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Chapter Three

Arunachal Pradesh in northern India on the eastern rim of the Tsangpo

Gorge about 50 miles south of the hotly disputed border with China

“Mountain Forests, rugged steeps, marshes and fens, all country that is hard to traverse: this is difficult ground. In difficult ground keep steadily on the march.”

These were the words the captain quoted when they realized that they were being hunted. Jiang Rui Xuan had noticed that the captain studied and applied the precepts of Sun Tzu with an almost religious fervor and so he began studying The Art of War too. He always strove to emulate the best of his leaders. It seemed the surest way to rise through the ranks.

The sound of a dog’s soulful baying pierced the silence of the forest and a foreboding shiver of doom rippled through his body as he desperately but futilely sought to stay ahead of the deadly pack.

Three runners were strung out in a line less than half a kilometer long but Jiang Rui Xuan was the biggest and slowest and he was now only a hundred meters ahead of the relentless pack. He could hear their yelps and pants of excitement clearly as they quickly closed the distance between themselves and their prey. He had regrets but was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was absolutely no fear, but of course that could change in an instant. He was a hundred percent focused on staying ahead of the dogs. He was te zhong budui, Chinese Special Forces and had trained hard for missions such as this. He would do whatever he had to ensure success. He knew at this point that this meant buying time for the two runners ahead of him and that the price for that precious time would be his life. He broke through the thick forest into an open glade.

The light of the full moon illuminated his harsh determined features. It was Summer but these mountains bordered Tibet. Summers were short and the cold winds whipping down from the mighty Himalayas could make any given night feel like the bitterest winter of a more temperate climate. He staggered as he raced across the glade but recovered his balance quickly. He couldn’t run much further and he desperately scanned the glade for a place to make a stand.

There! Straight ahead at the opposite of the wide glade was a tree just large enough to cover his back If he was lucky he could make it there and buy time for the others to make it to the spider’s web while he held off the pack. If he was extremely lucky he would be able to kill the dogs one by one before their masters arrived or before they killed him.

He managed a burst of speed, his lungs burning with effort but was propelled forward and flat on his face when his left foot caught on a root. For a second he entertained the thought that he could lie there on the stiff cold ground and rest but with a supreme effort he jumped up and headed towards the tree with a jolt of adrenalin.

He heard the horrifyingly close sound of excited dogs spotting him as they burst into the glade. His arms pumped frantically as the dogs ran close behind. Every one of them stood at least waist high and they leaped, whined, and yelped, in their eagerness to be the first to catch him. Their weak eyes focused in on the moon illuminated figure of their prey as he stumbled again and nearly fell but this time he righted himself in mid stride and his near miss only gave him more adrenalin, more energy. His breaths came ragged and noisy in the serene forest night. He honed in on his tree. It was his tree. He refused to die anywhere else. The dogs, sensing victory, increased their efforts too. They had played this game many times and they never lost.

He stumbled a third time but when he once again felt the fear inspired adrenalin course through his body his legs rebelled. There was nothing left to give. One of the dogs, a large lean female Doberman, moved out to his left flank then swerved back inward and leapt. Rui Xuan ducked and leaned forward as fangs ripped his shoulder. He staggered but refused to fall.

The tree! Must get to the tree! He almost made it. He drew his knife. Firearms had not been permitted on this mission. The Doberman was clawing and snapping frantically and the smell of his own blood spurred Rui Xuan to heroic effort. With speed astonishing for such a huge man he placed his gloved hand into the slavering beast’s maw and brought the knife down, one, two, three times into the dog’s body. The third blow severed an artery in its neck. Dog and human were awash in blood but even as the Doberman fell limp, a German Sheppard lunged and ripped a huge swath through the soldier’s right hip. He fell and the remaining dogs pounced.

Jiang Rui Xuan, a heavily decorated sergeant in the army of The Peoples Republic of China went down screaming. He screamed to warn the others that the pack was still coming and his last thought was that he had gotten at least one dog. He hoped it made a difference.

Yang Biou heard the scream of his dying comrade and knew he was next in line. He was taller and faster than Rui Xuan but not nearly as brave. He was scared to death and didn’t mind admitting it to himself. He increased his speed as much as his tired body could bear but he felt as if he was running in a feverish nightmare, his body in the grip of a poisonous unshakable lethargy. The long night run in rough wilderness terrain was taking its toll.

He heard the distinctive triumphant roar of canine hunters picking up the scent and knew it was only a matter of time. He had conserved his energy as much as possible. There was the slightest chance he could make it to the spider’s web and he clung to that hope like a lifeline in a tempest.

The dogs couldn’t follow him past there. In spite of the pain, in spite of the mind-numbing fear threatening to overwhelm his mind and plunge him into paralysis, he increased his pace. He was running as fast as he possibly could but he was tired, frightened and disoriented by the prospect of the horrible death in his near future.

When to his complete surprise, he suddenly burst out of the forest and onto the ledge of the largest canyon in the world he wept in exhausted exhilaration. He realized that the roaring he had thought was in his head was actually the sound of the mighty river below. Quickly he looked right and left for the bridge, the spider’s web. It was difficult to see it in the moonlight and tricky to judge the distance but he finally located it. The bridge looked to be somewhere between seven and eight hundred meters to his right.

During his frantic dash through the rugged moonlit terrain he had apparently veered to the left way too much, about seven or eight hundred meters too much. He was just thinking that he would never be able to beat the dogs to the bridge when a furry mass of viscous fury hurled itself through the air slamming into his upper body with tremendous force. The German Sheppard’s momentum sent dog and man plummeting into the wild white water below.

Captain Gao Xin Tong thought she heard Yang Biao’s scream over the sound of the roaring water but she couldn’t be sure. In a case like this it was best to assume the worst, which in this case meant she was on her own and the dogs would be here soon. She thought about her options as she carefully made her way across the spider’s web. The bridge got its name from the illusion it created in aerial photos. When pictures were taken from above of people traversing it, they appeared to be snarled in a giant spider’s web. In reality it was constructed of thick hemp rope, steel cable, and sturdy bamboo. It was one of the highest bridges in the world and the view from it was reported to be magnificent.

Unfortunately, Xin Tong had no time to enjoy it tonight. The last three dogs were already racing towards the bridge and she had some thinking to do and a decision to make. After what seemed like a lifetime but was in fact about thirty minutes she reached the other side and with a deliberately cool demeanor turned around and considered her predicament. In their briefing, they had been told that the spider was a rope bridge, it’s bottom consisting of open rectangular spaces created by crisscrossing rope and cable that most animals couldn’t traverse, but apparently that information was outdated. A narrow bamboo floor the width of a human foot had been added and though they would have to come slow and could only come in a file one after another, the dogs could most definitely come. The question was, would they? She had to assume the worst.

Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting is death ground-on death ground fight!

Technically she wasn’t on death ground. The way ahead was clear but she was tired and she knew that the dogs would never give up. The bridge represented the last chance for terrain that made the odds a little more in her favor. She had to live, had to get the plans and pictures her team had acquired at such great costs back to China, back to the leaders who would know how to use it, back to her grandfather.

Arunachal Pradesh had been part of China since ancient times and would be once again despite anything the Indian government might say or do. It was only a matter of time. For now, China patiently took the long view but it would never give up, not on Arunachal Pradesh, not on Taiwan, not on the South China Sea, not on anything.

She watched by the light of the spectacular full moon as the dogs arrived at the other end of the bridge. It had been the worst kind of karma that an Indian patrol with dogs had run across their trail as they made their way to the pickup point on the other side of the Chinese claim line. The mission itself had been carried out without a hitch. Karma.

There were only three dogs left, a Doberman, a German Sheppard, and a huge Mastiff that dwarfed the other two big dogs. The German Sheppard and the Doberman whined and sniffed around futilely for another way to reach their prey but the Mastiff stood stock still, his nose pointed directly at her. When he put a tentative paw gently onto the spider and started slowly towards her she sighed. She loved dogs and would have liked to have had a chance to choose her pick of a litter from this one. He was magnificent but he was her enemy and she had to show him that when he decided to cross the bridge… he had entered death ground.

She stripped off her jet-black nylon outer shirt, and the thick thermal undershirt manufactured in inner Mongolia, where winters were nearly as brutal as they were here. She wrapped both around her left arm, taking care that it was completely covered from hand to elbow. Next, she unbuckled the knife in the sheath against her right thigh, making sure it was unfettered and moved smoothly. She had practiced the quick draw a thousand times from a thousand different positions. It had better pay off today.

She pulled three shuriken from her pocket. They were her last. Three shuriken, or throwing stars, three dogs, karma. At this distance, taking into consideration the wind and the poor quality of the light, she would be lucky if she could kill or disable even one of the dogs and she needed to down two if she was to stand any chance of surviving a direct encounter. She placed two of the throwing stars in her left hand, then picking her spot carefully, she set herself and hurled her first star. She aimed at the center of the big dog’s chest but at the last second, he cut to the right and the spinning projectile hit the German Sheppard in line behind him squarely in the neck. The wounded animal went down in yelping agony. He wasn’t dead but it wouldn’t be long.

The Mastiff, followed now by the Doberman, padded resolutely forward.

She knew she had been extremely lucky to take out one dog with one throw. She would have preferred it was the Mastiff. He was the largest and most dangerous. He was also clearly the leader, the alpha male, intelligent, deadly, and aggressive. But one dog down was one dog down. She would take whatever the ancestors could give her at this point. With a supreme effort she threw her next star straight down the middle once more, again hoping to catch the Mastiff in the chest or neck but once again the big dog moved to the extreme right but this time the Doberman behind him moved to the left and the shuriken sailed harmlessly down the middle past both. She cursed the dogs’ trainers and in a split-second decision because the big dog was so close, she hurled her last star aiming it as close to the right as possible this time, but the Mastiff moved left, avoiding her last chance to stop him. The Doberman was not so lucky. It had moved right into the path of the projectile. The razor-sharp metal pierced his left eye and screaming in pain the dog turned round and round as if chasing its own tail for a second before blindly heading back in the opposite direction. But it could neither see nor concentrate and soon all four legs were dangling uselessly through separate gaps in the bottom of the bridge where the miserable beast sat howling in pain and misery.

Xin Tong would have felt sorry for it but the giant Mastiff was on her. Instinct and training took over. She knew this had to be quick or she stood absolutely no chance at all. She leaned forward at the exit from the bridge giving the dog no opportunity to flank her. When the black monster leaped snarling, and roaring his triumph she met him forearm first. She jammed the covered limb into his gaping maw then lightening quick she reversed momentum and let the dog put her on her back. She didn’t stay there. Before the jolt of her back hitting the hard ground fully registered she was using the dog’s forward momentum and every ounce of her own strength to keep the movement going. Her legs locked at the ankles and she kept them locked for to unlock them meant a horrifying death. As she completed the spin that would reverse their positions and put her on top she deftly pulled her knife, and as the alarmed monster thrashed beneath her plunged it again and again into the squirming muscled body. The smell of blood filled her nostrils giving her a final spurt of energy. She stabbed down and twisted the knife mercilessly in the grip of an animal frenzy herself, until finally, her enemy was dead.

She came to. Apparently, she had blacked out. She had no way of knowing exactly how long, but the blood that seemed to be everywhere was sticky but not yet completely congealed. She listened intently for any signs of danger before finally venturing to move. She was sore, exhausted, cold, and scratched in a thousand places. But she was alive and her enemies were not. She savored the moment even as she assessed her situation. There was no way the Indian patrol could know where they had been. They couldn’t even guess who they were until they found bodies, even then they couldn’t be sure and she planned on being very far away by that time.

There were however still a lot of other potential dangers to consider. She was on the lip of the Tsangpo gorge, the largest canyon in the world and a vast wilderness. There were tigers, cobras, and other dangers to deal with from this point on and she was alone. She thought about her dead comrades for a moment but refused to give herself over to grief. There was too much to do. She would mourn them properly later and make sure their family and friends knew that they were heroes and had died in the service of mother China. She couldn’t give them details because the mission was top secret but she would give them something. They deserved so much more.

She looked around and took stock. First things first. With an expert’s precision, she butchered and quartered the Mastiff. She would need the protein as she completed her trek. Then after gorging herself and resting a safe distance from the bridge, she began the long journey to the Chinese side of the border where she would be picked up and taken home.

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