The night air was still and heavy. It was hot this time of the year in Xi'an. It was a time for growth with its frequent rain storms and a time to sleep beneath a net, not a time to be walking among darkened buildings and terra cotta statues.
Hu Jie Meng swatted a mosquito on his neck and then stared at his hand to see if he'd gotten the little bastard. It was too dark to see properly, but it didn't matter.
He entered Building One by the side door. Inside the long hut, it was cooler, an attempt to protect the valuable commodities two farmers, digging a well, had stumbled across. There had long been rumors – faces in the ground, ghost warriors. Rumor was that if you dug here, you had a good chance of uncovering something.
Unless your name was Hu Jie Meng, of course. He'd spent his life, well, years… well, months, actually, digging in the ground in an attempt to uncover his own glorious discovery that would bring him fortune and fame.
Hu Jie watched Wen Xiong every afternoon as he crouched in his spot, signing books for the tourists or having his photo taken. One afternoon of such silliness brought the former farmer more than two weeks salary that Hu Jie earned as a guard. Plus Wen Xiong had prestige – the Round Eyes looked at him with such respect, as if Wen Xiong had done anything more than dig a hole.
Hu Jie would have even been content being one of the many men who worked by day to carefully scrape centuries of dirt and clay from the warriors, but his hands were too clumsy. After breaking everything he touched, he was removed from the pit and given a flashlight.
"Walk," he'd been told. "And don't touch."
He swatted another bug, smearing it between his forefinger and thumb. That was when he saw movement, the hint of a shadow shifting. That was odd, but not impossible. The young men from the village loved to dare each other to spend the night among the statues and the unknown skeletons buried among the statues.
Hu Jie didn't really much care if they damaged the statues or not. So many of them were crumbling, you would never notice one or two additional pottery shards. However, it was a challenge to his authority as night guard and so a blow to his manhood. He took a flask from his pocket and drank deeply. The alcohol gave him a stronger backbone. Empty now, it went back into his pants pocket.
Grabbing his flashlight, he shook it until the light, pale and yellow, came on, and shined it into the pit where dozens upon dozens of terra cotta warriors waited for their turn to be freed from the loamy grave.
And it was then that Hu Jie was actually thankful that he wasn't the one who had disturbed their rest or that he wasn't the one down in the pit digging by day. He was free to run at the moment, run in fear as a thousand clay bodies turned in his direction and began to march.
Hu Jie spun and started to race down the stairs to the main entrance when he slammed into something hard, as hard and as unforgiving as rock and he started to scream as the arms encircled him.
ALL IRREGULARITIES WILL BE HANDLED BY THE FORCES CONTROLLING EACH DIMENSION; TRANSURANIC HEAVY METAL MAY NOT BY USED WHERE THERE IS LIFE. MEDIUM ATOMIC WEIGHTS ARE AVAILABLE: GOLD, LEAD, COPPER, JET, DIAMOND, RADIUM, SAPPHIRE, SILVER AND STEEL. SAPPHIRE AND STEEL HAVE BEEN ASSIGNED.
"Stop screaming." Steel shook the man before him and Sapphire shook her head.
"Steel, he doesn't speak English.
The man did stop screaming, but he looked very confused and Sapphire laughed.
"Steel, you just said, Stop Tsim Sha Tsu called."
"What? What does that mean?"
"I suspect that's what he wondering as well." Her eyes glowed a brilliant blue. "Try now."
"Stop shouting," Steel ordered.
"I have," Hu Jie said. "Who is Tsim Sha Tsu?"
"No one," Sapphire said quickly before Steel could unclench his jaw. "He just says very silly things at times. Be calm, Hu Jie, for he will not harm you. Why are you so scared?"
"The warriors! They are walking."
Steel snapped his head in Sapphire's direction and passed Hu Jie to her. "Stay here, I will check."
Shaking his head, Steel climbed the main stairs, taking two at a time in his haste. Before him stretched out a room at least two American football fields long. In the center deep trenches were cut down into the earth, revealing the rows of warriors. Some of the statues were partially excavated, others were still trapped and even more sat in neatly sorted piles awaiting reconstruction.
What are they, Sapphire? She saw them through his eyes, in his mind.
They, Steel? You mean the warriors?
Yes, tell me.
Qin Shihuangdi was the first real emperor of China. He was self proclaimed, of course, after uniting seven warring states into one. This would become the country of China.
And this was?
Two Twenty One B.C.
But the statues?
Before the first Emperor, it was a common practice that when a leader died, his court died with him.
He turned and walked back down the stairs. "Barbarians."
"Not really barbaric, Steel. Many people of that time believed that death was just a continuation of life on another plain of existence. They neither feared nor worried about death. They served their leader in life; they willingly served him in death."
"No, he's right, it was barbaric," Hu Jie muttered. "I would never."
"Which is why you're a mere night watchman instead of doing something with your life," Steel snapped and walked to a display case. "But what is this, Sapphire?"
"I'm trying to explain, Steel, if you will permit me. When it was time for the Emperor to prepare his tomb, the attitude of the country had shifted away from human sacrifice, but the Emperor still wanted to be served in the Afterlife."
"And he came up with these?"
"Clay servants had been around for a few years, even the Ancient Egyptians had them."
"Ushabti." Steel looked through the glass windows at the layout of the complex. There were three other buildings, all smaller than this one; all three were lit a watery pink from the sodium vapor lights.
"You surprise me, Steel." Sapphire joined him. "The Emperor decreed that his warriors would be duplicated in clay and buried with him when the time came. That was a mere eleven years later and eight thousand statues stood ready to accompany him."
"Eight… thousand? That's seven hundred and twenty seven statues a year."
"All by hand and all as unique as the men they represented."
"We can do anything when we want to," Hu Jie announced proudly, then smiled a bit sheepishly. "Especially when the consequence of failing the Emperor would have been death."
"It is a strong motivator."
"But it doesn't explain why we are here." Steel had left the case to study a painting of the Emperor. "Or his claim that the warriors walked."
"Hu Jie, what were you doing just before the warriors moved?"
"My job, nothing more. I was patrolling around the parameter of the pit. The young boys, they like to come in and play among the statues at night. They damage them, so I keep them away."
"And you were just… walking? Nothing more?" Steel hurried back up the stairs, as if trying to catch the warriors at something. They stood, frozen, just as they had for centuries. He turned and walked quickly to the left, towards a partially open door.
"Yes, just walking." He looked innocently at Sapphire. He's already decided she was the more sympathetic of the two. And she looked stunning in her lovely blue silk dress and exotic blonde hair. "It's all I'm allowed to do."
"I see," Sapphire said, her attention obviously elsewhere. She followed Steel up the stairs and gasped in amazement. In the half light of the cavernous building, the shadows cast long avenues of dark… so many places to hide. A soft noise behind her told her that Hu Jie had joined them. "Where were you standing, Hu Jie?"
She saw Steel round the far end and shook her head. How he moved so quickly was beyond her and why was even more of a mystery. Then she followed Hu Jie's point to a metal door.
"I heard something and came to investigate. That's my job, to protect the warriors.
"Yes, you said that."
"No, he can't go in.., he mustn't. It's forbidden." Hu Jie took an involuntary step as Steel ducked beneath the barricade separating the statues from the public.
As if he could stop me.
He's right though, you shouldn't be in there.
I'll be careful. He brushed against one of the statue and it very nearly tipped.
Steel, do be careful! You are akin to a bull in a china shop.
Is that some play on words that is eluding me?
Then I need you down here.
She held out her hand to the watchman. "Come with me, Hu Jie, let's see what the warriors tell us. I won't tell if you don't."
With a hesitant smile, Hu Jie permitted her to lead him down into the pit. He tried to be brave as they walked past the warriors, but he knew what he'd seen.
"Who are you?" He nearly whispered, out of respect for the spirits these statues represented.
"My names is Sapphire, my friend is Steel. We were sent here to solve an anomaly."
She smiled. "Exactly." She and Hu Jie arrived at the spot where they'd last seen Steel, but the man had disappeared. "How do you do it?"
Disappear when I'm looking straight at you.
Sapphire, I'm standing right beside you.
She turned. "Hu Jie, do you see Steel?"
"No-o-o, sort of." The guard frowned and reached out a hand behind him while looking in the opposite direction. "He's here."
"Where?" Sapphire turned and then gasped. She was practically nose to nose with her partner, so close that she could feel his breath on her skin. "How?"
"The anomaly, one would presume."
"But why is it affecting you, but not us?"
Gracefully, Sapphire knelt and ran her hand over the earth, then let it travel up the leg of a warrior. "This is most… odd." She looked quickly at Steel, as if afraid he'd vanished again, but he was still there. "There is an unusually high concentration of barium and lead oxide in this soil… and in the clay of the statues."
There was a sound, a noise she'd never heard before, at least not coming from her partner. She studied Steel; there seemed to be a war raging within his eyes and yet she sensed… nothing.
Steel, what's wrong? Steel, answer me.
She watched as he began to shimmer before her eyes, almost as if he was being called home… but… She was so concerned, so focused that she didn't hear the cry, didn't realize even that she was the one who had made it.
Brilliant searing pain shot through her and she looked down, almost in awe of the lance that poked through a neat hole in the front of her dress. The fact that the lance belonged to the warrior behind her was almost secondary at this point.
Sapphire! I need help! Now!
At first she thought he was shouting at her and very nearly responded with something very unladylike. Suddenly there were blurs of movement, even as she struggled to stay upright. Another blast of pain made her gasp and suddenly she was momentarily looking into Silver's eyes.
"Sapphire, how are you feeling?"The voice was soft, so unlike Steel's.
"Silver, how did you? I'm… I was hurt."
"No more, I repaired the damage. And you can thank me later, dear lady."
She looked up from him to Steel, still locked in position. "What happened? What's wrong with Steel?" Her hand went instinctively to her stomach. The tear in her dress was still there and she mentally repaired it.
"That we are still trying to figure out." Silver offered her his hand and she sat up, looking around. "That young man saved you." He gestured off handedly to Hu Jie, who was watching the two anxiously. His uniform bore rust colored stains… her blood? How very odd.
"Thank you, Hu Jie." She held out her hands to him and after a moment, he stepped forward, still apprehensive and clasped her hands in his. "What happened?"
"The warriors began to walk about, you were in their path and they… struck out. I pulled you out of the way just before he arrived." Hu Jie nodded to Silver, who was wiping his hands on a silk handkerchief. "When I saw your friend couldn't move, it seemed the right thing to do."
It was - thank you." Sapphire reached to out touch one of her partner's outstretched arms Steel?" She half whispered his name. The eyes followed her, but nothing escaped, not even the hint of a thought. "What's wrong with him, Silver?"
"I think I might know," Silver murmured. "It was something I observed when I arrived." He rummaged through his pockets, pulling out handfuls of bits and bobs until finally, in the bottom of a jacket pocket, he found what he wanted. He took out a washer and threaded a piece of string through it. He held it out and it started to move, slowly rising until it was straining towards Steel.
"Just as I thought. Something has magnetized Steel, locking him in a sort of stasis."
"He's now one big non-walking and non-talking magnet. Whatever did that to him also affected the statues."
"But they are terra cotta," Sapphire murmured and slid off the desk and to her feet. She took an involuntary step and HU Jie caught her easily. "Thank you, I'm fine, just a little confused."Silver?"
"I think we are all confused," Hu Jie murmured. "Why did they stop? They all moved and then they stopped."
"As if a current was being passed through them." Silver was working his hands together, then abruptly stopped and approached Steel. Silver slipped an arm around Steel, planting his palm across his chest and the other hand between Steel's shoulder blades. "Hold still now, Steel – this might hurt."
Steel suddenly gasped and pulled free. ''What are you playing at?"
"You're welcome. And it's no game, I demagnetized you. Here." Silver held out a small device and Steel took it, slowly turning it over and over in his fingers, frowning at it. "Keep that in your pocket. It should keep you neutrally charged now."
"That still doesn't explain what happened." He looked from Sapphire to Silver and back, his manner overly brusque, almost as if he was embarrassed at Silver having to rescue him… again.
"I'm guessing someone is testing one of those super magnets we keep hearing about." Silver grinned at him, obviously delighted at having caught the man between a rock and a hard place.
"That might explain what happened to me, but what about the clay statues?" Steel snapped and then turned to Sapphire, his voice softening. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I am, but it was an experience I have no desire to replicate."
"Then keep me between you and the statues. They can't hurt me."
She smiled and then frowned. "Hu Jie, did all the statues move?"
The man's brow furrowed and then he shook his head slowly. "No, the infantry did, but the archers did not; neither did the horses."
She walked over to one of the horses, letting her fingers lightly stroke the muzzle. She moved to a second and then a third.
Anything? Steel asked, his eyes still locked on Silver, as if not trusting the agent.
I don't know yet. She left them and went to the archers, men kneeling ready to let arrows fly in an attempt to save their Emperor. Again, she let her fingers roam over the surface of several statues.
"I beg your pardon?" Silver asked, his hands working together again, creating something still hidden to them.
"Barium. The clay of the infantry soldiers contains barium while the others do not."
Barium is naturally occurring Steel still stared at the blissfully ignorant Silver as he admired the statues. And the fourteenth most abundant element.
Yes, but there is no barium naturally here, except in the clay of those statues and the ground around them .
Why is Silver not listening to us? Has he said anything to you? Mentally? Or even flirted?
No… nothing, now that I think about it… that's…
Not like Silver at all.
"So, Silver, what do you think?" Steel asked, closing the gap between them quickly. "What do you make of all of this?" He slid a friendly arm around the agent's shoulders. Silver? Can you hear me?
Silver looked uncomfortably at the shorter man and smiled. "I was rather hoping you could tell me."
"Oh, I think you know about as much as we do." Steel patted his shoulder and stepped away. "Perhaps it's time for us to leave the warriors to their own devices for the moment. Hu Jie, do you have an office?"
"Yes, it's in Building Three." Hu Jie was anxious to get away from the warriors and there was no pit in Building Three, just the museum with its replicas.
"Off you go then, there's a good fellow," Steel said, brightly. The three started to move and Sapphire glanced back at Steel.
"Aren't you coming?"
"No, I'm still feeling a bit off. You go, I'll be right along. I'm going to rest and think for a moment." He hefted himself up to sit on the desk Sapphire had used for a bed.
Steel, what are you up to?
Nothing dangerous, just take care of Hu Jie for me.
That's not Silver. Just remember that.
Keep Hu Jie safe, Sapphire.
Hu Jie walked quickly down the path. Insects buzzed uncomfortably close to his ears and the cicadas' droning made the still night air vibrate.
"So, Sapphire, what do you think is the relevance of the barium in that clay?"
She glanced over at Silver and smiled sweetly. "No idea, I'm just the resource agent; Steel, he's the brains."
"Well, yes, I suppose that's right." Silver grinned and shoved his hands in his pockets. "That's why I demagnetized him you see. Always a thinker, that's our Steel."
She smiled beautifully and nodded. "Yes and the two of you, such good friends. I have always admired the connection the two of you have. One day, I hope that I'll have to the same working relationship with him. He's a bit difficult to come to know well."
Silver beamed and shrugged his shoulders. "Some of us have it, I suppose."
Sapphire started nodding and then her eye caught a display of warrior statues, each one brightly painted. "Hu Jie?"
"Why are these warriors painted?"
"That's how they would have looked when they were buried. Each man would have been resplendent in his uniform. Sadly, the lacquer that the ancients used to seal the paint evaporates when it hits the air and the paint just falls off." Hu Jie walked to his desk and sat to rummage through a drawer. "Here are some snapshots one of the scientists took. They use these for reference."
"Those are actual statues?" She was again studying the brightly colored warriors.
"Replicas, we would never paint the real ones…"
"Such bright… and unusual colors." She reached out and touched the paint. "That purple, for instance."
"It's as close to Chinese Purple as they have been able to get."
"It was created by alchemists back in 218 B.C. or thereabouts."
I believe I know what happened and what's causing the soldier to… she let her thought trail off as she realized Silver was in front of her, wearing a distinctly unSilver-like expression.
"Excellent, I knew if I gave you enough rope, you'd hang yourself." Silver was holding something up, pointing it at her.
"Silver, what are you doing?"
"I'm not Silver… he's been unhappily delayed. He should be fine in a day or so."
"Who are you?" Sapphire's eyes glowed and she smiled tightly. "Uranium in a thin silver-plated disguise."
"It was enough to fool you and that asinine partner of yours." He took something from his pocket and manipulated it with the fingers of one hand. "But we won't worry about him anymore, will we?"
Steel? Steel! Sapphire's mind stretched out, searching for anything, but it was as if Steel had shut down. "What did you do to him?"
"That little gizmo I slipped him. Think of it as an on/off switch. I re-magnetized him. He's out of our way. Now, tell me the secret of the paint. It's the barium, isn't it?"
"I don't know what you mean." Sapphire's voice was tight and Silver aimed the device at her.
"I have no qualms about terminating you or him." He nodded to Hu Jie, who had gone very pale and very quiet. "You will tell me about the barium."
"Why should I?"
"You're a fool, you are all fools. Don't you know what you have? Why those warriors acted the way they did?"
"I know nothing of the kind. We were here for an entirely different reason."
"The manipulation of the dimensions." He smiled as her eyes widened slightly. "Yes, I do know why you were here. It wasn't hard to get what I wanted earlier on from other sources..." He held up the device. "Tell me or he dies." Silver locked eyes with Hu Jie.
Sapphire shrugged her shoulders. "Then he will die. I'll not help you."
"Tell me or Steel dies."
"Nothing is impossible, dear lady."
"Even if I wanted to, I would not."
"Then prepare to become a free agent."
Sapphire, run! The thought hit her mind a fraction before Silver closed his hand over the device. She hurled herself across the desk, knocking Hu Jie behind it a split section before Silver screamed and imploded.
They huddled together as sound and light accosted their senses. Sapphire hazarded a look up and gasped. "Hu Jie, come with me." They sprinted away from the desk and into the still night air. Instinctively she headed for a thick stone barrier and they crouched behind it.
"What is happening?" Hu Jie panted at her side.
"I'm not sure." She looked back towards Building One and saw Steel walk out of it, heading directly toward the glow coming from Building Three.
"Where is he going?"
"He's going to take care of things." She smiled and wiped her cheeks with a trembling hand. "It's what he does best."
They were sharing a thermos of lukewarm tea when Steel found them. He looked gaunt and very tired, but also satisfied.
"Yes, the Transuranic has been nullified."
"Lead and Emerald are bringing him home."
Hu Jie stared into the tea, as if it would answer all of his questions. When it became apparent it was only tea, he murmured, "What was that? What happened?"
"You were right in that the Chinese purple was the key, Sapphire." Steel sat down heavily upon a nearby planter box, his shoulders sagging. "When exposed to a very strong magnet, the barium and the lead oxides combine in such a way that it compressed the Tessla waves from three dimensions to two."
"Why did that man want them?"
"He was an agent for the other side, one that attempts to alter and reorder time. If they could have linked the paint to the compression, they would have been able to cause severe damage in not just this dimension, but to the others as well." He sighed and then continued. "Thankfully, Barium also makes Uranium very unstable. I just took the opportunity to remove the device he gave me and returned it to him. I am speculating that he didn't respond well to the electrical charge."
"And you manipulated the lead to form an impromptu shield around yourself."
"Not as efficient as the real thing, but enough to permit me to eliminate the threat to both our worlds."
"And now it's time for us to take our leave, I imagine. You look as if you are ready to not be here any longer."
"Yes, we are finished."
"But what of me?" Hu Jie looked from one to the other. "What of all that I've seen tonight?"
"What did you see tonight, Hu Jie?"
"The two of you, the warriors walking, everything." He staggered back a step and blinked furiously. "What…?"
He looked at the partially open door to Building One and thought furiously. What had he been doing? A vision of blond and blue flashed briefly in his mind and then he shook his head and slapped a mosquito on the back of his neck. Someday, something exciting would happen to him. It just wasn't going to be tonight.
He twisted on his flashlight and began to make his rounds.
Hu Jie did not see the couple standing there, watching him trudge wearily into Building One.
That's a waste of talent, you know. He isn't stupid.
I know, but it's safer for him to not remember, just in case Uranium got a message back.
That you know of. Come along, Sapphire, I think we have both had as much of these sights as we can stomach and I do believe someone is looking for us. He offered her his hand and together they vanished from sight.