* Winner of the 2018 Story of the Year Award *
When was your first? That is always what we ask one another. When and what? When in your life was that moment, the time that revealed the world to you and sent you scurrying under the bed sheets? When I think back, the thing I always remember is the house. Not the inside, where the shadows gathered and hid. Those memories came later. I remember the front, the black and white Tudor facade with roses growing around the door, and the crunch of a gravel driveway under car tyres. God only knows how my father afforded such a place, although I suspect the Devil might have a better idea. Not a grand house, but beautiful and caught in my memory in a moment of eternal summer. Memory can be an ironic little bastard when it wants to be.
We moved there when I was about eight. I don’t remember much before that, which is odd as eight is old enough. I know some people who claim to have memories of their time as babies, of flashes of food upon their tongue, the smile of a mother’s face. I don’t have any of that. Mother never really smiled much in any case; she never seemed up to the challenge. Father laughed all the time, a laugh which echoed around that house and bounced from basement to rafter. The days there were full of laughter, though I didn’t join in.
My room overlooked the garden, such as it was, fenced in on all sides by the encroaching houses of modernity. I liked to watch the moon shining on that small patch of grass. But soon I couldn’t see out the window. There were too many handprints on it. Father got very angry about those. He said I was being naughty, that I shouldn’t make such a mess, and didn’t I know how much it cost to clean windows? Then he would laugh and raise his fist. I said nothing, through the tears. I hadn’t touched the glass. The hands had just appeared.
Ba Renzhong took a fresh horse from the military district and set out for Spotted Turtle Valley alone. A short distance into his journey he spotted a cloud of dust behind him. The Purple Demon tied his horse to a tree, unsheathed his sword and hid up the road, ready to ambush whoever was tailing him.
He kept his eyes fixed on the road, gazing like a hawk focused on its prey. But when the approaching horsemen drew near, instead of Colonel Ho, Ba saw men who had fought alongside him at White Wood Fortress.
“What are you doing here?” Ba called, emerging from the rocky wayside and sheathing his sword.
The soldiers, perhaps fifty in all, turned to face him. “Colonel Ba! We received a message from Major Cho to come and reinforce you, to help you recover your brother’s body.”
Ba mounted his own horse and beckoned for them to follow. “Good. But stay behind me if it comes to fighting. I’m going to get Ba Jiang’s corpse even if I have to carve my way through a thousand men.”
Breaking down her body, I can tell her parts are different from anything else in my collection. I remove her carbotanium panelling and unscrew the protective plate. Resting it on the oil-smeared workbench, I open up the wire-meshed housing unit and connect to her sternum slot.
Data streams up to the console, and the monitor flashes the tell-tale codes of sentience. A whirring builds from her chest cavity. Lights slice blue from side panelling and the power unit spills poisonous-red brilliance across the landlocked shipping container. Shimmering metal reflects in the glittered stars of Advika’s school painting. The bot’s voice unit thrums. I calibrate it, and she speaks clear: “I sense you’re in distress.”
My head burns. An hour since activated, she’s ceaseless with her probing.
“What would you know about how I feel? You were just a fitbot. All the MR-Series were.” Probably her emotional response matrix is damaged. A known issue. “But I’ll soon fix you up good after a road test! Ain’t much I can’t repair or improve.”
“My previous user already modified me. I’ve not been utilized as a fitbot for seven years.” She lets that hang in the arid air.
Ba Renzhong set out for Fort Silverheart the next day, accompanied by a hundred soldiers and mules carrying pay and supplies for the distant fortress. After many days of marching, he finally reached his destination, and was met by Wu Jin, also known as the One-Horned Goat, on the road.
“Colonel Ba, a pleasure to meet you. I trust there was no trouble on your journey?” Wu asked, bowing in the saddle.
Ba Renzhong shook his head and returned the bow. “You are to be commended, commandant. I saw neither hide nor hair of a brigand on the way here. If only Ganyang itself had such secure roads…”
The two men rode at the head of the column, winding down the road to Fort Silverheart.
“It used to be terrible around here. Fortunately, the emperor’s reflected virtue enabled me to apprehend the local bandit leader, a skilled and vile creature known as the Scarecrow King,” Wu explained, a smile on his face. “After his capture, mopping up his underlings was as easy as catching a one-legged tortoise.”
The Water. Strange name for an art gallery.
Everyone says that. It’s wearying, to be honest, but I have only myself to blame. Mooring the gallery three hundred kilometres above a desiccated rock that hadn’t seen a drop of moisture in millennia at least gave a soupçon of irony in our first season. Here, among a pentacluster of aqua-habitats, it’s ridiculous.
Still, I make the most of it, inviting viewing guests to offer their conjectures as to its origins. Many surmise it’s a philosophical statement, art being as necessary to life as H2O. Excuse my hollow laughter. The more knowledgeable, i.e. the better prepared with goog-implanted art history briefings, think it relates to the famous conceptual installation The Water, Unbridged by Semke Manoula of 2119, or the infamous The Water is Rising by TeeranTula in 2243 which drowned forty-seven art lovers and – thanks be to the gods of true art – the artist yrself.
All such theories are wrong, but they provide opportunity for small talk, as I waft the guests – potential buyers, all – through the antechambers showcasing work from less expensive artists towards Suuztchi’s latest offerings in the main Halls.
Ba’s heart skipped a beat as he awaited Lady Wen’s reply.
“In the flurry of a snowstorm, I mistakenly identified Colonel Ba Renzhong as my attacker,” Lady Wen said. The soldiers gasped in shock, and she went on. “In the bright light of day, it is clear that this man is innocent and ought to be freed.”
General Gao’s eyebrows writhed like slugs on a salt pile, his mouth agape like a volcano’s maw.
“Men, you heard Lady Wen,” Lady Rong called to her personal guard. “Unbind Colonel Ba this instant.”
Ba struggled to stand, but was helped to his feet by two of Lady Rong’s soldiers. They untied his wrists and handed him a wineskin, which he emptied with a single gulp.
“General Gao, you imprisoned this man wrongly and sought to behead him. Perhaps an apology is in order?” Lady Rong asked.
As the clock struck midnight, Feng-jing shifted in his chair. He was having a small snack, just a bite of sticky rice cake, when the wooden chair lifted up and he soared out the window. His sweater sleeve snagged on a branch, but he barely felt the rip. He dropped his half-eaten cake. “Hey,” he heard from below, as the pastry hit the helmet of a motorcyclist. His heart palpitated as the breeze whipped his black locks.
“Dad!” he yelled. No response.
The chair dodged Taipei’s various glowing signs and street lamps. As Feng-jing passed above lanterns held by a single string at the temple front, he remembered that thin thread of bracelet on the fortune teller’s wrist. Years ago, Mom took him to the night market, like she did every Friday. She had her fortune read and, on that day, made him do it too. She ushered him into the crammed booth. All he wanted was a scallion pancake, but as he looked at the fortune teller’s gaunt face, he shivered and forgot about that flaky treat. He wrote his name for her, at her request, in his messy elementary scrawl: 馮敬 Feng-jing. The fortune teller stared at it, her lips unmoving.
She looked at him with luminous eyes, “Twelve/twelve,” she said finally, tracing the strokes, counting them aloud. “Your twelfth year, when the hours are even – twelve/twelve – you will realize what you long suspected.”
Ba Renzhong’s hands were bound, and he was escorted through the streets of Ganyang, into the military district, and thrown into prison. After several hours contemplating his predicament and meditating on his fate, he approached the bars and asked a guard to come closer.
“It’s likely I’ll be dead tomorrow. I’d like my last meal if I may,” Ba asked.
The guard laughed. “Sure, sure. I’ll get you a bowl of empty air and a cup of nothing! As if General Gao wants you stuffing your face. The army can’t waste money paying for a criminal’s gluttony.”
Ba folded his arms. “A final meal is an ancient principle and decreed in imperial law.”
“He’s right, you know,” Iron Belly said. He strolled to the cell, bearing a tray. Ba’s nostrils twitched at the smell of steaming dumplings and fresh-cooked beef.
The guard scowled. “These are General Gao’s orders, sir. They must be obeyed.”
Iron Belly smiled. “I’m going to give my friend his last meal. You can look the other way, or I can bruise more than your pride. It’s entirely up to you.”
‘Your family is not left behind.’ It’s the unofficial slogan of the Commonwealth Expeditionary Force. Family units are supposed to be more stable for long-time missions, according to the higher-ups. I don’t think this can be applied to the Masons, somehow. Dad says ships like ours are really like small towns back home. All the good bits are on show for people passing through. The bad bits are hidden away behind closed doors and twitching curtains. Dad isn’t into people. He likes rocks, you know, anything from boulders to the layers that make up worlds. Mum, she likes bugs. Not bugs as in creepy-crawly types, with wings and feelers. She’s into the type that you can only see with a microscope, the ones that can either kill or cure you, depending on your luck I suppose.
Me? Well, I am into people. I love watching my fellow crew and listening to them. My teacher said I will make a good anthropologist someday. Listening when I wasn’t supposed to – that’s how I found out about the Masons. I mean, ‘reassigned mid-mission’? Did anyone in the crew really believe that? Come on. The way their quarters were sealed off for two days, and the first officer looking as yellow as a backer bat. I swear he was going to puke when I saw him in F section. Not to mention the way the senior staff talked in whispers for ages after the Masons were reassigned. Something really bad happened.
Ba Renzhong closed the door and started to gather the things he would need for his journey. As he donned his armour, he explained the situation to the others.
“I’ve been sent to inspect several villages that may be harbouring bandits and stolen property,” the Purple Demon said. “Jiang, Lina, stay here. General Gao has it in for me, and I don’t want him to take it out on you. Cho Feng can see to your needs.”
Iron Belly growled. “I should come with you. There could be an ambush. Again.”
Ba Renzhong slapped him on the shoulder. “I can look after myself. My brother and sister-in-law I leave to you, friend.”
The villages were nestled in the mountains that rose around Ganyang, the rocky paths too steep and precarious for a horse. Ba left the city behind, the cold piercing his armour. Even before he reached the first village, snow started to fall, and tiny patches of ice made the path treacherous.
An odd thing happened at the first village. Before Ba even opened his mouth, every villager turned out in the square and the headman presented him with two silver ingots.