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The rule of the people, p.27
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       The Rule Of The People, p.27

           Christopher Read

  * * *

  Senior Lieutenant Ryabtsev was angry and didn’t particularly care who knew it, his chance of glory in the race to Astrakhan now officially over. An hour ago he had proudly stood on the first bridge across the Volga only to be ordered back to Narimanov, the Battalion’s Deputy Commander wanting answers which apparently only Ryabtsev could supply. Communications with the command post and the units at Narimanov were a mess and the whole command system was only working intermittently, protocols ignored as unit commanders turned to their cell phones.

  Up until his new orders, Ryabtsev had enjoyed a stop-start and fairly stress-free ride down the highway; apart from the sight of a few burning vehicles, he had seen little of the enemy, the only excitement several helicopter gunships passing overhead on their way to Astrakhan. Morozov’s forces looked to have withdrawn from the defence line outside the city well before the Battalion had arrived and Ryabtsev had counted eight vehicles simply abandoned beside the highway. With the port area and international airport safely in the hands of Special Forces, and the 2nd Battalion making good progress through the city’s northern outskirts, the race to the Astrakhan Kremlin had become something of an unworthy challenge, all bets off.

  Ryabtsev hadn’t been the only one to think it odd that they had met so little resistance, a rare sniper often the sole representative of Morozov’s vaunted command; the General could have made a stand at a dozen places along the way and the Battalion would have been hard pressed to continue even with air support. Yet Morozov couldn’t simply keep on retreating forever, Ryabtsev wondering whether the gunships had already caught up with him in the marshlands south of Astrakhan.

  For Ryabtsev such concerns were now entirely academic and his immediate responsibility lay in the opposite direction, the platoon’s three IFVs heading at speed north towards Narimanov, contact with the town and the command post varying from difficult to non-existent. Recent images from a surveillance drone had confirmed that there was nothing serious amiss, the town and shipyard now secure, one of the two command vehicles to the south suffering some sort of breakdown. Colonel Vorotaev was no doubt sitting with his feet up enjoying some free black caviar, a few tins hidden away for later.

  Ryabtsev checked his watch: 14:50, his promise to reach Narimanov by three o’clock now impossible, it still some twenty kilometres away. The platoon had been delayed getting out of the city and the Deputy Commander had been hounding him ever since, but it was only now that Ryabtsev started to share something of his superior’s unease. Up ahead a smoky grey haze hung lazily in the air, the sight an ominous mismatch to what the drone had revealed; Ryabtsev tried the radio but it was silent, the dead zone affecting everything, even cell phones.

  Ryabtsev took it as a second warning and their charge north slowed, sensible precautions taken just in case. The mobile command post appeared within minutes, the evidence indicating it had been attacked several hours earlier, vehicles long since burnt-out; there were no survivors, bodies lying where they had fallen, Colonel Vorotaev one of a handful who had obviously tried to make a fight of it.

  It was another twenty minutes before Ryabtsev drove slowly into the town of Narimanov. Smoke was still rising up from several buildings, the bloodied and broken bodies of his fellow soldiers telling the story of a battle that should never have been fought. One whole company from Vorotaev’s 1st Battalion – ninety-six men – annihilated, overwhelmed by a vastly superior force, some killed even as they’d tried to run away.

  Ryabtsev stood and stared at the scene, almost unwilling to accept what had happened. Technology was the real traitor, the C4ISR system somehow manipulated to show its own sullied version of events. Dozens of vehicles looked to have driven out of the town to head north at speed, maybe as many as eight T-90 tanks amongst them.

  With an angry shake of his head, Ryabtsev climbed back aboard the lead vehicle. This wasn’t just a few stragglers trying to get away; this was a mass breakout by General Morozov with Volgograd their only possible haven. It was four hundred kilometres to the city, a good eight hours for Morozov’s tanks and close to the limit of their range without refuelling; they had three, maybe four hours start, Ryabtsev desperate to warn the Brigade Commander.

  All means of communication had been cut – no landline, radio net jammed, satellite and cell phone signals unstable. Ryabtsev headed north, a cell phone signal still his best hope. And if he could gain some ground on Morozov, then so much the better.

  Washington, D.C. – 11:58 Local Time; 16:58 UTC

  Anderson had picked the Holiday Inn just south of the National Air and Space Museum as a convenient base, wanting to be close to the key buildings of the White House and Capitol. The National Mall had been the scene of Dick Thorn’s rise to prominence and Bob Deangelo’s victory, the Capitol Building and its future decisions still crucial to both men, and Anderson was fully prepared to set up a tent alongside the rest of the protestors if he had to.

  Until that became necessary, the Holiday Inn was the preferred alternative, it certainly the winner in terms of space and comfort. Anderson’s room missed out on a view of anything dramatic, a quiet courtyard perhaps a better option than the rail line at the back. Massive TV, Starbucks in the lobby, a McDonalds just down the street, the National Mall within easy walking distance – Anderson was happy with his choice, trusting that his FBI followers had managed to get as nice a room.

  Sadly, D.C. wasn’t quite proving the inspiration he’d hoped, the combined thoughts of too many academics confusing the issue with Anderson still struggling to know whether the threat to Congress was genuine or part of McDowell’s night-time reading. It might even have been a back-up option in case Deangelo had failed to get into the White House, Carter trying to be helpful without actually giving Anderson anything that useful. The Washington Post had put Anderson in touch with one of their military contacts, and while Oscar’s two scenarios remained eminently viable, the idea that a few hundred paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne might suddenly land in the Mall still seemed one step beyond far-fetched.

  Anderson stood some two hundred yards from the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall a seething mass of people, tens of thousands turning out in the cold and wet to pledge their support for America’s allies in South-East Asia. The mood was very different to the demonstrations against President Cavanagh, with people now wanting to support their president not condemn him and the event was seen as a way to prove to the world that Deangelo truly did have a mandate to take on China, the anger at what had happened in Vietnam palpable.

  A few of those around Anderson had borrowed the concept of yellow ribbons from the demonstrations in China, their peaceful connotations at odds with the majority’s desire to somehow punish Beijing. The number of Vietnamese dead had climbed to over three hundred, some two thousand injured, and a candlelight march and vigil were also planned for the Friday evening, the National Mall maintaining its position as the main venue for protests.

  Despite continued concerns as to public safety, uniformed FBI were conspicuous by their absence, and park security seemed to be totally the preserve of the police, officers keen to keep the inquisitive away from the hard-line protestors camped out at the other end of the Mall. Although not quite within shouting distance of the Capitol, their sound system had made up for any lack of vocal power and the tented city was now viewed more as a nuisance than anything else, it taking Mayor Henry to broker an exit deal acceptable to everyone. For the time being the protestors were free to berate Congress all they wanted, the organisers promising to keep it civil and to decamp immediately after Thanksgiving on the 24th.

  There might well be differing opinions on how to deal with China but the atmosphere remained good-natured and the various speakers who appeared on the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial were all greeted with enthusiastic applause, it doubling in volume when Mayor Gene Henry duly arrived.

  The Mayor’s speech was short and suitably belligerent, the crowd patriotic and appreciative, a minute
s silence held for the hundreds of lives lost across Vietnam. His caution that people would need to brace themselves for the sight of American dead was greeted with a low murmur of understanding, it accepted that a peaceful outcome was becoming increasingly unlikely. Henry finished with a plea to those on Capitol Hill, urging them not to block the President from doing what was right.

  It was a popular dig at members of Congress and perhaps also a warning. Dick Thorn might not yet be confirmed as Secretary of Defence but he still had a big office in the Pentagon and was ideally placed to mount his own version of Professor Oscar’s ideas. Nine days back in the Cabinet and Thorn already seemed keen to influence policy, the Pentagon Press Secretary using his mid-morning briefing to produce a detailed statement as to the identity of the USS Milius’ attacker; no apparent deference made to the views of the White House.

  Images of the sunken submarine were produced, a panel of defence experts unanimous in their opinion that it was a Chinese Ming-class; a fact backed-up by the acoustic data and unnamed intelligence sources. Media speculation that the submarine might in fact be North Korean or Russian was dismissed as being both incorrect and unhelpful, satellite photos showing that Russia’s only remaining boat of that class was still in use as a training resource. China’s aggressive actions in preventing the American ROV from pursuing its search were roundly condemned, the Press Secretary merely citing it as a further example of China’s guilt, it clear little credence could be given to any future evidence gathered from the sea-bed.

  Anderson could hardly prove it was a deliberate misreading of the facts but it was all very convenient for Thorn and his hard-line faction. They seemed determined to press for a military confrontation with China, the public equally bellicose; yet many senior political figures – from both parties - were rather more guarded, Deangelo urged not to abandon the search for a peaceful solution.

  The U.S. Constitution effectively forced the President to judge whether Congress would be prepared to vote for military action. Rather than seeking their approval for an attack against China and risk being rejected, he could act unilaterally and accept the consequences. The War Powers Resolution gave him the leeway to respond to attacks while requiring he notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces, their actions restricted to sixty days unless there was subsequent Congressional authorization or a declaration of war. With Grenada in ‘83 and Panama in ’89, everything had been tied-up inside the sixty-day limit, Congress effectively bypassed. That might well prove impossible in China’s case – the recapture of the three Spratly Islands maybe, but could a suitable accord also be achieved in the same rigid time span?

  McDowell had worked hard to promote the idea that Capitol Hill was nothing more than a haven for the corrupt and the complacent, and Nash had shown the feasibility of simply shutting Congress down, its powers devolved to the President. For some odd reason that specific scenario didn’t seem to have the same stature as a full-blown military coup, it more an unsubtle adjustment of the President’s power. Sanitising Congress would always be a risk but if handled the right way, without loss of life while somehow managing to avoid universal media condemnation, then Anderson sensed it might just stand a chance. The first twenty-four hours would be crucial, the external threat a necessary element in ensuring its success; Deangelo might even argue it was purely a temporary measure, emergency powers essential until the crisis in the South China Sea was resolved.

  Public opinion was a contrary animal and the hardliners would need to act soon before the moment was lost. How would people feel if the number of U.S. dead reached twenty, or a hundred, or a thousand? China effectively held America’s political future in its hands, U.S. democracy now also under threat.

  If it were a fantasy, then at least it was an intriguing one. Waste of time or not, Anderson was determined to see how it all played out, strangely confident that sooner or later McDowell would make his presence felt.

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