‘There has never been a good war, nor a bad peace’
Beijing, Science Academy
Software Research Institute
Tom followed her reluctantly.
‘Believe me, Jin, this isn’t a good idea!’
‘Come on, there’s nothing to worry about. And in any case, you’re dead as far as the United States is concerned, so you’re free!’
But Tom would have none of it. He even found this a very, very bad idea.’
‘Hey, I’m an American. I can’t imagine these Chinese programmers wanting to have me around while they’re desperately trying to neutralise the software bomb the NSA’s dumped on them…’
‘No, it’s just the opposite, they’ll really appreciate your moral support, you’ll see.’
They got inside the lift and headed towards the 17th floor, the headquarters of the Software Research Institute, where the late Professor Mok Mengma had his office. He had been found dead at his home; a death from natural causes according to the police inquiry. The act of treason by the illustrious father of Chinese computer science had been kept a closely guarded secret. Even the team of twelve programmers, all hand-picked, had only received sketchy information, nothing tangible to compromise the state hero with numerous decorations. The group included members of Mok’s old team, the ones who had worked on certain parts of the M531 module.
To secure Tom’s entry into the holy of holies of Chinese computing, Jin had to obtain a visa from the Ministry of State Security, from which counterespionage depended. But the young woman had been over-optimistic about the way her colleagues would welcome the great American. Hostile looks greeted him as he entered the computer room, abuzz with programmers trying to fix of the M531 module.
She could guess their thoughts: ‘What the hell is this stooge of the American enemy, that damn foreigner, doing there? And as we’re frantically working against the clock to prepare an antidote!’ The most hostile among them was clearly Professor Shu, Professor Mok’s successor.
He went up to Jin and hissed angrily into her ear:
‘You’d better know what you’re doing!’
‘Yes, I know exactly what I’m doing, don’t worry!’ answered Jin firmly, refusing to be disconcerted by the director of the research institute.
‘He shouldn’t be here, you know that full well! And neither should you.’
‘Professor Shu, I’ve been appointed by the Ministry of State Security to follow the work progress. Don’t forget I’m a computer scientist too and that I’ve worked with Mok Mengma for a long time. As for our American colleague, he’s got all the security clearances.’
‘Okay, but mind you don’t get in our way,’ warned the professor, disappearing as quickly as he came.
But Jin was not ready to give in. In fact, she had an idea in the back of her mind. A crazy idea. But she had to apply the soft touch for now. Tom wandered around the workstations, casting quick looks at the screens while Jin was discussing with the head of the development team. It would not be long before he got bored…
And indeed curiosity got the upper hand.
Tom came up to Jin and asked:
‘I’m cleared, aren’t I? So perhaps I could have a shot at this program too…?’
‘Of course you can. That’s a great idea, and don’t hesitate to tell us what you think! Here, go in that little office and I’ll get the access code for you.’
Professor Shu reappeared, fuming.
‘I formally object to let this enemy of China poke his nose into our secure communication module. I’m calling the Ministry immediately.’
He could always call; it was Shan Yunli himself, the Minister of Information Industries, who had given her the go-ahead …
Tom soon made himself at home. Settled comfortably in his chair, he tucked into the critical M531 module… He had had his fair share of challenges in his career with Microsoft. But here was the chance to gauge for himself what difficulties the Chinese team now had to face.
There were just three days left before the ultimatum expired, before the bomb exploded! And somewhere deep inside Tom envied these poor computer guys up against this inhuman countdown. They had no choice but to succeed; none other than China’s destiny was in the balance.
The gravity and urgency of the situation at stake was way above his own challenge following the launch of Windows 95! A battle he had won and which took him to glory…
Beijing, Academy of Science
Software Research Institute,
D-day – 2 before the ultimatum
The next day, it was in fact Tom who had asked to accompany Jin to the Science Academy’s Software Research Institute. The young woman wanted to be there with the team to live those last crucial hours before the fateful deadline. On the Institute’s seventeenth floor, China’s keenest computer brains were battling with lines of computer code in their drive to produce the antidote to the NSA’s software bomb.
Absorbed in their task, the Chinese scientists no longer seemed bothered by the American’s presence, and had even got used to crossing him in the corridors. Tom seemed to have developed a passion for that M531 module in which professor Mok had embedded his treacherous code. Towards noon, he snatched himself away from the manual.
‘Jin, tell me about this professor Mok Mengma. I want to know everything about him.’
‘I knew Mok well, you know, he was my tutor. Hey, why don’t we go down to the restaurant and have something to eat, and I’ll tell you everything you want…’
Washington, The White House.
Marion Stone was fuming. Hardly had The President’s secretary announced her arrival that she stormed into the Oval Office.
‘Why wasn’t I informed?’
The Vice President had just learned from a CIA report – handed over to her personally by its director – that the NSA had led, in the utmost secrecy, an autonomous policy concerning China.
She was brutally challenged by the Secretary of State.
‘You weren’t informed because it wasn’t any of your business. That’s all.’
She really hated that Nimoy. How she would have loved to get rid of him, together with his henchman Larson, the National Security adviser.
‘Excuse my insisting, but it’s not the role of a federal agency to develop its own policy in opposition to the government’s official line! And I’m in a good mind to inform Congress of this…’
President Walker could have done without this wrangle. He had far more important matters at hand. He had spent most of his time in the ‘situation room,’ keeping track of the deployment of American troops off the coast of China. He tried to assuage the Vice President. He needed her to win over the female and Hispanic voters.
‘But Marion, the NSA didn’t act against the interests of the United States, it simply obeyed my instructions.’
‘So, unless I’m wrong, you’ve been scheming all this for the sole purpose of triggering off a war; am I right?’ she insisted.
‘Mrs. Vice President, you don’t appear to be very familiar with the notion of a preventive war, from what I see!’ said Nimoy in a condescending tone.
‘A preventive war! In any case, I see you’ve resorted to the old tradition of the ‘provoked incident’! You deliberately coaxed China into getting rid of Microsoft to justify you war!’
‘You could see it that way. But we didn’t provoke anything. We just seized the occasion! The nationalistic fringe of the Chinese administration always favoured domestic technologies. However, Microsoft came up against opposition from business circles which had up till then been more compliant and on the side of stability. We were aware of some undercover attempts by a few civil servants calling themselves the ‘Lin Zexu Group’ and trying to eliminate Windows. Lin Zexu was the name of Imperial Commissioner who banned the opium trade with China back in 1839. You see, these people have a deep-routed sense of history! It’s always a pleasure to deal with them!’
Bob Larson, the dreaded adviser for National Security, had in turn just arrived.
‘That’s right, Madam, a ‘preventive war’! We had been looking for an excuse to launch a preventive war against our No.1 rival! The ‘Microsoft-bomb’, to use their expression, with its devastating effect, alone justified US military intervention. This war, Madam, will see us into another century of domination!’
‘And for that you sacrificed Microsoft, you abandoned the software industry to the Chinese! Can’t you see the mess we’re in, all through your fault!’
Nimoy was pulling a patronising smile.
‘We haven’t sacrificed anything at all! Microsoft was doomed in that country in any case. A powerful and ambitious China couldn’t tolerate much longer to have its software under the control of a private company. It was only a question of time. But instead of believing naively, like Microsoft, that we could save the situation, we actually turned it to our advantage!’
She was almost about to choke.
‘To our advantage! Are you kidding? Look at the state our financial markets are in, or our monetary system, insurances, pension funds…’
‘That woman understood absolutely nothing. That’s probably why she had so much appeal with women and Hispanics!’ thought Nimoy, never really understanding what they could see in this Marion Stone…
‘The software industry belongs to the past, can’t you see! It’s part of the old economy, it’s no longer worth anything. So much so that we even left it to India! Today we’re beginning a new chapter, for you’ve surely heard about nanotechnologies, artificial intelligence, genetics, biotechnologies, robotics, space exploration, renewable energies, and yet other technologies! And there, believe you me, the Chinese are stuck. And you know why? Because we have all the patents! Yes, it’s as simple as that. Patents are the secret weapon we’re going to use to impose America’s domination in the twenty-first century and beyond! The United States has enough patents to make a good dozen new Microsofts prosper!’
Larson took delight at developing this strategic vision.
‘In a way, we take up the Microsoft model and apply it to industries of the future. To this end, it’s imperative for the United States to strengthen its monopoly on standards, protocols and regulations, and to enforce its patents to the world, as these secure monopolies on entire sectors of industry… Thanks to our patents and standards, we can control the technological development of our competitors at will. Thanks to those same patents and standards, we’ll amass royalties for life from the world economy!’
Nimoy took over.
‘But you see, Mrs. Stone, everything’s not that simple. If we ambition to make the law, we must also give ourselves the means to enforce it. Because you’ll always have renegades! Take China, for example. It doesn’t want to depend on our patents; it doesn’t want to pay for licenses. It even wants to take America’s place and become the planet’s centre of gravity, with all the advantages that go with it.’
So that was the secret plan they were putting into action.
‘You’ll easily understand that to enforce the law – ours, of course, not the UN’s – we need to use force. And most fortunately, in the military domain, America still has total and absolute supremacy. It’s by force and through war that we’ll be able to exploit and enforce our patent portfolios!’
Marion Stone knew these arguments.
‘I cannot accept that in this day and age we deliberately start a war to defend market shares. We’re no longer in the nineteenth century!’
‘Come, Mrs. Vice President, we’ve upheld the notion of a ‘preventive war’ ever since the beginning of the 1990s! The analysis is simple and the conclusions are easy to draw. China has four to five times the population of the United States. It’s a stubborn county driven by strong feeling of revenge, a country that will inevitably want to dominate one day. For the last fifteen years, China’s economy has been in an upward spiral. The country has begun a course of development at a rate of 10% per year, allowing it to catch us up and overtake us in all areas.’
The President backed this view 100%.
‘We refuse to sit back and fall in decline. We may be 300 million against 1.5 billion, but we’ll fight. Now is the time to act. We have military and technological superiority. Let’s use it.’
Nimoy let the President speak and continued with the thread of argument.
‘We have to contain China, if we are to avoid having to ward it off later. The longer we wait, the higher the price we’ll have to pay.’ He took a detached air to conclude:
‘We’re just applying straightforward economic arbitration. We’re buying today at a reasonable price what we would be paying for very dearly tomorrow. That’s good healthy management.’
It was Larson’s turn to make his contribution to this unassailable argument.
‘As soon as the idea of a preventive war became self evident, there just remained one question: how to draw America into an armed conflict with China? For as you know, it’s always difficult to ‘sell’ a war to the people and the American Congress. This country is isolationist by nature and imperialistic by interest. We did have Taiwan… But the stakes are too remote however you look at it. No, what we needed was an extraordinary event, something dramatic, destructive, so that the country could accept to launch hostilities. Something awesome, like a new Pearl Harbor! And that’s when the Microsoft opportunity came before use…’
‘And was Microsoft happy to accept all that?’
‘Microsoft didn’t know about it. They genuinely believed they could remain in China! But rest assured, their problems are only temporary, for once we win that war, we’ll have authority over China to make them go back on their position. And to start, their CNOS software happens to infringe a number of our patents!’
‘And what if the rest of the world decided to side with China?’
The question managed to exasperate Nimoy. He retorted angrily.
‘Because you imagine the world wants to live under yellow domination?’ What are China’s credentials? what did it do during its protracted history? Apart from inventing gunpowder and noodles? China in five thousand years produced fewer inventions than Leonardo da Vinci in one morning! It’s the creative genius of the Western World we must protect, and if needs be by might.’
A few days before what was to him a certain victory, Nimoy ended up by showing all his pent-up hatred. ‘This man is dangerous’, said Marion Stone to herself.
‘And you think all this makes it worth sacrificing human lives? Well I don’t. Gentlemen, I feel obliged to inform Congress and the press of your goings on. It’s a matter of exercising my duty.’
President Walker remained seated behind his desk and followed the debate in silence. But upon hearing these threats, he rose and went up to the Vice President.
He declared to her in a grave and solemn tone:
‘Marion, I give you my word, there shall be no human losses.’
‘Did you ever see a war without victims?’
‘There won’t be any with this one, I swear to you. We have a clean weapon at our disposal, a weapon that paralyses the economy, an awesome weapon, but one that will claim no victims!’
She had heard of that weapon, it was mentioned in the CIA report.
‘And what is this weapon?’
‘You’ll find out live tomorrow afternoon. We’ll organise a small function in the situation room for the occasion. It’ll be midnight then in Beijing.’
‘Walker, I hope for your sake that your bomb will work, because never will I ever accept making a conventional type of preventive strike on China causing victims. Have I made myself clear?’
Beijing, Science Academy
It was close to 5 pm when Tom’s face suddenly changed expression. His eyes became bright and he wore a smile that couldn’t hide his jubilation. He went out of the office and drew Jin away from the group. After an effort to keep the tone of his voice and breathing under control, he finally uttered:
‘Jin, you won’t believe this but I think I’ve actually cracked it!’
‘I think I’ve found the way to neutralise the NSA code! It’s so simple! It’s so incredibly simple.’
That was how he announced her the news, like a schoolboy who’s just solved a maths problem. All it took him was two short days.
‘Are you sure about what you’re saying?’ she asked, not daring to believe.
‘Dead sure, absolutely no doubt!’
She remained silent for a few seconds, stunned by what she had just heard.
Now she understood!
She understood why the NSA wanted to eliminate Tom Bailey, because he was the only person capable of thwarting their sinister schemes. Why his mere presence in China threatened to jeopardise their plans!
Jin too had felt this deep down. With Tom Bailey passing over to the enemy, they were living through their worse nightmare, with the unacceptable risk of seeing this great brain at the service of their foe.
Tom Bailey, the man who had hitherto embedded the Internet protocol into Microsoft Windows! What irony! Without knowing it, Microsoft had brought to China the only man in the world capable of ruining the NSA’s scheme.
And – for the sake of love – this providential saviour was going to rescue China from the precipice!
What sweeter sense of harmony can there be, when all the elements of the picture finally match together, each one finding its place and revealing its hidden meaning to the overall view.
Shu’s team would get nowhere. Jin had surmised that straight away. Without quite knowing herself how she did it, she had got the greatest computer brain since … Mok Mengma. Enrolled unwittingly, he was the only one capable of understanding the master’s work, to limber up to his level and defy his supremacy by inhibiting the malicious code infiltrated into the M531.
Tom had already returned to his computer. She joined him with a quick step. They had to announce this tremendous news to all the team, to the President of China, to the military Commission. China may yet be saved! The solution came out of the blue, when all hope seemed lost, and when resignation had won over even the most valiant hearts.
‘Tom, I knew it, you were the only one who could come up with the solution, I always felt it. I’m so proud of you!’
She was bursting with joy.
‘I’ll call professor Shu to put your findings immediately into action, there isn’t a second to loose.’
In her bliss, she failed to notice the young man’s closed face.
‘Tell me, Tom, how did you succeed?’
He remained silent. Only then did she grow aware of the situation. The American had withdrawn into himself, looking sullen.
‘Tom?’ she enquired in an anxious tone.
He did not lift his eyes from the screen. She feared the worse.
‘Tom, you were wrong… that’s it, isn’t it; you didn’t find the solution? Speak to me Tom!’
He uttered in a toneless voice.
‘No Jin, it’s not that. I really did find the remedy against the NSA code…’
‘So what is it, Tom?’
‘It’s that…It’s that I can’t go along with you. I cannot reveal anything. That’s all.’
She couldn’t believe her ears. She must have misunderstood.
‘You want to say… you want to say… that you refuse to help us?’
‘I can’t help you, Jin, that’s impossible. Forgive me.’
She was ready for anything but this unimaginable turn. How could he abandon her in such a dramatic moment?
He began to mumble:
‘Jin, you must understand me, I’m an American… I can’t be on the Chinese side, that’s impossible!’
Some images came back in her mind. She had just leapt from that plane and searched through the air looking for Tom who was plummeting like a stone. She was flying towards him to save him from his fatal fall. And then she saw herself in the frozen ocean propping up his body so it wouldn’t sink into the abyss. When you had lived through all that, didn’t you seal the strongest, the most indestructible, of love pacts? So why now did he let her down?
He attempted an explanation, awkwardly.
‘I’m not Chinese, I’m not from this country and I shouldn’t even be here. In fact, I should be dead! It’s only by fluke I’m in China, and it’s only by a stroke of luck that hit I upon the solution. That doesn’t give me the right to change the natural course of events.’
She felt overcome by tears. He continued in a peremptory tone.
‘And the normal course of events is that the Chinese team continues to search.’
With his hand, he designated the dozen or so computer scientists in their last frantic efforts to fix the fateful code. She had trouble pronouncing her words:
‘But Tom, you’re not working for the Chinese, you’re working to be at one with yourself and your conscience…’
It was only then that he realised the deep distress that gripped the young woman.
‘Jin, don’t make things even more difficult for me. Don’t you understand, I cannot betray my country! Never.’
That wasn’t the real Tom speaking. She couldn’t believe that. There was something else, something deep down and buried, something huge and painful that paralysed him.
For almost three nights, Zhou couldn’t get any sleep. At least not the restoring sleep, the one that overcomes tiredness. Each time he sank into a state of controlled hypnosis into which he floated with delight. He had thus got to like that deep reverie where absurdity reconstructed reality.
He had a constant feeling of guilt over his pride. That inflated pride which turned him into an unwitting auxiliary of the American policy of domination.
For it was he, Zhou, who had caused Microsoft Windows to be replaced by the national CNOS under the pretext that the former was insecure. But in so doing, he had become responsible for the spread of an even deadlier poison into China!
He felt like those missionary doctors working in remote areas and who, sure of doing the right thing, engaged in massive vaccination campaigns, inoculating unsuspecting populations with an affliction far more terrible than the one they came to fight.
Opium fumes were soaking his brain, his lungs, and even his very flesh. How could he know that forbidden fragrance when he never touched the stuff in his life? Zhou was not in an opium den. He was not, he repeated several times in his mind.
He was in London, in the early Eighties. He had just finished his university studies. He pictured Jane’s face, his girlfriend at that time. It was the first time in twenty years she came across his mind! He saw her European figure, with fulsome breasts and a rounded figure that had always fascinated him. The blueness of her veins under the pale skin of her milky breasts. And the contours of her womb, scarlet even when bloodless, like a wound, one made by a knife or a soldier’s bayonet. He could spend hours contemplating this gash, so different from the shells of Asian girls whose two mother-of-pearl halves spread apart gently with the passing tide. And then he left London and Jane, like lovers part when they don’t yet see the outer reaches of their lives.
Why did his brain choose to bring to the surface those moments he thought were safely tucked away. His life was unfurling against the dark screen of his closed eyes, projecting a film of his own making.
He was suddenly struck with fear. Wasn’t it when you were about to die that you saw all your life unfold before you? He was going to die anyway; he could not manage to wake up.
The girl near him turned over, showing the other half of her warm body. Her mass of black hair appeared like a dark and shimmering lake, reflecting the flickering light of the room.
Zhou had left his body and, from the ceiling, saw himself there, lying on that white bed near the girl’s naked body. She moved again and snuggled against him. He had returned into his body and once more felt her tepid breath against his skin.
Zhou didn’t see the slight movement of the curtains hanging in the shade, the cloth being skimmed, the window being opened.
But he felt there was an enemy present, hidden in a dark corner of the room. They had come to kill him. He had been drugged. He was defenseless and about to die. Who was in this room masked in black and ready to strike? Who was this enemy without name and yet knew him so well?
His breathing calmed down, his muscles relaxed. He evacuated his fretful nightmares. He had finally fallen asleep.
Beijing, Science Academy
Software Research Institute
D-1 before the ultimatum, 10am
Jin reported the conversation she had with Tom the day before. The American whiz kid may have found – or at least was capable of finding – the solution, but he refused to go any further. She had a briefing with Shan Yulin, the Minister of Information Industries who acted as intermediary between the government and the Central Military Commission. ‘Can’t we apply pressure on the American, or force him to cooperate?’ asked the CMC’s representative. Jin refused outright to put her lover under the slightest form of duress. ‘Tom remains our guest and he’s perfectly free to make his own choices’ she maintained to the government military.
But the stakes were enormous and could well justify crossing the line.
Jin nevertheless remained steadfast. She had turned it over in her mind; there was something beneath that refusal. She needed to pick the lock. Her woman’s instinct told her that Tom was in need of a word, an encouragement, or rather… an authorisation. But who could give it to him? And then she hit on an idea, but it required asking permission to break the radio silence. Tom had to signal his presence to the American authorities; that was the price to pay for this last-ditch effort.
It was nearly 10 pm when the young woman entered the office where Tom was surfing the net, waiting for her.
‘Tom, you remember Lorna Green in that plane? Well, she survived her injuries; she’s alive!’
He showed marked satisfaction, but added nothing more.
‘In fact, our services managed to trace her. She’s being treated in a hospital in Baltimore… don’t you think it would be nice if you enquired after her?’
He seemed surprised by that somewhat strange suggestion. What a funny idea she had! But she hardly gave him the time to react.
She seized the cordless phone and uttered a short order.
He tried to protest.
‘Are you really sure I should speak to her? The special services will know straight away I’m alive and where I am! I don’t think it’s wise…’
Too late, the phone was ringing already.
‘Lorna Green?’ asked Jin.
‘Yes,’ came over the voice at the other end, clearly surprised not to have the caller announced on the line. ‘Who’s speaking?’
‘I’m passing you through to Tom Bailey…’
She handed over the receiver to him.
‘Tom Bailey speaking,’ he announced pressing the phone against his ear.
Jin had already left the room, leaving the American alone with his fellow countryman.
‘Tom Bailey, is that really you? But it can’t be! I saw you drop like a brick from that plane! This must be your second life!’
‘Something like that! In fact, an angel appeared in the sky and took me by the hand…’
‘An angel with wide wings!’
An angel with a parachute, but he refrained from saying more.
‘And what about you, how’s your leg?’
‘I’m going to live with plates, rods and screws for the rest of my existence, but the surgeon’s ensured me that after a good dozen operations, I’ll be able to limp quite convincingly!’
‘Lorna, I’m really glad to hear you escaped from the fate that monster had in store for you!’
‘Thanks, Tom, I only hope your saving angel let him fall without holding out her hand…’
‘He got his just deserts!’
She then sounded amused.
‘Tom, the CIA’s computers have just traced the route of your call; it appears you’re now in Acapulco! Or else the Chinese have got a whole lot better at scrambling communications!’
‘No, no, I’m in Mexico all right, can’t you hear the sound of mariachis behind me?’
They laughed heartily, like two people who had both been a hair’s breadth from death. ‘How did they get hold of her phone number?’ she asked herself. She was taken in to this hospital under the name of Virginia Langley! Not a very clever alias! They’ll need to find some other pseudo next time.
She suddenly turned serious and grave.
‘Tom, for your father… I wanted to tell you…’
He returned a deep silence, so thick it was almost palpable.
‘Everything that man told you on the plane was a pack of lies. The documents he made you read were false, they were fabrications of the NSA…’
He remained silent. She could almost hear his breath at the other end of the line.
‘We do indeed have a heavy file on Geoff Bailey at the CIA, but there’s nothing in it remotely like what that bastard showed you. I knew your father well, Tom. That was back in 1974 and I had just begun my career, at the same time as Stenton, as a matter of fact. Your father was a very militant political activist. He was violently opposed to the Vietnam War and Nixon’s policies. He wrote critical articles in several prominent papers and had the FBI and counterespionage at his heels. Tom, are you still there?’
He hadn’t spoken a single word all that time.
‘Yes, I’m listening.’
‘Even the end of the Vietnam War didn’t cause him to mellow down. He was doing investigative reporting for CBS. He wanted to show the determining role of the weapons lobby in the military escalation under Johnson and in the continuing hostilities under Nixon. He was obsessed about revealing the dirty tricks in the background, pointing his camera on what was being fomented behind the scenes. He was upsetting a lot of people…’
He asked in a voice that tried to sound neutral.
‘Was he a KGB agent?’
‘Tom, I was the one in charge of this enquiry and I’m perfectly knowledgeable to talk to you about it. Geoff Bailey never worked for the Russians. Never. That was a label some tried to stick on him to discredit him, and also no doubt because he was European. You hear me?’
‘Your father was anything but a traitor. He was in fact just the opposite of a traitor because deceit and hypocrisy were so alien to him. He was a real person who didn’t cheat, neither with others, nor with himself. He felt very strongly that the Vietnam War was a mistake and did everything he could to oppose it. And he was right, as we came to know later. That war caused the death of millions…’
He then dropped the question she had been waiting for.
‘And how did he die?’
‘Tom, I was posted overseas at the time, but I often had access to his file. Now listen to me, neither the CIA nor any other American intelligence agency was involved in your father’s death. That I know for certain. We may have kept close tabs on him, but he died in a road accident, just a dumb and tragic accident. You do believe me, Tom?’
She wondered whether she had convinced the young man. She owed him at least that after all he had been through with Santana Song. He had to learn the truth, and only she could reveal it to him.
‘I believe you,’ he answered after a pause.
‘You know, his personality made him difficult to live with at times. He had an uncompromising, adamant and honest nature. And sometimes in life you have to give in a little and accept a few small concessions. But everything he did was for just one goal, and that was to serve peace.’
She decided to lighten the tone.
‘By the way, Tom, we didn’t kill John Lennon either, in case you were wondering!’
‘Hey, listen to this! Our electronic information department has just informed me your call is following a new route. You’re now in Valparaiso, in Chile! Is it nice out there? These Chinese really are smart!’
They both burst into laughter.
She now became professional.
‘I hope you’re hosts are treating you to a nice stay?’
‘I’m here of my own free will, Lorna.’
‘And can you return on your own or would you like us to collect you?’
‘I can find my own way, but I’ll return when the time’s right.’
‘And it isn’t the right time yet?’
No, the time to go home hadn’t arrived. But he now knew what he had to do.
‘Lorna, me too I’ve got to stop a war, and try to save the peace…’
‘In that case, good luck Tom Bailey!’
It was soon after 8 pm when President Ren arrived at the entrance of the Beijing Science Academy building. His heavy armoured car, escorted by several security vehicles, passed through the gates and came to a halt in front of forecourt where stood waiting for him the Minister of National Defence and his colleagues, as well as the Ministers of Science, Technology and Information Industries.
The American countdown was due to expire in just over 24 hours.
He wanted to decide that night on the response to give to the ultimatum set by Washington.
He was once more with his back to the wall and going constantly through all the facts of the problem.
What could he do? Give in to the ultimatum? Never. That would make him the president who surrendered, who led China to a new era of submission. And in any case, things had gone too far, he couldn’t backtrack.
Was he to wait, like a consenting victim, for the enemy to press the switch and plunge China into darkness and then swarm on her and tear her apart? That was hardly in his nature.
Well? It was time to take the initiative. With his general staff and the strategists of the Military Commission, he had set up that desperate, yet glorious, plan. In a few hours, he will be cutting off from the world 1 500 of China’s most strategic sites: military installations, air and sea traffic control centres, power utilities, infrastructures… and switch them over to older, less sophisticated, but reliable computer equipment. China would run at a slow pace but retain a narrow margin for manoeuvre.
At the same time, he was to launch a strike against the American navy….
China was not surrendering. For even in the event of a military defeat, it would continue to resist and stand up to its aggressor with dignity, without letting itself be dictated by a foreign power.
But, before that, he wanted to make sure he had indeed used up all the possible options, and that there was no other way out of the crisis.
Judging from the defeated look of his comrade Shan Yunli, the Minister of Information Industries, he understood there was scarcely any hope left.
Accompanied by the Chairman of the CMC and Vice-Chairman Xie, the President took his seat in the small VIP lounge with the ministers and the Director of the Science Academy.
‘Shan, the fate of China is in your hands!’
The information that filtered through the confines of the Academy in the middle of the day had bolstered their optimism. Professor Shu’s team believed they had the solution, claiming to have the goal in sight. They expected to compile in the coming hours an antidote of reduced size – but still weighing 1MB – which they could then inject into the China’s computer systems before the fateful hour.
But the Minister of Information Industries brought him back to the sad reality.
‘Mr. President, Professor Shu’s team was very confident up to the end of this afternoon. But our hopes were dashed. The candidate software module turned out to be extremely unstable and the equipment reacted badly.’
‘What do you mean by… ‘badly’?’
‘Well… it ceased to function…’
‘You told me you were right close to the goal,’ broke out Ren Zhibang. ‘In fact, you’ve been telling us you’re close to the goal for the past four days…’
‘Mr. President, I would prefer to let Professor Shu give you the rundown of the situation in his own words.’
The Chief of the Software Department entered the room, his head bowed low, the deep black circles under his eyes attesting to how little he had slept in recent days. But that was the common lot to them all.
‘We thought we succeeded, Mr. President, but this software module is entangled in such a way that it’s impossible to alter one element without affecting the way the others operate. The interactions are almost infinite and the results unpredictable…’
So there was no more hope. President Ren leant on the backrest of his chair and crossed his hands in front of him. He gazed fixedly into space for a few seconds.
‘Professor, I doubt if there are many heads of state who had to take a decision as difficult as mine tonight. In any case, they weren’t responsible for the fate of a billion human beings. At midnight tonight, China’s information systems will collapse and the country will cease to function. Then, the enemy which has amassed its troops and its fleet at our doorstep will begin to march in. And we won’t even have the option to surrender, for we shall be dead before the battle starts. Our only hope of escape from this awesome scenario is you. So I ask you to be totally honest and open with me. No-one is going to blame you because I’m sure you did your utmost. Tell me, Professor, do you believe it’s possible to have an antidote before midnight tonight?’
The professor had raised his head and, as if he wanted to free himself from a burden too heavy for him, admitted forcefully what he had known for several days, what he had known from the start:’
‘No, Mr. President. No. Not tonight, nor tomorrow. I think it would take us two weeks, possibly three, to succeed in this task…’
It was the first time since they knew of the presence of the bomb that Ren and the high dignitaries of the CMC were delivered the truth in its stark naked form. They had up till now been clinging on that senseless hope, the hope that the greatest brains in Chinese computing would be able to defuse the bomb, or in any case neutralise its effects…’
At first, no-one dared to move. They were all stunned by what they had just heard. The Chairman of the CMC, Liu Rong, was the first to react. He pushed back his chair and was getting ready to stand.
‘Mr. President, please allow me to return to the Headquarters.’
Ren didn’t reply, his eyes still gazing in the distance. It was then that Minister Shan turned to Professor Shu.
‘Speak, Professor, tell them!’
All the looks turned again towards the Director of the Science Academy’s Software Department. He stirred himself and uttered in a blank tone:
‘Well, there is this American… He claims to have found the solution.’
‘The one who was part of the Microsoft GSP delegation and fled for over a month.’
The CMC chairman was livid:
‘What? You introduced an American spy into your team and revealed our computer secrets to him? Have you gone mad?’
Minister Shan immediately intervened to cut the argument short.
‘It was I who permitted Tom Bailey to enter our premises. I did it so he could give us his opinion on the bomb his fellow citizens introduced into our operating system. I did it after receiving the endorsement of the Chiefs of Counterespionage and the Ministry of State Security. I remind you that Mr. Bailey is on the run, that the NSA has made several attempts at his life and that he is placed under the protection of our services. I would add that he is Microsoft’s – and no doubt America’s –brightest specialist.’
‘Microsoft! You want to recruit a Microsoft employee to repair our national operating system? Have you lost your senses?’ blurted out the Chairman.
‘Firstly, he isn’t a Microsoft employee! He’s only a consultant. Professor Shu, let us have your thoughts on this.’
Mok’s successor, head of China’s highest computer science institute, had to overcome his reticence.
‘I think… I think that he’s no doubt someone brilliant… but personally I can’t cast any judgement now…’
‘What do you think of his solution? If he’s on our side, all contributions are worth taking…’
‘But that’s exactly the problem. He’s not on our side! He spent two days perusing the source code and – according to him – that was enough to lay claim to the solution. However, he obstinately refuses to reveal it!’
The President was losing his patience.
‘That’s quite enough! Does this American have a solution to offer, yes or no?’
‘It’s what he pretends. But he’s imposed his conditions. He won’t cooperate before meeting the President of the People’s Republic of China…’
‘That man wants to meet me?’
Minister Shan pleaded the cause of common sense.
‘Mr. President, I suggest you grant him his request. We’ve got nothing to lose.’
‘Alright, allow him in.’
The Minister left the room, and returned accompanied by a tall Westerner with long hair tied back in a pony tail, blue eyes and a smiling, relaxed face. His right arm was in a sling after the bullet wound he received a week earlier.
‘Mr. President, Gentlemen, this is Tom Bailey.’
Tom immediately felt the hostile looks from the two Colonels whose features hardened at the sight of the American fiend.
The other participants, for their part, had the haggard looks of those resigned for the worst.
‘So, Mr. Bailey, you wanted to see me… what have you got to say?’
‘Good evening President Ren.’
He noticed that the Chinese supremo had managed to keep appearances in the face of adversity. He sat down and began to speak calmly:
‘I wanted to know what someone capable of sending thousands of men to their death looked like…’
General Liu stiffened in his chair, as if ready to pull out his gun. The Minister of Information Industry jolted while the others turned ashen. So that arrogant American had come here to insult China and its President while his country’s army was getting ready to strike?
Fortunately, Ren knew Westerners from having studied at their universities. He thus decided not to consider that remark as a crime of lese majesty. President Ren was living up to his reputation of being difficult to unnerve! On the other hand, he wanted to discipline that impetuous pacifist, that do-gooder idealist who probably imagined that life consisted entirely of good sentiments.
But life was a never-ending combat to defend your territory, rights and dignity.
If the ancestors of that Bailey hadn’t battled in the past on the soil of the old Europe, would he even be here, sitting on that chair moralising to the President of the great Chinese nation? And what about China in 1840, unable to defend itself and having to suffer occupation, servitude and exploitation. China which paid so dearly that tough lesson of life.
And then Ren suddenly understood. The American was provoking him, testing him to see his reaction. So he responded in the exact same calm tone.
‘Mr. Bailey, human life is the most precious thing on earth and I do everything in my power to protect it. If you imagined meeting a cynical and ruthless warlord, then you are deeply mistaken. Perhaps you know a little of the history of our country? China has never – I repeat never – been expansionist; it has never attacked its neighbours, it has never been belligerent.’
Spot on. Tom hadn’t expected that. He thought he would have to joust with a leader who was as uncaring as perverse. The President immediately regained the initiative.
‘I believe you have found a solution to inhibit the software bomb that the NSA managed to plant in our system? Mr. Bailey, if such is the case, I humbly ask for your assistance to free China from the grave situation it now faces.’
It was now Tom who had his back to the wall. He tried to counterattack.
‘Can you give one good reason why I should want to help you?’
Ren pretended to ponder.
‘You could help us because the Chinese services have saved your life on several occasions while your country tried to assassinate you! You could help us because China protected you, China gave you sanctuary and is now offering you its hospitality. Is this a good reason in your view? I don’t know. But you know, Mr. Bailey, appreciation and gratitude are not contemptible sentiments!’
That man had an answer to everything!
‘From a personal point of view, I know what I owe you, President Ren. But does that give me the right to change the course of history, to act against my country’s interests for the benefit of a nation I don’t belong to, and all this without any guarantee that my decision will serve the general good?… Do you understand the gravity of the choice I must make?’
‘I’m quite aware of it, Mr. Bailey, although at this precise moment I’d like you to appreciate the gravity of the choice I’m confronted with too, with less than three hours in which to make up my mind. And what if I suggested you help the Chinese because that’s the best way to serve peace? That in foiling the schemes of the NSA and the hardliners of the US administration, you’re going to spare tens of thousands of human lives? That you’re not doing this for me, nor for China either, but for peace!’
Ren had clearly figured out that Westerner.
‘President Ren, can you give me your word that if America holds out an olive branch to you, you’ll take it without hesitation, and that your one and only concern will be to preserve peace between our people?’
Ren was about to give his word as a professional politician having served the party for 25 years. He closed his hand and placed it over his heart.
‘Mr. Bailey, you have my word.’
‘And do these gentlemen share your commitment?’ he asked, designating the two hostile generals.
‘In China, Mr. Bailey, it’s the president who decides. We’re not at the White House; there’s no dark closet. The Secretary of State and National Security Adviser stick to their appointed roles. Do you understand what I mean?
Tom could not ask for more.
So he dipped into his shirt pocket and fished out a tiny memory key, smaller than a lump of sugar. It was made of transparent violet plastic and bore the marking ‘128MB’ on one side. He placed it on the table before President Ren.
‘There you are, Mr. President. This USB key is the key that locks the great computer wall of your country. You now have twenty four hours to inject its contents into China’s nervous system.’
Ren grasped the small memory and examined it as he turned it in his fingers. Could it be possible that such a minuscule object was capable of changing the course of history, of overturning a destiny?
Professor Shu broke the magic of the moment.
‘Are you trying to have us believe that you wrote in just one night a complete computer program capable of blocking the malware code contained in the M531 module? You’re taking us for fools, Bailey!’
The military man threatened:
‘If that’s the case, you’ll be brought to justice, I’m warning you!’
Tom remained perfectly calm.
‘Professor Shu, I didn’t write an antidote software. As you quite rightly point out, I wouldn’t have had the time to do that! In fact, this memory is almost empty; it contains a 19Kbit program, which is peanuts!’
‘You’ve been messing us around, Bailey! I knew it! You’re going to pay for it!’
Now it was Tom who was displaying a vaguely contemptuous smile. Some beings were on earth only to give others a glimpse of hell. He was going to have to explain to him.
‘Professor Shu, you’ve been trying for three days to develop what is commonly known as an antidote, in other words a software module capable of inhibiting the computer code produced by the NSA and professor Mok Mengma. But did you ever query whether the solution Mok suggested to you was the right one?’
His challenger remained silent, visibly thrown off.
‘Mok only lived for his daughter who, as you know, was in extremely poor health. He struck a deal with the NSA: he embedded the malware into the M531 and in return they saved his daughter’s life. He knew he was under close watch from the US secret services. Do you think for one blind moment Mok was going to help you out, that he was going to break the agreement he had sealed with the NSA and put his daughter in danger? Human nature just doesn’t work that way. When he knew he’d been unmasked, Mok had only one option left open to him: safeguard his daughter’s life and then disappear. And that’s exactly what he did. Mok deliberately led you up the garden path! He took you along the wrong track, making you believe he was handing over a guide rope. Not that his idea was bad, far from it. In fact, it was perfectly logical and rational. But it was quite simply unexploitable within such a short delay. Just think about it, Shu: your twelve-man team would have needed from one to two months to develop an antidote program! And all you had was four days!’
Tom could have put the scientist’s integrity into question but thought better of it. Shu made an awkward attempt at defending himself.
‘And, of course, you managed to succeed in one night!’
‘No, I didn’t succeed as you say, because I didn’t try to develop that antidote. That was a dead end path and I didn’t go along it.’
‘So, what did you do, apart from acting smug?’
‘What did I do? Oh, all I did was to spend two whole days plunged in studying the M531 module; a total immersion inside the subject. Fascinating reading, it really is! Because you see, the M531 is far more than a simple communication module. It’s the heart and soul of the system. Professor Mok was a fantastic brain. Its architecture was superb, it had beauty, elegance. It was a marvel; you could say a work of art! And at the end of the journey, the reward wasn’t just aesthetic in nature.’
He broke off to observe his audience.
‘That was when the solution appeared before me. Simple and magnificent at the same time. Because if you want the truth to be revealed, you have to be ready to accept it, you have to warm to it before even knowing it.’
He pulled out from his shirt pocket a few loose leaves folded in four. He laid them out flat with his left hand and held them out to professor Shu.
‘Look, professor, look at what you were unable to see. The solution was there, before your very eyes, but it escaped your notice. Professor Mok’s architecture was so perfect, so accomplished, that it contained right from the outset the antidote against all poisons, the defence against all attacks, the cure against all ills.’
Shu was engrossed in the three sheets on which Tom had sketched: flowcharts, block diagrams each concentrating key points. Shu’s expression was transforming as he began to grasp Tom’s explanations. And then, taken over by a surge of emotion, he couldn’t hold back the tears in his eyes.
‘Now do you understand? All it takes is 19kB to activate the M531’s built-in defence mechanism! Mok had indeed fulfilled his contract with the NSA by embedding the malware code, but kept his architecture intact. He left in place all the tools needed to block out the action of that poison easily and efficiently.’
President Ren held out the small plastic key to Professor Shu.
‘Professor, I believe you have some meat on your plate.’
‘Yes, muttered the scientist,’ getting up. ‘Please excuse me…’
He left the room, stiff as a terracotta warrior, incapable of uttering the slightest word, thinking no doubt of what the Japanese samurais called ‘the code of honour’.
‘Microsoft! How ironic!’ thought Ren to himself. It was by pushing Microsoft out of the Chinese Market that he had allowed the American bomb to propagate. And it was that same Microsoft that sent a computer genius who administered the medication that was to save China!’
‘Mr. Bailey, you are at home here. Be our honoured guest…’
Washington, The White House
Vice President Marion Stone turned up at 9 am in the situation room of the White House, its underground centre of operations beneath the West Wing.
She wanted to see for herself the US task force on the giant-screen videos: the large aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet, the John C. Stennis, the Carl Wilson, the Abraham Lincoln, and even the ageing Nimitz, deep inside the critical zone, together with their escort vessels: frigates, cruisers and assault submarines. They controlled all the Sea of China, from Kyushu to the Philippines, going by Okinawa and the Ryuku islands.
They were to go into action at midnight Beijing time, midday Washington time!
They would begin by imposing a naval blockade on all Chinese ports, starting with Shanghai, Qingdao or Ningbo. At the slightest sign of resistance, they were to wipe out the military airports, missile launching bases and electronic warfare stations. And then there were those new weapons no-one ever mentioned, weapons of such advanced technology that the enemy could only speculate on their devastating effects.
But first of all, China had to implode, its computer systems had to collapse and in so doing freeze it in a blackout. It would then become like a ripe fruit fallen off the tree, just waiting to be picked up. That was the underlying condition to guarantee a striking victory in that lightning war, which alone would allow the US to place China under its thumb, to put it under close watch and finally control its economy and technological development. A sweeping victory that would annihilate the military threat of a rival turned too ambitious and allow Beijing to be vassalised. For with the massive crashout of its computer systems and the lightning strike by the US forces, China would be compelled to surrender by dawn.
That was if everything worked out according to plan, because otherwise… the war would be long, bloody and barbaric. Like all wars. And Marion Stone wanted none of that. She would not be an accessory to such a massacre. She would alert Congress, the press and the entire world. She would use all her powers and tools under the American Constitution. She would resort to an impeachment procedure if necessary…
Beijing, Software Research Institute.
The day had arrived. The American ultimatum was to expire tonight at midnight. Professor Shu had injected into China’s computer systems the series of commands that were to defuse the bomb. Or at least make it perfectly harmless.
The team of programmers had developed a kind of counter that totalised the percentage of machines that received the update to neutralise the software weapon. At 15h00, almost two thirds of country’s 100 million computers had been treated.
The update was swift and discreet. It went on unnoticed by the NSA’s computers.
Washington, the White House
It was not yet midday in Washington. But there was already a festive air in the Situation Room under the West Wing, with French champagne uncorked and canapés for the twenty or so guests the President had already invited to watch the expiry of ultimatum imposed on China.
And at midnight Beijing time, the Chinese capital was slowly going to switch off. Live. The lights were to vanish one after the after, plunging the city into a blackout following the breakdown of country’s computer systems. President Walker and his chiefs of staff wanted to view from White House headquarters their enemy slowly plunge into a deadly paralysis.
‘It was the first time in military history that a country was to crumble by itself, under the eyes of its enemies,’ expounded Jim Walker. The Chinese territory was slowly scrolling on the giant projection video screens as it was being scanned by the US satellites. President Walker was getting agitated, going from one group to another, glass in hand.
The large digital clock on the wall showed 11:57. That was when Beijing was coming into view. The NSA and the Pentagon had modified the trajectories of their spy satellites to make them pass more frequently over China.
When the clock displayed 11:59, Walker felt the urge to start the countdown of the seconds, just as he did with his family at the New Year! But he restrained himself.
Beijing, Software Research Institute
Tom and Jin had reached the roof of the building. From there, they commanded a view over Beijing, the Imperial City and the flickering lights of its countless buildings. The broad avenues were almost deserted save the odd cars whose headlights cut swathes in the darkness. It was as if the city was holding back its breath, a few minutes before the deadline. Beijing’s inhabitants, like those of the rest of the country, were clustered in groups among neighbours, friends, and members of a same family. No-one wanted to live through that grave and tragic moment alone.
It was cold on the roof terrace, twenty five floors above the ground. Wearing just a heavy woollen sweater, Jin snuggled up in Tom’s arms, nice and warm under his thick coat. She had found again the Tom she loved, the real Tom. She was so proud of him once more. He had outwitted the NSA’s fiendish machinations and chosen to save the peace without reneging on his principles. He had even dictated his terms to President Ren!
Tom turned up his gaze to the starry night and tried to pick out recognizable patterns in the galaxy. He pointed his finger to a cluster forming a familiar group.
‘Look at those stars just there, Jin, that’s Orion, the hunter in Greek mythology; and there, on the right, it’s the hare. You see that really bright star a bit farther along? Well, that’s Sirius, Orion’s faithful dog.’
How everything took on a different perspective when viewed against the infinite universe, the American ultimatum, the software bomb, the enemy ships ready to strike in a few minutes, possibly in a few seconds. How man seemed vain and insignificant, coercive and petty against the unfathomable beauty of the heavens!
He interrupted his reverie to look at his watch. It was midnight. The ultimatum had expired.
And then something extraordinary happened. Beijing, the Olympic city, became illuminated. Almost in concert, the great stadium, the ‘bird nest’ and the ‘water cube’ turned their projectors towards the sky, the main public monuments became flooded in light, and pencil beams from the Communications Tower, the capital’s tallest building, traced out patterns in the sky. Within the space of a few short minutes, Beijing had become the brightest metropolis of the universe.
That was the message President Ren Zhibang was sending to Jim Walker, his American counterpart, his way of responding to the American ultimatum. Beijing was not plunged in darkness: the antidote had worked. They had succeeded!
And light sprang forth from shadows.
Washington, The White House
Midday. It was thus midnight in Beijing. The ultimatum had officially expired. The urban lights remained as before. Walker and his guests noted no difference. And then suddenly a corner of the screen showed a bright light appearing, then another, and yet another. The public buildings, skyscrapers, stadiums and telecommunications towers were are all blazing with a myriad of electric lights. Beijing was resplendent.
In the situation room, the canapés stuck in the revellers’ throats. The bubbles were wafting up slowly in the filled champagne glasses lain abandoned on the tables. The military, the President and his Secretaries suddenly became silent. Arms crossed, they stood in disbelief as they watched the screen.
The image flickered and then disappeared completely. Only snow could be seen on the giant display. They had lost the signal as the satellite was leaving the zone. They had to wait until a second satellite flew over to re-synchronise.
‘Wait, wait,’ pleaded President Walker. Just wait and you’ll see; the city’s going to switch off!’
A new satellite took over from the previous one.
The show it beamed down was breathtaking, and the White House was in a privileged position to view that celebration live. Bob Larson, the National Security Adviser, was on line with the Pentagon gathering information on the spot, calling for the rundown of the situation.
‘We’re seeing a sudden 4% rise in electricity consumption throughout the country, beginning at midnight. All public lighting is on.’
‘Everything normal in seaports and airports. Traffic is slow but steady. Normal activity throughout the country.’
President Walker and his Secretary of State now had to face reality. And the reality was the euro was now worth two dollars, the Dow Jones fallen to 4 200 points, interest rates at new all-time highs and the bankruptcy of pension funds, the State and private individuals…
Then President Ren appeared on all CCTV channels. It was eighteen minutes past midnight. He showed before his fellow citizens a calm and serene face despite the tensions of the previous days. He was even smiling, almost warm. The ultimatum may have expired, he announced, there was every reason to be confident, peace would triumph in the end.
His speech was addressed to the world at large as well as China. He repeated that his country had never wanted that war, nor any war for that matter, that China was a peace-loving nation and was striving for close cooperation between nations. It was making a call to America, a friendly call to come and sit round the negotiating table.
Spontaneously, the population of Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, from all towns, suburbs and villages came out into the streets, filling the illuminated avenues as for a day of celebration. Hundreds, thousands, of cars took to the road, all their headlights mingling in the middle of the night.
That was the way they celebrated the end of the ultimatum! The Chinese wanted to put up a united front in the face of the threat, as if the better to dispel it…
‘It’s all over, Walker!’
The President of the United States of America did not want to accept the obvious truth. Marion Stone placed her hand on his shoulder and repeated:
‘It’s all over, Walker. There’s nothing more to see…’
He locked himself in a stubborn silence.
‘You played and you lost. It’s over Walker. It’s over for you and your two fiendish acolytes Nimoy and Larson.’
It was half past midnight in Beijing and the country was functioning normally in every way. So what happened? Why didn’t the bomb explode? Who on earth could have defused it?
The Vice President went up with him back to the Oval Office. Now was the moment for some straight talk. And this time the buck stopped at Walker, for he was the one and only person responsible, the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and the Head of the Executive.
‘Walker, you’ll come down as the worst president the United States of America has ever known! You have the most disastrous track record in history.’
She launched into a brutal attack.
‘You’ve even managed to unite the European countries when they’ve been ripping each other apart for centuries. You’ve managed to succeed where Charlemagne, Napoleon and the Nazis failed. You did in record time what no-one else managed to. Congratulations Walker! You managed to make the euro the world reference currency together with the Chinese yuan. Nobody wants the dollar today. How are we going to finance our deficits, Walker? Did that so much as cross you mind, you who come from the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia? You can’t even imagine what it’s like having to find the money to pay your bills at the end of the month. And yet that’s exactly what the federal budget and most States must do. You’ve sacrificed our information technology; you’ve pushed into bankruptcy not only the States of the Union, but companies and private individuals who’ve lost their jobs, their houses, their pensions, their dignity. You speeded up the delocalisation process and made China tomorrow’s superpower when it was simply an emerging nation!’
‘Marion, all this is the fault of a tiny grain of sand in the works. If everything had flipped at midnight, you wouldn’t be here lambasting me! We would be sitting comfortably, celebrating the new American century.’
‘There is no grain of sand, Walker. That’s just an optical illusion. You played and you lost. That’s all there is to it. From now on, I’m the one who’s going to be in the driving seat. We have to quickly neutralise the two bombs that threaten our economy, the Microsoft bomb and the monetary bomb.
She rose and eyed him up and down with contempt.
‘Walker, next year, I’ll run for the Republican nomination!’
‘You can’t do this to me…’
‘Oh yes I can, Walker. Because otherwise I’ll tell the press and Congress how you and your two pundits threw the country into decline. You’re going to announce your retirement, Walker, on the grounds of extreme fatigue. The call of the little white ball is simply irresistible. After all, an eighteen-hole golf course is where you’ll be the least of a threat…’
The US Vice President had herself begun to conduct the negotiations China was proposing. She had wrapped everything up in less than three days. But she had to pay dearly for the errors of President Walker. The concessions were heavy even if the agreement package had a semblance of equity.
Starting with Microsoft.
China accepted to extend by three years the deadline for private individuals to switch to the CNOS operating system. This was purely a symbolic gesture, for there was hardly any chance of the software giant turning that to its advantage. Microsoft’s R&D centre in Beijing was also awarded a large contract with the Ministry of Education. That would be enough to reassure analysts somewhat and improve their ratings of the stock value.
Now for the financial chapter.
China signed an agreement to buy 1 000 billion dollars worth US Treasury Bonds over the next five years. Nothing very constrictive there, just a declaration of intent sufficient to bring down the interest rate and restore a bit of confidence.
Finally, in the field of energy, the United States recognised China’s right to safeguard its own oil supply sources.
These supply sources included, among others, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the Caspian Sea rim, Iran, Burma…
Likewise, China was now to use its Pakistani and Burmese naval bases to protect its tankers crossing the Andaman Sea. The United States would see about obtaining approval from India.
All these measures endorsed China’s decision to impose its own operating system and backed the country’s new status as a great world power.
The Middle Empire had won the game, even if its opponent managed to save its face. China’s industry was free again to take on the foreign markets. American and European companies had every reason to fear. In fact, the game had just begun and was going to lead to countless victims.
China was triumphant, but it owed its escape from total US domination entirely to the love two beings had for one another.
A nice little grain of sand, come to think of it!
Marion Stone was now in a favourable position to win the presidential elections. Her popularity overflowed beyond the confines of her traditional electorate. Mrs. Stone had conquered the hearts of millions of Americans, from the conservative Middle West to the more liberal East Coast. They were all eternally grateful to her for having pulled out the country from its deepest crisis since World War II. A multifarious crisis: economic, energetic, military, technological and human at the same time. A crisis that undermined the foundations of its great edifice, constructed collectively over two centuries. For that peculiar ‘M-bomb’ that China dropped over America had caused unprecedented damage, spreading unemployment, bankruptcy, chaos and destruction in its wake. And the American people felt – albeit confusedly – that behind the US’s cosmetic patching up to save what could still be salvaged, their edifice was a ruin. Something had broken irreversibly.
They dreaded the future more than they dared admit, and this pushed them instinctively into the arms of that woman who offered them a brief moment of respite.
It was thus on the cards that Marion Stone would be the first woman President of the world’s leading economic power! A woman! And what’s more a sensitive, peace-loving and almost maternal woman.
With her in the White House, the world would enter a new era of peace!
In her Vice-President’s office, Marion Stone closed the docket on monetary policy she had just finished reading. It was 7pm and darkness was gradually setting in the room, lit only by an art-deco lamp standing at a corner of the desk. She sank deeply into the cosy comfort of her armchair.
For several days, she had been feeling lonely. Dreadfully lonely. Something she never experienced before. A leaden, insidious and incommunicable loneliness. A loneliness she could not share, that neither her family nor her close friends, neither anyone nor anything could break.
For the peace she had clinched with China, and which restored the overall balance for a time, was in fact anything but.
And this she had now come to realise.
The clash of the empires was only just starting. The bite of the dragon was nothing more than a prelude to gauge the opponent’s strength before the real assault…
And the next President of the United States could well be the one who will have to hold it back…
Tom and Jin left Central Hospital No.3 by the main door. They had come to collect little Lili who, for the first time in ages, was making her steps in the outside world. They halted at the top of the stairs for a moment, seized by the early November dry cold.
Jin squatted down next to Lili and tied around her neck the red Kashmir scarf she had bought her, and then closed the buttons of her small coat. She then slipped on her woollen gloves to protect her fingers.
The young woman stood up and took the child by the hand. The little girl instantly slipped her hand into Tom’s. Despite the cold, the sky was bright in the sun. Life was at last flowing along its gentle course. And for Lili, life was about to start for good.
She cropped up her head and looked at her new friends. An idea sprang in her mind.
‘Could we go to the zoo and see the monkeys and bears and pandas, uncle Tom?’
‘Of course,’ he answered, his face mimicking a baboon, causing the child to break into a sweet burst of laughter.
‘And could we eat at McDonalds afterwards?’
‘Sure we could, we’ll have a burger before going to the zoo, and another after leaving!’
The threesome walked down the stone stairs leading to the car park.
Ministry of Industry and Information
Tang Jinghua closed behind him the door of his twelfth-floor office in the Ministry of Information Industries building. The deputy manager of the ‘software’ section for the Policies, Law and Regulations Department was beginning to settle down again. China had accepted without batting an eyelid the conditions imposed by the US to bring their dispute to an end. In so doing, America had narrowly staved off a general bankruptcy that threatened its economy. In return, the White House had called back its task force, which was slowly moving away from the Sea of China.
In Washington, the Department of Defense made public the sonar recordings of the final heroic moments of China’s Han submarine. It had not been sunk by US warships; it plunged to its doom owing to a technical failure at the term of a glorious combat. Both nations were able to unite around that highly consensual tragedy and pay tribute to the crew’s courage.
For China, that was a small price to pay in view of its takings! All in all, the sacrifices it conceded were just a façade to save appearances and mask the crucial facts. Because in truth, China had surrendered nothing at all! It kept its policy of technological independence intact, and even managed – after the dramatic episode – to have it endorsed by the United States of America!
The telephone rang. The personnel department was sending him a new secretary. It was about time! Over two months had passed since Yaping’s tragic murder, and temps came and went as opportunities arose. Another shining example of the administration’s ineptness!
There was a knock on the door.
The young lady entered, smiling and hesitant. She was different from Yaping, more modest in her dress, more discreet and unassuming too… ‘She must be from the country,’ he thought to himself, noticing her hair tidily tied back, her reddish cheeks and that sincere look urban life hadn’t yet corrupted.
‘May I have your name, miss?’
‘Hello, Yiling! I hope you’re not allergic to filing? Because as you’ll see, we produce thousands of pages of technical specification each year! Do you think you’ll be up to it?’
‘I know how to file, Mr. Tang. I used to work for a lawyer before coming to Beijing.’
‘I’m really glad to have you here, Yiling! I’ve only had temps for the past two months. I couldn’t trust them! I preferred to let my documents pile up rather than see them put away in the wrong place. Come, let me show you…’
He drew her to a part of the room cluttered with mountains of dockets stacked from the floor. He watched her from a corner of his eye, searching for a negative reaction on her face. But she retained that lovely smile exuding good will. Now there’s an encouraging sign: she isn’t frightened of filing!
He felt a pang as he saw the young woman sit down behind Yaping’s desk. A sudden memory made him ask her:
‘Yiling, what animal are you in Chinese astrology?’
The question seemed very funny to her. She turned to him, her smile broader than ever.
‘I’m a dog.’
‘Dog? I like that.’ He knew nothing about astrology but the animal appealed to him!
He looked across the window at the drops which were beginning to fall.
He wished he hadn’t taken his bike.
It was raining.
Paris, January 2005,
by Jean-François Susbielle, translation by Dominic King
Special thanks to Vinton Cerf, David Clark, Bob Kahn, Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee and Bill Joy, the ‘inventors’ of the Internet, without which I would not be what I am, to Sylvia and Dominic who encouraged me all the way, and to Tanguy Oliveau for his contribution to the naval combat scenario.