It was a house of cards. A great house built to celebrate the Great Man himself. A monument to arrogance and inhumanity. A house of Ice.
* * *
Ni Shan Chi threw back his head and laughed, his huge hands holding his belly as if it might roll away from him down the slope. About him, his fellow ice-men all had big grins on their faces. It was true what he had said. Supervisor Guo really did have no sense of humour. Not that he was miserable, only they had all heard him at one time or another, asking Chu San, his assistant, what a particular joke meant.
Ni Shan Chi snorted, then raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s true, the man can iron a shirt, but he has no sense of irony!”
And he did the face again – the impersonation so accurate that, for a moment, one might think it was Supervisor Guo himself, staring out at them with comic consternation.
The ice-men roared with laughter. It had been a good day. They’d pushed their section of the program on a good half li, and no accidents. And any day without accidents was a good day. If this went on, they might even win the golden bowl for their team performance, and that brought with it a hefty cash bonus and two days holiday.
Though fuck knew what they could do with them in this shit-hole.
By now Ni Shan Chi was telling them the joke about the three brothers, Bu and Chu and Fu, who had Americanized their names to try to get their green cards. It was an old, familiar joke, but the way Ni told it always added zest to the punch-line.
“So Bu became Buck and Chu became Chuck ...and Fu was sent home on the first plane.”
The laughter was dying down when the object of their earlier mirth made an appearance. Looking about him with a smile that was more a rictus, he was clearly trying hard to make his men like him, but it was no good. They all knew what a fool he was. And fools were dangerous when you were doing this job.
“Ice-man Ni,” he said, gesturing to the big man. “How are things?”
Ni looked about him, the slightest smile on his lips, then went across to his superior and, with mock exaggeration, gave Guo a bow. All about him now men were suppressing their giggles. Putting hands over their mouths or looking away, because they all knew what was coming.
“Supervisor,” Ni Shan Chi said, his face suddenly so earnest it was even funnier than before. “Things have been hard.”
“Hard?” Guo looked puzzled.
“Oh, very, very hard.”
There was a gasp and more smothered laughter. As he’d said the word, Ni Shan Chi had cupped his sex. Now he took the joke a step further.
“Yes, Supervisor. And the ice was so warm and wet, I was spraying it everywhere!”
That was it. Some of them were crying with laughter, almost in pain now, unable to stop themselves.
Supervisor Guo frowned, but he still didn’t realise it was all a joke. “We’ll have to do something about that,” he said.
“We will,” Ni Shan Chi said, his voice suddenly deep and bass, his mock serious face making them howl with laughter.
“Is something funny?” Guo asked, looking about him, only there wasn’t a dry eye on the slope now, and one or two of them had even collapsed in a heap, their shoulders going up and down with suppressed laughter.
Later, after being in bed with the company whore, Chu Chu – an unfortunate name to have when Ni Shan Chi was about – he repeated the performance for her, standing there in the ‘paradise’ tent, buck-naked, his big cock swinging in the lamp light, his hairy belly puffed out to make it seem even bigger. Much like Supervisor Guo’s. And she had howled and clapped her hands and asked him to do it again, to which he opened his eyes wide and raised his eyebrows and she’d said, “Not that… not the sex… you know, Old Guo… what you said and did…” And he had done it all again for her, yes, and then fucked her again for good measure, because, as he always said, women liked a man with a good sense of humour. A man who could make them laugh and then make them gasp.
“You got a fire to put out down there,” he said, pulling on his cloak and smiling down at her, “just call for Ni Shan Chi.”
“Fireman Ni,” she said, reaching up for a goodnight cuddle, planting big wet kisses on his neck and mouth.
“You the best.”
“Not just the biggest, then?”
She grinned. “The biggest and the best.”
Back in the dormitory, he stood by the mirror in the bathing tent and, scratching at his belly, yawned mightily, then began to hum an old folk song. Tomorrow was a letter day. Tomorrow he’d have news from home. From his sister Ye Fan and his mother.
Thinking of them, his smile broadened. It was from his mother that he got his cheery nature. Nothing ever got her down, not like his father, a dark and brooding man.
“Yes, and a miserable bastard.”
Gu Fan, who was with him in the tent, stared at him at that. And Ni, noticing him looking on, smiled. “Just talking to myself. My father, I meant. One of life’s curmudgeons.”
“Cur…” Ni shook his head. “Miserable bastards. A man to whom sunny days were always too hot and rain an inconvenience.”
He turned. Gu Fan clearly didn’t understand a fucking word he was saying. He shrugged, then laughed. “It doesn’t matter, Gu. Just imagine Supervisor Guo and age him ten or twenty years…”
“Yes, Ah… but with a bit of… Ohhh,” and he held his tummy as if he had the worst belly-ache he could have had.
Gu Fan laughed. “How is it you’re never moody, Ni Shan Chi? Does your mother send you happy-pills when she writes to you?”
Ni laughed. “No Gu Fan… and even if she did, those cunts, the censors, would only confiscate them. It’s just me. What you see is what you get. But as I see it, what’s the point in being miserable? You feel a bit down, go and part a woman’s legs. There’s no better cure to unhappiness than a good fuck. And a joke or two, just for when there’re no women about!”
Gu Fan nodded. “I guess so, only…”
“Only nothing. Just bless your good fortune that you’re young and healthy… and Han. It’s our world now, and that strikes me as a good fucking reason to laugh. From what my grandfather told me, there wasn’t a lot to laugh about in the old world. Though keep that to yourself if you don’t want heated irons on your balls.”
Gu Fan swallowed. But Ni Shan Chi was grinning. “Don’t worry, Gu Fan. You’re far too valuable a worker for them to do that to. It’s only the idiots and the incompetent they take into their dank and dreary cells. Yes, and a poker up the jacksie soon has them babbling for surcease…”.
He stopped, then shook his head, grinning to the last. “Yeah, I know, Gu Fan… I’m doing it again, aren’t I? …Using words you haven’t got a clue what they mean. Go get some rest, brother Gu. Tomorrow’s another day.”
* * *
And a bright and sunny one it was.
They were up on the frame when the siren went. Ni Shan Chi, who was on the top spar when it went, made a face at his fellows, then drew his finger across his throat, making more than a few of them splutter and look away.
But in this job it didn’t do to have too sensitive a nature. Men died, and usually in pretty fucking awful ways, but life itself went on. So Ni Chan Shi cherished every death, because death was life’s counterpart, Yin to its Yang, and besides, he’d be buggered if anyone was going to force him to feel all soft and sentimental about men he’d been working with only the best part of two months. Leave that for family. No. Blame it on the ice.
Ice. Why, he’d seen a man fall into a vat of unhardened ice. Had seen the man haul himself out, then stagger from that mess, all the while drying slowly, like a fly in amber. Yes, and his own damn fault, fool that he was. He’d known the risks.
This one now, for instance. Ni Shan Chi could see, from where he hung in the harness, that one of the men had tripped and dropped the applicator hose, which, landing on the rocky ground, had spurted great gouts of ice into the air, including all over the operator. The man was on his back, struggling like an upended beetle, his movements slowing as he slowly vanished beneath a gushing fountain of ice.
What a fucking way to go. And all because you couldn’t put one foot in front of another without falling over. That was one of the reasons why he liked working up here, in the harness. Not that you were safe even up here, but… at least you could see danger coming up here. Swinging beams of ice, toppling machines… usually you could keep out of their way… if you kept an eye open.
And anyway… life was one big fucking joke, however you saw it. Because just as soon as you’d worked out what was going on, so you began to physically fall apart. Death was your reward for finally getting the joke. Not some higher level, either. But death. Bodily corruption and a good strong dose of dementia for good measure.
So laugh while you could. Because tomorrow was too late.
While the safety team was clearing up and carefully removing the still slightly tacky shape of the ice-cocooned worker – not one of their men, he noted - Ni Shan Chi sang a little song to himself, the lyrics just more than a little obscene, the other men listening to start with, then, as Ni increased the volume, joining in, until every single man in the west frame were singing along, the gusto in their voices celebrating life.
“And she said yes… and she said no… and she said yes again…”
And Ni Shan Chi, twisting in his harness to see all those about him, grinned his broadest grin and poked one finger though the hole formed by his thumb and first finger.
“And she said yes…oh yes…”
After that, the afternoon went well, and everyone seemed in a good mood, what with the bright, sunny weather and the view out ahead of them.
Ah yes. Views. Ni Shan Chi loved views. Ever since he had come here, he had known this place was special. Yes, and known, at the same time, what a work of sacrilege it was.
“Laying the white over” - that was the official expression for what they did. But who was fooling who? This too was death. This slow burial of the landscape. This hideous act of masking. This denial of beauty.
He’d heard that the poet, Nai Liu, had been to these isles. Word was that he’d written poems about them; beautiful, illicit poems that ached with a longing for this place. Poems so wonderful that the authorities had banned them for a thousand years.
Ni Shan Chi stretched his neck this way and that, slowly easing the strain out of it, then reached out and hauled himself up, onto the spar.
From here he could see it all, the view uninterrupted. Fifty miles and five thousand years. Yes, he could see the age in the landscape. He only had to close his eyes and he could recall the stone circles he had walked amongst, grey and lichen green with age.
Behind them, directly east of where he stood, buried now, was the burned shell of the old town. Ahead the land bulged and then narrowed. The West Lands they had called them, or something like that… the West Country? Yes, that was it.
He took a long, deep breath then closed his eyes, savouring it. Only China was more magnificent in his eyes, and that too had been “whited over”. But this…
He turned, saw suddenly how they were watching him.
“What are you doing, Ni Shan Chi?” one of them asked.
“I was thinking. Imagining that the land ahead of us was a giant cunt and that this spar – this whole western section – were a giant cock…”
There was a great groan of disgust. But the men were grinning now.
“Don’t you ever think of anything except your cock, Brother Ni?” another called.
Another, further down, yelled up at him. “Do you fuck your sister, Ni Shan Chi?”
“Only if mother isn’t available.”
Again a groan, and this time laughter. Ni Shan Chi was never without an answer. And the more extreme the better, for these men needed an outlet. A job like this could drive you mad if you let it get to you. And that was his task, as he saw it. To make each day easier. For them… yes, and for himself.
Back at camp, later that afternoon, the letter man came. And with him rumours.
“Word is,” he said, speaking to the crowd of men gathered in the collection tent, “that they are about to make the campaign in North America active.”
“Active? What do you mean, letter man?”
“Fifty Banners, that’s what I mean. An invasion force of twenty five million men, commanded by Jiang Lei.”
There were whistles, and on every face a look of shock, mixed with a strange elation.
“Who the fuck is Jiang Lei?”
The voice was, of course, Ni Shan Chi’s and it coaxed a ripple of laughter from the men, who had all been thinking exactly the same thing.
The letter man shrugged. “A big man, I guess. The appointment was Tsao Ch’un’s.”
“Has there been a decree?”
Again the letter man shrugged. “I guess there must have been. All those men. They say it’ll all be over by the Spring.”
Like fuck, thought Ni Shan Chi, but the truth was he was shocked despite himself at this news. In a year, maybe less, it could all be over, the World theirs at last. After all these years of struggle. This great house of paper.
He almost laughed, only this once he didn’t feel like it. The Americans would fight them to the last. To the death. Just like the Japs would have, only they’d got in there first with their nuclear strikes and turned the isles of the gods into a pile of ashes.
Necessity, that’s what Tsao Ch’un called it. And some days he agreed.
That night he slept badly. Even so, at breakfast he was back to his old self, joking and playing tricks on people, incessantly cheerful, giving the men he was with a lift in everything he said. Cushioning them, as he liked to think of it. Keeping them happy and smiling and relaxed. Because a relaxed worker didn’t make mistakes. Not like one who was all tensed up. And besides, there was no other way he could live his life except full on.
Back in training, in Tse Jiang province, he had learned how to harness his special talent. How to charm his fellow men and, having them like him, make them listen. And though most of what he said was utter crap, there was a nugget or two, hidden in with all that shit. Nuggets that were like seeds, in that they’d grow in the men’s consciousness the more they were repeated, until, watered by the rain of repetition, they would take root in the men. Not that it was hard for him to do this. If anything it was second nature to him now.
Supervisor Guo was waiting for them at the gathering point, Chu San at his elbow.
“Men,” he said, in that frail, easily-mimicked voice. “We have a full day’s program today… but tomorrow…” His face broke into a wintry smile. “Tomorrow and the next day you have off.” He nodded. “Yes, you have won the golden bowl…”
There was a great cheer, spontaneous and loud. For once Supervisor Guo wasn’t the butt of their jokes but the bringer of good tidings, and he was cheered accordingly, even by Ni Shan Chi, who looked on, clapping slowly, a benign smile on his face.
A break. He could sure as fuck do with a break. Yes, and the money would come in handy, too. And maybe he’d get one of the reconnaissance teams to fly him down to the tip… what did they call it? Oh yes, that was it… Land’s End. Before it vanished under his Masters’ mile high city. Before it was whited over. One of the last men to see it so, with the waves crashing over the rocks like they were breaking over an ancient, rotting ship.
He shivered at the thought.
“You gonna join us, Brother Ni?”
He turned, looking to Gu Fan, who had spoken. “Join you? Like… glue you together, cock to arse?”
Gu Fan snorted. “At Madam Cheng’s. She has a two girl package…”
“I know it well,” Ni Shan Chi interrupted. “But we’ll see, neh? I might go searching for finer pleasures.”
“Finer pleasures, Brother Ni?”
“Pleasures beyond imagining.” And he licked his lips and made a face that made Gu Fan laugh.
As if Gu Fan could ever understand.
* * *
“I’m sorry, Ni Shan Chi, but no can do.”
Ni Shan Chi stood, then put his hand out to shake the Captain’s hand. “Thanks anyway, Chen Ho. I guess I’ll have to sniff out simpler pleasures.”
“If anyone can, I’m sure you can, but look, I’m sorry. The closer we get to the edge, the harder things are proving to be. We didn’t expect it, but we’ve something like half a million of the bastards hemmed in between us and the sea, and all of them, it seems, spoiling for a fight.”
He bowed, no mimicry in the gesture this once. “I understand. And good luck. If things change…”
“I’ll be in touch.” And, with a smile, Chen Ho returned to the pile of paperwork on his desk.
Outside, Ni Shan Chi looked about him. He should have known before he went in to see his old College friend. This had the look of a full military operation, not the usual round-up. They were obviously looking for a final battle at Land’s End, and the Han would win, of course, but maybe at a cost this once. He’d heard how they’d fought tooth and nail for Dorchester. Well, this would be fought out on a level above and beyond that.
Yes, okay, only we have all the weaponry. What do they have? A righteous indignation maybe, but what fucking use was that against superior air power?
A half a million corpses, that was the likely end of this.
He went back, travelling east against a long stream of friendly transport, sitting on the back of a jeep, watching the air strikes going in twenty miles to the west. Watching the end of it all.
At Chard he jumped down, knowing he was only miles away from where he’d started off that morning, the jeep he’d thumbed a lift on heading north rather than east.
There was a place he had noticed on the map just to the east of where he was. A place with a strangely English name. One that Supervisor Guo had mentioned in the briefing yesterday. Cricket St. Thomas.
Ni Shan Chi smiled. What could be more English than that name? Cricket Saint Thomas. What did it signify? A game, a title and a name. And all, in an eye-blink, gone. Gone beneath the whiteness for ever more. So why not pay it a visit now and see whether the reality matched the name?
He walked on, through silent hedgerows, expecting at any moment to encounter someone. And then what? Only there was no one about. The city was less than ten li from here and encroaching by the hour. Slowly, very slowly it came on, burying it all. Lidding it over. And the people who had once lived here had fled, running for their lives.
It was the colour of the buildings that he liked. The tawny, orange-brown look of the place. It was all so unimposing. More a summer house than a grand mansion. In its abandonment, in its final hours beneath the sun, it had a subdued beauty that caught his breath. And the grounds…
He heard the craft coming in from miles away. Heard it and searched out a place to hide, there among the thick hedges that bordered the huge front garden.
He’d watched the craft set down, hovering like a mayfly for a moment over the lawn, then dipped, expelling its captives. Two girls, no older than fourteen if they were that.
Sisters. They had to be. Watching them from less than fifty metres distant, he saw the similarities. And felt a shock of fear pass through him, for, as they ran past, making for the far end of the lawn, so, one after another, like figures in a nightmare, men jumped down from the craft, maybe a dozen in all. Each carried a gun.
It’s okay, he tried to tell himself. It’s okay. Its only men, having their fun. Only he could see how terrified the two girls were as they ran, their child-like eyes wide with fear, their mouths like gashes in their bloodless faces. Gods, he thought, they’re just children... not even women yet. And the men… the men had hideous grins on their faces now. Somehow they thought this funny.
He wanted to retch. Wanted to look away. Only he was compelled to watch.
No chance, he thought. They haven’t got a chance. This was how a cat toyed with a mouse when it had caught it. And so it was. Because this was a game. An amusement. Nothing fair about it at all. And as the first men caught up with the first of them and threw her down, tearing at her clothes, Ni Shan Chi groaned.
Their screams, the men’s gruff laughter, it all seemed so natural.
Both girls were down now and as the men clustered about them, each waiting his turn, so Ni’s eyes went to the young girls’ faces once again. Terrified and in pain, they looked to one another for comfort. But there was no comfort for them here, only pain and violent abuse. As one man finished, so another climbed on, a roar of encouragement going up from his fellows.
For a time there was nothing but this. The girls had stopped screaming a while back. Now they were like two rag dolls – sex toys for the soldiers. And as the last of them withdrew, folding his flaccid cock back into his breeches, so the sergeant stepped forward, drawing a big semi-automatic from its holster.
No! Ni Shan Chi yelled silently. Leave them alone now! You’ve had your fun with them!
The first of them, the younger of the two, lay there on her back, spent from her ordeal, staring up at the sergeant as he stepped over her, placing his booted feet either side of her body.
Leaning closer, he placed the barrel against her forehead.
Watching the girl’s head explode, her whole body spasm, Ni felt sick. The girl’s sister had witnessed everything. Now she lay there, whimpering, tears rolling down her face at the sight of what had happened to her sister. This was awful. This was truly fucking awful. He wanted to cry out, to tell them to stop and leave her be, but then he would be dead himself. He had no doubt about that at all. The soldiers thought that their sport went unobserved.
The sergeant had turned and looked to the other girl, smiling that awful hideous smile of his. The smile of murderers and cunts.
He walked across, until he stood there, above her. Only this time he changed things slightly. This time he placed the barrel in her mouth.
“There, sweetheart, suck that for me…”
The gun shots made Ni Shan Chi jerk. He looked away, not able to bear it any more. The poor darlings. The poor, poor darlings. Tears were rolling down his cheeks now, dripping onto his jacket like spots of rain. And as the craft lifted and flew away over the buildings, he began to cry, all of the torment he’d been feeling condensed into that sound, into that awful sobbing misery.
How could they? How fucking could they?
His legs unsteady, he stood, then went round, into the garden, seeing them lying there, on the far side, like two large stains in the green.
Ni went across, fighting his reluctance all the way, but knowing he had to do this. And as he went so the voices started in his head.
Laugh at this, Ni Shan Chi. Go on…make a fucking joke out of this, see if you can!
Only there was nothing to laugh at.
As he drew close, so he groaned, seeing the first of them. It was hard to tell now whether she’d been pretty or not. He remembered her so, but now that tender face was just a bloody ruin. A pulpy mess where that cunt had stamped his mark. And her body… he crouched down, drawing the torn material of her dress across to cover her up.
How could they leave her like that? Her sweet, untouched sex covered in their spunk. What kind of bastard does a thing like that?
Only he knew. Bastards like us. Uncaring, callous cunts.
Oh, there was a part of him that understood; that knew that this was the way of things and always had been. That when a world falls apart, it doesn’t do so decently, but like this.
He turned, looking to the other one – she who’d been the eldest of the two. Had she had a name? Of course she had. Only what did it matter now? What did any of it matter? The gods no longer cared, so why should he?
Only he did.
He stepped across and, crouching, covered her too, then, unable to stop himself, lifted one of her yet warm hands and kissed it.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart… I’m so so sorry.”
Which set him off again. For a while he could not stop sobbing, the horror of it all making his hands tremble.
“Oh shit… “ he whimpered. “Oh shit, oh fucking shit…”
Call it back, change it back, please change it.
Only there was nothing he could do.
* * *
Ni Shan Chi woke, gasping in the darkness, sweat wreathing his body. The dream again. The dream. Only he knew it wasn’t a dream.
He sat there for a long, long time, staring into the darkness, seeing it all again. Re-living it, right up to that final moment where he had lifted her soft, warm hand and kissed it.
He should have buried them. He knew that now. Should have showed some decency at the last, instead of leaving them to lay there for any passing creature to scavenge. Yes, only he’d not been thinking properly.
Ni Shan Chi took a long breath. It was early. Maybe an hour before dawn. He rose, then, careful not to wake any of the others, went outside.
No one was about. The camp seemed deserted. Even the guards, it seemed, were sleeping. The only sound was of the wind, flowing through the nearby trees. Ni stood there, taking it all in, doing what people do, remembering.
Smile, Ni Shan Chi, he told himself. Smile, because death is life’s counterpart, Yin to its Yang, isn’t that so? Only he didn’t feel that any more. No. Holding that sweet girl’s hand he had seen right through it all. Seen how it was, right through to the rotten core.
Once he’d believed they were building a better world. Once he’d been a happier man. Once.
He turned, feeling the warm wind on his neck and arms, breathing in the damp, pre-dawn air.
Another day, he thought. It’s just another day.
* * *
Staggering into the showers, Gu Fan yawned, then reached up blindly to activate the lamp. Morning call was still half an hour away, only he’d not been able to sleep, and he might as well get some kind of advantage by being first into the showers. Taking his towel from the rack, he turned, then gave a gasp of shock.
Ni Shan Chi was hanging from the bracket in the end cubicle, an overturned stool nearby, his agonised face a bruised purple from where his belt had choked him. Gu Fan stared at the dangling corpse, horrified. He knew it was Ni Shan Chi. It had to be, if only because of his size, the clothes his dead form was wearing. Only this was a Ni Shan Chi he had never known. Ni Shan Chi was always smiling. Always laughing and joking. But this fellow…
Gu Fan went over, then reached up, touching the dangling fellow’s arm.
It was still warm.
“The gods help us, Brother Ni… What kind of joke is this?”
Only Ni Shan Chi was silent. He didn’t answer, nor did he laugh, as once he might. NI Shan Chi had gone; a fact which only his eyes, which stared with a solemn intensity into the nothingness which faced him, seemed surprised about.
So Bu became Buck and Chu became Chuck and Fu… Fu was sent home on the first plane.
And the paperhouse still stood strong. And all the peoples were driven into the seas. And somewhere, in a field, two girls lay dead, the crows picking at their ruined faces.