MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Brunei Bay, Brunei
THE heat was sweltering. But then again, they were nearly on the equator.
Daniel V. Lenson leaned on the rail on Vulture’s Row, high on the island of USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. His windblown hair, once sandy, was starting to gray. Crow’s-feet from years at sea seamed a tanned face. He wore khakis with black flight deck boots. A garrison cap with one star was tucked under his belt. He slumped as if bone weary, but with head unbowed. Two staffers stood behind him. One was a blond master chief with eyes as bright blue as the bay below. The other, a husky marine with a slung carbine.
“Admiral, about time to head over,” Sergeant Gault said.
Dan nodded. “In a minute,” he muttered.
The marine was almost a family retainer by now. His elder brother had died covering the retreat of the Signal Mirror mission Dan had led in Iraq. They’d run into each other in Pearl, and now Ronson Gault was an aide. The other man, Master Chief Donnie Wenck, had been with Dan on several Tactical Analysis Group missions, investigating emergent naval threats, and served with him since the start of the current war.
Lenson rubbed his chin, contemplating the second mightiest mass of military power yet assembled in this conflict. Tugs scurried about near the bay entrance. A jeep carrier maneuvered for the channel in. Tenders lay alongside hastily emplaced floating piers, and the clatter of generators and power tools filled the inner basin. New Burke-class destroyers and reactivated Spruances pulled out of mothballs lay at anchor, riding to a stiffening northeasterly wind. Beside another tender, slim black needles were rafted out. Hunters, autonomous submersibles that screened task groups on the move, and searched out mines and enemy submarines nearer an enemy coast.
The assault fleet was being assembled at two points: Cam Ranh Bay and this remote, undeveloped harbor on the northern coast of Indonesia. Olongapo would have been closer, but the Philippines were still avoiding commitment. The sultan of Brunei had been more welcoming.
An enormous assemblage … but to its commander, a disquieting massing of irreplaceable assets. Concentration invited attack. The Chinese had to know they were here. Their satellites had been shot down, but high-altitude drones were hard to detect. Indonesia had cracked down on its Chinese minority, but a spy could be buried in their command structure. Or eavesdropping on Allied comms.
Dan had ordered combat air patrols three hundred miles out, and drone jammers posted on the hills. Army antiair lasers, and a harbor security team alert for undersea intrusions. THAAD missile batteries were posted on the Spratleys, which had been retaken in the opening months of the war.
Still, he worried. He took a deep breath, fighting a dread he couldn’t share with anyone around him … only with his wife, and she was back in Washington. He coughed into a fist, trying to clear a smoke-damaged trachea. “Donnie, what’d this morning’s test tell us?” he rasped.
The master chief slicked back an unruly cowlick. “Missile came in from due south. A Coyote mated to a booster, off an Aussie Poseidon out of Edinburgh. To test our vulnerability to suborbital attack.”
Dan frowned. A suborbital could leave Asia headed north, circle the planet, and hit the task force from behind. “How’d we do?”
“Army radar picked it up first. Satellite cuing a tenth of a second later. Took it with an Alliance from La David Martin. Backup, the Patriot battery on the mountain. All constructive—we didn’t actually fire. Dr. Soongapurn’s still evaluating, but it looked to me like we were on the money.”
Dan nodded, only mildly reassured. A single warhead from the enemy’s secretly built arsenal of superheavy thermonuclears could destroy everything around him, which was most of the striking power of the Ninth Fleet.
The war had started three years before. Distracted by a trivia-obsessed press and paralyzed by politics, America had estranged its allies and handed the strategic advantage to its enemies. Judging the time right for bold moves, President and Chairman for Life Zhang Zurong had knocked out communications and reconnaissance satellites, then invaded Taiwan and Okinawa. When a U.S. carrier battle group sailed, he’d destroyed it, killing ten thousand servicemen and women.
The analysts had predicted any twenty-first-century great war would be over in weeks. No economy could sustain cyberwarfare, blockade, and the lavish expenditures of lives, ordnance, ships, planes, missiles, and money a major conflict would devour. And nuclear weapons, they said, would constrain escalation and limit the battlespace.
Not one of those predictions had come true.
Instead the conflict had spread like wildfire in a drought-stricken forest. North Korea attacked the South. Iran and Pakistan fell in behind China. Zhang invaded India and Vietnam, and a massively powerful artificial intelligence called Jade Emperor demolished American financial, industrial, and power networks in the Cloudburst. American carriers, too vulnerable to risk, had been held back from battle. Submarines, destroyers, and cruisers had borne the brunt of war. They’d paid a heavy price in blood, damage, and lost ships.
For the first year, the Opposed Powers had won every battle.
Until Operation Recoil. Requipped and retrained, the Navy and Air Force’s first strike against the Chinese homeland had derailed Zhang’s second offensive. But Dan’s flagship, USS Savo Island, had been left adrift and on fire. He’d been shot down in a helicopter as he shifted his flag, and barely escaped with his life.
Since then, the sea lanes had been secured. Marines and the Army had landed on Taiwan, igniting a battle that was still raging. Japan had rejoined the Allies and was retaking the Ryukyus.
Here in the South China Sea, Dan had been part of a raid on the enemy’s south coast. Operation Uppercut had softened up Hainan and Hong Kong, but a tactical nuclear attack on the sub pens went badly. Mines and air strikes took a heavy toll. The Allied raiders returned with heavy damage and serious losses.
But now a starving, disease-racked China was growing desperate. A thermonuclear strike on Hawaii had nearly destroyed Honolulu. With dozens of other American cities held hostage by heavy Chinese ICBMs, a frightened president hadn’t dared retaliate.
Step by step, the God of War was advancing on both home countries. Each year, Mars exacted more sacrifices. Each year he demanded greater risks, more lives, more treasure.
And no one yet could see how this war might be ended.
“Sir, ’bout time we headed over.” The master chief huffed, exchanging glances with the sergeant.
“Uh, one more second, okay?” Dan wasn’t eager for the confrontation ahead. “You can call the car, and tell Captain Skinner.”
He fingered the stars on his collars. His enemies in Congress had made it clear they were his only for the duration. But his actions in the Taiwan Strait, clearing the enemy’s subs from the central Pacific, and most recently off Hainan, had earned him a reprieve. The Chief of Naval Operations, the Commander, Indo-Pacific Command, and the Commander, Ninth Fleet, had given him Task Force 91—the ships in this bay and others, forward deployed in the South China Sea.
It looked impressive, but after Allied losses in the last operations, most of what remained had been committed to the ongoing battle on Taiwan. Dan had gotten what could be spared. New construction, many with unblooded crews. Retreaded ships. Reserve air squadrons. His expeditionary strike groups were built around Hornet, Bataan, and a jeep carrier, Liscome Bay, plus a combined Vietnamese/Indonesian/Australian landing force centered on Makassar, Surabya, and Adelaide and protected by Australian frigates and submarines. The ground forces were primarily from Indonesia. He would have heavy carriers in support, but they would be held far back, protected by an antiballistic missile cruiser.
Operation Rupture would land on, occupy, and hold Hainan Island as a base for further operations. The first Allied seizure of Chinese territory. But they would face desperate resistance from an utterly determined enemy.
He couldn’t shake what the Deputy Pacom had told him in Cam Ranh Bay. This invasion was the last gasp. Political support was gone. Strikes and riots were shaking the United States. The Allies were out of money, ships, troops, and resolve.
But Intel said China was suffering too. Zhang was fighting rebellions in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. His armies were suffering heavy casualties in Taiwan on the Vietnamese front, and in the Ryukyus. The enemy being thus engaged all around his periphery, the Joint Chiefs expected Dan to bring to battle whatever reserves remained. Once those were destroyed, the way could be clear for a landing on the mainland, in Hong Kong or the other restive provinces of south China.
He gripped the splinter shield, throat suddenly constricted. If he could pull it off, it might end the war. But if he failed, thousands of troops and sailors would die. And the war would grind on, and trillions more in treasure be wasted, in vain …
Turning abruptly away, he stepped into the flag bridge. Where a stoutish captain was studying a diagram on a nav screen, with younger officers and chiefs around her.
As most senior officers preferred to, he stuck with staff he’d served with and could depend on. Like Wenck and Gault. Amarpeet Singhe, a sharp-edged but competent strike specialist. Colonel Sy Osterhaut, Army, who’d planned the first Hainan strike with him in the basement of Camp H. M. Smith. Kitty Pickles, the captain, who’d helped ferret out replacements for scores of gas turbine engines defectively machined in a cunning cyberattack.
One lieutenant, though, was new. Sloan Tomlin was a WTI, a Warfare Tactical Instructor. He’d earned his antisubmarine/antisurface warfare patch out of San Diego, then done a readiness production tour out of PACOM, focusing on Chinese tactics. And Tomlin was well connected; his grandfather was high up at a well-known defense contractor.
Dan glanced over their shoulders. “Steaming formation?”
Pickles shook her head. “The sortie plan, Admiral.”
“Want to give a gander, sir?” Tomlin asked.
Dan wasn’t sure about the kid yet. The WTI had tactical acumen, and Tomlin knew the new tactical AI system, Sea Eagle 2.0. But he seemed to regard his admiral as a not terribly bright elder statesman. Or maybe even a doddering figurehead. “When I get back. Polish it up until I can’t find anything wrong.”
“Aye aye, Admiral.—Yessir, Admiral.” In unison, they tapped off semi-ironical salutes. He grinned back and stepped into the elevator, headed down.
* * *
THE cavernous hangar echoed with the rattle of air wrenches, shouts, staccato beeping as autonomous forklifts puttered past. Dan wended through mountains of palleted supplies. At the far end F-35s and helicopters were being worked on.
On the quarterdeck, faces turned his way. The keen of a bos’n’s pipe pierced the din. “Task Force 91, departing,” the ship’s 1MC stated as bells rang out.
A tall spare figure, “Torch” Skinner, Roosevelt’s skipper, offered a salute and a handshake. Dan told him where he was going, then headed down the slanted steel openwork of the brow. His car was waiting at the bottom, the driver in Indonesian army greens. Gault and Wenck got in the back.
Next stop, Mobile Logistic Force South.
* * *
THE admin building was Lego’d together out of gray and tan modules connected by graveled walkways. On a slope overlooking the airstrip and harbor, it was surrounded by chain link and concertina. A sandbagged guard post was backed by a security force barracks and an Arrow/Oerlikon air defense battery. A sign read Allied Command, South China Sea/Forward Operating Base Brunei Bay/Naval Facility Indonesia. A solar array glittered up the hill.
His chief of staff and deputy task force commander was waiting. Short, balding, Captain Fred Enzweiler was as colorless as they came, but since Dan’s squadron command, he’d kept Dan’s desk visible under the deluge of administrivia. Three foreign officers accompanied him. The most senior was Major General Triady Isnanta. Swarthy, with prominent cheekbones, Isnanta headed the Korps Marinir, the Indonesian version of the Marines. He would command Rupture’s landing force. Dan shook hands with him, then with Admiral Ramidin Madjid, Indonesian Navy. They’d served together years before in an anti-pirate task force. The third man, Admiral Vijay Gupta, commanded Indian Navy operations in the South China Sea.
In what had to be a calculated snub, they were kept waiting in the lobby for twenty minutes. Admitted at last to a conference room, Dan found it empty, with no sign of the standard cookies and fruit juices. Its single huge window overlooked the harbor. “Is the admiral coming?” he asked the chief who’d shown them in. She simply smiled nervously.
At long last the door opened, admitting a small man in brilliant, obviously new summer whites. Lee Custer was polished like a piece of antique silver. His carefully cut hair was platinum. He wore a heavy gold watch that had probably cost Dan’s annual salary. He could have been sent straight from Central Casting to play the take-charge admiral. Beside him Dan felt rumpled, potbellied, and underdressed in shipboard khakis. Custer didn’t have a bad combat record either. But his handshake was reluctant, and he avoided Dan’s gaze as he muttered, “Good to see you.”
“Yes, sir. Good to see you too.” Not that either man meant it.
Copyright © 2019 by David Poyer