It is the old, old story, told in many lands by many tongues. In all places, their names are unimportant -- what matters is how they tell it, how they live it. Sometimes it is told in yellow, sometimes red or black. In the Upper Kingdom of Shanghua Station, this time it is green.
Within the twelve jade city walls with winding rails,
A sea-beast's horn averts the dust, jade averts the cold.
Another course adjustment pushes the armrest into his side, but brings Shanghua Station in view through the shuttle port -- a ring upon a spindle, hanging above the limb of the Earth. A wagon-wheel against the stars. He rests his forehead against the chill glass to take it in. The new home of another exile. Always displaced, never settled -- Taipei, Guongzhou, Jakarta, all of them closed to him now by climate, by politics. Which are much the same now, if it comes to that.
And here, now, is a new climate, one controlled by human hands. An impossibly complicated superstructure of panels, girders, wires, antennas, tubes, discarded fuel tanks, life-support pods, and blister packs, all of them various shades of grey, all held together with chewing gum and hope.
Deep breath. His last hope, with the last of his post-doc funding cut off.
A pressure on his seat and his other side -- he braces himself as the shuttle turns back and Shanghua slides half out of view. Earth rises in its place, flaunting another dust storm carelessly tossed across central Asia. To the north, an emerald curtain rises through the atmosphere, soon joined by another. Auroras. He watches as they writhe in slow motion, splitting and joining, multiplying across the arctic until they disappear behind a station wall grown large enough to eclipse the world. A pull forward, against his seat straps, and moments later, a clunk more felt through his seat than heard. Green lights flash on the seat-back before him, a pilot's announcement blats overhead.
He has arrived.
Letters from the Lofty Park are mostly entrusted to cranes;
On Lady's Couch, phoenixes perch on every tree.
It is a co-worker who finally convinces her to give the station dating site a try. "It can't be any worse than a downside site. Mai-ling always has good luck on it."
"Mai-ling," she counters, "breaks up with everyone she meets through it."
She tries it anyway. Upside is "officially" international and modern but like everything here run by Personnel, the site is built on images from the Middle Kingdom -- auspicious cranes flap around the screen with message scrolls in their beaks, wise turtles offer compatibility advice. Even the user icons are stylized as faces on ... she isn't sure. Phoenixes, maybe? Some pretty bird.
Two weeks and three differently disastrous dates later, she almost gives it up. Then a new user catches her eye, a guy six months on station. His profile has the right sense of humor, as do his responses. She even smiles to read them. Born on Taiwan, exiled from same, on his third post-doc. Like her, an outsider among Mainlanders. Witty, not too pretty. Possibly, maybe, worth a try.
She taps the screen and sends him a crane.
Stars sinking to the bottom of the sea can be seen at the window;
The rain over the river's source, viewed from another seat.
He sits across from her at a small table with a tiny lamp. The lighting in Penglai Lounge is dim to let the windowed wall's rotating view of Earth and the stars shine. That this gives couples more privacy is coincidental. It is a popular romantic date. Especially for first dates.
She is both less beautiful and more attractive than he expected. More guarded. She had hesitated before agreeing to come here.
Ice cubes clink as she stirs her cocktail, as they chat. Background, recent serials, adjusting to upside life. They use English -- he speaks it better than she does Mandarin, with her thick American accent. He doesn't ask if she knows Hokkien.
"I'm in Hydroponics," she says, then shakes dark hair out of her eyes again, letting them shine. Almost, they hide her bitterness.
"Not quite what you signed up for?" He likes the thought of her as a gardener, though soil is a luxury up here. A quiet person among green things.
Her wry laugh tinkles at the same pitch as her ice cubes. "Actually, it's in line with my research ... "
"But there's no time for your own work." It is not much of a guess. More than one young doctorate had signed up for supposed research positions only to find they were really tech support for their seniors. For him, it was managing the pharmaceutical assembly. Even automated, it took most of a shift and a half.
She glances at his face, then nods slowly. She knows. "And you're in Biomedical, right?"
"It's in line with my research." Before she asks, "In aging."
She considers that. "Do you like it?" An unexpected response -- so many other women would have asked about the secret of staying young.
"I do." When he can work on it. When he's not staring down yet another dead end. When he can.
She looks up at the limb of the Earth slowly sliding by -- Pacific Ocean at night, a large swath of open sea between two still, white cyclones. So still and calm, as if it deserved its name. He can almost imagine the stars reflected on the water were under its surface. That he can see this station's own light down there.
"Good," she says. She looks directly at him. "You should always enjoy what you do."
If the pearl of dawn were not only bright but also fixed,
All life long we would gaze into the crystal plate.
As the elevator rises toward the Hub transfer station, she gazes out the glass wall. Earth slowly rotates past -- another dust storm in northern China, sliding off the edge. It is too-early o'clock in the morning and she is returning to her flat. She stifles a yawn and remembers the feel of his smooth chest, of his fingers on her skin, of his warm breath on her neck. He might do for a fling, till she returns downside.
She shifts, and the light-panel reflects off the glass, obscuring the view.
To glimpse her shadow, to hear her voice, is to already feel her loveliness.
In the jade pool, the lotus leaves spread on the water.
He replays her message, this time gazing at her phoenix icon as he listens. The face is from a downside photo, when her hair was longer and smile more open. He has seen that expression only once, their third date at Spindle's End, and never since. In her message, she is harried, tired, with a smear of green on her cheek.
Another regret: she will be late tonight -- an algae pool bloomed, overgrowing and dying and clogging the vents, and she must stay to help trim it back, clear it out, dose it with hormones to retard its growth. And yet she has time to grumble. "It's one of the old batches, but of course that won't prove anything to those who don't want to switch to my newest strain."
Would that human growth and aging could be so easily controlled.
Would that her job were not so important to her, to her employer.
Unless you meet Hsiao-shih, do not turn back your head,
Nor ever tap another Hung-ya on the shoulder again.
She ignores it until Mikhail walks away, rejoining friends on the other side of the cafeteria, but his eyes remain sullen. She thinks of letting it slide again, but she is tired of this crap. He keeps trying to turn this into something more serious. Her fight that afternoon with Mai-ling over, of all things, the proper way to tie loose cables left her impatient. "What?" she asks.
"Nothing," he replies, looking away.
"He works the next section over, that's all."
"So you say."
Men. "I do."
He shifts in his seat. Then he turns to her. "Then why do you -- "
"Don't," she says, holding up a single finger. "Just, don't. Either you trust me, or you don't."
He says nothing. Sullenly.
She wipes her mouth, sets her napkin on her plate. "Fine."
She walks away. He doesn't call her back. It is probably just as well.
Later, he calls her flat, apologizes, says it is all his fault, he was frustrated by how his research was going. She has calmed down enough she chooses to believe him, to forgive him. This time.
The purple phoenix displays her charm, jade pendant in mouth;
The crimson fish dances wildly, plucking zither strings.
Night shift in hydroponics: shadowed corridors, darkened tanks, the tang of liquid fertilizers and fresh oxygen. Her shift now, thanks to last week's bloom, and the section is hers alone. The door claps, and she checks the status board (all green) before letting him in.
And they are alone, together.
She shows him the tanks. The colors impress him, the many strains and species spanning the rainbow, the varieties of the plant kingdom. So do the carp in their bright scales. Then she shows him the inner garden, where they experiment with show flowers for the public tanks. Tonight, lotus blooms, bright flowers against the dark green water.
And it is here, not the break-room cot, that they make love, on the pad she'd stashed in the corner. She takes complete charge -- this is her ground, her element, her world. And he lets her -- he trusts her, at least this much. And it is as good as they have ever been. She takes him, skin on skin, slick on salt, flesh and bone and nerve joined together.
As they rest, afterward, her cheek on his chest, a splash -- a carp jumps and scatters them with drops.
The night when Prince O gazed wistfully from his boat,
Beneath embroidered quilts, with incense burning, he slept alone.
He lies awake in his empty bed, listening to the sounds of the station: tinks and bangs of struts under strain, whispering vents and transport capsules, low tidal groans. A short popping in a nearby switch. A couple making love next door. Listening, and trying not to think.
He does not understand how these things happen. They are good together. Not just the way their bodies fit together, but their thoughts. Her mind is as sharp as his mother the professor's, and tricksy as his sister the engineer's, always surprising him with a leap to a joke or a soft insight. She is not stupid, or vain, or shallow. So how do they keep ending up in such fights? What is it about other men?
But that is thinking. He is supposed to be sleeping. Or if thinking, about what next experimental alley to turn down.
With a soft clunk, the vent sends the barest of currents across the room. With a soft cry, the couple goes quiet. With a grunt, he turns over in the dark.
Lately, it seems that when he looks out a view port at the stars and the blackness and the greatness of it all, all he can see is his own reflection.
On Seventh Night she came at the time appointed;
The bamboo curtain of the bedchamber has never since lifted.
He confesses his frustration in the cafeteria over his dinner and her breakfast -- frustration about his work, that is, his real work with his latest setbacks. His latest dead-ends. She listens, not lost in the technicalities, though once she clarifies the jargon. Otherwise she is silent, listening. As he speaks, he tries to look at her, but the large screen distracts him: two bright stars with the Milky Way between them.
As he winds down, he finally realizes they are Vega and Altair -- a gesture towards today being Qixi, the star festival. In space, there are no storms to keep the two stars apart. Would that this meant that upside, all love went smoothly.
She tipped an ice cube from her glass into her mouth and crunched it thoughtfully. "Have you looked at the latest work on plants?"
"They're not -- " he starts, but stops himself.
"Not the same hormones, but many of the same genes, the same expressions." She taps the tabletop, brings up the library. "Here's some review articles, what they've been working with." She rattles off several protein names, each longer than the last, and flags articles for his review. "It's not always stable, when applied to vascular plants, but it's how we can grow more than just algae in the tanks."
"That -- thanks." He is dubious, but anything is worth a try. Anything.
As he glances through the titles, she shuts down her screen. He glances up as she takes a deep breath.
"There's something else," she says.
The hare in the Jade Wheel is beginning to grow a soul;
The coral in the iron net has not yet put forth branches.
She still doesn't know how her birth control failed. It ought to matter, but it doesn't, not to her. That it did is the important fact. That, and a decision needs to be made.
As she drifts into the bubble wall of Spindle's End, she gently pushes off. Her thurst is slightly off center -- a slight roll end-over-end. The full moon slowly drops below her.
Or rather, two decisions. She hadn't even gotten telling him about the second. The first was too big. Is still too big. It ought to be easy. Abortion was routine on Shanghua -- the radiation risks were too great. She told himself that. It happens all the time. And yet, it's never easy.
Her thoughts return to it, over and over, drawn away from the other news: mail from her old advisor, inviting her to apply for a position opening next year -- one that, Dr H believes, is hers for the asking. Not tenure-track, but in her field, an opportunity. The one she has waited for while marking time upside. One that means leaving him behind.
If she were heartless, she would abort both child and relationship. This was supposed to be a fling. But then, if she were heartless, she would not have pointed him to research in her own field. Already, he has found useful results and fruitful lines of inquiry -- if she hadn't, would he be ready to leave all his dead-ends to follow her, on the small chance of finding a place at the same university, or nearby? Now, with new lines of research just getting started, how could she ask him?
A fan clicks on, blowing warmer air into the observation bubble against the coldness that is space. It blows over her face and shoulders, increasing her tumble. The round moon appears overhead again.
Her thoughts loop and tangle. Too many weeds in her mental field, not enough crop.
Give her a magic recipe, and teach her to stay her youth!
Take a piece of phoenix-paper and write down your longings!
Abortion was routine on Shanghua -- the radiation risks were too great. He told himself that. It happens all the time.
He still doesn't want that.
This is his child, for all that it isn't, yet. One he wants. He wants to have a child with her. But this one, they cannot have. It tears at him like the ragged edge of a meteor hole, like spraying coolant fluid in lungs, like grief.
The analyzer finishes booting, signals it is ready for the next run. He should load the new samples. He should finish preparing them. Instead, he can only think of her, of himself. Of them. Of what little he can do, aside from be there for her.
Enough. He reaches for the pipette, then puts it down. Instead, he switches screens, taps her phoenix icon and calls her. "Two things. They are not related. One, I will come with you to the clinic, if you need me to. Or if you just want me to." She nods on screen but says nothing. "Two, I love you and cannot live without you. Will you marry me?"
The Life of Emperor Lu is plain for all to see:
Do not say no one in the whole world knows!
It is the old, old story, told in many lands by many tongues. An initial infatuation papers over the hidden troubles until a crisis breaks down the illusions and makes desires clear.
He has declared his. So what of hers? She lies curled in a chair in her darkened flat, in front of the screen. One half, the current view of Earth -- the other, his profile.
Her grandmother had always told her "You should always enjoy what you do." The downside job, she would. Would she, staying here? Would she, without him? Would she, with him?
She closes her eyes, and what she sees is green. Life. Growth. Not answers but questions, ones she cannot answer herself. She opens her eyes, and nods to herself.
What matters is not how the story is told, just how it is lived.
She taps the screen and sends him a crane.