Xin is an ansible, using her song magic to connect the originworld of the Imperial Authority and its far-flung colonies— a role that is forced upon magically-gifted women “of a certain closeness”. When a dead body comes through her portal at a time of growing rebellion, Xin is drawn deep into a station-wide conspiracy along with Ouyang Suqing, one of the station’s mysterious, high-ranking starmages
The body arrives during the second refrain. It slaps on the receiving dial with the wet sound of rendered flesh, and the processing officer, a young woman fresh from the originworld, screams.
It’s the scream that alerts you. You didn’t see the body come in, didn’t witness its ungainly, sprawling materialisation through the white of the portal. When you lift your voice in concert with your song-sister on the originworld, the act consumes you. 怒发冲冠、凭栏处。You are in rapture. You see nothing and hear nothing but the music your twinned voices produce. 抬望眼、仰天长啸、壮怀激烈。Your existence dissolves from the throat outwards while you deform the shape of the universe: 三十功名尘与土、八千里路云和月。You are no longer a person, but ansible, transmitting matter and energy across light-years through your song.
Like a clawed hand, the woman’s scream shreds into this ecstasy. It tears you out of verse and chorus. You look, and there lies the thing on the dais: naked, skin flayed, flesh laid open in petals. It came through the portal you and your song-sister created across the yawning gaps of space. A man, eyes open and filmy. There’s no blood.
You scream. That too is a kind of song, of fear expressed in unorchestrated keys.
The fear brings feet running through the door. First in are two rank-and-file in security red, gun muzzles up. Their faces go tight when they see the body.
Then comes a buzz like a tide, low and inexorable. The processing officer goes stiff beside you. Everyone on the colony knows that sound.
The starmage arrives ready for a fight, her suit lit up and crackling, the shapes of dragons swarming over its surface. Your heart stalls when you see her face. Officer Ouyang Suqing carries herself with laser intensity, focused and terrible. She throws a barrier around the body, a translucent shape of magebright, glass-thin and fire-white. Without a word she goes to one knee, her back to you, studying the mutilated corpse. You watch her raise her arm and pass it over the top of the barrier. Suit pieces flutter and reassemble over the elegant lines of her wrist, capturing the skew of the viscera below. Silence reigns but for the hum of the suit, cycling in concert to the starmage’s pulse.
The security officers keep their guns alert and fixed on you. You understand their fear and suspicion: after all, the Imperial Executioner arrives on the colony this week to mete out his punishment to rebellious elements. He comes to end the life of one Traitor, but who knows how many heads will roll before he leaves? Any lapse in the accepted order could prove fatal. Better you than them that gets the blame, right? You are merely ansible, a replaceable unit.
Officer Ouyang rises to her feet. Standing, the starmage considers the body for agonising moments more. Your heartbeat stutters like a frightened child. She turns to you, her eyes dark and wide in her duty mask. “Are you alright?”
The mask distorts her voice and it comes out sawbuzz, rounded vowels turned to square waves. You had expected interrogation, and your mouth had been ready to offer fact and statement, situation and report. It opens and closes rhythmically, like ventricular flaps.
The starmage frowns and retracts the mask, exposing the sculpted bones of her cheeks. “Ansible Xin. Are you alright?”
Dumbly you nod, a lie.
She takes your left hand in her suited ones and applies pressure. Her gift flares and pushes a wave of calm through you, warmth spreading from your wrist towards the heart. Everything grows heavy. Your breathing slows and the world thickens to honey. Her suit-buzz settles deep and languid in your chest.
“You should rest,” Officer Ouyang says. “This must be upsetting for you.”
She turns to the security officers. “At ease. There is no danger here.”
The security officers hesitate, but only for a moment. A starmage’s word is law, and this one carries the name of Ouyang. They understand who her father is, and by extension, who her father’s mother is. Their guns, holstered, return to neutrality. Their expressions do not. The man on the left asks: “Will we open a murder investigation, then?”
Officer Ouyang frowns. “There will be an investigation, but no murder has been committed here.” She points to the magebright-encased corpse. “This man was killed long before he arrived here. Other jurisdictions will become involved.”
She looks back at you, and the processing officer. “Which jurisdiction are you connected with?”
Your tongue is too sleepy to reply, so the processing officer does: “Great one, we connect with the originworld on fifth-days. Everyone knows that.”
“Of course.” The starmage looks away. Her face registers coldness, or maybe offense.
The processing officer swallows. “Great one, I apologise. I did not mean—”
“At ease,” the starmage says. Her face is so carefully controlled as to be unreadable. She turns to you. “Ansible, are you able to speak?”
You fight the blanket of slowness she has thrown over you, and nod. “This humble one can.”
“That’s good,” she says. She does not ask you to speak again. Instead she says: “You will be taken off duty so you can recover.”
Your wrist still tingles from the starmage’s touch, nerves carrying an afterimage of her fingers. You wonder what is happening on the other side of the broken connection. How did the body get here? Your song-sister Ren on the originworld, how does she fare?
The two rank-and-file are still nervous, still exchanging glances. “Great one,” the one on the left says, “will this affect the execution?”
Officer Ouyang casts her glance over the contained corpse. “It will not. I will speak with the Starmage General and he will decide the best course of action.” She frowns. “But mind you don’t spread word of this to others. The hearts of the people are unsettled enough.” Starmage’s word is law. The two officers bow their heads.
满江红, the river bleeds red as the moon-tides: This is the twinning song your cluster learns in the temple. The eight of you—Jia, Yi, Bing, Ding, Wu, Ji, Geng, Xin—sit in an octagon around Ren while you practice, the sun warm in the room, the sky a circle of blue through the acrylic window.
Ren is your center, the spoke through which the rest of you are threaded, the one who must stay on the originworld and sing to the Eight Colonies. You keep your eyes open while you sing, so you can watch Ren’s lips, painted red, shaping the sounds of the first words: nu, ah, ong, an. Over the months the shape of those lips have grown in appeal. The shape of her eyes, the shape of her bosom. The soft oval of her face. You sing eight hours a day, taking breaks to drink and eat and wash and please one another. At night the cluster sleeps in the same bed, skin against skin against skin against skin. Murmuring the song, murmuring sentiments of rage and patriotism.
This is what it is, to be ansible. To be the same in song and in sex and in sisterhood. When you walk across the temple grounds as a cluster—no ansible walks alone, for there is no such thing as an ansible alone—the starmages stare at you. Whether in curiosity or in pity, you do not know.
When the starmage visits, unsuited and unannounced, she brings with her a basket of tropical stonefruit, plump and ripened: Smooth-peeling lychee, blood-red rambutan, dusky-skinned dragoneye with flesh that breaks between the teeth. The crate came in with the originworld shipment two days ago, passed through before the corpse’s interruption. An officer’s perquisite.
“I wanted to make sure you were alright,” she says.
You sit on the single stool by your table, your knees pressed together like a pilgrim’s palms, gaze fixed on her splendid silhouette, bright against the unfinished metal walls of your room. Penned in your quarters, she is close enough that you can see, in exquisite detail, the interfacing implants lining the length of her neck. A queue of coin-sized circles breath soft and green, vanishing under the curve of her shirt collar. Outside of the mage suit she looks oddly tangible.
“This humble one is alright,” you lie. The corpse visits your dreams at night, its filmy eyes blank and unreadable. Sometimes it sits up from the dais, innards spilling like cutlery, and it tells you secrets with its grey tooth-filled mouth. That knowledge abandons you when you wake.
“The investigation has ended,” the starmage says. “This was a triad affair. Nothing to do with us. The victim ran up insurmountable gambling debts on the originworld.”
“Then it won’t affect the execution?”
“Let us hope not.” She looks uneasy. The prospect of the Imperial Executioner’s arrival frightens even someone like her.
“Why did they send it here?” You shouldn’t be asking questions of a starmage and an officer, and yet you are.
“As a warning. They have a relative on the colony. Do you know Quartermaster Lu?”
You twitch your shoulders. You know the name, possibly the face, but not the person.
“This was his cousin.”
“It is a great pity.”
The starmage cracks a rambutan in her mouth. Its soft thick hairs curl around her lips as she sucks in the collected juices. “I’ve put you on three weeks’ leave,” she says.
You are halfway through a lychee, its slippery flavour delicate on your tongue, wetness running over your knuckles and down to your elbow in a thin line. You swallow. “Why three weeks?”
“You must have time to rest,” she says. “The colony can cope without the outside world for a short period of time.”
You bow your head. “This humble one is most grateful.”
“You need not be so formal with me,” she says.
You study her face, noting how sharp and bright it is. She is as young as you are, perhaps younger. A terrible burden to carry, the title of starmage. You wonder if she ever tires of it.
“Thank you again for the fruit,” you say. “I appreciate it.”
She smiles and the expression triggers a memory of another face, a broad rectangle, dappled in the sunlight.
As she leaves she hesitates at the door. Half a moment passes with her back to you. Then she turns, “May I visit you again?”
Like a festival drum your heartbeat quickens. “My quarters are too small. They are not a suitable place for visitation.”
“Then you must come to mine. I would like to ask you over for dinner. Seventh-day evening. Will you come?”
Starmage’s word is law, but the confidence that comes imposed on her manner is missing. You wet your lips with a tongue still slick with lychee juice. “I will.”
Your separation from Ren is inevitable, yet it is no easier to bear when it comes. The night before you leave for Eighth Colony you cling to her damp skin, trying to breathe in as much of her as possible, terrified of losing the piquancy of her scent to the wash of time. She kisses your jaw and neck and lips with the fierceness of one who does not know when they will eat again. You are the last of the cluster to be assigned a position; the bed yawns with the blankness of missing bodies.
“We have our song still,” she says, but you both know it is not the same, it is not sufficient, it will forever be insufficient. You spend the weeks in the lightspeed cocoon feeling empty, bereft, bereaved, halved.
Eighth Colony greets you with huge metal struts and too much air, cold and recycled, the sounds of swarming multitudes carried upon it. You spill from the belly of the cocoon into lifelike chaos. The mage-crafted glass floor of the arrival dock hangs over a marketplace, and beneath your feet shouting, haggling bodies weave between the bright lights, citizens and officers and grey-clad auxiliaries. Their faces are hidden from you; all you see are impenetrable black dots.
And then you raise your unhappy eyes from the ground and your heart trips over itself. The old ansible has come to greet you, to introduce you to the life you are meant to take over. Beside her grey-clad self stands a starmage, dragons alive on her suit. Her hair is short, her eyes deep-set, and her jawbone could shatter iron. When you look at her all you see is someone else, laughing in leaf-filtered sun, glowing in blue-tinted moonlight.
“Ansible Xin,” she says. “I am Officer Ouyang Suqing. Welcome to Eighth Colony.”
The Imperial Executioner’s ship arrives on sixth-day. Its shape eclipses the stars, an arrowhead of pitch blotted above the glass domes of Eighth Colony. The sounds of life go quiet in its shadow.
In the main atrium, couples stroll between drooping fringes of vegetation, framed by starscape and warmed by lantern balls suspended in the air. You enjoy spending your off hours as a spectator to this thoroughfare of romance, collecting impressions of smiles and shy glances as if for a vault.
Then the Imperial Executioner appears on the walkway circumnavigating the upper dome, robed in red and gold and black, and masked. White bisects crimson across its furious features. The citizenry freezes. Trailing in the Executioner’s wake are two starmages, Officers Ouyang and Wu. Tigers prowl the latter’s suit.
Faces in the atrium turn white with terror, sharp with anxiety: A tableaux of miseries drawn up by the Imperial Executioner’s pull. A burning spreads in your belly, too.
The three of them pass through the upper deck of the atrium in a wreath of silence. When the last glimpse of brocaded robe vanishes through the doorway, the whispers boil to the surface. Brows furrow, tongues curl desperately around fears of saying the wrong thing. Rebellion burns throughout the breadth of empire, and the Imperial Authority is less than pleased with Eighth Colony’s involvement in it. Their bliss shattered, the couples dotting the atrium retreat into the shadows.
You imagine that, in her passage, Officer Ouyang turned her head to look at you for the briefest moment. A comforting thought. A terrifying thought.
Your first lover is a girl named Mingyue. Her face is broad and rectangular and her laugh fills the atria of your heart. You met on the grassy courtyard of the temple, two young mages beginning their journeys towards greatness, away from their hometowns for the first time. The days lengthen into weeks spent enraptured, intoxicated. Lying in the sun under the nesting swallows she reaches for your hand, and you pull it away. Later that day, in the evening, she says: “We can meet where no one will see us. No one will know.”
And you are young, and you have the gift, and the world is wide, so it’s easy to believe those words. Her flesh dances tart, sweet, bitter, and hot against your tongue.
But of course, you are found out. They come for you in the moonlight when your unclothed limbs are entwined like vines, so it is impossible to deny what has happened. Like a startled rabbit you try to run, but Mingyue freezes, and you cannot abandon her. So they take you, too. Where would you run to, anyway? They know who you are.
They separate the two of you in ansible training; you never see Mingyue again. On the second day, when your crying has stopped, they bring you to meet Ren and the rest of the cluster. Your name becomes Xin, the last to join them.
You hate Ren. You hate her soft round face, you hate her meekness, you hate her sweetness toward you. The twinning song feels rancid on your tongue, cuts like grit in your ears. You sing it tonelessly and improperly and the portals won’t form within the cluster. If the other ansible girls resent you, you don’t care. When Ren tries to take your hand to pull you aside you hiss at her. You sleep alone, even if it means curling on the cold floor with your back to the cluster.
Ren never gives up. She keeps reaching for you, keeps talking to you, keeps coaxing your voice into the harmony. She joins you on the floor at night, wrapping thin arms around your rigid shoulders. Placing kisses on the line of your bones. You watch her grow pale and tired and wish she would just leave you be.
Hatred turns to pity turns to exhaustion. No one has the energy to fight forever.
One day Ren sits by you during the afternoon meal, her leg pressed flush against yours. “I too had a name before this,” she says. “My father named me Wang-sun. I am the third of three girls.”
Wang-sun, a wish for a son. The sentiment her family wanted her to carry for the ages. You ask: “Do your sisters have the gift also?”
“No. I am the first. They thought there was to be a starmage in the family.”
But instead she became ansible, just like you.
You study the shape of her face, which has become familiar to you over the weeks, if not quite cherished. You realise you can choose to be happy, and accept the love you have been given, or you can remain in despair forever.
You take her hand. “My name was Tian,” you tell her. An empty field, a paddy waiting to be filled. The relief that envelops Ren’s face provokes deep shame and guilt.
But the rest of the cluster accepts your induction without comment, and you come to realise that perhaps each of them entered ansiblehood much the same way. A shared grief, a common wound. Being ripped apart so that there’s something to put back together. Your hurt made you all the more dear to them.
Sometimes you wonder if Mingyue was a trap, deliberately set, sieving each batch of new mages to find more recruits for the ansible program. But dwelling on the idea will only bring you ruin. You love Ren. You love her as much as you possibly can.
The starmage has made steamed dumplings and other small eats. Curved glass sprawls along one wall of her quarters, exposing starfield marred by the shape of the Imperial Executioner’s ship. Her red dress clings to her, embroidered brocade interspersed with windows of translucent silk. Sequins glitter in the low yellow light. In comparison you are clad in the shapeless grey that is the only thing populating your wardrobe.
You bite into soft dumpling flesh and the hollows under your tongue fill with fragrant soup. The flavour is so rich a shiver passes through you. “How is it?” Officer Ouyang asks.
You almost didn’t come. Twice you walked in sight of her door and both times you turned back. On the third jaunt, you decide there’s nothing for her to trap you in: You are innocent of involvement in the murder, and your worst secret has already been revealed. So you go in.
“Can men be ansibles?” she asks you.
“Of course. Anyone with the gift can. It just takes practice.” You toy with a piece of chicken while you study the small shifts in her face.
“They used to say only women of a certain closeness could do it. That was how they explained it.”
“That’s not true. There’s nothing special learning it. They just don’t want to teach anyone else.” You add, deliberately, “You could do it with a man if you wanted.”
She ducks her head. “I wouldn’t.” A blush creeps across her cheeks. “I could not be that close with a man.”
You had suspected this, and you wonder why she’s telling you this now, at this fraught juncture, when you have been on this station for years.
“I used to watch the ansible clusters in the temple,” she says very carefully. “I envied you, you know.”
“Envied us?” Your chopsticks hit the table with a clink. You gesture at her massive quarters and the finery that she wears, the entitlement that was ripped from you when they caught you with your hand between Mingyue’s legs. “What is there to envy?”
Her teeth tear at her bottom lip. “I only meant the way you could walk around so easily holding hands, touching each other.” She looks down at her own hands and says slowly, “I wanted something like that too.”
You know exactly what she means. You refuse to show her sympathy. “So why didn’t you? It’s easy to be recruited. You know how.”
She lowers her head still further. “I couldn’t. I would bring eternal shame to my family. It’s different for me.”
“Unlike me, who was a farmer’s daughter?”
“That’s not what I meant. I did not know of your background.”
You push your chair back. “Ansible Xin,” she says, as you stand. “I apologise. I did not mean to offend.”
A starmage should not be apologising to an ansible, it upsets the order of the world. “There’s nothing to envy about our lives,” you say. “If only you knew what we have endured. What we must continue to endure.”
There’s a note of misery to Officer Ouyang’s face that pulls at you. You sit back down: It would be rude to leave with so much food still unfinished. But you stay silent as you eat, and she follows suit.
She only breaks the silence when you are preparing to leave. The words come out papery, fragile as mist: “Ansible Xin, I have behaved abominably today. But I wish to try again. Will you come tomorrow evening? I’ll prepare something for you.”
“Tomorrow? Is that not the day of the execution?”
“It is.” Mention of the execution sinks like black tar in the atmosphere between the two of you; the starmage fidgets, her brows knitting together in a difficult line. “Have you witnessed an execution before?”
“I have not.”
The silence traps you like honey, heavy and cloying, and you are so tired of fighting it. You could drain it all away by grabbing her, kissing her on the lips, showing her what she has been missing in her lonely, hidden life. You could.
“Will you come?” she asks again.
“I will consider it,” you say.
The execution is broadcast on screens throughout not just Eighth Colony, but the length and breadth of the empire. Slaughter a chicken to warn the monkeys. You wait among the mass of Authority officers and auxiliaries packing Eighth Colony’s largest theater, which today will be a theater of death.
On the stage the colony’s four starmages stand arrayed in a rectangle: Tiger, phoenix, dragon, horse. Each of them clutches in both hands a long metal rod, painted the red of justice. They drown out the thousand murmuring voices by pounding the rods onto the stage floor in an accelerating crescendo. Echoes drill into skulls. The house lights dim; the show is about to begin.
Two masked figures haul a third onto the center of the stage. Traitor is naked except for the ropes that bind her hands in front of her. Once she had a name, but now and forever she will only be known as Traitor. Nine iterations of her family will be thus disgraced, their names wiped from the register and those two characters written in their place. Her skin is blanched funerary white but her face is swollen with the red of beaten flesh. They force her to her knees. The sound of bone against wood lingers.
You look at her face. Its shape is young, its features arranged in despair. This girl could be Officer Ouyang. This girl could be you.
The Imperial Executioner’s entrance is heavy: Heavy footsteps, heavy silence, heavy gasps from Traitor as fear floods her chest and lungs. She shakes as the Executioner stands behind her.
The Starmage General comes to the stage carrying the imperial scroll: A small man made towering by his massive suit, nasal voice amplified to operatic volumes. He pulls the scroll open and proclaims:
Traitor! You have been found guilty of colluding with rebels! You plotted to weaken our glorious empire from within. You were caught openly engaging in rebellious activities, but without shame, you refused to claim your treachery. You chose to protect your fellow traitors, the other scum who crawl through the grass like snakes!
You, who have rejected the warmth of the Imperial spring, shall be made to feel the sting of winter’s wrath!
The Executioner’s hands loom over Traitor’s head. A cocoon of magebright envelops them and springs around Traitor’s kneeling body, fine enough that you can see her through it.
The magebright hums.
Razorwire lines run from one side of the cocoon to the other. They descend. Where they meet skin they start to slice. Traitor shrieks, a high thin animal sound. Every muscle in her body strains, but there is nowhere to escape. Her hands are claws, her neck corded with veins and tendons as her screaming tears through it.
The razorwire continues to strip her away, layer by layer, cell by cell. Blood springs from her in a fine mist as the cuts start stripping the flesh under the skin. Muscle peels from the face trapped in a rictus of agony.
You can’t watch. You have to watch.
The wires gouge deeper and deeper. Her face and eyes are almost gone now. Traitor still screams through her lipless mouth. Beside you one of the auxiliaries starts sobbing. A guard in executioner’s black comes and pulls him out of the line. He makes one sound, like a stricken rabbit; you dare not turn your head to see where they take him.
The screaming comes to a choking halt as the flesh of her throat flays off. You wonder how long she remains alive after that. The heart is buried under layers of viscera, and the quivering brain is still shielded by bone. The pulp of Traitor’s body accrues in the shape of an arrow and turns black and hard, like metal. The Executioner is turning her ground meat into sculpture, a lesson that will sit in the atrium for all to learn.
The flesh of your own body rebels and your throat fills with heavy sourness. You pinch your lips together and stare at the mask that obscures Officer Ouyang’s face until waves of dizziness envelop you. Is she watching? What is she thinking? How could she just stand there?
But then, are you not also sitting where you are, and watching?
When you go to keep your evening appointment you find Officer Ouyang’s door barred in your face. A mage-locked door may stop others, but she forgets what you are. She forgets that you too have the gift.
Your entrance startles her. She stumbles to her feet, face red and crumpled, voice cracked: “Why are you here?” She hasn’t dressed properly and hair sticks from her scalp.
“You invited me.”
Her surprise collapses into despair: She has forgotten. She turns away, her back forming an uneven, sloping wall. “Please leave. I cannot, I do not—”
Your room is small, and cold, and you fear the things you might see when you close your eyes tonight. “Have you never witnessed an execution before?” you ask. You simply assumed that she had.
The starmage shakes her head. Her knees find the floor for support as she folds over herself. You place your hands on her back, and a shiver passes through her body. But it is not just mourning that grips her. She presses her fists into the ground, the knuckles white through reddened skin.
“Were you close with Traitor?” you ask.
“Her name,” she hisses, “was Siyun.”
Siyun, a gentle cloud. “So you were indeed close,” you say.
“No.” She sits up and you detach from her, putting a small space between the two of you. She still won’t look at you. “Siyun and I were—we were only briefly acquainted. Perhaps if she had been receptive to my friendship, or to something more, we could have been.” Her voice goes low with rage. “She did not deserve this. She was barely involved in rebellious activities. She was unlucky, they caught her! And decided she would be a scapegoat. This is injustice.”
“You could have stopped the execution. You were right next to her on the stage.”
Now she turns to you, fury sharpening her features. “And to what end? Do you think I could have saved her, when the throne wanted her blood? Eighth Colony’s situation is precarious enough. Do you know what price open rebellion will demand?”
“So we let them slaughter us like animals? Worse than animals. No butcher would be this cruel.”
Officer Ouyang sets her shoulders. “There is a time and place for everything.”
She is revealing things to you that she shouldn’t, not if she wants to keep herself safe. Her trust in you is dizzying. “And are there others you know who take part in these rebellious activities?”
Ouyang Suqing looks away. Her silence is your answer.
You reach for her hands and she lets you take them. You tell her that your room is cold, too cold, and has too much empty space in the dark. Space where ghosts can hide, and find you with their bloody fingers in the night. She simply nods. Here, the two of you can keep each other warm. Safe from ghosts.
In the course of the nights that come you dissolve into each other’s arms over and over again. You show her all the things that she has been denied and all the things that she has been denying herself.
You tell her your name is Tian.
“Can you teach me the song?” she asks, curled with her head against your shoulder.
“No,” you say, and the hurt shows on her face, but 满江红 is your song, yours and Ren’s. It is not to be shared. “Pick another. Pick one I might know.”
Suqing looks at the stars arrayed outside her window. Now that the Imperial Executioner’s ship is gone the view is clear. She breathes softly on your skin while she thinks. Songs nestle in her mouth in soft hums as she tries them out. Something seems to catch her fancy:
「明月几时有? 把酒问青天… 」
The first two syllables of the song strike your heart like stones falling into a pond. You know this one, of course.
Suqing’s voice stumbles rough and unpracticed through the lyrics, the tones falling flat. You sing with her, you lift her voice. No portal opens between you—that kind of magic takes time and concentration—but you feel the stirrings of a connection, the right kind of purity. You fall asleep with the words lingering between you, as if you were back on the originworld, entwined with another under the moonlight, the sound of nesting swallows above your head.
Three weeks pass by like water in a river. A fresh processing officer joins you in the portal room as you prepare to resume your duties. A mountain of work awaits you: Shipments of perishable goods, important documents, and luxury items hunger for their destinations. Eighth Colony seethes with impatience after so long with no portal contact to other places. And it’s an impatience you share, but for other reasons: your heart gladdens at the thought of being immersed in Ren’s song again.
You raise your voice: 怒发冲冠，凭栏处…
The voice that joins yours is unexpected: low and smoke-roughened. 抬望眼、仰天长啸、壮怀激烈。
The alien timbre of the words startles you so much, the song stalls in your throat. Aborted in half-formation, the portal dissipates into white mist. The processing officer frowns. “Ansible? What are you doing?”
Ren, your Ren, your Wang-sun. Where is she? Is she still on leave? Why have they put a stranger, some unknown exocluster ansible, in her place?
“Ansible Xin,” the processing officer says, irritation in his tone. “We cannot afford any further delays.”
You have no choice. Three weeks of unspent work stands ahead of you. Shaking, shaken, you take up the song again, and the stranger on the originworld responds.
Your songs don’t match; you can barely hold the portal open wide enough. You don’t know who the strange ansible is or where she comes from. You don’t know her name. These things matter. All the time spent together in the temple was not for nothing. 三十功名尘与土、八千里路云和月。You feel like collapsing.
There’s still a good half left to the shipments when the processing officer leaves in a cloud of frustration, muttering about your worthlessness. You are done for the day.
Where is Ren?
Suqing tries to break the news gently. But the look on her face tells you everything. The exhaust-heat in this secluded service corridor can’t fight off the chill in your bones.
“The Imperial Authority thought your cluster leader was compromised,” she says. “The corpse that came through here should have never left the originworld in the first place. So they decided to…” She picks her mind for words, her brow creased. “They decided to dispose of her.”
The replacement Ren was taken from the ship ansible program, where they don’t form clusters, where they are trained to be flexible. A stopgap.
You won’t let Suqing touch you, won’t let her comfort you. Traitor’s bloodfilled death stalks, sharp-toothed and slavering, through your memory. You think of Ren’s soft flesh disintegrating between lines of magebright, imagine her sweet voice torn by screams until the vocal cords are stripped away.
“They wouldn’t have executed her like that,” Suqing tells you. “She wasn’t a traitor. To them she was just a malfunctioning ansible.”
You know she’s trying to make you feel better. But the words sting. You are not a broken part to be replaced. “Leave me alone,” you hiss. You refuse to look at her until she withdraws.
That night, after hours of deliberation and a slow settling of your mood, you go to her quarters. The door has barely shut behind you when you say: “I wish to take part in rebellious activities”.
Colour and expression drain from her face as though your words have punctured her somewhere. “What are you saying?”
“I want to avenge Wang-sun. Introduce me to your rebellion.”
Her breathing quickens. “You’ve gone mad. I can’t do that.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“It’s not a lie, I—”
“I know where you go when you slip out at night for your walks. I know what’s happening on the evenings you tell me not to meet.”
She hides her eyes from you, momentarily. “Do you?”
“I know you keep things in the drawers you ask me not to open.”
Her face crumples in a frown. “Those are just family treasures. You—”
“The other day I saw you and Quartermaster Lu whispering together. When I came closer you stopped. What were you talking about?”
She puts space between you. “Listen to yourself talk. Do you know what’s at stake? You’ve seen what they do to traitors.”
You close the space she’s tried to make. “It doesn’t matter. My cluster has been broken. Ren is gone. They’re only waiting until they can replace us. I am already dead, it is decided.”
Suqing grimaces. “I won’t do this. Leave me alone if you have nothing else to ask.” She retreats into the bedchamber and locks the door, a mechanical click that you would have to break into. You stand in the cold air of her room, waiting for her to re-emerge and recant her declarations, but she does not.
There’s a gap of hours before the knock comes on your door. You have been half-expecting it, half-dreading it. Suqing stands on the other side, the broad lines of her face taut and solid. “Come with me.” That’s all she says.
She leads you silently and rapidly through the backdoor byways of Eighth Colony: unpatrolled, unadorned corridors with exposed piping and unfinished metal walls. For the first ten minutes of your journey she walks without talking, and you match her strides, equally silent. Blood sings in your ears, and your heart is a drum to accompany it.
Then Suqing says: “When you asked to accompany me, I was in a dilemma. I suspected a trap. It seemed too convenient. First exposing my preferences for women, then trying to catch us in treasonous activities. I had a moment of doubt. I suspected the Authority’s involvement.”
A reasonable fear. “What changed your mind?”
“Nothing, actually. I just thought, I don’t want to live with this kind of fear and doubt all my life. Where even expressions of love have to be taken with suspicion.”
She comes to a stop before the entrance of a pump room, its door thick and heavy, the muffled roar of machinery thrumming from within. “Once you step through this door, there is no turning back. Are you sure about this? Do you know why you’re doing it?”
You are doing it for Ren. For Wang-sun. Your sorrow for her is overwhelming. How pitiful that she died helpless, at the mercy of the forces that have dictated the form and shape of your life. You have determined that this will not be your fate.
You straighten your spine and sing:「莫等闲白了少年头、空悲切。」
Suqing dips her head in understanding, and unlocks the room door with her mage’s touch.
Over the next few hours and the next few days you learn many things. You suspected some of them, others catch you blind.
You learn that the roots of the rebellion have spread far and wide in Eighth Colony. They go deeper than you had imagined. Nearly half the Authority officers are active participants, and they are in every branch of operations.
You learn that of the four starmages on the colony, three have been recruited to the cause. The fourth, Officer Yao, is an Authority man, through and through. It cannot be helped. It is enough.
You learn that Quartermaster Lu leads the Eighth Colony rebels. When you ask if it feels strange to give orders to starmages, he laughs. “There is no place for that sort of hierarchy in the rebellion. We must purge ourselves and our movement of such toxic ways of thinking!”
You learn that the corpse that started your recent troubles was in fact a message from comrades on the originworld. Secrets and messages had been whispered into the dead man’s ear before he had been slaughtered. The map of his viscera has been pinned up in the pump room, Starmage Wu’s spidery interpretations scrawling downwards beside it. Gut-reading is an old art long fallen out of practice, but Starmage Wu had taught himself as a young man. The Starmage General had gotten so jittery around the Imperial Executioner’s visit that normal lines of communication were no longer safe.
You ask Quartermaster Lu: “So he was not really your cousin? That was a lie?”
“He was my cousin. But he was becoming a liability to the movement.” Since he had to die, his body might as well be made good use of. His death was regrettable, but it couldn’t be helped.
So, too, was Traitor’s. When she was caught, it was decided that saving her would only expose the movement to more danger, more executions. Starmage Jiang had visited her, quietly wiped her memories, so she could not reveal anyone else. She had died not even knowing her crimes.
You notice how uncomfortable Suqing becomes whenever Traitor is mentioned. Her name, you remind yourself, was Siyun.
Rebellion is imminent. Four of the Colonies have agreed to coordinate, overthrowing the Imperial Authority on the same day, declaring themselves independent.
Only the starmages have the ability to defeat the Starmage General. But their suits have a limiter that stops them from performing the Seventy Two Transformations, and that is under the Starmage General’s control. It is possible to bypass the limiters, but the materials needed to do so come from the originworld, and that shipment was interrupted by the Imperial Executioner’s visit.
“But we have the ansible on our side now,” says Quartermaster Lu. He thumps you heartily on the back.
“What of the processing officer?” you ask. “The new one detests me. Surely he will notice something amiss.”
“That’s Officer Xiao, isn’t it? He’s new to the colony.” Starmage Wu rubs his chin and looks at Suqing. “I hear he has his eye on you. He’s ambitious. That might work.”
Suqing flushes. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Come on, Ouyang,” Quartermaster Lu says. “Surely even a deviant like you can distract a man for a mere few minutes.”
It takes more than a few minutes. For safety’s sake, Suqing’s flirtations with the man have to stretch across the week. The excuse is that, due to your poor performance, she has been sent to oversee you. While you sing your broken, mismatched song, she bats her eyelids and recites the lines Starmage Wu taught her. Her delivery is so glasslike and stiff you wonder how he believes it. But he is smitten. Somewhere between his posturing and Suqing’s unconvincing lip-biting, you receive a package wrapped in red cloth, mage-touched to hide it from scrutiny.
You cannot believe it worked.
Quartermaster Lu is predictably delighted, clapping Suqing on the back. He likes doing this, you realise, his boisterous laugh louder if the recipient of his gesture flinches. “Looks like you’ve truly got it in you, Ouyang. Are you sure you really like women that much?”
“I can vouch for that,” you say to him, as Suqing’s lips thin.
Quartermaster Lu guffaws. “This one has spirit! I like her.” And he looks at you with a smile that means he does not like you, at all.
Suqing takes your hand. It is done. Nothing stands between the colony and its destiny now.
On the eve of the rebellion you lie with Suqing, one last exultation before the fall. You kiss her pale, damp skin, caressing the dips and curves that glow with implant light. How familiar this has become, as though everything that passed before had been a dream, and this has been the only reality you’ve known.
Eventually the both of you fall quiet, urgent caresses subsiding into a loose, comfortable tangle of limbs. “Are you frightened?” you ask.
Suqing blinks and looks out at the stoic, unjudgemental stars. “I’ve already done the most frightening thing I can think of.”
“Why did you do it? Why did you approach me, after so many years?”
She grips your hand. “The path of rebellion is lined with death,” she says. “And I didn’t want to die full of regrets.”
You bury your face in her fragrant shoulder. “You’re not allowed to die.”
She lifts your chin. “Surely my life is worth the freedom of the people? One life is not that much of a price to pay.”
You say nothing. Your mind struggles to construct the memory of the faces you have loved: Ren’s pale softness, the bright lines of your long-gone Mingyue. It’s like building a bridge out of smoke.
Your silence is not lost on Suqing. She kisses your fevered brow. “What happens, will happen,” she says. “We shouldn’t fight it.”
“Aren’t we fighting for the right to choose our destinies?”
She breathes out. “Yes,” she says finally. “Yes, we are. And this is what we’ve chosen.”
She has nightmares about Siyun’s death, still. You do too. Sometimes you dream that it’s Suqing in Traitor’s place. Sometimes you dream it’s you.
“After tomorrow,” Suqing says, as though reading your mind, “it won’t happen again.”
You press your chest against hers and softly begin the song you two chose for yourselves: 明月几时有？把酒问青天。Suqing’s voice joins yours, and in the cadence of her tone, snug as a glove, you feel a familiar resonance. And instead of fighting it you let it envelope you. You are falling into her song, as she is falling into yours, and her eyes are wide as a connection opens between you, a portal that transcends space and time.
“We did it,” she whispers, as the song ends.
You press your heads together. “Now nothing in the universe can keep us apart.”
You have never witnessed starmages in battle. Same as ordinary citizens, you have only read the poetry, heard the songs, tried to imagine the shape and sound of these battles. The things which are happening now defy the imagination, defy sense of scale, defy understanding. Creatures the size of mountains tear each other apart in the cold field of space. Two dragons battle, sinuous bodies twisting past the glass belly of Eighth Colony’s main atrium. The blood-slick scales that glide by are bigger than human heads. One dragon struggles to hold the other still. A third creature, a tiger that could swallow suns, slashes its world-splitting claws through dragonscale.
You can only guess which one is Suqing. And guesses are worth nothing in the arena of war.
Dragontail strikes glass and cracks spider across its surface. Amid cries of fear and consternation and the beat of your heart you whisper a mantra: It’s alright. It’s alright. She won’t let anything happen to us.
The citizenry clots the main atrium, bodies pushing against bodies until sweat and exhalation turns the air to thick and unbreathable soup. Terrible things transpire outside the atrium, but all that filters past the double-layered steel doors are muffled explosions and a great sense of fear. Fringes cling to foreheads, parents cling to children, and your grey tunic clings to the small of your back. A gun naps in your hands, warm and heavy, and as you patrol the atrium, intrusive thoughts of your fellow rebels follow you like a pack of wolves: What if you dropped it? What if it went off?
A woman pulls a small boy close as you walk past, and her eyes trail you as you continue your patrol. The citizenry are gathered here to protect them from the fighting; they are not hostages, or prisoners. This, too, is what they have been told.
In the center of the atrium the sculpture that used to be Traitor shimmers in the light of battle.
Something explodes in the station and you fall. Gun clatters against metal as the lights go out, and the deep bass thrum of the air system falls silent as if shot. People scream, and something—someone—strikes your jaw as the pushing starts, the angry, panicked shoving. You scramble to your feet, fearing a stampede, a loss of order, the loss of life. The gun—you see it on the floor, and you dive desperately for it. As your fingers close around the barrel something kicks you in the back. A foot crushes your hand. You scream.
The lights come back on and the air system starts again, unsteady and shuddering, as if the station is having problems drawing breath. Your hand pulses red-hot with pain as you get to your feet, and you don’t want to look at it, don’t want to see if there’s blood. The gun didn’t go off. That’s something to be thankful for. The other rebels are screaming instructions to the citizenry, to each other. Everyone seems to have forgotten about you.
Behind you someone starts crying.
Eighth Colony fills with thunder as the starmages crash into it. People fall and scream. The glass splinters further. Miraculously it holds, or you think it holds, because none of you are dying now, nobody is being sucked out to space. Pressed against the straining glass, the body of a dragon blots out the stars, and it is oddly, strangely green. It glows. Something is happening, something so powerful it shreds through the part of you that’s all gift.
If you call to Suqing now, would it help her? Or kill her?
The green flares, it burns your eyes, it consumes the shapes of the battling starmages. You drop the gun and cover your face with a cry. A quake tears through your gift. All falls silent, and remains silent. Then the slow babble of the citizenry rises up, a confused clamor of voices and exclamation.
Very slowly, you lower your hands. Beyond the cracked glass of the atrium lies only starfield. The starmages are gone. You allow yourself to breathe, but air burns through your lungs, and you too can taste vinegar in your throat as your stomach clenches into a small ball.
The sounds of strife outside the atrium fade; all that’s left are indistinct shouting voices. The sound of boots, quick and heavy against metal. Two gunshots, very brisk, very loud, very close by. And then nothing.
Your knees hurt and your calves are trembling. You should either sit down or keep patrolling, but you can’t bring yourself to do either.
“You,” shouts one of the rebels, a dough-faced man with buzz-cut hair. You remember his name, you do, it’s Sung—was it Sung? He’s shouting instructions at you, his wide blunt fingers pointing, gesturing, but the words don’t register. They are only sounds, whistling through the heat in your ears.
The main atrium doors groan as if they are being pulled apart by force, and a gasp goes up from the citizenry. As the doors rumble open, ten feet high and double-reinforced with steel, you tighten your grip on the gun, ignoring the pain in your broken fingers.
The first person through is a young rebel, her clothes and hair marked by blood. “Rejoice,” she shouts, “we are victorious.”
Cries go up from the other rebels, cheers and ululations. Your throat remains sandpaper-dry, your chest a metal vise. The citizenry around you stay likewise quiet and tight-lipped. A coup is a coup is a coup, and a bullet can kill you regardless of ideology.
You see her through the gaps in the rebels flooding the room, through the confusion of the citizenry. Suqing, battered and exhausted, but alive. Alive.
You run to her, feet getting caught on things as she stumbles towards you. Your shin connects with something, a person or their belongings, you’re not sure which, but you’ve flung your arms out already, you can’t move fast enough. Suqing smells of blood and sulphur and ozone, and her armor bruises your chest, but you don’t care. You don’t want to let her go.
“You still live,” you say. “I was so afraid.”
“My love.” The starmage kisses you on the mouth, in public, where everyone can see. Her embrace is raw force, teeth clashing against lips, arms lifting you off your feet. The world tilts and your stomach plummets in free fall—can you dare to hope that for once, something is going right?
Suqing seizes your hands when she releases you to the world again. Her reddened cheeks shine with a mad sort of joy, the madness that comes with great struggle coming to fruition. “Come,” she says, squeezing your fingers. You ignore the pain. “There’s a meeting of the leaders, we must attend.”
And so you leave the atrium and its multitudes behind, in the care of the ordinary rebels not invited to this high-level meeting. Suqing leads you through the death-lined guts of Eighth Colony, speckled with the corpses of Authority officers. The rebels jog between and around these mounds of flesh on the floor. Loose shoes, badges. Dark trickles of liquid smeared across metal in the pattern of boot prints. You breathe through your mouth and start keeping your line of sight above shoulder level.
The blood splatters on the wall look like roses.
“What now?” The question fills the space between Suqing and you.
“No one knows,” she says. “This is just the beginning; our struggle is far from over. There will be days and months to come, and no one can predict what they will bring.”
She stops in the middle of the carnage and turns to you, her smile wide and bright as you’ve ever seen. “But we’ll be together. Now nothing will come between us.”
The path of the corridors closes in on the pump room where you first got entangled in all this. In front of it stands the shape of Quartermaster Lu.
He has a gun in his hands.
He raises the gun as you draw near.
Suqing angles her body so that she and her mage suit stand between you and the gun muzzle. “What’s going on?”
Quartermaster Lu’s face is sweat-slick but businesslike, calm as a storm cloud drifting across a summer’s courtyard. “The rebellion has succeeded. Now we must cut the last ties to the parasitic Authority.”
This, you realise, with a thick muddy sinking of your stomach contents, means you. The gun is meant for you.
Suqing’s brow knits. “You doubt my loyalty to the cause? Because of my family?” She still doesn’t understand.
“It’s not you.” You stare Quartermaster Lu in the face, daring him to crack, to show even the slightest hint of remorse. “You’re talking about me, aren’t you?”
“I don’t understand.” Suqing takes a step backwards, moving closer to you. “She wouldn’t betray us!”
“Not by choice. But she’s an ansible. She’s an open connection. Someone from the Authority could get through her, send things over. It’s too dangerous.”
“That’s not how it works!” Suqing’s anger and frustration boils over. “I’ve learned the method, it has to be a two-way connection!”
“We cannot take the risk. Ouyang, it cannot be helped.”
Suqing’s hands tighten into fists. “Like Siyun’s death couldn’t be helped?”
Your face burns, your breath burns. You hiss: “I joined the rebellion so my fate wouldn’t be decided by men like you.”
The gun points to your face. “Think of the good of the cause,” says Quartermaster Lu, his tone flat. You clench your fists, ignoring the pain that flares through the broken one. Could you strike him, and then run?
“Everything I’ve done has been for the good of the cause,” Suqing says. “Not anymore.”
She grabs your hand, your swollen broken hand, and the pain keeps you anchored as her gift flares.
The world distorts, goes grey, and then muffled. Time stops. Quartermaster Lu’s face is frozen in the half-expression rictus of a new word. The breath of the station’s air system morphs into a loud, constant drone.
“What is this?” you ask, words shaky.
“This is in-between.” Suqing breathes like she’s climbing mountains. “You access it with your gift. You don’t learn this as ansibles?”
You learn nothing as ansibles. They teach you to be nothing but a conduit.
Suqing pulls at you as you run. “We haven’t got much time,” she gasps. How long can she hold on? You follow after her in a daze, one foot in front of the other, unable to absorb how strange all this is. Your gift sings and sings, a mosquito chorus you’ve never been allowed to hear. In the grey half-light of the in-between the dead bodies littering the corridors seem more like part of the station than anything else. Woven into the fabric of the world.
“What’s your plan?” you ask.
“You run. Somewhere they cannot find you.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
You end up on the docking platform, the struts familiar over your head. By this time Suqing’s face is red with exertion, and you crash out of the in-between into the sound and smell of the ordinary world. You catch her as she falls to her knees. “Are you alright?”
Suqing pushes past the harsh breathing to get to her feet. “I’m fine. Only tired.” She points you towards one of the lightspeed cocoons, marked red-on-grey, massive and industrial. A planetary supply cocoon, in transit. “We’ll take that one.”
The cocoon seats one, just like the vehicle that brought you here years ago. You repeat, “Suqing, what about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. Quartermaster Lu needs me. He cannot dispose of me so easily. Not yet.” The cocoon’s navigation panel lights up under her touch, and she enters coordinates. “Please hurry,” she tells you. “Strap in.”
You glance at the docking platform doors, wide open, and realise it’s only a matter of time before the rebels find you.
You wanted to decide your own fate. You wanted to fight for it.
“Take me to a place where there are wide and deep fields,” you say. “A place where grains grow plump and cherry blossom flourishes.”
“There’s a sparsely populated planet, not a few light-years from here,” Suqing says. “Farmers, dependable folk. They won’t question too much.”
The safety belts click across your chest and hips with a sober finality. “And you? Will you join me?”
She comes to your side, forehead finding yours, limbs trembling, breaths ghosting against your skin. “Yes,” she whispers. “I will. I promise. I promise.”
You don’t want to let her go.
Suqing takes in a shaking breath, and then the rough steps of her melody surround you: 明月几时有? 把酒问青天…
You sing, matching her tone. 人有悲欢离合、月有阴晴圆缺、 此事古难全。 Warmth floods around you, the connection that cannot be erased. A song, written in the long ages when your people lived on a single planet, shared the same moon. Yet the sentiment is unchanged.
Light glows between the two of you. 但愿人长久、千里共婵娟。
You kiss her face, her lips, her hair. You taste the blood on them. You taste the sweat, the fear, the desperation, the hope. What the future holds, you cannot say. But you have your song. It is all that you have, and you have to pray that it will be enough.
“Waiting on a Bright Moon” copyright © 2017 by Neon Yang
Art copyright © 2017 by Victo Ngai