Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War: Part 1


You can fight a war for a long time or you can make your nation strong.

You cannot do both.

—SUN-TZU, THE ART OF WAR

 

 

10,590 Meters Below Sea Level, Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean

 

Sometimes history is made in the dark.

As he scanned the blackness, Zhu Jin thought about what his wife would be doing right now. He couldn’t see her, but he knew that ten kilometers above, Liu Fang would be hunched over her keyboard, ritually tightening her ponytail to burn off the tension. He could imagine her rough sneeze, knowing how the cigarette smoke from the other geologists irritated her.

The screens inside the Jiaolong-3¹ Flood Dragon deep-water submersible were the only portholes that modern science could offer the mission’s chief geologist. His title was truly meaningful in this case. Lo Wei, the Directorate officer sent to monitor them, had command, but ultimately, responsibility for the success or failure of the mission fell on Zhu.

So it was appropriate at this moment, he thought, that he alone was in control, deep below the COMRA² (China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association) deep-sea exploration vessel Xiang Yang Hong 18. This particular pocket of the Mariana Trench belonged to him alone.

Zhu guided the course underwater with a series of gentle tilts of the softly glowing control-sleeve gloves he wore. He was moving too close to the sheer trench walls to consider using the autopilot. He exhaled to clear his mind. There was so much pressure, poised to crush his vessel and everyone’s dreams at any moment.

He adjusted the headset with a nudge of his shoulder. There, just as he thought. Blinking, he leaned forward, as if proximity to the lightly glowing video screen and the crushing darkness beyond the sub’s hull could make the moment any more real.

This dive was the last; it had to be.

A wave of his hands, and the sub backed away from the wall and paused, hovering. Zhu turned off the exterior lights. Then he turned off the red interior lighting. He savored the void.

The moment had come. It was the culmination of literally decades of research and investment. No other nation had even attempted to plumb the depths of the sea like Zhu and his comrades, which was why 96 percent of the ocean floor still remained unexplored and unexploited. Indeed, the training alone for the deep-sea dive had taken a full four years once the team at Tianjin University developed the submersible.³ Compared to that, the five days of searching on this mission was nothing.

This descent, with Zhu at the controls, was the mission’s last shot. At some point soon, the team knew, the Americans would be paying them a “friendly” visit, or maybe they would have the Australians do it for them. The Chinese were too close to the big U.S. base in Guam; it was a wonder nobody had come to look into what they were doing yet. Either way, the clock was ticking, both for the COMRA vessel and, he worried, its crew.

He thought of Lieutenant Commander Lo Wei standing over Zhu’s wife’s shoulder, getting impatient, lighting cigarette after cigarette as she sneezed her way through the smoke. Zhu could almost feel the crew scrutinizing her face with the same intensity they viewed their monitors. They would think, but not say aloud, How could he fail us, when he knew the consequences for us all?

Zhu had not failed.

The discovery itself was anticlimactic. A screen near Zhu’s right hand flashed a brief message in blue and then flipped into a map mode. There had been indicators of a gas field here, but as the data streamed in, he now knew why his gut had guided him to this spot. He nudged the submersible on, sorting the deployments of the sub’s disposable autonomous underwater vehicles, which would allow the team to map the full extent of the discovery. Each vessel was, in effect, a mini-torpedo whose sonic explosion afforded the submersible’s imaging-by-sound sensors a deeper understanding of the riches beneath the sea floor. The sound waves allowed the computer to “see” the entirety of the field buried kilometers below the crust. The mini-torpedo technology came from the latest submarine-hunting systems of the U.S. Navy; the resource-mapping software had originated with the dissertation research of a PhD student at Boston University. They would never know their roles in making history.

After thirty-five minutes of mapping, it was done.

Enough time in the dark, Zhu thought. The transition between the deep and the surface, he once confided to Liu, was the worst. To die there would be his hell, trapped in the void between the light of day and the marvels of the abyss. But this time it was his joy; the void filled with the sense of anticipation at sharing the news.

When he opened the submarine’s hatch, he saw the entire crew peering over the port rail, staring down at him. Even the cook, with his scarred forearms and missing pointer finger on his left hand, had come to gape at the Jiaolong-3 bobbing on the surface.

He squinted against the bright Pacific sun, careful to keep his face expressionless. He searched for Liu among the crew gathered at the ship’s railings. At the crowd’s edge, Lieutenant Commander Lo stood staring at him with a sour face, an unspoken question in his eyes. Zhu locked eyes with his wife, and when he couldn’t contain his discovery anymore, he smiled. She shouted uncharacteristically, leaping with both hands in the air.

The rest of the crew turned to stare at her and then began cheering. Just beyond them, a faint sea breeze lifted the Directorate flag hanging by the ship’s stern; the yellow banner with red stars fluttered slightly. To Zhu, it seemed like perfection, fitting for the moment. When he looked back to the rail, he noticed that Lieutenant Commander Lo was gone, already on his way inside to report the mission results back to Hainan.

 

U.S. Navy P-8, Above the Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean

 

Even from eight thousand feet up, they could see that the people on the deck were celebrating something.

“Maybe the captain announced a pool party,” said Commander Bill “Sweetie” Darling from the controls.

Darling and his crew were on their way back from a check-out flight on the P-8 Poseidon’s recent engine upgrades.⁴ The plane had been designed for warship hunting, but there were none in the quadrant, and they were bored. The Directorate research vessel offered some excitement, at least as much as could be had in this corner of the Pacific.

The copilot, Dave “Fang” Treehorn, sent a live feed of the Xiang Yang Hong 18’s deck from the P-8’s sensor-pod cameras. The cockpit of the Poseidon, a Boeing 737 passenger jet modified to Navy specifications for sub hunting, was considered spacious by military standards. But military aviators always want more information, and Darling regularly flipped through the available sensor feeds on the cockpit screens to satisfy the craving.

“Time to head down and take a closer look?” asked Treehorn.

“No fair that they get to have all the fun today. If it’s a party, we should have been invited,” said Darling. “Make sure to zoom in and grab shots of that submersible; give the intel shop some busywork.”

“Registry says it’s a science expedition,” said Treehorn.

The P-8 dove smoothly down to five hundred feet, Darling banking the plane in a steep turn that kept the vessel off the starboard wing. A plane that big, that fast, and that low roaring overhead was disconcerting to any observer. The crew of the Xiang Yang Hong 18 would be on notice now.

“X-Ray Yankee Hotel 18, this is U.S. Navy Papa-8 asking if you need assistance,” said Darling. “We noticed you are stopped just over a rather deep hole in the ocean, not the best place for snorkeling.”

Treehorn started laughing, as did the rest of the P-8 crew listening in on the comms.

Darling brought the plane back up to a thousand feet. “That’s good; now maybe they can actually hear their radio,” said Treehorn.

“Got their attention, though,” said Darling.

“I’ll say. Check your screen. They’re hoisting the submersible and trying to put a tarp over it at the same time,” said Treehorn. “One guy just fell overboard.”

Then a voice came on the radio. Darling instantly recognized the command tone of a fellow member of the military brotherhood.

“U.S. Navy P-8, this is Zhu Jin, chief scientist of an official expedition of the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association. We are in international waters, operating under scientific charter. Do you copy?”

“We copy, XYH 18,” said Darling. “I don’t want to get into the legalities, but these waters are protected U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone,⁵ as designated by the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.⁶ Stand by. We will be vectoring a U.S. Coast Guard vessel to ensure that you are not engaged in illegal fishing.”

“Negative. This is a scientific mission. We do not need authorization. Any further interference with this peaceful mission will be considered a hostile act by the Directorate government,” said the voice. “Do you copy?”

“Well, that got nasty pretty fast,” said Treehorn to his pilot.

“Foreplay’s for chumps,” said Darling.

“Are we really calling in the Coasties?” asked Treehorn.

“Naw. I guarantee they aren’t fishing, but no need to start a war over it,” Darling responded.

“We copy, XYH 18,” he said into the radio. “Papa-8 is leaving station. You lost one overboard, don’t forget.”

Darling brought the P-8 up to three thousand feet and powered back the engines, giving the big jet a near weightless moment. Then Darling brought the P-8 around and pointed the nose down at the Chinese ship’s stern, backing off the twin engines’ power even more, so that the almost ninety-ton jet’s dive was nearly silent.

“We’re not done yet. I’m going to take her low, and when they’ve got their heads down, we drop a Remora⁷ two thousand meters off the stern,” said Darling.

“Aye, sir,” said the weapons crewman. “Standing by.”

 

Xiang Yang Hong 18, Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean

 

Lieutenant Commander Lo handed the radio’s mike back to the captain.

“This is taking too long,” said Lo. “We need to be gone before their border-guard ship arrives. Dr. Zhu, do you have everything that your team needs?”

“Yes, we could do more surveys, but it is—”

A roar shook the entire ship. Zhu hit the deck with his hands over his ears. There was a flash of gray as the P-8 went overhead at full power less than a hundred feet off the starboard side.

Lo couldn’t help but admire the move. Spiteful, yet audacious. The scientist felt like he might throw up.

As the jet’s thunder receded, one of the crew shouted, “Something in the water, a torpedo behind us!”

“Calm down,” said Lo, standing with his hands on his hips. “If it was a torpedo, we’d already be dead. It’s just a sonobuoy, maybe one of their Remora underwater drones.”

“Do they know?” said Zhu.

“No, there’s nothing up here of interest. What matters for us is far below,” said Lo, nonplussed, as he eyed the drone now following in their wake.

He turned back to the scientist. “And Zhu?” said Lo. “The leadership is aware of your success. Enjoy the moment with your wife. And make sure the submersible is secured.”

It was the first kind word he had ever said to Zhu.

 

National Defense Reserve Fleet, Suisun Bay, California

 

The sun rising over the East Bay gave the fog a paper-lantern glow.

“Torres, you sleep at all last night?” said Mike Simmons. The contractor patiently scanned the water ahead of the battered aluminum launch, seeming to look right through the nineteen-year-old kid he shared it with. His fist enveloped the outboard motor’s throttle, which he held with a loose grip, gentle despite his callused palms and barnacle-like knuckles. He sat with one knee resting just below his chin, the other leg sprawling lazily toward the bow, at ease but ready to kick the kid overboard at a moment’s notice.

“No, but I’m compensated,” said Seaman Gabriel Torres. “Took a stim before I came in.”

Mike took a sip from a pitted steel sailor’s mug. His right trigger finger had a permanent crook from decades of carrying his coffee with him eighteen hours a day. He shifted his weight slightly and the launch settled deeper to starboard, causing Torres to catch himself on his seat in the bow. The retired chief petty officer weighed a good eighty pounds more than Torres, the difference recognizable in their voices as much as in the way the launch accommodated them.

“Big group sim down at the Cow Palace again,” said Torres. “Brazilian feed. Retro night. Carnival in Rio, back in the aughts.”

“You know,” Mike said, “I was in Rio once then. Not for Carnival, though. Unbelievable. More ass than a . . . how I got any of my guys back on the ship, I still do not know.”

“Hmmm,” Torres said. He nodded with absent-minded politeness, his attention fixed on his viz glasses.⁸ All these kids were the same once they put those damn things on, thought Mike. If they missed something important, they knew they could just watch it again. They could call up anything you’d ever said to them, yet they could never remember it.

The gold-rimmed Samsung glasses that Torres wore were definitely not Navy issue. Mike caught a flash of the Palo Alto A’s @ logo in reverse on the lens. So Torres was watching a replay of Palo Alto’s game against the Yankees from last night. Beneath the game’s display, a news-ticker video pop-up updated viewers on the latest border clashes between Chinese and Russian forces in Siberia.

“Game was a blowout, but the no-hitter by Parsons fell apart at the bottom of the eighth,” said Mike. “Too bad for the A’s.”

Torres, busted, took off the glasses and glared at Mike, whose eyes continued to pan across the steely water.

The young sailor knew not to say anything more. Shouting at a contractor was a quick path to another write-up. And more important, there was something about the old man that made it clear that, even though he was retired, he would like nothing more than to toss Torres overboard, and he’d do it without spilling a drop of coffee.

“Seaman, you’re on duty. I may be a civilian now and out of your chain of command,” said Mike, “but you work for the Navy. Do not disrespect the Navy by disappearing into those damn glasses.”

“Yes, sir,” said Torres.

“It’s ‘Chief,’” said Mike. “‘Sir’ is for officers. I actually work for a living.”

He smiled at the old military joke, winking to let Torres know the situation was over as far as he was concerned. That was it, right there. The sly charm that had gotten him so far and simultaneously held him back. If Torres hadn’t been aboard, the chief could have puttered across the bay at a leisurely seven knots and pulled up, if he had the tide right, at the St. Francis Yacht Club. Grab a seat at the bar and swap old sea stories. After a while, one of the divorcées who hung out there would send over a drink, maybe say something about how much he looked like that old Hollywood actor, the one with all the adopted kids from around the world. Mike would then crack the old line that he had kids around the world too, he just didn’t know them, and the play would be on.

The rising sun began to reveal the outlines of the warships moored around them. The calls of a flight of gulls overhead made the silent, rusting vessels seem that much more lifeless.

“Used to be a bunch of scrap stuck in the Ghost Fleet,”⁹ said Mike, giving a running commentary as they passed between an old fleet tanker from the 1980s and an Aegis cruiser¹⁰ retired after the first debt crisis. “But a lot of ships here were put down before their time. Retired all the same, though.”

“I don’t get why we’re even here, Chief. These old ships, they’re done. They don’t need us,” said Torres. “And we don’t need them.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Mike. “It may seem like putting lipstick on old whores in a retirement home, but you’re looking at the Navy’s insurance policy, small as it may now be. You know, they kept something like five hundred ships¹¹ in the Ghost Fleet back during the Cold War, just in case.”

“Floater, port side,” said Torres.

“Thanks,” said Mike, steering the launch around a faded blue plastic barrel bobbing in the water.

“And here’s our newest arrival, the Zumwalt,” Mike announced, pointing out the next ship anchored in line. “It didn’t fit in with the fleet when they wasted champagne on that ugly bow, and it doesn’t belong here now. Got no history, no credibility. They should have turned it into a reef, but all that fake composite crap would just kill all the fish.”

“What’s the deal with that bow?” said Torres. “It’s going the wrong direction.”

“Reverse tumblehome is the technical term,” said Mike. “See how the chine of the hull angles toward the center of the ship, like a box-cutter blade? That’s what happens when you go trying to grab the future while still being stuck two steps behind the present. DD(X) is what they¹² called them at the start, as if the X made it special. Navy was going to build¹³ a new fleet of twenty-first-century stealthy battleships with electric guns and all that shit. Plan was to build thirty-two of them. But the ship ended up costing a mint, none of the ray guns they built for it worked for shit, and so the Navy bought just three. And then when the budget cuts came after the Dhahran crisis, the admirals couldn’t wait to send the Z straight into the Ghost Fleet here.”

“What happened to the other two ships?” said Torres.

“There are worse fates for a ship than being here,” said Mike, thinking about the half-built sister ships being sold off for scrap during the last budget crisis.

“So what do we gotta do after we get aboard it?” asked Torres.

“Aboard her,” said Mike. “Not it.”

“Chief, you can’t say that anymore,” said Torres. “Her.”

“Jesus, Torres, you can call the ship him if you want,” said Mike. “But don’t ever, ever call any of these uglies it. No matter what the regs say.”

“Well, she, he—whatever—looks like an LCS,” said Torres. Officially designated FF for frigate, everyone in the Navy still called the LCS by its original name, Littoral Combat Ship. “That’s where I wish I was.”

“An LCS, huh? Dreaming of being off the coast of Bali in a ‘little crappy ship,’ wind blowing through your hair at fifty knots, throwing firecrackers at pirates?” said Mike. “Get the line ready.”

“Didn’t I hear your son was aboard an LCS?” asked Torres. “How does he like it?”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “We’re not in touch.”

“Sorry, Chief.”

“You know, Torres, you must have really pissed somebody off to get stuck with me and the Ghost Fleet.” The old man was clearly changing the subject.

Torres fended the launch off from a small barge at the stern. Without looking, he tied a bowline knot that made the old chief suppress a smile.

“Nice knot there,” said Mike. “You been practicing like I showed you?”

“No need,” said Torres, tapping his glasses. “Just have to show me once and it’s saved forever.”

 

USS Coronado, Strait of Malacca

 

Each of the dark blue leather seats in the USS Coronado’s wardroom¹⁴ had a movie-theater chair’s sensory suite, complete with viz-glasses chargers, lumbar support, and thermoforming heated cushions that seemed almost too comfortable for military life—until you were sitting through your second hour of briefings.

This briefer, the officer in charge of the ship’s aviation detachment of three remote-piloted MQ-8 Fire Scout¹⁵ helicopters, thanked her audience and returned to her seat. A few side conversations abruptly stopped when the executive officer rose to give his ops intel brief.

When the XO, the ship’s second in command, stood at the head of the room, you felt a little bit like you were back in elementary school with the gym teacher looking down at you. The twenty-first-century Navy was supposed to be all about brains. But physical presence still mattered, and the XO, Commander James “Jamie” Simmons, had it. He stood six four and still looked like the University of Washington varsity heavyweight rower he’d once been, projecting a physicality that had become rare among the increasingly technocratic officer corps.

“Good morning. We’re doing this my way today,” said Simmons. “No viz.”

The crew groaned at the prospect of having to endure an entire brief without being able to multitask or have their viz glasses record the proceedings.

A young lieutenant in the back coughed into her fist: “Old school.”

Coronado’s captain, Commander Tom Riley, stood to the side holding a gleaming black ceramic-and-titanium-mesh coffee mug emblazoned with the shipbuilder’s corporate logo. He couldn’t help himself and smiled at the impertinent comment.

The display screen loaded the first image and projected it out into the room in a 3-D ripple: a heavily tattooed man on a matte-black electric waterbike firing an assault rifle one-handed up at the bridge of a container ship. Simmons had picked up this technique from an old admiral who’d lectured at the Naval War College: instead of the typical huge slide deck with immersive animations, he used just a single picture for each point he wanted to make.

“Now that I’ve got your attention,” said Simmons, switching the image to a map of their position at the entry to the Strait of Malacca. A swath of red pulsing dots waited there, each marking where a pirate attack¹⁶ had taken place in the previous year. “More than half of the world’s shipping¹⁷ passes through this channel, which make these red spots a global concern.”

The roughly six-hundred-mile-long channel between the former Republic of Indonesia and Malaysia was less than two miles wide at its narrowest, barely dividing Malaysia’s authoritarian society from the anarchy that Indonesia had sunk into after the second Timor war. Pirates were a distant memory for most of the world, but the red dots showed that this part of the Pacific was a gangland. The attackers used skiffs and homemade aerial drones to seize and sell what they could, mostly to fund the hundreds of militias throughout the archipelago.

None of the gangs bothered with hostages ever since Chinese special operations forces,¹⁸ at the behest of that country’s largest shipping concern, had wiped out the population of three entire islands in a single night. It didn’t end the attacks, though. There were six thousand inhabited islands left. Now the pirates just killed everyone when they seized a ship.

“This is Coronado’s focus during the next three days,” said Simmons. “It’s a standard presence patrol. But it connects to a bigger picture that Captain’s asked me to brief you on: We will be linking up with the Directorate escort force at eighteen hundred, making this a true multinational convoy.”

The XO then changed images, zooming out from the Coronado’s present position in its southeast corner to a larger map showing the strategic landscape of the entire Pacific.

“This leads me to the main brief this morning. It’s a long one. But there’s a bonus: if you don’t fall asleep on me, I’ll make sure you get double your PACE ed cred.” That brought a few smiles; the Program for Afloat College Education, a quick way for sailors to earn college credits on the Navy’s dime, was popular among the young crew.

“We’re breaking some ground here on this multinational undertaking. It’s the first joint mission with Directorate naval forces since Washington started the embargo threats,” he said. “Which means our friends from Hainan are taking it seriously. As you can see on the screen, the Directorate will have one of their new oilers here for refueling, which it doesn’t really need. They want us to see that in addition to having the world’s biggest economy, they’re buying their naval forces the range to operate anywhere on the planet.

“To understand why having a ship like an oiler is a big deal, you need to take a step back. Let’s start with Dhahran three years ago. When the nuke—well, more technically, the radiological dirty bomb—went off, it made the Saudi house of cards fall down. Between Dhahran glowing and the fights over who comes in after the Al Saud family, the world economy’s still reeling from the hub of the global oil industry effectively going offline,” he said.

His next slide showed a graph of energy prices spiking. “Oil’s finally coming off the two-hundred-ninety-dollar peak after the attack, but you don’t want to know how much this cruise is costing the taxpayers. Put it this way: enjoy yourselves and all this sunshine because your grandkids are still going to be paying the tab.”

“They’ll be paying in ramen,” said Lieutenant Gupal, one of the ship’s newest officers. Ramen was slang for RMN, renminbi, the Chinese currency¹⁹ that, along with the euro, had joined the American dollar as the global reserve currency following the dollar’s post-Dhahran crash.

“At least we can sail with our own oil²⁰ now,” said Captain Riley. “When I joined back in the Stone Age, Middle East oil owned the market.”

“True enough,” said Simmons. “And shale extraction is coming back at even higher levels than before the moratorium after the New York quake. Dhahran made people stop caring so much about groundwater seepage.”

A new map of global energy reserves appeared on the screen. Simmons stepped closer to the crew and continued.

“The captain hit the key change to focus on. The scramble for new energy resources, heightening regional tensions²¹ here, here, and here, are sparking a series of border clashes around the world. The fact that the South China Sea oil fields were disappointments put new pressure on the Directorate. The hunt goes on,” said Jamie. “The oilers are the Directorate’s way of showing that their interest in this is now global.”

A screen shot of a smoking mine in South Africa replaced the map.

“That’s the Spiker mine, near South Africa’s border with Mozambique. Remember that? These trends all connect. Even the renewed push toward alternative energy sources has caused more conflict than cooperation. Technologies like solar and deep-cycle batteries depend on rare-earth materials,²² rare being the operative word,” said Simmons.

The picture shifted to the iconic photo of the green Chinese People’s Liberation Army tank bulldozing into the Ministry of Public Security’s riot-control truck as the crowd in Shanghai’s People’s Square cheered the soldiers on.

“This is important, so pay attention,” said Simmons. “You all know the history of the Directorate. When the world economy cratered after Dhahran, the old Chinese Communist Party couldn’t keep things humming. Their big mistake²³ was calling in the military to put down the urban workers’ riots, thinking that the troops would do their dirty work for them, just like back in ’89.²⁴ They failed to factor in that a new generation of more professional military and business elite saw the problem differently than they did.²⁵ Turned out the new guard viewed the nepotism and corruption of those ‘little princes’²⁶ who had just inherited their power as a bigger threat to China’s stability than the rioters. They booted them out, and instead you’ve got a Directorate regime that’s more popular and more competent than the previous government, and technocratic to the extreme. The business magnates and the military have divided up rule and roles. Capitalism and nationalism working hand in hand, rather than the old contradictions they had back in the Communist days.”

The image switched to one of the Directorate Navy’s new aircraft carriers tied up next to a pier, Shanghai’s skyline in the background.

“The bottom line is that the Directorate has changed China. They took a regime mired in corruption and on the brink of civil war and forged a locked-down country marching in the same direction, the nation’s business leaders and the military joined at the hip.

“But net assessment, as they teach you back in the schoolhouse, isn’t only about looking outward; it’s also about knowing yourself and your own place in history.”

A visual of two maps of the globe appeared, the first of British trading routes and colonies circa 1914,²⁷ the second a current disposition of U.S. forces and bases, some eight hundred dots spread across the world.

“Some say we’re fighting,²⁸ or rather not fighting, a cold war with the Directorate, just like we did with the Soviet Union more than half a century ago. But that may not be the right case to learn from. About a hundred years back, the British Empire faced a problem much like ours today: How do you police an empire when you’ve got a shrinking economy relative to the world’s and a population no longer so excited to meet those old commitments?”

A montage of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers in port appeared, the last shot a lingering image of CVN-80,²⁹ the new USS Enterprise, still under construction.

“And, of course, if that is the case, you can’t keep doing things the old way on the cheap. Take capital ships, the way navies back then, and even today, measured force. With the Ford-class carriers taking so long to build,³⁰ although the U.S. Navy has nine CVNs, that actually means four in service to cover the entire globe. And with the cost of keeping our military in Afghanistan, Yemen, and, now, Kenya, well, we’ve had to get used to working without them.”

“I’d rather be on this ship than a carrier anyway,” said Gupal. “Just a bigger bull’s-eye for an incoming Stonefish.”

“Secure that mouth, Lieutenant, or you’re not even gonna last one cruise on this ship,” said Riley, jabbing a titanium e-cigar in the air.

“Aye, aye, Captain,” said Gupal sheepishly.

Simmons, as the XO, was supposed to be the bad cop to Captain Riley’s good cop, making the reversal of roles that much more amusing to the crew.

“Lieutenant, all jokes aside, you are making my point. You’re right that the DF-21E,³¹ the Stonefish anti-ship ballistic missile, is not really about us,” said Simmons. “But I want you to think about the various trends, the why, and then the what-next. So, what does the Stonefish offer the Chinese?”

“Well, sir, it’s like a boxer stretching his arms out farther. Gives them the ability to target our big deck carriers before we can get in range of China,” said Gupal.

“Right, it gives them freedom of action. So if you’re Directorate, what do you do with that freedom? And why, or even when? These are the questions I want you asking. Just because you see the world one way today does not mean it will be that way tomorrow. It’s pirates today. What will it be next?”³² asked Simmons.

Captain Riley stepped over to Simmons. He smiled, but his body language made it clear he was not completely pleased with the briefing. “Thank you, XO. The key, folks, is to assess these threats. There’s dangers, but let’s not build these guys up to be ten feet tall. And if it comes down to a boxing match, Big Navy’s spent literally billions on the Air-Sea Battle concept,³³ just for the Stonefish threat and more. In any case, given what’s playing out on the Siberian border, it might be better for the XO to brief the next Russian ship we see rather than us. If anyone is going to war with the Directorate, it’s Moscow.”

“Yes, sir,” said Simmons. “Any questions?” He looked around the room and chewed his cheek to keep from saying anything more.

Lieutenant Gupal raised his hand. “Sir, where does that leave us on the patrol? How should we think about the Directorate forces here? Friend or foe? Or frenemy?”

“Like I said, the Chinese are more likely to go to war with Russia than us,” Riley replied. “And if the idea does cross their mind to tangle with us, well, they just don’t have the experience to do it right. The XO’s history lesson should’ve also mentioned that China hasn’t fought a major war since the 1940s.”

“Neither has the U.S. Navy,” said Simmons quietly.

Silence followed. A few of the crew started fiddling with their glasses in their laps, trying to look busy. Lieutenant Gupal, though, was too green to understand that the silence wasn’t another opportunity for him to gain notice. What worked at the Naval Academy was the wrong call in the wardroom.

“XO, do you think the captain’s right about Russia and China, though?” asked Gupal.

Simmons glanced at Riley before looking at Gupal.

“The Directorate has been making claims about their guest-worker rights being abused by the Russians and how their government is not beholden to the old borders set in treaties signed by prior regimes on both sides,” said Simmons. “So if I was in Moscow, I’d potentially come to the same conclusion the captain has. And the Russians seem to be acting on that belief. The latest satellite photos showed the Russian Pacific fleet has sortied from its base in Vladivostok, most likely to put some range between it and the Chinese air bases to complicate any potential sneak attack. It’s the right move. The history supports it.”

“And with that rare praise from the XO, dismissed,” said Captain Riley. “We know where to get our sunshine when we need it.”

 

U.S. Embassy, Beijing

 

The ambassador loved parties. So did Commander Jimmie Links, but for different reasons.

The truth was the parties were just an excuse. This farewell soiree was in his honor—he was finishing up two years in the defense attaché’s office—but no matter the country the guest came from, no matter the rank, no matter the clout, everyone in the room was there to collect. Eyeglasses, jewelry, watches, whatever—all were constantly recording and analyzing. Suck it all up and let the filters sort it out. It was not much different from how the people back home did their shopping, wide-casting for discounts.

Links watched a beautiful Chinese woman in her late twenties glide by in a floor-length translucent SpecTran-fiber dress and noticed the telltale strip of stiff-looking skin at the base of her neck. The new folks joining the three-letter agencies didn’t have a choice anymore. The human body, with the right technology, is an extraordinary antenna. Fortunately, as a U.S. Navy officer who’d joined before the policy shift, Links had gotten out of that one, at least for the moment. The Navy wasn’t giving him a break; it was just that no one had figured out yet if the chips would interfere with sensitive avionics or ship systems. At some point, though, tradition would lose out to technology.

Someone tapped a glass, and the noise in the room hushed to a murmur. Links looked at his vodka martini and eyed the lemon twist. The question wasn’t whether it was a recording device, but whose.

“Together, let us raise our glasses on this occasion to acknowledge our common interests and objectives,” said General Wu Liao, a Directorate air force commander who Links knew was about to announce another wave of corruption purges. Links even knew the names of the men who would be executed in three days, all because Wu’s driver had left a window cracked open to smoke. That’s how good the collection was.

“It is in a navy officer’s honor I toast. That is not something you often hear from an air force officer of any country’s military.”

Polite laughter from fifteen different nationalities followed the joke.

“The joint China-U.S. exercises to help bring order to the waters around the former Republic of Indonesia are a sign our future together will be a strong one,” said General Wu. “As for our neighbors to the north, I cannot say the same.”

Wu’s angry glance at a Russian officer standing in the corner shifted the guests’ gaze and cut off any remaining laughter. The Russian nodded indifferently and casually moved a highball glass from one hand to the other, as if he cared more about the temperature of his vodka than the speech.

After the toast, Links walked over to the Russian. Major General Sergei Sechin was a regular on the party circuit. He walked with the confidence of someone who’d been in uniform for most of his life, and he always smiled like he had just been told a bawdy joke. Sechin had been in Beijing for over a decade, so he must have been very good at his job if he was able to keep his own bosses happy while also riding out the Directorate’s rise to power. Besides the violent purges of the old Communist Party leadership, there had been more than a few deadly traffic “accidents” involving the foreign intelligence community.

“Sorry about that,” said Links. “Poorly done by Wu.”

“The Directorate new guard, especially the core, like Wu, say they don’t care what anyone thinks. But it makes them think only of their own plan,” said Sechin. “The Communist Party had theirs too, and you can see how it ended for them . . .”

“I am going to miss our uplifting conversations, Sergei,” said Links. “And the smog, and the winter.”

A waiter passed with a tray of drinks, and Sechin deposited his and Links’s empty glasses and snatched two more frosty vodkas.

“One day, we will all get past this unpleasantness,” said Sechin, handing a glass to Links, downing his own vodka, and nodding for Links to do the same.

“Za vas,” said Links. The waiter reappeared with two new glasses, timing his return perfectly, likely another espionage professional at work collecting.

“Perhaps you will play a role in that . . .” Sechin focused on his glass. “Do you know what is America’s greatest export?”

Links’s eyes narrowed. “Biggest, or greatest? Sometimes they’re not the same thing. Biggest by the numbers? Oil and gas. Greatest? Democracy,” said Links.

“No, no, no,” said Sechin. “It is an idea, really. A dream: Star Trek.”

He locked eyes with Links.

“If you say so.” Links wondered what the computer analytics that parsed the transcripts would make of this conversation. Staring at his now empty glass, Sechin continued in a serious tone. “Star Trek was a television show watched by Americans during a time when my country and yours held each other, as you like to say in your nation’s defense strategy, ‘at risk.’”

“Can’t say I ever watched it,” said Links. “At least not the old ones. My dad took me to a couple of the newer movies.”

“The vision was so positive, a crew from all nations sent out by a world federation. An American, Captain Kirk, was their leader. With him was a crew from around the world, from Europe, from Africa—notable in that time of racial tension in your country. Also, and perhaps relevant here, there was Mr. Sulu. He represented all of Asia, which, because of America’s war in Vietnam, made this very capable man a symbol of the peace to come.”

“Peaceful? Nobody like that here,” said Links, tipping his glass at Wu.

“I give you that. But that is not what I want you to remember. Most important, just like you, an American officer, and I are friends,” said Sechin, “the navigator was Pavel Andreievich Chekov, a Russian! Now, this Chekov was not a real man, of course,” said Sechin. “But many believe that the character was named after a brilliant Russian scientist of the time,³⁴ Pavel Alekseyevich Cherenkov. Do you know of him? He won a Nobel Prize in 1958, when my country was as sure of its destiny as Wu is of China’s.”

Sechin waved his glass to indicate the coterie around Wu. “My point is that without Chekov, what really could Captain Kirk have done out there in space? Our Cherenkov was the key to the future!”

Links caught the eye of the waiter, who brought another tray of vodka.

“It’s coming back to me,” said Links. “But in the story, didn’t the Federation begin only after World War Three?”

“Yes, yes, I allow you this,” said Sechin. “In any case, you should know that though we work for different sides, we are not all bad.”

“There’s work,” said Links, placing their empty glasses on the waiter’s tray, taking two full ones, and holding one out to Sechin. “And there’s friends. You’re a friend.”

“Yes, please remember that. In a few months’ time, when you are back in your warm office in the Pentagon, fourth corridor, D ring . . . Don’t look surprised, we know these things. When you return to your friends in Naval Intelligence, think of me and think of Chekov. Promise me that.”

 

USS Coronado, Strait of Malacca

 

Simmons sat at the small desk in his stateroom and watched the daily good-morning vid from his twins. While the Coronado sailed under a night sky, Claire and Martin, six years old, complained about school between bites of waffle. Their voices made his stomach tighten with sadness.

“Good luck today with Riley,” said his wife. “It won’t be easy, I know it. But we love you and can’t wait to get you back.”

His wife signed off, as she did every morning, with a kiss sent from around the corner after the kids said goodbye. Then he was alone again inside the ship’s gray hull.

He pulled himself up and walked down the passageway to the bridge wing. Riley was there, smoking a real cigar. The bridge wing was not the officially designated smoking area, but the ship’s captain could smoke where he damn well pleased.

“Freighter, Directorate, freighter, freighter, Directorate,” said Riley, pointing to the mix of ships preparing to move through the Strait of Malacca tomorrow. “What do you see when you look at those ships?”

“Going to be tight in the channel, sir,” said Simmons. “I think if the Directorate crews can actually handle their ships as well as we think they can, it’ll be fine.”

“That’s not all I see,” said Riley. “I see us and them. Working together. What was with the brief? You know how bad they need our oil. In the end, we each know that we have the other by the throat.”

“By the balls, more like. But is that a good thing?” said Simmons.

“I see it like this convoy duty. They depend on us, and we depend on them. Maybe in different ways, but it’s the same outcome. We’re interlinked, even with the Directorate. Plus, China’s holding, what, nine trillion dollars’ worth of our debt?”³⁵

“And growing,” said Simmons.

“Right. They’re not our enemy, they’re our largest investor. Each one of those ships out there,” Riley said, waving his hand expansively, “is a reason not to go to war. People love making money. Especially the Directorate.”

“Trade is just trade. You know how I made the comparison between us today and the Brits a hundred years back,” said Simmons. “Well, who was Britain’s biggest trading partner³⁶ before World War One? Germany. Or if you prefer World War Two as a comparison, Germany’s biggest trading partners just before the war were the very neighbors it soon invaded, while the U.S. was Japan’s.”

“I don’t need another history lesson, Professor. The Directorate is the Russians’ worry for now. We’ve got a few more weeks and then we’ll be in Hawaii, which is an awful long way from whatever dustup starts in Siberia. Worry about sunburn instead,” said Riley.

“Going to see John there?” said Simmons, changing the subject.

“Yeah, he’s flying out,” said Riley.

“That’s good,” said Simmons. “You guys going surfing?”

Riley paused and then wordlessly offered Jamie one of his precious cigars and helped him light it. So now it will turn truly serious, thought Jamie.

“Listen, make sure you hear this the right way: Do you understand what you are doing by turning down command and requesting the Pentagon job? I say this as a friend but also as your captain. If you don’t fleet up, the entire Surface Warfare community will consider you dead. Your career will be crucified,” said Riley.

Simmons took a deep draw from his cigar and exhaled.

“Lindsey’s got a bad case of what she calls seasickness, as in she’s sick of me going to sea. The kids are okay with it, but they don’t know any different. And maybe that’s the real problem.”

Riley started to pull again from his cigar, then stopped and threw it overboard.

“Don’t you think the whole crew miss their kids and spouses and dogs and all that shore shit? To do the job right, you have to give everything; that’s how it’s always been. You think my husband likes it? He hates it too,” he said. “No technology we’ve invented shrinks the distance.”

“I know,” said Simmons. “I thought I could pull off the balancing act, maybe even had to, to prove I was better than my dad. But when I watch those vids of my kids growing up without me, all I think about is that I don’t want to do to them what my dad did to me.”

Riley’s face reddened. “The Navy put you here as my XO for a reason. You have what it takes. And if you turn down command, you don’t just screw your career over, you screw me over too. I burn my powder. I don’t ever get to do that again for someone else.”

The ship rolled to port, and Riley instinctively grabbed the rail.

“Jamie, you need to think this over one last time. You know where I’m coming from. I have to think about the ship and the Navy. I’m going to hold the paperwork until we get back to San Diego. You use the time until then to get your head on straight. Don’t sink your career because you still have daddy issues.”

Simmons nodded. “Aye, Captain.”

He headed to his stateroom and brewed a fresh cup of coffee. The aroma and salt spray on his clothes reminded him of his father. That decided it; this cruise would be his last.

 

Yulin Naval Base, Hainan Island

 

Vice Admiral Wang Xiaoqian closed his eyes for a last moment of calm, running his thumb over the surface of the heavy coin in his palm. He could feel the eagle’s wings and make out the texture of a tall ship’s masts. By military custom, he would need to have the challenge coin from the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations ready to show back to him when they next met.

The thump of the plane’s wheels touching down brought him to a state of full alert. The four-engine Y-20³⁷ transport plane had been modified for VIP flights, but the long flight back from the United States had still been taxing. The question was why the trip had been cut short, and not knowing the answer worried him.

“Admiral, welcome home,” said his aide, waiting at the bottom step.

“And?” said Admiral Wang.

“There will be a meeting, but nothing more for my eyes. Your pre-briefing is here,” said the aide, tapping a metallic-white envelope. “Printed out.”

“So is this a bull’s-eye for me?” said Wang.

“Not for you,” said the aide incredulously.

“I appreciate your confidence, but unfortunately you do not have a Presidium vote. At the very least, this meeting promises to be more exciting than my trip was. All the American admirals want is yet another ‘strategic dialogue,’ which betrays their inability to decide what they really want as a nation, and of us. You are lucky to have stayed home.”

“Do you have any gifts for me to send along to your homes?” said the aide. With the dollar so weak, Admiral Wang usually bought small tokens for both his wife and his mistress.

“No, there was no time to shop,” said Admiral Wang.

“Yes, sir, I’ll take care of it,” said the aide, hearing the unspoken order to find appropriate gifts for the women in the admiral’s life.

The two climbed into the back of a Geely military SUV that drove with its lights off.

“And what news of General Feng?” said Wang.

“First, they took him to—” the aide began.

“I do not need those details. Did they kill him yet?” said Wang.

The aide nodded.

“Good,” said Wang. “He thought that he could sell a hundred tons of small arms to that beast who runs North Sulawesi at twice the agreed price without us finding out. The perception of greed is what provides our Indonesian instability program’s deniability. When Feng’s greed became real, he became a liability . . . Let me see the papers they gave you,” said Wang.

The SUV pulled up to a traffic circle just inside a cavernous hangar built into the side of the mountain. The island itself was now no more than a camouflage netting of dirt and stone above the Directorate’s largest submarine and air base.³⁸

“They said not to open that until you are underground,” said the aide.

“Did they?” said Wang, ripping open the envelope. “We are underground, by my definition. If I am going to be shot because General Feng wanted a second apartment, I deserve to know as soon as possible.”

The aide fumbled to get a small red penlight out so Wang could read the message.

“The entire Presidium? Here?” said Wang.

The aide nodded. “The jets keep coming and coming,” he said.

“And these others, whose are they?” said Wang. He couldn’t help but notice that the parking area included eight new Chinese-modified versions of the IL-76 transport plane and a single older one, an original model of the Russian aircraft.

“I must apologize, the air force was not kind enough to share the manifests, Admiral,” the aide responded, emphasizing Wang’s naval title.

Wang chuckled at his aide’s flash of frustration, warming up as the adrenaline that went with such uncertainty overcame the weariness of the long flight.

The SUV drew to a halt, and Wang got out. He looked back inside the vehicle at his aide, who hadn’t budged.

“I’m sorry, sir. I was told I could not accompany you any farther.”

“See what you can learn,” said Wang. “I will find a way to bring you below. You deserve to be part of this . . . especially if they plan to shoot me.”

“I doubt it will come to that,” said the aide as Wang got out of the vehicle.

“We have fed the beast so long, at some point we have to set it off the leash,” responded Wang. “Or it will bite us back.”

Wang strode over to a waiting electric cart, barely glancing at the row of oversize diesel-electric military cargo trucks parked nearby. The shielding and blast-proofing of the subterranean base seemed to swallow all sound; not even his footsteps resonated.

The driver of the cart said, “Admiral, I am Lieutenant Ping Hai. It is an honor to escort you.” He said it slowly, as if he had memorized it.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Wang. “But I’d prefer to walk. All I’ve done is sit for the past eighteen hours.”

“Sir?” said Ping, confused by the admiral going off the planned script. “Walking here is very difficult.”

“Why don’t we give it a try?” said Wang.

Wang started following the luminescent markers at the edge of the four-lane road that curved gently downward. After he’d walked ten paces, the cart pulled alongside, its electric engine faintly humming. With the cart his sole command responsibility, the young officer apparently could not fathom leaving it behind. The admiral glared at the expectant lieutenant, who interpreted the look as a green light to begin chattering.

“Admiral, I read your ‘Third Island Chain’ essay with great interest last year,” said Ping. “It was very bold. Visionary. I did not find it controversial at all.”

Wang felt his desire for silence grow with every step. But he knew the nervous lieutenant would keep talking no matter his response.

“A welcome assessment,” said Wang. If anyone ever needed a reason for why the Directorate had ended the one-child policy, this lieutenant was it, thought Wang. The young officer prattled on. His accent was at first difficult to place, but the more he talked, the more his country roots showed. Hubei Province. Was sending this idiot chaperone a message? Why was Wang’s own aide kept aboveground while a fool like this was allowed to take him to the Directorate’s inner sanctum?

“Just stop,” said Wang. “I will get into the cart. You are right, there is no time to waste.”

The lighting brightened to daylight levels as the electric cart entered a waiting elevator that could have swallowed two fighter jets.

“Admiral, our journey ends here,” said Ping, capping a rambling disquisition on his strategic vision for force dispositions along the northern border.

“Thank you,” said Wang. “You have given me much to think about. And for that, you deserve this.”

The young officer took the challenge coin Wang had gotten from the U.S. chief of naval operations with reverence. He was, at last, speechless.

Wang remembered an old adage: In wartime, even idiots can be useful.

 

Presidium Briefing Room, Hainan Island

 

Wang discreetly allowed himself a single stim tab as he exited the elevator. He normally avoided taking such performance modifiers, knowing how they also tricked one’s emotions. But the flight had left him exhausted, and he knew he needed to be as sharp as possible.

The quartet of naval commandos escorting him were assaulters, big-shouldered beasts in their signature formfitting blast-resistant uniforms. Their liquid body armor’s exterior³⁹ looked as if it were made from sharkskin. He took their presence as a positive, a reassuring sign the navy’s influence remained strong here.

At the entry to the large briefing room, Wang began his scan, just as he would study the horizon for threats while on a ship’s bridge. He saw Admiral Lin Boqiang with a cluster of other senior naval officers. Lin, the overall commander of the fleet, was among the most influential in the Presidium, the Directorate’s joint civilian and military leadership council. At the other side of the room, a cluster of army officers stood around General Wei Ming, the land forces commander. The two services rarely interacted, even in meetings. To Wang, though, the difference was simple. Wei and the army had the numbers in China, but as part of a force that dealt with distance, Wang and his fellow navy officers understood politics and power better.

More notable was the number of civilian suits in the military command room. The Presidium members rarely met in person, the civilian and military sides protective of their respective turf. The original deal had been hastily hammered out in a hotel conference room during the Shanghai riots, but it had held firm since, each faction having autarchy to run its own economic and security spheres to maximum efficiency, with a mutual goal of growth with stability.

Admiral Lin approached and greeted Wang with a haphazard salute that had not changed since their academy days.

“I must apologize for cutting your trip short, but you can now see that this is the general meeting you have long sought.”

“Yes, when I was first summoned, I thought I might come down here and never be seen again, like our friend General Feng,” said Wang, speaking every word with a purpose, mentioning the executed officer to test the waters.

“While Feng’s diversions were lamentable,” Lin observed, “the goal of your operation to destabilize the south was met. But now, the Presidium needs to hear your larger message. Your views have been most persuasive inside our service, but the civilians need to hear from you now.” He turned away from Wang and motioned to an aide to dim the lights, the signal for the meeting to begin. The Presidium members took their seats at a U-shaped table made from black marble.

The introduction was brief, focusing on Wang’s key role in reorganizing the Directorate’s command structure, clearly an attempt to establish his trustworthiness for the civilians. Wang knew that his efficiency at purging the old PLA’s Communist Party apparatchiks in the General Political Department was what had gotten him to this position, but he wished Lin had highlighted his reputation as a leading thinker and a capable naval commander as well.

“I am an admiral, as you know,” Wang said as he began his presentation, “but today I would like to begin with a quote from a general: ‘On terrain from which there is no way out, take the battle to the enemy.’⁴⁰

“That is from Sun-Tzu’s Art of War, written just before the Warring States period of our history. I first used that wisdom almost twenty-five hundred years after it was written, citing it in my thesis on Master Sun’s texts at what used to be called PLA National Defense University.”⁴¹

The reminder of their ancient and recent past was another deliberate choice to set the scene for where he wanted to take them next.

Wang pulled an imaginary trigger with his right pointer finger, and the smart-ring on it transmitted a wireless signal that initiated the presentation visuals his aide had sent ahead. Behind him, a 3-D hologram map of the Pacific appeared. Glowing red lines moved across the map, marking the history of China’s trade routes and military reach through the millennia. The lines moved out and then back in. Toward the end, a blue arc appeared, showing the spread of U.S. trade routes and military bases over the past two centuries. Eventually the blue lines reached across the globe. Then, as the decades closed in on the present, the red lines pushed back out, crossing with the blue. Wang didn’t need to explain this graphic; everyone knew its import.

“I began with Master Sun’s ancient wisdom to remind us that while we all would like to think that we have regained our historic greatness, in reality we face a situation in which there is ‘no way out.’ Indeed, the Americans had an apt phrase to describe a situation like ours, where your strength grows but your options become ever more limited: Manifest Destiny.

“Destiny drives you forward but ties your hands. Indeed, their own great naval thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan⁴² foretold how their rise to great power gave them no choice. As their economy and then their military began to grow to world status, he told his people that, whether they liked it or not, ‘Americans must now⁴³ begin to look outward. The growing production of the country demands it.’

“Must. Demands. These are words of power, but also responsibility. We must now face the demands that shape our own destiny. The Americans’ destiny led them to seek land, then trade, then oil, but they refuse to understand that the new demands of the age are now upon us as well. Even though they no longer need the foreign energy resources they once reached out and grasped, we must still endure their interference in our interests in Transjordan, Venezuela, Sudan, the Emirates, and the former Indonesia.

“We most recently experienced this in our waters to the east, where they interfered in matters that are far from them, but close to us.”

The map zoomed down to the South China Sea, and an image appeared of a U.S. Navy warship escorting a Philippine coast guard vessel that had been damaged in the Red Line skirmishes right after the Dhahran bombing.

“As you will recall, we debated then how to respond to their navy interposing itself into a regional matter, daring us to act.⁴⁴ But for all our arguments, it was a situation of ‘no way out,’ as Master Sun said in his text. That it took place in the midst of our own domestic transition meant we had no choice but to acquiesce.”

The image then shifted to scenes of the Dalai Lama speaking at the Lincoln Memorial to a cheering crowd and then to the new U.S. president shaking hands with the last Communist Party foreign minister, who in exile had somehow transformed himself into a human rights activist.

“But their interference does not stop at the water’s edge. Their failure to understand our new strategic and domestic reality gives us no choice, as it threatens what we in this room have built. Even now that we are once more whole, their Congress threatens energy sanctions at the slightest whim, waving about an economic sword like a drunken sailor.”

The image plunged deep into a projection of the Mariana Trench, then drove straight through the rocky walls of the side to reveal the full extent of the COMRA research vessel’s find, laid out in glowing red; after that, it pulled back to show its massive scale compared with the rest of the world’s known gas fields.

“What we have found here determines not just our nation’s future but the arc of the world economy and, thus, our ultimate security and stability,” said Wang. “What we have located, in a place where nobody else thought it possible and that we alone can reach, gives us a new way to think about the future, a future where we chart our own course.”

A hologram of Xi Jinping, the old Communist Party leader, appeared behind him, accompanied by a recording of a speech he’d given to the old party congress in 2013: “However deep the water may be, we will wade into the water. This is because we have no alternative.”⁴⁵

The image of the long-dead president elicited a nervous murmur in the room.

“Many of you are familiar with this speech, what Xi called the ‘Chinese Dream.’ The old party leaders were wrong in many things, but in this they were right. America’s rise came first with its ensuring control of its home waters and then extending its global economic presence. And then the country had no choice but to assume its new responsibilities, including protecting the system from the powers of the past that would threaten it. I mentioned their thinker Mahan. Soon after he laid out the new demands upon the United States, war with Spain followed, as you remember, and the Americans reached across the Pacific, thousands of miles beyond their home waters, extending to the Philippines, patrolling not just our ports but even our very rivers. Just as Mahan told them, we similarly have no choice but to meet these demands.”

Wang took in the room, searching for signs of understanding but also dissent.

A civilian on the far side of the room took the pause as an invitation. Chen Shi was the chairman of Bel-Con, China’s top producer of consumer electronics, which had been formed by the merging of dozens of firms during the most recent crisis. His role on the Directorate’s Presidium, though, was an extension of his reputation as a strategist and visionary in business, something that perfectly fit the Directorate’s hybrid of military authority and market-inspired efficiency.

“Admiral, you began with a quote from the Art of War, so I will match you: ‘Those who know⁴⁶ when to fight and when not to fight are victorious.’” He paused. “I do not see your logic here. We always have choices. Does your old vision of power actually matter anymore in a world where we can choose to buy anything, anywhere? These notions you describe risk all that we have accomplished.”

Admiral Wang nodded. “Then this failing is mine, and mine alone, if I have not made the case properly.” He turned to the map, pausing to collect his thoughts. Along the wall, the naval commandos stood unnervingly still and held their weapons at the ready. Wang smiled at them and continued.

“All of us here who first formed the Directorate acted to pull order back from chaos. We chose to act. But we acted because there was no other choice in the end,” he said. “In turn, who can argue that this is not the purpose of the Directorate? Thousands of years have brought us to this point. We protected China from the party leaders who held the country back, and we should not grow meek on the brink of the next great step.”

A young woman’s voice cut through the room. “Desire and ability are not the same thing, Admiral,” said Muyi Ling. Muyi was not yet thirty, but thanks to her father’s wealth, she now ran Weibot, the largest manufacturing consortium. “Didn’t General Sun also say, ‘Avoid overconfidence, as it will lead to disaster’?”

Damn those viz glasses. While the old man might have known Sun-Tzu by heart, Wang doubted she did. He noticed the Directorate commando closest to him shift his weight slightly. Maybe they were not naval commandos at all, despite the uniforms. Could they be from the 788th Regiment,⁴⁷ which protected the Presidium? Were they letting him hang himself, word by word, for threatening the status quo that so many in the Presidium had profited from?

“That is always a concern. But as Sun also said, ‘Make no assumptions about all the dangers of using military force. Then you won’t make assumptions about the benefits of using arms either.’”

She smiled, but he saw her eyes scanning her glasses rather than looking directly at him. She was likely researching a retort. He realized that he had to move the discussion beyond the level of trading quotations. Wang turned to the wider group.

“Of course, we are all aware of the reasons given for why it will never be our time. Our population demographics are not optimal,⁴⁸ they say. Our trade routes are too vulnerable,⁴⁹ they say. Our need for outside energy is too great,⁵⁰ they say. These statements are all true. And they will always be true if we turn our backs on our duty to make our destiny manifest. The worst thing we can do is fear our own potential.”

His smart-ring finger clicked one last time, and around them played the famous scene of the tank in People’s Square crushing the old Communist Party’s riot-control truck, the crowd of protesters’ initial looks of surprise and then their celebration as they realized that the military was on their side. He saw a few instinctively nodding their approval, reliving the moment when they had remade China into their vision.

“I have abused your time, so I will end my presentation with three questions. First, just as we acted then to meet the people’s true expectations of their nation’s leaders, we must ask, What would the people expect of us now? Second, what do you expect the Americans to do once they learn of our energy discovery? Third, and most important, is a simple question of the arc of history: If now is not the time, then when?

“You know the answers to these questions, and thus you know that you, the truly powerful, actually have no choice.”

Admiral Lin appeared at Wang’s shoulder and placed a hand on his back. Wang noticed that the commandos now surrounded them. Perhaps he had gone too far.

“Admiral, the Presidium thanks you for your views,” said Lin. “These men will see you out.”

As Wang walked down the hallway, wedged between the commandos, he replayed the presentation in his mind. He could find faults with his performance, but he was at peace.

At the elevator door, the commandos stood in silence. Wang wondered where they would take him next. Then he noticed that they were tensing up as the elevator lights numbered ever closer to their floor. The door opened and another armed phalanx emerged; these bodyguards were Caucasian in ethnicity and wearing civilian suits, but they were clearly military. While the two groups eyed each other warily, Wang watched how the elderly man in the middle didn’t bother even to look up from the outdated computer tablet he tapped away on. Red diamonds and purple hearts reflected in his traditional eyeglasses. He was surprisingly fit for his age, but supposedly the old Russian spy was addicted to memory-improving games, an effort to stave off what Directorate intelligence suspected was dementia. A strong body still, but not the mind.

So, Wang realized, this had not been a strategy session but an audition. The Presidium had already made its choice.


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