Wang Tie was afraid of Fang Zhao, but given his reputation as the "top paparazzo" and the "king of paparazzi" in Yanzhou, he couldn't state the obvious. That would be the equivalent of career suicide.
He had been planning to play dead, but given the amount of discussion online, Wang Tie decided to respond directly instead.
So Wang Tie posted a long spiel on his social media account, more than 100 words. In summary, the message was this: "This mofo is onto a big scoop at the Wai Filmed Entertainment Culture Base. Who cares what's going on on Earth? There are so many paparazzi journalists out there. Let them have the story. Stop bugging me!"
The Wai Filmed Entertainment Culture Base was now the focal point of most entertainment news outlets. After news had broken of the reboot of the revolutionary film project, paparazzi photographers and entertainment journalists started infiltrating the Wai base. They had discovered a construction site that they suspected was where the revolutionary project would be shooting.
Given that it was a blockbuster project, considering how things were developing, an elaborate set was likely. Geologists and historians also pointed out that the geological makeup of the construction site was quite similar to the terrain of many places during the Period of Destruction.
This prompted a deluge of list actors setting up camp on Wai so they could get used to the climate. What if they were cast in the revolutionary project? It would be an utter disaster if they couldn't acclimate then.
If they couldn't even get used to the weather and local diet, what were they good for?
So being prepared was the way to go. They couldn't go wrong with renting a spot to shoot another project on Wai and acclimating at the same time.
That was also why, after the brief respite during Memorial Day, the Wai Filmed Entertainment Culture Base became bustling again. With the revolutionary film project as a major attraction, the number of visitors skyrocketed. Real-estate and rental prices doubled. Rents at the film studio complex were spiraling out of control. And yet, despite the crazy rent, there was a waiting list.
The early investors in the film studio complex made a major killing.
Now that Wang Tie had announced that he was chasing a scoop on Wai, entertainment news junkies had nothing to say. They started turning their sights to other famed entertainment journalists and companies.
That was why it was a busy day at Yanzhou's spaceport.
This was the time of the year when conscripts who had completed their military service returned home. The spaceport typically dedicated a special passage for the soldiers where their parents could pick them up in person.
But the Yanzhou spaceport was exceptionally crowded.
There were parents picking up their kids, people greeting their friends, local journalists, entertainment reporters, and fans.
A student from a neighboring university wanted to get Fang Zhao's autograph. Little had he expected the arrival hall to be so crowded. After surveying his surroundings, he asked the folks next to him why they were there.
"I'm a gamer. Fang Zhao is the perennial champion in my mind," one person said.
"I'm a soldier. He's my idol," another answered, pointing to the sky.
"I'm a musician. I attend Fang Zhao's alma mater. He's our senior alum," a young fellow said enthusiastically.
"I'm... I'm here to check out the spectacle."
Suddenly, someone started screaming.
"Look, look! They're here!"
Two flying transports landed, but they descended into different areas. One landed on the civilian airfield and the second on a military airstrip. The jam-packed arrival hall was near the military airfield.
The crowds gathering in the arrival hall craned their necks. Soon, passengers started emerging.
After a year of military service, many conscripts had gone from pale to thoroughly tanned and had bulked up. They still smelled like their barracks. Thankfully, the conscripts frequently stayed in touch via videoconference, so their parents were at least able to recognize them.
The long-awaited reunion gave rise to cheers and laughter. Many parents felt that military service was a rite of passage and that their children had come out the other end more mature.
Meanwhile, the journalists were scrambling.
"Where's Fang Zhao? Anyone see Fang Zhao?"
"Kid, did Fang Zhao come out with your batch?" a journalist asked a young man who was greeting his family. Most of the conscripts were university students, so "kid" was an appropriate way to address him.
The young man laughed. "You're not going to catch him. He boarded a transfer flight for Yanzhou's military headquarters."
Fang Zhao was grouped together with about a dozen other conscripts, all exemplary soldiers from the same batch of conscripts. They wore the insignias of majors-in-waiting. After landing in Yanzhou, they had boarded another military transport bound for Yanzhou's military HQ right away so they could get straight to the paperwork for transitioning to reserve duty.
The computer software for switching service status was available online, but there were certain procedures that had to be handled in person.
The journalists from Yanzhou's military newspaper were already on the transfer flight. They would continue filming Fang Zhao and company as they traveled to HQ, where they would conduct a short interview with the soldiers. The questions were perfunctory and had been given to them in advance. The soldiers knew the kinds of answers the top brass was looking for.
Word spread quickly among journalists that Fang Zhao and company had headed to Yanzhou's military headquarters.
"We're not going to get him here. Let's move on."
"Are we really going to stake out military HQ?"
"Military HQ is not somewhere you can just waltz into. Before you know it you'll be shot dead on account of being suspected criminals."
"Then what should we do next? Set up near military HQ?"
"No, I have a better idea. Let's send someone to Silver Wing and we'll go to the retirement home for former officials in Yanbei."
Conversations like this also happened elsewhere. Yanzhou's military HQ being off-limits, the entertainment press corps started thinking on their feet. They were experts at stakeouts—if one place didn't work, they would move on.
The entertainment journalists had missed Fang Zhao and company, but the group was tailed by reporters from Yanzhou's military newspaper who posted quite a few photos and videos online.
Readers glued to their devices weren't happy.
"The journalists didn't catch Fang Zhao."
"He actually left straight for military HQ."
"I don't want to watch the coverage from the military newspaper. The returning conscripts say the same thing every year. This year there's Fang Zhao, so they have to make a big deal out of him, but he himself is going to give the same politically correct spiel again. Lord knows how many times he has made the same comments on Baiji. I'm so sick of them."
"I only want to watch the interviews conducted by the entertainment journalists, not the bullsh*t that the military reporters generate."
What they wanted to hear wasn't effusive praise about the conscripts and their performance and hard work but, rather, interesting anecdotes—details that had never been reported.
"Wait, didn't you notice the insignia on Fang Zhao's shoulders?"
"F*ck! Is that the insignia of a major? Isn't he a captain? I could've sworn he was promoted to captain at the commendation ceremony."
"If you take a closer look, the color is a bit different than a typical major's insignia. That's the insignia for a major-in-waiting, not a serving major. It's not just Fang Zhao. The others were promoted one rank too. The previous batch of conscripts from Yanzhou didn't produce this many officers. There's also a distinction between active and reserve officers."
"You can get promoted even when you become a reserve soldier?"
"This rule was among the latest revisions to the military code during the New Era. The top brass decided to allow conscripts to be promoted when they become reserve soldiers to encourage military service."
Folks hadn't paid attention to the new provision because they resented having to serve in the military. In addition, there were so many conscripts who served every year, and only a minority were promoted to officer rank upon completing their service period. The provision hadn't been widely promoted either, so many members of the public were clueless.
Meanwhile, after signing in at military HQ and completing his media interviews, Fang Zhao headed to the retirement home for former officials in Yanbei. His pet "rabbit" had already been delivered to his home in Qi'an by courier post, so he was traveling light, carrying a single backpack that contained his notebook and gun, his two most treasured items.
When Fang Zhao arrived at the retirement home, it was still business as usual, but shortly after he arrived, he got word that journalists were en route to stake him out.
Great-Grandfather Fang asked a security guard to send him surveillance footage of the press pack gathering outside, and he lectured Fang Zhao, "You have name recognition now. There are people who admire you and want you to do well, but there are also those who curse at you and will tear you down, especially your competitors in the entertainment industry. So many of them are just waiting for you to stumble, so pay attention to your behavior and language when you're in public. Don't give your enemies any ammunition."
"I know." Fang Zhao made sure his two great-grandparents had returned from Baiji in one piece and were in good health, then got ready to leave.
Great-Grandfather Fang asked him to hang on. "Wait. There are quite a few journalists out there. Some of them have even tried to sneak into the retirement home. They won't be able to make it to the residential wing, but there's a considerable distance between the residential compound and the parking lot. There have got to be reporters staked out there. Even if you lose them, you'll be trailed by cameras, so I suggest you steer clear of both the front and side entrances. Let me show you an obscure detour that will bypass the journalists. You'll see a door and an outpost at the end of the path. The door is typically closed, but the outpost is usually staffed. I'll give the guard stationed there a heads up to open the door for you."
Great-Grandfather Fang pulled out a map of the retirement home and circled a spot. "There it is. There's a small path here that cuts through the woods."
Fang Zhao nodded, memorized the route, changed into plain clothes, and left the residential wing where the two elders lived.
He followed the route Great-Grandfather Fang had traced. Soon he saw a small cluster of trees. The path was buried among the woods beneath the thick foliage, which made it hard to detect.
But Fang Zhao noticed that he had company.
Two men were hiding behind a bush by the sheltered path, one a cunning-looking middle-aged man and the other a young man who struck Fang Zhao as a fresh university graduate.
"Shifu, you were spot on. There's Fang Zhao!" the young man hiding behind the bush blurted out in a whisper after spotting Fang Zhao through his binoculars.
"At the end of the day, us locals have an advantage. We know the layout of the retirement home better," the middle-aged man said, flashing a conceited grin.
He had consulted a few former classmates who covered finance and politics. They frequently interviewed former officials at the retirement home, so they knew the layout of the compound. The classmates told him that the old geezers loved to avoid journalists by using this detour.
The other journalists were staking out the hallway leading to the parking lot. The entrance and side doors were also covered. What a shame they were clueless about the existence of this obscure path.
It wasn't visible from the air because it was covered by a thick layer of leaves and branches. The retirement home compound was also huge, and this was a far-flung location. The detour was impossible to discover unless you were an insider.
The middle-aged man was quite upset. "How come he's all alone?" What he wanted was to shoot Fang Zhao with a few other companions, regardless of whether he could recognize them or not, be they kids or elderly folks. As long as there was a second person in the frame, he could make up a story. Some dirt would be ideal, like a family feud, some form of hypocrisy, or a messy personal life. He could spin a tale out of nothing by extrapolating from a shady-looking picture. Let the image speak for itself.
"I want you to ambush him with those questions we prepared when he passes our spot," the middle-aged man mumbled.
The young man was reluctant. "Shifu, is that a good idea? He's a major, after all." The questions his senior colleague had prepared were quite pointed and touched on Fang Zhao's personal life.
"You're still green. He's a major-in-waiting, which doesn't mean jacksh*t. He might as well be a civilian. He doesn't have any real authority. We have nothing to be afraid of."
The young man was shivering. "But he's a military officer, after all. He's authorized to carry a gun. What if shoots us both in a fit of fury? Word is he's a decent fighter. What if he drags us to a corner and executes us?"
"Have you been watching those lame-ass TV shows again? How many times have I told you? Those shows make you dumb. Cut down on those silly shows and use your brain. Think about it, he's been touted as such a positive role model and he's a major-in-waiting fresh from his military service. Would he dare use lethal force with this much public attention focused on him?"
After peeking into his binoculars again, the middle-aged man continued, "I figure he'll pass us in about two minutes. When he does, go confront him. Don't forget the questions we prepared. If he tries to blow you off, do your best to cut him off and pester him. If there's a scuffle, drop to the ground and yell, 'he's hitting me!'"
The young man was a bit embarrassed by the questionable tactics. "Uhm, isn't that kinda fake?"
"Then drop dead once he makes a move and hurt yourself somehow, pretend that you're injured."
"Soldiers who have earned merits like him, they could paralyze me with a single blow, no?"
"Don't worry, he won't attack you for real. Just confront him."
"What if he attacks me for real?"
"That's even better. That would be big news!"
"How considerate of you, Shifu."
"Look at you. And you call yourself a man? You're even more timid than your female cohort. I should have brought her instead. 'Fang Zhao attacks woman'—that's an even better headline!"
"Don't underestimate me. It's just that this is my first time doing something like this. I'm not used to it."
The middle-aged man didn't mind at all. "You'll get used to it." People who were too generous and honest were destined to fail as journalists.
"You know what, Shifu, I'm still not comfortable with this. The stars should be aligned for such a confrontational approach. We don't have a strategic advantage here. Look around you—there's nobody. No one will see the fight. Even if someone is drawn to the ruckus, this is a retirement home for former officials where Fang Zhao's elders live. They're all on his side. They will close ranks against us. The retired officials will definitely side with Fang Zhao. We're outnumbered."
"Tsk, you've been watching too many period dramas, haven't you? This is the New Era, the high-tech era. Everything will be recorded. As long as we have video evidence, we have nothing to fear. We'll adjust our camera settings to upload the video to an online drive and make 10 copies. He won't be able to wipe out all my copies. If he attacks you, even better. Let's con him with a huge medical bill and we'll offer to sell him the video of the attack. Let's blackmail the hell out of him."
Engrossed in their exchange, the two journalists failed to notice that the silhouette they had spotted in their binoculars had disappeared. When they felt that it was time and stopped chatting, they realized their target had gone missing.
"Where is he?"
"Did he spot us?"
The young man was incredulous. "That's impossible."
"It's all your fault. You were talking too much. He must have overheard us."
The two men felt a sudden breeze sweep their backs, and they shivered. It was as if someone had hovered over them briefly.
Alarmed, the middle-aged man looked around. As a veteran entertainment journalist, his senses were well honed, but all he noticed was the wind and the resulting rustling of leaves.
Nothing out of the ordinary.
The middle-aged man thought to himself, I'm probably just too nervous.
A minute later.
Still no sign of Fang Zhao.
Half an hour had passed.
The young man was ready to give up. "Shifu, there's no sign of him."
The middle-aged entertainment journalist frowned. That's impossible. Did Fang Zhao really spot us? Are his "godly ears" for real? It isn't a load of bullsh*t after all?
He went online and didn't find any updates from the other journalists staking out the retirement home.
The middle-aged man remained unconvinced that he had let his mark slip. He gritted his teeth and said, "Let's stick around."
Five hours passed.
The two journalists got a message from their colleague: "Get online. Fang Zhao was photographed entering Silver Wing Tower."
Silver Wing Tower was located in Qi'an. The retirement home was in Yanbei.
The two journalists examined the pictures and videos posted online and were dumbfounded.
When on earth did Fang Zhao leave?