A team was lost. Despite multiple contact options, and careful planning, a team of highly skilled people had vanished without a trace. Anna didn’t mean to break the handle of the chair she was in, but under the circumstances it seemed like a reasonable response.
Val, Connie, and Sarah had ventured into an empty Chinese military base and discovered it was as barren as it appeared, right up until something, or someone, had snatched them away, leaving the video feed from Val’s headcam an empty black and the audio feeds drowned in an eerie silence.
“Mr Fong, what is the status of your investigation team?” Anna asked through clenched teeth.
“What happened?” he asked. “Why did the video feed go dead? What is your team doing?”
“We don’t know,” Tam said. She was an ocean away, still back in North America, working the problem from the center of her sanctum at the club’s headquarters. Anna was grateful for that. If she’d been local, Tam would probably have wanted to do the same thing that Anna was about to do, and it was better if at least one of them remained outside the radius of whatever was happening.
“You said you had a live connection to them via the base’s WiFi,” Mr Fong said. “Even below ground the network should be strong. We have repeaters all over the base, even inside the fallout shelters, if they managed to find one.”
“They’re not in the base anymore,” Tam said. “It’s not just the video and audio feeds that cut off. I had three different kinds of trackers on each of them. All signals are out.”
“What does that mean?” Mr Fong asked. “Was something waiting for them when they went through the door in the basement? Are they…”
“They’re not dead,” Anna said, in part because she was willing their survival to be true, and in part because she knew Tam would have given different information if the life monitors on any of the three had been extinguished.
“I can’t say what they ran into.” Tam said. In the background, glasses rattled and Anna could hear Tam pouring a voluminous quantity of liquid into a tub. “I do have a guess as to why we can’t contact them though.”
“My superiors are not going to be happy about this turn of events,” Mr Fong said. “Foreign nationals with unmonitored access to one of our military installations is going to go over quite poorly.”
Anna breathed in slowly, and glanced over to JB, who stepped forth to pick up the diplomatic efforts.
“Offer them the assurance that their fears are unfounded,” JB said. “At present, the foreign nationals in question are either in a location which is experiencing known issues with monitoring and telemetry, which our team will be making a priority of fixing, or they have been removed from the base far enough that the monitoring which is in place has lost track of them.”
“It’s the former the Generals will be more concerned with,” Mr. Fong said.
“The Generals need to consider that the information in the base is already exposed,” Anna said. “With the footage we’ve provided and the satellite imagery you’ve obtained on your own, the story of the base being empty has too much support for them to overlook or wish away.”
“They are saying though that there is no proof the secrets have been broadcast outside of our national borders yet,” Mr. Fong said. He didn’t appear to hold any personal concerns in that regards, instead merely relaying what the current state of his party was.
“I can address those fears,” Tam said. “Have your intel people access the North Korean server I pointed you to earlier. You’ll see virtually every secret that’s kept on that base is located in poorly encrypted folder on the server. If they need help translating any of the Russian notes that were added to the information, let me know. My Russian’s terrible, but I’ve got some good translators who could use the extra work.”
Mr. Fong gave a low chuckle. “So you’re scheme to allay the General’s fear is for me to show them that it’s far too late to be afraid and that what they were concerned with came to pass months or years ago?”
“I know that’s not going to make them happy,” Tam said. “The important thing though is that they don’t try to shut us out at this point.”
Mr. Fong left the line to consult with his people for a moment before returning.
“I am afraid there is a sentiment gaining strength in the room that, in light of the breeches we’ve already had, allowing any additional foreign interference in an internal matter is tantamount to abandoning our security entirely.”
“I believe there are other servers, with information on other bases, is that not correct?” JB asked.
“That was brought up,” Mr. Fong said. “It is being met with a claim that our intelligence assets can find and neutralize those without outside help.”
“I thought that might happen,” Tam said. “Please have the General’s check their personal emails. Privately.”
“There isn’t supposed to be any out of band communication,” Mr. Fong said.
“Tell General Cheng and Yang that they will want to review their messages somewhere especially secure,” Tam said, ignoring Fong’s objection.
It was a violation of the terms they’d agreed to follow in working with the government officials, but Anna could hear from the tone in Tam’s voice that she was unconcerned with respecting either the letter or spirit of their agreement.
Anna also had no doubt what was in the documents Tam had emailed to the Generals. It was blackmail material. Under other circumstances, it could have been used in a more gentle manner, perhaps offered as a gift without obvious strings attached to curry favor slowly. Each moment that Val and the others were missing though was a moment they might not able to recover from, so time was of the essence, and therefore less subtle methods were called for.
A few minutes later Mr. Fong was back on the line.
“The Generals have agreed to allow you to continue handling this mission,” he said.
No conditions, no warnings. Anna wondered how good the information was that Tam had turned up, but in terms of the overall content she knew it had to involve money, sex, shame, or some combination of the three to have produced such instantaneous results.
“I ask again then, what is the status of your investigation team?” Anna said.
“Still assembling,” Mr. Fong said. “There was a problem with some of the full environmental suits, but they should be ready within the hour.”
“I’m not sure if sending them in at this point is a good idea,” Tam said. “We still don’t know what’s happened there.”
“I agree,” Anna said, taking another calming breath to put herself into a properly diplomatic mindset. “But it is also unreasonable to ask the Generals to delay their official investigation. They have been gracious enough to allow our presence largely because we have been providing more timely information than they could collect on their own.”
“That is how several of the Generals have phrased it,” Mr. Fong said. “But I inclined to support Ms. Le’s position. I do not know if I can send in the team my staff has been assembling to a situation with unknown hostiles. I’ll need more time to assemble a properly equipped combat team to accompany the medics and researchers I intended to send.”
“Were there going to be no guards accompanying the team originally?” JB asked.
“A small contingent,” Mr. Fong said. “For a situation like this however, I would want at least four combat ready troops for each non-combat personnel present.”
“That might not be enough,” Tam said. “In fact more troops might make it worse.”
“Whoever is responsible for this did manage to subjugate an entire base of trained personnel,” Anna said. “But, we can’t expect that to sway the General’s decisions can we?”
“Unfortunately, we cannot,” Mr. Fong said. “Which is why I want to use as many troops as they will let me in the hope that at least some of them may be able to report back.”
“You will send in drones first though of course,” Anna said.
“Yes, but I believe we both know those won’t fare any better than your team did,” Mr. Fong said. Anna avoided breaking the other handle on her chair off in response to that.
“In the interim, there is only one option open to us,” she said instead.
“No!” Tam said, correctly guessing where Anna’s thoughts were trending.
“The investigation team needs to know what they’re going into,” Anna said. “And our people need backup.”
“Are you proposing to send in another of your teams?” Mr. Fong asked.
It was a delicate question. Anna knew the diplomatic issues they’d avoided by delivering Val’s team’s presence on the base as a fait accompli would be in full force if she tried to request entry permission for another set of ‘foreign nationals’. With Tam’s blackmail material they might be able to push it through but the more they leaned on that the faster the Generals would try to fight back. As it was there were certain to be repercussions to Tam’s actions but so long as they were postponed into a future where her team was safely reassembled, Anna had few worries about what the Generals would try to do.
“No,” Anna said. “I am proposing sending myself in.”
“Oh.” Fong’s surprise sounded genuine, as though he’d never conceived of the notion of a commander doing fieldwork themself.
“You can’t go in there alone,” Tam said.
“And you can’t join me,” Anna said. “Even if you could get here in time, we’re going to need someone working the problem outside it’s area of effect.”
Tam grumbled but was silent for a moment.
“Ok. That’s the smart play,” she said at last. “But that doesn’t mean you need to tackle it alone.”
“If JB goes with me, we’ll have no one here to interface with the Chinese government,” Anna said.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t go,” JB said. “It would just mean Tam would have to do double duty with magic and diplomacy.”
“I would prefer the the spellcaster working the now obviously magical problem not be unduly distracted,” Anna said. Having JB along would have been useful. Their skills weren’t entirely limited to making friends and influencing people. After losing Val though, Anna was rather less than eager to put anyone else in harm’s way.
“Isn’t that James’ job?” JB asked.
“Normally, yes,” Tam said. “Unfortunately, he’s busy tracking down signs of an apocalypse at the moment.”
“An apocalypse?” Mr. Fong asked, clearly alarmed at the casualness of Tam’s reference to it.
“Not on this Earth, probably” Tam said. “He’s sunk into some deep scrying to find the source of the problem and make sure it’s not going to wash over onto us. As long as it’s a disconnected realm, it shouldn’t be something that will endanger anyone here, and there’s decent odds it’ll be on an empty Earth.”
“And if it’s not?” Mr. Fong asked.
“Then we’ll step in, if we’re able to,” Tam said. “For now James has that handled, but only if we don’t bother him.”
“Fair enough,” JB said. “I’ll have to bring him some take-out when we get back and get caught up on where he’s at. We’ve been so busy lately I haven’t been keeping up with his work like I should.”
“We’ll all get take-out when we get back,” Anna said.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re going alone,” Tam said. “JB’s needed there, and I have to stay here, but we do have other options.”
“Such as?” Anna asked.
“Jennifer Kelly,” Tam said. “She’s a club member. She joined a few years ago, one of my first cases.”
“I remember her,” Anna said, trying to call to mind Jennifer’s face. “Young woman? Double amputee?”
“No, she was born without fully formed arms,” Tam said. “We rescued her from pirates.”
“Oh yes, I recall,” Anna said. “She took three of them overboard with her and we arrived in time to prevent a fourth from shooting her from the deck while she fought the other three underwater.”
“Yeah, and that was after she took down the first six of them who tried to jump onto the boat she was on,” Tam said. “The point being, she can handle herself in a bad situation, and with Val missing, you’re going to need backup who can do that.”
“Yes, but there’s travel time to consider still,” Anna said. “Unless, are you about to tell me that she’s already in the area?”
“Strangely enough, yes, I am,” Tam said. “She just called in to our voicemail to see how we’re doing. She’s currently in a town about fifty miles from the base, staying with a family that she trained with for the last six months. You’ll drive right past there to get to the base.”
“I see,” Anna said, unable to keep the smile from her lips. Quietly she added, “thank you Charlene.”
“It sounds like you are ready to leave immediately then?” Mr. Fong asked.
There was a swirl of dark smoke beside Anna’s chair and an inverted pop as an unhappy goddess of spiders stepped into the room.
“No,” Aranae said. “No one is leaving until someone tells me where my Val has gone!”