Alexei, you ready? I sent over the 3i chat. His little heart icon beat in the tray that floated just in front of my eyes.
Almost. U here?
We’re here. Start packing up.
Vamp and I headed down the hallway of the Jianwei apartment high-rise’s top floor, and I could feel him watching me from the corner of his eye. When his look lingered, I pulled one strap of my tank top down to flash him a tattooed shoulder and he laughed.
“It’s okay,” I said, cocking a bony hip at him. “I guess I am pretty irresistible.”
He let it lie at the joke, but I’d stalled his advances for months. I’d have to get serious about it sooner or later, one way or the other.
But not tonight.
Outside the hallway’s windows Hangfei sprawled as far as the eye could see, a sea of liquid neon color and blazing white. Streams of aircars flowed past, layers crisscrossing over one another as they zipped between buildings and the congested streets below. I slowed as we passed by, and then stopped for a minute to look. I’d seen the city and the haan ship that had crashed inside it all a thousand times before, but these days it all looked different somehow. Through the window I could make out the arc of faint blue from the haan force-field dome, which glowed around their massive ship. Above it, the defense shield they’d constructed for us made a dark pocket of shadow in the sky near where the star of Fangwenzhe, the size of a large coin, shined. The clusters of hexagonal panels hung suspended high in the air, each part of a roughly spherical array. The filaments that connected them looked hair thin from the ground but I knew each panel was the size of a building’s footprint and the tethers were as thick around as railcars. Channels on the surface of the shield panels flickered with soft orange light, making it look like an angry, flaming eye that stared out toward the sea as if daring the foreigners’ forces to try to approach.
“You okay?” Vamp asked.
I nodded. “It went up so fast,” I said.
“They say the haan have made more progress in Hangfei in the last six months than they did in the ten years before that.”
Six months. The six months since they attempted to destroy the Pan-Slav Emirates to the north, and failed. Six months since their shell got peeled back almost, but not quite, far enough to let everyone see that they had a lot they weren’t telling. They’d used that time to shower us with tech, pull back on their calorie demands, and get very close to the city’s new governess. Pubic opinion had always leaned in their favor, but now more and more of their detractors had begun shifting their positions.
“They think they’re running out of time,” I said.
I’d always believed the haan were our friends, that they were gentle, fragile, intelligent, and kind. I learned the hard way that while they were certainly intelligent, and that they could be gentle, they were very powerful and not always kind. They could be brutal, and while their previous female, Sillith, had failed to wipe out the Pan-Slavs and earn much-wanted space for her people, before she died she’d released something into our world that even now festered in the streets below.
“They think they are,” I said. “That’s all that matters.”
Vamp looked down at the streets below, his breath fogging the window.
“You think it could really be true, what the haan told you?” he asked.
“Who knows?” I said, but the truth was that I believed it. Maybe that’s why the city looked different to me now. It was different. Everything was.
“Our dimensions overlapped, and then merged, collapsing your universe. . . . After the collapse the field surrounding our world broke down, and in your universe’s last moments, your instance was pulled through to replace ours. It began at the opposite side of the planet, and circled the globe in hours. In our last minutes we managed to reestablish a field around the facility, to stop the collapse there, but by then it was too late. All that was left is what you call Shiliuyuán, the facility where the experiment took place. . . . Your universe is gone. It died with my world.”
The haan ship hadn’t crashed here. It had never moved. The world around it had been overwritten by ours until they stopped it and a quarter million of our people were displaced out of existence by Shiliuyuán, and as crazy as it sounded, I believed it. We now lived in the universe the haan had lived in, though almost no one knew it. The haan, with the help of our government, had managed to keep it a secret in spite of the fact that the harder you looked, the more obvious it became. The generations who might have known certain stars and planets hadn’t existed before the haan arrived had begun to die off. All contact with the world outside our borders had been cut off, lies were streamed over the wire, and anyone who tried to tell the truth disappeared.
“How do you think the haan will react when the truth gets out?” Vamp asked, stopping to look out at the ship with me. The black specks of scaleflies swarmed past the light of the dome.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Knowing them, they probably won’t. They’ll offer us something even newer and shinier, something to distract us. It’s security that will react.”
“And how do you think they’ll react?”
Alexei’s chat popped back up.
Yeah, yeah. Hold on.
“Alexei’s asking where you are,” Vamp said.
I laughed a little and stepped away from the window, and Vamp joined me as I continued on.
“He loves that chat,” I said.
“So, how are things going with him?” Vamp asked.
“He’s doing better.”
“You’ll see. He’s getting there. He’s been through a lot, you know?”
It felt like kind of an understatement. His father had been killed near the Pan-Slav border zone, and then Alexei got rounded up in a refugee camp and handed over to the haan. He’d seen his mother die in front of him when she and Dragan, my adoptive father, rescued him but he saw even worse, I think, down in the ruins underneath the haan ship. He’d been eight years old then. After Dragan had saved me from the brink of death at the hands of Hangfei meat farmers, he’d taken me in, just like he’d taken in Alexei. I’d given him years of grief in return, years of lashing out before we became as tight as we were. Alexei had decided to give me a run for my money, spending months almost catatonic before he began to crack at the seams.
“How’s Dragan holding up?”
“He’s holding up.”
“Did he get assigned to secure the protest in Xinzhongzi?”
“No, we shouldn’t run into him there.”
I felt a tickle through the surrogate mite cluster before I ever even saw the haan. I turned the corner and saw a young woman up ahead, walking in our direction while cradling a squirming bundle against her chest. From the cocoon of blankets, I saw the glasslike, spindly little haan fingers pawing at the air. Then it peeked its head up. It had detected me, too, and its eyes, like orange embers, found me. My stomach growled, then, as the connection formed. The little haan hadn’t eaten, and his hunger was contagious.
The stray signal sent an empty pang through my chest, but even so, I found myself savoring it. He saw me see him as we got closer and he reached toward me, groping with his delicate little hands. I disabled the junk filter, and let him in for just a second. Right away, a chat window popped up in the air in front of me.
I gave him a little wave and felt a surge from him. Excitement and a rush of happiness that made my throat burn even as I smiled. I missed it. I really missed it. In spite of what I knew about them, nothing quite compared to that connection and when I quit the program it had left a void behind I hadn’t been able to fill.
His surrogate saw me looking and smiled back at me, bouncing him a little in her arms. I put a block on him before he messaged me to death, and we both slowed down as Vamp continued on.
“You’re a surrogate,” the woman who held the little haan said. She had dark circles under her eyes.
She didn’t ask what happened. Most people who left the program were booted out because of a failed imprint. She saw the look on my face, though, and nodded toward the kid.
“You want to hold him a minute?”
I nodded. She handed him over and I held him to my chest. He felt cool, and I thought his next feeding must be soon. He put his little arms around my neck, and as his stream of happiness and contentment flowed into my mind, I felt my eyes start to get wet.
“He’s cute,” I told her.
I wanted to hold him longer, to feel that connection longer, but I made myself hand him back, giving his bald head a stroke before letting go. The connection dwindled, and then he cut away to reconnect with his real surrogate.
“Looks like he’s keeping you pretty busy,” I said.
“You look tired.”
“Oh,” she said, looking down at the floor a little embarrassed. “No, I’m just . . . I’m having trouble sleeping.”
She looked me in the eye, and her expression changed. She kind of looked back and forth a little and then lowered her head toward me to whisper in a conspiratorial voice.
“Did you hear the message, too?”
The question surprised me so much that I just stared back at her. After a moment, her lips quivered like she might cry. She swallowed and then forced a smile back onto her lips.
“Sorry,” she said. “Never mind.”
“The foreigner,” I said, and it was her turn to stare. She shook her head, backpedaling. Any contact with the foreigners at our borders would land you in prison, but I could see it on her face. She’d heard them trying to reach us through the mite cluster, in our dreams.
“Sam?” Vamp called from down the hall.
“Keep your pants on, would you?” I called back, but when I turned back to the woman, she’d moved on. She hurried around the corner, and before I could even try to go after her, she’d gone.
I hustled to catch up with Vamp as he reached Dao-Ming’s apartment and punched him in the arm. When I knocked on the door, Dao-Ming answered. Behind her I saw Jin sitting at the tea table.
“Hello,” she said. “Alexei is just getting his bag, please come in.”
The first time I’d ever seen Dao-Ming and Jin had been in the scrapcake plant where the former Hangfei governor, Hwong, had sent us to be turned into black market street meat. After we managed to escape, we’d been on our way out and I handed off some supplies we’d found to Jin, who had taken charge of getting the other prisoners back to Hangfei. Dao-Ming had been with him, standing near him and shaking in spite of the heat. Her long hair had been plastered to her neck and shoulders, and as I approached them she’d stared through the tangles like some kind of wild animal. When she realized I’d freed her, though, she’d crossed her arms over my back and pulled me close, pressing her lips to the side of my neck and trembling. She’d looked so scared, back then, almost like a child, mute, as she chewed on her thumbnail.
Not anymore. Now her hair and clothes were always perfect, and neither her faint wrinkles nor the thin, white scar that ran across her neck did much to detract from her good looks. She always had this glint in her eye like she might lash out and cut you or something, and she made both Jin and Vamp nervous sometimes, but I’d spent time in chains too, waiting to die, and I got Dao-Ming. I liked her, and Alexei loved her.
Jin, next to Dao-Ming’s beauty, came off a bit homely with a gaunt face and bushy eyebrows. His thinning hair was a little tousled, as usual, maybe because the only time I’d ever seen him comb it was with his fingers, and his face was shadowed by his perpetual stubble.
Jin told me once that Dao-Ming had never been the same, after her time in the scrapcake plant. Because the people shunted over from Hwong’s prisons had them so backed up, Jin and Dao-Ming had both been stuck inside those cages for months. They’d been given the barest minimum to keep them alive before butchering and never let out not even once. She’d been positioned so that the butchering blocks were in plain view, something I understood all too well. I’d endured weeks, not months, and it still haunted me.
Vamp and I stepped into the apartment, and Jin waved us over to him. He reached into his jacket pocket and removed a flash drive, which he held out to me with two fingers.
“It’s all set?” I asked, taking it.
“The completed video is five minutes and thirty-four seconds long,” he said. “Once the broadcast begins at the Xinzhongzi protest I don’t think even Vamp will be able to keep control of the signal any longer than that, but it should suffice. It doesn’t include everything we know, but it covers what is most important. The people will know the truth about the haan.”
“And you’re sure I can’t be recognized?” I asked.
“Your face can’t be made out,” he said. “And I’ve altered your voice to the point where no identification can be made. With your hair so short, they may have trouble even determining sex.”
I couldn’t say that sounded like any kind of compliment, but the last thing I wanted was for anyone to recognize me, since airing an illegal broadcast would pretty much land you in prison and this one would be about as illegal as they came.
Alexei came from around the corner, his thick Pan-Slav hair bushy around a pale face. He’d turned nine a few months ago, but he seemed little even for his age. When he saw me, he waved.
Hi, Sam, he sent over the 3i chat.
“Out loud,” I told him.
“Hi, Sam.” His Mandarin was getting better, but that accent . . .
“Lex, you ready to roll?” Vamp asked.
Alexei nodded, putting his little backpack over one shoulder. I could see the cuff of the gonzo robe peeking out from under the flap as he passed by to go see Vamp, and I gritted my teeth.
“Don’t worry,” Dao-Ming said.
“I don’t like it.”
“Nor do I,” Dao-Ming said. “Don’t worry. One way or the other, this will end.”
“I just don’t get it. I mean, his mother was killed by a haan. He should hate them, not worship them.”
“Maybe it’s a way to come to terms with it. It will be better if he disassociates himself with them of his own accord. If he doesn’t, Dragan will take care of it.”
I hoped that would be true, but I wondered. In reality, Dragan had ended up butting heads with gonzo church members and even their leader, Gohan Sòng, himself over this, with the only result being getting into trouble and pushing Alexei even farther away. His status as a security officer took him only so far. Gohan had connections that went way over his head.
“Dragan doesn’t need any more bullshit.”
“Then I take it he still doesn’t know of our plan, then?” she asked.
“Are you going to tell him?”
“No. Better he can tell security he didn’t know, if he has to.”
“Then we meet tomorrow night at the protest site?”
“Good-bye, Alexei,” Jin called. Alexei, still at Vamp’s side, waved back.
“Alexei, say thank-you to Dao-Ming and Jin,” I told him.
“Thanks Dao-Ming,” he said. “Thanks Jin.”
“You are very welcome,” Dao-Ming told him. She approached him and knelt to tuck the gonzo robe back into his pack. “Remember what we talked about.”
He nodded, and then Vamp and I led him out into the hallway where he ran ahead of us, around the corner toward the elevators.
“Should be fun getting him settled in for the night,” Vamp said.
“That’s Dragan’s problem tonight. I’ve got him tomorrow.”
The elevator lobby had been covered in posters I hadn’t noticed when I got out of the car on the way in. All of them had faces on them, faces of men, women, girls, and boys. I took a look at the closest one, which had a picture of a young man on it.
Missing, it said. Jun Bao Wen.
They all had the same theme. People had always gone missing in Hangfei, thanks to the scrapcake trade. Meat farmers turned them into a valuable commodity, but never in numbers like this.
No one said anything as we climbed into the car. Alexei hadn’t asked about it, and I didn’t want to talk about it in front of him. He knew not to wander around in Hangfei by himself, he knew it wasn’t safe. I didn’t want to have that talk with him. Dragan could do that.
“Don’t miss out on the latest phase six haan technology,” the A.I. spouted from the ad box. I took a deep breath and punched the ground floor.
“Which phase six technology would you like to hear about?” it asked. “Graviton suits, or Escher Housing?”
“What would you like to hear about?”
“I want to hear about the missing people,” Alexei said, out of the blue.
The A.I. logo bobbed on the screen for a moment.
“Government investigations show there are no mass disappearances,” it said.
“Who said anything about mass disappearances?” I asked.
The A.I. clicked a few times.
“Graviton suits, however, are expected to be one of our most popular choices for future fun and travel.”
“I could talk to you about hand lotion,” it said. I elbowed Vamp.
“I think it’s talking to you.”
“I am talking to you, Sam Shao,” it said. “New advances in RNA retroviral skin cream can literally reverse skin damage. There’s no need to endure the embarrassment of scaly, unattractive hands.”
I looked at my hand and its chewed nails.
“My hands aren’t scaly.”
“Perhaps,” the A.I. said, uncertainly. “Still, I think even you would have to admit that . . . ”
The elevator doors opened and we headed out through the lobby to the city streets.
Hangfei buzzed in the summer’s night heat. In the district of Ping Xi every scrap of sidewalk had been claimed by street vendors whose carts had merged into continuous rows, where pedestrians and bicycles flowed past in either direction. People broke from the flow like stray stones tumbling downstream to join the masses huddled under signs of flashing lights and flapping canvas flags. In between it all, four lanes of street traffic inched past, vehicles tricked out in light paint that depicted rows of colorful images and stylized hanzi. Above, through the canopy of street signs, rows of aircars flitted past between the buildings.
Through it all, swarms of scaleflies drifted across the sidewalks and streets. They’d gotten much worse over the past six months, and even though the air still stank faintly of biocide they just kept coming.
I caught Vamp kind of looking my way, and I knew he wanted to hold my hand. It had been months since the incident in Shiliuyuán, which meant months since our little grope session in the bed at Wei’s hotel. We’d kind of started to go all the way more than once, but each time I’d panicked and we ended up back where we’d started, with me tied up in knots and him waiting. He’d been playing it cool, waiting for me to give him some kind of signal, but so far all I’d given was the occasional kiss so I wouldn’t lose him completely. He’d gotten pretty frustrated. Even I knew it wasn’t fair.
I reached over and took his hand, taking a little solace in the way the hard look disappeared from his face and his smile returned.
“You ready for this?” he asked, nodding at the flash stick. I’d been turning it over and over in my free hand.
“I’m ready,” I said. “You?”
“A walk in the park.”
He tapped at his phone and then angled the screen toward me so I could see.
“I can tap into the Xinzhongzi screens from here,” he said. “Give me the flash and I’ll upload the video now.”
“I want to go over it first, one more time.”
“No problem. Just bring it when we head to the protest, I’ll upload it there.”
“You know, we don’t even have to be there.”
“I want to be there.”
I felt a tickle on the back of my right hand and saw a scalefly had landed there. I went to shoo it away, but instead of flying off it just crawled across my hand, down into my palm.
“Stupid thing . . .”
I clenched my fist, expecting to squish it but I never felt the crunch. I opened my hand, and the fly was gone.
The world tilted under my feet as a strange, but somehow familiar feeling overcame me. I was dizzy, like I’d stood too quickly, and then darkness rushed in and the city around me faded. My foot came down on the pavement in front of me but my whole leg felt numb and crumpled out from under me. I felt myself fall, stumbling sideways into a streetlamp pole. I hooked one arm around it and managed to hold on as I slid down to the ground.
“Sam? What’s wrong?” Vamp’s voice sounded far away.
I saw a flicker in the darkness, then. It grew brighter and brighter until an image filled the void all at once. In an instant I found myself somewhere else, still in Hangfei, but somewhere else, and the eyes I looked through were not my own. The body I inhabited belonged to someone, or something, else.
It’s a haan, I realized. I’d experienced this before. Haan were able to share memories with each other, and those memories were transferred by the scaleflies. Twice before the haan had managed to share their memories with me—Sillith had done it by accident, and Nix had done it on purpose—but they’d used the surrogate mite cluster to do it. I hadn’t sensed any signal at all this time. I still didn’t, and yet the memory felt very clear. So clear it had shunted out the world, almost shunted out my own sense of self as I moved down the unfamiliar alley somewhere out there in the maze of Hangfei.
The streets and buildings around me were almost unrecognizable. I could see several feet through each building wall, through layers of wiring and pipes into the rooms on the other side. I could sense vibrations in the pipe-work and rapid pulses of electricity coursing through each wire. The street ahead revealed a sewer tunnel below, so that I appeared to float through it all. Around me, the air swirled with particles, hundreds and thousands of them. Pheromones danced there from humans, haan, and scaleflies. All of it flowed into my consciousness, all of it information pouring into the haan’s brain even though I could perceive only a little bit of it.
. . . Eat.
That one drive formed in the core of my thoughts, and I felt the hunger then, a hole that yawned inside me, threatening to pull everything else inside. I needed to eat. I needed to eat soon.
I moved down the street, not able to make sense of the movements my body made as I went. I felt secure that I appeared as a human, but my body image, my human body image, didn’t fit with this memory. Arms, legs, feet, and hands were not part of this body. Unfamiliar movements, hundreds of them, all worked in harmony to carry me forward with almost no effort at all.
The haan didn’t know the name of the area it had wandered to, only that it had arrived in a place where humans didn’t matter, not even to other humans. No authority watched here. Reports of crimes went unheeded, and cries for help went unanswered. A human could disappear here, and no one of importance would ever know.
I flowed into an alleyway, and then settled down low to the ground to face a basement window. Through the plywood that had been set there I could see down into the dark room, where the fading heat signatures of human footprints lead away.
I felt the rough edges of the plywood on what felt like hundreds of tiny fingertips, and then it came free, moving away to be placed against the brickface. My body changed, oozing through the tiny window. Parts of me felt the rough floor beneath it even as other parts still rested on the damp sidewalk. Then the rest made its way inside, and my body resumed its original shape.
I followed the ghost footprints deeper into the basement, until a wall with a door in the center appeared in front of me. As I moved closer, my gaze moved through it all to see three men on the other side.
They appeared as skeletons, surrounded by soft tissue and giving off billows of heat and particles. I sensed that none of them was alarmed. None had so much as heard me enter. They lay on bedrolls, their hearts and breathing slowed as they slept.
With the door in front of me, I reached out with an appendage, black and covered in deep pores, and knocked three times on the door.
I sensed the haan’s amusement at the concept of knocking, something all humans did. Haan saw, knew, and shared everything, but not humans. They could not know if anyone was inside, and those inside could not know who was out. A knock became a moment of possibility, something that could evoke apprehension, excitement, or even secrecy if the human inside chose to ignore the knock and pretend to be elsewhere. The haan found all of it endearing.
It knew, though, that this knock would evoke fear, and I sensed regret at that fact. All three men jolted awake at the sound of it and all at once, their cottony hearts began to beat faster as they stirred. One reached to an electronic device in the middle of their arranged bedrolls and switched it on to fill their cubby with light.
I knocked again, and after some hushed discussion, one of the men stepped forward and opened the door a crack to look out.
All he would see would be another, unfamiliar human and I sensed him relax a little as he encountered not a dangerous human, or a security officer, but an unassuming old man.
“Who the hell are you?” he asked, his tongue working inside his skull and pinpricks of electricity zipping through the mass of his brain.
I hesitated, wishing the whole thing weren’t necessary. I wanted to apologize, somehow, but knew that prolonging this in any way would only make things worse for these humans who felt fear so keenly in the face of death. I didn’t want to be the cause of that fear, but the hole inside of me had grown so big and so empty.
“I asked who the hell are you?”
When I didn’t answer he moved to close the door but found he could not. He shoved at it again but couldn’t budge it.
I pushed it open fully, forcing him back inside with the others who all stood as, once inside, I closed the door behind me. Their hearts began to beat faster then, brains buzzing with activity, adrenaline entering their bloodstreams.
I grabbed all three at once, feeling the heat in the skin of their necks, feeling the flexing of the cords that worked there, feeling the pulsing of blood within. The patterns of activity inside each brain changed abruptly as the oxygen flow stopped and their bodies went limp. I held them that way, dangling, until the impulses in each brain fluttered away to nothing.
Should I take them to the safe place? I thought. We should take them to the safe place . . . but to move them . . . in this case it would mean even more risk, and the hole inside me. The hole . . .
I dragged the closest man closer still and then felt hundreds of tiny fingertips arrange themselves on either side of his skull.
Their kind will not survive on this world, I told myself. Mine will. This is necessary. This is justified. . . .
The guilt persisted, though, even as the fingertips poked through the scalp, and then the skull itself to perforate it from the forehead to the back of the neck. Then, like cracking a melon in two, they pulled the man’s head apart to expose the brain inside.
I pushed my face into the warm mass and felt the feeding tube slither out. In seconds the calorie-rich brains, blood, and fat were coursing into me, filling the pit inside of me, and the pleasure—the pure, greedy pleasure—of that made everything else fade away. The rib cage sprang apart in front of me, bones popping free to reveal the treasures inside, and I became lost in the gorging—the sheer ecstasy of it—as . . .
The images snapped away. I found myself back in Ping Xi, sitting on the sidewalk with one arm looped around a streetlamp. People streamed past me on either side as both Vamp and Alexei stood in front of me, looking worried.
“Sam?” Vamp asked.
“What the hell just happened? Are you okay?”
I looked around. Everything had returned to normal.
“Yeah,” I said. I managed to get back up onto my feet, still a little disoriented. “Yeah, sorry. I’m okay.”
“Are you sure?”
That wasn’t a dream, I told myself. That was real. That was a haan memory. It had already happened.
“Yeah,” I said. “Just got light-headed there.”
U sure? Alexei sent on the 3i. I tousled his hair and managed a smile. I didn’t want to tell them what I’d seen. I didn’t want to scare Alexei and Vamp . . . I wasn’t sure he’d believe me. I wasn’t completely sure what I even believed myself.
Sure, I sent back.
“Come on,” Vamp said, handing me back the video flash. “We’ve got trouble to make.”
I took the flash, turning it over in my hand. If everything went according to plan, we’d broadcast the truth about the haan to the whole country. Everything we knew, so far.
But as I remembered the sensation of eating from the haan memory, remembered how even while it turned my stomach I’d liked it, telling the truth no longer seemed like enough.