Read the first chapter of Earth Afire, the second novel in a new space adventure set in the world of Ender's Game – a classic science fiction novel due to be released as a major motion picture in 2013.
The librarian watched the vid on Bingwen’s monitor and frowned and said, ‘This is your emergency, Bingwen? You pulled
me away from my work to show me a spook vid about aliens? You should be studying for the exams. I have people waiting to use this computer.’ She pointed to the line of children by the door, all of them eager to get on a machine. ‘You’re wasting my time and theirs.’
‘It’s not a spook vid,’ said Bingwen. ‘It’s real.’
The librarian scoffed. ‘There are dozens of stories about aliens on the nets, Bingwen. When it isn’t sex, it’s aliens.’
Bingwen nodded. He should have expected this. Of course the librarian wouldn’t believe him. Something as serious as an alien threat would need to come from a credible source: the news or the government or other adults, not from an eight-year-old son of a rice farmer.
‘Now you have three seconds to get back to your studies, or I’m giving your time to someone else.’
Bingwen didn’t argue. What good would it do? When adults became defiant in public, no amount of evidence, however irrefutable, would make them change their minds. He climbed back up into his chair and made two clicks on the keyboard. The vid of the alien disappeared, and a complex geometry proof appeared in its place. The librarian nodded, gave him one final disparaging look, then crossed the room back to her desk.
Bingwen pretended to busy himself with the proof until the librarian was occupied and her mind was elsewhere. Then he tapped the keypad and reopened the vid. The face of the alien stared back at him, frozen in place from when Bingwen had paused the vid. Had the librarian seen something he hadn’t? Some glitch or inconsistency that flagged the vid as a fake? It was true that there were hundreds of such vids on the nets. Space duels, alien encounters, magical quests. Yet the mistakes and fakery of those were glaringly obvious. Comparing them to this one was like comparing a pencil sketch of fruit to the real thing.
No, this was real. No digital artist could create something this vivid and fluid and alive. The insect-like face had hair and musculature and blood vessels and eyes with depth. Eyes that seemed to bore right into Bingwen’s and signal the end to everything. Bingwen felt himself getting sick to his stomach, not from the grotesque, unnatural look of the thing, but from the realness of it. The clarity of it. The undeniable truth of it.
‘What is that?’
Bingwen turned around in his seat and saw Hopper standing behind him in that awkward way that Hopper had, leaning to one side because of his twisted foot. Bingwen smiled. A friend. And not just any friend, but Hopper. Someone who would talk to Bingwen straight and tell him that of course it’s a fake, look, see right there, there’s a glitch you missed, silly, there’s proof that you’re working yourself into a frenzy for no reason.
‘Come look at this,’ said Bingwen.
Hopper limped forward. ‘Is that a spook vid?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Looks real. Where’d you get it?’
‘Yanyu sent it to me. I just checked my mail.’
Yanyu was one secret that he and Hopper shared. She was a research assistant to an astrophysicist on Luna. Bingwen had met her on the nets a few months ago in a forum for Chinese grad students looking to improve their English. Bingwen had tried other forums in the past, logging in as himself and showing no pretense. But as soon as he divulged his age, forum administrators always kicked him out and blocked his access.
Then he had found the forum for grad students. And rather than be himself, Bingwen had pretended to be a second-year grad student in Guangzhou studying agriculture, the only subject Bingwen thought he could speak to with any believable degree of competency. He and Yanyu had become friends almost immediately, emailing and instant messaging each other in English several times a week. Bingwen always felt a pang of guilt whenever they communicated; he was, after all, maintaining a lie. What’s worse, now that he knew Yanyu well, he was fairly certain she was the type of person who would have befriended him anyway, whether he was eight years old or not.
But what could he say now? Hey, Yanyu. Guess what? I’m really a kid. Isn’t that hilarious? What shall we talk about today?
No. That would be like admitting he was one of those pervs who pretended to be young boys so they could chat with teenage girls.
‘What did she say in her message?’ asked Hopper.
‘Only that she had found this vid and that she had to talk to me about it.’
‘Did you message her?’
‘She didn’t respond. It’s sleep time on Luna. Our schedules only cross in the morning.’
Hopper nodded at the screen. ‘Play it.’
Bingwen tapped the keyboard, and the vid began from the beginning.
On screen a figure emerged from a hatch on the side of a ship. Its pressure suit had an extra set of arms. A tube with plenty of slack extended from the figure’s spacesuit and snaked its way down into the hatch, presumably carrying oxygen and heat and whatever else the creature needed to sustain itself in the cold vacuum of space.
For a moment the creature didn’t move. It stayed there, sprawled on the side of the ship, stomach down, arms and legs out like an insect clinging to a wall. Then, slowly, it lifted its head and took in its surroundings. Whoever was filming was about twenty meters away, and the front of the creature’s helmet was still in shadow, concealing its face.
In an instant the calm of the moment broke as the creature rushed toward the camera with a sudden urgency. Hopper jumped just as Bingwen had the first time he saw it. There was a burst of a foreign language on the vid – Spanish perhaps, or maybe Portuguese – and the man with the camera retreated a step. The creature drew closer, its head bobbing from side to side as it shuffle-crawled forward on its arms and legs. Then, when it was a few meters shy of the camera, it stopped and raised its head again. Lights from the camera operator’s helmet fell across the creature’s face, and Bingwen freeze-framed the image.
‘Did you see how the hair and muscles of its face moved?’ said Bingwen. ‘How fluid they were? Hair only moves that way in zero gravity. This had to have been filmed in space.’
Hopper stared at the screen, saying nothing, mouth slightly agape.
‘You two are asking for trouble,’ another voice said.
Bingwen turned around again. This time Meilin, his cousin, was behind him, arms folded across her chest, her expression one of disapproval. At seven years old, she was a year younger than Bingwen, but since she was so much taller than both him and Hopper, she acted as if she were older and thus in charge.
‘Exams are in two weeks,’ she said, ‘and you two are goofing off.’
Provincial exams were the only chance the children from rice villages had at getting a formal education. Schools were scarce along the river valley, the closest being north in Dawanzhen or south in Hanguangzhen. Space was limited, but every six months the district admitted a few students from the villages. To be eligible, you had to be at least eight years old and score at least in the ninety-fifth percentile on the exams. Those names were then thrown into a lottery, and the number of names chosen was based on the number of seats available, which was rarely more than three. Chances of getting in were slim, but school was a ticket out of the fields, and every child in the nearby villages, from the moment they turned four years old, spent all their spare time studying here at the library.
‘This is your first chance to take the exam,’ said Meilin, ‘and you’re going to blow it.’
‘Bingwen won’t,’ said Hopper. ‘He aces every practice test. They won’t even put his name in the lottery. They’ll take him immediately.’
‘To ace a test means you get every answer right, mud brain,’ said Meilin. ‘That’s impossible. The test self-adjusts. The more answers you get right, the more difficult the questions become. If you got every answer right, the questions by the end would be so complex nobody could answer them.’
Meilin smirked. ‘Sure he does.’
‘No, really,’ said Hopper. ‘Tell her, Bingwen.’
Meilin turned to Bingwen, expecting the joke to end there, but Bingwen shrugged. ‘I get lucky, I guess.’
Meilin’s expression changed to one of disbelief. ‘Every answer? No wonder Mr Nong gives you extra computer time and treats you like his little pet.’
Mr Nong was the head librarian, a kindly man in his seventies whose health was poor and who only came to the library two days of the week now as a result. His assistant, Ms Yí, who despised children and Bingwen most of all, covered for Mr Nong on days like today when he was out. ‘She hates you because she knows you’re smarter than her,’ Hopper had once said. ‘She can’t stand that.’
Meilin suddenly looked on the verge of tears. ‘But you can’t ace the test, Bingwen. You just can’t. If you do, you’ll raise the bar. They’ll only consider children next year who ace the test. And that’s when I take it. They won’t even consider me.’ And then she was crying, burying her face in her hands. Several children nearby shushed her, and Hopper rolled his eyes. ‘Here we go,’ he said.
Bingwen hopped down from his seat and went to her, putting an arm around her and guiding her into his cubicle with Hopper. ‘Meilin, you’re going to be fine. They won’t change the requirements.’
‘How do you know?’ she said through tears.
‘Because Mr Nong told me so. They’ve always done it this way.’
‘Hey, at least you have a fighting chance,’ Hopper told her. ‘They’d never take me. Even if I did ace the test.’
‘Why not?’ said Bingwen.
‘Because of my bad leg, mud brain. They’re not going to waste government funds on a cripple.’
‘Sure they will,’ said Bingwen. ‘And you’re not a cripple.’
‘No? Then what would you call me?’
‘How do you know your legs aren’t perfect and the rest of us have bad legs?’ said Bingwen. ‘Maybe you’re the only perfect human on Earth.’
Hopper smiled at that.
‘But seriously,’ said Bingwen. ‘They want minds, Hopper, not Olympic athletes. Look at Yanyu. She has a gimp arm, and she’s working on Luna doing important research.’
‘She has a gimp arm?’ Hopper asked, suddenly hopeful. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘And she types faster than I do,’ said Bingwen. ‘So don’t say you don’t have a chance, because you do.’
‘Who’s Yanyu?’ asked Meilin, wiping away the last of her tears.
‘Bingwen’s girlfriend,’ said Hopper. ‘But I didn’t tell you that. It’s a secret.’
Bingwen slapped him lightly on the arm. ‘She’s not my girlfriend. She’s a friend.’
‘And she works on Luna?’ said Meilin. ‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone on Luna want to be your friend?’
‘I’ll try not to take offense at that,’ said Bingwen.
‘She sent Bingwen something,’ said Hopper. ‘Tell us what you think. Show her, Bingwen.’
Bingwen glanced at Ms Yí, the librarian, saw that she was still busy, and hit play. As Meilin watched, more children gathered. When it finished, there were no less than twelve children around the monitor.
‘It looks real,’ said Meilin.
‘Told you,’ said Hopper.
‘What do you know?’ said Zihao, a twelve-year-old boy. ‘You wouldn’t know an alien if it bit you on the butt.’
‘Yes, he would,’ said Meilin. ‘If something bites you on the butt, you’re going to notice. There are nerve endings just below the surface.’
‘It’s an American expression,’ said Bingwen.
‘Which is why English is stupid,’ said Meilin, who always hated it when someone knew something she didn’t.
‘When was this vid made?’ said Zihao. He climbed up into the chair, clicked back on the site, and checked the date. ‘See?’ he said, turning back to them, smiling triumphantly. ‘This proves it’s phony. It was uploaded a week ago.’
‘That doesn’t prove anything,’ said Hopper.
‘Yes, it does, mud brain,’ said Zihao. ‘You’re forgetting about the interference in space. No communication is getting through. Radiation is crippling the satellites. If this was filmed in space a week ago, then how did it get to Earth with all the satellites down? Huh? Tell me that.’
‘It was uploaded a week ago,’ said Bingwen. ‘That doesn’t mean it was filmed a week ago.’ He clicked through a series of screens and started scanning through pages of code.
‘Now what are you doing?’ asked Meilin.
‘Every vid file has mountains of data embedded into it,’ said Bingwen. ‘You just have to know where to look.’ He found the numbers he was looking for and cursed himself for not checking this sooner. ‘Says here the vid was filmed over eight months ago.’
‘Eight months?’ said Hopper.
‘Let me see,’ said Zihao.
Bingwen pointed out the dates.
Zihao shrugged. ‘That’s just further evidence that it’s bogus. Why would someone record this and sit on it for eight months? That doesn’t make sense. If this were real they’d want everyone to know about it immediately.’
‘Maybe they couldn’t tell people immediately,’ said Bingwen. ‘Think about it. The interference has been going on for months now, right? Maybe these aliens are the ones causing it. Maybe their ship is what’s emitting all that radiation. So the people who recorded this vid couldn’t send it to Earth over laserline. Their communications lines were down.’
‘Then how did it get here?’ said Meilin.
‘Someone must have hand carried it,’ said Bingwen. ‘They got on a ship and they flew to Earth – or, more likely, they flew it to Luna. There’s no atmosphere there, and gravity is less. So it would be much easier to land there. And since the Moon’s close enough to us that communication between us and Luna is still getting through, we would hear about it here on Earth.’
‘Someone flew eight months to deliver a vid?’ said Zihao.
‘The discovery of alien life,’ said Bingwen. ‘What could be more important than that?’ He tapped his monitor. ‘Think about the time line. It makes complete sense. Eight months on the fastest ship could take you pretty far out, maybe even to the Kuiper Belt. Precisely to the people who would first encounter something like this.’
‘Asteroid miners,’ said Hopper.
‘Has to be,’ said Bingwen. ‘They’ve got the best view of deep space. They’d see something like this long before anyone else did.’
Zihao laughed. ‘You pig faces think with your knees. You’re all jabbering about stuff you don’t know anything about. The vid is a fake. If it were real, it would be all over the news. The world would be in a panic.’ He put a cupped hand to his ear, as if listening. ‘So where are the sirens? Where are the government warnings?’ He folded his arms and smirked. ‘You weed heads are idiots. Haven’t you ever seen a spook vid before?’
‘It’s not a spooker,’ said Hopper. ‘That’s a real alien.’
‘Oh?’ said Zihao. ‘How do you know what a real alien looks like? Have you seen one before? Do you have a pen pal alien friend you’ve been swapping photos with?’ A few of the boys laughed. ‘Who’s to say aliens don’t look exactly like paddy frogs or water buffalo or your armpit? If you guys believe this is real, you’re a bunch of bendans.’ Dumb eggs.
Several of the children laughed, though Bingwen could tell that most of them weren’t laughing with any confidence. They wanted Zihao to be right. They wanted to believe that the vid was a spooker. It had frightened them as much as it had frightened Bingwen, but it was easier to dismiss it than to accept it as real.
Meilin narrowed her eyes. ‘It is real. Bingwen wouldn’t lie to us.’
Zihao laughed and turned to Bingwen. ‘Cute. Your little girlfriend is sticking up for you.’ He looked at Meilin. ‘You know what aliens like to eat, Meilin? Little girl brains. They stick a straw in your ear and suck your head empty.’
Meilin’s eyes moistened with tears. ‘That’s not true.’
‘Leave her alone,’ said Bingwen.
Zihao smirked. ‘See what you’ve done, Bingwen? You’ve scared all the kiddies.’ He bent down from the chair, got close to Meilin’s face, and spoke in a singsongy voice, as if addressing an infant. ‘Aw, did Bingwen scare the little girl with his alien vid?’
‘I said leave her alone.’ Bingwen stepped between them and extended a hand, nudging Zihao back. It wasn’t a hard shove, but since Zihao was leaning forward in the chair and his center of gravity was off, the push was just enough to twist him off-balance. He stumbled, reached for the counter, missed, and fell to the floor, the chair scooting out and away from him. A few of the children laughed, but they instantly fell silent as Zihao jumped to his feet and seized Bingwen by the throat.
‘You little mud sucker,’ said Zihao. ‘I’ll cut out your tongue for that.’
Bingwen felt his windpipe constrict and pulled hard at Zihao’s wrists.
‘Let him go,’ said Meilin.
‘Girlfriend to the rescue again,’ said Zihao. He squeezed harder.
The other children did nothing. A few boys from Zihao’s village were chuckling, but they didn’t seem amused, more like relieved that it was Bingwen who was taking the abuse and not them.
Hopper grabbed Zihao from behind, but Zihao only scoffed. ‘Back off, cripple. Or we’ll see how you do with two twisted feet.’
More laughter from the other boys.
Bingwen’s lungs were screaming for air. He kicked and pounded his fists on Zihao’s shoulders, but the bigger boy seemed not to notice.
‘What is going on over here?’ Ms Yí said.
Zihao released Bingwen, who fell to the floor, coughing and gasping and inhaling deeply.
Ms Yí stood over them, holding her bamboo discipline stick. ‘Out!’ she said, waving the stick. ‘All of you! Out!’
The children protested. It was Bingwen. He started it. He called us over here. He attacked Zihao.
Bingwen grabbed Meilin’s hand, turned to Hopper, and said, ‘Meet us in the fields.’ Then he pushed through the crowd toward the exit, pulling Meilin along behind him.
‘He was showing a spook vid,’ said one of the children.
‘He was trying to scare us,’ said another.
‘He pushed Zihao out of his chair.’
‘He started a fight.’
Bingwen was through the front door, Meilin right at his heels. It was late in the afternoon, and the air outside was cool and damp, a light wind blowing up from the valley.
‘Where are we going?’ asked Meilin.
‘Home,’ said Bingwen. He led her to the village staircase built into the side of the hill, and they began descending toward the rice fields below. Every village in the valley was built onto a hillside, the valley floor being too fertile and valuable to be used for anything other than rice. Meilin’s village was three kilometers to the west. If Bingwen hurried, he might be able to escort her home and then cut south to his own village before it got too dark.
‘Why are we running?’ said Meilin.
‘Because once Zihao gets outside,’ said Bingwen, ‘he’ll come finish what he started.’
‘So I’m to be your human shield?’
Bingwen laughed, despite himself. ‘You’re quite the little strategist.’
‘I’m not little. I’m taller than you.’
‘We’re both little,’ said Bingwen. ‘I’m just littler. And I dragged you along because you’re my cousin and I’d rather not see you get your head pounded in. You stood up to Zihao. He’ll come for you, too.’
‘I can take care of myself, thank you.’
He stopped and let go of her hand. ‘You want to go home alone?’
Meilin seemed ready to argue, but then her expression softened and she looked at the ground. ‘No.’
Bingwen took her hand again, and they continued down the stairs.
Meilin was quiet a moment. ‘I shouldn’t have cried back there. That was childish.’
‘It wasn’t childish. Adults cry all the time. They just hide it better.’
‘I’m scared, Bingwen.’
Her words surprised him. Meilin never admitted to weakness. If anything she went out of her way to prove how smart and strong and unafraid she was, always pointing out to Bingwen and Hopper and others how they were doing a math problem wrong or solving a thought puzzle incorrectly. And yet here she was, on the verge of tears, showing a fragility that Bingwen had never seen before.
For a moment he considered lying to her, telling her the whole vid had been a prank. That’s what an adult would do, after all: laugh and shrug and dismiss the whole thing as fantasy. Children couldn’t stomach the truth, adults believed. Children had to be protected from the harsh realities of the world.
But what good would that do Meilin? This wasn’t a prank. It wasn’t a game. That thing on screen was real and alive and dangerous.
‘I’m scared too,’ said Bingwen.
She nodded, hurrying to keep pace beside him. ‘Do you think it’s coming to Earth?’
‘We shouldn’t think of it as an “it,”’ said Bingwen. ‘There’s probably more than one. And yes, it’s coming to Earth. The interference is only getting worse, which suggests their ship is headed this way. Plus it looked intelligent. It must be intelligent. It built an interstellar spacecraft. Humans haven’t done that.’
They took the last turn in the staircase and reached the valley floor. Hopper was waiting for them, clothes soaked and covered in mud.
‘Took you long enough,’ said Hopper.
‘How did you get down before us?’ asked Meilin. ‘And why are you so filthy?’
‘Irrigation tube,’ said Hopper. He patted the side of his bad leg. ‘Steps take too long.’
Meilin made a face. ‘People throw their dishwater in the tubes.’
Hopper shrugged. ‘It was that or get beat to a pulp. And it rained yesterday, so the tubes aren’t dirty. Much.’
‘That’s disgusting,’ said Meilin.
‘Agreed,’ said Hopper. ‘But it’s easier to clean clothes than to clean wounds.’ He ran and jumped into the nearest rice paddy, which was filled waist-deep with water. He submerged himself, thrashed around a moment, getting most of the mud off, then shook his upper body and crawled back out of the paddy, dripping wet. ‘See? Fresh as a flower.’
‘I’m going to throw up,’ said Meilin.
‘Not on me,’ said Hopper. ‘I just bathed.’
They took off at a jog along the narrow bridge of earth that separated two of the paddies, heading out into the vast fields of rice. They ran slower so that Hopper could keep up, but it was a good steady pace for distance running.
After a few hundred yards Bingwen glanced back at the staircase to see if Zihao was following. There were a few children coming down, but Zihao wasn’t among them. They didn’t slow their pace.
‘What’s the plan?’ said Hopper.
‘For what?’ asked Bingwen.
‘Warning everyone,’ said Hopper.
Bingwen smiled. He could always count on Hopper. ‘I don’t know that anyone’s going to believe us. I showed Ms Yí, and she shrugged it off.’
‘Ms Yí’s an old water buffalo,’ said Hopper.
They ran for half an hour, cutting across the fields that followed the bends and turns of the valley. When they reached Meilin’s village, she stopped and faced them at the bottom of the stairs. ‘I can make it from here,’ she said, gesturing up to her house near the bottom of the hill. ‘What do I tell my parents?’
‘The truth,’ said Bingwen. ‘Tell them what you saw. Tell them you believe it. Tell them to go to the library and see it for themselves.’
Meilin looked up into the sky where the first few dozen stars had already appeared. ‘Maybe they don’t mean us any harm. Maybe they’re peaceful.’
‘Maybe,’ said Bingwen. ‘But you didn’t see all of the vid. The alien attacked one of the humans.’
Even in the low light Bingwen could see Meilin grow pale.
‘Oh,’ she said.
‘But maybe they won’t come here to China,’ said Bingwen. ‘The world is a big place. We’re only a tiny, microscopic dot on it.’
‘You’re only telling me what I want to hear,’ said Meilin.
‘I’m telling you the truth. There are a lot of unknowns at the moment.’
‘Even so,’ said Meilin, ‘we’d be stupid not to prepare for the worst.’
‘You’re right,’ said Bingwen.
She nodded and looked more insecure than before. ‘Good luck. Stay safe.’
They watched her ascend the stairs and waited until she was inside her home before they started running again. They stayed in the fields, jogging along the narrow earth bridges that criss-crossed the fields horizontally and vertically, creating a huge patchwork quilt of irrigated paddies. When they were almost to their own village, the first boy appeared behind them, several paddies back. Then a boy to their right appeared a few paddies over, matching their speed in a run. A third boy on their left appeared next, watching them as he kept pace with them.
‘We’re being corralled,’ said Hopper.
‘Boxed in,’ said Bingwen.
Sure enough, the boys around them began closing in.
‘Ideas?’ said Hopper.
‘They’re taller than us,’ said Bingwen. ‘And faster. We can’t outrun them.’
‘You mean I can’t outrun them,’ said Hopper.
‘No, I mean both of us. You actually have greater stamina than me. You have a better chance of getting through than I do.’
‘Plan,’ said Hopper.
‘You run ahead and get my father. I hang back and keep them busy.’
‘Self-sacrifice. How noble. Forget it. I’m not leaving you.’
‘Think, Hopper. Stay and we both get pummeled. Run ahead, and we might not. I’m saving my skin as much as yours. Now go.’
Hopper picked up his speed, and Bingwen stopped where hewas. As expected, the other boys closed in, ignoring Hopper. Bingwen turned to his left and stepped down the embankment into the nearest paddy. The water was cold and reached his waist. The mud was thick and squishy beneath his feet. The rice shoots were packed tightly together and tall as his shoulders. Bingwen scanned the edge of the paddy until he found one of the paddy frogs half submerged near the embankment. He scooped it up, stuffed the frog into his pocket, and made his way to the center of the paddy. By the time he reached it, the boys had arrived. Each of them took up a position on one of the paddy’s sides, leaving the northernmost side, the side toward Bingwen’s village, unguarded. Less than a minute later Zihao arrived at that end of the paddy, breathing heavily from the run. It was almost full dark now.
‘Out of the water,’ said Zihao.
Bingwen didn’t move.
‘You ruined our time at the library, mud brain,’ said Zihao. ‘How are we supposed to leave this hole if mud brains like you keep ruining our computer time?’
Bingwen kept his eyes toward the village, looking for an approaching lantern light to appear.
‘I said out of the water,’ said Zihao.
Bingwen said nothing.
‘Get out now or I’m coming in after you.’
Bingwen stood still and silent.
‘I swear to you I will break your fingers one by one if you don’t get up here now.’
Bingwen didn’t move. He wasn’t about to leave a defensive position. The water wasn’t much, but it was all he had.
The boys around him shifted uncomfortably.
‘You think you’re so much smarter than everyone, don’t you, Bingwen? I’ve heard you speaking English into your computer. I’ve seen what you study. You’re a traitor.’ He spat into the water.
Bingwen didn’t move.
Zihao was shouting now. ‘Get up here and face me, coward boy!’
Bingwen looked toward the village. No lantern light approached.
‘I warned you,’ said Zihao. He charged into the paddy, splashing water and not caring what shoots he pushed aside and damaged.
Bingwen didn’t flinch. He stood waiting, hands in his pockets.
Just before Zihao was within arm’s reach – and therefore hitting range – Bingwen turned on the tears. ‘Please don’t choke me. Please. Hit me if you want. Just don’t choke me again.’
Poor Zihao, thought Bingwen. So loud and strong and yet so predictable.
Zihao’s hands seized Bingwen by the throat, which Bingwen had extended and turned at a slight angle so that this time Zihao’s thumbs would press against the side and muscle of Bingwen’s throat instead of directly into his windpipe. Not that Bingwen expected to be choked for very long.
Bingwen allowed himself to look panicked and then muffled his words, as if begging for mercy. ‘Pleaskk akk.’
Zihao’s smile widened. ‘What’s that, Bingwen. I can’t hear—’
Bingwen shoved the paddy frog, face-first, directly into Zihao’s mouth. He had needed Zihao to speak, and Zihao had walked right into it.
Zihao released Bingwen and recoiled, splashing backward and gagging, clawing at his face to get the frog free. But Bingwen was faster. Now he had his left hand behind Zihao’s head to steady him while his right palm pressed the frog deeper into Zihao’s mouth. The frog was too wide to fit completely, but that was ideal; Bingwen wasn’t trying to choke Zihao; he only wanted to distract him. Zihao gave a muffled scream, and Bingwen released the frog, grabbed Zihao by the waist, and brought up his knee fast and hard into Zihao’s crotch.
Zihao buckled and fell forward with a splash, his body limp, the frog slipping from his mouth and plopping into the water. Bingwen didn’t wait to see how the others would respond. He had to act oblivious to them, as if so filled with rage, they weren’t even a consideration. He screamed and raised a fist as if to bring it down hard on Zihao, who was now half submerged in the water and moaning. As intended, Bingwen’s fist hit the water just to the left of Zihao’s face and plunged downward, the momentum of the punch carrying his whole body straight down to the paddy floor, completely out of sight.
Before the water could settle, Bingwen turned his body and moved underwater in the direction Zihao had come. The shoots were parted and broken, giving Bingwen a wide enough path to move through without rustling many shoots and revealing his position. He didn’t swim or kick or do anything to disturb the water, but rather crawled along the bottom with his fingers and toes, pushing himself forward, digging at the mud. Twice he paused and turned his head to get a silent gulp of air, but even then he kept moving forward.
He didn’t know if they were coming for him, but he didn’t rise out of the water to see. The darkness and shoots would conceal him or they wouldn’t.
He reached the earth wall of the paddy, lifted his head, and allowed himself a look back. The boys were in the water around Zihao, helping him to his feet. Even if they ran for Bingwen now, they wouldn’t catch him. They’d be too hampered by the water; he’d have too much of a lead.
He crawled out of the water and ran, his clothes heavy and wet.
There was shouting behind him but no pursuit.
He reached the stairs of the village just as Hopper and Father were coming down, a lantern in Father’s hand.
‘You’re wet,’ said Father.
‘But not bleeding,’ said Hopper. ‘That’s a good sign.’
Bingwen bent over, catching his breath, fighting back the urge to vomit. ‘Did you tell him about the vid?’ he asked Hopper.
‘There was no time,’ said Hopper.
‘Tell me about it inside, where it’s warm,’ said Father. He turned to Hopper. ‘My son is safe. Thank you. Your parents will want you home.’
Hopper looked as if he wanted to object and tag along, but he knew Father well enough not to argue. They parted ways, and Father led Bingwen home, where Mother and Grandfather were waiting inside. Mother took Bingwen into her arms, and Grandfather went to fetch a towel.
‘Are you hurt?’ said Mother.
‘No,’ said Bingwen.
‘Here, by the fire,’ said Grandfather, wrapping him in the towel.
Bingwen took off his shirt and dried himself by the hearth. Mother, Father, and Grandfather watched him, their faces lines of worry. He told them about the vid then, letting it all pour out of him. The alien. The extra pair of arms. How the creature’s hair and muscles moved in zero gravity. All the reasons why he believed it.
When he finished, Father was angry.
‘I taught you better, Bingwen. I taught you to respect your elders.’
‘Respect?’ said Bingwen. Why was Father angry? He hadn’t even told them about Ms Yí.
‘Are you smarter than the government now?’ Father said, his voice rising. ‘Smarter than the military?’
‘Of course not, Father.’
‘Then why do you profess to be? Don’t you realize that by reaching this conclusion on your own you are calling everyone who has seen the vid and not believed it a fool?’
‘I call no man a fool, Father.’
‘There are experts for this, Bingwen. Educated men. If they thought it was real, they would have taken action. There is no action, therefore it is not real. Know your place.’
Mother said nothing, but Bingwen could see that she took Father’s side. There was only disappointment and shame for him in her expression.
Bingwen bent low, putting his face to the floor.
‘Do not mock me,’ said Father.
‘No mockery, Father. Only respect for those whose name I carry and whose approval I seek. Forgive me if I have brought offense.’
He wanted to argue, he had to argue. Aliens were coming, whether Father believed it or not. Bingwen knew it sounded ridiculous, but facts were facts. They had to prepare.
But what could he say that wouldn’t make Father angrier? The discussion was closed. Father would never watch the vid now, even if Bingwen brought it to him on a platter.
Bingwen remained prostrate for several minutes, saying nothing more. When he finally sat up, only Grandfather remained.
‘Don’t anger your father,’ said Grandfather. ‘It spoils the evening.’
Bingwen bent low again, but Grandfather got a hand under his shoulder and sat him back up. ‘Enough of the bowing. I’m not going to talk to the back of your head.’
Grandfather reached out to the table and took his cup of tea. They were silent a moment as Grandfather drank it.
‘You believe me,’ said Bingwen. ‘Don’t you?’
‘I believe that you believe,’ said Grandfather.
‘That’s not a complete answer.’
Grandfather sighed. ‘Let us assume for a moment that something like this might be possible.’
‘Might,’ repeated Grandfather, raising a finger for emphasis. ‘Extremely unlikely, but possible.’
‘You must go to the library, Grandfather, and see this vid for yourself.’
‘And anger your father? No, no, no. I would rather enjoy my tea and sit by the fire in peace.’
Bingwen was crestfallen.
‘What good would it do anyway?’ said Grandfather. ‘Even if it were true, what could we do about it? Can we fight with sticks? Fly into space? Or should we pray?’
‘Prepare to run away,’ said Bingwen. ‘Pack what we need, and then bury it where we can get it quickly.’
Grandfather laughed. ‘Bury our belongings? Why? The aliens won’t care about our traveling food and clothing and tools.’
‘We’re hiding it from Father,’ said Bingwen. ‘Since he told me not to do this, I’m being very disrespectful, trying to save our family’s lives by making it possible for us to run away at a moment’s notice.’
‘Your father will be furious when he finds out,’ said Grandfather.
‘He will only find out if and when we need the buried items,’ said Bingwen. ‘By then, he will be grateful for them.’
They spoke quietly after that, making an inventory of the items they would need. It wasn’t until much later, as Bingwen was climbing into bed, his pants long since dried, that he realized that no one had even asked him why he had been wet.