Back | Next


Natalie poured the last of her tea into her cup and then flipped over the lid, a signal to the waiter to refill her pot. She lit a cigarette. It was afternoon, and very hot. In the distance, she heard the rumble of artillery. A plane passed low overhead, but no bombs fell today from the damp blue sky.

“You American?” the waiter asked when he returned. His English was heavily accented.

“I’m a journalist,” she said. She was also American, but that wasn’t a helpful thing to advertise. Even in areas officially held by the U.S., you never knew who preferred the other side. And like many of the pacified towns in Guangdong Province, Foshan right now wasn’t held so much caged.

“You speak English,” the waiter said.

“Oh,” she said, realizing what was coming. “Yes, I speak English.”

“You practice with me? It been long time since we have English customer.” The waiter sounded wistful. “Din bou bing don’t come restaurants.”

“No, I don’t imagine they would.” Din bou bing, Electric Foot-soldiers, were human-sized automata controlled remotely by American soldiers working from floating military bases in the South China Sea. Through their VR hookups they could see and hear anything that came in through the cameras or audio pickups of the automata; the automata had jointed limbs and weapons and could do pretty much anything a human could do, except look human. The fact that they terrified everyone in their path was considered an advantage. The Americans called them “Peacekeepers.”

Natalie carefully stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray. She’d only smoked half of it; they were hard to get in the war zone, and she didn’t want it to go to waste. “I’d be happy to let you practice your English. Have a seat.”

They heard someone yell something in Cantonese, and the waiter flinched. “Maybe later I come back,” he said, and scurried back to the kitchen.

Natalie sighed and picked up her cigarette to light it again.

“May I join you?”

The voice was male, and British. Natalie shaded her eyes as she looked up; he wore a dark suit and sunglasses, and had very dark hair, and a bit of stubble on his jaw. “Pull up a chair,” she said. “The waiter forgot my tea, though.”

“He’ll be back eventually. Did you say you were a journalist? I haven’t seen one—in the flesh—since Foshan got so dodgy all the medical groups pulled out. Just roving eyes.”

“That’s not journalism,” Natalie said. News stations used their own din bou bing to cover dangerous areas like Guangdong Province. They were useless for interviewing: everyone who saw them ran away. The Chinese still called them “electric foot-soldiers,” even after a consultant told the news stations to call them din gei ze, electric reporters, instead.

“I quite agree, but it’s also not going to get you killed.”

Natalie smiled sardonically at that, and took another draw from her cigarette. “I’m still breathing.”

“Right.” He took off his sunglasses and looked her over. His eyes were a very light green. “I’m Sam Kostucha.”

“Natalie Brenn.”

“Are you embedded, at least?”

She shook her head. “I get my stories the old-fashioned way: I talk to people. It helps that I speak a little Cantonese.” She finished her cigarette and stubbed it out.

Sam took out his own pack and offered her one. They were unfiltered Lucky Strikes, bought from somewhere cigarettes were still sold to anyone who wanted them. There wasn’t even a warning label on the package.

“So what are you doing in the middle of China’s civil war?” Natalie asked.

“Looking for Twelve Treasures tea.”

“Really? Have you thought about looking for it in Taiwan?” She wondered if he were a spy. Though most spying these days was also done through some sort of remote. She’d heard rumors about tiny microphones built to look like cockroaches. There was an explosion somewhere outside the city—closer than the last one. The ground shook slightly. Neither of them flinched.

“I don’t meet a lot of people like you,” she said.

“Likewise,” he said.

“Are you staying here?” she asked.

“At least a couple days.”

“Maybe we’ll meet again.”

“I look forward to it.


People were terrified of Peacekeepers. Natalie couldn’t blame them. When she looked into their blank eyes, she always tried to force herself to imagine one of her high school classmates who’d joined the military. Gabe. That’s Gabe looking back at me, from his cubicle on a ship in the South China Sea. But she never succeeded. For the convenience of the VR mapping they used, the Peacekeepers copied rough human form: a head, a torso, arms and legs. Hands with opposable thumbs. But no matter how much she tried to see Gabe, Natalie saw monsters.

To reward cooperation, the U.S. Army kept the Peacekeepers out of action for several hours each afternoon. As long as there’d been no major incidents within Foshan for five days, the Peacekeepers would stay quiet and out of sight while people went around the town. So that was when everyone still living in Foshan went out to take care of business—get water, buy or barter for food, pass messages.

Natalie went out to the business district. She’d passed a shop a few times that she was curious about. The windows were covered with sheets of plywood, then sandbagged, like every other business in that part of town. But the door was propped open, the inside lit with fluorescent lanterns run off a small generator out back. No air conditioning, but a fan stirred the humid air. The shelves were lined with artwork, knickknacks, and fake antiques: fans painted with dragons and tigers, miniature junks, an embroidered silk screen, a painting of the Great Wall.

The owner, an elderly man, watched her come in with open disbelief. “What are you doing in Foshan?” he asked in English. He had a slight accent, but spoke English fluently.

“I’m a journalist,” Natalie said. “A reporter. What are you doing in Foshan? Why not leave, like so many others, and go to one of the northern provinces—or at least out of Foshan? Why open your store?”

The man shrugged. “I have nowhere to go. I might as well stay open. Why not?”

“Aren’t you worried about being robbed?”

“No. No one’s buying anything, so I have no money here. The bun gwan don’t want paintings of the Great Wall, they want cash, or guns, or at least cigarettes. So they leave me alone.”

Something about his offhand tone made Natalie suspicious. She thought he probably had ties to the bun gwan, the rebel army. Perhaps his shop was used as a message drop. Well, if she interviewed him, she might get an interesting story about a civilian in a war zone, and nothing more. Or she might get a lead on an interview with someone in the bun gwan itself. The leader, Hua Chen, seemed to exist mostly as a rumor, but surely there might be others who’d see the advantages of offering their side of the story to the press.

Natalie offered the old man a cigarette, then took out her voice recorder. “I’d like to write a story about you for an American newspaper. You can remain nameless if you want, but if this war ever ends and the tourists come back, the exposure might be a good advertisement, you know? Would you be willing to talk to me?”


Three hours later, she walked back out into the hot sun. The old man had offered her a chair and a cup of tea, and with little prodding, had told her his life story. He spoke fluent English from ten years working in Shenzhen, the border town beside Hong Kong, when he was a younger man. Then he had the opportunity to open the shop in Foshan, and had seized on it. For years before the war he’d actually made most of his money selling embroidered tapestries over the Internet to Americans, but because of Byzantine government regulations, he’d had to keep the shop open as well. Now all shipping services were stopped; the Americans blocked all shipments that weren’t their own.

“Do you know what I really don’t understand?” the man said, towards the end of the interview. “For all those years I thought Americans liked Chinese people—they certainly bought plenty of our art—but didn’t much like the Chinese government. Yet there’s finally an uprising against the government here, and the Americans sent in their ‘Peacekeepers’ to intervene on the government’s side. Perhaps they like the government, but not the people? What do you think?”

“I think the American government likes stability,” Natalie said.

“I think the problem is that the Peacekeepers make it easy. Not cheap, but easy. There’s no risk. No Americans die. They work in shifts—is that correct?”

“The soldiers?”

“Yes. I’ve heard they work in shifts. Is that true?”

“I think so,” Natalie said. “I don’t work for the government, so I’m not sure. I know they have big floating bases in the South China Sea. The soldiers work for eight hours and then have sixteen hours off.”

“No risk,” the man said. “No reason not to intervene. Because no Americans will die. Chinese, now. We die, but who cares?”

Natalie pointed to her recorder. “My stories make some people care.”

“Yes.” The old man nodded vigorously. “And that’s why I’m talking to you.”

As she gathered up her things to leave, he said, “You look very young. How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” she said.

“That’s too young to die. What are you doing in Foshan?”

She hesitated a moment, then told him. “Have you ever heard of Huntington’s disease?”


She shrugged. “I’m going to die young no matter what I do. I might as well die doing something worthwhile.”


Natalie composed her story out on the hotel’s patio, drinking tea. She was almost out of cigarettes. She wondered if the old man would know where she could buy more. The story done, she hit send to transmit the data to her employer, wondering if her phone used the same satellite as the Peacekeepers. Probably not.

A shadow fell across her screen, and she looked around; it was Sam. He had a fresh pot of tea and, tucked under his arm, a copy of The New York Times. “A paper!” she exclaimed. “I mean, um.” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, trying to recover her dignity. “Would you mind letting me see that when you’re done with it? Where did you get it?”

“Trucked in today. And I’d like the front section first. Help yourself to Business or Arts, if you’re inclined.” He laid it on the table.

“Oh.” She looked at it with sudden suspicion. “Sam, were you seen getting this? Because that’s really not good. There’s a lot of sympathy for the bun gwan in Foshan, which is why it’s blockaded. If people think you’re working for the Americans . . .”

“My dear, you are American. And you’re here. But your concern is touching, and I will take it under advisement.” He poured himself some of her tea. “Cigarette?”

“Yes, thank you.” He lit it for her.

The newspaper was only one day old. In theory her computer was supposed to be able to download news as well as upload it, but her connection was so unreliable here it rarely seemed to work. It didn’t take long to decide that any damage from being seen with Mr. Brit Boy had already been done; she might as well enjoy the paper. She spread out the Arts section.

“Why, Ms. Brenn. I see you write for the American paper of record.”

“Is one of my stories in there?” She craned her neck, and Sam folded the newspaper over and handed it to her. It was an article she’d written after watching a Peacekeeper arrest a suspected member of the bun gwan. She’d done her best to describe the Peacekeeper the way she saw it, while maintaining some vestige of journalistic objectivity. It was a good piece.

Sam flipped to the obituaries once he’d finished reading her story. “Oh my! You’ll never guess who died!”

“The President?”

It turned out to be some celebrity in her thirties, from an apparent drug overdose. Survived by a six-year-old, Sam read at the end, and Natalie rested her cigarette in the ashtray for a moment, suddenly aware of the intense heat of the day.

Natalie’s mother had started dying when Natalie was six. She had finished dying when Natalie was fifteen. She got it young, which meant Natalie would get it younger still. After her mother died, Natalie had wanted to get the genetic test to find out whether she would also develop Huntington’s. Her father refused. “You’re too young to make that kind of decision,” he’d said.

“What decision? I just want to know.”

“Once you find out, you can’t un-know.”

“You want me to live in ignorance, like Mom did till she got sick? Pretend to live a normal life? Have kids?

“You can find out when you’re eighteen.”

Natalie went for the test on her eighteenth birthday. The results came back two weeks later, and the next day she applied for her passport.


Her sat-phone was ringing. It was her editor, but there was so much static on the line she couldn’t hear what he was saying. “Just a minute,” she said, clamping her hand over her ear and walking around trying to get a better signal. No luck. “I’m going to have to go up to the roof. Call me back in fifteen minutes.” She hung up. “Sorry . . .” she said to Sam.

He waved away the apology. “I’ll save you the newspaper.”

The elevator hadn’t worked in months, so Natalie walked up the stairs, her laptop bag slung over her shoulder. The stairway was stiflingly hot, with a smothering stickiness that weighed on her like stones. She had to stop to catch her breath several times on her way up. Maybe I should quit smoking. She liked smoking—the ritual of it, the offering of cigarettes, the shock some people showed when they saw a young American who smoked. But she didn’t much care for the way she got out of breath these days when she climbed stairs. After the stairway, the heat of the open day was a relief. She went out onto the roof. The neon sign that topped the hotel was dark. There was a chicken coop up here, and a tiny raised garden with garlic and chives, and some sort of cabbage. She could see Foshan spread out around her. The building across the street was a bombed-out shell. The Americans didn’t send bombs to the coordinates of the hotel where she was staying, because they knew this was where the westerners stayed. She hadn’t notified them she was staying here, but they undoubtedly knew anyway. And they certainly knew about Sam.

Her phone rang. “Natalie Brenn,” she said, picking it up.

“Nat! Is this connection better?”

“Yeah, I went up to the roof. I swear the military is doing something that’s screwing up everyone’s satellite signals but theirs. What’s up?”

“The story you just sent got all garbled. Can you try again?”

“Sure.” Natalie had brought her laptop to the roof, and sent the story again. “How’s things?” she asked while it hummed.

“Like usual. Hey, your father called. He wants you to call him. Actually, he wanted your phone number—”

“You give it to him, I will fly over to Taiwan just to kick your ass.”

“I believe you, Nat. Don’t worry. Anyway, he wants you to call. It sounded like it might be important, a family emergency or something.”

Nat checked her watch. “It’s the middle of the night there. I’ll try to remember to call once he might possibly be up.”

“Good. Okay, your story made it through. Thanks. Keep your head down.”

“How ’bout I start by getting off the roof? Talk to you later.”

The sun was setting. She looked out over the shattered city at the swirls of pink on the horizon. Somewhere in that direction was her father, still trying to convince her to live her mother’s life.

On the eastern horizon, she saw a dim flare of light. Artillery. The dim, shadowy piece of herself, the part of her that refused to believe in the Huntington’s diagnosis and everything it meant, shuddered. Time to go downstairs. She picked up her phone and her laptop and started back down the stairs.


One of the hotel staff met her at the bottom of the stairs. “Miss? There’s a message for you.” Her first thought was that her father had tried calling the hotel, but the message was handwritten, in an envelope stamped with a holographic red seal. She looked it over; it was the chop of the man she’d interviewed that day.

Inside, the message said simply, Your presence is requested ASAP, and an address.

Outside, she could see a Peacekeeper on patrol. Its head swiveled back and forth as it walked; she could almost hear the faint whirr from where she stood. She looked at the note again. She’d have to walk past the Peacekeepers to get there.

Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. There’s a person looking back at me. Gabe. He’s not going to shoot a gweilo, even if I’m out past curfew. She looked at the note again, then headed out.

Natalie knew that the Peacekeeper outside the hotel had probably been assigned there to protect her and the other westerners at the hotel. She gritted her teeth as it passed. One of its metal parts needed greasing; she could hear squeaks as it walked, over the whirr of its servomotors. It turned its head to look at her, and she forced herself to make eye contact, or what passed for eye contact with a din bou bing. It paused and looked at her a moment. Somewhere in North Carolina or Texas, a soldier was seeing her through the Peacekeeper’s eyes. Gabe, she whispered to herself. Why do these frighten me so much when nothing else does? They’re not going to kill me. If anything, they’ll think they should protect me.

“I don’t recommend going out right now, Miss,” the Peacekeeper said. Coming from a young man’s throat, the words probably would have sounded gruff, and maybe a little patronizing. Coming from the Peacekeeper, they sounded half-man, half-mechanical, and made every hair on her body stand on end. “I heard there’s something planned tonight. You’ll be safer in the hotel.”

“Thanks for your concern,” Natalie said, and started again.

The Peacekeeper stretched out an arm to stop her, and she dodged aside to keep it from touching her. “You should go back to the hotel.”

“Are you going to make me?”

The Peacekeeper lowered its arm. “No.”

“Then thank you for your concern, but I’m going out.” She continued down the street.

The address was a former factory, now dark and empty. The doors were locked. She checked the note again and sighed, then decided to wait a minute or two.

A car pulled up: a big, old-fashioned one with heavy tires and dark windows. The rear door opened. “Natalie?”

For a moment she hesitated, but this sort of adventure was why she was here in the first place. Her pulse began to race as she climbed into the back seat.


The people inside the car wore scarves tied over their faces. Natalie could tell that two were female and two were male. They spoke to each other in rapid-fire Cantonese and Natalie could catch only sporadic bits of it. They were trying to make sure she hadn’t been followed; Natalie didn’t think she had, but she kept her mouth shut, knowing that she might hear something useful if they assumed she couldn’t understand them.

They drove into a shipping warehouse, the concrete floor bare. One of the men took out a bulky device that looked a bit like the scanners they used at airports; he ran it up and down her body, then over her belongings. A shout in Cantonese, and he turned to look at her accusingly. “That’s my laptop,” she said, pointing. “That’s my voice recorder, and that’s my phone.”

More Cantonese; this time she couldn’t understand it at all. The voices rose in pitch. One of the men took out a tire iron and picked up the laptop; she gasped and started forward to stop him, then fell back as he turned on her, tire iron in hand. She held out her hands, trying to look nonthreatening. “It’s going to be hard to do my job without that computer.”

As if he hadn’t heard her, he knelt on the ground with the computer, slammed the edge of the tire iron into one of the drives, and pried open the plastic shell. Computer innards spilled across the ground; there was more shouting, and all but one red plastic square was swept into a plastic bag and handed to her. Meanwhile, the man with the tire iron smashed the red square like a cockroach, breaking it to bits. He left it on the floor. Then he ripped the battery out of the sat-phone and handed that, and her voice recorder, back to her.

I have another battery back at the hotel. I can always phone in my stories. Natalie took a deep breath, though fear was fragmenting her thoughts and making it hard to concentrate; her hands tingled from it. They want me to tell a story or they wouldn’t have given me back the voice recorder. One of the women blindfolded her; when the car swerved, she sprawled into the woman’s lap.

After another quarter hour of driving, the car slowed. Natalie felt the car bump over something, then cruise slowly, endlessly to the left. Then the woman removed her blindfold and everyone climbed out.

They were in an underground parking garage, lit dimly with emergency lights. One of the men went over to a door, and knocked on it. Natalie heard rapid Cantonese, and then the door swung open. He gestured for her to go in.

She went through the door into a stairwell, and then up the stairs. The man guiding her switched on a flashlight. She caught a glimpse of two men near the door, guns slung over their shoulders. The stairs were hot and airless. At the hotel, she at least knew how far up she’d be going, but here she had no idea; they went on and on. “I need to rest a minute,” she gasped after fifteen floors. The man didn’t respond, so she tried Cantonese. “Need rest.”

He hesitated, then stopped and let her sag against the wall for a few minutes. “It’s not far now,” he said in Cantonese, speaking slowly. “Only five more flights.”

“Five? Can manage.” She straightened up.

“No, go ahead and rest.” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered her one.

“I been thinking, should quit,” she said, taking one.

“You should,” he said, handing her the lighter. “Filthy habit.” He grinned. They smoked in the hot, dark stairwell for a few minutes. He dropped the butt on the floor when he was done with his. “Ready?”

They went up five more flights, and then he knocked on a door. “I’m here with the Gweilo,” he said.

The door swung open, and she was met with a blast of cold, crisp air; it took her breath away, like stepping from a rainforest to a snowstorm. She hadn’t experienced proper air conditioning since coming to Foshan. The hotel had air conditioners, but running them took power, and power took propane, and propane was scarce. The Americans were supposedly allowing in a limited supply for hotels like the Golden City, but no doubt the hotel found it more profitable to resell it than to use it.

She stepped into the chilly air. It was going to be miserable going back into the heat, after this, but she might as well enjoy it while she had it.

The air conditioning might be running, but the lights weren’t. She followed her guide with the flashlight down the hallway. This was an office building, and no one had looted it—at least not yet. The office at the end of the hallway had a folded antique screen like one of the screens from the art shop, and a faint light that let her see someone sitting behind it.

Her guide stepped forward and saluted, saying something in Cantonese that she didn’t catch. Then he turned to her and said, “Chen Zoeng Gwan.” General Chen. He pointed at the screen. “He invites you to sit with him, and offers an interview. You may switch on your voice recorder.”

She switched it on, then sat in the chair that the guide offered her. “General Chen, I receive honor you talk to me. Your beautiful language, I sorry to abuse. Please give me patience.”

There was a rumbling laugh from the other side of the screen. “Don’t worry, young lady. I am a very patient man.”

She had expected him to sound old, but his voice was youthful, despite him calling her “young lady.” He spoke slowly and clearly. She thought he probably spoke English far better than she spoke Cantonese.

“Your people destroy my laptop,” she said. “Hard now to send story home.”

“I apologize for that,” he said. “It contained a homing beacon placed there by your government. Perhaps they thought you’d find me. I trust your newspaper will be able to send you a replacement. Shall we start the interview?”

“Tell me,” she said, her pulse settling down for the first time since she’d climbed into the car. “Why you make rebellion against Chinese government?”


Hua Chen was a good interview subject. Natalie had found that Chinese government officials were offended by hard questions, but Hua Chen remained polite and conscientious. When the interview was over, her guide walked her back down to the waiting car—a different one—and blindfolded her. The humidity had come down over her like a sodden wool blanket as she stepped out of the air conditioning, and her shirt clung uncomfortably under her armpits.

When she reached the hotel again, it was night. She retrieved the extra battery for her sat-phone from her room, then climbed the stairs to the roof, and called her editor to dictate the story and request a new laptop. Then she went downstairs to her room and dropped the phone, the recorder, and the remains of her laptop beside her bed.

Something was lying on her bed, waiting for her: The New York Times. Clipped to it was a note: You never returned, so I sent you the paper when I finished with it. I hope to see you later. —Sam

With a pleased sigh, she lit a cigarette and sat down to read the paper.

The war was on the front page today; apparently the Americans had arrested some high-up person from the bun gwan, a young woman. Though it didn’t sound like they actually had her in human hands yet—she was in the custody of Peacekeepers when the story was filed. Other major news involved a bad accident on the New York subway, a flood along the Mississippi from the spring thaw, and a forest fire. She read every word, even the filler pieces about two-headed turtles and an increase in rural crime.

Then, under Health News, she saw:

Researchers Announce Cure for Huntington Disease

She carefully set down her cigarette and leaned closer. What?

The medical researchers were at the University of Michigan. There had been treatments announced before, but most—at best—only slowed the progression of the disease. They didn’t stop it. Huntington’s had become almost unknown thanks to genetic testing, anyway, so it wasn’t a research priority. But the researchers had been studying Huntington’s because of some optimism that this treatment could also be used for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients. They focused their research on Huntington’s because the protocols allowed faster testing when the patients were going to die without it. And it had worked. On every patient. Completely halting progress of the disease, but also, apparently reversing it, even in one patient who had been within a year or two of death when the therapy started.

I’m not going to die anymore.

Distant artillery made the hotel shake.

Well, unless I get killed.

She stubbed out her cigarette.


She was tired from her day’s adventures, but the news had wound her up again. She left everything but the paper, went out to the patio, and ordered a brandy, or failing that, whatever alcohol they had available, palatable or not. Sam came out minutes later; she wondered if he had a window overlooking the patio and had seen her. She didn’t care. It would be nice to have the company.

“Good afternoon?” he asked, offering her a cigarette.

She started to wave it away, then took it. Her hands were shaking. “Very productive,” she said.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

She started laughing. “Yeah, I guess I did. The Other Me.”

Sam gave her a mildly startled look and lit her cigarette. “Surely you’re planning to explain that,” he said.

“I have Huntington’s disease,” she said. “It’s a rare genetic disease, carried by a dominant gene. If you have it, you have a 50% chance of passing it on to your kids, if you have any. And you’ll get Huntington’s disease when you’re fifty, or forty, or thirty—younger than your parent got it, usually. And then you die. It’s incurable. Was incurable. It’s a nasty death, too. Woody Guthrie had Huntington’s—he’s the one the most people have heard of. It starts with little moments of clumsiness—the same moments of clumsiness everyone has, but when you have Huntington’s, they start coming more and more often. Eventually you develop severe dementia. People usually end up dying of pneumonia.”

Sam sat back with his cigarette and his own brandy. “No wonder you spend your time in war zones, hoping to get blown up before it comes to that.”

She laughed, shakily. “Yeah.”

“Have you always known you had the gene?”

“My father wouldn’t let me get tested until I was eighteen. When my birthday got close, he tried to talk me out of it. He thought I should make my own choices, not let the disease make them for me. But I had already planned two different paths. If I were negative, I would go to college, get married, have kids, a normal job, a normal life. If I were positive—I wanted to become a foreign correspondent, work in war zones, take risks. Because why not? I might as well.”

“So the ‘other you’ is the one who tested negative.”

“Right.” Natalie spread out the newspaper. “Did you see this article?”

Recognition flashed in his eyes. “Oh. Oh, yes. Was this the first you heard about it?”

“They almost found a cure back when my mother was dying. I’ve tried to avoid all the ‘cure is just beyond the horizon’ stories ever since.” She glanced again at the headline, her finger tracing the H. “It was harder to avoid the Huntington’s stories back before I came to China.”

Sam looked up at her. “Well, Ms. Brenn, it seems your sentence has been commuted and the governor has offered you a full pardon. Do you think you’ll go to Disneyland?”

“I never wanted to go to Disneyland.” Natalie looked Sam up and down, then stubbed out her cigarette and finished her drink. “I was thinking, if you were at all interested, that I might start by getting laid.”


Sam’s room was warm and stuffy. A single suitcase sat on the dresser. He turned down the sheets, then turned to give her a somewhat perplexed look. “Natalie, you’re a very attractive woman. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had someone proposition me so directly before and then wait for me to make the first move. Do you have any condoms?”

“I have an implant.”

“An implant, but, er.” He looked at her questioningly. “Have you ever had sex before?”

“Well—no. I didn’t want to take any chances. I didn’t want to pass on my personal Ace of Spades. My mother conceived me by accident.”

Sam nodded, still looking oddly uncertain. She finally grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled his face down to kiss him. His kiss was tentative, almost hesitant. Natalie realized that she wasn’t really sure what to do next. Take off her clothes? Take off his clothes? People do this sort of thing all the time. There’s probably some protocol I’ve never learned.

Her pulse racing, she unbuttoned the first button of his shirt.


Afterwards, he touched the tattoo on her arm—the Ace of Spades. “What tattoo would you have gotten if the test had been negative?”

“I didn’t really think about it.”

“I thought you’d planned out two paths. No tattoo for the other you?”

“The other me had more time to think about it. She didn’t have to hurry. I had to hurry.”

Did you go to college?”

“Yes. I found a program that let me double up coursework and study during the summers, so that I could finish in two years instead of four.”

“And you landed a job at the Times.

“The summer after I graduated, I went as a freelancer to cover the Houston riots. One journalist had already died, and most of the rest had gotten the hell out, but I went right into the middle of things. I had a friend send my clips and a letter to the foreign desk at the Times, and they hired me to come here.”

“Are you going to have your tattoo removed?” He traced it. “It’s dead sexy, you know.”

“I guess I’ll have to think about it.”

After another hour, she went back to her own room. When she saw her sat-phone lying beside her bed, she remembered the phone call, much earlier in the day, from her father. Now it was the middle of the night in China, and daytime at home. He probably wants to tell me about the cure. She didn’t have the energy to climb up to the roof; hopefully the phone would work from down here. She lay down on her bed and punched in the number.

Her father answered on the second ring. His voice sounded far away and half-synthetic, almost like the voice of the Peacekeeper. “Natalie. Thank God. I’ve been trying to reach you for over a day.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. Nat, they’ve found a cure.

“I know. I saw a paper.”

“How soon can you get out of there?”

Natalie bristled—He’s trying to push me around again, trying to control me just like always—then sighed and tried to evade the question. “It’s not like I can just buy a ticket and hop the next flight. Getting out would be complicated. Dangerous.”

“But will you?” She didn’t answer right away, and her father changed his tactics. “All I’m asking—look, can you go somewhere safe to think it over? You’ve got time now. Seventy-five, eighty years. Not thirty or forty.”

Natalie caught her breath, inadvertently, imagining herself as an old woman.

“You can come home. You could even have children. Natalie. At least go somewhere safe to think about it. At least try to stay safe . . .”

“I’ll think about it,” she said, and broke the connection.

Natalie slept fitfully that night, waking every time artillery rumbled. At dawn, she stumbled into the bathroom and found herself staring into the cracked mirror, trying to imagine her Other Self. What would I have done? I never really thought about it. I didn’t want to dream about something I wasn’t going to be able to have.

Down on the patio, some of the staff from the hotel were doing Tai Ch’i. She sat down with a cigarette to watch them. I could learn this, she thought, a little absurdly. I could learn a martial art. I could learn to knit. I could hike the Pacific Rim trail or run a marathon or learn to make pots on a potter’s wheel.

Why does it feel like a door has closed on me, instead of opened?

The door to the patio swung open and Sam joined her. Done with Tai Ch’i, one of the waiters brought over a pot of tea and two cups.

“The thing is,” Natalie said, “this is what I always wanted to do.”

Sam picked up his tea. “This?”

She gestured towards the ruined building across the street. “Travel to the places that everyone says are too dangerous. Write about the things that no one else sees. Be a journalist and cover the stories that no one else can tell.”

“So keep doing it,” Sam said.

“It’s not that simple,” Natalie said, thinking of her father.


She went out in early afternoon, in the pause where the Peacekeepers were off the streets. Her editor had wanted her to try to find another laptop locally, if she could—it would be faster than shipping her one from Taiwan. The odd little art shop was closed. So was everything else on that street. On the next street she found an open store, but it was empty; she suspected they were selling black-market goods, but they laughed when she asked about a laptop, even after she mentioned cash.

Natalie didn’t want to go back to her hotel; that would have meant returning to the decision she didn’t want to have to make. That Other Self I told Sam about—who is she? What would I have been like, without my disease? She imagined the other Natalie walking beside her, seeing Foshan through the eyes of someone who’d never left the Midwest.

It’s hot, the other Natalie said. Miserable. How can you stand it?

If you think it’s hot here, you should have been in the Houston convention center during the riots, she said. At least here there are interesting things to see.

She walked around Foshan, pretending that she was showing her other self around the city like you’d guide a tourist. But the danger, her other self said, listening to the shelling in the distance. Aren’t you ever scared?

No, she said. Then she thought it over and said, Yes. But being scared isn’t so bad. It makes me feel . . . I don’t know. It makes me feel alive.


The voice, gravelly and metallic, almost made her jump out of her skin. She looked around, and realized that it had come from just inside a screened window, in a darkened building. One of the members of the bun gwan? Sam? She went closer.

“I’m behind the screen. I’m not supposed to come out for another ninety minutes, but you can come in if you want. I’ll unlock the door.” A whirr, and then she realized what it was. The din bou bing were inside, and one of them really was Gabe. And he’d recognized her.

The idea of being shut into a room with one of them was horrifying, but the possibility of getting an interview with an on-duty soldier was tempting enough to override any fear. She went cautiously to the door, opened it, and went inside.

The room was utterly stark: din bou bing needed nowhere to sit, and nothing to eat. “Gabe?” she said, peering up at the sinister metal face.

“Yeah, it’s me. Say, it’s really funny I ran into you. I heard a news story yesterday—”

“My disease got cured.”

“Oh, you heard it, too.” He sounded a little disappointed. “Yeah, mostly I just follow the sports news, but my filter pulls in stories about Huntington’s, because of you. I heard you became a journalist. Is that what you’re doing here?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I heard you joined the Army.”

“Aw, man. Not the Army, Nat, I joined the Marines.

Natalie laughed. “It’s, you know, hard to tell.” She gestured at the metal body.

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me.” His voice was starting to sound like what she remembered. “I joined the Marines for adventure and travel, not this shit.” He held out the metal arm, the hand dangling down like a damp dishrag. “I envy you, Nat. You get to be there for real.”

“People don’t usually shoot at me, Gabe. You’re a soldier.”

“Bullets aren’t picky once they’re out of the gun. But you’re here. Not driving some metal suit around.”

When she didn’t look straight at him, she could almost imagine that Gabe really was in the room with her. Gabe was the friend who’d introduced her to smoking—he’d stolen a pack from his uncle, who was a certified pre-existing smoker and thus eligible to buy them from pharmacies. She wished she could offer him one of her cigarettes now.

“I can’t put your stories on my filter cause they watch what we read,” Gabe said softly. “They get twitchy when we read sympathetic humanitarian stuff about the people we’re supposed to be shooting at. My mom sends them to me, though. I envied you. Disease and all.”

“I’m not going to have the disease anymore, though.”

“Yeah.” Gabe sighed. “I know. Congratulations, or whatever you say to someone whose terminal disease just got cured.”


On the edge of the central business district, Natalie found a tiny open noodle shop run by a white-haired old woman. The shop was full: when Natalie came in, conversation stopped as everyone turned to stare at the gweilo, then resumed as they went back to their meals. Natalie bought a bowl of noodles and sat down.

“Hello. You American?” A young woman interrupted Natalie the War Correspondent’s conversation with Natalie the Suburban Arts Reporter. She spoke English with such a heavy accent Natalie could barely understand her. “I like to practice English.”

“Please join me. I am American, and I would be happy to talk to you for a bit,” Natalie said. She discreetly switched the voice recorder on, in her lap, and shoved Suburban Natalie out of her mind. “What’s your name? How old are you? What are you doing in Foshan?”

Her name was Lei Bing, and she was the same age as Natalie. She had been a student at the university in Foshan before the war started. “Why stay here?” Natalie asked.

Lei Bing laughed. “I not want return home. Father very feudal.”

Natalie gave her a slow smile. “I have a father like that.”

“In America? No! My father . . .” Lei Bing laughed again. “He want son. Pay fee, have second daughter.” She pointed at herself ruefully. “But Foshan not so bad. I work for store keeper. Maybe student again, someday.”

“What were you studying?”

“Chicken farming.” Lei Bing sighed. “And—” she brightened “—Chinese Literature.”

“Aren’t you frightened, staying in Foshan?” Natalie gestured towards the door, and the city—and Peacekeepers—beyond.

“No. Not frightened of anything.”

“What would you do,” Natalie asked her, “if you could do anything at all?”

“Don’t know,” Lei Bing said. “Maybe travel. Or maybe stay here. Foshan is nice city. Maybe after war, will be things to do.”

Natalie had finished her bowl of noodles. “Thank you for talking with me,” she said to Lei Bing.

On her way out the door, she gave away her last three cigarettes to the old woman selling noodles.


Sam came to find her that evening as she sat on the patio, drinking tea.

“Cigarette?” he offered as he sat down.

“No thanks,” she said. “I quit today.”

“Good for you. Filthy habit.” He lit his.

“I’m going home,” she said.

He nodded, looking somber.

“But I’m coming back after I get the treatment.”

Sam gave her a hint of a smile.

“And I’m keeping the tattoo.”

“Good,” he said. “It’s dead sexy.”

Author’s Note

I wrote this story in 2006, so a decade ago now, and never managed to sell it. If I were writing it now, of course, the terminology would be different—everyone at this point is familiar with the concept of drone warfare, and the “Peacekeepers” in the story are simply full-sized human-shaped drones rather than the flying kind.

In 2006 I discussed likely Chinese terminology with a friend who speaks some Cantonese. He suggested the term din bou bing, electric foot-soldiers, as a plausible Chinese term. Working on the collection I asked a different friend about Chinese words for drone. She told me there was one word for “vessel without people” and a different word for person-less airplanes, but that if human-shaped drones became common, she thought they’d probably be referred to by the term used for robots, “mechanical person.”

One fundamental issue created by the Peacekeepers of the story (which is what I wanted to explore) was that they would make U.S. foreign military intervention “cheap,” at least in terms of American lives, and thus much more tempting to get embroiled in. This story doesn’t quite hit that; instead, it became an exploration of risk-taking in a risk-averse world.

Back | Next