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My country goes to vote tomorrow. Decisions, decisions.

“All right, you primitive screw-heads, listen up! See this? This... is my boomstick!”
--Ash Williams, ‘Army of the Dead’

Chapter 203 - Weapon of destruction

A thunderous crack split the morning calm, the booming sound echoing around the valley. The startled birds took to the air, the animals on the ground bolted in fear.

Then silence reigned, as if the living were afraid of provoking whatever deity that had made the tremendous blast.

But it was no supernatural being that had caused it. Deep within a secluded branch of Tigertrap Pass, a small elite group of Wu soldiers stand slack-jawed at the culprit.

“What do you think?” Huang Ke asked as he waved away the smoky residue that hung in the air. His ears were ringing and his eyes watery, but he still managed to maintain a smug look on his face. He was glad to be wearing his gloves, for he could feel the heat and vibration from the metallic tube in his hands.

“What do I think? I think it’s the devil’s work,” Huang Zheng mumbled.

“Let me remind you that this is Ah Ming’s work,” Huang Ke said to his father.

The patriarch of the Huangs stood rooted to his spot, eyeing the smoking, metallic tube in his second son’s hands warily. The wisp of smoke smelled like hot steam and sulphur, as if someone had relieved himself onto burning coals.

Huang Ke mischievously twirled and waved the tube around. Huang Zheng could not help but flinch whenever he stared down the tube. So did his elite soldiers: one could almost see the knees of these grizzled veterans shaking whenever the smoking end was swung in their direction.

“Stop that,” he ordered tersely.

“Don’t worry, it’s inert,” Huang Ke chuckled.

“So you say. But I will feel infinitely better if you stop pointing that at me!”

Huang Ke relented and shouldered the tube easily.

“When I heard that my daughters-in-law are sending me a gift, I did not expect a fire-breathing stick from hell,” Huang Zheng grumbled. “How did they even think of this…”

His burly son shrugged. “This is all Ah Ming’s design. Younger brother has always been a weird one. You know how he is… first he was obsessed with music, then with the drink. Then he turns out to be a military genius. Now he’s an inventor too!” he said with some sarcasm.

Huang Ke took the sting out of his words by patting the metal tube affectionately. “What matters is that we have this… ‘firearm’, and surely you can see the advantages of such a weapon.”

“Some weapon,” Huang Zheng grunted. “I prefer those new crossbows your wife is making for us. A trained archer can let loose three bolts in the time for you to prepare and light the firearm, and there is no resulting smoke to block the view of everyone else either.”

“This is just a test version,” Huang Ke stressed. “Huang Ming’s notes say that once we have thoroughly refined the gunpowder, we will be able to fire and reload much more quickly. And with less smoke.”

“I do not like it,” his father said sourly. “It will frighten the horses. And they will be of no good if it’s raining.”

“I have already thought of those, father,” Huang Ke replied. “You are right, as it is now this weapon is slow and clumsy. But a row of soldiers firing all at once… a single volley can stop an enemy charge dead in its tracks.”

He paused to allow the scenario to sink in. Then he frowned as he came to a realization.

“In fact, what if we did not have a single row, but two or three rows of soldiers armed with this? They do not need to all fire at once, but to take turns. The front row would fire and then step back to reload while the second row step forward to fire.”

Huang Ke’s eyes widened with excitement as he continued: “And if we drilled the soldiers just right, we can maintain a uninterrupted rate of fire! Without stopping! Just imagine it!”

His father did not share his enthusiasm. The Great General Huang Zheng shuddered.

“I pray that we do not see the need for such a day,” he muttered. Huang Zheng had vast experience in warfare, and one of the most harrowing sights he had seen was the sight of his enemies being showered by arrows. The enemy leader had been lured to a muddy, swampy area and got bogged down. They were helpless against his archers, and the resulting slaughter had been great.

A similar scene but with cascading storms of metallic projectiles that can tear through flesh and armour would be several magnitudes of horrific more more than his old, experienced eyes could bear.

“You like it too much,” the father said to his son.

“Yes, I do,” Huang Ke admitted. “We may not have a choice. Huang Ming’s letters are quite depressing. And nagging. Hard to believe that he was the same guy who drank himself senseless every night,” Huang Ke said.

Huang Zheng sighed. Huang Ming’s letters were dire indeed: warning the family to be on guard against Yin Yanzhao of all people.

“That boy might be overstating things.”

“Qiong Ying and Ah Lang agreed with his advice. And you know they have people everywhere,” Huang Ke reminded him.

“Is our country so cursed? After Gao Fang and Tong Xuan, we have yet another internal scourge to deal with?” Huang Zheng shook his head.

“I find it hard to believe it myself, but at the very least, we have to be prepared for anything,” Huang Ke said grimly. He patted the metal tube once more, this time with solemn consideration.

“Yes. Yes we should,” his father exhaled heavily. “Tell your wife to step up assembly of the crossbows.”

Huang Ke frowned.

His father raised a hand to forestall him. “Yes, this… this ‘firearm’ may prove useful, but if things are going to escalate as badly as your brother prophesied, then we do not have the luxury of time to research and fine-tune it for mass production. Whereas the crossbows are more easily understood. Besides, making the gunpowder and transporting it safely is still a chore, isn’t it?”

His son grimaced. “Yes. Ugh, I never knew saltpetre was so scarce until now. No wonder the apothecaries and medicine men were so secretive. And the smell during the manufacturing process…!”

“And expensive,” Huang Zheng added. “Let us hope that Old Zhao Tong and his son-in-law can find alternate sources, because no matter how powerful this weapon is, it would be too prohibitive to produce otherwise.”

“Hope so,” Huang Ke agreed. “I don’t want to go around the countryside collecting dung from the farmers.”

Huang Zheng laughed heartily. “That is a great idea. You can start right here in our fort.”

“What?” Huang Ke blanched.

Huang Zheng smiled evilly. “We do have horses, you know. Lots of them. Since you like the weapon so much, you can start preparing the gunpowder for future use.”

“My wife can-”

“Your wife will be busy making the crossbows,” Huang Zheng reminded him. He patted his son affectionately on the shoulder.

“Gather shit, my son.”

Power grows from a gun,
More responsibility than fun.​