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,