Another out-of-sequence post, forgotten in the depths of my drafts folder – the real end of the Akhilleus arc.
I seem to have missed posting this in its proper sequence, and there are also multiple other posts I missed. So, I return for some time to Victoria; and there also seem to be some lost EU3 posts.
Posted just after the session, to explain what was happening in the game.
Written just after the session. Intended as a paragraph to update our readers on the diplomatic shenanigans, it got a bit out of hand.
April 2nd, 1943
Urumqi Aeroporia (Air Force) Base
“Gentlemen. Thank you for coming.”
The courtesy was, in some sense, ridiculous; they had been ordered to come, and could, in fact, have been court-martialled and shot if they hadn’t. Nonetheless, Batu appreciated it, just as he appreciated the good prewar coffee from the tribune’s private stock. These little courtesies had an effect all out of proportion to their actual size in smoothing over the harshness of military life. Would that all Komnenoi were so considerate of their subordinates.
“The weather report is in,” the tribune continued, “and it’s clear from here to Frunze, except for a patch of cloud near Almaty, which we’ll route around. So, Dawning Harmony is a go.”
Batu couldn’t help but roll his eyes slightly; the tribune’s aide was Chinese, and trust a classically-educated Confucian to come up with a name like ‘Harmony’ for a military operation intended to destroy an enemy formation. Yes, yes, obviously there would be ‘harmony’ in the air if it worked, in the sense of no opposition to what the Athena Squadron did, but sheesh. Tacitus’s old jibe, about making a desert and calling it peace, stood; Chinese or Roman, empires were all one.
“So, if I can draw your attention to this route map, for the final details. To avoid the bad weather at Almaty we will go in a dogleg, first to this map reference point” – he reeled off a string of coordinates, which the navigators duly noted down; the point was out in the middle of the desert, and very likely a hundred miles from the nearest habitation. “Then we will head straight north for Frunze. Now, you were each assigned your individual targets at the briefing yesterday, but in case anyone is too hung-over to remember, here they are again.” The tribune’s aide went around the room delivering slips of paper to the pilots; Batu took his without looking at it, knowing perfectly well that it said “Hangar 3, Airstrip 6, Hangar 5, Warehouse 4, targets of opportunity” – that had been his priority target list for this raid for a week now, and he had gotten to the point of using it for a meaningless meditation phrase.
“A few final words. You all know why this raid is strategically important: Frunze is the main airbase of the Punjabi air force on this front. Knock it out and they have to move their bombers back halfway to Samarkand, giving them that much less time in the air over the front line. It’s also an important day for the Athena Squadron: This will be the first time anyone puts more than 200 aircraft over a single target in Asia. We are going to obliterate Frunze. The ragheads have a few flak positions around it, maybe twenty guns in all. Gentlemen, ignore that completely; stay in your formations and bomb on the word of command. We’ll have two hundred and forty bombers in the air. Just the bombs that miss their actual targets will likely be enough to knock out their guns. This, gentlemen, is shock and awe: We’ll put enough bombs on the ground at the same time to completely paralyze the defenses. But, I say again, only if you stay in formation. There won’t be room in the air above Frunze for any drastic maneuvers. Stay in formation, stay on target, stay focused.” The tribune paused and looked at them challengingly, then smiled. “And good luck. Takeoff at 0600. Dismissed.”
South of Frunze, altitude 5000 meters
“Bogeys, two o’clock high.” The warning crackled through the static in his headphones, sending a spike of adrenaline through Batu’s bloodstream. He snapped his eyes up and to the right, squinting against the Sun – yes, there they were. Black dots, shimmering against the harsh light, making it hard to count; but definitely aircraft, and since Athena Squadron was all around him and Nika Squadron was sticking to its own zone of operations in Tibet, that made them unfriendly. He opened the intercom, making sure he was only speaking to his own crew; the tribune was death on filling the air with chatter. “We’ve got company. Wake up back there, Arslan, looks like you won’t be sleeping the mission away after all.” The tail gunner had jokingly complained that he was the only man in the crew who didn’t have a real job. “We’re going to stick to our formation and make a wall of lead, just like practice.” That was doctrine, and Batu agreed with it. Two-engine bombers carrying four tons of high explosive couldn’t very well dogfight. They could, however, give each other mutually supporting fields of fire, making a porcupine of tracers to impale any enemy aircraft that came too near. So the ragheads had got their planes into the air – warned by some observer on a mountaintop somewhere, perhaps – well, the worse for them! Their bombers were even older than the Harpy aircraft of the Athena, which would themselves have been considered obsolete on the battlefields of Europe. And whatever Punjabi aircraft survived the storm of fire the Athenites would put out would have a hell of a time landing on smoking, cratered landing strips. Batu grinned fiercely to himself. Let them come!
The enemy aircraft did in fact approach rapidly; Batu frowned as he tried to estimate their airspeed. True, they were almost head-on with his own formation, but still, wasn’t that rather fast? Or was he imagining things? Then they were close enough to make out details beyond the cruciform shape, and his eyes widened. The enemy aircraft were single-engined!
“Those aren’t bombers,” he said clearly, not shouting, just as in training. There was a lump of ice in his belly. Punjab wasn’t supposed to have any fighters. Had the Tenth Bureau been asleep on the job again? Then the warning crackled in over his headphones: “Enemy aircraft are fighters, repeat, fighters”, and he realised that in his concentration on not giving in to panic by shouting, he’d forgotten to switch back to the squadron channel. His warning had only reached his own crew. That was at least three precious seconds lost – but then again, what could have been done with them? There was nothing for it but to stay in formation and shoot it out. His knuckles whitened on the control stick, but it was all up to Arslan.
The vee of vees opened fire in a wave that went somewhat raggedly from right to left, as individual gunners thought they were in range. At night it might have been beautiful; in this clear air the tracers looked thin, a fragile lacework against the blue. Batu held the stick against the juddering as Arslan opened up; the weight of the multiple tons of explosives in the bomb bays gave the Harpy a stolidity it hadn’t had in firing practice. We could have had three times as much firepower, no problem, Batu realised; but of course that would have come at the expense of throw weight… Then his neighbour in the formation was hit, making his own plane stagger in midair, and Batu suddenly realised concretely what the abstract phrase “four tons of explosives” meant. There are eighty loads each of a hundred pounds of tri-nitro-toluene in our bomb bays, and ice went through his veins and the hair on his arms tried to stand up to make him larger and scarier. The pilots in those imported fighters were quite unlikely to be impressed, though. They only had to get one hit somewhere amidships, while to down the fighters the tail gunners had to either bend enough metal to make their sturdy engines not work, or else hit the pilot.
“Drop the bombs,” Batu ordered. Then he switched to the squadron channel. “Sir,” he said, quite calmly. “We’re just waiting to blow up, here. Suggest we jettison and abandon.”
“What?” his bombardier said on the intercom. “We’re nowhere near the target!”
“Drop them anyway, that’s an order!” Batu hissed, then realised that he had forgotten to switch back to the intercom. The squadron channel was coming alive with similar internal chatter, radio discipline breaking down, and a few shattering booms as pilot microphones picked up the deaths of their aircraft. Frantically he flipped to the internal channel. “Jettison the damn load, we’re under attack! Falling somewhere in Punjab will have to be good enough!” he shouted. There was no response, but the stick juddered again in his hands with the characteristic rough airflow of the bomb doors opening.
“Radio silence!” came in over the air, the tribune’s voice, and the frantic combat chatter cut off; probably everyone was as relieved as Batu at hearing that this clusterfuck was still under command. “Drop the” – and no doubt he intended to say “bomb loads,” that was the only thing that could possibly follow. Instead there was an explosion and then a dreadful drawn-out “shiiiit”, proving that, by the bodhisattva, the new radio equipment really was much more robust against battle damage, and also that it was actually possible to survive, by some miracle of shrapnel, when your bomb bay went up. Perhaps even the fall that followed? They did have parachutes… Batu snapped out of his stunned slowness. Who was in command now? It should be Deng, who commanded First Wing, but no Chinese accent filled the channel, whose crackle now sounded like the voice of stunned indecision. Had he been killed, did he just not realise that he was in command, or was he trying to decide what to do? It didn’t matter, Batu decided. Seconds were important.
“This is Batu,” he rapped out, making sure this time to flip the switch to the squadron channel first. “I’m assuming command.” They could court-martial him later, if there was a later. “Jettison the bomb loads, squadron turn to new heading oh-niner-oh degrees.” Straight west would do; they could figure out the exact navigation later. “Keep the formation, we’re dead meat if we break up.” Maybe that wasn’t true, maybe the fighters wouldn’t be able to hunt them all down; but better a decision, any decision, right now than the perfectly correct one in two minutes. Anyway they could always break up, but getting back together again would be impossible. The formation turned with agonising slowness, one vee at a time – ragged, ragged, there were holes were wing leaders should have been, but it turned. Bombs exploded far below; Batu hoped cordially that there was a Punjabi Army formation somewhere down there. Perhaps this slaughter wasn’t a complete waste, if they were lucky. The goddamn fighters were coming around for another firing pass, but there was nothing to be done about that except whisper a prayer to the bodhisattva – Batu became aware that the voice in the intercom wasn’t his own, but Kunwoo the navigator’s. “Now, and in the hour of our deaths, Amen.” Then he started in again from the top, “Hail Mary, full of Grace” – Batu tuned it out. He had a job to do, namely to start turning the aircraft, now, following the vee in front of him. Kunwoo didn’t, right now, although he’d be busy when the time came to figure their way back; so he might as well pray. They would need it.
April 3rd, 1943
A room in the Curia, New Byzantium
An hour before noon
“Sir.” Chiang stood at attention, although not in the ramrod-rigid posture traditional in a man called to the carpet for a major screwup. Why bother? The matter would not be made any better by a particularly textbook salute. “If you want my resignation, you have it.”
Konstantin looked at him coolly. “I’ll consider it,” he said calmly. “First, sit down and tell me how bad it is.”
“It’s pretty bad, sir,” Konstantin admitted, relaxing slightly. “We lost about half of Athena Squadron. They won’t be good for anything for months, at least, until we can replace the crews and, more important, their morale. I’ve pulled them back to New Byzantium and sent the Samothrace Squadron east to replace them at Urumqi.”
“Samothrace Squadron has the old Sphinx bombers?”
“Yes. Well, they’re about halfway through conversion to Harpies.”
“So we lose considerable throw weight and range.”
“Well, yes, but what’s worse is that we daren’t get too close to the Punjabi airbases. Those fighters of theirs don’t seem to have a very long range, but they’re certainly good enough for defending their own territory. In effect we can no longer contest air superiority on the Tibetan front.”
Konstantin pressed his lips together grimly. “Well. There are limits to air power. We can take Frunze by more traditional means.” They both knew that the Legions would suffer heavily for the lack of air power; but they would do their duty.
“Yes, sir. At least we still have air superiority on the Burmese front.” Incredibly, the Punjabi government didn’t seem to have built a single airfield in its new territories; true, the treacherous winds around the mountains limited the range and usefulness of Nika Squadron, but still, to have no air support at all had to be demoralising the ragheads there.
“Indeed.” Konstantin looked at Chiang, considering, for a long time. At last he said, “Thank you, Megas Aquileon, but your offer of resignation is not accepted. There is no better man for the task. Mistakes happen.”
“Thank you, sir.” Chiang very carefully did not let his shoulders slump in relief. There were any number of Komnenoi, many of them good officers with excellent connections, waiting in – hah! – the wings, ready to take over his position at the drop of a bomb.
“Now. Stick around. Perhaps you’ll find my next interview more pleasant.” Konstantin pushed a button on his desk, giving an order to his secretary. “Send him in, please, Elena.”
The door opened to admit the head of the Tenth Bureau. Arkadios’s bald forehead glistened with sweat. He wasn’t in uniform, being the head of a civilian agency, and so, properly, did not salute the commander-in-chief of the Legions; but he looked as though he rather wished he could. He’d been an officer once, like most high-ranked Komnenoi. The forms were a comfort, sometimes. He stood at something approximating attention before Konstantin’s desk, the same spot that Chiang had occupied two minutes earlier. “Sir,” he said. “You wanted to see me?”
“Yes, Arkadios,” Konstantin said, deceptively gentle. Neither Arkadios nor Chiang was fooled. “I’d like you to explain how the Punjabi acquired two entire wings of reasonably modern fighter aircraft, without my knowing about it.”
“Well, sir.” Arkadios swallowed. “We’ve recently become aware – ”
Konstantin interrupted him. “How recently? And who is ‘we’, in this context?”
“Ah. That is. Sir. There is a report from an agent in Samarkand, stating that a transfer from the Ethiopian Air Force was being discussed at high levels. It is dated January seventh. But. It gave no details, no numbers, no dates. Consequently it was assessed that it did not have sufficient priority to reach higher levels. So, ‘we’, the Tenth Bureau, have in some sense known since January. I, personally, became aware of it late yesterday.”
“I see,” Konstantin said. “You say, ‘it was assessed’. The passive voice is the death of clear thinking. Who did this assessment?”
Arkadios straightened, some defiance coming into his eyes. “Sir. No names, no pack drill. It happened on my watch.”
“So it did.” Konstantin paused, thinking. “You’re fired,” he said at length. Arkadios very carefully – Chiang could see the effort it took him – did not slump. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Was there anything else?”
“That will be all.”
Although a glance at the maps of 1940 and 1942 shows the Khanate making spectacular gains – the loss of the Tibetan highlands easily compensated by the gain of all of coastal China – the truth which underlies the triumphal appearance is that the Komnenoi, by 1942, were in something of a strategic dilemma.
It is true that the gain of coastal China had alleviated the fear of a land war against the vast Imperial Japanese Army. Some have referred to the specter of a ‘two-front’ war, but in fact this was almost irrelevant; the IJA, once landed on a broad front in China, was more than large enough to simply swamp the Legions. Whether Punjab was involved or not was quite irrelevant; trying to march through Tibet, the Moslem armies could hardly expect to reach even the source of the Yangtse by the time the IJA was bombarding New Byzantium and dictating terms. To have this threat removed was, then, an enormous gain, quite irrespective of the industry and population of China, always concentrated near the mercantile coast.
With this existential problem alleviated, however, the question for the Khanate became “What next?” And it was here that the problem arose. It was still necessary to keep a strong force in Korea, the remaining land border with Japan; true, the narrow and mountainous peninsula is easily defensible, but enough force to expect to hold it against the 200 regular divisions of the IJA remained a significant fraction of the Khanate’s strength. Then, the lengthy Chinese coast also had to be defended; true, this was much easier than attempting to hold the old inland border, but any sudden landing or coup-de-main seizure of a port would be disastrous, restoring the situation of 200 IJA divisions free to maneuver in the Chinese plains.
With the necessary subtractions for these defensive purposes – after Japan’s actions in the December War, no Japanese regime was going to get much trust in the Khanate, no matter how politely they insisted on their neutrality, or how many suicides among the old militarist clique they forced – there was very little left for projecting power; and, in any case, nowhere in particular to project it to. The traditional Siberian front, although wide in a purely physical sense, was logistically much too narrow for modern armies: The vast quantities of ammunition and fuel required, and the very limited railroads, precluded any serious offensive against Russia, which in any case had little of value east of the easily-defensible Urals. Indochina was held by an ally, and was mainly valuable – with the exception of Singapore – for its raw materials, which was not the Khanate’s bottleneck. The economic problem, indeed, was rather in processing the flood of ore from the immense reserves in Siberia. Although there had been mining there for centuries, even on a large scale by earlier standards, these earlier efforts paled by comparison to what the twentieth century could do. Coal, oil, rare earths, industrial-grade diamonds, and plain old iron ore by the thousands of tons; investors, workers, and drawers of the State dividend alike were awash in new wealth. But for all their economic success, the Komnenoi were at heart a military caste, and however much they might have rejoiced in the increase in the State dividend, their autarkic-nationalist instincts were alarmed by the sight of all this materiel flowing out of Shanghai harbour, to make guns and tanks and aircraft in the forges of other countries. Thus when the Senate and the People cast greedy eyes on other countries’ wealth, it was factories, machine tools, and skilled workers they coveted; raw materials might get a shrug of “better to have it than not,” but it did not excite the imagination.
Indochina, then, was not attractive, even before considering the number of troops required to garrison its long coastline. That left Punjab, which on the face of it had several good points as a victim of Khanate aggression: Its army and industry were both relatively weak, it had recently acquired Roman territory in the shape of the Tibetan plateau, and the traditionally garlic-heavy diet of its people made its ambassadors unpopular at parties. Unfortunately, its border with the Khanate, although suitably long and not too badly supplied with railroads, could be divided into two parts: The mountainous bit and the jungle-covered bit. Neither was very suitable for any sort of warfare except the most grinding attrition, as the Legions had proved extensively in their – successful, so far as it went – campaigns of 1940. Worse, its industries were not conveniently concentrated anywhere; and the prospect of holding down India, with another long coastline full of excellent harbour infrastructure – built to support the Black Navy in its heyday – had to make anyone familiar with the Khanate’s manpower situation wince. A small army of well-trained and well-equipped long-service volunteers was very suitable for winning battles by breaking men’s hearts and making them run. Unfortunately, at some point during Konstantin’s reforms, someone had failed to ask how, supposing the Legions made progress towards their historic goal of reunification, they were supposed to pacify the territories they took. Consequently the project of conquering even India, much less the immense area of Central Asia that was Punjab’s historic and industrial core, left Roman generals un-enthusiastic, to say the least.
Considered as an imperialistic, expansionist power, then, what the Khanate chiefly needed was a generation of peace: Time to build its industries to a level commensurate with its raw materials, time to absorb the vast unorganised mass of the Chinese people into the Legions (along with liquidating their more restive elements), time to fortify the Korean mountains and Chinese coast to economise on manpower and allow concentration elsewhere. It was, of course, extremely unlikely to be granted any such pause. The Komnenoi were, therefore, faced with a problem for which they were, by national temperament, somewhat unsuited: Namely that of prioritising their various fronts to avoid losses, rather than maximise gains. A general staff which had, historically, been much more used to considering how best to impose the will of the Senate and the People on recalcitrant barbarians found this rather difficult; but since the devil was clearly driving, they made do.
The eventual Defensive Plan of 1942 was not an inspired product of the warmaker’s art; indeed its decisions were almost dictated by geography rather than strategy. The Korean border got the maximum priority, due to its combination of nearness to the industrial core around New Byzantium, probability of war with Japan, and the unpleasant possibility of 200 divisions of Japanese conscripts simply disembarking into excellent Korean harbours and strolling into battle. The Indochinese and Russian borders were given the lowest priority, and held by thin screens of second-category units, for exactly the opposite reasons: War with Russia or Catalunya was unlikely, and even if it should come these borders were far away from anything of value – there was plenty of space to trade, at need, for time; nor would any invading force benefit from the easy logistics of the short hop over the Sea of Japan.
That left the Punjabi border and the Chinese coast, and here for the first time there was some controversy over priority. One could reasonably argue that a surprise Japanese landing would be disastrous, and that much force should be dedicated to preventing it. Such a concentration, however, would doom the Khanate to a purely defensive stance; and this, in the end, was intolerable. If Punjab was unpromising ground for expansion, it was also the only game in town; the Komnenoi simply could not bear to abandon all possibility for victory and conquest. The coast, therefore, was to be defended with what could be spared from the Tibetan Strategic Reserve, and not vice-versa; and the prestigious I Komnenoi, the elite armoured kataphrakts, were assigned to the western border.
If it came down to it, after all, the Legions had fought their way through the Tibetan plateau, at hideous cost in blood and treasure, before; there is a reason the main pass through the Himalayas is called the ‘Romanoi Kush’, ‘Killer-of-Romans’. And there was, for patriotic Komnenoi, Reunification to strive for; the ideology of the Khanate, somewhat at odds with geographic reality, had always looked to the west. In the far distance glittered the City of Men’s Desire, and even, impossibly, the Eternal City itself, temporarily a Moslem colony under a Punjabi viceroy. Against the lure, however unlikely, of such prizes, no Komnenoi worthy of the name could have bowed to mere caution; to give coastal garrisons priority over a force intended to expand the western border was psychologically impossible. Nor is it obvious that they were wrong; boldness, it is true, is not always rewarded in war, but caution very easily flows into mere timidity, and is lost. Of that sad fate, at least, the Komnenoi were in no danger.
Railroads, Revanchism, and Revolt: Grand Strategies of the Great Powers, 1940-1950
Chapter 8: Western Wind, Eastern Enigma
Polytechnische Universität Paris Presse
April 3rd, 1941
Shanghai Harbour, Occupied China
The harbour wasn’t exactly quiet, even at this time of night; late shifts were still unloading high-priority cargoes in the harsh light of floodlamps. Still, it wasn’t the insane bustle of daytime, when the goods of every nation on Earth flooded into the main entrepot of all China and most of Siberia. It was just the right level of activity: Not so little that a man stood out, not so much that he was likely to encounter someone he knew, or worse, someone who knew him, or his face. From a dossier, perhaps.
Even so, Xian felt considerably relieved when he finally ducked into the warehouse – not abandoned, here in the heart of the docks, that would have been economically insane; but not in intense use just at this moment, since it wasn’t holding any high-priority cargoes. Nothing to arouse suspicion, even if someone saw a light; many of Shanghai’s parsimonious family-owned shipping companies used their warehouses for office space as well – living space too, in some cases – and might work far into the night. So Xian had to suppress the urge to roll his eyes when his knock on the door was met with a hiss of “What’s the password?”
Someone had been reading too much imported Russian spy-fiction, again; what if he’d been a policeman making a routine check? Or just someone accidentally knocking on the wrong door? Nothing could have been better suited to make him insanely suspicious. Anyway, what were they going to do about it if he didn’t answer right, shoot him and throw him into the harbour water? But he had lost that argument some time ago, so he merely gritted his teeth slightly on the reply, “Dragons Shall Rise”, and entered without complaining about it.
He was the last to arrive, he saw without surprise. The others were all much younger than him, students mostly, and had freer evenings – too free, in his judgement. When I was their age, he thought ironically; but the fact was, when he had been their age he’d been in a prisoner-of-war camp – well, just out of it, actually. Not, in any case, hanging about drinking tea and studying the classics (or Russian spy novels) all day. A Komnenoi prisoner-of-war camp might have done some of these young louts some good. Being drafted into a Working Youth Brigade at fifteen might have been good for their character too. Not so good for their health, he admitted, remembering the fate of most of his comrades. It was the lucky ones who’d made it into the POW camp. Lucky, or smart. The last few tenacious holdouts had been gassed, he’d heard, after month-long sieges of the warehouse districts. Nobody liked to talk much about the desperate final days of China’s independence. Not even among the victors.
“All right,” Huang said, taking up a stack of papers and rapping it on the table in lieu of a gavel; it was his turn to be the chairman. All very egalitarian, to be sure, but Xian wished they’d give the job permanently to someone who knew how to run a meeting; Huang did not live up to his name. “Now we’re all here, let’s get started. The shipment has come in. It’s in those boxes over there.”
“Out in plain sight of everyone, in a warehouse we don’t control?” Xian wished he’d kept his voice down, but sheer horror had overwhelmed his political instinct for a moment. At least he had their attention. “That’s just, that’s – we have to move it. Right now.” He stared at Huang, trying to will some sense into the boy; alas, it would take more than a mere shout of horror from a veteran of a great war, two major uprisings, and several riots to get through that skull.
“Well, of course,” Huang said soothingly. “It’s right here on the agenda, item three: Where to put the stuff. First we have to go over the action items from last month, though.”
Xian sat back in his chair, defeated by the sheer magnitude of this. They had weapons, just sitting in their heavy military-looking boxes that the warehouse employees wouldn’t recognise when they came in tomorrow; that wasn’t a labour-camp offense, that was anything up to and including actual literal crucifixion. And their group was far too large, eight people, any of whom might be an informer or just have a loose tongue. And… and… action items! He looked in anguish at Zhou, who tightened his lips, but nodded. Maybe his son could find the words, maybe they would listen to someone their own age, someone who hadn’t defended the Mishing Warehouse with an ancient singleshot rifle and three bullets, but who had studied the classics and could turn a phrase… Zheng broke into the argument between Huang and Da about whether the pamphlets had been widely enough distributed. “Comrades, if I may? While both comrades Huang and Da make interesting points, I believe we should, perhaps, table this discussion temporarily. The guns must be out of here by tomorrow morning.” Xian shot him a grateful glance. He knew his son was embarrassed by his dockworker father in front of his intellectual friends; but he still had enough filial respect – enough brains, even – to take Xian’s advice on matters of tactics.
“Oh, very well,” said Huang peevishly; he had been losing the argument. “Let us move to the third agenda item, then, since comrades Zheng and Xian insist. We have, let’s see” – he looked at the papers in front of him – “five crates each with twenty-five Arisaka rifles; ten crates of ammunition; and five of grenades.”
“And you wrote this down?” Xiang burst out.
“Why yes, comrade,” Huang returned mildly. “How else should I keep track of things?” Apparently he took Xiang’s stare of mute horror for assent, for he continued. “Now, I had thought that each of us might store two or three crates, but I understand now that this is not very practical; they’re larger than I realised, and heavier.” Xiang gritted his teeth; it was good, actually, that he wouldn’t have to argue against spreading the weapons out in student apartments that any number of random girlfriends and acquaintances wandered through. He very grudgingly awarded Huang a mental point. “So, I am opening the floor to suggestions, comrades.” Huang looked around benignly.
Xiang rubbed his forehead. “We should have had a plan for this before we arranged the shipment,” he pointed out wearily. “With a specific recipient for each rifle, or at least each crate.” And why hadn’t he insisted on that himself, he wondered? He’d been sick, last month; and then before that he’d been out of town visiting another cell… dammit, they shouldn’t need him to hold their hands to quite this extent.
“Be that as it may,” Da broke in, “we are now faced with the problem that we did not, in fact, have such a plan; and must make one.”
“True,” Xiang nodded; perhaps there was some hope for these idiots. He should not have let himself get distracted. “As a temporary measure, perhaps my brother’s truck would do. It won’t serve in the long term, but we can load it up right now and have the items in a location we control, not subject to random bypassers’ curiosity.”
“Splendid!” Huang beamed. “Then with that settled, let us return to the issue of the pamphlets. Comrade Da, I really do think – ”
“Right,” Xiang overrode this. “I’m going to fetch the truck. Finish the action items while I’m gone, and then we’ll load it up when I get back. Zheng, come with me, please.”
“Certainly, father,” his son replied, looking just as pleased to be out of the wrangle; smartest of the lot, Xiang thought to himself, not that this was exactly a point to take pride in.
Once they were safely out of the warehouse, Xiang took a deep breath. Shanghai’s harbour air wasn’t exactly a refreshing ocean breeze, but at least it didn’t smell of incompetence that could get both him and his son crucified. He started walking, east.
“Father, where are you going?” Zheng asked. “Uncle Ho’s shop is the other way.”
“I know. We’re not coming back. They can find their own truck.”
“What?” Zheng stopped. “What do you mean?”
Xiang stopped too; his heart was still pounding, he noticed uneasily, rubbing his left side. He was getting old for this business of revolution. “Rifles, son. Weapons are what separate the serious revolutionary from the idle chatterer. And the Komnenoi know it, too. Pamphlets and secret meetings and passwords, that’s a couple of years in a labour camp; not a spring outing, but quite survivable.” Xiang had survived it twice, in fact, three years each time, in addition to his stint as a prisoner of war. “For weapons, they crucify. No judge bound by written law, no magistrate schooled in the classics; the Ministry of Internal Harmony goons come in and take you away, and the next morning you’re nailed to a beam and wishing the asphyxia would hurry up, already. Actual iron nails, son, through your own personal wrists; I’ve seen it happen, to men I knew. Respected. Loved, even.” He shook off the memories. “And say what you like about the Komnenoi, stupid they’re not. They know what’s dangerous and what isn’t. No amount of pamphlets will topple their rule. That’s why I use weapons as my test of intelligence. If a resistance cell is smart enough to realise that, as soon as they get some guns – and no matter what Huang thinks, it’s not actually difficult; the Japanese are only too delighted to supply them – they are in Deep Serious Business, then they may be smart enough to actually do some damage, and be useful when The Day comes. And if not, if they keep arguing about pamphlets and agendas and action items… then I triage them.” He paused reflectively. “Grant you, leaving crates of rifles out in full view on a warehouse floor is a whole new level of stupid. I may need a new word. Quartage?”
Zheng stared at him in horror. He was twenty, Xiang reminded himself, and quite idealistic. “Triage?”
“That’s right. That’s why I’m going this way, to the police station.”
Xiang held up his hands placatingly. “No, no, I’m not going to turn them in! That is, not to the Ministry of Internal Harmony. Just to my friend Sergeant Wen. Who will arrest them, of course. He’ll get a commendation, too. But there won’t be any mention of weapons, in his report. Just pamphlets and agenda items. A year in a prison camp; two years, max, if they resist arrest. And the weapons, well, Wen will find somewhere safe for them; and they’ll be ready for The Day. Wen is no idle chatterer.”
“Those are my friends!” Zheng protested.
“Yes, I know,” Xiang said softly. “And I’m an uneducated dockworker. And Wen is a policeman, a running dog, and he never studied, either. And your friends are smart lads, in their way, I’ll not deny it; just… impractical. And you’re easier in their company than in mine – no need to shake your head; there’s no shame in that, and I’m proud of your education. So. Just this once, I’ll offer you a choice. We can walk a third way, if you like; home, not to the police station. Your mother will have dinner for us; roast duck, I believe. And we’ll leave your friends to find their own damnation. Maybe they will have a rush of blood to the brains, and get their fingers out and get moving. More likely they’ll end up on the Hill. My way will spare them that; they’re young and healthy, they’ll easily make it two years in the camps. They might even learn something practical. And then you never work in the resistance again, at least not with any group I’m involved in. So. Your choice, son.”
Zheng stared at him, anguished. “But – you can’t ask me to – ”
“What, you thought the revolution had no hard choices? The Dragon Shall Rise, son; that’s what it’s about. Not looking brave in front of your friends’ girls, or even your friends. If that means putting some well-intentioned idiots in the camps for a year or two, instead of letting them talk their way into a cross, well. For me that’s not so hard, actually. But I’m old, and tired.”
“You really think…” Zheng trailed off. “And am I a ‘well-intentioned idiot’? Would you have left me there, if I weren’t your son?”
“Well – I would, actually,” Xiang admitted. “But you were certainly the brightest man in that room under thirty.”
Zheng’s eyes narrowed. “Not high praise, is it? Coming from you?”
Dammit, the boy knew him too well. “You were the one who got them to talk seriously about the guns.”
“I won’t betray my friends.” Zheng’s mouth set in a stubborn line that Xiang knew all too well. This was the damn motorcycle all over again. Which, admittedly, Zheng had eventually bought with his own money. But the resistance was a bit more serious than disagreements over traffic safety. And of course the boy would see it in terms of honour and betrayal, rather than education; the camps had a reputation all out of proportion to their actual deadliness, the Komnenoi did that deliberately, as a deterrent. Xiang sighed, exhausted. Actually he would be just as glad to have Zheng out of the resistance business; it was too nerve-wracking.
“All right, ” he acceded. “Let’s go home, then.”
“No? Make up your mind, son.”
“I’m going back to warn them. You do whatever you want.” Zheng turned on his heel, but had not gotten more than three strides when Xiang caught him by the shoulder and whirled him around.
“No, son,” Xiang said, quite calmly – but the dockworker’s muscle in his arm bulged. His slim, intellectual son’s eyes widened at the strength in the hand holding his shoulder, digging in cruelly under the collarbone to paralyse the arm. “I’m your father, and you will obey me; that is ancient custom and law both Roman and Chinese. I am your superior in the Resistance, and you will obey me; that is necessity and survival. And, right now, on this street – I’m the man with the muscle, the experience, and the will to beat the silliness out of you, if necessary. So you will obey me, three times over; and you are not going back. The police station, or home; those are your choices.”
Zheng’s mouth worked, but no words came. At last he whispered. “Two years? Your word on it?”
“At most. One is much more likely.”
Tears trickled from Zheng’s eyes, but he nodded. “Sergeant Wen, then.”
“All right.” Xiang let go of his son’s shoulder, and Zheng slumped in defeat. “And well done,” he added.
There would come a Day; The Day, for which Xiang had worked all his adult life, when China would rise again and be strong; and perhaps Zheng’s sons would not have to make terrible choices. But this day… Xiang’s son had chosen to continue his father’s work.