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Their services as Mailgirls were not called upon, evidently not needed, now that it was a skeleton Hsa staff working in reduced and close quarters. After a few more days in that corner partition Ms. Ling started bringing the girls out three times a day to run around the building, five circumnavigations each, to keep them in shape. Their first route was over the grass lawns and as their soles got re-toughened they moved to the concrete. It amounted to about three miles, which was a little less than their daily total when they were delivering those mysterious tubes all around the 26 floors. Their route brought them near the highway. The Chinese are very careful drivers but there was much rubbernecking at naked girls running outside, people not believing what they were seeing, though they had heard rumors.

It was odd standing in line with Hsa personnel to get their meals. At first they gagged at the meat dishes, the fatty and salty and sugary food. Not even the salads were that good. In a way they thought of themselves as “royalty” being forced to eat with the common people. They hated getting used to it but they did. It was but one aspect of their pervasive sense of loss. The hard-won concavities of their tummies softened, to their sorrow. Also fading away were the numbers painted under the left breast, on their hips, and on their lower backs. Every week the numbers had been carefully refreshed by a Mr. Shu who used an oversized Chinese calligraphic brush. Now with each shower they got fainter and fainter until they were barely visible.

Back in their room there was nothing but boredom and also unsated sexuality. They were the only ones there after hours, just like in the building, but the tent’s polyester walls were very thin. They could hear cars on the highway all night, even people passing by. Orgasms on the decibel level of Xifeng’s would be heard easily. After some experimental lapping of tongues they learned how to have orgasms face-down so that they could scream into the mattress.

One night Xifeng, overcome with lust and wanting some fresh air, dragged Ngo-kwang out onto the grass, out of sight of the highway. Being Harbin in May it was a chilly night, but that was no big deal for a Mailgirl in heat. Huiqing kept lookout, peering around the side of the tent, rubbing her goose-pimpled arms, hugging her cold-stiffened nipples. Not much traffic this time of night. She waited until she heard Xifeng’s muffled, strangled grunts; it was very hard for Xifeng to suppress her natural shrieks. When they got back inside the shivering Ngo-kwang insisted on remuneration which was paid in full.

As for sex during the day, now that they were idle, that was out of the question. The partitions had no individual ceilings, just the high pointed “big top” of the tent itself. Any moans of passion would bounce back into Hsa offices. By the same token, they could overhear conversations and quickly learned more about their overlords than they ever did by scooting around the 26-floor tower. There were broad smiles when they learned that Mr. Tang had been sacked. Also Ms. Lin, whose lamp had caused the fire, though they were sad about that because she had been nice to them. They also learned that the fire had taken out most of the offices on 4 and 5 but fortunately the vast impressive structure was not affected. The first floor survived with nothing but smoke damage. Smoke had infiltrated most of the building. Abatement was underway. It was projected that some departments could be moved back in within three weeks.

The mumbling Babel bouncing back to them from above was at times so multifarious with dozens of voices that it was hard to separate them. But their ears pricked up when the heard muted references to Guoanbo (the secret police). And to “repositioning” -- what did that mean? They heard the word over and over again, usually uttered with a sense of dread.

Ms. Ling was, of course, a product of the Hsa cold hand, but she took her role as Mailgirls supervisor seriously. From snatches of various conversations they already knew her father was a Tienanmen Square protestor who had been imprisoned; she was aware of the ill effects of enforced boredom. That was their explanation for her appearance one day with a large bin of books. The books had been lying around in various offices and perhaps were no longer needed, or so smoky smelling that they were no longer acceptable. Indeed the odor permeated their partition, but it was not so bad. Yingtai said it reminded her of her uncle’s mountain cottage. Strange to say, in this sterile white tent, they actually got to imagine they were in that cottage, snow falling outside, while they snuggled their nude bodies against each other in front of the fireplace, reading by firelight.

The books were surprisingly diverse. Not all were in Chinese; a good many were in Russian, some were in English, some in Korean. Books were exotic artifacts to the Chinese girls, except for Xifeng, whose mother was a temple keeper. They were somewhat less strange to Tami. Not all were technical manuals or official PRC histories. Their favorites were short novels, like those of Kurt Vonnegut (in Chinese) or Tie Nin. They would read one together, clustering around, turning a page only after everyone had gotten to the last line. “Oh -- my -- God!!” they would say when there was a plot twist, or something shocking. These Chinese teenagers were easily shocked. They were the product of the rigorous but constricted Communist education system. Their innocent eyes widened as they were exposed to new worlds.

The big dusty bin had perhaps two hundred books. “I can’t believe it!” Huiqing cried, rummaging around the bottom -- Mr. Tang’s book on Taoist sex!! Evidently he wasn’t even given the chance to clear out his office. They devoured it, fighting over how quickly to turn the pages. But it was a huge letdown. The philosophical stuff they had mostly heard before; they were looking for tips on how to induce stronger and more numerous orgasms. Taoist men who weren’t allowed to have any orgasms themselves, and had to concentrate solely on their wives’ pleasure, might know a few things . . . but the techniques shown were, to them, lame. The Mailgirls knew a lot more than the book. “There’s nothing about anal, nothing about circling the clit, nothing about four-finger,” Ngo-kwang pointed out, this last referring to her specialty of playing two fingers in the vagina off against two in the anus. “We should write a book,” Xifeng said.

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