The Son of Heaven
The Ark, Nazis, and Toilet Paper
Story by Oleksii Dubrov
Illustrated by Ruslan Vashkevich
Noah’s arm was fiercely shaking as he tried to raise the wooden mug of beer to his mouth. As soon as the first drops touched his dry cracked lips, the tremors began to subside. Noah guzzled half the mug with his now steady hand but still managed to spill a dozen clumps of foam on his thick silver beard.Loudly banging the half-empty mug onto the table cobbled together from thick wooden planks, his exhausted gaze swept around the room. Faded ash-colored eyes, almost completely obscured by bushy grey eyebrows, surveyed the interior of the tavern. Surrounding him in the semidarkness were five haphazardly scattered tables and an assortment of stools which had rarely, if ever, bore the weight of any guests. Apart from the one in the darkest corner, where Noah had been sitting for several thousand years, his only companions – two dozen beer mugs. Some of the mugs were strewn on the floor, knocked over by wayward “tourists,” the lost souls who had visited him yesterday.
The bearded old man emptied the rest of the beer in a single massive gulp. Pushing himself up from the table, he grabbed a dozen mugs in one smooth motion, six in each hand, and made his way to the bar. The bar’s wooden surface was sticky from spilt beer. Noah raised an empty tankard to the brass tap and pulled the handle, and the semitransparent amber liquid filled the mug with a thin steady stream. The distinct, slightly bitter aroma of beer straight from the tap barely penetrated the stale air suffusing the room. He remained still, enjoying the soft lapping sound of the liquid flowing into the mug and the pleasing sight of more and more white foam floating to the top. After the first mug was full, he placed it on the bar and started on the next one.
The act of pouring beer always put Noah into a state of deep meditation. The splashing of the liquid and the rising foam reminded him of the time when God had used him for the “flood experiment.” For forty days and forty nights he could not see anything other than a downpour from the small window on the Ark. After the rain finally stopped, nothing but the limitless blue of the ocean was visible for months. He remembered how he had to share the boat not only with his family members, but also with snakes, pigeons, sheep, giraffes, and lions. And how, in this cacophony of bleating, roaring, growling, and hissing, as well as unbearable stench, he had to keep the entire zoo fed, clean after all the animals, and ensure the participants of the experiment didn’t devour one another. Yet, these memories didn’t get in the way of Noah remembering this time with a happy nostalgia. Back then he had a wife, three sons, and their wives. He never really liked his three daughters-in-law, though. It seemed to the old man his sons’ wives conspired together to set his own flesh and blood against him. For Noah, his troubles started because of these women, so he erased their names from his memory.
By the twelfth and final mug, Noah had gotten to the part of the story when fights and arguments erupted on their island paradise followed by God’s punishment, that made Noah the eternal Guardian of the Ark. He gathered the mugs from the bar, now full of cool liquid, carried them to the table, and plumped down on the creaky stool. His hands were clenched into tight fists, sharp unclipped nails dug deep into his already cratered palms. Some of the beer spilled as he sat down. Noah didn’t care. He was intent on raising a mug to his lips. The coolness first spread pleasantly in his mouth, then flowed down his throat, reached his stomach, and was gradually distributed to every cell of his old worn-out body. He drank slowly and deliberately, taking large swallows, mug after mug. Over time, Noah needed larger quantities of beer for the alcohol to fulfill its duty. Gradually, his unpleasant thoughts were tuned out, as he wrapped himself in a comfortable quilt of drunken delirium, and eventually passed out.
Noah remained in this position, chin on his chest, for several hours. The exhaled breath from his snoring ruffled his curly beard. From time to time his body flinched. Spasms from episodic but elusive dreams would open his eyes for a moment. He cursed loudly, then fell back into a troubled slumber. The old man couldn’t recall the last time he had a restful deep sleep, but he also couldn’t tell you what time of day it was. The passage of time held no meaning because he knew precisely what was in store for him: a terrible headache, another dozen mugs of beer, followed by a drunken delirium instead of sleep. The cycle repeating itself for eternity.
A sudden flash of light penetrated his firmly shut eyelids and brought on a painful pulsing in his head, forcing Noah to awaken unexpectedly. He yelled out in surprise, frantically trying to cover his face with his hands, but it seemed as though the light had the capacity to pass through flesh. He turned away to no avail – the light was everywhere and impossible to hide from. The pulsing in his temples turned into wave-like surges of such severe pain that Noah nearly lost consciousness. His mouth was so dry it felt like his tongue was scratching his cheeks from the inside. The bearded old man frantically searched the mugs on the table, hunting for remnants of beer. Unfortunately for him, they were all empty.
“What have you turned yourself into, My Son?” a low and commanding voice echoed from every corner of the room.
“Is that you, Lord?” Noah hopped off the stool, and instantly fell to his knees, placing his palms together in a pleading gesture. He kept his eyes tightly closed, even though doing so made no sense. “Finally, You have appeared to Your servant!”
“And you are supposed to be My crowning creation, My greatest progeny?” the voice from the light said not hiding its disappointment.
“Kill me, I beg You!” Noah burst into tears. “I cannot suffer this any longer! Why have You punished me with an eternal life of solitude?”
“Whosoever endures to the end shall be saved,” the voice said, but did not become more merciful. Instead, its tone changed to sound stricter, like a parent chastising their child.
“How much longer must I endure? I did everything You asked… the Ark, a pair of every animal, renounced my kin in order not to create new human evils here, and set an example, working as the guardian of the Ark… What more do you want from Your servant?”
“I granted you eternal life in Paradise and you complain about Me? Do you still claim to be my servant?”
“You forced me to chase away my wife, my sons, and their wives. You forced me to make this sacrifice. I hate You!” Noah was crying, face down on the ground, bowing in supplication.
“It was your choice to renounce them, in order to remain in Paradise,” God’s voice became softer, “and I sent your wife, your sons, and their wives to Earth, where they multiplied, restoring the human race.”
“No, no, no, that was all You,” whined Noah.
“I love you regardless, despite your being a wretch,” God exhaled. “I’m giving you one last chance to save yourself and obtain what you so desire.”
“You’ll let me die?” Noah asked, raising his head, and opening his eyes wide.
“Is that what you really want?” The voice laughed. “Correct the mistakes you made as Guardian of the Ark. The course of humanity has been violated. Worlds have collided and a new catastrophe threatens the earth.”
“No, I will not commit any more evil to please You,” Noah wiped the meager tears off his cheeks.
“This time, you will have a choice,” God insisted.
“I will let you enter the Ark. But only once. I don’t care how you fix everything that’s gone wrong. Flood the world, for all I care.”
“You made a promise never to do that again!” Noah scolded God.
“The ways of the Lord are mysterious… I’m tired of all this crap,” the voice sighed and went silent. The light disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. Noah found himself alone again in the musty tavern among the mugs, wooden tables, and stench of his own sweat.
The old man rose gingerly, leaning on the table with one hand and cradling his endlessly throbbing head with the other. He nervously surveyed the surroundings, checking one last time. He blinked several times to see past his swollen eyelids. He was alone. The light was gone. God had not visited him for several thousand years and had not been expected to appear now. A long time ago, Noah had done something terrible on His orders. All those people had died, and he was supposed to have been among them. He blamed himself, though he hated God more.
Noah felt like he was going to pass out, black spots clouding his vision. Cautiously stepping towards the table, he felt around blindly and came upon a mug. “I’ll just have a drink and everything will be fine,” he thought. “It was probably just a bout of alcohol withdrawal.” He stumbled towards the bar, still having trouble seeing, when suddenly he heard a dull thud. Befuddled, Noah squinted to focus his gaze. The only thing in his hand was the cup handle. The rest of the mug had fallen to the floor. He scratched his greasy scalp in confusion and chose another mug from the table, this time holding it with both hands. He successfully carried it to the bar, and pulled the handle on the beer tap, but only a few drops dribbled into his mug. He hit the tap with his fist, but the beer still did not flow.
The bearded man screamed in frustration, wound up and swung the mug with all his might, striking the tap so hard it screeched in protest. The first strike was followed by more angry blows. After the mug shattered into pieces, Noah continued beating his fists on the top of the bar, not stopping until he had beaten them bloody. After a few more blows, the exhausted man dropped to the floor, and leaned his back against the wooden bar. He whimpered a few times, unable to gather the strength to elicit a proper sob.
All at once, thick smoke filled the premises, scorching his nose and throat. Out of nowhere, fire filled the entire tavern, consuming the wooden building with lightning speed, reducing the wooden tables and stools, one after another, into ashes. It quickly reached the bar where Noah was sitting on the floor watching. His eyes burned from the smoke and were flooded with tears. In an instant, everything blurred into a single bright orange glow. Noah did not move at all; he burst out laughing, breathing more smoke into his already seared throat. His laughter was regularly interrupted by powerful coughing fits. It felt like his lungs were being ripped from his body.
“A-ha-ha-ha! Bring it on! Let’s finish this right now!” Noah yelled at the ceiling. “I don’t care how I die!”
The fire lapped up the old man’s legs and, a few seconds later, was licking his face. He exhaled in relief, shutting his eyes and turning his face upwards. But nothing happened. He lowered his head in astonishment, touched his burning chest and feet. Noah did not feel any heat. The fire didn’t burn Noah’s body; his clothes were on fire, but they did not burn off. The floor underneath him, despite being covered in flames, was not turning into a hot smoldering bed of coals. Only the smoke affected him, continued slicing into his eyes, aggravating the mucus membranes of his nose and throat. Noah, coughing incessantly, tried to stand, leaning on the lopsided bar, which splintered under the pressure of his weight. Closing his eyes to the smoke, he felt his way to the door he hadn’t walked through for several thousand years. When he was finally outside, he shook the ashes off and turned to face the tavern. It was the only building on fire in the small settlement. In a few minutes, there was no trace of the tavern’s existence, not even its brick foundation.
“So, this is how You treat me? This is how You offer me a choice? Well, then, I’ll show you!” Noah cried out, pumping his fist at the sky.
He turned around and sidled over to some wagons parked at a circular plaza centered around a well. The wagons were filled with food: bread, buns, sausages, vegetables, fruits. He overturned and scattered a few of the food baskets, unsuccessful in his search for any trace of something to drink. Noah grabbed a carrot and angrily bit off a piece, his tongue tasting something other than “liquid bread” for the first time in thousands of years. He turned to look at the tavern one more time only to see smoke rising in thin strands from the scorched earth. In the middle of the ruins, right where the bar once stood, rays of sunshine reflected off a shiny object glimmering in gold.
I. Son of Heaven
“Son of Heaven, forgive us!” Two Asian-looking men with short haircuts, dressed in military uniforms and armed with rifles, bowed down on one knee before Andrew Skoryuk. The director of the Burshtyn Thermal Power Station lay on the floor, while his subordinates had been tied up and dragged away. After everything he had gone through, he’d have bargained on death, not reverence.
“What’s this ‘Son of Heaven’ business? Are you from the… Ark? Or from the National Anti-Corruption Bureau?” Andrew asked as he stared at the two Asian-looking men. He tried to arrange his thoughts into something resembling a logical sequence.
“We will definitely find the scoundrels who brought You here to this backwards country,” cried out one of the unexpected guests.
“Scoundrels?” Andrew thought back to the bizarre Ark, the Nazi, the Belarusian communist, and the Chinese man who wanted to leave him behind in that other world.
“O, Son of Heaven, come with us, please,” another thin voice was begging him. “We will take You home, to Your palace. The servants are so anxious to welcome You back. They miss You tremendously, Huangdi, our Yellow Emperor!
“Servants? Palace?” Andrew said. He was somewhat intrigued as he carefully lifted himself from the floor. The Asians did not budge. “The Chinese fellow must have concocted something,” he thought, then asked aloud: “So, do you know anything about the Ark and Yu?”
The men exchanged glances while staying down on their knees. Their hands began trembling and they cried out again, lowering their foreheads to the dusty concrete floor.
“Do not kill us, o Huangdi! We do not know anything about Yu…”
Another figure appeared before them, wearing a bulletproof vest, and holding a pistol in their right hand. It was a woman, whose hair, cut in a bob, was the same coal-black color as the hair of the soldiers lying on the floor. She carried herself with authority. The new arrival shoved the men out of the way with her foot as she cleared a path for herself directly to Andrew. She bowed, then calmly said, “Forgive me, Huangdi, for making you wait. I had to secure the perimeter,” as she holstered her pistol.
“And you are who, if I may ask?” asked Andrew.
“I understand Huangdi. You have a lot of things on your mind. I am Captain Li Ming, the commander of the palace guard. Forgive me for betraying your trust. Believe me, I will do everything to ensure your safety from this day forward.”
The woman gestured to the two men to move away. They rose off their knees and, continuing to bow, took a few paces backwards.
“So, what exactly do you think happened?” Andrew asked as he stood and straightened his navy blue jacket with the “Security” badge.
“We still do not know what happened. Everything was fine, and then you just disappeared. Somehow, we knew where to look. And so, we flew here, arriving just a few hours after you disappeared.”
“Somehow?” inquired Andrew.
“Providence, I guess,” nodded Li, her confusion reflected in the tone of her voice. “To be completely honest, I simply knew where to go.”
Andrew took in a deep breath and exhaled heavily, running his hand through his thick, rust-colored hair. “What if I’m still inside the Ark?” he thought, looking around trying to notice something to prove he was not truly back home. It certainly looked as though he was on the premises of Power Bloc 13 of the Burshtyn Thermal Power Station, which was supposed to come on line any day now. For the past two years, he had personally overseen the construction of the building and the new Dnister-Hnyla Lypa channel. These new power blocs ran on synthetic oil and required more water for cooling than available in the existing reservoir, known locally as the Sea of Burshtyn. The surroundings were very familiar to Andrew as he looked around the spacious concrete hangar and the row of square windows placed high, close to the ceiling. Most of the machine shop was occupied by enormous round turbines planted half underground.
“Why do you think I am… what do you call me… Hu… Huyan…,” Andrew turned to the Chinese woman, after failing to find anything unfamiliar in the bloc’s interior.
“Huangdi, Emperor of China,” Li came to his rescue. “My lord, are you sure you’re alright? I think it would be a good idea if the imperial doctor examines you after we return to the palace.” Li Ming took a smartphone out of her pocket, quickly tapped something on the screen, and showed it to Andrew. “Here you are: Wuzhou, the third emperor of the Yun dynasty.”
The man saw his picture on the screen, dressed in an outlandish cylindrical hat with a flat square top and dozens of strings hanging off both sides, on which large black and white beads were strung equidistantly. There were several hieroglyphs under the photograph, translated on the line below into English, which Andrew understood: “Wuzhou, Third Emperor of China, Yun Dynasty, Ruler of the Five Continents, Son of Heaven, since the year 4704.”
“The year 4704?” Andrew glanced at Li skeptically.
“The year your reign began. According to the traditional Chinese calendar, although everyone uses the international one – 4704 was 2006, twenty years ago.”
“Oh, really?” Andrew smiled, running his hand through his hair again. He glanced behind Li Ming where the soldiers were holding his co-workers pinned to the floor. The “Imperial Guard” was yelling something at the workers, who likely didn’t understand a single word. “Why not?” the thought crossed his mind. “Though, dammit, I really do love this power station!”
“You know what…” he started, then hesitated for a second, trying to choose the right words while drumming his fingers on his thigh. It didn’t help him much. “I am not going anywhere. I am not really an emperor, I’m an energy specialist. This is simply a synchronization error.”
Li Ming opened her eyes wide in astonishment.
“Code 89,” she said into her radio and then turned to Andrew. “Forgive me, but you cannot. It’s your responsibility to rule the empire.”
“Well, then let THIS be my empire,” the “emperor” waved his arm around the power bloc. “You consider me to be your Emperor, correct?”
“You are,” Li tossed back dryly.
“Then I, as Emperor, order you to leave me here,” Andrew raised his chin, donning an imperious look on his face.
Two men appeared behind Lin Ming looking exactly like the two men who had initially prostrated themselves before him. Or maybe they were the same men. To Andrew, all the Chinese men looked the same. The woman took a step back as the pair converged on Andrew and stood on either side of him.
“We are sorry, Huangdi,” said Li Ming kindly and deferentially, smiling at him like a mother whose child had uttered something stupid but harmless. “We are sorry, Huangdi. It doesn’t quite work that way.” The woman nodded to the men who grabbed Andrew under his arms and dragged him to the exit.
“Fine, fine, I can walk on my own,” barked the Ukrainian, freeing himself from the grips of the guards, who were barely tall enough to reach his shoulders. “Emperor, you say?” he added, smiling.
Straightening his back, Andrew ambled barefoot toward the exit. Li Ming positioned herself ahead of him, her pistol aimed ahead at shoulder level. A dozen soldiers lined up to form a corridor for their emperor. Outside the doors of the power bloc, through clouds of smoke spewing from the power station’s chimneys creating a dark grey curtain, he could barely make out five black SUVs and several people dressed in red-and-gold silk robes. As soon as Andrew appeared in their field of view, they bowed in sync, nearly down to the ground, and stayed there, almost frozen.
“In here?” asked Andrew, pointing to the open door of the nearest car. Li Ming returned an approving nod.
Taking one final look around and inhaling the cloyingly sweet smell of freshly laid concrete for the last time, the Ukrainian sighed in resignation and crawled into the SUV. It was as dark as a cave inside, sunlight having a hard time penetrating the tinted windows. The dim interior light provided only enough illumination to see the general contours of two wide back seats separated by something resembling a table. Andrew lowered himself into one of the seats, recoiling as soon as his head and neck touched the leather. The seat was cold as ice.
Li Ming sat down in the other back seat and the doors were shut. There was a woman behind the wheel, wearing sunglasses, a toothpick in her mouth. A man with an automatic rifle on his knees sat next to her.
“Can I at least sit in the front seat?” Andrew pleaded, hoping to convince his guardian to grant his request.
“Move out,” Li Ming said coolly into her radio. The five SUVs skillfully maneuvered past the buildings and, a short two minutes later, departed the territory of the Burshtyn Power Station. As they drove further away the curtain of smog obscuring the sky dissipated. Eventually, the sun broke through, its warm rays gradually disappearing behind the horizon, painting the May sky in orange and pink hues.
“Li, have you ever heard of a Chinese man named Yu from the seventeenth century?” Andrew turned toward the woman.
“Yu? Well….” Ming hesitated for a second or two. “It’s a very common name. It was the name of one legendary emperor who was able to overcome the great flood. But, you know, I hated history in school,” she went on, casting doubt on her own knowledge about the subject. She furrowed her eyebrows, and turned to face the window, so Andrew wouldn’t notice the change in her facial expression.
II. A new home
Ten minutes later, the SUVs turned off the roadway running along the shoreline of the Burshtyn Sea onto a dirt road. Through the windshield Andrew saw they were approaching a large airplane painted in red. He could have sworn there was no airport out here in the middle of nowhere, let alone for such a huge aircraft. Then, the driver stopped the car next to a red carpet exactly matching the color of the airplane. The vehicle was parked so Andrew’s car door opened directly onto the red-carpet lined path leading up the stairs to the plane’s doorway.
A Chinese man in robes materialized seemingly out of thin air to hold the car door open. He bowed low and waited motionlessly until Andrew climbed out of the car. The airplane was parked in the middle of a wide runway made from giant concrete blocks arranged in perfect alignment. The Ukrainian looked around, noting the absence of anything resembling a terminal. There was only a wide valley overgrown with tall grass and in the middle was this landing strip which Andrew could not remember being here. Li Ming hurriedly approached the novice emperor and pointed to the stairs.
“Your airplane, Huangdi. We graciously invite you on board,” she said with exaggerated politeness and a slight bow as she touched her chest with her right hand.
“Where did this landing strip come from?”
“It’s our new prefabrication system,” Li Ming smiled. The answer made sense to Andrew, recalling how the Chinese had built a gigantic hospital in 10 days back in 2020. “Or did they? What reality was that in?” he thought as he ascended the stairs.
The airplane’s interior was nauseatingly garish: crimson carpets and walls lined with gold borders assaulted his eyes. In the front cabin of the plane were four chairs surrounding a wooden table inlaid with gold and carved with the images of dragons. One of the chairs, noticeably taller and wider than the others, was the same shade of crimson as the rest of the cabin and crowned with a white embroidered sun. Beside the throne was a small bed with a canopy. There were two dozen leather seats for the imperial guard in the airplane’s tail. As soon as Andrew entered the front cabin, Li Ming tightly shut the door behind them, leaving her and Andrew alone in the front section of the plane.
“The flight to Constantinople is nearly two hours, Huangdi,” Li Ming said, as she invited the emperor to take his seat.
“Constantinople?” asked the Ukrainian, surprised. “Isn’t Beijing the capital of China?”
“You chose the city yourself, after ordering the flooding of Beijing,” the woman said indifferently. “There’s food here, drinks and…”
“I’d rather sleep for a bit, thank you,” Andrew interrupted, lying down on the bed. At first glance, he thought the bed would be hard, but was surprised to find it remarkably comfortable and soft. The airplane was still maneuvering on the runway when the exhausted emperor fell into a deep sleep. The last time he had slept was in the Ark, on the shores of the lake. Although they encountered some heavy turbulence during the flight Andrew didn’t even notice.
The emperor was awoken by a nudge to his shoulder. The floor was shaking. Startled, he jumped out of bed, but found himself relieved to see he was still alone in the cabin with Li Ming, who was looking out one of the portholes. It was already dark outside.
“We’ve landed, Huangdi,” the woman said as she rose from her seat. She donned her body armor and checked her pistol, then replaced it in its holster.
Andrew yawned, stretched his arms, and wiped his eyes. There was no need to get dressed since he had fallen asleep in his dirty security guard uniform.
“You’ll be back home in half an hour. In your palace. They’re drawing a warm bath for you and will serve you dinner,” Li Ming said.
The drive seemed swift and smooth to the Ukrainian. The streets were empty of vehicles. The only things he saw through the car window were grey concrete rectangular high-rises interspersed with LED signs flashing Chinese hieroglyphs. He did not see a single living soul. Despite having slept for two hours, Andrew was still exhausted and had no desire to ask any more questions. He only felt a small rush of energy when the car pulled onto a well-lit square abutting a massive vermilion wall in the center of which was a structure with a double-eaved roof and ribs pointing upwards, looking like a gate. It reminded him of the entrance to the Forbidden City in Beijing, where he had traveled with his ex-wife on vacation years ago. It was also the place where he had told her he’s leaving her. In Beijing, the gate simply consisted of wide staircases leading to an interior. This building, on the other hand, was a real gatehouse, the archway sealed with two gigantic metal gates firmly pressing against each other.
Another hundred meters and the motorcade came to a stop.
“Code seven,” the driver said into his radio. The ground started to vibrate as the gates started to part. Andrew had expected them to swing forward or back; instead, they were sliding sideways. In less than a minute, a gap had appeared large enough to let the car through. Their vehicle crawled forward, driving through the gate and emerged in the middle of a picturesque park where small fires peeked out here and there from amongst the trees casting long shadows. The car sped down a cobblestone street, the rumble of the tires drowning out the emperor’s thoughts. They slipped past some short, single-story buildings with shadows visible in the windows. The buildings looked eerily similar to the kind he had seen in the “Age of Empires” video game. The car’s headlights lit the narrow street brightly, and only sculptures in the park and tiny bugs blocked the light’s pathway into infinite darkness.
The seatbelt kept Andrew in place when the motorcade came to an abrupt stop beside another wall, which was shorter and had a wrought iron gate. The driver spoke into his radio, relaying a numerical code. The numbers spoken by the driver were incoherent, obscured by the emperor’s wide yawning. The gates opened. The car entered, driving past a row of perfectly manicured hedges and trees, their crowns sculpted into spherical shapes. They stopped beside a large four or five story building whose outer reaches were invisible, lost in the gloom. The only thing Andrew could discern about the building was its typical Chinese style.
A man dressed in a multicolored silk robe, most likely a servant, opened the door of the car. The Ukrainian got out, stretched his shoulders, and took a breath of the crisp air from the Mediterranean Sea. The air was a lot fresher than the chemical stench produced from the burning of synthetic oil that permeated the territory around the Burshtyn Power Station. Li Ming came around the car to join him, listening to a message on her radio. She gave no response; instead, with a light wave of her hand, she invited Andrew to enter the building.
The door opened into a large room which wasn’t as much a hall as it was a place for ceremonial events, large enough to fit several hundred people. Its dark green ceiling was four meters high and decorated with hundreds of identical squares with golden flowers in the middle, buttressed by several rows of narrow red columns. They were not as massive as the columns of Greek architecture Andrew had seen during his trip to Athens. It seemed like the massive ceiling would easily collapse with the slightest of drafts, the thin straw-like columns unable to bear its weight. Yet, somehow, the structure remained standing.
Across from the door, about thirty or forty meters into the room, a throne stood atop a dais. It matched the one on the airplane, bright red emblazoned with a white sun, only much larger. Black hieroglyphs on a yellow background read “Son of Heaven” above the throne. “Wait… I can read Chinese?” Andrew asked himself. He was sure before his journey to the Ark, where everyone understood one another, he never learned Chinese.
“So, Huangdi, has your memory returned now, being back home?” Li Ming broke the emperor’s train of thought.
“It depends on what you need me to do,” the Ukrainian chuckled.
“I shall escort you to your rooms to make sure it’s safe.”
Li Ming walked ahead, constantly turning back to check on Andrew, who stopped at every turn to peruse the palace. They took a secret passageway, its entrance so well hidden near the throne, he would have never noticed it. They entered a room adorned with tapestries depicting scenes from everyday life. Next, they walked into a room with traditional Chinese ink wash paintings in the style of Guo Xi hanging on its walls, like the ones Andrew had seen in the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv and in Beijing. They passed through several more rooms, but Li Ming did not give him any time to explore his surroundings, continuing to march forward in silence. Turning a corner, the Ukrainian nearly tripped over a statue of a turtle, and he jumped in surprise. The statue looked real. He reached out and touched it cautiously; the cold of the stone contrasted starkly with the warmth of his palm.
“Huangdi, the servants can see you. Stop acting this way,” Liu Ming said, her annoyance echoed in her voice.
Andrew started to respond, but Ming kept moving forward. There was nothing left for him to do except hurry after her. After taking a few more turns and passing a few more hallways and rooms, they arrived at a set of blue wooden doors. On either side of the doors stood guards armed with spears and wearing medieval looking armor. “Straight out of ‘Age of Empires’,” Andrew thought, smiling silently.
Without looking at them, one of the guards knocked on the door. It opened a moment later to reveal two women standing with their heads bowed. Both had black hair and were wearing white silk robes and wide smiles lacking any sincerity. Behind the women Andrew spotted steam rising from a bathtub, and, deeper in the chamber, a bed with crimson sheets under a yellow canopy. He walked in as Li Ming inspected the room, checking underneath the bed and behind the heavy drapes and furniture.
“All clear. You can feel safe here,” she said, standing between the emperor and servants. “If you need anything, Huangdi, I can…”
“I am beginning to like your world,” smiled Andrew, and, passing the commander of the guard, walked over to the bath. “Do not wake me too early.”
“I’ll come by at six. You have a meeting right after breakfast with the Department of Military Intelligence,” Li Ming said coolly. She left through the doors, the guards closing them behind her.
The servants surrounded the emperor and invited him to take a bath, helping him to take off his dirty security guard uniform. There was a gold-colored table with fruits and wine beside the tub. After stripping naked, the emperor grabbed a glass of wine, took a hearty gulp, and slid into the water. The insincere sweet smiles stuck on the servants’ faces as they massaged his back and shoulders with gentle circular motions, each time moving lower down his body.
As soon as the doors shut behind her, Li Ming closed her eyes, exhausted. “Finally, this day has come to an end,” she thought. A lump rose in her throat as she clenched her eyelids tighter. After a few imperceptible deep breaths, she regained her composure. Straightening her shoulders and checking to make sure her pistol was in place, the commander of the palace guard started down the corridor. Before taking more than a few steps, she hesitated, turning to one of the guards, and whispered, “Make sure nobody besides the servants leaves or enters the room until morning.”
She walked away, not waiting for the nod of acknowledgment in response.
III. An Opportunity
Yu was feverishly holding on to the metal railing of the bridge to the Ark control panel, hanging off the edge of the walkway above the deep chasm he had nearly fallen into. He was convinced the chasm, surrounded by tubes thick as tree trunks through which flowed blue and green plasma, was bottomless. The fall would be an eternal downward flight. Or not. The Chinese man did not have the slightest desire to discover which of the two options was true, so he tightened his grip on the lowest crossbar of the railing. His efforts were timely, because right then the bridge shook, and a bright white light flooded the premises. Yu squeezed his eyes shut as a low, even-toned robotic voice announced: “Commencing relocation and synchronization… Have a happy future! Noah-3000.”
Just as suddenly as it had appeared, the white light saturating the room congealed into the shape of a ball above the metal bridge and flew downwards. Yu shivered from the cold breeze in its wake. The man peeked through one eye, looking into the abyss, where the white orb was rapidly receding, shrinking until it became a tiny speck, then disappeared altogether. The multi-colored tubes went dark for a few seconds, plunging the premises into impenetrable darkness, and then after a moment, were relit. The substance inside the tubes started flowing slowly to and fro again.
The robotic voice spoke again: “Synchronization complete.” And went silent. The quiet was broken only by the rhythmic beeping of the three computers above where Yu was hanging. He tried to pull himself up and grab the railing with his other hand, but missed on his first attempt. Exhaling, he lunged again. His biceps, revealed when the wide sleeves of his robe fell away, tensed when he was finally able to grab hold of the lower crossbar of the metal railing with both hands. Resting for a moment to gather his strength, Yu began to raise himself to safety methodically, tossing one leg onto the bridge, reaching to grab the upper crossbar with his other hand, and a moment later, climbing onto the hard, cold surface.
Yu straightened his lean body, cracked his neck on both sides, and approached one of the three computers. After pressing a few buttons and checking the indicators, he smiled wryly and lowered his head, resting his hands on the panel. The Chinese man held the position for a few seconds, then raised his face to look at the ceiling and roared in frustration. The sound poured out in a powerful echo, initially bouncing back and forth nearby, eventually growing quieter as it descended in waves into the abyss, disappearing somewhere into the unknown.
“Damn you!” Yu yelled out, not sparing his voice, and smashed his small fist on the computer surface dislodging and sending several buttons flying across the metal bridge.
A spark of cunning momentarily flashed in his eyes. He frantically tried to put the dislodged buttons back in place, achieving success except for the last one, which was not cooperating. It kept popping out and rolling away in the direction of the chasm. He retrieved the disobedient piece of plastic, returned to the panel, and stuffed it in its spot. It was labeled with a peculiar symbol. He didn’t know what the symbol represented, but it was the only unique one, appearing only once on the control panel. He pressed the button. The computer thought for a few seconds, then said: “Copy available prior to the recent synchronization.” Yu read the technical data floating in the air before him like a hologram and pressed a button. “Are you sure you want to revert to the previous version?” the computer asked. He pressed the button again. “Error 33, error 33, error 33. Back-up prohibited,” the voice declared.
“No-no-no! Not error 33,” he implored, covering his face with his hands.
Exasperated, he pressed a few more buttons. One of them flew off again, landing nearby. After putting it back in place, Yu firmly pressed down on it. “Error 33, error 33, error 33. Back-up prohibited.” He tried a different combination of buttons. “Error 33, error 33, error 33. Restart prohibited.” Then he tried another combination. “Maximum limit of attempts reached,” an uncompromising warning spelled out in big red letters. “Protection from unauthorized use is activated for 40 years, 40 days, and 40 nights.”
“Anything, but this,” Yu said aloud, helplessly plopping down in the chair in front of the terminal. He sat there motionless and silent for several minutes, after which he stood and walked towards the exit. Just as he reached the concrete corridor, he spun around and punched the interior wall. The pain spread from his fist throughout his entire body. The old plaster crumbled and filled the room with a fine gray dust, causing Yu to start coughing.
His throat felt dry as a desert, evoking constant bouts of coughing. Yu covered his mouth with his hand, trying to prevent new coughing fits, as he stumbled through the corridor to the exit from the Ark’s command center. His coughing stayed with him to the top of the stairs, and only got worse as he walked through the wooden shed to make his way outside. Despite the scorching sun, there was snow on the ground. Yu found a path between the pines and the palms and walked to the great lake.
Unable to suppress his cough, he ran to the shore, fell to his knees and greedily gulped the water, nearly choking a few times. The cold liquid streamed down his burning throat, gradually calming his aggravated lungs. He only stopped drinking when he became nauseous. Holding back the urge to vomit, he collapsed on the sand, spent, and closed his eyes. His breathing was uneven. His head ached. His body grew weaker, heavier, as if slowly turning into lead. Although exhausted, sleep did not come readily. Just as Yu started to doze off, something would jerk him awake.
After repeating this intermittent dozing and waking, Yu became aware of the breeze from the lake pleasantly tickling his skin. He tried to stand, but his body resisted, feeling so heavy he only managed to get himself up on his elbows. The sun was gradually moving towards the west and the sky acquired a pinkish violet hue. The air was pleasantly humid and smelled fresh. Gathering his strength, the Chinese man got to his feet, shook the sand off, and looked at the shore on the opposite side of the lake. His keen eyes caught sight of the small dark spot left by the campfire where he had dinner the previous night with the Ukrainian, the German, and the woman who could not decide whether she was Russian or Belarusian.
“My empire was in tears,” the thought flashed in Yu’s head. “I had to try and save the people. Pity, it didn’t work out.” The rage inside him started to bubble up again, his hands instinctively clenching into fists, but then relaxed as quickly as they had clenched. At that moment, he desired the one thing he had stopped doing nearly a hundred years ago: Yu had an incredibly strong urge to have a drink.
The sun had already hidden behind the treetops, only a few rays broke through the thick branches. The Chinese man entered the settlement and passed by the long-abandoned greyish yellow brick buildings, whose sloped roofs were covered with cracked tiles. Turning a corner, he entered the central plaza where he saw the wagons full of produce. The food, however, was scattered on the ground. “Strange,” he thought, as something else captured his attention. Yu barely recognized the formerly cozy plaza; its major feature, the old wooden tavern, was no longer there. The only thing left was a large swath of scorched black earth in the spot where it had stood for thousands of years.
“Could this get any worse?!” the man cried out in desperation. “First, the plan I’ve spent decades preparing, went all to hell. Dying is not an option. Now I don’t even have anything to drink my sorrows away with for the next damn forty years, days and nights?!”
Languidly putting one foot in front of the other, Yu walked to the spot where the tavern had burnt down. It was uncanny: perfectly straight lines, uniformly black, outlined where the building used to stand. The wind lifted and whisked away the weightless flakes of ash. The smell of burnt wood drifted along with them, reaching Yu. He was about to walk over to sleep in the building where he had lived for the last three hundred years, when he spied a tiny depression in the middle of the burnt ground where the soil was slightly lighter in color. He approached the spot and leaned over, carefully inspecting it. He saw a slight recess in which he spied a thin rectangular object with a serrated edge.
“What’s this?” Yu wondered aloud. A moment later, the answer popped into his head. “The circuit board I need!”
The Chinese man leapt to his feet, a smile brightening his face. His eyes shined with glee, his narrow, perfectly symmetrical lips widened in a grin, revealing straight snow-white teeth. Just as Yu turned around, something materialized in front of him. The man didn’t even have time to cry out before something heavy hit him on the head and everything went black.
IV. An old friend
Andrew woke up to the sound of someone loudly clearing their throat nearby. He winced, pain pulsing in the back of his head. Somebody was in the process of drawing the curtains, letting the morning sun’s rays into the imperial bedroom. He recoiled from the light, which was exacerbating the pain in his head. Through his barely opened eyelids, he noticed two naked female servants lying beside him and sleepily stretching their legs. The Ukrainian tried to dislodge his hand from underneath one of them, but the numb limb refused to cooperate. Instead of covering his eyes with his hand, he gave his drowsy face a forceful slap.
“Time to wake up, Huangdi,” a woman’s voice said nearby. Even in his torpor, Andrew could sense its icy coldness. Li Ming gradually came into focus, as if emerging from a slowly dissipating mirage. She placed a glass of water on the bedside table. An effervescent tablet was dissolving in the water, fizzing while releasing hundreds of tiny bubbles.
“You have a very busy schedule today. Breakfast will be served in ten minutes,” she added.
On her way out, she woke the female servants by slapping the bottoms of their feet. The women sprung out of bed and hastily got dressed. Ming had to navigate around plates and empty wine bottles scattered about the floor to get to the door, dispassionately trampling on and crushing a bunch of grapes in her path. As she passed through the door leading out of the imperial bedroom, the captain issued a command on her radio: “Code 3.”
Some five minutes later, two short men wearing identical red and white robes helped Andrew get dressed. Though he was expecting some kind of old-fashioned tunic, a ridiculous hat, and multicolored pants, they dressed him in a fairly simple black military uniform. “It’s almost like the security guard uniform, but a better fit,” the Ukrainian thought, eying his reflection in the mirror. The servants helped him don a military style jacket with a crimson collar and golden shoulder pads from which dangled gold-colored tassels. A dozen medals were pinned on the right breast of the jacket. On the left, precisely where the frayed “security guard” ID badge had been yesterday, was an insignia of a white sun the size of an orange emblazoned on a red and black sash extending from his left shoulder diagonally across his body and fastened at his waist. For the final touch, a golden belt with a narrow sword in a sheath was attached around Andrew’s waist.
After they had finished dressing the emperor, one of the servants combed his disheveled hair, taming it by dabbing it with mineral oil. Some type of powder was applied to his face making it feel refreshed. “This world is simply wonderful,” the Ukrainian decided, smiling. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted breakfast had already been laid out on the table.
Today in the emperor’s chambers he was served rice noodles with soy sauce, roulades and crepes stuffed with ground beef, topped with scrambled eggs. For dessert, they brought out a fruit pudding. Andrew couldn’t identify what fruit it was; it tasted like pineapples ground with cinnamon and lemons. Towards the end of the feast, they brought out small cups of green tea. While he was eating, the servants stood by his side with their heads bowed.
“Join me, why don’t you? I can’t eat all of this myself,” the emperor suggested, enjoying a crepe. The servants wore identical insincere smiles and didn’t say a word. They didn’t even look at him.
After breakfast, Li Ming reappeared, grunted a few dry phrases into her radio, which the Ukrainian did not hear, and led him down various corridors into a spacious room whose interior design was surprisingly modern. A round table nearly filled the entire room. Beside every one of the chairs, except one, stood identical-looking men and women with their heads bowed. The commander of the guard directed the emperor to the empty chair, where he promptly sat down. Those present did not move an inch. Li Ming cleared her throat, drawing Andrew’s attention to her. Not understanding what she was trying to tell him, the emperor shrugged, spreading his arms in confusion. Li Ming walked over and whispered in his ear, “Huangdi, they are waiting for your permission to sit down and begin the meeting.”
“Aaa! Well, then,” Andrew cast a condescending gaze at those present. “Ladies and gentlemen, please sit down. Let us begin – whatever is it we’re beginning,” he muttered the last phrase under his breath.
Almost noiselessly, two dozen indistinguishable Chinese men and women took their seats, moving perfectly in sync. It was silent once again, the only noise in the room coming from the hum of the ventilation system. The whole group was staring down at the table. The Ukrainian looked at their faces: they weren’t even blinking, although Andrew couldn’t be completely sure this was true.
“Now’s the time for your opening remarks, like at every meeting of the Department of Military Intelligence,” Li Ming prompted him.
“Aha, it’s like a planning meeting at the station,” Andrew replied and continued. “I would like to open the meeting,” he paused, searching for the right words to say. “You know… um… today is an important day in our country’s life. And an important time, yes,” he nodded his head in confirmation. “I am convinced, we, all of us, together, need to resolve a number of important issues today. I would like to hear your suggestions, because there is a lot of work to be done. And I mean a lot…,” he turned to Li Ming with an inquisitive look on his face. She sighed in defeat, approached the man sitting to the right of the emperor, and whispered something in his ear.
The man, who had appeared to be an immobile statue, suddenly came to life and started speaking about taxation in the recently annexed provinces in the West, about the problems with members of the opposition in Iran, and about the fight against the criminal underworld in Punjab. When he began discussing mortality rates among the non-Chinese population of the West from some new fever, Andrew’s attention drifted.
He tried to sit straight, nodding his head in affirmation from time to time, but his thoughts carried him back to Ukraine and his beloved Burshtyn power station; then to the Ark with its insane Nazi and the absence of toilet paper in Belarus; and to memories of his former wife – how she watched soap operas and tried to hide it from him, how she baked extraordinarily beautiful cakes he could devour in one sitting, how she was jealous of his many ex-girlfriends, and probably guessed he still met with them occasionally. “So, what if I did?” Andrew thought. Just then he caught the confused look of the man who was essentially chairing the meeting in his place. The man bowed slightly and said, “We are still waiting for the Son of Heaven’s consent for the plan.”
The Ukrainian looked around and saw everyone present was looking at him with identical smiles on their faces, sitting motionless, not even blinking. Realizing they were waiting for his reply, he said confidently, “I give my consent. Do everything necessary.”
“Thank you, Huangdi,” the speaker acknowledged. For the first time since he had started speaking, the man’s voice radiated sincere joy. “Then I shall order the preparations and consultations with the Germans.”
On that note, the meeting concluded, after lasting more than two hours. Li Ming nodded toward a door and Andrew, relieved, exited the room.
“I think I’ll take a nap,” he said.
“Next you have a meeting with cultural leaders,” the woman told him as they walked together through the endless corridors. They periodically descended some stairs, then ascended others, went down different stairs, and up again.
“Perhaps culture can survive without me?” the Ukrainian suggested, breathing hard after climbing another set of stairs. It seemed they were moving from one building to another through underground passageways. “Isn’t the emperor supposed to be carried or driven around?” he asked.
“You perform your duty, and I perform mine,” Ming replied coldly.
“Duty?” inquired the emperor, while the captain, like a robot, led him further.
They traveled through the corridors every day, crossed bridges over underground streams, and dodged low doorways. On the first day, Andrew ended up with a few bumps and bruises along the way. The emperor participated in endless meetings dragging on for hours, uttered meaningless introductory phrases, met hundreds of guests, dined at formal dinners, and signed reams of documents, the content of which he mostly didn’t comprehend. It seemed to him he was more in control running the power station than he was as emperor. People came and went, the female servants constantly changed, although Andrew had no energy to spend time with them. The sixteen-hour workdays, his only breaks coming during performances by theater groups or the fifteen-minute daytime nap at a strictly set time, made it feel like he was living on a non-stop conveyor belt. In the ensuing months, women, wine, and the different varieties of food grew tiresome for Andrew. Li Ming performed her routine work mostly in silence, made sure he kept to his schedule, and limited his social circle. In the palace, he had no one with whom he could simply talk.
Months passed until the day came when Andrew was being prepared to meet yet another foreign guest. This time, he was not dressed in his military uniform, but in an ill-fitting crimson and yellow ceremonial robe. His reflection in the mirror reminded him more of a clown from the circus with several sacks hanging on his body, rather than that of an emperor. He was served a cup of aromatic coffee, the only new tradition he was allowed to establish. The Ukrainian did not like to drink tea; however, official protocol prevented him from completely refusing it.
The emperor was escorted to his throne in the spacious hall located near the entrance to the palace by his honor guard, dressed in ridiculous uniforms similar to his, sporting spears on their shoulders.
“His Majesty, Huangdi Wuzhou, Son of Heaven,” announced the manservant as he had so many times before.
Andrew, not making any effort to hide the fact he was exhausted, sat down heavily on his throne. He propped his head on his hand, his bent elbow resting on the arm of the chair. Just then, another manservant, who was standing by the door, announced, “The Highly Esteemed Mister Ambassador of the Third German Reich!”
“Stop. What?! Third Reich? In the year 2027?” Andrew thought as he straightened in his seat.
The doors opened slowly, and a man entered, moving into the room with carefully measured steps. He was dressed like a soldier in a grey uniform with white decorative stripes on the legs of his trousers. His pants were wide at the hips and tapered at the knee, where they were tucked neatly into tall black leather boots. The Ambassador wore a black Iron Cross around his neck. The emperor’s retinue did not make a sound, so the newcomer’s steps echoed throughout the room.
“Hans?” Andrew exclaimed, jumping to his feet. Li Ming, who was standing nearby, discreetly unbuttoned her holster and placed her hand on the pistol at her side.
“Your Imperial Highness,” the man pronounced loudly and bowed to his knees. Andrew recognized the voice immediately. Without a doubt, it was the Nazi from the Ark.
“Hans Müller! It’s me – Andrew Skoryuk, from the Ark. Don’t you recognize me?” In his excitement, the Ukrainian came down off the dais and approached the German.
Still bowing, the Nazi took a few steps back. He seemed to not understand what was happening.
“I…” the Ambassador broke the silence, “have traveled here to present you with a message from our glorious Führer.”
“But you’re supposed to be dead! How is this possible?” As soon as the emperor uttered these words, one of the manservants standing nearby gasped and fainted. He was instantly carried away. Li Ming pulled her pistol out of its holster.
“Please forgive the soldier’s insolence, Huangdi. I do not understand what you are saying…”
“You don’t know me here,” Andrew sighed disappointedly and reluctantly returned to his throne.
The Ambassador continued standing in silence, unsure if he should continue to pursue the matter he had come to discuss.
“Speak,” the Ukrainian ordered, waving his hand indifferently.
“Our glorious Führer has asked me to inform Your Imperial Highness,” the Ambassador proclaimed loudly, “the project our two great countries have been working on for the last several months, and for whose completion you so graciously provided your consent, is now ready to be launched.”
“What project?” asked Andrew, yawning.
“Draining the Mediterranean Sea, of course,” clarified the German. “We are ready to open the channel sluices and flood…”
“Oh, awesome!” the Ukrainian’s apathy transformed into delight. “I couldn’t even dream of those kinds of projects in the past. I hereby grant permission to move forward!”
All the servants present began applauding, as if on command. Suddenly, the emperor felt the floor shudder, throwing him heavily on the seat of his throne. Everyone gathered in the room gasped, dust starting to pour down profusely from the ceiling. Andrew didn’t even have a chance to get his bearings before Li Ming ran to him and grabbed him by the arm to lead him out of the hall.
“What was that?” he asked. He scurried after the woman, passing through corridor after corridor, Li Ming pulling him along by his right arm above the elbow. They did not encounter anybody else along the way, which wasn’t unusual, because the emperor had his own separate corridors only he and Li Ming were allowed to use. Andrew had become familiar with most of the corridors during his time here, but these were new to him.
“Where are you taking me?” Andrew asked. Ignoring his question, Li Ming continued dragging him along. The Ukrainian sensed they were descending deeper and deeper underground, the corridors becoming darker and the stench of mold getting stronger.
“Stop!” Andrew yanked his elbow out of the commander of his guard’s iron grip. “I will not go any further until you explain to me what’s going on and where we are going!”
“Huangdi, in the event of an earthquake, I am to evacuate you immediately. Code 108,” Li Ming said through clenched teeth, as she tried to grab his arm again.
“Wait. That was Hans. I am sure of it. Though it’s impossible, because he lived in the past,” the Ukrainian insisted, turning away from the Chinese woman.
The emperor’s words caused Li Ming to take a step back and look him straight in the eyes, something she had always avoided prior to this moment. She flicked back a wayward strand of coal-black hair which had escaped from her usually meticulous bob during their hasty flight and was obstructing her view.
“Your father spoke the exact same way,” the woman raised the pistol and aimed it at Andrew’s face.
“Whoa, whoa!” Andrew tried to move away, but his back was already against the wall. He raised his hands in front of him, palms outwards. “I know it sounds strange…”
“It’s your family’s hereditary affliction. If the emperor goes insane, he must be liquidated immediately. It’s the law. Code 369,” Captain Li Ming flipped the safety off her pistol and placed her finger on the trigger.
“Don’t…” Andrew groaned just as a shot rang out.
A splash of blood spattered his face and clothing. He expected to feel pain. Apart from his limbs trembling, though, he felt nothing. The commander of the palace guard was standing in front of him with eyes wide, her pistol pointing at him. Suddenly, her body went flaccid, and the woman tumbled to the ground.
Behind her, in the semi-darkness, someone was standing just like Li Ming had been a second earlier, casting dim reflections on the walls and holding a gun pointing straight at him. Andrew raised his arms even higher. The shadow took a determined step towards him, and the dim light revealed the identity of the mysterious figure.
“Mein Freud,” Hans gave the terrified Ukrainian a hearty hug. He took a step back, threw his right arm into the air in a salute, and proclaimed, “Heil Hitler!”
“Why did you kill her?!” cried Andrew.
“She nearly shot you,” the German justified his actions, “I saved your life.”
“What are you even doing here in my time?” the Ukrainian asked, wiping the blood off his face with the sleeve of his ceremonial robe.
“Trying to survive,” Hans waved his hand, beckoning the emperor to follow him.
Other stories by Oleksii Dubrov
Other stories illustrated by Ruslan Vashkevich