Prologue
The Orphan

Cangkong (San Miguel), Dayan County, Shanzhong Province

Her name was Yasuko Esposito Rodrigues, but she could only use her real name in her uncle's house. Everywhere else she was Martina Isabella Oviedo Avilar. It wasn't easy for a child to keep it all straight. She had to remember her real name but could never use it anywhere else.
One time she made the mistake of using her real name at the mission school, so she was pulled out and never allowed to go back. She was only told that bad people would get her if they knew who she was. That was enough to scare her, but it didn't really help her understand.
It wasn't all bad, though. Even though she didn't go to the mission school anymore, her uncle made sure she kept reading, did her math and all that. Better than that, though, he let her help out in his shop. She wasn't strong enough to do the heavy stuff, but her fingers could get in places that were difficult for her uncle and she had a knack for figuring out how things were put together and what needed to be done to fix them.
Her uncle was a tinker. If anything more complicated than a stick was broken or didn't work right, he was the man you went to see to get it fixed. There weren't many cars in town, maybe only one family in twenty at most had one, but Tío Jorge was one of the few people in town who knew how to work on them, so that was one of his big moneymakers.
He had the engine up on the workbench. For the time being, Yasuko was only allowed to watch and though the best way to learn was to get your own hands dirty, there was a lot you could learn by watching, too.
While he was grinding the valves, he asked her, "So, Yasuko, what do you want to be when you grow up? A tinker like me or a doctor like Tía Nayeli?"
Tía Nayeli was Tío Jorge's wife. She went to Heaven the year before after years of suffering on and off from some kind of sickness they called TeeBee. She was taking care of someone with TeeBee and he got her sick. Supposedly it happened before Yasuko even started to live with them. She'd be fine most of the time, but then she'd lock herself away when it came back. Tío Jorge tried to get doctors to help her, but they said there wasn't any medicine for the TeeBee, at least not any they could afford. Then one time last year, she locked herself away and that was the last time Yasuko saw her.
"I wanna be a tinker like you, Tío," she said, not telling him she didn't want to be a doctor because she didn't want to die like Tía Nayeli.
"Easier to fix metal than meat, eh?"
Yasuko nodded. That reason sounded better.
"Well, can't say I blame ya," he said, "but ya know, her bein' a nurse was how we met. It was the Idinga Campaign a' '87--no, '86. I was in the Regulars back then. There was this valley--Asartakka or somethin' like that, the natives called it. A whole company a' conscripts got taken out, so my platoon was sent in ta clear things out. The Dings musta made some deal with the Volgans 'cause I ain't never seen 'em with laser trip mines before that.
"Turns out my platoon was a decoy. I wasn't dead, but I had a load a' shrapnel in me an' some bleedin' in my brain. The first thing I saw when I came outta surgery was her. She was volunteerin' like a lotta girls do. I wasn't the only one she was takin' care of, but somethin' clicked 'tween us. I got discharged from the service an' we got married not long after that."
This was hardly the first time Yasuko had heard the story of how Tío Jorge and Tía Nayeli met, but she liked to hear it all the same. She wasn't a girly girl by any stretch, but she did have some budding sense of romance that the story appealed to. Not that she could imagine herself as some angel of mercy tending to a wounded soldier and falling in love with him.
"I'd rather be like you, Tío," Yasuko said.
"You'll never be happy like that," he replied. "There's nothin' wrong with bein' a bit of a tomboy, but you need ta know how ta be a lady an' that's one thing I can't teach ya." He gave her a sad look and said, "I may hafta remarry jus' so you can grow up right."
Before Yasuko could ask what 'remarry' meant, there was a knock at the door. Not the kind of polite knock a customer would give but an insistent pounding. A voice on the other side could be heard speaking in a loud voice, "Open in the name of His Imperial Majesty the Son of Heaven!"
Her uncle froze. His eyes fixed on the door, he said, "Yasuko, I need you to hide. Hide and don't make a sound or come out until I tell you."
Confused, Yasuko just sat there, prompting Tío Jorge to turn and tell her more urgently, "Yasuko, hide!"
"But, Tío!"
Tío Jorge scooped her up and went to the other side of the workbench. He rolled a tool cabinet out of the way and lifted up the mat t reveal a trapdoor. He opened it up and put Yasuko down in the storage space below.
"Remember, not a word."
Before Yasuko could say anything, he closed the trapdoor, plunging her into darkness. She had to cover her mouth to keep from yelping. It wasn't that she was scared of the dark. She just didn't like it. That was all.
She could hear the tool cabinet being rolled back over the trapdoor. All the while, the pounding on the door continued and the voice shouted once or twice ore before Tío Jorge got to the door. Not having anything else she could do, Yasuko listened in. They were a ways off, so it wasn't very easy to hear, but they weren't being all that quiet either.
"Yes, can I help you?" Tío Jorge asked.
"Jorge Avilar," the voice from before said, "did you not hear your summons? Are you deaf?"
"This is a tinker shop," her uncle replied, "lotta noise. I don't normally expect guests at this hour. You're lucky I heard you at all."
"You are the one who is lucky that you answered the door before I had these men break it down."
"What's all this about?"
"Jorge Avilar, our records indicate that a female age 10 can be found at this residence. She is to be drafted into the Charter School."
"She died of fever two months ago."
"Her death is not on record."
"Paperwork isn't reliable 'round here."
"We will search the premises."
"You can't come in here without a warrant."
"Warrants are not required for Class Five citizens."
"I'm a Class Three citizen!"
"Correction: You were a Class Three citizen. You have now been downgraded to Class Five. All former rights and privileges have been revoked."
"You can't do this! I'll report you to the magistrate!"
"The magistrate has no authority over us. You will step aside or you will be arrested."
"You can't--"
There was a loud crack-crack sound followed by the voice shouting, "You fool! Are you trying to deafen me!? You could have gotten blood on me!"
Yasuko felt a chill in the pit of her stomach. It couldn't be...
"Well, you may as well finish him off," the voice said. "With the bayonet, idiot!"
No, it couldn't be... She refused to believe it.
"Search the house," the voice said. "Find the girl if she is here. I do not wish to return empty-handed."
While she was telling herself over and over again that she didn't hear what she heard, there were all these noises, the sounds of crashing and breaking. Eventually it was the sound of the tool cabinet above her being tipped over and the contents clattering about on the floor.
Then the trapdoor opened to reveal what looked like a big metal beetle with glowing green eyes staring own at her.
"Found her, sir," the metal beetle said.
"Well, get her out of there," the voice said impatiently.
Yasuko wanted to get away, but there wasn't anywhere to go. She tried getting under a shelf, but the metal beetle just went down into the storage space, took hold of her and pulled her out.
"No!" she cried, fruitlessly flailing her legs as the metal beetle climbed up out of the hole.
And that was when she saw it. Her uncle lying there on the floor in a pool of blood. There was another metal beetle and the owner of the voice. She'd seen people dressed like him before, once or twice. Tío Jorge called them Celestials.
"Martina Avilar," the Celestial said, "you have been drafted into the Charter School. You will come with us."
Yasuko wasn't listening to him, though. Instead she was trying wriggle free from the metal beetle's grip while reaching out to Tío Jorge.
"Tío! Tío!"
"Be quiet, girl," the Celestial said. "That man is dead. He would not be if he had not tried to obstruct the Emperor's business. Now come along and we shall make something useful of you."
As the metal beetle started to carry her away, something strange came over her. One moment she was drowning in fear and sadness, crying so hard that she couldn't even see straight... and then everything went still and quiet. In the darkness, a tongue of blue-white flame appeared, filling her with both freezing cold and burning heat. It felt like she was floating adrift outside her own body. Her body was moving, but it didn't feel like she was the one doing it.
There was a screwdriver lying on the workbench. She took it as they went past and then stabbed the metal beetle in the joint of the elbow, where the plates of his armor didn't protect him. He cried out in pain and dropped her. Not just her but also his rifle, fixed with the bayonet red with Tío Jorge's blood. She went for the rifle, picked it up and pointed it at the metal beetle. She pulled the trigger, but nothing happened, so she took hold of the carry handle and swung the rifle, forcing the bayonet up under the skirt of the beetle's armor. He cried out again and fell over. This time Yasuko went for the neck. He wouldn't be getting back up again.
The other metal beetle fired a shot. It seemed strangely easy to dodge. All she had to do was tilt her head. She turned and went towards him. He was moving so slowly. Or was she just moving that fast? He fired off another shot and another. He wasn't keeping up, She swung at his knee, causing his leg to buckle under him. That put his neck right where she wanted it. She had him pinned to the floor and might have held him there for a while, but there was still one more left.
The Celestial made this shrill scream. It hurt Yasuko's ears. She left the rifle sticking in the neck of the metal beetle and stood up.
"No! Stop!"
He tried to run for the door. Yasuko grabbed a wrench and threw it, hitting him in the small of his back. That gave her the time she needed to take a hammer and go after him. First she smashed his toes in those soft slippers he was wearing, then his knee to make him fall, then his other knee. She hit one of his hands three times, pretty well breaking all of his fingers, then threw all her weight into a blow square in the middle of his chest.
He was so noisy, so his jaw was next. Then she went to work pounding away at his skull until that little flame in the darkness vanished and whatever was guiding her actions left her. Back inside herself, she felt her ears ringing and her hands sticky with blood. The terrible weight of what she had done came upon her in a rush. Along with the sight of the ruined skull of the Celestial, no longer anything you could call human, it was too much for her. She pulled away and threw up anything she had in her stomach and more if she had anything left. She started crying uncontrollably. She couldn't take it.
And yet somehow she found herself crawling over to Tío Jorge. She hoped against hope that he wasn't dead. She shook his shoulders, barely able to articulate "Tío... Tío..." amid her blubbering.
It was no good. If the two bullet holes hadn't killed him, the stab wounds did. He was staring vacantly at the ceiling and Yasuko remembered from some stories how it was nice to close a dead person's eyes for them. It was the least she could do for him.
She looked over at the body of the dead Celestial and she realized something. This was all their fault. If it wasn't for them, none of this would've happened. They needed to die. All of them.