Good Hunting (part 2 of 2)
By Ken Liu
29 October 2012
Continued from Part 1
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 any more. 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 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.
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