Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War: Part 2


Attack your enemy where he is unprepared,

appear where you are not expected.

—SUN-TZU, THE ART OF WAR

 

 

Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, DC

 

Armando Chavez exhaled when he made the initial slice. As his mentor Dr. Jimenez had explained so long ago, the key to precision was to move slow but steady, advancing the blade at a consistent pace. The cut complete, Armando reached down, picked up the withered rose branch, and placed it into the faded canvas bag slung over his shoulder.

Landscaping was a step down for someone with an MD from Universidad Central de Venezuela. But it was the only kind of work Armando had been able to get since he’d arrived as a refugee from the chaos in his homeland seven years ago. He could get angry or he could focus on achieving the little perfections that made life satisfying.

As he trimmed the flowers at the base of the sign, he glanced at the etching in the black marble: DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE AGENCY.¹ He wasn’t sure what the DIA did. Hadid, his supervisor, said it was something like the CIA, but for the U.S. military. It didn’t matter. The landscaping crew was almost done here. After the break, Hadid said they would head over to trim the hedges behind the base’s elder-care center.

Because of security, the landscapers were not allowed inside the building. When break time came, the others gathered in the shade, but Armando walked over to sit by the small decorative pond beside the entrance doors.

He flipped open the tablet he kept in his pocket to see if he had any messages. The screen projected a 3-D packet from his cousin back in Caracas. More pictures of his granddaughter. Such lovely eyes.

Armando’s smile went unnoticed by Allison Swigg as she cut across the grassy field by the pond in her rush from the parking lot. The imagery analyst had gotten stuck in the traffic on I-295 on her way back from a networking lunch out at Tysons Corner. And now she was late for the staff meeting.

Neither of them noticed the other, but as she passed the landscaper, his tablet recognized the RFID chips embedded in Allison’s security badge. A localized wireless network formed for exactly 0.03 seconds. In that instant, the malware hidden in the video packet from Caracas made its jump.

As Armando finished the iced tea his wife had made for him the previous night, Swigg approached the security desk manned by a guard in a black bullet-resistant nylon jumpsuit. A compact HK G48² assault rifle hung from the glossy gray ceramic vest that protected his chest. The only insignia on his uniform was the eagle-silhouette logo of the security company that guarded the DIA headquarters. No Personal Devices Allowed read the sign suspended above a row of silver turnstiles.

“Hey, Steve,” said Allison. “How’s the little one?”

“Pretty good,” the guard replied with a smile. “She slept through the night.”

She placed her iTab bracelet in a metallic lock box and pulled out the key. But Allison’s badge stayed with her. As she walked toward the gate, the software in her badge automatically communicated her security clearance to the machine via a radio signal. And at the same moment of network linkage, the malware packet jumped again in less time than it would take to read the engraving on the entrance wall: Committed to Excellence in Defense of the Nation.

The idea of using covert radio signals³ to ride malware into a network unconnected to the wider Internet had actually been pioneered by the NSA, one of the DIA’s sister agencies. But like all virtual weapons, once it was deployed in the open cyberworld, it offered inspiration for anyone, including one’s enemies.

The turnstile gate lifted. Swigg rushed down the hall, too far behind schedule to make her ritual stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts stand just inside the spy agency’s entrance. By the time she had passed the old Soviet SS-20 ballistic missile that stood mounted in the lobby like a Cold War totem pole, the malware packet had jumped from the gate onto another security guard’s viz glasses. When the guard walked his rounds, the packet jumped into the environmental controls that cooled a closet full of network servers supporting aerial surveillance operations over Pakistan. After that, it went to an unmanned-aircraft research and development team’s systems. And bit by bit, the malware worked its way into the various subnetworks that linked via the Defense Department’s SIPRNet classified network.⁴

The initial penetrations didn’t raise any alarms among the automated computer network defenses, always on the lookout for anomalies. At each stop, all the packet did was link with what appeared to the defenses as nonexecutables, harmless inert files, which they were, until the malware rearranged them into something new. Each of the systems had been air-gapped,⁵ isolated from the Internet to prevent hackers from infiltrating them. The problem with high walls, though, was that someone could use an unsuspecting gardener to tunnel underneath them.

 

Shanghai Jiao Tong University

 

A thin teenage girl stood behind a workstation, faintly glowing metallic smart-rings⁶ on her fingers, one worn above each joint. Her expression was blank, her eyes hidden behind a matte-black visor. Rows of similar workstations lined the converted lecture hall. Behind each stood a young engineering student, every one a member of the 234th Information Brigade—Jiao Tong, a subunit of the Third Army Cyber-Militia.

On the arena floor, two Directorate officers watched the workers. From their vantage point, the darkened arena seemed to be lit by thousands of fireflies as the students’ hands wove faint neon-green tracks through the air.

Jiao Tong University had been formed in 1896 by Sheng Xuanhuai, an official working for the Guangxu emperor. The school was one of the original pillars of the Self-Strengthening Movement, which advocated using Western technology to save the country from destitution. Over the following decades, the school grew to become China’s most prestigious engineering university, nicknamed the Eastern MIT.⁷

Hu Fang hated that moniker, which made it seem as if her school were only a weak copy of an American original. Today, her generation would show that times had changed.

The first university cyber-militias had been formed after the 2001 Hainan Island incident.⁸ A Chinese fighter pilot had veered too close to an American navy surveillance plane, and the two planes crashed in midair. The smaller Chinese plane spun to the earth and its hot-dogging pilot was killed, while the American plane had to make an emergency landing at a Chinese airfield on Hainan. As each side angrily accused the other of causing the collision, the Communist Party encouraged computer-savvy Chinese citizens to deface American websites to show their collective displeasure. Young Chinese teens were organized online by the thousands and gleefully joined in the cyber-vandalism campaign, targeting the homepage of everything from the White House to a public library in Minnesota. After the crisis, the hacker militias became crucial hubs⁹ of espionage, stealing online secrets that ranged from jet-fighter designs to soft-drink companies’ negotiating strategies.

That had all taken place before Hu Fang was born. She’d grown up sick from the smog; a hacking cough kept her from playing outside with the other kids. What Hu thought was a curse became a blessing: her father, a professor of computer science in Beijing, had started her out writing code at age three, mostly as a way to keep her busy inside their cramped apartment. Hu had been inducted into the 234th after she’d won a software-writing competition at the age of eleven.

Officially, militia service fulfilled the Directorate’s universal military service requirement, but Hu would have volunteered anyway. She got to play with the latest technology, and the missions the officers gave her were usually fun. One day it might be hacking into a dissident’s smartphone, and another day it might entail tangling with the IT security at a Korean car designer. The Americans, though, were the best to toy with—so confident of their defenses. If you pwned them—the word taken from the Americans’ own lingo for seizing digital control—the officers of the 234th noticed you. She’d done well enough that the apartment she and her father lived in now was much bigger than any of her father’s colleagues’.

But it was not the reward that mattered to Hu; rather, it was escaping the physical limitations that had once defined her life. When linked in, Hu felt like she was literally flying. Indeed, her gear worked on the same principles as the fly-by-wire controls on China’s J-20 fighter.¹⁰ The powerful computers she drew on created a three-dimensional world that represented the global communications networks that were her battlegrounds. She was among the few people who could boast that they had truly “seen” the Internet.

Hu had made her mark by hacking phones belonging to civilian employees in the Pentagon. Despite the restrictions on employees bringing devices into the building, a few did so every day. Her technique involved co-opting a phone’s camera and other onboard sensors to remotely re-create the owner’s physical and electronic environment. This mosaic of pictures, sounds, and electromagnetic signals helped the Directorate produce an almost perfect 3-D virtual rendition of the Pentagon’s interior and its networks.

She noticed with pleasure her pump kicking in. Access to the latest in medical technologies was another perk of the unit. The tiny pump, implanted beneath the skin near her navel, dumped a cocktail of methylphenidate and other stimulants into her circulatory system.¹¹

Originally designed for children with attention deficit disorder, the mix produced a combination of focus and euphoria. For well over a decade, kids in America had popped “prep” pills to tackle tests and homework, which Hu thought was laughable. It was another sign of America’s weakness, kids using this kind of power just to make it through schoolwork. Hu’s pump enabled her to do something truly important.

When she’d been told a week ago to prepare for a larger operation than they’d ever tried, she hacked the pump’s operating system. It was a risk, but it paid off. She raised the dose level by 200 percent. No more steady-state awareness. Now it was like falling off a skyscraper and discovering you could fly right before you hit the ground.

Hu moved her hands like a conductor, gently arcing her arms in elliptical gestures, almost swanlike. The movement of each joint of every finger communicated a command via the gyroscopes inside the smart-ring; one typed out code on an invisible keyboard while another acted as a computer mouse, clicking open network connections. Multiple different points, clicks, and typing actions, all at once. To the officers watching below, it looked like an intricate ballet crossed with a tickling match.

The young hacker focused on her attack, navigating the malware packet through the DIA networks while fighting back the desire to brush a bead of sweat off her nose with her gloved hands. The Pentagon’s autonomous network defenses, sensing the slight anomalies of her network streams, tried to identify and contain her attack. But this was where the integration of woman and machine triumphed above mere “big data.” Hu was already two steps ahead, building system components and then tearing them down before the data could be integrated enough for the DIA computers to see them as threats. Her left arm coiled and sprung, her fingers outstretched. Then the right did the same, this time a misdirect, steering the defense code to shut down further external access, essentially tricking the programs into focusing on locking the doors of a burning house, but leaving a small ember on the outside for them to stamp on, so they’d think the fire was out.

Having gained access, she set about accomplishing the heart of her mission. Hu’s hands punched high, then her fingers flicked. She began inserting code that would randomize signals¹² from the Americans’ Global Positioning System satellite constellation. Some GPS signals would be off by just two meters. Others would be off by two hundred kilometers.

Of course, shutting it all down would be easy. But she could swing that hammer later; today was all about sowing doubt and spreading confusion.

 

332 Kilometers Above the Earth’s Surface

 

If it weren’t so frustrating, it would be funny.

Less than a millimeter’s worth of extra metal on just one bolt was about to derail an operation that involved literally billions of moving pieces of software and hardware.

“Are you done yet?” asked Lieutenant Colonel Huan Zhou, an unmistakable edge in his voice.

The wrench that Major Chang Lu held in his gloved hand was a perfect copy of a HEXPANDO, just like the one that Colonel Farmer was banging at the ISS hatch with half an Earth orbit away. This wrench, though, had been produced from a design pirated by a patriotic hacker unit based in Shenzhen and manufactured at the Manned Space Engineering Office in Beijing. The problem was that, unlike the wrench, the bolt that Chang was trying to pry free was not a perfect copy and had become stuck. He pushed harder and harder, but it still wouldn’t budge.

“Nearly,” said Chang.

He saw the three other taikonauts reentering the Tiangong-3 space station. Lucky bastards.

The Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) space station¹³ program had been planned ever since China launched its first manned crew into space, in 2003. Western commentators had mocked those early Shenzhou vessels as poor copies of the United States’ 1960s-era Gemini spacecraft. But the program rapidly advanced, aided by a healthy amount of NASA computer design files that found their way into Chinese engineers’ hands. After the Shenzhous came the first Tiangong space station, a ten-meter-long, eight-thousand-kilogram single-module test bed that launched in 2011. It was the equivalent of NASA’s 1970s-era Skylab. That was followed in 2015 by the multimodule Tiangong-2, which was fifteen meters long and weighed twenty thousand kilograms, comparable to NASA’s 1990s design of the first ISS. Soon after, the program accelerated fast enough to finally match its competitors. Western commentators no longer mocked but instead marveled that in a decade and a half, China had achieved what it had taken NASA sixty years to accomplish.

The twenty-five-meter-long, sixty-thousand-kilogram Tiangong-3 space station was the pride of the nation, its launch celebrated with an official state holiday. It had seven modules laid out in a T, including a core crew module that could support six taikonauts; four solar panels that extended out thirty-seven meters; and a docking port that could accommodate four ships. At the two upper ends of the T were parallel laboratory modules designed to conduct various experiments in microgravity.

At least, that was what the rest of the world thought. The port-side module actually had a different purpose. And now, its cover just wouldn’t shake free, all because of a single faulty titanium bolt.

Chang realized that to get enough torque to pry the bolt loose, he’d have to untether, which was against protocol.

“Repositioning,” said Chang.

“Negative,” said Huan. “Return and I will send someone to finish your work.”

“There’s no time,” said Chang. “I’m now off tether.”

Chang heaved on the long wrench, and the bolt loosened. He easily removed the hatch cover and found himself staring into the mirrored surface of a laser’s lens. He studied the Earth’s reflection in it, and his own form superimposed above the peaceful blue beneath.

“Done,” said Chang.

“I didn’t think you had it in you, Chang. Good work,” said Huan, the edge in his voice gone.

Chang resecured himself to the space station and made his way to the main hatch while Huan brought Tiangong-3’s weapons online. The station crew had realized they were moving to war footing twelve hours ago when Huan switched off the live viz feed of their activities. But it still felt slightly unreal.

Once the taikonauts were all inside the station, Huan powered up the weapons module. The chemical oxygen iodine laser,¹⁴ or COIL, design had originally been developed by the U.S. Air Force in the late 1970s. It had even been flown on a converted 747 jumbo jet¹⁵ so the laser’s ability to shoot down missiles in midair could be tested. But the Americans had ultimately decided that using chemicals in enclosed spaces to power lasers was too dangerous. The Directorate saw it differently. Two modules away from the crew, a toxic mix of hydrogen peroxide and potassium hydroxide was being blended with gaseous chlorine and molecular iodine.

This was really it, thought Chang as he watched the power indicators turn red. There was no turning back once the chemicals had been mixed and the excited oxygen began to transfer its energy to the weapon. They would have forty-five minutes to act and then the power would be spent.

The firing protocol for mankind’s first wartime shots in space was well rehearsed. The targets marked in the firing solution had been identified, prioritized, and tracked for well over a year in increasingly rigorous drills the crew eventually realized were not just to support war games down on Earth. The long hours spent in the lab would finally pay off.

“Ready to commence firing sequence,” said Huan. “Confirm?”

One by one, the other taikonauts checked in from their weapons stations. Chang touched the photo taped to the wall in front of him. His fingers lingered on the image of his beaming wife and their grinning eight-year-old son. The smiling Ming, missing his two front teeth, wore his father’s blue air force officer’s hat.

What the photo did not show was how upset his wife had been when he’d given Ming that hat the night before. She thought it made her son look like a prop in a Directorate propaganda piece.

He moved his hand away from the photo and began his part of the operation, monitoring the targeting sequence. He startled even Huan when he cried out, “Ready!”

For years, military planners had fretted about antisatellite threats from ground-launched missiles, because that was how both the Americans and the Soviets had intended to take down each other’s satellite networks during the Cold War. More recently, the Directorate had fed this fear by developing its own antisatellite missiles and then alternating between missile tests and arms-control negotiations that went nowhere, keeping the focus on the weapons based below. The Americans should have looked up.

Chang snuck another look at the photo and caught Huan pausing, his trigger finger lingering above the red firing button. He appeared to be savoring the moment. Then Huan pressed the button.

A quiet hum pervaded the module. No crash of cannon or screams of death. Only the steady purr of a pump signified that the station was now at war.

The first target was WGS-4,¹⁶ a U.S. Air Force wideband gapfiller satellite. Shaped like a box with two solar wings, the 3,400-kilogram satellite had entered space in 2012 on top of a Delta 4 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral.

Costing over three hundred million dollars, the satellite offered the U.S. military and its allies 4.875 GHz of instantaneous switchable bandwidth, allowing it to move massive amounts of data. Through it ran the communications for everything from U.S. Air Force satellites to U.S. Navy submarines. It was also a primary node for the U.S. Space Command. The Pentagon had planned to put up a whole constellation of these satellites to make the network less vulnerable to attack, but contractor cost overruns had kept the number down to just six.

The space station’s chemical-powered laser fired a burst of energy that, if it were visible light instead of infrared, would have been a hundred thousand times brighter than the sun. Five hundred and twenty kilometers away, the first burst hit the satellite with a power roughly equivalent to a welding torch’s. It melted a hole in WGS-4’s external atmospheric shielding and then burned into its electronic guts.

Chang watched as Huan clicked open a red pen and made a line on the wall next to him, much like a World War I ace decorating his biplane to mark a kill. The scripted moment had been ordered from below, a key scene for the documentary that would be made of the operation, a triumph that would be watched by billions.

“And there’s the one,” said Huan. “Chang, it is good for us all that you did not miss,” he said as he clicked the pen shut with a flourish.

“Indeed,” Chang said, and then, smiling, he ad-libbed, “I would save you the trouble and walk myself out the airlock. Resetting for target number two.”

Originally known as the X-37,¹⁷ USA-226 was the U.S. military’s unmanned space plane. About an eighth the size of the old space shuttle, the tiny plane was used by the American government in much the same way the shuttle had been, to carry out various chores and repair jobs in space. It could rendezvous with satellites and refuel them, replace failed solar arrays using a robotic arm, and perform many other satellite-upkeep tasks.

But the Tiangong’s crew, and the rest of the world’s militaries, knew the U.S. military also used USA-226 as a space-going spy plane. It repeatedly flew over the same spots at the same altitude, notably the height typically used by military surveillance satellites: Pakistan for several weeks at a time, then Yemen and Kenya, and, more recently, the Siberian border.

With its primary control communications link via the WGS-4 satellite now lost, the tiny American space plane shifted into autonomous mode, its computers searching in vain for other guidance signals. In this interim period, USA-226’s protocol was to cease acceleration and execute a standard orbit to avoid collisions. In effect, the robotic space plane stopped for its own safety, making it an easy target.

The taikonauts moved on down the list: the U.S. Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness¹⁸ system was next. These were satellites that watched other satellites. The Americans’ communications were now down, but once these satellites were taken out, the United States would be blind in space even if it proved able to bring its networks back online. After that was the mere five satellites that made up the U.S. military’s Mobile User Objective System, akin to a global cellular phone provider for the military. Five pulses took out the narrowband communications network that linked all the American military’s aerial and maritime platforms, ground vehicles, and dismounted soldiers. Then came the U.S. Navy’s Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) system,¹⁹ which linked all of its ships. It was almost anticlimactic, the onboard targeting system moving the taikonauts through the attack’s algorithm step by step, slowing down only when a cluster of satellites sharing a common altitude needed to be dispatched one by one.

The last to be “serviced,” as Huan dryly put it, was a charged-particle detector satellite. The joint NASA and Energy Department system had been launched a few years after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster as a way to detect radiation emissions. A volley of laser fire from Tiangong-3 exploded its fuel source.

When Huan finally put the pen back in his suit pocket, there were forty-seven marks on the wall.

They had been told that the ISS would be taken care of “by other means.” On the other side of the Earth, discarded booster rockets were coming to life after months of dormancy. The boosters turned kamikazes advanced on collision courses with nearby American government and commercial communications and imaging satellites. The American ground controllers helplessly watched the chaos overhead, unable to maneuver their precious assets out of the way.

“I will run diagnostics and flush the laser power systems,” said Chang. He kept moving in order to avoid thinking about what was happening on the Earth’s surface below.

“Good,” said Huan. “Then see if you can pull up the imagery from the attack; I want to watch it again later.” Of course you do, thought Chang.

 

USS Coronado, Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii

 

The coffee was just like that first cup his father had allowed him to sip from, back when he was seven. No sugar. No cream. It had tasted acrid, awful, not like the vanilla-flavored lattes his mom had loved. “When you’re in the Navy, you don’t have time onboard to add in all that junk,” his father had explained, typical of the kind of advice he gave his kids.

The boatswain’s mate in charge of brewing up the coffee on the USS Coronado was no barista either, and so the bridge crew all sipped his awful coffee,²⁰ watching the harbor wake up around them. Stim tabs and the other pharm provided by the corpsmen worked better, but the Navy clung to its traditions. The bitter coffee was as much a part of the morning watch as the sunrise.

Simmons set down his mug and eyed the sunlight illuminating the Coronado’s deck. The LCS had just celebrated its tenth birthday, but Jamie still thought the sharp, triple-hulled trimaran design gave it the look of a futuristic starship, like out of a Star Wars movie. His dad loved that old stuff, so much so that he had taken Jamie and his sister, Mackenzie, to one of the reboot movies when they were way too young to understand it. Their mother had gotten so mad when she’d found out. It was still a good memory, though, Mackenzie coming home with the empty paper popcorn bucket, cherishing it in the way that little kids make souvenirs of the most mundane objects. That was one of the few happy memories from before his father left, before Mackenzie died.

Simmons walked over to a spot near one of the port windows to inspect a blemish no bigger than a quarter. He ran his finger over the epoxy patch. On the last anti-piracy patrol, a burst of machine-gun fire had gone right through the window and two spots below in the ship’s aluminum superstructure, now also repaired. No one had been hurt, fortunately, but it reminded the crew that the LCS had been designed for speed, not for heavy combat. Some of the crew had later wrapped Captain Riley’s chair in aluminum foil as “ballistic protection,” a joke that went over poorly with the captain.

As Simmons watched the morning sun paint the other warships in the crowded harbor orange, he savored the moment, knowing this was one of the last times he would command the bridge. He’d let Riley know what he’d decided when they arrived in San Diego.

Petty Officer Third Class Randall Jefferson, a young sailor on the bridge, approached, looking almost sheepish when he saw the XO lost in thought.

“Sir, I am sorry to disturb you, but you asked me to notify you if anything came up,” said Jefferson. “The sonar grid picked up movement. It just flashes in and out, right up near the ship. It’s probably some fish or a dolphin . . .”

“Don’t apologize for not letting your guard down in port. Deploy REMUS²¹ and let’s take a look.”

He gave the orders to lower what looked like a neon-yellow torpedo into the water. REMUS, the remote environmental monitoring units, had actually started out in the commercial sector, much like its mother ship’s original design as a high-speed ferry. The unmanned underwater system, essentially a robotic miniature submarine, had been developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, mainly for civilian applications like port facility inspection, pollution monitoring, and underwater surveying. It was a mainstay of Discovery and Travel Channel sims. But what worked to capture Shark Week footage also worked for underwater guard duty.

Simmons entered the bridge and stood behind Jefferson, who was now operating the mini-sub with a first-generation Sony PlayStation–type controller. The handheld video-game-style controller²² was supposed to be intuitive for the sailors, but it felt more like a relic to a generation who now gamed in 3-D immersion. The vid from REMUS played out alongside a live overhead satellite feed of the ship’s position, a pattern analysis of surface and air traffic around their position, and a multicolor spherical chart that showed status reports of the crew and ship systems.

“Not picking anything up on thermal, sir,” said Jefferson. “Let’s see what visual has.”

“Give me the full screen,” said Simmons.

The camera pivoted and showed a gray mass of shadows on the screen. Simmons squinted, as if willing the murky water to reveal its secrets.

“Hello there,” said Jefferson. He zoomed the camera in on a dark form slowly circling under the ship’s stern. The camera began to focus.

There. No mistaking it. Against the dark blue background was the faint silhouette of a diver.

“Some damn fool local out messing around where he shouldn’t,” said Jefferson.

But then the diver stopped and raised his arms above his head as if praying beneath the LCS’s hull.

“He’s got something in his hands,” said Jefferson. The diver held what looked like a trash-can lid. He lazily kicked his feet and inched closer to the Coronado’s hull.

Simmons fought down the coffee climbing back up into his throat.

“Sound Force Protection alert! Possible terror attack, FP Condition Delta!” shouted Simmons. “And wake the captain. Tell him we have a diver placing what looks like a limpet mine on the hull.”

He picked up a headset and steadied his voice, knowing any fear in it would resonate throughout the ship.

“This is the XO. Force Protection security team to the port side. Cycle rudders and energize sonars. Set Material Condition Zebra,” Simmons said. “FP team, we have a diver attempting to place an explosive device on the hull. I want him off. Batteries release. Fire at will.”

Chaos broke out as sailors ran to the port side and tried to see where the diver was. Through the bridge’s open hatch, Simmons heard the shouts getting increasingly desperate.

“There he is.”

“No, he’s over there!”

“Get the hell out of my way!” yelled Petty Officer Anton Horowitz. He had been standing guard duty by the gangway on the starboard side, and he pushed his way through the scrum to the port side.

Horowitz leaned as far over the railing as he could and fired his M4 carbine methodically into the water, making a looping pattern of splashes from bow to stern. It was a strange thought to have in the middle of a terror attack, Horowitz knew, but this was actually fun. He had reenlisted only two months ago for just this kind of work, with a promise from the skipper that he’d be allowed to try out for the SEALs. He’d already submitted the required DNA²³ and blood samples for SEAL selection and had been maxing his hypertrophy workouts.

Back on the bridge, Jefferson saw the ripples that Horowitz’s bullets made as tiny white lines on his screen that stopped after a few feet. When he switched to thermal view, they looked like a series of yellow needles jabbing into the water that quickly disappeared as their heat dissipated. Many were perilously close to the REMUS, but few were near the diver.

“Sir, they’re not getting him,” said Jefferson.

“Swing REMUS around and maneuver two hundred meters away. Then I want you to bring it back full speed at us,” said Simmons.

“Sir?” asked Jefferson.

 

250 Meters Above Tokyo, Japan

 

They had said Tokyo was big,²⁴ but up close it seemed to go on forever.

Captain Third Rank Alexei Denisov’s MiG-35K²⁵ fighter-bomber was doing 875 kilometers per hour, just beneath the sound barrier, to avoid leaving a telltale sonic boom. And yet the dense buildings below seemed like they would never end. The plan seemed to be working, though. The threat-detection icon on the luminous screen at his right did not register anything urgent. He kept his finger on the toggle switch for the plane’s multifunction self-protection jammer, but so far the fighter had been unchallenged.

The reason was simple. The U.S.-Japanese combined air-defense network was designed for a threat from China, to the west. And east was where Denisov and his twenty-two other fighter-bombers had launched from the Admiral Kuznetsov.²⁶ The Russian aircraft carrier was believed to be on exercises in the North Pacific, out of range of Chinese airstrikes. In fact, it had waited for a gap in satellite coverage and darted south at thirty knots for eight hours, moving just within the strike package’s range. The MiGs flew in fast and low, and, once they were over Japan, they popped up to mimic the flight paths that commuter jets took from Narita Airport.

Denisov’s MiG’s radar-warning receiver rumbled as signals from an early-warning radar near Narita washed over it, this time close enough to overcome the plane’s stealth features. Denisov’s radio picked up the frantic calls of the air traffic controller. He hit the button and a digital recording began to play. It sounded like gibberish to him, but the FSB officer back on the Kuznetsov had been clear about the need to play it at just this moment.

To the air traffic controller on the ground, it sounded like the pilot of one of Sony’s executive jets was having a heart attack.

As the MiGs passed Miyazaki and turned again toward the Ryukyu Islands, it was clear that the defenses were finally onto them. Denisov’s radar scope showed four Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-15s were vectoring as fast as they could, but they wouldn’t get there in time. The ruse had bought Denisov only a few minutes, but it should be enough.

After scanning the sky above him for any incoming fighters, Denisov said a quick prayer for his men and his country. For himself, there was no need. A commander could operate only with certainty, not fear. He expected losses today, but also success. His latest imagery of one of his targets showed just eleven U.S. aircraft parked inside their hardened hangars. Dozens remained out in the open, as usual.

The MiGs dove to low altitude and pushed forward to their full sea-level velocity of nearly fifteen hundred kilometers per hour, well over the speed of sound. The new MiG-35Ks were called fourth-generation-plus fighters by the Americans. They weren’t fully stealthy, but they had a significantly reduced radar signature. Each second counted now. When the jets neared Okinawa, Denisov’s radar-warning receiver lit with a pulsing red icon. The Patriot IV missile batteries²⁷ that the Japanese had acquired from the Americans were tracking his low-flying fighter. They had him in their sights and could knock him down at will.

This was a crucial component of the plan. He took a deep breath and waited, telling himself that the missiles were threats only if someone pushed the launch button. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces, however, were not authorized to fire on targets without permission from that country’s civilian leadership. The gamble was that permission wouldn’t come in time. Two decades of near-daily airspace incursions by Chinese aircraft would have desensitized the Japanese, plus their communications networks were supposed to have been knocked off­line by cyber-attacks. At least, that was the plan.

All the more reason not to miss on this first free run, Major Denisov had told his men during their preflight briefing. “You are about to fire the most important shots of your lives, and they may be your last. Make them count.”

There was no rallying call to glory over the flight’s communications. The only sounds on the radio this time were digital recordings of the voices of American F-22 Raptor pilots copied by a surveillance ship that had monitored the RIMPAC war games²⁸ held each year off Hawaii. Anything to create uncertainty and delay the Japanese and American response by just a few more seconds.

The silent progress of an icon in his jet’s heads-up display told him he had arrived: Kadena Air Base. His war started here.

A flash of movement caught Denisov’s eye as four dark gray darts raced ahead of his squadron. It was a volley of Sokols (Falcons)²⁹ fired by his second flight. A sort of miniaturized cruise missile, the electromagnetic weapon used pulses of directed energy to knock out air-defense and communications systems. Following a preprogrammed course, the flight of Falcon missiles separated, each leaving a swath of electronic dead zone behind it.

If his flight’s opening shots were silent, the next wave of destruction would be deafening. Denisov released four RBK-500 cluster bombs³⁰ over the unprotected U.S. Air Force planes parked near the base’s three-and-a-half-kilometer-long runway. As he banked his MiG, he caught a glimpse of an F-35A Lightning II³¹ being towed out of its hangar in a rush to confront him. His MiG was designed to be a match for the F-35, and the pilots of both had always wondered how the planes would actually stack up against each other. It would have to wait for some other time. The RBK canisters opened up behind Denisov’s plane, releasing hundreds of cluster bomblets, each the size of a beer can. Tiny parachutes deployed and the cans drifted toward the ground.

When proximity fuses detected that they were ten meters from the ground, the cans exploded, one after another. Hundreds of explosions ripped across the air base, blowing open scores of the U.S. Air Force’s most advanced fighters.

Denisov’s wingman made the next run and dropped three penetrating anti-runway bombs. The hardened tips of the massive bombs buried themselves almost five meters into the runway’s concrete and then detonated with more than fifteen hundred kilograms’ worth of explosives. While the limited number of American jets protected in hardened hangars might survive Denisov’s bombs, none would be taking off from the biggest U.S. air base in the Pacific for days, if not weeks.

Six kilometers away, the flight’s two trailing MiG-35Ks split past each other and then banked back hard as they raced toward the center of an imaginary X. That X was located in the middle of the largest U.S. Marine Corps base in Japan. The nine thousand Marines living there were supposed to have been moved to Guam five years earlier. But political wrangling between Congress and the Japanese government over just who would pay the $8.6 billion tab to relocate the Marines³² had delayed the transfer of forces. Time had run out.

The two planes passed each other at less than a hundred meters. At the imaginary point of their crossing lines, the MiGs dropped four KAB-1500S thermobaric bombs, each weighing just over thirteen hundred kilograms. The bombs opened to release a massive cloud of explosive vapor, which was then ignited by a separate charge. It was the largest explosion Japan had experienced since Nagasaki, and it left a similar mushroom cloud of smoke and dust hanging over the base as the jets flew away.

Denisov finally turned off the spoof audio recording and ordered his flight to report in. The strikes on the air bases, the ground bases, and even the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier harbored offshore had been a success. He’d lost only five jets to the late-reacting air defenses. Amazing.

He wasn’t sure the Americans would appreciate the irony of the Russians following the same plan of attack the Americans had used on the Japanese some eighty years earlier, but Plan Doolittle had worked. Trying to conceal the relief in his voice, he ordered the remaining fighters to bank toward the Chinese coast.

That was the other part they’d copied from the raid the Americans had pulled back in the early months of their previous war in the Pacific: by coming in from an unexpected approach and making it a one-direction flight, they could strike at twice the range the enemy believed possible. The Russian navy had held up its end; now it had to trust that the Chinese aerial refueling tankers would be there as promised.

The raid wasn’t Denisov’s idea, but neither had the original raid back in World War II been Jimmy Doolittle’s idea. Maybe, he thought, history would call this one after its commander as well; Denisov’s Raid had a nice ring to it.

 

USS Coronado, Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii

 

From the deck of the Coronado, Horowitz saw a sudden ripple in the water where the REMUS had turned, almost like what a fly-fisherman would take for a fish rising. It made him pause, then he focused on firing at the threat. The shell casings bounced off the deck and into the water, sizzling as they floated for a brief moment and then sinking beneath the surface.

“REMUS is coming back around, sir,” said Jefferson on the bridge. “What now?”

“I want you to ram it up that diver’s ass,” said Simmons.

“Aye, aye, sir!”

Jefferson gently nudged the joystick to the right and then the left, centering the diver on the screen. Then he throttled it to full speed.

On deck, Horowitz’s M4 clicked; his magazine was empty. Without looking, he reached into the pouch attached to his belt for another magazine and tried to slam it into the rifle, but his last mag slipped from his hands into the water. Thirty rounds that could have made the difference were lost.

Horowitz cursed at the water as only a sailor could but stopped when he saw a fast-moving shape coming toward the ship. Great; not just terrorists but torpedoes now!

The underwater view was projected onto the REMUS control station. The diver was in the midst of attaching the mine to the hull when some sixth sense warned him what was coming. He turned his head to look over his shoulder. The last picture on Jefferson’s video screen was the diver’s surprised expression behind the goggles, just before the REMUS smashed into his left jaw and then plowed into the ship’s hull behind him.

On deck, Horowitz felt the crunch of the REMUS impact and then saw a roaring wall of white water flash up. And then silence.

 

Ruby Empress, Gatún Lake, Panama Canal

 

Arnel Reyes picked at a flake of black paint from the rail of the Ruby Empress, a Cyprus-flagged oil tanker.

“I like blue, you know, like the sky in the afternoon, and as a little boy, he will love it,” said his wife. Arnel wanted to say that neither a newborn baby nor a full-grown man could care less about wall colors. But it was best to humor her with all the love he could scrape up, especially given that he was standing on the deck of a ship in the Panama Canal and she was back home in Manila.

“Blue it is, my love. I’ll be back in two weeks and we can paint for him then,” he said. “We’ve got plenty of time, you know.”

“There’s not enough time with you gone. There’s just so much to do. And we haven’t even talked about his name,” Anna-Maria said over the phone. “Baby, I know your mother thought—”

Then the call dropped.

He worried Anna-Maria would think he’d hung up on her, but when he tried to reconnect, the call wouldn’t go through. He put his phone back in his pocket and leaned away from the hot deck rail. It didn’t help his mood that the transit through the Panama Canal was the slowest part of the trip, since ships had to wait in line to make their way through the canal locks.

As Reyes climbed back up the series of ladders, he heard the commotion on the Ruby’s bridge. Everything was squared away aboard the ship, but the radios were alive with traffic. Two ships ahead, the Xiang­humen, a Chinese-flagged freighter, had turned on its engines. This was craziness. What was Xianghumen’s captain thinking, speeding up inside the transit zone? The canal master was screaming over the radio for the Xianghumen to acknowledge and stop. But there was no reply.

Reyes ran topside to see. It was like watching a slow-motion train wreck. The Xianghumen was moving at a mere four knots, slower than a jog. But with a hundred and twenty thousand tons of force behind it, the ship slowly ground its way into the canal locks, crushing the doors inward.

Reyes wasn’t sure how long it would take the Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone³³ to fix this mess, but their investment had clearly gone down the tubes.

“Well, it’s not my hundred and eighty billion dollars,” said Reyes to one of the crew, who chuckled in reply.

In any case, the highway between the oceans was likely going to be closed for a while. He reached into his pocket. He’d better try to call his wife again.

 

USS Coronado, Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii

 

When Horowitz came to, he was floating on his back in the water. A broken shard of yellow metal drifted a few feet away, and just beyond that was the diver’s body, floating face-down.

He looked up at the Coronado, trying to remember how he’d gotten here. His ears rang and his head ached worse than any shore-leave hangover. He saw the XO looking down at him from the bridge. He saluted the officer from the water, and the XO smiled and saluted back.

A launch pulled Horowitz and the black-clad body out of the water. The sailors hauled him aboard with smiles, but they handled the body with fear.

The launch stopped beside the Coronado and the diver was carried up to the helicopter deck at the stern. Horowitz scrambled up after it and joined the small crowd that had quickly gathered around the body. They all spoke quietly around the dead diver, as if worried their voices might revive him.

“Don’t shove me,” said a sailor. “I gotta viz this.”

“You can’t do that,” whispered another. “He’s dead. You know the rules.”

“XO’s coming,” a voice hissed, and the crowd tensed and drew back into order, parting to allow Simmons through.

“Nothing like a morning swim, Horowitz,” Simmons observed with a smile. “You solid?”

“Aye, sir,” Horowitz replied. “Can’t say the same for my swim buddy here.”

A sailor pulled off the diver’s mask to reveal bulging eyes. Horowitz felt his stomach turn. The left side of the man’s jaw was bloody and caved in, but the rest of the dead man’s features were still intact. With his cropped blond hair, he looked almost like a sleeping Viking.

“We get the right guy?” asked one of the sailors. “He don’t look like any jihadi I’ve seen before.”

Someone handed Simmons the broken dive mask. He turned it over in his hands, careful not to cut himself on the shards of plastic, and then knelt down to look closer at the body. A delicate scar on the chin and a nose that looked as though it had been broken as regularly as a boxer’s.

“Roll him over,” said Simmons.

As they turned the man, Horowitz noticed that the diver’s suit wasn’t neoprene; it was made of something thicker. Then he saw the man wasn’t wearing conventional scuba gear.

“Sir, that’s a closed rebreather unit,”³⁴ said Horowitz. “SEALs use them to swim without the bubbles. The wetsuit’s got some thermal masking going on too.”

Simmons nodded and studied the gear being stripped off the body. The dive computers strapped to the dead man’s wrists looked sleek, clearly mil-grade. They also had Chinese markings on a protective cover.

The men looked confused as the XO sprinted back to the bridge without a word.

It wasn’t a big ship, and Simmons was at the bridge within twenty-five seconds. Riley was there now, still in his skivvies but wearing his blue USS Coronado baseball cap with the CO’s scrambled-eggs insignia sewn in gold thread above the brim. Jefferson was playing the REMUS video back for him. Riley turned to see Simmons burst into the room. Simmons didn’t walk around the projected screen but went right through it, rippling the picture.

“Got him?” said Riley.

Simmons seemed to ignore him and looked right at the communications officer.

“Get PACOM on the horn, now! Prep an OPREP-Three Pinnacle message.” Any message with PINNACLE in the identification line was automatically flagged of interest not just to the entire Navy chain of command but also to the National Military Command Center, which monitored events for the Joint Chiefs and the president.³⁵

“That’s a little extreme for one diver, XO. Let’s notify the duty sonar ship first and see if they have any further info,” said Riley.

“Too slow. We need to send a Pinnacle out now, sir,” said Simmons.

The communications tech looked from Simmons to Riley. “Sirs, nothing’s working here. I can’t even get my own phone to hook on to the network. It’s like the whole spectrum is down.”

On the main deck below, Horowitz rubbed the ache at the base of his neck. He angrily slammed another magazine he’d cadged from a fellow sailor into his M4. They’d found his weapon still lying on the deck. He absent-mindedly ran his tongue across his lips, realizing he was thirsty despite being soaking wet. He’d read that this was what happened when you went into shock, but he wasn’t going to say anything about it now. Falling off the ship and then bitching about being scared seemed like a good way to blow his shot at becoming a SEAL.

Horowitz looked around the harbor at the wall of U.S. Navy steel assembled there. He couldn’t wait to get to sea and wreak some revenge on whoever had done it.

Then the USS Abraham Lincoln,³⁶ a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier tied up just across the harbor, seemed to lift a few feet from the water, as if the hundred-thousand-ton ship were being conjured skyward. The shove of the blast wave pushed him back to the bulkhead.

As he scrambled to his feet, Horowitz stared, agape, as the Nimitz-class carrier settled back into the water with orange flames and black smoke pouring from its deck. He watched as the carrier’s hull began to break apart about two-thirds of the way down from the bow.

“Oh, shit. The reactors,” muttered Horowitz.

 

Pier 29, Port of Honolulu, Hawaii

 

What the hell? They weren’t supposed to be offloading for another day.

When he’d first seen the ramp come down, Jakob Sanders had pulled out his tablet to recheck the manifest. The Golden Wave, 720 feet, flagged out of Liberia. A RO/RO carrying cars from Shanghai. It had been pre-cleared on the manifest but it was twenty-four hours early. And now it was screwing up his day.

Even standing in the guard shack in the neighboring parking lot, he could feel the impact of the doublewide metal ramp slamming down onto the pier. Sanders had always thought the big roll-on, roll-off ship had the aesthetic appeal of a Costco plunked down on top of a boat. But that was the idea. It could carry 550 vehicles, and those vehicles could drive right off the ship and into his lot. Then they would sit, waiting to be driven to various dealerships around the island.

Sanders tried to raise his boss on the radio but all he got was static. He shook his head and looked down to check the time and date on his Casio G-Lide watch. Yep, he had it right. They were offloading too soon. More important, the web-enabled watch’s last update showed that the offshore buoy readings looked promising for some head-high swells. Just five more hours in the lot and then he’d be free of his guard shack and back in the water at Kewalos. If the surf was as good as his watch promised, it would be one of those days when it just didn’t matter where you’d gone to school or that you wore a black polyester uniform on land.

A series of distant booms snapped his attention from his watch. He hit the deck and covered his head with his arms as the shack’s flimsy metal walls shook. After a few seconds, he got to his knees and peered through the open door at the fuel-tank farm next to pier 29. No fire. Blue skies didn’t indicate thunder. Then the pier began to vibrate again from another low rumble, like an earthquake. Damn, he didn’t want to be caught here by the water if it led to a tsunami.

More distant booms echoed off the hills, but the noise was washed out by hundreds of motors starting up inside the Golden Wave. What were they doing? Didn’t they feel the quake? There could be more aftershocks.

Sanders remembered the public-service announcements he’d watched as a kid said you should stand in a doorway during an earthquake, but he looked at the flimsy shack walls and then crawled outside. He felt more booms reverberate and saw some smoke rising behind the Golden Wave, but the bulk of the huge ship blocked whatever was happening across the harbor.

Then one of those new Geely SUVs rolled down the ramp. Maybe they were trying to get the cars off before another quake? But where were they going to park them? They’d be better off keeping them on the ship and riding it out.

Sanders watched as another and then another of the SUVs moved down the ramp and parked. He’d always thought the Geely looked like a ripped-off Range Rover Defilade. But they were so cheap that he could almost afford one. The paint sure sucked, though. The first dozen were a decent silver or blue. But the rest were a faded matte green.

Then he heard a piercing squeal, like something gouging the steel deck of the ship. Behind the last SUV, what looked like a telephone pole on its end gradually emerged and pointed down the ramp. Behind that pole was a massive green bulk that slowly nosed its way out to the top of the ramp and then tilted downward.

Shit, that was a tank! Then another tank moved down the ramp, followed by an eight-wheeled vehicle that looked like a tank’s little brother.

Sanders saw the red stars on the tanks. What were Chinese tanks doing coming off the ship? The manifest said nothing about that. And who the hell would be buying those? Maybe they were for training exercises out at Camp Schofield?

Jakob looked around and realized he was alone.

His next move was to bring out his phone and start shooting video. It would be worth a couple beers; maybe he could even sell it on the viz-net.

Then what looked like six beer kegs flew up into the air and raced toward downtown. “Drones?” Sanders said in a whisper.

Each squat Pigeon surveillance drone was indeed about the size of a fourteen-gallon beer keg, and each had a small rotor bay at its bottom. They all took off to seek out the highest points in Honolulu, where they would land. From these perches, the unarmed Pigeons would suck in electromagnetic and digital signals and then throw out an island-wide wave of electronic disturbance.

Just then Jakob heard another bang on the pier. It was the ramp coming down off the Hildy Manor, another RO/RO tied up beyond the Golden Wave. None of this shit was authorized. They didn’t have the paperwork, and the lot was already going to be jammed. There was no way he’d be able to fit the cars from not one but two ships into the waiting lot, let alone a bunch of tanks.

He held the phone at arm’s length, cursing his stupid job again, this time because he couldn’t afford some viz glasses.

“Jakob Sanders at Pier Twenty-Nine in Honolulu,” he said, staring into the pinhole camera. “Got an unauthorized delivery here as you can see,” Sanders said. “Some trucks, Geelys, and check this out, tanks! Chinese tanks. Not sure what the drill is today, but we’re about to go find out. Bet you never saw anything like this in real life. Me either. Stay tuned.”

Sanders set his phone on the windowsill in his shack so that it was recording the scene and then marched with a bold step toward the Golden Wave. Dumb-ass sailors. They’d just have to stay on the pier until it all got sorted out.

By the time Sanders had made his way to the ramp that connected the pier to the parking lot, he could literally feel the power of the tanks’ engines in his chest. The tanks slowly moved forward, a few feet at a time, testing the ramp.

A flash of movement and an earsplitting clang made him whip his head around. Big metal panels were being tossed over the side of the Evening Resolve—a 480-foot cargo container ship registered in Dalian—and landing on the pier. Then a miniature air force began to assemble in formation above the Evening Resolve. To Sanders, the quadcopters looked like those spy drones the paparazzi used to buzz any Hollywood star dumb enough to still have an outdoor wedding. The Directorate’s electric V1000 drone³⁹ actually shared a heritage with the commercial systems, but its agility and stealth had made it the platform of choice for covert Chinese “risk-elimination” strikes in Africa and the former Republic of Indonesia.

The tanks throttled their engines again and regained Sanders’s attention. He raised his right hand in the universal sign to stop.

“Halt! You are entering private property. I need you to stop that vehicle immediately.”

The lead tank slowed and then stopped at the bottom of the ramp, just ten feet away. Sanders looked down and raised his voice, more confident now that he had established who was in charge.

“Good. Now, I don’t know what’s going on but you need to turn that vehicle around and get back on the ship . . . immediately.”

The engine belched smoke, and the tank suddenly bounded forward.

Seen on the screen of his phone, it looked like a symbolic act of bravery.⁴⁰ In actuality, all Jakob could think about was running, running as fast as he could, to get out of the sixty-ton beast’s path. But his feet just wouldn’t move.

 

Marine Corps Base, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii

 

Captain Charles Carlisle was losing patience with his crew chief. In other words, it was just another day in paradise with a jet more finicky than his fiancée.

The 25 mm gun pod on his F-35B Lightning II fighter kept jamming after each helicopter-like vertical landing he performed. This was the fourth time this week, but no one could figure out why. The plane’s autonomic maintenance computers were supposed to point fingers at any gremlins, but adding more to the twenty-four million lines of software code already in there just proved Murphy’s Law beat Moore’s Law every time.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Worm,” said Miller, the civilian crew chief, using the call sign Carlisle had earned after losing his rations and living off worms during the survival-and-evasion phase of his pilot training. “I didn’t design these planes; I just fix ’em.”

Worm shook his head. He’d never understood why the Marine Corps put the world’s best pilots in the cockpits of the world’s most expensive weapons system only to turn maintenance over to the lowest bidder.

Worm was about to offer another round of profane observations about what $1.5 trillion ought to buy—like, for instance, a working gun—but then he held his breath and listened. Weird. A series of bass-like thumps. Then he heard the buzzing of rotors. It came from the direction of Pearl and moved toward the air station located on the Mokapu Peninsula.⁴¹ The blood drained from the aviator’s face when he saw the incoming flight of choppers and tiny quadcopter drones.

“Get the fuel hose off, now!” Worm shouted.

The crew chief was about to argue when he tracked the pilot’s gaze and saw the formation. Miller looked old, but he was down on the ground before the first wave of rockets hit the hangar complex on the other side of the 7,800-foot runway.

“Miller, up! Get up!” shouted Worm.

Lying prone, Miller watched four of the quadcopters dive and attack a communications tower at the end of the runway. Just before the V1000s launched a volley of micro-rockets, they flared back into formation, which made them look like Xs on a fiery tic-tac-toe board.

“I’m on it!” said Miller. You could question his competence, but you couldn’t fault the man’s bravery, thought Worm.

As the two men worked to pull the fuel line from the F-35, Miller spoke between panting breaths.

“Chinese?” he said.

“Does it matter?” said Worm. “Get me up there, and I’ll send a few down here for you to pick through and find out.”

They could see the drone helicopters methodically working their way across the base’s hangar buildings, hitting one aircraft after the other. That they remained in an X formation the whole time made the attack seem all the more menacing. A few Marines shot rifles at them, only to be taken out by rocket fire from above. Fortunately, Worm’s F-35B, like its predecessor the Harrier jump jet, didn’t need to approach the killing field of the runway. The aircraft had a shaft-driven fan in the middle of its fuselage that could lift the jet into the air like a helicopter, once the main jet engine pushed it forward with over forty thousand pounds of thrust.⁴²

The tradeoff of packing a second engine in the middle of the plane was that the Marine version of the F-35 couldn’t carry as much payload, but Worm’s jet would be flying with a light load anyway. The good news was that the training exercise they had been prepping for was a live-fire drill. The bad news was it was for close air support, so he was loaded with only dummy air-to-air missiles and a gun pod he couldn’t trust.

Worm clambered into the cockpit and looked down at Miller, the top half of his head encased in a heads-up-display visor-and-helmet combination that looked like a bug’s carapace. He shouted and pointed at the jet’s fuselage: “The gun? The gun?”

Miller scrambled up the ladder to the cockpit and leaned in close enough to Worm that he could smell the sharp stink of sweat mixed with jet fuel. “Maybe a hundred rounds before it jams,” he shouted. Shit. At the machine cannon’s rate of fire, that was possibly three seconds’ worth of shooting.

Worm gave a quick look at the plane’s cockpit screens to make sure the aircraft was running the preflight checks. At least something was working as it should.

For a second, maybe two, Worm allowed himself to think of his fiancée. She’d be out surfing about now, working off some of the dark energy her dreams often left her with. They were supposed to meet at the Moana Surfrider hotel⁴³ that night for a drink. She hadn’t told him which of the bars she’d be in, though; she never did. He would have to find her, and then they would sip mai tais and fantasize about what it would be like to get married there. He had promised her a fairy-tale ending to her story.

The image was dashed as the canopy closed down. Worm flashed a thumbs-up to the crew chief below and mouthed a word.

Payback.

 

USS Coronado, Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii

 

An antitank rocket fired from a nearby freighter hit the USS Gabrielle Giffords,⁴⁴ moored nearby. It was unnecessary; the Giffords was already taking on water from an explosion below the water line, as were most of the U.S. Navy warships in the harbor.

“Is ATHENA online yet?” shouted Captain Riley. The Automated Threat Enhanced Network Awareness program was like the ship’s nervous system, tying together sensors and network nodes with software that was as close to artificial intelligence as the Navy would permit aboard a warship. The ship’s autonomous battle-management system allowed a short-handed ship like the Coronado to track targets and coordinate with other forces faster than a human crew could manage.

“Almost ready,” said one of the crew. “It’s still booting up.”

“Wake the bitch up! I want targets. And I want this ship protected,” said Captain Riley.

“Sir, even when it’s online, ATHENA’s going to have trouble in port,” said Simmons.

“We’re already in trouble,” said Captain Riley.

“The data flow might overwhelm it. If ATHENA crashes, it’ll drag down the rest of the ship’s systems, or we might get some blue-on-blue, given the range we’re dealing with,” said Simmons. “Let the crew fight the ship. Trust them.”

Captain Riley squinted the way he did when he knew someone else was right. “Good call, XO,” he said. “When ATHENA comes up, keep it in watch mode.”

This gave Captain Riley, still in his skivvies, the chance to deliver the order he’d yearned to give all his life. “Main gun, batteries release! Engage enemy ship, the fucker that fired at us,” he shouted.

The Coronado’s 57 mm main gun came to life; the turret pivoted, pointed an accusing finger off the port side, and then fired across the harbor at the Directorate freighter from which the rocket’s smoke trail still extended.

After seven rounds, the main gun’s firing paused. And then the realization sank in among the bridge crew. The tiny cannon’s five-pound shells were far too small to do any real damage to a hundred-thousand-ton freighter twice the size of a World War II battleship. The LCS had a main gun fit for chasing away pirates, but not much more.

Tracer rounds began to flash toward the Coronado, yellow lines reaching out from the freighter and two other ships in the harbor. Their fire hadn’t had much of an effect, but it had gotten the other side’s attention. Heavy machine-gun rounds clanged into the Coronado’s superstructure. A sailor struggling to untie the ship’s forward lines from the pier’s cleats disappeared in a puff of red.

Simmons peeked his binoculars through the open bridge hatch and panned them quickly around the harbor. He frowned. He could see small boats being launched from the freighters. There were at least nine Navy ships sinking and four others being swarmed by what looked like boarding teams. A fast-moving black dart, a helicopter of some sort, sent a volley of rockets into the bridge of the USS Pinckney.⁴⁵ In the distance, green tracked vehicles moved down the road closest to the shoreline. He suspected they were not friendly. He put the binoculars down when he heard Captain Riley shout into his headset, “Just someone cut the damn mooring lines!”

The Coronado’s foredeck was empty. Bloodstains on the deck marked where two more sailors who’d tried to free the ship had been cut down. Simmons winced, knowing that they would need every sailor they had to get the ship out of this kill zone.

Nearing the Coronado’s bow, Horowitz looked up at the bridge. He’d run out of 5.56 mm rounds for his M4 and had been ferrying ammunition to a sailor firing an M249 machine gun⁴⁶ at the nearby freighter.

“On it!” Horowitz shouted. He raced inside the nearby passageway and pulled out the fire ax. He ran toward the rope but slipped on a pool of blood and cut his palm on the blade of the ax. He couldn’t help himself and laughed. The absurdity of slicing yourself with an ax in the middle of a gunfight.

Horowitz belly-crawled out to the mooring line, staying low to avoid the fire. When he reached it, he jumped up, held the ax high over his head, and then smashed it down on the thick braided-Kevlar line tying the Coronado to the pier.

It made little impression; the ax parted only a few strands. He lifted it again, and again. Soon his chest heaved and his arms burned, and he couldn’t hear anything but the buzzing in his ears. At some point, a bullet struck the ax head, but Horowitz held it fast despite the ache in his hands.

One of the ship’s caterpillar-like SAFFiRs (Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robots)⁴⁷ crawled onto the deck nearby and was immediately hit. The child-size robot sprayed a cloud of chemical retardant all over the deck before rolling into the water. “One last time,” Horowitz said to himself with a grunt, “and then we are out of here.”

He didn’t see the Directorate PGZ-07 antiaircraft vehicle⁴⁸ that rounded the corner on the rise above the pier. Without any targets in the sky, the PGZ trained its twin-barreled 35 mm cannon on the U.S. ships in the harbor, the closest being the Coronado.

“Shit,” said Simmons as he watched Horowitz’s shredded body cartwheel into the water.

“Target, starboard side. Hit that bastard! He’s the one who just lit us up,” shouted Captain Riley.

The ship’s 57 mm Mk 110 cannon⁴⁹ rotated away from the freighter and toward the Directorate vehicle as fast as the gunner could pull the targeting joystick. While the main gun couldn’t make much of an impact on a hundred-thousand-ton ship, the rounds chewed apart the lightly armored twenty-two-ton vehicle, and it exploded, sending flaming shrapnel through the building behind it.

Simmons was in command mode, listening to his crew on his headset as much as directing them. He heard shouting one moment, then dispassionate descriptions of overheating or damaged equipment. The crew was proving to be good under pressure, which was exactly why he had driven them so hard.

“We’ve got to go now, Captain. Line’s all but cut through,” said Simmons.

“You heard him, get us out of here,” said Captain Riley.

Simmons recognized the false confidence in his captain’s voice. They both knew the Coronado would have to battle its way out of the flaming harbor.

A sudden buzzing noise made everyone on the bridge duck. A quadcopter appeared right in front of the bridge’s windows, nervously hovering, like a wasp looking for a way inside.

The Mk 110 main gun spun to engage the V1000, but the quadcopter hovered inside the gun’s arc of fire, feinting and dodging with the turret’s jerky moves as the gunner tried to slew the joystick fast enough to get a shot at it.

The bridge crew froze, expecting a volley of armor-piercing flé­chette micro-rockets. The V1000 flared back, flashing a backlit view of its empty rocket pods, and then raced straight up and out of sight.

The crew members looked at one another as if they’d just missed being hit by lightning. Then the quadcopter reappeared a football field’s length away and dove between a pair of long warehouses. It popped back up into the air and vectored toward the KITV Channel 4 news chopper that had arrived to collect video of what had been reported as a gas explosion down at the harbor. The V1000 fired a TY-90 air-to-air missile⁵⁰ that struck the helicopter well before the weapon reached its Mach 2 maximum speed.

The drop-down bow thruster pushed the Coronado slowly away from the pier, and then Stapleton, the main propulsion assistant, gently moved the joystick forward. The Coronado roared, its engines moving from idle into action, and the water jets roiled the harbor water. The last Kevlar mooring line started to unravel and then parted with a snap. As the ship began to gather speed, another antitank missile arced from the freighter and exploded inside the helicopter hangar. It felt to the crew like someone had driven a garbage truck into the side of the superstructure, but the ship kept moving.

Simmons looked over at the communications station as heavy machine-cannon fire ripped through the ship’s aluminum hull and shattered the sailor sitting there. Sparks and blood mingled together in an instant. More gunfire peppered the bridge, blowing out windows that were strong enough to handle the angry ocean but no match for armor-piercing rounds. He fell to the deck and covered his head as shrapnel fell around him.

When Simmons opened his eyes, he saw Captain Riley next to him on the floor, but sitting upright, his back against the mauled captain’s chair. Blood soaked his shirt and pooled on the deck around him.

Another burst of fire slapped into the captain’s chair. Frantically, Simmons looked around to see who was driving the ship. Nobody. Stapleton lay in a heap next to his chair, and the ship slowly drifted toward the opposite side of the harbor. Only one of the 3-D battle displays was working; the ATHENA system projected fragmented visuals of the chaos across the room.

“Helm! Somebody drive the goddamn ship,” shouted Simmons.

Jefferson ran to the helm and pushed the joystick forward. In one of the many exercises the sailors hated, Simmons had made sure that everyone on the bridge crew was trained to take over the other stations, just in case.

Riley tried to force himself up by his elbows but slid back. Simmons knelt by him and ripped open the captain’s shirt, but after that he didn’t know where to start or what to do; Riley’s entire chest was a bloody mess, his heart pumping more of his life onto the gray deck with each beat. Riley coughed up blood.

“Get back to conning your ship . . . Captain Simmons,” Riley said with a slight smile.

Dylan Cote, the ship’s corpsman, entered the bridge at a run but slipped on the blood underfoot. On his hands and knees, he crawled to the captain and pushed Simmons aside.

As Cote tried to stanch the blood flow, Simmons carefully rose and stood behind Jefferson at the helm. The captain’s chair had jagged holes punched in it, and he wasn’t ready to sit in it just yet.

 

Marine Corps Base, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii

 

Worm banked the F-35B hard to the left immediately after takeoff. The jet shifted smoothly into forward-flight mode, and he tried to gain some kind of situational awareness, just like they’d taught him in flight school.

The AN/AAQ-37 electro-optical distributed aperture system⁵¹ fed his helmet with data from visual and IR sensors located around the plane, allowing him to “see” through the plane below. And what he saw was chaos. He’d once flown through a forest fire during a training mission in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains; this was worse. All the smoke and debris in the air had created a swirl of darkness with patches of bright sun. Chinese drones darted in and out of the smoke at low levels, and on the deck, along with fragments of Marine Corps helicopters, his squadron’s fighters lay scattered about like puzzle pieces. He scanned up and around the sky and confirmed what he’d feared: his was the only U.S. jet in the air.

He started to check on the jet’s other systems. No sound came over his radios. The fighter’s GPS-coupled inertial navigation system was wrong, showing him as flying over Maui when he knew damn well this was Oahu. Electronically generated false targets flickered on the horizontal situation display and then disappeared. The plane, with its novel software systems and millions of lines of code, was designed to be its own copilot, capable of automation and interpretation never before possible in battle. But at this moment, Worm thought, the fighter was having trouble getting out of its own way, electronically speaking.

Marine aviators had flown for generations with just guns and guts, Worm told himself. He could do the same.

At the near corner of the airfield, he saw one of the tiny Chinese quadcopters firing, its autocannon peppering a parked Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. First, the starboard wing buckled, and then the MV-22’s massive engine⁵² dropped to the ground, tipping over the ungainly aircraft.

With one hand, Worm slowed the jet’s approach, and with the other, he targeted the quadcopter on the touchscreens before him. Then he saw her.

The defiance was unmistakable even at this distance. He magnified the image through his helmet optics, effectively creating a picture inside a picture on the screen superimposed in his cockpit. The Marine fired her pistol at the drone that had rocketed the Osprey. She stood with her feet braced and leaned over the still-smoking engine to steady her aim. She fired a full magazine, then ducked down to reload.

As she drew the magazine from a pouch on her flight suit, the quadcopter dropped to within a few inches of the ground and circled back around her position. She spun around too; Worm saw her chambering the next round as she raised her weapon. He willed his jet’s cannon-arming protocol to speed up.

She fired and then darted to the other side of the wreckage, racing to keep it between her and the quadcopter, like a lethal game of musical chairs. Then she slipped in a pool of oil seeping out of the gutted Osprey, twisted her left leg, and fell down in a heap. The pistol skittered a few feet away.

“Shit!” shouted Worm.

The gun-pod light turned red. Active.

The jet shifted position slightly as Worm tried to line up the F-35’s cannon. But then the quadcopter drone rose abruptly. It had caught on to the game and was moving to gain an overhead shot on the fallen Marine.

Worm nudged the jet up using its thrust-vectoring nozzles, in effect dancing in the air. As he maneuvered to line up his gun pod, his helmet display showed the Marine crawling toward her pistol. It was lodged beneath a smoldering wing from a nearby wrecked F-35. Jesus, what balls she had, thought Worm.

His finger was already over the trigger, and he pressed down lightly; the jet buffeted as the rounds fired off. The drone opened fire at the same time as Worm’s jet loosed a line of training rounds that walked their way up the runway to the quadcopter. The image on the helmet display dissolved into an explosion of smoke and flame, and the drone spun down into the burning Osprey wreck.

Where was she?

His headset suddenly growled at him, and a flash of color danced across one of his displays. The warning from the jet’s radar-threat-detection system was unmistakable: an air-defense system was tracking him.

The readout showed that the radar that had washed over his jet wasn’t a U.S. system but an H-250 phased array,⁵³ the updated Directorate mobile-SAM type.

“Oh, shit,” said Worm. “That can’t be.”

It wasn’t the threat of being shot down that chilled him despite the sweat in his flight suit. What this meant was much worse than that: they somehow already had major forces on the ground.

The Directorate armored column from the Golden Wave and Hildy Manor had bulldozed through the parked cars in the lot and left pier 29 behind; after that, the column had split, and the two lines headed off in different directions. One column of Type 99 tanks⁵⁴ and their supporting vehicles raced off to link up with Directorate airborne troops disembarking from a trio of Harmony Airways Airbus A380s⁵⁵ that had just landed at Honolulu International Airport. The other armored column went down the North Nimitz Highway out of town.

Worm knew where they were heading.

For all the historic value of taking Pearl Harbor, Camp H. M. Smith was the real prize. The headquarters of Pacific Command⁵⁶ was designed to house the military’s peacetime bureaucracy, not fight off an invasion force. The Marines there would fight to the last round, Worm was certain. But there was no way they could stop a column of tanks. And then the command and control hub of the entire Pacific would be in . . . what? Was the right term enemy hands? It was incomprehensible.

Worm rechecked his weapon’s state: seventy-one rounds.

He took the plane back down for the deck and raced low across the runway. As he passed, he saw the Osprey’s wreckage, and then he saw a figure pop out from behind it. And she waved. What a warrior.

“That Marine needs to get the hell out of there,” said Worm, finding himself in conversation with his jet again, as happened when he needed to lock down his fear.

The jet’s horizontal situation display revealed a Chinese-made Z-10 attack helicopter⁵⁷ moving in toward the runway. It wouldn’t take long for the Z-10 to discover the woman’s position, and she was clearly fool enough to start taking potshots at it. A fellow Marine needed him and he’d been taught since training that you never, ever left a Marine behind.

But there was the force headed for Camp Smith. He didn’t have enough rounds left to take the tanks out completely, but a few low passes might stall them. Maybe he could hit a command vehicle or disable the lead tank.

He eased the jet skyward and gained another five hundred feet, seeking an answer and more knots for the next strafing run.

His options were clear. His choice was not.

 

U.S. Navy P-8, Pacific Ocean

 

“Too much jamming, turn off the feed,” said Commander Bill “Sweetie” Darling. “Let’s focus on Foxglove Two, not the whole war.”

Darling couldn’t believe he’d just said war so casually. That’s what it was. America was at war in the Pacific, and he assumed elsewhere in the world. And a few minutes into the war, he could already tell that a major problem would be filtering out useful data from the flow that gushed over them as if from a fire hose.

“Understood,” said Hammer, the naval flight officer who handled the plane’s communications. “I’ll bring it back up if the jamming stops.”

Ninety miles from the formation of U.S. ships, Darling’s P-8 was on the hunt. A Type 93A submarine⁵⁸ that had been tagged Foxglove 2 lurked somewhere nearby. The attack on Pearl Harbor was under way, but for Darling and his crew, the task was the same as it always was on patrol: find and prosecute. This particular submarine had been tailing the USS George H. W. Bush⁵⁹ for a couple of days. Yesterday, it was just a nuisance that had added some edge to their flight ops. Today, it was an immediate threat that they had to shut down in the next few minutes or face a lifetime of knowing they had failed to protect a big-deck carrier with over four thousand sailors onboard.

Fortunately, Darling’s crew had help hunting the Directorate submarine. The USS John Warner,⁶⁰ a Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine, was herding the submarine away from the carrier strike group into the P-8’s picket line of sonobuoys. Pinned in, Foxglove 2 would die.

The main battle-network communications feed blared into their headsets, garbled from the jamming.

“Damn it, Hammer, turn that—” said Darling.

Another voice cut him off. “Hydrophone effects. Sonobuoys just located Foxglove Two,” said Hyde, one of the two crew members who handled the acoustic sensor systems. “It’s heading on a course away from the strike group, twelve knots.”

Darling nosed the P-8 over hard to get closer to the sea, pushing the throttles forward and banking the jet toward the intercept point projected on the screen in front of him. The plane’s speed edged up to almost five hundred knots as the crew counted down the seconds until they could fire on the submarine.

“At five hundred feet, releasing Mark Fifty-Four—”⁶¹ said his copilot, Fang Treehorn.

“Incoming, incoming. Stonefish inbound on the Bush,” interrupted Jekyll, the plane’s other sensor operator. “Goddamn NSA hackers were supposed to be able to keep those things from even getting off the ground.”

Near the horizon, faint white stalks grew skyward from the area around the Bush. The fleet’s defense systems began firing dozens of RIM-161 SM-3 missiles,⁶² designed to intercept incoming Stonefish ballistic missiles as they entered the atmosphere.

“Bush’s ATHENA shows it as twenty-six inbound. Our SAMs are countering,” Jekyll reported, giving a play-by-play of the air battle.

“Mark Fifty-Four away,” said Fang. The plane lifted slightly as the Mark 54 was released, and the torpedo splashed into the water below, its propeller already rotating toward the submarine.

The air-defense communications feed coming through the headphones suddenly became intelligible, then quickly reverted back to garbled noise. Fang had a pair of binoculars up, trying to track the dozens of air-defense missiles that raced up into the sky to meet the warheads arcing down toward the carrier and its escort ships.

“Where’d they come from?” said Fang.

“China,” said Darling.

“Yeah, asshole, I know,” said Fang. “Surprise attacks don’t have just one surprise. Think they’re nukes?”

“Nope. If it was a nuke, they’d only send one,” said Darling.

“Stonefish inbound in fifteen seconds,” said Jekyll, her drawl an attempt to hide the stress she was feeling.

“Mark Fifty-Four impact; Foxglove Two destroyed,” said Hyde.

“Ten seconds,” said Jekyll.

“Keep working the sonobuoys, Hyde,” said Darling. He felt no satisfaction from taking out the sub; the Type 93 hadn’t been the main threat after all. He felt worse than unsatisfied—he felt useless. His plane and crew were of no help at this moment.

“Wait, I got one—damn, it’s pretty close to us,” said Fang, watching through his binoculars. “And here it goes . . . splashdown.”

“Shit, ninety miles off target. That’s quite a miss,” said Darling. “Maybe the Stonefish isn’t the bogeyman after all.”

Fang kept staring through his binoculars.

“Fang?”

A flash on the horizon gave Darling his answer.

“Impact . . . impact, impact,” said Jekyll.

Darling thanked God that they were so far away from the blast, and then a wave of guilt washed over him.

“Get John Warner on the net,” said Darling, “and see how they want to help with recovery. We need to set up a sonobuoy perimeter around the task force.”

“Update from the Stockdale’s ATHENA,”⁶³ Jekyll said, naming one of the escort ships. “Confirms what we saw. At least three Stonefish hit the Bush. The ship’s, um, offline now.”

“Can’t raise the John Warner,” said Hammer. “GPS is offline again.”

“Same up front. Checking Warner’s last location,” said Darling. He tried not to look at Fang, who was fiddling with his helmet and surreptitiously wiping tears away.

The P-8 was banked in a turn when Darling saw something in the water below. He squinted, willing the jet lower so he could see. Fang brought his binoculars back up even as the display screens showed the debris in detail.

“That’s too far from the task force to be from the Bush or any of the escort ships,” said Darling. “What is that? Our Directorate sub?”

“No, Foxglove Two’s last position is on the grid way over there,” said Fang, jabbing a finger at a cockpit screen.

“Shit,” said Jekyll, nervously tapping her hand on her knee. “This is the impact point for that Stonefish we saw. It didn’t miss. That’s what’s left of the John Warner.”

 

Marine Corps Base, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii

 

The F-35 rotated its nose up and then looped over in a corkscrew twist, giving Worm one last view of the sky through the bottom of his plane.

Seventy-one rounds. Worm designated the target, feeling the jet adjust slightly.

As he arced back down toward the Osprey’s wreckage, he saw the defiant Marine pop up and begin running.

Just seventy-one rounds.

Worm found the Z-10 strafing a smoking hangar 100 yards away from her. One of the quadcopters saw her and raced toward her position, then hovered to beckon the helicopter over. Worm dipped the nose of the jet and eased the throttle forward. With a gentle adjustment, he rolled out and centered the helmet-mounted pipper on the Z-10. He relaxed his g slightly to stay on the target and then squeezed the trigger.

The opening burst from the F-35’s cannon went high, passed over the Z-10, and ripped apart the runway just beyond.

Forty-seven rounds.

She ran faster, not looking back even at the ripping sound in the sky behind her.

Worm fired a longer burst and the whole jet vibrated like a tuning fork. The Z-10 jerked sideways, then broke in half, spewing flame and debris in a near-perfect circle. The fuselage groaned in protest as Worm pulled back on the stick to arrest his descent.

The runner was nowhere to be seen. She had made it; he’d done his first duty: he hadn’t left a Marine behind.

Worm jammed the throttle forward to its stops and unloaded to accelerate toward Camp H. M. Smith as fast as possible. Having some American airpower overhead might give the armored Directorate column second thoughts, maybe even force it to divert to another target. He had nothing else to offer. The cannon was empty. Landing to rearm was out of the question. He’d harass the Directorate column as long as he could and then punch out somewhere up north near one of the parks.

As the F-35 accelerated away, the robotic quadcopter turned and loosed an air-to-air missile. It then blithely went back to its original task of raking the row of Ospreys on the runway.

Even before Worm heard the alarm buzz, the plane’s AN/ASQ-239 Barracuda system⁶⁴ had automatically activated. The system’s ten tiny antennas embedded in the F-35’s wing edges began to track the enemy missile’s radar. Worm’s visor projected that it was a TY-90, a fire-and-forget missile, so even with its robot master focused elsewhere, it was still a threat. With the missile homing in on him, he pulled the F-35 hard right toward the Ulupau Crater at the end of the base. With just a little bit of luck, he thought, he’d disappear in the clutter around the old dormant volcano. He’d be damned if he was going to be the first Marine pilot to get shot down by a drone.

Worm’s fate, though, had been decided several months earlier. A section of microchips had been replaced during maintenance. This was nothing unusual for a plane packed with thousands of chips that ran everything from avionics to the gun camera.

The first microchips that had powered everything from the early computers to the jet planes of the 1960s had all their components visible to the naked eye. By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, microchips packed millions of transistors into an area measured in square millimeters. And every chip was further divided into multiple subunits, called blocks, each of which carried out different functions. Much like the chips inside a smartphone, the processor in Worm’s F-35 gun camera, for example, had blocks that did everything from store frames of video to convert files.

When the microchip industry took off, it grew from just a handful of companies to more than two thousand, most of them in China, each creating five thousand new chip designs every year. These designs involved thousands of people at multiple locations, each team working on a different block, sometimes building it from scratch, sometimes contracting it out, and other times buying it from a third-party specialist. And each of those block designs was integrated into millions of chips, and those chips went into everything from toasters to Tomahawk missiles.

The result was a dangerous combination: The chips became so complex that no single engineer or team of engineers could understand how all their parts actually worked; the design process was so distributed that no one could vet all the people involved; and the chips were manufactured and bought in such great numbers that not even a tiny percentage could be tested,⁶⁵ which almost no buyers, including the big American defense firms, even tried to do. Efficiency always beat security.

For a long time, defense analysts had worried about the notion of a kill switch—a chip that would shut down an entire computer system on command. But on Worm’s plane, the opposite happened. In each of just twelve microchips, a tiny piece of technology inside a single block woke up.

The F-35B was protected by its shape and stealth materials that shrank its radar signature to a size smaller than a metal fist. But as the Directorate missile’s radar washed over the plane, it activated a tiny antenna hidden in the ninth block of each of twelve microchips that linked Worm’s helmet-display system to the plane’s flight-control system. Even if the helmet’s manufacturers had performed a security scan when they’d bought the microchips, they still would have missed it. Each antenna was microscopic, hidden inside a one-millimeter square and activated only by a specific frequency of an incoming missile. While each antenna had just a tiny amount of energy on its own, the combination of them sent enough power to broadcast what was, in effect, a homing signal.

As Worm accelerated away, the missile picked up the signal and pursued the fighter.

Worm dove toward the palms of the Ulupau Crater in a bid to mask his plane from the missile’s radar. He grunted as the g-forces pushed him down into his seat, then he jinked hard. He should have been able to shake it. But whatever he did made no difference today; the missile followed his every move.

In his last moments, Worm glanced down at the watch his fiancée had given him for his thirty-first birthday, a Breitling Aggressor digital chronograph. It was as much to think of her one last time as it was to, like a physician, mark the time of death.

The missile rode the giveaway signal like a rail and slammed into the side of the F-35, splitting the jet into two pieces that tumbled into the Pacific.

 

USS Coronado, Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, Hawaii

 

Simmons knew the outcome of the next few moments would be a binary choice: Win or lose. Live or die.

As the Coronado pushed back from the pier, fresh air began flowing through blown-out windows and holes shot through the aluminum superstructure. Only Directorate helicopters and drones circled in the sky. One of the helicopters had just dive-bombed into the open side of the hangar deck of the USS Boxer.⁶⁶ The amphibious assault ship, used by the Fifteenth Marine Expeditionary Unit,⁶⁷ burst into flames, setting fire to the ship moored behind it, some kind of transport Simmons couldn’t identify.

A chainsaw-like noise and then a line of yellow tracers arcing out from the ship snapped Simmons back into focus. The Coronado’s Mk 110 gun engaged one of the smaller surveillance drones that swooped inside its line of fire.

Simmons couldn’t see any other U.S. ships moving from their moorings; that made the Coronado an even more conspicuous target.

“All ahead full. Take it to twenty-five knots,” said Simmons. “When we pass the Arizona memorial,⁶⁸ make it forty, and then once we’re clear in the channel, flank speed. No matter what, fast as the ship can make.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Jefferson without hesitation. Good man. Normally, running a 418-foot ship at that reckless speed inside a harbor was a quick way to a brutal collision or grounding, not to mention a court-martial. But now all that mattered was escaping the harbor’s kill box.

The Coronado jerked forward, and it felt for a moment as if the trimaran’s hull was moving at a different speed than the superstructure above. Simmons hoped the ship wouldn’t come apart. Between the rocket hits and the earlier impact of the REMUS, there was no telling how much damage had been done. The squat effect of the engines’ powering lifted the bow higher than the stern, like a kid doing a wheelie on a bike, but the ship evened out as it accelerated onto a plane past the smoldering hulks of the Pacific Fleet and then the old Arizona and Missouri memorials. The first ship had already been sunk, while the second didn’t seem to have a scratch on it. The Coronado had a clear shot at one of the Directorate freighters but Simmons didn’t bother. The LCS was fast, but another wrinkle of her design was that the main gun wobbled so badly at high speeds that it wasn’t even worth the shot.

The Coronado was accelerating around the turn in the bay when the burning USS Lake Erie,⁶⁹ a Ticonderoga-class Aegis cruiser, detonated its entire magazine. The shock wave pitched the Coronado, almost swamping the ship before the ride-control system automatically righted it. The water jets were picking up speed, though, and the ship exited the harbor at forty-eight knots, racing away as a final Directorate rocket-propelled grenade landed a hundred feet short.

“ATHENA, damage? Crew status,” Simmons barked into his command headset.

“Sys-fig ship tor ween loss,” the computer replied. “Par rew tactical ment offline ties.”

“What the hell? Cortez, damage and crew status,” Simmons said, cupping his hands around his mouth against the wind rushing through the bridge.

Lieutenant Horatio Cortez, the tactical action officer who was now the XO by default, looked over and nodded. Then the former Naval Academy water polo player seemed to stare right through his superior officer. It wasn’t fear or disrespect; he was focusing on the projections inside his Oakley tactical viz glasses. A bloody thumbprint smeared the left lens, but from the inside, he could see visuals of the ship’s data stream.

“ATHENA’s still monitoring the ship, but something in its comms hardware has been damaged. Superstructure—well, you can see that, sir. One of the diesels is leaking coolant, so we’re going to need to bring our speed down soon. Bow section has a foot of water, but it’s under control. Main gun down to fifteen rounds, and fire control is iffy. Communications are still out,” said Cortez.

“Casualties?” said Simmons, looking at the captain’s chair. The Coronado was already undercrewed by design; for the sake of efficiency, went the thinking. In peacetime, losing anyone out of the tight duty rotation was a headache. During war, it could be deadly to the ship and the entire crew.

“ATHENA shows twelve KIA,” said Cortez. “Eleven wounded.”

“Goddamn it,” muttered Simmons, then, realizing he’d left the headset microphone on transmit, he fumbled to shut it off.

“Where to now, sir?” asked Jefferson. Simmons could see a dark wet spot on the top of Jefferson’s head, but he wasn’t sure if it was Jefferson’s blood or someone else’s.

“Sir?” someone else quietly asked.

What now? His father had said this was what command was like, a constant stream of questions. He wheeled sharply. It was the corpsman, Cote. Shit, how could he have forgotten about the captain? Then he saw Cote’s face and realized it didn’t matter anymore.

“A moment, sir,” said Cote. “Take off your shirt.”

Simmons looked at Cote with a mix of anger and incomprehension.

“Not now,” said Simmons.

“Sir, let me do my job,” said Cote.

Simmons quickly pulled off his uniform top and felt a sharp sting behind his right shoulder blade, some kind of cut he hadn’t even realized was there.

Cote removed a small silver aerosol bottle from a waist pack and sprayed it on the wound. In an instant, the pain was gone, and Simmons could feel his shoulder relax.

“Okay, Cortez, when Cote is done, help him get Captain Riley’s body below. He doesn’t deserve this,” said Simmons. “Jefferson, let’s dip the towed-array sonar to see what’s out there. I’ll try to link with PACOM to find out what the hell they want us to do. Keep everyone at stations.”

While Simmons was tucking his shirt in, Cote studied his new captain. Without a word, the corpsman detached a hard plastic case from his belt and examined the dozens of color-coded pills inside, reverently holding the case as if it were a small Bible.

“Here, sir,” said Cote. “There’s a—”

“Just give them to me,” Simmons said, and he downed three tabs. He knew what they were by the colors: a green modafinil for endurance⁷⁰ and focus, an orange beta-blocker to steady his nerves, and a yellow desmopressin to boost his memory and keep him from having to leave the bridge to pee.

Cote and Cortez were carrying the body toward the hatch when an alarm from the tactical display made them both stop. They left Riley’s body at the sill of the hatch and raced back to their stations.

“Ah, shit, hydrophone effects,” said Jefferson as the sonar readings started to come in. “Torpedo in the water, sir. Bearing oh-four-five. It’s close, three thousand yards.”

At that moment, Simmons realized that his first ship command would not be a long one. Of course the Directorate would leave nothing to chance. Some Type 93 sub was probably lurking at the entrance to sink any survivors who managed to make it out of Pearl Harbor. All he’d accomplished was to take the Coronado from one trap right into another.

Simmons tried to stay calm. “Bring us back up to flank speed. If they want to get us, they’re going to have to race for it.”


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