THE PLAGUE


Chapter 1

Number 446 was not looking forward to the coming afternoon. The Emperor had ordered the army to confiscate all the goods from the Traders Quarter. Some of the Emperor’s edicts made sense enough and some were benign -- a way for the Emperor to amuse himself with little detriment to the common people. Others, like this one, seemed conceived in fits of petty greed and paranoia, and only led to suffering.

446 was a little disappointed that he was still a soldier after all this time. He couldn’t even remember joining the army. How old had he been? Was it by choice? By force? It seemed to him that perhaps his father was smiling the last time he saw him. Yet, he could not actually picture the faces of his parents nor hear the sound of their voices or remember any words they said. They were merely a dim notion somewhere deep in his mind. So much had happened in his life, but the one thing that remained constant with him all this time was the assumption, the hope, that he was not prescribed a soldier’s life forever, that perhaps one day he would be called by a name rather than a number. He had met people who said they used to be soldiers — soldiers in the other land, where 446 had never been. Now they did whatever they liked, a freedom 446 dreamed of incessantly. For all this time under his belt, in a plaited uniform with a kit of spears, he didn’t feel older or wiser, he merely felt tired, exasperated at the pace of the world and his own life.

Today his army unit was to use their weapons against the people who lived in the Traders Quarter. Those people weren’t native to these parts; they didn’t have the jet-black hair, the narrow brown eyes and plump eyelids that the army and nearly everyone else in the area had. They’d filtered in over the years into an enclave not far from the imperial city.

Through vast tentacles of trade they built up over time, the Traders Quarter appeared to be acquiring a disproportionate amount of goods. They didn’t have much of an army; brute force was not theirs. Over the years, they’d learned to cultivate a much more subtle approach to the acquisition of luxuries, keeping mostly under the radar of the Emperor. But when he began hearing of the goods they’d accumulated and were enjoying, he flew into a rage. In jealousy, in rebuke of their impudence, he determined to rob them. To keep all the best items for himself, and possibly, as he sometimes did, redistribute the rubbish he didn’t care about to the lowly commoners who would relish them. It was good PR.

And it garnered him a fair number of loyalists. They were of little importance to the Emperor whose reign here was not in dispute or in any serious danger of usurpation, but they were there nonetheless. His soldiers were mixed in their loyalties. Some considered their occasional material rewards to be worth their loyalty. Others resented their own treatment, the strict code of conduct and excessive discipline, the harsh punishments for slight variances in behavior, usually dealt in physical pain. All deserters were hunted down, tortured and re-conscripted, so loyalty was, in truth, a moot point. A soldier was a soldier unless released by the Emperor.

All in all, 446 would not say his life was unhappy, only somewhat empty. Even lonely. On this day, 451, his best buddy in the army, came up to him as they were preparing their weapons.

“I hear there’s a lot of new things the Traders have acquired,” 451 said idly. “3302 says he heard they’ve got things no one’s ever seen before.”

“They must have made contact with some new tribe, found some new territory. We’ve seen everything in the Emperor’s land already. Barbarians, probably. From the west.”

“Mmm. Maybe. But their materials sound so fantastic.”

“What have you heard, exactly?” asked 446.

451 confessed, “ Well, nothing exactly. But you know how everyone talks. I don’t think anyone from the ranks has actually been over there to see for themselves. I guess we’ll see today.”

446 felt a thump in his chest. Perhaps today, something a little different. Something exciting for once. A slight change from the usual suppressions and plundering of the same goods over and over again in what seemed like an eternal and pointless tug-of-war between the Emperor and the rest of his kingdom. Few people ever died that he knew of. Things just went on and on. 446 didn’t know of Sisyphus, but if he had, he would have felt a great empathy with the man.

“Come on then, are you ready?” 451 said to 446. “We’d better form ranks or suffer for it.”

446 picked up his weapon and, with his friend, moved briskly toward the assembly field, his dark eyes flickering with anticipation.

“There is one curious thing I heard, come to think of it,” 451 said, falling behind a bit as he spoke. “You remember that night a couple weeks ago when I told you I was going out with ….”

446 turned his head around to look back behind him at 451 who had gone abruptly silent.

“451?” he said. “451!” He rushed back to his buddy who had stopped in his tracks. He was standing perfectly still with his mouth closed. His eyes roamed wildly in fear and bewilderment. 446 shook 451 by the shoulders and slapped his cheeks.

“Say something!” he cried. “451!” 451’s eyes only widened further and he seemed unable to get enough air as he drew in breath frantically through his nose. Slowly, one eye closed and 451 stopped breathing. 446 tried everything to rouse his friend. 451’s other eye closed and it was as if his face had suddenly been cast into stone. Nothing about it moved nor could be moved by 446.

“Oh no.” 446 said the words out loud. “No.”

He closed his own eyes a moment to crush the panic welling up in his stomach. He felt weak with dread and helplessness. He wanted to run through the camp screaming alarm. But he tried to keep himself in check. He ran to the field marshal’s tent.

“Sir! Sir!” he began shouting as soon as he could see the officer.

“Soldier!” the senior officer straightened up about to lay into the soldier for his lack of decorum. But 446 was upon him in seconds, breathing like a winded horse into his face.

“The plague, sir,” said 446. “451’s just gone stiff. The plague could be here.”

The officer didn’t reply for a moment as he quelled his own fear.

“Well, well,” he said finally, stretching his neck to look up, as though searching the sky for vultures. “Death has found us at last.” He took in a deep breath through his nose and held it for a few seconds. “Tell no one yet, soldier. Let’s see if it hits anyone else. It doesn’t always spread.”

“Yes, sir.” The officer and 446 held each other in consideration. The plague was the Great Unknown. Reports of it came in now and then from around the kingdom. Everyone knew of its existence but 446 had never seen it himself. There was nothing about it which was understood and it thereby defied prediction. It was greater even than the Emperor, for he could not turn people to stone. The two men sized each other up,

wondering what qualities, strengths or weaknesses, the threat of plague would bring out in the other. Wondering also which one of them might be taken first.

**


Chapter 2

The doctor pressed the button next to the blinking light on his speaker phone.

“Yes, Lilly?”

“Patient here to see you, doctor.”

“I don’t believe I have anyone scheduled this afternoon.”

“Yes, doctor, I know. But the patient is very anxious. She prefers not to set an appointment; she’d like to see you today.”

“A walk-in, eh. It’s been awhile since I’ve had one of those.”
“Yes, sir.”

“Well, what do you think, Lilly? How does she look? Is she carrying anything?”

“Yes. It’s a head of some sort.”

“A skull?”

“No. A human head. It’s got hair and eyebrows and everything.”

“A mummy?”

“No, sir, I don’t think so.”

“Mmm. Well … OK then. Send the patient right in.” He made a quick attempt to straighten up his desk. Sheepishly, he turned over the photos lining the glass shelf behind his desk so they lay face down, thin and unobtrusive. He did this before seeing any scheduled patient. He felt self-conscious about the photos, in which the only person was himself, standing next to or holding some artifact of the past. He didn’t like his smile; it was much too toothy. But he could never keep his mouth shut when he posed in these situations -- he was always giddy.

The patient squeezed her enormous frame past the receptionist’s desk and approached a door with a gold nameplate centered on it, Dr. Lu, Psychiatrist, Hypnotherapy. She knocked and entered at the doctor’s bidding, turning sideways through the doorframe to better accommodate her enormous girth, which still brushed roughly against the frame.

“Have a seat, my dear,” he said kindly, eyeing his expensive furniture with a little skepticism, wondering whether antique restoration was still a business you could easily find. “What can I do for you?”

She fished under the folds of her arm a minute, then held out to him the head the receptionist had referred to. The doctor took it from her and turned it over several times in his hands. He held it near his eyes and made a very close inspection of it. Then he held it at arm’s length and looked it over again.

“That’s quite interesting,” he said at last. “What can you tell me about it?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid. That’s why I need you. It means nothing to me.”

Dr. Lu arched an eyebrow. “Where did you find it?”

“Why, in my own yard, of course. But I have no recollection of it. It’s a bit of a mystery. I would like to remember.”

“Hypnotic regression?”

“I’ve heard that you’re skilled in this method, that you can bring back buried memories.”

“I can,” he eyed the patient. “But have you thought this through? Are you sure this is what you want? Sometimes reviving such memories has unexpected consequences. Sometimes retrieval of isolated memories results in more questions than answers.”

“I quite understand, doctor,” said the patient. The doctor perked up and picked up the pace of his speech, as though trying to hurry through formalities, rushing through the introduction to get the star on stage beneath the spotlight as quickly as possible.

“You know, our brains forget things all the time, they even create completely false memories. Without physical reminders, like photos or standing monuments or written documents, things that existed and events that happened fade into a sort of quantum state of oral material — suspended in an undefined flux of speculation. And eventually the oral material decays to such a degree that the probability of accurate reconstruction becomes nil. But when you uncover an actual artifact of the past — wham, the probabilities snap into line to express a tangible existence, which may be at odds with your false memories, or may turn out to be something you’d rather not remember. As it is now, you can have things however you like; they are not defined.”

“I’m prepared for definition.”

“I see,” Dr. Lu appeared calm, but his toes were squirming inside his shoes with intense pleasure. “Please make yourself comfortable, then. I’ll just need to do a little reading first. Maybe make a few phone calls.” He scanned through the bookshelves behind his imposing cherry-wood desk, and pulled several books onto it, shoving stacks of papers and file folders off to one side.

He sat at his desk for some time flipping through his books and taking notes, making long-distance phone calls and taking more notes, while the patient scanned the room for the most accommodating furniture, and finally lowered herself as best she could to recline her mammoth mass in the fainting chair. Classic décor for a psychiatrist’s office. She liked classic. She felt this would go well. She dozed off for awhile and swam in hazy daydreams until the doctor announced that he was ready now. He came over to where she lay and sat down in a leather chair next to the fainting couch.

“If you’re comfortable now, we’ll begin,” he said.

“Yes,” she showed the psychiatrist a small smile, and for a tiny moment they were like two kids in the far corner of the playground about to share with each other a burning secret. He allowed himself a quiet gaze at her while her smile slowly faded. He began to hear his heartbeat in his ears as he looked over her voluminous skin. As he contemplated in wordless wonder her meatiness, her sheer mass, he felt himself flush with warmth. Desperately, he wanted to poke his finger into that soft plumpness. He wanted to feel how elastic the skin was, see how deep into the tissue his finger would reach. He wanted to feel that flesh all around him. He breathed in deep, trying to appear as though it was in preparation for speaking his next sentence. But he was sucking air in through his nose, his mouth slightly open, like a big cat pulling in pheromones, trying to coat his senses with her peculiar odor.

“I want you to relax. Close your eyes. Take deep, slow breaths, and relax all of your muscles. I want you to listen to my voice. I’m going to count backwards now, and I want you to focus on each number as I say it. I’m going to count down from one thousand, nine hundred and seventy four. I’ll pass zero, and when I get to negative two hundred and twenty one, I want you to open your eyes.”

The patient gave a slight nod, and the doctor began counting backward. One thousand nine hundred seventy three. One thousand nine hundred seventy two. One thousand nine hundred seventy one. Little goosebumps rose along the back of Dr. Lu’s neck as he spoke. After awhile, when the patient’s breathing had slowed and she appeared sedate (for who could be expected to stay fully awake for a count of 2,000), with great care and stealth, so as not to startle the patient or distract her from his deep, steady voice, Dr. Lu stood up from his chair. One thousand seven hundred fifty one. He tiptoed across the carpet over to his desk and slowly, gently, pulled open the bottom drawer on the left side. The little wheels of the drawer slid smoothly in their track and when the drawer was fully open, the psychiatrist reached in and pulled out a shovel.

**


Chapter 3

446 awoke with a start, his shoulders were shaking beneath someone’s grip.

“995 just lost his arm! It won’t move at all. Paralyzed.”

Another solider slid in beside the two men in a state of agitation.

“Did you hear?” he said. “3302 can’t walk. All of a sudden his foot just wouldn’t work anymore.”

“995? And 3302?” said 446. All three men looked at each other like three men on a sinking ship.

“It’s come,” 446 whispered. “The plague is here.”

All around them their comrades were waking up as the camp was overcome with a state of anxiety. Men began huddling together, speculating among themselves, cursing the plague in defiance and sweating slightly at their brows. How long? They asked each other. How long until the next victim, until they themselves became paralyzed or went completely dead? Until they turned to stone like 451?

There was not much to do, really. No one knew what caused the plague or how to fight it off. It was just a waiting game — sometimes days, sometimes years — and one of chance, whether it took one, three, or fifty people. The soldiers soon began falling victim at an alarmingly increasing rate. Some of them hid as if the plague had eyes; some refused to speak above a whisper as if it had ears. Superstitions ran rampant. Do this, or don’t do that. 2021 had just redone his topknot before his head turned to stone … don’t touch your topknots! 78 had just brushed down his horse before his right arm was paralyzed, and the horse went lame in its left hind leg … don’t brush your horses!

The army had successfully raided the Traders Quarter the day that 451 fell victim, several weeks ago. It had not been a very violent battle; the Traders were ill-armed and taken by surprise. Many soldiers were blaming the goods that they had surreptitiously kept for themselves in the raid, thinking perhaps the plague had been purposefully imbedded in these objects, and that’s why they were so easily confiscated. They cursed the Traders and threw away all they had taken from them. But 446 remembered that 451 died first before the raid. He tried to work through in his head anything 451 could have done to make him susceptible to the plague. His comrades, with the need to vent their fears and frustrations, their helplessness, began plotting attacks on the Traders. They couldn’t kill them with their weapons, but they could certainly inflict pain and torture, and perhaps throw the plague back to them.

The Emperor will be furious, the field marshals warned, if soldiers go on punitive missions without the Emperor’s approval. “Well, then, seek approval,” the soldiers urged their superiors. “Doesn’t the Emperor know what’s happening to us?” It was curious, it began to be noted, that it was only soldiers who were being brought down by the plague. None of the other citizens who lived around them suffered the indignities. No one was paralyzed, or lost the ability to eat when their stomach hardened like stone, no one died, none of their livestock was affected.

446 stewed over this. There must be a reason, he knew. But what, he couldn’t fathom. There’s just not enough information, he thought. We must be different in a way that we don’t understand. One thing he remembered people telling him years and years ago kept sticking in his mind: You all came here together, he had been told, all at once. It was most often the case that people came over one at a time, or in much smaller groups, from the other land. 446 and his 7,000 military comrades had never been in the other land, yet everyone else insisted that’s where they came from. Everyone here comes from there, they said. 446 always thought it was weird that no one in the army remembered, when everyone else seemed to have fairly clear memories.

“We came here together, without memories; we came all at once,” he mumbled to himself as he sat mulling. “And it’s only we who are catching the plague.”

“Or at least right now,” he reminded himself. Who knew when or how far it could eventually spread. Everyone in the area was living in fear, but so far only the soldiers’ fears had been justified — it was as if they were being cut out of their world with a precise razor blade. On several occasions a soldier was with a civilian when some part of his body was struck by the plague. The civilian inevitably remained unharmed, while the soldier would be slowly consumed by this mysterious force that turned men stiff and lifeless as stone. Once it hit your face – your mouth and nose – you were done for, no more breath. The soldiers were being targeted; that seemed clear to 446. But why?

446 took walks most days now to his secret stash a couple miles away in the hills beyond camp. Many of his comrades had similar secret spots where they kept things they had stolen in raids or acquired in other ways, things that soldiers weren’t allowed to keep under the military codes. By now, though, after so many raids, even many of the officers had stashes, and it was beginning to become accepted policy behind the Emperor’s back. 446 rolled back a stone from against the hillside to reveal a hand-dug niche. He took out a round bronze shield and turned it over and over, feeling its surface with his hand and holding it up over his face like he’d seen done by the enemy soldier from whose hands he had ripped it. The Emperor still didn’t allow his troops to carry shields. We are never on the defensive! he exclaimed to his men over and over. Always, we attack! Attack first! “Ferocity is our shield!” they’d been taught to chant and accept as doctrine, as primary military strategy.

Pain always did go away eventually, wounds healed, but 446 had been injured many times over the years, mostly by arrows. How nice it would be, he thought, to avoid the injuries altogether if he could have such a shield. Why were no soldiers of the enemies being struck by the plague ... what all could such a shield protect him from? He always put the bronze shield back into the hillside, but he was increasingly considering the audacious act of making a suggestion to his superiors, that perhaps they should acquire shields.

The Emperor was by now in a state of panic over his own well-being. As he watched his army falling all around him, he became nearly senseless with fear. All he could think about was protecting himself. He had always, from the time he was young, been concerned about his mortality. Even in the other land, before he came here, it was said that this issue consumed him to the point of distraction from his duties there as king and ruler. He must not be killed! Not die, not snuff out as if he was insignificant. Now with the plague, like some serpentine beast slowly digesting his army, he was frantic. He wouldn’t sleep … one second of complacency, of trust in the universe, could be his downfall. In the end, the imperial soldiers’ raison d’être was to protect the Emperor, preserve him from harm at all costs. Waging war, suppressing rebellion, pillaging resources, all those duties became secondary to ensuring the pristine health of the Emperor.

The Emperor finally decided he couldn’t risk exposure to the plague, and he would lock himself inside his opulent chamber built into the depths of a huge earthen mound, to live in isolation, by torchlight, among his hoarded riches until the plague had passed. For several days he pressed people into service to fill the chamber with everything he could imagine wanting. He had a very small hole cut into the heavy stone door, with a little metal hatch fitted in, so that it could be opened for him to receive spoken messages from the outside world. He would conduct his affairs from inside, speaking to his secretaries and generals through the hole.

446 had been chosen to personally escort the Emperor into his luxurious exile. 446 had been with 451, the first to fall from the plague, and yet had been unaffected. On this reasoning, the Emperor imagined 446 had an immunity. The Emperor had never walked a significant stretch of land without some type of escort — be it soldier, bodyguard or servant — and he couldn’t bring himself to do it now; it would have been the same to him as walking around without clothes on. But 446 had an even more important duty than escort. 446 was the only one given a key to unlock the little metal door. Such was the Emperor’s paranoia, he feared an assassin stricken by the plague might knock on the door, enticing the Emperor to open it, and then transfer the plague to him. The entrance to the chamber was to be guarded 24 hours a day by 9 rows of 9 men; if any of them fell to the plague, they were to be replaced immediately along with all adjacent soldiers in the formation. 446 was to open up the little hole only to the Emperor’s list of pre-approved people and only if they had no signs whatsoever of the plague. The Emperor had to measure his trust carefully, and his trust in 446 was well-placed – even though he had no great love of the iron-fisted ruler, 446 would never consider abandoning his duties.

The seclusion of the Emperor inside his temporary refuge was an unremarkable event. He reminded 446 of his duties and the horrendous punishment that would be inflicted upon him if he ignored them. The heavy stone door was closed and locked by the Emperor from the inside, where he would wait until he was told that the plague had passed. The 81 armed soldiers took up post outside the door. 446 put the bronze key, which was attached to a stiff bronze necklace, around his neck. He had no further duties until tomorrow when he would arrive to open the hole for those needing to speak to the Emperor.

As he was walking back toward his camp at a brisk pace, he waved to his buddies up ahead who were waiting to hear from him how things went. He took another step forward with his right foot but his left foot would not lift up off the ground. The unexpected paralysis of his left foot upset his balance as he tried to move forward, and 446 fell over heavily on his side. His buddies came running up to him.

“Are you OK? What happened?” Some of them were giggling a little, for the mishap was somewhat comical to witness. But the smiles disappeared soon enough when it became evident that 446’s foot had gone stiff.

“Help me up, will you,” 446 said to his comrades. But they all looked wild with terror; they had come to believe in the Emperor’s assessment that he was immune to the plague. 446 turned over onto his stomach and rolled up onto his knees. Then he pushed himself up off the ground. The soldiers stood by, mute. 446 was angry that they wouldn’t help him, but he also understood their fear. He began hopping on his one good foot, and decided he could hop to his cot and lie down. Maybe, just maybe, somehow it wasn’t really the plague and if he just rested, he would recover the use of his foot.

His mates stood still and watched him hop off, rather pathetically, toward camp a short ways away. Just before 446 reached his cot, he suddenly crashed to the ground again on his right side. The other soldiers stared at him, afraid, sad, and feeling helpless. 446 didn’t call out for help. He turned over on his stomach again, got up on all fours and crawled the rest of the way to his cot, his two feet dragging uselessly behind him. He lay down on his sleeping mat, breathing heavily.

He laced his fingers together over his chest and let his hands rest there. He realized then that he couldn’t feel the bronze key beneath his clothing on his chest. He felt frantically all over his body, and his heart nearly stopped with dread. The bronze necklace was no longer around his neck. It must have slipped off when he fell over. He sat up and looked out in the open field toward the last spot where he fell. The other soldiers were still standing further back where he first fell, muttering in a close circle among themselves.

Suddenly a pack of feral dogs, one of the many that now roamed freely in the area, having migrated from somewhere further west, came over the ridge and ran wildly through the field, as they often did, ecstatically yipping and nipping at each others’ heels in a playful frenzy. With what seemed like uncanny deliberateness, several of them broke from the pack and ran toward 446, coming to a halt at the spot where he had last fallen, and shuffled their paws in the dirt. One dog lowered its muzzle to the ground and a moment later lifted its head. In its jaws was the bronze necklace with the key.

446 shouted and screamed at the dog and at his comrades. He fell onto his hands and knees and began crawling furiously toward the dog. But the dog turned and ran away at full speed, the other dogs running after it in this new game of chase. They were out of sight over a low ridge within seconds. 446 collapsed on the ground, exhausted and in wretched despair. He prayed now for the plague to take him, and then fell unconscious.

**


Chapter 4

The patient opened her eyes and watched the ceiling fan for a moment, then slanted her eyes half shut and took a series of full breaths through her nose. She was very nearly like a cat purring. She struggled to right herself, then got up and wandered around the room with her ponderous weight. She bent forward so that her fingers could reach the doctor’s desktop, and flipped idly through the books and papers splayed across the varnished wood. Then, with an unlikely lilt in her elephantine step, she left the office and walked down the hall to the receptionist’s desk.

“Hello, Miss!” said the receptionist. “And how was your session?”

“Quite fine, thank you. How long was I out?”

“Oh, not so long. A few months, maybe half a year. Hypnotic regression, right? Do you feel it helped you?”

“Yes, yes indeed. My memory is returning, thank you. Where is the good Doctor Lu?”

“He’s still out building bridges, Miss, and laying down the wiring.”

“Oh!” the patient giggled. “How many electrical impulses does he think I need! A significant bit of my memory has been restored, thanks to his hypnotherapy. I expect to make quite a recovery now that he’s gotten the ball rolling. He needn’t work so hard.”

“Well, you know the doctor, he takes his psychiatric work very seriously. Bringing back buried memories is his life’s passion.”

“Marvelous,” the patient said, as she twisted a lock of hair around her fat finger. “It won’t be long, I think, until the whole world itself, giant beastly thing it’s become … Oh, but look at me! History should hardly talk!” She smoothed her hands over the bolts of fabric that composed her dress as if to straighten out wrinkles, and put her hand to her mouth to cover a little hiccup of embarrassment. “… it won’t be long until this makes it into the consciousness of the world. You’ll see. I’ll bet the doctor has hired hordes of neurotransmitters. They haven’t unionized yet have they?”

“No, I don’t think so. I just got a bill today for 15 new trowels and 20 brushes. The doctor must have ordered them and had them sent to Xi’an.”

The patient clapped her hands together. “Yes! They’re already crossing the synaptic clefts! What progress! Can’t you just see it? It must be grand, the doctor leading his troops to dig down in order to build up the force of my recollection. It’s heroic, it is.”

“Yes, indeed,” said the secretary as she poised a pencil in her hand and began flipping through the large day-calendar that was open on her desk.

“Oh, but you must be busy.”

The secretary looked up and smiled.

“Ta!” said the patient, waving. She kept her hand moving through the air as she walked out of the glass double doors of the doctor’s office, scoffing her heels with each step as if to kick up a jig, as she shuffled her enormous body down the sidewalk.

“Tum dee dum,” she sang while her hand parted the air like a lazy conductor’s baton. “Dee dum dee dum.” It had been a long time since History had experienced such an astounding memory.

**


Chapter 5

“Wouldn’t it just be marvelous to see these things come alive.” Professor Lu held up his fine-bristled brush as he spoke in his characteristic deadpan tone.

“The details in their faces are just magnificent. Don’t you think?” he said to his assistant and then clutched vaguely at his chest.

“More pain?” his assistant asked, looking worried and a bit paternal.

“It’s nothing. It’ll pass,” the professor said. But Jin admonished him for not flying home or to Beijing to receive medical care.

“They’ll probably say I need surgery. I don’t have time for that.”

“You don’t really have time to be dead, either.”

“Oh, I think you’re exaggerating,” said the professor, and he began again brushing away at the dirt covering a clay soldier’s head, while Jin worked steadily on the legs of what appeared to be the same soldier’s body, embedded in the earth outside Xi’an, China. “You know, I think this soldier is going to turn out to be largely intact. Despite pieces missing here and there, the whole length of his body looks to be represented, in some portion or another. I’ll soon have this face looking once again at the light of day,” he picked up his brushing pace, with only a thin layer of dust left to remove.

“Mmm,” said Jin disapprovingly. He shot the professor a scolding look and continued the delicate work with his own brush.

“Wouldn’t it be remarkable,” the professor chuckled, “to get to the afterworld and find all these guys actually animated, walking around.”

Reluctantly, his assistant chuckled in return. If Professor Lu ever expressed a type of laughter, any companion felt an obligation to join in the special event. “Yeah, I’ve thought of that,” said Jin. “What if all the grave goods buried with people really do accompany the dead into the afterlife. They get there and have a jar of wine with them for eternity. And all the little models that emperors and pharaohs had built for their graves are actually manifest and they have little chariots and little horses and little boats.”

“Or maybe the objects incarnate as intended — as full-size in the afterlife, just like people assumed and believed.”

“Yeah, but it would be funnier if everything passed into the afterlife just like it was left in the grave. So miniature things would still be miniature. Pharaohs who had scores of wooden figurines carved and put in their tomb wake up with all these itty-bitty servants who can only carry, like, one grape at a time, and model ships that are only good as toys.”

“Well at least their pets would be full size,” said the professor as he paused, brushing to rub the palm of his hand over his chest, “since they mummified them.”

He took a few deep, laborious breaths and was relieved that his assistant had his head bent down scrutinizing the clay that he was uncovering with his brush, and could not see this gesture of discomfort. After a moment, the professor said, “It really would be a shock, wouldn’t it, to get to heaven and find it all under the control of Emperor Qin. To find he’s ruling the whole place because he was the only guy smart enough to bring an entire army of thousands of full-life-size soldiers and horses. You get to heaven expecting peaceful paradise and find it being ruled by a miserable tyrant!”

The two men laughed and then fell silent again in the heat as they worked in the bottom of the vast pit which had been shoveled out. The young assistant, Jin, fell into thinking about his girlfriend back home. He was half-way through his three-month field season working in the trenches helping to uncover the thousands of terra cotta warriors that lay encased in two millennia of dirt. He thought about her long hair, the way she moved her hips when she walked.

Professor Lu carefully straightened his glasses, which had already been perfectly level across his nose, and kept thinking about the regimens of warriors. How incredibly life-like they looked, how remarkably individual they were, each one wholly unique in both facial features and body form. They were not mass-produced from templates. This made them all the more astounding in scope and artistic merit. It didn’t take much imagination to see them come to life — they looked very nearly like real people frozen in stone. The professor had been cultivating in his mind for some time a little daydream in which his heart would do as his assistant feared and give out on him. Within minutes, though, a medic unit would arrive and resuscitate him (he didn’t really want to die). But during those few minutes, when he was technically dead, he would make it into the afterlife and see thousands of terra cotta warriors walking around lively as you please. He would walk up to one and pat him on the back saying, “I knew it! I just knew you guys weren’t created in vain.”

He’d spent his adult life uncovering artifacts of the past, reconstructing approximations of their original existence from evidence and conjecture. So often when he presented new artifacts from a dig, the press would use the tired cliché that the past has now been brought to life. But Professor Lu never saw it that way. Even though with his trowel and brush he revealed things to the light of day once again, he merely made contact with what remains today of the past -- he finds windows to look through. Depending on the quality of the artifact, maybe it's a really clear window, or maybe it's kind of fogged and cracked and pitted, or convex or concave leading to distortion of the image on the other side.

“The past is the past, it’s as simple as that; there’s no touching it again,” he often said to his assistants. "We are in the business of memories, which are wholly different from actual experience. When we dig into the dirt with our shovels, we’re really providing a kind of hypnotherapy for history, enabling it to reach into its past and be able to speak of it again.”

Secretly, Professor Lu would give anything to find himself on the other side of that glass. He was a person who worked in order to prove himself wrong. He repeated mantras to his students and assistants, but with every ounce of dirt he removed from the buried remains of human history, of human movement through time, he begged the universe to break its bonds and become fantastic, to align its particles into a catapult that could fling him backwards with terrific force.

From the moment he set eyes on the first artifact of the terra cotta army, hauled up by a peasant from a hand-dug well, he was smitten with the lifeless men. With features exquisitely rendered from lumps of earth and baked into place inside a kiln, that first head he saw opened its eyes in his dreams over and over. In his dreams it was alive; the whole army was alive, walking, talking, shooting arrows, revealing all kinds of gossip about the infamous Emperor Qin. There were plenty of days when the professor had to drag himself from bed to confront the excavation of lifeless things when he would much rather have stayed beneath the covers with his eyes closed and pace the earth alongside the living warriors, ride in their chariots, sharpen their spears, grease their leather tunics. No one ever knew the depths of his secret dreams.

“What’s your name?” he whispered to the emerging clay man.

**


Chapter 6

“It’s the least we can do. It doesn’t seem to make a difference what we do anyway. 446 didn’t come near anyone with the plague today and he got it just the same. Come on, let’s lift him up.”

The small group of warriors put their shoulders together and gently lifted 446 onto his sleeping mat. They stood looking at the still body, clad in plaited uniform, the topknot well kept on his head, mustache groomed — the fallen man looked peaceful. They looked at each other with sorrow, sorrow for 446 that was inextricable from sorrow for themselves, for what appeared to be inevitable.

446 was still breathing; he wasn’t dead yet. The soldiers who had lifted him up continued to stay near him for the next day, not knowing where else to go or what else to do, commiserating among themselves their misfortune. Suddenly 446 opened his eyes. 210, who had been staring idly at him, jumped with a start.

“He’s awake!”

Everyone rushed over to 446’s side, but no one knew what to say. They stared expectantly, hoping for some miraculous words of comfort from their stricken comrade. He looked hazy and confused. He opened his mouth.

“Miserable tyrant,” he said. The others looked at each other questioningly, and 446 searched their faces as if hoping for some kind of confirmation from them.

“What does that mean?” said 210 after a time.

446 shook his head and said, “I don’t know.” Then, a minute later he said, “My legs are paralyzed. Before it was just my feet. I can’t move my legs now. Even my torso is stiff.”

The other soldiers looked at him with pity.

“The key!” 446 cried suddenly. “The key is gone! What am I to do?”

Again the other warriors hadn’t much to say. They were all in such despair that nothing seemed to matter, not even the loss of the key. 210 said as much … the Emperor would just have to have a new copy made and given to someone else.

446 grimaced. “The Emperor doesn’t have a key to the communications hole on the inside. There was only one. The chamber door locks from the inside, but the little metal door locks from the outside. He didn’t want to risk accidentally opening the communications door when someone with the plague was standing outside it. I was supposed to screen everyone and keep the area clear.”

The others raised their eyebrows at this, but still were not too upset. What did they care? They were dead men. Let the Emperor stay in there by himself. Let him assume, when no one ever opens the little communications conduit, that the whole world’s died of the plague, that his military is wiped out, that he’s all alone for eternity living inside his windowless refuge.

After a minute, realizing that this is precisely what would happen, the soldiers all began chuckling. Then laughing heartily. There were things here that were potentially worse than the plague; one of them was contradicting the Emperor. If anyone but 446 opened that hatch, they’d be disobeying an imperial order. Soon the soldiers were doubled over holding their sides against the pain of laughter that completely racked their bodies. The Emperor’s own command sealed his fate; no one except 446 was obligated or even given permission to contact him.

“Oh gods above!” one of them finally managed to speak. “It’s this easy to get rid of the Emperor! We could have faked the plague and locked him away years ago!” And the men fell into uncontrollable laughter.

“446, you’ve freed us all!” 210 yelled to him. But then realized that 446 had gone still again. He went over and prodded him in the shoulder. At this 446 gave a start and opened his eyes. He raised his left arm up over his head.

“Lu. Jin.”

“What?”

“Lu. Jin. Heart.” 446 cast his eyes about as if looking for something in particular.

“Speak sense.”

“Someone’s heart hurts. Lu.”

“Have you been having a dream?” 210 said.

“I don’t know. My right arm won’t move. I’m done for, aren’t I?”

210 didn’t respond. Everyone fell silent.

“What is this you’ve been dreaming?” someone said.

“I don’t really know. There are two men, and one of them, his heart hurts. Does that mean something?”

The others didn’t know. But suddenly this was a thread to grasp in the hope of solving the riddles of the plague. Maybe 446 was having dreams that could help them. Old Xin Peng was known to have insights into dreams. He had been a confidant of the Emperor himself. A soldier was hastily dispatched to track down the old man and bring him to 446.

The soldier did not return quickly, and in the meantime, 446 drifted in and out of sleep. And each time he woke up his paralysis had increased. When he woke for the last time, even his neck was as immobile as stone. Only the features on his face could function, and he said he felt his lower jaw getting sore. His dreams had been getting clearer and clearer. He said it was like looking up from the bottom of a pond, looking up through the water at two men on the shore.

“Quick,” said 210. “Who knows how to read and write? Someone find something with which to write down his dream in case Xin Peng doesn’t get here in time. We can still ask for an interpretation.”

210 rummaged through the dying soldier’s belongings near his cot and found a ragged piece of a thin bamboo scroll – a letter to home … which was strange because 446 had no home. To whom was he writing? It was addressed “to Mama and Mei-Mei,” but he had never mentioned having a mother and sister before. 210 read, “The coiling of clay day after day into life-size bodies becomes unbearably tedious. There are so many processes besides quarrying and coiling … carving clothing and features, baking, assembling the heads, painting, lacquering. My team finishes only eight per month. But we are as many as an entire town working.”

“It must be something he found and picked up,” another solider said. 210 turned the scroll over as another soldier came running with ink and a thin brush.

“Go ahead,” they all said to 446, “tell us the dream.” And 210 wrote down the precise account the dying man gave of his most recent dream – a bizarre conversation between two men hovering above the water’s surface. Two spirits, the other warriors conjectured, waiting to receive 446 on the other side.

One man asks a question, “What is your name?”

The other man says, “Did you just say what I think you said? You know he’s not alive.”

The first says, “Of course I know, Jin. Of course. I only wonder if he was modeled on someone real, someone with a name. A name I’ve just brought back to life.”

“Professor Lu! You detest that phrase. There are only windows, remember?”

Yes, Jin. I know, I know.


446 took in a breath to say more, but he never let it out. He didn’t speak again. Xin Peng still hadn’t arrived. The men gently placed the strip of bamboo with the strange dream written on it on top of 446’s lifeless lips, as though he were speaking onto the paper. They stood in solemn silence, waiting for the old man to come tell them what it might mean, to offer them some hope in these cryptic lines for their own survival.

**


Chapter 7

“I can’t believe you just said that.”

Professor Lu grimaced. “You know I’m just kidding. The past is but a memory and memories are inanimate artifacts, binary codes etched into paper books and fleshy brains. There is no bringing the past back to life.” But when his assistant wasn’t looking, the professor indulged in a brief crestfallen expression. He eyed the trowel and brush at his side with a twinge of disappointment. All his life he’d been passionate about uncovering history’s memories, but at this moment they seemed unbearably hollow.

“Sometimes, though,” the professor said slowly, unsure how far to confess his contrary heart, “I do feel a little like a spy or a peeping-tom, looking through these windows at the past. You know, like maybe I shouldn’t really know this stuff. Maybe all my big degree is, is a grungy little ticket to a back-street peep-show.”

“A voyeur, huh, “said Jin, who wasn’t terribly interested.

“I think that for the most part I have an incredibly dull imagination. I have to see things before my real eyes before I can imagine the life in them.” At this moment he was thinking about his recent portly patient. The fabulous folds in her skin. The enormous dimples in her elbows and knees, and the mass of hair spilling down from her head. And that voice of hers, as clear and piercing as a struck bell. Like the heavy bronze bells the officers of the Qin army carried on their chariots to ring out orders of advance! advance!

“What’s this?” Jin said, peering closely at the terra cotta face emerging from the earth. He could swear it wasn’t there a minute ago. He brushed quickly at it. Professor Lu, his curiosity peaked by this something unusual, joined in briskly moving his bundle of fine bristles back and forth.

“It looks like a narrow scroll. Look here, ink has bled at this blackened edge.” The two men suddenly felt feverish. Without further words, they worked as quickly as they could to carefully expose the artifact. It was soon clear that it was an ancient scroll. They worked with their brushes — such humble, unlikely tools of so many great discoveries — until the bamboo could be worked from the grip of the earth. Professor Lu was the one who pulled it out.

“You can see, the edges were burned in the fire that destroyed the clay soldiers not long after they began their vigil over the dead Emperor. It looks like a letter one of the craftsmen wrote to his mother. We’ve found several of these in the trenches.” Professor Lu wiped his sweaty palms on his pant leg and turned the scroll over; he saw it was full of characters in perfect condition. They were rendered in the archaic form of the Qin Dynasty, but all were still decipherable even through the thin bits of dirt that clung in different places across the long-buried scroll.

“There’s more,” he said to his assistant, and he began to read the lines out loud.

After a few words, Professor Lu stopped reading, rearranged his glasses, scrutinized the scroll, touched the patches of dirt on it. He began again, reading from the beginning, and the two men turned pale as ghosts; blood seemed to evaporate from their bodies as they recognized the lines, verbatim, of their extremely recent conversation with each other.

“Yes, Jin. I know, I know,” the professor read the last line on the scroll and dropped it from his hands. The two men were speechless, overcome with a confusion so intense that it completely terrified them. The young assistant began trembling uncontrollably and the professor began gasping for breath.

Professor Lu clutched at his chest, grabbing his shirt in his fist and tearing it. Jin tried to move, to call for help, to speak to the professor. But he was so weak in his surreal confusion, it was some minutes before he was able to summon another archaeologist to call for an ambulance. By the time it arrived, Lu Wanbin had expired beyond recall. From within a deep pit among the ancient ruins of a great terra cotta army, he made his way into the afterlife.

**


Chapter 8

“Thanks for seeing me, Doctor …”

“Jin. Just call me Jin. I don’t have a doctorate degree.”

“Oh. Well, thanks for seeing me just the same. I was a patient of Dr. Lu’s.”

“Yes, Miss, I know you.”

“I’m so sorry to hear of his death.”

Doctor Lu’s secretary came through the door of the office which had been ajar with her arms full of file folders. She set them down on an empty chair.

“These are his files, what I have of them,” she said. “Most of them, though, are here in his office in those filing cabinets over there.”

Jin thanked her and looked rather deflated, and the patient said so.

“It’s just that there’s so much,” Jin said.

“So will you take up the doctor’s profession, then? Or do you have other plans?”

“I’m not entirely sure. Please have a seat, Miss.” The huge woman waddled over to the fainting couch and sat down. She smiled and winked at the young man who addressed her as though she herself might still be in her youth.

“How can I help you?” Jin asked.

“Well, I’m not sure I know. Something curious has been going on with me. I underwent a hypnotherapy session with Doctor Lu, as you know, and this remarkable memory began to come back to me. I’ve remembered about Emperor Qin all these thousands of years. His works were remarkable; one could hardly forget his unification of China, his standardization programs, his massive projects of walls and tombs, the obliteration of so many books and the scholars who kept them. He is indelible. But these terra cotta warriors of his, I’d really quite forgotten about. His dynasty ended so quickly, so abruptly; the wooden roof over the warriors burned not long after the Emperor died and fell in on the clay army, crushed them, broke them and buried them, and I just sort of forgot. But the fantastic opulence of the tomb, the jeweled recreation of the heavens and earth inside, a treasure so vast he rigged it with booby traps … I remember all that with clarity. Both the vision and tyranny of this man were astounding.”

The patient got lost in a faraway look. Jin remained silent while she seemed to be in reverie. But she remained in this lost state for so long that he finally asked, “Anything else?”

“I may have made a mistake asking the doctor to bring back something so huge, though of course I didn’t realize at first what we were getting into.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Many, many psychiatrists have worked with me over the years. They go around with their little shovels. Most of them go into the field of archaeology, and they dig up my buried memories, put them back into the consciousness of the world, so objects and events have a presence far beyond their own time. I’m usually a very willing patient, though as you can imagine, my obesity is becoming uncomfortable,” she lifted up her arm as she raised her eyebrows toward it as if the young man might not have noticed its size. “All these little workforces the doctors hire with their trowels and brushes and their interminable grids, organize and figure out how to bridge the right gaps, release the right chemicals, spark the right activity in my mind that will lead to some kind of recall.”

“Mm hm.” The professor had explained archaeology to Jin in these terms before.

“When you found the note that gave Doctor Lu such a fright and sent him to the grave, it got me thinking. And thinking and thinking. And I’m here to tell you, I have no recollection of such a note being buried with one of those soldiers. The one side, with the letter, I remember many young men wrote such things. But the other side, with the details of your conversation … This hypnotic regression has brought the whole army back to me; you know everything’s cascading now, what with the historians and archivists all jumping in, too. I remember the arduous creation of the soldiers, many workers and nearly 10 years to build them. I remember the warriors standing there; I remember the fire over their heads and them falling to the ground; I remember the centuries and centuries of dirt, the silence.”

She straightened out her fingers on one hand and inspected her cuticles. “Now the one side of that note you’ve got, is a mystery to everyone; it doesn’t make sense no matter how you look at it. But if anyone at all could have an insight, it should be me. I alone have locked up inside of me everything that happens. I know I forget things, but this is an extraordinary, singular type of thing. I’m telling you, Jin, I would know, I would have at least a dim, vague recollection of this. But I have none. I don’t quite know what it means, but I can tell you that no one on this planet put that note on that terra cotta soldier.”

Jin stared at her, not knowing what to say. He thought back to the incident himself, uncovering that bamboo scroll and the professor reading it aloud, but could think of nothing that would serve as a clue to understanding it. He’d been over it hundreds of times with his colleagues already. For complete lack of a better explanation, it had been assumed to be some sort of exceptionally well-executed hoax. By whom, for what purpose, and how, no one could hazard a guess.

“Here’s one thing to consider,” she continued. “Once a thing is buried, in the dirt that is, I have no idea what happens to it. If I can see it, I can keep track of it. But once it is obscured, I suppose anything could be happening to it. Obscurity is the great liberator. Professor Lu told me that himself. What you can’t see or remember is therefore undefined; it could be anything. There is nothing which is improbable in the unknown.”

“I’m not really following where you’re going with this, Miss.”

“In the tangible world, things either exist or they don’t exist, dear boy. Probability waves and flux and frothy existence are only for the incredibly minute. So what if, by making something exist in our present consciousness we preclude it, obscure it, from some other existence because we have now defined it in ours?”

“How does that explain the note?”

“It doesn’t necessarily. But it is to say that who knows what might go on in places beyond our view?”

“What, you think extra-dimensional people have been spying and taking notes on us or something?”

She chuckled. “No, I’m not saying that! That’s silly, Jin. Listen, I’m merely saying it makes one wonder what might go on under the cover of obscurity. Just because there is no witness, doesn’t mean things don’t continue to exist. When you draw a curtain over a window, something still exists on the other side. Dirt and forgetfulness, even mortality, may just be types of curtains. I suspect you were not intended to find that little scroll. Perhaps our poor professor merely took someone by surprise when he drew back a curtain.”

**


Chapter 9

1062 saw the man wandering around looking astonished. Foolishly so, thought 1062. The man was intently inspecting at a distance the soldiers in camp, but was obviously nervous about coming closer. It was a face 1062 had never seen before; he could be new here. 1062 had occasionally seen people who had just recently arrived from the other land, and they often looked confused or sometimes amused. He himself couldn’t remember his arrival. But then he didn’t even have a memory of a thing that so many people referred to, called childhood.

For something to do, to get his mind off of 446 and the fact that Xin Peng didn’t have the opportunity to read his dream, for shortly after they’d placed it on 446’s lips the scroll lost its substance and couldn’t be touched, he approached the lost-looking man and asked if there was something he could help him with.

“The army camp really isn’t a place for civilians to be wandering around,” he told the unfamiliar man.

“Do you mind?” said the man. “Could I please look at you closely?”

It was a very strange request, but 1062 had no objection.

“Are you with Emperor Qin?” the man asked tentatively.

“Yes. He’s …” 1062 stopped. He didn’t know what to say next. He smirked just a little. “He’s indisposed at the moment.”

“Oh?” Lu Wanbin reached out toward the soldier and carefully ran the tips of his fingers over the smooth armor, and touched the man’s cool, smooth hand. The soldier pulled back.

“The plague, you know," 1062 explained. "He’s taken shelter.”

“The plague?”

“You don’t know? You must certainly be new here.”

“I am. Indeed. This is all quite a lot to take in. I’m still not sure I’m awake, that I’m not dreaming.”

“No sir. You’re awake, just as I am. Why would you think you’re dreaming?”

“Well,” Wanbin chuckled, “I have dreamt of this a hundred times. Walking among the terra cotta warriors of Emperor Qin. I used to joke about them being animate in the afterlife, about them coming to life just like real soldiers.”

1062 looked at him strangely.

“You … you do know…” Wanbin hesitated, “that you’re clay, right?”

1062 remained silent for a moment with a queer expression. “Perhaps you should go lie down, sir,” he said. “It seems to be a bit of a shock to some people, arriving here. Things will clear up for you after you’ve had some rest.”

“So, you’re just … just a regular guy.”

“I’m a soldier, sir, in the Emperor’s army.”

“Fabulous. Just fabulous. I can’t believe it,” Wanbin marveled to himself. “This is exactly what I’ve wanted. Is this heaven? It must be. This is just what I wanted, to walk among you come to life.” Suddenly he broke out into bellowing laughter.

“Sir,” 1062 raised his voice above the laughter, “you might want to keep clear of the camp. For some reason it’s just us soldiers now who are being taken by the plague.”

“What do you mean by a plague?”

“Plague, sir. A disease. No one understands it. It happens. It’s the only way you can die around here. Sometimes you just get paralyzed, a hand or a leg, but if the plague strikes your head, that’s it.”

“What precisely does this disease do to the body?” Wanbin returned to his serious nature.

“Just turns it like stone. A paralyzed limb becomes immobile, useless. And if somebody dies from it, it’s like they’re turned to stone only you can’t move them; they just don’t exist anymore except that you can still see them. Look around. You’ll see where all the soldiers who have died have fallen.”

“Only an intangible image remains,” Wanbin said under his breath. He thought deeply for a moment before asking another question. “And you say just you soldiers are being struck by it? How long has this been going on?”

“Well, the plague’s been around as long as I’ve known, but it only started taking out our camp awhile back. There’s nothing we know of that can stop it.”

Wanbin was starting to get an uncomfortable feeling at the back of his neck. He felt a fluttering in his chest.

“What else can you tell me about it?” he said.

“Not much, like I said. We don’t know how to prevent it or cure it. Sometimes it takes out one person, sometimes lots. They just go stiff and still. The only other weird thing is that sometimes their belongings turn into that same kind of stone — you can see the things but you can’t touch them or move them, as though they’ve disappeared and left behind a painting in your mind. Only it’s the same painting in everyone’s mind. I mean, stuff goes missing in that way a lot, but whenever the plague strikes, more stuff than usual is likely to vanish.”

Wanbin was starting to feel queasy. He felt for his glasses to resettle on the bridge of his nose, but they weren’t there. He pressed his fingertips to the bones of his eye socket instead. “The people, the things, they never come back?”

“Not that I know of, at least not around here.”

“How many soldiers have died?”

“Well, I don’t know for sure. Since it started, maybe a few hundred, maybe more, have gotten the plague in some way, whether they died or just got paralyzed. Lots of them get paralyzed first and then eventually die. Like 446. He died just the other day. First his feet quit working, then paralysis spread up his body over a couple days, his legs, arms, chest. Finally he just died.”

Wanbin felt dizzy and sick. He sat down on the grass.

“It’s a terrible thing. 446 was a good man. I’ve been in the military with him for as long as I can remember. We’ve had a lot of good times. A lot of hard times, too. Being in the imperial forces isn’t an easy thing. He was having strange dreams before he died.”

“Dreams?” Wanbin looked up.

“Yeah. He said it was like he was in a pond beneath the water and people were having a conversation on the shore. Something about ‘Lu’ and ‘Jin.’ We wrote down his last dream, but no one could make sense of it and then the paper evaporated in that strange way, we couldn’t touch it. You don’t happen to know anything about dreams, do you?”

Wanbin dropped his face into his hands. He couldn’t believe it. His eyes started to well up with tears. It was an incredibly wondrous thing that items sent to the grave with a person came through to the afterlife, and the inanimate came to life in the way they were intended to. A whole army of clay soldiers lived and breathed in the obscurity of the darkness beneath the dirt. They had meaningful, individual lives full of friendships and good and bad times.

Lu Wanbin thought of his colleagues who would not stop excavating until they uncovered everything, until every warrior had been restored, brought back into lifeless existence as a museum piece. He realized now the truth that things can have only one existence, either here or there; for living men to reclaim an artifact, it has to forfeit its consciousness in the afterworld. For the terra cotta warriors, here in the land of the dead lay the only breath they could ever have. His entire adult life, the professor had labored in the name of archaeology – passing himself off as a psychiatrist to history, doing everyone a favor unburying the past, returning memory to the present world.

Now he cursed everything he’d ever done. He was, in the end, only a plague in the afterlife.

______