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Central Beijing, China
Sunday, January 14th, 2018, 7:40 pm
Jared and Aaron were disappointed they were not able to get into the house on Saturday. Peng Shilie’s family was much bigger than Tong’s. From a news website, they had a picture of him at home with his family. He had five children. The eldest was a teenage boy. The rest were preteen girls. Two of the girls were identical twins. Despite what most people expected, after having twins: they had their youngest daughter a year later. The western observer would guess she was older, for who would want more children after having twins, certainly not the mother! Besides his wife and children, his wife’s parents also lived with them. They were both in their late eighties but still self-sufficient, except for income. The general’s parents had both died the year after he joined the military. When money had grown short for his in-laws his father-in-law started looking for work. The general dissuaded him from working and insisted they moved in with the family.
Unlike Tong, no nickname stuck for Peng. Jared had tried the Big General and the Uber-General a few times, but it never felt right. It was almost as if they were in awe of Peng because of his position or stature.
As the top general of the Chinese army, Peng was provided a lavish estate, all at the expense of the nation. China’s president not only wanted Peng to have the estate as a reward but to use it as a symbol of the Chinese military, a symbol of power that would soon be put to the test.
The estate was several acres large. It sat in the middle of the city as if to defy the skyscrapers that surrounded it. To Aaron it was like a small forest about to be overcome by humanity. To the people of China it was a show of strength.
Walls lined the property, but the walls were low and mostly decorative. They offered no security, except perhaps against children who might be tempted to explore and vandalize. Across from the entrance was a parking lot for an enormous over-priced apartment building.
Having watched the building for so long, they both had doubts the entire family would ever leave. None of the family had even gone out the day before.
They were both sick of the food. They were ordering food from a vender in a marketplace a block north of them. The menus were in Chinese. Even using the translators to talk to the owner, it was difficult to order something they would recognize as food and possibly even like.
For Saturday’s lunch, they had accidentally ordered an extremely spicy chicken dish. Jared was able to eat it, but Aaron could not get past the initial bite. After Aaron had taken the bite he gulped down several ounces of water, but it made the burning worse. Jared advised he drink something thick like milk, but they had no milk. Aaron just gave up and ignored the pain until it subsided.
They talked off and on about various things: families, children, the colony, women, how much their mission was different than they expected and so on. Often they were silent, watching the house, the street and the locals.
After almost an hour of silence Jared said, “Why was Sarah so insistent on going with Oliver?”
“Why, you aren’t jealous are you?”
“No, it just seemed so odd. I mean, I understand that you couldn’t team with her because you’re the experts and Oliver and I would most likely crash and burn. But why was it so important to go with Oliver?”
“No, that’s not it. It’s really ‘Why was it so important that Oliver didn’t go with me?’”
Still seeming confused Jared said, “Oh.” Then after an expectant pause he said, “How so?”
“Well, she seems to think he’s a bad influence on me!”
“You mean because of the air marshal?”
“Well, that wasn’t your fault.”
“You got that right. But she doesn’t see it that way. You know, ‘nag, nag, nag, you’re supposed to be the responsible one.’ I’m all like, ‘I didn’t knare that that would happen!’ In the end all that matters is that we got through it.”
“She must know that, though.”
“I think she does, but it’s partly about his past, too.”
Jared asked, “How so?”
“Well, Oliver was in juvenile hall for about half a year when he was a teenager.”
“Really? I never knew.”
“He doesn’t like to talk about it. He says ‘its part of a past he isn’t proud of and would be glad to forget.’”
“So why did he even tell you?”
“Because of Mike. You see Oliver got interested and stayed interested in computers through hacking. He was buddies with that Geppetto guy until he got arrested. He was still a minor, so they put him in juvenile hall. He said he remembers it as juvenile hell, though. Oliver told me that if Mike started getting interested in the darker aspects of the craft he wouldn’t help him. Oliver wants to tell Mike what happened to him, kind of like a scare you straight program, but he doesn’t want to go through it. Oliver doesn’t want to have to remember. He’s hoping he won’t have to, but the way he said it, it was like it was inevitable.”
“Wow, that’s pretty intense. It’s a good thing he got through it.”
They talked a while longer before the silence returned. It would not have been called an uncomfortable silence. They did not have to talk. They were comfortable with quiet.
As it got late, they were getting ready to call it a night when the lights outside the general’s house came on. His entire driveway lit up with lights that lined both sides. It was tough to see from the parking lot, but all of the children and the general were out.
“Look for the wife,” Aaron said.
They both looked, but the car began to leave without them noticing her. The car was like a limo, it was so large. However, it wasn't a limo, or even chauffeured. As the car reached the roadway Jared said, “The parents must still be inside.”
“Look again,” said Aaron.
Jared looked and saw two more people getting into an older compact car. Through binoculars, he could tell they must be old enough to be the in-laws. The small car caught up with the general’s car, which was still at the front of the driveway. Both cars pulled off into the road and drove off.
As soon as they were gone, Jared said, “Now?”
“No, we have to wait, in case they turn back. We also have to make sure the wife is gone.”
Aaron made them wait to insure it was . . . most likely . . . clear. When the time had finally past, Aaron said, “OK, let’s go.”
They both put on gloves then got out carrying small bags. They walked slowly to the house. Aaron had said they should appear casual to avoid looking suspicious. The door was massive and looked like it was made of mahogany. Glancing at the door you could tell it was thick, so thick you would need a dozen people with a battering ram to open it. This was not just a symbolically solid and secure door; this was a physically secure door.
Aaron knocked loudly on the door. The door defied him by only making the faintest of sounds. The door mocked them saying they were no match for Peng. Aaron knocked again, this time so hard his knuckles bruised against the wood. They waited and when there was no answer they worked on letting themselves in.
Fortunately for Jared and Aaron, the door was not as technologically secure as it was physically secure. Using an image like the picture Sarah had used at the little general’s they were able to get past the iris scanning security panel. The door opened and after Aaron started the jammer, they crept inside. The door closed with a bang as if to say it could be loud when it wanted to be loud.
As they turned from the door, a dog came from one of the halls and started snarling at them. The dog was medium sized; it had a fine golden fur. The tail was short and pointed up with a slight curl. From the dog’s stop to its muzzle was a thickening black fur. The dog was most likely a Shar-Pei or Shar-Pei mix.
Jared stepped back. Even though the dog was at most 100 pounds, he was scared. Jared was not much of an animal lover. Jared had had a dog as a child, but the dog was gentle. This dog looked like it was going to try to eat them both for dinner. Jared eyed the door, but the dog was too close. He would never make it.
Aaron stood straight and walked forward toward the charging dog, or charging “dog from hell,” as Jared would later call it. The dog could smell the fear on Jared. It enticed him. Jared seemed sure he was going to be bit. Later he would swear the dog seemed rabid. The dog completely ignored Aaron and as it got to them, it lunged to go around Aaron and attack Jared. Aaron stepped in front of Jared, putting his hand out straight and flat as if to say stop. Still, the dog tried to go around Aaron, as if Aaron was just a statue. While it was unlikely the dog knew English, Aaron firmly said, “Stop.”
The dog paused, finally noticing Aaron. Its tail drooped a bit forward, and it gave a dog version of a small smile.
The dog looked down again toward Jared. When the dog barked Aaron said, “NO.”
The dog looked back up at Aaron, and then shook its head as if it sneezed. After the head shake, it turned around and walked to a soft chair that it jumped onto and then sat down. It was as if the dog had decided to ignore them both.
Aaron said firmly to Jared, “Don’t act afraid, and it will leave you alone.”
Jared whispered back, “Easy for you to say.”
“Jared, you’re like three times bigger than it. It won’t hurt you unless you let it hurt you.”
Jared dropped the conversation and started walking in, away from the dog. They split up with Jared installing Oliver’s e-spy software and Aaron putting up the bugs and cameras.
The house was magnificent. It was immaculate. It was as if nobody lived there. Even the dog’s fur was not noticeable throughout the house. In the middle of the living room was a giant fish tank. It had several types of fish that were native to the area. The tank was so large that it needed a filter that sounded like a toilet being flushed. Upstairs there was a large fountain. The fountain was mostly made of a black rock that made it look like a mountain. A slow stream poured down the rock and into a small pool at the bottom. On each side of the fountain was a dragon. The dragons were like long serpents whose bodies were woven around the rocks. They had thin legs leading to tremendous feet. On top of their backs were thin delicate wings that seemed impossibly small to allow flight. If these had been real animals, they would be like the ostrich or penguin. They had huge snake-like heads with red tongues that reached out but had a V cut out of the tips. Behind each ear was a long horn.
Everything went well, at least at first. When Aaron finished, he found Jared finishing with one of the computers.
“There, I’ve put the cameras in all the important rooms,” declared Aaron. “I skipped the bathrooms; I really don’t know why Sarah is so obsessed with bathrooms.”
“It must be a woman thing. You know how they spend hours in bathrooms.”
Aaron shrugged, “Maybe. It’s disgusting if you ask me.”
They went through the house to find any computers Jared had missed. In what seemed like the master bedroom they found what must have been Peng’s computer. The master bedroom was rather modest for the highest ranked general of the world’s largest standing army. It had a king-sized bed with a pseudo-traditional look. It had four wooden posts that met a thin canopy near the ceiling. The room was sparsely decorated and filled with mostly white, red, and a few pastel pieces of furniture. There were two dressers. One had a small antique-looking washbasin. The other dresser had a medium sized mirror, some cheap but dignified jewelry, a large metal hairbrush, and some make-up.
Peng’s computer was the only one with special security on it. First, the computer had a thumb-pad. They used the thumb-pad faker to bypass it. While the e-spy software used English, the BIOS software used Chinese characters, which neither of them could read. The screen would not change after the thumb-pad.
Aaron took out a small digital camera from his bag. He took a picture of the screen. Through the camera’s interface, he chose text capture. Aaron had installed the Chinese translation dictionary to the camera in case they needed it. Symbol by symbol the camera slowly translated the text into English. It eventually said, ‘Please print voice password.’
It was a poor translation, but Aaron said, “I think it wants a voice password.”
“Do you think it just needs his voice or certain words?”
Jared pulled out a small digital sound editor. It was small, barely bigger than a credit card and only a centimeter thick. Jared poked at the touch screen on the digital sound editor then played a recording of the general’s voice they had gotten from the internet. After it played, the screen flashed red and a new line of Chinese text appeared.
Jared said, “That’s probably an error.”
Jared tried several other recordings they had gotten. Each time the screen flashed and another line of text was printed onto the screen. Aaron whispered, “Can we piece together a password phrase?”
“We can, but it will take forever since we don’t have that many phonetics of his voice and since we don’t know Chinese.”
“Use the translator.”
Jared shrugged as if the translator would not help, but still he pulled his out from the bag. He put it on and continued to work on the password.
After a few minutes, Aaron snapped his fingers and said, “The jammer. We need to turn the jammer off.”
“If we turn the jammer off, won’t we be seen . . . if there is surveillance equipment here?”
“Get under the desk. We’ll turn it off under the desk and pull the microphone down there to play it.”
Jared got under. Aaron picked up the microphone and then went under. It was a tight fit, but the desk was large enough to allow it.
“Let’s do this quickly,” said Aaron.
Aaron turned off the jammer, and Jared played the recording. A small beep came from the computer above them. Aaron turned the jammer back on. Jared went to get up, but Aaron used his arm to stop him. Jared whispered, “What’s wrong?”
Jared listened but could not hear anything. Even the constant sound of water that seemed to envelop the house because of the fish tank and the fountain remained unheard. Then they heard the sound of a door close. The dog barked a few times and through the translator, Jared heard a women’s voice say, “Sit. Good dog.”
Jared whispered, “Somebody’s here.”
“It must be the general’s wife.”
They both got up from under the table cautiously. The screen now had the familiar English of the e-spy installer program.
Aaron said, “Finish installing it quickly!”
Aaron went to the bedroom door, then shut, and locked it. The lock was set into the handle. Aaron mentally chastised himself for not noticing if the door had a way to unlock from the outside. It probably did though, since they had children; it probably just needed a small screwdriver or a long needle. It was too dangerous to live in a house where a child can lock him or herself from the parents.
The room had a few windows. As Jared worked, Aaron looked out each of them. The first two looked out the side of the house. The first one had a straight drop to a small garden. The second had the same drop to the same garden. The last window, which was on the rear wall, had a few feet and then a gently sloping roof. From that roof, it looked possible to jump the rest of the way. Aaron quickly unlocked the window and pulled it open. The window’s glass was so well insulated there was no outer screen or windowpane.
Aaron put on his own translator then went over to see how Jared was doing. Jared whispered, “Almost done.”
Jared whispered into the microphone the various commands. As he whispered, “Set e-spy to auto-run,” they could hear footsteps from outside the room. It sounded like she was coming up the stairs. She would be in the hall the room was off of in seconds.
Aaron wanted to whisper ‘hurry,’ but he knew it would not help. Jared was going as fast as he could. You could see sweat begin to bead on Jared’s brow.
The footsteps changed. She had to be walking toward the door. The doorknob started turning clockwise. Then it rattled. The doorknob then quickly turned counter-clockwise.
As Aaron watched the door Jared was whispering, “Set e-spy to delete recordings on February 20th, 2018.” Jared let out a quiet curse then whispered again, “Set e-spy to delete recordings on February 20th, 2018.” Aaron realized Jared’s voice must not have picked up, forcing him to repeat. The jammer probably was not helping, even with Oliver’s de-encryption code. They did not have time to make mistakes; if they were caught, the whole mission might be ruined.
The doorknob turned clockwise again and rattled. The woman muttered, possibly confounded by the door. She might have spoken words, but the sounds went too fast for Aaron to replay in his mind.
The footsteps padded off for a few seconds. There were some metallic sounds where the feet had gone like somebody fumbling through a poorly organized toolset. As the footsteps started back Jared said, “Power down.”
Aaron heard Jared as the computer’s hard-drive started to thrash. The computer then went silent and Aaron knew it was done. He turned to Jared and pointed to the rear window. They grabbed their things and went quickly toward the window. As they did, they heard metal scraping on the doorknob.
This was it. She had found something to open the door, and within seconds they would be caught. Aaron wanted to tell Jared that at all costs he could not let the woman see his face. It was too late to talk; she was too close. Aaron ushered Jared through the window. A very distinct click sounded from the doorknob. She had it. It was unlocked, and they were going to be discovered.
Jared stuck his right leg out, then his head. His right foot easily reached the roof below. With ease, Jared was out and raced to the end of the ceiling.
As Aaron started to put his right leg through, he heard the door open and a controlled scream, no, not a scream, a shout. Aaron had expected a scream, expected it so much that at first, he heard a scream, but it was too controlled to be a scream. No, it was a shout, more shouting and he heard her voice interpreted through the translator demanding, “Stop, who are you?”
Aaron ignored her as he moved his head out and finally his left leg. Aaron ran toward Jared, who was at the edge of the roof trying to lower himself down to the ground below. Even from this lower roof, they were still high. It could easily have been eight or even nine feet to the ground. Jared dangled his legs down with his feet pointing in toward the house. He eventually got to a position where he was simply hanging from his hands. Jared let go.
When Jared dropped down Aaron could no longer see him. When he got to the edge, he did not spare the time to look before quickly repeating the same dismount Jared had just performed. As Aaron fell all he heard was the translator speaking for her and saying, “You have nowhere to run.”
In the split second before he hit the ground, Aaron wondered if she was right. How quickly would the police arrive? Would it be the police, or would it be the military? Maybe it would even be a private security force like the one he had run.
Jared staggered against the wall of the house away from the window and toward the road. The voice of the woman seemed like a whisper just barely audible but far too silent to make out.
Aaron landed in almost exactly the same spot Jared had landed. Aaron landed like a professional. He relaxed his body and let his legs slowly absorb the fall. Aaron quickly caught up to Jared. Jared ran with a sort of limp. It made him look like he was skipping instead of running. Aaron knew how ironic it would seem if they got away.
They quickly got to the road and crossed it. Neither of them looked back to see if she had gone downstairs to pursue them. They quickly got into the car, with Aaron in the driver’s seat, and sped off. Aaron finally looked toward the house to see if she pursued, and in a way was glad to see she had not. In another way, it meant she was probably signaling the police, or the military, or even a security force. As they drove away, Aaron watched to see if they were followed. How long would whomever she called take? They drove around Beijing for almost an hour to make sure nobody followed them. As far as they could tell, they had made it.
Copyright (C) 1998-2001 East Coast Games, Inc. and 2001 - 2006 Forest J. Handford