For four days she had done little else than try to maintain her feeling of skeptical hopefulness, in part because there wasn’t much else that she could do. But Mac’s paranoia was infectious.
They had relocated Long Fei to their tent complex, which now seemed to take up most of the yard. In this, the largest tent, they had erected most of their computing gear. It was a small mountain’s worth of electronics, beige towers stacked one on top of another, a large enclosure filled with hard drives, some ancient-looking tech like oscilloscopes wired into the mix somehow. It stood, all in all, a good three feet taller than Haojing herself. Emerging from the center stood a tall, telescoping antenna, which they had deployed with great delicacy and from which long thing membranes were extended. When she had asked their purpose, Simon had simply said they were gathering data.
A part of her had wondered at the grand scale of what they had built, but she felt she had no real reason to worry. In the present age computers were cobbled together from whatever was available, and that made it difficult to estimate how much was necessary for a given task. Besides, they had made it clear that they were using her home as a temporary base of operations before their next move, which was the least she could do. She had offered access to the house itself, but Clay had forbidden it, saying that it would be too much of an imposition on her family’s privacy. They had moved Long Fei’s hub out to the tents, setting up a cot next to the computing tower. Seeing his hub attached to the complex machinery they had brought filled her with hope. And she could tell that Long Fei was thrilled to be out of his room, meeting new people, inquisitive young people like himself.
The first couple nights the Colony’s camp had a festive atmosphere. The younger members again built a fire, and they sat around it, drinking homebrew they had brought on the journey, talking late into the night. She could tell that they, too, were excited to be enjoying new experiences, free from the confines of their base. How long had they been there, she wondered, underground and remote in that environment? For a lifelong wanderer such as herself, that seemed stultifying, even as she envied their technology and their creature comforts. She had sat there, around the fire, next to Long Fei, joking and laughing along – though she did not dare drink any beer in sight of her house, even now. It was an experience the two of them had never been able to share as adult siblings before, and she was grateful for it.
But Mac was souring her mood.
He had not been unfriendly towards them, at least not at first. In part this may simply have been a consequence of his taking advantage of the food they had offered. But either way, he had greeted the Colony members with as close to friendliness as she thought he was capable of. But quietly, when they were alone, came his incessant questions.
“I don’t know, Mac,” she had said, to the point of exhaustion. He had queried endlessly about the Colony, asking her to report on their resources, their goals, what they had appeared to be up to in their base. In particular, he wanted specific answers about what the intended to do next, and she had no response.
“Nobody wants anything for free,” he said, gruffly. “Not out here. Not now.”
“I already told you, I helped them out of a jam,” she said. “And what about you, Mac? Why are you helping me, my family? What do you want to get out of us? Out of me?”
“I owe you,” he said, weakly.
“I already told you, you’ve paid off whatever debt you think you owe to me,” she said. “And I can’t have you here weighing on me like this. If you can’t just support me, support us, I need to ask you to leave.”
He stomped off, in anger, but she knew enough to know by now that he would stay. She had been so frustrated that she had gone to chat with Long Fei. He disconnected from his hub, which made her anxious, but he strode confidently towards the end of the property, so that they might chat in private.
“You shouldn’t be too hard on him,” said Long Fei. “It’s not unreasonable to be a bit worried.”
“Yeah, well, I’m a bit worried myself,” she said, picking up rocks and throwing them around the yard in frustration. “But I can’t take too many more of these questions.”
Long Fei picked up some rocks and joined her. For a moment it felt like nothing at home had changed.
“Can you feel anything yet?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“No. But remember when we ran Dr. Ian’s script. It took forever.”
She could only assent. She did not have much choice. There was no way to act on her suspicions, until Mac forced the issue.
She might have slept through it all, had she not taken to spending her nights in a sleeping bag next to Long Fei. Since she had returned home, her protectiveness and worry for him had multiplied, the strange fear of losing that preoccupies you when winning is closest at hand. She had crept up with her bag and laid it next to his cot, and he had stirred and jawed at her crankily; there was no surer way to put him in a bad mood than to appear to worry over him. But he had been placated quickly, as she chalked it up to her desire to be close to people she loved after her long journey, and soon he was snoring besides her.
This night that same familiar noise of his snoring was broken by shouting and commotion from one of the other tents. She sat bolt upright, getting immediately tangled in the sleeping bag. As she clumsily escaped, climbing into a crouch, the shouting intensified. She glanced over at Long Fei, who had risen to a seated position in the cot himself.
“Stay here,” she said.
He began to protest.
“I said stay here,” she said, commandingly, and he lied back down unhappily. She ran over towards another tent on the outskirts of their encampment, a big one, where much of the equipment was being housed. As she approached, four members of the Colony were surrounding Mac, pushing him onto a table. One of them, a severe younger woman with a tight military haircut, pulled out a set of plastic zip tie handcuffs and attempted to slip them around his wrists. He pushed and fought them, throwing around his huge body to avoid their control. But they were persistent and trained, and in a moment his forehead was pinned to the table, his hands secured behind his back. He swore at them angrily.
“Hey!” she shouted as she emerged into the light of their lamps. “Let him go!”
As she stepped further into the light, she realized that two of the Colony members were armed with submachine guns. The woman who had cuffed Mac turned towards her, standing in her path, putting a gloved hand up in the air.
“You need to stand down, ma’am.”
“That’s my friend, and this is my home,” she said, feeling heat rise in her cheeks.
“Your friend here was spying on us,” said one of the soldiers with the guns, who kept it trained at Mac’s back.
“They’re up to something, Haojing,” said Mac, still fighting as the biggest of the Colony’s soldiers held him against the table. “This isn’t some medical mission. Why do you have all those guns?”
“That’s none of your concern,” said the soldier. “Put him in the storage tent. Lock his arms to the beam.”
“I said let him go,” said Haojing with growing fury, as she moved towards Mac. “Where is Clay?”
The woman moved forward quickly to intercept her, grabbing Haojing by the wrist. She was taller than Haojing and impressively muscled. Enraged, Haojing tried to wrench her arm away, but the grasp was tight.
“Clay is not available,” said the soldier, staring into Haojing’s face from inches away. Haojing was about to rear back to throw a punch when Simon approached.
“What the hell is going on here?” he shouted. “Let her go.”
The soldier threw Haojing’s hand aside, but stood her ground.
“We caught him in the command tent,” said one of the armed soldiers. “We’re going to detain him.”
Simon walked over to Haojing and separated her from the soldier.
“Stand down,” he said to the latter. “I said stand down.”
Reluctantly, she wandered over to where the other soldiers were standing, beside Mac.
“And you calm down,” Simon admonished Haojing.
“This is my fucking house,” she said, wounded. “Where is Clay? I want to speak to him.”
“Clay is not available right now,” he said, leaning in and making eye contact. “Please, calm down and let me take care of this.”
He turned around and addressed the Colony’s members. She was taken with the change in his tone, barking out orders rather than speaking the language of a scientist in sharp tones.
“Get him off of that table.”
They grudgingly complied, lifting Mac to a standing position. For his part, he had stopped struggling.
“Put him in my tent, on the stool,” he said. “Secure him to frame of my bed. Gently.”
They dragged Mac off. Haojing continued to argue, but Simon took her by the hand and drew her behind a tent.
“Listen to me,” he said, with clear urgency. “Has it not processed for you that this is a paramilitary organization?”
She was taken aback by his tone, the palpable fear in his voice.
“Please, don’t be fooled by the fact that this group is full of academics,” he said, squeezing her hand for emphasis. “These people will kill you, if they feel like they have to.”
“Where is Clay?” she demanded.
“Clay has a sheath of wires thicker than your arm sticking out of his chest at the moment,” he said in exasperation. “And I’m not sure he’d help you if he were here.”
She shook her hands free of his. He turned and paced around for a moment. When he turned back towards her, his tone had softened.
“Listen I’m sorry for this, I am,” he said. “I’m going to help your friend, but you need to give me time. Please, just be patient. Everything’s going to be fine. Look, I’ve helped your brother. You need to just hold on.”
The color drained from her face.
“What do you mean, you have helped him?” she shouted. “Is it done? Is his implant fixed? What is happening?”
He threw his hands down in frustration and stalked away.
“Just wait, Miss Wang,” he called behind him. “Be patient. Just be patient.”