The First Spectre

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The rains at that time of year brought everything to a halt. Everybody would huddle beneath tram stops, or under shop awnings, and wait for it to pass. Umbrellas were no good, as the force of the water would cause it to splash up from the street and soak you up to your waist. The sky would hang heavy and grey for ten minutes, the air would roar and the streets would turn to rivers. Carriages stopped wherever they were, because the drivers and horses were unable to see and the roads became treacherous.

Then the rain would abruptly cease, silence spreading through the city, and the sun would break apart the clouds and everybody would be on their way. The water drained away as if it had never been there and the noise of the streets would return. Such was life in Zhangao. That's how it was back then, and how it is now, and how it will always be.

Jian and Shu met when they were both nineteen and attending the new city university, which had only recently started accepting female students. Jian was studying agriculture and Shu was studying law. He liked cinema, especially films from the west on the rare occasions they were imported. She liked books, especially ones about adventurous warriors from hundreds of years ago. They courted, and finished their studies, and married four months later.

The 1860s were a simpler time. Zhangao was on the cusp of the modern era but had not yet quite taken the plunge. The city had stretched out its arms and was the largest single settlement on the planet but its infrastructure hadn't kept pace. The rains at least kept the city a little cleaner than it would otherwise have been. Twenty years had passed since the Ascendancy War and the scars were still visible in society, whether in suspicious glances or whispered mutterings whenever the wings were seen overhead.

"Do you know why I studied agriculture?" Jiang had asked, the day after their marriage.

"You are fond of animals?"

He laughed and playfully pulled at Shu's fur as they lay above the sheets in the sweltering late-summer. "No, silly," he said. "It's because I'd had enough of the politics of the city. I wanted to go to the country. Start a farm on a hill. Get away from it all."

"Get away from your father, you mean."

Jian grimaced. "You know me too well."

"That's why we got married, dear."

"It's all I had, growing up. Him talking about how it used to be. Before the wings took over. He always talked about the old days."

Shu looked out of the window, which faced onto the wall of another building less than four feet away. "And yet, here we are, still in the city."

"It's where the work is."

"If you had a farm you would make your own work."

The months passed and Shu became pregnant. As was tradition, speculation started among their friends as to what form the child would take. A party was held in their honour, where gifts and food were given and each guest wrote their best guess on a piece of folded paper. Shu and Jian took turns revealing each suggestion, accompanied by their own verdicts. As Shu opened the final paper, she found it blank and unmarked. There was much laughter, and one of their friends shrugged and admitted she'd been too busy enjoying the canapes to think of anything.

It was an eventful pregnancy. Shu was sick for months, unable to work or even leave the house. The baby kicked and punched its way around her insides, leaving her ribs bruised and her back in agony. Jian spent every waking moment finding work, wherever it was on offer, struggling to bring in enough money to cover their rent and food. Being apocri he worked well in teams of others like him, all of them operating more efficiently when they were able to engage with each other's pheromones and being particularly suited to repetitive tasks. There was an ever-available apocri workforce in Zhangao, which kept wages suppressed. He wasn't the sort of man to feel overwhelmed, though, and always came home at night with a smile on his face, and left Shu every morning with a warm hug.

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