“Yellow River Red Star,” Ch. 1

“My darling Mudan. You’ve trained so hard.”

Mudan’s mother found her in the Mining Sector of Lesser Yellow Refinery, far from the crowds of the market.  Night was falling, the station swimming in dark blue light. From its wall recess, the pilots’ shrine to Guanyin poured gilded light into the darkness.  Mudan kneeled in the light, shaking.

“But there are no more piloting jobs in Lesser Yellow.  You have to accept that.”  Her mother kneaded her hands together when she was tense.  Just then, if she’d had tinder between her hands, she’d have started an inferno.  “And I can’t see you marry some jobless nobody here.  That’s why I’ve sent for your aunt to come here with her opera troupe, so you can audition -”

“I don’t want to go.  I don’t want to leave Lesser Yellow!” Her voice wracked with sobs.

“I know.” She put a hand on Mudan’s shoulder.  They both looked at the figure of Guanyin, set into the dark wall, perched impossibly atop swirling waters. Mudan stopped shaking and covered her mother’s hand with her own, still facing the tiny shrine.  “All I’ve ever wanted  is to operate an Apparatus Suit.”

“I know.  But perhaps it’s time for you to want something else.”

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“Hey, cousin! You crying again?” Mudan turned and saw her aunt’s daughter, Yi, in padded training gear.  She swung her signature rope dart up to the shoulder then down again, drawing lazy arcs in the air.  Her mocking smirk was a sour perturbation of the bodhisattva’s gentle smile.

“Of course not!” She hadn’t been crying.  Not at that moment, anyhow.  Had Yi waited another minute or two, she might have caught Mudan with fat tears rolling down her chin.  But that was better left unsaid. “Well, you can’t spend all day here.  Let’s go train!”

Mudan looked back, frowning. “Yi, it’s our day off.  I have every right to be here.” “Nope! We’re less than a week from Red Millet.  That means we train every day.” Mudan’s muscles were protesting already, and she hadn’t done anything today except pray.  Today was going to be rough.  “If we must, we must.”

“Better get a move on.  Otherwise my mother’s gonna find you here and kick your sorry butt.  In fact, I thought I passed her coming this way earlier…”

Mudan found her muscles suddenly very cooperative.  She practically leapt to her feet. “Coming!”

——

Yi spooled the dart and marched back to the starting line.  She wound the dart, then released it with a wild thrust at a hanging rubber target fifteen feet away.  It smashed the target straight through with incredible force… which is not what she’d been trying to do at all.

She cursed and tugged at the dart, which flew back to her with a velocity and angle that surprised her. That was the problem with the low-gee rope dart.  It would be fantastic for solo demonstrations – the force and speed she generated up here could shatter just about anything.  She planned to start laying into spare metal sheets of different thicknesses to see what would happen.  But her mother didn’t just want weapons acts for the low-gee show: she demanded the dramas as well.  So now Yi was relearning how to strike the crown off the Celestial Emperor’s head without reducing that head to a ribbon of bone and flesh.  It was the most demanding precision work she’d ever had to perform.  She hated it.

She sneaked a glance at Mudan, who was practicing her low-grav acrobatics routine.  Yi couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t need to be here  This was Mudan’s stage.  When her career as an Apparatus pilot fell through, Yi’s mother created a low-grav act with her in mind.

Mudan had balance and power, even if she lacked Yi’s two decades of experience.  But she had one thing that Yi didn’t have: low-gee training.  Mudan practically swam through the air, making precision leaps over impossible distances, now turning and diving through a crevice, then running past shoulder-high moguls.

Yi had lived on the Hermit her entire life, and to say she’d never experimented with low-gravity would be a lie.  There’s no-one, given the chance, who wouldn’t skip through the ship’s spacious hydroponics lab and get that giddy feeling when your feet don’t return to the ground on time.  And who could resist the temptation of a running leap from one end of the lab to the other – even after you’d miscalculated that one time, and had to spend all night rebuilding a shelf full of just-sprouted greens? Once, she met this cute boy selling bootleg Korean dramas in a factory station’s Grey District.  They bonded over the latest episodes of My Darling Yoon, and soon they were back aboard the Hermit, writhing eagerly in the rafters of the maintenance bay.  She’d snuck him out well before the troupe awoke.  In his lush-eyed splendor, he’d left behind his studded belt and Yi had to shove it into the mass converter.

“Well? What did you think?” Mudan was walking towards her, wiping at her beaded sweat, her hair back in a ponytail.  Somewhere in Yi’s reverie she’d completely lost track of Mudan’s performance.  Yi ran it back in her head as Mudan drew closer.  She’d done the big leaps to the high ledge, ran across the pegs, and then… she drew a blank.

Yi put on an introspective look, her hand to her mouth.  “Hmm… I think… yes, I think you should definitely do it again.  Needs more work.” With that, Yi wound the dart again, preparing for another strike.

“But -”

“Busy!” Yi beamed coyly at her cousin, then arced the dart for another wind.  It swung high, and began the next loop before she’d anticipated.  She twitched onto one foot to avoid getting clipped, then changed to a simple launch instead of the long-range thrust she’d been preparing.  The dart grazed the Emperor’s cheek.

“Hey, not bad! You’re getting better!” Mudan’s smile was so earnest, without malice or pretense. Yi wanted to smack it off.

Instead, she forced a laugh and shrugged. “Thank you.  You should do your routine again! Just the acrobatics; have the boys work with you on the swordsmanship when they come up.”  Mudan nodded at her, and jogged back to her starting position.  Yi watched her go, then swung the dart in wide arcs to get into a rhythm.  “The sooner the better,” she muttered.



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