Journeys: China Part 3 by Anne Azel
Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The characters and events in the Journeys Series are the creation of the author.
My deepest thanks to Lisa, Inga and Susan, my beta readers, who do the really hard work.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction. Please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is illegal in your end of the swamp.
Seasons book 1 & 2 are now in print, and the Encounters
and the Murder Mystery Series will be soon. These books
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Petra sat by Quin's bed until her fever broke in the early hours of the morning. It gave her lots of time to think. Since Val's death, she had not felt any sexual excitement. She thought that those needs had been buried with her partner. But she would be in denial not to admit that Quin Venizelos attracted her. First, the woman was gorgeous. Second, she found that Quin's complex and moody personality was not only intriguing but seemed to be harmony with her own. They just got on well together.
If she allowed herself to, she could fantasizes about what it would be like to be with Quin. But she wasn't going to. She and Val had something very special and she wasn't going to let her baser feelings ruin that. Yes, she found that she had feelings for Quin but was it real or just a desperate need to replace the friendship and love that she'd had with Val? She felt torn. Part of her wanting to reach out to Quin, and the other part horrified that she could consider loving someone else after Val.
She sat mulling it over and over in her mind, feeling guilty and depressed, until, touching Quin's forehead, she realized the engineer's temperature had dropped. Then, tired and emotionally drained, she lay down beside Quin and drifted off to sleep.
Quin woke to daylight and was surprised to feel her sheets weighed down beside her. Turning carefully, she found Petra asleep next to her. Her golden hair caught the sunlight and her face had softened into innocence in sleep. What would it be like to wake each morning to someone like this? Someone you could love and cherished above all others?
Quin certainly was not ever going to find out. She had made a real mess of things with Petra. Not only did she not have a chance to win Petra's heart but she'd be lucky if she didn't lose her job. Wait a minute! What was she thinking? When had she started wanting to win Petra's heart? That wasn't what she wanted. She just wanted to bed her and develop a working relationship with the future owner. It was just casual business sex. Nothing more. Or was it? Wouldn't it be ironical if she had been stupid enough to fall in love with someone she couldn't have?
That thought depressed her. To her surprise a lump formed in her throat and tears brimmed in her eyes. This was not good. She rolled away, lying on her back and blinking away the tears. She needed to get a grip here. What she was feeling was not who she was. Quin knew herself well. She was focused, driven and a loner. Relationships came and went in her life, a convenience at the time and then forgotten. People like her didn't fall in love. Love was not an efficient use of time and made demands on your life that reduced your productivity.
Her mind drifted back to the few small scraps of memories she had of her parents. There was always laughter and a feeling of belonging. Her step mother had told her often that her mother used to laugh and say that her marriage was not made in heaven but was heavenly. Quin smiled. Her father had been a merchant sailor, tough and adventurous. Her mother had been a Christian missionary working in the far east. No, not a marriage made in heaven at all. Yet they were very happy together.
She turned her head again to look at the woman who slept beside her. It could be disastrous for her career to get involved in a public gay relationship. There were those in the conservative business community of North America that would ostracize her if they knew her orientation. She doubted that it would do much good for Petra's career either.
Quin snorted softly and slipped awkwardly from the bed. This was stupid to even to be thinking about. Petra preferred a dead woman to the likes of her. And if that didn't slap Quin's ego down, just about nothing would.
Petra woke to find Quin gone. She blinked away the sleep and her foggy mind registered the fact that the shower was running. With a sigh, she reluctantly pulled herself out of bed and headed for her own suite to wash and dress. She was going to have to think of some way to keep Quin off her leg today without the impatient and energy charged women getting antsy on her.
She stepped into her shower and reflected on her reactions; returning to her musings the night before. Her first thoughts this morning had been of Quin and what to do to help the injured women without embarrassing her. Somehow, she had developed a real affection for the engineer almost from their first meeting. It hadn't always been an easy relationship but it seemed to be based on a mutual respect and liking for each other.
What troubled her was this was one of the first mornings in the last three years when her first thoughts had not been memories of Val. She didn't want to lose that last connection with the woman she had loved.
They spent the morning sitting very close together in front of Quin's laptop going over the contracts, projections and operation of the Eastern Division. If Quin had been surprised that the boss's daughter would want access to this information, she gave no indication. Instead, she answered Petra's intelligent questions and went through her charts and graphs as if she was presenting the material to all the members of the Board of Directors. Quin appeared cool, calm and collected and the information, organization, and long range goals that Quin presented simply blew Petra away.
As much as she was impressed with Quin's efforts, she found herself too having doubts as to why Quin was staying with her father's company. Only one way to find out, Petra thought. "What you showed me is all very impressive," Petra said, over their lunch in the hotel's dining room. "I have to wonder why you have remained with the company. You must have had offers to move to larger companies or thought about forming your own."
Quin leaned back in her chair and looked at Petra. She hoped she wasn't showing it, but Petra's detailed questions and insightful comments had really made Quin sweat as she went through the material. Petra knew her stuff. Was this why the boss's daughter was here? To learn what Quin's agenda was? What the hell was going on? Had someone set her up for failure by passing on misinformation to Vossler? She had enemies, she knew it. Be careful Venizelos. Quin shrugged. "I find the company an ideal size for my present needs. Your father allows me the freedom to do my job to the best of my abilities."
"But you will move on?" pushed Petra, meeting Quin's eyes with a steady gaze.
"If the situation changes in a manner that impacts on my career or interests negatively, of course. It would be a matter of face," stated Quin, meeting the look with one just as intense. It was the waiter coming to take away dishes that broke the contact. Neither woman was willing to be the first to look away.
That afternoon, Quin insisted on taking Petra to see the Wild Goose Pagoda. "It is, to the Chinese who follow Buddhism, a very sacred place. The legend goes that a Buddhist priest from here walked to India and brought back the sacred scrolls of the faith from which others could learn," Quin explained, as they walked towards the cream coloured pagoda with its seven stories. "The famous myths of the Monkey King are based around this monk's true adventures. The legend is the Monkey King was sent along to protect the monk on his journeys."
They walked up the steps to where a patio housed a wrought iron stand on which people placed red candles and a huge incense burner filled with sand. To Petra's surprise, Quin took a thick red candle from her bag and stepped forward to light it from one of the many candles that burnt on the rack. She reverently placed the candle on one of the prongs to hold it in place with the others, and then stepped back and bowed with her hands held in prayer in front of her.
Petra moved farther back into the shade of a huge tree, allowing Quin the privacy of her faith. Quin walked over to a small table and bought a large bunch of long, red incense sticks. She returned to where her candle burned and lit all of the sticks from the flame. She moved to stand in front of the entrance to the Wild Goose Pagoda and held the burning incense sticks up in front of her. Petra wasn't sure if it was proper, but she impulsively lifted her camera and took the most amazing picture of a strong, noble woman standing in prayer as she held the red smoldering sticks. In front of her, seeming to float on the smoke of the incense, was the sacred pagoda. After a few minutes, Quin took the sticks and dropped them into the brazier and then looked around for Petra.
The smaller woman smiled and walked forward to meet her guide. Petra was learning what a complex mixture of cultural beliefs Quin really was. The engineer might have a European education but the way she felt about honor, face and obligation was a very eastern world view.
"I didn't know you were a Buddhist," she said.
"I am not. If anything, I am a Christian. But I grew up in a Buddhist community and to me the faiths are not that different in their moral beliefs. I pray to show respect. I have prayed that Buddha will help me achieve a higher awareness so that I will not feel the pain of this life."
"There are times in life that can be incredibly painful," Petra sighed. "I would like to think, however, that life itself is not pain."
Quin raised an eyebrow. "Surely, you as a sociologist must be aware of human suffering. The Buddha, who as a child was called Siddhartha, saw three things when he first left the safety and beauty of his rich father's home. First, he saw an old man and learned that all people must grow old. Next, he saw a sick person and learned that illness and suffering are part of the human lot. Then, he saw a corpse and realized that death is the end of all human life. Siddhartha was greatly troubled but lastly, he saw a wandering ascetic and decided that he must follow this path to seek truth." Petra walked with Quin into the building and stood respectfully aside as the faithful came to kneel and pray in front of the huge, golden statue of a sitting Buddha.
"It took Buddha a long time to find the way. It is said that after learning from many religious leaders, he sat beneath a pipal tree and meditated until he understood. A Buddhist monk follows the Dharma or teachings which are based around the Ten Precepts. They are: do not take a life, do not steal, be chaste, do not lie, do not drink intoxicants, eat moderately and not after the noon hour, avoid spectacles such as singing and dancing, do not adorn yourself with flowers, perfumes or jewelry, your bed should be humble, and you should accept no gold or silver."
"What about the regular followers of the faith?" Petra asked with interest, as they walked through the beautiful meditation gardens.
"Both men and women may become monks." Quin explained. "Lay people also follow the Sangha, but they are not expected to be celibate and may participate in business. The principal concept behind the faith is to achieve an awareness that will release you from the cycle of rebirths and move you to a better existence without human suffering."
"The cycle of rebirths? Reincarnation, you mean?" Petra asked, as she looked at the tall stone urns in which the ashes of famous monks were interred. "You come back as a cockroach if you are not good?"
"No," snorted Quin. "Buddha believed that you are reincarnated as another human. Buddha taught that one needed to accept the Four Noble Truths. All life is suffering. The cause of suffering is craving. The end of suffering is to stop craving and grasping. And the way to do this is through the Eightfold Path."
Petra frowned. "This is getting complicated."
Quin laughed, taking Petra's arm and leading her through the gardens to a tea house and store. "And the concepts of the Holy Trinity and communion are easy to understand? The Eightfold Path is easy. It simply states that you must have the right view, aspirations, speech, actions, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration to achieve jhana."
"Paradise?" questioned Petra, as she accepted a cup of Chinese tea from Quin.
"No, the first level of meditation on the way to achieving release from human suffering."
Petra considered this. "One can not get through life without pain. Yet, I don't think I can accept that life is pain. I was raised a Lutheran, and although I can't say I go to church regularly, I like to think that the message of my faith is that belief helps you through the dark times of life. It gives you the courage to go on until better times come your way.
"This has been fascinating. I think I have a bit better grasp of Buddhist thought now."
Petra looked back at the pagoda with interest. "Still, I think I have a lot to learn," she observed.
"One can never know all the facets of China. She is a dragon, powerful, magical and mysterious," Quin observed, philosophical.
Petra looked at Quin with interest. She thought the same description could be applied to the engineer. She said nothing and having finished their tea, they headed back to the hotel.
Petra sat on the edge of Quin's bed. She had insisted on changing the engineer's bandage so she could make sure for herself that the wound was healing. She had to admit, it was looking much better. The redness had gone and the wound was starting to close up. Quin healed quickly. She must be in excellent health.
As she worked, she listened to Quin going on in rapid Mandarin to someone on the phone. They had missed their boat because of the unexpected delay in Xian and Quin was trying to get them on another. It was not proving to be easy. Many people wanted to sail through the three gorges of the Yangtze River before they were flooded by the new dam construction. At last, Quin smiled and hung up the phone. "It was a battle, but I managed to get the last suite on a ship leaving Chongqung tomorrow afternoon."
"That's great." Petra smiled. "This wound looks good too."
"Glad you think so. If you like scars I have others," Quin teased, wiggling her eyebrows.
Petra frowned. "You promised to be good."
"It's a guarantee!" boasted Quin with a teasing smile, and Petra threw the pillow at her before gathering up the first aid supplies.
"You are impossible. I'll leave you to get on with your email and go and read my book." Petra laughed.
"A book is better than me," sighed Quin dramatically.
"Lady, a Campbell Soup label would be more entertaining than that act," responded Petra, as she gave one last smile before making her exit.
Quin frowned. Hell, she couldn't even tease this woman and win. Visitor: 9 Home team 0, Quin thought. She found Petra to be beautiful, intelligent, witty and just a really nice person and she was frustrated that Petra did not seem to have a very high opinion of her. With a sigh of frustration, she opened up her lap top to get on with some work.
The next day, Petra fastened her flight harness and looked apprehensively at Quin, who was going through her pre-flight check.
"Yes, I'm fine to fly, and no, I am not on medication," Quin drawled, without even looking up from her clipboard.
"I didn't say anything!" protested Petra, the blush rising in her cheeks.
"You didn't have to, you have fear written all over you," snorted Quin, pulling and turning the yoke to check the flaps and rudder movement.
"I'm not afraid to fly...much. I just feel safer in a big plane," protested Petra.
"Safety in numbers?" Quin asked teasingly, before she clicked on her mike to ask for a runway clearance.
Petra pulled a face at Quin and then braced herself. Careening down the runway on the front of a aluminum tube at a hundred miles an hour was not her idea of a really good time.
The flight to Chongqung was uneventful. Once on the ground, Quin organized a taxi to take them through Chongqung, a working class town, to the dock where the Yangtze River Cruise Boat was docked. Here the countryside was hilly and Quin told Petra that the economy was based on farming, mining and industry.
The taxi driver said something to Quin and there was a short discussion for a minute. Then Quin looked at Petra and shrugged. "We have to go visit another factory so I can sign the government book. It won't take long."
"Do you have to do this every time you visit a city?" Petra asked.
"No. It is because you are on a tourist visa. China needs foreign currency," Quin explained. "We are going to see a mill where silk cocoons are spun into thread."
"Chinese silks! Are they as beautiful as the history books say?" asked Petra.
"Some are. But I do not think this particular factory will be producing a very high grade of silk. It is little more that a sweat shop in my opinion and the labour is female and the management male. Try not to lead a social revolution," Quin added dryly.
"Are you implying that I would?" Petra asked, turning from looking out the window at the functional and rather run down city core to meet Quin's eyes.
"I rather suspect so," Quin smiled. It was this sudden flash of delight that lit the older woman's face, softening features hardened by responsibility. Petra found Quin's smile charming.
To be truthful, there was almost a social revolution. Petra stood watching the weary women standing on a wet cement floor with their hands in water that was very hot. They caught the threads of the wet cocoons as they bobbed by in a trough and attached them to the spinning machine. The machines were old and the moving parts exposed near the woman's hands. The factory itself was steamy and smelt like a wet dog, and the temperature was well into the high 90s.
Petra cornered the manager who had been proudly showing them around and started firing questions at him about the company's market, sales, and the working conditions of the women. Quickly, Quin moved in and edged Petra out to the old taxi van, leaving a sulky but relieved manager behind. The two women sat in the back in silence as the driver drove them down to the ship that was moored along the river bank.
It was Petra who broke the silence. "I understand the importance of economic viability but those women need to strike for better working conditions. One can not expect working conditions to be at the high level one finds in an industrialized nation, but things could be better with just a few safeguards and modifications put into place." Quin laughed softly but said nothing. "I just wanted to hear what the manager had to say!"Petra protested.
"The working conditions and pay are appalling, I agree, particularly at that factory. But this is not North America. This is China, a country struggling to rebuild after the disastrous years of the cultural revolution. They have jobs. The factory is as mechanized as it can be. Yes, it is hard, miserable work. That is why it is women's work," Quin explained.
"And I suppose you think THAT makes it okay?" responded Petra, getting angry at the injustice of this statement.
"No, I don't. But I am here to do a job and that job hopefully will improve the lot of the women in that factory and many more. It is not my job to tell other countries how to treat their people," Quin stated.
"I agree to some extent, but I think a person does have to make a stand." argued Petra. "We need to question and encourage the steady improvement of working and living conditions throughout the world. I am not calling for revolution just a focus on an awareness of human needs that will hopefully lead to a better world. The exploitation of women is wrong."
"Yes, it's wrong. It is also wrong that twenty percent of the world's population, mostly whites, control eighty per cent of the world's wealth. Perhaps in time there will be a more even spread between the have and have not nations but I don't think that we are willingly going to give up any of our disproportionate piece of the pie. That's where we differ I guess. You think it is possible and I only wish it was. Ahh, here we are."
They pulled up in front of a steep embankment that had a series of broken and uneven steps which led down to the water's edge. From there, a chain of metal ramps and wood planks led from one rusty old barge to another until one reached the ship.
Petra stood on the high bank and looked out over the wide Yangtze River. It was a river of legend. Yellow with mud and filthy with years of transportation and refuse, it swirled along just as powerfully as it had for thousands of years. History bent and changed, not the river. Until now. Until Quin and her fellow engineers arrived to conquer this river and force it into the twenty-first century. Petra was not sure how she felt about that.
They headed out across the makeshift dock to the ship that would be their home for the next four days, declining the help of the locals who wanted a tip for gently assisting the tourists across from one wobbly gangplank to the next. Just as Petra stepped onto the last barge a terrifying sound started up and only with difficulty did she recognize it as an attempt at playing Ode to Joy.
Quin took Petra's elbow and led her around the corner of the barge's pilot house to come face to face with six young Chinese girls dressed in white and blue silk uniforms who were belting out a shaky rendition of the European classic for all they were worth on battered old brass instruments. The Chinese attempt at recreating what they thought was a proper European ship's departure tickled Petra no end and restored her good humour. The tour director smiled broadly and shook their hands and led them to the dining room where the buffet lunch was just being served.
Again Petra was amused to see the careful, if misinformed, attention the Chinese had taken to setting the table in a festive European style. At one end of the buffet table stood a three tiered wedding cake and at the other a small, worn Christmas tree with wrapped boxes under it. The food too was a strange mix of European dishes made from Chinese produce. Petra found it humorous and delightful. Quin found Petra's love of life and her sense of the ridiculous delightful. They had a very enjoyable meal together.
The good cheer lasted as long as it took them to get to their suite. The luggage was neatly standing in a row in the small sitting room. This room contained a bar fridge, love seat and two chairs around a small table. The bathroom was small but adequate, but the bedroom had only one double bed. Petra turned and looked at Quin. "I didn't know! I thought all suites had two bed rooms. Honest!" the engineer protested, feeling the embarrassment burning her ears.
"Sure, Venizelos!" teased Petra, enjoying having the upper hand. "Let's see, you are about six foot. That love seat looked about four, so if you sleep sitting up there won't be a problem."
"Ahh, come on, Vossler. We shared a bed only last night. Have mercy, it's a four day trip. I can't sleep sitting up for four days," whined Quin. "Besides, I have a sore leg."
Petra snorted with laughter. "You are pathetic! Okay, I see your point. I'll give you one of my pillows and you can sleep on the floor."
"Come on, Petra, give me a break here. I'll wear pyjamas. I won't sleep under the sheets. I'll take a cold shower every night before coming to bed..."
Petra decided that it was time to let the squirming engineer off the hook. "The question is, will you keep your promise to be good?"
Quin swallowed in disappointment. "Is there another way?" she asked, hopefully.
Quin sighed. "I promise. But don't tell anyone; it will ruin my good name."
Petra snorted. "Good name, my foot! Your reputation you mean!"
Quin nodded with an evil grin. "Yeah, that's what I mean."
The evening was spent at a lecture on the culture and history of China followed by a social to get to know the other passengers. Quin was soon into a deep conversation with the captain about changes in navigation as the river levels rose with each step in the dam completion. Petra mingled, leaving Quin to her own devices. She was good at socializing and comfortable in the role, having stood at her father's side at many such functions.
For her part, Quin kept one eye on Petra. She envied the way the woman seemed to put everyone at ease and keep up the light banter of conversation. Quin was hopeless at small talk. Her conversation tended be the communication of data or direct orders. She noticed that a number of the men on the river excursion were already trailing after Petra and doing their best to be charming.
The lights had been dimmed now and dance music played on a CD. Several of the couples had started to dance. It was only a few minutes before Quin saw Petra on the small dance floor in some jerk's arms. She ground her teeth in frustration. What she wouldn't give to be able to dance with Quin. Life sucked. She forced herself to focus on what the captain was saying.
Some time later, Quin looked up to see that Petra was gone. Her heart twisted into a jealous knot and she excused herself abruptly from the captain to go in search of Vossler's daughter. Petra was not in their cabin. Quin fought a battle with herself over whether she should go on deck and run the chance of interrupting a budding shipboard romance or stay in their cabin and mind her own business.
The battle lasted all of two seconds and then she was out of the door and down the hall to the door leading to the deck. Several couples leaned over the rain watching the setting sun kiss the golden river. Petra was not in sight. Worried and jealous as hell, Quin made her way to the stern. There she was, standing alone, watching the wake of the big ship as it plowed down the river. Relief swept over Quin and without thinking she walked up to the smaller woman.
"I have wanted to dance with you all evening," she confessed and then held out her hand. "May I have the last dance?"
Petra looked up in surprise and then smiled. She moved into Quin's arms and there in their private world at the stern of the ship, they danced close together to the soft music floating from the dance floor below. They moved well together, fit well together, and at the end of the song neither wanted to pull away. "Thanks for the dance," Quin said awkwardly, doing her best to sound casual even though she felt anything but. She had made a promise to Petra and although she might tease, she would not cross the line again. "Aaahh, I'll see you downstairs.
"Okay," Petra responded, looking embarrassed and a bit flustered. "I'll see you in a bit."
Quin nodded and beat a quick retreat before she said or did anything that would cost her job for sure. Maybe sleeping sitting up on the couch was not a bad idea after all.
Petra went back to staring out at the water. See, that is what I mean, Val. She has a way about her. I don't know. I am really confused. I know you always said that if anything happened to you I shouldn't give up on love but you were my, partner Val. You. No one else.
She watched the golden wake slip off into the gathering darkness and thought of a day long ago. They had taken a vow of commitment to each other and had then taken their car and driven out east for a holiday. It had been wonderful. Just Val and her, having adventures and delighting in the heady days of early love. That feeling had never ended in the years they had been together. It was like that with Val. Val was eternally young, impish and full of life.
They had stood on the stern of the ferry on their way to Prince Edward Island, long before the bridge had been built, and held each other close. On the deck below walked a retired couple holding hands that they had met coming aboard. The couple was newly married, both having lost their life long partners. "I can't imagine wanting another," Petra had said.
"Nor can I," Val had answered, kissing her cheek. "But I think what they have is good. I think there are many different loves and if one is taken away, in time, a person could find another. It wouldn't be a replacement. It could never be the same. It would just be a different love and in its own way just as deep. They look happy to me, anyway."
Petra stood on the deck in the dark and let the tears run down her face, aching for the one she loved, missing her with every once of her being. You never stop mourning. You only learn to live with the emptiness.
Quin showered and reluctantly slipped into silk pyjamas, preferring to sleep naked. She tuned down the bed and climbed in, making sure she stayed well over on one side. For a bit, she read a book. Then she decided that it wouldn't be too subtle to be up waiting for Petra to return. She turned off her light and willed herself to sleep. When this failed, she lay on her back staring at the shadows on the ceiling and wondered what it would be like to be in love.
Petra came in much later and quietly got ready for bed in the dark. Quin pretended to be asleep.
Her eyes closed, she listened to every sound that Petra made as she slipped from her clothes, washed and crawled into bed beside her. Inwardly, Quin sighed with relief. Now things felt right and she was able to drift off to sleep.
Petra woke the next morning to find that Quin had once again got up early. She washed and dressed quickly and hurried down to the breakfast room. She found Quin sitting off by herself, drinking her coffee and looking moodily out at the river. But when Petra joined her, she smiled.
"Soon, we will dock at Fengdu. It is one of the cities that is scheduled for demolition," the engineer explained.
"What?" Petra asked, looking up from her breakfast in surprise.
"Five major cities will have to be leveled because they will be below water level after the dam is built. They have to be flattened because they would be a navigation hazard."
"I understand this, but five cities! I had no idea that the dam would effect that many people," responded Petra, putting down her coffee and leaning back to look at Quin.
"About one and a half million people will be displaced," Quin said, as if this was not of any great concern. Petra was just about to question Quin's attitude when the engineer went on. "It is ironic. High above the city of Fengdu is a famous Buddhist temple. Fengdu is called the City of Ghosts because the temple is dedicated to the Buddhist God of the Dead. It will be the only structure that will remain above water level. The living will be gone and the dead will live on. That's the bell to tell us that they are ready for us to disembark. Are you finished?"
"Yes," responded Petra, pushing back her chair. Quin's casual remarks over breakfast had given her a lot to think about.
They once again walked the gamut of makeshift gangways to the shore and then ran another of street vendors as they climbed the stone stairs up the bank to road level. There several rickety buses provided transportation to the Temple of the Dead. The two travelers boarded with the others and the bus driver happily took off along the winding road into town, giving a running commentary the whole way in what he thought was English.
Quin bought them tickets to enter the grounds and meditation gardens of the Buddhist temple while Petra looked straight up to the ancient temple at the top of the peak. "There are 900 steps to the top," Quin said as she came up behind Petra.
Petra smiled weakly. "Let's see, that's about...fifty floors."
Quin smiled. "We could take the ski lift up the first eight hundred."
Petra laughed and pointed at Quin. "Sounds like a plan." Together the two women waited in line and then slipped back onto the chair lift seat to ride up over the wild tangle of gardens below. It was a wonderful view. To the one side, lush tropical gardens clung to the side of the peak, dotted here and there with the ornate, colourful ceramic tile roofs of pagodas. To the other, the ground dropped away and far below they could see the city of Fengdu and beyond it the yellow Yangtze River. From this height, the huge cruise ship looked like a toy.
Quin wrapped her arm around Petra's shoulder and leaned across her to point to the construction high on the opposite side of the bay from the city of Fengdu. "That is the new city," Quin explained. "The people are slowly being moved to that area in preparation for the water flooding this area."
"How do they feel about that?" Petra asked, looking down on the old city that would soon be a thing of folk tales, flattened and nearly forgotten beneath the muddy waters of the reservoir.
Quin shrugged, removing her arm and getting ready to get off the chair lift. "Some think it is a good idea. Others are upset."
They came off the chair lift to a look out on which one could stand and gaze for miles down the river. Behind them a covered walk ran around three sides of a garden, allowing the monks and faithful a place to contemplate and stroll even on a rainy day. Petra took some pictures and then they headed up the first of the hundred remaining steps.
"There are trials that you will have to pass," Quin explained as they walked up a steep grade lined with hideous and gaudily painted sculptured creatures from hell that were twice life size. "It is the God of the Dead in Buddhism that judges your heart. Just as in Christianity, St. Peter guards the gate to heaven. Before communism, the faithful would come here to be tested to see if they were worthy of going to heaven. We will see how you do." Quin smiled, wiggling her eyebrows at Petra.
"And you!" challenged the sociologist and then asked, "The people no longer believe then?"
"Oh sure, many do. Although officially, communism opposes religion, the majority of the people just quietly went on with their belief. Today, many are still faithful but perhaps not as trusting as in the past. The young tend not to have a religion while the older people still cling to their faith."
They took a set of stairs that wound its way between a number of pagodas and then came to a courtyard where a knot of tourists stood around the edge of a small roofed enclosure. Within the enclosure, the stone floor rose in the centre to a peak about two feet high. A worn shallow trough ran around this area and sitting at the side was a flat bottomed and round sided metal object about the size and shape of half a beach ball. As they came up a man was wrestling to lift the heavy metal object on to the top of the peak.
"This first trial is really for men only. The metal half ball weighs over two hundred pounds. A man must get the half circle to the top of the peak and balance it there. If he can then he will be faithful to his wife in the after life. It is test of love and devotion," Quin explained.
They watched while a series of men tried and failed. Then to Petra's surprise Quin moved into the area, squatted down and used her body weight to get the object on its round side. She rolled it around and around the slanted sides and on each orbit she lifted it a bit higher until she toppled it and with a terrific effort steadied it on top of the peak. The crowd clapped and cheered and Quin smugly let it go to thump to the bottom again. With a smirk, the engineer got up and walked over to Petra.
"I'm impressed. I wouldn't have picked you for the faithful type," Petra said, offering Quin her water bottle.
"That's because you don't know me," stated the taller woman, bending her head back and taking a long swig from the bottle. Petra watched as Quin swallowed the water, strong neck muscles and broad shoulders tanned golden and moist with the humidity. She was both beautiful and powerful.
Together they trailed after the others, following another series of stone steps to the next courtyard. Here a small marble bridge arched over a stream that cut across the stone square. "This is a test to see if you are fit to go to heaven. Only those without the burden of guilt will be able to cross this bridge in only three steps."
"Hey, I've got shorter legs!" protested Petra, looking at the high arched bridge.
"Hmm, excuses already," teased Quin. "Sounds like a heavy conscience to me." Quin loped over the bridge easily in two strides and turned to look at Petra with her head on the side and her arms crossed.
Petra was not about to fail on this test and with a bit of a run she took three big strides and just made it to the other side. "Conscience clear as the heavens," Petra smirked.
"We'll see. There are other tests yet," mocked Quin.
Once again they climbed through the temple grounds until they came to a wall with an open gate in it. There was however a ridge about a foot and a half high running from side to side across the doorway. Quin stopped to explain. "You probably have noticed that on traditional doorways, there is always this ledge to step over. It is to keep out evil spirits. Evil spirits crawl on their bellies and can't get over the doorstep. This too is a test and you must go first. You must step over the ledge with the correct foot first. To enter the kingdom of heaven a good person's actions would naturally be proper."
Petra thought about it; right foot first or left? It was a fifty fifty gamble. But Petra was a sociologist and under stood human nature and culture. Leading with the right foot would put you off balance if you were a warrior because most people are stronger on their right side. So a man would naturally lead with his left foot. A woman would show trust and vulnerability, though, in the traditional culture. Petra stepped over the ledge with her right foot first.
Quin smiled and clapped, stepping over after her with her right foot first . "That's it, right foot first for a woman, left for a man, although I have know idea why."
Petra crossed her arms and put her head on the side, mimicking Quin's actions not long before. "That is because you are only an engineer and not a sociologist," she teased and off they went again.
They eventually came the courtyard in front of the temple itself. Twisted pines proved shade and the view from the low stone walls was simply beautiful. You looked out, not down, across the blue heavens edged with the curved horizon of the ancient nation of Chin. The wind whispered softly and wind chimes filled the trees with soft music. It was a tranquil, soul touching place. For a while, they stood there in silence and drank into their souls the beauty of faith.
The last challenge was at the entrance of the temple. It was a small, rounded stone, shiny with wear, that stood a few inches above the pavement. "You have to balance on one foot with your eyes closed for ten seconds," Quin explained. "It is to test if there is a balance of the yin-yang forces within you.
"Maybe you shouldn't try this one," Petra suggested with a smile. "What with your hot liver and all."
Quin gave her a look and stepped on the stone. She lifted her other foot and spread her arms to the sides. Closing her eyes, she allowed her body to relax and go perfectly still. After ten seconds, she opened her eyes and hopped off with a smile.
"Think you are good, don't you?" mocked Petra, placing her foot on the stone.
"Know it," bragged Quin.
Petra, however, was not to be outdone. She had studied ballet right into her twenties and had been pretty good. Now she used that skill to her advantage. She stood on the rock and curved her arms gracefully over her head before stretching her other leg up and closing her eyes. She stood perfectly and beautifully poised for ten seconds and then, going up on the ball of her foot, she turned slowly around before opening her eyes and stepping off.
The small crowd that had formed applauded loudly and Petra waved her thanks with a smile before turning to Quin. Quin smiled. "I see your soul is as beautiful as your form." the engineer stated quietly, much to Petra's surprise.
A blush rose up Petra's neck as she saw the look in Quin's eyes. "Shall we go in?" she asked, and the engineer, realizing she was staring, started off towards the temple without another word, with Petra at her side.
Inside the temple, there were again huge monster-like statues on each side of a long hall. Quin explained that each symbolically weighed one aspect of your soul; honesty, loyalty, generosity and many more. At the end of the hall, they went up several steps to stand in front of the massive gold statue of the God of the Dead. Quin bought a handful of incense sticks to place in the burner in front of the God of the Dead. This time she shyly offered some to Petra.
With a smile of thanks, Petra took the sticks and imitated Quin's actions, lighting the sticks and placing them in the stand to burn and then standing with her hands in prayer before the idol. Protect the souls of my father, Val ... and of Quin because I care about her, she prayed and followed the engineer back out into the courtyard.
"Some Christians would say that we have just prayed to a graven image. That is not true. Buddhist do not revere the statue but the element of God that it represents. It is no different from the statues of the saints or of Christ that you see in European churches," Quin stated. "It always amazes me that in all faiths people say that they are seeking enlightenment and truth but refuse to consider any reality outside their own dogma. I am glad you burned the incense."
"It is not my faith but I see no reason why I can not use the opportunity to pray. If there is a God, I believe He must be the God of all of us, no matter what dogma and rituals we choose to follow to reach Him," Petra said, as she walked with Quin back down to the chair lift.
"I agree but I am afraid many would be angry and insulted by your viewpoint," sighed Quin.
"Fanatical belief and bigotry are the reasons we still have wars," grumbled Petra. The two of them swung up into the lift and sat quietly side by side as they returned to the gardens below.
Petra did not sleep well that night. She was very aware of Quin beside her. This wasn't right, that she should be sharing a bed with Quin. Then again, they weren't doing anything and it was silly and impractical not to share the bed. The contradictory thoughts whirled around her head and made sleep impossible. What really annoyed her was that it didn't seem to bother Quin at all. The woman had come in late, washed and changed and had gone right to sleep.
Quin lay perfectly still, clinging to the edge of the bed. She was acutely aware of Petra tossing and turning behind her. She wanted desperately to roll over and pull the smaller woman into her arms and make love to her. But a promise was a promise and no matter how hard this was, she was not going to take advantage of the situation.
She thought about the petite woman standing on the peak looking out over China. Her hair flashed golden in the sun and her eyes sparkled with excitement. She was this little package of strength, and mischief all wrapped up in a well toned and beautiful body. She was damn bright too. Quin had learned that quick enough when she had gone through the division reports with her in Xian. It was such a shame that the sociologist was so often weighed down with the burden of grief. Petra rolled over again, bouncing the bed. Quin gritted her teeth in frustration and held on tight to her pillow. It was going to be a long night.
They woke almost at the same time the next morning and found themselves wrapped in each other's arms. Petra went to pull away. "Stay...please," Quin said softly.
"We shouldn't be doing this," Petra stated but she returned her head to rest on Quin's shoulder and again wrapped her arm around the muscular frame of the engineer.
"It feels good...right," mumbled Quin, feeling so very relaxed and at peace.
"I love Val," Petra said out loud, vocalizing part of the confusion that was going through her head.
In a split second, Quin was up and out of the bed, quivering with anger. "God damn it, Petra! I don't want to be Val. And I don't want to be some damn substitute! I will not compete with a dead woman!" Quin scooped up her clothes and disappeared into the bathroom. When she came out Petra tried to reason with her but Quin kept right on going out the door.
They didn't meet again until after breakfast. Petra found Quin leaning moodily over the rail, looking at the countryside as the big ship plowed its way down river. Before Petra could say anything Quin changed the subject. "We will be passing through the three gorges today. They are very beautiful. Once the dam is finished they will no longer exist. Do you see the signs posted by the government along the shore line? The first measurement, 135 meters or around 345 feet, is where the water level will be in two years time. The second marker, 175 meters or about 525 feet, is where the water levels will be when the dam is completely finished," Quin explained.
Okay, let the incident drop, Petra wisely decided. She looked at the first sign half way up the mountainside and the second three quarters of the way up. "I, of course, have read the statistics, but to actually see just how high the water will rise is amazing. Can we build something that can hold back this much water safely?" Petra asked and felt the tense body beside her relax a bit.
"Nothing is completely safe. All dams, no matter how well built, age and wear over time and will finally give just like all buildings finally fall down. I can't predict if an earthquake will weaken the structural integrity or if a massive typhoon will raise the water levels dangerously. We build in safeguards for acts of God but we are in the end only human. The dam will be the safest dam we can build. Originally, the dam was to be farther down the river but the drill samples found that the stratification there was sand and gravel. We couldn't build a dam of this scale on that bed. The land around would have become super-saturated and then would have just given way. Where we have built it is on granite bedrock, which is excellent for stability but there is a fault line near by and that is a concern," Quin revealed.
"A fault line! That's nuts!" Petra exclaimed, turning away from the scenery to face Quin.
Quin smiled. "If we reduced the earth to the size of an egg, the earth's crust would be as thin as the egg shell. And it would be a badly cracked egg shell at that. The earth's crust is thin and unstable. It moves and heaves continually. There is no truly safe place to build anything. We just look for the best place. The spot where the dam is being built appears to be stable and it is on solid, nonporous bedrock. Like I said, no one can predict the chaos of the universe."
Petra turned to look at the passing landscape once again. The mountains soared on each side now a thousand feet over head. When the dam was built, these mountains would disappear and all that would remain would be a series of small islands that had once been the lofty peaks of mountains. That was the power of Quin and her team.
The two women spent most of the morning on the deck, sitting in the lawn chairs reading , leaning on the rail looking at the spectacular scenery or walking around the deck. The first gorge they went through was Qutan, which was eight kilometers long and a thousand feet high and truly breathtaking. The shore was a sheer wall of rock. Quin pointed out the narrow, precarious footpath that had been cut into the cliffs. "Years ago, boats didn't have the power to fight the current of the Yangtze River. So they would be pulled back up stream by teams of men on ropes. The paths up there are the width of your foot in parts. It was backbreaking, incredibly dangerous work and the men got next to nothing for their toil but misery and an early death."
They passed Wu Gorge and then went on to the Xiling Gorge, which took over an hour to sail through. The beauty of the gorges was beyond description. Looking over the bow, the green, lush mountains touched the swirling river in layers, each a different shade of green as they receded into the mist. These were the images that had been captured in black ink paintings by the Chinese for thousands of years, powerful, tranquil and majestic. Petra felt so very privileged that she'd had the opportunity to see this natural wonder before it was lost.
In the afternoon, they reached Badong, a small fishing community, and anchored in the river to take on fresh produce. Quin made arrangements to rent a small river boat to take Petra and her up a river gorge to a fishing settlement she knew. The boat was made of wood slats with a flat bottom and a curved bow and stern. The pilot wore the calf length pants of a fisherman and the traditional wide rimmed hat made from dried fronds. Their craft, once it reached the shallow river, was poled along by the boat man, who was delighted when Quin started to sing local folk songs in the high minor key of most Chinese music. The boat man joined in, singing the responses to Quin's verses. Quin had a beautiful voice. Petra leaned back and marveled at this woman who had more colours and aspects to her personality than a kaleidoscope.
They came to a narrow stretch of the gorge and Quin pointed up to where shallow niches had been cut into the rock and reinforced with stakes. In these, hanging out over the water far below, were the coffins of the dead that had been placed there over a thousand years ago. "No one knows who is buried in the hanging coffins of Badong," Quin explained. "Nor do we know how they managed to bury them half down a cliff face. I guess they must have been lowered there from above."
Petra looked up with interest, wondering about the culture lost in time whose dead still slept peacefully above the river. They went on to the small fishing village and, having had a walk around, returned to the ship just before dark. A day that had started badly had turned into one filled with beauty and comfortable companionship.
Later that night, Petra sat on the deck enjoying the canopy of stars and the cool night air. China was unbelievably hot and humid in the summer, Petra had realized, and the nights were a pleasant relief. Her mind drifted to other times and the pain returned to her heart. It had been her that had reached out to Quin in her sleep, wrapping her small body around the engineer's muscular frame. Val, I am so confused at the moment. I love you. You were supposed to be my partner for life. I know that in my heart and yet I feel myself being drawn to this woman. How could I love another after you? What we had was so perfect. Are there other kinds of love? You know what she said, Val? She said that she wasn't you and that she didn't want to compete with you. Is that possible? To have a different love? One that doesn't take away from what you and I had? I just don't know! All I have left of you, Val, is a memory. I don't want to lose that.
Quin had got into a poker game, lost money and had drunk too much. She went to bed with a headache, an upset stomach and a depression about as heavy as a ton of shit. There was no use hiding the truth from herself any longer. She had fallen in love and with some one who wanted her about as much as a common cold. Life sucked.
Quin found their bodies once again cocooned together in the morning. Seeing that Petra was still asleep, the engineer softly kissed the head of the woman that she knew she loved. Then, swallowing a lump in her throat, she slipped carefully from the woman's embrace and went to wash and change. There was nothing she could do about her feelings about Petra and there was much to be done at the site. Last night, the ship had moved on to Shan Do Poing and anchored. They were now at the Three Gorges Dam Project. Leaving a note for Petra, she grabbed a piece of toast and hailed a water taxi to take her to shore.
Having slept badly, Petra woke late and groggily went through her morning routine. In the breakfast room, she was awake enough to observe that they were anchored and when a smiling waitress came up to her and handed her a note, Petra was focused enough to realize it must have come from Quin.
I have gone to shore to check on things on the site. I will be back after breakfast to pick you up. Wear hiking boats, you are going on a construction site. Quin
Petra ate her breakfast and went below to change into clothes more appropriate to walking around an area under construction and then went up on deck to wait for Quin. Most of the tourists aboard had left on their excursions before the engineer returned. Quin jumped from the small boat and loped up the stairs to where Petra waited. "Good morning. Are you ready to go?" Quin asked. Gone was the warm companionship that they had shared over the last few weeks. Quin was in her professional role today. This was her site and her world, and Petra was the boss's daughter and a member of the board of directors.
Petra nodded and followed the engineer down to the small boat that would take them to the site. A jeep and driver waited for them there and they were quickly off to a lookout where Quin explained that they could get a good overview of the site before heading down into the construction zone. On the way, Quin reviewed information about the dam, as if giving a lecture to a group of stock holders.
"The Three Gorges Dam Project will be the largest hydroelectric project in the world. It is being built in three stages. The first took a natural secondary channel in the river formed by a shoal and deepened it to make a diversion channel. The second stage, which we are working on now, is to build the locks and the first levels of the dam. That will raise the water to the 135 meter mark. The last stage will be to raise the dam to its full height so that the water can raise to the final 175 meter mark."
They stood on a windy bluff looking down on the massive scar that would be the lock system for the ships once the dam was completed. It was difficult to get the scale of just how big the construction really was until Quin pointed to some small cranes at the bottom of the deep cut. They and the dump trucks that came and went in a continual flow looked like miniature models that Petra used to play with as a child.
"Those yellow cranes you see down there, are the new super cranes. Most of the ones that exist in the world are here at the site. You can't really tell from here but those cranes are five stories high," Quin stated, and Petra blinked in amazement.
"I had no idea of the scale of this site," Petra said, shaking her head in disbelief. "Why did the Chinese government pick a smaller company like Vossler to work on such a mammoth undertaking?"
"This area has temperatures over one hundred degrees in the summer and well below freezing in the winter. Canadian engineers have developed cement mixes that can withstand that sort of temperature change because of our own harsh climate," the engineer explained, taking Petra's elbow to lead her off the observation platform.
"But Quin, what about the impact this is going to have on the environment and the people?"
They headed back to the jeep as the engineer answered. "This is the most ambitious undertaking ever, I think. It is not just the building of one of the largest dams in the world but five new cities have to be built and the old ones demolished, not to mention hundreds of villages. Break walls have to be built to stabilize the new river banks, bridges have to span the gorge and hundreds of miles of new roads have had to be laid. One and a half million people will have to be relocated."
"What a nightmare." Petra shuddered, feeling for those that were losing the world that their families had probably lived in for hundreds if not thousands of years.
"The government is being as fair as possible. But clearly there is both a negative and positive side. Generally, the young support the development. It is providing thousands of jobs at good pay, stimulating secondary industries and providing training. At the moment, there are 30,000 workers at this site alone. About 10,000 of these are manual labourers. They work eight hour days, five days a week and earn $3000 Chinese dollars a month That works out to about $300 American dollars. That is good pay for unskilled labour in China."
Petra got out of the jeep and looked around, now seeing the site from the bottom of the huge lock channel. It gave her the same feeling as standing in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The scale was about the same. The super cranes now towered above them. They lowered their massive hooks on thick anchor chain and hoisted hundreds of pounds of material to the various levels where the men were working. "How are they handling the new housing?" Petra yelled over the noise of hundreds of machine engines.
"The communist government has provided good basic housing in the new towns. The apartments are about one hundred and twenty square feet and have two bedrooms, two guest rooms, a kitchen and living area. The apartments are new, clean, brick and have water and bathroom facilities. For many this is much better than what they have now. The apartments cost $80,000 Chinese dollars. The old homes are bought by the government and that allows people a
down payment on a new apartment."
They walked over to a trailer that was Quin's field office. Petra became aware that the workers around them stepped aside and showed great respect to the engineer. It was clear that she was well known and respected by the workers on the site. Quin was still talking. "Farmers may opt to give up farming. If they do, they may have an apartment and a job on the dam site. Or if they wish to stay in farming, they will be relocated to another area where they will receive $10,000 for each person in the family plus compensation for lost fruit trees and $120 for each square meter of their house. This will give them $40-50,000 to build a new home on their smaller acreage."
Petra looked out the dusty window at the beehive of activity outside. "Those apartments are tiny! My bedroom is bigger than their entire apartment! What if they have a big family?" she asked.
"It is still better than most have today. They don't have big families. Because of over population, by law, a couple may have only one child. Farmers and minority groups are allowed two children."
Petra turned to look at Quin. "I don't think that I am comfortable with a government that is so controlling, no matter how fair it might seem to be."
Quin shrugged. "The company has been hired to do a job. I am not here to judge another country's politics. That is not my role. I am here to make money for Vossler and build a good dam. Each emperor of China has had one great project that he left behind as a legacy to the people. This is Mao's."
"This is all about Mao playing emperor!" Petra exclaimed.
"Pretty much. The new town here is called Mao Ping. The idea of the dam was originally put forth in 1943 by Sun Yet San. But was not feasible at the time. Mao made it happen," Quin explained, as she clicked through her email seeing what needed her attention.
"Ego does not seem like a very good reason for the massive upheaval that this dam is causing," grumbled Petra.
Quin stopped what she was doing and leaned back in her chair to look at Petra with serious blue eyes. "Everything we do has a negative and positive side. It is the yin and yang of life. There are critics to the construction. The old do not wish to see the loss of their ancestral lands and nine counties will disappear with 30,000 hectares of excellent farm land. But there is another side. This river needs taming. Over recent years, 30,000 lives have been lost in floods and slides. River navigation will be safer, and a tremendous amount of cheap electricity will be produced for a growing nation."
Petra was about to argue this point when a young man burst into the office looking shaken and pale and speaking in rapid Mandarin. "What is it?" Petra asked.
"There has been an accident," responded Quin, grabbing her hard hat and heading out. "Stay here."
Continued - Part 4
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