Honourable Mention | ADC Sci-Fi Writing Competition | International Category
Story by Hal Wilson
JAVA SEA, September 30th:
Ahead of them, somewhere, was the hidden foe. Around them, everywhere, was the cruel sea.
“Electronic Support Measures mast up, sir,” announced People’s Liberation Army Navy Commander Guo Zemin. His Captain, Lin Chao, nodded silently. With the ESM mast raised, an electronic-warfare technician immediately began calling off the bearings of aerial radar sets, detected by the sensor mast of their Yuan-class submarine – one of China’s most modern variants.
“Captain, designating first contact an Indonesian Boeing 737 Maritime Patrol Aircraft. I have two probable CH-4 UAVs also.”
Chao nodded once again. Though Chinese-made, the CH-4 drones were operated also by the Indonesians.
“No surface contacts. Wait. F-band surface search radar, probably a small craft, bearing zero-zero seven.”
“Up scope,” Chao responded. He allowed the camera-topped mast to barely crest the wave-tops: he had no intent to expose himself to the patrolling 737 any longer than necessary. An LCD display afforded a letter-box glimpse of a concrete-coloured sky, while the aquamarine waters were a sharp relief to the bridge of his submarine, backlit as it was by blood-red lighting. In the distance sat the profile of a fishing vessel.
“Just a fisherman. We’ll deviate around him.”
“Not much deviating we can do, sir,” Zemin whispered to Chao. “Average depth in the Java Sea is only 151 feet…”
“…and a seafloor flat as a pancake. Yes, I know. Submarine operations in this context are inelegant and uncomfortable as it is: I don’t want some trawler’s nets snagged on our sail as well.”
“Very well, sir.”
“We’ll continue south after this diversion, and soon enough be in among the heart of Indonesia’s offshore oilfields. And if the intelligence claimed by the Guojia Anquan Bu,” Chao referred to China’s infamous Ministry of State Security, or MSS, “is correct, then we’ll catch the Indonesian Navy rallying there, too.” As part of a wider taskforce of submariners, Chao’s success here would isolate Java, to the south, and Borneo, to the north.
“…soon enough we can strangle each of their islands in turn.” Zemin murmured, unknowingly finishing Chao’s own thoughts.
Smiling, hands clasped behind him, Chao allowed him-self a quiet measure of pride. Despite Zemin’s quibbles, his crew were performing admirably in this, their first war patrol. And though Chao could barely recall why the Party had declared war on the Indonesians, the why became moot once Jakarta began attacking Chinese-flagged merchant ships. For professional sailors like Chao and his crew, it was now simply a matter of pride. As the planesmen took the submarine down from periscope depth, Zemin stepped closer besides his captain.
“Sir,” the sonar technician announced, “detonation noises, bearing zero-one-nine. Very faint.”
Chao nudged Zemin, pointing at the technician.
“We have our trail. Let’s begin.”
JAVA SEA, September 30th:
Mohammed Bahru, legs resting on the railing of his creaking trawler, brought his binoculars down. He was suddenly unsure of himself: had he seen something aft? There was no glare, and the faint, feathery trace of motion breaking the waves had caught his eye.
“Hey, Bapa!” came a shout from the trawler’s wheelhouse, using the Bahasa term for father: it was Bahru’s young son, who sprinted across to him. “Got something on the radar set!”
Bahru leapt from his folding chair, dashing to the old set’s Cathode Ray Tube-screen. Its bottle-green glass was blank.
“There’s nothing there!” he said, crestfallen. The boy rolled his eyes.
“I took a photo.”
He gleefully produced an old smart-phone, proving a faint smudge had been visible on the radar set’s CRT screen.
“That’ll do,” Bahru said, clapping the boy around the shoulders and taking the phone. He quickly uploaded the photo to an app he had installed just yesterday: NewGig. Tapping in a brief accompanying description, he released it into the aether as quick as his fingers could allow. Unseen, one of the nearby Indonesian-operated CH-4 drones picked up his signal, bouncing it in turn to the more distant 737.
Bahru, of course, knew none of this. Nor would he have cared.
“You know how much this photo just made us? One thousand US Dollars!”
“That’s… how many Rupiah is that?” wondered the boy.
“Millions!” Indeed, it was around five times’ the average monthly Indonesian salary. Bahru’s cousin had called them just yesterday, breathlessly explaining how anonymous accounts on NewGig were promising good money for sightings of anything in the Java Sea. Anything not obviously civilian, anyway. Risky? Sure. But assuredly better than going idle and hungry, waiting out the war.
“Alright,” Bahru said, mustering his decorum, “I need to call my cousin. He can come join us and we’ll keep watch together. Just imagine how much we can make!”
LONDON, September 30th:
London embraced the two men as they stepped out of the car, broiling in what might once have been called a late, Indian summer: a humid, cloying fug, stilled and dead.
“Bloody terrible, if you ask me,” Jonathan Roper explained.
“What was that?” said Joshua Ho.
“I said it’s bloody terrible. Calling you in again. You’ve enough on your plate and nothing more to say than you already did.”
“Right. Yes.” Ho’s gaze was drifting. “It’s been two weeks. Why suddenly call me in now?”
Ho looked tangibly crushed by some mortal, spiritual weight; his black hair was lank and mouth faintly gaping, as though permanently aghast. There was little of the boisterous physique that Roper recalled from university. They stood together in a fashionable dead-end street, just off St James’ Square: Roper pointed across the road, to gilt lettering inlaid against glazed-red Victorian tiling, reading THE DAEMON.
“But it’s a pub.”
“Second floor, you nonce. Now look, play it straight and you’ll be done inside the hour.”
“Chin up.” Roper clapped Ho on the arm.
Two flights up, they were both clammy with sweat as Roper knocked against a nondescript door. It opened to reveal a woman at the threshold, regarding them with dark eyes underneath a silver thatch of hair.
“Jonnie.” Her gaze shifted. “Joshua Ho. I am Doctor Darla Dadrian. I’ll be running your interview today.”
The office inside boasted high, airy, ceilings, with windows thrown open to catch the meagre breeze. Dadrian placed herself behind a stout teak desk. Roper rested at a window, producing a cigar as if from thin air and using it, like a marshal’s baton, to gesture for Ho to sit. Dadrian activated a flexible e-paper, which glowed glacial blue as it began recording.
“Before we begin, Mr. Ho,” she began, “I will state for the recording that you have agreed to speak without legal representation.”
“Excellent.” She cleared her throat. “Today is September 30th. I am Doctor Darla Dadrian, contracted by the Ministry of Defence to confirm the formal deposition of Mr. Joshua Ho. Witnessing is Jonathan Hugh Roper, also contracted to the Ministry of Defence as an independent consultant. We will discuss the events of September 15th, involving Mr. Ho in Singapore, for which he has given an initial statement, attached with this file.” She added the serial number and docket of Ho’s debrief.
“Alright. Mr Ho: walk us through the events of September 15th, as you remember them.”
“You already… Fine. It was like this.”
SINGAPORE, September 15th:
The aromas of the hawker centre assailed him: enticing scents of sweet dough and hot oil; butter buns and barbeque sauces. Broadcast screens completed the sensory assault, declaring the progress of China’s Liaoning carrier battle group, now steaming for Jakarta. As a senior staff-member to the British Defence Attaché in Singapore, he knew he should have cared about that above all else.
But tonight, he had thoughts for one thing only, and she sat across from him.
She had eyes as dark as jade, and just as gentle. Her perfume carried the musk of last night’s passion. Her raven hair was shot through with a single ashen streak, the striking legacy of some childhood injury. Her name was Tracy Tzu, and she was stunning. And his. The very thought made Ho feel giddy.
“I won’t lie,” Ho announced, removing his cufflinks and rolling his sleeves, “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
She laughed with the gentle sound of chiming glass. “What, you lusted for Huang Ji’s wanton noodles?”
“Not exactly,” Ho chuckled, even as he savoured a mouthful of sweet-tomato noodles. “I was looking forward to ‘us’ time.”
“We had plenty of that last night,” Tracy gave a meaningful nudge with her foot beneath the table, only to shiver abruptly. She quickly shovelled Hainanese chicken rice from her bowl, digging deep for its warmth.
“You can’t be cold, surely?”
Tracy nodded; cheeks stuffed. Singapore had no winter that the northern hemisphere would recognise, and at 22 Celsius this was as close as it got. But the food centre had no walls, and the rain outside carried a faint chill. Ho smiled, reminiscing, absent-mindedly spooning his noodles.
“You’re making me think of London last December,” Ho smiled, “back at the Hyde Park Christmas wonderland. You would get your hands in the sleeves of my sweater and keep stealing my warmth.” What Ho left unsaid was how his pulse would quicken and his breath would catch at the very touch of her skin; how he would taste temptation – a heady flavour, at the back of the throat, rich in forbidden promise. She flashed him a smile, her row of teeth as white as fresh porcelain.
“I could do with that about now. Where’s your sweater when I need it?”
“There’s other ways to get you warm.”
“True. But aren’t you needed elsewhere tonight?”
Ho shrugged, smiling, without realising he rubbed his wedding ring, weighing down his hand with guilt. Though he had long-since forgotten, there was a name carved on the interior surface: it was not Tracy.
“Anyway,” Tzu announced, swallowing her rice. “There’s something I need your help with. My team – financial investigations – are dull as sin. And working as a contractor to the FCO?” she referred to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, making a sour face, “there’s no job security to it. I’d rather you sorted a transfer for me. A C4 posting in your team. Ministry of Defence Higher Executive Officer. That’d do nicely.”
“Is that so?”
“Better pay.” She winked lasciviously. “And besides, we’d get more us-time.”
Ho grinned, rising from the plastic seat.
“I’ll be back in a moment.”
Ho sauntered to the men’s restrooms under the unblinking glare of the broadcast screens, still tracking the Liaoning. Inspiration struck as he relieved himself. He would spend a second night at Tracy’s apartment in Sembawang after all. Unusual? Yes. But he could blame it on all-night crisis planning, war-gaming the ‘Jakarta Emergency’. Jessica would fall for it. Bladder eased and decision made, he set off back to the table.
Tracy was nowhere to be seen. It took five minutes before Ho began to worry. Ho frowned: Tzu’s bag was still on the table. Another ten minutes passed. The gorge rose in his throat. He hated this: the fear of losing coveted control. The fear that, without control, Jessica would not stay in the dark. Questions would be asked about his itinerary. Questions about where he was last night.
“For Christ’s sake,” he hissed, more in reluctance than resolve, and called the police.
LONDON, September 30th:
Ho sighed. He shrank into himself, shoulders hunched, voice low. The smoke of Roper’s cigar had played across the room, forming gentle whorls in the sun’s burnt-umber glow.
“By your own admission,” Dadrian said, “you waited at least fifteen minutes after Ms. Tzu disappeared before calling it in. Why?”
“We were having an affair. I didn’t want the attention.”
“You’re a senior Ministry of Defence figure at the Singapore High Commission, Mr. Ho. Did you never consider what such an ethical breach could mean for your career at MOD?”
“She made me feel young. Wanted. She made me forget my pot-belly. She made me forget that the crown of my career was to be glorified middle-management. Is that what you want me to say?”
“Were you aware that every networked security camera in the food centre which you visited was remotely taken offline? Simultaneously?”
“No. No, I wasn’t.”
“Were you aware that Singaporean Public Order AIs picked up a single man leaving your area on a moped, just before you placed your call?”
“No. Why does that matter?”
“He drove all the way to Seletar,” Dadrian explained, referring to a northern district of Singapore, “doubling back after ditching the moped. He took great pains to hide, Mr. Ho.” She shoved the e-paper across the desk to him. It displayed a figure, on foot, wearing a hood in the pattern of a First World War naval ‘dazzle’ camouflage: intersecting, seemingly senseless rhomboids and shapes, cast in dizzying black-and-white.
“Apparently, the arrangement of these shapes spoofed facial recognition, even convincing the Public Order AI they were looking at seven different faces. He appears to have put gravel in his shoes, preventing recognition by cross-referencing his natural gait and stride.” Dadrian pulled the e-paper back. “Despite these efforts, he was tracked heading into the Chinese Embassy in Tanglin.”
“Not your concern, Josh,” Roper interjected. Ho gathered his wits.
“So, you think the Chinese were involved? Christ… Their embassy is literally next door to the High Commission! Do you think Tracy is there?” Dadrian settled back in her chair.
“You were aware that Ms. Tzu was contracted by the FCO to investigate illicit payments inside the High Commission.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I knew she was pursuing some financial investigations for some colleagues.”
“She was supporting a joint MI5/MI6 team investigating Chinese penetration of the FCO. Specifically, the Singapore High Commission.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you haven’t been honest,” Roper said from the windowsill. He paused, drawing deep, and the embers of his cigar shone like an exhausted star. “It means we know you lied. When you went to the bathroom, Josh. You lied.”
“You didn’t just go back to the table, Josh. You met someone. You met that man,” Roper said, gesturing his cigar at Dadrian’s e-paper. “And he took her.”
SINGAPORE, September 15th:
“She’s a risk,” said the stranger. His voice was haggard; his face, hideously scarred. “I’m here to help.”
Ho blanched. The men’s restroom of the hawker centre was deserted but him: a Malay Singaporean, speaking accented Hokkien. He wore a workman’s hooded jacket and carried an extension reel, outwardly a simple electrician on a job.
“You’re Guoanbu,” Ho murmured, realising the man was Ministry of State Security – Chinese intelligence. “Why are you here? My handler said nothing-”
“Our AI made an assessment. She’s about to expose you,” the stranger jerked his chin to the doorway, underlining his meaning. Tracy. “We had no time to warn you. Now shut up and do as I say.”
Ho gaped, rooted to the ground. The stranger ignored his obvious discomfort, hefting the extension reel and unclipping its handle. The grey, nondescript plastic separated cleanly. Ho quailed upon realising it was the grip of a hidden, silenced pistol; its barrel had been discretely buried in the body of the extension reel.
“I can use this on her or I can use it on you,” the man said. “Go to the food centre’s Magway hub.” The stranger gave curt directions and an access card. “Go inside. Watch for foot traffic. When you see me, let me know if it’s safe to enter.”
The Magway hub was an access-controlled room, set back in the far end of the hawker centre. Using the stranger’s card, Ho gingerly made entry. The room was Spartan, but for a simple trackway of plastic rollers, linked by a miniature monorail to metre-wide tubes on either side. As if on cue, a black metal pod emerged from the nearest tube, following the plastic rollers before halting before him. Ho recognised it: a ubiquitous Magway transport pod. Running on rudimentary magnetic levitation, the pods eased Singapore’s traffic by making deliveries via underground networks. Ho kept watch, glancing occasionally to the immobile pod. Soon enough, the stranger reappeared: Tzu was at his side. On spotting Ho, her lips pursed in fury – but the pistol, half-hidden against her midriff, kept her silent. Ho gestured for the stranger to enter, closing the door behind them.
“You prick,” she hissed at Ho, her voice venom-thick. “You bastard. They’ll find you for this.”
“What are we doing?” Ho quailed, terrified lest someone walk in. The stranger, in one sudden movement – almost too fast for Ho to notice – had a syringe in Tzu’s carotid artery. She recoiled, only to find the stranger’s free hand gripping her in place. She went limp in his arms almost immediately.
“Is she?” Ho ran his hands through his hair, horrified.
“Alive? Yes. Let’s get her in there,” the stranger said. Ho followed the stranger’s gaze, realising the Magway pod had not arrived by coincidence. Together they manhandled her into the pod, folding her legs so that she fit. Heart in his mouth, Ho took one last look at Tracy Tzu. She had eyes as dark as jade. Her perfume carried the musk of last night. Her raven hair was shot through with a single ashen streak. And she was doomed.
Business-like, as though loading groceries, the stranger noted the pod’s serial number before swinging its lid closed on her. It instantly began rolling towards the opposite tube, where it disappeared from view.
“The Magway will take her to a distribution centre in Changi,” the stranger explained, taking the access card from Ho’s trembling hands. “She’ll be there in minutes, and we have someone ready to pick her up. We need to know precisely what she has on you.”
“What do I do now?”
“Deflect suspicion: we can’t afford losing you. Call in that she disappeared. But first, give me a chance to get the fuck away from here.”
LONDON, September 30th:
Fear gripped Ho, vice-like, around his bowels. His fists were clenched atop his knees, so hard that his nails gouged the palms of each hand. His voice, when it returned, came weakly.
“Is Tracy safe?”
Roper tossed the stub of his cigar out the window.
“She’ll live. Your friend didn’t realise Tracy’s clothing was ‘data-dusted’: we had her covered in thousands of RFID transmitters. Thanks to them, Singapore Police found her in the Magway distribution centre, where they also nabbed an MSS agent bundling her into a van. Incidentally: that dust rubbed off onto you and your friend in the Magway hub. You were both tracked for days afterwards.”
“How did you know? How did Tracy find out?”
“Like Darla said: there was a good team on the case. The way I understand it, Tracy had you around her little finger by January. After that, it was just a question of time.”
“Tracy was acting?” Ho’s heart plummeted.
“We spent the last year giving you a diet of fake news for the MSS, with just enough pearls in the mud to keep them sold. The Indonesian Navy war-plans were the crown jewel, of course – and some of the most exquisitely crafted bullshit ever to be written in Bahasa.”
“What are you talking about?” Ho mumbled.
“We knew the Chinese were planning to move against Indonesia, but we wanted China to lose that war without His Majesty’s Government getting dirty hands. And, right now, it looks like the PLAN is playing to our script. They’re rushing into a trap in the Java Sea, on the strength of your information. But they’ll conclude everything you fed them was reliable – why else would we move so quickly in pulling you back home? So openly? By the time they realise the truth, they’ll lose months unpicking your stories.”
“If I’m not wrong,” Dadrian interjected, smiling, “I’d say you’re enjoying yourself, Jonnie.”
“You are wrong, Darla,” he shot back. “Because this man used to be my friend. Because he was at my wedding. Because he was ‘Uncle Josh’ to my boys. And that’s why I pulled some strings to make sure I was here today. I needed to see him lie.” Ho only now realised the tears spilling forth, unbidden, racing down his cheeks. Roper shook his head, walking to the door of Dadrian’s office.
“Where are you going?” Ho asked, suddenly frantic. Roper paused, turning back.
“Before I forget, Josh. We put it all on YouTube.”
“We recorded it, and we’re sharing it. Just imagine tomorrow’s Telegraph: ‘double-agent betrays colleague in abduction attempt.’ Better yet, imagine how embarrassed MSS will be. Especially after the six-o’clock news tonight. The BBC is interviewing Tracy, you know.”
“She’s here? In London?”
“Despite your best efforts, yes.”
With a slow flourish, Roper threw open the office door. Police officers stood ready on the far side, sweating in their stab-jackets. Roper gestured across the room.
“He’s all yours, lads.”
JAVA SEA – September 30th:
Zemin smiled, leaning over a technician to inspect an LCD screen.
“There,” Zemin declared. Nonsensical to the layman, its display of coloured lines matched sonar records of an Indonesian submarine: a quiet, diesel-electric German design. The sound of its single-propeller, running low revolutions, had given it away.
“It’s not one of our Ming supports,” Chao agreed, referencing another Chinese submarine variant. Running on twin-screws – with a distinct sonar pattern to the Indonesian target – the Mings were dubbed by PLAN submariners as ‘new wine in old bottles.’ Upgraded Cold War relics, they had been sent to help flush out quarry for the more modern Yuan submarines, like Chao’s. No such need in this case, apparently.
“Getting a bearing change,” a sonar technician added, “Moving right-to-left, target is now three-five-zero. Estimate 15,000-metre range, six knot-speed. Doesn’t look like he’s heard us.” Chao nodded. His crew were already at general quarters. He could prosecute this target at once, and South Sea Fleet Headquarters in Zhanjiang had been explicit: the Indonesian submarines were top-priority.
“Let’s kill it,” Chao announced. He could taste his promotion already.
Their Yu-6 torpedo, fired at its lowest speed setting, was a whisper in the waves. Fibre-optic wires carried constant corrections from Chao’s sonar team as it silently worked, ever-closer, to their target.
“He’s still not heard it…” Zemin murmured disbelievingly, arms crossed, lips taut. The bridge crew tracked the torpedo while the Indonesian continued his six-knot plodding, as if on a morning constitutional.
“Transients!” the sonar technician announced, “his torpedo tubes flooded.”
“Too late,” Chao exulted. “Kick our torpedo to full speed.” The Yu-6 accelerated to 65 knots – over 70 miles per hour on land. Soon enough, Chao’s bridge reverberated with a sound like midnight thunder: the echo of muted, distant violence. Zemin and Chao nodded to each other, flushed with success.
“Wait, sir,” the technician said, “No breaking-up noises. I… think it was some sort of decoy.”
Chao’s face drained of all colour: had they hit a real, living, submarine, then the sound of sundered steel and evacuating air would have been all too clear.
“Cavitation noises!” the technician cried, “torpedo accelerating in the water, bearing one-six-seven!” Chao recoiled. A torpedo was incoming from a totally different angle.
Fortified with data from the patrolling 737, and with NewGig sightings, the Indonesian submarine had waited, unheard and unseen, while a noise-making decoy held Chao’s attention. Its torpedo had run in at low speed, only accelerating once the Chinese submarine’s escape was impossible – exactly how they had killed two other submarines that morning already.
“Right full rudder, all ahead full!” Chao bellowed, an automatic reflex to escape. “How close is that torpe-”
Oblivion took them with a crash of mutilated metal and freezing water. And, then, endless dark.