Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War: Part 4


Use the normal force to engage;

use the extraordinary to win.

—SUN-TZU, THE ART OF WAR

 

(Note: This is the motto of the PLA Command Academy in Nanjing, displayed on its library wall.)

 

 

Forty Miles North of Thule, Republic of Kalaallit Nunaat

 

Admiral Agathe Abelsen didn’t know what else to do, so she squared her broad shoulders and sharply saluted the first American she saw.

It was all disorienting. First the helicopter ride and then landing on an airfield that was as large as the town she’d grown up in. The airfield’s control tower, which the Americans called an island, loomed above, taller than almost every building in her country. And the ship was too large to think of as an actual vessel; it didn’t even seem to sway with the sea.

The American sailor Abelsen had just saluted gave her a quizzical look. The seaman second class tying down the helicopter’s wheels was now just as confused as the admiral; he had no idea why the senior naval officer from the Republic of Kalaallit Nunaat,¹ formerly known as Greenland, had just saluted him.

“Admiral Abelsen, welcome aboard,” said Rear Admiral Norman Durant, striding forward to salvage the situation. “We’re honored to host you onboard the USS Nimitz for the first joint operation between the United States and Kalaallit.”

Instead of saluting him, the admiral squeezed Durant with a powerful bear hug.

Once she let him go, the carrier strike group commander stepped back and threw her a crisp salute, trying to ignore the rest of the deck crew staring in astonishment. The admiral stood at least six inches taller than Durant’s five foot ten, and she must have outweighed him by a good fifty pounds. She had delicate features, thick eyebrows, and the kind of pale skin that made her green eyes seem luminescent. Her uniform coat was a sort of down parka, the standardized kind that fishing companies issued their crews, but with a patch sewn on the right shoulder. The patch displayed a flag, a rectangle with a half-red, half-white circle in the middle. Durant had read up on Kalaallit before the admiral arrived, so he knew that the white half of the circle in the flag, the lower part, signified something about icebergs and pack ice, and the red half above signified the sun setting in the ocean.

“I wish it were under better circumstances, Norman,” she said, already on familiar terms with him, it seemed. “But don’t you worry. We will get you through. You have let our dream come true, and now we will show you the way.”

Starting in 1721, Greenland had been a colony of Denmark, its population originally living off subsistence fishing. Indeed, for most of the island’s history, half its entire economic output had been shrimp exports. By the turn of the twentieth century, the citizens of Denmark saw this last legacy of their failed colonial ambitions as a burden (the Virgin Islands, their only other major holding, had been sold off to the United States in 1917). They resented having to send a yearly subsidy a thousand miles away to feed, house, school, and clothe a population of mostly non-Danish indigenous peoples, or Eskimos, as they were popularly known.

But in the twenty-first century, the relationship flipped. The frozen waters off the massive island opened up due to global climate change, and eight massive oil fields were discovered,² totaling as much as eighty billion barrels. Greenland’s citizens realized that if they could break that old colonial link, instead of sharing their island’s wealth with six million Danes, they could keep it at home and divide it among just fifty-seven thousand Greenlanders. Greenland, or Kalaallit, in the Inuit tongue, could become the world’s richest petro-state.

Greenlandic independence had really been just a dream, though, as NATO would never allow the territory of one of its own members to be torn asunder, especially with a key U.S. military base located in Thule. But then, three days after the current conflict began, NATO’s North Atlantic Council, its political body, voted not to join a war already seemingly lost in the Pacific. Unfettered by the old politics, American strategic planners had soon after taken note of the fact that the potential new country had nine commercial icebreakers in its ports, while the U.S. Coast Guard had only one remaining icebreaker,³ and it was sixty years old and presently stuck in the wrong ocean at the port of Bremerton, Washington.

And so a deal was struck: The United States would recognize and protect the sovereignty of the nation of Kalaallit, instantly making it the thirteenth-largest country in the world by geographic size and the richest by per capita income. In exchange, Admiral Abelsen and the world’s newest navy, made up exclusively of icebreakers, would escort America’s Atlantic Fleet through a new path to the east.

 

Mount Ka‘ala, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The approach to the mountain had taken Conan and the insurgents two days of slow movement. Hiking up the one gravel road would have taken them only a few hours, but they would have risked bumping into the twice daily patrol from the Directorate guard force at the foot of the mountain.

Judging from the ache deep in her left elbow, Conan guessed that the cut there was infected. All the crawling over the forest’s slimy dirt and roots made it inevitable. But this was the best she’d felt in weeks. It felt good to be doing something other than running, which to her had started to feel like slow-motion defeat. Since the ambush at the school, the Muj had done nothing but escape and evade. But now they had a mission.

Maybe that helped too. The fact that someone else had finally made the call eased the weight of decision and the aching heaviness of responsibility. How long had it been since she had just followed orders? Until her D-TAC buzzed and that sea glider showed up, all she’d had was her instinct and Marine Corps training.

The physical toll of getting to the target site might kill them before the Directorate could, though. Mount Ka‘ala was Oahu’s highest point. At just over four thousand feet, she told herself, the mountain wasn’t that high compared to the ones in the mountain-warfare courses she had done. Yet the sinister way the heavy mist wreathed the jagged range made it an angry reminder of how cruel the world could be. The constantly attacking mosquitoes would not let her forget it. Focus on the mission kept her and the rest of the NSM inching higher, minute by minute, under their sweltering woolen blankets, willing themselves to reach their position before nightfall.

As they trudged along, she couldn’t help admiring how the descending sun lit up the Directorate aerostat surveillance balloon. Its silver skin reflected the sunset in orange ripples.

“Like a big fat juicy peach there for the taking,” said Finn, steadying a spotting scope.⁴ “Ready to go shopping, sir?” He was still making jokes, but there was a palpable tension between the two of them since the school shootings, an undertone of challenge even in the way he now called her sir.

“Seems right,” said Conan, trying to ignore the tone. That was what she had been taught at Officer Candidate School: squelch it immediately or ignore it. She couldn’t squelch it now; the NSM was too fragile to hold together under the force of discipline. Indeed, she’d already noticed the looks from the other team members they’d met up with and heard their disapproving whispers about the kids who’d died at the school and the comrades who’d been deserted there.

She signaled to the three other insurgents nearby to keep advancing. Shrouded in their blankets, which would help defeat thermal-imaging surveillance, the fighters took the formless shape of decomposing stumps.

“Pass me the suppressor,” she said to Finn.

Conan wriggled out of her pack and set up the Chinese weapon, a QBU-88 rifle.⁵ The suppressor screwed on easily and within thirty seconds, the rifle’s scope had established a network connection with a TrackingPoint spotter.⁶

“I have the impact point,” said Finn, getting back to business. The scope, which they had taken from a Dick’s Sporting Goods, automatically adjusted for range, wind, and ballistics and was connected to a networked tracking engine. Wherever the target, a hit was guaranteed for even an amateur marksman, especially as an auto-lock wouldn’t allow the gun to fire until it was pointed exactly at the mark the spotter had laser-designated.

“You know, my brother-in-law had one of these. Point, click, and shoot. Asshole would assassinate Bambis from a thousand meters away, all the while sipping his Pabst Blue Ribbon. And not ironically, mind you.”

“How we looking?” Conan asked.

“Got nothing at IP Alpha,” said Finn. “Pissing in the wind. Well, you know what I mean, right, sir?”

“Roger that,” said Conan. “See the aim point?”

“Got it,” said Finn. “Anyone else you want me to clip while I’m up here? Maybe one of us, sir?”

Conan ignored the bait and adjusted the rifle on her shoulder; the scope and spotting device recalculated the round’s impact point.

“Did you leave the seat up again?” said Conan.

“Me? Never,” said Finn.

“All right, then, you’re safe for now. How’s IP Bravo?” The pair worked out the firing solution so the three shots she fired would hit their targets in close sequence. That was essential to the opening phase of the mission.

The old radar dome building, a sphere atop a lattice-structure base, looked like a dirty golf ball fished out of a septic tank. The site had been built in 1942 as part of Hawaii’s first radar defense network⁷ and had operated through most of the Cold War. Then budget cuts had left it mothballed for decades. But high ground would always remain valuable real estate. The silver aerostat, a faint smile of the sun’s final light cast across its crown, hovered three hundred and fifty feet above the old dome, its sensors unobstructed out to the ocean in all directions.

“How are we for time?” said Conan.

“Three minutes,” said Finn.

They covered themselves and their gear with their blankets and waited. Sweat pooled in the crook of Conan’s arm and stung her infected elbow.

From under his blanket, Finn said: “Why don’t we just shoot the radar up on the balloon? Be a lot easier.”

“Everything worthwhile is hard,” said Conan, her voice muffled by the blanket. “An old gunny said that once to us.”

“You’re still a Marine, then, sir?” said Finn. “Then why’d you break the credo of never leaving anyone behind?”

“This is more important. Mission above the man,” said Conan. “Besides, we plink the radar, they’ll just reel the bitch in and fix it.”

“That’s why they pay you the big bucks, then,” said Finn.

“Don’t know why they want it taken out now, but I think you can imagine,” said Conan.

“I don’t need the cavalry riding in; I’d be happy with a few dozen Tomahawks. Why do you think they haven’t done that yet?” asked Finn. “Just push a couple buttons; that shit’s easy. Some days a tactical nuke would be okay by me. If Washington had just gotten off its ass when this first went down, we never would have had to fight like this. Should have just gotten it over with at once. Show your cards, motherfuckers. Instead, we draw them off the deck one by one every day. Is anybody back there afraid to die anymore?”

“You just answered your own question,” said Conan. “Nobody wants to die as bad as we do.”

It all sounded good, but she knew something Finn didn’t. She knew she was already dead. After that day on the airfield, it had all been borrowed time. Hunkering behind the Osprey wreckage, she’d decided that if she was going to die, it was going to be with purpose. That the time she had left hadn’t been the expected few seconds but had stretched into days and then months didn’t matter.

Conan’s stomach tightened and she took in a deep breath. She let it out slowly as she peeled back the woolen blanket.

“Sixty seconds,” said Finn.

Finn swatted a fly, causing Conan to flinch. She exhaled deeply, steadying her nerves.

“Damn it, Finn, keep still,” said Conan, feeling a mosquito bore into her forehead.

“Roger,” said Finn. “Ready to launch the zipper?”

Conan nodded.

“Go.”

Finn crouched and lightly tossed a Frisbee-size disc toward the aerostat. This was one of the other gifts they’d received in the duffle bag from the undersea ocean glider. As the disc took flight, a tiny lift fan whirred to life, and the device raced into the forest canopy, disappearing from sight almost immediately. The zipper could fly for only twenty minutes, but what it did during its brief electronic life was what mattered. The carbon-fiber zipper scanned for electronic signals—like from the surveillance systems surrounding the aerostat site—and then repeated those signals back until its batteries ran out. A small green light on a candy-bar-size stick beside the rifle indicated that it was functioning.

“Time to blow out the candles and make a wish?” said Finn.

A click of the rifle’s safety and Conan adjusted the aim point on the scope, a final touch to make sure.

“May all our enemies die screaming,” she whispered.

The rifle fired, the noise under the suppressor almost like a muffled sneeze. The first shot took out a camera mounted in a tower overlooking the site. The second round smashed into a mushroom-shaped antenna. A third shot shattered the lens on a camera pointed up at the aerostat. If the zipper did its job, then they could hold on to the element of surprise just a little longer.

“Let’s go,” said Conan, wedging the blanket into the webbing on her backpack. They tried to run, but the vegetation was so thick and the roots were so treacherous they could manage only a fast walk.

“Nearly there,” said Finn, holding a hand over his right eye; he’d gotten jabbed by a branch. Conan stopped to catch her breath, taking a knee. The heat and humidity, even the altitude, were crushing. Finn reached down to lift her up and dragged her along, tripping over a slimy root himself.

“Why’s the goddamn balloon still attached?” said Conan.

Tricky shrugged with a new recruit’s look of shame. She was a fourth-generation Hawaiian and had been only seventeen years old and into her second year of surfing sponsored by Billabong when the war came. That they’d brought her along showed just how thin the Muj ranks were getting. She offered Conan an ax that was nearly as tall as she was.

“You deserve the honors,” said Tricky.

“This isn’t a damn ceremony, just cut the cable!” said Conan.

Tricky shook her head no, wiping sweat from her eyes. “All right, give me the ax,” said Conan.

The support structure anchoring the aerostat’s tether cable looked like a miniature Eiffel Tower. Conan aimed the blade at the juncture where the cable attached and brought the ax down with a grunt. The ax handle was wooden, but the blade had a nano-synthetic diamond edge. It was Chinese military issue, and they’d stripped it from the back of a supply truck a month ago. Conan brought the ax down again with a loud clang that made the rest of the insurgents tense up. Finn instinctively scanned the perimeter of the clearing.

“We better hurry,” said Finn. He held out the control stick for the zipper. The light now flashed red.

She heaved again and smashed the ax into the steel cable.

“Fucker’s stuck,” said Conan, bending over to lever the blade out. She turned slightly as a volley of rounds hissed past the place where her head had been a moment ago. The angry sound of autocannon fire followed.

“Contact!” shouted Conan. A quadcopter drone appeared, leaping above the canopy around the site’s perimeter. The strobelike muzzle flashes from its cannon lit up the plateau. The NSM insurgents took off at a run away from the cable’s tether point and slid into the foliage at the edge of the clearing.

“Target the drone; it’ll track your fire, and I’ll go after the tether,” said Conan. She sprinted back to the cable’s anchor point, clutching the ax.

Finn tried to track the quadcopter but kept losing it as it ducked in and out of the forest canopy. A rapid reaction force would definitely be coming now. They might helicopter up, and if they did, it would be all over soon. If the Directorate soldiers instead drove up from the mountain’s base, then they might have a few extra minutes.

Another crash of autocannon fire from the quadcopter, which emerged again from the canopy and started to close on Conan’s position. There was a flash of red light to Finn’s right as Tricky fired a flare gun they’d scrounged from a sailboat’s emergency kit. Temporarily blinded, the drone automatically paused and stabilized itself, following its standard protocol to reset its sensors. Dumb-ass machines, thought Finn.

He took it out with his second shot, and the quadcopter spun off into the trees. Then a dark shadow passed overhead: the aerostat, its plump belly faintly lit by the flare’s dying red light, a light wind taking it west.

They ran to the tree line, joining the other insurgents. Already, they could see three sets of headlights coming up the Mount Ka‘ala road to the plateau.

Above them, the first stars were already out, joining the array of lights from Schofield Barracks in the distance. Conan could see all the way to the sweep of lights at Diamond Head, and she allowed herself to wonder what those who hunkered down over there thought of the far-off solitary balloon, lifting off into the night.

Then Conan heard another buzzing in the distance. It was another quadcopter, scouting ahead of the Directorate trucks in the dark.

“Let’s move,” said Conan. “Remember, we stay together this time.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Gulf of the Farallones,⁸ California

 

Captain Jamie Simmons walked forward past the rail-gun turret and stood at the very tip of the ship’s bow. The chisel-like bow narrowed to a fine point, but there was enough room that he could stand on steady legs and take in the view while he went over the ship’s systems on his viz.

The Z had sliced through the oddly still water of San Francisco Bay at just over ten knots, accompanied by seventeen other ships from the Ghost Fleet, most of them old transport and amphibious ships. They’d left in the foggy darkness. No sendoff with dignitaries and officials. Most of the tearful goodbyes had been wrapped up a day ago, and those who’d thought they could avoid difficult face-to-face conversations by saying goodbye online found themselves with no connection to the rest of the world. The ship was at full EMCON A⁹ emission control, running dark, electronically speaking, without the connectivity that the U.S. military had taken for granted for decades. Even if Directorate satellites or spies had seen the ships leaving the Bay, they would have gleaned little information, as the fleet was not leaving a trail of data and information in its wake. The ships wouldn’t even form a local network connection. Mostly, as Admiral Murray insisted, they would use signal flags and lights, old-school nautical communications methods, to help conceal the fleet’s position and course.

The ships passed silently under the Golden Gate Bridge, lit only by the few cars on the road. The scaffolding, ostensibly put up for a construction project, prevented anybody from driving by and taking a close-up viz of the departing fleet. In an age of ubiquitous video capture and Directorate spy satellites, it was a desperate throwback to the early Cold War years.

Jamie watched as, off to port, the sea stacks of the Farallon Islands emerged from the water twenty miles off Point Reyes. Closer in were the remnants of a faint series of triangular wakes left by the three ships leading the way, the USS Mako and two sister ships. The stealthy unmanned surface vessels¹⁰ looked like they belonged in orbit, not on the ocean. But the tiny ships were predators, no question about it. With the fleet operating on radio silence, the fifty-seven-foot-long carbon-fiber Mako-class ships were in full autonomous mode, programmed to hunt and destroy anything made of metal that moved counter to the currents underwater. All the prewar concerns about setting robots loose on the battlefield didn’t seem to matter as much when you were on the losing side. Plus, there was no worry about collateral damage underwater, no civilian submarines that might accidentally get in the way. The worst the ships could do was torpedo a great white shark that had eaten too many license plates.

A flash of movement caught Jamie’s eye and he peered down into the bow wave. A pod of dolphins surfed along with the Zumwalt. Instead of watching them play, he focused on the map layout and saw that the Mako-class ships racing ahead had not detected any mines or signs of the Directorate’s quiet diesel-electric submarines.

“All clear ahead?” said Mike. Jamie turned his body slowly to acknowledge his father but kept looking at his screen.

“So far, so good,” said Jamie. “That won’t last, will it?”

“Probably not,” said Mike. “Look, I need to talk to you for a minute.”

Jamie turned off the glasses, not wanting this conversation recorded. “Let’s head over to the turret.”

In the lee of the rail-gun turret, well out of the wind, Mike spoke first. He braced his back against the rail-gun housing with the kind of effort that betrays exhaustion. His coverall seemed to flap looser, Jamie thought, as if his father’d lost weight.

“We have to solve this,” said Mike. “We don’t have the time to work together, blow up, work together, and then blow up again. Two steps forward and all that.”

“Agreed,” said Jamie. “We can’t have an argument every time we spend more than a minute or two with each other. It’s got to stop. The ship can’t have that. Cortez has already brought it up, suggested you transfer to one of the other ships in the task force. But I kept you with this ship. You know why?”

“I would have stowed away anyway,” said Mike.

Jamie cracked a smile. “I don’t like having to keep the civilian techs onboard, but the ship needs Dr. Li,” said Jamie. “And she needs you.”

“What are you talking about?” said Mike.

“Dad, you can’t bullshit the captain on his own ship. You taught me that,” said Jamie.

“Vern’s less than half my age—” said Mike.

“It’s Vern now?” said Jamie.

“—and got twice the years in school.”

“Whatever you want to tell yourself. It’s your business, not mine. But I need you to keep her safe,” said Jamie.

“She’s doing it to show the rest of them that they can’t question her . . . well, her right to serve, I guess,” said Mike. “One of the guys got after her and—”

“I heard. Is your hand okay?” asked Jamie. “You should have just brought him to me; we could have replaced him.”

“That’s the thing—now he’s going to be the best behaved sailor on this cruise,” said Mike. “In my Navy, we handled things up front and got it over with. All this bullshit about diversity and the new Navy, and still Vern has to deal with this?”

“I know. And if anyone is going to protect her on this ship, it’s you,” said Jamie.

“You’ve already made your point. Would it be hard on you, me with Vern?” said Mike.

“Actually, this might be difficult for you to hear, but, no, it wouldn’t be,” said Jamie.

“You still hate me,” said Mike. “When’s that going to stop? That officer’s uniform’s not going to fix things between us. Times like this I don’t fucking understand why you even went in.”

“So this is our chance to have it out? Okay, then. You left us, Mac­kenzie died, and it all ruined Mom. But that’s not even it. It made me a better man than you. And I prove it every single day.”

“Jesus, now we’re back to square one,” said Mike. “I’d tell you to quit being a martyr, but you’re not that wrong. I should have been there, and I live with it every single day too . . . And that anger to prove you’re better than me may have gotten you to this point. But you need to get it out of you. There is nothing personal about war. Purge it. Now. Before it poisons the captain you ought to be.”

Jamie paused and looked off into the distance and then back at his father. “I hear you . . . Chief,” said Jamie, still not able to address him by the name he swore he’d never use again the day his father left. “Let’s get back inside. I need to check in with the mission center to make sure we don’t run over one of the Makos.”

The two walked carefully along the starboard side of the ship, staying out of the wind and dodging the spray from the growing Pacific swell.

“You know I’m right on this, Jamie. And I know you’re trying. We can talk more when we get to Australia,” said Mike.

Jamie leaned in close to his dad’s ear, cupping it against a gust of wind.

“Going to be a long wait, then,” he said. “We’re going somewhere else.”

As his son walked away, the ship made a slow, lazy turn, and Mike noticed the faint hint of the rising sun peeking through the fog. Oddly, it was off to starboard. They were headed north.

 

Directorate Command, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Colonel Vladimir Markov looked across the room and winced as Lieutenant Jian yawned. The boy did not even try to conceal his fatigue, which to Markov was one of the many reminders of the young officer’s weakness, and just when he finally needed his aide/minder actually to do something.

“Is the model ready?” the Russian asked.

“I’m working on getting the last of the data to load,” said Jian. “Some of these weren’t meant to be put together, so the system is—”

“And that’s why we’re doing this,” said Markov. Being a hunter required more than guns. He’d learned that over two decades ago. He needed data. “If there’s one thing I am going to teach you, it’s to stop thinking that things can work only the way you’ve been told they’re supposed to. You can’t win a war that way. Nobody ever has.”

“Will it be stable enough?” asked Lieutenant Jian, ignoring Markov’s advice, as usual.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” said Markov. “Besides, even if it doesn’t work, nobody is going to see. You’re not going to tell the general on me if it doesn’t, are you?”

Lieutenant Jian avoided Markov’s look.

“Of course you are,” said Markov. “Just do your job and don’t get in the way of me doing mine. When this is all over, they are going to ask you what you did in your war. I bet you thought you would get to do something heroic. It’s your first war, and that’s what everyone thinks. Well, that’s not going to happen. But instead of being some dumb underling, give yourself something to be proud of. At least make me proud. There’s still time.”

Lieutenant Jian gave him a sideways glance, as if the Russian had said something treasonous. Maybe he had.

“Yes, Colonel, as you say,” said Lieutenant Jian. “The model is ready now.”

“Start it,” said Markov. “Let’s go hunting.”

The lights went off and all was dark. Then the projectors arrayed around the spherical room’s perimeter blinked on in sequence.

The holographic model wrapped itself around the bodies of the two men. For a moment, Lieutenant Jian gazed at Markov in disbelief, but the face looking at the Russian was melded with the holographic image of the face of the young Directorate marine who’d had his throat gouged in the stairwell of Duke’s Bar on Waikiki Beach. Another horrific image to forget, thought Markov. Then a different dead body was overlaid on the map; the system had been directed to pull from the casualty list all the Directorate personnel who had gone missing or been killed by any method other than firearms or explosives.

“Now overlay with the movement analysis.”

A spread of small pictures seemed to spray across the room as if from an imaginary tube. The software allowed the capture and processing of hundreds of thousands of hours of multiple-image-viewpoint recordings simultaneously. The American military had gotten the idea¹¹ from the way media companies covered the Super Bowl and had first used it in Iraq. You could saturate a city with drone cameras flying overhead and record everything, but all those images were useless unless you could process the embedded information. That was where the artificial intelligence came in: it found patterns in the noise of daily life.

As the small dots filled the room, the faces of the dead soldiers began to flicker.

“It’s crashing,” said Markov. “Fix it.”

Lieutenant Jian barged through the holographic image, leaving a wake of warped faces and streaming video dots behind him.

“There, okay,” said Lieutenant Jian. “It was the overhead tracking feed from the drones; it does not want to sync up with the traffic cameras.”

Markov waded into the middle of the model, hands raised slightly to the level of his heart, as if he were inching into an icy pool.

“Drop the topography now, set to bird’s-eye view.”

As he stood there, faces and names, numbers, and grid points were overlaid on a 3-D map of Honolulu.

“Here, here, and here.” He indicated points on a map of the city and its environs. “This is where your personnel were found. Here and here too, this is where these unlucky gentlemen went missing. No women, note.”

“What’s the relation? Insurgents are everywhere, they can attack at any time,” said Lieutenant Jian.

“Watch,” said Markov. “Set the system to correlate with known insurgent activity.” A series of red lines began to appear between the various points, forming a random cluster around Markov.

“I don’t see the pattern,” Lieutenant Jian said.

“That’s the point,” Markov said. “These deaths were not consistent with any pattern of normal insurgent activity.”

“What about insurgent activity is normal?” said Lieutenant Jian. “They don’t follow any rules.”

Markov laughed and walked through the model that now connected the body icons with rainbow-like arcs. From each arc dangled a holographic image, akin to a driver’s license, of every person whose DNA had been tracked in the area.

“Lieutenant, I have seen the work of plenty of killers. Insurgencies bring out the truly savage side of humanity. Hands used to kill despite fingernails having been ripped out only days before. Broomsticks topped with shotgun shells. Rusty blades dipped in shit to ensure an infection,” said Markov. “And yet, they all followed a simple rule: anything goes in the name of freedom.”

“You sound like you admire them, these assassins killing our troops one by one,” said Lieutenant Jian. “They are just monsters, all of them.”

“I don’t admire them, but I seek to understand them,” said Markov. “However, this is something different. Lieutenant, you may finally be right about something. I think we are indeed looking for monsters. Just not the kind or number you think. Pull up the file of Ms. Carrie Shin.”

“The woman from the hotel?” asked Lieutenant Jian. “If you’re playing another joke on me, this is not the time.”

Carrie Shin’s face appeared on a wall screen. The photo had been taken by the Directorate security teams for the special ID used by the workers at the Moana hotel. Stunningly beautiful, her tan face beamed. Yet to Markov, something was not right with her eyes; they were almost dead in their expression.

“Now remove the insurgent activity.” The swirl of red lines disappeared.

“And now populate for all facial-recognition traces of Ms. Shin.”

Images of Carrie appeared in tiny flashing pictures and video-stream dots, the viz screen spiraling through still shots from traffic cameras, videos of drone coverage overhead showing her crossing a street, checkpoints where she had shown her ID badge. A person’s entire life couldn’t be recorded, but it left traces. As more and more data was fed through, lines of the patterns of her life formed, all of them crossing again and again with the victims’ locations.

“Do you see the spider’s web?” said Markov. “She is who we have been looking for.”

“You can’t be serious,” said Lieutenant Jian. “Just one girl? It’s only because she works in the same areas. I will reboot the system.”

“Why? Because you don’t like the answer?” said Markov. “You don’t understand what you’re looking at, do you? This is something special, Jian. A true killer hiding in the death of war. A rarity to be observed and understood.”

This was indeed something new, thought the Russian. It seemed like this war wasn’t going to be such a waste after all.

He reached into the hologram on his tiptoes and pulled the photo down, expanding Carrie’s image to larger than life-size.

Markov began pacing around the perimeter of the model, trying to remember the lines from his tattered book of poetry, speaking quietly to himself in Russian.

Calmly he contemplates alike the just/ And unjust, with indifference he notes/ Evil and good, and knows not wrath nor pity.

He changed back to English. “Pushkin should have said ‘she,’ Lieutenant,” said Markov. “The hallmark of a true professional is the ability to admit when one is on unfamiliar ground, and that is where we are now.”

“Colonel, I have to ask, have you been drinking?” said Lieutenant Jian. “I cannot tell the general that we think this woman, this American beach babe, not only killed the minister’s son but also has been brutalizing all our forces.”

“You coward, all you can think about is what you’re going to tell your master. Look into those eyes,” said Colonel Markov. “She is what you should fear.”¹²

Lieutenant Jian’s mouth puckered with dismay, but his eyes showed he could not find the right disapproving words, much less the courage to say them.

“You and I, we can put on a uniform, but we will always be prey. Mere bodies to be sacrificed by our leaders. She, though, she is a huntress and she wears—what, a bikini? A cocktail dress?” said Markov.

Jian looked annoyed and queried the system for her current location. The last image had been her stepping off a city bus a few blocks from her apartment.

“You just asked the wrong question. The question we should be asking is not where is she now, but what is she doing? If she is what I think she is, she is likely hunting right now . . . Or is she coming down, grasping at normalcy?”

“Colonel, it is late, and this is a waste of time,” said Lieutenant Jian. “There is no way this one woman has killed so many men. We can pick her up, but first I must report your waste of valuable resources to the general.”

“Yes, go run to your master,” said Markov. “But have a squad ready in thirty minutes. And you had better hope we find this black widow before . . .”—he paused for dramatic effect and then laughed—“she finds you!”

 

USS Triggerfish, Task Force Longboard

 

The USS Mako raced past the Zumwalt’s stern in what looked like a reckless game of chicken. A fifty-seven-foot trimaran, it had a main hull and two thin outriggers attached by lateral beams. The design, often used in racing yachts, was lighter and faster than a standard single-hulled boat’s, having a shallower draft, a wider beam, and less surface area underwater. For the racing yachts, it meant minimal crew space inside the thin hulls, but that wasn’t a concern for a robotic warship.

The autonomous sub hunter sped away to the far edge of the fleet and began to patrol in a racetrack figure-eight pattern with a sister ship, the USS Bullshark. It had been a controversy when ships with no crews had received names at their commissioning ceremonies four months earlier. It was an important cultural shift, and ultimately the secretary of the Navy herself made the decision: these were not disposable robots but warships the fleet could count on to save lives. Nobody questioned the naming on this day as the high-speed vessels worked to keep Directorate and Russian submarines at bay.

The Mako bolted in a straight line to the east, its speed rising past forty-five knots. The Bullshark slowed, its chisel-like bows diving slightly in the Pacific swell, then took off on a different heading to the west. The pair located a Directorate Type 39A submarine six miles away. Following an algorithm developed from research done on the way sandtiger sharks cooperated¹³ in their hunting, the two ships coordinated and began to box in the fleeing nuclear submarine. The Chinese sub didn’t know that a third Mako-class ship, the USS Tigershark, lay silently drifting in its projected path.

The Tigershark launched a Mark 81 rocket-powered torpedo¹⁴ from a range of three miles. The supercavitating design allowed the torpedo to reach underwater speeds of almost two hundred knots, giving it just enough time to get up to full speed before it punched through the sub, entering the hull from one side and exiting through the other.

The sounds of the submarine’s hull collapsing were captured by the Mako-class hunters and relayed to the Zumwalt, as was the burst-transmission distress message from the buoy that had been automatically ejected by the sinking Chinese sub. The task force ships were now safe from the undersea threat, but they were leaving a trail of crumbs behind them.

 

Mount Ka‘ala, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Conan pressed her cheek deeper into the wet mud beneath the hapuu ferns. A moment ago she’d thought she heard the buzz of a small rotary-powered drone. Yes, there it was. The sound ebbed and flowed in the damp air.

She curled her knees into her chest and pressed them tighter, hoping the wool blanket would shield her from the thermal sensors. These were the moments when you were truly alone, when you had to face up to all the things you could have done after the invasion instead of taking up arms. The camps at Schofield Barracks weren’t that bad, people said. The Red Cross visited regularly, as the whole world saw via images collected and broadcast by Directorate social media teams.

The buzzing intensified and Conan held her breath, smelling orchids and damp mud. She felt the prick of a mosquito’s bite near her jaw. Then another. The buzzing stopped. Was that it? Just a pair of fucking bugs?

Conan had expected to be killed within a few moments of setting off down the mountain. Yet here they were. They’d been moving in the dark as quickly as they dared until they’d heard the sound of the pursuer overhead, and then they’d sheltered under their woolen blankets, diving under ferns and into furrows in the forest floor. That was all that was between them and a fléchette rocket or autocannon round. Just a half an inch of wool that hid their heat signatures.

They’d gotten the idea from the Taliban, who used them to elude American drone searches. Finding wool blankets in Hawaii had been the hard part. They’d had to sneak into a frozen-fish processing facility off North Nimitz Highway, where Nicks traded the foreman a captured pistol for the blankets. Conan hoped that gun would be on their side someday. Lots of people said they were waiting for the right moment. A podiatrist in Kaneohe who had hidden Conan and Finn in his garage one night had even shown them his great-grandfather’s newa, an old Hawaiian wooden war club with shark teeth embedded in it. He’d sworn that his ancestors would see him smash it into an occupier’s skull one day soon.

Soon. Would that day ever come? Conan lifted the edge of her blanket and listened. Nothing mechanical moved; she heard only the sounds of the forest at night. She raised her head and clicked quietly and saw the spectral shapes of insurgent forms rise up and circle around her. She waited five minutes and then hissed softly, and they began to move with soft steps down the mountain.

“Beautiful night,” whispered Finn. She could tell he was close by the sweetly vile smell of ammonia and musk.

And then the world went white.

The first explosion lifted her off her feet and launched Finn into a tree trunk. A second explosion followed an instant later, shredding trees with hundreds of dart-like metal-fléchette rounds.

Conan tried to look around but couldn’t focus, as white static seemed to fill her eyes. When her vision cleared, she looked through the infrared scope on her sniper rifle and saw a dozen Directorate soldiers bounding down the trail. In the distance came the low growl of a quadcopter. Then all the soldiers flicked on their flashlights at once. Confident bastards.

She peered out from behind the protection of a koa tree trunk and pulled the trigger. The shot hit a soldier squarely in the middle of the protective faceplate on his helmet. She panned for another target, but a volley of shots ripped through the leaves to the left and right above her and forced her to dive into the dirt and roll to the base of a tree ten feet away. Turkey-peeking around the trunk, she saw the first soldier, now with a shattered visor, back up and advance, firing steadily.

Let them come. She needed them close so the quadcopter couldn’t fire at the Muj from above the forest canopy without also killing the Directorate soldiers. She waited, her back to the tree trunk, wiping sweat from her forehead with her hand.

This was it.

“Montana! Montana! Montana!” she shouted over the irregular bark of assault rifles. She fired wildly around the trunk, not even looking, and then immediately tossed the cumbersome sniper rifle. She took off running, knowing there was no way they could catch her loaded down with their helmets and armored tac-vests, just like the old mujahideen in the ’Stans had run circles around the U.S. troops hauling eighty pounds of gear up and down the mountains. After a hundred feet of running, she ducked behind a tree, took off her backpack, and tossed it onto the path.

Then she took off sprinting downhill again, more agile now without the weight of the backpack, bounding over stumps and rocks. Branches and leaves slashed at her right arm, which she was holding up to protect her face.

The explosives in her backpack detonated on the trail above her. The back blast tossed Conan down, but the two hundred pea-size ceramic ball bearings shot up the trail in the direction of her pursuers. At her insistence, all the Muj patrolled with the homemade mines strapped to their backpacks, what Finn called, appropriately, death insurance.

She lifted herself up and started running down the trail again. The crack of another explosion meant Finn’s charge had gone off as well. It didn’t tell her whether he was still alive or not, but the explosion did illuminate the trail ahead of her, and what she saw sent her stumbling to try to slow her descent.

She hardly saw or heard the third explosion, maybe Tricky’s, because she tripped and started to cartwheel down the trail. Conan clawed at the mud, rocks, and branches trying to stop her acceleration. The speed of her tumbling picked up as the slope steepened.

A fourth explosion.

She snatched a glance at a horizon split between the last few feet of overgrown slope and a black void decorated with twinkling lights. Whether they were stars or buildings below, Conan couldn’t tell. For some reason, she relaxed and fixated on that question as she felt her body lose contact with the ground.

 

Kakaako, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Colonel Vladimir Markov nodded once at the Directorate commando. He was a bit surprised General Yu had let the mission go forward. It could have been the prospect of writing yet another letter to a Directorate senior official who had sent his boy off to get a safe war for his résumé only to receive in return a body unfit for an open-casket funeral. Or perhaps the possibility that a woman might be doing the butchering had affronted his warrior’s sensibility.

The commando affixed what looked like a ridged black plastic cup to the apartment door’s handle. He gently pressed the white button on the back of the device, and there was a faint hum, followed by a hiss. The electromagnetic charge in the breacher device silently shook the lock apart. There was a faint pop as the commando removed the cup, and he waved Markov forward with an exaggerated bow that showed the Russian the sinister skull painted on the top of his assault helmet. Markov thought it silly, knowing they’d gotten the idea from that video game¹⁵ they all liked to play in their off-hours.

The team already knew she wasn’t home. An external thermal scan of the one-bedroom apartment had shown it was empty. He’d made them confirm it with a second painfully long search done by a two-inch creeper that wormed under the door and checked every room for carbon dioxide levels.

Even though Markov had to bring the commandos with him, he would enter alone. Their commanding officer didn’t mind. He knew what they were thinking: If the Russian wanted to blow himself up in a booby trap, so be it. This war was dragging on, and only the Russian seemed to be in a hurry to lose a limb.

Markov was indeed in a hurry, but his careful movements did not show it. He removed his shoes in the hallway and covered his feet in a pair of surgical booties.

“Your shoes, sir?” said the Directorate commando in English. “Shall I shine them during your stay with us?”

“Just make sure they’re good enough for General Yu,” said Markov over his shoulder as he stepped through the doorway. The laughter in the hallway followed him inside.

He headed first for the kitchen. He’d never understood why, but people loved to hide things in the kitchen. Explosives in the freezer. Shells in the breadbox. False papers and ID tags among the recipes.

He found nothing. No heads in the refrigerator or fingers drying on the windowsill, which part of him had thought was a possibility.

It was a depressing apartment, bare of any personal items. Just a collection of build-it-yourself furniture, much of it apparently bought used. There wasn’t a single photograph anywhere.

Markov sighed and reached into the satchel. He put on a pair of thick, green opaque goggles that looked like the heavy-duty night-vision gear worn by infantry. He powered them on, and the room appeared before him as clearly as he had seen it moments before. A signal meter showed he was connected to the router in the armored vehicle outside where Jian waited, as ever.

He murmured a series of commands in Russian and the room began sparkling with mosquito-size points of light. The flickering consolidated, giving the floor and furniture a green-blue shimmering hue, like a boat’s phosphorescent wake in the moonlight.

Each streak represented the DNA trail that she’d left during her daily patterns of life. Each was a tiny piece of her that she would never get back.

Ending up in the bedroom, Markov followed the shimmering trail around the bed and over to the wide closet. Of course the trail would lead here. A woman should be close to her clothes, he thought, especially this woman. He then smiled at his own sexism.

The lights showed a cluster of activity toward the back of the closet, mostly concentrated on a faded red-and-white shoebox. The box was for a pair of Puma flip-flops, men’s size 11. Whose, he did not know.

He carefully lifted the box slightly with a pen, testing the weight. It was light, making it less likely that it was booby-trapped. Less likely was not impossible, though. Still using the pen, he gently raised the lid, teasing it up to see if there was any resistance from tape or a wire. There was none, and he took the box’s lid off fully, finding inside a hairbrush in a plastic sandwich bag and a green piece of paper folded into a small envelope. He carried the box over to the bed and sat down.

The envelope was addressed to My Love. He slowly opened it, fold by fold. More writing, some kind of anniversary note, and then, with the final unfolding, a small razor blade. It gleamed even in the low light, bright with DNA traces. He folded the blade back into the envelope and laid it on the bed.

He looked at the hairbrush, curious about why it was stored inside a plastic bag. What was so valuable about it? He took the brush out of the bag and eyed it more closely, turning it in the light.

He slowly shook the brush just above the green envelope; strands of hair fell out. He pulled out his pen and ran it across the brush slowly; a few more hairs fell down. Using the pen, he began to separate them, holding his breath so as not to disturb any. The hairs were all short, none longer than an inch, a few straight, a few curled, all of varied thickness. There were twenty-one hairs in total.

 

Lotus Flower Club, Former French Concession, Shanghai

 

Sergei Sechin sat at the edge of the bed and stared at the strands of Twenty-Three’s blue hair sticking out from under the sheet. Against the pink fabric, the hair looked like something found on a coral reef, beautiful and fragile. Then, as the weight of his body pressed down on the mattress, bright red blood started seeping toward him.

He stayed seated as the blood came closer and closer. Had she done it herself, or was this a message to him?

In either case, it meant he was blown. Did he have time to destroy his devices and get a back-alley body scan to see if they had tagged or chipped him? Or should he just run? And yet, what he found himself thinking was that now he’d never know Twenty-Three’s name.

The knock on the door snapped him to attention, and he returned to being the intelligence professional he’d been before he entered the room. Why knock? Perhaps to unsettle him further? See how he would react?

His eyes moved to the corner, where there was a small writing table. He quietly opened the desk drawer and found a pen. It had an ivory inlay set with eight brushed-metal bands and a gleaming silver nib, reflecting the recent fad that had many of China’s most powerful writing letters by hand for the first time in decades. It would have to do.

Aware that he was being watched, Sechin scribbled a note. They would give him time to write it, he knew, thinking it a confession. But it was just a message in Klingon directing them to where they could stick something.

He went back to the bed and sat down, then felt her warm blood seeping into the seat of his pants. He leaned over and kissed her through the wet sheet. As he kissed her, he brushed her hair with one hand and felt his neck for the pulse of his carotid artery with the other. With closed eyes, he tensed up and prepared to jam the fountain pen’s nib into his artery as far as he could and then rip it out.

The door exploded in a spray of fine wooden particles, and the concussion from the blast lifted Sechin off the bed. He crashed face-first into the mirror.

He slumped over at the foot of the mirror, then rolled onto his side, frantically looking for the pen, his ears ringing too loudly for him to hear the faint hum of rubber treads on the floor. The breacher robot rolled up to him, and the gun mounted at its end pointed at Sechin’s neck and fired.

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

When they retold the history of this war, no one would believe just how boring the space part of it had been.

They were the true “Warriors of China’s New Century,” as the unit’s commendation letter from the Presidium itself put it. Colonel Huan Zhou had read it to them as they shared a celebratory meal of dehydrated roast pork and mooncakes¹⁶ the day after Tiangong fired the war’s opening salvos. But since then, in a metal box two hundred miles above all the action, little had happened for months.

And for that Chang was thankful. If it was boring, Chang dared not mention it. Huan kept riding them hard, conducting training drills as if they had to shoot down the whole cosmos. There’s nothing left! Chang wanted to shout. All the targets have been serviced!

The only real threat they had faced came from a U.S. Air Force jet—an F-15, Huan said later, flying at its maximum altitude—that had fired an antisatellite missile¹⁷ at the station. The Tiangong’s laser-defense system turned the missile into more space junk and would have lased the plane if it hadn’t had some kind of high-altitude mechanical failure first.

The worst part about that action was that it was all automated. Chang wanted his son to think he was a hero, but the onboard systems had handled the targeting while Chang slept.

He ate another mooncake and gazed longingly down at the blue Pacific.

“Chang,” Huan called. He sounded even more on edge than normal, which perhaps reflected the fact that they’d run out of stims three days earlier. The pace of war in space was so slow, they’d gone through them faster than planned, trying to stay alert. “What is the MAGIC array status update?”

“Operative at one hundred percent. No anomalies,” said Chang. Hainan had ordered them to shift the geosynchronous orbits of the surveillance satellites from their position above the central Pacific to an area over the Arctic region. It hadn’t made any sense until the new readings came in.

“It’s still tracking the American East Coast squadron coming from the North Atlantic. Two nuclear-ship readings, all data confirmed received. It seems whatever intel they had was right. The Americans are making one more push, this time up north.”

“I almost admire them. They have to know it won’t work, but the sacrifice is still worthy,” said Huan. “Near space clear?”

“Exclusion zone intact. The German comsat launched out of Sudan last week made sure to stay extra-wide. I think it’s a broadcast bird,” said Chang. “I can check the intel reports again.”

“Make sure you do. We want no surprises,” said Huan.

The Directorate had declared a two-hundred-kilometer zone of exclusion around Tiangong. The Germans had apparently learned their lesson three weeks ago after a Belgian weather satellite had wandered into the zone and been lased into a molten ball of junk.

“Today’s traffic?” asked Huan.

“A slow day. Intelligence reports two launches expected: an unmanned Russian replenishment vehicle for the ISS and one of those space-tourism flights from the European spaceport in French Guiana,” said Chang.

“War-zone tourists. In space! Such idiots. Let me check with Hainan to see if we can service that target, maybe make their trip even more exciting,” said Huan, laughing.

Huan’s braying laugh was one of the most trying aspects of life aboard the station for the entire crew. Was it bloodlust or boredom that drove Huan?

“And I will inquire about the resupply. You know, Chang, there may be fresh crew coming.”

Home.

“I’ll leave only when you leave, sir,” said Chang, hoping those words would be enough. If Huan thought he wanted to leave, Chang knew he would be the last to get off the station.

“Naturally,” Huan replied.

Chang closed his eyes and waited. He was good at waiting. He thought about his son: What was he doing at this moment? Were his eyes closed too? Chang began to hum a song he used to sing to his son when he was a baby.

A steady ping snapped him to attention. The station’s flight-tracking systems had detected a change of course by the tourists’ space plane.

Chang wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and stared hard at the screen again. No. That couldn’t be. It was heading straight toward the exclusion zone.

 

USS Zumwalt, North Pacific Ocean

 

“All stop!” shouted executive officer Horatio Cortez.

As the USS Zumwalt slowed, the black smoke coming up from the bow section of the ship blocked out the view of the nearly flat Pacific Ocean.

“Who gave the order to stop?” asked Captain Simmons, wanting to yell but producing more of a wheeze, as he had to catch his breath. He’d dashed up from the engine room, where he had been talking to the crew about how to get a few more knots of sprint speed out of the ship. “What the hell is going on, XO?”

“It’s some kind of internal explosion,” said Cortez, eyes flickering behind his glasses as he watched the ship give an automated damage report. “Fire-suppression system is working, should be under control any moment.”

The smell of burning plastic started to waft through the bridge.

“No sign of an attack. ATHENA says battery fire,” said Cortez in the clipped voice he used during high-stress situations.

“Then we can start moving. We have a schedule to keep!” said Simmons. He turned and left the bridge, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was headed to find the source of the problem.

As he rushed below decks, the calls of “Captain!” and “Make a hole!” echoed down the ladder wells and passageways. He could never catch up to the crew’s warnings to the others that he was on his way and they should look shipshape.

As he got deeper into the ship, the calls ended. Damage-control teams rushed back and forth, focused on their work. A caterpillar-like fire-suppression bot crawled past, and Simmons tucked in behind it as the crew made way for the machine’s steady slink toward the rail-gun battery.

Simmons felt a hand on his shoulder pull him back.

“Captain, they’ve gotten it extinguished,” said Mike. “I mean, she’s gotten it extinguished. The Z’s fire-suppression system took care of it. If only one thing works right on this ship, I guess it’s good that it’s the sprinklers.”

“I need to talk to Dr. Li, help her light a fire under the power team’s asses,” said Simmons.

“Son—I mean, sir—let me handle this,” said Mike. “Not much you can say to her or any of the crew to make them move faster. This one’s for me and Vern.”

“Chief, it’s my ship, my mission,” said Simmons.

“I told you to stop personalizing it. It’s the Navy’s ship, not yours. That’s what the best captains learn,” said Mike. “You think anybody’s going to go easy on themselves now? You keep everyone busy upstairs and let me get my hands dirty down here. You’re going to have your hands full soon enough.”

Jamie didn’t answer. He didn’t want to admit his father was right.

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

“Turn off the damn alarm,” said Colonel Huan. “I can see them.”

Chang saw him searching the shoulder pocket where his stim tabs had been before they’d run out.

They’d just given the third warning to the space tourists, and again no response.

“Should I try Hainan control center again, Colonel?” said Chang. This was clearly a civilian target, and the shuttle belonged to a European nation that the Directorate had hundreds of billions in trade with. More important, that nation was a former ally of the United States that had so far stayed out of the war. But that wasn’t what was troubling him. Destroying satellites was one thing, but blasting a shuttle full of rich tourists was not the war he wanted to tell his son about some day.

Huan grunted his approval. The long-range communications appeared to be jammed, the transmissions digitally hopping across each of the frequencies they tried.

“It doesn’t matter. We don’t need Hainan’s approval. The jamming only proves they are a threat,” said Huan. “Proceed with station defense protocols. Set them to begin firing at two hundred kilometers.”

“Wait, wait. I’ve got a transmission coming through,” said Chang. “It’s . . . music?” He set the transmission to play on the station’s speakers: first there were the strums of a single guitar, then a beating of drums, and then a gravelly voice singing in English.

 

Out of the blue came a kill-crazy crew,

Whose motto was stomp on the weak,

With bones in their hairs,

They were as hungry as bears,

And their leader was the King of the Freaks.¹⁸

 

“What? What does that mean?” said Huan. For once he seemed to have no ready answers.

Chang directed the computer to match the lyrics to all records of codes and transcripts, even military anthems, thinking it might be a unit’s marching cadence. The system’s answer made the music even more confusing. There was nothing in the classified files, but an open-source search had found a match. It was a song performed by a twentieth-century musician called Alice Cooper.

“This is Directorate space station Tiangong calling unidentified spacecraft ordering immediate course correction to avoid our exclusion zone,” said Chang. “You will be fired upon if you advance further. Answer to confirm receipt.”

The order was met with more blaring rock-and-roll.

 

Death on their hips,

There was foam on their lips,

And behind them a shadow of blood,

They was Space Pirates.

 

The rock-and-roll song continued on to describe a sort of bizarre savagery that barely made any sense in the highly engineered confines of the space station.

“They can’t even bother to turn off their awful music?” Huan said. “Now I am certain they are Americans. What an expensive way to commit suicide.”

“They will cross into the exclusion zone in ten seconds,” said Chang.

“Good,” said Huan. “Then we won’t have to listen to this racket for much longer.”

Chang noted that Huan pressed down the red firing button almost a full second before the target crossed the imaginary line in space. Either the music had gotten to him or the bastard just couldn’t wait to kill real people.

But then—nothing.

“Are the lasers functioning?” said Huan. “There’s no damage.”

“Sensors are properly tracking the target, showing a hit at the aim site,” said Chang.

Huan pressed the red button again, jabbing it hard, as if the added pressure would make it work this time.

Again, the target showed no damage. It was as if they’d never fired a shot.

“Full systems reset. Now,” Huan commanded.

“Target is decelerating,” said Chang.

“I want to see it up close,” said Huan, pointing toward what he thought was the space plane, although actually his finger was aimed at the station bulkhead. The virtual image of the targeting goggles did that to some people. They simply forgot where they were.

The screen shifted from the radar-targeting icon to a visual from the station’s telescope. As it focused, Chang thought the shuttle was the shiniest thing he’d ever seen.

 

And behind them a shadow of blood,

They was Space Pirates

 

The song continued repeating. He’d lost track of how many times it had played.

“System rebooted. Back online.”

Huan fired again, and they saw a quick bright dazzle at the target point but no burn-through.

“It’s got some kind of a reflective coating that’s causing the laser energy to bounce off,” said Chang.

“We’ll see how many shots it can take as it gets closer,” said Huan.

“Sir, the range is making it dangerous for us. The closer they get, the more likely that one of our shots will reflect back and hit us,” said Chang.

Huan didn’t answer, he just pressed down on the red button. The laser fired once more.

There was no effect, and the beam fortunately didn’t angle back at them. The plane began to decelerate and came to a stop three kilometers away. It fired its maneuvering jets, tiny bursts of flame, setting itself in a parallel orbit to the station, out of the laser’s firing angle. As the shiny plane lazily rotated, the wings came into full view.

“What is that?” said Huan, though he recognized what he was seeing.

“A skull,” said Chang. “And two bones crossed beneath it.”

 

They was Space Pirates

Sack a galaxy just for fun.

 

Then the music stopped, and the station went silent.

A voice with a strange accent came on, sort of a cross between an Indian’s and a British noble’s from one of those old shows Chang’s wife loved, about the servants living downstairs in the manor.

“Tiangong, Tiangong. I have the pleasure to be Sir Aeric K. Cavendish, captain of the legally registered privateer Tallyho,” said the voice. “And I demand your surrender.”

 

Ehukai Beach,¹⁹ Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

He’d grown up in a twenty-two-story apartment building in Chengdu, but the booming surf always made Bo Dai homesick. It reminded the big Directorate sergeant of the New Year’s fireworks when he was a child. He could never admit this to the others in his unit, but he wished he were back home. The fun of this so-called tropical paradise had long since worn off, right around the time they’d found poor little Xiao Zheng dead in the bar, his neck stabbed through.

The bulky marine walked carefully at the edge of the lapping ocean water, placing one foot in front of the other right where the fresh sand was wiped clean with each pulse of the ocean. He looked over his shoulder to be sure that nobody caught him in such a forlorn mood. Even in the dark, the sag of his shoulders would have been a giveaway to the other marines, who feared him.

It was the beauty that did it. For somebody who did not spend much time reflecting, he’d come to understand that Hawaii’s best weapon against any occupier was its beauty. It made you let down your guard.

He had told his men living out of the beachfront houses near Ehukai Beach that he needed to make sure the guards at the far point weren’t sleeping during watch. This was a rest-and-relaxation assignment after the past few weeks of tough urban patrols, his men not knowing if that kid in the alley was just taking out the recycling or getting ready to toss a Molotov cocktail their way. The beach, known as the Banzai Pipeline to the local surfers, was too rough for landing craft and too open for any of the damn insurgents to use as a hideout. He knew it was safe ground. But the men knew these facts also, and Bo worried his unit would become slack. He would find out in a few more minutes if he had to dole out another beating in order to encourage better attentiveness.

A few paces behind Bo and about thirty feet from shore, a pair of straw-like antennae emerged from the choppy water. They twitched and then disappeared.

As Bo walked on, lost in his thoughts, the antennae reappeared ten feet from the shore, then quickly vanished again. They emerged again at the water line, attached to a small black lobster.²⁰ It advanced by alternating between crawling along the ocean’s bottom on its eight legs and using the force of the water’s swell to help it glide toward the shore.

Bo continued to walk along the beach, his body armor, weapon, and helmet a dark silhouette against the sky. The lobster began to stalk its prey, starting and then stopping again, the water covering it.

Bo thought he heard something and pivoted on his heel. He flipped down his night-vision goggles but saw nothing moving in the tree line.

As the lobster made a final sprint²¹ to close in on its prey, Bo instinctively turned, swinging his rifle out toward the dark ocean. Nothing but the water splashing around his boots. He brought the rifle down and cursed himself for being so jumpy.

The water receded, revealing the small lobster a few feet away, its body covered in matte, sandpaper-rough, purple-black ballistic carbon. Before Bo could react, the robot fired a small dart into his leg, dropping him instantly. The poison was a synthetic derivative of a sea snake’s venom and had him unconscious within a second.

As he lay face-down in the water, drowning, six dark figures emerged at the waves’ break line and bodysurfed their way ashore. They slowly eased past Bo, crawling on their stomachs and elbows to the water line. Then they waited, scanning the beach for threats, holding suppressed HK 416 rifles.²² They wore ultrathin wetsuits that matched their heat signatures to the ambient temperature of the water around them. They were almost invisible to the naked eye, lacking the telltale humps of rebreathing units. They had made the hour-long swim to shore without oxygen tanks,²³ their bodies flush with trillions of micron-size nanoscale devices that provided far more oxygen than normal red blood cells. The technology had first hit the mainstream at the Tour de France three years ago, causing the race to go on indefinite hiatus but piquing the interest of DARPA program managers working on human-performance modification.

After waiting for ten minutes in the surf, the six dark figures slithered one by one into the trees. Two of them dragged Bo’s body deep into the thick undergrowth of mangrove trees.

The lobster scurried along the beach, following Bo’s path, darting back to the water when the moon broke through the clouds in order to avoid the splash of light on the sand. Then the machine crept carefully forward as a single figure emerged from the forest at the turn in the shoreline.

The robot beamed the image back to the six who’d taken cover. Even on the small view screens of their tac-glasses, they could see the fatigue of the person coming out of the trees. The figure wore torn clothes and walked with an obvious limp.

The robot scuttled forward and then paused ten feet behind the figure. One of the hidden commandos hissed a challenge through a tiny speaker set in the robot’s carapace.

“Sugar Bowl Resort.”

“Best skied in February,” responded the figure, slowly turning, pointing a Chinese-made QBZ-95 automatic rifle at waist level and then noticing the tiny robot below.

Fifty feet away, one of the dark figures stood, two open hands in the air, and remained motionless until the rifle was lowered.

“Aloha and welcome to paradise. I’m Major Doyle, Twenty-Second Marine Air Group but more recently, ah, detailed to what we call the North Shore Mujahideen.”

“We’re familiar with your work. Hell, you’re a celebrity back home, Ms. Die Screaming,” said the man, who was clad in a green, gray, and black tiger-striped wetsuit. “I’m Duncan, proud member of the Dam Neck Canoe Club. It is an honor to meet you.”

Conan considered the reference to the U.S. Navy base in Virginia and the fact that he hadn’t given a last name or rank.

“SEAL Team Six for an extraction team? I guess it’s me that should be honored.”

“I believe there may be some confusion, Major Doyle,” said Duncan. “Who said we were your extraction team? We’re the advance party.”

 

Tallyho, Low Earth Orbit

 

Sir Aeric K. Cavendish stared at the helmet in his lap and then bounced it on his knee like a soccer ball. The helmet floated away slowly and then rebounded against what would have been the ceiling if there were an up or a down here. It was his first time in space, and he was enjoying it far more than his time in goal in the match with Leeds, heretofore the peak of his pleasure-rich existence as a tycoon. Zero gravity was remarkable. His body, always a source of secret disappointment, was no burden to him here.

The Tallyho had originally been²⁴ called the Virgin Galactic 3, a space plane designed to take off like a conventional aircraft and then blast into orbit. Cavendish had bought it for a song after the original owner had gone missing in a balloon accident. It was partly out of admiration for the man and his inspirational lifestyle, and partly because it was a good deal he couldn’t resist. Even a billionaire should not be above a bargain, particularly when it involved a one-of-a-kind aircraft.

He looked out at the space plane’s wing. The only time he had ever seen anything so brilliant was that necklace he’d given to Miss Ukraine after forcing the manager of the Harry Winston in London’s Mayfair²⁵ to open at three in the morning. The look on her face when he’d fastened the necklace around her swanlike neck and then simply walked away had been priceless, though the tabloids had reported it cost fourteen million dollars. He was pretty sure that story would be in his obituary, which hopefully would not appear anytime soon. What wouldn’t be in it was how Miss Ukraine’s visit two nights later had turned his extravagant gift into a worthwhile investment.

No, this was more brilliant, in every sense of the word. The Tallyho’s surface was coated with nano-manufactured diamonds, baked into the aircraft’s composite skin. The bet, and Cavendish’s engineers swore the science was sound, was that the diamonds would render the Tiangong’s laser weapons useless against the Tallyho. The coating would work only briefly, though, as each time the laser beam lashed the spacecraft’s surface, it would ever so slightly fuse the composite material and the diamonds. Totally impractical for the military, of course. It was a one-off trick. But as with Miss Ukraine, it was a bet worth taking.

The inspiration for the diamond idea he’d kept secret, like Miss Ukraine’s visit, but in this case because it was so mundane. He’d come up with the concept at the bankruptcy auction of a famous rapper turned fashion mogul. Blinging an entire Cadillac Cascade SUV was certainly in poor taste, but the image had stuck with Sir Aeric.²⁶

Cavendish studied his reflection in the helmet floating in front of him for another instant, and then he checked his watch again and smiled.

“It seems they are not going gently into that good night,” said Cavendish. “Gentlemen,” he called, “I would like to request your help in evicting those squatters from my property.”

“You heard the Sir, boys,” said Best. “Time for a walk.”

 

Corner of Mission and Kawaiahao Streets, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Twenty-one kills. Twenty-two if you counted the single brown hair from the American officer who was listed as missing in the Directorate records. Had he been her first kill? Or was he a casualty of the war? Was that all it took to unleash this inside her? A single death? Or was there something more?

Markov looked out the car’s window into the night at the vague outline of the complex of low-slung buildings. His eyes tracked to the faint silhouette of a steeple, like catching a glimpse of a dagger in the night. The power had been out in this area for a few days now. Insurgents had destroyed the transformer in the neighborhood, and the replacement parts from Shanghai would not be ready for another week, at least. The people here would think it a victory, though, hurting themselves out of spite just to make the other side work harder to win a love that would never come.²⁷ That was the essence of insurgency.

He wondered if she really was in there. A Directorate mini-drone on an automated-presence patrol had recorded her walking down the street and entering the small wooden building. The drone’s small size limited its onboard processing, meaning that it had to send its video feed back for analysis as it continued on its sweep. Carrie Shin’s facial-recognition match had come seven minutes later, which was a lifetime in a hunt.

He needed to talk to her. If anyone was worth understanding in this war, it was her. What did he hope to find? That they were alike? Hunters, both of them?

Markov stepped out of the Geely sedan, keeping the vehicle between him and the target. The Directorate commandos crouched behind their civilian-style Great Wall pickups²⁸ looked tense. They’d better be, he thought, they’re about to raid a church.

“Everyone ready?” said Markov. “And remember, Carrie Shin comes to us alive. You know what she looks like.” He paused and tapped the sizable opaque visor atop the assault helmet he wore. “I’ll be in on the tac-view with you, so cue her up on contact.”

“All are in position, sir,” said one of the commandos. “We’ll await your go order.”

Before Markov could respond, squealing tires made the men twitch, and the entire assault force turned and trained their weapons on the oncoming vehicle. It was a convoy of armored Geely SUVs, bookended by two APCs. The men noticed the flags flying from the front fenders of the third vehicle.

Of course, General Yu would want everyone to know it was him, confusing personal bravery with stupidity. The faint rhythmic thumping of attack helicopters circled overhead. A platoon of bodyguards exited and took up positions as General Yu jumped out of his vehicle, waving his pistol in the air like he was leading a cavalry charge. One of his aides knelt a few feet away, filming the general from below, which was meant to make the man look even taller in the video clips sent back home. He truly was a giant, the kind that didn’t bother to think about where he stepped.

“Colonel, get everyone back. Across the street,” said Yu, taking charge of the scene as if it were his birthright, his command voice sounding like he was about to lead an army of thousands into battle.

“Sir, the men are already in position,” said Markov. The general looked down at the cameraman and scowled, putting away his pistol. Markov looked at him innocently and asked, “Would you like to give the attack order, General?”

“No, Colonel. I said pull them back. We’re going to destroy the entire nest. My dead boys deserve their due,” said General Yu. Then a helicopter pilot’s voice came over the headsets of the assembled commandos.

“This is Green Dragon Six. Target acquired, engaging in thirty seconds,” he said.

“General, I must strongly advise against this,” said Markov. “We need her alive. We need to know what she’s done. Does she have a network? Is she operating alone? What are her ties to the insurgents? I need to speak with her. If you blow everything from here to Shanghai, we lose that chance.”

“I don’t need to know. I don’t need a date,” said Yu. “The threat needs to be eliminated. Entirely. When the smoke clears, we will learn all that we need to know: that she’s dead.”

The thumping approach of the attack helicopter changed pitch as it began to dive toward the church.

“This will only backfire in publicity terms, flattening a church so soon after the school raid killed all those children. We’re going to lose the entire population. You don’t kill like this, not for one person. That’s a card the losing side plays.”

“It’s not for one person. It’s for the twenty-one boys of mine she butchered. I am not writing another damned letter because of her. And what happened at that school is exactly why we’re not going to go in and lose any more of my men. You wanted me to understand the foe? Well, they need to understand me,” said General Yu.

Markov tried to shout a further protest, but nothing could be heard over the deafening arrival of the twin-engine helicopter.

He cast a glance at the church and watched a young girl, maybe thirteen years old, towing two small toddler boys from an outbuilding and into the main parish hall, seeking its sanctuary. As they entered the wide wooden doors of the church, one of the little boys looked back at them and stared at the hovering helicopter until he was pulled inside.

Markov turned to confront Yu and saw that the man had already clambered back inside the SUV, which was now pulling off in reverse. He slapped the side of the vehicle’s window in anger. At least the general would hear that.

One after the other, two missiles flashed from beneath the helicopter’s stunted wings. All Markov could do was quickly duck behind the nearest pickup for cover. He sat facing down the street they’d driven up, turned away from the explosions erupting behind him. He’d seen so much carnage before in war, but for some reason this time he couldn’t watch. There was no point. The hunt had been lost, the lessons he’d learned over his career of no value to anyone.

 

Research Facility 2167, Shanghai

 

The fact that he couldn’t feel the drill going into the back of his skull made the noise all the more terrifying.

Sechin’s eyes darted around the room. He tried to turn his head, but he couldn’t move. A computer display in front of him was all that he could see; the screen showed a surgeon drilling into a shaved skull. A puff of bone dust smoked up from the metal boring through the skull on the screen. Then the screen itself was covered with a fine white powder that wafted in from behind him. His vision blurred as some of the powder fell in his eyes. He tried to blink but couldn’t. Someone outside his field of view squirted a liquid into his eyes and dabbed the corners as the liquid dripped out.

A second and third time, the drill bored through the skull on the video screen, sending more puffs of bone dust wafting over. He wanted to close his eyes to stop watching, but he couldn’t. After the second squirt of liquid into his eyes, he realized it was because his eyelids were no longer there. He couldn’t do anything, in fact, but watch as the surgeon began to insert thin fiber-optic wires into the three holes in the skull. He knew the wires were filled with over five hundred electrodes, each as thin as a human hair, that would link with the electromagnetic signals of his brain’s neurons.

The surgeon, if one could call him that, then disappeared from the computer screen. Sechin heard the sound of metal wheels scraping on the tile floor, coming closer. Then the surgeon was there in front of him, pushing a cart with a small box on top, fiber-optic wires stretching out from it and wrapping around the back. Also on the cart were two robotic hands; other wires linked them to the box.

Sechin knew who the man was even before he removed his surgical mask.

“General Sechin, it is a pleasure to meet you.” Dr. Qi Jiangyong stood with the practiced upright posture of a university lecturer, which he had been before his neuroscience research had led him to be reassigned to the Public Security Ministry.

Sechin didn’t reply; he was trying to take his mind elsewhere, lock his thoughts away in a place of complete intensity beyond, just as they’d taught him in training. He thought of Twenty-Three’s touch, losing himself in the exact moment of his imagined release.

“Well done, General, exactly as you should,” Dr. Qi said. “So, it seems you recognize the Braingate technology. Just a few more seconds and I will complete the modulating test.”

He felt Twenty-Three’s breath hot on his neck, then blowing slightly in his ear; his body spasmed.

“Now, there it goes. Hookup confirmed. General, I must apologize, as it does seem you are enjoying yourself, but we must begin.”

Suddenly Sechin was thrown back in the moment, and he noticed the two metallic hands²⁹ in front of him moving, as if caressing something that was not there.

“Yes, there we are.”

The two hands stopped their rhythmic motions and then tried to reach out. The fingers stretched, grasping, their attempt to strangle Dr. Qi futile, as the robotic hands each ended at a wrist affixed to the cart.

“Let us start, then, shall we, General?”

Qi then began a lecture he had given hundreds of times, first to his students, then to the Directorate officials who had paid for the research, and now to his subjects. It was as much a ritual as a requirement that he felt obliged to follow. He still felt the desire to teach even as he learned.

“The human brain is the most powerful computer in the world. And if we want to unlock its secrets, we must treat it as such. The neurons we have in our brains fire to communicate, each signal beaming out on a different frequency. These are the so-called brain waves. Already in electrical form, these waves convey what we believe to be our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. They carry memories, instincts, and the body’s operating systems, everything from your deepest fears to your brain’s command to your lungs to keep breathing. They are all but simple electrical signals.”

Sechin could only watch as the two hands before him balled up into fists, clenching in anger.

“The challenge is not just transforming these electrical signals into something that can usefully connect to a machine but isolating the ones we want from all the trillions of other signals going through the brain. One way to achieve the brain linkup is noninvasively, by tapping into these brain waves from the outside. An electroencephalograph, or EEG, for example, is what’s used by most researchers. It essentially listens in on the electrical signals that leak out through your skull. Such systems, however, remain limited by the fact that the technology is not directly connected to the body; it merely allows someone to watch from the outside. The EEG provides such an unsatisfying representation of what the brain is doing. Have you ever worn glasses? Ah, I see you have not. Well, I will tell you, then, that using the EEG is like seeing the world not only without the clarity of optical correction, but with lenses of the wrong prescription.”³⁰

The fists unballed and just hung in the air. Sechin again tried to lose himself in thoughts of Twenty-Three, in his mind running his finger along her tattoo.

“When I was coming out of graduate school, the cutting-edge brain-interface research focused on direct links. The idea of such a jack into the brain originated in the West. Not from a scientist’s lab but, aptly, from the mind of an artist. We know that you are an aficionado of science fiction. Are you then familiar with William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer?³¹ If not, I highly recommend it. Not so much for the plot, but for the vision. In the imagined future, hackers plugged wires into their brains to link up with a virtual world of computers that Gibson termed cyberspace. Yes, the very word we use today to describe its fruition.”

The hands began caressing something in the air.

“Now, this concept remained theoretical, of course—” Dr. Qi noticed the hands, paused in his lecture, and entered a command into the keyboard. “Please pay attention.” The robotic hands stopped moving and balled up into clenched fists again. “Until American military researchers found willing subjects among the paralyzed. With Braingate, they implanted a computer chip in a young paraplegic and recorded the neurons that were firing electric signals. It was a remarkable discovery. It was like putting the right prescription to the lens; they now could see everything that had eluded them. Soon, they were not just recording the signals but isolating those that were leaving the brain when the boy thought about moving his arms or legs, even though the pathways to those limbs were now broken.”

Dr. Qi paused and dabbed a cloth over Sechin’s forehead, blotting the beads of sweat that had gathered just above where his eyelids had once been.

“A mere three days into what was supposed to be a twelve-month research study, there was a breakthrough. Just by thinking about it, the young man moved a cursor on a computer screen. And with the ability to move a cursor, a new world opened up. The paralyzed boy could move a robotic hand, surf the web, send e-mail, draw, and even play video games, just by thinking it. This work became the basis of modern-day prosthetics. Indeed, what your ‘hands’ are experiencing right now is exactly the kind of link first forged between man and machine years ago. I find it to be a useful test, as it provides evidence that the system is working, evidence for me and, more important, for you.”

Sechin tried to focus on Twenty-Three but found that he couldn’t pull up her memory. Then he felt himself wanting to move the robotic hand. But why? He didn’t want to move the hand.

“Ah, you are now likely asking, What does this mean to me? Let us pause for a second as the calibrations begin to take hold.”

Half of Sechin’s brain tried to focus on Twenty-Three, her breath, her skin, her hair, anything, while the other half seemed to want only to move the fingers on the right hand and then the left.

“Well, that is where my research comes in. You see, in addition to real-time monitoring analysis of neuron patterns to relay movement, we began to explore other options for such brain interfaces.”

Sechin watched as all of the fingers on the robotic hands began to wiggle, his mind now simultaneously telling them both to move and not to move with all his focus.

“Data that can be monitored can also be changed. Just as in a computer, so too in the signals in your brain—we can change your commands for movements, your memories, and, most important, your will.”

 

Corner of Mission and Kawaiahao Streets, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

For almost an hour, the church burned, no matter how much fire suppressant they sprayed. The flames crackled and snapped, lashing out at the sky and at anyone who came close enough to feel the blaze.

So the first to enter the site was a machine. The five-foot-tall spider-bot,³² each of its legs painted matte black, looked ominous, but its original purpose had been all about saving lives. Japanese engineers had turned to the insect form as the most fit for climbing over and sifting through rubble³³ for survivors after an earthquake or tsunami. In Hawaii, Directorate techs found they could also use it for BSE, or biological site exploitation. That was the euphemism for sifting through the aftermath of a manmade disaster in order to pick up scraps of people and figure out who they once were.

Markov donned his sensor-laden helmet and virtually followed in the wake of the spider-bot’s advance. As the scout robot patiently stalked the ruins, Markov watched its readouts on his heads-up display. He coughed and spat out acrid phlegm. Even from a distance, the smoke and smell were almost overwhelming. The commandos wore respirators, but he didn’t have one. A white handkerchief bunched over his mouth was all he had to keep the stench of burned flesh, plastic, and wood out of his throat.

The spider-bot picked its way through the ruined church. It moved each of its eight legs with a steadiness that no human could have managed in such a scene. Each leg ended in a flat pad that opened to a delicate-looking eight-fingered claw. While the spider-bot balanced on five, four, or even three legs, depending on its angle, the other legs would pick through the rubble like a prospector turning over stones. Occasionally, a claw would quickly withdraw inside the body and then return to hunt again. Inside the bot’s belly, the pieces of found bone and flesh would be scanned for their DNA profiles and then stored for deposit and reassembly later in the morgue.

It was all so rational and smart. Markov wondered if someday they would make a spider-bot smart enough that it too would have nightmares. His head pounded and he needed water.

Then a message flashed across Markov’s visor screen. A DNA match. A pop-up showed the item and its owner’s identity.

A charred finger, belonging to a Carrie Shin of Honolulu, Hawaii.

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

Chang couldn’t see his hands.

The designers of the thin orange survival suit had made it strong enough to withstand an emergency depressurization, but they had not considered how scared the suit’s wearer would be. The suit’s environmental system could not keep up with Chang’s rapid breathing and the rivulets of sweat trickling down his back and arms, and his faceplate had slowly but surely fogged over. That made him breathe even faster.

Chang tried to steel himself, gripping tighter the firm, familiar handle of his HEXPANDO wrench. As Huan had ordered, he’d smashed at the smooth glass of the laser-weapon control panel as best as his atrophied muscles could in the zero-g confines of the station. But now he could no longer see what he was striking at, and his heart rate was spiking again. He was going to drown in his own sweat.

He had to take the helmet off.

Tiangong was still pressurized, so it was not suicidal to pop the suit’s seal. He sucked in the stale air, the familiar fragrances of food, sweat, and electronics giving him an odd comfort.

Then he saw the small tears in his right glove at the knuckles where he had struck the weapon station’s control system. There had to be pressure tape in the emergency kit, Chang thought, and he struggled to unbuckle himself so he could look for the bright yellow box. It was gone. So was Colonel Huan.

How had he missed that? He craned his head to see if the escape pod was activated. No, the egg-shaped craft remained attached to Tiangong.

A voice came over the communications bud Chang wore in his left ear. “Are they here?” said Huan.

“No, they are not. Neither are you, Colonel,” said Chang.

“I know,” said Huan. “The rest of the crew and I will get in the EVA suits and attack them. You stay there and continue to destroy any classified materials. Chang, if we don’t succeed, they must not be allowed inside the station. Do whatever it takes.”

 

Research Facility 2167, Shanghai

 

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”³⁴

Dr. Qi continued his lecture. “Werner Heisenberg was, of course, thinking in the realm of physics and string theory, but the lesson also holds true here. In any interrogation, there is an observer effect, where the mere act of someone watching has an effect on the subject.”

Sechin felt part of himself eager to cooperate, hungering to answer, while another part of his mind tried to imagine a clock. Both he and his interrogator were in a race against time.

“This is all the more true when the subject is a set of electromagnetic signals in the brain. The longer the interface, the more we corrupt the very thing we study. To put it simply, General, if you want to remain you, I advise you to let your mind relax.”

A part of Sechin’s mind began to calm, while another part screamed to resist, knowing that the longer the interface lasted, the less his interrogators could trust its findings. Truth, fear, and drugs would create a cocktail of new memories and new fictions.

Qi asked his first question in a soft, unhurried voice, as if quizzing a student. In any other circumstance, it would have been reassuring.

“We know you have been passing information to the Americans. What have you given them?” asked Qi.

“Just some technical information,” said Sechin. The part that wanted to resist thought the best way to do so was to appear to cooperate, to extend the clock. Or was that the part that actually wanted to cooperate tricking him?

“About?” asked Qi.

“Space,” said Sechin. “About satellites.”

Sechin’s mind raced. Which part had said that?

“We are losing time. Both of us,” said Qi, leaning in closer as if admiring the texture of Sechin’s skin. “Based on the documents you accessed, it would seem you have provided them information on how we can track their submarines. Is that correct?”

Yes. No. What had he said?

“Excellent. Thank you for your cooperation.” Had he really answered, or was that one of Qi’s tricks?

“What I need to know is what they are planning to do with that information. What other information had they asked you to gather? What was the meeting today to be about?”

Sechin tried not to answer, to take his mind somewhere else again, imagining Twenty-Three’s face, running his hands through her blue hair. Or was he telling Qi that he had passed the file to her?

Qi displayed a photo of Twenty-Three on the view screen, her body laid out on a stainless-steel morgue table, the bluish pallor of her skin a faint echo of her blue hair. Sechin tried to imagine her in bed with him but couldn’t bring back the image. “This is who you were to meet today. I show you her not to provoke bad memories but to let you know that while I am in a hurry, the ultimate truth I seek is more important than your own truths. If you want to save them, you must cooperate.”

Suddenly the image of Twenty-Three in the morgue disappeared. Was it gone from the screen or from his memory?

“Now, tell me, why the meeting today?”

He tried to hold on to something, anything. Her hair was blue. Yes, her hair was blue.

“Today?” said Sechin. “Today was about many things.”

After not feeling his body for most of the interrogation, Sechin became acutely aware of his skin burning, as if every single cell were on fire. His nose involuntarily sniffed the air for the scent of smoldering flesh.

“I am sorry to do that, but you must understand there is no tolerance here,” said Qi. “No tolerance for your lies and no tolerance for your pain, when the very experience of it is merely signals in your brain. It can last as short or as long a time as we want you to feel it, or, rather, perceive that you feel it. Now, please tell me, what was the primary goal of the meeting today?”

“Sex,” said Sechin.

At the base of his skull, Sechin felt a tingling, almost purring sensation that then exploded in another wash of fire across his body. Why? He had told the truth! Or had he?

Qi shook his head and paused. Or was there actually a pause? Had someone talked, and then they’d rewound back to this moment, his sense of time now manipulated?

“Only one last set of questions, then. Why did the Americans want you to provide them information about our northern defenses? Does it have to do with their fleets now on the move?”

Sechin saw only blue. He heard someone talking but wasn’t sure who it was. What had been said? Had he answered? He could see only blue.

“Thank you. You have done very well.” Sechin heard Qi order the information be relayed to an admiral as fast as possible and then felt Qi’s hand gently cup his face. It was soft, the effect almost soothing.

“I am not the monster many think me to be. This is far more humane—dare I say refined—than their old ways of forcing information. More important, what has been taken can be restored. And that, General, is my farewell gift to you.”

Qi then lightly patted him on the cheek and exited from his field of view. Sechin thought he heard the whirring again of a drill, but then he saw her. Twenty-Three. She truly was beautiful. He began to caress her, running his hands through her blue hair, stroking her skin from her neck down, and then his body spasmed over and over again in the exact moment of his imagined release.

It was all Sergei Sechin could think of as the fiber-optic wires were yanked out of his brain.

 

Directorate Command, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

General Yu held the plastic bag up to Markov’s face. The finger looked like it had been seasoned with pepper and tossed in flour. It was unmistakably a burned finger, though: Carrie Shin’s entire left ring finger.

“The fingerprints match,” said Yu. “So does the DNA. It seems I got your girl before you did.”

“Where’s the body?” said Markov.

“Mixed in with the rest of them,” said General Yu. He tossed the bagged finger to Markov. “Make a necklace out of it.”

Markov snatched the plastic bag out of the air with his left hand without breaking eye contact. His right hand rested loosely at his side, meaning he could draw his Makarov and fire two rounds in just over a second. Tempting as it was to think of himself holding the severed finger of a serial killer in one hand and his two-rounds-lighter pistol in the other, he centered himself with a steady exhale and said nothing.

“You can take it back to Moscow with you,” said Yu. “You’re done here. But to show you that I am not as terrible a man as you think I am, you will use my jet for the return trip. Let your last glimpse of Hawaii be from my seat.”

Markov shook his head. “You’re in that much of a hurry to get rid of me, General? Do you know what they call her? The Black Widow. Your spider-bot may have found her, but your stupidity creates more like her every day.” He threw the plastic bag at the general, who flinched as it bounced off his barrel chest and back onto the desk.

General Yu started to tremble, his eyes bulging in anger, but then he calmed himself by running his hands over his freshly shaved scalp.

“On second thought, Colonel, my plane is no longer available,” said Yu. “We have a resupply ship departing for Yangshan tomorrow evening. Its voyage should give you sufficient time to contemplate what punishment awaits you for striking your commanding officer. Guards!”

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

Without his helmet, Chang felt far calmer. He knew he was still trapped, but he did not feel like it for the moment. He felt his pulse start to slow until a flash of movement at one of the observation windows caught his eye. A deranged face with a tongue sticking out hovered outside the observation hatch. Then someone tapped a gleaming short sword on the shatterproof glass.

Chang switched to the camera view that monitored that section of the station for tiny space debris and micro-meteor impacts. He panned the camera and saw a man in a jet-black EVA suit, the helmet and faceplate apparently painted with some kind of strange design. He watched as the astronaut began to attach a device to the outer hull of Tiangong.

Then the radio speaker on the console in front of him chirped to life.

“Tiangong crew, this is Sir Aeric, er . . . Captain Cavendish here. Righto. My men have just attached a pair of auxiliary thrusters to your station. You will now surrender the station to us. If you do, we will treat you as prisoners of war, following the rules set by the Geneva Conventions. If you do not comply, the station’s rotation will cease, and my scientists tell me the temperature inside will slowly but surely rise, cooking you to a temperature of eight hundred degrees, all thanks to our comrade in arms the sun, who is always on the side of the right­eous . . . This is our last communication. Grant us access, and do not resist. Or you will die. Your choice, really.”

A burst of static hissed through the speakers, so loud that Chang turned off the sound. He peered at the monitor to see what Huan was doing. All Chang could tell was that the rest of the crew members were arguing with Huan, their EVA suits not yet on.

A jolt made Chang return to the window. He craned his neck to see if that specter had returned. He saw nothing. Then a faint telltale distortion of the stars behind the station chilled the sweat pooling in his suit. It was one of the pirates’ auxiliary thrusters beginning the gradual slowing of the station’s rotation.

A steady alarm honk started, indicating that the station’s position was shifting from its preprogrammed orbit.

They had promised to treat the taikonauts fairly, hadn’t they? Wasn’t it better to live as a prisoner than die as a—what, a pig roasted to death in a box of coals?

There was no other option. Huan could keep arguing with the others about some foolhardy attack, but in the command center, Chang now had the power. He disarmed the Tiangong airlocks. He didn’t care whether his son would be proud or not, he just wanted to see him again.

 

Sundown Lounge, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Colonel Vladimir Markov swallowed an ice cube that had been slowly dissolving in his vodka over the past few minutes. He hadn’t been this drunk in years. Not since the aftermath of that debacle in Yalta. He was irretrievably drunk but thinking with such clarity that he wondered how many days he had squandered not seeing things as plainly as he did now.

He delicately turned another page in his treasured book of Pushkin’s poems, ignoring the footfalls closing in behind him and the faint chill working its way from his toes up to his fingers. He knew it wasn’t the bartender, whom he had ordered to leave.

“Jian, my shadow, I have missed you. What brings you here?” Markov said, still not looking up from the pages.

Ruin was a gradual process, just as Pushkin had foreseen. The poet’s financial fall and then humiliation by the czar must have stolen so many words and passages from the great man’s mind. Or had it? Maybe it had given him his real voice. Was it courage, then, that made the poet agree to fight a duel that he knew he could not win? Was the choice whether to die gradually or accept it all in a sudden blow? As he heard Jian’s footsteps cross the room, Markov put his hand on the empty pistol holster at his hip, his fingertips brushing where the weapon’s metal slide would have been if his pistol had not been taken away, back at the base.

“Colonel! General Yu ordered me to find you,” said his former aide.

“And so you have. But for what purpose? That is the real question,” said Markov. “Let us reason this out, Jian. He cannot fire me again, and I doubt he is a man who would change his mind about the final objective of the long slow journey to an inevitable death sentence he has sent me on. Ah, that is it. He lacks the patience to await the natural course of what he has set in motion for me.”

He looked up to see that the aide had already drawn his pistol.

“Yes, finally you answer something correctly, Jian. Well done. That is it, I see. General Yu calmed down and now wants certainty. Far better for him if I die in an unfortunate incident here—perhaps another insurgent attack. That way he does not risk my speaking truths to the wrong ears.”

“I do not question my orders,” said Jian. He stepped two paces back from Markov, as if unsure how close he should be to the man he was about to shoot.

“Have a drink, at least,” said Markov, reaching to grab a bottle. “Might be the last one for both of us.”

The aide stepped back again to ensure he was outside the Russian’s reach and extended his arm with the pistol, aiming it right between Markov’s eyes rather than targeting his body mass. Yet another amateur move, thought the Russian. He smiled at Jian and saluted him with his glass of vodka. Jian looked confused for a second, and then shocked, as a knife blade shot out of his throat from behind.

As drunk as Markov was, the details suddenly were very important to him. She had waist-length ebony hair and wore green contacts. But he knew it must be her from the way she didn’t even give Jian’s blood pooling around her bare feet a second glance as she pulled the long knife out of his throat. She stepped right over the aide’s body, never taking her eyes off Markov. He saw also that the slender hand now pointing a pistol at him was missing the left ring finger.

She sat on the barstool next to Markov, dressed in a loose summer skirt and a linen shirt. Up close, he saw that her eyebrows were gone, replaced by delicate brushwork. She slowly pulled back her hair and peeled off a wig. Her head was razor-shorn down to the skin. There was no stubble, just a bald white dome that gleamed like ceramic in the mirror above the rows of bottles behind the bar. She would truly be a ghost, leaving no trace other than the bloody footprints.

He smiled and raised his glass in her direction, a salute.

“It is a pleasure to see you again, Ms. Shin. You continue to surprise me. Or should I call you what the others call you?”

“Black Widow,” said Carrie. “It is more appropriate than they know. Do you know why I’m here?”

“Yes. I can guess,” said Markov. “What happened at the church was an atrocity. You cannot kill like that and win this war. Other wars, maybe, but not this one. I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen.”

“Wrong!” she snarled, slamming the knife into the bar; its blade quivered an inch from his hand. It was a Type 98 bayonet knife,³⁵ the kind the Chinese commandos carried, and the pistol was a Chinese-made QSZ-92.³⁶ Well, that answered another question regarding the whereabouts of Jian’s escort; Markov doubted the aide would have come here alone. She still held the pistol on him, pointed at his center of body mass. Someone had taught her well. Or was it natural? That question could be asked for so many things about her.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Before we get on with this, let me finish my drink.” He turned back to the bar to finish off his glass of vodka, closing his eyes and savoring the simultaneous burn of the alcohol and coolness of the ice cube he had tucked in his cheek.

He felt her hand around his neck. She gasped as the meaty rawness of the remains of her burned finger pressed into his throat. But it wasn’t a cry of hurt, Markov realized. She was savoring the pain.

“I want my hairbrush!” she whispered in his ear.

In that instant, his vodka wore off with a chill.

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

“Sir, I know you are excited to seize your prize, but you need to let Tick go in first,” said Aaron Best in the practiced tone of a commander used to dealing with very difficult situations. He was tethered just outside the main airlock of the Tiangong, trying to stay out of view of the porthole next to it. The airlock access panel glowed green, indicating it was safe to enter the purgatory between the vacuum of space and the oxygenated confines of the Chinese station.

“But it is my mission, isn’t it?” said Sir Aeric Cavendish.

“Affirmative. But once we exited the vehicle, mission execution became my responsibility. Sir. We did not drill for you to join the boarding party, so we are going to need you to hang back outside until things settle in there. Highest probability for success that way. We can do the breach with fewer men, but not more.” He pointed toward the hatch with a gleaming silver dagger that caught a flash of the sun and momentarily blinded Sir Aeric. “But we’re honored to have you as part of the assault crew, Sir Aeric.”

Best’s logic was as obvious as his sarcasm. Cavendish nodded his assent.

“Stack up,” said Best. The commando called Tick was first inside the airlock, which was soon crammed with four men.

Once inside, the men stopped and paused as the airlock depressurized. Immediately, they took off their helmets, stripped out of the bulky EVA suits, and secured them to the airlock wall.

The men wore slash-proof, formfitting, tiger-striped gray-and-black bodysuits that covered their heads, making them look like evil speed skaters. They put on ballistic masks, motocross-style eye-and-face protection that was resistant to bullets up to nine-millimeter rounds, each painted over to give its wearer a savage look. Another of Sir Aeric’s ideas, but the men had taken to it with relish. Tick’s black facemask had been overlaid with a ta moko, the facial tattoo of a Maori warrior. Hugger, who hunched behind Tick, had used a metallic gold to create hyena-like fangs beneath deeply sunken eye sockets. Hook wore a black mask with almost abstract white brushstrokes to indicate eyes and mouth, like a savage Kabuki actor. Best was the fourth and final commando of the first wave. His mask was airbrushed a gleaming bone white in the style of an old-school hockey goalie’s mask. He’d seen it once in an old horror movie; the lack of expression on the killer’s face made him somehow more menacing. The effect was that these men, while obviously human, looked immune to reason and appeal. The sense was reinforced by the fact that each had a Taser X26³⁷ pistol in his hand and one of Sir Aeric’s foot-long titanium-handled steel-bladed brass-knuckled trench knives strapped to his hip.

The first thing Tick noticed when the airlock groaned open was the smell of piss. Floating weightlessly, he pulled himself one-handed inside the main research bay and looked at the three taikonauts there. They had apparently been trying to get into EVA suits.

“Do you surrender?” he asked them in Mandarin.

The three taikonauts stared back at Tick.

Tick repeated himself as the three other commandos made their way into the room, each holding on to the wall with one hand and pointing a Taser with the other.

“Do you surrender?” he asked yet again in Mandarin.

The three taikonauts stayed silent; there was no real movement, just darting eyes and dry lips being licked. Then a hatch to their side opened.

“Contact,” said Best. “Head on, Tick.”

Tick pushed off the station’s wall and rotated his body, turning to parry. But the taikonaut moving through the hatch closed in on him with far more speed than he’d expected given their training. Then he saw why. The man wore a pair of orange exoskeleton boots from an EVA suit, their micro-rockets firing. He had a titanium-mesh frame on his back, and attached to it were the bulky robotic gloves designed for repair jobs in space. One of those exo-gloves wielded a massive wrench.

Tick fired his Taser; the compressed air in the chamber shot out the electric dart on a thin wire, but it pinged off the bulky gloves and then floated weightlessly in the air.

The two men collided, and the taikonaut’s momentum knocked Tick into the bulkhead. The impact broke Tick’s right forearm; he’d been trying to pull out the short sword but had to release it. Screaming, Tick attempted to grapple with the taikonaut using his legs, but one of the taikonaut’s exo-boots drove into his left foot with a crunch of flesh and bone.

Tick’s agony was muted due to the pain pump implanted in his abdomen.³⁸ Triggered by a sensor in his spinal cord, it released a massive dose of opiates so he could keep fighting. The tiny actuators of the taikonaut’s powered exo-glove now gripped him, and though Tick writhed and flexed, he was unable to escape from its grasp. As the two wrestled, the other commandos closed on their opposites, and the sounds of grunting and stabbing filled the air. Tick tried to wrench his body to the right when he saw his sword float by, mere inches from his uninjured arm. But he was unable to break free to reach it, and then he spun off in another direction, bounced against the far bulkhead, and cracked the back of his helmet. The last thing Tick saw was the wrench smashing into his faceplate.

 

Ehukai Beach, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The SEALs and Conan eased deeper into the thick trees. The robot lobster sat idle at the feet of one of the frogmen until he picked it up and put it on his back; its claws wrapped around him like straps.

“Butter’s pretty creepy, right?” said Duncan.

“At this point, nothing’s creepy to me,” said Conan. “Any more gizmos we’ve added since I’ve been living under a rock?”

“Just this,” said Duncan, tossing a small nylon bag the size of his fist to Conan.

“What is it?” said Conan, unwrapping it to reveal a poncho.

“You remember Harry Potter? It’s his invisibility cloak,” said Duncan. “Well, it doesn’t really make us invisible, but it does fuzz the Directorate sensors. Metamaterials in it fuck with the EM spectrum, kinda like how a magician uses mirrors in a trick.”³⁹

“We’ve done all right with these,” said Conan, drawing her wool blanket around her shoulders. It was so stiff with sweat and dirt in places that she seemed to be donning a mantle of armor.

“But this doesn’t smell like a dead goat,” said Duncan. “We have others for the rest of your unit.”

“No need; I’m it now,” said Conan.

Duncan knew not to ask anything further. It was not the time for that kind of conversation. From the way Conan’s voice dropped with her response, he knew she would be trying to figure out her own war for the rest of her life.

A rustle in the scrub at the seam of the beach made Conan fling off her blanket, drop down, and put her weapon to her shoulder. Duncan dove down behind her. She saw a figure advancing slowly, staying in the shadows. The silhouette of an assault rifle showed it to be armed. Conan looked over to Duncan and motioned with her finger for him to follow her lead. He shook his head.

Screw it, this was her turf and her war. She leaped up and smashed the figure full in the face with the butt of her rifle.

“Co kurwa, do kurwy nedzy!” the man hissed from the ground, blood coming from his apparently broken nose.

A Russian. She knew they’d been aiding the Directorate with advisers. Conan leveled the rifle at him, pressed it to his forehead.

“I don’t know if you understand me,” she whispered, “but you need to shut the fuck up or this will be the last thing you see.”

Conan felt something cold and sharp at her neck. “Major, you need to stand down.” The man who’d called himself Duncan was holding a knife to her throat.

 

USS Zumwalt, North Pacific Ocean

 

Mike wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. It was hot in the rail-gun turret. The cabling that snaked through it seemed to be choking the air out of the space. But that was not what was making him sweat.

“Please take it,” said Mike. He was embarrassed, never having heard himself plead like this before. “It’s a float vest.”⁴⁰ This flotation vest was not like the others aboard. It was a dark green inflatable model, the kind issued to Navy aviators, not the bulky vest in bright orange that just made it easier for the sharks to find you. The aviator’s vest had more than a dozen pockets stuffed full of essentials, as much to put a pilot’s mind at ease as to enable him or her to make it in the wild or survive ditching in the ocean. The detachable pockets were hooked with Velcro straps onto horizontal lanyards stitched into the vest and they opened in various directions, each holding a mystery, like an aviator’s Advent calendar.

“Pilots wear them,” Mike said. “So do some of the SEALs. You’ve got these here pockets that—”

She did not let him finish. “Where did you get this? Nobody else is wearing this, are they?” said Vern. “It’s just me in this . . . straitjacket?”

“It comes from the captain, who knows you’re the most important person on the ship.”

At least part of that was true. He’d actually gotten it from a supply contractor at Mare Island whom he’d served with in the Venezuela campaign, no questions asked about why he wanted the best life vest in the warehouse, size small.

“It inflates automatically if you don’t pull this tab first. Now, here’s the smoke hood, this is the locator beacon, here’s the strobe . . .”

He had kept the float vest out of sight, waiting until he knew she really needed it and, more important, until she finally realized she might need it. That moment was now.

Vern put the vest on, moving carefully, as if it weighed ten times more than it did.

“Well, thank him for it,” she said. “And thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he said with a wink. “It’s government issue, meaning it’s made by the lowest bidder in order to get some overpaid jet jockey to think the Navy actually gives a shit about what happens to him.”

She smiled. “I mean it. Thank you, Mike.”

She wrapped her slender arms around him with surprising force.

A call to general quarters battle stations prevented either of them from saying anything more. They stepped back and looked at each other at arm’s length, then took off in opposite directions, unsure if they would ever see each other again.

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

Chang screamed into the monitor as he watched the battle play out, but none of them were able to hear him.

At first, seeing Huan floating above the limp commando with the crazy mask, Chang thought that Huan’s madness just might have worked.

But behind Huan, the monitor showed the three other taikonauts had not fared as well. One floated unconscious, knocked out by the commandos’ Tasers. The other two had their faces against one of the station walls, each with a commando floating astride him, their suits streaming red blood globules into the air.

Huan pushed the unconscious commando back toward the airlock, which opened as if to swallow him up. But instead, another commando slipped into the station. This one, much slighter than the others and wearing no mask, appeared shocked for a brief second, his eyes wide. Then he batted the floating commando’s limp body away and fumbled with something at his side. He pushed toward Huan with a diver’s kick of his legs against the airlock door, his entire body formed into a spear, the short sword at its tip.

Huan pushed forward off his side of the wall with his arms in an attempt to kick the commando with his feet first. The bulk of the exo-boots smashed into the blade, and the force sent the two men careening off in opposite directions. Huan bashed into the hard plastic of a food station, his exo-glove ripping open the rehydration unit, while the slight commando banged headfirst into the wall.

Before Huan could pull his arm out of the mess of the food unit, the commando with the blank white mask was on him. He jabbed the foot-long sword into Huan’s leg, straight through his suit and into the bulkhead’s insulation. Huan, his body now diagonally pinned to the wall, tried wrenching free, to no avail. Chang watched as the white-masked commando drew a six-inch-long metal stake from a bandolier on his assault vest and drove it into Huan’s chest, puncturing his lung.

Chang could see Huan looking up at him in the monitor, his face imploring, as if Chang could do anything to save him now. Then Huan’s head lolled to the side, lifeless.

The man in the white mask removed the sword and stake from Huan’s body and slapped tape over the holes in the suit to keep them from leaking more globules of blood into the station’s atmosphere. The rest of them began to tape up the other bodies. Sheng Hu, the taikonaut who had been shocked unconscious, jerked slightly when the white-masked commando thrust another metal stake into her.

They truly were monsters, Chang thought. The most disturbing of them, though, was the small, maskless commando. He had a tiny cut over his right eye but was smiling and wildly gesticulating, replaying the battle that had just ended. He seemed to be enjoying it all.

The men conferred briefly, and the one in the white mask slowly drifted over to the camera and tapped a bloody stake on the screen. He held up three fingers and began counting them down. Three. Two. One.

Alone, Chang didn’t know what else to do. He let the monsters in.

 

Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“It itches, right? That’s the thing with amputation, they say. Not the pain, but the itch.”

Markov was doing exactly what she wanted. As far as Carrie could tell, he would have been happy to oblige her, even without the muzzle of the pistol that she’d lifted from the guard pressed against his kidney. They drove slowly through the dark night in his mottled green-and-gray Geely SUV, the Russian glancing over at her whenever the road straightened. It was not lust or fear; she knew those looks well. It was more a sort of scientific curiosity.

They drove past a parking lot full of Directorate vehicles. It looked familiar, and she recognized it as where she’d listened to jazz in the APC.

“You’re taking us the long way,” Carrie hissed. “If we’re not there soon, I’ll—”

“You’ll what? Kill me with that gun because you’re in a hurry?” said Markov. He drove on, stopping briefly at the corner of Queen and Ward,⁴¹ just across from the Alto Café.

“I am sure you don’t want to kill me just yet, especially with that gun. That wouldn’t feel right, yes? So if you can give me a little bit of your time, I will take you to what you really want. Or, rather, who you really want.”

He drove on, humming to himself. They passed by Addiction, the nightclub attached to the Modern, the hotel where she had strangled that naval officer in the bathroom three weeks ago. At the next intersection, he turned to look at her.

“Where to next? Maybe the hotel? Or did you kill any at your home?” He laughed. “My, how that would surprise your neighbors. You know they all think you are a traitor who enjoys our company.”

“Whatever. They can think what they want,” she said.

“So, if you’re not a traitor, then you’re a predator? You kill only the healthy? A wicked insurgent princess of the night wearing a red, white, and blue cape?”

“The flag’s got little to do with me,” she said. “I just want everything back the way it was.”

“You mean you want to be back the way you were? Before the war?” said Markov. “What was that like? All I know is the pictures from your file. There’s nothing of Carrie Shin’s heart or soul there.”

“You’re not looking hard enough,” she said.

“I doubt that,” said Markov, chuckling.

She put her pistol on her lap and watched him with a slight twist of her head, as if sizing up a target.

“You should put the safety on if it’s just going to sit there,” said Markov. “For both our sakes.”

“I guess you’re a professional,” said Shin. “Through and through?”

“You stick with something long enough and it’s what you become. But you’re certainly no amateur at this,” said Markov. “This war was waiting for somebody like you. Or were you waiting for the war? Did it make you, or was it already there, just waiting to be released?”

“You talk too much. You said it yourself, we are all changed by war,” said Carrie. “Some more than others.”

“The war is all about you, then? Did it take something important from you?” asked Markov. “There are many who feel that way. Maybe you are not as unique as I thought.”

He slowed the car to a walking pace as they passed by Duke’s, overflowing with drunk sailors, marines, and soldiers. He slammed the brakes to avoid running into a short, stocky sailor who’d dropped to one knee to throw up in the intersection.

“Perhaps we can test it. Should I let you out here, perhaps?” said Markov. “I think you’d quickly make new friends again, maybe visit old ghosts?”

She didn’t reply, but she adjusted her wig in the side mirror as if slightly tempted by his offer. As she did so, Markov spotted the cut marks on her forearms.

“The cutting, did it start before or after your loss?” said Markov. “You know, the hunger won’t stop, even if all of them go back home. What are you going to do then?” He winced as the pistol’s muzzle pressed into his rib cage.

“Your little tour is over,” she said. “The next stop better be where we agreed or you really will be dead. I won’t enjoy it, but I’ll do it.”

He nodded and kept driving, humming to himself as they headed through the night. After ten minutes, he made another turn and pulled the car to the side of the road.

“We’re here,” he said, pointing to the first security checkpoint outside the Directorate headquarters complex. “You sure you want to do this?”

Carrie nodded and climbed into the back seat. She pulled out a pair of metal handcuffs.

“Cuff me,” she said. “Gently.”

 

Ehukai Beach, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Peaches, I think you better introduce yourself to Major Doyle,” Duncan said, still holding the knife to Conan’s throat. Conan kept the rifle pointed at the forehead of the man in the dirt.

“Major, I am introduced to be Lieutenant Pietor Nowak of Jednostka Wojskowa Formoza.”⁴² He reached up a hand to shake, but Conan kept the rifle trained on him.

“Polish navy special operations. He’s our ride,” Duncan said, slowly pulling the knife away from her throat.

“I must compliment you on your tradecraft, Major,” the figure in the dirt said. “Now could you remove, please, the gun?”

“I’m not buying this shit,” Conan said, keeping the gun on him. “Why the mind games? There’s no one left in the NSM. Just kill me and get it over with. But he’s going to die with me.” She jabbed the figure with the tip of the barrel.

Duncan walked over and knelt beside the figure on the ground, sheathing his knife and putting himself in Conan’s line of fire.

“No mind games, Major; a lot has changed. The Directorate cracked how to track our nuke subs. So we had to find a new sub. Or, rather, a shitty old rust bucket that runs on diesel.”

“You should not make the fun of the Orzel,”⁴³ said the man in the dirt. “She is wonderful ship; she got us here, did she not?”

Duncan turned to him.

“Wonderful? I know you had it hard here, Major,” he said, looking back at Conan, “but try spending two months on an old Kilo-class sub transiting from the Baltic to the Pacific. God, the smells. Not the diesel, mind you; the fumes from the crew eating only borscht, pierogi, and smoked cheese. Worst cruise of my life. Going to have words with the travel agent when I get back to Dam Neck.”

“I thought NATO imploded and wouldn’t give us help. That’s what the Directorate propaganda said,” said Conan.

“It did. The Poles, though, didn’t like how things were playing out and came to a private agreement to loan us the services of their shitty little ship and stick it to the Russians along the way.”

“And what did the Poles get in exchange?” Conan asked, her body starting to ease, the rifle lowering.

“A very good deal,” Nowak said.

“Major, you’re looking at an officer in the world’s newest nuclear power. That’s what they got. We got the services of a crappy old diesel-powered Kilo-class submarine that’s untrackable from space and shows up on sonar as Russian. And Peaches, of course. All that in exchange for ten B-eighty-three one-point-two-megaton nuclear bombs.⁴⁴ The Nuclear Lend-Lease is what the planners call it.”

The Polish officer smiled. “We live in very dangerous neighborhood. But now our neighbors will think twice about looking our way again in future.”

“And what was that you said when you went down?” Conan asked.

“You surprise me, and so I curse in Polish—not at you, but myself. Duncan would say it translate as ‘WTF.’”

Conan lowered the rifle completely and reached out her hand to help the Pole to his feet.

“How do you say ‘thank you’ in Polish?” she asked.

“Dziękuję.”

“That, then.”

 

Directorate Command, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

During most of his drive with the Black Widow, he had still been partly drunk. Now, as Colonel Vladimir Markov stared down at the nineteen-year-old Chinese corporal questioning him, he realized he was finally sober. I should be, he thought, it’s the third checkpoint I’ve had to get her through.

“You know who this is?” said Markov to the corporal. “Quite a prize.”

He hadn’t been certain they’d make it past even the first checkpoint. But she’d gone through the body scanner and been searched by the two marines for weapons, and then they’d been waved on. At the second checkpoint, he’d been more worried about himself, unsure whether his ID badge would still work and wondering if the guards would just shoot him on the spot if it didn’t. But as they waited, a call came in from General Yu’s aide-de-camp, a major who had been alerted to Markov’s presence by the base’s automated security system, and eventually they were buzzed through. But first the major had the guards scan them again, to ensure that they carried no weapons.

At the third checkpoint, Markov stood next to his prisoner and yanked on her handcuffs, trying to eke out a sign of submission from her. On cue, she whimpered and lowered her eyes. The corporal looked closer, attempting to reconcile the stories he’d heard about the woman who’d killed so many with the timid figure before him.

“She’s for the general,” said Colonel Markov. “Kids like you just get to watch.” His eyes started to sting and his bladder throbbed as his dehydrated body began to come to grips with his looming hangover.

The corporal’s face reddened beneath his high-crowned riot helmet and he pursed his lips. In his left hand, he held his radio close to his mouth, as if he were pausing before taking a bite. His right palm rested on the pistol in his thigh holster. He had the tense posture of somebody who was totally alone in a moment of crisis.

“You need to wait,” said the corporal. “I have to do another security scan.”

“Fine. And while we wait I will call the general and tell him why you’re delaying his special delivery,” said Markov. “I am going to get a medal for what I’ve done. For what you’re doing, you’ll be lucky not to get shot.”

The hand on the corporal’s gun flashed up to his neck, where he scratched a patch of flesh just behind the jawbone, an inch in front of the stim-plant node that was scabbing over. The brief scratch seemed to soothe his anxiety, and he nodded up at the black sphere on a pole behind him.

“No, Colonel, they know it’s you. That’s why they’re watching us now. For all I know, the general’s watching too,” said the corporal.

“Hope so,” said Shin under her breath. “I want him ready.”

“Shut up!” shouted Markov. “Or I’ll tape you up.” Carrie bowed her head and shuffled forward through the scanning booth. After another search, the guard motioned them on.

“That was the last checkpoint,” Markov said. “Be on your best behavior.”

“As long as I can,” she said.

 

Shanghai Jiao Tong University

 

Hu’s commanding officer wouldn’t say why the orders had changed, so she’d hacked his access point to the command network. The Americans were apparently on the move and, more important, had acted in a way that had taken Hainan by surprise.

So now America would be put back in the box with a devastating strike designed to teach its public a lesson once and for all. The target list was displayed in the system library. Hu entered the 3-D representation of the university’s library, where the target files were laid out on what appeared to be wooden bookshelves, and ran a search of current temperatures, marking any below freezing. There, glowing in blue on a wooden bookshelf to her right: a power company in Akron, Ohio. That would be her starting point.

It was too easy, not worthy of her skills. The backdoor into the target had been created before she had joined the unit. Now it was just a simple matter of inserting new programming. Modeled after the Americans’ Project Aurora malware, which had first been tested in 2007, the attack program would use the power companies’ own generators as weapons.⁴⁵ The malicious software would cause them to rapidly connect and disconnect to the electrical grid, all of them out of phase. This would wreck not just the generators, leading to the collapse of the electric grid, but also the synchronous induction motors, which ran the machinery everywhere from factories to oil-pipeline facilities.

Her fingers flicked in tiny motions, the smart-rings on each sending commands to initiate the attack protocols while also bringing up her personal photo album. She cued it to scan and add any images geo-tagged in the Akron area. She wanted to capture the Americans’ last enjoyment of warmth.

But then the photo album turned white. Just as Hu was starting to flick her fingers to reset the system, the white cover of the album began to shrink, pulling in to show black edges. The fingers on her right hand continued with the attack protocol while she watched, fascinated, as an image started to form in the album. It began as a blank mask of white against black but then slowly filled out to show arching eyebrows, a wide mustache⁴⁶ upturned at both ends, and a thin, pointed beard. The face had an oversize smile that somehow appeared horribly cruel.

Hu’s armpits flooded with sweat, and her stomach tightened. She blinked to make sure it was real and not a hallucination. It had to be a prank. She’d learned about them in the training courses, but they had been offline for over a decade.

She lifted up her visor and cast a glance to the auditorium floor below to see if her commanding officer saw what she was seeing. No; he was engrossed in the slow unwrapping of a stick of gum. The others seated around him were equally oblivious, a symphony of helmets and fingers bobbing up and down and back and forth as they proceeded with the attack-prep command.

Hu pulled her visor down, projecting herself back into the virtual world. Her fingers began to dance again, each ring in action, a force command overriding the album’s operating system and terminating the program while simultaneously starting a full-system verification.

Hu violently punched and pulled the space in front of her as the multiple commands spun out. She felt angry but exhilarated, her stim pump kicking in when the new commands initiated. A wash of euphoria came over her, stronger than she’d ever felt before.

As the album closed at her command, another white-masked avatar appeared, this time hovering over the Akron file she had pulled from the target library. Hu’s fingers danced, another wash of euphoria coming with each command movement.

Just as her counterattack made this new mask disappear, the technical specifics of the Akron target re-emerged. Then the mask morphed and divided into two identical masks. Fingers dancing in midair, she attacked again. As the masks split into four, Hu felt another pump of stim kicking in; such intense happiness. Ah, that was it. Each action just created more masks, her mind realized. She knew she should stop, but the smiling mask was taunting her. Whoever was behind it needed to be taught a lesson, plus, her body craved just one more wash of the stim that came from each command.

Soon there were thousands of the white masks washing out the once-beautiful digital landscape. It was as if the entire virtual world had risen up in revolt. But Hu had never felt so wonderful.

The commanding officer below was just starting to chew his gum when he noticed that the helmets above him in the amphitheater rows were not swaying in their usual patterns. Some were tilted in evident confusion; others rocked back and forth violently. He panned the room and saw one helmet tipped to the side, its wearer’s head lolling.

Hu’s body slumped off the chair, and her helmet bounced on the wood floor; the officer didn’t know whether to run to her or the system control station. Before he could decide, the auditorium’s projector lit up the center of the room. A massive white blaze of light crystalized into a holograph, the pinpricks of light forming a smiling black-and-white mask.

A digitized voice boomed across the room’s speakers and into each of the linked helmets:

 

“We are Anonymous.

We are Legion.

We do not forgive.

We do not forget . . .

And we are back!”⁴⁷

 

Then the room went dark.

 

Directorate Command, Honolulu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

So the Russian had really done it. General Yu’s aide-de-camp had seen them on the security camera, and her identity had been confirmed, but he hadn’t been truly sure until he saw them up close.

The thought knotted the major’s stomach as he led the two of them into the general’s office. He watched, his hand on his pistol, as the Russian pulled out a key and handcuffed her to one of the wooden office chairs in front of the general’s desk. It made the major doubt again whether it really was her, whether the tests had placed the right person at the scene of those horrors. She was curled up tightly in the seat, knees pulled up to her chest, her posture that of a girl who was truly broken. The Russian ripped her wig off with a flourish, revealing her bald head, and tossed the fake hair onto her knees. She just studied the floor in submission.

This made the aide worry. When radioed the news of the Russian’s unexpected arrival with the girl, General Yu had ordered them brought to his office. But now the aide was uncertain how the general would react to her in person. She didn’t look the way he or, he guessed, the general would imagine.

“Can you get us some water?” asked the Russian. The woman kept herself curled up in a fetal position in her chair. She seemed scared out of her wits, literally.

“I’m sorry, Colonel, but that is not possible. General Yu will be here any minute; there’s no time.”

“Damn it, she’s about to pass out from dehydration. We need to get some water and stims into her.”

The aide thought it over, eyeing Markov, who looked like he might be a bit drunk, or at least battling a hangover, as he leaned against the wall. The aide was still mulling it over when he heard loud footsteps in the corridor and turned, ready to greet General Yu. He could hear the general bellowing at a young communications lieutenant to recheck the connections to Hainan; they had been problematic all day. The general blamed his underlings’ incompetence, but the aide assumed it was insurgent sabotage yet again. He also guessed the general wanted the young officer’s eyes and ears to be somewhere other than at this meeting.

When the general entered, the Russian spoke first; a mistake. “I’ve done it,” Markov said with a note of weary triumph.

Yu nearly exploded, just as the aide had feared he would. “You’ve done it?” he said. “How many of my men died because you failed to catch her sooner? And now you want credit for her capture. You think we will give you a medal, that it will somehow save you?”

The general started to laugh. “Let me take a look at this killer you have brought in, and then we can discuss exactly what you deserve.”

He dropped to one knee in front of the girl, who kept her gaze on the ground.

“Look at me, girl,” ordered Yu as he leaned in closer. The girl moved slightly in her seat and then her head rose. The sight of her made the aide lose his breath. Her expression shifted instantly from meek to primal, her pupils almost eclipsing the irises of her eyes. She stared directly at General Yu, who studied her quizzically, their faces inches apart.

Then the mass of black hair on her knees stirred, and the wig flashed up as she wrapped it around the general’s neck and tipped her chair over onto its side, using its weight to topple the general’s bulk. They went down in a tumble of arms and legs. General Yu staggered up with the girl’s feet pressed against his side and both of her arms pulling on the rope of hair she’d wrapped like a noose around his throat. The wooden chair she was still cuffed to swung like a pendulum, adding its weight to the pull.

Before the aide could rush over to help the general, he felt a press of cold metal on his temple. He turned to see the Russian holding an American-made SIG Sauer pistol, the general’s trophy from the cabinet.

“No, no. Leave them be. I’m quite curious to see how this plays out,” Markov said.

 

Tiangong-3 Space Station

 

“He could be lying, sir,” said Best.

“It is the truth,” said Chang. “We need to leave. There are maybe five rotations until the station orbit deteriorates enough to burn.”

“You are telling me that I am about to lose a lot of money!” Cavendish screamed. “Why did you do it? Why destroy my station?”

For ten seconds, the only sound in the station was the zipping up of the last body bag. The others were already sealed and affixed with tape to the station’s wall.

“It was my duty. I had to do it,” said Chang quietly, speaking now to Best, who was clearly a soldier of some sort. He had the bulk for it, but it was more in how relaxed he looked after the battle, his eyes closed as he savored a stick of gum he chewed with steady precision. The slight one—Sir Aeric, he called himself—must be something else. He screamed more like an angry shopkeeper than a soldier.

“Sir, we have met the objective,” said Best. “It’s a shame about the prize. But you know, we can do it all over again.”

“Yes, perhaps the Russians will be more reasonable,” said Cavendish, calming down. “And I’ll offer to hire them, not just ask for their surrender. Carrot and stick this time. How about that?”

“It’s worth a try, sir,” said Best. “But we need to get off the station now. This part of space is going to light up as the American ASAT missiles start knocking down the Chinese and Russian birds. Then they’ll try to launch their satellites, and the Directorate will do the same. With no one commanding space, each side will just knock the other’s satellites down as fast as they’re launched. Pretty soon any orbit above the Pacific is going to be one big cloud of space junk.”

“Makes you wish you worked for someone who had the foresight to invest in the rocket-fuel business,” said Cavendish, starting to calculate a new set of gains. “To the Tallyho, then! Mr. Tick, are you up for it?”

“I’m feeling no pain, sir,” said Tick. The commando’s forehead was swollen and his eyes were bloodshot.

“You’re a good man, Tick,” said Cavendish, now studying Chang. “Best, get the men through the airlock. I will be the last to leave.”

“Yes, sir,” said Best. “And, sir, I think we finally have your call sign. How does Zorro sound?”

“Splendid,” said Cavendish, smiling. “Absolutely splendid.”

A flash of relief washed across Chang’s face. It felt like the tension in the room had completely lifted. Chang started to float toward an emergency suit, but the slight one in charge, the shopkeeper, shook his head. In his hand was one of their electric pistols.

“No, not you. I warned you that if there was any resistance, you all would die. I didn’t get so far in business without being a man of my word.”

Chang didn’t have time to protest that it hadn’t been his decision to resist, that it had all been Huan’s fault, before the 7.5 million volts from the Taser dart entered his body.

 

USS Zumwalt, Gulf of Alaska, Pacific Ocean

 

Captain Jamie Simmons stood in the lee of the helicopter bay and scanned the blue sky. Even with the chill that grew as they moved farther north, the rhythmic rise and fall of the following Pacific swell made the moment wholly pleasant. It was the kind of beauty that unexpectedly wormed its way into the experience of war.

“Captain, visual IFF signal just confirmed it’s ours,” said Seaman Eric Shear. Simmons took the oversize binoculars. There was an electronic icon in the viewfinder that prompted him to turn to the port side and look slightly up toward the incoming plane, three miles out and closing quickly. A repeating triple dash of lights confirmed the IFF—the identification, friend or foe—signal.

“We’d be dead by now if it wasn’t,” said Simmons. “Get the recovery crew ready.”

“Already standing by, sir,” said Shear.

The form of a gray General Atomics Avenger stealth drone⁴⁸ appeared behind the lights. It moved fast and low, lower than any human pilot would dare take a plane, fifteen feet above the sea, the splash from the highest waves licking at its underbelly. The pilotless jet’s autonomous flight was nearing its terminus. With no other way to securely communicate with the fleet, Pacific Command had resorted to using what was essentially a twenty-million-dollar carrier pigeon. The drone’s first pass over the Zumwalt crossed the stern fifty feet off, far too close for Simmons’s comfort. As it pushed past, the jet waggled its wings slightly. At least somebody among the mission’s programmers had a sense of humor.

Tracking the next pass, Simmons saw the doors covering the internal weapons bay open. The jet slowed and ejected two bright yellow canisters, then it powered away to the east and dropped canisters to the rest of the ships in the task force. After that it went to full power and dove straight down into the Pacific. The drone disappeared in a violent splash, the sound of its impact lost in the faint wind.

The canisters gleamed as they were hauled aboard the Zumwalt and carried into the hangar bay, where a pair of techs disarmed the scuttle devices that would have melted the contents into a toxic mess with a chemical spray if someone had used the wrong access code.

“Ever think it would come to this, Captain?” said Cortez, eyeing the stack of foil packets.

“Never. When’s the last time you opened an actual letter, XO?” said Simmons, tearing open the foil and beginning to read the cover memo outlining the ops plan. “If Congress had known this war was coming, I bet they never would have shut down the U.S. Postal Service.”

“Some of these kids, I doubt they’ve ever held a letter, at least one written by another person,” said Cortez.

“I like how you refer to them as kids. Shows how far you’ve come, Horatio. Shows why I know you’ll do the right thing in whatever comes next.” Jamie paused, letting that sink in. He looked back down and read further, leaving Cortez standing awkwardly in silence. Then he folded the paper and returned it to the envelope.

“Pep talk’s over. We need to get to the bridge.”

Cortez looked back quizzically.

“PACOM reports Directorate space-based ISR has been neutralized, meaning we just disappeared from their overhead surveillance. There’s a new set of mission orders and a new destination. You can let the crew know they can put their mittens away. Full sprint south. It’s time to see if this ship is as stealthy as they say.”

 

Kahuku, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The hike from the beach was just as long as some of the previous treks Conan had done with the NSM, but it took only a fraction of the time. The SEAL fire team moved with confidence rather than the stop-and-go of the insurgents. Where the NSM would have waited and watched for an hour to ensure an intersection in the trail was free of guards, the SEALs moved right through, the tiny robotic lobster they called Butter scurrying ahead, clearing the way.

Conan thought their noise discipline was terrible. It wasn’t that they were loud; they were quiet, at least for predators. It was that they clearly had never been prey. They announced themselves with the small things, like the way they tightened a harness or wiped a hand across a sweaty forehead. They also took too many risks. Instead of steering wide of Directorate positions, they seemed to seek out every place the NSM had learned the hard way to avoid.

She didn’t understand why until they got to the first site, a cluster of houses being used to barrack a Directorate infantry platoon. She and Duncan went prone and wiggled to the lip of a small creek about seventy-five yards from the houses. She suspected they were preparing an ambush, which worried her. Even if they took out this unit, it would do nothing but bring the rapid-reaction force down on them. She’d heard stories about the SEALs’ arrogance, but this was going to get them all killed.

Conan was preparing to pull back and leave them on their own when Duncan set down his rifle. Using a flexible tablet strapped to his forearm, he compared the location to the map scrolling on the screen and then dropped a digital pin on the site.

“We’ve got the old GPS coordinates of almost everything on the island from before the war down to the inch—not that we can use it for navigation,” he whispered. “But we didn’t know where all their forces were located. Now we do. Where to next, Major?”

The hike took the whole day, and Duncan slowly filled his digital map with pins. Conan didn’t feel at ease until they slipped into trails of the Pupukea-Paumalu Forest Reserve,⁴⁹ away from any population. Their journey ended with a hike up a stream in the East ‘O’io Gulch to the old Kahuku training center.⁵⁰ The hundred-acre site had been built to train construction workers away from the view of tourists. Tucked into the back of a hill were a few buildings, a sixty-three-thousand-gallon water tank, and space for union apprentices to drive around excavators and loaders. It was now abandoned, the jungle rapidly closing in around it.

But what mattered to the team was the other side of the complex. Kahuku translated into English as “the projection.” The finger of the hill rose three hundred feet above the surrounding landscape. Laid out below them was the Kamehameha Highway with a golf course on its other side, still maintained as if the war had never come. Beyond lay a complex of three low-rise buildings set on a peninsula that had open views to the ocean.

“Just like the Chinese to take the best real estate, huh?” Duncan said.

“Turtle Bay Resort,⁵¹ the only major hotel on the North Shore,” Conan said. “And now headquarters of their regional quick-reaction force.” She pointed out the row of helicopters and small drones parked on the tennis courts west of the resort complex.

Duncan motioned for the team to set up a hide site and lay out the nylon shield bags. Conan still kept her wool blanket close. She watched as Peaches picked up the robotic lobster, placed a tiny cylinder on it, and then set it back on the ground and gave it the kind of gentle pat you would use to encourage a puppy. Duncan tracked his finger across the flexible tablet screen and placed another pin on the Turtle Bay complex. The tiny robot scurried off and disappeared into the bush.

“After all we’ve been through together, not even the courtesy of a wave goodbye,” Duncan said.

“So he’s not going out on perimeter patrol?” Conan asked.

“No, Butter’s traveling a little bit farther than we can this time. He’s the key to getting our intel out.”

On the screen they watched as the tiny robot’s icon closed in on the Turtle Bay complex, its advance painfully slow, but steady. The three-dimensional view showed it skittering over the highway and then entering the main hotel complex through a six-inch-wide drainage pipe that ran under a barbed-wire fence the Directorate had put up around the hotel. The robot crossed various gardens and paths, staying in the brush whenever possible. At an open field in front of the hotel, the site of many a wedding in years past, the lobster paused, scanning both directions for movement.

“That’s right, be careful,” Duncan said, voicing a command to Butter from afar, even though the system was set on full autonomous mode.

The robot sensed movement, two Directorate officers walking down the pathway, and buried itself in a pile of mulch that lined the bordering garden. After they passed, it emerged from the mulch pile and crossed quickly, finally edging itself next to the main hotel building’s concrete wall. The tiny robot angled its front four legs up and attached them to the wall. Dry elastomer adhesive⁵² in its tiny legs made them twice as sticky as a gecko’s feet and allowed it to hold fast to the concrete. Those four legs then pulled up the rest of the robot, and it climbed up the side of the building, one tiny step at a time, at a rate of two inches per second. When it reached the rooftop, the robot scanned again for human presence and, finding none, scurried over to a radio-transmission tower mounted amid the air-conditioning units. It climbed the tower and attached itself to the top rung. And then it waited.

“There you are, Butter. Good boy,” Duncan said, picking out the robot poised atop the radio tower with his binoculars. He motioned to Peaches, who began setting a metal tube the size of a thermos on a small tripod.

“Laser designator? Is that the strike site?” asked Conan.

“Maybe later, but for now it’s how we communicate without them tracking us. Laser bursts to Butter, who’ll then beam out using their own transmission tower. That way, we sidestep any triangulation protocols they have set up; their scans will show only their own signal locales. And when we decide we don’t want to share their wonderful comms setup anymore, well, Butter can be quite the little terror.”

While Peaches finished rigging the metal tube and linking it to the flex tablet, now unfolded out on the dirt like an old road map, Conan leaned in to Duncan. “You have any stims? We ran dry a while back.”

“That’s rough. We did that in BUD/S,⁵³ going cold turkey to show we could be SEALs, but now? I couldn’t imagine going without them even for a day,” said Duncan. “Digger there, he can sort you all out. Hammer, we good?” said Duncan as Conan took a handful of packets from Digger, evidently the team’s medic.

“Online already, boss,” said Hammer, a rail-thin man with gray stubble and a scarred scalp who looked to be at least fifty. “All frequencies are green.”

“Let’s make connection, then.”

Conan found the SEALs’ confidence unnerving. They were professional, but not wary enough, which made her even more on edge. She cocooned herself in the wool cloak and inched forward to the edge of the perimeter they’d set to track for any threats. She worried about an ambush even more now that the little gadget the SEALs depended on as their eyes and ears was gone.

As she scanned the perimeter one more time, a tap on her boot heel sent a shot of adrenaline up her spine. She started to swing her rifle around and then realized it was Nowak, the Pole, smiling, redeeming himself in his own mind by getting the drop on her. He motioned her back and took her position watching the perimeter.

“So, are you ready to see what it was all for?” Duncan asked as she edged over.

“Impress me.”

He handed her a lightweight tactical-glasses rig.⁵⁴ It was an updated version of the ones she’d first trained with years back. It looked a bit like a hockey helmet, with pinkie-size antennas running over the crest and a trio of golf-ball-size sensors embedded just above the forehead. The device’s conforming battery pack was worn in a harness across Duncan’s chest. She put it on and felt for the power button at her temple. Her body reflexively jerked as the heads-up display changed the darkness around her into daylight.

Conan panned her head about, visually traveling over the island’s topography, seeing it overlaid with bright icons on each of the sites they had marked and on known Directorate bases; flashing icons denoted active ground-based radar and missile sites.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. “The view’s much better that way.” Duncan slowly guided her to look toward the sea. At the edge of the horizon, she saw a cluster of bright blue dots blinking against the dark of the ocean. She focused, and the system tracking her eyeballs automatically began to zoom, taking her farther and farther out to sea. As she closed in, the ball of blue began to separate, becoming a dozen small triangular blue icons dancing along the horizon. Friendly forces. A lot of them. The tab associated with the cluster winked at her: TF Longboard. As she zoomed out from the cluster of blue, she noticed that a single blue dot was a few hundred miles ahead of it; it had a Z for an icon.

 

Admiral Zheng He, Four Hundred and Fifty Miles Southeast of Kamchatka Peninsula

 

The Admiral Zheng He pushed through the Pacific swell, each wave slapping the flagship of the joint Directorate-Russian task force, almost like slow applause.

The ship’s namesake was the second son of a lowly rebel captured by Ming Dynasty forces and castrated at the age of eleven. The young eunuch had been trained as a soldier. But by navigating the perilous politics of the age, he rose to distinguish himself, eventually becoming taijian, grand director of the palace servants. Zheng He⁵⁵ was remembered for none of this, though, for it was at sea where the eunuch reshaped Asia and went on to become one of history’s greatest admirals.

Starting in 1405, Zheng He set out on a series of tours of the world then known to China. His fleet carried twenty-eight thousand soldiers and sailors in over three hundred ships, with his nine-masted flagship being the largest ship ever built in the age of sail. As it traveled from Asia to Arabia and Africa, the massive fleet cowed some kingdoms into submission and defeated the few that chose to fight. By the end of the voyages, Admiral Zheng He had created the first transoceanic empire, a ring of some thirty vassal states with China at the center.

Subsequent emperors would turn away from the sea, preventing future voyages. Imperial China grew progressively weaker and eventually suffered the indignity of becoming a vassal to others. The greatness of the age became an embarrassment, as did the memory of Admiral Zheng. Not anymore.

At 603 feet, almost as long as the Zumwalt, the ship was officially classified as a cruiser, but it was a battleship⁵⁶ by any of the old meas­ures. Initial work on the vessel had begun back during the Communist Party days, and Americans had first learned of it when a picture leaked on Chinese Internet chatrooms showing a massive mockup ship being built hundreds of miles inland at the test range in Wuhan. But the Directorate had seen the effort to completion. There was no attempt to be stealthy, so the ship lacked the Zumwalt’s strange, sleek lines. Instead, carrying 128 missile cells, 64 fore and 64 aft, the twenty-first-century Admiral Zheng He was all about projecting power, actual and perceived.

The symbolism of it all was not lost on Admiral Wang as he sat in his stateroom just below the Zheng He’s combat information center. Normally, cruisers were named after cities, but he had successfully lobbied to have this ship, the largest surface vessel built in Asia since World War II, named to honor the admiral who had once ruled the sea, back when his homeland was truly great. And if that ship just happened to be his flagship now, all the more appropriate. The symbolism would not be lost on others either.

As he mused on the old admiral, Wang absently ran his thumb along the spine of a small book in his lap. At least this meeting could be done remotely so he would not have to suffer through General Wei’s briefing to the rest of the Presidium. Wei was trying to dance around the fact that so far the land forces had failed to put down the insurgent activities in Hawaii.

“General,” the admiral said, “I certainly do not question the effectiveness of our counterinsurgency campaign, but for now, let me confine myself to discussing the impact on our naval forces. The recent attack on our main aerostat radar station outside Honolulu has resulted in lost long-range coverage from the island. We can help you compensate by providing additional reconnaissance planes for aerial patrols if needed—”

“Help us ‘if needed’?” said General Wei. “No, I think you need not trouble yourself with concern over the loss of one balloon, Admiral. In the real wars we fight on land, loss is to be expected, not like the clean wars you wait for at sea. Space-based sensors on the Tiangong are, of course, continuing to provide theater-wide coverage. Let us worry about the land while you focus on the sea, most especially on what you intend to do about the U.S. task force of old ships that recently left San Francisco.”

Never rush to give big news, because your foe might display his ignorance of it in front of the group first, Wang’s mentor had once told him regarding the strategy of staff meetings. Wang’s hands lay still on the small, leather-bound book as he leaned forward. The screen projection before him showed a dozen men and women wearing suits and glasses sitting in a semicircle. Whether they were really weighing his remarks or just tracking the Shanghai market’s stock prices was hard to tell.

“Thank you, General. Yes, the American squadron mostly consists of older vessels from their reserve fleet station on their western coast. American command network intelligence intercepts and analytics of their fuel load project it as reinforcement for Australia. A Marine unit, their Second Expeditionary Brigade,⁵⁷ moved from their East Coast, as did an Army unit, their Eleventh Cavalry,⁵⁸ still named after horses but a tank unit now. This squares with the mining of social networking data, where several correlative mentions were made by family members of known task force officers.”

“All the better,” said Wei. “Let them send more forces to wither on the vine with the Australians.”

“Yes, General, that would seem the best route”—and now to teach Wei in front of the others what he did not understand of managing modern war—“if we are to believe that is their actual destination. However, the fleet is moving north, not south. Simultaneously, the latest space-based surveillance shows that a task force of their remaining modern and capable warships left in the Atlantic is moving toward the Arctic. If they are able to navigate the Arctic passage, they could then make a dash through the Bering Strait and down into the North Pacific. Notably, the Cherenkov sensors indicate that this group includes their remaining capital ships, the older Nimitz aircraft carrier and the Enterprise, their last Ford-class carrier that they rushed out of construction. This would seem to be connected to the information just in from Dr. Qi’s Shanghai ‘research’ facility of their captured agents’ interest in our northern defenses.”

Wei looked flustered for a moment at the mix of data and sources that Wang had introduced into the meeting and the dots that he had connected, but then he collected himself.

“Then, it seems, Admiral, you finally have the storm that you were so happy to lecture us on, and without our needing to expand this war into other oceans. Simply establish a blocking position with our Russian partners in the Bering Strait and let them come to you. Stonefish will rain down and your fleet will only have to fish out the bits and pieces. Or as the great General”—Wei made sure to emphasize the word—“Sun-Tzu whom you are so fond of quoting would argue, ‘If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by.’”

“Indeed, General Wei, a wonderful reminder. And yet war at sea is more fluid. As Master Sun himself wrote, ‘Water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.’ There is much in motion here. I believe that the combined risk of—” Admiral Wang stopped. They had all disappeared.

Wang sighed and opened the book on his lap, determined to wait out productively whatever gremlin had decided to run around inside the signal feed.

After a few minutes, a warning klaxon blared, and the hatch to the room swung open with a clang. His aide came in, announcing breathlessly, “Admiral, we have lost our satellite communications and overhead coverage. First it was just Tiangong offline. Then all space assets just went dark. Just like that! We’ve tried to bring Hainan up and are getting only interference there too.”

Wang began to speak before he even knew what he would say.

“Battle stations, then,” said Admiral Wang. “I will be on the bridge momentarily.”

He hated to be right about something like this, but at least he was ready. Bad news, indeed. What would General Wei or the others in the Presidium say? Nothing, and that was what Admiral Wang had wanted for a very long time. Now he had the independence of decision and action that every great strategist craved.

So much was in motion, perhaps the last grand battle he had foreseen as necessary, but the question was, what exactly were they planning? The Americans had sortied two fleets, but toward which targets?⁵⁹

He flipped through the book in his lap and read a passage aloud. “‘Should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.’”

For once he grew angry with the ancient strategist’s guide to the art of war. He needed firm answers now, not vague sayings that could be pondered for days.

Wang stood and placed the book on the conference table, then headed to the bridge. He would have to make this choice alone.

 

Kahuku, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Her mind wanted her to sleep, but for the first time in weeks, her body wouldn’t let her. The stims lasted longer than normal because she’d been without them for so long.

It was so damn frustrating. Before, it had been her body that craved sleep and her mind that couldn’t allow it. More frustrating was the fact that Duncan had told her to catch some sleep. Conan knew he was trying to be kind, that the team clearly admired her for making it this far, but it just reminded her once more that they didn’t need her. Every minute, every hour, every day since the attack, she’d been necessary. She’d had to produce the next op plans, give the final orders, and make the toughest calls, some of which meant that sleep would bring back ghosts who would haunt her forever. But now she knew she was useless, just excess baggage for the SEALs.

So she waited under her blanket, sweating, with nothing more to do than pick pieces of the gummy stims from her teeth.

She heard a slight rustle and swung her rifle; no one would get the drop on her twice. It was Duncan this time. He motioned her to follow him to the observation post the team had set up on the perimeter, just on the edge of the brush. It had a clear view out, overlooking the golf course and the resort beyond. Oblivious to their presence, a threesome played on the fourth hole of the Fazio-designed course;⁶⁰ clearly they were high-level officers or dignitaries, as two armed escorts followed in a second electric cart commandeered from the resort.

“So this was the unit that got your guys?” said Duncan, hooking her up into the tactical-glasses rig.

Conan nodded, taking in the full-enhanced scene as the system filled the panorama with red and blue icons, this time many more of them. The team had certainly been busy while she was picking her teeth.

“We never learned which unit, but they were good,” she replied. “Too good,” she added, giving credit where credit was due.

“You’re owed some payback, then.”

“How soon?”

“Three minutes good enough for you?”

“Typical man, but it’ll have to do.”

She watched and waited as the team finally started to show their nerves, checking and rechecking their weapons. Duncan kept his binoculars trained on the little robot still affixed to the tower that would be their relay station.

“Okay, mission clock is good, open the comms link,” said Duncan.

A voice came through their earpieces, modulated from the digital encryption, but recognizable as having a slight Latino accent. “Nemesis, this is Longboard. Authenticate Zulu, One, Bravo, Two, Three, X-Ray, Four, Two, Golf, Golf, Five, Seven, Papa, Delta, Mike, Six, One, Eight, Mike. Counter-authenticate with match code Polski.”

Peaches began the receipt code, speaking in Polish. The language’s unique combination of Latin and Greek diacritics gave it thirty-two letters in total, and the letters that were modified with glyphs were almost incomprehensible to computer-decryption algorithms.

 

“Ś, jeden, pi, ą, ź, ztery ń, siedem, ę, szesna, cie, pi, ł, dwana, cie, ż.”

 

“Roger, Nemesis, match code received. Quick hit human confirm, query mission commander: Best pizza near your home, over?”

“Gino’s, New York–style,⁶¹ over,” Duncan said quickly into the comms net. He turned to Conan. “They give you five seconds to outrun any algorithm guessing. Good thing they didn’t ask favorite Mexican or we’d have been cut off. Too many choices.”

“Confirmed, Nemesis,” the voice said. “We’ll order out for you, over.”

“We’d prefer your special delivery today, over,” Duncan replied.

“Affirmative. Any updates to the targeting data, over?”

“None, all active and confirmed,” Duncan said. “We have a small unit out golfing near us, but we don’t think they’re worth your while. We can take them on our own if it comes to match play, over.”

“Roger that, Nemesis. Standing by for authorization, over.”

Duncan looked at Conan, his expression and tone serious for once. “Major, I can’t even begin to understand what you’ve been through, but . . . I just wanted to say how much we respect it, what you had to do.”

Conan’s face remained impassive.

Duncan, knowing not to go any further, changed tack. “You know why we chose Nemesis as the call sign?”

“Greek god of trouble,” she replied.

“Almost. A goddess. Technically, the goddess of vengeful fate; her name translates as ‘to give what is due.’ That’s us, but in this case, I think you’re due the privilege of giving the order.”

Conan just nodded and said into the microphone, “Longboard, this is Nemesis, you are cleared hot . . . and may all our enemies die screaming.”

Duncan smiled, but then he saw her face. It was no longer an expressionless mask. She truly was Nemesis.

 

Admiral Zheng He, Four Hundred and Fifty Miles Southeast of Kamchatka Peninsula

 

At this moment, Admiral Wang felt that the flagship’s windows on the bridge had the best view of the war. And he could see nothing except the line where the blue water met the horizon.

Everything was happening beyond that horizon, out of sight. He had enemies waiting for him well beyond that horizon but no sure way to find them. He had weapons that could reach well beyond that horizon but no sure way to aim them.

He could sense the crew was discomfited by the absence of vital information; they had expected it would always be there, as certain as the stars. The satellite signals had gone down, the long-range radio was jammed, and the network-data links were worse than severed—they were feeding the crew information and navigation positions that were clearly in error. All the more reason for Wang to exude calm.

It was as it should be, part of him felt. This was naval warfare as it had been for centuries, not as it had been imagined for the past few decades, an organized and predictable exercise with defined and computable odds. If he was going to measure up to his ship’s namesake, it would be on a day just like this.

“Show me the last reported positions and scenarios three and four for distance traveled since contact lost,” he instructed a young officer.

The screen displayed the potential locations of the enemy task forces. For their Arctic force, there were not many choices. At some point, they had to come down through the Bering Strait. Yes, they could certainly continue on to the Chukchi Sea and harry the Russians on their northern coast, but then it wouldn’t be his problem.

“‘Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.’”⁶²

He recited the instructive quote from The Art of War aloud, more for himself than for the bridge crew, though it was good for their morale, he thought, to see their commander in conversation with the great master. They kept silent, knowing not to interfere with his thinking.

The real question was about the southern force of older ships. By this point, they could almost be off their port of Anchorage. Would they lie in wait there? Or would they risk darting down the Aleutian Islands, perhaps to effect a linkup?

Mentally, he went through the priorities, stating out loud Sun-Tzu’s rankings once more.

“‘The highest form of generalship⁶³ is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces.’”

That was certainly what Hainan would want. The integrity of the force and, indeed, the alliance with the Russians would be held by keeping his task force positioned to block that passage and prevent the juncture of the two small American fleets.

“‘The good fighters of old⁶⁴ first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.’”

He preferred this advice about patience to General Wei’s quote about waiting by the river. It was like Wei to choose the less apt quote, but he was still right. The Bering Strait was not a river, but the effect would be the same. They could simply wait for the American forces to enter the strait and be channeled into their arms.

And yet patience was like any other weapon: it had to be used properly or it would backfire on its owner. And patience was not the weapon his foes would be using; he was sure of that. It was the one thing he could be certain of concerning the Americans somewhere across that horizon. That, and that they had to know their moves north had likely been tracked up to this point.

“‘All warfare is based on deception⁶⁵ . . . When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.’” Deception, he realized, would be the Americans’ weapon of choice.

He turned to face his aide so that what he said next would be captured for posterity by the aide’s glasses. These words would decide how history would remember him. He would be either the fool who abandoned his post and was shot for it or the great admiral who divined the enemies’ ruse and ended the war by appearing out of nowhere right behind them.

“We shall head south, full steam. The surface task force shall proceed in a sweep arc forward, keeping the carriers protected. I want passive sensors only, though. If we are blind to their presence, I want them to be blind to ours. When in range of Hawaii, the carrier’s attack squadrons shall launch with anti-ship strike packages even if targets are not yet acquired,”⁶⁶ Wang said. He smiled to show his confidence in what he knew was a gamble. “As Master Sun advised, ‘Never venture, never win’!”⁶⁷

He hoped the great strategist of old was right one last time.

 

Kahuku, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

The tactical view showed Conan a blinking yellow light on the blue Z icon out to sea. They waited several minutes for whatever it was indicating to arrive.

Then there was a sudden roar overhead, almost like an airborne locomotive. A massive explosion erupted miles away, almost certainly at the old Wheeler Army Airfield, where the Directorate had a mobile search radar the SEALs had marked coming in. Her tac-view showed one of the red icons flash with a yellow overlay. Then another wink, and another round of explosions: a mobile Stonefish ballistic-missile launch site in Waialua to the west, the firing pattern prioritizing any mobile targets before taking out the fixed sites.

They watched below as the golfers stood confused; one stopped in midswing and threw himself to the ground. After figuring out the fire wasn’t aimed at them, they piled into the electric cart and drove off toward the resort complex.

“Yes, that’s it, boys, pack it in. You’re shit golfers anyway,” Hammer said.

The firing continued above them, a whooshing sound every six seconds, some followed by an explosion close, others in the distance. More and more of the array of red icons began to blink yellow. Below them, the base became a beehive of activity. Two of the helicopters on the tennis court began to spin their rotors.

“Come on, come on,” Duncan whispered, starting to grow antsy.

“Nemesis, this is Longboard,” the comms link crackled. “Verify friendly position Augusta, over.”

“Longboard, Nemesis, affirmative,” said Duncan. “And don’t leave a scratch on that comms tower or there’ll be hell to pay, out.”

Again, a wait of minutes. The rail-gun rounds moved at 8,200 feet per second, but they had almost two hundred miles to travel. Then another whooshing sound came in, this time almost upon them, and the tennis courts disappeared in a massive cloud of dirt and fire. Several smaller explosions followed as helicopters and vehicles just beyond the blast site began to cook off. Then another whoosh, and a series of tents set up around the golf course’s clubhouse as a command complex disappeared. Six seconds later, a third rail-gun round hit the parking lot, leaving a gaping crater where the unit’s motor pool had been. The team was well beyond the strike zone, but they still felt the pressure in their eardrums change and their stomachs turn at each of the explosions.

Duncan scanned the complex with his binoculars and saw that the tower was still standing, the tiny robotic lobster still clinging on.

“Longboard, Nemesis Six. Confirm targets serviced and communications link strong. Nice shooting, over.”

“Thank you, Nemesis. We aim to please, out.”

The strikes began again, the locomotives rushing by every six seconds like clockwork, some directly overhead, some at a distance. Then the intervals between strikes began to shift, first to twelve seconds, then to eighteen. Conan panned her view and saw icons on neighboring islands starting to flash. Maui, then the Big Island, even Lanai. She’d been so focused on her own fight, she hadn’t known what was happening on the other islands.

Duncan brought her attention back. “Time for the seaside fireworks.” He pointed off to the coast just as a flash of light about five miles away rose from the ocean and streaked into the clouds. A few seconds later there was a flash above, followed by the sound of a distant explosion, and debris started to rain down.

Conan’s visor said those were AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles fired by the Orzel using a system developed by the Navy’s Littoral Warfare Weapon program;⁶⁸ it allowed the heat-seeking missiles, which were normally carried by fighter jets, to be ejected underwater from the submarine’s torpedo tubes using gas pressure and a watertight capsule and then launched into the air.

“That’s our ride,” said Duncan. “Never a good idea to park your combat air patrol above a submarine full of pissed-off Poles who haven’t won a war in a few hundred years.”

Lieutenant Nowak, lying prone in the dirt just a few meters away, smiled at Conan, gave her a thumbs-up, and then flipped a middle-finger salute at Duncan.

Two more streaks shot up from the water, and another shower of flame and sparks appeared behind the veil of the clouds. The visor registered them as formerly being Chengdu J-20 fighter jets.

The waiting stretched into almost an hour. They watched as the Directorate troops began to sift through the rubble, pull out bodies.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” Duncan whispered. “Peaches, tell Butter that sharing is no longer caring.”

“Sir?” Lieutenant Nowak asked.

“Switch the lobster to jamming mode.”

There was no immediate change in the activity below, but soon Directorate troops paused, awaiting instructions that would not come.

Another cluster of blue appeared in the tac-view on the horizon. As it grew closer, icons branched off.

“Major, I think it’s time you stopped being the only Marine in this island paradise,” he said.

She tried to say something flip back, but she couldn’t. All she wanted was to see them. As the icon grew closer, she flipped up the tactical rig. Duncan waited for her to tear up or something, but her face had returned to its usual impassive mask.

With the naked eye, they looked just like dots in the distance. Then the faint chop of blades could be heard. The flight of six low-flying Marine Corps Osprey tiltrotors slowly drew into view. They were flying incredibly low to the ocean, far below what Conan had been taught to do as a trainee back at New River. Clearly, they were trying to stay below the radar to the bitter end.

Now the Directorate would feel real fear. She wondered what Finn would have thought of the scene, and then she pushed that idea away.

“Shit,” Duncan said. “They’re waking up.”

He pointed to a small quadcopter taking off from Kuilima Bay, apparently protected from the first rail-gun strikes by the shadow of the hotel buildings.

“Break-break!” Duncan said into the radio, telling everyone on that frequency this was a priority message. “Ares Flight, Ares Flight, this is Nemesis Six. Heads up, they have a quad drone in the air.”

They heard only a crackle of radio static.

“Longboard, this is Nemesis, we can’t raise Ares Flight,” Duncan said into the secure link to the ship hundreds of miles away. “Can you let them know a quad drone is headed toward them from the east, over.”

“Wilco, Nemesis,” replied the radio, both parties knowing the jury-rigged game of telephone likely wouldn’t work in the heat of battle.

One of the Ospreys splashed down on its belly into Turtle Bay, a few hundred feet from the beach, then flipped across the water, parts breaking off.

“I didn’t see any weapon strike,” Conan said. “Their propellers just started to feather; fuel or engine trouble of some sort.”

The rest of the flight kept going, beginning to hover above the fairways on the far side of the golf course complex, the section designed by Arnold Palmer.⁶⁹

“Shit, they still don’t know about the drone,” said Conan.

As the lead Osprey touched down over the green of the first hole, the Chinese quadcopter popped up from the swirl of smoke around the destroyed tennis courts and fired a missile. The tiltrotor aircraft pulled up quickly, trying to dodge the missile. A Marine cartwheeled out of the open rear ramp from forty feet up, clutching his rifle the whole way down until he slammed onto the second hole’s men’s tee box. The quadcopter’s missile hit the Osprey’s aft fuselage near the horizontal stabilizer, causing the heavily loaded aircraft to swing wildly and then crash into one of the condo units overlooking the fairway.

The second Osprey in the flight, hovering just behind, pivoted. As the aircraft turned its back to the quadcopter, a gunner fired a .50-caliber machine gun mounted in the Osprey’s rear ramp. The aircraft turned in its hover, and the arc of red tracers edged closer and closer to the quadcopter and then shattered it in a small explosion. The Osprey then pivoted back and touched down on the golf course. Marines poured out the ramp onto the fairway grass. They immediately started to take small-arms fire from the porch of a townhouse that Directorate troops had been billeted in. As the Osprey’s propellers tilted forward and pulled the aircraft out of its hover, a missile arced in, fired from the main resort. The aircraft’s defensive flares fired, decoying the missile’s seeker head and triggering its proximity fuse, causing an explosion a few hundred feet away, but shrapnel slashed the right engine. One of the massive blades broke off and knifed into the Osprey’s fuselage just behind the cockpit, and an explosion broke the aircraft in two.

Conan tracked the missile trail back and saw two Directorate troops just at the edge of the main resort’s pool complex reloading an FN-8 man-portable missile system.⁷⁰

“Time for us to get down there and help out,” said Conan, checking her rifle and rig.

The fourth Osprey in the line exploded; machine-gun fire from another townhouse had hit a fuel tank. The Marines on the ground popped smoke grenades and the swirling white smoke added to the confusion.

Duncan shook his head. “No, Major, that’s not our fight. We’re to stay put and coordinate fires. I know it’s not what you want to hear, but those are the orders. Mission comes first.”

“Not this time, not for me,” Conan said.

She took off toward the resort at a jog. Duncan let her go. She was no longer essential to the mission.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center, One Hundred and Eighty Miles Off the North Shore of Oahu

 

The view was majestic in a way, the columns of black smoke rising above the green landscape, the peaks of the Waianae mountain range in the distance. Then the image fizzled and the screen in the ship mission center went blank.

Captain Jamie Simmons swore under his breath. The live video feed from the SEAL team labeled Nemesis had to be considered a luxury, not a requirement.

“Did we lose them or just the connection?”

“Jamming, sir. We’re working it,” responded the communications officer.

Simmons took in the scene around him. It was a sign of how different this ship was that the best place for a captain to be in the midst of battle was not on the bridge but in a windowless room. Looking down from the second level of the ship mission center, he could see each of the LCD screens that paneled the walls displaying the various systems’ status while in the middle of the room, a holographic map projected the topography of the island of Oahu, the various targets and suspected enemy formations overlaid with constantly updating digital red dots and triangles.

He checked the screen for the SEAL fire team’s footage of the strikes, but it was blank. Still, the mission moved on smoothly without it. The anxiousness he felt at that one missing piece of data flow was a reminder of how quickly people took for granted the sea of information they floated in. He only hoped that being thrown back into the dark would be even more disorienting for the Directorate generals and admirals who had enjoyed a war of such data dominance so far.

“ATHENA, display task force with projected time to point bravo.”

The holographic map pulled out, shrinking the island and projecting the rest of the task force several hundred miles behind them. The system predicted just a few hours of steaming time before the forces would tactically link, but those hours could make all the difference, not just to the success or failure of the assault but to getting the Z back under their air-defense umbrella. It was an honor to be the tip of the spear, but very lonely.

“We’ve got it back, sir.” The footage from the SEAL fire team at Turtle Bay Resort reappeared on the screen. Then the video feed began to cycle through the other imagery sent from teams inserted around the island chain.

“Fidelity?” asked Simmons.

“We’re at forty percent,” said the communications officer.

“Not good enough. I don’t want to risk any more civilians than we have to,” Simmons said, knowing that some would become casualties in any event, “and I damn well don’t want to stay powered down any longer than we have to if we’re just shooting wild.”

That was the more disconcerting part, having the ship essentially motionless, the engines at minimal turns solely to hold steady. Conceived as Drift Ops, this approach was meant to both maximize power to the rail gun and make the Z an even more difficult target to detect. Ships were always moving, it was assumed, so a radar signature the size of a dinghy just floating with the current would be filtered out by automated sensors. That was the hope, at least.

“Captain! One of the recon teams, Erinyes, outside Wheeler Army Airfield, is requesting another salvo,” said a weapons officer from the bullpen of desks below.

“The hangars were taken out as planned, but the runway strike was off target by a few hundred meters.” Simmons winced, hoping they hadn’t put one of the rail-gun rounds into the POW compound they suspected was on the base.

“ATHENA has updated the firing solution,” said Cortez, looking over at Simmons, who nodded. “Main gun, batteries release,” said Simmons. The weapons officer’s hands flicked at the touchscreen in front of him, giving ATHENA control over the rail gun’s targeting. The intelligent system did more than just aim the barrel of the rail gun at the target; it also interfaced with the ship’s propulsion and navigation systems to ensure that it stayed on target.

“Commencing power transfer,” said Cortez. “In five, four, three, two—”

The tactical action officer broke in. “Viper, Viper, Viper. ATHENA is reporting two, no, there’s three YJ-12 cruise missiles⁷¹ in the air.”

The YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship missile carried a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound warhead and could go Mach 4. More important, in addition to their radar, the missiles had imaging seekers, so they could be fired off blind and sent on a hunt for targets in a radius of two hundred and fifty miles, roughly the same range as the rail gun.

“Cease fire,” said Cortez.

“No, proceed with the firing plan, XO,” said Simmons emphatically. “Either they’ll find us or they won’t. In the interim, we need to get in as many hits as we can.”

“Aye, Captain,” said Cortez. Simmons noticed him tapping the heel of his prosthetic foot, which he did when he got anxious. His voice boomed throughout the ship. “This is the XO. Batteries release. Switching to auxiliary power in three, two, one. Mark.”

A warning siren blared throughout the ship. “All hands, the ship is on auxiliary power.”

The room’s LED lights flickered twice then returned to life, powered by their own local batteries. But screens throughout the ship mission center went dark as key ship systems shut down. A low whine followed, giving the crew a sense of dread as the ship powered down.

“ATHENA, bring the tactical map up to air-defense view.” The holograph moved upward, displaying icons for three missiles now performing a search pattern, each moving back and forth across a sector farther and farther out from the island.

“Viper one and two are projecting away from us,” said the tactical action officer. Simmons and Cortez locked eyes. Their unspoken question was how much fuel the third missile would burn up in a search pattern before it found them.

“Viper three inbound, sir. I think it’s tracking us.” They watched as the curving search pattern of the missile shifted to a line running directly at the Z.

The ATHENA battle-management system began its targeting solution as it tracked the missile approach, and Simmons watched the crew at the desks below steal glances at one another, wondering how long it would take the captain to power back up and activate the defenses.

He answered their concern, but not as they’d hoped. “Immediately after the final rail-gun shot, transfer power to the laser-point defense systems,” said Simmons.

“Firing sequence beginning in ten, nine . . .” said the weapons officer. He stood up in his chair, bracing himself slightly against the console he had been tapping feverishly.

“Viper three down!” said the tactical action officer. “Right in the wet. Looks like it ran out of fuel.” As he spoke, the ship began to hum, at first an almost imperceptible vibration, like you’d feel if you laid your hand on a track just before a train appeared.

A flash of movement caught Simmons’s eye in the darkened room. It was Vern, entering the mission center, eyes fixed on the screens showing the thermal image of the Zumwalt’s bow section and the rail-gun turret pointing accusingly at the shore. Then there was a series of sharp cracks, every six seconds, as six rounds raced toward the targets. With each shot, a flash engulfed the front of the ship in 1,100°F flames.

All eyes shifted to the video feed from the SEAL fire team targeting Wheeler. At the airfield, a pair of fighter jets raced down the runway. From the design, twin-engined and twin-tailed, they appeared to be J-31 Falcon Hawk strike fighters, each wing loaded with a YJ-12 anti-ship missile. The rail-gun rounds were moving too fast for the camera to pick up from afar, but the evidence of the rail-gun rounds’ arrival was immediate. So massive was the force of the explosions that even though the first fighter made it into the air, the shock wave tossed it onto its side and it fell back onto the runway, adding a fiery secondary explosion to the devastation.

“Sir, Erinyes reports target destroyed,” said one of the crew. “Says good hits. Moving to site Torrey Pines and will report back.”

“Now the real test,” said Vern.

Cortez looked over at her quizzically, somewhat lost in the information on his viz glasses. “Turning the system off is easy,” said Vern, smiling. “Getting it back on is the part that always worried me.”

 

Highway 99, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Brigadier General Gaylen Adams tried to focus on the taste in his mouth, the familiar mix of bile, dirt, and blood. He hadn’t tasted anything like that since Kenya.

“Nearly there, sir, this one piece is a bitch,” said Lieutenant Jacobsen. They were huddled in a culvert just beside the concrete roadway. The young officer was new, pressed into duty after Adams’s executive officer had died in the crash. The saniband liquid he had sprayed on Adams’s wound would set in sixty seconds, creating a hard but porous membrane over the wound site. It also contained a long-acting local anesthetic. But the lieutenant needed to work quickly to debride the wound before the spray set or the wound would seal around the dirt.

Adams kept silent, both cursing himself for wanting to be the first Marine to land and counting himself lucky for surviving the fall that had made that wish come true.

Using a pair of tweezers from his med kit, Jacobsen worked out one last piece that had been lodged just under the general’s lip.

“Got it,” said the aide, proudly holding up in his tweezers a sliver of a wooden golf tee the size of a matchstick. Adams could only think that it made the young officer look even younger, like one of his sons playing the board game Operation.

Fortunately, the numbness from the anesthetic had set in by this point. As the general rubbed his jaw, testing the edge of it, a helmetless Marine jumped off the roadway and into the culvert.

“Sir, Colonel Fora sent me back to let you know that we’ve got enemy armor coming,” said the Marine, trying to catch his breath. Adams couldn’t read his name, a scarlet slash of blood painted across the body armor, just his insignia. A corporal.

“How fah ut, Cupril?” Adams asked, his speech slurred by the anesthetic. He looked over in anger at Jacobsen.

“How far out are they, Corporal?” the general’s aide translated.

“Scouts tracking them about a klick away from our position, headed out from the old Schofield Barracks,” said the corporal, unfazed. It was the first time he’d ever talked to a general up close; for all he knew, they always had their aides translate for them. He handed the general a muddy map he’d been given to deliver; the units had been ordered to stay off networks as much as they could.

“Knew ur luck run ut ventually,” Adams said, mostly to himself. Except for his falling out of the back of an Osprey and onto a golf course, the operation had gone about as well as could be expected. Stealing a play from the Russians, they’d launched from the fleet almost four hundred miles out, the maximum range they could fly without refueling.

They had cut it close, all but one of the tiltrotor aircraft making it in on fumes. The strikes from the Z and the Poles had given them a lane through the air defenses, and even better than expected, the initial reaction from the ground defenses had been fierce but localized. It was as if the various Directorate units were operating without any leadership from the top. Adams didn’t know if it was due to the jamming or a lucky hit from the shore bombardment that had killed a Directorate general. He didn’t care; he would take a confused enemy every time.

The downside of their long-range method of infiltration was that his units were fighting lighter than normal. While each of the Ospreys that had landed at locations all up and down the North Shore could carry twenty-four combat-loaded Marines, they couldn’t carry the unit’s complement of artillery or vehicles. The Marines had commandeered civilian vehicles to stay mobile, but they would have to wait for the landing craft to bring them their own armored firepower.

“Colonel Fora said to tell you that he can bring them under fire to delay,” said the scout, “but he is requesting to blow the two bridges just north of town, sir.”

Adams studied the cracked screen of his tablet computer, matching the map to the locations he knew by heart. They could blow the bridges over the Anahulu River, but that would leave his forces on the wrong side of the little harbor in Haleiwa.⁷³ And he wanted that harbor. As dinky as it was, hosting mostly deep-sea fishing charters before the war, Haleiwa had the only pier on the entire northern side of the island. His Marines could cross the beach, but that little harbor would make offloading the Eleventh Cavalry far easier. And, more important, he didn’t want to lose momentum. Never give an enemy the opportunity to catch his breath; instead, grind your boot down hard on his neck.

He pointed on the map to the juncture of Highways 83 and 99 and the section just beyond Haleiwa, where the main road was raised on concrete pillars above the marshy land and small streams.

“Tell da Z to hut huh and huh.”

He looked over at the young marine corporal, who was waiting to be dismissed.

“Num, son?” said General Adams.

“Name, Corporal?” the aide asked.

“Snyder, sir,” said the corporal.

“Gut joh, Sny-drr,” Adams said slowly, trying to enunciate each word. He nodded at the aide to get to work.

Jacobsen pointed a baseball-bat-size antenna out to sea and set up a directed microwave-burst transmission to the task force; the signal’s frequency hopped with each transmission, allowing it to slip through the Directorate jamming.

“Longboard, Longboard, this is Ares, requesting fire at Fo-wer, Quebec, Delta, Kilo, Zero, Tree, Niner, Ait, Tree, Tree, Zero, Six, Two, Niner, and at Fo-wer, Quebec, Delta, Kilo, Zero, Fo-wer, Wun, Two, Fo-wer, Tree, Zero, Two, Niner, Zero. Confirm, Longboard,” said the aide, using the military’s phonetic pronunciation for the grid coordinates to ensure distinct sounds.

“Ares, this is Longboard Actual. Copy all, but what’s the situation? Where is Ares Actual? Over.” Adams recognized the voice as Admiral Murray’s.

“Longboard Actual, I’ve got Ares Actual right beside me, but he is, um, verbally incapacitated. I’ll be speaking for him, wait,” Jacobsen said.

“Tull er dat—”

Before Adams could finish the young officer started. “Longboard Actual, present status strong but precarious. Enemy armor column advancing down Route Ninety-Nine. We’ll need fire support to block threat. But not just yet. It’ll cost us, but we want to wait for max effect . . . I will relay fire order to time for exactly when their column crosses Helemano Stream.”⁷⁴

Adams eyed the young lieutenant with newfound respect. He was crap at surgery, but he was a bloody-minded killer, just the way they’d taught at Quantico.

 

Highway 99, Oahu, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

“Snyder, are you sure this is what the general said to do?”

Lance Corporal Ramona Vetter fired off another ten-round burst from her M240 machine gun.⁷⁵ The bullets bounced off the lead tank, a Type 99 whose brown-and-green camouflage paint stood out on the highway’s black asphalt. It was belching smoke from where its engine used to be after a direct hit from a Javelin shoulder-fired rocket.⁷⁶ Their machine-gun fire wouldn’t cause any damage, but it would keep the crew from exiting.

“Well, not exactly this,” said Snyder, pointing his M4 rifle at the next tank in line, which was pushing the damaged tank off the road. Through his tactical glasses, he could see the Directorate tank designated with a bright green halo. With the road cleared, the tank began to advance toward them again. Another Javelin missile was fired off, but it was deflected by the tank’s active protection defenses, which shot down the incoming missile with a small rocket that detonated the threat fifty meters away.

When the tank finally reached the small stream, Snyder did just what the lieutenant had instructed him to do. Normally, he knew to ignore what lieutenants said, but the general beside him had nodded his approval.

He toggled the glasses menu with a controller mounted on the forward rail of his M4. The connection relayed back to the young lieutenant’s transmission out to sea, and after a few seconds, the system began to push data to Snyder’s glasses, detailing the incoming fire’s expected blast radius.

“Damn. You should see this, Vetter,” said Snyder. He panned his head left and then right. Hundreds of meters out from the projected impact point on the tank, his glasses showed all red, with a warning signal overlaid in bold: Danger Close.

“Whatever they’re firing, it isn’t in the system. Figured it would be a five-incher, but it’s something else.”⁷⁷

“Bigger than a five-incher? You promise?” said Vetter.

“You know, your dirty mouth is going to ruin our Hawaiian honeymoon,” said Snyder. He yelled to the rest of their platoon strung out along the road: “Incoming fire, danger close. Get your asses down!”

“Probably just can’t shoot straight. Typical Navy,” said Vetter. The two of them lay prone in a muddy ditch.

“Yeah, well, you know who the colonel is going to blame when this kills us all? Me,” said Snyder.

He’d barely finished speaking when the roadway before them vaporized in a bloom of orange and white flame. The blast wave lifted Snyder and Vetter a few inches off the ground and then dropped them back into the ditch. Their ears ringing so loud they couldn’t hear anything, they edged back up to the lip. The roadway was now a massive crater where the two lead tanks had been. Even tanks farther away in the column had been flipped onto their backs like turtles.

A second wave of rail-gun fire came in, lifting Snyder and Vetter up again. The effect on the roadway was like scattering hot coals with a sledgehammer. A few seconds later, another two rounds landed in the traffic circle just to the west; now both roads into town were blocked.

Vetter was saying something, but Snyder couldn’t hear her over the ringing in his ears. He scanned across the scene of destruction with his eyewear, tagging each smoldering crater and piece of smoking wreckage with a red circle. The message to the Zumwalt’s ATHENA system was simple: Targets destroyed.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

The battle had settled into a rhythm, a steady monotone patter of queries and replies as the ship and its crew carried out fire-support missions onshore. The only physical indicator that they were at war was the sound of the room’s cooling fans, which seemed to be working extra-hard.

The holograph map now showed the Z joined by the rest of the task force, an arc of escort ships surrounding a convoy of transport vessels, all moving closer to shore. A blue bubble overhead extending almost a hundred and ten miles out indicated the air-defense range provided by the USS Port Royal,⁷⁸ the Aegis cruiser accompanying the task force. Beyond it, small moving icons indicated the Mako ships sweeping for underwater threats and a small combat air patrol of six F-35Bs overhead. They were from the USS America,⁷⁹ the amphibious assault ship at the center of the task force. The America also served as Admiral Murray’s flagship and so was marked by a bolder icon.

The America lacked an aircraft catapult launch and arrestment recovery equipment, which meant it could carry only those aircraft that could take off and land vertically, like F-35Bs, helicopters, and Ospreys. But for all other purposes, it was essentially a forty-five-thousand-ton aircraft carrier that could also load twenty-five hundred Marines, and, most important, it ran on non-nuclear engines. The mission planners had swapped out its normal heavy helicopter complement for the bulk of the first Osprey wave, which were joined by other Ospreys that had flown off the accompanying San Antonio– and Austin-class landing ships⁸⁰ brought out of retirement in the Ghost Fleet. The arrival of so many of the big, slow, non-stealthy ships meant Task Force Longboard’s presence would now be much more evident to any Directorate sensors, but being surrounded by other ships felt comforting to all in the Z.

“Captain, we have an incoming drone from the north,” a sailor announced. “Its squawking code says point of origin is Shemya?”

Cortez started to read off his glasses. “Shemya . . . Aleutian Islands.⁸¹ There’s an old Air Force weather station there that has an emergency-landing airfield. Not so great for that; says the wind never drops below sixty miles per hour and there’s a ten-foot visibility fog three hundred days of the year. That explains it; robots don’t mind the weather. Op plan has it used as a relay station for secure drone comms. A Pony Express–style handover.”

“Allow download. It is about time we finally get some news on what’s happening up north,” said the captain.

Within a minute, Cortez appeared at Simmons’s side with a tablet screen. It showed an animated map of the current and projected locations of the U.S. forces making their way through the Arctic passage. Noticeably absent was the Directorate battle fleet that was supposed to have been drawn north.

“Shit,” said Simmons.

Cortez nodded, and he winced slightly as he read the message aloud.

“‘No contact Directorate battle fleet. Undetected from searches in Bering and off Aleutians. In absence of further information, must assume strong substantial attack force proceeding towards your area of operations. In carrying out the task assigned in operation plan twenty-nine–forty-two, you will be governed by the principle of calculated risk,⁸² which you shall interpret to mean the avoidance of exposure of your force to attack by superior enemy forces without good prospect of inflicting greater damage to the enemy. Given communications link delays and uncertainty, decision authority is now with task force commander. COMPACOM will support. But priority is to protect the fleet in being.’”

“Sir, we have Admiral Murray on the localized net for you,” Cortez said. The video link opened, and the admiral appeared.

“You’ve seen the message?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then you know what it means?” she asked.

“Yes. PACOM is not going to say it, but they’re giving us the option to withdraw if the situation turns too hairy,” he responded. “Which would hang the Marines onshore out to dry.”

“That is indeed what it means, Captain,” she said. “That’s the trade­off. Instead of being puppeted from afar like in the last war, we get the kind of command freedom our predecessors dreamed of. But it also means the hard calls get piled on our shoulders.”

Simmons’s eyes flashed up to the monitor bank showing the array of system updates and videos of Marine combat footage. How many hours had it been since he’d seen the sea? It should have been easy to follow a cold-hearted, calculated order like this because he was devoid of any physical contact with the war and was essentially playing a video game in this floating box. It wasn’t.

“We will proceed as planned,” said Murray. “But be aware of the option if needed. I’ll give General Adams the bad news myself.”

No more than ten minutes after she had signed off, another urgent transmission came in.

“It’s the bird on the northwest patrol,” Cortez said, pointing to the icon on the holographic tactical display.

“Let’s hear it,” said Simmons.

“Big Bird, Double Down Four,” said the female pilot. “You have an incoming flight of sixty-plus enemy jets. I repeat, six-zero-plus enemy jets, coming from the northwest. They’ve got carriers out there somewhere. Double Down Four is engaging, but . . .” The pilot trailed off.

They all knew. It was best left unsaid. Her F-35B was one of the handful of jump jets squeezed onto the USS America to form the task force’s combat air patrol. Given what had happened to their pred­ecessors, all the pilots had been volunteers. Their planes had been scanned and rescanned and as many of the suspect chips swapped out as possible, replaced with chips scavenged from donated commercial gear. But there was no certainty they’d removed all of the Trojan horse hardware. The technicians likened it to trying to find a particular needle in a haystack made of needles. But finding bad chips was actually even harder than that, as they activated only in the presence of a combination of an unknown frequency and an encrypted transmittal message.

Her voice sounded strained as she braced against the increasing g-load that went with her aggressive tactical turn toward the threat in the northwest. The flight suit fought the physics of the maneuver but it was always a losing battle. “We’ll do what we can, but expect incoming within fifteen minutes. Double Down Four out.”

Double Down 4 stopped transmitting and fired a salvo of joint dual-role air dominance missiles⁸³ at the squadron of Chinese Shenyang J-31 fighters that had entered the defense sector. The Chinese planes were almost her jet’s twins, having benefited during their development from F-35 blueprints stolen by hackers in 2009.⁸⁴ Her incoming-missile warning alerted her that the closest one had counterfired a PL-21D.⁸⁵ Powered by ramjets, it closed quickly, so she banked hard and up to get some altitude. Then she activated the broadcast protocol. To counter the risk of some traitor chip signaling out, the whiz kids had dreamed up the idea of flooding all the frequencies. All stealth was lost, but the theory was that whatever homing beacon the missiles were trying to ride in on would be overwhelmed by all the other signals broadcasting.

She rotated the plane so she was inverted, catching a glimpse of the incoming missile exhaust streaking toward her as she did. The F-35 automatically fired off a dozen flares, and she put the plane straight down into a dive that made it crack the sound barrier. The missile kept climbing past her, seemingly fooled for the moment. Double Down 4 turned again, visually hunting for another target, her search radar rendered useless by the mix of the enemy’s and her own jamming. In the distance, she saw an explosion. At least one of her missiles had made contact.

All of this was invisible to the Zumwalt’s crew, still haunted by the clipped tone of her transmission. Jamming made it impossible for them to hear anything more. This spared the crew from hearing Double Down 4’s choked scream as 30 mm cannon fire from a Russian Su-33⁸⁶ gutted her plane’s belly. The only indication of her fate came when the all-frequency jamming stopped and ATHENA changed the F-35 icon from blue to gray and then moved it off the screen.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems we have found the rest of the enemy fleet,” said Simmons. “You know what to do.”

 

Wolf Flight, Pacific Ocean

 

Some 120 miles away from the Zumwalt, Captain Second Rank Alexei Denisov swept the sky again, craning his neck to look past his MiG-35K’s twin tails. He wanted to confirm what his cockpit displays and flight communications told him: the last of the American combat air patrol had been shot down. He looked around his plane; all that remained was a faint haze of smoke from the dogfight.

This was a perfect coda, he believed. He had been there at the beginning and would be there at the end of it all. How many decades had the Americans claimed the world’s skies? No more.

“White and Red Squadrons, this is Dagger-Three-Thirty-Four. Sky looks clear of any enemy planes.” He checked his radar screen again; still no targets acquired. Both sides were jamming each other, and neither could cut through the electronic fog until they closed.

“Begin your attack, Formation Wolf Hunt,” said Denisov.

Denisov pulled back on the stick and slowed, allowing the aircraft to reposition itself into the attack formation. Within seconds, the Russian MiG-35Ks and Su-33s of White Squadron and the Chinese J-31s of Red Squadron were neatly arrayed in a line⁸⁷ extending two hundred kilometers, just as they had trained on the simulators for weeks. Like wolves on the Siberian plains, they would sweep forward until some part of the line made contact, then all the others would close in a circle. It was simple but brutally effective.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

“Damn it to hell,” said an angry voice, not bothering to keep her frustration in check. The sailor was just out of Simmons’s line of sight, but her frustration was clear.

He walked down the stairs to the sailor’s workstation. “Patience, Richter, just have patience,” said Simmons in a calming voice.

“Aye, sir,” said Operations Specialist Angelique Richter, a bit surprised to find the captain leaning over her shoulder to look at the three screens at the workstation she was using. A diminutive twenty-five-year-old radar systems operator, she wore a matte-black eyebrow stud like the ones many of the female Marines wore. “Might as well turn the damn thing off, sir, jamming’s only getting worse.”

“Ebb and flow, Richter, that’s how this is going to go,” said Simmons. “You get a glimpse, then you use what little you have. Don’t forget: they’re just as confused as we are.”

The girl nodded, running chewed fingernails over her shaved head.

“Richter, you’ve been in three years now, right?” said Simmons.

“It will be four years in two months, sir,” she said.

“That’s a lot of Navy in your blood,” said Simmons. “Makes you one of the sailors I’m counting on today. There’s nothing here you can’t handle. What we know is all we know. Got me?”

“Aye, sir.”

He was walking back up the stairs to the observation floor when the radar operator called him.

“Sir, we’ve bogeys coming in from the northwest. They’re strung out in a long line,” Richter said. Then, in a lower pitch: “ATHENA counts sixty-two in total.

“Shit,” the radar operator continued. “It’s worse than that. ATHENA is now showing something coming in from the east. It’s patchy, but at least a hundred bogeys . . . we’re right square in the middle.”

As the information from her screen began to populate the central tactical hologram where all could see it, the room seemed to grow more quiet. A brief groan from the ship’s engines welled up through the hull, as if the Zumwalt had just accepted its fate.

Then a voice rang out over the speakers arrayed around the room. It had a gravelly, Southern twang: “Longboard, this is Boneyard Six Four. You seem to have some party crashers on the way. Can we be of assistance? Over.”

 

Boneyard Flight, Pacific Ocean

 

U.S. Air Force Colonel Roscoe Coltan ended the transmission and rechecked his position. The twelve-by-nineteen-inch glass-panel Garmin AeroScreen⁸⁸ was bolted on shock mounts over the F-15C⁸⁹ jet’s original flight instruments. He had rimmed the screen with duct tape for good measure, which showed the level of confidence he had in the technology. It was effective, but it still didn’t seem right, which basically captured just about everything so far in this mission.

Roscoe’s jet had been among the 256 F-15s and F-16s the U.S. Air Force had early-retired in 2014. The argument was that the fourth generation of fighter planes couldn’t keep up with twenty-first-century threats, but the real reason was that retiring the planes created an artificial fighter gap, which helped make the case for keeping the spending up on the F-35, the fifth-generation plane, whose cost had spiraled. The old but still flyable planes had spent the past years stored out in the dry Arizona air of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, better known as the Boneyard, the aircraft equivalent of the Ghost Fleet.⁹⁰ Alongside some four thousand other retired planes dating back to World War II, Roscoe’s jet⁹¹ had been waiting its turn to be harvested for scrap metal and spare parts.

But now, the age of the planes in Boneyard Flight worked to their advantage. They were crude, but they could be trusted. First flown in the 1970s, the F-15s needed only rudimentary electronics to operate; they had less computing power than his grandson’s talking toy bear and were steered by about twenty million fewer lines of code than the F-35. Most important, the chips in their flight systems had been produced long before hardware hacking or even the Directorate itself had been conceived.

His fuel gauge showed he had about two hours of flight time left if he just nursed the plane along. Unfortunately, the dogfight he expected would shave his time aloft down to a fraction of that.

Boneyard Flight had taken off with two dozen desert-worn KC-135s⁹² that had also been pulled out of retirement. Those things were tougher than cockroaches. First flown back in the Eisenhower days, the 707 passenger-jet derivatives did not have a modern chip anywhere, unlike the new KC-46s,⁹³ which had turned out to be missile magnets like all the other Chinese-chipped gear.

The plan was that another flight of old Stratotankers would be waiting to refuel them on the return leg. He looked down at the rippled sea surface. It was a profoundly deep azure dusted with white lines that reminded him of a light snow on tree branches back home in North Carolina. The tankers would be there, the briefer had promised, and if not, he said, the sea would contain only friendly ships they could ditch near.

After two wives and twenty-four years in the Air Force, Roscoe knew when he was being bullshitted. He also knew when not to care.

“Oscar, Roscoe. You picking up the same fleet data I am? Over,” said Roscoe.

“Roger that, Roscoe,” said Oscar, an F-16 pilot flying the other element of the escort. The pilot had gotten his call sign back when he was a new lieutenant, a way to put him in his place after he’d been hot-dogging it in flight school. “Sky is clear over Oahu, but the squids look like they are in for some major rain, over.”

“I’m thinking we need to give them an umbrella. I’ll take Eagle and Wall-E elements of the escort to mix it up. You take Viper element on with the big boys to keep ’em safe and give the ground pounders some support, over.”

“Understood, Roscoe. Just like an Eagle driver to steal all the glory,” Oscar responded. “We’ll get them through. Good hunting, over.”

“Eagle Flight, I know you heard that conversation. Form up on me.” Then he paused, and when he spoke again, he made sure to enunciate his words. They said the voice-recognition software would work anyway, but he wanted to be certain.

“Wall-E Flight. Authorization Roscoe. Voice authenticate Eagle, Two, Eight, Alpha, Delta. New mission order. Autonomous hunt. Air-to-air weapons authority release. Execute.”

He turned his head to see if they would follow the order or just start shooting down all the American jets close to them, like some bad movie. But the twelve F-40A Shrikes in the escort all took a smooth, literally perfect turn with a precision that would make a flight instructor orgasm and then formed up on the flanks of Eagle Flight’s F-15 fighters.

To Roscoe, it was one of the war’s many ironies that the jets they most needed to come through today were the very ones his service’s leadership had done its best to fight for years. Unmanned planes had proved their worth in the Afghan war and then in the various counterterrorism campaigns from Pakistan to Nigeria. But the early models had been remotely operated by pilots on the ground, and they were propeller-powered by four-cylinder engines taken from snowmobiles, meaning they had performance capabilities that even a World War I pilot would laugh at.⁹⁴ The generals had always made sure to tell the public that while they were fine for killing terrorists, the early drones wouldn’t be able to survive in any kind of denied airspace. That was true enough, but oddly, behind the scenes, the critics did everything possible to make sure future models would have those very same flaws. The Pentagon bureaucracy, which had begrudgingly started using armed unmanned aerial systems only after the CIA got into the business, consistently slow-rolled any attempts to make the next generation of drones faster, stealthier, and more lethal.

In the lean years after the Afghan war, the research budget for unmanned systems was slashed four times as much as any other program. The rationales for opposition included everything from worries about pilots losing jobs to defense contractors’ concerns that the better the new technology became, the more it would threaten their already signed multitrillion-dollar weapons contracts. It got to the point that, in 2013, when a test drone successfully took off and landed on an aircraft carrier by itself, the Naval Air Systems Command tried to send the cutting-edge technology⁹⁵ not out to the fleet, but to the Smithsonian. There, in a museum, one of the most advanced planes on the planet could be “celebrated,” and, more important, it wouldn’t be carrying out any further tests that might make people rethink the existing order of things.

The F-40 Shrike program had been proposed by a maverick colonel⁹⁶ who’d risked his career by publishing an article about it in the U.S. Air Force’s professional journal. He argued that instead of replacing its workhorse F-16 Fighting Falcon jets with the heavy and expensive F-35s, the Air Force should go with a similarly lightweight, cheap, and durable plane. The only difference was that it would be unmanned. It would get a small radar signature from having a thin, tailless, bat-wing shape that the absence of a cockpit made possible. Its software would match capabilities that had already been proven effective in the civilian market, autonomous flight and navigation, with weapons software that would follow the same identification-friend-or-foe protocols as missiles.

While the idea was anathema to leadership at the time, the concept of a cheap, useful combat drone struck a chord with the researchers at DARPA. A prototype was funded and it flew right about when Roscoe was starting his second marriage. But just like what had happened to the Predator drone a generation before, the little Shrike languished in what was known in the Beltway as the “valley of death,”⁹⁷ never rising to full program status with the Air Force or the major contractors.

The program had received new life when all the agency’s old prototypes were reevaluated for their utility in a new war. There, the DARPA connection proved critical again, as the Shrike’s computer chips had been made through the agency’s trusted-foundry program,⁹⁸ not sourced from the marked-up Chinese-made chips that the major contractors’ weapons programs used. Initially, the old guard in the Air Force had wanted to strip out the chips and use them as part of a plan to ramp up production of the very same manned planes that had failed at the war’s opening. But when Secretary of Defense Claiburne fired the Air Combat Command general who had proposed it and said she would use Navy planes exclusively for future missions if anyone came to her with any more such backward-looking ideas, the rest of the service got onboard. It wasn’t only because of that proposal that the general was fired; Claiburne had already been planning to fire him, but she had held back until she could do it in what she called “a teachable moment.”

“Roscoe, one last thing,” Oscar called over as he watched the drones form up beside the old F-15s. “You better shoot down more bogeys than those damn robots do, or you and I are truly going to be out of the business.”

 

Pua’ena Point Beach Park, Hawaii Special Administrative Zone

 

Standing on the concrete slab that had been the foundation of the old radio tower, General Adams admired the controlled chaos. The last time this field had seen such a buzz of activity had been the original “day of infamy” itself.

Back in 1941, the Haleiwa fighter strip had been a satellite landing field away from the main U.S. Army Air Corps base at Wheeler airfield.⁹⁹ As soon as the attack started, without waiting for orders, two young fighter pilots, Lieutenants George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, had jumped in a car and raced to the secondary field. They made the twisting sixteen-mile drive in under fifteen minutes. When they arrived, the crew chiefs told them that instead of flying out, they should disperse the aircraft on the ground. “The hell with that,” said Welch.¹⁰⁰

Ignoring the usual pre-takeoff checklists, each pilot climbed into a P-40 Warhawk fighter plane and took off down the airstrip. Only once they were in the air did they figure out they were about to take on over three hundred enemy aircraft. Undeterred, Welch and Taylor plowed straight into the second wave of the Japanese attack. They didn’t stop the attack, but they did manage to shoot down six planes before they ran out of ammunition. More important, the two pilots put up enough of a fight that Japanese planners assumed there were far more defenders in the air. They decided against sending in a final, third attack wave designed to pummel Pearl Harbor’s fuel storage, maintenance, and dry-dock repair yards, an attack that would have set back the American war effort at least another year.

The airstrip stayed in use up to the 1960s and was then turned over to the locals. Eventually owned by Kamehameha Schools and renamed Pua’ena Point, the real estate remained undeveloped, the concrete tarmac becoming cracked and gradually overtaken by the jungle. The only human presence for the past decades had been a squatters’ camp and an occasional rave party.

This real estate was now priceless to Adams. All the other active airstrips on the island, even the small civilian fields, had been used by the Directorate for basing and drone-landing strips, and they’d been taken out by the Z’s bombardment. A platoon of his Marines had been tasked to prep the old field as best they could, clearing away the squatter shacks, bushes, and concrete fragments that blocked the field. When word of what they were doing spread, civilians had started showing up to help. Retirees with garden tools, surfers with their bare hands, the now truly homeless squatters, all filling in holes in the tarmac and hacking away at the jungle. That had been unexpected good fortune. A corporal was now directing eighty of them in the cleanup of a helicopter-landing site, over where the hangars used to be. That would mean Adams could keep the runway clear and still bring his attack helicopters off the ships ahead of schedule. Even better, a SEAL fire team had appeared out of the jungle with two bulldozers and a Polish navy officer driving a massive yellow roller. He couldn’t even begin to fathom where they had found construction equipment in the middle of a battle, but he’d take it.

“Sir, they’re here,” his aide Lieutenant Jacobsen said.

“Dank you, ’Tenant,” Adams responded, his jaw still numb. “Clear um ut.”

Jacobsen ordered those still on the runway to clear as an F-16 buzzed low and waggled its wings. Typical pilot hot-dog bullshit, thought Adams. Despite all the work, the runway was still far too rough for any plane to land on. He forgave the pilot as the F-16 flew on toward the front, where it could do some actual good.

What Adams cared most about were the big lumbering planes that were appearing in the sky, the massive C-5 Galaxies¹⁰¹ that could carry over two hundred and seventy thousand pounds of payload, the sleek C-141 Starlifters¹⁰² that had ferried troops to Vietnam and the First Gulf War, and even some of the more modern C-17 Globemasters.¹⁰³ He knew they were the early production models, built before the full reliance on electronics.

Three missiles arced up toward the planes from the east, somewhere behind enemy lines. The spray of countermeasure flares distracted one missile, but the other two smashed into a C-5 and sent it careening into the ocean. Adams could see the F-16s in the escort, 20 mm Vulcan cannon firing, swoop down to punish whoever had committed the transgression of harming their flock.

Undeterred, the other big planes moved closer, the first wave filling the air with tiny dots that blossomed into parachutes, each C-141 dumping a string of 123 paratroopers as it flew overhead.

As they landed on the airfield, Adams blessed those civilians yet again. Every filled pothole in the tarmac meant one less twisted ankle or sprained knee taking a soldier out of action. Marines ran out to help the paratroopers stow their parachutes and find their rally points.

At each unit rally point, a line of civilian vehicles waited on the road leading out to the main town. Just as World War I French troops had been ferried to the Battle of the Marne in Parisian buses, the Third Brigade Combat Team of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division would join the Battle of Kamehameha Highway in a mix of pickup trucks, SUVs, and even a few minibuses from the local tour companies.

The next wave of cargo planes came down low, almost at sea level, staggered out in a long line, one behind another. As each plane raced down the length of the runway with its rear door open, a drogue parachute deployed out the back, caught the air, and then yanked out a large pallet. The plane then pulled up, its wheels never having touched the ground, and the pallet slid and bumped down the runway at over a hundred miles per hour before friction caused it to grind slowly to a stop. Teams of civilians directed by a paratrooper then swarmed over the pallet, tearing at thick belts strapping down everything from aviation-fuel bladders to combat vehicles. With all that extra manpower, the offloading went at least twice as fast as anticipated, and it freed up more forces for the frontlines. Adams heard Jacobsen yelling at the workers to prioritize the M1128 Stryker mobile-gun systems.¹⁰⁴ Damn, that boy was good. The eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicles each mounted a 105 mm tank gun, which meant Adams could soon start punching back, hard.

The most lethal supplies to come in on the pallets, though, were what looked like two ordinary fuel-tank trucks. In fact, the tanks were filled not with fuel but with a mix of resin-based binders. When sprayed down and smoothed out over the base of the old runway, the substance would form polyurethane polymer concrete.¹⁰⁵ After just thirty minutes of drying time, he would own the only operative airfield on the island.

Adams smiled at the thought, the first smile he’d allowed himself in months. It quickly died, though, when Jacobsen reached over with a handkerchief to dab away a thin trickle of drool dripping from the corner of the general’s still-numb mouth.

 

Boneyard Flight, Pacific Ocean

 

Roscoe fired a pair of AIM-120E AMRAAM air-to-air missiles¹⁰⁶ well before he could see the enemy planes. The twelve-foot-long missiles came cleanly off his plane’s fuselage stations and disappeared into the blue sky ahead. With so much radar and communications interference, these were the long shots. Shoot two, hope maybe to hit one. More usefully, they’d create a cover of fast-moving death for his jets to come in behind, throwing off whatever formation the enemy had planned.

He pushed the plane to afterburners, noticing a faint vibration in his ejection seat as his F-15C’s speed passed Mach 2. With no stealth features, the older planes would be at a disadvantage until they made this an up-close-and-personal knife fight. Plus the F-15C’s speed meant they could start their kill count before the slower Shrike drones arrived.

It all happened in seconds: a few explosions in the distance and closer alongside him as some of Eagle Flight were hit by the enemy’s counterfire, and then a swirl of smoke and contrails as fighters from three nations mixed it up.

Roscoe could focus only on his part of the fight, quickly firing a pair of AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles at two Russian MiG-35Ks less than a mile away, both of them banking hard as they tried to get inside the turn circle of another F-15. One missile went astray but the second smashed into the trailing jet’s tail section with an explosion that pitched the MiG’s nose skyward and then left a smoky scar in the sky. The other MiG fighter jet turned to escape, Roscoe following. As he turned, a faint puff of tracer rounds crossed in front of him; a Chinese J-31 fighter was boring through the chaos, its nose trained on Roscoe’s F-15. Before Roscoe could evade, one of the incoming rounds blew off the top of his left vertical stabilizer.

The F-15 shuddered and buffeted as the J-31 bird-dogged Roscoe, staying on his rear. Instinctively, the experienced pilot unloaded the jet. While one way to gain speed was to max engine power, the most effective way was essentially to trick physics into working for you. Roscoe slid the stick forward and put the aircraft into a shallow ten-degree dive. As the plane dipped slightly, it created a zero-g condition, essentially “unloading” weight from the plane, akin to going over the crest of a small hill in a bicycle and coming out of your seat. Acceleration is a matter of thrust and weight, and in that weightless moment, Roscoe’s F-15 powered ahead rapidly, leaving his attacker behind.¹⁰⁷

As Roscoe saw the airspeed indicator approaching the plane’s¹⁰⁸ structural design limits, he felt a sharp shudder, the damaged tail wing starting to crack. The jet’s designers hadn’t counted on the effect of a 30 mm cannon. As Roscoe pulled the stick up to lose speed, his radar-warning receiver howled: the J-31 was catching up to finish him off.

He pushed the throttles all the way forward, rolled the plane onto its back, and pulled the stick back into the seat pan. He hoped that the Directorate pilot would get greedy, cut across his turn circle, and provide him a reversal opportunity. It was a classic move, which, unfortunately, meant it was one the J-31 pilot had been trained to counter. Roscoe snuck a look over his shoulder and saw the Directorate plane stabilized at his deep six o’clock, between his tail.

Roscoe swung the plane back and forth, straining against the force of the turns, trying to ruin the J-31’s firing solution but knowing his bag of tricks was empty. His plane groaned with the turns. If a Chinese missile didn’t kill him, his jet would.

His flight suit compressed and fought the g-forces just as Roscoe pulled into another tight turn. The tunnel vision started, the perimeter of his field of vision beginning to shade inward from the massive pressure on his body. A gray form entered on the right side of his line of sight, just above his canopy, and then disappeared as the tunnel around him grew smaller and smaller. He was blacking out; he knew it.

Roscoe pulled out of the turn; the tunnel widened, and the heavy weight on his body lifted. His plane’s radar-warning receiver abruptly went silent. He craned his neck to see where the J-31 was. He couldn’t find it at first, and then he saw the matte-gray-and-blue Chinese fighter falling end over end toward the ocean below, trailing a thick plume of smoke and flame. Flying away was a Shrike. The wedge-shaped drone pulled an insanely tight turn that would have knocked out any human pilot, firing a missile at a MiG-35K in the midst of it. Even before that MiG exploded, the Shrike was already off hunting its next target, its autonomous programming relentless in its computerized efficiency.

“Little bastard didn’t even stop to see if I was okay,” said Roscoe, silently thanking the drone’s designers.

He checked his radar display, which was momentarily free of jamming strobes. He felt sick when he saw how empty the sky was of aircraft. In less than a minute, at least a hundred lives had been lost.

“Longboard, Longboard, this is Boneyard Leader. We’ve serviced most of your visitors, but I show eight leakers made it through our picket line. MiG-35Ks,” he said, trying to steady his voice as his plane bucked. “We’re going to run them down, but it looks like some bogeys are going to make it to you first, over.”

The four F-15s remaining in Eagle Flight took off in pursuit at almost nine hundred miles an hour, their maximum at low altitude. The low-fuel warning flashed in Roscoe’s cockpit. Going to afterburner so much would cost him the chance to get home, he thought, but that was beside the point at this stage of the game.

He visually picked up the Russian MiGs by the telltale signs of their missile launches. The remains of Eagle Flight had arrived too late.

“Jesus, that’s a lot of hurt,” said Roscoe to the other three pilots. “I count at least two dozen missiles.”

“At least thirty,” said Squiggle, the pilot in the F-15C flying off Roscoe’s right wing.

“Fire everything you have left. Use ’em or lose ’em!” Roscoe ordered.

He fired off his remaining AIM-9X, visually following it as it locked on one of the MiGs trailing the formation. The MiG was breaking upward, climbing for more altitude after launching its anti-ship missiles, when the Sidewinder exploded just aft of the jet.

“Eagle Flight, I’m Winchester,” Roscoe said, letting whoever was left know he was down to guns only.

He pushed his jet past the MiG flat-spinning into the waves below, maxing the power to try to run down the cruise missiles starting to accelerate into the distance. Above him, the Russian and American jets grappled in a final violent confrontation that took six Russian missiles and two more MiGs out of the sky but also resulted in the destruction of three of the four American F-15s.

He’d hoped to catch one of the missiles with a lucky shot from his guns, but his luck had run out; the F-15’s damaged vertical stabilizer broke away like a shingle in a hurricane. “So there’s me,” said Roscoe to himself as he struggled with the bucking plane.

He eyed the ocean below, looking for the driest spot to ditch in. The left engine began to sputter. His war would end now. Roscoe took his left hand off the stick and reached for the yellow metal bar by his knee on which his crew chief had jokingly written Do not touch! in felt-tip marker. The plane’s violent pitching made getting a grip on the ejection handle far harder than he’d expected.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

“Twenty-six missiles incoming, sir,” said Richter with the kind of detachment that often accompanies extreme fear. “ATHENA shows Port Royal counterfiring.”

While not of the same design, the Port Royal was a sister ship of sorts to the Z. She had been the youngest of the Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and one of the first with the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles¹⁰⁹ as part of the Navy’s Linebacker program. But in 2009, when it ran into a coral reef about half a mile from the Honolulu airport, the ship earned a new, cruel nickname. The Port Coral, as it became known, didn’t sink,¹¹⁰ but the extensive damage to the ship’s hull, propellers, and sonar dome put the U.S. Navy’s then youngest cruiser on the target list for early retirement to the Ghost Fleet.

The Port Royal fired a wave of SM-6 air-defense missiles that sped upward from the vertical launchers embedded in its deck. The missiles arced up and then pitched down toward the low-flying cruise missiles. A wave of RIM-162 Evolved Seasparrow¹¹¹ defensive missiles followed.

The collisions were almost instantaneous, showering the ocean surface with flame, fuel, and metal shards.

“I count that as fourteen hit, sir. We have twelve still incoming,” said the sailor.

“Full countermeasures and launch the Utah,” said Simmons.

A large metal canister that had been affixed to the Zumwalt’s stern separated from the ship with a loud bang. It popped thirty feet into the air and then dropped into the water with an anticlimactic splash, bobbing up and down.

Vern, who had been out on the deck checking a power-cable connection during a lull in the rail-gun fire, stopped to watch as the massive gray form the Z was leaving behind began inflating.

Mike ran up to her yelling, “We need to get back inside!”

Vern gave him a puzzled look and then returned her attention to the growing form, the words USS Utah unfurling on its side in white paint as it inflated. “What is it?”

“Now, Vern, move!” Mike half carried her roughly back to the shelter of the main superstructure. He steered her below decks and talked at the same time, occasionally pausing to catch his breath. “USS Utah¹¹² was an old World War One battleship. By the time of the first Pearl Harbor attack, it had been turned into a floating naval target ship for our own gunners to practice on. But when the Japanese attacked in ’41, their pilots saw what looked from above like a real battleship. The old Utah was sunk, but not before she soaked up a ton of bombs that the enemy could have used on other, better targets. Our Utah is supposed to do the same.”

As they descended deeper into the ship, the matte-gray bag behind the Z continued to expand until it formed the silhouette of a small warship, with metallic reflective squares on it enhancing its signature. With a jerk, the towline finally paid out a quarter mile behind the ship, and the Utah now followed the Zumwalt, matching its speed.

“Sir, ATHENA says the incoming missiles are selecting targets. Twenty seconds out,” said the sailor in the mission center.

“ATHENA, full autonomous mode! Authorization Simmons, Four, Seven, Romeo, Tango, Delta,” said Simmons quickly.

The ship’s laser-point defense fired first. There was no noise or visible light and only faint, almost delicate movements as the solid-state, high-energy laser¹¹³ fired. It was a moment of faith for the crew, as the weapon lacked the certainty of gunpowder. The ship’s laser-gun camera showed a small flame spark on the target as the hundred-kilowatt beam came into contact with it. The missile caught fire and sank into the water. Then ATHENA automatically directed it to track and fire on a second missile.

At the same time, two Metal Storm computerized machine-gun turrets on the Zumwalt’s port and starboard sides came out of sleep mode. The weapons started to move back and forth, tracking the incoming cruise missiles with what looked like a predator’s patience. Then they locked targets and fired. The brief electronic zipping sound the guns made when they fired was as anticlimactic as it was effective; thousands of bullets shot out all at the same instant.

The Russian Zvezda KH-31 missiles were programmed to feint and dodge as they flew just above the ocean surface in order to complicate a defense’s firing solution. That tactic was of no use against the Metal Storm, as the missiles flew right into what was almost literally a wall of bullets.

“Seven missiles left,” said the tactical action officer.

“Activate Utah’s radar beacon,” said Simmons.

The remaining seven missiles’ ramjets kicked in, accelerating them to nearly three times the speed of sound as they closed on the task force, flying just fifty feet above the rippling sea surface.

As another missile was plucked away by a laser fire, the missiles broke formation like a startled flight of birds. Their targeting program picked out the largest ships in the task force. Two missiles vectored off toward the Zumwalt; two turned for the USS New York,¹¹⁴ a twenty-five-thousand-ton amphibious transport dock ship; two homed in on the USS America.

Aboard the Zumwalt, the Metal Storm turrets zip-fired again, and one of the incoming missiles turning toward the America disappeared with a spray of shrapnel.

Simmons held his headset mike close to his mouth with one hand and braced himself against the railing of the ship mission center’s second story with the other, looking at the sailors below him. “All hands, all hands. Incoming missiles, prepare for impact.”

As the two missiles sped toward Zumwalt, one appeared to twitch. It broke off and slammed into the Utah, the missile’s electronic brain registering what a human brain would have felt as satisfaction when it found its supposed target. The decoy ship exploded with a massive eruption of air and water.

The second cruise missile stayed true to its targeting-software designer’s intent. It made a final course correction and then enveloped the Zumwalt in a bloom of orange flame. The explosion rocked the ship, sending a shock wave through the mission center and tossing the captain over the balcony’s railing.

When he came to, Simmons found himself on the lower level of the ship mission center. He pulled himself up by the arm of the radar operator’s chair. Richter reached over and gave him a hand and then turned back to her screens. His back ached, but otherwise he seemed fine. Less so the room. Two of the wall screens had fallen off their mounts, one hitting the tactical action officer, who looked to have a broken collarbone. Acrid smoke made Simmons’s eyes water.

“Somebody get the air back on,” he shouted. He looked for Cortez. He had been beside him a second ago, but now he was gone.

“XO! Damage report!” said Simmons.

The air started to clear in the room as the fans switched on, but the stink of fire and plastic remained. If they made it through, they were going to smell like this for weeks, Simmons mused.

“EV system back online, sir,” called Cortez. He tracked the ship’s self-diagnostics on his glasses. “Working on the damage report.”

The voice came from the room’s upper deck. Simmons raced back up the steps and saw Cortez kneeling, helping a sailor into his chair.

Cortez stood, straightened his glasses, and gave Simmons the battle-damage update as far as he knew it. The missile warhead had detonated just fore of the superstructure. The good news was all the fires were contained to the impact site, and ATHENA, propulsion, and radar were online.

The rest was bad news. The only operative external camera showed smoke and flame shrouding the ship’s forward superstructure, blackening the whole surface. The laser turret on that side had evidently popped out of its mount before it settled back into place. The shock of the explosion had knocked loose power cables across the ship.

“Damage-control team is already on the way,” he said. “Fire-bots and ship’s suppression system are operative.” Two more of the monitors flickered back on as more of the ship’s external cameras rebooted. The faces of both officers fell at the images.

The New York listed over on its port side, almost at a forty-five-degree angle to the water’s surface. The image zoomed in on the two smoldering holes in the sides of its hull, which were sucking more and more water into the bowels of the ship, dragging it down. Sailors leaped from the superstructure into the flaming waters around it, only to disappear as the ship rolled over on top of them.

Better off was the America, but not by much. The missile had apparently gone into the opening of its elevator lift. A delicate-looking mushroom cloud hung above the hole ripped in its flight deck. Secondary explosions from aviation fuel stored below punched jets of flame out into the air. Yet for all the smoke and fire, the ship looked steady in the water.

“How many?” said Simmons.

“New York had already disembarked most of their Marines, so ATHENA is reporting five-hundred-plus KIA or missing. America, another eight hundred and twenty-five. Those numbers will change as data updates,” Cortez replied softly.

“I meant our ship,” said Simmons.

“System shows seven dead, twenty-two wounded,” said Cortez. “Four missing.”

“My dad?” asked Simmons, lowering his voice. He squinted, suppressing something he did not want to feel now, or ever.

“No, sir. He’s registering as active¹¹⁵ with the damage-control team below decks,” said Cortez, placing his glasses on top of his head, transfixed by the sight of the hull of the now-capsized New York slipping under the waves.

Simmons didn’t allow himself to feel any relief at the news. He gripped the railing until the tendons in his hands surrendered to the pain. The discomfort cleared his head and focused his attention.

“Helmsman, move us over parallel to the America,” said Simmons. “They’re going to need our help fighting those fires.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Below Decks

 

Mike followed the caterpillar-like fire-bot down the smoky passageway, knowing it would lead him to where he was needed most.

“Hit it over there,” he heard Davidson say, his voice muffled through a smoke hood. Already the blaze was nearly under control. Brooks wielded an extinguisher, spraying foam and coolant on the seared metal and melted composite. Davidson gave the Mohawked kid a thumbs-up, the kind of silent compliment that meant the most to the young man. The fire-bot scooted ahead and detonated its fire-retardant-chemical payload near the Russian missile’s impact point.

As the smoke cleared, daylight from the irregular oval hole in the deck above them punched through with a spotlight’s intensity. Mike had Brooks spray the walls again, and he climbed up carefully to put his head through so he could see the deck-side damage. The missile appeared to have struck as the ship rolled, which deflected its blast skyward, not into the hull. The heat, though, had seared the entire superstructure, melting the composite material into something that looked more like cooled lava than the creased lines of the radar-deflecting design. He took in the wider view beyond, the Z edging closer to the burning USS America, two of its fire hoses spraying toward it. Mike looked down and spotted a figure splayed out on a litter being rushed somewhere by another sailor and a corpsman. It was Parker; the big sailor was crying as he tried to move a blackened arm. Mike rested his head on his forearm briefly, suddenly fatigued, and then began to climb down.

“Superstructure’s all melted to shit,” said Mike, pulling off his smoke hood. Davidson did the same, coughing slightly. Brooks left his hood on.

“Take off your hood, Mo, surgeon general’s orders. It’s not the smoking that’s going to kill you today,” said Mike, inhaling deeply.

Brooks reluctantly pulled the hood off and blinked bloodshot eyes.

Mike turned to Davidson. “We need to seal and reinforce that material up there; if we get into any kind of seas, it’s going to get wet down here fast.”

“When’s that going to happen?” said Davidson. “Chinese missiles don’t care about whatever sea state we’re in.”

“No,” said Mike. “But I do. Take care of the ship, and it’ll take care of you. You should know that by now.”

“We can slap some epoxy and Kevlar ply up there, then brace it. Sound good?” asked Davidson, digging in his right ear, trying to clear it.

“It’ll do,” said Mike. “Your ears okay?”

Davidson nodded and said, “Everything’s tinny-sounding. But don’t worry, Chief, I can still hear you if you need to chew my ass out.”

The radio slung over Mike’s right shoulder started to squawk. “Chief? This is the captain,” his son said, as if he needed to identify himself to his own father. “What’s your status? Over.”

“I’m okay, but we’re counting multiple wounded, mainly burns and broken bones and burst eardrums. We’ve got a hole about twelve foot wide and some fire and heat damage. You can kiss whatever stealth signature we had goodbye. Fortunately, the missile didn’t dig too deep. No structural damage that I can see. Main laser turret is going to need some major repair hours to get back into alignment, but we look to still be in business with the rail gun. I’ve got a damage-control party working on the hole. It’s above the water line, but I want it sealed up.”

“Thank you, Chief. I knew I could count on you,” his son said. Mike could hear the relief in his voice, and he wasn’t sure whether it was for him or for the role he was filling. Today, either would do.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

Captain Simmons felt a tap on his shoulder: Cortez letting him know they had finally gotten the link to the task force command network back up.

The video image filled the display screen, and Jamie looked at a grim-faced officer, Commander Alexander Anderson. Years ago, when he and Jamie were both just out of ROTC, they had served together onboard the USS Chafee. Anderson now had command of the Port Royal, which had pulled to the other side of the America and was adding the water from its fire hoses to help beat down the flames.

“Jamie, it’s good to see you in one piece,” said Anderson. The officer had a slim face and narrow shoulders, and his uniform always looked slightly oversize. It was as if any extra calories his body had went to fueling his legendary brain.

“Same here,” said Simmons. “Ship’s holding together. Crew too. We’re still in the fight. Any word from Admiral Murray?”

“She’s gone, sir,” said Anderson, shifting back to a formal tone now that he saw his old friend was unhurt. “Confirmed by the America’s quartermaster, a petty officer who seems to be all that’s left in command there. Reports all power out. She had to yell over to us with a bullhorn.” He paused. “Captain Simmons, you know what this means. If that petty officer is right, and we have to assume she is, at this point . . . with Admiral Murray dead, and Captain Brookings on the America . . .”

“I’m task force commander . . .” Simmons said, realizing what Anderson was saying.

“Yes, sir,” said Anderson. “Longboard is yours. We’re in good hands, I know it.”

The two of them went silent for a few seconds as the moment sank in, and then they turned to business.

“With your permission, sir, I’d like to begin evacuating the America’s crew.”

Simmons nodded even as he was trying to make up his mind.

“I don’t like the idea of scuttling a ship still afloat,” Anderson continued, “but I like the idea of towing a forty-thousand-ton weight with an enemy fleet coming in behind us even less.”

Simmons finally realized what Anderson assumed their next course of action would be.

“We are not leaving behind either America or the Marines onshore,” said Simmons. “We will evacuate the wounded off the ship, but hold this line of position¹¹⁶ until our main fleet or the enemy’s arrives, whichever happens first.”

Anderson shifted slightly sideways, as if he did not quite believe what he was seeing and hearing. His eyes squinted and his brow wrinkled in what Simmons recognized was an eloquent objection forming, the kind of argument they might have had back in the Chafee’s wardroom when they were young officers. Then the look washed away, and Anderson nodded with an exaggerated bob of his head.

“Yes, sir,” he said.

“We have to locate the enemy,” said Simmons. “It’s that simple. I’m ordering Orzel out on picket duty and deploying all our Fire Scouts to maximum range. And God help us if they don’t find what’s out there coming for us.”

 

Vicinity of USS America, Pacific Ocean

 

He’d been close to greatness, thought Denisov. And yet now here he was, wondering whether he should try to take off his flight boots for added buoyancy. He slowly kicked his legs, knowing he was too far offshore to do anything but drift until something ate him or one of the American ships in the near distance plucked him from the water.

He lay back against the collar of his inflated life vest, watching the strange, thin, wedge-shaped American drones circle high overhead. They were now flying a combat air patrol against an airstrike that wouldn’t come. “I was it, you stupid abtomat,¹¹⁷ there’s no more!” he screamed. Mindless machines, but lethal; he had to give them that.

A tingling at the back of his neck made him spin around. Seen from thousands of feet in the air, the Pacific looked inviting. But floating in it, he thought these waters were as dark and foreboding as his worst nightmare. Something was nearby, he could feel it.

An enormous black shape slowly moved through the sea maybe thirty yards beneath him. It surfaced a few hundred feet away, puffed a blast of air, and then went back under. No shark could be that big. He sighed with relief. A humpback whale, perhaps, content to eat krill, not Russian pilots.

He was alone for a little while longer. He was close enough to see the still-smoking USS America, and he was confident the little aircraft carrier had been the one his missile had hit. He watched the chiseled form of a massive destroyer pull alongside it; sailors appeared to be tethering the ships together. He recognized it as a Zumwalt-class ship and decided instead that had been the one his missile had hit; far better to have hit the more exotic creature with his last shot.

With his eyes stinging from the salt and sun, Denisov watched the litters of wounded men and women being passed off the burning America via ziplines strung between the two vessels. The sailors were bound up like mummies as they traveled from their dying ship to another with an uncertain future.

From the stern of the strange-looking ship, three small forms lifted off. When they formed up, he identified them as MQ-8 Fire Scout drones, scaled-down helicopters with pinched noses that looked like they had never made it out of aviation adolescence. Another two lifted off from the ship tethered to the other side of the America; some kind of cruiser or destroyer, he couldn’t tell.

The drone helicopters paused in formation and then each set off in a different direction, looking like foraging steel wasps. They flew low, hugging the waves. One of the Fire Scouts flew almost directly overhead, the drone oblivious to Denisov as the force of its rotor’s downdraft pushed him under the waves. At that moment, Denisov realized that maybe the Americans wouldn’t come for him.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

The tactical holograph still hadn’t come back on, so the fuzzy image was carried across the entire bank of monitors on the wall. Given how the holographic projectors seemed to get knocked offline in every fight, Simmons wondered why they even bothered with the finicky high-tech contraptions. The grainy image they were watching looked like one of those old low-resolution YouTube videos.

“Sir, the task force is a mix of Chinese and Russian ships,” said the Zumwalt’s intelligence officer. “And ATHENA agrees, based on the EM signatures the Fire Scout is picking up.”

The live image kept shaking as if somebody were swatting at the drone, but the shaking was only the drone’s autonomous-flight software keeping the rotorcraft as low as possible to the waves, dipping into the troughs between them for cover.

“Freeze that for me,” said Simmons. The image on the screen locked, and the officer zoomed in on the superstructure of a large ship that the long-range camera had picked up on the upward ride of a wave.

“What a beast. That’s gotta be the Zheng He.”

“Yes, sir. Looks like it,” said the intelligence officer. He moved the still image of the massive Chinese capital ship off to one screen and resumed the live camera view. The video feed began to jiggle and shake, and the Fire Scout picked up speed, giving up its cover, as the wind shifted and the troughs of the waves grew shallow. It was a panic move, the robot’s algorithms having run out of good options to evade detection.

The shaking image then showed a series of smoky trails lifting up from the task force and flying toward the camera.

“Uh-oh” was all the intelligence officer could say before the image blanked out.

Cortez spoke up, reading from his glasses, as Simmons watched the replay of the Fire Scout’s frantic final moments.

“Between the visuals and SIGINT collection, ATHENA is reporting it as seven surface ships: three Sovremenny-class anti-surface destroyers,¹¹⁸ two Type Fifty-Four frigates,¹¹⁹ one Luyang-class guided missile destroyer,¹²⁰ and a battle cruiser, most likely the Admiral Zheng He. They’re making twenty-five knots. They’re likely coming at us off a loose fix they got from the air attack.”

Simmons took in the small amount of information he had and realized he needed to think like an admiral and consider the entire Longboard task force, not just his own ship.

“But where are their carriers?” said Simmons out loud, mostly to himself.

“No further information, sir,” said Cortez. “ATHENA can run some models to guess where they are, but it’ll essentially be throwing the same darts at the wall as we are.”

“We’ll take what we can get. We need to hit that task force while we can. Release Puffin batteries,” said Simmons.

Cortez barked out the orders. The lines linking them to America were fed out to give space between the two ships. Then the deck hatches for the Zumwalt’s vertical launch cells all flipped up simultaneously, revealing a line of dark openings, each twenty-eight inches wide. One after another, a series of thirteen-foot-long cruise missiles, eighty in total, popped out from the vertical launch cells, like untethered jack-in-the-boxes.

Originally known as the Naval Strike Missile,¹²¹ the Puffin was a stealthy replacement for the old Penguin missile.¹²² Though it flew under the speed of sound, the Norwegian-designed missile could evade radar detection and had a range of more than 180 miles, which made it lethal, especially when fired in great numbers.

The missiles seemed to hang in the air for an instant as their solid-fuel rocket boosters ignited, and then they arced off into the sky. When their boosters burned out, they were jettisoned in a rain of metal that bombarded the water below. The missiles then raced through the sky powered by turbojet engines that took them at just over five hundred miles per hour to the general vicinity of the Fire Scout’s last known location. Each Puffin then began autonomously hunting, using its own imaging infrared seeker to match anything it saw against an onboard database of authorized targets.

It was a ship’s wake that gave the enemy’s fleet away. A Puffin missile at the far end of the spread detected the faint V-shaped lines of white foam on the ocean surface and began to circle in the area. An FL-3000 Red Banner¹²³ short-range air-defense missile rose up to knock it down, but not before the Puffin had shared its data with the rest of the flock and beckoned them to join in.

One by one, the other missiles began to converge on the area. Three more Puffins were sacrificed to defensive missiles, establishing the perimeter of the task force’s defenses. The robotic swarm¹²⁴ then circled, just out of range, with machine patience as more and more missiles joined. While they waited, though, the task force below fired off its own volley of cruise missiles at the Puffins’ point of departure.

 

Admiral Zheng He Bridge

 

Admiral Wang now knew his gamble had been the right one; the instant that the garbled radio calls from Hawaii had burned through the Americans’ jamming, his staff had looked at him with new esteem. He truly was the equal of the ancient strategist with whom he had seemed to be conversing before them.

Yet he also knew that the way history would remember this moment depended on all the powers and tools now beyond the realm of human plans. Even the great leaders of old could not have understood this era.

“How many of our cruise missiles were we able to get off at their force?” he asked his aide.

“Sixty-nine, sir,” said the aide, nervously looking at the gathering swarm of American missiles, blurs on the horizon, as they circled the task force. Then, seeming to make up their machine minds, the swarm of American missiles began to approach at sea-skimming level from all directions of the compass. The missiles operated in unison, all turning inward simultaneously, but each individual missile made small, slight hops up and down, randomized maneuvers designed to throw off targeting locks.

“It should be sufficient,” said Wang calmly. “More than enough to make this our day in the end.”

Another wave of Red Banner missiles was loosed at the Puffins, which were now coming within range, followed by the machine cannon opening fire. The Zheng He mounted three Type 1170 close-in defense systems, each with an eleven-barrel 30 mm machine cannon. But the cannon were now indistinguishable from one another, merging into a single tearing sound as all thirty-three gun barrels fired at once.

Wang offered a look of calm and put his hand on his aide’s shoulder as if to reassure him, buying himself a few seconds to take in the scene.

Three angry red fingers pointed out from the ship, followed by scores more. The tracer rounds from the other 30 mm gun systems throughout the fleet were visible even in the bright of day. The way the lines waved and weaved through the clouds of white smoke exhaust left by the defensive missiles reminded Wang of his grandchildren playing with flashlights in the dark. He didn’t need to monitor the count on the display screen to know its hard truth: not all of the enemy’s swarm could be shot down before they began diving toward their targets.

The Puffins came in low, designed to detonate their 275-pound warheads just at the water line of the targets. A sickening series of booms began, one after another, in quick succession. Wang watched a pair of missiles disappear from sight as they slammed into the Huangshi, a Type 54A frigate, rupturing its bow with a fiery spout. The open bow filled with water as the ship plowed forward, its momentum ensuring its demise. As the bow went deeper into the waves, the frigate’s stern lifted, flashing its spinning props. Then the Huangshi’s steel hull shook from an internal explosion, likely a detonation in its engine room.

“‘If one is not fully cognizant of the evils of waging war, he cannot be fully cognizant either of how to turn it to best account,’”¹²⁵ he quoted Sun-Tzu aloud. No one heard him above the noise.

His eyes caught a blur of movement, and then the entire Zheng He shuddered and the klaxons rang out. A damage-control display showed a strike in the far stern. He walked the bridge deck to assess, his view obscured by smoke. Then the wind shifted and blew the smoke in the other direction, revealing a ten-meter hole of twisted metal and a small fire burning in the deck below. Not sufficient to take them out of action.

Wang turned away from the scene to see how the fleet’s other ships were faring. His role was to stay above it all, to maintain his wits while others let the moment consume them.

As he panned his binoculars, the Admiral Ushakov, one of the massive Sovremenny-class destroyers the Russians had sent, was settling in the water, four open holes along the portside water line. It would not survive, he knew.

But Wang also knew that its missile batteries were already empty, eight of the cruise missiles in the counterbarrage already on their way to the American fleet. He walked back to his ready room. The human decisions had been made; all he could do now was wait with composure.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

Simmons silently observed the video feed on one of the wall monitors displaying his father’s damage-control party rushing to apply what was essentially a bandage to the composite superstructure, covering up the missile impact point near the laser turret with epoxy. He knew what his father was thinking, that it was fortunate the stinging chemical binders were more powerful than whatever smells were wafting over from the sad stink of the America.

“Sir, we’ve got sixty-plus targets incoming,” said the radar officer. “Flight profile of cruise missiles. Arrival within two minutes.”

On another monitor, Simmons watched as a wounded sailor in a litter being carried across the void between the two hulls started to scream and wave his arms. The litter stopped and then reversed direction, pulled back toward the America. He couldn’t blame them. They knew what was coming for all of them, and he would have wanted to end his days on his own ship too.

The Port Royal tossed lines and began to pull away from the America at flank speed.

“Detach lines from the America?” asked Cortez.

“No, we’re staying here. America can’t take another hit; that’s our job now,” said Simmons. “That’s why I placed our damaged side on the interior.”

The screen showed the Port Royal firing a long series of SM-6 missiles and then disappearing behind a cloud of brown smoke from its own weapons fire.

“Captain, she fired off her entire magazine,” said the Zumwalt’s tactical action officer. “First intercept in twenty-five seconds.”

“We’re back where we started, it seems,” said Simmons to Cortez. The XO knew he was referring to the attack they’d weathered together at Pearl Harbor.

“Maybe they need to put us on different ships next time, sir,” said Cortez, offering a smile.

“I’ll make sure of it,” said Simmons. “You’ll get your own ship after this.”

“Splash seven bogeys,” said the radar officer, narrating the Port Royal’s progress in whittling down the enemy cruise missiles. As he spoke, he made gentle waving movements with his right arm, using a cuff on his forearm¹²⁶ to switch between the system’s radar bands to cover all the incoming data.

As the enemy’s missiles advanced closer, the various assault ships in range fired off medium- and short-range Seasparrow and Rolling Airframe missiles¹²⁷ in hopes of plinking more of the cruise missiles.

“Eleven enemy missiles left,” the radar officer reported.

“ATHENA, full autonomous mode! Authorization Simmons, Four, Seven, Romeo, Tango, Delta,” said Simmons.

The smallest weapons became the most important once again. On the Port Royal, the revolving 20 mm Gatling guns of the ship’s close-in weapons system added the metallic roar of a chainsaw biting into metal.

On the Zumwalt, the undamaged laser-point defense turret fired steadily. The twin Metal Storm guns tracked the incoming missiles and fired another wall of bullets into their path. They pivoted, reactivated, and again fired off thousands of rounds in the time it took to clap your hands once.

“Metal Storm magazines emptied. We’re out,” said the weapons officer. “Five incoming missiles left: two at us, two at Port Royal, and one’s split off for the San Antonio,” he said, indicating the closest of the amphibious ships they’d been trying to screen.

“We could get your dad out on deck and have him throw up a screen of foul language,” said Cortez.

Simmons looked at Cortez, taking in his relaxed demeanor. The XO became more poised as the situation worsened. Simmons realized that Cortez was the kind of officer he himself had always wanted to be.

He reached out and gripped the young officer’s artificial arm. “It’s been an honor.”

 

North of Oahu, Pacific Ocean

 

Roscoe Coltan cursed at his raft for the hundredth time as it nearly swamped when he tried to get on his knees for a better view of the ships. He recognized the big one that looked like a jagged piece of metal as the Zumwalt, the fleet’s ugly duckling, he’d heard. It was tied up next to a mini–aircraft carrier that poured smoke into the air.

In the distance there was the shriek of engines coming in low: cruise missiles. A flash of light as a Gatling gun of some kind fired from one of the other ships, an Aegis destroyer of some sort. Then the water all around him burst into hundreds of ripples. He didn’t know whether to cheer the weapons on or curse them until one of the missiles exploded.

“Splash one, assholes!” Roscoe cheered.

He stared at the silent Zumwalt, willing the ship to offer up some defense. “C’mon, brothers, do something!”

Suddenly there were two simultaneous explosions on the aft and bow sections of the Zumwalt. The sound of the twin detonations reached him a moment later.

Another thundering crash in the direction of the Aegis ship followed.

Seeing the smoke pouring from the ships was as painful as seeing his own jet spiral into the ocean after his ejection. Roscoe felt his eyes well up and held his head in his hands. His entire Boneyard Flight was gone. Nobody remained under his command. And now the ships they had given their lives to protect were on the verge of going under. He was alone.

Except he wasn’t. He took off his helmet and ran a finger over the red-and-black lightning bolts that lined the crest.

Then he braced himself, leaned over the side of the raft, and scooped up a helmet full of water. Then again. And again.

The paddling was slow going, but he told himself he wasn’t going to stop until he reached the Zumwalt. The Navy clearly still needed his help.

 

USS Zumwalt, Below Decks

 

The unconscious sailor outweighed Vern by at least a hundred pounds, but that did not stop her from trying to drag him by his ankles away from the flames at the end of the passageway. She could manage only five feet before she had to stop and catch her breath in the dark. Gagging on sharp smoke, she strained to put more distance between them and the fire. She hoped she was going toward safety, but anything was better than where she was coming from.

As she struggled on, coughing, she watched two fire-bots worm their way past her and advance into the swirl of flames and toxic smoke ravaging the room. They detonated their fire retardant and began tagging the bodies they found with strobes, giving the room a disorienting celestial look.

“Here, Dr. Li,” said Brooks, coming up from behind her. “We’re gonna do this together.”

She nodded and continued to strain against the weight of the limp body.

“On three, here we go,” said Brooks, lifting the man under his arms. “You keep on the feet there.”

In the light of the strobes, she could see the unconscious man was wearing coveralls, seared black in places so that the fabric had melted against the pale skin on his legs. She could not yet see his face.

“Shit, is this the chief?” said Brooks.

Vern blinked a tear as she knelt forward and caught the smell of leather and bay rum mixing with burned plastic and singed hair.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

Simmons tried to focus on the face staring at him from the wall screen.

The man spoke before Simmons could remember his name.

“Jesus, Jamie, I’m looking at the Z. Half the ship is on fire!” the man said.

“Still afloat,” said Simmons slowly, still not sure who he was talking to. “Give me your situation.”

“We took one amidships. Fires are contained, but we’re down to fifteen knots, maximum. More important, we shot our wad in that last volley,” the man said. “Our missile magazines are spent. I’ve got the CIWS, which have only a few more fires left. After that, spitballs is all we’ve got to shoot down missiles.”

The fog lifted. Anderson. The USS Port Royal.

“Well done, in any case. Tell your crew they saved a lot of ships today,” said Simmons.

The Zumwalt’s fire-control officer shouted: “Sirs, we have an incoming target. It looks to be a surveillance drone. We’re jamming its radar, but it’ll be in visual range in four minutes. I’m tasking the Shrikes to shoot it down.”

Simmons opened his mouth to speak, then pursed his lips in thought.

“Belay that order. Let it see us,” said Simmons.

“Say again, sir?” said Anderson, worry showing in the crow’s-feet around his eyes.

“They already know where we are. I want them to see us this way,” said Simmons.

 

Admiral Zheng He, Admiral Wang’s Stateroom

 

The door to his stateroom shuddered, but fortunately not from another explosion, just his aide’s knock.

Admiral Wang’s aide entered, carrying a tablet computer.

“Sir, I am sorry to disturb you during your contemplation, but we have new reconnaissance information. One of the Soar Eagles launched from Guam at your order has finally entered the area. It is beaming back information line of sight to us.”

The Soar Dragon¹²⁸ was a derivative of the U.S. Global Hawk unmanned aerial spy plane. The original American drone was a large spy plane, its wingspan greater than a 737 jetliner’s, built to replace the manned U-2. Chinese designers had added a few flourishes, sweeping the wings back to attach to the tail. Looking like a plane crossed with a kite, their version had a better lift-to-drag ratio¹²⁹ and less complex flight controls. But the tradeoff was that the engine had to be mounted above the tail, as in a commuter jet, giving the Soar Eagle a slow cruising speed.

As he scanned the images of warships smoking and sinking, Wang thought the wait was almost worth it. The only ships unscathed were the slow, toothless American transport vessels now waiting to be scooped up.

“Show me this one,” said Wang, tapping the image of the largest warship in the task force. It was immediately recognizable as their novel Zumwalt class. So the Americans had indeed brought back their strange experiment, just as the intelligence reports had claimed. It confirmed all his assumptions that this was the last victory the Directorate would need, just as he had argued to the Presidium. Using a ship like that was simultaneously an act of innovation and of desperation. Indeed, the same was true of the Americans’ entire operation today.

The image zoomed in on the massive ship, tied up next to one of their stricken small helicopter carriers. The warship was indeed sleek and lethal-looking, but it was now dead in the water, smoking from what looked to be at least three missile strikes. Smoldering steel debris littered its deck, blocking its main gun turret.

He walked toward the bridge using the exterior gangway. Taking the longer route gave him the chance to breathe in the fresh air, to savor the salinity and the moment itself. He fished in his pants pocket for a stim tab and unwrapped it, then tossed the foil bubble into the wind. He had resisted taking one at the beginning of the battle, the need to exude calm being paramount. Now was the time for energetic aggression.

“‘Prize the quick victory,¹³⁰ not the protracted engagement,’” he quoted to the aide. “Signal to the task force for all ships to advance at flank speed. It is time to close in for the kill and end this war.”

 

USS Zumwalt, Below Decks

 

Mike peered into the dark hallway, inhaling deeply from the firefighting breathing unit. Until they could vent the unit, the air was too toxic for anyone to spend time here, but the louvered covers on the vent openings had melted shut and it was going to take some doing, or at least a few minutes with a crowbar, to get those back open.

“Bridge, this is damage-control team. Bridge, this is damage-control team,” said Mike. His voice echoed inside the firefighting mask.

“Glad you’re okay, Chief,” said a familiar voice. “What do you have for me?”

“Good to hear you too, son . . . sir. The news isn’t good. Multiple casualties, more than I can keep track of. Starboard-side superstructure is melting; the composite just can’t handle the hits and the heat. It’s still a mess at the laser turret, and debris is blocking the rail gun’s movement. That’s not the real problem for the gun, though. Those shots took down the whole auxiliary power network. We’ve got break points across the ship,” said Mike. “The VLS, well, we’re not going to get our deposit back. Most of the cell hatches look like they got peeled back with a rusty can opener. But there’s something worse away from the impact points. We’ve got reports of leaks below decks, and the superstructure and hull seam look iffy on the starboard, right below the helo deck.”

“What’s the good news?” said Simmons.

“Ship’s afloat, and we’re still breathing, you and I,” his father responded.

“We need the ship in the fight. How long before I can get the laser and rail gun back online?” said the captain.

“Martin will be graduating college before that laser’s back in business. Ninety minutes at least on the rail gun to clear it, and even then, who knows. But I’m not sure you heard me . . . sir. We’re taking on water below. Even if it works, we can’t shoot the rail gun and keep the ship afloat with no auxiliary power. We gotta have power for the pumps.”

“Chief, just get the rail gun back online,” said Simmons.

“Aye, Captain,” said Mike. He paused and then added, “Or should I say Admiral? Heard you got a promotion.”

“Not really,” said Simmons.

“Well, congratulations either way,” said Mike. “Wear it proud. I am.”

“Just get the rail gun ready, Chief,” said Simmons. “We’re counting on you all down there.”

Mike turned to address the crew, most of whom were working slowly, unable to shake their dazed looks.

“You heard the captain. Take stim tabs if ya got ’em, and then let’s get to work,” said Mike. “Brooks, have your team concentrate on getting this debris cut away topside. Dr. Li, you’re with me, we’re going to unfuck this wiring. Captain wants us back in the fight, and we’re not going to let him down.”

The crew scattered, foraging in their pockets for whatever stims they had left, not thinking about the last time they had had something to eat or a stretch of calm to sleep.

Vern, her hair matted with sweat, began to head down the passageway toward the rail-gun turret, but then she stopped and turned, her face angry.

“I thought I found you—your body,” said Vern.

“Doesn’t seem like it,” said Mike.

“It was Davidson,” said Vern. “He’s gone.”

“You confused me with that reeking tub of guts?” said Mike, knowing his old friend wouldn’t want him to answer any other way.

She reached into a pocket on her vest just below her heart and pulled out two square foil packets. “This thing’s stocked like a pharmacy,” she said, handing one of the stim tabs to Mike.

He shook his head. “Not sure my heart can take it. I think, though, when we get back to shore I’ll have a stiff drink. I think we’ve earned it.”

“It’s a date, then.” She smiled.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

If it was possible to be calm aboard a sinking ship, the Z’s crew was managing it. There was a studiousness in the mission center, as if the hull breaches below decks were the least of their problems. And to the captain of the Zumwalt, they were.

Cortez was below decks, checking on the largest breach. One of the monitors near the captain’s chair, which Simmons still hated using, showed the view from Cortez’s glasses. It was just aft and below where the superstructure joined the hull, a foot-long opening two inches wide. The worry was that it had ripped open on its own, almost like bark peeling from a tree. There were sure to be more such breaches soon.

“Sir, we’ve got a homing-pigeon drone coming in. It’s from the Orzel,” said the communications officer.

“Let’s have it,” said Simmons, feeling his stomach knot. If the Poles, safely hidden away beneath the ocean’s surface, had broken cover to pass along a message, it had to be bad news.

“‘Three enemy carriers detected,’” the officer read. “‘Quadrant seventy-four X, fifty-six G. The Shanghai¹³¹ and two Admiral Kuznetsov–class carriers, one believed to be the Russian original and the other the Liaoning,¹³² accompanied by five escort ships. Will engage after communications drone launches.’” The communications officer stumbled through the next sentence. “‘Za wolność Naszą i Waszą. For our freedom and yours.’”

“Anything more?” said Simmons.

“That’s all we have, sir,” said the officer. “Database has the closing lines as something from their history, a saying by doomed Polish resistance fighters.”

Simmons was silent, thinking not of the Polish sailors, he shamefully realized, but of the need to decide the next course of action.

“Order the combat air patrol to that quadrant,” said Simmons.

The tactical action officer cleared his throat before speaking in a parched voice: “Sir, they’re armed only for air-to-air. They’ll be able to engage the remaining enemy planes, but that’s it. They’re not carrying any bombs or anti-ship ordnance.”

“You neglected to mention that tasking out our combat air patrol will also leave us naked without overhead cover,” said Simmons.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good; don’t be afraid to challenge me when it is needed. Just not too often,” said Simmons. “I understand your concern, but they’re an asset we have to use, in this case just like the original designers of drones intended. Deadly, but disposable. Order them out, command protocol Divine Wind.”¹³³

 

Fifty-Five Miles Northwest of the Zumwalt, Pacific Ocean

 

The remaining Shrikes climbed steeply up to sixty-five thousand feet and raced toward the coordinates provided by the Orzel. They flew in a tight stack of wedges, each pilotless aircraft programmed to hold itself exactly seventeen inches away from the next. The distance had been chosen by the Shrike software designer after reading that the closest that human pilots would risk was the eighteen inches of distance that Blue Angels pilots put between their planes during their Diamond 360 maneuver.¹³⁴ The effect was to blur the drones’ already small radar signatures into one.

Within minutes, the formation crossed the white wakes of the Russian and Chinese surface-ship formation, arced out in a wide curve.

They relayed the image back to the bridge of the Zumwalt.

“Sir, we have a video burst from the flight. They’ve got visuals on the enemy surface task force. Looks like the Puffin missiles took out three of the smaller ships, but four biggies, including the Zheng He, are steaming in our direction at flank speed, fifty-five miles out,” said the tactical officer. “We’re in their missile range now. I’m not sure why they haven’t fired again.”

“They’re likely as low on missile stocks as we are,” said Simmons. “Looks like they’re planning on making it personal, finishing us off with guns.”

“Redirect the drone flight at them?” said the tactical officer.

“No, taking out the enemy’s remaining carriers is more important than even us,” said Simmons. “Proceed as planned.”

The drones flew onward past the surface ships, indifferent to both the tension that this bypass caused the American fleet and the relief it gave to the surface ships below.

 

Admiral Zheng He Bridge

 

The shouting on the bridge of the Admiral Zheng He subsided as the aircraft flew on. It had not been visible, but radar had initially picked it up at over thirteen miles overhead. They tried to shoot it out of the sky but it was impossible to get a radar lock. That it had not come in low pointed to its being one of the Americans’ surveillance aircraft, perhaps one of their rumored high-altitude drones. They passed on the information to the aircraft carrier element’s combat air patrol and ordered a pair of fighters to intercept.

A single surveillance plane would confirm the surface screening force’s position to the Americans. But they would also know it didn’t matter. His force was closing in on the remains of the U.S. task force to finish them off. Any kind of follow-up attack from the American mainland would come too late. They were alone, soon to be cut off, and as vulnerable as any enemy commander could hope. It would be an absolute victory, the kind Sun-Tzu had written about but never achieved in his own career.

Wang considered for a moment that perhaps, once his staff reviewed his command footage and records, he should write his own book.

 

USS Zumwalt, Forward Rail-Gun Turret

 

It was like being back on one of those road trips, the kids in the back seat of the station wagon constantly asking the same question over and over.

“Damage crew, how much longer?” said Captain Simmons into the radio.

Yet it also nagged the old man that it had taken this kind of moment for him to see his son at his best.

Mike took in the showers of welding sparks raining down onto the crew below decks frantically trying to repair the rail-gun loading mechanism and the power cable connections.

“Twenty minutes,” said Mike.

“You have ten. That battle cruiser mounts one-hundred-thirty-millimeter main guns with a fifteen-mile range. You taught me boxing, so you know that I need that rail gun to be punching at them before we get inside their swing.”

“If we’re going to fight the rail gun, Vern says we really are going to need to power down the bilge and auxiliary pumps. We can’t do that, sir, not now. This ship wasn’t designed to take hits. Big, top-heavy design like this, we risk taking on too much water and we’ll roll.”

“Chief, I understand. Just focus on your job and I’ll do mine.”

The little bastard is even starting to talk like me, thought Mike.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

The display on the far wall showed the rail-gun turret free of the debris, but then a spray of sparks shot out from one of the holes punched in the deck. Out leaped Brooks; his work overalls were already singed at the legs, and now they were blackened about the shoulders. He was literally smoking. He threw an acetylene cutting torch down on the deck and cursed, first at the malfunctioning tool, then at the hole in the ship, and then at something in the distance, evidently the enemy fleet. Then the young sailor picked up the tool and went back into the hole. In that action, Jamie saw his father’s influence.

“Sir, we’ve got a contact burning through the jamming. It must be close,” Richter at the radar station said. “Yes, I have the enemy task force at forty miles out. Four ships, one capital-ship size. That must be the Zheng He.”

The rail-gun turret tried again to swivel, but it just shook back and forth like a muzzled dog. Sneaking peeks up from their workstations, the crew whispered, getting visibly anxious.

Simmons cued his headset again, leaning forward to get a better look. “Damage control, how much longer is it going to take?”

“Jamie, I am not trying to assemble your goddamn bicycle on Christmas Eve! Just leave us alone and we’ll get it fixed,” said Mike.

A few of the crew stifled laughs as the conversation played out on the room’s speakers. Simmons grimaced in exasperation and shook his head, throwing the headset at the deck.

“Radar’s picked them up, sir. Thirty-nine miles now,” said Richter. “I’m guessing they’ve developed the same tactical picture we have. They’re now closing directly at us at flank speed.”

 

138 Miles Northwest of the Zumwalt, Pacific Ocean

 

The two Chinese J-31 fighter jets from the task force’s combat air patrol elevated to follow the incoming target and then went to afterburner to close for a firing solution.

The pilots were angry. They hadn’t been sent on the strike mission against the enemy fleet, which had most likely kept them from dying, but it left them furious at their impotence, all the more so when their wing mates didn’t return. And now, twenty thousand feet below, the Liaoning, the carrier they had launched from, their home for the last two years, had smoke spilling out of its stern. A submarine had somehow snuck close enough to fire off a torpedo before the destroyer escort had sunk it. They had been bystanders yet again, powerless against an attack that had left their home listing badly to starboard. They were unsure if they would be able to land on it at the end of their patrol or if they would have to divert to one of the other carriers. That was a question to be answered later, though. Now, at least they could vent their fury on the American drone.

The lead pilot radioed that the radar signature of the surveillance drone coming in above them at seventy-seven thousand feet was strange. It didn’t fit any profile in the recognition software, which conformed with the report from the surface-fleet element. He fired a long-range PL-12 air-to-air missile¹³⁵ at it, and then a second one, just for good measure.

Moments later, there was an explosion above in the distance, followed by another. And yet the radar signature stayed on his screen. Still climbing altitude to close for visual range, his wing mate fired off a PL-10 short-range heat-seeking missile as added insurance.

As the fighter jets reached their maximum altitude of sixty thousand feet, they saw what looked like the silhouette of an arrowhead falling from the sky, a triangular drone of some sort diving back down to their level. At sixty-two thousand feet, when the third missile reached the target, its proximity warhead exploded a spray of metal shrapnel a mere hundred feet away. The arrowhead was clearly hit, showing a burst of orange flame and then smoke trailing as it fell toward them.

Yet as the arrowhead passed by them, the damaged drone seemed to shed a layer; a smoking plane peeled off. The rest of the triangular drone continued to dive at maximum speed at the task force below. As the two pilots pushed their fighter jets down to follow, straining against the g-forces as they lost altitude, their threat warnings began to sound. Somehow in the midst of its steep dive, the drone below had fired off six Sidewinder missiles, which turned and raced back up at them. They attempted to pull out, but it was too late.

The air-defense systems on the ships below tried to pick up a radar lock, but while the fighter pilots had had a silhouette view of the drones, the systems were faced with only thin, sixteen-inch wing edges coated with radar-absorbent material. At thirty thousand feet, a firing solution finally crystalized, but just as the system locked, the target seemed to dissolve. The Shrike drones spread out from one another, a closed network among them sharing a targeting algorithm that ensured they did not all select the same destination point. Lookouts on the ships began to visually pick out what looked like seven thin lines falling down toward them. At twenty-three thousand feet, one of the lines disappeared in an explosion, hit by a rising air-defense missile.

When the drones were at twenty thousand feet, the task force’s machine cannon opened up, and their tracer bullets tried to connect with six thin, sixteen-inch wedges from miles away. The drones maxed their power, creating sonic booms that fell behind them as they accelerated well past the speed of sound.

Another drone was hit at a range of six thousand feet, leaving the five remaining Shrikes to reapportion their targets in the final seconds of their terminal fall. Flying down at maximum speed from almost directly overhead, an arrowhead slammed into the flight deck of each of the two undamaged carriers. The speed of the dive combined with the drone’s mass drove each robotic kamikaze deep into the bowels of the ship. From five decks below, fiery explosions shot out through the gaping holes they had left. Then the explosions traveled across the length of the carriers, turning them into massive fireballs.

The listing Liaoning turned out to be the lucky one. The remaining Shrike hit its flight deck at an angle. It punched straight through the tilted flight deck and then went out through the hangar deck and into the sea below. The drone felt no disappointment at its failure to completely sink its target, just as its wing mates felt no pride at their success.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

“Sir, Port Royal is requesting to be released from escort duty so it can advance on the enemy force.”

“Permission denied. That battle cruiser’s main gun range is two miles longer than the Port Royal’s gun. They’ll just stand off and pound the Port Royal, especially at that reduced speed. You heard the old man on the radio. Let’s give him a little more time before we play the martyr,” said Simmons, sounding confident for the crew but inside hoping he was right to trust his father.

“Range is now twenty-eight miles,” said Richter, tracking the four ships of the enemy surface task force in, since the two fleets were now too close for radar jamming to be effective. When the ships were roughly thirteen miles away, they would come into visual range and her job would become redundant.

“Are they following the amphibs?” Simmons had ordered the transport ships in the task force to position themselves where they could support the troops ashore but were as distant as possible from the brewing battle between the surface ships.

“No, sir. Still steaming toward us,” said Cortez. “They want to finish this.”

“So do we,” said Captain Simmons.

 

USS Zumwalt, Forward Rail-Gun Turret

 

Vern dried her palm on her pant leg again and then picked up the plastic soldering gun by its greasy handle. This was the last section of wiring to lock back down, which she was thankful for because she could not take any more of the smoke, the smell, and the confinement inside the rail-gun turret. As for the fear, she had long since set that aside, balled it up somewhere next to the nausea in her stomach.

“Almost there,” she said, knowing that Mike was less than a foot from her and could see it just as well. The radio on his tool harness squawked and she heard the captain’s voice.

“All right, damage control. Time’s up. Clear out.”

Vern pulled the trigger on the soldering gun again and ran it smoothly over the surface of the insulated coupling for the rail gun’s high power line; the plastic of the fitting liquefied and melded together.

She heard Mike curse under his breath. He cleared his throat and keyed the microphone with an aggressive click: “Zumwalt Actual, we need one more minute. That’s all. Vern’s literally down to the last wires here.”

“If he doesn’t give us more time, we’re going to get a cold weld. It’s not going to fully fuse, and the bond might snap right at the seam line if it gets any added force on it,” Vern said.

“Damage control, repeat, clear decks, copy!” said the captain.

“When I say we’re almost there, you know damn well I mean it,” said Mike. “Hold for just one minute. Do you copy?”

Klaxon horns sounded an alert across the ship.

“All hands, this is the captain, clear decks; rail-gun battery preparing to fire. Powering down main systems.”

Vern looked up at Mike and then went back to soldering, a wisp rising from the soldering gun’s hot tip. Mike grabbed her around the waist and carried her out of the turret and through two hatches. At last, he set her on her feet.

“Your son is really a pain in the ass. Where did he get that from?” said Vern, wiping the sweat from her glasses with the inside of one of her pants pockets.

“No idea at all.” Mike shook his head as he caught his breath.

The red wash of the auxiliary lighting gave the hallway a surreal glow. They leaned against the bulkhead next to each other and waited.

Then the lighting in the hallway darkened as the power system began to transfer. In the pitch-black, Vern felt a rough hand reach to hold hers. She squeezed it.

There was a crack from the rail-gun turret above. But it was not the triumphant sound of one of the rounds being propelled toward a target. It was the terse clap of an electrical problem. The auxiliary lights went dark and then turned back on with a series of disconcerting strobelike pulses.

Mike felt Vern’s hand slip from his grasp as she started down the hallway, running back toward the turret.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

“Sir, we’ve got power failures across the ship. Engineering reports engines not powering up. The misfire caused some kind of surge,” said Cortez.

Simmons stared at the systems feed, and he could feel everyone in the cavernous room looking up to see how he would respond. He kept his face blank and set his jaw. Inside, though, he cursed himself, hearing his dad’s voice in his head. If he’d just shown a little patience and listened, they would already be engaging the enemy fleet.

“We can worry about the engines later. ETA to get the gun back online?” said Simmons.

“Don’t know, sir. The chief and Dr. Li are already back in the turret, working the problem again,” said Cortez.

“Range to the enemy?” asked Simmons.

“Twenty-one miles,” Richter responded. On one screen, ATHENA mapped out estimated locations of the enemy task force based on their jamming emissions and radar sweeps of the area. A second screen showed the status of the Z’s weapons systems; a red sphere over the rail gun indicated it was offline.

“Get me Port Royal,” Simmons said.

Captain Anderson appeared on the screen, replacing the weapons-systems view.

“Captain Anderson, bad news, our main gun is still offline and we’ve got engine power loss. We’re not going to be able to contribute to the fight the way we planned. But we’re still going to play our part. As the larger target, we’re the one they’re going to focus their fires on. I want you to position the Port Royal and the America behind us to ensure that. When they open up, that’s when I want you to make your attack run. There’ll hopefully be enough smoke and confusion from what’s happening to us to get you in range.”

“Understood,” said Anderson. “We’ll do our best to make them pay.”

“Thank you. It’s been an honor. Zumwalt out.”

Simmons turned back to Cortez. “Damage-control parties standing by?”

Cortez nodded and offered Simmons a stim tab from his uniform’s breast pocket. “Last one,” said the XO.

Simmons tore open the foil with his teeth and began to chew the gum, eyes fixed on the monitors. He tried to ignore the lost looks that more than a few of the youngest sailors had as they snuck peeks up at the main screens, which were back to showing the tactical map and weapons-systems status, all glowing red.

“Two minutes until the enemy has us within range,” said Richter, her voice steady, professional.

Then the red sphere representing the rail gun pulsed green.

“Rail gun back online! Updating the targeting solution,” said the tactical action officer. A cheer went up in the room and the crew leaned into their workstations.

Mike’s voice echoed through the two-story-high room.

“Bridge, we’ve got the fix, and the rail gun is ready. It’s an ugly solution here in the turret, but it should work.”

Jamie cued up the line to his father.

“Did you say here in the turret?”

“That’s affirmative.” His father’s voice sounded softer than he’d ever heard it.

“Damn it, Dad, what are you doing in there? Clear out! We have to fire now. We’re sitting ducks.”

“Jamie, the power coupling won’t stay in without a little help. The impact shook loose the mountings and cracked the last repair job we did even wider. We’ve patched it again,” said Mike. “But the thing is . . . just another weld on a gap like that isn’t going to hold unless we get at least another half hour at it. Vern and I are kind of wedging the power line into the coupling so that the heat will fuse the plastic of the fitting fully this time.”

“What heat? You mean the heat from the rail gun firing? That won’t work; we can’t fire it with you in there.”

“Yes, Jamie, you can and you will. Vern and I understand the consequences,” said Mike. “You know what you have to do.”

“Thirty seconds until enemy contact,” said the tactical action officer, focused on his task, paying no attention to the conversation behind him. “ATHENA’s targeting solution is online. Ready for rail-gun release on your order, sir.”

“Jamie, just take care of those kids. Be there for them. Be better than me,” said Mike. The channel went quiet.

After a second of silence, Cortez cleared his throat. “Sir, we have to act,” he said, eyeing his captain with concern. “If it’s needed, I can take over, sir.”

Simmons blinked away tears and spoke.

“Battery release . . . do it. Fire the rail gun.”

 

Admiral Zheng He

 

Water from the spray over the bow soaked his uniform jacket as the flagship cut through the water at almost thirty knots, the rest of the task force arrayed behind it.

Wang knew he should be waiting calmly in his ready room, but his blood was up. It was not just the stims; it was the moment. On deck was where a sailor should be, especially for a fight that was ending like this. It was also the kind of image his sailors needed to see. Their fleet had felt the sting, but now they would gain their revenge and taste victory, all the more sweet up close.

Beside him, one of the main 130 mm gun turrets began to swivel, its turn aligning the barrel with the enemy’s largest ship. The ship was not yet visible in the distance, but small plumes of smoke indicated it lay directly ahead.

Wang took the groan of the gun turret moving as his signal to go back to the bridge. He turned quickly, not wanting to wait anymore, and the next thing he knew, he was splayed out on the slick deck, flat on his back. Of all the times to slip and fall.

His aide helped him up with the care he would show a withered old woman who’d fallen while feeding pigeons in the park.

Wang nodded his thanks and took the stairs up to the bridge, aggressively, fast, two at a time, to show them he was not such an old man as they thought. His left knee cried out with every step as his aide rushed to keep pace behind him.

On the bridge, the tactical map was projected into the center of the room; the sailors went silent when the admiral entered. He wondered if they had seen him fall. No matter—the moment would be forgotten amid the glory.

The hologram showed the American task force, blue icons indicating each one’s suspected class, name, and status. What was more important, though, was the parallel series of dotted red lines that steadily drew ever closer to the blue. The lines represented the targeting envelopes of the various weapons in the force; the Zheng He’s main battery of 130 mm guns were the closest red line to the American fleet. All that was needed was for the red line to cross the blue icon of their primary target.

He stood before the screen, not engaged in his usual contemplative pacing but instead trying to take the weight off his aching knee. He willed the line closer so that this would all be over sooner.

There!

“In range, sir. On your orders, we are ready to engage,” said his aide. He held up the tablet screen, ready for Wang to press the icon to clear all ships to fire.

Wang extended his trigger finger and then paused, holding it in the air six inches from the screen. It sounded like a freight train was racing right past the bridge. The very steel of the superstructure seemed to vibrate, tickling the soles of his boots. A giant splash erupted on the port side of the Admiral Zheng He, the water spray rising higher than the ship itself. A few seconds later, another erupted to the starboard side, sending water hundreds of feet in the air in a sharp fantail of white and blue.

He felt rivulets of sweat track their way down his back, and then chastised himself, whispering, “‘Pretend to be weak,¹³⁶ that he may grow arrogant.’”

He jabbed his finger down, but it never touched the screen. The rail-gun round entered the Admiral Zheng He’s superstructure approximately thirty feet beneath where Admiral Wang stood. The strike transferred its kinetic energy with such force that the metal superstructure was literally peeled apart as the round plowed through. The ensuing explosion amidships sent a ball of flame hundreds of feet into the air as the ship’s hull cracked in two.

 

USS Zumwalt Ship Mission Center

 

“Fire again,” said Captain Simmons. He stood with the weight fully on the balls of his feet, willing the ship to make every shot count. The steady explosions of the rail gun releasing rounds continued. One round every six seconds, with a metronome’s precision.

With all auxiliary power dedicated to the weapons systems, the ship continued to drift, but ATHENA had that under control, adjusting the fire solution.

In the distance, small bright flashes and then black plumes began to appear, the only visual indicators of the steady rail-gun shots working their way through the enemy task force.

Cortez approached Simmons and kept his voice low. “Sir, water level’s rising below decks. We need to get those pumps back on before we lose her,” he said.

Simmons stared at him briefly and then responded. “Continue firing. We don’t know if the gun will work once we stop. We just need to trust the ship.”

He could hear his father speaking through him.


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