The rule of the people, p.18
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       The Rule Of The People, p.18

           Christopher Read

  * * *

  It was a nightmare from which she couldn’t escape, Markova standing in a bare circular room with the wall seeming to close in around her, a pair of doors facing her no matter which way she turned. She knew she had to make a choice but the doors all looked the same, no clear sense of colour, just a bland grey.

  She picked one randomly, needing to know what was on the other side. With the barest of touches, it slid open; beyond lay a swirling darkness, beckoning her into the unknown. She walked forward across the threshold and instantly a cold shiver of dread gripped her body, no logic or reason as to why; she stumbled but somehow didn’t fall, the door closing silently behind her.

  The darkness dissipated, sucked up into some mysterious void and Markova realised she was back in the circular room. The twin doors could almost be laughing at her, their image shifting and changing, yet somehow always the same. It was a game she couldn’t seem to win, let alone understand, and whichever door she opened the oppressive sense of dread was her only reward. Back where she started, she seemed unable to resist the need to keep trying, something – or someone – always urging her on.

  She could hear voices, her own included, but had no idea what she was saying; if she tried to ignore the room and focus on the voices, then the wall accelerated towards her, instantly grabbing her attention. The fear never quite went away, her body cringing in trepidation as she touched her chosen door, the darkness beyond always inviting, always false.

  Time meant nothing. It could have been a few minutes or even a full day, Markova stuck in a whirlwind of confusion, unable to break out. She desperately wanted to sink into a peaceful dreamless sleep, accepting the urge to race ever faster through the doors as though they might eventually lead somewhere.

  And so they did; darkness and warmth finally enveloping her, pulling her close, the welcoming embrace of unconsciousness an acceptable reward.

  USS Benfold – 15:38 Local Time; 07:38 UTC

  The Galene edged forward from the submarine’s sail towards the bow, the ROV’s lights probing a narrow fissure which stretched along the port side. The submarine was effectively in two parts, the larger section some fifty yards long: control room, living quarters, galley, forward torpedo room – Tanner could just about gauge something of the internal structure but access was proving impossible. Based on the blueprints Tanner had been given, the submarine patently matched the original Ming design; there was even clear evidence of strengthening for a gun close to the bridge, an anomaly that had been repeated for all the Ming-class, even though no such weapon had ever been mounted.

  Working out which part of the submarine might offer the best chance of tracing its origin was becoming something of a lottery. There were no external markings and all that was left of the aft section was a tangled mass of metal, various elements fused together. Tanner was shocked at what a single American Mark-54 torpedo could do: the sub might have been built fifty or more years ago but it had been designed to withstand massive pressures, happily able to operate at a depth of some 300 metres, its theoretical maximum closer to 500. The torpedo had blasted through the boat’s double-hull and Tanner could only imagine the desperation of the submarine’s final moments, the crew knowing that death was an instant away.

  Tanner was again under time pressure, Commander Vaughn trying to make it appear that the USS Benfold was matching the ROV’s standard search pattern while the Galene used the full extent of the tether cable to stay roughly in one place. Ocean Two had eventually grasped that something odd was happening and had closed to within a quarter-mile, the Chinese ROV now knowing where to focus her own search. Vaughn had duly consulted and even argued Tanner’s cause, but his new orders had been very specific: the Galene had the rest of that day to inspect and photograph, and then it would be back home to Singapore.

  The afternoon session was almost over, Tanner wanting to try and get a close-up view along and inside the fissure, something at least for the submarine experts to study at their leisure. Some parts of the hull had almost folded in on themselves, forming a buckled and pitted coffin, the remains of some fifty crewmen buried deep inside. A small amount of debris was scattered around the wreck but it was typically unhelpful and even if Tanner managed to photograph something with a Russian code or Cyrillic lettering, it would prove nothing, the early Chinese-built submarines having had little option but to use Soviet components and systems. Finding a crate of vodka or caviar would have been intriguing but perhaps still not enough to convince anyone, let alone to condemn the Kremlin for trying to start a war.

  Tanner settled the Galene over the fissure as near as he could to the sail, the ROV able to maintain a fixed position, thus leaving Tanner free to operate the other controls. The Galene’s four lights could be individually adjusted, Tanner searching for some small gap that would lead directly into the control room. It was an intriguing challenge but the Galene wasn’t yet beaten: the snake camera was a tricky beast to control at the best of times but it was Tanner’s only real chance to get a decent image. Stretching out to just over ten feet, the attachment required a mix of luck and patience to work effectively, Tanner delicately trying to thread it through the tangled clutter of metal. The Galene might have autonomous control over the thrusters but even the slightest twitch made Tanner’s job that much harder. The image from the snake camera was invariably distorted, especially the outer third but Tanner was finally able to distinguish something of the control room, or maybe it was the sonar centre.

  Abruptly the picture twisted sharply then flickered into blackness. Tanner was so absorbed in what he was watching that he jerked his head back. The camera feed was dead, Tanner quickly checking the status of the other systems, noticing now that the Galene was struggling to maintain position.

  He regained full control and flicked the image to the main optical camera, trying to understand what was happening. Immediately the Galene lurched sideways, Tanner unable to react quickly enough and the image spiralled around, the ROV apparently caught in some fierce current that was dragging her backwards.

  Realisation suddenly dawned, Tanner flipping the view to the aft-facing camera. The tether was rigid as though some sea monster had grabbed it in its jaws and was reeling the Galene in. Tanner shouted out a warning to anyone who would listen, instantly accelerating the Galene in the direction of the pull then spinning her around, using the sonar to get a trace on the usurper. Not that he really needed any such confirmation, certain in his own mind that it was indeed a sea monster; he could even give it a name, Sea Dragon.

  Developed by the People’s Republic of China, the ROV was twice the size of the Galene and weighed five times more, the Sea Dragon using her strength to rip the Galene aside. The Benfold’s XO seemed to understand what was happening, the CIC coming to life, an officer standing beside Tanner asking what needed to be done.

  Tanner simply shook his head, the link with the Galene suddenly severed. He guessed the tether had finally snapped or even been cut, the image on his screen frozen with a dark shape looming out of the gloom, two bright eyes searching out the Sea Dragon’s victim.

  Tanner angrily thrust his chair back, hands running through his hair in frustration. The Galene should still survive to fight another day and the emergency system had enough power to ensure the ROV surfaced, but that was poor consolation for what had effectively been an unprovoked attack. Tanner could even argue that the Galene was under U.S. protection – China, however, seemed unconcerned by such niceties, willing to do whatever it took to steal the Galene’s glory.

  Eastern United States – 10:31 Local Time; 15:31 UTC

  For some reason Carter had persuaded Flores that Anderson should accompany them to Reagan National Airport, the assignment officially bringing to an end Anderson’s own role within the FBI and the start of Flores’ enforced holiday. Once Carter had been fast-tracked through security, the three of them sat uncomfortably together in a corner of the departure lounge, a taciturn Carter seated in the middle. With Flores still
unhappy as to how everything had turned out and believing he’d effectively been fired, conversation between them was invariably rather stilted, the usual British topics of the weather and holidays soon exhausted.

  CNN proved to be a useful distraction: the main headline remained Vietnam, the latest images a powerful proclamation as to China’s intent. Deangelo was already back in Washington from Cologne, no resolution to the crisis having been reached with China, a temporary ceasefire the best that could be negotiated. America’s response – whether further sanctions, a military attack or a combination of both – was very much the topic under discussion, and several public protests were due to take place around the country; while most were planned as a gesture of support for Vietnam, a handful were expected to demand the U.S. reject further military strikes. The National Mall was once again the focus for the D.C. protest, a mass demonstration against China’s actions planned for Sunday.

  Yet many feared it might already be too late and China’s attempt to remove Vietnam from the military equation seemed to be working, the Hanoi Government reportedly prepared to negotiate Beijing’s offer. Apart from condemning China’s attack, the Philippines had made no official comment and it was assumed they were also in discussions with Beijing. The U.S. could well be running out of allies, people confused as to why America was having to fight someone else’s war, the Spratly Islands perhaps not that important after all.

  Deangelo was due to hold a press conference later that day, the number of issues likely to be discussed mounting by the hour, the White House Press Corps eager to get answers. Various reports suggested that the President would definitely use his executive powers to confirm Thorn as Secretary of Defence if Congress ever went into recess, news which was quickly overshadowed by something far more intriguing: Republican Jack Shepard, the Senate Minority Leader, was presently in talks with Deangelo, it rumoured that he was about to be nominated as Vice-President.

  Such a possibility was causing senior Democrats heart-failure, many upset that there were already two Republicans in the Cabinet. Chaos and disunity seemed to be the favoured words to describe such an Administration, the last example of a bipartisan Vice-President being when Lincoln picked Andrew Johnson during the Civil War. The New York Times was one the few to buck the trend, even going so far as to call it ‘politically astute’.

  The Vice-President’s role was at the discretion of the President and with less than two years until the next election, it was seen as a short-term attempt to unify the country during a time of crisis. In seven weeks the new Congress would convene, the Republicans taking control of both the Senate and House of Representatives, and a Democrat President would likely struggle to force through his policies whatever the political allegiance of his Vice-President. Or so most analysts assumed, a few predicting Deangelo might well have the political skill to turn it to his advantage. He had arrived in the Oval Office having made just the one promise, and if he was still there come January, he could cherry-pick his policies without fear of abandoning a vote-winning pledge.

  Such intrigue seemed of little interest to Carter. And with the Panama flight delayed by an hour, it was quickly turning into a frustrating morning for them all. Anderson assumed that Carter would be kept under 24-hour surveillance whether he stayed in Panama or not and there was always the hope that at some point he would make contact with McDowell. Eventually the U.S. authorities would get lucky, although Anderson doubted McDowell would ever see the inside of a prison cell; shot whilst resisting arrest seemed the most logical outcome, with McDowell no doubt encouraged to take his many secrets to the grave.

  “There’s one more name,” said Carter, breaking into Anderson’s thoughts.

  “What?” Anderson stared at Carter, only now noticing that Flores had disappeared off somewhere.

  “You need to speak to a Charles Nash; a professor at Harvard. That’s all.”

  “Nash? Harvard?” Anderson repeated parrot-fashion. “Why?”

  “Treat it as a sort of reward,” replied Carter with a grin. “Payment for not beating the shit out of me even though you wanted to. Just don’t tell the FBI anything ‘til you’ve spoken to Nash.” He lapsed into silence, watching Flores as he walked back towards them.

  There was no chance to pursue it, Anderson hoping that he wasn’t being sent on a wild goose chase out of nothing more than spite. Carter knew full well Anderson wouldn’t just ignore a potential lead, the lure of a good story outweighing basic common-sense. There definitely seemed to be a worrying trend here, McDowell and Carter’s motives suspiciously unselfish.

  With Carter finally on his way, Flores tried his best to make up for the FBI’s cavalier dealings with Anderson, a free coffee and muffin all he could formally offer. Even then he seemed to have something else on his mind, Anderson apparently taking on the role of confidant for both Carter and Flores.

  “Where to now?” asked Flores, picking apart a doughnut as though not really wanting to eat it.

  “Not sure; probably back to being a tourist – my last holiday sort of got interrupted. No need to worry, I promise not to skip the country.” It wasn’t as if Anderson could actually run away just yet: the Department of Justice were readying themselves for a second inquisition as to Anderson’s motives, he and Flores due to give more evidence on the 28th.

  “And McDowell?”

  “You’re welcome to him,” said Anderson flippantly. “I’m all out of ideas.”

  Flores looked thoughtfully at Anderson before deciding not to push it. “If you need somewhere to stay for a few days, we have plenty of room. I know Rachel would be happy to help out.”

  Anderson didn’t quite know what to say, English reserve making his response seem somewhat less grateful than he intended. “That’s kind of you both but not necessary; maybe some other time.”

  Flores still seemed keen to be supportive, “Give me a call if you need help. Jensen’s probably put a surveillance team on you, at least for a couple of days; so no need to watch your back.”
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