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The rule of the people, p.35
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       The Rule Of The People, p.35

           Christopher Read

  * * *

  For the first time the President’s inner circle showed signs of a serious rift on China, the atmosphere acrimonious and ill-natured, with just Admiral Adams and Dick Thorn continuing to advocate further island-hopping all the way to the Paracel Islands. Via video-link from Manila, Secretary of State Burgess led the way in urging a more cautious approach, concerned by the threat posed by an unpredictable North Korea; the South China Sea was becoming a crowded setting for a war of nerves and China’s submarine fleet was evidently probing for some weakness, a clash now virtually inevitable.

  Somehow they had to break out of the present action-reaction cycle, neither country wanting to be the one to blink first. The introduction of North Korea into the equation did however have one positive, it offering Deangelo a convenient way out of the present impasse: the American people were well aware of the nature and temperament of their new enemy, and would be more understanding should the President now choose to adopt a softer line. China’s own restraint in not yet retaliating for the loss of Mischief and Subi Reefs was unexpected, but perhaps it too was a sign of a willingness to seek compromise.

  That was certainly how Jensen saw it, his opinion backed-up by Ryan Burgess. The CIA and State Department had rather different channels into the hearts and minds of China’s Politburo but their conclusions were the same – compromise was a possibility but not surrender. The United States would also need to give a little and the meeting with Taiwan’s Ambassador had proved that even the most loyal of America’s allies were struggling to reject Beijing’s sweeteners. For the moment Taiwan and Malaysia would toe the line, the immediate priority a new ceasefire before yet more lives were needlessly thrown away.

  The confrontation with China had already seen two Presidents fall from power and Deangelo or Zhao might well be next. The situation in Russia remained tense and General Morozov was expected to take over formally as president within the hour. For Morozov, China would be a low priority, and Beijing was already pulling its forces back from the border with Russia, able now to reinforce the south without fear of a Russian attack.

  Thorn had grown increasingly exasperated by the passive nature of some of the arguments, angry that the sacrifices already made might soon be worthless. Unable to hold his frustration in check any longer, Thorn finally spoke his mind, no deference made to his Commander-in-Chief.

  “You talk of compromise,” he said bitterly, not addressing anyone specifically but clearly aiming his comments at Deangelo. “Beijing will only throw it back in your face; if not in a year, then in five or ten. It won’t then be a handful of poorly protected reefs but a well-defended island network, and truly a sea China can call her own. The whole of the South-East Asia will effectively be under Beijing’s control, and we sit here and argue over whether to reward Beijing for murdering three hundred Vietnamese and a hundred Americans. Their sacrifice cannot just be ignored.”

  “That assumes,” responded Deangelo, his tone curt, his eyes angry, “the status quo returns to that of a year ago. That simply won’t happen. China’s economic survival is also under threat and they need a long-term resolution as much as anyone. Any peace will only come with suitable guarantees…”

  Thorn still wouldn’t let it lie, “Guarantees mean little to Beijing. We need to push them to the limit; maybe the Paracel Islands is a step too far but the Spratly chain is seven hundred miles from the Chinese mainland; China’s claim is based on some romantic notion of history and they must be forced to abandon it.”

  “We can’t change their view of history,” interjected Burgess. “If we offer them a convenient way out, Beijing will listen. China is still sitting on more than a dozen other reefs in the Spratly Group; are we really willing to risk another few hundred American lives just to frustrate the Politburo?”

  Thorn and Adams apparently were, Deangelo not yet convinced. The hardliners were now definitely in the minority, Jensen’s earlier analysis of Burgess well wide of the mark, and if it wasn’t for Thorn then some sort of accommodation would already be resting on the table in front of them. Jensen knew he might be reading too much into every gesture and word but the relationship between the President and his Secretary of Defence wasn’t quite that of world leader and adviser. Thorn always had a habit of speaking his mind but there was an added element here that had never been present before, even with President Cavanagh, Thorn seeming to expect a certain influence as of right.

  “Admiral,” said Deangelo, his mind finally made up, “for the moment we will maintain our forces on alert but make no aggressive moves. If we need to force Beijing to the negotiating table, what’s the earliest we can start occupying the remaining reefs?”

  “Three days, Mr President,” replied Adams without needing to check. The lessons from Mischief Reef had been well learnt, the operational plans modified to ensure the unacceptable loss of life would not be repeated. As to whether America opted for a full-blown offensive or staggered the attacks was down to Deangelo, the U.S. Navy and the Marines having to cope with multiple threats, the fear of intervention by North Korea and a subsequent escalation very real.

  It was another fifteen minutes before Deangelo took the easy option, the final decision put on hold until the Sunday; in the meantime every avenue was to be pursued in order to persuade Beijing it was now time for formal talks with no pre-conditions, a deal best for everyone. It was an outcome Thorn had fought hard to avoid and he made no attempt to hide his irritation, a second angry exchange with Deangelo his parting gift as the meeting broke up.

  Jensen left the White House feeling equally frustrated and his concerns as to Thorn’s undue influence continued to plague him throughout the afternoon; on reflection, he was even willing to accede that Flores’ suspicions had some merit. Thorn was becoming a serious problem for the President, one which was entirely of his own making and ridding himself of the Secretary without some embarrassing about-face would be difficult.

  Jensen sat at his desk in semi-darkness, slowly convincing himself that Thorn would ensure Deangelo couldn’t back down and settle for some inferior accord with Beijing. The willingness of the Pentagon to act unilaterally was a prime example of Thorn’s special status and the news media would soon wake up to the fact, invariably casting doubt as to Deangelo’s perceived authority. Thorn might yet be confirmed as Secretary of Defence on the Saturday and having fought so hard to have him in the Cabinet, the President could hardly sack him; Jensen even wondered whether Deangelo still secretly hoped Congress would come to his rescue, thereby saving him from admitting he had made a mistake.

  Anderson and Flores might have a differing perspective as to Thorn’s ultimate fate but Jensen remained sceptical, their reasoning based mainly on personal prejudice than cold hard facts. Yet, if he was honest, it did have a certain appeal, and almost by default Jensen was becoming one of Deangelo’s closest allies. Dick Thorn’s influence would continue to be divisive, the Secretary of Defence doing all that he could to push America ever deeper into a war with China – if Flores and Anderson were right, then maybe McDowell should be roundly applauded and left to do his job.

  The FBI investigation into Thorn’s personal contact list had been complex but thorough, it made more difficult by Jensen’s refusal to use the counter-intelligence skills of the Defence Department’s National Security Agency. Even so, many of Thorn’s private messages had now been duly analysed and dissected, an unexpected pattern or hidden meaning searched for. A handful of the subsequent intercepts had been intriguing if inconclusive, suggesting much but proving little. However, if Thorn intended to mount some form of coup or force America into a war, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau and the Admiral commanding the U.S. Pacific Command would be useful allies, the latter responsible for all military operations from America’s West Coast to India, reporting directly to the Secretary of Defence. Whether almost daily personal contact with each of them over the past week should be considered routine or suspicious was a question Jensen was struggling to deter
mine, the content of the calls seemingly legitimate and relatively mundane.

  Whatever Thorn’s true plans, he would be unwise to delay for more than a day or two, and Beijing was finally opening the door to formal talks, everything moving swiftly after the first tentative steps. Ryan Burgess was due to arrive in Kazakhstan in a couple of hours, his planned trip to Canberra put off for at least two days; China’s Foreign Minister was already in Kazakhstan’s capitol, Astana, and representatives from Russia and the Philippines would soon be joining him. Quite what was on offer was debatable and it might still come to nothing, but from Thorn’s perspective even a ceasefire would be a serious setback.

  Jensen himself had argued that Thorn wasn’t one to give-up easily, perhaps willing to push his luck to the very limit, and Jensen slowly scrolled back through the long list of Thorn’s recent contacts, focusing on the last twenty-four hours. The FBI’s experts had already examined each email, text message and phone call, nothing incriminating reported, and Jensen was merely trying to put his mind at rest, worried that he was missing something obvious.

  One forty-minute conversation was more of a curious anomaly than anything dramatic, the video call from Thorn to his son unusual for its length and the fact it was instigated by Thorn, rather than his wife. Captain Jake Thorn was halfway through a six-month secondment to Hawaii, and while post-Thanksgiving might be a good excuse for a father-to-son chat, it just seemed out of place. If a war with China and North Korea was inevitable then maybe it might seem necessary. Or was Thorn warning his son about something much closer to home?

  It was barely enough to be of concern but Jensen’s intuition was working overtime, the consequences of simply waiting for something more conclusive potentially disastrous. The lack of time was proving a problem for everyone and decisions were having to be made without a full appreciation of the facts, the embarrassment of a false accusation needing to be carefully weighed against the fear of future regret.

  Thorn’s allies were well-placed to exploit any opportunity, however slight, and Jensen’s next move would likely involve a certain element of personal risk; yet he needed something definitive to take to the President, one fact likely to be far more compelling than any amount of conjecture or suspicion.
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