Commander Zhang Xianzhong rubbed one long scar across his nose, the salt air tickling his nostrils. He was thirty-six. At thirty-two, he and his element of naval infantry had stood guard over food aid during a postwar communal riot, the kind where demobbed soldiers fought over radioactive real-estate and street urchins finished off the victims. The children were the worst, driven mad by hunger to the point where rubber bullets had no effect. Then, somewhere, somehow, some nervous trooper had popped live ammunition into the crowd of civilians...
Xianzhong had awakened in a basement somewhere outside Kolkata, flanked by pieces of his men. Somehow, he crawled out and made his way through the burnt-out UN base, clinging to the freeboard on the last, chartered Flying Dragon helo.
For his trouble, Xianzhong received a medal and a gag order. His higher-ups received orders to halt all food aid until the chaos subsided. The resulting famine, made worse by the Green Death and sunlight-blocking clouds of nuclear dust, killed millions more across the subcontinent. What remained was locked in a endless cycle of Hindutva vs. Jihad; radical politicians and Shiv Sainiks lynching Muslims in public by day, Saudi bombs and Egyptian martyrs hitting schools and hospitals by night.
Now, he was dealing with a professional opponent thousands of miles away from where he had made his bones. He studied the map pinned to the textured steel bulkhead of the operations room, then hardened his soft, brown eyes and turned to the men seated behind him. Twenty, plus himself, for twenty-one total: two nine-man action teams, plus a three-man command element. Manta and Swordfish, the two action teams, were broken further into a trio of three-man cells. Twenty-one men on four boats. Behind the men, a clock on the wall pitched up and down, reminding Xianzhong that they were on a ship, this was for real, and they had eleven hours to go.
"Alright men, listen up. Our goals have changed for this upcoming mission. Archer One found a Japanese pilot on the island. Instead of just rescuing Archer One off the island, our goal now includes securing and transporting the Japanese pilot back to the Yinchuan as well." He paused, let the men absorb the change and come up with a few of the implications themselves. None of the expressions changed, although through a few of the eyes that stared back, Xianzhong could see the questions forming, and strove to answer them as best he could. "Yes, the Japanese have probably been monitoring Archer One's transmissions, so they likely know their pilot is on the island. No, the Japanese have not directed any additional assets into the area--yet." Inwardly, he wanted to add, "and I have no idea whether the Japanese will now shift those destroyers away once our planes get in the air," but that aspect of the mission was on a strict need-to-know basis.
"Our ingress and egress plans are still fundamentally the same: at 0700, all teams are expected to arrive at waypoint Beidou One. Manta will drive towards Beidou Two--that's the landing beach--with one of the rigid-hull inflatables, while Swordfish and Trident--" he gestured to himself and the other two members of the command element "--will remain aboard the three remaining boats. Upon Manta declaring the beach 'clear', Swordfish and Trident will pilot all the boats toward the beach. Upon landing on the beach, Trident will send a pre-determined rescue signal to Archer One via his transponder. All cells except for Manta Two and Manta Three will then triangulate on the emergency beacon of Archer One and secure him and the Japanese pilot, at which point all teams will egress at bearing south-twenty-five-west, towards Beidou Three, at flank speed. Upon reaching Beidou Three--" he pointed to a spot on the map eighty kilometers southwest of the islands "--all teams will change bearing to south-eighty-seven-west, whereupon Trident will break radio silence and contact the Yinchuan for further course adjustments as necessary."
Xianzhong had to give Colonel Wu credit. It was as good a plan as could be devised with the available forces and technical support. Complete radio silence going in, no mention of a rescue attempt, then presentation of a smashing fait accompli to the Japanese.
"Questions?" Xianzhong asked.
The leader of Manta team stood, a red-faced, beefy Mongol kid with airborne stripes on his shoulders. "What about the Japanese destroyers? What happens if they engage us?"
"I understand your concerns," Xianzhong said, surveying them all. "Assuming the destroyers are still there in the morning, if the Japanese do open fire, then we are to notify the Yinchuan and attempt to evade. However," he continued, maintaining his straight-backed gravity, "I am convinced a nonviolent resolution is possible, given the quietness of our approach and the stealthiness of our transport craft. I fully support higher's overall plan for the mission, and am confident for its success. And, if those destroyers do engage, I am fairly confident our supporting naval assets will not sit idle."
His team leader remained standing. Xianzhong met his gaze, attempted to quench his worries. "I hope at least a few of you get a bit of sleep, too. Today, we have made the enemy look like assholes. Tomorrow, we're going to make them look like fools. All we must do to achieve that is to do our duty. Dismissed."
He was there again, crisp, in his ridged naval blues and stiff leather hat. "Son, they will come for you."
For the first time in many months, Hideo met the old man in the eyes, spoke to him again. "Who will, pops, who?"
"I do not know, but they are coming, borne aloft on a breeze from the south. Catch that breeze, and you shall take flight yourself."
"The breeze from the south? What breeze?" The voice was fading, disappearing into the gentle sloshing of wind and water, rocks and sand. "No, pops, don't go, not now..." Then the old man was gone.
Four meters away, the Chinese captain stirred, mumbled something unintelligible. He was a good man, Hideo thought. The other pilot had shared his food, water, morphine, and penicillin, and had even propped up Hideo's leg on an impromptu sling. Not that the sling helped much, though. Somewhere below his right knee, a piece of bone had been wrenched through his skin. Every time Hideo breathed, pain raced from his swollen, ruined leg all the way to his forehead.
Long ago, Hideo had hinted at his great-grandfather's voice to the base therapist, but halted his sessions just short of a formal examination that he knew would lead to an inevitable psychiatric discharge. The advice he had received was to treat the old man as an extension of his own intuition. Now, his mind drifted on the words, juggled each syllable in his head. Would there be a rescue attempt, Hideo thought. And if there was one, would it come from his side or the other?
For a moment, an invisible, elderly hand parted the gray clouds of morphine swimming under his skull. The resulting flash of recognition was more painful than his compound fracture of the tibia. Clearly, his Chinese counterpart had sent a transmission to home base about finding him. It would be trivial for the his own side to intercept and decode that transmission. It might not have even been encoded in the first place. Both sides knew the two pilots were on the same island. If one side found them, it would be a great propaganda victory, an unmistakeable statement of sovereignty prior to the upcoming security talks. As a result, both sides would likely send teams. If both sides sent teams, there would be tension--maybe even a firefight. If there was a firefight, one or both sides might call on fire support. A destroyer might shell the island. Anti-ship missiles would respond, perhaps, guided by the all-seeing eyes of the airborne radars--radars that would then be blinded by long-range air-to-air weapons. The deadly doctrine of shooting the archer, not the arrow; panicking field commanders climbing the escalation chain as quickly as their standing orders would allow. And the ultimate archers: Beijing, Tokyo, Washington, burning under the arrows of finality.
Then the fog overtook him again, and he found himself borne on an infinite sea of glass.