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The Wallfacers Fifth parts

Novel:The dark forestauthor: pubdate:2019-03-01 22:58

“Mr. Luo, please change into this,” said the young man, who knelt down to open a suitcase upon entering the room. Though the man seemed entirely polite, Luo Ji couldn’t shake a certain discomfort, like he had swallowed a fly. But when he saw the clothing the man took out, he realized that he wouldn’t be wearing a convict’s uniform: It looked like an ordinary brown jacket. He took it and inspected the thick material. Shi Qiang and the young man put on similar jackets in different colors.
“Put it on. It’s comfortable and it breathes. Not like the old stuff we used to wear, which was sticky as hell,” Shi Qiang said.
“Bulletproof,” the young man said.
Who would want to kill me? Luo Ji thought as he changed jackets.
The three of them left the room and followed the corridor to the elevator. The ceiling was lined with rectangular metal ductwork and they passed several heavy, sealed doorways. Luo Ji noticed a faint slogan on one of the mottled walls. Only part of it was visible, but he knew the whole slogan: “Dig deep tunnels, keep vast stores of grain, don’t seek hegemony.”8
“Civil Air Defense?” he asked.
“Not the ordinary kind. Defense against the atom bomb, but it’s obsolete now. Back in the day, you had to be someone special to get in here.”
“So we’re at … the Western Hills?” Luo Ji asked, but Shi Qiang and the young man did not reply. Luo Ji had heard stories about the secret command center. They entered the old-style elevator and began to ascend
immediately, accompanied by a tremendous scraping. The operator was a People’s Armed Police soldier armed with a submachine gun. This seemed to be his first time at this job, and he had to fiddle with the controls a bit before the elevator finally stopped at floor -1.
Exiting the elevator, Luo Ji saw that they were in a large hall with a low ceiling, like an underground parking garage. A number of different cars were parked here, some of them with engines on, filling the air with noxious exhaust. People were standing beside the lines of cars or walking among them. With only one light in a distant corner turned on, the place was dim and the people dark shadows. Only when they passed the lamplight did Luo Ji see that they were fully armed soldiers. Some were shouting into radios, trying to be heard over the engine noise. Their voices sounded tense.
Shi Qiang led Luo Ji through the two lines of cars, with the young man close behind. The lamplight and red taillights shining though the gaps in the cars cast an ever-changing pattern of color on Shi Qiang’s body and reminded Luo Ji of the dim bar where he had met the woman.
Shi Qiang led Luo Ji to one car, opened the door, and had him get in. The car was roomy, but the edges of its abnormally tiny windows revealed the thickness of the car’s body. A reinforced vehicle with tinted glass in its small windows, probably as an antibomb measure. The car door was ajar, and Luo Ji could hear Shi Qiang and the young man talking.
“Captain Shi, they called just now to say they’ve been over the route. All guard positions have been set up.”
“The route is too complicated. We’ve only been able to do a couple of quick runs through the whole thing. Not enough for comfort. And about the guard positions—it’s like I said, you’ve got to think like them. If you were on their side, where would you be hiding? Consult with the experts from the People’s Armed Police again. Hey, what’s the plan for the handoff?”
“They didn’t say.”
Shi Qiang raised his voice. “Morons. They can’t leave such an important part up in the air.” “Captain Shi, it looks like the brass want us to follow along the entire way.”
“I can follow along my entire life, but since there’s got to be a handoff once we’re there, there needs to be a clear demarcation of responsibilities. There’s got to be a line. Anything that happens before it is on us, and afterward on them.”
“They didn’t say…” The young man sounded uncomfortable.
“Zheng, I know you’ve been feeling sorry for yourself since Chang Weisi got promoted. Hell, it’s like we don’t even exist to his former subordinates. But we should have some self-respect. Who the fuck are they? Have they been under fire, or have they ever fired at anyone? That crew used so many high-tech tricks in the last operation it was like a circus. They even brought out the airborne early warning system. But in the end, who did they use to find the meeting place? Us. That won us some cred. Zheng, it took a lot of convincing to get the lot of you over here, but I wonder if that might not end up causing you harm.”
“Captain Shi, don’t say that.”
“It’s a troubled world. Do you get that? Morality isn’t what it used to be. Everyone foists their bad luck off onto other people, so you’ve got to be on your guard.… I’m going on like this because I’m worried about how long I’m going to last. I’m afraid that all of it’s going to land in your lap.”
“Captain Shi, you’ve really got to think about your illness. Didn’t the higher-ups schedule you for hibernation?”
“I’ve got to get lots of things taken care of first. Family, work. And do you think I’m not worried about the lot of you here?”
“Don’t worry about us. With your condition, you can’t put it off. Your teeth were bleeding out again this morning.”
“That’s nothing. I’ve got good luck. You should know. Three of the guns I’ve been shot at with were duds.”
The cars at one end of the hall were beginning to pull out. Shi Qiang got in and closed the door, and when the neighboring car started to move, their car followed. Shi Qiang pulled the curtains closed on either side, and the opaque divider between the back and front seats totally obscured Luo Ji’s view of the outside. As they rode, Shi Qiang’s radio chirped endlessly, but Luo Ji couldn’t make out the comments Shi Qiang was replying to in clipped sentences.
When they had ridden a short way, Luo Ji said to Shi Qiang, “Things are more complicated than you said.” “That’s right. Everything’s complicated now,” Shi Qiang said perfunctorily, his attention still focused on the
radio. They spoke no more for the rest of the trip.
The ride was smooth and unbroken, and after about an hour they came to a stop.
When Shi Qiang got out of the car, he motioned to Luo Ji to wait inside, and then closed the door. Luo Ji heard a rumbling that seemed to come from above the vehicle. After a few minutes, Shi Qiang opened the door again and had Luo Ji get out, at which point he realized they were at an airport. The rumbling had turned thunderous. He looked up to see two helicopters hovering overhead, oriented in opposite directions like they were monitoring the open area. In front of him was a large aircraft that looked like a passenger plane, except that there was no insignia on any part he could see. An airstair stood in front of the car door, and Shi Qiang and Luo Ji took it up to the aircraft. When Luo Ji glanced back out the door after they entered, the first thing that caught his eye were the fighter jets lined up on a distant apron, which informed him that this wasn’t a civilian airport. Closer in, he saw the cars from their convoy and the soldiers that had exited their vehicles in a ring around the plane. The sun was setting, casting a long shadow down the runway ahead of the plane, like a giant exclamation point.
Luo Ji and Shi Qiang entered the cabin. Three men in black suits welcomed them and took them past the forward cabin, which was totally empty but resembled a passenger plane with four rows of seats. In the middle cabin, Luo Ji saw a fairly spacious office, and another suite through whose half-open door he glimpsed a bedroom. The furnishings were unremarkable but neat and orderly, and apart from the green safety belts on the sofa and chairs you wouldn’t have known you were on a plane. Luo Ji knew that there were very few charter planes of this kind in the country.
Two of the three men who led them in vanished through a door to the rear cabin, leaving behind the youngest one, who said, “You can sit anywhere you like, but you need to buckle up, not just on takeoff and landing but throughout the entire flight. If you sleep, then buckle the sleep-belt too. Nothing that’s not fixed in place can be left out in the open. Stay in your seat or bunk at all times, and if you must move about, please inform the captain first. This is an intercom button. There’s one at every seat and every bunk. Hold it down to
talk. If there’s anything you need, please use it to call us at any time.”
Luo Ji looked in confusion at Shi Qiang, who said, “The plane may execute some special maneuvers.”
The man nodded. “Correct. Please let me know if you have any problems. Call me Xiao Zhang. I’ll bring you dinner when we’re in the air.”
After Xiao Zhang left, Luo Ji and Shi Qiang sat on the sofa and fastened their seatbelts. Luo Ji looked about him. Apart from the round windows and the slightly curved walls they were set into, the room seemed so conventional and familiar that it felt a little strange to be wearing seatbelts in an ordinary office. But soon the noise and vibration of the engine reminded him he was aboard a plane taxiing down the runway, and a few minutes later the engine noise changed and the two of them were pressed back into the sofa. Then the ground vibrations disappeared and the office floor took on a slant. As the plane climbed, the sun, which had already dipped below the ground, returned through the window, just as the same sun had sent the day’s final rays of sunlight into the hospital room of Zhang Beihai’s father just ten minutes before.
*    *    *
By the time Luo Ji’s plane reached the coast, Wu Yue and Zhang Beihai were once again looking over the unfinished Tang, ten thousand meters below. This was the closest he would ever get to the two soldiers.
As on their previous visit, Tang’s enormous frame was shrouded in the dim light of dusk. The showers of sparks on the hull didn’t seem quite as plentiful, and the lamps illuminating the ship had dimmed substantially. And this time, Wu Yue and Zhang Beihai no longer belonged to the navy.
“I heard the General Armaments Department has decided to terminate the Tang project,” Zhang Beihai said.
“What’s that got to do with us?” Wu Yue said coldly, his eyes sweeping from Tang to the last bits of sunset in the west.
“You’ve been in a bad mood since joining the space force.”
“You should know the reason. You can always read my thoughts, sometimes more clearly than I can, and then you remind me what it is I’m really thinking about.”
Zhang Beihai turned to Wu Yue. “You’re depressed about joining what’s inevitably a losing war. You’re jealous of that final generation that will be young enough to fight in the space force at the end and be buried in the cosmos together with their fleet. Devoting a lifetime of effort to a hopeless endeavor is hard for you to accept.”
“Do you have any advice?”
“No. Technofetishism and technological triumphalism are deeply rooted in your mind, and I learned long ago that I can’t change you. I can only try to minimize the harm that sort of thinking can cause. Besides, I don’t think it’s impossible for humanity to win this war.”
Wu Yue dropped his cold mask and met Zhang Beihai’s gaze. “Beihai, you used to be a practical person. You opposed building Tang, and on multiple occasions, on the record, voiced doubts about building a blue- water navy, arguing that it was incompatible with our national strength. You believe that our naval forces ought to remain in coastal waters under the support and protection of shore-based firepower, an idea ridiculed as a turtle-shell strategy by the young hotheads, but you’ve persisted in it.… So where do you get your
confidence in a space victory from now? Do you really believe that wooden boats can sink an aircraft carrier?” “After independence, the newly founded navy used wooden boats to sink Nationalist destroyers. And even
earlier, there were times when our army used cavalry to defeat tanks.”
“You can’t seriously think those miracles count as ordinary military theory.”
“On this battlefield, terrestrial civilization won’t need to follow commonplace, ordinary military theory.” Zhang Beihai held up a finger. “One exception is sufficient.”
Wu Yue shot him a mocking smile. “I’d like to hear how you’ll achieve this exception.”
“I don’t know anything about space warfare, of course, but if you want to compare it to a wooden boat versus a carrier, then I think it’s just a matter of having the courage to act and the confidence in a victory. A wooden boat could carry a small squad of divers who’ll wait in the carrier’s path. When the enemy draws near, they’ll dive in and the boat will leave. Then when the carrier comes close, they’ll attach a bomb to the bottom of the hull and sink the carrier.… Of course this would be exceedingly difficult, but it’s not impossible.”
Wu Yue nodded. “Not bad. People have tried it before. In the Second World War, the British did that as part of the effort to sink the Tirpitz, only they used a minisub. In the 1980s, during the Malvinas War, a few Argentine special forces soldiers took Italian limpet mines into Spain and attempted to blow up a British warship docked in the harbor at Gibraltar. You know what happened to them.”
“But what we have is not just a small wooden boat. A one- or two-thousand-ton nuclear bomb can be  made small enough for one or two divers to take underwater, and when it’s attached to the underside of a carrier, it won’t just sink it, it’ll blow the whole carrier to smithereens.”
“Sometimes you’ve got a fantastic imagination,” Wu Yue said with a smile.
“I’ve got confidence in our victory.” Zhang Beihai looked out at Tang, the distant shower of welding sparks reflected in his pupils like two small flames.
Wu Yue too looked out at Tang, and a new vision took hold of him: The ship was no longer a ruined ancient fortress but a prehistoric cliff with a multitude of deep caves carved into it, and the scattered sparks were flickering firelight in those caves.
*    *    *
After takeoff and all through dinner, Luo Ji refrained from asking Shi Qiang anything about where they were headed, or what exactly had happened, reasoning that if Shi Qiang was going to tell him anything, he would already have come out with it. Once, he unbuckled his seat belt and got up to look out the cabin window, even though he knew he would see nothing through the darkness, but Shi Qiang followed him and pulled down the window shade, saying that there was nothing to see out there.
“Why don’t we chat for a while longer, and then go to sleep. What do you say?” asked Shi Qiang as he drew out a cigarette, then quickly put it back, remembering he was on a plane.
“Sleep? So this is a long flight?”
“Who cares? It’s a plane with beds. I say we take advantage of them.” “You’re only responsible for taking me to my destination, right?”
“What are you complaining for? We’ve still got to make the return trip!” Shi Qiang grinned broadly, as if
immensely pleased with himself. Cutting humor seemed to give him pleasure. But then he turned more serious: “I don’t know much more about your trip than you do. Besides, it’s not yet time for me to tell you anything. Take it easy. There’ll be someone at the handoff to explain things to you.”
“I’ve been guessing for hours, but I’ve only come up with one possible explanation.” “Let me hear it, and let’s see if it’s the same as what I’m thinking.”
“The woman who died was an ordinary person, so that means her social or family connections had to be something special.” Luo Ji didn’t know anything about her family, just like his previous lovers. He wasn’t interested, and forgot whatever they told him.
“Who? Oh, that lover of yours? Put her out of your mind, since you don’t care anyway. Or, if you want, why not compare her name and face to some famous figures?”
Luo Ji’s mind flipped through comparisons, but nothing matched.
“Luo, my man, can you bluff?” Shi Qiang asked. Luo had noticed a pattern in how he addressed him. When he was joking, he called him “my boy,” but when he was a little more serious, it was “my man.”
“Do I need to bluff against someone?”
“Of course you do.… So how about I teach you how to bluff? Of course, I’m not a master of it either. My work is more along the lines of breaking scams. Here, I’ll tell you a few tricks for the interrogation room. You might find it useful later to figure out what’s going on. Naturally, these are just the most basic, common ones. It’s hard to explain anything more complicated. We’ll start with the gentlest one, which happens to be the simplest: The List. That means drawing up a whole list of questions connected to the case, and then asking them one by one and recording the subject’s answers, and then starting over again from the top and recording those answers too. Questions can be asked repeatedly if necessary, and then you can compare the transcripts of the answers and find out if the subject is lying about something, since the answers will be different every time. The technique is simple, but don’t look down your nose at it. No one who hasn’t undergone training in counter-interrogation techniques will be able to pass it, so the most effective way of dealing with The List is simply to remain silent.” Shi Qiang fiddled unconsciously with his cigarette as he spoke, but then put it away again.
“Ask them. It’s a charter flight, so they ought to allow smoking,” Luo Ji said.
Shi Qiang had grown excited while speaking and seemed a little put out at Luo Ji’s interruption. It occurred to Luo Ji that he might be serious, or else he had an odd sense of humor. Shi Qiang pressed the red intercom button beside the sofa, and Xiao Zhang told him he could do what he liked. So the two of them lit up.
“The next technique is only half-gentle. You can reach the ashtray—it’s fixed in place, you’ve just got to pull it up. Right. This technique is called Black and White. It requires the cooperation of lots of people and is a little more complicated. First, the bad cops come out, at least two of them on most occasions, and they’re really nasty to you. Some of them verbally and others physically, but they’re all mean. There’s a strategy to it: not just to make you afraid, but more importantly to make you feel alone, to make you feel like the whole world wants to consume you. Then the good cop comes out, just one, and he’s got a kind face, and he stops the bad cops and tells them that you’re a human being, that you’ve got rights, so how can they treat you that way? The bad cops tell him to beat it, that he’s affecting their work. The good cop persists, and says, ‘You can’t do this!’ The bad cops say, ‘I always knew you didn’t have the stones for this work. If you can’t handle it,
then get lost.’ The good cop shields you with his body, and says, ‘I’m going to protect his rights, and protect justice under the law!’ The bad cops say, ‘Tomorrow you’re out of here, just you wait!’ Then they leave in a huff. So it’s just the two of you left, and the good cop wipes off your blood and sweat and tells you not to be afraid, and that you have the right to be silent! Then, as you can imagine, he becomes your one friend in the world, so when he draws you out, you aren’t silent anymore.… This technique is most effective against intellectuals, but it differs from The List in that it loses its effect when you’re aware of it.”
He spoke animatedly and seemed about to take off his seat belt and stand up. Luo Ji was seized by dread and despair and felt as if he had fallen into an ice pit. Noticing his discomfort, Shi Qiang stopped. “Well, then, let’s not talk about interrogation, even if it might be useful to you. You can’t take it in all at once. Besides, I was going to tell you how to trick people, so just remember this: Real shrewdness means not letting any shrewdness show. It’s not like in the movies. The truly astute don’t sit in the shadows all day striking a pose. They don’t show off that they’re using their brains. They look all carefree and innocent. Some of them are tacky and mawkish, others careless and unserious. What’s critical is not to let others think you’re a person of interest. Let them look down on you or dismiss you and they won’t feel you’re an obstacle. You’re just a broom in the corner. The pinnacle of this is to make them not notice you at all, as if you don’t exist until the moment right before they die at your hands.”
“Will I ever have the need or opportunity to become that sort of person?” Luo Ji broke in to ask.
“Like I said, I know no more about this than you do. But I’ve got a premonition that you need to become such a person. Luo, my man, you’ve got to!” Shi Qiang grew excited again and clapped him on the shoulder with enough force to make him wince.
Then they sat in silence watching the clouds of smoke curl upward to the ceiling, where they were sucked away into a crack.
“Screw it. Let’s hit the sack,” Shi Qiang said as he ground out his cigarette in the ashtray. He shook his head with a smile. “I’ve been going on like an idiot. When you think back on this, don’t laugh at me.”
In the bedroom, Luo Ji took off his bulletproof jacket and wrapped himself in the safety sleeping bag. Shi Qiang helped him tighten the straps holding it to the bed, and then set down a small vial on the bedside cabinet.
“Sleeping pills. Take them if you can’t sleep. I asked for alcohol, but they said there isn’t any.”
Shi Qiang reminded Luo Ji that he should notify the captain before getting out of bed, then turned to leave. “Officer Shi,” Luo Ji called after him.
At the door, Shi Qiang half-turned back to look at him. “I’m not any sort of cop. The police aren’t involved in this thing. Everyone calls me Da Shi.”
“Well then, Da Shi, when we were talking just now, I noticed the first thing you said. Or, I guess, the first thing you said in reply to me. I said, ‘the woman,’ and you didn’t realize for a moment who I was talking about. That means that she’s not a major part of this case.”
“You’re one of the calmest people I’ve ever met.”
“The calmness comes from cynicism. There’s not much in the world that can make me care.”
“Whatever it is, I’ve never seen someone who could stay calm in a situation like this. Forget all that stuff I said before. I just like to kid around about things.”
“You’re just looking for something to hold my attention so that you can smoothly complete your mission.” “If I’ve set your imagination going, I apologize.”
“What do you think I should think about now?”
“In my experience, any thinking is liable to go off the rails. You should just go to sleep.”
Shi Qiang left. After he closed the door, the room was dark except for a small red lamp at the head of the bed. The ever-present background rumble of the engine was particularly conspicuous, as if the infinite night sky on the other side of the wall was emitting a deep hum.
Then Luo Ji felt that it wasn’t an illusion, that the sound really was coming from some far-off place outside. He unbuckled the sleeping bag and crawled out, then pushed up the shade over the window by the bed. Outside, the moon was shining on a sea of clouds, a vast ocean of silver. Luo Ji realized that above the clouds were other things shining with a silver light, four ramrod-straight lines that caught the eye against the backdrop of the night sky. They were extending at the same speed as the plane, and their trailing ends faded out and blended into the night like four silver swords flying over the clouds. Luo Ji looked back at the tips and noticed that the silver lines were being drawn out by four objects with a metallic glint. Four fighter jets. It wasn’t hard to guess that another four were on the other side of the plane.
Luo Ji pulled down the shade and burrowed back into the sleeping bag. He closed his eyes and willed his mind to relax. He didn’t want to sleep, but to wake up from his dream.


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