It's midnight in Beijing, and the Chinese General Secretary is sneaking through a public park like a common criminal, hoping no one sees him.
Wen Boxiong is in his forties: balding, plump, and plain. His thick, black eyeglasses are the most remarkable thing about him, so he's wearing them down his nose in a pathetic attempt at disguise.
He's also wearing a hooded windbreaker against the chill, with his hands stuffed in the pockets. Between that and how often he stops and looks around it's a wonder no one's mistaken him for a drug dealer, or a male prostitute.
Wouldn't that just be a great thing? "General Secretary Arrested on Suspicion of Importuning!" would scream the foreign papers, if the foreign papers cared to report actual news, anymore.
If the Imago would actually let them.
Eventually, he gets to the secluded, hardly-visited place where his contact offered to meet him. There's a aged metal statue, here, in a copse of trees that hasn't been trimmed or cleaned up in decades. And while it's not exactly a secret that it's there, no one likes to go there, anymore, as what's behind the wood has fallen into disfavor.
That statue's a large group of smiling, larger than life soldiers and peasants, who brandish weapons and tools, and urge their fellow citizens to fight against the fascists for the People and the Dream. Pretty innocuous, really -- it's just that it was made back when the Soviet Union and China were allies, and the plaque that was originally on it was exhorting those passing by to join their Russian allies in the struggle.
So when relations fell apart, the plaque came down. But putting another motto on there would be tantamount to admitting the failure of the ideal behind the statue. And while the statue was stirring without the plaque, the loss of that plaque marred the whole experience for those who knew what it once had been.
But taking the statue itself down? Unthinkable. That was something the Soviets did, not the Chinese.
So instead, they compromised; they transplanted trees around it, to hide it from immediate view, and as the trees grew, the statue was obscured. After a generation or so, no one knew what the statue had been for, or meant. It was just another visually-stirring but conceptually bland piece of state art that had been left to rot -- a hidden treasure no one knew about, unless you knew where to look, and why.
Beijing was full of such places, so when his new ally suggested they meet there, Wen had to ask which hidden statue he was talking about. And, in a way, he was glad it was this one; he'd discovered it, himself, as a young man, when he'd first come to this city to be part of its government, and over time it had figured into his dreams, and his personal mythology.
As he approaches, he whistles low, three times. Three high whistles greet him, and he enters the copse of trees. There, his contact leans against the statue, and walks forward to clasp his hand as Wen approaches.
"You ditched your guard?" the tall, skinny, and curious-looking Chinese man says, looking past Wen's shoulders.
"I did. I evoked my high party infallibility. Who could argue with such a thing?"
"Who could? I have to say I'm jealous. I could never shake my security details. They were stuck like glue."
"Well, I suppose you live in a more dangerous country than I?" Wen offers, smiling: "All those guns! And the freedom to stalk your target."
"Not so much, anymore," the man says, sadly: "But that's what we're here to talk about, right?"
"Yes, but... you are prepared to prove what you said?" Wen asks, taking a step back: "Because I have to say, the last place I expected to meet you again was as my new personal assistant. And while I only ever met you once, I do not remember you looking so... handsome?"
The other man smiles and nods. He pulls out something that looks like a small but technically complex flashlight.
"Now you don't see me?" he asks, turning the light on and holding it up to one side of his face. Then he slowly draws it across the bottom of his jaw, right to left.
As the light plays over his features, they change into something completely different. The Asian face melts into a different racial group, the ears move forward and shrink, and the hair gets short, tight, and curly.
By the time the light's at his left ear, Wen is convinced that he is talking to the former President of the United States of America.
"Now you do," the President says, in English, as he tries to smile.
"Does it hurt?" is all Wen can think to ask.
"Not as much as it should," the President admits as he rubs his cheeks: "I'd be lying if I said it didn't sting a little, though."
"What is it?"
"It's called a Fleshlight," he says: "Please don't laugh. They made them back in the 60's."
"Why would I laugh?" Wen asks.
"Oh, thank God," the President says, relieved. "Well, anyway, I'm not sure how this thing works, but if I don't change back soon, my real face will reject the false one, and if I try to use it I'll look like melted candle wax for the rest of my life."
"That sounds terrible."
"Yeah, that's why they stopped using them. So if you'll excuse me?"
The President turns the light back on, and moves it from left to right. As the light moves, it changes him back, so that he looks like the young, Chinese man that Wen Boxiong met three days ago.
"Remarkable," the General Secretary says: "So... what you said about our situation? This is also true?"
"Very true," the President says: "I have an ally, and he's very good at getting certain things accomplished. If we can get him some useful information, he might be able to use it against the Imago. And once we've got all our people up to speed on what we know, we can strike them as one fist, all at once, and they won't know what hit them."
"Not like the space elevator, I hope," Wen shudders: "They paid me a very pointed visit, today. They showed me exactly what happened to Southern Thailand."
"What?" the President seems confused: "What happened?"
"Oh, terrible things," Wen says: "Apparently, the group that took credit for the attack is a Muslim terrorist outfit from that part of the country. And since a lot of the people down there are Muslim, and might know who these people are, they went into their work camps to interrogate the young men and religious leaders."
"Interrogate," the President repeats, looking the man in the eyes.
"Yes, it's just as bad as it sounds. And any work camp they went into had to be silenced, afterwards. Something about conserving resources, whatever that means...?"
The President shudders, and turns around so Wen can't see his face.
"Are you alright?" Wen asks: "You're not... thinking of backing out, are you?"
"Of course not," the President says, not turning around yet: "I'm just... I didn't know they would be that brutal."
"Oh, they are," Wen sighs: "I've seen it firsthand. They are not nearly as kind and caring as they pretend to be. I think they are the most evil things I have ever met, and I have met and seen some very evil things."
"I'm sure you have," the President says, turning around and hoping that the General Secretary can't tell how wet his eyes just were: "That's part of what we were hoping to talk to you about."
"Oh?" Wen asks, looking around and wondering if they've been here too long: "What do you mean?"
"Part of what we need from you is information about some things that went on during the War," the President says: "I know that, in your previous position, you oversaw the curators of some of those things. So you might be able to tell us where to find what we're looking for without actually doing a search, which might raise flags somewhere."
"Well, I do have a good memory..." Wen offers: "I do not mean to boast, but I once remembered a thirty-two digit entrance code after only memorizing it for a minute or so. That was when I was younger, of course. But still, I think I could remember most of what I knew?"
"Good. What can you tell me about Pingfang, during the War?"
"Unit 731?" Wen gasps, and takes a step back. He puts his hand to his mouth and shudders.
"I know it can't be easy," the President says, stepping forward: "I know it was a dark time for your country, and a lot of bad things happened there. But-"
"What in the name of..." Wen asks, holding up a hand: "When you... what you're asking. Do you really want to open that door, Mr. President?"
"What will we find on the other side of it?"
"Horror," Wen Boxiong says, looking the President in the eyes: "True, bloody horror. The most terrible things were done there, at that place, by the Japanese, before and during that war. Inhumane, savage butchery. And then your government went and snatched them all up, just like they did with the Germans."
The President sighs and nods: "I know. I agree that was a bad call. Those men should have faced justice. In fact, I know the Soviets tried the ones they got their hands on, right?"
"Yes. And then they took all the horrible things they learned from them and put them right to work for themselves."
"I hear they paid for that mistake."
"Not dearly enough," Wen sighs: "It could never be enough."
The President nods: "I'm sorry to have to ask it of you. But we think that some of what happened there has a bearing on what's happening now."
"I can't say," the President replies: "And that's both because I don't know and because if I told you..."
"... and I was caught, the entire thing would be in the toilet," Wen finishes the thought: "That I do understand."
"Then we can get your help?"
"Yes," Wen says: "Ask me questions, I will answer. But I'm telling you this, Mr. President. What the Japanese did to us, they also did to themselves. If you're looking for an answer there, you may not like the shape of that answer."
"I haven't liked anything I've had to learn, lately."
"Perhaps not. But this time? Your digging may unearth something that will kill you with your own shovel."
The President nods. So does Wen Boxiong. They shake hands and make arrangements. And then they leave, first the President, and then Wen.
As he's waiting for a good moment to leave, he looks at the smiling soldier in the statue behind him. Even after all this rain and snow and elemental decay, his eyes still seem bright and his smile still seems genuine.
"What do you know of fear?" he asks the metal man, and then leaves, all too aware of his own.
(SPYGOD is listening to Doubt (The Cure) and having a glass of Great Wall Wine)