The rule of the people, p.20
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       The Rule Of The People, p.20

           Christopher Read

  Chapter 9 – Saturday, November 19th

  China – 10:17 Local Time; 02:17 UTC

  Markova awoke with a start, a wave of nausea sweeping over her as she tried to lift her head. Her body seemed unwilling to act as she wanted, needing to be coerced into co-operating, fifteen minutes wasted just lying there feeling sorry for herself. Yesterday was a dull memory of a windowless cell and a barrage of questions, the drugs sapping away at her ability to resist. Markova couldn’t even visualise the faces of the interrogators, just different voices constantly demanding answers to the same questions, over and over again. More vivid was her recollection of the circular room with its never-ending pairs of doors, the nightmare a drug-induced fantasy of truth and lies – Markova just not sure how much she had actually revealed. And what did it matter anyway? The audio file of Chavkin was a far more reliable guide as to the Kremlin’s secrets, Markova just the incompetent courier.

  There was no sense that she had suffered any actual physical harm and more slowly this time she levered herself to a sitting position, only now realising that all she was wearing was a long nightdress, its silky elegance an unexpected luxury after weeks spent living out of little more than a suitcase. Light streaming in through full-length windows showed an ornate and well-furnished room, its Chinese origins revealed by everything from the sumptuous wall coverings and lacquered cabinet to the overlarge wooden bed.

  Markova tried standing before taking a few tentative steps, hands held out in front of her just in case. Confidence growing, she moved to test the two doors and then every cabinet and drawer. The outer door was locked, the other leading to an ultra-modern shower and toilet. Her bag lay beside the bed, everything better packed than she’d ever managed and the only thing obviously missing was the satellite phone.

  Various personal touches suggested the room was part of a family home rather than some lavish hotel. The windows looked out onto a wide stone courtyard, a fountain at its centre; three uniformed guards stood beside it having a smoke, one glancing up to make sure Markova understood she had been noticed.

  Although Markova still felt a little disoriented, she had no headache, a shower driving away the cobwebs from her brain. Her host was obviously keen to create a good impression, the range of toiletries and a choice of toothbrush suggesting she was far from being a typical prisoner. It all had a very familiar feel, it less than a month since she had experienced General Morozov’s own unique version of hospitality and for some reason Markova was never quite considered expendable, the Chinese still obviously wanting something more.

  A tray of food had magically been laid out in the bedroom, both tea and coffee prepared. Markova ate greedily, starting to feel more at ease, finally curious as to why she was being so honoured. Yet it was another hour before two guards escorted her down wide curving stairs and into a formal dining room, a smartly-dressed middle-aged woman waiting to greet her.

  “My name is Cheng, Major; I trust you will be able to forgive the nature of your journey here and the way in which you were questioned – I am assured any after-effects of the drugs will soon pass.”

  The language was English, the tone respectful, the fact the woman was a potentially a civilian unexpected. Markova ignored her natural inclination to be difficult, choosing instead polite acceptance. “I assume my answers were what you expected? I’m afraid my recollection is a little hazy.” It was said in a neutral tone with the barest hint of sarcasm, Markova trying to give no clue as to her present state of mind.

  “The methods used were unfortunate, Major,” said Cheng, waving Markova to a seat, “but under the circumstances I fear they were necessary. China is being accused of a deliberate attack against a U.S. destroyer and we needed to be certain as to the truth of what you had discovered in Bolshoy Kamen.”

  Markova chose to stay silent, sitting down opposite Cheng at an antique rosewood table, water, a pad and pen close at hand.

  “Please excuse my lack of manners, Major,” continued Cheng, trying to lighten the mood, “I should have formally welcomed you to the ancient city of Tieling; if it helps, we are seven hundred kilometres north-east of Beijing and about two hundred from the border with North Korea. This house was once the home of the local Governor, his interest in the history of our country extending to stealing its many antiquities; now its main use is as a base for visiting dignitaries.”

  Markova’s surroundings might be impressive but she was no dignitary, merely a prisoner, her future very much in doubt. For some reason, China was now following the more diplomatic style of persuasion, Markova concerned that the next stage would be a polite enquiry as to her family.

  Cheng was close to thinking along the same lines. “Major Natalia Markova,” she recited, reading from a thin file. “Natasha to family and friends; FSB Alpha Group and confidant to the late General Grebeshkov; now wanted by the Russian authorities for conspiracy and murder.” She looked up, forcing a smile, “That’s all very intriguing, Major.”

  Markova remained silent, Cheng’s seemingly random set of facts proving nothing.

  “And then we have General Morozov,” Cheng continued, taking her time. “I understand you worked closely with the General, part of a specialist team at Tutaev.” She let the statement hang for a second, as though waiting for Markova for comment. “It’s an impressive record, Major; one many people would be proud of.”

  Markova ignored the sarcasm, focusing more on what Cheng didn’t say. The fact she knew about Tutaev indicated a source high-up in Russia’s military or perhaps the National Guard, Cheng’s willingness to share such information an ominous sign as to Markova’s eventual fate.

  Cheng pressed on, seemingly keen to impress her captive audience with the quality of China’s intelligence network. “We both know China is the innocent party here, falsely accused of the deaths in Khabarovsk and those aboard the USS Milius. We had feared this phantom submarine might be North Korean and only linked it to Zvezda once Daniil Chavkin had been arrested; at which point our interest in you redoubled. It took time to work out your precise escape route and get a unit in place, and we were both fortunate your Russian spetsnaz didn’t pick you up an hour earlier. To then hear Chavkin’s detailed admission was a welcome bonus for which we are very grateful.” Cheng gave a thin smile, “You in turn should thank us, Major. Daniil Chavkin and his family have disappeared, most likely killed; I imagine that too would have been your fate.”

  It was a lot to take in, Markova’s actions apparently playing into Beijing’s hands. And as to whether she was better off in Tieling than the National Guard’s custody was clearly debatable.

  “What now?” Markova asked softly. “Keep me alive to confirm what Chavkin has said? Without independent verification from the South China Sea, it’s all meaningless.”

  Cheng lifted her hands in pretend shock, “You misunderstand, Major; the sea bed will soon give us everything we could possibly want. It is your relationship with General Morozov that is important to us now. You are obviously someone the General trusts and we wish to make him an offer, a gesture of friendship for the future.”

  Markova tried to grasp what Cheng might have in mind, it clear that in China’s eyes Morozov was a far better alternative than Golubeva. “A gesture of friendship,” Markova repeated slowly. “That’s seems hard to believe.”

  “The relationship between our two countries is at a difficult stage,” said Cheng, picking her words carefully. “Your President appears set on a path to war, prepared to manipulate events and even murder her own people. China is sympathetic to General Morozov’s present difficulties and we would be willing to offer a form of assistance. Nothing obvious, but it could tip the balance in the General’s favour.”

  Markova didn’t see how, not unless a Chinese armoured division suddenly materialised outside the city of Astrakhan. The Politburo’s offer was purely one of self-interest, it trusting that Russia would be forced to wait until Morozov was neutralised before joining the anti-Chinese alliance. Yet whatever China’
s ploy, it was a dangerous game they played: should Golubeva win through, Beijing’s interference in Russia’s internal struggles would only give Golubeva one more pretext to make use of the military option. The risks for General Morozov were similarly complex and any obvious military support from China would effectively destroy his credibility; without it, his forces in Astrakhan would likely be annihilated.

  Markova poured herself some water, needing a moment to think. “Assistance comes in many forms; what exactly have you in mind?”

  Cheng’s brow furrowed and again she searched for the right words. “First you must understand that China has no wish to go to war with Russia or the United States. All we are trying to do is ensure the desire exists – in Hanoi and Manila as well as Moscow and Washington – to work together for a more lasting peace. China is willing to put everything on the table for discussion, but others must also be prepared to compromise.”

  Cheng paused, only now ready to answer Markova’s question. “General Morozov is working blind, no clear idea as to the forces arrayed against him or exactly where they are; his supporters elsewhere are similarly operating in a vacuum, unable to co-ordinate any future response. We can provide regular and comprehensive intelligence updates; we even have access to a high-level source within your Southern Military District.”

  If true, it was an admission which helped illustrate China’s commitment to helping Morozov, one key agent effectively sacrificed to prove the offer was genuine. If the forces trapped in Astrakhan were to stand any chance, then Morozov first needed to break the grip of the blockading troops; only then would others risk joining him. His main hope lay at Voronezh, five hundred kilometres south of Moscow, home to the 20th Guards Army Group; it was barely two weeks since many of the troops there had been confined to barracks, their exact loyalty still in question.

  “And what do you expect in exchange,” Markova asked slowly, feeling her way.

  “Nothing,” Cheng said with emphasis. “We all understand Russia needs a strong leader but that must also be someone China can trust; that can never be Golubeva. As I said earlier, it is a gesture of friendship; one we hope will eventually be reciprocated.”

  Markova backtracked, needing to understand each subtle twist. “What of Chavkin’s revelations?”

  “As you yourself said, without something more conclusive no-one would believe it; certainly not the Americans. General Morozov has known about the Koschei for over three days, yet he has done nothing. It is a truth all of Russia would prefer to bury.”

  Markova sipped her water, mulling over the Politburo’s offer, trying to work out the potential flaws and repercussions. The Politburo might want nothing in exchange but if Morozov eventually regained some semblance of real power, China’s past assistance could easily be used against him, and it was unlikely such support would be greeted with much enthusiasm on the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg.

  That was obviously not for Markova to decide and she had no authority to argue or debate; yet she had no intention of merely being the messenger, needing to be certain as to how much faith could be placed in the words of a total stranger.

  “We are simply providing General Morozov with a lifeline,” Cheng continued, “and he needs to break out of Astrakhan if he is to survive. We are certainly aware of significant divisions within the General Staff. One symbolic victory for Morozov might well be enough to force Golubeva to seek some form of compromise; something I believe you too would want for Russia.”

  Markova was far from convinced Golubeva would give up so easily. The President had run rings around most of her opponents and – like Morozov – she seemed able to engender a fierce loyalty; something not that easy in a country as chauvinistic as Russia.

  Deep down Markova still suspected it was all a trick, China’s motives far more selfish than Cheng implied. “And what happens when you get your breathing space?” she demanded. “With Vietnam shattered and the Philippines blackmailed into submission, it makes sense to try and keep Russia distracted while you convince America as to your innocence. What then for Russia? Is that the true cost of your offer to Morozov?”

  Cheng seemed taken aback at Markova’s intransigence. “I assure you that is not what we intend. We need time for diplomacy to work its magic and convince others of the stupidity of war. In a few decades China will have become a true world power, our economy outstripping all others; why would we risk it all for so little gain?”

  Markova shook her head, unconvinced that China’s motives for helping Morozov were quite so straightforward. General Morozov had once been brave enough to put his faith in her judgement and she was merely trying to repay the debt, doing what she thought was right.

  Cheng seemed to sense that the argument was being lost. “I suggest we take a break,” she said, pushing back her chair. “Perhaps I can find some other way to convince you of our sincerity.”
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