Short story: Wei Lai and Mazu

The moment of Wei Lai’s conception was streamed live in schools across China. As the microscopic glass needle punctured the egg, Commander Xue answered carefully rehearsed questions from pupils back on Earth.

No, the baby would not be going on the colony ship to Sirius. This was just an experiment.

Yes, it would have a mummy. He or she (the gender neutrality of Mandarin pronouns is a godsend) would be implanted back in the mother on returning to Earth. Tests of the artificial wombs would come later, once the viability of IVF in space had been proven.

No, a child conceived in space should be no different to one conceived on Earth.

***

Lin Moniang smiles as she peers into the scented flames. She sees a boy, strong and dark haired, pinning down a mighty tuna. This is an auspicious omen.

Her client has no money. No-one in this village uses money. He pays her in fish and crabs’ legs. And, as thanks for seeing a son in his future, he leaves her a pearl – misshapen, but alive in the flickering light of the hut.

That evening, with a bone needle, she carefully drills through it layer by layer. Her fingers are covered in sharp glitter flakes, which she carefully scrapes off into a jar. When the hole is wide enough, she passes an arm’s length of thread through the pearl and ties it around her neck.

By the time she dies at the age of twenty-eight, that thread will drip with pearls from end to end.

***

Wei Lai was thirteen when the Four Modernizations rocket scorched through the clouds in a plume of hydrazine. As an honoured guest, she was to watch the first colony ship launch into space.

She watched from the observation deck of the control bunker two kilometres away as the east of the city was incinerated and the west misted with rocket fuel, stinking like cat litter and burning through glass windows.

A booster rocket pitched drunkenly towards the space centre, painting black smoke calligraphy on the sky. Wei Lai screamed and raised her arms over her head instinctively. The booster twisted in the air and cracks open like a crab’s leg. The dazzling white fireball engulfed it like a pearl enveloping a grain of sand. Shards of metal hailed against the bulletproof glass, but the flaming bulk of the rocket lurched upwards and soared harmlessly over the space centre.

Commander Xue grabbed Wei Lai’s hand and pulled her into the river of green-clad officers and black-suited politicians running underground. She would not see the sunlight again.

***

The typhoon grinds over Fujian like a millstone. Trees are torn to splinters, houses are crushed to dust, and shipping boats are driven beneath the colourless waves.

Lin Moniang stands anxiously at the door, staring through the gap between the boards. Her father and her brother are out at sea. Their boat must be one of the dozens of dark shapes twinkling in and out of view on the distant waters.

Her mother calls her. There’s no reply. She continues to stare, whispering mantras to herself.

Suddenly, she stands up and flings the board away. The wind rushes into the house, upsetting vessels and stealing cloths.

She steps outside, her mantras becoming louder. The house groans once, and then is still.

All around the village, walls of cloud churn and howl. But above, the sky is blue and below, the seas are calm. The boats will return.

Lin Moniang has saved her family.

***

The half life of plutonium 238 is 87.7 years. From the moment the crash burst open the Four Modernization’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator, the Earth’s atmosphere would be hopelessly toxic for the next three half-lives.

Occasional shipments arrived from Beijing by drone. Crates of food and medicine, offered in return for scientific work and sperm and egg donations from those locked up in the shelter.

And then a large empty pod, thickly shielded and hermetically sealed. A short letter was attached for Commander Xue to read out.

Beijing – the new Beijing, built in the metro tunnels and bomb shelters of the old one – had food and water. It had military and government. It had schools and hospitals. And it was dying.

It didn’t need the tactical skills of the generals. It didn’t need the diplomacy of the politicians. It didn’t need the knowledge of the scientists. It needed a saviour.

***

As the silk cloth slides off the statue, the Emperor’s envoy reads out the life story of Mazu, Queen of Heaven, the Lady of Numinous Grace, the Holy Consort of Clear Piety, Pure Faith and Helpful Response, Lin Moniang.

She is conceived when the goddess Guanyin descends from Heaven and offers Lin’s mother a magic fertility tablet, actually a star from the constellation of the Plough.

With a flash of red light and a waft of jasmine, the baby appears. She doesn’t make a sound, and her mother names her Moniang. The quiet one.

At the age of eight, she masters the teachings of Confucius.

At thirteen, a passing monk recognises her Buddha nature.

She calms storms and plucks drowning men from the seas. She brings rains, exorcises demons, sees the future, fends off pirates.

And she dies at 28, lost deep in meditation atop a mountain. In a beam of light, she rises to Heaven to become Mazu, the Grand Mother.

With the blessing of a teenage girl turned goddess, China’s navy finds new courage. The Emperor’s ships slice through the stormy Yellow Sea laden with tributes and bribes for Korea. Zheng He’s great treasure fleets crisscross the Indian Ocean. Shi Lang’s armada traverses the strait and conquers Taiwan.

***

Everyone knew that the booster rocket had exploded when Wei Lai pointed at it. That had been the one miracle of the Day of the Seven Suns.

The alcoves of Beijing glowed with the light of screens and tablets constantly looping the security camera footage from the space centre’s observation room. Every few seconds, Wei Lai reached out. Every few seconds, the screen washed white. And then every few seconds, Wei Lai was reborn to reach out again.

Shrines and temples were more prevalent under the ground than they had been on the surface. And in each one, a 3D printed model of Wei Lai, Queen of Heaven, looked down kindly on her supplicants and worshippers.

When the Heavenly Dream launched, every cabin from the captain’s chambers on the bridge to the most squalid berth was blessed by a statue of Wei Lai, worn smooth from rubbing. Generation after generation was born and died under the LED lights of the ship, but those statues remained.

A child conceived in space is no different to one conceived on Earth.

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