Monday, November 28, 2016

The Long War, Part XXIII - Hornless Dragon


He was being followed.

His pursuers were not particularly well versed in tradecraft, and he had no difficulties making them out from the normal denizens of Kowloon. They were too well-dressed to fit in, and their dark glasses were a dead giveaway - they might as well have branded the words "SPY" on their foreheads. It would have been comical if they weren't so relentless. Three, four, five time Chilong thought he'd shaken them, only to find more lounging in front of his route, trying to appear inconspicious, then falling in casually behind him as he passed. That meant they were tracking him not just by foot, or by car, but also through other means. He wondered if there was something in the contents of his briefcase giving him away, then dismissed the thought - if that had been the case they would have broken down the door of the fleabag hotel where he'd slept, and taken him while he was asleep. No, he guessed that his face had been seen by facial recognition software while moving through downtown Hong Kong, and the results processed and sent to the capture teams trawling the metropolis for him. He knew who - what - was following him, and he knew that they were systematically plugging themselves into every network in the world, secure or otherwise, and availing themselves of the massive streams of data flowing through kilometers of fibre optic cables crisscrossing the world. He resolved to change the pattern of his face at the next available opportunity. The bottleneck for the enemy at this point was Earth technology, and while their computational ability was phenomenol, they still had to work with the limits of current gen facial recognition software. Chilong knew how to beat those.



His most recent tail was a woman, and a quite attractive one at that. Her appearance made her stick out like a sore thumb, however, and he was able to shake her in a warren of streets crammed with stalls filled with animal and vegetable produce. He crashed into a stall owner by mistake, and the man whirled around furiously with a shouted rebuke on his lips. The rebuke melted away along with the belligerence on the man's face when he saw Chilong's face. Even in his middle age Chilong possessed the build of the soldier he used to be, and a massive scar running along the length of his cheek added to the intimidating aura around the man. Chilong almost laughed at the expression on the man's face, but kept his composure, bowed and said "Dui bu qui" as he kept moving past. He needed to get under cover - he suspected that his pursuers were somehow tracking him from the sky, and he wanted to change his profile and silhoutte before re-emerging into the open.

His chance soon came when he dived into the ground floor of a rickety building filled with what seemed to be a never ending row of cheap clothes, shoes and sneakers. Winding his way deeper into the building he found a stall where he bought a hat, some glasses and a heavy overcoat for five times its regular price, then slipped into filthy, reeking lavatory where he could change. He ditched his old jacket and replaced it with his new acquisition. The glasses he inscribed with an alternating zebra stripe pattern with a marker pen, which he then donned along with the hat. As he was finishing he heard a strange humming. He soon found the source - an insect was trying to get into the lavatory through a small hole in the fly screen covering the only window into the latrine. Its body was rattling against the mesh as it tried to worm its way through the opening. Upon closer inspection the insect turned out to be a small metallic drone with a central black eye of some kind, and Chilong immediately realized how his pursuers had been keeping up with him. He grabbed the drone, which was no bigger than a ball bearing, and tried to crush it with his hand, without any success. The drone rolled and skittered in his hand, but whatever impelled through the air was not strong enough to escape a human grip. He pondered on how best to dispose of the drone, before finally deciding to adopt the simplest and most elegant solution of hurling the thing into the nearest toilet and flushing it. He closed the lid for good measure. He would have liked to keep it, but he didn't want to take the risk of being tracked through the drone's position.



He left the bathroom hurriedly, keeping his eyes open for signs of his pursuers. Seeing no men or women in black he immediately returned to the stall where he bought the coat, and delighted the elderly stall owner by buying another coat and hat, this time in a different make and color, but at the same exorbitant prices. He half-heartedly asked for an exchange, offering his original purchases in supplication, but was denied. The stall owner pointed self-righteously at a crude, hand-written sign above the stall stating "No Exchanges or Refunds", and Chilong defeated, just nodded and forked over his money. His last glimpse of the stall was the sight of the owner picking up his discarded purchases, and shamelessly putting them back on display.

Back outside he made good time. There was no sign of his pursuers. He still exercised caution, sweeping his tail at regular intervals and keeping his face averted from cameras and people, all the while following an unpredictable and zigzagging route. He passed several TVs displaying hourly updates of the unfolding crisis in the East China Sea, and shook his head at the news that Admiral Wu had occupied the Diaoyu islands. The man he served under would never have done anything as rash or provocative as this, but he already knew that Wu was not responsible. The clutter of shops, stalls and human traffic soon thinned as Chilong approached his destination. The warehouses at the docks had always been a hive for illegal activity, and now Chilong was on his way to meet a union man who moonlit as a fence, forger and smuggler. Upon arrival he was greeted by a few of the man's associates, and immediately sensed that something was amiss. He decided to abort the meeting and turned to leave, only to find another man behind him wielding a handgun pointed at Chilong's chest. A familiar voice bellowed out a cheerful greeting.



"Zhang! It's been too long, my friend."

"Well, Po," said Chilong. "I am disappointed in you."

"I'm sorry, Zhang," replied Po. "Money talks, my brother, and you're worth quite a bit these days. What the hell are you wearing? You look ridiculous."

"Just trying to keep inconspicuous. I don't suppose doubling your fee will help?"

"Afraid not," Po said regretfully. "If it's any consolation the price on you is phenomenal. What did you do? Kill a party official or something?"

"Who's paying you? The government?"

"I don't think so," Po replied. "They don't feel like government, and the way they deal, they don't want too much attention on themselves. But what they do have is a lot of money. Every Triad gang in Hong Kong is looking for you."

"Po, what would say if I told you that the people you're dealing with are not humans, but aliens?"

Po chortled with genuine mirth, a belly laugh that spread to his men who momentarily lost their grim miens and chuckled. "I heard that you'd lost your mind. It looks like they weren't lying."

"Po, we've dealt with each other many times. Have I ever lied to you? Ever reneged on my part of the deal?"

"Zhang, the only difference between now and then is that back then, you were a scary party official with the PLA at your back. Now you're just a fugitive, hunted by everyone without a single friend in sight."

"I thought you were my friend."

"Friend might be stretching it. Associate, maybe. Besides this isn't personal. What would you do if you were offered this much money?"

"I would decline, and honor the promises I have made, especially to someone who has always treated me with courtesy and respect."

Po frowned. "I'm sorry, Zhang. I truly am." He looked away. "Besides, it's too late. They're here."

From the rear of the warehouse emerged two more of Po's men, escorting two well dressed people. They had lithe, graceful gaits, and as they emerged from the shadows Chilong recognized the woman shadowing him earlier. The man he didn't recognize, but he had the characteristic length of limb and torso that marked him as one of the infiltrators. The thin man appeared to be one of the earlier iterations of his kind - his skin was pockmarked with what appeared to burn marks around his neck, and he wore dark sunglasses which hid his jaundiced yellow of his eyes. Chilong had run into his kind before, and knew what they looked like. But he had encountered more and more of them in passing, and each time they became more human-like in appearance. The woman accompanying the thin man was strikingly beautiful. She had porcelain skin and fine delicate features framed by straight black shoulder length hair. There were audible gasps from the men in the room when they saw the girl for the first time. Even Po, who prided himself in his worldliness, appeared momentarily dumbstruck. He regained his composure, and greeted the woman with a stupid, silly grin on his face.

Chilong covered his face with a handkerchief. The men were not only reacting to her appearance, but also to odorless chemicals she was releasing. He knew this first hand - he had thought it was love at first sight when it happened to him the first time. This was part of their modus operandi, one of their basic routes into positions of power. A beautiful girl or a handsome man casually striking up a conversation at a bar or restaurant or hotel lobby or cocktail party with an unhappily married off-duty general or admiral or politician. Chilong once considered himself to be iron-willed, but even he had been seduced by the biological cocktail artificially concocted by the visitors, all artfully contrived to strip their marks of their defenses. Only once they were alone in the embrace of their dream lover would the real horror start.

Even with the handkerchief Chilong could feel himself being swept away by the woman's charms. A detached, analytical part of his mind noted that the pheromones appeared to be affecting the men differently. Some appeared to be falling in love for the first time. Others stared hungrily at her with unvarnished lust and desire, while some men looked like they were about to fall on their knees to a vision of some sacred goddess. He wondered if the infiltrators could regulate the amount of pheromones they released into the air, and decided that they must - effective seduction of a mark required finesse and precision, otherwise jealous suitors fighting for attention could jeopardize the operation. This infiltrator must have had her - its - emitters turned up at full blast, blanketing the area with its heady musk. But Chilong had one advantage over the rest of the men, and that was that he'd experienced this before. Po's men had failed to frisk and disarm him, and he seized his chance while they were all distracted. With practiced ease he spun around and grabbed the gun of his captor, pointing the weapon towards the roof of the store. He didn't want to kill any humans, accidentally or otherwise. Po's men were all related one way or another to the fence, and the death of one of them would seal Chilong's fate thanks to the complex code of conduct which ruled over the Triads. Shocked and surprised his captor - he recognized him as Po's cousin - failed to react in time, and he was disarmed with deft aplomb by the ex-special forces soldier. With his left hand around the neck of Po's cousin Chilong levelled the weapon at Po with his right.

Chilong's actions snapped everyone out of their reverie, and for now he had everyone's full attention. Po opened his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Zhang - there's no way out of this. Put the gun down."

"I'm afraid I can't."

"You wouldn't shoot an old friend, would you?"

"I thought we were just associates."

"More like trusted partners, now that I think about it."

Chilong laughed. "You were always a funny guy, Po. That's why I like you." He motioned to the men flanking the visitors. "Tell your men to move away from them."

Po looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Because I don't want them to get hurt."

Po still looked confused, but with a curt bark he ordered his men to move back. "Your move, Zhang."

"This is what you're dealing with, Po." With that Chilong shot the simulacrum squarely in the chest. Such was the compulsion the pheromones had that Chilong had difficulties pulling the trigger. The others reacted similarly. A combined roar of rage and fury and outrage began in a dozen different throats, only to change into shock and horror as the woman's chest exploded in a ball of green acrid smoke. The ruined remains of the creature's torso collapsed to the floor, all the while belching forth noxious fumes. The stench, combined with the grisly and unnatural remains, purged any residual effects the pheromones might have had. One member of Po's crew had remained too close to the woman, and the unfortunate man was splattered with green acid, which immediately fizzed and burned his exposed skin. He began to scream in pain.

The woman's partner let out an unnatural howl of rage, and pulled a weapon from his coat with unnatural speed. Chilong was ready, and he fired several rounds before the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Po's cousin had loaded the weapon with a half empty clip. By some miracle the shots only hit limbs or grazed the chest of the thin man, and there was no spectacular detonation which characteristically accompanied direct hits to the creature's lung chamber. But the shots effectively disarmed the thin man, as its right arm hung uselessly after a bullet went through the shoulder joint. Its weapon clattered to the floor, and it was immediately snatched up by one of Po's men. Moments later it was dropped with a surprised yelp - the silver and green object had resembled an exotic pistol of some kind, but was now visibly melting and collapsing into itself. A second man, heavily tattooed and muscle bound, looked at Chilong and the thin man in confusion, unsure of which threat he was supposed to neutralize. At a nod from Po, the muscled thug turned his attention to the thin man.


"Don't get too close," Chilong warned. "They're much stronger than they look."

Po's man ignored him, and kept advancing. He motioned for the thin man to lie on the floor. The thin man stood quiscent and ignored him until the man was close enough, and then suddenly lashed out with a front kick which propelled the man across the warehouse. The man slammed into a rack of shelves, knocking them over, and there he lay, groaning in agony. The rest of Po's men drew their weapons, but the thin man was already moving. In a single fluid movement the creature leapt through a window, falling two stories down and landing on its feet like a cat amidst a shower of broken glass. To the disbelief of all present, the creature sprang up once more and leapt two stories upwards onto the roof of an adjacent warehouse before sprinting away into the gathering dusk.

Po and his men stared at Chilong wordlessly. 

"As I said," Chilong said. "Aliens." He released Po's cousin and returned his weapon, then walked to Po's man where he lay among the fallen shelves. He lifted up the shirt, noted the black and blue coloration of his chest, and did a few gentle pokes which elicited more gasps of pain. "Broken ribs, internal bleeding. You need to get him to a hospital." He turned to the other man who had been sprayed with acid. He was whimpering in pain. "Just superficial burns. You're lucky you weren't closer. I did tell you to move away."

Po made a quick gesture, and three men began building a makeshift stretcher with the assistance of Chilong. Po left but returned a few minutes later. Chilong felt a tap on his shoulder as he was tending to the fallen man, and saw a large brown paper envelope thrust towards his face.

"Your new passport. Plane tickets. ID. Like we agreed on."

Chilong reached into his shirt pocket to pay Po, but the fence waved him off with a curt gesture. "Consider it an apology." 

"Thank you."

"What are they?" The woman's remains had been consumed by the acid, and was no longer recognizable as being human. Only a smoking green-tinged slurry remained.

"I don't know. But they're not just flying around in the skies anymore. They're walking among us, and they're taking over our structures and institutions."

"Such a shame, really. She was beautiful."

"Taking her home would not have ended well for you."

"Talking from experience, Zhang?"

Chilong nodded grimly.

Po laughed. "That would have been a night to remember. And still - it would almost be worth it."

"No. It wouldn't. If you're lucky, they'll just kill you and replace you with something that looks like you. If you're unlucky, they'll turn you into a prisoner in your own body. They'll chain your will and volition to a dark corner of your mind while you do terrible things - kill your friends - murder your own family - and all you can do is watch."

Po stared at Chilong.

"That's why we need to fight these things," Chilong said flatly. "They're not here to help us, uplift us, or bring us gifts from above. They have come to subjugate us, for their own purposes, and they don't care how they do it. There's no compassion in them, no affinity, no empathy. They care nothing for human life, and they will turn the world into a charnel pit to get what they want."

Po shook his head. "I'm not sure if I can believe what you're saying, Zhang. I'm not sure if I want to."

"It doesn't matter what you believe, Po. But they'll come back here to look for their compatriots, and to erase any signs of their passing. Better watch your back."

"If they come back here, they will regret it. Get out of Hong Kong, Zhang. My boys are loyal, but they can't keep their mouths shut. Word will get out."

"I understand."

"Good luck to you."

Chilong bowed. "And you, old friend." 

Po laughed again. "Get the fuck out of here. As I said, all of Hong Kong is looking for you, and not everyone has scruples that you can manipulate, you sneaky motherfucker. But one more thing. Someone left a message on your bulletin board. I was monitoring it while we were looking for you. Someone calling himself Dacheng. You might want to take a look at it."

"I will." With that Chilong shook Po's hand, and disappeared back into the maze of Kowloon.

Next: TBC

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Long War, Part XXII - Mobilization


The Chinese were leaving Tanegashima.

The order came several hours earlier, and the two companies assigned to the X-Com task force had their gear packed and ready to depart. The Chinese barracks were stripped bare, and the soldiers were now simply lounging around the grounds waiting to board the transports that would take them to Osaka Airport, and from there, China. Such was the current tension between the two nations that any military aircraft from Japan entering Chinese air space would be shot down. The Chinese would be flying home from Osaka on Turkish civilian airplanes.

Six months earlier the Japanese would have scarcely batted an eyelid at the Chinese's departure. Both nations conducted regular war games in which the other was the oft-unacknowledged but tacit enemy, and it showed in their attitude to one another. Japanese ground crews and base personnel maintained the facade of tatemae, but in bar rooms, barracks and mess halls, out of earshot, jokes and insults were thrown around carelessly and spitefully. The same was true for the Chinese, who came to Tanegashima with an attitude of arrogant aloofness. Only the presence of soldiers from numerous other nations prevented the two rivals from coming to blows, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Now neutral observers were treated to the incongruous sight of Japanese and Chinese soldiers talking side by side, sharing cigarettes and making jokes. Communication was done mainly in pidgin English, but it sufficed. The Chinese and Japanese companies had held the line side by side in Ogbomosho, and what began as a hostile and antagonistic relationship morphed into something far different. In the dark hours before dawn, when the X-Com task force was beginning to buckle under the pressure, the two nations had merged their lines, shared their stocks of weapons and ammunition, and provided fire support for one another. And when NATO forces finally arrived on the morning of 9 April to prevent the UN collapse the Japanese and Chinese troops had cheered together, and exchanged hugs, back slaps and handshakes. Belgian, Dutch and German troops arriving to relieve the sector found it difficult to differentiate between Chinese and Japanese soldiers, whose units were mixed together, intermingled and unified in their relief and joy at having survived.

Many friendships began in the crucible of Ogbomosho, and these ties would be deepened and strengthened by joint exercises and future operations. The rising tensions brought on by the incident on 27 August dismayed and worried both sides, a reaction no one would have predicted at the beginning of their deployment. The withdrawal of the Chinese from X-Com was inevitable, and when the Chinese began to pack and haul their gear to the mustering areas they were assisted by the Japanese soldiers they had fought with. The regret on both sides at this turn of events was palpable, as was the mutual understanding that if it came to it, both sides would do their duty by their nation.

Kappa was one such Japanese soldier, and he was smoking a cigarette with Dacheng, a Chinese captain leading the second of China's two companies. Both soldiers were regarding the side of a Cobra helicopter solemnly. The Japanese ground crew had painted a vivacious, smiling and alarmingly cheerful cartoon character on the side of the aircraft. Kappa did not share in his nation's enthusiasm for anime or manga, which he considered juvenile and puerile, but his disdain was not shared by Dacheng, who looked at the smiling girl approvingly.



"This is good," Dacheng said thoughtfully. His Japanese was excellent.

Kappa snorted. He could speak basic Mandarin, and he sought to practice it at every opportunity. He pointed at the picture. "She's the pilot, apparently."

"Have you met her?"

"No."

"Pity. She's pretty."

"Not my type."

"Your loss."

"I never thought I'd see so many women in the SDF. Or in the PLA, for that matter."

"When it comes to fights for the state's survival we Communists have never shied away from being pragmatic. Women make up half the population. Why waste half the state's manpower?"

"You're Communists only in name now, Dacheng. Never seen so many investors and developers emerge from a Communist country before."

"I don't disagree with you." Dacheng flicked away his cigarette. 

"The world is changing, my friend, and I'm not sure it's for the better."

"The world will take care of itself."

"What the fuck does that mean? That has no meaning."

Dacheng laughed. "It means that I believe common decency will prevail, regardless of whatever the future brings."

Kappa's face darkened. "I hope so."

The two soldiers stood in silence, until the sound of a raised voice in anger interrupted their reverie. In the distance a Japanese crewman was hurling a stream of profanities at a Chinese soldier, who in turn was standing his ground. A crowd was gathering around them, and both sides seemed to be at an impasse, until the Japanese soldier shoved the Chinese soldier and started a real fight.

Kappa and Dacheng broke into a run, and rapidly intervened. Dacheng pulled off the Chinese soldier while Kappa restraining the Japanese crewman, who was somehow still yelling and cursing.

"Oi! O-mae! Uru-se!" Kappa barked at his countryman who was staring furiously at the Chinese soldier. "Nani atten da yo?" Hey, you - quiet! What the fuck are you doing?

The Japanese soldier spat at the Chinese soldier's direction. "The Chinese occupied the Senkakus an hour ago. They've invaded Japan."

Kappa and Dacheng exchanged heavy glances. "Ku-so." Well, shit.

*****

"We've analyzed the data multiple times," said Chief Engineer Raymond Shen. "It was not possible for Chinese fire control radar to lock onto the Japanese jets. Data from Japanese E-767 AWACs clearly shows that the Chinese fighters were out of range."

"So the Japanese fired first, as the Chinese claim?" Brigadier-General John Bradford was listening to his first briefing as the new X-Com Force Commander, having taken over from General Kiyofumi Iwata of the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF). Also present were an intimidating array of international representatives, with no less than the UN Secretary-General and the US Secretary of State also present, along with the Japanese Prime Minister.


"Yes and no. Flight records clearly indicate radar lock warnings going off in all the Japanese jets, but whatever set off those warnings did not originate from the Chinese jets. They were too far away. But something locked on the Japanese - the pilots had every reason to believe they were being fired at when they went weapons free."

"You're not telling me anything I don't already know, General Bradford," said the Japanese Prime Minister through his interpreter. "Our analysis of the flight data reveals the same conclusion."

"If the Chinese did not lock onto the Japanese jets then who did?" The US Secretary of State clearly did not believe Shen had anything of import, and did not bother to hide his feelings on the matter.


"You have a hypothesis, Chief," Bradford said. "Let's hear it."

"We know the aliens can manipulate their radar signature. We know they can disappear off our scopes. We don't know why they don't stay off our scopes permanently, or how they do it, but it's well within their capabilities to mimic the signature of a Chinese drone. What if the aliens had mimicked the signature of a drone to provoke an international incident? They lure the Japanese in with a fake signal, which provokes a Chinese response. Once the fighters are in close proximity the UFO mimics Chinese fire control radar and locks on to the Japanese fighters, fooling them into thinking they're being fired upon. The Japanese retaliate, the Chinese fight back, and we come to the situation we are at today."

"Could we not share these findings with the Chinese?" Bradford directed this to the UN Secretary-General. "Ask them to stand down?"

"I'm afraid all this will do is give hard evidence to the Chinese that they did not fire first," replied Ban Ki-Moon. "They'll dismiss the rest as preposterous. Do you have any further evidence supporting your claim?"

"Only the pilot's testimonies. The two surviving Japanese pilots testified that they saw a UFO in the vicinity."

"That will not be sufficient to sway Chinese opinion."

"Look, I hate to interrupt, but listen." US Secretary of State John Kerry was characteristically blunt. "Blaming the aliens for anything bad that happens is the new fad of the moment. Lost your cat? The aliens took it. I read on the news the other day that the aliens were responsible for Brexit. They're becoming a convenient scapegoat for everyone. Unless X-Com has real, tangible proof of alien involvement we should confine this discussion to the Chinese and Japanese."

Shen did not take this lying down. "We just proved to you that the Chinese fighters did not lock on to Japanese fighters. So what triggered those warnings in the Japanese jets?"

"Equipment malfunction? Pilot error? It doesn't have to be aliens that locked on to the Japanese fighters. Have you considered the possibility that Chinese stealth fighters may have been responsible? They have a new stealth fighter, the J-20. It's possible, yes? That a fifth generation fighter could slip under AWACs and light up the Japanese?"



"Yes," said Shen through gritted teeth.

"Thank you. X-Com was only invited to this meeting at the request of the Secretary-General, and now we've heard what you have to say. Our time should now be focused on the real agenda - that is, how to defuse the situation in the East China Sea."

"I agree with the Secretary," said Abe. The Japanese Prime Minister paused to collect his thoughts. "Events have moved beyond the simple assignment of blame. As you know, earlier today the Chinese Navy moved into the Senkaku Islands. Chinese marines have landed and are in the process of digging themselves in. It is no longer a question of reparations or apologies. Japan has been invaded. The Senkakus are Japanese soil - your country should know most of all that the Japanese are willing to die to the last man to defend their homeland."

"No need to lecture us on history, Prime Minister - we are allies now, and have been for more than a generation. The President has stated unequivocally that America will fulfill her obligations under the treaty."

"But you will not help us take back the Senkakus."

"Attacking the Senkakus would irrevocably escalate the conflict. We have a range of options that we should exhaust first before committing to all out war."

The Prime Minister was angry now. "Let me remind the Secretary that China is already occupying Japanese soil. They have already attacked us, Mr. Secretary - the only question now is whether America's word is worth anything these days."



"We're not going to send American soldiers and sailors to die over a bunch of uninhabited rocks, Prime Minister," said Kerry sharply. "But President Obama was unequivocal. If the Chinese escalate beyond the Senkakus we will be there. The Seventh Fleet and the Eight Army have been fully mobilized. But it is paramount importance that we go to war only as a last resort. The world hasn't been this close to global war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. We're fortunate in that the Russians are smarting so much from the debacle in Syria that they haven't thrown their full support behind China."

"Our intelligence tells us that Xi is under tremendous pressure to launch a preemptive strike. The Chinese military is well aware of what America and Japan are capable of if they are given time to prepare. It's a miracle that the missiles haven't started flying yet, but the longer we wait the more likely it becomes."

"So your solution to avoid a preemptive strike is to conduct a preemptive strike of your own?"

"As I have said repeatedly, Japan has been invaded. We have every right to retaliate with every weapon at our disposal."

"The situation in China is not as black and white as it appears," Ban interjected smoothly. "I have heard from reliable sources in the Chinese diplomatic corps that Admiral Wu acted unilaterally in occupying the Senkaku Islands, and Xi was forced into giving his actions official sanction in order to preserve the illusion of unity. In reality I believe that Chinese hawks are trying to force his hand. There is a real opportunity to prevent war here, an opportunity that will be lost if Japan launches a preemptive strike."

"Xi built his reputation as a party strongman," Kerry said skeptically. "I find it hard to believe that anyone in his party or in the armed forces would defy him."

"Therein lies our only hope of avoiding armed conflict, Mr. Secretary," said Ban. "If Wu did act unilaterally only Xi has the political muscle to pull the armed forces back from the brink. I agree with Mr. Kerry. We need to exhaust every possible avenue before committing to a war that would cripple the Asian region, and possibly draw in every superpower into the conflict. No one can afford this. No one."

*****

"Dacheng."

"General." The Chinese captain gave Bradford a crisp salute.

"At ease, soldier. You don't have to salute me anymore. China is no longer a member of the X-Com task force."

"I salute the man, not the rank, General."

Bradford grinned wryly. "Isn't it the other way around?"

"I don't know. English is very difficult for me."

"I'll get right to it. I was told earlier today that you know how to contact a Colonel Shaojie Zhang. The intelligence officer who defected to Taiwan and was deported to Hong Kong."

"That is correct, General."

"Enough of the General, please. If you're going to call me anything, call me Central."

"Yes, General."

"Suit yourself. Zhang was your commanding officer in the PLA? You served as one of his non-coms when he was in the navy special forces?"

"That is correct, General."

"You are friends?"

"That is correct, General."

"Can you contact Colonel Zhang character on behalf of X-Com? We would like to see what he has, and if it's legitimate, we want to offer him asylum."

"General, 48 hours ago I would have done this without hesitation. Now, I cannot answer until I consult with my superiors."

"Understood, Dacheng. Let me know as soon as you can."

*****

"Think she'll go for it?" Tengu asked. A gathering of X-Com's most trusted strike force soldiers were lounging around the mess hall. Bradford was also present. He enjoyed hanging out with the strike force that he had built - he found the informal egalitarianism refreshing, but more and more he realized that his rank and position made this impossible. For now he was grateful that he had an excuse to spend time in the mess hall and converse candidly with his troops. The soldiers spoke to each other equally regardless of rank, but each of them had earned their place in the strike force. Even so, Bradford noted that many of them, like Dacheng, were no longer calling him Central, but addressing him as General instead.

"Doesn't matter what she thinks." Akuma replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "She's a loyal patriot - she'll do what the party tells her to do."

"Well, we'll find out soon," said Tengu. "Here they come."

Xanziee and Dacheng walked towards the waiting Japanese squad leaders. Xanziee was in overall command of the Chinese, but she had handed over leadership duties when she joined the strike force. With the withdrawal of China from the X-Com project she had once again resumed command. She was the daughter of a high ranking member of Xi Jinping's cabinet, and as such had a direct line to party headquarters. She was envied and feared by the Chinese in equal measure - envied for her political and family connections, and feared for her no-nonsense application of the power she had at her disposal.

"We have the green light to find him."

"Excellent news," Bradford said.

"Two conditions. I go on the mission, along with a squad of my choosing." 

"Negative. Half the squad will be composed of your people. The rest we assemble from the remainder of X-Com. The second?"

Xanziee did not argue. "Anything we find is shared equally with Chinese intelligence."

"At this point we don't have a choice. We'll prep immediately. Dacheng, you can contact him?"

"Already left a message. Just waiting for a response, General."

"Good, good."

"One more thing," Xanziee added slowly. Her hesitance was uncharacteristic.

"What is it, Xan?" Tengu asked.

Only Tengu and a few others called her by that short hand. She liked the Japanese sergeant and found him to be dependable and unflappable under fire. Used to the trappings of power, however, the egalitarianism in the strike force was something that took her a long time to get used to. She looked at Tengu, then at Dacheng. Dacheng slowly nodded. "This comes from the highest authority. The highest."

Bradford looked sharply at Xanziee. "From President Xi?"

"Xi did not order Chinese marines to occupy the islands. That was Admiral Wu, acting unilaterally. But Xi has been forced to throw his full support behind Wu to prevent the hardliners from breaking away. Privately he is having reservations. Xi does not want war. China does not want war. No sane person wants war. But the party is dangerously split. Xi has to show strength. He cannot tell Wu to withdraw without good reason, or else he risks alienating the hardliners."

"You've seen the data, Xan. The Japanese were provoked into firing."

"Perhaps. Maybe if the Japanese pilots had showed more nerve none of this would have happened."

Akuma glared furiously at Xanziee, who returned his gaze with serene indifference. Tengu shook his head. "Let's not exchange recriminations now, shall we? We are all here trying to stop a war, are we not?" He looked at Xanziee. "Are we not?"

The honest earnestness in the Japanese soldier's voice disarmed the Chinese officer. "Yes," she replied. "Yes, we are." Dacheng and Akuma nodded in assent. She continued. "Let's hope that this Chilong has something of substance, and is not just wasting our time."

Dacheng spoke. "The fact that we have been given the go-ahead tells me that Beijing is desperate for a back channel solution, even for ones as outlandish as this."

"You know this man, Dacheng," Bradford asked. "Is he trustworthy?"

"He was my commanding officer. A good soldier. A friend. I would trust him with my life."

"Xanziee?"

She shrugged. "I don't know the man. But his service record is impeccable. Not a man given to wild flights of fancy. My father thinks highly of him."

"What does he have?"

"He claims to have a list of compromised personnel in the PLA. He claims that the aliens can mind control weak individuals and compel them to act according to the aliens' wishes. All wild, fantastic stuff. I would have dismissed it as the words of a lunatic a year ago."

"Yes, before the aliens arrived. Now all bets are off."

"He also offers evidence."

"Evidence? What kind?"

"Video footage. Audio. Alien artifacts. As I said - fantastic stuff."

"Maybe Xi doesn't know who to trust in his party anymore." Tengu ventured. "Maybe he wants that list in order to find out who he can trust, so that he can bring his party to order."

"Or maybe Chilong is a lunatic and this is all a giant waste of time." Akuma again.

"Maybe it is." Bradford felt increasingly old and isolated. "Maybe war is inevitable. But we have to try. Meet me in the briefing room in an hour."

*****

The Secretary-General looked tired. There were bags under his eyes, and his usually impeccably fastened tie was loose around his neck. 

"That's good news, John." The Secretary-General was one of the few people who addressed Bradford by his first name. "When will they leave?"

"As soon as possible. The squad will be made up of Chinese and Japanese soldiers. The squad leader will be jointly led by Tengu and Xanziee, a Japanese and a Chinese national respectively."

"Is that wise? Why don't we include some Europeans or Africans, just in case they fall out?"

"With the exception of one or two soldiers, all of them have fought together in Ogbomosho. Some have deployed together on UFO assaults and recoveries. They know each other, sir. I would even go so far as to say that most of them are friends and comrades."

"I find that hard to believe, given the circumstances."

"It's combat, Secretary-General. Under fire you learn a lot about a person's character. The Japanese and Chinese companies were deployed side by side in Ogbomosho, and had to support each other against waves and waves of chryssalid attacks. I guess both sides liked what they saw."

"I'll leave that up to you, John. What about your other deployments?"

"Kurogumi will go to France and make contact with Rousseau. I want to know if there is any truth to what Rousseau claims. We'll put French speakers in the team, probably French Canadians from Quebec who have a good command of the language."

"Rousseau is the one claiming that the aliens are mind controlling former X-Com soldiers?"

"That's correct. In addition to our deployment in France we will re-establish contact with Takeda and Shirogumi, and pull them out from Syria. I think it's fair to say that recent events have made their mission there redundant. If they can bring back EXALT cadavers or alien tech that will be a bonus. But the aliens coming out and declaring for the rebels pretty much confirms what we suspected about EXALT."

"Understood. Anything else?"

"Aogumi and Akagumi will remain on standby here in Tanegashima in case the aliens resume abduction missions. Our brigades will do the same. I'm spreading the task force out into Kyushu and Kanto - if the missiles start flying then the base here in Tanegashima might be one of the targets. I don't want to lose all of X-Com in one hit."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that."


"Is there hope for a diplomatic resolution?"

"There's always hope, John. This back channel approval is encouraging. It means they're also looking for a way out. Let's hope your team finds something. What's the squad's designation?"

"Pinkugumi, sir. Pink team."

*****

"We're fucking pink team?" Kappa could hardly contain his incredulity.

"It was Xanziee's call." Akuma did not look up from the French language book he was studying. "Take it up with her. Besides, it's just a name."

"That's easy for you to say. Your team has a cool name. Black Team. Your team sounds tough. Mysterious. Covert. But pink team? Couldn't we have brown or green instead? What happened to purple? Gold? Silver?"

"I think pink team sounds cool." Tengu said lightly.

"That's because you are a rampant homosexual with questionable tastes. Seriously, though? Pink team?"

"Kappa." Tenshi was the squad's sniper, and one of Okami's proteges. "What color is the Japanese flag?"

"White, of course. And red."

"What about the Chinese flag?"

"Red. What the fuck does that have to do with anything?"

"What do you get when you mix white and red?"

"I don't know. Red?"

"Pink, you idiot. You get a shade of pink." She gestured to the Chinese and Japanese soldiers gathering in the back of the Skyranger. "We're pink team."

Kappa stared at the sniper with disbelief. "That is the dumbest thing I've ever heard." He turned his gaze to Oni. The Japanese girl grinned and gave him a peace sign, before turning back to clean her weapon.

Tengu continued. "Pink is the color of sakura. Cherry blossoms are the symbol of our nation. It represents beauty, ephemerality and the transient nature of life. What's not to like?"

Kappa ignored the slow nods of agreement coming from the other Japanese soldiers, and sat down next to a burly Chinese gunner. He addressed the soldier in Mandarin. "You believe this rubbish?" He laughed derisively. "Lot of women on this plane, eh?"

The Chinese soldier turned and glared at him.

Kappa winced. "Of course. You're a woman, too." Some of the Chinese were staring at him contemptuously, but it was punctuated by smiles and chuckles from the rest. Dacheng shook his head in mock disbelief. Tenshi and Oni were trying not to laugh. Only Xanziee remained aloof and above the banter in the Skyranger, her concentration focused on a touch pad detailing the mission specs.




He sighed. "Go go, pink team."

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Long War, Part XXI - Flashpoint in Asia


The East and South China Seas

While the Syrian army was being routed in the desert by the alien backed rebels, another global crisis was unfolding in the Pacific theater. The Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) were a disputed cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Once considered worthless the discovery of natural gas reserves beneath the islands made them the fulcrum of a growing nationalistic dispute between Japan and China.

The hotly disputed Senkaku Islands, roughly 1000 kilometres southwest of the X-Com base in Tanegashima.

Japan and China have a long and fractious history, and the possibility of another conflict between these Asian powers in the 21st century had long been mooted by think tanks and global strategists alikeChina's growth into a superpower was accompanied by a commensurate willingness to test the boundaries of her new status. The issue which raised the most conflict was China's willingness to dispute sea territories in the East and South China Sea. While the Japanese and Chinese wrangled over the Senkaku Islands, a similar dispute arose in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and the Philippines over the Paracel and Spratly island chains. The Philippines sought international arbitration to challenge China's claim over these islands, and on 12 July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources in the disputed area.


The disputed Paracel and Spratly island chains.

While many of China's rivals celebrated the ruling, some commentators argued that the Philippines' victory in the international tribunal amounted to nothing, and would ironically only serve to harden China's position in future territorial disputesThese fears were borne out by the increasing escalation of tension in the East China Sea. China refused to attend the proceedings, and stated explicitly that they would not abide by the tribunal's decision. The Philippines and Japan put aside historical enmity stemming from Japan's brutal occupation of Manila during the Second World War, and became de facto allies with Japan agreeing to supply military equipment and navy vessels as a check to Chinese expansionism. US and Japanese joint naval exercises in both the East and South China Seas also grew apace, and Chinese spokesmen warned that war was imminent.

On 6 August a large swarm consisting of over 200 Chinese fishing vessels entered the waters around the Senkaku Islands, prompting a formal protest from JapanThe Chinese government brushed it aside, and stated that the presence of the fishing vessels was in response to the movement of fish shoals rather than any strategic move on the part of Beijing. An unexpected incident, however, momentarily dampened the ardor of the hawks on both sides. On 11 August the Japanese Coast Guard rescued six Chinese fisherman after their vessel collided with a Greek ship and sank in contested waters. The rescue was called an act of "extreme benevolence" by Chinese commentators, and the Chinese government responded swiftly by thanking Japan. For several days the Chinese and Japanese governments put aside their enmity as their respective Coast Guard services coordinated to help locate eight more missing fishermen. For the first time it appeared that there might be the possibility of a future where these two civilizations could co-exist and prosper together instead of being perpetual antagonists.


A member of the Japanese Coast Guard extends his hand to the Chinese fisherman wearing the red lifejacket.

Hopes for peace proved to be a chimera however, as relations between the two nations swiftly deteriorated. Whatever slim chance for peace these two nations might have had vanished as a string of incidents served to further inflame national sentiments and spark off a major conflict in the region.

Defector

On 18 August 2016 a Chinese national presented himself to the Taiwanese consulate in Taipei and formally asked for political asylum. Colonel Shaojie Zhang was a long time aide to Admiral Wu Shengli, the head of the Chinese Navy. Given the code name "Chilong" ("hornless dragon") by Taiwanese case officers, Zhang took advantage of a state trip to abscond with several sensitive documents and defect. While Chilong's credentials were impeccable, the story he gave to the Taiwanese debriefers beggared belief. Chilong claimed that Admiral Wu had been "compromised" by the visitors. Furthermore, he claimed that Wu was actively advocating open war within the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the behest of the visitors, and had successfully gathered together a coterie of like-minded hawks keen to avenge the "century of humiliation" suffered by China. Among their expansionist agenda included the annexation of Taiwan, the military defeat of Japan, the expansion of China's sea borders, and most importantly, the ejection of the US from the Pacific. Chilong's account was accompanied by numerous recordings and documents, all of which appeared legitimate.

Taiwanese intelligence, fearing that Chilong's offer was a ruse to provide China with casus belli (a provocation to war), refused his request for asylum. Taiwanese and Chinese relations had reverted back to Cold War levels since the ascension of the new female Taiwanese president in May 2016. President Tsai Ing-wen was an advocate of Taiwanese independence, and since taking office had adopted a risky policy of refusing to recognize the "one China" principle which subsumed Taiwanese independence to China. In response China suspended diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and deliberately slowed down the issue of travel documents, effectively destroying Chinese tourism to the island nation. China also used its position and influence on the UN Security Council to ensure that Taiwan was not invited to an assembly meeting of the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization. Taiwan was not a member of the UN, and China took every opportunity to block every attempt by Taiwan to have her sovereignty recognized. 

Tsai judged that Chilong's request and his preposterous claims were not worth further backlash from Beijing, and ordered his deportation. In keeping with her flexible, open-ended strategy, however, she first informed the Americans, the Japanese, and most importantly, the UN and the X-Com organization about Chilong's claims. Chilong was also deported to Hong Kong rather than mainland China, where he at least had a marginal chance of escaping as opposed to meeting a security detail of Ministry of State Security officials waiting for him to disembark in Beijing. Upon landing in Hong Kong Chilong's background as a special forces soldier and intelligence officer immediately made itself apparent as he easily evaded clumsy, last minute attempts by Chinese officials to apprehend him and disappeared into the city. Before he blended into the general population he made one final call to a Chinese PLA soldier who had served under him in the field. "Dacheng" Nguyen was a former member of the PLA Navy commando team known as the "Sea Dragons", and was now serving in the X-Com unit. Chilong's final message reiterated his request for political asylum, and his claims that the aliens were attempting a covert takeover of the world's governments.

X-Com Goes Covert

By August 2016 X-Com was facing a crisis over jurisdiction. The overt alien abductions in the opening months of the war had all but ceased, leaving little opportunities for the types of intervention which called for Skyrangers dropping out of the sky and disgorging squads of soldiers to sanitize an area. More and more it was becoming apparent that the aliens were integrating themselves in the geopolitics of the world. The most obvious example of this was in Syria, in which alien mechanical units were decisively intervening in the civil war on the side of the rebels. EXALT had clear ties to the visitors as made apparent by the advanced tech at their disposal, and the exact nature of their relationship remained worryingly opaque. There were also furtive whispers and rumors that the rise of the French totalitarianism was due to alien infiltration at the highest levels of government. Such talk was largely unsubstantiated, but for X-Com soldiers who had first hand experience fighting sectoids this particular conspiracy theory was fast gaining traction. Many X-Com soldiers could testify to the strange lapses, visions and hallucinations which occurred when fighting the small grey aliens, and it required no great leap of the imagination to envisage this happening on a larger scale. Chilong's claim offered an opportunity for X-Com to examine tangible evidence of alien infiltration, and to ascertain the aliens' methodology and aims. The problem, again, however, was jurisdiction. China made it clear that Chilong was a wanted fugitive, and his capture a domestic security affair. This was the crux of the problem facing the organization. There were no more "clean" operations, in which the sides were cut and dried, and government permission for interventions a mere formality. It was no longer an issue of humans versus the aliens - despite their best intentions to keep the organization apolitical, it seemed that the increasing predilection for the visitors to actively involve themselves in the affairs of nations meant that X-Com would have to become a political creature, too.

In a historic meeting on 21 August 2016 the X-Com leadership finally decided to take full advantage of the powers given to it by the UN General Assembly. A clandestine squad designated as Kurogumi ("Black Team") was formed, composed only of the most trusted X-Com operatives, and sworn to complete secrecy. Kurogumi would be entrusted with the most sensitive operations, and would operate without any identifying markers of any kind. The operators were informed that the UN would disavow any knowledge of them in the event of being captured or killed. Kurogomi was formed as a direct result of three operational requirements. The first requirement was a request from a former X-Com operative named Pierre "Scree" Rousseau, who was making wild claims that former X-Com soldiers had been brainwashed and pressed into service as ADVENT soldiers in France. The second was to decide if X-Com should ascertain whether Chilong's claims about Admiral Wu's subversion were substantiated, which would entail violating Chinese sovereignty and assisting and harboring a wanted fugitive. The third was the pressing need to investigate the EXALT organization in Syria, which was now inexorably tied to the rebel movement and openly assisted by alien mechanical units. All scenarios required X-Com to pick a side in the internal politics of a sovereign nation, of which two - China and France - were permanent members of the UN Security Council.

In the end the decision fell to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and he was unequivocal in his belief that the general mandate given by the General Assembly in January 2016 was sufficient justification for X-Com to send clandestine units into Syria, France and Hong Kong. Ban also stated that he would take the responsibility for any fallout stemming from X-Com's action, reminding all present that his term would end in December 2016. Despite his professed willingness to accept all responsibility, Ban urged General Bradford to exercise all possible discretion in the deployment of clandestine units. In a private conversation between the two men, Ban said to Bradford: "I am quite willing to fall on my sword - but I would prefer not to, unless it is the only option available."

The only dissenters in the meeting were the Japanese, who were quite sensitive to matters pertaining to China. Prime Minister Abe stated that Japan would continue to offer manpower, material and staging areas for X-Com, but would prefer to distance themselves from actions that might increase tensions between the two nations. To this end General Kiyofumi Iwata, the nominal head of X-Com, would step down as Force Commander, and General Bradford would assume overall command of the task force. There was some discussion about removing Bradford from command and appointing a European or an African instead, but it was quickly dismissed. Bradford had earned respect and prestige for his conduct at Ogbomosho, and Secretary of State John Kerry, also present at the meeting, added ruefully: "No one in Beijing is going to believe that the US and Japan aren't pulling the strings behind the scenes. Might as well give them an American to throw tomatoes at."

Dogfight in the East China Sea

Unfolding events would quickly make all of X-Com's attempts at diplomatic niceties moot. In 2013 China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and demanded that any aircraft wishing to enter this airspace report themselves to China first. This zone  was studiously ignored by the US, Japan and Taiwan, all of whom disputed China's sovereignty over the airspace. Aircraft on all sides frequently flew in close proximity to each other in a dangerous and provocative game of "chicken" over the islands. China accused Japanese fighters of locking on their jets over the East China Sea on 17 June 2016. This mirrored an incident in 2013 when the Japanese accused a Chinese frigate of locking on to a Japanese destroyerLocking on a target by fire control radar is the most provocative act short of firing missiles, and can be grounds for retaliation. Thus far only strict rules of engagement, human steadiness under pressure and awareness of the stakes involved had prevented an incident in the East China Sea.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) of Japan and President Xi Jinping (right) of China can barely conceal their disdain for one another.

On 27 August 2016 a Chinese W-50 drone was spotted by Japanese AWACs over the islands, and four Japanese F-15Js were scrambled to take a closer look. In response the Chinese scrambled two Su-30 Flankers and two Chengdu J-10s to verify and monitor the presence of Japanese fighters over the disputed airspace. Upon arriving at the drone's location the Japanese pilots were unable to locate the drone by radar. One pilot - "Godzilla" Tabata - later claimed to have seen a UFO lurking in the clouds. His claim was not corroborated by flight data, and Tabata himself stated that the UFO did not register on their radar arrays, but he was adamant that both he and his wingman saw the alien craft. Shortly after losing sight of the alleged UFO, the Japanese encountered the Chinese aircraft, at which point one of the Japanese received a warning that his aircraft was under lock from fire control radar. The pilot immediately began evasive maneuvers and fired off countermeasures. Shortly afterwards two other Japanese jets received lock on warnings, including several missile warnings. The Japanese, under severe duress, engaged the Chinese fighters and shot down three Chinese jets for the loss of two of their own.

The Chinese account of the encounter played very differently. According to the Chinese, there was no drone over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and their jets were scrambled when their radar picked up the incoming F-15Js. Upon locating the F-15Js they were immediately fired upon and lost two fighters before they had a chance to react. The remaining two fighters engaged the F-15Js and destroyed two Japanese fighters before a third Chinese fighter went down into the sea. At this point the sole remaining Chinese fighter successfully escaped from the combat, while the remaining Japanese fighters were recalled to await the fallout of the incident.


A pair of Japanese Mitsubishi F15Js.

Both nations reacted with a predictable mix of outrage and fury. Nationalistic sentiments were fanned to blazing heights. Demagogues railed on talk shows and on the Internet. Japanese shops in China were ransacked and pillaged in the same way they had been when the islands first became contested in 2012. Unlike 2012, however, the Japanese began to retaliate. Total defeat in the Second World War had muted the nationalistic movement in Japan for over 70 years and discredited militarism as a bankrupt policy leading only to ruin and devastation. Japan had learned that as long as she was willing to play second fiddle to the US she would prosper and grow in the Pacific. Her previous attempt to contest American hegemony had ended in disaster. The running conflict with China, however, was awakening a more belligerent Japan, one whose martial roots went back for hundreds of years. As for China, their national policy was driven by the need to never again be humiliated by the West or by Japan, who had occupied Manchuria in 1931 and were responsible for shocking atrocities at Nanking in 1937. Unlike the US, long accustomed to being winners in her wars, China had been defeated and occupied by the British, the Americans, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the Austrians, the Russians and the Japanese during the period known as the "century of humiliation". There was no way for either nation to back down from this confrontation without a humiliating loss of face. At 3.12 am Eastern Standard Time President Obama of the US received a phone call from Prime Minister Abe asking for assurances that America would uphold her obligations under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Japan, in plain English, was asking whether the US would join her in her war against China.

Next: The Long War, Part XXII - Mobilization