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Last Star Burning
THEY SAY WAR IS NO dinner party. Not refined, graceful, courteous, or magnanimous. It’s complete devastation. Every foul human impulse distilled into quick bursts of chaos. And yet here I sit at a table, stones to mark my soldiers in front of me in pretty lines on a grid, the conversation perfectly quiet and polite. All I need is a snack.
“Yuan’s ax, Sevvy.” Tai-ge laughs as he flicks the edge of the weiqi board. “Is there a strategy buried under here somewhere? You don’t have anywhere else to play.”
“My game is too advanced for you to comprehend.” My stones are pitiful and lonely spots of white in a sea of Tai-ge’s black, a besieged army with no hope. Picking up one of the smooth pieces, I weigh each of the open spaces, attempting to keep dismay from leaking through my cheerful mask. “In one or two moves, I’ll have you right where I want you.” But Tai-ge is right. Most of my stones are dead.
Tai-ge twirls the gold ring on his middle finger, light catching the City seal stamped into the soft metal, then rubs the two raised white lines scarring the skin between his thumb and forefinger. “You’ve got as much chance to win as if you were fighting a gore with a broken bottle.”
“I don’t believe in gores. If gores were real, there wouldn’t be so many soldiers alive and well to spin stories about them.”
Tai-ge taps the board one last time. “You concede?”
I take a theatrical breath and let it out, bowing low over the table.
A little smile softens the angular lines of Tai-ge’s face as he shakes his head. Reserved gloating, as though smiling too widely would break something inside of him. “One more game? We probably don’t have time, but maybe if I walk you home . . . ?”
I nod and sit back in my chair as he resets the pieces, looking to the bay window behind him. The last streams of orange and pink fade into black over the smokestack skyline around us as I consider the view. The City makes a wheel shape cut into the side of our mountain, ringed entirely by a high outer wall. The three spokes of the wheel divide the City into thirds to keep the different parts to themselves, with a central market hub the only common point connecting them. Below Tai-ge’s house, I can just glimpse the chimney tops and factory lights above the wall that separates the industrial Third Quarter from the martial Second Quarter. On this side of the wall, peaked roofs as clean and orderly as the Seconds themselves rise up the side of the mountain. I can’t see the First Quarter from my vantage point here. Firsts reside higher up the mountain, towering above the other two quarters where they can keep an eye on the rest of us—that is, if they bother to take a break from their experiments and research to spare us a thought.
At least the Seconds and Thirds have their own quarters. I touch my collar, where my four metal stars are pinned. There isn’t a place for Fourths here.
The horizon beyond the outer wall seems unreal somehow, as if the mountaintops poking up through the clouds are just a painting, a backdrop the Firsts invented for us.
I shiver. I’ll take the fairy-tale painting. If Outside is distant and out of focus, I won’t have to watch the desperate survivors out there trying to kill each other.
Under the table, I continue digging a cluster of Tai-ge’s pencils point-first into the red candle I stole from the Hong family shrine downstairs. I hate seeing Tai-ge so smug from beating me, but it’s not like I can tell him I’ve been sabotaging his writing supplies, not to mention desecrating his ancestors’ shrine. But the next time he sits down with his Watch reports, he’ll know exactly why I was so distracted during our game of weiqi. He’ll swear over his red-smeared reports, but then I know he’ll laugh. And my friend needs more reasons to laugh.
Dark wood paneling makes the room seem small and dim in the waning light. Nothing has changed much in Tai-ge’s room since we were kids. Everything is so red. Down to his striped bedcover, the accents in the hardwood bookcase, and the portrait of our City’s founder, Yuan Zhiwei, matted in red on the wall. I suppose it’s typical in the Second Quarter to deck out everything in City colors. They’re proud to protect the City. Though I do wonder sometimes if sleeping in this room coats Tai-ge’s dreams in red paint.
Before the board is clear of stones, Tai-ge’s door pops open.
“Tai-ge, Fenghua just brought in . . .” Comrade Hong trails off as she notices me across the table from her son. “What are you doing up here?”
I jump to my feet, subtly dropping the pencils and pocketing the stolen candle so she won’t see it, keeping my eyes on my boots. The peeling leather toes are half-hidden by the City’s star-and-beaker seal cut into the deep red fibers of the carpet. I smile a little to make up for the humble bow, refusing to give in completely to the tight disapproval in Comrade Hong’s voice. “We were playing weiqi, Comrade.”
Tai-ge gestures to the empty board from his seat at the table. “Well, I was playing. I’m not quite sure what Sevvy was doing.”
Comrade Hong does not look amused.
General Hong and his wife may have graciously volunteered to reeducate me after my parents’ blunders—it was an honor for their family to be trusted with a subject as corrupted as I, and there are few families so true to Yuan Zhiwei’s vision that they’d even be allowed near me—but Comrade Hong’s eyes don’t seem to register that any improvement has taken place over the last eight years. Her hair is cropped short in the new City fashion, the utilitarian line only accentuating how beautiful she is. Tai-ge’s mother is shorter than I am, her heavy Watch uniform making her look as though she’s a child playing war. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows are raised in dismay, as though the neighbors might have glimpsed me sitting across from her perfect Second son with something other than reeducation materials in front of us. Not many of the high-ranking Seconds would permit a Fourth within a block of their homes up here on the Steppe, much less inside, playing an unsanctioned game of weiqi with their children.
“You were supposed to be back down in the Third Quarter over an hour ago, Jiang Sev. Just because the General is too busy for reeducation tonight does not mean you can sit up here wasting time.” Her eyes freeze on the pin hanging cockeyed at my collar, as if she can’t see me past those four red stars. “Sister Lei will be hearing about this. Now get out of my house.”
Tai-ge pulls himself up from the table, the lamplight glossing over his thick hair, trimmed so close to his scalp. He glances out the window where the lamps are starting to glow in the falling darkness. “Come on, Sevvy. I’ll walk you down.”
The little glow of warmth I feel at hearing my nickname on Tai-ge’s lips winks out when Comrade Hong snaps back, “No, Tai-ge, you stay here. And don’t call her that. It’s too informal.”
Tai-ge smiles at his mother as he guides me past her and out into the hallway. “That’s her name.” But when Comrade Hong’s expression blackens, he drops the smile and gives a respectful nod. “Sorry. Jiang Sev. I’m the one who told her to stay, so I’ll walk her back. The Watchman on the bridge at night is always crabby.”
“She knows the rules.” Comrade Hong follows us down the stairs and past the family shrine. Hongs long gone, somber-eyed in their portraits, watch us through the screen of smoke issuing from a garden of newly lit incense. The missing red candle makes the table look off balance, but Tai-ge’s mother is too busy arguing to notice. “Your father is never going to be able to teach Jiang Sev correct social theory or her place in it if she can’t even adhere to basic policy. . . .”
Tai-ge grabs both our jackets from the hooks in the entryway, and before his mother can protest any further, he throws open the front door and drags me down the steps.
“Be quick!” Comrade Hong yells after us. “If you aren’t back in the next ten minutes . . . !” But the rest of whatever she wanted to say is lost as we run through the circular gate that connects the Hong compound to the street, our breath misting out in front of us in the frozen air.
Tai-ge tows me around a corner, but slips on the icy paving stones when I don’t move fast enough, sending me sliding into a patch of early snow. The fall knocks the wind out of me, but I manage to kick his feet out from under him before he’s done laughing. We both lie on the ground for a few minutes, looking up at the stars. It’s a miracle we can even see the first few in the twilight. Smoke from the Third Quarter factories usually keeps the whole City under a cover of smog.
It almost seems impossible that it has been eight years since I stood sullenly outside the Hong’s house, hand still scabbed over from the brand newly burned into my skin. It sort of looks like a star. A melted, ruined star, seared into the flesh between my thumb and forefinger.
The man who gave it to me didn’t say anything. Just unpinned the star from his collar. I sat there watching as he stuck the pin in the fire until the metal glowed red, only a rag protecting his hand from the brutal heat. I closed my eyes before he pressed the pin to the single line that marked me as a First, charring away any evidence that I ever had a place in the City. I don’t remember if it hurt, how it smelled, or whether I said thank you afterward. I only remember the vertigo of my entire world shifting from First to Fourth.
Tai-ge was out on the front steps that day to usher me in before his parents could shoo him away, as if he didn’t care how far my family had fallen. He was the army personified, honored to take part in my reintegration into the politically correct proletariat. But the moment his parents looked away, Tai-ge’s military straight posture relaxed and he shoved a red cellophane–wrapped candy into my sore hands, the same shifty look in his eye as Mother had when she used to make a game of slipping my sister, Aya, and me sweets, seeing how many we could hide before Father noticed.
I close my eyes and shake the thought away before it can burn like molten lead at the back of my mind. No thoughts of Aya tonight.
When I open my eyes, Tai-ge is pointing up at a blinking light as it slowly pulses across the sky. “Satellite or Kamari heli-plane?” he asks me, the lamps hanging over the nearest compound gates casting a golden sheen over his skin.
“Better hope it’s a satellite. A Kamari bombing spree would definitely keep you out here longer than ten minutes, and I don’t think your mother would consider an enemy attack a good enough excuse for your being late.”
“It’s probably just a City patroller.” Tai-ge squints at the sky as if trying to decide.
When Tai-ge stands, he pulls me up with him, brushing at the snow clinging to the dark wool of my coat. My face pinkens as his hand catches on one of my buttons.
“I don’t think you have to worry.” I pretend to look up the street to hide my blush, the mountain pricked yellow and white above us, lights from the First and Second Quarters too dim to wash out our view of the stars. “Even Kamar seems to know that bombs so close to the First Quarter are unacceptable. They keep it to the Thirds and the factories.”
“Where they can destroy our munitions and food. It makes sense.”
“Well, if I were in charge, I’d go straight to the top.” I point up the mountain to the highest lights twinkling in the darkness. “The First Circle all live right in the same neighborhood, don’t they? If you cut the head off, the chicken might flap around for a little bit trying to pretend it’s still alive, but it’ll still lie down dead in the end.”
“Lucky I’m not a First, I guess. Don’t let my parents hear you talking like that, or they’ll be checking your room for knives.”
I close my mouth, wishing it would just cement shut. “You might as well be First, Hong Tai-ge. Or don’t you see the way we all jump when your father barks? Perhaps Reds will move up to the First Quarter, and a new era will begin where Second comes before First.”
Reds. Tai-ge shakes his head at the nickname, looking down at the two lines scored into the skin on the back of his hand that mark him a Second. I’m not the only one who calls Seconds “Reds.” It’s hard not to, with their City-red coats, City-red carpet, and City-red souls.
Tai-ge reaches across to flick some snow from my cheek, snapping my attention away from my thoughts. I can’t help but look at him now, his hand warm against my cold skin. His eyes are so dark the irises look black. He doesn’t move, as if the cold has frozen the two of us together.
But then he blinks, pulling his hand away from me to stick it deep in his jacket pocket. “My father knows his place. He knows mine, too, and often reminds me that it isn’t playing with you in the snow.” He starts down the street without me, but then waits for me to draw even with him, leaving a few feet of space between us.
I run my fingers through my long hair to brush out the last bits of damp clinging to me, trying to shake the hollow feeling that growls deep in my chest as he keeps the appropriate distance between us on our walk. Tai-ge is right to keep his distance. And I should be more careful about keeping mine. I won’t ruin his future. Not on purpose, at least.
We silently turn down the road toward the Aihu River bridge that marks the edge of the Second Quarter, both of us trying to ignore the awkwardness between us. Somewhere up the mountain is a lake that feeds the river, above the First Quarter and the blunt cliffs that edge the whole east side of the City. On the other side of the bridge lies the dividing wall that will forever separate my life from Tai-ge’s. A Third climbs a ladder propped up against the closest bridge support as we walk by, only allowed on this side of the barrier to blow the red paper lanterns strung across the bridge back to life. The lights sparkle in the dark waves of the river and across the sheen of frost coating the bridge.
We stand together, companionably watching puffs of smoke creep toward us from the Third Quarter below. A sigh streams out of me as the last bit of light drains out of the sky. Time to go back or they’ll send out the Watch to find me.
Before I can suggest we move, Tai-ge breaks the silence, pointing to the dedication painted in red and black across the huge wooden supports just in front of the barrier that blocks the Third Quarter off from the river. He points to the characters as he reads, each syllable sharp and clear. “?‘Aihu Bridge, erected Year Four by the Liberation Army. United to stop Sleeping Sickness,’?” he recites, shaking his head. “That was Yuan Zhiwei’s dream, but look at us now, almost a century later. We sit up here with nowhere to hide. Bombs fall on us at least once a month. How much longer before they send their armies up here, do you think? Just cut us all down.”
“Kamar couldn’t walk a whole army up this high on the mountain; that was the point—”
“They were never supposed to find us at all.” Tai-ge stares up at the sky again, as if he’s searching for the blinking light we saw earlier. “Everyone thought we’d be safe, and we were up until . . .” He breaks off when he looks down, and I realize my hands are twined together as if I can hide the brand. “I’m sorry, Sevvy. I didn’t mean to say it like that.”
I nod, but turn from him before he can see the cracks in my expression, thoughts I can’t let crystallize hovering too close to the surface.
A figure thick with layers of clothing steps out from behind the pillar beneath the sign, making for a good distraction. Winter is coming, leaving this man with his coat buttoned up to his throat and fur hat pulled down around his eyebrows with the flaps tied tightly under his chin. He looks a little like one of the grainy old photographs from the Great Wars, needing only a bolt-action rifle and mustache to complete the picture. Lantern light glints off the two stars pinned to his red coat. A member of the Watch.
My smile is back by the time he gets to us, ready to face whatever he might say, trying very hard not to notice Tai-ge’s arm nudging mine in apology. There’s no reason for him to apologize. I am not my stars, whatever most people believe.
The Watchman eyes me and then looks pointedly at his wristwatch. “Do you know what time it is, Fourth?”
I wish hiding my stars weren’t a punishable offense, but I suppose keeping them out of sight wouldn’t help anyway. The Watch knows my face, the birthmark curling out from under my ear and onto my cheek. They know the burn that mars the skin between my thumb and forefinger. It’s their job to know. I pull my ID card from my coat pocket and hold it out to him. “Yes, I know I don’t have much time before the walls close, Comrade.”
He takes it, scowling. Looking at the bright silver likeness of Yuan Zhiwei printed next to my picture, he spits on the ground at my feet. “Trash like you shouldn’t even be allowed to disgrace his image.”
Tai-ge steps forward. “She’s not late yet. Let her go past.”
The Watchman takes a careful look at Tai-ge. “You should watch where you go with her kind of garbage. Even if you are the General’s son.” He spits again on the ground and walks back to the Watch station policing the door between my quarter and Tai-ge’s.
I shrug off Tai-ge’s interjection and wave good-bye, the bridge’s lights framing my friend in a warm glow.
As soon as I cross the barrier, my eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness, as if even the light on this side of the wall is gray. It’s hard to make out the peaked roofs down the hill, where most families don’t have the electricity rations to use their cheap incandescents at night. I wait until the empty stalls from the afternoon market hide me before I start to run, not wanting Tai-ge to know just how late I actually am. I’ll have to explain missing dinner, but I don’t care. A smile steals across my face as I fall into line with the uniforms hurrying between the blocky factory buildings towering over the cracked cement walkways and the worn brick cafeteria. The thought of Tai-ge’s face when he realizes his pencils are near useless is worth missing dinner any day. Especially today. The whole Third Quarter smells like cabbage.
The crush of bland clothing streaked with factory dirt closes in around me as I push through the school gate, students with similar tardiness problems rushing back from evening meals that went a tad too long. The hallway outside Remedial Reform is especially crowded, those with work shifts during the day here at night class to get their required dose of history and ideology in short sentences and small words so they can understand. I manage to slide onto the bench at the back of our little classroom before Captain Chen comes in.
My roommate, Peishan, waves from the front row, giving me a questioning smile when I wave back. She knew I was up in the Second Quarter with Tai-ge and will want to hear about the visit down to the pitch of Comrade Hong’s annoyed sniffs. She starts to mouth something at me, but stops as Captain Chen hobbles into the room. The old Captain frowns at her as he limps toward his chair on his ancient pair of crutches, then heaves a deep sigh as he leans them up against the wall. He sits, pulling at the two metal stars on his collar, which had folded inward so that the metal scratched at his throat. The two hash marks carved into his hand look faded and stretched. Remedial Reform isn’t important enough to merit a First teacher like the other quarters get. The finer points don’t matter much when your days are filled with twisting wire or picking bits of gunk out of the industrial looms. “Did we stop with the Great War invasion, or were we all the way to Jiang?” he grumbles. I try not to flinch.
A boy sitting two seats away raises a work-worn hand, angry red scars lining his palms and forearms like a grid. “You left off with Yuan Zhiwei, sir.”
“Yuan. Right.” Scratching at his sparse gray hair, Captain Chen turns toward the front of the room, pointing at the portrait of Yuan Zhiwei hung at the head of our classroom. “Salute.”
We all stand, each raising a fist toward the portrait. “We stand united, our City dedicated to equality, honesty, and hard work. We strive to protect our homes and families from infection, shoring up our walls against the anarchy poisoning Outside. We destroy complacency within our own ranks. We pledge to follow the teachings of Yuan Zhiwei, each of us dedicated to our own tasks. Thirds to the glory of labor that forms the backbone of our society. Seconds to protecting our walls and defeating our enemies. Firsts, in their superior wisdom, to lead us toward dignity and enlightenment.”
And Fourths, I add silently, my mother’s face still pulsing in the back of my mind after what Tai-ge said about Kamar discovering our City. To betrayal. To infecting our own children and murdering our leaders. Even saying the number four out loud is unlucky. As if just one syllable could bring death and destruction to anyone who heard.
“Shoulder to shoulder we stand, comrades building a society strong enough to find the cure to SS.” With that, we finish chanting and sit down, waiting for Captain Chen to start.
He rubs his left temple with two fingers, eyes closed. “Kamar’s invasion of our country started with Sleeping Sickness bombs. That beyond anything was their biggest mistake, as SS was not only the cause of our destruction, but also the cause of their own.” He pauses to let that sink in, as if this weren’t something we’ve all known for as long as we can remember. Sleeping Sickness—SS—the weapon that bit back at that hand that wielded it. If not for Kamar, the whole world might still be living freely in peace instead of fighting for scraps.
After the moment of silence, Captain Chen continues. “Bombs infected our armies, our cities. Those who weren’t infected ran or were killed. Yuan Zhiwei argued not to use SS as a weapon of revenge. Deciding to destroy them with their own weapon would only leave a blasted continent, a pile of ashes where there was once a great civilization. Our ancestral leaders did not listen to him. Yuan led as many as would follow up to this City. They hid in these mountains as SS destroyed everything during the end of the Influenza War. Why would he trap us up here like that and then call it ‘Liberation’?”
Peishan raises her hand, smoothing long hair out of her face before answering his nod. Her voice chirps like a little bird, every word measured and confident. “The walls, sir. Yuan Zhiwei wanted to find a cure, and walls were the only thing that could keep out Sephs. . . .” She falters, crossing her arms tightly when she realizes the ugly slur slipped out, but Captain Chen doesn’t stop her. “I mean, walls were the only thing that could keep out those infected with encephalitis lethargica—with Sleeping Sickness.”
Captain Chen considers her. “They never figured out how to make the engineered flu that causes SS contagious. Why would keeping SS victims out matter?”
“Not contagious.” Peishan bites her lip. “But even one infected inside our walls that goes untreated . . . is . . .” She shivers, not finishing the sentence. “Yuan chose this place in particular because it’s so remote that Kamar couldn’t find us.”
“Thank you, Peishan.” The captain’s nod is a little surprised. He doesn’t expect much from a classroom of Thirds, but then Peishan has always been an overachiever. “Did it work? Are we liberated?”
The question annoys me, and I start to roll my eyes, but wrench them back down to my desk when Captain Chen’s gaze falls on me.
Once again, Peishan provides an answer. “Our work is Liberation. Seconds fight and Thirds work to make sure Firsts can find the cure and end the war. We are far more free here than anyone trying to survive Outside.” The pledge regurgitated, but it’s true. Safety from SS and Kamari soldiers is enough for anyone—even a hated Fourth like me—to fight to keep their place inside the City. Peishan is still trembling as if the thought of SS doomed the rest of her evening to looking over her shoulder and watching shadows, terrified an unmedicated SS victim could be sneaking along after her, wondering what her flesh tastes like.
I sit up straight, suddenly noticing the rigid line of my friend’s back, the way her hands grip the sides of her desk, fingers turning white. Peishan’s whole body shakes in palsied bursts, her grasp on the desktop the only thing keeping her from falling to the ground.
“Sir!” I jump from my bench and run for Peishan. “Sir, she’s . . .”
Peishan slides from her seat, the shakes suddenly stopping as if she’s done fighting the compulsion that’s taken her. Hands outstretched, she strides toward Captain Chen, who only has time to fall off his chair as he frantically gropes for his crutches.
I crash into Peishan, my ribs and sternum crushed against her bony back as I tackle her to the floor. Other students in the class spring up from their desks to pull her arms flat on the ground, grab her feet to keep her from kicking. They leave me to lie on top of her, to keep her twitches and screams smashed against the floor, where they can’t hurt anyone. Or at least where they won’t hurt Captain Chen.
The captain yells for help, members of the Watch sprinting from their posts in the hallway at his call. One of the Watchmen pulls me off my friend, gathering her in a bear hold until her muscles stop straining and pulsing, and her head hangs down, sobs of fear and revulsion tearing from her chest.
“I took Mantis an hour ago!” Tears spill down her cheeks, her hair a tangled bird’s nest atop her head. “I’m supposed to be safe!”
I can’t watch as they drag her out. No late-night discussion in our room to look forward to tonight. None of Peishan’s silly questions about Seconds and Tai-ge and whether we really are just friends. Our room will just be dark now. Silent. Asleep.
Captain Chen’s chest heaves as he pulls himself up on his crutches. “This is, perhaps, an unfortunate but appropriate launch into the rest of our class discussion.”
Peishan’s sobs echo down the long hallway, fading as the Watch carries her away.
“For a hundred years, the City was completely free from SS. We didn’t need Mantis. We certainly hadn’t seen strains of Mantis-resistant SS. Chemical bombs and the war were no more than an uncomfortable memory. All of this was true, until eight years ago. Now SS is here, rearing up in the places we least expect—the epidemic we were supposed to be safe from.” He pauses, and my stomach cramps. “What changed?” He makes a show of looking back and forth over the students, half of us still standing, frazzled from restraining Peishan.
Then, as I knew would happen, his stare fixes on me.
I shrink from where I stand at the front of the room, wishing I could go back to my bench, that I could duck behind the broad-shouldered Thirds, still smelling of the metal and soot from the factories. I don’t know why I’m still trying to take these classes; I should have known that having a military captain for a teacher was enough of a promise of misery to just take double shifts at the cannery and stop trying to play at school. Tai-ge had to argue to even get me here, but my stars will always speak louder than he ever could.
Captain Chen’s glare stings, expectantly waiting until I look up. “SS has returned to the City, and Kamari heli-planes fly over us daily. What changed?” His voice is pinched and poisonous. “Jiang Sev? Care to enlighten us?”
I straighten and meet his stare, refusing to blink, refusing to let him bully me. Hating the way his mouth pinches over my name—my mother’s name, the one they made me take instead of my father’s. Another kind of brand, just as loud as my scar. “Jiang Gui-hua happened. My mother betrayed us all.”