World News Nightly, CNN

Austin-Bergstrom, International Airport

Austin, TX

“On the eve of China’s warning that the United States ‘get its fiscal house in order,’ Americans may want to rethink their travel plans. Due to a recent string of disappearing travelers throughout China, the government has placed restrictions on student visas, and made it more difficult to travel throughout the country. They say it’s for the safety of travelers and yet it seems as though the government has done nothing about these disappearances, with no leads, no arrests, or any kind of resolution in sight. Will we ever find out what’s happened to them?

Ladies and gentlemen with us we have Henry Kissinger, a man responsible for much of US-China relations since the 1960s, and a man whose involvement has been instrumental in creating a cooperative relationship with China. Mr. Kissinger thank you for being here.”

“Thank you for having me.”

“What seems to be going on here? We’ve had a couple disappearances, which of course happens every year to people within our own country and around the world, but these have been making National headlines because it appears that the Chinese government is blaming the travelers, and in one case the United States. What’s the story?”

“Thank you for having me. The story is tragic, as it always is with disappearances, but these stories are all the more tragic because of their nature—young students traveling throughout the country, generally just looking for adventure.”

“We still have no explanation as to why they’ve disappeared, or whether they’ll return. What does this say about our relationship with China?”

“It says more about the people who’ve gone out into the world expecting immunity and the privilege to be able to go anywhere. I don’t know that the PRC can do anything more than restrict the travels of our people throughout the country.”

“Are US-China relations favorable?”

“As long as there’s cooperation. And I don’t believe this is an indication otherwise.”

“That’s interesting. You’d think missing Americans would be a big indication of a drifting relationship.”

“It is of course important, but there’s very little we can do. We know that these students disappeared on unscheduled trips. They went far off the grid. That in itself is very dangerous, and frankly nobody should travel off the grid.”

“Well, can we expect cooperation from the PRC?”

“We’re getting it but our people have to respect the will of the PRC and they have to trust that there’s a reason travel is restricted.”

“So in order for our people to be safe, they can’t just expect to travel throughout China like it’s the United States, or Europe?”

“That is correct. Common sense dictates that your freedom is not absolute and you need to make decisions about traveling based on risk. In this case the risk is much too high.”

“It would seem our cooperation is meaningless without certain freedoms, like travel.”

“I wouldn’t say that at all.”

“And what about recent hacking attempts on both the NSA’s part and the PRC? Both have hacked into one another for various reasons?”

“We don’t know the full extent of what they were trying to obtain, or even if they obtained anything at all. The important thing is to not jump to any conclusions and to allow for communication between our governments.

“We need to break. When we come back we’ll talk about America’s dwindling reputation and China’s investments in our economy.”


Lao Cheng Ba

Chengde, CN

The locals cheered as Wyatt pounded the table with another empty shot glass. That made twenty between the two of them. They would take a shot, then go to the pool table, miss, and return back to the bar for another drink. There were only three balls left on the table including the cue ball, and the eight ball. The game had taken quite a while considering both Wyatt and Bruce had made some impressive shots. But they were at a standstill.

Neither could identify what they were drinking, but they had grown comfortable asking the bartender for baijiu. They also gathered that gan bei was the phrase used to encourage someone to drink. Bruce had started to joke that nobody would teach him the phrase for you’ve had enough and he refused to stop until he knew it.

“To your drones!” Bruce shouted. “To the history that’s yet to be written!”

The men cheered. Wyatt stumbled on the pool cue, and glanced over at the bartender who was paying close attention. Bruce wasn’t much of a tech guy. Wyatt explained the drone’s capabilities to him. The Chinese Communist Party and the University had commissioned Wyatt to develop and test drones that were capable of gathering enough data to recreate a model of the tomb in a virtual world. They were aware that he was collecting data, hell they requested it. They even wanted him to build one that could go into the tomb. But they kept a close eye on everything he was doing, and they would never allow him to run that kind of experiment on his own. When the deal was over, he would be granted access to create a virtual replica of the tomb. It would be like a ride at Disney, but you could go anywhere, and you could read input from others who’d joined the experience. That was the plan. That part he’d kept from the writer—and the fact that the Chinese government monitored everything both of them were doing. Everything.

They had been shooting pool for the better part of an hour, showing off trick shots but missing most of them. Wyatt leaned over the table again, and jumped the cue ball over the eight ball. It careened off the side toward the bar emitting a heavy and deadened thud as it struck the floor. All eyes locked on Wyatt as he stumbled on the table. He started to feel woozy.

“Zai lai me another bai jiu!” Bruce said. “None for my friend here. You don’t look so well.” He looked over at Wyatt. Bruce patted the bartender on the back, and said, “I guess you don’t understand me. That’s a shame. We could be mates!” he said spitting out the words in explosive gusts. The men laughed at Bruce, and called him pung yo! That’s what it sounded like. He didn’t know what to make of it.

“Well gentlemen, I have a favor to ask,” he said. “We’ve got to find a young man. Maybe you know him. He’s a man who claims to make an ancient medicine. The type of medicine only fit for a true man, or an emperor.” Bruce put his hand on one of the patron’s necks, and pulled him right up to his face as he gravely cross-examined the man. ”You don’t know where we can find him, do you?”

The bartender bent down, and picked up the ball. “You are looking for me.”

Wyatt looked over at the bartender, unsure if he just heard English or if the sounds were completely coincidental. He clutched the side of the table.

“You?” Wyatt asked with a look of astonishment.

The man looked back at him, but remained silent.

“Well, Bruce, his En-grish is pretty good,” he scoffed.

The bartender walked over to Bruce, and tossed the ball onto the pool table. The thud startled Wyatt. “What the hell do you want?”

“How could such a young man know how to make a drink that promises everlasting life?” Bruce implored.

“You seek everlasting life?” the bartender said with a sinister smile.

Bruce turned his head to the door as the dead bolt clicked. “Well, you know what I heard?” The bartender cocked his head. Bruce continued. “I heard someone in this town has been inside the emperor’s tomb.”

“Where would you hear a thing like that?” he asked.


The bartender’s face was still. “What if I have?”

Bruce looked around at the other men who were standing still. They watched closely. “How much would it take to go back?”

“Inside the tomb?” Wyatt asked. “You’d never make it out.”

The bartender waved at the other men and looked back at Bruce. “Get out,” he commanded. “Now.”

“You just said…” Bruce started.

“I said I’ve been in. It wasn’t my choice.”

Wyatt grew uneasy.

“I want you to take us in,” Bruce said. “I’ll pay you more than you could ever dream of.”

The man walked behind the bar, and pulled out another bottle. “Money is worthless to the dead.”

The room was quiet. Bruce walked over to the pool table and reached for the cue as Wyatt pulled the paper from his jacket pocket. The bartender nodded at the men. They lunged at Wyatt, and one of the men put him in a chokehold. He closed his elbow like a scissor as Bruce watched Wyatt flail his arms around, careful not to step forward. He looked at the bartender, and listened to the sounds of Wyatt’s feet stomping, and his arms struggling. Then the thud! Wyatt’s body went limp, and he collapsed to the floor.

The room grew silent, as Bruce finally spoke. “Is he dead?”

Wyatt murmured.

The bartender kept his gaze on Bruce. “No. But I wouldn’t do anything to startle my friends. Please sit.” He gestured to the table, waiting for Bruce to sit down.

“You wish to go inside the tomb?” he asked.

Bruce nodded.

“To get in, you must make yourself a true man,” he said.

“What does that mean?” Bruce asked.

The bartender laughed, and pointed at Wyatt on the floor. “You think you can make yourself a true man?” he said, his laugh turning to a smile. “Is this the company a true man keeps?” He pulled a key from his neck and reached under the bar for a locked cabinet. Inside it was an unmarked bottle with a dark, whiskey colored liquid. On top of it was a dirty tumbler glass. He poured the liquid into the tumbler up to the rim. The liquid was thick. “You drink this? I help you. No questions.”

Bruce wrapped his fingers around the glass. “A true man, huh?” He walked over to the bar, and glanced over his shoulder at Wyatt. He was still on the ground, but everyone kept a safe distance. Bruce clutched the drink. He poured it into his mouth, and swallowed three times to get it all down. On the final gulp he slammed the tumbler down on the counter. The bitter taste burned like no other drink he’d had before. He could feel mucus building up in his throat, and he coughed violently. A pain grew in his chest, and with every heartbeat his neck pulsated.

“Okay,” he said. “Now you’ll help me?”

The bartender laughed. “You are not afraid?”

Bruce coughed, then let out a breath as the pain dulled. “No.”

“If you have any fears. You must conquer them,” the bartender said.

“Wait, what the hell is this?” Bruce bellowed, his throat starting to burn. It felt like fire. He rubbed his hands frantically over his throat, massaging his Adam’s apple. He looked down at the bottle. There was a dragon etched onto the glass.

“Dragon juice?” he pointed.

The bartender grinned. “My family recipe.”

Wyatt clutched the top of the pool table, and pulled himself up. Blood dripped down from Bruce’s lip. The glass he drank from had a crack in the rim. Bruce closed his fist and licked the blood from between his fingers. He walked slowly through the group of men toward the door. Wyatt followed. The dead bolt clicked behind them as they walked down the dark street back to the hotel.

“What the hell was that?” Wyatt asked.

Bruce laughed dismissively. “They went in.”

Wyatt ignored the words and tried to mind his footing. This is not part of the plan.


Room 211, Airport Inn

Austin, TX

The Airport Inn was not the most majestic hotel in Austin, but it was conveniently located in front of the Austin Bergstrom Airport for the weary traveler. The natural light coming in through the window revealed a dirty, earth-toned brilliance. It was brown, and desolate outside. I walked down to the lobby, and invaded the business center to check my email at one of the hotel computers. There was a message from [email protected] with detailed instructions for my arrival. The subject was Where to go when you arrive. I printed out the email, and walked back through the lobby passed a pool that was empty. It was nothing special, but it was indoors, and there was a hot tub. The perfect place to kill an hour.

I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I rushed back to the room, and broke out my swim trunks, but first I sat down and reviewed the email. The nicest part of the room was the desk, and everything on it. The desk was well crafted with curvy legs. And the pen sitting on it was equally majestic. The hotel desk, and the pen they provide you can be crucial to a good trip if you don’t bring your own, and they can even force you into this mode of productivity. I looked through the text. It contained an outline of the book, a list of destinations, relics, key players, hotels, and then theories. There was a diagram outlining the site, and then a second page. The second page contained a list of parts that were entirely foreign to me. Most of them looked like flying cameras. They were used for remote sensing. Further down the page, there was a list of parts for another drone marked prototype that referenced X-Rays, Microwaves, Accelerometers, Sonar, Thermal Imaging, Cameras, Spectrometers… None of this meant anything to me. I decided this would be good to review on the plane since I wouldn’t be short on time.

I walked down to the pool with the hotel slippers and a towel. Swimming is a great way to relax—an indispensable pleasure. Like you’ve evolved beyond that primordial goop. You can also admire someone else’s form and their movements without being a full-on creep. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to make friends and they’re generally open to finding things to do around town. You have this—even if it’s fleeting—intimate connection with other swimmers because you’ve seen them move in the water, using nearly all their muscles to stay afloat.

There was a woman swimming as I walked in. I approached cautiously hoping not to distract her. Some people get this attitude once they’re using a thing that they need privacy, and they deserve it, because they were there first. She reached the edge near me, and smiled.

“Do you mind?” I asked, but in a low voice, looking right at her as she steadied herself on the side. I made what I thought was a meaningful gesture toward the closest spot in the water as if to say; you won’t even notice a difference. She was a natural swimmer, and beautiful. Something she already knew judging by the way she passively acknowledged me.

“No, please.”

I assumed at this point she genuinely wanted to share the pool. What else was she going to say?

I put my towel down on the bench in the corner. It’s always an awful process trying to get into the water. There’s that moment you have to stick your foot in the water, breaking its uniformity and introducing chaos because you want to check the temperature before you jump in. And you think, stupidly, that you can prepare for the temperature change. It could be anywhere between 68° and 90° depending if it’s heated, or if you’re outside. And there’s no way to prepare for that moment of contact. It’s always shocking. The best strategy is always to jump right in, because you have to anyway. That uncertainty is something you always have to deal with, and the act of jumping releases adrenaline that makes it that much quicker to acclimate to the temperature.

The other option is one you can’t exercise if you want to meet people in the pool because it gives off this vibe that you’re not entirely prepared, or you’re scared. And it turns people off. You’ve probably seen the guy. He puts his toe in, then waits, then hangs over the edge, up to his knees, then waits, then he climbs in at the shallow end up to his waist, or maybe down to his nipples at this point and that ring fluctuates up and down a couple inches so that you can see he’s still entirely uncomfortable until he drops down to his neck, and then he takes a deep breath and goes under. By this point you feel so invested, so proud to see another human being overcome, that you want to give him some kind of award for not giving up. But he doesn’t just go under, he actually slides down gradually until he’s treading water comfortably and part, but not all of his hair gets wet, so you kind of feel like, bro, why the fuck are you even in the pool to begin with? And by the time the whole process is over with, which can be anywhere between one minute and half an hour, you’re so uncomfortable with the cowardice you just witnessed that you’ve just fucking had it and you get out because this person clearly didn’t come here for the right reasons.

Meanwhile, he’s finally taken a shallow breath like when the player dumps the Gatorade all over the coach, and the guy just slips under lifelessly. And when he emerges it’s like he just swam the Hudson River, and he really commends himself for the fact that he “went swimming today,” because he just “loves to swim when he can.” Like he has a greater claim to this water than Michael Phelps has to the Water Cube.

There are few experiences so human.

I took four laps, which I imagined looked like a disaster before I noticed she was watching. I’m never the fastest guy in the pool, so I just make big drastic motions and kick up a lot of water. I tried my best to make deliberate, fluid movements with my limbs.

“You’re funny,” she said.

“I don’t swim too often,” I said.

“In town for South By?”

“No. Actually, I’m flying out to Beijing tomorrow.”

“Oh,” she said, her eyes perking up. “Beijing, that’s wild.”

“You?” I asked, because I was taught not to waste words.

“I am supposed to be working still for South By, but I’m quitting my job and not telling anyone instead.”

“That must be nerve-racking,” I said enviously.

“Not as much as you’d think.”

“Aren’t you worried about your reputation?”

“A thousand people here have the same reputation as me. Do you know what that is?” she asked. I stared blankly for a second, and then shook my head, like a half shake, because I didn’t want to appear rude.

“Didn’t think so. You don’t look like the South By type.”

“Maybe that’s why nobody wanted to hire me in this town.”

“That’s usually the case.”

“Hmm.” I groaned and looked down at the concrete.

“You’re not getting introspective are you?” she asked with her head tilted to the side.

“No,” I paused. “I guess… just realizing I never wanted to be here.”

“Why Beijing?” she asked, resting her head up against the side.

“Only job I could land. I’ll be helping chronicle this writer’s next book.”

Her eyes glowed, but she kept her voice calm. “Oh, you’re a journalist?”

“Something like that. Seems like a lot’s up in the air and they’re trying to figure out how to bring in the right people to make this thing huge.” I consciously tried to avoid the word startup.

“Sounds like the only job you could get is pretty exciting. Unless you like nametags, and convention centers, I guess.”

“How are you enjoying Austin?”

“More than ever,” she said, her mouth open just enough that I can see her front teeth behind her perfectly shaped lips. Her eyes were fixed on mine. We paused for a moment, caught in a mutual gaze. “Do you want to grab a drink?” I asked. “I’m not much of a swimmer.”

She laughed. “In town?”

“How about right here at the airport. I think they have a bar.”

“You don’t want to go out and see the town?”

“I’ve seen everything I need to out there.”

She looked scared for a moment, or at least hesitant. Then she answered. “One hour.” She pulled herself out of the pool, and moved over to the bench to grab her towel. She had an hourglass shape and every muscle moved gracefully. Her breasts were ample and perky, but she wore a bathing suit that hid them. It was her eyes that got my attention though. They were beautiful, brown, and unrehearsed. The kind of eyes you couldn’t hide from.

“Meet me at the bar downstairs,” she said as she ran the towel down her legs. She glanced at me as I walked passed her, breaking contact when her head was turned somewhere between 45 and 90 degrees. All she had was the bathing suit she was wearing and the towel wrapped around her chest.

I took a deep breath and got a strong waft of chlorine. My head started to ache. My fingers weren’t pruned, which means I wasn’t in long enough to really exercise. She walked around the corner and I stood there a minute waiting for her to disappear. I wasn’t going to see her in the elevator at this point. I would see her downstairs, or never again. I jumped back into the pool. The water was cool and refreshing. Once I heard the elevator door open and close a few times I hurried back to my room. Never in my life have I taken a quicker shower.

It took about twenty minutes to get dressed and groom myself, then I spent another ten talking to myself in the mirror, looking at my face to see what it looks like I’m saying, whether it’s suggestive, or awkward, or confused. I’ve never been in a situation quite like this before, and all we had was this one night. “I’m a writer, my name is Art.” I practiced the writer part repeatedly.

“I’m a writer…”

I marched out of the room with purpose, getting downstairs fifteen minutes early so I had time to grab a drink before she showed up. Something to calm my nerves. The bar was dark and woody, the furniture regal. A piano sat off to the side, but looked like it hadn’t been played in years. The bar was fully stocked. I ordered a shot of Jameson, and a glass of Glenlivet to follow. I was too distracted by the burn in my throat now to get excited.

A man with black hair, clean-shaven and middle-aged sat down at the piano and played a slow waltz. I moved over to the comfy seating in the middle where the music was audible, but where she might also surprise me when she entered. The bottom of the glass was far away. I swirled it hoping that would somehow make the alcohol hit me faster. I felt good. Leaning back and crossing my legs I grabbed onto the chair with one hand, clinging to my glass with the other when she walked in. I felt guilty at first because I didn’t recognize her and I thought she was a new girl entirely. I’d only seen her wet, with her hair back. It took only a moment though. In an eighth of a second I noticed her eyes. Her large brown eyes, and the whites around them were perfect. They were glowing. No bulge over the eyelids, and no tired bags hanging beneath. I doubt she’d ever touched them to put in contacts, or that she’d ever been told she needed glasses. They were the kind of eyes you would want to see when you woke up in the hospital, because despite the fact that you were in a hospital the fact that she was here meant this was where you were supposed to be, and she was who you were supposed to be looking at. Fuck, that’s crazy.

She wore a black and maroon shirt that sparkled in the light, suggesting the bar was meant to attract girls like her. She’d probably been here before. Dark blue jeans hid every inch of skin down to her ankles but revealed the legs underneath them and the perfect ass that supported her. I suddenly realized I didn’t know her name as she noticed me. She sat down slowly watching my every move.

“The writer,” she said.

“It sounds better when you say it,” I said. “Can I get you something to drink?”

She waved down the waiter. I had no clue what she was going to order. The look in her eyes suggested she didn’t want me to know, but she wanted me to guess. It was a pleasant state of curiosity. The waiter leaned in, and she whispered something to him without looking away. I couldn’t hear and I felt jealous, like there was some secret, some intimate detail I just missed. I took a swig hoping to hide my self-doubt.

“You swim well,” I said.

“You’re nervous,” she said. “I can tell.”

“I’m careful. Sometimes. When the occasion calls for caution.”

The waiter brought her drink. Glenlivet. “Are we in danger?” she asked.

“Not at the moment,” I said. “Are you looking for danger?”

“I think danger is an illusion. It’s how we justify staying in the middle.” She took a sip of the drink.

“Are you challenging me?”

She laughed. Her laugh reminded me of the gas they give you at the dentist’s office, only it’s her laugh that’s the gas, and I’m the one who’s about to get hysterical and let loose that secret I’ve been holding in for years. It moves all her best parts in a symphony of human perfection. She tipped her head back, and downed the glass.

The waiter immediately approached to make the switch in about five seconds.

“What’s on your mind? You look worried?” she asked.

“I don’t know where I’m going to be tomorrow, and I’m living on someone else’s dime.” I lifted my glass to prepare for a sip and said, “and I’m feeling very much alive right now. Do you know the feeling?”

“I always feel alive. Do you know the feeling?” she asked.

“I’m dying to find out,” I said. The scent of her hair opened up my lungs and my heart started pounding, my fingertips and my toes feeling the rush of oxygen flooding into them. My fingers started to get warm as I clutched the leather seat.

“Have you seen the nicest room in the hotel?” she asked.

“Never,” I said, as if I never knew there were nice rooms, and I didn’t care.

She ordered two more drinks. Hers had olives. Mine looked like vodka. “Let me give you a tour,” she said. “I have a bottle in my room.”

There’s a moment when you have the potential for a one-night-stand when you realize it isn’t going the way you planned. Not in a bad way, but you’re not in control. You can either continue as if that’s okay, which is harder than it sounds or you can try to completely change the mood by battling her for control. The latter is a delicate maneuver, whatever sex you are, because it’s the struggle and the compromise that creates the spark. It’s the unwillingness to yield that drives you to the point of exhaustion until one of you surrenders to the other’s dominance. And if you put in the right amount of fight you could be on the verge of the best sex of your life. The former always feels wrong like some primal urge is forcing you to scratch a bad itch. And it’s liberating to take the risk. To challenge her to surrender herself to your lead. And it’s liberating to succumb to her. I still haven’t asked her name.

She led us down the hall to her room, and smiled as she dropped the key into the reader. We walked in, and she moved over to the bar. She grabbed two glasses, and leaned across me to grab a bottle of wine, but I pushed it back. She reached further, and I grabbed her by the arm, her head tilting up and her eyes scanning me as she held back a smile. Her skin was covered in goosebumps. I shook my head. She didn’t say anything. I leaned in slowly, and paused, letting out a warm breath as her lips parted. My thumb brushed her earlobe and my fingers touched the side of her head as I pulled her in for a kiss.

Now, I won’t go into all the details but every stage of her appearance from her demeanor to her makeup, hair, and her outfit, and even the lacey bra and panties she wore underneath are permanently etched in my mind. Her attitude, her movements, her playfulness, and her desire to wrestle for dominance, were all uniformly sophisticated, primal, and feminine. She knew what she looked like and she was not ashamed to share it with you on a guided tour of the most thoughtful and stimulating physical gauntlet in the human theater. And she, like I, was torn between being in control and being ravaged in a physical contest where the winners are everyone who’s too tired to move. Too tired to try some grand gesture.

I fell asleep in the bed naked with my hand laid across her chest. The last thing I remembered her saying was “I like to be touched.” The alcohol made some of it cloudy, but I’ve never slept better in my entire life.


The sunrise crept in through the window illuminating her skin as I watched her take deep slow breaths. The air tickled my arm. She fit perfectly in my hold. I slipped out of the bed and stretched as I quietly moved over to the bathroom. I closed the door and brushed my teeth, turning on the water, and staring at myself in the mirror as I splashed a few drops on my face. I’m a writer. She lie face down in the white sheets more beautiful than the night before. She looked like she would need some time to recover.

Her pen was nicer than the one in my room. I scrawled out a note in my small but neat handwriting trying to make it bigger than usual. I wanted her to think I had nice handwriting. “Feeling alive all the time is exhausting. My flight leaves in a few hours. Beijing then Xi’an. Thank you.”

I left the note, then walked over to the bed and kissed her softly on the cheek. She slept deeply. I took one last look at her, and rubbed my hand over her hair. It was time to go. I walked over to the door, and lifted the handle slowly sliding out and quietly pulling it shut.

I walked over to the elevator and went down two floors. The maid was making rounds, and my door was open. My stuff was scattered throughout the room. Nothing was missing, and there was no damage. I’d never come back in the middle of a round of cleaning before.

The woman left. I showered and changed clothes but kept my jacket for the flight. Checkout time wasn’t for two hours but I was ready to leave. After a night like that I wasn’t going to hang around. I needed to move before I started thinking about what she was doing. I walked up to the desk and collected my bill. It was more than I made in the last month, which isn’t very high. Apparently it costs a lot to get inspired when it’s someone else’s money.


There were few people at the Austin-Bergstrom Airport as the shuttle pulled up to the departures. I got through the security in what felt like under twenty-five minutes. It’s a wonderful thing flying out of Austin.

My flight would go to JFK then over to Beijing directly so I had a long day ahead of me. I pulled out the email and reviewed the list of contacts first. Some were marked businessman, engineer, government official, academic, and others were marked TG. Travel guide maybe. There was another section of names marked ‘missing.’ None of the names were familiar but there appeared to be two common threads—they were mostly Westerners, and they all took weekend trips while staying in Beijing. I sat at the gate and sipped a coffee as I waited to board.


Zhang’s Hotel Room

Chengde, CN

Zhang woke up on the bathroom floor and slid his legs along the tiles. His pants felt tight, and he slowly realized they were wet. He sat with his back to the wall, slouched over, unbuttoned, and unzipped. The pungent odor quickly became overwhelming as he jolted awake. He breathed heavily, was sweating. He was soaked in urine, and wondered why he didn’t make it a few more steps. Then he felt the moisture on his back. He’d even made it to his feet before…

He looked down, and noticed the photograph lay on his lap, wet, but not ruined. The picture was starting to wear down and the image was slightly faded, but her features were brilliant. Just like the last time he saw her. She was three years his senior—a beautiful young lady, and an aspiring theater actress. She wanted to join a troupe to go traveling around the country doing various plays. Something to unite the people. She was a great dancer. He called her Wild Flower.

Zhang would listen to her talk as she danced and he would ask her to teach him. She always said no. Then one day, she was dancing, and lost her footing as she felt an unbearable pain in her abdomen. Zhang had rushed over and put his hand on her stomach, pressing down on the protruding lump. She recoiled in pain, tears welling up in her eyes. Whatever was causing it was definitely serious. He’d had stomach pains two years before, and his complaints drove Master Fu to take out his appendix. The operation went smoothly, although Zhang was partially awake, and he vividly recalled the sensation of the blade cutting through his skin. At one point he woke to see the Master’s strained face as he pulled out the infected appendix. That wasn’t a memory he wanted, and it certainly wasn’t one he would want her to have.

Zhang had operated on one other person before in Master Fu’s office, removing a tooth. It was a simple enough procedure. The old man had asked him to sit in on many occasions so he knew how to use the gas, how to administer sedatives with an IV drip, how to apply pressure to a wound, and how to patch it up. And the township had recently gotten some new treatments. Antibiotics. They were the first line of defense against all sickness now according to the old man. Zhang had grown confident that all she needed was a shot. He could give it to her himself. Administering antibiotics would be simple. If they worked, he’d be a hero. If they didn’t… well, he didn’t want to think about that possibility.

They snuck over to the old man’s place while he was at a meeting about Xi’an’s planned museum for the first emperor. Zhang asked her to lean over the table, and told her to close her eyes. The needle was just a swift prick, and then it was done. A few days went by, and she had gotten worse. She was bloated, and had developed a fever. Zhang brought her back to Master Fu. He nervously explained the situation. Master Fu shouted at Zhang and told him to take her to a hospital. But it was too late. She was sweating profusely with her temperature climbing, and she had passed out at the Master’s feet. Zhang pleaded with him to help her, but the Master didn’t know what to do. It was only when he started to cut her belly open right above the hip and off to the side that he realized she was already gone. Blood poured from the wound, and Zhang panicked. There was no breath coming out of her.

He ran over to the drawer to pull out some gauze, and applied pressure. The crimson liquid poured out of the incision. Master Fu stood over the girl, and tried to tell Zhang to leave the room, but the boy was in shock. She had been dead for at least an hour when Zhang had finally backed off the corpse and retreated to the other room. He sat in his bloody clothes the whole time holding a picture she’d given him. He was only thirteen. She was only sixteen. Master Fu banned Zhang from the office unless he was present after that, and they never talked again. After the funeral, the Master tried offering Zhang his condolences, but the boy was completely unresponsive. That’s when Zhang started drinking. He was thirteen. He’d had a couple rough years after that but he had managed to get it together. There were really only two days out of the year when he lapsed; her birthday, and the anniversary of her death.

Zhang stood up and noticed the puddle was considerably large, and he began to gag from the smell. He leaned over the toilet, and vomited. His jeans made a squishing sound as he shifted his weight. He removed his pants and his shirt, and ran the hot water in the shower. Steam filled the room.

Zhang hurried up in the shower, then headed over to his bed to get dressed. A note had been slipped under the door. It read, “Zhang – we must’ve missed you. We’re at the bar. Catch up.” He looked at himself in the mirror. No bruises. No blood. He climbed into his bed, and stared up at the ceiling as he thought about the blood samples at the site, and in the old man’s home. They’d found the one body, but what happened to the other? And why the hell was it so hard to identify a corpse?


Room 211, Airport Inn

Austin, TX

The phrase “China Expert” sat on the tip of my tongue. It might as well have been “bullshit artist.” I nervously stared at the phone on the desk. The display read “Pops,” and I realized I hadn’t even spoken with the man. How would I tell him? This opportunity came up out of nowhere. And there was no real plan beyond getting there. After I landed, what would I do? Where would I stay? How long would I be there? These were all questions I should’ve been able to answer, and I imagined that he would ask them when I called. But the big question was what would come after?

The China expert was a shitty thing to aspire to for a career. Westerners were prone to obsessing over, and defining “China” with broad strokes observations and they did a terrible job of investigating when they tried to uncover something profound. There’s a historical phenomenon in which people do this. It’s called Orientalism. The writer, typically under the delusion that they’re contributing to our understanding of the culture, instead ends up pushing the culture further away from his audience, and he becomes one more barrier that makes China seem like a strange foreign land. I think I’ve heard it referred to as China syndrome, though that also refers to something else. This China syndrome is where you say “fuck it, I’ll go to China,” and then you get there, and you’re there for a few months, maybe a year, and you start telling people, “China this,” or “China that,” meanwhile you’ve never left the city, never spoken to anyone at any considerable length about anything, you can’t even read, or understand the language except for ordering food because really that just requires pointing, or saying “Wo yao chi nage…” Then eventually you wind up in a massage parlor, and you learn through what you think is some suave network of the dark seedy underworld in China that you can get a hand job if you just act accordingly. And so then you go and tell everyone, “China’s cool with hand jobs in massage parlors.” And after all is said and done you come home, and your friends don’t recognize you. Nothing looks familiar.

There were plenty of Orientalists already. Marco Polo was one. Richard Nixon was one. The true China experts were usually journalists. Edgar Snow. Henry Luce. These guys were real experts, not the kind who wind up getting hand jobs in massage parlors because they “know things” and have an “exotic look.” They lived in the Middle Kingdom before they wrote about it. They built relationships with people before they published stories about them. If I fell somewhere in between but closer to Luce and Snow, I’d come out okay.

I grabbed the phone, and called him back. “Hi dad.”

“Hey, I just called,” he said.

“I saw that. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course.”

I stood up from the bed. “Dad, I’m going to China.”

“What?” he said with surprise in his voice.

“I got a job offer to work on this book about the Terracotta Warriors, and I’ll be heading to China for a few weeks.”

“Wait a minute, when did this happen?”

“I got the offer forty eight hours ago, and I’ve been scrambling to get everything together for the trip.”

“That’s great,” he said. “But what will you be doing?”

“Not sure exactly. Helping with pretty much anything the author needs.”

“And he didn’t tell you what?” he asked. “Who is the author?”

“I don’t know yet.”

He laughed. “How are you supposed to put something on your resume, if you don’t even know who you’re working for?”

Another question I hadn’t thought of, but because I’d assumed I would learn about the author when I got there. “I’ll meet the author when I get there. The guy who hired me owns some technology company that’s starting a new magazine, and I’ll be working for them directly.”

The line remained silent for a moment. “That sounds like a decent opportunity,” he said, his tone changing to a question halfway through the sentence.

“Dad, it’s the best opportunity I’ll ever get.”

“Nonsense, there’s something better out there,” he said.

“Dad, this could be a big company. The publication could be huge, and that means I’ll have a real shot at making good money. And if I do well I’ve got a great shot at getting into graduate school.”

He paused for a moment, then the speaker cracked as he began to shout. “Dammit, son! You can’t chase something that comes along out of the blue.”

His breathing had become loud, and panicked. “Dad, I…”

“No, listen,” he paused. “If it looks too good to be true, then it is.”

“I know it looks that way…” I said, my confidence fading. “I understand the risks.”

“Do you?” his voice turning to a plea. “Nothing is ever given to you on a silver platter like this.”

“I thought you’d be proud, dad, this is my ticket!”

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“C’mon, give it a chance.”

“You’re not thinking clearly.”

I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling, probably because it hurt. And he was right. It seemed too good to be true. But then again, maybe this was one of those moments akin to a crossroads. I steadied my voice, but spoke softly.

“Dad. I know it’s risky. I know it sounds too good to be true. But how many chances am I going to get, and how many opportunities come without risk?”

He breathed into the phone. “There’s other ways to get into grad school.”

“Maybe for other people. Dad, this is it. I’m going.”

“Then you won’t get my help.”

This time I laughed. “Help? How are you going to help me? You never took a chance like this.”

The line went dead silent. After a few moments, he hung up. I looked at the clock on the wall. It was exactly twenty-four hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. I sat on the bed, and stared out the window. The sun was still high in the sky.


Wudaokou Bar Strip

Beijing, CN

Xi looked out onto the street and signed onto his private email server from a protected computer. The direct line of communication with the Ministry of State Security had gone dark, but they still expected him to continue his mission in spite of the surveillance. Artifacts were sent through an anonymous email with price, and a phone number that was untraceable, and all Xi had to do was post it on a forum called ”The Four Olds.” This item was new. Another head of a statue that was going to be sold for $50,000.00 USD. The heads sold well. Xi didn’t know why the government was comfortable selling off these relics, but he was told it was part of a bigger mission. That was enough for him.

The dark web wasn’t new in China, but it had been used more as a free forum to avoid government censorship. Its illicit activity had slowly been on the rise, and Xi was on the front lines. He was in that realm of espionage that was so covert, he could never get immunity. If he got caught, he would be cut loose for the sake of the mission, and he would still have to execute.

The story wasn’t so easy to explain, but his uncle knew it all too well. Xi had just returned from his uncle’s home in the countryside. It began to look worn in the last decade, because his uncle no longer had the energy to maintain it, but it was still a beautiful site to see. A grey stone building, three stories high with a dark tiled roof, the kind that really protects against rain—surrounded by dirt, but with every amenity to live comfortably. Behind it was the steep incline of a mountain, which nobody had a shot at scaling. You could see someone coming from a mile away.

Xi’s family was scattered throughout every area of China. He was one of the more impressive members of his generation, though his family was having a hard time understanding his fascination with the waiguoren and how that led to his termination at the Terracotta Warriors exhibit. Luckily, it was just him and his uncle this time. The only member of the family who understood.

His uncle was just glad someone was around. Success for all the other members of the family was a wonderful thing, but he’d gotten lonely and introspective in his old age. He had met Mao. That was the biggest accomplishment of his life, and it gave him an unquestionably high esteem within the Chinese Communist Party. That wouldn’t stop the tail that followed Xi after leaving Xi’an, but they would never disturb his uncle’s property. He was beyond surveillance.

Xi and his uncle talked about the American girl. She was beautiful and kind, though he couldn’t understand her Mandarin. His uncle admitted to a fleeting fascination with American girls in particular. They were so outspoken and all the other Westerners seemed to hate them. But he’d never make an admission of any love. In his day, it just wasn’t possible to maintain a cross-cultural relationship in the party. He still made mention of a woman from his past, and never named her. And when he spoke of her, he looked different. Softer.

The streets were quiet as Xi thought back on his visit, and one conversation in particular that struck him. It started when Xi told him about the fight between the Russians and the Americans. Xi pointed to the cut, and explained that while he was at the bar, a drunken brawl had started over a girl, and the Americans and Russians quickly escalated to throwing chairs. And that was exactly the kind of story his uncle wanted to hear at his age. Anything to remind him of what it felt like to be a young man.

“That is the curse of old age,” he said. “By the time you get there, if you do, all you can do is reflect. If only you could do that before you lived.”

Xi trusted his uncle, but didn’t really know what he meant.

Then his uncle told him, “The Chairman would’ve loved to hear that story.”

Xi was speechless. “You tease me, old man.”

He nodded. “I promise.” His uncle didn’t tell him why, but the Chairman would’ve chuckled in his grave if he heard that the Russians and the Americans got into a huge brawl in a bar in Beijing. Xi suspected this was because he’d heard all these stories about how the Chairman was a brilliant mixer, and an expert political infighter.

The streets were quiet as Xi closed up his laptop, and stood at the window. He watched the bars across the street, but there was nobody around. It was early still. He looked at the magazines, and grabbed a copy of Time hoping to keep up to date with world news. It was so odd, he thought. There was so much going on the Western media wouldn’t cover, so much they weren’t aware of. He sat down in the chair, and flipped through the pages as he waited to close down the shop.


Room 325, The Driskill Hotel


Austin, TX

The telephone rang off the hook as I shot up from my bed and looked around for the device. It wasn’t the classic bell that shook the entire nightstand; it was the robotic ring with the red blinking light—the one that sounds like it’s underwater. The most premeditated of phone calls. A ringing landline. It reminded me that a decade ago cell phones were never called “smart” and you might still have someone’s phone number memorized. I picked up the receiver and felt compelled to answer with something more formal like “hello,” instead of “yo,” or “what’s up, man?” There are no angry birds, calculators, calendars, text messages, or notifications to distract. No background images, cameras, downloadable apps, ring tones, emails, or music. The landline was no vacation from the world around you; it had a singular purpose—to allow you to connect with someone and have a conversation.

The sound of the ring was maybe the worst sound in the world. It was disruptive by design, and nerve-racking to wake up to the sound—even worse when you consider that you’re completely blindsided by whoever’s waiting to speak to you on the other end. You have no idea if it’s family, friends, coworkers, debt collectors, or a masked man who’s watching you through the window. There’s someone on the other side of the line thinking, “let’s talk,” and you get no time to prepare for this. You just get to react in the moment.

After a dozen rings or so, I climbed out of bed, and walked over to the desk to pick up the receiver. By the final ring, I was fully alert.

“Mr. Biers?”

“Yes…” I answered.

“Your wife picked up your book about an hour ago, but she told me to call you and make sure you were awake.”

“Say that again?” I said, hoping my panic wasn’t obvious. The clerk hesitated on the other end, his silence suggesting he might have recognized that something wasn’t right with my voice.

“Your wife,” he started. “Sh-she came over after you went upstairs, and asked if you remembered to pay out. I told her you did. I mentioned your book, and she had me leave a note to notify her first thing in the morning so she could collect it.”

I wanted to reach through the phone like a cartoon, pull the son-of-a-bitch into my room, and shake him by his collar, but I couldn’t for the life of me convince myself he’d done something wrong. I wondered who she was. Was it the beautiful girl I met at the party or another girl I’m not remembering? Was it a random girl at the bar who saw me and just felt like living dangerously? My life was in there. The numbers, the passwords, the accounts, everything you’re supposed to keep secured and private. Instead of losing it, I took a breath and responded, “Excellent, I’ll be right down.” The wind whistled from the window as I hung up the phone, slamming the receiver down onto the base.

My clothes were scattered throughout the room, as I scrambled through my pockets for the key. It wasn’t there. I threw my pants on, and saw the card laying on the floor next to the bed. I grabbed it, put my shoes on, and rushed out of the room to the elevator. It was 6:07AM and I was still partially drunk. My eyes fixated on the hotel carpet as my depth perception was thrown off, and I started to feel dizzy. I rubbed my temples and arrived at the elevator door.

The elevator opened quickly, a tin can on a computerized pulley system not unlike a bucket going up and down a well. Almost every building with more than two floors had one, and even some with two floors need them to accommodate wheelchairs. I wonder if it would’ve been faster to take the stairs. This elevator was well insulated. Cool. Not like some of the shoddier hotels where the shaft of the elevator feels like a furnace in the summer.

I reached for the button. Down to the lobby, or is it a mezzanine? Begin the controlled fall. A red light lit up above the door as the box began to drop. The bell dinged, softer than a microwave, and telling me I’ve come to a safely controlled stop. The door steadily slid open revealing a couple scattered crowds of people in real business attire. This was not a moment where I fit in. I’d forgotten what early birds look like. Some are holding their coffee, others chatting with their badges proudly on display. I walked to the desk, and tried to avoid making eye contact. It was still somewhat dark out. The woman behind the desk waved me down.

“Your wife said you were in a hurry,” she said.

“Yes,” I answered. “I’m about to go on a trip out of the country.”

“Congratulations,” she said awkwardly, half-smiling.

“My wife is taking me on a vacation, but she won’t tell me where. Did she say anything?”

“I… don’t. Think so,” she answered looking at the other clerk.

“Worth a shot,” I said.

There were fire engine lights flashing outside the front, and a truck that was parked in the alley.

“What’s all that?” I asked.

“Oh, there was a dumpster fire in the alley last night,” she said. “Someone said they saw one of our guests throwing fire out the window. You didn’t see anything like that, did you?”

“No,” I said. “I didn’t.” I shrugged, and looked out the window at the fire truck.

“Can I do anything else for you, sir?” she asked.

“No, thank you.”

“Oh,” she said as she walked over to the fax machine. “We received a fax this morning.” She handed me a manila envelope, and smiled. I tore at it, and pulled out the paper to see that my Visa had been approved. I put the paper back in the envelope, and walked toward the buffet. There was a coffee bar setup by the front door. I poured myself a cup, and grabbed a plate of eggs and a bagel. My flight was scheduled to leave at 4:05pm the next day. I went back to my room, packed up my things, and headed over to the airport hotel for my last night in town.


Lao Cheng Ba

Near the Hotel

Chengde, CN

Wyatt and Bruce walked up the street and stopped outside a door that looked like all the others at a glance. The streets were silent. The spot was marked with an asterisk on a printed map that Zhang had given them. They looked up at the confusing characters on the wooden sign above the door. As far as Bruce could tell, they looked the same, but he wasn’t entirely sure. The name of the place written in pinyin appeared on their map as Lao Cheng ba, but in this part of China there was no pinyin—a fact that made it difficult for both of them to get around. Bruce opened the door and looked at Wyatt. They reluctantly stepped in, and glanced around the bar. There were about eight people, completely silent, staring at the door as they entered.

“Is this Lao Cheng ba?” Bruce asked. The other patrons looked at each other, and muttered something neither Bruce nor Wyatt understood. The bartender waved them down, smiling as he pointed at the bottles on display behind the counter. Bruce and Wyatt nodded as he pointed at the bottle labeled Tsingtao. Everyone went back to their conversations, and ignored the two of them.

“How do you think this is going to end?” Wyatt asked as he settled into his seat.

The bartender put two bottles in front of them. Bruce took a swig of his drink, and whispered. “Let’s look at the possibilities. The history of this tomb is legendary. Booby traps, rivers of mercury… it’s all grand. But why don’t we know what’s inside?”

Bruce pulled out his notebook, and unfolded a diagram of the site on the table. Wyatt looked down at the diagram and offered his best guess. “They don’t want to destroy it.”

Bruce shook his head. “No.”

Wyatt said. “That’s their story.”

“I know. The technology’s there though.”

“Is it?”

“China has said publicly they plan on landing on Mars in a matter of years. How could they have the tech for something like that, but not for a tomb here on Earth?”

“It’s not the same,” Wyatt said confidently.


“No,” he took a sip of his drink. “Researching Mars might unlock a path forward for colonization, or something else.”


“Yeah, digging up a tomb is purely about political power and there’s a million things that can shift that balance of power.”

Bruce shrugged as he pointed down at the location of the emperor’s Tomb. “But that’s the trick isn’t it.”

Wyatt looked at Bruce confused, and frustrated. “What?”

“History is all make believe. Think about it. Would anyone travel to Xi’an, China if the tomb wasn’t here and open to the public?” Bruce asked.

“No, probably not,” Wyatt admitted.

“And if I could show you a piece that came from inside the emperor’s tomb, how much do you think it would get from a private collector?”

“Jesus,” Wyatt said. “I don’t know.”

Bruce looked around the room at the bartender, and the other tables. They were quiet, but they were glancing over occasionally. He leaned in, and whispered. “I do. And the crazy thing is that you’re right. There’s no fountain of youth in there. No secret to sustainability. It’s all geopolitical power. And it’s like Pandora’s Box. The second you open it, you unleash evil.”

“Bull,” Wyatt said.

“Not like plagues, or spirits or anything, but the tomb itself is this unknown source of mystery for China’s identity. When it’s opened to the public, everything changes,” he said.

“What about Troy? Nothing changed when that was discovered.”

“Are you kidding?” Bruce asked. “Troy was fiction before Heinrich Schliemann decided it wasn’t. You read the Iliad now, and it’s not just an epic poem. Think about how powerful that is. People thought he was out of his mind. Then after he found the site, a lot of it went missing. During World War II a lot of it was stolen by the Nazis. We still don’t know what happened to most of it.”

Wyatt was deep in thought as he stared down at Bruce’s notebook. The door slammed, and Wyatt shuttered thinking about the sound of fists pounding on doors. Not here, he thought. Bruce noticed Wyatt had become distracted, and waved at the bartender for two more beers.

“The reason they won’t go in,” Bruce said, “is because the person who goes inside the tomb is going to be responsible for all the evils that fall upon China and the rest of the world after. Its entire history, and how the world sees it are going to change. How powerful is it to control that narrative?”

Wyatt hesitated as he looked back at Bruce. The idea was absurd, but the words had hit a little too close to home. “What are we really doing here?”

“Just telling the real story. Making sure nothing gets swept under the rug.”

“Like what?”

Bruce leaned in again, and looked around to make sure nobody would hear him. “The tomb has already been opened.”

“How do you know that?” Wyatt asked.

“Call it a hunch.”

“So why not make it public?”

“You tell me,” Bruce said. “Why would they opt to go to Mars before they excavate the emperor’s tomb?”

“I don’t know,” Wyatt answered.

“There’s really only one answer,” Bruce suggested, the bartender sliding two fresh beers over to them.

“It’s fake,” Wyatt said. “Or it’s been destroyed, and it’s their fault.”

Bruce waved his finger, and smacked his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “It’s too good to be true,” he said, pointing at a diagram of the complex in his notebook.

“Why?” Wyatt asked.

“Well, strictly speaking from an outsider’s perspective, it is oddly convenient that they found it when they did. Why not before the PRC? And why right before Mao’s death?”

“Maybe,” Wyatt answered. “But the story about the farmers digging a well… why wouldn’t it have happened exactly at that time. I’ll give you that, politically, the timing is just right, but from the perspective of the farmers it sounds reasonable.”

“Even if it’s reasonable, there’s obviously something going on with it.”

Wyatt reached up to flag down the bartender. He wore jeans, and a tight dark t-shirt. He had a thin mustache and long shaggy hair like George Harrison. He and everyone else in the bar were looking at them discretely.

“Do you have any whiskey, pal?” asked Bruce.

“Shen me?” answered the waiter.

He mouthed the syllables “whisss-key.” The waiter didn’t answer. He looked across the bar and pointed at a glass, holding up his hands to indicate the size of the vessel.

“Baijiu ma? Hao de.” The bartender reached under the counter for a short stout white bottle, and two glasses. They were cloudy, but clean enough.

“I’m gonna need to figure out how to say whiskey,” Wyatt said.

“So, here’s one of these wild theories. The tomb is a symbol like all other things of the ethnic heritage of the Han people. So Mao builds the tomb, calls for a cultural revolution as cover, and directs the youth in the country to destroy things of the past. He then delays the discovery of the tomb until it’s over. Now that everything else is gone, China has a traceable heritage, the dust has settled, and the divine mandate of the Communist party is unquestionable.”

“But how could they do that while fighting a War?” Wyatt asked.

“They couldn’t,” Bruce answered.

“So you’re disproving these theories?”

“Not exactly,” Bruce said. “More like acknowledging them, and explaining what would have to happen for the theory to be plausible. Usually that’s enough to disprove them.”

“What about this elixir?” Wyatt asked. “You think our guy is here?”

“Doesn’t look like it,” Bruce looked around. “That was likely arsenic. The emperor took it believing that in the next life he would be immortal.”

“Also convenient,” Wyatt conceded.

“Right. Immortality in the next life is harder to disprove.”

Four of the men stood up and left. Wyatt watched the door shut behind them on the way out. The entire bar was silent. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Sure.”

“So, think about it… 2,000 years go by and nobody’s been into this tomb. If it survives that long and the government in power claims it as part of their heritage, then how can they ever go in?”

Wyatt waved the bartender down for another drink. The bartender smiled and left the bottle in front of them. Wyatt threw down two hundred kuai notes, and cautiously grabbed the bottle as he looked at the bartender for approval. The bartender took the money and nodded.

“What killed the emperor?” Wyatt asked.

“Probably the elixir,” Bruce said, pointing.

“And if it’s real, can we find evidence?”

“It would’ve preserved him. I think without the tomb, the potion and the whole story nobody cares about the Qin Emperor and China’s still living in a fractured state. Like in the early twentieth century.”

“So, it’s a fraud,” Wyatt said looking down at Bruce’s drawings.

“That’s one theory.”

“It’s interesting. What can we learn from this guy—the man with the recipe?” Wyatt asked.

Bruce poured himself another glass. “Nothing really. He’s just another lead to interview for the story.”

“So what the hell are we doing here?” Wyatt asked.

“There’s something going on at this site that’ll change the world when it’s found.”

“You can’t be serious…” Wyatt answered. “You think you’re going to be the one to uncover it?”

“Somebody will,” Bruce said, holding up his glass. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the green cloth he’d taken from the Temple, spreading it out so the swastika was visible. “Remember all it takes is one push to change the way the world sees things.” He pointed at the center of the cloth. “Imagine what this would mean to us if they won.”

Wyatt looked at the diagram of the site. It was a huge complex. There wasn’t much throughout history that compared to the grandeur of the Terracotta Army, let alone the entire complex. He looked around the room and noticed the locals were starting to pay attention to their conversation. They didn’t react to the words. But they were watching more closely now. Wyatt raised his glass.

“To immortality,” he said. “In the next life.”

Wyatt took a sip then sat quietly and thought about the missing drone. The Chinese had agreed to let Wyatt build a drone under the guise that it could be used for excavations, but the University had no idea that he was taking it out of the lab for testing. Not at the moment. If they found it, he could be in a lot of trouble.

Bruce went back to scribbling something in his notebook then closed it and put it back in his breast pocket. Wyatt watched carefully, and massaged his temples as the thought came to him. The drone had never been found. And it had never sent its error report. That could become a big problem for Wyatt if they weren’t more careful.


The Driskill Hotel


Austin, TX

The lobby was dark. The tile floor, and the stained glass on the ceiling looked like they hadn’t changed for over a hundred years. The lamps were dimmed by thick plastic casings around the bulb, every one of them giving off a dark orange glow. The Driskill Hotel was rumored to be haunted, and it looked like it could be. I walked around the lobby and hung a left at the stairs to go by the information desk. The clerk was surprisingly not swamped. She had her hair tied back, and a smile that slowly faded as she watched me approach. I lifted my hands, rested them on the desk, and nodded as she looked back at me, a curious grin on her face. She lowered her head, and wrote something on a pad.

“If you could be anywhere at all for South by Southwest right now, where would you go? I asked.

“Home,” she answered. A confounding answer. Home wasn’t even a real concept for me anymore. I was always out, doing anything but settling, and everything but rooting. She looked tired.

“Me too. Do you have an open room?” I asked.

“It’s kind of last minute,” she answered.

I guess that’s an answer. I looked back at her, and kept quiet. She paused as she slowly went through the system and pulled up a last minute cancellation. “Must be your lucky day,” she said. “Luck never lasts. Credit or debit?”

I passed my card to her, and waited as she handed me a piece of paper. I signed it, and realized my signature looked like shit—like the scribbling of an overambitious child with a broken wrist. The “A” was the only legible letter in the sequence. She grabbed the paper, and put the key up on the desk.

“Do you think it’s safe to leave my car parked over at the bookstore?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure. If you don’t mind picking it up from an impound lot,” she answered.

“I do.”

“Well, then I guess you better move it somewhere else.”

Ignoring her sarcasm, I decided nobody would be towing tonight. I grabbed my key, and walked up the carpeted stairs to the bar. Usually going to bars was what I would do to avoid thinking about the future, and now I was nervous. There was a lot that could go wrong. The carpet was maroon, the walls a dark walnut. The couches and chairs were made of leather, or Victorian. The bar sat in the back.

I sat down at the stool and looked up at the TV. The news ran a piece on Kissinger’s trip to Austin. He was the highlight of the speakers at the Book Store, and they used his talk to discuss how the festival deviated from some of its traditional events this year. Then they ran footage of me standing over a fallen journalist. The man genuinely looked scared. I looked confused. The journalist described it as, “a showdown between two political worldviews.” Fuck my life.

I felt an uncomfortable pressure on my right buttocks as I moved around in my chair and realized I was sitting on my journal. I reached into my pocket and slowly pulled it out, placing it on the bar as another folded paper fell to the floor. It was my rejection letter. I bent down to pick it up. The words had faded almost completely. I could read only a few as I unfolded it and spread the paper out on the bar. The message had faded, but the pain was permanently imprinted. Was it worse to face rejection outright, or to enter the arena and be brought to the brink of death? Could you ever bounce back from something like that?

There were a handful of people at the bar, all of whom had a badge, and none of whom seemed to be paying attention to the screen until the footage of me started playing. The guy on the far side smiled as he pointed over at the screen, and he quickly covered his mouth like you would when a player got hit so hard his helmet flew off. Then I noticed him mouth the words; pressing charges. I looked back at the screen as the interviewer questioned the man about the “altercation” which was conveniently recorded and only right before he fell down. He was gracious enough to say that “whoever it was probably didn’t realize what he was doing, and at this time I’ve decided not to press charges.” I reached for my drink and knocked it over, spilling the liquid on my rejection letter, and my notebook.

The bartender ran up, and handed me some napkins to throw over the counter as he apologized for my mistake. I waved him off. I had my life in this book. For some reason I kept my passwords, my card numbers, my security codes, my accounts in it. Everything was tucked neatly away in the back pages of the book, and you’d never think to look for it if you looked at the mindless ramblings in the front. I recorded my random thoughts throughout the day with the lofty hope that someday it would all make sense.

The napkins became saturated quickly and I gave up on trying to dry off the counter. At this point it had just become a pool that the napkins moved across the surface, and the spill was no longer localized to the section in front of me. I’d made a mess of the whole damn bar. I looked at the mess, and completely gave up my responsibility in cleaning it as a group of five guys in the corner of the room wearing badges, and sweating profusely shouted. They banged their fists on the table, which shook the plates, the utensils, and this large trophy they had resting on the tabletop. They looked like co-founders of a young startup. They’d just won an important award.

They were quiet enough amid the noise of the bar that I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but I heard them talking about whether they should move to Austin or San Francisco to get to the next level. Someone loudly shouted that they’ve been quoted a value of $15 million dollars and that next year it’d be twice that. They were on their way to a major buyout.

“We don’t need to move here,” one of them said. “There’s nothing here.” He held the trophy and spoke with an ambiguous accent just like mine. These five individuals, company co-founders, sat on the fast track to money and power, and they’d never really have to struggle again for the rest of their lives if they played it smart. But that was the trick, wasn’t it? How do you play it smart when you’re no longer hungry? What’s the next thing that would keep you grounded, and focused? You always needed something to chase.

They stumbled out of their seats as the bartender shouted for last call. I climbed out of mine, much drunker than when I sat down, and I knocked my notebook onto the floor. One of the guys walked by and stepped on my book tearing half a dozen pages out. His customer happiness badge swung back and forth as he struggled to keep his balance. He lurched forward, none the wiser, and then slowly rounded the corner as the group broke into a chorus of Piano Man:


Sing us a song, you’re the piano man!

Sing us a song toniiiightt!

Well we’re a-da-de-da-da-for a meody

And you got us feelin’ alright…


I stood up from my barstool, dumbfounded, and staring at them as they walked happily down the stairs and into the lobby. The pages were noticeably torn, damp, and dirtied, as I bent down to pick them up. They were unrecoverable, but thankfully they were also completely worthless. I’d blame the drunken fool, but I envied him.

“You staying in the hotel?” the bartender asked.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Is that important?” he pointed.

“Maybe. Can you do something to dry this off?” I handed him the notebook. “Ya got a heater back there or something?”

“Yeah,” he said as he took the book. “Come by in the morning, and pick it up. It should be alright,” he said with a completely confident tone.

“What’s in it?” he asked.

“Just some notes,” I answered.

“Got it. Do you want anything for last call?”

“No. Thanks.”

I slipped the bartender my last twenty-dollar bill and walked down to the lobby, trying not to fall down the carpeted stairs and onto the tile floor. The elevator was a much tighter space than most as I climbed in, but it was completely silent as the door slowly closed. The cab stood still as I checked my key to find that I was on the third floor. I pushed the button and the elevator smoothly began its brief climb.

The bell rang and the door opened, revealing the portrait of a little girl with flowers. I casually walked down the hall toward room 325, and fumbled through my pockets for the key. The light turned green as I dropped it in, and the door opened with ease as I pushed it. I kicked off my shoes, slung my jacket over the chair, and walked over to the window as I felt the letter in my back pocket. The window faced an alley between the Driskill and the office building next door. Sounds from the street below echoed as I lifted the window and felt a cool breeze blowing in.

I pulled out the letter, and a lighter from my other pocket. My thumb rolled over the flint as I held the flame to the paper. It burned slowly. I held it out the window, and the paper slipped through my fingers out onto the street below, and out of my sight. I walked over to the bed, and collapsed. The wind picked up and whistled as I closed my eyes.


South by South West Interactive

Austin, TX

My suitcase was all packed. My apartment was ripe for abandonment. I had driven down to the Vanguard Office and submitted my Visa application to the Consulate via fax and I had waited around the Downtown area all day for confirmation that the application was being reviewed. They said it would be returned to me in the morning. The Vanguard had some priority agreement for the press that allowed them to get Visas fast tracked, but that didn’t do anything to calm my nerves. I was restless. If I played my cards right this would surely get me into a University graduate program. Hell, if I did a good enough job, it’d be much more than a ticket to graduate school.

The stakes were high. I technically still had nothing. My future was $50,000 from being paid off, dangling in front of me like a fish about to jump off the hook, but the dots were starting to form into a shape.

I decided to spend the evening at the bookstore checking out the Chinese history section. A couple books for the road wouldn’t hurt. What else would you do on a twelve-hour flight? At around 9:00PM I became so anxious I had to stop reading, so I threw the books I’d purchased in the back seat of my car and started walking down the streets of Downtown. As I passed by the historic Driskill Hotel, I remembered Paul was throwing a party around the corner. I thought I should go and let him know I was leaving. The thought of free booze to pass the time didn’t hurt either.

The official badges for the festival cost about as much as five months of my student loan payments. Let that sink in. I’ll be in my forties when they’re paid off. Probably living some domestic life in a town like Small Town, thinking it’s not too late for a break, and I’ll finally have the temperament and the focus to make it happen. But I won’t have the energy or the resilience. If I’m lucky, I’ll be in a house that was just a great deal. But I’ll wonder how the hell did I get here? Maybe in that world there’s a kid running around, and I’ll be so busy trying to provide a life for said offspring that I’ll miss out on the moments that matter. I’ll be worn down, starting to show wrinkles, and wondering how to tell the story with a picture of Colonel Sanders on my wall, next to a picture of Heinrich Schliemann taunting me, next to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt cackling at me, his jaw agape. And I’ll bait the kid with exaggerated stories that’ll make my prospective daughter or son want to work hard enough in school that they won’t have to pay for it.

Back to the festival. The events are overpriced to say the least. They’re always overpriced. The trick to getting your money’s worth out of South By South West is knowing what you’re there to sell, and taking the time to figure out how to get the word out without paying a dollar. For the people who can afford to pay $1,500 for a badge, or tens of thousands to host an event, the networking possibilities are endless. But those people already have good jobs, or a strong skill set, or a steady revenue stream. For the rest of us a badge can actually be bad news. You need an ironclad pitch to show people your value, or they’ll remember you for being a waste of space. That gives the whole festival a bad name. It puts the event at risk.

I parked my car at the bookstore and left it there. It was a mile or so from my destination, but the spot was free. Paul’s company was located in a big office on the corner of Seventh and Brazos and it sat a block away from the heart of all the madness high on a hill where you can spy on the herds of drunkards from a safe distance.

There were plenty of companies who setup shop in high traffic areas offering entertainment, and food and drinks for the evening. And there was no shortage of media at each event. Some of them even wore their badges prominently because they wanted to be pitched stories. They carried cameras, or notepads, and they just waited for people to come up to them. Gave out a seemingly endless supply of business cards. Those writers were a special breed. True hustlers. But the odds that they’re going to write about you are pretty slim. Here’s a good rule of thumb—if the person you just met isn’t tired from the onslaught of conversations, then their publication needs the content, and they’re looking to build their audience from the ground up. It doesn’t make them any less legitimate, it just means they have a lot of work ahead. They might even require you to share the story with your network. The others, the journalists from the reputable sources, have hidden their badges, or at least they’ve covered the name because they have a very specific task and purpose. They’re deep in conversation with someone, and they’re always beyond reach, in a VIP area, or somewhere exclusive.

Red solo cups filled every hand by the front door as I entered. There was nobody checking badges at the door, no guest list to sign into. Just walk in, grab a cup, and start networking. The companies who sponsored events like Paul’s company have just gotten seed money to the tune of a couple million and they’re trying to attract talent. They’ll give presentations to get some exposure and spread the word, and smaller companies manned by one or two people setup booths to show off their new toys. The really great companies, the ones giving presentations, do this because they believe in offering value across the board. Give away something good for free, and it’ll pay off in the end. Their presentations also tend to be more interesting. They’re doing things you’ve read about in Forbes, Tech Crunch, or Mashable, and they’re maybe even the first company to do it. These presentations are the kind where you hear about new buzzwords; only these aren’t the headline events so they don’t get nearly as much attention. Big data, PR 2.0, Web 2.0, Social Media 2.0, anything you can think of point “o”. It’s first mentioned here, and then digital media “Webutantes” spread the word to the farthest reaches of the United States, and back to Silicon Valley for a big self-gratifying circle jerk in open-concept company bathrooms. I’m kind of bitter I’m not among the crowd if you can’t tell. I’m not one of those people anyone gives a shit about at the festival. I’m just another head in the crowd. Just another name to put on the email list.

Paul’s company did something with drones, or the technology that went into running them, but I couldn’t remember what exactly. Might have been a special kind of chip manufacturing. He was some sort of backend developer who made sure all the servers that communicated with the device stayed up and running and were talking to each other. This sounded to me like someone who read a diary written by an adolescent computer chip. I have no idea the title for this position, but I think he introduced himself to people as a product manager.

“Art!” someone shouted from deeper in the building. It was Paul. He pushed through a crowd wearing a company t-shirt and jeans. The design on the front depicted a pyramid with an eye floating above it.

“Paul, hey!” I said. “Good to see you.”

“You too, man,” he answered. “Did you get a drink?”

“Not yet.”

“Let’s get one.”

The crowd was very professional looking. Young, early to mid twenties, and bright smiles. The strobe light seemed to emphasize their vitality, as they smiled in the short spurts of light coming out of the bulb. The flash was near blinding as we approached the bar.

“What do you guys do again?” I asked.

“Cloud computing,” he said.

“That’s right.” Everyone seemed to be in cloud computing. It was just another way of saying you rented the computers you used, and you had no idea where the data was stored. “Big industry,” I said.

“No kidding. I’m under a lot of pressure right now. We’re testing this system that’s incorporating more networks, and more devices than I’ve ever worked on in my life. Like imagine if the UN had one interpreter for every language to make sure there was one source for recording an entire international discussion.”

“No kidding,” I said.

“Yeah. They won’t even tell me what it’s for, but it’s like a Mars Rover.”

Paul reached behind the counter and grabbed a bottle of Patron. Tequila was his drink of choice. He drank it to celebrate, to unwind, to work, to think. He spent nearly sixty hours a week on his projects. The last four years of his career had been driving him to the brink of exhaustion, but he’d gotten a handle on it when he started working here. This company was the one that would define the rest of his life. He was sure of it.

“How was your night last night?” he asked, raising his arm and flagging someone down.

“Great. Actually, I got a job offer. I’m leaving tomorrow.”

He leaned in like he didn’t hear a word I said.

“Did you say you’re going somewhere?”

“Yeah,” I shouted. “Beijing.”

He leaned back, and said, “No shit?”

“Yeah, I got an offer to help research this story.”

“Congrats, man!” he shouted, holding his fist out, and bumping mine. “What’s the story about?”

“I don’t know if I can say exactly, but it’s a book, and it has to do with China. I’m helping the author research some sources for it, and I’ll be writing a piece about the project.”

“What are you a journalist?” he asked.

“I think so,” I answered. “I just gotta write a good story.”

“Congrats, man!” he said, as he lifted his cup to cheers mine.

“Did you say Beijing?” he asked.


“I might be there in a few weeks to meet a client.”

“No shit?” I said. “I’ll be in a couple different places for the trip, but Beijing’s one of them, so email me and we’ll figure out a way to meet up.”

“Definitely,” he said. I’ve never been.”

“I can show you a couple great places.”

“Yeah, let’s figure something out,” he said. “That’s crazy good news, ma…”

I imagine he was about to say congratulations when a woman came into my view from across the room, her legs carrying her like a cruise missile as heads turned to follow her. She was 5’7”, blonde, beautiful, and aware that I was looking her way. Everyone was. The noise around me suddenly disappeared except the bass, which sent crushing shockwaves through my chest, making my hair stand up. Nobody else seemed to be bothered by it. She walked, undisturbed, as half a dozen guys followed her out of the corner of their eyes. Half a dozen conversations had just gone completely dead.

Slightly freckled cheeks, big lips, bright eyes, and a look of “I get it already” gave her face that callous indifference like she was ready for her next disappointment. I started to think that I may want to die an old man with dozens of offspring surrounded by dark, red wood, with old books, and photo albums decorating my walls. But like she would never be the one to settle down with. She would never be the adventure of a lifetime. Still, an image flashed through my mind of young children running down the halls and finding grandpa passed out in the study with a book on his chest, and his hands folded over the cover. Maybe a glass of lemonade sweating on the armrest. I could get behind that.

I must’ve been staring at this point. She came nearer and looked at me like she was in my head this whole time. I thought about turning, but I wasn’t listening to a word Paul was saying, if he was still talking. I tried to stay relaxed but felt a rush of adrenaline. My mind began to race as it quickly led me to the distinct conclusion that I’d wasted my life up until this point. She stopped walking and I leaned forward, opening my mouth, completely unaware of the words that had started to emerge. “Can you do that again?” I asked, realizing I’d been staring at her since she was on the other side of the room.

“Sorry, there’s no do overs,” she said, her chin tilted down.

“No? I guess I’ll have to remember that moment for the rest of my life then.”

She smiled. “I probably won’t. Don’t take it personal.”

I held up my hand. “I won’t sweetheart.”

She smiled again. “And what do you do? Marketing? Engineering? Sales?”

“No, nothing that exciting. Actually, I am, was unemployed and now I’m a world class adventurer, and would-be writer on the cusp of changing history.”

“Sounds dangerous,” she answered with a playful glance.

“Does it?”

“What are you writing about?” she asked.

“I’m researching and writing about undiscovered history.”

She smiled at me and looked to the door like she wanted to leave, like maybe she even wanted me to give chase. But like she didn’t want me to walk alongside her. She seemed too focused for distractions. Like her plans would go down exactly as she expected. At least that’s the first thought that came to mind when she started biting her finger and looking at me. Well, maybe not the first thought.

“What do you do?” I asked, trying not to seem too interested.

“I destroy men who call me sweetheart,” she said smiling.

Off to a good start.

She smiled again. “I write about the intersection of business and technology. Trying to stay on top of the next big thing.”

My body quickly moved to fight or flight, like everyone around just got hostile, and my heart started to pound. My thighs were twitching, and I tensed up, taking a deep breath and putting my chin down. Looking down on her curves was better than the view from the top of the Empire State Building or the Pearl Tower. Especially the way she stood like she didn’t give a fuck about what I had to say. I really dug that. I felt myself pulled back to Earth as Paul chattered on about a huge story being published in some national tech blog. He patted me on the back, as he cut between us.

“Let’s get you a drink, and toast your trip.”


“Um, have you two met yet? Natalie, this is Art. Actually, you two probably have a lot in common, this is excellent. Hang out, I’ll grab us some drinks.”

He made his way to the counter. How did people celebrate success before alcohol? It seems like most people at the top greet you with some kind of mind inhibiting liquid wrecking ball you’ve never had. And do people who ‘give it up’ find something else to celebrate the end of a job well done? Was there ever a time when they could drink and not worry about going overboard, or was it predetermined that alcohol would fundamentally transform them into some violent, self-destructive and base human travesty?

Paul came back with some neon green test tubes, and handed two to each of us. “To living your dreams no matter the cost. And to the adventures you never plan for,” he said.

I gulped down the first one quickly; pausing to make sure nothing dripped down my chin before I gulped the second.

“I was going to guess your name was Helen.”

“Does that make you Herodotus?”

“Definitely not Agamemnon and I’d like to think I’m more courageous than Paris, so I guess our story hasn’t been written yet. Which is good because I don’t remember the Iliad having enough focus on female satisfaction. Seems like a common theme in the classics.”

She let loose a laugh and raised her eyebrow at me, adding a few beats to my heart. “You’re such a pig… Where did you say you were going?”

I said, “Beijing.”

She finally smiled. “No kidding, I used to work there. I worked at a P.R. firm. Spent two years there, then I found greener pastures in graduate school.”

“Let me guess—Ivy League, Stanford?”

She said, “Stanford is Pac Twelve, sports guy. Rice. English.”

“And now you’re at the epicenter of the economic miracle that is Austin, Texas reporting from the front lines of the future. Did you go to China for the same reason?”

She gave me all of her eyes for an uninterrupted six seconds before I had to blink, but the image stuck in my head. “And I guess you’re some kind of China expert?” she asked.

“You know I hate that term, but it sounds pretty good when you say it. I am a lucky man in an otherwise poorly timed universe, and I am the product of having a very limited set of options.”

“Timing is everything,” she said.

“It sure is.”

“Tell you what,” she said as she reached for a card, “When you get there, call this number, the one I’m writing down,” she smiled. “I made some friends in Beijing. Mention my name and they’ll take you out to see some things you’ll never forget. This is my card. Send me an email.”

“Now, wait a second, sweetheart. I just met you. Why should I trust you?”

She leaned in, and I anticipated a catastrophic meltdown, an airborne toxic event, a full on assault, but then she whispered, “because, you can’t help yourself.” She smiled and grabbed me by the collar slowly pulling me in. She held me tight, and looked at my lips, then up at my eyes and she said, “And don’t call me sweetheart. Got it?”

I stared at her as she slowly let go of my collar. She held her stare. The scent of her hair wafted in my direction. I was close enough to count the lines in her lips. She walked past me without looking back.

Her card was simple and elegant. Her handwriting was sloppy, but lacked the usual smiley face and heart bullshit some girls never grow out of so I took that as a good sign. Her body fit into her dress like a chemical solution formed perfectly to her shapely curves. She was every forbidden fruit depicted in writing, an ageless Eve, a daring woman. And she wasn’t going to play nice, because she knew that she could get more if she didn’t. She was someone men didn’t write about in the modern day. We were too scared she’d find out.

Paul smiled at me like he didn’t hear a word of our conversation. I couldn’t help but think he was trying to suggest she’s a “great girl.” It was in his eyebrows.

“I need to go sleep,” I told him.

“Alright, hey, good news, man. This is going to be an incredible experience. I can feel it. Maybe we can do a thing in Beijing.” He nodded. “Who are you writing for again?”

“The guy is from Austin,” I said. “His name is Wyatt.”

“That name sounds familiar,” he said. “We’ll talk soon.”

We shook hands and I walked to the door. The clock on the wall said 9:30PM. Forty-eight hours to go. I had no idea where I was going to be in a year, or whether my life would be better at that point. I’d gotten used to the feeling. It had been like that by default. I decided to leave and headed to the nearest hotel bar, for no other reason than that it was time to do something different. It was late, and I was too drunk to consider going anywhere near my car. I clutched Natalie’s business card and shoved it into my pocket as I walked toward the Driskill, carefully avoiding the large crowds as I descended the hill toward the hotel entrance.