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The rule of the people, p.30
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       The Rule Of The People, p.30

           Christopher Read

  Chapter 13 – Wednesday, November 23rd

  Mischief Reef – 02:01 Local Time; Tuesday 18:01 UTC

  The reef was a ring of jagged rock a few miles wide, the central lagoon shrinking year on year as China began the long-term conversion into an effective military base. Beijing’s military power stretched a full eight hundred miles from the Chinese mainland, the base and its missiles a clear threat to the Philippine island province of Palawan barely a hundred miles to the east. Already with the basics of port facilities and airstrip, the reef’s defences had been feverishly augmented over the past month, its marine detachment almost doubled to some two hundred and sixty.

  Two miles north-east of the reef and flying high above the waves floated dozens of minute gliders, each just four inches wide. Dropped by plane from 50,000 feet, printed circuit boards doubled up as wings; they had no means of propulsion and were totally silent, GPS guiding them to their target. With an accuracy of a few yards, the glider’s various sensors allowed it to act as a relatively sophisticated spy drone – an impressive achievement considering each one cost less than four hundred dollars.

  Unlike its insect namesake, the CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) operated in a swarm of just a few hundred rather than several thousand, it taking barely an hour from launch before the resultant data was being interlinked to produce a real-time tactical display of the reef’s defences; some of the drones could even listen in on the defenders’ conversations, others working in concert to pinpoint a moving vehicle or a heavy footfall. A simplified representation of the key elements was in turn fed to the Special Forces – SEALs and Marine Raiders – already en route, where necessary rapid adjustments made to the plan of attack.

  The fact those in the first wave would be slightly outnumbered was considered an irrelevancy, the element of surprise and quality of the units involved expected to move the odds firmly in their favour. It was obviously a risk but America’s military planners had factored in a variety of potential problems, the likelihood of success considered well within acceptable limits.

  The reef could easily have been obliterated with missiles but the Pentagon wanted a better bargaining chip, the capture of Mischief Reef with minimal losses the single priority. While the President had set America the task of reoccupying the three islands seized by Beijing, attacking the Chinese on their own territory was considered an acceptable alternative, a simple exchange likely to be part of any peace initiative. Such an indirect strategy also had the advantage of severely degrading China’s military build-up and the reef was likely to be significantly less habitable once – or if – the U.S. returned it to Beijing.

  And Mischief Reef wasn’t the only target this day. A second force of SEALs and Marines would simultaneously attack the slightly smaller Subi Reef: a hundred and twenty miles to the north-west, the reef had undergone the same program of land reclamation, the reinforced sea walls now enclosing a range of military facilities, helipad and airstrip. Guarded by close to two hundred marines, modern missile systems had recently supplemented the 37mm naval guns.

  Owen Metzger had been a Navy SEAL for almost six years and as proud as any to be part of such an elite team, comfortable with the extra responsibility placed on him as a platoon leader. The specialist SDV (SEAL Delivery Vehicle) platoon had practised most aspects of the proposed mission a hundred times in training; the fact it was now for real was not something that unduly worried Metzger and for all of them over-confidence was as much a danger as the enemy.

  Deployed from a U.S. submarine, the six men rode squashed together in the flooded submersible while breathing from the vehicle’s compressed air supply. The vehicle’s similarity to a tubular coffin was always difficult to completely ignore and Metzger sat behind the pilot, nothing to do except stay relaxed, the electric motor giving the SDV a range in excess of thirty miles and a sprint speed of eight knots. The final twenty minutes were a heady mix of anticipation and fear, the SDV having no defensive options should it be detected.

  The delivery vehicle was abandoned close the western edge of the reef, the platoon swimming the final two hundred yards before emerging into the almost total darkness of a cloudy sky and a new moon. Metzger clambered up onto a half-submerged rock, equipment unpacked, the rest of the squad closing up around him; few words were spoken, their exact position checked with reference to the military facility and the two security towers, the live updates from the CICADA network hopefully ensuring there would be no unfortunate surprises. In total the reef had six surveillance towers, guards backing up the electronic sensors; to take out all six towers and evade the guards without triggering an alert was likely impossible, and once over the sea wall a few minutes grace was the best Metzger and his men could hope for.

  A second squad of six SEALs emerged from the inky blackness of the sea, the platoon now complete, no acknowledgement made or expected. The seconds dragged by, Metzger increasingly impatient to get moving. The reclaimed area of the reef was virtually flat, no trees and hardly any vegetation, the surface a sand and coral expanse dredged up from the sea bed. Almost directly ahead, light spilled out from a complex of single and two-storey structures, it one of three military facilities spread out across Mischief Reef. Built on a concrete platform roughly 1000 feet by 700, the western complex was in the process of being expanded into a sophisticated military base; at its heart would be a ten-storey defensive fortress similar to that of an old-fashioned blockhouse, the future headquarters expected to include elevated firing positions and dedicated CIWS.

  North of the complex there was yet more building work, a solar farm due to supply electricity to an adjacent sensor array. Once finished, that would leave the Pentagon with a serious problem, the military experts predicting the array could be used with China’s anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21 theoretically able to knock out a supercarrier.

  The process of stabilising the reef and expanding its military facilities was continuing seven days a week during daylight hours, a smaller base also being created some two miles to the south-east. On the northern rim stood a three-thousand yard runway and associated buildings, and at its peak some thirty cranes and a similar number of trucks had been employed to get the airstrip operational. Two helicopters were permanently based there, their main function seemingly that of driving away the occasional Philippine fishing boat or protestor. The enmity between the two countries had been increasing steadily for more than a decade, it boiling over with China’s capture of West York and Thitu Islands.

  Further east beyond the airstrip came the concrete plants and temporary radar antennae, then the fisherman’s huts that had once given the reef a certain innocent legitimacy; not so the line of concrete piers inside the lagoon, two large dredgers and four smaller boats tied up alongside. Twenty-four hours earlier, there had also been a frigate and several patrol boats, the vessels now dispersed in case of a U.S. Tomahawk attack.

  “Charlie-One, all units,” announced a gruff voice in Metzger’s right ear. “Be advised Box-One to Box-Six down in ten; proceed as planned.”

  “Sierra-One; copy that,” replied Metzger softly. With the electronic sensors of the six towers temporarily frozen, the SEALs would have a fighting chance to keep the initiative. Random patrols were always a danger, the CICADA display showing only one in operation, it now some eight hundred yards to the north. The Pentagon planners had taken the pessimistic approach, it assumed that at least one of the attacking units would be detected; if not, then all to the good, the next phase of the assault able to start without the stress of having someone shooting at you.

  Seconds later the two squads were over the sea wall. Metzger led the way, the MP7 sub-machine gun produced by Heckler and Koch his weapon of choice. It was less than a hundred yards to the protection of the first building, a darkened warehouse, its southern edge out of direct line of sight from either of the two western security towers. Metzger slid to a crouch beside it, body tensing as he waited for the strident wail of an alarm.

  The only sound was the breathing of those beside him and the muffled crash of the waves against the sea wall. There was certainly nothing to suggest the enemy had any inkling as to the attack; no sign either that additional SEALs and U.S. Marines from the Raider Regiment were also moving into place, a total of ninety-eight men sent to take out the one hundred and ten Chinese defenders stationed on the western complex. The fact that they too were marines meant it would be foolish to underestimate their abilities or their commitment.

  Metzger checked his watch: 05:04 local time – fifty-seven minutes to sunrise. Some seventy yards to the south stood one of the new truck-mounted anti-missile systems and further on an open gun emplacement, two soldiers standing idly beside it. The CICADA network indicated that the platoon should have a clear route past the warehouse and an empty utility building before reaching their initial target of the temporary command centre, and Metzger flicked to his night-vision goggles, wanting to make sure nothing had been missed, his world momentarily turned into various eerie shades of green.

  Abruptly a voice crackled in his ear, “This is Charlie-One; confirm all units are clear. Wrecker set for one minute.”

  Metzger spoke quietly to the SEAL next to him. A nod of acknowledgement and with help of two others, the man hoisted himself up onto the roof of the warehouse. The sniper skills of Sierra-Eight – known to everyone simply as Chad – were of better use atop the building, his first priority that of protecting the rest of the platoon. If they stuck to the original plan, then the full troop of forty SEALs would meet up just shy of the blockhouse complex, it already a defensive strongpoint.

  The slope on the roof was relatively gentle and Chad squirmed his way carefully up to the ridge, managing to anchor himself. The warehouse wasn’t quite two storeys high but his new position gave him a clear sight of the northern half of the complex. On a personal level, the biggest danger would come from the roofs of three two-storey buildings, his helmet and body armour giving a slightly false illusion of security.

  Although the lights from the surrounding structures were a distraction he stuck with the night scope, able to switch aim quickly between the two most obvious targets. At just under two hundred yards both should be a relatively easy shot, the choice of brain-stem at the base of the skull, the centre of the chest or a bullet in the back not a decision Chad had ever had to make for real. He tried to keep his mind from over-thinking the next few minutes, studying the near buildings while trying to anticipate likely dangers. He needed to stay focused, the lives of his friends and those of other Americans depending upon his actions that day.

  Owen Metzger was also trying to predict what the major obstacles might be. The safe option would be to secure the warehouse and utility building first but that could well be a waste of time, every second’s delay crucial. He edged around the south wall heading east, the two-storey command centre away to his right. The rest of the platoon bunched up behind him, everyone knowing what part they had to play.

  “Wrecker in ten,” announced the team leader. “All units stand by.”

  Sierra-Eight refocused on the two soldiers standing beside the gun emplacement, mentally counting down the seconds. Moments later the lights across the compound flickered into darkness; in one fluid motion Chad gently squeezed the trigger, noting with a detached air the first soldier being punched backwards. He used the gun’s recoil to shift aim slightly, brain coldly assessing his next victim, the second man barely having time to react before Chad shot him through the chest. Instantly, he swapped aim to acquire a lone figure standing transfixed outside the main barracks, a chest shot again the preferred option. A rapid double-blink to regain focus and he resumed his search, no sense yet of regret or guilt, the soldier lying motionless on the ground.

  Metzger was already barging his way into the command centre: in twenty-four hour use, the doors were neither locked nor guarded, communications suite on the first floor, operations room above – or so the intelligence reports surmised.

  Metzger raced up the stairs, a burst from the SMG instantly grabbing everyone’s attention. As the rest of the first squad joined him, the emergency lights suddenly came on, the half-light almost blinding Metzger. One of the men beside him fired a second warning, gunfire also erupting from the floor below and Metzger ripped the goggles from his face, amazed that no-one had yet tried to shoot him.

  It definitely looked to be some sort of operations room: a triple line of consoles and large-screen display, offices to left and right. As four SEALs targeted the offices, Metzger stepped forward, SMG wavering uncertainly, the final squad member matching him on the right. Metzger counted six men, most standing in shock, two crouching down in an attempt to find cover.

  Metzger’s training told him to shoot first and quickly move on; that however was not the plan and Chinese casualties were also expected to be kept to a minimum if humanly possible. Now, with every man having a weapon at his hip, such niceties seemed a highly dangerous proposition. Metzger barely knew five words of Mandarin – English and the threat from the SMG would have to do.

  “Everyone on your knees,” he shouted, “hands behind your heads.”

  An explosion from somewhere outside rattled the windows and Metzger took another pace forward, gun pointing menacingly at the nearest officer. The man reluctantly dropped to his knees, Metzger pleased to note that most of the others started to follow suit.

  But not all; one officer stupidly reached for his sidearm, a three-shot burst from Metzger’s partner catching him in the chest, his gun dropping from lifeless fingers. For a brief instant Metzger feared the rest would abandon common-sense and try and avenge their colleague’s fate, then the moment passed, the top floor finally secure.

  In total the command centre delivered up thirteen prisoners with just the one man killed. The SEALs had suffered no injuries, Metzger shocked to realise that the whole assault had lasted barely two minutes.

  From the south came the steady rattle of automatic weapons, rapidly increasing in intensity. Metzger’s next priority was the barracks and with the element of surprise now completely lost, it would clearly be a sterner test as to the platoon’s skills. At least one of the other two SEAL platoons should have reached the barracks building by now, Metzger unwilling to delay any longer.

  Lying on the warehouse roof, Sierra-Eight had an impressive view of the complex-wide assault, watching as the rest of the SEAL troop swept in from the west, the Marine Raiders from the south. Early-on a tremendous explosion had hit the southern edge of the facility, the dirty grey smoke rising lazily into the night sky partly blocking Chad’s view; the angry sound of gunfire was now virtually continuous, the Marine Raiders in particular meeting stiff resistance.

  A second group of U.S. Marines was tasked with attacking the smaller base to the south-east and a series of vicious fire-fights started to spread out along the curve of the reef. Chad risked a glance behind, seeing the glow of burning buildings close to where the airstrip would be; the central lagoon was also under attack, flames engulfing a small boat from bow to stern.

  Chad’s gaze turned back to the main complex. The smoke and dense nature of the buildings offered no easy targets, an occasional vague shape appearing briefly with never a clear shot. Always conscious of being a target himself, he had been lucky so far, two of the three buildings that had earlier worried him now cleared out by his colleagues. Hovering high above them all, more U.S. drones sent back real-time images to be assessed and acted upon, the possibility of a clinical missile strike always an option.

  The emergency lights were fairly ineffective and despite the encroaching dawn, Chad stuck with the night-sight. As the platoon moved further south from one building to the next, his present position was becoming far too restrictive; he could help ensure a few of the defenders kept their heads down but that was about it.

  “Sierra-Eight to Sierra-One; request alternate.”

  “Copy that Sierra-Eight,” responded Metzger’s calm voice. “Break off and proceed to Rebel-On

  Rebel-One-Four was a large workshop, its concrete and steel adding to the fortified feel of the rest of the facility, everything constructed with an eye to defence. Metzger might sound calm but the workshop was proving a stubborn challenge, it needing to be secured before they could move on to the final challenge of the blockhouse complex. Even so, it was not yet thirty minutes since the assault had started and it was to be expected that some of the defenders would prove obdurate. The co-ordinated attack from the SEALs and Marine Raiders was squeezing the defenders from north, west and south, Metzger for one hoping that they could capture the facility well before the second wave of Marines landed, the Corps no doubt anticipating that they would take all of the credit.

  The attack on the airstrip also looked to be meeting stiff resistance but there were never any concerns that the assault would actually fail. The guided-missile destroyer USS Zumwalt would soon be on station north-east of the reef and together with the air power of the Ronald Reagan, the U.S. had the resources to overwhelm a score of such reefs with barely a pause for breath.

  By the time Chad arrived the workshop was secure, the bodies of several Chinese marines a sad illustration of what continued to be a dogged – if pointless – resistance. The SEALs too had suffered losses, Metzger now acting troop commander; gunfire was sporadic, the majority of the defenders holed up in three buildings running along the edge of the lagoon.

  Chad clambered up onto to the workshop’s top tier. Metzger was already there, thoughtfully studying the barracks directly opposite, trying to work out how best to break the deadlock. Set between the two-storey barracks and a reinforced warehouse was the imposing square structure which would eventually become the new headquarters building. Covered with scaffolding, a fixed tower crane was waiting to raise it ever higher, the three buildings soon to be integrated into first phase of the blockhouse complex, each designed to withstand a direct missile attack. Taken together they were proving to be a capable defensive position and the safest method to nullify them was also likely to be most unacceptable, America not yet ready to order a massacre. The Marine Raiders were similarly bogged down and it would take something more to get the defenders to understand that their position was totally hopeless.

  China’s marines had certainly fought bravely but had struggled to mount an effective defence early on, their superiors anticipating an air or cruise-missile attack. The anti-frogmen defences and nets were not yet in place, and China’s mutually supportive defence strategy for its island territories was still several years from completion. It was barely a month since the defenders had been more concerned with an assault from an irate Philippine fisherman or a typhoon, than a close-quarters attack from U.S. Special Forces.

  Chad’s skills might be deadly but the cumulative effect was relatively gradual. A second SEAL sniper was stationed away to Metzger’s right, the defenders now well aware of the risks of a moment’s lack of concentration. A strange silence seemed to have settled over the base, broken only by an occasional deep-throated rumble of an explosion from the airstrip, the forces stationed there similarly putting up a spirited defence.

  Pockmarked and battered, with chunks of concrete blasted away, the barracks was still held by at least a dozen defenders, apparently none with heavy weapons; another twenty to thirty occupied the other two buildings. Metzger had thirty fit men to command, the sensible option to simply wait for the second wave or the Raiders to break through.

  Metzger climbed back down to the bottom level, the standard attack plan of a mad dash with plenty of covering fire not yet abandoned. If he could take the barracks then the remaining defenders’ position would be untenable – just one more building and it would all be over.

  It was another five minutes before the silence was abruptly broken by two gunshots barely seconds apart. Chad had fired first, a shadowy shape moving into view beside a window opposite; the second SEAL sniper had matched him, both men confident they had hit their target.

  Metzger instantly seized his chance, ignoring his new responsibilities to lead the charge across the open ground and into the barracks. The enemy response was a torrent of automatic fire, both sides opening up with whatever they had as if to prove a point. The wall beside Chad was peppered with bullets, chunks of concrete and splinters flying everywhere, a cloud of grey smoke and dust almost making him gag. A series of explosions shook the building, the gunfire reaching a crescendo before easing once more to an ominous silence.

  Metzger hadn’t quite abandoned common-sense for glory, his attack on the barracks co-ordinated with a push north from the Marine Raider Regiment. With the barracks now in American hands, the defenders finally accepted the inevitable and Chad watched from a new vantage point as with hands raised high several Chinese marines stumbled from the buildings opposite; no weapons, their uniforms bloodied, some only half-dressed. A handful held onto a colleague for support, stopping to show they were unarmed.

  Chad counted upwards of twenty, each man ordered to his knees and searched before being hauled away. Only then did several U.S. Marines start a thorough search of the area, looking for survivors while wary as to booby traps, it still not certain that all of the Chinese marines had given up the fight.

  Metzger stood alongside the barracks, gun held ready, relieved to have come through it all relatively unscathed. The planners had hoped for the human cost to be acceptable to those back home, Metzger uncertain as to whether that had actually been achieved; nevertheless, America had started to live up to Deangelo’s promise.

  Two Marines crouched at the double doors of the warehouse, waiting for it to be declared safe. Suddenly one of them raised his left hand, a shouted warning coming too late to save his life or any of those close to him. An instant later, two massive explosions tore through the warehouse and the headquarters building, a deadly fireball engulfing the whole of the blockhouse complex.

  Chad was blown backwards, his body bouncing down from one level to the next before crashing to the floor. He felt his right leg crack, left ankle viciously twist. He lay spread-eagled on his back, for some reason ashamed that he had heard himself scream. Yet even as a spasm of pain gripped his body, Chad still understood that he was one of the lucky ones, there no way Metzger could have survived. A second spasm dragged a torrent of abuse from his lips, his back arching, Chad finally sinking into unconsciousness.

  A thousand yards south-east of Mischief Reef, the helicopters carrying the second wave of U.S. Marines bucked slightly as the blast hit them, a rolling black cloud slowly clearing to reveal the devastation ahead. A dozen fires raged around a blackened tear in the western edge of the reef, no building within a hundred yards left unscathed by the ferocity of the explosion.

  Russia – 13:16 Local Time; 10:16 UTC

  Markova stood beside the M4 highway and watched as the armoured column spread out to east and west, forming a rough defensive line facing north. The truce of the past two days might still be holding but clearly visible a kilometre away sat tanks of the 1st Tank Army. Moscow’s city limits lay just a few kilometres further on and the experience was all a little bizarre, the two groups facing off against each other in typical cowboy fashion.

  The unofficial ceasefire might have stopped it from becoming a civil war but Golubeva was far from beaten, enough units staying loyal for the final result to remain uncertain. Perversely, the present confrontation was supposed to be a tentative first step towards a peaceful and permanent solution and it was assumed there would have be some sort of compromise thrashed out, Markova just not sure how either side could trust the other – history certainly proved that Golubeva would stab General Morozov in the back as soon as she had a chance. A year ago General Morozov would have automatically been the military’s preferred candidate but Golubeva had worked hard to build up a power base in the Far East and, if the recent elections were anything to go by, she was definitely the people’s choice; Morozov might be the one person trying to keep Russia out of a war, but few in Russia actually wanted a
general to run their daily lives.

  Markova would be nothing more than an interested spectator during the negotiations, her new role as one of the General’s senior aides still giving her far more authority than she had known for a while. The terms of the proposed meeting followed the classic theme: four from each side, no weapons, meet midway. This was purely a face-to-face meeting of military and police representatives, the political complications set aside for the moment.

  There was a rasped instruction from the radio and Morozov’s delegation strode out along the highway. Markova pressed her hand to her earpiece, listening intently as the first words were exchanged; there was no obvious animosity, the tone polite if not exactly relaxed, both sides wanting a quick but binding conclusion. In the days of the Russian Empire, hostages would have been exchanged, the lives of family bartered for a suitable peace; in today’s world that never seemed to be an acceptable option, a handshake or a piece of paper somehow felt to be more acceptable. Most of the eight already knew each other, if not directly then by reputation, the lowest rank that of a lieutenant-colonel. It was clear that many within the military wanted to remain neutral, the National Guard and Moscow’s police keen not to be dragged into a fight that wasn’t theirs.

  Morozov’s aim was to open up the road into Moscow, strangely confident that the city would rally to his cause. The number and nature of their enemies remained open to debate, the six thousand men of the elite Kremlin Regiment under the direct control of the President but not necessarily totally loyal to Golubeva herself. Four hundred spetsnaz from the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service) had already been transferred to Moscow to bolster her support; conversely, few doubted that the FSB and GRU (Military Intelligence) would back Morozov if it came to a fight.

  Whilst allowing Morozov free access into the capital was something of a risk for Golubeva, she might well see it as one worth taking, confident that she would be able to finish him off once and for all. If the military-brokered compromise were to fail then a vicious if possibly short-lived civil war would be the inevitable consequence, it likely signalled by a tank battle on the southern outskirts of Moscow.

  The discussions lasted barely forty minutes before a break was ordered, the grey light of a cold afternoon starting to fade into darkness before the specifics as to a possible agreement were finally passed higher up the chain of command.

  It then became a waiting game and it was well after seven when new instructions were passed down the line of men and vehicles. To many, it wasn’t quite the outcome they had expected or indeed wanted, an unorthodox battalion of twelve tanks and just four hundred troops to be allowed to pass through the lines of the 1st Tank Army and into the city.

  General Morozov had no intention of waiting until morning, his forces reorganised, new orders given. Markova duly became one of the four hundred, unsure whether to feel honoured or not, and trusting that they would at least be given the chance to put up a good fight before being annihilated – or maybe she was just being defeatist, no-one quite certain what awaited around the next corner let alone the next day.

  A lone tank led the way, the well-lit highway into Moscow empty of traffic, no police or military in evidence. Other than a few people standing and staring, most Muscovites kept a low profile, the sight of an occasional Russian tricolour interpreted by Markova as a positive sign; even so, the atmosphere was more sinister than welcoming, the cheering crowds of Voronezh now a distant memory.

  The convoy followed the Third Ring before finally turning away from the city centre, heading north-west; the Kremlin might be their eventual target but the suburb of Khodynka was an essential first stop, Morozov needing to gauge the true level of his support and the exact nature of the forces at Golubeva’s disposal.

  The further they travelled, the more people were prepared to watch other than from behind half-closed blinds, a few hundred even willing to wave or clap. That became almost a throng as they approached the headquarters of the GRU, their reception significantly more enthusiastic than elsewhere. The GRU had been a loyal supporter of Morozov and their HQ still showed clear signs of Golubeva’s enmity; scaffolding now surrounded the main building and it was barely three weeks since the top floor had been gutted by fire, twenty killed as the President’s supporters wrested control. Golubeva’s recent appointees had wisely chosen to be elsewhere, her corresponding purge of the FSB ensuring the two agencies were again sharing what they knew – their alliance might be based purely on mutual interest but it had worked well enough once, Markova’s own survival evidence of that.

  Within an hour, the Khodynka complex had been turned into a well-protected enclave, armoured vehicles stationed close to every junction, the soldiers reinforced by GRU and FSB volunteers. The President’s own forces were similarly readying themselves for the expected attack and despite its age the Kremlin remained an impressive fortress, its massive walls and towers standing at the heart of the city for over half a millennium.

  General Morozov might presently have relatively few resources at his disposal, certainly in Moscow, but with Russia’s Military and Security agencies both working on his behalf, Golubeva’s superiority was not quite as impressive as just twenty-four hours earlier. The real test would come tomorrow, Morozov well aware that to delay would change nothing. President Golubeva had risen on the backs of others more able than her – now it was time to see whether she had actually learnt anything from her eighteen months in power.

  Washington, D.C. – 16:49 Local Time; 21:49 UTC

  The President’s routine on the afternoon before Thanksgiving traditionally involved pardoning a turkey or two, the ceremony now postponed because of self-sacrifice of the human kind, a meeting of the President’s inner circle the new priority. The fact its start had been delayed by two hours was a worrying sign, Jensen assuming that the casualty figures were even worse than the earlier reports had suggested. Or was it because China was readying its own form of retribution?

  Information as to the actual capture of Mischief and Subi Reefs had been quick to reach the public domain; not so the precise details as to how it had been achieved and at what cost. Beijing had been similarly reticent in revealing specifics, confirming that U.S. forces had attacked both reefs with the number of casualties reported as being ‘substantial’; it was also implied that the battle for Mischief Reef was not yet over.

  Deangelo left if to Admiral Adams to reveal the truth of what had taken place, the Admiral’s tone one of sombre resignation despite his initial good news.

  “By any measure, the attack on Subi Reef was an unqualified success, the Special Forces able to achieve total surprise. We lost five killed, eighteen injured, four seriously. The losses to the Chinese marines were less than we had anticipated – twenty-six killed; just over a hundred and sixty taken prisoner. The reef is secure, the Ronald Reagan providing air and anti-missile support.”

  Adams was giving them the short version, the bravery of those involved to be discussed later, it not yet the time to praise individuals or apportion blame for any mistakes made that day.

  “At Mischief Reef,” continued Adams, “the initial attack progressed as hoped, but at both the main facility in the west and the airstrip, the defenders were able to regroup, certain buildings proving difficult to clear without the risk of serious losses either to our forces or to the Chinese.”

  There was an unsubtle emphasis on the final phrase, Deangelo for one wanting a quick, emphatic and relatively bloodless victory. In hindsight, maybe achieving all three had always been an impossible ask; certainly they should never have risked U.S. lives once the Chinese marines had established a strong defensive position and the use of the USS Zumwalt’s precision firepower should have been an early option. Adams seriously regretted not arguing more forcefully for that to be the case but the Special Forces’ commanders had been confident they had enough resources at their disposal, the defenders single-mindedness never considered a serious problem.

  Adams continued, “The Chinese marines
occupying the headquarters complex and the adjoining buildings had started to set-up a series of booby-traps, some linked together with a single trigger; apparently they ran out of time, one man choosing suicide over a temporary internment. Many of his countrymen were also caught in the blast, the headquarters complex almost completely destroyed. In total, out of the first wave of two hundred and forty men, thirty-nine Marine Raiders and twenty-three SEALs were killed; we have another thirty men seriously injured. The Chinese casualties were even heavier, almost ninety dead.”

  It was worse than Jensen had feared, the President visibly angry at the loss of life. In what seemed a moment of genuine regret, Deangelo accepted the ultimate blame, his unwillingness to countenance heavy Chinese losses the single clear mistake.

  Adams met the inevitable questions with stoic fortitude, no-one doubting the efforts of those who had fought and died that day. What had been a highly successful mission by U.S. Special Forces had been turned into an act of murder by the Chinese themselves, that single event killing twenty-six Special Forces and some twenty Chinese marines, many of whom had already surrendered.

  The origin of the submarine resting on the sea bed was now definitely an irrelevancy, China and America locked together in a battle neither might have deserved or even wanted. The public reaction to so many sons and fathers lost was impossible to judge, the cost needing to be justified in terms of what had actually been gained. The onus was back on China and the tit-for-tat exchange would have to stop sometime, the carrier strike groups led by the Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford always potential targets if China so desired.

  The diplomatic channels remained wide open, China offering little, America demanding too much. The mood amongst those around the table was still more belligerent than Jensen had expected, Adams and Thorn making a persuasive argument for hitting China ever harder, wanting the message as to America’s superiority to hit home. The President, however, was proving difficult to convince, the hawks now only just in the majority; Deangelo might not yet believe he had done enough to satisfy his own expectations but he was minded to proceed with caution.

  “To return to the status quo will be seen as a defeat,” reiterated Thorn brusquely. “We either need to remind China as to the nature of a true superpower or accept they can choke off the oil supplies any time they want. We have suffered losses but we have taken back the initiative and should continue to push hard; America needs to break Beijing’s hold both on the Spratly Islands and also the Paracels.”

  Admiral Adams was quick to agree, “We have sufficient forces already in place, Sir. The John Stennis Strike Group will also reach the Philippines early on Monday and if necessary be able to provide immediate air support.”

  Five more days and America could sweep through the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and save the world from Chinese blackmail – but then China could say the same about America. To Jensen, a bloody fight for every single piece of rock was a quick route to a full-blown war. China was rightly concerned that other nations would seek to gain out of any conflict; perhaps not Russia or Taiwan any longer, but South Korea, Japan and even India might just see a one-time opportunity, whatever their protestations of neutrality. And then there was North Korea, their leader’s often arbitrary rhetoric still missing from the equation, no-one willing to guess how they would act from one day to another.

  “Beijing’s likely response,” asked Deangelo, not willing to be pressured, “has that changed in the light of these losses?”

  The U.S. forces in the South China Sea had been prepared for anything, from a full-scale missile attack to an underwater assault from China’s modern fleet of attack submarines. So far, there had been nothing on the military front, merely a barrage of condemnation from the Chinese media, America accused of doing exactly what China had done with Vietnam – attack with a brutal disregard as to the number of casualties.

  “It makes a missile strike against one of our carriers even more likely,” Adams replied. “The USS Zumwalt would also be high on their target list.”

  Deangelo nodded in understanding, the outrageous research and build costs of the Navy’s stealth destroyer making the Zumwalt a five billion dollar prize and a worthy test for China’s new breed of anti-ship missiles.

  “Beijing has little choice in terms of a realistic target,” added Thorn quickly. “It has to be the Navy; if not a carrier or the Zumwalt then they’ll try to take out several of our other ships, two at least.”

  Jensen was inclined to agree, intelligence from the CIA confirming that China’s Navy was more than ready to try out its ‘carrier-killer’ anti-ship missile. Designed specifically with the U.S. in mind, the missiles could easily sound the end of an era, with America’s supercarriers following the battleship into obscurity. Despite the heavy Chinese losses, the Politburo might still baulk at such an over-reaction and China’s capabilities in cyber-warfare offered up various less aggressive possibilities, America’s communications network and military satellites also potentially at risk.

  Deangelo still wanted Jensen’s specific opinion, “Paul, forget the military arguments; how do you read it from the Politburo’s perspective?”

  “There’s definitely serious disagreement within the Politburo as to the extent of any response,” said Jensen, choosing his words carefully. “The appointment of General Liang to the Central Military Commission is a sign that President Zhao is gaining the upper hand, but the old guard will still demand suitable recompense. The USS Zumwalt would also be my guess: a high-value target to make America think twice and so prove China’s technological advances are at least equal to our own.”

  The political split in Beijing wasn’t that of Moscow and public opinion was clearly being manipulated to ensure the Politburo’s militant stance was now accepted without serious dissent, the authorities even regaining a measure of control in Hong Kong. Beijing’s willingness to compromise over Taiwan was still not public knowledge, no formal agreement signed and no obvious indication that the two governments were even talking to each other. Deangelo was similarly reluctant to act purely on what the CIA had learnt, prepared to hear out Taiwan’s Ambassador first. The most optimistic assessment was that it wasn’t yet a done deal, Deangelo with a chance to have an input and perhaps even to veto the Spratly exchange. China would no doubt herald it as an opportunity for both countries and the positive aspects were fairly obvious, especially for Taiwan; yet many in Beijing close to the seat of power would expect something dramatic in return for giving up the island of Taiwan, two rocky outcrops in the South China Sea unlikely to be enough.

  In Washington too, the problem of conflicting views would be conspicuously displayed during Thanksgiving and America’s recent show of belligerence had already become the spur for further protests. A peace march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon was planned for the morning, and with Mayor Henry due to say a few words before the formal winding down of the tented city, the National Mall was about to be squeezed between those for and against the President’s actions against China.

  Comments from various members of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, as to the capture of Mischief and Subi Reefs were again surprisingly restrained, almost neutral, and Deangelo wasn’t quite getting the political backing he might have hoped for. It was as though by voicing their support for the attacks, they were somehow also helping endorse Dick Thorn’s credibility, his future confirmation still open to question.

  The Capitol Building was as secure as it could it be without officially going into lockdown, the official excuse kept sufficiently vague with a terrorist threat implied but not confirmed. All leave for the Capitol Police had been cancelled and scores of heavily-armed FBI agents remained on standby in the adjacent office buildings, even patrolling the tunnels underneath. It might only be for a few days but there had been no point in trying to keep such precautions a secret; if there was to be some attack, then Sean Kovak and the D.C. Police would surely now realise the impossibility of success and the National Guard was t
he only remaining danger, Jensen unwilling to countenance some dramatic assault from the 82nd Airborne.

  Whether recent events would influence the number of demonstrators attending the Thanksgiving protests would soon become clear. For some the memory of Iraq and Afghanistan was still raw, a peaceful resolution their one demand; others could simply point to the scenes from Vietnam, vengeance for the innocent lives lost a powerful and worthy cause.

  The FBI were hoping to be able to watch the complex arguments from afar, a visible presence in the National Mall just as likely to start a riot. For Jensen too, Thanksgiving would be another holiday missed and he anticipated a busy day stuck in his office while trusting that the CIA or ONI could give the U.S. Navy a few hours warning as to where China might possibly strike.

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