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Outside PAC Headquarters
Tuesday, February 13th, 2018, 1:50 am
“Tong’s gone; we’re ready to move,” Oliver reported.
“We need to give them a little more time in case they come back,” said Aaron.
They waited several minutes. At one point, a car passing from the base slowed as it neared. “That looks like Tong’s car,” said Sarah as it passed.
Oliver looked up from the computer to see the car. “I can’t tell. It’s too dark.”
“We’ll give them a little more time,” Aaron said.
They all were tense with anticipation. They waited in silence as the minutes ticked away. Finally, Aaron was ready and said, “Let’s go.”
All four got out of the car in a unison that was unusual for their group. Each of them carried a builder in one hand and a bag over a shoulder. The road was fairly deserted, for Beijing. The only business anybody would have on this particular road would almost necessarily involve the headquarters, which is why their presence had disturbed Tong when he passed them.
It was a beautiful night: cold, but beautiful. A slim crescent of the moon glowed in the sky. Stars filled the night with only a few patches of clouds. It was well below freezing. Fortunately for the team, there were only a few sparse patches of snow left from the last storm.
Each of the members was wearing a version of the PAC winter uniform. With their height and skin color, it was doubtful the disguise would help, but at the very least Aaron had said, ‘It could cause enough distraction to give us the upper hand.’ They all also wore PAC standard issue gloves, which were meant to allow for delicate work, like adjusting a scope.
The team also wore headsets. The headsets were both translators and wireless CBs. The transmissions were at the maximum encryption levels, which Sarah and Aaron both felt would be enough to keep their messages private, at least during their mission. They kept all four microphones on even though they were being silent.
On each side of the road was a dense grouping of trees. The trees were unnatural in their positioning. The location of the headquarters was on what used to be the Beijing version of a slum. After the area’s occupants were paid a fair market price to leave, the buildings in the area were demolished. Some room was placed between the headquarters and the city to provide a defensive buffer. In that space, these trees were planted at regular intervals. By 2018, the trees were all several feet taller than the team’s tallest member.
After walking a good distance into the trees, Aaron had them stop. They all donned headbands with lights on them. Each of them knew their job and performed it wordlessly. Jared stood in front of the group with Aaron to his left and Oliver to his right. Behind Jared was Sarah. They all pointed their builders forward and down.
Jared turned his builder on, causing the dirt before him to vanish, leaving only a growing triangular hole. He walked down into the hole he created with his builder at an almost 45-degree angle. As he walked, the other three created steel sides and a floor. It worked just as they had practiced so many times before. Both Oliver and Aaron created sides that were slightly angled up to the top. Sarah followed, creating a steel floor. Sarah also carried with her a pedometer that she turned on as they began to tunnel.
The design was simple. They had originally planned on creating a square tunnel with walls and a roof. When they tried it, the three steel sheets always shifted and fell inward. The triangle was not only easy to create, but it was more stable, especially when they applied weight above the tunnel.
Sarah, who watched the pedometer, said softly into her microphone, “20.” The pedometer indicated they had traveled almost 30 feet, which meant they were about twenty feet below ground.
Jared turned his builder up so that the tunnel would run parallel to the surface and straight towards the Headquarters. Oliver and Aaron both stopped briefly and continued leaving a small gap. Sarah stopped as well, but the gap in the floor she left was less than an inch wide. At the top of the tunnel, the gaps Aaron and Oliver left were similarly small, but the gap grew wider, compensating for the angle change.
The gaps were one of Jared’s major concerns. When they tested, even applying significant weight (their two cars) above the gaps, they discovered that except for a small amount of dirt, the tunnel kept its shape.
They had mapped the area carefully with photos, diagrams, blueprints, and even satellite imagery. The only structure they would attempt to tunnel under would be the outer wall. The wall was several feet thick but they expected its weight would be minimal and balanced well enough to keep them safe.
The steel was thick, but with the right amount of pressure they feared the tunnel would collapse, pushing the sides down to crush them. For this reason, they intended to surface just inside the wall, avoiding all the buildings. With the angle, they would have to reach the surface at least ten feet past the wall.
They walked, slowly, creating the tunnel until finally Sarah said, “500.”
They stopped again. This time they turned approximately ten degrees to the right. At this turn, there were gaps not only on the sides but also on the floor. They had planned the change of direction to help hide their escape route in case they were forced to escape the same way they had entered. This turn had also been proven weight worthy.
They continued on for a while until Sarah finally said, “Up.”
They went very slowly through the last portion. The last section was the most dangerous because they could not be sure what they would find or who they would find when they reached the top. It would be a pretty sad end if they tunneled up to a tank or building that crushed them. It would be equally sad if they tunneled into a squad of soldiers who killed them.
Oliver and Aaron had both commented during practice that going up was tough for them as well. If their steel did not keep up with Jared’s progress, the dirt would start to pour down, making their job even more difficult. Walking at that angle made the job even more complex.
Jared’s builder finally cut through, slowly revealing a flood of light that was blinding in comparison to the darkness they had just tunneled through. Jared was relieved to see the light because had it been a building they tunneled up and into, they would have almost certainly died.
Jared quickly finished the hole, staying well inside to prevent being seen. They all switched their builders to battle mode, then carefully stepped out. They were about twenty feet from the wall just as they had planned. They were also about one hundred feet from the nearest building. Even though the area was well lit, the area seemed deserted. When they were all out, Jared switched out of battle mode and covered the tunnel with several layers of steel. They all turned the lights on their headbands off.
They did not need a map to know where to go. They had all memorized the layout; even Jared had committed it to memory despite his mind’s obvious objections. Jared and Oliver had both been unwilling at first to commit time to memorizing the maps, but Sarah and Aaron insisted that the time they would spend fumbling with maps could cost them their lives.
The team walked casually so that they looked like they belonged. They stayed close to building sides to conceal themselves. They had to reach Peng’s computer first. Peng’s office was near the very center of the main building. Tong’s office was also in the main building but on the outside edge near where the team had entered.
It was likely that they all could be seen through cameras, but so far no alarm had been sounded, and they were all still happily alive. They had a jammer with them but would not use it unless, or really until, they were noticed. Aaron and Sarah had decided that Peng would have realized they used a jammer. If all the cameras suddenly went to static the two events would be linked.
They arrived at the main building’s western wall without incident. There were only a few entrances on the western wall, and they were all locked. They had hoped to find an unguarded door they could simply walk through.
They peeked out to the north and west sides, but both sides had soldiers. It was too much of a risk. They returned to one of the locked doors. As expected, it required biometric data. Fortunately, it was limited to a fingerprint, probably to allow quick access.
Sarah took out her thumb-pad faker. She held it up against the thumb-pad and pressed the button on its side to activate it. It did its trick, flashing light between the cube and thumb-pad then pushing itself out against her hand. The thumb-pad made a pleasant beeping sound, and the door clicked. Aaron pulled the door open, and they all quickly stepped in.
Aaron reminded them quietly, “We’re going to look strange with these gloves, so keep your hands out of sight.”
Jared thought, ‘Aren’t we going to look strange anyway?’ but he kept the thought to himself.
The floor plan of the building, which they had also been forced to memorize, was fairly simple. The closer to the center that person’s office was, the more prestige they had . . . or was it, the more prestige that official had the closer the office was to the center.
They headed directly to Peng’s office. Both sides of the hall were lined with alcoves at regular intervals. Inside the alcoves were doors with Chinese text. The hall they were in led to the main hallway where Peng’s office was. That was the most likely place for them to be seen. The portion of the main hallway they had to traverse was only about 50 feet. When they arrived at the main hall, Aaron ducked his head around the corner and looked left, then quickly pulled his head back. Aaron signaled them to back up. They were close to one of the doors, and all ducked back into its alcove. Aaron used his forefinger to signal for them to be silent, as if they had forgotten.
They waited. After several seconds, they heard at least two sets of feet pass by their hall as the feet walked on through the main hall. Aaron let out a breath as if he had been holding it the entire time. He signaled for them to stay with a quick motion of his forefinger pointing down to the floor.
Aaron stepped out toward the main hall and looked down the right side of the hall where the owners of the passing feet had just walked. He then looked down the right and whispered, “OK.” The whisper was so soft that despite the small distance he was from them, they could only hear him through the headsets.
They quickly walked into the hall and straight to Peng’s office. The doorway to his anti-chamber, where the receptionist sat, held no door. They quickly went through the doorway and opened the door to Peng’s office. Once the door was closed, they spoke softly.
“It’s so small,” said Oliver referring to the office.
Aaron asked, “What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know, definitely something bigger than this.”
Despite his interest in the room, Oliver went directly to the computer. The computer was softly humming and the power light on the dark monitor was a dim yellow. Oliver shook the mouse, and the screen immediately came to life.
Oliver’s jaw dropped. “He didn’t log off!”
The others walked behind Oliver. The screen showed the general’s desktop without so much as a password prompt.
Aaron said, “I guess they don’t expect the need for it.”
Oliver took out a USB drive and plugged it into the computer. Oliver opened a file from the drive and copied its contents into the clipboard. Next, he found Peng’s e-mail application and created a new message. He pasted the Chinese characters that he had copied from the clipboard. Oliver opened another file from the drive, copied a line of Chinese text, and then pasted it into the message’s subject line. Under the text Oliver had copied was a long list of e-mail addresses separated by commas. He copied all of the addresses and pasted them into the recipient field. Oliver also attached a file from the USB drive to the message.
“OK, it’s ready. Am I forgetting anything?”
Jared said, “No.”
After a pause Aaron said, “Send it.”
Oliver clicked the send button, and it was done. They all headed out of Peng’s office. They walked quickly through Peng’s reception area and into the alcove. Like before, Aaron looked down both sides of the main hall. This time both sides were empty. They needed to follow the main hall north to another side hall that had Tong’s office at its end.
They passed a few side halls as they went. With each one, Aaron looked down and then signaled it was empty. With the toughest area clear, Jared felt like he should not worry. If they had got that far surely nothing would go wrong. Still, a feeling irritated him like a rash that you cannot reach and cannot relieve.
Finally, they arrived at the turn for Tong’s hall. The side hall met the main hall from the West forming a three-way intersection. Like all the halls before, Aaron peeked out into the hall. Unlike before, he pulled his head back as quickly as if it had been on a spring pulled to its limit. Jared felt his muscles clench with panic. Something was wrong.
Through the headset came a shout translated to say, “STOP!”
Aaron said, “Time to play turtle.”
The sound of running footsteps in the side hall started heading towards them. They all got into position, just as they had practiced so many times before. Aaron faced west, Sarah faced south, Jared faced east, and Oliver faced north. Their builders all clicked on, creating an invisible wall of particle manipulation. It was like a ballet to them, even Oliver and Jared. Their bodies were trained to do this as instinct, as second nature. All the hesitation was gone: this was war. In unison, they moved north holding the formation.
The guards’ footsteps stopped the moment the colonists came into view. When Aaron was in the very middle of the hall the translated voice said, “STOP! STOP OR WE’LL SHOOT.”
They began walking in formation west, toward the office. There were four soldiers standing twenty feet down the hall. All of the soldiers had QBZ-95 assault rifles. Jared wondered what the Chinese soldiers thought of the builders. Builders did not look like weapons; they looked in a way more like some kind of exotic cocktail maker. Still, the soldiers had recognized that they did not belong. The soldiers would have to assume they were stupid, crazy, or prepared. The last of the options was too risky to overlook, so it was very probable they would open fire.
After all four of them had entered the side hall and left the main hall one of the soldiers said, “Shoot!”
The noise of the rifles was deafening. It was like being inside a metal trash bin and having it hit by several metal bats from the outside. Oliver and Jared both winced from the pain and shock of the noise. Sarah and Aaron seemed oblivious to it. After several rounds had been fired, one of the soldiers shouted. The translators failed to make any sense of the words, probably because of all the sounds that were filling the hall. Suddenly another noise pierced their eardrums. This time it was an alarm. The high-pitch sound of the alarm was easily heard over the gunfire.
All of the bullets were stopped by the invisible wall Aaron’s builder was making. The soldiers continued to fire at them. The soldiers tried to find a weakness, shooting towards all parts of their bodies. Aaron’s builder made a beeping noise. The four soldiers disappeared into a brief fog and then a clear nothingness as Aaron’s wall rushed forward, turning the soldiers all into harmless air.
Despite the absence of Chinese soldiers, the team continued to walk, with their builders on, in formation. It would only be a matter of time before more soldiers found them. Halfway to Tong’s office the sound of soldiers shouting and heavy footsteps were heard in the main hall. Within only a few seconds, the new set of soldiers appeared at the intersection. There were more soldiers this time, and their numbers continued to grow. There was no hesitation; the soldiers fired the moment they could. The bullets disappeared as they hit Jared’s wall.
Jared wondered if he should move his wall forward and kill the soldiers, but he decided not to. Mostly because he did not want to; even if he did, others would just replace them. Jared wondered why Aaron had killed the first four soldiers. It was probably just because they were a threat. On the other hand, those soldiers were in the way of the office, so it was inevitable that they would be killed.
They continued walking toward Tong’s office. Jared half-expected Aaron to order him to kill the soldiers, Aaron remained silent, though.
Jared could see the faces of the soldiers as he walked backwards. They were young faces, surely as young as Keith and Carmen, just kids really. They were all men or boys, really. Sure, they were probably in their late teens and early twenties, but to Jared they were kids. The soldiers were kids that should have been in a college partying rather than fighting for a totalitarian state. One of the soldiers wore a small button on his upper chest. It had a Chinese phrase on it which Jared imagined said something like, “Hugs > Guns” or “Love not War.” Another of the soldiers had a colorful ribbon on his right arm.
A shout came from the main hall, and the soldiers charged at them. There were at least a dozen soldiers running toward Jared. They had stopped shouting but still held their guns forward as if they were going to cut the team with their guns. Like its predecessor the AK-47, the QBZ-95 had no bayonet. Jared knew a bayonet would not help them but imagined it would seem more useful than the naked muzzle of the QBZ-95.
The soldiers did not slow their charge when they arrived at the invisible wall. A part of Jared whispered to him, ‘Turn it off; they’re just kids.’ Jared could not though; he could not let down his team even if it meant the death of these utter strangers, these strangers who would have their own mothers, fathers, friends, and in some cases wives and even children.
The first of the soldiers arrived several seconds before his peers. Jared imagined the boy had been a cross country star in high school. The soldier’s gun muzzle disappeared as it hit the wall. The soldier didn’t even notice the gun’s unusual look as he stepped forward. As his left hand, which was further up on the rifle, disappeared the soldier’s eyes grew wide. He continued running into the wall, both hands gone now. The soldier began to scream in pain. Jared wanted to cry right there from that sound. It was the sound of pain, the sound of a child being hurt. The boy tried to stop, but he could not. Inertia did the rest of him in. As his face disappeared so did the scream. All that was left of the boy was a few scraps of clothing that had their inertia trumped by gravity.
Jared looked at the other soldiers as they continued to run. They all had blank looks on their faces. They were confused, but not so confused they would disobey their orders.
Three of the soldiers reached the wall at the same time and met the same exact fate as the first soldier. The screams, though, the screams seemed so much more intense having been tripled. The eight or so soldiers that remained still ran forward despite whatever their minds made of the first soldiers’ fates.
Jared could not let it go on like that. Jared pushed the wall forward causing the builder to make the same noise Aaron’s had only a minute or two ago. The wall rushed forward and the rest of the charging soldiers, as well as the scant remains of the first four, were gone. Their bodies converted into air. They were not gone, though, they were dead and it tore at Jared’s heart. He would not have minded killing either of the generals. The generals knew what they were doing, but these soldiers were just kids following orders. Jared could not imagine that any of them fully understood what happened, even at their very last seconds of life.
The wall retracted. More soldiers appeared at the intersection. They had shields that looked like they would stop bullets. Bullets were the least of those soldiers’ worries, Jared thought.
As the soldiers organized, the team arrived at Tong’s office. Aaron said, “You three, quickly turn your builders off and get in. I’ll hold them back. You know what to do.”
Without question, all three of them turned their builders off and ran in. Aaron turned and backed partially into the alcove.
This was it, the moment of truth. The mission’s success would depend on the actions of the team in the next few minutes.
Copyright (C) 1998-2001 East Coast Games, Inc. and 2001 - 2006 Forest J. Handford