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Volume 3, Issue 3, October 31, 2008

Littleblossom Makes a Deal with the Devil
by S. Hutson Blount

        Snow was knee-deep outside the bleached skeleton of Harbin, making Xiaoying work to get across the valley floor. Her ears burned with the cold, even under the felt flaps of her hat. Every day, she thought about the orders Comrade Lieutenant Liu had given her. "You will be unsupported in Heilongjiang Province. No one will come until the spring. Live until our troops can cross the rivers again."
        From beneath the camouflage of kindling on her back came Grandma Thinkbox's quiet voice. "You should have something hot to drink, child. Do not make yourself sick."
       "Yes, nainai. As soon as I check on Pig."
       After Comrade Liu had been evacuated with the last of the support troops, Xiaoying had rearranged the personality of her assistant battlefield AI into something that suited her better. If she were going to spend months carrying it around, she wasn't going to listen to it drone on like a party chief. The way it talked now reminded her of her grandmother. The missiles had overlays for their small brains, too, and she'd decorated them with personalities as well. Boredom was a more immediate enemy than Japan.
       Pig was still in its burrow, protected by a sheath of snow. It responded to the presence of Grandma Thinkbox and the prod of a narrow twig.
        "I'm fine!" Pig's voice sounded just as she'd told it to sound, nasal and snarly. "Have you found that locust yet? No? Then don't trouble me!"
       "I'll find it for you, Pig." Xiaoying pulled the tab on a ration pack and squatted in the snow while it heated.
        She was the entire army of China left in this part of Dongbei. A few people still scraped out an existence in the valley, but not enough to support a village, much less the modern city Harbin had once been. Xiaoying neither pitied nor admired these diehards. She was simply glad to have them around for camouflage.
        An enemy cybertank had taken up permanent residence in the area north of the city, and Xiaoying walked in its tracks. The hundred-ton weight of the mazha had compacted a hard snow road for her. Grandma Thinkbox had taught her to use the force of the enemy against it.
       The cybertank was covered with graffiti from times it had parked in the city. We are determined to liberate Dongbei, it said in dripping characters across its tread skirts. Imperialism is doomed to failure. The Revolutionary struggle throughout the world is bound to triumph. Cartoons and splashes of dried blood also decorated the mazha, but none of it obscured the original meter-high pennant marking: 031. You could say whatever you wanted to the invaders, or display whatever slogans expressed your feelings, and they didn't mind. If you acted, however . . .

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