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The Mandate of Heaven

The Mandate of Heaven

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The Mandate of Heaven

348 pages
5 heures
Jun 13, 2017


Russian meddling in U.S. elections looks amateurish compared to what the Chinese are planning for 2032. Such is the backdrop of a new satirical work, called "The Mandate of Heaven," in which the Chinese government strikes at America's Achilles' heel. The result is a rollicking story, both serious and silly, that reads like a blending of Fahrenheit 451, Mary Poppins, and 30 Rock . . . in other words, a portrayal of America’s New Normal.

Join Bert Alfred, an unknown American author, as he is silenced and robbed of his works by an official of the Chinese government. Unbeknownst to him, however, the strength of his ideas has won him a Chinese ally and given him a chance to reclaim what is rightfully his. . . . But will he, when the future of a brighter generation is at stake?

Enjoy Bert, as he interferes in the lives of two Chinese children and disrupts America’s political order, in this East versus West farce.

The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese belief that a government’s authority is divinely granted and that this authority lasts only for as long as the leadership rules with virtue. Thus, when the ruling classes become greedy, corrupt, and immoral, it is the right of the people — or Mother Nature — to rise up and remove them from power, thus proving they’ve lost the Mandate of Heaven.

“Capitol Hill is a farm league for K Street.” — U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, as quoted in "Republic, Lost," by Lawrence Lessig

In the future, Washington’s K Street acquires an annex, called K Street South, located in Central Florida. Here, a sovereign sanctuary develops (free of the ubiquitous surveillance equipment that has made clandestine meetings so difficult to hide), where lobbyists can broker allegiances between politicians and their wealthy donors in the privacy and luxury they feel they deserve. So brazen is their disregard for anything but power and the almighty dollar that it doesn’t even matter to them that this K Street South is the creation of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Politicians play by the rules we set for them. When the rules are ridiculous, so are the outcomes.” — Bert

Jun 13, 2017

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The Mandate of Heaven - Rob Flanigan


Chapter 1

Glistening in the darkness, a sentry of ice lay guard over the front porch of a Victorian house in Champaign, Illinois.

This sentry was an accumulated ice dam, clinging to the edge of the eave. Its weapon was a sheet of fused icicles, which it dangled over the side like the blade of a guillotine. The wooden stairway below was the platform for the guilty, and the blade stood ready to dispense its justice. The neighbors, and even the mail carrier, knew to use the side door because of it.

A car pulled up silently and found a place to park along the curb out front.

Intermittent street lamps along the terrace illuminated a blanket of snow, which rose into mounds beside the road, sidewalks, and driveways. Tall evergreens swayed at their topmost branches with the chilling breeze, but everything else was otherwise still.

Two figures climbed from the vehicle and closed their doors gently. The driver was a doctoral student from Peking University in Beijing, and her accomplice was her nine-year-old nephew.

This student knew of an American author who was about to have his copyrights stolen and his entire extended family murdered by an official of the Chinese government. This home belonged to one such family member. At great risk to herself (and thus to the orphaned child in her care), she was determined to preserve evidence of the crime in whatever ways she could, with the hope of one day bringing the truth to light.

She and her nephew approached the front staircase of this ice-guarded home and paused for a moment to consider the low-hanging shelf.

They pressed forward anyway, tiptoeing up the stairs. As luck would have it, the ice sheet did not break free and crash down upon them.

Reaching the front door, the taller of the two, who stood barely five feet and wore a backpack, failed to notice the wooden sign hanging crooked from the clapboard siding. It read, LAUGHING PLACE. The smaller companion didn’t notice it either.

With the help of a special tool, the two entered the old house and latched the door shut behind them.

The neighbors in every direction, who loved the elderly man who lived here, were asleep at this late hour. Not one of them happened to be at a window enjoying the holiday lights, which still burned from nearly every house on the block, so none of them witnessed this curious entry. Neither did they witness the beam of a flashlight, as it wended its way through the pitch-black house to the upstairs. These neighbors would certainly have called the police and continued watching long enough to see an extended flash of bright white light fill one of the bedrooms.

But again, no one was watching, so no one saw the two figures reappear at the front door a short while later, laboring to carry out four cloth bags, which they skidded along the porch deck and bumped down the steps. They crossed beneath the ice sheet without giving it a second thought.

They hauled the totes to their awaiting car, where they loaded them onto the floor of the back seat and drove away.

* * *

Several weeks later, and one hundred and thirty miles north, in the suburbs of Chicago, three more homes were entered, one-by-one, under the cover of a winter’s evening. This time, however, the homes were unoccupied—their owners were known to be away on vacation—and it was a single perpetrator who spent the night before searching each house thoroughly and neatly the next day. He spent time on the computers and eating whatever food looked appetizing in the refrigerator and pantry. The items he hauled out were always the same things: logins and passwords, copies of certain books, and the cited inventions from one of those books: the Flume Shooter T-shirt and the Skeeter Ball. Each getaway was made on the following evening.

A fifth and final house was trespassed too—this one at one hundred and forty miles farther north still—in Madison, Wisconsin. This entry was by far the strangest. This same perpetrator took up residence here for half a week, working inconspicuously during the daylight hours and then lying low at night with the lights off. This work-along bandit (who was sorely disappointed by the food options available) went through the file cabinets, shelving units, and dresser drawers, then spent many hours working at the household’s several computers, noting websites, logins, passwords, and all manner of publishing registrations. Once again, he departed on an evening with similar items as before, plus several boxes of paperwork.

Chapter 2

Bert glanced out the window of the jumbo Airbus, taking note of the two jet engines helping to keep the plane aloft at forty-one thousand feet. The engines were holding fast to the starboard wing, just as they were designed to do, but Bert couldn’t help wishing for just one of them to break loose and fall away. He reasoned that the plane would still be able to fly with its three remaining engines, so everyone would be okay—the plane would not crash—but the horror of losing an engine would surely bring his current conversation to an end. Bert knew he should view this exchange with the passenger seated beside him as an opportunity to sell himself, but the vibe so far from Arctic Blue Frames was not encouraging.

The lingering question, Who’s your publisher? was still in Bert’s court to answer.

Of Bert’s thirteen family members on the flight, he was not seated by even one of them. Most were grouped together in the middle seats, midway up the plane, while Mary, his wife, was seated by herself in first class. Bert was located way at the back, by the bathrooms, sitting beside another middle-aged Anglo-American, like himself, and the man’s young Chinese bride. In hindsight, Bert’s introduction to her should have alerted him to be on his guard.

When Bert had asked her her name, she had barely begun to open her mouth when Blue Frames answered for her. Her name is Jinghua, but I call her Jessica. I found her online and chose her because she’s attractive and does lots of yoga.

Bert wished he had known the man’s occupation before answering an earlier question about his own vocations. Bert had spoken honestly, saying he had stayed home with the children and written some books.

Oh, yeah? Blue Frames had replied. I’m a copy editor for Simon & Schuster in Manhattan. Who’s your publisher?

If Bert had been the superstitious sort, this man’s inquiry might have caused him to agree with his sister Jane, who had argued that moving their trip from the date of 12/12/12 was a jinx. She and her husband Tom had been on the verge of a perfect twelve-year streak of celestial gambling, which began 01/01/01 and continued 02/02/02, 03/03/03, and ran unbroken through 11/11/11. But this trip for the entire family, which Jane and Tom had won in a casino drawing, had introduced other schedules into the mix: the six children—who ranged in school from eighth graders to a senior in college—needed accommodation for their school timetables. Thus, the trip was moved to 2012’s winter break—several weeks beyond the 12/12/12 sweet spot—placing the trip squarely in jinx territory.

But all superstition aside, there was no disputing Bert’s immediate case of bad luck. Of all the international travelers on this flight from France to Hong Kong, the person sitting beside him was an American, and one ostensibly in the same business as himself—though Bert was quite certain the man would take offense to such a comparison; Bert was a self-publisher, after all, whereas this professional bore the credentials of a real publisher.

Bert adjusted the pillow behind his lower back, attempting to ease the pain of his sciatica, and he increased the fresh air blowing down on him. He put his hand into his carry-on bag and fingered the bottle of sleeping pills Mary’s Uncle Albert had given him to share with the family. He was tempted to take one now and cite his back as the reason, but there was no hotel room at the end of this flight where he could sleep it off.

Bert’s maneuverings had bought him a short reprieve, which he extended by stealing one last glance out the window; both engines remained obnoxiously attached. So he decided to take the path of least resistance with this self-assured personality seated beside him. He would abandon all hope of making a good impression—of selling himself and his books to this New York editor—and simply let the conversation run its course.

Bert answered the nagging question, then braced himself for the editor’s reply.

What? No agent? No publisher? . . . Good lord! What chance have you got? . . . Any other kisses of death you want to share? . . . I bet you typed it in Word.

Bert ignored the man’s disdain and nodded politely. Bert had in fact typed his documents on a regular word processor, at least for the drafts. However, for the final versions, he had done his due diligence and pasted the text into Adobe Indesign—an industry standard for page layout.

But there was no point in arguing for even a modicum of this man’s respect. Bert was well aware of the biases against self-publishers.

Back home, none of the brick-and-mortar bookstores were willing to host him for a book-signing, and not one media outlet would write a review or feature article about his works. Even Madison Magazine wouldn’t do a story, despite Bert having timed one of his releases to coincide with the centennial of the famous 1911 publication, Madison, A Model City, by John Nolan, for which Bert’s book delved deeply into the history of model communities, including Madison. But the worst snub of all came from the Wisconsin Book Festival organizers, who were based in Madison. For two years running, Bert’s event proposals had been denied. Indeed, the snub was so complete as to verge on insulting: the organizers wouldn’t even grant him a slot in the lesser On-Going Book Festival, which could occur at any location and at any time outside of the book festival proper. Bert knew his books were worthy of better treatment, but he had also learned that there was more to being a successful author than merely producing quality writings.

Bert decided to give this man exactly what he seemed to value: the blunt truth. Bert would entertain him with some more kisses of death.

The covers list only my first name as the author, said Bert.

You’re kidding. Nobody does that.

Nope, said Bert. And the back covers are all content . . . no early praise—

Cause you couldn’t get any—

Didn’t try. . . . And how about this? I put the copyright under a pseudonym.

The man shook his head with vigor, waving a crop of silver-white hair, which Bert pretended was a flag of surrender . . . until the man’s face morphed from an expression of bewilderment to one of cruel delight. Holy crap, he said, then he laughed. You’re a textbook case. . . . You’ve got a lock on failure.

Apparently, said Bert, feeling almost energized by the man’s contempt. But can’t I always go the conventional route if self-publishing doesn’t work?

I suppose, said Blue Frames, pulling off his glasses and inspecting them, as though Bert had dirtied them. Good luck with that, he added, then he turned to Jinghua and used the baggy sleeve of her off-the-shoulder shirt to wipe them. When at last the man had restored the frames to his face, he turned back to Bert with a wanton smugness. And who did your cover designs, dare I ask?

Bert hesitated, feeling himself on the verge of a victory.

Don’t tell me, the man said.

Yup, said Bert, tipping his thumbs toward himself like a hayseed.

Bert had studied all the options before going the self-publishing route. He was confident he could do the job right because there were so many resources available to help him from the library and online.

Do you have a website? the man continued.

Of course I do, said Bert.

But Bert knew where old Blue Frames was headed. He would be checking out Bert’s cover designs and telling him all the things he had done wrong.

At this point, the flight attendant turned on the cabin speakers and announced the start of an in-flight film: Wall Street Two - Money Never Sleeps.

Bert welcomed the diversion, which would ensure that perhaps two hours could slip by without any more unwanted conversations. He glanced at the engines and relaxed his bitterness toward them, actually wanting them both to hang on for the rest of the flight, or at least until the movie was over; he would let them know.

As the three dug their headphones from the forward seat pockets, the man turned to Bert with an unexpected enthusiasm, which seemed counter to the exchange that had previously passed between them. Oh, I didn’t tell you, he bubbled. We’re negotiating with Ben Bernanke for a book deal. This is big; I’m angling to be his editor. . . . He’s going to wait until he’s done at the Federal Reserve, though.

Of course, said Bert, pretending to care. It’s the only responsible thing. Good for you.

He saved us from another Great Depression, the man added, speaking a little louder, as if hoping the surrounding passengers would hear and join in. And he’s a really nice guy on top of it.

The editor then pointed toward the video screen. This movie is total fiction.

Mm, said Bert, unable to muster any more zeal than this.

Bert placed his headphones over his ears and found the volume wheel, then cast his eyes toward the screen.

As the movie began, Bert’s mind wandered. His thoughts slumped into the growing misery of what he now saw as a useless eight years of his life—years he had devoted to researching and writing the books he now seemed so incapable of sharing with an audience. This industry-insider sitting beside him, for all of his assailing remarks, was probably correct on every count.

But Bert could not give up in his efforts to succeed. His failures as an adult were mounting, and the thought of plodding through the remainder of his life feeling so lousy about himself just seemed unacceptable. First and foremost among his failures, he was supposed to have found gainful employment years ago so that Mary could shorten her workdays and spend more time home with their children. But their youngest, Michael, was now a senior in high school, so there was no way to make up for the lost time. And second, Bert never went back to school to finish his degree, meaning that any job he did find was unlikely to pay very well. Thus, his books had been forged at an extremely high cost, and their apparent failure was merely intensifying all the others.

If only Bert had the influence that came with credentials or status, or better yet, if he had a well-connected friend . . . like the man sitting next to him who had already dismissed him as a fool . . . or the Michael Douglas character, Gordon Gekko, in the film. Yes, if Bert knew someone rich and influential, like Gordon Gekko, then his marketing problems would be solved. It wouldn’t matter if he were self-published or hobo-published, the right patron could just make things happen.

Bert pulled out his new phone—his first ever smartphone—and did an internet search on strategies for finding a patron of the arts to support one’s work. While the cursor spun, Gordon Gekko lectured on the ills of the global financial system. Bert wondered if this was the total fiction that Blue Frames had been referring to. The Gekko character seemed to be saying that the world’s economies were rigged more than ever in favor of the wealthy and powerful. In essence, the casinos of Monte Carlo and Macau were mere miniatures, dealing in chump change compared to the world’s financial markets, which sloshed with unbacked currencies and flowed in rivers of debt. Trillions in value stood poised to vaporize in the years ahead.

Or was Ben Bernanke truly a financial wizard, deftly preventing such a calamity, in addition to being a really nice guy?

Upon the conclusion of the movie, the editor turned back to Bert and asked for a web address so he could see Bert’s titles. Bert provided the name, L.N. Smith Publishing, but the man was unsuccessful at pulling up his website.

At last, thought Bert, a bit of good luck.

Bert queued up some music on his phone and inserted his earbuds, then waited a few minutes before attempting to do a call-up of his URL. But just like for the editor, each time Bert refreshed the screen, nothing was found.

Bert fantasized that the Chinese government was censoring this air space, filtering out his material. Bert’s books did touch on the topics of capitalism and communism, though barely. Surely, the guardians of the Great Firewall of China had more important content to block . . . which, of course, was the irony: Who in China would be blocking his titles when virtually no one in the entire world, beyond his immediate family, knew of them?

Just out of curiosity, Bert did a search on censorship in China and learned that all printed material had to be granted a publication license by the General Administration of Press and Publication, a department of the Communist-led government. Over the years, books such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham had been banned.

Bert imagined the headline back home: Madison Author Blocked By Chinese Authorities. Surely his copies would fly off the shelves then.

With a little more internet surfing, Bert uncovered that some western authors, when working with Chinese book publishers, had later discovered that their writings were not faithfully translated into Chinese. Rather, they had been altered in ways necessary to get them through the licensing agency.

It then occurred to Bert that these unfavorable articles he was now reading about Chinese censorship must mean that the Chinese were not able to screen the content reaching the airplane, for certainly the topic of censorship itself would be on the list of those blocked. He decided to test his suspicion by doing a search for images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. His screen was soon populated by bloody images.

Bert concluded that his website was most likely not being blocked on purpose, or even by accident, and that the plane’s wifi signal must be satellite-based, placing it outside the jurisdiction of Chinese officials. His web-hosting service was probably down for maintenance, so he would try again to connect when he reached the Hong Kong airport.

Bert spent the remainder of the flight listening to music and staring out the window, watching condensation trails burst into existence over the wing and then dive behind the plane into the late afternoon sun. He sat confident that no amount of his own willpower—or even that of the pilots or of Arctic Blue Frames or of the genius, Ben Bernanke―could peel off one of the engines.

Chapter 3

The sentry of ice still held its blade suspended some three weeks after the first pair had passed under it.

This time, it was a solitary figure who approached the porch in darkness. He ascended the front steps, bringing a tiny tremor to the whole structure with each footfall, though none of them—nor their sum—were enough to dislodge the overhead glacier and trigger its collapse.

He reached the porch and crossed it toward the door. The sign for the LAUGHING PLACE caught his eye, though it made no impression on him. He pulled a lock-pick set from his pocket and started to work at the pins in the tumbler. A moment later, he turned the handle and entered the house.

He closed the door behind him and stowed his tools, then slipped off his shoes and went straight to the stairs.

Once again, none of the neighbors were awake at this hour and looking out their windows. There was no one to enjoy the lovely holiday lights or to witness the intruder entering their dear neighbor’s house.

He climbed to the second floor, taking great care to keep his feet along the outer edges of the steps to prevent creaking, unaware that the home’s sole resident was tranquilized by sleeping pills. At the top, he found the occupied bedroom, where he withdrew a syringe and prepared it.

He tiptoed into the room and approached the bed. Then, with one swift motion, he lanced the neck of the sleeper and advanced the plunger.

The occupant stirred momentarily and sputtered in protest, with half-opened eyes, then immediately fell into a deeper chemical sleep.

The intruder returned to the main floor and proceeded to the library, where he closed the heavy drapes and inched the Christmas tree closer to the bookshelves. He then lit the many candles clipped to the tree’s dying branches and returned to the entrance hall to retrieve his shoes.

He was in no hurry. He carried the shoes back to the library and took a seat, where he casually slipped them back on.

Eventually, he went over to the bookshelf and slid out a volume so that its spine was hanging over the shelf’s edge. He took out his lighter and held a flame beneath the binding.

As the flames caught hold and climbed the book, he moved his lighter to a bottom branch of the tree and lit a bough directly below one of the candles. He watched as the fire spread up the tree and the bookshelf.

Minutes later, when he left the room, a fountain of flames was surging toward the ceiling, spreading in all directions and filling the upper airways with smoke.

The trespasser exited the house and strolled to a vehicle parked in the next block, easily escaping unseen.

Before long, the house was fully engulfed in flames, and the sirens, which foretold of an impending rescue, served as little more than a sad chorus for the neighbors then lining the sidewalks. The firefighters could do little more than to soak the adjacent rooftops to prevent the flames from spreading.

Parents and children alike stood huddled in their groups, wearing pajamas and snow boots under coats and blankets. Their faces were tear-streaked under puffy eyes, and the children’s sobs went unheard behind the roar of the fire and the hissing of the water. The Laughing Place and its inhabitant were a total loss.

Chapter 4

Moving through the Hong Kong airport, Bert’s family was free to skip the baggage claim and go directly to the SkyPier Ferry Service, where they would be taking a 55-minute boat ride to Macau at sunset. They stopped for a quick supper along the way, then rode the automated people mover to the boat terminal.

Bert connected his phone to the facility’s wifi and searched again for his website. Still no access.

You’re probably out of range, Dear, said Bert’s mom, trying to comfort him.

Their troop of fourteen travelers eventually reached the check-in counter on Level 5, where they purchased their tickets and joined the herd of people crowding toward the security checkpoint in front of the boarding area.

Their family stood patiently among the multitudes, but a few of the newer arrivals to this loosely-formed queue were snaking their way along the periphery and merging near the front.

Doesn’t anyone line up here? complained Jane.

The guidebooks prepared me for this, said Bert’s father using a deadpan voice.

Jane leered at him. Like you’ve ever read a book.

—Which was one of the reasons we’re not going to the mainland, chimed Bert’s sister Elsa, acknowledging Jane’s grievance.

Yes, the toilets, added Bert’s mom, looking repulsed.

It was true. A cursory review of the conditions in China had ruled out a mainland excursion. But the issue of disorderly queuing was not a primary reason. Of foremost concern were the high levels of airborne pollutants, which might cause breathing difficulties for the two senior members of the group—Bert’s mom and dad. But also of concern were Chinese toileting practices, which reflected a quite foreign set of hygienic priorities. For instance, in the United States, restrooms tended to allow people’s skin to come into contact with doors, toilet seats, flusher handles, and sink handles, all of which had been touched previously by untold others. To the Chinese, this level of sharing was disgusting. By contrast, in China, restrooms tended away from the collective filth of others and instead concentrated it on the individual: stalls came without doors to touch; toilets were flat on the floor to squat over; sinks and running water were not provided at all; and toilet paper was generally bring-your-own, with a wastebasket supplied to hold one’s soiled papers because the plumbing couldn’t handle them. More than a few members of Bert’s family did not want to brave this cultural divide; they did not want to eat the food of vendors who were unlikely to have washed their hands after relieving themselves.

Hey, said Jane, pointing to another line-jumper passing them by. That guy just spit on the floor!

Bert reached into his shoulder bag and removed a travel book, holding it out to Jane. It’s all in here.

Jane grimaced and waved him off, which quietly amused the rest of the family.

Looking forward, Bert noticed that the upcoming security checkpoint had an uncommon appearance. Instead of a walk-through detector, as was usual, this one looked like an upright freezer cabinet, complete with a door. Each passenger was fully enclosed within it for several seconds.

Bert and Mary’s daughter MJ was studying it too, and she developed a

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