“Imagine a Chinese version of Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones series, and you’ve essentially discovered Xu Lei, one of China’s biggest rising stars”
In 1962, as post-war China’s first generation of geological prospectors, we were ordered to travel to the forests of Inner Mongolia to carry out a mission of national secrecy. Our task: to find a Japanese warplane buried over half a mile underground. Together with Wang Sichuan, Old Cat and the rest of the team, I descended beneath the earth. There we discovered a sprawling Japanese base from the 1940s, perched on the edge of an endless abyss. As we soon realized, the Japanese had flown a heavy-duty bomber into the void. What were they looking for? To find out, we retrieved the film recording they had taken of the flight.
We believed that after watching this terrifying film, we could return to the surface and resume our normal lives. But our superiors had other plans. They ordered us to undertake a new mission. This time the task was suicidal. We were to fly a plane into the abyss, using the same methods as the Japanese. After writing a final letter to our families, we climbed aboard that fatal flight. For me, however, things were different. and I were soon to part, and I knew that somehow this mission might give me the chance to change our fates. Still I had no idea: what kind of ending awaited me in the darkness ahead? My sweetheart Yuan Xile had previously shown me a strange sentence, “Inevitability Begets Inevitability,” carved onto the wall of a flooded room.
Dark Prospects:Into The Abyss — Part 1
No one who lived through the bitter winter of 1962 could ever forget those stormbound months. They were the coda to the three years of natural disasters that had just wracked the nation. But now the so-called Great Leap Forward was quietly concluding, the border war between China and India was dying down and many believed that the country’s chaotic early stages were behind it. They hoped calmer days lay ahead. While everyone’s attention was captured by these great events, my comrades and I were deep beneath China’s northern borderlands, facing a critical decision.
We were at the end of an underground river, 3,600 feet underground, in a base constructed more than twenty years ago by the Japanese. Their sole reason for building it: the limitless abyss into which the river fell. They wanted to fly a plane into the void. And they had done so. Now we had in our hands the secret recording of that flight, but once we delivered it to our superiors our involvement in the affair would be over. We could kiss goodbye any hope of ever discovering what the Japanese had seen. It was at least ten hard hours trek to the nearest sunlight. On the other hand, there was a film projector only a short distance behind us, on the lower level of the dam. If we headed there now, our journey would only be delayed a couple of hours. And at long last we would find out what the Japanese had been after. We might even learn what secrets were hidden inside the abyss. To stay or to go? For us, the children of rural peasants, who had never been given an opportunity like this, and likely never would again, the decision was easy.
Thinking back on it now, I realize what a big risk we were taking. There was an enemy spy lurking down there, lying in wait. The longer we lingered, the more likely he would reappear and cause us trouble. Unfortunately, at the time we didn’t give the matter much thought. Who could have known that this single oversight would be the turning point of the whole affair?
Once the decision to stay was made, we headed back towards the dam, keeping one eye over our shoulders the whole time. We were soon back inside. We knew the way by now, and before long we’d reached the projection room. We inspected the place much more thoroughly than last time. The room was considerably larger than I had thought. It seemed small only because it was crammed with long tables and chairs. A thick layer of dust coated everything. I worried the projector might no longer work.
The projector was about the size of a box of ammunition. Two revolving wheels, used for spooling the film, were attached to its side. Fearing a sneak attack, Wang Sichuan hefted the iron club and went to guard the door. I began nervously looking the projector over. Having never operated one before, I feared one wrong move and I might break it. Really, all I needed to do was thread the film into the dual wheels. Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps something else—my hands were slick with sweat. I fiddle with the projector for some time and made not the slightest bit of progress. At last Ma Zaihai came over to help. As an engineering soldier, he knew his way around all sorts of machines. After taking one look at it, he loaded the film and started the thing up.
A flickering black pattern appeared on the dust-covered cloth screen before us. Aerial recording technology was still very basic in the 1940s. The image was too shaky to be made out. Ma Zaihai then cranked the lever attached to the side of the projector. I leaned forward in anticipation as the image began to move. Why had the Japanese built this dam? What had they seen in the abyss? The answers to these questions were only moments away. The image changed. Black spots now covered a white screen. This was waste film, deliberately unused, much as the beginning of a roll of photographic film is always black. The black spots started to move, but after about a minute the image remained nearly unchanged. I began to feel nervous. Why didn’t Ma Zaihai go faster? Or was the projector simply broken? Just as I was starting to fear the worst, a line of text suddenly flashed across the screen. Ma Zaihai stopped the film and rewound until the text was centered. The words were Japanese, but scribbled so hastily they barely qualified as such. Although I couldn’t be sure what the message was saying, I could tell it was a warning of the sternest kind.