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Excerpt from THE DESERT OF STARS by John J. Lumpkin.

Copyright 2013. © All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission of the author.


Shanghai, China, Earth

Xiulian’s brain desperately wanted to interpret the rainy nighttime streetscape as a place of anonymity, where not even automated eyes could see what she was about to do. But she knew it was not so: The omnipresent police drones cared little for the weather or darkness. And although the new sniffers State Security were plastering on every streetlamp faced some difficulty in these conditions, they remained a threat, as they might smell her passage and alert a nearby patrol that they did not detect a corresponding radio transmission from her person. But the risk of being seen and fined for an infraction was preferable to the certainty that her movements would be recorded had she brought her identification caster with her.

Still, she gave the streetlamps a wide berth. This was not a part of the city she knew, but her contact had said it was a good place to meet. Shi Xiulian, astronomer, diplomatic adviser, interstellar traveler, mother of two fine boys, and traitor, would have preferred to pass this material to the Americans at an upcoming academic conference in Hawaii, but her co-conspirators had said it was too urgent to wait that long.

The datachip she carried held two things of note. The first was a report she had contributed to, and, more importantly, she was authorized to have. It detailed China’s knowledge of a great barren region of stars beyond those already colonized by the Americans, Japanese, Russians and Indians. China had reflexively concealed this knowledge, but Second Bureau was certain the Japanese had learned of the phenomenon, as well. The Americans, meanwhile, had yet to grasp their future would be confined to a long decline on their paltry three-and-a-quarter habitable worlds, but they would learn soon enough. How they learn it, and who they learn it from, may greatly influence their response, she believed.

Her second document was far more dangerous to possess: It was a list of senior members of the Chinese government, including her, who favored reaching out to the United States to negotiate the sale of some Chinese stars to them, so the Americans would continue to be able to search for new habitable worlds.

And feel no need to take them by force.

Xiulian and her co-conspirators feared that the prospect of finding no more colony planets would be too much for the Americans to bear, and the Japanese could manipulate them into allying in the coming war. A coalition between the technological masters of Japan and the still-dangerous Americans was not one everyone was certain China could overcome, particularly if they could rally other nations jealous of China’s good fortune.

Xiulian’s walk through this unfamiliar part of the city, then, was the first step into opening a backchannel to the Americans, one she hoped would blossom into diplomacy and a bargain that would forestall the coming violence.

And keep my boys from dying. Her elder boy was a lieutenant in the submarine forces; her younger, wanting to emulate his brother, had enlisted in the Army and was stationed on Huashan. The thought of war tightened her stomach, even now.

Xiulian reached the appointed intersection and looked around. She saw no traffic. The rain grew harder, angrier. Why did they suddenly insist I meet with them in person? Why not just a dead drop of the datachip? The Americans are running too many risks.

There. A parked car, across the street, with three, no, four people inside. The driver, a woman, looked Chinese; the others, two men and another woman, did not. Why so many?

One of the men, the fair-skinned one, got out and walked over to her.

“Miz Shi?” he said.

She nodded.

“I’m Gardiner Fairchild. I’m sorry about all the rearrangements, but we have word that you may be under threat. Would you consider coming with us?”

He expects violence, or wants me to believe that. The other agents are for security.

“No, I will not leave my family,” she said. “Are you certain?”

“Someone knows what you are doing. We don’t know who. Please, then, pass me the datachip, and we’ll be on our way. Quickly, now.”

Xiulian reached into her coat pocket, felt the small plastic chip resting in the fabric.

A red-and-blue police flasher cut through the darkness.

“Stay where you are,” a female voice said in Mandarin. Xiulian and Fairchild both looked to its source – a small police monitor drone rising shakily from a low rooftop. Its spotlight pointed at them.

Fairchild put a hand to his face and hunched over, striding quickly back to his car. Xiulian fled in another direction, running, running, running. She heard the Americans’ car hum away.

The drone did not follow her. But she was sure she had been tagged, and the security net would track her every movement.

She didn’t know what to do, but she thought her sons might be saved if she simply went home to await arrest. She threw the datachip into a gutter on the way.

She waited. She called in sick to work the next day – why create a spectacle at her office?

But State Security never came. She went to back to work a week later, wondering if they were watching her to see who she was working with. And as 2138 became 2139, she reflected on the event, over and over, during the rising tensions with Japan, during the initiation of the war she tried to prevent, and she realized she’d never heard a Shanghai police drone broadcasting a female voice before.

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