A Long-Lasting Dream X: Sailor's Tale

Author: hsiwangmu
Published: 2018-03-07, edited: 2018-03-08
A tale of an empire that was, or could've been.
A story about dreams, and waking, and death.

The story of the resurgent Qing Empire, but most of all, the people present within.

Part of the campaign:

A Long-Lasting Dream

Previous part:

Game: Darkest Hour: A Hearts of Iron Game

A Long-Lasting Dream IX: Cadence and Cascade

Images: 25, author: hsiwangmu, published: 2018-03-01

Leslie bit his lip, and very much wanted a smoke.

His crew'd been chosen from the very creme of the crop, or so it'd been said, and it was their sacred fuckin' duty to protect the naval borders of the Union. Anyway, that didn't really matter so much at the moment - it was just, he really wanted to smoke, but smokes'd been rationed, so...

Venting the sub was tricky, but, like Colleen said, it wasn't so bad when you got used to it. Actually, that was pretty much the way being a sub captain went; not that those boys in the air force'd have anything to say about it.

Ruminating up at the dim sky, he wondered if maybe the air force boys would've, actually.

Probably thought they were better than most 'cause they flew, most likely.

Leslie decided, and figured they'd probably turn out to be splitters sooner or later. That was when loyal lads like him and his crew'd be called on, that was for sure...

... He really wanted a cigarette...

"Leslie!"

Allan's usual whinge brought him back from the brink of a nice and violent little fantasy. Allan was such a killjoy; the runtiest of the crew, which made him extra valuable, since he didn't take up much space - but, fuck it if he wasn't annoying.

Sometimes, Leslie wondered if he could get away with throwing the thirteen-year old into the sea; but they'd beat that sort of thought well and truly out of him, so, he'd suffer through it - maybe figure out some way to get him charged with something, when they got back to land...

"Yeah, what is it?"

Leslie yelled back down, knowing that a bit of his irritation must've shown through.

Allan didn't respond, for a bit, then whispered back - and his whisper kind of carried, like a ghost that all sailors knew...

"There's a ship comin' in, Leslie!"
Against the night, they might as well have been invisible. Britain made the best subs in the world, and England made the best subs of all Britain, that was the truth of it -

But in the true night of the open ocean, everything was invisible - 'cause there wasn't anything else but the devouring tide, and if you closed your eyes for a bit, you might well figure it was everywhere, and...

Only one ship.
Against the horizon.
Leslie bit his lip, a bit harder.

"All right, you lot, we dive. Just treat it like normal, probably one of ours, probably... Portuguese don't come this far out..."

That was true, right? And, though, of the navies they'd scored kills on, the Portuguese'd fought the hardest -

He saw it.

In the opening of the sky; a vessel, not a ship, all wooden, like the kind you'd see in a museum. With a prow and a, a goddamn mast.

There were words on the mast, and stuff scratched onto the wood, and gold trim.

And the ghost saw them, he knew.

"DIVE!"

Leslie screamed down, closing the hatch behind him as brine and the ocean deep welcomed them home, and the spectre vanished behind him, motionless and silently judging...
Colleen was shivering down below; it was always cold here, always, so he didn't blame her, even if she was nearly as weak as Allan -

"Oh, oh, it's gonna see us, it saw us, didn't it, didn't it - "

"Shut up, we're gonna fire on it, we're gonna kill it! All right everyone, go!"

Everyone was screaming, all at once - he could feel the spittle trailing from his lips as the chaos and grime and sweat of the undersea world swam over them in the cramped and floating coffin.

Like a single organ of flesh, however, they set about their tasks, and it was just like they'd been taught - and it was amazing how beautifully that motion, that unity, carried through.

Thrum.

How the torpedo sang as it swam out to sea, damn them all! Ah, ah, was it a hit -

... Beneath the waves, silence consumed them.
Under his breath, Leslie gave the order to move forward, if they had the eggs to do it.

So the submarine drifted closer to its intended target, close enough that they could see the goliath of wood splintering and shuddering and lurching to the seafloor, trailing scripture and people.

"BRILLIANT!"

Allan howled, all his nervousness gone - and they had a little bit of an impromptu celebration, and even though it was cramped, Leslie did all the rites they had (it was a game, sort of) for keeping track of kills.

"Fifty-eight! Mr. Mosley is gonna give us a string of medals when we get home!"

Leslie puffed up his chest, and wondered if he looked dashing; Colleen was a bit older, and he'd always liked older women, when they got home, maybe they'd think about raising a family for England, Allan could come to their wedding if he didn't fuck it up -

Thrum.

Another awful sound piercing the darkness of the hungry waves, unrelated to the dead colossus they'd killed. The sea dissolving above them faded with a familiar tracking hiss, as Leslie howled, brows knit.

"BOMBERS! FURTHER DOWN, FURTHER DOWN, IT'S A BOMBING RUN - "
Panic engulfed the crew as they sunk further down; this close to the Atlantic had been his choice, cause it meant that they could occasionally hit Royalist vessels even if they weren't officially at war just yet...

But that had come to bite him, bite them all.

The sea floor rose up at them as charge after charge rocked the boat; and perhaps others in the squad, but Colleen'd surely warned them, so it was -

Fire tore through thin metal, and then water, and the gluttonous sea claimed three more.
"Our new programme of joint-bombing raids has gone quite well. But before praising the brave pilots of the Empire, I would like to dispense with formalities and reward you - not as a fellow, but as my brother."

Pujie visibly squirmed before him; and the cold silver metal felt like a brand in the Emperor's hands; but he was gentle as he placed the cameo around his brother's neck, and if the interlocked dragon's seemed as serpents, it hardly mattered to the Emperor.

"I am happy to have served."

Was Pujie's terse reply - alone as they were in his favourite cafe, Puyi wondered if it was the fact that he'd felt remarkably high-spirited as of late, and that'd somehow lowered down the mood..?

It was - strange, and something he couldn't quite place.

They'd won everything, really.
Every slight, every arrogance, every inconvenience - and his dreams no longer taunted him -

"... You should be happy, damnit..."

Whispered Puyi, quickly adding more before his brother could interject.

"After such a noble service, I'm going to allow you another moment of leave; it'll take time to figure out just how we're going to extend our supply lines. Time, and money."

"... Please. Brother."

Pujie began, and the familiar inflexibility (damnit!) had returned to his voice, and Puyi wondered if he might have been close to throttling it out of him, but -

Was it not the duty of the Emperor to listen to his subjects, even those he hated and adored..?

"Go on."
Kunming's development proceeded apace; at once a traditional city, isolated and on its own, and a bustling metropolis, you could find almost anything you were looking for in the streets, the universities, the teahouses and gambling halls...

But she'd tried looking in all of them, especially the universities, and Xianyu had found no luck at all.

Anti-war protests had been quelled after what had seemed to be a brief and bloodless war, only to reform into something a bit more ugly, and bit more serious.

The growing current of anti-Manchurian sentiment, didn't bother her; for, Xianyu rued to herself, if she'd been born in a different life, perhaps she'd hate Jurchens, herself.

Nobody much paid attention to the gendarmerie, anymore, so her slight, dry chuckle went unnoticed. One of the advantages of having turned it into a pervasive police force, perhaps -

But also the relative peace that the south, in totality, had experienced, post-reunification.

... It was incredibly peaceful, and ruined only by the roar of engines.
Truck after truck moved by, clunky and somewhat primitive. Unlike the modern armoured units the Emperor favoured, these had been produced on licence from their new German allies; the design, one of Opel's, apparently, was modern enough for the needs of China, and cheap enough to be produced en masse.

Xianyu struck a cigarette and watched them stream by, one after the other.

Crowds thinned, impassively, as if this was normal -

And perhaps it was, for though the people of Kunming were amongst those least-affected by distant and unremarkable wars, distant and least-affected were the wrong terms.

Deadened.

China had become deadened to conflict.

... She wondered, briefly, if there might have been events so shocking that they could've destroyed the terrible stupor that had fallen over society -

But, then again, events like that were always just around the corner.

The sound of martial music and engines faded; well, her contact was probably getting impatient, so...
"FINALLY, Xianyu! Damn, if I'd flown off before you'd got here, you would've been sorry - "

"Nah."

Otto's face turned red as a red vegetable, maybe a tomato. Yeah, she liked the mental comparison. And he could tell she was thinking it, and it only made him go more red -

"Damnit, this is important! I risked my life and career to return home - "

"Home?"

"..."

Of course, he didn't know what he meant by that, either; since, his home probably wasn't a place you could find, terrestrially.

It was a place that existed in the sky, and didn't have a name, and certainly wasn't Kunming.

She lit a cigarette, and he lit a cigarette, and they sat in silence for a bit.

The teahouse he'd chosen was modern, and catered mostly to Pacific-American investors. The Americans were strange. Wanted silver for everything, didn't like taking Marks.

But they were very earnest. Not a bad thing, really, earnestness...

"So. You came here to meet with me, because you think you've got details on what's coming down the pipeline."

"I don't think that I have details, Xianyu - I know. You'd be surprised what gossip you pick up around the world and how much of it translates. See here..."
Otto pursed his laps, placed a map on the table. It looked fairly recent, too -

"... You buy this on the way here..?"

"But, I - "

She chuckled throatily and he folded the map under his arms, glowering until she'd gone silent.

"I just needed a prop. Besides, this works better for what I'm about to tell you - "

They were interrupted again, and the server - who Xianyu hazarded had come over from German Indochina - made a point of looking as if she wasn't listening in.

...

"Well, get on with it, then."

"One last thing! There's a movie playing that I think you'd like. A bit older, but, since I've been gone, I missed all the good Chinese cinema - "

"... Terrible, that."

But she smiled, a bit.

"Well, it's about the great wall, and love, and loss, and it's all very - "

"I'm sorry. Unfortunately, it's at this meeting that I have to admit - I'm not really a fan of romantic fiction."

His half-blustering laughter was a good lead-in to their business, and it was better to know that he was well, of course, but - it wasn't entirely true.

The actress in question had experienced a revival after some trouble securing funds in the AOG, so...
It was good to know that she was appreciated, even across the sea.

... And he lowered his voice, and started explaining the business of it all, detail by detail.

If it hadn't been Otto, and she wasn't suspicious by nature, she would've assumed it to be a fiction of some kind, how outrageous it sounded - far more outrageous than a lone assassin, out to make a name for himself by killing an Emperor.

...

But that was beside the point.
Later, when they dredged the bodies up out of the water, supplies and all, she'd had the men on duty swear a pact not to report anything on it.

'For the good of the country.'

Which was easy, because so few of them had started life thinking of themselves as Chinese.
Now, each and every one of them did, of course - but...

Loyalty to a country, loyalty to a person - all loyalties come and go.

But what would've been the South Sea Bridge Incident died before it could began, and with it hidden away, she could tell herself that she'd secured the country, again, secured the future, again.

The future, was...
"We've already integrated the Russian settlers in the Outer Northeast; there's significant tension with the Russian State, since it's a bit more - there's a bit less liberty there, now..."

It was an understatement, since neither he nor Pujie's wife - he'd started mentally thinking of her as such, to avoid the embarrassing problems of thinking of her full name, thinking of Japan, and, aha, holding little grudges against her that she really didn't deserve, mind -

Hiro sighed, and rubbed at her temple.

"You know, you don't have to talk to me just because Pujie isn't present. If my presence bothers you, a lady should be able to demure."

"It isn't trouble!"

Kung insisted, clearly embarrassed - and she didn't press him further.

But it was.

Taking Manchuria had not quieted discontent, but fanned the flames brighter than ever. Anti-Imperial sentiment had blossomed, and where it could not, anti-Japanese sentiment had grown to a feverish pitch.

Ironically, the Japanese had handled their demotion and chastisement with a stoic discipline, after the initial country-wide riots and anti-military sentiment had died down.

But in victory, China had asked itself if victory was worth the cost, however minor;

And there were too many answers, and too many opinions, and none of them rang true.

In the Korean 'tributary' state, largely stripped of its industry and left to languish until the Emperor approved of tranches of development funds that his council had approved several times over, anger had been stoked and led and fostered at the Japanese settlers - who had stayed firm, until they died - and then left.

After a half-decade of peacefully embracing others into China, China had tested out a new approach in its vassal, and found it...
"Hiro!.. Ah, and Premier Kung. A pleasure as always!"

Pujie's relief at seeing her, as bright as when they'd been first introduced, always made her smile. He'd fought twice as hard for her happiness in this - hellish environment, but she was not weak, and was determined not to let herself show that weakness, now; despite how ill it made her feel.

But she'd also seen his hope at - testing a thought before introducing it to his peers.

He'd grown more cautious, as of late.

Less trusting.

... Perhaps they all had.

Kung beelined towards him, nervous, but hopeful.

"Good news, I hope? It'd be too much to ask for good news, wouldn't it - "

"Unfortunately. Mosley's toy parliament continues to sing his virtues; though I rather suspect I understand how they feel..."

"Husband!"

She tried to stifle her nervous laughter and sound disciplining and strict, but, it was too late; and nobody truly cared. Modern Beijing strained under all the glory of China; and her song drowned out the idle mewlings of functionaries, and their wives.

"Well, that's too bad - imagine if we were pulled out of this war before the Emperor could start it? Aha?"

Kung managed a meagre chuckle, at what would've been even more pleasant if it hadn't been a joke.
The world, of course, moved on - and always had.

As they parted ways with Kung - the Premier making a point of showing through action, and several gifts of clothes and pastries, that he didn't mean to come across as - distrusting, perhaps...

She felt a bit relieved.

If it had just been her life to suffer - and the lives of those around her, had to suffer as well?

That would've been unbearable.

But talk that the 'Kingdom' of France - limited as it was to its African holdings, and in the face of massive bombardment by the Union Fleet, was trembling and near to the point of riots.

French courage and ferocity was unmatched; but the conflicts between the elite and the common man, the settler and the native, had become too much for any nation to take; and left unconfronted, they'd festered like a broken wound, which Mosley'd stuck a knife into.
Neither she nor Pujie listened to the Emperor's speech; it was surely magnetic and gripping, but she had no stomach for them, anymore.

It was strange, but she didn't particularly hold any ill-will towards him, at the moment. There was - nothing, nothing at all, really.

She felt nothing, and that was fine.

But a peaceful day trying to teach Huisheng games of flower-cards (which she balefully watched, and had no interest in save for the pictures - and that was fine)?

That reminded her that there was such a thing as feeling, and happiness.

... Much better than a speech and meaningless parade would've been.
Later that evening, they went to see a film - at a public cinema.

She'd half expected somebody to recognise her, or Pujie; but people were tired and self-absorbed.
With China's economy clipping along at an astounding pace, and the rest of the world fast on track to fall apart, wages rose and hours climed -

And everyone needed something to forget to.

Pujie, as it turned out, was a fan of the best kind of films, which didn't surprise her at all - and though she'd been a bit uncertain about bringing their daughter, at first...
Huisheng had seemed enthralled throughout the entire film. Perhaps a bit too enthralled for a young girl, but, ah, if her daughter were to grow up to become a fearless heroine!..
... He'd been thinking a lot about the future, of course.

With all of China under one banner, the need for his advice to Puyi - to the Emperor, that was - had all but dried up. And the strangest thing was that it seemed that Puyi still wanted his advice, and the approval of his brother, but -

But hadn't he always given that, freely?..

At least Huisheng had enjoyed the movie. He'd been terribly worried he was exposing their daughter to 'violent influences' but, these kinds of stories were what they'd grown up on, too, and it seemed rather harmless..?

It had been a nice evening, and one that he'd almost felt - normal in, again.

There'd been a series of dreams that had been plaguing Pujie recently, but he tried to pay them no mind.

Dreams were just that, dreams; and for now, if a family could be happy, wasn't that better - wasn't the waking world better..?
Puyi said nothing, and leaned against the heavy cane he'd taken to using. Between his illness and the damage from the assassination attempt, it was - pleasant. He liked it, and felt it made him seem a bit more - mature.

... But it seemed like they were happy, and the feelings that placed in the back of his mind hungered and clamoured for some kind of punishment that he couldn't even begin to divise, at the moment. Perhaps later, but for now - he simply felt tired.

Recently, he'd gone down the list of generals and admirals he trusted, and those he didn't. It was important, because the new China - his new China - demanded a level of secrecy that had left him grasping.
His friends, his family, his confidantes - all were supposed to have seen the sacrifice he'd made for his Empire, and known more loyalty to him.

(The worst of a headache swam over him, and past.)

But that had been too much to expect, and he had been foolish to do so. No! Not when there was so much left to do, and so much that he would see done.

Without reliable allies to trust, however, everything fell upon him - as ultimate executor of China's fate, and the will of the Empire itself.

... it was alive, after all.

China was alive; driven by the same ancient tradition and longing that plagued the back of his mind.

Oh, it was a curse - a beautiful curse - to channel those sentiments, but it was also a duty, and one in which he would not fail!..

His fingers clung to the cane tightly, and slowly the familiar scenery died, and he made his way to a private residence, one of many he'd bought more for himself around the Empire.

Decadence had never been a necessity for him; once, perhaps, but youth had a way of beating that out of you. And the emptiness was - calming, like a blanket.

... So, the Emperor of China found himself in a single-room house, alone with himself, and alone with his thoughts.
The Mongolian-Russianh border was a mess of roads, most unpaved and unprofessional. There was no need; if ever war broke out, Mongolia would be captured or capture enemy terrain within hours.

Such were the rules of the steppe, and little had changed in as many years as there had been open land, flanked by the open sky.
But the difference could be found in the standing army of the Qing Empire; garrisons moved in from the south of China, garrisons composed of Hakka men, and Bouxcuengh men, and all manner of foreigner.

They trained in heavy weaponry, and entrenchment, and all manner of war games; for the open land was excellent for such things, and a good deterrent, in case the watchful eye of Russia grew hungry.

None of the trainees, however, dreamt of a violent future - their instructors, some of whom were veterans of the conflicts that had forged modern China, saw the age of war at an end; with the unreachable conflict in distant Europe to be fought by boat and by plane, a show of force to chastise barbarian wretches, and little else.
The constant flow of construction materials to Mongolia, to Xinjiang, to Manchuria; the increasing pressure of modern roads through ancient fields and woodlands, steppe and desert...

All of it went, if not unnoticed, something not to be commented on.

When somebody asked for the reason, and why there were always so many government vehicles going to and from Xinjiang, nobody had an answer, and nobody wanted to have the answer.
But there was an answer.
Heaven, eyes turned down
glanced at her children
who grew weary
of all things.

She held out arms as light
and asked if they would not join
beholden only to a future
that also shone
like sky.

Then did the beat of hooves
of sky
draw across the fields

and did he whisper a call
which all men knew
to dread.
Surrounded by papers and dust, the Emperor sat alone.

He had not called his council to the palace in several days; and as the new year had driven itself to the middle, he'd waited and dreamt, and planned. None of those plans had meant anything on paper, had been anything more than a fantasy.

But the ordinariness of it all had rankled at him, itched at his skin like a festering illness - one worse than all those that plagued him.

And lost sleep and dreams had also danced at the shadows of his mind, before vanishing beneath the waves;

No longer would mere victories in distant lands be enough; and the moment the decline had started, and decay had wrested eternity from those who stared at him, even now...

All of it had stemmed with satisfaction, and contentness.

There had been an answer, of course, all this time.
And he had found it at last.

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Images: 22, author: SailorMouthJones, published: 2018-01-07