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The rule of the people, p.29
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       The Rule Of The People, p.29

           Christopher Read

  Chapter 12 – Tuesday, November 22nd

  Russia – 13:39 Local Time; 10:39 UTC

  Morozov’s break-out north from Volgograd had been just one element of a co-ordinated series of attacks, Beijing’s continuing complicity ensuring it had met with early success, more army units quickly choosing to swap sides. Much of Russia’s military might was now effectively paralysed, the Kremlin unwilling to go so far as to call it a mutiny; to Morozov’s supporters, it was a just and noble fight, a final opportunity to prevent Russia returning to the authoritarianism of the past.

  The General now commanded a force more than fifteen thousand strong, albeit one split into small pockets of control across Russia’s south. The Air Force had avoided a potential split by simply refusing to take sides, it a policy likely to be taken up by others too hesitant or too frightened to fully commit. For the generals in the east waiting close to the border with China, the choice was never in doubt, several of them outspoken supporters of the President; yet even they seemed to recognise that China was no longer the priority, some units already starting to withdraw from their forward positions.

  Morozov’s reinforced armoured units had continued to sweep north-west from Volgograd, following the Caspian Highway before diverting west towards the city of Voronezh. It had been a nervous two days, their route a little too obvious to ever feel safe. Everyone had anticipated some large-scale attack or ambush, but apart from one serious incursion there had been nothing. The armoured column had slowed at every village and town before speeding up once back out into the open, and for a thousand kilometres the road had miraculously been empty of traffic, never more than a handful of people watching curiously as the tanks rolled past.

  The reconnaissance unit some five kilometres ahead had taken virtually all of the risks, ten men killed and three vehicles destroyed when two helicopter gunships had made a lone foray against them before disappearing off to the north. Since then, a tentative and purely unofficial ceasefire had been agreed with the Commander of the Southern Military District, if left to those in Moscow to work out how best to stop General Morozov.

  The four lanes of the M4 highway skirted Voronezh to the east, the city home to Morozov’s 20th Guards Army and for the first time since leaving Astrakhan, he actually felt welcome. Hundreds lined the city streets, the Russian tricolour waved enthusiastically, flowers thrown; it was almost as though they had already won the war, Morozov the saviour who would protect them from the warmongers in Moscow. The irony of such a label was not lost on Morozov: born and bred in the capital and following in the footsteps of three generations dedicated to the military, his forebears would have been eager to support Golubeva’s campaign against China, not actively trying to stop her.

  The convoy halted north of Voronezh to review the next stage. The highway would take them all the way to the centre of Moscow, no-one yet sure where the final battle would be or even if the President would abandon the fight. The nature and purpose of Morozov’s armoured convoy was hardly a secret, its every step tracked by satellite; there was even footage on several social media websites, an app available to provide regular updates as to its position. The fact such trivia belittled Russia’s internal struggles seemed to work more against Golubeva than Morozov, her authority diminished with every kilometre the convoy crept closer to the Kremlin.

  Markova sat on the central barrier between the two carriageways, feeling more relaxed than she’d been for weeks. Her journey back to Russia had been easier than she’d had any right to imagine, General Liang doing all that he could to smooth the way. From Tieling it had been a flight to Kazakhstan’s capital and then another to the border, before a bone-crunching truck ride into Russia. With new papers and a change of vehicle, Markova had eventually joined the Caspian Highway north-west of Volgograd, her own welcome from General Morozov restricted to little more than a nod and a frown of disapproval at her casual attire.

  An ill-fitting and slightly-worn uniform had duly arrived within the hour, the Major’s insignia newly added. Markova had still put it on with a sense of pride, happy to be part of a determined effort to rid Russia of its first female president. The motives of those around Markova were many and varied – for her it was vengeance, pure and simple.

  Washington, D.C. – 08:27 Local Time; 13:27 UTC

  The mood in the White House Situation Room was one of shock, the President sitting grim-faced as Secretary of State Burgess detailed China’s latest attempt to take another potential aggressor out of the game, a diplomatic masterstroke if it ever came to fruition. Of the other Cabinet members present, only Jensen had known what Burgess was going to say, the CIA the first to make sense of what Beijing was trying to achieve.

  The secret negotiations between China and Taiwan had been ongoing since at least the weekend, an historic agreement formally put on the table with both sides apparently just arguing over semantics. The CIA had somehow obtained an early copy, the repercussions of releasing it before any official announcement likely to be messy with no guarantee it would achieve anything worthwhile. If the Government in Taipei simply denied it, Taiwan’s relations with the U.S. would already have been soured, perhaps enough to destroy the alliance anyway. And what if Taiwan was merely playing her own clever game with no intention of ever signing such a divisive agreement?

  The early copy obtained by the CIA was certainly detailed enough to be credible: China and Taiwan would each recognise the other as sovereign nations in their own right; relations normalised; all territorial claims against the other relinquished. A formal conference under the auspices of the United Nations would also be held in the New Year to sort out any remaining difficulties, the official name of each nation one of the matters to be discussed.

  One more key component to the agreement was the status of the Spratly Islands. In return for a multi-billion dollar package of economic inducements, Taiwan would renounce its claim to all islands, reefs and other features within the Spratly Group; its two bases – on Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly group and Zhongzhou Reef – would consequently be added to the growing list of China’s recent acquisitions, specific details as to the actual exchange due to be thrashed out at the January conference.

  Jensen well understood the shock on the faces of those around him, and if confirmed the news would be a slap in the face to the people of America. For decades the United States had acted as Taiwan’s ultimate guardian; now such ties could forever be broken, the deal offered by Beijing a one-time opportunity Taipei might well be foolish to ignore. Taiwan’s Ambassador had only the previous day requested a Friday meeting with the President, the purpose now all-too clear, it always possible that Taipei wished first to consult with Washington before accepting.

  Whether such a betrayal would – or should – alter America’s present stance with respect to China was just one of many questions needing to be answered. The Philippines and Malaysia might have rejected China’s bribes but was that enough to risk yet more American lives?

  “Taiwan’s potential rapport with China changes nothing,” said Deangelo forcefully, once Burgess had finished. “This fight has always been about two countries vying for superiority, China and America, and there is too much at stake to simply cut our losses and settle for some fragile diplomatic solution. We need to prove that America has the military will to stand up to China; if not, they will turn every submerged rock in the South China Sea into a fortress.”

  The consequences of China exerting such control were left unsaid, the shipping lanes criss-crossing the South China Sea far more important than any unproven natural resources. How long would it be before China made full use of its stranglehold on world trade, with Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan starved of oil?

  Around the table there was not a single voice of dissent, Thorn and Admiral Adams quick to support the President, his promise to reclaim the islands recently occupied by China the most pressing item on the agenda.

  “I assume all of the necessary assets are in place?” continued De
angelo, looking across at Adams.

  “Yes, Sir,” Adams responded. “We are simply awaiting your authorisation. The lead elements are due to be deployed in just over an hour.”

  Deangelo pursed his lips, deep in thought; if anyone around the table had concerns then they kept them to themselves, only one man able to make the final decision, one way or the other.

  “Very well, Admiral,” said Deangelo, resigned to the inevitable. “The time has come to win back some respect. Proceed as planned.”

  Adams leaned back in his chair and spoke quietly to an aide, his orders setting in motion America’s first island conflict since Haiti in 1994. The President quickly moved on, wanting to re-examine China’s likely response, preparing himself for the storm of protests at home and abroad. Some would doubtless argue that Deangelo had over-reacted but if the polls were anything to go by then the majority of Americans would be supportive. The President was still in the brief honeymoon period before a bad decision changed everything, his standing depending in part on what happened over the next few hours.

  As to whether the day’s actions would help convince Congress to confirm Shepard and Thorn was debatable, the latter’s critics vociferous in their condemnation of his past betrayal and uncaring as to his wider popularity – or indeed any potential backlash. Jensen had followed Anderson’s travels with interest and, despite significant reservations, Professor Oscar’s article had been duly noted and acted upon. The possibility of a military coup had never been completely ignored, Jensen just reluctant to act on little more than a hunch and a set of confused indicators. Even now, there was nothing to suggest the military was actually planning anything so extreme and the single objective of the Capitol Building seemed eminently more achievable than a full-blown takeover of the whole country. Sean Kovak could easily deploy enough D.C. Police to carry it out and the Capitol’s Assistant Chief of Police was even a good friend of Kovak’s, his name added to the task force’s growing list of suspects. If necessary, following the President’s authorisation, Mayor Henry could also activate the District of Columbia National Guard, its Brigadier already under investigation.

  Jensen might still have his doubts but it would have been criminal not to at least put some form of counter in place; Homeland Security was after all supposed to be his responsibility, the safety of Congress and its members not something he could afford to leave to others.

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