Sunday, March 14, 2010

DBTL 74: Enter the Dragon

This is the latest installment of the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth, and where the Holocaust and World War II never took place. Instead, Ernst Röhm seizes power in Germany 1932 with the backing of the unNazified but still violently anti-Semitic Freikorps. Röhm invades Poland in 1936, and loses. Germany is partitioned, with the eastern half being annexed to Poland and the western half being organized by the British and French into two successor states.

War breaks out between Poland and the USSR in October 1944, and Poland's Japanese allies attack the Soviets on 7 December. The Japanese fare as poorly against the Soviets as they did in OTL, and the Soviets eventually drive them out of China, and by 1950 succeed in conquering the Japanese home islands. The Chinese Civil War resumes after Mao Tse-tung's assassination in 1945, and following Stalin's death in 1946, his successors in the USSR decide to back Chiang Kai-shek. With Soviet help, Chiang defeats (but does not destroy) the Chinese Communists. However, the withdrawal of the Soviets from China in 1954 leaves Chiang back where he started -- at the head of a corrupt, unpopular government facing a fanatical insurgency.

Eighteen years go by . . .

Chungking, China
10 July 1972

Lee Jun Fan stepped down onto the platform of the small, dilapidated train station. A short, slim man in his early 30s, Lee knew he did not stand out among the passengers. Anonymity was his objective. After a cursory seach by station guards who were more interested in fondling attractive female passengers, Lee was able to enter Chungking.

For a citizen of Hong Kong like Lee, traveling to Chungking was like moving back in time forty years. Automobiles were rare, modern buildings even rarer. A few factories had been set up during the Japanese invasion, and the boots and foam rubber they produced were the city's main source of (legitimate) income. The people Lee moved among all had a furtive air about them, as though every single one of them was engaged in some shady business that had to be concealed from the world. Although Lee himself really was engaged in the shadiest of shady business, it required a constant effort to control his own naturally confident stride and force himself to skulk around like the rest of Chungking.

Lee had been able to spot his general objective as soon as he left the train station. The heart of Chungking was located atop a bluff, including a set of administrative buildings from which the Kuomintang ruled the city, Szechwan province, and, during the Japanese invasion, all of China. Lee squinted as he peered through the city's dusty air at the forbidding stone monoliths atop the bluff. One of those buildings held the man Lee had come to Chungking to find.

Lee knew that access to the bluff was restricted to Kuomintang officials and elite units of the Army. However, to a man of Lee's abilities there were no restricted areas. His superiors in Hong Kong had briefed him on the setup atop the bluff, and Lee already had a plan formulated.

The sides of the bluff ranged in their degree of steepness from near-vertical to vertical, and the only ways up to the top were an old winding stair and a recently-constructed system of cable cars. In his walk from the railroad station Lee kept a trained eye on the walls of the bluff, looking for a section that would suit his needs. He found it three quarters of the way around, along the imposing north face of the bluff. At this point the top of the bluff actually overhung the ground, and rockfalls kept the buildings of the city a safe distance away. Centering himself, becoming vibrantly aware of every muscle in his body and every square centimeter of his skin, Lee approached the rock face. He placed both hands against the rock and paused for a moment, then began to climb.

His fingertips felt the rough stone of the rockface and found handholds that would have eluded other men. Slowly but steadily Lee crawled up the face of the bluff, pausing from time to time to run the fingers of one hand over the pitted rock before resuming his climb.

Time ceased to have any meaning for Lee, as his consciousness narrowed down to an eternal present, and the face of the bluff became his entire existence. It was only when his fingers came into contact with grass, and Lee looked up to see that the rock had bent back from vertical to horizontal, that he realized that he had made it to the top of the bluff.

There was a crumbling brick wall a few meters ahead of Lee, and he crawled over the grass until he was resting against it. Then he allowed himself to relax, and time began to move at its accustomed rate once again.

The sun had dropped behind the towering western mountains, and night was falling, when Lee stood up next to the brick wall Here at the northern edge of the bluff, street lights were rare, and in his dark clothing Lee was able to walk unnoticed, a shadow among shadows. Twice he froze in place as people walked past him, and twice he was able to remain unseen.

As Lee approached the center of Chungking, the lighting became better, the streets more crowded, and the number of soldiers much higher. Once again, Lee relied on his talent for blending in with the crowd to conceal him from any watching eyes. Reaching his destination, Lee slipped easily into the shadows of a narrow alley. On one side was an office building, on the other was the Governor's palace. Lee looked up to scan the the cement face of the palace, his eyes quickly moving across the building's five stories. On the fourth floor, a window had been left open a few centimeters.

The palace dated back to the period when Chiang Kai-shek had ruled China (or at any rate, those parts of it not controlled by the Communists or the Japanese) from Chungking. In the course of forty years in Chungking's harsh climate, the palace's cement facade had become pitted and cracked. Centering himself once more, Lee placed his hands on the crumbling cement, then slowly began to climb.

Between the second and third floors, the palace's facade was set back two centimeters, and Lee paused there to rest for a time before resuming his ascent. A timeless interval later, his fingers came into contact with the projecting windowsill, and he slowly pulled himself up until he could see in through the open window.

The unlit room beyond was hidden behind a set of curtains. With a single fluid motion, Lee swung himself up onto the windowsill, then slid the window up a few more centimeters until he could slip silently through it.

Lee felt the curtains slide over his body as he dropped through the window onto the floor. He froze when he heard a strange sound coming from a meter to his left. The sound ceased, then was repeated a few seconds later, then ceased again. It was not until the third repetition that Lee finally recognized the sound of someone snoring. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, Lee realized that he had entered someone's bedroom. The sleeper lay on a bed to his left. There was a door in the wall on his right, and another door on the far side of the room.

The sleeper's snores ceased, and he turned over. Lee would have frozen if he hadn't already been motionless. Instead, he remained motionless for what seemed an eternity but was no more than twenty seconds until the sleeper resumed snoring. Lee began to move very slowly and very cautiously across the floor until he came to the door on the far side of the room. There was light coming underneath the door from beyond, and Lee was very careful not to place himself between the sleeper and the door. He rose up onto his feet, quietly grasped the door's knob, then swung the door open as little as was necessary for him to slip past it.

Lee was in well-lit hallway, and his eyes were in agony as he walked nonchalantly away from the room with the sleeper. There was nobody in view to see him leave the sleeper's room, and within a few seconds his eyes had adjusted to the brightness. Fifteen meters past the door he had gone through, the hallway reached a junction with a stairwell. One set of wooden stairs led upward to the fifth floor, while another led downward to the third. Discarding his dark jacket and drawing a clip-on necktie from his pants pocket, Lee buttoned up his white shirt and clipped the tie in place before descending the stairs. With the white shirt and tie, Lee had changed his appearance from that of a nondescript man-on-the-street to that of a nondescript clerk. He passed half a dozen men on his way down the stairs to the palace's basement, and not one of them so much as gave him a second look.

Lee moved through the palace's basement with the self-assurance of a man who has every right to be wherever he is. The information provided by his superiors brought him to an unusually solid metal door with an unusually robust lock. Standing next to the door was a tall, well-built young man in an army uniform with a grounded rifle. As Lee approached the door, the soldier quickly brought the rifle up and pointed it in his direction. "Halt!" the soldier commanded.

Lee did not halt. Ducking under the rifle's line of fire, Lee turned a forward somersault that brought him within striking distance of the rifle's barrel. A kick, and the rifle flew out of the soldier's hands. To Lee's dismay, the soldier fended off his next kick with a lightning-quick strike of the hand. It wasn't often that Lee's job brought him into contact with another adept of the martial arts. It was an unworthy thought, but Lee found himself wishing that the soldier would just let him knock him unconscious.

Lee expected the soldier to raise the alarm. Instead, he settled into position, hands raised, and waited in silence for Lee to attack. Lee understood: the soldier's pride would not allow him to call for reinforcements against an unarmed man. He was determined to defeat Lee by himself.

Very well. Lee bowed to the soldier, and the gesture was returned.

The next five minutes passed in a flurry of feints, blows, and kicks, and ended with the soldier unconscious on the ground. A quck search of the soldier's belt turned up a set of four keys, and an informed guess let Lee open the door with the first key he tried. The metal door swung open to reveal a room crowded with bookshelves, a single desk and chair, and a startled man in his early seventies.

"Chang Hsueh-liang," said Lee, "it is time for you to go."

"Who are you?" said Chang.

"My name is Lee," said Lee. "I've been sent to Chungking to free you from Chiang's prison."

"Sent by whom?" said Chang with suspicion in his voice.

"I'm not at liberty to say at present," said Lee. "You should be aware that time is short. I need you to come with me right now."

"And if I do not?" said Chang stubbornly.

"Then I will leave now without you," said Lee. He turned and began to walk back towards the stairwell.

"Not quite so fast, if you please," said Chang as he hurried out past the metal door. "I'm not as young as I used to be, and I don't get much exercise."

The two men climbed the stairs at a measured pace, and walked side by side through the lobby of the Governor's palace. They had actually made it out past the front doors before one of the soldiers standing guard pointed at Chang and said, "Wait! That's the Young Marshal!"

The soldiers undoubtedly expected Lee and Chang to try and make a break for it, so Lee turned around and leapt at the soldiers. Before they could react, he was among them, where they could not shoot at him for fear of hitting each other. The first soldier who tried to seize him got an elbow in the side and a blow to the side of the head. The second got two quick kicks to the stomach, while the third was redirected headlong into the fourth.

In the street below the palace there was a man standing agape beside the open door of an automobile. Lee grabbed a stunned-looking Chang and dragged him to the automobile. A quick snatch got him the car keys from the man's hand, and he had Chang bundled into the passenger seat and the car door slammed shut before the man could react. The man was pounding on the driver's side window when Lee pulled away from the palace. The car gained two bullet holes before they turned a corner out of the soldiers' line-of-sight.

The people of Chungking had excellent reflexes, diving out of the speeding car's way with plenty of room to spare. As Lee was negotiating the twisted streets with his foot on the pedal and his hand on the horn, Chang demanded again to know who had sent him.

"Governor-General Mountbatten," Lee answered as he swerved to avoid another car.

It was several seconds before Chang answered. Perhaps he was having difficulty accepting the idea, or perhaps he was distracted by the row of caged chickens Lee had just sideswiped. In any event, Chang finally said, "You're from Hong Kong?"

"That's right," said Lee as a basket full of peaches bounced off the windshield.

"What would the English want with me?" Chang wondered as two workmen abandoned a large pane of plate glass to its unhappy fate.

"We want you to return to Manchuria," Lee answered as he brought the car fishtailing to a halt. They were near the eastern edge of the bluff, and the cable car terminus was less that fifty meters away. Lee dragged Chang from the car and hurried through the crowds to the embarkation point. Cutting in front of a group of people who were about to enter a newly-vacated car, Lee pulled Chang inside and slammed the door in the angry faces of the would-be passengers. A carefully placed kick released the brake, and the car began to slide down the cable.

Peering curiously down the length of the cable, Chang said, "Please explain what interest Her Majesty's government could have in whether or not I return to Manchuria."

"The Communists are on the march," Lee began.

"Still?" said Chang. "You mean to say that after almost fifty years of trying, Chiang still hasn't managed to defeat them?"

"Not only are they not defeated," said Lee, "they are growing stronger, and Manchuria is their primary target. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Manchuria has been in chaos. The old state-directed economy has collapsed, and what little market economy exists has been taken over by a handful of corrupt bureaucrats. The Manchurian people are desperate, and desperate people are meat and drink to Chou En-lai's partisans. If they seize control of Manchuria, they will have a secure base from which to attack China proper, and they will be unstoppable. Only one man can keep Manchuria out of Chou En-lai's hands, and that man is you." With another kick, Lee re-engaged the brake, and the cable car came to a shuddering halt five meters above the Yangtze. A barge loaded with a cargo of foam rubber was passing downstream below them.

Lee turned to look at Chang as he opened the cable car's door. "Young Marshal, the choice is yours," he said, then turned and jumped out.

The barge had almost drifted past the cable car when Chang finally jumped.

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