The absence of the statue didn’t surprise Connie. She was used to trekking into foreboding areas and discovering that the treasure she sought had long since been looted. It wasn’t a typical result for an archaeological expedition, but Connie tended to take part in fairly atypical ventures.
“The good news is the people who left here with the ‘Unity with the Kingdom of the Sun’ statue almost certainly included General Fong,” Sarah said, as she inspected the empty display case. “There’s no sign that this lock was forced open and he was the only one who knew the combination.”
“That does not mean that my cousin left with the statue willing though,” Mr Fong said. Connie thought she detected a hint of frayed nerves in their official contact with the Chinese government. With a missing army base and a missing town to deal with it wasn’t hard to see why he might be having a bad day, but it seemed like the news of the statue’s loss outweighed the earlier problems somehow.
“Nothing’s certain yet, but there are good odds that he and the rest of the people are still alive,” Val said. She was stalking carefully around the room, being sure to get a decent view of everything in it with the headcam she wore. Tam would be reviewing the data live and recording it for later analysis but, apart from minor military secrets, Connie didn’t think the footage would reveal much of interest.
“Why do you think the people are still alive?” Mr. Fong asked.
“Because there was no aggressive force used to clear the base,” Val said. “It’s possible that whatever reason caused your soldiers to leave lead them to their deaths somewhere else, but that’s kind of inefficient. If it was a hostile external force, then killing everyone where they stood would be faster and easier than taking them somewhere else to do the same thing, especially since they wouldn’t have the element of surprise at that point. If base personnel left for any other reason, they’ll probably still be alive.”
“Could they have fallen into another world?” Anna asked. “Like what happened on the beach that took us to Atlantis?”
“Not with the lack of ley lines,” Tam said. “Most of our world is pretty solid when it comes to the borders with alternate realities, and that’s even with a fair amount of magic coursing through the land and sky.”
“We still have to check the bomb shelters, right?” Sarah asked.
“Yeah,” Val said. “Let’s head to the nearest one next.”
“It will be in the basement of the staff building you’re in now,” Mr. Fong said.
“Is there any security on it that we should be concerned with?” Val asked.
“Not if it hasn’t been sealed,” Mr Fong said.
“According to the monitors, it’s still open,” Tam said.
“Can you guide us to it?” Val asked.
“Already on it,” Tam said. “Check your phone, the building schematic is downloading now and I’ve got a navigation program setup to guide you through the halls to get there.”
“It is somewhat concerning that you have access to schematics for our military bases,” Mr. Fong said. “Those are not stored in any publicly accessible areas as far as I’m aware.”
“You’re not wrong,” Tam said. “These weren’t in any public forum.”
“And it is a crime to violate our secure databases,” Mr. Fong said.
“Fortunately I didn’t have to do that either,” Tam said. “I’ll send you the trace log for these documents. They came off a Russian intelligence server that’s located out of Pyongyang, North Korea.”
“But there’s no connection between…” Mr. Fong began and then stopped himself. “Yes, please send me the log, as well as any other information you have on the intelligence server.”
Connie felt sorry for Fong. He was staying so calm, but she could hear each new piece of news grating on his nerves as his day kept getting progressively worse with new and varied problems.
“We’re headed downstairs,” Val said. “I’m not sure what kind of reception we’ll have below ground though? Tam, what’s our range on our comms and video like here?”
“Limited,” Tam said. “No magic link ups, but I do have you connected to the base’s WiFi network.”
“That’s supposed to be secure as well,” Mr. Fong said. Connie could hear his grimace over the audio feed.
“Yeah, sorry there, that one I did have to crack myself,” Tam said. “Without it though, we’d have no method of showing you that we’re on the up and up here.”
“We will accept it for now, so long as you provide us with a detailed account of the exploit you used to gain access to our network,” Mr. Fong provided.
“That’s perfectly reasonable,” Tam said. “You’re not going to like it though.”
“Yes, it goes without saying that I won’t be happy with a security hole which allowed someone to gain access to a sensitive, military network,” Mr. Fong said. “Or did you mean that I would personally find it distasteful?”
“Umm, both,” Tam said.
Connie hear Fong let out a long sigh.
“My cousin used his birthday as his password again, didn’t he?” Mr. Fong said.
“Close. His wife’s,” Tam said.
The line went silent for a long moment before Fong returned.
“We’re on the level with the bomb shelter,” Val said. “Should the emergency lighting be on?”
Connie stepped out of the stairway and found the rooms beyond lit with only the sharp red light of what she presumed were exit signs. The writing on them was wrong though. The characters weren’t Chinese, or any other language she could recognize.
The basement level of the staff building was used primarily for archives, so the scant light that was present illuminated little more than rows of shelving, labeled based on department and year. Some had been moved creating a wider path down the center of the room, though Connie couldn’t be sure how recently that had been done.
“That is not a good sign,” Mr Fong said. “If the emergency lighting is on here then it should have been on upstairs as well.”
“I have somewhat worse news,” Tam said. “The video feeds are not showing the basement level as being dark.”
“What’s the status of the fire suppression system?” Mr. Fong asked. “That should show the state of the emergency lighting as well.”
“Fire suppression reads normal across the board,” Tam said. “I’m not seeing any alerts, alarms, or warnings in any of the buildings on the base.”
“There’s no alarms blaring down here,” Val said. “It’s only the lights. Can those be set separately from the rest?”
“Let me check,” Mr. Fong said.
“I think they’re linked to the same monitoring system,” Tam said. “What I’m seeing on the video feed does not match what the system is reporting.”
“I have a technical engineer here,” Mr Fong said. “He’s from the company who installed the security system on the base. He tells me that there are provisions for a manual override of the monitoring system. They’re primarily for diagnostic purposes, but the physical hardware can be decoupled from the software.”
“That’s something of a relief,” Sarah said, shining a flashlight over the shelves.
They hadn’t moved far into the room yet. Val was only a couple steps past the door and was still signalling for them to hold their position.
“Where would the manual override be done,” Val asked, the wariness in her posture a warning sign of trouble to come.
“The control is back up on the first floor,” Mr Fong said.
“Tam can you navigate us there?” Val asked.
“Don’t we need to check out the bomb shelter first?” Sarah asked, starting to step forward.
Val threw an arm out and blocked her path.
“No. First we find out what the story behind this weirdness is, then we walk into the obvious trap.”
“But there’s no magic here,” Sarah said.
“You don’t need magic to darken a room and setup a kill corridor,” Val said, herding her team back into the stairwell.
Once they were all outside the room, she closed the door and placed a short baton in the parallel handles as a bar to prevent them from opening.
“Why are we locking people in there?” Sarah asked.
“Because anyone in that sort of defensive position is not going to spend a lot of time chatting with intruders like us,” Val said. “If they’re smart, they’ll wait till we get back, but worried people have a hard time being smart. I’m betting, if there’s someone waiting in the dark, they’ll try to follow us once they hear us going back up the stairs.”
They climbed in silence back up to the first floor only to discover that since they’d left the main level, it to had switched to emergency lighting only.
“Tam, what is the system saying the status of the lighting here is?” Val asked.
“No alarms on your current level either,” Tam said.
Below them, there was the clank of metal on metal as the basement doors tried to open were blocked by the baton.
“We’re not alone here,” Connie said, looking through the dim lighting for possible exits and areas of cover.
“Doesn’t sound like they’re getting through the bar on the door yet,” Sarah said.
“No, I mean we’re not alone up here either,” Connie said.
“But the base was empty,” Sarah said.
“No, we thought the base was empty and the monitors told us it was empty,” Val said. “That doesn’t mean it actually was.”
“We are not seeing anyone on your headcam,” Mr. Fong said. “Are there any soldiers about? Or is it the maintenance staff?”
Connie kept her eyes peeled but she couldn’t answer Fong’s question.
“We don’t have visuals on any personnel here,” Val said.
“How do you know you are not alone then?” Mr. Fong asked.
“I can feel it,” Connie said.
“Feel it?” Fong asked.
“It’s a combination of processing barely audible sounds and scent awareness,” Val said. “We take in a lot more sensory data than we’re consciously aware of. Some of it gets processed as a gut feeling more than direct awareness.”
“That sounds easy to confuse with hysterics,” Mr. Fong said.
“She’s not confused, or hysterical,” Val said. “Her hearing just isn’t as good as mine. I count at least three people in the room beyond this one.”
“Confront them then!” Mr. Fong said. “Demand answers. We have to know what is going on.”
“There are a few problems with that,” Val said. “First, they know where we are, second, they are armed, and third, I am not entirely sure they’re still human.”
“Not human? What else could they be?” Mr. Fong asked.
“That is not the right question to ask,” Tam said. “Not in this situation.”
“Why do you believe they might be non-human?” Anna asked.
“Well, for starters, two of them are clinging to the wall waiting to ambush us the moment we step into that room,” Val said, loudly enough for her voice to carry clearly.
There was a silence that followed her words, but a moment later when she took a single step forward there was a decidedly unnatural skittering sound from around both corners of the corridor that led into the general staff room.
Whatever moved did so quickly and with enough force to suggest it possessed a sizeable mass. Fortunately, from Connies point of view, whatever it was chose to retreat in the face of Val’s awareness of their presence. That thought cheered her up for all of two seconds, which was as long as it took her to look to the far side of the staff room.
“I hate to add to our woes, but the windows over there are supposed to be looking outside aren’t they?” Connie asked.
“Oh, yeah mean the ones that are pitch black?” Sarah asked.
“We arrived in the mid-afternoon. How long have we been here?” Val asked.
“A half hour, tops,” Connie said.
“That’s how long it’s seemed to us,” Val said. “What time is it in the rest of the world though?”
She waited for an answer but after a few seconds it was clear none were forthcoming.
There was another bang of metal on metal from the stairway below them.
“What happened?” Sarah asked.
“The comms are down,” Val said.
“That’s kind of suspicious timing for them to drop don’t you think?” Connie asked.
“Not at all,” Val said. “Someone or something is cutting us off.”
“How can there be non-humans here though?” Sarah asked. “There’s no magic to sustain them.”
“Are you sure of that?” Val asked. “Try a simple spell.”
Sarah traced her finger in the air and said “Light”.
Within her hand a softly glowing orb of illumination gathered, wisps of power being pulled from the aether to form a sphere the size of a tennis ball. As Connie watched though, the warm, golden light changed to an angry red flame.