PROLOGUE: IN THE TEMPLE
dust threatened to bury the ancient city. Already it was vanishing from sight, suffocating
inside an endless golden haze.
For forty days now the fine yellow powder had flown above the
streets of Beijing, carried east from the Gobi desert on freezing Siberian winds. Li Chang
held an arm in front of his face as he made his way through the empty streets. He stumbled
forward with unsteady steps, his head bowed to the howling wind, his nose concealed
beneath his collar. The dust bit at his hands; it stung the exposed flesh of his face.
The wind! How he hated it!
Chang heard the faint clatter of a heavy engine making its way
towards him through the dust. For a moment he panicked, thinking that he had wandered onto
the road and might be run over before anybody saw him. He stopped and scanned ahead for
headlights---saw none---and listened as the sound faded back into the wind. Checking the
sandy cobblestones at his feet again, he saw the reassuring edge of the path. Feeling
slightly foolish, he shook his head and pushed on.
Soon, several silhouetted figures materialized out of the yellow
fog. Soldiers. He could see the rifles slung over their shoulders. They stood about the
entrance to Tiantan Park, blocking his way. Chang stopped and shouted a greeting.
A soldier came over, his face hidden beneath a yellow scarf and
large bottlegreen goggles thick with dust. "The Park is closed today," he
shouted. "Move on."
"I have business. At the Hall of Prayer for a Good
The soldier paused. "Prayer for a good year?" he said
at last, his muffled utterance barely audible above the wind. "I'd have thought it a
little late for that, wouldn't you?"
Chang wasn't sure what he meant.
The guard looked him up and down. "You have papers?"
Chang produced a letter---the vaguely-worded Party memo summoning
him back to the city---and handed it over. It flapped about in the soldier's hands as he
studied it. "Wait here," he said, before going off to confer with his comrades.
Someone radioed for instructions, and shortly the soldier returned.
"I'll need to see some ID. With a photo."
Chang displayed his Army clearance, and the soldier's tone became
instantly more respectful.
"Uh-huh." The soldier handed back Chang's papers.
"Very well, Professor," he said. "The Admiral is waiting for you."
"Admiral Chang, sir."
Chang was taken aback. For a week he had anguished over this
appointment, pondering its precise meaning. And now, the unexpected news of his
grandfather's presence in the city. To Chang's dismay, he could think of only one reason
the old man might be there---to intercede on his behalf. And yet, he had already concluded
that his own work for the Party now made him essentially untouchable. He no longer needed
the old man watching over him. And even if he had begun to question the nature of
his work, well, only he knew about that.
"Sir. Can I show you---"
"I can find my own way."
Chang pulled his collar back up around his face and shuffled past
the soldiers without looking at them. He found himself annoyed that they should be there.
The park---the Temple of Heaven, as it was known---was sacred; it was the place his
grandfather had brought him in his youth, to glory in the accomplishments of the Ming
Dynasty. It was a place meant for supplication---where past emperors had made the
ceremonial journey from the Forbidden City to pray for bountiful harvests, and take on the
sins of the people in the eleventh month---it was not a place that warranted the existence
of men in green uniforms who carried guns.
Despite his association with the People's Liberation Army, Chang
held much of the military in contempt. The more he interacted with them, the less sure he
was that he had made the right choice.
Chang was a scientist, a geneticist at Beijing University and the
director of the National Laboratory of Protein Engineering and Plant Genetic Engineering.
Years earlier he had briefly gained the public's attention with his work on "super
rice," a potentially lucrative prototype food source promising a yield of up to
thirteen tons of rice per hectare. Li Chang's accomplishment was to introduce genes which
conferred natural resistance to bacterial leaf blight, an important improvement to the
crop on which China was banking to feed its ever-growing population.
But something went wrong. Despite success in the controlled
setting of the lab, the Chang prototype---dubbed "special good number
888"---proved unstable to temperature fluctuations in the rice fields of southern
China. It was a severe setback for Chang. A period of bleak self-examination set in,
culminating in his view that the bankrupted rice was a sign to him to apply his talent
elsewhere. It was then that the Army had sought him out as a consultant to their Special
Projects Unit. Five years he had worked for the unit, although it seemed much longer.
Chang hurried on. It was cold in the park, and the light was
changing. It was growing darker. He came to a fork in the path and went left, passing by
the Hall of Imperial Heaven. Soon a great expanse of stone appeared beneath his feet. From
memory he knew that he was entering a large square courtyard, in the center of which stood
the Hall of Prayer for a Good Year.
Gradually the curved tile roof of the hall appeared through the
dust, and Chang became aware of a growing feeling of uneasiness in him, a sense that
somehow he had never been here before---that he was a foreigner in the landscape. He
shrugged off the feeling. And yet, a sinister quality lingered about the place---a kind of
menacing redness which seemed to seep from the building and color everything around it.
Then Chang realized it was just the light and he looked up in surprise. What he saw
startled him. A sickly red sun cast its cold light down on the park---the sight of its
waning influence chilling him instantly, as though he were witnessing an omen meant for
other men's eyes.
Suddenly someone was pounding on a car horn close by.
A black Party car appeared at his side, a gray gloved hand at a
window motioning him forward. The rear door popped ajar---and Chang flung himself inside
the car, slamming the door behind him.
His grandfather sat impassively across from him, his small eyes
narrowing even further as the yellow dust settled over his white uniform.
Chang raked his fingers through his hair, blinking in the still
air of the car. "Have you ever seen so much dust! The top of my head feels like it's
The old man grunted. "You fuss too much."
Chang glanced momentarily at the back of the chauffeur's head,
visible on the far side of a glass partition. Then he wiped the dirt off his face with the
back of a sleeve. "I take it you are the reason I'm here?"
His grandfather nodded. "Partly."
"So why are there soldiers around the park? Aren't you
supposed to be in Qingdao?"
"When did you get back?"
"Three days ago. But if I'd known what the
His grandfather cut him off. "And you've been on Pingtan
all this time?"
Chang nodded. "More or less. I spend a few days a month in
Fuzhou, but mostly I'm on the island. Why?"
"And you've not heard any rumors? Nothing from the
Chang detected an edge of fear to his grandfather's voice.
"About what? What's happened?"
"Hmph." Instead of answering, the old man stared away
at the amber dust building on the ledge outside the window. "Still, it's one thing to
fool you," he whispered.
"What is? Are you going to tell me what's going on?"
His grandfather glared at him. "Why do all scientists have
to ask so many questions? Or is it just you, Li?"
Chang fell silent. It was a stinging criticism, a relic of an
attitude towards intellectuals and academics widespread in China when his grandfather was
his own age. It was a side of the old man he had rationalized away over the years, but it
"What am I here for?" Chang asked dourly.
"The Party has new plans for you."
What new plans? It was true that his work on the island was
approaching an end---now that his latest experiment was over with. Another three months
finishing up the data collection and the job would be complete. But he hadn't expected
Beijing to call him back until at least then.
"You're here because I know you can be trusted. And you're
the right person for the job. Even so, there's a limit to what I can tell you. Only what
concerns you directly."
Chang allowed his grandfather's words to sink in. "All
"Good. The first thing you need to understand is that only
three people know about this meeting, and it must stay that way. You, me..."
Chang inclined his head toward the driver.
"...and the Chairman."
Chang felt his gut go tight.
"Don't worry. He can't hear you," the old man said.
"The glass is quite---"
"Wait," Chang said. "The Chairman?"
As Commander in charge of the PLA Navy, Guo Chang could only have
been talking about the chairman of the Central Military Commission, Jin Shilong. Shilong
was also the president of China and the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party.
He was the most powerful man in the nation and the acknowledged leader of the Chinese
Chang was having difficulty imagining that Shilong even knew
about him. Harder still to absorb was the idea that he might somehow be of service to the
man; Chang was just a scientist, a mere member of the Party Congress. His first thought
was that somebody had goofed, and that the person responsible was sitting right across
from him. He swore and shook his head. He had no idea what it was all about, but already
his stomach was churning with regret.
"What have you got me into, old man?"
Guo Chang ignored his grandson's protestations and produced an
envelope which he handed over. "To start with, you'll be required to supply a full
report on your work. I'll need it by the end of the week. Don't open that yet." Guo
gestured at his driver. "Shen here will drive you back to my hotel. You'll find a
room waiting for you there, where---"
"But I haven't finished my work yet," Chang
"That's all right. The report won't be accurate anyway.
You'll be making up what you need to."
Making it up? Chang looked down at the envelope.
"Don't look so surprised. How many people on Pingtan know
what you're really doing there? Anybody in your study?"
"Of course not."
"No. Because you've been lying to them for the last three
years," his grandfather said matter-of-factly.
Chang grew defensive. "Maybe so," he said,
reaching with already-felt shame for that all-purpose rhetoric of the Party's he secretly
despised. "But only because it's for the greater good of the---"
"The People?" his grandfather growled. "The
country at large? Fine. You might even be right, Li. The point is, you've lied for the
Party before and you can do it again."
"I see..." Now Chang felt resentment towards the old
man. "I take it, then, that I have no choice in the matter?"
The two men stared hard at each other, and Chang was surprised to
see that all their past kinship had gone out of the old man's face, and he was staring
directly into the eyes of the Party.
"You would refuse?"
Chang bowed his head, in defeat. "No," he said.
"Of course not... What do you need in the report? How do I---"
"Improvise. Use the information in the envelope to guide
you. It'll tell you everything you need to know. But listen to me..." The old man
reached out and firmly seized his grandson's shoulder. "It's very important you make
it convincing. Very important."
"Why? Who are we trying to deceive?"
Guo Chang remained silent.
"It would help if I knew who I was writing for."
"Just pretend your report is destined for the Standing
Chang had an anxious thought. "Is it?" he asked.
The old man leaned forward and knocked on the glass to signal his
driver, before reaching for the door handle. "Remember, Li," he said, pausing a
moment. "You work for the Chairman now." Then he pushed the door open, wind and
dust howled through the back of the car, and he was gone.
* * *
Guo Chang slammed the door shut and the car moved off, disappearing quickly from sight.
The admiral turned and started up the steps from the courtyard.
The Hall of Prayer for a Good Year stood atop a huge marble
platform. The stone base consisted of three circular discs of decreasing size, with the
smallest supporting the hall at the top of the structure. Each of the three stages was
spanned by nine steps---nine, because in Chinese cosmology this was the number
representing Heaven. In fact, every slab of stone in the circular foundation had been laid
out in number and position in precise accordance with cosmological principles---an
elaborate effort originating with the emperor's desire to forestall the loss of his
endowment of supernatural power. They were old beliefs, Guo knew, ill-suited to the modern
lore of socialist doctrine. But in troubled times they continued to exert their influence
over men like Guo, drawing them back to the Temple of Heaven in a last-ditch attempt to
avert disaster and regain the "mandate of heaven." It was what the leaders of
the country had done before the rise of the Communist Party; it was what they would do
long after it had fallen.
At seventy, Guo Chang was sprightly for a man his age, and on
arriving at the top of the steps he found himself only mildly out of breath. A short
distance away, three technicians struggled with a small satellite dish. The dish had been
secured to one of the white marble balusters forming part of the guardrail at the edge of
the platform, but it threatened to take flight in the wind. A thick black cable ran back
across the stone towards the hall. It disappeared under a sheet of flapping plastic.
Someone had hung gigantic sheets of polyethylene about the circular hall to stop the dust
from getting inside. Held down at the ends by heavy rocks, the plastic fluttered and
snapped against the framework doors.
The entire hall was surrounded by soldiers from the People's
Liberation Army. As Guo approached two of them, the first man scurried to clear a rock
from his path. The other soldier gathered plastic to one side, and the admiral ducked
quickly through the nearest door.
Inside the hall, banks of halogen lamps had been set up around
the four massive red and gold pillars which supported the domed roof of the temple. The
bright bulbs pointed upwards, revealing a galaxy of color and detail within the
ceiling---Ming artwork which paid mute testimony to man's essential beggarliness in the
celestial order, and which now vied unsuccessfully for Guo's attention with the noise
coming from the center of the room.
The raised voices of two Politburo members stood out clearly from
the twenty who were gathered about an elevated TV set which showed nothing but gray fuzz.
Among them, Guo saw, were the commanders of the air force and the second artillery.
Also---off to one side---was a nervous-looking individual who wore a bright orange vest
and appeared distinctly out of place. But it was the fierce argument between Jin Shilong
and Premier He Binggui which provided for the focus in the hall.
"---try something like that," Shilong was saying,
"and you'll get us all killed very quickly!"
Binggui shook his head. "You're wrong. I'm telling you,
you've misread the people!"
"Me?" Shilong scoffed. "You idiot... What
do you think will happen when the wind stops? You think they're going to throw you a
parade in the streets? Is that it?"
"They wouldn't kill us."
"Wouldn't they? And what if you're wrong?" The Chinese
president looked around him. "Is anyone else willing to bet his life that the
Premier is right? Anyone? Because I don't think the people are going to be all that
forgiving once they find out what's happened."
"The Chairman is right," Guo Chang declared crossing
the temple floor. "Nobody is going to remember tomorrow that you served the Party
well, or that you're a family man, or even that you once defended their interests when no
one else cared to listen. None of it will mean a thing. All that will matter is that you
lost control. You." He came and stood at Shilong's side. "The Chairman is
right. None of us will be forgiven for that."
He waited with the rest of them for Binggui's response.
The premier turned and looked for the two other people whose
support mattered most---the commanders of the air force and the second artillery. But they
refused to meet his eye. And instantly Binggui, and everyone else, knew that he was on his
own. Without the PLA behind him, the premier's bid for leadership was at an end. A
moment's hesitation longer and his fate would be sealed. Binggui nodded slowly, and
scratched absently at his forehead, as if he had suddenly had a change of heart. "Of
course, if you can guarantee this plan of yours, then that would be another
A blast of noise from the TV interrupted the premier, and a
picture momentarily filled the screen. A technician at one of the many doors poked his
nose inside, only to hastily withdraw it when Shilong looked his way. "Get that thing
on!" the president yelled at him.
Shilong turned back to Binggui with a frown. "If you want
guarantees, He, then look to the wind. Because it will stop. And when it does, I
assure you, it will take more than an army of two million to hold back the people this
The premier said nothing. He looked up at the TV, with its
bubbling electronic foam, and then down at the floor where he appeared to search for the
pattern of a dragon and a phoenix that was said to be visible in the marbled stone.
"Perhaps..." he said.
A woman's face snapped onto the TV screen over their heads.
Flecked with white "snow," she boomed in English throughout the hall.
The man in the orange vest jumped forward. With a remote control
in one outstretched hand he muted the TV. With the other hand he pulled a pair of
headphones from his vest. Shilong beckoned him impatiently to his side.
"Translate!" he commanded, looking away to the
By now they had missed the first ten minutes of a special
interview with Scott Thornton, the U.S. secretary of defense. Thornton had been invited to
speak with the CNN science and technology anchor about rumors concerning American defense
technology. If the stories were correct, the U.S. defense initiative had eroded to an
extent far greater than had been publicly acknowledged. And in that case, Guo knew,
Shilong had already seen the way forward for them all.
Library footage of the Pentagon appeared, the building rotating
slowly as the camera moved through the air. Next, a shot of Secretary Thornton leaning on
the edge of his desk and looking into the camera.
"They're running late," the translator said.
"She's introducing him... talking about his---"
"All right," Shilong said chiding him. "We
don't need his biography." He turned next to Guo. "How does he look to
you?" he whispered.
The admiral studied his adversary's face carefully. "He's
Together they stared at the TV. Again Shilong whispered.
"Did you speak with Li?"
Guo Chang nodded to himself. "He's working on it now."
The CNN anchor appeared. On seeing her, everyone in the hall
looked at the translator as he began to relay the interview.
CNN: "Mr. Secretary, I'd like to begin by asking you whether it's true that the
president has asked for your resignation?"
Thornton: "Absolutely not."
CNN: "But you don't deny your relationship with President Coleman these days is
somewhat less than cordial? The two of you haven't been seen together for over six months
Thornton: "That's misleading. I was actually at the White House in February. I'll
admit the President and I haven't always seen eye to eye, but that has never affected the
day to day---"
CNN: "Did you get to see the President?"
CNN: "It's no secret that you've criticized him indirectly in the past---mostly for
refusing to enlarge the military's share of the budget. Now we're hearing disturbing
stories about massive shortfalls in the fighter replacement program for all three
divisions of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. Although, hardest hit, it
appears, will be the Navy, where you've had the most experience in the past. Was this the
subject of your meeting with the President?"
Thornton: "Naturally, I'm not about to reveal what was discussed, except to say that
those claims have been wildly exaggerated."
A smile had appeared on the Defense Secretary's face. "He's
lying," Guo announced over the translator's voice.
CNN: "---have a report here from the Rand Corporation suggesting that the cumulative
effect of this administration's cutbacks has been to delay the introduction of the
Pentagon's JAST strike fighter by at least five years---something you yourself warned the
President about in a letter to him in his first term. Are you saying now that you were
Thornton: (he laughs) "Guilty as charged. The Strike Fighter program has
suffered some minor delays, but I still expect all three versions of the aircraft to enter
service close to the target date, as do the people building them. Conceivably, it could
take a year longer. But that's about it."
CNN: "Well, if that's correct, Mr. Secretary, then how do you explain the Navy's
Raptor program? Wasn't that conceived by you personally as a hedge against possible
postponements in the Navy's acquisition of JAST technology? Surely, if the latter program
is on track, as you say it is, shouldn't you have canceled the former?"
There was a long pause as Thornton considered his reply. Guo Chang glanced at the Party
members. Look, he wanted to tell them, he can't even answer her. The picture
quickly cut back to the studio as the interviewer pursued what appeared to be a weak point
in U.S. defense policy.
CNN: "Wouldn't that have been the sensible thing to do when Camilla Montoya clipped
the wings of the Navy's Raptor program? To abandon it?"
Thornton: "First of all, the development of the navalized F-22 was never intended to
be more than a stopgap measure. But it's a magnificent aircraft, and given what was
invested in the program it would be a shame not to see it through at this stage. That
said, there are indeed some problems with Mexico still to be ironed out. But I remain
optimistic that we'll see progress---"
Abruptly, the signal was lost, leaving behind a gray fuzz on the screen over which the
translator finished with the words, "---any day now."
The Party members continued to stare at the empty screen, as if
waiting for the picture to return. But it did not. Instead, a door opened behind them and
wind howled through the hall as a technician looked inside---the group of old men blinking
as the cold dust rose above their heads, swirling unnoticed in the hall lights like a
cloud of stars.
END OF PROLOGUE