by Graham B.
A girl in post-First-Contact Beijing chases her dreams.
|For weeks, Ndidi had been anticipating this day, and not just because it was her birthday. This was the day she would see Li Hien in concert.
"I will go to the Forbidden City, and I will see Li Hien!" she cried to Ping. Her chin jutted defiantly between her braids, and the sun, shining brightly on her yellow dress with its repeating geometric print made her look like a flower sprouting from a crack in a sidewalk.
Ping paused, bootleg cinechip in hand above the waiting case, and his friendly eyes crinkled with mirth.
"You have a ticket?" he asked. "A pass? Maybe a friend among the Nk'aara?"
"I will get in somehow."
Ping chuckled and continued stowing his wares for the day, as every other street vendor was doing, for the azure sky was darkening, crisscrossed as it was by Nk'aara aircars.
"And what will Ms. Zhang say if you are not in bed in time?"
Ndidi's head drooped a little at the mention of the Spring Blossom Orphanage's director.
"She won't know," said Ndidi, but her voice lost its resolve.
Ms. Zhang always knew. The steely-eyed director would ask how Ndidi would get into the exclusive event anyway, and she certainly wouldn't approve of how Ndidi planned to do so.
"Well, better to beg forgiveness than ask permission," said Ping as he broke down his table. "The high and mighty Nk'aara!" he continued as he shouldered his bag and his chair, and tucked his table under an arm. "I won't be surprised if Li Hien is the only human there!
"So, will you help another human get in? It's my birthday!"
Ping sighed. He reached deep into the pocket of his faded parka and produced the sliver of plastic.
"It will open most service entrances to the Forbidden City, but you didn't get this from me, understand?"
Ndidi nodded as she took the key.
"Thank you, Ping!"
"Happy Birthday, Ndidi!"
Ping waded away through the evening crowds. Ndidi stepped lightly along the dusty street, making her way toward the Forbidden City. Along the way, she stopped at an automated snack booth and took a free protein waffle. The sweet, crunchy confection dissolved between her teeth as she continued on her way. Since the Nk'aara arrived on Earth so many years ago, nobody went hungry. And now, it was the anniversary of that arrival, the day Ndidi was born.
As the scarlet walls of the Forbidden City appeared above the rows of tenements, a tall figure drifted among the evening pedestrians, parting them like warm knife through custard. It was a Nk'aara, walking alone amongst the humans. A full head taller than any man, its eyes were huge and luminous within its mouthless, gray-green face. It wore a shimmering green robe and had its hands stuffed into the sleeves like a monk. Ndidi couldn't tell which sex it was. She watched it move aimlessly amongst the seller's booths. Then the luminous eyes fixed on her.
The alien drifted toward her like a fog. It withdrew its hands from its sleeves, and long, seven-jointed fingers, the same color as its face, reached down and touched her braids. A strange smell washed over Ndidi, like grass and vinegar mixed together. The voice of a young woman speaking Mandarin erupted from the small black box suspended from a chain around its neck.
"Fascinating," said the voice. "You are not Han Chinese. My link tells me you are of West African origin."
Ndidi suddenly regained her breath. A Nk'aara, talking to her! What could she say?
"I am Nk'jouren," said the alien through its box.
"My name is Ndidi Tersoo," said Ndidi, attempting her politest self. "My father brought me to Beijing so he could work with Contact," she said, drawing from dusty memories.
"Very fortunate," said Nk'jouren. "The Contact Team made it possible for your species to benefit from our gifts. Tell me, young human, what did your father do for the Team?"
A deep whir interrupted. Ndidi looked up and saw a copbot hovering nearby, turbines thrumming, its single glass eye fixed on her. Satisfied that she was no threat to the honored Nk'aara, it resumed scanning the crowds.
Ndidi thought for a moment. What could she tell this alien about her father? Did it even have parents the way humans did? She barely remembered her father, but she remembered the memorial for him and others, built into an obelisk near Jiuquan Space Port.
"My father was on the first ambassadorial expedition," she said.
"Yes, I remember that one. Unfortunate, the accident. You have my sympathies."
How much did Ndidi remember about that day? The rocket with her father aboard, climbing a pillar of fire into the sky. Then an almost imperceptible flash in the stratosphere, and her father, along with a hundred other ambassadorial staff ceased to exist. She imagined that her papa was still up there in orbit, looking down on her from time to time.
Ndidi's eyes widened as a familiar face appeared in the crowds. Severe, all angles and irritation. It was Ms. Zhang. She stepped behind the hovering Nk'aara.
"I'm going to the Forbidden City," she said, trying to stay out of Zhang's sight.
"Are you going to watch Li Hien in concert?" asked Nk'jouren. "I would enjoy your company. Li Hien is truly a treasure of Earth, a voice like no other in the galaxy."
Keeping the Nk'aara between herself and Ms. Zhang, Ndidi began walking alongside the alien, drifting toward the Forbidden City.
"I have long admired humans," said Nk'jouren. "Such a young race, though so resilient! Your art attests to this, and your artists tell of stories from such a recent past, stories that Nk'aara could not even imagine. Recordings of human singers and storytellers have been distributed all throughout Nk'aara."
"I want to become a singer," said Ndidi. "Like Li Hien."
"Have you songs to sing?" said Nk'jouren, its voice box managing to convey pleasure. "A rare one such as yourself must have fascinating stories. We would highly welcome new talent from your planet..."
As the tall alien prattled on, Ndidi cast a glance over her shoulder, and was relieved when she could longer see Ms. Zhang. They continued onward through crowds that cast puzzled looks at the strange duo until the Meridian Gate appeared in scarlet and golden splendor. A moat filled with sparkling water surrounded the City, crossed by a bridge leading to the gate. Numerous humans were milling about, trying to see inside.
"It is fortunate that you have gained admittance," said Nk'jouren, heading straight for the gate where a bot was scanning identities for admission. "Will you do me the honor of sitting next to-"
The Nk'aara turned to address her, but Ndidi had vanished.
She knew exactly where to look. Most Nk'aara entered from the sky, but she found the nondescript service entrance around the west side, nearly hidden among shrubbery. Trembling, she pulled the key from her dress pocket and held it up to the lock plate, gasping when the light showed green and the lock clicked. Without delay, Ndidi entered the Forbidden City.
She saw more buildings, ancient, but well-kept. Manicured trees studded the grounds. But she couldn't see any stage or seats. Thinking back to her lessons and what she read about the Forbidden City, Ndidi walked east, passing through a grove of trees and faced another scarlet building, adorned with geometric designs that seemed to mimic her dress. She entered, smelling the combination of old wood and masonry. The musty dimness whispered to her of a wonderous past as she continued. Then suddenly, she was there.
Rows of platforms with strange proportions had been installed inside before a huge stage. Ndidi saw copbots hovering above the crowd and didn't dare approach. Looking around, she saw rows of concrete platforms with stylized dragons standing vigil. She hopped up next to a dragon and looked around. Her heart sank as she saw that there wasn't a single human here. Rows of tall gray figures moved about, taking their seats, and conversing silently in whatever medium the Nk,aara used to communicate.
A lone human mounted the stage in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the crowd of Nk,aara became as still as statues. It was Li Hien! Ndidi leaned against a dragon and gaped as Li Hien approached the microphone. She wore a simple maroon qipao gown that descended to her ankles and matching shoes. She was utterly radiant under the lights and beamed at the inscrutable alien crowd like a silver moon.
Breathless, Ndidi strained to hear the first notes. Instead, she heard the thrum of turbines. Ndidi nearly fell over whirling about, seeing the copbot descend into place. Its eye regarded her for a moment.
"Ndidi Tersoo of the Spring Blossom Orphanage," the copbot said in perfect Yoruba.
"I speak Mandarin!" she protested.
"You are not authorized to be in this area," the copbot continued in Mandarin without missing a beat. "You will accompany me to the nearest security station. Being a juvenile, you will..."
Her eyes searched the crowd. Was Nk'jouren there? Maybe it could help. Li Hien hadn't begun yet. If only!
There was a blue flash, and she collapsed, eyelids fluttering, fingers twitching, the concrete cold against her face.
In her dream, she saw her father, a dark shape in the sky, a midnight sun. His black eyes smiled at her. White smoke shot from his fingers and toes, propelling him into the blue, a messiah rising on a pillar of fire. But instead of the roar of rockets, she heard a long, lingering note from the throat of Li Hien. The note swelled, filled the sky with a soaring sound of love and hope, then faded, an exclamation point on her father's story.
Ndidi awoke to soft white panels, beeps of distant medical equipment and the smells of antiseptic telling her where she was.
"You're awake!" said a too-familiar voice.
Ndidi turned her head and saw the familiar severe angles. But instead of the usual irritation, she saw worry lines.
"What were you thinking, sneaking into that place where you didn't belong?" said Ms. Zhang, squeezing Ndidi's hand until it hurt. "And getting stunned by a copbot!"
Ndidi was discharged from the clinic with a clean bill of health and a stern warning from Beijing Children's Services. Ms. Zhang was silent all the way back to Spring Blossom with Ndidi trudging alongside, eyes downcast. As they arrived at the orphanage gates, Zhang finally spoke.
"I met Li Hien once."
Ndidi looked at Ms. Zhang, and her mouth dropped open.
"Did you know that she was an orphan, like you?" said Ms. Zhang. "She stayed at Spring Blossom for a week before being transferred to the conservatory. I wasn't the director then, but we all recognized her talent."
"Did you hear her sing?"
Ms. Zhang nodded.
"Her voice seemed to carry all of our souls with it to wherever her stories went. I imagine that's why you love to hear her sing. It tore at us to let her go, but it was for the best, I think."
Ms. Zhang's eyes became distant.
"She went on to study with the greatest artists, and you know the rest. Everyone's story starts somewhere."
Then, she ushered Ndidi through the gates.
"Now, no more nonsense. Stick with your studies and stop getting into trouble!"
Ndidi, exhausted from the evening's events, went up to the bunk room, filled with the gentle snores of other children. As she slipped into her bunk, Ndidi thought about how close she had come, and wanted to cry. Instead, her thoughts turned to her father, and in her mind, the notes pealed forth, not in Li Hien's voice, but her own.
"On pillars of fire
I see my beating heart rise
Climbing to heaven."
Word Count: 1990