1. 572 C.E.
“What do we tell people?”
There would be chaos soon. The governor was dead.
Even worse, she was a woman.
“How could we not have known?” another advisor asked as they stared at the body, recently returned from the physician who couldn’t save him.
“Word has spread. The governor is dead. We simply bury the body and tell no one.”
“We must tell the wife, at least.”
“The wife knows, of course.”
“The governor’s wife is a good woman. She could not have known,” someone argues, certain of his logic.
“A good woman keeps her husband’s secrets,” another man points out, “So she must have known.”
“The wife is of no importance. She will not make it public and this secret must stay secret.”
All of them agreed. Surely, this is what the Governor would have wanted. She would want her reputation protected.
Months later the people are all singing a new ballad. Mulan, the great warrior woman who was more of a man than any other man. Who was rewarded with a province to govern, who was the most generous governor to her people and the strongest and harshest against her people’s enemies.
Her advisors meet again. They are ruling together as they wait for the emperor to name one of them as her replacement.
“One of us has spilled the secret!”
“It couldn’t have been!”
“It must have been the wife! We all know the lips of women.”
“It does not matter. This is an embarrassment to us all. Either we are fools for not knowing or we are liars for saying nothing.”
“We were ruled by a woman for twenty-five years. One who gained her title with a sword. She is not even royal.”
“The people are singing about her every day. This cannot be stopped.”
Finally, one of them said, “Perhaps we should praise her too. We will say that she was proud in public but humble in private. She revealed herself to us at the start and asked us for our wisdom.”
There were many nods of agreement. “Yes, she left matters of the state to men. She would never overstep her bounds.”
“And do you recall? When she joined the army, she only did it so that her aged father would not have to fight.”
“Yes. She didn’t want to go. She did it out of duty.”
“She was the most dutiful woman.” The voices were becoming excited now. This was an excellent plan.
“And she tried to refuse the emperor’s reward!”
“No, she DID refuse. She asked her commander to rule in her place.”
“Yes. It was a different man all along, a man who ruled us well all these years.”
“Mulan herself wanted nothing more than to return home and live a quiet life.” An approving murmur rounded the group.
“Because she was a good woman.”
“A very, very good woman.”
2. 1732 C.E.
Lian stares at herself in the tiny mirror, moving it so she can see all the parts of her: face, hair, breasts, hips, sex.
She knows, she is certain, that these do not belong to her.
She wonders if these parts belong to someone else, if there is a woman out there with a body that doesn’t fit because Lian has stolen it from her.
She keeps looking at the mirror.
She does not understand how this happened.
There is no word for what she is.
So she will have to invent one. And a name to go with it.
She cuts off her hair and uses a blade to swipe close to the root.
She dons the stolen clothes.
She looks again in the mirror.
It is far from perfect.
But at least, when she looks in the mirror, she sees a man.
Tonight, she’ll sneak out of town with the meager amount of money she's saved.
Tomorrow, he’ll be born somewhere else.
It is at least as terrifying as it is exhilirating.
Who in their right mind would leave home with nowhere to go? Who could leave this safety, or the comfort of familiarity, to wander alone?
He hopes desperately that there is at least one other place in the world that he can call home.
As he packs his few possessions, he realizes: this is the first time he has ever broken a rule.
He suspects that for his first, he has chosen a big one.
In the first town over, nobody looks twice at him. It emboldens him, makes him giddy with the possibilities. He walks around town again and again, testing his new self out, pestering strangers with questions to see if they look at him askew.
He flirts with the server at the tea house and she sneaks him some food for free.
When he spends too much money on a small room at the inn, nobody gives him any trouble. It's not unusual for a man to travel alone.
As he lies down, he tries to plan what he will do next, where he will go. But the day's excitement has caught up with him and he can barely keep his eyes open.
In the third town over, he has still not figured out what he will do. His money is almost gone.
It is completely gone after two men pull him into a narrow side road and toss him to the ground.
It is not the first time men have attacked him, but the other times, she was a woman; they were surprised when she fought back.
This time, they are not surprised. They punch him again and take his pouch of coins.
He takes some satisfaction in the fact that their efforts have yielded practically nothing.
He is dizzy when he stands but he walks to the bridge; even those with no money are allowed to sleep under the bridge.
He wonders if it has always been this way: that one must choose between a home and a self.
In the fifth town over, he kisses a woman.
It is not his first time, but it feels different as a man.
He tries to keep her hands off of his body, tries to pretend it's because he wants control, but her mouth is on him, hot and full of need, and he gets distracted.
She discovers that he is not what she thought.
He travels around, offering a day's work for a night's meal and roof.
He flirts shamelessly, but he never accepts any offers until a merchant's wife hires him to manage her garden for the entire summer.
As the flowers bloom under his careful eye, the merchant's wife is pleased. She tells him that he has a woman's touch and he looks terrified before she laughs and assures him that it's a compliment.
When he finally sees her bedroom, he kisses her lips, her smooth thighs. She pulls at his clothes and he resists at first. But summer is almost over, and if he is ever going to show anyone, then now might be the time.
She sees him; she stares at the body he wears that is not his.
She is delighted.
He still leaves at the end of summer. But he leaves joyfully, only a hint of longing to quell the sense that he has found something new in the world.
He decides to live in the city, despite its dangers. He opens up a sales cart that sells rare plants and flowers, and enough wealthy patrons appreciate his wares that he is able to stay in safe and private lodgings.
He makes many friends, who think of him as friendly, confident, and always ready for a laugh.
People gossip about why he hasn't married.
But some of them have noticed that every summer he is visited by a merchant's wife, a wealthy woman stuck in the countryside with her husband's relatives but who always has time to sit with the flower-seller. When asked, they explain that the merchant's garden has many lovely plants that supply his goods. Nobody asks too many questions. There was a hint of scandal there, but the flower-seller is well-liked and there is no reason to push. Especially since they know what is going on regardless of what lies unspoken.
Eventually, the merchant's wife stops coming. But the flower-seller remains cheerful enough. His friends and neighbors still enjoy their chats with him.
Shortly before he dies, an elderly and respected man in the community, a physician discovers that the body he is treating is that of an old woman and not of an old man.
The physician tells no one; it is not the first such case he's seen.
3. 1910 C.E.
She stopped to check her feet to make sure they were still dry.
Dry feet was one of many things she would need to succeed.
Qiao was travelling alone into the frozen steppe, its enormity covered in white. She had to cover her eyes to avoid the gleam, and looking into the sky was no better; she was surrounded on all sides by grayish light that seemed unending.
That was how she liked it.
As she kept walking, she imagined all the herds that must have thundered across this land. All the invading warriors, too, seeking land and treasure and whatever else people do that sort of thing for. Maybe some of them just wanted to see something red, something to mar the overwhelming whiteness of the snow.
She was after something better.
She was the first scientist to do a serious botanical study of the steppes. She was going to prove that the established understanding of the winter life cycle was woefully simplistic.
Qiao. Alone. Walking into infinity to bring back knowledge that no person has ever held.
This was the reason she had done everything. Dressed as a boy since she was 12 years old, so the best schools would take her, so the best scientists would mentor her. Ran experiments all day and read all night.
She still didn’t see why they thought men were naturally fit for science. Probably the same reason all those explorers were supposedly men. Maybe it was because they thought that Nature is a woman. They figured it took a man to penetrate a woman’s body.
A ridiculous assumption, Qiao knew.
She kept walking. In the vastness, there was no visual sign that she had moved at all in the past hour.
But she knew that she had. She knew that she had moved forward, closer to her truth with every step she took.
4. 1997 C.E.
Xian is the first female Army Ranger in the history of the United States, and she didn’t get there by being an idiot.
For this reason, she is not surprised that everyone hates her.
Officially, there are no women in the Rangers, and there won’t be for many years. But she wouldn’t be the first Ranger who had to tell everyone she worked a desk job for the army.
A few officers – mostly the ones who think they could run for office someday – tell her that they are proud to finally have a woman attain such a rare achievement.
She knows that even if they are glad to have a woman, they still want her to be a man.
She learned long ago to be one.
She doesn’t look like one. She doesn’t even look like she could choke someone out (she can). But she knows how to play the game, the game of men who would rather die than be anything less than a man.
She knows to smoke cigars and to drink the worst whiskey she can find. She knows how to respond to a taunt with an implication that she might fuck their mother in the ass.
And she knows that she can’t hug her team after a close call, that she can’t cry for a fallen soldier no matter how close they were. Even if all the men are doing it, she can't. That would make her a woman.
As she moves up the ranks, everyone is impressed with her. Most of them even like her.
It isn’t until she’s up for Ranger selection that she feels like there is an army who sees her as an enemy, and it’s her own.
Selection is supposed to be brutal. Designed that way.
The best of the best, and the rest go home, as they say.
Her friends tell her that she shouldn’t even try. Her competitors fight dirty every chance they get.
Everyone keeps asking what’s going to happen when she’s captured in the desert.
She doesn’t ask why everyone assumes she’ll get captured, or why they’re sure every war will happen in a desert.
Some of her competitors quote lines at her, bizarre phrases from Asian actresses from porn films they have seen. They lay on thick fake accents as they ask her if she wants an eggroll with all the cocks she should be sucking.
She tells them it must be hard to watch all that bad porn when everyone knows they couldn’t get their dick to stand up if they begged it.
The sergeants in charge of weeding out the weak links are twice as hard on her as they are on anyone else. This, she only minds a little. Candidates are supposed to hate the sergeants. It’s part of the process.
Besides, whenever they hold her to a higher standard than everyone else, she kicks all their asses anyway.
She’s solid at wilderness survival, maybe top five out of sixty candidates (there are only 8 slots, though, and every man there is considered the cream of the crop). She’s a little better at hand-to-hand, maybe top three on a good day.
She’s the best sniper in the lot, and everyone knows it.
She surprises them, though, when she scores the highest on the tactical planning eval.
The sergeants test them under conditions of hunger and thirst, sleep deprivation and pain, and all manner of psychological duress that they can get away with.
None of it affects her performance.
She knows they are looking for excuses to cut her. So she refuses to give them one. A few of the men seem to start to respect her, to talk to her like she’s really there.
On the day before the last round of cuts, they are drinking beers, a rare moment of rest for the last men and woman standing.
It is a relief to at last go back to being one of the guys.
Until one of them, a lined-browed man named Denner, tells her that she’ll never be selected. “It doesn’t matter if you can shoot. There’s no special forces team that will answer to you. You can’t lead if men won’t be led by you.”
“We’ll see,” she says with an eyeroll. A soft response, she knows, and hates it. She knows how to deal with the insults that target her, but how can she argue that people aren’t that closed-minded? How can she say that her determination will beat their ignorance? She knows that the only way to say that will be to do it.
But one of the other men tells Denner, “You’re just pissed that she outscored you on every damn test we took.”
The other men laugh.
Not at her.
The moment is bad for her ego. Here she thought she had eradicated any desire for the approval of assholes and insecure pricks. Instead, when someone decided she was worth sticking up for, she’s naïve enough to feel…
She tells herself that it wasn’t some damn chivalrous thing. It was a guy deciding to be honest. He wasn’t going to be selected – everyone knew it, since he was great at physical challenges and terrible at tactical thinking – and he knew it too. So he decided that on his last day, he would be brave enough to do what the other men wouldn’t.
Speak the truth about her.
It’s okay to be grateful, she decides.
A few days later, to the chagrin of many and the applause of few, Xian is selected to be a Ranger.
Years later, when she’s a colonel, she has the man who spoke up for her promoted.
Not to a tactical position. She’s still not an idiot.
Xian is proud to be a Ranger from the moment she becomes one. Truly, immensely proud.
It doesn’t mean she likes it. At least not at first.
In a regular unit, a sniper is too good to waste in a close-up situation, but a Ranger might have to play any part.
The first time she kills someone up close, the blood shoots all over her front. She spits it out and tries not to react like “a girl” as she wipes her face with the back of her sleeve.
On the way back to base, everything is a hot, dazed blur. Her CO notices and puts a supportive pat on her shoulder.
“Tough thing, the first one up close and personal. But it gets better, kid.”
She nods. She needs it, this hand on her shoulder, solid and trying to tell her something good.
He is 20 years her senior but she hates it when he calls her “kid.” CO or not, she had told him that she would punch him in the nose if he called her it again.
Turned out she was bluffing. It was the only time (she couldn’t afford to bluff).
She tried to accept what her CO was trying to give her, this promise of normal and you’ll get over it. It helped. In that moment.
Later, of course, she found out that her CO was wrong. It doesn’t get easier the second time or the third. Or any other time after that.
She does it anyway.
When Xian gets her first special forces command, not one of her soldiers give her any shit. Not for race, nor for gender. Not for the drinks she orders, not for what she wears off duty.
There is one woman in her unit besides her. Karri Johnson, just out of selection, young and bold and smart as hell. A little more prone to recklessness than Xian would like, but that wasn’t uncommon among new Rangers.
Everyone calls Xian “ma’am,” but sometimes she catches Karri calling her “sir.” Xian isn’t sure if it’s on purpose. And if it is on purpose, she’s not sure if Karri means it as mockery or respect.
They serve together a long time and Xian never figures it out.
When Xian retires, a senator tries to convince her to run for office. He assures her that he can get the party to support her bid.
She refuses. She has been a warrior for many years.
She has done her duty.
She wants to go home to her family.
5. 2099 C.E.
She didn’t expect the pain.
Not this much.
Her flesh feels like it’s turning inside out. Her vocal cords are useless.
She waits for it to be over.
She tells herself it is worth it.
Family, then country, then principles, then self. That’s at the top. Pain is way, way down the list.
She has always been a cynic. She has never believed that people can change.
Now she knows that it's actually that people cannot change without pain.
Feng argues with her father almost every night.
Her father, of course, is not just her father. He is also the general and de facto prime minister of their ragged, galaxy-flung people.
“Mercy will just project weakness,” she finds herself saying often.
“There aren’t that many humans left,” her father always points out.
“There will be even less if we lose the war,” she believes.
“It matters how we win.”
“Not if we lose, it doesn’t.”
It is the same argument again and again. Only the catalyst changes: should they execute the spy? Should they raid the agro-planet despite the likely losses? Should they attack the enemy spaceship that is hailing them for help so they can dissect the latest enemy tech?
But the argument is always the same.
She has seen her father be ruthless. In the middle of battle, and occasionally in politics. But he is stingy with violence these days. It reminds Feng of the way he used to shake out the starch rations box for every last crumb, even back in the days when food was plenty. He thought it was morally wrong to waste.
Most of his other advisors tend to agree with Feng about the war. It is not merely because of her gaze, the sharp look that she gives anyone who thinks she’s there to suffer fools, though that is probably part of it is well. But these men and women have been fighting this war for years, and there’s not a ship in the fleet that couldn’t use repairs and down time. They want to believe that a bit more aggression will win the war. And they’re thirsty for it, the thrill of acting first, especially with all the recent hits from the enemy. And besides, it’s not like the enemy ever shows mercy – why should they? Why not just put an end to as many of them as they can?
Feng knows that it won’t be that simple to end the war. It will take more than a bit more blood. But aggression has benefits; it sends a message not just to one’s enemy but to one’s weaker (more dangerous) enemies at home.
But the General always refuses their advice. He does what he desired all along. Sometimes he looks very sad, and she thinks that he must feel very alone. Feng thinks it must be hard, to lead the charge to destroy the enemy while trying not to let the war finish off the species. To be the only one who has the full responsibility to walk this line, to be criticized by one’s own advisors, by one’s own daughter, for having a heart.
And yet, Feng herself has seen enough of battle to know that sometimes there is no place for a heart.
Still, she does not believe her father is being weak. Her father’s love is a strength. It’s simply a strength whose time has not yet come.
When they win – when there is peace – they will need his heart.
Until then, it is Feng’s duty to protect it.
And so she argues for swift vengeance every time.
When Feng was a little girl, she spent most of her time wandering the cold spaceship, pretending that the doors and storage crates were wonderful creatures who befriended her. Things were better then: food, water, and even some energy weren’t too hard to get.
Her father was only a minor officer then, and so sometimes he could visit them. Her mother was in the fleet as well, a catalaser sharpshooter, and so it was simply a matter of arranging for business on a nearby ship.
She loved his visits. He would always hold her hand and walk around the entire ship as she introduced him to all her imaginary creatures. He memorized the name of every single one of them.
She knew that they were just pretend creatures; she was no fool. But knowing that, and seeing her father try so hard to know their names, made her even happier than if they had been real.
Sometimes he would sneak in some contraband sweets for her, soft and creamy rainbow-colored spheres. Expensive, and only made in enemy territory. They would eat them together, sitting on the stairs to the cargo deck, discussing which color tasted best, even though they all really tasted the same.
For much of her childhood, this is how she thought of the time she spent with her father. Rare, but always a special treat.
Things changed when her mother didn’t come back from an engagement with the enemy.
He cried in front of her.
It is a hard thing, to watch one's hero cry.
She was ten and didn’t know what to do, so she patted him on the back. She told him that it would be all right.
He smiled and shook his head. It was that look he got when he wondered how she could possibly turn out the way she did.
Later that night, he told her all of this had caught him by surprise, that he had always assumed he would be the one to go first. That’s why Feng always had to stay with her mother.
Feng had always assumed it was because her father’s job was too important. Now she realized that it was that her father’s job was far more dangerous.
She realized that she could lose both of them.
She stuck much closer to her father after that.
He was wrong about being killed in the war, however. He lived to be an old man, and it was the stress that killed him.
Feng is thinking about her childhood when she hears that her father has collapsed.
She is wondering if he misses that younger version of her -- overjoyed just to be in the same room as him, always sure that her father was right.
She considers whether that is what he is thinking of when she demands – yet again – to take the more aggressive course. If he’s wishing that she were still the adoring daughter instead of his most sharp-tongued advisor.
Her sense of duty demands that she speak her mind honestly; she knows that he respects this about her. But she knows that their relationship is shaped by the war in ways that childhood and memory can only distort, not overcome.
She is thinking of those candies, blue and purple and yellow and green and red, when someone comes to tell her.
The General is nearly dead. There is no hope for recovery.
Her mouth goes dry. She thinks of the sweetness of candy on her tongue, of the tyranny of memory, and she wants nothing more than to spit.
She says good bye to her father as he lies there, the last breaths seeping from him. She knows he cannot hear her.
The other advisors are abuzz with arguments over what to do next.
She understands why. This is not their personal loss; they admired him, but he kept his distance.
And now they must consider the fleet. The potential for divisions among their side. And worse, the perception of weakness by the enemy.
They suggest and realize the hopelessness of numerous courses of action.
The doctor proposes something radical. And very dishonest.
He knows of a procedure – new and ill-tested -- that will transform one’s body but retain one’s memories. One can become anyone - even a dead man, with the same genes and even the same age -- but the mind must remain the same.
If someone were fit to lead, that person could have the body of the General, could act as him. No one outside of the inner circle would know.
They all look to Feng.
At first, she thinks there must be some genetic similarity needed for the procedure. In actuality, it's that they are all looking forward to a version of the General who will strike hard at every opportunity he gets, and who will wait for peacetime to show mercy.
But she knows that they are right about their lack of options. Not one of them, including her, has the support to keep their scattered people unified in the face of constant fear and thinning resources. She knows that this is the best way to prevent collapse. To protect what her father achieved.
She knows that this is her duty, to her family and her country both. So she agrees.
When she was young, she wanted to be like her father. She never imagined it would be this way.
It is painful, more than she thought it would be.
She cannot scream.
When it is done, she cusses out the surgeon and then passes out.
They tell everyone that the General has been injured. He will recover soon and speak to the public in a matter of weeks.
When Feng pulls off the Tissue-Gro straps and looks in the mirror for the first time, it is her father’s face looking back at her.
She starts to cry and the facial expression in the mirror reminds her of the day her mother went down.
She tells herself that pain doesn’t matter.
Only duty matters.
She feels in that moment the heaviness of her responsibility. All the people depending on her. The terrible contradictions she would face. An enemy life that is also one of only a few thousand human beings left. Her own side, starving and limping because the enemy has raided them too often.
She wonders if she will have the strength.
A few weeks before he left her for good, Feng and her father had tea in his quarters. It was a rare thing since she had become one of his formal advisors.
“Don’t you think it is sad,” he had asked her, “To be strewn so far apart. To have so much space between us and the rest of our tiny little species?”
She had shrugged. It wasn’t their most immediate concern, and she told him so.
He had sighed. “I know you are right. You are right more often than I give you credit for, I think. But if we are going to all erase one another, kill one another off until there’s no one left, I’d prefer to be destroyed while fighting to keep us around.”
He always did that. Use “we” and “us” to refer to all people, including the enemy.
She had nodded. There was a logic to it, she had supposed. A bit abstract for her tastes, though -- the fine philosophical distinction of what you die for.
He sighed again. It was clear: he was getting weaker by the day and he was very tired of arguing with his daughter. But then a smile turned up his lips. "You may be my best advisor, but you haven't changed entirely. You still get that look on your face when you don't think you should have to do something. Do you remember when we used to play table-fabulae? You always wanted to skip the even levels.”
“The even levels are boring,” she had said with a smile, repeating her constant protest from youth. His laugh rang through the chambers.
She knew he was intentionally changing the subject, that he wanted to take a break from being a general and to just, for a moment, be simply a man. She didn't mind at all. In fact, it felt good to repeat old conversations. It felt like an assurance that those words wouldn’t ever really go away.
At the first official meeting at which Feng is the General, they face a dilemma.
Enemy civilians, caught in their territory. Probably trying to steal food for themselves.
A week past, the enemy had killed six of their people for doing the same.
Not to mention that the fleet would want to see that the General is strong after his injury.
After much discussion, all the advisors looked to Feng for a decision. She knew what they expected.
Her father’s name felt heavy on her at that moment. Weary, like her now aged body. Thick, like armor made for someone larger than herself.
She realized that she no longer had any choice but to wear it.
And so she decided to wear it proudly.
“We will show mercy,” she told them. And she gave them all a hard gaze, one that was hers and hers alone, and none of them dared to suggest that mercy was a weakness.