Changing the course of a war for the survival of the human race doesn’t often come to anyone, but it’s especially rare for eight-year-olds to have the opportunity. Yet when Bingwen saw that it was within his grasp, he didn’t hesitate. He was as respectful of authority as any child could be—but he was also keenly aware when he was right, and those in authority were either wrong or uncertain.
Uncertainty was what surrounded Bingwen now, in a barracks building of an abandoned military base in southeast China. The men around him were Mobile Operations Police—MOPs—and Bingwen knew that, as an eight-year-old Chinese boy, he was only with them because Mazer Rackham had adopted him.
How long would they allow him to remain with them, now that Mazer Rackham was gone?
Gone and probably dead.
Bingwen had seen plenty of death since the Formics first began spraying the fields of his homeland with a gas that turned all living tissues, plant and animal, into rotting jelly, breaking down into their constituent organic molecules. Turning back into fertile soil. A vast compost heap, ready for whatever the Formics intended to plant in their place.
The Formics killed indiscriminately. They slew harmless people at their labors, terrified people fleeing from them, and soldiers firing at them, all with the same implacable efficiency. Bingwen had seen so much death he was glutted with it. He was no fool. He knew that just because he needed Mazer Rackham to be alive did not mean that the Formics would not kill him.
Here’s why he was so certain that Mazer was alive: The team had succeeded in its mission. The plan was good. And if something had gone wrong, Mazer was the kind of resourceful, quick-thinking soldier who would see a way out and lead his men through it. Whether he was the commander or not.
That was what Bingwen had learned from watching Mazer Rackham. Mazer wasn’t the leader of the MOPs team. But the MOPs soldiers were trained to think for themselves and to listen to good ideas no matter whether they came from leaders, eight-year-old Chinese orphans who happened to be very, very good with computers, or a half-Maori New Zealander who had been rejected for MOPs training on the first go-round but who persisted until he practically forced his way onto the team.
Mazer Rackham was with the MOPs in China only because he was the kind of man who never, never, never gave up.
I’m going to be that kind of man, too, thought Bingwen.
I am that kind of man. I’m small, young, untrained as a soldier, and as a child I’m someone these men expect to protect but never listen to. But they never expected to listen to Mazer Rackham, either, never expected him to be one of them. I’m going to find him, and if he needs saving I’m going to save him, and then he can go back to taking care of me.
Bingwen had been watching the monitor with the rest of them, when the lens on the barracks roof showed the impossibly bright flare of the nuclear explosion, followed by the mushroom cloud. They all knew what it meant. The team consisting of Captain Wit O’Toole, Mazer Rackham, and Calinga had succeeded in piloting their Chinese drill sledges under the impenetrable shield that surrounded the lander, and then set off the nuclear device. If they had not reached their objective, they wouldn’t have set off the nuke.
But did they set it off as planned, with a timer that allowed them time to dive back into the earth on their drill sledges and get clear of the blast zone? Or did they set it off as a suicidal act of desperation, barely managing to do it as the Formics prevented them from getting away?
That was the uncertainty that filled the barracks now, six hours after the explosion. Should they wait for O’Toole, Calinga, and Rackham to return? Or should they assume they were dead and go forward to try to assess the effectiveness of the attack?
Bingwen would be useless on such a reconnaissance mission. His radiation suit had been designed for a small adult, which meant it hung on Bingwen’s eight-year-old frame like an oversized sleeping bag. He had scrunched up the arms and legs in order to reach the feet and gloves, but the accordion effect forced him to stand bowlegged and waddle when he walked. When it was time for the MOPs to leave the barracks, Bingwen would be left behind—and they would be right to leave him.
Meanwhile, though, Bingwen was useful for the only kind of recon that was possible right now—by radio and computer. All the MOPs were trained on all their hardware, and were very good at improvising with whatever was at hand. They had antennas on the roof as soon as the explosion was confirmed, as well as a small sat dish. Already they were getting confirmation from their own sources in faraway places that all Formic activity around the nuked lander had ceased.
What Bingwen was good for was monitoring the Chinese radio frequencies. As the only native speaker of the southern Chinese dialect and the best speaker of the official Mandarin tongue, Bingwen was the one most likely to make sense of the fragments of language they were picking up.
And even as he listened, he was using one of the holodesks they had found at this base to scan the available networks to see what was being said among the various Chinese military groups.
Anything official, any orders from central command, would be encoded. Anything not encoded was likely to be of the “What’s happening? Who set off that explosion? Was it nuclear?” variety—questions to which MOPs already knew the answers.
But Bingwen was deft at finding his way into computer networks that didn’t want to admit him. The computer he was using was in the office where official communiqués would have been received. The computer had been wiped before being abandoned, but it wasn’t a real wipe, it was just a superficial erasure. They had left in a hurry and who did they expect to come in after them? Formics—and Formics completely ignored human computers and other communications, that was well known. So the computer wipe had been cursory, and it had taken Bingwen only a few minutes to unwipe everything.
That meant that while Bingwen couldn’t possibly decode anything himself, the decoding software was in place, and after several false starts and reboots he had managed to get in using the password of a junior officer.
Unfortunately, the junior officer had been so junior that he was only able to decode fairly routine messages, which meant that Bingwen had to labor under the same restrictions. Routine encoded messages were still a huge step up from panicked queries and radio rumors, so while Bingwen continued to listen to the radio chatter that the MOPs operatives were locating for him, he opened message after message as each emerged from the decoding software.
Finally he found something useful. “Deen!” he called out.
Deen, an Englishman, was acting CO in O’Toole’s absence. Everyone knew Bingwen would not have called out to him for anything less than definitive information. So it wasn’t just Deen who came, it was everyone who was not actively engaged in an assignment at the moment.
Naturally, the computer message was in Chinese, so nobody could read over Bingwen’s shoulder. Still, he ran his fingers along the Pinyin text as he interpreted on the fly. “Two soldiers in MOPs uniforms,” said Bingwen. “Held at General Sima’s headquarters.”
“So the Chinese are taking them seriously,” said Lobo. “Sima’s the big guy.”
“Sima’s the guy who had absolutely no interest in cooperating with MOPs,” pointed out Cocktail.
“So they’re alive,” said Bolshakov, “but they’ve been taken to the guy who is most likely to resent their presence here.”
“Two soldiers,” said Deen. “Not three.”
They all knew that meant that either one of the team had been a casualty during the operation, or three had made it out alive but only two had been taken by the Chinese.
By now the decoder had spat out two more messages, and one of them was a follow-up that contained names. “Prisoners identified as O’Toole and Rackham,” said Bingwen.
“Have they contacted our people at all?” asked Deen. “Are there negotiations going on for release?”
Bingwen scanned the message. “No. Sima’s people are reporting that they have them, but nothing else. They’re not asking what to do with them, and they’re not reporting what they plan to do.”
“Sima wouldn’t ask anybody, and nobody would have the gall to make suggestions,” said Bolshakov. “Even at the highest levels of the civilian government, they tread lightly when they’re dealing with Sima.”
Silence for a few moments.
“Extraction would be a bad idea,” said Deen. “But all the other ideas I can think of are worse.”
“Even if we can figure out exactly where Sima’s base is, we won’t know how to get in,” said ZZ. “Or out again.”
“I just love winging it in the middle of foreign military bases,” said Lobo.
“And when we succeed in getting them out,” said Deen, “we will have alienated one of the most powerful men in the Chinese military, right when we ought to be getting credit for saving millions of Chinese lives.”
“I have an idea,” said Bingwen.
He waited for them to dismiss him, to tell him to be quiet, to remind him that he was a child. He expected this because it’s what adults always did. But they were MOPs. They listened to anybody who might have useful intelligence or offer alternative plans.
Bingwen began to type into a message window. He was writing in Pinyin, because that was his native language, but he translated as he went. “MOPs team headed by Captain Wit O’Toole gives all honor and thanks to glorious General Sima for providing MOPs with drilling sledges to carry MOPs nuclear device under Formic defenses.”
“We didn’t get the sledges from Sima,” said Cocktail.
“We got them in spite of his opposition, didn’t we?” said Bolshakov.
“Let the kid write in peace,” said Deen.
Bingwen was still typing, interpreting into English as he went. “All credit to glorious General Sima of People’s Liberation Army for coming up with plan to destroy Formic lander from inside. All thanks to him for allowing MOPs soldiers to have great honor of carrying out his plan using nuclear device General Sima requested. Proud to report complete success of nuclear venture. Surviving MOPs soldiers have returned to General Sima to report complete success of his brilliant and daring plan.”
“What a pack of crap,” said Bungy.
“Brilliant crap,” said Deen. “Crap that might get the Captain and Rackham out of jail.”
“This little orphan boy is playing international politics better than most grown-ups,” said Bolshakov. “Don’t ask Sima anything, don’t beg, don’t extract. Just give him all the credit and announce to everybody that our men are in his headquarters. He’s not going to deny any of this. We did this without his consent and it worked, but by giving him credit for it we take away all his embarrassment and give him every incentive to treat our guys like heroes.”
“I wrote it in Chinese because I know how to make it sound formal and proper,” said Bingwen. “But now I need somebody with better English to write it so it will sound right in the international version.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Deen and Bolshakov helped Bingwen make a credible sentence-by-sentence translation into credible English that sounded as if it might be the original from which Bingwen’s announcement had been translated. Meanwhile, ZZ and Cocktail came up with a recipient list that included high Chinese government offices, MOPs’ own headquarters, and news nets around the world. “One more thing,” said Deen. “Sign Captain O’Toole’s name to it.”
“He won’t like that,” said ZZ.
“He’ll love it, if it gets him away from the Chinese,” said Deen.
A few moments later, Deen reached down into the holodisplay and twisted send.
“If this doesn’t work,” said Cocktail, “we can still go in and kill a lot of people and drag our guys out like in an action movie.”
“What Cocktail is saying,” ZZ translated to Bingwen, “is that if this works, you saved a lot of people’s lives and got us out of a jam.”
What Bingwen was thinking was: Mazer wasn’t killed by the nuke or the Formics, and maybe I just saved him from the Chinese.
Copyright © 2014 by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston