The rule of the people, p.9
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       The Rule Of The People, p.9

           Christopher Read
 

  Chapter 4 – Monday, November 14th

  USS Benfold – 10:51 Local Time; 02:51 UTC

  The destroyer’s Combat Information Centre (CIC) was an uncomfortable environment for Tanner, his civilian clothes marking him out as someone who shouldn’t really be there, his presence merely temporary. It was always worse when the Benfold’s captain made an appearance, saying little and occasionally stopping to peer at the red-tinged images sent back from the ROV’s (Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicle) five cameras.

  Tanner had never promised it would be a quick and simple process: they might have a good idea as to where the submarine had sunk but the sonar evidence from the attack on the USS Milius showed that it had broken apart before plummeting three quarters of a mile down to the seabed. For seven days now the ROV had been following a standard search pattern, traveling at a steady three knots with sensors probing the depths for any metallic or visual anomaly. The South China Sea was littered with wrecks, thousands rather than hundreds, with well over fifty from World War Two alone, including two Japanese aircraft carriers. Three more surface ships had joined that list in the past ten days, two frigates – one Chinese, one Vietnamese – plus a brave but foolhardy corvette. Vietnam was doing what it could to make Beijing pay for its aggression and the attack on the Chinese Carrier Group had been a suicidal attempt to enforce the exclusion zone.

  Tanner’s specialist company was more used to being employed by the scientific community than the U.S. Navy; however, the ROVs operated by the Seventh Fleet were designed to neutralise mines not carry out deep-water searches, and the twenty-plus years Tanner had spent operating and working with ROVs ensured he was the preferred option – that and the fact he was based in Singapore with one versatile ROV immediately available for hire. Galene was her official name, called after the Greek goddess of calm seas; sadly, the South China Sea had been fairly unappreciative of such name-dropping, three days of storm-force winds severely restricting the number of hours the Galene could be deployed.

  The Galene herself wasn’t the problem: a cube some four-foot in size, with multiple attachments added as if by random, she plainly lacked the streamlined elegance of the USS Benfold. However, the ROV would happily function on automatic mode whilst a hurricane thrashed the surface above, and it was the link to the base ship that restricted her operation. Power, control and data exchange between the ROV’s high-resolution cameras, the manipulator, and single grabber arm, were via an armoured umbilical cable and then a separate tether; a bucking ship could easily damage the 38mm thick cables beyond repair, or at the very least interfere with the signals to and from the Galene. If all else failed, the ROV had her own back-up power supply, the Galene’s automated systems able to bring her safely to the surface.

  While the sea conditions were the main factor as to operational safety, it was Tanner who invariably had the final say – a fact which was causing a certain amount of tension with the Benfold’s Captain. Commander Vaughn hovered now, somewhere behind Tanner, his presence a reminder of the Navy’s need for answers, the pressure on Tanner to take risks subtle but still there even if not spoken out loud.

  The Commander’s unease was also making Tanner more edgy, everyone aboard well aware of how volatile the situation in the South China Sea had become. And the USS Benfold was on her own, treading water uncomfortably close to the Chinese-occupied islands of the Paracels. The nearest U.S. carrier strike group, headed by the USS Gerald R Ford, patrolled well to the south-east and, even though air support could arrive within minutes, Tanner still felt a little isolated. The destroyer was a capable ship, upgraded in 2013, and her only serious deficiency was the lack of her own helicopter – the Benfold had a suitable flight deck but no hanger, the destroyer perversely able to refuel and rearm a Seahawk helicopter but not maintain one.

  Despite the dangers around them, patience and persistence were essential if the search was to succeed, backtracking accepted as routine, it not helping that the various predictions as to the submarine’s likely position had proved inaccurate – either that or Tanner was being incompetent. The newly extended search area had brought its own set of problems and the maximum sea depth of some three miles was now dangerously close to the Galene’s limit. Optical visibility with the ROV’s four adjustable lights remained at around twenty feet, imaging sonar used to expand the viewing range by a factor of at least ten, and the Galene could typically take up to six hours to search a single square mile. The sonar images were automatically analysed in real-time with the software highlighting areas worthy of a more detailed look; that generally meant a delay whilst the ROV’s operator undertook a visual inspection, the colours optimised and enhanced to help the human observer.

  Quite what Tanner and his team of three were required to do once the submarine was detected was still unclear; he assumed they would be looking to confirm the boat’s identity as one of China’s ageing Ming-class, but Vaughn had hinted that Tanner might be required to search out something very specific – precisely what hadn’t as yet been discussed.

  The image on the control panel’s monitor abruptly flickered as an area ahead was highlighted; Tanner immediately slowed the ROV, switching to visual mode. It was definitely something metallic, circular and a couple of feet across, the amount of corrosion indicating it had been there for years. Fishing gear, oil drums, a metal seat, even a massive shipping container – the Galene had found them all in the last few days, but not yet a mystery submarine.

  Tanner paused the search while he checked the Galene’s exact position, quickly becoming distracted by an animated conversation behind him; the atmosphere in the CIC was noticeably tense, the crew’s attention focused on a radar contact approaching from the north-west. Tanner tried to ignore it, concentrating on his own problems, thankful at least that something else had captured the Captain’s interest.

  It was another forty minutes before he was relieved, Tanner’s place at the control panel taken by someone much slimmer and a good twenty years his junior: Coop was an Australian with a vicious sense of humour, his enthusiasm just about making up for his lack of experience – in any event Tanner always reviewed the various recordings and data at the end of every session.

  With Coop duly updated, Tanner left the air-conditioned claustrophobia of the CIC and started to make his way to the stern, wanting to check that all was well with the Galene’s power and control module; securely fitted to the Benfold’s flight deck on the port side, the integrated winch gave the ship a splash of red amongst the boring grey, Commander Vaughn not yet insisting that it needed to be re-painted.

  A call to the bridge forced Tanner to change his plans, unsure why he was being so honoured and worried that it was to tell him something he wouldn’t like. In fact Vaughn said barely a word, content to hand Tanner a pair of binoculars and gesture at a vessel sitting less than a mile off the Benfold’s starboard bow.

  Tanner didn’t need the binoculars; the ships’ profile was one he instantly recognised and a large photograph of the vessel even adorned his office wall in Singapore, Tanner invariably jealous every time he looked at it. China’s new oceanographic research ship, Dayang Er Hao, translated as Ocean Two, was an impressive sight: much smaller than the Benfold, her sonar and imaging systems were second-to-none, the ROV at the stern far superior in every sense to the three year-old Galene.

  “An unwelcome addition to our little party,” Vaughn said with a hint of annoyance. “We’ve suggested she might want to fuck off somewhere else but our recommendation was politely declined. We seem to have a race on our hands, Mr Tanner; one the U.S. Navy has no intention of losing.”

  Bolshoy Kamen, Russia – 16:15 Local Time; 06:15 UTC

  The drive from Vladivostok around the twisting curve of Ussuri Bay had been another tortuous crawl one slow kilometre at a time, over a hundred in total, the Lada Niva cramped and uncomfortable. The town of Bolshoy Kamen might only lie thirty kilometres to the east of Vladivostok but with no ferries running and the rail link closed, there ha
d been little choice but the frustration of a six hour road trip. The fear of a Chinese attack might have started to fade but thousands were still determined to flee the city; the port was virtually devoid of ships, hundreds of containers unable to be loaded in time and even the smaller vessels had chosen to leave while they could. The ATMs had long since been emptied and even though Markova’s new ID had been backed up with a good amount of credit, a second drunken spree through the city’s bars had turned a minor difficulty into a serious concern.

  On the plus side, the previous evening had at least proved rather more productive than the Saturday, the rumours surrounding the Zvezda Shipyard Complex in Bolshoy Kamen definitely worth pursuing. Government-owned, Zvezda was involved in both military and commercial projects, its workers’ expertise even extending to the decommissioning of nuclear submarines. It was interesting but not necessarily that relevant, Markova’s curiosity growing once details had emerged as to one recent project: ultra-high security, twenty-four hour working, outside specialists brought in and kept apart from the locals – it had to mean something.

  The atmosphere in Bolshoy Kamen appeared equally strained, the Lada passing through two military checkpoints on its way deeper into the town, the habitual search not restricted to just their car or baggage. The local area had only been opened up to visitors in 2015, the shipyard and its military connection ensuring that strangers were invariably treated with suspicion. Although the town centre was virtually empty of traffic, there were plenty of pedestrians prepared to brave the weather and most shops looked to be open; yet for some reason hotels were hard to find, Nikolai eventually pulling into a mini-hotel on October Street close to the bay area.

  They booked a twin room, Nikolai knowing better than to draw any false assumptions as to the actual sleeping arrangements. Markova regarded him as a trusted colleague and good friend, nothing more; Nikolai’s feelings were slightly more ambiguous, an almost brotherly affection battling with the fact Markova was both attractive and unattached – he would never try to advantage but it didn’t mean he was never tempted.

  They left the Lada and headed out on foot, following the curve of the bay as it headed north, a flurry of snow quickly reducing visibility. Markova simply wanted to get a better feel for their surroundings and how best to play the next stage. The town had suffered badly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a good third of the men having to leave to find new work; the last few years had witnessed a steady recovery, government money helping modernise and expand the shipyard complex, but the symbols of past decay remained, the crumbling concrete buildings adorned with graffiti still awaiting either a second chance or the heavy embrace of a bulldozer.

  The Zvezda shipyard eventually came into view about a kilometre away, it proving difficult to get much closer without it being obvious. The yard had recently seen yet more investment and as far as Markova could tell it appeared to be operating as normal; she could even pick out two naval vessels berthed alongside the dock, a crane towering high overhead. Security looked to be tight, although no more extreme than the naval facilities at Vladivostok.

  They turned east, walking slowly towards Karl Marx Street and the town’s shops and restaurants. Markova wasn’t in the mood to talk and she huddled up against the cold, lost in thought. The Beijing Government had fiercely denied responsibility for the attack on the USS Milius and with the White House oddly reluctant to apportion blame, conspiracy theories abounded. Most were variations on the theme that the submarine’s country of origin was not in fact China but the equally difficult alternative of North Korea; a few supposed experts were even prepared to blame Russia.

  Markova had similarly done the research, the Ming design and its variants operated by several nations over the past sixty years. Russia’s Project-633 submarine had been exported to China in the early 1960’s before eventually evolving into the Ming-class. In turn China had exported their version to various countries, including Bangladesh and Egypt; North Korea had been a major recipient, dozens of boats assembled in-house from Chinese-supplied parts.

  While North Korea might well have the desire to attack the United States, Markova knew enough about the Kremlin’s involvement to realise that in all probability the submarine was indeed Russian, and at least one of the original 633 boats had reputedly been retained for training purposes, the Zvezda Shipyard more than capable of bringing it back to life. Yet even if she could prove the Kremlin was responsible, what advantage would there be in telling the world of Golubeva’s deception? Markova would merely be encouraging the U.S. to retaliate against her own countrymen, hundreds of Russian lives potentially put at risk. Any attack would also hinder General Morozov’s hopes of ousting Golubeva, it invariably hardening support for Russia’s Government, at least in the short term.

  Markova might have her concerns as to the advantage of such knowledge but she also had a responsibility to Morozov to get to the truth. Sadly, that could take time and it was doubtful whether Golubeva would allow Morozov the luxury of more than a few weeks grace before his forces in Astrakhan were overwhelmed. Somehow Markova needed to accelerate the process of unravelling Zvezda’s secrets, the standard recourse of bribery and intimidation likely to prove difficult without a dramatic influx of cash and at least one gun between them.

  Markova almost stumbled as Nikolai nudged her arm, her thoughts dragged back to the present. She glanced across at him, the angry words forming on her lips stilled as she noticed his attention was elsewhere.

  Up ahead were several police, two with assault rifles, stopping and checking everyone who walked past. It was too late to suddenly retrace their steps or turn aside, the two of them forced to keep going.

  An elderly couple were already being questioned by a bored-looking policeman, and a second uniformed figure stepped out from the shadows to motion Markova and Nikolai into the relative cover of a shop front.

  “Your papers, please.” The tone was polite, the policeman giving a half-smile despite the cold. They did as asked, Markova a little concerned to notice that the policeman’s insignia was that of a captain, it unclear why such a senior officer was bothering with the mundane task of checking IDs.

  “You’re from Moscow?” The question was addressed to Nikolai, the officer’s gaze swapping between the two of them.

  “That’s what it says; Moscow born and bred.” Nikolai was cold and fed up, not happy at being stopped just short of a warm and inviting restaurant.

  “Journalists,” said the policeman thoughtfully, half to himself. “And why are you here exactly?”

  “Bolshoy Kamen is in the news,” explained Markova, not waiting for Nikolai to say something they’d both regret. “Like Khabarovsk and Vladivostok it’s a potential target for China, and Moscow needs to see what people here are going through.” Markova tried to keep her tone relaxed, sensing that any further hint of annoyance would only be counter-productive; she was keen to stick to the truth where she could, too many lies always a dangerous strategy.

  The officer thumbed through the IDs a second time, not bothering to have them scanned, knowing that the two of them would have already passed through several checkpoints. He was either very bored or very inquisitive, but hopefully not suspicious. The elderly couple moved on to be replaced by a snow-spattered figure struggling against the wind, the man searching feverishly through his pockets for his ID. From further back, another policeman idly watched the interplay between his officer and Markova, gloved hands slapping on his thighs to try and create some warmth.

  “You drove here from Vladivostok?” enquired the captain, directing his question at Markova.

  “We left Vladivostok early this morning; before that we were in Khabarovsk. For what it’s worth, you’re coping far better than either of them.”

  The captain nodded in understanding although he still seemed unwilling to hand back their IDs, yet more questions needing to be asked. “And our small town is really of that much interest to you?”

  “Of course, or at least until r
elations with China return to normal.”

  “And you’re staying where exactly?”

  “The Laguna on October Street.”

  With a reluctant frown, the captain passed Nikolai’s ID back to him; as Markova reached out to take hers, the officer gave one final piece of advice. “We are a town that doesn’t always appreciate strangers, especially during difficult times. You have until Wednesday morning and then I expect to hear you’ve gone back to Vladivostok.”

  The threat wasn’t specific, just implied, no reason given as to why their stay was being limited to some thirty-six hours. It wasn’t even clear if it was the police that they needed to be concerned about or whether the captain was actually trying to be helpful, perhaps hinting that the military had some odd grievance against journalists from Moscow.

  More likely, the town had grown used to keeping its secrets safe, old habits form the Soviet era proving hard to forget. Markova’s visit to Bolshoy Kamen was proving more complex than she had anticipated, one full day hardly enough time to enjoy the sights, let alone open up the enigma that was the Zvezda shipyard.
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