In this short story from established sci-fi author Chi Hui, the human race dreams of flight against the wishes of aggressive, legalistic alien overlords
Any act of flight, departure from the ground, unanchored lift-off, or propulsion solely by pneumatic or rocket force is considered unlawful behavior.
- All parties found guilty of any act of flight will be executed; in addition, three human citizens will be selected at random, deemed guilty by arbitrary association, and executed.
- Selection precedence will be given to parties acquainted with the party guilty of unlawful behavior.
- Citizens holding immunity cards will be absolved of arbitrary selection, valid for one round of selection.
- Reported acts of flight, which result in the verification of the accused party having been engaged in unlawful behavior, are absolved by one immunity card, valid for one person during one round of selection.
—Declaration, Law of Flight
This was the last stop.
Lifting her pack, the girl stepped off the train. A box of instant noodles rattled in her small backpack. She was a little nervous, but also excited. If she were found out it would be fatal, and three innocent people would die as well. She stopped there, hesitated, and strode on.
It was a small town. She could easily see to the end of the main strip. Quietly, she asked a stranger cooling in the shade about a man who had moved there roughly two years earlier.
No, no, he hadn’t come here to marry. He came by himself.
Yes, he probably lives alone.
No, maybe not in the actual town, but he would have started out there.
Thanks anyways, I’d better ask someone else...
Yes, a man, over 30 who lives alone...
The conversations meandered like that until she finally got a likely address. But it was far—half a day on foot.
A ride? There were no rides out there. You could take a pedicab part of the way but had to walk the rest. The man lives in a valley, where he started a mushroom farm.
She managed to get clear directions and set off. The autumn air was dry and cool. Clouds of tawny dust rose from the dirt road. Her left foot trod inside the tire rut, and her dark jeans were stained with yellow earth.
“This is far,” she thought.
But an exiled leader of the old resistance would be living in a remote location, wouldn’t he? A smile crept over her face. She’d been searching for a long time. Young people, like her friends, always told stories about him: The only person to fly and live after the strange aliens conquered our homeland; he had fought for free skies, leading a massive uprising, then going into hiding after defeat... Would he ever take the youths flying again? They had wondered.
Her friends took the story for myth, but not her—she had discovered his whereabouts.
The girl’s legs were tired, so she sat on the ground and sipped from her canteen while watching the road. It stretched into a cluster of lush mountains where the trees were already starting to turn gold and red. The view was beautiful and she felt sorry that her friends would never have the chance to come see it.
It was just talk. Let’s go flying or whatever. Nobody thought the boys would actually build a glider. Then somebody reported it. She wasn’t involved, so avoided the catastrophe. A laser beam shot down from the sky and struck the boys. Their guts spilled from their bodies. It was horrible.
The boys’ acquaintances then waited in terror to see which three would be selected. She wasn’t chosen, but her little sister was.
The girl never saw her sister’s death. As soon as she heard the news, she started her journey. Anger burned inside her. She had no fixed partner or companion. All she had to cling to now was a myth and vague hope.
She put the cap back on her canteen, stood up, and marched on.
Let me find you, mythical resister. Guide me how to struggle against all this. Tell me how to fight this unnamed power in the sky.
She arrived in the valley at sunset.
A small, spotless white building was spewing smoke from its chimney, while framed by the doorway, a man chopped wood with an axe. He was wearing a T-shirt and gray sweatpants. A tight pattern of sweat beads had formed on his forehead and muscles tensed under his tanned skin. His cold jet-black eyes stayed focused on the swinging axe which split log after log after log...
The girl hesitated.
“Mr. Qin,” she called softly.
The man paused and looked up at the unexpected visitor.
“Excuse me,” she summoned her courage. “Excuse me, are you Mr. Qin Yiheng?”
“That’s me.” He wiped his brow with indifference. “What do you want?”
She waited for a while then said softly, “I want to fly, sir.”
He grimaced mockingly, “No, you don’t just want to fly. You want to fly and continue living, like me. Even after standing up to those sons of bitches,” he pointed to the sky. “You want to continue living, like me.”
The girl froze. This was not the conversation she had expected to have with him.
“Let me tell you why I’m here, little girl.” He walked over and stood in her face. She wanted to run, but her feet felt frozen to the ground.
“Listen,” his voice was deep, pulling her in like a whirlpool, “They captured many of us, myself included. But there were still others. They said if I told them where the others were, they would let me go. That’s why I’m here, still alive. I’m a traitor. I betrayed the resistance. I betrayed the men, the women, and the children; every single person who believed in me.” He bared his teeth and snarled, “Does that answer your question, little girl?”
She didn’t know how to answer, and he didn’t seem to need a response.
That night, she stayed in the farm’s guestroom. The man didn’t have a wife, but he hired an old lady to take care of the farm and other business for him. The girl shared a bed with the woman, whose unwashed teeth and garlic breath were foul. She tossed and turned all night.
The next morning, she left without saying goodbye, swearing she would never return to that place.
The girl returned to the city and married a man who worked for a small company. Sometimes they took the train or drove out of the city for a holiday. Life went on and flying rarely came up, except when they reminisced about how convenient airplanes had been. Later, they had a child and after that a courier came.
It came from the sky lords.
“Due to the recent uprising in America, 122 citizens have been found guilty by arbitrary association. I am here to regretfully inform you that you have been selected.” It said mechanically. This type of robot was used specifically to notify selected citizens of their execution. The sky lords weren’t unreasonable. They gave you at least an hour to get your affairs in order.
Her husband turned deathly pale, and the child, which still didn’t understand such things, drew into the father’s chest crying. The girl felt like she had been pulled out of her own body.
She had an hour.
“Wait!” she thought of something. It wasn’t much, but it was a chance. She grabbed the messenger’s cold mechanical arm, as though it were a stick that could save her from drowning, “If I report a crime, can I live?”
The messenger stopped. It seemed to be communicating with its masters.
“If unlawful behavior is verified, you will be pardoned,” it replied.
“I want to report,” she shouted, “I know a man who has an airplane at his house! He lives in the valley outside the town of Bailin, he has a mushroom farm...”
She didn’t know if he really had an airplane. It wasn’t likely, but it needed investigating and the longer the investigation took the longer she could live. Live longer...she could at least live a little while longer.
The messenger returned in less than an hour.
Her heart sunk.
“The unlawful act you reported has been verified,” the robot’s voice was still flat. “The criminal has been executed. You have been absolved and have spent your immunity allowance. Goodbye, madam.”
She stood there staring at nothing. She didn’t want to accept that he was dead and that she was left alive.
A voice in her head kept repeating one question: He really had an airplane?
She returned to the valley.
Her husband begged her not to and her child cried when she left, but her curious spirit was too strong, and once again she walked through the tawny dust clouds into the now deserted valley.
A month had passed since the mythical man’s death. His house was covered in dust and long blades of grass arched over the flagstones. The thriving, verdant color hurt her eyes.
In the backyard she found a stairway. Following the steps all the way up to the mountaintop, she saw a wide, flat piece of turf. Somebody must have leveled it. An airplane was parked in a crude shed at the far end of the lawn.
She walked over, felt the rough wings and handmade propeller. The glider looked like it was made with great care, and it was well maintained.
For a second, she felt the man standing next to her.
They were both traitors, both resisters, and both dead. What did he think about when he stood there: The people he had betrayed? The people who were selected because of him?
He must have been standing right about here.
She imagined the man’s gaze and followed it along a ridge that protruded into the vast mountain range. It was a smooth runway that dropped off into a deep valley. Falling from it, the wind would lift you up, and you would soar.