I knew who it was as soon as I saw her. She was a lot older, of course, and her hair, still glossy black, was no longer bowl-cut but brushed back and caught up in a long pigtail braided with gold wire, and she wore a sober grey spider-silk trouser suit rather than freefall coveralls. She had long nails, too, and her lips were dyed deep red to match. But it was Xiuli Tian, all right. I’d know her anywhere. Our dragon lady, our saviour, our nemesis.
I hadn’t seen her for more than thirty years. Closer to forty, really. She’d stolen a gig and hightailed it out of Charn, and here she was in the passenger terminal of the port of Al Yahar, the capital of the Koronis Emirates, talking with an equally expensively but much younger dressed woman as she skimmed past me. I half-raised a hand in greeting, a foolish reflex she fortunately did not notice, and she said something that made her companion laugh, and then she was gone.
It was Ruger Ridgley who gave her the nickname, after she’d spurned his attempt to get her into his sleeping niche. The stereotyping, and trying to hit on anything young and female: both were typical of Ruger. He was our systems engineer and somewhat older than the rest of us, and believed that gave him all kinds of unearned privileges.
‘If she doesn’t loosen up, that attitude of hers is going to cause friction,’ he told my partner, Krish, and Krish, who liked to play the diplomat, advised him to give her time to get used to her new home.
Xiuli Tian had been the last to join our kibbutz, signing up less than twenty days before we lit out for Charn. She claimed to know something about hydroponic work, but more importantly she had a chunk of credit that greatly enhanced our sinking fund and earned her the right to become a partner with a three hundred and fifty eighth share, the smallest of all of us, calculated from the time she’d spent working on planning and preparation (zero), her expertise (small), and her credit (substantial).
She was – or so we thought at the time – one of the wave of new immigrants to the Belt who were swarming up the new elevators and heading out to the Moon or Mercury or the Belt to find their fortunes, a rising demographic that would characterise what we’d come to call the Great Expansion. Our kibbutz was doing its bit in that rush into new territory. We were mostly first-generation Belters, born into families, crews and communes of Outers who’d migrated inwards after the Quiet War. Now, like our parents, we wanted to set up a place of our own. We’d been granted title on a lumpy rubble-pile asteroid, 2038615 Charn, hired a construction crew whose big machines had tented an equatorial crevasse and installed a basic lifesystem, and purchased a chunk of comet CHON, now a tiny, tarry moon of our rock, that would supply organic material and water. And then we moved in, forty-three of us including our new friend from Earth, Xiuli Tian, and got to work.
Xiuli was part of my crew, horticulture and landscaping. It immediately became clear that her hydroponic expertise was vestigial. She’d helped out on her parents’ farm back in Tasmania, she confessed, and hadn’t realised that what she’d learned back then wasn’t especially transferable. But she was a quick learner and a hard worker, putting in more hours than anyone else, signing up for all the tough, dirty, unpopular chores. She kept out of the sex and romance games of the unpartnered, hardly ever volunteered anything about herself or her life on Earth, and hardly took part in the struggle sessions where we thrashed out democratic solutions to every kind of problem, but pretty soon we accepted her as one of us. Quiet and unassertive, but tough and single-minded. Point her at a problem and she’d bang her head against it until she’d cracked it by sheer force.
I wonder what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the crash. Would she have settled down, partnered up, and started making babies like most of the rest of us? Or would her past have caught up with her anyway? One thing was certain, it was the crash that raised her up, and brought her down.
We’d used less than a tenth of the mass of our little CHON moon to establish a viable, fairly stable biosphere in our tent town. Five years after we’d moved in, we began to delicate work of break up and de-orbit the rest, planning to smear its primordial tars across a large percentage of Charn’s surface and grow photosynthetic vacuum organisms that would transform it into electrical power and novel polymers, room-temperature superconductors and quantum dots, and so on and so forth. But an explosive charge misfired and shattered a chunk into too many fragments, some of those fragments smacked into the surface outside the target area, and three struck our tent. Everyone got into a p-suit or a shelter in time. No one was killed. But the biosphere was wrecked. Our gardens, our farms, our tanks: all dead. And even worse, one of the fragments had smacked into our maker plant.
We’d been having problems with the farms in the past year, so our stores were too low to tide us over until we got things up and running again. And with all but one maker wrecked beyond repair, we couldn’t print enough food from CHON, which in any case was mostly smeared across Charn’s craters and lumpy plains. For a couple of days, it looked like we would have to sell Charn at a knock-down price, and return to our homes and hope we could scrape together enough credit and kudos to start over in five or ten years. A hard thing for young, ambitious, proud, independent people like us, a big hit on our pride and self-worth. And then, when everything seemed hopeless, when we met to talk about what we should do, Xiuli presented her inventory and her plan.
It was impressively detailed. And after a couple of days of analysis and failure testing, it looked like it might work. She was modest about her achievement, saying she had learned something about resource allocation in an old job, but showed some steel when she warned us that democracy would have to go during what she called the emergency. There was no time for debate, she said. Someone must take charge.
And we let her. Our dragon lady. We let her take over. And she saved us. Saved our pride, saved our commune, saved Charn. It was a hard year. Every calorie, every watt, had to be hoarded and doled out. We mostly lived on plastic food and vitamin supplements. We all lost mass, and spent most of our time working or sleeping, no time or energy for anything else. Three people died, and Xiuli and her cadres treated the bodies the way we'd treated every scrap of CHON we could scrape together.
It came out, about the bodies, and things eased up a little after fifteen people decided to drop out, and ten more were exiled for what Xiuli called insurrection, but for two years it was touch and go. Xiuli kept us together. Whenever a problem cropped up, there she was, with a ready solution that we had to apply without argument or discussion. Whenever anyone complained, or failed to work hard enough, she decided on their punishment. That insurrection happened six months in, when she discovered that a family was hoarding food for their kids, and punished the parents and the kids. The insurrection was put down quickly and violently, and the rebels were given a choice: hard labour on short rations, or exile, and loss of their credit. They all left, but the resentment lingered, and never quite went away.
Xiuli seemed not to notice it. She thrived on hardship and she loved leadership. She didn’t even mind that we called her the Dragon Lady. I think she actually liked it.
When the vacuum organism farms yielded their first crops and things began to ease, it seemed natural and inevitable that Xiuli would lead the trade mission to Green Mansions, at that time the nearest garden to our rock. She drove a hard bargain, bringing back three reconditioned makers and luxuries like tea and chocolate we hadn’t been able to afford to make ourselves. Everyone got a share, but Xiuli’s cadre, her close friends and sycophants, got the lion’s share. It emphasised that we were no longer equal, might never be equal ever again.
There was more grumbling, and perhaps there might have been another insurrection, but then collision watch spotted a ship approaching. Xiuli made contact with it, and the next day she was gone, on the stolen gig. The ship changed course when it spotted the fleeing gig, but she managed to reach Tannhauser Gate ahead of it, and disappeared into the Autonomous Trading Zone.
The ship had been carrying two people from Earth: security from the corporado Xiuli had robbed. She had been working as a low-level administrator on a construction project in low Earth orbit, and one day had bugged out to the Belt with the chunk of credit she had used to buy her way in to our thing – credit, we soon discovered, which had been transferred out of our account an hour before she left Charn.
And that was the last we knew of our dragon lady. She had saved us, no doubt, but she had changed us, stamped her authority on our hearts and souls, and we never quite got over it. Partners split up; friendships ended. Tough things had been done during the hard years, and some of them could not be forgiven. Everyone who had been in Xiuli’s little cadre left. Ruger Ridgley left too, and two years later was found dead in a hostel in Tasmania: it seemed that he had been looking for Xiuli, and several people speculated that she’d found him before he’d found her. Three years after that, half of what was left of the kibbutz left to start another settlement, out in the Trojans. They called it Fresh Start.
Well, the rest of us are still here, and have prospered after our fashion. We are not what we wanted to be, perhaps, but we have tried to make the best of what we have become.
And here I am, making my way back home after visiting my old family, my old home, and there she is. The Dragon Lady. Xiuli Tian. I have checked the registry: she is travelling under the name Miao Liang, is about to board a highliner for Ceres. She owns a small vacuum-organism farm on Ceres, with a sideline in wine production. She is unpartnered but has a daughter, seems to lead a quietly respectable low-profile life.
If I were a different kind of person – if I were like poor Ruger, for instance – I might be tempted to turn her in: the warrant for her arrest is still outstanding. If this was another story, it would begin here: intrigue, blackmail, and after various thrilling twists, revenge and catharsis. But I am not interested in revenge, and besides, she saved me, and even though we split up (he became part of her cadre, and confessed to me that he’d briefly become her lover, too), she saved Krish, too. She was our leader, but we allowed her to lead us. She used us, yes; but we used her. We all made our choices, and we have to live with the consequences. We chose to save Charn rather than walk away, and we did save it. And some of us walked away anyway, because we were all changed by what we had to do.
No, she has her life, and I have mine. It is not cowardice to let her go: it’s good sense. The past is a dangerous place, and I have many millions of kilometres to traverse before I return to the place I helped to make, the place my friends and I are still trying to make good, the place we saved from her, after we let her do what she had to do to save us.