It was said that in the ancient days, heroes walked the earth, as common on the ground as worms after the rain. Of course, the last bit about worms was said only by Jinye’s grandmother, a weathered crag of a woman who considered herself the authority on ages past.
According to her, the heroes of antiquity could breathe fire, bend iron, and even raise storms. Their souls had grown too vast for their bodies, and only divine blessing kept their lives intact within the boundaries of their skin. No longer mortal, these heroes went about becoming the stuff of legend—some vanquished monsters, others ruled kingdoms, and still others shouldered the sky.
After several centuries of this, most heroes ascended to join the celestial guardians. The modern world was no place for heroes, not with its street bots and sky cities and lightning-quick transport lines. But still, a few lingered.
When Jinye met her first hero, she was not impressed.
Years and years ago, Jinye’s fortuneteller auntie had foretold that this particular day would bring about a life-changing event, citing Jinye’s squat nose and the wide set of her mouth. At the time, the pronouncement had sounded important, momentous, something that crackled with promise.
One grueling thesis and graduation later, Jinye no longer felt that way—not just about the prophecy, but about anything, really. All she wanted was to stay cocooned within her blankets, knees drawn up and fortune-inspiring nose barely poking out for air. It was hard to crawl out of bed in the morning, much less care about some stale prophecy.
Naturally, Jinye’s mother had the day marked in her calendar.
“Ma,” Jinye groused. “I have to go, or I’m going to be late to work!”
“Whose fault is that, ah? If you didn’t take so long waking up—” Jinye’s mother brandished the jar of paint at her. “Give me your arm, Yeyi.”
“Ma-a-a!” Jinye thrust out her arm, and her mother made quick work of smearing the archaic character for luck onto her wrist. The word dried almost immediately, chalky light blue stark against her skin.
“Don’t scratch at it!” her mother said warningly.
Jinye scratched at it anyway, grumbling, “Now I’m really going to miss the train.”
Her mother waved dismissively. “If you run, you can make it.”
So Jinye ran, bursting into the searing daylight and throwing herself down a narrow side street, where she danced over cracks in the sizzling pavement and dodged around the neighborhood bot, an outdated model that cheeped indignantly at her.
“Sorry!” She waved in apology and nearly tripped over a potted plant. The bot’s beeping followed her, only fading away as she turned the corner.
By the time she reached the station, commuters were already cramming onto the main platform. Jinye shoved her way into the crowd, making it just in time for the platform to begin its ascent.
With a sickening lurch, the platform rose, jolting its way skyward in stops and starts until it slotted neatly into the maw of the waiting train. Commuters flowed in, grumbling as the doors slid shut with a drawn out, ear-splitting squeal.
The back of the train car was empty. In the early mornings, sunlight pooled over the electric blue handholds and radiated heat through the rear windows. Commuters coming from the grounded cities clung to the front and sides of the car like condensation, marinating in the AC and avoiding the sun.
Jinye elbowed her way to the back. She didn’t mind roasting, so long as she had space to stretch out and nap. And only here, at the very back, could she watch the transport tracks flow out from beneath the train, a long silver ribbon held up in the sky by magnets and star metal—or something like that. Eleventh year science had been a lifetime ago.
As the train soared up to cloud level, other transport lines zipped by, criss-crossing the sky with a metallic flash. At night, you could look up from ground level and see the transport lines all lit up and twinkling, like constellations brought down to earth.
After graduation, Jinye had spent countless hours staring up at the night sky. She’d noodled around for months, half-heartedly applying to jobs and researching grad school programs fit for a classics nerd. Deadlines had slipped by, one after the other, as quick as the transport lines overhead.
It was for the best. She wasn’t ready to go back. It felt like she would never be.
She’d gotten a job at the local university library, so at least there was that. Only a few weeks in, and it felt like she’d been cataloguing old manuscripts for years.
The ride up to the university took an hour both ways, but Jinye loved it. No one expected anything of you when you were commuting. You didn’t have to get work done, or fill out grad school apps, or answer probing questions from your aunties about your future. You just existed on a speeding metal capsule, and that was enough. Pure bliss.
Jinye closed her eyes against the sun, letting her head knock back against the window. Just as she was drifting asleep, the train screeched to a halt.
“Oh, come on!” Someone pounded on the help button. The usual murmurs sharpened, commuters shifting restlessly and peering out the windows.
“Why do we even pay taxes?” someone else grumbled. “I swear this flying garbage can breaks down at least twice a day.”
The intercom chirped. “PLEASE REMAIN SEATED DURING MAINTENANCE OPERATIONS.”
“There’s nowhere to sit!” a young, reedy voice yelled. The train car rumbled with laughter as passengers settled in for the wait. Someone strode past, hazy in Jinye’s sleep-muddled eyes, and reached for the emergency exit handle.
“You can’t go out that way!” Jinye blurted out. Without thinking, she grabbed their arm. “It’s not safe.”
“I think I’m the exception,” they said dryly, looking down at her. Only then did Jinye register the dark blue maintenance uniform and the glow of the holopad in their hand. “I’ll be fine.”
Jinye dropped her hands, her cheeks flushing with heat. The maintenance worker gestured for her to move back, then pulled open the emergency door. They stepped out and disappeared from view.
With the hatch open, the faint iridescence of the force field surrounding the train was just barely visible. Her classmate in Celestial Courts 102 had once said that the force field was powered by the soul energy of ancient ghosts.
From her usual spot, Jinye could see the rest of the train stretched out ahead, glimmering under the sun. The maintenance worker was crouched on the roof of the front car, prying up a panel. They lifted what looked like a short metal pipe, placed both hands on either side of it, and pulled. The metal stretched out like a glob of honey, before solidifying into a thin rod. The rod went into the train, the panel was replaced, and the intercom chirped once again.
“WE WILL BE RESUMING REGULARLY SCHEDULED ARRIVALS AND DEPARTURES. THANK YOU FOR RIDING THE HEAVENLY DRAGON (EXPRESS LINE LIMITED).”
“Not like we had a choice,” someone muttered. This was greeted with another round of laughter.
The maintenance worker was still on the roof. Their dark hair was tied back in a tight ponytail, billowing out from some errant wind. They stood with their back straight and feet planted apart, looking for all the world like someone surveying their kingdom. Then, their shoulders sagged and they turned back, rubbing their eyes.
As the train started to move, they swung back down through the emergency exit. Jinye looked away as they breezed past, a crackle of energy charging the air.
In the evening, every car on the train heading back to ground level was crammed full. Sucking in her gut, Jinye slotted herself between two aunties. Walled in by her neighbors, it was easy enough to doze off.
The car was nearly empty when she drifted awake to the dull thud of a body hitting the floor. It was followed by a pained groan and a string of curses. The maintenance worker from before was struggling to stand back up.
Before she knew it, Jinye was across the train car, slipping an arm around their waist to hold them steady as the train slammed to a stop. The two remained still as the doors slid open. A gust of musty station air blew in, and the doors slid shut again. Jinye could feel their body tremble against her, and she tightened her grip.
“Do you need a medic? Should I signal someone for you?” Jinye asked.
“No, I—” The maintenance worker pressed the palm of their free hand against their eyes, as if the soft evening sun was too bright. “I’m fine.”
This was such an absurd lie that Jinye almost laughed. “Sorry, but you look like death.”
“I do not!” They gave Jinye an outraged glare. “You know, in my prime, a five-part poem was commissioned by the royal palace to celebrate my beauty. It went, ‘Spine ridge—’”
“‘—mountain range. To touch a lover is to meet an ocean,” Jinye reeled off without thinking. It was the opening to one of her favorite classical poems. The memory of metal stretching out like honey flashed in Jinye’s mind. “Then you’re—”
“Ke Guan. I go by Guan.” They sketched out their name and pronoun in the air. Jinye followed suit.
“You’re really Ke Guan.”
“Yes, yes. ‘Hands of iron, body of stone’ Guan, renowned for heroic deeds in centuries long past,” they said dismissively. “I’m impressed that you know the legends.”
“I majored in the classics. So is this your day job?”
“This is my calling,” Guan said haughtily.
“Train maintenance? Didn’t you used to do bigger stuff?” Ke Guan was one of the less well-known heroes she’d studied in college, but still one of the greats. Long ago, Ke Guan had:
1. Held up a collapsing bridge with their bare hands
2. Broken a siege with the might of a flaming staff
3. Saved a bureaucrat from drowning in spectral horse shit
“I make things right.” Guan scowled. “It may not seem heroic to you, but I still have heaven’s blessing running through my veins. I have to make use of it. That comes with the territory.”
“Does passing out on the floor come with the territory, too?”
“My strength isn’t what it once was. I overextended myself. Nothing a little nap can’t fix.”
“A nap on the floor.”
“That was intentional,” Guan insisted. “I was being efficient.”
From where she stood, Jinye could see the sweat beading on Guan’s forehead. “Still sounds like you need to see a doctor.”
“I’m as close to immortal as a body can get. What use is a doctor?” Guan scoffed. “But it’s cute that you’re worried. I haven’t had anyone worry about me in a long time.”
“I’m not worried,” Jinye huffed.
“Uh-huh. This is the second time you’ve tried to help me. Maybe you were a disciple of mine in your past life.” Guan leaned in, close enough that Jinye could feel their breath ruffling her cropped hair. “Or a lover.”
“You’re right. I would know if you were,” Guan said. “Thanks, anyway. I would’ve been fine, but this is nice.”
“I should have left you,” Jinye said sourly, shifting to keep Guan safely braced against her.
“Yes,” said Guan, “you should have.”
The university library where Jinye worked was considered the finest in the region. It was a shining spire of knowledge that, decades after construction, was still being paid off with student tuition.
Jinye had grown up with the floating university and its attendant sky cities crowding at her vision. When it came time to go away to college, she’d chosen one far from home, with grounded solar tech and clear skies.
It wasn’t until she’d graduated and boarded the train back, her university degree coded into her ID, that it hit her. She’d looked out the windows, saw the distant sky cities, and WHAM! Her heart squeezed, her throat prickled, and she was crying. She was going home, and she could finally, finally rest.
Even now, Jinye couldn’t resist stopping to drink in the sight of the library. She stepped back, craning her neck to see the sunlit peak, and promptly crashed into someone.
“Sorry! Sorry.” In her haste to get out of the way, Jinye stumbled. A familiar pair of arms caught her. Ke Guan was holding her, looking amused.
“Do you always go about like you’re waiting for a bird to shit on you?”
Jinye stepped back. “Do you always go about insulting strangers?”
“Let me start over.” Guan reached into their pockets and brought something out. “I came to give you this as thanks for yesterday, but now it can double as an apology. What do you say?” They uncurled their fist to reveal a lumpy rock.
“That’s your apology?”
“It’s raw star metal! I guess it doesn’t look like much, huh.” Guan frowned at the rock, which started to glow. The air wavered with heat, and they turned away. “Give me a second.”
When they turned back, they held a small figurine, its surface shiny with the mottled colors of an oil slick. Guan took Jinye’s hand and placed the rock in her palm. Upon closer inspection, it was a boar. There were even little tusks.
“Thank you?” Jinye’s fingers automatically curled around the small boar. It was still warm.
“Keep that on you. It’s good luck.” Guan gave Jinye a bright smile that made her stomach swoop. “I’ll see you around.”
It became a habit of Jinye’s to look for Guan when she left work. More often than not, they would be just outside, leaning against a tree, or a pillar, or even nothing at all. Guan had casual leaning down to a science.
They always brought something for her: A ginkgo leaf, twin cufflinks left on the train, their half-finished pork belly sandwich. Jinye was reminded of her Second Uncle, who had a tabby cat that left dead crickets and mouse tails on his pillow. At least snacks and star metal were better than dead things.
Once, Jinye found Guan leaning artistically against a memorial statue, playing a game on their holopad. As they walked to the train station together, Guan showed her the game mechanics.
“It’s simple. You choose your fighter. They’re mostly warriors from old legends, though there’s a few celebs. Each one has five attacks.” Guan swiped through the projections to show the array of attacks. “And you have five defense moves. You’re paired up with an opponent, and you spam the right moves until you win.”
“You’re losing,” Jinye observed. Guan’s character, a muscled dragon with flaming claws, was taking hits from a robed man wielding an oversize calligraphy brush.
“I’m usually much better than this. You’re distracting me,” said Guan. They bumped shoulders with Jinye.
She jostled them back. “Huh. I don’t know. Seems like you just suck.”
“Sounds like you don’t know your classics. I’m excellent at combat. Even in games.” Guan forfeited the match and tapped open a character selection menu. They scrolled down and pointed. “That’s me. My stats are pretty high.”
The character had Guan’s long ponytail, dark eyes, and crooked grin. They held a long, intricately carved stone staff and wore a traditional red tunic.
“Says here you have poor stamina.” Jinye jabbed a finger at the one low stat.
“One of my few weaknesses. It’s part of my charm.” Guan shrugged.
“Do you ever play as yourself?” An armored boar trotted over to stand beside Ke Guan’s avatar. The avatar winked and twirled their staff, before slamming it down in a shower of sparks.
“No,” Guan said. “Imagine the ego it would take to play your own character. Even I’m not that full of myself.”
“Oh, come on,” Jinye said. She itched to select the avatar. “It’s kind of cool. You should try it.”
“I don’t like being myself,” said Guan. They condensed their holopad with an abrupt gesture. “So anyway, I went to get that red bean cake you said you wanted to try, and the line was out the door —”
The train was pulling into the station by then. Guan palmed a wrapped pastry into Jinye’s hand and tugged her along, fingers interlocking with hers. They found two seats in the back of the train.
Ribbons of sunlight ran over them as the train descended. Guan immediately fell asleep, head lolling on Jinye’s shoulder. She looked down at their linked hands and imagined a piece of star metal clasped between their palms, growing soft and warm. The pastry would have to wait.
As summer turned to fall, Jinye found herself staying up late into the night. After graduation, Jinye had felt completely drained, like a towel wrung out and left to dry. But now, months later, there was something welling up in her, fizzing and electric.
If, during those long nights, her gaze happened to stray to the grad school applications stashed in the corner, then she couldn’t be blamed for gaming on her holopad for another few hours. It was better than lying awake in bed, building castles in the sky.
After one such restless night, Jinye dragged herself into the library for work. Her co-worker, a chirpy undergrad, flagged her down.
“Your friend stopped by. They said they would wait for you in the archives.” He had the gall to throw her an exaggerated wink, as if she were planning to have a romantic rendezvous in the stacks. Jinye gave him her most wintry glare.
The archives were a maze, but Jinye navigated them with ease. She breezed past the texts on the ancients, turned from the gods, and found Guan among the heroes. They were asleep, curled into a tight ball. What sounded like a funeral prayer issued from their lips in sibilant whispers, the sort you prayed when your ancestors were having trouble moving on to the next life. It was a prayer of release.
The ridges of their spine were barely visible. Without thinking, Jinye touched the highest one at the base of Guan’s neck.
“Please!” They jolted awake, eyes wild. The glow of their brown skin was dimmed, and a sheen of sweat coated their neck. Jinye rocked back on her haunches. As recognition dawned, Guan sat up and scrubbed at the tear tracks on their face.
“Napping in the library?” Jinye said teasingly. She forced a smile. No way in hell was she letting Guan know that she’d seen them crying. It felt like sacrilege.
“I got bored waiting for you,” said Guan, glancing down. Too late, Jinye caught her hands trembling. “Look, I had a rough day at work. You know how it is.”
“You were praying,” said Jinye. She sat on her hands. Damn things. “I didn’t know heroes prayed.”
“We don’t. We converse with the gods. It’s different.”
“Do they talk back?” Jinye’s fortuneteller auntie often claimed to hear from the gods, but she only said that to win arguments.
“They used to, but I haven’t heard from them in a long time. I’m just not—” Guan grimaced. “I’m not good enough anymore.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means that I’ve failed,” Guan said lightly. “When you receive heaven’s blessing, your soul becomes kindling. You burn and burn, and you know that if you ever let this fire go out, you will be worth nothing. So you let the flames eat you up, and when the smoke of your deeds finally reaches the heavens, you ascend.” Guan clenched their hands into fists, then opened them again to show that they were empty. “Obviously, I’ve fallen short of that noble goal.”
“Oh.” Jinye winced. “Sorry.”
Guan shrugged. “How much do you know about Seven Fei?”
Every classics major knew Seven Fei better than their own ancestry. “He carved a river into the plains with seven blades over seven nights.”
“Ah Fei only needed one blade for that,” Guan snorted. “He was a show-off. What about Mu Leitian?”
“Mu Leitian married a lord and stabbed him with a hairpin when she realized he’d been consumed by evil spirits. She took his seat and united the provinces for eighty years.”
“She was good with a sword, too,” said Guan. “You know your legends. I’m impressed.”
“I told you, it was my major. So you’ve met them? Seven Fei and Mu Leitian?”
“I knew most of the heroes you read about in school,” said Guan, waving a hand at the bookshelves. “They’ve ascended, every one of them. They’re all up there, feasting on divine peaches and presiding over the celestial courts.”
“Peaches are just hairy nectarines. They’re overrated.” Jinye was rewarded with a laugh.
“Still,” Guan said, a half-smile on their lips. “It’s something I should be working toward. But this flame in me, whatever it is that lets me melt down the stars and carry the sky, is burning out, and–”
Here, Guan took a long, shaky breath, their shoulders tensing. “It hurts so much. And it’s getting harder and harder to push through it.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. Don’t heroes ever go on vacation?” Jinye joked.
Guan waved a dismissive hand. “Impossible.”
“Hey, sometimes you just need to take a break and recover.” Realization dawned on Jinye as she spoke. “That’s what I did after I graduated. It’s what I’m still doing, I think. You should try it.”
“I can’t,” Guan shook their head. “I have to keep going. I’ll never ascend if I stop now.”
“Do you hate it? Being stuck here?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Guan hummed thoughtfully, reaching out to straighten Jinye’s collar. Their fingers brushed her neck, leaving a feverish trail. “It’s not so bad sometimes.”
On days that Guan took the night shift, Jinye started bringing them breakfast. She felt horribly guilty sneaking food on the train, but their grateful smile was worth it.
They graced her with one as she handed them a square of radish cake.
“So how’s your mother?” Guan said, taking a huge bite.
“She’s good.” Jinye thought back to earlier that morning. “She complimented my posture this morning. Said I’ve been looking happier, and that my back was straighter.”
Because of course, in her mother’s mind, posture and happiness were directly correlated. Her mother’s cure for the blues was a sharp jab between the shoulderblades.
“Guess we should test it out and see.” Guan slung an arm around Jinye’s shoulders and leaned heavily against her. Jinye was too busy willing her blush away to notice the train shudder to a stop.
Then the lights blinked out. Outside, the force field flickered. The train listed to the left with an earsplitting creak, and the car erupted in panicked shouts.
“We’re going to die,” someone moaned. “We’re too high up for the train to derail!”
Guan was already heading toward the emergency exit. They wove through the crowd as Jinye hurried after them.
“Wait!” Jinye dragged at their arm. “You can’t do this. You’re off the clock!”
“I don’t have a choice,” Guan said grimly. “There’s no one else.”
“You just worked a shift, Guan. You’re tired. You’re hurting. It’ll kill you to keep going.” She’d seen Guan nearly pass out after work enough times to know that this couldn’t end well. It didn’t matter that Guan was basically immortal. Even immortals had their limits. “Promise that you won’t overdo it.”
“I promise.” Guan covered Jinye’s hand with their own. The heat of their fingers was almost searing. “Do you have the boar? The one that I gave you.”
Jinye fished the molded lump of star metal out of her coat pocket and handed it to Guan.
“I’ll be right back,” said Guan. They yanked open the emergency door, letting in a huge gust of wind that rocked the car. Jinye edged over to the window, where she could see them clamber onto the roof of the train.
Guan clasped their hands around the boar figurine and pulled, dragging the molten star metal apart into a long, thin staff. The ends shimmered with a red-orange heat. They hefted the staff and slammed it down, sending up sparks–just like in the game, Jinye thought. With their free hand, they stuck two fingers in their mouth and let out a piercing whistle.
The train teetered dangerously, one strong wind away from plunging through the sky and smashing into a thousand broken shards of human life and metal. Jinye was dimly aware of someone fainting, and more screaming. She closed her eyes, suddenly more afraid than she’d ever been in her life, and—
And then, with an explosive crack of thunder, the train righted itself. Outside, the force field still flickered, but the car was steady again. A single light blinked on.
“WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INTERRUPTION IN SERVICE. PLEASE REMAIN IN PLACE UNTIL POWER HAS BEEN FULLY RESTORED. THANK YOU FOR RIDING THE HEAVENLY DRAGON (EXPRESS LINE LIMITED).”
Jinye rushed to the emergency exit and scrambled up the ladder, desperate to see Guan. They were still standing on the roof, their metal staff tucked under their arm. Their hand rested on the bronze-tipped tusk of a giant boar. Before she could even begin to grasp what she was seeing–a boar! an actual giant boar!–the heavens opened up, and a glowing figure descended.
The figure alighted on the roof, satin blue robes fluttering, and Jinye realized that she was face to face with a goddess. Her golden eyes focused on Guan, while the serpentine tattoos that covered her arms uncurled to watch Jinye.
“You have done well, Ke Guan,” said the goddess, her voice ringing out. Jinye fought an overwhelming urge to throw herself at the divine messenger’s feet.
“Thank you, Goddess,” said Guan. “But it was my trustworthy companion who pushed the train back onto the tracks–”
“We are not interested in rewarding a common animal,” said the goddess. “It is you who carried out a great deed worthy of heaven. I have come to welcome you into the celestial courts.”
“Thank you, but…” Guan glanced at Jinye, “I don’t think I’m ready to go.”
“You are mistaken. You should have shed your earthly attachments the moment you received heaven’s blessing.”
“I want to stay,” Guan insisted.
“Why?” The goddess’s eyes burned. “What reason could you possibly have to remain here?”
“They’re going on vacation,” said Jinye, taking Guan’s free hand. Their fingers laced with hers, and she felt the star metal strength of their resolve.
“Vacation?” The goddess thundered. Her tattoos writhed, crawling up to mar her face. “If you remain here, you will be as worthless as treasure left buried in the earth. Tarnished, rusted, without value or purpose. Is that what you want?”
“It’s what I need. Someone rather charming told me that,” said Guan. They lifted Jinye’s hand to their lips, and with a smirk, brushed a kiss across her knuckles. The goddess seethed.
“Very well. Mire in your inadequacy.” The goddess disappeared in a burst of flame that left behind scorch marks. The boar sneezed.
“You know, my professor said your boar was a metaphor,” Jinye remarked.
“Gumi here is very real,” said Guan, rubbing the boar’s bristly side. The boar rumbled contentedly. “He’s been living up in the mountains, masquerading as a forest god, but he always comes when I need him.”
“So what are you going to do now?”
“I don’t know. A whole lot of nothing, I guess. Go hiking with Gumi, take too many naps, that sort of thing. Got any suggestions?”
“I want to go back to school. I think I’ll be ready soon.” Jinye hesitated. “And you could live with me. Near the university. If you wanted to.”
“Oh?” Guan bumped shoulders with her, grinning. “I see how it is. Having a live-in classical hero would help you with your studies, wouldn’t it?”
“No way.” Jinye shoved at Guan, helpless against the blossom of feelings unfurling in her chest. “How would I even cite you in papers? You’re useless to me.”
“But you love me anyway,” Guan said smugly.
“I do, actually,” said Jinye. At that, Guan laughed, a sound so pure and coin-bright that Jinye had no choice but to lean in and kiss them.
On the way home, Jinye fell asleep with Guan’s arm curled around her waist, their knees knocking gently against each other. The evening sun was warm on her skin, and she felt almost aglow with it.
“LEIHAI STATION. LEIHAI STATION. THANK YOU FOR RIDING THE HEAVENLY DRAGON (EXPRESS LINE LIMITED).”
Too late, Jinye shook herself awake as the doors slid shut. It was just the two of them in the car now.
“I think we missed our stop,” said Jinye, nudging Guan. They grumbled sleepily.
“It’s okay,”Guan said. “We can go around again.” They dropped a soft kiss on Jinye’s forehead, and she settled back, nestling closer to them. The city below was quickly becoming a distant dusting of stars.
“Yeah,” Jinye murmured, already falling asleep again. “We’ll get there eventually.”
Jessica Yang is a windowsill gardener and SFF writer. In years past, she wrote puns for money as a game writer. Her writing has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and Anathema: Spec from the Margins. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jamteayang.