The trio returned to a storage facility with the stamped passes in hand. There were five others waiting. Next to them was parked a cart loaded with six large sealed boxes.
The men sitting on the boxes blurted out, "How did it go?"
"We got all three stamps." The man holding the pass snickered. "The soldier on duty in the outpost who gave us the third stamp even wished us a happy Memorial Day. What an idiot!"
"You got the third stamp at the outpost? Was it Lu Yan who was on duty?" one of the men sitting on the boxes asked.
"I don't know. He was in uniform. I didn't get a good look at his face," the man with the pass said. "He sounded quite young."
"He didn't give you a hard time?" the man sitting on a box asked. "Lu Yuan is quite talkative. Sometimes he likes to interrogate folks."
"Not at all. All he did was say, 'Happy Memorial Day.' Isn't Lu Yan's wife in the hospital? If I were him, I wouldn't be in the mood to interrogate anyone either."
"It doesn't matter whether it was Lu Yan or not as long as we got the stamps." The leader of the group pulled a mini-scanner from his pocket and aimed it at the stamps.
The stamps on the pass weren't visible to the naked eye. They would only illuminate when read by a special scanner. The three stamps were their ticket to the freight transport.
The men relaxed when they saw the three stamps light up.
"We're good. We got all three stamps—we're not missing any."
"So should we head out now?"
"Yes. Everyone is taking Memorial Day off, so the mines won't be guarded. We should hurry."
"I wonder what they'll think when they realize eight miners are missing, haha."
"What's so special about eight miners? What'll be interesting is when they realize they're missing 5 tons of Baiji power ore after the Memorial Day holiday."
Five tons of grade A power ore wasn't that much in the context of the entire mine, but it wasn't a small amount either. It wasn't a blip you could just write off. Some folks would probably be quite shocked by the discovery.
After he tucked the pass away, the leader instructed the men sitting on the cart, "Let's ask around first to see if anything is out of the ordinary."
The smuggling operation didn't rely on these eight alone. They also had inside help.
This was the result of six months of careful planning.
"All normal. Nothing out of the ordinary nearby," one of the men sitting on the boxes said.
"Then let's pack up and proceed as planned. Let's go!"
The eight men changed into their miner uniforms and packed their things.
Baiji space port.
After presenting all sorts of credentials to the guards at the space port, the eight men entered the space port without incident. The space port was quite empty, probably because of the reduced traffic during Memorial Day.
They parked their cart next to a freight vessel. Power ore excavated from the mining district they belonged to were typically shipped to this transport, which in turn transferred the load to a larger spaceship near Baiji.
But as long as they boarded this freight vessel, they would be good to go.
They maintained their composure under the watchful gazes of the security guards as they approached the freight vessel with their cart and the cargo on it.
The leader pulled out his pass and swiped it by the entrance to the vessel.
A bland beep sounded, and an access denied symbol flashed.
The eight men tensed up and glanced at the security guards nearby. They were starting to get some attention.
The leader of the group started frowning but still managed to project a sense of calm. "Maybe the swipe was incomplete."
This time, he swiped the pass slowly so that all three stamps could be scanned.
Another beep, another bright red access denied symbol.
The voice of one of the men started quivering. "What's... what's going on?" He had already spotted security guards heading their way.
One of the other men on the other side of the cart had a stern look on his face. He had already quietly gone for the gun hidden in his mining uniform. He was ready to blast open the door to the vessel, but in that case, a firefight with the guards was guaranteed.
The leader was sweating profusely as he gritted his teeth and swiped his pass again.
A green access granted symbol flashed on the display.
Never had an electronic bleep sounded so lovely, an answer to their prayers.
A few of the men secretly cursed. What a cr*ppy system!
A simple swipe took three tries to complete. If that isn't a cr*ppy system, I don't know what is. The Baiji military district is so rich now. Why don't they upgrade their scanners? We were scared sh*tless.
False alarm. As they watched the door to the transport open, the men relaxed and started to smile as well.
They had done it!
But their smiles froze when they got ready to move their cart and the door to the transport opened completely.
On the other side were eight soldiers wearing dark-gray robotic exoskeleton armor. A cold glint reflected off the the armor and the eight gun barrels pointed at them.
The eight men: "..."
Uhm... are we busted?
How come there are armored warriors here?
Aren't they reserved for terrorists and beasts?
All we did was steal a few power ore—and they actually sent armored soldiers.
What, they ran out of places to deploy their resources?
Why are they swatting a fly with a baseball bat?
The fingers of the ringleader who was holding the pass started shaking. He turned pale and was sweating big time.
Disappointment. Desperation. The carpet had totally been pulled out from under their feet.
What to do now?
Detonate a bomb?
They were carrying small bombs that were easy to carry and conceal, but such light-weight explosives would barely make a dent in the exoskeleton armor, and yet they themselves might become collateral damage.
Not to mention that they were no suicide bombers. They didn't have the guts to sacrifice themselves. They were quite scared of dying.
They didn't even dare go for their guns. They had done their research on the preparedness of the Baiji military district, so they knew how ruthless these armored warriors that were considered the equivalent of military-grade weapons were. They had no intention of crossing these opponents. They had never thought that military-grade weapons would be used on them.
And if they thought about going for their guns? The armored soldiers would fire before they could touch their firearms.
Just one shot from the kinetic combat rifles the armored soldiers were equipped with would be enough to tear any of them apart—into shreds, that is.
These thieving "flies" simply quivered before these "baseball bats." They didn't have the guts to fight back.
The moment they were handcuffed, they still hadn't figured out what exactly had gone wrong.
They had spent half a year plotting their route, devising a plan, bribing the right people, and obtaining the necessary paperwork. The operation had gone smoothly step-by-step today. They had even gotten their stamps. How come they had been ambushed at the very last minute?
A flying transport landed behind them. From it emerged Major General Edmund, the officer in charge of the mines near the base.
The eight men were ghastly pale as Edmund stared them down.
His cold stare was followed by a command uttered in a restrained grunt that belied the level of outrage bubbling underneath. "Take them in. Let's let everyone get back to enjoying Memorial Day."
The soldiers answered in the affirmative, gagged the eight men, and led them away.
The eight men had come and gone quietly without so much as causing a ripple, as if nothing major had gone down.
Ignoring the eight arrested men, Edmund approached the cart they had left behind. The security guards had already opened the boxes.
"It's grade A Baiji power ore all right. Five tons. It's all here," the captain of the space port's security detail said.
"They're quite bold to have stolen such a big load." Edmund was speaking in a calm tone, but anyone could sense the incredible anger he was suppressing.
Edmund had been enjoying a meal with his family. It was the first time he had spent Memorial Day with his entire family since he had been posted to Baiji, and he had been in a good mood because of his recent promotion and rosy career prospects. He had even been drinking a little.
The moment he had gotten word from Fang Zhao, he had felt like someone had slipped a cube of ice down his undershirt. His festive mood had evaporated and he had sobered up immediately.
Five tons of grade A power ore wasn't a huge amount, but this was grade A energy ore they were talking about. Plus, the quality was good. Early estimates put their worth at more than 10 billion.
Edmund couldn't possibly contain the fallout from losing 10 billion dollars worth of power ore.
He had worked so hard to get where he was today and enjoy a cushy position. So many people wanted to see him gone. If this had gone down, all his ambitions would have gone out the door along with the five tons of power ore.
Thankfully, the thieves had been stopped in time.
After taking inventory of the power ore, Edmund briefed Shanta. The interception plan had been Shanta's idea. Only Shanta had the authority to deploy the armored warriors.
As far as Shanta was concerned, swatting a fly with a baseball bat was exactly his intention. That way it would be easier to follow up.
"You didn't tip anyone off, did you?" Shanta asked.
"No. Everything is normal elsewhere. No one noticed the interception," Edmund responded.
Shanta wanted to keep the interception hush hush, not only because it was Memorial Day but also so he didn't alarm the collaborators of the eight thieves. The fact that the eight men had been able to smuggle so much power ore so easily meant there were other bad apples. This was not a simple operation that took a day or two to plan.
The mining companies that worked with the Baiji base would pilfer a few ore at most when they were being transported. Shanta didn't bother to quibble with them over a petty few stones; an official investigation would take tremendous manpower and resources. As long as the stealing wasn't excessive, Shanta was willing to turn a blind eye.
But this was completely different, and the amount smuggled was quite substantial. Did they think the commander was an idiot?
"I want a thorough investigation!" a furious Shanta bellowed.
After hanging up, Shanta was still panting. He had yet to find his composure. He sat in his office pondering how to clean house.
But Edmund's briefing also had him intrigued.
Unable to contain his curiosity, Shanta reached out to Fang Zhao.
"How did you know something was wrong?" Shanta asked.
"By listening carefully," Fang Zhao responded.
"It's your hearing again?" Shanta was reminded of Fang Zhao's reputation: "diting," "godly ears" and all.
"I listened and observed. Body language and heartbeat are great indicators. The trio were quite nervous when they approached the outpost. They were feeling guilty. Plus, they might have been armed with lethal weapons," Fang Zhao explained.
In fact, Fang Zhao could tell something was off just from his first-rate instincts honed during the 100-year Period of Destruction, but that couldn't be his official story.
"So you stamped their pass with an expired stamp."
The stamps were updated every few days, but few knew that. All outsiders knew was that three stamps were required for passage.
After the trio left, Fang Zhao had immediately alerted Major General Edmund, who in turn had briefed Shanta after confirming that something was wrong.
The eight men who had stolen the power ore had failed to open the door to the flying transport twice because they had the wrong stamp. Their first two stamps were the right ones, but the third one was outdated. When the door had opened on their third try, it had been done manually from inside the transport.
"Thank god for your tip. I'll log this as a merit in your personnel file."
The military was clear on merits and misdeeds. This wasn't a major accomplishment, but it wasn't a minor one either. After all, the power ore was worth some 10 billion.
After hanging up, Shanta skimmed Fang Zhao's personnel file out of curiosity. His "merits" column was filled with accomplishments both big and small. Another promotion when his service period concluded was a sure thing.
A kick-*ss soldier.
But Fang Zhao was a rarity among the conscripts. It was a pity he had decided to become an artist.
What a waste of talent.