‘Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without even having to fight.’
Sun Zi, The Art of War, 5th Century BC.
Washington, The White House
October 15th, 8:15 pm.
Jerry Bakhash’s big black Lincoln slipped into Pennsylvania Avenue and turned right along East Executive Avenue to enter the White House by the East Wing. The US President’s spin doctor looked grim as he put his notes back into his briefcase; his role had become crucial and the dramatic events of the last few hours left him little room for manoeuvre.
He had an appointment in the ‘Situation Room’, an underground shelter tucked beneath the White House. This nerve centre had been placed on maximum alert round the clock. The Army Chiefs of Staff were to keep the President informed of the latest intelligence they received regarding the USS Ronald Reagan.
The aircraft carrier had returned to the US naval base of Okinawa in Japan for repairs before going back into service. It would be out of commission for at least three months, but there were already several vessels on their way to China to consolidate the Seventh Fleet’s task force.
China had certainly lost two of its submarines in the course of the episode, but that fact did not weigh much in America and world public opinion. Quite the opposite, in fact. China was eager to incriminate the US Navy for having violated its exclusion zone and accuse it of being directly responsible for the death of 150 sailors. In the eyes of international opinion, China was acting in good faith. So much so that, against all expectations, China seemed to have come out the winner in this first clash: it had not only stood up to the US Navy, displaying undeniable courage, but also wounded Uncle Sam in his pride by inflicting damage to its standard bearer.
Jerry Bakhash entered the situation room to take part in a show he would willingly have done without. The military brass now had to come up with an explanation. The President could not figure out how the top air fleet of the World’s number one power could be so vulnerable, to the point of being stymied by an isolated submarine.
‘We have a defence budget of over 500 billion dollars and you’re trying to tell me that a brand new, super-equipped aircraft carrier can’t ward off the torpedoes from a small Chinese submarine?’ blurted out the president. ‘What’s the point then of having these dozens of different types of missiles, all those radars, those electronic warfare aircraft, electronic countermeasure systems, decoys, all those frigates, destroyers, cruisers… and those fighters armed right up to their wingtips?’
The president’s face turned red.
‘And what about those constellations of spy satellites? Those AWACS? And those sonars?’ he continued, spelling out his disbelief.
He was trying to recall all the weapons systems those blasted military and their sycophants in the arms industry had ‘sold’ him. He had let himself be convinced, accepting their justifications, and had signed their procurement programs with his own hand. He had given them his confidence and was now feeling cheated.
‘Do you know how much it costs the United States of America to dispose of the world’s best armament? Do you know it’s money from the American taxpayers that pays for all this; money from their taxes? And our American taxpayer now wants to know how we spend his money. He’s demanding results! And, you see, his mind just boggles when he learns that an ordinary submarine of the fleet of a developing country can play David and Goliath with the entire US Navy!’
Heads were going to fall.
The Army Chief of Staff stuck his neck out to come to his troops’ rescue. He was the highest-ranking officer to come and get the flak.
‘Mr. President, when the sea is very rough, the waves send out echoes on our radar scopes. Under certain unfavourable conditions, it’s almost impossible to eliminate these echoes and read an intelligent signal. Radars can become ineffective in this way. As for the sonars, large temperature differences between the sea’s depth and the surface can sometimes affect sound propagation in water. The waves from the sonar then tend to dip vertically…’ The president felt he was being messed around. Instead of placating him, this highly technical explanation infuriated him even more.
‘Waves!’ he blurted out, choking with rage. ‘Are you trying to tell me that we were defeated by waves, and not the enemy? The US navy is vulnerable to waves. Is that it? You’ll be telling me next that the US Air Force backs down in storms? Do you think I’m here to lead a fleet of trawler men and deer hunters? For your information, I’m at the head of the most powerful army in this planet, the army of the United States. Gentlemen, I want a detailed and accurate report on the responsibilities involved in this whole matter.’
He made eye contact successively with each one of the military chiefs present in the room, his look threatening:
‘I’ll once again make myself clear: I want you to establish who were the ones responsible for this.’
On the way out of the situation room, Jerry Bakhash escorted the president back up to the Oval Office along with Larson, the National Security Adviser. Upon arriving, they were met by State Secretary Nimoy and Sol Grant, the Defense Secretary.
‘Jerry, can you give us a run-down on the situation?’ asked the president, apparently having recovered his calm and wits.
‘Well, let’s say it’s grey overall… I’ll start with the negative points… The punitive operation we launched against the Chinese had two objectives. First, to mount pressure on China to force it to give up its embargo on our software products, and second to restore America’s prestige in the international and domestic scenes. We may as well say that was a total failure. China, in fact, did better than simply stand up to us, since in the end it came out as the victor of this confrontation.’
The president tried to contain his rising anger. Bakhash continued.
‘Not only is China giving no sign of easing its commercial policy towards Microsoft, but it’s gained in self-respect. We hardly have any options. We must repeat the operation, but this time with more clout. If we are to have any reasonable chance of a quick and unequivocal victory, then we must hit hard. It’s only at that price we’ll wipe away the smear on us.’
The president had great confidence in Bakhash, a man who had been instrumental in his electoral victory three years earlier. He had this rare talent of sensing public opinion, whether it be from California or the middle West, and to be at one with the voice from smallest of the villages, just as with the planet as a whole. Bakhash had a knack for manipulating the masses and men in equal measure, with the skill of a silk merchant in an Istanbul bazaar. The president could only nod in agreement at his suggestions. He turned to his Defence Secretary.
‘Grant, when can we be ready?’
‘In ten days at the most. We have two aircraft carriers on alert in the zone. The first one is expected to arrive in the week. And this time, they’re heading straight for Taiwan and Shanghai. All our forces are in place to bring China to its knees.’
‘Which brings me to the positive points in this matter. Our fellow citizens were sickened to see that hole pierced through the Ronald Reagan’s hull! They definitely want revenge. The situation is now quite different; we’re no longer fighting against a commercial antagonism, but in response to a military aggression. This gives us altogether stronger military grounds to go into battle against China.’
Larson and Nimoy remained silent, but were secretly congratulating themselves on the new turn of events.
‘Now’s the time to gather up all our allies,’ added Nimoy. We need their support now we’re entering this new military phase.
‘Aren’t they already behind us?’ asked President Walker with a mark of surprise.
‘The European governments are showing their typical lethargy. I’ll whip them up. In Latin America, India, Africa and Southeast Asia, it’s the people and business circles that are dragging their feet. They don’t want to be left lagging behind China’s software industry and some would dearly like to ditch Microsoft themselves and join in the fight against us.’
‘All the more reason to strike real hard,’ concluded Walker. I want all our allies in their battle formations. We are at war; they’d better believe it.’
Zhou was reading the bulletins that popped up at regular intervals on his PC screen. China had decreed a national day of mourning for the crew of its People’s Liberation Army Navy submarines. Captains Huang and Meng were raised to the rank of hero of the nation. These men did not hesitate to sacrifice their own lives and those of their crew to defend the country against the aggressor. China now had its hour of glory. The aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan had been forced to beat a retreat and, in the eyes of the whole world, America had lost face.
And yet the war suddenly took on a more sinister turn. The military deployment that was being set up off the Chinese coast bore nothing in common with the show of strength of the past weeks. America was no longer merely flexing its muscles in the sea of China, it was this time gearing up to wage a full-blown war whose objective was none less than the destruction of China’s military potential.’
Zhou was assessing his own share of responsibility in all this. That weapon he had been so proud of, his own bomb, had caused collateral damage he could never have imagined… And what about the heads of the military commission, to whom he had proposed the ‘M-bomb’? Hadn’t they catastrophically underestimated the US retaliation?
How could a decision of a purely commercial nature – and a truly legitimate one at that – levelled against Microsoft have triggered off such a rapid and brutal military escalation?
It was totally bewildering. Everything had been going on as if the US had actually expected that embargo, as if they had been just waiting for it to launch an armed intervention.
The Navy, Air Force and missiles of the mightiest military power of all time were about to pounce on China. An ill-prepared China, still lacking maturity and poorly protected. The razor-like steel jaws of the great military engine were about to crush China’s pathetic defences. The country was about to be stripped naked and thrown as prey to those very creditors that had torn it to pieces one and a half centuries before. The United States, Japan, Korea, India, Russia – all those regional powers would then fling themselves onto this enormous, now defenceless, body, eager to bleed it white and drain it of all its substance.
Tom Bailey was no longer topical, and that was no doubt the only positive element worth noting. Neither the Ministry of Defence nor the government wanted him. The instructions were to send him back to his native California, and Guo’s police must have been informed of this. All that remained was to negotiate his trade value.
Bao Yutai had handed Zhou the list of files stolen on that sordid night of August 26. He had given much thought to the matter and found only one credible explanation. The documents found in Jin’s apartment could only have come from the computers of the Ministry of Information Industries. The police had not circulated that list, but Zhou was sure of one thing: if the CIA was behind the burglary, as he now believed, then it was simply to recycle the property it had just stolen.
Tom Bailey was no longer a strategic element in the all-out war in the offing, and Zhou should be able to exploit that new fact to get Jin cleared of all accusations. But that promised to be no easy task, not least because any chance of coming to a solution would entail negotiating with the chief of the secret police, commander Guo, Zhou’s long-standing enemy. Yet Zhou had no alternative. It was up to him to plead the cause of his subordinate face to face with the implacable Guo.
It was certainly a blow to his pride to make the first step and effectively go begging, but such was the price to pay for Jin’s freedom. And it was imperative to give back to counterespionage its full latitude for action.
Guo had just suffered another failure following the unfruitful assault of the monastery. He too must be wanting to get it over and done with. It was not in Zhou’s habits to do things by a half. He turned up at the Ministry of Public Security, the holy of holies of the secret police. It was a humiliation he could not even have imagined a few months earlier. As if the calamitous consequences of his ‘M-bomb’ had made him meek and humble! Commander Guo greeted him with genuine surprise, but remained frosty, not even deigning to get up to welcome his visitor.
‘Guo, I think it’s time you and I had a talk… in the face of the events our country is confronted with, we must close ranks and act like true patriots. Let’s cast aside our quarrels of the past. I’ve come to propose that we both form a common front against our enemy.’
‘What are you referring to?’ asked Guo.
‘To the American special services which are pursuing operations inside our territory. We have to put an end to it. In the current situation, they are making the most out of our division.’
The police chief seemed unswayed.
‘This all sounds fine, but these are just empty words. You have nothing concrete to offer, Zhou! Nothing whatsoever! Your services are paralysed, discredited ever since one of your agents has been accused of treason. So, what can you be possibly talking about?’
Now was the time for Zhou to pull out his trump.
‘I know the whereabouts of the American. Our government’s decided to hand him back to appease the tensions with the US. Wouldn’t it be better if he were in the hands of the Chinese police rather than those of the CIA? So there you have it; I’ve come to bring you Tom Bailey.’
The offer was tempting, but Guo remained suspicious.
‘I can do without you. I’ve already located him twice and I’m quite capable of finding him by myself, thank you very much.’
‘Not this time, you won’t! Believe me, you won’t find it so easy to catch him now. So, do you want to let the CIA carry on with its little game, or would you prefer a more… adapted solution?’
Guo realised that his visitor was not bluffing. The American had fled with that girl and they were kept protected by the counterespionage services. After a pause, he let out:
‘And what do you want in exchange? Because, I suppose, you’ve come to do a deal, haven’t you?’
‘Not strictly speaking a deal; it’s more a matter of repairing a prejudice. You see, Jin is innocent.’
‘That remains to be proven. Running away is hardly the best way of proving one’s innocence…’
‘I’ve gone over and over the events of the night of August the 26th. I kept asking myself: where could those recent and classified documents found in Jin’s apartment have come from, and who would gain from making her fall? And the conclusion I’ve come to is that she was framed by the CIA.’
Guo remained silent.
‘I brought with me the list of documents contained in the PC of the secretary who was murdered that night, the one that was stolen. Here, take it. Bao Yutai gave it to me in person. You won’t have any trouble in comparing these documents with the ones that were dumped in Jin’s apartment.’
Zhou pulled out a few stapled sheets from his pocket. He was hoping he had got it right, for if not he would in fact be making Jin’s case even worse.
‘Very well, Zhou, let me have it.’
Guo got up and strode to a safe-locked cupboard, from which he pulled out a docket. He sat down again behind his desk and began to inspect the documents. His eyes switched repeatedly between the list Zhou had given and the one inside the docket opened before him, but his expression gave no hint of what he was discovering. After a few long minutes, he finally turned up his eyes towards Zhou.
‘Okay, you’ve just scored a point, Zhou. All the documents found in the girl’s possession do indeed belong to your list. Now, let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that your theory is correct and that your spy is innocent…’
‘Then, in this case, Jin must of course be cleared of all accusations. And I’ll let you negotiate with the American authorities the procedure for handing back their countryman.’
Guo put on a pensive expression, but already knew he had hardly the choice. He was under orders to find the American.
‘Very well, I accept.’
‘In this case, I suggest we begin by organising the handover of Tom Bailey within the next few hours.’
The deal was concluded. At long last. Zhou could now announce the good news to Jin.
Langley, CIA headquarters.
‘China was prepared to hand back Tom Bailey!’ This shock announcement was reverberating in Lorna Green’s mind and she was still wondering whether to take it seriously. The message had come via the US Embassy in Beijing. The Chinese were proposing to rendezvous near the town of Anqing, by the Yangtze River. She had even obtained her visa for Beijing to supervise the logistics of the matter. She was to take the plane that very night to be in the Chinese capital by late morning.
The woman had given strict orders. Not only was Santana Song to be dropped from the CIA’s action service, but he was also to be kept in the dark about the whole operation.
Deep in the night.
The girl slid her lower body languorously between Stenton’s legs.
‘Hao bù Hao?’ She whispered in his ear.
He was seated on the edge of his stool, leaning over the bar of a pickup joint in Beijing’s red light district. She was standing between his legs, warm and sensuous. She reeled off a string of Mandarin words in a crystalline and mellifluous singing voice, as only the girls from northern China know how. Stenton could not make out a word of it. He had given up all hope of speaking that language ever since he had set foot in the capital. Too difficult, too old, he concluded in self consolation. And then he had Song who served him as an interpreter, go-between and adviser.
What was he going to do without him? Lorna had demanded that he be set aside…
The girl was enveloping her naked arms around him as she rubbed her taught breasts against his broad chest. She placed her lips close to his right ear and let out in a soft breath the same flow of words, punctuated here and there with a Hao bù Hao? that sent him soft shudders. Hao bù Hao?: ‘good, not good?’. In other words, ‘is it okay with you?’
‘Hao bù Hao?,’ repeated the girl.
She had now slipped her tongue into Stenton’s ear, searching hungrily round the recesses of his lobes, visiting its intimate folds before resuming in her purring tones:
‘Hao bù Hao, Hao bù Hao?’
Never before had he heard anything so erotic in Mandarin. ‘Hao bù Hao?’
He wondered whether he was beginning to develop some peculiar tastes in the matter… For instance, in Japan, he would remain stone cold before the Kyoto geishas in the Gion district as they played the shamisen and recited poetry. He had little time for this fetishism centred on those young ladies’ feet or toes that Japanese men would kiss with ecstatic pleasure. No, he was more into straight, raw sex, where flesh meets flesh without frills or mascara.
‘Hao bù Hao?’ repeated the girl endlessly. ‘Hao bù Hao?’
He would have to learn to live without Santana Song, his sinister henchman… And the idea did not appeal to him one bit. He slid his hand under the girl’s tunic to savour the warn graininess of her skin. No, nothing could match the delicateness of skin of Javanese women. He cast his mind back ten years to that five-star hotel in Nusa Dua with Sumi. Her skin was as smooth as a dolphin’s, and the droplets from the shower head fell like rain, sliding gently against the matt leather of her contours like the sea spray drips effortlessly along the sea mammal’s belly.
‘Hao bù Hao?,’ she began again.
He gulped down his bourbon and pushed the girl back abruptly. It was time to go home. Lorna would be arriving tomorrow.
White House, Oval office.
At that morning’s opening session, the Dow Jones dropped below the 5000 point mark, while the Composite, for its part, slid under 800 points. This reflected the markets’ panicking responses to the tech trading crisis against a background of a war in the Pacific.
One week! Such was the period of the ultimatum solemnly handed out to China. It was Jim Walker’s decision, based on Larson’s advice. He was giving the Beijing authorities just one short week to step back and put their Godamn Order in the shredder. The Order that started it all.
‘You did the right thing,’ Edwin Nimoy commented. ‘The hour of truth has rung for those enemies of freedom!’
He was using the same simplistic terms that he thrashed out on every platform and TV studio. Nothing surprising, given that his speechwriter was none other than fellow accomplice Bob Larson, the national security adviser. It was becoming urgent to put an end to this crisis, to save the States of the Union and the Federal Government from bankruptcy, to save the pension funds and the banking institutions, and to put paid to the infernal cycle of personal bankruptcies.
‘Our economy will be back on track within a week,’ Walker tried to reassure. ‘The nightmare will soon be over. Everything will be back to normal.’
Marion Stone, the Vice President, would dearly have loved to share the President’s certainty. America may indeed gain the upper hand, but at what cost?
The Secretary of State was already preparing his speech for the following day before the General assembly of the United Nations.
New York, UN headquarters,
D-6 before expiry of the ultimatum.
‘You are either with us or against us, that same old song’, was thinking Bertrand Chastain de l’Asperet, France’s representative before the UN. But he still hadn’t asked the assembly to draw up a resolution endorsing the ultimatum given to China.
There now remained less than a week for the Celestial Empire to decide on its fate.
To be saved from its due retribution, all it had to do was to abandon its nationalistic and protectionist policies regarding software. But that would mean putting an end to its lofty ambitions and moves for independence. Such a renouncement would inevitably bring on others, making it difficult, if not impossible, to resist to American pressure. The USA would then alone dictate the rules of international trade, all for its own benefit, in matters from patents and legislation to standards and copyrights.
If China were now to give in, it would lose face. But, far worse, it would be surrendering its imperious ambitions for a long time to come. If not forever.
On the other hand, if it stood firm, which was quite probable, the US military system would be set in motion and crush China into submission, rendering it powerless and ruined for an even longer period.
Such was the dilemma. What would Beijing decide? A friend in need is a friend indeed, so they say. And China now had pathetically few friends to rely on. The most outspoken nations refrained from clearly picking sides. This was notably the case with France and some of its European neighbours. But on the other hand, it was out of the question to endorse America’s unilateral adventure in setting off a war of overblown proportions to defend what was initially nothing more than the monopolistic rights of a private firm.
Such grounds could not federate the old nations of Western Europe.
Bertrand Chastain de l’Asperet had thus used the language of moderation before the UN, perceived as lukewarm and timorous by the hawks in Washington, much to their irritation.
The diplomat’s polite neutrality fell fart short of assuaging Edwin Nimoy, who had asked to meet the Frenchman.
‘So, Monsieur Chastain,’ jibed the Secretary of State, ‘Now that the Fourth World War has begun, can we at last count on you to fight on our side?’
The Frenchman thought he had misheard and politely observed:
‘You’re referring to the Third World War, I presume?’
His partner let out a sardonic smile.
‘That’s exactly where your mistake lies; the world was at war and you chose to ignore it, all those decades during which the forces of freedom fought against communism, while you sat there in blissful ignorance! You really make me crack up!’
Nimoy had clearly peeled away the shallow coating of diplomatic veneer he applied for international summits. He had always dreamed of humouring one of those arrogant and pretentious Frenchmen, at that day had come.
‘No doubt you failed to notice, busy as you were venerating your glorious past, but the Third World War came to an end on November the ninth 1989, with the victory going to the United States and the unconditional surrender of the Soviet Union. I get the feeling all this went by completely unnoticed by you, Bertrand!’
The Frenchman struggled to maintain his composure.
‘Oh, Of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall! Thank you for reminding me Edwin. But isn’t it stretching things a little to compare this undeniably major event with the 1945 victory?’
‘No, it was the turning point for everything to come! The Third World War was won by the United States and entire nations were freed: those of Eastern Europe and those of the ex-Soviet republics, among others. It was a war that lasted 45 years! It was fought in the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam; it spread to Africa and the Middle East. They called it the ‘cold war’ in Berlin or Cuba in 1962, and it was even fought in space, right up to the moon.
But this Third World War, my dear French friend, was something quite foreign to you. You were simply a spectator! I could even go so far as to say that you shamelessly profited from that war. After all, didn’t the bipolarization that resulted give you French some room in which to exist, to make your quirky and dissonant voices heard? You managed to eke out some space between the two blocks and give yourself the illusion of having far more weight in the world than your lack of means would have ever allowed. Is it really so difficult to accept your new condition?’
‘I could ask the same question, don’t you think? After all, your economy didn’t appear to weigh very much in the face of that little Chinese act of boycott !’
The American thought better of rising to the Frenchman’s provocation. He much preferred to relish the pleasure of winding up his partner. That was one of his kicks in life, like others enjoy playing golf.
‘That war was won without you, and when victory came you weren’t among the victors. And, as is the case with any war, it’s the victors who share out the territories they’ve just conquered. They draw out their new frontiers and decide alone on the economic and political regimes they will set up. Your General de Gaulle wasn’t invited round the table at Yalta. It was only thanks to Churchill that France was ever allowed to join in with the victors and get a seat as permanent member of the Security Council, the one you’re occupying right now! On the other hand, you were completely absent from the 1989 share-out that marked the end of the Third World War. You ignored that war; you closed your eyes to it and even went so far as to deny its existence. In fact, you didn’t recognize it, no doubt because you consider the French Revolution as the mother of all revolutions. Aren’t I right? And every communist bastion that collapsed was a bit like part of the French heritage going with it.’
The French representative paled a little. He would have liked to retire away. But his partner gave him no break.
‘Did you know that the French flag used to be on display in every American classroom to honour the country that fought for our independence? But ever since France withdrew from NATO’s integrated command, back in 1966, all the French flags have been taken away from our schools… For that, you can only blame General de Gaulle, that theoretician of your so-called third path, the one of national independence and opposition to the United States of America!’
The Frenchman had to concede that Nimoy knew his stuff. He tried, much as he could, to defend his country.
‘In times of difficulty, France has always stood by your side, as a loyal ally!’
‘Perhaps, but always as a last resort and after endless philosophical dillydallying. This sort of behaviour may come across as quaint in certain spheres, but its subtleties elude the grasp of the likes of the Republican senator for Kansas!’
The Secretary of State sipped the last of his Bourbon. The cat still wanted to play with the mouse.
‘The world is being reshaped without your Gallic intervention! It’s what’s called ‘The New World Order’. But of course, you wouldn’t understand.’
‘And so, you’ve just set off the Fourth World War, if I have understood you right?’
‘Correct! So now, will you come along and fight on our side? Can’t you see what is happening right now?’
‘And I suppose the enemy in question is China?’
‘Don’t you realise we must unite and form a common front? Otherwise, we’re all lost.’
The Frenchman remained silent.
Nimoy turned and gave him a menacing look.
‘Come, Bertrand! There is no middle path. Are you with us or are you against us?’
D-5 before expiry of the ultimatum
Tom and Jin had just spent nearly a week in the cargo vessel that coasted gently down the Yangtze. They had a private cabin on the top deck, with a porthole from which they could watch the monotonous banks glide by.
They had crossed the towns of Wuhan and Huangshi and could have continued up to Shanghai. But Jin had just got a call from Zhou.
The Chinese government had decided to hand Tom back to the American intelligence services, and Zhou had seized the occasion to plead Jin’s cause successfully before the secret police. She was free too. Things were getting better.
The rendezvous point was somewhere upstream of the town of Anqing, less than an hour away. The matter had been kept secret, the CIA’s Beijing bureau having planned the particulars directly with the police. Apart from Commander Guo and his men, only two Chinese – both from the Hong Kong special autonomous region – were to be present. The couple would then be transferred by military plane to the airport of Rui’an, where they would be met by just one authorised representative of the American government. From there, a second plane taking off from Hong Kong was to take them to the former British colony.
Tom and Jin were living their last moments together. They were soon to be separated, not knowing when they would see each other again. He was to leave China and she was indefinitely bound to her country. Or at least, all the while their respective countries were at war. For it was inconceivable to the young woman to fail in her duties as member of the counterespionage directorate.
When would they see each other again?
The boat landed against the small wooden jetty. The place seemed deserted. Jin quickly spotted in the distance five unmarked cars and four police coaches, as well as a group of men standing with their hands in their raincoat pockets.
Commander Guo move towards the jetty, followed by the two Hong Kong lawyers.
‘Tom Bailey?’ said one of the latter, holding out his hand, ‘I’m Milton Fu, a lawyer from Hong Kong. We’ve been empowered by your government to escort you out of China. He then introduced his colleague.
Jin was still standing close to Tom. She could not get round to seeing him go. She was looking intensely at him with exuding tenderness, knowing too well she would miss him for several months. His hair had become even longer during their escapade; she placed her hand on his broad square shoulders, those of the university league football player, and against which she, the tough soldier, liked to rest her head.
And then she suddenly noticed a spot, there, right over his heart… A small red shimmering glow… It was the spot from a laser sight! They were going to assassinate Tom! Reacting in a split second, she shoved her companion to knock him out of the line of fire. But it was too late. The shot had just been fired and the bullet smashed its way into the top of his right lung, beneath the collarbone.
Guo immediately shouted out orders. The police immediately began to deploy around the area from where the shot appeared to have come. The sound of an outboard engine broke out in the distance. The police had not thought of providing a river patrol, and no-one could give chase. An ambulance was called in. The young man was wincing with pain but remained conscious.
Jin’s mind was racing. Who could possibly have wanted Tom Bailey’s death? Certainly not the Chinese! So who then? The shot could only have come from the other camp… For Jin, it was more than mere intuition, it was a near certainty. The American’s were trying to liquidate Tom Bailey.
He was in great danger.
Beijing, the presidential building
President Ren had summoned Wei Weimin, the Prime Minister, as well as Fong, the Minister of Finance, for a work session on… the country’s monetary policy.
There were only five days left before the US ultimatum expired, and the awesome armada of the world’s greatest military power was at his doorstep.
‘Was this really the right time to talk about money matters?’ wondered the Minister. Where on Earth were the leaders of the central military commission? They were making themselves conspicuous by their absence while the United States was preparing a massive strike on the country!
Yet they were the ones responsible for this current situation! Rumours were going round that Liu Rong and his vice-chairman were in fact the real instigators of that perfidious decision targeted against Microsoft. They had completely misjudged the consequences.
Did these adventurers even stop to think about the possible repercussions of their acts? Surely it was obvious that the Americans would not watch their economy being dilapidated with their arms crossed!
And what about Prime Minister Wei, the champion of the liberal path? Why didn’t he oppose that decision? All these questions were niggling Fong. What was there left for China to do in the face of the ultimatum? Back down? ‘If it were only up to me,’ thought Fong, ‘I would open the country’s gates wide open to US software…’
The president was late.
When he finally entered the room, features drawn, Fong wondered how many people would want to be in his shoes right now.
The President was accompanied by the governor of the People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank, as well as a group of three economists who formed his counsel.
What on earth was the president up to? Why urgently call up this meeting on monetary policy when, in all logic, he should be dedicating all his precious time and energy on the country’s military situation?
‘Gentlemen, please sit down.’
Ren certainly did look tired. But his face expressed a will and determination that struck the attendants.
‘I suppose that you have all heard of the ‘M-bomb’?’ he continued, without waiting for an answer.
‘What you may not know is what the ‘M’ stands for!’
He observed the looks of surprise among those present.
‘This is the reason why I have brought you here this evening. We are together going to prime and launch the real ‘M- bomb’!’
They stared at him in disbelief.
‘I now pass the word to Hui Yong, the governor of the People’s Bank.’
The elderly gentleman cleared his throat and put on a pair of glasses.
‘First of all, let me remind you how the United States uses monetary policies as weapons to eliminate its enemies, starting with Japan. Ever since the 1950s, Japan’s GNP experienced constant growth, catching up with America’s GNP to reach 60% of the latter by the 80s. That was going too far! The Reagan administration demanded – and obtained – at the Plaza agreements of September 1985 that the yen be revalued by nearly 50%! And, as if by magic, just after the Plaza agreement and the Gulf War of 1991, Japan entered a long period of stagnation, accompanied by the bursting of the real estate bubble and the crumbling of its banking system.’
The governor of the central bank was obviously fond of innuendoes. The three economists nodded their heads approvingly.
‘The United States possesses this exorbitant advantage, which only they have, of being able to make other countries finance their trade deficits. It’s the rest of the world that funds America’s consumerism, its economic growth, its military spending and lifestyle. America’s principal lenders come from Southeast Asia – Japan, China, not to forget the Asian Tigers! Today, half of America’s Treasury bonds are in the hands of foreign investors! The great weakness of the American economy lies in the size of its deficit, both its commercial deficit and its budgetary deficit. Last year’s trade gap between America and China totalled 200 billion dollars, while their overall deficit exceeded 600 billion dollars. The States’ budgetary deficit is in the hands of Asian capital investors.’
‘All of this was common knowledge to them… what was he trying to get at?’ thought some.
The governor went on.
‘Interest rates constitute the main lever of America’s monetary policy, and here’s how my colleague, William Rothko, governor of the Federal Reserve, uses it to drive the economy. When America is in a recession, the Fed brings down its base rates, the so-called Fed funds. And when the economy is overheating, the Fed raises interest rates.’
Governor Hui raised his eyes above his small glasses that always seemed on the verge of slipping off his nose to look at his audience.
‘When President Ren asked me two months ago to think about creating a monetary weapon in case the conflict with the US were to last, we asked ourselves the following question: what would happen now if the long-term interest rates were to rise suddenly?’
No one felt inclined to answer.
‘Well, the answer is clear. America would come to experience a crash of the bond market. The effect would be devastating because their economy is now extremely fragile, given the particularly high level of public and private debts.’
The president was regaining some serenity as the Minister went on.
‘It so happens that the central banks in China, or Japan for that matter, possess such enormous stocks of 10-year bonds that they can greatly influence their rates merely through their buying-and-selling policy.’
President Ren then broke in and declared with a stamp of authority:
‘In response to the ultimatum set by the United States of America, we have decided to launch within this very hour a massive sale of American Treasury bonds on the international financial markets… In less than 18 hours, we will have caused the biggest crash of the bond market ever known in history!’
He raised his head and looked round to his Prime Minister and Minister of Finance with renewed pride.
No, he had not been unduly defiant towards the USA. No, he was not playing with fire by imposing a policy of software independence and no, he was not helpless in the face of the American military machine.
And no again, he did not have his back to the wall; he now had some breathing space, and those who had underestimated him were going to regret it.
America may have weapons superiority, but its debt was in the hands of its enemy! It could growl, threaten and flex its muscles, but it remained at the mercy of its creditors! In the space of a few hours, it would go begging for mercy on bended knee!
China had just launched… the ‘M-bomb’.
Beijing, counterespionage Headquarters.
Who could possibly have shot Tom Bailey?
Zhou was attempting to bring a logical and consistent answer to the question that was haunting him since that morning. He had had a telephone discussion with Jin. The shot came from within the American side, she affirmed, without managing to advance conclusive proof for this.
On the face of it, her arguments were rather weak.
No-one in China had anything to gain by eliminating the computer scientist, she maintained. Admittedly. But to go so far as to suspect the American services of wanting to assassinate one of their own… wasn’t Jin stretching things a little?
The bullet had struck Tom Bailey in the shoulder. He had been extremely lucky and Jin had certainly saved his life by thrusting herself against him. But it did not hit any vital organ and it had been possible to extract the bullet inside the mobile medical vehicle that had quickly come to the scene. The wound was clean and did not call for a complex surgical intervention.
The American was fixed up with a large bandage that blocked his arm. They had injected him with powerful sedatives that plunged him in a deep sleep to enhance recovery. He went about in a wheelchair accompanied by a nurse.
The CIA, which had been supervising the operations, insisted in sticking to the original program, no doubt fearing the Chinese government might change its mind. It did not even attempt to elucidate the matter. All it wanted was to recover its computer wizard.
And so Tom was at that moment on board a military plane heading towards an airport near Rui’an.
Jin, for her part, had not returned home. To her, Tom was in deadly danger in the hands of the Americans and, once more, she decided to protect him…
A man in his thirties was trying to draw his attention. Zhou knew him by sight. He was an analyst, a computer ace at the head of the cryptology department. Zhou remembered having seen him in Jin’s company.
‘Colonel Zhou…,’ the analyst attempted again, fighting to overcome his natural shyness.
‘What do you want? Jin isn’t here…’
He had to call Jin, she was due to return to her post.
‘Colonel, we have come across something odd…’
The techie was obviously making a heroic effort in daring to come up to the unapproachable Colonel Zhou. With a movement of his eyes, the latter invited him to continue.
‘Colonel, we’ve finished decoding part of the laptop belonging to the American spy, the one identified as Baxter…’
‘What! Is that why you want to see me! Do you really think it’s the time!’
The scientist did not insist and disappeared as he had come.
Baxter. What a strange coincidence! He had just discussed the Baxter affair with Jin that very morning.
As far as Jin was concerned, there was no room for doubt. Tom Bailey was the victim of the American services or, in any case, one of their sections that had decided to eliminate him. To substantiate her case, she had drawn a parallel with the Baxter affair, in which the IBM computer scientist was in fact none other than an agent of the NSA, the highly secretive American electronic intelligence agency. Baxter was uncovered during his visit to Beijing in January last, and the American services did not think twice about bumping him off in his hotel room. Or at least that was Jin’s interpretation of the facts.
Could there possibly be a connection between Tom Bailey and that Baxter?
Something irrational, like a hunch, made Zhou call back the scientist he had just sent running. Perhaps that’s what Jin would have done had she been there?
He darted out into the corridor and caught a glimpse of the young man waiting in front of the lifts.
‘Okay, I’m listening.’
The scientist approached hesitantly.
‘So, what was it you want to tell me?’
‘Well… we’ve been working on that PC for the past nine months and we’ve just got the first results…’
‘You mean it took you nine months to get inside the disk drive!’
‘Well… It’s not just any machine… It’s been through the NSA and they’re pretty cool in cryptology! And then, we only managed to crack the triple DES and RC5 with 4096-bit keys…’
Zhou interrupted him sharply.
‘Get to the point, what have you found?’
‘Well… it’s pretty awesome. Everything began with a mistake we made. To save time, we often begin by drawing up a list of significant words we want to look for in the coded text. Now, a month ago, the operator took the wrong list and used instead the one for checking e-mails coming out of China. It contained words in connection with the Microsoft business. And in that list there was the term ‘M-bomb’…’
‘What about it?’
‘Well… this is really weird, Colonel!’
The computer scientist suddenly blanched by what he was evoking. He was dumbstruck.
‘Go on, what was it you found so extraordinary?’
‘It’s that the term ‘M-bomb’ appears several times in Baxter’s PC files…!’
The young man’s hairs were on end, as if he had just unfathomed the mysteries of the universe.
‘What do you mean by ‘appears’?’
‘Well, I mean ‘M-bomb’ is the name given by the press to the Order against Microsoft, isn’t it? And yet that exact term ‘M-bomb’ was already recorded in that American’s PC six months before the events!’
‘Couldn’t it just be a coincidence?’
‘No, no way. It appears in no fewer than 12 instances… Look at the printout!’
His nervous hands thrust a wad of concertina-folded paper under Zhou’s bewildered eyes.
The commander sensed a shiver running down his spine. How the hell could a term conjured up at the end of August be present inside a computer seized back in January?
He felt like a palaeontologist who had just found a cell phone in a sedimentary layer dating back from Homo Pekinensis.
Zhou gazed at the scientist.
‘You did the right thing by coming to see me.’
‘We also conducted searches on words that preceded and followed the term ‘M-bomb’, to try to learn something about the context. We’ve already decoded the words ‘mission’ and ‘Beijing’, as well as a number: 531.
‘531? Any idea what it means?’
‘None for the time being, but we’re still searching.’
‘But where the hell was Jin?’ Zhou thought impatiently.
The young woman finally rang. It was 1 p.m., and on that same morning she and Tom had landed on the same jetty where the American nearly lost his life. Jin had made the most of those few hours to devise a plan. Tom was in danger. There had been at least one attempt to eliminate him, and those behind the crime were bound to try again. Now that she was fully rehabilitated, she could henceforth count on her team’s support.
‘Where are you, Jin?’
‘Somewhere along the way to Rui’an. I’ll need another 24 hours. I’ve got to pull Tom away from here, he needs me…’
‘You are aware that the department won’t be responsible for your actions, aren’t you?’
‘I am, Zhou, but I’ve got no choice.’
Zhou then moved over to the topic that had been obsessing him the best part of an hour.
‘Jin, do you remember the Baxter affair?’
‘Zhou, this is hardly the time…’
‘I want you to listen very carefully: this is important. You were indeed correct. Your team has just deciphered that American’s laptop, the one you managed to get hold of…’
The young woman on the other side of the line suddenly focused her attention.
‘Now it turns out this computer contains references to a project called the ‘M-bomb’. They appear in messages that were created over six months before the events…’
There were a few moments of silence, followed by a hesitant voice:
‘It must be a coincidence, don’t you think?’
‘Impossible, the term appears repeatedly – 12 times in all. Baxter was in Beijing over a matter he called a ‘bomb.’ That was his real mission. Now we’ve got to find out the exact nature of that bomb.’
‘Don’t forget he was bumped off to stop him talking. I knew it, Zhou, there’s something of the utmost importance hidden in this case.’
Colonel Zhou became more insistent:
‘Jin, I want you to return to Beijing immediately. We need you. You’re the only…’
‘That’s an order, Jin!’
‘I’m very sorry, Colonel, but I must disobey.’
Zhou mustered all his efforts to contain his irritation. Wasn’t he the one who had taught Jin that in some circumstances orders could indeed be..? He pressed the handset back against his ear and, trying to sound calm, changed the subject.
‘Going back to the contents uncovered in the laptop, there are several instances where the term ‘M-bomb’ is followed by the number 531. Does this number mean anything to you?’
The young woman thought for a few seconds.
‘No, nothing at all. Sorry…’
Then he went on the onslaught.
‘Listen, Jin. You’re taking the first plane. I’ll be waiting for you in Beijing. Is this clear?’
‘It’s no use,’ the young woman answered in a dreary voice. ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m going to hang up. I’ve got to go – I can’t explain – please, just trust me…’
Zhou tried to contain the sudden rage welling up from deep inside. Just as he was about to hang up, Jin’s voice came through the earphone again.
‘Did you say 531?’
‘That’s right. 531…’
‘When I was doing my thesis in Professor Mok Mengma’s lab, I heard about a software module referred to as M531. I wasn’t directly involved with it, but I knew of its existence. It’s probably the most secret piece of software in all of China!’
Zhou began to imagine a worse. He felt his blood chill.
‘And what was that software for?’ he asked.
‘Well it’s… it’s the core of a secured architecture developed by Professor Mok’s team…’
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Absolutely, it was indeed that number: 531. I distinctly remember. So that would mean we’re dealing with the ‘M531’ bomb!’
She cut herself short a few moments to sense the full weight of the situation. Then, with a voice betraying anxiety, she added:
‘Zhou, this means the NSA may have got hold of the communication module that protects our computers…’
Zhou was gradually seeing the extent of the impending disaster. With a choked voice, he asked:
‘This 531 module… is it part of the CNOS system, the one that replaces Windows?’
Her reply killed all hope.
‘Zhou, the M531 is the centrepiece of the secure communications architecture that was developed by China. The M531 is present not only in CNOS, but also in most of the computers installed these past few months in the administrations, sea ports, airports, military bases…’
Not wanting to hear more, he interrupted her and implored:
‘Jin, you must come back, I need you, Jin…’
She demurred for a moment, knowing full well she would not give in.
‘Tom is in deadly danger. I simply can’t abandon him.’
‘This matter no longer concerns you, that guy is now in the hands of the Americans.’
‘He’s in danger. I know it, I can feel it. I’m the only one who can help him. Zhou, if I were you, I’d enquire around Professor Mok’s former team. There could only have been five or six at the most to have worked on the M531. That was an ultra-secret project. I reckon the team must have split up now. We must find them and interrogate them.’
‘I’m going to meet Professor Mok. He should be able to help. Jin, can’t you see you’ve no option but to return! You were his pupil!’
‘Mok! You or I won’t get a word out of him. In fact, I doubt there’s anybody he ever speaks to. I’m afraid you’ll have to do without Professor Mok. The man’s withdrawn himself from the world. He’s taken his retirement and has ever since lived as a recluse, tending his sick daughter. Zhou, just give me one day. That’s all I’m asking.’
The colonel remained silent.
‘Zhou. Good luck…’
He wanted to wish her good luck too, but she had already hung up…
A book by JF SUSBIELLE – Translation by Dominic KING