Chinese military bases are not the easiest of places to wander into when you are not a part of the Chinese military (or a defense contractor, or a government official, or really anyone who has any business being on a military base at all).
“Well, at least we know why they went radio silent,” Val said checking the ignition of the staff car that was parked in the center of the road.
“I’m not sure ‘they all just up and left’ counts as knowing much about what’s going on here,” Sarah said.
They were standing on a road that was empty of anything except themselves and a few oddly parked cars, in a base which was empty of anything except themselves and a reasonable amount of military hardware, weapons and other materiel, just outside a very small town, which was also notably empty of any other people.
“I feel like we’re on a movie set after shooting is done for the day,” Connie said, holding a pair of rifles that had been left haphazardly on the ground. “Except these aren’t filled with blanks.”
“JB and I are discussing matters with our contact in Beijing,” Anna said over their earbud comms. “Keep us informed what you find there.”
“So far we’re finding a great, big, frightening amount of nothing,” Val said. She knew what military bases should look like. A Chinese base wasn’t the same as an American one, but there were certain inevitable similarities in any modern armed force. From little things like the need to keep weapons secure and well cared for, to somewhat more significant elements like the need for actual soldiers to be present on the base itself.
“I’m not seeing any radiation issues there,” Tam said over their earbuds. “And their systems don’t have any records to suggest health problems in the area.”
“So no nuclear or biological weapons then,” Sarah said. “That’s comforting at least.”
She pulled her hat tighter onto her head. It was a baseball cap with a TV station logo on the front. Perfect for pretending to be a foreign reporter looking to do a slice of life story. It wasn’t the best role Sarah had ever put together but on short notice it was the strongest she could assemble the right documentation and support to back up.
Her special passport and letter of introduction however were somewhat wasted since there didn’t seem to be anyone in a fifty mile radius to show them to.
“It’s great to know what didn’t happen here, but I’d feel a lot more comfortable if we had any idea what actually did,” Val said.
“Should we split up to search the place?” Connie asked. She was used to working alone since most people couldn’t keep up with her when things got really tough. In the catacombs in the Peruvian Andes, she’d already seen that wasn’t the case with Val, but Sarah’s level of physical aptitude remained to be seen.
“Nope,” Val said. “We don’t know what’s going on, and the last thing you do when things get weird is split up.”
“Agreed,” Sarah said, scanning the buildings around them. “There’s probably not any supernatural predators lurking in the shadows here, given the lack of ley lines, but ‘probably not’ and ‘definitely not’ are very different things.”
“Point taken,” Connie said, though a part of her was feeling eager to tangle with whatever might come leaping out of the dark interiors of the buildings. Another, far more sensible part of her, remembered that whatever it might be, it had taken out an entire army base and a small town. Encounters like that, her sensible side told her, were ones to avoid if one wished to publish papers in any state other than posthumously.
“Our governmental contact is being patched into this audio and the video feed from your headset Val,” Anna said. “They have agreed to allow you to continue the immediate investigation and are assembling a task force to conduct an official inquiry into the disappearances.”
“Hello governmental contact,” Val said after the click that registered another person joining the conference line.
“Hello Ms. Perez, you may call me Mr. Fong,” the man’s English was smooth and clear. Val guessed he’d been educated in England for several years based on the slight London accent he bore.
“Any relation to the General Fong who’s in charge of the base I’m at now?” Val asked. She turned to give the new viewer a look at the empty base around her.
“He is my cousin,” Mr. Fong said. “Though this matter seems broader than our family connection now.”
“I am going to guess you would prefer if we not poke around into every nook and cranny here, right?” Val asked.
“Yes, please leave the detailed investigation to my task force,” Mr. Fong said. “Our primary concern is to locate our missing personnel and civilians.”
“That may be a tall order,” Sarah said, peering into another empty car. “There’s no sign of damage to the base so far, and no sign of any struggle taking place.”
“It’s like everyone just got up and left willingly,” Connie said.
“Is there an evacuation area that people could have fled to?” Val asked, as she started walking down the road towards a staff building they hadn’t checked on yet.
“There are bomb shelters on the base,” Mr Fong said. “Our internal cameras show no one inside them though.”
“You should check on those anyways,” Tam said. “It wouldn’t be impossible to fool the video feeds to show an empty room.”
“Agreed. Our analysts have verified the video signal, but it is worth being sure,” Mr. Fong said.
“Where would the townsfolk have gone?” Val asked. “Are there separate bomb shelters for them, or would they come to the base for that kind of protection?”
“No,” Mr. Fong said. “The town is not a military target, so no bomb shelters were built for it.”
“And the civilians wouldn’t have been allowed onto the base if people believed a disaster was incoming?” Val asked.
“It would depend,” Mr. Fong said. The slowness of his words wasn’t from lack of fluency but rather careful consideration. The relationship between the China’s military and civilian population was no less complicated than anywhere else in the world, and how any particular exceptional circumstance was likely to play out might vary greatly depending on both what sort of calls needed to be made and who was around to make them when the time came.
Inside the staff building, Val, Connie, and Sarah found things in much the same state as they’d been outside.
What mess there was looked to be of the long standing variety of a busy office rather than the hurricane aftermath of a place that had either been ransacked or the site of a terrible struggle.
Most importantly, there was no blood on the ground, or the walls, which Val thought she should have felt more grateful for. She’d pictured entering the staff building and finding it to be an abattoir, with bits of all the missing people strewn about. Instead it was relatively clean, and mundane.
Somehow that was almost worse.
A bloodbath would at least have been explicable. The fate of the people who were missing would be decided and done with. The mundane emptiness that greeted her instead spoke of something far less reasonable happening to them. Possibly something that couldn’t be avoided or fought at all.
“I am going to have to assume that you all can read Chinese characters,” Mr. Fong said. “From the standpoint of what information may be exposed in your search. Please let me know if you need help translating anything though.”
Val hadn’t expected a government official to sound so reasonable and accommodating. The press tended to portray Eastern and Western interactions as far more acrimonious in delicate affairs like ‘unsanctioned searches of military facilities’. While that might be true on a larger and more public scale though, when it was people dealing with other people, things tended to go a little better. Or at least they did when it was people like JB and Anna who were handling the diplomacy.
JB’s talent for knowing people and making the right contacts never ceased to amaze Val, and Anna’s ability to cut through unnecessary bureaucracy and keep people focused on what was important to everyone while not slighting each individual’s concerns was the kind of skill that a thousand years in a business school couldn’t replicate reliably.
For as nice as it would have been to have them both in the field for a case this strange, Val had to admit that the decision to send them to Beijing directly to setup proper relations with the relevant officials had been the right one. Thanks to their political work from the Chinese capital, and Tam’s cyber work from the team’s home office, Val, Connie, and Sarah had been able to pass effortlessly through customs and arrive at the military base alone and unescorted without violating international law, or being shot at over a misunderstanding even once.
“This looks like it could be something important,” Connie said, coming out of an office with a single printed sheet of paper.
The writing on the sheet was nothing more than a series of ones and zeroes.
“Is that a coded message?” Anna asked, as Connie held the sheet up for Val’s headcam to send the image to the observers.
“We do not print out encrypted messages,” Mr. Fong said.
“It’s not encrypted,” Tam said, also viewing the image from Val’s headcam. “The binary is the header for an image file.”
“Someone printed a picture? Or misprinted it I guess?” Val asked.
“That’s not how pictures print,” Tam said. “Are there any other sheets like that one?”
“Nope,” Connie said. “The printer I found it in is dead.”
“What about the other devices there?” Anna asked. “Are they still working?”
“The computers seem to be,” Sarah said, from a nearby office. “They were powered down but they boot back up okay. This one’s asking for a password, I think.”
Val moved to show the others the monitor of the computer Sarah was at.
“That’s the standard login screen,” Mr. Fong said. “It looks like it’s operating properly.”
“Should we log in?” Sarah asked, looking at the unfamiliar keyboard.
“I think that’s the kind of fine detail work our host would prefer we leave to his people,” Val said. Fong had allowed operational security to be compromised a lot as it was with Val and her team roaming an empty base. Giving them access to the network was a much deeper level of intrusion though. One which Val would be just as happy to be able to claim she’d had no access to should the situation turn messy. That Tam had already raided the base’s central systems made that decision even easier, but Fong didn’t need to be made explicitly aware of that.
“Do we know what the picture was of?” Anna asked.
“There’s not enough of the image here to say,” Tam said. “This part of the header is all metadata. It does have the filename though. Does ‘Heaven’s Yoke’ mean anything special here? I’m not finding a lot that seems relevant in my searches yet.”
“In the dance of life we are bound by Heaven’s Yoke,” Mr Fong said, reciting a verse he’d heard countless times. “It was part of a poem my Uncle wrote about his favorite piece of art.”
“That piece of art wouldn’t happen to be a statue of two figures carved in jade, would it?” Val asked.
“How did you know that?” Mr. Fong asked.
“The statue is what originally drew our attention to your base,” Anna said. “Do you know where it is normally kept?”
“Yes, it has a special display case in my cousin’s office,” Mr Fong said. “My uncle had it installed a long time ago. It’s hermetically sealed and crafted from bulletproof glass and steel plating.”
Val picked a path through the staff building, letting Fong guide her deeper in until she reached the General’s office.
All of the supplies, and computers, and weapons were still present. Even the display case stood in its proper position, its door securely closed and its frame undisturbed, but the statue that should have been within was nowhere to be found.