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Authors: Michael Swanwick

Chasing the Phoenix


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About the Author

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To Marianne, who is as beautiful as China to me



My sincere thanks go to John Minford, for graciously granting me permission to use his translation of the opening of Sun Tzu's
The Art of War,
to Pete Tillman, for his expertise on nuclear weaponry, and to Shieh-ya Ma, for insights into Chinese history. Also to Gregory Frost, for his masterful interpretation of Aubrey Darger. I am grateful to the staff of
Science Fiction World,
for their generous hospitality in Chengdu, and to everyone I met in China, most particularly Jenny Bai, Si Qin, and Haihong Zhao, for their friendship and support. On-the-ground research was performed by the M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts.


Author's Note

I write of a China I have neither seen nor suffered nor learned of from another, a China which is not and could not have been nor ever will be, and therefore my readers should by no means mistake it for the real one. No insult or slander is intended toward a country or a people whom I both respect and admire.


War is

A grave affair of the state;

It is a place

Of life and death,

A road

To survival and extinction,

A matter

To be pondered carefully.




Third year, summer, first month, of the royal year. The Hidden King killed his brothers so that there might be no rivals for his throne and continued his preparations for war. In that same month, a stranger unlike any ever seen before came to the Abundant Kingdom.


down out of the north dressed in a Mongolian shaman's robes covered with multicolored ribbons and hammered copper disks. He was leading a yak adorned with red tassels and tiny silver bells. The yak carried a bundle swaddled in cloth and carefully tied up with ropes.

In the bundle was the corpse of his friend Aubrey Darger.

The territory he passed through was blessed by Providence with fertile farmlands and plentiful water and was therefore known throughout China as the land of leisure and abundance. Fields of canola, tea, and sugarcane alternated with groves of mulberry, tung, and camphor laurel trees, to say nothing of such Utopian survivals as sausage gourds, self-fermenting litchi fruit, and the neural reprogramming tubers from which various tutelary liqueurs were distilled.

Small wonder that this lush country was called the Abundant Kingdom.

Yet as he traveled, the American adventurer could not help but notice frequent groups of soldiers galloping purposefully through the countryside and, on the roads, long trains of wagons carrying gunpowder, grain, salt, crates of swords and rifles, and bundles of uniforms, along with coffles of horses and herds of swine and cattle being driven toward the capital in great numbers. Clearly, preparations were being made for war. So it was that he came to the city of Brocade in an uncharacteristically apprehensive mood.

As he approached the city gate, Surplus made sure that his tail was safely tucked inside his robes. Then he threw a scarf over his head and donned a wide straw hat so that, when he stared down at the ground, his face could not be seen. His paws were hidden by his robe's long sleeves.

Three guards loitered by the gate, unenthusiastically watching a steady flow of peasants, monks, merchants, and the like come and go. They straightened at Surplus's approach, their boredom instantly dispelled by the appearance of so colorful a personage. “Halt!” their captain cried. “Identify yourself and your place of origin and your doubtless squalid and illegal reasons for wishing to enter the city.”

Behind him, his two subordinates struck fierce postures. Because they all stood in the center of the gate, blocking passage, a crowd began to gather.

“My name is of no matter,” Surplus said mildly. He turned to his yak and, tucking his walking stick under his arm, began to untie the bundle. “I come from a land where there is neither disease nor pain. Children do not grow old there, nor do flowers fade. No one drinks alcohol, for the water that runs down from the Mountains of Life is purer than any other water and satisfies all needs, from hunger to the calming of the passions. There is only one power that this divine water lacks, and it is for this reason that I have come to Brocade, seeking the Infallible Physician.” He threw back the cloth to reveal the corpse-gray face of his friend. “It cannot bring the dead back to life.”

A gasp of horror went up from the crowd. “Arrest that man!” cried the captain of the guard. “He is either a grave robber or something worse.”

But when the two subordinate guards tried to lay hands on Surplus, he lashed out with his cane, striking one on the forehead with its tip and then burying its silver knob deep in the other's stomach. Both men went down, the one unconscious and the other kneeling in the street, clutching himself and moaning piteously.

The captain of the guard reflexively took a step backward.

Speaking in a deep and unhurried voice, Surplus said, “Is this the famous courtesy of Brocade? Far have I traveled to come here. From the Beautiful Country came I, across the Atlantic Ocean to the Land of Heroes. Then by various ways to Moscow in the Lean Country, through Siberia to Mongolia, and from there south to the Respectful Land and the Kingdom of the Blue Sea. Everywhere I went, your city was praised for the warmth and hospitality of its people. Hearing this, I thought: I must reward this metropolis for its virtue. What shall I give it? Perhaps it needs a new river. Perhaps I should place rich veins of silver in the land nearby. But, arriving, I discover its people are arrogant and rude. Shall I then punish you with whirlwinds or earthquake or plague?”

Bristling, the captain said, “Who are you to speak so strangely and to make such extravagant threats?” Yet he advanced on Surplus with visible reluctance.

Surplus stopped him with a lordly gesture. “Do not ask who,” he cried. “But, rather, ask

Throwing off his hat and scarf, Surplus bared his teeth and growled. Thus presenting the man with the uncanny sight of a dog's head on a man's body. Simultaneously, he drew the blade from his sword cane so that to the crowd, whose attention was riveted on his face, it would seem to have materialized in his paw.

The captain fell to his knees. It was possible that Surplus's having swung around the wooden half of his cane and with it deftly striking those same knees in the back helped this occur. Surplus then brought up his own knee and dealt the scoundrel a blow to the chin that sent him sprawling on the cobbles.

Placing a foot on the man's chest and letting the sword's point dangle by his eyes, Surplus said, too quietly for anybody but his fallen victim to hear, “Do nothing, and you will not be harmed.” Then he raised his voice and addressed everyone within earshot. “Who here knows where the Infallible Physician lives?”

There was a rustle in the crowd as people looked around to see who might speak up. No one did. Surplus glared about him, and they all shrank away from his fierce mien. “I shall put off punishing this city until I have spoken with the Infallible Physician. It may well be that he will talk me into staying my righteous wrath. Or perhaps—and I consider this far more likely—he will but confirm me in my judgment. We shall see.”

Without hurry, Surplus reunited the two halves of his cane and tied up his friend's corpse. He did not pick up his hat and scarf but left them blowing in the street. Then he strode imperiously into the city, leading his yak by the reins. Though it did not take him long to pass beyond those who had witnessed the incident at the gate, his appearance continued to draw stares.

To one of Surplus's profession, the best thing to be in a city was anonymous. Failing that, however, notoriety would do.

*   *   *

here and an answer there led Surplus to the central market. There, he went from merchant to merchant, asking after the Infallible Physician. “I have heard of that distinguished man,” said a terrified vendor of dumpling fruit, “but not of where he might live.” The woman selling flower necklaces that bloomed and changed color according to their wearer's emotions and that all clenched up into scentless black buds at his approach, dipped her head and in a small voice said, “Alas, no.” The man at the next table said, “All I know is that he has never come to buy my spices.” A fat Buddha of an ostler who rented out red-and-white-striped saddle-cats for children to ride along an oval track merely spread his flabby arms and shrugged.

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