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J. T. Brannan

Beyond All Limits

For Justyna, Jakub and Mia

EPIGRAPH

‘When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.’

— John F. Kennedy

PROLOGUE

1

Jing Fenghe sighed as he rested back against his olive-green truck and lit up a cigarette.

He watched the commotion around him as he puffed away at his noxious, but mercifully cheap, Hongtashan. His body sagged with relief; this was no longer his responsibility. He was just the driver, after all, a lowly corporal within China’s Second Artillery Corps. What happened now was not his concern.

And yet, he was interested. He had been driving this truck around the country for months now, from one secret location to another. The convoy of vehicles — the transporter Jing drove himself was just one of a fleet which included various command and control elements, supply trucks, and an armed escort — usually patrolled the major coastal roads between Wenzhou and Fuzhou, covering thousands of miles of the People’s Republic’s southeast provinces.

But in all that time, during all those interminable miles, the convoy had not once stopped to perform its ultimate function. Well, not until now, Jing reminded himself. Now the convoy had stopped on a hard, rocky plateau on a piece of remote high ground just off the main G15 route, west of the harbor town of Ningde.

Jing looked around him again, ignoring the rough dirt scrub of the surrounding countryside, the promise of the East China Sea just beyond the rolling hills ahead, and watched the convoy’s crew go to work.

A squad of soldiers was busy securing their perimeter, keen that no citizens stumbled upon their location and questioned what they were doing — not that questioning was a common pastime in the People’s Republic, Jing reminded himself.

While the armed guards busied themselves, a team of surveyors was taking samples from the ground, making sure that it was firm enough to receive the colossal surge of energy it would soon be given. It wouldn’t do to have the truck and its millions of dollars’ worth of technology smashed to pieces because the ground was too soft for an effective launch.

At the same time, the command and control crew calculated bearings, vectors, angles of deflection, and a hundred other variables that Jing couldn’t even pretend to understand.

But it wasn’t the activity that interested Jing so much as the intention that lay behind it. After all, they had performed the same tasks countless times during rehearsals.

But this was the real thing.

He couldn’t be sure, of course, but Jing was fairly confident that they were no longer playing games. For the first time in its career, the Dong Feng carried by his team was about to be used in anger.

The unit’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Hu Liangyu, had told all the men that it wasn’t an exercise, but this in itself wasn’t sufficient; he often said those things to create more of a ‘sense of reality’ in his crew. But this time, the man’s body language had changed. His normal arrogance had slipped slightly, he was slightly unsure of himself, and he was stiff beyond his regular military bearing. The stiffness came from stress, Jing could see that immediately; the stress of actually having to carry out — successfully carry out — the job he was paid to do.

Jing finished his cigarette and dropped it to the floor, grinding it to dust under his booted foot. He turned away from the busy crew and finally looked out over the hills towards the East China Sea hidden in the distance beyond.

He could only imagine what was out there, and the effect that the Dong Feng would have on it.

2

Ellen Abrams, President of the United States, accepted the coffee in its little porcelain teacup with a nod of thanks to the Navy steward who served it.

Allowing herself a sip of the brew — the White House mess was rightfully famed for its coffee — she turned to Catalina dos Santos, the Director of National Intelligence. ‘So what do you have for us, Cat?’

‘Well ma’am, there’s thankfully nothing to get too worked up about right now,’ she said evenly. ‘The threat board is pretty clear, as far as that goes. We’re still concerned about Russia, though.’

Abrams nodded her head, as did the others around the small conference table. Russia was starting to become something of a problem. Or, she reminded herself, Russia was going back to being a problem after several rather pleasant years of cooperation.

The signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 2019 had been the highlight of Abrams’ first term in office, and something that — at one stage — had almost been unthinkable. A tripartite defensive agreement between the superpowers of the United States, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China, the agreement had promised global security in the face of a worryingly uncertain world.

Now several months into her second term, having won the November election if not by a landslide, then at least by a significant enough margin to keep control of Congress, Abrams was worried that the MDT might be showing signs of fracture.

It wasn’t China — although, as her advisors kept telling her, you could never really trust China — but Russia that was the problem. President Vasilev Danko had been a staunch supporter of the treaty, but his strongman successor, Mikhail Emelienenko, was outspoken in his criticisms. He was an old-school politician in the Soviet mold, and had no use for treaties and security pacts that Russia didn’t have complete control over.

He had not yet broken the treaty, but Abrams’ advisors felt that it was only a matter of time until he did. There were problems all through Europe with right-wing, near Fascist politics, and the feeling of many in the intelligence world was that Emelienenko was hoping to use these transnational problems to unite the European continent under his own control.

It was an extreme conclusion, and there was no evidence to support it directly, but Abrams was surprised by how many professionals believed in this horrendous scenario.

‘When’s my meeting with Emelienenko?’ Abrams asked Martin Shaker, the White House Chief of Staff.

‘Not until next month, he flies over on the fifth.’

Abrams nodded her head in thought. Mikhail Emelienenko was a thorny problem, but Abrams didn’t subscribe to the theory that he wanted to take over the entire continent. He was too intelligent for that, she reasoned; too practical. He might want to exert his influence over ex-Soviet Bloc nations, offer them something to bring them once again within the Russian sphere of influence, but she was sure he wouldn’t do anything too drastic to alter the global status quo. She had already met the man, and felt his intentions weren’t quite as they were portrayed by the media.

Many analysts agreed with this assessment — to balance out the doomsday scenarios, others offered up the alternative that Emelienenko was just playing up to his audience. The Russian people loved a strongman, and their new president had to establish himself with these credentials to the fore.

Abrams took another sip of coffee, replaced the teacup on its saucer. ‘Okay Cat, what do you think?’ she asked. ‘Your honest opinion. What’s Emelienenko going to do?’

Dos Santos cleared her throat. As Director of National Intelligence, she was the president’s key advisor on intelligence issues, and had access to the information and analysis of the entire glut of alphabet soup agencies which made up the US intelligence capability.

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