Minister Chiang rubbed his round and very smooth chin. Lin Bao watched the screen. In the background, beyond the hurried comings and goings of the sailors on the bridge, he could see the horizon. A haze hung about the ocean. It took Lin Bao a moment to understand what had caused it—this haze was all that was left of the Carl Levin and the Chung-Hoon. And it would, he suspected, soon be all that was left of the John Paul Jones. Ma Qiang’s concern was merited, Lin Bao thought. This operation from its inception had always been limited in scope. Its objective—the final, uncontested control of the South China Sea—could only be undermined in one of two ways: first, if their forces failed to destroy this US flotilla; and second, if through a miscalculation this crisis escalated beyond a single, violent demonstration.
“Admiral,” Minister Chiang began, addressing Ma Qiang, “is it your belief that the John Paul Jones can be saved?”
Ma Qiang paused for a moment, spoke to someone off-screen in a hushed voice, and then returned his attention to the teleconference. “Comrade Minister, our best estimates are that the John Paul Jones will sink within three hours if unaided.” Lin Bao could see that the Zheng He was turning into the wind to be in the most advantageous position to launch its aircraft. Suddenly on the distant horizon a stitch of dark smoke appeared. At first it was so faint that Lin Bao mistook it for an imperfection in the teleconference’s connection. Then he understood: It was the John Paul Jones burning a dozen miles off.
Minister Chiang began stroking his chin as he weighed whether to order this final blow. A decisive engagement was essential, but he needed to proceed with caution lest a miscalculation cause the incident to spiral into a broader conflict, one that could threaten his nation’s interests further afield than the South China Sea. He leaned forward in his seat. “Admiral, you are cleared for launch. But listen closely; there is a specific message we must deliver.”
06:42 MARCH 13, 2034 (GMT+4:30)
“This fucking place stinks.”
The dank air. The putrid scent. If Wedge hadn’t known any better, he would’ve thought he’d been detained in the public restroom of a Greyhound bus terminal. Blindfolded, he sat cuffed to a steel chair bolted to the floor. He couldn’t see anything except for the irregular permutations of shadow and ashy light that played around the room from what he suspected was a window near the ceiling.
A door creaked open, heavy on its hinges. From the sound, Wedge could tell it was metal. A set of uneven steps approached, like someone with a slight limp. Then a scrape on the floor as a chair was dragged over. Whoever sat across from him sat clumsily, as if the movement were awkward for them. Wedge waited for the person to say something, but there was only the smell of their cigarette. Wedge wouldn’t be the one to speak first. He knew the Code of Conduct for POWs, an exclusive club into which he’d been inducted only hours before.
“Major Chris ‘Wedge’ Mitchell …” came the voice across from him.
Then his blindfold was yanked off. Overwhelmed by the light, even though the room was poorly lit, Wedge struggled to see. He couldn’t quite focus on the dark figure across from him, who continued, “Why are you here, Major Wedge?”
Slowly, his eyes adjusted. The man asking questions was dressed in a green uniform with gold embroidered epaulets of some significance. He had an athletic build like a runner and a hostile face with a long, hook-shaped scar that traced from above his eyebrow to below his cheek. His nose was compressed into a triangle, as if it had been broken and reset many times. In his hands he held the name patch that had been velcroed onto Wedge’s flight suit.