand can’t profit from our death now. That was a spur of the moment thing. You think The Major’s going to screw up his relation with Bert to come after us for an undetermined item?”
Parker wouldn’t have put anything past Beg. He noticed a lone man walking an ox in the grass below. Beyond that, green fields of nothingness. “Relax,” continued Tony. “Next time Major Black talks with Bert he will shake his hand and tell him he’s sorry everything didn’t go as planned.” The dashboard blinked and a xylophone like melody sounded. Tony grinned. “Speaking of which…Hello brother.”
The speaker crackled static followed by Bert’s voice. “I see the cooler is in transit.”
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “I’m bringing you ten lobsters, and an interesting story.”
Parker glared at Tony. Tony motioned for him not to talk.
“Ten?” said Bert. There was a pause- but not long enough for Parker to determine if Bert was dubious. “OK, Good. Great. Have a safe trip back.”
Tony flipped off the speaker and smiled at Parker. “Relax man,” he said. “We give Bert ten it’s still worth his while. I’ll sell the other six to a friend of mine and we’ll split the money.” He thought and added: “Seventy-thirty.”
Parker could still taste iodine. He dug a dirty finger into his nostril and pulled out limestone dust. He had never been particularly materialistic or motivated by monetary reward. And, being completely honest with himself, he liked Tony- even though he was an un-trustable scam artist. He even liked this new feeling of adrenaline pumping through his veins. But he didn’t like the thought of dying which, crossing Bert, seemed like a very possible result. Then again, as today had proved, merely working for Bert could easily have the same result. Which meant the sooner he had a nest egg the sooner he could leave this lunatic operation and make a normal life for himself- whatever the hell that meant in the 26thCentury.
“I want fifty percent,” he said.
Tony laughed, “Come on man. I’m the one with the contact. You want to keep three lobsters and try to move them yourself? Be my guest.” He cut the throttle. Parker felt his stomach knot as they dropped in altitude. Tony studied his face. “Ok look, I’ll give you thirty-five percent. You don’t even have to do anything.”
Parker was starting to figure out how things worked in 2518- or at least how things worked with Tony. “I have to lie to Bert,” he said coldly. “My price is fifty percent.”
Tony smirked and lowered the che even further. Presently trees came into view- a bountiful forest- one of the last in Asia, preserved as an oxygen production heritage site three hundred years ago. On the tip of what locals called the Emerald Forest stood the Emerald Oasis- a watering hole for forest rangers, local villagers, and the occasional weary traveler on their way between Kunming and China’s East Coast.
“You drive a hard bargain,” Tony said. He brought his che down gently and they landed in a cloud of dust in the empty lot outside the wood and metal establishment.
Parker climbed out of the cockpit and admired the forest. And breathed the cool air. It was somehow fresher- or maybe it was just the first breath he had bothered to notice since being shot at.
Inside the Emerald Oasis was dead. A few scuzzy looking patrons sat at the wooden bar. Barely audible music played on unseen speakers. A working girl was napping in the corner booth. A wobbly ceiling fan near the bars only window cast strange shadows across the wood floor.
“Wait here,” Tony said. He made his way for the back. Parker found a rickety stool at the bar and waited for the bartender to make her way to him. He needed a drink. In fact, he needed several.
Though the swinging doors at the back Tony entered a concrete storage space/kitchen, cluttered with pots, pans, and boxes. A desk was pushed next to the industrial refrigerators in the corner. Xiao Lee, the short fat owner of the establishment, was sitting behind it smoking a cigar.
“Hey you bastard,” Tony said in Chinese. He had known Lee for years. But that didn’t mean they were friends. Indeed, Tony didn’t have any friends- just acquaintances of varying familiarity that could serve him some benefit.
“Six lobsters,” Tony said. “You won’t find a better price. And, I want you to take care of my friend.”
Lee checked his phone, momentarily distracted. Tony watched nervously. He didn’t know who Lee was texting or if it was related. He just knew he didn’t trust him. Slowly Lee said: “You mean…?”
“I’ll tell Bert he got killed while robbing the train,” Tony said quickly. “There was a bandit attack he’s bound to hear about anyway.”
Lee puffed on his cigar. “And what do I tell the police?” he inquired.
“Why would the police ever need to know?”
“When his family or friends…”
“What family or friends?” Tony laughed. “The guy’s a relic. He’s already been dead half a millennium. He just woke up. Believe me, the only one who will even notice he’s gone is Bert.”
Lee’s cigar had gone out but he continued chewing it anyway, considering Tony’s offer. Finally, he said: “Alright. First let me see the lobsters.”
Tony happily slapped the table. “Good man,” he said. He jumped up and walked back into the main bar. Parker started to stand.
“Just stay there,” Tony said. “I’ll only be a minute.”
But Parker ignored Tony and followed him out into the sunlight. The first thing he noticed was Tony pacing. Then the emptiness of the lot. The sky che was gone.
“No,” Tony whispered to himself. “No, no…fuck me…” He whirled and faced Parker. “My che is gone!” he shouted. “Somebody stole it.”
Parker was unsure how to respond. He stammered: “Is it…you mean…?”
“It’s stolen,” Tony said with finality. “Someone stole my che.” He leaned his head back and shouted curse words in Chinese.
Parker waited for him to stop before asking: “Can you call the police?”
“Are you crazy? There are hot lobsters in that che. And that’s an even bigger problem. Bert can track it.” Tony pulled his tracker from his pocket. “So can we,” he said, somewhat relieved, “but if Bert’s men find it first, and the lobsters are still in there- our lives are going to be worthless.”
“Why?” Parker asked.
“Because Bert will know we lied to him about the amount of lobsters! That’s like stealing from him.” Tony kicked the ground and dust rose up. “He’ll fucking torture us to death.”
Parker didn’t like the sound of that. “I thought you were cousins,” he said.
“You think that matters to Bert?” Tony grabbed his hair.
“Can’t we just tell him we miscounted?”
“No,” Tony said. He started pacing again. “This is bad man. Bert knows cops, he knows chop-shops- he knows everyone and he is going to put the word out to find that che.” His phone started ringing. He looked at Parker helplessly, then resolutely snatched it to his ear. “Bert,” he said. “I know…we just stopped for a drink…because Parker was thirsty…”
“Don’t put the blame on me,” Parker snapped. Tony hushed him with his finger.
“I know it was stupid but…Bert, listen my che was stolen. It’s gone…. that’s why it’s moving again… It’s moving but I’m not in it. It was stolen… Yes… with the lobsters… “
Parker could hear Bert yelling in Chinese through Tony’s phone. There was a faint squeaking behind him and the sound of metal on wood. Someone from the bar was coming outside- a rough looking man in a tank top; unnaturally tall. Tall enough Parker wondered if he was Tubianti. A moment later two others emerged. They were normal height but just as rough looking. Tattoos, black clothes. Trouble. One was carrying a large canister with a tube on the end. To Parker it looked kind of like a fire-extinguisher. To Tony it was immediately recognizable as a heavy-duty blowtorch. The kind used to weld bridges. The kind used by ruffians as a low rent flamethrower to disintegrate bodies. Lee was making good on his promise- or maybe he had already stolen the lobsters and was now getting rid of all the evidence. With nothing to bargain with and no escape vehicle Tony could not risk waiting to find out. He hung up on Bert and for the second time that day locked eyes with Parker.
“Run,” he said. And dashed for the forest.
At first Parker hesitated. He didn’t know why Tony was running and frankly he’d had enough of his shit for one day. But then the three men started toward him: the tall man out front. Quickly, purposefully. The giant had already covered half the ground between him and Parker. And Parker felt that sinking feeling in his stomach.
He twirled and sprinted after Tony. Into the Emerald Forest.
In the treetops’ shade the temperature dropped significantly. There was a dampness in the air, and the chatter of insects. Gnarled trees- some twisting around each other- stretched for the canopy; an interlaced network of vines, branches, and the occasional nest. The sun poked through in sharp golden rays. Tony was up ahead. Parker raced forward, jumping a stump and barely tripping over a fallen stick. The earth beneath his feet was spongy. Bouncy. He felt fleet and ran faster, easily catching up with Tony.
“Don’t follow me,” Tony gasped. “Hide and I’ll call you.”
Parker could hear voices behind them. Lee’s men were coming. Tony banked left and leaped, grabbing a low-hanging branch. He pulled himself up and snatched the next branch climbing out of view. Parker kept running. The voices were louder now. And footsteps, coming up behind him.
There was a thicket ahead. Behind it a natural trench- a dried-up creek bed. Parker dove over the thicket and rolled into the trench. He pressed his face to the wet earth trying to make himself small. Lee’s men were just over the embankment. Searching.
Parker’s shirt rang. Loud. Piercing the whir of forest life.
“Zai zhe bian!” the giant shouted.
Desperately Parker fumbled with his sleeve to silence the ringing. He glimpsed “Tony: incoming call” before pressing it off. Too late. Lee’s men spotted him.
Mother fucker, Parker thought. He scrambled to his feet. They lumbered toward him. Leaves rustled. Tony plunged out of a tree. His arms snatched the two average men as he fell, taking them down hard. Cracking their heads together. The blow torch bounced on the ground with a metallic clang. The giant continued for Parker. Parker snatched a felled branch off the ground and charged. He cleared the trench and thicket. He glimpsed one of the dropped men unconscious, the other crawling on top of Tony. Parker launched himself, careening into the giant’s midsection. They crashed to the ground. Parker struggled to keep his grip on the branch. He rolled down a small incline and scrambled up. The large man came at him again. Fast. Parker jabbed the branch into his gut. He exhaled sharply and doubled over, snatching Parker’s shirt. Pulling him into his embrace. Parker struggled to free his arms. The man squeezed harder. Parker kicked with his knees and feet but it was useless. He dropped the branch and pushed out with his arms. The giant’s grip was tightening. Crushing the life out of him like an anaconda. It was becoming hard to breath. He gasped short inhales. He violently wriggled his entire body. The giant was shaking him now. Parker bashed with his head. Hard. Again. He whipped his neck back and threw it forward. Forehead connected with cartridge. And flesh. He heard a brittle snap and hot blood flew into his eyes. The arms snaking around him loosened. He wrenched free his hands and groped for testicles. Catching them. Crushing them. The man yelped and boxed Parker’s ears. A knee slammed his forehead. He fell back. A missed kick grazed his face. He spotted his branch on the ground, rolled and grasped it. The giant dove towards him. Parker swung. The branch cracked his skull, snapping in half. It made a dull thud followed by the rustle of leaves; the broken half hitting the forest floor. A second later the giant did too. He flopped on the dirt; eyes glazed, mouth drooling. Parker delivered several more blows to the back of his head with what was left of the branch. And he lied still.
“Stop him!” Tony screamed. The unconscious man had woken up and was scrambling for his blowtorch. Parker jumped up and started toward him. A wave of searing heat burned his eyelashes and filled his nostrils. He leaped backwards. The air in front erupted in orange flame. Through the shimmer he could see the man blazing away.
As a high school quarterback Parker had thrown his team to a state championship victory. It didn’t earn him a university scholarship but it did help him lose his virginity at senior prom. He cocked his arm and hurled what was left of his branch. It rocketed through the flames smashing into the man’s face. His nose cracked like a raw egg spattering blood. He crashed to the ground. The blowtorch went one way; he the other. He fumbled in the dirt. Eye’s filled with blood and tears. Trying to stand up. The blow torch was still firing. The forest floor began to smoke. Parker sailed through the air and tackled him. They hit the earth and Parker was up, snatching the projectile branch, controlling him with his legs. The moss and grass erupted. Flames licked at Parker’s pants. He brought the branch down hard. Again, and again. Bludgeoning. The man, already reeling from the initial blow, could barely defend himself. He vainly tried to block with his hand, taking blows on his forearm. And forehead. And face. And blackness.
Parker’s pants caught fire. He swatted at the flames but burned his hands. He jammed his fingertips into the earth and scooped dirt on his legs. The flames turned to smoking fabric. He leaped up. His heart was whacking against his ribcage. The iodine taste in his mouth had turned to mulch. Tony was still being pummeled by his opponent. Two down- two and a half Parker thought glancing back at the sleeping giant. One to go.
He snatched the blow torch off the burning ground. The metal was hot. Ten more seconds and it would have exploded, killing everyone. He ran toward Tony, flailing on the ground, his opponent clawing at him.
“Fucking stop!” The man didn’t understand English but he understood blowtorch in the face. He released Tony and gingerly raised his hands. Tony scurried out from under him cursing in Chinese. His face was battered and bruised.
The man slowly stood up. Watching Parker. Parker’s eyes were on Tony, watching him stand. Suddenly the man took off. He jumped the thicket, barreled through the trees. And was gone.
The torch carrier was groaning. Waking up.
“We have to get out of here,” Tony said. He kicked earth at the flames until they became smoking embers. “We need to get a che and then go find my che before Bert does. Because if Bert…” Parker placed the blowtorch on the ground and started back toward the dry creek bed. “Hey,” Tony demanded, “Where the hell are you going?”
“To get my fucking phone,” Parker said. He carefully stepped over the giant, still asleep in the dirt. “And by the way, what were you thinking calling me like that?”
“I told you I was going to call you,” Tony said. “And by the way, you’re welcome for saving your ass. I could have just stayed in the tree.”
Parker had truly had enough. “Like your ancestors?” he snapped.
“Like your ancestors,” Tony shouted back. “You fucking ignorant antiquity! Don’t you know anything about evolution?”
Fury almost became a smile. It occurred to Parker he had missed out on five hundred years of knowledge development. Then again Tony probably didn’t know shit about Shakespeare. But then again 500 years in the future, did that really matter? Indeed, after enough time does anything really matter? Still he made a mental note to read…something when he got back. If he got back. Lee’s torch man had awoken. Tony had gathered the blowtorch and was standing over him.
“Just so we’re clear,” Tony said in Chinese. “Weather you live or die depends on how honestly you answer my next question.” The man nodded. Whatever Lee was paying him wasn’t worth being burned alive. “Did Lee take my che?”
The man nodded yes. Tony leveled the torch and turned to Parker.
“My friend stole them,” he said,
Leaves shuffled near-by. The giant man was waking. Parker and Tony noticed. So did Tony’s hostage. He saw his chance and took it- springing to his feet and darting into the underbrush. Tony chased him a few steps but immediately decided fuck it. Parker hadn’t even moved. One less potential opponent to worry about. Unless he got reinforcements and came back to finish the job.
Tony peered at his tracker. “I’ve lost the signal,” he said. Lee must have destroyed the cooler. Which meant the lobsters could be anywhere. But even if they had only been moved to the Emerald Oasis’s freezer, what the hell could he and Parker do about it?
Out of the forest, a safe distance from the Emerald Oasis, Tony called an automated taxi and they flew back to Tian Jing. Back at the Mu Li Flower they opted not to tell Bert it was Lee who ripped them off. Bert was already in a foul mood having wasted so much coordination and money on a fruitless heist. And much as Tony wanted revenge he knew Bert would wonder how Lee came to know they had lobsters in the first place.
Parker still needed that drink. In fact, he needed several. They were on the house but that was all he would earn that day. No lobsters, no money. Bert did not fuck around.
As Parker knocked them back he contemplated abundance tends to devalue things. In 2518 the earth was overpopulated. And in the past several hours his life had been sold three times. Two that he knew about.
Blaine Kaltman is a former decorated foreign service officer. He holds a PhD in Sociology, a Masters in Criminology, and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He is the author of “Under the Heel of the Dragon” (Ohio University Press) which was based on research he conducted in China on the Muslim Uighur minority. He has also published poems, science fiction short stories, and adventure travel articles in various print and online magazines. Blaine is the guitarist and song writer for both the critically acclaimed rock band Stone Mob and the rap group Chain Bridge which is receiving FM radio play in the US and was recently Billboard Musik’s artist of the month. Blaine is a regular contributor to Guitar World Magazine and was the producer, screenwriter, and lead actor of the award winning Singaporean feature film “Back Alley Bulls.” Blaine hobbies include martial arts, drinking wine, and avoiding lectures from his parents.