After the Fire12 min read
In her dreams, Jiaotan saw Father: hands outstretched, the flesh of the fingers fraying away to reveal the yellowed, tapered shape of bones, the deep-set eyes bulging in their sockets, pleading, begging her to take him away.
“You’re dead,” she whispered. “Rest in peace, with the Ancestors–watch over us from Heaven.”
But the Ancestors were bones and dried sinews, shambling upright from the wreck of their graves–anger shining in the hollows of their eye sockets as they walked past the devastated gardens, the withered trees, the dried-out waterfalls and rivers. And clouds marched across Heaven, a billowing mass of sickly grey spreading to cut the path of The Red Carp as it rose away from Earth…
* * *
Jiaotan woke up with a start, instinctively bending over to cough out the fluid that blocked her lungs. But something held her, pressed against her as tightly as the embrace of Earth.
Where–? She tried to pull herself upright–to breathe–but she was still held. She couldn’t—
“Shun Jiaotan,” a voice said with the cultured accents of the Court, loud enough to cover the frantic beating of her heart. “Stand by for awakening procedure.”
Something shifted, and she was upright, the fluid choking her. A cough wrung her body, spraying the obstruction out of her lungs. She inhaled in huge gulps while the light around her slowly grew, the stale air searing her throat.
But she remembered. All the dreams–the grinning skulls and the withered flesh on brittle bones, the forests coated in liquid metal, the wind that bore the rank smell of carrion…
When the hibernation couch released her, Jiaotan stumbled out on her knees and bent over, racked by coughing fits, feeling as though she was going to spit everything out, lungs and liver and stomach. But the only thing that came out was more of the hibernation fluid, a grey ooze that spread across the pristine metal surface of the ship’s quarters.
It took her a while to stand, and a while longer for the images to stop hovering in front of her face–for Father’s burnt face to disappear, back among the dead where it belonged.
“Shun Jiaotan,” the voice said again, echoing under the metal ceiling. “The Red Carp has need of you. Go to the navigation room.”
A quick glance around her confirmed that all the other sleepers were still in their couches; the ship around her was silent. What had happened?
But she knew better than to ask. The only way to communicate with the ship’s Mind would be to jack in physically, and that could only be done by the engineers and the pilots, those with the proper implants and authorizations.
Why had they woken her up, then? What need had they for a poet, brought on the Exodus only as a favour to her sister?
Sukuang–she was the engineer, she was the one who truly mattered–the one they’d wake up if there was a problem.
Something was wrong. Jiaotan pulled herself to the door, sliding it open with a touch of her hand, and moved into the corridor, trying to ignore the growing hollow in her stomach.
Everything was deserted; everything gleamed with the coldness of metal. The light, reflected on a thousand surfaces, danced and coalesced into ten thousand patterns, ten thousand forms that might have been drawings or characters–the beginning of sentences hovering on the edge of significance, always dissolving before Jiaotan could focus on them. And there came no other noise but her own laboured breathing as her lungs struggled to re-accustom themselves to a normal atmosphere. She hadn’t realised, before the Exodus, how huge The Red Carp was; going upwards, she passed row upon row of hibernation rooms, from the scholars to the officials, from the officials to the lower ranks of the Court–and further up was the highest room, where the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, the holder of the Divine Mandate, slept in his own couch. A little lower than this would be the navigation room, a reminder that the pilots of the Exodus were almost–yet not–as powerful as the Emperor.
Jiaotan walked through the corridors, seeing everything merge and blur into an endless dream of metal.
* * *
There was a wind, blowing through the ship–not the cold one between the stars, but a hot and rancid one, with a smell like spoiled butter, like curdled cheese left too long in the sun. The metal quivered and danced, became the red of flames which swept up, and Second Cousin Yu’s skin crinkled and blackened like charred paper, and her eyes popped like chestnuts in the Fire’s wake…
* * *
Something swam out of the darkness in which she walked: a picture against a red background–a fierce, dark face with a beard and eyes like black beads. Batons, crossed in front of silk robes.
A guardian deity, and his twin by his side, pale-skinned, his two straight swords drawn against threats. The doors they protected were tight metal panes, cold and reassuring.
Jiaotan laid a hand against the doors, feeling the coolness travel up her arm–into her heart. If she closed her eyes, she knew, she’d see Father again, or perhaps Aunt Qin or one of the other concubines: all the dead she couldn’t forget, an endless chain of ghosts stretching back to the wreck of Earth. Blood, stronger than mountains, more enduring than jade or cinnabar.
Why had they woken her up? It should have been Sukuang at the door, not her.
“I’m here,” Jiaotan said aloud. “Now would you tell me what you want?” She moved her hand to the control panel, long enough for the ship’s Mind to recognise her. The doors parted like the leaves of a book, and she entered the navigation room.
Inside, it was cool and dark and silent. The air smelled of ginseng and pine essence–not quite enough to mask the staleness of the recycling.
This was ridiculous. She couldn’t possibly fix whatever was wrong. Couldn’t the ship’s Mind tell the difference between Jiaotan and her sister?
Something shifted in the shadows–the sound of breathing coming in small, ragged gasps. Someone? Impossible. All the colonists slept in their hibernation couches; all the pilots were in their berths, augmenting the ship’s computing capacity with their own minds. There should have been no one—
“Jiaotan?” a voice asked.
Sukuang. But she didn’t have her usual confidence; her voice sounded empty, and a little startled, as if she’d been doing something that Jiaotan had interrupted–something reprehensible.
Cautiously, Jiaotan approached. The hollow feeling in her stomach, if anything, grew larger.
Sukuang sat on her knees at the foot of the pilots’ wall. Above her, bulges in the metal marked the crew members’ berths. The metal was translucent, letting her see the crew, resting as snug in there as in a hibernation couch. Their faces were pale against the grey fluid, their eyes bruised; their mouths were set in troubled grimaces. One of the control panels–that of the second-in-command–blinked dark blue, the sign of a problem.
“I should have known they’d wake you up,” Sukuang said, as Jiaotan approached.
“I–” Jiaotan stopped, seeing what Sukuang had spread on the ground.
A letter on white paper, stamped with the seal of the Courts of Hell, filled with scrawled, disorderly characters–and a welding knife, carefully set aside from the writing brush.
That wasn’t good. You only wrote to the dead Ancestors for one reason, and that was to apologise for the shame you would be bringing on the family.
Such as the shame of not living on.
“Aren’t you supposed to be fixing the ship?” she asked slowly. All that Sukuang had to do was pick up the welding knife and open her own throat; and there’d be nothing Jiaotan could do–and nothing the ship could do either. It had been programmed to take care of itself and the passengers in the hibernation couches, but it couldn’t act outside of that.
No wonder the ship had awakened Jiaotan.
Sukuang raised bruised eyes towards her. “I can’t.”
“What do you mean?” Jiaotan asked. “You’re the best engineer we have. That’s why the ship picked you.”
Sukuang shook her head. “I’m capable of repairing the damage. But what’s the point?”
“The point?” Jiaotan knelt by Sukuang’s side, carefully, and laid a hand on her arm. “We’re the only ones left. The hope of rebirth for the whole world. When we reach the colony–”
“We destroyed Earth, Jiaotan.”
Jiaotan tried to ignore the images of the Fire, sweeping through the steppes and the grasslands, racing up towards the launch rail in the instant before the ship took off in a blaze of light. “The alchemists did,” she said. “Whoever made the White Fire did.”
“We all did.” Sukuang sucked in a breath, went on, her voice shaking. “The alchemists, the engineers, the soldiers. Every one of us with our little experiments, every one of us reporting on what worked and what didn’t, building the sum of knowledge that they used to make the Fire. Do you really think we deserved to be carried away?”
“The Emperor ordered us to board the ship. Would you go against that?”
Sukuang’s hands clenched. “There are higher powers than the Emperor.”
“Enough,” Sukuang said. “Please, Jiaotan. Just leave me be.”
“I can’t. You know I can’t.” Sukuang’s presence had made the Exodus bearable–the knowledge that the Shun lineage wasn’t reduced to Jiaotan alone, to a mediocre poet unable to pass the state examinations; that in the vastness of the ship, in the strangeness of their new home, they could still watch out for each other as they’d done when they were children.
“And you know I can’t ignore it anymore, either.” Sukuang was silent, her lips compressed–she couldn’t ignore Jiaotan without being rude, but neither did she agree.
Jiaotan tried something else. “We’re the only ones left. Father’s flesh, Mother’s blood. If we die, then the last trace of them will vanish.”
Sukuang’s eyes were as dark as scorched meat, her pupils dilated by grief. “I know what we’ve done, Jiaotan. I still see them–they’re in my dreams, in my waking days. Father and Mother and Aunt Qin, and the rest of them.”
All those we left behind, Jiaotan thought, shivering. But it didn’t matter; it shouldn’t matter. The dead were dead, and the future belonged to the living. It had to.
“Sukuang,” she said, “I share your grief. I understand.” Truly, she did. She saw them, too: all the ones they couldn’t save, all those the Emperor had been forced to abandon as they flew away, all those the Fire had taken. “But to commit suicide….” She paused, looking for a suitable quote to paraphrase, and finally settled on Grand Historian Sima Qian. “Some deaths are weightier than Mount Tai, some lighter than a swan’s down. Your death will achieve nothing.”
“You’re wrong,” Sukuang said, but her gaze strayed to the dark blue light, still blinking in the shadows, and wouldn’t come back to Jiaotan. “It would atone for what we’ve done.”
Jiaotan took a deep breath and called on the Classics, which Sukuang would know by heart, just like her. “A person’s virtue is seen through the whole of their lives, not the manner of their death. It is seen by the benefits of their acts. You know this.”
“I used to, once.”
“You can’t bring them back,” Jiaotan said. “You can’t change the past. And death is no atonement; it’s just a way to preserve your dignity.”
“That’s not what I’m doing. It’s different, Jiaotan. You know it is.” Her voice shook.
Jiaotan said nothing. There was no need to.
At length, Sukuang said, “You’re right. I’ve been selfish, Jiaotan. And arrogant.” Her smile was devoid of any joy. “And I have a ship to repair.”
She rose and laid her hand against the faulty berth. The wall softened, flowed up her wrist, her arm; the gleaming metal coated her skin and her clothes, burrowing into her body to connect her implants to the ship’s Mind.
“It’s going to be a while,” she said. “You might as well make yourself comfortable.”
Jiaotan propped herself up against the farthest wall, watching her sister. Nothing happened that she could see. Sukuang did not move, though the metal of the ship shifted from time to time, changing colours like a living being.
Her mind drifted into the land of dreams. The metal flowed upwards, covering Sukuang as it had covered the trees and the flowers, choking them to death…
* * *
She and Sukuang ran on the dry earth behind the wall of the Fire, which grew more and more distant as it swept away from them. The trees were shining masses coated with the melted metal of skyscrapers, the mountains sterile rocks with the corpses of acid-eaten forests; underfoot were ashes–and bones, crackling like corn in the frying pan, their pale fragments billowing in the air, small and sharp.
The only light came from a figure dressed in white–a woman with an androgynous face who gathered bones in her hands with the plodding method of the desperate. She smiled bleakly when they came nearer, holding out her soot-stained hands. “See my children,” she cried, and her voice was the quivering wail of oboes at funerals. “They are one with the universe, and the universe is no more.”
And tears ran down her cheeks, evaporating in the roiling heat, and the Fire ate at her skin and at her bones until her light had become that of the flames and her voice was overwhelmed by the screams of billions.
See my children…
* * *
Jiaotan woke up with a start, in the dark, the afterimages of the Fire imprinted on her retinas and the woman’s grinning skull superimposed on the navigation room. The woman–Guanyin, Bodhisattva of Mercy–she, too, taken by the Fire, eaten away to nothing.
Jiaotan’s heart beat in her chest with the frantic desperation of a caged hummingbird. They hadn’t done this–not any of this, it wasn’t their fault, they couldn’t have done anything…
But, deep where it mattered, she knew it for a lie; a flimsy, unacceptable excuse.
The light above the berth blinked red, the colour of good fortune and things gone right–slow and steady, the anchor for her flailing sanity. The ship’s metal flowed away from Sukuang, revealing once more the green of her clothes, the pale colour of her skin, the exhaustion in her eyes.
Jiaotan stood up, trying to calm the frantic beat of her heart.
“It’s done,” Sukuang said. “We’ll have a safe journey.”
Jiaotan forced a smile she didn’t feel and held out her hand to Sukuang. “Come. Let’s go back to sleep, then. With luck, they won’t wake us up before we reach the planet.”
“No,” Sukuang said. “I guess they won’t.” She sucked in a breath, her gaze shifting down to the welding knife.
The hollow feeling returned in the pit of Jiaotan’s stomach, sharp and cold. “Sukuang. Think of the others…”
Sukuang raised her gaze again–eyes filled with such a desperate need that Jiaotan knew, with absolute certainty, that she couldn’t stop her sister, that she didn’t have the right to.
Sukuang’s hand moved towards the knife; the outstretched fingers hovered over the handle for an agonisingly long while. At length, and with a visible effort, she withdrew. “You’re right,” she said tonelessly. “Let’s go back.”
She didn’t speak again until they’d walked back to her own hibernation couch–close to the navigation room, along with the ship’s engineers and the few remaining alchemists–until Jiaotan had wedged her into the couch and the cycle of hibernation had started.
“Sleep well, sister,” Sukuang whispered then, as the couch swung shut.
Jiaotan laid her hand against the outer panel of the couch and caught a distorted reflection of herself in the metal: dishevelled and pale, her eyes bruised and haunted, her skin the colour of things that no longer saw the sun, and ten thousand ghosts on her back, bowing her shoulders and spine.
“Sleep well,” she whispered in return, though she knew the truth, as did Sukuang: that in sleep there was no oblivion. The weight of their transgression would never be erased. The dead were with them, carried in their minds and in their hearts–and, as the Fire had eaten those left behind, they in turn would gnaw at the sleepers, every hour, every day, tearing away at the will to live, at the fabric and sanity of their beings, until nothing was left.
Red lights hummed on the control panel and from inside came a sound like rushing water: the hibernation fluid, filling the couch, flowing into Sukuang’s nostrils and lungs like water into a drowning man.
Drowning, Jiaotan thought. All of us, floundering in our couches, carrying our grief and guilt and madness between the stars, all the ghosts that we won’t ever exorcise dragging us down; a slow, lingering death instead of the Fire. Drowning.
She thought of the desperate hunger in Sukuang’s eyes, and she wondered how many among them would ever come up for air.