Science Fiction & Fantasy

Missing Signal

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Fiction

The Lonely Heart

It was towards mid-afternoon that Chen became aware of the girl. She stood before Chen’s stall, watching the fake-jade effigies of the Buddha and the coloured incense sticks, her eyes wide in the sunlight — she was no more than thirteen or fourteen, with the gangly unease of that age. To her left, children shrieked as they passed the Bridge of Impossibility, holding each other’s hands, and went into the temple complex.

The girl’s hand reached towards a small statue of a demon, touched it — setting off a coloured lightstrobe which illuminated the statue from within.

Normally, Chen should have snatched the statue away, and pointed out to her, in a firm voice, that you didn’t touch the wares unless you paid. But the girl was so young: skeletally thin, her skin taut over high cheekbones, her eyes wide with fear. And she was so familiar, in a way that made Chen ill at ease — as young and as malnourished as Chen herself had been ten years ago, starving in the streets of Fengdu. “Can I help you?” Chen asked.

The girl said nothing. She stroked the statue again, watching the tacky lights as if they were the most beautiful things in Sichuan.

“Look,” Chen said. She glanced at the footpath: The flow of tourists going into the temple had diminished to a trickle with the sweltering heat of the afternoon. “If you want this, I can offer you a price — ”

A shadow fell over the stall, cutting off the sun. “Ah, Xia,” a low, cultured voice said. “We were wondering where you’d got yourself off to.”

The voice belonged to a man: tall and slightly obese, with prominent almond eyes denoting Mongol ancestry. He’d neatly inserted himself by the girl’s side, one podgy hand wrapped around her waist, the other resting coiled by his side. He wore expensive garb, and the digital camera strapped to his shoulder made it clear how wealthy he was.

He was also smiling, in a cold, unhealthy way that made Chen’s skin crawl. Chen knew that kind of man. She’d seen enough of them on the streets, promising food and warmth to those girls foolish enough to follow them — foolish enough not to know about men who would peddle young flesh like a rare delicacy. Chen had always managed to run away from them; but clearly Xia hadn’t been nimble enough.

It shouldn’t have mattered. Those who couldn’t run, who couldn’t scavenge, were best left behind. There was no room for pity or for charity in her life. But still . . .

Her business instincts took over. “She was looking at one of the statues — ” she started.

The girl — Xia — stood still, her eyes as glassy and as expressionless as dead fish in the marketplace. “They were pretty,” she said, in a small voice — a child, caught stealing.

The man barely glanced at the statues. “Very pretty,” he said. His hand had come up, was stroking her breasts in a slow, regular motion — a seemingly unconscious gesture that made Chen ill at ease. “But we’d best be going, Xia. There’s work to be done.”

“I don’t want to work.” Xia’s voice was sullen.

His hand tightened over her breast, squeezed hard. Xia let out a small gasp of pain; and the man squeezed again. Chen’s stomach roiled.

“You’ll do as you’re told,” the man said, pleasantly. Xia’s face was white.

Chen’s policy had always been to leave the tourists to themselves, whatever they might be doing — but this was too much. “Look,” she started.

The man’s gaze turned towards her, held her pinned against the wood of her stall. “Yes?” he said.

His face was somehow sharper, more narrowly defined — and his gaze was contemptuous, as if Chen were nothing more than an insect to be dissected. Chen struggled to speak. “Look — ” she said, and stopped, again, because all her words had fled.

“A warning.” The man’s voice was still low and unfailingly courteous — in a way which was worse than shouted threats. “Don’t meddle in my affairs.” His hand was still wrapped around Xia’s chest, but now he was stroking her again, like a favourite pet. Xia had closed her eyes, and the flush that spread to her cheeks made it all too clear what was happening.

Chen, repulsed but not about to be cowed by him, said, “I don’t see what you mean.”

The man smiled again. “I know enough about you, Du Chen,” he said, as amiably as if this were a business conversation. “Where you scavenge your living, and the sites where Liwei works. Accidents happen so quickly when you demolish a building. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have work elsewhere.” With an expansive shrug, he turned around, dragging Xia with him — leaving Chen standing shocked behind her stall.

How had he known — not her name, that was easy enough, painted over the stall — but where Liwei worked? How had he — ?

He wasn’t alone, she saw. Waiting for him on the footpath, under the grinning statue of the underworld’s executioner, were other girls, too, looking as frail and lost as Xia. The man nodded to them, curtly — with a brief gaze in Chen’s direction, granting her once more a taste of the abyss within his eyes.

Then they were going over the Bridge of Impossibility, joining those already inside the temple complex. Chen knew well enough what kind of trade they’d be plying inside, what pleasures they’d try to offer the tourists. A sick taste had filled her mouth — demons take her, why was she so affected by him and his girls? She’d seen enough of those in the past: enough flesh bartered for banknotes or food, enough girls exploited by their keepers.

But the taste was under her palate, and she couldn’t swallow hard enough to dispel it.

• • • •

That evening, Chen took the footpath back into the city — the chairlift from the docks to Mount Minshan and its temples was a luxury, reserved for those tourists who could afford it.

Below her stretched the dilapidated buildings of Fengdu’s old city: the hollowed-out shells which would be destroyed by the rise of the Yangtze, when the dam at Three Gorges became operational. On the opposite bank was a brand-new city, the Fengdu that would be, filled with the bustle of moving vans and workers constructing the new electrical lines. Neither she nor Liwei had obtained a flat there: It took money and connections, of which they had neither.

A few more steps, and she was at the first of the buildings, passing between the gaping holes which had once been doors — stepping over the rubble and the debris left by the demolition crews. From time to time, a few people, lost souls like her, would pass her with a curt nod: on their way to their own stolen, temporary homes, hoping to survive a few more months on what they had.

At home, Nainai, Liwei’s mother, was playing solitaire with the mahjong game, the plastic tiles neatly aligned on the battered table. A scuffed sheaf of yuans — her latest earnings — lay by the tiles. She looked up when Chen entered.

“A good day,” she said, her wrinkled face creased in satisfaction. “Those provincials, they don’t know how to play.”

Chen laid her bag on the table, checked the insulation of the windows — sheets of oiled papers, taped to the gaping hole in the wall. Their old, ramshackle flat on the outskirts of the old city had been reduced to rubble early on; they had taken what little furniture they could, and moved towards the centre of Fengdu, where the hulking towers of concrete would remain standing until the end.

In the dilapidated building they were occupying illegally, there was no door, no windows — no electricity. But it was enough of a place to live in; and the space, after years of living cooped up in a communal flat, was almost disorienting.

“How was your day?” Nainai asked. “Those tourists, they buy many souvenirs?”

Chen closed her eyes, thinking of the tourists — of Xia’s wide, pleading eyes, and of the plump man by her side, fondling her without a trace of shame. It didn’t take divination to know that the girls would still be there in the darkness, soliciting the unscrupulous among the tourists with the promise of yielding, perfumed flesh — with breasts like lotus buds and eyes like wide almonds in the moonlight.

Nausea welled up in her, sharp, demanding; she covered her mouth with her sleeve to quell the tremor going through her.

“Chen?” Nainai asked.

Chen shook her head. “I’m okay,” she said. The sickening taste wouldn’t go away. Why was she feeling so squeamish, all of a sudden? She’d lived for five years on the streets before meeting Liwei — surely a few lost girls wasn’t enough to make her so ill at ease? “Just had a bad experience, that’s all. I’ll make you dinner.”

Nainai’s gaze was sceptical: Clearly, the old woman didn’t believe a word Chen said, but was too polite to press her any further.

Chen knelt by the camping stove, and turned it on with shaking hands — if she focused on what she was doing, she wouldn’t be thinking of the man’s eyes, of the whole pose that said that she was worth nothing, that Xia was worth nothing, just another pound of flesh to be bartered like goods at the market . . .

No.

With slow, deliberate gestures, she set the water boiling for the rice, and went back to the table to chop the vegetables into small pieces. The noise of the knife against the plastic echoed under the ceiling — long since stripped of anything that would have swallowed the noise.

Liwei came back just as night was falling. By then, Chen had lit the candles; and Nainai had put away her tiles, and was sitting in the shadows at the further end of the room, her face as unreadable as a statue.

He kissed Nainai first, as was proper — mothers before wives, the old before the young. Then he was standing over Chen, and bending down to kiss her. His touch tingled, like an electrical contact. “Hello,” he said.

The spring in his step told Chen he had good news — or better news, at any rate.

“You’re not telling me something,” she said.

Liwei smiled, an expression which transfigured his moon-shaped face — he was so young and so carefree, so unlike the man on the temple steps — who had known Chen’s name, and where Liwei worked.

Enough. She was getting paranoid.

“Let’s wait until the meal,” Liwei said. “I’d rather we all shared that.”

Chen brought the dish to the table, and they let Nainai pick the first piece with a deft movement of her chopsticks.

Over the second dish, Liwei said, “I’ve spoken with the foreman today. There might be a flat, in the new city.”

Chen, stunned into speechlessness, could only look at their living quarters — at the bare concrete walls around them through which seeped the cold of the night; at the candles strewn on the ground and on the table, providing their pitiful defence against the darkness; at the curtain hanging over the door to hide the gaping hole left by the demolition crews.

It was Nainai who broke the silence. “How much does he ask?” she asked.

Liwei’s face did not move. “We have enough.” His eyes said it all: It would take all they had, and they would have to live without electricity or water for a while. But it was a flat, and it would stay above water when the dam at Three Gorges became operational.

Chen forced a smile: They’d been waiting for this for so long, that it almost seemed impossible that it would happen. “That’s great,” she said, trying to feel the joy she was expressing — trying to feel anything but her rising nausea. “It’s — ” Beyond words, she wanted to say, but her speechlessness had nothing to do with Liwei or the flat.

Nainai was smiling. “I always knew you could do it. You’re your father, all over again.”

Liwei shrugged. “I’m not as good as him. But it’s something. We’ll have to — ”

A sudden gust of wind sent the entrance-curtain fluttering like a butterfly in a storm; and a cold draft filled the room. Chen, reacting by instinct, rose and went to the door to draw the curtain over it again.

And stopped.

For a figure stood in the corridor, limned in the shadows — small and frail and pathetic, and Chen had no need to bring a candle closer to know her face.

Xia.

• • • •

“This is trouble,” Nainai said, after hearing the whole story.

Xia slept on the ground, wrapped in one of Liwei’s old cloaks. She hadn’t said much since coming, and it was obvious that she wouldn’t ever say much. Chen had seen the fear in her gaze — a mirror of what she was feeling, right now.

A warning. Don’t meddle in my affairs.

Demons take him. She wasn’t one of his girls, to be cowed into submission so easily.

Liwei crouched by Xia’s side, his fingers delicately closed over her wrist. “Her heartbeat is strong,” he said.

“That’s not going to be the problem,” Chen said, and Nainai nodded.

“That man — ” she started.

Chen’s stomach heaved. “He knew about us. I don’t know how, but he has to know where we live. We have to — ” she stopped, then: the only option would be going to the Public Security station, to speak to the patrolmen, and reveal that for the last seven months they had been living illegally in the old city. Chen didn’t know what the punishment was for that; and she didn’t want to find out.

But she thought of the plump man, squeezing Xia’s breasts like over-ripe fruit; of Xia’s pleading eyes and of the other girls, grouped together like cattle at the marketplace.

She wouldn’t be able to live with herself, if they didn’t help Xia.

“We have to tell Public Security,” Chen said.

“No,” Liwei and Nainai said, almost at the same time.

“Chen — ” Liwei said. “We’re almost there. We’re going to have a real house again — ”

“I know,” Chen said. “But look at her.”

In the silence, they all turned. Xia lay in the abandon of sleep, curled against the wall as if it could offer her some protection. Her eyes were like bruises in the oval of her face; her skin was pale, translucent — revealing the whitish shape of her bones underneath. She was shivering: a curious spasm that racked her whole body like an electrical jolt. How could anyone not pity her?

Liwei’s hand rested in her tangled hair. “She’s so young,” he said.

Chen felt, once more, that unexplainably strong nausea well up in her. “That’s what they deal in, Liwei. Young flesh.” Pliant and vulnerable.

“What do you think Public Security can do?” Liwei asked.

Chen spread her hands. “More than we can. Do you really want to throw her out?”

Liwei shook his head. “She could stay here — ”

“No,” Chen said, covering her mouth with the back of her sleeve — trying to wipe out the sour taste, in vain. “You know she can’t. They’ll know where to look for her.”

“I think you’re over-reacting,” Liwei said. Gently, almost tenderly, he started running his fingers through Xia’s hair, untangling it strand after strand.

“Liwei.” Naiani’s voice was firm. “Your wife is right. She can’t stay here.”

Liwei raised his gaze towards her, and said nothing for a while. At length, he withdrew his hands from Xia’s hair, “As you wish, Mama. But not tonight.”

Chen thought of the plump man, taking the chairlift back to the docks — walking straight to their building in the darkness. “I’d rather — ” she started, and then stopped. Liwei was right. The lights in the old city had all been torn down. Crossing to the other side with only a candle would be too dangerous. “Tomorrow morning, then,” she said. “First thing.”

Liwei shrugged. He still hadn’t taken his eyes off Xia. “At dawn, if you want.”

• • • •

That night, Chen lay still on their bed, feeling Liwei’s presence by her side. As usual, he slept turned away from her — keeping himself separate, except when making love.

He was a good man, still. He had taken her from the streets, given her a home; he loved her in his own way. He wanted her not to worry about anything — not about the flat or the dam — but simply to be the heart and soul of their home, the hub around which everything revolved.

She could do that.

Outside, the wind was rising, laughing as it coursed through the empty streets. It clawed at the oiled papers barring the windows, and shook the entrance-curtain as if it could tear it down — and it brought down from Mount Minshan the low, anguished moans of souls in pain.

Of course, that wasn’t true. They did say that the Mount was one of the Gates into Hell — and the temple a meticulous re-creation of the trials the dead would undergo — but there was no Hell. There were no ghosts; just the wind, and Chen’s imagination. She was tired and sick with fear, imagining the man searching for his lost girl.

There was no Hell. There were no ghosts. Just the memory of a voice saying, coldly, cruelly: A warning. Don’t meddle.

She woke up with a start, still sweating from confused nightmares in which demons pierced her with iron spikes, and infernal judges from the Minshan frescoes smiled as they consigned her to the Lingering Death. Her heart was beating madly, a steady pulse that resonated in her throat.

Liwei was sitting by the furthest window, talking to Xia in a low voice. A soft, dim light filtered through the cracks in the oiled paper. “Liwei?” she asked.

He started as if stung. “We’re going,” he said.

Chen couldn’t focus her thoughts, couldn’t tear herself from the shackles of sleep. “Be careful,” she said, finally.

“Of course.” Liwei came back to the bed, and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Go back to sleep. You worry too much.”

I don’t worry for nothing. You haven’t seen the eyes of her pimp, Chen thought, but the words wouldn’t get past her lips. She watched Liwei walk out of the building, holding Xia by the hand, and fell back against the pillow, trying to get back to sleep.

When she woke, the red light of sunrise had filled the room; and the wind was still blowing, whining through the empty corridors of the building, rattling the oiled papers. It wasn’t just a few gusts; there was a veritable storm out there.

Gods, she hoped Liwei had made it to some shelter. But of course he would. He was a smart man.

Nainai was already up, smoking her pipe in the furthest corner of the room. Chen rose, rubbing at her eyes, and went to light the camping stove to cook breakfast.

“They left early,” Nainai said, pitching her voice to carry over the moan of the wind.

“I know,” Chen said. “But the sooner they can get to the station — ”

Nainai barked a short, unamused laugh. “You think Public Security is going to do anything?”

“More than us,” Chen said at last. She did not quite agree with Nainai; but of course there was no voicing her disagreement openly. It wouldn’t have been proper.

Nainai drew on her pipe: Chen braced herself for a puff of foul-smelling smoke, but the wind dispersed the fumes as soon as they were emitted. Nainai went on, “I’ll tell you what they’ll do. They’ll smile and nod and take that girl into their station — and hand her back to her keepers, who’ll have paid good money to get her returned.” She shook her head, disapprovingly. “I could have told you yesterday. You’re not learning. Still looking for miracles.”

Chen lowered her eyes. She ought to have felt some anger, to have argued against Nainai even though it wasn’t proper. But the wind howling through the building seemed to have robbed her of every emotion.

“Why did you let them leave, then? You don’t care about her, is that it?”

Nainai snorted. Behind her, the wind rattled the oil-paper; she pressed a hand against the window to hold it into place. “I’ve lived through a war and a revolution. I know women-folk stick together if they want to survive. But it’s not the girl I’m most worried about.”

“Then — ” Chen started to say something, but then she realised what Nainai was talking about: Liwei’s hands, running through the girl’s hair, his gaze lingering on her long after it should have. How could he? “He’s married to me,” she said, slowly, fiercely.

Nainai smiled. “The tigress defending her own.” She drew on her pipe again, puffing her cheeks thoughtfully. “You can’t do anything about that. Those girls — they have training of their own, arts you’ll never master.”

“That starving, beaten slip of a girl?” And then Chen realised, chilled to the marrow of her bones, that this was Xia’s attraction — the same one Chen herself had had, when Liwei had found her on the streets: the vulnerability, the need for comfort etched in the marrow of her bones. Except, of course, that Xia was younger and craftier and consciously using everything she had to seduce — unlike Chen.

Did it really make a difference, as far as Liwei was concerned?

Buddha help her, she was going to be sick again.

Nainai had sunk back into her corner, smoking her pipe as if nothing had happened. But her carefully blank expression said otherwise; she was old and she had seen many things — and couldn’t men be as weak and as naïve as kittens, when it came to sex?

“Well, she’s gone,” Chen said aloud. “She’s going to walk out of our lives as if nothing ever happened.” She knew she was only talking aloud, trying to make her words weigh something in the face of the deafening wind, in the face of Nainai’s expressionless features.

Xia was gone — but with Liwei.

Nonsense. To calm herself before she left for work, Chen picked up the mahjong tiles, and carefully started building the four-sided wall, as if this were a prelude to a real game. The familiar symbols passed under her hand, dismissed as soon as she had recognised them. Three of Characters. Two of Bamboos. Eight of Circles. Green Dragon. Nine of Bamboos — the strips of bamboo neatly stacked on each other, to build an edifice that took up the whole tile.

There was no sound but the howling of the wind, rattling the oiled paper and making the tiles in her hands shake with its contained force. No sound but the rising wails and the moaning, and the screams, as if the world outside were in agony.

The moaning . . .

Chen’s hand, which had been hovering over the North Wind, stopped. There was something about the moaning . . .

A gust of wind extinguished the camping stove, and scattered the gas within the room. Chen, driven by habit, was rising to turn off the gas — but Nainai, closer to the stove, had already done so.

Nainai said something over the roar of the wind, which Chen couldn’t hear. “What?” she screamed, and the wind carried to her Nainai’s answer.

“Listen.”

Listen to the wind? There was nothing else; just the moans, rising and rising in an ecstasy of pain. But they weren’t cries from the underworld: even magnified, they clearly belonged to only two people.

And she knew those sounds. She knew that voice, screaming its pleasure over her in the bed.

Liwei.

And Xia.

She was on her feet before she could think, running towards the door. Even Nainai’s last, indistinct words weren’t enough to stop her from going out.

• • • •

Outside, the wind was screaming its defiance, whipping Chen’s coat around her, straining the buttons as if it would tear them at any moment. The moans carried by the storm were, if anything, more intense, and the wind carried Chen through the deserted streets, from one dilapidated building to another. And all the while the moans grew, slowly, steadily — the climax not far off, hanging tantalisingly in the air. Chen’s mouth was dry, and there was an odd, prickling feeling between her legs, as if she, too, was caught in that storm of lust.

She walked bent, both hands holding to the lapels of her coat — and the storm engulfed her and cradled her and carried to her the sound of Liwei making love as he had never made it to her, like a stab through her heart.

There was a pattern to the sounds, too, an intensity that she could trace back to its source. The wind was against her now — bringing the frenzy of the lovemaking, but also a barrier against her intervention.

Don’t meddle.

She wasn’t meddling; but demons take her if she was going to lose her husband to a slip of a prostitute who could envision no other relationship with a man than lust. She trudged on, bending her head against the wind — trying to insulate herself against the sounds that seemed to be coming from every building around her.

Under her were scraps of stone, metal welded into concrete — and dust, flowing into her eyes until she thought she would cry.

Where were they?

This was hopeless; whatever had made her think that she could find them? Fengdu had been a large city; and, stripped of its inhabitants, it was even larger. Over her the wind moaned, tantalisingly spread under the vault of heaven — and she was lost, hopelessly lost as the lovemaking reached its climax and the moans became ecstatic.

And then everything narrowed to a pinpoint, the moans mingling into one never-ending scream, both infinite pleasure and infinite agony, twisting within her chest and writhing its way up her legs — and that scream was only coming from one place.

She hobbled the rest of the way, unable to ignore the effect the scream was having on her — fighting, every step of the way, to walk on and not surrender to the desire cresting within her.

Luckily, she had not far to go.

In the gutted ruins of an apothecary — the faded sign still hanging over the empty shop window, promising years of felicity to the passers-by — lay Liwei, and over him was Xia, her face creased in a smile that twisted every feature out of place.

She was still wrapped in Liwei’s cloak, and its wind-whipped folds mingled with the cascade of her unbound hair. She whispered something, over and over, as she rode him, and he writhed beneath her, pinned to the floor as surely as by a stake.

Chen stopped, frozen in the entrance of the shop. “Liwei!!” The scream was torn out of her by the wind, carried through the shop — echoing under the concrete ceiling. Xia looked up; and for a moment, in the abyss of her eyes, Chen saw the same expression as that of her pimp.

Demons take her.

And then Xia had wiggled her way off Liwei — both hands pressing against his chest, snatching something small and bloody from him before she leapt through the window frame into the street. She was running now, her feet pounding against the pavement, her hair streaming in the wind.

Chen staggered through the empty doorframe, and over to where Liwei lay — still writhing and shaking in tune with the storm. His face was frozen in the agony of desire, so utterly alien from the husband who had come home to her every night; his eyes were wide open, staring upwards without seeing her.

His chest, too, was open and empty, blood congealing around the gaping wound Xia had left in him.

Her eyes tingled, and something was tightening in her chest, but there was no time. No time to grieve, or scream, or rail at the injustice of it all. Chen rose again, ignoring the protest of her muscles — and went after Xia.

• • • •

As before, there was no other sound but the wind. And though their lovemaking had ended, she could still hear the cries of desire — and Liwei’s screams, as Xia slowly tore her way into him, slowly widened the wound until she found what she needed.

There were tales: of women dying childless, of women buried without proper rituals and snared by demons — their hearts rotting away, leaving only their hungry souls behind. But those were only stories to frighten children. Surely, in the brand-new China, the one of steel skyscrapers and giant dams, there was no room for ghosts or demons, or for anything so — absurd.

But the hole in Liwei’s chest wouldn’t be closed by denial.

He was dead. Better get used to it, Chen. Better get used to not having the flat after all, to watching as Old Fengdu was consumed by the rising Yangtze, once and for all. Better think of joining the steady flow of migrants going west into the big city, finding small jobs that only paid for another day of misery.

Better not to think of Liwei.

Her eyes stung, but it had to be the wind.

She didn’t know where she was anymore — but far away from her, at the end of the wide, deserted street, she could see Xia’s cloak — and under her feet was the trail of blood from Liwei’s heart.

And she was gaining on Xia. Every step was a struggle against the oncoming wind; but little by little, as the desire in her died and the moans on the wind lost their significance, the silhouette fleeing before her became more and more distinct.

She didn’t know what she would do when she caught up. But there was rage enough in her to face Xia and her pimp and a hundred demons from the lower levels of Hell, if need be.

You do not steal my husband, bitch. You do not . . .

Ahead was the slope of the mountain, and the dense, lush trees that covered it — the wrong side, not the one where the tourists would congregate.

It was dark under those first trees, the rising sun’s light cut off by the canopy. Panting, Chen followed the lighter colour of Xia’s cloak through the maze. Something was rising — fog, she would have said, although no fog could have withstood the buffets of the howling wind. It was wet and clammy and hung over the ground as if the earth had exhaled it.

The wind carried the smell of incense now, and of burnt candles. Chen found a second burst of speed — and stumbled into a clearing, a pit of grey light slashed through the canopy.

Xia was standing unmoving in the centre of the clearing, her back to Chen. She was crooning to herself in a soft voice which somehow was stronger than the rush of the wind. Her cloak flapped in the gusts, like the wings of a maddened bird.

Chen walked closer, hands extended. “Xia — ”

Xia didn’t move. “Such a beauty.”

“Xia.”

“It’s mine,” Xia whispered. Her cloak was fluttering around her, to the rhythm of some invisible music.

It wasn’t only the cloak which was fluttering, was it? In fact . . .

A stronger gust of wind lifted the cloak, and Xia’s hair — and the other thing, too, paler than the cloak, slowly detaching itself from glistening muscles and tendons — revealing the reddish white of bones and decaying flesh, and the arches of her ribcage.

Xia turned, slowly. The skin was almost completely loose now — and what was underneath had not been alive for a long time. There was another smell now, the soft, sickening one of rot — and there were worms, crawling under the wasted muscles; ants, flowing down the rotten mass of her hips in a never-ending stream. Only the heart held between her fingers was alive: red and bleeding and beating as strongly as if it had still been in Liwei’s chest.

Chen’s own heart was hammering against its cage of ribs, demanding to be let out. “What are you?” she whispered.

The skin came away from Xia’s face — streaming behind her, attached only to the hair and the back of her neck. Beneath were eyes as dark as congealed blood, and flesh the colour of rust, sloughing away as if eaten by the wind.

“What are you, demons take you!” Chen screamed.

Xia simply stood, with the heart held against her chest. “It’s too late. You can’t deny me. You can’t put it back where it belongs. I need — ” She opened a yawning gap in her face, a thin line of black that had once been a mouth. “I need,” she said, tightening her hold over the heart.

Chen’s chest ached, as if the heart had been taken from it. I won’t be sick, she thought. I can’t — I can’t think . . .

“Mine,” Xia whispered. She squeezed the heart again, against the glistening flesh of her innards — and it sank into her, like a stone pressed into mud.

Too late, Chen realised what was happening. “No!” She threw herself forward, trying to catch Xia before everything was over. But Xia turned away from her, and all she could grasp was the skin — and it came loose in her hands: a pelt of flesh, complete in every respect, with the healthy pink colour flowing away like paint washed by the rain — revealing the yellow taint of flayed skin, crinkling like parchment against her fingers.

She couldn’t hold that. Her hands opened and let it fall to the ground.

“Mine,” Xia whispered. “All mine, and he can’t put it back now. No, he can’t . . .”

Nausea, denied for so long, finally won; and Chen collapsed on the damp ground, her whole body racked by sobs.

The light changed, became subtly darker; and the fog rose to cover everything, including the skin at her feet. There were shadows, cast over her to darken even the dimmest light of the sun.

“I warned you, Du Chen,” a voice said over the howling of the wind. “Don’t meddle in what you don’t understand.”

The plump man, Xia’s pimp, stood over her, smiling as serenely as a statue of the Buddha in a temple.

Chen’s hands clenched into fists.

“You’re a stubborn woman,” the man went on.

They were alone in the centre of the clearing, with the rising fog and the combined smells of incense and rotting flesh. The thing that had been Xia had moved towards the edges — but the other girls were there, standing in an impenetrable circle. She moved back, angling towards the skin on the ground. Within the mass of decayed muscles beat Liwei’s heart — heaving and rippling.

Gods, why couldn’t Chen even vomit?

The man turned towards Xia. “And I warned you as well. We have work to do.”

“Work?” Chen managed to croak from her dry throat.

The man didn’t turn. He was watching Xia — and had moved to stand between her and the skin. “Every dying city has its scavengers,” he said. “Xia, come back.”

“Had enough,” Xia whispered, and her voice wasn’t human anymore. “Work — is too hard. I prefer — ”

“Flesh? Beating hearts, torn from bodies? How long do you think you’ll last, without your skin?”

“You — ” Xia whispered.

The man nodded serenely. “Dozens of hearts wouldn’t replace the one you lost. It’s too late for that. There are rules, and they govern every one of us — from my peers in Hell to lonely little ghosts like you.”

“Demons take you,” Xia whispered, and the man shook his head, amused.

“An interesting notion — but impossible, I fear.”

The wind tore at Xia’s innards — dispersing chunks of rotting muscles in a soft patter, like obscene rain. She was falling apart, a toy torn by invisible hands; but the heart was still within her, pulsing and bleeding. Liwei’s heart.

Liwei was dead. Chen had to remember that.

No, not quite. The wound had still been open — still bleeding — and he had still been moving, writhing and screaming in soundless agony. Wherever Liwei was, he wasn’t gone. Not yet.

There was still a chance . . . There had to be — if things like Xia could walk the earth, then a missing heart was such a small, insignificant thing — easily torn away, easily put back into place. Xia had implied as much.

But Xia had also said it was too late.

Chen tried to find enough strength to rise. But fog clung to her ankles and her calves, binding her to the ground as surely as chains.

“Hell is your master,” the man said. “Never forget that, little ghost. Never.”

Xia crept closer, hands outstretched like claws. Tendons shone in the space between her metacarpal bones. “Mine,” she whispered. “My kill. Mine.”

The man bent down, and took the skin from the ground. Chen gritted her teeth and attempted to rise once more, but all strength seemed to have fled her body.

“This is yours as well,” he said. He was still smiling, and the expression was exactly the same one he’d had, in the beginning. The skin dangled between his fingers, arms and legs dancing in the wind — the mask of the face letting the light through empty eyeholes and nostrils and lips. “Come, Xia.”

“Mine,” Xia whispered again. But she was walking, tottering on disintegrating legs reduced to slivers of reddened bones — she was creeping forward with her odd, shivering gait. “Mine . . .”

Her finger-bones closed on the skin, held it.

“Good girl,” the man said, and the wind took his words and magnified them; and the wind took the skin and lifted it out of Xia’s hands, wrapping it around her whole body in less than the time for a thought.

Where the thing had been was a young girl once more: Xia as Chen had first seen her. Except that she was plumper than she had been before, and the colour in her cheeks was the red of a beating heart, and she was smiling.

Chen quelled the shiver that heaved through her, and tried to focus on only one thing: rising. Reaching them. Preventing them from going away. She had to . . .

“Good girl,” the man repeated, as if to a favourite pet. “Come. We’re leaving.”

Chen, struggling against the weakness in her legs, watched him walk to where his girls waited. She tried to speak but she couldn’t. The girls stood silent in the dim light — each of them gaunt and famished as Xia had been, and she knew now that her impression of seeing the bones under the skin wasn’t only a fancy.

She had to . . .

Words had fled. She just wanted them to go away, wanted the sick sensation in her belly and in her womb to fade, to leave her feeling normal again. But . . .

“Wait,” she croaked. Even that single word left a trail of fire in her mouth.

The man paused, turned towards her, his eyes shining like beetle shells. “You’re still sane? Count yourself lucky, Du Chen. Some things aren’t meant to be seen by mortals.”

He was right. She should never have taken an interest in what didn’t concern her. She should never have run after Xia. She . . .

She hadn’t asked for any of it; not for Xia to follow her home, or for Liwei to be too weak to resist temptation.

“Wait,” she whispered. And, every word a thorn against her tongue: “You — have something that’s mine.”

The man watched her as he might a butterfly pinned on a corkboard. “Something of yours? Mortals are so amusing.”

“You — ” Chen whispered — and finally managed to pull herself into a sitting position. “Give — it — back.”

“What would you do with a heart, Du Chen? Pickle it in formaldehyde and watch it wither year after year? Eat it, perhaps?”

“It’s my husband’s heart.” Liwei. She thought of day after day of enduring in their empty flat, of Liwei’s sitting at the end of the table, speaking of the small things of his work — never encouraging despair, never questioning what they would do after the dam had flooded the old city. “I want it back.”

“Your husband’s heart? He’s such a worthy man. Just the sight of a girl is enough to stiffen his manhood. Why would you want him back? Because of the flat?” His voice was as cutting as a kitchen knife. “You can find a house of your own. Or do you want to wonder, year after year, if he comes home late because of another girl?”

Chen closed her eyes. He was wrong. He had to be wrong. But the small voice within her knew that, having heard him with Xia, she would never trust him again. The man was right: Her marriage, whatever it had been before, now lay shattered, as raw and as ruined as Xia had been under her fake skin.

The man went on, “You’re still young, and there are other means for a woman to earn her keeping.”

“I know your other ways,” Chen snapped. “I won’t go back into the streets, whether as a beggar or something else.”

“Hearts are expensive,” the man said — which was, no doubt, what he’d been driving at all along. “Will you pay the price for one, Du Chen? For a broken marriage and a petty home?”

A petty home? Home was everything she’d longed for on the streets — a dream Liwei had finally made true. Something that was hers, and that she wouldn’t let that man take away from her.

“I don’t care about your words,” Chen said. “This is all I have left. I won’t let go of it.”

The man laughed, then. “Greed and despair. That’s something I can understand.”

In a heartbeat, he’d crossed the space that separated them, and was kneeling across from her, lifting her chin to stare into her eyes. His touch was as clammy as the fog.

“Xia has the heart, and I don’t want to ruin her fun,” he said. “But I can do something else.”

Before she could even shy away, he’d bent further — and put his lips to hers. If his hands had been clammy, his lips were worse — but it wasn’t sweat that made them stick to her own.

His tongue darted between her teeth, seeking her own, like a worm blindly questing for food — and nausea was rising in her once more, travelling upwards from her stomach into her lungs, into her mouth. But still he held her; and still his lips were pressed against hers — and his eyes, as black as crushed beetles, still held the same inhuman amusement.

When he broke off the embrace, a tremor was running through her. The nausea was unbearably strong, bringing with it the taste and the smell of rotten flesh and crushed, bloodied bones — a spike arcing from her stomach into her mouth.

Something gave, finally; and putting both hands on the packed earth, she opened her mouth and started heaving, as if she could remove the taste and smell of him from her palate.

Nothing came, just the same sickening taste, the prelude to retching with nothing behind. Her oesophagus contracted, once, twice — and something tore within her, deep within her chest, and climbed upwards into her lungs and her windpipe, leaving a trail of slime within her.

A final heave, and she spat it on the ground at her feet: red meat, glistening in the returned sunlight.

“This will do as well as the old one, I should think.” The man bent again, and stroked her breasts as he had once stroked Xia’s — hardening his grip in small, sudden gestures. It didn’t hurt as much as it should have; but the same feeling of nausea, of disorientation, was rising within her, mingling with the tightening in her womb — as if some door within her were closing shut forever. “Goodbye, Du Chen. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

His hands withdrew, but the tightening was still there — and the taste in her mouth, and the dry, stretched feeling of emptiness within.

At the edge of the clearing, the man paused, before joining his companions. “Do give my regards to your husband.”

And then he was gone; they were all gone and only the wind remained, singing the song of the dead in her ears.

She had never heard a sweeter sound.

Slowly, carefully, she pulled herself upwards — the last tendrils of fog vanished as she did so — and retraced her steps back to the plaza, cradling the heart against her chest. She felt — drained, empty, stretched as thin as rice paper.

In the shop, Liwei was still lying where she had left him — still writhing without consciousness, although his gestures were weaker than before.

She didn’t think. She couldn’t afford to, not now. With the same careful, slow gestures, she laid the bleeding heart within the bleeding wound, and put both hands on the edges and pushed.

The skin writhed against her touch, refusing to yield. But she didn’t move; and presently the edges of the wound met in a hiss — and closed as if nothing had ever happened.

Liwei’s eyes closed, and opened again; and this time he looked straight at her.

“Chen? What I am doing here? Where is — Xia?” He pulled himself into a sitting position and looked around, bewildered.

“Shh. She’s gone. Everything is going to be all right,” Chen said — and gently wrapped her cloak around his nakedness. “Come on. Let’s go home. Nainai will be waiting for us.”

As they walked home in the streets of the dying city, the wind blew over them, whipping their clothes around them in a frenzy. Liwei shivered, and pressed himself closer to Chen. But Chen just trudged on; and it seemed to her that the touch of the wind on her skin was happening outside of her — onto something that she wore like a cloak, but which didn’t belong to her anymore.

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard by Lou Abercrombie

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her space opera books include The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a book set in the same universe as her Vietnamese science fiction novella, On a Red Station Drifting. Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz, 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace/Gollancz)She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.