Hall of Celestial Purity
The Forbidden City
April 2819 IST
"The weather is most pleasant today," the ageing man remarked as he sipped a
cup of Wutian tea. Putting down the cup, he replaced the cover, which,
like the cup itself, was made of the finest porcelain. Intricate patterns
crossed its surface - wisps of cloud, intertwined dragons, an occasional
phoenix, and a host of other mystical creatures.
"Perhaps we might take a walk outside", his guest suggested.
The old man looked at his guest for the briefest of moments, and chuckled
softly. "Ah... yes. The Imperial Garden is.. a most relaxing place. But,
perhaps we could wait for the sun to rise higher in the sky first."
"Of course, Minister Liu. On the other hand, the birds may be enjoying it
before we do."
A few moments passed as Minister Liu turned around and whispered in the ear
of his aide, a young lady who looked under twenty. She nodded, once, turned
around, and made a small hand motion. A servant appeared, seemingly out of
nowhere. The order was passed down in hushed tones.
Meanwhile, [SK] Phoenix sat still on the antique armchair he had been
offered earlier, and regarded his own teacup intently. He focussed on the
overlapping patterns, drawn by an unknown artisan a thousand years ago. Dragons
and phoenixes. He smiled to himself. Of course. [SK] Tsoron must have thought
it rather fitting, sending him to these talks. A phoenix, to deal with the
[SK] Phoenix recalled the intense briefings he had received from [SK]
Hawkeye prior to this meeting. Hawkeye, the ever-consummate diplomat, had told
him that the Chinese, as has been their practice throughout known history,
would never ever get down to business right away upon receiving their guests.
It was considered abrupt. Rude. Uncultured. They even had a saying that went
something like, "the single knife going right in", to describe those who got
straight to the point without going through preliminaries. Hawkeye had also
mentioned that, despite this, Phoenix could still get a semblance of a message
across through abstract metaphors in the construction of seemingly innocent
phrases in speech. Deep undercurrents ran beneath the casual mentions to the
weather, the sun and the birds moments ago.
"Since it is early in the morning, I have requested breakfast", declared the
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs. He nodded sagely to [SK] Phoenix. "Your
name is... Phoenix, you say. I believe we have not encountered each other prior
to this meeting. So, tell me, how is our mutual friend Tsoron doing nowadays?
It has been some time since we have met - how long has it been - five
Inwardly, [SK] Phoenix groaned, though he maintained his external composure.
This was going to be the boring part, exactly as Hawkeye had warned him, as the
Chinese, or their high-ranking government officials at least, seemed to believe
in seemingly idle chatter and getting acquainted with their guests before they
would start to get to the point. And Hawkeye, Darkstar bless him, had advised
Phoenix to take up meditation exercises prior to this meeting - for the purpose
of "patience-building". It had proved to be somewhat useful.
They went on for another half an hour, going back and forth on such issues
as the industrial developments going on in Shenzhen, the 3.5-magnitude
earthquakes in North California the day before, and the recent announcement of
an additional 30% increase in local OmniWeb bandwidth at the Singapore
Pan-Pacific Star Hub.
Breakfast arrived presently, and as the two men continued over yet more cups
of steaming Chinese tea, and filled up with sumptuous crystal-skin dumplings
and fried spring rolls, the conversation drifted to heavier topics. Discussions
were held on the difficulties the Empire was having with rumbling discontent in
the outer colonies, and the ongoing trend of the artistically-inclined parts of
the populace migrating and taking up residence in the fledgling settlements on
the planet Venus.
Finally, after what seemed like an interminable, high-brow discussion on
current issues of theology involving the major religions of the time, the
palace servants re-appeared to clear the various dishes that remained on the
table. It was yet another custom to welcome honored guests with generous
amounts of food, the reasoning for which was that it was "good for
Sensing that it was fast approaching the time that he had been waiting for,
[SK] Phoenix turned to his left and whispered to his aide. "Well, Coke, I think
this is it. Could you pass me the first set of files now?"
"Right away, sir." [SK] Coke was a young StormKeeper officer, barely
twenty-one years of age. He, too, had been chosen by [SK] Tsoron himself to
come to these talks, though in his case, no-one could really guess why. Upon
the announcement, the usual comments about the "Unreadable Mind of Tsoron" had
made the rounds, and, as was the norm, these had subsided soon after.
[SK] Phoenix cleared his throat softly. Even now, he was only guessing that
this was the right time to bring up the subject, but he went ahead anyway.
It was now nearly nine in the morning, and this was a session that had
started at dawn. He very much wanted to be able to start the talks
in proper before evening arrived.
"Ahem. Minister Liu - about the discussion that I was sent here for,
regarding the recent news on the OmniWeb...?"
"Ah.. yes. The warship construction. I remember. But, first, let us discuss
these matters in a brighter setting.. perhaps we shall go for a walk in the
Imperial Garden, as you have suggested earlier?"
[SK] Phoenix nodded. "Of course, Minister. I suppose it is now bright enough
to do so." He glanced briefly at Coke, who quickly stood up and began to gather
up the sheets of active paper, stuffing them back into his attache case.
As they were led by unsmiling guards out the door and through the Hall of
Union and Peace, [SK] Phoenix realised belatedly that the real talks would be
taking place not inside the confines of the Forbidden City, where it would have
been fairly certain that any number of listening devices could have been
placed, but out in the open where it was much more difficult to set up such
covert measures. He mulled over the implications. It should have been obvious
to him from the beginning. The StormKeepers, being a tightly-knit organisation
with a monolithic structure, could count on physical security whilst inside
their own bases. On the other hand, all the major governments of the world,
what with their complex political factions and the differences in opinions
between the various parties, could not make such presumptions about their own
The Imperial Garden was a scenic place. Amidst the manicured patch of
green grass were covered walkways that branched out from the palace
buildings. Small open-air pavilions dotted the place, each one offering
shade from the sun, with a table and a few stone chairs for visitors to
If one stopped to look, details could be seen everywhere - from the
intricate carvings on the sides of the stone chairs, to the designs
at the edges of the roof tiles, to the stone lions guarding the doors
of the buildings lining the edge of the grass field.
In the middle of the garden, partially covered by surrounding trees, was a
large object which seemed to have been made from a single block of stone. It
stood on three legs, and had a hole in the middle.
"This is an incense urn. In the distant past, China's emperors used to give
offerings to the various deities right here." Minister Liu explained, upon
noticing [SK] Phoenix's quizzical look at the curious artifact.
The two men walked further, stopping at one of the covered pavilions. Their
aides hovered nearby, and the ever-present servants remained a discreet
Minister Liu motioned for [SK] Phoenix to sit down on one of the stone
chairs. "Now, let us, as your people might say, get down to business. My aide
shall now escort your friend to one of our rooms, to rest for a while."
[SK] Phoenix noted the look of concern in Coke's eyes. He leaned over, and
spoke in his ear. "It's okay, Coke. This is where the talks start. I'll be
fine. Now, go. I will see you in a while."
That said, [SK] Coke followed the Minister's aide along one of the
walkways leading back to the grand Halls. The handful of servants followed
them, keeping a respectable distance, as always.
All alone now, the two men remained silent for a few moments more, as the
last of the palace servants filed into the buildings. As if upon a cue,
Minister Liu got up and started walking again. [SK] Phoenix followed, his black
ceremonial robe flowing in the wind as he moved rapidly to keep up with the
Minister's surprisingly fast pace.
As they approached the incense urn again, Minister Liu started to speak.
"I hope you can understand that the publication of this piece of information
has put us in a most... difficult position. The news of your building of the
next-generation advanced warships in Earth orbit, as per our previous
agreements, has been revealed to the world."
"We are now accused of aiding and abetting an independent faction that has
been known to refuse the Emperor's biddings. Though, on a personal level, I
very much doubt so, your organisation has even been said to have some political
ambitions of your own. Now, my friend, what would you have to say about all
Whoa. Now, that was getting to the point, all right. [SK] Phoenix
gathered his thoughts quickly, and formulated his response.
"First of all, on behalf of my organisation, let me thank you, Minister
Liu, for your kind understanding. You are right; we do not have any kind of
political ambitions for ourselves. The systems of government put in place in
the years since the last Earth Siege have, more or less, served Mankind well.
We see no reason to overtly tamper with the machinations of state, of any
country, in any way."
[SK] Phoenix continued, "Regarding another aspect of this business : we are
currently following a few leads on the source of the leak. The information
trail is degrading rapidly - but we intend to follow it to its conclusion."
The Chinese Minister did not look pleased, however. "Yes, I am sure
that our respective intelligence forces are busy doing their job. But
the damage has been done. Surely we are not here to discuss issues of
security, now that the news is out there on every corner of the OmniWeb."
"No, I suppose not. At least, they have not gotten wind of our business
dealings in this matter." By referring to the last deal that [SK] Tsoron had
struck with this very official five years ago, [SK] Phoenix hoped to remind
Minister Liu that the Chinese, too, had substantial stakes in this particular
arrangement - and also, in other arrangements that went even further back.
"Oh, only if they dig further. I am sure that heads will roll in every
meta-nation if this blows bigger. Our supply chains for some of the components
that we need are tenuous enough as they are without having to be compromised in
such a.. public way. However, I am confident of your organisation's claimed
abilities to push down the profile of this whole business. But... tell me. Do
you have any plans of your own, or are you here to discuss the
possibility of a plan with us?"
[SK] Phoenix took in a deep breath and let go slowly. It was going to
be tricky from this point onwards, and he had to remember to choose his
lines carefully. "First of all, I presume that, by plan, perhaps you mean
an entire strategy, complete with implementation and timing details. If so,
then I am very sorry to report that there is no such thing. On the
other hand," Phoenix held out his left hand to bring home the
point, "we might have one or two things in mind."
Minister Liu made a noise that sounded like a grunt. "One or two things. I
suppose that is one or two more better than zero. Do tell me about it."
"Well, you see, Minister Liu, that anything that I can propose to you has to
accomplish quite a few things.." [SK] Phoenix decided to hedge for a bit. "One
- it must be acceptable to your honorable self, and to Greater China. Two - it
must be acceptable to the Empire. And three, of course, it has to be acceptable
to us, as an organisation."
".. and I suppose, it goes without saying that all of the above, whichever
it is that you are proposing, has to be kept utterly secret." Minister Liu
shook his head. "I hope, for your own sake, that your proposal is a sound one -
though I cannot imagine how it could be accomplished, given the situation we
now find ourselves in. What can you do now, short of going back in time,
and recalling those OmniNews flashes?"
It was [SK] Phoenix's turn to shake his head. "Nothing of the sort,
Minister. Though, at times, some people may say strange things about us, we do
not yet have the ability to turn back time. If we did, we would not be
here now... or would we?"
This seemed to stir things up a bit, as the Chinese Minister narrowed his
eyes and looked sharply at [SK] Phoenix, who was only letting the ghost of a
smile play on his lips. The man had, once upon a time, heard those far-fetched
rumors too. Phoenix wondered what other nonsense was even now being purveyed by
outsiders, or deliberately sowed by the Darkstar Continuum - the StormKeepers'
intelligence arm. Some of these rumors did, indeed, contain a grain or two of
the truth, but the time-travel one was definitely not one of those.
[SK] Phoenix looked at Minister Liu, the same mysterious smile gathering
on his mouth. The Chinese Minister glowered back. The staring game went on
for two minutes, maybe more, before [SK] Phoenix decided that enough was
The elder man acknowledged that with a curt nod. "AFX. Tell me about it."
"You already know about it."
"You knew that we knew about it."
"Yes. And now you know that we know about it, and that we know you know about
it," said [SK] Phoenix. He threw in one more item, for good measure. "Now.. do
others know about it? That is the question."
"Forget about the rest of the world. They do not know. That is for sure. And
let us stop dancing around. What do you know about the AFX virus?"
"Okay. We'll start with the basics. Auto-immune, Fibro-neurolysis virus,
categorised 'X' for extreme lethality of nearly 100% of all cases. Window of
incubation, three to five years. First reported case appeared in Tianjing,
almost exactly five years ago. Mechanism of spreading, unknown. Origin, unknown.
Minister Liu made the peculiar grunting noise again. "If you have known
all along, then there must be more." He regarded [SK] Phoenix with an icy
glare now. One that seemed to reduce the temperature of the surroundings,
one agonising degree at a time.
[SK] Phoenix looked back at the older man for a brief moment, found it rather
discomfiting, and turned around, his hands clasped behind his back.
"The unknowns that I mentioned. Scratch two out of three. We now have
some idea where AFX came from, and how it is spread."
The Minister was more interested in the last bit than in the historical
and medical background. "And... the cure?"
[SK] Phoenix turned around and regarded Minister Liu. He noted the
glimmer behind his steely eyes. "We have a possible solution. It is
not perfected yet. But, surely, in order to understand the last, you
may like to know the first?"
"Very well. Go on."
"We know for sure that it wasn't us, and it wasn't you."
"How nice to hear. A foreign power, then."
"Alien, you could say."
That seemed to make the Minister stiffen, and stand a little straighter.
"Now what are you saying - the Cybrids?"
[SK] Phoenix shrugged. "We all know that they are building up their
forces, somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn. But, in the meantime, they
have not been exactly idle on Planet Earth here, either."
"Yes. They walk among us."
"And there you are. The origin. The Cybrids seek to attack us on all fronts -
and the biological approach is one of their prongs. Their physical war machine
may not be here yet, but their bio-warfare counterparts are starting to
"Interesting theory. But logical. And how does it spread?"
[SK] Phoenix looked pained. "It spreads the way your people have suspected
from the start. AFX is.. airborne. But it has a pecular design to it. It seems
to be engineered to affect only certain parts of the population. Sort of like a
genetic key. Those who have inherited this key, and have ingested AFX
somehow, are susceptible. For them, the bomb starts ticking the moment you
put these two factors together."
"You said you have a cure. I suppose it does make for a very good
"Not quite. We had intended to release this quietly through the
diplomatic channels when we were done. But this warship business came
up, and now it is headline news. As you can see, we have had no choice."
".. it appears that you hold quite a few cards here." Minister Liu halted
his circular pacing, which he had begun a few moments ago. "So.. what would
you like the Meta-Nation of China to help you with?"
It was time to execute the final parts of the negotiations. [SK] Phoenix
laid them down in no uncertain terms.
"First of all, status quo. Total news blackout on AFX, as it is right
"Next, we extend our full co-operation in the development of the AFX
cure. And we expect no less from your top medical staff working in this
Minister Liu nodded. "That is all well, and good. But what is in it for
[SK] Phoenix drew closer to the Minister, and measured his words
"We have rather similar goals, Minister Liu. We seek peace and stability for
ourselves, and for all Mankind. As we work to protect ourselves from the coming
Cybrids, we shall also seek to protect all our fellow Humans, as best as we
can. We hope that you may bring this across to the Emperor, and from there,
gain his understanding."
"These are very noble, very high-minded sentiments, StormKeeper. But what do
you really want from the Empire?"
This was it. As "it" as it could get.
"Number one. We would like to ask for a scaling back of all OmniNews broadcasts,
interviews, and articles, in all forms of media, regarding the construction of
our advanced warships."
"Number two. We would like the implicit acknowledgement, from the Great Human
Empire, of the StormKeepers Organisation as a neutral, independent,
non-politically-motivated, non-aligned movement."
"Number three. We would like to alter the terms of our previous arrangements.
We wish to have partial authority over up to four of your orbital docks, with an
80-20 schedule for ship construction. These are the same ones that we helped you
build four to seven years ago. For every ten ships built at these docks, eight
are ours - two are yours. The other space docks may remain as 10-90, or 0-100 :
these remain fully yours."
Minister Liu sighed. "You drive a hard bargain. And, look, what demands. Now,
what do I have as a guarantee regarding your claims about AFX?"
[SK] Phoenix pulled a slim envelope from somewhere among the folds of his
robe. "This package contains some of the medical data that we have gathered in
our research thus far. Besides the holo-disk, there are also two small vials of
the latest revision of our AFX cure. Once we have proof of the first item being
executed, I will send you the decryption key for the medical data - as well as
the usage instructions for the two vials. Try not to fool around with them on
your own - they contain... certain active elements."
[SK] Phoenix continued. "Upon step two, I will initiate a full medical
exchange. Our medical researchers will contact yours. I hope they can take
over smoothly from us there. The process should take enough time for number
three to be in full swing by the time we have put into place a complete
recovery programme for the affected parts of the population."
Minister Liu frowned. "And... the timespan for all of this?"
"Two to three years until we can complete the cure. Look.. I think I can
understand completely how you must feel."
"And, by that, you mean..?"
"Your son, Minister Liu. I have stopped the silly diplomatic dance long ago,
and I am being very frank with you here. We know about your eldest son. We know
that he has been diagnosed with the early symptoms of AFX infection. I, too,
have personal stakes in this. A brother, and an aunt. Therefore, you can say we
have something in common here..."
"This AFX solution. It must succeed."
"With your help, we will. The Cybrids continue to test us. Let us
work together - only by doing so, can we succeed. For the sake of our
own families - and for the sake of all Humankind."
It was nearly noon when the two men left the Imperial Garden and
headed solemnly back into the Hall of Celestial Purity, past the
ever-vigilant stone lions.
In an age of digital signatures and active counter-stamps, no records were
kept of this meeting. No papers were signed. No trace was left behind on any
networks. But the agreements made that day, sealed verbally and with the
briefest of handshakes, would affect the destinies of millions - the lasting
legacies of which were ironically the most intangible ones. Mankind sucessfully
pulled through the last of the Cybrid bio-warfare attacks. And when the Cybrids
finally landed in 2829, the Humans were fit and ready to meet them in kind.