“GesteCo has been…diversifying. They’ve got some interesting trees at their experimental facility in Xinjiang.”

“Trees? You pulled this whole Deep Throat cloak-and-dagger thing for trees? Look: GesteCo is the international leader in artificial gestation, test tube babies, and designer kids for the rich and famous. If you can’t give me something juicy along those lines, there’s no point in talking.”

“Trees can be interesting, Mr. Whitacre. For instance, have you seen the GesteCo tree that’s been making the rounds at bioengineering conferences? They say it can produce human stem cells.”

“It’s easier just to collect those from newborns.”

“You’re not listening, Mr. Whitacre. Inside the trees: you must look inside! It is both a wonder and a horror that will, I think, be well worth your time.”

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“As with all things, the problem comes down to chi,” said Dr. Guthrie-Xue.

“Don’t you mean qi?” said Marietta. “I think that’s how you’re supposed to say it.”

“No, I mean chi,” Guthrie-Xue said, eyes narrowed. “Don’t interrupt.”

Marietta thought of a blistering response but thought better of it. She sat fiddling with her teacup for a moment waiting for the good doctor to continue.

“Based on your description, I’m 99% sure what’s happened,” Guthrie-Xue said after that uncomfortable silence. “They call the process you’ve undergone chi deshielding–literally 破气盾 or ‘broken chi shield.'”

“So what does that mean? I need to hire a geomancer, get some feng shui up in my life? Restore the flow of positive energy?” Marietta was anxious to show her cultural sensitivity even if it stemmed from a single Chinese Culture 107 class and the forewords to the half-dozen holistic cookbooks floating around her kitchen.

“You wish. This insidious attack–which can only be performed by a master in perfect tune with their own acquired and innate chi as well as that of the world–means that you can no longer accrue or process positive chi. Lactose intolerance would be a decent metaphor. Tell me, did anything inauspicious happen on your way here today?”

Marietta nervously scratched the back of her hand. “Well, there was a black cat. And that mirror in the stall on 48th. I had to walk under a ladder to come down here because they’re painting the shop upstairs. And I was almost hit by a cab and lost my metro pass, which I know aren’t traditionally inauspicious but they damn well ought to be.”

“See the dark spots around the eyes, the shape of the ears and nose? It’s kind of panda-like.” Jenny gestured into the cage as she spoke. That’s why they’re called panda bats, or ‘xióng māo bianfu.'”

“I guess so,” Sam said, “if you’re the kind of person that sees pandas in their rice pudding.”

“They also have a ‘sixth finger’–really an elongated wrist bone–that giant pandas and red pandas have,” Jenny said.

Sam shrugged. “So that’s why it’s endangered? Because it looks like a panda?”

“No, it’s mostly habitat destruction and harvesting for traditional medicine. Bats are thought to treat epilepsy and extend life, in some circles, and the whiter the bat, the older it is and the longer it will let you live.”

“Well, people also used to think that feeding a mouse oil or salt would make it turn into a bat, and that’s where they came from. You’d think that both of them would be equally debunked.”

“You should be honored,” said the Vice-Counselor. “The Emperor has bestowed a great favor on your younger brother.”

“Imprisonment is not a favor,” said Wei. “My brother should be among family.”

“Your filial piety is impressive, but do not think that absolved you of responsibility should you oppose the Son of Heaven,” the Vice-Counselor replied. “The Emperor’s word is final.”

Wei was led into a large room, richly decorated, where many writing surfaces and quills with inkstones were on display. “Your brother and the other divine poets will be housed here, given access to food, drink, concubines, and the Imperial Library. All the Emperor asks in return is that their maddened scribblings continue to flow.”

“And why is that, exactly?” said Wei.

“For amusement. Many of the writings can be surprisingly beautiful. For insight, as well, since the shen spirits speak to them in an altogether different way.”

Sean Ross had been born in a missionary family that had fled China during the communist revolution when he was only six years old. Since then, though decades of life in the United Kingdom and the United States, through the rejection of his parents’ faith and his embrace of Marxism, China had exercised a strong and romantic hold on Sean’s mind.

When the mainland opened up to foreigners during the Deng Xiaoping era, it was natural that he’d seek to travel there. As a geologist, albeit one who had formulated some radical notions, the Chinese made eager use of his talents both in the field and training students. He spent part of nearly every year there, despite a disillusionment evident in his writings as China liberalized economically.

As Sean’s specialization was endorheic basins and desert topography, he often did work in and around the Lop Nur salt pans in Xinjiang–a marsh in the final stages of drying into a desert and fed by a dying river. The topography, alternately wet and dry with vast and mutable sand formations, fascinated him, and the distance from Shanghai and Beijing seemed to appeal to his Maoist sensibilities.

All in all, he was an undeniable asset to the Chinese, and a powerful advocate for them abroad. This made his sudden and inexplicable disappearance from a survey team campsite all the more troubling. It was something of a mark of respect, albeit one tinged with a propagandistic need to save face, that led to an entire battalion of troops and an air wing being lent to the search.

The Chinese even arranged, at great expense, to bring in Sean’s ex-wife and a group of former students to consult with the search parties.

“You can’t go back there!” the waiter cried. I brushed him off and swept into the kitchen. Hollister’s notepad said something about a short-order cook, after all.

I’d barely taken three steps in the kitchen when a green flash of something wrapped itself around my neck, just tight enough to be uncomfortable. “Didn’t you hear him? The kitchen’s employees only, hun.”

The short order cook, as it happened, was a Cantonese Wyrm–a younger one, probably less than two hundred years old, but still large enough for her front end to be working a wok while her back legs washed dishes in the kitchen sink ten feet away. She regarded me with intense yellow eyes, framed by the pink rollers that held her whiskers up and away from the food under a hair net.

“I need to speak with you,” I squeaked. “About Hollister.”

“Don’t know nobody by that name, sugar,” said the wyrm. Her rear claws emerged from the suds, each wearing a rubber glove. “But I bet wherever he is, it ain’t my kitchen.”

“He says otherwise.”

“And I say maybe I’ve got a new hunk o’ meat for the dinner rush.”

I had to think quickly. “I think you know that wyrms aren’t on the approved list of foodservice workers,” I said. “Health inspector’s coming on my tip in half an hour. What d’you think he’ll think of that? Let me go and I’ll cancel the call, then we can talk over tea.”

It so happened that the farm of Yuan Wei Tao grew prosperous in a fertile river valley. This prosperity gave Wei Tao the opportunity to indulge in his passions of basketry, pottery, and calligraphy. He was particularly adept at creating dolls out of reeds, which he would give small clay faces and wrap in a poem. Sold at the market in the nearby city, Wei Tao’s dolls were regarded as good luck charms and made particularly favored gifts for teachers, scholars, and firstborn sons. Despite success with his art, Wei Tao always considered himself a farmer first, and always worked his time in the fields before he would allow himself to indulge his fancies.

Wei Tao had a young wife named Xue Ying, and it was for her that the greatest and most intricate of the farmer’s creations were reserved. Though childless, they shared a great and noble love and could often be seen working the fields together alongside laborers and cousins. Xue Ying’s beauty was renowned throughout the river valley, as was the overwhelming devotion she showed for her husband and neighbors. But one day it came to pass that an ox broke free of its plow and trampled Xue Ying beneath his hooves, killing her instantly.

Distraught, Wei Tao withdrew himself from the world. He concealed Xue Ying’s death, convincing others that she was merely badly injured and under his care. In his despair, Wei Tao crafted the finest doll he had ever created and offered it to the Heavenly Grandfather with a poem begging to be honorably reunited with his beloved. His devotion moved the heavens, and a celestial doll appeared on Wei Tao’s doorstep wrapped in instructions.

Wei Tao created a reed doll in the shape and form of Xue Ying, and filled it with poems of the highest quality describing her life and nature. Then, using a process revealed to him by the Heavenly Grandfather, Wei Tao covered the doll in living clay. This new Xue Ying awoke, was to the eyes of Wei Tao as she had ever been. But the celestial doll had borne a warning: though possessing her form and imbued with her spirit, the new Xue Ying was still but straw and clay.

Wei Tao and Xue Ying lived their lives as they had before, but Wei Tao did not heed the Heavenly Grandfather’s caution and once again worked the fields with his beloved. As she carried heavy burdens, the living clay on Xue Ying’s back gradually thinned until a laborer noticed the bare reeds poking out from beneath her clothing. Thus was the doll’s nature revealed to the valley and also to Xue Ying herself.