MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The East China Sea
ON fire. Her ship was on fire.
The commanding officer leaned over the splinter shield, peering aft through the exhalation-fogged plastic of her gas mask.
Dead in the water, the cruiser was slowly pivoting. The wind was turning her stern to the enemy coast. The choking black smoke blowing forward erased sight, but deep within it glowed the ominous amber of fuel-fed flame.
Commander Cheryl Staurulakis, USN, was slight and blond. One arm hung in a makeshift sling contrived from an olive-drab-and-black shemagh and tucked into blue shipboard coveralls. She wore heavy black flight deck boots and a Kevlar helmet stenciled CO. Her hands were streaked with blood.
USS Savo Island drifted alone on a deserted sea. The whole starboard side was aflame, from the waterline up to the bridge level. Oblong holes perforated the steel Cheryl leaned on, as if from a load of square buckshot. Beside her on the bridge wing, the lookout muttered, “Jesus, save us.” He scanned the horizon with binoculars. “Jesus … Jesus. Save us.”
She lifted her head. Above them, a cerulean sky. A blazing dawn, with the sun a thumb’s width above a flashing sea of molten brass. She shaded her eyes to examine lilac-glowing contrails. Truly beautiful … Truly terrifying.
If only Eddie could still be up there. But according to last night’s message, he was dead. Shot down in his fighter, defending the retreating task force.
She squeezed her eyes shut. Can’t think about him. Can’t mourn. Not now.
If those lavender tracings were another salvo of supersonics on their way, her ship was finished, and her crew as well.
* * *
THE war had begun two years before. China had intervened in a battle between Pakistan and India. When the U.S. imposed a blockade, the People’s Empire knocked out communications and reconnaissance satellites.
Then Senior General and Chairman Zhang Zurong hammered Taiwan and Okinawa with missiles and invaded. When a U.S. carrier battle group sailed, he destroyed it with a thermonuclear warhead, killing ten thousand servicemen and -women.
Backed by Beijing, North Korea invaded the South while Japan and the Philippines stood aside. Battles still raged in India and Vietnam, but the Chinese had seemed to be winning them all.
Until Operation Recoil. Secretly assembled after months of retreat, the first Allied strike against the Chinese homeland was intended to break up the second phase of Zhang’s strategic offensive, outward toward Guam and Midway.
Task Force 76’s flagship had led the attack on the Ningbo base complex. Savo’s mission: Clear the way for the carrier strike. Then, after covering the main body’s retreat, withdraw to rearm and resupply.
Only it hadn’t worked out that way. With enemy fighters headed for the carriers, the admiral had ordered Cheryl to “squawk flattop”: imitate the higher-value unit, to draw the strike to the cruiser.
Four warheads had connected. Two hit high, wrecking the upper helo hangar, the Army-manned Stinger launcher, one of the radar-controlled 20 mm’s, the after stack and intakes, and half the ship’s thirty-eight antennas, including both after phased arrays. Another exploded at the main deck level. The last had punched through the hull, detonating in an engine space.
Now USS Savo Island rolled helplessly, magazines empty, a hundred miles east of Shanghai.
* * *
THE phone talker at Staurulakis’s elbow buzzed like a dying cicada through his mask’s speaking diaphragm. “I can’t make out a fucking word you’re saying,” Cheryl snapped, pushing past him into the pilothouse. She dogged the door and stripped off her mask, sucking air freighted with fuel smoke and the nitrate bitterness of explosive. As the men and women on watch stared, she tried to steady her voice. “Keep calm, and say it all again.”
The young talker gulped. “Doc Grissett reports fifteen wounded and three dead in sick bay, and more on their way down. Corpsmen are triaging—”
And the rest of her crew, the other three hundred and fifty-some, were going to die too, if she didn’t think of something fast. “Very well. What’s DC Central got?”
The officer of the deck said, “Damage Control reports. Four-foot hole at the waterline, frame 220. Major blast and fire damage in Number One Main Engine Room and Aux 1. Multiple superstructure and main deck penetrations. Fires from there to the boat deck and quarterdeck. Blast damage. Frag damage. No hose teams in sight.”
She coughed into a bloody fist. “Ask the master chief, where the hell—”
“Central reports, lost firemain. No point exposing hose teams till they regain pressure. Preparing to counterflood, to fight the list.”
“Belay the counterflooding. Hear me? Every ton we take on makes us less stable. We have spaces open to the sea.” Stepping to the 21MC, she snapped the lever before biting her lip. “Shit!”
“No power, Skipper,” the officer of the deck said. “If you want Main Control, they reported major fires, both engine control panels tripped off, all engines off-line. Number One switchboard’s gone. Number One gas turbine generator is wrecked. And the emergency switchboard’s out.”
Major fires, yet all her fire pumps were electrically driven. “We need Number Three GTG on the line. It’s all the way aft, so it should be undamaged, right?” She asked the young woman at the helm console, “Can you cycle the rudder? Try it again.”
“No rudder response, ma’am.”
The officer of the deck said, “Main Control says they won’t be able to answer bells until they get a generator restarted. And they can’t do that until the switchboard’s circumvented.”
Cheryl bit back a curse. Without power, a ship couldn’t communicate, navigate, or fight. Was there really nothing she could do?
* * *
SHE’D been in CIC with Admiral Lenson the night before, when the task force emptied its magazines. Blazing light had blanked the deck cameras. Flaming stars lifted, steadied, and dwindled, transmuted into digital displays as Savo’s powerful radars tracked them to their targets. They’d hit radar sites, missile sites, communication and command nodes, antiaircraft batteries, and airfields.
Over two hundred attack aircraft had followed, from Nimitz, Vinson, Reagan, Truman, and Stennis, accompanied by combat and jamming drones. The heaviest punch the Navy had thrown since World War II. After the swarm and the fighters, the attack squadrons had unloaded, obliterating oil refineries, power stations, container piers, munitions dumps, bridges, handling cranes, and any ships that had thought being in port kept them safe.
Arriving after a seven-hour flight from Alaska, Air Force bombers had brought fifteen more minutes of unadulterated inferno. And an hour after that, a final wave of Tomahawks decimated firefighters, police, medical personnel, repair crews, and anyone else who exited a shelter, dazed and concussed, thinking the attack was over.
By this morning, the Shanghai/Ningbo complex should no longer be able to support a renewed offensive. But that didn’t mean they couldn’t muster forces to sweep up cripples. And there could be submarines out here too.
She kept trying not to think about the grisly fate of USS Indianapolis.
* * *
THE heavy little radio clipped to her web belt, the Hydra, clicked on. “Skipper? Comm-o.” It was Dave Branscombe, Savo’s communications officer.
“Bad news. Red Hawk doesn’t answer up.”
The ship’s helicopter, which had left the deck half an hour before with several wounded and the admiral aboard. “Emergency channels?”
“No joy. Just a weak signal from McClung on 2182 kilohertz distress.”
“Pass them our Mayday and location. Ask them to stand by us.”
“Already done, ma’am. They’re forwarding request to task force commander, but say he’s not answering up.”
“What about standing by us? Helping us fight these fires?”
“They’re retiring with the main body, ma’am. I don’t know how much longer we can maintain comms.”
Cheryl scratched the itchy place between her fingers, then gritted her teeth. She was scratching them bloody. “Ask McClung to query USS Hampton Roads. That’s where Lenson was headed. If he didn’t reach it…”
But she didn’t finish that sentence. If he hadn’t, and they’d lost comms with the helo, she could only assume the worst. That he’d crashed, or been shot down. And that now she and Savo Island, left behind, were truly on their own.
The Hydra crackled again, and simultaneously the talker began a report from Damage Control. Chief McMottie, Commander Danenhower, and Lieutenant Jiminiz were working to get the generator and switchboard back in operation. The casualty-recovery teams reported wounded and bodies clear of the main deck. She issued terse orders, then ducked to peer out to starboard. She tensed as she caught sight of the lookout pointing out something on the horizon to the machine gunner. But the gunner shook his head; apparently it was nothing. Yet.
Okay, if no one was coming to help …
At her questioning glance, the quartermaster chief unrolled a chart. Securing it atop a table with masking tape, he outlined their options. Cheryl paced off distances with dividers, then stood over the chart, shoulders hunched, staring down.
Taiwan lay far to the south. Korea, divided still but with its south now occupied by China as a “protectorate of the People’s Empire,” was nearly as far north. Savo’s only avenue of escape lay to the east, where a scatter of small islands stuttered down from Japan. The Ryukyus were Chinese-occupied too, but carrier strikes on the way in had closed their runways. At least, for a few more hours.
She clicked the Hydra again. “Main Control, CO: Commander Danenhower down there?”
“Bart, what’s going on? I have to make decisions.”
“Just about to report: halon and CO2 dumps have quenched the fire in Main 1 and Aux 1.”
“Good. Excellent. Any progress on regaining power?”
“We’ve routed casualty power. Getting ready to try to start Number Three GTG locally. Once we localize the grounding issue on the engine control panel, we’ll switch the start loads to alternate power. Then try to spin up whichever engine looks best. Just hope we have enough HP air.”
Ticos had no “emergency” generators, just main generators. With all three off-line, the ship was dark until one could be restarted with high-pressure air stored in heavy steel flasks, since bleed air wasn’t available unless the propulsion turbines were running. She clicked an acknowledgment and returned to studying the chart. “Lay me the shortest route through,” she told the chief.
Back on the open wing, she eyed the plume of black smoke streaming away downwind. The enemy had proven resourceful at deploying fragile, datalinked UAVs to surveil large areas of ocean. Nor could a sub miss that smoke with even the briefest periscope exposure.
She still had a few torpedoes left, a few rounds for the guns, but until they had power back the ship was helpless. They might be able to fight off a sampan with the machine guns, but that was about it.
So all she could do was wait. And stare up at the sky. She closed her eyes, her lips moving silently. Eddie, if you’re there … if you’re anywhere you can hear me …
But she didn’t expect an answer.
* * *
FIFTEEN of the longest minutes of her life later, a clunk sounded from the helm console. A muffled whine of motors and fans powering up chorused from around the bridge, and the 21MC comm consoles went pop. Pilot lights lit. The wipers cycled noisily on the windshields, scraping at the dry glass, until the boatswain went to turn them off. The helmswoman spun the wheel left, then right. “Regained helm control, port synchro, port pumps,” she reported. “No course given.”
Chief Van Gogh, at the chart table: “One-zero-five degrees will take us between Akuseki-shima and Ko-lakara-jima. Distance, a hundred and forty nautical miles.”
Cheryl frowned. “Depth between the islands?”
“Two thousand feet.”
The 21MC said, “Engine Room reports: ready to answer bells, limiting speed four knots.”
Not good, but better than zero. She nodded to the officer of the deck. “Make it so.”
After a last look around, she went to the door that led down. Started to reach for it but winced; her arm; the greenwood fracture was starting to really hurt.
Her head swam; she leaned against the bulkhead. No sleep for the last two days, during the approach phase and then the battle. The corpsman had offered morphine, but she couldn’t lose alertness.
Gritting her teeth, she shoved herself vertical again, and made for the ladder down.
* * *
TWO decks down, in the Combat Information Center, some of the displays had lit again. Otherwise the space was dark, and hotter than usual. The ventilators were still off, and an eye-watering smoke-stench lingered. Only a few consoles were occupied. Most of the technical ratings had tailed on to firefighting parties, or helped drag wounded out of danger. She halted at the command desk, which faced four large-screen displays ranged against a black bulkhead.
“We have the SPY back,” Matt Mills told her. Tall, blond, and good-looking, but not just a pretty face. He was her best tactical action officer, charged with fighting the ship when she herself couldn’t be in the command seat. “The forward transmitter, anyway. Degraded, but we have an air picture.”
The SPY-1 was a high-powered phased-array radar that functioned in both the antiair and the antiballistic missile modes. Unfortunately, with the aft transmitters destroyed, they were blind in two quadrants. She leaned over Mills, cradling her broken arm, and swept her gaze across the East China Sea. Small contacts skittered here and there over the base they’d just struck. Helicopters, she guessed, evacuating wounded and moving in repair and command teams from other bases.
“No fast movers yet,” Mills murmured.
“Nothing yet. We hit ’em hard.”
More callouts blossomed as the computers linked with those of the main body, far ahead. Eighty miles away, and scooting east at flank speed. She picked out the other cruiser, and wondered again where Lenson was. She tried the Navy Red phone. The light lit, the circuit synced, but no one responded. No surprise. Both sides had jammed and spoofed each other’s communications, even replicating individual voices with digitized imitations, to the point that no one trusted anything but face-to-face speech now.
Mills rattled the keyboard. “Where we headed, Skipper? What’s our plan here?”
“We’re on our own, Lieutenant. At the moment we’re in creep mode. Get-home speed. If we can sneak out the back gate, we might be able to limp back to Guam.”
“At four knots, that’s … two weeks?”
“I’m hoping we’ll do better.” Cheryl ran her gaze over the other displays, computer status, radio call signs, weapons loadouts. Her magazines were nearly empty.
“What’s the intent, Commander?” said a deep voice behind her.
She turned. “Captain Enzweiler.”
Enzweiler was Lenson’s chief of staff, or deputy. As a four-stripe captain, he outranked her. Somehow that didn’t console her. He didn’t know her ship the way Lenson had. In fact, she wished he’d stayed wherever the hell he’d been until now. “Uh, Captain, good to see you. As you know, we took four hits. We’re fighting major casualties and flooding. Our helo, with the admiral and the Korean liaison aboard, is missing.” She fought for breath, but having to make a report, that oh so standard naval procedure, seemed to steady her. “Main space fire’s out. Casualty power’s restored, as is Number 1B gas turbine motor, giving us a minimal maneuvering capability. We have Aegis back and are datalinked with the main body.”
Enzweiler looked disturbed. “I tried to go with him. He said it would be better to take the most seriously wounded.”
“I understand, sir.”
“So I may be in charge of the task force.”
“With all due respect, Captain, my reading would be that the admiral’s departure relieves you of that responsibility. Our comms are still basically nonexistent, and the task force is withdrawing without us.” She looked away, anxious to get back to what mattered. “We need to concentrate on staying afloat and getting home. Sir.”
He sighed. “You’re probably right. What about high-side chat? Can I report?”
“Sir, chat’s been cyber-compromised. We got a Mayday off via McClung, but there’s no response on satcomm voice or Navy Red. We’re on our own. I intend to head for the Okinawa Strait and try for Guam.”
Enzweiler nodded. “Sounds reasonable. For now. I’ll put the staff at your disposal. What can I do?”
“Well, sir, if I could keep Commander Danenhower on the engineering casualties, that would really help. And if you could—yeah, actually, if you could bird-dog exactly what happened to the admiral, that would be great. I’ve been concentrating on the ship, but—”
“Danenhower, sure. On Lenson, point me where to start.”
She told him that would be the helo air controller, and to try to generate a last known position to pass to Higher. At the moment, though, there didn’t seem to be any ongoing search-and-rescue activities. In fact, the Aegis picture showed nothing at all between Savo and the coast, from which they were now receding at a little better than a walking pace.
Her husband might be out there. Still alive. In the water.
But the message had been pretty definite. Shot down over Ningbo. No chute.
She bared her teeth. He’d only just transitioned to the F-35. He wasn’t familiar with the aircraft. And the bastards had sent him into the heaviest antiair defenses in history.
She’d find out who’d sent him. And somehow, make them pay.
A jittering, a flicker, and the screens went blank again. “Shit,” Mills muttered. He yelled across to the control station, “Where’s my data, Chief?”
“Just a fuckin’ minute … we’re being fucked with, for sure. I’m not getting anything from the main body, or the Japanese either.”
Despite being officially neutral, the Japanese had been feeding them a radar picture during the strike. But losing data, plus their own damage, made Savo blind to any renewed attack.
She was raking at her fingers again when the 21MC clicked on. “CIC, DC Central, Skipper?”
She hit the switch. “CO.”
“Lieutenant (jg) Jiminiz. Ma’am, we seriously need to counterflood.”
She suddenly realized she was looking downhill at the port displays. The list had increased. “We’re still taking water?”
“Affirmative. One gen’s not enough to power self-defense, maintain firemain pressure, and run the pumps. Main 1 fire’s out, but we’ve got toxic gas leaks into Aux 2 and Main 2, from the halon flood. Halon turns into phosgene at high temperatures. At current flooding rate”—a pause, during which Cheryl could hear someone protesting in the background—“at current rate, we’re pushing stability boundaries in an hour.”
She told him, “I’m hearing this, but heating halogenated hydrocarbon inhibitors in enclosed spaces doesn’t produce phosgene, Lieutenant.”
“Sorry, ma’am, but the book says halon breaks down to mixed chlorine and bromine toxics: Fluorophosgene, hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide. Our guys in Aux 2, MER 2, and Shaft Alley are working in masks.”
“Okay, I stand corrected. We counterflood, then what?”
A new voice: the senior engineering chief. “McMottie, ma’am. Then we get 1A GTM running, then Number Two GTG on the line. That gives us full electrical power and propulsion on the starboard shaft. At that point Main 1 should be cooled down enough we can get a repair team in and start patching and dewatering.”
“And the port shaft?”
“Forget that, ma’am. Main reduction gear’s gone, turbines are junk. We’re a one-shaft pony from here on.”
Okay, Ticos could run at almost twenty knots with one screw. If she had electricity restored, got the side patched, and the flooding contained … “Sounds like a plan. What do we need to do up here, Chief?”
“You know that better than me, Skipper. Keep our heads down until we can get things running again, I guess.”
She double-clicked the Transmit lever and sat back. “Still no data,” Mills murmured.
Cheryl stared at the display, more and more disturbed by the lack of visibility astern. The most threatening quarter for any renewed attack. “Donnie? Chief? How far left do I have to come to get a look over my shoulder?”
He said twenty degrees left or right of their base course would do it. She checked the pit log. Six knots. Better, but still … she hit the intercom to the bridge. “OOD, CO here. Come left to zero-eight-five degrees. Hold for one minute, then return to base course.”
* * *
TWO hours later they were up to twelve knots. But the list had increased, and Damage Control reported difficulty getting the flooding isolated and shoring into place.
“Feel it?” Jiminiz was wading ahead of her through the gloom of Main 1. Teams were at work clearing wreckage and removing bodies. The space had been desmoked, but he was coughing and wheezing. “How she’s taking longer, to come back?”
Cheryl nodded, shining a flash on the grating beneath their boots. She sensed that wrongness. The ship rolled harder, stayed over longer, and came back grudgingly. It wasn’t just that they were losing buoyancy. With each added ton of “free surface”—water that could shift back and forth, gaining momentum with each roll—the righting arm that levered them back to vertical shrank. When it reached zero, nothing in this world would keep ten thousand tons of steel from turning turtle.
She half hiked, half skated along a slick canted catwalk of perforated steel. The urine gleams of battle lanterns probed the dark. The thunder of pine wedges being hammered in reverberated in the choking dim. She peered down through the catwalk to a dully gleaming, oily blackness that surged this way, then that.
At the hole in the side coveralled figures toiled like miners at a coal seam. They were struggling to heave a steel I beam into position against a stringer in the overhead. Once there, it would brace a plywood-and-mattress soft patch set athwartships the hole. There were other gaps too. She could see daylight, and with each roll water burst through, running down first in trickles, then sheets, to cascade through the gratings into the bilges. Men and women groaned together in the effort to lift the beam. She stepped forward and added her shoulder, twisting to protect her fractured arm. The burden rose, but halted, wavering, just short of the stringer.
The straining sailors groaned louder, and it lifted another inch.
Suddenly it slipped away, barely missing a seaman’s head, and slammed down with a booming splash. The sea bulged darkly, and a huge surge burst through, knocking sailors to their knees. They retreated, scrambling as wood and sodden mattresses tumbled end over end, knocking more people down. A petty officer hauled Cheryl back as another beam slammed down at her boot-toes.
“I don’t get it,” Jiminiz muttered. “We got three pumps running. Shouldn’t be taking water this fast.”
Cheryl glanced down again at the black surface below. Her imagination, or was it already closer? “Are we sure this is the only penetration?”
The Damage Control assistant scratched his ear. “The only one reported.”
“So this is flooding both the MER and Aux 1.”
“Yeah, but we got the hole in Aux 1 sealed.”
“Is the level there rising, or dropping?”
“It’s holding steady.” He shrugged.
“Then we’ve got another penetration somewhere,” she told him. “We need to get somebody over the side, check it out. Let’s do it while we still have daylight.”
* * *
THE diver found another hole, below and aft of the one they’d been trying to patch. But by the time he confirmed that, Savo had lost another two hundred tons of buoyancy.
Leaving Cheryl, back in the pilothouse, pondering a dilemma as she looked down on a forecastle that was already noticeably closer to the water.
Savo still had power, though they’d had to drop to ten knots again. But the flooding was gaining. Slowly, but the end could not be many hours away.
Abandon ship? Unfortunately, they didn’t have enough boats. One rigid-hulled inflatable had been destroyed in the fire. A third of the life raft inventory was gone too, holed by fragments or destroyed in the fires.
She couldn’t help thinking again of Indianapolis, torpedoed in 1945 and forgotten by the chain of command. Hundreds of men had drifted for days, baking in the sun, ravaged by sharks.… She tried to raise Higher again, then broadcast a general Mayday. With no response.
Danenhower let himself onto the bridge. The engineering officer looked utterly weary, coveralls stained with grease and soot. He joined her on the wing, hacking black phlegm into a tissue. “The warhead separated from the airframe just before it hit. Both parts went through the hull.”
“Can you patch it?”
“We can’t reach it to patch, not with the rounded hull form. And we can’t compartmentalize it.” He grimaced. “We tried concrete, but it runs out the bottom. That whole area of the hull’s shredded. I’m running every pump, but eventually the ones in Aux 2 will be submerged. The failures will percolate aft as we go down by the head. Until…”
“I see.” She glanced inside; anxious faces stared back. “How long? Can we hold it off overnight?” With twelve more hours, they might get through the strait. Still in trouble, but at least whoever picked them up might not turn them over to the enemy.
“Lemme do the math again.” Danenhower punched the screen of his PDA. Finally he shook his head. “No.”
A clank as the door undogged. Van Gogh let himself out, followed by the sonarman chief. “Skipper, Commander,” he muttered.
She nodded. “Guys?”
“Looked at the chart again, ma’am. Thought you might want to see this.”
Cheryl flattened the paper. A penciled circle around a blue area. “There’s nothing here.”
“It’s a seamount,” the sonarman said. “Part of the same chain as the Ryukyus, but it doesn’t break the surface.”
Zotcher handed over a printout of classified submarine hydrography. It showed the depth as ten to twelve meters. Last, Van Gogh produced an old book with blue damp-warped covers. “Found it in a Royal Navy survey, too. They note it as a ten-fathom reef, but it’s a submerged atoll. A flat-topped seamount.”
She coughed into a fist, doubt worming her stomach. Scratched furiously at the itch between her fingers, breaking the scabs. Fuck, it was going to start bleeding again now. “So which is it, ten meters, or ten fathoms?”
“I’d trust the later survey,” Danenhower put in.
“And how far?”
Van Gogh said, “Thirty-two miles, bearing one-three-seven true.”
They waited. She thought of asking Enzweiler. Then steeled herself. The chief of staff outranked her, but he wasn’t the skipper.
She held their gazes, smothering any uncertainty or irresolution. She could mourn, for her husband, for her dead. But they didn’t want to see her doubt, or be weak, or show fear.
She took a deep breath. Lifted her chin. “Monitor the rate of flooding,” she said, startled at the firmness of her own voice. “Keep me informed. For the present, maintain course. Another hour, and then I’ll decide.”
Copyright © 2018 by David Poyer