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The rule of the people, p.12
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       The Rule Of The People, p.12

           Christopher Read

  Chapter 5 – Tuesday, November 15th

  South China Sea – 13:50 Local Time; 05:50 UTC

  In just two decades Fiery Cross Reef had been turned from a barren spit of land into the biggest military base in the Spratly Islands, a squadron of multirole fighters due to be based there within the year, the harbour large and deep enough to accommodate China’s hunter-killer submarines and warships. A hundred and forty kilometres to the east stood Johnson South Reef; fought over in 1988 with Vietnam the loser, Chinese dredgers had remodelled it into an artificial island, the five acres permanently above sea level transformed into a well-defended base with radar tower, anti-aircraft batteries and gun emplacements, it now home to well over a hundred Chinese marines.

  Beijing argued that such additions were primarily for civil purposes, aimed at improving navigation and the reliability of weather forecasts, while also helping provide shelter and fishery assistance to ships of every nationality. Even in China that was regarded as little more than a convenient white lie, the public generally supportive of Beijing’s steady advance south, the natural resources of the South China Sea essential to help meet the country’s future demands. The islands might be a thousand kilometres from the Chinese mainland but Beijing was determined to dominate the region, ancient maps used to justify its territorial ambitions.

  China’s military forces throughout the Spratly and Paracel Islands were already on a high state of alert, the U.S. deadline having expired almost ten hours earlier. Beijing had chosen to formally reject it, using the United Nations to defend the indefensible, reiterating China’s historical claim to all of the Spratly Group. It was a risky strategy and a slap in the face to the two non-belligerent countries with a permanent presence on at least one rocky outcrop; Taiwan might be considered by Beijing as nothing more than an recalcitrant region of China but Malaysia had been working hard to build a good relationship with its powerful neighbour. China was not just gaining new enemies, it was also in danger of losing its few remaining friends.

  With an attack considered imminent, every new satellite image and intercept was high-priority, details fed first to the intelligence analysts in Zhanjiang before being passed on to Beijing. It thus took just six minutes from when the first U.S. Tomahawk missiles were launched for China’s forces in the Spratly Islands to be made aware that they were the likely target. That still gave the defenders a minimum of thirty minutes, a full half-hour in which to deploy their anti-missile systems; for some perhaps it was also a time to pray. The marines well knew the destructive power of the weapons sent against them, pinning their hopes on their own surface-to-air systems: with a maximum range of forty kilometres, they would have less than three minutes to stop the Tomahawks before the close-in air defence system with its Gatling gun became their final hope.

  A total of thirty-six cruise missiles were launched from the two U.S. carrier strike groups, a fraction of the number available but enough to send a suitable message. Despite the missiles being the outdated version, they were still a formidable weapon; real-time data was supplied by satellites and aircraft, a random flight element in the final phase of the attack making them less susceptible to countermeasures.

  The Tomahawk’s success rate had always proved to be excellent, sometimes close to 99%. China’s own anti-missile systems tended to be based around Russian designs, Chinese expertise in electronics on occasion making their version superior. The defences protecting Fiery Cross and Johnston South Reefs were untested, their operators unprepared for such a large-scale attack; yet this could still prove a stern challenge for the ageing Tomahawk, the first time it had come up against state-of-the-art defences based on Russian know-how combined with Chinese guile.

  The U.S. Navy planners had studied the Chinese defences, various attack profiles simulated, the unexpectedly heavy losses assessed. Twelve Tomahawks headed towards Johnson South Reef, it calculated that at worst just two would get through, the island’s major structures their prime target.

  For once the experts had erred on the side of caution, although it was still a disappointment, with eight of the twelve Tomahawks destroyed by missiles or the CIWS. The others hit within seconds of each other, turning the small island into a blazing concrete ruin, the Chinese marines struggling to hold back the fires sweeping through the main command centre, the top three floors collapsing around them.

  The defenders of Fiery Cross Reef were slightly more successful. Of the twenty-four Tomahawk missiles, only six managed to pass through the storm of missiles and cannon shells. The airfield, harbour and command facilities were all hit, the small island finally living up to its name.

  The second of Admiral Adams’ options had been predicted to keep casualties to an ‘acceptable’ level – that however now looked to be highly debatable, China already working on its own form of retribution.

  Beijing – 16:44 Local Time; 08:44 UTC

  General Liang held his impatience in check, thankful that at least his opinion was considered worthy of respect. His detailed analysis of the military situation was an unwelcome shock to many of those around the table but no-one was yet prepared to dispute his findings – the threat to China’s very existence was real and substantial, with virtually all of projected scenarios offering up a set of unpalatable outcomes.

  The emergency meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) wasn’t the first Liang had attended but it was the only one where he had sensed a desire to accept the need for compromise. A minority of its seven members might be reluctant to fully accept Liang’s conclusions but the Central Military Commission had had no such doubts, the vote eight-to-two in support of his various recommendations; the one abstention had been their Commander-in-Chief, President Zhao unwilling to prejudice the PSC’s later discussions and eventual vote.

  Liang well knew that the blame for allowing such a crisis situation to develop in the first place lay squarely on an ageing faction of politicians and the military. Impatient to reclaim China’s birthright, they had deliberately ignored the risks of alienating each and every neighbour, blindly assuming China’s economic and military strength would be enough of a threat to prevent a violent confrontation, especially with the United States. The economies of the U.S and Russia might well be dependent upon China’s electronic exports but such commercial muscle had needed to be wielded with more subtlety, without it looking to be a form of intimidation or blackmail.

  Over the past three decades, it had become acceptable for even China’s middle-class to display the visible trappings of prosperity, the country’s wealth seen in every city and shouted out with every new enterprise. The people were rightly proud of China’s stature in the world and would invariably grow restless should it be threatened; the media might be under strict control but there were plenty of ways around such censorship and it wouldn’t be long before people’s concerns drove them out onto the city streets, a ban on demonstrations never having proved that effective in the past. The inevitable confrontations also had a habit of turning bloody and with a realistic threat of war perhaps only days away, Beijing was loath to adopt a conciliatory approach to internal dissent, fearful that it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness or indecision.

  Liang certainly wasn’t alone in failing to understand why anyone would risk throwing away the hard-won economic successes of the past, and if some of the area’s vast resources had to be divided up amongst the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, was that really so unacceptable? Many might equate compromise with weakness, but the advantages for China were too significant to be simply ignored as unacceptable.

  A month ago such liberal views were not ones that could have easily been shared, many – like Liang – on the fringes of power keeping their opinions to themselves while outwardly following the party line. Although more willing to speak his mind than most, Liang had still been seen as a faithful and efficient servant of the ruling elite, someone who under different circumstances might have even been invited to join the all-powerful PSC.

ina’s system of government had served the country well for forty years, power resting with the Standing Committee rather than all 25 members of the Politburo. The PSC’s control extended to picking its own successors and in practice, selection was based more on family and influence than ability, with fixed five-year terms and retirement enforced beyond the age of 68. The flaws implicit in such a system were glossed over; those who appeared to abuse it were quickly dealt with, the innocent condemned as often as the guilty, even the strong quickly learning that reliable allies were essential.

  Although his route from university to army general was not in itself a barrier to Liang becoming part of the Politburo, not being a member of the right family or having a powerful patron definitely was. For someone with Liang’s background and abilities, then in a couple of years and with no misjudgements – either military or political – he could have hoped to win enough prestige to be given command of one of China’s five combat zones; in twelve he might even be appointed to the Central Military Commission, probably still the youngest of its members at 62. But that would be as far as he could ever hope to reach.

  That had all been true a week ago but no longer. For once China’s leaders had cast off their usual inertia, the accelerating crisis encouraging them to act with unaccustomed haste. Three members of the Central Military Commission had been arrested, four more dismissed; they were replaced by a younger and more pragmatic group of officers, among them a newly-promoted Liang. Even the PSC itself hadn’t escaped the cull, two of its number forced to resign. It wasn’t a coup or anything close but it was a palace revolution of sorts, new blood welcomed in the hope they could prevent the collapse of everything the Party has worked so hard for.

  President Zhao’s previous attempt to modernise and weed out the inept from amongst the Politburo had merely come up against a brick wall, the old guard still with enough influence and know-how to take advantage of Zhao’s relative inexperience; now the President could promote those of proven ability without fear of compromising his own position, Liang an obvious candidate who had none of the political baggage of certain of his peers. Considered by many of his colleagues as something of an academic, Liang well-fitted the accepted mould, as interested in the great battles of the past as modern military strategy; he was also a chess player of renown and a capable pianist, yet too extrovert to be called a loner.

  Liang had closely followed the accession of America’s new president, noting certain similarities to the means by which President Golubeva had crept unseen into the Kremlin. Although he had no reason to believe such parallels were anything other than coincidence, in both cases each new political scandal or terrorist attack had helped move the present incumbent a little closer to the seat of power, and both now seemed keen to test their mettle against a more intransigent obstacle, namely the People’s Republic of China.

  Russia and the United States were not yet exactly allies and trust between them was likely to be fragile at best. Perhaps that was a weakness that could be exploited, a minor crack in the unspoken conspiracy to restrain China’s ambitions. The CMC’s priorities were complex, China needing to fend off Russia, America and Vietnam while simultaneously coping with a renewed separatist campaign. Vietnam and the Philippines still threatened the sea route to the south with their exclusion zone, and Taiwan had earlier cancelled all military leave, its diplomats working hard to garner support from Japan and South Korea. The commercial repercussions were mounting with the South China Sea a no-go area for the world’s merchant fleets, vessels diverted east of the Philippines with two days added to reach the key market of Japan. Yet almost half of that marine traffic was destined for China, it suffering as much as anyone.

  Even when faced with the cold hard facts, China’s leaders found it hard to accept that China’s very survival was under threat and that the country’s military power was inadequate to meet such a challenge. An army of two million-plus was an impressive statistic but it didn’t give the full story, the many internal divisions and shortage of modern equipment glossed over as an irrelevance.

  It was the same with regional conflicts, the lack of understanding and prejudices of those in power often making the situation worse, extreme measures the norm. Liang had previously warned that the situation in Xinjiang was becoming increasingly unstable, the region likely to be a target for covert Russian aggression; true to form, his recommendations had been accepted in full then effectively ignored, the various threats dismissed. Like any committee, the CMC had had its favourites, the local commander’s assurances given far too much credence.

  Despite the tense border situation and the threat of military conflict, Russia had chosen to maintain the flow of natural gas through Xinjiang’s Altai pipeline, both countries wary of risking such a mutually convenient enterprise. Unfortunately, the region’s Uyghur separatists saw the pipeline less as a resource and more as a tempting target, finally acting to take the decision out of Moscow’s hands. In a series of terrorist attacks carried out over the past three days, they had cut the Altai and West-East pipelines, as well as putting two hydroelectric dams on the Kashgar River out of action. Repairs were likely to take weeks, the effect on China’s energy supplies potentially a worry but not impossible to deal with. Equally concerning was the message that it sent, militant groups in Inner Mongolia and Tibet likely to be encouraged into similar attacks.

  Xinjiang had been a source of separatist conflict for fifty years, support from the Soviet Union then Russia varying from the subtle to the brazen. However, the terrorists had never become anything other than a purely local threat and there was nothing to indicate that the recent attacks were Russian-led or part of some planned incursion. For the moment, Russia seemed content to play a waiting game, watching as the U.S. and Vietnam exacted their revenge, looking for the ideal moment to strike.

  That was seen by many on the CMC as a mistake, China still hoping to dismantle the coalition before it became a formal entity. The U.S. attack against the Spratly Islands might have proved the fallacy of underestimating American resolve but Deangelo had been in office less than five days; when better than now to throw at him a major crisis, one where thousands of American lives were likely to be put at risk.

  The Politburo might still be arguing as to the actual level of any further military action but to Liang and his colleagues on the CMC there was but one brief window of opportunity to improve the odds in China’s favour. Even though it would never become a war China could actually win, an advantageous diplomatic solution was still a possibility – it would just need a little more guile than simply occupying every reef and sandbank throughout the South China Sea.

  China’s old guard had planned for a bloody war of attrition and the U.S. would certainly baulk at significant losses in terms of military personnel; this was more likely to become a battle of missiles and laser-guided bombs, the first where remote-controlled weapons could prove their versatility, almost perhaps their superiority. Despite the recent changes to the nature of the Politburo and the CMC, neither body would settle for peace at any cost, and Deangelo and Golubeva still needed to be shown that the battle ahead would be long and bloody. The challenge was to do that while ensuring the conflict didn’t escalate out of control; only then might Beijing keep some of what had been gained. The consequences of a war were unthinkable: both America and Russia were essential for China’s future prosperity and with sanctions now in place, China’s neighbours would be quick to reap the reward of Beijing’s isolation.

  In a few days, China would be at a crossroads, either plunged into a war it couldn’t win or revealing to the world its willingness to compromise. The crisis of the moment somehow seemed to draw out the leader from the pack, Golubeva a prime example, and if Deangelo was in the same mould as his Russian counterpart, then the American missile attacks would only be the beginning, further Chinese aggression met with devastating force.

  Despite being a confirmed atheist, Liang closed his eyes in silent supplication, praying for guidance, tru
sting as to his own innate judgement. He had no family, only an ex-wife whom he still loved, nothing that would hold him back; no reason – other than fear of failure – not to put his and his country’s self-belief to the ultimate test.

  Eastern United States – 10:20 Local Time; 15:20 UTC

  Anderson was having a bad morning, his version of events in the National Mall challenged, his integrity questioned. He steadfastly resisted the sarcastic response, answering everything as politely as he could, constantly irritated by the tone of the questions. To Anderson, the inquiry into the Mall shootings, held under the auspices of the Department of Justice, seemed blatantly prejudiced against the FBI; the Bureau might effectively be the Department’s own agency but there was no sense of holding back, and the inquiry’s three members already seemed convinced that one or more agents were guilty of over-reacting; that apparently also included Anderson, his journalistic impulses supposedly getting the better of him.

  For well over an hour he was quizzed and criticised, the inquiry’s chairman particularly scathing of Anderson’s account. Whilst the chairman didn’t go so far as to actually call Anderson a liar, the clear implication was that Anderson was paranoid enough to blame Pat McDowell for everything, seeing him even when he wasn’t there. Although the detailed analysis of thousands of hours of video was incomplete, the identity of the man Anderson had assaulted was still open to question, the supposed experts and their software presently split two-to-one against it being McDowell. The fact there was no specific forensic evidence to support Anderson’s tale was unfortunate, his word seemingly not considered proof enough.

  Ray Flores was the next to have his deposition torn to shreds, roundly condemned for putting so much faith in the opinions of an amateur, and a British one at that. Hindsight seemed to be the main weapon used to belittle the FBI’s actions prior to the shootings, it argued that their very presence in the Mall had been unnecessarily provocative.

  Flores was philosophical afterwards, more used to the style of such investigations, and not one to dwell on what the final report might say or where exactly blame would be placed. Anderson was consoled with a belated lunch courtesy of the FBI, the diner on 8th Street crowded but offering a welcome change to the stress of earlier. A corner table had already been set aside for them, burger, fries and black coffee the staple diet with the booths cleverly designed to ensure any conversation was kept as private as possible.

  The reason for such precautions became clear once Paul Jensen sat down opposite. Anderson was unsure whether to feel pleased or intimidated, left wondering whether Jensen’s presence was in response to the morning debacle.

  For most people, the topic of the day was the U.S. military strike against China and the President was due to give his first prime-time TV address later that day, no doubt keen to defend America’s actions. Deangelo’s choice of target and the level of response appeared to have met with almost universal approval from America’s Asian allies and even the U.S. media. The public were similarly supportive, most Americans prepared to give the President and his revamped Cabinet the benefit of the doubt in deciding whether to applaud or be critical. China’s claim that over a hundred lives had been lost, the majority civilians, was invariably treated with a degree of indifference and suspicion, many observers keen to remind everyone of the earlier Vietnamese and Philippine losses.

  Washington itself seemed to have put aside the problems of the past few days and reverted to its more usual frenetic state, the number of those camped out close to the Capitol now reduced to just a few hundred; the police were happy to leave them well alone, Dick Thorn’s supporters still active although rather more inconspicuous than before. Despite Anderson not being party to the FBI investigation into Thorn, Flores had hinted that nothing incriminating had yet been found, the delicate nature of the operation adding significantly to its complexity. A breakthrough seemed as far away as ever, Jon Carter not quite the helpful source any of them had hoped.

  “What’s happening about Carter’s offer?” asked Anderson between mouthfuls, “He seems genuinely keen to give us something.”

  It was Jensen who answered, willing to allow the FBI’s newest recruit a certain leeway. “We’re not interested in re-negotiating the present deal; the Midterm results are already part of an official review and I’ll pass on Carter’s allegations… You’re convinced his change of heart was down to the murder of Neil Ritter?”

  “Definitely; Carter’s convinced that Ritter was murdered by the D.C. Police and worried that he might be next.”

  “As to who’s responsible for killing the Ritters is still open to question,” responded Jensen, voicing the official line. “The motive might have more to do with the wife, so let’s not jump to conclusions.”

  Neil Ritter’s job as a political strategist had involved regular contact with a host of potential conspirators but there was nothing that stood out as being overly suspicious, and Jensen wasn’t willing to refocus the investigation purely on some arbitrary comment from Carter. Similarly, D.C.’s Chief of Police might be a supporter of Dick Thorn and the FBI might have issues with some of its officers but that was no reason to condemn a whole department, and until there was clear evidence to the contrary, then the police version of events over the murders of Neil and Karen Ritter would stand.

  “We also assume nothing about McDowell,” continued Jensen, “either in terms of where he is or whether he still has some role to play. Thorn’s nomination as Secretary of Defence is meeting stiff opposition in the Senate and there’s no chance he’ll be confirmed before they adjourn on Thursday; maybe that will be enough to galvanise McDowell into activity.” Jensen’s tone hinted at his sense of frustration, Anderson one of those who needed to pull their finger out, his supposed expertise in everything McDowell the main reason he was on the FBI’s payroll.

  Their conversation returned to Carter and how best to keep him working, the occasional reference to Dick Thorn or Mayor Henry kept to a minimum, nothing sensitive revealed. Whilst the two agents from Jensen’s protection detail seated in the next booth might be deaf to what was being discussed, the same couldn’t be said for the general public or the diner’s staff and trust was proving a fairly rare commodity in Washington at the moment, with D.C. Police, FBI, Secret Service and even White House staff all under investigation.

  It was early evening by the time Anderson renewed his jailer duties, Carter looking shocked at the Bureau’s lack of interest in re-negotiating his present deal.

  “I guess it’s give them McDowell or it’s nothing,” said Anderson unhelpfully. “Accessory to murder: what’s that, ten years, fifteen? With a reduced sentence, that’s probably down to eight; out in four. That’s not so bad… Hang on though, it was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court that was murdered, plus Flores wanted your FBI contact – so I guess we’re back up to at least fifteen, maybe even twenty.”

  “Fuck off,” Carter muttered. He retreated back into his shell, ignoring Anderson’s attempts to rile him further. Anderson gave up, annoyed with himself for getting carried away, now worried that Carter might just refuse to co-operate at all. Anderson – and the FBI – desperately needed some luck, a breakthrough that would help them confirm exactly who the major players were and precisely what they were trying to achieve. Even then, Anderson could sense difficulties ahead, no-one quite sure what would happen if – or when – they actually found damning evidence against America’s new President and his Secretary of Defence.

  Carter’s meals were brought to him in his room, the bedroom door always locked, windows alarmed, an irregular check made even at night. Deactivating an alarm should be child’s play to Carter but he certainly hadn’t made any attempt to try and escape, his present level of fitness meaning he might just about reach the fence before collapsing – or that’s the impression he liked to give.

  Anderson idly checked the window lock just to be certain, deciding to wait until Carter had finished his meal before leaving him in peace. Carter ate slowly
, looking even more morose than normal, before downing his usual concoction of drugs with a resigned flourish.

  Abruptly the bedroom door opened, Flores shutting the door softly behind him and leaning back on it, angry eyes glaring at Carter. Anderson watched confused, sensing that it was more than just Carter being difficult, his daily petulance a pain in the neck but not yet worthy of physical harm, that looking to be Flores’ likely intent.

  Carter glanced at Flores, not able to hold his gaze, well aware that something was very wrong. “It’ll be Pat,” Carter said nervously, as though that explained everything.

  “Quite right,” Flores confirmed, almost whispering. “He was kind enough to text; my wife’s phone.”

  Anderson caught the fear in Flores’ voice, Carter simply staring wide-eyed and unwilling to say anything else just in case. It was obvious McDowell had issued some sort of threat, Anderson aware that Flores lived south of Washington and had a son at university somewhere on the East Coast but that was about it; he didn’t even know the wife’s name.

  “A simple exchange,” Flores explained, a dangerous edge to his voice, still looking at Carter. “My wife for Carter.”

  “She’s in no danger,” said Carter quickly, managing a hesitant smile. “Pat’s not like that.”

  Flores remained silent, Anderson merely an unhappy spectator, feeling guilty that somehow it was all his fault. Carter’s faith in McDowell’s nature was definitely ill-placed, Flores well knowing that McDowell wouldn’t hesitate to kill if it served his needs.

  “When?” Carter asked, still looking apprehensive but gaining confidence from Flores’ silence.

  “Tomorrow morning,” replied Flores, for some reason turning towards Anderson. “You, me and one other agent; McDowell wants you to make the actual exchange – seems he doesn’t trust me.”

  Anderson stared back at Flores, appalled as to what he was saying. “I get within a hundred yards of McDowell and I’m dead meat. Forget anything face to face; I just don’t trust him.”

  “You don’t trust him,” repeated Carter unhelpfully, “Pat doesn’t trust the FBI – seems fair to me.”

  “Just shut it,” said Anderson, realising that Carter’s attitude wasn’t helping. It would have been far better to have kept Carter in the dark and Flores obviously wasn’t thinking straight, too worried about his wife to know how best to cope. There was no suggestion from Flores that he had passed the problem higher-up the chain of command, and true to form McDowell was turning this into something far more personal than a simple battle of wills.

  Anderson grabbed hold of Flores and pulled him towards the door, both of them needing to get away from Carter before the latter suffered a serious mishap. Flores started to resist, then nodded his understanding, it obvious a clear head was needed to plan out their part of the exchange. His wife’s life was dependent on Flores making the right decisions and at least they had a few hours to work something out, maybe even weigh the odds more in their favour.

  Two hours later, Anderson was one of ten seated in the farmhouse kitchen, Flores back in control and working on a suitable counter. Rachel Flores had been snatched from their home outside Centreville, the house itself offering no clues, just left unlocked with Rachel’s car still parked on the drive. A trace on her phone proved equally unhelpful: it confirmed that McDowell’s text had been sent from Centreville but then nothing, the phone’s battery presumably removed.

  McDowell’s instructions for the first part of the exchange had been explicit: two cars only, set off dead on eight, Anderson and Carter leading, stick to the speed limit, the route from Terrill specified as far as the Potomac. Further instructions would be sent once they reached D.C; any deviation, any tricks, any sign of other agents and it would be a no-show, Flores given just one chance to get it right.

  With the FBI mole still unaccounted for, Flores had put his total trust in those agents stationed at Terrill. No-one else in the Bureau had been informed of the exchange or even the kidnapping, Flores prepared to worry about the potential repercussions once his wife was free; that meant no helicopter support and very limited resources. If the other agents had concerns about the exchange, then they kept such thoughts to themselves, all of them knowing Flores would do as much for them. McDowell was no doubt expecting that Flores would try something but he too had limited help – Lavergne and Preston certainly, but that might be about it.

  Until they knew exactly where the exchange was to take place, then it was difficult to plan effectively, but at least Anderson was finally on board. His earlier reluctance was no more than a gut reaction, his various meetings with McDowell never turning out well. In practice, his desire to get even with the American was as compelling as anyone’s, even Special Agent Flores.

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