She couldn’t out-think a hypergenius. He’d clearly prepared for this scenario, probably more thoroughly than she could even hope to anticipate. Even the intelligence she’d gathered was suspect. But it was all she had.
No. She had one advantage he didn’t seem to know about yet. She could switch perspectives between Yan and Hu. When one woman faltered, the other could step up. To the best of her knowledge, neither Achilles Chin nor anyone else were a genius at emotion. But how to use it?
She could keep her promise - no escapes until she’d thought about his offer - and perhaps gather more information, in the form of questions. If he thought she was being receptive to his offer, would he be truthful?
If it was genuine, he’d want a subordinate - no, a partner - to be well informed. Probably not perfectly informed. But actively lied to? She remembered what he’d said about Dr. Gāo. “I know where he can be found”. The implication was that even people who left his inner circle at this point wouldn’t simply be killed. Or was that more misdirection?
She clutched her head in frustration and stared down at the table. Normally, coffee would be waiting for her. Right now it was fruit juice, and would be for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t what she was used to. But it had been grown right here at the station, by people she knew. She savored that brief taste of human connection, and restarted her thought processes.
It was a truism that truth held together better than lies when pressed. The web of a single spider, however cunning, would fall to persistent probing. She decided that even if he would answer her individual questions with lies, the pattern they created might expose some truth.
Her time came one evening, when Chin had brought out the telescope and had a stargazing party with a few interested folks. As the others wandered back to their business, she subtly signaled him, and he waited with a smile.
“I’m not the first agent who’s tried to get into your inner circle,” she said, without preamble or preparation. In other circumstances, such a blunt admission would have been shocking.
“You want to know what happened to them?” he asked, and she nodded after appearing to think about it for a moment.
“I saw through them, of course.” He shrugged, as though such a thing were like swatting an irritating insect. “Of course, neither gave up so easily. One man tailed one of my security teams to their base, and was shot. The other actually found his way to one of my bunkers, and ran afoul of the perimeter security systems.”
She was a little surprised he didn’t present color photographs for inspection, and wryly realized she was granting him more credit than the considerable amount he’d earned.
Chin tilted his head slightly. “My turn. What happened to Hu Huixin and her sister?”
“I don’t know.” The dread of honesty filled her voice. Did he suspect this was one of her nagging doubts about the work?
“Care to speculate?”
She didn’t. But she made a go of it anyway, perhaps to reassure herself. “Huixin was an acolyte of yours. But her sister… she’s not what the Ministry would consider a dissident.”
“And the Ministry of State Security makes such distinctions in the case of family?” Chin asked knowingly.
Dammit. “No. Not always.” She hated admitting it, hated giving him another emotional weapon against her.
Perhaps Chin sensed her discomfort, in spite of her attempts to hide it. The topic of Hu’s sister didn’t sit well with either Hu or Yan. Perhaps what he said next was more manipulation. Or perhaps not.
“Let’s stop the sparring for tonight. Let’s not try to parse each others’ lies. Let’s just talk as citizens of our country.”
Lee Yan forced herself to smile. Unable to not suspect another trap, but interested at the very idea of having a casual chat with someone she’d been tasked to stop, she decided to go along with it. “Neither of us natural-born citizens, mind you.”
“That is what I find interesting,” Chin declared. “Children’s formative years are birth to eight years old, give or take. For both of us, that was a time of transition. Lithuania and Russia to China. So our vision of China was fundamentally as someplace new, and it took adjustment to think of it as home. What did that adjustment do to us?”
“I think… it made me want to find a place for myself here,” Lee answered slowly. “I remember feeling nervous, all the time. The Chinese community in Vladivostok was a quarter of the city at one time, before the dark times. And I have Russian blood in me. Would I fit in here? I chose to find a way to fit in, no matter what.”
Chin nodded in recognition. “I felt something like that too. When I was very young, I attended Catholic services with my parents. They were a channel for anti-Soviet propaganda. Of course, I didn’t understand that at the time. But it felt so dry, so confining. The priests were like ghosts, re-enacting dead rites of old. China’s past was alive, and in the present, we could do even greater things. But was I worthy of being part of that ‘we’? So I joined the Academy.”
Lee’s smile was almost invisible. “And I the Ministry.”
“Because that’s where we saw ourselves contributing to our country. Or perhaps it was the place we went to fill the biggest gaps in our souls. For you, a sense of security. For me, a place to understand and contribute.”
Lee reclined in her chair. “That may be. But you had your hypergenius. In the West, they have heroes and villains with that sort of power, people who aren’t working for the state like they do here. They pursue their own agendas. And you’ve set yourself up, not just as a dissident, but a leader like that. You have a cult of personality. Don’t you feel like you lack security too, and all of this–” She waved a hand and gestured at the research station around them. “Isn’t this your way of holding onto something that feels like a home?”
“You may have something there,” Chin responded with a small smile of his own. “Am I doing this to preserve the vision of China I constructed for myself as a boy, before my eyes were opened to the way of things now? The harsh realities of surviving against the West and the Soviet Union?”
He folded his fingers together. “I respect what the Ministry has to do. I don’t respect how they’re going about it. But I can’t say that I have all the answers either. I think dealing with human beings is complicated. Economies of scale, specialization, industrial processes, everything we’ve learned about manufacturing and research - even the idea of transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian one - teaches us that the greatest accomplishments come from people contributing their individual skills to a larger project. From the Unequal Treaties to the Second Five Year Plan, we have seen that men can also destroy a world when they work together, or when the people at the top aren’t equal to the task. Honestly, machines are easier.”
Lee Yan wasn’t sure how to respond to all this. A lifetime of secrecy and service had shaped her ability to speak her mind. But if not now, when? “To achieve the greatness you seek, you need to mobilize a billion people. They must understand what they are to do, and you yourself must be able to direct them. Even if you have that much power and vision, even if the task didn’t break you, everything people have achieved today will be upheaved. There’s so much chaos in the world already.”
Chin leaned forward in his own seat, elbows on knees. “I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the right way. So much of what I’m doing is exploring the scientific possibilities. Is it possible to create communes that produce food, water, metal? Can we take the technical knowledge and condense it in a way the country peasant of the earlier decades could have understood, then reproduce it widely enough for everyone to benefit? And if I could teach them, would they care?”
“You mentioned the Catholic Church. I assume you evaluated and rejected religion as an approach.”
"I can’t build a system around belief. You said I have a cult of personality here. I don’t want that. I want people loyal to the mission I want to undertake - not to me. And if I can’t demonstrate the rightness of that mission - through empirical reasoning, rather than charismatic conviction - then I will make the same mistakes as other leaders. And the worst mistake I could make… " Chin let out a long sigh. “I could give people hopes to hold, and dreams to have, that lesser men will then deny them. My China deserves better.”
“Men who are denied dreams will rebel,” Lee Yan said softly.
Chin glanced at the telescope the group had been using for stargazing, then back at her. “Yes, I suppose we will.” He smiled and rose. “I’ll pack up the telescope. Go get some rest. I want to talk to you in the morning about the mycology work.”
She found a strange man waiting in her quarters. Before she could scream or react, her eyes saw the paper he was holding. On it was written a series of characters - the pass-word of the Ministry of State Security.
And before she could even think of questions to voice, he reached out and touched her arm. In the next moment, the two of them were gone.
The Ministry had sent a teleporter to retrieve her. It had taken them weeks to find a vantage point on the research station that wasn’t under surveillance, and then to plan a way for him to get inside. But she had been exfiltrated from Achilles Chin’s compound.
The first order of business for her handler was to debrief her.
Hours of answering questions stretched into days. They’d repeat questions, or explore previously covered topics. She recognized it for what it was. They were testing her loyalty, probing her story for lies, the way she’d thought to grill Chin.
She answered honestly, until her handler asked her a simple-sounding question. “Do you think Achilles Chin is worth following?”
“He’s powerful, charismatic, magnetic. He has mastered neurolinguistic manipulation techniques. I think it would be dangerous for me to self-evaluate such a question.”
It was a good, neutral way out. Her handler seemingly accepted it as such.
She was granted a year’s leave of absence, in recognition of her service to the state.
There were other ways to keep her out of the business to come with Achilles Chin, but this was a merciful one.