The rule of the people, p.33
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       The Rule Of The People, p.33

           Christopher Read
 

  Chapter 15 – Friday, November 25th

  USS Benfold – 11:45 Local Time; 03:45 UTC

  Tanner swore softly under his breath, cursing everyone and everything as he sought to repair the damage to the Galene. The tether was basically a fibre optic cable and easy enough to replace, but its physical connections to the ROV and the TMS had been damaged as the Galene had been wrenched backwards. Several circuits had also been fried, the snake camera wrecked, two of the ten thrusters out of action.

  With Ocean Two and the Sea Dragon jealously guarding their prey, Tanner had expected to be shipped back to Singapore, the search abandoned; that had initially been the plan but within twenty four hours it had all changed, the Galene with a new and unexpected role. She might not exactly be ideal for the assignment but she was all that was presently available, Tanner’s bonus climbing steadily by the hour.

  Once spare parts had been flown in by helicopter, Tanner and his team had begun the painstaking task of making the Galene operational, having to strip the main console and cannibalise certain components. The weather had been foul, a typhoon passing across the Philippines before moving north. Tanner was tired and irritable, the Galene’s systems proving equally temperamental, the first dive planned for later that day.

  Tanner knew he needed a break before he made things worse and he clambered back down onto the deck, telling the others to give it thirty minutes. For once there was blue sky overhead and Tanner grabbed a Coke, staring out at the line of breakers in the far distance; that was all he could see of the reef, there never more than a thin strip of sand visible even at low tide. Known as Hardy Reef, or Halfway Reef in Chinese, the relevant charts were incomplete and often inaccurate, the Benfold very wary of getting too close; even the fishing boats from China and the Philippines tended to give it a wide berth.

  Tanner turned away and took in the rest of the warships stationed away to the west. Most impressive was the USS Zumwalt, her sharply angled clean-cut design looking alien compared to the other two vessels; even her hull number of 1000 somehow added an unreal touch. She was an able guardian but also a potential target and there had been three alerts already that morning; Tanner and his team had worked on regardless, Commander Vaughn well aware that the Galene’s operational status was a priority.

  The Gerald Ford Strike Group had similarly suffered an uncomfortable few hours, a missile attack from the Chinese coast abruptly aborted well before it broached the carrier’s exclusion zone. Closer to the Spratly Islands, the threat was more from China’s submarines, the protective screen of helicopters and warships around the USS Ronald Reagan responding to several potential incursions, anything coming closer than a hundred nautical miles liable to be attacked without warning.

  A viable supercarrier-busting missile and elusive Kilo-class submarines – China might have the means but perhaps not yet the will. That at least was Tanner’s slightly-prejudiced hope, the USS Benfold likely to be put in harm’s way should Beijing decide to test the Zumwalt’s oft-repeated claim of ‘improved survivability’.

  Moscow – 11:28 Local Time; 08:28 UTC

  Markova had managed to grab no more than an hours’ sleep, the surrounding streets once again echoing to the sound of gunfire, looters and those seeking vengeance taking full advantage. The police were slowly starting to exert some control, justice handed out without the need for any trial, and the wail of a police siren had become less intrusive as dawn had approached. Daylight had also brought reinforcements and Markova’s unit was almost back up to full strength, the Kremlin Arsenal next on her target list.

  The snow was coming down in a driving blizzard, almost horizontal, and Markova was struggling to see more than a few yards ahead. It was perhaps the best the attackers could have hoped for but the morning had already cost them dear, the assault across Alexander Garden resulting in another forty dead and injured, the shattered remains of the two gates protecting Trinity Tower a visible testament to their struggle to break through into the Kremlin.

  From the direction of Red Square, the chatter of automatic weapons was now virtually continuous; General Morozov’s forces were closing in one remorseless metre at a time, a second unit sweeping around to the south to attack the Borovitsky Gate, its target the President’s official – if purely ceremonial – residence of the Grand Kremlin Palace. It was a final throw of the dice, Morozov well knowing that his men were close to exhaustion.

  A gesture from Markova and two squads chased across the cobblestone courtyard, one heading for the glass and concrete of the Palace of Congresses, the other for the Kremlin Arsenal directly opposite, both buildings revealing the scars of the Kremlin Regiment’s earlier battle. It was no more than twenty-five metres to the relative safety of a stone wall or a slab of concrete, everyone nervously awaiting the inevitable torrent of gunfire… yet there was nothing.

  A word of command and the first squad cautiously edged their way into the Palace; still nothing. There had been unconfirmed reports that Golubeva’s forces were starting to pull back towards the safety of the Senate Building and now it seemed the rumours might actually be true, the Palace of Congresses theirs for the taking.

  The Palace might have been abandoned but not yet the Kremlin Arsenal. Although defended by no more than twenty men, it quickly became another tortuous scramble to clear the building; the central section was almost completely gutted by fire, Markova’s recruits from the Kremlin Regiment once again having to fight their less choosy – or arguably more loyal – comrades.

  Although the attack across Red Square had faltered for a third time, by early afternoon the southern half of the Kremlin complex was firmly in General Morozov’s hands, the various skirmishes finally giving way to a wary silence.

  Yet it still wasn’t a victory. Morozov might control most of the Kremlin but the attackers presently lacked the strength to break the deadlock, and the Senate building remained the key symbol of Golubeva’s power and authority. Despite being surrounded and quite possibly outnumbered, she might still be willing to try and wait it out, unconfirmed reports suggesting that an airborne regiment was on its way to Moscow from Khabarovsk. Golubeva still had significant support in Russia’s Far East, with many generals there nervous of a cull should Morozov regain the ascendancy.

  In truth, the battle for the Kremlin could still go either way, Markova not shocked to hear that the two sides were once again in talks. From Markova’s fairly jaundiced perspective, the President had brought Russia close to disaster, hypocrisy and deceit Golubeva’s prime weapon, with hundreds of Russian lives needlessly squandered. The personal loss for Markova had been significant, her mentor murdered, good friends such as Nikolai sacrificed with nothing to show for it. For Golubeva to escape now or perhaps even remain with some semblance of authority would be an unacceptable concession, Markova determined to have her say.

  The secure comm-link to General Morozov eventually sprang to life, Markova struggling to contain her anger and frustration as to her new orders, arguing her case while trying to be more subtle than simply making some impossible demand.

  Morozov was sympathetic but immovable, his high regard for his new aide not extending to her being anything other than a silent observer to the main event. Both sides were once again actively searching for some acceptable compromise, the President’s Ceremonial Office in the Senate regarded as a suitably appropriate setting to decide Russia’s fate.

  It was another hour before Markova followed the rest of the General’s delegation into the Senate Building and on up to the second floor, before finally entering the ornate Ceremonial Office. To their left, the presence of the Russian Flag and Presidential Standard ensured Golubeva’s legal authority was clearly understood by all of the Office’s many visitors, its pale green walls hung with portraits of state figures and famous generals.

  Markova sat down with the others along one half of an elegant and impressive oval table, the four of them noticeably impatient to begin; none of them had been searched, the element of trust
encouraging despite the presence of several armed guards.

  Within seconds, Evgeny Sukhov led Golubeva’s delegation into the Ceremonial Office, the guards departing as the two groups started the impossible process of finding some common ground.

  It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a capitulation or anything close, Sukhov proposing an interim period of at least a year with both Golubeva and Morozov jointly holding the reins of power; only then could new elections even be considered. General Morozov’s chief negotiator was a gruff and taciturn Colonel named Dorokhin and he listened in silence as Sukhov detailed every minor point: Morozov would regain his positions as Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff, Golubeva staying as President, although key policy decisions would be by mutual consent.

  If Sukhov was put out by Dorokhin’s demeanour he didn’t show it, finally sliding across a thin folder. “Everything is in there, exactly as I’ve said. It’s a fair offer, Colonel, and we owe it to the people of Russia to reach an acceptable compromise. You cannot simply ignore the wishes of the majority who elected Irina Golubeva as their President.”

  “And China?” asked Dorokhin coldly.

  Sukhov frowned, “If they should be foolish enough to try and take advantage and attack, we will respond appropriately; I imagine General Morozov would expect nothing less. Or have the Chinese suddenly become our loyal allies?”

  Dorokhin simply ignored the question. He reached forward to touch the file in front of him but didn’t open it. A thoughtful tap of his finger, then he casually flicked the papers back towards Sukhov.

  “We were led to expect something sensible and not a set of ridiculous demands.” Dorokhin thrust back his chair, “I think we are done here; one hour, Sukhov, and those still in the Senate will be driven from it.”

  Markova almost smiled in relief as she too stood up, just not sure whether Dorokhin was playing for effect – either way, Golubeva’s situation must be more vulnerable than Markova had imagined.

  “Wait!” said Sukhov, half-shouting.

  Dorokhin paused; Sukhov was now also standing, the two men staring at each other across the table.

  Sukhov placed his hand on the file and very deliberately moved it to one side. “We have come this far,” he said, regaining his composure, “and it would be foolish not to at least try and reach an accord. President Golubeva will step down, Colonel; we can accept that. However, we will not simply surrender without some guarantees.”

  The first verbal skirmish had been met and countered, Sukhov and Dorokhin with their respective leader’s minimum conditions to satisfy, neither man wanting to settle for anything less.

  Dorokhin motioned to the others and sat back down. The exchange had quickly set the standard for future distrust and uncertainty, the chance of a binding agreement potentially as far away as ever.

  Yet both sides were still prepared to give a little and Markova sat in silence, her resentment and enmity growing with every concession, however minor. Evgeny Sukhov was an able negotiator but his own part in Golubeva’s abuse of power also condemned him in Markova’s eyes. The pistol at her hip was a constant reminder as to the debt she owed to so many, Markova’s thoughts verging on the macabre as she idly planned out Sukhov’s fate.

  In the end it took two separate meetings spread over three hours to thrash out an accord which might just be acceptable to both parties. Golubeva’s hold on the presidency was slowly slipping away, her willingness to negotiate revealing the deep divisions within her supporters. For Markova, whatever was eventually agreed would always be too much and she was surprised as to what General Morozov was prepared to offer, with even Sukhov given the sinecure of a minor government post.
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