The truth was, Lin Jing did kind of feel guilty about Professor Shen’s adventure with the portal box. Not so much that he’d opened the thing in the first place—although Lin Jing was smart enough not to say it out loud around the boss, he figured that one was on the Professor, who after all was not exactly a novice in the handling of Dixing artifacts, and had the boss’ really terrible example before him as well.
What he felt bad about was not being able to help afterward. The whole thing had been resolved with ridiculously analog methods, and while Lin Jing had come away with a stack of really fascinating data and the potential for years of study, he hadn’t been able to put any of this good honest science to use on the spot. It had worked out okay—which was probably why he still had his job(s); if he ever actually did end up making enemies of both Zhao Yunlan and Li Qian simultaneously, he might as well kiss his career goodbye and go sign up as Lao Li’s apprentice fish cook—but, well, he didn’t feel good about it.
Obviously, the best way to apologize was to put the lessons of the box to good use somehow, but that wasn’t exactly the work of a few days.
Li Qian, once she’d actually seen Professor Shen in person and been reassured that he’d survived his ordeal in one piece, was as fascinated by the boxes as Lin Jing was. Any other work that wasn’t one hundred percent essential got summarily set aside as they plunged into research. Lin Jing ran every test in his arsenal, and a few that he made up specially on the spot, on the composition of the boxes’ material; anything that could effectively conceal the presence of dark energy from any observer up to and including the Black-Cloaked Envoy was a valuable resource, assuming that a) he could figure out what exactly it was and thus how to replicate it, and b) Li Qian or Shen Wei or someone else not him could figure out what to do with it.
“It’s basically glass,” he said eventually to Li Qian, throwing a sheaf of printouts on the table and pushing up his glasses to rub his eyes. “There’s nothing in glass that should be able to do that. When can we get Professor Shen in here to join us?”
“I told you, not until next week or the week after. It’s the week before exams and he’s busy with office hours and writing tests.”
“Too bad. The visual appearance is mostly the effect of surface grinding and paint, and the material itself isn’t that far removed from glass on the material plane—if you drop it, it’ll probably break.” He wondered a little queasily what would have happened if someone had dropped the box while it was still entangled with Shen Wei. “Is there any coffee?”
Li Qian gave him a weary look and jerked her chin at the carafe by the wall. Lin Jing filled his mug—his watch said after eleven at night, to his surprise, and the coffee had been brewing all day and almost didn’t qualify for liquid status any more, but that was just fine with him—and poured a mugful for her as well, just to be neighborly. “How far have you gotten?” he asked, setting it in front of her.
She had been typing on her laptop rather languidly with one hand while she rested her chin on the other; now she sat up and wrapped both hands around her mug. “The portal function is tricky. I’m trying to figure where exactly it lands in Dixing, and if it’s always the same place, and whether it would always lead to the same place in Haixing if opened there—which is practically impossible to figure out, and that’s just the easy part.”
“Is there any way to test that without, like, doing it?”
“No,” Li Qian sighed. “Not at first, anyway. If the places are different each time, the boxes must contain some kind of…of…”
“Haixing Positioning System?” Lin Jing suggested helpfully, and she cracked a tired smile.
“Yes, like that. But it would require various test portals opened to figure out what the mechanism is and how the coordinates are calculated.”
“Well,” Lin Jing said, in a moment of coffee-fueled recklessness that he would shortly regret very much, “what are we waiting for?”
Li Qian frowned at him. “Experimental protocols…”
“I know, I know. But come on. We’ve been head down into this problem for a week. There are limits to theoretical research.”
“Lin Jing, are you just trying to get a free trip to Dixing to see your girlfriend?”
“No!” It hadn’t even occurred to him; Sha Ya’s time with Yuzhu-mei was hands off and that rule he’d never thought of breaking. “I just want to get through to these damn boxes.”
Li Qian sighed again and pulled off the ribbon holding her bun in place. She ran both hands through her loose hair, massaging her scalp. “Me too.”
Lin Jing held his breath.
Li Qian pulled her hair back off her face and began to work it into a braid; slightly mesmerized by lack of sleep and excess caffeine, he watched the heavy glossy rope of hair take shape under her fingers. Down to the end of it at last, she shoved the tail of the braid into her mouth and bit down while she fumbled in her lab coat pocket for a hair tie. “Lin Jing?” His name was garbled through her mouthful of hair.
“Let’s do it.”
Li Qian and Lin Jing stood on a quiet street somewhere in Dixing, watching with scientific delight as the boxes, carried through their own portal, swallowed it neatly and closed it behind them. “Whoever thought of this was a genius,” Lin Jing reflected enviously, tucking the boxes (sheathed in silk for safety) away in his jacket. “Okay, so where are we?”
“Dixing doesn’t go in much for address markers,” Li Qian noted. She was taking notes on her phone. “Our best bet is to record the surroundings accurately and confirm the exact location later, when we have access to data.”
“Can we jump again now?”
“Did you check the boxes for any changes?”
“Of course. Nothing. No visual changes apparent from any angle, temperature stable. I’ve taken readings on the non-visible data, but nothing jumped out at me as abnormal, we’ll have to go over it in detail back in the lab.”
“Well then. Wait,” Li Qian added. “Did you notice any physiological changes during the transit through?”
“…A slight sensation of pressure? Like an airlock? Possibly dimmed vision for a very short but measurable time?”
“Yes, that matches my experience. The next time we do this we should probably bring some equipment to measure these things, but so far it doesn’t seem to be a serious issue.”
“You mean there’s gonna be a next time?” Lin Jing tipped her a grin, and prepared the boxes for their first transit back to Haixing as she rolled her eyes.
“It’s a different place!” he cheered, as they emerged once again from the portal.
Li Qian groaned. “Do you have any idea how complicated my research has just gotten?”
“Yes! Isn’t it awesome?”
“You’re going to help with the dirty work for the calculations on the coordinate relations,” she warned him. “Also, the boxes may not even be that useful if you never know where you’re going to pop out…where are we, anyway?”
Lin Jing peered around, thinking absently that it would have been more efficient of them not to choose the middle of the night. “Definitely Haixing, from the stars. The buildings are Dragon City-style, so the range isn’t too wide….oh hey, I think I recognize this. That’s Grandma Meng’s shop on the corner, I used to buy sesame chews there when I was a student. We’re sort of off to the northeast behind the university that way, you know, where the student quarter kind of bumps into the industrial zone?”
“I’ll take your word for it. I didn’t have so much time to explore the city when I was a student.” Li Qian shook her head, then resolutely went back to her notes. Lin Jing finished his scans of the boxes, and they made their second Dixing jump.
The blow sweeping his feet from under him caught him entirely by surprise; he went down flat on his back, landing hard enough to knock his wind out. He’d managed to hold onto the boxes, but before he could react they were snatched from his hands. There was a babble of voices.
“The glass works, you were right—“
“…can’t believe they would use them so—“
“—lucky for us they came back—“
“…check he doesn’t have a weapon either, you know Haixingren—“
Overlaid on the unfamiliar chatter was Li Qian’s voice, high and panicked. “Lin Jing! What—who—Let me go!”
“What—“ Lin Jing croaked, coughed and managed to get enough air to speak. “What the hell is this?” He sat up—ow, he was going to have bruises like nobody’s business tomorrow—and tried to look around, seeing only vague shapes in blackness. Almost immediately, his arms were wrenched behind his back while other efficient hands patted him down.
“Identify yourselves and what you plan to do to Dixing,” said a crisp female voice, a little tight around the edges with tension or excitement. It was too dark to see any of the speakers.
“We are scientists,” Li Qian answered immediately, breathless and indignant. “We’re doing research—we don’t plan to do anything to Dixing! Who are you and what are you doing?”
“She’s lying!” the man holding Lin Jing’s arms exclaimed. “Why would they have the—“
“Shut up, Xiao Zhang,” the woman said briskly. “You two—name yourselves.”
“Li Qian, Laboratory Director.” The firm proud voice made Lin Jing feel absurdly fond of her, picturing her with head held high.
He grunted as someone kneed him hard in the back. “You?”
“Ow! Uh, Lin Jing, I’m a scientist too.” Okay, so he hadn’t managed quite Li Qian’s dignity.
“So what are you researching, scientists?” said another woman’s voice belligerently. “Dixing isn’t a lab animal.”
“We’re not researching Dixing per se,” Li Qian said carefully, the tone of her voice reminding Lin Jing that she had seen her share of bad situations when everything happened last year, the same as any SID member. “We are studying transit between Haixing and Dixing via controlled dark energy devices—“
The first woman’s voice laughed briefly and without humor. “Controlled dark energy devices, will you listen to these people? Do you even know what they are?”
“Do you know what they are?” Lin Jing demanded, hoping she’d have an answer that would magically resolve their research obstacles.
“The Treacherous Portal,” said the man behind him solemnly, punctuating his declaration with another sharp jab at Lin Jing’s ribs.
“Ow, fuck, will you stop that!” Lin Jing wheezed. “What did I ever do to you? Wait—portal we knew about, but treacherous?”
“Xiao Zhang, that’ll do,” the first woman ordered, probably forestalling, much to Lin Jing’s gratitude, another blow. “You two came here through the Portal. You’re treachery personified.”
“Treachery to who? Or to what? Honestly, I think we have some kind of a misunderstanding here…”
“Haixingren,” the other woman muttered, sounding so vicious that Lin Jing was glad she wasn’t the one who had hold of his arms. He hoped she wasn’t holding Li Qian instead. “They’re all like this.”
“Tell us who you are and what you want from us,” Li Qian demanded, sounding more imperious than Lin Jing would have dreamed she was capable of, “or let us go! What is the Treacherous Portal?”
Lin Jing heard the first woman draw breath as if to respond, but any answer she might have made was cut short by a sudden immense creaking from overhead: the sound of overstressed beams. For a moment, captors and captives froze together.
“Shit!” someone hissed, a man’s voice around where Li Qian was. “I told you this place wasn’t--!”
“It’s settling. It’s not going to come down just like that!” the leader announced, but the overtuned tension in her voice made it plain that she didn’t really believe what she was saying.
“Fengfeng, this place is dust held together with rust! There’s a reason it’s been out of use for decades. We’ve been making more noise and vibration in here than anyone in—“
“And you’re making more of it! We need to find out—“
“We need to get out!” That was the man holding Lin Jing, his voice climbing toward hysteria.
“Just leave them here,” the other woman spat. “That’ll put paid to their research, and we can—“
Another vast creak was succeeded by a vaster rumble from overhead.
“Enough!” someone shouted, and Lin Jing’s arms were freed so suddenly that he almost fell over. He scrambled to his feet, seeing the vague forms of their captors bursting into movement. Which was Li Qian--?
“Xiao Chen!” the first woman shouted. “Xiao Zhang—Xiangxiang! Wait, don’t—“
The exit was that way—he could see a faint, faint outline of gray light—was that Li Qian’s braid swinging--?
“Not you! You’re going nowhere, you’ll never leave Dixing again!” said the other woman’s voice suddenly, right in front of him, and then there was a terrible blow over his right eye and a shower of light and then nothing.
Someone was saying his name, over and over, steadily. Sha Ya…he thought blurrily, but no; there were edges to Sha Ya’s voice, good edges, that he would know, and when they were alone she called him Ah Jing these days, not his full name…Ah Ya…
“Lin Jing!” the voice repeated, and Lin Jing opened his eyes, or tried to. The right one wouldn’t open fully, and even with the left eye open he couldn’t see more than a greyish dimness. The sense of wrongness he’d felt even while unconscious realized itself fully as an appalling headache, focused on the right temple but spreading ravenously everywhere, pulsing along with his heartbeat and bringing tears to his eyes.
“Don’t move yet,” said the voice calling his name…Li Qian, he realized, memory threading back around the edges of the pain. “I’ve just about stopped the bleeding, but I want to see if it holds. Do you know where you are?”
“…it’s dark,” was what came out, which made next to no sense but helped to lead him to the answer she wanted. Dark, Dixing, the portal boxes, the…Dixingren gang?...holding them, the… “Did the roof fall down?”
“Only some of it, here and there,” Li Qian said tightly. “So far. One of our mysterious friends knocked you cold on their way out—with an iron pipe or similar, at least she was nice enough to choose a weapon that didn’t have sharp edges—and then there was a lot of dust for a while. That’s all I know.”
“You should have…” Lin Jing closed his eyes again, feeling sick.
“No, I shouldn’t,” she snapped back, not needing him to finish the sentence. “I’m responsible for you.”
“Can we argue about this…later when I can think? Is there going to be a later?” he added, raising one hand to his temple and then thinking better of it.
“I’m pretty sure your skull is in one piece,” Li Qian reported, clinical in tone if not in phrasing. “I wouldn’t place money on the odds of a concussion, though. Your right eye is a mess, but I think the eye itself is all right, it’s just the swelling from the head blow. The orbit might be bruised. Can you tell? Don’t touch it.”
“Wasn’t going to.” Lin Jing kept both eyes closed and tried groggily to categorize the pain. It wasn’t like he was a biologist. “I don’t think…my eye hurts a lot but just like part of the whole thing? not like there’s structural damage. Nothing feels that…wrong.”
“Well, let’s be grateful for small favors.” She sighed, a liquid sound of such unhappiness that Lin Jing groped past his headache to say urgently “You all right? They didn’t hurt you--?”
“They hardly even touched me,” she said, tears in her voice. “I’m fine. I thought we were done with this kind of thing now. I thought we could just do science. Real science, not… After everything happened…”
“Oh, Li Qian,” he said, and ran out of words, as much overwhelmed by her pain as by his own.
After a while, he heard her gulp and say to herself in a small voice—almost too soft to hear through the pounding in his head—“You can cry later, Qianqian.” It had the sound of a well-worn mantra. She sniffed hard and said, much more firmly, “We can’t stay here forever. Do you think you can stand up now?”
“Sure,” he said automatically; it was almost true. There was one bad moment when the floor seemed to heave under his feet like an earthquake, making him grab for Li Qian’s shoulder and lean on her until his head stopped reeling. Once he was all the way up, though, he was pretty sure he could stay that way.
“I can’t catch you if you collapse,” she warned him, her voice crisp and professional again as they worked their way toward what might be the exit. She had her phone out and was lighting the path ahead of her—no signal in Dixing, but the battery worked. Lin Jing’s phone was gone, fallen out of his pocket at some point in the scuffling. “You’ve got to stay on your feet, or else give me plenty of warning.”
“Didn’t get this tall on purpose,” Lin Jing mumbled, the difficulty of keeping all his limbs moving in concert momentarily bringing him back to age fourteen, growing fifteen centimeters in a year and tripping over everything.
On the thought, his foot hit something and he almost did fall, stumbling sideways with a gasp of pain as his throbbing head protested the sudden movement.
“Something…on the floor…”
“Someone,” said a voice that was neither of theirs from below, and they both stopped dead.
“It’s her—the one in charge—“ Li Qian dropped to one knee on the dusty floor. “Are you hurt?”
“No, just sitting here for fun,” said the woman waspishly. “Actually, amazingly enough, no, not really. I was afraid to move because the floor’s given way over there.”
“Thanks for telling us!”
“Telling you now, aren’t I? You might want to stop where you are.”
Lin Jing heard Li Qian gulp, and made himself turn his head to follow her gaze. About a meter past the woman sitting on the floor was…nothing, the planks splintering away to a darkness deeper than the half-light around them, with no clear path around.
“Cellar,” Li Qian muttered. “That could be two stories deep…”
“More,” the woman said, sounding rather pleased about it. “This was a manufactory once, when Dixing went in for things like that. They built it on a grand scale. Fall in there and you won’t be coming out again any time soon.”
“There must be other routes—other exits.” Li Qian was thinking logically, but he could hear the quiver in her voice. “What’s left of the roof won’t hold that long—and even if it does, we need to get out.”
Ways out. Lin Jing, working his way laboriously through his own chain of logic, felt in his inner jacket pocket and came up with the little trimetal dial that he had designed and then modified, a million years ago back in Haixing in the light of day, to detect and measure a particular kind of dark energy. Between the dim light and the headache he couldn’t focus on it for long, but he didn’t need long. “She has the portal boxes,” he said.
Both women’s heads snapped around. “How--?” Li Qian said, shook her head, and went on briskly to the other woman, “Take them out. Do you know how to use them?”
“What do you—“ the woman began furiously.
“We don’t have time for that,” Li Qian cut her off, cool and commanding, once again in full Director Li mode. “Take them out and use them and don’t close the portal until all three of us are through. If you don’t know how to use them, give them to me. Or did you do all this just to end up crushed under a roof beam with all your objectives unmet?”
The woman gave her what would probably have been a death glare in better lighting, but she took the boxes, still lightly wrapped in their protective sheaths, out of her coat pockets and, with no further ado, flicked them open together. Perilously near the gaping hole of the cellar, the portal to Haixing shimmered into being.
“I’ll never be able to look myself in the face again,” the woman muttered. “Well?”
Li Qian put one firm hand on the woman’s wrist and the other, gentler, on Lin Jing’s. “Be sure to bring the boxes through with you,” she said, and they stepped through.
The sensation of momentarily increased air pressure, perceptible but slight on their earlier transits, made Lin Jing feel as if his headache was trying to crack his skull open. “Give me a minute,” he mumbled, sat down heavily on the curb of some unidentified Haixing street, and threw up in the gutter.
Li Qian sat down next to him and rubbed his back. “That might have been medically inadvisable,” she said sadly.
“Like we had a choice?” Lin Jing coughed on the acid in his throat, wincing. What he wouldn’t do for a glass of water. Maybe he could just quietly pass out, that would be a lot less undignified as well as less painful.
“Here.” What Li Qian handed him was a tidily folded handkerchief, sunny yellow with green embroidery, because of course it was, she’d been Professor Shen’s favorite student, impeccable dress with unexpected accessories was par for the course.
“Thanks,” he said, swallowing hard, telling himself he’d get it washed and give it back to her if they ever got back to normal ordinary life. He held it to his eyes for a long moment and then wiped his mouth, crumpled the handkerchief inward and pocketed it for now.
“Are you done?” said the Dixingren woman somewhere above them, sounding bored and impatient.
Li Qian glanced up at her. “If you’re not satisfied, I suggest you teach your friends not to hit people over the head. None of this was his idea.”
“Actually it kind of was,” Lin Jing admitted miserably, for the sake of fairness. “Not the getting hit over the head part, I mean…”
Li Qian gave him a look a little too much like one of Zhu Hong’s for comfort, but left it at that. “Who are you and your friends, anyway?” she said to the other woman. “What is all this?”
The Dixingren woman sighed, and sat down on the curb on Li Qian’s far side. Seen in the Haixing street-lighting, she was petite—easily a head shorter than Li Qian, who was tall for a Haixingren woman—wearing jeans and an incongruously bright red hoodie, with a round face and thick shoulder-length hair. She was also young, maybe not even out of her teens, young enough to be an undergrad if she’d been in Haixing. “My name’s Kong Aifeng,” she said, and then, with self-conscious pride, “I’m the bearer of the Scripted Glass.”
“The what?” Li Qian and Lin Jing said together.
Kong Aifeng blinked at them. “You were studying the Treacherous Portal, but you don’t know about the Glass? I thought Haixing had, like, schools.”
Lin Jing and Li Qian looked at each other and gave up on even trying to explain physics, chemistry, and bioengineering, and how little either of them had ever been taught in school about dark energy. Maybe the Haixing curriculum needed some changes made, along with the new Dixing schools movement.
“What do you mean, treacherous?” Li Qian asked, postponing the issue. “You keep saying that.”
“That’s the name of—those.” Kong Aifeng pointed at the two boxes, quiescent on the pavement beside them. “Treacherous because—it takes Dixing power to open a portal. Only Dixingren should be able to control the way between the worlds. But with those boxes, even Haixingren like you, with no powers, can do it. Whoever made them was a traitor to the spirit of Dixing.”
Li Qian blinked. Lin Jing thought about it. He was pretty sure by this time that he actually did have a concussion: things that should have been simple and straightforward were pain-blurred and confusing, and other things that should have been cloudy seemed abnormally clear. “Why should Dixingren control the portals both ways?” he asked her. “It’s a two-way street. You know?”
“Political—or philosophical—arguments later on,” Li Qian ruled. “The Scripted Glass first. What is it and what does it have to do with the boxes?”
Kong Aifeng hesitated for a moment. Then she wriggled out of the backpack she had on and drew out something about the size of a dinner plate, wrapped in pale green silk. Within was a round mirror with a double row of characters written small and fine around the circumference. “The Scripted Glass,” she said proudly.
The mirror showed the night sky above them, and some of the building behind them. Or did it? As Li Qian tilted it toward herself to examine it (Kong Aifeng kept a grip on the edges, unwilling to hand it over completely), the mirror still showed the sky, refusing to reflect Li Qian’s face or catch the street light behind her. She frowned. “What does it show?”
“It shows what the Portal sees—the boxes. Where they are. It’s been showing two separate scenes for as long as I can remember. It was only last week that they came together into one—and then it was mostly your lab.” She spat out the word like something dirty. “Can you blame us for needing to know what you were doing with them?”
“You could’ve just asked nicely,” Lin Jing muttered. “How did you know where to lie in wait for us, anyway?”
“We—well, Ma Guanxiang has just a little bit of foresight for her power, it only works about one time in three but, all right, we got lucky this time, and we had a hint. There are some places—the Portal likes them, according to the stories my grandma told. The old glassmakers’ is one. Maybe the boxes were made there. We figured you’d end up there at some point.”
Lin Jing tensed, watching Li Qian’s eyes widen as well. “You mean it’s not random? The portal locations?”
Kong Aifeng shrugged. “Who knows? You’re the first ones to actually use them since my grandmother’s grandmother’s time, or maybe longer than that. All we know is a few little things like that.”
“What does it say?” Li Qian frowned, tracing the lines of characters with a fingertip, not quite touching the surface. “It doesn’t look like actual sentences—“
“Give me that,” Lin Jing said suddenly, and reached for the mirror, barely noticing Li Qian fending off Kong Aifeng’s protests. He put it on his lap and got the trimetal dial out of his pocket again, adjusting the settings as far as he knew how, calling up the data gleaned during Shen Wei’s adventure. If he could see how the characters on the mirror interacted—
He couldn’t. Trying to focus on the delicate brushstrokes made the headache worse, his vision dimming—his right eye was already swollen almost shut. He closed both eyes and breathed deep, trying not to black out. Not now, not with this tantalizing scientific puzzle in front of him--
“Lin Jing?” Li Qian said sharply.
“I’m okay,” Lin Jing managed, opening his eyes again, cautiously. “Look. Can you read out the characters for me? On the mirror.”
“I’ll do it,” Kong Aifeng snapped, reaching over Li Qian’s legs to grab the mirror back.
She wasn’t questioning the premise, so Lin Jing didn’t care. “Go ahead.”
Li Qian was the one who protested. “We should get you to a hospital. We’re in Haixing now—somewhere,” with momentary distress; the golden sandstone of the buildings around them was nothing found anywhere in Dragon City. “I should have thought of it right away.”
“Later. I’m not, like, dying, my head just hurts a lot. Go on, Xiao Kong, read.”
“Call me that again and you will be, like, dying,” Kong Aifeng promised, cleared her throat, and began to read off the characters.
At first he’d just had calibration in mind—figure out the basic settings so they could all get home one way or another. He was pretty sure the sandstone buildings and the warm humid air around them meant they were on Deer Island, a day or more from Dragon City by train. Much faster just to make like the Black-Cloaked Envoy and travel by portal.
It wasn’t that simple, though. As he should damn well have guessed from the start, you had to understand the system to be able to calibrate the basic settings. Of the characters on the glass, some were easy enough to work out—he figured out the ones for the Dragon City street near Grandma Meng’s shop immediately, and Li Qian identified the old glass factory—but others were far less clear, making it difficult to extrapolate whether there was an actual system or just randomly assigned symbols. Nor was there a one-to-one correspondence for single characters, and then there was the question of how you actually got the boxes to respond to the coordinates—
That one they worked out almost by a stroke of luck, because unlike Li Qian, Kong Aifeng wasn’t shy about letting her fingers run over the characters as she read them, and Lin Jing’s dial reacted to the shifts in dark energy the characters evoked. Professor Shen was going to be fascinated, assuming they got home safely to show the damn thing to him.
For the moment, they worked out a system. Kong Aifeng, possessive of her mirror, read out the characters as needed and provided Dixing-based geographical knowledge, Lin Jing worked out the pattern with the help of the readings on his trimetal dial, and Li Qian did calculations on her phone and put in comments when she thought he was missing something. He was incredibly grateful for her quick flexible mind and attention to detail (not to mention her notes); the pattern was too complex to be easily grasped alone, even without the headache savaging his concentration. Li Qian, who was not only thinking more clearly than he was at the moment but equally capable of grasping the complex actions of dark energy relationships, was the key.
Up until now, he’d never felt he knew Li Qian very well. She was his boss; she was younger than he was, but preternaturally self-possessed; she was Professor Shen’s protegée, with all the intelligence that implied, and in her own way had been through the Ye Zun-induced mess when everything happened along with the rest of them. They got along fine, they worked together well, it wasn’t like there was romance getting in the way (he liked women like Sha Ya who came off edgier, okay, be honest, he liked women who were Sha Ya; he wasn’t sure if Li Qian was dating Professor Shen’s tiny, feisty TA or what, and in either case he was pretty certain he wasn’t her type). But they were just co-workers; there was nothing like the teasing, caustic, dependable warmth he and Zhu Hong had always shared. He’d always had more female friends than male ones, if anything (the thing with Cong Bo wasn’t what most people would call friendship, more like a shared predilection for obsessive arguments about hacking techniques and webnovel plotlines, sometimes leading to rough sex), but this whole ill-conceived midnight adventure was the first time he’d felt Li Qian could be counted as one of them. Someone who had his back, as he’d have hers.
“…Lin Jing? Stay with us.” She patted his arm.
“Oh. I’m good. I was just…thinking. Are we done?”
“I think so. Finally.” Li Qian yawned. “It’s three in the morning, let’s rest a little before we try the portal. You’re exhausted, and Xiao Kong and I have had a long night too. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She stood up and headed off down the street; Lin Jing and Kong Aifeng stared after her, disconcerted. After a moment, the Dixingren girl shrugged and replaced the mirror carefully in its silk wrapping, setting it aside and standing up to stretch like Da Qing. Lin Jing shifted weight awkwardly to lean back against the nearest wall, and shut his eyes.
“You really don’t want to fall asleep with a head injury,” Kong Aifeng’s voice informed him.
“Go away,” he muttered. “I’m not sleeping. Resting, like Li Qian said.”
“Was she telling the truth about being the lab director? She doesn’t look old enough.”
Lin Jing’s eyes came open in spite of himself. “She was telling the truth and you better believe she’s earned that position, and you better treat her with the respect she deserves.”
“What? Back off. I just wanted to know. Is she your girlfriend, or what?” Kong Aifeng sounded slightly envious under her habitual belligerence.
“Not even close.” Lin Jing shut his eyes again, grinning. “She’s my boss. Also my friend,” to see how it sounded to himself.
On that note, Li Qian reappeared, breathless. “There’s an all-night convenience store at the intersection,” she reported with satisfaction. “I thought there might be. It turns out we’re on Deer Island—“
“—yeah, I figured—“
“—and luckily they take Dragon City cards. I bought some snacks and some water.”
Lin Jing opened his eyes, remembering just how thirsty he was. “Li Qian. Marry me?”
Li Qian looked startled, eyes widening like she was Professor Shen caught off guard, and then started to giggle so hard that she sat down on the pavement and fell over sideways.
Kong Aifeng stared at her. “I thought you said she wasn’t your girlfriend,” she said to Lin Jing, which just made Li Qian’s laughing jag worse. Lin Jing had to breathe carefully to keep himself from cracking up too; it wasn’t even that funny, it was just…so funny.
“…here’s your water,” Li Qian gasped, sitting up far enough to hand him a bottle. “Oh…I haven’t…oh dear, we’re punch-drunk. It’s the hour.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and gulped down her last few giggles. “Xiao Kong, do you want something to eat?”
Lin Jing sipped his cool, delicious, marvelous, heaven-sent water while the two women drank theirs and consumed a variety of steamed buns and bean jelly sweets. The idea of eating anything made him feel sick, and Li Qian didn’t press him.
“Next step,” she said finally, licking stickiness off her fingers. “Where in Dixing do we want to end up?”
Lin Jing set the empty water bottle down reluctantly and forced his battered brain back into gear, wishing he could run his fingers through his hair like normal. “Not the Palace, and not that damn factory,” he began.
“If it’s even still standing,” Kong Aifeng added. “Look, how about Liujiao Square, you know, the six-sided plaza? I mean, the one they call Shanjiao Square now that it’s got flower pepper growing all over the walls, since—things changed. You know? It’s kind of central, and there’s enough space for a portal or three.”
“Oh. Yeah, I know it. That sounds good…” Lin Jing looked sideways at Li Qian. “You’re going to laugh at me.”
“The square is…well, it’s pretty near Sha Ya and Hua Yuzhu’s place. I think it’s Yuzhu-mei who got the flower pepper going. I wouldn’t have suggested it, but, um…”
“Clearly it’s your lucky day, then,” Li Qian said, in a tone of voice that sounded like more of Professor Shen, and he agreed meekly and left it at that.
In any case, they had their work cut out for them trying to come up with a set of concrete coordinates. Li Qian and Kong Aifeng spent a good five minutes straight arguing over whether the glass would interpret lù as liù like a formal number six, or whether it just meant on land. Lin Jing finally told both of them that either way it would be fine, since they were on a goddamn island right now and being on the mainland, Dixing version thereof, was just where they wanted to be. For his trouble he got identical looks of resentful irritation from the Haixing scientist and the Dixing delinquent, but for someone who had spent most of his working life in close quarters with Da Qing, Zhu Hong, and Chu Shuzhi, that was nothing.
They worked it out. Lin Jing held the mirror, not trusting his hand-eye coordination for anything else right now; Kong Aifeng opened the boxes, and at the same time Li Qian lightly touched the characters on the mirror in the sequence they had determined.
The portal opened; they hurried through. Lin Jing had braced himself against the pressure change this time, but he still had to lean on Li Qian for a long moment and breathe. Kong Aifeng came last with the boxes, closing the portal behind them. “Yes!” she crowed, looking around them in the pale half-light of a Dixing predawn. “Will you look at that! We did it!” And then she froze, and said “But…”
“Oh, good,” said the woman who had knocked Lin Jing out, uncoiling to her feet from a position unnervingly nearby in the six-sided square. “I was right. Goes to show, Xiao Zhang, you said it’d never work twice.”
Looking almost as disconcerted as Kong Aifeng, the man next to her refused to meet her gaze. The boy, really—none of them were any older than Xiao Kong. Lin Jing wondered what he’d done (this time) to offend his ancestors such that he had to be menaced by a pack of jumped-up juvenile delinquents twice in one night.
Kong Aifeng had shoved the boxes into her hoodie pocket and was standing braced to attack or defend, although it was hard to tell whom from whom. “Xiangxiang?” she said cautiously. “What’s going on?”
“Good question, Fengfeng. It’s good to see you got out of the glassmakers’, we thought maybe the roof had fallen on you. Are you on their side now? Letting Haixingren touch the Scripted Glass?”
Kong Aifeng swallowed. “They know…” she began, and then hesitated, and turned to Lin Jing and said “Give me the Glass.”
He was slow to respond, not immediately processing what was happening, and she shoved him violently with one hand and grabbed the mirror away with the other, clutching it to her chest. Lin Jing lost his balance and stumbled backward, barely keeping his feet; Li Qian shouted “Leave him alone!” and braced his shoulders with both hands, the only way she could support his greater height and weight without toppling herself. He let her steady him, blinking away tears of pain, and watched helplessly as Kong Aifeng approached the other woman.
“I’ve got the Glass, as you see,” she announced, “and the Portal. That’s more than you managed to do, Ma Guanxiang.”
“You couldn’t have done any of it without my foresight,” the other woman—Ma Guanxiang retorted. “Can we finish this now, Fengfeng? The Glass yours, grandmother to granddaughter, as it has been. The Treacherous Portal all of ours—belonging to the next generation of Dixingren, as it should be. And the Haixingren—“ She made a short contemptuous gesture in their direction. “Done away with, as they deserve.”
She’s got a great future as an evil dictator, Lin Jing thought dizzily. Too bad for her she’s just missed the boat in Dixing…unless things are worse down here than I thought…and if not, how come she hates us so much anyway…I really, really don’t want to get hit again.
His head had cleared enough that he could stay on his feet, but his mind seemed to be running on things that had little to do with the unpleasant tableau they were all stuck in. Kong Aifeng’s Scripted Glass was the answer, of course, to the problem he had been wrestling with long ago in the lab when his head didn’t hurt, the question of how the portal boxes could hold so much dark energy without revealing it from the outside. The glass held it for them, channeling it through the characters into the boxes when they were opened, via the simpler set of characters painted and carved into the boxes themselves. He owed Shen Wei another apology; without knowing about the glass, there was no way of working that out from the boxes alone.
The boxes had to be open to work. Faithful rather than treacherous, they were designed to create a portal from the dark energy and nothing else. But the glass was not similarly limited.
This was Dixing. There was dark energy in the stones and in the air, energy in the gradually brightening Lantern-light. Energy in Ma Guanxiang’s foresighted eyes and, in smaller amounts, in Kong Aifeng and poor dumb Xiao Zhang and the other Dixingren kids. Energy, Hua Yuzhu’s blossoming power, in the soft cascades of flower pepper on the walls of the square.
“Xiao Kong!” Lin Jing called out, hoping the idea would keep its fragile shape in his aching head. “You don’t have to choose yet. Bring me the glass for a moment, okay?”
Kong Aifeng turned to stare at him, along with the rest of the little gang. “Xiao Kong?” one of the other men—Xiao Chen?—repeated incredulously.
“You don’t have to choose yet,” Lin Jing repeated, barely hearing himself. “It’s a two-way street.”
“Xiao Kong,” Li Qian said from beside him, quieter. “We need you working with us.”
Kong Aifeng watched her for a moment with painful intensity, and then took a step, two steps, in their direction.
“I’m not letting go of it,” she tossed over her shoulder. “I need to know what they know.”
Lin Jing wasn’t sure if this was an excuse for her friends or if she meant it, but it didn’t matter. He was already working with the trimetal dial, calling up all the data he had and ransacking it for what he needed, longing for the power and operability of a full-scale computer. Too bad, he was a genius and he could do this no matter how hard it was.
“Xiao Kong, hang onto the damn mirror and stay right here. Li Qian—I need you—“
“How fast can you work?” she said. “They’re not going to give us much time, even with Xiao Kong here.”
“I know. Touch the characters as I tell you, okay?”
It wasn’t quite that straightforward. There had to be a sequence that would allow the mirror to bypass the boxes, and another for it to draw energy from the surroundings, and then the actual directions for the energy itself. Some of it was there for the taking in his data, but he was relying heavily on Li Qian’s suggestions and notes, and, too often, having to resort to desperate not-quite-guesses based on brute-force extrapolation and instinct.
Lost in concentration, his vision steadily darkening around the edges, Lin Jing had no idea how much time was passing until he heard Kong Aifeng catch her breath. He looked up, dizzy, to see morning light glint off the ugly little knife in Ma Guanxiang’s hand as she moved in on them.
“Xiangxiang,” Kong Aifeng warned, her voice suddenly hard and adult on the pet name. “Don’t do this. I mean it.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing, Kong Aifeng. Don’t tell me what to do.”
Li Qian’s steady hands were poised over the glass; it was already shimmering with dark energy barely held in check, and he had to look away, focusing one more time on the dial. The data was wrung dry, there was nothing for it now but educated guesswork and hope.
“I know what we’re doing,” Kong Aifeng said quietly, and Lin Jing said to Li Qian, “Fàng and then wú and hài together and then qióng,” her hands moving almost before he spoke, and the knife flashed and the mirror answered it, brighter, bright enough that he gasped with pain, near-blinded, and the air shuddered and echoed with dark energy and then fell still.
“What the fuck,” Kong Aifeng said reverently into the silence, almost to herself.
Li Qian laughed, not quite steady. “I thought you said you knew what we were doing?”
“What, you believed that…? Look. The Glass did that?”
Lin Jing looked where she was pointing, blinking through a blackening haze, at the—yes, it was, a kind of dome of dark energy, strangely focused dimness shot through with glints of color, set like an improbable lid over Ma Guanxiang and Xiao Chen and Xiao Zhang and their comrades, safe as houses.
“It worked,” he breathed, but neither of the women seemed to hear him, and although he didn’t remember closing his eyes again his vision faded to black.
There was a voice calling his name. Li Qian…? No, this time…this time…
It really was Sha Ya; he wasn’t hallucinating, not when his head still hurt this much, he was awake and she was here. “…Ah Ya.”
She let out a long relieved breath and shook her head with a half smile, bright extensions bobbing. “…This man, I can’t even. I ask you, Yuzhu-ah, what am I even supposed to do with him?”
“You haven’t had much trouble coming up with answers to that question so far,” Yuzhu-mei’s voice said sweetly from somewhere nearby, and Lin Jing thought that if he were only in less pain he’d be really enjoying Sha Ya’s peach-hued blush.
“Can you sit up?” she asked him, a little more briskly than necessary, and he thought about it.
“Don’t try yet,” said another voice, also startlingly familiar yet out of place.
“Professor Shen!” That was Li Qian, very close. Good, she was safe. He couldn’t see her either. “Oh, I mean—“
Lin Jing blinked hazily as the formidable Black-Cloaked figure came into view, bending to lean over him and rest a hand gently over Li Qian’s makeshift bandage job on his temple; even the cool fingers’ light pressure hurt enough to make Lin Jing catch his breath. Dark energy swirled suddenly at the edge of his vision and he shut his eyes, nauseated, and then groaned in involuntary relief as coolness seemed to radiate from Shen Wei’s hand through his head, replacing the pain and the pressure of the swelling around his eye.
“Thank you,” he breathed, cautiously opening both eyes. His head didn’t hurt. It was amazing. It was wonderful.
“Head injuries are tricky.” Shen Wei sounded out of breath. “I’ve done what I can, but you’ll want to take at least a couple of days to rest and recover, and if you have any unusual symptoms, you should see a doctor at once.”
Lin Jing had to swallow an inappropriate snicker at the contrast between the briskly clinical phrasing and the dignity of the black cloak and mask. “Even so. Thanks, Professor, uh, I mean Lord Envoy.”
“From you, I think Professor is the more honorable title,” Shen Wei said drily. “Li Qian, are you unhurt?”
“Fine, Professor Shen,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re here. Thank you for healing Lin Jing.”
“The least I could do. I’m glad you’re well; Jiajia would have quite a few things to say to me if not… Can the two of you explain what exactly has been going on here?”
“The three of us, I think,” Li Qian said, helping Lin Jing sit up (having Li Qian at one shoulder and Sha Ya at the other was extremely weird). “This is Kong Aifeng, the bearer of the Scripted Glass.”
Kong Aifeng’s eyes were huge. “Lord Black Robe,” she murmured. “I, uh…I…we…”
“Professor,” Li Qian said mildly, “I think maybe if you, er, changed…”
“Ah. Yes. My apologies.” There was a soft, targeted swirl of dark energy, and the Black-Cloaked Envoy became Professor Shen in civvies: rather dressed down for him, in fact, wearing bottle-green suit trousers, a white dress shirt open at the throat, and a denim vest that looked as if—no, really, it had to belong to—
Lin Jing and Li Qian made the near-fatal mistake of exchanging glances, and then hurriedly looked away again; Li Qian let go of his shoulder and put both hands to her mouth, while Lin Jing took a deep breath and concentrated on Sha Ya’s familiar fragrance of smoke and spice and copper.
By the time they both had reliably straight faces, Kong Aifeng was speaking. “…not as if Haixing can just say oh, sorry, things are all better now, and that fixes everything. It’s personal for us—you know it, Lord Envoy, there’s hardly a household in Dixing where someone hasn’t suffered because of the way things were—“
They all flinched together, Shen Wei the deepest of all, although perhaps you had to know him to see it on his face.
Unknowing, Kong Aifeng went on, “And the Treacherous Portal gives Haixingren even more power over us. We were afraid—we didn’t know—So my friends and I figured we’d reclaim the Portal and make sure the Haixingren using it never tried to mess with Dixing again.” She swallowed, turning away from Shen Wei to look at Lin Jing and Li Qian. “The plan wasn’t to kill you. Or anyone. I swear. We’re not—Xiangxiang wasn’t like that. I knew she was…she hasn’t had it easy, but…”
“Different reactions in different contexts,” Li Qian said quietly, quoting the lab truism, her eyes far away. “…It’s all right, Xiao Kong.”
“I’m also curious about the source of this…unprecedented use of dark energy,” Shen Wei interjected. “My attention isn’t often drawn so forcefully to such a sudden shift.” (So we basically dragged the Black-Cloaked Envoy out of bed at five in the morning? Lin Jing wondered, and spared a moment to be extremely grateful that Zhao Yunlan was no longer in charge of his bonus.) “This was your doing, Kong Aifeng?”
“No! I mean…I helped. Well, sort of. I let them use the Glass—Mr. mad scientist over there and…and Director Li. They knew what to do.”
Lin Jing cleared his throat. “Professor Shen, can we, like, sit down later with the data and talk? It’s a breakthrough of sorts—we’ll have lead papers in the XJEE for years—“ he couldn’t stop himself from grinning—“ but Li Qian and I were pretty much flying blind and we’re not ready for a report yet.”
“Fair enough,” Shen Wei agreed, with a nod from Li Qian. “In that case, the immediate issue is your friends, Kong Aifeng, and you yourself.” He paused, standing still in that way he had, when anyone else would have been fidgeting in thought. “Li Qian. Does the laboratory budget allow for a student intern?”
Li Qian blinked, and then smiled. “I think I could work it out. A student intern enrolled in the Dixing integrative program at the university, under the auspices of Professor Shen, I take it?”
“Correct. Kong Aifeng, Li Qian and my assistant will be in touch with you to discuss the particulars. You are not, of course, compelled to accept any offer that doesn’t interest you, but in any case we hope to work closely with you as the bearer of the Glass. Does that meet your expectations?”
Kong Aifeng was staring at him as if she wasn’t sure which one of them was crazy, but after a moment she closed her mouth and nodded. “Thank you, Lord Black Robe,” she said firmly. “I’ll…I’ll let you know.” She swallowed. “And Xiangxiang…and Xiao Chen and the others…?”
“I have in mind to consign them to the Palace,” Shen Wei said, and she went pale.
“Is, um, isn’t that kind of a nuclear option, Professor?” Lin Jing ventured.
“We’ll see. I feel that the Regent in his…current incarnation…has some understanding of unlearning hatred between Haixing and Dixing, while the King and his associates are not unfamiliar with Dixing juvenile delinquency.”
Lin Jing grinned, seeing both points. His current incarnation, otherwise known as having a full-time conscience formerly known as Zhang Shi. Right.
“We’ll leave…all this…in your hands, then, Professor,” Li Qian said. “We should really be back in Haixing—“
“I suggest,” Shen Wei said gently, “that you both rest a little first, since I have no doubt that your first instincts on returning to the lab will be to dive back into full-on research. Maybe Sha Ya and Hua Yuzhu can accommodate you for a little while…?”
Lin Jing really hadn’t meant to lie down at all, especially not on Sha Ya and Hua Yuzhu’s bed, tucked into its little alcove in their one-room cottage. But Yuzhu-mei actually took his hand and led him there, and Sha Ya and Li Qian both came to stand over him while he was still sitting on the edge of the bed whining.
“Look, yeah, I was up all night, but so were you, Li Qian. The Envoy healed me, I’m totally fine now—“
“Professor Shen healed the injury itself, yes, but not the residual physical trauma—“ Li Qian began, overlapping with Sha Ya’s “If you could see your face you wouldn’t say that, Ah Jing—“ They broke off and looked at each other, disconcerted and not especially friendly.
Lin Jing groaned. “All right, I’m lying down, watch me, I’m resting, okay? Just for an hour or two, then we’ll head back, okay?”
It worked. And though he hadn’t wanted to admit it, they were both right; he was already drifting into exhausted sleep when he heard the quiet voices from the main room.
“Thank you for sending someone for us when it all went down.” Sha Ya’s voice was small and stiff, sparking with tension. “But just so you know—if you’d let him get himself killed, I would have come after you. And this time I wouldn’t have stopped at knocking you out.”
“Of the two of us,” said Li Qian, just as softly, “I’m not the one who’s ever hurt Lin Jing deliberately.”
He held his breath until, a beat late, Sha Ya gave a short, self-mocking laugh. Before she could speak, Li Qian added, no laughter in her voice, “If he ever does get hurt again—or worse—on my watch, I’ll answer to you. Rest assured, I take that responsibility very seriously. I’m his boss.” He heard her swallow. “And his friend.”
Hua Yuzhu said, rather more clearly and brightly than necessary, “Director Li, would you like some osmanthus tea? Dixing golden guihua, from my garden.”
Li Qian thanked her, sounding suddenly shy. When Sha Ya said her own thanks for the tea, her voice was trembling. Lin Jing wanted to get up and put his arms around her, or maybe both of them, but he was already almost asleep.
He woke suddenly, later, hours later to judge from the brightness of the Lantern-light seeping through the curtains. At some point Sha Ya had managed to slip into bed with him; she was deep in sleep, making a small sibilant noise that wasn’t quite a snore, her cheek tucked against his shoulder and one arm thrown possessively over his waist. Outside he could hear Hua Yuzhu in her flower garden, singing under her breath.
Inside, once again, there were quiet voices talking. “I thought after everything happened—I thought now our research wouldn’t be so—We should be able to be scientists without having to risk—I should have known better. As the director, I’m responsible for him—“
“Li Qian.” Two steady syllables in Shen Wei’s deep, dark-toned voice. “You are interrogating the problem from the wrong angle. It’s not your professional responsibility that’s at issue.”
“…I don’t understand.”
“Last week—or was it two weeks ago? After my own…run-in with the portal boxes. I understand you were upset to hear about it?”
“Of course I was upset! You were hurt—you might have been killed, or worse—“
“You’re not in any way professionally responsible for me,” Shen Wei pointed out quietly. “Nor, I think, is it your responsibility in that sense for Lin Jing that’s upsetting you now.”
There was a long silence, although it might have been only a few breaths. When Li Qian spoke again she was crying. “I don’t want to lose you, Professor. Or Lin Jing. Or…“
“…oh. Thank you,” she gulped, and Lin Jing heard her blow her nose. He remembered hazily that he still had her handkerchief.
“Ah Li Qian…” Shen Wei sounded very tired and very fond. “I suppose it’s only right that…You taught me this lesson, after all.”
“I did? What…what lesson?”
Sha Ya stirred against Lin Jing’s shoulder; he stroked the back of her neck, watching her eyelids flutter open and then closed again.
Shen Wei said “I spent more than one lifetime…passing through. I lived among others, but without connection, without…” Lin Jing knew him well enough to hear the names he wasn’t saying, and Li Qian would too. “And then I became Professor Shen, and I was given a graduate student to mentor, one who had lost much, who never complained, who took delight in the work…if I had remained indifferent, it might have been different, perhaps easier for you in the long run. But I couldn’t.”
Li Qian had stopped crying, but her breathing still trembled. Lin Jing lay very still.
“It comes with the territory, as my…as Zhao Yunlan would say. You will be more responsible for Lin Jing now, and he for you, because you love each other, friends and colleagues who have come through a hard night together. You’re responsible for me, as I am for you.”
“You make it sound like a good thing,” Li Qian said, tremulous.
“It is,” Shen Wei said simply.
Sha Ya, eyes still shut, reached up to cup the side of Lin Jing’s face in her palm; he felt a subliminal tingle, the electricity in her blood and bone. She was listening too.
Li Qian gave a long, cathartic sigh, and blew her nose again. “If you say it, Professor Shen,” she said more firmly, “it must be true.”
“Is that so? I wish you’d point that out to Zhao Yunlan when you have the chance.” Shen Wei sounded as if he was smiling.
“I’ll be glad to.” Li Qian cleared her throat. “I should go and wake Lin Jing. If you wouldn’t mind conveying us back to Haixing? Kong Aifeng returned the portal boxes to me, along with her contact information…although I still don’t quite understand how Dixing addresses work…and we have so much work to do.”
We sure do, Lin Jing agreed silently. Sha Ya’s fingers slid along his jaw as she sank back into sleep; he shifted position carefully, leaving a kiss on her hairline before he sat up. It comes with the territory… For all that had happened afterward, he still flinched from the memory of leaving the SID, bringing boxfuls of things he didn’t care about and leaving everything important behind (his best friend, his colleagues, the boss he’d worked hard for, his self-respect). Shen Wei was suggesting that he and Li Qian could build something like that, in their own way. (And if Professor Shen said it, it must be true, right?) Lin Jing thought back to his own reckless invitation to Li Qian the night before, which had spun them through so many portals, and had no regrets after all.