July 12, 2012, 06:00 GMT

Shantou, Zhongguo

'Give the order to cast off,' Captain Yao said to his first mate Chin. His subordinate yelled the order along and the sailors manning the capstans threw off the thick ropes securing his ship to the dock. They scrambled aboard the ship.

'Port auxiliary, ahead fifty,' Yao commanded.

'Aye, sir, Port auxiliary, ahead fifty,' Chin relayed. The cargo ship, too large to move from the dock by its main engines alone, had the small little 360-degree swivel-mounted propeller engines on each side of the bow turn to the left and kick on. The resulting swinging arc of the ship was enough to provide the maneuvering space necessary to leave the quay.

'Main engines ahead quarter,' Yao said, watching the dock swing away from him slowly.

'Aye, Main engines ahead quarter,' Chin barked. The deck gave a little shudder as the huge turbines vibrated to life. He felt a light breeze on his face as the ship began to move from the dock under her own power, sweeping away the harbor-stench and the omnipresent shipboard smell of thick grease and paint.

'You have the helm,' Yao said, and, upon Chin echoing his command, went inside to plot a course to open sea with his navigator.

Several hours later, Captain Yao watched the stars come up over the horizon while outside on the bridge. Silhouetted on the horizon on either side of his ship were frigates, behind him was the carrier and his ship followed in the faint luminescent wake of the third frigate. Small sea-life, disturbed by the chop of the propeller, lit up and provided an eerie blue-green pathway where the frigate had traveled.

He lit a cigarette and took a drag, watching the orange glow eat greedily into the paper quickly. Soon they would have to allow smoking inside only, after they passed the Indian horn. For now, he felt the cool night air wash over his face, blowing the sweet smell of tobacco behind him. He heard the metallic grind and slam of the hatch behind him and footsteps. His first mate came behind him. The two men nodded and looked at the stars.

'Can you point out the north star for me, sir? I always have trouble finding it.'

Yao used his cigarette as a pointer, his thumb holding it in place against his middle finger while his index clamped near the lit end. He stabbed upwards towards a particularly bright star.

'There you go, Polaris.'

'How far away is it?'

'About 430 light years, half a parsec. The light we're seeing now was generated when North America was being colonized by the English. We'll be dead and gone before we see the light that's being created now.'

'Puts everything into perspective, doesn't it? I mean, we're floating here on a steel bowl, traveling around a floating ball in space to secure dead, liquid dinosaurs to make sure that our societal revolution doesn't collapse by revolution.'

'Being nihilistic has no place in a modern society,' Yao reprimanded.

'I'm not being nihilistic, I'm being realistic. Reality is beyond comprehension itself, sometimes.'

'That is why I believe in fate, in the power of history. Fate, I think, is more than a simple line. Its like a spider web with a infinite number of lines leading to the same point. No matter what path you chose, you will end up doing what you are meant to do.'

Chin was quiet for a bit, than nodded. 'I must be tired. That actually makes some sense.'

Yao laughed and flicked the butt overboard. He watched it sail off, catch on the breeze and disappear in the water churning away from the side of his ship.

'My father told me that a long time ago. Its made a lot of my life's choices crystalize. How long do we have before it's a darkened ship?'

'About five hours.'

'Lets go grab some sleep. We're going to need it soon.'

July 12, 2012, 19:07 GMT

ROC P-3E, South China Sea

Pilot Chan quickly covered up his foam mic mouthpiece to prevent his yawn from being broadcasted throughout his crew. It was a completely clear night, no turbulence, clouds or winds of any kind. Perfect sooth-as-silk flying but made difficult trying to stay awake, despite the upper pill he had swallowed before take off.

'Lee, you still got eyes-on?'

The delay in the response back told him Lee was having the same problem staying awake that he was, 'Yeah. Some guy just threw a cigarette overboard on The Boat. Someone should fine him for littering.'

Chan laughed and quipped, 'Could you tell what his brand was?'

Lee snorted into the mic, 'No, I could only tell it was a cigarette by the FLIR. Lit up like a comet when he threw it out over into the sea.'

'Well, we're suppose to tail the group until noonish. Then the US surveillance crew in the Philippines is going to take over for awhile. Dunno who's covering them after that.'

'I sure as hell don't care as long as its not us,' Chow broke in.

'Hey, look who's awake. Good morning, sleeping beauty,' ribbed Lee.

'Don't give me that bullshit, I was…' Chow frowned at his instrument display before turning his mic back on.

'Hey, uh, Lee, did you just see what I saw?'

Lee hesitated for a few seconds, before replying, 'No, what did I see?'

'My MAD light just came on, flip on one of the MFDs to the MAD waterfall.'

Lee flipped the third MFD to the magnetic anomaly detection screen. The history of the magnetic field of the earth slipped from top to bottom, slowly updating in a downward scrolling fashion that looked like a waterfall. In the center of the top was a small island of divots where there should be nothing but thin, uninterrupted lines.

'Yeah, I'm seeing the MAD, too. Chan, its bearing zero-five-four now, let's drop a passive sonar spread above the layer. Tube loaded, and… buoys away.'

Now awake, Lee turned tuned the radio stacks to the channel that the buoys would be auto-broadcasting on. After they fell several minutes, a small screen next to the tuner showed in a waterfall format the static noise of the ocean waves. Faintly, a series of small white lines started to appear spidering down from the top of the screen, a rhythmic disturbance in ocean currents.

'I'll be goddamned, it's a Chinese sub!' Lee exclaimed excitedly, as he twisted the knob, flipping through the electronic library of matching sounds. 'Contact, we have an attack-class submarine following our little invasion group. Looks like they covered all their bases, above and below water.'

'Hot diggity damn,' Chan swore, 'that's gotta be the luckiest MAD I've ever seen. Chow, fire up the encrypted text channel, we need to make a report back to home plate stat.'