Chapter 5

village

Fèirén! Stupid boy!” Li Hsu shouted at his son in the cramped confines of their shack. “What will it take to get reason into that thick skull of yours? You know to be home before dusk. Now look what you’ve done.”

“But father-” Li Chen began, a bloody rag tied around his head.

Li Hsu cut him off with an angry wave of his hand. “I don’t want to hear your excuses. All I ever hear from you is excuses. It is never your fault. Is that what you are going to tell Jee Hae’s parents?”

Li Chen cast his despondent eyes down at the dirt floor.

“Look at me, boy. Li Chen!” Li Chen grudgingly met his father’s wild stare. “Did the soldiers ask your name?”

“No, father.”

“So they don’t know who you are?”

Li Chen hesitated. “I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean, you don’t think so? Either you gave them your name or you didn’t.”

“Why is that important?” Li Chen asked, exasperated.

“Because they may believe you to be a partisan. You were out after curfew along those damn tracks. I told you to stay away from them,” Li Hsu chastised with an accusing finger. “They might think you were planning sabotage.”

Li Chen squinted in puzzlement. “If they thought I was a partisan, why would they let me go?”

“For you to lead them to your partners.” Li Hsu flinched. “Did anyone follow you back here?”

Li Chen instinctively looked over his shoulder. “Not that I saw.”

Li Hsu shoved the boy, regaining his attention. “You had better hope no one did, dāiguā. You could have drawn suspicion on this entire village. Do you know what the Japanese do to villages that they suspect support partisans? They slaughter them.” Li Hsu pretended to slit his throat with his index finger. “Every man, woman and child. Then they burn it to the ground. You could have killed us all.”

“I’m sorry.” Li Hsu waived off Li Chen even as his son pleaded with him. “But father, you have to help me get her back.”

“I am not risking my life over your foolishness. And you’d best get such thoughts out of your head.” Li Hsu’s face was grim as he continued, “If you’re lucky, they killed her. There are worse fates.”

“No, father. You are wrong. She is alive.”

“She is dead and you are responsible for killing her.”

Ni bú shì rén!” Li Chen threw a punch at his father. Li Hsu dodged the blow and threw his son against the wall. Li Chen slumped to the floor, weeping.

Wōnang fèi. Be happy the Japanese took no interest in you. You could have suffered worse.” He bent over and slapped Li Chen’s wounded forehead, making the boy cringe. “They make a game of chopping off heads. Maybe they saw how little yours was worth.”

“You have to help me save her, father,” Li Chen whispered in a plaintive plea. “She’s alive.”

“You’d best stop thinking that, Li Chen. Hope is one thing you can never afford.”

A rapping at the door drew their attention. Li Hsu gave Li Chen an accusatory frown before he went to see who waited. Li Hsu tensed as he gripped the latch, sucking in and holding a tremulous breath in his lungs. He put his ear to the split wood, straining to discern who waited on the other side. “Who is it?” He was answered with more rapping, his head jerking back at the sound.

Biting his lip, Li Hsu pulled the latch.

When he opened the door he saw Hong Jin Bao, Li Chen’s fat friend, waiting outside. The boy nervously wrung his hands while staring wide-eyed at Li Hsu. Li Hsu noticeably relaxed at the sight of the pudgy boy. “What do you want?”

“I’ve come to see Li Chen,” Hong Jin Bao mumbled, trying to look past Li Hsu into the shack. “Is he alright?”

Li Hsu moved to block Hong Jin Bao’s view. “Shouldn’t you be in the fields with your father?” Hong Jin Bao pursed his thick lips as he bowed his head and kicked at the dirt. “What are you now? A mule?” The boy remained quiet. Li Hsu gripped the boy’s arm and shook him violently. “I asked you a question.”

“I must speak with Li Chen,” Hong Jin Bao stuttered. His bladder loosened and he wet himself in fear.

Li Hsu let the boy go in disgust. “What is this about?” he demanded. Hong Jin Bao did not answer, prompting a derogatory sneer from Li Hsu. “The only way you are speaking to Li Chen is through me. So, speak up. Speak!” Hong Jin Bao cringed at Li Hsu’s shriek.

Li Chen jumped to his feet and darted past his father, knocking the man aside as he lunged out the door, grabbing Hong Jin Bao by the sleeve dragging him along behind him.

“Damnit, Li Chen! Get back here!” Li Hsu hurried out the door, yelling after his son. “Li Chen!”

Li Chen and Hong Jin Bao ran through the village streets until they no longer heard Li Hsu’s screaming, kicking up clouds of dust as they went. They frightened a horse at an intersection with their passing, the creature rearing up into the air with forelegs kicking, upsetting the load it had been carrying and causing its owner to shout curses at the two boys. The pair rushed on, dodging and maneuvering through the many villagers littering the road, the ramshackle buildings of the village blurring by. Hong Jin Bao stumbled over the town drunk in their mad dash, and only Li Chen’s grip kept the boy upright while the snoring inebriant remained oblivious to being trampled.

“Can we stop?” Hong Jin Bao huffed, his face mottled and his feet starting to drag. The two slowed to a trot and soon stopped. They found themselves on the outskirts of the village, the rolling plains unfolding in front of them. Hong Jin Bao bent over, sucking wind thirstily, making his belly ripple like jelly. “Your father…didn’t take the news well?”

Li Chen shook his head. “No, he didn’t.”

“I told you…to wait a few days…before going home.” Hong Jin Bao straightened after a deep breath. “He’d start to worry and then be so happy to see you he wouldn’t ask questions.”

“I don’t think my father would miss me,” Li Chen cynically countered.

Hong Jin Bao nodded. “So he’s not going to help?”

“He thinks Jee Hae’s already dead.”

“Maybe you could speak to Jee Hae’s parents -”

“No,” Li Chen solemnly replied. “I can’t face them.”

Hong Jin Bao shrugged. “I guess that’s that then.”

Li Chen’s head snapped up at that. “No, it’s not.”

“What do you mean?” Li Chen gave Hong Jin Bao a sidelong look. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to get Jee Hae back – with or without my father.”

“That’s crazy, Li Chen! Do you know what the Japanese will do to us? We’re just kids.”

Li Chen turned away. “Now you’re beginning to sound like my father.”

Hong Jin Bao sidled up to Li Chen and wrapped a flabby arm around his companion. “We aren’t warriors, Li Chen. We can’t just rush in and save her. They have guns, guns with more bullets than stars in the sky, and I make an easy target.” Hong Jin Bao slapped his ample gut.

Li Chen shrugged him off. “I’ll find a way.”

“They really must have cracked your skull if you believe that.”

Li Chen put his hands on his hips and looked out across the countryside. “Do you know where they took her?”

Hong Jin Bao’s eyes wandered while he fiddled with the sleeve of his tunic. “Maybe.”

Li Chen turned and punched Hong Jin Bao in the arm when the boy didn’t prove forthcoming. “Well?”

“Okay, okay.” Hong Jin Bao rubbed his sore shoulder. “There is this facility the Japanese take prisoners to near Beiyinhe. They call it Zhongma.”

“A prison?”

“I don’t think so. The Japanese claim it’s a lumberyard, but no one believes them. My uncle helped construct it. The Japanese made him wear a basket on his head so he couldn’t see much of what he was building.” Hong Jin Bao mimed blindness, stumbling about.

“Why?”

“My uncle thinks the Japanese are hiding something. He’s been back there once since they finished the construction. He said a foul smoke comes from the place and he heard screams. He talks about it as if there were Oni inside.”

“Why do you think this is the place?”

“You said you heard the soldiers talking about General Ishii. My uncle remembered hearing that name while he was helping with the construction.”

Li Chen nodded. “Do you know where this facility is?”

“I don’t think I want any part of this.” Hong Jin Bao began to walk away, only for Li Chen to seize his tunic. “Let go.”

“You have to show me where it is.”

“I have to eat. I have to sleep. I don’t have to die. At least not yet.”

“You’ll die one day.”

“Okay, I don’t want to die,” Hong Jin Bao clarified sarcastically.

“You will take me.”

“It’s just one girl, Li Chen. There are many more. You can have my sister. She has nice breasts. I’ve seen them.”

Sāohuò, I don’t want your sister. I want Jee Hae.”

“Good luck with that.” Hong Jin Bao managed to pull free and Li Chen pushed him to the ground.

“You will take me,” Li Chen stated darkly, looming over Hong Jin Bao.

“I will not.” Li Chen kicked Hong Jin Bao in the stomach, surprising his friend. “What is wrong with you?”

“You have to help me.”

“Hit me all you want. I’ve got enough fat to protect me.”

Li Chen beat Hong Jin Bao, forcing the fat boy to curl into a ball. Li Chen continued to pummel him until his fists hurt. Sweating and exhausted, Li Chen cursed his friend. “My father is right. You are a mule.” He sunk down next to Hong Jin Bao and was silent for a time. “Don’t you care about Jee Hae?” he finally asked, glancing over at his pal. “She is your friend, too.”

“I care.” Hong Jin Bao sat up. “But what if we get caught?”

“We won’t get caught.”
“Jee Hae did.”

“Well…”

Hong Jin Bao glanced over at Li Chen. “Yeah?”

“Well, I have a plan this time,” Li Chen answered impetuously.

“Which is?”

“If the Japanese discover us -”

“Yeah?”

“We run.”

Hong Jin Bao scrunched his nose. “That’s it?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t have a better plan?” Hong Jin Bao needled.

“Do you?”

Hong Jin Bao sighed, brushing the grass off his tunic. “Not really.”

Li Chen motioned to the east. “Can we go now?”

Hong Jin Bao sighed, realizing there was no way of dissuading his friend from his foolish quest. All Hong Jin Bao could do was tag along and hope to keep Li Chen out of trouble. “Okay,” he relented. “But first I have to do something.”

“What’s that?”

“Pray to the Cheng Huang.” Hong Jin Bao looked skyward. “We’re gonna need all the help we can get.”

***

Sitting on the edge of her squeaking cot, Jee Hae fidgeted. She rubbed the ridges of her jade comb for solace, her leg bouncing nervously beneath her as she glanced around the small room. The windowless cell she occupied was no larger than eight by twelve feet with a clean, wooden floor, a flush toilet, and a steel door with a slot cut into it. A cool breeze blew from a vent in the rear wall, ruffling her silken hair and keeping the cell’s temperature at a comfortable level. The luxury had confounded her when she first encountered it, believing the strange wind to be kuei haunting her room. Even now she slapped at her forehead embarrassed by her ignorance.

The cell was illuminated from above by twin bulbs dangling in a lantern. The buzzing lights were Jee Hae’s first brush with electricity and had held her spellbound upon first sight. Succumbing to curiosity, she had climbed atop her cot for a better look and burned her fingers by touching the light bulb within. She was later chastised by Japanese staff for her behavior and warned not to make such attempts again. When evening came, the lights were shut off to allow her to sleep, though slumber proved elusive with worries of what was to come. Yet, despite the horrors she had heard of Japanese captivity, the cell was far better outfitted than even the best dwelling in her village. Who would keep prisoners in such lavish surroundings?

She wasn’t sure where she was or why she had been brought here. Nothing had been asked of her nor explained. After being seized by the Japanese near the train tracks, they had put a sack over her head to prevent her from observing her surroundings while she was transported. They had only removed the sack upon arrival at the facility, which consisted of hundreds of buildings.

Jee Hae had been forcibly escorted into a block house, down a corridor and into her present cell. A medical technician paid her a visit shortly thereafter recording her height, weight and age, then asked her a strange series of questions regarding her parents and relatives. Though originally scared, her fear had greatly abated after the first day. She had been terrified the soldiers had arrested her, assumed she was a spy. Surely torture awaited her, if the accounts of local villagers were true. But instead of punishment, she received three meals a day and had been left largely unmolested save for the medical technician who came every day, asking her to extend her arm through the slot so that he could draw blood.

“To check for typhus,” he had told her to assuage her doubts.

Reclining on her cot, she wondered why she had been brought here if not for torture and interrogation. More importantly, when could she return home? Her meandering thoughts soon passed to Li Chen. Jee Hae hoped he was alright. Perhaps he was in one of the other cells.

Jee Hae was startled out of her daydreams by the clank of the slot being withdrawn in her door. A pair of almond eyes peered in, wrinkling mischievously as the voyeur smiled at the sight of her. She quickly sat up as the slot was replaced with a clack and the bolt withdrawn. Jee Hae hid the jade comb in her blouse as the steel door yawned open. Corporal Shinichiro Tanaka stood in the entrance. He was a short, squat, repugnant man with the face of a blow fish and the bowed legs of an ape. The way he looked at her made Jee Hae feel uncomfortable.

“Have you come to interrogate me?” she asked, pulling her blouse tighter around her.

Entering the cell, Tanaka slammed the door behind him, making Jee Hae jump. He turned and backhanded her across the face, the blow so hard she partially blacked out. As she blinked back into consciousness, she felt Tanaka tugging at her blouse.

“No,” she pleaded, feebly realizing what he intended, only to receive another blow to the head. Tanaka soon overpowered her, pushing her down on the cot and ripping open her shirt before stripping off her pants and tossing them aside. His hands were all over her, roughly groping her body while his swollen, purple lips suckled at her neck. The more she fought, the more he slapped her until, tired of her struggling, he flipped her over and forced her face into the pillow so that he wouldn’t have to listen to her muffled screams as he penetrated her.

When Tanaka was through, he rose and buttoned his pants while she curled up into the fetal position, weeping weakly after being violated. Tanaka leered at the sight of the shattered, degraded girl. “What are you upset about? Do you know you cost me a day’s pay?” He snickered with malice. “But the ro guard’s price was worth it. You were as sweet as anmistu. The girls back home could learn a thing or two from you.” When she didn’t reply, Tanaka took a knee so he could be at eye level with Jee Hae. Listening to her choking sobs, he remarked, “You must think me so evil. Let me tell you something. When Ishiguro is through with you, you’ll look fondly on our time together.”

Tanaka rose to leave. Opening the door, he noticed Jee Hae reach for something out of the corner of his eye. “What is this?” he asked, whirling around and snatching at what she held. She fought to keep it from him, jumping from the cot and scratching viciously at his face, only to be forcibly driven against the wall. The wind knocked out of her, she went limp and slid to the floor. Tanaka shook his head at her brash behavior and inspected what she had been concealing. “A jade comb. How did a peasant like you come to possess a treasure like this?”

“Please give it back,” she begged.

“I think not,” Tanaka coldly replied. “I think I’ll keep it for my collection. Something to remember you by.” He left her in a crumpled heap on the floor of her cell. As he strode down the corridor, he admired his new treasure and the tainted memory forever attached to it.

***

Li Chen and Hong Jin Bao trekked through the dense forest, snatches of anemic moonlight streaming through the bloated boughs, granting only a vague sense of the world around them. The sweet scent of larches was thick and overpowering. Hong Jin Bao repeatedly stumbled through the underbrush, breathlessly cursing every god he could conjure. The sound of snapping branches was as loud as falling timber in Li Chen’s ears.

“Must you make so much noise, mule?” Li Chen quietly reprimanded, grabbing a switch from a nearby tree and lashing Hong Jin Bao’s backside, the boy rearing up in surprise. “We don’t want the Japanese to hear us coming.”

Hong Jin Bao rubbed his sore rump. “Do not blame me. It’s dark and I can’t see anything.”

“That’s no excuse,” Li Chen retorted with a wagging finger. “Is it much further?”

Hong Jin Bao gestured to the east. “It should be just ahead. If we’re not lost, that is.”

“Come on,” Li Chen ordered.

The two boys continued through the wood in search of the Japanese installation, Hong Jin Bao much more cautious as to where he placed his feet. In time, the trees began to thin, the forest giving way to a clearing shrouded in fog. Before them were the ancestral lands of the secluded village of Beiyinhe, long since burnt down by invading Imperial forces. Zhongma Fortress sat on its ashes, a series of ghostly buildings encircled by a black moat surrounded by three meter high earthen walls, and crowned by wire fencing with watchtowers spaced around the perimeter. Searchlights strafed the grounds, looking like shining beacons in the mist.

Li Chen knelt in the tall grass just beyond the wood line. Hong Jin Bao remained standing, staring in awe at the fortress. Li Chen pulled him to the ground.

Hong Jin Bao turned to his friend. “I showed you where it was. So now what?”

“Now we find a way inside.”

“What?” Hong Jin Bao yelped, Li Chen quickly covering the fat boy’s mouth.

“Be quiet,” Li Chen hissed. Hong Jin Bao nodded and Li Chen removed his hand.

“Are you crazy?” Hong Jin Bao rasped.

“I have to find Jee Hae.”

“How do you expect to do that?”

“I don’t know,” Li Chen admitted, shaking his head. “I guess I have to figure something out.”

As Li Chen went to leave, Hong Jin Bao grabbed his arm. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Li Chen shook his arm free of Hong Jin Bao’s grasp. “Will you just come on?”

The pair crawled through the wet grass toward the fortress. Hong Jin Bao’s eyes darted about in search of a shadowy patrol ready to pounce on them. Surely someone must have heard the rustling they made, yet no one appeared in the haze. It was slow progress through the clearing, the two boys pausing every time a search light passed by. They soon reached the earthen wall. Li Chen scooted up the embankment while Hong Jin Bao struggled, slipping repeatedly down its muddy face. Li Chen stared through the fence at the buildings beyond.

“What do you see?” Hong Jin Bao whispered from below.

“Just a lot of buildings.” Li Chen leaned forward for a better look.

“Hey.” Hong Jin Bao grabbed a clump of mud and threw it, hitting Li Chen in the side of the head.

Li Chen angrily wiped the mess off his cheek. “What did you do that for?”

“Don’t touch the fence.”

A look of puzzlement twisted Li Chen’s glare. “What? Why?”

“It might be electrified.”

Li Chen’s hand jerked back from the fence. Unsure of the danger, he spit on the chain links, the saliva sparking off the metal. “Whoa,” he breathed.

“What do we do now?”

Li Chen’s eyes followed the length of fence. “There has to be a way in there.”

“Yeah, it’s the front gate and I’m not going anywhere near there.” Suddenly a siren went off, the claxon whining loudly in the night. “What did you do?” Hong Jin Bao screamed.

Li Chen put his hands up in innocence. “I didn’t do anything.”

The installation came to life, lights blazing throughout the compound. The sirens shook the earth as they wailed louder, piercing their ears. Through the din, the shouts of Japanese soldiers reached the boys from the watchtowers above.

“We must run!”

Li Chen made to jump down, only to stop when a series of figures came into view within the installation. “Wait. It’s not us they’re after.”

The search lights reversed and began roaming the inner courtyard. Li Chen saw forty figures sprinting away from the inner buildings, straight toward him. Their gait was awkward and shambling. He soon discovered why – their legs were shackled together. Gunshots cracked behind the escapees, half a dozen dropping wounded. The rest kept going, running for all they were worth, before diving into the moat and wading frantically across.

A rustling to Li Chen’s rear caused him to turn around. Hong Jin Bao was scurrying back toward the wood line. “Hong Jin Bao!” he yelled as his friend abandoned him. “Jiànhuò!”

The clinking of chains brought Li Chen’s attention back to the escapees. Their number had dwindled to twenty-four. He spied a platoon of Japanese troops rushing after them, the soldiers quickly gaining on their hobbling prey. The escapees dispersed in all directions, hoping some might evade capture. One ran straight for Li Chen’s position, heaving through his frothy mouth. He stumbled, but quickly got back to his feet. Gun shots kicked up the dirt around him. When the escapee saw Li Chen, he doubled his speed.

“Wait!” Li Chen yelled as the prisoner dashed for the fence. Before he could warn the escapee, the man had grabbed the fence. He spasmed violently before going rigid, his eyes rolling back into his head. The smell of burning meat fouled Li Chen’s nose, forcing him to cover his nostrils. He coughed and heaved, turning away from the prisoner’s death throes. Once they were within range, the Japanese soldiers fired at the prisoner, shooting him repeatedly until he dropped. When the escapee fell, they saw Li Chen.

“Get him!” one of the soldiers ordered.

A bullet whizzed by Li Chen’s ear. The boy instinctively jerked back and rolled down the embankment to escape further fire. The searchlights ventured beyond the fence, one beam finding him in its blinding sight. At the sound of dogs barking, Li Chen leapt to his feet and made for the forest.

Gunshots continued to whiz by Li Chen, some from pursuing soldiers, others from the watchtowers. Machine guns sliced through the grass, churning up the soil and terrifying the boy. He darted left and right to try to make himself a difficult target. He did not allow himself any respite, pushing his legs for every bit of speed they could give, even as they burned and trembled. Just as the safety of the wood line approached, a bullet tore into his back, erupting through his chest. Li Chen tumbled to the ground, the wind knocked out of him. Despite the seriousness of his injury, the adrenaline numbed him to the pain. He picked himself back up and managed to stagger into the forest, the Japanese in hot pursuit.

***

The laelap drifted through the forest, the crimson rays of dawn glinting off its emerald alloy body. The mech paused every so often to scan its surroundings. Something in its latest scan caused it to shift course. It flew toward a set point, weaving through the trees and gliding over the foliage until it happened upon Li Chen. The boy was pale, bloody bubbles on his lips. He wheezed painfully.

The laelap floated closer to Li Chen’s unconscious form. The jade silhouette fuzzily emerged and engulfed the mech. It bent down, placing a holographic hand on the boy’s chest to perform an internal reading of Li Chen’s vital functions. When it was through, the silhouette dissolved and the laelap hovered over the boy’s chest. The mech secreted a metallic film like mercury from its shell. When it had reached a certain consistency, the fluid dripped onto Li Chen’s body. There it lay like a silver puddle until the last drop had fallen from the laelap’s alloy skin.

The liquid started to ripple and slide across his flesh, oozing across the boy’s chest toward the gunshot wound. When it reached the bloody tissue, it flowed into the hole and was absorbed. Within minutes, the wound began to seal, the muscle and skin knitting itself back together with miraculous speed. The boy’s once ragged breathing deepened and Li Chen’s pale flesh regained color. His eyes flitted open and he saw the laelap shimmering above him.

Xiao,” Li Chen murmured.

Li Chen’s wonder was quickly forgotten. He doubled over in pain as his body cramped, every muscle coiled so tight they threatened to tear free from the bone. Seizures followed, accompanied by a blistering fever. He gritted his teeth so hard they began to crack. The increasing pressures in his skull lead to the capillaries in his eyes hemorrhaging, staining the whites scarlet. The laelap watched emotionlessly as the boy writhed beneath it.

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