Chen-li Chu was standing on the bridge waiting to go into the meeting with the military command when he saw the American plane circling overhead. "That's the Ambassador, the one we're to meet in a few days," he said to the aide standing beside him. "Intelligence said he flew out of Beijing this morning."
The plane came back and circled again, this time tilted toward the left, obviously taking in the scene below. "He must be sitting on the left side of the plane," the aide responded.
"I hope he enjoys the view," said Chen-li, more than a little satisfied at how well the operation had gone so far.
The intelligence and foresight of the military had been extraordinarily accurate. As predicted, the Americans had been taken by surprise. They had not been driven to any immediate retaliation. The Administration in Washington was preaching restraint and trying to find a way to resolve the two countries' differences without conflict. And as predicted, Chen-li Chu would soon be negotiating from a position of strength.
As a result of this extraordinary gambit, China had established a beachhead on the most important piece of real estate in the world. Whoever commanded Hawaii commanded the entire Pacific. The old view had said that the American outposts -- Samoa, Wake, Midway -- were bastions that would have to be taken one by one, which would be all but impossible. But now, following the island-hopping strategy of General Douglas MacArthur in the Second World War, the invasion had left these smaller islands as stranded assets, more or less indefensible, while the enemy had been unable to respond without considering where to get the next $30 billion it had to borrow every week. Sun Tzu was right. The greatest accomplishment in war was not defeating your enemy but breaking his will without fighting.
"Meeting in five minutes, sir," said a junior lieutenant, shaking Chen-li out of his reverie. There was to be a holographic conference with the military and the Premier in the conference room below deck. Chen-li would be a passive participant, waiting to see the intelligence reports and gauge how the military was evaluating the situation. For now they were in charge. It was only when the negotiations began that Chen-li would take over.
As a senior diplomat from a long line of diplomats, Chen-li had a slightly different perspective, although he was careful not to show it. His great-great-grandfather had been a court official in the Ming Dynasty, just before the Boxer Rebellion. His great-grandfather had served in the Kuomintang but had defected just before Chang Kai-Shek fled to Formosa and had made a successful transition to Communism, rising to a high position under Mao Tse-tung.
He barely survived the Cultural Revolution of a century ago, spending three years cleaning hog pens on a collective farm before finally being allowed to return to Peking. His fate could have been much worse. His close friend Deng Xiaoping had seen his son murdered by an angry crowd of Mao-inspired students who had thrown him out a fifth floor window.
After Mao's death, Chen-li's grandfather, following in his father's footsteps, had joined Deng's effort to transform China into the most prosperous country in the world. Chen-li Fei had been given charge of the Baoshan Steel Company when most of its assets were the remains of Mao's backyard steel program and turned it into one of the world's mightiest manufacturers. With the fruits of his success, he had bought back the family's 18th century compound in Shanghai, where Chen-li Chu had been raised in the most ideal circumstances.
From his youth, Chen-li had been groomed for diplomatic service. His father had been a bit of a maverick, refusing to follow his own father into the steel business but returning to diplomacy instead. His far-flung pursuits had left Chen-li Chu alone in the family library to absorb his father's marvelous collection of books. By the age of twelve he could converse intelligently about the differences in rice production in the Philippines and Peru. At sixteen, he began to join his father on world jaunts, which broadened his perspective. He sailed through university and by 24 was publishing papers on the world competition for oil. At 30 he had completed his masterpiece, China's Place in the Post-American World, which catapulted him immediately into the ranks of senior diplomacy. It was for this reason that, twenty years later, he found himself aboard the Beijing squinting at the Hawaiian sunlight surveying the lucent waters of Pearl Harbor.
A military aide came on deck and saluted smartly. "Meeting is about to begin, sir."
Chen-li followed him downstairs into the conference room. It was set up for holograms, with an electronic stage at one end of a horseshoe table. The military uniforms circled the table, their red-lined caps set firmly upon their heads. Even his aides were in uniform. Chen-li was the only civilian from the diplomatic corps. He took a seat inconspicuously at the end of the table. Almost immediately the ghostly figure of the Prime Minister appeared.
"Let me congratulate you," the Prime Minister began almost before his image had come into focus, "for the success of Operation Flying Swan. You have fulfilled your duty in every aspect. The people of China are proud of you. You have served your country well.
"Almost one hundred years ago, the people of China and the people of the United States signed the Shanghai Communiqué, which marked the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The present discussions are only a continuation of those negotiations. Always the People of China have sought peaceful resolutions to our difficulties. Today we are faced with a situation where the people of Hawaii are expressing a desire to be reunited with their homeland. We respect these wishes and are acting upon them. That is what brings us here today."
Chen-li recognized it all immediately. Although they had been told the meeting would be held in person, this was obviously pre-recorded from a few hours before. Was the technology acting up again or was it that the Prime Minister did not want to communicate with the entire staff? He wondered if they would have the opportunity to ask questions.
"The people of China can no longer tolerate a situation where their currency is not honored with the same respect as that of a country that owes us 32 trillion Yuan in debt. This is not only dangerous to us, it threatens the world economy. The Yuan is the world's most sound currency, it should be respected." And on it went.
It was all too familiar and Chen-li's mind began to wander. He had been making the same points for the past ten years. The truth is, though, he liked the Americans and didn't want to see them humiliated. Chen-li had spent much of his life studying Americans. In a sense, his whole career had been a preparation for this moment. His main subject of interest had been the decline of empires and their replacement by new powers. Sometimes the transition had gone smoothly, other times it had been steeped in violence. The Battle of Pydna had ended Greek dominance in the Mediterranean. The defeat of the Spanish Armada had marked Britain's ascendency in early Europe. The Battle of Yaman had sealed the Mongol conquest of the Song Dynasty, while the Japanese rebuff of Kublai Kahn's invasion in 1281 had assured that island did not become a part of the Mongol Empire, a situation that had persisted until China had finally persuaded them to join its co-prosperity sphere in 2035.
What fascinated Chen-li was the way the military conquest of an aging empire was often followed by the cultural conquest of the victor by the vanquished. Greece had become the literary and artistic standard of the Roman Empire. America had embraced English culture after breaking away from the British Empire in the 18th century. Perhaps the most spectacular example had been Russia's adoption of capitalism after the defeat of the Soviet Empire in the Cold War. Far from falling into decline, the Russians had developed their resources to the point where they practically dominated Europe when the European Union finally collapsed in 2025. Unfortunately, the implosion of the welfare economy had dragged Russia down with it. Otherwise, the Russians might be standing where China stood today, astride the entire world economy.
This was the kind of transition Chen-li wanted to effect between the United States and China as the North American colossus approached its point of decrepitude. He wanted to orchestrate a smooth changing of the guard so that the torch of civilization could pass across the Pacific without dropping or without anyone getting scorched in the transfer. Because in truth there were many things he admired about America. He admired Americans' free spirit, their willingness to take chances, their free-thinking. For all the advances in his countrymen had achieved in commerce and technology, he still had the misgiving that they were too subservient to authority, too willing to follow orders, too fearful of straying from the crowd. China still considered itself one big family and centuries of living in patriarchal hierarchies beneath the judgment of a mandarin elite had instilled a deference that made him wonder if China couldn't easily slide back into the stagnation that had marked so many centuries of its history. China had something to learn from America, he knew that. Despite all the efforts his government had made in encouraging people not to stand around waiting for directives, its officials had never really succeeded in generating a free and adventurous people. That, he had to admit, was a Western invention.
The Prime Minister had now finished his presentation and started asking questions. Chen-li was surprised. He had assumed the hologram was prerecorded, but now there seemed to have a live aspect -- although you could never tell with these things. It might just be a committee back in Beijing manipulating the image.
"Have the Americans indicated they are willing to enter negotiations?" the Prime Minister asked.
"The American ambassador just arrived from Beijing," said the commanding officer. "We believe he will be the chief negotiator. We expect to hear shortly."
"Has there been any public pronouncement from the Independence Movement?"
"Our agents inside the movement say the leaders have become reluctant to make public comments in our support. We are attempting to effect a change of leadership. That may occur within a few days."
"Is everything aboard the ships satisfactory?"
"Everything aboard the ships is satisfactory," replied more than one officer.
"Are the troops well fed and satisfied?" asked the Premier.
"The troops are well fed and satisfied," responded an even greater number in a pattern all too familiar to Chen-li.
"Are they confident of their mission?"
"They are confident of their mission," came the chorus.
"Mr. Prime Minister," broke in Chen-li. "I have one concern. It has reached my attention that some of the troops of the Golden Horde have become extremely restless. They are new to the Army and not as disciplined as our regular troops. It is my understanding that they are pressuring their officers to go ashore and begin operations. Our negotiations here are likely to last for months. It is important the Golden Horde troops understand this."
There was a moment of confusion among the military officers. Everyone was uncertain what to do -- uncertain even that the holographic figure before them had heard what was said.
"Bring me a member of the Golden Horde," barked the Prime Minister, ending any doubt. "I will speak to him."
There was a scurrying of military aides as several left the room. A quiet descended again.
"Are there any other reports of dissension or disobedience aboard the ships?" said the holographic figure, now imparting a stern discipline.
"No, sir," replied several officers. And so the litany begun again.
The Golden Horde had become a huge thorn in the side of the leadership. After carrying on terroristic activities in the Western part of the country for ten years, they had finally struck at Beijing. It was then that the leadership had decided to incorporate them into the military. But there were still a troubling aspects to them. Since the days of Confucius, Chinese civilization had been built around the family. Mao had tried to destroy this but the results had been disastrous. With the return of prosperity, the family had proved more resilient than ever. But the Golden Horde was a wild card that seemed almost impossible to assimilate. It was the fruit of the one child policy, a mistake that Beijing was trying to correct but finding it more difficult than anticipated. Girl children were being rewarded but there was still a huge lag in the population and child marriage was becoming common. Infant girls were being betrothed to 25-year-old men, who would wait impatiently for them to become pregnant.
In another moment, a team of aides re-entered the room with two soldiers wearing the distinctive green-and-yellow uniform of the Golden Horde. One was an older man who hardly seemed aware he was standing in the presence of the high command. The other was a much younger man, about 26, with an intelligent face bit hardened eyes. Chen-li had seen the same face in the same uniform many times. The pair saluted and stood at attention.
"How are the men enjoying their work?" the holographic image of the Prime Minister asked the senior officer in brisk voice.
The man seemed confused for a moment. Apparently he had never been in the presence of a hologram. The senior officers motioned for him to address the image. "The men are enjoying their work, sir," barked the commander.
"Are they satisfied with their wait on board?" asked the figure.
"The troops are satisfied to wait on board," repeated the commander, word for word. It was obvious there would be no other response. Chen-li felt compelled to intervene.
"Mr. Prime Minister," he said, addressing the hologram. "May I ask a few questions?"
The image of the Prime Minister nodded in assent.
"How many men under your command, sir?" he said, addressing the officer.
"Two thousand, sir."
"Are they ready to do battle if necessary?"
"They are ready to do battle, if necessary."
"You, young man," said Chen-li, turning to the young enlistee. "How long have you been in the Golden Horde?"
The young man looked at him with terror in his eyes, as if a wrong answer might immediately cost him his life.
"Three years, sir," he finally managed to respond.
"What did you do before joining the Golden Horde?"
"I was a nuclear engineer, sir."
"Did you work on the new reactor?"
"I was about to be deployed, sir, when I learned of the fate of Chinese women in America," he said, beginning to get his bearings.
"And what is the fate of Chinese women in America?" asked Chen-li.
"Sir, it is horrible," said Huang, gathering gather steam. "They are kept as slaves, made to do domestic work, kept as concubines by rich men. They beg for us to rescue them."
"Where do you get this information?" Chen-li said, trying to keep the skepticism out of his voice.
"I have seen pictures of it, sir. My sister is among them. She was kidnapped at birth."
Chen-li cast a sidelong glance at the image of the Prime Minister. He wondered if this wasn't getting out of hand.
"And what do you intend to do about this?" said Chen-li, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Huang's eyes -- for it was indeed -- grew wide. "It is in the Book, sir," he said, suddenly producing a copy of Koran. He opened it and pretended to read, although it was obvious he knew it by heart:
As for the Unbelievers, the fires of Hell await them. Death shall not deliver them, nor shall its torments ever be lightened for them. Thus shall the thankless be rewarded.