6C/THE OTHER SHORE
It was gone and Anna saw it had jumped, leaping skyward in a single bound, its muscles bulging out of their armour. She adjusted her aim and fired and the pellets went wide, the angle too low, slamming into the concrete of the fortress walls. From above great thick arms closed around her Model Four’s slender shape, looming death with an empty face, her shotgun torn away and hands gripping her shoulders and she was airborne now too, lifted up. “Li-!”
“Dog Two.” she heard, Leung’s voice in her ear somewhere far off. “I’m coming, Cheung-!” She was hurled across the courtyard, bouncing about in her harness, and then there was a crash of metal against metal and everything hurt. Flickering red, the beeping of an alarm. Anna found her hands, her shaking hands, and put them to the controls. She scrambled her frame upright, putting its right hand to the wall of the fort to keep steady. Her legs both worked and nothing was broken. Her screen flickered and hissed with bursts of static but through them she saw the Guan Yu scooping up her shotgun and blowing Leung’s frame away as it entered the breach. “Leung!” she cried, but there was no reply. Its arms were huge and its legs thick, its whole body swollen under the armour into a monstrous reptilian thing of hunched posture and twitching muscle, shimmering light from the floodlights and the moon and the police holographic all caught within its black, alien shape. It turned to Anna and took the shotgun in both hands and without effort snapped the weapon in half. Anna switched back to the radio. “Dog Four. Dog Two, status report.” Nothing came. “Dog Four. Dog Two, status report. Leung, fucking say something!” Still nothing. “Dog Four.” she said. “Dog Two down. Pilot unresponsive.”
“Control.” Sun said. “Understood.”
“Dog-Foot.” the infantry commander said. “Dog One pilot recovery confirmed. Unconscious but stable.”
“Control. Dog Four, we have two birds overhead. Danger close. Retreat.”
“Dog Four. Negative. I can handle it. Engaging the enemy.” The Guan Yu waited for her. Anna turned the loudhailer back on, switching channels. “Li.” she said. Something wet and sticky trickled down her forehead. “Li, we don’t have to do this.”
“Have to?” Li sounded confused. “There’s no ‘have to’ or ‘don’t have to’. This is merely the path. I follow it regardless of my will.”
“Please.” But Anna’s hand was already on the frame interface’s keyboard. She found a folder labelled ‘police brutality’ and she clicked on it. Neuroreplica chirped to tell her it had been loaded. The Guan Yu stared down at her, waiting. She depressed the accelerator and charged, feet pounding concrete, gigantic metal body sprinting with fists clenched, and it met her and her thrusting straight blow clanged against forearm plating and she pulled back to strike again and it went for her leg with a kick and she stumbled aside and swiped at its head and fell short. It slammed a hand into her chest and she staggered away. The Guan Yu gave chase, bearing down on her with a roar of hydraulics.
They clashed, she kicking at its side and then its arm swinging for her – but it was too muscled, too cumbersome – she grabbed it and pulled it and twisted, pinning the arm behind its back and then pushing, pushing, the Guan Yu beginning to lose its balance but then she was upended, span round and its fists were raised above its head and slammed down upon her face. She was jolted in her seat (she was in a seat remember) as the hammerhead was dented and her fingers clawed at the monster and grabbed hold of its arms. She found the output and pushed it as far as it would go, hard plastic of the lever hurting her palm. The Model Four’s muscles swelled. For a moment they were equal, behemoths straining and pushing against one another. Anna curled up a fist and pounded the Guan Yu’s chest, slamming into it sparks flying again and again, protesting metal and sweat on her face. Then she was batted away again as it broke free of her grip and smacked her with one arm, backhanding the Model Four with contemptuous ease. Dozens of metres were between them, the ground cracked beneath where they had just met, marks and wounds all over the armour of both. The two machines looked at one another. Dents on the Guan Yu’s front in the area near – she remembered – the cockpit. Anna lunged at it but not really, feinted, diving past it and rolling on the ground her world revolving everything a blur. Readout telling her that her fingers had found it, that Wong’s lost pistol was in her grip.
Spinning the Model Four around clumsily, its great legs working in an awkward way to twist it towards the enemy, she levelled the handgun and fired six times although there were only four bullets. Each one hit the Guan Yu and held it there for a moment, each one opening another small wound in its front. Anna got to her feet with her left leg nearly buckling. She tossed the empty gun aside and clenched her fists again and raised them. “We can stop here.” she said, and her voice amplified by the loudhailer was desperate. “Li. Forget all that computer stuff. It’s bullshit. We can stop and go home.”
“I chose you for this.” Li said. “I walked the path of heaven and came to you and now, unthinking, together we keep on going to the other shore. There is no stopping.”
“Shut up with that crap!”
“It isn’t crap. Anna, there were so many other candidates. But you stuck out to me. You were chosen by heaven.”
“For what? For…for finishing Zero-Eight?”
She laughed. The Guan Yu stood, fingers twitching. “It was already finished. It never meant anything at all. All I needed was you. The spidergirl who wanted a simple life.”
“We have to finish this.” Li said. “I’m sorry.” The Guan Yu charged. Anna took its blows, arms rattling with each strike, her whole flesh aching and stinging, and she went for its abdomen where the bullet holes were and it grabbed her arm. It pulled and she screamed and then the limb was torn clean away and tossed aside. It slammed a hand into her front and then into her head, and kicked her leg so hard something cracked. Anna was upright only just, bruised all over from where her harness had cut into her, her leg aching from slamming hard against the cockpit wall. The Guan Yu stepped back for a second, surveying her, her broken machine leaking muscle-fluid from several fresh orifices. Error messages were everywhere, the screen barely functional. “Try harder.” Li said.
“Control.” she heard. It was Sun. She remembered Sun. “Dog Four, situation. Is it clear?”
“Dog Four. Not yet.”
“Dog-Foot.” she heard. “We’re standing by, Dog Four.”
“One minute.” Anna said. Her own breathing was all she could really hear and all she could see was it, the enemy, the thing she had made from herself, Zero-Eight/Li/Tianxia/all of Hong Kong there waiting, red and blue wrapped up tight. A creature made of data. It was a ghost, a spirit of something ancestral, and she could see through its armour to the other side of the courtyard but all that was there was blackness. She pressed down on the accelerator and the Model Four, limping, took a ragged step, its whole body juddering with the effort. The Guan Yu tensed. It rushed at her, thundering across the courtyard like a speeding train straight for her, and she breathed in. As it came Anna ducked its clumsy swipe, and her fist found the broken part of its armour and punched again, muscles howling, and the metal of its armour fractured and came apart and she was inside it fingers deep grasping at metal and pseudoflesh and wiring. Her Model Four’s arm went up to the elbow and beyond, deep into the Guan Yu’s guts. Li impaled on her hit her and struck her and she forced herself further, fingers finding hard plastic and then she pulled, teeth grit and sweat and blood in her eyes feeling the slime of the demon’s innards all upon her arm she strained. Something inside the Guan Yu came loose with a harsh crack and a spray of fluid and oil and sparks and it gave a terrible shudder and Anna withdrew from it, grasping in her hand the cockpit. It slumped over, everything inside shutting off.
Her broken Model Four faced it, two dead gods in an abandoned temple. It looked at her and there was almost something there now, something reflected in the glass of its eyes. It moved and Anna went to strike it but it didn’t move in anger. A jerky puppet-motion, the extending of one hand with the palm flat. She eased the cockpit to the ground and then stood back up, and put her own hand atop its. Their fingers touching. For a second she felt it, the sensation of skin upon skin. The Guan Yu turned its head, as if it were cocking it questioningly at her. After that it did not move at all. Anna glanced down at the cockpit she’d torn from it, where the plastic had buckled with the force of her grip. She could see inside and she could see that there was nothing there but an empty seat.
The Model Four’s cockpit hatch hissed open and she tasted fresh air, reality returning to her as something cold and viscous splashed over her head. Night time and burning. She clambered down its leg and she was alone in the courtyard. Somewhere overhead there were still drones, their engines humming softly in the dark, but she couldn’t see them, and Wong and Leung’s frames sat silent and broken on the other side of the yard. She crept to the cockpit to confirm that it was empty and it was, no trace at all of it ever having had a pilot. It looked exactly as it had when she’d sat inside it months ago. “-Dog Four, please report your status.” in her ear.
“Dog Four. My frame is disabled and the experimental weapon has been taken down.” She didn’t mean to take her handgun out and cock it but she had already done so. Hands working on their own. “Continuing my pursuit on foot.”
“Dog Four, wait for Dog-Foot. Do not-” She didn’t pull the radio out but she didn’t listen to either. She walked across the burning courtyard, away from the corpse of the Guan Yu and the sleeping form of her own other body. There were double doors built into the far wall and they looked to be reinforced slab of concrete mixed with armour plating, which was useful except for that they were open, just wide enough for her to squeeze through. Inside there were lights on, emergency bulbs just about managing to show her rusted metal flooring and narrow corridors, the descent into something subterranean. Anna’s breathing echoed. She carried her handgun and wondered about firing it. “You were quite willing to kill me earlier.” Li Wen said at her back. “That technique where you went for the cockpit. There was a very high chance it could’ve ruptured the plastic and crushed me to death. If-”
“Shut up.” Anna said. There were branches in the tunnel here and there as it became a kind of labyrinth. She had seen no sign of any guards or soldiers here to stop her. She had seen no sign of life at all since climbing into her Model Four aboard the ship. Brief glimpses of helmeted soldiers. Wong and Sun’s voices in her ear. Continuing to walk she wondered if she hadn’t been the only real person all along, if all of this wasn’t data, a reality made only for her. Pausing at another intersection, listening to the sound of humming machinery that she reasoned had to represent something alive if not human, she absent-mindedly reached under her jacket and shirt to touch the skin of her stomach, to see if it felt like anything. Soon her radio was silent. As she went deeper the rumble of the machines grew and grew until it was everything, until her footfalls and her heartbeat and the sound of her breathing were subsumed by automated humming. Her uniform clung to her, too warm and wrapped too tight around the sliver of flesh inside.
On the walls ancient signs told her to be careful, to remember to wear the proper safety equipment, to always keep in touch with work team members and to be a good girl and never stop enjoying herself. The air tasted stale on her tongue. She was hot and she took her helmet off and left it against a section of exposed piping, shaking her head and letting the sweat drip down her face. She passed more sections of piping now and again, thick iron arteries poking out where the walls had given way, and every time she moved quicker because there were things in them that were writhing. The rasping breath of an engine exhaling steam. The lights all worked and she had a gun but still there were noises from the walls, sounds buried by the machine-hum, things that trailed deformed and malfunctioning in its wake.
Anna checked her watch and saw that it was eight twenty-five. She turned right this time and went ever downward, the machine becoming louder and louder. It came and went in a rhythm, an in-out pattern that thrust into her head. Wiping off more sweat she kept going. It occurred to her that the Political Crimes troops had to be somewhere above her but she couldn’t hear their boots on the metal at all. Finally she came to a door and it was open. Another slab of metal, ajar like this was an accident. It could’ve been, she supposed, some terrorists rushing to hide from the drone attacks and forgetting to pull it shut after him. Anna stood there looking at it, touching it with her fingers. “Very good, Cheung.” Lathom said. “I suppose all those people who told me you wouldn’t amount to much in the police were wrong. Bunch of wankers.” He patted her on the shoulder.
She turned around and looked at him. His eyes were the same glass as the Guan Yu’s. “What are you?”
“I’d have expected you to have figured it out by now. You’re a copper.”
The handgun heavy in her grip. “Tianxia?”
He smiled. “I never said I knew. But you ought to. Bloody hell. I don’t think I was that bad a teacher.”
“You never taught me. Whatever you are.” He watched her with his face a mask stretched over nothing. Anna held the gun. “Old Peng told me he had a voice he listened to when he was scared. Someone from his past.”
“Well,” Lathom said. “Isn’t that interesting? Remember why you’re here, by the way.” And she whipped round with her weapon at the ready and there was nothing in the doorway but air. She stood there breathing heavy. Her fingers were tense. Nothing continued to happen and slowly she lowered the handgun. Lathom was gone. Anna slipped past the metal door and into the next room.
She was stood at the apex of a series of metal walkways within a large concrete chamber, something like a hangar. The lights were intermittent, flickering here and there, so that the shadows of the walkways were splashed about like scanlines cutting through an old television screen. She could see nothing in the room except for that; it was abstract, a facsimile built by something that didn’t know what rooms were for. She peered down from her perch in the doorway and kept on peering down and didn’t move forward. Her legs were like those of her frame waiting for the pilot to move them. On the far wall a row of fans turned with their rusty blades squeaking. Here the mechanical humming was everywhere, so omnipresent that she couldn’t see what was making it. Here was like the Guan Yu’s cockpit, a church to the god from the machine.
“Anna!” Tang called, his voice an echoing thunderclap. “Come down here. There’s no soldiers waiting to shoot at you. There’s no one here but us.” She saw him or saw a silhouette of him, a shape at the bottom of the chamber wearing a duster, hands in his pockets and face cast upward. Anna took a step and then another. The walkway rattled beneath her as she ran. Everything worn and weak, falling apart in some unlucky unhappening present. But Anna knew that she’d be fine. She clambered down, descending ladders and stomping across stairwells, making her way across the inside of the Escher painting. All the time Tang waited for her with his hands still in his pockets.
When she reached him she saw that between the two of them were a pair of gaps in the floor, evenly-cut interventions in the concrete occupied by water perfectly unmoving, a serene semi-transparent membrane stretched over emptiness. She stood opposite him with these two artificial pools between them. The light down here was consistent enough for her to see his face. To see that he was still her Inspector Tang. But parts of him had worn away, the sheen sanded off by the months separating them, his hair loose and dirty and his eyes carrying heavy bags. All of his features looked smaller, as if they’d become sheepish at the sight of her, shrinking slightly into themselves. He was unarmed or looked to be. “I’m glad it was you that came.” he said. His voice scratched, marked all over by something she didn’t know had happened. “I’m sure Sun has sent some special forces types to come arrest me. That would’ve been disappointing.” He looked around the room. “This place was built as part of a PLA project a few decades ago. A nuclear bunker built beneath an old British fortress. Actually, not that old; the British Army built the superstructure in the seventies. But I like the symbolism of it. Both imperialisms in one.”
Anna narrowed her eyes. “Why did you leave m-”
“I thought your first question would be ‘where are the terrorists?’.”
He shrugged. “There aren’t any. There’s only me here now.”
“Because I’m the only person who needs to be here. This was the plan. This was what we came up with, after Alina. My idea. Everything is automated, from the weapons outside to the camera I took that video on.” His face was grave. “White Bauhinia did kill General Zhang. After Cha’s victory and betrayal I wandered out here and found them. Used her contacts. The People’s Unity Party was always loosely connected with the terrorists, but not intimately. That’s the truth. They were as disappointed as I was. As hopelessly despairing. They wanted to do something big and I didn’t want them to fall for the stupid martyrdom that they were heading for. I told them that the world only needs one body. I told them that White Bauhinia will never die. Because of that video you were looking at the great man, the big boss, at how many weapons he had and what his plan was. But by sending the police, Cha has outfoxed me. The plan was like you said to me all that time ago back at the station – to provoke the PLA. Or at least to leave a scar upon Hong Kong’s beautiful new face.” He took a hand from his pocket and with it a cigarette, and with his other he lit up. “This is all because of Tianxia. In a way, Anna, it’s because of you.”
“Because you’re so pathetic.” he said in a calm voice. Anna stared at him. Hands briefly shaking, only briefly but enough. “Not that I don’t love you. Not that you’re not one of my comrades even now. But the life you’ve lived…” He inhaled and exhaled and eased out a thick cloud of smoke. She could smell it from here, Lucky Strike just like Detective Han. “You make me sad.” he said. “You always did. I’d seen it before you, of course. I’d seen young people and the malaise they lived in, bouncing from impure cause to impure cause, striving for a constant revolution without a revolution. But your case really struck me. I could never understand why you became a police officer until I realised that you didn’t know yourself. That everything you had ever done was a result of nudging from below; that even your transgressions, your little vices, were Tianxia-built.”
“I remember that first night. I remember what started all of this. You climbing that crane in Kwai Tsing like a monkey. I’d never expected anything like that. I knew you were good with a frame. Amazing, even. But that you’d have that kind of initiative was completely at odds with the person who’d stumbled into police training after university. And I remember what I thought, filling in those forms for the paperwork your stupid stunt had birthed. I remember thinking that you were authentic in that moment. That there was a real person underneath that cutesy shy nerd girl act.”
“An act? Sir – Tang, I-”
He held out his palms. “When was the last time you fell over yourself, Anna? When was the last time your dyspraxia really made you mess up?”
“I know it’s not on purpose. Just the standard defence of the young person today. Make yourself childish. Force yourself to be innocent. Work hard for nobody’s approval but your own: but then all you are is a profile on a social media app, perfect and photoshopped. An app that comes from Tianxia. For God’s sake, Anna, I’d speak to you and you’d blush. Nobody in their mid-twenties should blush when a man talks to them. The real you, this unproductive husk obsessed with machines, was buried beneath so much else. So much that was only a way to keep yourself safe, to go along with things, to keep people happy. Harmless Anna Cheung.”
She moved the handgun, more to emphasise that it was there. “So this was all because of me?”
“In a way.” His cigarette was shrinking to a stub. He took it from his mouth and tapped the end and the ash trickled down into the water. “It’s been years. Ever since I saw those frames in Shenzhen. I was an observer for the police at the time.” He sighed. “You should’ve been there. Monsters gleaming in the sun, half of a regular police bureau’s yearly budget just for one of them. The pinnacle of our technology, the triumph of machinery over men. And yet I knew that those wonder-weapons, those science-fiction giants, were worthless. All that power and all that amazing technology and Cha won against it, and you came here with one ready to kill and I’ve got you stuck listening to me insult you. It’s not about the strength of your weapons. It’s about how you use the knowledge you have. How you learn. Tianxia understands that, insofar as it understands anything. But I think you personally – you were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Another cadet, another doll-person, your potential, the potential of the spidergirl, dulled by Tianxia. I just couldn’t live with myself any longer. Policework helps you know the social health society better than anything else and I didn’t want to know it anymore. I couldn’t turn that feeling off. That revulsion.”
“So when the riots broke out-”
“I took my chances. Contacted the PUP and told them I would deliver them the HKPF Frame Unit. And I thought that deep down, beneath all your superficial play-acting, you felt the same. Mong Kok girl with the red aura, loser from a loser’s town. Lucy told me about how you spoke to Alina after the Jiang Guomeng case. I knew you understood, deep down. I thought I could make you understand.”
“I do understand. I – I understand now. After everything.” The echo of her voice came back tinged with hysteria and she tried to keep it steady. The conversation had to keep on going or else whatever came next would have to happen, and for that she needed to keep calm. Machinery went on droning unseen around them. “Whatever you’re trying to do by sending out videos like that, killing people-”
“Do you know the story of Saigo Takamori, Anna?”
“He’s the man they call ‘the last samurai’.” He flicked the cigarette butt away and reached into his jacket again, and this time there was a handgun there. Anna raised her weapon, not really aiming it but holding it like she’d been trained to. He kept his at his side. “Takamori led a rebellion of samurai against Japan’s modernising government, late in the nineteenth century. He was killed when the armed forces stormed his base in Satsuma. After the war they treated him as a hero.”
“The other rebels? The people?”
“The government.” He raised the gun finally, which Anna had been waiting for because it meant they were fair now. She wasn’t doing anything wrong, or she was and so was he. “Cha is in office. She’s useless against the learning networks from there, in government, as another player of the game. The networks can absorb anything, anyone. But what they can’t absorb is the idea of change. The impulse for revolution is beyond their understanding as long as they’re simple reflections of data. The whole of the strongest, most visible muscle of the Hong Kong Police Force is here for me – even if you guys aren’t quite the PLA, at the very least it’ll still make a great story, an inspiring ideal to live up to, whether I do anything after this or not. White Bauhinia can continue. That’s a better strategy for my comrades than some futile battle where they all end up dying for no reason. Like I said. One body is all the world needs.”
“So you’re the martyr.” she said. “Just like the man you were talking about. That must feel good for you.”
Again Tang shrugged. “I wish I was that brave. Either way this’ll end up a weapon for the cause, but in an ideal world I’d want to want to come peacefully.” He was so small and so normal before, no handsome movie-star and not her superior who she had wanted so much – just like he’d said – to like her and tell her she was a good girl. He was only a man made of flesh and blood and there was nothing left of him but that. Her trigger finger twitched, not quite in place. “Peacefully.” she repeated. She swallowed, her mouth barren. “Then why are you still holding that gun?”
He smiled and it was his smile but it was behind the barrel. He stood with his other hand in his pocket, his posture suddenly firm. He was on review in his gleaming dress uniform, stood with the rest of Troop B – Wong, Lau, Lucy and she – and they were in the sun together proud and united in their pride. Officers of the Hong Kong Police Force and members of the same dysfunctional family. “You’re the police officer.” he said. “I’m the criminal. Convince me. Talk me down.”
“Tell me that you would’ve joined me and Lucy and Lau all those months ago. Tell me that you were going to. That’s all I want.” She saw his throat move, something inside almost bubbling to the surface. “Tell me that I wasn’t alone.” His voice carried a note of feeling, a sadness. “That of everything I’ve been wrong about over the years at least I was right about you.” Time trickled by. The machine went on droning to itself. The water was serene and clear. Trapped by the light his shadow was splashed on the concrete before him, the gangly and distorted image of a man. It met hers over the water and they became two mating things with no ground beneath them and then they went from human to something else, mutated alien presence, their extended arms with guns drawn becoming monstrous long tendrils. The tentacles of an octopus unfurled. “Please, follow your heart.” Li Wen said to her from at her back. Tang looked at her for the longest time and she at him. One gun fired and then a second later so did the other.
She walked back to the tunnels on her injured leg. She had rolled up her trouser sleeve and blood oozed through the length of her shirt she’d ripped off and tied around the wound, a trail of red following after her. Every time she took a step the spot in her lower thigh where the bullet was stuck twinged and she kept going in the semidarkness and listened to the silence. It permeated, an absence that rose from the ground and up through the ceiling like an all-encompassing spirit, a ghost made of nothing. The pipes were hushed and the hum of the machine had excused itself. When they found her she was resting against the wall somewhere dripping onto the ground. “Anna!” Wong said, rushing forward with the Political Crimes troops like shades behind him. Dirty sweaty bruised Wong with his handgun drawn and his helmet gone, a bandage around his head already leaked through. He grabbed her by the arm and held her. “Anna, what the fuck-”
“Tang is downstairs.”
Wong stared. “What? Tang? Like, just him?”
She moved from the wall. “One body.”
“What?” Anna pushed through the men, pushed through them to the other side of the corridor. They were parting for her looking at her and some of them looked down at her leg, but she didn’t feel anything at this. About thirty men in hard armour flanked her, statues lining the hallway, images here for her long life and good fortune guarding the procession to the heavenly palace of blood and steel. Assault weapons and plastic masks on their faces, hard eyes peering out. They let her pass. She could hear Wong coming after her or someone anyway, boots on the ground. But she got to the surface first. There were more special forces about on guard all over the base, stood by the courtyard and the wreck of the Guan Yu at the breach in the wall which sat there like an ugly wound. Her Model Four was waiting one-armed and battered, the lights upon it like spotlights on a stage. Anna was underneath it in the night air. She was next to the right leg, its metal shredded by weapon impacts, with the armour half-removed where the Guan Yu had kicked it hard. Her hand rested on the metal while hot blood dribbled from her and pooled on the ground. It tickled against her skin.
And she realised there was some on her face too, already beginning to harden. She put a finger to her cheek and felt it and looked at it, a speck on her fingertip. “Anna!” Wong called, running up to her. “Anna! Hey-” She turned to him and abruptly he stopped, coming to a halt before her. She glanced over at the Guan Yu. At its ruined cockpit. Wong had a look on his face and it was a look she didn’t know. He looked nervous she thought, and she’d never seen him nervous before and it came across as a little strange. She laughed to herself. It started as a chuckle and then it was bigger, and she was coughing and her leg stabbed at her as she cried. Wong caught her when she lost her balance and he held her as they waited. The operation was complete. When the ambulance came for her she thought she was asleep but it was hard to tell.