Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War: Part 3


All warfare is based on deception.

—SUN-TZU, THE ART OF WAR

 

Duke’s Bar, Waikiki Beach, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

She was a goddess.

Xiao Zheng knew he would never have had a chance with a girl like this back home in Wuhan. When he was in elementary school, he’d thought being surrounded by so many boys and so few girls¹ was a good thing. But at eighteen, Xiao realized that all it meant was that even the ugliest ducklings had their pick of the boys. And he was not the kind of boy they picked. He wore thick black bamboo-framed glasses because he was the only one in his unit whose eyes hadn’t responded well to the mandatory vision-enhancement surgery.

The goddess wore a flowing blue skirt and a tight white tank top; she had a leather backpack-style purse slung across her shoulder.

As she entered Duke’s,² she adjusted her white-framed sunglasses on the bridge of her nose and let down her ebony hair. Xiao had to tell himself to start breathing again. He’d been deployed in Honolulu for three months now and he still had trouble working up the courage to speak to the female marines in his unit.

As she crossed the room, a group of sailors shouted at her in broken English to come drink with them. She ignored them, and Xiao’s heart soared.

The vision made her way through the crowded bar, smiling at the other girls scattered among the tables drinking vodka shots or white wine with the various Directorate soldiers. These were prostitutes, most of them flown in from back home. But this one was clearly something different. Xiao Zheng knew he was staring, but the young Directorate marine couldn’t help himself. She stopped at the bar and pushed her sunglasses up on the top of her head. The way she held herself made it clear she could not be bought. She had to be earned.

For the next hour, he watched her. With someone so beautiful, sometimes watching was enough.

“Another round!” shouted Bo Dai from the barstool next to Xiao Zheng, elbowing Xiao in the ribs. A microphone on Bo’s digital dog tags around his neck transmitted the command to a small translator he wore on his belt. The card-deck-size device scratchily conveyed his bellowed command in tinny English a moment later. Bo was the senior enlisted marine in Xiao’s squad, and he usually looked out for him.

Nine brimming shot glasses arrived quickly, as if the bartender had anticipated the order.

“Drink, you pussy,” Bo shouted at the top of his lungs before putting Xiao in a gentle headlock. The translator device started to convey the bawdy order before Bo silenced it with a drunken slap.

Xiao cringed and downed the shot. It was warm tequila, and he gagged as Bo whooped.

“Okay, no more of this mooning over some local whore. I need to know my best assistant machine gunner is not afraid of girls, because if he is, then what’s he going to do when the Americans from California come for us with both barrels?” Bo mimed an enormous pair of breasts.

The big sergeant dragged Xiao over to the goddess and set him down on the barstool next to her like an offering. Xiao stood back up. His knees trembled. He had to get out of there. Go anywhere but where he really wanted to be.

Xiao’s legs were unsteady; he turned to go but knocked over the stool. A lithe and deeply tanned arm reached out to catch him by the shoulder before he fell too. “Easy there, sailor,” she said.

She touched me! Xiao wanted to shout.

What to say? What was the Hawaiian phrase for “hello” they had learned? O-la-ha? No—he wanted her to hear his own words, even if he didn’t know what they should be.

But before he could say anything to the goddess, her sunglasses fell to the floor, and she slipped off her stool and bent down to pick them up, giving Xiao an unforgettable view.

“I need to go wash these off. Then you can buy me a drink?” she asked.

Xiao nodded silently and she smiled before disappearing into the back of the crowded bar. He fished in his pocket for some bills to pay the bartender for another wine for her so it would be waiting when she returned.

“Shit!” he cursed out loud. He stumbled and rushed back to the table where he had been sitting earlier. His wallet had to be there.

His squad mates registered the intense look on Xiao’s face as he dropped to all fours in front of everyone in the restaurant and began crawling under the table, looking for his wallet. There. Under a wrapper of soy chips lay his wallet, damp with beer. He stuffed it into his back pocket and stood up.

The other marines were laughing at him. Some barked like small dogs.

“Little friend, if you need a condom, I’ve got plenty,” Bo said.

Xiao turned away from Bo’s crude hand gestures and pushed through the crowd to the back of the bar, stumbling over toes and slipping on a slime of spilled liquor and beer. He made it without falling and stood in the darkened entrance to the bathroom. Was this the right place to wait? It was quieter. He cast a look over his shoulder to make sure none of his squad were going to humiliate him again.

All clear. When he turned around, there she was, standing close enough for him to kiss, if he had had the courage.

“Did you forget my drink?” she said.

Xiao flushed and looked down at his feet, again catching another eyeful of her breasts. She put a hand on his belt buckle and tugged slightly. He leaned back, and she tugged just a little bit harder.

“That’s okay, we don’t need it. Come with me,” she said and led him away from the bathrooms. “Where it’s quieter.”

“Yes, better,” he muttered, but not loud enough for the translator to pick up. He followed her down the humid stairway that led from the bar’s main room to a pitch-black storage area.

As they reached the bottom of the stairs, he realized that she was taller than him. But as she drew his face into her breasts, he decided he was just the right size.

Lavender and talc. It felt like all the blood that had rushed to his cheeks was now flowing to his groin. He felt a new courage rising up inside him. Bo was right! I should have gotten a condom when I had the chance.

She sighed and held him closer, drawing the moment out.

His body stiffened and then spasmed as the sharpened stem of the white sunglasses drove in just behind his jawbone, severing his internal carotid artery.

 

University of Wisconsin, Madison

 

When she saw the two men in matching gray suits enter the back of the lecture hall, Vernalise Li realized she should have listened to her mother’s warnings.

But instead she’d told her mom that she needed to stop reading Wikipedia, that what had happened to the Japanese Americans³ in the 1940s wouldn’t happen in the twenty-first century. People were better than that now. Or so she’d thought.

She continued lecturing, unconsciously adopting a more Southern Californian accent with each word.

“From here, you can see that a rack-mount power system has its limitations. What are they? Space, for sure,” she said.

So what if she’d been born in Beijing? She had grown up in Santa Monica.

“But the advantage? Density. By using a fluid-based energy-storage system that, with a conformable design, we can address industrial pulse-power applications where the current rack designs fall short.”

She had played beach volleyball in high school. Varsity!

“The switch today operates for four milliseconds, and we are working to increase power density. That goes back to the question of how to store the energy. It always comes back to density, and fluid is the answer.”

She watched the two men take seats. The suits were evidently cheap, likely Dockers, but it didn’t matter. If they wanted to blend in, wearing suits and ties on campus any day but graduation wasn’t the way to go. Then she noticed they weren’t wearing viz glasses, so they weren’t even recording the lecture. Were they just checking in to make sure students were actually in class? It wouldn’t be surprising; the whole campus knew conscription was coming.

“The other element is addressing contamination in the switches, which always, always, always leads to shorter minority carrier lifespan. Plus, we’re maximizing peak power again, which makes contamination a major cause of degradation⁴ in these light-activated switch designs.”

So what was their deal? No one attended a lecture on the mathematical dynamics of pulsed-power systems for fun.

“Okay,” she said, wrapping up. “You know where to find me on the course sim later if you have any questions.”

“I’d like to ask one, with your students’ permission, of course,” said Professor Leonowsky, who’d stopped by earlier and was sitting in the front row. He perched his viz glasses atop his bald head and smiled with the ease of someone for whom the pressure of the tenure clock was a distant memory.

“Everyone, we’re not done yet. Have we all got a few more minutes? Of course we do,” said Leonowsky, as ever answering his own question.

“Certainly,” said Vern, hiding her trembling hands behind her back. Why did believing you were about to be accused of an unnamed crime make you feel guilty, even when you knew you were innocent? She could barely speak Mandarin, at least not without a horrible American accent, as her mother never failed to remind her.

“Let’s get to the practicalities. What can anyone really do with a fluid-based battery the size of a house with only short-term storage capabilities?” Leonowsky asked. “There’s no market for that as far as I can see. Can you?”

He was on the tenure committee and would often drop in on junior professors’ lectures and ask pointed questions, just so no one would forget his role as a gatekeeper to their future careers.

“We don’t know. Yet,” Vern said, fighting the stammer welling up inside her. “What I’m saying is, no one can anticipate what future needs might be. Maybe it’s bigger sims, or . . .”

The men in the back of the room stared intently at her. They did not even blink.

“I’m just not sure. But that we don’t know the applications now doesn’t mean we won’t find a use later. Back when computers were first developed, the CEO of IBM thought the world market would be only five computers in total. We know how that worked out,” said Vern.

“Indeed, but obviously, not every invention is comparable to the computer,” said Professor Leonowsky.

Tenure be damned, Vern just wanted out of the room, away from those men. She looked down at her sandals and back up at her future.

“My answer is that I will have to get you a better answer,” said Vern.

“I think that would be for the best,” said Leonowsky.

Students were bolting out of the room. Vern was embarrassed by her performance but relieved to see that at least the two men were gone now.

Professor Leonowsky was occupied with a pair of first-year graduate students. If she moved quickly, she could get out without having to talk to anyone. Right now she needed something to eat and a half-hour dive somewhere tropical to chill out. Maybe the Turks and Caicos sim.

She was bent over her bag, struggling with the buckle, when the letters FBI appeared a few inches in front of her face.

She looked up. One of the suits stood before her. He held a worn black leather wallet that revealed a badge and ID. The other man was back at the door, blocking the room’s only exit.

“Miss Vernalise Li? We need you to come with us.”

That’s Dr. Li, she thought to herself. But she didn’t bother to correct him.

“No handcuffs?” she asked bitterly. “You’re not even going to frisk me? You’ll at least get a good write-up in the campus paper: ‘Chinese Spy Busted in Our Midst!’”

The agent shook his head and put his hand on her shoulder. He spoke in a whisper, with the awkward gentleness of somebody not used to caring what other people thought of what he said.

“Miss Li, it’s not like that. Not at all. We’re here for your protection. Everything you said today matters more than you can imagine.”

 

Fort Mason, San Francisco

 

Captain Jamie Simmons wiped the sweat from his forehead. Having to take a bus and then walk uphill from the stop was not the way he imagined a Navy officer would return home after nine months at sea. But at least he was home.

Home now meant an officer’s quarters in Fort Mason,⁵ in San Francisco’s Marina District. Overlooking the Bay, it was priceless real estate even in wartime. The Navy might have been pushed around at sea, but it was clearly having its way on land. Marines guarded checkpoints and blocked civilian traffic from entering Bay Street. A pair of tan air-defense Humvees, bristling with missiles, were parked at the corner of Laguna and Bay. Each pointed four AIM-120 SLAMRAAMs (Surface-Launched Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles) accusingly to the west. Across the water, high up on Hawk Hill in Marin, were more missile batteries and a radar installation under construction. The Directorate had made no moves to push beyond the edge of its so-called Eastern Pacific Stability Zone, so the only action the National Guardsmen manning the mobile batteries had seen so far were afternoon games of soccer with the neighborhood kids.

On the sidewalk in front of Jamie’s house, a small crowd had gathered. For the most part, they were people he did not know. Squaring his shoulders, he forced a smile and walked up to them. They took in his captain’s insignia and then paused at the scar just above his right eye. They shook his hand. Some even hugged him. He was the hero who’d commanded the only ship that had fought its way out of Pearl. Everyone needs some hope, and people seemed to get it just from touching Jamie. They chose to ignore that everything since that day had gone from bad to worse, both for Jamie and America.

The front door opened and his kids rushed out, crashed into his legs, and hung on with their lovingly desperate grip.

“Claire, Martin, I missed you sooooo much,” said Jamie. “You’re all grown up!”

He lifted a child in each arm, swaying slightly as if he were back at sea. The crowd on the sidewalk backed off, giving him space. They knew how it was.

Martin leaned in to Jamie’s ear. “Daddy, I made you a sign inside. Did you bring me anything?”

Jamie smiled sadly. “Sorry, not tonight,” he said. “Show me the sign.”

“I made it first,” said Claire, trying to win back his attention.

Jamie set the kids down as Lindsey approached.

Her dark brown hair was shorter than he remembered. She stood on her tiptoes and he kissed her, savoring the feel of her hair as it brushed across his cheek. That moment was something no sim could capture.

She also looked thinner than he remembered, likely from the worry he’d put her through. She was even thinner than when he’d first seen her, running the Burke-Gilman trail near the University of Washington on a rainy spring morning. A smile was all it took for him to notice her. Though he had already been exhausted from crew practice, he’d kept running just for a chance to ask her name when she finally stopped, four miles later at a water fountain.

“Over here,” said Claire, pulling on his hand. “Come see the sign we made.”

Martin studied his father’s uniform intently. “I like your ribbons. Do you want some cereal?” he said.

“Later we can have some,” said Jamie. “Right now, I want to see this sign.”

Martin and Claire led their father into the sparsely furnished living room, no rug, only a couch and a single chair.

“Not much here,” said Lindsey. “The rest is still in San Diego.”

“Lots of room for parties, at least,” said Jamie, looking around the room as the guests began to file in. Navy dress uniforms, spouses in suits or cocktail dresses, and a lot of kids. Before the war, you wouldn’t have seen so many kids at a party like this, Jamie thought. Now, everyone wanted to keep them close.

“They’ve all been waiting for this moment. I’ve been waiting. All part of Navy life, right, Captain?” said Lindsey, stretching out his new rank.

Jamie took in her smile and brought her close. Wives were usually there for promotion ceremonies, but it had all been done on the fly as they prepped for the shitstorm that the Guam relief mission had turned into.

“Daddy, over here!” shouted Martin. “No kissing!”

Jamie navigated through a series of hugs and handshakes to get to where a three-foot-by-five-foot Welcome Home Dady! sign hung. Purple and green crayon, the kids’ respective favorite colors, covered the entire sign, which meant no one else had been allowed to contribute.

“Wow, this is amazing,” said Jamie.

He knelt down and hugged both kids hard, fighting back tears.

Then he detected a faint, acrid smell. It was the pungent musk of a life pledged to steel ships, to wooden piers coated in tarry creosote, and to a losing battle against rust and rot. Still kneeling, Jamie slowly looked over and saw the black leather work boots. The boots were old, worn, nicked, and creased. But they still shone, the bulbs of the steel toes giving off an eight ball’s luster. The boots were turned out slightly, maybe ten degrees at the left, fifteen degrees at the right. It was a ready stance, as if the world might pitch or heave at any moment. Jamie’s body recognized it all first and sent an icy blast of adrenaline into his veins before his brain could process the presence of his father.

“Chief?” said Jamie as he slowly stood. “What are you doing here?”

Lindsey jumped in before an answer could come. “Your father’s been here every weekend since we arrived, doing everything from machining a new pedal for Martin’s bike to playing games with the kids so I could take a shower,” said Lindsey. “He’s been really helpful.”

Mike just held out his right hand. It was meant to be a welcoming gesture, yet the sheer size of the hand hinted at malice or injury. The back of the hand was scrubbed red, but creosote, rust, and grease still seemed to ooze from the pores. The missing tip of the pinkie was more evidence that these hands were tools first.

“Hello, James,” said Mike. He stared at Jamie, daring his son to say what he really thought.

“He’s made a real difference here,” said Lindsey, still trying to smooth over the moment.

“I wish I could take credit for the sign, but I have been able to help with the house. With all the Directorate cyber-attacks, the fridge won’t talk to the phone, and the toilet doesn’t know whether to flush or clean itself without instructions from its Beijing masters. I can’t fix the digital stuff, but I can at least clean up and rig some workarounds,” said Mike.

Jamie released his two kids and shook the hand, suddenly without the confident grip he had expected to use.

“Okay, kids, go show your friends the sandbox Grandpa built,” said Lindsey.

For the next hour, Lindsey stayed close to Jamie. She had always been good at this sort of thing, the chitchat, the empty How are yous, and all he could think about was his father walking the perimeter of his yard, keeping an eye on his kids, nursing a can of Coke.

Soon, the party began to break up, the guests having put in their appearances but knowing they weren’t supposed to linger.

When Lindsey went inside to clean up, there was no longer a way for Jamie to avoid talking to his father. The two men took their drinks and stood on the back patio, their silhouettes indistinguishable from each other. They looked down at the Fort Mason Green, toward the piers that had once hosted jazz concerts and winetastings. A pair of pockmarked Littoral Combat Ships and four Mark VI patrol boats⁶ nuzzled the piers. Their tiny silhouettes made the absence of the larger warships that should have been there all the more obvious.

“Helluva nice house, Captain,” said Mike. “Can’t say I’ve ever had any admirals for neighbors. Must go with the promotion.”

“What’s going on here?” said Jamie, ignoring his father’s attempt at small talk.

“I figured Lindsey could use the help,” said Mike.

“You did? You don’t even know her, or the kids. You didn’t even come to our wedding,” said Jamie.

“War changes things for all of us,” said Mike.

“I’ll say.” Jamie looked at the walnut-size knuckles he knew were as hard as stones. “I don’t think I ever saw you drink a soda in my entire life.”

Each man took a sip of his drink and waited for the other to speak. The silence was occasionally broken by the laughing and howling of kids.

“The Navy Cross is a helluva thing, James,” said Mike, changing tack.

“It’s because I got the Coronado out,” said Jamie. “Riley died right in front of me at Pearl.”

“Still don’t know how you did it with an LCS,” said Mike. He growled out each letter with disdain. “Better ships didn’t.”

“Easy, Chief, Coronado is still my ship,” said Jamie. “At least, what’s left of it.”

“Well, she made you captain; you’re always gonna owe her that,” said Mike. “Any idea what they’re going to do with her?”

“Maybe make a museum or memorial out of it, when the war’s over,” said Jamie. “Or maybe turn it into dog tags. All that metal we need has to come from somewhere . . . We could patch up the hits we took at Pearl, but the missile hit we took in the Guam relief op wrecked the whole engine room for good.”

“You don’t belong here with her. You belong at sea.”

“Of all the people to say that,” muttered Jamie.

“So now we’re starting again?” said Mike. “Okay, I deserved that. I wasn’t as good at the home stuff as I was at the job.”

“You could have been,” said Jamie. “If you’d just tried half as hard at your more important job of taking care of your kids. Both of them.”

“Goddamn it, don’t you lay that blame on me,” said Mike. “Even if I’d been home, I couldn’t have saved her.”

“It’s Mackenzie. Say her name,” growled Jamie.

The two stared at each other in silence as Martin and Claire played tag in the yard beyond them.

“So, how is it really for the fleet?” said Mike, trying again to steer the discussion to easier ground.

“There’s a word for doing the same thing over and over and thinking it will have different results,” said Jamie. “I’m sure you heard, they sunk the Ford⁷ and the Vinson.⁸ The exact minute we crossed their Eastern Pacific Stability Zone line, just like they had warned. Both the carriers and even the subs. We still pushed on after that, and things got worse.”

“What the hell is going on? Too much power in those ships for ’em to be just torn apart like that.”

“Air Force’s toy planes are all hacked and can’t get off the ground while the Directorate owns the heavens—satellites, space stations, everything. They can see every move we make and target at will. We knew they’d eventually be able to do that to the surface ships, but now even the subs can’t hide. And if they can’t hide—”

“They go from sharks to chum,” said Mike.

“Only the boomers⁹ were left untargeted,” said Jamie, referring to the ballistic missile submarines that made up the strategic nuclear force.

“They wouldn’t hit them, not unless they wanted us to cut their population by half,” said Mike. “We should have done that when the Chinese first showed up at Pearl. After what the airstrikes did to the Twenty-Fifth ID base in Hawaii and all those Marines on Oahu? Fucking butchers. They were asking for us to nuke them. We still should.”

“I really hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Jamie.

“It will, mark my words,” said Mike. “I’m telling you, we should have nuked ’em the minute things started to go south. At least the chairman of Joint Chiefs had the honor to resign when the so-called commander in chief pussied out.”

“That’s just the spin he put on it after he got fired,” said Jamie. “By the time the national command authority figured out what was happening, it had already happened. After that, strategic calculus changed; going nuclear would just be revenge to the point of suicide. Hell, given how deep the Chinese penetrated our comms net, no one could even have known if the nuke orders would go through. We might just have been giving them a pretext to strike us first.”

“We should still just do it, and do it now. Just nuke Beijing, Shanghai, and make sure you get Hainan too,” said Mike. “No diplomacy, no more of that ‘reimagining-our-world’ bullshit from those eunuchs on TV. We should make their cities glow.”

“What about Moscow?” said Jamie. “Should we nuke that too? How about Paris, Rome, and Berlin, for not stepping up to join a fight an ocean away from them that was already over? And Tokyo, for kindly helping us clean up our bases and then asking us to leave? If we went with your plan, the whole world would be glowing, including here.” He nodded over to where the kids were still chasing each other.

Mike tipped his Coke can to the unlit Golden Gate Bridge and the black void separating San Francisco and Marin.

“The greedy bastards could have just bought the Golden Gate,” said Mike.

“I thought they already did, four years back,” said Jamie.

“No, that was the Carquinez Bridge, some toll-road crap,” said Mike.

“Well, this isn’t over. Hawaii’s not giving up either. Resistance is heating up there. A lot of the troops who made it out fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. They saw insurgency up close, and I hear they’re trying it themselves now,” said Jamie.

“Payback is a bitch,” said Mike.

Both men paused to listen to the chorus of kids’ laughter as they ran by in the dark.

“Lindsey’s been really good through all this,” said Mike. “Some people, they literally forgot how to drive, so they’ve been paralyzed since the Chinese knocked out our GPS. No more auto-drives, and they’re just stuck without anyone at the wheel. Like America. Not your wife, though; I wish there were more like her in this country,” said Mike.

Jamie paused mid-sip and gazed silently at his dad. How was it possible that he was here? How was it possible that he knew better than Jamie how his own wife was doing?

“Just look at this party,” Mike continued. “You’d never think her husband’s ship had been shot to pieces and assumed lost just a little while ago. You will not find a stronger or better woman. You know how I know that?”

“How?” said Jamie.

“She let me in the front door,” said Mike.

“That’s because she doesn’t know you,” said Jamie.

“James, I made the effort. It’s been fourteen years since you saw me. I’m different now, because of your mom, because of your sister’s death, because of a lot of things,” said Mike.

“And here you are. Like I should just forget it all,” Jamie said.

The two men stared at each other in silence.

“All right, then, have it your way. I tried. I should get going anyway,” said Mike. “I’ve got an early day tomorrow.”

“Aren’t they all now?” said Jamie. “Mentor Crew job, eh?”

The initial wave of losses had whittled down not just the frontline fleet but also its human capital. The Mentor program was started as a way to tap into the expertise that still remained among those too old to be drafted back into service. The old, retired noncommissioned officers had been spread out among the fleet, the idea being that they would help guide the transition for all the new crews that had to be trained up.

“I damn well wasn’t going to fight this war as a contractor,” said Mike.¹⁰

“So, where do they have you working?”

“I can’t get into it right now,” said Mike. “Not even with you.”

“Some things don’t change,” said Jamie, with a bitter edge in his voice.

“You’ll see. They really do,” said Mike, turning and walking down to say goodbye to the kids.

 

Directorate Command, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

I live in lonely desolation,

And wonder when my end will come.¹¹

 

Pushkin should have joined military intelligence, thought Colonel Vladimir Andreyevich Markov. The Russian Spetsnaz officer poured himself another glass of hot tea and continued to read, the world of poetry his one escape from the stack of memos from General Yu Xilai’s office. The collection of Pushkin poetry was well traveled, having accompanied him to Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Sudan, and Venezuela. And now another war zone’s humidity and grime was working its way into the book’s spine, softening it, loosening its grip on the pages one by one.

His office door slammed open, shaking the flimsy desk and making tea spill all over. He used his sleeve to sop up the liquid before it soaked more of the book.

“What!” he shouted in English, the one language they shared.

His aide, Lieutenant Jian Qintong, stood at attention in front of him.

“A Directorate marine is dead, sir,” said Jian. “A young private from the Hundred and Sixty-Fourth Brigade.”

“It’s a war; you should expect people to die,” said Markov.

It had been three weeks since he’d arrived at this former vacation paradise. The assignment was part of the alliance deal: he was to liaise with the Directorate to provide a Russian presence and, supposedly, to pass on his hard-won expertise in counterinsurgency. But so far, no one other than Jian was listening to him, and Jian listened only because he’d been tasked to spy on him, Markov was sure.

At his first briefing for General Yu, Markov had led with the overriding lesson that defeating an insurgency was accomplished not by crushing one’s foes but by understanding them.

Maybe it was a translation error, or maybe the general was just too thickheaded to get it, but Yu had taken his recommendation for empathy as a sign of weakness, and the meeting had gone south from there. Yu clearly resented the idea of an adviser being sent into his command, as it required one to admit the possibility that one was in error. At the end of the meeting, General Yu was polite in his thanks but said he had more than enough experience in “population-supervision techniques” from his time stamping out the last rebellion in Tibet. Markov then wondered aloud how long it would take the general to realize they were dealing with something different than holdout adherents of the last Dalai Lama.

After that exchange, the Russian had been kept busy, sent off base on various missions, but he was never again part of the actual command sessions. And for every trip outside the wire, Jian would be by his side, his around-the-clock shadow, not so much to keep him out of trouble but to make sure he didn’t cause any.

“The local commander reports it as an assassination by insurgents,” said Jian now.

Markov raised his eyebrows. “Assassinating an enlisted man? The only thing less effective would be assassinating staff lieutenants.” Markov had turned the burden Yu had placed on him into a gift; teasing Jian was one of the rare joys he had during this deployment.

“Some marines likely got rid of a weak link,” said Markov. “There’s a runt in every litter, and they don’t tend to fare well on tough deployments like this.”

“His unit claims it is not the case, and the screenings back them up,” said Jian.

“Hooking some sergeant up to a brain scan isn’t going to tell you what actually happened. Sergeants spend their whole careers learning how to lie to officers,” said Markov. “Let’s go.”

The aide blustered that there was no reason for them to leave unless ordered. Markov brushed Jian aside as he stormed out of the room.

They were onsite at Duke’s Bar in less than five minutes, driving there in one of the Wolf armored fighting vehicles that General Yu insisted his senior officers use every time they ventured into Honolulu. If Yu had bothered to listen, Markov would have told him that this was a classic mistake, choosing force protection over situational awareness.

Markov strode past the Directorate sentries and walked through the empty bar, Jian following a few paces behind. He closed his eyes once he got to the stairwell and let his other senses absorb all they could. It was dank and humid, the salty-sweet smell of almost-dry blood mixing with that of old beer. He opened his eyes and took in the scene. The body sat against the wall, almost as if taking a drunk’s rest. A river of dark red caked the young marine’s neck, his face now forever locked in an expression of shock.

Markov smiled at the thought of what Jian would make of this and slowly and intently examined the body. No penetration points other than the neck, no obvious struggle. No sign of sexual trauma.

“So, Lieutenant,” he asked his shadow, “how many people in a war zone would bother to kill a lowly enlisted Directorate marine by gouging a hole in his neck?”

He did not wait for the rote response that anything that did not go according to plan was the fault of the insurgents. Perhaps the lieutenant had been right for once; if it had been the marine’s mates who’d done this, they would have beat him unconscious and held him under the surf. He’d seen that one already.

Yet this was an oddly personal way for an insurgent to kill. A killing of intense proximity.

Markov stared hard at the sticky floor. Who but someone this runt knew could get close enough to kill him without leaving bruises or any sign of struggle? It was a savage killing, but with a delicate weapon. A paring knife, perhaps? It had to be somebody the marine wanted to be very close to in a dark stairway at the back of a collaborator bar. A woman? One of the locals? Or perhaps a man? Maybe one of his squad mates, who had killed him to make sure their secret went no further?

War rarely offered answers, only questions. That was why Markov enjoyed it so much.

 

Blue Line Metro Stop, Pentagon

 

At the Pentagon, everyone waits. You wait at the Metro station to get to the escalator. You wait at the security line to get your badge. You wait at the screening gates. And once inside, you wait at security checkpoints to move between the five-sided building’s ring-like corridors. Later you wait to enter the food courts and the bathrooms.

It depressed Daniel Aboye. This place of waiting was for sour-faced people preparing to explain why they were losing.

He handed over his freshly printed and still warm ID badge to a submachine-gun-wielding hired guard.

“Thank you,” the guard said. “Just need a little patience, and you’ll be fine.”

Aboye snapped his head up and stared into the guard’s eyes. How many years had it been since he’d heard the Dinka dialect of South Sudan? Aboye answered with a smile and responded in the tongue he hadn’t used for years.

“Thank you, brother. Long way from home?”

“Home? Home is here now,” replied the guard in the same language. “For you too, I see.”

Aboye nodded, grateful for the connection. Maybe it was a good omen. He moved past the checkpoint and joined the next line. Such serendipity no longer shocked him. After his parents had been killed by the janjaweed gunmen, he’d walked for weeks and weeks on an empty belly and bloodied feet. Oprah had called his group of wartime orphans “the Lost Boys.”¹² The name did not fit. Daniel did not think of himself as lost. That he could build a life of incomprehensible good fortune atop such sadness seemed so improbable that it could only be part of something unexplainable, something much bigger than himself. That was why he’d easily fallen into engineering at Stanford. It was predictable, the opposite of what his life had been to that point. And so it was Daniel’s ability to distinguish between what was predictable and what required serendipity that had powered his rise through Silicon Valley’s venture-capital investment firms; he knew which tech startups to back and which to avoid.

After he finally made it through the security line’s sequential body scanners and DNA tagging, a petite young redheaded woman in a light gray pantsuit stepped forward, her rubber-soled pumps squeaking as she halted before him.

“Mr. Aboye, I am Catherine Hines, special assistant to the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics,”¹³ she said, rattling her title off like an auctioneer with a rare treasure. “We can talk in my office,” she said, not waiting for him to reply. “Please follow me.”

They walked 317 steps—Aboye counted—and he did not see one window.

Once in her cubicle, they sat, and she looked at him as if expecting him to explain himself.

“Are we still on schedule to meet with Secretary Claiburne? The security line was quite long and I hope I have not inconvenienced her,” he said.

“I’m afraid there has been some sort of misunderstanding, Mr. Aboye. Your meeting is with me,” she said. “The SecDef isn’t even in the building today.”

He stood up immediately, rising to his full six foot five inches, and looked up at dusty fiberboard and crop-like rows of LED lights. He paused, and then glared down at her.

“If I’m not meeting Secretary Claiburne, why am I here?” he said.

“Secretary Claiburne was pleased to receive the senator’s note about finding you a role, but he should not have promised that,” she said. “The way things go in Silicon Valley does not always carry over to here. There’s a war on.”

“Please do not speak to me as if I do not know war,” he said.

“I am sorry, I didn’t mean any offense,” she said. “What I meant is that we are appreciative that you want to contribute to the war effort, but there are procedures we all have to follow, whether we like them or not. I would urge you to speak with either of the Big Two firms¹⁴ here in the Beltway, perhaps to explore their interest in some sort of partnership. They’ll also have the best means to navigate any projects through the various offices in the building and, of course, the relevant congressional committees. I have to warn you, though, the profit margins are not going to be what you are used to.”

“This is not about contracts or making money!” Daniel said, his voice rising. “I came here to see how I could give back to the country that has done so much for me.”

“Ah, if that’s what is motivating you, our model for citizen involvement is the National Guard. I would urge you to explore that. Or perhaps speak with the senator about joining a special study commission?”

She took a quick but obvious look at her watch and then widened her eyes and tilted her head, the universal signal among bureaucrats that a meeting was over.

“I see. Thank you for your time and explanation,” said Aboye. And he walked away.

 

Kakaako, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

She pressed the blade lightly across the flesh, focusing on the oblivion it offered. The warm blood dripped faster and faster and she knew that she had arrived again at that perfect moment of power, where all she had to do was put her full weight behind the blade and drive it in deep. To feel so in control again was electrifying; she could lose herself in this moment.

With a gasp, Carrie Shin forced herself to open her eyes. She looked down at her arm and pressed her fingers over the cut.

Her arm ached, but it was a familiar pain, terrible but comforting. She felt centered for the first time in months. As she fumbled with a towel to stanch the bleeding, she knew she could handle all of it now.

It had been his hairbrush that did it.

The black plastic brush was a throwaway. Their condo was filled with any number of reminders of him: his photos, his surfboard, his bike. But then she had seen a few of his hairs on the brush. Irreplaceable pieces of him.

Before this, she hadn’t cut herself since he’d caught her doing it three years back. She’d been embarrassed, scared what he would think, but he’d just held her. Told her she didn’t need to hurt alone anymore. He was there to protect her. Who better to keep her safe than a man in uniform? He’d bought her an expensive Swiss nanoderm cream that wiped away the scars, and he’d never spoken of it again.

Well, where was he now?

Time to dispose of the clothing. Some blood had gotten on the white tank top, but fortunately not enough for anyone to notice in the dark. She started to cut the garments into playing-card-size pieces and then stopped.

Her fiancé’s face popped back into her mind again. Then the face of her father, whom she hated as much as she had loved her husband-to-be for reasons both similar and appallingly different.

She stuffed the pieces into a plastic bag, arm trembling, barely able to hold the five-gallon jug in her right hand and keep the bag open with her left.

She stopped again.

She removed a scrap of fabric and wiped the cut on her arm with it. Back into the bag. Then the sunglasses. Last into the bag went the wallet.

She’d already thrown up once after the rush of adrenaline faded, the moment her key unlocked her front door. She’d staggered to the toilet on weak legs, heaved and vomited for ten minutes, then lay down on the floor and passed out.

When she woke, she knew what she had to do. That was nine hours ago.

Now the stench of the chlorine-bleach jug made her gag; she felt vulnerable for an instant. She thought of her fiancé. What had he thought of just before he’d died? She steadied herself and prepared to pour the bleach into the bag. After that, she’d take it to the building’s incinerator with all the other trash.

A black hair on a scrap of the white tank top stopped her. She immediately knew whose it was. She reached into the bag and placed it on the hairbrush.

My pain, your pain, their pain, all mixed together.

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

Mike winced every time he saw Brooks’s Mohawk haircut. Where did this kid think he was, the Army? Let the Special Forces wear pajamas and play dress-up all they wanted; the Navy’s uniform was meant to be just that: uniform.

But the Navy needed this boy with the Mohawk. So instead of screaming at Mo, Mike’s nickname for the kid, who was maybe twenty, Mike unloaded on Davidson. The seventy-year-old was an easy target, since the two knew each other so well. They both had the same old but still fit build; in low light, they might have been mistaken for twins. Davidson had served with Mike at the start of Gulf War I. Each measured the passing of the years since then in how the other’s skin grew leathery and his stubble turned gray, neither one seeing the age in himself until it registered that the other man was his near mirror.

“You need to strip the paint down all the way—your goddamn grandkids could tell you how to do it,” said Mike. Of course Davidson knew that, but it had to be said. This was not anger, it was a performance for Mo.

“Then, when you’ve got a bare surface, smooth as a freshly shaved . . . shit, now I went and got distracted. Then you apply the epoxy, just like I showed you two hundred years ago. Then Mo here is going to attach the antenna and zap it with the UV gun, and you can seal it up with more epoxy.”

Davidson and Brooks had been installing a new set of synthetic aperture radar antennas that looked like giant bumper stickers. They were only halfway through.

Davidson protested. “The thing is, Mike, you scrape it down, it’s not steel, like my pecker. Superstructure is made out of—”

“Davidson, I don’t care if the ship’s built out of Girl Scout cookies. You scrape off the goddamn frosting until it’s ready for the epoxy. You know what that should look like and you don’t need me to tell you this shit, so just do your job!”

“Thing is, the composite has so—” said Davidson.

“Damn it, you know what, Davidson? You’re starting to sound like one of them. Maybe you ought to ask Mo for fashion tips too,” said Mike.

Brooks had pulled down his respirator and was picking at a fresh tattoo on his cheek, a tiny pictogram of his initials in that new computer text. He gave a high-pitched snicker. “Might help you old farts get some tail,” Mo said.

Mike leaned in to the young sailor’s face. Brooks recoiled at the rank coffee breath.

“Are you laughing, Mo? Is my Navy a joke to you? If this was thirty-five years ago, I would haul you below decks, take off my stripes, and kick your ass. The Mentor Crew isn’t here for your amusement. Listen to what this man has to say,” said Mike. “This ‘old fart,’ as you put it, was working on ships when you weren’t even a cum stain on your father’s Playboy.”

The young sailor looked confused and asked, “What’s Playboy?”

Davidson laughed, and Mike turned on him and began speaking in a calm, deliberate voice.

“Davidson, shut the hell up. He may have a haircut that looks like a bird shat on his head, but Mo is smarter, faster, and better than you,” he said. He turned back to the young sailor. “But Mo, when we were your age, between the two of us we got more tail than you will get in your lifetime—including, most likely, your mom, six ways to Sunday.”

Mike raised his voice again to the volume he used when on the ship’s deck. “This conversation is now over. The new captain arrives in twenty, so get your asses cleaned up and topside. God help the old man with a ship like this and a crew like you.”

Mike walked to the ship’s stern and took a deep breath, trying to slow his racing heart. He didn’t have it in him anymore to drive a crew this hard without making his own blood pressure rise. And that was something he had to watch carefully now.

He looked out at Mare Island Naval Shipyard.¹⁵ Just past Suisun Bay, where the Ghost Fleet had been moored, it had opened in 1854 under Commander David Farragut. Farragut had gone on to gain fame during the Battle of Mobile Bay in the Civil War by giving the order, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”¹⁶ This kind of connection made real the bond Mike felt across the generations of sailors. Men at these same piers had repaired the clipper ships after their long hauls carrying the Forty-Niner gold miners around the cape, and had built some of the Navy’s first submarines at the turn of the last century; some fifty thousand workers had been employed here during World War II. Closed down after the Cold War ended, the Mare Island docks were buzzing again now that America needed them once more. Mike felt responsible for kids like Mo and for what the historians would one day write about the Navy.

Davidson walked up with a pack of cigarettes in hand. “Smoke?”

“I thought you’d quit,” said Mike.

“Yeah, but I know a guy in Vallejo who still sells,” said Davidson. “Figured I’d make it an interesting race between a Stonefish missile and lung cancer.”

Mike accepted a cigarette as well as a light off Davidson’s butane lighter.

“These kids are shit workers,” said Mike.

“You’re right, but you don’t need to ride them so hard,” said Davidson. “They know the stakes.”

“That’s just it—do they? They can do things I’ll die not knowing how to do,” said Mike. “But do they understand what losing this war will mean?”

The two watched one of the older men on the Mentor Crew carry a cardboard box unsteadily along the starboard rail. Then a kid with short, spiky dreadlocks pitched in to help guide him inside the ship.

“They’re just like we were at that age. Full of confidence and full of shit,” Davidson said.

Mike took a deep drag on his cigarette and then flicked it into the water off the stern.

“If the Directorate wins but lets them keep all their viz and group sims, will they even know the difference?” said Mike. “I mean, when those goggles are on, they could be anywhere in the world.”

“You’ve never done it, have you?” asked Davidson.

“I like the real world well enough,” said Mike.

“Once you try it, everything looks different,” said Davidson, scratching at a flabby, sunburned biceps. “Or at least it looks like it could be. If I had my viz on right now, I could fly right up to the top of the hangar and look down at us. Well, I could have before the war started. The viz doesn’t work quite the same anymore. I bet a lot of kids want to win this damn thing just to get their glasses working right again.”

 

“Atten-huht on deck! . . . Dress-right-dress!”

Captain Jamie Simmons walked up the gangway, his footsteps quiet for such a big man. He saluted as he stopped to take in the menacing look of the USS Zumwalt.

The ship was massive: 610 feet long. If the Washington Monument were laid down beside it, the ship would be a full 55 feet longer. Its superstructure above the water had no right angles, a design meant to make it fifty times less visible to radar¹⁷ than any ship before it, while below decks it had the sonar signature of a stealthy submarine. But that was not what made its exterior appear so formidable; it was, ironically, the lack of any apparent weaponry. The Zumwalt had a stripped-down exterior that seemed to conceal countless weapons of destruction.

But Simmons knew the ship was not as fierce as it looked.

Once envisioned as the vanguard of the twenty-first-century U.S. fleet, it had instead turned out to be an orphan that no one wanted. The DD(X)-class was conceived in the early 1990s. The design, meant to revolutionize naval warfare, included all sorts of innovations, from the signature box-cutter-blade wave-piercing tumblehome hull¹⁸ to an integrated power system¹⁹ that used a permanent magnetic motor to produce ten times the electric power of normal engines. Highly automated, a DD(X) was to be crewed by half as many sailors as a warship of similar size had needed a generation earlier. This game-changing new design would allow the ship to carry an arsenal of equally game-changing new weapons, most notably an electromagnetic rail gun that would shoot farther than any other gun in history. The U.S. Navy hoped the Zumwalt, the first of what was later renamed the DDG 1000 class, would be a historic vessel, like the USS Monitor, the first ironclad ship of the Civil War, or the HMS Dreadnought, the first true battleship. It was meant to break all the old rules of shipbuilding and so bring in a new era of war at sea.

That was the plan. By the time Jamie had gotten his master’s degree at the Naval War College, the story of the Z was taught as a case study in how not to build a ship. The design had had too many risky innovations bundled into one project, plus cutting-edge shipbuilding expertise had shifted from the United States to Asia by the end of the twentieth century, and a defense budget focused on fighting land wars in the Middle East couldn’t cover battleships that cost more than seven billion dollars each.²⁰ The Navy had planned to buy thirty-two copies of the Z. By 2008, it didn’t want any. Only the Zumwalt and two more ships were eventually approved, and then only due to the intercession of a powerful senator on the Appropriations Committee who threatened to filibuster all other Navy contracts unless the project was completed. It wasn’t about saving the ship itself; mainly, she was trying to keep a shipyard in her district from going out of business.

The actual ship that came out of the yard was revolutionary, to be sure, but it suffered from all the kinks that come with anything that is the first of its kind. It was unsteady at sea; the systems were faulty; the propulsion system was prone to random stoppages and didn’t deliver enough juice. The hull design leaked water at poorly fitting seams. And because so few of the new ships of the line were actually built, the revolutionary new weapons that were to arm the Z were never put onboard.

When the defense budget was slashed in the fiscal crisis after Dhahran, the admirals were delighted to send the Z to early retirement in the Ghost Fleet. One of the two sister ships that were still under construction was gutted and turned into a floating engineering site for a technical college in Newport News, Virginia; the other was used to test a new generation of shipboard firefighting robots.

“Sir, crew, USS Zumwalt, all present and accounted for.”

Simmons made his way slowly down the lines of sailors and civilian technicians assembled for his inspection. He offered each sailor a confident greeting, a reassuring smile. Behind him trailed his executive officer, Horatio Cortez, who followed with careful steps, still occasionally catching his new prosthetic left leg and left arm on the hatch edges.

“XO, how we doing?” asked Simmons as they walked.

“We’re making progress on the systems rip-out and rewiring, but doing it at the same time as we’re trying to install new uncorrupted and untested hardware just gets harder and harder,” said Cortez. Now belatedly obsessed with hardware attacks, the Navy had ordered the Zumwalt to have any suspect prewar systems removed and destroyed. That the Z and the other ships in the Ghost Fleet had not received the past few years of upgrades had suddenly become one of their strengths. “It’s all about making the old and new gear blend together.”

Then Simmons stopped abruptly and turned sharply to stand face to face with a man his own height. All along the formation, sailors leaned slightly forward to see what the holdup was.

“Cortez?” said Simmons, turning back to his XO and trying to mask his evident anger.

“Sir?” said Cortez.

“Didn’t you look at the crew roster?” asked Simmons.

“Yes, sir. They used a NAVSEA selection algorithm²¹ based on a mix of qualifications and experience,” said Cortez. He looked from the captain to the old sailor in front of him. The viz glasses flickered with a glimmer of pink and blue. Through his glasses, Cortez could access the Navy records system with a secure version of Google’s People­View software. It meant never forgetting a name, but he didn’t need the program when he looked from one face to the other. Cortez started to smile and then hid the grin behind his artificial hand as he feigned clearing his throat. The Navy’s algorithm had seen fit to assign Chief Petty Officer Michael Simmons to the ship his son commanded.

 

Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

With a dirty hand, the woman opened the plastic sandwich bag. The blue and green dinosaurs that decorated it gave her a shiver of discomfort. Her fingers muddied the small garage clicker she pulled out. She tried to wipe it off on her black T-shirt, but the fabric was so grimy with sweat and earth that she only smeared the mud around.

Stop. It doesn’t matter if it’s clean, she told herself. The batteries were good to go. That was what mattered.

She nodded at the prone man beside her, the signal to start filming with the GoPro camera he’d mounted on his rifle.

She held her breath and moved her thumb over the Open button.

Exhale.

“May all our enemies die screaming,” she said. It was a line taken from a show she used to watch, and it seemed apt today.

Send.

A hundred yards away, four IEDs detonated²² in sequence, starting at the front of the convoy and moving toward the rear. The Wolf armored personnel vehicle in the lead tipped over in flames. The next three trucks in the convoy disappeared in a phosphorous bloom. The fourth truck was untouched, its driver ducking down below the dashboard.

Major Carolyne “Conan” Doyle of the U.S. Marine Corps put the garage-door opener back in the plastic sandwich bag and shoved it into the cargo pocket on her pants. Nothing could go to waste in this kind of war.

It was all so different from any of the combat she had seen in Yemen from the pilot’s seat of an MV-22K Osprey gunship. Here everything itched, everything rusted, and everything had to be scavenged. There was no just-in-time delivery of whatever ammunition or spare part you needed. And instead of government-issue combat footwear, they fought in sandals and running shoes, the group being made up of a few escapees from the captured bases and those who’d been lucky enough to be on leave the day of the attack.

Between the dirty civilian clothes and the tactical playbook they were cribbing from, the insurgents quickly realized they were becoming the very bastards they’d spent most their professional military careers fighting. That’s where their name had come from, the North Shore Mujahideen, or NSM, as they spray-painted it when they were in a rush. It was the darkest of jokes, born not out of admiration or even respect—they’d lost too many friends in the Sandbox for anything like that—but because the goal was the same: to become what the other side loathed, the danger that waited around every corner, the nightmare that just wouldn’t go away, the opponent who wouldn’t play by the rules.

Doyle raised her left arm and waved the trucks forward. Two quick shots came from Conan’s right. Finn, a retired Navy comms specialist who’d spent his time in a forward operation base in Marjah Province, Afghanistan, on an individual-augmentee deployment, shot at the passenger-side window in the undamaged truck’s cab with his M4 carbine. The thick bulletproof glass held but cracked and spider-webbed from the bullets’ impact.

Nicks, an army military police staff sergeant with the Twenty-Fifth ID who had made her bones on detainee operations in Iraq and Syria, sprinted up to the truck, jumped on the running board, and repeatedly smashed at the cracked glass with the butt of her rifle, finally punching a small hole. She pressed a flash-bang grenade²³ into the cab and jumped back down. It detonated with a flash of light equivalent to a million candles and a deafening 180-decibel bang. They’d lifted a box of the grenades, used by SWAT teams for storming rooms, from an abandoned police station. The flash-bangs were technically considered nonlethal weapons since they stunned and dazed targets but didn’t actually hurt them. That is, unless they were used in an enclosed space the size of a truck cab.

Nicks jumped back up, stuck her rifle barrel through the hole in the window, prodded one of the bodies, and then fired a single round.

“Clear!” Nicks yelled, louder than she thought because she still had the earplugs in.

“Anything?” Finn whispered to Conan, now rummaging around in the back of the truck.

“Not yet; still looking,” said Conan.

Finn checked his watch. They had maybe two minutes until the drones arrived. This was a new route for an ambush, so they might get a little extra time. Given the way the convoy ran unprotected, it seemed like the Directorate forces had not expected to get hit. Or it was a trap to lure them in and they were wasting valuable seconds before the counter-ambush force arrived.

“I’ll get the bikes,” said Nicks, disappearing into the forest. “We need to go.”

Conan appeared from the back of the truck holding up two shoebox-size metal containers.

“All blues?” said Finn.

“I think so,” said Conan. “Might be some greens and reds too.”

“At this point, I’ll take anything,” said Finn.

Nicks emerged from the woods wheeling a pair of mountain bikes draped in thick wool blankets mottled with stains. Sweat dripped off her nose.

“What are we waiting for?” asked Nicks.

“Nothing; let’s move,” said Conan. “Anything in the other trucks?”

“Got a few dozen mags, some nanoplex bricks, some protein bars,” said Finn.

“It’ll do. This was really about the footage,” said Conan. The NSM moved constantly, by bike when they could and on foot when they had to. There was no time for a full night of rest or a solid meal. But all that they really needed was in the metal boxes from the back of the truck.

“Playtime’s over, children!” shouted Conan. “Back to school!”

 

Fourth Floor, B Ring, Pentagon

 

As an aviator, Commander Bill “Sweetie” Darling had spent his career chasing the horizon. But it wasn’t until his assignment to the Navy staff offices at the Pentagon that he realized he’d been taking the sky for granted. It had been two weeks since he had seen the sun.

In truth, he had almost seen it once. A week back, a construction detour had forced him to walk across the Pentagon’s inner courtyard. It was daytime, and he knew the sun was somewhere up there, hidden behind the finely woven anti-exploitation netting that covered the whole building now, making it look like it was wrapped in a silk cocoon. Christo City was the nickname going around, a play on the name of the nearby military-industrial complex of office buildings known as Crystal City and the renowned artists²⁴ who used to wrap monuments in fabric.

But even if Darling’s work was unrelenting, he still had to eat. Maybe it was the pilot in him, but he was damned if he was going to let some drone get him his food. You have to draw the line somewhere, he thought as a train of iRobot Majordomos²⁵ purred by carrying their honeycomb-like storage containers filled with wraps and sandwiches.

He found Jimmie Links waiting next to a vending machine in front of the entrance to the new Naval Intelligence office. The two men had known each other since the Naval Academy, but their careers had taken very different turns. Though neither of them enjoyed being assigned to the Pentagon, they could commiserate within a few minutes’ walk of each other.

“Darling, you shouldn’t have waited,” said Links, trying to sound like a housewife in an old commercial.

“Original,” said Darling.

“Tough crowd today,” said Links. “Let’s get going. I’m about sixty seconds from humping the vending machine.”

Darling peered through the finger-smudged glass of the machine and sighed.

“Maybe that Snickers bar and two of those mango squeezes, then you might have the ingredients for a pretty good time,” said Darling.

“I knew you flyboys liked it kinky,” said Links.

They set off, but Links stopped after only a few paces. “Shit, I forgot my wallet.”

“Go get it, I’m not buying,” said Darling.

“Come with me, you can check out the new DIA analyst, the one I was telling you about,” said Links.

“You didn’t invite her?” said Darling.

“I have to work with her, so better to watch you crash and burn,” said Links.

He led them into his office, first going through a retina scan, then swiping his access card, and finally punching in a number code. After they entered the secure cell, the door locked behind them with a magnetic click.

They passed through an inner door of frosted glass with the words Non-Acoustic Anti-Submarine Warfare stenciled across it. Fresh drywall dust covered the door handle.

Links led Darling into his cubicle, a drab, sterile space. The only decorations were a 3-D topographical map of Oahu and, hanging from a thumbtack, a lipstick-smudged Chinese air-pollution-filter mask.

“So this is where the magic happens?” Darling asked dryly.

“There’s damn little magic happening here, I’m afraid,” said Links soberly. “We still don’t have much of a clue how they’re tagging our subs.” The opening missile strikes that had hit the Pacific carriers had been a shock to the fleet, but the way the enemy had found and destroyed the Navy’s submarines was a more disturbing mystery. The U.S. intelligence community had known the Chinese were catching up in surface-ship construction, but they believed that, under the sea, the U.S. had an asymmetric advantage. Ever since the Cold War, if an American sub didn’t want to be found, you couldn’t find it. But somehow the other side had figured out how to make the ocean transparent and thus deadly to the sub fleet that was supposed to give the U.S. its overwhelming edge.

Darling sat down and, picking up on Links’s sober mood, said quietly, “Tell me more.”

“I don’t even know where to begin,” said Links. “I keep thinking of what this lecturer once told us, back in training. He was old-guard CIA, had done Afghanistan both times, during the Cold War and then again after 9/11. He compared the intelligence task to solving a jigsaw puzzle, except that you didn’t get the box cover, so you didn’t know what the final picture was. And you got only a few pieces at a time, not all of them. And even worse, you always got a bunch of pieces from some other puzzle thrown in.”

“Start with the detection, and then the targeting,” Darling suggested.

“We spend all our time looking backward, trying to understand how,” said Links. “One argument is that the Directorate is using its own subs to shadow ours. And we just keep failing to detect them somehow.”

Darling stiffened in his chair as he recalled losing the John Warner to a Chinese ballistic missile.

“No way,” he said. “The Directorate sub we were following was too far away from the Warner to be able to get any kind of pinpoint tracking. And there were no transmission traces. If their sub had communicated the Warner’s position back to Hainan, we would have caught it. Besides, that sub was too busy running from us to do anything. About the time the Stonefish were firing, it was sinking. We got it, that’s one thing I am certain of.”

“Could they have used your comms to track the Warner, maybe even gotten into ATHENA?” asked Links. “Did you pick up anything like that?”

“Nope, nothing. Have you thought about big-data collection from environmental sensors, like how those fishermen kept detecting our Trident missile subs off Bangor a few years back? Or what about space-based underwater detection?²⁶ Tracking the IR or even something like the Bernoulli effect, from the water distortion?” said Darling. “Maybe a Ouija board?”

“We’ve run them all down. The environmental sensor one is out, as you have to seed the area beforehand. There’s no trace of that, plus the Chinese are picking up our sub traffic everywhere, no matter where we go. The Oregon paid the price for us testing that theory off the Aleutians. Space-based detection is the working theory, but no one knows how the Chinese could manage that either. NAASW is looking at synthetic aperture radar as an option for undersea detection,” said Links. “During the Cold War, there were some attempts to make that work in tracking Soviet boomers, but nothing stuck. More important, they can’t cover an ocean area without broadcasting enough energy down from space that we’d pick it up.”

“How about the other way around?” Darling suggested. “How about magnetic detection of the sub’s hulls? That’s the working theory at the analysis section we have set up down at the B-ring urinal.”

“No, that’s another Cold War tech that was tried and failed,” said Links. “It just doesn’t work from space. There’s too much backscatter to pull out anything metallic at that range. They’d be plinking pretty much every piece of metal on the sea floor with Stonefish warheads. Plus, you also have the mystery of how they were able to track the subs and the carriers but couldn’t pinpoint the escort ships,” said Links.

“Maybe the escorts weren’t worth the trouble? Maybe the Chinese didn’t have enough missiles?” said Darling.

“No way. You think they’d try to save a few bucks if they could take out all of our Aegis ships too?” said Links.

“So if that’s the case, it’s something that’s letting them track the nukes,” said Darling.

“Yep, which puts us back at, as we call it in the intelligence community, square one,” said Links.

“So the real question is, what’s so special about a nuclear reactor?” said Darling. “If you want to find one from really far away, you have to be able to collect whatever it emits. But, shit, at range it’s never going to emit anything more than low-level Cherenkov rays.”²⁷

“What did you say?” Links asked with a catch in his voice.

“Cherenkov rays,” said Darling. “Did you sleep through the nuclear physics class at the Naval Academy? It’s what gives nuclear reactors their blue glow, something about charged particles passing through the medium that surrounds the nuclear reaction at different speeds than light. Some Russian named Cherenkov discovered them like a hundred years ago. He won the Nobel Prize for it.”

“Star Trek. You bastard,” whispered Links to himself. He tossed his wallet onto the desk with a shaking hand. “Lunch is on me. I’ve got to run, got an idea.”

“Whatever, man. Your DIA analyst better be worth it.” Darling picked up the wallet and was just beginning to stand when he heard the security door shut with a heavy thud.

 

Moana Surfrider Hotel, Waikiki Beach, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Ms. Shin, please, over here,” said the voice box, translating the guard’s Chinese into English. The guard was male, but the device had been set to speak in a digitized voice that matched the gender of the person being spoken to. Carrie wasn’t sure if it was a joke or if some Directorate scientist had concluded that if a woman heard a female voice coming out of a burly, armed male Directorate marine, she would somehow find it more reassuring than a male’s voice.

“Okay, okay,” Carrie said. She put her arms out and threw her head back, cruciform-style, her long hair reaching to her waist.

“We have selected you for extra assurance measures,” the marine said. He stood at about her height but had around twice her mass in muscle. The telltale acne and thick neck showed how he had gotten so big. So many of their marines had that look.

“Do you understand?” said the voice box.

“Yep,” said Carrie.

“The Directorate appreciates your compliance,” said the device. That was the latest phrase the voice boxes were spitting out. She couldn’t tell if it was what the guard had actually said or if it was just a stock phrase from an automated setting.

The chem swabs tickled when they ran down her arms and legs. It felt like a spider exploring her.

“I am complete,” said the voice box.

She opened her eyes. The swab had not turned red, as it would have if it had detected explosives. Instead, it was a light brown. The guard looked quizzically at the swab, unsure of what the earthy substance was.

“It’s okay,” said Carrie. “It’s makeup, from my arm. I cut myself cooking.” She ran her fingers across her cheeks as if putting on foundation and flashed a smile.

The voice box translated for the marine, who nodded, paused, and then muttered a phrase she could barely hear.

“Thank you for your compliance,” the box said. By this time the marine was looking to the next person in line.

She walked away slowly, calming herself, unconsciously rubbing the thin scabs on her arm. At least this check hadn’t been as bad as the checkpoint at the bus station; there, the guard made her bend over and speak directly into the voice box on his belt. She caught a glimpse of Waikiki Beach across the street and for a moment she found herself thinking of her fiancé, the sunset walk on his birthday. The wind had been up that night.

The grind of rubber wheels on asphalt behind her snapped her out of the memory, and she leaped to the right, onto the sidewalk. The hybrid-electric Wolf armored personnel carrier glided quietly by as the Directorate marine manning the machine gun on the roof offered a timid wave.

Adrenaline pumping, she strode purposefully through the four columns of the hotel’s grand entrance and shivered despite the heat and humidity.

Before the war, she’d had to use the staff entrance. The gleaming white hotel had been built just three years after the American annexation in 1898 on land originally owned by the Hawaiian royal family, so having both the guests and the staff use the main entrance was part of some Directorate propaganda about how the Chinese forces were there for similar reasons, to ensure security, but they, unlike the Americans, would show respect for the “true” citizens of Hawaii. The Directorate was real big on who had been on what island first. But whether you were native, hapa (of mixed ethnicity), or from the mainland, you still had to go through the screening checkpoint out on the street.

Inside the hardwood-floored lobby, Chinese soldiers, sailors, and marines, along with a few civilians, lounged about, drinking and chatting. Just as it was back in World War II, the old hotel had been converted into a hub for shore leave. She passed through the lobby and went out to the back porch. From her perch at the sports-equipment-rental desk, she couldn’t see the ocean, but she could hear it. That counted for a lot.

“That was amazing,” a man’s voice said, taking her out of her thoughts. He spoke English without one of the translator devices. “What a beautiful sport it must be for those who are truly skilled.”

He set a still-wet longboard against the wall. There was a brief pause as he stepped back to make sure it would not topple over.

“It’s a lot to expect for anyone to pick up in just an hour,” said Carrie. “I bet you did great.”

“I spent most of my time swimming next to the board, not riding it,” said the officer. He was clearly fit, washboard abs, but not bulked out by chems like so many of them. His hair was cropped short, but in a stylish manner. She guessed it had been done professionally rather than in the military assembly line.

“The sport of kings is not for everyone,” she said, offering a wink. “I know we’re not supposed to ask questions of the guests, but where’d you pick up English? Yours is excellent.”

“UCLA, where else?” he said, raising two fingers in the sign that went along with the UCLA alma mater song.²⁸

“Go Bruins,” she said, smiling slightly.

“Listen, I could really use a lesson,” the officer said. “Sorry, I should introduce myself. My name is Feng Wu. My friends in LA called me Frank.”

Carrie looked down at her tablet.

“I can set you up with one of the hotel instructors, no problem. They’re great. Several of them were pros before all this,” said Carrie.

Frank leaned closer, dripping seawater on the counter. He smiled, showing perfect white teeth.

“You’re a great teacher, I bet,” he said.

“Well, I’m not that good . . .” she countered.

“I can pay you, or give you an extra ration card if you want, or whatever else.”

Carrie pressed lightly on the scab on her arm.

“There’s no need for that. Helping out is part of our job, actually,” she said. “Any of us can offer the guests our services. I just thought you would want someone more experienced.”

“When should we meet?” he said.

“Monday night is when the outgoing tide’s supposed to be best,” Carrie said. She tilted her head slightly, giving him a glimpse of her neck.

“That’s a long time to wait! How about tomorrow night?” he said.

She smiled back, looking him in the eye.

It wasn’t just her beauty that made her gaze so striking; it was that she was the first local to look at him directly since he’d arrived in Hawaii. All the others tried to avoid eye contact, some mix of shame and fear. She didn’t have that; instead, she was just—what, normal? More like the American girls he remembered fondly from before all this.

“If you are going to be my student, you have to learn to trust me. We’ll meet next Monday. The moon will be full, and so amazing,” she said. “I know just the place; it’s quiet and there’s not a better break on this side of the island.”

“It is a date, then,” said Frank.

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

From the water right now, Jamie Simmons thought the Zumwalt looked less like floating death and more like one of those ramshackle floating tidal towns off what used to be Indonesia, people weaving sheets of metal, plastic, and wood into improbable geometries to create homes.

What Vice Admiral Evangeline Murray thought of the Z, Simmons could not tell. She’d hardly spoken to him during her waterside tour of the ship. But her eyes didn’t stop moving. She was coming to understand the ship, Simmons felt, in a way he’d never bothered to. At one point, she had the launch brought up alongside the hull, and she put her hands on the ship like a healer and closed her eyes. What she heard or saw, he did not know. What he did know was that she had a status within the Navy that was unmatched. She’d been the first woman to command an aircraft carrier strike group before the war. More important, she’d been fortunate enough to be serving as president of the Naval War College²⁹ when the shooting started, meaning she’d escaped both the Stonefish missiles and the congressional inquiries that had decimated the senior ranks.³⁰

She signaled for the launch to return to the pier.

“Captain, before we go aboard, I want to say that it is an honor to meet you,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of heroes in this country right now to inspire us. Your leadership and experience are invaluable and I just want you to know that if this ship does not work out, I will personally ensure that your talent is not wasted.”

“Thank you, Admiral,” said Simmons.

“In fact, they tell me we could use someone like you right now in Washington, perhaps more than out here,” said Admiral Murray. “You survived when nobody else did; that has a huge value to the war effort.”

Simmons did not blink; he kept his eyes locked on hers. Was she evaluating him too, not just the ship? This was one of those moments with a black-or-white outcome: Lindsey or the sea. Safety or duty.

“You’re right, ma’am. I don’t belong here,” said Simmons.

She nodded and furrowed her brow.

Simmons pointed toward the Golden Gate Bridge. “Admiral, this ship, or any ship we have, has to be out there at sea, where the fight is,” he said. “That’s where we belong.”

He said it instinctively, then paused to question whether he was voicing his father’s opinions or his own.

An elfin smile revealed the admiral’s yellowed teeth; unusual, because most people had had theirs whitened or replaced by her age. “That is for damn sure,” said Admiral Murray. “Now why don’t you introduce me to the crew.”

They didn’t pipe the admiral aboard, as she preferred not to disturb the work at hand.

“One thing that impresses me is all the camouflage here,” said Admiral Murray as they walked the deck.

“It might look like camouflage, but the reality is that all the scaffolding and tarps are really necessary. We ended up having to do a top-to-bottom overhaul here,” said Simmons.

As they approached a knot of crewmen—some in their teens, others decades older—clambering over a scaffold, the admiral said, “Tell me about the crew. How is the new mix going?”

“The mix of generations has its strengths and weaknesses. We have the remnants of the pre–Zero Day fleet. I was given my choice of the best of my old crew, which I understand I have you to thank for. Then there are the draftees, some of whom have never seen the real ocean, let alone been out on it,” said Simmons. “But what they do know are computers; they’ve been with viz in one form or another since birth. They see problems differently than regular sailors, even sailors who were in the Navy when the war started.”

Simmons pointed to a pair of teenagers with facial tattoos that were partially obscured by their brushed-titanium Apple glasses. The kids were having a conversation with one of the Mentor Crew.

“And then, Admiral, there are our most experienced sailors, the Mentors, many of whom joined the Navy before the First Gulf War,” said Simmons. “With the sense of history the younger sailors have, they might as well have been on Noah’s crew for all that means to them.”

“This is going to take some adjusting for all of us,” Admiral Murray observed, “and I don’t mean just those in the Navy. It’s the same everywhere now. People who wouldn’t have had a thing to do with each other a few months ago now have no choice but to join together, whether they’re growing food in a condo’s victory garden or working in the same shipyard. Bottom line, are the Mentors working out? We’ve had some conflicting reports from the other ships.”

“On the Zumwalt, they prefer to be called the Old Farts. I had my doubts, ma’am, but the older guys drive everyone hard. More important, they know the old tech and its secrets better than anyone else.”

Simmons led her farther astern.

“You can’t separate the people and the technology, really. But it’s not just about the old gear. What we’ve done in upgrading the ship’s wireless nets will help us run the ATHENA replacement but also give us some more protection against network attack.”

“Local networking is going to be essential; focus on that,” she said.

“These are the vertical launch cells³¹ for the cruise missiles,” said Simmons, continuing the tour.

“Magazine capacity?” asked Admiral Murray.

“We’re at eighty now,” said Simmons. “But we have to reevaluate what that means while the Office of Naval Research is figuring out a new targeting system. Without GPS, they aren’t going to pack the punch we need. To have any kind of effect, we’d have to give up the magazine-allotment space for the air-defense missiles.”

Admiral Murray leaned forward. “We’ve been working on a GPS replacement for years, but it’s the same story—it just isn’t panning out,” she said. “It’s now or never, but if it’s not ready in time, then you’ve got the right approach. Make up for lost accuracy with volume of fire. Use the space for anything that has a strike capability. We need to bring as much fire as we can.”

They ducked beneath a tarp and stood before a slate-gray box with a honeycombed face. Known as the Metal Storm,³² it was a kind of electronic machine gun. But instead of dropping bullets in individual rounds to be fired out of a single barrel, one after another, here, bullets were stacked nose to tail inside the multiple barrels that honeycombed the device. Sparked by an electronic ignition, the rounds would fire off all at once, like a Roman candle.

“For close-in defense, we’ve rigged the Metal Storm as well as the pair of laser turrets just above the bridge,” said Simmons. “Directed energy should do for single targets, while the Metal Storm can throw up a literal wall of bullets, thirty-six thousand rounds fired in a single burst.” He patted the box softly. “Some of the kids have also been playing with the software to speed up reaction times.”

“Make sure you get that code to the fleet—we need to keep pushing the development,” she said.

“The question is how effective it will be, and then how much of the air-defense missiles we can unload,” Simmons said. “The simulation models give us a pretty wide mix of possible outcomes.”

“Perhaps I wasn’t clear,” said Admiral Murray. “I understand why you want to have both options when it comes to balancing this ship’s strike capability with its defense systems. But it’s a zero-sum game for what I need. I need Zumwalt to think of itself as a battleship if we’re going to use it.”

“Admiral, this is not a battleship, at least not in the old way people thought of them,” said Simmons, consciously steadying his voice. She was testing him again. “A battleship counted on the sheer throw weight of what it could fire, but also on its own weight. Sixteen-inch guns, but also sixteen-inch armor plating. Big enough to hit hard, but also to be hit hard. We’re not that. Yes, the Z is the biggest surface combatant in the fleet, but it can’t take those kinds of hits. We have to punch first, and kill at a distance.”

“Exactly,” she replied. Test passed. “Then show me how you’re going to do that.”

They walked forward to where the ship’s original 155 mm gun turrets had been. In their place, workers were welding the fittings on what looked more like an angled tractor-trailer than the usual sleek gun mounting of a warship. Painted on the side was the program’s official motto: Speed Kills.

“This is the old prototype from the Dahlgren facility?”³³ asked Admiral Murray.

“The very same. Some of the bits and pieces got lost after they shut down the program when the Z class got retired early, but it’s most of the original. Shipped over by rail from Virginia.”

“This is why you’re here, Captain. A working electromagnetic rail gun will be a game-changer for the fleet; maybe for the entire war,” she said.

The rail gun represented a break point,³⁴ a shift away from over eight hundred years of ballistic science. Instead of using the chemistry of gunpowder to shoot a metal object out of a long barrel, the rail gun used energy that came from electromagnetic forces. A powerful current ran through two oppositely charged rails on either side of the barrel. When a conductive projectile was inserted between the rails (at the end connected to the power supply), it completed the circuit. Just as the gases expelled by exploding gunpowder propelled a bullet out of a conventional gun, the magnetic field inside the loop created a burst of incredible power, called a Lorentz force,³⁵ that slung projectiles out of the open end of the gun barrel. There were no fuses to light, but the rail gun did require a massive and reliable supply of electrical current. Without electricity, a ship with a rail gun would be like a nineteenth-century ship of the line with a waterlogged powder magazine.

“We sure could’ve used it at Pearl,” he said, thinking of the popgun they’d had on the Coronado.

“I can imagine. But I don’t plan on anyone ever being stuck in a kill box like that again. What do you anticipate the rail gun’s effect will be on fleet action?” Another test. Still the college president at heart.

“It gives us speed and range, ma’am. It slings out a shell with a velocity of more than eighty-two hundred feet per second, allowing us to strike targets out to a hundred and eighty miles. It’s a double gain. Faster than any missile and impossible to jam or shoot down.”

She nodded, but she seemed to be waiting for more.

“But more important will be their effect. The shells are small, but with that kind of speed they’ll hit with a force equaled only by the old Iowa-class battleships’ cannon shells, and those were the size of cars. It also solves the capacity and targeting problem we have with the long-range strike missiles. Even without a precise GPS location, we can lay down a pattern of fire that saturates a target set. That’s where the similarity with the old battleships holds best.”

“The Hand of God is what they called it during development,” said Admiral Murray. “I was a junior officer working on the Navy staff in the Pentagon back then, N-9 Warfare Systems. I remember the rail-gun program; officers had it all over their PowerPoint briefs when they came in. It was a cool name, but it didn’t stop us from slashing their budget when the cuts came. How are you dealing with the thermal and power management issues that bugged it then? You can’t exactly replace a melted barrel in the middle of an engagement.”

“There’s two ways to deal with the heat. This is actually not the original barrel they had problems with back then. It uses a nanostructure that dissipates the heat. Of course, we still have to be careful, but we can fire in what we call a surge strike. The power management is more complicated, and, frankly, Admiral, that’s my concern. The rail gun requires the power equivalent of a small city. This ship was supposed to be designed with that in mind, but you know how they overpromised and underdelivered.”

No other surface ship besides the Zumwalt had a power system that could generate and, more important, store the tremendous amounts of electricity required for the electromagnetic push that was the essence of the rail gun’s design. This was why the Navy had lost its original excitement over the rail-gun program once the Zumwalt class had ended. Even with a design tailored for the new weapon, the Navy’s models projected that each firing of the rail gun would require stealing energy from other systems onboard, including the ship’s propulsion.

“We are all too aware of that problem with the old defense-industrial complex,” she said. “So what are you doing about it?”

“We’re approaching it through both tactics and reengineering,” said Simmons, trying to shift his tone so that she wouldn’t think he was making excuses. “Tactically, the plan is to use the power drain to our advantage, so to speak, by building drift into the anti-detection protocols. The key is not to get boxed in again, as you put it, but to disappear in the expanse of the ocean. On the reengineering side, we’re getting good results from the new energy-dense liquid-based battery being built for the ship. It’s giving us added power beyond what the original design in the nineties envisioned. We’ve been assigned a specialist in liquid-based batteries, a woman from the University of Wisconsin. Frankly, there’s a lot riding on her expertise.”

He paused to look directly at her.

“But the answer, Admiral, is that the rail gun is power hungry. My concern is that if things do not go according to plan, we will be stuck with only bad options.”

“Captain,” she said, stressing his rank. “That’s the thing you learn as you move from an executive-officer role to that of command. It’s never about choosing the best option; it’s about choosing the least bad of the bad options.”

She paused to let her lesson sink in. Simmons thought about that day at Pearl Harbor and how she hadn’t needed to pass on that particular nugget of wisdom.

“Captain, I believe in you. And I believe in what this bastard child of a ship might accomplish. Risks that were once unacceptable to us are now the price of doing business.” Her eyes grew dark, and Simmons saw the warrior side come out of the old war-college president. “I need you to get this ship ready, because I need you to kill things out there, as many as you can, as fast as you can. I need the Directorate to feel something new: fear. You will make them feel that fear, Captain. Understood?”

 

Subbasement Level, G Ring, Pentagon

 

The door to the small conference room shut with a soft sigh and everyone in the room felt the pressure change. The naval officers there pinched their noses and exhaled to clear their ears, while the civilian scientists kept trying to swallow.

This secure space was a new design, built to defeat Directorate’s eavesdropping and network attack. The original Tank,³⁶ the Joint Chiefs’ situation room, had been thought completely secure right up until the moment it was discovered that it had been compromised by hardware bought by a U.S. defense contractor on the cheap from a Florida subcontractor³⁷ that turned out to be a shell company run by two college kids who were just reselling chips from a Chinese vendor. Everyone called these new chambers the Box, though the design was actually a box within a box. Between the two nanoparticle-infused sets of walls was a fluid that circulated at high speed in order to diffuse any signals or transmissions going in or out. Rumor had it the fluid was radioactive.

“Okay, then, let’s dispense with the formalities; none of us want to sit in the Box any longer than we have to,” said Admiral Raj Putnam, head of Naval Intelligence.

Links, sitting next to Darling, took his cue. “It starts in Beijing, sir. I was finishing up my assignment to the embassy—I was actually at my going-away party on my last night there. There was a Russian officer, a lifer in Beijing, whom I’d gotten to know, and he was helpful to me from time to time.”

“You mean you got shitfaced with him a few times and he was running you?” said Admiral Putnam.

“No, sir, I know the game,” said Links. “I’m not chipped, but you can check my viz and other records. That ties back to the party. As you know, everyone is either chipped or recording with derm mikes or viz or what have you. So I assumed there was no way he would say anything interesting.”

“Yes, I’ve reviewed the viz from the party myself,” said Admiral Putnam. “He didn’t.”

Links shot a look of disbelief at Darling. In the moment of silence, the womblike sound of the fluid pumping around the room seemed to intensify. Then Links cleared his throat and continued.

“It’s the context that makes our conversation interesting. As you saw, we were talking about Star Trek, the old television and film series. I’d talked about a lot of things with Sechin, but never science fiction. Usually he just gave me gossip on the Directorate’s internal politics or upcoming promotions, that kind of thing. So this stuck in my mind,” said Links. “Sechin explained how proud he was that one of the characters, Chekov, was named after this Russian scientist, Pavel Cherenkov. Honestly, Admiral, I figured he was just drunk. Then yesterday, after hearing about what happened to the USS John Warner, it clicked.”

Links wondered how old the admiral was. He wore his gray hair shaved to the skull, like most of the population of the Pentagon, some kind of show of commitment to the war effort. The admiral had smooth, unblemished skin but a nose like a moon rock. He might be old enough to have watched the first wave of Star Trek movies.

“So how does his sci-fi drinking tales square with what you saw?” said Admiral Putnam to Darling.

“I believe it relates to how they targeted our undersea assets,” said Darling. “There were no Directorate submarines or surface ships in our area of operations other than the target we engaged. Nor were there any aircraft. We owned that box. Or so we thought.”

Darling chewed his bottom lip in evident frustration. “To answer your question, though, we need to give some context, which Dr. Shaw from NASA is best situated to provide.”

He turned to the man seated at his left. Shaw did not look the part of a scientist, being tall and wiry with a swimmer’s broad shoulders. He also wore an expensive suit, flashy, in the 1930s-style now back in fashion. And to cap it, he had his slender, rose-tinted viz glasses perched on his head, almost like a tiara. The intended effect, whatever it was, was lost on the admiral.

Shaw stood and began to speak as a video projection appeared behind him. The content failed to match the vibe he gave off.

“When a photon exits a vacuum and enters a dielectric medium at a speed greater than the phase velocity of light, a wonderful result occurs, which proved to be key to science’s understanding of everything from the nature of black holes to the stars. Let us begin with the mathematical foundations.”

As Shaw scribbled out an equation that was projected on the wall of the Box, Admiral Putnam turned to the two officers and said, “Gentlemen, I don’t have time for a dissertation defense; we have a war to win. How does this link to Cherenkov and the subs?”

“He’s coming to it, sir,” Links responded. “Dr. Shaw, perhaps the metaphor you used to explain this to us might be more helpful now than the math.”

“Ah yes,” said Dr. Shaw. “You are familiar with what happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier by traveling faster than the speed of sound: A sonic boom³⁸ trails behind it. Cherenkov radiation is that, in a sense, playing out at the electron level. What we know as light speed is possible only in a vacuum. When light travels through different mediums, such as water, it is slowed down by the matter in those mediums. Thus, it is possible for charged particles to travel faster than light through those surroundings. These particles, however, are still interacting with the same medium, exciting the molecules in it to release photons that pile up behind. Thus, the boom is a sort of cone traveling behind the subatomic particles. In nuclear reactors, which I understand you are interested in, the particles move away at higher speeds than light does, giving the wonderful blue glow you might be familiar with. That is Cherenkov radiation.”

Links jumped back in, knowing he was going to lose his audience if he didn’t intervene. “And, sir, that may be connected to another mystery. In the antisubmarine group, we’ve been focusing on the Directorate offensive at Pearl Harbor and then out at sea. But the attack, of course, began in space. And when you speak with our DIA colleagues about that, they’ll tell you that one target didn’t make sense, a particular NASA research satellite. We’d assumed that the Directorate had gotten their intel wrong and thought it was a clandestine spy satellite. That’s why Dr. Shaw is here. Doctor, could you tell the admiral what your project at NASA focused on?”

“It was originally designed to collect Cherenkov radiation for research into the origin of black holes. But because NASA wanted to show Congress ‘tangible results’”—Shaw put that phrase in air quotes, as if to show his disdain for applied research—“it was also used to study nuclear power plants and the real and potential dispersion of radiation after events like the Fukushima and Maine Yankee incidents.”

Darling cut in. “So, sir, I ran down the old Pentagon budget funding for R and D programs and found that back in the twentieth century, the Office of Naval Research did some studies that showed that tracking a reactor via the Cherenkov radiation it emitted was theoretically possible. But the subject was never really explored. It wasn’t just that the project had a low likelihood of success; it was that even if it worked, there wouldn’t be much of a payoff for us. Our entire sub fleet was nuclear, while the Russian and Chinese subs that were the most problematic for us were the quiet, diesel-driven ones. There were no incentives for investing in that kind of research. ONR assumed that no one other than us was advanced enough to do it, and strategists worried that if we made the effort, well, the research might get out, and we would just be doing the other side a favor.”

Links jumped back in. “We have to conclude that they made a breakthrough and discovered how to track the Cherenkov radiation, which allowed them to de-stealth and target our submarines, as well as anything else powered by a nuclear reactor. And that solves both mysteries, the attacks at sea and the targeting of Dr. Shaw’s satellite. Because if you and the other side both had that ability, you would want to make sure the other guys lost it. You’d take it away from them, even if they hadn’t known they’d had it in the first place.”

The admiral didn’t respond for a full ten seconds. But his jaw clenched and a single bead of sweat formed at his temple. Then his words poured out in the quick cadence of someone who cannot quite believe what he is saying and so wants to get it out as fast as possible.

“This theory sounds like an improbable mix of drunken gossip and answers looking for questions. Which means it’s probably correct. And if it is, we have a very, very serious problem.”

 

Ka’ena Point State Park Beach, North Shore, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Major Conan Doyle aimed for the break in the reef, navigating the standup paddleboard out through the mellow swell. The Boeing D-TAC microcomputer strapped to her forearm vibrated, indicating she was close to the rendezvous point. She’d been wearing the standard-issue black plastic device the morning of the invasion, part of the emergency kit used to communicate securely with downed pilots. Three days after the convoy raid, it had suddenly pulsed with an incoming message.

A quick scan of the stars overhead, the shore behind her, and the jet-black ocean farther out showed nothing.

Had she incorrectly decoded the message? She dropped to her stomach and used the paddle to hold the board against the current, feeling a sharp hunger pang as she lay prone. She should have taken a blue before she left, but she wanted to conserve them.

The microcomputer had directed her to this location. Earlier, Nicks had revealed that the group had it at four-to-one odds that it was a trap.

“That’s why God gave us grenades,” Conan replied.

And so here she was, exposed. “The real reason you want to go,” Nicks had said, “is so you can wash your clothes.” That was true. She’d paddled out barefoot but kept on the pants that she’d worn for two months straight.

A twitch beneath the surface caught her attention. Something had moved. Something big.

The innate animal sense of being near something bigger and more powerful chilled her immediately and blocked out her hunger pangs. It was like pounding a handful of stims. Doing that wasn’t her style, though. Everybody was different. Some people needed stims when they entered the breach. Others needed focus. Beta-blockers worked best for her, as she was naturally keyed up enough.

She held herself steady on the board, fighting to keep her legs from shaking. Another dark glimmer beneath the surface. A faint eddy whirled in front of her.

Even if she’d had a gun, she couldn’t have shot it. Directorate sensor balloons would vector a patrol to the area, and she’d be on the rack within an hour as Chinese and Russian interrogators cut her open and pumped her full of drugs. Combat medics had their golden hour³⁹ to save a life. The Directorate interrogators had their golden hour to exploit it. Or so she’d heard. It would be better to die here, alone in the jaws of a giant, than be rent into pieces, physically and mentally, by the opposition.

The water stirred maybe twenty feet from the board’s nose as the dark form closed in. This was it, then.

Doyle got to her knees and changed her grip on the paddle; now she wielded it like a sword. The irony, she thought, that Conan had no real blade when she needed it most.

A dark fin sliced the water’s surface. She raised the paddle over her head. At least, she thought, her last act as a Marine would be a violent one.

She brought the paddle down with all her might just as the wave glider’s tubelike hull broke the surface of the water. The paddle bounced off the hard black plastic, and Doyle fell off her board and into the sea. She found herself swimming alongside the manta-ray-shaped drone, running her hands over it to convince herself it was not a shark. These nearly undetectable vehicles⁴⁰ used almost no electricity. They relied on the ocean waves’ energy, rather than traditional engines, to drive them forward. Doyle’s D-TAC buzzed again to indicate that the wave glider had established a network connection with the microcomputer. A faint green message reported it had downloaded a series of files, and then another message told her what to do.

To open the cargo hatch, she first had to pull off a collection of trash hung on the vessel’s foils. The drone must have transited through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.⁴¹ Inside the vessel’s hold were two waterproof duffle bags. The way their camouflage pattern shifted to match the rippling ocean surface and then the paddleboard’s deck made it clear something important must be inside.

 

Presidium Boardroom, Directorate Headquarters, Shanghai

 

When Vice Admiral Wang Xiaoqian stepped through the holographic globe onto the raised podium in the center of the room, all conversation stopped.

There was no longer a need for his old classmate to introduce him. Most of the audience he had never met in person, but they all knew Admiral Wang’s face from the viz updates. The newscasters called him “the new Sun-Tzu,” the architect of the new victory who had been inspired by the wisdom of old. He knew it was not a true assessment of his place in history, merely a creation of the Information Ministry’s algorithms and driven by what tested best with the public. It was pleasing, all the same, and more important, it created a new responsibility to be seen and heard. That was the reason for holding the briefing in Shanghai, rather than Hainan: to ensure the civilian leaders felt involved.

The room was sleeker, more stylish than the military’s command center. It also held a much larger group. Assembled today were dozens more than usual; the core Presidium membership had brought their aides and cronies. This was a triumphant moment, after all, one to be shared widely.

As Wang took his position at the front of the room, a large holographic banner fluttered behind him—the United Kingdom’s new red-and-white flag⁴² flapping in a nonexistent wind, the blue of Scotland having disappeared after the second independence referendum in the wake of the attack.

“Just one! In Europe, only one ally stands with the Americans: the no-longer-great Great Britain,” said Admiral Wang. NATO’s dissolution had been a long time coming, but the alliance’s sudden unraveling by a simple diplomatic vote was almost as big a shock to Washington as the Directorate’s surprise attack had been.

“And they have what to offer their Yankee allies? The very same F-35 fighter jets whose electronics we know well, and a carrier jointly owned with the French that Paris refuses to allow to go beyond the Atlantic.”

The flag receded into the corner of another flag.

“In the Pacific, who stands with the United States?” asked Admiral Wang. “Again, just one. Australia.” Wang eyed the audience. Most seemed attentive, a sign of their respect, and it was almost time for them to put on their viz glasses.

“How recently did they believe that our need for their minerals was a vise clamped around our balls? What good are they now? You are more skilled in business than I,” he said, knowing it was important to show deference to this audience. “But even a mere sailor like myself can understand that their entire economy is based on something that they can no longer sell without our consent. The blockade remains unbroken, and our mineral reserves are more than adequate. Soon enough, they will beg us to take what they once threatened to withhold.” Wang added, paraphrasing Sun-Tzu, “To subdue an enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

The last flag appeared: the American flag. He stepped forward, and the flag shrunk behind him, the symbolism not lost on the audience.

“Please put on your glasses,” said Admiral Wang. He donned a matte-black carbon-and-titanium mesh pair of Prada viz glasses, a Shanghai-only limited-edition model that his mistress had bought for him soon after the invasion of Hawaii. They were too flashy for his taste, but he knew they would go over well with this crowd.

The viz feed took them through the flag and into a sweeping tour of images collected from both intelligence sources and open-source feed. A line of F-35 fighter jets sat abandoned at Kadena airfield, the base now back under Japanese control as part of the neutrality deal. Then a line of American families waiting at a food-relief center in Indianapolis, all of them eyeing the neon-orange boxes on the other side of a taped blue line. The next image was the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where lawmakers from the Second Congres­sional District of West Virginia and the Sixth Congressional District of Washington flailed at each other⁴³ with liver-spotted fists. That was followed by a bed of wilting roses laid around the hooves of the famous bull sculpture on Wall Street, a gloomy reminder of the rash of trader suicides that had followed the stock market’s collapse.

“These images show the new reality the Americans are learning to live with. In time, they will see the advantage of their fate.”

The audience was then flung high into orbit alongside the Tiangong-3 space station. A collective gasp of awe followed, predictably. They gazed down at the Pacific, and then there was another wave of gasps as they began to free-fall through the atmosphere, dropping all the way down to Pearl Harbor. Slowly, the audience took in a panoramic view of the harbor from the perspective of the second deck of a Chinese warship moored there, which allowed them both to catch their breath and see the at-ease sailors, who looked like they belonged there as much as at any home port in China. The Presidium members and their guests burst into applause at the journey and where it had ended, in evident victory.

“But the beginning of wisdom is to call things what they truly are. That was a magnificent tour of our achievement to date. Yet we must understand this: We are at a stasis point, not a completion point. We are no longer fighting battles, but the war is hardly over,” Wang said. “America’s conventional forces cannot reach Hawaii, let alone attack us here. But those facts don’t stop the Americans from harboring such ambitions.”

The scenes then flashed quickly: A company of American Marines in desert camouflage, a mix of shame and anger on their faces as they trudged down the stairway of one of the civilian passenger jets the United States had been forced to lease from Brazil in order to extricate its troops stranded in the Middle East. Next was a warship in San Francisco Bay covered with a ramshackle assortment of tarps and scaffolding, clearly undergoing some kind of refit. Then a time-lapse satellite image of a Connecticut shipyard making painfully slow progress constructing a single submarine. Then the sad face of a little girl as her father helped her place her pink tablet computer, decorated with ribbon, inside a handmade victory box at her school. The tablet would be taken apart for its microchips, which were no longer available from China.

“The combination of our opening strikes and your actions on the economic side since have been devastating,” said Admiral Wang. “But we must remain alert. I told you months back that we had no choice, and now they have no choice. Their dignity drives them to believe they must try once more. And this strike they prepare is one we should welcome, not fear. Only after it fails will they accept the new turn in history, theirs and ours.

“My reverence for Sun-Tzu is well known and so I will close with a quote that shows the journey yet to come. ‘To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.’”⁴⁴

The viz feed ended, and Admiral Wang removed his glasses. He felt a hand patting his shoulder in congratulations and turned to see Wu Han, the economics minister, who would be making the next presentation.

“Sterling” Wu had built his fortune through Macau’s gaming industry. During the transition, he had been a crucial source of intelligence and thus leverage against the old Communist Party bosses and their cronies, many of whom had been indebted to Wu in some financial or personal way.

Wu’s presentation lacked dancing girls but little else when it came to showmanship. The music built steadily as he discussed how the Directorate was beginning to gain more favorable trading concessions from countries in Latin America and Europe. It reached a crescendo as he announced that preparations to extract natural gas from the Mariana Trench site were ahead of schedule, while Mexican and Venezuelan oil imports were already increasing.

The economics minister largely steered clear of Admiral Wang’s purview until he reached the topic of the Panama Canal. It still remained a sore point between the two sides of the Directorate. Shutting down the Americans’ ability to swing forces easily between the oceans had been a necessary part of the attack plan, drawn from analyses Wang had commissioned about mistakes Japan had made during the previous world war. The Americans’ only other route through Cape Horn was thousands of miles beyond their air cover and being dealt with through a mix of submarine picket lines and a debt swap for basing deal with Argentina. But to the business side of the Presidium, the elegant military solution was viewed as an investment lost. The compromise the two sides had worked out was that the canal-repair costs would be included in the reparation demands that the Brazilians would pass on to the Americans.

Wang nodded as if in empathy with Wu’s lament but then switched from watching the presentation to catching up on his real job: running a war. A short viz report his aide had sent him showed the christening of a new Luyang IV–type guided-missile destroyer but also noted a decrease in crew preparedness.

Next up was the information minister, a young technocrat who had made his fortune in the software industry. He kept his blue-tinted viz glasses on the entire time and looked timidly at the floor while he spoke.

“Our Weibo micro-blog⁴⁵ analysis reveals positive feedback from the public is seven percent greater than the most optimistic models predicted,” he said. “We have the kind of support that will allow us to continue without worrying about any unexpected expressions of disharmony.”

Admiral Wang’s face showed intent interest, but his focus remained on his work as he scanned on the viz through the latest intelligence reports on American ship movements.

“Optimism about the economic future is high, again reinforcing the stability and harmony necessary for enduring growth,” the information minister concluded. Still staring at the floor, he mumbled his verdict: “The people are with us because we are winning.”

“No, they are with us because they feel that the war is over,” General Wei, commander of China’s land forces, interjected. “And it is. The Americans are . . .”

He paused, looked over at Wang, and said, “Defeated.”

It was a veiled attack on Wang, all the more notable for taking place in front of the Presidium’s civilian members. The prior meeting of its military members at Hainan Island had been contentious as the officers argued over whether to consolidate their gains or follow Wang’s proposal and press their advantage against the Americans in order to provoke one last action before they were truly ready. The question was whether the general’s retort in front of the civilians was personal, due to jealousy over the plaudits that Admiral Wang had received, or institutional, part of the army’s ongoing play for power. Wang quickly made eye contact with his aide to alert him that what he was about to say might cause trouble for them both.

“Of course, I agree with General Wei that we are all swimming in success.” A gentle reminder that the victory had been determined at sea, not by Wei’s land forces. “But I must disagree with his word choice. Defeated implies that this war is over. One cannot make a foe accept defeat even when they have lost everything all at once. Remember that,” said Admiral Wang. “Our ultimate victory is built upon their acceptance of defeat. They are not there yet and that understanding is not likely to be reached through a peaceful process.”

“What can they do to fight us?” asked Wu, the economics minister. “Their economy, and its military-industrial complex, is so dependent on manufacturers elsewhere for spare parts that it cannot help but grind to a halt.”

“Projections show the next three to six months should see its complete collapse. That is defeat in my eyes,” added General Wei.

“We can hope so,” Wang countered. “But history shows that great powers have trouble accepting their own decline. They tend to go down in a very messy manner.”⁴⁶

“They wouldn’t dare to mount an offensive at this point,” said General Wei. “Will they christen ships just to see them sink? Fly aircraft only to see them shot down? They now know that we control the heavens and can track their every move.”

“Let them try,” said the information minister, still addressing his shoes. “New battle footage would be most helpful for our approval ratings as well as the combined harmony index. Quite a bump.”

“Do you not see they are now in a situation we were once in, facing a foe who operates with unfettered access to the air, space, and sea, who could watch and deny their every move?” said Admiral Wang. “But that does not mean they are a defeated nation. Our next steps will require guiding them to this realization.”

He explained his proposed strategy to block the United States’ maritime trade. This included targeting the Atlantic routes of supply, where the Directorate had not yet deployed its Stonefish missiles for fear of triggering a conflict with Europe.

“Our goal should not be more fighting for fighting’s sake, but fighting to provoke the right response, a final sortie by the remnants of the American fleet that will allow the war to be ended on our terms. And yet, then, we must give the Americans a means to save face when defeat is to be accepted. As Master Sun advised, ‘We must build our foes a golden bridge to escape across.’”

The economics minister responded. “Admiral, the question of what to do with the Hawaii zone is as simple as it would be on any card table. You do not just return to your foes what they have lost. They must give you a proper exchange for it. Both our energy security needs and the honor of the nation deserve that. And, indeed, even if you are right, and the Americans do make another attempt before they accept they have lost, this is for the best. You do not want someone to flee the table; you want him to remain and play the game, hand after hand, until his wallet is empty and his will is gone.”

The meeting continued in circles like this. At eighty minutes in, Wang’s aide came over to him as planned. The admiral rose without a word, feigning disappointment that duty was now taking him away from the others’ company. His aide remained in his place, recording with his viz glasses and ready to reach Admiral Wang if needed.

In the bright, sunlit hallway packed with assistants and aides, Admiral Wang heard someone call him.

It was the Russian liaison officer to the Directorate’s military planning group. Admiral Wang struggled to remember his name, wishing he were still wearing his glasses.

“Admiral, my congratulations,” said the officer in fluent Mandarin. His dress uniform was well worn, but immaculate. “I know you are a busy man. I only wanted to say, as one warrior to another, that how you conducted yourself in there was impressive. I’m not sure I could have been as restrained.”

Wang weighed the remark. He judged the faded blue eyes, set wide apart beneath a forehead bisected by a faint scar. The tone of his voice was conspiratorial, in the manner of one professional addressing another.

“I don’t envy you, having to engage with civilians like that while you also have a war to win,” the Russian officer continued, clearly enjoying his own voice. “It is, though, of course, the price of the compromise your Directorate has made, to be led by both those in uniforms and those in business suits. In Russia, it is much simpler: Whatever our dear leader says goes.”

“Indeed. Your leader still has the killer instinct,” said Admiral Wang.

“So do you, Admiral, so do you.” Wang nodded his thanks, but the officer continued on. “More important, you told them an essential truth I must agree with you on. The Americans cannot be counted out. Ever.” Major General Sergei Sechin smiled.

 

Sandy Beach Park,⁴⁷ Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Lieutenant Feng “Frank” Wu stopped in the warm, waist-deep water and froze.

He’d lost her.

Then she reappeared. Ten meters ahead.

A minute ago, she was wearing a black bikini top. Now she was topless, beckoning him farther out.

It was all the motivation he needed, despite this being only his second time on a surfboard. He had enjoyed many privileges as a son of a member of the Directorate’s Presidium, but surfing was not one of them. Though he had gotten his degree at UCLA before the war, he had not wanted to have reports reach his father that instead of studying mechanical engineering, he was spending his time as a beach bum. No, he had always done his duty, even now in this show of shared patriotism, where all the Presidium’s second sons had joined the military. Not the heirs, of course; his older brother stayed safely back in Macau.

But no one said duty didn’t have to come with deserved rewards. There were better things to do than pore over casino ledgers. And learning to surf with a beautiful, topless girl was one of them.

Frank paddled eagerly, arms crashing down into the water, which kept making the board shoot out in front of him. Strength did not matter in the water. He was sure he heard a giggle over the rush of the surf, and then he caught a glimpse of flesh as she dove again.

The surf breaking on the reef was getting louder. Yet the water was shallow here; he could stand up if he needed to. Besides, Directorate sailors weren’t supposed to be afraid of the ocean, or beautiful girls.

I’m one of the good guys, he’d wanted to explain to her.

She emerged just beyond his reach, her naked chest gleaming in the moonlight. Then she dove again, the flash of white revealing she was no longer wearing her bikini bottom either.

He nearly fell off the board when Carrie reappeared at his side, treading water and flashing an enormous smile. It must be deeper here, just outside where the waves were breaking. At least it was calm.

She climbed up on the board and sat behind him, her body so close he could feel her nipples press into his back.

“We’re nearly at the break,” she said. “You have to feel it. It’s magic.”

She explained how she wanted him to paddle into the wave. If a wave was about to break on him, she explained, he should just duck under the water and wait for it to pass. You just had to be patient.

“Be brave,” she said. “That shouldn’t be so hard for a soldier like you.”

He was a sailor, but before he could correct her, she dove under again. He pressed his body into the board, arched his back, and paddled smoothly now. As he paddled, he realized the waves were much bigger than they had looked from shore.

In an instant, a wave lifted the board upward and toward the beach, then dumped him into the surf. He tried to get up by kicking off the bottom with his feet. But he couldn’t reach the bottom here.

He surfaced, blinked salt water from his eyes, and reached out for the board, but another wave washed over him.

Where was she?

He closed his eyes as another wave started to break over him. With a big breath of air, he ducked under the water, just like she had said to do.

Then he felt a soft touch on his cheek: the board’s leash flickering about underwater. He brushed it aside, but then it became taut, pulling around his neck. He grabbed the cord, but the hand trying to push it away was gradually drawn closer to his throat. His other hand reached out, but the current kept turning him around. He kicked, trying to reach the water’s surface, trying to breathe, swim, and fight all at the same time.

The harder he fought, the tighter the leash squeezed as wave after wave broke over him.

 

JFK-Citigroup Airport, Queens, New York City

 

“You want a letter of what?”

Admiral Beyer didn’t like having to leave the Pentagon in the middle of a war. And he definitely did not like having to sit inside a 787-9 executive jet⁴⁸ that had been done up like the Studio 54 nightclub⁴⁹ from the 1970s.

“A letter of marque,⁵⁰ Admiral. My lawyers tell me I need one,” said Aeric Cavendish. He added, sotto voce, “I would have assumed a sailor would understand this from his naval history, but I guess not.”

Admiral Beyer dug his fingernails into the seat’s brown velour. Sitting beside him, the president’s deputy chief of staff, Susan Ford, watched the admiral, ready to intervene if he took the bait. Fortunately, Beyer didn’t react. He’d read the intelligence profile and was prepared for a great deal of nonsense.

Sir Aeric K. Cavendish had been born Archis Kumar to a middle-class family in the suburbs of Melbourne. Trained as a geneticist, he had made his first billion from several key patents in cell regeneration and cholesterol blockers. But Kumar soon figured out his talents lay in organizing other scientists to make money, and he’d ridden the biotech boom to the ranking of seventh-richest man in the world, notably the only billionaire among the world’s top twenty-five who did not live in China, Russia, or the Middle East. And when the world economy tanked, he scooped up everything from the business holdings to the private islands of the overextended billionaires farther down the list.

Whether it was changing his name to something more royal or buying Manchester United and forcing the team’s manager to put its new owner in as goalkeeper in a match against Leeds, the billionaire seemed to follow whatever whim he woke up with in the morning. And apparently, Beyer thought, his latest whim was to waste an admiral’s time.

“Let me put it in your American terms, then, since trying to meet on common naval ground was apparently unwise on my part. I want a hunting license,” said Cavendish. He made a pistol with his right hand and pointed it upward, miming shooting at the lime-green shag-carpeted ceiling. “For up there.”

Beyer sat back heavily in his seat and began softly tapping his fingers. If Cavendish had known Morse code, he would have recoiled at the insults the admiral was hurling at him.

“Sir Aeric, please tell us exactly what you have in mind,” Ford said.

Cavendish closed his eyes, as if collecting his thoughts. In fact, he had collected them carefully over the past several days. The idea might have started as a whim, but Sir Aeric had thoroughly investigated and vetted it. He knew that it was feasible, though it would seem outlandish.

“The United States military’s predicament is evident,” Cavendish said. “Your airpower projection is limited, especially given that you no longer trust your own warplanes. The land forces are now mostly in the retail and border-security business. Guarding stores from looting and the border from people who no longer want to cross it is, I suppose, the best way to keep the country on its feet,” said Cavendish. “Your navy’s primary mission, given that it cannot sail past what the Chinese have aptly labeled a demilitarized zone—demilitarized for you, not them, of course—is corrosion avoidance. That is also a battle you will lose, I am sorry to say.”

Beyer looked at Ford and began to stand. “I don’t have time for this bullshit. I need to get back to the building,” said Beyer. Ford responded by putting her hand on Beyer’s.

“Sir Aeric, you are testing the admiral’s patience, and now mine. And when you waste my time, you waste the time of the president of the United States,” she said.

“Please, I apologize,” said Sir Aeric. “I grew too . . . excited. Allow me to pause the conversation a moment and reset.”

A traditionally dressed English butler came in and wordlessly offered each a flute of champagne. There was no way Beyer was going to drink with this man, but he couldn’t find anywhere to set the glass down other than the shag carpet, where it would tip over.

Cavendish’s flute was half empty when Beyer looked back up. Good. Maybe the arrogant bastard was nervous after all.

“Admiral, please, you must try it, I bought it just for you,” said Cavendish. “It is one of the last⁵¹ 1907 ‘Shipwrecked’ Heidsiecks. This bottle was on a freighter that was sunk by a U-boat in the First World War and sat on the bottom of the Baltic for the next century, perfectly preserved in the icy waters.”

“You were saying . . .” Ford prompted as Beyer looked at the world’s most expensive champagne with new respect. He had to admit, he was charmed by the twit’s nautical touch.

“This predicament is intolerable to you, but also to me. To fully enjoy my assets, I need the world back the way it was,” said Sir Aeric. “I have identified some impediments to this goal. Chief among them is the Tiangong station orbiting above the Pacific and what it does to limit your ability to act in the manner that I need you to act. It allows the Directorate to effectively command the heights of any battle. And, as best as I have been able to determine from my extensive contacts, you have failed in all your attempts to attack it. This, you worry, ultimately leaves you only the option of a nuclear response, which you are not certain would succeed and which, more pertinently, would escalate this conflict in a manner that would truly make all our lives intolerable.”

“I cannot confirm or deny any of that, but for the purposes of our conversation, let’s assume you are correct,” said Beyer. He felt the champagne flute warming. From 1907? It would be a shame to waste it.

“From the heavens come . . . oh, forget all that,” said Cavendish, his cultivated accent slipping back into his native Australian one. “Look, mate, if you want to win back your waters, and I do believe they are providentially yours, you are going to have to do something about that damned space station. But without provoking a nuclear fuss. Righto?”

Beyer nodded. It was now or never with the champagne. He drank it down in one gulp.

“Well done!” Cavendish, his British accent returning. “In exchange for a letter of marque, sicut aliter scitur my hunting license, I will eliminate this impediment to your operations at a time of your government’s choosing.”

“How might this work?” said Ford.

“First the contract part. My lawyers advise me that, as allowed under article one, section eight⁵² of that fantastic old document, the United States Constitution, I will require a letter of marque in order to be registered as an official privateer,” said Cavendish. “You know, perhaps I might be able to acquire one of the original copies of the Constitution. What would that run, Ms. Ford? Safekeeping and all that.”

Beyer interrupted. The champagne had been pretty decent, but the little twit was back to wasting his time.

“Look, I don’t care what the lawyers think. Not my job. What I care about is winning this war,” said Beyer. “Because I’m not here just to help you cross an item off your bucket list.”

“No, Admiral, I am here to help you,” said Cavendish.

“How?” said Beyer. “All I see is a guy with a funny name who’s sitting in a plane rigged out like a porno set and drinking a glass of old champagne in a country that’s trying to explain to kindergartners how rationing works. So what are you going to give us in exchange for this letter you want?”

“A secret weapon, the likes of which the Directorate has never faced before,” whispered Cavendish, softly touching his empty flute against his temple. “My imagination.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

Vern Li wiped the sweat from her brow and looked again. There. She took off her viz glasses and the graffiti was gone. She dabbed the sweat from her nose and put the glasses back on. There it was again.

She wobbled as if the ship were pitching at sea. The fresh red paint looked like blood.

We are watching you, Chink.

“Vern, you okay?” asked Teri, a thirty-five-year-old software engineer from Caltech who was working with her in the confines of the engine room.

“Uh, no. I mean, I think so,” said Vern.

“Sit down here,” Teri gently commanded. “Do you want a stim? We’ve been at this for, like, twenty hours.”

“Do you see anything odd here? At all?” said Vern.

“Yeah, everything I see on this ship is odd,” said Teri.

“No, I mean, do you see anything around us, like writing on the wall over there?” said Vern.

“Writing? No. You want me to get the corpsman?” asked Teri. “This is not good. How much did you take?”

“It’s not the stims,” said Vern.

“I heard there was a bad batch going around. Might have been Directorate tampering; at least that’s what the gov feed said. But the smart money says someone’s cutting it with laundry soap to make a few extra bucks.”

Chink. What century was this? How dare they doubt her!

“Here, sit down,” said Teri, more firmly this time. “What’s the matter?”

Vern opened her mouth to explain what she was seeing and then clenched her jaw shut. If the power systems failed in combat, the ship and likely whoever wrote that would die. And the power systems depended on this Chink’s graduate-school science project. It was that simple.

She flung her viz glasses at the spot on the wall. They hit where the graffiti⁵³ would have been if someone had had the courage to write it in actual blood-red paint.

“Vern?” said Teri. “Take it easy. I’m going to go get somebody; you just rest.”

Vern crawled on hands and knees to pick up her glasses. They weren’t even scratched. How she wished they were broken. She pushed the reset button at the temple and waited for them to reacquire the Zumwalt’s network. She closed her eyes when she put them on. When she opened her eyes, the graffiti was still there.

The sound of heavy footsteps made her get up.

“Vern, this is Chief Simmons,” said Teri.

“Dr. Li, I hear you’re not feeling well,” said Simmons.

“I’m just tired of this shit,” said Vern.

“From what I understand, you may be the most important person on this ship,” said Simmons. “So you’re part of the equipment, then, and that makes you my responsibility. Let’s get you topside, give you some air, feed you, and get you back to work.”

Vern laughed at the notion of her being literally a part of the ship. This world seemed so absurd because it was true.

“More important than the captain?” said Vern.

“Well, that’s a complicated answer for me, Dr. Li.” Mike laughed. “I’ll just say definitively you’re more important to the ship.”

Vern laughed again. Teri gave them both a nervous grin.

Vern studied the old sailor. It seemed he’d never had a day of doubt in his life.

“Teri, I need to have a word alone with the chief,” said Vern.

“Uh,” said Teri. “All right. I’ll go grab some water and then meet you by the stern.”

Mike stepped aside to let Teri squeeze past. Despite his heavy footsteps, he had a surprising ease about him on the deck, at least for an old guy.

“So, Dr. Li, tell me what’s really going on,” said Mike.

Vern took off her viz glasses and held them out.

“You have to see for yourself,” said Vern.

“Why don’t you just show me,” said Mike.

“I am,” said Vern.

“No, I mean actually show me,” said Mike.

“I can’t. You need to wear my viz,” said Vern.

Simmons held the glasses out in front of him with a mix of disdain and, Vern sensed, fear.

“These won’t fit,” said Mike. “How about you tell me . . .”

Vern saw that uncertainty was a rare feeling for him, and that made him even more uncomfortable.

“You’ve never used viz before, have you?” she asked.

Mike looked down at the scuffed toes of his boots.

“No. I haven’t,” said Mike. “I never saw the point.”

“I know you’re an old fart, but you’re not that old,” said Vern. Her face reddened with embarrassment, and anger flashed across Mike’s features. “I’m sorry. That’s what they said we were to call you guys. Please. It’s important,” she said. “It’s about the ship.”

Before he could move, she placed the glasses carefully on his face. She noticed that his right ear was slightly lower than the left and that his nose had been broken at least once. He stiffened and then relaxed once she backed away.

He lost his balance, and she lunged forward to steady him with an awkward hug.

“Sweet Jesus,” said Mike. It was so real. He’d heard it was something about the way they projected a data stream onto your retinas that made it so different from the first-generation Google Glass.⁵⁴ With these, you weren’t so much looking through the glass at the world; it was more like the world was being brought inside your brain. It gave you the sense of not just seeing, but feeling. And it felt damn weird.

Vern led him by the hand to the graffiti. He saw the sticky red that part of his brain said was real, even down to its smell, and that drowned out the other part of his brain whispering that it wasn’t real, that it hadn’t been there just a few seconds ago.

“What the hell is that?” asked Mike. “Blood?”

“Yes. At least, it’s supposed to look like blood,” said Vern.

“Who did this, goddamn it?” said Mike. He squinted and slid the glasses down on his nose and then back up. Down, then up again.

“That’s the sickest, most cowardly thing I’ve ever seen,” said Mike. “Anyone else see this?” She noticed his breathing had gotten deeper and the veins were bulging at his neck.

“I don’t think so. Just my viz feed,” said Vern, starting to collect herself. “Don’t worry about it. This bullshit too will pass.”

Mike stepped back and looked her over.

“No, Dr. Li. I have to do something about it. This bullshit doesn’t happen on my ship,” said Mike. “The captain has to be informed. The XO too.”

“Shit,” said Vern. “What if they think I’m some kind of a risk and make me leave? I had to get the FBI to watch my mom’s house because of all the threats she got after I disappeared to come work here. People assumed I’d left for China.”

Mike scuffed his boot along the deck and shook his head.

“Actually, Dr. Li, as I understand it, you’d be the last person to leave the Z, no matter what the graffiti on those glasses says. Whether you like it or not, you are now part of this ship. And let me be clear: I take care of my ship.”

 

Directorate Command, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The pistol’s barrel was pointed right at Colonel Markov.

This is the fourth time I’ve had to endure this performance, he thought.

General Yu Xilai shook the weapon slightly, as if he could not understand why Markov had not grasped the gun in thanks. “Did you know I found it with an empty magazine?” said the general. “He fired his very last round right at me.”

“But how did you survive unscathed?” said Markov, taking the pistol, playing his role.

The general sat on the edge of his desk and ran a hand over his freshly shaved scalp. He shifted his body before he began the story, the wooden desk groaning under his bulk. Yu looked the role of a warrior, an image that, like too many generals, he’d traded on for much of his career. He was built like an Olympic heavyweight wrestler: a shaved skull, deep-set eyes beneath a thick brow that presided over prominent cheekbones and a large, sharp nose. But long ago, Markov had learned not to confuse the look of a warrior with actual military ability.

“Like all battle, a mix of skill and luck. This American Marine general was a warrior. Straight from the viz. He knew he could not be taken alive. After all, he was in charge of their Pacific Commands most important base. When I entered the room, there was so much smoke. But I was ready,” said General Yu. “My pistol was drawn. ‘Grenades?’ they shouted behind me. ‘No!’ I shouted back. ‘No!’”

“And why not?” said Markov.

“Honor,” said General Yu. “He was a fellow warrior who deserved to die fighting. It was so smoky, sparks and a little fire over in the corner where one of those phosphorus grenades had already gone off. Theirs or ours, I don’t know. It smelled of burning plastic. The incense of battle, right, Colonel? I could barely see. But I could sense the danger. He fired and I fired back.”

“How many times?” asked Markov, on cue.

“Just once,” said General Yu. “One shot was all I needed.” He put his index finger between his eyes as if to make clear he did not miss.

“General, I am impressed,” said Colonel Markov. He’d had his doubts after the first telling, but the story was actually true; Markov had checked with one of the commandos who’d been with General Yu that day. The weapon had indeed been pried from the dead hands of the Marine base commander killed by the Directorate general himself. But that didn’t earn him Markov’s respect as a leader.

He passed the SIG Sauer P226 pistol⁵⁵ back to the general, who might have been good at leading a small unit of men in the heat of a gunfight but who was out of his element in a war that no longer followed his rules. Markov had always thought Americans would make fierce insurgents, so strongly did they believe their national narrative. After the first suicide bomber, at the King’s Village shopping plaza in Waikiki, Markov knew he was right. That’s why Yu kept telling the damn stories about the opening assault on Honolulu over and over. It was the one day of this war that made sense to him.

“Now to business. We have to deal with the problem at hand decisively,” said General Yu.

“Just like the general you shot,” said Markov.

Yu’s fingers twitched and clutched the SIG pistol.

“Exactly. At least he fought with honor. I’ve lost enough of my men. Every night I record a message for each one’s parents, or wife, or maybe a brother. Whoever is left. They deserve to know their loved ones died doing something important. To hear it from me.” The general paused. Markov eyed the massive man, who seemed to grow just a little bit weak at the thought of his nightly ritual. He’d seen it before. Yu was taking the losses from the insurgency personally, a mistake too many tactical leaders made, missing their greater responsibilities.

The huge officer gathered himself and slammed the pistol back on the shelf. “It’s time to put a stop to it! To be relentless in our patrols, to follow them where they hide and exact a price for every man of mine they kill.”

“General, my value to you is in my candor,” said Markov quietly. “So let me say that this is all wrong. The people here control our fate; you do not control theirs. It is a lesson I learned the hard way from our own experiences with insurgency. Indeed, even the Americans learned it during their own last few wars.”

“Their lessons of failure are the least we should learn,” said Yu. “We don’t need to make friends with them. We need them to acquiesce, and that may require us to show more resolve.”

“And ever more bodies?” said Markov.

“Shanghai is concerned about the optics of these attacks in the run-up to the trade conference with the ASEAN nations. They’re sending a high-level delegation to visit the planned locations,” said General Yu.

“Locations? You mean here? A Presidium delegation is coming to Hawaii?” asked Markov.

“Yes, and the son of one of them has just chosen to go missing,” said General Yu. “The idiot’s a navy lieutenant, his father’s the economics minister . . .”

“All the more reason not to take the insurgents’ bait,” said Markov. “You don’t need another car bomb or an arson spree right now, not with the delegation coming. Don’t provoke the insurgents.”

“Provoke?” said General Yu. “You fail to grasp the new reality, just as the population fails to see theirs. Let me deal with these criminals my way. Colonel, your job now is to find this lieutenant, nothing more, nothing less.”

“Very well, sir,” said Markov. As he left, he cast a look around the office, taking in the other vulgar trophies from the invasion. A scorched F-35 pilot’s helmet sat on a shelf. The American flag that had flown at Camp H. M. Smith was folded in the glass case that also housed the pistol. A cracked gray Honolulu Police SWAT team ceramic vest was affixed to the wall next to a live tactical situation map of Directorate military patrols in the city.

The general had gathered all the totems of his opening-day victory, thought Markov, while failing to see he was on his way to losing a different kind of war.

 

Pineapple Express Pizza, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The first thing Major Conan Doyle noticed was the smell. Warm mozzarella, the sweet tang of tomato sauce, and the pungent funk of fresh Hawaiian marijuana. Her mouth watered, and she clenched her stomach muscles to check the pain in her gut.

They entered through the alley off Ala Moana Boulevard and made their way down to the basement. By the time they reached the bottom step, the food aromas were gone.

“Smells like shit in here,” said Nicks.

“That the dope?” asked Finn.

“Nope,” said Conan. “More likely us.”

The restaurant’s owner, Skip, came down a few minutes later with a boar-sausage-and-pineapple pizza. “Can’t persuade you to have a broccoli with signature sauce?”

“The last thing my team needs is to get stoned,” said Conan. There were literally a hundred ways to mix marijuana into a pizza. Skip’s specialty was infusing it into butter and olive oil, which kept the pungent taste from ruining the tart flavor of a fresh tomato sauce.

“You uniforms are all alike, always stressed out, pills only. But you come back for the house special when the devils are gone,” said Skip. “Got any new footage?”

“Already left it at the dead drop,” she said. “You’ll have to wait till you get back Stateside to see it.”

“If that day ever comes.”

“It will,” she assured him and herself.

He handed her a blister pack of red-and-black polka-dot pills. “Ladybugs. For dessert.”

“Thanks, brother,” said Conan.

“I have to head back; I left Sharon up there,” said Skip, and he waved a quick goodbye.

As Skip went back upstairs, Conan nodded at Nicks and Finn. “You know what to do. I’ll stand guard at the door.”

She drew a stubby matte-black Mossberg riot shotgun, Honolulu Police issue, cracked open the storeroom door, and poked it through. With her other hand, she picked up a slice of pizza.

Nicks and Finn moved aside some drums of flour and pulled up the grate on the basement floor that covered the sewage feed. They wrestled with the pipe’s fitting and then dropped a yellow-striped tube ringed with tracks into the pipe. The Versatrax 300 had once been used by the Honolulu sanitation department for sewer-pipe inspections,⁵⁶ but the block of nanoplex explosive duct-taped to it now gave the sewer-bot another capability. In military parlance, it was a VBIED, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

Voices were raised upstairs. Quiet footsteps followed, and Conan pulled back into the room.

“Is it in?” whispered Conan. “Someone else is here. Quit dicking around.”

“Bot’s in, and inbound toward target,” said Nicks. She sat cross-legged and could have been meditating but for the viz glasses and control gloves she wore to guide the Versatrax through the sewer system.

A girl’s loud voice upstairs made them all wince. Skip’s daughter, yelling at some customer.

“Just got red light from the command detonator,” said Nicks. “Timer is set.”

“I don’t like it,” said Finn. “We should just hit ’em now. Take out a sector commander, at least.”

“No, they’ve got dignitaries coming in from Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo, remember? Hit the targets from off-island and we make sure the outside world knows we are still in the fight,” said Nicks.

“Whatever,” said Finn, pulling another slice of pizza from the plate. “Just get the little bot there first.”

“Roger that,” said Nicks, her hands still guiding the bot from afar, waving in the air as if she were playing patty-cake with an invisible child. “But first I need you to feed me a slice.”

“What am I, your parent? Feed yourself,” said Finn.

“I can’t. I take my hands off the controls and our little surprise goes up someone’s toilet,” said Nicks. “And I know I can’t trust an animal like you not to eat it all before we get done.”

They quieted at a girl’s scream. Skip’s daughter, but clearly scared this time. They looked to see what Conan’s orders were.

“Shit,” said Finn. “She’s gone upstairs.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

Laughter echoed through the corridor. It had not been a good day aboard the Zumwalt, so Mike saw no reason for this kind of screwing around.

One of the fire-suppression bots had detonated its retardant payload in the wardroom during the 0200 meal. “It looks like a herd of elephants had an orgy in there,” a sailor had said, brushing past him.

Then there was the bigger problem this morning. The ship was supposed to be testing out the Navy’s new ODIS-E (Objective Data Integration System—Enhanced) program, a replacement for the prewar ATHENA. But from what he could see, all the system had done was blow out a power coupling.

The devastated look on his son’s face had said it all. If the ship’s captain couldn’t contain his disappointment, then this setback meant something ominous. What were they thinking, naming a ship’s control system after a story about a Greek guy lost at sea for ten years? Nobody knew their history anymore, and apparently nobody knew network engineering either. Mike’s bigger concern was the coupling. Spare parts were in short supply, and they couldn’t just order another one from the Chinese manufacturer.

In the corridor, Mike stepped out of sight and listened. He heard deep laughter, the kind that’s amplified by a thick gut. A woman’s voice, angry, followed:

“You should be apologizing for much more than that,” the woman shouted. “If you don’t attach this shielding here and here, then I’m going to be the least of your headaches.”

It was Dr. Li.

“You need to understand that nothing you know about gunpowder or cannonballs or whatever you did a long time ago is relevant now,” she said. “If you don’t shield the power cables, the energy they release, which is mostly—”

“Stop right there, lady,” said one of the crew. “We get it. That’s why we put some shielding there already. If you want it changed, you put it in the work-order system and we’ll get to it. Your job ain’t the only one that matters. Besides, who’s going to verify your, uh, work?”

“Verify my work? What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.

“Yeah, well, to make sure it’s done right. That it can be trusted, you know. Or maybe you already got it checked out with Beijing?” More laughter. “This might not be good enough for you, but it’s the goddamn best America can do right now. Next rail shipment isn’t coming into Oakland until, oh, next week? So as of now, it’s good enough.”

Mike couldn’t place the voice. Whoever it was talked with a faint slur, as if he used a jawbone-implanted hearing device. Time to see who.

Mike stepped around the corner and cleared his throat.

“I’m hearing a lot of laughter today. Something funny?” he said. “Share it with me. Not much makes me laugh lately.”

“No worries, Chief,” said Parker, a petty officer second class in his thirties. “We got this handled; we’re just fixing some of the shielding on the ray gun.”

“Rail gun,” said Vern.

“Whatever you wanna call this Star Wars shit, lady,” said Parker.

Mike eyed the sailor. Parker was clearly taking advantage of the Navy’s free hormone-enhancement therapy. His skin was drawn and dry, but his neck and biceps were frighteningly thick, like a bodybuilder who was five months pregnant. Mike shook his head in disappointment. The Mentor Crew was supposed to guide the new generation of wartime sailors but also to remediate new noncommissioned officers like Parker. The Stonefish strikes had cut down the ranks of the Navy’s enlisted leaders, and the wave of promotions to fill the gaps had elevated far too many men and women who were not up to snuff. Mike could see why Parker had topped out just below Mike’s own old rank. Becoming a chief petty officer required more than just time in service; you also had to be able to make it past a selection board of your peers.

“Her name is Dr. Li,” said Mike to Parker. “You will address your betters by their titles.” He turned to Vern.

“You getting what you need, Dr. Li?” Mike said, drawing out the Doctor.

“We need more shielding on the power cables before we can run the live-fire test,” said Vern.

Mike looked at her and then turned to Parker. He stepped up so he was chest to chest with the sailor, unfazed by the younger man’s bulk. As big as Parker was, he lacked Mike’s ability to intimidate.

“Well, Parker here, he’s concerned about America and her fleet,” said Mike, speaking to Vern but looking the sailor directly in the eye, daring him to disagree. “So seeing that you are a fellow American—hell, a civilian working her ass off to help arm said fleet—Parker just volunteered to weld it in for you, since working with metal seems to be something he’s got a passion for,” said Mike, a backhanded compliment for a sailor who spent too much time in the weight room.

Vern pinched the bridge of her nose with obvious exasperation. “You can’t use metal welding. It is an electromagnetic gun. Needs to be welded with plastic, otherwise the electromagnetic energy will . . . You want to be the guy who blew up the ship because he didn’t understand the future? Let’s leave it at that.”

“All right, all right,” said Mike. “Parker, you have one job now: Find me more shielding and install it like she wants it. Just make sure you understand what she’s talking about. If you have to strip apart your beloved weight room to get it, you will. If you have to use all the plastic chow trays in the shipyard, you will. Understood? If you need to bribe, screw, or steal to get what Dr. Li needs, you will.”

He turned to the others. “I know I don’t have to tell Parker here, but if anybody questions one of his fellow crew members’ patriotism again, I’ll grind you up and feed you to the seagulls myself. Now get back to it.”

 

Pineapple Express Pizza, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The Directorate marine was twice the size of the pizza-shop owner and he was not holding back. A desperate gasp followed each blow as Skip’s lungs emptied of air.

The translator on the marine’s belt was oblivious to the violence, stating the order in a digital monotone.

“Your daughter will come with us to a fancy party,” said the device.

Another marine held Sharon. He pinned her arms behind her back, forcing her to stick her chest out. Her head hung down, so her black hair veiled her face.

“She’s just fifteen,” said Skip, gasping for breath. “She stays here—”

Two more quick blows. The crack of Skip’s ribs made Sharon scream again.

“Shut it!” said the marine in English, tugging hard on her arms.

Conan ducked back into the stairwell.

A roundhouse kick from the giant marine sent Skip sliding through a cloud of flour and down behind the counter. With his brow covered in white powder, he looked up at Conan peeking through the stairway door.

Help, Skip mouthed. It looked like he couldn’t even get enough air in his lungs to speak.

Conan squeezed the riot gun’s pistol grip and ducked back out of sight.

A burst of Chinese among the marines followed.

Conan closed her eyes. There were four Directorate marines. She had eight rounds of ten-gauge street shot loaded. She could blow apart the restaurant in a matter of seconds.

Skip got up from his knees and charged the marines. The wet sound of his head hitting the hard yellow tile made Conan’s stomach turn.

Enough.

She raised the riot gun and flicked the safety off. She would have to get in close to make sure she didn’t cut down everyone in the restaurant with the gun’s wide arc of fire. She counted down.

Three. Two. One.

Exhale. Go.

And then she froze. This was not the mission. She clicked the safety back on.

Skip tried to get up from the floor but made it only to his hands and knees. He spat out a sticky crimson stream that mixed with the blood pooling from his split scalp. Then another kick landed with a thump on his temple.

Sharon wailed, “Don’t touch me!” Then muffled screams.

Conan dashed back down the stairs silently on bare feet.

“What the hell was going on up there?” asked Finn.

“You’re fine. I had you covered,” said Conan. “Just some customers getting rowdy. We gotta go out the back way, though.”

Finn put his hand on Conan’s arm. “What the hell is going on up there?” he asked again.

“I said let’s go. That’s an order,” snapped Conan.

Finn, Nicks, and Conan filed out the back of the restaurant into the alley and slunk out in the darkness, slowly working their way toward their extraction point, an eight-by-six-foot steel recycling bin a few blocks away. They climbed in and covered themselves in the wet and moldy cardboard and aluminum cans that would break up their bodies’ thermal signatures.

“Ten seconds to detonation,” whispered Finn, and he began to count it down.

“And contact,” he said.

Nothing.

“Well, at least the pizza was—” said Nicks.

An explosion detonated in the distance, the blast wave shaking the recycling bin a bit.

They waited the next hours for the morning pickup in silence broken only by the occasional siren going by. It was just reaching early morning when Finn finally decided to bring it up again.

“Conan, I’m serious,” Finn whispered. “What was all the noise upstairs about? Are Skip and Sharon okay?”

“Yeah, they’re fine,” Conan said quietly. “Let’s stay focused on the mission.”

 

Wal-Mart Headquarters, Bentonville, Arkansas

 

“The act is so questionable in law as to make it positively un-American.”

Jake Colby’s talking points had been produced by analytic software and then checked by Legal and Public Relations. Both had advised Colby, the chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, that the most effective approach was to flip the script and paint the White House’s proposal to use the old Defense Production Act⁵⁷ from 1950 as something out of the Directorate playbook.

The act, passed at the start of the Korean War, gave the U.S. president the power to require any American company to sign any contract or fill any order deemed necessary for national defense. The CEO was now explaining to the shareholders that Wal-Mart was joining a coalition of leading multinational firms that, using both the courts and congressional lobbying, would attempt to block the act’s resurrection.

“Losing is un-American!” a seventy-year-old woman in a denim pantsuit shouted back at him. He knew not to ignore her. Lee-Ann Tilden was a multibillionaire who owned 4 percent of his outstanding shares, and yet she still worked as a greeter at the Tulsa store.

The CEO tried to repeat the talking points’ core premise, that a corporation’s status as a legally defined individual meant that the government couldn’t tell it what to do, even in a time of war.

“Legally defined individual?” Tilden retorted. “Mr. Colby, you know that’s bunk and you know that Sam would want to help the country any way he could.”

Before he could reply, another voice broke in. A Swiss-German accent. One of the institutional investors, in this case representing a sovereign wealth fund⁵⁸ from Qatar that had bought a 17 percent position when the share price collapsed after America lost Hawaii. “Madame, I appreciate this company’s quaint practice of letting anyone speak at these forums, but you simply fail to understand the multinational nature of this enterprise now. The global shareholder base must come first. This concern is not in the business of any one nation’s war. No matter where it is based, it is a global retail chain, definitively neutral in its activities and intent,” he said. “The desires of Uncle Sam, or whatever your outdated idea of a patriotic patriarch in a funny hat is, are now beside the point.”

Hearing the crowd growl, Colby winced at the fund manager’s gaffe. So typical. The internationals loved the company’s returns but didn’t bother to understand its story. She meant Sam Walton, you moron. Hell, the company founder’s desk was on display in the museum just down the road, the papers he’d been working on the day he died still on it, as if he had just stepped out for a coffee break.⁵⁹

“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s try to keep focused,” the CEO interceded. “This is not just about the U.S. government overstepping its powers, however limited those now may be. We’re on the razor’s edge. The Directorate has rigged our corporate network with enough tripwires and viruses that we might lose control of the company if they don’t like the way I part my hair.”

“Then what do we have to lose?” said Lee-Ann. “I’m calling a vote.”

There was no loss of life at Lee-Ann’s Revolt, as it would become known nationwide once the viz of the meeting leaked out, but it was nonetheless momentous. The voting bloc of sovereign wealth funds proved unable to stop the small investor pool once it was mobilized. And by the end of the meeting, shareholders were no longer voting about whether to resist U.S. government rationing schemes. Instead, Wal-Mart declared war on the Directorate.

The color drained from Colby’s face as he stared out at the thousands of cheering people in the company auditorium. Two thoughts crossed his mind as the tunnel vision took over. The first was that he’d have a hard time finding another job after this debacle. And the second was that America now had a new kind of logistical backbone the likes of which had never before been seen in war.

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

Mike found Vern hunched over, running her hands along the thick fiber cabling that ran behind the bulkhead. The smell of ozone hung heavy in the air, a reminder of her insistence that they cut open the ship’s bulkhead so she could get access to this very point. What exactly she was doing was beyond him, Mike knew. But he liked the change it brought on in her. She might have had a PhD, but it was clear to Mike that in her heart, she was a maker, a doer, like himself.

She abruptly ordered the rest of the engineers out of the area to let her work on her own. “Mike, you teach her to talk like that?” said one of them on his way topside.

She spent more time aboard than at the shore-side network data center, and, to the best of his knowledge, she had not left the shipyard in a week. She no longer talked about her life pre-Z. He knew the feeling, and how all-encompassing it could be.

He set a bottle of cold water down next to her. She continued to look at the tablet on her lap without acknowledging his presence. He stood back and studied her as she craned her neck to look behind the bulkhead. He pulled out an LED light and knelt down next to her, his knees cracking.

“Let me help,” he said. “A little light.”

She smiled and kept working as he held the light, shining it where she told him to in her clipped diction. He had to lean in close enough that she could appreciate how long it had been since he had had a free moment to shower. She did not recoil, however.

After about five minutes, Mike got ready to leave.

“Keep the light,” he said. “I need to get back topside. They’re pulling the rail-gun turret and it’s a damn foggy night. If you need anything, just holler.”

Vern didn’t say anything; she just kept poring over her tablet computer and peering into the dark behind the bulkhead.

He stood up unsteadily and walked away with careful steps.

Just as he ducked through a hatch, he could have sworn he heard her say, “Thank you.”

He stopped and turned around.

The eleven paces back to her hunched-over form seemed a long way for Mike. He needed to know something, and now was the time to ask it.

“Dr. Li, a minute with you?” said Mike.

“Now?” asked Vern.

“Yes, please,” said Mike.

“Well?” said Vern.

“What I have to say, or ask, really, isn’t easy but it’s something I’ve been meaning to bring up for a little bit now,” said Mike.

She stood up and pushed her viz glasses up onto her forehead, brushing a bead of sweat off the tip of her nose.

“This is hard to say, so I’ll just outright say it,” said Mike. “The rail-gun power system, something’s wrong with it. Am I right? That’s why you’re pushing both the crew and the geeks so hard. You know something they don’t.”

He expected her to dismiss him. Instead, she smiled.

“You’re right, it’s not going to pass the test,” said Vern.

“Shit,” said Mike. “This is going to kill the captain.”

“And maybe all of us,” said Vern. “We’ll have to see.”

“I need to tell him,” said Mike.

“You care for him,” said Vern.

“If the ship can’t fight, well, he can’t,” said Mike.

“He’s your son; why wouldn’t you want it all to work out for him?” said Vern.

“I’ll get going, then, Dr. Li,” said Mike.

“There’s something else you forgot to ask me, isn’t there?” said Vern.

“Uh, what would that be, Dr. Li?” said Mike.

“The big question,” said Vern. “The most important one.”

Mike looked at her quizzically.

“Will it ever work?” said Vern.

He smiled. “Well, I guess that will depend on you.”

“Give it time,” said Vern. “An old guy like you should know how to be patient.”

 

Fort Mason, San Francisco

 

Jamie Simmons slipped into bed, but he was too wired to fall right asleep. He thought of all the cobbled-together Ghost Fleet ships in the Bay. His own ship, the one that the country needed most, was turning out to be the weak link. He lay back, studying the fog bank, now at the deck level of the Golden Gate Bridge. Its rise was almost imperceptible until it obscured something big from view. There was nothing you could do to drive it away. It did not have the tide’s regularity, and for that reason it was all the more spectacular when it robbed you of the sight of something you took for granted, like the bridge.

A loud gurgle of the pipes woke Lindsey, who groggily turned over.

“You’re here. I didn’t hear you come in,” she said.

“Yeah,” he whispered, “I didn’t want to wake you. What’s all that with the pipes?” he asked.

“Toilet,” she said, starting to wake up. “Broken again.”

“Damn it,” he said. “I’ll take a look in the morning.”

“When? You’re always out so early,” she said.

“Then when I get home,” he said.

“And when will that be, Jamie? You can get a warship fixed up, but the toilet is too much to handle?” she said. “I’m sure that makes sense to somebody, just not me anymore.”

There was an old Navy saying that ships were like mistresses: beautiful, alluring, mysterious, requiring lots of attention, and, ultimately, marriage killers.

“I’ll look at it right now,” he said. The edge in his voice caused her to prop herself up on one elbow and study him.

“You can say it, Jamie,” she said. “Whatever you want, just say it.”

He kissed her on the forehead, not trusting anything that might come out of his mouth. His heavy footsteps said enough. The same frustration he felt at work was now part of his home.

After a half hour of struggling in vain with the toilet, he gave up and went back to the bedroom to find the kids asleep in bed with Lindsey. He must have woken them with all the rummaging around with the tools his father had left wedged behind the sink. He sat down in the old leather recliner in the corner of the room and watched them in the near darkness, trying to let the sounds of the trio’s breathing drain away his stress and frustration. What he wanted to fix most, he feared he could not.

When he woke, it was just past five in the morning. Shit. He had overslept by an hour.

“Did you fix the potty, Daddy?” asked Martin groggily from the bed.

“No, sweetie, it’s still broken,” he said.

“Call Grandpa! He can fix it,” said Claire.

“You should call him,” said Lindsey, eyeing him warily.

He shook his head as the room’s sensors picked up their movement and began to gradually brighten the overhead lights. “I said I’m gonna fix it and I will.”

“We want Grandpa!” Claire and Martin shouted.

“It’s not time to get up yet, kids,” said Lindsey, shooing them out of the bed. “Back to your rooms.”

“We’re not calling him,” said Jamie in a whisper as she walked past, leading the kids down the hall.

He went to the bathroom and showered. Under the unrelenting spray of the cold water he cursed himself. There were too few days before he went out to sea for them to have a night like this. He turned off the shower and shivered. Was this how his dad had felt when he helplessly watched his connection with the family fray? Or had he just been unwilling to try to fix it? That was the difference; his dad hadn’t wanted to try. It had to be the difference. Jamie was not willing to give up.

I’m a better man than my dad, Jamie told himself as he blinked away the fatigue and cold water. Even on my worst days.

 

Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Carrie wiped her hands on the front of the old black Hurley pullover that she’d worn to the beach. Then she took her backpack into the bathroom and shut the door.

She pulled her still-wet bathing-suit bottom out of the bag, tossed it into the shower, and rinsed out the sand in the hot water. Then, as the bathroom filled with steam, she undressed, looking at herself in the fogged mirror. The naked body she saw, its beauty obscured by the moisture on the glass, could have been anybody’s. She was anonymous.

After she got out of the shower, she pulled a small makeup compact from the backpack. She tapped it twice on the counter and the cover popped up. She licked her index finger on her right hand and rubbed it around the rim of the compact. There.

She held up her hand to the light and saw the hair. She pulled her fiancé’s black plastic brush from the jewelry box on the counter. She blew gently on her finger, and the hair fell onto the brush. Carefully, she put the brush back in the box.

Carrie sat down on the toilet and closed her eyes. Now she saw them again. Then she saw her fiancé, and, finally, she saw her father.

The inch-long cuts she made on her left thigh wiped the images of the men away. Eyes still shut, she didn’t see the blood dripping onto the blue tile at her feet. The clatter of the scissors on the floor jarred her back from the moment. She stifled a cry of pain and began to wipe the blood away with her palms. She moved to the sink for a towel and then stopped. The fog on the mirror receded just enough for Carrie to look herself in the eyes.

I am not anonymous, she told herself. I am death.

 

Wal-Mart Printing Facility, Ogden, Utah

 

In many ways it was like watching an old Xerox copy machine in action. A thin layer of graphene chips was sprayed down by a roller that moved from one side of the table to the other. Essentially carbon atoms laid out in the same hexagonal structure of chicken wire, graphene was light and strong,⁶⁰ and it was a great conductor. But more important, it was made from the same carbon atoms that formed everything from graphite to charcoal, so it could be sourced easily. Indeed, the graphene in this run of the machine had been pulled from the smoke of a coal-fired power plant.

There was a burning smell as a laser fired, igniting a tiny flame where the light beam came into contact with the graphene dust, melting and fusing the particles together. Then the roller swept back in the other direction, laying down another thin layer, the laser firing again, back and forth, back and forth.

In each microscopic layer, the laser carved out new shapes in the powder. Slowly, a form began to rise, akin to pieces of paper stacking up. As the laser fused it all together, the form grew into an intricate latticework, almost like a honeycomb. The roller paused as a robotic hand reached over, turned the object thirty degrees, and inserted a feed of electrical wire, and then the layering began again. In ten minutes, the form was complete. The robotic hand reached back in and lifted it up, and a spray of air blew off the remaining dust that clung to the object. The arm then moved the object outside the machine and put it in a cardboard box. After sixty forms had been placed in the box, an alarm rang.

A human worker scurried over, quickly closed the box, and ran a line of packing tape over it, sealing it shut. He slapped a barcode sticker on it, and another worker loaded the box onto a robotic pallet mover that drove itself down the aisles. Where once garden gnomes and children’s bicycles had been stacked and stored, ready for distribution across the retail network, there now stood boxes of reverse-engineered spare parts, from machine-gun belts to wheel brackets to, in this case, a power coupling needed at Mare Island. Outside the warehouse, an eighteen-wheeler truck waited with a manifest for the various items that would be distributed and delivered by the next day.

Back inside, the direct-digital manufacturing machine, also known as a 3-D printer,⁶¹ continued its work. A new software package had been downloaded, and now the device began to build an entirely different object. The process had the efficiency of an assembly line but the flexibility to shift on demand and build any design that could be modeled with computer software.

And, even better, it could reproduce itself. The protocol, as voted on by Lee-Ann’s shareholders, dictated that every tenth run would produce parts for additional 3-D printers. These would then be sold at a discount to the firms that had originally been in Wal-Mart’s supply chain. The seeds of both a manufacturing revolution⁶² and a new kind of defense-industrial complex were being sown within the world’s largest retail chain.

 

Lotus Flower Club, Former French Concession, Shanghai

 

Ritual could be deadly. But ritual also offered its own protection. If you followed the same patterns day after day after day, those watching knew that you had nothing to hide.

So Russian air force major general Sergei Sechin had been going to the Lotus Flower Club now for three years. The same girl. He never asked her name. He knew her only by her number: Twenty-Three.

Twenty-Three wore her jet-black hair short, cropped in a spiky mess that looked sultry, not sloppy. She might have been from Tibet; he wasn’t sure. He never asked, never bothered her with fake conversation. Maybe that was why her dark eyes seemed to light up just a slight bit whenever she saw Sechin, which was once every two weeks. That was enough. He was no longer a young man.

She was chipped, of course. His Chinese counterparts could have all the biofeedback they wanted of an old man’s best effort at screwing his way toward a fleeting moment of escape from age and decay. But at the Lotus Flower Club, that also meant she was wired into the room’s screens on all four walls and the ceiling. The screens pulsed colors depending on her level of arousal. Whatever pills she took worked, because the explosions of light that finished off each session were unlike anything Sechin had ever seen. It was like an aurora borealis in the bedroom.

The concierge guided Sechin to his usual room and left him. Sechin knocked once, then entered.

But she was not the usual Twenty-Three.

The girl under the purple sheets had blue hair and sharp Nordic features.

Shit. Moscow must have sent her. If this was an attempt to kill him, it was not the way he’d thought it would happen. He turned to leave. Let them shoot me in the back, the cowards.

“Be’ ’IH mej ’Iv?” she said.

He froze.

Klingon. She had just spoken Klingon.⁶³

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Be’ ’IH mej ’Iv?” she repeated.

Now he was intrigued. This was too artful for the Directorate or his own intelligence service.

“Who leaves a beautiful woman” indeed?

He sat on the bed and placed one hand on her leg.

“So, we have a language in common—what shall we talk about?” he replied in Klingon.

“Come here,” she said. “I’m cold. I need you to warm me.”

“If you’re not careful, such clumsy talk may make an old man lose his will,” he said.

“Perhaps I can help.” Then she lowered the sheet, revealing her breasts. “I can make them bigger if you like,” she said. “Or smaller. Whatever you wish.” She put a device the size of a matchbox on the nightstand.

Biomorphic breast augmentation was increasingly common, and inexpensive, in China. In Russia, it was taboo and therefore a rarity. Whoever had performed the surgery was very talented.

“There’s no need,” said Sechin under his breath. “They’re perfect as they are. Really.”

He undressed quickly, leaving his clothes in a pile at the foot of the bed.

“Your socks,” she said with a giggle.

“What about them?” he said as he climbed in.

“You can take them off,” she said.

“Never. So I can make a quick getaway,” he said with a wink.

“Not too quick, please,” she said. She pulled the sheets over them. Then she pulled another blanket made of thin metallic fabric over the sheets.

She put a hand over his mouth, and her eyes turned cold and serious, and Sechin realized he was probably not going to get laid. Nor was he going to die. The good with the bad. Such is the intelligence business, he thought.

She stuck her hand out from under the bed’s blanket, and he heard a faint click. What he heard next stunned him. The sounds of Sechin and the previous Twenty-Three making love echoed through the room. Do I really sound like that? Like a boar with a spear stuck in its side, he thought.

“Our mutual friend from the Federation sends his best,” she whispered in his ear.

So the American had heard him after all.

“Then tell me this: Why did he not listen to me when it mattered?” said Sechin. “I risked everything just by using the word Cherenkov. He could have done something.”

“He is doing something now, and you can too,” she said.

“Wait, are you chipped?” he asked.

“Yes, but not by Lotus Flower. I’m still a new girl,” she said. “They’re going to wait to see if I work out before they invest in me. Now tell me about Cherenkov, and none of the Star Trek shit.”

The air under the blanket was heating up quickly and Sechin felt his face flushing from the warmth and his proximity to her. He watched a rivulet of sweat carve an arc between her breasts and move toward an enormous tattoo wreathing her waist.

“It was developed about three years ago at the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects⁶⁴ outside Moscow, our equivalent to your DARPA,” he said. “It’s nuclear-reactor detection from space.”

“How does it work?” she asked.

“There is not enough time now. I will get you something to take to them next time,” he said. “I suppose your superiors will also need to know why I am doing this?”

“Why you’re in bed with me, you mean?” she said.

“They would understand that, I hope. Americans are not that prudish,” he said.

“Okay, then, why?” she asked.

“Our dear leader so badly wants to matter in his old age that he fails to see that one day this will all go bad for Russia. America and Russia had our row in the last century, and it is done. I’ve been here long enough to know that the Directorate is the real threat, and this war only makes them stronger. Russia is merely the junior partner, and it just happens to have fifteen million Chinese residing inside its borders. It does not take an old spy to see that one day very soon the Chinese will assert their ‘right to protect’ their compatriots in Siberia, just as we once did to the weak states on our borders. So that is why I tried to warn your officer, for all the good it did.”

“It’s usually more personal. What do you want from this?” she said.

Sechin sighed and ran a finger between her breasts.

“My dear,” he said. “Don’t we all want the same thing? Money? Sex? A bit of power. Any of the three are fine with me. I’m not particular anymore.”

She rolled her eyes. At that moment, the recording of one of his sessions with Twenty-Three ended with an animal abruptness. She reached out to start the recording over.

“Don’t worry, it’s been modified so it will sound like we’re beginning again,” she whispered in his ear, then she pulled back and looked him in the eye as the grunts started once more. “I don’t believe you. We’ve seen your profile. You’re too much of a romantic for the usual banal causes.”

“‘Too much of a romantic,’ says the whore I am in bed with.”

“Okay, have it your way,” she said. Her voice went from a purr to command mode. “Put your hand here.”

She took his hand and placed it at her waist, stopping at the tattoo. “Do you know what that is?”

He didn’t feel a thing, but he knew enough to make a guess. “It’s one of the new e-tattoos.”

She looked surprised for a second.

“I am not as old as you might think,” he said.

The ink of the tattoo was actually a derivative of the electronic ink used⁶⁵ in the old tablet-computer readers. This modified version allowed the liquid injected into the skin to act as a sort of pillow above and below tiny embedded silicon chips wired together in an origami-like pattern. The liquid and microscopic serpentine wires formed a miniature network woven into her skin. He closed his eyes and traced its outlines while he hummed the middle section of Dmitri Shostako­vich’s Fifth Symphony.⁶⁶

“I’m going to need you to do something for me, and I can’t lie, it’s going to hurt,” she finally said. “But we think it’s the best way to securely get us the information you offer.”

“I was afraid you might ask that,” he said.

She kissed him gently on the chin.

“How can you know pleasure without understanding pain?” she responded as she kissed him again.

 

North Fork of the Kaukonahua Stream, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Push the pace,” Conan hissed, walking in the knee-deep river water. “Or we’re going to miss our window to get inside the perimeter.”

Finn didn’t reply; the only noise was his sandals’ soft sucking in the mud.

The stream was low, hedged in on either side by thick emerald vegetation and slashes of brown. The two walked with hunched backs, their wool blankets drooping heavily on aching shoulders. They were the tail end of the patrol, four more Muj strung out ahead. Charlie had point. He wasn’t military like the rest, but it was time to break him in. He’d been a golf pro at the Turtle Bay Resort, once a star player for Wake Forest University but never making it past the Nike tour level. Finn had served with Charlie’s older brother Aaron, the three of them going out drinking whenever Aaron visited on leave. The Muj had used Charlie’s apartment as a hide site two months back, and he had demanded to go with them. Charlie had said that his big brother had kicked his ass bad enough when they were little, and he wouldn’t survive what happened after the war if Aaron found out he hadn’t been in the fight.

The cuts and scrapes on their legs attested to the night’s hike almost to the top of a nearby peak. They had pulled up a hundred and fifty yards short of the summit to avoid highlighting their position along the ridgeline, and Conan had disappeared for an hour while the rest set a security detail below. Conan would not tell Finn or any of the others why they’d had to go there. They knew she kept it from them for operational security, but it still made the whole trek a sullen expedition.

Now, after a long hike back down, it was raining. Finn splashed into the swollen stream behind Conan and trudged on through the water. Going that way, they left no tracks and erased their movement signature in case they were being monitored from above, but really, he’d have chosen to go the stream route anyway. He had an infected cut on his heel that felt better in the water.

They arrived at a small pedestrian bridge they had hidden the bicycles under. It was a motley mix they’d picked up along the way, just like their array of weapons. Finn had scored the best, a 27.5-inch wheeled carbon downhill mountain bike with motorcycle-like suspension they’d stolen from a vacation villa whose owners were unlikely to come back until the war was over. Conan rode a three-speed faded green beater with a narrow white racing seat that they’d found unlocked by the side of the road. Their guess was that it had been a drunk-cycle, a bike used to pedal from bar to bar, before it was pressed into wartime duty.

They left in ones and twos, going out through Hidden Valley Estates to California Avenue. Movement in the open like this had to be carefully choreographed because of the Directorate’s tracking algorithms, which pored through aerial and satellite-sensor footage. Over time, any unusual patterns would become distinct and therefore targetable. The trick was to find patterns that were part of the standard ebb and flow but also had slightly random components that could explain away any anomalies. Patterns like the daily rhythms of kids biking to and from their elementary school.

As the flow of children heading into Iliahi Elementary School,⁶⁷ a few on their own, others dropped off by their parents, started to slow, Conan nodded at Finn. Like on patrol, they staggered their arrivals. They’d go in with the latecomers and then swing toward the back, where there was an outbuilding used for storing athletic equipment. For the past four months, Coach Moaki, the gym teacher, had allowed the Muj to stash a few boxes of grenades, stims, and ammunition there. The insurgents also slept there from time to time. It was one of many caches they used in the area. They knew a few of the other teachers were likely aware of what they were doing, but not a single one ever made eye contact with them.

“You know, before all this I used to do triathlons,” Finn said to Conan as they waited in the vegetation by the road. “Get up at oh-five-hundred for a trail run and then go twenty miles on the bike. Oh, and camping. For fun. That’s pretty much what we’re doing now, right? Well, screw that. When this is all over, I’m going to move to New York City and never go outside again.”

They had just mounted their bikes when a shot rang out.

“Pistol,” said Conan. “At the school.”

 

Moana Surfrider Hotel, Waikiki Beach, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

He had been to the old hotel many times before. Never to sleep; the place felt too much like a target for a truck bomb. He came every so often just to swim and drink fresh pineapple and guava juice. The beach was perfection, perhaps worth the invasion for just this stretch, Markov thought. If they had let him, he would have slept on the beach; he would have preferred it to the cheap motel by the airport that the Chinese had turned into barracks.

At the moment, he was in the wrong company for a day on the sand. Jian, as ever, dutifully followed behind.

Markov wore his Russian army fatigues, which were getting more and more faded with each day in the Pacific sun. He would rather have worn local clothes, but the few times he had done that, it had only brought him grief with General Yu.

The two men crossed the lobby, slowing their pace to take advantage of the air conditioning. As they weaved through groups of Directorate sailors, soldiers, and marines, Markov noticed that Jian had taken to walking five meters behind him. The bastard was trying to act like he was simply going in the same direction, embarrassed at his peers’ seeing him with the Russian.

As they passed one of the bars, Markov almost stopped, stricken by a sudden thirst. Then he pushed past the temptation and moved on to the intended destination.

“Hi, boys,” said the woman behind the surf desk. “I’m sorry, but your teammates took them all. No boards left.”

He was struck by the banal tone of her voice. In his whole time in Hawaii, he had never heard a local speak without some fleck of anger. But this woman sounded as if she were talking to a sunburned family of four from Chicago. Either she was on quite a cocktail of drugs or she was an utter idiot.

“It’s too bad, you know,” she continued, “because today there’s a perfect swell for beginners.”

Markov walked closer to the desk and locked eyes with her.

“Regrettably, this is work,” he said. “We’re looking for information about a Directorate officer whose body was found on the beach.”

“I heard,” she said. “It’s so sad.”

The nameplate on the desk identified her as Carrie Shin. Markov walked his eyes down Carrie’s body, passing over her breasts but looking closely at her arms, searching for signs of needle tracks that might explain her demeanor. Maybe a little makeup on her forearm, but he couldn’t be sure without looking at the skin up close.

“It is sad. How did he get possession of one of the hotel’s boards?” said Markov.

“We think he took it after hours. We didn’t think we had to lock them up anymore,” said Shin. Her voice lowered and her shoulders sagged, as if even the possibility of theft saddened her.

“When did he last rent a board here?” he asked.

“I saw him once,” she said. “Maybe two weeks ago? I think that was his first time surfing. He was really excited. He asked about a lesson but I couldn’t do it then. I wish I had. Sandy Beach Park is one of the most dangerous places on the islands to surf—not a good place for a beginner.”

Markov studied the way her tanned skin seemed to give back some of the sun’s warmth. He leaned in closer for his next question, wondering just how dark the circles under her eyes were when the makeup was washed away.

“Are there any other employees whom I should talk to?” he said.

She smiled and leaned away, arching her back in a subtle stretch. “This hotel is the safest place in town, for everyone. That’s the point, isn’t it?” she said. “Why would anyone do anything to upset that?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“The one thing I never heard was how he died.” She chattered on, slaking her curiosity in a way other locals never would have dared. “What did happen to him?”

“The board’s leash got caught around his neck,” said Markov. “But it is not yet clear whether it was an accident or not.”

“Oh my God. That’s horrible,” she said. “Wasn’t there any video of the beach? Maybe a wave-cam?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.” He paused. “But as part of the revised security measures, we will be collecting something better from all the staff here.”

“Better than pictures?” she said.

“Much better. DNA,” he said. “That way we can track our friends throughout the island,” he said.

“Friends like me?” she said.

“Exactly,” he said.

 

Iliahi Elementary School, Wahiawa, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The body lay sprawled face-down on the ground. The mesh bag of soccer balls that the Chinese marine had brought for the students to play with had opened and the balls had spilled out; bright pink and yellow spheres rolled around the courtyard, leaving trails of blood behind them.

Nicks’s grip on her SIG Sauer P220 loosened for a moment, then she squeezed the pistol tighter. Her hearing returned and her field of vision widened, allowing her to take in the chaos. Parents and children screamed over the ringing in her ears.

This was what the coach had been trying to warn them about when Nicks and the three other insurgents turned left off California Avenue. The coach had smiled a welcome but had waved his hands off to the side. Nicks cursed herself for missing the cue, caught up momentarily in the flash of normalcy brought on by the giddy kids around them.

“Contact!” shouted Charlie.

“A bit late for that,” said Nicks. “You hit?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Charlie. “There’s got to be more; where are they?”

A Chinese marine burst around the gym corner, his assault rifle spraying wildly. A shot took Charlie in the neck. Nicks, with her pistol already up, instinctively fired two .45-caliber rounds at a distance of ten feet. The marine spun and collapsed over a blue hippo sculpture in the school’s courtyard.

More fearful shouts in Chinese came from where the marine had been.

Nicks and the two other insurgents rounded the corner and found a lone Chinese civilian, evidently a member of one of the new community development units⁶⁸ they’d been sending around to split the population from the insurgents, crying into a radio. She had a pistol but made no motion to use it; her two escorts were now dead.

They dragged her past Charlie’s still body and over to the entrance of the building, and they took cover by the doors. After a moment, the woman stopped crying, and the unsettling calm that followed close combat came over Nicks. Her ears rang, her hands tingled, and she felt like her feet were so firmly planted in the ground, she couldn’t take another step if her life depended on it. The feeling would pass, as it always did after the adrenaline waned, but in the moment, it took everything she had to stay focused and think about what was supposed to happen next.

“She was on the radio,” Nicks shouted to her squad mates, too loud because her ears were still ringing. “I don’t know if she got someone on the other end. But we gotta tell Conan this place is blown and get clear.”

She looked up and saw three kids peering down at her from behind the blue-painted railings on the school’s second-floor balcony. They looked blankly at the dead bodies and then at the NSM members. Then, one by one, they began to look skyward, until they were all squinting at the sky to the south.

That was when Nicks’s ears cleared and she heard it too, the thumping of helicopter rotors coming closer.

 

Hidden Valley Estates, Wahiawa, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Conan and Finn cut through the empty parking lot of the Mormon church adjacent to the school, jumping off their bikes as they entered a stand of trees separating the church from the houses nearby. They kept beneath a long canopy of thick green foliage that ran through the clusters of one-story and two-story homes in the Hidden Valley Estates housing complex. Seeing a quadcopter drone zoom down the road toward the school, they ducked down and hid among the trees.

“Hold here,” said Conan.

“Screw that, let’s go,” said Finn. “We can get to the cache, arm up, and then get them out.”

Conan shook her head. “No, we can’t,” she said.

Neighbors had begun to spill out of their homes into the street, pointing and screaming. Some of them, probably parents, were rushing toward the school, racing against the arrival of the Directorate forces.

Finn turned to look at her, trying to puzzle it out. “Conan, our guys are one thing, but the kids. There are kids there.”

“Exactly,” said Conan quietly.

“What? What do you think is going to happen?” said Finn.

She didn’t answer, just stared back at him. Finn tried to get up, but she wrestled him down. He had just shrugged off her grip when a pair of Directorate Z-8K assault helicopters⁶⁹ roared overhead and then spun to flare just above the playing field next to the school. One after another, black-suited Directorate commandos jumped out. They fanned out around the landing point, the equipment shed with the weapons cache now inside their perimeter.

Finn ducked back under the brush and looked at her angrily. “Conan. You know our guys—they are going to fight. And those kids and teachers are going to be stuck in the middle of a shitstorm.”

“It was always a risk⁷⁰ that something bad would go down at the school,” said Conan in a whisper. “Why do you think I chose it?”

 

Fort Mason, San Francisco

 

“I love you.”

Jamie knew what Lindsey would say when he walked through the door. She said it every night, even when he knew it was a struggle for her to get the words out.

Nights like tonight when he returned home late, exhausted and drained. The adrenaline had ebbed months ago; what propelled him now was a cocktail of caffeine, stims, and anger.

The boat hit the dock’s edge gently, perfectly done, and he sharply saluted the shipyard launch that dropped him off at pier 2 in the dark. It was a perk of command that spared him the long autobus ride home and kept him on the water that much longer. Plus, it was only a quick walk up to his house in Fort Mason and he could be home in a few minutes once he set foot on land.

Like every night, though, he first stopped and sat down on a bench, a vestige of a time when this was an area for festivals and tourists. From his seat he looked west through the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge was illuminated⁷¹ tonight, the LEDs woven into the cable wires showing a winking flag displayed, fifty stars bright. It was something the governor had decided to do, against the advice of the Defense Department. The bridge was a symbol of what they were fighting for, he argued, and should not be lost in the fog of war and the Bay. That speech had gone over well; no doubt one of his public affairs team’s own social-engineering algorithms had come up with it.

Jamie took a last sip of coffee and slowly dumped the rest out, watching it spatter the ground at his feet. It was oddly soothing and had become a ritual as he tried to slow his mind down from the past sixteen hours at work.

“Halt!” said a voice in the dark.

Simmons looked up and saw no one. He was tired, but tired enough to hear things?

“Identification,” said a sentry. It was one of the California National Guard troops who patrolled the waterfront around the clock.

“Proceed,” said Simmons. “Captain James Simmons. Navy. I live at the fort, house forty-nine.”

The sentry scanned the barcode next to the left epaulet on Simmons’s uniform.

“Thank you, sir,” said the sentry. “Quiet night.”

“No trouble?” said Simmons.

“No, there never is,” said the sentry, suddenly sounding old and tired. “What’s that smell?” He clutched his M4 closer to his chest and inhaled deeply. “Damn, is that real coffee?”

“Yes, from onboard,” said Simmons.

“I knew I signed up for the wrong service. When you work as a barista at Starbucks and then the country runs out of coffee, well, you just can’t drink the fake stuff, on principle,” said the sentry. “That’s when I joined up. Spent the first few weeks of basic with the worst headaches, though. I’d charge the beach myself if they could promise me a fresh cup of Kona reserve on the other side.”

“We’ll get you that Hawaiian coffee soon enough,” said Simmons.

“Thank you, sir. You have a good night,” said the sentry.

“You too,” said Simmons, and he started up the hill for home.

Jamie opened the front door quietly and slipped inside. At eleven o’clock, he’d missed the kids and dinner, but he could still spend an hour with Lindsey. Squeaking floorboards announced his arrival.

The dining room was empty. He looked in the living room to see if she had fallen asleep on the couch reading.

“Hey? Linds, still up?” he whispered.

He looked around the floor of the living room. Where were the toys? Oddly, there was nothing underfoot. He remembered the frenetic cleanups his father had imposed on him when he was the same age as his kids now. The sight of toys out of place, any sign, really, that children lived in his house, would set his father off.

“Linds?” he called again.

He gingerly walked upstairs. A faint glow emanated from their bedroom.

When he walked in, his heart soared and his stomach ached. Lindsey stood before him holding out a glass of sparkling wine, wearing only a red silk robe. Candles from their disaster kit lit the room. From a big pink beach bucket filled with ice, the neck of a champagne bottle stood at attention.

“Happy anniversary,” she said.

He took the flute and kissed her. How could he have forgotten?

“Fifteen years,” he said.

“I found you, lost you, and got you back again,” she said.

“Happy anniversary,” he said. “Sorry I’m late for it.”

“The kids are asleep, and the house is ours. For the next little while.”

“I have to be in early tomorrow,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “You’re going to be tired.”

“Very,” he said, removing the robe. They made love with the patient pleasure that comes from focusing on each other completely.

Afterward, they lay back and looked out at the bridge in the dark, fog beginning to devour its pillars.

“One day you’re going back out there,” she said.

“I know. And I know what I promised before all this. But I have to be out there now. You know that, right?”

“I’m not going to tell you not to go,” she said. “But all I think about is that we haven’t had enough time together. Fifteen years is not enough.”

“No, it’s not,” he said. “What I do each day, I do to make sure I will be back. That’s it, in its simplest sense.”

“I know,” she said.

“My dad left my mom after fifteen years, did you know that?” he said.

“Is that why you forgot tonight?” she said.

This wasn’t one of those binary choices. He could go in so many different directions. Anger. Denial. Submission. Regret.

“I am so sorry, Lindsey,” he said. “For tonight. For everything. For staying in the Navy when I told you I was done. I’m sorry. It’s all I can say.”

“Just don’t do it again,” she said, and kissed him deeply.

 

Hangar One, Moffett Field, Mountain View, California

 

The thing that always jarred Daniel Aboye was the smell. The space was cavernous,⁷² 1,140 feet by 308 feet, to be exact, the size of three Superdomes. But the smell filled even that void. To someone from outside the valley, it was the tangy funk of old pizza and people who’d gone too long without a shower. But to anyone local, it smelled like money. Fame. Power. Success. So much had changed in Silicon Valley’s startup scene during the past few decades, but there was one constant. This smell.

And the fact that it now filled Hangar One⁷³ made it all the more appropriate.

In 1931, the city fathers of Sunnyvale, California, had come up with a unique plan⁷⁴ for economic development. They’d raised $480,000 to buy nearly a thousand acres of farmland and then sold off the land to the U.S. government for one dollar. What was to make it such a good investment was the topography of the farmland: it was the only part of San Francisco Bay not regularly shrouded in fog. The deal was that Sunnyvale would then become the home for a new planned Navy fleet of “flying aircraft carriers,” massive helium-filled airships that would serve as bases in the air for propeller biplanes.

The plan didn’t work out as anticipated, not for Sunnyvale or the blimps. In 1933, the USS Akron, the Navy’s test airborne aircraft carrier, crashed. The plan was shelved, its only legacy that the airfield was renamed after Admiral William Moffett, the head of the Navy’s Aeronautics Bureau, who had been killed in the crash. But, fortunately for the town, World War II interceded a few years later, and Moffett Field became a base for patrol airplanes and then the home of the U.S. Air Force Satellite Test Center. By the 1950s, several big aerospace firms clustered around the base and the test center. The thousands of scientists and engineers who moved into the sunny valley built close ties with local universities, and the old farmland became the hub of a different industry. The city fathers’ plan of economic growth through blimp basing instead spawned what became known as Silicon Valley.⁷⁵

In the defense drawdown of the 1990s, most of Moffett was abandoned and the facility was handed over to NASA’s Ames Research Center.⁷⁶ Little remained of the military presence except for its signature building, the largest hangar in the world.

Bits and pieces of the base were sold off to private industry over the ensuing years, starting when Google acquired Hangar One⁷⁷ and turned it into a site for executive jets. When he had first arrived in Silicon Valley and seen all that ambition and vision, let alone cash flow, Aboye felt outgunned. Now, he just had to make a phone call and the massive hangar was at his disposal. Larry and Sergey had not asked what would happen inside; they knew only that he needed a massive space away from prying eyes.

Now Hangar One was the team’s new home, though they had taken to calling it Aboye’s Ark. Taj Lamott, chief technology officer of Uni, had come up with that, a joke about either the size of the place or the crazy vision of the man who’d brought them all together. Daniel had been an early investor in Uni, which was now one of the leading video-game studios in Palo Alto, and in a few of the firms he had quietly reached out to. At other firms, though he wasn’t an investor, his reputation had been enough. That, and the simple lure of the offer. It was the opportunity, he had said, to be part of Silicon Valley’s most important startup ever.

The rule for selection had been simple. The CTO of each firm Aboye talked to would designate his or her three best programmers. The limited numbers were ostensibly to keep the project in stealth mode, as the investors called it. The goal was to hide their business not only from Directorate spies, but also from the National Security Agency. Even if the NSA’s networks weren’t pwned by the Directorate, which most people suspected they still were, anger over the sneak backdoors of the old Snowden-era scandals lingered. The NSA had cost Silicon Valley⁷⁸ hundreds of billions of dollars, and its citizens weren’t in a forgiving mood, even years later.

But the limited numbers were also about the value of an idea, its yield as well as its transformative power. Aboye and his group couldn’t throw hundreds of thousands of programmers at the problem, as the Directorate had done before the war with its so-called human-flesh-search-machine⁷⁹ censorship that had morphed into the massive hacker attack that opened the assault. Nor did they want to. They all knew that a great programmer was literally orders of magnitude better than a good one. And they also all knew from experience that the best way to accomplish something considered undoable was merely to bring the right minds together.

Some of the CTOs had sent their top executives, including a few billionaire founders who relished the chance to get their hands dirty again. Others sent the smelly, misanthropic coding beasts they usually hid away in the basement. The sum total, though, made Hangar One the greatest gathering of geniuses since the Manhattan Project.

The only other contribution each firm was asked to make was a single corporate jet. That was a key part of the cover. The volunteers would show up at Hangar One as if they were heading out of town, and then the jets would fly off to various business conferences and corporate offsite meetings. However, each jet would fly out just a few people short. It had been a perfect cover story, until the matter of pizza had come up. Daniel had solved that by creating another startup company located in an office complex just across the street. Although the business was supposedly an app maker for the health-care industry, its sole purpose was to serve as a destination for the pizza deliveries.

It had all worked so far. As Aboye waited for the test, he pinched the skin at the inside of his wrist, just as he had done as a boy when the hunger got so bad he would see double. How long had it been since he’d had to worry about his next meal? Thirty years? Forty? Now, the familiar pain soothed his anxiety.

He had a lot to worry about at this moment. The bank of monitors along the wall in the southwest corner of the control room flashed and winked with a rainbow’s array of colors, each a hue hinting at failure.

“Here it goes,” he said to the engineers assembled in a circle at the center of the room. Together they stood, staring hard into the shifting light form in the middle of their grouping, moving their gloved hands in syncopated rhythms. They had depicted the Directorate data networks as a library. There were three levels to the holographic building, and a white-painted atrium let in an amber sunset that illuminated the central hall. The hologram rendered six of Aboye’s team in the middle of the atrium, each as a featureless black form that looked to be made of turbid smoke. The wraithlike bodies had no identifying features.

Aboye watched Taj maestroing his part, his fingers in the gloves dancing away like a conductor’s as he stood uneasily on a swiveling chair mounted on casters. It was something that he swore helped him focus, even if the risk of falling, and failure, was higher now than it ever had been. A few billion richer, he was still the same Taj that Aboye had met nine years ago during a job interview at which Aboye had told Taj he was so talented that he could not in good conscience hire him. They had been friends ever since, and Aboye now wondered if this was what he had actually wanted Taj to do all along.

“This is the jumping-off point,” said Arran Smythe, nominated by the group to be the program’s chief engineer, largely because of her comparatively calm demeanor. Outside the hangar, she worked on network design for Amazon. She was a tall, thin woman who moved with precise, choppy gestures whether or not she was working in a sim. Like the rest of the engineers and programmers, she wore the same kind of formfitting one-piece gray utility coveralls used by astronauts. That had been the Tesla team’s idea. At first it seemed to Aboye like they were playing dress-up, but over time he saw how they stood taller when they put on the suits.

“Wyc, you’re first.” Smythe’s voice almost bubbled with excitement. Aboye knew why she and the rest of them were happy. They were re-experiencing the joy of a startup, discovering what their unbound minds could accomplish.

In the holographic projection, one of the dark forms dashed from the library atrium into the shadows of the stacks. Then another.

“Taj, next,” said Smythe.

The casters on Taj’s chair began to creak and he twisted slightly back and forth as he manipulated the control rings on his fingers. What he saw on his goggles was only for him, but the jerky gestures attested to a problem.

On the holographic screen, the black forms ran in and out of the atrium, dropping off books in what was now a burning pyre in the middle of the room.

“Fudge!” shouted Taj, still the innocent little boy at heart. “Gosh-darn mother-fudging network!”

The library’s glass ceiling crashed in and water began to come through, the simulated network’s automated defenses now reacting. First came a heavy rain, which the wraiths tried to shoot fire back at, the visualization of their counterprograms, but then came a vast, unending deluge, as if a river had been diverted and was pouring into the atrium.

Taj’s chair toppled over and he tried to catch himself but landed hard on his tailbone. He rolled over onto his side, clutching his wrist.

The hologram’s library pyre was now extinguished and the black forms found themselves underwater. They flickered out one by one as the water rose quickly from floor to floor. Smythe turned off the hologram and looked at Aboye with something like shame. The automated defenses had detected and defeated them. The cone of light around them brightened slightly, indicating the test was over.

Aboye moved to help Taj up but then checked himself. Angrily, he thought that perhaps Taj needed to learn a lesson from the pain, and maybe grow up a bit. He turned his back on the group and made for the darkness across the hangar, walking past row after row of murmuring servers, the waves of warmth washing over him.

He reached the exit. He faintly heard Smythe issuing commands to the room, but the rushing of blood in his ears prevented him from understanding them.

As soon as he was outside, he sat down, closed his eyes, and covered his head with his arms. He sighed. What else could he do? This was not working out like it was supposed to.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. He sprang up and saw Taj, a white cryo-pack on his wrist.

“Is it all right?” asked Aboye.

“My wrist or the project?” said Taj. “Thanks for making sure I was okay.”

“My apologies. I didn’t handle that well,” said Aboye. “You know how I can be, and, well, this didn’t go as planned.”

“Look, there’s no sugarcoating it. We’re in trouble. Running out of time and money too,” said Taj.

“I will spend every last dollar I have,” Aboye said. “I started with nothing, so that is not my fear. I fear failure, and what it would mean for this country. We need to succeed because of the importance of our mission, yes. That is crucial. But there is something bigger on the line. Do you know what it is?”

“I’ve been going full tilt for three days. Stop with the riddles,” said Taj.

“We need to become again the country that breaks the hard problems, that sees the virtue in innovation and the reward in risk,” he said. “If we do not succeed, then I worry that all truly is lost.”

“Daniel, stop trying to put the weight of the world on our shoulders. We’ll never crack it if we think that way. We all joined for that stuff, but also for the challenge. That’s the fun part.”

Aboye could muster no reply. Instead he turned from Taj and walked slowly down the runway, gazing up at the starry sky.

As he walked along the deserted tarmac, the massive hangar building slowly shrank behind him and clouds gradually hid the stars above him. A gust of wet wind left a fine mist on his face, and he stopped in the middle of the runway. He felt truly lost, and he did the only thing he knew to do when he felt that way. He sank to his knees and began to pray.

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

“Smells like victory!” somebody said. Laughter followed.

Vern Li peeked out between the fist-size gap in the curtain on her bunk. Flashes of flesh. Gray underwear. She wrinkled her nose as the stink of digested rations worked its way into her bunk. It mixed with the smell of her coveralls: her sweat and the remnants of epoxy from some of the structural reinforcements she had been trying to work around a few hours before. She smiled and stifled a laugh. It was so awful, all of it, that you just had to give in to it. It had been three days since she’d showered.

Closing her eyes, she tried to wedge herself into the corner. But what had started out as laughter flipped over to tears as quickly as powering on a pair of glasses.

She felt silly, knowing the mix of laughter and tears was just from being so tired and loopy. Before the war, she had planned to redefine how to power machines. Energy, the magic of the battery, was the essence of their utility. It was what gave machines life and gave humans their life force: an electrical spirit. Or so she’d thought when she was smoking weed in high school. Now she was just a machine herself. No different than any other device on the ship. She felt drained, empty.

Vern wiped her tears away and slipped on her glasses to check the time: 0443.

She batted the curtain aside, trying to ignore the yellow pulsing 14.3 in the corner of her vision that indicated the number of hours of REM sleep she needed in order to return to average performance. She hoped the rainbow glow of the code she reviewed as she made her way to the galley would help obscure her red eyes. Somehow, she would get through another day.

Out in the hallway, or passageway, as the crew kept correcting her, she followed the line headed toward the galley.

“Good morning, Dr. Li,” said a voice behind her.

Mike stood in the middle of the passageway, a massive ceramic coffee cup held loosely in his left hand. He wore his usual orange utility vest over the navy blue overalls, a color combination that made him look like one of those prisoners from the Syrian intervention. But the old guy still had that something, she had to admit. He’d aged well, sort of like that old movie star the People zine kept putting in their annual list, decades after his first time on the cover.⁸⁰

“Can I ask you to come with me to the rail-gun magazine? Need you to take a look at something I’m working on,” he said.

She looked at him blankly, still trying to wake up fully.

“If you want, you can grab some chow. The work can hold for a few minutes,” he said.

“Maybe for you, old man. But all a modern girl needs is a little willpower and a lot of pill power.” She stepped into the galley and grabbed a bright red can of Coke Prime and an inch-long foil packet of energy and sustenance pills.

Vern’s stomach was growling, but she didn’t want to show weakness. She smiled to herself. It was all the same, whether you were on the high school volleyball team, in grad school, or at war: never let ’em see you sweat.

“All right, then,” he said with a slight tone of admiration. “Breakfast of champions it is, Dr. Li.”

But as Vern followed Mike down the passageway, she held the cold metal of the can to her forehead, trying to keep back the headache until the pills hit.

They came to a hatch, what the Navy guys called a door, and Mike moved aside to let her pass through first. She thought he’d smell like old man or engine grease, but instead she smelled citrus.

“Don’t want you getting scurvy. We had to worry about that back in my day,” he said as he held out a freshly peeled orange to her.

She took the orange with a smile.

The rail-gun magazine extended below the turret, deeper into the ship, and that was where Vern sat, on an upturned plastic crate. She watched Mike welding and slowly ate the orange slices, savoring the tartness. This space was cramped, and she sat within arm’s reach of Mike. Looking through her goggles, she saw the flare of the welding torch create an eclipse-like profile of the old chief. Streaks of sweat tracked down his neck. Then the torch abruptly snapped off. He lifted his welding mask, eyes blinking at the smoke, and moved so that she could see the rack that held the armatures for the rail-gun rounds.

“You see how it’s done, Dr. Li?” said Mike.

She slowly chewed her last orange slice, unsure what he meant.

“The welds? I want you to see how it’s done,” he said. “Up there, in the turret, we can do it your way, but you’re missing the technique, the art of it . . . If you just melt the surface of the wire or fitting and let it stick to the surface, it might be good enough for some lab, but it wouldn’t hold under the kind of pressures we could get in action. It’s about doing it smoothly, to ensure a proper mixing of the materials. Let me show you. Put my mask on and pass me your goggles.”

He motioned her over to the square of blue-foam padding he’d been kneeling on and handed her a pair of welding gloves.

“Those gloves should fit. I had to guess the size, but I think I got it. So this is structural, what we’re doing. Nobody’s going to see it, but everybody’s going to depend on it,” he said. “We’ll do a first pass then we’ll see how it goes.”

She knelt and he sat on the box behind her, reaching around to her left side to help her keep a steady hand as the torch flared. Back and forth they went until Mike let her use the torch without his help.

“There you go. Make a puddle, keep track of that as it builds,” he said, guiding her hand slowly across the seam where the armature rack connected to the deck. “We’ll need to make a few passes and then let it cool. Then again. Good technique comes with practice.”

“Why aren’t you using a laser welder?” asked Vern.

“Because there’s no reason to get fancy,” said Mike. “The old MIG welder works,⁸¹ so why change? No need to teach an old dog new tricks if the old ones still get the job done. You’ll learn that one eventually.”

 

Lotus Flower Club, Former French Concession, Shanghai

 

He knew not to ask her name, so for now, she was just the new Twenty-Three.

Sechin opened the door and found her waiting under the sheets. Her eyes were wide open, unblinking, and tracked him with the kind of focus that came from a pill. To Sechin, she looked harder and, while still beautiful, slightly less inviting. The downsides of a professional’s existence. Once again, purpose trod upon pleasure, thought Sechin.

With the old Twenty-Three, everything was about what he wanted. With the new Twenty-Three, it was about what she wanted, first details on the Cherenkov program and now information on Directorate defenses in the northern Pacific.

Once he’d undressed and folded his clothes, he slipped under the sheets. They were orange this time. The delight of being under the covers with her warm, naked body was undeniable. It was that moment he savored, that first moment of contact with her skin as she quickly pulled the sheets over him.

She put a finger to her lips and he nodded. She lay back and closed her eyes. He watched her chest rise and fall with her steady breathing. He studied the tattoo at her waist. It was an intricate wreath of roses and snakes. He made out a cobra and a coral snake. There were two others that he could not identify. The roses were beautiful.

Then she turned on the recording of Sechin and the previous Twenty-Three’s lovemaking and began to arrange the thin blanket that would shield their conversation. He felt his cheeks flush with embarrassment.

“I think it is everything you are looking for,” said Sechin. “But I can’t guarantee that I was able to get it out clean. I tried but there is an urgency to all of this that—”

“Are you compromised?” she demanded, leaning on one elbow. She ran a finger down his chest and stopped at a fresh scar just below his navel. It was about an inch wide and was covered with the clear surgical glue used to seal the incision. Sechin had made the cut himself using the surgi-pen he found in the CIA dead drop behind an eel vendor’s stall at Shanghai’s Tangjiawan Lu wet market.

“Entirely,” he said with a dramatic sigh that released a warm cloud of stale tobacco and vodka under the covers. Twenty-Three wrinkled her nose with disappointment.

“This is not the time to make jokes,” she said. “So tell me, are you compromised?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “Like I said, I moved quickly because I had to. But I was careful. I always am.”

“Then let’s proceed,” she said. “And you can relax.”

“Happily,” he said. “Do you want to be on top?”

She shook her head and shifted her weight under him. Her hand probed around the area of his incision. He winced at the pain, and she apologized.

“Okay, I feel the chip,” she said. “Move a little to the left. Your left. There.”

The epidermal electronic reader hidden in the tattoo’s ink vibrated faintly as it downloaded Sechin’s file with a tickling sensation. He tried to kiss her and she pulled back.

“Stop!” she hissed. “Hold very, very still.”

The vibration continued for almost a minute and then both of them looked at each other as the sensation abruptly ceased.

“That wasn’t so bad,” he said. “Is it enough to end a war? Certainly wars have been started for less.”

“I need to go,” she said, trying to roll him off her. “This cannot wait.”

“Of course it can,” he said. “Besides, if I leave too quickly, won’t they think you’re not up to the job?”

With a resigned look, she nestled next to him. “You’re going to just hold me,” she said. This time, it seemed her command was not about the job. He grasped her shoulder and felt her tremble for a moment.

“If you were not scared, you would not be doing it right,” he said gently.

He’d begun to tell himself that they were making a connection when the recording stopped and she abruptly threw the sheet off them.

“Our time is up,” she said as she turned her back on him and began to get dressed.

“Of course it is,” he said.

 

USS Zumwalt, West of Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay

 

“Remember, just don’t hit the bridge,” said executive officer Horatio Cortez as the Zumwalt passed Angel Island to starboard.⁸²

Two cups of coffee ago, the ship had cast off from the pier at Mare Island for the first time since its overhaul. It was an anxious moment. Had it not been for the Mentor Crew’s ease in handling the ship’s lines, Simmons was pretty sure the ship would still be in port; the kids who’d helped refit the ship’s systems had no idea how to get a warship under way. The Zumwalt had carefully processed from the shipyard at Mare Island down to Alcatraz Island, where it maneuvered to a very specific patch of the Bay, just off eBay Park’s pier.⁸³

The highly anticipated visit was timed to coincide with a San Francisco Giants game against the Washington Nationals. The Directorate well knew the Americans were refurbishing the ship by watching from above; they just didn’t know any details. So the public rollout at the baseball game on a night when military personnel were given free tickets was billed as a morale booster. Secretary of Defense Marylyn Claiburne was even coming in to throw the first pitch.

After her debut on the pitcher’s mound, however, she was not going to the owner’s private box, as most visiting dignitaries would do. Her next stop would be the Zumwalt’s bridge, where they could use the night game at the park as a cover to test out the ship’s new power systems.

 

Pier 1, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

She actually had to fight for this one.

At Local, a nightclub off Ala Moana Boulevard near pier 1, Carrie nearly caused a brawl trying to get this marine to dance with her. The Russian prostitute he was with looked like a junkie, and all it took was a discreet and well-placed foot to send her sprawling on the dance floor. Local’s security, off-duty Directorate forces, whisked the prostitute out before she even had a chance to get back to her feet. It was her pimp that was the problem. He took Carrie for competition and grabbed her by the back of the neck to pull her off the dance floor. A roundhouse kick from her dance partner sent the pimp into a group of Directorate sailors stuffing money and pills into a naked table dancer’s scuffed white boots.

After another close dance, she asked him to take her somewhere they could be alone. That turned out to be an eight-wheeled armored assault vehicle that looked exactly like one of the vehicles she used to see around her fiancé’s air base. Cocooned inside the welded steel hull, the two sat facing each other in the compartment that was big enough to carry up to seven soldiers. A monitor’s faint red light shone down from the opening of the wedge-shaped 105 mm cannon turret above them. With the stench of sweat and stale food inside, the Directorate marine must have felt like he was trying to get laid in a dumpster, but apparently he didn’t care.

He turned his back to her and reached forward to the music player rigged between the front seats. She could see the muscles in his shoulders ripple and looked at the four rainbow-hued tiger tattoos that covered his back and upper arms. His shaved head revealed a Morse code of scars, a lot for someone who couldn’t be more than twenty-five.

“I have jazz,” he said. “Chinese. Okay?”

Carrie laughed. “Sure.”

Through the open rear hatch, she could hear the faint lapping of the water just beneath the pier where the vehicle was parked.

“Your English is good,” she said.

“My parents made me learn since I was two,” said the marine. “For business.”

Carrie raised a shot glass of the baijiu he’d poured for her. It tasted like shitty vodka.

“To your parents,” she said. “But this is not business. A thank-you for your rescuing me . . . I think you should shut the door now.”

“The hatch,” he said and squeezed past her to shut them inside the vehicle. The heavy steel and the layer of reactive armor affixed to the exterior suddenly made the soundproof space they shared feel very small.

She climbed forward on all fours with a feline fluidity and straddled him. She still wore the black silk cocktail dress, but her high heels hung from a gear rack. He wore only the sheer black pants that seemed to be the Directorate off-duty uniform for nightclubs and bars.

The piano playing on the speakers was barely acceptable; it sounded kind of like Art Hodes,⁸⁴ if he were a half-drunk robot and had a stim pump running on overdrive. Carrie’s father had come from Gary, Indiana, in Chicago’s shadow, and had taught her about the beauty of jazz and the horror of men.

She kissed him, tasting only alcohol, then she arched her upper body away from him.

“Do you have any restraints?” she said.

“I’ll do anything.” He grinned.

“Of course you will,” she said. “I mean like a rope.”

“Can I record it for my feed?”

“This is for us, nobody else. No viz, okay?”

She leaned forward and kissed the nape of his neck and then his ear, careful to let her nipples move their way toward his face.

“Over there, in the bag,” he said. “There should be something for prisoners. Careful.”

She pulled out a roll of fluorescent-yellow nanopore tape used to bind wrists. It leached its bright color into the skin, creating a visual trace that announced you’d been nabbed; the substance was also rumored to be traceable by Directorate sensors.

In the red light, the tape glowed bright, and it unrolled silently as she began to bind his left wrist to the honeycombed aluminum base of one of the jump seats running along the interior of the carrier.

“Whoa, I thought we were going to tie you up,” he said.

“Are you scared?” she asked. “A big guy like you?”

She stepped back, tape still in hand, and slid out of the dress, now fully naked. “Frisk me if you want, there’s no weapons on this insurgent.”

“Okay, but only my left hand,” he said. “Leave the other free. You may be beautiful, but you’re still an American.”

She responded by stepping forward, kneeling before him, and placing a kiss on his navel. Seeing him nod in pleasure, she continued to tie his left wrist to the seat post. She kissed him again and then abruptly stopped. A look of pity came over her face, followed by her gleaming smile washed in the red light.

She reached back into the bag where she’d found the nanopore tape and pulled out a folding knife with a five-inch blade.

His right hand started to reach out fast, but before he could grab her wrist, she placed the knife in his open palm, the blade still locked shut.

“See, nothing to fear,” she said.

She kissed him, starting with his ears, then his chin, and then his neck, drawing out her progress until she stopped at his belt buckle. She reached up and held his free hand, still holding the closed knife. The metallic snap of the blade flashing open was easily heard above the rhythmic piano.

“What are you doing?” he said. The knife was open in his right hand, and her fingers wrapped around his, closing his fingers around the handle.

Their two clasped hands together, she raised the knife to right in front of her eyes, admiring the sharp edge from up close, its black anodized blade reflecting none of the red light.

Then she drove their clasped hands down, directing the blade’s tip toward her chest.

She stopped the blade’s descent when there was just the faintest pressure on the skin right above her heart. A light prick drew a single drop of blood. It happened so quick, he was too surprised to scream, and he sucked in air that should have come out in a howl but could not. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, seeming to savor the moment.

“See, it’s okay,” she purred. “You can trust me.”

“I don’t think so . . .” he said.

“Don’t be scared, you’ll always have the knife to do whatever you want. I just need my hands free now for something else, a little more fun. See, I’ll even make sure you don’t lose your long knife in all the . . . excitement.”

He nodded. And she began to wrap the tape around the hand that held the knife, the blade emerging out along the pinkie finger. Then she took that hand and pointed the knife at her neck, poised just above her jugular vein.

“See, just like your army, you’ll be in total control,” she whispered.

The blade in his hand then followed her down the same path she’d taken before, always an inch from her neck, until she stopped at his belt buckle. She looked up at him and smiled.

With a movement so fast it was hard to see, her hands brought the knife in toward him, and the blade slashed through the leather of his belt; his pants fell to the APC’s floor.

“You’re going to have to explain this one to your commanding officer,” she said.

He laughed. “Let’s stop the games. Come here.”

She slid forward and up again onto his naked body. Leaning with all her weight, she pressed her body onto his, his arm with the blade now wrapped behind her, pulling her in close. Her hands caressed his face, and he started to say something.

“Shhh, now the fun really starts,” she said.

In an instant, Carrie slapped a strip of the nanopore tape over his mouth and nose.

Instinct took over and he didn’t even try to cut her as she slithered quickly down to the floor and then just out of reach. Instead, he began frantically trying to cut the tape binding his hand to the chair. The tape held. He grunted, sucking the tape over his mouth as he tried to breathe, and he looked at her, his eyes angry and then almost begging.

Carrie tilted her head slightly and studied him, watching silently as he awkwardly turned the taped hand with the blade back at himself, the angle just off, almost like a toddler trying to feed himself but holding the utensil the wrong way.

He poked the blade at first, tentatively trying to create a hole in the bright yellow tape that covered his mouth. But when he couldn’t cut the tape and instead just pushed it inward against the bubble of air trapped beneath, he quickly grew more desperate.

He looked at her and gave a piteous whimper as he saw her expressionless study of him. He stabbed harder, and the sharp blade finally sliced through the tape and into his lower lip and tongue.

He grunted with pain, unable to fully scream. A spray of blood marked with the yellow leaching color shot outward from the slit in the tape. He tried to suck in air through the half-inch-long slit, but the blood welled inside his mouth, choking him, and another burst of yellow bubbles and red blood spouted from the gash in the tape. He tried to use the blade to widen the opening in the tape over his mouth, gasping through the thin slit. In his frenzy, he didn’t even notice the weight of Carrie’s hand, now back again on the knife.

 

USS Zumwalt, Rail-Gun Turret

 

Two hundred years ago, a wind like this would have played on a sailing ship’s rigging with a wonderful harmony, thought Mike. On the Zumwalt, the twenty-five-knot wind merely sounded like someone had turned up the air conditioning. Just another reason to hate this ship.

He snatched another glance at Vern, worming her way inside the rail-gun turret to double-check the wiring harnesses that kept shaking loose. She had not spoken once during the past hour. Somewhere above them, Secretary of Defense Claiburne was glad-handing the crew, speaking in the easy, confident drawl that to Mike always sounded like she had just finished a modest glass of neat bourbon.

The tension Vern carried in her shoulders made her look like she was bracing for a crash.

Mike shook his head and eased his way into the turret. Wordlessly he opened the turret hatch and let the rush of salt air fill the small area. For a moment, the space smelled of somewhere far away in his imagination he rarely visited, the scent of a woman and the sea. Then the acrid smell of hot plastic and ozone returned.

“Three minutes, Dr. Li. You best wrap things up.”

 

Ship Mission Center, USS Zumwalt, eBay Park, San Francisco

 

The bridge had been the command center of ships going back to the time of Noah, but like so much else in the Zumwalt class, the Navy designers had decided to make something new, different, and big. The ship mission center⁸⁵ stood two stories high, the bottom level filled with four rows of sailors seated at computer workstations, and a second level with a balcony for the officers to watch down, almost like an interior bridge of the ship. On the walls were massive liquid-crystal screens that displayed the ship’s location and systems’ status and, at the moment, the third inning of the Giants game. It was that particular screen that held Secretary Claiburne’s attention, a pitcher’s-cap-cam focusing in on the squinting eyes behind the catcher’s faceplate. The pitcher then pivoted and threw out the runner on first, ending the inning.

“All right, let’s light it up,” she said.

The secretary of defense, who’d been an aerospace executive before she was brought into the administration, casually held a cigar in her right hand. It was part of her shtick, that she was more of an old boy than anyone in the old boys’ network she’d knocked down on her way to the top of the business. Simmons noticed the cigar was the real thing, not the e-cigar his former mentor smoked indoors. Admiral Murray seemed unfazed by the purple smoke starting to cloud up the room, but this was the first time anybody had smoked inside the Z during his command. He had no idea where she would put it out. There was no ashtray aboard the ship.

The test was designed to see how quickly the Zumwalt could deliver a peak power load and how long it could sustain it. This had been a problem during the refurbishment, because they couldn’t utilize such power over an extended time without the Directorate noticing the surge, which would potentially give away the ship’s new capabilities.

Simmons nodded at Cortez, who began barking out orders to shift power from the ship systems to the cables linking to shore.

“You know, Captain Simmons,” said Secretary Claiburne, “President Conley is watching tonight back in the situation room. Not just for you, of course; he’s a big Nationals fan. He had their closer, T. D. Singh, over at the White House a month ago.” One of her military aides, an Army major who scowled at Simmons from behind a pair of thick black assaulter viz glasses, appeared at her side with an empty coffee cup. Claiburne dropped an inch of ash into it.

“Thank you, Secretary Claiburne. We’re the lucky ones tonight, getting paid to watch the game,” said Simmons, smiling at her through the smoke.

“Something like that, Captain,” said Secretary Claiburne. “Take this.” She handed him a San Francisco Giants jersey signed by the team. She shot a look over at her aide and motioned for a pen. He was there in an instant, hovering over her as she took back the jersey, added her own signature to it, and then returned it to Simmons.

“Wear it in good health,” she said.

Simmons thanked her with a bemused smile, handed the shirt over to Cortez when she turned away, and then turned to watch the screens showing the ship’s power production. On deck, the crew stood near the cables that snaked off the ship and ran under the Bay’s waters to the pier near the park.

“At ninety-nine percent power capacity,” said Cortez. “ATHENA is online, it’s green for go.” After the failures they’d had with the ODIS-E software, the decision had been made to keep using the old ATHENA management system. It would have to be isolated, not networked with any other ships for security reasons, but at least they knew it worked.

“Execute the transfer,” Simmons ordered.

The lights flickered out on the bridge, causing Admiral Murray to wince. Onshore, a microsecond later, the stadium lights flickered and then returned to normal, the ship’s systems now feeding their demand as well as the surrounding neighborhoods’. The Z’s crew could hear cheering from the park. They knew it wasn’t for them; the forty-four thousand people inside were celebrating a leaping catch that had robbed the Nationals of a home run. But the crew felt like it was for them all the same.

A tense silence took over the room. Claiburne mostly tracked the game—the Giants were now at bat and ready to add to their 5–3 lead. Simmons and his officers monitored the screens playing beneath them on the lower deck, windows onto the ship’s systems status. None of the crew frantically chasing software glitches or figuring out ways to dump heat buildup were visible, yet their grueling work was revealed by the soothing reds, blues, and greens of the monitors. The Z was feeding the shifting demands of the park, but at a cost. Self-defense systems went on- and offline; secondary systems collapsed; and ATHENA itself started to act up.

Cortez caught Simmons’s attention and tapped his own ear.

Mike’s voice boomed into his headset.

“Captain, we can’t keep this going more than a minute more,” said Mike. “We’ve got thermal-management problems with the battery. Fans are running full speed, but they’re just heating it up more.”

“Anything Dr. Li can do with the software? Any tweaks?” said Simmons.

“Nothing yet,” said Mike.

“Let me talk to her,” said Simmons.

“She’s fighting with one of the machines right now,” said Mike. “Don’t think she can stop.”

“Stand by,” said Simmons into his headset.

He put his trigger finger over the microphone near his mouth and, using his command voice, addressed the room.

“Nice work, everybody. Nobody has ruined the president’s game so far. We’ve got one more play to make. Admiral Murray and I spoke beforehand and it’s time we threw a curve ball.” They wouldn’t get more tests like this, so it was important to understand the ship’s limits.

“XO, take ATHENA offline,” said Simmons. “Then bring power output up to a hundred and ten percent.”

Mike started to shout, but Simmons just dropped the channel, and the profanity-laced protest disappeared from his ear.

A faint smell of burning plastic began to seep into the room, competing with Secretary Claiburne’s fragrant cigar.

“Max the fans,” said Cortez.

His father’s voice boomed again in Simmons’s ear. He winced out of instinct, an all-too-familiar feeling.

“Captain, we’re losing it. Ambient temp in the control room is at a hundred and fifteen degrees. Two of the boxes are cooked. You could put a burger on them. Dr. Li here says that—” said Mike.

“I understand, Chief. Task a team to replace them,” Simmons said, trying to keep his side of the conversation calm in front of the SecDef.

“I’d do it if I had anyone to send. This goddamn ship doesn’t have enough crew on it.”

“Understood, Chief. Keep the power coming,” said Simmons, again for the crowd.

A flicker on the monitor that was showing the game caught his attention. The stadium lights had gone out for a second and then returned.

“Give me Dr. Li,” Simmons ordered. “Now.”

“Yes, Captain?” said Vern in his earpiece. He could hear her inhale and exhale loudly, as if she were coming off a run. “We need to tail off the power now. We weren’t expecting to go above the test thresholds. Otherwise I’m not sure what we can do to keep the ship from burning itself out.”

The game’s lights flickered again.

“Dr. Li, you have one chance to understand me,” said Simmons, his voice rising in volume now, a bit of anger for the audience in the bridge. “I don’t care about the equipment. The Z is the means, not the end. Now, get me results or get off my ship!”

He looked over at Admiral Murray. Her face was a mask, leaving him uncertain if he’d just blown it in front of her. Secretary Claiburne looked impressed by his performance; that is, until her aide handed her a phone and whispered, “President Conley.”

 

Moyock, North Carolina

 

“Not our usual sort of acquisition, is it?”

Sir Aeric Cavendish wore a baggy white dress shirt over a brand-new pair of formfitting technical pants. He looked out the window of the Cadillac Cascade SUV and took in the sprawling camp. As they drove, he felt the vibration of an explosion in the distance resonate through the vehicle’s polished aluminum body.

“Well, sir, there’s nothing about this location that’s usual,” said Ali Hernandez, a retired command master chief from DevGru, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group, more famously known by its original name, SEAL Team 6. “Not for a long time.”

As the lead of Cavendish’s personal security team, Hernandez spent a lot of time answering questions. The Sir didn’t see the world the same way others did, which was why he was so damn rich. But his curiosity could be overwhelming. A day with the Sir meant more questions than Ali had been asked in his thirty years in special operations. At times it was like traveling with a toddler.

“Why does everyone still insist on calling it Blackwater?”⁸⁶ said Cavendish, starting up again.

Make that a toddler who could buy anything he wanted, be it the company of a supermodel or a company of private military troops.

“Sir, the waters surrounding the site are murky, and that’s what the first business here was named. So even with all the changes, it’s the name the locals still use,” said Hernandez. “But the way I look at it is, while the lawyers get paid to come up with new names, it’s like a call sign: the good ones stick.”

“I should have a call sign,” said Cavendish. “What was yours?”

“Mine, sir? It’s Brick,” said Hernandez.

“I suspect that has a story behind it that I will need to ask you about later. But first, let’s focus on the important thing. What might mine be?” said Cavendish. “I assume I cannot pick it for myself.”

“Correct, sir. Let me do some thinking, as it’s a serious matter,” said Hernandez.

“Very well. I read the due-diligence report on this transaction, did you?” said Cavendish.

“Yes, sir. Eight different owners for the facility,” said Hernandez. “You would be the ninth.”

“That’s a lot of lawyers,” said Cavendish.

“It is, sir,” said Hernandez.

“And how do you rate our new name for it?” said Cavendish.

The SUV bucked as Hernandez drove straight over a speed bump at forty miles an hour.

“Exquisite Entertainment?” said Hernandez.

“I told people I bought it to turn it into a viz studio. All in the name of cloak-and-dagger. But what if we renamed it Blackwater?” asked Cavendish. “I mean, is it a good name?”

They drove by a roofless three-story apartment building with blackened window frames and a half dozen black-clad men rappelling down its face.

“How do you mean, sir?” said Hernandez. “It’s a name my community knows well. Still pisses a lot of civs off. So it’s good by me.”

“Very well,” said Cavendish. “We have to keep cover, you know. How about Blackwater Entertainment?”

Hernandez laughed and punched the Cascade’s accelerator as soon as it was on the compound’s airfield. The electric SUV’s speed silently rose to 130 miles an hour.

“Perfectly quiet and exceedingly fast,” said Cavendish, his eyes closed in thought. “Just like space.”

Ali braked the Cascade hard and then turned inside an airplane hangar. The doors shut behind it. It was almost pitch-black inside; only a soft blue glow lit the corners of the hangar.

“Here we are, sir,” said Hernandez.

They stepped out and Cavendish ordered into the air, “Lights!,” confident that someone somewhere would follow his command. The lights came on, and thousands of beams of bright rays reflected back at them. A mischievous smile lit up Cavendish’s face, while Hernandez just stared with a squint.

“Well, what do you think of it?” said Cavendish. It was a question that Hernandez couldn’t even begin to answer.

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

He was too damned old, and now he knew it.

Mike could feel the fatigue in his chest. For the first few days it had felt like a bug, and he’d just worked through it, finding that shouting orders had eased the fatigue’s grip. But this morning, it had been like waking up bound to the bed. He would never say it aloud, but Mike was sure he had never been this tired before. It was pure old-man exhaustion crossed with the profound fatigue that only those in the military and a few other professions know, the type of weariness you feel when your responsibility for other people’s lives far exceeds your physical and mental reserves. This was the kind of tired that no amount of stims or coffee would help.

He swayed and steadied himself near the entrance to the bridge.

“Chief, you okay?” said Horatio Cortez, the XO. “You look like shit. You take the younger generation out barhopping last night? Teach ’em how you did it back in the day?”

“Wishful thinking, sir,” said Mike. “They couldn’t even begin to keep up with us.”

Cortez wasn’t fooled by Mike’s banter. He could see the fatigue in the old chief’s Tabasco-red eyes and he quickly excused himself and went back to the bridge.

Mike knew he could find one of the better nooks to sleep in aboard the ship down near the magazine for the rail gun. A sailor taking a power nap in a cool, dark spot was an honored Navy tradition, but it could also be a warning that something was not right with that sailor. As Mike lay back against the cool bulkhead, he wondered which it was in his case, wondered if he had what it took anymore. Then he drifted off.

It was the smell that woke him.

Fresh soap and violets.

Dr. Li.

He opened his eyes and saw her curled up on the other side of the bulkhead. Their legs crossed each other’s in the middle; her feet looked so tiny compared to his. Jesus, if anybody saw this, Mike thought. He expected to wake up with the ship under attack more than he expected to wake up and see her next to him. How she’d found him, he did not know.

She stirred and arched her back like a cat, then sat up. She spoke as if she knew what he’d been thinking.

“I finally had time to grab a shower and then I saw you head down here to your hiding spot”—she smiled—“and I thought, He knows what he’s doing, he’s just taking care of the equipment, as he so kindly calls the crew. So I decided to follow the old man’s lead.”

“Who are you calling an old man? You look just as tired as me, Dr. Li.”

“You got me there. I’ve got nothing left,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “And it’s Vern. If we’re going to sleep together, you can start using my first name.”

Mike felt the Zumwalt lurch and lifted his head slightly, like a hunting dog. They must be drilling the engine restart again, he thought.

“Listen, I’m sorry about the captain last night. He knows this ship is no damned good,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Vern responded. “He was right, and he had the right to let go like that. Captain’s prerogative that they keep talking about.”

“No, he doesn’t have the right to take his anger out on someone else. It took me too long to learn that lesson, so I couldn’t pass it on to him,” said Mike.

He avoided her eyes and stared at the bulkhead.

“You know, nobody ever told me what I’m supposed to do if things start burning again,” she said, consciously changing the subject to one that might put him back in his comfort zone.

“The damage-control drills? You don’t remember any of that?” he asked.

“If the ship’s fate hangs on my ability to play firefighter,” she said, “then we’re all doomed.”

Mike noticed that although she’d sat up, she’d done it in a way that kept her legs intertwined with his.

“You’ll figure it out. Just follow an old man’s lead, as you say.”

She smiled again.

“Well, we’d better get back to work,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the Z will be leaving port soon, most likely for Australia.”

“What makes you say that?” she asked.

“I’m guessing from what Brooks, that tech with the stupid Mohawk, told me about some of the software mods to ATHENA. Weapons load-out is full, which we wouldn’t be doing for another test.”

“Australia’s dangerous?” said Vern.

“It’s the Navy—what isn’t?” said Mike. “But it means we’ll be escorting reinforcement ships. You’re less likely to be shot at when you’re looking for the easiest way to get to friendly territory than when you’re out looking for trouble. There are no guarantees, though.”

The Zumwalt shuddered again and Mike sat up. Then he reached out his hand to help Vern to her feet. She noticed the rough feel of the skin.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll be at your side when it counts.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

“Status report!” said Captain Jamie Simmons into the intercom. “What’s going on up there?”

The system was dead; there was not even static in reply. From his stateroom, he peered out into the dark beyond the hatch. Nothing. No klaxon. No shouting.

It was almost pitch-black dark, the only light the yellow emergency reflective tape along the corridor floor. Shaking the sleep from his head, he started to make his way along the passageway toward the bridge. He knew the route well enough.

A sharp jab at his forehead made him curse in pain. He ducked, too late, and dropped to one knee until the specks of pain-driven light faded. He reached for the bulkhead to carefully stand back up and felt something warm. Soft. Hair.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

“Seaman Oster Couch . . . sir,” said a timid voice. The fear evident in the hesitant pronunciation of the word sir made Simmons’s head ache anew. He felt his cheeks get hot and his stomach knot in rage.

“This is Captain Simmons, what are you doing here?” he said, fighting to hold back his anger.

“I was coming back from the head and heard a big bang, and then the lights went out,” said Couch. “So I waited. But they didn’t come back on.”

“You belong at your station, Seaman Couch. Up!”

“I don’t know where it is, sir,” said Couch. “In the dark, sir.”

“Find it if you have to crawl on your hands and knees,” said Jamie. “I’m heading to the bridge and if I find you here again in the dark, you’ll learn there are far scarier places the Navy can send you.”

“On my way, sir,” said Couch.

Simmons had almost gotten to the bridge when the Zumwalt shuddered and all the lights came back on.

“Cortez! What is going on with this ship?” said Simmons.

“Power surge, sir,” said Cortez. “It’s rail-gun related, and we’re trying to figure out why it took the entire ship offline.”

“Everything? ATHENA too?” said Simmons.

“Yes, sir, everything,” said Cortez. “But there’re no fires, and Dr. Li is down working on it now. We’ll be okay.”

“XO, when you have the bridge, this ship is yours,” said Simmons. The anger at Seaman Couch welled over, and he spat his words out at Cortez. “Treat it that way. There is nothing okay about this. You know what’s going to happen when we get a surge like this out there?” He pointed west, toward the ocean. “Do you? We’re nothing more than a target for the Directorate. First we blow the last part of the test with the admiral and SecDef onboard, and now we can’t even get the goddamn gun turned on without it killing us? What kind of a ship do we have here? This is on you, Cortez. Get Dr. Li and fix it!”

The captain spun around to see his father entering the bridge. The old chief had that look of only slightly veiled disappointment he knew too well. He brushed past his father without acknowledging him.

“I’m going to be in my stateroom,” said Jamie. He started to leave, then stopped. “Belay that. I’m going down to speak to Dr. Li about her fix. Cortez, you have the bridge.”

He heard footsteps behind him as he stormed down the ladder wells.

“Captain, I’ll accompany you,” said Mike.

Jamie kept walking, mindful of any new overhanging fixtures and cabling that might strike his already aching head. He put two fingers to the spot he’d hit, certain it was bleeding. It was. What a sight that must have been on the bridge.

“A word, if I may, Captain,” said Mike.

“As we walk,” said Jamie.

“Sir, you need to get some rest,” said Mike. “I’ll say it because nobody else will.”

“How can I? I’d say this port time is making us dull, but we’re so far from sharp that it’s not even worth bringing up,” said Jamie.

“Still have to rest, Captain,” said Mike. “The job demands it even if you don’t think so.”

“This job?” said Jamie, stopping abruptly and standing close to his father. “You don’t understand this job. I’m the senior officer and it’s my ship. You can’t understand that.”

“I can’t?” said Mike. His face began to redden and that all too familiar angry blood vessel that snaked down his forehead began to pulse. “I can’t?”

“No. I’m an officer,” said Jamie, no longer afraid of that pulsing. “I have actual responsibility.”

Mike leaned forward with the intent look that signaled to anyone, even an officer, that he or she was a single step away from receiving a heavy blow from one of his massive hands.

“The hell with you, Jamie,” said Mike. “I don’t care if you embarrass yourself in front of me, but you ought to think twice before you embarrass yourself in front of the crew again.”

Mike turned around and stomped off, each angry footfall muffled by the non-skid rubber in the passageway.

 

Nautilus Restaurant, Palo Alto, California

 

Daniel Aboye couldn’t help but stare. Before the war, this had been a regular haunt of his investors, the types who had net worths so big they’d stopped counting their money. He’d come here tonight with a new sense of awe, mostly at how wrong the place felt on so many levels.

He watched a tuna as long as his motorcycle swim steadily around the restaurant’s tank in the ceiling. The readout on his glasses showed how many other diners had bid on it. Seven. He decided he would be the eighth and end the auction. The other bidders would likely interpret it as his showing off the depth of his wallet, but it was more an indication of the depth of his annoyance that they were all still carrying on this way in the midst of a war.

When he looked down, there she was.

“When you asked to meet for dinner,” said Aboye, “this was certainly not the place I expected you would choose.”

“I like the fresh fish,” said Cory Silkins with mock innocence. “It’s at least something that isn’t rotting around here.”

Aboye took in the woman across from him. She was always smiling, but ironically. Back at Stanford, they’d been first-year hall mates. It had taken him a while to get used to her sarcasm, but he quickly came to appreciate the fact that she didn’t put him on a pedestal like the other students did once they knew his backstory. Instead, she treated him like she treated everyone else: as a target.

They’d even become friends of a sort after Cory realized his gentle nature truly was genuine, and he realized that her acidity meant that she couldn’t help but tug and trick. She soon found bigger and better targets than the gangly but confident Aboye. Besides writing code, Cory’s main passion on campus had been pranking assholes. Faculty or student, it didn’t matter; she’d outed the members of a secret fraternity after they tried to cover up a date rape that occurred at their initiation ceremony, and she’d posed as a former U.S. president, using his hacked e-mail account to carry on a three-month-long online conversation with the old provost.

Of course, Cory had grown up and “sold out like the rest of them,” as she joked at the sale of her software-encryption company, a deal brokered by Aboye. When he asked what she was going to do next, she told him that she was off on a quest for a glass of the most remarkable red wine in the world. He’d thought it was another joke, but she’d spent the past year chronicling it all in real-time for her online followers. Before this, he hadn’t heard from her since the post about a Malbec in Argentina.

“So what brings you back?” asked Aboye now.

“I heard you went to Washington,” Cory said. “I thought they might have drafted you, so I had to come back and rescue you.”

“They wanted nothing to do with me,” he said. “That, I must say, hurt deeply.”

“Morons . . . You know, I’ve gotten a few quiet offers to leave. Finland. Brazil. Argentina,” she said. “I wish France, but I think I am still on some blacklist there.”

He’d heard the same from several of his other friends. From a business perspective, it made sense to him: America’s wealthy were distressed assets themselves right now. The right luminaries, along with their intellectual capital and their bank accounts, could be had cheap.

“Are you considering it?” he asked.

“No, I prefer the life of an itinerant bacchanal,” she said.

“That’s for the best; you are indeed a national treasure,” he said. “Okay, what is really up, Cory, why did you ask me here?”

A waiter wordlessly brought them their wine. Neither needed to be told what it was because the Firestone Petite Syrah’s label was already displayed on their viz glasses. She pulled her wineglass over and held the stem between her long fingers, which were adorned with a dozen slim brushed-platinum-and-diamond rings. The rings gleamed with flecks of light from the fish tank’s blue glow overhead and the red wine before them.

“Daniel, do you know why I love wine? It’s not the taste. It’s the history. And not just the history of the grape or the terroir that defines it. I mean the history of wine itself.⁸⁷ Wine was the very first drink of equality,” said Silkins. “The ancient Greeks would pour it into a bowl in the middle of a room and guests would gather around. They’d share it, the same bowl, and just talk. Philosophy. Rights. Democracy. Hell, maybe even sports. Anyone and everyone could take part in the conversation, from Socrates to his youngest student.”

She laughed to herself. “Of course, it was all men, and then the Romans ruined it by conquering Greece and turning wine into a prestige item so assholes like me could run around chasing a perfect glass of it.”

He looked at her and took a sip. Clearly Cory was building up to something.

She swirled her glass. “That sense of equality is what made the Internet so great. Anyone and everyone could gather and participate. And that too is at risk of being ruined by assholes.”

“And?” he said.

She looked down at her glass and then directly up at Aboye. “I know what you’re up to.”

Aboye distractedly glanced up at one of the divers gently herding a fish into a net. “What could I possibly be up to?” he asked.

“Daniel, you’re not a good liar, so let’s not screw around,” she said. “I know what you and your buddies are doing in Hangar One, and I know that it’s not going well, what with all the water damage to your library.”

Aboye pinched the bridge of his nose, pausing as if to think but mostly to cover his concern. If she knew, who else did? And was Cory going to cause problems just because she was pissed off that he hadn’t asked her to join?

“Let’s go,” said Aboye in a whisper.

Aboye and Silkins walked out of the restaurant, Silkins paying with her iTab bracelet at the table as she got up. They stood outside in front of the motorbike stand.

“Okay, Cory, what is it you want? And I still don’t get why you asked me here.”

“You needed a visual reminder. Restaurants like this? They’re for a certain kind of person, the kind you’ve been hanging out with. Nobody is angry. How far is San Francisco? The city is transforming itself into a Navy town again. Ugly, rusting gray ships being fixed all over the place. Sailors getting drunk and fighting, not out of malice but to release something, anger at not being out there or maybe just some newfound hate. Down here, it’s business as usual. Where can I get my fresh fish . . . or my favorite pizza next?”

She climbed aboard his yellow electric BMW C1, as usual taking things without asking.

“You have great people in Hangar One, but they know only how to build. You also need people who know how to tear down,” she said. “You need assholes like me . . . Get on, and I’ll show you.”

Aboye folded his body uncomfortably behind her under the C1’s canopy and they glided off silently through downtown Palo Alto.

Light from restaurants and storefronts that were being used as sidewalk cafés after hours spilled out onto the road before them. Since the war, everyone wanted to spend more time outside, it seemed to Aboye. It made Palo Alto more festive than he had ever seen it, as if all of the town’s residents were Stanford seniors and this was commencement week.

They soon were sitting on Silkins’s thickly carpeted living-room floor. She booted up her connection into the virtual world. Daniel watched as she put on a bright pink helmet with a matte-black visor. He thought it made her look like a cross between a teenage skateboarder and a fighter pilot.

She wouldn’t let him join her inside the 3-D environment.⁸⁸ “Too much for you to handle, plus they scatter when any outsider comes within a mile. That’s how we’ve kept it going,” she said. Aboye watched Silkins navigate on a screen above her fireplace.

He saw Silkins’s avatar, a bizarre yellow-and-blue cartoon fish that looked like Salvador Dalí had designed it, swimming alongside what looked to be an abstract, submerged rendition of Las Ramblas,⁸⁹ in Barcelona. She darted and drifted among other resplendent but unnerving avatars, everything from Hello Kittys to nude supermodel bodies with robot heads. Then, trailing bubbles, each apparently an encrypted key that verified who she was, she stopped at the open door of a hat store. She flicked open her visor and looked at Daniel, jumping from the online world back to the real world.

“Let me make this clear. This is not about patriotism,” she said. “Our reasons are not yours—you know that, right? We’re about the net itself. Songs about flags, sending kids to die, mom and apple pie, all of those lies? We don’t buy any of that crap the system sells. But in this case, our interests align. We’d like to help you.”

“What do you mean, ‘we’?” he said.

“You don’t need to know that. My friends prefer to remain anonymous.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Mare Island Naval Shipyard

 

Mike moved as fast as a man his age could move through a warship’s cramped passageways and ladder wells. The shouting got louder, and he forced himself to move even faster. The clanging of metal on metal had him nearly running.

“She’s one of them,” said Petty Officer Parker. “Just look at her.”

Mike took in the scene in less than a second: Parker. Wrench. Vern.

He swung a left-handed punch with his entire body weight behind it and hit Parker square in the stomach. A following jab from his right hand landed just above Parker’s heart, knocking the sailor back into the bulkhead. Just like he’d taught Jamie to do in the garage so many years ago.

Vern was sprawled on her back on the deck. He reached down to give her a hand just as she looked behind him and screamed.

Mike ducked at the last moment, and the blow from the wrench glanced off his shoulder. He grunted with anger, more at himself than Parker. It had been over twenty years since he’d last gotten into a fight, but some things he should not have forgotten. As he had been told by a senior chief when he was starting out in the Navy, there were two rules to remember in a bar fight: punch second, and leave first—but only after you’re 100 percent sure the other guy is completely out of the fight.

The arc of Parker’s swing had left him off balance in the tight corridor, so Mike bent lower to duck the backswing. He turned, feinted with his right, then moved in close and punched with his left, a short, stiff uppercut, a liver shot;⁹⁰ he felt his knuckles crack as they smashed into Parker’s side at the ninth and tenth ribs. He’d taught Jamie that move, told him to use it only when the fight moved from boxing to brawling. A liver shot was shocking and debilitating, causing the other guy to lose his breath and sometimes even consciousness. It was also excruciatingly painful.

Parker’s desperate suck of air energized Mike. He hit him again hard with a close-in combination. And then another. He couldn’t hear the thuds that echoed inside the room; the adrenaline made his own ears ring. But he could feel the impact of the strikes resonating through Parker’s flesh.

He caught his breath, and as Parker crumpled, he struck with one more combination. Though he knew Parker was in too much pain to hear anything, Mike shouted at him: “You coward! How’s it feel?” This was a show for the others who had gathered and were now standing back in a mix of awe and fear of the old man.

And then he stopped hitting him. Parker, like Vern, was equipment. He was part of the ship, and Mike was responsible for him too. Through it all, none of Mike’s blows had touched Parker’s face. Stand him up at attention before the captain, and no one would ever know he’d just gotten his ass kicked by a man old enough to be his father. That was the way of his Navy.

He turned to the thick crowd of sailors.

“Who else agrees with him? Maybe you want to intern all the Chinese in San Francisco? Ship ’em out to Angel Island like in the last world war?” shouted Mike.

Parker, trying to get up, was now on his hands and knees, wheezing.

“Dr. Li is one of us,” said Mike. “If we win, it’ll be because of her. If we die, it’s because of ass-hats like you.”

He reached down and yanked Parker up by his arm. The man cast his gaze down to avoid making eye contact.

“Look at me. And this goes for the rest of you too. You don’t like it? Then you have five minutes to get off my ship. If you stay and this happens again, I won’t just play patty-cake like today. Test me. See if I am not one thousand percent serious. Dismissed!”

Parker shuffled out of sight along with the rest of the crowd.

“Vern, everything okay?” asked Mike, helping her up.

“We lost time just now that we can’t afford to,” said Vern. She glared at him, angry at Mike for rescuing her as if she were some lost little girl and livid at herself for feeling so damned vulnerable.

“I’m not asking about the ship, I’m asking about you,” said Mike.

She didn’t respond, but she leaned into him. He stood there, unsure of what he should do. She started shaking, and he wrapped his tattooed arms around her. He couldn’t see her face, pressed into his chest, so he looked down at his left hand, pretty sure the ring finger was broken. He felt good, though.

 

Moyock, North Carolina

 

“Please don’t tap the glass, sir,” said Hernandez. “It makes the animals crazy.”

Cavendish pressed his face right up to a porthole. The shipping container, which was connected to two more in a U-shaped form, had been made watertight and then filled with water. Each container was about the size of a large apartment, or one of the bedrooms in Cavendish’s South Kensington, London, block-long flat.

“I don’t see anything. Are they in there?” said Cavendish. He tapped on the Plexiglas porthole again.

“Yes, sir,” Hernandez said. “Why don’t you try the viz glasses they gave us?”

Cavendish put on the matte-black, special-made viz glasses that had been hanging around his neck; his fingers rubbed the firm’s old bear-paw logo on the side.

“What a simple proposition this all was. How did the original owner so truly screw the business up?” said Cavendish. “I have my theories but—”

He instinctively ducked as soon as the glasses clicked on. A long knife lunged for him, and he virtually counterpunched using some kind of ancient-looking brass trench knife. He settled into the fight, watching through the viz, becoming a part of the sparring from the perspective of a mask-cam worn by one of the commandos.

The lighting inside the container varied; every few seconds, the lights brightened and then faded to almost pitch-black again. The men seemed to be wearing gray-and-black tiger-striped bodysuits that were accessorized with a variety of edged weapons. Swiss micro-rebreather units, the kind used by cave divers, were affixed to their upper backs. When the lights flashed on inside the tank at one point, Cavendish realized that those were not tiger-striped camouflage patterns on the gray bodysuits. They were slash marks.

He felt a tap on his shoulder.

“Sir, this is Aaron Best; he was at DevGru with me.⁹¹ Best is the one who provides the adult supervision for selection and training,” said Hernandez. “I’ll let him fill you in on where we are.”

“Welcome, Sir Aeric, it is an honor to have you here. What you’re watching is the refinement of our tactics, techniques, and procedures. This is a simulation of a partial power-plant failure. That is why the lighting goes in and out. We also simulate total power failure, which plays out the way you would expect: a knife fight in a closet in the dark. This is a ten-minute evolution. It involves a nine-minute air supply, and the man with the fewest slash marks on his suit wins. He gets to get out first. The loser has to wait until the ten-minute mark before he can exit the tank.”

“Quite an incentive,” said Cavendish.

“In a man-on-man scenario, it’s tough but appropriate. Where it gets tricky for the guys is when you put three of them in there,” said Best. “The last guy out has it pretty rough.”

“What about those outfits they’re wearing?” asked Cavendish.

“Standard long-range recon swim kit. Blast-proof. Thermal regulation, which we enhanced for the mission. We think it will be effective,” he said.

Cavendish’s attention wandered and he stared at a set of seven connected shipping-container halves.

“That’s the training box,” said Best. “Same idea as what you see here, but it’s for them to practice team on team. Same protocol, ten minutes for the losers. It’s a lot harder, actually, not just because of the teaming, but also because we put a bunch of metal junk in there to simulate the interior. Essentially, it’s like you’re fighting a group of rabid monkeys in an airplane bathroom.”

An arched eyebrow was Cavendish’s only response.

Hernandez passed Cavendish one of the weapons. It was a titanium-handled steel-bladed brass-knuckled trench knife about a foot long. The anodized black coating had worn off on the knuckles and blade edges, both of which Cavendish inspected closely with the authority of someone who’d spent a year of his youth cornering the market on Japanese fighting swords.

“More sword than knife,” said Cavendish. “Can I keep this?”

Hernandez looked at Best with a nod.

“Yes, sir. Technically you already own it,” said Best.

“Too kind,” said Cavendish.

“We will make the final selection seventy-two hours before launch,” said Best. “The top six out of twenty-four. Four will be in the boarding party, two will remain in reserve.”

That explained the intensity of the underwater fight he’d just watched, thought Cavendish. “These men really want to go, don’t they?” said Cavendish.

“Of course, Sir Aeric. The awards you’ve offered are more than generous, but really, they just want to get back in the game,” said Best.

Cavendish returned the viz glasses to Hernandez. “Do you have all the medical-performance investment you need?” said Cavendish.

Best looked at Hernandez, who nodded.

“When we make the selection of our final six, I would like to authorize further cognitive augmentation,⁹² and a couple other things that the JSOC⁹³ meat department is now using with the One Hundred Sixtieth helo drivers⁹⁴ and the Persistent Operations Group,” said Best.

“That is, I believe, a permanent change?” said Cavendish.

“It’s in their contract,” said Best.

“Very well,” said Cavendish. “Hernandez will see to it. One last question before we meet the team. Something’s been bothering me,” said Cavendish.

“I am sorry to hear that, Sir Aeric. What is it? We have time before launch to address it,” said Best.

“What are we going to do about all the blood?” said Cavendish. “It can’t exactly flow out the scuppers. We need to figure out how to clean up the mess afterward.”

 

Fort Mason, San Francisco

 

Jamie Simmons chewed his pasta quietly and stared at the coffee mug that he’d set on the table.

As he chewed, he worked his way through the day’s decisions on the Z, especially the regrets, the should’ve and could’ve moments that were all the more important now that they were running out of time. He went over the day from start to finish, but he kept fixating on the fact that he should’ve stopped at the pier-side bench before coming home. He’d let himself rush in to see Lindsey. But that five-minute decompression was one of the most important moments in his day, a time to pause and master his thoughts, to transition through the purgatory zone between duty and home. Between war and family. He knew he was on edge and shouldn’t have rushed back, but it was the fact that he was missing them at home that had made him rush.

This led him to recall his life before the war, when he’d never thought twice about what he ate or threw away or whether some should’ve, could’ve decision of his would end up leaving his sailors among the many burned carcasses cast into the Pacific. He became angry at himself for not following through on that prewar longing to be with his family, for his failure to act before their separation could turn permanent.

Jamie looked up and saw Lindsey studying him as he ate. She knew something was not right. His tension was clearly feeding hers.

“You look tired,” said Lindsey. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” said Jamie. “Let’s start over. I’m sorry, it’s just been one of those days.”

“Seems like you have those every day,” she said, a slight edge in her voice.

“I do,” said Jamie. “The closer we get to deploying, the harder it is. The crew is exhausted, and they know the ship is not where it needs to be.”

“It’s getting harder for all of us,” said Lindsey. “You need to make time for the kids. They were asking . . .”

“Asking what?”

“When you’re leaving again.”

“What’d you tell them?”

“You’ll have to go soon, but it won’t be forever.”

“It better not be.”

“I need to ask you something. I let it go after Pearl Harbor, but I have to know, I just do. Did you ever tell Riley you were done?”

“Jesus, Lindsey. Does it matter? Does it really matter? He died, bled out in front of me as close as we’re sitting here. You want to know what he thought of my career?”

“It does matter. To me. There’s no—”

A banging and a crash from upstairs stopped her. They heard an old man cursing, and then Martin laughing. Jamie’s eyes flicked over to the sound. Lindsey looked down.

“Why are the kids still up? And what’s he doing here?” said Jamie. He put his fork down with a sharp clink and reached for his coffee mug. Staring hard at Lindsey, he took a pull of the cold, bitter coffee dregs that should’ve ended up at his feet an hour ago.

“He’s fixing the toilet. It couldn’t wait,” she said. “He came by the other day and worked with Martin to print the part we needed with a three-D printer he cadged from one of his harbor buddies. They had a lot of fun. I know what you told me about him coming here, but I think he just wanted to be with his family before . . . What could I do?”

“You could actually do what I ask,” snarled Jamie.

“I could say the same thing,” Lindsey replied coldly. He didn’t know whether she was referring to the broken toilet, time with the kids, or his promise to leave the Navy. He didn’t care. In any case, he knew he was in the wrong. And he didn’t like it.

“I don’t have time for this. I need to prep for tomorrow.”

He grabbed the weighty folder full of personnel-assignment reports and walked out of the room, leaving his plate of shrimp and pasta mostly uneaten, a testament to his disappointment.

He went down the hallway quietly, passing the open bathroom door. He’d disappointed enough people tonight and hoped he wouldn’t run into his father, since that would only lead to the knockdown argument he’d just avoided by walking out on Lindsey. It was probably the wrong call, going to bed angry, especially with so little time left. Yet another bad decision to regret. He quickly rounded the corner and walked into his office.

Door shut, he sat at his desk. He reached to turn on the desk lamp but then paused in the dark. His eyes slowly adjusted to the room until he was almost able to make out the picture his son had drawn, tacked to the wall next to the window facing west. It was a magnificent green, yellow, and blue warship, taking up three pieces of paper taped together lengthwise.

Depending on what part of the vessel you looked at, it was either a triple-decker or a double-decker, armed with red turrets from which bird legs jutted out at all angles. Pink hearts covered the hull, and a small flag with a blue star flew from the stern with the words Win, Daddy on it. His wife called it the Love Boat, and the sight of it made Jamie’s eyes well up with tears.

A soft click in the hallway meant the bathroom door was closed. The heavy tread of Mike’s boots going down the stairs told Jamie he no longer had to worry about seeing his father tonight. He wiped his eyes, got up from his seat, and looked out the window at the top part of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every time he saw the bridge like this, in the fog, his stomach tightened. He knew the next time he passed under it, he would be with his father on what would likely be their last cruise.

 

Moana Surfrider Hotel, Waikiki Beach, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Ten o’clock.”

That was all he had said when he slid the room card across the rental counter to her. Nothing more, just a wink and a smile before he walked off, his hair still dripping seawater. A gold Rolex dive watch hung loosely on his left wrist, exposing a whisker of paler skin beneath the tan. He hadn’t even given his name, assuming she had to know who he was. And he was right. Supposedly, his uncle ran Bel-Con, the electronics company in Chengdu. One of the maids Carrie occasionally drank coffee with had shared the gossip when he first arrived. “A creature of the night,” she had added with a shiver.

The really rich were like that, Carrie had seen, no matter what country they were from. They always assumed you knew what they wanted and that you needed to be told only when and where to provide it.

In this case, he didn’t have to tell her where. The hotel keycard had said that for him. It was polished to look like platinum, but really it was cheap aluminum. As she waited in line for another security checkpoint to access the staff elevators to the hotel’s VIP suites and rooms, she ran her finger across the outline of three palm trees cut out of the middle of the card, indicating it was the key to the Moana Surfrider’s penthouse suite number 3.⁹⁵

The Chinese marine on duty was making everyone go through a portable body scanner, and the staff members waiting to be scanned one more time before they could get on with their jobs were getting annoyed. The most annoyed were the waiters, standing silently in their white pants and fitted black short-sleeved turtleneck shirts, who knew they’d be berated for being late.

Waiters, that was the right word for them all. Waiting for the checkpoint line to move, for the war to end, for death.

Carrie bided her time, putting the room key in her back pocket next to her ID and filing her nails with an emery board. The floors in the hallway area were scuffed, and only half the lights worked. It was the kind of neglect she had started to see all over the hotel. Knowing the stakes involved with this new clientele, the staff kept the exterior and guest hallways brighter and cleaner than they’d been even before the invasion. But behind the scenes, where the staff worked and lived out their days, the hallways were taking on the worn and tired feel of subway tunnels.

Carrie picked a piece of surfboard wax from under the nail of the ring finger of her left hand and subtly flicked it to the ground. After he’d dropped off the card, she’d stayed busy scraping the boards down, getting the sand-flecked wax off inch by inch.

“Next,” said the Chinese marine. He did not use a translator device; his English was pretty decent. She flashed her hotel ID at him and returned it to her back pocket, then set the emery board down on the table and stepped through the scanner.

The scanner warbled like a tropical bird as she picked up her things.

“What’s in the back pocket of your shorts?” he said.

“It’s my ID, okay? The lanyard broke.” She flashed him the ID again, the room key hidden behind it, holding the two cards up with a stiff arm like she was some kind of special agent. He ran another body scan and found nothing. Two of the waiters behind her stifled chuckles.

“And that, what’s it for?” he said, motioning to the emery board. He picked it up and examined it closely.

“It’s for my nails,” she said, taking it from him and putting it in her pocket.

“You can go,” the marine said, turning to the next person in line.

The elevator doors hissed open and she stepped inside. She pulled out the emery board and started to file again, this time more intently.

The elevator sighed, slowing down as it came to the top floor. As the door opened, Carrie brushed the edge of the metallic keycard lightly across the inside of her elbow. It was now sharp enough to draw blood.

 

Moana Surfrider Hotel, Waikiki Beach, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Lieutenant, you’re missing the view,” said Markov. “It really is a great place to die.”

Lieutenant Jian was too busy dry-heaving over the railing to take in the aquamarine panorama of the Pacific that lay before them.

The young officer finally looked up and angrily wiped his mouth with the back of his right hand. He scanned the horizon, squinting at the rooftops of the nearby buildings, with his hand resting on the pistol at his hip.

“You’re right, Jian, there could be insurgent snipers here also admiring the view,” said Markov. “Why don’t you go back inside and tell them to turn the hot tub off? Come get me when our friend stops boiling and we can take a better look at the body. It’ll be easier up close.” He smiled.

Jian was stone-faced when he returned a few minutes later. The water in the tub was now calm, no longer bubbling, but still wine-dark red. The dead man lay with his head resting on the teakwood behind him, revealing a crimson gill-like slit across his neck.

“Lieutenant, is he naked?”

“Sir, I cannot see into the water,” said Lieutenant Jian. “It’s too, too, uh . . .”

“We need to know if he’s wearing his shorts or not,” said Markov. “Find out.”

Jian looked toward the body in the room and then back at Markov.

“Come on,” said Markov. “You don’t get to earn your combat zone badge without seeing a little blood and some naked bodies. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

Markov pretended not to watch as Jian tried to figure out what to do next. Finally he started toward the tub, rolling up his sleeves.

“Stop!” shouted Markov. “It is an expression the Americans use. You were actually going to reach down in there? Maybe you are braver than I thought.”

Markov continued to chuckle to himself as he reached into a duffle bag full of equipment and turned on a black-light tube about the size of a D-battery flashlight. He found another one and tossed it to Lieutenant Jian. “Of course he’s naked. From what we heard from the guard downstairs, he likely spent half his time in Hawaii naked.”

He and the aide entered the room; Markov passed Jian a pair of goggles and put on a pair himself. The ultraviolet light swept the room for DNA traces, skin, blood, and any human fluids.

“Extraordinary,” said Markov as white splotches filled his view of the room. “How did he even get up there?”

He realized Lieutenant Jian had gone back to the balcony again and shouted, “It seems your boy here was a very busy young man indeed. Start tracing them. But be sure you’re wearing gloves . . . and I hope you’ve had all your shots.”

Markov began to take swabs, and the DNA analytics started crosschecking databases for identities.

Throughout the hotel suite, tiny faces began to appear in the field of view provided by the sensor goggles. One popped up wherever there was a concentration of DNA from a particular person, and soon there were faces looking back at Markov from all over. A few were from Directorate security sweeps, some others were linked to prewar Hawaii driver licenses, but the vast majority were mug shots from the Hawaii Police Department files. The colorful, faintly shimmering profile pictures were mostly of young women.

He reached out, touched the closest virtual card that hung in the air, and flipped it over to see the file display. An arrest record for prostitution. He flipped another. Prostitution and drug charges. And then another. Prostitution and drunk and disorderly.

Markov then swept his hand across the room, virtually grabbed all the pictures, and began to sort them, putting those with criminal rec­ords in a stack on one side of the room and those with non-arrest records, a smaller stack hanging in the air on the other side.

Lieutenant Jian rejoined him and started pulling down the tabs of those with arrest records. “I am sure the general will want us to round them all up, and then we can process them on our own terms,” said Jian.

“Think so? Your boy made his way through half the prostitutes in Hawaii. Arrest them all and you’ll have an uprising on your hands, but not from the locals,” said Markov, tabbing through the stack of those without arrest records, mostly hotel staff. “These poor maids, they deserved combat pay to come in here—”

Markov’s index finger stopped and rested on the image of a young woman that hung in the air. A driver’s license. He had seen her before. He flipped the picture over. Yes, the look in her eyes was different, but that was her, all right. What had the surf-shop girl been doing all the way up here?

 

Alto Café, Queen Street and Ward Avenue, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Traitor,” one of them snarled.

The glares of the locals waiting out the day in a thick cloud of marijuana smoke inside the old Quonset hut on Queen Street told her she was in enemy territory, even though she was among her own people. Their scowls and squints after they took in her outfit, a sea-blue tank top as tight as a bathing suit and iridescent white formfitting pants, gave the room a new menace.

“Whore,” another said with a cough.

A subdued Colombian reggae band played in the background. It was one of the banned global peace movement songs. She had to speak up to be heard by the girl behind the bar when she asked where the bathroom was.

“Customers only,” said a teenage girl with a crown-of-thorns tattoo wreathing her bald head.

“I just have to pee; please,” said Carrie.

“Then buy a coffee or a smoke,” said the girl.

“Just coffee,” said Carrie, tossing a hundred-RMN note on the counter.

“Bathroom’s back there. Lock’s broken,” said the girl with a look of disdain.

Carrie weaved her way through the low tables to the back of the restaurant. She kept her eyes on the floor, not out of embarrassment but out of fear that someone would trip her if she didn’t watch her step.

A man in this fifties wearing a dirty white wool cap mottled with ash burns winked at her from behind a pair of taped-up viz glasses. Then he beckoned her over, curling a plump finger. The simple act of signaling her made his massive weight stress the wooden chair further. He brushed crumbs and ash from his clothing, a formless black T-shirt that went down to his ankles like a dress. She gave him a quick glance that he would replay again and again on his glasses later.

“Piss off,” she said. “You can’t afford it.” Playing the act of someone past caring. Or was it an act anymore?

Then she moved carefully past him toward the bathroom.

She looked at her translucent G-Shock and saw she had three hours until the nine o’clock lockdown. The return of curfew had done more damage to Directorate troop morale than the local insurgents had.

She leaned in toward the mirror, reapplying lipstick. She was sure the two men following her had been Directorate. They’d had flip-flops, loose linen pants, and bright floral T-shirts, but the colors were too bright. The shirts had clearly been bought recently; they didn’t have the weathered look that real locals’ clothing had. Definitely Directorate, and she knew why they were after her.

She waited in the bathroom for fifteen minutes. Then she fixed her hair and washed her hands. Maybe they weren’t following her anymore, which made it time for her to go back out there and face the hate, anger, and poison she saw in the expressions of her fellow Hawaiians every day.

Hand on the doorknob, she paused and breathed, preferring the stink of the dirty bathroom to the lazy funk of the coffee shop.

The door crashed in before she had a chance to open it. A pair of black-gloved hands threw her against the bathroom wall, knocking a faded photo of Waikiki Beach to the ground; its cheap wooden frame broke into pieces. Then she was hauled to her feet, dragged along the corridor, and thrown forward onto the café floor.

She looked up just as a knee drove into her back. Coffee dripped from one of the tables onto her head and down her face, and she blinked the stinging liquid from her eyes. The customers were gone. She didn’t have to check to know the door was locked. Nobody who’d seen her walk in was going to call for help.

Carrie tried to push herself up, straining against the weight on her back, but a foot pressed down on her left arm. Then her right.

There were two of them, and they spoke in Chinese, short bursts that were getting angrier. She tried to see who was speaking, and a fist slammed her face into the wet floor. She strained again and was forced down by a forearm across the back of her neck.

Carrie opened her eyes wide, her breath escaping. She felt one of them pulling at her legs, tugging off her pants; one pant leg caught on her right ankle and was then yanked off. She could hear the man a few feet away arguing with the other one about something. Maybe chickening out, or maybe wanting to go first.

Carrie kicked free, scrambled to a corner, and then curled into a ball and started shaking, her half-naked body covered in spilled coffee and ash from the floor.

She closed her eyes. She thought of the visits at night, always after her mom had drunk herself to sleep. How she would lose herself, escaping to the moment after she would fall from her board, entering the churning froth beneath a powerful wave, inches from the razor-sharp beauty of a reef. In that chaos, there was a beckoning peace. In the churn, you could hear nothing at all, just a ringing in your ears. If you chose, you could lose yourself in that moment forever.

Then the wave would pass, and she would rise again to the surface with a gasp.

She reached back to the inside of her left upper arm and peeled away a rectangular Band-Aid three inches long. A searing pain and the red trickle of blood began to flow.

The closer commando grabbed Carrie, pulled her out of the corner, and roughly dragged her upright. She did not fight him; her arms hung limply by her sides, and the Band-Aid dropped to the ground. He wrapped his right hand around her throat, his thumb just under her jaw. He was strong enough to lift her entire body up so that her toes barely touched the ground. Growling, he pulled her in close, reached down with his free left hand, and undid the clasp of his belt. He began to unzip his pants, but then he looked into her eyes, and froze.

The stillness and tranquility of her eyes drew him in, confused him, just for a moment. He didn’t even notice the flash in her right hand.

The blade itself was short, only one and a half inches and just a bit wider than a sheet of paper. Made of ceramic, the box-cutter blade she’d taken from her fiancé’s toolbox was sharper than a razor and would never rust, not even when hidden in her pain.

He did not even feel the first slash arcing upward; so fine was the blade’s edge that his body had difficulty registering the damage being done. Even before his opened carotid artery began to spray out, she had slashed downward, arcing across his stomach at an angle just above his bellybutton. He was pulling his left hand back to punch at her, his pants now falling to the floor, when he noticed his intestines were spilling out.

As he fell, grabbing at his stomach, Carrie charged at the other soldier. He struggled with his concealed holster while trying to wipe away the blood from his partner that had sprayed into his eyes. He’d just barely drawn his pistol when she slashed across his wrist; the gun clattered to the floor, and she sliced at the other hand. He countered with a karate chop, but weak, as if he’d already given up. The box-cutter blade met his hand in the air and sliced off his left pinkie and ring finger. And then, in a frenzy, she was upon him, slashing again and again.

She lost herself in the moment, hearing nothing at all, just the ringing in her ears and the beckoning peace.

And then she rose to the surface with a gasp.

Carrie looked down. The soldier’s face was gone, just a patchwork of red lines. She couldn’t remember what it had looked like. Her father’s face was all she could recall.

 

Fort Mason, San Francisco

 

Captain Jamie Simmons kicked the soccer ball one last time down the rolling hill, marveling at how sure-footed his son was now. Jamie wore a Giants jersey over his uniform, as if he were trying to shield his kids from the morning’s uncomfortable truth.

The sun soaked the grassy field behind their house in Fort Mason. It was great weather for playing with his kids, but a part of him that was always tethered to the Zumwalt couldn’t help but wish for the concealment of a thick fog. In truth, the Directorate satellite that covered Northern California could see through any weather, but there was something comforting in feeling hidden.

He sprinted after Martin, whooping as he picked up speed running downhill toward the boy, past the Marines at the air-defense battery. By the time he caught up, Jamie found Martin sitting on the orange-and-yellow ball looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge.

“If you go out past the bridge, how can I see you?” asked Martin.

Before Jamie could respond, a pair of Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper⁹⁶ attack helicopters thundered past the waterfront, raced out into the Bay, and then disappeared from view under the bridge.

“The whole ship is going with me,” said Jamie. “It’s my job. We have to go scare the bad guys away so they won’t try any bad stuff here.”

“Grandpa going too?” asked Martin.

Jamie paused.

“He’s coming too,” said Jamie. “He loves you, but he has to go.”

“How come you’re the captain, but he’s older?” said Martin.

“He got to choose his job a long time ago,” said Jamie. “Besides, there can be only one captain. Isn’t it good that it’s your daddy’s job?”

“Make sure to be nice to him, then. Grandpa doesn’t come over as much anymore,” said Martin. “I miss him. Is he mad at me?”

“No, nothing like that,” said Jamie. “He’s just been really busy with work.”

The knot in his stomach wound itself tighter as Jamie leaned over and kissed the stubble on Martin’s shaved head.

“I thought he left already, and you didn’t want to tell me. Who’s going to take care of us if you’re gone and he’s gone?” said Martin.

Jamie felt as if he’d been punched in the chest. But he tried to show no change.

“How about you?” Jamie asked. “Can you take care of your mom and your sister for me?”

Martin picked at a piece of grass.

“Okay,” said Martin. “I think I can do it. Because Mom needs somebody to help her out, you know. It’s actually hard when you’re gone.”

“I know it is,” said Jamie. “Let’s go see Mom and Claire now.”

Jamie put his son on his shoulders and walked back up to the house. Jamie noticed the other houses had people in the backyards, all of them engaging in the uncomfortable rituals of goodbye. The next few hours were going to be his last with his family before he left. He had to make them count.

Those few hours passed quickly amid a flurry of well-wishing visitors and their children, giving the day a rhythm of alternating moments of laughter and tears. Before Jamie knew it, he was standing on the porch with his wife, holding Martin in one arm and Claire in the other.

Lindsey reached out and wiped a tear from Jamie’s eye.

“Kids, up in your rooms I left something for you,” said Jamie. “Do you think you can wait until I get back to open it?”

They started squirming immediately, and he set them down.

“Okay, okay, go!” said Jamie.

From the front porch, he watched them scamper up the stairs.

He turned to Lindsey and pulled her close in a hug whose pressure built with each second. The only words that came to Jamie’s mind were I’m sorry. Before he realized he had spoken them, Lindsey said, “I’m sorry too.”

A hoot of joy upstairs punctuated their apologies.

“Not the best goodbye we’ve had,” said Jamie.

“Not the best war we’ve had,” said Lindsey, trying to smile. “Just make sure to see the end of it with me. Do everything you can out there to make sure this never happens again.”

“I promise. There won’t be a next time. I lost myself in the ship, and I know I had to, but it wasn’t something I meant to do.”

“Your dad never knew how to say goodbye, did he?” said Lindsey. “You do. Be safe.”

“I’ll send a letter as soon as I can,” said Jamie.

A thunder of eager footsteps came down the stairs.

Martin wore a baseball cap with the Zumwalt’s silhouette on it and gold braid on its bill. On the back it read Captain Martin Simmons. Claire clutched a stuffed gray dolphin wearing a gold-and-blue U.S. Navy T-shirt.

A steady horn blew from down on the pier.

“Captain can’t be late,” said Lindsey. “Say goodbye to Daddy.”

Jamie crushed his kids with one last hug, inhaling the smell of shampoo and grass. He stood and kissed Lindsey hard, then pressed his forehead against hers.

“I love you. Forever,” he said.

“Forever,” she said.

He turned and started to walk with unsteady steps across the front yard to the waiting launch.

“Wait!” said Lindsey.

She ran toward him and tugged on his shirt. He looked down. He was still wearing the baseball jersey. She pulled it off him as he held his arms up to the sky.


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