Ghosts in the Machine
(The Babel Trilogy #2)
Published by: Skyscape
Publication date: September 20th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Young genius Morag Chen doesn’t believe in the supernatural. Or not until a thousand gods show up in front of her, appearing from a clear-blue sky. The Architects are terrifying, they’re hypnotically attractive, and they’re real—but what are they, and what do they want, and why have they stolen the mind of Daniel Calder, the person she is closest to?
Ancient gods? Invading aliens? Everyone has a theory, but no one has guessed the truth. In this dark, suspenseful, mind-bending sequel to The Fire Seekers, Morag picks up the narration from Daniel as she works to accept that there’s more than one way to think about the nature of humanity. And she will find that the only way forward is through secrets that Daniel himself seems desperate but unable to convey.
A mysterious lab. The house of a dying billionaire. The hidden home of a strange and forgotten people. In each of these places, Morag and Daniel will come a step closer to answers, hope, and a way of fighting back.
You're on vacation, you have an adventure, what is it, can you write about it?
We were in Guilin, China, and we were supposed to get a day trip to beautiful Yangshou.
“Liuzhou?” We’d never heard of Liuzhou—it was a mystery.
"Is on itinerary," said our guide. She spoke loudly, as if she sensed that we were embarrassed to be making difficulties.
"Yes, but why did Hong Kong Travel put it on the itinerary?"
"For visit," she said. "Four days Guilin, one day Liuzhou." She waved the paper at us triumphantly.
"Yes, but what's there?"
She shrugged. She was dressed up. She had a woolen coat in bright red with a bit of fur around the collar, and smart shoes with heels. We never did discover her name: from then on we referred to her as "Redcoat." She was beaming: a day out.
"Why are we going to Liuzhou?"
"I not know. I not seeing with you. Local guide show. Liuzhou not tourist city. Industrial city."
Finally I understood - we were travelling to Liuzhou because Redcoat had some other reason for going there. Relatives? A boyfriend? We were free travel.
When we arrived, Local Guide was waiting at the station. She was about fourteen, and smiled too much, like a rookie stewardess on a failing airline. She admitted that she knew nothing about Liuzhou and had only been given the job because she was studying English. In the morning we would visit Liuzhou Park. In the afternoon, we would “see caves.”
Liuzhou Park was the size of two tennis courts, but dirtier. You had to pay twenty Fen to a woman sitting at the gate with a beaker of tea.
At the park’s center was a statue of Liu Tsung-yüan, a T'ang dynasty poet and statesman who was exiled to Liuzhou. We stood in front of the statue trying to think of questions, but the guide did not know the answers and became ever more uncomfortable. So we wandered, with deliberate slowness, around the perimeter of the park, and I thought: this bit has to last two or three hours! A man in a torn vest was doing Tai Chi exercises under a tree: we grasped at the unexpected excitement and spent ten minutes watching him and commenting. I had never been to China before: how could I be bored?
After an uncomfortably long silence, the guide tried to cheer us up, or cheer herself up, by saying: “This afternoon you visit caves!” I wondered whether the caves were still being built. Suddenly I had an inspiration. Or a madness.
"Unfortunately, visiting the caves won’t be possible,” I said. “We have to get back to Guilin. Earlier. Another train."
"One train only every day."
There was a note of finality and triumph in her voice, which would have been intimidating if I had not been certain she was wrong. I tried Plan B.
"If we can't go back to Guilin, we would at least like to spend some time exploring Liuzhou by ourselves."
"You get lost."
"We won't get lost if you find us a map."
Suddenly we were enjoying ourselves. We had lost our sense of obedience. Being difficult was more fun. She must have sensed that something in our attitude had changed. She hesitated.
After a brief consultation with the woman at the gate, she produced a map. Now she needed to restore her dignity and authority, so she put on the schoolroom face again:
"You must very careful not get lost, and you must meet with me back here, one hour.”
We smiled and waved and broke free into the seething streets. We had a city plan in Mandarin, and not a word of the language between us.
Everybody stared. In Guilin they didn’t give you a second look. Tourists were everywhere, like lice. But most of the people in Liuzhou had never even seen a Caucasian in the flesh before, or so it seemed, and dozens of eyes were on us everywhere. Whole crowds of people stopped what they were doing and simply gaped. Gaped: their jaws went slack at the sight of us, as if we were space aliens.
We flagged down a taxi, made anachronistic train noises. In five minutes, we were back at the station.
A train was waiting. It was obviously about to leave. We pointed at it: "Guilin?"
"Ah, Guilin." The woman in the ticket collector's uniform nodded and smiled. Had she understood us? It seemed too good to be true. We asked again; she nodded again.
But our tickets were stamped with the time: 20:05. She would not let us through. A guard whistled. The train was about to leave. Frantically I made running motions and pointed again:
"We need to get back to Guilin, Now. This train. The other train is too late."
As if to illustrate the absurdity of talking to her in English, the ticket collector started explaining the difficulty, quite patiently I thought, in Mandarin.
"Please," I said.
She paused, looked closely at me as if for signs of trouble, and shrugged. We hurried up the iron steps and before we had even found seats the train was moving.
As I sat down a thought turned over in my stomach: perhaps this is a train from Guilin. Oh no! We should be going north, but that meant the sun is on the wrong side of the train. Doesn't it? Yes... no. Think! Backs to the engine, West on the left, no, right... that's it...
But perhaps this is a direct train to Nanning?
I tried to relax. At least, yes, we were going in the right direction. The sense of accomplishment was immense. We had beaten the system, escaped the guide! We were not sheep after all!
We were relieved when our hotel swung into view, stark on the skyline and welcome as the sight of home. We rented bicycles and spent what was left of the day cycling in the countryside. Later, as we ate dinner, I thought of Redcoat, who we had left behind. At that moment, she would be standing on the platform in Liuzhou, watching, waiting, and beginning to panic. I felt a strange mixture of triumph and guilt. We didn’t see her again.
I grew up in England’s West Country, one of the world’s leading producers of strange names for small villages. I now live in Seattle. When I’m not reading, writing, or staring out of the window, I enjoy running, hiking and sea kayaking.
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