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“Do you want war?” yelled the Chinese Premier down the phone to the President of the United States. “Because wars have been started over far, far less!”

“With respect, Mr Premier, we had no choice but to respond after your sub sunk the Abraham Lincoln,” replied POTUS. “You had to expect a response with the whole world watching.”

“Bah! With greater respect, Mr President, I already told you that we didn’t initiate that attack,” replied the Premier, shifting uncomfortably on the chair in his luxury hotel room in Manhattan. “Why would we? What would there be to be gained? If we haven’t responded to your other provocations in the South China Sea, why would we now?”

“The missile came from one of your hunter-killers,” said POTUS, emotions in check. “That is an unmistakable fact.”

“A submarine you also sunk, which puts you ahead in casualty stakes.”

“It’s more helpful if we don’t think of things in those terms, Mr Premier.”

Which, thought the Premier, was an easy thing for the person with fewer casualties to say. “In any case, we think the sub missile was launched by one of those ninjas running loose.”

“Chinese ninjas, by all accounts. Trained by your military.”

Alleged Chinese ninjas.”

“Alleged, then.” Both men had an archness in the voices, unaccustomed as they were to being so directly challenged. POTUS continued: “I’m sorry, Mr Premier, but I have to answer to my people and my military. Action was required.”

“That action was unjust,” said the Premier, still angry. “Many other ships were destroyed besides the Sun Wu.” The Premier recalled the scene of the wreckage, now being played side-by-side on the world’s TVs with the footage of the downed American carrier. The images enraged him – how dare the Americans kill his people? – but the death toll and the mysterious manner in which the Chinese aircraft carrier was destroyed produced in him not a little awe.

In the end, perhaps death was the only thing not overrated in life.

But back to the duplicitous American on the other end of the phone.

The Premier continued: “Now I have to answer to MY people. They’re furious, too. Our national prestige has been assaulted. There’s an angry mob outside your embassy in Beijing.”

“Matched by an equally angry mob outside your embassy in New York. But to answer your previous question, no, we don’t want war. I want to do everything possible to avoid that.”

“Attacking our navy is a poor way to start, then.” The Premier glanced over at the armed bodyguards in the room. “What exactly did you use, anyway? God’s own gun?”

His people had told him the attack had come from space, which is why the Chinese military was readying its anti-satellite missiles and searching for a target. The Premier had heard that the Americans had cancelled Project Thor, its secret project to deliver a kinetic orbital strike from space . . . but maybe they had mothballed Thor to create a newer, better weapon. So much for the Outer Space Treaty banning weapons of mass destruction from space.

But the US President wasn’t giving anything away. “The weapon system is classified, Mr Premier. What is not classified is my sincere desire to sit down with you and talk this over.”

The Premier paused and leant back in his chair, thinking furiously. He was already ensconced in his hotel ahead of tomorrow’s UN meeting when they had learnt of the sinking of the aircraft carrier. He was now in enemy territory. His security people had quickly taken over all the floors of the hotel – rudely evicting VIPs from the top floor – and turned the building into a fortress. A fortress filled with giant TVs and marble spa baths, but a fortress still.

More armed Chinese agents were outside, maintaining a wide perimeter around the hotel.

The Americans let it happen, maintaining a respectful distance. Such efforts had been anticipated by the home forces.

For now, there was an uneasy stalemate.

And it was going to take a lot more than the ritualistic exchange of pandas to solve this political problem.

The Premier hadn’t lied. The Chinese people were demanding a response. His military wanted to respond as well, anxious to shake off the “peace disease” that had afflicted and weakened their ranks. Escalation was in the air. The US and Chinese navies were facing each other, commanders with fingers on triggers waiting for the order to fire. Rival jets were flying so close to each other it was a miracle none had collided. Citizens both East and West were baying for each other’s blood, humiliated by the blows to their national prestige.

“Why should I meet with you tomorrow? How do I know you don’t have more outrages planned?”

“Because the criminals behind this are pushing us towards conflict . . . conflict neither of us really want. The world is holding its breath, just like it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mr Premier, this is our Cuban Missile Crisis. A show of unity at the UN would be the best way to show everyone that we’re jointly determined not to be cowed or coerced by terrorism.”

“By all rights, I should just leave. Your actions prove you are a poor host.”

“I implore you to stay, Mr Premier,” said POTUS, soundly deeply sincere. “This is a time for unity. For diplomacy. Not for leaving the negotiating table. We need to unclench our hands.” And our sphincters, perhaps, thought the Premier. Then the other man added: “I can guarantee your safety.”

For a moment the US President sounded like a Mafia godfather, guaranteeing a rival’s security at a sit-down where the rival would be assassinated.

The Chinese Premier paused for a long time. Many thoughts swirled through his head. The sinking of the carrier. His own domestic political situation. The military posture of the Americans. The risk of his own assassination, just like that of the American Vice President, a secret his security forces had winkled out. The possible repercussions if he did leave.

What was the right thing to do? What would be gained by staying? Was “POTUS” planning further attacks?

The American President was supposedly a “good” and “honest” man. But how “good” could any leader that sent men to their deaths be? And how “honest” was any leader who would give the order to suddenly blow an aircraft carrier out of the water with a secret, undeclared weapon?

The Chinese Premier often found the Americans inconsistent. Whereas the Chinese stated their intentions and kept their word – the benefits, perhaps of having a one-party system – American policy and intentions sometimes varied between Presidents and administrations. That made them unpredictable, prone to about-turns and policy changes based on personality and public opinion.

And they called the Chinese inscrutable.

But POTUS wasn’t completely off the mark. They had both lost aircraft carriers. There was a delicate balance of sorts as the two navies stared down at each other on the South China Sea.

“Mr Premier?” prompted POTUS.

The Chinese Premier paused again. He needed to make the right decision here, particularly after the early “retirement” of his predecessor. The stakes for him – personally – were high. Perhaps he needed to play for time. Perhaps staying put was the wise move.

And above all else he needed to make the wise move. His predecessor had made “unwise” moves. And look what had happened to him.

And so the Chinese Premier eventually said: “I will stay, Mr President. But there had better be no more surprises. No more sunken ships or death from above. Because then we might be faced with circumstances neither of us will be able to control.”

Continue the story with Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out now as an ebook and paperback. And see how the story started with the first book, The Spartan, out now.

For the Young Adult book market, the biggest event is the release of a new Harry Potter novel. For the adult literary market – particularly for those with a taste for the historical – the release of a new Hilary Mantel novel is perhaps its equivalent.
The Mirror and the Light, the third and final instalment to Mantel’s superb, million-selling Thomas Cromwell trilogy, was released last month. Critics are already enthused about the Booker winner’s latest offering, calling it a masterpiece.
I have already ordered my copy and blocked out time to pore through its 912 pages with glee. I regard Mantel’s story about the rise and fall of King Henry the Eighth’s Chief Minister as the most enthralling historical work since I, Claudius (or, as many a schoolboy called it, Roman letters included, “I, Clavdivs”). The TV series starring Claire Foy, Damian Lewis and Oscar winner Mark Rylance as Cromwell also rivals the television adaptation of I, Claudius.
Yes, I admit it: I have “Mantel mania”.
Yet is saddens me to think that others will turn their back on the new book, not only for the number of pages, but also because it is “historical”. I noticed a disdain way back in high school for modern and ancient history, a lack of interest in the tales of the Greeks, Tudors and Romans but also Australia’s own history. As for myself, I was so fascinated by the Spartans they have influenced my own books.
Sadly, this disdain has made its way into society. History is “fusty” and “boring”. Statues and memorials are Airbnbs for pigeons, not opportunities for reflection.
Yet without history, how do we understand where we are now? How will we appreciate the eternal battle between church and state? How will we mark the many wars, the many sacrifices, the many inventions that helped create today’s society? How will we avoid the mistakes of history if we don’t know what they are, such as “the Thucydides Trap”?
If we don’t read and understand history, we won’t appreciate it, either in books or in our landscape.
We will condemn our history to the wrecking ball, as we seem to be already doing in our major cities.
Then there is my current fear: that the terrible memories of the recent bushfires will be forgotten. That amid new events and catastrophes, COVID-19 or otherwise, we will forget the smoke in the cities, the terrible toll in the bush, and be surprised if and when it happens again.
For those who don’t learn history are in danger of being continually surprised.
Or, even worse: they are doomed to repeat it.

Keep the reading going with my military thriller The Spartan, out now as an ebook. Then enjoy the sequel, Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out now as an ebook and paperback.

The Chinese Premier had learnt how to handle unexpected phone calls from the US President. Typically his American opposite asked him to address the vast difference in their balance of trade, to let the yuan appreciate or to do something about Chinese protectionism. Or, most tiresome of all, he would lecture him about human rights like he was addressing the White House press gallery in public and not the Chinese Premier in private.

The premier would listen politely, promise to look into it – and then, just like the Japanese had done with the Americans decades before, when they were at the height of their powers, do nothing. He wasn’t about to hamstring China for winning at a game that the Americans themselves had help create. The Americans had forgotten one of the rules of international diplomacy: never ask for something you don’t have the strength to take.

The latest G20 summit, where the heads of Europe had offered him and China’s money a rock star welcome while the US President sat fuming on the sidelines, should have told the Americans everything they needed to know about the new global realpolitik.
Yet it was with great alarm that he heard the president rage about the presence of biological weapons of mass destruction on American soil. Worse, that he had proof of Chinese involvement in bringing them to the States, and plans to detonate them. The furious president said that if even one went off he would hold China responsible, and he couldn’t guarantee what would happen next. America had invaded Iraq on the strength of suspected weapons of mass destruction. They were stone-cold paranoid about WMDs. If they had proof of real ones on US soil …

Now coldly angry, both at the threat and the idea that someone had planned this attack behind his back – he would never have authorised something like this during China’s catch-up phase – the premier promised he would do everything in his power to assist the president. That as soon as he got off the phone he would launch an immediate investigation, starting with the background of the assailant that had been caught, now dead. (Did the Americans torture him to death, he wondered.) He would send some of his best men to assist in the investigation. The premier offered the US President China’s full co-operation, and he meant it. The president said he’d phone again soon and that he hoped they could avert catastrophe together.

When the call was ended, the Chinese Premier slammed his fist on his desk. He did not need this kind of headache. He did not want any disruption to the status quo, anything that might make the people restive and question their leaders. He did not want an Arab Spring sweeping his country, where the West hypocritically turned on its former partners and installed new leaders. The lesson of Colonel Gaddafi, that strutting buffoon, was that any country without weapons of mass destruction could be invaded and overthrown by the West. China would never make that mistake. Its leaders would never allow themselves to be pulled out of a drain pipe and shot in the head by rebels like the late Libyan dictator. They would not die suspiciously of “exhaustion” on military trains like the late Kim Jong-il. There would be no Chinese Spring.

He knew that some of his generals had talked about war with America – seemingly welcomed it, even, yearning to embrace China’s glorious military heritage. The military was always pushing the civilian establishment, jostling for position, seeing how far it could go and how much ground it could win from the soft civilians. The premier knew how the military thought: they viewed politicians as weak, corruptible. Yet the premier and his cohorts were far from weak. And corruption was a country-wide problem, from the lowest villager to the most powerful general.

The Communist Party as a principle was firmly against such a war with the US. Not until China’s economy rivalled America’s, along with its army, would they consider such a step. And it wouldn’t be a full-scale war: more like a lesson. Such as seizing the recalcitrant Taiwan and fending off the inevitable US response. Or discouraging American warships in Asia with patrols of their own. No, with trillions of Chinese yuan pumped into the US economy and millions of Chinese working in factories making products to sell to the US, China didn’t want to destroy the US. You don’t destroy your best customer. But China did hope to supplant it, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa.

The Chinese Premier picked up the phone. “Get me everyone,” he said.

Continue reading with The Spartan, out now as an ebook. Then keep reading with the sequel, Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out now as an ebook and paperback.

 

Bad news comes in threes, and for those enlightened few still paying attention to the big picture, news that China had overnight banned all flights to and from the US was a shock. The Chinese publicly blamed a potential SARS-like virus emanating from the US. Privately, they were preparing themselves in case one of their rogue agents succeeding to letting off one of the plague bombs. And they were putting all their chips on the bet that at least one would succeed.
The public, being information poor, knew little better – as long as there was still NASCAR, the Lingerie Football League, soap operas, movies about boy wizards battling evil sorcerers, celebrity miracle diets and medieval-themed chain restaurants, life went on as normal. Yet the rich and powerful were alert and alarmed, antennae up. The smart money was short-selling American companies on the stock exchange. Important IPOs were mysteriously delayed. More than one American billionaire had tried to flee the country on “business”. Garin had had his men stop their Gulfstreams at the airport, cars with flashing lights blocking take-off, telling them they had to stay for reasons of Homeland Security. They had kicked up a stink – “don’t you know who I am?” – but to hell with them, Garin thought. You made your billions here, you dodged taxes here, you can die here along with everyone else if it came down to that.
Meanwhile, the nation’s finest content providers and establishment print media who sniffed Pulitzer material were pursuing the virus story with vigour. Were the Chinese right? Was there evidence of a SARS-style virus on American soil? If so, where? Was there a link between a potential virus and the raising of the terrorism threat level? What was the reasoning behind all military leave for soldiers stationed in the US being cancelled? Why won’t the president clarify the situation?
The President couldn’t clarify anything, knee-deep as he was in apocalypse planning. In the halls of US power, grim cogitations were taking place in secret rooms behind closed doors. (In the past one would have described those rooms as “secret smoky rooms”, where general puffed on cigars as they plotted nuclear trajectories, but now even the Pentagon was a non-smoking area. Smoking while discussing the apocalypse was a health hazard, apparently.)
Preparations for containing a civilian outbreak were continuing. A quick check of the plot space in the nation’s graveyards proved that they were woefully inadequate for the type of mega-casualties expected in the case of mass biological outbreak. Garin wondered if they’d end all up in a Doctor Strangelove-type world, living in mineshafts 100 feet under the ground, 10 women to every man, having mandatory sex to create babies and bring the population and GDP back up.
Plans for isolating entire cities in case of outbreak were finalised. Police were reminded to read their manuals for dealing with terrorist threats. News of the directive quickly leaked to the net: more fodder for the conspiracy theorists and Armageddon scaremongers. Beat cops were pulled away from handing out tickets and attending domestic disputes to search for the terrorists.
Meanwhile, the American empire busied itself protecting its overseas interests. Luminaries important to the US economy on the ground in China were quietly advised to leave the Communist state and return home, by private jet, boat or other means. Sprout wings if you have to, but get out of Dodge. Explanations had been suitably vague and dire. Other VIPs across Asia were told to be on a high state of alert.
Uncle Sam’s armed forces changed their posture accordingly. Nuclear-armed submarines were sent into position in South East Asia, missiles in range of the Chinese heartland. American aircraft carriers headed en masse into the region for “training exercises”. An express delivery of armed democracy. Spy satellites were diverted to orbit above China. Long-range bombers were given new orders, new flight paths. Allied countries were quietly tapped on the shoulder, reminded of long-dormant security treaties and commitments. You got rich on our watch, we protected you from the commies, now it’s time to pay Uncle Sam back. Important people around the world were shadowed by operatives: some with orders to protect, others with orders to neutralise if worst came to worst. The country’s defence readiness condition quietly slipped to DEFCON 2 – one step before DEFCON 1, or imminent war.
America suspected – in fact, knew – that China was mirroring many of its own actions. Its submarines had been tracked approaching the US east coast. Red satellites changed course. Critical members of the Chinese diaspora  were warned. Nuclear weapons were tested for readiness. Sleeper agents were activated. The drums of war beat louder. And if those plague bombs went off, it would only take a small push, or a regrettable incident, or an overzealous commander with his finger on the trigger for the world to go up in flames.

Keeping reading with The Spartan, now available as an ebook. Then follow the story in Game Of Killers: The Spartan, out as a paperback and ebook.

I shouldn’t be doing this, thought Colonel Garin, as he walked the grim streets of New York.

As Homeland Security’s top troubleshooter, with extensive connections to the army and its special forces programs, there were a thousand other pressing things that demanded his highly-paid attention.

After all, America was still reeling from the aftermath of the plague delivered by China’s canister conspiracists. The worst of it was now over, the noxious spread of the plague on US soil halted, but the American death toll was in the unknown millions. Just about everyone knew of someone who had died. The country was one race, color and creed united under fear.

And violence.

America’s cities and suburbs had become war zones, its suspicious, scared residents becoming paranoid and hostile after rumours that those taken to “quarantine zones” were never making it out alive. Thus once-compliant keyboard warriors and soccer moms were fighting the police tooth and nail in the streets. Molotov cocktails crashed against plastic shields. Riots that made Watts and LA look like bonfire parties were breaking out in all the major cities. Many areas had become or remained W.R.O.L – Without Rule Of Law.

If truth was the first casualty of conflict, then innocent civilians were the second, with law enforcement officials coming a close third.

Many police officers died.

Looters roamed the streets. Snipers were exercising their Second Amendment rights by shooting down news helicopters.

Up was down. Black was white. One and one made three.

The only disaster missing was a Sharknado.

“It’s chaos out there,” Garin said aloud, causing nervous citizens on the streets of once-fair Gotham to avoid him.

The authorities were doing the best that they could, but the United States hadn’t experienced this level of disruption and paranoia since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, which killed more than 3 per cent of the world.

The main difference now in the current age of entitlement was that, half the country was heavily armed and had access to the still-functioning internet, listening to every crank and tin-foil hatter claiming that the government had released the plague on purpose. Some citizens had even refused to take the cure, holding up siege-style in their houses, thoughtfully infecting all their loved ones in the process.

Many called for war against China for its part in the plague – sometime just had to take a major hit after the death toll in America. The only reason that the stealth bombers weren’t already fuelled and dropping the Mother Of All Bombs on Beijing was because China had suffered just like America, and the canister conspiracists had been rogue agents rather than state-sanctioned operatives.

So, in fact, the only folks happy with the situation – apart from the one per cent of the population who were psychopaths, who thought all their Christmases had come at once and were busy bringing their darkest fantasies to life – were the doomsday preppers eating tinned meat and hoarding toilet paper in their bunkers. They could finally point one Nomex-gloved finger at the liberal media and say “I told you so”, their paranoid choice of lifestyle vindicated at last.

The country had had, to use the Chinese phrase, to chi ku: to eat bitterness. And after pampered years as the world’s lone superpower, the United States neither had the taste or the stomach for much bitterness.

Then there was the rest of the world. The world had changed. And not for the better.

The global economy was in the crapper: to quote Garin’s son Robbie, the craven investment banker and economic hit man, fruit of his loins if not his soul, “Wall Street can’t make any money in this environment!”

“Damn punk kid,” Garin muttered.

China was holding Japan’s ships vessels hostage for “reparation for World War II crimes”, while ramming Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea. It was also taking advantage of the world’s distracted state to build what was being called “The Great Wall Of Sand” in the South China Sea, claiming as much territory as it could despite the objections of its neighbors. If the world had had any lingering doubts about how China posed an existential threat to the current global order, such doubts had now vanished.

Meanwhile, Japan was making ominous noises about rewriting its post-World War II constitution so it could re-arm itself. It had rushed through bills allowing its soldiers to fight overseas for the first time since 1945. Japanese and Chinese fighter jets were flying so close to each other in the South China Sea they were colliding mid-air.

North Korea sensed weakness and was launching probing attacks on its border with South Korea.

Africa was divided along tribal, religious and economic lines.

The Germans ran Europe again.

The Middle East was its usual mess.

Taiwan remained occupied by the People’s Liberation Army. Hong Kong? Well, everyone knew what had happened there.

Meanwhile, the UN was left holding its various multinational dicks in its hands.

Among its allies, America’s impotence in allowing the tragedy to happen was noted, its status as the world’s sheriff in question.

More and more people were saying the world had gone from a unipolar world dominated by Uncle Sam to an unstable bipolar world where it had to share power with China: a development viewed with suspicion and fear by many.

In the face of all this, Washington was paralysed with indecision, partisanship and horror. Barbed wire was everywhere in the homeland, like some Martian weed, as if to suggest that the country was undergoing some horrible transformation.

In short, it was a darker world. A darker America.

Garin watched as a homeless man screamed incoherently to himself on a street corner, trying to ward off some invisible evil.

“I know how you feel, pal,” Garin thought.

He was reminded of a quote from his more religious days: “Outside the church there is no salvation.” But Garin was not about to get down on his knees and start reciting the 23rd Psalm. He wouldn’t cry or scream or pray to the Lord, the Sky Father or even Oprah. That was not his way. That was the not the special forces way.

And as they liked to say in special forces: the only easy day was yesterday.

Game Of Killers: The Spartan is available now on Amazon as a hardback or ebook. You can also see how we got here in the first novel, The Spartan.