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|Evasions and Maneuvers|
Evasions and Maneuvers
- Going to dig a hole, Going to dig it well
- Going to dig so deep, Going to take me home
- or down to hell, or down to hell
Zhao had horrified Ren by sinking a pick into the roots of one of his precious pitch-root trees and watched his face as black sap had oozed.
"You never wondered why it was called a pitch-root tree, Doctor?" he asked with very gentle mockery. "Pitch can be used to waterproof barrels and tarpaulins, meaning we can start collecting dew, making stills to collect the water out of the salt sludge from the bottom of the pits. If we dig deeper, we may find more water there."
"How does a sailor know all this land-lubber stuff?" said Ren, scratching his head.
"Sailors who are navigators get stuck on detached duty with the Army looking for lost cities in the desert." Almost under his breathe he added, "And if they are both stupid and unlucky they find them."
Jee snorted. "This is the guy with the plan. The one who thought it was a good idea to trying killing the moon." Zhao's eyes flashed with irritation, but Jee carried on. "So what is the plan then? We provisioning for an escape? Hey, you in there?" Jee shook his head. "I take it back. This is the guy with the plan. The one with brain-damage."
They waited for him to come round, then headed back to the pits.
One evening, as a group of men watched a particularly fine sunset at the end of shift, Zhao had tossed a sizeable boulder over the edge, and pointedly ignored everyone's panicked protestations, watching it with rapt attention until it hit the ground, only then turning and walking away from the edge.
"Are you trying to impress upon everyone that you're mentally unfit for command? Because it's working," said Jee. By way of reply, Zhao just tapped the side of his own nose.
He had repeated the exercise at the deepest of the salt pits. "Sixteen seconds to drop to the bottom of the mountain, eleven to the bottom of this pit. I'll let you all work it out, shall I?"
"Hey wait up!" yelled a bystander. "You get to the bottom of the mountain, that only gets you in a ravine with no way out. Not to mention the Earthbender guards."
"And it's too far across the ravine for a bridge to the plateau," said another.
"And you are...?" said Zhao.
"Em, I'm Lieutenant Shen, and this is Private Yudian. We're the engineers. Well, we maintain the rigging down to the pits, set up the pit props. We were trainees, before we were captured. Sir." They were both young men, who had probably been here longer than they had been in the army.
"You've thought about this then?"
"Yes, sir. We don't see the point."
"So we dig a hole and we're in a hole," he replied. "What are we doing up here? We're waiting for...what? The Earthbenders to decide not to feed us any more? We can worry about getting out of the ravine when we're down. We'll be a step closer at least. Besides, there may be other resources down there." He shut up, and let them ruminate for a bit.
Finally he spoke again. "Well, my colleague and I are on our way to a meeting of the staff," he said with the necessary irony. "Would you care to join us?"
The young men were somewhat taken aback, but bustled after him as Zhao limped into a nearby tent. Waiting were Mongke, Ren, an older Colonel named Chang and a handful of lower ranks. This represented the entire capable officer compliment on the mountain.
"What is the meaning of this, Captain Shi?" growled Mongke.
The expected confrontation with Mongke had never happened. "Shi" had stuck firmly to his assertion he was just a naval Captain, even though everyone, including Mongke, had heard otherwise. He had made it clear to those in the know that he wasn't up to command and preferred to keep his head down. But as his health improved, Jee watched him hone a skill which many officers must have practised on him; the art of telling your superiors what to do while making it look like their idea.
"Sir, apologies for my presumption. It's only that I was talking to these engineers, about how deep the salt pits are getting..." He tailed off, looking significantly at Shen.
"Well sir, if I have my calculations correct, I estimate the mountain as a whole is around 1200 feet in height, and we have a pit at just under half of that." Zhao looked inordinately impressed by this. Shen carried on "I estimate that with a concerted effort, we could dig that depth in a month."
Everyone sat back for a minute to take in this news. Faced with those facts, it seemed doable.
"Alright. Work will be concentrated in the deepest pits. We still need to keep production up though. Next. Food and water reserves." He directed this at Chang, who had been given the role of quartermaster.
"Water reserves are at about four days now Colonel. Food... not so good."
"So what are we doing about it?" blustered Mongke.
Shen could not restrain himself. "When we tunnel out of the mountain, there could be other resources down there." He glanced at Zhao, as if for approval. Zhao looked like he was trying not to laugh.
The metallurgist, Lieutenant Kun, who Zhao had introduced in the last meeting, gave his update. He had been taken out of the pits entirely to concentrate on turning a seam of red iron into crude weapons. "I need two men." The quotas were inspected. There was a little slack, which had been built into the system by the simple if risky stratagem of occasionally shipping salt dross which lay on the surface of the rock, covered in a good layer of rock salt. The Earthbenders hadn't noticed yet, and it allowed them to redirect men to other duties without losing necessary food.
Everyone felt they were playing catch up a bit, as they realised the new game was not how to survive the Salt Pot, but how to get off it. No one had really put their mind to it before. It had just seemed too insurmountable. But Zhao had started chipping away at the edifice, bit by bit.
"Captain Shi, you are a navigator I believe," said Mongke. Captain Shi may have been, but it was well know Admiral Zhao had specialised as such in his early career. "Our options, when we get off the mountain?"
Zhao's voice was low, almost intimate. "Based on my knowledge of the area and the condition of the men we have at least a week long trek over mountains to the coast in any direction but north. That way is impassible due to a massive ravine. Our options largely consist of us traversing a mountain range, two fronts and a major river to get to Pohuai or handing ourselves over to Earth Kingdom forces in an area which has been ravaged by the Fire Nation for the best part of a century. Moreover, we would need to do it in summer, before we are cut off by snowfall."
Everyone looked thoughtful at this news.
"So Pohuai it is," said Mongke.
Zhao continued without comment. "However, as this is all reliant on there being no resistance to our leaving the mountain, I would suggest that we will only be attempting this under circumstances of Fire Nation victory, in which case we just need to get to a Fire Nation base, or defeat. It that circumstance we would hopefully be released by the Earth Kingdom garrison..."
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that," cut in Mongke. Zhao raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"Besides," cut in Shen, "Won't we be rescued, when we win the war."
"No." Everyone, including Mongke, looked at Zhao.
There was consternation, and Jee sensed Mongke's anger rising. "Why not?" he cut in. They were going to hear it from the man who knew better than anyone.
"Because official policy is that no Fire Nation personnel would be so craven as to allow themselves to be taken prisoner." Zhao was looking at the tent floor. "Except that we all did. So if we get out of here, it's under our own steam."
"And does the possibility of defeat exist?" Jee pressed on.
Zhao sighed deeply. "I would have said no, until..."
The man who had been beaten by a twelve-year-old boy looked hounded. "Until the Avatar came back."
Mongke looked like he was going to disagree, then thought better of it. "Alright. Tunnelling the pits it is. Shi, I think it's about time you got up close and personal with the salt face. Jee here can keep you company."
Afterwards, outside the tent, Jee saw Zhao standing transfixed in the light from the full moon. "Hey, snap out of it," he said.
"I was only going to say, that was a masterful performance in there."
Zhao looked shocked, then pleased. "Just trying to do my job.."
"Until the bit where you got us assigned to the pits. Thanks for that!" He stalked off, leaving Zhao speechless.
When a cot in Jee's barracks became vacant unexpectedly, Zhao took the opportunity to move out of the medical tent. It turned out to be a mixed blessing for both men.
"Jee, what.. in Sozin's name?" said Zhao, pointing at what looked like a loom of stringy jerky, stretched taut between the top and bottom bunks. "The birth strings of elephant-rats?"
"Nope," said Jee, grinning. "Their guts. I can't get bearded catgut to string the pipa with so I have to improvise."
The look on Zhao's face was a perfect blend of condescension and disgust. "You're telling me I will be sleeping in a bunk.." He broke off, barely able to articulate the situation. "...which is festooned with the entrails of rodents."
Jee plucked one, producing a low, dull note. "Yup. And these ones are nearly ready!"
"My joy is simply boundless," said Zhao caustically. "Remind me, what did the fellow who used to bunk here die of?"
Zhao's revenge came throughout the night, when, from the cot above him, Jee heard indistinct mutterings and occasional expostulations.
"No... have mercy, Goddess!!" Otherwise, the mumblings were incoherent, but annoyingly audible.
Jee thumped the underside of the top bunk. "Shut up man!"
"Hmm?" Then, in a whisper. "Dammit Jee, what the blazes...?"
Jee didn't care that he had woken him. They could both be tired. "You were whispering sweet nothings."
"I'll take your interest for jealousy," Zhao shot back. The thought that the most highly ranked officer in the Fire Navy would ever be speaking so to him, a lowly Captain, seemed incredible.
"Listen, my recollections of my beloved are a good deal less troublesome than yours."
There was silence for a while. Then quietly, "What is it they say about a woman scorned?"
"There ain't no fury like it. So would you be better off in hell?"
"No. Your company is better than that, but only marginally." Zhao sighed slightly in the dark. "You were married?"
"I still am, I hope. Childhood sweetheart. Three kids." He hesitated, not sure how far onto such personal ground to venture. "You?"
"Not in so many words." There was long silence. "I had... a concubine. From the Earth Kingdom. Her father had been a very powerful man, before we stole his land and built the Western fleet base on it."
"Well, there you go. You never had a wife, I never met anyone who had a concubine. So what's that like?"
"Like having a wife, I suppose. Except without giving her the security of a marriage contract. And leaving yourself the option to desert her if you find someone suitable from your own country and class."
"Nice," said Jee with some distaste. "Sounds..."
"Like having one's cake and eating it?"
"Ugh. I mean, yes."
"I believe she thought so too. Although, given the circumstances of our... relationship, she wasn't very bitter. In fact she was quite pleasant, most of the time. For the sake of the children, I suppose."
"Two. A boy and a girl. You?"
"Two boys, one girl. Jin, Jun and Lin-li."
"Good names. Mine were... are, Rizhao and Xia. They are very good children; both Firebenders, healthy, bright, well mannered. As much as any.." There was a catch in the voice, then a breath. "As much as any father could wish for."
"Well." Jee wasn't quite sure what to say. "Perhaps, after we bust out of here.."
There was a snort from the bunk above. "No. I have scuttled myself in that respect. Before the invasion, so assured was I of returning home in glory, able to pick the wife of my choice from the highest ranking ladies in the Fire Nation, that I sent her away. I made sure she and the children were provided for, of course. A farm in Xixiu in her name, Fire Nation citizenship..."
"That was... unexpectedly thoughtful of you."
"Hmmph. And having the delightfully ironic effect that were I to return to the Fire Nation now, a disgraced failure, there is no reason for her, a full citizen of independent means, to have me back."
"Huh." Jee stared at the bunk above him. "That'll be your Karmic Justice, right there."
"That's the very least of it, Jee."
"Can I ask you something?"
"When are you coming clean?"
"What d'you mean?"
"Look, if you're going to pull this off, and I'm not saying you are, but if you plan to get us all out you're going to have to take on Mongke at some point. It's not enough to just tell him how to do his job. Stop dancing around the issue, playing at being Captain Shi, and start being a Commanding Officer."
"I need time. I need to be well."
"Well, time we got," snarked Jee.
"Goodnight," came the firm but weary reply. "Try not to snore too loudly."
Notes and references
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Journey and Return|
|Light reveals - Getting up is easy - Coming Round - Reparations - Evasions and Maneuvers - Peace, and how to get there - Downhill all the way -Going Under -Thin Ice|