by Ken Liu
Synopsis: “Good Hunting” is a steampunk fantasy tale of individual adaptability and resistance in a time of historical transformations. It was first published in Strange Horizons in October 2012.
by Ken Liu
Night. Half moon. An occasional hoot from an owl.
The merchant and his wife and all the servants had been sent away. The large house was eerily quiet.
Father and I crouched behind the scholar’s rock in the courtyard. Through the rock’s many holes I could see the bedroom window of the merchant’s son.
“Oh, Hsiao-jung, my sweet Hsiao-jung…”
The young man’s feverish groans were pitiful. Half-delirious, he was tied to his bed for his own good, but Father had left a window open so that his plaintive cries could be carried by the breeze far over the rice paddies.
“Do you think she really will come?” I whispered. Today was my thirteenth birthday, and this was my first hunt.
“She will,” Father said. “A hulijing cannot resist the cries of the man she has bewitched.”
“Like how the Butterfly Lovers cannot resist each other?” I thought back to the folk opera troupe that had come through our village last fall.
“Not quite,” Father said. But he seemed to have trouble explaining why. “Just know that it’s not the same.”
I nodded, not sure I understood. But I remembered how the merchant and his wife had come to Father to ask for his help.
“How shameful!” The merchant had muttered. “He’s not even nineteen. How could he have read so many sages’ books and still fall under the spell of such a creature?”
“There’s no shame in being entranced by the beauty and wiles of a hulijing,” Father had said. “Even the great scholar Wong Lai once spent three nights in the company of one, and he took first place at the Imperial Examinations. Your son just needs a little help.”
“You must save him,” the merchant’s wife had said, bowing like a chicken pecking at rice. “If this gets out, the matchmakers won’t touch him at all.”
A hulijing was a demon who stole hearts. I shuddered, worried if I would have the courage to face one.
Father put a warm hand on my shoulder, and I felt calmer. In his hand was Swallow Tail, a sword that had first been forged by our ancestor, General Lau Yip, thirteen generations ago. The sword was charged with hundreds of Daoist blessings and had drunk the blood of countless demons.
A passing cloud obscured the moon for a moment, throwing everything into darkness.
When the moon emerged again, I almost cried out.
There, in the courtyard, was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen.
She had on a flowing white silk dress with billowing sleeves and a wide, silvery belt. Her face was pale as snow, and her hair dark as coal, draping past her waist. I thought she looked like the paintings of great beauties from the Tang Dynasty the opera troupe had hung around their stage.
She turned slowly to survey everything around her, her eyes glistening in the moonlight like two shimmering pools.
I was surprised to see how sad she looked. Suddenly, I felt sorry for her and wanted more than anything else to make her smile.
The light touch of my father’s hand against the back of my neck jolted me out of my mesmerized state. He had warned me about the power of the hulijing. My face hot and my heart hammering, I averted my eyes from the demon’s face and focused on her stance.
The merchant’s servants had been patrolling the courtyard every night this week with dogs to keep her away from her victim. But now the courtyard was empty. She stood still, hesitating, suspecting a trap.
“Tsiao-jung! Have you come for me?” The son’s feverish voice grew louder.
The lady turned and walked—no, glided, so smooth were her movements—towards the bedroom door.
Father jumped out from behind the rock and rushed at her with Swallow Tail.
She dodged out of the way as though she had eyes on the back of her head. Unable to stop, my father thrust the sword into the thick wooden door with a dull thunk. He pulled but could not free the weapon immediately.
The lady glanced at him, turned, and headed for the courtyard gate.
“Don’t just stand there, Liang!” Father called. “She’s getting away!”
I ran at her, dragging my clay pot filled with dog piss. It was my job to splash her with it so that she could not transform into her fox form and escape.
She turned to me and smiled. “You’re a very brave boy.” A scent, like jasmine blooming in spring rain, surrounded me. Her voice was like sweet, cold lotus paste, and I wanted to hear her talk forever. The clay pot dangled from my hand, forgotten.
“Now!” Father shouted. He had pulled the sword free.
I bit my lip in frustration. How could I become a demon hunter if I was so easily enticed? I lifted off the cover and emptied the clay pot at her retreating figure, but the insane thought that I shouldn’t dirty her white dress caused my hands to shake, and my aim was wide. Only a small amount of dog piss got onto her.
But it was enough. She howled, and the sound, like a dog’s but so much wilder, caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. She turned and snarled, showing two rows of sharp, white teeth, and I stumbled back.
I had doused her while she was in the midst of her transformation. Her face was thus frozen halfway between a woman’s and a fox’s, with a hairless snout and raised, triangular ears that twitched angrily. Her hands had turned into paws, tipped with sharp claws that she swiped at me.
She could no longer speak, but her eyes conveyed her venomous thoughts without trouble.
Father rushed by me, his sword raised for a killing blow. The hulijing turned around and slammed into the courtyard gate, smashing it open, and disappeared through the broken door.
Father chased after her without even a glance back at me. Ashamed, I followed.
The hulijing was swift of foot, and her silvery tail seemed to leave a glittering trail across the fields. But her incompletely transformed body maintained a human’s posture, incapable of running as fast as she could have on four legs.
Father and I saw her dodging into the abandoned temple about a li outside the village.
“Go around the temple,” Father said, trying to catch his breath. “I will go through the front door. If she tries to flee through the back door, you know what to do.”
The back of the temple was overgrown with weeds and the wall half-collapsed. As I came around, I saw a white flash darting through the rubble.
Determined to redeem myself in my father’s eyes, I swallowed my fear and ran after it without hesitation. After a few quick turns, I had the thing cornered in one of the monks’ cells.
I was about to pour the remaining dog piss on it when I realized that the animal was much smaller than the hulijing we had been chasing. It was a small white fox, about the size of a puppy.
I set the clay pot on the ground and lunged.
The fox squirmed under me. It was surprisingly strong for such a small animal. I struggled to hold it down. As we fought, the fur between my fingers seemed to become as slippery as skin, and the body elongated, expanded, grew. I had to use my whole body to wrestle it to the ground.
Suddenly, I realized that my hands and arms were wrapped around the nude body of a young girl about my age.
I cried out and jumped back. The girl stood up slowly, picked up a silk robe from behind a pile of straw, put it on, and gazed at me haughtily.
A growl came from the main hall some distance away, followed by the sound of a heavy sword crashing into a table. Then another growl, and the sound of my father’s curses.
The girl and I stared at each other. She was even prettier than the opera singer that I couldn’t stop thinking about last year.
“Why are you after us?” she asked. “We did nothing to you.”
“Your mother bewitched the merchant’s son,” I said. “We have to save him.”
“Bewitched? He’s the one who wouldn’t leave her alone.”
I was taken aback. “What are you talking about?”
“One night about a month ago, the merchant’s son stumbled upon my mother, caught in a chicken farmer’s trap. She had to transform into her human form to escape, and as soon as he saw her, he became infatuated.
“She liked her freedom and didn’t want anything to do with him. But once a man has set his heart on a hulijing, she cannot help hearing him no matter how far apart they are. All that moaning and crying he did drove her to distraction, and she had to go see him every night just to keep him quiet.”
This was not what I learned from Father.
“She lures innocent scholars and draws on their life essence to feed her evil magic! Look how sick the merchant’s son is!”
“He’s sick because that useless doctor gave him poison that was supposed to make him forget about my mother. My mother is the one who’s kept him alive with her nightly visits. And stop using the word lure. A man can fall in love with a hulijing just like he can with any human woman.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said the first thing that came to mind. “I just know it’s not the same.”
She smirked. “Not the same? I saw how you looked at me before I put on my robe.”
I blushed. “Brazen demon!” I picked up the clay pot. She remained where she was, a mocking smile on her face. Eventually, I put the pot back down.
The fight in the main hall grew noisier, and suddenly, there was a loud crash, followed by a triumphant shout from Father and a long, piercing scream from the woman.
There was no smirk on the girl’s face now, only rage turning slowly to shock. Her eyes had lost their lively luster; they looked dead.
Another grunt from Father. The scream ended abruptly.
“Liang! Liang! It’s over. Where are you?”
Tears rolled down the girl’s face.
“Search the temple,” my Father’s voice continued. “She may have pups here. We have to kill them too.”
The girl tensed.
“Liang, have you found anything?” The voice was coming closer.
“Nothing,” I said, locking eyes with her. “I didn’t find anything.”
She turned around and silently ran out of the cell. A moment later, I saw a small white fox jump over the broken back wall and disappear into the night.
It was Qingming, the Festival of the Dead. Father and I went to sweep Mother’s grave and to bring her food and drink to comfort her in the afterlife.
“I’d like to stay here for a while,” I said. Father nodded and left for home.
I whispered an apology to my mother, packed up the chicken we had brought for her, and walked the three li to the other side of the hill, to the abandoned temple.
I found Yan kneeling in the main hall, near the place where my father had killed her mother five years ago. She wore her hair up in a bun, in the style of a young woman who had had her jijili, the ceremony that meant she was no longer a girl.
We’d been meeting every Qingming, every Chongyang, every Yulan, every New Year’s, occasions when families were supposed to be together.
“I brought you this,” I said, and handed her the steamed chicken.
“Thank you.” And she carefully tore off a leg and bit into it daintily. Yan had explained to me that the hulijing chose to live near human villages because they liked to have human things in their lives: conversation, beautiful clothes, poetry and stories, and, occasionally, the love of a worthy, kind man.
But the hulijing remained hunters who felt most free in their fox form. After what happened to her mother, Yan stayed away from chicken coops, but she still missed their taste.
“How’s hunting?” I asked.
“Not so great,” she said. “There are few Hundred-Year Salamanders and Six-Toed Rabbits. I can’t ever seem to get enough to eat.” She bit off another piece of chicken, chewed, and swallowed. “I’m having trouble transforming too.”
“It’s hard for you to keep this shape?”
“No.” She put the rest of the chicken on the ground and whispered a prayer to her mother.
“I mean it’s getting harder for me to return to my true form,” she continued, “to hunt. Some nights I can’t do it at all. How’s hunting for you?”
“Not so great either. There don’t seem to be as many snake spirits or angry ghosts as a few years ago. Even hauntings by suicides with unfinished business are down. And we haven’t had a proper jumping corpse in months. Father is worried about money.”
We also hadn’t had to deal with a hulijing in years. Maybe Yan had warned them all away. Truth be told, I was relieved. I didn’t relish the prospect of having to tell my father that he was wrong about something. He was already very irritable, anxious that he was losing the respect of the villagers now that his knowledge and skill didn’t seem to be needed as much.
“Ever think that maybe the jumping corpses are also misunderstood?” she asked. “Like me and my mother?”
She laughed as she saw my face. “Just kidding!”
It was strange, what Yan and I shared. She wasn’t exactly a friend. More like someone who you couldn’t help being drawn to because you shared the knowledge of how the world didn’t work the way you had been told.
She looked at the chicken bits she had left for her mother. “I think magic is being drained out of this land.”
I had suspected that something was wrong, but didn’t want to voice my suspicion out loud, which would make it real.
“What do you think is causing it?”
Instead of answering, Yan perked up her ears and listened intently. Then she got up, grabbed my hand, and pulled until we were behind the buddha in the main hall.
She held up her finger against my lips. So close to her, I finally noticed her scent. It was like her mother’s, floral and sweet, but also bright, like blankets dried in the sun. I felt my face grow warm.
A moment later, I heard a group of men making their way into the temple. Slowly, I inched my head out from behind the buddha so I could see.
It was a hot day, and the men were seeking some shade from the noon sun. Two men set down a cane sedan chair, and the passenger who stepped off was a foreigner, with curly yellow hair and pale skin. Other men in the group carried tripods, levels, bronze tubes, and open trunks full of strange equipment.
“Most Honored Mister Thompson.” A man dressed like a mandarin came up to the foreigner. The way he kept on bowing and smiling and bouncing his head up and down reminded me of a kicked dog begging for favors. “Please have a rest and drink some cold tea. It is hard for the men to be working on the day when they’re supposed to visit the graves of their families, and they need to take a little time to pray lest they anger the gods and spirits. But I promise we’ll work hard afterwards and finish the survey on time.”
“The trouble with you Chinese is your endless superstition,” the foreigner said. He had a strange accent, but I could understand him just fine. “Remember, the Hong Kong-Tientsin Railroad is a priority for Great Britain. If I don’t get as far as Botou Village by sunset, I’ll be docking all of your wages.”
I had heard rumors that the Manchu Emperor had lost a war and been forced to give up all kinds of concessions, one of which involved paying to help the foreigners build a road of iron. But it had all seemed so fantastical that I didn’t pay much attention.
The mandarin nodded enthusiastically. “Most Honored Mister Thompson is right in every way. But might I trouble your gracious ear with a suggestion?”
The weary Englishman waved impatiently.
“Some of the local villagers are worried about the proposed path of the railroad. You see, they think the tracks that have already been laid are blocking off veins of qi in the earth. It’s bad feng shui.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It is kind of like how a man breathes,” the mandarin said, huffing a few times to make sure the Englishman understood. “The land has channels along rivers, hills, ancient roads that carry the energy of qi. It’s what gives the villages prosperity and maintains the rare animals and local spirits and household gods. Could you consider shifting the line of the tracks a little, to follow the feng shui masters’ suggestions?”
Thompson rolled his eyes. “That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve yet heard. You want me to deviate from the most efficient path for our railroad because you think your idols would be angry?”
The mandarin looked pained. “Well, in the places where the tracks have already been laid, many bad things are happening: people losing money, animals dying, household gods not responding to prayers. The Buddhist and Daoist monks all agree that it’s the railroad.”
Thompson strode over to the buddha and looked at it appraisingly. I ducked back behind the statue and squeezed Yan’s hand. We held our breaths, hoping that we wouldn’t be discovered.
“Does this one still have any power?” Thompson asked.
“The temple hasn’t been able to maintain a contingent of monks for many years,” the mandarin said. “But this buddha is still well respected. I hear villagers say that prayers to him are often answered.”
Then I heard a loud crash and a collective gasp from the men in the main hall.
“I’ve just broken the hands off of this god of yours with my cane,” Thompson said. “As you can see, I have not been struck by lightning or suffered any other calamity. Indeed, now we know that it is only an idol made of mud stuffed with straw and covered in cheap paint. This is why you people lost the war to Britain. You worship statues of mud when you should be thinking about building roads from iron and weapons from steel.”
There was no more talk about changing the path of the railroad.
After the men were gone, Yan and I stepped out from behind the statue. We gazed at the broken hands of the buddha for a while.
“The world’s changing,” Yan said. “Hong Kong, iron roads, foreigners with wires that carry speech and machines that belch smoke. More and more, storytellers in the teahouses speak of these wonders. I think that’s why the old magic is leaving. A more powerful kind of magic has come.”
She kept her voice unemotional and cool, like a placid pool of water in autumn, but her words rang true. I thought about my father’s attempts to keep up a cheerful mien as fewer and fewer customers came to us. I wondered if the time I spent learning the chants and the sword dance moves were wasted.
“What will you do?” I asked, thinking about her, alone in the hills and unable to find the food that sustained her magic.
“There’s only one thing I can do.” Her voice broke for a second and became defiant, like a pebble tossed into the pool.
But then she looked at me, and her composure returned. “There’s only one thing we can do: Learn to survive.”
The railroad soon became a familiar part of the landscape: the black locomotive huffing through the green rice paddies, puffing steam and pulling a long train behind it, like a dragon coming down from the distant, hazy, blue mountains. For a while, it was a wondrous sight, with children marveling at it, running alongside the tracks to keep up.
But the soot from the locomotive chimneys killed the rice in the fields closest to the tracks, and two children playing on the tracks, too frightened to move, were killed one afternoon. After that, the train ceased to fascinate.
People stopped coming to Father and me to ask for our services. They either went to the Christian missionary or the new teacher who said he’d studied in San Francisco. Young men in the village began to leave for Hong Kong or Canton, moved by rumors of bright lights and well-paying work. Fields lay fallow. The village itself seemed to consist only of the too-old and too-young, their mood one of resignation. Men from distant provinces came to inquire about buying land for cheap.
Father spent his days sitting in the front room, Swallow Tail over his knee, staring out the door from dawn to dusk, as though he himself had turned into a statue.
Every day, as I returned home from the fields, I would see the glint of hope in Father’s eyes briefly flare up.
“Did anyone speak of needing our help?” he would ask.
“No,” I would say, trying to keep my tone light. “But I’m sure there will be a jumping corpse soon. It’s been too long.”
I would not look at my father as I spoke because I did not want to look as hope faded from his eyes.
Then, one day, I found Father hanging from the heavy beam in his bedroom. As I let his body down, my heart numb, I thought that he was not unlike those he had hunted all his life: they were all sustained by an old magic that had left and would not return, and they did not know how to survive without it.
Swallow Tail felt dull and heavy in my hand. I had always thought I would be a demon hunter, but how could I when there were no more demons, no more spirits? All the Daoist blessings in the sword could not save my father’s sinking heart. And if I stuck around, perhaps my heart would grow heavy and yearn to be still too.
I hadn’t seen Yan since that day six years ago, when we hid from the railroad surveyors at the temple. But her words came back to me now.
Learn to survive.
I packed a bag and bought a train ticket to Hong Kong.
The Sikh guard checked my papers and waved me through the security gate.
I paused to let my gaze follow the tracks going up the steep side of the mountain. It seemed less like a railroad track than a ladder straight up to heaven. This was the funicular railway, the tram line to the top of Victoria Peak, where the masters of Hong Kong lived and the Chinese were forbidden to stay.
But the Chinese were good enough to shovel coal into the boilers and grease the gears.
Steam rose around me as I ducked into the engine room. After five years, I knew the rhythmic rumbling of the pistons and the staccato grinding of the gears as well as I knew my own breath and heartbeat. There was a kind of music to their orderly cacophony that moved me, like the clashing of cymbals and gongs at the start of a folk opera. I checked the pressure, applied sealant on the gaskets, tightened the flanges, replaced the worn-down gears in the backup cable assembly. I lost myself in the work, which was hard and satisfying.
By the end of my shift, it was dark. I stepped outside the engine room and saw a full moon in the sky as another tram filled with passengers was pulled up the side of the mountain, powered by my engine.
“Don’t let the Chinese ghosts get you,” a woman with bright blond hair said in the tram, and her companions laughed.
It was the night of Yulan, I realized, the Ghost Festival. I should get something for my father, maybe pick up some paper money at Mongkok.
“How can you be done for the day when we still want you?” a man’s voice came to me.
“Girls like you shouldn’t tease,” another man said, and laughed.
I looked in the direction of the voices and saw a Chinese woman standing in the shadows just outside the tram station. Her tight western-style cheongsam and the garish makeup told me her profession. Two Englishmen blocked her path. One tried to put his arms around her, and she backed out of the way.
“Please. I’m very tired,” she said in English. “Maybe next time.”
“Now, don’t be stupid,” the first man said, his voice hardening. “This isn’t a discussion. Come along now and do what you’re supposed to.”
I walked up to them. “Hey.”
The men turned around and looked at me.
“What seems to be the problem?”
“None of your business.”
“Well, I think it is my business,” I said, “seeing as how you’re talking to my sister.”
I doubt either of them believed me. But five years of wrangling heavy machinery had given me a muscular frame, and they took a look at my face and hands, grimy with engine grease, and probably decided that it wasn’t worth it to get into a public tussle with a lowly Chinese engineer.
The two men stepped away to get in line for the Peak Tram, muttering curses.
“Thank you,” she said.
“It’s been a long time,” I said, looking at her. I swallowed the you look good. She didn’t. She looked tired and thin and brittle. And the pungent perfume she wore assaulted my nose.
But I did not think of her harshly. Judging was the luxury of those who did not need to survive.
“It’s the night of the Ghost Festival,” she said. “I didn’t want to work anymore. I wanted to think about my mother.”
“Why don’t we go get some offerings together?” I asked.
We took the ferry over to Kowloon, and the breeze over the water revived her a bit. She wet a towel with the hot water from the teapot on the ferry and wiped off her makeup. I caught a faint trace of her natural scent, fresh and lovely as always.
“You look good,” I said, and meant it.
On the streets of Kowloon, we bought pastries and fruits and cold dumplings and a steamed chicken and incense and paper money, and caught up on each other’s lives.
“How’s hunting?” I asked. We both laughed.
“I miss being a fox,” she said. She nibbled on a chicken wing absent-mindedly. “One day, shortly after that last time we talked, I felt the last bit of magic leave me. I could no longer transform.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to offer anything else.
“My mother taught me to like human things: food, clothes, folk opera, old stories. But she was never dependent on them. When she wanted, she could always turn into her true form and hunt. But now, in this form, what can I do? I don’t have claws. I don’t have sharp teeth. I can’t even run very fast. All I have is my beauty, the same thing that your father and you killed my mother for. So now I live by the very thing that you once falsely accused my mother of doing: I lure men for money.”
“My father is dead, too.”
Hearing this seemed to drain some of the bitterness out of her. “What happened?”
“He felt the magic leave us, much as you. He couldn’t bear it.”
“I’m sorry.” And I knew that she didn’t know what else to say either.
“You told me once that the only thing we can do is to survive. I have to thank you for that. It probably saved my life.”
“Then we’re even,” she said, smiling. “But let us not speak of ourselves any more. Tonight is reserved for the ghosts.”
We went down to the harbor and placed our food next to the water, inviting all the ghosts we had loved to come and dine. Then we lit the incense and burned the paper money in a bucket.
She watched bits of burnt paper being carried into the sky by the heat from the flames. They disappeared among the stars. “Do you think the gates to the underworld still open for the ghosts tonight, now that there is no magic left?”
I hesitated. When I was young I had been trained to hear the scratching of a ghost’s fingers against a paper window, to distinguish the voice of a spirit from the wind. But now I was used to enduring the thunderous pounding of pistons and the deafening hiss of high-pressured steam rushing through valves. I could no longer claim to be attuned to that vanished world of my childhood.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it’s the same with ghosts as with people. Some will figure out how to survive in a world diminished by iron roads and steam whistles, some will not.”
“But will any of them thrive?” she asked.
She could still surprise me.
“I mean,” she continued, “are you happy? Are you happy to keep an engine running all day, yourself like another cog? What do you dream of?”
I couldn’t remember any dreams. I had let myself become entranced by the movement of gears and levers, to let my mind grow to fit the gaps between the ceaseless clanging of metal on metal. It was a way to not have to think about my father, about a land that had lost so much.
“I dream of hunting in this jungle of metal and asphalt,” she said. “I dream of my true form leaping from beam to ledge to terrace to roof, until I am at the top of this island, until I can growl in the faces of all the men who believe they can own me.”
As I watched, her eyes, brightly lit for a moment, dimmed.
“In this new age of steam and electricity, in this great metropolis, except for those who live on the Peak, is anyone still in their true form?” she asked.
We sat together by the harbor and burned paper money all night, waiting for a sign that the ghosts were still with us.
Life in Hong Kong could be a strange experience: from day to day, things never seemed to change much. But if you compared things over a few years, it was almost like you lived in a different world.
By my thirtieth birthday, new designs for steam engines required less coal and delivered more power. They grew smaller and smaller. The streets filled with automatic rickshaws and horseless carriages, and most people who could afford them had machines that kept the air cool in houses and the food cold in boxes in the kitchen—all powered by steam.
I went into stores and endured the ire of the clerks as I studied the components of new display models. I devoured every book on the principle and operation of the steam engine I could find. I tried to apply those principles to improve the machines I was in charge of: trying out new firing cycles, testing new kinds of lubricants for the pistons, adjusting the gear ratios. I found a measure of satisfaction in the way I came to understand the magic of the machines.
One morning, as I repaired a broken governor—a delicate bit of work—two pairs of polished shoes stopped on the platform above me.
I looked up. Two men looked down at me.
“This is the one,” said my shift supervisor.
The other man, dressed in a crisp suit, looked skeptical. “Are you the man who came up with the idea of using a larger flywheel for the old engine?”
I nodded. I took pride in the way I could squeeze more power out of my machines than dreamed of by their designers.
“You did not steal the idea from an Englishman?” his tone was severe.
I blinked. A moment of confusion was followed by a rush of anger. “No,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. I ducked back under the machine to continue my work.
“He is clever,” my shift supervisor said, “for a Chinaman. He can be taught.”
“I suppose we might as well try,” said the other man. “It will certainly be cheaper than hiring a real engineer from England.”
Mr. Alexander Findlay Smith, owner of the Peak Tram and an avid engineer himself, had seen an opportunity. He foresaw that the path of technological progress would lead inevitably to the use of steam power to operate automata: mechanical arms and legs that would eventually replace the Chinese coolies and servants.
I was selected to serve Mr. Findlay Smith in his new venture.
I learned to repair clockwork, to design intricate systems of gears and devise ingenious uses for levers. I studied how to plate metal with chrome and how to shape brass into smooth curves. I invented ways to connect the world of hardened and ruggedized clockwork to the world of miniaturized and regulated piston and clean steam. Once the automata were finished, we connected them to the latest analytic engines shipped from Britain and fed them with tape punched with dense holes in Babbage-Lovelace code.
It had taken a decade of hard work. But now mechanical arms served drinks in the bars along Central and machine hands fashioned shoes and clothes in factories in the New Territories. In the mansions up on the Peak, I heard—though I’d never seen—that automatic sweepers and mops I designed roamed the halls discreetly, bumping into walls gently as they cleaned the floors like mechanical elves puffing out bits of white steam. The expats could finally live their lives in this tropical paradise free of reminders of the presence of the Chinese.
I was thirty-five when she showed up at my door again, like a memory from long ago.
I pulled her into my tiny flat, looked around to be sure no one was following her, and closed the door.
“How’s hunting?” I asked. It was a bad attempt at a joke, and she laughed weakly.
Photographs of her had been in all the papers. It was the biggest scandal in the colony: not so much because the Governor’s son was keeping a Chinese mistress—it was expected that he would—but because the mistress had managed to steal a large sum of money from him and then disappear. Everyone tittered while the police turned the city upside down, looking for her.
“I can hide you for tonight,” I said. Then I waited, the unspoken second half of my sentence hanging between us.
She sat down in the only chair in the room, the dim light bulb casting dark shadows on her face. She looked gaunt and exhausted. “Ah, now you’re judging me.”
“I have a good job I want to keep,” I said. “Mr. Findlay Smith trusts me.”
She bent down and began to pull up her dress.
“Don’t,” I said, and turned my face away. I could not bear to watch her try to ply her trade with me.
“Look,” she said. There was no seduction in her voice. “Liang, look at me.”
I turned and gasped.
Her legs, what I could see of them, were made of shiny chrome. I bent down to look closer: the cylindrical joints at the knees were lathed with precision, the pneumatic actuators along the thighs moved in complete silence, the feet were exquisitely molded and shaped, the surfaces smooth and flowing. These were the most beautiful mechanical legs I had ever seen.
“He had me drugged,” she said. “When I woke up, my legs were gone and replaced by these. The pain was excruciating. He explained to me that he had a secret: he liked machines more than flesh, couldn’t get hard with a regular woman.”
I had heard of such men. In a city filled with chrome and brass and clanging and hissing, desires became confused.
I focused on the way light moved along the gleaming curves of her calves so that I didn’t have to look into her face.
“I had a choice: let him keep on changing me to suit him, or he could remove the legs and throw me out on the street. Who would believe a legless Chinese whore? I wanted to survive. So I swallowed the pain and let him continue.”
She stood up and removed the rest of her dress and her evening gloves. I took in her chrome torso, slatted around the waist to allow articulation and movement; her sinuous arms, constructed from curved plates sliding over each other like obscene armor; her hands, shaped from delicate metal mesh, with dark steel fingers tipped with jewels where the fingernails would be.
“He spared no expense. Every piece of me is built with the best craftsmanship and attached to my body by the best surgeons—there are many who want to experiment, despite the law, with how the body could be animated by electricity, nerves replaced by wires. They always spoke only to him, as if I was already only a machine.
“Then, one night, he hurt me and I struck back in desperation. He fell like he was made of straw. I realized, suddenly, how much strength I had in my metal arms. I had let him do all this to me, to replace me part by part, mourning my loss all the while without understanding what I had gained. A terrible thing had been done to me, but I could also be terrible.
“I choked him until he fainted, and then I took all the money I could find and left.
“So I come to you, Liang. Will you help me?”
I stepped up and embraced her. “We’ll find some way to reverse this. There must be doctors—”
“No,” she interrupted me. “That’s not what I want.”
It took us almost a whole year to complete the task. Yan’s money helped, but some things money couldn’t buy, especially skill and knowledge.
My flat became a workshop. We spent every evening and all of Sundays working: shaping metal, polishing gears, reattaching wires.
Her face was the hardest. It was still flesh.
I poured over books of anatomy and took casts of her face with plaster of Paris. I broke my cheekbones and cut my face so that I could stagger into surgeons’ offices and learn from them how to repair these injuries. I bought expensive jeweled masks and took them apart, learning the delicate art of shaping metal to take on the shape of a face.
Finally, it was time.
Through the window, the moon threw a pale white parallelogram on the floor. Yan stood in the middle of it, moving her head about, trying out her new face.
Hundreds of miniature pneumatic actuators were hidden under the smooth chrome skin, each of which could be controlled independently, allowing her to adopt any expression. But her eyes were still the same, and they shone in the moonlight with excitement.
“Are you ready?” I asked.
I handed her a bowl, filled with the purest anthracite coal, ground into a fine powder. It smelled of burnt wood, of the heart of the earth. She poured it into her mouth and swallowed. I could hear the fire in the miniature boiler in her torso grow hotter as the pressure of the steam built up. I took a step back.
She lifted her head to the moon and howled: it was a howl made by steam passing through brass piping, and yet it reminded me of that wild howl long ago, when I first heard the call of a hulijing.
Then she crouched to the floor. Gears grinding, pistons pumping, curved metal plates sliding over each other—the noises grew louder as she began to transform.
She had drawn the first glimmers of her idea with ink on paper. Then she had refined it, through hundreds of iterations until she was satisfied. I could see traces of her mother in it, but also something harder, something new.
Working from her idea, I had designed the delicate folds in the chrome skin and the intricate joints in the metal skeleton. I had put together every hinge, assembled every gear, soldered every wire, welded every seam, oiled every actuator. I had taken her apart and put her back together.
Yet, it was a marvel to see everything working. In front of my eyes, she folded and unfolded like a silvery origami construction, until finally, a chrome fox as beautiful and deadly as the oldest legends stood before me.
She padded around the flat, testing out her sleek new form, trying out her stealthy new movements. Her limbs gleamed in the moonlight, and her tail, made of delicate silver wires as fine as lace, left a trail of light in the dim flat.
She turned and walked—no, glided—towards me, a glorious hunter, an ancient vision coming alive. I took a deep breath and smelled fire and smoke, engine oil and polished metal, the scent of power.
“Thank you,” she said, and leaned in as I put my arms around her true form. The steam engine inside her had warmed her cold metal body, and it felt warm and alive.
“Can you feel it?” she asked.
I shivered. I knew what she meant. The old magic was back but changed: not fur and flesh, but metal and fire.
“I will find others like me,” she said, “and bring them to you. Together, we will set them free.”
Once, I was a demon hunter. Now, I am one of them.
I opened the door, Swallow Tail in my hand. It was only an old and heavy sword, rusty, but still perfectly capable of striking down anyone who might be lying in wait.
No one was.
Yan leapt out of the door like a bolt of lightning. Stealthily, gracefully, she darted into the streets of Hong Kong, free, feral, a hulijing built for this new age.
…once a man has set his heart on a hulijing, she cannot help hearing him no matter how far apart they are…
“Good hunting,” I whispered.
She howled in the distance, and I watched a puff of steam rise into the air as she disappeared.
I imagined her running along the tracks of the funicular railway, a tireless engine racing up, and up, towards the top of Victoria Peak, towards a future as full of magic as the past.
If You Enjoyed
The Grace of Kings (The Dandelion Dynasty)
by Ken Liu