A Few Weeks Earlier
The drive up from the gate of the Soga estate took a few minutes, giving Gyoshin Heiji time to reflect on the changing nature of fortune. More than a millennium had passed since her ancestors broke the power of Minoru Soga’s ancestors within the imperial court, and now the old man was willing to form an alliance with her family.
“How ironic,” she said, to no one in particular. “The Taika reforms undid them, and now they are much wealthier than us, who were only cheated of our influence during the Meiji reforms, barely yesterday.”
Of course, by that time scale, yesterday amounted to a century and a half. Exquisite gardens slipped by, tended by squads of men in pale green coveralls. The main house resembled a shrine from one point in the curving approach, but looked more like a castle as the car climbed the final slope. A man wearing gray gloves waited at the door, bowed from the waist, and ushered her into a lavishly furnished drawing room. Exquisitely carved wood panels decorated one wall, and a painted screen only partially concealed a small writing table in a far corner. She smoothed out a wrinkle in her skirt, and wondered if her navy blue suit, the standard-issue business attire of a civil servant—albeit a relatively high-level one—really suited the occasion.
“Welcome, Heiji-san,” the old man called out from across the room, walking stiffly with a cane. His daughter trailed behind, flowing tall and elegant in a rather non-traditional silk kimono, which, without an obi sash to bind it all together, resembled more a dressing gown than formal attire.
“I am honored by your invitation, Soga-san,” Gyoshin said, with a little bow that extorted more confusion from her than she’d anticipated. Should she bow to a vanquished enemy of her family, and if so, how low? She supposed he affected the cane in order to excuse himself from bowing as low as his ancestors would have been obliged to do a thousand years earlier. With a shiver and a shake of the head, she tried to put her grandfather’s preoccupations out of her mind. The Soga clan now held a controlling interest in one of the largest defense contractors, and was among the wealthiest families in Japan, and in her capacity as Industry Liaison for the Deputy Minister of Defense, she worked closely with Minoru’s daughter, who had assumed the position of Vice President at the Takenouchi Corporation.
“Gyoshin-san,” Jin Soga said. “Thank you for coming. We have much to discuss.”
“I will leave you two to talk,” Minoru said. “You must forgive an old man his hobbies.” With that he turned and hobbled off into another room.
The opulent décor of the house suggested that the family’s commitment to Buddhism had faded over the centuries. Her own family’s championing of Shinto ritual had faded, too, like everything else over such a time span, but their ancient association with the principal shrines might prove useful in the coming days.
“A second generation of commoners living in the Togu Palace,” Jin said, with a sneer. “And with the Pacific Rim Naval Cooperation Agreement in effect, and the rule of succession before the Lower House again, the time is ripe.”
Gyoshin hesitated before answering. A decade or two earlier, the two of them might have been rivals to marry the Emperor’s first-born son. Now, the Sogas had convinced themselves that ordinary people felt as indignant as they did about the supposed decline of the imperial bloodline. Democracy had gone far enough, and the pendulum was poised to swing back toward the aristocracy.
“We have to be prepared for a backlash,” she said, “in case public opinion turns against us.”
“That’s where the American comes in. The Crown Princess played right into our hands, giving private audiences to a hafu. There’s already plenty of resentment for her fainting spells. If we feed the press more outrage about her personal spending, and then leak reports of her socializing familiarly with a half-breed American, we’ll get all the popular support we need.”
“I’m still worried about the Chinese plan. They failed once before. Another failure could be catastrophic, especially at so delicate a moment.”
“Using them was your idea, your responsibility, Gyoshin-san. It’s too late to do this without them. We need to create an incident in order to militarize. Our plan only works through indirection.”
“That’s not what has me worried. You know how they are, self-seeking and always willing to betray their own. It’s the other job, capturing the girl… the General was so confident last time.”
“Over-confident, if you ask me. His operative was just an upstart adventurer. I expected her to fail, though it was useful in getting the Crown Princess to tip her hand. I can almost admire her man for taking that woman’s head. And to think, my father almost let him in on our plan… such natural nobility of mind, and his son is the same. Imagine what a coup it would be if we could win him over.”
“We don’t need him,” Gyoshin said. “He’s more useful to us as a dead body at the scene.”
“You’re a cold one. I’m impressed. As for the General, I doubt he’ll let his son fail.”
Listening to Jin rehearse the timeline once more, Gyoshin marveled at her enthusiasm for the plan. When her father suggested she approach the Sogas three years ago, she had no expectation they’d look favorably on such an alliance, wealthy as they’d become. Didn’t they have more to lose… and more to gain simply by turning her in to the authorities? But her father had more accurately taken the measure of Minoru Soga’s hunger to restore his family’s ancient privilege, a hunger his daughter evidently shared.
As with any alliance, the moment would come when one or both families would seek to dissolve this one. Gyoshin knew the success of their plan might well be the triggering event, and the inevitable disputes over power-sharing in the new political landscape they will have ushered in to existence. Of course, failure, in any of the myriad shapes it might assume, would also produce a rupture, as each side sought to extricate itself from the catastrophe at the expense of the other. “Nobility can be such a tawdry affair,” she thought. “So much to lose, and only a world of cares to win.”
The helo hangar of the Bonhomme Richard rolled gently in the swell, which showed the magnitude of the storm surge, if it could budge an LHD-6, which was almost three football fields long and some two hundred feet wide, and whose well-deck tended to lend it some of the stability of a twin-pontoon craft.
“We don’t really need a tour, you know,” growled Commander Theo Leone, as he stood under the rear rotor of a CH-46E Seaknight helicopter. “Though I doubt very much you’ve seen much action on a Wasp-class carrier.”
“But these are what she’s gonna be flying, right?” asked the taller man, Lieutenant Commander Perry Hankinson, with one hand on the fuselage, having allowed himself the slightest distraction from the dark intensity of the woman they’d allowed to drag them below decks.
Of course, no one would challenge their right to be anywhere they pleased on the ship, each one sporting a gold “Budweiser” badge gleaming off jungle-camo, even though they were the only SEALs along for the ride on this cruise.
“It’s a little more private down here,” Commander Connie Savaransky said in the quietest voice she could get them to hear over the elevator noise. “The walls have ears in the wardrooms and vulture’s row.”
“Is the cloak-and-dagger really necessary?” Theo asked. “Or is it just old habits?”
“They may be old, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed. Look, we don’t have much time. I fly out at 06:50.”
“Then tell us, what the hell we’re doing here,” Perry said. “My orders were signed by the Secretary himself.”
“If SECNAV sent us, then I can’t see how we have any operational security,” Theo said. “At least if Michael’s suspicions about him are correct.”
“You’re not here for any black-ops,” Connie said. “We just wanted to have an ally above her in the chain of command, maybe more than one, you know, if things go south. And Michael doesn’t suspect O’Brien… of treason, anyway. It’s more like he may not realize how clever the Chinese can be.”
“And he doesn’t know the full dimensions of what happened at the Academy either, does he?” Perry asked.
“What other ‘allies’ has Michael managed to put on this ship?” Theo asked.
“It’s not Michael’s doing, but there’s a couple of friends from the Academy, from her company, billeted here, Talib and Tanahill… but they don’t know anything, and it may be best to keep ’em in the dark for now.”
“Is that it?”
“For the moment… and remember, only face-to-face comms if it’s about her, nothing digital.”
Perry grunted his assent while Theo bristled at the suggestion. “We’ve been around the block a few times ourselves.”
She nodded and said nothing. Twenty minutes later, they watched as her chopper cut through the wind over the flight deck, after which they turned aft and stood on the edge near the starboard elevator pad, no railing between them and the swells of the Sea of Japan, though some webbing protruded from below that might catch a falling body. The howling had died down enough to hear each other without yelling.
“I’m surprised she even can retire,” Theo said. “I mean, it might make her vulnerable to civilian prosecution, or something. She must really be counting on Michael to cover her ass.”
“She’s the second scariest woman I know,” Perry said. “But, in her case, I suspect she always knows the risks.
“The idea of joint operations that are supposed to be more than just an exercise… well, the whole thing makes me nervous. And giving it a fancy name, like the Pacific Rim Agreement doesn’t do much for me.”
“The new name is Operation Seabreeze,” Perry said. “I guess the idea is we blow through the islands in the dark of night and catch the terrorists by surprise, without anyone else realizing we’ve even passed by.
“Yeah, that doesn’t make me feel any better about our presence here, and I’m not looking forward to the moment Emily finds out.”
“You have an excuse, at least, since you were going to retire soon anyway….”
“It does look a little strange for you to give up a SEAL posting,” Theo said. “…especially with the DEVGRU.”
“It’s only temporary, you know…”
“But when you go back, you’ll probably end up in a different unit. It’s just not so easy to enter a team sideways.” Theo paused in his sage advice to rub his chin. “And have you given any thought to how we’re supposed to get a Marine recon company to accept commands from outsiders?”
“I figure that’s where I’ll learn how to win the next SEAL team’s respect.”
“And when she sees us?”
“Heaven help us,” Perry snorted.
“Is it just the Chinese we’re worried about here?”
“You think there could be trouble from the Koreans? Or the Filipinos?”
“This stuff is way above my pay grade. One thing I know is the Chinese military is rarely just one thing. Even if the central government has one agenda, the PLA has lots of special interests of its own.”
“This unit comes from the Guangzhou district, the so-called ‘Sword of the South’, if that tells you anything.”
“I hope Michael has something to tell us soon. Otherwise we’ll be operating in the dark,” Theo said.
“Your brother-in-law hasn’t let us down before.”
“Yeah, but the thing is, he relies too much on Jiang Xi, and that guy is not really an intelligence asset. He’s a career Guoanbu officer, you know, Sixth Bureau, counter-intelligence. I know, my sister’s practically raised his niece, but you can never really tell with those guys. You don’t rise in that outfit without being pretty ruthless.”
“All I know is Emily trusts him,” Perry said. “And Li Li is totally devoted to her. He might well try to run an op on Michael, but I just can’t picture him turning on Emily, not after what she sacrificed for him. One thing I’ve learned about the Chinese is they pay their debts.”