Science Fiction future Shanghai Girl Hero

Daughter of the Red Cranes

By Alex Isle
Feb 23, 2020 · 5,825 words · 22 minutes

Photo by Pen Tsai via Unsplash.

Cai Mei sat in the shabbily carpeted hallway outside her family’s seventh-level flat in the Peace Hotel, playing chess with her neighbour from one level down.  She almost never won, but it was good practice, kept her brain sharp.  The move she had just made had at least stopped the little horror for a moment.  As he thought, his eyes closed almost to slits in the baby fat of his cheeks.  Then he pushed forward a knight and Cai Mei said all the bad words she knew.

“Zhang Lian!” the shrill cry from the stairway followed her oath, so fast Mei thought Lian’s mother had actually heard her.

“Mate in seven,” Lian said.  He stood up, bowed unsteadily to her and waddled reluctantly away, having learned that if he didn’t, his mother would come and fetch him and carry him bodily down the stairs no matter who was there to see.  Or else she would say something about him still wearing diapers.

After all, Mei thought with some sympathy, he wasn’t three yet and so spoiled it was no wonder toilet training was taking a bit longer than it should.  Most of the Peace’s residents worshipped him.  They had been the same way with her when she was smaller.   She and Lian were the only two children born here in the past 12 years. 

The grandmothers said once no one had wanted girls, that their own grandmothers had lived in a time when only one child was allowed for each woman, so girls were often killed or abandoned in the hope that another pregnancy might produce a male. 

Mei unfolded her long skinny legs and peered at the board as she picked it up.  It looked as though Lian was right about the mate.  Again.

Then she noticed something else as she turned to brush dust from her skirt.  There was blood, a long drying stain, low down on the back.  Alarmed, Mei pulled the skirt around after checking that no one had come into the hallway.  Yes, definitely blood.  She felt a cold tension in her stomach as she recalled what her mother had said, over and over since Mei could remember. 

“When you are ready to become a woman, you may bleed.  Not many of us do now, not since the sicknesses of the Emptying, but my mother did.  I did and so may you.  If it happens, you must tell me or your grandmother at once.  No one else.”

Cai Mei quickly went into their flat, wearing the skirt wrong way around and carrying the chess board close so that no one else would see.

That night, Cai Mei awoke very suddenly to find her grandmother sitting on the end of her bed, in the little alcove.  She blinked, wondering whether Cai Shan was actually a dream and if so, what it meant that she should dream of her grandmother.

“Hello, honoured grandmother,” she managed. “Are you here in spirit?”

“Not quite,” Cai Shan replied drily, “but it is good to know that your manners don’t desert you when you are surprised from sleep.  Get up and dress, granddaughter;  we must talk.”

Her mother had said little when Mei told her she had bled.  She had come in from some excursion and was carefully cleaning a ragged cut in her arm when Mei found her.  The black sleeve of her mother’s tunic was rolled up and her unusual pale brown hair half pulled out of its usually neat braid.  When her daughter spoke, she listened, face expressionless, and then nodded.  “Good.” That was all.

Now, Cai Jia Li stood by their apartment door like a guard, again dressed in black, with the red ribbon signifying their femclan, the Red Cranes, threaded through her braid.  Cai Shan came forward, glanced at her daughter and put a hand to Mei’s shoulder to halt her. “Have they arrived?”

“They are in the hall,” Jia answered her mother.  It was as though Mei wasn’t even there, which made her both anxious and upset.  Then someone knocked twice on their door and Jia opened it.  Outside was a spread out group of women, some of whom Mei knew from meetings of the Red Cranes.  As a child, she had always been sent to another Peace Hotel household for the evening, but sometimes she had seen them arrive and longed to be one of them.  The Red Cranes were well respected and Mei had had all the usual fight training from the time she could walk, the same as her mother and grandmother before her, but that was not the same as being one of them.  She sometimes wondered whether she would ever use that training for anything but play.

Cai Shan pushed Mei slightly.  “Let’s go,” she said and the Red Cranes moved aside, except for two of them continuing in the lead.  The others fell in around the girl and the old woman in procession to the stairwell, where the group waited while one young woman ran down ahead and called back, her voice a high eerie echo, to say all was well.

“Why are they doing this?” Mei asked her grandmother.  Her mother had fallen back amongst the others and Mei could not speak to her.  “This is home.  Of course all is well.”

Cai Shan only signed her to silence.  Now Mei was frightened.  Her grandmother was not even complaining about the stairs or that no one was helping her.  They walked down three flights, then emerged into another hall and turned left, into the centre of the building.

This was the heart of Red Cranes territory, where secret training and teaching took place and where she and Lian were firmly moved on if they ventured to play anywhere nearby.  This hall was bare, wooden-floored and musty smelling and barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side.  Once it had been wide, Mei knew, once the Peace had been bright and elegant and filled with people who came to eat delicious food and meet friends and dance.

The Red Cranes walking ahead of her ran the length of the hall and came back, again saying all was well.  Mei looked at the doors they passed.  They were barred and boarded so heavily that it seemed they were never meant to be opened.  Halfway down the hall, her grandmother stopped her in front of one door, closed with a heavy metal bolt.

“Open it,” she said.  Mei struggled to do so but no one helped her or said anything.  Fear made her clumsy but she eventually achieved her aim and found herself standing in an even smaller passageway.  There was someone at the end of it, barely visible in the gloom.  Mei closed her eyes for a moment.  When she opened them, she could see that the person was another grandmother, the term here one of respect rather than kindred, one of the oldest Mei could remember seeing.

This was Wang Hu, aged one hundred and three, who had not been seen outside her apartment since before Mei was born.  She was no taller than Mei herself, wearing traditional Chinese silk garments in bright colours muted in the near-darkness.  Mei opened her mouth to say something polite to her, but then heard the other women closing and bolting the door behind her.

“Do not worry about them,” Wang Hu said sternly.  “I do not have many words left, Cai Mei, daughter of Cai Jia Li, and if I am to use them for you, they will not be wasted.  Do you understand?”

Mei nodded.  She had to nod.  The old woman’s fierceness was like that of a fire which has used nearly all of its fuel.  She could spare nothing.  “You are twelve years old and your grandmother tells me you have bled.  This means you are the only fertile female of childbearing age in our femclan.  The others we had have been killed or kidnapped by other groups.  Now, you must do a thing which you will not understand.”  She waited but Mei couldn’t force any question out.  A little more gently, or as close as she could come to gentleness, the ancient woman went on.

“You are a child and this is not right, to ask a child to bear a child, but we must do it.  Do you know why we ask?”

“The war,”  Mei blurted at last.  “The time when the men left.”

Wang Hu inclined her head like a queen.  “Yes.   We know the war’s beginnings but not its endings, because our city of Shanghai turned in on itself and so it was destroyed.  It could no longer maintain itself.  The men who survived those battles went out,  to fight beyond our territory, and never returned.  I was a young woman then.  I lost my father, my brothers and my husband.   There are now few men and it is we who say how things will be.   There are many plagues among us and one of those is that few can father and few can bear.  Since you have bled, you may be one who can bear a child.”

“But who will….”   Mei trailed off, because of course Wang Hu must have an answer to that.

Wang Hu moved a little and indicated a door behind her, bolted as the first door had been.  “Here we have a prisoner whom we have taken from the harbour, where a foreign ship has docked.  They come for curiosity, to see a city of millions now a realm of ghosts,”   she added before Mei could ask.  “We do not care, except that now we had a chance to take one of them.”   She smiled very faintly.  “When I was young, Mei, our people considered a woman worthless unless she bore a son.  Now, daughters are beyond price.  But we do not force;  that was the way of men.  You have the choice whether to pass that door or to turn away.”

A true choice?  Mei thought.  She would have to pass back through all those women, including her own family, and they would know.  But how could she do what they wanted?

“I – I will pass the door,”   she heard herself say.

“Good.  I will instruct you.  You must not fear.  The man has been warned of his fate if he harms you. “

She said more, but Mei remembered none of it.  She shut her mind away into the last chess game she had played with little Zhang Lian, solitary lord of the Peace Hotel.  She barely felt Wang Hu’s hand on her shoulder, part benediction, part simply making sure she did not turn and bolt.  Then the door opened and she was ushered through it.   Wang Hu spoke louder, to someone else, and then the door closed, leaving her in a lamplit cell.

Mei stared at another human being with the pale blue eyes of a demon. 

She should not have tried to move up that last pawn, she thought remotely;  that had wasted time and she had not been able to bring her bishop into play quickly enough when she needed it.

“What in hell is going on?  Who are you?”

He had rolled up from a narrow mattress, raised up on his arm.  His face was covered in a short beard, the same fox-fire as his hair.  His skin was pinkish white beneath a torn shirt and trousers of faded blue.  He had spoken Mandarin, but clumsily, the way Lian sometimes did, because no one corrected him.  She could guess the meaning of the one foreign word, given his scared emphasis.  Not scared of her, no.    There were unhealed cuts on his arms and face, from the blades of the Red Cranes.

“Those women told me – they said a maiden would come, and they told me some pretty terrible things.  But you’re just a child.  What’s your name?”

“Mei.”   She managed to unfreeze her tongue.  “Cai Mei.”

He managed a smile, very nervous, and she saw that he was young after all, perhaps twenty.  Even though he was so big, twice the size of her mother or any other adult woman, it was a frightened boy that the Red Cranes had trapped here.  “Pleased to meet you, Mei.  I’m Andrew Tennant, and I guess I look very strange to you.  That’s because I’m from the other side of the world, from Australia.  You ever hear about Australia?”  When she only looked blank, he added.  “What about history;  do they teach you history?”

She nodded.  “The history of China and of Shanghai and something of the many ships which visited before the Emptying.  The grandmothers say ships are beginning to visit again now that the waters are peaceful once more.”

“Not if they keep doing stuff like this.”   He sat up carefully as though his body hurt to move and rubbed a shoulder, wincing.  “Can you tell me why I’m really here?  I don’t think I understood that old lady very well, but those women were damn insistent about dragging me in here.”

Mei was suddenly reluctant to tell him what Wang Hu had said, what she had been commanded to do.  Into the silence, she heard a small scratching behind her that could have been a rat behind the wall, but which she knew was the grandmother’s reminder of her presence.

“I must stay here the night,”  she blurted.  “The femclan guard so that you will not escape.”

“I don’t understand that word, “femclan.”  I learned Mandarin from Chinese people who emigrated – moved to – Australia generations ago.”

Mei nodded, glad for another topic, however temporary.  “It is our group, our clan,”  she said.  “There are other clans as well.  There are almost no males here now, because they left Shanghai to fight and to find food.  You cannot drink the water of the Huangpo without treating it but many did and they died.  So now…”   She could not look at him.  “Now you must give me a child because I am one of few who have bled and I am a woman.   The Red Cranes also guard us because they fear the Jade Dragons, who claim the area near us, might try to take me so I would give them the child.”

The man – Andrew Tennant, she said the strange name in her mind – stared at her in horror.  “You’re a child,”  he protested.  “No way can I do that.  Why don’t they send someone a bit older if they have to, you know…”

“There is no one.”

“No one else in your whole clan who can have a baby?”

“Not since Lian’s mother and she cannot have more children.”   She focused on one of her lessons.  “There were plagues among us, before I was born, many years.  There were too many people and the scholars tried to prevent so many children.  They did too well….”

“The fertility drought,”   he burst out.  “We know it came from China, yeah, but you’re saying there are no kids here?  We still only have very few and maybe that’s not so bad, but none at all?  In China?”    He shook his head, sighed and focused on her again.  “You don’t look all Chinese, if you don’t mind my saying,”  he said suddenly.  “Mostly, but there’s something in the shape of your face and eyes.”

Mei nodded.  “My grandmother’s man was one of your people,”  she said.  “A Westerner, I mean.”

“Not going to ask if he’s still around,”   Tennant muttered.  “Well, anyway, that could be why you’re more resistant to that created plague.  You got any brothers or sisters?”

“No.  There is only Zhang Lian in this building.”

“He any relation to you?”

Mei had to think it through.  “His mother is the cousin of my mother.”

“There you are.”  Again the faint scratching could be heard behind Mei as she stood near the door.  She swallowed the last moisture in her mouth and longed for a drink of water, but could see none.  She began to unbutton her blouse.  Tennant let out a protesting yelp and put a hand in front of his eyes.  “Don’t do that!”

“I’ve told you I must,”  she said.  

The scratching came again, louder.  This time Andrew Tennant heard it and glanced towards the noise.  “Are they there?”  he asked in disbelief.  “Right there?”

“Of  course.”   But she stopped unbuttoning, feeling silly and wondering what to do.  Wang Hu had said things, private things, in those moments but they made no sense to Mei.  “If you don’t, they will kill you,”   she added.

Andrew Tennant stared at her as though he had forgotten all his words.  Mei thought of the strange, serious way her own mother had looked at her before they began their journey through the Peace Hotel, as though her own daughter was both unknown to her and the most precious thing in the world.  This man was looking at her as though she scared him to death.

He began to talk, very swiftly, almost incoherently, with English words mixed up in the Mandarin.  Mei had learned it, a little, but got enough of his meaning.  “Look, let me talk to my friends on the ship.  We can arrange something to help your people, your Red Cranes and the rest.  That’s why we’re here, to talk to the local people, to help – there’s a doctor on the ship.  She can help too.  But no way am I having – doing anything with a kid your age.  Don’t take this wrong, please, you’ll be real cute in a few years, but not now, no way.”

Mei took another step until her legs were up against the bed.  He muttered something and got off it.

“The women outside will hurt you,”  Mei said.  She wondered what that really meant. 

There was a loud thump against the door as though someone had fallen against it rather than just hit it.  Before Tennant could ask any more questions, shouting followed the thump.  A young woman’s voice,  high and strong and urgent.  Mei had never heard anyone shout like that inside the territory of the Cranes.  Tennant went to the door and called out for someone to come in, but there was no response.

“No!”  Mei hissed.  “If the Jade Dragons or someone else is inside, you must not tell them where we are.”

More shouting almost drowned her out, then a report of a pistol and a scream.  They were old weapons, Mei knew, from stockpiles hidden by the last government of the People’s Democratic Republic of China.  They had been found and were now scattered among the various clans, and there had been many, many skirmishes since she was a small child but always outside, beyond the protected area where she lived. 

“Get under the mattress, pull it over you,”   Tennant directed.  “If anyone does come in, there’s a chance they won’t see you.”

His voice was filled with exasperation and tension rather than panic and it was that rather than anything else which encouraged Mei to obey him.  She could hear Tennant calling out again, banging on the door as he did, as though he wanted their enemies to find them.  “Grandmother?  Old lady?  Open up the door and come in here;  sounds like you’ll be safer that way.  Can you hear me?”

If she did, she made no reply.

“Mei,”   Tennant asked after a few moments, “it sounds like the noise is moving away from us.  Is there another way out of this room, like a hidden panel or something?”

“Do you see one?”   she called back.  “If so, it’s too well hidden for me!  I have never been here before.”

More noises, of movement and voices, again intruded and with a shiver of fear, Mei realised that these voices were different from those of her clan, or of the Jade Dragons or anyone else.  Male voices.  Deep and guttural, speaking in an ugly, toneless language.  Tennant shouted back at them and she realised the language must be English.  She scrambled away from the mattress, letting it fall back to the floor behind her, just as the door rattled and shook and burst open to reveal roughly human shapes, but rather than clothes, they wore black metal armour.  There were bowl-like hats strapped to their heads and their faces were concealed behind what Mei thought was shaded glass.

“Andrew,”  said the first one, and Mei gasped;  that voice was female.  “You sure did manage to screw up your shore leave.” 

There were four of them crowding into the small room now and Mei shrank back against the wall.  Andrew Tennant spoke quietly, urgently to three of them while the woman stood in front of Mei.  “Are you a demon?”  the girl blurted.

“No, I’m a girl,”   the other said.  “I’m not supposed to take off the helmet…oh, darn it.”   She reached up and pulled off the hat, revealing a tumble of blond hair escaping from a ponytail.  “See?  I know I look scary but I’m a nice person, I promise.  You need to come out with us now so we can keep you safe.”

“No, I do not wish to leave the Peace.”

“The what?”

“That’s this hotel,”   Tennant called.

“I want to go back to my home on the seventh level.  My mother and grandmother will come back to look for me there, if they have gone to hunt the Jade Dragons.”

“Little girl, we don’t know where your family are but things are rather crazy out here now,”  the woman went on.  Her Mandarin was slow and odd-sounding, but understandable.  “Also Andrew’s hurt and we need to get him to our doctor.”

“Whitford!”  called a deep male voice.  “Put your damn helmet on.  You know there were positive toxin readings.”

“But the kid…”

“She’s grown up here, it’s not the same.  Do it!”

“Calm down, Shane, she’s just a little girl and you’re scaring her.”

I’m scared,”  the deep voice bellowed back.  “Move it along, Whitford.”

“Come on, Mei,”  Tennant said gently, turning to come back to her, and it was that which got her moving.  There were clouds of smoke beyond the door and she could hardly see, shuffling along between the black armoured behemoths into the hallway.  Tennant was at her back and he rested a hand on her shoulder, maybe reassurance, maybe to stop her running.  “Don’t look at anything,”  he told her.  “Just follow Whitford.”

“If you are not demons, how did they find you?”  Mei demanded as she obeyed.

“My tracker.  It’s implanted.”    She listened without understanding, except that he was saying they had a way to locate him, which did not at all mean he was not a demon.  They took her to the stairway and began to descend with care, but at the first landing had to halt because someone was lying sprawled on the concrete floor.  Mei balked against the pressure of Tennant’s hand on her shoulder and strove to see beyond the black metal bulk of Whitford in front of her.  She could see cloudy white hair and a tiny, birdlike form.  It was the ancient grandmother, Wang Hu, she thought in fury.  Had these black demons swatted her like a mere insect, not understanding that the grandmothers held all wisdom and memory?

The huge armoured shape identified as “Shane” laboriously knelt beside the fragile shape as his comrades moved awkwardly around him.  “She’s alive,”  he called.  “Go on.  I’ll bring her.”

“She’s got a spear wound to her arm,”   Tennant raised his voice, leaning close to Mei.  “It wasn’t us.”

Gunfire echoed from elsewhere in the Peace, but Mei’s confused ears and brain could not determine from where.  It was fortunate, at least, that whoever attacked Wang Hu had been armed only with hand weapons, else they would surely have destroyed her.  But Tennant’s people were in this too and how could they tell the difference between Jade Dragon and Red Crane?  They didn’t know what the signs meant and now they were dragging her, two of them lifting her over the steps, past landing after landing until the armoured demon in the lead pushed through a doorway into the enormous, high ceilinged area just in front of the main doors of the Peace.

There was no one on duty at the guard station.  Andrew Tennant motioned the armoured demon on Mei’s other side to let her go and carefully put an arm around her shoulders to make her walk forward to the tall, elegant doors standing open, their glass shattered like jewels.  Mei tried to stop again, pleading, “I must not go out there.”

“Mei, you have to.  It’s not safe here now.”

“But my family won’t know where to find me!”

“We’ll find them.  Now, come on.”

Someone shrieked in the distance but the black demons ignored the cry.  Shanghai was full of ghosts and screams, whispers and skittering of feet that had nothing to do with them.  Behind them was Mei’s world, now echoing with gunfire and chaos.  She went with them and their blazing, fireless torches, into the street she had never seen, except from the viewpoint of within the Peace.  With her mother or grandmother on guard, she had been allowed out on to the upper balconies to glimpse and hear the outer city, but her feet had never touched that ground.  Like an Empress, they had said and laughed.

The hugeness of the city made her want to crouch down but she remembered that word, Empress, and stood as tall as she could.  Around her, buildings reared like cliffs into strange shapes against the black sky.  Some were clear glass, arrows aimed at heaven, twisted dark shapes crowded against one another in an impossible tangle of giant toys.

She couldn’t imagine these places filled with the millions who had once lived here, even if she thought of the pictures and prints which she had been shown.  One such image had been of the Jade Buddha Temple;  centuries old, gaudy by daylight and populated by smiling monks and visitors.  There by the road was the real temple, a shell, now ghostly and frightening.  The monks who had protected it for generations were long gone, but she prayed suddenly to their spirits to help her.

Then a great thundering noise from the sky made her think the tall buildings must be falling on their heads.  She froze but Tennant pulled her aside, into the leaf-strewn courtyard of the deserted temple.  “It’s all right, that’s one of ours,”  he shouted, forgetting to use Mandarin and almost unintelligible in any case, but she heard the relief in his voice.  The black-armoured demon Whitford closed in on her other side as though still believing Mei would run.

I may know nothing of the world outside the Peace,  she wanted to shout at them, but do you think I would disgrace my clan, my family?  My mother, my grandmother are not here and perhaps they are dead, but they will still see me.

What she saw now was a monster descending from the sky, emitting a huge blazing light which turned the night-shadowed courtyard to day.  Lian had little toys like that, with rotating wings as though they should fly.  She had never believed they were real.  The monster howled and rattled and hissed as it lowered itself to the ground, needing half the courtyard space to do so.  It lurched as though it would strike the temple and Mei had to stop herself cowering.  Whitford stood before her and Tennant and stretched out both her arms, waving the light she carried.

The noise was too great for any human voice to be heard, great enough to thunder through Mei’s head and half stun her.  Now the monster was almost on the ground, but it fell, dropping the last few paces to land clumsily.  Tennant frowned at it and reached to tap Whitford’s arm.  Before he had a chance to communicate anything, a doorway opened in the machine and a figure leapt from it to the ground.  Its slenderness and lack of armour warned Mei and she grabbed Tennant, desperately trying to pull him away.

Instead, he drew a gun from his belt.  Whitford was already shooting.

Stupid to shoot, of course.  The figure was not there.  The Jade Dragon – Mei saw the green streaks on the figure’s face as she leapt – would never be that clumsy.  Behind her, the flying behemoth’s thunder faded and the blinding light it cast flicked out.   More shapes dropped from its doorway and one, with a neat leap and roll, came in past the two westerners and pulled Mei neatly backwards, with a slim, iron-strong arm around her throat.

Whitford, clumsy in her armour, struggled with two of the Dragons.  The other armoured person was similarly besieged.  That was all Mei saw as she was occupied with the sudden struggle to get enough air.  A desperate thought made her go limp as though she was already unconscious, letting herself slip to the ground and deliberately not breaking her fall.

It worked in that the Dragon holding her didn’t immediately seize her again, but the sounds of blows and gasps warned Mei to stay where she was.  She heard an alien deep voice calling out from further away and was surprised to realise she recognised it – Shane, who had stayed to help Wang Hu.  So why was he trying to get the Jade Dragons’ attention?

The noises of combat above her stopped.  She glanced up quickly, saw no one right there, and scrambled to her feet.

Around her was a ring of ghosts, slim, black-clad, with streaked faces and cropped black hair.  With the only light now moon and stars, she couldn’t see the colours but who else could they be but the Dragons?   The group shifted outward a little and Mei saw three more women with different clan marks.  Surely that was a woman of the White Tigers and with her, two bearing the facial tattoos of the Sun Bears.  But why weren’t they attacking one another, or at least the western invaders?  

“Let her through, please.”  Andrew Tennant’s voice and perhaps it was shock that made the clan members obey and move aside, together with their mortal enemies.  They stared at her, the prize, the possibly fertile female who could give children to the clan who seized her, but then turned back to stare at the black armoured demon stalking through the assembled group with a tiny, ancient form in his arms.  And behind him…..Mei gasped.  Clutching the Shane-demon’s belt, looking insufferably at ease, toddled little Zhang Lian.    Were the Westerners insane?   If she was a prize, Zhang Lian was the ultimate victory.   When the truce broke, only the strongest here would be alive.

“You girls have nearly destroyed your hope of a future.”  Wang Hu’s voice was whispery, yet clear in the stunned silence.  It was shaded with a perfect contempt which only a hundred years could teach.  “You.  I saw you try to land this helicopter gunship that you stole.”  The subject words were in English but she waved at the crashed craft.  “You had no idea what you were doing with it and you know nothing now.  All of you endanger the children you say you hold so precious.”

“We did not steal the craft,” the solitary White Tiger was moved to complain.  “We have no grandmothers, we have no young.  We have had no children born since the Emptying and we will do what we must.  I speak for my people now, who have given their territory over to the Jade Dragons.”

The ancient woman laughed in the manner which lashed its listeners like the most elegant whip.  Wang Hu, Mei thought, was behaving like an empress on her throne, not clasped like a baby herself in the arms of a desperately embarrassed foreign devil.

“So who takes the girl and this little boy?  Dragons or Cranes or someone else?  If a femclan takes them, these foreign devils will follow and smoke you out.”

“The foreign devils are here to take our children,”   a Red Crane cried out.

“No,” Wang Hu told her, still amused.  “You, devil, tell these children your truth of why you are here.”

“We came to understand,”  he said slowly.  “To meet your people, to re-establish trade links that were broken many years ago.  When the cities finally died, we thought there was no hope.  We have one city remaining of our own.  For years we have been looking all over the world and you are the strongest who remain.  All of you together.”

“We are here because our city is here,”   Mei said, surprising herself, but the ancient woman nodded to her as though granting permission.  “We stayed when the men left and so we survived.”   She walked up to Shane, knelt beside Zhang Lian and took the little boy’s hand.  “Are you well?” she asked.

He nodded solemnly, eyes fixed on her.  She would not ask about his family yet, Mei thought, or hers.  “This is Zhang Lian.  The women of my clan say he may build the great machines again, so that they fly in the sky and even to the moon and the stars.  And I do not know yet what I will do….but I don’t want to go back inside the Peace Hotel or to some other place where another clan says what I will do.”

She saw Andrew Tennant make a firm sign to the others and after a mumbled discussion, the three armoured people pulled off their strange hats, their helmets.  Shane was dark-skinned and wavy haired, his bulk making the others seem small.  They were all pinkish pale in the moonlight.

“We were looking for a liaison,”  Shane said to Andrew.

“Yeah, but this is just a kid,” Whitford protested.

“No, she’s not,” Andrew said flatly.  “Not any more.  Look, Mei, you and the old lady, will you talk to us?  Get somebody from each of the other groups to come along too.  We can’t promise to help you but we’ll try.  And you can help us.  There are bad problems out there that we can’t fix.  One of our reasons for coming here was the hope that maybe your people could.   Will you try?”

Mei looked at the grandmother.  Despite her brave words, she rather hoped that Wang Hu would tell her what to do next, as she and the others had for all of Mei’s dozen years, but the ancient woman only smiled, seeming half asleep in Shane’s armoured hold.  She could not fail her family, she decided.  She could not fail herself.  She faced the battle-weary members of the femclans and bowed, startled to see the women bow back.  Then Cai Mei turned again to the invaders to give them her answer.



This story originally appeared in Agog! Ripping Reads.

1 Comment
  • leece
    February 23, 1:01pm

    Rocking read! Thank you! Wow, that alternate China is very thought provoking.