Ghosts II: border crossing

Manchukuo’s cold winter was behind them. The icy rivers had begun to crack in the mid-spring thaw. The snow was out of the trees but the ground remained sodden with its memory. The seasons were changing late here. Flowers had not blossomed, and the wind remained bitter.

They had driven for two nights, through the fractal terrain of this forgotten corner of the Empire. The path was constantly in the shadows of mountains, weaving through gullies, always searching for the peaks above. Any recognisable route had disappeared hours beforehand. There were no roads to speak of now, just fox-tracks and faded oxen-paths where the local farmers once plied their trade. The country was empty, drained by the wars. Fields had been reclaimed by the grasslands. Where villages once stood, trees now grew. They were ash-stained and still young, but it was undoubted: the forests had come to reclaim the land from the humans.

The endless paths coalesced into landmarks, and Yuri recognised the correct track. With the sun setting fast above, he turned the wheel of the car and the vehicle emerged from the blasted heathlands, climbing steadily toward the top of the ridge. Driver and passenger winced in unison as the overladen vehicle teetered for a moment, wheels grinding on the steep surface before friction was found. He had travelled this jarring route countless times before, and grown used to the constant lurching movements of the Lincoln up through these hills. His passenger was not so lucky. From his rear-view mirror, he could see her in the rear seat. Miss Kato was swaddled by her bundled belongings and the driver’s own supplies, reduced to a bobbing pale mask amongst a jumbled wall of canvas and printed kimono fabric. Miss Kato’s eyes skipped and danced along from the track and back along the Dybbuk’s Highway from where they had come, before reversing its movement to settle on the distant mountains to the west. Vast clouds amassed there, dark and fattened with the weight of oncoming storms.

Yuri cleared his throat and watched the client’s eyes snap forward to meet his reflected gaze. He motioned to the car’s starboard, to a shallow indentation in the hillside. A keen observer would notice a darkened circle amongst the rocks and scrub, a series of lazy patchwork arcs that describe where campfires might have previously been constructed. A pile of splintered trees sat nearby, which may have fallen naturally or, to those looking for such a thing, represent firewood stacked on a dusk-coloured tarpaulin.
“This is where we’ll stay the night. You’ll have to move on by yourself come morning.”
Miss Kato nodded, although, he thought, it may have just been one final jolt from the Lincoln as it struggled along a difficult stretch of shale.

}o{

The night swallowed the encampment. The skies were normally clear here, not like the Last City two days hence, but the clouds had come over and eaten the stars. Yuri retired to the car, thankful that his short frame could fit into the cramped interior. The emptiness of sleep claimed him fast, as it always did, and so it felt like only seconds before he awoke to the sound of movement outside the Lincoln’s cabin. He slid from the vehicle into the awaiting darkness, his hand already clenched around the hilt of the Nagant before processing that the noise was that of footsteps. Miss Kato had left her tent, walking past the car to the remains of the campfire that had burned itself down to sullen coals. The canvas was, Yuri knew, a little thin for the cold spring night. It had originally been his own, sold to Kato at a respectably inflated price when he realised how poorly equipped she had been for the journey ahead. She had not left with much, this one.

His eyes adjusted, Yuri saw his client had squatted on a stray log, hands outstretched in supplication to the lingering warmth. She did not start at the sound of his footsteps, but took the moment to reach into a knapsack and extract a bird-shape. Her pale fingers danced across the surface, checking screw tensions and removing stray pieces of straw and dust from the robota’s surface.
“The wings, you see, are the hardest,” Miss Kato said. The night’s vastness caught her words and reduced them to a whisper. The leading edge of the feathers – blades, really, he corrected himself – caught the feeble light from the low-burning coals and glowed momentarily.
“These are remiges,” Miss Kato said, pointing. “Primary, secondary, tertial.”
Holding the brass and wire construct in her right palm, with her left she gently squeezed the wing outward. Shingled brass plates, millimetre-thin, separated and re-layered between her tapered fingers. “Manus, ulna, humerus. This is the alula – bastard wing.”
Yuri watched as the robota looks blankly at him, then her, then finally at the manipulation of its own limb. The creature’s gaze did not affect him, although he had met many men who despised such constructs on principle. He knew a sailor back in Vladivostok – a foreigner, like almost every sailor he had met – who had witnessed riots over such contraptions when they were first introduced to the docks. In the sailor’s home port, so the story went, entire factories had been effectively disposed of by corridors of gleaming armature. Even those who didn’t hate the larger robota found something unnatural about such soulless motion. Yuri had never had too many issues with constructs, as he had enough with people. But this one was the smallest and most lifelike he had seen. There was something strange about that, that miniaturisation had somehow brought the semblance of consciousness. It could not weigh any more than a few kilograms. His eyes watered a little in the semi-darkness as he tried and failed to pick out the inlaid detail of brass and stainless steel. The driver was sure there was calligraphy there, perhaps an engraved haiku that Miss Kato had specifically composed for the creature’s construction.
There was a chilly pause as the three of them looked at the horizon, eyes straining in the twilight, night-vision hampered by the remains of the fire. The robota in Kato’s hand stirred, stretching its pinions.
He asked, “Was this the reason you fled?”
Miss Kato was silent for a while. Yuri didn’t know whether something out there in the darkness had caught her eye, or even if she had heard the question. She spoke, eventually.
“You are really wondering why Manchukuo, yes? Why would a Nipponese woman exile herself here?”
“If you are like the rest, you’ve fled because of oppression. But I’m delivering you into another country – one that is ruled by your nation’s army in all but name. It seems like an odd choice. I could have taken you further south, down towards the border with Korea. At least then you would be closer to the Treaty Ports that could have delivered you to the West. That’s where most of the others go.”
“But not all.”
“No, not all. Some are like you, and brave the mountains.”
Miss Kato stood and walked up toward the ridge. She pointed with her right hand, toward the pitch-black horizon. By day it was crowded with the peaks of Chinghai. Tonight, it was featureless darkness, lifeless and still. With a grace belied by its construction, the construct launched itself into flight, into the darkness. Together, the passenger and driver watched the subtle gleams that marked the bird-thing’s unnatural acceleration across the sky.
“I go west, but not to the West. Not Manchukuo. I must proceed north a while.”
“The railway?” It could not be an option; it was barred for her, just as it was forever shut to him.
“Those lines either go through Kharbin – Nipponese-held territory, all around – or to Khabarovsk Bridge. Either way is too well guarded. They have eyes for travellers like me. The only way left for me through these mountains. In any case,” her breath beginning to fog in the night air, “I have another who will meet me along the way, to guide me further. The path is clear enough to me.”
“It’s a long journey. If it makes you feel any better, though, you’re not the first to run this way, this far from home.”
There was a lengthy pause. Yuri wondered again if she had heard his comment.
“Nippon is no home for me. I will follow the thread across the mountains,” she said, whispering into the opaque night.
Miss Kato did not seem interested in speaking again. The silence stretched, and after a long few minutes Yuri took it that the conversation is over. He walked carefully through the sloping loose shale, back to the makeshift camp. Even with steam-driven nails pinning it to the rocky ground, the borrowed tent looks precarious against the rising Manchurian wind. Ignorant of the season, the temperature has dropped fast. The hillside would be covered in frost and fog by morning. The cold did not bother Yuri. He had attuned himself to such weather over the years, and knew that he could sleep as equally poorly here, in the rough, as the flophouse back at Poslednaya ulitsa.
“What do the local people call this, where we are?,” Miss Kato queried of his retreating back, still watching the mountains.
“There are no people here. Between my country’s war here ten years ago and yours now, everyone has moved on if they could.”
“But you have a name for it?”
“Back in Russia, for some reason, they call this the Dybbuk’s Highway.”
“I don’t know the word.”
“It’s not one of ours. A ghost of sorts, I think. Not a nice name to give to a place.”
Yuri thought of Fanya then, just for a brief moment, and all the other lost ones. He pushed the thought shut, closed the door in his memories, and rolled the boulder across the entrance once again. Not time to come out, he told them, not now and not ever. If he had wanted to, he could have rested his head against the cold rock in his mind and listened to their whispers. He did it sometimes when he was alone, to test how strong they were. Miss Kato spoke so little it was like being by himself. The door must have been ajar. Yuri kneeled, taking a stone between his fingers and rubbed it. The cold rock and dirt took him back to where he was.
A few feet away, he saw a flicker of movement, and an odd keening noise suddenly cut off. The bird-thing had found a winter mouse and dived upon its quarry, driven by some ghost instinct buried deep amongst the gears and steel. “Hush, Karasu,” said Miss Kato from the top of the ridge. The construct paid her little mind, but instead twitched and twirled its sharpened feathers in a wholly unnatural manner, eviscerating the rodent. She cooed at it and it reluctantly gave up on its prey, rearranging its wings back into a flight-configuration. Miss Kato called it by name again. The robota hopped
sparrow-like up the hill, past Yuri, settling by the feet of its creator.
“Emergent behaviour,” she replied to his unspoken question, as if by explanation. In a perfect world, Yuri would not have had that brief vision of his own reflected image in those constructed predator eyes. He shook his head, to break his stare.
“Keep the fire low,” he said needlessly, returning to the car.
He would have liked if Miss Kato had flinched at the noise of the Lincoln’s door slamming shut. But she simply sat and watched the foreign night, her oilskin coat sitting as neatly as a kimono as the wind-up bird played, blood-speckled, amongst her feet.

}o{

Miss Kato had gone by the morning, along with her robota and handful of possessions. She had left the tent behind. The canvas flapped hollowly. The fog had come as Yuri had expected. He looked out to the horizon, out toward where he knew the mountains would be. The dawn light diffused through the landscape, softening contours. The world was featureless and empty. Dark birds wheeled and coiled overhead. He could hear their squawks and calls to each other. Yuri turned away from the border, back toward the Last City.

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