"Traitor, Part 2"
The boots weren't really my size. I'm a 45, these were a 44.5. Not a huge difference, until you're on your feet for three days -- then, you'll sure notice.
I'd made it out of Beijing by bus. I'd dressed in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that day, so I don't know if I blended in, but I didn't look too much different than anyone else on that particular bus. The bus stopped at a truck stop outside the city, and I managed to hook a ride with a truck driver from Beijing to Chengde. He didn't seem interested in talking, which was good -- but he smoked about eight cigarettes an hour, which made me feel lightheaded. Would've helped if he maybe cracked a window.
When Reiner called, it was getting dark -- it was pretty late at night when we trundled into Chengde at another truck stop. I offered the driver some cash, but he waved dismissively and grumbled. He was much happier with the four packs of cigarettes I bought for him inside the truck stop.
Beijing to Troitskoye is only about 1,300 miles by road -- not a short jaunt, but not three days, either. The truck stop was nearly abandoned when we got there, and it didn't look like I had much chance of catching another ride east, so I grabbed a bed for the night and rested until morning.
In the morning, still no cars going by. No trucks, no nothing. I was starting to get worried -- did I walk into town to try and secure transport, or keep waiting at the truck stop? In the end, I decided to walk into town. As I walked, a kid buzzed by me on a decade-old Lifan LF400 motorcycle -- he quickly pulled over in front of me and pulled off his helmet.
"Hey! Can you give me a lift?" I yelled to him.
"You got 3500 yuan? I'll sell you this bike for 3500 yuan."
I didn't have that much cash on me -- not even close, really. And I doubted the bike was worth that.
"I don't have that much," I told him, shrugging.
The kid got off the bike as I walked to him. He looked me up and down.
"That's a nice watch, man," he said.
My watch was a fake Rolex I'd bought for $25 on the street in Los Angeles in 2010. It still kept excellent time, and hadn't tarnished or anything, but the watch face said "Rulex." I shrugged and took it off.
"Yours if you want to trade for the bike," I told him.
"Deal, man. Deal."
The kid took the watch and put it on, then tossed me his helmet and walked off down the road. I couldn't help that it struck me as a bit odd, but I wasn't going to question it. I got on the still-idling bike, threw it in gear, and took off.
I hadn't ridden a motorcycle since I'd lived in the US, and then, it had been a Honda Shadow. That had been a hell of a bike -- the Lifan was a piece of shit. I managed to coax it up to 50 miles an hour, but it felt like it was going to shake apart under me. Still, I rode for the next eight hours straight before I had to refuel, just outside of Changchun. I took a break and had some coffee -- while I was in the bathroom, the phone in my jacket rang (I'd taken it out of the boot).
"Yeah. Chink -- dammit, sorry. Chinese police have your name and picture on bulletin. They went to your apartment when you didn't show up for your appointment this morning."
"Do you know where they're looking?" I asked.
"Within 200 miles of Beijing, at the moment. But it'll be out to the whole country soon. Do you have your identification with you?"
"Burn it. Try to stay off the main highways if you can. If you can lay your hands on someone else's papers, do it. Keep your face out of public view if you can."
"I'll do what I can. Look, how solid is this 72-hour timeline? I'm moving a lot slower than I thought I would."
"It's rock-solid. If you don't raise the extraction team on time, they'll be gone. You can't expect them to hang out in a zone that hot."
"Right. I'll make it."
"Yeah, you'd better. My screens are saying. . . well, they won't be nice to you if they catch you."
I was going to say something else, but the line went dead. I wasn't sure if Rainer had just hung up, or if the connection had been intercepted. Either way, it was time to move, so I got back on the fully-fueled bike and tore off.
* * *
I was in Mingshanzhen, just short of the old border to Russia, when I came off the bike the next morning. I was only doing about 25 miles an hour, but I still managed to scrape myself up pretty badly. Both forearms were streaming blood, and my left leg hurt like hell when I stood on it.
The bike was a write-off. I tried starting it, but nothing happened. Standing there on the side of the road, looking at the military bridge across the Heilong Jiang into the former Russian Federation, the worst happened -- a police car pulled up behind me and the wrecked bike.
"Looks like you had an accident, there," the officer said, getting out of his car. "You all right?"
"Fine," I said, smiling.
"You don't look fine. You look like you're bleeding."
"It's a scratch. I'll be fine."
The officer looked at me for a long moment.
"Identification," he spat.
As Reiner had told me, I'd burned it the day before. I hadn't found any more just lying around.
"I lost it when I crashed. It has to be around here somewhere," I told him. I moved to act like I was looking for it, but I had no idea what my plan was.
"Stand still," the officer hissed. "And put your hands out at your sides."
Shit. This wasn't going well at all. I considered just running -- there were a lot of storage containers between me and the bridge, so the officer couldn't chase me with his car. He was old and heavy -- if my leg hadn't been messed up, I might have been able to lose him. I'd still have to figure a way across the bridge, which was under heavy guard, but at one problem at a time.
"You look like you're going to run," the officer said. "Don't. I might not be able to run you down, but I'm an excellent shot."
I sighed and put my hands out at my side. It was quiet for a few seconds -- I could hear drops of blood from my arms hitting the pavement.
The officer put his gun back in his holster and looked around.
"How's your right hook, Doctor Li?" he asked.
"Um. . . what?"
"Your right hook. Your punch. Is it good?"
"I'm a scientist. I've never punched anyone."
"Easiest thing in the world. Ball up your fist and swing it at my head. There's a spare uniform in the trunk of my car. It's a little big, but it should get you over the bridge. Just make sure you leave a good bruise on my face."
"Why? Why help me?"
"The Americans have something I need. Money. Now, just do it. And do it fast -- there are other patrols out in the area."
* * *
I did make it across the bridge in the officer's car. His spare uniform was dirty, and smelled terrible -- I had no idea what he'd spilled on it, but whatever it was had gone rancid. I was only 300 miles from Troitskoye, but I wasn't going to make it there in a regional police car from Heilongjiang -- that would definitely raise more than a few eyebrows.
I parked the car at the military encampment just inside the former Russian Federation and looked around. I was lucky enough to wander into the laundry -- I stole some Army uniform pants and a jacket and changed into them. The pants were a little short, but I tucked them into the boots and no one gave me a second look.
As I was considering my options, a short, red-faced man in an officer's uniform came over and yelled at me.
"Corporal! Your unit is supposed to be headed to Troitskoye! Why aren't you with them?"
"I, uh. . ."
"That truck. Now! It'll get you to your unit. You'll be late, but you'll have to deal with the consequences."
I nodded and hopped into the back of the truck he indicated. It was a cargo truck, and I was the only human in the back with boxes of food and ammo. The truck pulled off slowly, and I curled up and tried to sleep.
* * *
I checked my watch -- it was 20 minutes until I was supposed to extract, but the truck was still moving. I had no idea where we were, but I pulled the radio from my right boot and turned it on.
"This is Arnold," I said in English, then remembered -- Chinese. I repeated myself in Mandarin.
"Well, hi there, Arnold," the reply came back a few seconds later. It was full of static. "This is 47 Echo."
Whoever was on the other end spoke Chinese like a native.
"I'm close, I know. But I don't know exactly where I am," I said.
"I'm getting your position now. You're. . . well, you're heading away from town. You've overshot the mark."
"Shit. What do I do?"
The response took several seconds, but it was much clearer this time -- almost no delay at all.
"Where are you? Your signal is moving."
"Back of a Chinese Army truck. I'm dressed in an enlisted uniform, travelling with cargo."
"Yeah. I see your truck. Hang on to something."
I grabbed some straps attached to the truck's frame. A few seconds later, the entire truck jerked as if it had hit something. I heard an explosion, and the truck slammed over onto its side. A box of ammo hit me in the chest and knocked the wind out of me. As my head rolled to the side, I saw a car pull up to the back of the truck. It was all light gray, and all of the windows were blacked out. The passenger door swung up and open, and I saw a man sitting in the driver's seat.
"Shake a leg!" he yelled in English. "We're measuring our lives in seconds, here!"
I pulled myself out from under the boxes and limped to the car, then threw myself inside. The door scissored down, and the driver hit the gas. There was almost no noise as we sped off.
"Dr. Li, I hope," the driver told me, waving with his left hand. I noticed that his last two fingers were robotic. He was young, maybe 30, and looked Chinese, but he was dressed in black American military fatigues.
"Yes, that's me. You are?"
"Just the guy who got stuck picking you up. Hang on -- we've got some patrol vehicles chasing us."
"Can we outrun them in this thing?" I asked.
The young man turned to me and smiled.
"Man, this thing can outrun anything the Chinese Army has."
I could tell he was right as he pushed the accelerator to the floor and the speedometer sped up past 200 miles an hour.
"So, how's your day going?" the young man winked as we headed for the new Russian border.