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The First Formic War Volume Two of The Formic Wars
By Orson Scott Card, Aaron Johnston
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2013 Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
All rights reserved.
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 insectlike 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, e-mailing 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.
Excerpted from Earth Afire by Orson Scott Card, Aaron Johnston. Copyright © 2013 Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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