The Long War, Part XXIII - Hornless Dragon

He was being followed.

His pursuers were not particularly well versed in tradecraft, and he had no difficulties making them out from the normal denizens of Kowloon. They were too well-dressed to fit in, and their dark glasses were a dead giveaway - they might as well have branded the words "SPY" on their foreheads. It would have been comical if they weren't so relentless. Three, four, five time Chilong thought he'd shaken them, only to find more lounging in front of his route, trying to appear inconspicious, then falling in casually behind him as he passed. That meant they were tracking him not just by foot, or by car, but also through other means. He wondered if there was something in the contents of his briefcase giving him away, then dismissed the thought - if that had been the case they would have broken down the door of the fleabag hotel where he'd slept, and taken him while he was asleep. No, he guessed that his face had been seen by facial recognition software while moving through downtown Hong Kong, and the results processed and sent to the capture teams trawling the metropolis for him. He knew who - what - was following him, and he knew that they were systematically plugging themselves into every network in the world, secure or otherwise, and availing themselves of the massive streams of data flowing through kilometers of fibre optic cables crisscrossing the world. He resolved to change the pattern of his face at the next available opportunity. The bottleneck for the enemy at this point was Earth technology, and while their computational ability was phenomenol, they still had to work with the limits of current gen facial recognition software. Chilong knew how to beat those.

His most recent tail was a woman, and a quite attractive one at that. Her appearance made her stick out like a sore thumb, however, and he was able to shake her in a warren of streets crammed with stalls filled with animal and vegetable produce. He crashed into a stall owner by mistake, and the man whirled around furiously with a shouted rebuke on his lips. The rebuke melted away along with the belligerence on the man's face when he saw Chilong's face. Even in his middle age Chilong possessed the build of the soldier he used to be, and a massive scar running along the length of his cheek added to the intimidating aura around the man. Chilong almost laughed at the expression on the man's face, but kept his composure, bowed and said "Dui bu qui" as he kept moving past. He needed to get under cover - he suspected that his pursuers were somehow tracking him from the sky, and he wanted to change his profile and silhoutte before re-emerging into the open.

His chance soon came when he dived into the ground floor of a rickety building filled with what seemed to be a never ending row of cheap clothes, shoes and sneakers. Winding his way deeper into the building he found a stall where he bought a hat, some glasses and a heavy overcoat for five times its regular price, then slipped into filthy, reeking lavatory where he could change. He ditched his old jacket and replaced it with his new acquisition. The glasses he inscribed with an alternating zebra stripe pattern with a marker pen, which he then donned along with the hat. As he was finishing he heard a strange humming. He soon found the source - an insect was trying to get into the lavatory through a small hole in the fly screen covering the only window into the latrine. Its body was rattling against the mesh as it tried to worm its way through the opening. Upon closer inspection the insect turned out to be a small metallic drone with a central black eye of some kind, and Chilong immediately realized how his pursuers had been keeping up with him. He grabbed the drone, which was no bigger than a ball bearing, and tried to crush it with his hand, without any success. The drone rolled and skittered in his hand, but whatever impelled through the air was not strong enough to escape a human grip. He pondered on how best to dispose of the drone, before finally deciding to adopt the simplest and most elegant solution of hurling the thing into the nearest toilet and flushing it. He closed the lid for good measure. He would have liked to keep it, but he didn't want to take the risk of being tracked through the drone's position.

He left the bathroom hurriedly, keeping his eyes open for signs of his pursuers. Seeing no men or women in black he immediately returned to the stall where he bought the coat, and delighted the elderly stall owner by buying another coat and hat, this time in a different make and color, but at the same exorbitant prices. He half-heartedly asked for an exchange, offering his original purchases in supplication, but was denied. The stall owner pointed self-righteously at a crude, hand-written sign above the stall stating "No Exchanges or Refunds", and Chilong defeated, just nodded and forked over his money. His last glimpse of the stall was the sight of the owner picking up his discarded purchases, and shamelessly putting them back on display.

Back outside he made good time. There was no sign of his pursuers. He still exercised caution, sweeping his tail at regular intervals and keeping his face averted from cameras and people, all the while following an unpredictable and zigzagging route. He passed several TVs displaying hourly updates of the unfolding crisis in the East China Sea, and shook his head at the news that Admiral Wu had occupied the Diaoyu islands. The man he served under would never have done anything as rash or provocative as this, but he already knew that Wu was not responsible. The clutter of shops, stalls and human traffic soon thinned as Chilong approached his destination. The warehouses at the docks had always been a hive for illegal activity, and now Chilong was on his way to meet a union man who moonlit as a fence, forger and smuggler. Upon arrival he was greeted by a few of the man's associates, and immediately sensed that something was amiss. He decided to abort the meeting and turned to leave, only to find another man behind him wielding a handgun pointed at Chilong's chest. A familiar voice bellowed out a cheerful greeting.

"Zhang! It's been too long, my friend."

"Well, Po," said Chilong. "I am disappointed in you."

"I'm sorry, Zhang," replied Po. "Money talks, my brother, and you're worth quite a bit these days. What the hell are you wearing? You look ridiculous."

"Just trying to keep inconspicuous. I don't suppose doubling your fee will help?"

"Afraid not," Po said regretfully. "If it's any consolation the price on you is phenomenal. What did you do? Kill a party official or something?"

"Who's paying you? The government?"

"I don't think so," Po replied. "They don't feel like government, and the way they deal, they don't want too much attention on themselves. But what they do have is a lot of money. Every Triad gang in Hong Kong is looking for you."

"Po, what would say if I told you that the people you're dealing with are not humans, but aliens?"

Po chortled with genuine mirth, a belly laugh that spread to his men who momentarily lost their grim miens and chuckled. "I heard that you'd lost your mind. It looks like they weren't lying."

"Po, we've dealt with each other many times. Have I ever lied to you? Ever reneged on my part of the deal?"

"Zhang, the only difference between now and then is that back then, you were a scary party official with the PLA at your back. Now you're just a fugitive, hunted by everyone without a single friend in sight."

"I thought you were my friend."

"Friend might be stretching it. Associate, maybe. Besides this isn't personal. What would you do if you were offered this much money?"

"I would decline, and honor the promises I have made, especially to someone who has always treated me with courtesy and respect."

Po frowned. "I'm sorry, Zhang. I truly am." He looked away. "Besides, it's too late. They're here."

From the rear of the warehouse emerged two more of Po's men, escorting two well dressed people. They had lithe, graceful gaits, and as they emerged from the shadows Chilong recognized the woman shadowing him earlier. The man he didn't recognize, but he had the characteristic length of limb and torso that marked him as one of the infiltrators. The thin man appeared to be one of the earlier iterations of his kind - his skin was pockmarked with what appeared to burn marks around his neck, and he wore dark sunglasses which hid his jaundiced yellow of his eyes. Chilong had run into his kind before, and knew what they looked like. But he had encountered more and more of them in passing, and each time they became more human-like in appearance. The woman accompanying the thin man was strikingly beautiful. She had porcelain skin and fine delicate features framed by straight black shoulder length hair. There were audible gasps from the men in the room when they saw the girl for the first time. Even Po, who prided himself in his worldliness, appeared momentarily dumbstruck. He regained his composure, and greeted the woman with a stupid, silly grin on his face.

Chilong covered his face with a handkerchief. The men were not only reacting to her appearance, but also to odorless chemicals she was releasing. He knew this first hand - he had thought it was love at first sight when it happened to him the first time. This was part of their modus operandi, one of their basic routes into positions of power. A beautiful girl or a handsome man casually striking up a conversation at a bar or restaurant or hotel lobby or cocktail party with an unhappily married off-duty general or admiral or politician. Chilong once considered himself to be iron-willed, but even he had been seduced by the biological cocktail artificially concocted by the visitors, all artfully contrived to strip their marks of their defenses. Only once they were alone in the embrace of their dream lover would the real horror start.

Even with the handkerchief Chilong could feel himself being swept away by the woman's charms. A detached, analytical part of his mind noted that the pheromones appeared to be affecting the men differently. Some appeared to be falling in love for the first time. Others stared hungrily at her with unvarnished lust and desire, while some men looked like they were about to fall on their knees to a vision of some sacred goddess. He wondered if the infiltrators could regulate the amount of pheromones they released into the air, and decided that they must - effective seduction of a mark required finesse and precision, otherwise jealous suitors fighting for attention could jeopardize the operation. This infiltrator must have had her - its - emitters turned up at full blast, blanketing the area with its heady musk. But Chilong had one advantage over the rest of the men, and that was that he'd experienced this before. Po's men had failed to frisk and disarm him, and he seized his chance while they were all distracted. With practiced ease he spun around and grabbed the gun of his captor, pointing the weapon towards the roof of the store. He didn't want to kill any humans, accidentally or otherwise. Po's men were all related one way or another to the fence, and the death of one of them would seal Chilong's fate thanks to the complex code of conduct which ruled over the Triads. Shocked and surprised his captor - he recognized him as Po's cousin - failed to react in time, and he was disarmed with deft aplomb by the ex-special forces soldier. With his left hand around the neck of Po's cousin Chilong levelled the weapon at Po with his right.

Chilong's actions snapped everyone out of their reverie, and for now he had everyone's full attention. Po opened his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Zhang - there's no way out of this. Put the gun down."

"I'm afraid I can't."

"You wouldn't shoot an old friend, would you?"

"I thought we were just associates."

"More like trusted partners, now that I think about it."

Chilong laughed. "You were always a funny guy, Po. That's why I like you." He motioned to the men flanking the visitors. "Tell your men to move away from them."

Po looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Because I don't want them to get hurt."

Po still looked confused, but with a curt bark he ordered his men to move back. "Your move, Zhang."

"This is what you're dealing with, Po." With that Chilong shot the simulacrum squarely in the chest. Such was the compulsion the pheromones had that Chilong had difficulties pulling the trigger. The others reacted similarly. A combined roar of rage and fury and outrage began in a dozen different throats, only to change into shock and horror as the woman's chest exploded in a ball of green acrid smoke. The ruined remains of the creature's torso collapsed to the floor, all the while belching forth noxious fumes. The stench, combined with the grisly and unnatural remains, purged any residual effects the pheromones might have had. One member of Po's crew had remained too close to the woman, and the unfortunate man was splattered with green acid, which immediately fizzed and burned his exposed skin. He began to scream in pain.

The woman's partner let out an unnatural howl of rage, and pulled a weapon from his coat with unnatural speed. Chilong was ready, and he fired several rounds before the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Po's cousin had loaded the weapon with a half empty clip. By some miracle the shots only hit limbs or grazed the chest of the thin man, and there was no spectacular detonation which characteristically accompanied direct hits to the creature's lung chamber. But the shots effectively disarmed the thin man, as its right arm hung uselessly after a bullet went through the shoulder joint. Its weapon clattered to the floor, and it was immediately snatched up by one of Po's men. Moments later it was dropped with a surprised yelp - the silver and green object had resembled an exotic pistol of some kind, but was now visibly melting and collapsing into itself. A second man, heavily tattooed and muscle bound, looked at Chilong and the thin man in confusion, unsure of which threat he was supposed to neutralize. At a nod from Po, the muscled thug turned his attention to the thin man.

"Don't get too close," Chilong warned. "They're much stronger than they look."

Po's man ignored him, and kept advancing. He motioned for the thin man to lie on the floor. The thin man stood quiscent and ignored him until the man was close enough, and then suddenly lashed out with a front kick which propelled the man across the warehouse. The man slammed into a rack of shelves, knocking them over, and there he lay, groaning in agony. The rest of Po's men drew their weapons, but the thin man was already moving. In a single fluid movement the creature leapt through a window, falling two stories down and landing on its feet like a cat amidst a shower of broken glass. To the disbelief of all present, the creature sprang up once more and leapt two stories upwards onto the roof of an adjacent warehouse before sprinting away into the gathering dusk.

Po and his men stared at Chilong wordlessly. 

"As I said," Chilong said. "Aliens." He released Po's cousin and returned his weapon, then walked to Po's man where he lay among the fallen shelves. He lifted up the shirt, noted the black and blue coloration of his chest, and did a few gentle pokes which elicited more gasps of pain. "Broken ribs, internal bleeding. You need to get him to a hospital." He turned to the other man who had been sprayed with acid. He was whimpering in pain. "Just superficial burns. You're lucky you weren't closer. I did tell you to move away."

Po made a quick gesture, and three men began building a makeshift stretcher with the assistance of Chilong. Po left but returned a few minutes later. Chilong felt a tap on his shoulder as he was tending to the fallen man, and saw a large brown paper envelope thrust towards his face.

"Your new passport. Plane tickets. ID. Like we agreed on."

Chilong reached into his shirt pocket to pay Po, but the fence waved him off with a curt gesture. "Consider it an apology." 

"Thank you."

"What are they?" The woman's remains had been consumed by the acid, and was no longer recognizable as being human. Only a smoking green-tinged slurry remained.

"I don't know. But they're not just flying around in the skies anymore. They're walking among us, and they're taking over our structures and institutions."

"Such a shame, really. She was beautiful."

"Taking her home would not have ended well for you."

"Talking from experience, Zhang?"

Chilong nodded grimly.

Po laughed. "That would have been a night to remember. And still - it would almost be worth it."

"No. It wouldn't. If you're lucky, they'll just kill you and replace you with something that looks like you. If you're unlucky, they'll turn you into a prisoner in your own body. They'll chain your will and volition to a dark corner of your mind while you do terrible things - kill your friends - murder your own family - and all you can do is watch."

Po stared at Chilong.

"That's why we need to fight these things," Chilong said flatly. "They're not here to help us, uplift us, or bring us gifts from above. They have come to subjugate us, for their own purposes, and they don't care how they do it. There's no compassion in them, no affinity, no empathy. They care nothing for human life, and they will turn the world into a charnel pit to get what they want."

Po shook his head. "I'm not sure if I can believe what you're saying, Zhang. I'm not sure if I want to."

"It doesn't matter what you believe, Po. But they'll come back here to look for their compatriots, and to erase any signs of their passing. Better watch your back."

"If they come back here, they will regret it. Get out of Hong Kong, Zhang. My boys are loyal, but they can't keep their mouths shut. Word will get out."

"I understand."

"Good luck to you."

Chilong bowed. "And you, old friend." 

Po laughed again. "Get the fuck out of here. As I said, all of Hong Kong is looking for you, and not everyone has scruples that you can manipulate, you sneaky motherfucker. But one more thing. Someone left a message on your bulletin board. I was monitoring it while we were looking for you. Someone calling himself Dacheng. You might want to take a look at it."

"I will." With that Chilong shook Po's hand, and disappeared back into the maze of Kowloon.

Next: The Long War, Part XXIV - Enter Chilong


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