The Branding of Shu Mei Feng
By Amanda Clark
Apart from wanting optimistic, near future SF stories for the Shine anthology, I also wanted to have a wide range of settings for the Shine stories and — ideally — also from authors from across the world. I didn’t quite achieve the latter (the language barrier: translating is, relatively, expensive; not enough outreach and other factors), but I think I succeeded in the former.
By necessity, this means that a lot of these worldwide settings are written through the eyes of western authors. This is a part of writing the other, that is a person from culture A writing about a person from culture B. Research and feedback are an essential part of that, and it certainly helps if you’ve actually been in that particular place. Well, Amanda Clark has lived in China for several years, and I think it shows in “The Branding of Shu Mei Fen”.
Yes, there will be a story in Shine that’s also set in China, and the main reason I took that one — after the upcoming Shine competition it will be revealed which one I’m talking about — is that “The Branding of Shu Mei Feng” is mostly set after the important changes are mostly set in motion, while — “The Earth of Yunhe” — depicts how one such a ground change could be implemented.
I first met Amanda Clark in the bar at the 2008 World Fantasy in Calgary: she was jetlagged after returning from Shanghai, and she told me she would start to ferment stories from her four years in Shanghai and Beijing. “The Branding of Shu Mei Feng” is the first one, and I certainly hope that she will write more. Also, she read part of it at the World Fantasy in San José a few weeks ago, and it was great (it showed me new angles to a story I already had read several times).
Admittedly, the beginning has a strong hint of Red Barchetta and “A Nice Morning Drive” (our heroine likes to tamper with, or ‘reconfigure’ internal combustion vehicles), but that is only the kick-off. So follow Shu Mei Feng as she finds her way in a New World that is not only Brave, but simultaneously different and the same: as new policies are implemented, certain old habits die hard…
Icy liquid seeped into her eyes, her mouth, her nose, shutting off sight, sound, smell. Mei Feng felt neither Beautiful nor like a Phoenix in that moment. Her name should have been Drowned Turtle.
A calloused hand slid into her palm, soft, warm, squeezing rhythmically. Mei Feng willed herself to grip the hand, and this time she felt her fingers respond. She jerked upward, still blind, sputtering and coughing so hard she thought a lung might just come up.
“What the fuck?” She asked. The calloused hand squeezed painfully. She couldn’t hear her own voice. “I’ve gone deaf,” she added.
Light exploded around her, followed by the sound of water dripping and the earthy smell of new plantings. She twitched, gasping for one clean breath, crying out in relief when it came. She lay up to her neck under a blanket of hydroponic wool, so thick it pressed her down into the galvanized water trough jammed into her family’s shower. The blanket was connected by wires that ran over Father’s shoulders to an instrument that let out a little ping every few seconds.
Father watched her from the rim of the trough with his serious hazel eyes, hazel green, a rarity for Beijingers. Father’s mother had been a Tsaatan from northern Mongolia with light eyes, which she passed on to him. Eyes that made the Han in Beijing always a little wary of him.
“Alright, I’ve found the right frequency,” came Mother’s voice from behind him, “I’ve disabled the sensory deprivation function, at least. I’ll work on the others now.”
Father nodded. “Hao de,” he said, in Putonghua, sounding relieved. “Our Beautiful Phoenix is exhausted. One more dunking and the drowning reflex might not come.” He reached past Mei Feng and pulled out the plug in the trough. Her mother sat hunched over a computer wired to a small wheel of inputs that in turn led to instruments. Mother’s black on black eyes fixed on the screen as if her salvation lay in it.
Mei Feng looked up at her father. “What happened?”
His eyes took on the dull ochre of the Yangtze River, which still swept clay down from the mountains each Spring. Though now it was clean clay, since the adoption of the New Kyoto Initiative, which had put the brakes on pollution and population growth. Full recovery of the environment was well on its way, and her parents with their string of vertical farms, were helping it along.
“Your mobile called us when you passed out. We brought you back here from beyond Fifth Ring Road,” Mama said. It might have as well been ‘from beyond the Gates of Hell’, the way she said it. It wasn’t as if anyone was being impaled or cut in two out there, Mei Feng thought, it was only an abandoned wreck of rubble and old gas stations. And really RAD!
Mei Feng’s stomach cramped. She hadn’t eaten since before she and Lin Qi …
She remembered the two of them running from drones spewing nets of something sticky and black. She clenched her fists and felt tightness. Thin black lines swirled over the backs of her hands. She touched her face, then saw the flash of dread in her father’s eyes.
“I need a mirror,” Mei Feng whispered. Her father rooted around in the cosmetics drawer of the bathroom cabinet she shared with her mother, then brought out a small mirror.
Thin black lines extended from under her black hairline, over her nose, unfurling like wings across her cheeks and eyes, staring like some horrific bird of prey.
“Branded.” Mei Feng clutched the mirror and started to sob. Her father pried it out of her fingers, as if not looking would make a difference. The hunger pang struck again. “When can I get something to eat?”
“I’m working on that,” Mother snapped. Her fingers swept over the touch screen like an artist doing finger painting. Mei Feng lifted the hydroponic rug and looked down to see a network of densely laid black lines swirling down between her breasts and over her stomach.
“Stop that Mei Feng!” Mother shouted, then more evenly, “Keep that close to your body. If this brand is emitting a call to the local authorities they could find you here and arrest us all.”
“Just because I went past Fifth Ring Road!”
“No,” Father answered. “For reconfiguring an internal combustion vehicle, driving it, then getting a Party Member’s only son injured. I sent him home in an ambulance after Mother brought you here,” he said. His tone was flat. Mei Feng closed her eyes, which brought up memories of the accident.
The voices of her parents, shouting in Putonghua for hydroponic rugs. When her parents slipped out of English Patois, it always meant trouble.
“It was just a dirt bike. And it’s not as if I twisted Lin Qi’s arm to come with me,” Mei Feng said. Her father’s eyes became unreadable.
“Lin Qi couldn’t rebuild a motorcycle, or find gasoline for it. So, who do you think is responsible?” He asked. When she didn’t answer immediately he sighed and went on. “You have no respect. I hoped that letting you repair our farm equipment would keep this obsession with mechanics under control. You are a great disappointment, Mei Feng. There will be no more tinkering with hardware. Such skills are useless in Beijing anyway.”
The man knew how to pound in the last nail, he really did.
“I’ve broken into the hunger subroutines.” Mother said. Mei Feng shivered, then groaned when a wave of itching followed, then vanished.
“Oh, bu hao! … This is not good,” she moaned and turned to Mei Feng. “Bu hao isi, my Beautiful Phoenix. The brand has an anti-tampering subroutine. When you leave the shielded area we’ve set up … ” she began, trailing off. Father sat back against the dressing table, his face stony.
“The monitoring system will detect the tampering and respond with a kill order,” he said.
Mei Feng kneeled over the squatter toilet and heaved again. For days her parents had been watching anxiously after every bite of food, but she never got past more than a small handful before the tendrils of the brand in her stomach started her vomiting.
She flushed then stood on tiptoes, opening the window, careful to keep her head below the sill. The air outside was cool, and still dry with the last breath of winter still on the air. Mongolia still laid a coating of dry desert dust over the streets of Beijing each winter. Mei Feng ran her finger over the outside of the bathroom sill, rubbing the pulverized sand between her fingers, wondering what it was like to live in the desert.
She went to the sink, splashing cold water on her face then drying it with a small linen cloth. She frowned at her reflection in the mirror; the steel bird wings flexed like an crow’s. She looked away, repulsed. Her eye fell on her father’s shaving kit, which sat open on the tiny shelf by the sink. She pulled out the razor, unscrewing it by the handle. The flap wings opened over a double edged blade.
Old style razors had replaced disposables in the late 2020s, when the Americas, the EU and the Asian Union agreed to impose a luxury task on anything made of plastic. Tons of plastic nurdles from last century were still swirling in the Pacific Ocean dump, an area half the size of Australia. She wondered if they used self repairing machines on the boats that were now reprocessing it into bricks. Probably. Even the fabs that converted waste plastic into windmill blades were self healing manufacturers. Maintenance people were gone forever, and a girl like her, with a knack for fixing things, was just … obsolete.
Mei Feng stared at the shining blade. She lifted it out and set it on the rim of the porcelain sink, an antique her mother had picked out. The blade stared up at her, whispering to her pain. She gripped it flat between her thumb and forefinger.
The rich smell of her mother’s pan fried jiaozi lingered all over the house, and made her stomach cramp again. The punishment was as diabolical and efficient. She had known the drones kept people from reclaiming the old twentieth century gas powered hardware dumped into the abandoned buildings outside Fifth Ring Road. How had she missed one?
Simple, efficient. She looked up into the mirror again, staring at the lines, threads of black that made her black on black eyes look haunted. She hoped Lin Qi was doing better. She brought the razor blade up, holding it closer to her neck, and watched it move closer. How odd …
The sound of the lock springing open on the door behind her made her jump and drop the blade. Her father poked his head in the door, looking apologetic.
“Dui bu qi, your mother was worried … ” His words faded to silence as his eyes fell on the opened window. He cursed and darted over to slam it shut, then his eyes fell on the razor blade beside the sink. He spoke in a low, angry voice. “You would do this before your mother has run out of options to help you?”
“I wasn’t going to,” she began. He grabbed her by the chin and turned her face to the mirror.
“You run wild and make bad choice after bad choice, and now the Beautiful Phoenix has a bird of prey on her face. Don’t you think it’s time you began making good choices, Mei Feng?” He said, then let go and stormed away. His sock covered heels thumped along the concrete floor as he walked down the hall. She followed him out of the bathroom.
“I can’t stand this,” Mei Feng said, following as her father stalked into the living area. It took up the middle floor of their apartment, a circular room that filled the fifth level of the farm tower. She heard the distant sound of transport pods sliding in and out of the tubes on the ground level docking bay; vegetables and butchered meat heading off to the clients that their farm served. The curved wall was covered in thick layers of hydroponic wool, and smelled damp. Water pooled at the edges of the room from where it dripped. Father sank into the rosewood sofa. A partially embroidered square of black silk lay on an embroidery hoop beside him. Mother had nearly finished the spines of a gold dragon, started months ago as a decoration for Spring Festival, set aside in the most recent crisis. Soft scuffing over the floor drew her attention to the kitchen.
Mother looked from her husband to Mei Feng and set her mobile down on the counter that opened into the living area.
“Lin Qi killed himself when his parents tried to take him to hospital,” she said. Mei Feng’s father stared at her, and some of his anger faded, then he looked worried.
“Mei Feng opened the bathroom window. I caught her with my razor at her throat,” he said. Mother joined him on the sofa and brought her legs up under her. The split of her everyday qipao showed the still firm length of her thigh. She picked up her embroidery, fingers whitening over the needle. Mother exuded an air of utter containment that was beginning to drive Mei Feng insane.
“I have to leave, but not with these lines on my face,” she finished. Her father continued watching her in silence for a few seconds, then her mother sighed.
“I have to solve the hunger problem before I start tampering with the threads of the net, or your appearance will be irrelevant. I have never understood your priorities.” Her mother pulled a long thread of gold out from the fabric, scowling at it for a moment. Father scowled too, but at his daughter.
“If I left Beijing,” Mei Feng began, again.
“We’ve both told you, it’s impossible now,” her father said heavily. “It’s not as if we can wrap you in wool and ship you out with the vegetables. A pity we don’t live closer to a border with one of the Autonomous Territories,” he added. “There we could have gotten you out of broadcast range fast.”
Mei Feng drew in a startled breath, then let it out slowly. This was the first bit of hope she’d had in days. “If you could mask the signal, are any of your relatives still living in Mongolia I could go live with?” She asked. That damning blend of colors that branded his eyes ‘not Han’, lit up.
“Communication is difficult, but my cousin Hassa has a business based in Ulaanbaatar. It is a hard life there,” Father said. “But if we could mask your signal for a few hours … ” he looked in his wife’s direction.
Her mother looked up from her needlework, then gave her him a searching stare. She slipped the embroidery needle through a bit of the silk in her lap then folded it neatly.
“I have not been thinking along those lines. I would prefer to disable the brand and remove it so I can watch my daughter graduate from university in a few years,” she said, looking stubborn. Mei Feng went to kneel before her mother, taking up her hands.
“Mother, you’ve known me all my life. Do you really think I will fit in at university?” She asked. Mother sighed.
“It’s possible that coating the brand with an insulating compound would keep it from pinging the local network. I’m not sure. We could try that gel you use on the electrical lines in the greenhouses.”
A chime sounded and a section of wall lit up with the view from the CCTV camera set at front gates. One of the farm hands stood talking with two uniformed police officers. The one on the right held up a facial scanner, then shook his head.
Her mother tossed her embroidery aside and set the privacy lock on the apartment. “That open window let them track you down,” she said. Then her father added “I’ll find some of the gel. Hold them as long as you can,” he said.
Father dragged Mei Feng downstairs to the study, the control center of the vertical farm.
Racks of monitors lined the walls of the study, displaying feeds from every level of the farm, keeping him and mother up to date on every phase of planting and harvesting within the thirty floor structure. The display for the livestock floor dedicated to pigs was awash in orange, from a methane surplus that hadn’t gone critical yet. Father glanced at the screen; a farm hand pulled one of the maintenance bots out of the sty. It crawled up to a battery of hoses, reconnecting one that a sow had knocked loose. The screen turned green.
Father waded into his closet, dislodging a pile of magazine films, that flashed through the articles in the issue when they hit the floor. He started pulling out boxes.
“Hassa is probably still in Ulaanbaatar, we were always city people. I didn’t do well in the desert,” he added, then grunted as he shifted a large box aside. “We’ll have to hope your mother’s theory is correct,” he added then made a satisfied sound at his next find.
He dragged out a grainy recycled paper box and plunked it down on his desk, motioning for her to sit. He opened the box and lifted out black straw cowboy hat and a sun-bleached blue deel, the traditional robe of Mongolian nomads. The sash was the color of red.
“Your mother will be glad I’m finally getting rid of these old things. She doesn’t like to remember that I was ‘sent down’ to Mongolia before we met.”
The words explained a mystery for Mei Feng.
In one last surge of domination in the 2030’s, the Asian Union ‘sent down’ thousands of rebellious young men and women to learn the lessons of rural hardship, in an odd repeat of China’s mistakes in the mid twentieth under Mao. Mei Feng had wondered how a half Han kid could start the very first vertical farm in the AU. Guilt money that the sent down youth got from the government.
Father brought out a small lockbox and set it on top of the magazine plates, then laid his palm on the biometrics insert. The lid sprung open and he set it aside.
A tube of generic toothpaste — there was only one kind anymore — lay inside on top of a thick stack 100 Aso bills, good anywhere in the AU, anywhere that still took cash. He lifted the tube as he spoke.
“I got this together the time you got caught refitting that abandoned diesel engine when you were ten. I was prepared to ship you to Africa for sanctuary,” he added, when she gave him a questioning look.
Africa? They still had religion down there! Her father reached across and lifted her braid, which had slipped over her shoulder, staring at it mournfully.
“If you wear the cream, it will fool the CCTV network. The imbedded microshards transmit the face of a boy who never lived, a false identity. Now, where is that can of insulating gel?” He handed her the tube and let her braid fall, then led her to the wall that faced the central cylinder of the vertical farm.
Mei Feng tried not to gape at the small white tube clutched in her fist. It must have cost a fortune. Beijing had been crammed with CCTV cameras for decades, for crime prevention. That her father knew how to get his hands on something so illegal made her image of him change completely.
And how did he get all that cash?
He glanced at the monitor on the loading dock. Two policemen strode toward the elevator. Father quickly rooted through a tool box near a section of blank wall. He grabbed a sprayer of insulating gel urged her to strip down quickly and told her to close her eyes, then sprayed it over her face and body. Squinting at the acrid smell she opened her eyes and shook out the deel then pulled it on over her head. She smeared the masking agent over her face while father wrapped the sash around her waist, blousing out the top to hide her breasts. He did a brief inspection then smashed the cowboy hat down over her head.
“I’ll try to warn Hassa you are coming, but if those men arrest me you’ll have to find him on your own. Look for a bald fat man having lunch at the statue in Sukhbaatar Square. If he’s not there, someone will know where to find him,” he added. He stuffed the wad of cash down the front of her deel then produced an evil looking knife from his boot.
“When did you start carrying … ” she began, then gasped when he grabbed her braid and cut it off at the nape of her neck. “Mongol boys don’t wear their hair this long,” he said, then slapped a dermal patch on the back of her hand.
“When you get outside walk to the subway. That patch is a voucher that will get you a ticket on the Maglev. Try to blend in with everyone going home for the Spring Festival,” he said, as he palmed a bare spot in the wall. It slid open to reveal the elevator shaft.
“Hassa only speaks English Patois and Mongolian, so try not to slip into Putonghua.”
He grabbed a pair of farming gloves from his desk and helped her put them on, then pointed at ladder that ran along one side of the elevator, which was just stopping on the entrance floor to their apartment.
“You’re a strong girl, Mei Feng. Zai jian. I am sorry I had to cut your hair,” he said, then tossed the braid down the shaft. Voices from downstairs drifted up into his office.
She barely got her hands on the ladder before he shoved her out and sealed the wall back up.
Mei Feng began to climb down.
Mei Feng’s heart was pounding hard as she sauntered into Beijing East Railway Station. The departure hall teemed with a mass of bodies in layers of clothes shouting at ticket agents to get passage home for Spring Festival. The Maglev line was more sane, but then the tickets were very expensive.
Father’s credit patch covered the fee, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the ticket agent slapped a patch on her palm.
Spring Festival … February in Mongolia. She wondered how the hell she was going to survive waiting in Sukhbaatar Square for Hassa. She patted the wad of cash, hoping it was enough for a better coat, racking her brain for a story to explain why she didn’t have one, if the security people asked. At the first checkpoint an alarm sounded and she froze. A man in the gray green uniform of the drug squad approached, trailing a small Shitsu dog, which dog sniffed her foot then trotted on. A woman in the black uniform of of Maglev Security pointed a scanner at the middle of Mei Feng’s chest and gave her a questioning look.
“Your heart rate is over one hundred. Are you worried? What about?” She asked. Mei Feng dropped her voice as low as she could and replied in awkward English Patois.
“I go to live at home for Tsaatan Sar … White Moon Festival. Like Chinese Spring Festival! First time Maglev,” she added. It sounded like a teenage boy, really it did. The woman looked at her suspiciously.
“How did you get to Beijing if this is your first time on maglev?” She asked, frowning at her. Mei Feng’s berated herself for stupidity. Of course, she had to get here somehow.
“Rode with father … Horse brought to grasslands people Holhot,” she said.
“Sent to Beijing learn Putonghua 3 months now … Wo shiang chu Mongoo!” The tones might have been too perfect. The woman’s frown deepened.
“Your father is unwise, nobody speaks Putonghua anymore. But at least you speak like a Beijinger.” She said. Mei Feng smiled.
“Xie, xie! But bu hui, I don’t speak well, I need learn more words.” She said, slipping back into rough English Patois, “You have soul of white milk. We say this is way to meet strangers at Tsaatan Sar, with open heart and ‘soul of white milk’,” she finished. The woman cleared her throat and glanced away, then nodded for Mei Feng to pass.
“Man zou, go safely,” she said and walked on. Mei Feng moved quickly toward the maglev train, finding the third class car without incident, a standing only ticket. Anything more would have provoked suspicion, she supposed as she hung on to the strap suspended from the center bar.
A hum followed by a soft thunk under the train car signaled the train was leaving. She hung on to the strap and tried not to think of what would happen if the system failed. In the first year of operation a tube got stuck and a train full of passengers suffocated. But the AU Engineering Partnership put a task force on solving the technical problems and the repair bots completed work in only a few months.
A voice came on the PA announcing that passengers were free to move around the cars, and advertising delicacies available in the dining car. Mei Feng watched the black rubber seals of the tube pass in a blur. In two hours she would be freezing her ass off, looking for a cousin she had never met. Lin Qi would have laughed at her predicament.
Mei Feng, you can’t be serious? Mongolia? Now you really have gone crazy.
Stop thinking about him, Mei Feng thought. She blinked away the tears, wondering if Mongolian boys cried. Father never did. She brought her wrist to her one eye, as if rubbing out an itch. It came away wet. Think about not getting caught. Think about getting to eat again!
But Lin Qi’s voice and face wouldn’t let go of her. She should have listened to him this time …
Mei Feng crawled under the dirt bike, ignoring the chunks of asphalt grinding into her back. She knocked on the gas tank, smiling at the metallic clink. The rusted out hole had been the size of her fist a week ago, but thanks to her father’s welding kit and some scrap metal it was whole again. She snaked a lithe arm toward Lin Qi, who stood next to the handlebars looking morose. She snapped her fingers twice to get his attention.
“I said — hand me that five millimeter wrench. I need to tighten down the nuts on these stabilizer bands.” Lin Qi grimaced and shuffled over to the small metal tool box, extracting a wrench and dropping it on the ground beside her, a weak protest. She groped for the wrench. Lin Qi gave a long suffering sigh then put it in her hand.
“Mei Feng,” he began, in very formal Putonghua. He always used Putonghua when he scolded her. “This is beyond rad. You can’t go screaming across Beijing on a gas powered motorcycle. Especially here. The brands they dole out past Fifth Ring Road don’t just make you look stupid for a month or two. They fuck with your guts, and your wetware. Do you get that?”
Lin Qi’s voice squeaked as he added the question word ‘ma’ at the end of his tirade. That had been going on for weeks, and Mei Feng never made fun of it. Mother said she had a willowy beauty that haunted the younger boy, and they would all lose face if anyone thought she was treating him badly. She must be respectful of his feeling for her.
Actually doing something about his feeling for her was out of the question, of course. Mei Feng hoped that when Lin Qi got through the torture of puberty, he wouldn’t be taller than her, so she would be free to keep ignoring this ‘feeling’ he had. Dating a girl a full head taller was soooo not rad, even if she was two years older, which she was. Lin Qi wouldn’t risk the humiliation, unless he shot up another foot.
Mei Feng grunted and crawled out from under the motorcycle, jumping to her feet with a grin. She slapped the dust off her thick canvas jumpsuit, acquired at a retro shop for an exorbitant price that Father had chastised her for. She gave Lin Qi a tolerant look.
“I’ll be going too fast to get caught. I can outrun a branding drone on this baby,” she said, waving off his worries. “You sure you won’t climb on behind me?” She asked.
Lin Qi swallowed hard, and thought about it while Mei Feng scanned the horizon. Abandoned warehouses and rubble piled up everywhere from here to the defunct industrial parks past Fifth Ring Road. Beijing had shrunk in and gone up, now dominated by two hundred floor apartment complexes and her parents’ vertical farms, which helped make the city self sufficient. Even manufacturing had gone vertical, so that everything people needed, and most of what they wanted, was produced within Fourth Ring Road, always just in time to use it.
But the outskirts of Beijing had fallen into skeletons of an age when tourism and China’s role as factory to the world fed thousands of people in and out of the ancient city. The population had halved to a mere ten million when China’s workers shifted to the network of distributed vertical fabs located in the countries where customers lived. Then warehousing even the local goods became obsolete when local customers could just surf via their UI internal rigs and have everything custom made on demand.
“You are out of your mind!” Lin Qi said, shaking his head.
“Come on — haven’t you ever dreamed of screaming down the road catching bugs in your teeth?” She asked. Lin Qi gave her a puzzled look. “Bugs,” she went on, “from smiling when you drive into the wind.”
Lin Qi pulled a face. When Mei Feng reached for the small metal can at the edge of her makeshift mechanics bay, his eyes went wide. She lifted it cautiously, pausing at the noxious smell, the heady fumes of a long lost elixir of twentieth century life, then poured some into the tank. Lin Qi looked on in fascinated horror.
The smell made her dizzy, as it had every time she’d snaked the old garden hose down into the hole she’d uncovered in the Sina Oil station a few blocks away. When the green transport laws passed, contractors got big money to ‘stabilize the toxic past’. Some just knocked down the buildings on top for cheap, instead of back filling them with foam, which was supposed to keep people like Mei Feng, from, well, doing what she did.
“Are you coming or not?” she asked, glancing at him as she slung one long leg over the saddle of the bike. He swallowed once more then slid up behind her.
“Hang on,” she said and twisted the ignition wires together, then stomped down on the starter.
All the VR sessions were nothing compared to the real thing — the tires caught against the dirt and the bike shot off in between the piles of broken buildings. She screamed and accelerated. She should have been paying attention to the way the bike pulled to the left.
Who could ever have known that real riding would produce that much wind? Mei Feng leaned to the side as she turned a corner listening to Lin Qi laughing with her. His arms held so tight she could barely breathe. The vibration of the little motor sent a pleasant tickling into her seat. She smiled, wondering if Lin Qi noticed. She twisted the bike to a higher gear, laughing as the wind whipped her hair in Lin Qi’s face.
Pop! Hiss … whomp, whomp, whomp.
She gripped the brakes reflexively at the first whomp of the tire, but too hard and the front wheel dug in hard. The rear tire lifted up, launching Lin Qi into the air, then her after him. She tumbled across concrete, screaming as the jumpsuit shredded.
She struggled up to her knees and looked at the motorcycle. The tire was shot, and the rim bent. A mechanical buzzing sounded from off to the east. She looked up and saw two glints of bright metal in the distance. “Bu hao,” she muttered. She crawled over to Lin Qi and nudged him.
“Drones coming,” she said. He groaned and shook his head.
“I can’t leave you here.” Mei Feng tried to get him to sit up, but he just curled into a ball and rocked.
“My ankle is sprained,” he said.
“Lin Qi, get your aristocratic ass UP! You are the Party Chairman’s son,” she added, hoping shame would overcome pain. He struggled up to his feet and limped along with her, one arm around her waist for support.
The buzzing became a whine and Lin Qi crumpled beside her.
“It’s no use, I can’t out run them. Go. My father will get me out of this,” he said. She tried to drag him but he wailed when his foot struck a rock. “Go!”
Mei Feng looked up and saw the outline of the two drones buzzing toward them. She ran. Then she heard Lin Qi wail, a horrible choking shriek.
She glanced back. The two drones hovered, shooting a branding net every time he screamed.
“Stop yelling! You’re making it worse!” She shouted. One of them spun and aimed a nozzle at her. She turned away and sprinted harder …
Mei Feng shook her head, trying to dispel the memory. The train shot out of the tube, easing to a smooth stop in Timogen Train Station. A shock of frigid air slapped her in the face as she stepped out of the car, the wind nearly taking off her hat. She let the press of passengers carry her into the enclosed part of the station then found herself mostly alone when they streamed off with their baggage toward the pedicabs parked outside. The smell of frying meat drew her eye to a dumpling stand near the entrance of a trinket shop.
“Jiaozi,” she murmured, and headed for it, stomach growling.
Outside the shop was a rack of thick sheepskin short coats with fur hats stuck on posts at the top. She stopped at the jiaozi vendor, and asked him in English Patois if he took cash. He nodded with a puzzled look, but when she held up a 100 Aso note, he shook his head.
“Too big money. 1 Aso for two … buuz. Go get small money,” he said, and when she frowned, he pointed at the fried dumplings. “Jiaozi,” he explained. Mei Feng nodded and walked over to the store, then purchased a coat for 86 Asos, sighing at the feel of the soft fur when she shrugged into it. She went back to the ’buuz’ vendor.
“Can’t even order a dish of buuz,” snarled a nasty voice behind her. She ignored it and bit into the first dumpling, almost sinking to her knees as the salty meat filling filled her mouth. It hit her stomach hard, but the nausea that came with every other recent meal was missing. The dough was crisp and oily and she didn’t care that the juices burned her tongue. The meat had an odd tang, probably mutton, and the bits of potato were still slightly firm. She gobbled the rest of it quickly and reached for the second one when a hand reached over her shoulder and slapped the basket away.
“You Han folk can’t even eat like civilized people, can you, gobbling and slurping up our food,” he said and grabbed her arm, spinning her around.
A tall thick bodied man stared down at her. His dark green deel just brushed the tops of beaten up his cowboy boots and was cinched at the waist with a brown sash. He had a chiseled face that she thought might be handsome if it wasn’t twisted in a snarl. He gave her a shake then pulled her against him. She pushed herself back leaving greasy hand prints on his chest. He let her go, stunned.
“You little Han bitch. Look what you’ve done to my deel.” He wound back his fist and she cringed, raising her hands up. Another hand shot past her eyes and grabbed her assailant’s fist, then a tall body pressed between them.
The man who stepped in wasn’t as burly as her attacker, but almost as tall. He pushed the big man until he stumbled back, then blocked his heel so he landed on his butt. Then her rescuer whipped out a metal rod with a small glowing tip and put it a few inches from the larger man’s nose.
“Chuulun, how many times have I warned you not to harass the visitors?” He asked, then glanced back at her and winked. The man on the floor grumbled and rolled to a squat. Her rescuer held the rod closer.
“Don’t make me scar your pretty face,” he warned. Chuulun let out a string of hisses and harsh choking sounds, Mongolian she assumed. Her rescuer nodded and replied in kind, urging him back crab-like. Chuulun stood up, tugged his deel back into place then walked away. Before she could ask if he could direct her toward Sukhbaatar Square, her rescuer had a hand around her wrist, dragging her toward the exit of the station.
“He’ll go back to the ger camp outside the city, and come back with friends,” he explained dragging her with him. She wrenched away and glowered at him.
“And why should I go with you?” She asked. He grinned, and she noticed that his eyes were hazel. More brown than her father’s, with dots of amber. He dug out his mobile, and showed her the screen. It held a copy of her twelfth year school picture.
“I was here picking up a load of batteries for recharging at your cousin Hassa’s new wind farm. He asked me to collect you,” he explained.
Father had gotten a message out after all. Maybe he hadn’t been arrested for harboring a branded fugitive.
“What’s your name?” She asked. He laid a hand on his chest and gave a slight bow.
“Ooka.” She eyed him for a moment, then nodded, following him out of the train station.
Mei Feng gripped the railing of the hot air balloon’s basket as it left behind the sprawling expanse of scrub desert that was middle Gobi. It trailed a string of smaller balloons, each suspending a small battery pack. It seemed Hassa was not city folk after all, she thought, watching the hills shrink in the distance. To the south the dun sands of Khongoryn Els cut into the clear blue sky and a low moan rose up from the ridge of dunes. Ooka crouched over a keypad in the bottom of the basket, grumbling at the solar panels, which lined the outside of the balloon. He made a satisfied grunt, then the basket began to drop and they caught a thermal and began moving toward the dunes. The moaning got louder then faded to nothing.
“Is that a call to prayer?” she asked. Ooka listened. He wore a dark brown deel over his jeans, cinched with a bright yellow sash. Black pointy toed cowboy boots like her father’s poked out from under the hem. When the sound came again he grinned, baring his perfect white teeth.
“That’s the singing dunes, welcoming you home,” he said, then explained that the wind had been making the dunes moan like that since before the Manchu horde swept up to steal Mongolia from the heirs of Chinggis Khan. Singing before even the Great Khan himself made Mongolia a nation. Idolizing the Great Khan seemed a national pass-time, if the number of times his face was sculpted in rocks on the hillsides was any measure.
Imagine, idolizing Chinggis Khan! The man got points for insisting the Mongols have a written language, but didn’t make up for the destruction he spilled over Asia and Eastern Europe. Still a diplomatic approach to the guy keeping her butt from falling to the ground seemed wise, so she didn’t say anything.
Motion on the ground caught her attention, a group of riders sweeping in from the the direction of Ulaanbaatar. Ooka swore in Mongolian. When she leaned out to look closer, he grabbed the collar of her new coat and yanked her back into the basket, just as an arrow whizzed by.
Ooka fiddled with the solar panel controls again and cranked up the heat, trying to rise out of range. When Mei Feng peeked over the rim of the basket again, the riders were almost underneath them. The tallest one rode parallel to their path, his face obscured by a thick fur hat. He tracked with them as Ooka shifted the path of the balloon and he let go of his reins. Brown deel flapping in the wind, he yanked the bow from his saddle then notched an arrow. As one continuous motion he twisted around and let the arrow fly … straight past his horse’s rump and into the balloon. As it struck he kneed his horse around, now connected to the balloon by a thin shining string.
Ooka swore again and tried to cut the tether but the rest of the party were loosing arrows so he could barely get to his head out of the basket. More arrows struck with a sharp tearing sounded from above. Ooka gave her a defeated look and flipped on a small switch under a panel in the side of the basket. A red light blinked silently. Ooka then adjusted the settings on the solar panels and the balloon began to sink.
“We will only fall if we keep trying to run. The beacon should alert Hassa. Father Sky, watch over us,” he added, with a look above him. Mei Feng stood up to face the nomads, each carrying a short, horn handled bow with fur sewn over the wood arms. One grinned nastily at her.
Mei Feng pulled at the ropes around her wrists, bound to the ends of a bow, which was tied to one of the saddles. Chuulun had taken her shoes. They were camped just past the western edge of Khongoryn Els, which moaned now and then echoing her distress.
She scowled at a squatty nomad who stared as he strolled past with a bedroll slung over one shoulder. Thin pale lines framed his eyes. He laughed and rolled out a length of felt then sat down in front of a stew pot already on the fire. He loaded in meat from a sack in his other hand. The meat began to sizzle and let out a scent of seared flesh and spices she couldn’t name. Her stomach growled.
She worked at the knot holding her to the small saddle, stopping each time one of the thugs. They were not nomads, Ooka had insisted before Chuulun took him aside. Nomads were families who worked honestly raising livestock to make a living. Chuulun’s bunch were just thugs on good horses.
And they were good horses. The spare little creatures had skimmed the surface of the firm ground near the dunes barely leaving sign of their passing. These horses were stolen champions of Naadam, held once a year. Chuulun had been a archery champion more than once. His stallion was a beautiful bay, tall for her breed, but still not quite up to Mei Feng’s chin at the withers.
The knot around the pommel of the saddle unraveled, and Mei Feng scanned the men to see if anyone noticed. She dragged it over to where the stretch of dune flattened down to the sand. Squatty, the thug by the fire, frowned until she reached under her coat and pretended to undo her pants. Chuulun had taken Ooka off somewhere, so they weren’t watching her too closely anyway. She slipped around the back of the dune, then ran toward the balloon basket, left derelict after the gang stripped the solar panels. She leaned over the edge of the basket looking for anything that she could use to cut her bonds.
The emergency transmitter lay in pieces on the basket floor. She turned and sagged down, leaning against it. When she felt the tears leak out of her eyes, she shook her head.
“Nobody’s coming to help you now,” she said, staring at the line of boxy batteries scattered on the sand. She turned to the batteries, thinking, then fell to her knees and fiddled with the casing one handed, moving on to another when it wouldn’t open.
The third one cooperated. Mei Feng pulled out two of the charging cells, and read the warning labels on the outside. They would do. She palmed one in each hand, then trudged back to the saddle, setting her treasures aside while she awkwardly tossed a couple of loops of rope over the pommel so she could drag the saddle again. Ooka was back, laying in the spot she’d occupied earlier. His hands were bound in front of him, tied three feet above bonds that kept his feet only a foot apart. His face was bruised and his top lip was split. He tried to smile anyway.
“Chuulun has not gotten over our argument,” he said softly.
“Where did he go?” Mei Feng asked. Ooka jerked his head toward a prong of high sand that fell off of the dune to his left.
“The call of nature. Why haven’t you run away?” He asked. She nodded to her feet.
“I wouldn’t get far in this cold without shoes. And I’m done leaving people behind,” she said, very quietly. Ooka’s expression grew serious and he started to speak. She opened one of her hands, interrupting to explain what she had in mind. To get away they needed a knife, and for that, they needed a distraction.
Ooka nodded and Mei Feng led him to the fire, where more thugs had gathered, save Chuulun, who apparently had very serious business to do behind the dune. She spotted Squatty’s knife beside the stew pot and stepped beside it. Squatty looked up and she leaned one end of her bow toward the stew pot.
“I want to eat,” she said. He frowned, until she made smacking noises with her mouth, then he laughed. When he turned to his cooking box and dug out a bowl, Mei Feng kicked the knife toward Ooka, who made a show of tripping to fall almost into the fire, which hid that he had covered the knife with his knees. The men seated around the fire laughed. Mei Feng caught Ooka’s eye while Squatty doled out a bowl of stew. When Ooka nodded she helped him stand, letting him take the stew as they walked away. He slipped the batteries into her right hand. She turned and tossed the them into the fire.
They hissed and a whoosh of flame shot out. Ooka cut his own bonds first, then quickly released Mei Feng while the men screamed and rolled away from the fire. A shard of something struck Mei Feng’s cheek and she yelped, batting it away as it burned and sizzled.
They ran. For the horses, which had been unsaddled and haltered. Ooka grabbed two by their leads and leaped up on a dark red mare then wheeled around to drag Mei Feng up on to a dark brown one next to his. He shouted for her to wrap her hands in the mane and hang on, then went about slapping the others on their rumps with the bow she’d been bound to. The horses thundered off ahead of them, dispersing. Only Chuulun’s stallion refused to move, glaring at Ooka as he raised the bow. Ooka cursed at it then got a shorter grip on the lead of her beast and urged both horses away, leaving behind the sands of Khongoryn Els.
Excruciating. Each stride the horse made jarred the burn on her cheek. Time seemed to crawl and the sun felt like a floodlight stuck on high right over the damage as she kept pushing on, her feet dangling like chunks of ice at her horse’s sides.
A small group of dark dots rose above the horizon, then a single one to their left, both growing larger as the distance closed. The singing dunes fell silent, letting her hear the muffled sound of a horse from behind. She shouted at the approaching figures, and almost slipped off her horse. A ululating cry wailed out behind her. She turned and saw Chuulun advancing on them, taking a path that would bring him between them and the newcomers. She was between Ooka and Chuulun, who grinned when he figured out he would reach her first.
Chuulun thundered closer and Mei Feng reached out to Ooka, still riding along on her left.
“Give me the bow!” she shouted, one hand wrapped in the mane of her horse, legs gripping madly. He glanced toward Chuulun and handed it over. She swung it toward Chuulun, slamming the bow into his middle with all the strength she had gained hauling around her Father’s farm equipment over the years.
His breath wheezed out, then his arms folded over the bow and he tumbled backwards over his horse’s rump, pulling the stallion with him. The horse landed with a fierce whinny, missing Chuulun’s leg. He lay there wheezing to get his breath back while Ooka circled back.
Then they were surrounded by men and women in beige jodhpurs and safari shirts all pointing crossbows at Chuulun. His stallion struggled up and snorted wedging himself between his rider and the new enemies. A bald man dismounted and stalked up, his substantial belly arriving before the rest of him.
“Mei Feng?” He asked. She nodded. He let out a relieved sigh.
“We were installing new wind turbines or we would have seen the beacon sooner.” He scowled Ooka. “How you can foul up a simple pick up, I don’t understand,” he said. Mei Feng leaned over her horse’s neck.
“Chuulun confronted me at the train station, Cousin, it wasn’t … ” she began. Hassa wavered in an orange glow, the sinking sun casting him in shadows, all umber and muddy brown. He shimmered to the beat of the burn throbbing on her cheek.
“Can we get out of here before I pass out?” She asked raising a hand to the crisped flesh on her face. She felt her knees soften, but Ooka was there, holding her up on her horse and saving her dignity. Hassa nodded and sent them back to the wind farm, while he took his people to chase off Chuulun’s cohort and collect the remains of the balloon and batteries.
Shu Mei Feng, daughter of the most honorable owner of the Double Happiness Vertical Farm No. 1, pulled her head out of the windmill’s new energy converter panel. Hassa was pleased that she could install them faster than any of his other workers, after only a month of training.
She rubbed the crick in her back. For once, her hand didn’t rise up to the shiny skin on her cheek. Hills of ocher and sage rolled out past her, dotted with the next windmills on her list. She paused and turned at the sound of hoofbeats approaching her camp.
A single mare approached. Mei Feng had come to learn the sound of this particular horse. As the rider approach, the wind caught her hair, tearing it loose from the tie at the back of her neck. Soon, it would be long enough to braid again.
Ooka pulled his mare to a sudden stop and swung off, holding a brace of doves high over his head. The quiver strapped to his saddle held two arrows, ten less than he left with. She counted the birds. Six.
“You did well,” she said, tucking the hair back behind her ear. Now she felt the urge to reach up, to see if the scar still felt as awful, as ugly. The black lines from her first brand were a faint grayish pattern under her skin now, masked by tan from her days in the sun. Ooka shook his head.
“I missed four!” He said. She laughed.
“A good thing. What are we going to do with six?” she asked. He smiled.
“Eat two, smoke four, for when we get to the dunes.” He sat down and began plucking the birds, watching her out of the corner of his eye.
“The singing dunes. Khongoryn Els,” she said, brushing her fingers over the scar. Ooka set down the birds and came to her, brushing his knuckles lightly over the angry oval of skin under her cheekbone.
“Beautiful Phoenix. Names in Putonghua are so interesting. I’ll say it again; it’s still a true name.” The light in his eyes made her almost believe it. She thought of her father, struggling through his years of being sent down, his joy of returning to the city. It surprised her to learn how little she was like him.
Ooka’s wildness could never be contained in a place like Beijing, much less on a tower of crops and livestock. Her pulse picked up at the feel of his hand on her skin, the smell of sweat and leather and horse that always returned with him from the hunt.
“And brains behind it,” he added glancing at the windmill. Mei Feng laughed.
“Ah, so the truth comes out. You keep coming with me on these trips so those nomads don’t steal me for my mechanical skills,” she said. He made an offended noise and wandered back to the birds.
“Beautiful Phoenix with Head of Stone should have been your name,” he said. Mei Feng strolled back to the windmill and closed up the panel, smiling to herself. Tomorrow they would ride to the next one. And then another, and another after that.
And one day, she might take up the invitation that had begun to appear in Ooka’s eyes and subtle touches.
But for now, there was the work.
- Beautiful Phoenix: Cheetahfang on Photobucket;
- Tattoo: APLink;
- Vertical Farm: from Groundswellblog;
- Fifth Ring Road: mantasmagorical at MorgueFile;
- ‘Buuz’: einalem @ Flickr;
- Hot Air Balloon: digital wallpapers from BTinternet;
- Windmill Turbine Field from Hawk Green Energy;
- Tsagaan Race: Mongolian Escape (E-Mongol.com);
- Beautiful Phoenix (reprise): Playcast.ru via fashionelli;
Amanda Clark lives in Oregon and spent the previous four years working in China as a factory program manager and a writer, which gave her chances to travel to Mongolia and parts of Southeast Asia. She has a B.A. in English from Georgetown University, and degrees in Solid State Physics (M.S.) and Atmospheric Physics (Ph.D) from Clemson University.
Her hobbies include the Korean Arts of Hapkido and Taekwondo, in which she holds black belts, as well as hiking, mountain climbing, and horseback riding. She fantasizes about spending a month writing in a ger in the Gobi Desert, drinking airag and riding small Mongolian horses over the flat scrub at the edge of the dunes of Khongoryn Els.
Her writing focuses on the boundary where science and folklore have overlappped in their attempts to explain the way the world works. She struggles with the knowledge that she won’t be able to read every book or write every story she wants to before she dies.
But she intends to try anyway.