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When the security alarm rang out, Zhang Dong was at the very peak of the village, thinking about family. Recent bickering with his father had left him smoldering with resentment. Maybe it was just as Liang said—time to make a clean start!
But there would be no time for that now. He leapt up the instant he heard the alarm klaxons and looked in all directions. There were no signal fires along the village’s borders. Could it be to the south? There, they bordered the Kindergarten, probably the least hostile of the neighboring communities. He climbed onto the rain catchment system, but still saw nothing out of the ordinary.
After ringing a few more times, the alarm suddenly cut out. That was unusual. He activated his BCI, but the network was down. Likely a coverage brownout caused by the Kessler debris field passing by in Low Earth Orbit. Regardless, he had to return as soon as possible, even if he still had no idea how he would face his father. Just the thought of confronting him brought a flush of anger. Grunting, he jumped down from the roof.
The village was located in a crumbling skyscraper. After the collapse of the old order, most structures of that size had been abandoned. Only a few were maintained by the small groups who had established villages in them. The technological knowhow of all the communities in the area originated in a band of hobbyist agriculturalists. They had settled west of the Kindergarten, in what was once a conservation forest, so Zhang Dong liked to refer to them as the Druids.
It was an idle hobby of his to come up with a nickname for each village in the vicinity. Beginning in the west, there were the Elves, a group that was almost perverted in their pursuit of beauty. Next was the Isle of Dreams, a collection of addicts, some of them using extremely potent, medical-grade marijuana. In recent years, a dozen smaller villages had fractured from these larger groups and declared their independence. Some were wiped out or annexed in armed conflict before he could even name them.
Next was the Garden of Eden, the largest religious community in the area. They had once bordered the Beggar’s Union, but those layabouts and drunks had been wiped out by a group of extremists, who had parted ways from the Garden. They were religious zealots, screaming about the end of days, and they fought with virtually every neighboring village. He called them Mad Men. To the far south, the largest village was the Kindergarten, a group of runaway adolescents and children. Zhang Dong had no love for this group, partly because they reminded him of his own unspeaking, taciturn son, and partly because they had become one more thing to argue about with his father.
Moving quickly, he glanced at the livestock district. He was finding it hard to remain calm. Peering into the distance, he tiptoed for a better view. Startled, he looked above him—the anti-gravity was off.
Damn! The control unit he had scraped together had malfunctioned, causing the surrounding superconductors to shut down. Without antigrav support, the tower would not stand for long, and Zhang would go with it. Muttering curses under his breath, he snapped on the plastic connection breakers. He felt his scalp begin to tingle, and when it seemed the earth was about to swallow the tower, the structure heaved to a stop. Zhang could hear the sound of metal constricting. The sudden changes in atmospheric pressure left his guts churning and a constant whirring hummed in his ears.
Before he could gather himself, a nearby building, bent with age, exploded behind him. Debris and rubble filled the air, but the suffocating dust did nothing to muffle the alarmed cries of the livestock. Zhang smelled something burning.
Microwave weapons! If not for the malfunction moments before, he might have taken a direct hit and been cooked instantly. Instead, he was left with a painful burn that would surely blister. The equipment he was wearing had all been fried. Even the BCI in his skull was forced to restart.
But Zhang Dong had no time to waste on that. Redirecting the momentum of his fall, he rolled into the first-floor entrance of the village. He heard someone screaming, “Idiot! Fire, fire! You fucking wasted the energy.”
The sound of frantic footsteps outside the building followed. Before long, the enemy had gathered together. They cursed and bickered with one another, almost coming to blows. Zhang Dong caught a breath of relief. He had a general sense of who they were now: seven individuals split into two groups—junkies from the Isle of Dreams and a few Mad Men.
But why would they be working together? And how did they get past the lookout posts undetected? What’s more, they seemed to have a clear goal in mind, coming directly to his location. Multiplying doubts wracked Zhang Dong’s brain, but he would have to deal with the intruders before he could think of anything else. Pushing through the ache of his burns, he ran towards the sublevels.
“There he is!” With his pursuers only a dozen yards behind, machine gunfire raked over the nearby fungus farms.
This area was devoted to spore-based plants, a fact that worked strongly in Zhang’s favor. The addicts chasing behind, already muddle-headed from dope, slipped over the damp mosses and lichens until they had tumbled onto the ground in a pile. Towering gene-modified ferns provided protective obstructions, and the spore pods ripped open by gunfire mixed with the damp air to cloud the gunmen’s sight lines. Their low-caliber bullets couldn’t pierce the fibers of Zhang’s clothing, but he gritted his teeth against the pain. All he could do was push deeper into the sublevels.
The underground parking lot had been repurposed as a micro-organic processing center, complete with a circular water purification system, waste processing facilities, a decomposition tank, and a marsh gas power generator. The area was dense with winding tubes, large and small, and many pathways could only be navigated on hands and knees. With its hazy light, the subterranean forest was perfect for an ambush.
Zhang Dong ran to the maintenance room and took the largest pipe wrench. It was longer than his arm and heavy as a rock. The Druids would say it was the best response to an automated system. Zhang thought the invaders fit the bill.
Drug addicts from the Isle of Dreams would not pose a threat. Zhang Dong was confident that, even in a straight fight, he could put them in their place. But the Mad Men were another issue. First, he needed to split them up. Luckily, the two groups were like a skittish flock of pigeons, at each other’s throats already.
When he had quietly eliminated two of the junkies, the remaining footmen of the Isle took to glorious form, screaming hysterically that the Mad Men had set a trap for them. The Mad Men were all too happy to match their lunacy, accusing anyone who would threaten them of being cursed, and declaring that their holy mission was nothing less than total purification. Zhang Dong squirreled away in a corner, and when the time was right, he took a pot shot with one of the guns he had filched from a bludgeoned assailant. The ensuing raucous of gunfire and shouts was like a Chinese New Year’s celebration. Zhang heard the sound of bullets striking the nearby gas tank and the soldiers’ body armor.
When the smoke had cleared, he stuck his head out. There wasn’t much left of the addicts, their bodies so mangled by bullets that they were hard to identify. The Mad Men’s heavy armor had kept their bodies intact, but not their heads. Blood and pulped flesh mixed together with the corpses’ vacated bowels, adding to the stench of desulfurizing methane.
Only one of the Mad Men survived, but he wasn’t long for this world. He lay in a pool of his filth, his teeth stained with blood. Zhang Dong approached with caution, kicking the gun away from him. “How’d you get in?”
“Fool …” The man forced his eyes open and mumbled a few words. He looked like a frog waiting for dissection.
“Did you sprint across the border?”
“Judgment … Purify … the fools …”
Zhang Dong shrugged, the movement sending a ripple of pain through his bruises. Communicating with the fanatics was out of the question. He understood completely the frustration of whichever junkie had pulled the trigger first.
Most of the guns on the ground had been emptied, but he strung a few that still had bullets over his shoulder. There was a portable electromagnetic pulse emitter, but he could see from the digital readout that it was spent. No doubt this was the directed energy weapon they had attacked with, a real beauty. Unfortunately, the control mechanism had been smashed during the battle. Powerful military equipment like that was scarce. Even if they had the tech, not many villages would spend resources to produce such consumables. Probably only the Mad Men were willing to make that kind of sacrifice.
Glancing back at the soldier who was still blubbering curses, Zhang Dong allowed himself a moment of gratitude. If the weapon had been set to field scatter mode, he’d be the one lying miserable in the muck.
“You never should have paired up. So stupid!” Zhang spat. Without waiting for another admonishment, he lifted the wrench and put the man to sleep. The smell of methane in the air was already thick enough to suffocate a man. No need to waste a bullet.
The brief alarm, earlier, didn’t seem to have called many of Zhang Dong’s neighbors to arms. Other than a few boundary disputes with the Mad Men, things had been quiet for far too long. This was his father’s greatest achievement: to build a secure, enduring settlement nearly on his own. Sure, a few small groups had broken off to seek their independence, but the relatively stable environment had allowed their community to grow at a steady rate. It was part of the reason his father stayed fixated on those old-timey traditions. Family ties! If they were really so important, his mother never would have abandoned them to start her own village.
Zhang Dong reckoned that most of his father’s worldview was based on the relationship his parents had when he was still a child. In theory, there was nothing wrong with strong family bonds and skepticism of technology. But as the old man aged, he became more and more headstrong, especially after Zhang Dong’s mother left. They’d already had at least dozen arguments over Brain-Computer Interface implants. Zhang even harbored a lurking suspicion that bickering with others had become a spice of life for his father and that he was standing in for his mother as the preferred antagonist.
It seemed the fighting was finally starting to draw attention, or maybe the battle in the methane refinery had just cut the power. In any case, Zhang’s neighbors were emerging from their homes, weapons in hand. One man from the gathering group came running when he saw Zhang Dong.
“What’s going on?”
Zhang knew him—the man served on the custodial crew with Liang. “Mad Men.” He stopped and then added, “They snuck in.”
“Has the border been breached?” someone cried breathlessly.
“No!” Zhang Dong had to raise his voice. “The border is secure. God knows how they got in. But you’d better go check, anyway. We don’t want them to take out the sentry towers from within.” He tried the BCI again, but there was still no signal.
“Who all has an implant?” He made a rough tally of hands. “Let’s break into groups. Those without BCIs, pair up with those who have them. When you get a signal, report back. There shouldn’t be too many of them inside the border, but we still have to take care of them. Take every precaution!”
“You’re not coming?” asked the man.
“I have to check on the watchtower. Something’s wrong with the alarm. And I need to find my father.”
Addressing the forming groups, Zhang Dong said, “Tell everyone we need to be fully prepared for war. And watch the addicts closely. They may be working with those religious loonies. A few groups should go check it out.”
“All right!” The crowd was in good spirits. It was one of the greatest strengths of the communities that had formed after everything went to hell: they were united by interests and common ideals. It allowed them to get things done, responding en masse to threats and uniting against a common enemy. The only downside was that once ruptured, they tended to quickly unravel.
“Hey.” Zhang Dong stopped the man before he could walk off. “Do you know where Liang is?”
“Not really; I’m on rest today. He might be up north, cleaning the solar fields.”
The fields were in the opposite direction of the watchtower. Contacting Liang would have to wait until the satellite uplink connected again.
Zhang Dong had always found Liang the most astute member of their community, able to solve many problems simply by thinking them through. They worked together on a plan to build signal stations to improve digital connectivity. Since overcrowding had caused a string of collisions among Earth’s satellites, exactly as Donald Kessler had once predicted, wireless connections had been sporadic. The stations would have boosted the functionality of their BCIs, but Zhang’s father scrapped the plan. He opposed any web-based technologies on principle, holding that they had caused the old order to collapse. Fragmentation of the social sphere made people more and more apathetic until the only interaction they sought was mutual flattery. When such narcissism became a lived habit, it reflected into reality with calamitous effects.
This was an argument Zhang Dong could not counter head-on. He knew that simply stacking the blame on a few variables was a mistake, but at the end of the day, he never lived through that chaos. So he had to defer.
As he saw more people outside, he took his time to bring each one up to date. That way, even if more of those lunatics broke in, at least they wouldn’t have an easy time of it.
Zhang Dong caught sight of a few figures moving low through an alley. He approached quietly, ready to take them all out at once. But when he got close enough, he discovered they were just children. In fact, one was his son, Zhang Fangfang.
“What are you doing here?” he hollered as he jumped around the corner. He had not meant to raise his voice, but at that moment, his patience left him. The kids were startled. As one, they hung their heads and fell silent.
Again this bizarre behavior! Every time he wanted to say something to his son, the boy would just rock back and forth without responding. A pulsing pain was spreading from the burns on Zhang’s back, making him irritable. “What are you staring at? Didn’t you hear the alarm? Get home now and take cover!”
Though the children said nothing, Zhang Dong guessed they might be privately communicating. It was a rumor from the Kindergarten: many children of the new generation seemed to have a spontaneous mutation allowing them to send and receive brain waves. Of course, it hadn’t been properly researched. The nearby communities had neither the resources nor specialists to undertake such a project. But the kids behaved like they’d come from another planet. Communicating with them was difficult. Heaven knew what they might be saying to one another.
As he was about to start shouting at his son again, the other kids looked at the boy with pity and suddenly darted off.
“Don’t run or you’ll cause an accident! I thought you were enemies!” he shouted after them. Taking his son by the hand, he added, “You’re coming with me.”
To his surprise, the boy looked directly at him and said, “You’d better go to the north, to investigate.”
“Don’t worry yourself about it. Just stay close behind me until we find you a safe hiding place, okay?” Zhang Dong immediately regretted saying this, for his son shut down, saying nothing. Struggling to remain calm, he said, “Did you see your grandfather when you were leaving the house?”
“Fine.” He shrugged, finding no desire to argue further. His guilt was already metastasizing into anger as the pain radiated from his back. He couldn’t say who was in the wrong. Perhaps it went back years, back to his decision to buy an egg from the Women’s Kingdom.
Neither father nor son spoke, and the world seemed to slow down, calcifying until time was flattened out. This lasted until the alarm rang again, dragging Zhang Dong from his reverie.
“Let’s go!” Pulling his son behind him, he ran towards the watchtower. He knew something was wrong.
Though they called it the watchtower, the structure was only two stories tall. In truth, it was just the center of the village’s security system. They had refurbished a surveillance system that had survived from the old days. When installed on the borders, it provided live video feeds of every entry point. Zhang’s father was skeptical, but in this case, he had to concede to popular opinion. The system meant that they didn’t have to schedule twenty-four-hour patrols, saving them a tremendous amount of time and energy. It was, possibly, the only time Zhang had clashed with his father and won.
As the Mad Men began to grow in power, Zhang and his neighbors directed their surveillance system towards their staging grounds in the southwest. Cameras from relatively peaceful stretches of the border were relocated, and they even set up sentry towers. It was one more reason the day’s invasion seemed so strange.
When Zhang Dong reached the watchtower, a mass of shouting troops emerged from inside. The Mad Men? He pushed his son behind him and held his gun at the ready.
“What are you doing here? Didn’t you hear the alarm?” Zhang Dong’s scowling father stepped out of the crowd.
Zhang saw then that the soldiers were all fellow villagers, each armed for battle. His father wore the same exoskeleton armor he had piloted during the wars, its metal structure supporting his stooped back. Zhang Dong had to look up to meet his father’s eyes, but that did little to calm him, especially with his son’s recalcitrance fresh in his mind. Though he’d tried to prepare, humiliation and anger twisted in his stomach.
He spoke to his father as slowly as he could. “I did hear it. That’s why I came here to investigate.”
“If you had time to come here, why didn’t you check on the border?” his father huffed. Then he glared at the young boy. “At least you didn’t forget your familial obligations …”
“Of course, I didn’t!” Furious, Zhang Dong’s voice turned hard. It was just like his father to begin casting blame before he even understood the situation. He blamed the young boy’s peculiar nature on his upbringing, repeating ad nauseum that Zhang Dong had not cared for him. Zhang brooded that if his father had really shown his own son how much he cared, maybe things wouldn’t be so rotten between them.
It was because of his father that Zhang had decided to raise a child in the first place. Once his mother left, Zhang felt he should do something to preserve the lineage that was so vital to his father. Not that the old man was supportive. He said that “unnatural” births were immoral and irresponsible. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge that it all went back to the failures of his own family. To Zhang, that hypocrisy was the greatest irony.
But Zhang Dong was tired of fighting that fight. Instead, he decided privately that when the Mad Men were dealt with, he would set out together with Liang and form a new village. Of course, the hardest part would be deciding whether or not to bring his son—if not for the child, he would have left already. Perhaps it would be better to join the Kindergarten. At least there, his strange son would have some company.
“Then take him home! This is no time for a stroll through the districts. The invaders aren’t cute, little bunny rabbits.” With that, his father turned to leave. The ancient suit of armor’s pistons hissed with each step, rocking him back and forth.
“They have energy weapons! And a secret entrance we haven’t uncovered yet,” Zhang Dong called after him.
His father frowned. Clearly, he didn’t know.
“The border should be secure now, teams are already en route. But a group of Mad Men entered through a concealed route. And …” Zhang Dong considered mentioning his battle with them but thought better of it. “And the drug addicts from the north were working with them, so there may be more than one entry point.”
“If we relied only on your hole-ridden surveillance system, that might be true,” his father sneered. “Luckily, I’m still set on doing things myself. I make a full border patrol every day, so I can assure you, there is no secret entrance.”
“Then how did they get in?”
“Ask the graphene computer in your skull.” His father tapped his temple. “Can’t it contact those rusty satellites you’re so fond of? Don’t you have some DMs to read through from your buddies, still out there vamping for likes? Or were they blown away just like the surveillance system?”
“What did you say?” Zhang Dong demanded. His blood pumped fiercely enough to make blue veins stand out on his temple. A waste of time, trying to have an honest conversation with his father. He took a deep breath and tried to walk back his anger. When he spoke, the words came out too fast, his voice cracking with frustration.
“What was blown up? What are you saying?”
His father waved him away irritably, but someone else explained what was going on: Two Mad Men had broken into the second floor of the watchtower. When they’d spent all their bullets, they ignited the explosives they were wearing. Many people had been injured, and all of the equipment was destroyed. Luckily the alarm system was pneumatic and operated independently of the surveillance hardware.
“That just doesn’t sound like them …” Zhang Dong thought again about the ambush, trying to focus through the pain. “The Mad Men have never launched a covert operation before. They’re dying to let people know what they’re doing and why. And this attack, it’s too coordinated. There’s something wrong, maybe someone …”
“Why don’t you go ask your BCI?” his father interrupted. “I told you before, wireless tech isn’t secure. If you can hack into those satellites, why can’t someone else?”
“That’s not how it works. Besides, it wouldn’t explain how they got in. I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t a traitor among us.”
“Enough! If I were you, I’d spend less time vilifying the community and more time securing it. You’re not Sherlock Holmes and this isn’t a game.”
“Ha! You really think it’s impossible they got to someone?” He couldn’t even look at his father. “If things were so peachy, my mother never would have left you!”
His father’s face flushed red. Even in his towering armor, he looked as if he’d been struck. Zhang Dong’s anger drained from him, leaving only a damp sweat and a deep sense of shame. He had long ago become just like his father, using pointed words to cut deep. His guts felt like they were turning inside out, filling his mouth with a sour, acidic taste. All he could do was bite the bullet and try to move on. “That’s … the only explanation that makes sense. The way they snuck in, the strange alarms … They must have someone working with them.”
His father stared back, unspeaking. Finally, he left in a silent rage.
Zhang Dong didn’t follow after. All the energy had been sucked out of him. His mind cloudy, he lost interest in the world around him. He wondered briefly if this struggle with the Mad Men was a blessing, an excuse to leave. But his son at his side strengthened his resolve to go on.
“Listen, just now with your grandpa, I …” He squatted, hoping to explain the shouting, but he couldn’t find the words. The boy was still in a fugue state, almost oblivious to what was happening. Zhang Dong sighed and rubbed the boy’s head. Quietly he murmured, “I guess we’ll just go to the north to have a look.”
There he would find Liang and they would set out together, leave this place far behind. Maybe that really was the best solution. Maybe his mother was right.
While he was lost in thought, his son said something he couldn’t make out.
“The northern border!” With that, Zhang Fangfang took off running.
“Don’t run! Come back!”
The speed with which the boy ran caught him off guard, and by the time he was really chasing after, his son was already deep into the residential districts. The solar power plants in that district generated more than a third of the community’s energy, but it was still sparsely populated. All of the structures in the area were outfitted with panels, though many were covered with grime. The dirt lowered their conversion rate so dramatically that Liang and many other villagers were stationed on permanent custodial duty.
Truly a pity that the BCI still had no service, or he would have contacted Liang. Sporadic gunfire in the distance made him anxious. Those damned lunatics. Cursing under his breath, he finally caught his son by the arm and whispered, “Find a safe place to hide and stay there. I’ll go check it out.” Lifting his weapon, he headed in the direction of the shots.
The battle was well underway. The invaders had already made deep inroads into their territory, but their forward momentum had been stopped. Shattered solar panels sparkled among the rubble, and the bare walls were riddled with bullet holes. Zhang Dong bent over, grimacing from the pain, and made his way forward. Among the debris, he caught sight of bodies—Mad Men, locals, and the corpses of children.
Bastards! His feet moved forward in spite of him.
The shouting and explosions were coming from a retreating band of Mad Men. They blanketed the area with bullets as they moved, one casually tossing a grenade into a building as he walked by. Zhang Dong’s skull was nearly crushed by a chunk of concrete that zipped past, inches from his head. He hunched up against a low wall. When they had spent their bullets, he leapt out.
They were bewildered, and before they could mount a response, Zhang Dong took two down. Unfortunately, his poor marksmanship missed their vitals. Once his shots broke the silence, gunfire rang out along all sides as the Mad Men fell screaming to the ground.
Zhang Dong recognized the faces of his neighbors leaving cover to join the battle. To his surprise, many of the fighters supporting him were children. Two of them were the young boys he had seen with his son earlier.
Riding a wave of rage, Zhang pushed ahead, firing back at each of the holy invaders in turn. As the final two trained their guns on him, his mind went clear. It felt like he’d broken free from Earth’s orbit and become an observer of the unfolding chaos. The shouted curses on the fanatics’ lips and mechanical rumbling of their guns as they pulled the triggers were deafeningly clear to him.
Unconsciously, he closed his eyes. But when the shooting stopped, he discovered that it was the Mad Men, not he, who had fallen. In fact, one of them had lost his head.
“Are you alright?” A young boy ran up behind Zhang Dong. Moving across the left side of his face was a dynamic tattoo implant of a snake-tongued demon wearing a beaded necklace.
Zhang swallowed, nodding, but just then, he saw one of the injured soldiers reaching for the explosives on his chest. Before he could act, the boy fired another bullet at the soldier. When they were sure the man was still, the boy gave a thumbs up to one of the other children.
Relaxing, he recognized Zhang’s bewildered expression and smiled. “Don’t look so surprised. Just like you use a BCI, we can share information with our minds.”
“You’re one of the new generation? I don’t think we’ve met.”
“That’s right.” The boy grinned even wider. “I’m named Jing Shang, from the south.”
A child from the Kindergarten? It didn’t feel right. Zhang ignored the boy’s outstretched hand and asked calmly, “Are you here to kidnap our children?”
“No.” Jing Shang shook his head. “I’m a teacher. The children I teach have to decide for themselves what they’ll do with their lives.”
“A teacher? Sounds like brainwashing.”
“You have a lot of stereotypes about us.” Jing Shang’s mouth opened wide whenever he spoke, flashing his pearly white teeth. “But I understand that. Some people think we’re freaks. That’s one of the reasons I came here. I want to teach these kids how to use their powers and how to interact normally with older generations.”
Zhang Dong thought of his morose son and frowned. “Seems like it hasn’t been going well.”
“It’s an ongoing process, complicated by the fact that these dramatic physiological changes takes place at an age when your son would naturally be inclined to rebellion.” Jing Shang went on, “Anyone who has been forced into another world will experience personality changes and have trouble adjusting. Our minds transmit knowledge at the speed of light. They’re not limited in the same ways your hardware and software are, and they aren’t subject to Kessler interference, battery shortage, or magnetic disruption. Distance is a limiting factor, but each person can act as a relay station. Together, we have a broad network.”
Zhang Dong had never before encountered one of the new generation that could speak so fluently. The experience was vaguely unreal. “I bet you’re a good teacher.”
“Thank you! We just need your understanding. It’s not that we don’t want to communicate, it’s just that you’re too slow. You can’t process information at the speed we can.”
The sentiment was familiar. Zhang had said something quite similar, himself, during an argument with his father. Looking at the boy before him, he felt the irony of the world.
Deeply embarrassed, he asked finally, “You … There’s nothing wrong with you?”
“It’s just training,” Jing Shang said. “This is what I can teach them. It’s hard to gather the resources for scientific research, but we’re confident that outgoing brain waves are higher in frequency. The training we offer allows one to tune them out when necessary.”
“I thought you had the technology to block them.”
“That’s a common misunderstanding. People always seek to change others before they change themselves. Besides, that would impede our progress. Since the invention of the tablet, increased spatial coordination activities have promoted cerebral development. I’ve been studying why the music called ‘death metal’ suddenly became mainstream during the breakdown. If it can’t be attributed to cultural reasons, it could be that people’s minds were working at a faster speed and became more receptive to the melodies of high-frequency input.”
“I’d hardly call them melodies.” Zhang Dong was growing inpatient, knowing he still had to find his son. And the attack, just now, had been strange. The Mad Men weren’t as organized as before. And where had all the addicts gone?
Jing Shang shrugged and nodded to some of the other children with him. Turning to Zhang, he said, “They’re going to dispatch the remaining intruders. They also said there seems to have been an incident in the north, near the anesthetics district.”
“What?” Zhang Dong stepped forward. “That’s not a job for children.”
“Think of them as comrades in arms; warriors. Don’t forget, the northern border would have been breached without them.”
“We don’t need preteen warriors.” Zhang Dong switched his gun to burst mode and added, “Just be thankful we don’t accuse you of treason.”
Standing on a pile of rubble, he called to the nearby adults to take part in the mopping up operation. But before he took off, he returned to Jing Shang and asked, “Can you contact a child named Zhang Fangfang?”
“Hold on.” Jing Shang closed his eyes. “I know him. He’s your son, right?”
Zhang Dong ignored the question. “Ask him where he is. Tell him to be good and go home.”
“He says he’s discovered the traitor and is observing him.”
Good God, these children! Zhang Dong’s eyes went wide. “Tell him to hide! Where are they?”
Jing Shang frowned. “It seems that he’s intent on working alone.”
Zhang Dong bellowed his curses.
Just then, his BCI suddenly lit up with a connection to a satellite. He heard the voices of countless alerts chiming in his mind and parsed through the information he was taking in: the boundary with the Mad Men was intact, and no other intruders had been discovered. Many villagers had just learned of the intrusion and were rushing to help.
He ignored all of this, instead opening the location app and searching for his son. Under the weight of the whole community’s frantic operations, the app was sluggish. Finally, he reached Liang, who didn’t pick up until the third request.
“Where are you?”
Panting, Liang gave his location. It was close by, on the road he’d just come from.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m okay. I just took care of two of them.”
Zhang nodded. “I’ll get there as quickly as I can. But there’s something you should know: there’s a traitor among us. Someone must be working with the Mad Men.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s the only explanation. Besides, my son says he’s found him and is observing him right now.”
“I think so. I have to find him right away.”
Liang was quiet. Finally, he said, “I bet I’ll find him first. But this is bad news for us. My apologies.”
Zhang Dong couldn’t follow the logic, but Liang had already cut the connection. Behind him, Jing Shang called out, “Your boy says the traitor is named Liang!”
A buzzing drone began to echo in his ears—Zhang felt like the world had been turned upside down. His reaction was to barrel forward like a mad rhinoceros, pushing past anything in his way. Whether it was true or not, he had to get there as fast as he possibly could.
He called Liang again and again but wasn’t able to reach him. With each call, he grew more frantic, until the urgency was filling his chest, making it impossible to breathe.
“Liang!” His shout sounded like the air out of a punctured basketball. What he saw wiped away the last shred of hope he’d nurtured. His son lay on the ground and Liang was pointing a gun at him. When he saw Zhang Dong, Liang lifted the boy in front of him as a shield.
“Don’t move. Put your guns down.”
“Why?” His panting enflamed the burns on his back until he could barely speak.
“I said put down your guns!” Liang pointed his weapon at Zhang Fangfang’s head. The boy was scared white. He looked helplessly at his father.
“It’s okay,” Zhang Dong said to him. He dropped the guns. When he felt calm enough to speak, he said, “Why, Liang?” In his belly, his stomach roiled with anger.
“Can’t you tell?” Liang chuckled. “I thought you hated this place as much as me. These tired traditions and half-assed communal spirit … You hate agricultural duty, just think what years spent washing these damn solar panels were like. Humans aren’t meant to live like this.”
“We had a plan! It could have been different—”
“Don’t lie to me!” Liang interrupted. “I’m tired of your flip-flopping. If you had lived by your convictions, it wouldn’t have come to this. Do you have any concept of how tedious it was to track the satellite availability and pick the perfect time to strike? Can you imagine what I went through to convince those drug addicts and extremists to throw their lot in together?”
“You … They wouldn’t …”
“You have no idea. The plan was to use the communication blackout to decapitate the organization. I would then lead a response and establish a new village.”
“So, the target was me?”
“No, no, no. The target has never changed: your father. Your role was to provide this.” Liang shook the boy. “Family ties, right? When your old man sees him, he’ll yield to me, just like you. In my reckoning, you were never the greater threat.”
Zhang Dong realized then that he knew little about his old friend—the man before him was nothing but a stranger.
“I thought we were on the same page, Liang. I thought we were partners.”
“We were, but you can’t see beyond the horizons of this life.” Liang shook his head. “All you think about is your family and the generation gap between you. You want to set out on your own, but only so you can get away from your dad. The idea that this fragmented society is the real source of conflict, that’s something you could never fathom. There are too few resources, now, less all the time. Humanity is done for. The end of days that those pious fanatics won’t shut up about will become our reality unless we put an end to this anarchy. Someone needs to manage society and allocate resources.”
“Are you stoned?”
“Don’t mock me! More and more of us are coming to understand this reality, even if some of them are users.”
Zhang Dong noticed two sprawled bodies behind Liang. Craning to get a better look, he stepped forward.
“Stay there!” Liang tightened his grip on the boy. “We were working together, but the Mad Men blew it all to hell. That fool said he could control the addicts, and now he’s gone just like them. Serves him right for trying to pin this debacle on me. I’d say you got lucky. If they’d been a little more on the level, I’d be walking away the victor.”
Zhang Dong could hardly understand this mishmash of ideas. All he could hear was a deranged ego. “If you were such good buddies, why not just join them and start your own village?”
“Are you so befuddled you can’t even follow my words? What use is a community of political allies? Who would they lead? We can’t revive the old world without bringing rival groups together. Think about it: if resources were used efficiently instead of being squandered on pointless tribal warfare, if people could come together under a single banner, what kind of incredible power would we have? We could crack open the earth, tear back the sky! We could recreate the glory we lost and move on to the cosmos, touching even the heavens!”
“You’d have to clean up the Kessler trash, first.” Zhang kept his eyes on Liang, who was getting more and more worked up. His ecstatic exposition was a kind of catharsis for him until he was gesticulating wildly and practically jumping up and down. Zhang waited for him to let his guard down.
An opening! Zhang Dong dashed forward. Before his opponent could react, he ripped his son out of the demented man’s hands and landed a solid blow. But when Liang brought the gun around, it caught Zhang in the face, stunning him.
“Run! Now!” He gritted his teeth and pushed his son behind him. Weighed down by the blinding pain in his nose and back, he only took two steps before he heard the gunshot. His leg gave out, and he fell, heavy, to his knees.
“Stay still! And you, too, boy.” Liang marched up to Zhang, his clothes now covered in muck. “The next shot won’t be so courteous! I know your clothing can stop bullets and arrows, but you know this gun—we found it together. At this range, this antique will tear you apart.”
“You’ve lost, Liang. Why can’t you just let it go?” Zhang Dong slowly lifted his hands to his head. His leg had gone numb, making it difficult to stand. Nearby, his son had his head down and was rocking back and forth. Contacting his friends? He could only hope there were child soldiers hiding in the burned-out buildings around them, because the updates from his BCI told him the village militia wouldn’t arrive for some time.
“Let it go?” Liang kicked him to the ground. “If only I could. I planned to clear my name by killing these two. Then I could just go back undercover and wait for another chance. But you and your old man, one of you got suspicious. I know you, Dong. When you’ve figured something out, you can’t wait to tell the world. You want to know the truth, even if it might get you in trouble. But now you’ve forced my hand.”
Zhang Dong stood and met the eyes of his maniacal friend. The rage he’d felt only moments ago had given way to an anxious calm. “Leave here. Start a new home.”
“Start from nothing? I can’t wait that long. I’ve always envied that about you, you know. Just like your father, you’re blessed with … a certain perseverance.”
“Maybe I should teach in the Garden of Eden, huh?”
“I’ve always told you, your sights are too narrow. You know, we can still go in together, just like we planned! We’ll become kings of these broken people. When we rebuild a government, we can bring back the old days, become the heroes of our age and make possible what is yet to come!”
Zhang Dong spat on the ground. “Have you already forgotten what you’ve done?”
“Great deeds require vision. Sometimes sacrifice is unavoidable— ”
“Don’t make excuses for the war you’ve waged against my family!” Zhang shouted at him.
Liang was taken aback. He rubbed his nose, glanced at his friend again, and said, “Then I am truly sorry.”
The gun’s muzzle was still warm when Liang pressed it to his friend’s head. Zhang Dong’s only thought at that moment was that if his father had a BCI, he could offer him an apology. Not that his father would ever allow one to be implanted.
With a fierce cry, Zhang Fangfang ran forward. But his father was resigned to his fate, his weary eyes on the barrel.
Without warning, Liang began to drift into the air. He slowed as he left the ground, like a bouncy ball reaching the apex of its flight. The anti-gravity had been switched back on.
As Liang moved, the gun slipped out of his hand and into the air beyond his reach. Before he could gather his wits, scarlet bullet holes scattered across his chest.
Father! With lurching steps, the old man sauntered forward in his exoskeleton.
News coming in on the BCI clarified everything that had happened: Liang destroyed the surveillance system along the northern border during his maintenance shift and led the intruders in. When the monitors at the watchtower discovered what he had done, he had them murdered. But hiring the Mad Men as mercenaries was a foolish idea.
Those from the Isle of Dreams suffered most. A squad of overzealous Mad Men, sent to reinforce the addicts, razed their enclave instead. Afterward, they decided to “purify” Zhang’s village and broke through the border, but soldiers of the new generation arrived to help drive them back.
During the conflict, the Isle of Dreams was all but destroyed. While mopping up the last of the Mad Men there, Zhang Dong and his forces encountered soldiers from the Garden of Eden. He wasn’t surprised to see them tacitly supporting their psychotic brethren. If they hadn’t, how would so many Mad Men get this far north? Luckily, both sides were restrained. After making demonstrations of force, they both left the scene. Many believed that the whole thing was a conspiracy launched by the Garden, but with no evidence to prove it, they resorted to venting online and fantasizing about how they would one day annex their foes.
Zhang refrained from taking part. The sunshine was so bright on his face that he could hardly open his eyes. He fell into shade when someone stepped in front of him and blocked the light.
“Now’s no time to rest easy. They won’t be that easy to topple.” His father’s voice was gravelly. “But that last bit you said, that was all right. I’m glad you’ve finally taken it to heart.”
Zhang couldn’t help but laugh. Even in a rare moment of praise, his father still assumed a preaching tone. Still, he took his father’s hand and hoisted himself up. It felt like all his bones had been welded together. Every move sent pops and cracks along his body.
“How are you?” he asked his father cautiously.
“Not bad. Just need to rest a bit.”
He nodded and looked away.
With that, his father left, murmuring that he wanted to question the children. Zhang Dong knew, of course, that his old man would have no luck with them. He scanned the crowd for Jing Shang.
With the dynamic tattoos covering his face, the boy was easy to find. When Zhang called out to him, he ran over at once.
“You fought fiercely,” said the boy.
Zhang Dong shook his hand. “My father wants to understand your …” At a loss for words, he pointed at his own temple. “But he may have trouble communicating with your people, so I was wondering if you could lend a hand. Remember, he’s from the older generation. It takes a lot of patience to work with him.”
“You sound just like your son!” Jing Shang laughed. “Don’t worry. Communication is always hard; that’s something we can all relate to.”
As Zhang thanked him, a new inspiration struck him. “I was just thinking, what frequency do your brainwaves transmit at? Is there a way we could adapt BCIs to receive them?”
Jing Shang was shocked. “I don’t know, maybe. It’s certainly worth looking into!”
“I’d like to help.” Before the words were out of his mouth, he caught a glimpse of his son giving him a thumbs up in the distance. “You already—Your abilities really are stunning,” he said to Jing Shang, and returned the thumbs up.
Harsh sunlight seemed to disperse all the shadows around them. The only holdout was Liang’s body, a resilient reminder of the cruelty of their life. But that was a worry for another time. For the moment, at least, he felt a grin spread across his face.