Authors: Walter Jon Williams
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers, #Spy Stories & Tales of Intrigue, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Espionage
The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid
by Walter Jon Williams
The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid
Walter Jon Williams
Nebula Award-winning author Walter Jon Williams serves up a glorious novelette-sized mashup of intrigue, cutting-edge biotech, Aymara Indian spies, a Chinese cruise ship, ninjas, Andean folk music, and a tetrahedal menace from beneath the sea.
But the greatest threat to our heroes comes in the form of a water ballet company, whose director insists on Total Artistic Control.
“...A rapid, imaginative, and at times hilarious story, packed with action and great characters...[Williams’] story is complete, rounded, and a great read.”
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2004, 2014 by Walter Jon Williams. All rights reserved.
Cover art by: Pablo Armelles
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Electronic version by Baen Books
BOOKS BY WALTER JON WILLIAMS
Ambassador of Progress
Voice of the Whirlwind
Days of Atonement
City on Fire
The Rift (originally as by Walter J Williams)
The Crown Jewels
House of Shards
Rock of Ages
Dread Empire’s Fall
Conventions of War
Investments (short novel)
This Is Not a Game
The Fourth Wall
Frankensteins & Foreign Devils
The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories
Privateers & Gentlemen (historical novels, originally as by Jon Williams)
To Glory Arise
(originally published as
The Tern Schooner
(originally published as
Brig of War
(originally published as
The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid
What we might call the Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid Situation began in the Staré Mêsto on a windy spring day. We were clumped beneath the statue of Jan Hus and in the midst of our medley of South American Tunes Made Famous by North American Pop Singers. The segue from “Cielito Lindo” to “El Condor Pasa” required some complicated fingering, and when I glanced up from my
I saw our contact standing in the crowd, smoking a cigarette and making a bad show of pretending he had nothing better to do but stand in Prague’s Old Town and listen to a family of nine Aymara Indians deconstruct Simon and Garfunkel.
My uncle Iago had described the man who was planning to hire us, and this man matched the description: a youngish Taiwanese with a fashionable razor cut, stylish shades, a Burberry worn over a cashmere suit made by Pakistani tailors in Hong Kong, a silk tie, and glossy handmade Italian shoes.
He just didn’t look like a folk music fan to me.
After the medley was over, I called for a break, and my cousin Rosalinda passed the derby among the old hippies hanging around the statue while my other cousin, Jorge, tried to interest the crowd in buying our CDs. I ambled up to our contact and bummed a smoke and a light.
“You’re Ernesto?” he asked in Oxford-accented English.
“Ernesto, that’s me,” I said.
“Your uncle Iago suggested I contact you,” he said. “You can call me Jesse.”
His name wasn’t Jesse any more than mine was really Ernesto, this being the moniker the priest gave me when the family finally got around to having me baptized. I’d been born on an artificial reed island drifting around Lake Titicaca, a place where functionaries of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church didn’t hang out much.
My real name is Cari, just in case you wondered.
“Can we go somewhere a little more private?” Jesse asked.
“Yeah, sure. This way.”
He ground out his cigarette beneath one of his wingtips and followed me into the Church of St. Nicholas while I wondered if there was any chance that we were really under surveillance, or whether Jesse was just being unreasonably paranoid.
Either way, I thought, it would affect my price.
The baroque glories of the church burst onto my retinas as I entered— marble statues and bravura frescos and improbable amounts of gold leaf. Strangely enough, the church belonged to the Hussites, who you don’t normally associate with that sort of thing.
Booms and bleats echoed through the church. The organist was tuning for his concert later in the day, useful interference in the event anyone was actually pointing an audio pickup at us.
Jesse didn’t spare a glance for the extravagant ornamentation that blazed all around him, just removed his shades as he glanced left and right to see if anyone was within listening distance.
“Did Iago tell you anything about me?” Jesse asked.
“Just that he’d worked for you before, and that you paid.”
Iago and his branch of the family were in Sofia doing surveillance on a ex-Montenegrin secret policeman who was involved in selling Russian air-to-surface ATASM missiles from Transnistria through the Bosporus to the John the Baptist Liberation Army, Iraqi Mandaean separatists who operated out of Cyprus. Lord alone knew what the Mandaeans were going to do with the missiles, as they didn’t have any aircraft to fire them
— or at least we can only hope they don’t. Probably they were just middlemen for the party who really wanted the missiles.
I’d been holding my group ready to fly to Cyprus if needed, but otherwise the Iraqi Mandaeans were none of my concern. Reflecting on this, I wondered if the world had always been this complicated, or if this was some kind of twenty-first-century thing.
“We need you to do a retrieval,” Jesse said.
“What are we retrieving?”
His mouth gave an impatient twitch. “You don’t need to know that.”
He was beginning to irritate me. “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” I asked. “I need to know if I’ll need a crane or truck or…”
“A boat,” Jesse said. “And diving gear.”
The organist played a snatch of Bach— the D Minor, I thought, and too fast.
If you hang out in European churches, you hear the D Minor a lot. Over the years I had become a connoisseur in these matters.
“Diving gear,” I said cautiously. “That’s interesting.”
“Three days ago,” Jesse said, “the five-thousand-ton freighter
sank in a storm in the Pearl River Delta off Hong Kong. Our cargo was in the hold. After the Admiralty Court holds its investigation, salvage rights will go on offer. We need you to retrieve our cargo before salvage companies get to the scene.”
I thought about this while organ pipes bleated above my head. “Five thousand tons,” I said, “that’s a little coaster, not a real ship at all. How do you know it didn’t break up when it went down?”
“When the pumps stopped working, the
filled and sank. The crew got away to the boats and saw it sink on an even keel.”
“Do you know where?”
“The captain got a satellite fix.”
“How deep did it sink?”
I let out a slow breath. A depth of sixty meters required technical diving skills I didn’t possess.
“The Pearl River Delta is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world,” I said. “How are we going to conduct an unauthorized salvage operation without being noticed?”
There was a moment’s hesitation, and then Jesse said, “That’s your department.”
I contemplated this bleak picture for a moment, then said, “How big is your cargo again?”
“We were shipping several crates— mainly research equipment. But only one crate matters, and it’s about two meters long by eighty centimeters wide. The captain said they were stored on top of the hold, so all you have to do is open the hold and raise the box. ”
That seemed to simplify matters. “Right,” I said. “We’ll take the job.”
“For how much?”
I let the organist blat a few times while I considered, and then I named a sum. Jesse turned stern.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said.
“Firstly,” I said, “I’m going to have to bribe some people to get hernias, and that’s never fun. Then I’ve got to subcontract part of the job, and the ones I have in mind are notoriously difficult.”
He gave me a look. “Why don’t I hire the subcontractors myself, then?”
“You can try. But they won’t know who needs to get hernias, and besides, they can’t do the
things my group can do. We can give you
He brooded a bit behind his eyelids, then nodded. “Very well,” he said.
I knew that he would concede in the end. If he was moving important cargo in a little Chinese coaster instead of by Federal Express, then that meant he was moving it illegally— smuggling, to use the term that would be employed by the Admiralty Court were Jesse ever caught. He had to get his job done quickly and discreetly, and for speed and discretion he had to pay.
I told him which bank account to wire the money to, and he wrote it down with a gold-plated pen. I began to wonder if I had undercharged him.
We left the church and made our way back to the square, where Jan Hus stood bleakly amid a sea of iron- gray martyrs to his cause. The band had begun playing without me— our Latin-Flavored Beatle Medley.
“You’ll want to check this out,” I told Jesse. “My brother Sancho does an
solo on ‘Twist and Shout’ with his
— that’s the medium-sized panpipe.”
“Is pop tunes all you do?” Jesse asked, his expression petulant. “I thought you were an authentic folk band.”
I must admit that Jesse’s comment got under my skin. Just because he’d bought our services didn’t mean we’d
Besides, “El Condor Pasa”
an authentic folk tune.
“We play what the public will pay for,” I said. “And there are relatively few Latin folk fans in Prague, believe it or not.” I took off my fedora and held it out to him. “But I didn’t realize you were an
If it’s authentic folk music you want, then it’s what you’ll get.”
Jesse gave an amused little grin, reached into his Burberry, and produced a wad of notes that he dropped into my hat.
” I said, and put the hat on my head. I didn’t realize till later that he’d stuck me with Bulgarian currency.
I returned to my chair and took my
in hand. Jesse hung around on the fringes of the crowd and talked on his cell phone. When the medley was over, I led the band into “Llaqui Runa,” which is about as authentic folk music as you can get.
Jesse put away his cell phone, put on his shades, and sauntered away.
But that wasn’t what put me in a bad mood.
What had me in bad temper was the fact that I’d have to deal with the water ballet guys.
Three beautifully manicured pairs of hands rose from the water, the fingers undulating in wavelike motions. The hands rose further, revealing arms, each pair arced to form an
Blue and scarlet smoke billowed behind them. The owners of these arms then appeared above the wavetops and were revealed to be mermaids, scales glinting green and gold, each smiling with cupid’s-bow lips.
The mermaids began to rotate as they rose, free of the water now, water streaming from their emerald hair, each supported by a pair of powerful male hands. As the figures continued to rise, the male hands were revealed to belong to three tanned, muscular Apollos with sun-bleached hair and brilliant white smiles.
The figures continued to rotate, and then the brilliant clouds behind billowed and parted as three more figures dived through the smoke, arrowing through the circles of the mermaids’ arms to part the water with barely a splash.
The Apollos leaned mightily to one side, allowing the mermaids to slip from their embrace and fall into the water. Then the Apollos themselves poised their arms over their heads and leaned back to drop beneath the waves.
For a moment the water was empty save for the curls of red and blue smoke that licked the tops of the waves, and then all nine figures rose as one, inverted, arms moving in unison, after which they lay on their sides, linked themselves with legs and arms, and formed an unmistakable Leaping Dolphin.
The Leaping Dolphin was followed by Triton in His Chariot, the Anemone, the Tiger Shark, the Water Sprite, the Sea Serpent, and a Salute to the Beach Boys, which featured the California Girl, the Deuce Coupe, and climaxed with Good Vibrations. The finale featured more smoke, each of the mermaids rising from the water wearing a crown of sparklers while the six men held aloft billowing, colorful flares.
“Magnificent!” I applauded. “I’ve never seen anything like it! You’ve outdone yourselves!”
One of the Apollos swam to the edge of the pool and looked up at me, his brow furrowed with a modesty that was charming, boyish, and completely specious.
“You don’t think the Deuce Coupe was a little murky?” he said.
“Not at all. I’ve never seen a Deuce Coupe in my life, and I recognized it at once!”
I was in California, while the rest of my band was on their way to Hong Kong, where they could expedite their visas to the mainland. I myself was traveling on a U.S. visa belonging to my cousin Pedrito, who was in Sofia and not using it, and who looked enough like me— at least to a U.S. Customs agent— for me to pass.
Laszlo deVign— of Laszlo deVign’s Outrageous Water Ballet of Malibu— vaulted gracefully from the pool and reached for a towel, making sure as he did so that I had a chance to appreciate the definition of his lats and the extension of arm and body. “So, you have some kind of job for us?” he said.
“Recovery of a coffin-sized box from the hold of a sunken ship lying on an even keel in sixty meters of water.”
He straightened, sucked in his tummy just a little to better define the floating ribs, and narrowed his blue eyes. “Sixty meters? What’s that in feet?”
I ran an algorithm through my head. “Just under two hundred, I think.”
“Oh.” He shrugged. “That should be easy enough.”
I explained how the whole operation had to be conducted on the q.t., with no one finding out.
He paused and looked thoughtful again.
“How do you plan to do that?”
I explained. Laszlo nodded. “Ingenious,” he said.
“You’ve got to get over to Hong Kong right away,” I said. “And bring your gear and cylinders of whatever exotic gasses you’re going to need to stay at depth. The ship will give you air or Nitrox fills, but they’re not going to have helium or whatever else you’re going to need.”
“Wait a minute,” Laszlo said. He struck a pose of belligerence, and in so doing made certain I got a clear view of his profile. “We haven’t talked about money.”
“Here’s what I’m offering,” I said, and told him the terms.
He argued, but I held firm. I happened to know he’d blown his last gig in Vegas because of an argument with the stage manager over sound cues, and I knew he needed the cash.
“Plus,” I pointed out, “they’ll love you over there. They’ll never have seen anything like what you do. You’re going to hit popular taste smack between the eyes.”
He looked firm. “There’s one thing I’m going to insist on, though.”
I sighed. We’d reached the moment I’d been dreading for the last two days.
“What’s that?” I asked, knowing the answer..
He brandished a finger in the air, and his blue eyes glowed with an inner flame “I must,” he said, “I absolutely
total artistic control!
Six days later we found ourselves in Shanghai, boarding the
It had taken that long for me to bribe two key members of the Acrobat Troupe of Xi'an into having hernias, thus leaving the Long Peace Lounge without an opening act for the Bloodthirsty Hopping Vampire Show. Fortunately I'd been in a position to contact the ship's entertainment director— who was underpaid, as was most of the ship's crew— and I was able to solve both his problems, the absence of an opening act and his lack of a decent salary. That he could have a genuine California water ballet, complete with Deuce Coupe, for a token sum was just a fraction of the good luck I bestowed upon him.